Neville Chamberlain is one of the most criticised figures in 20th century history, not least because of the comparison with his contemporary, Winston Churchill, the hero of the Second World War. However, it seems unfair to be too hard on Chamberlain, who was basically a man of peace with steadfast principles. Indeed, there are at least four good reasons why opinion about Chamberlain should be revised.
The Horrors of the First World War
Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement was understandable after the horror of the First World War. More than 50 million people died as a result of that conflict and the general brutality and conditions inherent in industrial warfare made it the most devastating conflict in history. Only the American Civil War in 1861-65 came remotely close to the First World War in terms of the general horror of the conflict. Trench warfare saw millions of soldiers killed going ‘over the top’ for the sake of minute progress.
Not only did millions die, but shell shock affected the lives of many who survived. There was a general determination after 1918 that it should never be allowed to happen again.
Public opinion remained adamantly against the idea of another war right up until Munich in 1938. Even then there was a general sense of relief that war had been averted but, gradually, people came to resent the way the Czechs had been left to face the German juggernaut alone. Nevertheless, until the last few months before the war, Chamberlain reflected public opinion in his abhorrence of war.
The Unfairness of the Versailles Treaty
Secondly, there was a feeling that the Treaty of Versailles was unfair to Germany. Although the public wanted to make Germany pay for the damage she had wreaked immediately after the war, attitudes gradually softened and, as Hitler lambasted the punitive reparations, a general reappraisal took place.
As well as the huge reparations Germany had to pay, she was limited in the size of her armed forces and lost most of her overseas colonies.
The Germans also resented the ‘war guilt’ clause in the treaty which accused them of starting the First World War, and the fact that many Germans were forced to live outside the Reich despite Woodrow Wilson’s encouragement of small nations in central and south eastern Europe based on nationality and race ie the principle of self determination.
As Austria was forbidden to unite with Germany in spite of her German population and a sizeable German population lived in Czechoslovakia, amongst other areas, it seemed as if they were being discriminated against.
On the other hand, the Germans had forced the French to pay reparations after the Franco-Prussian war in 1870 and, at the Treaty of Brest Litovsk, following their defeat of Russia on the Eastern Front, they imposed a punitive peace settlement, involving a large loss of land for the Russian Empire.
Thirdly, Britain was not in a position to fight against Germany before 1939, and even after that she came perilously close to defeat in 1940. It was not until the Americans entered the war and the Russians succeeded on the Eastern Front, that fear of defeat was averted.
Despite constant criticism from Winston Churchill, there were only slow moves to rearm. It was feared that Germany were far too strong for Britain other than at sea while their air force was regarded as impregnable with a fear that the bomber ‘would always get through’.
Chamberlain was not Alone
Finally, Neville Chamberlain wasn’t the only one to be fooled by Hitler. Other notable figures who either liked him or thought it was possible to make a deal with him included:
- The Pope, who negotiated a concordat with Hitler and refused to condemn German atrocities in the 1930’s and beyond, in particular their crime against the Jews, for fear of upsetting him.
- Lloyd George, who met Hitler in 1936 and was charmed by the German dictator.
- Unity Mitford, who was close friends with Hitler during the 1930’s but eventually tried to kill herself after war had broken out.
- Joseph Kennedy, the US ambassador to Britain, who believed in a policy of pacifism, although his main interest was in keeping America out of the war, and
- The Duke of Windsor, whose pro-Nazi attitudes worried the establishment in Britain. There was a relief as well as sadness when he abdicated in 1936 although rumours circulated during the war that Hitler intended to restore him to power in Britain, given the chance, as a proxy Nazi ruler.
In conclusion, it seems unfair to vilify Chamberlain when there so many reasons why his policy of appeasement appeared to be sensible, and when so many notable figures followed a similar policy.
- Kershaw, Ian, Hitler 1936-45, Penguin Books, Middlesex
- Cornwell, John, Hitler’s Pope, Penguin Books