Biographies: (Arthur) Neville Chamberlain (England, 1869-1940)


Figure 1.--This is one of the most famous photographs of the 20th century. Chamberlain was convinced that he could prevent war by appeasing Hitler. After agreeing to sell out democratic Czechoslovakia (September 1938), British Prime-minister Neville Chamberlain flew back to London's Heston Aerodrome (September 30). Here amidst cheering crowds he brandished a peace of paper signed by German Chancellor Adolf Hitler which he assured the British people that he had brought 'peace with honor' guaranteeing 'peace in our time'. As this photograph was taken, the Wehrmacht was pouring acriss the Czech border. Munich proved to be a great victory for Hitler, but when he violated by invading Czechoslovakia (March 1939), it meant that the British would never deal with him again. Click on the image to see what was on the paper Chamberlain is waving.

Neville Chamberlain grew up in an important British political family. Both is father and older brother were importnt political figures. As a boy, Chamberlin grew up without his mother. His father who lost two wives in childbirth raised his boys to distrust emotion and to depend on cool rationality. Chamberlain in essence was a decent man who after World war I was determined to avoid another war. He is perhaps the best example in history that decent people, including them who oppose war, can do terrible damage. John Lennon asks us in his beautiful song asks us to 'Give peace a chance". If ever akeader of a great nation gave peace a chance, it was Neville Chamberlain. He may also well be the greatest failure as a prime minister in British history. Not because he was dishonest or venal, but because he was unwilling to use force to confront evil. He was convinced that he was the one man man uniquely capable of preventing war. Up through Munich most most British people agreed with this approach, the result was catastrophe in Europe and almost the end of Britain as an independent country. His name will be for ever associated with his failed policy of appeasement and the Munich Conference where he abandoned the Czech nation to the tender mercies of Hitler and the NAZIs.

Family

Neville's father was Joseph Chamberlain (1836-1914) a businessman turned politician.. He was an influential member of the Conservative Party, perhaps the most eminent figure of the late 19th century (1890s). Neville's mother was Joseph's second wife Florence Kenrick. Neville's older half-brother was Sir Joseph Austen Chamberlain (1863-37) a British statesman, specializing in foreign affairs. He held many Conservative cabinet positions including the prestigious post of foreig(early-20th century). He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in the creation of the Locarno Pact (1925). The title of his book, Peace in Our Time was used by his brother when he returned from Munich. The three men form a remarkable group. No other group of fatherropean country. The loss of both his wives during childbirth deeply affected Joseph. He became a gloomy, morose individual and gradually he lost his faith (1875). Neville was 6 years old at the time. Religion was still a matter of grrat importance. Joseph despite this did not publically announce his changec ofheart. Rather he publically maintained his Unitarian affiliation and principles. This dichtomy in his father's religious beliefs affected both sons.

Childhood

Neville grew up without a mother in a houshold where emotion was not encouraged. The relationship with his father was while no accurately described as cold was one lacking any show of emotion. Despite his father's loss of faith, Neville and his brother were raised Unitarian at the Church of the Messiah. Joseph was not insisten on this. The children could decide on religion as they saw fit. Here Joseph presumably wanted his children to commit to a faith, because ti admit atheism would put an individual outside of polite society. Some sort od religion or, at least not publicaly not rejecing religion was important in a politically active family. What Neville's father promoted more than anthing else was a cold, unemotional rationality mathed with an indpendent frame of mind. The Victorian father was often a authoritarian figure. Because of Chamberlin's later historical experience, one is drawn to Adolh Hitler's childhood and father. Hitler grew up in a family where the father was exceedingly authoritaive, if not dictatorial. Joseph taught his boys to be honest and obedient. They were allowed to consider and question reflecgively. And perhaps above all, to what ever they did, do it well. They were encouraged to not be emotional or burden yourself on others. In more than one way, Unitarianism, ws an ideal faith for the Chamberlains. It was an austere, coldly rational faith, without the ritual and spiritulism of the Anglican faith. He did acquire the Christian belief that he was cfortunate enough to grow up in comfortable circumstances and had a social responsibility to make the world a better place for the less fortunate.

Childhood Clothing


Education

Neville attended Rugby and Mason College, Birmingham.

Marriage and Family


Business

After school, Chamberlain managed his father's sisal plantation in the Bahamas for 7 years. He returned to England when the sisal project failed (1897). He entered the copper-brass business. It is at this time that he got interested in local politics.

Political Career

Chamberlain began his political career in the years right before World War I. His first elected office was on the Birmingham City Council. He was appointed Lord Mayor of Birmingham during the war (1915). This is one of the largest British cities and thus an important post. It was this time that he made the transitioin to national office. He was appointed a member of the Central Control Board (1915) and director of national service (1916-17). After the war he ran for parliament as a Conservative MP for Ladywood in a General Election (1918). He refused to serve in governmentb under Primeminister David Lloyd George. This changed when Stanley Baldwin replaced Lloyd Georgec as primeminister. He accepted the posts of Postmaster-General (1923-24), paymaster general, minister of health, and chancllor of the exchquer (1923-24). It was when he returned as minister of health for a second time (1924-29) that he established a national reputation, carrying out important reforms. He became chancllor of the exchquer again (1931) and ballanced the budget during the Depression. The advisability of ballancing the budget seems questionable, but it was a highly regarded achievemnent among Conservative Party stalwarts and thus he became the leading Conservative MP slated to replace Prime Minister Baldwin.

Appeasement

Appeasement was a foreign policy largely based on the horrors of World War I. It is most associate with Primeminister Neville Chamberlain, but in fact was a widely popular policy in both Britain and France. Much of the public in the democracies (Britain, France, and the United States) were convinced that the War had beeb maistake which should never be repeated. While this was in fact true, the resulting thinking was deeply flawed. Many peoplein tghe democracies came to think that Germany should have been appeased in 1914. That thinking simply does not follow with a Germany that wanted a more dominant position in Europe and was prepared to use war to achieve thar position. This was the situation in 1914 and in the late-1930s the situatiin was evcen more desperate. You had aGermany that did not only want more influence, but one that wanted to rule Europe and to destroy millions of innocent lives to change the ethnic map of the continent. The inter-War policy of appeasement is today a disgraced policy, largely because its assoiciation with Munich and the start of World War II. The fact is, that it might well have precented war if Chamberlain had been working with a German leader who also desired to avert war. It was beyond Chamberlain's understanding that a leader of a great European nation could actually desire a war. John Lennon wrote a beautiful song,'Give peace a chance'. It has become a theme song for the Anti-War movement and modern pacifists. It should always be remembered that Neville Chamberlain gave peace a chance. The result was the most horrific war in human history and 50 million deaths. This is a fact, not an opinion. While historically intert-War policy of appeasement is disgraced. There are in fact many in the West who are modern appeasers. Much of this thought is today directed towared Iran. And becuse of the modern appeasers, Iran will soon have a bomb a development which will dramatically change international politics. The Obama administration has clealy adopted a policy of apeasement towar Russia when he backed off on the missdle shiekd, leaving Czechoslovakia and Poland in the lurch. Russia at the time was of course nit an aggressive NAZI Germany. Perhaps appeasement in this case was the best policy. But no one knows just where Russia is headed. Sunseqient Russian actions in Crimea and the Ukraine suggest that agaim appeasement has failed. Even so, Preident Obama seems intenbt on again pursuing appeasement, in this case with Iran.

World War I


British Goal

Chamberlin became prime minister with the avowed purose of avoiding another European war (May 1937). Chamberlain remembering the horrors of World War I. He was convinced that he was uniquely placed cand caopable of preventiung another world war. [Feiling] He attempted to avoid war with Germany he tried to reason with Hitler. It never crossed his mind that a man could actually desire a European war. Chamberlain suggested to the cabinent his idea of placating Hitler by offering him African colonies. He disagreed with an academic assessment that NAZI Germany was a threat to Britain and that the NAZIs at their core had an evil nature that would inevitably lead to war. [Roberts]

German goals

Much of the public in the democraacies (Britain, France, and the United States) were convinced that the War had beeb maistake which should never be repeated. While this was in fact true, the resulting thinking was deeply flawed. Many peoplein tghe democracies came to think that Germany should have been appeased in 1914. That thinking simply does not follow with a Germany that wanted a more dominant position in Europe and was prepared to use war to achieve thar position. This was the situation in 1914 and in the late-1930s the situatiin was evcen more desperate. You had aGermany that did not only want more influence, but one that wanted to rule Europe and to destroy millions of innocent lives to change the ethnic map of the continent. This is basically spelled out in Main Kampf, butChamberlain and others chose not to take it seriously.

Munich

Chamberlain's desire for peace led his to forsake the Czechs, who were prepared to fight, and the Sudetenland was handed over to Hitler under the Munich Agreement. Chamberlain flew back to London waising Herr Hitler's signature, proclaiming that it guaranteed "Peace in our times". Churchill was agast. Chamberlain was outraged when Hitler occupied the rest of Czecheslovakia in direct violation of the Munich Pact (March 1939). Hitler had asured Chamberlain that he wanted no Czechs in the Reich. The NAZIs replied with an ivitation for Britain to join Germany in dictating the peace of the entire world.

Other acts of appeasement

Munich was not Chamberlain's only act of appeasement. Chamberlain helped set up a committe to promote non-intervention in the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). He obtained British recognition of Italian sovereignty over Ethiopia (November 1938). He also gained British recogonition of the Franco Government in Spain (1939).

Poland

After Hitler occupied Czechoslovakia (March 1939), even Chamberlain recognized that there was nor reasoning or appeasing Hitler. He saw that war could not be prevented short of surrender. The British Government began negotiating with other countries it felt were threatened by Germany. Agreements with Poland and Turkey were quickly signed. France already had an afreement with Poland. And so it was, the man who hated war and devoted his political war to preventing war, with the Polish treaty that made war inevitable. [Feiling] Ironically, had Hitler not invaded Czechoslovakia, Chamberlain probably would have supported changes to the Polish-German border. Hitler dnounced the British-Polish Treaty. And he began making demands for the return of Danzig and the Polish Corridor which since the Versailles Peace Treaty had separated East Prussia from the rest of Germany. Both had large German populations. As he had done with Czechoslovalia, Hitler insisted that he had no desire to rule over Poles. Despite what had happened at Munich, Chanberlain's desire to prevent war was so great, that he waa incredibly was still willing to deal with Hitler. Foreign Minister Ribbentrop, who considered himself an expert on England, assured Hitler that England would not go to war over Poland.

British Pacifism

There has always been a strong pacifist element within the British political left. This grew nmarkedly after World War I. There was support for various international efforts. This included the War Resisters' International and the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. The pacifist movement was incouraged by the socialists throughout Europe for ideological reasons. They were also promoted by the Communists (under instruction from Moscow) to weaken countries that were a military threat to the Soviet Union. Pacifist activities and groups were active in Britain. Pacifist activists erected an Anti-War Memorial monument, at Woodford Green, in Essex (1932). It was shaped rather like a bomb. It was meant to memorialize the words of a British delegate at the League of Nations who had spoken against the banning of aerial warfare, on the grounds that Britain needed to bomb rebels on the North-West frontier of India, to keep the "tribesmen in order". The Woodford Green memorial bore the sarcastic inscription, "To those who, in 1932, upheld the right to use bombing planes". [Pankhurst] British Pacifists opposed military spending. The idea was that military weakness would preclude another war. This was based on the World War I experience which many Brits believed was a huge mistake and pointless slaughter. Very little thought was given to what it would have meant for Germany to defeat France and dominate the Continent. The British Labour Party had a strong pacifist element, as did Socialists throughout Europe. (The major exception here was the Soviet Union.) Particularly important in Britain was the string pacifist feeling within the KLabour Party. As the major opposition party, this had cionsiderable influence. Labour at its annual conderence adopted a resolution without oposition to "pledge itself to take no part in war" (1933). This of course was the same year that Hitler seized power in Germany.

Anti-Communism

One weakness that Chamberlain had was his profound anti-Communism. We are not sure to what extent this was ideological or based on an understanding of the dimensions of tge attricities being perpetrated by Stalin in the Siviet Union. This created an inflexibility in his diplomacy which did not impair Hitler who of course struck a deal with Stalin. From our modern perceptions we tend to think that Chamberlain lealy should have struck a deal with Statlin rather than trying to work with Hitler. If course in 1938-039 the perspective was different. Stalin had killed millions and committed other millions to the Gulag. Hitler's body count and concerntration camp internments were numbered in the thousands. Although it is not entirely clear to what extent Chamberlin was aware of this. It is certainly true that a British, French, Soviet alliance may have prevented war, at least in 1939. [Steiner] This could have biought time for rearmament. But what would the British and French have had to offer Stalin. What would have become of Poland. The Poles were for good reason as concerned anout vthe Sivietrs as the Germans.

President Roosevelt

One of the great stories of World War II was the personal friendship and relationship between President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill and the role it played in winning World War II. The relationship, or in actuality the lack of a relationship between Chamberlain and Roosevelt, is thus an iteresting anomaly. One has to wonder why there was no similar relationship between Chamberlain and Roosevelt. Why would a British prime-minister as Europe moved toward war not reached out to the United States? When you consider the extrondinary attempts he took to reach out to Hitler, this lack of effort toward Roosevelt is striking. Of course because of the isolationists, President Roosevelt could not offer immediate military assistance, but he did attempt to build a relationship with Chamberlain when he became primeminister. The President was aware of Chamberlain's abideing interest in preventing war. He invited Chamberlain to Washington (June 1937). The invitation was conveyed by Ambassador-at-Large Norman Davis. Chamberlain showed no interest in such an invitation. The President must have felt snubbed. One can only wonder why Chamberlain would not have showed interest in such an invitation. The President's son Elliot writes that he believes that Chamberlain was convinced that he ws uniquely capable of effectively dealing with Hitler and Mussolini. [E. Roosevelt, vol. I p 703.] After Munich as Europe drifted to War, President Roosevelt invited the King and Queen to visit America, obstensibly to visit the World Fair (1939). The Royal couple graciously accepted the invitation. They were very favorably greeted by the American people. It was the beginning of the building of an American-British relationship that would play such a key role in winning World War II. Of course after being appointed First Lord of the Admiralty (September 1939), Churchill took the next step in the process and began to correspond with President Roosevelt.

World War II

Germany launched World War II with its Blitzkrieg of Poland (September 1, 1939) and Chanberlain reluctantly announced a declaration of war (September 3). He recalled Winston Churchill to the Amiralty. Chamberlain waa a reluctant, uninspired war leader. His greart desire had been to prevent another war. He never envisiioned that he mighr lead Britain in another war. Chamberlain was forced to resign after the Germans defeated British forces in Norway (May 1940). Shortly afterward the storm broke with the great German Western Offensive (May-June 1940). He wanted Lord Halifax to replace him, not trusting in Churchill's judgement. Halifax refused the job. He was replaced by Winston Churchill. He continued on as lord president of the war council and head of the Conservative Party. Ill health forced him to resign (October 1940) as the Blitz was raging. He died soon afterwards a broken man.

Assessment

There is no doubt that Chamberlain was in moral terms a good man. He hated war and struggled mightly against it. [Feiling] He has probably been somewhat unfair treated by historians. Many canme to criticise. At the time many of those critics including the general public hearly supported appeasement. He is probably the leading example of how good men can do great evil. His downfall was not in trying to prevent another war, but the huberis of thinking that he alone understood the situation and could prevent the War. It is not inexcusable that Hitler fooled him. Hitler outwitted many people. Abandoning democratic Czechoslovakia was inexcuable, but by that point, Britain did not have the capability of stopping Hitler. Much less understandable was his persistent reluctance to reach out to America and President Roosevelt.

Sources

Feiling, Keith. The Life of Neville Chamberlain (1946).

Roberts, Stephen. The House that Hitler Built.

Rock, William R. Chamberlain and Roosevelt: British Foreign Policy and the United States. 1937-1940.

Roosevelt, Elliot. Ed. F.D.R. His Personal Letters, 1928-45. See the note in Vol. I, p. 703.

Schmitz, David F. and Richard D. Challener. Appeasement in Europe: A Reassessment of U.S. Policies (Greenwood Press, 1990), 200p.

Steiner, Zara. The Triumph of the Dark (2010).






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Created: September 5, 2002
Last updated: 11:21 PM 4/26/2015