Alex Massie

In Praise of Neville Chamberlain

Text settings

18th March 1940: British prime minister, Neville Chamberlain (1869-1940) walking across the Horse Guard's Parade, Buckingham Palace on his seventy-first birthday. Photo: Davies/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images.

Neville Chamberlain, it is fair to say, does not receive a good press these days. The War Party - on both sides of the Atlantic - sees Munich popping up every six months or so and, for reasons that escape one, presumes that it is always better to fight a war as soon as possible. All of subsequent human history is seen through the lens of Munich. This is a baffling virus but one that is, I fear, ineradicable.

To take a pair of recent examples: Obama's decision to relocate missile batteries from Poland and the Czech Republic to the mediterranean is, accoring to our old chum Con Coughlin, rank appeasement, (Brother Korski offers a more sensible appraisal here, incidentally) while Sister Philips bitterly complains that the prospect of a mid-level meeting between Iran and the United States, demonstrates that Chamberlain was a far-sighted hero compared to Barack Obama.

Perhaps she's right. But if so, it says nothing about Obama's weakness and everything about Chamberlain's appreciation of the national interest. That is, Chamberlain was a hero whose determination to avoid a cataclysmic war until it was no longer avoidable ought to be saluted, not vilified.

Whatever mistakes may have been made in 1936, by the time of the Munich conference Chamberlain found himself in an invidious position and, the judgement of history notwithstanding, he played his cards as best they could be played. Hitler may have been in a weak position at Munich, but so was Chamberlain knowing that there was neither public support nor much military readiness for a new war, least of all one to be fought on the continent. (As you can see, mind you, I choose to defend Chamberlain on a narrow front.)

To listen to the Munichites talk one might be excused for thinking that actions never have causes, only consequences. Furthermore, one might surmise that the choices available to Prime Ministers and Presidents are clearly between good and evil, black and white. But history does not work like that, no matter how tempting it is to pretend history runs along neat, straight lines. Chamberlain’s policy of delaying war until it was utterly inevitable may look foolish now but it was a policy guided by prudence and an awareness of what was possible. It was also popular.

Anyone reading Field Marshall Alanbrooke’s war diaries cannot help but be struck by the good fortune with which British forces escaped France in 1940. Equally, Alanbrooke (who would later become Chief of the Imperial General Staff) writes with the melancholy knowledge of a man returning to the bloody fields of his youth. On the 14th December 1939, for instance, he writes that seeing the fields he’d first visited in 1914 prompted “a mass of memories which were given a bitter twinge through the fact that I was back again starting again what I thought at the time I was finishing for good and all. It gives me a lonely feeling also going back over these old grounds, so many of them that were with me then are now gone, and so many that are with me now were not born then.”

It's pretty easy for bar-room generals to complain that Britain wasn't willing to embrace another war just 20 years after the last one had cost a million lives. But if you can't imagine why there might have been a proper, even decent, reluctance then, frankly, I suggest you lack the empathy and imagination that any half-decent historian or commentator needs if they're to be successful.

And when push came to shove, it’s sometimes forgotten that Chamberlain actually declared war on Germany, rather than vice versa. Consider these familiar-sounding words too:

“We are a solid and united nation which would rather go down to ruin than admit the domination of the Nazis...If the enemy does try to invade this country we will fight him in the air and on the sea; we will fight him on the beaches with every weapon we have. He may manage here and there to make a breakthrough: if he does we will fight him on every road, in every village, and in every house, until he or we are utterly destroyed."


“The same qualities which made him one of the last to enter the war, made him one of the last who would quit it before the full victory of a righteous cause was won.”

Today’s breed of hawks might also recall Churchill’s post-war judgement on Munich.

"No case of this kind can be judged apart from its circumstances. ... Those who are prone by temperament and character to seek sharp and clear-cut solutions of difficult and obscure problems, who are ready to fight whenever some challenge comes from a foreign power, have not always been right. On the other hand, those whose inclination is to bow their heads, to seek patiently and faithfully for peaceful compromise, are not always wrong. On the contrary, in the majority of instances, they may be right, not only morally but from a practical standpoint. ... How many wars have been precipitated by fire brands!” 


I must say that there's something cavalier about the willingness of so many to risk so many lives so frequently, regardless of the wisdom or lessons that might be learnt from past expeditionary wars. Munich may sometimes offer useful lessons, but so do other more recent wars. Including an Iraqi adventure which I supported more enthusiastically than it is now entirely comfortable to recall. But if offered the choice between general rules requiring that one either rush to war as soon as possible or delay it until all other choices had been eliminated I'll choose the latter.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

Topics in this articlePoliticsrussia