Revisiting Chamberlain

Been reading a bit of World War II history recently, notably Richard Overy’s book “the road to war” as well as the TV series of the same name, plus the excellent Lawrence Oliver narrated “the world at war”. Anyway, its led me to argue that perhaps history has judged British PM Neville Chamberlain a little too harshly.

There are various myths about Chamberlain. For example, the myth that Chamberlain was a liberal. Actually he was a member of the conservative party, although he was frequently a member of coalition governments with the liberals. He did earn a reputation as a social reformer, yet one who wanted to balance the books. The holiday’s with pay act, the Housing Act (1938) and the Factory Act (1937) for example, did much to improve the lot of the British working classes. In essence, he was the PM that talked the talk of many recent UK PM’s, but actually delivered on his promises (despite being a Tory!).

Contrary to rumours that he opposed rearmament, the opposite is true. First as chancellor, then as PM he directly supported rearmament (from 1935 onwards), even going against cabinet colleagues where necessary (debunking rumours that he was a weak leader). He instituted the policy of “shadow factories” that would prove crucial to wartime production. Recognising the importance of air defence, his government put particular emphasis on aircraft production. Also, realising that intelligence would prove crucial, first in diplomacy, then later during the war, a code breaking unit was set up, first in the Admiralty and then later in Bletchley Park, what would later become known as “Ultra”.

Of course, supporters of Churchill, have been quick to credit Churchill with many of these things, even though he was in the political wilderness at the time. The idea that he could so influence UK government policy via a few opinion pieces in the Daily Express, is simply bonkers. But history is written by the victors, and Churchill was able to claim credit for much of the policy of Chamberlain’s government after the war, with nobody bothering to do any fact checking.

Of course, the big blip in Chamberlain’s record was when he returned from Munich waving around that famous piece of paper. As we now know, he may as well have waved around a piece of loo roll that Hitler had wiped his ass with. The tabloid view of history is that Chamberlain naively believed Hitler’s promises.

This is contradicted by private accounts from the time, which suggested that Chamberlain held a fairly dim view of Hitler, describing him as “the nastiest piece of work I’ve ever had to deal with”. I find it difficult to believe he’d take such a person at his word, if this is what he actually believed. However, Chamberlain’s problem was that the UK was in no way prepared to go to war. He would have gone to Munich having been briefed by his generals that if Hitler marched into Czechoslovakia, there would be little if anything the British army could do to stop him.

And the British public were hugely resistant to war. In the immediate aftermath of World War I the horrors of the war led to a large anti-war movement forming. This led to much disarmament and the creation of international treaties intended to prevent future wars. Even by the 1930’s this anti-war movement still held much sway among the UK public. Furthermore, there were more than a few fascists in Britain who thought Hitler was a wonderful chap and couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. Hence Chamberlain had to balance whatever his views might have been, with the realities of politics and military capability.

Given such factors, that Chamberlain returned from Munich with anything is perhaps a sign of success. Indeed that piece of paper wasn’t the Munich accords, but a separate agreement he’d struck with Hitler, in which Hitler agreed that he would seek no further territorial demands on the continent. Its very possible that Chamberlain realised that Hitler won’t stick to this agreement. However it had two important effects. Firstly, it bought the UK a crucial year in which to rearm. And secondly, it allowed Chamberlain to set a trap for Hitler.

When Hitler crossed into the Czech Republic, this proved to even the most ardent peacenik, or indeed jackbooted Daily Mail readers, that Hitler was a danger to world peace who had to be stopped. Without this accord with Hitler, and without him so blatantly reneging on it, its difficult to see how the allies could have offered the guarantee’s of security they gave to Poland in 1939 without facing considerable domestic opposition.

However, its here that Chamberlain’s plans start to become unstuck. His plan was no doubt to confront Hitler with the threat of “Bismark’s Nightmare”, a war on two fronts. While Germany had a head start on the UK and France in terms of rearmament, they would not have been strong enough to fight both the Western allies and the Russians at the same time. And it was inconceivable that Stalin would allow the fascist dictator to creep up to his border and sit idle. Faced with certain defeat, Hitler would either be forced to back down, or his generals would orchestrate a coup and force him from power.

But if this was the British plan, it was quickly blown out of the water by the Molotov/Ribbentrop pact, which saw the unthinkable, an unholy alliance between communism and fascism. Stalin, faced the problem that his purges had crippled the red army and he was in no condition to go to war. Furthermore, from the Russian prospective, it looked like the allies were trying to drive the Germans towards them. The Russians had also previously lost a war to Poland in the 1920’s and were anxious for some pay back, not to mention creating a buffer zone between themselves and the nazi’s.

Of course, I have little doubt that Stalin knew exactly who he was dealing with (takes one to know one!) and that the Nazi’s had no intention of ever sticking to this deal any longer than it suite them (and of course that suited Stalin just fine, as he probably felt the same way!). Quite frankly, I suspect that if when the moment came to sign, had Ribbentrop dropped his pants and proceeded to wipe his bum with the agreement, neither Molotov nor Stalin would have batted an eyelid :)). However, it left whatever game Chamberlain had been playing in tatters. The rest as they say is history.

I’m not saying we can absolve Chamberlain of all blame. Certainly he, and the government’s he was part of, could have done a lot more to confront the looming threat. But he was constrained by the day to day realities of politics. Perhaps the rush to blame Chamberlain after the war was driven by an unwillingness to blame others closer to home, such as fascist sympathisers, peace campaigners, church leaders, the Royal family, business leaders anxious to avoid disruptions to trade, etc. It was all too easy to instead pick a conveniently dead scape goat like Chamberlain and blame everything on him instead.

However the reality is instead a tale of political leaders who were trying to do their best to avoid war, but who got carried along with the tide of events beyond their control and the changing whims of public opinion. It is perhaps quite significant when you consider events in the Middle East or Ukraine, as it shows how easy it is for politicians to become trapped by events beyond their control.

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