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Neville Chamberlain a Maligned Hero

Brian Wolfe

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Neville Chamberlain a Maligned Hero


Not too long ago a close friend, a man I both respect and admire, offered the suggestion that politeness was the most acceptable hypocrisy. Following our friendly debate on this point of view I thanked him for providing such a provocative subject upon which to ponder; later that evening I removed him from my Christmas card list.



It occurred to me, as I later revisited the subject of politeness and hypocrisy in my mind, that politeness and diplomacy are conjoined twins of the same philosophy, interchangeable and indistinguishable one from the other. Not to digress too far; I do believe that if I were to be able to choose any profession in another time period it would be the Diplomatic Corps in the Victorian era as I am not unfamiliar with diplomacy (a.k.a. hypocrisy). As is often the case one line of thought triggers another and this was no different as I soon started to consider the subject of how popular history has treated Neville Chamberlain and his attempts to avoid what turned out to be the unavoidable Second World War. I have used the term popular history to indicate that history can be divided into several categories. These being, propaganda; history manipulated for the masses in order to shape their opinions to match the current powers, popular history; history that may or may not be accurate but is held as true due to past propaganda (see the first example) and remains accepted until someone delves into the facts and reports them, and lastly, the true historical facts.

This following recitation is both opinionated and derivative and therefore freely open to debate, so, as they say, lets have at it. I wont bother to reference the work of others in regard to quotes with a citation because these are easily found in biographies and on the internet.

I think it best to look first, not at the times when Mr. Chamberlain has undeservingly gained his negative reputation but rather take a moment to review the powers of a Prime Minister. To think that the Prime Minister on his own has the sole power to declare war on another sovereign nation and thereby commit his countrys population to invade another nation is naive, to say the least.

While the Prime Minister is the leader of the political party in power he is still bound by procedure. If the PM were to table a motion so outrageous as to be against the will of his party and the motion was defeated then the opposition party could, and probably would, demand a vote of no-confidence. If the vote passed in favour of the opposition the government would fall and an election would be held. I must assume, due to lack of knowledge, that the American Government is structured in much the same way. I do stand to be corrected on this or any point of view I hold. This fact of Parliamentary procedure alone dictates that a PM should not be held solely responsible for the actions of the governing party or majority of the publics will and wishes.

Next we need to look at the time period itself. Much has been written about the economic and personal devastation brought on by the Great War. The desire for peace at any cost was a commonly held desire, even for the vast majority of the German people during the early years of the Nazi Party and I would hazard to say even through the build up to the outbreak of hostilities between Germany and what would become known as the allies. Certainly there was a feeling of euphoria in Germany as Hitler regained lost territories, rejuvenated the economy and generated a fanatical level of national pride. In other words the majority of the population on either side was not prepared to enter into another worldwide conflict as had been experienced a mere twenty five years prior. Into this atmosphere of avoidance of conflict Mr. Chamberlain was tasked to carry out the will of the people.
Following the will of the people in those times Mr. Chamberlain was driven to assure that the youth of Britain and her Empire would never again be led like sheep to the slaughter of the battlefield. I would challenge anyone, without the benefit of hindsight, to find fault in that conviction. If we are to hold Mr. Chamberlain solely responsible for the failure of diplomacy and therefore the outbreak of WWII then we need to look at other examples from the same time period.

On February 24, 1933 the League of Nations adopted a report blaming the Government of Imperial Japan for events in Manchuria (Manchukuo). In response to this action the Japanese representative, Yosuke Matsuoka, delivered a speech claiming that Manchuria belonged to Japan and they would not entertain any motion that they withdraw from what was, in their view, territory that was theirs by right; then walked out never to return. What was the action taken by the League of Nations to Mr. Matsuokas rejection of the report? Virtually nothing. Their lack of action, possibly a result of their failure to foresee any such actions by a fellow member nation and insufficient plans for a military intervention, caused hundreds of thousands of Chinese men, women and childrens death. Perhaps it was felt by the Western delegates that it was on the other side of the world and it didnt really affect their own people. However, there were British, Canadian, Australian, New Zealanders, Indian and Americans who would be caught up in the onslaught of Imperial Japanese aggression. A good number, far too many, would lose their lives both in the battles and afterwards during their imprisonment as Prisoners of War.

January 3, 1935, Abyssinia (Ethiopia) appealed to the League of Nations to intervene between Abyssinia and Italy, who had invaded Abyssinia. Article X of the Leagues charter forbids any member nation from invading the territories of another member. The Leagues response was to place an arms trade embargo on both countries. Italy had built up her armed forces in the years leading up to this crises and therefore was unaffected by the embargo. Abyssinia, on the other hand, was ill equipped to carry on a modern armed conflict and was therefore greatly handicapped by the Leagues actions. On May 2 1936 Haile Selassie was forced into exile and on May 5, after the capture of the capital of Addis Ababa by Italy, the sanctions placed on the two countries were withdrawn. Emperor Haile Selassie himself appeared before the League to plead their nations case on June 7, 1937, after Italy defeated the forces of Abyssinia. Even without the Leagues help Italy was only able to control three quarters of Abyssinia due to the continued guerrilla campaign carried on against the invaders.
These are two examples of the avoidance of war at any costs that permeated the thinking of the time. Yet the image that is often portrayed is that of Mr. Chamberlain holding up a white piece of paper and assuring the people of England that I believe it is peace for our time is the one used to express his and only his failure and ineptitude at preventing war.

If we look at the failure of the League of Nations in the two examples noted as compared to Mr. Chamberlains attempts to prevent war it reveals an interesting statistic. Very few people had lost their lives in Europe up to the time of the outbreak of WWII. True people had died, there is no doubt about that, however, the real cost in lives of civilians up to that time was unknown. The impending horrors of the extermination camps was still not a known fact, though in hindsight we can say that it should have , and perhaps was, suspected by all of the leaders of free Europe. What was known to the League of Nations was the murder of thousands of Chinese civilians as well as the slaughter of the Abyssinian troops using primitive weapons to combat modern military hardware and a nation, Italy, equipped with an effective air force, Abyssinia having none. Yet time and time again we are shown that photo of Mr. Chamberlain and the white sheet of paper as an example of failed diplomacy. I would put it to you, the reader, that 63 members of the League of Nations (42 nations founded the League in 1920) plus the number of human casualties caused by their failure to maintain peace is miniscule when compared to the one man blamed for the failure to placate Germany.

It is much easier to cheer on and lead a dedicated and enraged crowd bound and bent on wreaking havoc on an enemy than it is to stand up in front of a potential protagonist and attempt to calm the situation and work toward for peace. This is not to diminish the achievements of Mr. Winston Churchill in any way as he was a great war leader and was and is respected throughout the whole world, and well he should be. Having said that it is a lot easier to wave the flag, make stirring speeches to a nation, and even to the world as a whole when your audience is on the same page as you. I doubt Mr. Churchill ever missed a photo opportunity in his life (carefully staged as they may have been), while Mr. Chamberlain will forever be remembered for holding up that white piece of paper not unlike a flag of surrender.

In one of his last addresses to Parliament Mr. Chamberlain said,
Everything that I have worked for, everything that I have hoped for, everything that I have believed in during my public life has crashed into ruins. There is only one thing left for me to do; that is to devote what strength and power I have to forward the victory of the cause for which we have sacrificed so much.

Neville Chamberlain passed away on the 9th of November, 1940 never to know whether the evil he had attempted to protect his nation from would ultimately be stopped or not. On November 12th Mr. Winston Churchill stated in his eulogy of Mr. Chamberlain,

Whatever else history may or may not say about these terrible, tremendous years, we can be sure that Neville Chamberlain acted with perfect sincerity according to his lights and strove to the utmost of his capability and authority, which were powerful, to save the world from the awful, devastating struggle in which we are now engaged. This alone will stand him in good stead as far as what is called the verdict of history is concerned.






Neville Chamberlain
March 18, 1869
November 9, 1940



1 Other than quotes this blog consists of my opinions
2 Quotations have been freely borrowed from different sources easily verified by the reader.
3 Citation = a clever way to make my article appear to be much more scholarly than it warrants on its
own merits. Besides a citation is only a reference to someone elses work which may or may not be either original or accurate.
4 The term his is to be taken as meaning either male or female and is not meant to be gender specific.
5 There are exceptions to this and an election is not necessarily a foregone conclusion
6 I use the term Great War as at that time we had not yet started numbering our World Wars, fortunately after number 2 it was decided that perhaps world wars were not that great an idea after all and dropped the numbering system.




32 Comments




A quite marvelous article on a character who has suffered much from the "popular history" mentioned by Brian.

It is little known that Chamberlain kept Britain out of the Spanish Civil War and that he recognised Italy's supremacy in Ethiopia in 1938, when Italy already controlled three quarters of that country. This to sway Italy away from Germany - a futile gesture as it turned out. It should also be recognised that Premier Daladier of France was complicit, if that is the correct word, in the Munich Agreement.

It is likely that Chamberlain's desire for peace was matched with his desire to ensure that Britain was able to defend itself.

Churchill's eulogy just about sums up the man but it does not appear that the verdict of popular history has "stood him in good stead."

Stuart

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Great article Brian - but, you're fighting an up-hill battle. He was - and always

will be a 'wet willy' ! Mervyn

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I am tempted by Brian's article to find out much, much more of this signature man. He may have been wrong about Adolf, and he was not alone, but what does one do with a madman? And mad he surely was. World domination is taking it a bit too far. Ressurecting one's country I can understand but at the expense of the rest of the world... NO!

"Wet willy!" That seems rather unfair to a man who only wanted to save humanity from a repeat of the Great War - what was so "Great" about it? And never let us forget that it was Chamberlain who declared war on Germany.

Stuart

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1 Other than quotes this blog consists of my opinions

Indeed and so diplomatically enunciated.

I can only agree that Chamberlain is not alone to blame. He was simply the leader of the international community at the time. He is no more to blame alone for WWII than George Bush was to blame alone for Iraq. But being a leader means sometimes making unpopular decisions. It is my opinion that Neville did not have the requisite leadership ability (read back-bone) to make the hard decision. Instead, he chose "hope" as his option. Not a good strategy. He hoped by avoiding the hard decisions - read confrontation - he could secure Britain. Daladier had the same approach for France. Neither cared for random specks on a map.

Thus, as "leaders" of the League of Nations it was easier to let Japan have Manchuria (what does Downing Street care about that far away place?); Italy have Abyssinia (oh, why we should bother - it won't endanger Cornwall if Italy gets some African "colonies"); Germany get parts of Czechoslovakia - (they weren't a real country anyway but some leftover vestige of the Hapsburgs) - surely the loss of those independent lands to aggressors isn't sufficient to risk war for Britain. (Not to mention, once those aggressor nations withdrew from the League; they were not subject to the League's rules.) I mean after all, it's just business ... just diplomacy. Just the way things had been done for decades and decades. The League was a sham. A fake. (Perhaps like the UN?) Britain and France really didn't need the League to act, did they? I'm sure if Whitehall or the Elysee had interests to protect they wouldn't have worried about some old diplomats in Geneva. The League was a mere fig leaf for cowards.

I mean, why not follow the US lead; don't even join the League (the brainchild of our own president); why should we care about what happens in Europe or anywhere else (as long as Manifest Destiny isn't involved). At least that was a "honest" approach - a democratic approach - the Senate decided it wasn't in US national interests to join despite Wilson's personal and political investment. (Oh by the way, the US isn't a "parliamentary" democracy; the President can't be removed by a vote of no-confidence. He can be impeached, but that's a different story.)

The best way to avoid war, is to prepare for war. Deterrence. Appeasement only signaled that we won't go to war for specks on the map (unless they are our specks on the map). Appeasement had no chance to avert war. It had no deterrence value. It encouraged war, only in a matter of time. No, Chamberlain didn't surrender. He had options. His back wasn't against the wall. He wasn't facing overwhelming odds. He could resist. Instead, he abdicated. He quit. He took the easy way. Much worse than surrendering.

I can only agree that we should not vilify Neville...alone..., but I'm sorry, in my opinion, history should not forgive him his failure to lead at a time when leadership was needed.

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The key phrase is "tasked to carry out the will of the people" - whilst politicians may have ideas and should attempt to convince the electorate of their merits, they are hired to act on citizens' behalf. What did the citizens of the UK want during the 1930s?

History is always blighted by hindsight. We know what was to come and it is easy to say that things should have been done differently. Good historians dig down to find out what was known at the time and to whom, and what the 'will of the people' was... Did Chamberlain do what the citizens of the UK wished him to do, based on the information he and they had?

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Hello Rick,

Thank you for your reply, it certainly supports the belief of si vis pacem para bellum. Sometimes it seems that the only thing diplomacy achieves, when it works, is to buy time to prepare for the inevitable war to follow. History shows that the nation that prepares for war seldom finds itself engaged in an exercise in futility. Inevitably they seem to find uses for their military build up, be it defence or aggression. We look back now and think that surely the German people must had thought it odd that their leader saw a need for a massive military when things were going well economically and the enemies of the last great war were now non-aggressive. The event that propelled the Nazi party to power was the Great Depression, as early on they were experiencing the same boom as the rest of the world, in spite of the war reparations imposed on them by the Treaty of Versailles. I can't help but wonder if there would have been a "Dunkirk" had Chamberlain been alone in his belief that he was doing the correct thing and the British Government and their military been thinking along the lines of si vis passum para bellum.

These are simply musing and not an argument; you make some very good points.

Regards

Brian

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Megan, Chamberlain may have been doing what he thought the electorate wanted, but that doesn't make it right. While "politically correct," your argument would then justify what Hitler did in 1930s because he was "popularly" elected and, at least, in the beginning doing what the majority wanted. So, Chamberlain gets the Nuremberg Defense - Chamberlain was "just a good soldier; following orders; he had no choice."

A "good historian" - to use your words - doesn't just look at the facts or to use your words - "find out what was known at the time and to whom, and what the 'will of the people' was". That's easy. It's okay I suppose if you are producing a History Channel 30-minute piece. But where's the "so-what" factor? The difficult part is analyzing the facts to guide the future. It's not enough to know why or how something happened. A "good historian" is finding the right lessons for the leaders to learn.

Neville Chamberlain is not a very good lesson in leadership. I recommend Joshua Chamberlain instead.

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Hello Megan,

I do agree that it is often difficult, if not impossible, to avoid viewing history with a mind set of the era in which we are speaking. On the other hand, my father blamed Chirchill for the disasterous raid on Deippe untill the day he passed away, even though he loved the British people and often said he would have liked to have retired in the South of England. It was not until resent research into the raid found that it was in fact a diversional raid in order to "pinch" an Enigma machine, which was not located at that site at the time. I only wish that I could have made him aware of that before he passed away. My point is that there are even examples of the mind set of the day that clouds history and makes research difficult to say the least.

I of course agree with you that we need to find out what the mind set of the day was if we want to get an accurate picture of the time period we are researching. It would seem that even then history is clouded with misconception and purposeful misdirection.

Thank you for your reply, these are the exchanges of points of view I was looking to generate.

Regards

Brian

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These are simply musing and not an argument;

Hear, hear. (Parliamentary speak don't cha know).

I would consider my comments more along the lines of a Non-Paper (aka aide-mémoire). (Diplomatic speak don't cha know)

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Hi Rick,

I suppose we need to ask, "what is a good leader". Is it someone whose actions reflect the will of the people or one who acts as he (or she) believes to be correct. I think we have examples of both in Chamberlain and Hitler. Chamberlain, in enacting the will of the general population to avoid a war that would cost the lives of yet another generation of British men and women and Hitler in emposing his will over the population and leading them into another conflict. As far as the two men, and even the two different nations of the time, we are probably looking at compairing apples and oranges. Were there people who saw the appeasement of the Nazi regiem as the wrong direction to follow? Sure and the same could be said in regard to the German poeple. However the vast majority of the future allied countries did indeed care little about the nations given over to Hitler. It was a "small price" to pay to avoid war. Of course we now know that this very policy did nothing to convince the German people that the Nazis were wrong, aftetr all it is easy to get swept up in a fervor national support when you are seeing victory after victory and the other side sees only that, "at least we avoided war...for today". Short sighted, certainly; perservation of life for "yet one more day attitude" most assuredly. Did the American President not refuse to intervien in China when he arguably could have? Sure he did, yet when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour he went to war and was an effictive war leader. I can't help but to wonder if Chamberlain would not have been a good war leader had he lived, after all as has been stated it was Chamberlain's government (with him as leader)who declaired war on German and not Chirchill. We'll never know for certain but perhaps food for thought all the same.

Regards
Brian

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These are simply musing and not an argument;

Hear, hear. (Parliamentary speak don't cha know).

I would consider my comments more along the lines of a Non-Paper (aka aide-mémoire). (Diplomatic speak don't cha know)

So true. I would like to debate this if I were more knowledgable on the subject. "Parliamentary speak", love it. One of the oft used words along those lines, "notwithstanding". We have whole clauses dedicated to this word in Canadian Parliamentary Laws and Acts. I believe you'll find the Notwithstanding Clause within our Charter of Rights and Freedoms, now where did I put my copy. ;)

Regards

Brian

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As the only Englishman present - I stand by my comments. He was a hated,

weak leader and by not taking a stand , led us into war.

Churchill is also not a highly revered leader. He had the habit of dictating to

his staff and ignoring advice - this led to the loss of many unnecessary

lives. From the 1stWW and the Gallipoli Campaign when he was 1st Sea

Lord - just mention his name in Australia - they used to just spit on the

ground.

Given a position, just so many leaders fail to listen to their electorate. Mervyn

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Mervyn,

As you can imagine (since we both have Australian friends) why I stayed away from the mention of Gallipoli.

As to changing your opinion, I do hope that my article would not have that effect. It was too shallow to change minds, if indeed anything written by me could change minds to any great degree.

Thank goodness Hitler refused to listen to his generals, for the most part, as it turns out he may have been one of our very best allies. It has been suggested that was the reason the allies never seriously attemped to assinate Hitler, that and his own people were busy enough trying to take care of that for us. ;)

Thanks for your comment.

Regards

Brian

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As the only Englishman present

Of course, the best leaders England ever had were Englishwomen. Right Megan? ;)

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You will realise - to a certain extent - that I was 'stirring' a little. However,

the facts remain that his weakness led us into war - where-as, a show of

determination and force would possibly have stopped him.

My comments on Churchill should probably be the subject of Brian's next

blog ? Mervyn

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I was thinking the same thing regarding Churchill.
One of the things I don't think many of the members are aware of is that you were in England during the war and would have not only experienced the fears and worries of the times but heard what was being said about the different leaders. This gives you an opinion based on more than history written by authors that who not likely born until after the war and therefore with no real-time experiences.
So, keep "stiring".
Regards
Brian

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I've just re-read the original blog and noted the following: "later that evening I removed him from my Christmas card list."

I didn't even know you had a Christmas card list. Wait, doesn't one have to be added before one can be removed?

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Ok, you got me, I don't really have a Christmas Card list...but I do have a list...good news you are not on it. ;)

Another point for Mr. Chamberlain. His parents named him Neville for God's sake. Poor little fellow was probably beaten up at school and had his lunch money stolen on a regular basis. He was doomed to give things away without a fight.

Regards

Brian

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My comments on Churchill should probably be the subject of Brian's next

blog ? Mervyn

Perhaps you should write the Churchill blog.

Stuart

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Ok, you got me, I don't really have a Christmas Card list...but I do have a list...good news you are not on it. ;)

Another point for Mr. Chamberlain. His parents named him Neville for God's sake. Poor little fellow was probably beaten up at

school and had his lunch money stolen on a regular basis. He was doomed to give things away without a fight.

Regards

Brian

I truly doubt he was bullied at school. Despite its tough sounding name, Rugby School, the place is primarily known for authors (like Lewis Carroll and Salman Rushdie) and accountants (like Neville).

Poor Neville was destined to be milk-toast coward; leading hospitals and never being called to the Colours.

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"Chamberlain's story is of a man who fought for peace as long as possible, and went to war only when it was the last available option. It's not such a bad epitaph." [Nick Baumann]

This is a very interesting precis of the man called Neville Chamberlain and the situation he faced http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/foreigners/2013/09/neville_chamberlain_was_right_to_cede_czechoslovakia_to_adolf_hitler_seventy.html

Stuart

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Chamberlain was "never called to the Colours" because he was too old, being 45 years of age in 1914. The limit for the Regular Army was 38 years and for the Special Reserve 40 years if not previously a regular soldier.

Even the Derby Scheme, of 1915, only went to 1875 as its starting point and Chamberlain was born in 1869.

Stuart

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