An Honourable Man In A Time of Madness

Historians can be very cruel as they view individuals who lived in difficult times.  One such individual was Arthur Neville Chamberlain.


Chamberlain was born March 18th, 1869.  The Birmingham-born Chamberlain would rise in the political society of his day from Lord Mayor to Prime Minister of Great Britain.

His greatest achievement or failure, depending on your historical viewpoint, was the Munich Agreement of 1938.  His pursuit of peace for his country and Europe was a noble goal. 

The First World War had wreaked havoc on Europe.  The Great Depression had turned the economic fortunes of many into a scramble for basic survival.

Germany under Adolf Hitler was a marvel to behold.  Taking the country from bitter defeat and ashes, he turned it into a modern state.

When a man seeks peace, he can become blinded to more obvious realities.  In 1938 the word of gentlemen was still valued, a concept Chamberlain embraced.

Chamberlain did believe that Germany had been treated too harshly and that some of its demands were genuine.  The Munich Agreement was his way of acknowledging his beliefs and maintaining his efforts to avoid war.

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On his return to London he was welcomed as a conquering hero as thousands gathered to sing his praise.  A demand that he be granted the Nobel Peace Prize was sounded far and wide.

Even though his popularity was high, his critics were able to unseat him as Prime Minister.  His most famous critic succeeded him.  He would continue as Lord President of the Council under Winston Churchill.

Due to failing health (colon cancer), Chamberlain left his position in October 1940.  Chamberlain died November 9, 1940.

“Peace for our time” would become bitter ale in a short time.  For Chamberlain it would become his epitaph of shame.  

Has history judged this man too harshly?  I believe it has. 

He was an honourable man in a time of madness.  A time of madness demands heroes, not peacemakers or philosophers. 

G. D. Williams       © 2013

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 Sir Neville Chamberlain

Edward Murrow, the American broadcaster working for Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) on 30th September, 1938, reported: “Thousands of people are standing in Whitehall and lining Downing Street, waiting to greet the Prime Minister upon his return from Munich. Certain afternoon papers speculate concerning the possibility of the Prime Minister receiving a knighthood while in office, something that has happened only twice before in British history. Others say that he should be the next recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.”

 On 7th May, 1940, Leo Amery, the Conservative MP, argued in the House of Commons: “Just as our peace-time system is unsuitable for war conditions, so does it tend to breed peace-time statesmen who are not too well fitted for the conduct of war. Facility in debate, ability to state a case, caution in advancing an unpopular view, compromise and procrastination are the natural qualities – I might almost say, virtues – of a political leader in time of peace. They are fatal qualities in war. Vision, daring, swiftness and consistency of decision are the very essence of victory.” Looking at Chamberlain he then went onto quote what Oliver Cromwell said to the Long Parliament when he thought it was no longer fit to conduct the affairs of the nation: “You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go”

 The Munich Agreement

On 29th September, 1938, Adolf Hitler, Neville Chamberlain, Edouard Daladier and Benito Mussolini signed the Munich Agreement which transferred the Sudetenland to Germany.

 When Eduard Benes, Czechoslovakia’s head of state, protested at this decision, Neville Chamberlain told him that Britain would be unwilling to go to war over the issue of the Sudetenland.

 The Munich Agreement was popular with most people in Britain because it appeared to have prevented a war with Germany. However, some politicians, including Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden, attacked the agreement. These critics pointed out that no only had the British government behaved dishonorably, but it had lost the support of Czech Army, one of the best in Europe.

In March, 1939, the German Army seized the rest of Czechoslovakia. In taking this action Adolf Hitler had broken the Munich Agreement. The British prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, now realized that Hitler could not be trusted and his appeasement policy now came to an end.

 So far as this country is concerned the responsibility must rest with those who have had the undisputed control of our political affairs. They neither prevented Germany from rearming, nor did they rearm themselves in time. They quarrelled with Italy without saving Ethiopia. The exploited and discredited the vast institution of the League of Nations and they neglected to make alliances and combinations which might have repaired previous errors, and thus they left us in the hour of trial without adequate national defence or effective international security.

The Prime Minister desires to see cordial relations between this country and Germany. There is no difficulty at all in having cordial relations between the peoples. Our hearts go out to them. But they have no power. But never will you have friendship with the present German Government. You must have diplomatic and correct relations, but there can never be friendship between the British democracy and the Nazi power, that power which spurns Christian ethics, which cheers its onward course by a barbarous paganism, which vaunts the spirit of aggression and conquest, which derives strength and perverted pleasure from persecution, and uses, as we have seen, with pitiless brutality the threat of murderous force. That power cannot ever be the trusted friend of the British democracy.

 And do not suppose that this is the end. This is only the beginning of the reckoning. This is only the first sip, the first foretaste of a bitter cup which will be proffered to us year by year unless by a supreme recovery of moral health and martial vigour, we arise again and take our stand for freedom as in the olden time.

 Appeasing an adversary’s demands may defuse a crisis, but it can also increase the chances of war by emboldening that adversary to demand more. Chamberlain thought that if Germany gained the Sudetenland that Hitler would finally be satisfied with the status quo in Europe. But Hitler instead viewed Munich as confirming his belief that Britain and France both lacked the will to stop German expansion