Chamberlain’s fictional rehabilitation
Netflix’s sympathetic take on the great appeaser is ultimately unconvincing
On 30 September 1938, the Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain waved a piece of paper in his hand and declared “My good friends, for the second time in our history, a British Prime Minister has returned from Germany bringing peace with honour. I believe it is peace for our time.” He was, of course, incorrect. Less than a year later, Britain was at war with Germany, and the piece of paper was rendered meaningless.
Posterity has been hard on Chamberlain, regarding him as one of the least effective British premiers, and he has been entirely overshadowed by his more charismatic and successful replacement, Winston Churchill. Yet the bestselling author Robert Harris took a more sympathetic view of Chamberlain, and suggested in his 2017 novel Munich that, far from the Prime Minister being a hapless blunderer, he was in fact a canny tactician who bought his country an invaluable extra year to prepare for the coming conflict. This novel has now been filmed by Netflix, and has attracted particular attention for Jeremy Irons’ sympathetic and warm portrayal of Chamberlain.
The charge of incompetence is a more deadly one
Harris has even suggested that “I could perhaps show him as a tragic hero rather than merely the gullible old fool of popular myth… it is a mark of maturity to be able to hold two competing views in one’s head at the same time: that Churchill was vital to the defeat of Germany, and so, in a different way, was Neville Chamberlain.” Does he have a point, or is this just the canny spin of a novelist who has found a new and profitable angle to bring a well-worn story to life?
For my forthcoming book The Windsors at War, dealing with the royals in WWII and their relationships with the politicians of the day, I researched many letters and documents written by Chamberlain, members of the Royal Family and those around him in Downing Street. Several things came to light. There was residual antipathy between Chamberlain, who was an instinctive appeaser, and Churchill, who was not, and the Prime Minister privately derided the other politician as “a bandit” and “a pirate”. He also despised Attlee’s Labour party, calling them experts in “sob-stuff” sentimentality. He can undeniably be accused of high-handedness and complacency. Yet the charge of incompetence is a more deadly one.
Chamberlain himself came from a distinguished political family. His father Joseph was a ruthless Liberal parliamentarian who was said to have originated the phrase “you cannot teach old dogs new tricks”, and his elder brother Austen, one-time Chancellor of the Exchequer and leader of the Conservative Party, demonstrated a confidence in his intellectual abilities that his sibling did his best to emulate. He was not universally popular with his own side – the Conservative MP and diarist Harold Nicolson called him “a bourgeois shit” – but he generally had the support of his party in pursuing his policy of appeasement towards Hitler and Germany, believing – correctly – that Britain could not win the conflict outright.
Until the summer of 1938, the Führer offered relatively limited danger. Even on 1 September, Lord Beaverbrook’s Daily Express, briefed by the Cabinet, declared “THERE WILL BE NO WAR”. Chamberlain regarded Hitler’s territorial ambitions as essentially European in nature, at least until the middle of September, when, alarmed by his intentions to expand into Czechoslovakia, he headed to Germany for a face-to-face meeting with the dictator. The Prime Minister was unimpressed by the Führer’s appearance, calling him “entirely undistinguished” and “the commonest little dog he had ever seen”, but Hitler worked himself up into a frenzy over his apparently righteous actions. After Chamberlain agreed to his demands, namely that, Germany had the right to self-determine the Sudeten lands in Czechoslovakia, he declared that Hitler was trustworthy, calling him “a man who could be relied upon when he had given his word.” The Führer meanwhile sneered that he had “manoeuvred this dried-up civilian into a corner.”
When Chamberlain returned from Germany, it was into chaos. Hitler’s policy of annexing Czechoslovakia caused public consternation, and it was not believed that war had somehow been avoided. Duff Cooper, First Lord of the Admiralty and former Secretary of State for War, rejected Chamberlain’s assurances of Hitler’s integrity at Cabinet and called Nazi Germany “probably the most formidable power that had ever dominated Europe”. On 25 September, Chamberlain described Hitler to King George VI as “a warmonger” and warned the sovereign that conflict was now inevitable. A country braced for a war that nobody ever wanted. Trenches were dug in Hyde Park, gas masks were handed out to schoolchildren, and a weary Chamberlain broadcast to the nation, calling the situation “horrible, fantastic [and] incredible”.
His credulity and arrogance in dealing with Hitler have been justly ridiculed by posterity
But on the night of 27 September, the once-unthinkable happened: Hitler appeared to blink. He sent a message to Chamberlain that he was prepared to convene a conference, with the aim of averting conflict. Chamberlain was able to surprise his colleagues in the House of Commons the following day when he said “Herr Hitler has just agreed to postpone mobilisation for twenty-four hours and to meet me in conference.” He was cheered to the skies, and even Churchill made a point of shaking his hand and wishing him “God speed.”
When he returned two days later, the feeling of relief in Britain was so great that the Prime Minister was cheered to the skies. He appeared on the Buckingham Palace balcony alongside the King, before making his notorious speech from Downing Street. He was complacent about his achievements. “At times”, he remarked to the King, “the old diplomacy fails, and personal interviews with dictators are called for.” He may have believed that it was “peace for our time”, but many were unconvinced. Cooper resigned immediately, and Churchill, appalled by the perceived betrayal of the Czech people, called it “only the beginning of the reckoning”, and railed against “the abandonment and ruin of Czechoslovakia”. His reward was to be sneered at by The Times as making “[the prophet] Jeremiah appear an optimist”.
Even as the King described the result as “a great day”, and his mother Queen Mary expressed her anger at Churchill and Cooper’s ingratitude, it was clear that the most Chamberlain had done was to buy time, and not very much at that. The King’s private secretary Alec Hardinge noted that “It is possible that we may before long be faced with a similar situation in much less favourable circumstances”, and if anyone had heard Hitler’s triumphant remarks that ‘That piece of paper is of no significance whatsoever”, they could only have feared that the worst was imminent. They would have been right.
Harris’ novel, like his earlier book Fatherland, is therefore an imaginative triumph of “what-if” speculation, rather than revisionist historical accuracy, which has been dutifully carried through to its film adaptation. Irons’ typically accomplished and poignant performance will move many, and it is not impossible that Munich: The Edge of War will bring about something of a temporary rehabilitation in Chamberlain’s reputation. But in fact, his credulity and arrogance in dealing with Hitler have been justly ridiculed by posterity, and most will take a rather less generous – or lenient – view than Harris and the filmmakers have done.
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