Neville Chamberlain: His Life and Times

By Stephen Carpenter

The younger son of Joseph Chamberlain, (1836-1914). Arthur Neville Chamberlain was born in Birmingham, England, on March 18, 1869. His father was a
British statesman, well known, as a champion of imperialism in foreign affairs and of the social reform in domestic matters. Neville was educated at Rugby and Mason College, Birmingham. Where he studied metallurgy and engineering design. When he was 21 years old he went to the Bahamas to manage a 20,000 acre estate which his father had bought with the intention of growing sisal. He toiled for seven years trying before the venture was abandoned, the soil being too thin for the crop. He achieved mixed results in business ventures, turned to politics, and in 1911 was elected to the Birmingham city council. In 1911 he had married Miss Anne Vere Cole, the marriage was happy and she was a constant source of help and encouragement to him. He was lord mayor of Birmingham in 1915 and 1916. He was appointed director general of the newly established Department of National Service in 1916 He resigned after seven months and returned to Birmingham. He
Was elected to the Commons in 1918 as a Conservative from Birmingham. He supported the coliation government, but rejected suggestions that he should take office, ad he distrusted Lloyd George and refused to serve under him, Entering Parliament at age 49, Chamberlain rose rapidly. He was Minister of Health (1923-1924, 1924-1929, and 1931), Chancellor of the Exchequer (1923-1924, 1931-1937), and Prime Minister (1937-1940), succeeding Baldwin.

As befitted the son of the most famous Liberal Radical of the late 19th century, Neville Chamberlain was keenly interested in the amelioration of social conditions. But unlike his father, he brought little passion or demagogy to his work. His political character was thus very different from that of most of his opponents in the Labour party, for whom the demonstration of public passion on behalf of the working classes was a political creed. To Labourites, Chamberlain’s concern with administrative minutiae, financial probity, and individual responsibility (which he feared the careless extension of state welfare might undermine) appeared is inhuman indifference to the poor. Chamberlain was by temperament a businessman and a civil servant before he was a politician; although he did much to extend welfare services between the wars, his contribution was that of rationalization and was not based on a desire to change quickly and radically the existing qualities if social life.

Chamberlain confronted the threat to peace posed by Germany and Italy. Seeking to appease Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, he first negotiated a treaty with Italy accepting the conquest of Ethiopia on condition that Italy withdraw from the Spanish Civil War. Turning to the Czech question, Chamberlain conferred with Hitler and Mussolini. In the Munich pact (1938), signed also by France, Chamberlain accepted Hitler’s territorial claims to the predominantly German areas of Czechoslovakia. Though Chamberlain assured Britain that his concession had brought “peace in our time, Hitler soon broke his agreement and occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia.
If to his domestic politics he brought little of the fervor of his Birmingham Radical upbringing, this quality was surprisingly present when he turned to foreign affairs. His “appeasement has seldom been discussed in this light, and most of the critics have misrepresented his position. The urgent desire to negotiate with Hitler and Mussolini did not, in Chamberlain’s case, spring from pacifism. He strongly supported sanctions against Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 and was a vocal supporter of rearmament after 1934. Nor was he ignorant of the menace if the dictators. Few people linked the need for rearmament more strongly with the ambitions of Germany. But the crucial characteristic of Chamberlain’s support of rearmament lay in his vision of such rearmament as a support for negotiations that would be possible when British rearmament had helped demonstrate to the dictators that the alternatives to negotiation were unthinkable.
Chamberlain’s willingness to negotiate with Hitler was thus more than a result of a sense of military weakness and refusal to regard the German minority in Czechoslovakia as worth fighting over although these considerations were present. It sprang also from a passionate desire to avert the horror of war and a film belief in the possibility of a lasting general peace. This policy of “negotiation through strength was always potentially self defeating. The more Britain rearmed, the less sincere her desire for peace might become. When the British declared war on Germany, Chamberlain’s policy had failed.
After Germany invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, Chamberlain honored a pledge to stand by Poland and led Britain into war two days later. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain gave a speech to the House of Commons on September 1, 1939, just after Hitler’s troops had invaded Poland:
“I do not propose to say many words tonight. The time has come when action rather than speech is required. Eighteen months ago in this House I prayed that the responsibility might not fall upon me to ask this country to accept the awful arbitrament of war. I fear that I may not be able to avoid that responsibility… In these circumstances it appears to the Governments of the United Kingdom and France that by their action the German Government have created conditions, namely, an aggressive act of force against Poland threatening the independence of Poland, which call for the implementation by the Government of the United Kingdom and France of the undertaking to Poland to come to her assistance. I am accordingly to inform your Excellency that unless the German Government are prepared to give His Majesty’s Government satisfactory assurances that the German Government have suspended all aggressive action against Poland and are prepared promptly to withdraw their forces from Polish territory, His Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom will without hesitation fulfill their obligations to Poland.”

Chamberlain and others had spent years negotiating with Hitler in order to prevent another war in Europe, two decades after the Great War in which an entire generation of young men had been wiped out. Negotiations with Hitler had included surrendering the sovereign rights of Czechoslovakia and standing by Hitler’s troops took Austria. By 1939, Hitler desired war and any further attempts to negotiate peace were doomed to failure. The Nazis then staged a fake attack on a German radio outpost along the German-Polish border and used that as an excuse for invasion. Although his policies were discredited, he held on as Prime Minister until May 1940, when he resigned and was succeeded by Winston Churchill. Chamberlain, his health deteriorating, was now a saddened old men who was under attack from all sides, With failure of the British expedition to Norway in 1940, the floodgates of abuse opened. A motion of censure was moved against him and the government lost their huge majority, Chamberlain decided to form a National Government but, finding the labour leaders would not serve under him, went to the cries of ‘Go!’. He was succeeded by Winston Churchill on 10th May 1940.Chamberlain remained in the coalition as lord president of the council, he had an operation for abdominal cancer two months later, but suffered a relapse and resigned from the cabinet. The King offered him the garter and a peerage, both of which he declined preferring he said, to die ‘plain “Mr Chamberlain”, like my father. He died on 9th November 1940.Of Chamberlain, Churchill said after his death, he acted ‘with prefect sincerity, and strove to the utmost of his capacity to save the world from the awful, devastating struggle’ of World War 2.

    • Dutton, David. Neville Chamberlain, Arnold, 2001.
    • Neville, Chamberlain, The Neville Chamberlain diary letters Vol. 2: The Reform Years, 1912-1917, Ashgate, 2000.
    • McDonough, Frank, Neville Chamberlain, Appeasement and the road to war, Manchester, 1998.
    • Caputi, Robert J. Neville Chamberlain and Appeasement, Susquehanna, 2000.
    • Self, R.C, The Neville Chamberlain diary letters Vol. 1: The making of a politician, 1915- 1920, Ashgate, 2000.