Neville Chamberlain, the son of Joseph Chamberlain, and the brother of Austin Chamberlain, was born in 1869. One of his cousins later recalled: "We always understood as children that as our lives had fallen in pleasant places it behoved us all the more to do what we could to improve the lot of those less happily placed". After being educated at Rugby School he spent seven years managing his father's plantation in the Bahamas.
Chamberlain arrived back in England in 1897 where he went into the copper-brass business. He was active in local politics and in 1915 was elected Lord Mayor of Birmingham. Soon after he was elected to the post he stated his intentions to move "the working classes from their hideous and depressing surroundings to cleaner, brighter and more wholesome dwellings in the still uncontaminated country which lay within the city's boundaries".
Chamberlain's biographer, Andrew J. Crozier, has argued: "His Unitarian background and upbringing made Chamberlain aware of the need to promote progress and instilled in him a profound sense of duty. He also developed an understanding of the responsibilities that wealth and privilege incur." Chamberlain later admitted that he was greatly influenced by the political views of his father: "My father's deep sympathy with the working classes and his intense desire to better their lot which inspired me with an ambition to do something in my turn to afford better help to the working people and better opportunities for the enjoyment of life."
In the 1918 General Election Chamberlain was elected as the Conservative MP for Ladywood. He refused office under David Lloyd George but accepted the posts Postmaster-General (1923-24) and Minister of Health (1924-29) under Stanley Baldwin. At the 1929 General Election he moved to the safe Conservative constituency of Edgbaston. Out of office as a result of Baldwin's defeat at the polls, Chamberlain become the head of a new Conservative Party research department. In June 1930 he became chairman of the Conservative Party.
The 1931 General Election was held on 27th October, 1931. Ramsay MacDonald led an anti-Labour alliance made up of Conservatives and National Liberals. It was a disaster for the Labour Party with only 46 members winning their seats. MacDonald now appointed Chamberlain as the new Chancellor of the Exchequer. His supporters have claimed he was an efficient administrator abolishing the Poor Law and reorganizing unemployment assistance.
His biographer, Andrew J. Crozier, has argued: "He proved a powerful chancellor of the exchequer. Baldwin, who as leader of the Conservatives was happy to leave formal power in the hands of MacDonald, left the substance of power in Chamberlain's hands. From the beginning Chamberlain was in complete control of budgetary and economic policy and added to that social and industrial policy as well. Furthermore, once the international crisis of the 1930s deepened, he became a dominant voice in both rearmament and foreign policy. His was a formidable presence in the cabinet: not only did he read his own departmental briefs, but he seemed to read everyone else's as well." On 8th March 1935 Chamberlain wrote in his diary: "I am more and more carrying this government on my back. The P.M. (MacDonald) is ill and tired, S. B. (Stanley Baldwin) is tired and won't apply his mind to problems. It is certainly time there was a change".
In 1936 the Conservative government feared the spread of communism from the Soviet Union to the rest of Europe. Stanley Baldwin, the British prime minister, shared this concern and was fairly sympathetic to the military uprising in Spain against the left-wing Popular Front government. Leon Blum, the prime minister of the Popular Front government in France, initially agreed to send aircraft and artillery to help the Republican Army in Spain. However, after coming under pressure from Stanley Baldwin and Anthony Eden in Britain, and more right-wing members of his own cabinet, he changed his mind.
Baldwin and Blum now called for all countries in Europe not to intervene in the Spanish Civil War. A Non-Intervention Agreement was drawn-up and was eventually signed by 27 countries including the Soviet Union, Germany and Italy. However, Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini openly ignored the agreement and sent a large amount of military aid, including troops, to General Francisco Franco and his Nationalist forces.
Stanley Baldwin came under increasing pressure after the Hoare–Laval Pact, and throughout 1936 his health so deteriorated that he announced that he would retire in May 1937. Chamberlain was the obvious replacement. As prime minister he continued the policy of nonintervention in Spain. At the end of 1937 he took the controversial decision to send Sir Robert Hodgson to Burgos to be the British government's link with the Nationalist government.
Wolfgang zu Putlitz, First Secretary at the German Embassy in London, reported that Joachim von Ribbentrop was pleased when Neville Chamberlain became prime minister. "He (Ribbentrop) regarded Mr Chamberlain as pro-German and said he would be his own Foreign Minister. While he would not dismiss Mr Eden he would deprive him of his influence at the Foreign Office. Mr Eden was regarded as an enemy of Germany." Chamberlain did indeed dominate the making of British foreign policy and Anthony Eden eventually resigned in February 1938, exasperated by the Prime Minister's interference in diplomatic business. He was succeeded as foreign secretary Lord Halifax, who strongly supported Chamberlain's appeasement policy. Putlitz constantly warned MI5 that "Britain was letting the trump cards fall out of her hands. If she had adopted, or even now adopted, a firm attitude and threatened war, Hitler would not succeed in this kind of bluff. The German army was not ready for war."
On 13th March 1938 Leon Blum returned to office in France. When he began to argue for an end to the country's nonintervention policy, Chamberlain and the Foreign Office joined with the right-wing press in France and political figures such as Henri-Philippe Petain and Maurice Gamelin to bring him down. On 10th April 1938, Blum was replaced by Edouard Daladier, a politician who agreed not only with Chamberlain's Spanish strategy but his foreign policy that later became known as appeasement.
Chamberlain believed that Germany had been badly treated by the Allies after it was defeated in the First World War. He therefore thought that the German government had genuine grievances and that these needed to be addressed. He also thought that by agreeing to some of the demands being made by Adolf Hitler of Germany and Benito Mussolini of Italy, he could avoid a European war.
Anthony Eden, Chamberlain's foreign secretary, did not agree with the policy of appeasement and resigned in February, 1938. Eden was replaced by Lord Halifax who fully supported this policy. Winston Churchill, Chamberlain's leading critic within the Conservative Party, argued in the House of Commons: "The resignation of the late Foreign Secretary may well be a milestone in history. Great quarrels, it has been well said, arise from small occasions but seldom from small causes. The late Foreign Secretary adhered to the old policy which we have all forgotten for so long. The Prime Minister and his colleagues have entered upon another and a new policy. The old policy was an effort to establish the rule of law in Europe, and build up through the League of Nations effective deterrents against the aggressor. Is it the new policy to come to terms with the totalitarian powers in the hope that by great and far-reaching acts of submission, not merely in sentiment and pride, but in material factors, peace may be preserved."
In February, 1938, Adolf Hitler invited Kurt von Schuschnigg, the Austrian Chancellor, to meet him at Berchtesgarden. Hitler demanded concessions for the Austrian Nazi Party. Schuschnigg refused and after resigning was replaced by Arthur Seyss-Inquart, the leader of the Austrian Nazi Party. On 13th March, Seyss-Inquart invited the German Army to occupy Austria and proclaimed union with Germany. The union of Germany and Austria (Anschluss) had been specifically forbidden by the Treaty of Versailles. Some members of the House of Commons, including Anthony Eden and Winston Churchill, now called on Chamberlain to take action against Adolf Hitler and his Nazi government.
Hugh Christie an MI6 agent working based in Berlin, met with Hermann Goering. He reported his conversation with Goering and included information that Germany intended to take control of Austria and Czechoslovakia. He also told Christie that Germany mainly wanted "a free hand in Eastern Europe." In March 1938 Christie told the British government that Adolf Hitler would be ousted by the military if Britain joined forces with Czechoslovakia against Germany. Christie warned that the "crucial question is 'How soon will the next step against Czechoslovakia be tried?' ... The probability is that the delay will not exceed two or three months at most, unless France and England provide the deterrent, for which cooler heads in Germany are praying."
Wolfgang zu Putlitz continued to work at the German embassy until May 1938 when he was posted to The Hague. To maintain regular contact with Putlitz, Jona von Ustinov found a job as the European correspondent of an Indian newspaper with an office in the city. According to Christopher Andrew, the author of The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5 (2009): "During the summer of 1938 Whitehall received a series of intelligence reports, some of them from Putlitz, warning that Hitler had decided to seize the German-speaking Czech Sudetenland by force." Ustinov reported that General Geyr von Schweppenburg, who had told him: "We simply must convince the British to stand firm... If they give in to Hitler now, there will be no holding him."
International tension increased when Adolf Hitler began demanding that the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia should be under the control of the German government. In an attempt to to solve the crisis, the heads of the governments of Germany, Britain, France and Italy met in Munich. On 29th September, 1938, Neville Chamberlain, Adolf Hitler, Edouard Daladier and Benito Mussolini signed the Munich Agreement which transferred to Germany the Sudetenland, a fortified frontier region that contained a large German-speaking population. When Eduard Benes, Czechoslovakia's head of state, who had not been invited to Munich, protested at this decision, 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 Nazi 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. Chamberlain told his private secretary: "If Hitler signed it and kept the bargain, well and good... if he broke it, he would demonstrate to all the world that he was totally cynical and untrustworthy... this would have its value mobilising public opinion against him, particularly in America."
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 20th February, 1939, Robert Vansittart sent Lord Halifax a report, based chiefly on intelligence from Putlitz that Hitler had decided to "liquidate" Czechoslovakia. Vansittart predicted a German coup in Prague during the week of the 12th to the 19th March. Vansittart passed this information to Vernon Kell who told the Foreign Office on 11th March that "Germany was going into Czechoslovakia in the next 48 hours". Neville Chamberlain and Lord Halifax were both unconvinced by the intelligence warnings. Halifax said he saw no evidence that the Germans were "planning mischief in any particular quarter".
On 15th March Hitler's troops occupied Prague and announced the annexation of the Czech provinces of Bohemia and Moravia. Vansittart was bitter about the rejection of his warnings. He wrote in his diary: "Nothing seems any good, it seems as if nobody will listen to or believe me." On 18th March Chamberlain finally acknowledged to the cabinet that: "No reliance could be placed on any of the assurances given by the Nazi leaders." As Christopher Andrew, the author of The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5 (2009) has pointed out: "a conclusion which the Security Service had put formally to the cabinet secretary almost three years earlier."
In taking this action Adolf Hitler had broken the Munich Agreement. King George VI sent a letter of support to Chamberlain: "I feel I must send you one line to say how well I can appreciate your feelings about the recent behaviour of the German Government. Although this blow to your courageous efforts on behalf of peace and understanding in Europe must, I am afraid, cause you deep distress, I am sure that your labours have been anything but wasted, for they can have left no doubt in the minds of ordinary people all over the world of our love of peace and our readiness to discuss with any nation whatever grievances they think they have."
In early April, 1939, Dick White visited the Foreign Office to deliver a warning from Putlitz that Italy was preparing to invade Albania. At a cabinet meeting on 5th April Lord Halifax discounted reports of an impending Italian invasion. Two days later Italy occupied Albania. Chamberlain took the invasion as a personal affront. He wrote to his sister: "It cannot be denied that Mussolini has behaved to me like a sneak and a cad."
Edward Murrow was a critic of appeasement and on 2nd September, 1939, he argued: "Some people have told me tonight that they believe a big deal is being cooked up which will make Munich and the betrayal of Czechoslovakia look like a pleasant tea party. I find it difficult to accept this thesis. I don't know what's in the mind of the government, but I do know that to Britishers their pledged word is important, and I should be very much surprised to see any government which betrayed that pledge remain long in office. And it would be equally surprising to see any settlement achieved through the mediation of Mussolini produce anything other than a temporary relaxation of the tension."
However, Chamberlain now realized that Adolf Hitler could not be trusted and his appeasement policy now came to an end. After the invasion of Poland, Chamberlain was forced to declare war on Germany. On the outbreak of the Second World War public opinion polls showed that Chamberlain's popularity was 55 per cent. By December, 1939, this had increased to 68 per cent. However, members of the House of Commons saw him as an uninspiring war leader.
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."
Members of the Labour Party and Liberal Party refused to serve in his proposed National Government. Chamberlain resigned and was replaced by Winston Churchill. He was appointed as Lord President of the Council in Churchill's government but ill health forced him to leave office in October 1940.
Neville Chamberlain died on 9th November, 1940.
Our policy has been consistently directed to one aim - to maintain the peace of Europe by confining the war to Spain. Although it is true that intervention has been going on and is going on, in spite of the non-intervention agreement, yet it is also true that we have succeeded in achieving the object at the back of our policy, and we shall continue that object and policy as long as we feel there is reasonable hope of avoiding a spread of the conflict.
I do not believe that it is fantastic to think that we can continue this policy successfully, even to the end. The situation is serious, but it is not hopeless. Although it may be true that various countries or various Governments desire to see one side or the other side in Spain winning, there is not a country or a Government that wants to see a European war.
Since that is so, let us keep cool heads. Neither say nor do anything to precipitate a disaster which everybody really wishes to avoid.
When I think of the experience of German officers, the loss of life and the mutilation of men on the Deutschland, and the natural feelings of indignation and resentment that must have been aroused by such incidents, I must say that I think the German Government in wisely withdrawing their ships and then declaring the incident closed have shown a degree of restraint which we ought to be able to recognise.
I make an earnest appeal to those who hold responsible positions both in this country and abroad to weigh their words very carefully before they utter them on this matter, bearing in mind the consequences that may flow from some rash or thoughtless phrase. By exercising caution and patience and self-restraint we may yet be able to save the peace of Europe.
The resignation of the late Foreign Secretary may well be a milestone in history. Great quarrels, it has been well said, arise from small occasions but seldom from small causes. The late Foreign Secretary adhered to the old policy which we have all forgotten for so long. The Prime Minister and his colleagues have entered upon another and a new policy. The old policy was an effort to establish the rule of law in Europe, and build up through the League of Nations effective deterrents against the aggressor. Is it the new policy to come to terms with the totalitarian powers in the hope that by great and far-reaching acts of submission, not merely in sentiment and pride, but in material factors, peace may be preserved.
A firm stand by France and Britain, under the authority of the League of Nations, would have been followed by the immediate evacuation of the Rhineland without the shedding of a drop of blood; and the effects of that might have enabled the more prudent elements of the German Army to gain their proper position, and would not have given to the political head of Germany the enormous ascendancy which has enabled him to move forward. Austria has now been laid in thrall, and we do not know whether Czechoslovakia will not suffer a similar attack.
This Government has never commanded my respect: I support it because the alternative would be infinitely worse. But our record, especially of late, is none too good. Halifax and Chamberlain are doubtless very great men, who dwarf their colleagues; they are the greatest Englishmen alive, certainly; but aside from them we have a mediocre crew; I fear that England is on the decline, and that we shall dwindle for a generation or so. We are a tired race and our genius seems dead.
Developments seem very slow and I am afraid that we may have to wait another week or even more before we can speak with confidence about the issue. All the same I have a "hunch" that we shall get through this time without the use of force. Hitler cannot say that no progress is being made and the general opinion of the world would be more shocked than ever if Runciman's efforts were to be rudely interrupted before it could be established that they had failed. Even if things looked more threatening than they do at the moment I should not despair for I don't think we have fired the last shot in our locker.
The continued state of tension in Europe which has caused such grave concern throughout the world has in no way been relieved, and in some ways been aggravated by the speech delivered at Nuremberg last night by Herr Hitler. Your Majesty's Ministers are examining the position in the light of his speech, and with the firm desire to ensure, if this is at all possible, that peace may be restored.
On the one hand, reports are daily received in great numbers, not only from official sources but from all manner of individuals who claim to have special and unchallengeable sources of information. Many of these (and of such authority as to make it impossible to dismiss them as unworthy of attention) declare positively that Herr Hitler has made up his mind to attack Czecho-Slovakia and then to proceed further East. He is convinced that the operation can be effected so rapidly that it will be all over before France or Great Britain could move.
On the other hand, Your Majesty's representative in Berlin has steadily maintained that Herr Hitler has not yet made up his mind to violence. He means to have a solution soon - this month - and if that solution, which must be satisfactory to himself, can be obtained peacefully, well and good. If not, he is ready to march.
In these circumstances I have been considering the possibility of a sudden and dramatic step which might change the whole situation. The plan is that I should inform Herr Hitler that I propose at once to go over to Germany to see him. If he assents, and it would be difficult for him to refuse, I should hope to persuade him that he had an unequalled opportunity of raising his own prestige and fulfilling what he has so often declared to be his aim, namely the establishment of an Anglo-German understanding, preceded by a settlement of the Czecho-Slovakian question.
Of course I should not be able to guarantee that Dr. Benes would accept this solution, but I should undertake to put all possible pressure on him to do so. The Government of France have already said that they would accept any plan approved by Your Majesty's Government or by Lord Runciman.
Towards the end of the Banquet came the news, the great world stirring news, that Neville (Chamberlain), on his own initiative, seeing war coming closer and closer, had telegraphed to Hitler that he wanted to see him, and asked him to name an immediate rendezvous. The German Government surprised and flattered, had instantly accepted and so Neville, at the age of 69, for the first time in his life, gets into an aeroplane tomorrow morning and flies to Berchtesgarten! It is one of the finest, most inspiring acts of all history. The company rose to their feet electrified, as all the world must be, and drank his health. History must be ransacked to find a parallel. Of course a way out will now be found. Neville by his imagination and practical good sense, has saved the world.
I am sending this letter to meet you on your return, as I had no opportunity of telling you before you left how much I admired your courage and wisdom in going to see Hitler in person. You must have been pleased by the universal approval with which your action was received. I am naturally very anxious to hear the result of your talk, and to be assured that there is a prospect of a peaceful solution on terms which admit of general acceptance. I realize how fatigued you must be after these two very strenuous days, but if it is possible for you to come and see me either this evening or tomorrow morning, at any time convenient to yourself, I need hardly say that I shall greatly welcome the opportunity of hearing your news.
The Chamberlain-Hitler meeting seems to have been a huge success. Neville is returning to London today to lay Hitler's propositions before the Cabinet, though I gather from a private source that Duff, Walter Elliot, Winterton and, of course, that gloomy Oliver Stanley - 'Snow White' as we all call him - are likely to be troublesome.
This morning I stole away from the meeting of the Assembly and drove Rab to the far side of the lake where we lunched and talked for two hours. He was charming. He thought aloud; told me his creed, displayed his civil service cunning, his way of handling men, his theory that the man in possession when challenged must eventually inevitably part with something though, as he said, it is better to postpone the challenge as long as possible. That is what these harebrained Edenites do not understand. As we talked, the lake lapped the shores, and I came to the conclusion that there would be no war, no matter what people said. Rab, too, has implicit faith in Halifax and Chamberlain and agreed with me that both were linked together by an understanding. Either would do an even dishonest deed to reach a high goal. The ultimate object was all that counted.
At the Cabinet meeting Runciman was present and described his experiences in Czechoslovakia. It was interesting, of course, but quite unhelpful, as he was unable to suggest any plan or policy.
The Prime Minister then then told us the story of his visit to Berchtesgaden. Looking back upon what he said, the curious thing seems to me now to have been that he recounted his experiences with some satisfaction. Although he said that at first sight Hitler struck him as "the commonest little dog" he had ever seen, without one sign of distinction, nevertheless he was obviously pleased at the reports he had subsequently received of the good impression that he himself had made. He told us with obvious satisfaction how Hitler had said to someone that he had felt that he, Chamberlain, was "a man."
But the bare facts of the interview were frightful. None of the elaborate schemes which had been so carefully worked out, and which the Prime Minister had intended to put forward, had ever been mentioned. He had felt that the atmosphere did not allow of them. After ranting and raving at him, Hitler had talked about self-determination and asked the Prime Minister whether he accepted the principle. The Prime Minister had replied that he must consult his colleagues. From beginning to end Hitler had not shown the slightest sign of yielding on a single point. The Prime Minister seemed to expect us all to accept that principle without further discussion because the time was getting on. The French, we heard, were getting restive. Not a word had been said to them since the Prime Minister left England, and one of the dangers which I had feared seemed to be materialising, namely trouble with the French. I thought we must have further time for discussion and that it would be better to take no decision until discussions with the French had taken place, lest they should be in a position to say that we had sold the pass without ever consulting them
We met again that afternoon. I then argued that the main interest of this country had always been to prevent any one Power from obtaining undue predominance in Europe; but we were now faced with probably the most formidable Power that had ever dominated Europe, and resistance to that Power was quite obviously a British interest. If I thought surrender would bring lasting peace I should be in favour of surrender, but I did not believe there would ever be peace in Europe so long as Nazism ruled in Germany. The next act of aggression might be one that it would be far harder for us to resist. Supposing it was an attack on one of our Colonies. We shouldn't have a friend in Europe to assist us, nor even the sympathy of the United States which we had today. We certainly shouldn't catch up the Germans in rearmament. On the contrary, they would increase their lead. However, despite all the arguments in favour of taking a strong stand now, which would almost certainly lead to war, I was so impressed by the fearful responsibility of incurring a war that might possibly be avoided, that I thought it worth while to postpone it in the very faint hope that some internal event might bring about the fall of the Nazi regime. But there were limits to the humiliation I was prepared to accept. If Hitler were willing to agree to a plebiscite being carried out under fair conditions with international control, I thought we could agree to it and insist upon the Czechs accepting it. At present we had no indication that Hitler was prepared to go so far. We reached no conclusion and separated at about 5.30.
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.
International experts in London agree that Herr Hitler has scored one of the greatest diplomatic triumphs in modern history. The average Englishman, who really received his first official information concerning the crisis from Mr. Chamberlain's speech in the House of Commons on Wednesday, is relieved and grateful. Men who predicted the crisis and the lines it would follow long before it arrived did not entirely share that optimism and relief. One afternoon paper carried this headline: WORLD SHOWS
RELIEF - BUT WITH RESERVATIONS.
I feel I must send you one line to say how well I can appreciate your feelings about the recent behaviour of the German Government. Although this blow to your courageous efforts on behalf of peace and understanding in Europe must, I am afraid, cause you deep distress, I am sure that your labours have been anything but wasted, for they can have left no doubt in the minds of ordinary people all over the world of our love of peace and our readiness to discuss with any nation whatever grievances they think they have.
I must confess to the most profound distrust of Russia. I have no belief whatever in her ability to maintain an effective offensive, even if she wanted to. And I distrust her motives, which seem to me to have little connection with our ideas of liberty, and to be concerned only with setting everyone else by the ears.
The PM at last came in, and was cheered frantically by members in all parts of the House. Everyone appreciates the great efforts he has made... I sat immediately behind him, Lord Halifax and Lord Baldwin were in the front row of the gallery by the clock, immediately over it was the Duke of Kent. . . The PM rose, and in measured, stately English began the breathless tale of his negotiations with Hitler, with the accounts of his flights to Germany, of Lord Runciman's report, etc. He was calm, deliberate, good-tempered and patient. . . My eyes stole up to Mrs Fitzroy's gallery and I saw Mrs Chamberlain listening intently. A lovely figure sitting by her made me- a gesture of recognition and half-waved; it was the Duchess of Kent. Behind her was a dark, black figure, and I looked again and recognised Queen Mary, who never before, in my recollection has been to the House of Commons - the Ambassadors' Gallery was full. I was next to that ass, Anthony Crossley, the MP for Stratford, and whenever there was any remark deprecating the Germans he cheered lustily, 'That's the way to treat them' - once when the tide was going with him, he turned scoffingly to me, and said 'Why don't you cheer ?' -again he asked 'How are your friends the Huns now?' - I sensed a feeling of unpopularity.
The great speech continued for an hour, and gradually the House settled back prepared for an announcement that must, although perhaps not for several days, lead to War. Hitler has decreed that his mobilisation will begin today at two o'clock... magnificently, the PM led up to his peroration - but before he got to it, I suddenly saw the FO officials in the box signalling frantically to me; I could not get to them, as it meant climbing over 20 PPS's, so Dunglass fetched a bit of paper from them which he handed to Sir John Simon, who glanced at it, and I tried to read it over his shoulder, but there was not time, as he suddenly, and excitedly tugged at the PM's coat; Chamberlain turned from the box on which he was leaning, and there was a second's consultation - 'Shall I tell them?' I heard him whisper. 'Yes', Simon, Sam Hoare and David Margesson all nodded, and I think Kingsley Wood did likewise - I am not sure about that, the excitement was so intense - and the conference 'in full divan' was only of a moment's duration. The PM cleared his throat, and resumed his speech, with just a suggestion of a smile. Then he told how he had telegraphed to both Hitler and Mussolini this morning; he had sought Mussolini's eleventh hour help and intervention, and how the Duce had not let him down, but had acted promptly. How foolish the anti-Italians now looked, and Anthony Eden's face - I watched it - twitched, and he seemed discomforted.
The House shifted with relief-there might yet be a respite - the Fuhrer had agreed to postpone negotiations for another 24 hours - and then the PM played his trump ace, and read the message that had been handed to me - 'That is not all. I have something further to say to the House,' and he told how Hitler had invited him to Munich tomorrow morning, that Mussolini had accepted the same invitation, that M. Daladier in all probability would do so too - every heart throbbed and there was born in many, in me, at least, a gratitude, an admiration for the PM which will be eternal. I felt sick with enthusiasm, longed to clutch him - he continued for a word or two and then the House rose and in a scene of riotous delight, cheered, bellowed their approval. We stood on our benches, waved our order papers, shouted - until we were hoarse - a scene of indescribable enthusiasm - Peace must now be saved, and with it the world.
When, with Austria in his possession. Hitler opened his campaign against Czechoslovakia in the late spring of 1938 I was much concerned. I had many friends among the Czech socialists and I also knew Dr. Benes and Jan Masaryk very well. Czechoslovakia was the only real democracy among the Succession States.
I did not believe that Hitler could be argued out of his plan to absorb this key strategic State in the German Reich. We in our Party were violently opposed to Fascism. We had seen with horror the persecution of the Jews and the socialists in Germany.
Chamberlain informed me of his intention to fly to Germany to see Hitler, which he thought was a possible way of averting war. I told him that I had little faith in the venture, but I could not oppose his action provided that he stood firm on principle. He informed the House of his intention just when we were about to debate Foreign Affairs. I said that no chance should be neglected of preserving peace without sacrifice of principle. But it was just this sacrifice which was made. On his return from Munich with a piece of paper we realised that the pass had been sold and we sat silent while the majority of the Tories stood up and cheered.
It was on the 3rd October, 1938, that Chamberlain reported to the House of Commons on his visit to Munich. I recall that before the Prime Minister made his statement. Duff Cooper (later Lord Norwich) made a personal explanation of the reasons that had led him to resign from the Government the previous day. Following immediately after Chamberlain, I spoke at some length and perhaps the line I took can be summed up in a couple of sentences early in my speech: "The events of these last few days constitute one of the greatest defeats that this country and France have ever sustained. There can be no doubt that it is a tremendous victory for Herr Hitler."
The other element that gave fuel to the fires of criticism was the unhappy phrases which Neville Chamberlain under the stress of great emotion allowed himself to use. 'Peace with Honour'; 'Peace for our time' - such sentences grated harshly on the ear and thought of even those closest to him. But when all has been said, one fact remains dominant and unchallengeable. When war did come a year later it found a country and Commonwealth wholly united within itself, convinced to the foundations of soul and conscience that every conceivable effort had been made to find the way of sparing Europe the ordeal of war, and that no alternative remained. And that was the best thing that Chamberlain did.
Some people have told me tonight that they believe a big deal is being cooked up which will make Munich and the betrayal of Czechoslovakia look like a pleasant tea party. I find it difficult to accept this thesis. I don't know what's in the mind of the government, but I do know that to Britishers their pledged word is important, and I should be very much surprised to see any government which betrayed that pledge remain long in office. And it would be equally surprising to see any settlement achieved through the mediation of Mussolini produce anything other than a temporary relaxation of the tension.
Most observers here agree that this country is not in the mood to accept a temporary solution. And that's why I believe that Britain in the end of the day will stand where she is pledged to stand, by the side of Poland in a war that is now in progress. Failure to do so might produce results in this country, the end of which cannot be foreseen. Anyone who knows this little island will agree that things happen slowly here; most of you will agree that the British during the past few weeks have done everything possible in order to put the record straight. When historians come to sum up the last six months of Europe's existence, when they come to write the story of the origins of the war, or of the collapse of democracy, they will have many documents from which to work. As I said, I have no way of ascertaining the real reason for the delay, nor am I impatient for the outbreak of war.
What exactly determined the government's decision is yet to be learned. What prospects of peaceful solution the government may see is to me a mystery. You know their record. You know what action they've taken in the past, but on this occasion the little man in the bowler hat, the clerks, the bus drivers, and all the others who make up the so-called rank and file would be reckoned with. They seem to believe that they have been patient, that they have suffered insult and injury, and they certainly believe that this time they are going to solve this matter in some sort of permanent fashion. Don't think for a moment that these people here aren't conscious of what's going on, aren't sensitive to the suspicions which the delay of their government has aroused. They're a patient people, and they're perhaps prepared to wait until tomorrow for the definite word. If that word means war, the delay was not likely to have decreased the intensity or the effectiveness of Britain's effort. If it is peace, with the price being paid by Poland, this government will have to deal with the passion it has aroused during the past few weeks. If it's a five-power conference, well, we shall see.
The Prime Minister today was almost apologetic. He's a politician; he sensed the temper of the House and of the country. I have been able to find no sense of relief amongst the people with whom I've talked. On the contrary, the general attitude seems to be, "We are ready, let's quit this stalling and get on with it." As a result, I think that we'll have a decision before this time tomorrow. On the evidence produced so far, it would seem that that decision will be war. But those of us who've watched this story unroll at close range have lost the ability to be surprised.
The Prime Minister gave us a reasoned, argumentative case for our failure. It is always possible to do that after every failure. Making a case and winning a war are not the same thing. Wars are won, not by explanation after the event, but by foresight, by clear decision and by swift action. I confess that I did not feel there was one sentence in the Prime Minister's speech this afternoon which suggested that the Government either foresaw what Germany meant to do, or came to a clear decision when it knew what Germany had done, or acted swiftly or consistently throughout the whole of this lamentable affair.
The Prime Minister, both the other day and today, expressed himself as satisfied that the balance of advantage lay on our side. He laid great stress on the heaviness of the German losses and the lightness of ours. What did the Germans lose? A few thousand men, nothing to them, a score of transports, and part of a Navy which anyhow cannot match ours. What did they gain? They gained Norway, with the strategical advantages which, in their opinion at least, outweigh the whole of their naval losses. They have gained the whole of Scandinavia. What have we lost? To begin with, we have lost most of the Norwegian Army, not only such as it was but such as it might have become, if only we had been given time to rally and re-equip it.
We must have, first of all, a right organization of government. What is no less important today is that the Government shall be able to draw upon the whole abilities of the nation. It must represent all the elements of real political power in this country, whether in this House or not. The time has come when hon. and right hon. Members opposite must definitely take their share of the responsibility. The time has come when the organization, the power and influence of the Trades Union Congress cannot be left outside. It must, through one of its recognized leaders, reinforce the strength of the national effort from inside. The time has come, in other words, for a real National Government. I may be asked what is my alternative Government. That is not my concern: it is not the concern of this House. The duty of this House, and the duty that it ought to exercise, is to show unmistakably what kind of Government it wants in order to win the war. It must always be left to some individual leader, working perhaps with a few others, to express that will by selecting his colleagues so as to form a Government which will correspond to the will of the House and enjoy its confidence. So I refuse, and I hope the House will refuse, to be drawn into a discussion on personalities.
What I would say, however, is this: 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. In our normal politics, it is true, the conflict of party did encourage a certain combative spirit. In the last war we Tories found that the most perniciously aggressive of our opponents, the right hon. Member for Carnarvon Boroughs, was not only aggressive in words, but was a man of action. In recent years the normal weakness of our political life has been accentuated by a coalition based upon no clear political principles. It was in fact begotten of a false alarm as to the disastrous results of going off the Gold Standard. It is a coalition which has been living ever since in a twilight atmosphere between Protection and Free Trade and between unprepared collective security and unprepared isolation. Surely, for the Government of the last ten years to have bred a band of warrior statesmen would have been little short of a miracle. We have waited for eight months, and the miracle has not come to pass. Can we afford to wait any longer ?
Somehow or other we must get into the Government men who can match our enemies in fighting spirit, in daring, in resolution and in thirst for victory. Some 300 years ago, when this House found that its troops were being beaten again and again by the dash and daring of the Cavaliers, by Prince Rupert's Cavalry, Oliver Cromwell spoke to John Hampden. In one of his speeches he recounted what he said. It was this:
'I said to him, "Your troops are most of them old, decayed serving men and tapsters and such kind of fellows." You must get men of a spirit that are likely to go as far as they will go, or you will be beaten still.'
It may not be easy to find these men. They can be found only by trial and by ruthlessly discarding all who fail and have their failings discovered. We are fighting today for our life, for our liberty, for our all; we cannot go on being led as we are.
I have quoted certain words of Oliver Cromwell. I will quote certain other words. I do it with great reluctance, because I am speaking of those who are old friends and associates of mine, but they are words which, I think, are applicable to the present situation. This is what 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"
In April Hitler invaded Norway and Britain's attempts to come to the rescue ended disastrously. On 10 May Hitler swept through Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg and started bombing France. The House of Commons' patience with Chamberlain's dilatory war effort finally broke. His pathetic attempt to save himself by forming a national coalition government was foiled by Labour's refusal to serve under him. For a short dangerous spell it looked as if he might be succeeded by the Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, one of Michael Foot's "guilty men", when Attlee and Dalton told Rab Butler that they would be willing to serve under Halifax.
But when Hitler attacked France they changed their minds: Winston Churchill must be in charge. It was fortunate that they did, for there would have been an outcry in Labour's ranks if they had taken office under the hated appeaser, Halifax. Instead there was relief when Attlee, Morrison, Bevin and Arthur Greenwood entered Churchill's War Cabinet.
Seldom can any British prime minister have suffered such a sense of desolation and disaster as Chamberlain did in the summer days of 1940. It was impossible not to feel a certain sympathy for such an end to a long career of an ambitious man and a member of a family which had served its country over the years. Perhaps fate was kind in making him a person with few feelings.
Neville Chamberlain was a sad and to me pathetic man. He appeared to have but little love for his fellow men. The coldness of his character encompassed him like an aura. If he had little heart he certainly had a brain. He was a first-class administrator, probably one of the most capable Ministers of Health of this century. When he became prime minister his personal tragedy was that he was genuinely aghast at the possibility of war and he adopted the role of a man of peace because he was convinced that he had the political acumen to achieve it. But he hadn't. He would not drive for collective security which could have held Hitler, and Hitler would not make a genuine peace.
I believe that in 1938 and 1939 he genuinely felt that God had sent him into this world to obtain peace. That he failed may or may not be due to the inevitable ambition of Hitler to dominate the world, but there can be little doubt that in his mental attitude Chamberlain went the wrong way about it. He decided in the early stages of his discussions to treat Hitler as a normal human being and an important human being at that. At the time of the Munich crisis I said extremely critical things in public speeches about the German Chancellor with the result that I was approached by one of Chamberlain's more important ministers who asked whether I would be good enough to desist, as the prime minister had been informed that Hitler resented it.