How far were the policies of Chamberlain in facing the challenges from Nazi Germany to 1939 ‘Dangerously Negligent’?
In October 1938, Neville Chamberlain returned from the Munich conference to Britain saying “I believe that it is peace in our time”. The following September, war with Germany started. Many historians believe that it was Chamberlain’s policies of appeasement that helped to cause war with Germany; others argue that Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement was a realistic one, which was a sensible way to go at the time. This essay will examine how Chamberlain’s policies affected Anglo German relations, leading up to The First World War, and attempt to reach a conclusion about whether or not he deserves to be remembered as a negligent Prime Minister.
Neville Chamberlain became Prime Minister in May 1937, succeeding Stanley Baldwin, and taking on the problems of some of the countries in Europe and elsewhere in the world. Chamberlains’ policy was mainly that of appeasement, which has two meanings-pre 1930’s, and post 1930’s. The pre 1930 meaning of appeasement means ‘To calm or pacify’, and the post 1930 meaning is to give in to a bully; this is what many historians see Chamberlain doing in his appeasement of Germany. If this definition is right, then there may be some truth in the allegation that Chamberlain was negligent.
There is an ongoing historical debate on Chamberlain’s appeasement, with three main views. The first view is the traditional view, with the writings of the immediate post war historians. These post war years saw a blistering attack on Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement. Chamberlain was accused of championing appeasement with little chance of success, having raised false hopes of long lasting peace. These writers, for example CATO, portray Chamberlain as an ineffective leader who failed to take into account the moral issues involved in negotiating with an aggressive dictator like Hitler. They claim that Chamberlain failed to confront moral issues and sacrificed a small democracy to an aggressive dictator for Britain’s self interest. This view argues that Chamberlain is negligent.
The second view is the revisionist view, which are historians writing after 1967, when the British government, led by Harold Wilson, released Government papers in foreign policy in the 1930’s. With this, the traditional view of Chamberlain’s policy began to be questioned. Chamberlain was now seen as a prisoner of a set of circumstances, which made it impractical to stand up to Hitler. These historians now saw Chamberlain as a realistic, able politician with good reasons for appeasement. This view disputes the allegation that Chamberlain was negligent.
The truth lies somewhere between the two schools of thought, but there is little doubt that Chamberlain was high handed and took too long to accept that Hitler was intent on conflict. In this way, he can, to some extent, be accused of being autocratic, but not negligent.
When Neville Chamberlain became Prime Minister in 1937, he faced the task of dealing with many problems. He faced problems from Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy and Japan. These problems in the other parts of the World were watched closely by Hitler and used to his advantage. When he came into office in 1937, by following a policy of appeasement, he was continuing with the previous policies used by Stanley Baldwin. Appeasement had been successful during the 1920’s, with the Ten-Year Rule and Locarno, so it was probably hoped that it could be continued in the same way during Chamberlain’s time in office.