Every politician has the right to pardon, but current efforts to paint one of the worst Tory prime ministers of the past 100 years as a forward-thinking statesman who helped save Britain from fascism is a rewrite of history too far.
Neville Chamberlain is presented by novelist Robert Harris, actor Jeremy Irons and conservative journalist and historian Simon Heffer not as the narrow-minded, provincial, ignorant of foreign policy and creeping coward of Hitler and other dictators of the 1930s he was, but as a towering Prime Minister who made courageous strategic decisions that helped prepare Britain to win World War II. Harris and Irons were on the BBC Today program this morning with no historian to balance their extraordinary rewriting of history.
Questioning the accepted wisdom of historians is always worthwhile. Reinterpreting history on the basis of new information or new values both enlightens and instructs. The campaign to make us admire Neville Chamberlain coincides with the launch of the Netflix film “Munich – The Edge of War”, based on the novel of the same name written by Robert Harris. But the novel and the film are fiction, not fact.
Chamberlain was a petty, mean-spirited businessman from Birmingham, too stupid to secure a place at university, even by the lax standards of the day. He lost a fortune in the Bahamas, but inherited a Conservative seat as the younger son of the great Joe Chamberlain, the arch-imperialist of British politics at the turn of the 20th century.
His first act as Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1932 was to introduce a protectionist trade bill based on “imperial preference”, which helped to prolong the crisis. He left the industrial north of England in the poverty and impoverishment described by writers such as George Orwell and JB Priestley.
His other early act as chancellor was to cut defense spending to the bone. The Harris-Heffer argument that Chamberlain supported increased defense spending and thus prepared Britain for war does not stand up to scrutiny.
The decision to start rearming Britain was taken in a timely manner, but by Stanley Baldwin in 1935, two years before Chamberlain entered 10 Downing Street. As the Manchester Guardian reported in March 1935: “In a major reversal of rearmament policy, Britain today announced new plans for the expansion of its army, navy and air force. The plans, in a defense white paper, are to demonstrate that Britain does not take Germany’s continued rearmament lightly.
Yet Robert Harris asserts that “Churchill’s interpretation of Munich – which Hitler cleverly succeeded by threats and bluffing to get everything he wanted without having to fire a shot – is simply wrong. The German dictator wanted a war in 1938.”
The state of the German army at the time does not confirm this. When Hitler took control of Austria in March 1938, the planned Panzer parade in Vienna was suspended, as his tanks kept breaking down and had to be towed into position. To enter the war in 1938 and defeat Great Britain, the German army had to invade England. Neither Hitler nor his generals, experts in land campaigns but not seaborne invasions, believed this possible.
The Royal Navy completely outclassed Hitler’s new navy. In 1938, the Germans had only one heavy cruiser, 3 light cruisers and 9 destroyers to escort a possible invasion fleet. They faced the 5 battleships, 11 cruisers and 43 destroyers of the Royal Navy’s Home Fleet, which were positioned at either end of the English Channel. Hitler was unable to start a war against France and then Britain in 1938.
As Prime Minister, Chamberlain did not interfere with the rearmament program that Baldwin had launched, but instead added his strategically disastrous European policy of alienation from France (just as the Tories do today), refusing of supporting Spain’s elected democratic government and building no cross-party alliances in the Commons as the international crisis unfolded.
France had wanted Britain’s support when Hitler repudiated the Treaty of Versailles and sent the Wehrmacht in March 1936 to occupy the demilitarized Rhineland. Chamberlain refused to support France in the Cabinet. When he replaced Baldwin as Prime Minister in May 1937, he also sent new signals that Britain was ready to give Hitler the green light with its policy of non-intervention in Spain. Under Chamberlain, Britain left Republican supporters of Spanish democracy helpless in the face of Franco’s nationalist military uprising, backed by the Luftwaffe’s Condor Legion.
Chamberlain also treated with contempt the Labor Party’s calls for a tough stance against Hitler. Labor leader Clement Attlee later said that Chamberlain “always treated us like dirt”.
When he launched the second volume of his masterful new edition of Chips Channon’s diaries last year, Simon Heffer insisted that the time had come for a rehabilitation of Chamberlain. Channon, a wealthy American playboy turned Conservative MP, admired Chamberlain and was one of the peacemakers.
Yet there is no evidence that Chamberlain achieved anything by crawling before dictators. He bypassed his foreign secretary, Anthony Eden, who had won the MC as an officer in World War I and opposed appeasement. At a Cabinet meeting on September 8, 1937, Chamberlain said he considered “the lessening of tension between this country and Italy a very valuable contribution to the pacification and appeasement of Europe” .
A year later, at the Munich conference, Chamberlain handed over a democratic, modern European state to the Nazis. Chamberlain indeed crawled before Hitler as he signed the death warrant for Czechoslovakia – “a distant country we know nothing about”.
Even after Hitler broke his word and occupied Prague in March 1939, Chamberlain attempted to have Churchill removed as the Conservative Party candidate. He told Conservative Party officials to attack the small number of Tory MPs who, like Churchill and Eden, opposed his progress towards the fascist dictators of Europe.
Chamberlain also pressured the press and the BBC to cut off any criticism of Hitler and Nazism. It is strange that two journalists as distinguished as Harris and Heffer could endorse such a prime minister.
Chamberlain’s surrender in Munich was not a one-time event. It was part of a long chain of disastrous conservative foreign policy decisions in the 1930s that gave Mussolini, Hitler and Franco the green light to destroy European democracy.
Harris relies on a quote attributed to Hitler by Albert Speer in the final days of the Third Reich in his bunker in Berlin. The largely horse-drawn German army of 1940 had no possibility of invading England. Seven German armies invaded Poland in September 1939, but were often fought to a standstill by underarmed but fiercely brave Polish Army units in the battles in Poland in September 1939. Hitler was aided by Stalin, who invaded Poland from the east on September 17. The Poles surrendered only out of ammunition, Chamberlain refusing to offer effective military support.
The Munich men were still in charge of Britain and France until May 1940. They had already sold Hitler the pass and brought the country to the brink of defeat. No amount of historical digging can restore the lost honor of Neville Chamberlain and conservative foreign policy in the 1930s. Robert Harris is an excellent novelist. But he shouldn’t rewrite history.