Neville Chamberlain Biography

“I believe it is peace for our time!”
-Neville Chamberlain, 1938

neville-chamberlain-portraitNeville Chamberlain

You ’ve really got to feel it for Neville Chamberlain. Before World War 2 rolled around he was a champion of the little guy, one of the greatest social reformers of the 20th century.

But does anyone remember that now? Not too many. What people do remember about Neville Chamberlain is his role as British Prime Minister at the start of World War 2, before Winston Churchill.

They remember him as the guy who tried to avert the war through “appeasement” that is, pandering to Hitler’s demands for more territory in Europe. The French even punningly called Monsieur J'aime Berlin (Mr I love Berlin). But does Chamberlain really deserve such a bad rap?

An island in the sun

sisal-plantA sisal plant.

Neville Chamberlain (18 March 1869 – 9 November 1940) was born in Birmingham, England and destined to follow his follow his old man Joseph’s footsteps into commerce.
Chamberlain spent about half his life in the business world including what must have been a jolly six years in the Bahamas trying to grow a type of fiber used in rope called sisal.

Working classes’ hero

Chamberlain’s political snowball started rolling in 1911 and he did a stint as Birmingham’s Lord Mayor. During the World War I he met British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, who made Chamberlain the Director of National Service in 1916.

david-lloyd-georgeDavid Lloyd George

He was then supposedly responsible for co-ordinating conscription and making sure war factories had enough workers.
But Chamberlain’s new job description was unclear and resigned the following year after a few run-ins with George. The two would maintain a mutual hate for the rest of their lives.

Chamberlain was elected to parliament in 1918 with the Tories (Conservative Party) and spent much of the 1920s as Britain’s Health Minister.
He moved mountains for Britain’s lower classes instigating the construction of about a million houses for the working poor.

Chamberlain also hoed the ground for Britain’s postwar “welfare state” by setting up pension funds for widows, orphans and retirees.

Chamberlain became Treasurer (in Britain: Chancellor of the Exchequer) in 1931 where he worked to bring down Britain’s war debts and set up a tariff system on foreign trade. Chamberlain rose to the prime ministership in 1937, replacing Stanley Baldwin.

Closer to the brink

It became clear the Nazis were rearming Germany after taking power in 1933. Chamberlain spoke of the need to rearm in 1935 to confront the Nazi threat.

That said, there was some sympathy for Germany in Britain in the 1930s. It was thought that Britain's old enemy had been shafted by the harsh conditions of the Treat of Versailles at the end of World War I.

Not much fuss when the Germany reoccupied the Rhineland (a de-militarized zone next to France) in 1936. Likewise, nothing was done when Hitler pressured the Austrians to accept a union (or Anschluss) with Germany, although Chamberlain made a speech in parliament condemning the takeover.

german-troops-enter-rheinlandGerman troops re-occupied the Rhineland in
June, 1936.
@ Neville Chamberlain Biography

Hitler’s expansion program now turned to the Sudetenland, a region of Czechoslovakia with a large ethnic German population. Chamberlain flew to Germany on September 15, 1938 to talk to Hitler on the issue.

It was agreed that Germany could annex the Sudetenland. This was formalized in Munich on September 29 with the signing of the Munich Agreement. As well as Chamberlain and Hitler, French Prime Minister Édouard Daladier and Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, but no Czechoslovakians, signed this agreement.

Pretty much everyone back in England praised Chamberlain for pulling off the agreement, except the man who would follow him as Prime Minister, Winston Churchill.

Just after he got off the plane back home Chamberlain made the most (in)famous speech of his career, declaring the agreement mean “peace for our time”.

Failure of appeasement

Chamberlain’s attempts to control Hitler face-planted spectacularly. Not only did Hitler take over the Sudetenland, but the rest of Czechoslovakia as well.
Chamberlain then knew that his appeasement policy had failed.
He said the UK would honor its alliance with Poland if Germany invaded. Hitler’s troops marched into Poland on September 1, 1939 and Chamberlain declared war two days later.

“Everything that I have worked for, everything that I have hoped for, everything that I have believed in during my public life has crashed into ruins. There is only one thing left for me to do: that is devote what strength and power I have to forwarding the victory of the cause for which we have sacrificed so much.”
-Chamberlain in a speech to parliament after declaring war on Germany in 1939.

Path to the end

chamberlain-hitlerChamberlain and Adolf
Hitler shaking hands after
meeting in Germany.

@ Neville Chamberlain Biography

Germany invaded Norway in April 1940. Chamberlain sent a naval force to try and fight the Nazis off, but they were routed. Chamberlain lost the support of his parliament and resigned on May 10, 1940, making way for Winston Churchill.

Chamberlain stayed in parliament after his resignation in the senior role of Lord President of the Council, but became sick in the summer of 1940. He died of bowel cancer in November that year, and Churchill praised him in parliament as a “good, honest man”.

Chamberlain’s had the bad luck of inheriting a policy of “appeasing” the Nazis from his predecessor, Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin.
He foolishly kept to an old-school view of European politics which held that dictatorships came about when people had grievances.

When the source of those grievances was address, the dictatorship should become less hostile. Unfortunately, the Nazis didn’t cool their heels after the Treaty of Versailles was brushed aside.

Should Chamberlain have acted differently? Sure.
He obviously underestimated Hitler’s intent on war and determination to revenge Germany’s humiliating defeat in the First World War.

Practically everyone in the United Kingdom wanted to avoid another war with Germany and Chamberlain through it was his personal mission to do that. It’s a pity for Chamberlain that he’s mostly remembered for his failing foreign policy instead of his earlier groundbreaking domestic policy.

Chamberlain did, however, push the UK into war readiness through the late 1930s. He pushed especially an expansion of Royal Air Force, without which the UK probably would have lost the later Battle of Britain over England’s skies.

Here you can listen to a recording of Neville Chamberlain
declaring war on Germany on September 3, 1940.
@ Neville Chamberlain Biography

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Written by C. Anderson, 2010. Last updated 2011.

References for Neville Chamberlain Biography

The Oxford Companion to British History, 2002

The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition, 2008

Photo sources for Neville Chamberlain Biography

• Neville Chamberlain

• Sisal plant WikiCommons

• David Lloyd George Library of Congress

• German troops enter Rhineland

• Chamberlain and Hitler

Unless otherwise stated, all photos used on the page Neville Chamberlain Biography are, to our knowledge, in the public domain. If you think otherwise, please let us know.