Who do you think you are kidding Mr Netflix? TV giant seeks to restore Neville Chamberlain’s reputation in new drama. But top historian TIM BOUVERIE says the PM’s naivety nearly led Britain to catastrophe

As anyone who has read the recently published, unexpurgated Henry ‘Chips’ Channon diaries knows, there was a time when Neville Chamberlain’s reputation stood sky high.

‘I will always remember little Neville today’, recorded Channon after the prime minister announced he would be accepting Hitler’s invitation to a four-power conference, in Munich in September 1938.

‘He stood there [in the House of Commons], alone, fighting the dogs of war single-handed . . . he seemed the re-incarnation of St George . . . I don’t know what this country has done to deserve him.’

What indeed. Although Chamberlain returned from Munich a hero, Hitler wasted little time showing the prime minister’s claim to have secured ‘peace for our time’, to be among the most notorious false boasts in history. On March 15, 1939 — six months after Chamberlain fluttered his piece of paper on the Tarmac at Heston Aerodrome in West London — German troops invaded Czechoslovakia. And, six months after that, Nazi tanks rolled into Poland, initiating World War II.

Although Chamberlain returned from Munich a hero, Hitler wasted little time showing the prime minister’s claim to have secured ‘peace for our time’, to be among the most notorious false boasts in history

These events were followed by the ‘Phoney War’ of September 1939 to May 1940 (during which the RAF dropped leaflets rather than bombs on German cities) and the Norway debacle of April to June 1940 (in which the Royal Navy and then an Anglo-French expeditionary force failed to prevent the German conquest of that country).

Finally, the publication from 1948 onwards of Winston Churchill’s partisan memoirs, dealt Chamberlain’s reputation a blow from which it has never recovered.

Although some academics from the 1960s and 1970s helped to improve his reputation, in the popular mindset Chamberlain continues to be remembered as one of our most disastrous prime ministers — the ultimate contrast to the leadership of his successor and former rival, Churchill. Now, a film by Netflix, based on Munich — the best-selling novel by Robert Harris — aims to revive Chamberlain’s reputation and move beyond what it describes as the ‘cult’ of Churchill, which promises to be compelling viewing. Britain’s leading historical novelist; Jeremy Irons playing Chamberlain; Netflix’s millions — what’s not to like?

But will it change minds? Have we, as Harris and others insist, misjudged Chamberlain?

Was appeasement a sensible policy pursued by a pragmatic statesman? And do we, as the film’s publicity suggests, need to reassess our view of Churchill?

Harris points out that the popular perception of Chamberlain as a man and politician is a travesty of the truth. 

Far from being the weak, effeminate caricature portrayed in films such as Darkest Hour, Neville Chamberlain was one of the most determined, competent and ruthless prime ministers to occupy 10 Downing Street.

Born in Birmingham in 1869, he was the third member of what would become the most successful political dynasty of the 20th century.

His father, Joseph, was Colonial Secretary under the Marquis of Salisbury — the man who made the ‘political weather’, in Churchill’s phrase — while his half-brother, Austen, served variously as Chancellor of the Exchequer, leader of the Conservative Party and, finally, Foreign Secretary.

Unlike Austen, Neville Chamberlain entered national politics comparatively late in life. After a disastrous experience trying to make his fortune as a farmer in the Bahamas, he became a businessman before being elected Lord Mayor of Birmingham in 1915.

Was appeasement a sensible policy pursued by a pragmatic statesman? And do we, as the film’s publicity suggests, need to reassess our view of Churchill?

He was almost 50 when he entered Parliament in 1918 but made up for lost time, being appointed Minister of Health in 1923 (a role in which he excelled) and Chancellor of the Exchequer eight years later.

Had he been free to focus on domestic affairs, he would probably be remembered as one of our great reforming prime ministers. But by the time he succeeded to the top job, in May 1937, dark clouds were forming on the Continent.

Chamberlain’s overwhelming priority upon entering Downing Street was to reduce the number of Britain’s potential enemies.

As the Chiefs of Staff liked to remind the Cabinet, Britain could not defend herself and her Empire against the combined might of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Imperial Japan, nor afford to try.

More controversially, Chamberlain also believed the dictators — Hitler and Mussolini — could be appeased by reasonable concessions and that the best method for achieving this was through personal diplomacy. ‘These dictators are too often regarded as though they were entirely inhuman’, he wrote in January 1938.

Jeremy Irons is pictured playing Chamberlain; Netflix’s millions — what’s not to like?

‘I believe this idea to be quite erroneous. It is indeed the human side of the dictators which makes them dangerous, but on the other hand, it is the side on which they can be approached with the greatest hope of successful issue.’

His fundamental difference with Churchill — who had been warning of the dangers of the Nazis for the previous five years, while carrying on a noisy campaign for rearmament — hinged on the nature and severity of the threat.

‘If the menace of attack from Germany is as imminent as Winston would have us believe,’ Chamberlain wrote to his sister in November 1936, ‘there is nothing we can do which would make us ready. But I do not believe it is imminent. By careful diplomacy I believe we can stave it off.’

This ‘careful diplomacy’ consisted of recognising the Italian annexation of Abyssinia — modern Ethiopia, which Mussolini had brutally conquered, with the help of mustard gas, in 1935 — and letting Hitler know Britain would not oppose territorial changes in central and eastern Europe, provided they were achieved peacefully.

Within four months of this message, German troops goose-stepped into Vienna and, within another four, Hitler was threatening to plunge Europe into war over his demands for the German-speaking portion of Czechoslovakia — the ‘Sudetenland’.

The traditional defence of Chamberlain and his signature policy of appeasement was that it bought Britain time in which to re-arm. ‘Thank God for Munich,’ wrote Harold Balfour, the Under-Secretary for Air, who recalled that at the time of the Czech crisis, in September 1938, that Britain possessed just two flying Spitfires and scarcely more Hurricanes.

Hitler and Chamberlain are pictured walking together 

Of course, Balfour was right. The Spitfires, Hurricanes and radar — all of which made the difference between victory and defeat in the Battle of Britain in 1940 — were not ready in 1938 but were by 1939.

Britain, however, did not possess the monopoly of time and the Germans made better use of the so-called ‘extra year’: outarming the British and French — not least thanks to the 1.5 million rifles, 750 aircraft and 600 tanks they acquired from the Czechs — and completing the ‘Siegfried line’ fortifications along the border with France.

What’s more, as his closest associates testified, Chamberlain did not believe he was merely delaying war at Munich when he agreed to the annexation of the Sudetenland — but preventing the war altogether.

He really did believe that he had secured ‘peace for our time’. This was based on two disastrous beliefs: that Hitler was, as he told the Cabinet, ‘telling the truth’ when he claimed the Sudetenland was his ‘last territorial demand’ and that the Fuhrer would ‘not go back on his word once he had given it’.

This was the rub. Appeasement failed because Adolf Hitler could not be appeased. Chamberlain critically misjudged this man. A man of peace who like all men of his generation had lived through the carnage of the Great War, he simply could not comprehend there might be someone who actually wanted war.

He and his most trusted lieutenant, the civil servant Sir Horace Wilson, entered into negotiations with the Nazi leader ‘with the bright faithfulness of two curates entering a pub for the first time’, declared the government MP and diarist, Harold Nicolson. His colleague, the former First Lord of the Admiralty, Duff Cooper, who resigned in protest over the Munich Agreement, concurred.

‘Chamberlain,’ he noted wryly, ‘had never met anybody in Birmingham who in the least resembled Adolf Hitler.’ Yet it was not just naivety. It was also vanity. Most successful politicians are vain. To get to the top, they have to persuade millions of people to support them.

They reach the political summit by dint of their powers of persuasion.The pitfall is to believe that these powers can translate to foreign leaders who do not share the same political or ideological goals — and who themselves have bottomless self-belief.

Chamberlain came to the premiership convinced he could shape international events.

‘As Chancellor of the Exchequer I could hardly have moved a pebble; now I have only to raise a finger and the whole face of Europe is changed!’ he exulted in November 1937. Wrongly convinced that he had influenced Mussolini, he began to talk about the ‘Chamberlain touch’ and looked forward to its effect on Hitler.

When Chamberlain met the Fuhrer for the first time on September 15, 1938, he was subjected to a well-worn routine. Hitler flew into a rage about the Czechoslovak situation and insisted he would have his way even if it meant a general European war. Chamberlain was shocked, but relief replaced indignation when the dictator suggested there was still some hope of negotiation. Chamberlain jumped into the trap. He had no objection, he assured Hitler, to the Sudeten Germans joining the Reich.

All he cared about was that it should be achieved peacefully. ‘The impression made by the PM’s story was a little painful,’ noted a Cabinet minister after Chamberlain returned.

‘Hitler had made him listen to a boast that the German military machine was a terrible instrument . . . [and] the PM said more than once to us he was just in time. It was plain that Hitler had made all the running: he had in fact blackmailed the PM.’ The fact is Chamberlain should have recognised Hitler’s mendacity as well as his desire to achieve German hegemony in Europe long before he boarded his aeroplane.

This was the drum Churchill had been banging for six years — and is the prime reason attempts to elevate Chamberlain by knocking Churchill are destined to fail.

All serious historians recognise Churchill’s flaws, as well as his many errors of judgment and some outright catastrophes.

Gallipoli, the attempted intervention in the Russian civil war, the return to the gold standard, his support for Edward VIII during the abdication, his die-hard opposition to self-government for India: these were calamities that would have destroyed most political careers several times.

On the supreme issue of his day, however, he was extraordinarily prescient. His first warning of the dangers of Nazism came in November 1932, two months before Hitler came to power.

‘All these bands of sturdy Teutonic youths, marching along the streets and roads of Germany, with the light in their eyes of desire to suffer for their Fatherland, are not looking for status,’ Churchill said. ‘They are looking for weapons and, when they have the weapons, they will then ask for the . . . restoration of lost territories and colonies.’

It is possible to dispute the statistics Churchill provided about the size of the Luftwaffe and argue over the technicalities of his plans for re-armament. But on the broad issue, he was overwhelmingly right: Hitler spelt danger and Britain had to re-arm and forge alliances to meet that danger.

For telling the British people these truths in the 1930s, Churchill was branded a warmonger and traitor to his party. Conservative Central Office tried to de-select him from his seat of Epping, and Chamberlain had his telephone tapped by the security services.

He was also frequently slandered in a weekly rag called Truth.

Ostensibly a political scandal sheet specialising in often anti-Semitic attacks on the prime minister’s opponents, the paper was, in fact, owned by the Conservative Party and overseen by Chamberlain’s close friend and director of political research, Sir Joseph Ball. That Chamberlain knew and sanctioned this activity is beyond doubt.

Not only would Churchill lend vigour to the government’s belated efforts to prepare for war, campaigners argued, but his return to Cabinet would be a signal to Hitler that Britain meant business. ‘Churchill is the only Englishman Hitler is afraid of,’ explained Lieutenant-Colonel Count Gerhard von Schwerin, an officer on the German General Staff and secret opponent of war, to the Conservative Chief Whip.

‘Giving him a leading ministerial post would convince Hitler that we [the British] meant to stand up to him.’

But Chamberlain was unmovable. He had no desire to promote a political rival. But, more importantly, he had not given up hope on coming to an agreement with Hitler. Even on August 30, 1939, with German tanks massed along the Polish border, he wrote to the Duke of Buccleuch: ‘We may yet be successful in avoiding the worst. If so I shall still hope for a chance to go after your grouse.’

As the anti-appeasement Conservative MP Vyvyan Adams later wrote: Chamberlain’s ‘inability to appreciate Hitlerism for so long’ constituted ‘an infernal miracle’.’

When Chamberlain died of bowel cancer on November 9, 1940, Churchill — who had served him loyally as First Lord of the Admiralty at the start of the war — paid him a typically generous tribute.

Yet while it is true, as Churchill said, that Chamberlain was a man who acted with ‘perfect sincerity according to his lights and strove to the utmost of his capacity and authority’ to save the world from a devastating war, there is no doubt that in the ‘supreme crisis of the world’, it was Churchill’s judgment that was proved right and history with its ‘flickering lamp’ will continue to give this verdict.

n Tim Bouverie is the author of Appeasing Hitler: Chamberlain, Churchill And The Road To War. His new book, Perfect Pitch: 100 Pieces Of Classical Music To Bring Joy, Tears, Solace, Empathy, Inspiration, is out now.

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