After Neville Chamberlain died of bowel cancer in November of 1940, Winston Churchill mourned him privately, “Whatever shall I do without poor Neville? I was relying on him to look after the Home Front for me.”
I think it is oft-assumed that Churchill and Chamberlain were vituperative in their antipathy toward each other. Indeed, nothing can be further from the truth. They saw the Nazi threat differently and understood history differently to the extent that one or the other of them would eventually prevail, but neither of them saw the other as a political foe, not in the sense that one should have power and the other should not. It was the magnanimity of Chamberlain that gave us Churchill to lead the Allies against Hitler; Chamberlain, when he went to King George VI to tender his resignation, stepped over the more senior politician, the more popular and more obvious candidate for Prime Minister, Lord Halifax (who was not pressing his claim to the ministry), suggesting Winston Churchill instead.
We also have the picture and the quote: “Peace in our time,” a signed document, assurances from Hitler that England and Germany would never wage war against each other. On the night of the British declaration of war against Germany, of course, Hitler sent a well-planned and well-rehearsed air raid against London. We, the beneficiaries of almost 80 years of hindsight, shake our heads with the epithet on our lips, “You idiot, how could you have ever trusted Hitler?”
The photograph, however, was taken with too narrow a field of focus to capture the enormous British zeitgeist. Chamberlain was received by England from the Munich meeting with near-universal acclaim. Note: this was after Hitler had taken the Rhineland, had absorbed Austria, had taken the Sudetenland, and had massed on the Polish border. The people cheered in the streets, a veritable sea of people, so that a nine mile journey took Chamberlain an hour and a half. The press lauded him as a hero. King George VI even wrote him a letter congratulating him on the preservation of the Empire.
A few individuals dared act contrarily, most notably Duff Cooper, who resigned as First Lord of the Admiralty, and, of course, Churchill.
Whence this national fantasy? How does history judge so harshly and so easily while those who were present almost unanimously praised him? Even the most friendly historical treatments of Chamberlain note that his reckoning of Hitler was utterly fatuous. All those cheers for so fatuous a gesture.
Any rehabilitation attempt must not seek to defend Chamberlain in an empty context, that of a leader with a set of beliefs, principles, and assumptions about the world with all the evidence laid out before him as so many archaeological artifacts. Instead, his own people, those who approved so tumultuously of his beliefs, principles, and assumptions, must be acknowledged as the sea driving him inevitably into the shoal water of history.
Who knows the ship of state is driven so by the imaginations of her own people?