The historical portrayal of Neville Chamberlain varies dramatically over time. During his reign as Prime Minister, he was considered to be the “saviour of the nation”. Those who followed him, however, particularly Churchill, looked upon him with derision, and many people, seeing the horror Hitler unleashed in World War II, remember him as a coward. However, more recently, a third school of thought has emerged, seeing Chamberlain in a more balanced fashion. While it agrees that Chamberlain’s foreign policy was certainly flawed, it was not without merit.
While Chamberlain was certainly an able domestic politician, he knew almost nothing of foreign affairs. Many consider this diplomatic naivety to be the cause of his inability to deal with Hitler. He took Hitler on his word, and as we all now know, the Fuhrer was not a man to be trusted. However, Chamberlain was certainly not the only person of his time to have underestimated Hitler. There were many, who although they thought him to be unsavoury, believed that Hitler was harmless. While Chamberlain could certainly be accused of not realising Hitler’s long term goals, there were many others who shared his views. In addition to this, Hitler was an unpredictable and unconventional opponent, the type of politician a British Prime Minister would have been unused to dealing with. It is doubtful that many people in his position who could have seen through Hitler’s deception concerning his overall aims. However, where he could be said to have failed is that what he perceived as generosity, Hitler saw as weakness, and this encouraged him to further exploit appeasement. Perhaps had he presented a stronger front to German aggression, then Hitler would not have been so reckless in his expansion. However, some argue that due to the ideology of Nazism, Chamberlain shouldn’t have been willing to compromise with Hitler at all. While this is certainly a valid point, it is one made with hindsight. At this point, the world new nothing of the extent of Hitler’s anti-semitism, and what his regime would go on to do.
It would seem that Chamberlain was acting with the best of intentions, and had his country’s interests at heart. One must remember that at the time, Britain was still the world’s leading imperial power (although there were already signs of it being superseded by America). Chamberlain had not only the affairs of his own country, but of a globe spanning empire to worry about. Hence, he might be forgiven for underestimating the volatile nature of the political situation in central Europe. Britain was also a country that was still, in many ways, reeling from the effects of World War I. The majority of Britons did not want another mass conflict, and so Chamberlain was not alone in his desire for a peaceful solution. As well as the deaths, many remembered the financial ruin that the war had inflicted on the country. Having emerged only a few years earlier from the depths of depression, war was a risk many did not want to take. As mentioned earlier, many admired his actions, and for a time he was known as “the great mediator”. On the other hand, Chamberlain has also been accused of acting in a somewhat autocratic manner. There were elements that did see the threat that Germany presented, and was willing (although not necessarily eager) to go to war.
Perhaps the strongest argument in Chamberlain’s defence would be that Britain was simply not ready for war. Chamberlain was one of the most prominent advocates for pre-war armament, and so perhaps he had a greater understanding of the political climate than we give him credit for. Had Britain gone to war in October 1938, it is possible that the course of the war could have been significantly different. Britain was also had few strong allies, and Chamberlain believed that even the French, despite their massed forces, would not be able to oppose the Germans (which turned out to be right). Britain would also face a number of powerful enemies if they entered the war, and these were generally nations far better prepared for conflict that Britain was. However, some may blame Chamberlain for this, as he abandoned many of the collective security agreements that had been set up, which meant that the alliances we shared with countries such as France and Russia may not have been a strong as they should have.
In conclusion, I believe that while Neville Chamberlain made some very significant mistakes, this was simply because he was forced into a situation he was ill equipped to deal with. Despite this, I feel his primary motivation was to not only try and avoid another mass conflict, but also to try and increase Britain’s security in the long term. His delaying of the war was vital to our survival, and it is certainly possible that the outcome of World War II could have been very different if it was not for his actions.