Last year, I highlighted a u-boat captain who was celebrating his 100th birthday. And I am pleased to keep the World War II theme going this year, but with a more tragic figure—even if the tragedy is more lore than history. On this day in 1869, the English Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was born. I have been wanting to write about him for months, because he has been unfairly maligned for decades. And now with his birthday as well as conservatives ranting about “appeasement” with regard to Putin, it seems like the time.
You know the story. On 30 September 1938, Chamberlain signed the Munich Pact with Hitler. It was peace in our time. But of course it wasn’t. Hitler never had any intention of following the pact. And when he inevitably invaded Poland, people blamed Chamberlain for his “appeasement” of Hitler. This became not only a conservative Truth about the cause of World War II, but an excuse for a generally belligerent foreign policy. Thus, we hold up Winston Churchill as a great hero and Neville Chamberlain as a weakling. There’s just one problem: it isn’t true.
Back in September, for the 75th anniversary of the Munich Pact, Nick Baumann wrote, Neville Chamberlain Was Right. I highly recommend reading the whole thing, but I will give a brief overview here. Unlike the myth, Churchill was not the only one in England who thought that Hitler was a threat. After all, Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty under Chamberlain. The whole government was working on gearing up for war. But in September 1938, the military were not ready to go to war with Hitler. So the right thing to do at that point—the thing that the military wanted—was the Munich Pact. They wanted another year to get ready.
So there were a lot of heroes in World War II. And one of them is Chamberlain. In this country, especially, we have such a tendency to lionize those who go to war. But more often than not, the heroes are those who don’t go to war. If England had gone to war in 1938, Germany would have quickly defeated it. So yes, Churchill was a hero. But so was Chamberlain.
Happy birthday Neville Chamberlain!
This is not a great Elvis Costello song (Shipbuilding is much better). But it applies: