Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement in the run up to the Second World War has been defended by a popular historical novelist. The British politician, who served as prime minister from 1937 to 1940, has often been criticised for not standing up to Hitler in the years leading up to the outbreak of the war. But best-selling author Robert Harris says that Chamberlain has been unfairly placed in the “historical dog house”.
Speaking in a History Extra podcast, he argues that Chamberlain “tried to play the cards as best he could”, and that it is only with hindsight that he has been criticised.
He said: “When we look back at Chamberlain – we have to peer at him around the things that we know about the Second World War. We can only see him over the pile of corpses at Auschwitz, so he appears all the worse. But Chamberlain had to deal with what he saw in front of him: we were not well armed, we were not well protected, [and we had] no appetite to fight Germany. He tried to play the cards as best he could.”
Critics of Chamberlain often focus on his signing of the Munich Agreement in 1938, which conceded the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia to Germany in return for peace. They say that Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement, which ultimately failed to prevent the Second World War, was an example of weak and spineless leadership. For Robert Harris, however, Chamberlain’s actions in Munich “bought us time”. Without the Munich Agreement, he claims, the Second World War would “almost certainly” have started in 1938 – a time when Britain was not prepared to go to war.
“Instead it was postponed for a year, and in my view, it was a necessary postponement as it gave us time for rearmament,” he explains.“It also meant that when the war did come there was a feeling of national unity and imperial unity.”
Harris adds that by the time war did break out, the British people “were united” through Chamberlain’s constant efforts for peace. “They recognised that Nazi Germany was not an entity with which you could ever negotiate peace – you could never trust them.”
Robert Harris is the author of Munich – a spy thriller set against the backdrop of the 1938 Munich Conference.
You can hear him talk about Chamberlain and the events surrounding the 1938 Munich Conference in the History Extra podcast here.
This article was first published on History Extra in October 2017