In this lesson, you’ll learn about Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister who wanted avoid war but found himself leading his country into World War II. Read quotes from and about Chamberlain, and find out more about his role in World War II.

Chamberlain’s Approach to Avoid Conflict

Neville Chamberlain was prime minister of the United Kingdom from 1937 to 1940 and oversaw Britain’s path and entry into World War II. Chamberlain believed that he could solve conflicts through negotiation.

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Prior to his political career, he had a stint as a plantation manager in the Bahamas, and later worked in manufacturing management; he entered politics in 1915. Sir John Simon once wrote that Chamberlain would ‘listen in a business-like fashion to what one had to say, and then state his conclusions with the finality of a general manager conducting his company’s affairs.’ His style was not bombastic. Reflecting his business background, he sought consensus through listening to other people.

Portrait of Neville Chamberlain

Appeasement At Munich

Chamberlain pursued a policy of appeasement leading up to World War II. He felt that appeasing Adolf Hitler today would prevent aggression tomorrow. Chamberlain openly negotiated with Hitler, seeing him as a man with whom he could ‘do business.’ He believed that the promises both of them would be binding.

Chamberlain and Hitler set to do business at Munich

Chamberlain’s defining moment came in 1938 at the Munich Conference. Upon obtaining Hitler’s promise of no war between England and Germany in exchange for tacit approval of Germany taking the Sudetenland, Chamberlain came home to an adoring public and proclaimed ‘peace in our time.’ However, Hitler’s intentions were evident when he later told one of his generals, ‘Our enemies are small worms. I saw them at Munich.’ Hitler manipulated Chamberlain for his own purposes, something that Chamberlain did not immediately recognize.

Chamberlain’s Indecisiveness After Munich

The direction of Chamberlain’s agenda after Munich was not very decisive. He oversaw an increase towards war production, saying to the House of Commons, ‘It would be madness for the country to stop rearming until we were convinced that other countries would act in the same way.’ However, because of fear of German perception, he did not favor a complete increase in industrial war production.

Many believed that Chamberlain lacked a clear vision for England. His policy of appeasement was not working, as Hitler grew his army upon acquiring Czechoslovakia. British citizens became outraged upon reading about Kristallnacht (or Night of Broken Glass) in November 1938, an intense, 2-day period of organized destruction and violence against the Jewish people of Germany, and their homes, businesses, and synagogues. Hearing of such atrocities, the British people questioned appeasement.

While little else was clear, Hitler’s desire for Poland was lucid. In January 1939, Chamberlain countered the move with speech affirming peace over war. Hoping to cause Hitler to rethink his aggressiveness, he took specific steps to strengthen his nation’s defense.

On March 31, Chamberlain pledged total British support to Poland. Leading up to autumn, Chamberlain attempted back-channel negotiations with Nazi Germany. However, on September 1, Nazi troops invaded Poland. Within hours, Chamberlain declared that the United Kingdom was at war with Germany. His radio address reflected the broken dreams that defined his foreign policy towards the Nazis when he said, ‘we have done all that any country could do to establish peace.’ In saying that no word by Germany’s ruler could be trusted, Chamberlain seemed to echo what so many were thinking.

Later that day, to a subdued House of Commons, Chamberlain said, ‘Everything that I have worked for, everything that I have hoped for, everything that I have believed in during my public life has crashed into ruins… I trust I may live to see the day when Hitlerism has been destroyed and a liberated Europe has been re-established.’ Chamberlain was hurt that his dream for peace died as he led his country, England, into World War II.

Chamberlain During World War II

Chamberlain created a War Ministry and gave a seat to harsh critic Winston Churchill as the war began. The two men did not get along as Churchill’s direct style often proved challenging to the demure Chamberlain.

The war’s initial months did not feature much in way of direct conflict. England’s first significant military incursion was a complete disaster. The Norway Campaign sought to disrupt the flow of iron ore to Germany. The British incursion to mine the Baltic Sea took place on the same day that Germany mobilized its troops to overtake Norway. Both forces collided, with the British not expecting such a large German presence. The Navy, a British strength, was revealed to have a major deficiency as it lacked radar controls and the capacity to challenge German air might. British forces withdrew from the region on April 26, 1940. The entire operation was seen as misguided, lacking the military intelligence to defeat the Nazis.

Chamberlain barely survived a legislative no-confidence vote after the Norway Campaign. Parliamentary debate raised significant questions about Chamberlain’s wartime leadership. It was clear that Chamberlain lacked support from familiar Parliamentary ‘friends’. On the evening of May 9, 1940, after he asked the public to join him ‘behind our new leader,’ Chamberlain resigned as prime minister. Winston Churchill succeeded him.

Life After Prime Minister

Depressed after resigning, Chamberlain remarked ‘Few men can have known such a reversal of fortune in so short a time.’ While he operated in a lesser capacity in Churchill’s War Cabinet, it was clear that the fall from grace was painful. In July of 1940, a group of British journalists published a polemic entitled ‘Guilty Men.’ It harshly condemned Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement for endangering Britain. The rebuke saddened Chamberlain because he simply wanted ‘peace in our time.’ Chamberlain died of cancer in November 1940. He never saw Britain triumph over the Nazis.

Lesson Summary

Neville Chamberlain is associated with the failed policy of appeasement. It is clear that Chamberlain approached the difficult situation of Hitler with thoughtfulness and deliberation at each step. Too much of a gentlemen to realize that Hitler was not, Chamberlain’s dreams of peace were dashed. Seared by the spotlight of history, Chamberlain is a testament to the difficulty of modern political rule.

Blue Plaque honoring Neville Chamberlain