Neville Chamberlain

Arthur Neville Chamberlain FRS[1] (18 March 1869 – 9 November 1940) was a British Conservative politician who served as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from May 1937 to May 1940. Chamberlain is best known for his appeasement foreign policy, and in particular for his signing of the Munich Agreement in 1938, conceding the German-populated Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia to Germany. However when Adolf Hitler continued his aggression by invading Poland, Britain declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939, and Chamberlain led Britain through the first eight months of World War II.

After working in business and local government and after a short spell as Director of National Service in 1916 and 1917, Chamberlain followed his father, Joseph Chamberlain, and older half-brother, Austen Chamberlain, in becoming a member of parliament in the 1918 general election at age 49. He declined a junior ministerial position, remaining a backbencher until 1922. He was rapidly promoted in 1923 to Minister of Health and then Chancellor of the Exchequer. After a short Labour-led government, he returned as Minister of Health, introducing a range of reform measures from 1924 to 1929. He was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer in the National Government in 1931.

When Stanley Baldwin retired in May 1937, Chamberlain took his place as Prime Minister. His premiership was dominated by the question of policy toward the increasingly aggressive Germany, and his actions at Munich were widely popular among Britons at the time. When Hitler continued his aggression, Chamberlain pledged Britain to defend Poland's independence if the latter were attacked, an alliance that brought Britain into war when Germany attacked Poland in 1939.

Chamberlain resigned the premiership on 10 May 1940 after the Allies were forced to retreat from Norway, as he believed a government supported by all parties was essential, and the Labour and Liberal parties would not join a government headed by him. He was succeeded by Winston Churchill but remained very well regarded in Parliament, especially among Conservatives. Before ill health forced him to resign he was an important member of Churchill's War Cabinet, heading it in the new premier's absence. Chamberlain died of cancer six months after leaving the premiership.

Chamberlain's reputation remains controversial among historians, with the initial high regard for him being entirely eroded by books such as Guilty Men, published in July 1940, which blamed Chamberlain and his associates for the Munich accord and for allegedly failing to prepare the country for war. Most historians in the generation following Chamberlain's death held similar views, led by Churchill in The Gathering Storm. Some recent historians have taken a more favourable perspective of Chamberlain and his policies citing government papers released under the Thirty Year Rule.


Early life and political career (1869–1918)

Childhood and businessman

Main article: Rise of Neville Chamberlain

Chamberlain was born on 18 March 1869 in a house called Southbourne in the Edgbaston district of Birmingham.[2] He was the only son of the second marriage of Joseph Chamberlain who later became Mayor of Birmingham and a Cabinet minister. Joseph Chamberlain had had another son, Austen Chamberlain, by his first marriage.[3] Neville Chamberlain was educated at Rugby School.[4] Joseph Chamberlain then sent Neville to Mason Science College in central Birmingham.[5] Neville Chamberlain had little interest in his studies there, and in 1889 his father apprenticed him to a firm of accountants.[6] Within six months he became a salaried employee.[7]

In an effort to recoup diminished family fortunes Joseph Chamberlain sent his younger son to establish a sisal plantation on Andros Island in the Bahamas.[8] Neville Chamberlain spent six years there but the plantation was a failure, and Joseph Chamberlain lost £50,000.[a][9]

On his return to England Neville Chamberlain entered business purchasing (with assistance from his family) Hoskins & Company, a manufacturer of metal ship berths.[10] Chamberlain served as managing director of Hoskins for 17 years during which time the company prospered.[11] He also involved himself in civic activities in Birmingham. In 1906, as Governor of Birmingham's General Hospital, and along with "no more than fifteen" other dignitaries, Chamberlain became a founding member of the national United Hospitals Committee of the British Medical Association.[12] [13] In 1910 he fell in love with Anne Cole, a distant relative by marriage, and the following year married her.[14] The two had a son and a daughter.[14]

Entry into politics

Chamberlain initially showed little interest in politics though his father and half-brother were in Parliament. During the "Khaki election" of 1900 he made speeches in support of Joseph Chamberlain's Liberal Unionists. The Liberal Unionists were allied with the Conservatives and later merged with them[15] under the name "Unionist Party", which in 1925 became known as the "Conservative and Unionist Party". In 1911 Neville Chamberlain successfully stood as a Liberal Unionist for Birmingham City Council for the All Saints' Ward,[16] located within his father's parliamentary constituency.[17]

Chamberlain was made chairman of the Town Planning Committee.[18] Under Chamberlain's direction Birmingham soon adopted one of the first town planning schemes in Britain. The start of war in 1914 prevented implementation of his plans.[19] In 1915, Chamberlain became Lord Mayor of Birmingham. Apart from his father Joseph, five of Chamberlain's uncles had also attained the chief Birmingham civic dignity: they were Joseph's brother Richard Chamberlain, William and George Kenrick, Sir Thomas Martineau and Charles Beale who had been four times Lord Mayor.[20][19] Clara Martineau – daughter of Chamberlain's uncle, Sir Thomas Martineau – was left many of Chamberlain's family letters. These letters and his extensive personal papers were bequeathed by his family in 1974 to the Birmingham University Archives.[21][22] As a Lord Mayor in wartime, Chamberlain had a huge burden of work and he insisted that his councillors and officials work equally hard.[23] He halved the Lord Mayor's expense allowance and cut back on the number of civic functions expected of the incumbent.[24]

In 1915 Chamberlain was appointed member of the Central Control Board on liquor traffic.[25] In December 1916 the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, offered Chamberlain the new position of Director of National Service with responsibility for co-ordinating conscription and ensuring that essential war industries were able to function with sufficient workforces.[26] However, his tenure was marked by conflict with Lloyd George and in August 1917, having received little support from the Prime Minister, Chamberlain resigned.[27] The relationship between Chamberlain and Lloyd George would be one thenceforth of hatred.[28]

Chamberlain decided to stand for the House of Commons,[29] and was adopted as Unionist candidate for Birmingham Ladywood.[30] After the war ended, a general election was called almost immediately.[30] He was elected with almost 70% of the vote and a majority of 6,833.[31] At age 49 he is still the oldest Parliamentary debutant to later become Prime Minister.[32]

MP and Minister (1919–1937)

Rise from the backbench

Main article: Rise of Neville Chamberlain

Chamberlain threw himself into Parliamentary work, begrudging the times when he was unable to attend debates and spending much time on committee work. He was chairman of the national Unhealthy Areas Committee (1919–21)[33] and in that role, had visited the slums of London, Birmingham, Leeds, Liverpool and Cardiff.[34] Consequently, in March 1920 he was offered a junior post at the Ministry of Health by Bonar Law on behalf of the Prime Minister, but was unwilling to serve under Lloyd George.[35] Chamberlain was offered no further posts during Lloyd George's premiership. When Bonar Law resigned as party leader Austen Chamberlain took his place as head of the Unionists in Parliament.[36] Unionist leaders were willing to fight the 1922 election in coalition with the Liberals, but on 19 October Unionist MPs held a meeting at which they voted to leave the Coalition. Lloyd George resigned, as did Austen Chamberlain, and Bonar Law was recalled from retirement to lead the Unionists as Prime Minister.[37]

Many high-ranking Unionists refused to serve under Bonar Law to the benefit of Chamberlain who rose over the course of ten months from backbencher to Chancellor of the Exchequer.[38] Bonar Law initially appointed Chamberlain Postmaster General[39] and Chamberlain was sworn of the Privy Council.[40] When Sir Arthur Griffith-Boscawen, the Minister of Health, lost his seat in the 1922 general election and failed to win a by-election in March 1923, Bonar Law offered the position within the Cabinet to Chamberlain.[41] Two months later, Bonar Law was diagnosed with advanced, terminal throat cancer. He immediately resigned, and was replaced by Chancellor of the Exchequer Stanley Baldwin. In August 1923, Baldwin promoted Chamberlain to the position of Chancellor of the Exchequer.[42]

Chamberlain served only five months in the office before the Conservatives were defeated in the 1923 general election. Ramsay MacDonald became the first Labour Prime Minister, but the Labour government fell within months necessitating another general election. Chamberlain narrowly defeated Labour candidate Oswald Mosley (who later led the British Union of Fascists).[43] Believing he would lose if he stood again in Ladywood, Chamberlain arranged to be adopted for Birmingham Edgbaston, the district of the city where he was born and which was a much safer seat which he would hold for the rest of his life.[44] The Unionists won the election, but Chamberlain declined to serve again as Chancellor preferring his former position as Minister of Health.[45]

Within two weeks of his appointment as Minister of Health Chamberlain presented the Cabinet with an agenda containing 25 pieces of legislation he hoped to see enacted. Before he left office in 1929, 21 of the 25 bills had passed into law.[46] Chamberlain sought the abolition of the elected Poor Law Boards of Guardians which administered relief—and which in some areas were responsible for rates. Many of the Boards were controlled by Labour, and such Boards had defied the government by distributing relief funds to the able-bodied unemployed.[47] In 1929 Chamberlain initiated legislation to abolish the Poor Law boards entirely. Chamberlain spoke in the Commons for two and a half hours on the second reading of the Bill, and when he concluded he was applauded by all parties. The Bill passed into law.[48]

Though Chamberlain struck a conciliatory note during the 1926 General Strike, in general he had poor relations with the Labour opposition. Future Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee complained that Chamberlain "always treated us like dirt", and Chamberlain in April 1927 wrote: "More and more do I feel an utter contempt for their lamentable stupidity."[49] His poor relations with the Labour Party later played a major part in his downfall as Prime Minister.[50]

Opposition and second term as Chancellor

Baldwin called a general election for 30 May 1929 which resulted in a hung parliament, with Labour holding the most seats. Baldwin and his government resigned and Labour leader Ramsay MacDonald took office.[51] In 1931, the MacDonald government faced a serious crisis, as the May Report revealed that the budget was unbalanced, with an expected shortfall of £120 million. On 24 August 1931 the Labour government resigned and MacDonald formed a National Government supported by most Conservative MPs.[52] Chamberlain once again returned to the Ministry of Health.[53]

After the 1931 general election, in which supporters of the National Government (mostly the Conservatives) won an overwhelming victory, MacDonald designated Chamberlain as Chancellor.[54] Chamberlain proposed a 10% tariff on foreign goods and lower or no tariffs on goods from the colonies and the Dominions. Joseph Chamberlain had advocated a similar policy, "Imperial Preference".[55] On 4 February 1932 Neville Chamberlain laid his bill before the House of Commons.[56] Chamberlain concluded his address by noting the appropriateness of his seeking to enact his father's proposal. At the end of the speech, Sir Austen Chamberlain walked down from the backbenches and shook his brother's hand.[57] The Import Duties Act 1932 passed Parliament easily.[58]

Chamberlain presented his first budget in April 1932. He maintained the severe budget cuts that had been agreed to at the inception of the National Government.[59] Interest on the war debt had been a major cost in each budget. Chamberlain was able to reduce the interest rate on most of Britain's war debt from 5% to 3.5%. Between 1932 and 1938, Chamberlain halved the percentage of the budget devoted to payment of interest on the war debt.[60]

Chamberlain hoped that a cancellation of the war debt owed to the United States could be negotiated. In June 1933, Britain hosted the World Monetary and Economic Conference. The Conference came to nothing. US President Franklin Roosevelt sent word that he would not consider any war debt cancellation.[60] By 1934, Chamberlain was able to declare a budget surplus and restore many of the cuts in unemployment compensation and civil servant salaries he had made after taking office. He told the Commons "We have now finished the story of "Bleak House" and are sitting down this afternoon to enjoy the first chapter of "Great Expectations"."[57]

The Unemployed Assistance Board (established by the Unemployment Act 1934) was largely Chamberlain's creation and he wished to see the issue of unemployment assistance removed from party political argument.[61] Moreover, Chamberlain "saw the importance of 'providing some interest in life for the large numbers of men never likely to get work', and out of this realisation was to come the responsibility of the U.A.B. for the "welfare", not merely the maintenance, of the unemployed".[62]

Defence spending had been heavily cut in Chamberlain's early budgets.[63] By 1935, faced with a resurgent Germany under Hitler's leadership, he was convinced of the need for rearmament.[64] Chamberlain especially urged the strengthening of the Royal Air Force, realising that Britain's traditional bulwark, the English Channel, was no defence against air power.[65]

In 1935, MacDonald stood down as Prime Minister, while Baldwin became Prime Minister for the third time.[66] In the 1935 general election the Conservative-dominated National Government lost 90 seats from the massive majority of 1931, but still retained an overwhelming majority of 255 in the House of Commons. During the campaign, deputy Labour leader Arthur Greenwood had attacked Chamberlain for spending money on rearmament stating that the rearmament policy was "the merest scaremongering; disgraceful in a statesman of Mr. Chamberlain's responsible position, to suggest that more millions of money needed to be spent on armaments".[67]

Chamberlain is believed to have had a significant role in the 1936 Edward VIII abdication crisis. In common with the rest of the Cabinet, except Duff Cooper, he agreed with Baldwin that the King should abdicate if he married Mrs Ernest Simpson and on 6 December he and Baldwin both stressed the King should make his decision before Christmas; by one account, he believed that the uncertainty was "hurting the Christmas trade".[68] The King eventually abdicated on the 10th, four days after the meeting.

Soon after the Abdication Baldwin announced that he would remain until shortly after the coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. On 28 May, two weeks after the Coronation, Baldwin resigned, advising the King to send for Chamberlain.[69] Sir Austen did not live to see his brother's final "climb ... to the top of the greasy pole",[b] having died two months earlier.[70]

Premiership (1937–1940)

Further information: Fourth National Ministry and Chamberlain War Ministry

Upon his accession Chamberlain considered calling a general election, but with three and a half years remaining in the then current Parliament's term decided to wait. At age 68, he was the second-eldest person in the 20th century (behind Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman) to become Prime Minister for the first time,[71] and was widely seen as a caretaker who would lead the Conservative Party until the next election, and then step down in favour of a younger man, with Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden a likely candidate. From the start of Chamberlain's premiership a number of would-be successors were rumoured to be jockeying for position.[72]

Chamberlain had disliked what he considered to be an overly sentimental attitude by both Baldwin and MacDonald on Cabinet appointments and reshuffles. Although he had worked closely with the President of the Board of Trade, Walter Runciman over the tariff issue, Chamberlain dismissed him from his post, offering Runciman the token position of Lord Privy Seal which an angry Runciman declined. Runciman, a member of the Liberal National Party, was thought by Chamberlain to be lazy.[71] Soon after taking office, Chamberlain instructed his ministers to prepare two-year policy programmes. These reports were to be integrated with the intent of co-ordinating the passage of legislation through the current Parliament, the term of which was to expire in November 1940.[73]

At the time of his succession Chamberlain's personality was not well known to the public, though he had made annual budget broadcasts for six years, which, according to Chamberlain biographer Robert Self, appeared relaxed and modern, showing an ability to speak directly to the camera.[71] Chamberlain had few friends among his parliamentary colleagues. An attempt by his Parliamentary Private Secretary, Lord Dunglass (later Prime Minister himself as Alec Douglas-Home) to bring him to the Smoking Room in the Commons to socialise with his colleagues, ended in embarrassing silence.[74] Chamberlain compensated for these shortcomings by devising the most sophisticated press management system employed by a Prime Minister up to that time, with officials at Number 10 led by his chief of press George Steward, convincing members of the press that they were colleagues sharing power and insider knowledge, and should espouse the government line.[75]

Domestic policy

Chamberlain saw his elevation to the premiership as the final glory in a career as a domestic reformer, not realising that he would be remembered for foreign policy decisions.[76] One reason he sought the settlement of European issues was in the hope it would allow him to concentrate on domestic affairs.[77]

Soon after attaining the premiership Chamberlain obtained passage of the Factories Act 1937. This act was aimed at bettering working conditions in factories and placed limits on the working hours of women and children.[78] In 1938, Parliament enacted the Coal Act 1938, which allowed for nationalisation of coal deposits. Another major piece of legislation passed that year was the Holidays with Pay Act.[78] Though the act only recommended that employers give workers a week off with pay, the Act caused the great expansion of holiday camps and other leisure accommodation for the working classes.[79] The Housing Act of 1938 provided subsidies aimed at encouraging slum clearance, and maintained rent control.[78] Chamberlain's plans for the reform of local government were shelved because of the outbreak of war in 1939. Likewise, the proposal to raise the school-leaving age to 15, scheduled for implementation on 1 September 1939, could not go into effect.[80]

Relations with Ireland

When Chamberlain became Prime Minister relations between the United Kingdom and the Irish Free State had been strained since the 1932 accession of the new Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Éamon de Valera. The Anglo-Irish Trade War, sparked by the withholding of money that Ireland had agreed to pay the United Kingdom, had caused economic losses on both sides, and the two nations were anxious for a settlement. The de Valera government also sought to remove the remaining ties between Ireland and the UK, such as ending the King's status as Irish Head of State. Chamberlain, as Chancellor had taken a hard-line stance against concessions to the Irish, but having been persuaded that the strained ties were having effects on relations with other Dominions he sought a settlement with Ireland.[81]

Talks had been suspended under Baldwin in 1936 but resumed in November 1937. De Valera sought not only to alter the constitutional status of Ireland, but to overturn other aspects of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, most notably the issue of partition, as well as obtaining full control of the three "Treaty Ports" which had remained in British control. Britain, on the other hand, wished to retain the Treaty Ports, at least in time of war and to obtain the money that Ireland had agreed to pay.[81]

The Irish proved very tough negotiators, so much so that Chamberlain complained that one of de Valera's offers had "presented United Kingdom ministers with a three-leafed shamrock, none of the leaves of which had any advantages for the UK".[81] With the talks facing deadlock, Chamberlain made the Irish a final offer in March 1938 which acceded to many Irish positions though he was confident that he had "only given up the small things", and the agreements were signed on 25 April 1938.[81] The issue of partition was not resolved, but the Irish agreed to pay £10 million to the British. There was no provision in the treaties for British access to the Treaty Ports in time of war, but Chamberlain accepted de Valera's oral assurance that in the event of war the British would have access.[81] The agreements were attacked by Conservative backbencher Winston Churchill in Parliament for surrendering the Treaty Ports which Churchill described as the "sentinel towers of the Western Approaches".[81] When war came, de Valera denied Britain access to the Treaty Ports under Irish neutrality.[81] Churchill railed against these treaties in The Gathering Storm, stating that he "never saw the House of Commons more completely misled" and that "members were made to feel very differently about it when our existence hung in the balance during the Battle of the Atlantic".[82] Chamberlain, however, believed that the Treaty Ports were unusable if Ireland was hostile and deemed their loss worthwhile to assure friendly relations with Dublin.[80]

European policy

Main article: Neville Chamberlain's European Policy

Early days (May 1937 – March 1938)

Chamberlain sought to conciliate Germany and make the Nazi state a partner in a stable Europe.[83] He believed Germany could be satisfied by the restoration of some of her colonies, and during the Rhineland crisis of March 1936 he had stated that "if we were in sight of an all-round settlement the British government ought to consider the question [of restoration of colonies]".[84]

The new Prime Minister's attempts to secure such a settlement were frustrated because Germany was in no hurry to talk to Britain. Foreign Minister Konstantin von Neurath was supposed to visit Britain in July 1937 but cancelled his visit.[83] Lord Halifax, the Lord President of the Council visited Germany privately in November and met with Hitler and other German officials. Both Chamberlain and British Ambassador to Germany Nevile Henderson pronounced the visit a success.[85] Foreign Office officials complained that the Halifax visit made it appear Britain was too eager for talks, and Foreign Secretary Eden felt that he had been bypassed.[86]

Chamberlain also bypassed Eden while the Foreign Secretary was on holiday by opening direct talks with Italy, an international pariah for its invasion and conquest of Ethiopia.[87] At a Cabinet meeting on 8 September 1937, Chamberlain indicated that he saw "the lessening of the tension between this country and Italy as a very valuable contribution toward the pacification and appeasement of Europe" which would "weaken the Rome–Berlin axis".[88] The Prime Minister also set up a private line of communication with the Italian "Duce" Benito Mussolini through the Italian Ambassador, Count Dino Grandi.[89]

In February 1938 Hitler began to press the Austrian government to accept "Anschluss" or union between Germany and Austria. Chamberlain believed that it was essential to cement relations with Italy in the hope that an Anglo–Italian alliance would forestall Hitler from imposing his rule over Austria. Eden, however, believed Chamberlain was being too hasty in talking with Italy and holding out the prospect of "de jure" recognition of Italy's conquest of Ethiopia. Chamberlain concluded that Eden would have to accept his policy, or resign.[90] The Cabinet heard both men out but unanimously decided for Chamberlain. Despite efforts by other Cabinet members to prevent it, Eden resigned from office.[91] In later years, Eden tried to portray his resignation as a stand against appeasement (Churchill described him in The Second World War as "one strong young figure standing up against long, dismal, drawling tides of drift and surrender")[92] but many ministers[91] and MPs believed there was no issue at stake worth resignation.[93] Chamberlain appointed Lord Halifax as Foreign Secretary in Eden's place.[93]

Road to Munich (March 1938 – September 1938)

In March 1938 Austria became a part of Germany in the "Anschluß". Though the beleaguered Austrians requested help from Britain none was forthcoming.[94] Britain did send Berlin a strong note of protest.[95] In addressing the Cabinet shortly after German forces crossed the border, Chamberlain placed blame on both Germany and Austria.[94] Chamberlain noted,

It is perfectly evident now that force is the only argument Germany understands and that "collective security" cannot offer any prospect of preventing such events until it can show a visible force of overwhelming strength backed by the determination to use it. ... Heaven knows I don't want to get back to alliances but if Germany continues to behave as she has done lately she may drive us to it.[94]

On 14 March, the day after the "Anschluß" Chamberlain addressed the House of Commons strongly condemning the methods used by the Germans to achieve the takeover of Austria. Chamberlain's address met with the approval of the House.[95]

With Austria absorbed by Germany attention turned to Hitler's obvious next target, the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia. With three million ethnic Germans, the Sudetenland represented the largest German population outside the "Reich".[96] Hitler began to call for the union of the region with Germany.[97] Britain had no military obligations toward Czechoslovakia;[98] France and Czechoslovakia had a mutual assistance pact.[94] After the fall of Austria, the Cabinet's Foreign Policy Committee considered seeking a "grand alliance" to thwart Germany, or alternatively, an assurance to France of assistance if the French went to war. Instead, the committee chose to advocate that Czechoslovakia be urged to make the best terms it could with Germany.[99] The full Cabinet agreed with the committee's recommendation influenced by a report from the chiefs of staff stating that there was little that Britain could do to help the Czechs in the event of a German invasion.[99] Chamberlain reported to an amenable House that he was unwilling to limit his government's discretion by giving commitments.[100]

Britain and Italy signed an agreement in April 1938. In exchange for "de jure" recognition of Italy's Ethiopian conquest Italy agreed to withdraw some Italian "volunteers" from the Nationalist (pro-Franco) side of the Spanish Civil War. The Nationalists by now strongly had the upper hand in this war and completed their victory the following year.[101] Later that month the new French Prime Minister, Édouard Daladier came to London for talks with Chamberlain and agreed to follow the British position on Czechoslovakia.[102]

In May two Sudeten German farmers attempting to cross the border into Czechoslovakia without stopping for border controls were shot by Czech border guards. This incident caused unrest among the Sudeten Germans, and Germany then was said to be moving troops to the border. In response to the report, Prague moved troops to the German border. Halifax sent a note to Germany warning that if France intervened in the crisis on Czechoslovakia's behalf, Britain might support France. Tensions calmed and Chamberlain and Halifax were applauded for their "masterly" handling of the crisis.[94] Though not known at the time it later developed that Germany had had no plans for a May invasion of Czechoslovakia.[94] Nonetheless, the Chamberlain government received strong and almost unanimous support from the British press.[103]

Negotiations between the Czech government and the Sudeten Germans dragged on through mid-1938.[104] They achieved little result with Sudeten leader Konrad Henlein under private instructions from Hitler not to reach an agreement. On 3 August, Walter Runciman (by now Lord Runciman) travelled to Prague as a mediator sent by the British government.[105] Over the next two weeks, Runciman met separately with Henlein, the Czechoslovak President Edvard Beneš and other leaders, but made no progress.[106] On 30 August Chamberlain met with his Cabinet and Ambassador Henderson and secured their backing—with only First Lord of the Admiralty Duff Cooper dissenting against Chamberlain's policy to pressure Czechoslovakia into making concessions on the ground that Britain was then in no position to back up any threat to go to war.[107]

Chamberlain realised that Hitler would likely signal his intentions in his 12 September speech at the annual Nuremberg Rally, and so Chamberlain discussed with his advisers how to respond if war seemed likely. In consultation with his close adviser Sir Horace Wilson, Chamberlain set out "Plan Z". If war seemed inevitable, Chamberlain would fly to Germany to negotiate directly with Hitler.[108]

September 1938: Munich

Preliminary meetings

Lord Runciman continued his work attempting to pressure the Czechoslovak government into concessions. On 7 September there was an altercation involving Sudeten members of the Czechoslovak parliament in the North-Moravian city of Mährisch-Ostrau. The Germans made considerable propaganda of the incident though the Prague government attempted to conciliate them by dismissing Czech police who had been involved. As the tempest grew Runciman concluded that there was no point in attempting further negotiations until after Hitler's speech. The mission would never resume.[109]

British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, 1938
Chamberlain (centre, hat and umbrella in hands) walks with German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop (right) as the Prime Minister leaves for home after the Berchtesgaden meeting, 16 September 1938.

The final days before Hitler's speech on the last day of the Rally were spent amidst tremendous tension as Britain, France, and Czechoslovakia all partially mobilised their troops. Thousands gathered outside 10 Downing Street on the night of Hitler's speech in Nuremberg. At last the Führer addressed his wildly enthusiastic followers:

The condition of the Sudeten Germans is indescribable. It is sought to annihilate them. As human beings they are oppressed and scandalously treated in an intolerable fashion ... The depriving of these people of their rights must come to an end. ... I have stated that the "Reich" would not tolerate any further oppression of these three and a half million Germans, and I would ask the statesmen of foreign countries to be convinced that this is no mere form of words.[110]

The following morning, 13 September, Chamberlain and the Cabinet were informed by secret service sources that all German embassies had been told that Germany would invade Czechoslovakia on 25 September.[111] Convinced that the French would not fight (Daladier was privately proposing a three-Power summit to settle the Sudeten question). That evening Chamberlain decided to implement "Plan Z" and sent a message to Hitler that he was willing to come to Germany to negotiate. Hitler accepted and Chamberlain flew to Germany on the morning of 15 September; this was the first time, excepting a short jaunt at an industrial fair, that Chamberlain had ever flown. Chamberlain flew to Munich and then journeyed by rail to Hitler's retreat at Berchtesgaden.[112]

The face to face meeting lasted about three hours. Hitler demanded the annexation of the Sudetenland, and through questioning him, Chamberlain was able to obtain assurances that Hitler had no designs on the remainder of Czechoslovakia or on the areas in Eastern Europe which had German minorities. After the meeting Chamberlain returned to London believing that he had obtained a breathing space during which agreement could be reached and the peace preserved.[113] Under the proposals made at Berchtesgaden the Sudetenland would be annexed by Germany if a plebiscite in the Sudetenland favoured it. Czechoslovakia would receive international guarantees of its independence which would replace existing treaty obligations—principally the French pledge to the Czechoslovaks.[114] The French agreed to the requirements. Under considerable pressure the Czechoslovaks also agreed, causing the Czechoslovak government to fall.[115]


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