Neville Chamberlain, the son of Joseph Chamberlain, and the brother of Austin Chamberlain, was born in 1869. One of his cousins later recalled: "We always understood as children that as our lives had fallen in pleasant places it behoved us all the more to do what we could to improve the lot of those less happily placed". After being educated at Rugby School he spent seven years managing his father's plantation in the Bahamas.
Chamberlain arrived back in England in 1897 where he went into the copper-brass business. He was active in local politics and in 1915 was elected Lord Mayor of Birmingham. Soon after he was elected to the post he stated his intentions to move "the working classes from their hideous and depressing surroundings to cleaner, brighter and more wholesome dwellings in the still uncontaminated country which lay within the city's boundaries".
Chamberlain's biographer, Andrew J. Crozier, has argued: "His Unitarian background and upbringing made Chamberlain aware of the need to promote progress and instilled in him a profound sense of duty. He also developed an understanding of the responsibilities that wealth and privilege incur." Chamberlain later admitted that he was greatly influenced by the political views of his father: "My father's deep sympathy with the working classes and his intense desire to better their lot which inspired me with an ambition to do something in my turn to afford better help to the working people and better opportunities for the enjoyment of life."
In the 1918 General Election Chamberlain was elected as the Conservative MP for Ladywood. He refused office under David Lloyd George but accepted the posts Postmaster-General (1923-24) and Minister of Health (1924-29) under Stanley Baldwin. At the 1929 General Election he moved to the safe Conservative constituency of Edgbaston. Out of office as a result of Baldwin's defeat at the polls, Chamberlain become the head of a new Conservative Party research department. In June 1930 he became chairman of the Conservative Party.
The 1931 General Election was held on 27th October, 1931. Ramsay MacDonald led an anti-Labour alliance made up of Conservatives and National Liberals. It was a disaster for the Labour Party with only 46 members winning their seats. MacDonald now appointed Chamberlain as the new Chancellor of the Exchequer. His supporters have claimed he was an efficient administrator abolishing the Poor Law and reorganizing unemployment assistance.
His biographer, Andrew J. Crozier, has argued: "He proved a powerful chancellor of the exchequer. Baldwin, who as leader of the Conservatives was happy to leave formal power in the hands of MacDonald, left the substance of power in Chamberlain's hands. From the beginning Chamberlain was in complete control of budgetary and economic policy and added to that social and industrial policy as well. Furthermore, once the international crisis of the 1930s deepened, he became a dominant voice in both rearmament and foreign policy. His was a formidable presence in the cabinet: not only did he read his own departmental briefs, but he seemed to read everyone else's as well." On 8th March 1935 Chamberlain wrote in his diary: "I am more and more carrying this government on my back. The P.M. (MacDonald) is ill and tired, S. B. (Stanley Baldwin) is tired and won't apply his mind to problems. It is certainly time there was a change".
In 1936 the Conservative government feared the spread of communism from the Soviet Union to the rest of Europe. Stanley Baldwin, the British prime minister, shared this concern and was fairly sympathetic to the military uprising in Spain against the left-wing Popular Front government. Leon Blum, the prime minister of the Popular Front government in France, initially agreed to send aircraft and artillery to help the Republican Army in Spain. However, after coming under pressure from Stanley Baldwin and Anthony Eden in Britain, and more right-wing members of his own cabinet, he changed his mind.
Baldwin and Blum now called for all countries in Europe not to intervene in the Spanish Civil War. A Non-Intervention Agreement was drawn-up and was eventually signed by 27 countries including the Soviet Union, Germany and Italy. However, Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini openly ignored the agreement and sent a large amount of military aid, including troops, to General Francisco Franco and his Nationalist forces.
Stanley Baldwin came under increasing pressure after the Hoare–Laval Pact, and throughout 1936 his health so deteriorated that he announced that he would retire in May 1937. Chamberlain was the obvious replacement. As prime minister he continued the policy of nonintervention in Spain. At the end of 1937 he took the controversial decision to send Sir Robert Hodgson to Burgos to be the British government's link with the Nationalist government.
Wolfgang zu Putlitz, First Secretary at the German Embassy in London, reported that Joachim von Ribbentrop was pleased when Neville Chamberlain became prime minister. "He (Ribbentrop) regarded Mr Chamberlain as pro-German and said he would be his own Foreign Minister. While he would not dismiss Mr Eden he would deprive him of his influence at the Foreign Office. Mr Eden was regarded as an enemy of Germany." Chamberlain did indeed dominate the making of British foreign policy and Anthony Eden eventually resigned in February 1938, exasperated by the Prime Minister's interference in diplomatic business. He was succeeded as foreign secretary Lord Halifax, who strongly supported Chamberlain's appeasement policy. Putlitz constantly warned MI5 that "Britain was letting the trump cards fall out of her hands. If she had adopted, or even now adopted, a firm attitude and threatened war, Hitler would not succeed in this kind of bluff. The German army was not ready for war."
On 13th March 1938 Leon Blum returned to office in France. When he began to argue for an end to the country's nonintervention policy, Chamberlain and the Foreign Office joined with the right-wing press in France and political figures such as Henri-Philippe Petain and Maurice Gamelin to bring him down. On 10th April 1938, Blum was replaced by Edouard Daladier, a politician who agreed not only with Chamberlain's Spanish strategy but his foreign policy that later became known as appeasement.
Chamberlain believed that Germany had been badly treated by the Allies after it was defeated in the First World War. He therefore thought that the German government had genuine grievances and that these needed to be addressed. He also thought that by agreeing to some of the demands being made by Adolf Hitler of Germany and Benito Mussolini of Italy, he could avoid a European war.
Anthony Eden, Chamberlain's foreign secretary, did not agree with the policy of appeasement and resigned in February, 1938. Eden was replaced by Lord Halifax who fully supported this policy. Winston Churchill, Chamberlain's leading critic within the Conservative Party, argued in the House of Commons: "The resignation of the late Foreign Secretary may well be a milestone in history. Great quarrels, it has been well said, arise from small occasions but seldom from small causes. The late Foreign Secretary adhered to the old policy which we have all forgotten for so long. The Prime Minister and his colleagues have entered upon another and a new policy. The old policy was an effort to establish the rule of law in Europe, and build up through the League of Nations effective deterrents against the aggressor. Is it the new policy to come to terms with the totalitarian powers in the hope that by great and far-reaching acts of submission, not merely in sentiment and pride, but in material factors, peace may be preserved."
In February, 1938, Adolf Hitler invited Kurt von Schuschnigg, the Austrian Chancellor, to meet him at Berchtesgarden. Hitler demanded concessions for the Austrian Nazi Party. Schuschnigg refused and after resigning was replaced by Arthur Seyss-Inquart, the leader of the Austrian Nazi Party. On 13th March, Seyss-Inquart invited the German Army to occupy Austria and proclaimed union with Germany. The union of Germany and Austria (Anschluss) had been specifically forbidden by the Treaty of Versailles. Some members of the House of Commons, including Anthony Eden and Winston Churchill, now called on Chamberlain to take action against Adolf Hitler and his Nazi government.
Hugh Christie an MI6 agent working based in Berlin, met with Hermann Goering. He reported his conversation with Goering and included information that Germany intended to take control of Austria and Czechoslovakia. He also told Christie that Germany mainly wanted "a free hand in Eastern Europe." In March 1938 Christie told the British government that Adolf Hitler would be ousted by the military if Britain joined forces with Czechoslovakia against Germany. Christie warned that the "crucial question is 'How soon will the next step against Czechoslovakia be tried?' ... The probability is that the delay will not exceed two or three months at most, unless France and England provide the deterrent, for which cooler heads in Germany are praying."
Wolfgang zu Putlitz continued to work at the German embassy until May 1938 when he was posted to The Hague. To maintain regular contact with Putlitz, Jona von Ustinov found a job as the European correspondent of an Indian newspaper with an office in the city. According to Christopher Andrew, the author of The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5 (2009): "During the summer of 1938 Whitehall received a series of intelligence reports, some of them from Putlitz, warning that Hitler had decided to seize the German-speaking Czech Sudetenland by force." Ustinov reported that General Geyr von Schweppenburg, who had told him: "We simply must convince the British to stand firm... If they give in to Hitler now, there will be no holding him."
International tension increased when Adolf Hitler began demanding that the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia should be under the control of the German government. In an attempt to to solve the crisis, the heads of the governments of Germany, Britain, France and Italy met in Munich. On 29th September, 1938, Neville Chamberlain, Adolf Hitler, Edouard Daladier and Benito Mussolini signed the Munich Agreement which transferred to Germany the Sudetenland, a fortified frontier region that contained a large German-speaking population. When Eduard Benes, Czechoslovakia's head of state, who had not been invited to Munich, protested at this decision, Chamberlain told him that Britain would be unwilling to go to war over the issue of the Sudetenland.
The Munich Agreement was popular with most people in Britain because it appeared to have prevented a war with Nazi Germany. However, some politicians, including Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden, attacked the agreement. These critics pointed out that no only had the British government behaved dishonorably, but it had lost the support of Czech Army, one of the best in Europe. Chamberlain told his private secretary: "If Hitler signed it and kept the bargain, well and good... if he broke it, he would demonstrate to all the world that he was totally cynical and untrustworthy... this would have its value mobilising public opinion against him, particularly in America."
Edward Murrow, the American broadcaster working for Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) on 30th September, 1938, reported: "Thousands of people are standing in Whitehall and lining Downing Street, waiting to greet the Prime Minister upon his return from Munich. Certain afternoon papers speculate concerning the possibility of the Prime Minister receiving a knighthood while in office, something that has happened only twice before in British history. Others say that he should be the next recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize."
On 20th February, 1939, Robert Vansittart sent Lord Halifax a report, based chiefly on intelligence from Putlitz that Hitler had decided to "liquidate" Czechoslovakia. Vansittart predicted a German coup in Prague during the week of the 12th to the 19th March. Vansittart passed this information to Vernon Kell who told the Foreign Office on 11th March that "Germany was going into Czechoslovakia in the next 48 hours". Neville Chamberlain and Lord Halifax were both unconvinced by the intelligence warnings. Halifax said he saw no evidence that the Germans were "planning mischief in any particular quarter".
On 15th March Hitler's troops occupied Prague and announced the annexation of the Czech provinces of Bohemia and Moravia. Vansittart was bitter about the rejection of his warnings. He wrote in his diary: "Nothing seems any good, it seems as if nobody will listen to or believe me." On 18th March Chamberlain finally acknowledged to the cabinet that: "No reliance could be placed on any of the assurances given by the Nazi leaders." As Christopher Andrew, the author of The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5 (2009) has pointed out: "a conclusion which the Security Service had put formally to the cabinet secretary almost three years earlier."
In taking this action Adolf Hitler had broken the Munich Agreement. King George VI sent a letter of support to Chamberlain: "I feel I must send you one line to say how well I can appreciate your feelings about the recent behaviour of the German Government. Although this blow to your courageous efforts on behalf of peace and understanding in Europe must, I am afraid, cause you deep distress, I am sure that your labours have been anything but wasted, for they can have left no doubt in the minds of ordinary people all over the world of our love of peace and our readiness to discuss with any nation whatever grievances they think they have."
In early April, 1939, Dick White visited the Foreign Office to deliver a warning from Putlitz that Italy was preparing to invade Albania. At a cabinet meeting on 5th April Lord Halifax discounted reports of an impending Italian invasion. Two days later Italy occupied Albania. Chamberlain took the invasion as a personal affront. He wrote to his sister: "It cannot be denied that Mussolini has behaved to me like a sneak and a cad."
Edward Murrow was a critic of appeasement and on 2nd September, 1939, he argued: "Some people have told me tonight that they believe a big deal is being cooked up which will make Munich and the betrayal of Czechoslovakia look like a pleasant tea party. I find it difficult to accept this thesis. I don't know what's in the mind of the government, but I do know that to Britishers their pledged word is important, and I should be very much surprised to see any government which betrayed that pledge remain long in office. And it would be equally surprising to see any settlement achieved through the mediation of Mussolini produce anything other than a temporary relaxation of the tension."
However, Chamberlain now realized that Adolf Hitler could not be trusted and his appeasement policy now came to an end. After the invasion of Poland, Chamberlain was forced to declare war on Germany. On the outbreak of the Second World War public opinion polls showed that Chamberlain's popularity was 55 per cent. By December, 1939, this had increased to 68 per cent. However, members of the House of Commons saw him as an uninspiring war leader.
On 7th May, 1940, Leo Amery, the Conservative MP, argued in the House of Commons: "Just as our peace-time system is unsuitable for war conditions, so does it tend to breed peace-time statesmen who are not too well fitted for the conduct of war. Facility in debate, ability to state a case, caution in advancing an unpopular view, compromise and procrastination are the natural qualities - I might almost say, virtues - of a political leader in time of peace. They are fatal qualities in war. Vision, daring, swiftness and consistency of decision are the very essence of victory." Looking at Chamberlain he then went onto quote what Oliver Cromwell said to the Long Parliament when he thought it was no longer fit to conduct the affairs of the nation: "You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go"
Members of the Labour Party and Liberal Party refused to serve in his proposed National Government. Chamberlain resigned and was replaced by Winston Churchill. He was appointed as Lord President of the Council in Churchill's government but ill health forced him to leave office in October 1940.
Neville Chamberlain died on 9th November, 1940.