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Neville Chamberlain, Robert Self, ed., The Neville Chamberlain Diary Letters Volume 4: The Downing Street Years, 1934-1940 (London: Ashgate, 2005. £85.00 [USA $159.95] or £250.00 [$475.00] for the four-volume set, xii-588 pages, ISBN 0754652661)—Antoine Capet, Université de Rouen


A few months ago, the respected American journal of British Studies, Albion, published an excellent review by Professor R.J.Q. Adams of the first three volumes of the Neville Chamberlain Diary Letters, the tome under review here completing the set. His main point—now obvious to specialists of twentieth-century British history who have followed the constant trickle1of scholarly publications on Chamberlain and his policy, but problably news to the ‘general public’—was that there is far more to Chamberlain than the brolly-and-‘I-bring-you-peace-with-honour’ image. As Adams puts it, “The man who emerges is complex and difficult: at once with the tough politico there exists a true lover of the countryside, of bird life, of flowers, of art and of his beloved fly fishery.”2 Now, if anything, the fourth volume reinforces this impression of complexity and difficulty.

For readers who are not familiar with the format adopted by Robert Self, it is perhaps in order to recall that the books start with a substantial Introduction by the editor—some fifty pages in this instance—followed by the actual letters to his sisters Hilda (1871-1967) and Ida (1870-1943) presented in chronological order, with copious explanatory footnotes (fortunately, the reader does not have to manipulate the book constantly, as would have been the case with end notes). In his admirably informative Introduction, Self naturally situates the letters in the general context of the period—not unexpectedly dwelling on the overriding problem of the time, the handling of the ‘dictators,’ especially Hitler.

What makes his essay so good is that the examination of the severe constraints with which Chamberlain had to cope is presented with a skilful mixture of excerpts from the actual letters as well as a sort of historiographical discussion of how Chamberlain’s handling of the intractable or at least highly complicated situation has been presented since 1940—since the publication of Guilty Men in July of that year made him Guilty Man Number One.3 The reader feels that the central question, which provides the crucial background against which the whole of Chamberlain’s action in the 1930s is to be judged, is that rhetorically asked as early as 1952 by Viscount Simon: “what could Chamberlain do other than what Chamberlain did?”4 Now, Self reminds us that many authors since 1940 have tried to answer that question, often with conflicting arguments and therefore with conflicting conclusions. Guilty Men could easily be dismissed as a work of circumstance—and this was polemical journalism rather than serious history, anyway. But the Churchill charge, with the publication of The Gathering Storm in 1948,5 could not be so lightly dismissed, as David Reynolds explains in Chapters 7 and 8 of In Command of History.6

Self sees three main phases in the approach to Viscount Simon’s question, which becomes extremely difficult if we do not take it to be a rhetorical one: a) what Reynolds would no doubt call the Churchillian one—that of unmitigated indictment of Chamberlain’s policy; b) what Self calls the ‘revisionist’ phase,7 probably culminating in 1989, with its prominent representative John Charmley and his renewed attempts to justify Chamberlain’s action in Chamberlain and the Lost Peace;8 c) the current ‘post-revisionist’ stream of publications, the most recent being Neville Chamberlain, Appeasement, and the British Road to War.9

Though Self tries to present the three schools of interpretation in a dispassionate, balanced way, he cannot disguise his scepticism about the ‘post-revisionist’ case, speaking on one occasion of “grotesque misrepresentation.”10 Without openly subscribing to D.C. Watt’s view that “it is extremely difficult to like Neville Chamberlain,”11 he seems to find all sorts of reasons—in the Diary Letters and other quoted sources—to reject Chamberlain’s “firm and constant conviction that Britain simply could not contemplate an unwinnable war with Germany over an undefendable Czech state in September 1938.” [19] The conclusion of his historiographical-cum-historical re-examination of the merits of the case is a nicely nuanced one:

In retrospect, Neville Chamberlain was neither the inspired hero so extravagantly lauded in the immediate aftermath of Munich nor the foolishly misguided amateur so viciously denigrated after his fall. The complex web of beliefs, assumptions and prejudices which underpinned his policy were subject to changes in focus and emphasis as the nature of the threat became clearer and they do not conform precisely with either the classic revisionist or the post-revisionist model. [32]

After this excellent introductory essay, the reader is now in a position to turn to the Diary Letters proper. Why ‘Diary Letters’? Because in fact Chamberlain uses the letters to his sisters as a sort of personal record of his actions and thoughts, of the people he met and the conversations he had with them. Few people—except perhaps Chamberlain devotees and Self’s colleagues who want to embark on another biography of him12—will read the book from end to end at one go. Most readers will use the Index to find, for instance, what Chamberlain said of Churchill in the privacy of his letters, or they will want to refine the search: What were Chamberlain’s comments on Churchill’s attitude during, say, the Abdication Crisis? Or on Churchill’s opposition to the Indian policy of the National Government?

In a work of this nature, which is more likely to be ‘consulted’ than ‘read,’ the quality of the Index has a capital importance. In this particular instance, the Index has one direct reference, under “Churchill / political career: abdication” (followed by Churchill / political career: Irish settlement (1938)”), but none on Churchill and India. This might have been because Chamberlain never alluded to the subject—but such is not the case. On page 113, in a letter to Hilda dated 26 January 1935, Chamberlain refers twice to “Winston” trying to make mischief on the occasion of the Government of India Bill: could it be that the Index was computer-generated and that the programming protocol only included “Churchill,” thus leaving out references when Chamberlain spoke of “Winston”? This seems to be confirmed on page 118, when the passage, “The Indian Princes are behaving extremely badly, partly, Sam tells me, as a result of intrigues by Winston & his friends,” also does not deserve a reference in the Index—but then on the next page the name “Churchill” does not appear, only “Winston,” and yet the Index has a reference to page 119 under Churchill / character and judgement” (a classification which is perfectly justified in view of the passage: “As for Winston he makes a good many speeches, considerably fortified by cocktails & old brandies. Some of them are very good speeches in the old style, but they no longer convince”—Letter to Hilda dated 9 March 1935). So, this is all very puzzling: the Index is obviously helpful, but perhaps not as helpful as it should be when one looks quickly for a specific subject.

The reader in a hurry will also want to have quick access to the ‘purple passages’ such as the talks with Hitler in 1938 or the Parliamentary let-down during the Norway Debate of May 1940. In this case, the Index is not really necessary, as one can browse the pages which approximately cover the period (but of course a newcomer to Appeasement studies or internal Conservative politics would need it). Browsers and serious readers alike will not be disappointed by the two letters, to Ida (19 September 1938, after Berchtesgaden) and Hilda (2 October, after Munich), describing his interviews with Hitler. There is the reflection of the refined grandee meeting the man of the people: “His hair is brown, not black, his eyes blue, his expression rather disagreeable, especially in repose and altogether he looks entirely undistinguished. You would never notice him in a crowd & would take him for the house painter he once was” [346], and naturally a description of the scene of the signing of the (in)famous pledge never to go to war again:

At the end I pulled out the declaration which I had prepared beforehand and asked if he would sign it. As the interpreter translated the words into German Hitler frequently ejaculated Ja! Ja! and at the end he said Yes I will certainly sign it. When shall we do it. I said ‘now,’ & we went at once to the writing table & put our signatures to the two copies which I had brought with me. [350]

The next stage in what many see as the descent into Hell is the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Germans on 14 March 1939. Writing to Hilda on 19 March, Chamberlain does admit his mistake, saying, “as soon as I had time to think I saw that it was impossible to deal with Hitler after he had thrown all his own assurances to the wind.” [393] Generally, this invasion is described as an eye-opener for Chamberlain, who then went on to offer a guarantee to Poland. But if we are to believe what he affirms to his sister later in the letter, the conversion must have been a slow process: “As always I want to gain time for I never accept the view that war is inevitable.” [394] He did not write between 27 August and 10 September,13 when he took stock of the situation in a letter to Ida which reveals that he had lost none of his ‘appeasing’ delusions:

One thing comforts me. While war was still averted, I felt indispensable for no one else could carry out my policy. Today the position has changed. Half a dozen people could take my place while war was in progress and I do not see that I have any particular part to play until it comes to discussing peace terms—and that may be a long way off.

It may be, but I have a feeling that it wont be so very long. There is such a wide spread desire to avoid war & it is so deeply rooted that it surely must find expression somehow. Of course the difficulty is with Hitler himself. Until he disappears and his systems collapse there can be no peace. But what I hope for is not a military victory—I very much doubt the possibility of that—but a collapse of the German home front. For that it is necessary to convince the Germans that they cannot win. And U.S.A. might at the right moment help there. On this theory one must weigh every action in the light of its probable effect on German mentality. I hope myself we shall not start to bomb their munitions centres and objectives in towns unless they begin it. [445]

Likewise, we have no correspondence during the Norway crisis debate in Parliament (7-8 May 1940), nothing in fact between 4 and 11 May 1940—by then he was no longer Prime Minister, and the Germans were in the Low Countries. He ended his letter of 4 May once more on a note of deluded optimism, reiterating his love for the tranquil atmosphere of Chequers: “It is a vile world, but I don't think my enemies will get me down this time. I should be sorry if they did because I should then have to leave this lovely place. You couldn’t imagine anything more perfect than it is today” [528]. On 11 May he deplores the loss of this retreat: “But Chequers!” [530], and it is only a week or so later, in the next letter, on 17 May, that the cri de coeur comes: “All my world has tumbled to bits in a moment. […] I frankly envy Austen’s14 peace” [531-2]. We now know of course that he did not have long to wait until he rejoined him ad patres, on 9 November. The first hint that he was ill was when he wrote to Ida on 20 July: “I am in considerable trouble with my inside which hasn’t been working properly for a long time & is getting worse” [553]. The final words in his last letter (15 September) encapsulate the tragic irony of human life: “I wonder what I shall have to write about next week! Your affectionate brother, Neville”—by then he was terminally ill, too ill to ever write again.

In that final letter, he seemed to have come round to the Churchillian resolution for a fight to the finish: “The enemy still continues to put out feelers for peace through various channels, but I have seen no signs of a change of heart and these efforts rather look like an attempt to get victor’s terms without paying for them. As long as that is the case they will get no response here.” [556] Still, after reading all these absolutely fascinating letters,15 we feel that he must have died unrepentant, repeating to himself what he wrote of the Norway campaign to Hilda on 4 May 1940: “Looking back I do not see how we could have done anything but what we did.” [525]

There can be no doubt that all University Libraries should purchase the four-volume set in spite of its high price, which unfortunately puts it beyond the means of the private scholar.


1 Naturally, nothing to compare with the ‘flow’ of publications on Churchill. Still, the pace is accelerating: even if one accepts that the Royal Historical Society Bibliography must have missed some, more than half the publications listed in it have appeared since 1990 (Chamberlain died in 1940).

2 ‘Robert Self, ed. The Neville Chamberlain Diary Letters Volume 1: The Making of a Politician, 1915-20. Robert Self, ed. The Neville Chamberlain Diary Letters Volume 2: The Reform Years, 1921-27. Robert Self, ed. The Neville Chamberlain Diary Letters Volume 3: The Heir Apparent, 1928-33. David Dutton. Neville Chamberlain. Review article by R.J.Q. Adams, Albion, Vol. 35, N°3 (Fall 2003): 538-541.

3 ‘Cato’ [=Michael Foot, Peter Howard, Frank Owen]. Guilty Men. Victory Books, N°1. London: Victor Gollancz, 1940 (With a new Preface by Michael Foot and an Introduction by John Stevenson: Penguin, 1998).

4 The quotation (p. 23) is taken from Simon, (Sir) John (Viscount Simon). Retrospect: The Memoirs of the Rt. Hon. The Viscount Simon. London: Hutchinson, 1952, pp. 252-253. The question was a rhetorical one because Simon (1873-1954), Chamberlain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, expected everyone to agree with him that Chamberlain and his team had no choice.

5 Churchill, (Sir) Winston. The Second World War. Vol.1. The gathering Storm. London: Cassell, 1948.

6 Reynolds, David. In Command of History: Churchill fighting and writing the Second World War. London: Allen Lane, 2004. See Paul Addison’s review, in which he perfectly sums up Reynolds’s demonstration: ‘The first of his volumes, The Gathering Storm, gave a highly distorted and partisan account of the 1930s which reflected the prevalence of the “guilty men” thesis, Churchill’s bitterness at his exclusion from office, and the failure of Baldwin and Chamberlain’s biographers to mount a robust defence of their subjects.’

7 The process had been adumbrated by D.C. Watt as early as 1965. See Watt, Donald Cameron. ‘Appeasement: The rise of a revisionist school ?’ Political Quarterly 36 (April-June 1965): 191-213

8 Charmley, John. Chamberlain and the Lost Peace. London : Hodder & Stoughton, 1989.


9 McDonough, Frank. Neville Chamberlain, Appeasement, and the British Road to War. New Frontiers in History Series. Manchester: University Press, 1998. In fact, the same author has published a later booklet on the same theme, but Self does not mention it: McDonough, Frank. Hitler, Chamberlain and Appeasement. Cambridge Perspectives in History. Cambridge: University Press, 2002.

10 When dismissing (p. 25) Aster’s refutation of the ‘breathing space’ theory in Aster, Sidney. ‘“Guilty Men’ : The case of Neville Chamberlain.” In Boyce, Robert & Robertson, Esmonde M. [Editors]. Paths to War : New Essays on the Origins of the Second World War. New York: St Martin’s Press, 1989: 233-268 (Reissue in Finney, Patrick [Editor]. The Origins of the Second World War. Arnold Readers in History. London: Arnold, 1997 : 62-78).

11 The quotation (p. 9) is taken from Watt, Donald Cameron. How War Came : The Immediate Origins of the Second World War, 1938-1939. London: Heinemann, 1989, p. 76.

12 A new 700-page Chamberlain Biography by Robert Self was published in July 2006 .

13 In other words exactly one week after his ultimatum to Germany had expired on Sunday 3 September. Chamberlain was writing from the relaxing atmosphere of Chequers.

14 Austen Chamberlain, his half-brother, who died of apoplexy in 1937.

15 Incidentally, one should salute Robert Self’s meticulous proof-reading, as not a single mistake was detected.


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