Back to Book Reviews

Back to Cercles



Neville Chamberlain : A Biography.
Robert C. Self

 Aldershot : Ashgate, 2006.
£ 35.00. ISBN 0754656152, xi-573 pages

Reviewed by Antoine Capet


In a recent article discussing his latest book on Churchill 1, David Reynolds mentions a conversation with a friend who found it odd that one should continue to write on Churchill as it seemed unlikely that anything new could be written on the great man considering the enormous literature on him 2. The same reasoning could apply to men like Neville Chamberlain (1869-1940)—there are already a fair number of books and articles of a biographical nature, from the hagiographies of the late 1930s 3 to the accelerating output of the 1990s and early 2000s 4, let alone the ‘authorised’ Biography 5.
And yet, of course, there can be two justifications for such enterprises: the discovery and discussion of new material, or the revisiting of existing material in a fresh light. Or both—which is the case in Robert Self’s magisterial biography (as it was in Reynolds’s equally magisterial study). The ‘blurb’ on the dust jacket flap insists that Self had access to material not used by his predecessors (either because it was not yet available 6, or because they did not take the trouble to seek it, one supposes):

Based on the study of over 150 collections of private papers on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as exhaustive exploration of British government records held in the National Archives, it is no exaggeration to say that the author has surveyed virtually all the existing archival material written by or to Chamberlain, as well as a high proportion of that referring to him.

This is of course a precondition for writing that elusive thing, the ‘definitive’ biography. But not a sufficient condition, as the quality of a biography rests on the exploitation of the material—the interpretation and insights—provided by the author. In a way, one can be a ‘Chamberlain scholar’ who knows the minutest trivia about the man without producing a state-of-the-art biography. Readers who are already familiar with the copious texts and notes which accompanied Robert Self’s superb edition of Neville Chamberlain’s Diaries 7 will of course expect more than an exhaustive list of facts—and indeed what we have here is a magnificently argumentative interpretation (though this does not mean that one cannot dispute it) on top of a superbly authoritative chronicle of events in Chamberlain’s life. Any biographer of Neville Chamberlain faces an uphill task: not really that of ‘defending his hero’ for his Appeasement policy, because after all he has plenty of ammunition to do that, as we will see—but that of interesting his reader in the necessarily long chapters from Chamberlain’s birth to 1938-1940, which is the episode for which (for better or worse) he is primarily remembered.
Classically, in order to solve what he calls ‘the Chamberlain enigma’ in his introductory chapter, Robert Self, begins with his ‘Formative Influences’ (Chapter 2). Then we have chapters on Birmingham, on ‘the Frustrated Backbencher’, on the Ministry of Health, on his interest in economic affairs, in Opposition (1929-31) or at the Exchequer (1931-37)—which did not prevent him from intervening in ‘Foreign and Defence Policy, 1934-1937’. Thus it is only more than half-way through the book (p. 261, out of 451 pages of text proper) that the passage in his life which provides the ‘meat’ expected, one can suppose, by most readers—his Premiership from May 1937—is finally reached.
By that stage, we know that Robert Self leaves no stone unturned in his efforts to be fair to Chamberlain, culminating in the remarkable re-examination of his much criticised ‘orthodox’ financial policy based on a rejection of Keynesianism [ 204-12] and of his attempts at persuading people of the necessity of rearmament [252-55]. Chamberlain emerges in an altogether favourable light (or at least not as the ‘Guilty Man’ which contemporary 8 and later critics liked to present). The ‘New Style of Prime Minister, May 1937-February 1938’ (Chapter 12) ends with Eden’s resignation—the conventional starting point of the rift between the Appeasers led by Chamberlain and their opponents led by Churchill.
Anthony Eden was at the Foreign Office, and Chamberlain replaced him with Lord Halifax—who has if possible an even more negative image than Chamberlain, not only for his unconditional support (at least initially) of the Prime Minister (‘founded principally upon a genuine convergence of view rather than sycophantic deference’, 292), but for his apparent readiness to sell out to Hitler in May-June 1940. The period was inauspicious, with Hitler’s dismissal of von Neurath, the professional diplomat, and his replacement with Ribbentrop, perceived as a Nazi nonentity par Chamberlain—and with Germany’s invasion of Austria. Robert Self reminds us of all these elements the better to put forward once more the case for the defence: what else could Chamberlain have done over what he knew was to be Hitler’s next move, Czechoslovakia? Chamberlain, like most of his fellow-countrymen, believed (and he was proved right in 1939-40) that the United States would not intervene unless and until they perceived a real threat to their own homeland. Moreover Chamberlain also thought (and he was also proved right in 1939-40) that even France was of no help 9. So it boiled down to a confrontation between Britain and Germany. Self quotes a Cabinet document of March 1938 in which Chamberlain notably concludes: ‘Therefore we could not help Czechoslovakia—she would simply be a pretext for going to war with Germany. This we could not think of unless we had a reasonable prospect of being able to beat her to her knees in a reasonable time and of that I see no sign’ [295].
This is of course the crux of the debate ever since between the pro- and anti-Chamberlain camps—an idle debate in some ways since one will never know if an Anglo-French attack on Germany in March or October 1938 would have resulted in eventual military victory. Discussing the number of equipped divisions, the tonnage of ships and air force capacity in the two camps at the time is also largely illusory, since the will to fight of the troops—and of the Home Front—is all-important, as the actual war forcefully demonstrated, and cannot really be quantified.
In fact, the debate revolves around Chamberlain’s decision not to attack Germany: was it dictated by lack of nerve (the antithesis being of course Churchill), by a superior grasp of the international situation (Chamberlain as the master practioner of Realpolitik) or by his deliberate will to sell out to the pro-Capitalist (so he thought) and anti-Bolshevik Fascists and Nazis to counter the Socialist enemy within (the thesis of Guilty Men)? That debate has already been excellently examined and discussed by Robert Self himself—in the copious Introduction to his edition of the Chamberlain Diaries. All he can do in the Biography, therefore, is give the elements once again, in more detail—but it is clear that he believes that there is an a posteriori case for supporting Chamberlain’s Realpolitik stance, as events have vindicated his prediction of a disastrous war for Britain:

[Chamberlain had ‘the absolute certainty that any attempt’ to save Czechoslovakia] would provoke a ruinous and probably unwinnable war which would soon bring in Japan and Italy, destroy the British Empire, squander its wealth and undermine its position as a Great Power. In this context, notwithstanding retrospective wisdom about the insatiable nature of Hitler’s ambitions, it should not be forgotten that Chamberlain’s dismal prediction about the cost and dangers of war for Britain proved only too accurate. [295]

The only trouble, of course, is that international politics is not only a question of Realpolitik—it is also to do with human affairs, and the ancient philosophers introduced the notion of morals into these human affairs. Robert Self is at pains to remind us that Chamberlain improvised the repetition of Disraeli’s famous phrase, ‘peace with honour’: unusually, he yielded both to emotion and to pressure from his advisers as he climbed the stairs to the first floor of 10, Downing Street, from which he was to address the crowds—only to regret it ever after. He could not know that he was not bringing ‘peace for our time’—his concluding words from the first-floor window. His opponents cannot really blame him for that: at the time Hitler was proclaiming every day that he only wanted peace. For a large proportion of the British press, the real war-mongers were not the Hitlerites but the Jews, Reds and Churchillians who viciously refused to acknowledge the German Chancellor’s good faith. In hindsight, this is of course the tragic lesson of Appeasement.
But he knew—or should have known, considering his impeccable education, discussed in the early chapters of the Biography—that he was not bringing ‘honour’. And for this, in spite of Robert Self’s best efforts, Chamberlain will never be pardoned by History. He acted according to his lights—and therefore honourably as a poor mortal—by opting for the ‘realistic’ Munich agreements. But his pronouncement that his action was compatible with honour when he knew it was not was irretrievably dishonourable—whatever he may have said to attenuate his words later in private or in public. As Robert Self admits, "‘it was far too late,’ the consequence being that ‘for later generations and for many of his own, Neville Chamberlain’s name would always be synonymous with that hollow promise of 'peace with honour'" [326].
In the next chapter, entitled ‘Betrayal, October 1938-March 1939’ (Chapter 14), Self plays on the word betrayal, Chamberlain being increasingly seen as the man who had betrayed the code of honour of his country (though with most of that country’s tacit approval), and Chamberlain being seen as the man who was betrayed by Hitler’s breach of the Munich agreements. Robert Self excellently documents the uneasy approval by a wide body of opinion, ‘from the King and Queen downwards’, of what Bruce Lockhart called the ‘peace of which everyone was glad and nobody proud’ [328-29]. In this his book is far more than a mere biography: a superb chronicle of events in Britain, illustrated with quotations—not all emanating from naïve Conservative supporters—which make us wince today. Naturally this also doubles up as an extremely well documented chronicle of intrigue in the House of Commons from Munich to his downfall in May 1940.
From then on, the book describes Chamberlain’s slow descent into Hell, with slights coming from Hitler and Mussolini, but also from his ‘friends’—and perhaps above all because of his self-inflicted wounds. All of Chamberlain’s unfortunate, overconfident phrases after ‘peace with honour’ are replaced in their context and their consequences — a gradual, but undeniable lack in credibility—are analysed in detail, the culmination being reached with the notorious ‘Hitler missed the bus’ speech of 4 April 1940, five days before the Germans successful attack on Denmark and Norway, which, Self believes, ‘made his propensity for facile optimism appear to be a national danger greater than Hitler himself’ [415]. In his very well documented discussion of the Norway debate which finally led to Chamberlain’s resignation, Robert Self appears to accept the more recent interpretations of the ‘Tory rebellion’, namely that it seems that the number of rebels was in fact lower than has traditionally been put forward [426]. In the absence of reliable figures on ‘National’ MPs who did not turn up to vote because of genuine war duties, this will always remain a matter for speculation, but Self dismisses the hypothesis that he secretly preferred Churchill to suceed him…in order to be able to come back after the war, simply because ‘there is absolutely no evidence to substantiate the suggestion [429-30].
When Chamberlain tendered his resignation to the King on 10 May 1940, he of course remained in his successor’s Cabinet, and Robert Self insists on the irony of the key role—already pointed out by Lukacs 10—which he played in the capital Cabinet debates of 26-28 May in tipping the scales in favour of Churchill’s resolve (no negotiations with Germany via Mussolini) against Halifax’s readiness to explore the possibility. The arch-‘appeaser’ had backed the ‘war-monger’ against his former foremost associate—belatedly, admittedly, but at what was perhaps the crucial moment in the decision to fight on. In return, as is well known, Churchill crushed all attempts to expel him from the Cabinet, though he could not prevent continued attacks from the Left.

Naturally, in its concluding paragraphs, the book tries to assess the positive and negative aspects of the life which has been the object of the 450 or so preceding pages. For Self, a purely quantitative calculation makes it possible to argue that his three years of perceived failure should not obscure 25 years of undoubted success:

Recollections of Chamberlain’s uniquely personal association with the failed efforts to preserve peace during the last three years of his life inexorably tainted perceptions of his entire life and obliterated from public memory his far broader achievement over the preceding quarter century as both a radical social reformer and a successful Chancellor of the Exchequer. [450]

Though some would dispute that he was a radical social reformer, and even more that he was a successful Chancellor of the Exchequer, this is not the main weakness in the argument, for nobody would continue to write biographies of Neville Chamberlain if it were not for these three highly controversial years—and hardly anybody would buy them anyway outside libraries specialising in Social and Economic Affairs. Whatever the objective importance of social reform in the 1920s or Exchequer policy in the 1930s, foreign policy in the crucial years 1938-1940 will always take precedence in  studies of 20th-century British History. So, it is perfectly legitimate that it is on these three years in Chamberlain’s life that mainstream scholarly and popular interest alike should primarily rest.

Another weakness in Robert Self’s attempted refutation of the Guilty Men/Gathering Storm thesis is when he concludes that in fact there was no safe course to steer in the late 1930s. He misses the point that this may have been true of an unimaginative man like Chamberlain, but that a bold, charismatic leader—like Lloyd George before him and Churchill after him—would perhaps have risen to the occasion in these ‘impossible’ circumstances. By insisting that Neville Chamberlain was after all only an ordinary human caught in a maelstrom which required superhuman powers, Robert Self in fact unwittingly damns him with faint praise. The Second World War ‘revealed’ a substantial number of giants in their struggle against the Fascist and Nazi Dictators and their defeatist friends in the conquered countries: Churchill, de Gaulle, Mao, Roosevelt, Stalin, Tito—but even his staunchest supporters would not suggest adding Chamberlain to the list.

Thus, although we do have the ‘robust defence’ of Chamberlain which Paul Addison tells us Self’s predecessors failed to provide, it can be supposed that it will only convince those who were already convinced. This of course does not detract from the superb scholarly value of the book. Since this cannot be the ‘definitive’ Biography, as there is no such notion, one wonders what may remain to be found by future biographers and one pities them. What makes it even more valuable and difficult to improve upon is that Robert Self gives extensive extracts from the Diary Letters which he has so competently edited. Ideally, one should read the Biography with the Diary Letters handy, in order to have the full letters which Self could not obviously quote in extenso. The four volumes of Diary Letters and the Biography form a magnum opus which is likely to remain the state of the art on Neville Chamberlain for many years.
Anybody interested in the inter-war years will find the book a capital addition to the existing literature—and this means a lot of scholars in British Studies, British Politics, European History, International Relations, War Studies, not forgetting Social and Economic Affairs. The copious 13-page Guide to Sources will also be found extremely useful by the researcher on 20th-century British History, as well as the abundance of secondary material referenced in the notes. There is no doubt that this is scholarly biographical writing at its best. All University Libraries should naturally stock the book, whose clear, jargon-free prose will set an excellent example to undergraduates for essay writing.



1 David Reynolds, In Command of History : Churchill Fighting and Writing the Second World War (London: Allen Lane, 2004). Reviewed for Cercles by Paul Addison. back

2 David Reynolds, ‘Watching Churchill take command of history’. Finest Hour—Journal of the Churchill Center and Societies 131 (Summer 2006) : 47-49 [47]. back

3 E.g. Stuart Hodgson, The Man who made the Peace : Neville Chamberlain—A Study (London: Christophers, 1938). back

4 E.g. Peter Neville, Neville Chamberlain: A Study in Failure? Personalities & Power series (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1992) ; Frank McDonough, Neville Chamberlain, Appeasement, and the British Road to War, New Frontiers in History Series (Manchester: University Press, 1998); John Ruggiero, Neville Chamberlain and British Rearmament: Pride, Prejudice and Politics, Contributions to the Study of World History, N°71, (London: Greenwood, 1999); David Dutton, Neville Chamberlain, Reputations Series (London: Arnold, 2001); Frank McDonough, Hitler, Chamberlain and Appeasement, Cambridge Perspectives in History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002). back

5 Keith Feiling, The Life of Neville Chamberlain (London: Macmillan, 1946); with a new Preface and Bibliography, 1970. back

6 This was of course the case for Keith Feiling, as Robert Self reminds us in his Preface. back

7 Neville Chamberlain, Robert Self, ed., The Neville Chamberlain Diary Letters. Vol. 1. The Making of a Politician, 1915-20; vol. 2. The Reform Years, 1921-27; Vol. 3. The Heir Apparent, 1928-33; vol. 4. The Downing Street Years, 1934-1940 (London: Ashgate, 2000-2005). See review of Volume 4: The Downing Street Years, 1934-1940 in Cercles. back

8 ‘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. Cf. Paul Addison’s review of In Command of History:

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. back

9 See also his letter to Hilda of 29 June 1940 (The Neville Chamberlain Diary Letters, vol. 4; The Downing Street Years, 1934-1940, [546] and the passage quoted in the Biography: "We are in fact alone and at any rate we are free of our obligations to the French who have been nothing but a liability to us. It would have been far better if they had been neutral from the beginning" [434]. back

10 See John Lukacs, Five Days in London, May 1940 (Yale University Press, 1999), Paperback, 2001, [122] : "It is thus that, during what was probably the greatest crisis for Britain in long centuries, Churchill did not have to face opposition from Chamberlain. Few people outside the War Cabinet were aware of that." back


All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the copyright owner. Please contact us before using any material on this website.