Literary Review - December 2005 / January 2006
A NDREW R OBERTS GUILTY?
T HE N EVILLE C HAMBERLAIN D IARY L ETTERS , V OLUME IV: T HE D OWNING S TREET Y EARS , 1934–1940
Edited by Robert Self (Ashgate 588pp £82.50, 4 Vols £250)
N EVILLE C HAMBERLAINWAS nothing if not a diligent correspondent. Every week he wrote to his sisters Ida and Hilda letters that were in effect a diary of all that he was doing politically. They have long been invaluable for historians in archive form, but now they have finally been published in extenso, along with a scholarly fifty-page introduction and helpful footnotes by their very diligent editor, Robert Self. There is also a glossary of nicknames so that readers will be able to identify ‘The All-Highest’ (Lord Curzon), ‘The Goat’ (Lloyd George), ‘Our Herb’ (Herbert Samuel), and so on. Self marks the triumphant conclusion of a five-year endeavour with this, the fourth and last volume, which covers Chamberlain from January 1934 until his death in November 1940. Unfortunately the huge price of this book will mean that few will be able to buy a copy. However, anyone visiting a library will now be able to read the week-by-week testimony of the man who masterminded much of the Abdication Crisis, pursued the appeasement of Nazi Germany until the Munich Agreement of September 1938, guaranteed Poland the following April, and took Britain to war in September 1939, only to cede the premiership to Winston Churchill after the Norway Debate of May 1940. For all the confidentially fraternal idiom of these letters, the events they describe are of world-shattering moment. Readers can at last decide for themselves whether Chamberlain was a noble striver after peace or, in the words of one of the bestselling philippics against him, the leader of ‘The Guilty Men’. Or both. Or neither. I suspect that after reading these pages, most people will agree with Self’s own conclusion that ‘Neville Chamberlain was neither the inspired hero so extravagantly lauded in the immediate aftermath of Munich nor the foolishly misguided amateur so viciously
Chamberlain: boundlessly self-confident
denigrated after his fall.’ After the Cabinet minutes in the National Archives, these letters are the single most important historical source for the appeasement period. The ultimate insider’s contemporary account, they are also the most significant documents to be published on the Second World War period since the unexpurgated diaries of Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke. Chamberlain’s personality inevitably comes through powerfully in these 588 pages. He was ambitious, keen to replace Stanley Baldwin as premier long before 1937, by which time he was sixty-eight years old; comfortable with power (‘As Chancellor of the Exchequer I could hardly move a pebble, now I only have to raise a finger and the whole face of Europe is changed!’); boundlessly self-confident (he even referred to ‘the Chamberlain touch’); and occasionally caustic (Clement Davies MP was ‘that treacherous Welshman’, Wallis Simpson was ‘a thoroughly selfish and heartless adventuress’, and so on). Although Chamberlain started off with a credulous attitude towards Hitler when he flew to Germany for the first time in September 1938 (writing ‘I got the impression that here was a man who could be relied upon when he had given his word’), he always disliked him personally, warning the Cabinet after his second meeting that the Führer ‘had a narrow mind and was violently prejudiced on certain subjects’. Although the Munich Agreement did indeed buy an extra year for rearmament, which Britain put to invaluable use building the Spitfires and Hurricanes that were to win the Battle of Britain, that was only a by-product of a deal which Chamberlain genuinely believed at the time had won ‘peace for our time’. Yet Chamberlain also wrote several times about the need for air rearmament (as these letters attest), seeing it primarily as making war less likely rather than as being necessary for national survival in the event of catastrophe on the Western Front. The collapse of May 1940 surprised him as much as anyone. As Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Thirties he had been responsible for lowering defence expenditure, rather as Churchill had been the previous decade, though with much less of an excuse. Chamberlain was no master of the gripping phrase; there is no Churchillian rhetoric in this volume and no one will read it for the language so much as for the fascinating content. A sign of how remote he was, or
LITERARY REVIEW Dec 2005 / Jan 2006