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I believe it is peace for our time.
Neville Chamberlain, 30 September 1938

An often misunderstood politician, this article will very briefly cover what the media will tell you, and then the truth.

Chamberlain's history in the modern media almost begins and ends with the page quote. He became Prime Minister, signed the Munich Agreement with Hitler, declared there would be Peace in our time (note, he actually said something slightly different) stuck his head in the sand and ignored Hitler's aggression and then had to resign when Hitler declared war on Europe.

All of this is mostly true. It is also incorrect. The first interesting thing is that, whilst he was a member of the Conservative party he was not really a Conservative. He described himself as a Unionist, referencing the defunct Liberal Unionist party his father had been in. His domestic policy was primarily geared towards acquiring better working conditions for workers and paying the USA back the money it had lent the UK during the first world war. No-one has any complaints about his domestic policy - the focus of the vast majority of his time in office.

Whilst his quote is mostly recalled for its ironic value, Chamberlain was not being willfully blind, he was making a strategic move. Whilst he genuinely wanted a peaceful solution to the problem, Hitler was moving to a war footing. If the UK did not sign a treaty then Hitler would have to treat the UK as an immediate threat due to the treaties it held. Chamberlain felt that the UK was in no state to fight a war thanks to Stanley Baldwin, so Chamberlain went to Munich and signed a treaty he expected to be worthless so that Hitler would take his time building up and the UK could get ready for war as well. The very first thing he did on his return was meet with representatives of various industries to get them to ready for war; many factory workers did their first overtime ever in the weeks following the Munich treaty to meet the government's new orders. Whether this was the right thing to do or not is still a matter of historical debate. [1]

There was also the matter that the UK didn't want to go to war if it could avoid it at all. World War 1 had decimated a generation, and the country still hadn't recovered. The anti-war stance was the one which best represented public opinion at the time.

Following the fall of Norway, Chamberlain faced an extremely stormy debate on the whole issue in the House of Commons and calls for his resignation. The Government won, but only with a majority of 31, which Chamberlain felt was enough for him to go over.

The almost full year he bought the UK and Europe as a whole may have been key to the outcome of the war, and although Churchill disagreed with that choice, Chamberlain remained a respected member of Winston Churchill's War Cabinet and had a key role in forming the Special Operations Executive until his death from cancer six months afterwards.

Neville Chamberlain in fiction:

  • A shortsighted human official in Babylon 5 who pushes for a non-aggression pact with the Centari uses the Chamberlain misquote "Peace in our time" and is clearly meant to be a reference to Chamberlain's nonexistent appeasing stance.
  • In the Star Trek: The Next Generation novel Before Dishonor, a Federation diplomat attempts to negotiate with the Borg--and comes back declaring that "There will be peace in our time." Then the Borg blow his ship out of space.
  • In Are You Being Served, Mrs Slocombe is hit in the head with a faulty golf ball thingy and loses (or pretends to lose) her memory. When asked who the current prime minister is, she replies, "Mr Chamberlain!" Mr Spooner makes a joke about expecting her to say Gladstone.
  • The Onion's book "Our Dumb Century", which recounts the 20th. century through fake news articles, has two articles from 1943 and 1945 respectively: "Neville Chamberlain increasingly suspicious of Hitler: I believe he may be up to something" and "Neville Chamberlain slapped silly by little girl." In real life, of course, Chamberlain died in 1940.
  • The classic MGM Wartime Cartoon "Blitz Wolf" parodied The Three Little Pigs by having the Smart Pig build bunkers and buy savings bonds, while the Foolish Pigs signed a non-aggression act with the Big Bad Wolf (who was modeled after Hitler). Chamberlain wasn't mentioned, but the Munich Agreement was clearly being satirized.
  • In the David Zucker comedy, An American Carol, Neville Chamberlain is portrayed as a pacifistic suck-up who shines Hitler's boots as he's signing the Munich Agreement.
  • He makes a brief appearance in The King's Speech, congratulating George VI after his first wartime speech.
  1. Germany was also not yet prepared for a continent-wide war, and may well have lost if faced with a three-way conflict against Britain, France, and Czechoslovakia. The Czechs, incidentally, see Chamberlain as one of the great traitors of history, calling his agreement the "Munich Betrayal", as it was their nation that was handed over to Hitler without them even being represented at the negotiations. Others, however, point to the borderline fatalistic French military (the Maginot Line is the epitome of this, An army that will not leave its fortifications will die in them - Napoleon) and other factors such as the strong pro-Nazi feeling in some areas at home; mix into this how much of this Chamberlain knew, what he might have had good reason to suspect, gah, 'infinitely complicated' and 'perpetually contentious' are understatements here.