His premiership was dominated by the question of policy towards an increasingly aggressive Germany, and his actions at Munich were widely popular among the British at the time. In response to Hitler’s continued aggression, Chamberlain pledged Great Britain to defend Poland’s independence if the latter were attacked, an alliance that brought his country into war after the German invasion of Poland.
The failure of Allied forces to prevent the German invasion of Norway caused the House of Commons to hold the historic Norway Debate in May 1940. Chamberlain’s conduct of the war was heavily criticised by members of all parties and, in a vote of confidence, his government’s majority was greatly reduced.
Accepting that a national government supported by all the main parties was essential, Chamberlain resigned the premiership because the Labour and Liberal parties would not serve under his leadership.
Although he still led the Conservative Party, he was succeeded as prime minister by his colleague Winston Churchill.
Until ill health forced him to resign on 22 September 1940, Chamberlain was an important member of the war cabinet as Lord President of the Council, heading the government in Churchill’s absence. Chamberlain died at 71 on 9 November 1940 of cancer, six months after leaving the premiership.
Chamberlain was reluctant to seek a military alliance with the Soviet Union; he distrusted Joseph Stalin ideologically and felt that there was little to gain, given the recent massive purges in the Red Army.
Much of his Cabinet favoured such an alliance, and when Poland withdrew her objection to an Anglo–Soviet alliance, Chamberlain had little choice but to proceed. The talks with Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov, to which Britain sent only a low-level delegation, dragged on over several months and eventually foundered on 14 August 1939 when Poland and Romania refused to allow Soviet troops to be stationed on their territories.
A week after the failure of these talks, the Soviet Union and Germany signed the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, committing the countries to non-aggression toward each other. A secret agreement divided up Poland in the event of war. Chamberlain had disregarded rumours of a Soviet–German “rapprochement” and was dismissive of the publicly announced pact, stating that it in no way affected British obligations toward Poland.
On 23 August 1939, Chamberlain had Henderson deliver a letter to Hitler telling him that Britain was fully prepared to comply with its obligations to Poland. Hitler instructed his generals to prepare for an invasion of Poland, telling them:
“Our enemies are small worms. I saw them at Munich.”
Germany invaded Poland in the early morning of 1 September 1939. The British Cabinet met late that morning and issued a warning to Germany that unless it withdrew from Polish territory Britain would carry out its obligations to Poland. When the House of Commons met at 6:00 pm, Chamberlain and Labour deputy leader Arthur Greenwood (deputising for the sick Clement Attlee) entered the chamber to loud cheers. Chamberlain spoke emotionally, laying the blame for the conflict on Hitler.
No formal declaration of war was immediately made. French Foreign Minister Georges Bonnet stated that France could do nothing until its parliament met on the evening of 2 September.
Bonnet was trying to rally support for a Munich-style summit proposed by the Italians to be held on 5 September. The British Cabinet demanded that Hitler be given an ultimatum at once, and if troops were not withdrawn by the end of 2 September, that war be declared forthwith.
Chamberlain and Halifax were convinced by Bonnet’s pleas from Paris that France needed more time for mobilisation and evacuation, and postponed the expiry of the ultimatum (which had in fact not yet been served). Chamberlain’s lengthy statement to the House of Commons made no mention of an ultimatum, and the House received it badly.
When Greenwood rose to “speak for the working classes,” Conservative backbencher Leo Amery urged him, “Speak for England, Arthur,” implying that the Prime Minister was not doing so. Chamberlain replied that telephone difficulties were making it hard to communicate with Paris and tried to dispel fears that the French were weakening. He had little success; too many members knew of Bonnet’s efforts.
National Labour MP and diarist Harold Nicolson later wrote, “In those few minutes he flung away his reputation.”
Despite these difficulties, Chamberlain still enjoyed approval ratings as high as 68% and almost 60% in April 1940.
Chamberlain (centre, hat and umbrella in hands) walks with German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop (right) as the Prime Minister leaves for home after the Berchtesgaden meeting, 16 September 1938. On the left is Alexander von Dörnberg, diplomat and SS officer, head of the Protocol Department of the Foreign Office.
Chamberlain took from his pocket a paper headed “Anglo–German Agreement,” which contained three paragraphs, including a statement that the two nations considered the Munich Agreement “symbolic of the desire of our two peoples never to go to war again.” According to Chamberlain, Hitler interjected “Ja! Ja!” (“Yes! Yes!”) as the Prime Minister read it. The two men signed the paper then and there. When, later that day, German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop remonstrated with Hitler for signing it, the Führer replied, “Oh, don’t take it so seriously. That piece of paper is of no further significance whatever.” Chamberlain, on the other hand, patted his breast pocket when he returned to his hotel for lunch and said, “I’ve got it!” Word leaked of the outcome of the meetings before Chamberlain’s return, causing delight among many in London but gloom for Churchill and his supporters.
Chamberlain returned to London in triumph. Large crowds mobbed Heston, where he was met by the Lord Chamberlain, the Earl of Clarendon, who gave him a letter from King George VI assuring him of the Empire’s lasting gratitude and urging him to come straight to Buckingham Palace to report. The streets were so packed with cheering people that it took Chamberlain an hour and a half to journey the nine miles (14 km) from Heston to the Palace. After reporting to the King, Chamberlain and his wife appeared on the Palace balcony with the King and Queen. He then went to Downing Street; both the street and the front hall of Number 10 were packed. As he headed upstairs to address the crowd from a first-floor window.
King George issued a statement to his people, “After the magnificent efforts of the Prime Minister in the cause of peace it is my fervent hope that a new era of friendship and prosperity may be dawning among the peoples of the world.”
Most newspapers supported Chamberlain uncritically, and he received thousands of gifts, from a silver dinner service to many of his trademark umbrellas.
The Commons discussed the Munich Agreement on 3 October 🙂