Neville Chamberlain became Prime Minister in May 1937.
He is synonymous with the policy of ‘appeasement’ – of trying to avoid large scale warfare in Europe by seeking a diplomatic solution with Germany.
His reason for pursuing appeasement were two fold – firstly he thought that he could help address Germany’s grievance after the Treaty of Versailles and felt that if he were seen to be fair he could then achieve success and stop the threat of war.
Secondly, he believed that war was inevitable but that appeasement was worth trying. He knew Britain wasn’t prepared for war and needed some time to improve its position,it was also suggested that Chamberlain new that British air defenses were weak and the more time he could gain the stronger they could become.
He met with Adolf Hitler three times in 1938, famously returning with a signed undertaking from the Nazi leader which Chamberlain thought would offer ‘peace in our time’.
March 1939, German troops took over the rest of Czechoslovakia. Poland seemed to be the next most likely victim of Nazi aggression and Chamberlain made an agreement with the Poles to defend them in Germany invaded. Hitler did not think Britain would go to war over Poland, having failed to do so over Czechoslovakia. He sent his soldiers into Poland in September 1939. The same day, Britain declared war on Germany.
However, Hitler went back on his word and German troops took over the rest of Czechoslovakia, it appeared that Poland would be his next victim and Chamberlain made an agreement with Poland to defend them if Germany invaded and on 1st September 1939 Hitler invaded. It was then Chamberlain’s solemn duty to announce to the nation that Britain was “at war with Germany”.
In an emotional voice this is what Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain said-
“I am speaking to you from the Cabinet Room at 10, Downing Street.
This morning the British Ambassador in Berlin handed the German Government a final note stating that unless we heard from them by 11.00 a.m. that they were prepared at once to withdraw their troops from Poland, a state of war would exist between us.
I have to tell you that no such undertaking has been received, and that consequently this country is at war with Germany.
You can imagine what a bitter blow it is to me that all my long struggle to win peace has failed. Yet I cannot believe that there is anything more or anything different I could have done and that would have been more successful. Up to the very last it would have been quite possible to have arranged a peaceful and honourable settlement between Germany and Poland, but Hitler would not have it.
He had evidently made up his mind to attack Poland whatever happened; and although he now says he has put forward reasonable proposals which were rejected by the Poles, that is not a true statement.
The proposals were never shown to the Poles nor to us; and although they were announced in a German broadcast on Thursday night, Hitler did not wait to make comment on them, but ordered his troops to cross the Polish frontier. His actions show convincingly that there is no chance of expecting that this man will ever give up his practice of using force to gain his will. He can only be stopped by force.
We and France are today, in fulfillment of our obligations, going to the aid of Poland, who is so bravely resisting this wicked and unprovoked attack on her people. We have a clear conscience. We have done all that any country could do to establish peace. The situation in which no word given to Germany’s ruler could be trusted and no people or country could feel themselves safe has become intolerable.
And now that we have resolved to finish it, I know that you will play your part with calmness and courage. At such a moment as this the assurances of support that we have received from the Empire are a source of profound encouragement to us.
When I have finished speaking certain detailed announcements will be made on behalf of the Government. Give these your closest attention. The Government have made plans under which it will be possible to carry on the work of the nation in the days of stress and strain that may be ahead. But these plans need your help.
You may be taking part in the fighting Services or as a volunteer in one of the branches of civil defence. If so you will report for duty in accordance with the instructions you have received. You may be engaged in work essential to the prosecution of war for the maintenance of the life of the people – in factories, in transport, in public utility concerns or in the supply of other necessaries of life. If so, it is of vital importance that you should carry on with your jobs.
Now may God bless you all. May He defend the right. It is the evil things that we shall be fighting against – brute force, bad faith, injustice, oppression and persecution – and against them I am certain that the right will prevail.”
That afternoon Chamberlain addressed the House of Commons’ first Sunday session in over 120 years. He spoke to a quiet House in a statement which even opponents termed “restrained and therefore effective”:
Everything that I have worked for, everything that I have hoped for, everything that I have believed in during my public life has crashed into ruins. There is only one thing left for me to do: that is devote what strength and power I have to forwarding the victory of the cause for which we have sacrificed so much.
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