‘He had a love of peace’: Winston Churchill’s warm words of tribute to Neville Chamberlain on this day in November 1940 after his death and the failure of the 1938 Munich Agreement which led to WWII

  • Neville Chamberlain had served as Prime Minister from 1937 until May 10, 1940
  • Then served in Winston Churchill’s War Cabinet as Lord President of the Council
  • He died on November 9 following surgeons’ discovery of terminal bowel cancer
  • Churchill paid tribute to Chamberlain in a speech in the House of Commons

On November 9, 1940, just two days before Britons were due to pause and remember those killed in the First World War, the man who had failed in his quest to avoid a second conflict with Germany succumbed to cancer.

Neville Chamberlain, who was 71, had been Prime Minister for three years from 1937 until May 10, 1940, and had served in the War Cabinet of his successor Winston Churchill until a month before his death.

Whilst Chamberlain’s time in Downing Street had ended with the failure of his foremost political mission – that of preventing war with Nazi Germany – Churchill stood up in the House of Commons on this day 81 years ago and honoured the man he had so fiercely criticised.

He said Chamberlain had the most ‘noble and benevolent instincts of the human heart, the love of peace, the toil for peace, the strife for peace, the pursuit of peace, even at great peril.’

But, he added, the politician had been ‘deceived’ by the ‘wicked’ Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler, who had agreed in the September 1938 Munich Agreement to limit his European territorial ambitions to the Sudetenland region of what was then Czechoslovakia.

The Nazi leader had already absorbed Austria into Germany in March 1938 and had been pushing to do the same with his planned invasion of the Sudetenland, where around three million people of German origin lived.

Whilst Chamberlain had told the British public that he believed it was ‘peace for our time’, Churchill had warned him that he had had a choice between ‘war and dishonour’ and, because he had chosen the latter, ‘you will have war’.

The following year, Churchill was proven correct when Hitler rode roughshod over the deal signed in Munich by annexing all of Czechoslovakia in March and invading Poland in September.

On November 9, 1940, just two days before Britons were due to pause and remember the millions killed in the First World War, the man who had failed in his quest to avoid a second conflict with Germany succumbed to cancer. Pictured: Chamberlain in 1938, holding the Munich Agreement which had been signed with Adolf Hitler in the hope of avoiding war

Whilst Chamberlain’s time in Downing Street had ended with the failure of his foremost political mission – preventing war with Nazi Germany through the policy of appeasement – Churchill stood up in the House of Commons and honoured the man he had so fiercely criticised with warm words of tribute 

It was that last act of aggression which was the final straw even for the peace-loving Chamberlain – Britain declared war on Germany on September 3, 1939.

Chamberlain’s downfall as PM then came in May the following year, after the failure of the Allied campaign to defend Norway against Hitler’s forces.

What was the Munich Agreement?  

The Munich Agreement was signed on September 30, 1938, as an attempt to appease Adolf Hitler.

Hitler had his eye on the Sudentenland in Czechoslovakia.

Around three million people who lived in the region were of German origin.

As the Soviet Union had a treaty with Czechoslovakia they rushed to the country’s defence.

Britain and France also became involved.

As Hitler made speeches about Germans coming home it appeared war was imminent.

Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain met with the Fuhrer twice before the Munich Agreement was proposed.

The agreement, which had no input from Czechoslovakia, annexed the Sudentenland to Germany.

The hope was that appeasing Hitler would stop his aggression.

At the time Prime Minister Chamberlain was hailed by some as a hero for his actions in bringing about the agreement.

He declared in London after signing the agreement: ‘My good friends, for the second time in our history, a British Prime Minister has returned from Germany bringing peace with honour.

‘I believe it is peace for our time. We thank you from the bottom of our hearts. Go home and get a nice quiet sleep.’ 

When the Labour Party refused to shore up his Government, Chamberlain resigned and, when Conservative minister Lord Halifax proved reluctant to become PM, the role fell into the hands of Churchill.

When Churchill took over in Downing Street on May 10, Chamberlain remained as leader of the Conservative Party and adopted the position of Lord President of the Council in his former rival’s War Cabinet.

However, his ongoing presence in Government prompted attacks from both Labour and the Liberal Party, who wanted him to leave frontline politics altogether.

Fierce criticism came from the press, with a polemic titled Guilty Men –written by a trio of journalists which included future Labour leader Michael Foot – selling more than 200,000 copies.

It accused Chamberlain and his government of failing to prepare adequately for the prospect of war with Germany.

The tome called for the removal of Chamberlain and other ministers they deemed responsible for Britain’s failures in the first months of the war.

However, by July 1940, the critics’ calls were answered in a different way: when surgeons discovered that Chamberlain was suffering from terminal bowel cancer.

Whilst his doctors initially concealed the terrible news from him, Chamberlain was forced to the leave Government when he was beset by repeated bouts of severe pain.

Whilst his formal resignation as Lord President of the Council came on October 3, he had told Churchill in September that he wished to step down.

An original draft of Churchill’s reply to Chamberlain’s resignation letter was sold at auction earlier this month.

In the letter, Churchill had addressed his former boss as ‘My dear Neville’ and said: The help you have given me since you ceased to be my chief tided us through what may well prove to be the turning point of the war, You did all you could for peace; you did all you could for victory.

‘If you now tell me you must fall out of the line, I cannot resist your claim.’

When his death came the following month, Churchill stood at the dispatch box in the House of Commons to give a full public tribute to Chamberlain.

He opened his speech by saying that the House had suffered the ‘grievous loss’ of ‘one of its most distinguished members’.

He said the ‘bitter controversies’ which had plagued Chamberlain had been ‘hushed’ by news of his illness and ‘silenced’ by his death.

Churchill then added: ‘It fell to Neville Chamberlain in one of the supreme crises of the world to be contradicted by events, to be disappointed in his hopes, and to be deceived and cheated by a wicked man. But what were these hopes in which he was disappointed?

‘What were these wishes in which he was frustrated? What was that faith that was abused?

‘They were surely among the most noble and benevolent instincts of the human heart-the love of peace, the toil for peace, the strife for peace, the pursuit of peace, even at great peril, and certainly to the utter disdain of popularity or clamour.

German forces then invaded Poland in September 1939, leading Britain and France to declare war on Germany

‘Whatever else history may or may not say about these terrible, tremendous years, we can be sure that Neville Chamberlain acted with perfect sincerity according to his lights and strove to the utmost of his capacity and authority, which were powerful, to save the world from the awful, devastating struggle in which we are now engaged.

‘This alone will stand him in good stead as far as what is called the verdict of history is concerned.’

Churchill finished his speech by uttering warm words for Chamberlain’s wife, Anne, and mentioning how his both his father and brother had been prominent politicians.

‘Members of all parties, without a single exception, feel that we do ourselves and our country honour in saluting the memory of one whom Disraeli would have called an ‘English worthy,’ he added.

In full: Winston Churchill’s House of Commons tribute to Neville Chamberlain

Since we last met, the House has suffered a very grievous loss in the death of one of its most distinguished Members, and of a statesman and public servant who, during the best part of three memorable years, was first Minister of the Crown.

The fierce and bitter controversies which hung around him in recent times were hushed by the news of his illness and are silenced by his death. 

In paying a tribute of respect and of regard to an eminent man who has been taken from us, no one is obliged to alter the opinions which he has formed or expressed upon issues which have become a part of history; but at the Lychgate we may all pass our own conduct and our own judgments under a searching review. 

It is not given to human beings, happily for them, for otherwise life would be intolerable, to foresee or to predict to any large extent the unfolding course of events. 

In one phase men seem to have been right, in another they seem to have been wrong. 

Then again, a few years later, when the perspective of time has lengthened, all stands in a different setting. There is a new proportion. 

There is another scale of values. History with its flickering lamp stumbles along the trail of the past, trying to reconstruct its scenes, to revive its echoes, and kindle with pale gleams the passion of former days. 

What is the worth of all this? 

The only guide to a man is his conscience; the only shield to his memory is the rectitude and sincerity of his actions. 

It is very imprudent to walk through life without this shield, because we are so often mocked by the failure of our hopes and the upsetting of our calculations; but with this shield, however the fates may play, we march always in the ranks of honour.

It fell to Neville Chamberlain in one of the supreme crises of the world to be contradicted by events, to be disappointed in his hopes, and to be deceived and cheated by a wicked man. 

But what were these hopes in which he was disappointed? What were these wishes in which he was frustrated? What was that faith that was abused? 

They were surely among the most noble and benevolent instincts of the human heart-the love of peace, the toil for peace, the strife for peace, the pursuit of peace, even at great peril, and certainly to the utter disdain of popularity or clamour. 

Whatever else history may or may not say about these terrible, tremendous years, we can be sure that Neville Chamberlain acted with perfect sincerity according to his lights and strove to the utmost of his capacity and authority, which were powerful, to save the world from the awful, devastating struggle in which we are now engaged. 

This alone will stand him in good stead as far as what is called the verdict of history is concerned.

But it is also a help to our country and to our whole Empire, and to our decent faithful way of living that, however long the struggle may last, or however dark may be the clouds which overhang our path, no future generation of English-speaking folks-for that is the tribunal to which we appeal-will doubt that, even at a great cost to ourselves in technical preparation, we were guiltless of the bloodshed, terror and misery which have engulfed so many lands and peoples, and yet seek new victims still. 

Herr Hitler protests with frantic words and gestures that he has only desired peace. 

What do these ravings and outpourings count before the silence of Neville Chamberlain’s tomb? 

Long, hard, and hazardous years lie before us, but at least we entered upon them united and with clean hearts.

I do not propose to give an appreciation of Neville Chamberlain’s life and character, but there were certain qualities always admired in these Islands which he possessed in an altogether exceptional degree. 

He had a physical and moral toughness of fibre which enabled him all through his varied career to endure misfortune and disappointment without being unduly discouraged or wearied. 

He had a precision of mind and an aptitude for business which raised him far above the ordinary levels of our generation. 

He had a firmness of spirit which was not often elated by success, seldom downcast by failure, and never swayed by panic. when, contrary to all his hopes, beliefs and exertions, the war came upon him, and when, as he himself said, all that he had worked for was shattered, there was no man more resolved to pursue the unsought quarrel to the death. 

The same qualities which made him one of the last to enter the war, made him one of the last who would quit it before the full victory of a righteous cause was won.

I had the singular experience of passing in a day from being one of his most prominent opponents and critics to being one of his principal lieutenants, and on another day of passing from serving under him to become the head of a Government of which, with perfect loyalty, he was content to be a member. 

Such relationships are unusual in our public life. I have before told the House how on the morrow of the Debate which in the early days of May challenged his position, he declared to me and a few other friends that only a National Government could face the storm about to break upon us, and that if he were an obstacle to the formation of such a Government, he would instantly retire. 

Thereafter, he acted with that singleness of purpose and simplicity of conduct which at all times, and especially in great times, ought to be the ideal of us all.

When he returned to duty a few weeks after a most severe operation, the bombardment of London and of the seat of Government had begun. 

I was a witness during that fortnight of his fortitude under the most grievous and painful bodily afflictions, and I can testify that, although physically only the wreck of a man, his nerve was unshaken and his remarkable mental faculties unimpaired.

After he left the Government he refused all honours. He would die like his father, plain Mr. Chamberlain. 

I sought permission of the King, however, to have him supplied with the Cabinet papers, and until a few days of his death he followed our affairs with keenness, interest and tenacity. 

He met the approach of death with a steady eye. If he grieved at all, it was that he could not be a spectator of our victory; but I think he died with the comfort of knowing that his country had, at least, turned the corner.

At this time our thoughts must pass to the gracious and charming lady who shared his days of triumph and adversity with a courage and quality the equal of his own. 

He was, like his father and his brother Austen before him, a famous Member of the House of Commons, and we here assembled this morning, Members of all parties, without a single exception, feel that we do ourselves and our country honour in saluting the memory of one whom Disraeli would have called an ‘English worthy.’

Source: Winstonchurchill.org 

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