"Appeasement" is a word loaded with historical baggage -- specifically, its association with the failed efforts by the British and the French in the 1930s to avert war in Europe by accommodating Adolf Hitler's territorial demands. The effort, of course, was in vain, and when war came in 1939 Germany began it in a stronger position than they had been just a few years before, thanks in no small measure to the earlier concessions of his foes.
This failure to avert the war has been viewed ever since as the ultimate discrediting of appeasement as a policy, with its advocates viewed as fools or worse. Peter Neville takes exception to this view, however. Surveying the evolution of appeasement in the interwar period, he offers a sympathetic assessment of the situation policymakers faced and the decisions they made. He highlights the difficult choices facing British policymakers, with a multitude of vulnerabilities worldwide and few partners other than France (which itself was riven with problems) to help shoulder the load. Given the initial focus on bordering territory with ethnically German populations, appeasement was the best available option while the British rearmed their forces.
Neville is not uncritical of the decisions British politicians made, and he is particularly astute as to the personality clashes which often determined who exerted influence. He also incorporates appeasement's opponents into his analysis, showing how such esteemed figures as Winston Churchill were not always as hostile to the policy as they later sought to portray themselves as being. Overall it makes for a provocative reassessment of what remains an extraordinarily controversial period in history, one that helps us to better understand the choices people made and why it was that they failed in their goals.
In assessing blame for the failure to confront Adolf Hitler in the years leading up to the outbreak of war in 1939, the umbrella-bearing figure of Neville Chamberlain has always been one of the main targets. Virtually from the moment of his resignation and succession by Winston Churchill Chamberlain became the target of much criticism for his efforts to appease Nazi Germany instead of challenging them. Yet over time a number of biographers and historians have sought to qualify such damming judgments, emphasizing Chamberlain's lack of better options and his efforts to promote rearmament, with appeasement offering a way to buy time rather than provide a permanent solution.
Nick Smart is having none of this. His biography of Chamberlain is a scathing assessment of an unpleasant man. In it he describes the course of Chamberlain's life, from his childhood to his failed sisal plantation in the Bahamas, then back to Birmingham for greater success in business and politics. The Chamberlain that he details is vain and self-pitying, with an unjustifiably high opinion of his own abilities. Much of his eventual success is due to his family name, though Smart gives him due credit for his organizational and party-building skills. Yet Chamberlain's gifts did not extend to character judgment, and Smart makes a convincing argument that his practice of personal diplomacy, as far-sighted as wit was, was based on a self-regard that deprived him of the support of the Foreign Office and the politicians who led it.
Much of what makes Smart's argument so persuasive is its consistency, as his description of Chamberlain's flawed character in the early chapters bears fruit when discussing his failings in the political arena. Occasionally the repetitiveness of Smart's negative description can be grating, but overall this is a lively and engaging study of one of the most controversial British prime ministers of the twentieth, one who deserves at least our understanding if not our sympathy.
Neville Chamberlain is one of the most recognizable figures of twentieth-century international politics. Much of his reputation, though, rests on the foreign policy he pursued as prime minister of Great Britain in the late 1930s, primarily his advocacy of appeasement - a policy predicated on the notion that armed conflict can be avoided by placating the demands of the aggressors through compromise. Thanks to Chamberlain's exhaustive pursuit of peace during his premiership, he has come down to us more as caricature than character - the man in the swallow-tail coat and bowler hat who waved the infamous peace of paper in front of the newsreel cameras and declared that he had obtained "peace in our time."
To the extent that this image of Chamberlain has dominated our perception of the man, it obscures a far more extensive career - one which saw him rise to the pinnacle of power in a comparatively short period of time. This is the subject of the first volume of Dilks' biography, an exhaustive account of Chamberlain's life and career. The younger son of the great nineteenth-century politician Joseph Chamberlain, Neville was steered by his father towards a career in business. After a failed attempt to establish a sisal-growing operation in the Bahamas, Chamberlain returned to his home town of Birmingham, where he found greater success in more traditional enterprises.
Though Neville's elder half-brother Austen was the one Joseph groomed to be his political successor, the younger Chamberlain soon found his way to elected office as well, first in municipal government, then at the advanced age of 49 to Parliament. A late-starter and a member of a party packed with political talent, Chamberlain benefited from the collapse of the Lloyd George coalition government in 1922, accepting office and a seat in the Cabinet. Chamberlain's star quickly rose, primarily due to his time as Minister of Health in Stanley Baldwin's second government, where he proved himself to be a minister of ability and competence. By the end of the period covered in Dilks' book, Chamberlain is on the verge of becoming the dominant political personality of the 1930s, the key figure in successive governments before finally succeeding to the premiership himself in 1937.
Dilks recounts this all in considerable detail, showing how Chamberlain's background and early years shaped both the man and the politician. Though some of this detail is excessive, there are many rich insights within these pages, leaving the reader to finish the book with a new respect for Chamberlain and his accomplishments. This book will continue to stand for decades to come as the definitive account of Chamberlain's formative years, leaving open to question only when the long-awaited (and crucial) concluding volume might be published to finish the tale.