Churchill buries Chamberlain June 14, 2011
In winning the Nobel Prize for literature Winston Churchill was placed among writers of the calibre of Thomas Mann, W.B. Yeats and Rudyard Kipling. This is probably – as Churchill was the first to admit – to overstate his talents as an author: there is something to Evelyn Waugh’s bitchy description of Churchill’s ‘pseudo-Augustan prose’. But Churchill had the journalist’s gift of the soundbite and, in some of his war time orations, he created sustained masterpieces that kept up the spirits of an anxious nation and the various captive populations of continental Europe. A minor Churchillian classic that is often overlooked is his obituary on Neville Chamberlain, interesting both as a piece of writing, as parliamentary theatre and as a reflection on the nature of history.For Beachcombing, anyway, it rivals Churchill’s Dream.
In the second half of the 1930s Churchill, as Tory rebel, and Chamberlain, as prime minister, had bitterly fought each other in the Commons over Britain’s attitude towards Germany. Chamberlain followed a policy of detenté and containment: called, perhaps, unfairly ‘appeasement'; while Churchill saw, he believed, deeper into Hitler’s soul and wanted defiance and rollback. When war finally came Churchill served under Chamberlain as First Lord of the Admiralty and here there was some reconciliation between the two: the Chamberlains and the Churchills even shared dinner together at number Ten. Then, when Chamberlain resigned and Churchill became Prime Minister Chamberlain remained in the war cabinet and accommodation between the two men continued despite their very different instincts. However, this phase too ended as 9 November 1940, Neville Chamberlain passed away after a brief battle with cancer.
By the time of Chamberlain’s death Churchill had reconciled himself to his old foe. He personally asked the King that Chamberlain be given access to Cabinet papers in his last days and in Churchill’s bumptious Boy’s Own universe Chamberlain himself was able to see that Britain was going to make it through: ‘I think he died with the comfort of knowing that his country had, at least, turned the corner’. It goes without saying that nobody could have guessed that Britain had ‘turned the corner’ in late 1940, that moment would not come until Japanese bombs fell at Pearl Harbour a year later. But Churchill had the habit of deforming reality so everything fit around his personal mythology of romance and redemption. It is one of the reasons that his Second World War reads so very well and is so often a poor historical source. Still these qualities were always going to make the great man’s speech on Chamberlain’s demise a cracker. Imagine the wartime House quiet with curiosity to hear whether Churchill could bury his old rival without damning him for the sins (as Churchill saw it) of attempting peace with Germany.
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… 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?
Beachcombing is always on the look out for Second World War curiosities: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com
15 June 2011: Umbriel writes in ‘I’m not sure I agree that ‘nobody could have guessed that Britain had ‘turned the corner’ in late 1940’ – By the fall, the climax of the Battle of Britain was past, and with it imminent threat of invasion. The ‘Destroyers for Bases Agreement’ had taken some of the pressure off in the Battle of the Atlantic. Most importantly, Churchill had by that time forged a strong working relationship with FDR (whose reelection occurred only a few days before Chamberlain’s demise, but was never in serious doubt), guaranteeing that the ‘Arsenal of Democracy’ would provide increasing support. While all that might have been of limited comfort to the folks in London enduring the Blitz, the merchant and naval sailors in the Atlantic, and the troops in North Africa, I think the top-level planners realized that the long-term odds were as much in their favor as they’d been in World War I. For additional perspective on this, I highly recommend the recent book, The Wages of Destruction – an economic history of Nazi Germany, it puts in perspective a lot of the industrial and economic factors that drove the war.’ Thanks Umbriel!!