NEVILLE Chamberlain is known to most as the British prime minister who returned from a meeting with Hitler waving a “Peace for our time” declaration.
He has gone down in history as the architect of appeasement, the prime minister who by sacrificing Czechoslovakia at Munich in September 1938 put Britain on an inevitable path to war less than a year later.
He became one of the most vilified politicians of the 20th century but Stratford author Nicholas Milton paints a detailed rounded portrait of both Chamberlain the man and statesman in his carefully researched, including previously unpublished material, and very readable first book Neville Chamberlain’s Legacy Hitler, Munich and the Path to War.
Mr Milton, a military and natural historian specialising in the Second World War and conservation, claims that by placating Hitler and Mussolini, Chamberlain not only reacted to the mood of the time but also bought Britain vital time to rearm when Germany’s military machine was at its peak. In doing so he helped create the Air Raid Precautions organisation, the Women’s Land Army and the Special Operations Executive charter.
Yet Chamberlain’s legacy is far more complex than just Hitler, Munich and the path to war.
He was also a pioneer of the nature conservation movement and remains the only serving Prime Minister to have had a species named after him, the Chamberlain’s Yellow buttery Pyrisitia chamberlaini, following his time in the Bahamas as a young man.
During his Downing Street years he corresponded with a birdwatcher called Gilbert Collett and visited St James’s Park nearly every day looking for birds. As a result birdwatching became more than just a hobby, it was Chamberlain’s way of dealing with the nightmare which was Adolf Hitler and the Second World War.
His story is revealed through his own words in his diary letters to his two sisters, Hilda and Ida. They shed new light on his complex character and enable us to consider Chamberlain the private man, not just the public statesman.
The letters show how helped to build houses for the poor, improved midwifery services and championed the introduction of a widow’s pension.