Tony Blair’s reputation has been shredded by his disastrous decision to back George W Bush’s invasion of Iraq. That conflict was one of many Blair plunged Britain into. So much so that John Kampfner devoted a book to Blair’s wars.
So Blair seems an unlikely person to seek to explain and sympathise with arch appeaser Neville Chamberlain, the prime minister who sacrificed Czechoslovakia to Hitler in 1938 at Munich in the vain hope that it would ensure peace.
Yet in his memoirs, A Journey, Blair speaks eloquently of Chamberlain’s mission:
“A comparison to Chamberlain is one if the worst British political insults. Yet what did he do? In a world still suffering from the trauma of the Great War, a war in which millions died, including many of his close family and friends, he had grieved; and in his grief pledged to prevent another such war. Nit a bad ambition; in fact, a noble one.
“One day [at Chequers], I picked up his diaries and began to read his account of his famous meeting with Hitler prior to Munich … in Berchtesgaden… He recounts how Hitler alternated between reason … and angry ranting, almost screaming about the Czechs, the Poles, the Jews… Chamberlain came away convinced that he had met a madman, someone who has real capacity to do evil. This is what intrigued me. We are taught that Chamberlain was a dupe; a fool, taken in by Hitler’s charm. He wasn’t. He was entirely alive to his badness.
“I tried to imagine being like him, thinking like him. He knows this man is wicked, but he cannot know how far it might extend. So, instead of provoking him, contain him. Germany will come to its senses, time will move on and, with luck, so will Herr Hitler.
“Seen in this way, Munich was not the product of a leader gulled but of a leader looking to postpone… Above all, it was the leader with a paramount and overwhelming desire to avoid the blood, mourning and misery of war.”
It’s intriguing to compare Blair and Chamberlain. The man who sacrificed Czechoslovakia for a mirage of peace had a sense of destiny and certainty. Blair was similarly driven by a near-religious confidence in his judgement, especially after 9/11.
I’ll leave the last word to Winston Churchill. Just six months after succeeding Chamberlain, Churchill had the sad task of paying tribute to the man who had ignored his warnings of the mortal threat Hitler’s Germany posed to Britain. (Chamberlain died of cancer six months almost to the day of being ousted.) Winston said:
“Neville Chamberlain acted with perfect sincerity .. 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 for what is called the verdict of history is concerned.”