The hideousness of the First World War (1914-1918) had made statesmen extremely reluctant to resort to armed force and in the late 1930s British and French foreign policy aimed at securing peace by giving into the demands of Adolf Hitler. At the Munich Conference in 1938, President Daladier of France and Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain agreed to let Hitler dismember Czechoslovakia if he promised that this would be his last claim to alter the map of Europe. The very next year Germany and the Soviet Union agreed to invade Poland and World War II was launched. Chamberlain was discredited and in 1940 he was forced from office, to be replaced by Winston Churchill.
Rather than heap any more shame on the head of his predecessor, Churchill paid tribute to him in the House of Commons, showing a generosity of spirit that many politicians today lack. On announcing Chamberlain’s death he said:
It is not given to human beings, happily for them — for otherwise life would be intolerable — to foresee or predict to any large extent the unfolding of events .… 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 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, even at great peril and certainly to the utter disdain of popularity….