Page last updated at 06:05 GMT, Thursday, 3 September 2009 07:05 UK

Granddaughter's defence of war PM

By Lynne French
BBC News Plymouth

Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain
Chamberlain was committed to peace, his granddaughter says

On the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II, the granddaughter of former Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain has defended his response to the threat posed by Hitler.

Chamberlain became prime minister in 1937 when Stanley Baldwin retired following the abdication of Edward VIII.

He had been a Conservative MP for 19 years, some of which were served in senior ministerial positions, including chancellor.

However, many historians believe Chamberlain's legacy as prime minister was tainted by his government's policy of appeasement towards Hitler.

But Mary de Vere Taylor, who lives in Ashburton, Devon, has defended her grandfather, describing him as a "peace-loving man" who was unjustly denigrated.

Chamberlain's policy of appeasement culminated in Britain and France agreeing that the Czech region of Sudetenland should be ceded to Germany.

'Bitter blow'

When a non-aggression pact was signed in Munich in September 1938, Chamberlain arrived back in the UK declaring the accord with the Germans signalled "peace for our time".

He told Parliament the pact had "averted a catastrophe which would have ended civilisation as we have known it".

The pact stated Adolf Hitler's desire never to go to war with Britain again, but less than a year later, his Nazi troops invaded Poland and on 3 September 1939, Chamberlain was forced to declare war on Germany.

Mary de Vere Taylor
Mary de Vere Taylor would like her grandfather's achievements recognised

In his declaration of war, broadcast to the nation, Chamberlain said: "You can imagine what a bitter blow it is to me that all my long struggle to win peace has failed.

"Yet I cannot believe that there is anything more, or anything different, that I could have done."

Ms de Vere Taylor said she hoped as people marked the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of war, they might reassess her grandfather and all he achieved for the country.

"To forge somebody's reputation on the basis of the last three years of their life is incredibly unfair," she said.

"Had his career ended in 1937 before he became prime minister, he would probably have been seen as one of the greatest social reformers of the inter-war period."

Chamberlain was born on 18 March, 1869 in Edgbaston, Birmingham, and was elected as a Conservative MP in 1918, aged 49.

He served as postmaster general, minister for health and chancellor of the exchequer before becoming prime minister in 1937.

Ms de Vere Taylor said that, as health minister, her grandfather was responsible for many innovative social reforms, including paid holidays for workers and free medical check-ups.

"That has just tended to be forgotten," she said.

Her grandfather was not only a peace-loving man who had lived through the horrors of World War I, but he was also an astute man, who recognised the threat posed by Hitler, Ms de Vere Taylor has insisted.

In a personal letter written to his sister, Chamberlain said: "Of course, the difficulty is with Hitler himself. Until he disappears and his system collapses there can be no peace."

Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain declaring "peace for our time"
Chamberlain said the non-aggression pact "averted a catastrophe"

"He was under no illusions about the person he was dealing with," Ms de Vere Taylor said.

Chamberlain was committed to peace and his strategy was to do all he could to avoid war for the country.

Even when war seemed inevitable, Chamberlain's trips to Munich and his negotiations with Hitler actually bought the country time to prepare for war, his granddaughter said.

Ms de Vere Taylor said she has learned to live with the criticism levelled at her grandfather.

"To a certain extent, you just have to live with it, but it's very difficult when personal opinions are bandied about as facts, people get misquoted, documents are misread or mistranslated and cheap shots are fired," she said.

Neville Chamberlain resigned in May 1940 when British efforts to liberate Norway failed and he was attacked from all political sides. He was succeeded by Winston Churchill, who remained in office until after the war.

Chamberlain died of bowel cancer six months after leaving office.

Paying tribute to him in the House of Commons, Churchill said Chamberlain had acted "with perfect sincerity... to save the world".

Historian Richard Toye, a professor at the University of Exeter, said Chamberlain was generally considered to be a successful and popular prime minister until May 1940, who should not be dismissed as a weak or negligible figure.

"Clearly he would not have achieved the dominant positions he did without being a skilled politician," Prof Toye told BBC News.

"My personal view is he made some serious mistakes in that he misjudged and miscalculated Hitler.

"He didn't approve of him, but he wrongly believed he would honour his word."

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