Pity the poor statesman! Not a phrase you are likely to read too often on this site but I am moved to express it after finishing Donald Cameron Watt's forensic examination of the diplomatic history leading up to WWII entitled How War Came. I confess it is not an easy read and I was not helped by the fact that for much of the time whilst I was reading it, I was also wrestling with my production of Hamlet. Perhaps though, in retrospect, it was a good thing that I was forced to take it small bites because I have rarely read a history that is quite so detailed. I simply wilt at the thought of the 'zillion' man-hours Watt must have spent trawling through the diplomatic archives of all the European powers and America. Piece by piece, detail by detail, he builds the huge mosaic of inter-locking diplomatic moves and counter-moves, the feints and parries, the honourable and the squalid as the nations of Europe writhed in their efforts to escape the coming calamity, or at least, get though it with with minimal damage and, if possible, some advantage.
It is not an Anglo-orientated history; he takes care to present the picture as seen by all the main participants. Even so, Chamberlain obviously plays a central role and it is contemplation of that sad figure, so traduced by history, that occasions the title of this post. Chamberlain obviously made mistakes (but not as many as are frequently laid at his door) but two important factors must be kept in mind. First, in a democracy you get the government you deserve, so in this case the mob of the great British electorate should stone itself before they stone their prime minister! Secondly, there had been no-one like Adolph Hitler rampaging on the European scene since Bonaparte at the beginning of the 19th c. European politicians contained within their host the usual number of villains but their villainy was, so to speak, of the everyday, human kind that people were used to and could deal with. Hitler was of a very different mould and the leaders of Europe were rather like a bunch of harassed, fearful doctors attempting to find a cure for a new and highly dangerous bacillus.
However, the main thing that prompts my pity for statesmen in general, and Chamberlain in particular, is what we would call today, 'information overload'. Until I read Watt's book I simply had no conception of the sheer volume of information that passes across a statesman's desk. Much of it is not just contradictory but will be different accounts of the same subject matter, and much of it will come from 'experts' (dread word!). The statesman must decide, who's right, who's wrong; who can I trust, what's in it for him, or them, or me, and so on, and so on. Usually the answers to those questions are simply unknowable and so the statesman must fall back on his judgement.
I wouldn't take the job for any money!