The excessive dependence of the Middle Ages upon the past is part of that Golden Age complex which besets most civilizations, though medieval men carried it to an unusual degree. They believed that they were “little men in the twilight of the world” or “dwarves sitting on the shoulders of giants” (the ancients). Both the primitive Church and Augustan Rome loomed out of the mist of the past as towers of civilization from which society had fallen, no matter if the Augustan Romans saw themselves as degenerates from the time of Cato, who in turn bewailed the lost Saturnia regna. Had the medieval mind looked only backwards to Eden, medieval thought would have been primitivistic; it would have had no idea of progress. But the fact that the incarnation came after the fall, and the resurrection after the crucifixion, was productive of hope. Nonetheless, exaggerated respect for the past caused several medieval eccentricities, among them the curious practice of reverse plagiarism. A modern plagiarist takes the writings of a famous man and passes them off as his own; with greater modesty, a medieval writer was likely to gain an audience for his own writings by attaching to them the name of a great pope or Father. Their worship of the past checked originality, just as our own worship of everything new promotes superficiality. The use of the word “primitive” is instructive. To us it means crude and barbaric; but through the time of Samuel Johnson its connotation was favorable: the Good Old Days.
This is London. In a moment, you will hear the Prime Minister, Right Honorable Neville Chamberlain, speaking from Number10 Downing Street. His speech will be heard all over the Empire, throughout the continent of America, and in a large number of foreign countries. Mr Chamberlain:
To-morrow Parliament is going to meet, and I shall be making a full statement of the events which have led up to the present anxious and critical situation.
An earlier statement would not have been possible when I was flying backwards and forwards across Europe, and the position was changing from hour to hour. But to-day there is a lull for a brief time, and I want to say a few words to you, men and women of Britain and the Empire, and perhaps to others as well.
First of all I must say something to those who have written to my wife or myself in these last weeks to tell us of their gratitude for my efforts and to assure us of their prayers for my success. Most of these letters have come from women — mothers or sisters of our own countrymen. But there are countless others besides – from France, from Belgium, from Italy, and even from Germany, and it has been heartbreaking to read the growing anxiety they reveal and their intense relief when they thought, too soon, that the danger of war was past.
If I felt my responsibility heavy before, to read such letters has made it seem almost overwhelming. How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas-masks here because of a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing. It seems still more impossible that a quarrel which has already been settled in principle should be the subject of war.
I can well understand the reasons why the Czech Government have felt unable to accept the terms which have been put before them in the German memorandum. Yet I believe after my talks with Herr Hitler that, if only time were allowed, it ought to be possible for the arrangements for transferring the territory that the Czech Government has agreed to give to Germany to be settled by agreement under conditions which would assure fair treatment to the population concerned.
You know already that I have done all that one man can do to compose this quarrel. After my visits to Germany I have realised vividly how Herr Hitler feels that he must champion other Germans, and his indignation that grievances have not been met before this. He told me privately, and last night he repeated publicly, that after this Sudeten German question is settled, that is the end of Germany’s territorial claims in Europe.
After my first visit to Berchtesgaden I did get the assent of the Czech Government to proposals which gave the substance of what Herr Hitler wanted and I was taken completely by surprise when I got back to Germany and found that he insisted that the territory should be handed over to him immediately, and immediately occupied by German troops without previous arrangements for safeguarding the people within the territory who were not Germans, or did not want to join the German Reich.
I must say that I find this attitude unreasonable. If it arises out of any doubts that Herr Hitler feels about the intentions of the Czech Government to carry out their promises and hand over the territory, I have offered on part of the British Government to guarantee their words, and I am sure the value of our promise will not be underrated anywhere.
I shall not give up the hope of a peaceful solution, or abandon my efforts for peace, as long as any chance for peace remains. I would not hesitate to pay even a third visit to Germany if I thought it would do any good. But at this moment I see nothing further that I can usefully do in the way of mediation.
Meanwhile there are certain things we can and shall do at home. Volunteers are still wanted for air raid precautions, for fire brigade and police services, and for the Territorial units. I know that all of you, men and women alike, are ready to play your part in the defence of the country, and I ask you all to offer your services, if you have not already done so, to the local authorities, who will tell you if you are wanted and in what capacity.
Do not be alarmed if you hear of men being called up to man the anti-aircraft defences or ships. These are only precautionary measures such as a Government must take in times like this. But they do not necessarily mean that we have determined on war or that war is imminent.
However much we may sympathise with a small nation confronted by a big and powerful neighbour, we cannot in all circumstances undertake to involve the whole British Empire in war simply on her account. If we have to fight it must be on larger issues than that. I am myself a man of peace to the depths of my soul. Armed conflict between nations is a nightmare to me; but if I were convinced that any nation had made up its mind to dominate the world by fear of its force, I should feel that it must be resisted. Under such a domination life for people who believe in liberty would not be worth living; but war is a fearful thing, and we must be very clear, before we embark on it, that it is really the great issues that are at stake, and that the call to risk everything in their defence, when all the consequences are weighed, is irresistible.
For the present I ask you to wait as calmly as you can the events of the next few days. As long as war has not begun, there is always hope that it may be prevented, and you know that I am going to work for peace to the last moment. Good night.
Transcribed from BBC Archive, “Chamberlain Addresses the Nation on His Negotiations for Peace”, 27 September 1938. See Neville Chamberlain, In Search of Peace: Speeches, 1937-1938, London, 1939, pp. 274-6.