“Munich” is great cinema but unreliable history

The film adaptation of Robert Harris’s novel is too kind to appeasement

January 18, 2022
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Chamberlain (Jeremy Irons) on his return from Munich. Image: Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy

Neville Chamberlain, prime minister from 1937-40, has gone down in history as the man who tried to appease Hitler. Everyone agrees that he failed to prevent war. But the issue for novelist Robert Harris is whether we have been unfair to him.

That was the agenda behind his novel on Chamberlain’s 1938 Munich Agreement, which handed over the northern region and defences of Czechoslovakia to Hitler without a shot being fired—Harris saw it as a tough decision that allowed us eventually to prevail against the Nazis.

The film adaptation of the book is launched on Netflix on 21st January, and there is no doubt that Munich: The Edge of War is fabulous. It is beautifully acted by an Anglo-German cast, and there is a brilliant performance by Jeremy Irons as an avuncular, inspirational Neville Chamberlain. My problem is that I discern the same agenda in the film to change the way we remember the government appeasing the Nazis.

I’m sure that Chamberlain was inspirational, in his way. But I am far less sure that we are right to regard Munich, as the film implies, as a tribute to what the historian AJP Taylor called “a triumph for all that was best and most enlightened in British life.”

Two arguments have emerged that imply some kind of rethink of Chamberlain’s strategy might be necessary. The first is that Hitler bitterly regretted not going to war in 1938—the corollary is that it bought valuable time, but this ignores how, as we see in the film, he probably would have been deposed and shot if he had done so. The second (which was Chamberlain’s own justification) was that if Hitler signed the paper promising never to go to war with Britain again, the whole world would then see that he had broken his word and thus be more willing to act in unison against him. But Chamberlain explained this tactic to Lord Dunglass, his young parliamentary private secretary (later Alec Douglas-Home) on the plane home from Munich—not, as the film shows, to justify himself beforehand. It was a justification only after the fact.

Some feel that the prime minister should have been more focused on trying to get Hitler removed from power by his own side. But the problem was not that Chamberlain took no notice of the German army plot to depose Hitler. He never actually got the kind of approach in Munich that is the centrepiece of the film. Yes, the Foreign Office officials in London and Paris had in fact already met representatives of the German opposition some months before, but there was also a feeling among the British that they could not trust people who would betray their own government.

The government definitely let down the German opposition to Hitler. But the real issue with Munich was what was done to Czechoslovakia. The film suggests that the Czechs were not included in the four-way conference. In fact, there were Czech government representatives in the same building, but virtually under house arrest with no say over events.

After the signing ceremony, Chamberlain and the French PM Daladier went to browbeat them into submission. “Can we not at least be heard before we are judged?” asked the Czech diplomat Hubert Masarik, as if the Munich negotiations were some kind of judicial process from which they had been excluded. The British and French shook their heads sadly. The fundamental problem with Munich was forcing a smaller nation to accept the German invasion without fighting back, even if it was in the name of peace.

It is true that war was avoided for a year—which gave Britain the chance to re-arm—but the Czechs had a sophisticated army that gave up without a fight, and 400 of their tanks (plus the factories that made them) became part of the German armed forces. When the British were forced back to Dunkirk 18 months later, they were pursued mainly by formerly Czech armour.

It wasn’t really the weakness of Czechoslovakia but its strength that so scared Chamberlain—the fear that, if the Czechs defended themselves against the Germans, then the British and the French (and the Russians) would be drawn in. That is why, after the Munich Agreement was signed, the British and French ambassadors to Prague roused the Czech president Beneš from his sleep to tell him that, if war broke out, not only would neither the UK nor the French intervene, but they would hold the Czechs responsible for any catastrophe which followed. The following day, Beneš capitulated and the Nazis marched in.

Ironically, Daladier recognised the shame of what had been done to the Czechs, which is why he used the word “morons” to describe the cheering Parisian crowd that greeted him when he returned home. Chamberlain was by then appearing on the balcony of Buckingham Palace to acknowledge his own cheers at the same time, apparently oblivious.

Within months, the UK’s ruling Conservatives had been divided and the opposition parties united. The Oxford by-election some weeks later saw a narrow victory for Quintin Hogg for the appeasers, but by November, the combined Lib-Lab opposition candidate—Vernon Bartlett of the News Chronicle—beat them in the Bridgwater by-election. Hitler broke his word and marched into Prague four months later.

The rest, as they say, was history—or was it?