The movie Munich—The Edge of War is well-written (based on Robert Harris's bestselling 2017 thriller), lavishly produced (by Netflix), fast-paced—and an absolute historical travesty. Ever since the 1980s, Harris has been trying to rehabilitate the reputation of Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister who signed the Munich Agreement with Adolf Hitler in 1938, which destroyed the defensibility of Czechoslovakia overnight, and led to the Nazis occupying Prague in March 1939. Munich was an important step along the long via dolorosa of the 1930s towards World War Two, and an episode that greatly strengthened the Third Reich whilst enormously weakening Britain and France.
"There seems to be a general feeling that he couldn't have done much else," Harris has said of Chamberlain. "He bought us precious time." Jeremy Irons, who plays Chamberlain in the film, goes further, telling Variety magazine, "I believe Chamberlain followed the right path. He tried to prevent war. He tried to appease Hitler and got an agreement with Hitler that he would go no further. … I think Chamberlain should be praised for his pragmatic behaviour." Actors' views on politics often tend to be stupid, but even the normally sensible historian Ben Macintyre has called for Chamberlain's rehabilitation in the London Times.
So is something going on here? Is it time for Neville Chamberlain and his policy of appeasing dictators to be rehabilitated? Or was the British defence secretary Ben Wallace right when he said that there was "a whiff of Munich" about the French and German response to Vladimir Putin's threat to Ukraine, using the word "Munich" in the pejorative sense that it has had in international relations ever since 1938?
Certainly, the evidence of this movie—which is packed with blatant historical errors—does nothing to support the revisionists' case. One suspects that Robert Harris, in person a charming and good-natured soul, has presented his ideas in a novel and movie partly because if he did so in a serious history book it would be laughed out of court.
Chamberlain is presented as a modest man who was not in the least taken in by Hitler, whom he calls a "gangster." In reality, however, he was immensely vain and boasted to his sister Ida that one of his aides had "heard from various people who were with Hitler after my interview that he [Hitler] had been very favourably impressed. I have had a conversation with a man, he said, & one with who I can do business & he liked the rapidity with which I grasped the essentials. In short I had established a certain confidence. … I got the impression that here was a man who could be relied upon when he had given his word."
Yet Hitler's word could not be relied upon, as he ripped up every single treaty he ever signed. Czechoslovakia was stripped of its defensive frontiers by the Munich Treaty, so that when German tanks rolled into Prague five months later—a crucial event not mentioned in the movie—the only shots fired were by Jews committing suicide.
In the movie, Chamberlain is presented as having always known that there was a good chance of war taking place, but being ready to sacrifice his reputation to buy time for rearmament. Yet in reality on his return from Munich Chamberlain said that "This is the second time in our history that there has come back from Germany peace with honour. I believe it is peace for our time." So was he lying to the British people?
In the movie, Chamberlain bemoans the fact that "I can only play the game with the cards I've been dealt." But who dealt him those cards in the first place? Although it is true that many of the Hurricanes and Spitfires that were to win the Battle of Britain were indeed built in the twelve months between the Munich Agreement and the outbreak of war, it was the fault of the British Treasury that not enough money had been spent in the 1930s on a British army, navy and especially air force that might have deterred Hitler beforehand. Yet who was the chancellor of the Exchequer between November 1931 and May 1937, and thereafter prime minister? None other than Neville Chamberlain himself.
Nor would the Battle of Britain have even been fought if there had been no defeat in France in May and June 1940 at the hands of the German blitzkrieg. Three in ten of the panzer tanks that descended from the Ardennes forest during the German invasion had been built in the armaments factories of Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia.
In the movie, Neville Chamberlain speculates hopefully about the Americans getting involved in the movement to contain the Third Reich. In fact, he did everything in his power to avoid bringing in the Roosevelt administration during the crisis. Similarly, Chamberlain is depicted as laughingly keeping Lord Halifax, the foreign secretary, out of the Munich negotiations, saying, "Damn the foreign secretary!" As Lord Halifax's biographer, I can attest that he was Chamberlain's closest friend in politics during the period, far closer than the people depicted in the movie, such as the British ambassador Sir Nevile Henderson (who is addressed as "Mr. Henderson" for some reason).
Similarly, it is not pointed out in the movie that whereas the Soviet Union was prepared to support Czechoslovakia in 1938, after the Munich Agreement had proved the West's impotence Stalin instead instituted the Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939, which gave Hitler a free hand to attack Poland the following month.
The movie depicts the German generals as having a well-advanced plan to arrest and possibly kill Hitler if Chamberlain refused to sign the Munich Agreement. This was sadly not the case. It also suggests there was high unemployment in Germany in 1938, which had not been the case since the Nazi rearmament programme of 1933/34. It also depicts, somewhat contradictorily, anti-appeasement crowds in Downing Street on one day and pro-appeasement ones (carrying "Peace Please" signs) there on the next, whereas in fact there were neither before Chamberlain's return. Nor were Jews forced to clean the streets of Berlin as shown in the film; that was Vienna. (There is no mention of the Anschluss by which Germany had seized Austria earlier in 1938.)
Chamberlain, as played by Irons, states that "My sole objective is to avoid war in the immediate term," but that is the opposite of what Chamberlain claimed to the Cabinet when he returned, when he made it clear that he believed he had delivered genuine peace and could now plan for a long-term settlement of all European disputes. It was not until Hitler invaded the rump of Czechoslovakia that this naïve dream died, yet even after Hitler invaded Poland at dawn on 1 September 1939 it took Chamberlain forty-eight hours before he finally, reluctantly, declared war.
The real Chamberlain described in a letter to another sister, Hilda, the "scenes in the streets" on his return from Heston Aerodrome to Buckingham Palace, where King George VI had (unconstitutionally) invited him onto the balcony to wave to the celebrating crowds: "They were lined from one end to the other with people of every class, shouting themselves hoarse, leaping onto the running board, banging on the windows and thrusting their hands into the car to be shaken. The scenes culminated in Downing Street when I spoke to the multitudes below from the same window I believe as that from which Dizzy [Benjamin Disraeli] announced peace with honour 60 years ago." Unlike Disraeli, however, who brought home a genuine peace with honour at the Congress of Berlin in 1878, there was nothing honourable about sacrificing a small country to the Nazis, as Chamberlain ought to have realised, even if he felt there was no alternative.
This movie which attempts to rehabilitate Chamberlain is historically illiterate, a farrago of nonsense. Yet in a sense, it performs a useful task because if—even with the bending of the facts and putting the best possible gloss on him—Chamberlain still emerges as a fool and a failure, which he does, it shows that the generally held view of him is the correct one. Although Chamberlain states in the movie, "If I'm to be made to look a fool, that's the price I must pay," he never said anything of the kind at the time, as he believed himself to be the greatest peacemaker since Disraeli.
Neville Chamberlain was such a poor wordsmith that this movie is reduced to quoting (without attribution) the words of Winston Churchill about people "falling below the level of events," a phenomenon of which Chamberlain was the primary exemplar. Churchill is not even mentioned in this movie despite its several scenes of the House of Commons, which was where he made the greatest critique of the Munich Agreement.
"Do not suppose that this is the end," Churchill prophetically said of Chamberlain's sacrifice of Czechoslovakia. "This is only the beginning of the reckoning. This is only the first sip, the first foretaste of a bitter cup which will be proffered to us year by year unless by a supreme recovery of moral health and martial vigour, we arise again and take our stand for freedom as in the olden time." Churchill was proved totally right within a matter of months, whereas for all this movie's attempted advocacy, Chamberlain is still wrong eighty-four years later.
Andrew Roberts is the author of Churchill: Walking with Destiny, published by Viking.
Published under: Movie Reviews