“Munich” is a great cinema but an unreliable story

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

Neville Chamberlain, Prime Minister from 1937 to 1940, went down in history as the man who tried to appease Hitler. Everyone agrees that he failed to prevent the war. But the question for novelist Robert Harris is whether we have been unfair to him.

This was the program of his novel about Chamberlain’s 1938 Munich Accords, which ceded the northern region and the defenses of Czechoslovakia to Hitler without a shot being fired – Harris saw this as a difficult decision which we eventually prevailed against the Nazis.

The film adaptation of the book launches on Netflix on January 21, and no doubt Munich: the brink of war is fabulous. It’s performed beautifully by an Anglo-German cast, and there’s a brilliant performance from Jeremy Irons as the avuncular and inspiring Neville Chamberlain. My problem is that I discern the same agenda in the film to change how we remember the government appeasing the Nazis.

I’m sure Chamberlain has been inspiring, in its own way. But I’m much less sure we’re right to view Munich, as the film implies, as a tribute to what historian AJP Taylor has called “a triumph for all that was best and most.” enlightened in British life”.

Two arguments have emerged which imply that some kind of rethinking of Chamberlain’s strategy might be necessary. The first is that Hitler bitterly regretted not having gone to war in 1938 – the corollary is that it saved valuable time, but it ignores how, as seen in the film, he would likely have been deposed and shot if he had. 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 would therefore 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 back from Munich – not, as the film shows, to justify himself beforehand. It was only an afterthought.

Some believe the Prime Minister should have focused more on trying to remove Hitler from power alongside him. But the problem was not that Chamberlain failed to notice the German army’s plot to depose Hitler. He never really had the kind of approach to Munich that is the centerpiece of the film. Yes, Foreign Office officials in London and Paris had in fact already met with representatives of the German opposition a few 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 finally dropped German opposition to Hitler. But the real problem 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 representatives of the Czech government in the same building, but virtually under house arrest with no say in the events.

After the signing ceremony, Chamberlain and French Prime Minister Daladier went to bully them into submission. “Can’t we at least be heard before we are judged?” asked Czech diplomat Hubert Masarik, as if the Munich negotiations were some sort of legal process from which they had been excluded. The British and French shook their heads sadly. The fundamental problem with Munich was to force a small nation to accept the German invasion without retaliating, even if it was in the name of peace.

True, war was averted for a year – allowing Britain to rearm – but the Czechs had a sophisticated army which gave up without a fight, and 400 of their tanks (plus the factories which were manufacturing) became part of the German Armed Forces. When the British were forced back to Dunkirk 18 months later, they were pursued mainly by ex-Czech armor.

It was not Czechoslovakia’s weakness so much but her strength that so frightened Chamberlain—the fear that, if the Czechs defended themselves against the Germans, the British and French (and Russians) would be drawn in. That is why, after the signing of the Munich agreements, the British and French ambassadors in Prague woke Czech President Beneš from his sleep to tell him that if war broke out, not only would the United Kingdom or the French not would intervene, but they would hold the Czechs responsible for any disaster that followed. The next day, Beneš capitulated and the Nazis entered.

Ironically, Daladier acknowledged the shame of what had been done to the Czechs, which is why he used the word “cretins” to describe the jubilant Parisian crowd that greeted him on his return home. Chamberlain would then appear on the balcony of Buckingham Palace to greet his own cheers at the same time, seemingly unconscious.

Within months, the ruling Conservatives in the UK were divided and the opposition parties united. The Oxford by-election a few weeks later saw a narrow victory for Quintin Hogg for the Compromisers, but in November the combined opposition candidate Lib-Lab – Vernon Bartlett of the News chronicle— beat them in the Bridgwater by-election. Hitler broke his word and marched to Prague four months later.

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

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