Munich: The Edge of War

Munich – The Edge of War. (L to R) Jeremy Irons as Neville Chamberlain, George MacKay as Hugh Legat, in Munich – The Edge of War. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2021

I watched this new film from Netflix last weekend. It is based on a novel by John Harris, and billed as a rehabilitation of British Prime Minister during the 1938 Czech crisis, Neville Chamberlain. If that was its aim, I’m not sure it succeeded.

This episode is a seminal moment of European history. It was the climax of the British policy of “appeasement” of Hitler, and did much to give that word its current bad name. As I was growing into political consciousness in the 1970s, it was taken as Exhibit A in the case against trying to accommodate dictatorial regimes. The fate of an innocent third country was sacrificed for no real good, and war happened anyway. In those days the dictatorial regime in question was the Soviet Union, and the episode was used by conservatives against the idea of detente, and for robust confrontation wherever the Soviets tried to extend their influence. I readily accepted such arguments, until I took up History at Cambridge in 1978. After that I developed a more nuanced view: that the conservatives, in trying to avoid the Second World War were in danger of starting the First. What that year taught me more than anything, though, was the need to understand why people did what they did – and that unless you understood how you yourself could have acted that way, then you hadn’t achieved that aim. So I’m all for a more sympathetic treatment of Chamberlain.

This film certainly achieves that. He is played by Jeremy Irons, and portrayed as avuncular, and very clear about what he was trying to do, and not naive about Hitler and the Nazis. This is entirely convincing. But the question of Chamberlain’s rehabilitation hinges on whether his judgement was correct. Here the film is much more muted, which is not a bad thing. But its conclusion is both clear and tendencious.

This question turns on two things. The first is whether standing up to Hitler’s threat to invade Czechoslovakia would have unleashed a military coup in Germany and brought his regime to a thankfully early end – or rather whether knowledge of this plot was a good enough reason to stop Hitler from moving. Historically this is quite new idea – the evidence has been slow to emerge. The film cannot resist the temptation to take it up. Much of the drama that results is made-up nonsense, in there to spice things up. Chamberlain was not confronted with the reality of the plot in Munich itself, just as the deal was being done. But the coup plot was real enough, and British Intelligence knew about it. I’m not sure if Chamberlain was briefed, but if he had, I’m sure he would have been as dismissive as the rest of the British establishment. This was no way to formulate foreign policy. This is what the film shows, so, for all its nonsense, the film gives quite a fair presentation of the underlying reality. It is one of history’s great tragedies, and the film doesn’t hide this.

The second issue is whether sacrificing Czechoslovakia in 1938 bought Britain and France critical time, which in the end was decisive in beating Hitler. The film doesn’t labour this point of view, but clearly supports it. In one scene, Hitler explains to one of the fictional characters that Germany has 70 divisions poised to invade, and that he would easily overcome Czech resistance. At the very end of the film, in the postscript titles, the film states its case – that critical time was bought, which proved critical to Germany’s eventual defeat.

But this is contentious. A strong case can be made for it, but I for one have yet to be convinced. The first point is that the Czechs were militarily well-prepared – more so than the Poles in 1939. They had superior tanks to the Germans – and indeed the Germans needed those tanks for their subsequent campaigns – from Poland right up to the invasion of Russia in 1941. Rommel’s panzer division, so important in forcing Britain’s retreat to Dunkirk, was equipped with Czech tanks. On the other hand, Germany was ill-prepared. This was exactly why the German generals thought that starting the war would be criminally irresponsible, and why they were planning a coup. Britain (and France) were also badly under-prepared. Both sides made good use of the year and bit after Munich before war was eventually started. The introduction of the British Spitfire and Hurricane aircraft on the one hand and the German Messerschmitt 109 on the other followed strikingly parallel paths. Apparently Hitler regretted not going to war in 1938, so the portrayal of his confidence in the film may be quite accurate. But he was probably the victim of his own propaganda.

There are many imponderables in the question of who benefited most from the delay. But we need to be clear that Chamberlain’s strategy failed (and that of the French leader Duladier). The two allies were not ready for war in September 1939, and had little idea about what to do when Germany attacked Poland. Chamberlain was a terrible war leader. The portrayal of him in the film of doing everything to put off the prospect of war may well be quite accurate. However admirable and understandable that is, it is a poor place to start when it comes to the business of fighting. And yet he clung on. France collapsed, the British army lost most of its equipment, and nearly suffered a much worse disaster. It took Germany’s attack on the Soviet Union and America’s intervention to stop Hitler, but not until after tens of millions of people died. Of course a total German victory would most likely have been even worse than this – but it is hard to think of it as a success from the standpoint of 1938. And it is wrong to think that such a disaster was inevitable at that point.

Does Munich have any lessons for us in the 21st Century? Conservatives still tend to see all geopolitical confrontations through this lens, continuing to use the term “appeasement” pejoratively. But the policy of detente that conservatives were so worried about in the 1970s and 1980s probably hastened the Soviet collapse rather than put it off. Conservatives claim that it was the robust confrontation of Reagan and Thatcher that did it, but the hollowing out of self-confidence in the Soviet system that engagement brought about was much more important. Dealing with China and Russia now requires a robust mix of confrontation and engagement, and the Munich episode tells us little about this, either way.

Having said that I think there are a couple of things we can draw from it, neither of which are very clear from the film. First is that we sacrifice small nations at the altar of great power politics at our peril. One of the ways that the post-war world differs from those days is that we have a much greater respect for the sovereignty of smaller nations. The treatment of Czechoslovakia by Chamberlain and Duladier would now be considered a disgrace. There was apparently an ugly meeting between these two and the Czechs at Munich in which their abandonment was rammed down their throats. That was somehow left out of the drama – its inclusion would have given the whole thing a lot more edge. The second thing is that empathy and respect cut no ice with strong political leaders. Chamberlain tried this with Hitler, but it only served to make him question his will to go to war. Hitler may even have expected Chamberlain to bottle it when he attacked Poland.

There are resonances with the current situation over Ukraine. Putin is by no means a Hitler, but he shares an adversarial outlook to foreign relations, and a desire to expand his realm (or restore it, if you prefer). The claim is that all Russia wants is status and respect really is nonsense. As former British Foreign Secretary William Hague points out in an excellent piece in The Times, the West has already tried that, years ago, and was rewarded with the first attack on Ukraine in 2014. Mr Putin is examining the West’s every move and looking for signs of weakness. Fortunately the US President Joe Biden’s touch is much surer than Chamberlain’s. He has not abandoned Ukraine, but neither has he promised to go to war on its behalf. His threats are credible.

I’m not a fan of historical dramas, as they always distort events to produce a better story, and they always over simplify. On the other hand, well done they can offer us insight, or at least bring things to constructive challenge and debate. And they are often a visual feast. I love The Crown, for example, for all its manifest nonsense. Munich is very watchable, but scores two hits and one miss in the insights it offers. The hits are its portrayal of the German coup plot, and its presentation of Chamberlain and how the man approached events. The miss is its attempt to portray Chamberlain’s achievement as a success, where it oversimplifies something much grittier.