Netflix's Munich – The Edge of War rehashes old revisionist myths in an attempt to exonerate Chamberlain, writes John Westmoreland
Munich – The Edge of War is based on Robert Harris’ best-selling 2018 novel Munich and is directed by Christian Schwochow. It is an historical drama with a spy-thriller sub-plot, and in both regards is moderately successful.
The film is centred on the ill-fated Munich conference of 1938 that saw the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain fly to Germany to try and convince Hitler that there was no need for war over the Czech Sudetenland. It was an historic meeting that damned Chamberlain’s reputation on the left and on the right. The Munich conference saw Chamberlain, leader of the greatest imperial power on earth, succumb to Hitler’s threats. In the event Britain met Hitler’s demands for Czech territory through a sham “peace conference”, and one from which the noisome Czechs, with their claims to national sovereignty, were to be excluded.
When we consider Chamberlain grandly claiming the right to donate a sizeable piece of Czech territory to the Nazis, it seems strange that the film’s overt purpose is to exonerate him for doing so. Revisionist historians have attempted to rehabilitate Chamberlain before, but without success. Yet the line taken in the film is from the same school of thought: that Chamberlain heroically sacrificed his own reputation by securing peace in the short term that Britain might prepare for inevitable war in the long term. The old revisionist myth again!
At the level of an historical drama it offers some food for thought for an audience that might know little about the origins of the Second World War, or rather it offers some insights into the character of Neville Chamberlain who took Britain into that war. In this regard there is sufficient nuancing to prevent Munich from being a complete distortion of the events of 1938, and certainly Jeremy Irons offers an outstanding performance in the lead role that portrays Chamberlain well.
The sub-plot involving two civil servants, one English and the other German, is quite gripping.
German Paul von Hartman is played by Jannis Niewöhner who, Irons aside, offers the outstanding performance in the film. His English counterpart is Hugh Legat played by George MacKay, a dutiful junior secretary to Chamberlain, and who is suitably devoted to the great man.
At this point it is worth mentioning a couple of annoying anachronisms that jar against the main plot.
Firstly, one of the Downing Street private secretaries is black. This is tokenism pure and simple. The British establishment was made up of white Oxbridge men. A meritocracy it was not.
Secondly, there is a sub-sub plot about the strains Legat’s role puts on his marriage. This is the usual duty versus devotion stuff that directors use to show leading characters making sacrifices for the greater good. But no wife married to a private secretary to the PM would object to him taking the job seriously at a time of national crisis and hopping on a plane to Germany with his boss.
The film opens with Legat and Hartman and his girlfriend Lenya, at a graduation party at Oxford in 1932. The character of Lenya, Liv Lisa Fries, only appears twice thereafter and the film is a bit too much about posh men with gravitas. Perhaps a saving grace is the character of Helen Winter (Sandra Hüller) who plays an important role within the Berlin resistance.
Legat and Hartman are reunited at the Munich conference after a political fallout. Hartman is by now working with one of the German generals, Oster, who is horrified at the prospect of a war against the Czechs. Together they intend to force Chamberlain to stand up to Hitler, and give the generals the opportunity to arrest the dictator, thus saving Germany from a ruinous war.
Oster was one of the generals planning to arrest Hitler in the event of war against the Czechs. He was later executed after the botched attempt on Hitler’s life in July 1944. The generals were not against war per se as their rank and calling might suggest, and were happy to plan for future war against Soviet Russia, but they wanted wars that could be short, planned and easily won. They were insulted when Hitler, a corporal in the 1914-18 war, assumed the leadership of the armed forces in 1937. Hitler’s fanatical ideological crusade against “Jewish Bolshevism” was accurately foreseen as taking Germany into a world war that could not be won.
The German side of the historical drama is much better than the English side. Hitler is played by Ulrich Matthes who is able to explore Hitler’s own doubts and uncertainties about his place in history convincingly. And there is palpable tension when he is left in the same room as the dedicated resister Hartman, whose own psychological conflicts come out realistically, allowing the audience to feel the tremendous pressure placed on the resistance.
The English side, despite an excellent performance from Irons is a bit flat. The reason for this relates to the film’s attempt to exonerate Chamberlain for the Munich debacle. Of course in the genre of an historical drama the history has to be trimmed to fit the plot, and no complaint should be made about that. But when the trimming is done to make a political case, the nature of the deceit is revealed.
A pig’s ear
Rescuing the reputation of Chamberlain is akin to making a silk purse from a pig’s ear, and there is insufficient magic in the screenplay of Munich to achieve that.
The film brings out Chamberlain’s no doubt sincere horror of war. In a stirring speech to his wife in the Downing Street Rose Garden, and with a sombre-faced Legat looking on, Chamberlain claims, “I would rather be stood against that wall and shot if it prevented war.” In the film the sentiment is sincere, but in history it was cynical.
The historian Frank McDonough has drawn attention to Chamberlain’s use of the media to persuade the British public that his hatred and fear of war, and what aerial bombardment would do to civilian lives here in Britain, was driving his policy of appeasement. This was intended to chime with the extensive work of the Peace Pledge Union who campaigned against war in the middle of the decade.
Churchill was to cruelly mock Chamberlain’s moral convictions when he returned from Munich. In his famous speech to the House of Commons on 5 October 1938 Churchill reminded him that Hitler operated outside the normal channels of diplomacy – he was a Nazi; had written down a manifesto for racial warfare in Mein Kampf ; and had proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was utterly untrustworthy. As Chamberlain bathed in the gratitude of a people led to believe war had been averted through a scrap of paper known to history as “Peace for our time”, Churchill called Munich “an unmitigated defeat”.
“The utmost he has been able to gain for Czechoslovakia and in the matters which were in dispute has been that the German dictator, instead of snatching his victuals from the table, has been content to have them served to him course by course.”
The difference between the two Tories is that Churchill had a much firmer grasp of the threat that Hitler posed to the British Empire. Chamberlain once remarked that he didn’t care about a war between “commies and Nazis” thinking their mutual destruction would serve British policy well. Churchill sneeringly replied, “what if one of them wins?”
Munich has some redeeming features and is not completely devoted to Chamberlain’s virtue. It does manage to get across his most damning characteristic, if you look carefully, and that was his inflated self-belief as a man who could get things done. The flight to Munich was very much Chamberlain’s idea as the film makes clear. He never took Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden with him and nor did he inform the Cabinet of his intentions at Munich.
The whole ghastly business would not bear scrutiny, and when the Jewish pogrom of Kristallnacht in November was followed by the absorption of the rump Czech state into Germany in early 1939, Chamberlain’s political career was in tatters.
As the war-time Prime Minister, Churchill’s summation of the Munich Conference has formed the basis of many historical accounts of Chamberlain and his policy of appeasement since. However, and with no wish to rescue Chamberlain’s reputation, it wasn’t all his fault.
Something that Munich might have included in the balance could have been the fact that Chamberlain was saddled with a failed British foreign policy that had treated Hitler as a legitimate politician and given way to him on a number of previous occasions. Chamberlain only systematised existing British policy into what we now call appeasement. It was the desperate policy of a fading imperial power. Britain was wholly unsuited to act as any kind of arbiter in European politics. They had watched Italian and German fascists illegally support nationalist forces in the Spanish Civil War; allowed fascist Italy to carve out imperial gains in Abyssinia; looked the other way when Japan invaded Manchuria and thus made a mockery of the League of Nations that was hoped to be a means of securing international justice after 1918.
At the end of the film – just in case we missed it – is a caption saying that Chamberlain successfully delayed war, enabled British rearmament to gain speed and deserves gratitude for victory in 1945. This is simply not true on so many levels, but in the context of the Munich Agreement one thing stands out. The vast Skoda arms factory fell into Hitler’s hands when Czechoslovakia fell. In 1940 Rommel used Czech tanks made by Skoda to smash through the Ardennes and rout British and French forces leading to the fall of France and Dunkirk. Thanks Nev.
There were plenty of casualties on the road to 1939. Chamberlain’s reputation is a footnote in that sorry saga and Munich – The Edge of War won’t save it. Nevertheless, worth watching if you have the time to spare.
Before you go...
Counterfire is expanding fast as a website and an organisation. We are trying to organise a dynamic extra-parliamentary left in every part of the country to help build resistance to the government and their billionaire backers. If you like what you have read and you want to help, please join us or just get in touch by emailing [email protected] Now is the time!
John is a history teacher and UCU rep. He is an active member of the People's Assembly and writes regularly for Counterfire.
More articles from this author
- The politics of helping out: why the left needs to do more than care for the community
- Svitzer Marine dispute: Teesside tugboat crews win!
- Capitalism and Slavery - book review
- Who benefited from the British Empire?
- Hull dock blockaded: P&O workers will not be ignored
- Hull solidarity with P&O workers shows the way
- Nationalise P&O now! Hull shows solidarity with sacked workers