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19 January 2022updated 22 Jan 2022 1:36am

Why Neville Chamberlain will forever be discredited by his policy of appeasement

A new Netflix film, based on Robert Harris’s novel, attempts to rehabilitate the former prime minister – but his legacy is difficult to defend.

By Richard J Evans

Has Neville Chamberlain been unfairly treated by history? In his 2017 thriller Munich, the author Robert Harris argued the case in a mixture of fictional narrative and historical reasoning. According to Harris, Chamberlain wasn’t weak and unintelligent – the common charge – and didn’t allow himself to be manipulated by Hitler when the two met in the Bavarian capital in 1938. Instead, by signing the Munich Agreement, which he believed averted a European war that otherwise would have been inevitable, the British prime minister was cleverly playing for time as his nation rearmed itself.

The German director Christian Schwochow has now delivered a cinematic version of the book. Full of beautifully re-created historical detail, and filmed in many of the locations where the action originally happened, the movie has a rich, sumptuous feel and a convincing sense of time and place. Only a few details are misplaced, such as Jews being forced by Nazis to scrub pavements in Berlin (they were not – this happened only in Vienna). The script is for the most part sensitive to the conventions of the day: the English address each other by their surnames, and the Germans speak to each other in German, helpfully subtitled. Much of the detail is taken from the historical record. And yet, the movie doesn’t convince any more than Harris’s book did.

The action takes place over a short period at the end of September 1938. Hitler had annexed Austria earlier in the year and has his sights set on neighbouring Czechoslovakia, an artificial state carved out of the defunct Habsburg empire at the end of the First World War. Three million ethnic Germans live in the Sudetenland on the border with the German Reich, and Hitler has manipulated their leaders into demanding union with Germany – a move that would destroy the integrity and viability of the Czechoslovak state. As his propaganda machine intensifies its attacks on the alleged mistreatment of the ethnic Germans by the Czechs, it becomes clear that Hitler intends to invade the country. At this point, Chamberlain decides to intervene. His motivation, well conveyed in the film, is to prevent another European war, since a new world war, he fears, would inflict even more suffering and death than the first one. Self-confident to the point of arrogance, he believes this would be the first step in a wider peace settlement that would bring Hitler’s destabilisation of European politics to an end.

[see also: The German history wars]

The movie underplays the wider sentiment in England and France that the principle of national self-determination, which was supposed to form the basis for reordering Europe in 1919, had been denied to the Germans, so that the Sudeten Germans were justified in wanting to join Hitler’s Reich. But it correctly shows Chamberlain’s belief that if this was allowed to happen, Hitler would be appeased and his campaign of territorial aggrandisement would come to an end.

The movie implies that one of Chamberlain’s motives was to buy time while Britain rearmed. But Germany was rearming, too. By destroying the territorial integrity of Czecho-slovakia, the Munich Agreement opened the way to the German conquest of the rest of the country, with its well-equipped army and flourishing arms industry. As a result, Czech-made tanks played a significant part in the German invasions of Poland, France and the Soviet Union between 1939 and 1941.

In 1938, however, many senior figures in Germany’s military did not believe that German rearmament, which had begun only in 1933, had prepared the country to fight a major war. Alarmed by the pace of Hitler’s aggression, they devised a conspiracy to arrest him as soon as the invasion of Czechoslovakia was under way. This was a serious plan, involving generals as high-ranking as the chief of the army general staff, though whether it would have succeeded is a moot point.

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The film’s plot centres on a fictional junior official in the German foreign 0ffice, Paul von Hartmann, a member of the conspiracy. He comes into possession of a copy of the Hossbach memorandum, a genuine document that recorded a confidential conference held in 1937 in which Hitler outlined his plans for the destruction of Czechoslovakia, Austria and Poland, and a subsequent war for European domination against Germany’s “hate-inspired antagonists” Britain and France. With the help of an old Oxford friend, the fictional Hugh Legat, now one of the prime minister’s private secretaries, Hartmann succeeds in conveying the document to Chamberlain, who now understands the sheer extent of Hitler’s ambition. Chamberlain forces Hitler to sign an additional undertaking, with the latter affirming “the desire of our two peoples never to go to war with each other again”. Hitler calls off the invasion, spoiling the plan to arrest him, as the plotters had rightly feared the new agreement would.

Although the movie suggests that Chamberlain now distrusted Hitler, privately calling him a “gangster”, there’s no indication of this in the historical record, just as his viewing of the Hossbach memorandum is also an invention. The film correctly shows Hartmann telling Legat that the British don’t have the faintest idea of the depths of Hitler’s deceitfulness or the breadth of his ambition – “none of you knows who he really is!”. Chamberlain wrote to his sister that he thought Hitler was a man to be trusted; he also believed that Hitler trusted him as well. But Hitler had nothing but contempt for the prime minister, whose limited horizons were illustrated by the radio broadcast he made about the situation, quoted in the movie: “How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas masks here because of a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing.” He was out of his depth in dealing with Hitler, whom he misguidedly regarded as a conventional European statesman.

Chamberlain is centre-stage throughout the film, portrayed brilliantly by Jeremy Irons. Hartmann and Legat remain pale and two-dimensional characters in comparison, despite the efforts of Jannis Niewöhner and George MacKay, the young actors who portray them. The character of Hartmann appears to be loosely based on Adam von Trott zu Solz, who was executed for his part in the bomb plot of 20 July 1944 against Hitler. Trott made many friends in Britain during his stay as a German Rhodes scholar in Oxford in the 1930s, including the philosopher Isaiah Berlin. The opening scene of the film builds on the story of Trott’s Oxford days to suggest this is where Hartmann and Legat became companions, but the conversion of Hartmann from a supporter of the Nazis to a bitter enemy after he sees his Jewish girlfriend’s life destroyed by them is too abrupt to be convincing. Trott’s own non-Nazi German nationalism was more consistent than this, and he believed the annexation of the Sudetenland was justified. What he objected above all to was Hitler’s drive for a general European war. There’s a good deal of historical licence here, too, since Trott wasn’t even an official of the German foreign office in 1938.

The critics of the Munich Agreement are not mentioned in the movie, not even Winston Churchill. The agreement convinced Hitler that further aggression would not meet much opposition from Britain or France. On the other hand, the movie depicts vast crowds cheering on the negotiations. This, too, was a major factor behind Chamberlain’s desire for a settlement. Neither the House of Commons nor the British public was ready for a war. Less than six months later, following the German annexation for the first time of a non-German-speaking part of Europe – rump Czechoslovakia – the situation changed. As Hitler deployed troops into Poland at the beginning of September 1939, Chamberlain, still refusing to recognise Hitler for what he was, again tried to mediate. This time he found virtually no support, neither in the House of Commons nor in the cabinet, nor indeed in the public. “Everything that I have worked for,” he said, “everything that I have hoped for, everything that I have believed in during my public life, has crashed into ruins.”

“Munich: The Edge of War” is on Netflix now

[see also: What the Hitler conspiracies mean]

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This article appears in the 19 Jan 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the party