“Munich, The Edge of War,” with Jeremy Irons: Fine Acting, Edgy History

“Munich, The Edge of War,” with Jeremy Irons: Fine Acting, Edgy History

My review of “Munich, The Edge of War,” star­ring Jere­my Irons as Neville Cham­ber­lain, excerpt­ed from from its first appear­ance on the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project. For more pho­tos and a text includ­ing end­notes, please click here. Sub­scrip­tions to this site are free. You will receive reg­u­lar notices of new posts as pub­lished. Just fill out SUBSCRIBE AND FOLLOW (at right). Your email address will remain a rid­dle wrapped in a mys­tery inside an enigma.

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Jeremy Irons as Neville Chamberlain

“Munich: The Edge of War” (Net­flix, 2022), direct­ed by Chris­t­ian Schwo­chow, from a screen­play by Ben Pow­er, based the 2017 nov­el Munich by Robert Har­ris. Star­ring Jere­my Irons (Neville Cham­ber­lain), George MacK­ay (the fic­tion­al Hugh Legat), Jan­nis Niewöh­n­er (fic­tion­al Paul von Hart­mann) and Ulrich Matthews (Adolf Hitler).

Win­ston Churchill makes no appear­ance in this screen­play based on Robert Harris’s nov­el about the Munich cri­sis. It’s just as well, because Munich was Neville Cham­ber­lain’s hour. The vet­er­an actor Jere­my Irons cap­tures a man Churchill said had “the most noble and benev­o­lent instincts of the human heart…[who] strove to the utmost of his capac­i­ty and author­i­ty, which were pow­er­ful, to save the world from the awful, dev­as­tat­ing strug­gle.” Jere­my Irons shows us that very per­sona, and Cham­ber­lain deserved Churchill’s acco­lade. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the film doesn’t stop there. Cham­ber­lain was bad­ly wrong about Adolf Hitler, and the film­mak­ers should have left it at that. 

Creative license 

Jeremy Irons

There is no need here to detail the read­i­ly avail­able plotMunich runs 131 min­utes, cast against the con­spir­a­cy to remove Hitler. To con­vey this, the writ­ers pro­vide two fic­tion­al char­ac­ters: Chamberlain’s pri­vate sec­re­tary Hugh Legat, and his old Oxford chum, Paul von Hart­mann, by then a Ger­man for­eign office trans­la­tor. They have more of a role than the Prime Minister’s actu­al advi­sor Horace Wil­son, and his ambas­sador to Berlin, Nevile Hen­der­son—who are scarce­ly iden­ti­fied. 

Legat and Hart­mann insist that the Czech Sude­ten­land, which Hitler is demand­ing, is not his “last ter­ri­to­r­i­al claim in Europe.” What Hitler wants is a Naz­i­fied con­ti­nent. Cham­ber­lain, they implore him, must refuse his demands. A firm stance now will bring down Hitler, pro­duc­ing true peace for our time.  

A con­spir­a­cy to remove the Führer, led by Gen­eral­ma­jor Hans Oster, did exist, as Michael McMe­namin has cogent­ly writ­ten. It con­tem­plat­ed Hitler’s arrest, though he might have been killed in the process. But it involved high rank­ing offi­cers and min­is­ters, not some young aide like Hart­mann, who some­how man­ages to meet the Führer with a gun in his hand—and then fails to use it. This is pure the­atre. None below his clos­est asso­ciates were ever allowed to see Hitler with­out being frisked for weapons. 

Jere­my Irons por­trays Chamberlain’s stub­born insis­tence that he alone holds the keys to peace. He spurns Legat’s and Hartmann’s warn­ings and meets Hitler’s demands, leav­ing him polit­i­cal­ly unas­sail­able. Lat­er, Legat returns to Lon­don with a secret doc­u­ment expos­ing Hitler’s true designs, and Cham­ber­lain uses the year bought with Czech lib­er­ty to arm for the inevitable war. “There’s some­thing noble” in Chamberlain’s actions, declared Robert Har­ris…. “Not squalid, which is the way it’s nor­mal­ly written.” 

A mile wide and a foot deep  

Richard Har­ris, sup­port­ed by Jere­my Irons, labels Cham­ber­lain “a trag­ic hero…. He believed the coun­try would have a spir­i­tu­al cri­sis if the peo­ple didn’t see their lead­ers doing every­thing pos­si­ble to avoid anoth­er war.” The film assures us that Cham­ber­lain at Munich did just that, buy­ing time. By 1939, Har­ris argues,

We had the world’s most pow­er­ful navy. We had an inte­grat­ed air force, all of which was bequeathed by the loathed Cham­ber­lain…. [Churchill’s] mem­oirs real­ly are a great coun­ter­fac­tu­al. “If only that, if only this—then Hitler could have been stopped.” None of it seems to real­ly address the things Cham­ber­lain had to deal with. And if we’d fol­lowed Churchill’s advice, the army would have bought a lot of biplanes. 

This under­stand­ing of his­to­ry is a mile wide and a foot deep. Was Cham­ber­lain or Churchill the bet­ter anti­dote to Britain’s spir­i­tu­al cri­sis? Did Churchill loathe Cham­ber­lain? His memo­r­i­al trib­ute was one of his finest. His mem­oirs admit­ted that the RAF began rebuild­ing under Cham­ber­lain—before Munich. In 1940, Churchill enlist­ed Lord Beaver­brook to spike pro­duc­tion even high­er. (The planes went to the RAF, not the army.) 

The remark about biplanes is the very same argu­ment of Sir Thomas Inskip, the inept “Min­is­ter for the Coor­di­na­tion of Defence.” Inskip said that had Britain increased air­craft pro­duc­tion when Churchill want­ed, they’d have been “out of date” by 1936. Churchill mocked this “tru­ly Machi­avel­lian stroke of pol­i­cy [by which] we were hold­ing back in order to steal a march.” When you build war­planes, you build the state of the art. The Ger­mans managed. 

The truth about Munich  

Mr. Har­ris’ argu­ment has been made before. Chamberlain’s biog­ra­phers used it—and Churchill’s crit­ics. I heard it myself at a con­fer­ence in 2013. In fact Munich bought only deep­er trou­ble: a stronger Ger­many, with Sovi­et col­lab­o­ra­tion; a demor­al­ized France; a polit­i­cal­ly secure Hitler. 

True, it gave Britain more time to arm. It also gave Ger­many more time to arm—and to secure a pact with Rus­sia. Also, Hitler reaped a mil­i­tary bonan­za in Czecho­slo­va­kia.  Obvi­ous­ly Britain and France could not have defend­ed the land­locked Czechs. Churchill in his mem­oirs wrote: “It sure­ly did not take much thought [to realise] that the British Navy and the French Army could not be deployed on the Bohemi­an moun­tain front.”

Churchill had only the schol­ar­ship of 1948—testimony at Nurem­berg, recov­ered Nazi doc­u­ments, pri­vate con­tacts. Yet he argued that the time to take on Hitler had been 1938. How has his argu­ment stood the test of time and mod­ern schol­ar­ship? The answer is: pret­ty well. The his­to­ri­an Williamson Mur­ray respond­ed to the pro-Munich asser­tions in 2014. Dr. Mur­ray began by com­par­ing the bal­ance of mil­i­tary forces and polit­i­cal cir­cum­stances between 1938 and 1939. Some of his asser­tions were new and star­tling; some were com­mon sense.  

Changing public attitudes 

An impor­tant con­sid­er­a­tion is pub­lic readi­ness for a major war—on both sides. It is well known that Britons were most­ly pacif­ic until Munich. But as Pro­fes­sor Mur­ray wrote, the Ger­mans too had had a bel­ly­ful of war and its dis­as­trous after­math. Rap­tur­ous crowds, believ­ing he brought peace, greet­ed Cham­ber­lain on his vis­it to Hitler in Bad Godes­berg on Sep­tem­ber 22nd. Berlin­ers watch­ing as Hitler reviewed a motor­ized col­umn five days lat­er were sparse and sullen, in the words of an eye-wit­ness, William Shir­er: “the most strik­ing demon­stra­tion against war I’ve ever seen.” Hitler turned away in dis­gust, remark­ing to Goebbels, “I can’t lead a war with such people.”

 The British pop­u­lar will reg­is­tered with Cham­ber­lain, and his pre­de­ces­sor. It was Prime Min­is­ter Stan­ley Bald­win who in 1936 had restrained the French after Hitler had occu­pied the Rhineland. When French For­eign Min­is­ter Pierre Flandin appealed for Britain to mobi­lize, Bald­win replied that he knew the British peo­ple, and they want­ed peace. Flandin declared that France would not act with­out Britain, and Britain did nothing.

Churchill snort­ed at Baldwin’s inter­pre­ta­tion of his duty. The respon­si­bil­i­ty of a leader is to lead, he said: The leader’s pri­ma­ry con­cern is the safe­ty of the nation—whatever the consequences:

I would endure with patience the roar of exul­ta­tion that would go up when I was proved wrong, because it would lift a load off my heart and off the hearts of many Mem­bers. What does it mat­ter who gets exposed or dis­com­fit­ed? If the coun­try is safe, who cares for indi­vid­ual politi­cians, in or out of office?

Churchill’s case for leadership 

Churchill made that ring­ing dec­la­ra­tion in 1936. Now it was 1938. Hitler had absorbed the Rhineland and Aus­tria, and was after Czecho­slo­va­kia. Self-evi­dent­ly, the British were now less paci­fist. Many expressed out­rage. Lord Hal­i­fax, so often por­trayed as an abject appeas­er, led a cab­i­net revolt, say­ing Hitler could nev­er be trust­ed. He telegraphed Cham­ber­lain: “Great mass of pub­lic opin­ion seems to be hard­en­ing in sense of feel­ing that we have gone to the lim­it of concession.”

Churchill’s reply to the notion that Britons would not resist came in an inter­view three months after Munich: 

I am con­vinced that with ade­quate lead­er­ship, democ­ra­cy can be a more effi­cient form of gov­ern­ment than Fas­cism. In this coun­try at any rate the peo­ple can read­i­ly be con­vinced that it is nec­es­sary to make sac­ri­fices, and they will will­ing­ly under­take them if the sit­u­a­tion is put clear­ly and fair­ly before them. No one can doubt that it was with­in the pow­er of the Nation­al Gov­ern­ment at any time with­in the last sev­en years to rearm the coun­try at any pace required with­out resis­tance from the mass of the peo­ple. The dif­fi­cul­ty was that the lead­ers failed to appre­ci­ate the need and to warn the peo­ple, or were afraid to do their duty, not that the demo­c­ra­t­ic sys­tem formed an impediment.

“War is horrible…slavery is worse” 

We can­not know the mil­i­tary out­come of a mil­i­tary con­fronta­tion in 1938. We can­not know the result of the coup attempt, or the public’s atti­tude if Cham­ber­lain had resist­ed. In 1939, Britons large­ly sup­port­ed declar­ing war over Poland—which was much less defen­si­ble than Czecho­slo­va­kia. Prop­er­ly alert­ed to the real­i­ties, would the peo­ple have backed resis­tance in 1938? Churchill believed so:

The pace is set by the poten­tial aggres­sor, and, fail­ing col­lec­tive action by the rest of the world to resist him, the alter­na­tives are an arms race or sur­ren­der. War is very ter­ri­ble, but stirs a proud peo­ple. There have been peri­ods in our his­to­ry when we have giv­en way for a long time, but a new and for­mi­da­ble mood arises.

Churchill’s inter­view­er inter­rupt­ed: “A bel­li­cose mood?” No, said Churchill: A mood of  “Thus far, and no far­ther.” It is only by the spir­it of resis­tance that man has learnt to stand upright, and instead of walk­ing on all fours to assume an erect pos­ture. War is hor­ri­ble, but slav­ery is worse, and you may be sure that the British peo­ple would rather go down fight­ing than live in servitude.”

By deriva­tion Churchill would also say, as indeed his whole life proved, that if a leader can’t car­ry the peo­ple, then he goes: “…who cares for indi­vid­ual politi­cians, in or out of office?” 

What we know

Regard­less of whether you like the movie—and Jere­my Irons gives it an authen­tic, watch­able flavor—we know much more about Munich in the light of schol­ar­ship since. There were choic­es before Neville Cham­ber­lain. He did strive, to the utmost of his capac­i­ty, to save the world from an awful strug­gle. Churchill, unlike Cham­ber­lain, nev­er met the Ger­man Führer face to face. We will nev­er know the out­come if Cham­ber­lain had stiff­ened over what he called a quar­rel in a far-away coun­try between peo­ple of whom we know nothing…. .”

But we do know what hap­pened in Sep­tem­ber 1939, and in May-June 1940. We know Sovi­et Rus­sia sup­port­ed Czecho­slo­va­kia in 1938, and was a Ger­man ally in 1939. We know how—with the help of Czech armaments—Poland fell in three weeks, the Low Coun­tries in eigh­teen days, France in six weeks. If resist­ing Hitler was so ludi­crous an idea in 1938, what was there about fight­ing him in 1939-40 that made it prefer­able? Giv­en what we know, we must con­sid­er Churchill. And his opin­ion was far from baseless.

Further reading

Michael McMe­namin, “Regime Change, 1938: Did Cham­ber­lain ‘Miss the Bus’?” in Finest Hour 162, Spring 2014, 22-27. 

Williamson Mur­ray, “Munich and Its Alter­na­tive: The Case for Resis­tance,” in Finest Hour 162, Spring 2014, 16-21.

Andrew Roberts, “Munich: The Edge of Non­sense,” Wash­ing­ton Free Bea­con, 20 Feb­ru­ary 2022.

One thought on ““Munich, The Edge of War,” with Jeremy Irons: Fine Acting, Edgy History

  1. You wrote ” the Low Coun­tries fell in six­teen days” I believe it was 18 days, The Bel­gian Army sur­ren­dered on May 28, 1940.

    Thanks, fixed. —RML

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