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.
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.
There is no need here to detail the readily available plot. Munich 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.
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.