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The Most Dangerous Film of 2022


Promotional material for Munich: The Edge of War.


The parallels between the ongoing war in Ukraine and the Sudeten Crisis of 1938 are plain to see. Two ailing superpowers (Germany after the Treaty of Versailles; Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union) with minorities trapped beyond their borders (Sudeten Germans and Russo-Ukrainians) ruled by a tyrannical dictator (Hitler and Putin) staking a claim over disputed territory (Sudetenland and Crimea), with world leaders reluctant to intervene beyond voicing their condemnation.


British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, flew twice to Germany to negotiate with Adolf Hitler. But once it became clear the Führer would not be deterred from his conquest of Europe, an emergency four-power summit convened at the German city of Munich on 29-30 September 1938 to negotiate a peaceful resolution. Its outcome was the Munich Agreement, signed by the leaders of Britain, France, Germany and Italy. The treaty ceded the Sudetenland to the Nazis — the Czech border territories known for its sizeable German minority — to avert another major war on the continent. Czechs and Germans had inhabited this region for centuries. Though, their relations had come under increasing strain since the 1920s. Neither side was blameless. But Hitler had aggravated and exploited the grievances of his loyal following here to justify his continued expansion of the Third Reich — first with the Sudetenland, and then with the rest of Czechoslovakia and Poland — in total disregard of the Munich Agreement. For this reason, Chamberlain is remembered as the man who underestimated Hitler.


The treaty — now a dirty byword for appeasing dictators — is the subject of Munich: The Edge of War, a film released on Netflix a year ago today. The film retells the events leading up to the Munich Agreement from the perspectives of two fictional former university friends: one now a budding English civil servant and the other a Nazi diplomat involved with the German resistance. The film is problematic on numerous counts, not least because of its vain attempt to redeem the reputation of the disgraced former Prime Minister. The New York Times called the film "a feature-length attempt to glorify Neville Chamberlain."


"It’s honestly not naive to think that some viewers might assume the film is a true historical document."

The film is an adaptation of the novel, Munich, written by the renowned author, Robert Harris, from West Berkshire. The novel is an entertaining and well-researched political drama which captures the climate of pacifism prevalent in the pre-war era. But Harris' brand of historical fiction causes considerable ethical concerns in its screen adaptation. "Worryingly, the film never explains this is all a fantasy – an alarming omission, given how a browsable and casual platform like Netflix could easily swoop up viewers who don’t know Robert Harris and his trade in historical fiction," wrote The Independent. It added: "It’s honestly not naive to think that some viewers might assume the film is a true historical document."


No one can deny Neville Chamberlain faced an impossible task in negotiating with Hitler and convincing the British public to go to war again. After all, would we have gone to war with Russia over their annexation of Crimea or what is currently happening in the rest of Ukraine? Or to involve ourselves in a "quarrel in a faraway country, between people of whom we know nothing", as Chamberlain famously remarked. But to reimagine Chamberlain and the Munich Agreement as anything other than a total and complete failure is ultimately the film's undoing. The Munich Agreement only avoided, or postponed, a world war in the short term.


Munich Agreement 1938

British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, French Premier Édouard Daladier, German Führer Adolf Hitler and Italian Prime Minister Benito Mussolini before signing the Munich Agreement.


Czech Sudetenland 1938

Map showing the percentage of native German speakers in the Sudetenland of Bohemia and Moravia in 1930.



Can (or should) we reconsider Neville Chamberlain's wartime role and legacy? Yes, says Robert Harris, who has been arguing Chamberlian's case since 1988 when he presented the BBC documentary, God Bless You, Mr. Chamberlain. Societies should continuously reevaluate their history and challenge the popular narrative of events — but not by revising these to suit their own agendas, through the format of historical fiction or otherwise. Besides, doing so still does not bode well for Chamberlain.


Harris' sympathetic reappraisal of the 'Great Appeaser' paints him as a heroic and self-sacrificing martyr rather than the gullible pacifist he is so often portrayed. "If I'm made to look a fool then it's a small price to pay," declares Jeremy Iron's Chamberlain. Harris argues Chamberlain was not duped by Hitler but became a convenient scapegoat for Winston Churchill's Government once war eventually broke out. An interesting theory, but the film dilutes this argument by continuing the disturbing trend of whitewashing controversial historical figures. A Hollywood tendency witnessed to a more extreme degree with the depiction of Churchill in The Darkest Hour. Tube scene, anyone?


For a deeper insight into the novel, the film and the historical events they are based on, I spoke to Robert Harris, who worked on the film as an Executive Producer and Script Consultant. Read our discussion below.

 

Interview with Robert Harris


"I think there would have been a war in 1938 had it not been for Chamberlain."

Chamberlain and the Munich Agreement have been synonymous with failure since the war. How involved was Chamberlain in pushing for the agreement?


There wouldn’t have been a meeting at Munich without Chamberlain. In many ways, he was the driving force. I think it was his desire to avoid war which led to the whole thing, both the Munich Agreement and the famous declaration he waved from the airplane steps. Everyone confuses the two, but they are separate things. I don’t think it would have happened without him. I think there would have been a war in 1938 had it not been for Chamberlain.


It was a four-power conference, but how involved was Chamberlain in actually drafting the agreement and its various terms that were eventually signed?


Robert Harris
Robert Harris in 2009.

The British delegation was heavily involved in drawing up maps and setting up the protocols to ensure they got the agreement, so they could then pass things through to separate committees to resolve points of difference. But it was very much his (Chamberlain's) personal handiwork. Whether you think it for good or ill, there’s no doubt that without Chamberlain there would have been a war. Hitler would have crossed the border into Czechoslovakia.


Whether they (the Allies) would have honoured the agreement, I don’t know. Legally, the French were then obliged to protect Czechoslovakia. The British didn’t actually have any legal obligations to go to war, but I don’t think they could have stood by and seen France go to war and not support them.

"Hitler took all of that territory without firing a shot."

In March 1939, the Nazis occupied the rest of the Czech lands. Hitler had already gained 3 million ethnic Germans from the Sudetenland, but now he had complete access to the Czech armaments industry, which helped fuel the Nazis' expansion into Western Europe. Is this not a direct consequence of the Munich Agreement and the Allies' failure to challenge the Nazis in 1938?


This is one of the things that people have argued and argued about and the truth is, we will never know. Obviously, Hitler gained the Škoda Works factories and took all of that territory without having to fire a shot. On the other hand, as the book makes clear, the British were in a feeble state. There wouldn’t have been much they could have done to stop him from taking that territory either.


The French had no intention of sending troops to Czechoslovakia to try and stop him. It’s partly a question of how long it would have taken to occupy that whole territory anyway. Hitler thought he could do it in a week or ten days. Certainly, Prague would have been bombed pretty well flat. So, it’s not a completely easy calculation to make. But given the weakness of the RAF and its crucial importance in enabling the West to fight on after the Fall of France, I certainly think, and so did Hitler, that the fact the war was postponed a year worked to the advantage of the Allies' advantage and not to Germany’s. It’s one of those ‘what ifs’ that everyone argues over endlessly.


"I think there was some silence on the plane flying back. No one was celebrating."

One scene in the novel which stood out for me is when Hugh Legat (the fictional English protagonist) meets two Czech diplomats who are being detained at their hotel by the Gestapo and denied entry to the conference. Did this incident really happen?


That scene is based on fact. The Germans didn’t want any representatives from the Czechoslovak Government to come. It was very much Chamberlain who insisted that they (the Czechs) had to attend. But they were only given permission to attend as observers and the Germans didn’t want them to leave the hotel. Although they supported the agreement, the British officials who went regarded it as a shameful thing to have to go through. I think there was some silence on the plane flying back. No one was celebrating. I think they were probably taken aback by the huge celebrations that were being held in France and Britain once a world war had been averted.


So, it is possible that British officials knew there were Czech diplomats being denied entry to the Munich Conference?


Yes, I think they must have done. And when they returned (to the hotel), I think Chamberlain did speak to them that night, but only once the agreement had been signed. But they (the British) were certainly aware they (the Czechs) were there.


"I enjoyed the film, but it doesn’t quite present the dilemma that Chamberlain faced the way the novel does."

How do you view the film as an adaptation of your novel?


I like the film. They took the view, and I think probably rightly, that they should focus on the young people at the heart of it and less on the politics and Chamberlain and the rest of it. So, the balance of it is different to the novel and it’s the novel I take responsibility for. I had some input into the script, and I argued for certain scenes that got them included when they might have been dropped. I enjoyed the film, but it’s not as detailed. It doesn’t quite present the dilemma that Chamberlain faced the way the novel does.


"The West wasn’t adequately prepared and therefore the delay worked to their advantage."

Anyone reading Munich is most likely familiar with your brand of historical fiction. But I felt the novel's interpretation of these real events was far less nuanced in the film, particularly with the title cards included at the end. What is your view on this?

I think that’s true. I agree the end of the film is more on the nose and I suggested putting up a caption saying, 'to the end of his life, Hitler had thought one of the reasons Germany lost the war was because of the Munich Agreement', but they wanted something much simpler. You know, you’re dealing with a mass audience of millions who know nothing at all about any of this.


Essentially, the responsibility for the war rests with Hitler. There’s a great tendency for us to beat ourselves up, but once you get a country the size of Germany which has rearmed massively with nearly 80 million people following Hitler, the war is his responsibility and was going to come. And Hitler wanted it as soon as possible. The West wasn’t adequately prepared and therefore the delay did work to their advantage.


Neville Chamberlain 1938

British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain waving the Anglo-German Declaration at Heston Aerodrome before making his famous "peace for our time" speech from Buckingham Palace on his return from Munich on 30 September 1938.


"The main point is that Chamberlain thought he would avert war, and he was wrong about it and the agreement was a total and complete failure."

It was Hitler’s view that if he fought the war on the issue of Czechoslovakia in 1938, the Germans would have won. First, because they would have achieved their objective quickly and second, because the morale in Britain and France wouldn’t have been strong enough to carry on fighting once Czechoslovakia had been overrun. And another thing that most people don’t know is that it wasn't a war aim, even if Britain and France had gone to war, to restore the Sudetenland to Czechoslovakia. They (the Sudeten Germans) would have stayed with Germany because it was felt that the Allies couldn’t have kept these minorities imprisoned, as the Sudeten Germans would have called it, in a country in which they didn't wish to belong.


The main point to make is that Chamberlain thought he would avert war, and he was wrong about it and the agreement was a total and complete failure. No one can argue with that. But the inadvertent benefit of it was that Britain rearmed and that it had then a moral determination to fight on because nobody really, in the summer of 1940, wanted to do a deal with Hitler because they knew he would always break his word. And that was one of the consequences of what happened when Hitler moved into the rest of Czechoslovakia in March 1939, as you say. At that point, they knew whom they were dealing with and so they guaranteed support to Poland and there was nothing left but to fight."


"No one can feel proud of the Munich Agreement. But it was probably necessary, and it may have saved the West in the end."

Did your research for the novel involve visiting archives in Germany and the Czech Republic?


I’ve been to the place in Munich where the conference was held and interviewed some of the people who were there, including Alec Douglas-Home, who was in the room with Hitler and Chamberlain. I’ve been to Prague, but I didn’t research this book there.


I’ve been interested in the subject for more than 30 years. I just thought there is a much more interesting story than the simplistic one which is often told. No one, especially in view of what we learned Hitler was capable of, can feel proud of the Munich Agreement. It is not something of that sort. But it was probably necessary, and it may in the end have saved the West. I just thought that was a point worth making because by and large, it’s better to try and avoid wars. Chamberlain did foresee that the Second World War would kill tens of millions of people and would be much worse than the First World War, which had only ended 20 years earlier. I don’t think people in Britain were ready to fight. Certainly not in France. The Americans didn’t want to get involved; the Russians had killed far more people than Hitler by 1938 and were hardly a trustworthy ally, so I’m not sure Chamberlain had many options.


 

Consequences of the Munich Agreement


Both the novel and the film fail to mention the ultimate fate of Czechoslovakia. The Nazi annexation of Austria (Anschluss) in March 1938, compounded with Slovakia's declaration of independence as a client fascist state on 14 March 1939, left the Czech lands surrounded by hostile forces.


The Nazi occupation of the Sudetenland in October 1938 deprived the Czechs of their formidable border defenses, meaning the rest of the nation became vulnerable to invasion. Meanwhile, Chamberlain received a positive public and media reception on his return to England. The whole affair was regarded as an unfortunate moral compromise to preserve the peace.


Czech border fortifications

Czech border fortifications near the village of Dobrošov, close to the border with Poland. The Czechs hastily built these defenses between 1935 and 1938 in response to the growing threat posed by Nazi Germany. Construction was never completed due to the signing of the Munich Agreement and all defences were surrendered to the enemy.


"You will find that in a period of time measured only by months, Czechoslovakia will be engulfed in the Nazi regime."

The Nazis invaded the rest of the Czech lands on 15 March 1939, encountering little resistance. The Czechs thought this flagrant violation of the Munich Agreement might finally draw the Allies into the conflict. But without any assurances from Britain and France — despite the latter being treaty-bound to support Czechoslovakia since 1925 — Czech forces were ordered to demobilize and return home.


The country endured almost six months of fascist tyranny before the outbreak of war, something Chamberlain apparently failed to anticipate. But Churchill — by no means a saint himself — did accurately predict this outcome in a damning address he gave to the House of Commons on 5 October 1938: "You will find that in a period of time measured only by months, Czechoslovakia will be engulfed in the Nazi regime."


The Munich Agreement, or 'Munich Betrayal', remains controversial in the Czech Republic today. Neither Czechoslovakia nor the Soviet Union was invited to join the peace talks at Munich, coining the popular Czech slogan, 'about us, without us'. The Soviet Union was committed to supporting Czechoslovakia in the event of hostilities, but basic geography rendered this arrangement implausible — the Red Army would have had to cross Ukraine and Poland to lend any support to the Czechs.


One consequence of excluding the Soviets from the conference suggests that Stalin suspected the Allies of only using the treaty to divert the inevitable Nazi conquest eastward. The Soviet Union signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with Germany on 23 August 1939. Both nations staged a joint invasion of Poland nine days later, triggering the Second World War. A show of strength and unity from the Western Allies might have prevented this outcome. However, this argument is not absent in its shortcomings. There is no telling how a leader as volatile as Stalin would behave and any alliance between him and Hitler, two ideologically opposed dictators, was always destined to end in conflict.

 

Conclusion

The film is most startingly inaccurate in its conclusion. A vague and erroneous title card risks misguiding casual viewers with a very distorted view of what Chamberlain and the Munich Agreement achieved. This reads:


"The extra time bought by the Munich Agreement enabled Britain and her allies to prepare for war and ultimately led to Germany's defeat."

A closing passage in the novel similarly reads: "No longer the dry-as-dust administrator of popular legend, he (Chamberlain) had become a seer - a Messiah of Peace, robed in the drab costume of an elderly accountant." Chamberlain may have foreseen the degree of destruction caused by the Second World War. But any insinuation that he predicted major events of the war such as Dunkirk, the Invasion of Poland, D-Day and even the Holocaust is ludicrous, as is the idea the Munich Agreement helped the Allies win the war. The film's statement suggests a limited understanding by its creators.


"If he breaks his word, the world will see him for who he (Hitler) truly is. It'll unite the Allies; it might even bring the Americans on board," reasons Jeremy Iron's Chamberlain when confronted with criticism of his policy. However, the United States was indifferent to the power struggles unfolding in Europe. The Americans only entered the German theatre of war after the Japanese bombings of Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941 and Germany's declaration of war against the United States four days later.


Jeremy Iron's fine portrayal of Neville Chamberlain in a scene recreating the Prime Minister's iconic arrival at Heston Aerodrome in Munich: The Edge of War.


Had Britain entered the war on a stronger footing, then perhaps the sacrifice of Czechoslovakia could have been justified as necessary.

So, was signing the Munich Agreement the right move for the Allies? Harris claims war would have come in 1938 without Chamberlain's intervention, for which the Allies were grossly underprepared. Both statements are likely true. Any inadvertent benefits of delaying the war were not by design or due to the genius of Chamberlain, who was proved wrong when war broke out. But if the Munich Agreement was only meant to delay, not prevent, an inevitable war for the purposes of Allied rearmament, then how can Chamberlain's appeasement policy be considered "a total and complete failure", as Harris states?


Over almost a year, Britain expanded its air force and perfected its radar systems, both of which proved vital to the success of the Battle of Britain (July-October 1940). Although, the Phoney War (September 1939-May 1940) also gave Britain ample time to prepare. Had Britain entered the war on a stronger footing, then perhaps the sacrifice of Czechoslovakia could have been justified as necessary. And I say that as a half-Czech. But by 1940, the British Expeditionary Force remained woefully underprepared to face the Nazi threat. The disaster at Dunkirk between May and June 1940 resulted in tens of thousands of Allied soldiers being killed or captured and thousands of tons of ammunition, supplies and vehicles abandoned along the French coastline. Surely, nations must judge their leaders by their results and not by the noble intentions they possess. Perhaps the question we should really be asking is what delaying the war really achieved.


"Titles cards at the end describe the aftermath of the conference in a way that gives weight to the view that Chamberlain was a strategic mastermind."

Harris's alternative interpretation of Chamberlain brings a welcome challenge to the status quo. Churchill has dominated the narrative of the war ever since he published The Gathering Storm in 1948, the first volume of his History of The Second World War. Chamberlain was no longer around to defend himself by this point, having died of cancer on 9 November 1940, six months after leaving office. Even so, his handling of the Sudeten Crisis demonstrated a failed understanding of how complex and deeply rooted Czech-German relations were. Moreover, he was evidently ill-informed about Hitler and overstated the significance of the Anglo-German Declaration — a symbolic gesture at best. Chamberlain is not the lost voice in all of this.


The film only serves to complicate the study of this subject further with its historical conjecture and revisionism. Anyone viewing director Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds or reading Phillip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle recognizes these as works of alternative history. But the same cannot be said for this film, as Expats.cz explains: "Director Christian Schwochow tries to make Munich: The Edge of War look more like a historical dramatization than speculative fiction. Title cards at the end describe the aftermath of the conference in a way that gives weight to the view that Chamberlain was a strategic mastermind."


After calls to include a historical fiction disclaimer on the Netflix series, The Crown, due to controversy surrounding its historical accuracy — which director Christian Schwochow directed episodes for perhaps the same should apply to similar works going forwards. A disclaimer would eliminate any potential for misleading viewers and rewriting history, especially dangerous nowadays as the past catches up to the present.

 

[1] Image Credit: Netflix / Non-Commercial Use.

[2] Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0 de.

[3] Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0.

[4] Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 3.0.

[5] Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International.

[6] Image Credit: Mirek Gosney.

[7] Image Credit: Netflix / Non-Commercial Use.

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