I went to BFI Southbank to see the screening of Munich – The Edge Of War. This is a new Netflix production which has been shown as part of the London Film Festival. The screening was sold out and I was in auditorium with what seemed to be 1000 Daily Telegraph readers, who chuckled collectively at a few historical ironies. Whilst waiting near the bar I saw a couple in fancy outfits who looked like they might be Important People in the film business; I also overheard an actor talking about all the new work he has lined up in to next year, which includes “something about the Enfield Poltergeist”. He looked vaguely like someone I’d seen in films in the 90s, and might have been Toby Stephens.
The film I was watching is based on Robert Harris’s novel Munich, around the events of conference of 1938. I read the novel, and most of it as I remember is on the screen. The long bit at the start where the Defence Chiefs explain why Britain isn’t ready to fight a war in 1938 is trimmed off to just see them leaving; the chonology is straightened out so we begin with the start of the friendship between Hugh Legat and Paul Hartman at Oxford in 1932, and then jump forward to panicky Whitehall 6 years later. Britons in 2021 will instantly relate to the impression of Britain attempting to get ready for a major crisis under a leadership that is visibly unprepared, symbolised by the workers struggling to set up a barrage balloon over Westminster.
It’s quite normal in “period drama” nowadays to spend a fortune getting every minor prop right, and then give the cast a script riddled with anachronisms. Once upon a time the BBC could hire a lot of in-house writers to produce a top-quality well-researched and original script for a show like The Onedin Line, and film nearly all of it indoors with wooden sets, and use stock footage to fill in the difficult bits. But that was long ago, and the need for co-production money with US networks means the product has to be tied to a world-marketable literary or historical brand name (Jane Austen, Churchill, etc.). That was one of the factors against Play For Today and its ilk. The same values pervade the new digital networks whenever they go for the “quality” market, and it would probably be simpler if we just have areas of central London and a few old market towns officially designated for use in portraying Big Film Britain, exempt from any visible redevelopment.
MEOW, as we will now call it, commendably has Germans talking German when they would have done, with English subtitles. When people are talking English there are 2 notable timeslips: the use of “racist” when “racialist” would more likely have been the term, and also the moment when Pamela Legat uses the F word in an argument with her husband. Although British ruling class males learned the full range of obscenities from the soldiers they commanded in the trenches, I don’t think their wives would have had the chance to hear or say more than “bloody” until they served in Women’s Auxiliaries or the Land Army. I understand the group that the young Princess Elizabeth did her training with near the end of the war were carefully selected for the role, which is such a pity.
The cast do a fine job of playing toffs struggling with events. I thought Frederick Treves had returned from the dead to play yet another pillar of the establishment, but on closer inspection it was Nicholas Farrell, who has aged into his replacement. Robert Bathurst also now seems ready to take the roles Thorley Waters would have done 40 years ago, and Alex Jennings is going to be playing top civil servants and Cabinet ministers at least twice a year for the rest of his career. But best value is of course old Jeremy Irons as Neville himself. There are also 2 non-white actors in the cast, and I’m sure the people who had such fascinating opinions about 1917 will be ventilating them again.
The narrative of the film is close to the events. Chamberlain is giving it one last roll of the dice trying to get another conference together; meanwhile the German Army resistance are talking up their chances to launch a putsch against the Austrian Corporal, a topic which has never failed to entrance British amateur historians who don’t think too much about what the actual 1944 failed coup plotters wanted, and what could possibly have been offered to them. Hugh Legat’s old friend Paul Hartman wants to smuggle out a copy of the Hossbach Memorandum (never referred to as such, but that’s what the document has always been known as during its long post-War celebrity). Hartman imagines this will change Chamberlain’s mind and get him to renounce the Agreement and… have a war in 1938, presumably.
There’s not much point critically examining the Churchill Mythology in modern British politics, without also looking at its origin story in Chamberlain Mythology, which has even more parties invested in it, since it also appeals to the Left. But there are at least 2 parts to Chamberlain Mythology, and the Munich saga is one of them. It is notable that this film, like the conference itself, omits the Czechs. That’s good because one thing the British debate around Munich has always omitted is the detail that the Sudeten Germans had some legitimate complaints about being an unfavoured minority. Promises that had been made were simply ignored by the Prague establishment that never took regional nationalism too seriously until it was dangerously late. The other forgotten side of the story is that the issue was resolved after the war by ethnic cleansing of the region. But that part of history has a decisive line drawn under it, it is never going to be reviewed or reversed.
More pertinently, there was not much that would have been achieved if Britain and France had declared war in September 1938. The French Army had no plans or intention of launching an invasion of Germany. Czechoslovakia would have suffered thousands of civilian casualties after bombing campaigns but her Army would have collapsed inevitably as the Polish Army did 1 year later, waiting for a non-existent Allied offensive. She may also have been invaded by Hungary, or just faced an uprising in her eastern provinces, as happened during the final breakdown 6 months later. The western powers would have done no more against the bombing of Prague than they were doing against the bombing of Madrid, Barcelona or Nanking.
“Munich”, in British political chatter, is a more seductive myth than anything about the Blitz, and it will last longer. This film could be seen as trying to “exonerate Chamberlain” in the sense of finally giving him a chance to speak up for the “political reality” of the time. It might have helped its own cause if it had included that big info-dump with the Service Chiefs at the start of the book, which would also make sense of Hugh’s resolve at the end to quit Whitehall and join the RAF. Justifying Munich is not the same as exonerating Chamberlain, and the difference was clear when A.J.P.Taylor broke the consensus with The Origins Of The Second World War. That book (and Taylor’s later Introduction, which was also dismissive of the significance given to the Memorandum that Hartman and Legat make so much of) argued there was no better option available at the time, but did also see it as a culmination of 20 years of failure to have a coherent stance towards Germany and the aftermath of the previous Great War. It was written 60 years ago, a lot of documents have come out since and it is now just a piece of history itself. With regard to Munich, however, there have been no changes in the likelihood that Allied forces would have been crossing the Rhine in October 1938. This film ends with the statement that Britain gained time to get ready to fight Hitler; it doesn’t mention that Hitler had that same amount of time to get ready to fight us, and he gained a lot of Czech industry to work on it, including plenty of modern tanks. Munich was the best thing to do at the time, but it would have been better to have had other options. That’s what remains of Taylor’s wider argument. It continues to be true that British governments are not good at planning for potential future crises that are reasonably foreseeable, if you’re paying attention to foreign politics.
There have been other fictions about Munich. Sartre’s novel The Reprieve did at least give some Czechs an appearance. It mentioned the broken promises of the Benes government, but it has them raised by a right-winger who doesn’t want war with Hitler because he doesn’t see him as an enemy. More recently was The Order Of The Day, which I also read this week. This puts Neville back to being a flustered old fool, who doesn’t realise the flimsiness of the Nazi threat, whilst the Austrian dictator Schuschnigg is properly described as the Catholic Fascist non-democrat he was, a detail often left out of the British narrative.
“Fall Grun” was Operation Green, the never-used plan for the invasion of Czechoslovakia. The picture in the banner comes from a Czech site about the phantom plan. There is also at least one German book examining it. Operation Green was also the name for an unused plan for a landing in Ireland later on, when the war with Britain was underway. We all know that Operation Sealion was the invasion of Britain that never happened, though the sketches of it appear in Churchill’s memoirs. The little arrows of Panzer divisions drive inland from the south coast and swerve out to Oxford and Gloucester. This shadow-history was also visualised by Anselm Kiefer.
The coming war, and journeys across the borders were a great theme for 1930s writers of varying degrees of left-wingery. 1938 was the year of Stevie Smith’s phantasmagoric Over The Frontier, in which bleak rationalisations about the state of power politics (and the creepy men all around, who might not mind a fascist takeover) build up into a manic breakdown of surrealism and spy capers. The fear that Britain could only go down in the world pervaded this culture before Hitler came along. Bright young men didn’t think the Versailles Treaty was worth fighting for. Even an old idealist philosopher like C.D.Broad knew he’d been had in the last war, and the next one could come at too high a price. He said it in 1931:
Now England is likely, for the next century at least, to be a declining power, whose legal claims and traditional status are much higher than its real position in the fellowship of nations warrants. It is therefore peculiarly liable to be placed in situations in which it will be threatened with what will seem to be gross acts of aggression and insolence. One of the hardest and most unpleasant duties of Englishmen in the immediate future will be to pocket their pride, to try to realize the growing disparity between the legal or traditional and the equitable position of their country in the world, and to adjust their actions to the latter rather than to the former. In this we need not expect to be helped by any excessive display of good manners or delicate consideration on the part of foreign nations; we must be prepared in the future for a continuance of that mixture of cant, truculence, and sharp practice, which is the traditional note of the United States in its diplomatic relations with the world in general and England in particular. Happily it has so far been the great political virtue of the English to know when they are beaten, though not to acknowledge it; and we have been masters at the art of erecting dignified fictions to cover our retreat from untenable positions. We are likely to need all our skill in this art if we are to avoid disaster during the difficult period of international readjustment which lies ahead of us. In future, when we are lectured by Mrs. Hominy, denounced by Mr Jefferson Brick, bullied by Colonel Chollop, and used as stepping stones in the political career of the Honourable Elijah Pogrom, it may be wholesome for us to recollect how we used to admonish continental nations for their own good in those Palmerstonian days when we were rich and they were poor. Forsan et haes olim meminisse juvabit.