What does Neville Chamberlain have in common with Brexiteers?

11 January 2022

1:10 AM

11 January 2022

1:10 AM

The false notes in Netflix’s adaptation of Robert Harris’s Munich come in the final scenes. Jeremy Irons, who has been portraying Neville Chamberlain so well that you forget he is an actor, suddenly sounds like an old stager the director has forced to splutter lines he suspects will convince no one.

Chamberlain is on the plane back to Heston Aerodrome after allowing Hitler to carve up Czechoslovakia at the 1938 Munich conference. He is about to tell the crowds back home that he had Herr Hitler’s promise to work together to ensure that ‘all Europe may find peace’ – the vain and stupid boast for which history remembers him.

His officials urge him to treat agreements with Hitler with caution. If he breaks his word, Chamberlain will look like a fool.

‘Well,’ shouts Chamberlain, ‘if he breaks his word the world will see him for who he truly is! And it will unite the Allies. Might even bring the Americans on board. And if I’m made to look a fool, well, it’s a small price to pay.’

Appeasement wasn’t one of the greatest failures of British foreign policy. It was a cunning plan by a self-sacrificing leader. Chamberlain was so masterful he trapped the Nazis into revealing themselves to the world, and so far-sighted that in 1938 he could guess that his statecraft would lead America to join the struggle against Hitler.

The film reinforces the message when a young Downing Street aide, played by George MacKay, tells his wife he is resigning from the civil service to join the RAF. Understandably, his wife wonders what has happened to the peace in our time the PM had promised her. War has been delayed, he explains. ‘The PM’s just given us a chance of winning the damn thing when it happens. It’s quite some service when you think about it.’

Chamberlain did not take Britain to the edge of national annihilation, as Michael Foot and his colleagues at the London Evening Standard claimed after Dunkirk in Guilty Men, the most effective English polemic of the 20th century. Ramsay MacDonald, Stanley Baldwin, and Chamberlain, were not limited men who failed to understand the threats posed by dictatorships. When Winston Churchill wrote in the Gathering Storm in 1948 that the Second World War was an ‘unnecessary war,’ because the appeasers might have stopped Nazi Germany’s expansion at the start, he could not have been more wrong.

Uninformed viewers may be convinced but Munich: the Edge of War is as propagandistic in its way as the ludicrous portrayal of the royal family as Churchill’s anti-appeasement allies in The King’s Speech. It should be seen as the best attempt so far to dramatise the justifications of revisionist historians for appeasement.

Let me set them out as fairly as I can. AJP Taylor began the process in the early 1960s when he said the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia was ‘a triumph for all that was best and most enlightened in British life’. All who believed that the Treaty of Versailles was a Carthaginian peace and Sudeten Germans had the right to leave Czechslovakia and join Nazi Germany welcomed it.

Other historians piled in. After the horror of the First World War Baldwin, Chamberlain and Halifax wanted peace, which was hardly an ignoble aim. The British Empire was already in decline. The government did not have the resources to defend it after the Great Depression. Appeasement was the only viable policy.

By the 1990s, revisionists were veering off into imperial regret. ‘The ‘Guilty Men’ syndrome has run its course, and Chamberlain’s reputation stands better now than it has ever done,’ declared John Charmley. ‘The venom of his opponents pursued him long, but his was the only policy which offered any hope of avoiding war — and of saving both lives and the British Empire.’

You can measure revisionism’s reduction to absurdity by asking yourself for how long the peoples of Asia and Africa would have tolerated British occupation if we had not fought Hitler. Would the British Empire have lasted until the 1970s or the 1990s? Would Boris Johnson be sending out governor-generals to India today?

No historical argument is ever settled, but appeasement revisionism has not fared well. Professor Sidney Aster’s review of the literature quotes Larry William Fuchser, who had access to Chamberlain’s private papers. Chamberlain ‘himself did nothing to prepare the British people for war,’ Fuscher concluded. He valued fiscal stability and economic vitality more than rearmament, and was ‘the captive rather than the master of events’.

So much for the PM giving ‘us a chance of winning the damn thing’.

Aster’s reading of Chamberlain’s papers is that he was implacably opposed to unlimited rearmament, disregarded the dynamics of totalitarianism, and detested war. With a nod to Michael Foot he said, the documents ‘conjure up, for most historians, echoes of the accusations in the pages of Guilty Men‘.

John Ruggiero, an authority of the history of rearmament, said Chamberlain was ‘self-willed, obstinate, dictatorial’ and pursued a policy of ‘peace at any price’. Other military historians agree. Gaines Post said ‘Chamberlain’s faith in preventing war was no match for Hitler’s will to have one’. Greg Kennedy said he ‘did not address the defence issue adequately.’

The most interesting research for our Putinesque times concentrates on the Conservatives manipulation of the media in the 1930s and effective control of the BBC. It did not work. Public support for Munich shrivelled as shame over the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia grew. ‘There’s one Funk in the German cabinet and 22 in the British,’ as the bitter joke of the time put it. Even the Foreign Office quickly came to fear that Munich was a debacle.

The best way for a modern audience to view the appeasers is to compare them with the Brexiteers. They too had a credible aim: to restore decision-making to Parliament. But they also left Britain isolated, without allies in Europe.

The aim of English foreign policy since 1688 has been to stop one power controlling the continent and leaving a weakened Britain at its mercy. As Robert Harris urges us to be nice to Neville, let me say that by September 1939 even Chamberlain could not tolerate that. Meanwhile his successor in Downing Street cannot even see the problem.

Anything by Robert Harris is worth reading. If he published a dishwasher repair manual, I’d buy it. His Munich is available here. The Netflix film is on in cinemas and will be on the streaming service on 21 January. Rather magnificently, Guilty Men is still in print and still worth reading.

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