A martyr and a hero? How Munich – The Edge of War tries to soften Neville Chamberlain’s rotten reputation
In 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain met Nazi leader Adolf Hitler at a summit in Munich to try and avert a war. Chamberlain emerged with his famous (and worthless) ‘piece of paper’. Historian Nigel Jones considers how new film Munich – The Edge War tells this tale through a kinder lens, with a revisionist interpretation of one of Britain’s least-loved leaders
The Munich conference – a two-day summit in the Bavarian city in September 1938 at which Britain and France tamely rubber-stamped Adolf Hitler’s dismemberment of Czechoslovakia – has become shorthand for shame, humiliation, and the culmination of the appeasement policy vainly pursued by Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s government.
The disastrous consequences of the Munich Agreement – a demonstration of weakness by the Western Allies that emboldened Hitler to step up his aggression and brought the beginning of WW2 only a year later – were such that the name has been used ever since, in crises from Suez to the Falklands and the Iraq war, as a byword for a feeble failure to stand up to brutal dictators.
There is, however, another reading of Munich, and this is the one delivered by new film Munich –The Edge of War. Faithful to a fault to the 2017 Robert Harris novel on which it is based, the January 2022 movie sees Munich as the moment when Whitehall finally awoke to the evil of Nazism, and portrays the elderly Chamberlain as an almost saintly figure ready to martyr himself in the cause of peace.
Where to watch Munich – The Edge Of War
The film was given a limited cinema release from 7 January 2022 and can be streamed on Netflix from Friday 21 January 2022
Munich – The Edge of War trailer
With the veteran British star Jeremy Irons giving a definitive and eerily lookalike performance as Chamberlain, Munich –The Edge of War presents a powerful and persuasive case that the hapless prime minister was more sinned against than sinning, who sacrificed his political credibility in a bid to save millions from the horrors of war. From a historical perspective, this reading may make for great human drama, but it is seriously misleading.
The film makes the revisionist case for Chamberlain all the more convincing because of its attention to detail. The black uniforms and vintage cars are immaculate, and the polished jackboots of the SS thugs gleam. The scarlet swastika flags flap from the real Führerbau itself – the actual Munich building (now a Music college) where the sell-out of the Czechs and Slovaks was signed. The characters smoke incessantly, just like they did back in 1938. No expense has been spared to lend the film an air of authenticity in this handsome Anglo-German production.
Were Hugh Legat and Paul von Hartmann real?
The fictional gloss on the real historical story is provided by the film’s two youthful central characters. Diplomat Hugh Legat (played by George MacKay) is tasked by SIS/MI6 to meet his old Oxford university friend Paul von Hartmann (Jannis Niewöhner) at Munich and smuggle back explosive documents exposing Hitler’s secret plans to dominate Europe by force.
Von Hartmann – who is loosely based on the real-life anti-Nazi diplomat Adam von Trott – is being shadowed by Sauer (August Diehl), a suspicious and sinister SS man. Much of the film’s action centres around the attempts by the two friends to shake off Sauer, and show the stolen documents to Chamberlain to persuade him that Hitler is a madman bent on war, and that dealing with the Führer is a futile waste of time.
Naturally, it is the privilege of both novelist and filmmaker to bend and shape history to fit the demands of their stories. Robert Harris and the film’s German director Christian Schwochow have skilfully woven real people and events into their fiction – but have also taken forgivable liberties with the true facts.
More like this
Was there a plot against Hitler in 1938?
As the film shows, there was a real conspiracy by anti-Nazi officers and officials in 1938 to oust Hitler in a putsch, if only the Allies had stood up to him at Munich. There was also a real secret protocol, the Hossbach Memorandum, in which Hitler set out his war plans. And Adam von Trott did indeed meet Chamberlain – though not at Munich but at Chequers, the country house of the prime minister in Buckinghamshire, and then only in June 1939 when it was too late, after Hitler had torn up the Munich deal, occupied Bohemia and Moravia, and set the world on the road to war. The real von Trott, too – though destined to be hanged by the Nazis – was a German nationalist who, like Hitler, thought that Czechoslovakia had no right to exist.
This film presents history in bright primary colours with no nuanced shades of grey, and as such anyone hoping here for detailed dissection of the what-ifs and might-have-beens of Munich will be disappointed. The agonised indecision of the anti-Nazi resistance on whether to assassinate Hitler or merely arrest him, which so often paralysed their plotting, is hinted at, but not really addressed.
Nor do the Czechs themselves – whose very existence was at stake – get even a walk-on part in the movie. In real history, their envoys in Munich were banned from the conference that was deciding their future and divvying up their country. Instead, the limelight falls squarely on Chamberlain, and this is where perhaps the greatest issue lies.
Was Neville Chamberlain really a hero?
Unlike the thoughtful and sensitive soul so brilliantly portrayed on screen by Irons, the real Chamberlain was a vain, vindictive and supremely arrogant man with a sublime – and deluded – belief that he could outwit Hitler. Chamberlain’s revisionist apologists argue that his capitulation to Hitler at Munich was a sad necessity as it brought Britain precious time: a bare year in which to build up the RAF’s fighter plane defences. This was a rearmament programme that, ironically, Chamberlain had himself approved when he had been Chancellor.
This line of argument ignores the inconvenient truth that Chamberlain returned from Munich waving his piece of paper, convinced that he had won a great diplomatic victory ensuring that there would never need to be a war. This delusion that he could trust Hitler, bolstered by the relieved acclaim of cheering crowds, was to be rudely shattered only six months later when Hitler broke his solemn word and, in the rueful words of the prime minister in the film’s script, left a crestfallen Chamberlain “looking like a fool”.
Entertaining and visually atmospheric though it is, and with Ulrich Matthes (who played Goebbels in 2004 WW2 film Downfall) promoted to play a mesmerising Führer, nonetheless Munich – The Edge of War falls short of doing for Chamberlain what 2017’s Darkest Hour did for Winston Churchill – making the “worm” (Hitler’s own insult) a hero to generations who have hardly heard of him. For all its fine acting, the film leaves the poor old prime minister’s tattered reputation much where it was. It’s difficult to make a drama out of a crisis that turned into such a miserable defeat.
Munich – The Edge of War is on Netflix from Friday 21 January 2022. Check out our lists of the best historical movies on Netflix, the best history documentaries on Netflix and the best historical drama series on Netflix, or discover the latest historical TV and radio airing in the UK this month
Nigel Jones is a historian and author. His books include the Hitler’s Heralds (Lume, 2021), and Countdown to Valkyrie: the July Plot to assassinate Hitler (Frontline, 2008). His next book, Kitty’s Salon: Sex, Spying and Surveillance in the Third Reich, written with Urs Brunner and Dr Julia Schrammel, will be published by Bonnier next year. He leads tours of Munich and Nazi Germany for the Cultural Experience travel company
Subscribe to BBC History Magazine and receive a signed copy of 2023 edition Windrush: 75 years of modern Britain by Mike Phillips and Trevor Philips
As a print subscriber you will also get FREE access to HistoryExtra.com worth £34.99