The famous British historian, E.H. Carr, described history as ‘an unending dialogue between the present and the past.’ Our understanding and interpretation of the past is in constant flux, shifting alongside the ideas and values of our age. While these historical revisions and re-interpretations may once have been predominantly confined to the tweed-filled, dusty offices of college dons, in the modern age of streaming anyone with a Netflix account can get involved. Case in point is a recently-released Netflix film, Munich: the Edge of War, based on the novel by Robert Harris.
The film mixes historical fact with fiction, featuring real-life characters and events, most notably Neville Chamberlain and the 1938 Munich Conference, as well as fictitious characters, such as the two protagonists, both civil servants and on opposite sides. The English stiff-upper lip belongs to Hugh Legat, who befriends the German, Paul von Hartmann, while they’re studying together at Oxford. The two have since become estranged before meeting during the Munich Conference to exchange a secret document that MI6 wants to get its hands on. Von Hartmann believes this document can stop the impending war by alerting Chamberlain to Hitler’s desire for world domination. Spoiler alert (unless you’ve ever read a history book): the plan fails, Chamberlain continues with a policy of appeasement and the road to war is cemented.
What’s interesting about the film, besides a stellar performance from Jeremy Irons (as Chamberlain), is how it tries to challenge the common conceptions around Chamberlain and the policy of appeasement. The book Guilty Men was published in July 1940, a few months before Chamberlain died, and was highly critical of the Chamberlain government and the policy of appeasement, effectively destroying the reputation of the former Prime Minister and contributing to the defeat of the Conservative Party in the 1945 election. While some revisionist historians have come to Chamberlain’s defence, he still does very poorly in public rankings of previous Prime Ministers.
The film, however, presents a quite different narrative. Although Jeremy Iron’s Chamberlain does come across as stubborn and often quite naive, it is nonetheless a sympathetic portrayal. Chamberlain is a man doing everything he can to avoid war. Despite his deteriorating health, he works tirelessly to negotiate and come up with a deal at the Munich Conference. In a telling scene, the young Hugh Legat, private secretary to the Prime Minister, finds Chamberlain in the garden with his wife. Chamberlain says to Legat that he would, “sacrifice anything to maintain the peace”. This is a portrayal of perseverance, sacrifice, and yes, naivety, but one based on an old-fashioned commitment to diplomacy. This is a far cry from the ‘guilty man’, the weak and spineless character that is often associated with Chamberlain.
“We all look to the past with the values and experiences of our own lives”
Historians will likely never agree if the policy of appeasement and the resulting Munich Agreement was a necessary decision or a deliberate choice, whether it bought time for British rearmament, or whether it simply signed away Czechoslovakia to Hitler. After all, if historians always agreed then they’d be out of a job. What’s more interesting is what the film’s message means for the present. The historian Herbert Butterfield said, “the study of the past with one eye on the present is the source of all sins and sophistries in history.” But he was wrong. We all look to the past with the values and experiences of our own lives, and this is what makes history, and historical films, interesting.
So what message is Robert Harris and Munich conveying? Well, for starters, it’s a film that seems curiously out of step with our current age. The broader theme of: ‘war is bad, we should avoid war’ clearly resonates at any time, but what about the specific theme of ‘appeasement’? The film asks us to sympathise not with the victims of the Munich Agreement, the people of Czechoslovakia who are given no choice but to surrender to the Third Reich, but instead with Chamberlain and his efforts to secure ‘peace in our time’.
Munich, both the book and film, are entertaining and thought-provoking pieces of historical fiction, but they ignore a crucial issue – that apathy, as well as conflict, can be a significant cause for concern.
Image credit: Munich, The Edge of War/ instagram, etimes