Enjoy ‘Munich’ the movie — but don’t rewrite history

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Enjoy ‘Munich’ the movie — but don’t rewrite history

(Alamy)

Every politician has the right to rehabilitation, but the current efforts to paint one of the worst Tory prime ministers of the last 100 years as a forward-looking statesman who helped save Britain from fascism is a re-write of history too far.

Neville Chamberlain is being presented by the novelist Robert Harris, the actor Jeremy Irons, and the Tory journalist and historian Simon Heffer not as the small-minded, provincial, foreign policy ignoramus and craven crawler to Hitler and other dictators of the 1930s that he was, but as a towering Prime Minister who took brave strategic decisions that helped prepare Britain to win the Second World War. Harris and Irons were on the BBC Today programme this morning without any historian to provide balance to their extraordinary re-writing of history.

Challenging the accepted wisdom of historians is always worthwhile. Re-interpreting history based on new information or new values both illuminates and instructs. The campaign to make us admire Neville Chamberlain coincides with the launch of the Netflix film “Munich — The Edge of War”, based on the novel of the same name Robert Harris wrote. But both novel and movie are fiction, not fact.

Chamberlain was a small-minded, petty Birmingham businessman, too stupid to gain a university place even by the lax standards of the day. He lost a fortune in the Bahamas, but inherited a Tory seat as the younger son of the great Joe Chamberlain, the arch-imperialist of British politics at the turn of the 20th century.

His first act as Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1932 was to bring in a protectionist trade Bill based on “Imperial Preference”, which helped prolong the slump. He left the industrial north of England in the poverty and immiseration described by writers such as George Orwell and J.B. Priestley.

His other early act as Chancellor was to slash defence spending to the bone. The Harris-Heffer argument that Chamberlain supported increased defence spending and thus prepared Britain for war does not bear close scrutiny.

The decision to start rearming Britain was made in a timely fashion, but by Stanley Baldwin in 1935, two years before Chamberlain entered 10 Downing Street. As the Manchester Guardian reported in March 1935: “In a major reversal of rearmament policy, Britain today announced new expansion plans for its army, navy and air force. The plans, in a defence White Paper, are to demonstrate that Britain does not take lightly Germany’s continuing rearmament.”

Yet Robert Harris asserts “The Churchillian interpretation of Munich — that Hitler cleverly managed by threats and bluff to obtain all that he wanted without having to fire a shot — is simply false. The German dictator wanted a war in 1938.”

The state of the German Army at the time does not back this up. When Hitler took over Austria in March 1938, the planned Panzer parade in Vienna was put on hold, as his tanks kept breaking down and had to be towed into position. To go to war in 1938 and defeat Britain, the German Army had to invade England. Neither Hitler nor his generals, who were experts in land campaigns but not seaborne invasions, thought this possible.

The Royal Navy completely outclassed Hitler’s new navy. In 1938 the Germans had just 1 heavy cruiser, 3 light cruisers and 9 destroyers to escort any possible invasion fleet. They faced  the 5 battleships, 11 cruisers and 43 destroyers of the Royal Navy’s Home Fleet, which were positioned at either end of the English Channel. Hitler was in no position to launch war against France and then Britain in 1938.

As Prime Minister, Chamberlain did not interfere with the rearmament programme Baldwin had launched, but instead added his strategically disastrous European policy of alienating France (just as Tories are doing today), refusing to support the elected democratic government in Spain, and building no cross-party alliances in the Commons as the international crisis unfolded.

France had wanted Britain’s support when Hitler repudiated the Versailles Treaty and sent the Wehrmacht in March 1936 to occupy the demilitarised Rhineland. Chamberlain refused to support France in Cabinet. When he replaced Baldwin as PM in May 1937, he also sent further signals that Britain was ready to give a green light to Hitler with his policy of non-intervention in Spain. Under Chamberlain, Britain left the Republican supporters of Spanish democracy defenceless in the face of Franco’s nationalist military uprising, backed by the Luftwaffe’s Condor Legion.

Chamberlain also treated with contempt calls from the Labour Party for a robust stand against Hitler. The Labour leader Clement Attlee later said that Chamberlain “always treated us like dirt”.

When last year he launched the second volume of his new and masterly edition of Chips Channon’s diaries, Simon Heffer pointedly declared that the time had come for a rehabilitation of Chamberlain. Channon, a rich American playboy who became a Tory MP, admired Chamberlain and was one of the appeasers.

Yet there is no evidence that Chamberlain achieved anything with his grovelling before the dictators. He bypassed his Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, who had won the MC as an officer in World War One and who opposed appeasement. At a Cabinet meeting on 8 September 1937, Chamberlain said he saw “the lessening of the tension between this country and Italy as a very valuable contribution toward the pacification and appeasement of Europe”.

A year later at the Munich conference, Chamberlain handed a democratic, modern European state over to the Nazis. Chamberlain in effect grovelled before Hitler as he signed the death warrant for Czechoslovakia – “a faraway country of which we know nothing.”

Even after Hitler had broken his word and occupied Prague in March 1939, Chamberlain tried to have Churchill removed as a Conservative Party candidate. He told Conservative Party officials to attack the small number of Tory MPs who, like, Churchill and Eden, opposed his crawling to the fascist dictators of Europe.

Chamberlain also put pressure on the press and the BBC to cut any criticism of Hitler and Nazism. It is odd that two such distinguished journalists as Harris and Heffer can approve of such a Prime Minister.

Chamberlain’s surrender at Munich was not a one-off event. It was part of a long chain of disastrous Tory foreign policy decisions in the 1930s which gave the green light to Mussolini, Hitler, and Franco to destroy European democracy.

Harris relies on one quote attributed to Hitler by Albert Speer in the last days of the Third Reich in his bunker in Berlin. The largely horse-drawn German army of 1940 had no possibility of invading England. Seven German armies invaded Poland in September 1939 but were often fought to a standstill by under-armed but ferociously brave Polish army units in the battles in Poland in September 1939. Hitler was helped by Stalin, who invaded Poland from the east on 17th September. The Poles only surrendered as they ran out of ammunition, with Chamberlain refusing to offer any effective military support.

The Men of Munich were still in charge of Britain and France until May 1940. They had already sold the pass to Hitler and brought the country close to defeat. No amount of historical excavation can restore the lost honour of Neville Chamberlain and Conservative foreign policy in the 1930s. Robert Harris is a fine novelist. But he should not-re-write history.

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Member ratings
  • Well argued: 76%
  • Interesting points: 84%
  • Agree with arguments: 70%
43 ratings - view all

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