The Munich Conference of September 1938 has had a massive influence on subsequent history. Retrospective judgment of British government efforts to maintain peace in Europe has contributed to all kinds of bad decisions, from Anthony Eden’s ill fated attempt to invade Egypt in 1956, to Tony Blair’s military adventures in the Balkans and the Middle East. It has even been referenced in the nationalist politics of Brexit. All of this folly has been supported, to a greater or lesser extent, by the idea that Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain made a mistake trying to find peace in Munich.
With this in mind it is fascinating to visit an influential moment in history and explore it, via Hugh Legat, Robert Harris’s fictional junior Foreign Office civil servant seconded to Number 10 Downing Street, to answer the PM’s phone and carry around his red ministerial boxes. An old university friend of Legat, junior German diplomat Paul von Hartmann, is a member of a group of German officials determined to stop Hitler. Hartmann and Legat try to smuggle documents describing Hitler’s real expansionist intentions to the British government in the hope that the conference will be abandoned. The idea is that with Britain and France standing firm, Hitler’s position would be weakened, allowing the rebel group to have him removed.
As the Munich conference unfolds, Harris’s story provides an intimate view of the real complexity of the situation; the widespread revulsion of going to war again so soon after the disaster of the First World War; the fact that British forces weren’t ready; the need to buy time so that rearmament started by Chamberlain and his predecessor Stanley Baldwin could continue; the fact that the German rebels wanted to restore the Kaiser, who three quarters of a million British soldiers had died trying to defeat twenty years before; the fact that people could not see the future.
This last point is the most significant. We see the difficulty of making decisions based on what might happen rather than on what is happening. I thought of Tony Blair, so worried about being viewed as an appeaser, misjudging the evidence of supposed weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, dragging Britain into a war investigated ever since in the context of criminality. Blair has claimed that without his decision to stand up to Saddam Hussain, things would now be worse than they are. Well, with hundreds of thousands of Iraqi dead, and a whole region plunged into chaos, the alternative Blair saved us from must be bad. And anyway, how can we possibly know? It’s as though we’re being asked to climb into a time travelling DeLoren, to try out different realities. How do we know if Chamberlain would have been viewed differently by history if he had stood up to Hitler, in the face of a population which didn’t want war, with armed forces unready to fight it. No doubt that route would have had its own disasters. As pointed out in Munich, Hitler himself thought a war in 1938 would have been preferable to war the following year, since Germany’s military position was better then.
Robert Harris’s book is a deceptively straight forward account of a crucial four days in European history. There are few philosophical asides, but the events tell their own story. So many later decisions have felt their influence.
The final thought I had finishing the book was that people who love the appeasement myth, who love the idea of aggressive resistance, are actually rather close bedfellows of the nationalist dictators that Chamberlain struggled to contain. Munich is a book for our times, a nuanced lesson from history rather than something cooked up to support a sense of resistance beloved by contemporary nationalists.