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Opinion Chamberlain and the rewriting of history

JOHN GREEN takes issue with critics’ praise for a biopic that glosses over facts to paint a fake and revisionist picture

THE film critics of the mainstream media, and surprisingly also of the Morning Star, have all uncritically lavished praise on the new biopic of Neville Chamberlain: Munich the Edge of War.

Of course, filmmakers, just as writers and other artists should be free to interpret history as they see fit, but we should recognise that in the world of globalised media such depictions can and do often replace a more objective and dispassionate handling of history; fake news can easily become historical truth.

Many people don’t read weighty historical tomes but rely on films such as this for their historical knowledge. In addition, authors of fiction films dealing with important historical events, irrespective of how well made they may be or how brilliant the actors are, have a moral responsibility to stick closely to the truth and not play fast and loose with the facts.

Chamberlain has invariably been characterised by historians as an effete prime minister, flaunting his iconic piece of paper, naively announcing “peace in our time” after kow-towing to Hitler.

This new film characterises him as a well-intentioned peace-maker “who brought Britain much-needed time to arm itself and fully prepare for an inevitable war.” That assessment, though, is inaccurate and a serious misinterpretation of the context of the times.

There was already by the 1930s enough evidence and widespread awareness of the incipient and seemingly unstoppable rise of fascism in Europe for any politician to be able to recognise the danger of the Nazis.

While it would, indeed, be unfair to make Chamberlain the sole villain of the piece, he was either incredibly naive or exceedingly negligent in his political judgements. He desperately wanted to keep Britain out of a new war and to that end he had, after he had been appointed chancellor of the exchequer in 1931, carried out a controversial reduction in defence spending, which was only reversed from 1935 onwards, as the perceived threat of Hitler’s Germany to Britain became acute.

He clearly had little understanding of human psychology, believing that the megalomaniac Hitler was “a man you could do business with” to use a quote from a later British prime minister in a different context. He also bypassed Eden, his foreign secretary, by opening direct talks with Mussolini, who had become an international pariah after Italy’s bloody conquest of Ethiopia.

Chamberlain then sought to conciliate Germany and make the Nazi state a partner in a stable Europe. He believed Germany could be satisfied by restoring some of its colonies. This appeasement could only be viewed by the Nazis as a weakness on Britain’s part and as a green light for further aggression.

His foreign secretary, Lord Halifax, was a member of the pro-fascist Cliveden Set and praised Hitler for his banning of the Communist Party. Appeasement was actively pursued in an attempt to encourage Hitler to train his guns on the Soviet Union rather than western Europe and Britain. Chamberlain, like most of his Tory compatriots, were equanimous about, if not encouraging Hitler to invade the Soviet Union, which they saw as the real menace.

Chamberlain and his government were also instrumental in denying aid to Spain’s republican government in its desperate fight against a fascist coup. While Hitler and Mussolini poured weaponry into the country in support of the Spanish fascists, Britain pretended to sit on the fence while secretly supporting Franco and his fascists despite the fact that this was clearly a rehearsal for a war that would engulf Europe only months later.

In March 1938 Austria became a part of Germany in the Anschluss. Though the beleaguered Austrians requested help from Britain, none was forthcoming. During 1938, Lord Runciman, on behalf of the Chamberlain government, continued to put pressure on the Czech government to make more concessions to Germany. After the fall of Austria, the Cabinet’s foreign policy committee considered seeking a grand alliance to thwart Germany. Instead, the committee chose to increase pressure on Czechoslovakia into making the best terms it could with Hitler.

In response to critics of his agreement with Hitler on Czechoslovakia, on the evening of September 27, Chamberlain addressed the nation by radio, saying: “How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas-masks here because of a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing. It seems still more impossible that a quarrel that has already been settled in principle should be the subject of war.” Hardly the words of a man who was aware of impending war.

When, later that day, German foreign minister Joachim von Ribentropp [hanged in Nuremberg in 1946] remonstrated with Hitler for signing it, the Fuhrer replied facetiously: “Oh, don’t take it so seriously. That piece of paper is of no further significance whatever.”

Chamberlain, on the other hand, patted his breast pocket and said: “I’ve got it!” On that fateful day Chamberlain took from his pocket a paper headed Anglo–German Agreement, which contained three paragraphs, including a statement that the two nations considered the Munich Agreement “symbolic of the desire of our two peoples never to go to war again.”

Unsurprisingly, most newspapers supported Chamberlain uncritically, as they would do Blair when Iraq was invaded.
 
In the aftermath of Munich, Chamberlain did pursue a course of cautious rearmament but to suggest that he used the Munich Agreement with Hitler to allow Britain time to arm itself and prepare for the inevitable war, as the film alleges and which critics accept at face value, is disingenuous.

Although, in early October 1938, Chamberlain did argue for a continuation of rearmament, he resisted calls to put industry on a war footing, convinced that such action would be seen by Hitler as the prime minister deciding to abandon Munich.

Chamberlain hoped the understanding he had signed with Hitler at Munich would lead to a general settlement of European disputes but, as we now know to our cost, Hitler expressed no interest in following that route.

Chamberlain was very much a conventional establishment figure, whose thinking was shaped by his privileged class position and reluctance to see fascism as the danger it was.

I would argue that films dealing with historical events and depicting real-life figures should be judged by more than aesthetic criteria. Historical accuracy is vital if we want viewers to learn from the past, and a Marxist approach would definitely be an advantage.

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