All Hail the Appeasers
By Samuel Clowes HunekeJune 6, 2022
These questions not only fascinate historians but also enthrall filmmakers, who often employ them as the basis for films and TV series about the Nazi era. The July 20 plot, after all, has been the basis for over a dozen movies, including the 2008 film Valkyrie starring Tom Cruise. Quentin Tarantino’s hit Inglourious Basterds (2009), while not based on any one such episode, takes extreme liberties with the Nazi past, imagining a Jewish American commando unit shooting Hitler and Goebbels in the middle of World War II. Even Georg Elser’s attempt was turned into the 2017 film 13 Minutes — named for the amount of time between Hitler leaving the beer hall and Elser’s bomb detonating.
One such what-if is the oft-forgotten Oster conspiracy. Named for Hans Oster, deputy director of German military intelligence, the plot originated in 1938 during the so-called Sudeten crisis, when Hitler threatened to invade neighboring Czechoslovakia and seize the Sudetenland. This majority-German region of the Czechoslovak Republic was an industrial powerhouse as well as a mountainous province forming a natural barrier between the two countries — and protecting the Bohemia heartlands of the young democracy.
As Hitler raved against Czechoslovak politicians and ordered his army to prepare for invasion no later than October 1, 1938, panicked military leaders worried that they were about to be catapulted into an unwinnable war against not only Czechoslovakia — which had been furiously rearming since the early 1930s — but also its allies, France and the Soviet Union. If France went to war, the generals feared, so too would Great Britain. Were Hitler to declare war, the conspirators, who included top brass such as chief of the General Staff Ludwig Beck, planned to storm the Reich Chancellery and execute the Nazi leader. With Hitler dead, they would assume control of the government and pull Germany back from the abyss.
But war did not come, for the French and British had jelly in their spines. Neville Chamberlain, the equally panicked British prime minister who spoke for a generation of men traumatized by the Great War, convinced Hitler to meet in Munich. His policy of appeasement held that if enough was given, the German dictator would be satisfied and would cease to threaten the continent’s peace. At Munich, in the palatial Führerbau that had only been completed a year before, Chamberlain and the French Premier Édouard Daladier conceded to all of Hitler’s demands. Without so much as consulting the Czechoslovak government, they handed over the Sudetenland, and, with it, the country’s ability to defend itself. For the military conspirators, Chamberlain’s cowardice spelled the end of their plot to bring down Hitler.
When Chamberlain returned to London the next day, he was greeted by roaring crowds. Holding aloft a single sheet of paper, he claimed that the Munich Agreement was “only the prelude to a larger settlement in which all Europe may find peace.” Later that day, speaking from 10 Downing Street, he told well-wishers that he had secured, in one of the most mocked lines of modern history, “peace for our time.” Less than a year later, Germans would invade Poland atop Czech-manufactured panzers.
The Oster conspiracy — ill-planned and ill-fated though it was — provides the pivot for a new movie about the Sudeten crisis. Directed by Christian Schwochow, Munich: The Edge of War premiered at the BFI London Film Festival last year and was released in the United States in January. Based on the Robert Harris thriller Munich from 2017, the film opens in 1932 at Oxford University, where Hugh Legat (George MacKay) and Paul von Hartmann (Jannis Niewöhner) are cavorting (with ample homoerotic innuendo, Hartmann’s girlfriend notwithstanding) along the riverbanks. The movie then skips forward six years in the lives of the two young men, both of whom are fictional. While we discover Legat has become Chamberlain’s private secretary, von Hartmann serves as a low-ranking official in the Foreign Office and initiate of the Oster conspiracy.
Although the film remains broadly faithful to history — Chamberlain convinces Hitler (Ulrich Matthes), Daladier (Stéphane Boucher), and Italian Prime Minister Benito Mussolini (Domenico Fortunato) to meet in Munich, where they agree in less than 24 hours to dismember Czechoslovakia — its central plot is an invention. In the movie, von Hartmann and the other Oster conspirators get hold of what has become known to historians as the Hossbach Memorandum.
This document — which came to light during the proceedings of the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg — was a synopsis of a meeting that Hitler held on November 5, 1937, with military and foreign policy leaders. The minutes were recorded by Friedrich Hossbach, the dictator’s military adjutant, and reflect Hitler’s frank desire to annex both Austria and the Czech lands. In the film, the conspirators believe that if they can just get the document into Chamberlain’s hands, he will understand Hitler’s true aims and cease to appease him. Hitler would then go to war, giving the generals the opening they needed to overthrow him.
It’s a compelling what-if: What if Chamberlain and the Western allies had truly comprehended the danger that Nazism posed to European peace? What if war had come and the Oster conspirators had acted? What’s so striking about Munich is that the what-if does happen: helped along by his old Oxford buddy Legat, von Hartmann wrangles an audience with Chamberlain. The budding diplomat tells the prime minister that the Hossbach Memorandum is proof of Hitler’s intent to continue expanding Germany’s borders.
To reach this invented climax, the film moves along at a brisk clip, intertwining romantic subplots, flashbacks, and petty rivalries in a rapid succession of scenes. It alternates between events in London and the Reich, lending the action additional suspense that is aided by swells of music to cue its dramatic moments. At the same time, it sometimes feels a little too tidy — everything driving to the what-if that the audience knows will surely refuse to come. At the same time, it is a well-acted production that keeps its audience engaged. Jeremy Irons’s moody, cigar-puffing Chamberlain dominates the movie, making clear that, even if the plot revolves around a failed attempt on Hitler’s life, it is actually a reassessment of the British leader.
Now, none of these machinations actually happened at the Munich Conference — although the Oster conspirators did make contact with British officials in the lead-up to the summit, desperately trying to persuade them to hold firm. But what makes Munich so striking is that Legat and von Hartmann’s success in delivering the Hossbach Memorandum to Chamberlain doesn’t make one jot of difference. As ominous strings play in the background, the prime minister hears them out. He then derisively offers them “a lesson in political reality,” saying that “the people of Great Britain will never take up arms over a local border dispute.” Ultimately, he decides that he cannot stake peace on the vague potential for a coup against Hitler, even if the dictator’s plans will ultimately drive Europe into war.
Nonetheless, Chamberlain does confront Hitler privately the next day and convinces him to sign a second statement, one that indicates the agreement at Munich is “symbolic of the desire of our two countries never to go to war with one another again.” This agreement was actually real — that infamous sheet of paper that the prime minister held aloft when he landed at Heston Aerodrome on September 30, 1938.
It’s here that the film makes it most egregious departure from the historical record and reveals its true aims. The agreement with Hitler, depicted as the heroic conclusion of Chamberlain’s committed pacifism, comes across as pathetic, cowardice masked as cunning. On the return flight from Munich, Chamberlain explains to a distraught Legat and other frustrated retainers that this was just a chess move in his broader strategy. Nursing a glass of scotch, the prime minister insists, “I can only play the game with the cards I’ve been dealt.” If Hitler were to break the Munich treaty and the side agreement, he argues, it would reveal the dictator “for who he truly is.” Self-satisfied, he asks, “What do you think, Legat? Do you think this will change the game?” And as a crescendo of music builds, Legat pauses, considers, and answers, “I think there’s a chance.”
The French and British betrayal of Czechoslovakia — the only remaining democracy east of the Alps and the only state prepared for war with Hitler’s Germany — is thus cast as a heroic sacrifice, one that would buy time for the United Kingdom and France to rearm and prepare for war with the Nazi monster. In the final moments, as the picture fades to black, text emerges on the screen. In case the film’s moral was not clear enough, these words drive it home: “The extra time bought by the Munich Agreement enabled Britain and her allies to prepare for war and ultimately led to Germany’s defeat.”
This statement, the conclusion to which the film’s melodramatic twists and turns lead us, is nothing more than apologia for one of the worst foreign policy blunders in modern history, laughable were it not so perverse. For while it is true that France and the United Kingdom began to rearm in the following months, it is equally true that Germany continued to rearm at a faster pace. And when, mere months later, Nazi forces invaded what was left of Czechoslovakia on March 15, 1939, they seized the famed Skoda Works in Pilsen, the Czechoslovak government’s considerable gold reserves, and massive caches of military materiel. So important was Czech industry for the Nazi war effort, that it would become known as the “arsenal of the Reich.”
A year after World War II ended, German Field Marshal Erich von Manstein testified, “If a war had broken out, neither our western border nor our Polish frontier could really have been effectively defended.” Whereas the German military could not possibly have fought a war against France, the United Kingdom, and Czechoslovakia in 1938, by 1940, when it invaded France, it could. Hence, the Munich Agreement did not buy the Western allies time to defeat Hitler. Quite the opposite: it created the conditions necessary for one of the most destructive wars in human history.
When war did come, it came on terms favorable to Germany. The Allies lifted barely a finger to help their ally Poland, on whose behalf they went to war. Incompetence allowed German forces to overwhelm Norway in the spring of 1940, and when the Wehrmacht finally turned to France and the Low Countries, punching through the Ardennes Forest, the British expeditionary force of more than 300,000 was lucky to escape from the beaches of Dunkirk, evacuated by the Royal Navy and sundry private vessels. As the British fled, German tanks flattened the French state, which surrendered to the Nazis on June 22, 1940, in a humiliating ceremony at Compiègne.
Perhaps the film’s moral shouldn’t surprise us. In interviews, Robert Harris has pleaded for a more nuanced view of the great appeaser. Yet, for all that it offers in the way of a complex view of Chamberlain the man, the film fails to offer a more nuanced historical narrative. It is still feel-good history — the British still come out as the heroes, the men who conquered Nazi Germany. Tellingly, not a single Czech character is to be found in the whole movie. As at the Munich Conference, they are silenced, ignored, forgot — in Chamberlain’s words, a “people of whom we know nothing.”
These questions continue to matter. Even now, as we watch in horror at Russian atrocities in Ukraine and in admiration of the heroism of Ukrainian citizens and soldiers, there are voices calling for appeasement, urging us to abandon the country to Russia’s forces. But to those of us who believe in the integrity of sovereign states — whether Iraq or Ukraine — Munich feels singularly ill-suited to the moment. After all, it is not difficult to imagine what Neville Chamberlain, faced with Vladimir Putin’s demands, might have done.
Samuel Clowes Huneke is assistant professor of history at George Mason University, focusing on modern Germany and the history of sexuality. He is the author of States of Liberation: Gay Men between Dictatorship and Democracy in Cold War Germany (2022). His essays have appeared in The Point, Boston Review, and elsewhere.
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