Interview'He remains the most vilified of 20th century British PMs'

The deal with Hitler that buried Neville Chamberlain

Dropping this week, Robert Harris’s historical fiction ‘Munich’ plays devil’s advocate, examining whether the then-British PM was as naive as he appeared

Robert Philpot is a writer and journalist. He is the former editor of Progress magazine and the author of “Margaret Thatcher: The Honorary Jew.”

'Munich' by Robert Harris. (Courtesy)
'Munich' by Robert Harris. (Courtesy)

LONDON — The summer of 1940, when Britain stood alone as the Nazi war-machine powered relentlessly across Europe, was, in Winston Churchill’s famous words, the nation’s “finest hour.”

Nearly eight decades on, the events of 1940 — the Blitz, Churchill’s vow that the country would “never surrender,” the aerial dog fights over southern England in which the RAF repelled the German invasion — remain seared into the nation’s consciousness. This year alone, British cinema-goers have had the chance to witness the retelling of this tale in three major films: “Churchill,” “Dunkirk” and the soon-to-be released “Darkest Hour.”

It is therefore perhaps appropriate that the best-selling novelist, Robert Harris, has chosen the rather darker prequel to that summer for his new book, “Munich,” which drops on September 21.

“I’ve always had in my mind… this alternative view that you can’t look at 1940 without thinking of 1938 as well,” says Harris.

A year before their patience finally ran out after Germany’s invasion of Poland in September 1939, Britain and France had come close to declaring war as Adolf Hitler menaced Czechoslovakia. The crisis was averted after Britain’s prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, flew to Munich and cut a deal with the Fuhrer which handed the Sudetenland to Germany and effectively left the Czechs defenseless. He then famously returned to London to declare “peace for our time.”

Seemingly spared a war it had come to think of as inevitable — as Harris describes, before Chamberlain departed for Munich, children were being fitted for gas masks, trenches dug in Green Park and sandbags lined Whitehall — many Britons reacted with joy to Chamberlain’s actions. The drive from London’s Heston Airport to Downing Street took one and a half hours longer than usual, so deep were the crowds wishing to greet the Prime Minister.

One of few dissenting voices in parliament was that of Churchill. To cries of “nonsense” from his Conservative colleagues, he told the House of Commons: “We have sustained a total and unmitigated defeat… The German dictator, instead of snatching the victuals from the table, has been content to have them served to him course by course.”

Hitler’s appetite had simply been whetted; the rest of Czechoslovakia would inevitably soon be “engulfed.”

Churchill was right. Barely six months later, Hitler broke his undertakings and marched into Prague. The road to war was set and Chamberlain’s reputation sunk, never to recover. Munich came to be seen as a shameful betrayal of the Czechs — encapsulated by Chamberlain’s dismissive depiction of the crisis as “a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing” — and a last, missed opportunity to show Hitler that aggression would not pay.

The declaration Chamberlain had persuaded Hitler to sign, in which the two nations pledged “never to go to war again,” was simply an example of the prime minister’s naivety and weakness — a “white flag in the face of oncoming tragedy,” as the writer Anthony Quinn recently described it.

Nine months after declaring war against Germany, Chamberlain was forced to resign in the aftermath of Hitler’s invasion of Norway. To this day, he remains “the most maligned and vilified of 20th century British prime ministers,” his biographer, Andrew Crozier, has suggested.

Winston Churchill in Downing Street giving his famous ‘V’ sign, 1943. (photo credit: Imperial War Museums/public domain)

But this, believes Harris, is unfair and unjustified. In “Munich” he audaciously attempts to rescue Chamberlain’s reputation. A partially fictionalized retelling of the events of September 1938, the book — Harris’s 12th novel — centers on the attempt by Paul Hartmann, a German diplomat who opposes Hitler, to stop the signing of the agreement by passing to Hugh Legat, an Oxford friend and one of Chamberlain’s private secretaries, a document detailing the Nazis’ true, expansionist ambitions.

“I like to play devil’s advocate,” suggests Harris. “There was something about the fact that [Chamberlain] was so universally reviled which made me think that there must be something to be said for him.”

Harris believes that the war Chamberlain managed to avert in September 1938 would have been “a disaster for Britain and France.”

As the prime minister knew well, Britain’s belated rearmament program still left it painfully short of the weaponry it needed to take on Hitler’s forces. “You cannot play poker with a gangster with no cards in your hand,” he privately suggested at the time of the agreement.

“I think that the idea that a feeble old man with an umbrella, not really knowing what he was doing, went out and was hoodwinked by Hitler, is absolutely and completely 100 percent wrong,” argues Harris. “Chamberlain was the dynamic figure in September ’38 — getting on a plane; bearding the monster in his lair.”

From left to right: Chamberlain, Daladier, Hitler, Mussolini, and Ciano pictured before signing the Munich Agreement, which gave the Sudetenland to Germany. (photo credit: German Federal Archives / Wikipedia)

Moreover, believes Harris, the British public was simply not prepared for the kind of brutal, long conflict that would have ensued. Only after witnessing the events of 1939 did it develop the sense of “national unity [and] determination to go on” which sustained it through the dark days of 1940 and beyond.

So was Chamberlain simply playing for time rather than genuinely attempting, as he publicly claimed at the time, to stop another European conflagration?

“It was a mixture of the two,” says Harris. “I think that the dominant strain was certainly to prevent a war, and I think he was sufficiently vain to believe he got the measure of Hitler and that he had some sort of…  understanding of him.”

While there was definitely “an element of wishful thinking” in Chamberlain’s calculations, he was not blind to harsh realities.

“There is plenty of contemporary evidence that, being a shrewd and hard-headed politician, he also had considered the prospect that Hitler might not keep his word, and felt that the Munich Agreement or the piece of paper was a very useful trip wire that he would then have to convince the Dominions and the Americans, and indeed the British people, that the war would have to be fought,” Harris says.

Nor was Chamberlain unaware of the nature of the beast with which he was dealing, confiding in Lord Dunglass, his parliamentary private secretary who accompanied him to Munich, that Hitler was “without question the most detestable and bigoted man” with whom he had “to do business.”

Harris attempts to capture some of this feeling in the book. The prime minister refuses to attend a dinner with the Fuhrer after the talks, while Legat offers a sense of the physical repulsion felt towards Hitler among Chamberlain’s retinue. As the dictator passes him, he catches a whiff of his body odor: like “a workman who had not bathed or changed his shirt in a week.”

But, for Harris, perhaps the most powerful argument for his case is the fact that “one can call in aid Hitler as a witness.”

On the title page of “Munich,” he reprints the dictator’s desperate words as his dreams of a 1,000 year Reich crashed around him in early 1945: “We ought to have gone to war in 1938… September 1938 would have been the most favorable date.”

This was not simply a matter of hindsight. Harris’s Hitler is hardly a happy host at Munich. He was not simply angered by the popularity Chamberlain enjoyed from the German crowds. The German historian Joachim Fest, who ghostwrote Albert Speer’s memoirs, wrote that Hitler’s favorite architect and later armaments minister believed the Fuhrer “felt he had been swindled out of a real victory.”

“Every contemporary source speaks of him being furious,” says Harris. “He could have laid on the most extraordinary signing ceremony for the world media. On the contrary, he just allowed this one camera in there. I think that’s just further proof that he was really irritated by it.”

Hitler and Mussolini in Munich, Germany, June 18, 1940. Hitler was at a high point, as his army accomplished a string of victories and was completing its conquest of continental Western Europe. (Shutterstock)

And, if in the aftermath, Chamberlain had harsh words in private about Hitler, these were amply reciprocated. The British prime minister, Hitler suggested, was an “old arsehole.”

“That Chamberlain,” Hitler whined to Mussolini. “He has haggled over every village and petty interest like a market-place stallkeeper… What’s it to do with him?”

“Munich” also sets out to burst some of the other myths which Harris believes still surround the agreement. Perhaps most potent is the notion that, had Britain declared war in September 1938, the German army would have moved to depose Hitler. Harris’ fictional Hartmann is portrayed as part of the so-called “Oster conspiracy.”

But, in his retelling, while its ringleaders are committed to overthrowing Hitler, the real-life Hans Oster — the deputy head of the Abwehr German intelligence organization — was himself arrested in 1943 and executed a month before Germany’s surrender in 1945.  Harris paints the Oster conspiracy as half-cooked and implausible, relying on a degree of commitment that the German high command simply did not possess.

“I don’t really see a scrap of evidence other than a lot of talk after the war when people are facing war crimes trials and wanting to look like they’d always opposed Hitler,” says Harris. “They didn’t turn on Hitler until the very, very last minute when any idiot could see that the war was lost.”

Hans Oster. (Bundesarchiv, Bild)

Through the character of Hartmann, Harris attempts to depict the “ambivalence of German nationalism.” Hartmann is loosely based on Adam von Trott, a diplomat who played a central role in the resistance to Hitler and was executed after the failed July 20 plot, and a figure who has long fascinated the novelist.

“I wanted to create an authentic and believable German, troubled by the regime but still a nationalist,” Harris suggests. As he notes, many of these men fully supported the Anschluss and the reincorporation of the Sudetenland into Germany; von Trott even believed Hitler’s claims on Poland were justified. “It was just the… crudity of the method which they disliked.”

However, as “Munich” depicts, Hartmann’s opposition to the Nazis is, in part, motivated by his abhorrence at, and personal experience of, the regime’s treatment of the Jews.

In a powerful scene towards the end of the book, he dismisses the arguments of many conservatives that “He’s a terrible fellow, Hitler, but he’s not necessarily all bad… Put aside this awful medieval anti-Jew stuff, it will pass.”

“But the point is, it won’t pass,” says Hatmann. “You can’t isolate it from the rest. It’s there in the mix. And if the anti-Semitism is evil, it’s all evil. Because if they’re capable of that, they’re capable of anything.”

Harris admits that the plight of the Jews posed a dilemma.

“I don’t think that it’s possible to write a book about Nazi Germany and not touch on the anti-Semitism,” he says. “At the same time, if one’s trying to be true to the historical facts, it wasn’t at the forefront of the minds of the British and French in 1938, because, of course, this was before Kristallnacht, let alone before the actual mechanism of the Holocaust.”

Harris also believes that Hartmann’s feelings were unusual. “It has to be said that the resistance to Hitler, as far as I can see, was not based on horror at what was being done to the Jews.”

Schoolchildren and others brought to watch the burning of synagogue furnishings on Kristallnacht in Mosbach, Germany, November 1938 (courtesy)

He also accepts that the unfolding Jewish tragedy did not appear to greatly affect Chamberlain at the time of Munich.

“I don’t think it was factored into [Chamberlain’s] calculations in September 1938… His main preoccupation was to try and avoid a world war, in which, I think he did suspect, there would be a complete collapse of civilized values. And in that, he was correct,” says Harris.

Nonetheless, the prime minister was moved by the events of Kristallnacht which occurred barely a month after his return from Munich. Chamberlain, Harris argues, was “the driving force” behind Britain’s decision to admit 10,000 mainly Jewish refugee children as part of the Kindertransport; an approach which compared favorably with the policy of the Americans at the time.

The novel’s publication comes on the 25th anniversary of “Fatherland,”the book which launched Harris’s career as a novelist. A dystopian thriller which imagines how the victorious Nazis might have attempted to conceal the greatest crime in history, it has sold over 3 million copies and been translated into 25 languages.

“Having written “Fatherland,” I was then rather wary of writing again about the Nazis. I didn’t really want to just look as if that’s all I could write about and was obsessed with,” Harris suggests.

Nonetheless, now felt like the right time to return to the subject.

“A novelist picks up something in the air, and suddenly you’re prompted to write. There’s something about Munich and 1938 which seems more relevant now than it would have done five or 10 years ago,” he says.

“One sees the spectacle of Nazi banners being paraded through American streets, and the odd failure of the president of the United States to condemn it adequately,” says Harris.

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