During the past eight decades there have often been historical parallels with the Four Powers Conference and the so-called Munich Crisis of September 1938, when Britain, Germany, Italy and France met to decide the fate of Czechoslovakia and acceded to Hitler’s territorial demands for the Sudetenland in a bid to avert war in Europe.Munich—The Edge of War, out on Netflix on 21 January, is not a dramatization of this pivotal event but a work of ‘what if’ historical fiction, based on Robert Harris’s 2017 political thriller. What about the ‘what if’ women of Munich? The vast majority of ruminations about the historical plausibility of the film will focus on the characterisation of the leading great or guilty men. The fictional male leads Hugh Legat and Paul von Hartmann are loosely based on the British A.L. Rowse and the German Adam von Trott, a good deal of poetic licence taken regarding their respective political insights and foresight and their proximity to the centre stage of diplomatic events.
The film aims to be relatable by subtly but no less deliberately framing the strategic and ethical quandaries faced by the appeasers and the would-be-anti-Nazi resistors in ways that will resonate with audiences in our own age of crisis and rising extremism. Indeed, some commentators are comparing the current crisis in the Ukraine to the Munich Crisis.
The portrayal of Neville Chamberlain is nostalgic, highly sympathetic and (perhaps, too) attractive. Jeremy Irons’ Chamberlain is the saviour of peace, the epitome of respectability, good manners and tradition— a striking foil for the current resident of 10 Downing Street, a PM who uses the same austere spaces for, we now know, far less serious business.
Munich-The Edge of War speaks to modern audiences in other ways too, for instance, with integrated casting (casting without consideration of the actor’s ethnicity). In a similar vein, the filmmakers have worked on what we might call ‘gender-blind’ casting. What I mean by this is creating strong, intelligent, well-informed women characters whose actions have a direct bearing on events. The ‘what if’ genre allows for an attempt to right the wrongs of the very real male-exclusivity and unexamined sexism of interwar diplomacy.
There are four key but still supporting women characters in the film, serving important symbolic, romantic and dramatic functions. There is Lenya, the German-Jewish friend of both fictional male leads, whose body will eventually wear the marks of Nazi persecution. There is Pamela Legat, the protagonist’s wife, who stands in for British mothers, faced with the terrifying prospect of a war from the air, making wrenching decisions about evacuating children, and looking at this new world through the dehumanizing visor of newly acquired gasmasks. Third, the film takes one of Chamberlain’s typists on a flight of fancy, so to speak. She is given the name Joan Menzies. While women typists did accompany Chamberlain by airplane to the Munich Conference, as far as we know none served overt or covert functions in the negotiations. Fourth, on the German side, there is Helen Winter, widow of a General, holding some kind of administrative ministerial post, and both von Hartmann’s love interest and co-conspirator—the pretty face of German anti-Nazism.
These token women are all ‘great’ rather than guilty women, with assorted qualities of courage, heroism, pathos, insight and intuition, not to mention sex appeal. They are all variations of the mythical Cassandra, speaking truth to power and issuing predictions about the consequences of the naive acts performed by men.
To their credit, the filmmakers have included a number of reminders that the Munich Crisis was not an all-male affair in its impact on the population at large. Women are evoked as the ‘millions of mothers’ who will be thanking Chamberlain for saving the peace. Women are extras in the scenes of political protests. An anonymous German girl presents Chamberlain with a bouquet upon his arrival in Munich. Women are a high proportion of the jubilant crowds receiving Chamberlain when he arrives home with the document promising ‘Peace for our time’.
To avoid giving away the plot, I won’t give any more detail. But in terms of the historical record, some spoilers are called for. Indeed, the main problem with plot devices and the dramatic functions assigned to these women characters is that women just did not have this kind of access to power, certainly not in an official capacity.
To say that women would not have been able to act in the events as they do in the film is not to say that women were absent from the history, even at the level of high politics and diplomacy. I suspect elements of the life story of Shiela Grant Duff have been mined for the composite heroines. Grant Duff and von Trott developed a close friendship at the University of Oxford in the early 1930s. They fell out over politics when he became a supporter of the Nazi regime, and as a woman she blazed a trail as a foreign correspondent, and expert on and advocate of Czechoslovakia. Her best-selling Penguin Special Europe and the Czechs (1938) was published just days after the Munich Agreement was signed.
Moreover, a small handful of women MPs from the small group of women who were MPs in the late 1930s were formidable critics of appeasement, including the Independent Eleanor Rathbone, Labour’s Ellen Wilkinson, and Chamberlain-scourge the Conservative Duchess of Atholl who made sure that all British MPs were presented with the unexpurgated translation of Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Other women MPs led from the front as Chamberlain’s fan base, including Conservative MPs Nancy Astor, Florence Horsbrugh and Marjorie Graves, and the political hostess Edith Lady Londonderry.
Munich—The Edge of War, a brooding and evocative fictionalisation of the Munich Crisis, does a commendable job of writing women into the drama and inviting audiences to take a gender-blind view of the event. It is also a welcome invitation to look more closely and carefully at the historical record, and acknowledge the opportunities as well as the significant constraints real women faced in the 1930s to play the kind of decisive roles created for them in this film.
Julie V. Gottlieb is Professor of Modern History at the University of Sheffield. Her publications include ‘Guilty Women’ (see cover below), Foreign Policy and Appeasement (Palgrave, 2015), and she is co-editor of The Munich Crisis, Politics and the People (Manchester University Press, 2021).
A slightly different version of this blog post was published earlier on The Conversation.
Cover image: Lenya in Munich— The Edge of War, Netflix (2022)