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‘We shall fight in the forests’: The Second World War as a point of reference in the war in Ukraine

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Last Tuesday the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy became the first foreign leader to address the Houses of Parliament via video link. It was a remarkable speech in many ways, clearly tailored to his British audience, with a quotation from Shakespeare and allusions to Churchill. Zelenskiy’s ‘we shall fight them’ moment made the front pages the following morning. Subtly reworking Churchill’s famous rhetoric, the Ukrainian president said: ‘We shall fight in the forests, in the fields, on the shores, in the cities and in the villages, we shall fight in the hills.’ By inserting ‘forests’ where Churchill had beaches, Zelenskiy evoked not only the Ukrainian countryside, but also Ukraine’s history of occupation and resistance in the Second World War, and in particular the role of the partisan groups which took to the woods. It suggests a people’s war in which ordinary women and men took up arms to defend their homes and local communities against the Nazi occupier. Curiously, Ukrainian colleagues have also quoted Churchill to me over the last two weeks. (In their case, his 1941 ‘Never give in’ speech delivered at Harrow school.) Britain’s success in thwarting a Nazi invasion seems to offer Ukrainians a much-needed message of hope, even if the situation of the UK in 1940 was very different from Ukraine’s in 2022. More broadly, however, the Second World War is being invoked as a point of reference on both sides of the conflict, and by commentators outside the war zone.

Zelenskyi came back to the Second World War at another point in his speech to parliament. In an almost unbearable narrative he chronicled the war day by day, listing the worst of the atrocities committed against Ukraine and the courageous resistance put up. On day six, he told MPs, Russians rockets fell on the site of Babi Yar. It was here that over the course of two September days in 1941, Nazi extermination squads shot 33,771 Jews. In the Soviet era, the site went unmarked for several decades and when a memorial was eventually erected in 1976 it was done so in ‘memory of Soviet civilians and Red Army soldiers and officers – prisoners of war – who were shot at Babi Yar by the German occupiers’, offering no recognition of the racial ideology which drove the genocide. In 2016, the then president of Ukraine, Petr Poroshenko announced the establishment of a Holocaust Memorial Centre on the site. In drawing attention to the destruction at Babi Yar, Zelenskyi – himself a Jew, with relatives who were killed in the Holocaust – reached out to Jewish audiences worldwide.   

In a very different register, Putin has also turned to history, of course, laying out his own twisted account of Russian-Ukrainian relations. In labelling the Ukrainian government fascist and describing the regime-change he desires as ‘de-Nazification’, Putin wilfully distorts both the history of the Nazi occupation in Ukraine (which, like in other occupied countries included cases of collaboration and participation in acts of genocide, but also resistance in the partisan forces, and the heroic rescue of Jews, Roma and Sinti by locals), and of current-day Ukrainian politics. This rhetoric of hate is the very dark side of what Nina Tumarkin has called the ‘war myth’ which since the Brezhnev era – and increasingly since 2000 – has served as a ‘source of Russian national pride and patriotism’ meant to breed loyalty to the regime.[1] If a national identity is founded on an elaborate cult of the sacrifices made in fighting the Nazi enemy, the term ‘fascist’ remains a powerful trigger for deeply emotional responses. 

In reality, I would argue, the current invasion has much more to do with contemporary geopolitics, the legacies of the Cold War, and Moscow’s loss of status after the ending of the Soviet Union, than the events of 1939-45. It is certainly true that the war caused an immense death toll in the Soviet Union, including not only service men and women, but also millions of civilians. Moreover, in the war’s aftermath, there was little empathy for the physical and psychological scars of war: under Stalin, the ordinary veteran was overshadowed by the leader cult; under Brezhnev, the new patriotic celebration of wartime sacrifice stifled recognition of individual trauma and loss. Perhaps these unacknowledged wounds linger on. But it’s also true that in the west, pundits and politicians are equally prone to use the Second World War as a point of comparison, particularly those who caution that we risk repeating the mistakes of 1938’s appeasement. There is perhaps a simple reason for turning to the events of 1939-1945: only the Second World War allows us to convey the scale of what is unfurling. The parallels may not always fit very well, but the sheer magnitude of its horror does. 

Miriam Dobson is a Reader in History at the University of Sheffield, specialising in the history of the Soviet Union. Her first book, Khrushchev’s Cold Summer: Gulag Returnees, Crime, and the Fate of Reform After Stalin was published in 2009 (Russian translation with ROSSPEN, 2014)Her current project examines the history of evangelical Protestant communities in the USSR and she has published articles on this work in Slavic ReviewRussian ReviewJournal of Contemporary History and (with Nadezhda Beliakova) in Canadian Slavonic Papers.

Cover image: Volodymyr Zelenskiy, courtesy of Ukrainian President Office/Reuters


[1] Nina Tumarkin, ‘The Great Patriotic War as myth and memory’, European Review 10 (2003), p.595-611.

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Netflix’s Munich–The Edge of War: A film for our time?

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In this ‘dia-blog’ historians Alan Allport (Professor of History, Syracuse University, New York) and author of Britain at Bay: The Epic Story of the Second World War, 1938-1941 (2020) and Julie Gottlieb (Professor of Modern History, University of Sheffield), share their thoughts about the new Netflix film Munich– The Edge of War (2022). 

The film uses the suspenseful days of the Four Powers Conference that took place in Munich on 29-30 September, 1938, as the stage for a political thriller. Based on Robert Harris’s novel Munich (2017), the plot aspires to cut to the heart of the strategically and psychologically terrifying situation faced by Europe should Hitler’s escalating demands for Lebensraum not be met. Hitler was forcing the ceding of the mainly German-speaking Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia to the Reich. While the Czechs themselves were not invited to the negotiating table, Britain, Italy and France agreed to Hitler’s demands in order to avert war, and Chamberlain persuaded Hitler to sign a further document of Anglo-German understanding to press the same point. 

In the film our sympathies are meant to lie with the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, whose reputation has swung, for decades, from that of the celebrated saviour of peace and wise old gentleman with only the best intentions, to that of the ‘provincial undertaker’ and Hitler’s gullible dupe. 

Neville Chamberlain showing the Anglo-German declaration, 1938. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The force of historical fiction cuts like a double edged sword for the historian. The power of film (and fiction) is that it captures the imagination. It visualises, it engages or enrages by romanticising or villainising, but inevitably in ways that can distort the historical record. For example, now that we have seen Jeremy Irons as Neville Chamberlain, will most of us ever again be able to unsee the suave and smoothly-spoken actor when we animate Chamberlain in our mind’s eye? In real life Chamberlain was rather sepia toned in pallor, and not just because of the yellow-tinge of 1930s photography. 

Considering this is a work of historical fiction that began as a novel, do you feel the novel has been successfully adapted for screen?

Allport: Well, in terms of the plot, the movie remains fairly faithful to the book. A few subplots are trimmed down or excised and some of the minor characters have been omitted or altered but these are the sorts of changes you’d expect to happen in a film adaptation. 

I think the more important question is how well the story succeeds via the medium of cinema as opposed to literature. Munich is not a counterfactual history like Robert Harris’s book Fatherland, so the main political events unfurl in the film just as they did in real life – Chamberlain and Daladier will go to Munich, the Sudetenland will be ceded to Germany, and presumably the war will break out in September 1939 as in real life. The problem then is to inject some tension into a story with a predetermined outcome. 

My own feeling is that Harris’s historical novels have always been more effective at evoking a certain mood of the past through meticulously well researched detail than by providing a lot of suspenseful plot twists for the reader to follow. It’s easier to do this in book form than on the screen, I think. I didn’t feel the on-screen version of Munich absorbed me as much in the subjective sense of what it must have been like to sit in the conference chamber with Hitler and Chamberlain. This is an aesthetic rather than a historical complaint, however!

On the topic of the aesthetic qualities, film has the ability to capture mood, feeling and details of material culture in living colour. How well does the film express the general atmosphere of the September Crisis?

Gottlieb: My own approach has been to consider the history from below of the Munich Crisis, and to better understand how opinion, reactions and emotional responses ranged across class, gender, generational, regional lines and, of course, political lines. 

Here and there the film gestures to ordinary people and the deep impact of these events on quotidian lives– evacuation, gas masks, protests, mass celebrations like it was Mafeking night, allusion to the gratitude of ‘millions of mothers’ in Europe, and a few glimpses into domestic interiors. This was all backdrop and background, but generally well observed and well placed nonetheless. 

The subtitle of the film ‘the edge of war’ is evocative (the novel has no subtitle), reinforcing the cliff-hanger feature of the political suspense genre, but also suggestive of the edginess and nervousness experienced by populations across Europe and beyond. 

Still, the story Munich tells is about great/guilty men and a few good women, narrating it in the same conventional way as so much of the top-down scholarship. 

On that note, as it is hard to get away from the fact that most of the scholarship has focused on the political leaders, how does the film correspond to the historiographical reassessments and revision of Chamberlain’s foreign policy and his reputation? 

Allport: Harris’s book is more strident in its defense of Chamberlain. Because many of the contextual scenes and conversations in the novel are not present in the film, it presents a less well developed and coherent case for Chamberlain’s foreign policy. The result is an odd mixture of arguments (implicit or openly stated), some of which would be familiar to the real life Chamberlain, and others not. 

The final scene in the aircraft as the British diplomats return home from Munich is particularly interesting in this regard. Chamberlain (Irons) argues that by getting Hitler to sign the ‘piece of paper’ agreeing to resolve future differences peacefully he has created a trap which will expose the German leader as a liar in the eyes of the world if he continues to seek conflict. This will give any war against Hitler a moral authority it would otherwise lack. I could imagine Chamberlain perhaps saying this, although he sincerely hoped and believed Hitler would be true to his word. However, Irons goes on to say that he’s willing to risk looking a fool if he is proven wrong. I very much doubt the extremely vain Chamberlain would ever knowingly risk such a thing!

In the credits the film baldly states that the Munich agreement ‘bought a year’s time’ for Britain to rearm and was therefore crucial in the eventual defeat of Germany. It’s a rather strange assertion to come so late and the movie hasn’t really prepared the case for it for the audience. Historians remain divided as to whether it’s actually true or not.

Gottlieb: As Alan has said, Munich–The Edge of War is very pro-Chamberlain. Filmgoers may wonder where Winston Churchill is hiding in the film. Indeed, Churchill isn’t even alluded to, at least not by name. Is it justified to airbrush Churchill out? One could argue that Churchill’s star has shone brightly on the big screen for long enough, most recently in The Gathering Storm (2002), The Darkest Hour (2017), Churchill (2017) and Netflix’s The Crown. Although Churchill would have the last word– in fact, hundreds of thousands of words– about the Munich Agreement and its shameful consequences, he was a minor player in the diplomatic events in the autumn of 1938. He was not even the most obvious leader of the anti-appeasers, a group that in any case lacked organisational coherence and consensus about an alternative foreign policy. Opinion polls and pundits speculated that were Chamberlain to go, he would be succeeded as PM by either the former or the current foreign secretary, Anthony Eden or Lord Halifax. Incidentally, it is Halifax who is much less justifiably airbrushed out of the film.

You could say that the fictional male protagonists Hugh Legat and Paul von Hartmann serve as stand-ins for the appeasement sceptics and would-be resistors, embodying their sentiments and sensibilities, not to mention their elevated social status. In other ways, the fictional leads are less plausible. In order to make the plot work they are like passepartouts, with access to space, places and leaders– this just doesn’t ring true.   

The mood of the film is a kind of pre-Churchillian Britain, almost a prelapsarian Britain of a milder and less heroic age. The architecture is grand and solid, the characters and the crowds well behaved, well dressed, and quite prosperous– with few signs of the Slump and only a few inklings of the aerial war to come. Berlin and Munich are also shown with more grandeur than grit. 

Coming back now to the ambivalent power of film, will you be happy to use Munich–The Edge of War to introduce students to the topic? How can historians frame historical fiction like this to generate discussion in the classroom? 

Allport: Teaching history through film offers students an interesting set of questions to consider. How important is it that the film sticks rigidly to historical fact, or is some artistic license permissible? Should we judge a fictional movie by the same standards as a history book? Are all omissions and deviations from the historical record equal, or do some matter more than others? In the case of Munich: The Edge of War it might be particularly useful to compare the characterization of Neville Chamberlain with that in 2017’s Darkest Hour.  Both are quite different but neither is inherently the objectively ‘right’ one. Why have the filmmakers presented such different Chamberlains to the audience? Neither depiction would satisfy all historians. Is it even possible to put a Chamberlain on the screen that everyone could agree is ‘realistic’? And is that a useful historical or dramatic objective anyway?

Gottlieb: To conclude, all representations, fiction and nonfiction, reveal as much about the time they are produced in as about the historical period they seek to depict. Munich–The Edge of War is entertainment as well artifact in that sense, a film for our time!

Julie V. Gottlieb is Professor of Modern History at the University of Sheffield. She is the author of ‘Guilty Women’, Foreign Policy and Appeasement in Interwar Britain (2015), and co-editor and contributor to The Munich Crisis, Politics and the People (2021). 

Alan Allport is a Professor of History at Syracuse University, New York. His most recent book is Britain at Bay: The Epic Story of the Second World War 1938-1941 (2020).

Cover image: Jeremy Irons as Neville Chamberlain, George MacKay as Hugh Legat, in Munich — The Edge of War, Netflix (2022)

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The ‘What if’ Women of Munich-The Edge of War

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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. 

Shiela Grant Duff, by Howard Coster, 1939. Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, London

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)

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The War on the Football Field

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“Two World Wars and one World Cup.”

This is a frequent chant of English fans when facing their old football rivals: Germany. The chant refers to England having won the First and Second World War, and the 1966 FIFA World Cup. But what exactly is the basis for this chant? After all, West Germany had already won a World Cup in 1954, 12 years before England would win. And Germany has gone on to win three more since. Apart from the conceited nature of the chant, the comparison between war and football may seem like a harsh comparison. Can Football be compared to warfare?

Perhaps it can, on a national level. The oft-quoted George Orwell once wrote about sports: “At the international level sport is frankly mimic warfare. But the significant thing is not the behaviour of the players but the attitude of the spectators: and, behind the spectators, of the nations who work themselves into furies over these absurd contests, and seriously believe – at any rate for short periods – that running, jumping and kicking a ball are tests of national virtue.” Written in 1945, but does it still hold truth today?

Any controversy between Britain and Germany in football has rarely originated in the game itself or with the players, but more often with the media and the fans. In 1966 the Sunday Mirror described the victorious England team as ‘conquering heroes’ and celebrations as the wildest night ‘since VE night in May 1945’. These kinds of descriptions have not tempered over time. Other controversial headlines throughout the years include ‘The Battle of the Krauts’, (1987) ‘Achtung! Surrender’, (1996) and ‘Job Done… Now for the Hun’ (2010).

It is not hard to imagine that these media headlines were meant as general provocations. What is more striking is the behaviour of the fans. A common English chant uses  the theme to The Dam Busters (1955) which is accompanied by arms outstretched in a mimicry of the war planes the film portrays. When Britain was knocked out of the World Cup by Argentina in 1986, 75 per cent of Brits said they supported Argentina rather than Germany, despite the Falklands conflict with Argentina having only ended four years prior, and Germany (who had not come up against Britain in that particular World Cup) being their political allies for forty years.

More recently, those who followed the Euro 2020 tournament, may remember the England-Germany match, as well as the crying German girl that dominated the screen for a short amount of time. They may also remember the abusive comments made about her online and the cheers of the English crowd. These comments included references to Anne Frank and the Holocaust and referred to the girl as a Nazi, among other offensive labels. 

What all of these examples have in common is not only lack of hesitation, but the often flagrant willingness to create connections between football and the status of Germans as wartime adversaries. It is therefore difficult to disagree with Orwell’s view on sports in the context of the England vs Germany football rivalry. Yet what should be noted (and may be a hard truth for some English football fans) is that this rivalry only appears to truly exist in England: German football fans don’t tend to reference the war when mentioning England or English fans. 

So why does British football culture seem to have merged the memory of the war and Germany’s defeat in it with football? Why is the fact that ‘we won the war’ such a defining trope for football fans across the nation? It may have something to do with envy over the fact that the German team generally dominates the English team. As Gary Lineker once remarked, ‘Football is a simple game; 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans win.’

But this German position of dominance has not been limited to football. By the time of the 1966 World Cup, the West German economic miracle, or Wirtschaftswunder, was well under way. At the same time, Britain was losing its status as a superpower. It has often been put forward that this inferior position in various realms has led England supporters to hold on dearly to what they knew they had over the Germans: wartime victory. 

Ruth Wittlinger suggests that this issue of inferiority has also been the cause for the loss of a British identity, further aggravating emotions. She further writes that Britain holds on to a wartime memory of Germany while remaining uneducated about current-day Germany because of an ever-present memory of the Holocaust in the media and in the classroom, together with a strong focus on the war and Germany more generally speaking. Moreover, parallel developments to Nazi fascism, racism, and antisemitism have continued in the post-1945 period, such as in the form of ethnic cleansing in the Balkans or the development of ‘skinhead’ culture and violence against immigrants across Europe. 

This all paints a bitter picture indeed and can also help uncover a certain hypocrisy within Britain when it comes to  its relationship with the past as well as the present, as has been humorously satirised. It has been shown before that Britain is less than willing to engage with its own uncomfortable memories, including deeply rooted issues like the romanticisation of colonialism and the question whether stolen items in the British Museum should be returned to where they were plundered from.

There are some that say we simply can’t help it, relying on Ad Populum arguments about pride and suggestions that Germans ‘deserve it’. Others present more nuanced arguments interpreting the supporters’ behaviour as a reflection of British pride, attempting to recapture the wartime spirit that brought the British people together. Others still think it is all just good fun and not offensive, that these football chants are harmless and there are bigger issues in football to worry about. The fact that these contrasting opinions exist and have been published in major outlets is proof enough that the question remains a hot topic.

So the question remains: is all this about modern British pride, or are the chants a reflection of a bitter longing for a better past? Are we remembering our own values when we chant “Ten German Bombers,” or are we making sure Germany doesn’t forget that they lost theirs during the first half of the twentieth century? If we are so keen to avoid facing our own problematic past as a nation, is it really fair that British football fans keep reminding Germany of theirs? It is difficult to agree that football fans’ anti-German chants are not quite a serious problem when you don’t have to look far to find examples of violence and insults towards Germans, or when an emotional little girl is abhorrently called a Nazi.

Matthew Brundrett studied History with Psychology at Keele University, and has recently completed an MA in Modern History at the University of Sheffield. He is currently continuing his MA research related to the First World War with a view to obtaining a PhD. Matthew can be contacted via matt.brundrett@sky.com.

Cover image: England and Germany fans outside Cologne Cathedral, 2006. Source: Wikimedia Commons

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Mining the Munich Crisis for Meaning: Crises Past and Present

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We are the editors of a new book, The Munich Crisis, Politics and the People (Manchester University Press, 2021). The contributors came together for a conference in 2018, the 80th anniversary of the signing of the highly controversial but pivotal Munich Agreement, a diplomatic event that was all-absorbing for people throughout Europe and beyond. The days, weeks, and months when the world was on the brink of another global conflict war was a time of acute crisis, uncertainty, anxiety, and private and public suspense and nervousness. In this blog post we reflect on the Munich Crisis in light of the current global crisis, hearing unmistakable resonances, drawing some parallels, as well as thinking about how the ‘People’s Crisis’ of 1938 differed in important ways from the all-consuming global pandemic today. 

Julie V. Gottlieb: The Munich Crisis and the repercussions of the international affairs on the home front and on private lives has been the focus of my research and my attention for many years now. It is therefore difficult not to hear (loud) resonances with crises in international affairs in the last few years and with heated debates about international intervention—Iraq, Syria, China etc… Other resonances can be heard with the current global people’s crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic. With regards to the latter, we need to be cautious about the parallels we see and the lessons we think we can draw from crisis events of the past. There is no easy symmetry here. 

Richard Toye: I agree, but there is one significant thing the crises have in common. Both involve(d) the fear of mass death. It is a commonplace in the literature that people during the interwar years tended to exaggerate the likely impact of bombing, thinking it would literally bring about the end of civilisation, but the actual results during World War II turned out to be somewhat less dramatic. However, one can hardly blame people for being fearful – of gas, as well as of bombs. On the other hand, as far as I know, there were no ‘Munich deniers’ in 1938. Nobody suggested that war was a non-existent threat that had been worked up by the authorities for their own political purposes.

Daniel Hucker: A small minority of pacifists did argue that air raid precaution measures served only to normalise militarism whilst hoodwinking the people into believing that they could be protected against bombs and gas (are there echoes here in the anti-vaxxer’s arguments, who almost fear the solution more than the problem?), but nobody genuinely argued that the threat of war was imagined. I am struck, however, by the parallels between how far people are/were willing to go to mitigate the threat. In 1938, for the French and British at least, it was a question of sacrificing honour and prestige, with the ultimate price being paid by the Czechoslovakians. Today, we are all making sacrifices but, just as in 1938, some are making more substantial sacrifices than others.

Neville Chamberlain on his way home after the signing of the Munich Agreement. To his left the Reich’s foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, and to his right the head of the Munich Police Karl von Eberstein, 30 September 1938. Source: German Federal Archives/Wikimedia Commons

JG: As this pandemic wears on, it is less and less reminiscent of the Munich Crisis. Rather it evokes if anything from that heavily-mined period and the rose-tinted nostalgia for the People’s War, the ‘Phoney’ or more aptly the ‘Bore’ war. This was the long months of anticipation from September 1939 to May 1940 when Britain was at war but there was little action. 

RT: Yes, but looking at it another way, thousands of people have been dying every day–just as thousands died or were oppressed by the Nazis in Poland. This happens out of sight of most of us, which may be why it seems as though nothing is happening. A reasonably strong pro-peace movement emerged in the autumn of 1939, which is perhaps not unlike the calls today for Lockdown to be lifted.

JG: One of the main lessons I have drawn from the Munich Crisis, and from the way we have studied it in this book, is that to understand the national stories of the global pandemic these crises have to be understood as ‘people’s crises’. It seems all the more striking how little the earlier scholarship on appeasement has taken public opinion into account. So far the scholarship has not had much if any concern with the subjective experience of diplomatic events. Holed up in our home offices—alone or with people who in normal times we only see a couple of hours a day—there is ample opportunity to think and feel our way through how the global pandemic affects us individually. Certainly one unmistakable parallel is the ‘crisis fatigue’ that Mass-Observation diagnosed in 1938, and the widespread feeling that we are at a saturation point with news of the pandemic, fed up, desperate for news of something else. 

DH: Throughout the current pandemic the people have been at the forefront of politicians’ responses—we hear repeatedly of the need for clear and unambiguous messaging, for the public to do ‘their bit’ by following official guidelines, and how policy must be attentive to the public’s willingness to listen and adhere. In an era of rolling news, social media, and unprecedented global interconnectivity, this is unsurprising. But as our book shows, the Munich ‘moment’ was also framed as a global crisis, with ramifications that would be felt far and wide. Not only was the crisis experienced subjectively by individuals, but it was experienced collectively, as an event. This clearly had a profound impact, and several of the contributions in this book demonstrate only too clearly the importance of public opinion.

JG: We seem to be congratulating ourselves quite a bit here in Britain—and I expect elsewhere as well—on our appreciation and willingness to deal with the mental health consequences of the current global crisis. It is a helpful reminder that there was genuine concern and many schemes to deal with just the same mental health fallout of the crisis itself and of the impending war from the air. Our mission with this collaborative work was to think about the Munich Crisis as ripe for the study of emotions—private, collective, imagined, prescribed and proscribed. 

RT: Indeed, and it’s a very difficult thing to do. Perhaps it’s a bit easier in respect to Munich than with regards to the pandemic, as the 1938 crisis was relatively short-lived, people took particular note to record it, and everything was felt very intensely. How will historians reconstruct people’s feelings during Covid, when a lot of people are progressively, but imperceptibly, worn down a bit further every day, and perhaps feel less and less incentive to write down their emotions? True, the sociological research organisation Mass Observation sprang into action and recruited a lot of new observers in March/April 2020 to capture the experience of the pandemic. In the fullness of time we will learn how many of them stayed the course.

The Munich Conference on 29 September 1938 in the so-called Führerbau (Führer’s Building) on the Königsplatz. From left to right: Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, the interpreter Paul Otto Schmidt, and Neville Chamberlain. Source: German Federal Archives/Wikimedia Commons

DH: The early stages of the Covid crisis were perhaps the most analogous to Munich—just as news of a new virus in China had played out in the background before March 2020, so the Sudeten crisis unfolded over the summer of 1938 in a way that didn’t affect people in a meaningful way until September. Then the reality dawned and a tangible ‘crisis’ set in—in 1938 air raid shelters were constructed and gas masks distributed; in 2020 we locked down, queued outside supermarkets, and fashioned face masks out of old clothes. We might acclimatise to a crisis, adapt to a ‘new’ normal, but new crises (today’s ‘variants’) are never far from the surface. 

JG: Another issue is the use of the word ‘crisis’. Can a crisis drag on and on, for months and even years, or does longevity make the word unhelpful, misleading, or even useless? Certainly in September 1938 everyone immediately referred to the moment as ‘The Crisis’, specifically the four days at the end of September at the climax of the drama when Chamberlain was summoned to a third meeting with Hitler, and the meeting of the Four Powers at Munich when they came to the agreement for the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia. In the first lockdown, thinking about Covid-19 as a crisis event was plausible. As we in Britain find ourselves in the third lockdown, and a year and counting into the global pandemic, we may very well require a different word, a different paradigm, to make sense of our historical moment, and how it will be bookended by historians of the future. The study of comparative crisis therefore prompts a fruitful discussion about periodization.

Tickets are available via Eventbrite for the book’s launch event on 11 March 2021:

Julie V. Gottlieb is Professor of Modern History at the University of Sheffield. Her related publications include ‘Guilty Women’, Foreign Policy and Appeasement (Palgrave, 2015), “The Munich Crisis: Waiting for the End of the World” https://www.historytoday.com/archive/feature/munich-crisis-waiting-end-world, and “Surviving a “War of Nerves”: Lessons for the age of coronavirus from 1930s Britain” https://www.newstatesman.com/science-tech/coronavirus/2020/03/surviving-war-nerves-lessons-age-coronavirus-1930s-britain

Prof. Daniel Hucker is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Nottingham. His related publications include Public Opinion and the End of Appeasement in Britain and France (Ashgate, 2011) and Public Opinion and Twentieth-Century Diplomacy: A Global Perspective (Bloomsbury, 2020).

Prof. Richard Toye is Professor of Modern History at the University of Exeter. His related publications include Winston Churchill: A Life in the News (Oxford University Press, 2020) and ‘“This famous island is the home of freedom”: Winston Churchill and the battle for “European civilization”’, History of European Ideas, 46 (2020).

Cover Image: Neville Chamberlain holding the paper containing the resolution to commit to peaceful methods signed by both Hitler and himself on his return from Munich, 30 September 1938. Source: Imperial War Museums/Wikimedia Commons

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‘I don’t think I’m Wrong about Stalin’: Churchill’s Strategic and Diplomatic Assumptions at Yalta

Winston_and_Stalin_1945

On 23 February 1945 Churchill invited all ministers outside the War Cabinet to his room at the House of Commons to hear his account of the Yalta conference and the one at Malta that had preceded it. The Labour minister Hugh Dalton recorded in his diary that “The PM spoke very warmly of Stalin. He was sure […] that as long as Stalin lasted, Anglo-Russian friendship could be maintained.” Churchill added: “Poor Neville Chamberlain believed he could trust with Hitler. He was wrong. But I don’t think I’m wrong about Stalin.”[1]

Just five days later, however, Churchill’s trusted private secretary John Colville noted the arrival of:

“sinister telegrams from Roumania showing that the Russians are intimidating the King and Government […] with all the techniques familiar to students of the Comintern. […] When the PM came back [from dining at Buckingham Palace] […] he said he feared he could do nothing. Russia had let us go our way in Greece; she would insist on imposing her will in Roumania and Bulgaria. But as regards Poland we would have our say. As we went to bed, after 2.00 a.m. the PM said to me, ‘I have not the slightest intention of being cheated over Poland, not even if we go to the verge of war with Russia.”[2]

At an initial glance, there seems to be a powerful contradiction between these different sets of remarks. In the first, Churchill appears remarkably naïve and foolish, putting his faith in his personal relationship with a man whom he knew to be a mass murderer. In the second he seems strikingly, even recklessly bellicose, contemplating a new war with the Soviets, his present allies, even before the Germans and the Japanese had been defeated.

Surprising though it may seem, the disjuncture is not as large as it appears on the surface. Relations with the USSR and the future of Poland were not the only things that were at stake at Yalta. The Big Three took important decisions regarding the proposed United Nations Organization, and the post-war treatment of Germany, and even Anglo-US relations were not uncomplicated. In this post, however, I want to focus on the Polish issue and the broader question of how Churchill viewed the Soviet Union and its place in international relations more generally. I will outline three key assumptions that governed Churchill’s approach and which explain the apparent discrepancies in his remarks upon his return.

Assumption 1: The key to the Soviet enigma was the Russia national interest.

This assumption is the one that needs explaining at greatest length. In a radio broadcast given in the autumn of 1939, a month after the outbreak of the Second World War, Churchill told his audience: “I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.”[3]

What Churchill meant was that the Soviet Union was acting on traditional Great Power lines, in a rational and predictable way. This was a striking, and remarkably sanguine, thing to say just a few months after the conclusion of the Nazi-Soviet pact. The pact had clearly not disrupted his conclusion, reached earlier in the thirties, that the USSR was a potentially responsible actor with which it was possible for Britain to collaborate.

That conclusion was in marked contrast to Churchill’s attitude in the fifteen years after 1917. To him, in the aftermath of WWI, the Bolsheviks were ‘the avowed enemies of the existing civilization of the world’.[4] He believed that Lenin, Sinn Féin and the Indian and Egyptian nationalist extremists were all part of ‘a world-wide conspiracy’ to overthrow the British Empire.[5] His central objections to Bolshevism, then, were a) that it involved a reversion to barbarism, and b) that its proponents were attempting to spread its seditious principles globally.

As late as 1931 he was portraying the USSR as a “gigantic menace to the peace of Europe”.[6] There followed almost three years in which he failed to offer substantive comment on the Soviet Union, a period during which, however, he appears to have significantly adjusted his views. The rise of Hitler was of course crucial here. In August 1934, the Sunday Express reported that Churchill had had a change of heart on Russia. An article by the journalist Peter Howard was headlined: ‘Mr. Churchill Changes His Mind: The Bogey Men of Moscow are Now Quite Nice.’[7]

Howard’s piece was prompted by a speech by Churchill the previous month. In this he had praised the proposal – which in fact never came off – of a mutual-aid treaty between the USSR, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. This was an idea, Churchill said, which involved “the reassociation of Soviet Russia with the Western European system.” He cited the speeches of Soviet foreign minister Maxim Litivinov. These, he said, “had seemed to give the impression which I believe is a true one, that Russia is most deeply desirous of maintaining peace at the present time. Certainly, she has a great interest in maintaining peace.”

It was not enough, in Churchill’s view, to talk about the USSR as “peace-loving” because “every Power is peace-loving always.” Rather:  “One wants to see what is the interest of a particular Power and it is certainly the interest of Russia, even on grounds concerning her own internal arrangements to preserve peace.”[8] Thus, by the mid-1930s Churchill had reached the conclusion that the USSR had abandoned world revolution and that, acting once again as a traditional Great Power, it shared Britain’s interest in preserving the peace of Europe. This determined his attitude at the time of the Munich crisis in 1938 and held good through to the time of Yalta.

Assumption 2: Stalin would respect ‘spheres of interest’ and the so-called ‘percentages agreement’.

The Moscow summit of October 1944 was the occasion of the notorious “percentages agreement”, via which Churchill believed he had secured Stalin’s consent for the division of the Balkans into British and Soviet spheres of influence. What, if anything, Stalin had really agreed is open to debate.[9]  It is striking, though, that the Soviet press reported that the two men had reached genuine unanimity over Rumania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Hungary, and Greece, and warmly welcomed the “disappearance of the Balkan powderkeg” from the European scene.[10] Crucially, Poland was not mentioned in the agreement. This explains why Churchill did not feel able to protest about Soviet actions in Rumania and Bulgaria yet spoke of his willingness to go to the brink of war over Poland.

Assumption 3: The Polish government-in-exile would best serve its own cause by not rocking the boat, and that Soviet human rights abuses were best swept under the carpet.

This assumption is best illustrated by a 1943 diary entry by Ivan Maisky, the Soviet ambassador to London. This related to the notorious Katyn forest massacre, perpetrated by Soviet forces in 1940; the Nazis had recently announced the discovery of mass graves on territory now controlled by Germany. Maisky wrote:

“Churchill stressed that of course he does not believe the German lies about the murder of 10,000 Polish officers … But is this so? At one point during our conversation Churchill dropped the following remark: ‘Even if the German statements were to prove true, my attitude towards you would not change. You are a brave people, Stalin is a brave warrior, and at the moment I approach everything primarily as a soldier who is interested in defeating the common enemy as quickly as possible.”[11]

Churchill’s real concern was to prevent the affair damaging Anglo-Soviet relations, which he believed the Polish press in Britain was putting at risk. He fulminated to his Cabinet that “no Government which had accepted our hospitality had any right to publish articles of a character which conflicted with the general policy of the United Nations and which would create difficulties for this Government.”[12] One might say that there was a further assumption here, that history was driven by Great Men, like him and Stalin, and that Great Powers could legitimately settle the fates of nations over the heads of their peoples and governments. Omelettes could not be made without breaking eggs.

Conclusion

When he rose to speak in the Commons on 27 February in order to expound the Yalta agreement Churchill stated his impression “that Marshal Stalin and the Soviet leaders wish to live in honourable friendship and equality with the Western democracies. I feel also that their word is their bond.”[13] Justifying this latter claim in his memoirs, Churchill wrote: “I felt bound to proclaim my confidence in Soviet faith in order to procure it. In this I was encouraged by Stalin’s behaviour about Greece.”[14] As we have already seen, however, he claimed privately to be “Profoundly impressed with the friendly attitude of Stalin and Molotov.”[15] Colville wrote: “He is trying to persuade himself that all is well, but in his heart I think he is worried about Poland and not convinced of the strength of our moral position.”[16]

Churchill cannot be convicted of total naivety. There was a degree, certainly, to which he put too much faith in his own personal capacity to win over and deal with the Soviet leadership. But his comments about Stalin’s trustworthiness were to a great extent an attempt to put on a brave face in front of his ministers and the public. He never did make the mistake of assuming that Stalin was a pushover, but he did believe that he would respond to firm handling. More broadly his approach was determined by the belief that the Soviets were rational actors who could contribute to a constructive global order, even as they acted as rivals to Britain and the USA.

The conflict between the remarks recorded by Dalton and those recorded by Colville is explained by Churchill’s belief (or most profound assumption) in managed international rivalry. It was not that he thought that Yalta had solved or prevented conflict between the Great Powers but he believed that this type of international agreement could keep it within bounds. In respect of his apparent belief that Stalin could be induced to accept a free and democratic Poland, it is easy to see that Churchill was indeed wrong. But in regard to his overarching belief that the Soviet regime acted in line with rational calculations about its own national interests, rather than being primarily motivated by communist ideology, he may have been far less wrong than appears at first sight.

Richard Toye is Professor of Modern History at the University of Exeter. He is the author of Winston Churchill: A Life in the News and co-author (with Steven Fielding and Bill Schwarz of The Churchill Myths, both published by Oxford University Press in 2020. He tweets @RichardToye.

Cover Image: Winston Churchill sharing a joke with Joseph Stalin and his interpreter, Pavlov at Livadia Palace during the Yalta Conference in February 1945.

[1] Ben Pimlott (ed.), The Second World War Diary of Hugh Dalton, 1940–1945 (London: Jonathan Cape, 1986), p. 836 (entry for 23 February 1945).

[2] John Colville, The Fringes of Power: Downing Street Diaries 1939-1955 (London: Phoenix, 2005), p. 536 (entry for 28 Feb. 1945).

[3] Broadcast of 1 Oct. 1939.

[4] Speech of 3 Jan. 1920.

[5] Speech of 4 Nov. 1920.

[6] ‘Winston Churchill Sees Soviet Russia as Gigantic Menace to the Peace of Europe’, New York American, 23 Aug. 1931.

[7] Sunday Express, 26 Aug. 1934.

[8] Speech of 13 July 1934.

[9] See Albert Resis, ‘The Churchill-Stalin Secret “Percentages” Agreement on the Balkans, Moscow, October 1944’, American Historical Review, Vol. 83, No. 2 (Apr., 1978), pp. 368-387.

[10] W.H. Lawrence, ‘Russians Indicate Unity on Balkans’, New York Times, 22 Oct. 1944.

[11] Gabriel Gorodetsky (ed.), The Maisky Diaries: Red Ambassador to the Court of St. James’s 1932-1943, Yale University Press, New Haven CT, 2015, p.509 (entry for 23 Apr. 1943).

[12] Cabinet Minutes, 27 Apr. 1943, WM (43) 59th Conclusions, CAB 65/34/13, The National Archives, Kew, London.

[13] Speech of 27 Feb. 1945.

[14] WSC, Triumph and Tragedy, p. 351.

[15] WSC to Clement Attlee and James Stuart, 14 Feb. 1945, Churchill Papers, CHAR 9/206B/207.

[16] Colville, Fringes of Power, p. 565 (entry for 27 Feb. 1945).

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