Last year was the year of commemorative news. The media discovered that the public was old enough to be as interested in events from fifty years ago as it is in today’s news. Of these events the one that took up the most time and space was the Munich agreement of 1938, although it was subsequently driven off the centre pages by Kristallnacht and the Jewish pogroms in Germany. Robert Kee’s book has its origins in his commemorative TV documentary and the book by Robert Shepherd, producer of Channel 4’s A Week in Politics, reads like the script of another documentary. Robert Rothschild was a young Belgian diplomat at the time, far from the centre of things, so his book too is essentially an image of Munich as seen through the media.
The odd thing is that although all those newspaper articles and TV programmes insisted, as do the books under review, that the Munich agreements were perfectly foreseeable in the five years following Hitler’s access to power, the media at the time treated Munich as a dramatic event which had sprung from nowhere. For them, it was like the Cuban missile crisis. Suddenly two newsworthy people were involved in making the decision for war or peace (‘an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation’). And within less than a week it was all over, and the squall of fear which had rushed over the horizon had safely passed. The gas masks were put away and the digging of trenches stopped. A good civilian with his old-fashioned suit and umbrella had saved the world from destruction by an obvious bad man wearing a kind of military uniform and jackboots. Yet the crucial decision – to allow Hitler to revise the Versailles Treaty without recourse to violence – had been taken before the media decided that this was the news.
In fact, the three events which constitute the still-vivid media image of Munich occurred over the space of only three days and were concerned exclusively with the tidying-up of the crisis. On 27 September Prime Minister Chamberlain chose to broadcast to the nation, at that time a highly unusual event which in itself signified a grave crisis. It was then that he pronounced the sentence which became the first permanent component of the image. It was, he said, ‘incredible’ that ‘we’ should be trying on gas masks because of a quarrel ‘in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing’. The quarrel was taking place 100 miles nearer to where he was speaking than the furthest part of the United Kingdom. On 29 September he flew to Munich to implement a policy already decided but which Hitler had made more difficult for him. On returning to Heston Airport, he created the second image. He had persuaded the Führer at the close of the negotiations to sign a document which described itself as ‘symbolic of the desire of our two peoples never to go to war again’, a form of words to which Hitler could in good faith append his signature without in any way changing his policies. This was the document which Chamberlain proudly waved in front of the newsreel cameras, in a shot which has been replayed more times than almost any other. He then drove to Downing Street and, with the cameras still present, spoke from the window to a cheering crowd, saying that he had brought back ‘peace with honour’. These three moments composed the unforgiving, undying image which was to drive him from office and to his grave in less than three years.
Chamberlain was the first prime minister to put more effort into manipulating the media than into manipulating his own party, and all three components of the image of Munich were the direct result of his attempt to use the media for his own purposes. A cunning person of consuming ambition, able to charm when necessary by affecting a warm outward manner, he governed the mediocrities with which he surrounded himself like an autocrat, relying on the media to exalt his personality above all others. Leslie Hore-Belisha described what it was like to be a member of Chamberlain’s Cabinet. ‘You are expected to report intelligently on departmental matters but to keep quiet on everything else. It’s your job to do as the Chairman tells you and keep your nose out of general policy.’ He was to be sacked for being too prominent.
The broadcast of 27 September was intended to soften up the public in anticipation of their sudden discovery that a key provision of the Versailles Treaty was to be abandoned, as well as to tell the Germans that it would be. This was why Chamberlain placed such heavy stress on the word ‘we’, a quarrel between ‘people of whom we know nothing’. It was a populist reaching out to a mutual understanding between a straightforward Birmingham businessman and the electorate that foreigners and their troubles were not worth knowing about. (‘Get Lost Argies!’) That was why he exaggerated the distance to the Sudetenland. When he waved the piece of paper he wanted to personalise the agreement (‘I have in my hand a document signed by Herr Hitler’), to play the part of a man acting on behalf of the people and cutting through the flummery of the Foreign Office. He had tried the same approach on his return from his first and more decisive meeting with Hitler at Berchtesgaden, when he had explained that on the next occasion they would meet nearer London because Hitler wanted to spare ‘an old man another long journey’. ‘Peace with honour’ was the phrase used by an earlier Conservative performer with a dominating personality, Disraeli, after a similar personal confrontation with a German Chancellor. Others claim to have spotted the opportunity for making the comparison but to have rejected it as too risky. Chamberlain took it and it became for ever a symbol of his moral blindness.
To make so ill-considered a remark under the momentary influence of the crowd’s euphoria may not look like the tactics of a great media manipulator. But Chamberlain was already sensing the opposition to what he had done and the remark was the start of a losing struggle against it. For two years he had effectively stifled all divergent views on Europe on the BBC, forcing it to change discussion programmes and to make it impossible for opponents such as Churchill to air their views. He used British capital participation in the commercial radio station Radio Luxembourg to make sure that his broadcast on 27 September was also put out in a German translation, not just when he made it but at intervals throughout the next two days. When he learned that the Daily Telegraph, whose relationship to the Conservative Party was rather what it now is, was not sure that he had brought back peace with honour and was intending to say so in a mild form in its editorial the next morning, he got the editorial changed.
Not much manipulation was necessary. In Britain, France and Germany crowds were ecstatic at the outcome of Munich. Edouard Daladier, the French Prime Minister, returning to Le Bourget Airport after the signing, was horrified to see the size of the crowd waiting below. He thought he was going to be mobbed and derided. Instead, he was cheered. A song about Chamberlain banned on the BBC because it did not take him seriously enough, went to the top of the Paris hit parade. ‘No conqueror returning from a victory on the battlefield,’ the Times editorialised, ‘has come home adorned with nobler laurels.’ The press for the most part reacted with the venal sycophancy which characterises its relationship with the present Conservative Government. Harold Macmillan described its attitude as a ‘fragile and insubstantial screen of complacency and self-deception, skilfully designed to delude a whole people into a fictitious sense of security’. Plus ça change.
In fact public opinion was displaying not only a troubled volatility but also what we now regard as the start of a decisive swing against Munich and Chamberlain. In spite of his majority of more than a hundred, Chamberlain would be out of office in less than two years with the media baying for his blood. His secretive and authoritarian behaviour, and his increasing tendency to surround himself with presidential advisers rather than elected politicians, cut him off from any real understanding of this change. Daladier had taken a more sceptical view of his own actions. ‘These people are mad,’ he told the First Secretary of the Foreign Ministry when he realised that the crowd at Le Bourget was there to cheer. At the end, staring personal overthrow in the face, Chamberlain faced a Commons debate in which the morality of British policy had become as important an issue as its effectiveness. Like a Mafia chief, he called for the support of his ‘friends’.
How could a modern man so badly misjudge the media and public opinion, the very forces on which he had relied to govern so autocratically? It was not only because of the excessive power vested in the office of prime minister. What he had brought to the Conservative Party and then to the nation was the modernising, reforming urge of provincial British business, carving out a place for itself in the British social hierarchy. The Conservative Party is periodically taken over by new élites of this kind. He had the characteristics of the provincial business world: ruthless, sly, sharp with money, he had a profound ignorance of and distaste for foreigners, and was full of snobbery. It was typical that his main impression of the politician who changed the course of European and world history should have been of his social class. Hitler, he thought, was ‘the commonest little dog’. When there was no business to discuss, he told him at length – it must have been one of our century’s more improbable conversations – about the pleasures of fly-fishing. Hitler was not merely bored to rage: he was well aware that he was being socially patronised, and by a provincial businessman. He was not appeased; he was irritated into the belief that a violent solution would have been better. Into the world at home where Chamberlain had brought everything under control burst another world which everything in his make-up led him to misinterpret. The view from Birmingham simply could not comprehend Hitler or Germany and entirely failed to predict their course of action. Will the view from Grantham do any better?
As for the media, the crucial news items were first that Britain had already decided to give up the Sudetenland in the course of Chamberlain’s first Berchtesgaden meeting with Hitler, if not before; and secondly, the fine details of the way the Munich settlement was carried out in Czechoslovakia afterwards – which showed Hitler’s bad faith. The first, officially secret, was none the less discernible, but the story was not run. The second was ignored. The real news was not an image and so played only a very small part in forming public opinion. The whole episode perfectly reveals the trends and dangers of modern political life in Britain.