Munich: A Reflection on the Future Based on the Experiences of the Past
Will Our Present-Day Leaders Rise to the Challenge of Tackling the Edge of War?
We don’t choose the times we are born in. But we can decide how to act in those times! Paul Von Hartmann. Hitler’s translator at the Munich conference.
Movies Reveal the Truth That Leaders Don’t Want to Tell
The latest trend in films is to convey in a language that everyone understands the hard truths of our current reality, which leaders everywhere are afraid to speak about. As an illustration, Don’t Look Up! conveyed that humanity will eventually perish by systematically denying the environmental collapse.
In like manner, but regarding political leadership in times of war, Munich reveals a different truth; that in critical moments in history, courageous leaders can fight for peace while preparing their country for the worst, even at the cost of personal dismissal.
Munich reveals the plain truth about how different types of leadership collide when countries are at the edge of war. Especially when the confrontation is between democratic and authoritarian government systems. The Munich conference was between two democratic leaders, the prime ministers of Britain and France, and two despots that wanted to conquer the world, Hitler and Mussolini. In that sense, Munich portrays an image of Chamberlain, very different from the conventional history presented to us. In the movie, Britain’s Prime Minister rises to the challenge of tackling the edge of war with the instruments and resources that Britain’s democracy bestowed upon him. Nothing more, nothing less.
Munich: The Edge of War
Munich is a movie directed by Robert Harris, with Jeremy Irons playing Neville Chamberlain, Britain’s Prime Minister at the time.
According to The Guardian, “The big stories Britain creates from its history require heroes, but they also require cowards, failures, and villains. How else could we be sure that our heroes were truly heroic if we didn’t have comparable figures who fell short? This was the fate of prewar prime minister Neville Chamberlain, who is remembered for his policy of trying to appease and contain Hitler. Munich: The Edge of War is a bold attempt to change the story. Munich is an ambitious film, aiming not only to thrill but to shift British — and possibly German — views of their national story. “It has a slight polemical intent,” says Harris, “because I’m arguing against a tidal wave of 80 years of the other view.”
“Chamberlain,” says Harris, “was a very convenient scapegoat both for the Conservative party and the Labour party, who had opposed all the measures of rearmament that he had reintroduced. He died six months after leaving office in 1940.”
In another interview, Harris declares about Chamberlain. “He was messianic — he was as messianic, oddly enough, as Hitler but in a completely different way. He was messianic for peace. He was willing to throw himself into danger and risk utter ridicule and contempt for the price of peace. And he was going to do everything to try and maintain it.”
“I find something noble in that. For me, he is a tragic hero. If he hadn’t done it, we might have lost the war. The year was vital — not just for the hardware, the Spitfires, and the radar we could amass but for the moral weight behind the war effort.”
In conclusion, Chamberlain was a tragic hero willing to throw himself into danger and risk utter ridicule and contempt for the price of peace. Moreover, the precious year that his pact with Hitler bought allowed Britain to build up military hardware and readiness and unify the public opinion against Hitler. In contrast, Conservatives and Labour made him a scapegoat because he was rearming the country for war.
That is quite a different story from the one we had been told for 80 years. Even if they are exaggerating a bit, you have to give the man credit for forcing Hitler into a pact that he did not want to sign. In particular, he even used Mussolini to convince Hitler to sign a deal that, in Harris’s words, “Hitler hated it. He didn’t regard it as a triumph; he regarded it as a disaster.”
Today’s Leaders at the Edge of War
The world has progressively morphed into something more complex and potentially dangerous during the last twenty years because there are no clear lines between ideological blocks. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the world was in a sort of unstable equilibrium until the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001. As a result of that attack on US soil, the US and its allies declared “The war on terror,” which has lasted two decades, spreading all over the globe. One characteristic of this war is that there are no clear enemies and no clear battlefields, except Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. In this war, anyone can be a target, as the terrorist attacks on most European cities and the civilian casualties caused by the western allies’ attacks on countries and areas where the terrorists hide have shown. In twenty years, “The war on terror” has taken close to one million lives, mostly of civilians, has displaced 38 million people, has cost eight trillion dollars, has spread to 85 countries worldwide, and continues.
The US-led western alliance suffered an inflection point during Donald Trump’s presidency, characterized by his particular fighting style and undermining of the authority of traditional US allies, specifically NATO and the EU. Furthermore, he also eulogized dictators worldwide, “falling in love” with Kim Jong Un, declaring himself a “big fan” of Turkey’s leader Erdoğan, and saying that Xi Jinping is a “very good man.” Moreover, he had in his private business possible conflicts of interest with strongmen around the world, like Rodrigo Duterte, Philippines, Xi Jinping, China, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, Egypt, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey, and more importantly, Vladimir Putin, Russia.
Donald Trump can say what he pleases as a private citizen, and he can also have conflicts of interest as a private businessman; that’s his business. But suppose the President of the US, intentionally or not, goes around praising dictators and having conflicts of interest with traditional adversaries of the nation he represents. In that case, those acts have unexpected consequences, especially in the geopolitical field. As an illustration, Viktor Orbán, the strongman from Hungary, said that Trump’s praise gave him “permission” from “the highest position in the world.”
Donald Trump undermined not only the US role as a world leader but also the democratic system of his country, leaving the presidency with a grand finale, the attack on the Capitol Building. Expectedly, America’s image abroad rebounded with the transition from Trump to Joe Biden. Nevertheless, Biden’s leadership capacity came under public scrutiny with the disastrous and poorly planned US retirement from Afghanistan, which de facto declared the war´s victory for the Taliban and spearheaded the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, with twenty million people on the brink of famine in that country.
It is impossible to be indifferent to the fact that an alliance of the west’s most powerful countries had been defeated by a ragtag army like the Taliban, in the longest war in the history of the US, at the costs mentioned above. Mildly stated, it leaves much to be desired about most Western leaders during the last twenty years. Nevertheless, those are the leaders we depend on when the world is again at the edge of war.
According to Niall Ferguson from the Hoover Institution, “The world has an inherent need for leadership. If the U.S. genuinely can no longer provide it, someone else will.” It appears that 80 years after Munich, history seems to be repeating itself when the world is experiencing a real and dangerous provocation from robust authoritarian systems. In particular, Russia’s Vladimir Putin is amassing the frontier with Ukraine, the largest army in Europe since the end of the cold war. According to The Economist, a war there could have global consequences, like human suffering, economic shock, and geopolitical realignment. To confront this menace, the democratic alliance has a divided EU, and a weakened NATO, to which Germany has denied the supply of weapons for that conflict. Simultaneously, China’s ambassador to the US is warning of a possible military conflict over Taiwan. Today’s authoritarian leaders are testing western leadership, which has been found wanting.
The actors are different, but 80 years later, the principle remains the same: authoritarian government systems are defacto, presenting a credible menace of taking over weaker democratic governments by military means under the same pretexts that Hitler used in 1938.
Will our present-day leaders overcome the challenge of tackling the edge of war?
One thing is sure: the world’s future depends on how these events unfold. Maybe Munich, the movie, is telling us something about it.
Are we listening?
This article is dedicated to the Legats and Von Hartmanns of our time, with whom I converse daily. Those conversations give me hope, real hope, that humanity is going to endure and outlive the Johnsons and Putins of this era.
Because there is a clear path to a Golden Age for humanity, and Sustainable Peace paves that path. Peace is neither a grace given to us nor a gift that we receive from our current leadership. It is something we, everyday citizens of the world, need to nurture, shape, and protect. It is our job to do that.
If you want to look at sustainable peace, please read “The Shaping of a Post-COVID Golden Age.”
My job and my passion are Leadership and Cultural Transformation. The leaders I coach and mentor inspire people, not the kind that commands and controls them. I help organizations transform their leadership and culture to make them more innovative, adaptive to disruptions, and agile to pursue new possibilities. If you want a generative conversation about these issues, please write me at firstname.lastname@example.org.