How Accurate is Munich: The Edge of War? History vs. Hollywood

Historical Accuracy (Q&A):

Is Munich: The Edge of War based on a true story?

Not exactly. While true events and real-life characters are woven into the movie, the story is based on Robert Harris' 2017 historical fiction novel Munich. The book is set around tense real-life events that unfolded in the autumn of 1938 when Europe was on the brink of war as the result of Germany's Third Reich seeking to expand its territory under the leadership of dictator Adolf Hitler. As with the book, the film takes several forgivable (and one not so forgivable) liberties with history, most noticeably in terms of its main characters, Hugh Legat (George MacKay), Paul von Hartmann (Jannis Niewöhner), and Neville Chamberlain (Jeremy Irons).

Munich: The Edge of War is based on Robert Harris' historical fiction book.

Are Hugh Legat and Paul von Hartmann based on real people?

The most arguably forgivable fictional elements in Munich: The Edge of War come by way of the film's two main characters, Hugh Legat and Paul von Hartmann, portrayed by George MacKay and Jannis Niewöhner, respectively. After attending Oxford together, both characters go on to work for their respective governments in low-level positions. Hugh Legat is a British civil servant and Paul von Hartmann is an anti-Nazi German diplomat.

Legat is given orders by SIS/MI6 to travel to Munich and connect with his old friend von Hartmann in order to obtain documents that reveal Hitler's plans to dominate Europe by way of military force in an effort to expand Germany's territory. The hope is that the documents will convince British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain that appeasing Hitler and giving him the Czech Sudetenland, which was inhabited primarily by Sudeten Germans, will not stop him from continuing toward war. They reason that if Chamberlain sees the truth and refuses to acquiesce to Hitler's demands, Hitler will take the Sudetenland by force and potentially trigger a rebellion by Germans not ready for war, which will lead to Hitler's arrest and/or assassination.

As Legat and von Hartmann attempt to stop the Munich Agreement, the two men draw suspicion and are tailed by fictional SS henchman Franz Sauer (August Diehl), who they repeatedly have to evade. Their story begs the question, is Hugh Legat a real person? Is Paul Von Hartmann?

Hugh Legat (George MacKay) and Paul von Hartmann (Jannis Niewöhner) are fictional characters.

While there appears to be no real-world inspiration for George MacKay's character, Hugh Legat, Jannis Niewöhner's character, Paul von Hartmann, was loosely inspired by real-life anti-Nazi diplomat Adam von Trott zu Solz (pictured below), who joined the Nazi Party in order to carry out secret activities against the regime. Like Paul von Hartmann in the movie, Adam von Trott zu Solz had attended Oxford. He also met Neville Chamberlain, though not at Munich. In real life, they met at Chamberlain's country house in Buckinghamshire in June 1939, well after Hitler reneged on the Munich Agreement. Adam von Trott zu Solz was eventually arrested for his role in Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg's plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler on July 20, 1944, which was known as Operation Valkyrie. He was found guilty and hanged on August 26, 1944.

Jannis Niewöhner's character, Paul von Hartmann (right), was loosely inspired by Adam von Trott zu Solz (left), a diplomat who was secretly a member of the resistance in Germany.

Were there really secret documents in which Hitler revealed his war plans?

Yes. The Munich: The Edge of War true story reveals that the Nazi documents that Hugh Legat (George MacKay) and Paul von Hartmann (Jannis Niewöhner) attempt to smuggle into the hands of Neville Chamberlain (Jeremy Irons) in the movie are based on an actual set of documents known as the Hossbach Memorandum. The real-life documents contained a summary of what Hitler had outlined during a November 5, 1937 secret meeting in Berlin, specifically his radical expansionist foreign policy. Hitler believed that the goal of Germany should be autarky and that having to rely on other countries for resources made Germany weak, especially given that those resources could be cut off in times of war. As Germany's own supplies of raw materials and food were insufficient in certain areas to sustain the population, Hitler believed that taking over neighboring countries was the only solution to becoming self-sufficient.

The real Adolf Hitler and actor Ulrich Matthes as Hitler in the Munich: The Edge of War movie.

The Hossbach Memorandum marked the start of Hitler revealing his intentions to expand Germany's border by force, including seizing Austria and Czechoslovakia. He also stated that Britain and France, two "hate-inspired antagonists," were constantly preventing German foreign policy from succeeding. Within the next five years, he reasoned that Germany would be left with no choice but to conquer Eastern Europe in order to ready itself for a likely war with Britain and France. The memorandum was created by Colonel Friedrich Hossbach, Hitler's military adjutant who took the minutes of the meeting. Hitler stated that if he died, the contents of the memorandum were to be regarded as his "political testament."

While the Hossbach Memorandum was eventually obtained by the Allies and used at the Nuremberg Trials following WWII, we found no evidence of there being an attempt to smuggle it into the hands of Neville Chamberlain in 1938 to stop the Munich Agreement.

Is the 1938 Munich Conference depicted accurately?

For the most part, yes, minus the actions of the fictional characters Hugh Legat and Paul von Hartmann. A Munich: The Edge of War fact-check confirms that in an attempt to avoid war by any means necessary, the Allies (Britain and France) at the September 1938 conference capitulated to Hitler's demands that Germany be allowed to take a part of Czechoslovakia known as the Sudetenland, a mountainous borderland that had been a vital obstacle in preventing a potential German invasion. A significant downside of the movie is its failure to include the Czechs themselves, who in real life had envoys in Munich but were banned from a seat at the table at the very conference that was deciding the fate of their country. -History Extra

Neville Chamberlain (top left), Adolf Hitler (top middle-right), and Benito Mussolini (top right) meet at the two-day Munich Conference in September 1938 to sign the Munich Agreement.

Was there a plot in 1938 to oust Adolf Hitler?

Yes. The Munich: The Edge of War true story confirms that the conspiracy by anti-Nazi officers and officials in 1938 to violently remove Hitler from power is historically accurate. It's also true that they might have succeeded if the Allies (Great Britain and France) had been tough on Hitler at Munich and didn't agree to him taking part of Czechoslovakia. As briefly touched upon in the movie, the indecision on the part of the resistance over whether to assassinate Hitler or arrest him also held up their efforts.

Is British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain portrayed accurately in Munich: The Edge of War?

No. In answering the question, "Is Munich: The Edge of War a true story?" it becomes quickly evident that the movie offers an interpretation of Neville Chamberlain that is clearly a revisionist version of the British prime minister. The film attempts to soften Chamberlain's pungent reputation by making him out to be a hero, reasoning that his naive attempt at peace with Germany was actually a noble effort to save millions from the fallout of war. The movie also implies that even though Chamberlain failed, his efforts bought Britain time to adequately prepare for WWII.

Munich: The Edge of War attempts to offer a revisionist version of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, portrayed by Jeremy Irons in the movie.

Jeremy Irons' kind, sensitive, and cunning Chamberlain is a contradiction to who the leader actually was—a gullible, arrogant, vain, vindictive man with the foolish notion that he could outsmart Hitler. Chamberlain returned from the Munich Conference on September 30, 1938, stepped off the plane, and waived a piece of paper in the air to declare that he had achieved a diplomatic victory with the Führer that made certain there would be no war in Britain's future. "I have returned from Germany with peace for our time," he said in what would become one of the most untrue public statements in history. In reality, he had appeased Hitler by agreeing that Germany be able to take part of Czechoslovakia, which Hitler was planning to do regardless. Instead of putting a stop to Hitler's plans to expand Germany, Chamberlain gave him the green light to begin at the expense of the Czechs.

After returning from the Munich Conference, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain holds up a piece of paper proclaiming victory, indicating he possessed the signed Munich Agreement (peace agreement with Hitler).

While others like Winston Churchill were able to see Hitler for who he was and understood that he could not be trusted, Chamberlain thoroughly believed that he had convinced Hitler to embrace peace. Yet, it was only six months later that Hitler broke his word and the agreement. In a fictional moment on the plane back from Munich, the movie has Chamberlain predicting that if the Führer were to ever break his promise, the fury of the world would rain down on him, including America's entrance into the resulting war. The problem is that in real life, Chamberlain did not foresee this, nor was it why America entered WWII. Yet, the movie wants us to believe that Chamberlain's appeasement was heroic and that no matter the outcome, he had things figured out, which was hardly the case.

The movie also asserts that despite Neville Chamberlain's failure, his capitulation to Hitler bought Britain much-needed time to build up its defenses. In reality, it amounted to a year in which they continued to build up the RAF's fleet of fighter planes, the continuation of a rearmament program that had ironically been approved by Chamberlain when he had been Chancellor (History Extra). At the same time, allowing Hitler to take the Sudetenland strengthened Germany and all but surrendered Czechoslovakia (Hitler would invade on March 15, 1939).

by Robert Harris