The lady came down the corridor with a big smile and gave us the key to Hitler’s room. It was an old brass key – I’m sure he had flunkies to open the door for him – but it was the original all right, and when we pushed open that door, there it was, all wooden paneling, wooden floors and there was the marble mantelpiece I had seen so many times in those familiar newsreels.
For this wasn’t just Hitler’s party office – the Fuehrerhaus in Koenigsplatz. This was the room where they signed the Munich agreement in 1938, this was where we – in the shape of Chamberlain and Halifax – and the French (Daladier) and the Italians (Mussolini, of course, and Count Ciano) signed away the Czechs.
The films show Hitler sitting at his own desk in front of the marble fireplace, gobbling up the Sudetenland – he would consume all of Czechoslovakia the following year. My friend is elderly, a Sudeten German among the minority Germans living in Czechoslovakia, who was forced to flee his own home as a child at the end of the war. “And this is where the war started,” he said. “Here they started the Second World War – and signed away my own home.”
He still travels to his home town of what was Carlsbad – today Karlovy Vary – and he pays someone to look after the family graves. No one at the end of the war felt much sympathy for the Sudeten Germans. Hitler had used Sudeten Nazis to demand independence from the Czechs – that was the deal at Munich. And this is still the room forever associated with the word “Appeasement”. It’s actually a rather droll room, dark, heavy paneling, dull, tall windows, a 1930s monster building, the doors and windows far taller than a man or woman. It lacks imagination. I can think of a few other modern-day fuehrers who might feel at home here.
It’s part of a music school and theatre now – after the war, it was for some years an American cultural centre – and there is no mention of the man whose party headquarters this was. I asked a few Muncheners if they knew who used to work here. Yes, they knew. I slipped out to the balcony (where I was not supposed to walk). Yes, he stood here – but the eagle over the balcony in the photographs has long gone. So, mercifully, have the shrines to Nazi “martyrs” that stood beside this building – it was blown up after the war; the wild bushes that still grow on the site speak of guilt and war crimes and a titanic race war.
But the great marble staircase that led to Hitler’s room is still intact, a power staircase, all fake classical steps in keeping with the portentousness of the building. Up here Hitler walked.
It’s not curiosity I feel, but a sense of foreboding. We betrayed the Czechs and ensured that Czech Jews would go to the extermination camps. The fact that the Israeli consulate has been constructed right behind the old Nazi offices is somehow fitting. Even more so because at right angles to it is a modern museum where you can watch, over and over again, the original newsreels of the Munich agreement.
There is Chamberlain arriving at Munich airport, inspecting a Nazi guard of honour, and there’s an odd moment at the end of this footage when he slightly lifts his hat in salute to the German soldiers around him. He was happy. He would declare peace in our time. And then I see him walking up the staircase I’ve just climbed myself and there is Daladier and Halifax and Mussolini. Giant flags – British and French – hung down the front of the Fuehrerhaus.
And there’s another clip of film which shows Goering with a broad smile on his face, standing next to Hitler, rubbing his hands together in sheer delight that Chamberlain and Daladier would not call Hitler’s bluff. Hitler would reportedly call them “worms” – after they’d left, of course.
It’s all here in this modest museum, shockingly so. There are photographs of a Munich regiment participating in the execution of hostages. There is a terrible picture of five young women executed by a Munich firing squad in Slovenia after Yugoslavia had been occupied. They lie on the ground like puppets, as if tossed away. The firing squad has turned their backs on the bodies, disowning their own act of murder. And there, of course, are the familiar pictures of the destruction of Europe’s Jews.
It’s worth remembering this museum – and that room – now that the right has returned to Germany’s political life. Interviewed on television after their victory, one of the AfD leaders referred to immigrants – he meant Muslims, of course – as “strange people with strange values from strange countries”. And I remembered that old Chamberlain quotation again, speaking of Czechoslovakia as “a faraway country of which we know nothing”. I don’t suppose Chamberlain hated the Czechs, but he certainly felt contempt for them. They were not invited to the Munich conference. And there’s a narrow divide between hatred and contempt (although right now Trump might be able to say that everywhere apart from the United States is a faraway country of which he knows nothing).
The agreement was signed in the early hours of the morning on 30 September 1938. A J P Taylor described Hitler as an “opportunist” at Munich. Ian Kershaw says that Hitler felt cheated – he wanted war. Within months, Hitler had broken the Agreement and occupied the whole country, and we did nothing about it. There had been some light-hearted banter at Munich. The Czech delegation waiting outside to know their fate noticed that Chamberlain kept yawning. An incipient opposition to Hitler within the Wehrmacht was cut short – at least temporarily – because the Western democracies would give Hitler what he wanted without war. Churchill got it right when he urged the democracies to bring Stalin in on their side. But Chamberlain had little interest in allying himself with the Soviets. Anyway, they were not invited to Munich. And Stalin would make his deal with Hitler before the German invasion of Poland that started the real war. But in 1945, the Soviet army would reach Berlin before the British and French.
I guess that Chamberlain will always have to be regarded as an ignominious man. Arrogance is what you see in the film of him, self-importance, a man who must have felt at home walking up that marble staircase. My German friend Horst says he cannot understand why the democracies let Hitler get away with it. And I’ve noticed how “appeasement” is still trotted out and thrown at anyone who opposes war – war in Afghanistan, war in Iraq, war in Libya. Hitler’s former party headquarters is not haunted by ghosts, as the old cliché goes about such places. Chamberlain’s legacy in that room remains with us still, a tool for proving that war is necessary.