Film review: "Glorious 39"

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There will always be a collection of forces opposed to facing up to fascism. For all the talk of national unity pre-1939, the Second World War era was no different from today, post-2001, with Stop the War coalition, for instance.

But did the intelligence services really plot to keep Britain out of World War Two? Stephen Poliakoff believes so. So much, in fact, the acclaimed director dramatises how the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS or MI6) did their utmost to stop Winston Churchill becoming Britain’s wartime leader in his latest outing.

There’s much to admire in Glorious 39. Poliakoff challenges the simplistic version of Britain’s entry into war just twenty years after the horrors of the Great War. Indeed, he should be applauded for accusing the aristocracy of near-treason in their attempt to forestall the end of what was for them a golden age. The main protagonist, Romola Garai, likewise, deserves praise for her utterly magnetic role as a child of the British elite who uncovers the dastardly conspiracy to destabilise the Churchillians. Make no mistake about it; this is the film of 2009.

While he’s right to highlight that the intelligence services sponsored a magazine called “Truth” which regularly criticised the anti-appeasers off screen, however, on screen his sinister Nazi appeasement plot involving the aristocracy and SIS is a gross falsification of history.

This would be forgivable only Poliakoff says that this element is “true”. The murderous conspiracy at the heart of the film was an invention, he confirms, but the historical context was not. Granted, Neville Chamberlain did all he could to avert war with Germany upon becoming Prime Minster in 1937. He acceded to Hitler’s demands at Munich a year later and returned a national hero, promising “peace for our time”. But did Chamberlain’s Government really use the SIS to suppress all opposition to its policy of appeasement?

The record says no (and I emphasise record). The fortunes of the SIS in the interwar years were recently described in unprecedented detail by Gill Bennett, yet Churchill’s Man of Mystery: Desmond Morton and the World of Intelligence uncovers no plot.

Subversive activities of the Comintern had the effect of taking the SIS eye partially off the Nazi ball, admittedly, but it took steps to try to ameliorate the situation which enabled SIS to cope with increasing demands placed upon it, the former chief historian at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office writes. More significantly, rather than supporting the policy of appeasement, SIS intelligence – unfounded pertaining to an imminent German attack on Holland – passed to allies in 1939 revived “an atmosphere of mutual distrust and recrimination between Britain and Germany just at a time when the Prime Minister was trying to carry out his policy of appeasement,” much to the fury of the Foreign Office.

Professor Keith Jeffrey’s forthcoming official history of MI6 is unlikely to conclude any differently.

Let’s just say, however, Poliakoff got his intelligence services mixed up and that he intended to say the Security, not Secret, Service. What does the record reveal about MI5?

Akin to Bennett’s book, Christopher Andrew’s The Defence of the Realm is an unprecedented publishing event: it’s the first authorised history of MI5. And like her 2006 biography, his 2009 tome reveals the exact opposite to Poliakoff’s plot. Indeed of all the 400,000 files the Cambridge University don was given access to, it was the discovery that Vernon Kell (founder of MI5) tried to dissuade Chamberlain from appeasing Hitler with a 1938 assessment peppered with tales of der Führer mocking him as an Arschloch (“arsehole”) which made a real impression on him.

“MI5 warnings to the government that Hitler was serious, that ‘Mein Kampf’ should be taken seriously, had no effect,” the history professor writes.

“So it fell back to the thing that any prime minister is always going to pay attention to, that he’s been insulted by his opponent,” Andrew added. “It was the only way of getting through to him.”

But to a radical playwright prone to reciting his father and grandfather’s experience at the hands of MI5 and MI6 over Churchill’s hearing aid, this evidence will undoubtedly fall on deaf ears.

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