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Can any more be said about “appeasement”, a word so scarred by association with the 1930s that it has lost any general utility? In truth appeasing an enemy may at any time be a perfectly sensible option when faced by the prospective use of overwhelming military force; but the notorious efforts to contain the rise of Hitler and the Nazis through demeaning and counter-productive acts of accommodation has sullied the word and deprived it of any justifiable moral basis.
For Britons born in the long shadow of the Second World War, the appeasing men (and they were all men) of the 1930s are forever guilty, forever condemned; so much so that we may think nothing more can usefully be said about them. But we would be wrong to draw that conclusion.
There were many “guilty” men and they were not only British. Appeasement was a Europe-wide phenomenon and the continent still lives with its consequences. But our palettes are perhaps jaded by a continuing preoccupation with the Nazi period and, to use the modish cliché, many of us want “to move on”. That too would be a mistake. As so often, fiction has come to the rescue and resuscitated the traumas of the 1930s and coloured and framed them in ways to command our attention.
There have of course been a number of relatively recent thrillers which have used the events of 1938 as their focus, notably Robert Harris’s Munich and George-Marc Benamou’s The Ghost of Munich. But Eric Vuillard’s The Order of the Day is quite different and, in its own way, quite devastating. Newly translated from the original French (by Mark Polizzotti) its only characters are the actors of the time and the fictional element is merely interpretative commentary. Of course the usual suspects are on parade in London (and Lord Halifax among others is treated with utter disdain) but the cast in the drama of appeasement is enlarged and includes Germany too.