By Geoffrey Wheatcroft
Sunday, September 28, 2008
Seventy years ago this month, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain flew to Germany to meet Adolf Hitler once, twice and then a third time. On Sept. 30, 1938, they agreed that the German-speaking "Sudetenland" of Czechoslovakia should be ceded to Germany. Ever since, the name of this Munich agreement has been used as the ultimate political curse.
In truth, the story of the agreement is far from what is usually supposed. Over and again, "Munich" has been wilfully misunderstood and misinterpreted, with repeatedly disastrous consequences.
The Georgian crisis has just brought more cries of "appeasement" and "Munich." One writer in the Times of London described French President Nicolas Sarkozy as coming back from Moscow "waving a piece of paper and acclaiming peace in our time," the ill-fated words Chamberlain used on his return to London. Washington Post columnist Robert Kagan compared the Russian attack on Georgia to the 1938 "Sudeten Crisis that led to Nazi Germany's invasion of Czechoslovakia." These are only the latest in a long line of mischievous claims that any compromise is "another Munich" -- and they run alongside a line of sorry military adventures for more than 50 years conditioned by the fear of emulating Chamberlain.
When Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser seized the Suez Canal in 1956, one London politician after another recalled the 1930s. "It is exactly the same that we encountered from Mussolini and Hitler in those years before the war," said Labor Party leader Hugh Gaitskell. Prime Minister Anthony Eden, who had resigned as foreign secretary in 1938 to protest appeasement even before Munich, was driven by the dread of being seen as another Chamberlain. Eden mounted a foolish military expedition that turned into a national humiliation and ended his career.
Although the Suez plot was thwarted by President Dwight D. Eisenhower (who asked Eden, "Anthony, have you gone out of your mind?"), not all Americans agreed with Ike. The Senate majority leader told him he should let the British know that "they have our moral support to go in." Ten years later, that senator -- Lyndon B. Johnson, by now the president -- learned the hard way that going in could be easier than getting out, and became another victim of the "Munich complex."
One of his top military advisers was Gen. Curtis LeMay, who had angrily told President John F. Kennedy to his face that refusing to take military action against Cuba during the October 1962 missile crisis was "almost as bad as the appeasement at Munich." Still spooked by the shadow of Munich, LBJ would escalate the Indochina war to show that he "wasn't any Chamberlain umbrella man."
Nor did President Bill Clinton want to be another Chamberlain. He bombed Serbia in 1999 and mused, "What if someone had listened to Winston Churchill and stood up to Adolf Hitler earlier?"
And of course, the present administration has endlessly exploited the rhetoric of Munich. Former defense secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld compared opponents of the Iraq war with the earlier appeasers, and last May, President Bush derided the idea of negotiating with terrorists: "We have heard this foolish delusion before. As Nazi tanks crossed into Poland in 1939, an American senator declared: 'Lord, if I could only have talked to Hitler, all this might have been avoided.' " So Saddam Hussein was another Hitler, Bush is another Churchill (at any rate, he keeps a bust of Churchill in the White House), and there must be no more Munichs. We see the outcome today.
Quite apart from their unhappy consequences, all these invocations of Munich begin by rewriting history. Chamberlain was a democratic leader who knew that most of his people understandably did not want to go to war in 1938, only 20 years after another terrible war in which about three-quarters of a million British men had been killed.
Besides which, Chamberlain was far from alone in thinking that he was addressing a real grievance. The one accurate thing about Kagan's quaint comparison is that the residents of the breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia no more want to be ruled by Georgia today than the Sudeten Germans wanted to be ruled by the Czechs 70 years ago.
While it's lamentably true that German resentment at "the slave treaty of Versailles" following World War I helped bring Hitler to power, there is another inconvenient truth: Between the wars, British and American liberals almost universally believed that the post-1918 settlement had been unjust. H.N. Brailsford, the leading leftist English commentator on foreign affairs, had written in 1920 that, of all the Versailles treaty's redrawing of borders, "the worst offence was the subjection of over three million Germans to Czech rule." Experience seemed to show that nationalism was the great force of the age and that it needed to be assuaged -- or appeased, a word first used, it should be remembered, by those who advocated doing so.
To be sure, Churchill denounced the Munich agreement in a resonant speech: "This is only the first sip, the first bitter foretaste of a bitter cup which will be proffered to us year by year unless by a supreme recovery of moral health and martial vigour, we arise again and take our stand for freedom as in olden time." But he was speaking as someone untroubled by any sympathy for national self-determination.
As the blogger Andrew Sullivan has said, every Republican nowadays wants to be Churchill. But they should look at his record more closely. A few years earlier, Churchill had broken with the Conservatives (and all enlightened opinion) over his opposition to any form of self-government for India: He had no time for Indians (or later Egyptians) taking their own "stand for freedom." Churchill was a realpolitiker who believed in imperialism and spheres of influence -- the very things that Bush and the neoconservatives now profess to abhor.
And Americans most of all should pause before invoking Munich. After 1918, the United States had withdrawn from the world, with Congress slamming the door on immigrants (even desperate Jews fleeing Nazi Europe) and refusing to join the new League of Nations (a fact of which Bush seems unaware whenever he refers scornfully to the League). In 1932, when Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected president, the Democrats were at least as isolationist as the Republicans, and as late as the fall of 1940, FDR was still campaigning for a third term on the unambiguous promise to keep the United States out of any foreign wars. That helps explain why he sent a telegram reading "Good man" to Chamberlain when his British counterpart returned from meeting Hitler, and subsequently told the U.S. ambassador in Rome, "I am not a bit upset over the final result."
No American of any significance advocated military resistance to Hitler in the 1930s, and no such intervention would have been possible anyway. In September 1939, the U.S. Army was smaller than the Belgian army, and as the first grave setbacks in North Africa in 1942-43 would show, it was scarcely ready for serious fighting even after the United States entered the fray.
Some other words of Churchill's are too rarely quoted. They are from one of the finest and most moving, though least known, speeches he ever gave, paying tribute to Chamberlain after his death from cancer in November 1940. It had been Chamberlain's fate "to be disappointed in his hopes, and to be deceived and cheated by a wicked man," Churchill said. "But what were these hopes in which he was disappointed? . . . They were surely among the most noble and benevolent instincts of the human heart -- the love of peace, the toil for peace, the strife for peace, the pursuit of peace, even at great peril, and certainly to the utter disdain of popularity or clamour."
In his bow to Chamberlain's memory, Churchill showed a magnanimity and wisdom that others have lacked. "Long and hard, hazardous years lie before us," he continued, "but at least we entered upon them united and with clean hearts."
Never once did Churchill advocate preemptive war, and he always recognized that democracies should use arms only as a last resort. Maybe the presidential candidates should be asked whether the United States entered the Iraq war "united and with clean hearts." That could be the real "lesson of Munich."
Geoffrey Wheatcroft's books include "The Controversy of Zion," "The Strange Death of Tory England" and, most recently, "Yo, Blair!"