MILITARY MAN, Lawyer, historian and teacher, Telford Taylor has used his multiple skills to superb advantage in this enormous book. It is not only, as the jacket claims, "the definitive account of the fateful conference of 1938" in which Britain's and France's leaders sacrificed Czechoslovakia on what they thought was the altar of peace. It is a definitive account of all the diplomatic and military factors that led to Munich, especially after Hilter's seizure of power. Taylor is far from the first to tell this sinister story. And yet his book is both a masterful synthesis and an original contribution.

He is incisive and thorough, whether he deals with Hitler's moves or with Chamberlain's follies, with French inconsistencies or with Mussolini's pretensions, with Soviet ambiguities or with Czechoslovakia's plight, with Polish blindness or with American amateurishness. He is at his best in analyzing rearmanment plans, strategic designs and military maneuvers. The mass of details is never overwhelming, because he never losses his thread. One keeps reading, both because of the charm of Taylor's straightforward, witty and gritty prose, and beacuse the dynamics of what is black comedy even more than tragedy -- Brecht rather than Sophocles -- have never been better laid out.

Taylor shows that Hitler was neither a long-range planning genius, nor the ordinary opportunistic politician described by the British historian, A.J.P. Taylor. It wasn't until 1937 that he set the course for war -- but he didn't want it in the West, and before 1943, he didn't plan to destroy his designated targets, Austria and Czechoslovakia. Unexpected events and opportunities made him hasten the pace, and he was devilishly quick and sharp at exploiting them for his ends. In the summer of 1938, he decided to use force against the Czechs, out of conviction that Britain and France wouldn't move.

Nothing is more ironic than the tale, told by Taylor, of the opposition of many top German military leaders to Hitler's plan. They believed that Britain and France couldn't fail to aid Prague, and that Germany's army wasn't yet strong enough to fight on two fronts. At that very same moment, the French and British military leaders provided their governments with dismal analyses of their own countries weaknesses and of Germany's strength.

At the end of September 1938, Hitler, having pushed Chamberlain to the limit and finally provoked the British, French and Czech cabinets to balk, realized that he might have badly miscalculated and be obliged to fight against them all. But the hasty meeting at Munich -- largely cooked up between him and Mussolini, and desired by Chamberlain -- allowed Hitler to gain at the conference table everything which his ultimatum of the previous week had demanded but had seemed incapable of getting for him without the large war he didn't want. Since Chamberlain wanted it even less, Hitler was triumphantly rescued from his own mistake. A year later, he was much more willing to face the risk of war with France and Britain, if that was the condition for destroying Poland. After his Munich triumph, the German military's opposition to him melted away, and, contrary to what the champions of Munich sometimes argue, the gap between Hitler's might and that of his opponents widened (except for the strengthening of Britain's air defenses). As Churchill put it to Chamberlain, "You were given the choice between war and dishonour' You chose dishonour and you will have war."

Chamberlain is the central character of Taylor's book. France's rather abject subordination to Britain (to which De Gaulle was soon going to put an end) left all important decisions about how to handle Hitler to a man whose self-assurance, obstinacy, vanity and arrogance were almost limitless. Chamberlain thought he could trust Hitler because Hitler respected him. It wasn't until after the final destruction of Czechoslovakia in March 1939 that he realized his mistake. Even then, he refused to contemplate an alliance with Stalin -- so that by the time England was at last willing to force Hitler to fight on two fronts, the two dictators had come to terms with one another. Chamberlain was not a meek fumbler, but a stern, self-righteous somnambulist.

There are two recurrent themes in Britain's and France's folly: the overestimation of Italy's power and importance (Chamberlain was still trying to court Mussolini in January, 1939) and, above all, the overestimation of the Luftwaffe. Although, in 1936 to 1938, Hitler's air force was only a tactical weapon. British and French leaders believed it could deliver a "knock-out blow" against London or Paris (and they did not question Lindbergh's scary reports, which amplified Nazi boasts). When one looks at the behavior of the French and the British in the '30s, one comes across an almost inexhaustible capacity to rationalize a refusal to risk war, so deep as to be literally beyond reason. (Taylor shows one more time how rational and decisive resistance to Hitler's reoccupation of the Rhineland in 1936 would have been, and how irrational and fatal was the contradition between France's alliances and France's strategy). Did they refuse to risk war because they failed to recognize such "unpleasant realities" as Hitler's and Nazism's true nature, or didn't they refuse rather to recognize these realities because, if they had acknowledged them, they would have had to behave in ways which they rejected from the depth of their souls?

The lesson of Munich, Taylor tells us, is the danger of not facing up to unpleasant realities. True enough, but this raises two questions. One is that of statesmen's abilities to analyze realities accurately. The mistakes of the '30s were so glaring that after 1945, rather than risking being caught in appeasement again, many Western Leaders (not only Eden facing Nasser at Suez) substituted automactic toughness for reflective analysis, in cases which only superficially resembled Hitler's aggressions. Whereas the real lesson ought to have been, "identify the problem correctly," it became instead, "in any crisis, do the opposite from what was done at Munich." Historical memories distort analysis, and breed or feed the fears and delusions of statesmen. Secondly, what are the deeper unconscious as well as collective roots of a protracted refusal to face reality? Why were Britain, France and, to a large extent, the United States, so profoundly possessed by the spirit of appeasement and pacifism, that a Hitler and even a Mussolini could destroy any possibility of international order and impose their doctrines on Europe in a few years? Now that Taylor has told us, conclusively, how it happened, it is time that historians, sociologists and psychologists join to tell us why it happened. Only after we explore the causes in depth, will we be able to exorcise the Munich analogy at last.