Commentary Magazine


Munich at Fifty

It is now fifty years since Adolf Hitler, Neville Chamberlain, Edouard Daladier, and Benito Mussolini met at Munich in September 1938 to strip Czechoslovakia of its territory and its defenses. The rationales for British and French policy ran the gamut from strategic raison d’état, to a basic rejection of the use of force in the international arena, to abject fear. The results were catastrophic. The British and the French came close to losing everything to a Nazi tyranny that would, in Winston Churchill’s memorable phrase, have brought “a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.” But as is often the case, historians have obscured such moments when the world has turned in new and darker directions. Perhaps it is unavoidable; we all turn our faces from darkness.

To the people who taught me history in the 1960’s Munich represented one of those hinges on which history had turned; Munich, of course, had determined their lives over the seven years that followed, and considerably for the worse. Current historiography, however, suggests that Munich was only a symptom of larger trends in the world, presaging the collapse of British and French empires and the rise of American and Soviet hegemony (at least for a short period). Munich, so the argument runs, came out of a desperate effort by the British to prevent a world war that, whether won or lost, would mean the end of empire. If so, the British failed to grasp that there is a difference between winning a war and losing one’s empire and losing a war and losing one’s national existence. The alternatives in 1938 were that stark. Nevertheless, whatever revisionists may write, Munich today still best symbolizes the blighted fruit of a decade of appeasement and surrender.

What most surprises me, as a military and diplomatic historian, about the wreckage of those years is the speed with which the Germans in the 1920’s convinced themselves and the Anglo-American world that poor little Germany, pummeled by its neighbors and everyone else, had made peace in November 1918 on the basis of Wilson’s Fourteen Points and then, tricked by sanctimonious Americans and vicious Frenchmen, awoke to find itself accused by the Treaty of Versailles of having started the war. In fact, given what we now know of their behavior before the war and their actions during it—not to mention their plans for the postwar world—the Germans got off lightly indeed in 1919.

But that was not how the Germans saw it, and they persuaded a remarkably gullible Anglo-American public and academic world that “war guilt” might be strewn generously among any number of actors: wicked merchants of death, misguided statesmen overwhelmed by events, idiotic general staffs, corrupt big businessmen. All became fashionable culprits for the war’s origin, and together they gave powerful reinforcement to the tenets of modern pacifism: that anything was preferable to war, and that in any case military force and strategic issues no longer counted in international affairs. To British appeasers, whose hearts and minds were laden with the suffering and losses of World War I, it was clear that reasonable men must conclude that there had been no winners in the Great War, only losers.

The Germans, unfortunately, were neither so “reasonable” nor so averse to war. Even before Hitler came to power, they were busily engaged in kicking over the traces; after January 30, 1933 things went to hell in a hand-basket. Rearmament began in February 1933, full-scale conscription and creation of an air force followed in 1935, remilitarization of the Rhineland the year after that. But after all, said European liberals, were not the Germans only playing in their own back yard?

Then in March 1938 came the Anschluss, the union with Austria. In Vienna’s streets tens of thousands of Waldheims cheered themselves hoarse at being absorbed into the German state. The response of the Western powers was silence. At a Cabinet meeting held as German tanks rolled across the Austro-German frontier, Prime Minister Chamberlain admitted that such unsavory activity shocked and distressed the world as “a typical illustration” of the kind of “power politics” that unfortunately made international appeasement somewhat more difficult. Alexander Cadogan, Permanent Secretary in the Foreign Office, noted in early April: “Thank goodness Austria’s out of the way. . . . I can’t work up much moral indignation until Hitler interferes with other nationalities.”

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Czechoslovakia was next on Hitler’s agenda. By June 1938 he had determined to smash this child of Versailles in the coming fall, ostensibly because of Czech mistreatment of the German minorities inhabiting the Sudeten border regions in which, not irrelevantly, reposed the Czech military defenses. One of the ironies of the 1938 crisis lay in the fact that in terms of minority rights, one nationality being mistreated by another—the very cause so fervently supported by today’s consensus—justice lay solidly with the Germans. With the collapse of Austria-Hungary in 1918, the German-populated districts of Bohemia had petitioned the peace conference at Versailles to join the new Republican Reich. Though the affected districts were overwhelmingly in favor of union with Germany, such an aggrandizement of German political and economic power was simply unacceptable to sensible Frenchmen and Britons in 1919. It would add territory to defeated Germany and give the Germans a hammer lock on Czechoslovakia and its economic power.

By the 1930’s, however, the British, like the Bourbons, had “forgotten everything and learned nothing.” It had now become fashionable to argue that Britain must right the wrongs done to Germany and “appease” the German state. The British ambassador to Berlin, Neville Henderson, typified such attitudes. In his endless dispatches to London he argued that most Germans, including Hitler, were reasonable people who wished only to join the European community on terms of equality. In April 1938 Henderson wrote his boss, the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax:

What is defeatism? Is it to say that war sooner or later between Great Britain and Germany is inevitable? Or is it to say that peace can only be preserved if Germany is allowed to become one of the satisfied angels? I believe the latter; she may never be satisfied but that is a risk we have got to face. I do not mean, when one talks of satisfying Germany, giving her a free hand, but I do mean basing one’s policy toward her on moral grounds and not allowing oneself to be influenced by considerations about the balance of power or even the Versailles treaty. We cannot win the battle for the rule of right versus might unless and until our moral position is unassailable. I feel this strongly about the Sudeten question. [Emphasis added]

Barely three weeks later His Majesty’s Ambassador to Berlin commented again to Halifax:

Yet even when I try to imagine that that which I feel in my heart to be inevitable and evolutional is neither, and when I think in terms of British interests only, regardless of right or wrong, I still feel that however repugnant, dangerous, and troublesome the result may be . . . the truest British interest is to come down on the side of the highest moral principle. And the only lastingly right moral principle is self-determination. The British Empire is built upon it [sic] and we cannot deny it without incalculable prejudice to something which is of infinitely greater importance to the world than apprehensions of the German menace. [Emphasis added]

Finally, for our purposes (the list of wonderfully perverse Henderson quotations could be extended indefinitely), in the summer of 1938 the ambassador in Berlin told Halifax:

Personally I just sit and pray for one thing, namely, that Lord Runciman [who had been sent to conciliate the Czechs and Sudeten Germans] will live up to the role of impartial British liberal statesman. I cannot believe that he will allow himself to be influenced by ancient history or even arguments about strategic frontier and economy in preference to high moral principles. The great and courageous game which you and the Prime Minister are playing will be lost in my humble opinion if he [Runciman] does not come on this side of the higher principles [i.e., give the game away to the Germans] for which in fact the British Empire really stands. [Emphasis added]

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The question remains: did such attitudes reflect the general consensus within the Chamberlain government? Alas, to a large extent they did. Shortly after becoming Prime Minister, Chamberlain commented to Ivan Maisky, Soviet ambassador to London: “If only we could sit down at a table with the Germans and run through all their complaints and claims with a pencil, this would greatly relieve all tension.” Lord Halifax, the Foreign Secretary, wondered aloud in a Cabinet meeting in summer 1938 whether it would be

worthwhile to draft an appeal to the contending sides in Spain to stop the wars. Such an appeal would, of course, be based on grounds of humanity, Christianity, the peace of the world, and so forth. He feared that it would not be likely to succeed, but it would strengthen the moral position of His Majesty’s government and might put them in a position to take helpful action later on.

But the true indicator of the Prime Minister’s attitudes came in his actions. Assuming the leadership of Britain’s defense and foreign policies in May 1937, Chamberlain reined in British rearmament (which was only then getting under way). His argument was that too much emphasis on armaments would ruin the economy and drive Britain into bankruptcy. Instead, Britain must husband its resources for humanitarian expenditures.

Whatever the merits of the case for the impact of military spending on the civilian economy and welfare appropriations, there is a worse fate than national economic difficulties. It is called national defeat, something that had not been experienced in the Anglo-Saxon world since 1066 (if one excepts the American South in 1865—a precedent that, unfortunately, has had little impact on our historiography save in terms of romantic nonsense).

For Chamberlain, then, the foreign-policy agenda was simple: limit military spending (in Britain and, if possible, elsewhere), employ appeasement as a device to reduce international tension, and get on with the serious business of social reform in the British Isles.

Reinforcing Chamberlain’s desire to appease Germany was not only a best-case analysis of Nazi foreign policy but a set of worst-case military appreciations done by the British Chiefs of Staff. Thus the British government’s military advisers underlined the weaknesses of the Anglo-French strategic situation. Yet there was no crash effort at major rearmament. Rather, the British government aimed at a settlement with the Germans.

The problem was that Hitler did not want a settlement; he wanted a limited war with Czechoslovakia, a war in which he could pay back the Czechs for their impudence in ruling Germans since 1919 and their impertinent political attacks on the German ruling race in Hapsburg days. In June 1938 the German military began, in resolute, efficient, and competent fashion, the planning necessary for it to attack the Czechs in late September.

As those German preparations became steadily more obvious, Halifax speculated that Hitler’s behavior stemmed from one of two explanations. Either the Fuehrer was mad and actively seeking war, or else, as Henderson had so tirelessly depicted him, he was a moderate surrounded by extremists whose military preparations, at least in Hitler’s own eyes, were essentially defensive in nature.

Chamberlain, convinced that the latter explanation was the correct one, tried everything—from informal contacts, to his ambassador, to an “impartial mediator” (Lord Runciman)—only to meet with impassive silence from Berlin. But once embarked on appeasement he was not to be deflected from his course. By September, therefore, as German military preparations ominously rolled toward their conclusion, he decided to fly to Germany for a meeting with Hitler.

Before leaving Britain, he announced to the Cabinet that should Hitler demand a plebiscite in German-populated areas of Czechoslovakia, the West would have to accede. For, he said, “It would be difficult for the democratic countries to go to war to prevent the Sudeten Germans from saying what form of government they wanted.” In conclusion he announced to his assembled ministers that the Czechs might be rather unwilling to give up their strategic frontiers; consequently, Britain would have to join in guaranteeing the integrity of a new, pared-down Czech state. Britain would, in short, guarantee the security of what its diplomacy was rendering indefensible.

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Chamberlain’s visit to Berchtesgaden lived up to expectations. The Fuehrer wrung his hands and wept at the injustices of history and the unfairness of leaving Sudeten Germans under the ruthless heel of Czech oppression. He presented a picture of angry, rock-throwing Sudeten German youths seeking their rightful “national” and racial identity; and, of course, he delighted in recounting the various atrocities the Czech police and army had perpetrated on the innocent German minority.

After all this, Chamberlain returned to London, more than ever convinced that Czechoslovakia must surrender the Sudetenland to avoid a European war; he now had to persuade the Cabinet, and the French and the Czechs as well. That was no easy task, since the Cabinet doubted German trustworthiness, the French put up a good show of opposition, and the Czechs despaired at what signaled the end of national independence. But when the diplomatic dust had settled, the ducks had lined up.

Amazingly, no British diplomats or military advisers over the spring and summer of 1938 bothered to ask the essential strategic questions. What would be the consequences if the Western powers abandoned Czechoslovakia to the Third Reich with all its military equipment, one of the great armament factories of Europe (the Skoda Works, which in May 1945 would still be grinding out military equipment for the Wehrmacht), and its great financial and economic reserves (enough to keep the German war economy afloat over the summer and fall of 1939)? Would the strategic situation improve if the German army had another year to train? How would the fall of Czechoslovakia affect the strategic balance in Eastern Europe? These questions simply failed to appear in either the military or political considerations. As the historian Lewis Namier once pointed out about the British diplomatic documents:

In the 1,250 large pages of the British pre-Munich documents, the question of Europe’s political and strategic configuration after Czechoslovakia had been obliterated is nowhere dealt with: amazing mental reticence. . . . On the British side a blind wall is raised against the future by those vocal in the documents. All they know is that war must be averted.

Halifax even admitted on September 8 to his colleagues in the Cabinet that until the preceding day he had not known that the main Czech fortifications lay within the Sudeten German districts. Not until September 16 did Oliver Stanley, president of the Board of Trade (a Cabinet position), ask what the military balance might look like if Germany absorbed Czechoslovakia without a fight. The question provoked some scrambling to determine an answer, but no substantive analysis appeared.

In any event, it was too late in the game for inquiries on these basic strategic issues. Churchill, to be sure, had been providing such analyses, but to those in power he was an obnoxious troglodyte, tiresome in his constant refrain that Britain must prepare for war, and outmoded in his insistence that the balance of power and strategic frontiers still mattered. (In the House of Commons during the preceding spring someone had called out “How much is enough?” during a Churchill speech on air defense. The future Prime Minister replied that the question reminded him of a man who had received a telegram from Brazil informing him of the death of his mother-in-law and requesting instructions. “Embalm, cremate, bury at sea,” the man had wired back, “take no chances.” Whatever the sharpness of Churchill’s wit, the point remains that the British government consciously and deliberately took chances with national defense in the hope that the Germans would behave.)

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Having persuaded the French to run away from their ally and the Czechs to roll over and die, Chamberlain flew a second time to Germany to meet Hitler at Godesberg and serve up the Sudetenland. Hitler, who was after war pure and simple, tried to kill the negotiations. But still Chamberlain would not be deflected. Back from Godesberg he told the Cabinet that

in his view Herr Hitler had certain standards. Herr Hitler had a narrow mind and was violently prejudiced on certain subjects; but he would not deliberately deceive a man whom he respected and with whom he had been in negotiation. . . . When Hitler announced that he meant to do something it was certain that he would do it.

Despite considerable restiveness in the country and even within the Cabinet, the Prime Minister yet again went to Germany (this time to Munich) within the week to finish his work. Before his departure he provided the British public a statement (later to become notorious) of his fundamental beliefs in the foreign-policy arena:

How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas masks here, because of a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing! It seems still more impossible that a quarrel which has already been settled in principle should be the subject of a war. . . . However much we may sympathize with a small nation confronted by a big and powerful neighbor we cannot in all circumstances undertake to involve the whole British Empire in war simply on her account. If we have to fight it must be on larger issues than that. I am myself a man of peace to the depths of my soul. Armed conflict between nations is a nightmare to me.

And there at Munich, in company with the French Premier, Daladier, the sinister and pompous Italian dictator, Mussolini, and the Fuehrer himself, Chamberlain helped slice up the Czech republic past redemption. (Not that the Czechs were democratic sweethearts: they had indeed given the German minority short shrift and their treatment of minorities was reasonable only by the standards of Eastern Europe.) The Russians were not a factor, not just because Chamberlain and Daladier were anti-Communist, but because Stalin was too busy killing his officer corps and party elite to play a diplomatic role at this point. Even so, the British gave away nothing less than the strategic balance of Europe. Czechoslovakia may have been, as Chamberlain complained, a small nation “far away . . . of whom we know nothing,” but it was nevertheless a nation whose geographic position held the key to the Danube basin and whose economic resources provided a vital bridge for German rearmament and for the Wehrmacht.

It is worth enumerating what the Western powers surrendered at Munich. The Czech army went out the window: Czech tanks would equip three of the ten German Panzer divisions that invaded France in May 1940, while four Waffen SS divisions, plus a further four of the army’s infantry divisions, would possess Czech equipment. The remainder of the materiel acquired when they occupied rump Czechoslovakia in March 1939 the Germans sold to the Rumanians for oil and to the Yugoslavs and Hungarians for other raw materials. As important as all this was the fact that Czech industrial resources, raw materials, and financial strength played a major role in keeping the German war economy afloat to the end of 1939. Moreover, the Germans were now in a position to dominate Eastern Europe diplomatically, economically, and strategically.

For a short time in the 1960’s and 1970’s it became popular among historians to argue that Chamberlain had saved Britain from a devastating German air attack; German air-force records have made nonsense of such claims. As late as August 1938 half of the Luftwaffe’s aircraft were out of commission, good for expensive static displays but not much else. A senior staff officer of the German Second Air Force, when informed that its units would have to attack Britain, noted in August 1938 that his command had the ability to inflict only “pinpricks” on the British Isles.

The Germans, then, did not possess the force structure, the munitions, or the training for a sustained attack on Britain in 1938. If war had broken out then, it would have been less costly and less destructive than the war that broke out in September 1939.

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Yet on Chamberlain’s return to London, the multitudes cheered when, from the balcony of the Prime Minister’s residence, he breathlessly announced: “My good friends, this is the second time in our history that there has come back from Germany to Downing Street peace with honor.” As Britons serenaded Chamberlain, only a few saw the gathering darkness. Churchill, of course, caught the full significance of Munich. The government, he remarked in a letter, had the choice between war and shame; it had chosen shame, it would get war. And before a sullen and frequently indignant House he declared:

All is over. Silent, mournful, abandoned, broken Czechoslovakia recedes into the darkness. . . . Every position has been successively undermined and abandoned on specious and plausible excuses.

I do not grudge our loyal, brave people, who were ready to do their duty no matter what the cost, who never flinched under the strain of last week, the natural, spontaneous outburst of joy and relief when they learned that the hard ordeal would no longer be required of them at the moment; but they should know the truth. . . . They should know that we have sustained a defeat without a war, the consequences of which will travel far with us along our road, when the whole equilibrium of Europe has been deranged, and that the terrible words have for the time being been pronounced against the Western democracies: “Thou art weighed in the balance and found wanting.” And do not suppose that this is the end. This is only the beginning of the reckoning. This is only the first sip, the first foretaste of a bitter cup. . . .

Hitler’s attitude toward the results of Munich was one of disbelief. As he told the Hungarian ambassador in January 1939:

Amazing things had been achieved. “Do you think,” he asked, “that I myself would have thought it possible half a year ago that Czechoslovakia would be served up to me, so to speak by her friends? I did not believe that England and France would go to war, but I was convinced that Czechoslovakia would have to be destroyed by war. The way that everything has happened is historically unique. We can offer each other heartfelt congratulations.”

Munich was not the end of appeasement. The British government would shrug off the November 1938 “Crystal Night” pogrom, in which the windows of synagogues and Jewish-owned stores were smashed all over Germany, with worries that any British action might lead to a break with the Germans or that any British support for Germany’s Jews might lead to an increase in anti-Semitism in Great Britain.

Despite its “triumph” at Munich, however, the Chamberlain government found itself under considerable pressure from two separate directions in the House. The first was from those who expected some concrete result from the Munich conference in terms of what was left of Czechoslovakia. The Germans obviously had no intention of guaranteeing the settlement; that meant a unilateral British guarantee. (How seriously the British government regarded this guarantee is suggested retroactively by a Labor question put in 1973 to the Foreign Secretary, a man who had formerly been Chamberlain’s parliamentary private secretary, asking whether an undertaking the British were then thinking of making to the Israelis was the same as the one Chamberlain had given to the Czechs in October 1938. “No, this time it is meant,” replied Lord Douglas-Home.)

The other pressure on the government came from a general sense even among Chamberlain’s supporters that Britain’s defense required more than the government’s half-hearted and belated efforts. The government answered during the Munich debate that it had already embarked on a “great program of rearmament” when in fact it had no intention of changing its approach to rearmament. While German rearmament proceeded in nonstop fashion, the crew that had made Munich possible did nothing for the army, authorized construction of only twenty escort vessels and twelve minesweepers, dredged a few harbors, and reluctantly extended the contract dates for Spitfire and Hurricane production, thereby increasing the number of aircraft on order but not acting to make more of them available in the immediate future. (The production run of both aircraft had just begun.) In short, until March 1939, when the Germans removed the remaining ambiguities in most European minds, the British government talked rearmament, did little else, and got the worst of both worlds.

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Well, what does all this ancient history mean? A generation ago (1961), it suggested to those who had suffered through the consequences of Munich (and lived) that we should “pay any price, bear any burden” in the defense of liberty. That attitude disappeared rapidly in the late 1960’s in the wreckage of American policy in Vietnam. Still unresolved, Vietnam lies like some great shadow over our consciousness, darkening and obscuring the increasingly foggy landscape. But through the fog we can detect a resurgence of the illusions of Munich.

Thus we receive a constant bombardment from the print and television media slanted toward the easy, soft assumptions of appeasement, steadily wearing on our collective consciousness. In one recent issue of the New York Times (March 27, 1988) alone, an article on the op-ed page by a leading American historian managed to denounce the Reagan administration’s “vengeful [sic] military actions in Lebanon, Libya and Grenada”; to announce that the American government in the 1930’s showed great prudence in not intervening in the Spanish Civil War, the Japanese war on China, and “the Italian bombardment of Ethiopia” [sic]; and finally, with great pride of scholarship, to praise Thomas Jefferson’s bizarre rules of engagement against the Tripoli pirates (soon modified by the realities of the world).

If this exercise in foolishness (by no less weighty a figure than Henry Steele Commager) were not enough, the Times‘s own Karl E. Meyer managed on the same day to write nonexistent history on the editorial page in a signed piece entitled “The Mirage of Secure Borders”—a piece that made light of the territorial concerns of Israeli leaders. Bismarck, according to Meyer, was not able, by keeping the provinces of Alsace-Lorraine, to protect Germany from the vicious French enthusiasm for revenge (this, obviously, is why Germany invaded France in 1914). The French attempted to protect themselves from a renewed German effort to bring order to the West by building the Maginot Line in the 1920’s, which, Meyer assures us, the Wehrmacht sliced through like a knife through butter (actually, they went around it through the Ardennes). And finally, in his effort to destroy history, Meyer brings us back to Munich. The parallel drawn by Henry Kissinger between the Czech situation in 1938 and Israel’s today would, writes Meyer,

be more persuasive if any Arab neighbor could be compared to Nazi Germany. In fact Israel is the regional superpower, and its military edge is greater now that Egypt is no longer a likely adversary [sic] and the Sinai no longer a security problem [sic]. What truly doomed Czechoslovakia was its isolation, and its abandonment by France and Britain. Does Mr. Kissinger really think that Prague would have prevailed over Hitler if only it had secure frontiers?

Within the week, the New York Times would carry the words from a poem by a prominent “moderate” in the PLO. Mahmoud Darwish ends his wonderfully “reasonable” argument with these lines to the Israelis:

Get out of our land
our continent, our sea
our wheat, our salt, our sore
our everything, and get out
of the memory of memories.

But of course, he doesn’t mean those words literally. And those rock-throwing youths who shout “this is our country and the Jews are our dogs,” only want a little slice of Israeli territory for their homeland. Like us, they are only after “peace.”

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On the 50th anniversary of Munich, then, we have some serious thinking to do. But it will certainly not occur in the academic world: no conferences, no international meetings of scholars funded by foundations, no collection of articles to discuss the “meaning” of Munich. Why not? Perhaps the lessons might be too inimical to the fundamental tenets and beliefs of our world, too disturbing to our sense of how that world works. Perhaps silence is preferable precisely because the spirit of appeasement is alive and well. It stalks the nation crying that all men are reasonable (except ourselves), that the world’s irrationality and anger are the result of our own actions, and that there is nothing worth fighting for. If we go on in this spirit, the only question will be not if we shall surrender our larger responsibilities in the world, but when.

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