September 24, 2007 6:55 pm

The wrong lessons from Munich

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Earlier this year I got an e-mail from a reader accusing me of combining the “worst qualities” of Adolf Hitler and Neville Chamberlain. My offence had been to write a column suggesting that it would be a bad idea to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities. This, apparently, meant that I was in favour of the annihilation of Israel (hence Hitler) – and also that I was a pathetic coward (Chamberlain).

This kind of rhetoric is not unusual. As I write, Columbia University in New York is being accused on television of “hosting Hitler”, because it has invited President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad of Iran to speak on campus.

Personally, I found being compared to Chamberlain particularly offensive. There are few more damaging taunts than to be compared to the British prime minister who tried and failed to appease Hitler at the Munich summit of 1938. In the US, in particular, the ghost of Chamberlain is regularly brought out to frighten those who are deemed insufficiently resolute in confronting the enemy of the moment. In the run-up to the Iraq war, the lessons of Munich were invoked by President George W. Bush and any number of neo-conservative commentators.

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican, was at it again during this month’s congressional hearings on Iraq. She reminded her audience that: “Neville Chamberlain genuinely believed that he had brought ‘peace in our time’ by washing his hands of what he believed to be an isolated dispute in ‘a far away country between people of whom we know nothing’. That country was Czechoslovakia and Chamberlain’s well-intentioned efforts ... only ensured that an immensely larger threat was thereby unleashed.” The lesson was clear. Confront evil regimes as soon as possible.

Chamberlain is generally accused of two grave sins. First, he acted dishonourably by sacrificing a defenceless nation to a ruthless dictator. Second, by appeasing Hitler he merely made him more aggressive and made a larger and bloodier war inevitable.

But both these bits of conventional wisdom are distinctly questionable. And the argument is of more than historical interest. Misapplied “lessons of Munich” have led to repeated foreign policy disasters since 1945.

Take the charge of “dishonour” first. Chamberlain’s goal was to avoid a world war. This was an entirely honourable, indeed laudable, aim. Britain, unlike France, had no treaty obligations to Czechoslovakia. It was not morally obliged to fight – and was in no position to save Czechoslovakia. Chamberlain accepted an evil outcome in the hope of avoiding a greater evil.

In the end, his hopes of avoiding a world war proved futile. For most people this remains the real lesson of Munich: appeasement is pointless; it merely emboldens the aggressor. But again, this is a misreading of what happened in 1938. As Ian Kershaw, author of the standard biography, puts it: “Hitler felt cheated” by the Munich agreement – he wanted a war.

By contrast, delaying the conflict until 1939 proved crucially important for Britain. In the intervening year, Britain was able to build up its air force to a point where it was able to fight and win the Battle of Britain. If war had broken out in 1938, Britain might well have lost. Chamberlain also knew that the public longed for peace – if he had opted to fight in 1938, he would have led a deeply divided nation. The spectacle of Hitler violating the Munich agreement and then turning on Poland meant that, by 1939, Britain was united.

But even if – for the sake of argument – you accept that Britain should have fought in 1938, the lessons of Munich would still be far from clear. Not every evil or unpleasant regime has the insatiable hunger for war of Nazi Germany. As Jeffrey Record, a historian, points out: “Security threats truly Hitlerian in nature and scope are rare.” Stalin’s Russia, Saddam’s Iraq and Mao’s China were all prepared to use force – but they were also considerably more cautious than the Nazis.

Indeed when western leaders have convinced themselves that they are facing a new Hitler, it has often been a prelude to a catastrophic error. Anthony Eden, Britain’s prime minister in 1956, had lived through the Munich crisis and was convinced that Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Egyptian leader, needed to be confronted over the Suez Canal. The result was a mistaken and humiliating war.

Lyndon Johnson, America’s president during the Vietnam war, made the same mistake. He later recalled: “Everything I knew about history told me that if I got out of Vietnam and let Ho Chi Minh run through the streets of Saigon, then I’d be doing exactly what Chamberlain did.” But North Vietnam, it turned out, was not at all like Nazi Germany. Johnson reacted a lot more cautiously and wisely when, in 1968, Czechoslovakia was invaded again – this time by the Soviet Union. A strict application of the “lessons of Munich” would surely have counselled war with the USSR. But the US resisted the temptation.

As it happens the western world may soon have to face another Czech-style crisis. Much of the current rhetoric about new “Munichs” focuses on Iran. But US officials are also seriously worried that Russia may shortly seek to strangle the independence of another “far away country”: Georgia. If that happens, I think the Europeans and Americans should react very toughly. But I also think a declaration of war would be unthinkable. If that means ignoring the “lessons of Munich”, so be it.

gideon.rachman@ft.com

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