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Seventy Years Since the Munich Agreement By: Joel Fishman
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, September 26, 2008


Photographic stills and newsreels have immortalized the moment when Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain returned from Munich and at Heston airport triumphantly waved the signed agreement in the air.  The British Prime Minister proclaimed that he had brought "Peace in our Time…Peace with Honor," and the crowds received him as a hero because he responded to their deepest hopes.  Unfortunately, this arrangement did not hold.  Instead, it helped pave the way to the Second World War. The contemporary historian and Zionist, Sir Louis Namier, described this scene which has provided one of the iconic images of the twentieth century: 

 

When Chamberlain, stepping from the aeroplane at Heston, waved his "treaty" with Hitler, like a happy autograph hunter—"here is a paper which bears his name"—Europe was astounded.  Could Chamberlain's trust, joy, and triumph be genuine? …. He was shrewd, ignorant, and self-opinionated, and had the capacity to deceive himself as much as was required by his deeper instincts and his purpose, and also to deceive those who chose to be deceived.

 

This year, Rosh Hashanah falls on Tuesday, 30 September, the seventieth anniversary of the Munich Agreement.  Just after midnight on Sunday, 30 September 1938, Neville Chamberlain, Adolf Hitler, Eduard Daladier, and Benito Mussolini signed it. This agreement transferred to Germany the fortified frontier region, the Sudetenland which was inhabited by a German-speaking minority (as well as a good number of Czechs) whom the Nazis had incited into a state of revolt against the Czechoslovak government. This gathering took place under the threat of war, and no Czechoslovak representative was present.  To make things worse, France, which had a treaty of alliance with Czechoslovakia, betrayed its junior partner.

 

Munich was a transaction by which the larger democratic powers of Europe, Britain and France, imposed fatal sacrifices on a smaller state in the name of peace. They forced Czechoslovakia to make "territorial concessions" in order to appease an aggressor, but the aggressor, Nazi Germany quickly violated the agreement and in March 1939 gobbled up the whole state of Czechoslovakia. After grabbing the sacrifices which England and France forced on others, Hitler went on to make fresh demands.  This episode shows the high cost of politics without morality both to the large states that engaged in it and the small ones upon which they forced suicidal sacrifices.

 

Frank McDonough, an historian from Manchester University, republished a citation from a document of 1926 which revealed how the policy-making elite of the Foreign Office viewed Britain's place in the world:  "We have all we want – perhaps more.  Our sole object is to keep what we want and live in peace … The fact is that war and rumours of war, quarrels and friction, in any corner of the world, spell loss and harm to British commercial interests… whatever else may be the outcome of a disturbance of the peace, we shall be the losers."  Britain, according to this outlook, was a "satisfied" power and would have been reluctant to assume a world leadership role. Considering this cautious perspective and the great interests at stake, the principle of appeasement had a distinct appeal. Not the least, those who wished to maintain the status quo hoped to achieve a policy objective through what was essentially a commercial transaction, using the territory of others to purchase of peace and quiet.

 

Shortly after the Second World War, Sir Orme Sargent, (1884–1962), a senior member of the Foreign Office, and opponent of appeasement, stated that under certain circumstances it could be justified, but "[Appeasement] becomes questionable as a method of negotiation only if it can be shown to be immoral; i.e. the appeaser sacrifices the rights and interests of a third party and not his own when making his concession; or if it is clearly dangerous, i.e. where the concession made seriously undermines the strength of the appeaser either internally or internationally; this  is especially so when the concession has to be repeated, for appeasement then becomes nothing less than blackmail; and lastly when the whole process of appeasement is just ineffective; i.e. when the appeaser having to make his concession gets no quid pro quo in return."

 

Martin Gilbert, Churchill's biographer and an historian, writing in the sixties explained that "Appeasement was rooted in the belief that human nature could not be entirely overwhelmed by evil, that even the most dangerous looking situation could be ameliorated and that the most irascible politician could be placated, if treated with respect."

 

A businessman who possessed great self-confidence, Chamberlain did not know European history and the characteristics of its different peoples. He took firm control of Britain's foreign policy and regulated the information which reached the public. This was particularly dangerous, because he over-estimated his own abilities and failed to recognize the danger of Hitler's methods as well as the moral costs of submitting to blackmail.  As was frequently the case, personal ignorance and complacency found expression in over-optimism.

 

Over the decades, revisionist historians have written that Chamberlain was "strong-willed, competent and clear-sighted."  According to them, the blame for the Second World War really dated back to the harsh terms of the Treaty of Versailles which the victorious Allies imposed on Germany after the conclusion of the First World War.  Despite this insight and new findings, the great historical questions relating to this serious failure of judgment still haunt the present.  How could Chamberlain have failed to grasp the intentions of his enemies; how did he fail to sense the danger before him; and why did he place his trust in Hitler?

 

Chamberlain's contemporaries tried to answer these questions.  One of these was the First Lord of the Admiralty Duff Cooper who wrote that Chamberlain's greatest personal shortcoming was his lack of imagination.  Cooper, who was a member of Chamberlain's cabinet and resigned after the Munich Agreement, wrote that "Chamberlain … lacked experience of the world, and he lacked also the imagination which can fill the gaps of inexperience.  He had never moved in the great world of politics or of finance, and the continent of Europe was for him a closed book.  He had been a successful Lord Mayor of Birmingham and for him the Dictators of Germany and of Italy were like the Lord Mayors of Liverpool and Manchester, who might belong to different political parties and have different interests, but who must desire the welfare of humanity, and be fundamentally decent men like himself.  This profound misconception lay at the root of his policy and explains his mistakes."

 

Chamberlain viewed the world in his own image and actually believed that Hitler at heart was as decent as he was. Therefore, he hoped to look him in the eye, talk to him man-to-man, and get his personal word.  Chamberlain, who viewed the problem in personal terms, was not concerned with the message of weakness he conveyed to Hitler.  His efforts strengthened Hitler in Germany at a time when his own generals opposed the invasion of Czechoslovakia.  Hitler, for his part, contemptuously referred to Chamberlain as a fool, to use a generous euphemism.

 

Winston Churchill, in his speech to the House of Commons, of 5 October1938 explained what Chamberlain did not quite grasp, that the real issue at stake was one of morality and justice:  "Many people, no doubt, honestly believe that they are only giving away the interests of Czechoslovakia, whereas I fear we shall find that we have deeply compromised, and perhaps fatally endangered, the safety and even the independence of Great Britain and France….We have sustained a defeat without a war…."

 

A parallel with the current situation may not be politically correct, but is worthy of some attention.  In his address to the Nuremberg Rally, on 12 September 1938 Hitler made an explicit comparison between the Sudeten Germans and the Palestinian Arabs: "I am in no way willing that here in the heart of Germany a second Palestine should be permitted to arise.  The poor Arabs are defenseless and deserted.  The Germans in Czechoslovakia are neither defenseless, nor are they deserted, and people should take notice of that." Thus, if in today's discussions one compares the bitter fate of the Sudeten Germans with that of the Arabs of Palestine, it is a legitimate part of the discourse.  Hitler made the comparison.  Today, many Sudeten Germans now live in the German state of Bavaria, and as a result of hard work have largely rebuilt their lives and achieved financial comfort.  This group is well-represented in German politics and vocal in its claims for return.  Nonetheless, there seems to be a tacit international appreciation of the reason that the successors of Czechoslovakia have firmly refused to permit this minority to live in their midst.

 

In recent times, the proposition known as "Land for Peace," bears some similarity to the original appeasement transaction.  For example, the leading powers of the West in their desire to gain favor with the Arab world, have forced Israel to make all manner of unreciprocated sacrifices.  The method is similar to that of appeasement of the thirties as well as a cycle of concessions which are met with fresh demands. However, when such a process takes place in slow motion and the absence of a direct threat of war as in 1938, it is possible to conceal what is really happening.  When on 4 October 2001, Prime Minister Sharon protested against this type of appeasement in his famous Czechoslovakia Speech, the Bush administration publicly and forcefully rebuked him.

 

Although much has been written on the subject, and new sources will still emerge, we may identify some of human shortcomings which seventy years ago led to the disastrous attempt to purchase peace at Munich with the "concessions of the weak."  Some of these were: a lack of imagination, self-delusion, denial of danger, ignorance of history and exaggerated optimism.


Dr. Joel Fishman is a Fellow of a research center in Jerusalem.


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