On Sept. 29-30, 1938, possibly the most infamous diplomatic event in 20th-century Europe occurred in the Bavarian city of Munich.
The Munich Conference, forever associated with the pejorative term “appeasement,” was the last of three conferences held to resolve a six-month crisis over whether the territory of the Sudetenland, comprised of Germans and placed in Czechoslovakia at the end of World War I, should be annexed by the Third Reich.
In the end, Germany received the Sudetenland and its Germans, and war was averted.
This significant event has generated extensive study by historians and political scientists, and the so-called “lessons of Munich” have become part of public discourse. Those “lessons” also have been used by U.S. politicians to engender support for and to justify their policies to the American people.
What does the passage of time have to tell us about the “crisis at Munich”?
Contrary to long-standing and widely held views, the “appeasement” at Munich was not decisive in bringing about World War II. It was not a simple matter of whether, had the allies stood up to Hitler at Munich, they would have prevented the war. In fact, they did stand up to Hitler at Munich, and they got war anyway.
But despite the image in the public memory, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was not the loser, was not outmaneuvered, did not blink; it was Adolf Hitler who was outmaneuvered and blinked. According to professor J.W. Wheeler-Bennett, the most disappointed attendee at the conference was Hitler.
Hitler was bent on a “little” war with the Czechs. Chamberlain had called his bluff, and Hitler backed down.
Hitler did not really care about the Sudeten Germans or for their self-determination, for that matter. Rather, he saw self-determination for the Sudetenland as a means to achieve his goal of war. He assumed that the Czechs would never agree to the loss of the Sudetenland.
When that did not happen, Hitler looked on Chamberlain as an interfering old man who had deprived him of his greatest desire, which was war.
As Gerhard Weinberg writes: “... [A]s Hitler explained to his military leaders on August 22, 1939, [on the eve of the attack on Poland] he had things organized so well that his only worry was that at the last minute some Schweinehund” — read, that SOB Chamberlain — “would come along with a compromise and again cheat him of war” (emphasis added).
Hitler carried that feeling of disappointment and error in judgment to end of the war. In 1945, reviewing the mistakes of Nazi Germany that had led to his defeat, Hitler concluded “that his failure to begin the war in [October] 1938 was his greatest error... .”
It is something of a puzzle to this observer why history has depicted Chamberlain’s role at the Munich Conference in such a negative light — inept, bungling, even incompetent. Perhaps the general public believes that Hitler was victorious in 1938, but Hitler clearly believed that Chamberlain had cheated him at Munich, cheated him of his little war.
And the German public was just as war-weary as the people of England and France. Hitler was furious that Chamberlain was favorably received by the German public as the prime minister drove through the streets of Munich.
In addition to avoiding a major war, a second mitigating circumstance has to do with the severity of the Treaty of Versailles. While the disposition of the Sudetenland was a difficult moral question, the practical solution achieved at Munich was quite simple and rectified one of the injustices of Versailles.
Within a relatively short time after the signing of that treaty, many in Britain began to look askance at the settlement and concluded that Germany had been treated unfairly, especially regarding the policy of denying self-determination to the Germans — case in point, the Sudeten Germans. The question facing the British government was: Should it attempt to take a war-weary people into war to keep Germans out of Germany? Such a position probably was not all that convincing to the people of the day.
The great irony of Munich and its legacy of appeasement is the fact that Chamberlain was able to arrive at a peaceful solution to the Sudeten crisis by threatening to go to war and forcing Hitler to give up his “little war” with the Czechs. Unfortunately, historical memory of the Munich crisis does not recognize that Chamberlain threatened war to prevent war.
Hitler’s generals were adamant in arguing that Germany was not yet ready for a general European war. The public memory has ignored or forgotten that in the week leading up to the Munich Conference, both France and England were preparing for war. On Sept. 23, the Czechs ordered mobilization of their army. On the Sept. 25, France ordered mobilization of its armed forces. On Sept. 26, England mobilized its fleet, and on Sept. 27, the British government informed Hitler: “If Germany attacked Czechoslovakia, France ... would fulfill her treaty obligations [to the Czechs]. If ... the forces of France became actively engaged in hostilities against Germany, the British Government would feel obliged to support France.”
Hitler flew into a rage when Sir Horace Wilson gave him that “special message.” But his generals wanted a diplomatic solution. Hence we have the last-minute peaceful resolution of the war crisis at Munich.
Yes, Hitler annexed the Sudetenland to the Third Reich, but his goal was war with the Czechs and he failed to achieve it.
Learning from his mistake, in 1939, he was very careful not to put the Polish question to a conference. He wanted a war and got it on Sept. 1, 1939, with the invasion of Poland.
It matters little in historical assessment of the Munich crisis which nation — England or Germany — most benefitted militarily from the year of delay in the outbreak of WWII bought at that conference. The question is: Do we have an accurate evaluation of what happened in 1938 and have we drawn the correct lesson from the event?
After 75 years, many in the scholarly community are viewing Chamberlain and his actions in a more favorable light. However, the public continues to have an erroneous perception of the events of 1938 and their significance.
In addition, politicians, as part of the public memory, also have an erroneous understanding and, unfortunately, have used this long-time error-in-perception for political ends, to rev up public opinion in support of a policy being promoted by the government. And in virtually every instance — from Harry Truman through Barack Obama — the analogy has been improper.
Perhaps the most egregious use and abuse of the Munich analogy occurred during the war in Vietnam, when both President Kennedy and President Johnson referred to Munich to justify our policy against North Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh.
And Secretary of State John Kerry recently referred to Syria as a “Munich moment.”
The analogy to Munich to justify action is not unique to the United States. A French journalist, Bernard-Henri Levy, writing recently for the Wall Street journal, also referenced Munich — i.e., the stand-up-to-a-dictator syndrome — in a piece condemning Bashar Assad and calling for a strong response in Syria.
Winston Churchill is supposed to have said to Chamberlain, shortly after the Munich Conference: “You were given the choice between war and dishonor. You chose dishonor and you will have war.”
This is a gross misunderstanding of the situation. Chamberlain demanded and got a peaceful resolution to the cession of the Sudetenland, a rectification of the unfairness in the Treaty of Versailles. Despite the reasons not to go to war, it was ultimately his threat of war that prevented it in 1938.
Preventing war was not a bad policy for a statesman who was a man of peace. Chamberlain’s mistake was to assume that no reasonable person wanted to go to war and that the Sudetenland would be Hitler’s last claim in Europe.
After the annexation of the remainder of Czechoslovakia into the Third Reich in March 1939, it was clear to the British and the French that Hitler meant to disrupt the balance of power in Europe, and the allies responded by pledging assistance to Poland, which they honored on Sept. 3, 1939, by declaring war on Germany. Hitler wanted war, and this time he could not be deterred.
Chamberlain and French Premier Eduard Daladier were not cowards in any degree. At Munich they took a chance and lost. With ambiguity gone, at the next crisis over Poland, Britain and France went to war.
Unfortunately, after 75 years, “Munich” and “appeasement” have been accepted as legitimate symbols of feckless, cowardly and counterproductive yielding, an image that still remains within public discourse. It is time to resolve forever the misuse and abuse of this unfortunate incident.
James Y. Simms Jr. is emeritus professor of Russian and modern European history at Hampden-Sydney College.