“This has the whiff of Munich” ran the headline in the London Sunday Times, quoting Ben Wallace, the bombastic defense secretary in Boris Johnson’s government. But of course he said that. As the Ukraine crisis escalated, much has been unsure or hard to foresee: Was Vladimir Putin bluffing, would he really invade, could Ukraine defend itself, what would the Western response be? But one thing was as certain as day follows night. Sooner or later, someone was going to shout “Munich.”
Sure enough, Americans chimed in. Stephen Blank, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, says that “appeasement of Russia would deliver exactly the same outcome as the betrayal of Czechoslovakia at Munich—dishonor and disaster.” “I think we’ve tried appeasement with Mr. Putin in Georgia in 2008 and Crimea in 2014,” says John Herbst, a former American ambassador to Ukraine. “Mr. Chamberlain was wrong to compromise with Hitler in 1938.” And for Marc Thiessen in The Washington Post, “Biden appears to be channeling his inner Neville Chamberlain.”
In any international conflict where there is a debate over the value of conciliation as against the use of force, the same name recurs over and again with monotonous inevitability. The handsome capital of Bavaria has a long and fascinating history, lovely baroque buildings (if they survived wartime bombing), a fine opera house (where Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger were first performed), an excellent newspaper (the Süddeutsche Zeitung), and an all-conquering soccer team (Bayern Munich).
But the name, for many people, means only one thing—even when there are two different movies called Munich. Steven Spielberg’s 2005 picture is about the murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games and the Israeli hit squad that hunted down and killed the killers in turn. It might better have been called Vengeance, the name of the book on which it is based, whereas the newly released, and already very widely viewed, Netflix movie Munich is based on Robert Harris’s thriller-with-attitude of the same name. Book and film are set in 1938, and the plot line concerns the deal struck with Hitler by Neville Chamberlain, as part of his policy of gratifying, or appeasing, German demands. Thanks to that episode, and to Winston Churchill’s denunciation of the agreement, the names of Munich, Chamberlain, and appeasement have ever since been bywords for perfidious betrayal.
With Ukraine as only the latest case. Before that, there was President Obama and John Kerry’s nuclear deal with Iran, which Senator Ted Cruz of Texas called “the worst betrayal since Munich.” Before Iran, there was the conflict between Russia and Georgia in 2008, when a somewhat predictable group of savants—Vaclav Havel, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, Timothy Garton Ash, and Bernard-Henri Lévy, inter alios—wrote in Le Monde under the heading, “Le test géorgien, un nouveau Munich?” And of course before that, there was Iraq. At the time of that criminal and catastrophic war, short of puffing a cigar, wearing a bow tie, and giving a V-sign, President George W. Bush could scarcely have done more to wrap Churchill’s mantle around himself, as he stood in front of the bust of the great man in the Oval Office and quoted his words while warning about the danger of appeasing Saddam Hussein. His sidekick Tony Blair (“my closest friend and partner on the world stage,” as Bush rightly called him), told a colleague who doubted the wisdom of the invasion that Saddam was the new Hitler, adding: “You are Chamberlain, and I am Churchill.”
Even by their standards, the all-time title for Muniching goes to Benjamin Netanyahu. He likewise condemned Obama as the new Chamberlain, and the Iran agreement as a new Munich, but then every day was a Munich day for Bibi. He had an indirect personal connection with Churchill. His Likud Party was the ultimate heir of the Revisionists, the right-wing military branch of Zionism that Vladimir Jabotinsky had founded in the 1920s. In 1937, Jabotinsky had met Churchill and persuaded him to support the Revisionist line, and shortly before his death in 1940, Jabotinsky had appointed as his secretary a young medieval historian and activist named Benzion Netanyahu, who remained a zealous supporter of the Revisionist cause and who, well before his death in 2012 aged 102, had long since passed the torch to his son Benjamin.
In 1992, that son claimed that “it’s 1938, and Iran is Germany,” repeating the comparison on the op-ed page of The New York Times. Speaking in the Knesset, he told Yitzhak Rabin, the Labour prime minister, whose negotiations with the Palestinians had become public knowledge, “You are worse than Chamberlain. He put another nation in danger, but you are doing it to your own nation.” In his 1995 book A Place Among the Nations, Netanyahu dilated at length on the Israeli predicament, in terms of Hitler, Chamberlain, and Munich, suggesting that Israel was Czechoslovakia and “Judea and Samaria,” or the West Bank, was the Sudetenland, a parallel he may not have fully thought through (were the Jewish settlers the Czechs or the Sudeten Germans?). As Ari Shavit, an Israeli journalist who covered Netanyahu for years, put it, “His worldview is very clear. Iran is Nazi Germany. Israel is England. He is Churchill, and America is America.”
All of these endless invocations are made by people with short memories, or little capacity for learning from experience. It is an observable fact that in every single case where Munich or appeasement has been invoked it has led to disaster, over more than 70 years. The Korean War began in 1950 with the North Korean army advancing far south. President Harry Truman said that there must be no appeasement this time, and General Douglas MacArthur atoned for the early American defeat by landing behind enemy lines at Inchon and driving the invading forces deep into North Korea. When MacArthur approached the Yalu River and the Chinese border, Truman warned him that a further advance might provoke Chinese intervention, but MacArthur replied that going no further would be to appease the Chinese as the British had appeased Hitler. He duly advanced to the Yalu, whereupon a vast Chinese army fell on his forces and drove them all the way back again.
In 1956, the Suez expedition, the last hurrah of the British Empire and a final humiliation, was almost entirely conditioned by memories of Munich. General Gamal Abdul Nasser, the nationalist ruler of Egypt, had deposed the sybaritic Anglophile King Farouk, ordered the British army to leave, and proposed to take control of the Suez Canal. Churchill had finally retired as prime minister the previous year, aged 80, and been succeeded by fellow Tory Sir Anthony Eden. Both men had at least some authority for defying aggression. Apart from the fact that, like Churchill, Eden had served as an infantry officer in the Great War, he had resigned as Chamberlain’s Foreign Secretary in 1938 in protest at appeasement, of Mussolini rather than of Hitler. Now Eden told President Eisenhower that Nasser’s action was a reprise of Hitler’s occupation of the Rhineland 20 years before, which it wasn’t.
And so Hugh Gaitskell, the Labour leader, told Parliament that Nasser’s aggression “is exactly the same that we encountered from Mussolini and Hitler in those years before the war,” while the normally sagacious French politicologue Raymond Aron said that Nasser was “Hitler on the Nile.” There was even a Jewish joke current: “What happened to Hitler? He crossed the water and got Nasser” (nasser is “wetter” in Yiddish), and the aged Churchill himself was heard muttering offstage, “I never knew Munich was a city on the Nile.” None of this was true. Nasser was a demagogue and a fantasist, who did the Egyptian people little good while leading his country to defeat by the Israelis in 1956 and again in 1967, but he wasn’t a mad tyrant with dreams of universal conquest.
Nor was Ho Chi Minh, even if President Lyndon Johnson thought he might be. As vice president, Johnson had visited Saigon and hailed the South Vietnamese ruler, Ngo Dinh Diem, as “the Churchill of Asia,” one of the unlikeliest comparisons there have been, and words that didn’t stop the Americans giving a nod to the coup that deposed and then killed Diem at the beginning of November 1963. Having succeeded Kennedy, LBJ faced Barry Goldwater as the Republican candidate in the election a year later. When Goldwater was derided for saying that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice,” he responded that Churchill “once was called an extremist—and that’s quite a popular word around today—because he spoke up for Britain’s defense at a time when appeasement was popular.”
But then Johnson was just as haunted by Churchill’s ghost as he escalated the war in Vietnam. “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,” Johnson said, “then I’d be doing exactly what Chamberlain did in World War II. I’d be giving a big fat reward to aggression.” He added that it was essential to defeat the Viet Cong “because we learned from Hitler at Munich that success only feeds the appetite of aggression.” And so on and so on, with one misleading parallel from the 1930s after another producing a woeful outcome, up to and including Afghanistan and Iraq.
But if the legacy of “Munich” has been so unhappy, what was the Munich agreement actually about? I doubt whether Ted Cruz could write 150 cogent words in answer to that question, which historians debate to this day. Its origins lay in the outcome of the Great War, and the postwar settlements that dismembered the Habsburg, Romanov, and Ottoman empires, long condemned by enlightened opinion as “prison houses of the nations,” and brought to an end the Kaiserreich, the German empire that Otto von Bismarck had created, calling into being new, supposedly national “successor states.” Alas, those states—reborn Poland, newborn Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, and enlarged Romania—were just as much prison houses as the old multinational empires.
One particular grievance went unaddressed. Of all the different nationalities in the former Austria-Hungary, one was denied the “self-determination” that President Woodrow Wilson had preached and that he had imposed on the Peace Conference in Paris in 1919. The Germans inhabiting what is now the republic of Austria had a clear wish. In March 1919, the democratically elected Austrian National Assembly unanimously approved union with Germany and, as The Daily Telegraph reported, the assembly, moreover, “desires that the act of union should also include German Bohemia.”
That last meant the more than three million Germans living in the ancient kingdom of Bohemia and margravate of Moravia, the territory that is now the Czech Republic. Some lived in Prague, which had been a German-speaking city until the nineteenth century and even in the twentieth was the home of the German Charles University; of Franz Kafka, a “Czech” Jew but a German writer; and of the Prager Zeitung, a famous liberal newspaper. But most lived in a solidly German-speaking crescent of hills running round the Bohemian plain, the co-called Sudetenland, dotted with famous spas like Marienbad and Carlsbad and the towns that gave their names to beers, Pilsen and Budweis.* No sooner were the treaties signed than it became a touchstone of liberal opinion that, of all the wrongs of the postwar settlement, “the worst offence was the subjection of over three million Germans to Czech rule.” That was H.N. Brailsford, the leading radical commentator on foreign affairs in England, writing in 1920, and what he said was echoed by the Labour Party, then in the process of overtaking the Liberals as the main British party of the left.
At first held by radicals and liberals, this opinion increasingly became the view of most English people, including Conservatives, as well as of those few Americans who took a serious interest in international affairs. And so Neville Chamberlain was very far from alone. In Munich, following the portrayal in Harris’s book, Chamberlain is played sympathetically by Jeremy Irons, a refreshing contrast to the grotesque caricatures of Chamberlain and Lord Halifax in that ridiculous movie Darkest Hour. For all that his name has become a curse, Chamberlain has been gravely misunderstood. He was anything but a Tory obscurantist. The son of the great radical Joseph Chamberlain, Neville playfully told his Birmingham constituents that “I was not born a little Conservative. I was brought up as a Liberal and afterwards as a Liberal Unionist.” He hated “the odious title of Conservative,” and when he died in November 1940, Lady Cecily Debenham, a family friend, wrote to his widow: “It makes my blood boil when I see his ‘Tory’ and ‘Reactionary’ outlook taken as a matter of course.” As she said, “Neville was a Radical to the end of his days,” even if the whirligig of politics had taken him to the leadership of the Tory Party, as it once had that other sometime radical, Benjamin Disraeli.
He was certainly the greatest reforming politician in British politics between the wars, maybe of the past century. From 1931 to 1937, he was chancellor of the exchequer and rescued the country from the worst consequences of the Depression, in part by reversing the foolish decision of a previous chancellor, Winston Churchill, to return to the gold standard. Before that, as minister of health from 1924 to 1929, Chamberlain changed the country, creating much of what we now take for granted in the way of welfare and social security, from health care to public housing to local government. When he succeeded Stanley Baldwin as prime minister in 1937, he was determined to apply the same rational reforming spirit to foreign affairs and national conflicts.
In March 1938, after a good deal of dirty work and intrigue, Austria was absorbed into the German Reich. More than six months later, in his memorable speech condemning the Munich agreement, Churchill referred to “the rape of Austria” in March. “Rape” is not a word ever to be used lightly, in literal or figurative terms, but it was particularly inapt on this occasion: Never has a relationship been more consensual. Hitler was welcomed in Vienna by the most rapturous crowds that ever greeted him, and the Germans of Czechoslovakia, whose lands were ceded to the Reich by the Munich agreement, almost unanimously agreed.
If Chamberlain believed he was righting an injustice at Munich, he was only following that current of enlightened thinking for two decades. For all the recent screeches of appeasement, the one thing the Georgia crisis of 2008 had in common with the crisis 70 years earlier was that the people of South Ossetia no more wanted to be ruled by the Georgians than the Sudeten Germans wanted to be ruled by the Czechs—or maybe than the Russian-speaking minority in eastern Ukraine today wants to be ruled by the Ukrainians.
None of this, of course, absolves Hitler, who was as usual lying when he said that the Sudetenland was his “last territorial demand in Europe.” In truth he wanted to destroy Czechoslovakia, as the first step in his insane plan to conquer Eastern Europe, defeat Russia, obliterate Slavs as well as Jews, and create a much vaster Aryan Reich. Chamberlain has sometimes been defended for buying time until conditions were more propitious for Great Britain to fight, something implied at the end of Munich. That wasn’t his intention in September 1938—he hoped for a permanent peace—but it was the fortuitous outcome. After Hitler did destroy Czechoslovakia and arrive in Prague the following March, and then attacked Poland in September, the British were not only better defended by radar and modern fighters but fought from a far stronger moral position. Churchill acknowledged that on September 3, 1939, the day the war began: “Our repeated efforts for peace … have been ill-starred, but all have been faithful and sincere,” he said. “This is of the highest moral value.” By refraining from war as long as possible and until the case was as strong as possible, “in our own hearts this Sunday morning there is peace. Our hands may be active, but our consciences are at rest.”
In Munich, Sir Nevile Henderson, the British ambassador in Berlin, is played rather well by Robert Bathurst. Henderson was certainly an appeaser who may have been too gullible about Hitler, and he made the mistake of publishing an honest defense of British policy in his book Failure of a Mission in 1940, not long before his death from cancer. But when on August 12, 1938, Henderson wrote, “The British Empire cannot set its face against the principle of self-determination. Personally, I am very sorry to say, I am convinced that we cannot permanently prevent these Sudeten Germans from coming into the Reich if they wish it, and undoubtedly the majority today do so,” he was saying something close to the factual truth.
Appeasement has been a dirty word since the publication in 1940 of Guilty Men, a bitter and very dishonest pamphlet by three journalists working for Lord Beaverbrook (although he had been an arch appeaser), which became a British bestseller that summer. Three years ago, Tim Bouverie made the case once again in Appeasing Hitler, an accomplished first book by a young writer, though scarcely a novel argument. An unusually ignorant reviewer could say that, before reading Bouverie’s book, he had never realized that “appeasement” was originally “a term embraced by its proponents.” But, of course, it was. In 1911, Churchill was a young Cabinet minister in the Liberal government of H.H. Asquith, to whom he wrote, “I hope we may be able to pursue une politique d’apaisement,” by which he meant conciliating their Tory opponents. Ten years later, in 1921, Churchill had hoped to see an “appeasement of the fearful hatreds and antagonisms which exist in Europe.” And so for Chamberlain, such appeasement was the best way of averting a war that, as he correctly foresaw, might be even more terrible than the war of 1914–18, which was such an indelible memory for him and so many other English people.
Of all the critiques of Chamberlain and appeasement, none is more deplorable than the claim that the British were culpable for not doing more to restrain Hitler or to encourage the so-called German resistance. Why was that the duty of the British? Hitler was not Neville Chamberlain’s fault. The Germans wanted Hitler, and they got him. That may sound a little bald, but in the undoubtedly free German election of 1932, the National Socialists under Hitler, on a platform of national aggrandizement and racial hatred, won 37 percent of the vote. Under a system in which no one party ever achieved a majority, that wasn’t a majority, but it was an easy plurality—more than the combined vote for the parties of the Left, Social Democrats, and Communists, and roughly double their 1930 tally.
There may have been Germans who disliked Hitler, and generals who whispered about overthrowing him, but they did nothing and thereafter followed him into world war and crimes of unparalleled wickedness. Again, it was not Chamberlain who forced the Germans to commit those crimes. Those accusations against the British are part of a comforting myth that Hitler, National Socialism, and the Third Reich were all an unfortunate mishap that had befallen the German people, when in truth by 1938 Hitler was the most popular leader Germany had ever had. The so-called resistance made no attempt to destroy him until July 1944, when the Red Army was on the Vistula, the Allied armies were north of Rome and approaching Paris, the cities of Germany were being reduced to rubble by bombing, and catastrophe stared Germany in the face.
In his speech denouncing Munich, Churchill said that “we have sustained a total and unmitigated defeat,” which has been widely accepted to this day. But was it true? The great historian Gerhard L. Weinberg, American but German-Jewish by origin, has argued convincingly that at Munich, “Hitler had been trapped into settling for what he had publicly claimed rather than what he really wanted and had persistently told his associates he could get. He had had to abandon his plan for a war to destroy Czechoslovakia.” In January 1945, musing in the bunker as he faced the end for Germany and himself, Hitler bitterly lamented that Chamberlain had made it so difficult for him to begin war when he wanted: “We ought to have gone to war in 1938.… September 1938 would have been the most favorable date.”
But Weinberg says something else in his formidable book The Foreign Policy of Hitler’s Germany, 1937–1939. Chamberlain was sped on his way to meet Hitler by an encouraging message from President Franklin Roosevelt, who never criticized the Munich agreement. And yet “in the United States,” Weinberg writes, “the initial sense of relief would give way to a sense of unease and disapproval even greater than among the opponents of Munich in Britain and France.… Not having faced the danger of war themselves, it was much easier for Americans to be indignant about concessions made to Germany. For Americans perhaps more than any others Munich came to be a symbol of surrender.”
And that is why the parroting of “Munich” and “appeasement” is especially disgraceful when it comes from Americans. “The United States was going to have a very fortunate Second World War,” Alan Allport writes in his recent book Britain at Bay: The Epic Story of the Second World War, 1938–1941, and he might have gone further: The United States had a very fortunate twentieth century. Like most Americans, Roosevelt did not want to go war if it could possibly be avoided, and he did not in fact do so until December 1941, when the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and Hitler’s declaration of war on the United States (rather than the other way round) four days later left no choice.
Before that, in one of his more perverse appointments, Roosevelt had sent the corrupt, antisemitic defeatist Joseph Kennedy as ambassador to London. He brought his two elder children with him. Kathleen, or “Kick,” enjoyed great popularity in upper-class English society but grumbled, that autumn of 1938, that “all you can hear or talk about at this point is the future war which is bound to come. Am so darn sick of it.” After the ambassador gave a speech saying that the Western powers should learn to live with the dictators, his son John, a future president, was back in America, whence he congratulated his father on a speech that, while “it seemed to be unpopular with the Jews etc. was considered to be very good by everyone who wasn’t bitterly anti-Fascist.” As hostilities drew closer, Jack Kennedy wrote to a friend in London that the American people were united in their determination “to fight to the last Englishman,” a true word in jest.
When war did come, Hitler was defied by the resolution of the British people. But Chamberlain’s horror of war had been perfectly understandable, and not just the slaughter of the Western Front. London had been bombed by German aircraft and airships from 1915 and would be again, much more bloodily, in 1940. Before Cruz and Thiessen cry “appeasement,” they might ask themselves how many bombs fell on American cities. American casualties in the First World War had been trivial by European standards, and they would be modest again. By the standards of what we now call wars, the American death toll of 420,000 in 1941–45 was heavy—until it’s set against the eight million dead of the Red Army. The war transformed America, ending the woes of the Depression in ways that the New Deal had not, so that by 1944 full employment and hugely increased productivity were combined with much higher real wages, a stark contrast to the austere conditions of wartime England, let alone occupied Europe.
All of which makes it much easier, far too easy, for Americans to damn appeasement and to overlook the way that the alternative is wars that have not only been failures but have invariably brought far more suffering to other people than to the Americans. “The word ‘appeasement’ is not popular,” Churchill said in 1950, albeit with a certain amount of chutzpah, having done so much himself to make it unpopular. “Make sure you put it in the right place … appeasement from strength is magnanimous and noble and might be the surest and perhaps the only path to world peace.” No wiser words could be pondered by Western leaders today.
* This article has been updated.