At its 85th anniversary, Munich still haunts our rhetoric—but it is not clear that we’ve drawn the right lessons from the disastrous conference.
Eighty-five years ago today, the world took a major step toward war. On September 28, the four major European powers, Great Britain, France, Germany, and Italy, signed the Munich pact, which effectively dissolved the Czech state and delivered powerful Czech frontier fortifications to Nazi Germany. In effect, the Munich agreement left Germany to dominate in Central and Eastern Europe.
Munich was the culmination of the concept of appeasement, a policy that had been actively followed by Great Britain (and to a lesser extent, France) toward Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany since the mid-1930s. The guiding premise was simple: satisfying the legitimate demands of aggrieved nations to turn them into satisfied members of the comity of nations.
Because of the Munich pact, appeasement as a legitimate foreign policy tool has fallen out of favor. Yet it is a logical one if based on strength. A classic illustration of appeasement took place in the early years of the twentieth century after Great Britain and the United States almost went to war over the dispute regarding the frontier of British Guiana. Recognizing the madness of a war with America over such an inconsequential issue, the British set out to win American friendship. They resolved never to find themselves on the opposite side of the United States in any issue of major diplomatic significance. The Guiana issue was solved on terms favorable to the United States, while the British withdrew their fleet from the Caribbean, and gave up their share in any Isthmian Canal. The policy worked, confirming an observation the German chancellor Bismarck once made: The key to the 20th century, he believed, would be the fact that the Americans spoke English.
British appeasement policy toward Germany and Italy in the 1930s showed none of the shrewdness of its earlier formulation toward the United States. The reasons for this were many. World War I and its aftermath had convinced most statesmen that another war was unthinkable and to be avoided at all costs. In their reckoning, the very structure of Western civilization was at stake. The English statesmen who formulated the appeasement policies of the 1930s, initially Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin and then, in its classical formulation, Neville Chamberlain, were motivated by the determination to find a way to avoid another war. They had no faith in international institutions such as the League of Nations, which had proven a failure by the 1930s. Nor did they believe that any anti-fascist alliance system would guarantee peace.
When Chamberlain became Prime Minister in May 1937, the situation facing Great Britain was grim. Her closest ally, France, was bitterly divided politically; French right-wing factions at some level regarded fascism or even Nazism as preferable to any left socialist government. “Better Hitler than the Popular Front” was a slogan in the late 1930s. Baldwin’s warning that “the bomber will always get through” haunted the British and helped intensify the pacifist sentiment that was strong in England in the 1930s. Rearmament had slowly begun in the mid-1930s, handicapped by a currency crunch and the fact that the Labor party opposed every rearmament bill right up until the outbreak of war.
Given this mindset, Chamberlain was resolved to find a way, if not to win German friendship, at least to satisfy her legitimate demands and thereby divert her from launching a war. In his campaign of appeasement, Chamberlain had broad popular support. The various branches of the Christian churches in Great Britain, including the established Church of England, were major backers of appeasement, as were the leading press magnates, Lord Beaverbrook and Lord Rothermere. The Times threw its influential backing behind Chamberlain’s policies toward Germany and Italy throughout the late 1930s. Chamberlain also had broad support in Parliament for his policies, particularly from the leading members of his Cabinet. Lord Halifax, Sir Samuel Hoare, and Sir John Simon endorsed his appeasement approach.
The Czechoslovakian issue surfaced for the first time shortly after the Anschluss, the German annexation of Austria in March 1938. This left Czechoslovakia surrounded north and south by German-controlled areas. More importantly, the area of the Czechoslovakian state bordering Germany, the Sudetenland, housed three million Germans. The area had been part of the Czech state historically, and the Germans were treated as a cosseted minority by Czech authorities. In the mid-30s, a Sudeten German party had emerged that demanded autonomy and even the right to join Germany, a movement not-so-secretly supported by Germany.
To Chamberlain, the Czech crisis brought the issue of appeasement to a head. Czechoslovakia had a military alliance with France and Russia, whereby they would come to her aid if attacked. With Hitler threatening war if the Sudeten issue was not resolved, Chamberlain began to put his appeasement approach into action in the spring of 1938. He was determined that the Sudeten issue should not bring about another European war. By finding a way to satisfy German demands, thus deflecting France from going to war and keeping Russia out of the issue, a peaceful settlement could be made.
Chamberlain’s determination to find a peaceful solution to the Sudeten problem intensified in May when the Czechs, fearing a surprise German attack, mobilized their military forces. Hitler, who had no intention of ordering military action at that time, was enraged that he was supposed to have backed down to the Czech threat. He now resolved that the Czech issue be dealt with at the earliest possible time. It was, he said, “my iron will” that the Czech state would “disappear from the map.” He set the date October 1st for a solution to the Sudeten question. Whether by force or diplomacy did not matter to him.
The May crisis galvanized Chamberlain. Throughout the summer of 1938 he was determined to find a way to resolve the Sudeten question as a prelude to normalizing relations with Germany. For all practical purposes, the French, fearing a war even more than the British, deferred foreign policy decisions to Chamberlain. We know, thanks to Tim Bouverie’s recent study of the appeasement crisis, that all along Chamberlain had a plan if diplomacy failed—what he called Plan Z. Chamberlain would dramatically fly to meet Hitler and resolve the crisis in a person-to-person meeting.
That is exactly what happened. As Hitler’s threats to attack the Czechs became more violent—British intelligence believed that Hitler would strike sometime between September 18 and 29—Chamberlain put Plan Z into operation. A question of the correct frontier of Czechoslovakia he said shouldn’t be “made the occasion for a world war.”
On September 13, he proposed a personal meeting with Hitler, who now knew that the Czech issue would be resolved in a way satisfactory to him. “I fell from Heaven,” he is supposed to have said when he heard the news. Hitler and Chamberlain met at Berchtesgaden and with only a German interpreter present outlined a solution to the crisis along lines satisfactory to Hitler. The Czechs would evacuate the Sudetenland and realign their foreign policy, which meant that the Czech alliance with France and the Soviet Union was ended. In return, the British and French would guarantee the new Czech frontier.
Hitler had gotten everything he wanted, and Chamberlain was convinced that he had saved Europe from another war. As for the Czechs, they were told if they rejected the proposals, Great Britain and France would no longer take any interest in their future. And so the matter seemed resolved. But Hitler had a surprise in store when Chamberlain returned to Germany to finalize the arrangements for the transfer of Czech territory.
At a meeting in Godesberg, Chamberlain discovered that Hitler had second thoughts. He announced that the Sudeten territory must be evacuated immediately and any talk of plebiscites must be rejected. Further, the claims by Hungary and Poland to Czech territory would have to be resolved. Chamberlain was furious. He could not keep returning to London with acceptable plans, he said, only to be met later with the rejoinder that they were no longer sufficient. All further discussion proved useless, and Chamberlain returned to London on the night of the 24th.
Cabinet meetings that night and the next day saw sentiment harden against any deal with Hitler. On the 27th, the British mobilized their fleet; the French ordered a partial call-up of their forces, and the Czechs rejected all German demands. It appeared that a war might break out at any moment. But Chamberlain was not ready to give up. On the evening of the 27th, with war ready to break out, Chamberlain broadcast to the nation: “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...”
Hitler sent a message that same night. The Sudeten issue was the last issue that stood between war and peace in Europe, and he would guarantee the borders of the new Czech state. That was enough for Chamberlain to send his personal foreign policy adviser, the arch-appeaser Sir Horace Wilson, to Germany to see if even at the last minute some kind of deal could be struck. At the same time, Chamberlain sent a note to Mussolini proposing a four-power conference of Great Britain, France, Germany, and Italy—significantly the Soviet Union was not included—to resolve the Czech issue once and for all.
While Chamberlain was addressing the House of Commons and outlining the grimness of the situation facing Europe, a note was passed to him announcing that Hitler had agreed to the four-power conference. He announced that he would fly to meet Hitler at Munich to secure a deal that would avoid war breaking out. He was the man of the hour.
The Munich conference took place on the evening of September 29th. Chamberlain didn’t bother to meet with the French premier, Edouard Daladier, to coordinate planning. The Czechs were not invited to send a representative; their fate was in the hands of four great nations, none of which cared for the preservation of their state. The entire Sudeten territory, approximately 20 percent of Czech territory, including 800,000 Czechs, with all its material wealth passed into German hands.
After the formality of signing away Czech lands, Chamberlain met privately with Hitler. He presented the Fuehrer with a memorandum of understanding that he had drafted. It stated that the Munich agreement would serve “as symbolic of the desire of our two peoples never to go to war with one another.” Hitler signed, although he told his staff that it was a “piece of paper…of no significance.”
For Chamberlain, however, it was everything. This is the piece of paper he waved on returning to England which he described as bringing peace for our time. Later when he spoke from 10 Downing Street to a large crowd, he made reference to Disraeli’s triumph at the Congress of Berlin: “This is the second time in our history that there has come back from Germany to Downing Street peace with honor. I believe it is peace for our time.”
Chamberlain’s triumph was complete. The House of Commons overwhelmingly endorsed the deal, although a minority led by Duff Cooper and Churchill sharply criticized it. Cooper argued that Britain should have fought and gone to war as she did in 1914 to preserve the Balance of Power. Churchill’s remarks would be remembered for their eloquence and foresight. “We have sustained a total and unmitigated defeat. We are in the presence of a disaster of the first magnitude…and do not suppose this is the end. This is only the beginning of the reckoning. This is only the first sip…of a bitter cup which will be proffered to us year by year unless by a supreme recovery of moral health and martial vigor, we arise again and take our stand for freedom as in the olden time.”
Chamberlain’s triumph lasted for a little over a month. On November 9–10, following the assassination of a minor German embassy in Paris by a young German Jew, Hitler launched what has become known as Kristallnacht, the murder and terrorization of Germany’s Jewish population. Two hundred and sixty synagogues were burned, Jewish businesses throughout Germany were destroyed, and hundreds of Jews were murdered in cold blood. The Jewish community was made to pay a fine for the destruction, and at least 30,000 Jews were sent to various concentration camps.
Public opinion in England was jolted by the Nazi savagery. Chips Channon, an admirer who once called Chamberlain “the greatest man of all time…our amazing little god,” now was saddened because, as he noted in his infamous diary, that Hitler “always make[s] Chamberlain’s position more difficult.” Despite the grim news from Germany, Chamberlain was not ready to give up on his appeasement approach. He told his sister Ida, to whom he often revealed his deepest thoughts, in a phrase that was as revealing of his arrogance as his political blindness, “I know that I can save this country, and I do not believe that anyone else can.”
His optimism and the whole charade of Munich received a final blow on March 15, 1939, when Hitler engineered the German occupation of the rest of Czechia while turning the Slovak half of the nation into a German satellite. Chamberlain’s bargain with Hitler at Munich was now seen as a betrayal, and while Chamberlain still hoped a way would be found to avoid another war, appeasement was dead for all practical purposes, although flashes of it flickered on the diplomatic scene until Hitler’s invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939.
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Munich was a failure in every way, but it left an interesting mark. Later political figures used the Munich analogy to argue that dictators must never be accommodated, and aggression must always be dealt with firmly. President Lyndon Johnson used the Munich example to justify America’s deepening involvement in Vietnam, and the analogy again popped up around the time the United States attacked Iraq.
Chamberlain’s actions were a lesson that were read over again and again as a way to avoid war, but often with the wrong results. The impact of Munich was greater than just its role in leading to World War II.