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Lessons of Munich

by Alvin Finkel on Sep 9, 1998

Alvin Finkel

Sixty years ago, on September 29, 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and French Prime Minister Edouard Daladier met in Munich with German and Italian dictators Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini to decide the fate of Czechoslovakia. They agreed to Hitler’s demand for German annexation of the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia. Opponents of this betrayal of a sovereign and democratic nation decried “appeasement.” They questioned why Britain and France hesitated to challenge an expansion-minded Germany.

Even today, “Munich” invokes the spectacle of peace-loving nations cowering before aggressors. Throughout the Cold War, American “hawks” accused “doves” of supporting bankrupt pre-World War II tactics whenever they sought negotiations with an opponent. Before the Gulf War, George Bush rejected Saddam Hussein’s desperate search for a face-saving way to get out of Kuwait before his nation was attacked — Saddam agreed to withdraw if the leading Western countries agreed to hold an international conference on the future of Palestine — with one word: “Munich.”

But Bush and the Cold War hawks misunderstood Munich. What they perceived as lack of toughness was really premeditated collusion with the dictators to fight communism elsewhere. Had they carefully examined the significance of the real Munich decision, they would have realized that they were not responding to the “lessons of Munich,” as they often claimed, but were, in fact, repeating the same errors as that grand appeaser, Neville Chamberlain.

As Chamberlain left Britain for three meetings with Hitler in September 1938, of which Munich was the third, he wrote King George VI candidly that he sought a broad “Anglo-German understanding” rather than simply a solution to the Czech crisis. Such an understanding was likely, he felt, because imperial England and Nazi Germany were “the two pillars of European peace and buttresses against communism.” At his first meeting with Hitler, he revealed that Britain would not only stay out of any German-Soviet conflict, but would also attempt to restrain its allies from taking action against Germany.

Hitler then assured Chamberlain at their second meeting: “We will not stand in the way of your pursuit of your non-European interests and you may without harm let us have a free hand on the European continent in central and South-East Europe.” Obsessed with communism, Chamberlain was happy to “appease” Hitler, despite his well-known expansionist and racist policies.

Like Chamberlain, Cold War leaders made unsavory alliances with dictators to block revolutionary forces. Often claiming they were avoiding another Munich, they helped to overthrow revolutionary and even merely reformist governments. Even in the post-Cold War period, the refusal to compromise with social forces in the Third World has continued, with the danger of “appeasement” invoked to defend the approach. This is evident, for example, in the continued U.S. belligerence towards Cuba long after other western countries have accepted that Castro’s revolution has actually brought some benefits to the Cuban people.

The notion of “avoiding another Munich” means something wholly different when we understand that Chamberlain was not trying to prevent war at all costs but was, in fact, promoting a war against the hated Soviet Union. Ironically, in today’s world, it is those who are most willing to attempt to understand and to compromise with social revolutionaries who are usually labeled “appeasers” when the historical record suggests the real “appeasers” were individuals too blinded by fears of social revolution to take action against Hitler.


Alvin Finkel is co-author, with Clement Leibovitz and Christopher Hitchens, of "In Our Time: The Chamberlain-Hitler Collusion." He teaches history at Athabasca University in Alberta, Canada.