When President Bush, before the Knesset, used the word “appeasement” to label those who would negotiate with Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, he invoked the most powerful analogy in any debate over war and peace.
No man wishes to be regarded as an “appeaser.”
But, as this writer has discovered since my book Churchill, Hitler and The Unnecessary War: How Britain Lost Its Empire and the West Lost the World was launched Memorial Day, there is a deep well of ignorance about what happened that September, 70 years ago.
Why did Neville Chamberlain go to Munich? How did Munich lead to World War II?
The seeds of the crisis were planted at the Paris peace conference of 1919. There, the victorious Allies carved the new nation of Czechoslovakia out of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
But instead of following their principle of self-determination, the Allies placed under the rule of 7 million Czechs 3 million Germans, 3 million Slovaks, 800,000 Hungarians, 150,000 Poles and 500,000 Ruthenians. These foolish decisions spat upon Woodrow Wilson’s 14 Points, under the terms of which the Germans, Austrians and Hungarians had laid down their arms.
By 1938, Germany had arisen, re-armed and brought Austria into the Reich, and was demanding the right of self-determination now be granted to the 3 million Germans in Czechoslovakia, who were clamoring to be free of Prague to rejoin their kinsmen.
Britain had no alliance with, and no obligation to fight for, the Czechs. But France did. And Britain feared that if Adolf Hitler used force to bring the Sudeten Germans back to German rule, France might fight. And if France declared war, Britain would be drawn in, and a second bloodbath would ensue as it had in 1914.
Chamberlain went to Munich because he did not believe that keeping 3 million Germans inside a nation to which they had been consigned against their will was worth a world war.
Moreover, Britain was unprepared for war. She had no draft, no Spitfires, no divisions ready to be sent to France. Why should the British Empire commit suicide by declaring war on Germany, to support a Paris peace agreement that he, Chamberlain, believed had been unjustly and dishonorably imposed on a defeated Germany?
Chamberlain believed not—and, after three trips to Germany that September, he effected the transfer of the Sudeten Germans to Berlin’s rule, where they wished to be. He came home in triumph to be hailed as the greatest peacemaker of all time.
Why, then, are “Munich” and “appeasement” terms of obloquy?
The answer lies in what happened next.
Chamberlain returned from Munich to a rapturous reception, waving a paper he and Hitler had signed, and declared: “For the second time in 60 years, a British prime minister has returned from Germany with peace with honor. I believe it is peace for our time.”
This was palpable nonsense. Hitler had already turned to the next item on his menu, Danzig, a city of 350,000 Germans, detached from the Reich at Versailles and made a Free City to give the new Poland an outlet to the sea. Hitler did not want war with Poland. Indeed, he wanted the kind of alliance with Poland he had with Italy. But, first, Danzig must be resolved.
Here, too, the British Government agreed: Danzig should be returned. For of all the amputations of German lands and peoples at Versailles, European statesmen, even Winston Churchill, regarded Danzig and the Polish Corridor that sliced Germany in two as the most outrageous. The problem was the Poles, who refused to discuss Danzig.
Then, in March, Czechoslovakia suddenly began to fall apart. The Sudetenland had been annexed by Germany. Hungary had taken back its lost lands, and Poland had annexed the disputed region of Teschen. Slovakia and Ruthenia now moved to declare independence, and Prague began to march on the provinces.
Hitler intervened to guarantee the independence of Slovakia and gave Hungary a green light to re-annex Ruthenia. Czech President Hacha then asked to see Hitler, who bullied him for three hours into signing away Czech sovereignty and making his nation the German Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia.
Chamberlain, now humiliated, mocked by Tory back-benchers, panicking over wild false rumors of German attacks on Romania and Poland, made the greatest blunder in British history. Unasked, he issued a war guarantee to Poland, empowering a Polish dictatorship of colonels that had joined Hitler in dismembering Czechoslovakia to drag the British Empire into war with Germany over a city, Danzig, the British thought should be returned to Germany.
It was not Munich. It was the war guarantee that guaranteed the war that brought down the Empire, and gave us the Holocaust, 50 million dead and the Stalinization of half of Europe.
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