In the middle of the sudden debate over the very settled historical judgment on appeasement, a curious defense of it appeared in yesterday’s Seattle Times. Bruce Ramsey wrote about the historical context of appeasement for the editorial-board blog, Ed Cetera, and argues that we have judged Britain and France too harshly for its actions at Munich. The two nations tried to avoid another devastating war the only way open to them at the time, which Ramsey excuses after the catastrophe of World War I:
The narrative we’re given about Munich is entirely in hindsight. We know what kind of man Hitler was, and that he started World War II in Europe. From the view of 1938, what Hitler was demanding at Munich was not unreasonable, according to the prevailing idea of the nation-state. His claim was that the German-speaking areas of Europe–and ones that thought of themselves as German –be under German authority. He had just annexed Austria, which was German-speaking, without bloodshed. There were two more small pieces of Germanic territory: the free city of Danzig and the Sudetenland, a border area of what is now the Czech Republic.
We live in an era when you do not change national borders for these sorts of reasons. We have learned the hazards of it. But 1938 was only 19 years since Germany’s borders had been redrawn, and not to its benefit. In the democracies there was some sense of guilt with how Germany had been treated after World War I. Certainly there was a memory of the “Great War.” In 2008, we have entirely forgotten World War I, and how utterly unlike any conception of “The Good War” it was. When the British let Hitler have a slice of Czechoslovakia, they were following the historical lesson they had learned 1914-1918: avoid war. War produces results far more horrible than you expected. War is a bad investment. It is not glorious. Don’t give anyone an excuse to start one.
In a few months, in early 1939, Hitler ordered the invasion of what is now the Czech Republic—that is, territory that was not German. Then it was obvious that a deal with him was worthless. He made a promise and broke it within about six months. And so when Bush recalls the unnamed senator who, in September 1939, lamented that he had not been able to talk to Hitler, he hits an easy target. But the moment of September 1939 is nothing like today.
In September 1939, when Germany started the war, it had no just claim to any more territory. But the Palestinians who fight Israel do have a just claim to territory. We can argue what it is; we can argue about the justness of their military tactics, and so on. And the same for the Israeli side, which is equally arguable.
Ramsey accuses people of ignoring historical context, but he ignores quite a bit of it in this passage as well. The German problem did not suddenly present itself in October 1938. Hitler and the Nazis violated treaties in increments starting almost immediately on their rise to power in 1933, rearming themselves, expanding their army past the 100,000-man limit of Versailles, producing large warships, reoccupying the Rhineland, and so on. Had Britain and France enforced the terms of the treaty at these pre-Munich stages, they would have avoided a devastating war, rather than stand up to a reinvigorated German war machine in the fall of 1938.
But, Ramsey says, all is clear in hindsight. We know now that appeasement doesn’t work, but in the context of the times, neither Britain nor France thought Hitler would go past the Sudetenland, where Ramsey argues Germany had a legitimate claim to the territory — because its inhabitants spoke German. He claims that the Austrian anschluss was bloodless, which only is true if one ignores the violence perpetrated by the Brownshirts in intimidating Austrians into submission. And he finally argues that carving up Czechoslovakia was a legitimate expression of the nation-state, pre-Munich.
That is simply hogwash, and it attempts to rescue Neville Chamberlain by ignoring his greatest crime. No nation has ever had the right to dismember an allied nation without its approval, or even its participation. The ministers of Czechoslovakia were barred from the Munich negotiations by Hitler, and Chamberlain presented them with the loss of the Sudetenland as a fait accompli, warning the Czechoslovakian ministers that Britain and France would break the mutual defense treaty if they refused to sign away their territory.
The Wehrmacht high command was stunned at this turn of events. They knew, as did the British and the French, that they had forcibly removed the one great impediment to German ambitions in the East. The mountains of Moravia and Bohemia presented a formidable natural defense against German invasion, and the Czechoslovakians had added modern military fortifications that would have stopped even a blitzkrieg cold, leaving Germany’s western frontier open to assault from the much larger French Army. Any thought of stopping Hitler from within ended at Munich and didn’t seriously reappear until the senior German officers realized the war was lost after Normandy in 1944.
They had given the natural defense of eastern Europe away for a promise, thanks to politicians who dreamed of peace at any cost, and who sold Czechoslovakia out to get it. Six months later, the same two nations wouldn’t even lift a finger to protect the rump Czech state as Hitler rolled across it, preparing for his assault on Poland and eastern Europe.
The historical context does not acquit Chamberlain, Britain, or France at all. It convicts them, especially in their haste to carve up an ally to appease a dictator who had long since shown his true colors. It was an act of cowardice set in motion by a series of capitulations that everyone pretended didn’t exist. It shows the folly of coddling dictators who dream of world domination.