Lessons of Munich - relevant 50 years later. Democracy and unity, more than raw force, is the key to resisting oppression


FIFTY years ago, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain emerged from his airplane, waved his umbrella, and announced that his surrender to Hitler in Munich had won us ``peace in our time.'' His words and gesture would soon give a bad name both to umbrellas and to ``peace in our time.'' A year later, the world was embroiled in an apocalyptic global conflict. Far from appeasing Hitler, sacrificing Czechoslovakia removed an obstacle to his expansion and provided him with superb Skoda guns and tanks for it. Ever since, the ``lessons of Munich'' have become the stock argument of opponents of appeasement and proponents of force alike, even though, with passing years, ever fewer of them have a clear idea of just what those lessons might be. Just what was the Munich agreement? On the face of it, it seems simple enough. Hitler threatened war on Czechoslovakia. France and England, bound to Czechoslovakia by mutual defense treaties, reneged on their obligation: to ``save peace'' they agreed to Czechoslovakia's dismemberment in exchange for Hitler's assurance that he would make no further demands. That assurance lasted only as long as it took Hitler to reequip his Army with captured Czechoslovak equipment. A straightforward case, it seems, of a coward seeking to appease a bully, with predictable results and with an equally straightforward moral: Don't appease, fight!

Yet the story of the Munich agreement is more complex. It begins at the end of World War I, when France, with British concurrence, supported the rise of independent nation-states on Germany's eastern border. The process, to be sure, was largely a spontaneous one. The French did not ``dismember Austro-Hungary'' or ``create'' Poland and Czechoslovakia. That simply happened. The Czechs and the Poles, proud peoples with a long history of independence, had long been restive under alien rule. When war and revolution weakened their masters, they seized the opportunity to reaffirm their sovereignty. France, badly bruised by German aggression in 1870 and again in 1914, saw in the new states possible allies against any future German expansion. It befriended the new states, provided them with extensive economic and military aid, and concluded a series of mutual defense treaties with them.

To the Czechs especially, the mutual defense treaty with France appeared as an expression of the solidarity of freedom and democracy against German autocracy and militarism, depicted in wildly romantic and wholly unrealistic terms. In Western perception, however, the newly independent states were to play a second role as well, that of a cordon sanitaire that would insulate Europe from the virus of communism festering among the ruins of the czarist empire. It was, basically, a policy of double containment, surrounding Germany with reliable allies and building a barrier across Europe against the Soviets.

Recommended: Could you pass a US citizenship test?

HITLER's rise to power brought out the inner contradiction of French foreign policy: Given a choice, should the primary role of France's allies be to contain Germany or to confront the Soviets? To a great many people in the West, Hitler with his stringent anticommunism came increasingly to appear as the more effective barrier to the Soviet infection than democratic Czechoslovakia, with a legal Communist Party and a friendship treaty with the Soviet Union.

By 1938, events were moving fast. On March 13, Hitler occupied Austria and focused his fury on Czechoslovakia. In May that year, Czechoslovakia mobilized in response to reports of a German buildup and invoked French support. The French mobilized in turn, but as they took up arms, the question became acute. Were France to go to war with Germany in defense of its Czechoslovak ally, it would be drawing Hitler's fury to the West while destroying it as a barrier to communism - while the Soviets could use their treaty with the Czechs as a pretext for marching into the heart of Europe. Was Czechoslovakia worth it?

There was, of course, a considerable residual sympathy for Czechoslovak democracy. The Czechs were not simply allies of convenience. Guided by the great humanist philosopher, T.G. Masaryk, they had built up in their country the one genuine humanistic democracy east of the Rhine. Czechoslovakia was an island of freedom, tolerance, and justice - and a haven for refugees - amid a sea of authoritarian regimes. A great many French and British, Winston Churchill among them, were loath to sacrifice that island of Western values to a blatant, highly unsavory aggressor like Hitler. Czechoslovakia had not only an impressive Army, but also an even more impressive moral claim on Western support.

Unfortunately, Czechoslovakia had its weaknesses as well. Centuries of Austrian rule had given it a sizable German minority within its historic borders - some 3.5 million in a population of just over 14 million. In the eastern part of the country, where no well-established borders existed, the newly drawn border between Slovakia and Hungary included nearly half a million ethnic Hungarians in the new state. For that matter, the three million Slovaks were ambivalent toward what they perceived as the Czech centralism of the Czechoslovak republic. Though the Czechs, by universal admission, built Czechoslovakia as a model humanistic democracy, amid the intense national chauvinism of central Europe only the ethnic Czechs, representing just over half the population, were unreservedly committed to its defense.

Given the 50 years of peace Mr. Masaryk hoped for, it is quite possible that Czechoslovak democracy would have gradually won the allegiance of all its citizens, regardless of ethnic identity. The first years, before the rise of Hitler, showed a significant shift in that direction: A number of loyal Czechoslovak citizens of German ethnic nationality were among the republic's defenders. But the republic had only 10 years before the depression and Hitler. The process of building allegiance had barely begun. How Hitler took advantage of that situation! Denying any claims against a Czech state as such, he presented himself as speaking solely on behalf of Czechoslovakia's ethnic German minority and demanding that the borders be redrawn along ethnic lines.

It was a clever move. Never mind that the borders of the Czech lands were some 600 years old, sanctioned by history as by geography. Never mind that the proposed border would include both historic Czech territory and ethnic Czechs in the Reich. Never mind that the remnant of Czechoslovakia would be neither defensible nor economically viable - the proposed annexation included Czechoslovakia's mountains and fortifications while disrupting its economic infrastructure. The proposal provided French and British statesmen with the salve they needed for their conscience. They could avoid being drawn into a conflict with Germany and into an alliance with the USSR - and yet could console themselves that they did not really betray Czechoslovakia, that they only redrew its borders along more equitable ethnic lines.

It was a ruse so transparent that no one tried to defend it seriously, not even at the time. The reality was too obvious: France, with Britain consenting, sacrificed its Czechoslovak ally to Hitler in order to channel German expansion eastward. The Czechoslovak government, excluded at Munich, was confronted with an accomplished fact: The French and the British would not honor their treaties. Czechoslovakia must surrender its border regions or be crushed by overwhelmingly superior German might.

The rest is history. Hitler occupied the Czech fortifications while Mr. Chamberlain quoted the Prayer Book, ``peace in our time.'' Six months later, Hitler occupied the rump state, renamed ``Czecho-Slovakia,'' and in another six months later swept through Poland, using captured Czech tanks. This time France and Britain, stung by his perfidy, did honor their treaties and declared war. So everything the Munich surrender sought to avoid came to pass. Germany caught itself in a war on two fronts, France found itself allied with the USSR, and Soviet armies marched into Europe. At a heartbreaking cost, the appeasement at Munich achieved nothing.

Yet was the lesson of Munich simply that appeasement does not buy peace? It was that, too - though surely not the unspoken corollary some have sought to draw from it, that all peace means appeasement and that force is the only reliable instrument of diplomacy. The real lessons run deeper.

ONE of those lessons repeats the lesson of Czechoslovakia's birth amid the collapse of Austro-Hungary - that in a moment of crisis no state can survive without the active support of all of its peoples, not of a ruling segment alone. Had the Czechoslovak republic been able to count on the unswerving support of its peoples, Hitler would have thought twice before attacking it - and 'Edouard Daladier and Chamberlain would have thought twice before abandoning it. In times of peace and calm, it may not seem to matter. A dominant segment of a population, especially if assured of foreign support, can keep a state operating and force dissenters to resign themselves to it. It can even create a semblance of normality. Yet if a state is to survive under pressure, conformity to its rule is not enough. Then a state needs more than power or nobility of aim: It needs the unfeigned allegiance of its people. Might is no substitute: A state that cannot win the active allegiance of all of its peoples will be vulnerable to a Munich.

The second lesson applies to international policy: A Machiavellian policy that sacrifices the freedom of others undermines its own. The point is not that the French ``should have fought.'' France should have honored the ideals it claimed for itself. Once the French policymakers chose to condone the monstrous injustice of Hitler on the grounds of his stringent ``anticommunism,'' the ideals they sought to defend were forfeited. To support a regime we know to be utterly unsupportable simply because it appears to serve our momentary advantage is not only obscene, but foolish. That regime will self-destruct. Consistent support for freedom and justice is the only reliable foundation of a foreign policy, not a Machiavellian support for the enemies of our enemies. France paid for Munich, not because it ``did not fight,'' but because in surrendering Czechoslovakia it chose to support an evil on tactical grounds. That is the second lesson of Munich - a wise policy chooses its allies on the basis of what they are for, not whom they are against.

Contrary to oft-heard claims, the lesson of Munich is not the superiority of force over negotiations. It is the superiority of genuine democracy over domination: Democracy makes a country strong; a strong hand makes it vulnerable. And it is the superiority of freedom and justice over machinations. It would be good if, on the 50th anniversary of Munich, the world's policymakers would finally learn those lessons.

Erazim Koh'ak is a professor of philosophy at Boston University.

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.