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

By Erazim Koh'ak / September 29, 1988

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!

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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.

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?