The Rooms That History Forgot

VISITING historical sites can add a dimension impossible to find in a book. Such places are usually well marked and well worn; plans to visit must often be made in advance. But I recently visited a place, the room where Adolph Hitler and Neville Chamberlain signed the infamous Munich agreement, that has been largely forgotten.

Today is the anniversary of the Sept. 30, 1938, Munich Pact - the green light to Hitler to take Czechoslovakia. On that day the Great Powers of the world, in full public view, sold out a fellow state and declared the act a victory for peace and unity.

Tragically, the Munich ``peace deal,'' cut by Mr. Chamberlain 56 years ago to avoid war, actually made a larger war and a Holocaust possible. The event is worth examining, not as the kind of case study in policy options and highly calibrated probabilities found in schools of international relations during the cold war; but as a classic psychological study of arrogance and weakness, deception and delusion, betrayal and breakdown. It has more in common with a Greek tragedy; except that families and a world were split apart. In 1946 at the Nuremberg trials, the German generals agreed that World War II essentially began with the Munich deal.

One wonders, what are the rooms like where such decisions are made? Can clues be found in the air? Do the walls cry out?

I was in Munich this summer with limited time and no thought of visiting any sites. We were scheduled to see the collection of the Blaue Reiter school of art, and the offices of Radio Free Europe before they move to Prague. But walking down the Arcisstrasse my guide pointed out Hitler's old headquarters, where, she said, the Munich Pact was signed. The building is a huge white marble and stone neoclassical box with internal skylit patios and sweeping grand stairways designed by Nazi architect Albert Speer.

Today the complex, the Fuhrersbau, is a music school. Nothing, no sign or plaque, inside or out, indicates its history. We duck in. Students of all types, not unlike those at the Berklee College of Music near my office in Boston, hang out in the foyer. Scraps of paper litter the wall with notices of guitars for sale and rides to Bonn or Berlin. One sign described a free concert that evening. So we came back at 7:30.

During intermission, after a beautiful performance of Mahler and Brahms, I suddenly got the idea to see the room where Hitler and Chamberlain met. One would think this a reasonable request, given the location. But no one, not even at the front desk, seemed to know which room it was. Finally a maintenance man, after a pause and a shake of the head, said it was Room 105, up one flight.

I found rooms 102, 103, 104 (a closet). One more to go.

In 1938, in what is now Room 105, the world's leaders met on the eve of Hitler's threatened invasion of Czechoslovakia. The Fuhrer demanded all non-Germans in the Sudetenland to leave by 2 p.m. on Sept. 28. ``Deep gloom hung over Berlin, Prague, London, and Paris,'' wrote the late William Shirer. Only a final note from Chamberlain agreeing to Hitler's demands ``without war, and without delay'' stopped the tanks. The diplomacy in Room 105 forced 400,000 Czechs from their homes, gave Hitler 11,000 square miles of someone else's country, and let the German Army have the second-strongest defensive line in Europe without firing a shot. For Chamberlain, Munich seemed to remove ``the suspicions and animosities which have poisoned the air. By discussion instead of by force of arms [we] averted a catastrophe ... now it may be possible to make progress along the road to sanity.''

For the Germans, Room 105 held a different lesson. German generals at Nuremberg testified that without Munich, Hitler would have invaded on Oct. 1 - and quickly lost. General Keitel was ``extraordinarily happy'' with Munich: ``We always thought ... our means of attack against the frontier fortifications of Czechoslovakia were insufficient.'' The peace deal, Shirer states, quashed an Army plot against the Fuhrer if he invaded. As for Hitler, he was amazed, says Shirer, that ``none of the men who dominated the governments of Britain and France realized the consequences'' of what they had done in promoting his future plans.

Had the issues been defined correctly here 56 years ago, it is possible there may have been no war, no Auschwitz, no Hitler.

I find Room 105. Heavy wooden doors open to reveal a high ceiling, large windows, and a massive marble fireplace lining one wall. Somber paneling picked up the dusk of the evening and a glowering sky. Here it was. In one corner sits a drum set. In another, portable coat racks. A grand piano is pushed off center. Glass doors open to a balcony; standing on it, one can see four rusty bolt holes on the building's face where the crooked cross of the swastika once glared. Large raindrops drove me back inside.

It is a strange moment, not exactly a gift, to stand alone in the twilight in the place where such history was made. News photos of Chamberlain, Daladier, Mussolini, and Hitler posing in front of the fireplace show an Oriental rug. It is gone. The room where World War II began is nondescript, unmarked - a storage place for musical instruments and furniture. No clues explain the evils that occurred here.

Czech diplomats were not allowed to join the talks. Their photos are not part of the record. They pleaded to join but were ushered to an adjoining room - perhaps where students now practice piano - for eight hours. Chamberlain did ask once if Czech farmers could keep their cows. Hitler shouted, ``Our time is too valuable to be wasted on such trivialities!'' The cow issue was dropped. At 1:30 a.m. a ``ceremony'' was held ratifying the dismemberment of a state. One Czech diplomat wrote later that Chamberlain ``yawned continuously'' when questioned about the deal.

Chamberlain flew home waving a treaty ``never to go to war again'' and was lionized. It is easy to forget today how popular appeasement was. The Times of London summed up the public euphoria in an editorial: ``No conqueror returning from a victory on the battlefield has come adorned with nobler laurels.'' Only a few, such as Winston Churchill, raised a storm. The British ``should know the truth,'' Churchill said in Parliament: ``They should know there has been gross neglect and deficiency in our defenses ... we have passed an awful milestone in our history.'' Even Lord Halifax, beginning to doubt, was reassured by Chamberlain: ``But I have met him face to face.''

By any moral reckoning, 105 is a room of responsibilities. Much blame for later events shifts here to the Allies, who stubbornly refused to define the issues properly. Shirer's verdict on Chamberlain: ``The cost of [Munich] to his own country and to its allies and friends ... was by any accounting ... almost beyond bearing.''

Yet if Chamberlain is the goat of Munich, one can hardly, in this unmarked room, lay all responsibility on one man.

What is so distressing in some German intellectual circles today, notably around historian Ernst Nolte, are not arguments that downplay Auschwitz or Nazism. Instead, Auschwitz is being viewed as merely part of an overall war process, terrible though it was, that inexorably forced a military decision to murder millions of Jews. The decision took place in a context of Soviet advances, the bombing of German civilians, and other tragedies.

WHAT is dangerous is not that such arguments revise facts. They do not. They revise the question. One does not debate responsibility. Rather, moral responsibility and choice are simply removed from the debate. Or, if they are argued, they are done so only in relation to the crimes of others. Recent discussion in Japan about the Nanjing massacres and Chinese occupation take a similar approach.

To say that Auschwitz happened, but for logical reasons, is a new way of forgetting that it happened at all. Of course, many Germans reject such revisionism.

Now standing in the darkening shadows of this room, I remembered German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer's beautiful line, ``Only if you weep for the Jews, are you permitted to sing Gregorian chants.'' For Bonhoeffer, or any religiously minded persons, moral criteria cannot be removed from the debate. Rather, the debate is defined in moral and spiritual terms.

No one person or event was responsible for Nazism and Hitler. It was a steady series of denials and compromises over years. Munich was the responsibility of everyone who did nothing, of those who said nothing about their neighbors forced out of their homes and jobs, forced to wear yellow stars, shot in the streets.

It is late. Downstairs the concert resumes and I sneak back as four cellists play Bach. It is moving, but nothing compared to the finale: a Japanese soprano with a voice of unearthly beauty, backed by eight German strings, singing American folk songs. The world has come a long way since 1938. Still, one can't forget all those strange dark eyes now found in abundance in European train stations - all those refugee voices speaking what is called ``Yugo-Deutsch.'' Munich still teaches lessons about defining the issues properly. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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