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Saturday, Oct. 17, 2009

‘Munich, 1938: Appeasement and World War II’

David Faber talks Germany and Czechoslovakia

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The attitude of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and other British politicians toward Czechoslovakia in 1938 veered awfully close to the oxymoronic expression, “We must destroy this country to save it.” So desperate were they to avoid war with Germany that they abandoned Czechoslovakia to a Nazi fate, as David Faber shows in Munich, 1938: Appeasement and World War II (Simon & Schuster). “Appeasement” has become a shibboleth cavalierly wielded by American politicians and radio talk-show hosts ignorant of the “Munich Crisis” to warn us of everything from North Korea to socialized medicine.

In English alone there have been more than 200 books on the subject, but this one is worth picking out of the pack. It is well written—by a historian and former member of the British Parliament—as well as documented and detailed down to the ground, and helpfully analytical to a fare-thee-well.

Czechoslovakia was a country cobbled together only 20 years before out of the wreckage, left by World War I, of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Faber shows that the dominant Czechs were not exactly welded in harmony with the Slovaks and that the Bohemians and Moravians distrusted each other and everyone else.

Still, it was a functioning democracy and might have stumbled along indefinitely had it not been for another, sizable minority, the Sudeten Germans. And Adolf Hitler. Living in a region bordering Germany called the Sudetenland, the Sudeten Germans were unaware of how oppressed they were by the Czech jackboot until the Fhrer began cooing it in their—and the world’s—ears loudly, stridently and often.

With the help of opportunist sympathizers in the Sudetenland, German Nazis told them how eager they were to be “endlich Heim ins Reich” (“home in the Reich at last”) until even the least interested among them believed it. After all, a similar strategy had worked with Austria just months before—but then, the majority of Austrians actually were happy to be absorbed into the Nazi Fatherland.

The history of what has come to be called “Munich” is essentially the history of two things: (1) Chamberlain’s continued willingness to be deceived by Hitler, and (2) because of that, the rapid unraveling of Czechoslovakia. Faber depicts Chamberlain as a vain man, proud of his (mistaken) belief in his ability to take the measure of the other man.

The prime minister and the Fhrer held three meetings in September 1938, only one of which was in Munich. Before Munich they met at Hitler’s mountaintop aerie in Berchtesgaden and at Godesberg. At no time was any Czech representative allowed to take part, except at a mediation held in August in Prague.

By this point Czech President Edvard Benes had been forced into accepting the loss of the Sudetenland. But Hitler kept upping the ante. The author makes it abundantly clear that Hitler had absolutely no intention of ever coming to any agreement. All the while he was supposedly negotiating with the British and the French, his military was preparing to invade Czechoslovakia, knowing that Britain and France were highly unlikely to go to war to uphold whatever promises they had made to the unhappy country.

Faber also makes clear, correspondingly, the “breathtaking navete” of the British and French in dealing with Hitler. Among the few prominent men opposing appeasement were Anthony Eden, Chamberlain’s foreign secretary, who had recently resigned over the issue, and, most famously, Winston Churchill.

The piece of paper that Chamberlain brought back to London from Munich on Sept. 30, which he said offered “peace with honour” and “peace for our time,” of course brought about neither. Hitler had signed it not caring what he signed. He told Joachim von Ribbentrop, his foreign minister, that it had “no further significance whatsoever”; another observer said Hitler remarked, “Well, he was such a nice old gentleman I thought I’d give him my autograph as a souvenir.”

The agreement allowed for the entry of German soldiers into the Sudetenland and its absorption into the Reich along with guarantees for the “new” Czechoslovakia. But within two months the various regions had been gobbled up by Germany. On Dec. 17, Hitler rode in triumph into Prague, sat at Benes’ desk and drafted a proclamation declaring that Czechoslovakia, having “ceased to exist,” was incorporated into the Reich.