“A quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing.” When he pronounced these words, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was referring, of course, to Czechoslovakia. That “quarrel” eventually led to the Munich Agreement: an event which opened the path to WWII and whose 75th anniversary we are now marking. Rarely have past and present dovetailed with such unsettling timing.
While few American politicians today can equal Chamberlain’s grammatical rigor, quite a number do echo his sentiments not on Mitteleuropa, but instead the Middle East. At the same time, their opponents cite Munich as a warning to those who would, in their view, repeat the mistake of turning a blind eye to a nation bent on violence against innocents.
American Secretary of State John Kerry declared the West confronted a “Munich moment,” while the secretary general of the French Socialist Party, Harlem Désir, charged that the “spirit of Munich” had infected French critics of a military strike against Syria.
Historical comparisons are, by their nature, inexact yet invaluable, inevitable but inevitably limited. Munich—the synecdoche for the dramatic and dense series events of September 1938 that led to the West’s acquiescence to Czechoslovakia’s dismemberment—is no exception. Yet it is impossible to ignore the parallels and wonder if they offer guidance for us today.
Let us recall, first, the differences. By 1938, Adolph Hitler had already scuttled the restraints that the Treaty of Versailles had placed upon Germany two decades earlier. Confident and cunning, he then turned his attention to Czechoslovakia, the only pluralist and democratic state that rose from the rubble of the Habsburg Empire.
Posing as the liberator of the ethnic Germans in southern Czechoslovakia, Hitler threatened to go to war if Prague did not surrender these territories to Germany. Their nations bound to Czechoslovakia by firm treaty obligations, Chamberlain and Edouard Daladier, the French prime minister, nevertheless ignored them. Gathered at Berchtesgaden, at a meeting stage-managed by Fascist Italy’s Benito Mussolini, Chamberlain and Daladier acceded to Hitler’s demands.