When Munich Became a Synonym for Appeasement

75 Years Since Neville Chamberlain Tried to Please Hitler

No Peace in Our Time: British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain flashes the agreement with Adolf Hitler that he claimed ensured peace with the Nazi madman.
getty images
No Peace in Our Time: British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain flashes the agreement with Adolf Hitler that he claimed ensured peace with the Nazi madman.

By Robert Zaretsky

Published September 17, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 2 of 2)

Six months later, when Germany swallowed what had been left of an independent Czechoslovakia, Chamberlain was among the few westerners who expressed sincere shock.

In 1938, of course, Europe teetered on the edge of a second world war within twenty years, while the conflict in Syria is civil and sectarian. Unlike Hitler, Bachar al-Assad does not have global aims of conquest. While his father once had regional ambitions, the son’s only aim, at least now, is to hold on to power in Damascus and, if necessary, an Alawite state on the coast.

Moreover, Czechoslovakia was a model democracy led by the admirable Edvard Benes. The Syrian National Council, representing the resistance, contends not only against Assad’s bloody-minded regime, but equally barbaric Islamic extremists within their own ranks. The newly elected leader of the SNC, Ahmad Toumeh, may well be a moderate Islamist, but chances are he won’t be a Benes, much less be able to rein in the Sunni extremists. Only a modern Chamberlain will express shock at future videos of summary executions, cannibalism and civilian massacres.

These differences, though, wither when compared to the similarities. As historians have noted, Ba’athism, the ideology of Assad’s Syria, bears a close family resemblance to Nazism: its racist bearings, feverish nationalism, and cult of the leader are all hallmarks of a fascist state. Moreover, just as France and Great Britain had watched Nazi Germany’s growing violence against political opponents and Jews during the 1930s, so too has the West been a passive audience to Assad’s mounting crimes against his own people. In both cases, this quiescence emboldened the regimes to up the ante in atrocities, including the use of chemical warfare against civilians.

Moreover, the roles and reactions of western political leaders today are a remake of 1938. During the Munich crisis, while France wanted to call Hitler on his threats, she was utterly dependent on British support. When Chamberlain’s cabinet wavered over, then withdrew the military option, Prime Minister Edouard Daladier, who had no illusions about Hitler, was forced to accept the decision. So, too, today: lwhen President François Hollande led the diplomatic charge against Assad’s regime, he soon discovered his British and American allies were running furiously in place.

Meanwhile, just as Hitler’s ally Mussolini used the crisis to burnish his international reputation, so too has Assad’s enabler, Vladimir Putin. (Perhaps we should not make too much of the fact that both the Italian and Russian leaders like to bare their torsos in public.)

Finally, there is public opinion then and now. Hovering over Munich was the traumatic experience of an earlier war—indeed, the war to end all wars that bled white France and Britain and made the survivors deeply skeptical about official rationales for future wars. Similarly, the Bush Administration’s misuse and abuse of intelligence disabused us of the trust we once placed in our leaders. Our war in that other cradle of Ba’athism, Iraq, killed 4500 American soldiers, maimed tens of thousands of others and left behind a country freed of Saddam Hussein, but crippled by sectarian strife and chronic violence. It was the war to spawn yet more wars.

But public opinion is complex — and largely hostage to the fears and confusion that reigned among its leaders. In 1938, Chamberlain seemed to speak for many on both sides of the Channel when he declared: “In war, whichever side may call itself the victor, there are no winners, but only losers.”

Moreover, there was the overwhelming wave of relief that greeted his announcement that he had secured “peace in our time.”

Yet, as the historian Telford Taylor reminds us, the British believed Chamberlain had won guarantees for Czechoslovakia and ended German expansionism. When they discovered they had been had, an outraged public insisted on standing by Czechoslovakia.

Could Chamberlain have galvanized that same public earlier had he explained, in clear and concise terms, why Hitler could not be trusted? While we cannot answer that question with certainty, we do know the tragic consequences of the Munich Agreement.

And Syria? Will the agreement between Russia and the U.S. concerning chemical weapons serve Assad’s purposes as Munich served Hitler’s? No one can say. But history reminds that “red lines” can be as easily subverted as the black lines of a nation’s borders.

Robert Zaretsky is a professor of history at The Honors College at the University of Houston and is the author of the forthcoming “A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning” (Harvard University Press).


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.