80 Years since the Munich Agreement

, September 5, 2018

Thanks to all of you for showing up, for showing interest in our joint conference. As Dore already said, my name is Alexander Brakel and I’m the head of the Israel office of the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung. Konrad Adenauer Stiftung is a German political organization closely associated with the Christian Democratic Union, Angela Merkel’s party. We operate both domestically and abroad. Right now, we have 94 offices abroad. We operate in more than 100 countries, and of course our Israel office is one of our most important and one of our largest offices. The way we operate abroad is always in seeking partnerships with people from these countries, who know the situation in these countries and know what would be good projects. So, I’m very delighted that we have this strong partnership with the JCPA. Our partnership goes back a long time, I would say, but I don’t know exactly how many years. I know that at least in the last couple of years, we always had a conference dedicated to one major significant historical event. Last time, I think it was the Balfour Declaration that we commemorated. Unfortunately, as I’m only finishing my first year, I can’t remember what were the other historical events. But I know that we already have a tradition of doing that.

So when Dore called me in spring this year and said, “What about commemorating the Munich Agreement?” and built a conference around that event to reassess appeasement and draw some lessons for the future, I said “sure.” I thought a little bit about it and said, “Yeah, this will be interesting but it will be very complicated because it’s a very sophisticated task.” Dore said, “Yeah, that’s what we here for, so okay, then let’s do that.”

Why do I think it’s so sophisticated? I mean, on the first glance, everything about Munich seems so clear-cut. On the one side, you have a ruthless dictator who pursues an expansionist policy. On the other hand, you have democratic leaders who are ready to sacrifice a sovereignty of a state that is not the state they govern themselves – Czechoslovakia – for what turns out to be the illusion of peace. After this ruthless act, the rape of Czechoslovakia as you might call it, they don’t gain the peace they hoped for, but they find themselves at war with the very same dictator that they sat at the table with at Munich, losing this battle. One might argue because they were prepared for this war, so in hindsight everything seems very clear-cut.

However, there’s a couple of things that we keep in mind. Going back to the Munich Agreement itself, in recent years we’ve seen new historical research telling us that… Maybe I should start with saying there’s no reassessment about the motivation and the ruthlessness of the behavior of the German side and there’s of course no arguing about the fact that carving up a sovereign state is highly immoral, although this is something that we’ve seen over the course of history again and again, fortunately not so much in the twentieth century. At least, it’s nothing that we want to accept in today’s time but historians in recent times have shown that Britain was highly unprepared for war in 1938. So the assumption that we shared for many times that 1938 would have been an ideal moment to stop Hitler right now doesn’t seem to be so certain anymore.

Well, that’s one thing. Then the other thing is that we of course now know that the successful outcome of the war in France from the German side, the German victory in France, and a crashing defeat of both the French and the British armies, was nothing that could have been predicted right away and instead was highly unlikely and the result of a whole chain of very, very poor military judgment on the British and French side, giving at least hardly credit to Chamberlain’s original or military assessment. Third of course, is that in hindsight we know that the Allies, thank God, won this war, that the British under the leadership of Winston Churchill were able to withstand the German war efforts at a time when Britain was fighting alone, which again was far from certain when they were in this situation.  

The third or fourth thing – I’ve lost track of my own counting – but the fourth thing is always how very well-informed we are, especially as historians, when it comes to assessing the mistakes of the past and how poorly we often are at predicting the future, and this holds true not only for historians whose profession of course is not making predictions for the future but for political scientists, sociologists, and so on. When it comes to drawing the lessons of history, it’s always very difficult to say which historical situation applies in a moment. One thing that I remember when it comes to Munich is 2014. When in 2014, Russia occupied Crimea, Munich was evoked very often and many commentators, politicians, journalists, and experts said, “Look, we have to draw the lessons or apply the lessons of Munich, and we have to stop Russian aggression right now otherwise it will go much further.” Other commentators evoked a completely different lesson. They evoked a completely different date, which was July 1914, and they said, “We have to make sure that Europe won’t stumble again in a large war without anybody willing that. So right now, it’s not the time for sending strong military-backed messages, but it’s the time for diplomacy.” I’m not taking a stance here what would have been the right lesson, but it shows us that it’s very, very difficult to just say, “Okay it’s one historical example and this applies 100 percent,” without studying their present situation thoroughly, and probably it’s much more that knowing our history helps us to understand the complexity of a current situation. 

I think we’ll devote today’s conference to exactly that-trying to get a better understanding of the factors that made Munich such a failure and that define appeasement as a wrong strategy and then, looking forward, trying to identify these factors and where we can really say this appeasement policy is bound to fail. This, on the other hand, might be a totally legitimate diplomatic effort to stop the war, even a winnable war, that we don’t want to happen. So, I’m really thrilled about this conference. I hope you’re too, and I mean the mere fact that you’re here shows your large interest. Looking at our excellent list of speakers, I’m sure we won’t be disappointed and I’m really looking forward to seeing you next year. Thank you very much.

About Dr. Alexander Brakel

Dr. Alexander Brakel is the director of the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung Israel