The Munich Agreement as History and Analogy

, September 5, 2018

Being the responder represents a serious challenge, because we are in the company of the leading scholars of our generation, the Gedolei Hador, to use the expression of the yeshiva world. Our speakers, Professors Shlomo Avineri and Martin Kramer, and journalists Melanie Phillips and Fiamma Nierenstein, have shared valuable insights into the problem of appeasement in all of its complexity. I am also glad to include in this category some of our friends who are journalists. They know history, and in their work frequently witness it at close range. Sometimes their knowledge is better than that of academics, so I am inclined to regard some of my journalist friends with great respect.

We have a dialogue with the past, which affects our present and the way we look to the future. When I studied history at Columbia, our professors told us not to regard history as a force in its own right and that we should never say that history teaches us this or that. We may learn from history, but it is unsound to speak of history as an independent world force. So, in a certain sense, a measure of humility and caution is needed. Nevertheless, there is no need to despair. We have much to learn from past experience.

A very serious problem with appeasement is that it transmits a message of weakness. I shall read to you from a document that will show this. One of the unforeseen consequences of the Munich Agreement of September 30, 1938, was that, at that moment it was concluded, it ended effective opposition to Hitler on the part of the German General Staff, because Hitler’s political success undercut the internal opposition within the higher ranks of the Wehrmacht. Hugh Trevor-Roper carefully described the harmful consequences of Chamberlain’s initiative:

… Unable to storm this last citadel [The General Staff], Hitler set out to sap and mine it. By forced resignations and new appointments he partially succeeded – but only partially. In 1938, at the time of the Munich crisis, the General Staff under [General Franz] Halder, decided to remove the demented government; but the sudden news that Chamberlain had accepted the invitation to Munich knocked the weapons from their hands as they were preparing to strike. Hitler’s success at Munich was temporarily fatal to the Army leaders. They never had any outside support; they represented only themselves; and they were powerless against a dictator who could achieve triumphs such as this. For a time, the opposition of the General staff became again insignificant. Besides, the policy of the German Government for the next three years was not inconsistent with their own.1

I would like to share another insightful text with you. Sir John Wheeler-Bennett (1902-1975), a leading British historian of the first generation, wrote mainly about contemporary themes, particularly about German history. After the war, he published the study, Munich: Prologue to Tragedy, and Sir Orme Sargent (1884-1962), a senior civil servant at the British Foreign Office, wrote him an excellent analysis of the “ethics of appeasement.” This letter may be found in Appendix 5 of Martin Gilbert’s The Roots of Appeasement:

Many a time, both in international affairs as in personal relations, appeasement is the only wise and prudent course to adopt, to break an immediate deadlock and at the same time achieve an ulterior aim. It becomes questionable as a method of negotiation only if it can be shown to be immoral; i.e. the appeaser sacrifices the rights and interests of a third party and not his own when making his concession; or if it is clearly dangerous. i.e. where the concession made seriously undermines the strength of the appeaser either internally or internationally; this is especially so when the concession has to be repeated, for appeasement then becomes nothing less than blackmail, and lastly when the whole process of appeasement is just ineffective, i.e. when the appeaser, having to make his concession, gets no quid pro quo in return.”

Then, he wrote:

You remember the famous passage in Mein Kampf – you probably know it by heart – when Hitler frankly and cynically expounds and justifies his whole method of political and military undermining. If Chamberlain did not know this passage or had forgotten it, he showed criminal negligence [author’s emphasis]. If he knew it and chose to ignore it, he was taking a criminal risk [author’s emphasis] which could not be explained away.

Now the last part of this brief, which is most interesting. I will read it to you:

But although Hitler was not propitiated, I do not believe that he was deceived by a servile act of abnegation. He must have interpreted it as proof that his method was succeeding even better than he had dared to expect and that we have reached quicker than he had anticipated the ultimate stage of demoralization which is the forerunner of complete capitulation. How could he, poor man, have been expected to understand that this groveling gesture of ours signified, on the contrary, that the worm was at last going to make ready to turn? If he had realized this, he might have hesitated in 1939 to make his next move as soon as was laid down in his timetable. Calculating Stalin too might have reached other conclusions than he did. But neither Hitler nor Stalin did interpret the Chamberlain intervention at Munich as a warning that they ought to have done, and so our act of appeasement, far from delaying the war or enabling us to enter it, in improved circumstances may well have precisely had the opposite effect.2

I wanted to find the passage that Sargent was referring to, so I looked in Mein Kampf and could not find it. Then, I wrote a letter to Professor Eberhard Jaeckel in Stuttgart, the author of the classic study of Hitler’s Weltanschauung, or world view, and asked him if he could identify the passage to which Orme-Sargent referred. He gave an interesting answer, and we could say it’s a chiddush:

I do not know a certain passage, neither a famous one as Sir Orme Sargent wrote, nor a particular one, as you write, in Mein Kampf, where Hitler justifies his whole method of political and military undermining. Whereas his aims were war (of conquest) and removal (of the Jews). He was not interested in justifying his method. It was rather the very essence of his whole book that his aims were to be attained unconditionally. That is, without previous blackmailing. If such a passage should exist at all it is most likely to be found in chapters 13 and 14 of the second volume. But I cannot find it.

So, the interesting insight which Jaeckel added was that it was that the whole program was what Hitler was all about. His views were to be found in everything he wrote and in everything that he did.3

I shall now add a few observations from Sir Neville Henderson, the British ambassador to Hitler’s Germany before the war. (Henderson was considered to be a Nazi sympathizer and in favor of Czechoslovakia’s ceding of the Sudetenland.) He wrote:

Verbal and written agreements had absolutely no meaning after he’d gotten what he wanted…. He was ready to sign anything. He was ready to guarantee any frontier and to conclude a non-aggression pact with anyone…. Each stage was always the last for him until he reached it. As soon as that position was gained, he advanced on to the next.4

Retrospectively, we have become much more critical of the decision-makers than we ever were, and this is now reflected in our general outlook. I wish to add that some postwar German historians have given us an example of positive use of history-writing in society. A certain group scholars resolved to face history honestly and dispassionately and to set aside the nationalistic traditions of the traditional academic approach. This endeavor called “coping with the past” or, in German, Vergangenheitsbewältigung. That is, to tell the truth rather than rationalizing or embellishing it. It used to be the tradition in many European schools to teach straight nationalist history without introspection, but with the evolution of postwar history writing in Germany, and in other parts of Europe, the idea of writing contemporary history on an honest basis caught on, and not only in Germany, but in Austria for example. The idea is sound, and we could use more of this “coping with the past” and learning from our mistakes.

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Notes

1 Hugh Trevor-Roper, The Last Days of Hitler (London: Papermac, 1995, seventh edition), 6, 7.

2 “Letter from Sir Orme Sargent to J. W. Wheeler-Bennett, Esq. commenting in 1946 on his book ‘Munich: Prologue to Tragedy,” Appendix 5 in Martin Gilbert, The Roots of Appeasement (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1966), 220-223.

3 Eberhard Jaeckel, personal communication with the author, August 30, 2006.

4 Sir Neville Henderson, Failure of a Mission; Berlin 1937-1939 (London: Hodder and Stoughton Ltd., 1940), 62, 79, 117.

About Joel Fishman

Dr. Joel Fishman is a fellow of the Jerusalem Center of Public Affairs.  He served as the assistant editor of volumes X (July 1920-December 1921) and XI (January 1922-July 1923) of The Letters and Papers of Chaim Weizmann (Jerusalem: Israel Universities Press, 1977).