The Munich Agreement as History and Analogy

, September 5, 2018

Well thank you, good morning. I am honored to have been invited to this event. This is not the first time. In fact, if we go back further there was an event commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Sykes-Picot Accord, which was also supported by the Adenauer Foundation. I had the privilege of speaking there, so I’m a recidivist and I’m glad to be back at an event taking place more than 20 years later.

Munich enjoys a special place in the debate over the value of historical analogies. As I’ll show, it is fading away as a point of reference and I’m skeptical as to whether this can be reversed even by conferences like this one. But I want to begin by focusing on the heyday of the Munich analogy, when it had its most purchase. First, though, a general observation about analogies in policymaking. An analogy maps the known onto the unknown. We’re caught between the known past and the unknowable future. An historical analogy becomes a blind man’s walking stick in the shadows of uncertainty. The lessons of history, such as they are, constitute attempts to project future outcomes on the basis of past ones. Enter the historical analogy in two forms. First, what I’d call “far analogies.” The West has the fall of Rome to haunt it, and we Jews have the fall of Jerusalem. These memories are present in the culture, sometimes in the religion, but they don’t operate on the policy level. Then there are the near analogies. These draw on past events that are closer to us in time, and the most potent ones draw on events we’ve experienced ourselves.

Bismarck said that wise men learn from the mistakes of others. Fools learn from their own. But we’re not good at that. Our own mistakes are especially painful. Our own successes are uniquely gratifying, so we dwell on them. So, each generation has its own set of near analogies from which it seeks to draw the lessons of history. Now, as Shlomo has shown, the generation that appeased Hitler in 1938 was anxious not to repeat the terrible mistakes that led to the First World War. For the next generation, which had to fight the Second World War, Munich was the terrible mistake that stood as a reproach and a warning and most of us knew people of that generation. They were our parents. They were our teachers. In the spring, my teacher and our friend and mentor Bernard Lewis passed away just shy of 102. In 2006, he said this about Iran, and I quote him: “I have often thought in recent years of World War II. I’m ancient myself. The most vividly remembered year of my life was the year 1940, and more recently I’ve been thinking of 1938 rather than 1940. We seem to be in the mode of Chamberlain and Munich rather than of Churchill. What I’m afraid of is that we seem to be doing the same thing now, as moving from retreat to retreat.” End of quote. 1940 of course was the year when the bombs rained down on London, and Lewis and his generation went to war for five more years, and millions never came home. The Munich analogy was never more vivid than it was for Lewis’s generation. Those who fought the war waited their turn, and finally got it in the post war. They would do things differently.

Now, the man who first got his turn in Britain was Prime Minister Anthony Eden. He’d resigned as foreign secretary, partly over the earlier appeasement of Mussolini, and he’d come back under Churchill. As his biographer wrote, Munich made Eden just as surely as it unmade Chamberlain. But it would be the Munich analogy that would unmake Eden. When Egypt’s Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal Company in 1956, Eden reacted as though it were the Nazi seizure of the Sudetenland. Eden said this in the Commons on the eve of the Anglo-French attack, and I quote him:

“There are those who say that we are not justified in reacting vigorously until Col. Nasser commits some further act of aggression. That was the argument used in the 1930s to justify every concession that was made to dictators. That led to the subjugation of Europe and to the Second World War. We must not help to reproduce, step by step, the history of the Thirties. We have to prove ourselves wiser this time.” End of quote. But the Americans saw Nasser differently, and Eisenhower pulled the plug on the Suez adventure. Eden lied in the Commons about the collusion with Israel and ended up resigning. So, 18 years after Munich, the first post-war generation got its own near analogy, which was Suez. Its lesson: Avoid conflicts with awakening nations in Asia and Africa, even if their leaders are, let’s say, shall we say, abrasive. The natives aren’t that dangerous anyway.

In Cold War America, as Ambassador Gold indicated, the Munich analogy had a longer life. It was used by Harry Truman in his 1950 speech justifying the dispatch of troops to Korea. In his memoirs, he recalled the day he learned of the crossing of the 38th Parallel, and I’ll quote him:

“Flying back over the flat lands of the Middle West and over the Appalachians that summer afternoon, my thoughts kept coming back to the 1930s, to Manchuria, to Ethiopia, the Rhineland, Austria, and finally to Munich. Here was history repeating itself. If we let the Republic of Korea go under, some other country would be next, and then another, and all the time the courage and confidence of the free world would be ebbing away, just as it did in the 1930s.” End of quote. Now, of course the war in Korea didn’t unfold anything like the war in Europe, and neither did the settlement. Later presidents repeatedly cited the Munich analogy in defending Vietnam policy. Dore brought one quote from Lyndon Johnson. I’ll bring another. When he announced a dispatch of combat troops to Vietnam in 1965, he explained it to the public this way: “Surrender in Vietnam would not bring peace because we learn from Hitler at Munich that success only feeds the appetite of aggression.” Richard Nixon, who inherited the war, wrote this in his memoirs: “What had been true of the betrayal of Czechoslovakia to Hitler in 1938 was no less true of the betrayal of South Vietnam to the Communists, advocated by many in 1965.” Now, Vietnam ended with helicopters retreating from the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. The war’s ultimate effect in America was similar to that of Suez in Britain. That is, the near analogy displaced the farther one for the generation which was traumatized by Vietnam. The result was the Vietnam Syndrome – the reluctance to use force in Asia, Africa, and Latin America against nationalist upsurges even when they were colored Communist red.  

This would later be compounded by the American adventure in Iraq. There, too, both in 1990 and 2003, presidents named Bush invoked Munich. After Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, George HW., who was the last U.S. president who fought in the Second World War, said this: “If history teaches us anything, it is that we must resist aggression, or it will destroy our freedoms. Appeasement does not work, as was the case in the 1930s. We see in Saddam Hussein an aggressive dictator threatening his neighbors,” and George W. said something similar when he moved to overthrow Saddam in 2003. But by then, old-school straight-up analogies with the 1930s no longer had the same punch. We could see this in the way the analogy was tweaked by Tony Blair in a 2003 speech that opened the Iraq debate in the Commons. He began by noting that “there are glib and sometimes foolish comparisons with the 1930s.” He’s already making a concession to his critics. And I continue the quote:

“The threat today is not that of the 1930s. It is not big powers going to war with each other. The ravages of political ideology inflicted on the twentieth century are memories. The Cold War is over. Europe is at peace.” But then, in a typically Blairish fashion, he manages to slip in the analogy anyway, and I refer you back to the original statement. But as Blair’s hedging showed, by 2003 the Munich analogy had been devalued. The most potent analogies in the political arena are the nearest ones, the lived ones, the remembered ones, not the far historical ones, and in the 21st century Munich was receding, supplanted not just by Suez and Vietnam, but soon by Iraq itself, a war thought to have ended badly, and for the last decade, I submit, the West, especially America and Britain, has lived in the shadow of the Iraq analogy.

The last gasp of the Munich analogy in America from a leader may have occurred in 2013, when John Kerry, of all people, invoked it while lobbying for Congressional support for action in Syria. He described a decision point as a “Munich moment” and people had no idea how he’d gotten to that, given his own Vietnam history, and one doubts whether his boss approved it. So who’s left? The last major Western leader who still invokes Munich is our own prime minister in relation to Iran. Earlier this year, he attended the Munich Security Conference. This obviously invited the analogy. That he made it isn’t surprising, but I think it’s telling that even he had to hedge it a little bit. After mentioning the disastrous agreement, the concessions to Hitler that only emboldened the Nazi regime and so on, he added this:

“Let me be clear. Iran is not Nazi Germany. There are many differences between the two.” So, like Blair on Iraq, he was reading the minds of his critics, but he quickly added there are also some striking similarities, most notably between the Munich Agreement and the Iran nuclear deal. “Let us pledge today,” he concluded, “here in Munich not to repeat the mistakes of the past. Appeasement never works.” End of quote.

Now, when I read this, I asked myself why I thought this appeal probably fell flat. The answer isn’t Israel loathing or Bibi fatigue. It’s because we are now stuck with the tab for the Munich analogy’s patchy history. It was tarnished over decades by those who deployed it to defend controversial military actions that had unhappy outcomes, and when we trot it out, we may be associating our legitimate concerns about the Iranian threat with bitter memories about Iraq and Vietnam. People hear Munich invoked and say to themselves, “When did I first or last hear that from a leader?” The answer, unless you’re living in assisted living, isn’t Churchill. It’s Johnson and Nixon, Blair and Bush. In other words, leaders who got us or kept us in bad wars. The other reason that the Munich analogy is depreciating fast is that the upcoming generation, right, the millennials, have no idea what we’re talking about. Consider this. Over the summer, a poll on the historical knowledge of Czechs appeared in Prague. Now, we’re speaking of Czechs, mind you. So over 70 percent know about 1968, right? The Prague Spring. Only 54 percent know of the Munich Agreement. Fifty-four, and among the millennials, that is age 18 to 34, it drops to 40 percent. If less than half of Czech millennials know what the Munich Agreement was, then you can be sure that European millennials and, even more so, American ones, know even less. After all, in April it was shown that only a third of American millennials could identify Auschwitz as a concentration or extermination camp. By the time millennials will be making high policy, in 20 years, appeasement at Munich will ring as many bells as the assassination of Sarajevo rings today, which is to say none.

Now I’m a historian, so far be it for me to say that historians should give up. Our role is to preserve and expand knowledge of the past in the hope that it might provide some insight into the human condition. But in the political arena, knowledge of Munich is now so thin that it’s probably not worth it for politicians to invoke it again, maybe ever again. An analogy maps the known onto the unknown. It loses all potency if you have to explain both ends of the analogy. Should we despair? And now I conclude, Madam Chairman. I think not. In fact, we have another analogy, a nearer one. It’s 50 years younger, of a victory over an implacable ideological foe, in which a firm stand produced the collapse of an evil empire. This one had a fortunate ending for the Jews, and it is especially relevant to Iran where a resentful people is stirring. It’s an analogy that might serve as the natural successor to Munich if only, if only we could stop pandering to Vladimir Putin.

About Dr. Martin Kramer

Dr. Martin Kramer is the president of Shalem College in Jerusalem and former director of the Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University.