The Munich Agreement as History and Analogy – Q&A Session


My name is Ben Malov. I teach international relations and conflict resolution, I’m sorry to mention that, at Bar-Ilan University, but I wrote my doctoral dissertation on Hans Morgenthau. I’d like maybe just to change the slight wording. Bar-Ilan University. The lessons of the First World War. In retrospect, the nation should not have rushed into a conflict so, you know, casually, but should have given more time for diplomacy and conciliation. The lesson of Munich – aggression must be deterred. Morgenthau says that that is the most critical of decisions facing a decision-maker. The lessons are both good. The question is, what historical context? I’d like to ask Dore and Professor Avineri, given the fact that you have the extensive background in scholarship and public service, how can you tell? Meaning that adopting the Munich analogy was perfectly wise, but there wasn’t the monolithic, you know, Communist conspiracy coming out of Moscow, and today Vietnam is open to American influence, which could have been done without the war, and conciliation, you know, to avoid the First World War was perfectly legitimate, but the wrong actor. How do you know?

My name is Munir Kalisen [?] I’m probably the only Czech in the audience, so I hope you forgive me for giving a note rather than a question. But with a fair amount of generalization, I would say that Munich is still a trauma for Czech citizens, this disappointing poll notwithstanding, but I’ve seen it play a major role in government decisions. Probably this is also because this feeling of a small country being abandoned by supposed allies, which is how we interpret Munich in 1938, was later reinforced with the Soviet invasion of 1968, when we had basically the same feeling. And so, the general consensus in our country is that this kind of surrender broke the moral backbone of the nation, and this is probably the most profound effect that we have been fighting with until today. The other note is that this generates a general understanding of the fate or situation of other small nations threatened by dictators. Obviously, Israel is the first place, so this is the reason which might explain a generally very positive attitude of the Czech governments, provided they are they are democratically elected and free, towards Israel. So that’s a good thing. Of course, it’s disheartening to see that from the perspective of the powers, the analogy of Munich seems to be losing traction and I believe it’s natural in a way because the powers have to weigh their interests from a different perspective. But I would submit that small nations who have the experience with the existence of aggressive evil should still take the lessons of Munich seriously. Fiamma Nirenstein: I consider your contribution a privileged one. Thank you very much indeed. Next question.

Pinhas Inbari of JCPA. I would like to ask whether we are talking here, more than appeasement, maybe about the intended policy of Chamberlain, Halifax maybe, for the future, to make an Axis with Germany and to be part of the future Europe, against the other school of thought that Britain must be part of the Atlantic Alliance with the United States.

Fiamma Nirenstein: Who do you want to ask?

Anybody that is ready to answer.

My question goes to Melanie because in your fascinating talk you criticized the media, and I saw a lot of parallels to the situation in the German public right now. However, we are wondering whether you weren’t giving too much credit to the media, given the poor track record the West had in the last two-and-a-half decades, I would say, in fighting successful wars that actually turned out to be for the right cause. I mean, I would argue that you have to go back to the first U.S. or Allied Iraq war in 1991 to have a clear-cut example for a war that was won by the West for a just cause, while over the course of the last decade we witnessed the Balkan wars that had at best a mixed outcome. We saw a disastrous war in Iraq, based on lies, lies from democratic governments, toward their own people yielding in a highly unstable situation right now. Then, of course, we’ve been witnessing the ongoing war in Afghanistan, without what was promised to the public. So, for people like us, and I think we’re on the same page here, who don’t want to take war out of the political toolbox at all, without being warmongers of course, don’t we have to put at least part of the blame on the politicians and try to come up with a more precise analysis and definition of when war is actually needed and what are the success factors that can prevent us from the disasters of the last decades?

Fiamma Nirenstein: There is Dan over there and that’s it. The last is Dan Diker.

Thank you, Tamara, thank you Madam Chairman. My name is Dan Diker. I’m with the JCPA. My question to Professor Avineri and to Professor Kramer, and to Melanie and to you, Fiamma, is that do we need to ask ourselves what the meaning of the word “war” is in 2018 as opposed to what we understood the word “war” was back in 1938, in the context of a totally different and asymmetrical reality on the battlefield? One. Two is the context of our discussion today. How does the context of our discussion today affect the notion of victory or failure in light of a totally new military-terror battlefield that we’re dealing with today, as opposed to what we were dealing with in 1938?

Melanie Phillips: I had two questions posed to me specifically. One, the first, as I understand it, have I blamed the media too much for the disasters of wars like the Balkans, like the Iraq war, the second Iraq war, which should be laid at the door of politicians? Certainly, politicians made terrible mistakes in these and other wars and they bear the ultimate responsibility for what their nations did and how they led their nations to war. But the madness against all war in Britain (I can really only speak about Britain because that’s what I know), the madness against ever going to war ever again under any circumstances against anyone in the developing world has very largely been confected by the response to the disaster of the Iraq war, the second Iraq war. Blair lied, people died. That is the mantra where Mr. Blair speaks in London, which he does very, very rarely at risk of his life, and I say that advisedly. These demonstrators are out there, shrieking, “Blair lied, people died.” It’s not true. That is a lie. He did not lie. He may have mistakenly referred to stuff which wasn’t true. He may have been told stuff which wasn’t true. I don’t know. I think the situation is very complicated, and I can talk about that in some detail because I think many of the things that are said to have happened or not happened are not true. That’s they are simply lies. The idea that because no weapons of mass destruction were ever found, therefore there were never any, is absurd and yet that is an unarguable truth and that’s why Blair lied, people died, and that’s why we must never go to war again ever under any circumstance against anyone in the Muslim or Arab world. This is a lie.

The Balkan war, I remember, when the Balkan wars were on, I remember I was working at The Observer at the time. I remember that the media basically disinvented the idea of objective journalism. I remember it very clearly at the time. I remember a BBC correspondent called Martin Bell. He was distinguished by wearing a white suit. He went on TV, night after night, with exceptionally partisan reports. The Muslims were entirely the victims. The Serbs were entirely the aggressors. There were never any Muslim aggressors. There were never any Serb victims. That’s basically the story told by virtually the entire media, and Martin Bell would do it night after night with this kind of attitude, and he explained the attitude. He said, “This is the journalism of attachment. I’m emotionally invested in the fate of the victims in the Balkans and I will gear my reports to that emotion,” and that was considered to be absolutely right. At The Observer, I remember a great deal of concern. There were reports going into The Guardian and The Observer which were not true. They described stuff which the journalist had not seen. She or he had not been there, and there was some discussion. How could we be writing stuff, publishing stuff, that isn’t true? And the answer was, it was the broader truth. What was the broader truth? The broader truth was that the Muslims were victims and the Serbs were the aggressors, and so you could basically make it up. You could make it up. You could say, “I observed these wretched refugees in their cart, and the women in their headscarves, and they were weeping.” It didn’t happen. I wasn’t there. It was the broader truth. The broader truth is that they are victims.

So that’s what’s been going on. Journalism has abolished the idea of objective truth, and it also subscribes to the idea that war is literally unthinkable, and everything must be justified that can stop war. The Falklands was, and that was at an earlier stage, before journalism basically abolished the idea of truth completely, that was simply thought out on partisan lines which were rather clearer.

However, the second question, has war got a different meaning now than previously, because it’s asymmetrical? And how can we understand victory or defeat in these changed circumstances? I agree very much with the premise of the question. I don’t think war has a different meaning. It takes a different shape because it’s asymmetrical and it’s basically torn up our laws of war. It’s torn up the way we regard it. It’s torn up the fact that we have conventions which only deal with war between states, and we are left literally at sea. But the point about understanding victory or defeat is also a very troubling question in relation to this asymmetric war, which never kind of ends. But the point from which I’m starting is that if you undertake military action which results in the death of innocent civilians who are coming from the developing world, whatever the circumstances, asymmetric or not, that is not permitted anymore under Western orthodoxy. You cannot do that. You cannot say, “We have to defend ourselves against the incursion in Gaza by genocidal lunatics who describe themselves and their aims as wanting to murder every Israeli they can find and take over the country.” You cannot say that Israel should defend itself if that will involve the killing of any civilian at all. That’s as simple as that. Nothing is worth the life of that innocent Gazan. Nothing, until and unless Jews start being killed in enormous number. Why aren’t enough Israelis being killed? The Israelis cannot claim they are the victims because, look, none of them has been killed. Why are none of them killed? Because the Israelis put their people in shelters and in Gaza they put them on the rooftops so that they will be killed. That counts for nothing, nothing, in Britain. No dead bodies, no just cause. Simple as that.

Martin Kramer: Okay, I’ll be very brief. Apropos the media, I said leaders are more reluctant to use the analogy now. The journalists still do. The last time I saw journalists using this was to say that the meeting between Trump and Kim was Munich, and the meeting between Trump and Putin in Helsinki was. These are from the very same people who will in a moment tell you that this analogy is totally inappropriate to Iran. It’s very same people. I have to say, of course, I imagine that Trump probably first heard of Munich when these analogies were made, and he had no idea earlier. Look, the basic question that we face is this: Does appeasement always fail or did appeasement fail because Hitler was unappeasable? And the question is, was Hitler an outlier in history? Now, paradoxically, one must say that from a Jewish perspective, he has to have been because we regard the Holocaust as an outlier in history. We regard it as a unique event in history. It is not a metaphor for suffering and evil. But if the Holocaust is indeed unique in history, then the man who brought the Holocaust about has to have been in many respects unique, and then Munich in that respect would be regarded as somehow unique. Now, what we do learn from Munich, and here I owe this insight in part to my friend Doug Feith, is that Munich tells us there are outliers in history. They sometimes arise. What it doesn’t tell us is with what frequency and what the precursors, how this will appear as in the course of its unfolding. So, in that respect the question is really unanswerable. There is no clear lesson. We must fall back on analysis. I say “fall back.” Analogy is the poor man’s substitute for analysis, and what we need to do is, I say, surrender analogical thinking in favor of analytical thinking, and to gain a deeper understanding of each and every specificity of each and every context, knowing as we know, that there has been and there could be instances in which outliers arise in history.

Shlomo Avineri: I’m not sure I can answer all the questions which were raised. But one lesson I think I can draw – that when we discuss political issues, conflicts, dangers, we should address them in their context and not use emotionally strong arguments from the past because they can be misleading. As I think Martin suggested, a lot of damage has been done to the image of Munich and appeasement by Anthony Eden claiming in 1956 that Nasser is an analogy to Hitler, etc., etc. I mean, Nasser was a real danger, but the analogy just didn’t work out, so one should be very careful addressing real dangers as the presence can be done on the basis also of the changes in what war means, unconventional war, asymmetrical equation, etc.

We have a lot of issues today which are very different from those of 1938. Let me just very briefly mention an elephant in the room, or two elephants in the room. It was mentioned by Melanie that there was some support for Nazism in the British press. But there was something much more subtle. I think it is fair to say that if you would have asked people like Chamberlain or Daladier in the 1930s, what is the major danger to Western civilization, they would not mention Hitler. They would mention Communism, and therefore this meant an inexplicit willingness to give people who are fighting Communism, like Mussolini and Hitler, the benefit of the doubt and be their inexplicit allies. This was a major misreading of history. There is an analogy. There are people today who think that the most danger, the greatest danger to Western civilization is Islamic aggression, and this brings some of them, with possibly good intentions, to some very nasty alliances with people who just happen to be anti-Islamic, and therefore they are our allies. Not every anti-Islamist is an ally of Western democracy and Western civilization, and let’s not make the same kind of mistake that Chamberlain and company and Daladier made in the 1930s.

Fiamma Nirenstein: I’ll conclude again, say to everybody, thank you very, very, very much for this extremely interesting session. Just a second. I also want to say something. In my view, from whatever I have read also about this particular issue, one thing is very important from what Dr. Fishman said, which is “read the text.” This is the lesson that Bernard Lewis taught us. Read Khomeini before you judge the Iranian Revolution. Read Mein Kampf before you judge what Hitler’s intention was. To do this is something which I completely agree with. About the issue of war that has been at large considered here: In my view, this is a good question, the question of Dan today. War is a completely different issue. The battlefield is full of terrorism, and the terror is the main issue, and then diplomatic struggle, diplomatic battle which involves the press and the media, all the media, the social media, the BDS and whatever. It’s a completely different kind of war, so when we think about appeasement today we must also go completely into another direction, which is not easy and it’s for one more time.

Actually, in my view, and according to many historians, like Trevor-Roper, that I have read about the issue, when Chamberlain met Hitler, war was not completely off the table because according to what they say, they discussed very much the issue of leaving to Britain the possibility of continuing fighting its battle for its empire. So, war was still there, was still considered as an issue, and was not the main issue that Chamberlain brought there. Yes, the British public opinion was asking for peace, but in the mind of Chamberlain, this kind of appeasement was still bringing with itself the promise to the British public to continue having the British Empire as something that if you have to fight for, you will fight for. So, the issue of war is still very complicated at that time. It becomes completely clear after the Second World War when, as Martin says, it implies the Holocaust. When it implies the Holocaust, then this becomes completely, completely, completely forbidden and for good reasons. So, whenever we discuss the issue, we must understand that whenever you try to say that war is a difficult question to discuss, well it’s really quite a point. Okay, so I’m not part of the panel, so this is only some observations about what my very good companions sitting at this table said, and I thank them so much. It was really so, so important to hear you today, and thank you to all of you.

About Fiamma Nirenstein

Journalist Fiamma Nirenstein was a member of the Italian Parliament (2008-2013) where she served as Vice President of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the Chamber of Deputies, served in the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, and established and chaired the Committee for the Inquiry into Anti-Semitism. A founding member of the international Friends of Israel Initiative, she is the author of 13 books, including Israel Is Us (2009). She is a Fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

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.

About Melanie Phillips

Melanie Phillips is a journalist and columnist for The Times (UK) and the Jerusalem Post.