The Munich Agreement as History and Analogy

, September 5, 2018

I’m very grateful to have been invited. I’m particularly happy that this is done also together with the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung. At the Hebrew University, we had for many years and still have a very good cooperation with them. The Konrad Adenauer Stiftung is the only German political Stiftung with its headquarters in Jerusalem, for which we have to thank the Chancellor Kohl, and it is a very important fact that we should bear in mind.

As we have already heard, Munich or Munchen, Munich, is not just an historical location or event. It is also a political argument, and because it is a political argument let me start by mentioning that in a very strange way, in a negative way, Munich also played a small role in Zionist history. When Herzl, after publishing The Jewish State in 1896, started working in order to convene what eventually became the first Zionist Congress, he looked for a relatively neutral place, not a capital like Vienna or Berlin, which would complicate the political context of Zionism, and his first choice was Munich. The reason was complicated and interesting. On the one hand, Munich at that time was considered to be the capital of German letters, not Vienna, not Berlin, but Munich, and it was a very cultural center at that time. Moreover, because of the railway connection, Munich was a very easy place for access both from the east and from north and south. So, Herzl sent two of his assistants to Munich to check the ground and he found out that both the Jewish Orthodox and Reform communities were extremely against having a Zionist political meeting in Munich, and they even threatened to appeal to the Bavarian government. Herzl, as a journalist, had good connections with the Bavarian government and asked the Bavarian Minister of the Interior whether there was any objection, and the minister said no. It appeared that only trembling Israelites were very, very shocked about this, and for this reason Herzl decided to move it to Basel, and there’s an irony.  

Imagine the trembling Israelites in Munich would not be so trembling, and the first Zionist Congress would have been taking place in Munich, which would at that time be okay. But in Herzl’s vow is the canonic sentence: “In Basel, I have founded the Jewish state.” This would now read, “In Munich, I have founded the Jewish state.” This would not ring very well, so somebody’s occasionally taking care of Jewish life and Jewish friends.

Because appeasement and Munich are connected, one has (and I think Dore Gold has already mentioned it) to realize the multi-faceted aspects of the Munich Agreement. They are basically, if I may add to the three which Dore mentioned, two considerations because things have to be viewed in political context. After all, neither the French and also the British leaders at that time were pacifists or people who were against the use of force. They were heads of great empires, and very powerful and aggressive empires. But in the 1930s, one has to realize both France and Britain were still suffering from the traumas of World War I, which we today in retrospect do not realize. In World War I, hundreds of thousands of the cream of British and French society were killed in a war which to many people at that time and in retrospect looked as something having to do with Serbia, with Sarajevo, not really with British or with French interests. The idea that you do not want to create a situation in which Britain or France would get involved in another war about some faraway countries, be it Danzig, or Sudetenland, or Czechoslovakia, like Sarajevo, was something very very popular both in Britain and in France. The idea of appeasement, other than the warmongering Churchill, was very popular not only in the Conservative Party in Britain, but among Labour, among church leaders, the trade unionists. I wouldn’t like to say it was a consensus, but it was nearly a consensus not to get involved in a war which will again create the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people of the officers’ class, which has to do with the establishment, and among working-class people. That’s also why the Labour Party was against very much a war, because most of the people who were killed were not just the officers, the cream of British society, but working-class people. So, the trauma is very important to realize.

Sometimes it’s being said that generals usually fight the last war. Also, politicians and statesmen fight or do not fight the last war. So, the trauma of World War I – No More War, if I may use another language, was something very deeply rooted in the political culture of countries like France and Germany. France had a decline in its population. Britain had lost a generation of leaders and members of its society, so this trauma was very much behind it and it created the atmosphere which made it possible for Chamberlain to wave the piece of paper that Hitler had signed and get the kind of applause which he got.

The second issue has to deal with the Versailles peace treaty, and in this context I want to mention that the Munich Agreement has one analogy in history and it was mentioned indirectly here. This is the Ribbentrop-Molotov, Stalin-Hitler pact. In both cases, and I want to underline it, a democratic country or democratic countries and the Communist totalitarian dictatorship decided wrongly, and both Britain and France and Stalin’s Soviet Union made a strategic mistake and a terrible moral mistake in order to protect their own countries at the expense of other countries. In the case of Munich, it was Czechoslovakia. In the case of Ribbentrop-Molotov, it is basically Poland, with which for some years Russia had an historical account, with Poland. So, they were not giving up something which was their own. They were mistakenly and morally wrongly giving up something else in order to protect themselves. They were not making concessions about British territory or Soviet territory or French territory. They were thinking wrongly that they were maintaining the political hegemony, again wrongly. They wrongly believed that one can trust Hitler, that Hitler does not have aims beyond limited aims. But one has to realize they did not give up any territory or any concession which was considered to be harmful to their own position. On the contrary. Again, they were mistaken but on the contrary.

The second issue has to do with Czechoslovakia. I’m saying it in a very careful way. Czechoslovakia and the post-World War I order was formed by a number of treaties. The Versailles Treaty is the most important one. Then the treaty with Austria, St. Germain-en-Laye, the treaty with Hungary, Trianon, and as Margaret MacDonald and Hedva ben Yisrael, who is here with us from Jerusalem, have shown, the Versailles Treaty and the other treaties suffered from an internal contradiction, which at that time very few people, Keynes, perhaps, Harold Nicholson, perhaps, so most people at that time did not see. On one hand, the Versailles Treaty and the other treaties echoed President Wilson’s idea of national self-determination, and that’s what Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia in a different context, Poland, were granted- independence in the name of national self-determination.

As a universal principle, this is something which, if one looks at the universal normative level, it’s very difficult to object to. On the other hand, when it came to drawing borders, the Versailles Treaty and St.  Germain and Trianon contradicted the idea of national self-determination. Because of raisons d’etat, mainly French but also British, the treaties, all of them together, prevented Austria, which was left to the ethnic Germans, the small Austria that it is today, prevented by treaty Austria joining Germany because France was not interested in a strong Germany. Moreover, after the implosion of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in November 1918, the German-speaking groups in what eventually became Czechoslovakia in the Sudetenland opted democratically for union, either with Germany or with Austria and not be part of Czechoslovakia, which was Slavic, whatever, as a country and they were prohibited from doing it. So, the treaty on one hand spoke of the right of self-determination and on the other hand denied self-determination to the Austrian Germans and to the Sudeten ethnic Germans and this is something which was viewed not- (and Hitler obviously used it). But this is something which Social Democrats tried to prevent. The Social Democratic government in Austria in 1918 tried to unite with Germany and create a Social Democratic greater Germany with a strong German Social Democratic party and the ruling Social Democratic party in Austria. So, this is something which, when Hitler was able to reach it in Munich, received so much support in Germany because it expressed what was the political consensus in Germany, including Social Democrats and including Liberals in Germany, and anyway in Austria. So, this internal contradiction made it so very difficult to argue against ideas, which was utilized by Hitler cynically about self-determination in the case of Austria and the Sudetenland.

As a footnote, I want to mention that when you look at Hitler, coming from Austria, the fact that his first political aims were unification of Austria and Germany and the annexation of the Sudetenland, this was typically an Austrian pan-German agenda, much more than a German agenda. Then of course came Poland and Danzig, etc. We know that. So, one has to understand that sometimes peace treaties, especially if they are couched in language of universal values, can clash with realpolitik and this is exactly the weakness of Versailles. I hope I’m not going to be misunderstood. One of the better things of World War II was at the end, that there was no peace treaty. It was based on realpolitik, a very harsh realpolitik in Eastern Europe and it didn’t have the kind of internal tensions that Versailles had.

Now, there’s a question. Dealing with Munich, and again the very realpolitik approach of the Brits and the French and later of Stalin, it is obvious. One of the questions which has been raised, and it’s peripheral to our discussion but I think it should be mentioned, is and it was I think mentioned again by Dr. Nirenstein, why didn’t Czechoslovakia militarily oppose the German aggression? One argument is that Czechoslovakia was really weak. Germany was already rearmed. This is okay. There is an interesting paragraph in the book by Madeleine Albright’s father Korbel, who was one of Benes’s closest  secretaries, in which he said that one of the reasons Benes had doubts whether to mobilize the Czechoslovak army was that the Czechoslovak army was 35 percent Slovak and 10 percent ethnic German, Sudeten, and he couldn’t trust them, which means that the idea of a multi-ethnic country, be it Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union, is something very, very problematic when you’re faced with a crisis.  

This is something from which one can learn. Churchill was the one who really understood that Munich is doomed because he viewed it not in terms of the previous war, not in terms of the internal contradictions of Versailles, but in terms of trying to understand the political aims of Hitler and of German Nazism. At a political debate in Parliament, he said that of course this is a total defeat, an unmitigated defeat for Britain, and he was right. Let me add by a note which is important, I think, to us here in Israel. Sometimes it’s being said that the people who were responsible for appeasement, Chamberlain, eventually a few months later appeased also the Arabs. In the spring of 1939, the British White Paper, which limited very harshly Jewish immigration, put a cap on it to Palestine and did not allow Jewish purchase of land in British mandatory Palestine. There is, as in many cases, a dialectical irony here. The White Paper was not a parallel to the Munich appeasement, but on the contrary. After the failure in 1938, the winter of 1938, the Chamberlain government realized that Hitler and Nazi Germany had aims vis-a-vis Poland, Danzig, the Polish corridor, and in the winter of 1938 the same government that was responsible for appeasement began preparing for war.

In the winter of 1938/39, the draft was reintroduced in Britain after it was abolished after World War I. Civil defense was started, including plans to evacuate hundreds of thousands of children from London to the countryside, which happened later, but the plans were there. Britain also developed radar, which at that time was something very marginal. Nobody cared about it, but the Royal Air Force had in the Battle of Britain the access to radar, which meant that it knew where its planes were flying while the German Luftwaffe was flying blind, and they thought in imperial terms that one of the most important things for Britain to prepare for war is to guarantee its access to India and the Indian Ocean, the Suez Canal. This was at the time of the Arab rebellion, the maoraot of 1936-38, 39 when the British Army in Palestine together with the Haganah fought against the Mufti and the Arab rebellion. Britain decided to reverse its policy, realizing that if you want to maintain access to the Suez Canal you have to minimize friction with the Arabs in Palestine and with their supporters in the Arab countries.

In one of the meetings between Ben-Gurion and the British colonial secretary Malcolm MacDonald, the son of Ramsay MacDonald, whom Ben-Gurion knew from his background in Labour, Ben-Gurion asked him, “What are you doing?” The British answer was very clear in terms of British realpolitik and understandable in British realpolitik. MacDonald told Ben-Gurion, (and I’m making it sound harsher than it was because it was very polite) he said, “There are more of them than of you. There are more Arabs than Jews. Secondly,” he said, “Secondly, Hitler is your enemy. You’re going to be on our side. The Arabs have another option, which we know… The Mufti, Rashid Rida, and others eventually did. So, and this is one of the cool aspects of history, that at the moment when the British government decided that appeasement with Hitler doesn’t work and they were preparing for war, one of the possible victims was the Jewish issue in Palestine and it took Ben-Gurion some time, in contradiction to other Zionist leaders, who were either shocked or completely confused or neutralized by the British rule, by the British decision on the White Paper, to come up with a slogan which was really his life during World War II: “We have to fight against Hitler as if there is no White Paper, and we have to fight against the White Paper as if there is no Hitler.” A very pragmatic, problematic, and wise decision. So as Dore has said earlier, the Munich Agreement is multifaceted. We cannot just understand it in terms of what was done in 38. It was done in a political, historical context, one of the great mistakes of world policy in the 1930s, and it shows that political leaders, when it comes to the interests of their own country, have no problem sacrificing third parties: Czechoslovakia in one case, Poland in another case, and there’s something that can be learned from them. Thank you very much.