The Munich Agreement as History and Analogy

, September 5, 2018

Good morning, everybody. Thank you very much for being here at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. This room sees a lot of important discussions on contemporary subjects. We are always very intrigued and interested in what we discuss. We feel the need of discussing contemporary subjects, and today we feel so much the need of discussing a subject which belongs to 80 years ago.

I must confess that coming here, I was just putting my mind on this emotion. I thought to myself this gives us so many question marks and so many points to discuss about, exactly as if it were the peace process, the Palestinians, Iran. I don’t know if my fellows sitting in here by me here at this table feel the same, but this is myself. I feel today the same. Today we are meeting on the 80th anniversary of the Munich Agreement to revisit this fateful historical event. So, we really hope, as Dore said, that this conference will help us to understand the present better.

Our discussion of the Munich Agreement raises questions of direct historical importance as well as a set of unstated ones, even if it implies comparisons with the immensely evil genocidal monstrous politics of Hitler, and so they are always problematic. Nonetheless, returning to the subject of appeasement is always legitimate, particularly for us here in Israel and especially in our times. Our dialogue with the past in hopes of understanding the present may be problematic, but it’s helpful knowing about this. In this endeavor, we encounter so many unanswered questions and we must confront our anxiety, our emotions as well. When, for example, we wonder what has been the use of the atomic agreement with Iran, we want to know if the Ayatollah played cat-and-mouse with the American administration. When we think of Gaza, we now ask if the Palestinians misled us, if we really believed in it, or if we betrayed ourselves and our fellows. This is my personal way of thinking about the subject. Of course, there can be many others.

Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement ended in a humiliating failure when on September 1, 1939, Hitler attacked Poland. It should be remembered that days before, on August 23, 1939, Nazi Germany signed the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. Chamberlain’s concessions at Munich indeed carried a very high price, and most of all a moral price, selling out a little non-defended country which was also an ally of theirs. The Munich Agreement has generally been viewed as the result of the beliefs and intentions of an incompetent leader, and this has been already discussed here by Dr. Brakel, but I’m sure we will have some others speaking about the issue, whose policy of appeasement was doomed to failure at the price of a shameless sacrifice of principles. Hitler immediately broke the agreement and transformed it into a license to invade Czechoslovakia and dominate. Munich deprived Czechoslovakia of 70 percent of its electrical power, power plants, iron and steel factories, all of its chemical works, and its heavily fortified underground border defenses along the German border. This sacrifice, in the mind of Chamberlain and Daladier, was meant to advance the cause of peace.

Now the historical debate is still very very alive. We already had the hints about this, and I won’t go back to it. What was actually at that moment Hitler’s programs, if he already had in mind to implement all that was written in Mein Kampf, if he already thought about his lebensraum in in two different stages. These are a lot of questions, and I’m sure that our speakers will help. I also want to finish saying there is a book. There is a historian – British historian Alfred Leslie Rowse – who was a member of All Souls College in Oxford and was particularly close to the intellectual advocates of appeasement at his time. In 1961, he published a classic: Appeasement: A study in political decline, and at the beginning of the book, he asks the same question that today we ask ourselves. His tone was of disappointment, shock, and danger. “These people,” he says, “preferred to lap up the facts and arguments laid down for them by Nazi propaganda, to lend themselves to a degree I did not realize at the time to Ribbentrop’s schemes, clumsy, infantile, and obvious as they were. What could have possessed them? How to explain their blindness? That is the problem. There can be no question now that these men were wrong but how could they be so wrong in the face of everything, and why were they so wrong? There is a problem. It is a formidable one.”

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.