On Sept. 30, 1938, 70 years ago, Neville Chamberlain visited Adolf Hitler’s apartment in Munich, got his signature on a three-sentence declaration and flew home to Heston Aerodrome.
“I’ve got it,” he shouted to Lord Halifax. “Here is a paper which bears his name.” At the request of George VI, Chamberlain was driven to Buckingham Palace, where he joined the king on the balcony to take the cheers of the throngs below. An unprecedented honor.
Then it was on to 10 Downing Street, where, to choruses of “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow,” Chamberlain declared: “This is the second time in our history that there has come back from Germany to Downing Street peace with honor. I believe it is peace for our time.”
This was Munich, the summit of infamy, endlessly invoked as the textbook example of how craven appeasement leads to desperate war.
That is the great myth. And like all myths, there is truth to it.
Chamberlain had indeed signed away the Czech-ruled Sudetenland to Germany, rather than risk a new war like the one of 1914-1918 that had taken the lives of 700,000 British and 1.3 million Frenchmen.
Modernity spits on the name of Neville Chamberlain. Yet, consider the situation confronting the British prime minister that September.
The seeds of Munich had been planted at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, in the treaties of Versailles, St. Germain and Trianon.
Though Germany agreed to an armistice based on Wilson’s 14 Points and principle of self-determination, millions of Germans had been consigned to alien rule. Some 3.25 million Bohemian Germans (Sudetenlanders) were handed over to Prague, as were 2.5 million Slovaks, 800,000 Hungarians, 500,000 Ukrainians and 150,000 Poles.
Germans will be “second class” citizens, President Masaryk told his parliament. Not a single German was in the National Assembly that drew up the constitution. Repeated protests by the German minority to the League of Nations were made — to no avail.
Lloyd George said the Czechs had lied to him at Paris when they had promised to model Czechoslovakia on the Swiss Confederation, with autonomy for ethnic minorities.
By the 1930s, most British and the Tory government believed an injustice had been done to the Sudeten Germans that must be rectified by diplomacy if a new war was to be averted.
After the Saar voted 90 to 10 to rejoin the Reich, and Austria had been annexed, the Sudeten Germans began to agitate for secession and annexation by Germany. And as Chamberlain wrote his sister, he “didn’t care two hoots whether the Sudetens were in the Reich or out of it.” The issue was not worth a European or world war.
As Britain had no alliance with Prague nor any vital interest in East-Central Europe, where no British Army had ever fought before, what was Chamberlain even doing in Munich?
He feared that if war broke out between Czechs and Germans, and Prague invoked its French alliance, a Franco-German war might follow, dragging Britain in as it had in 1914.
Three times that September, Chamberlain flew to Germany to negotiate the peaceful transfer of the provinces of Czechoslovakia where Germans were in the clear majority. After his second trip, to Bad Godesberg, where Hitler had threatened to march, Chamberlain had ordered mobilization of the fleet.
Hitler had backed down and urged Chamberlain to continue his pursuit of a negotiated settlement, which was finalized at Munich.
Why did Chamberlain not tell Prague to defy Hitler and commit Britain to fight for a Czech Sudetenland?
Because Britain was utterly unprepared for war. The Brits had not a single division in France, no Spitfires, no draft and no allies save France. Britain’s World War I allies were gone. Italy was with Hitler. Japan was now hostile. Russia was lost to Bolshevism. Canada, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa were unwilling to fight, if the issue was keeping Germans under Czech rule.
And the Americans had gone home. Indeed, FDR had warned, “Those who count on the assured aid of the United States in case of a war in Europe are totally mistaken.” Roosevelt’s aides informed Paris that, if war broke out, America, under the neutrality acts, would not even deliver the planes France had already purchased.
Why should Britain declare a war it could not win for a cause — Czech control of 3.5 million Germans — in which it did not believe, a war certain to bring death to millions and the ruin of Britain?
We Americans did not go to war for the Czechs in 1938, or the Poles in 1939, or the French in 1940, or the Hungarians in 1956. Last month, Russia marched into Abkhazia and South Ossetia — the Sudeten lands of Georgia. Did we declare war?
If the Russian majorities in east Ukraine or Crimea demand the right to secede and return to Mother Russia, will we go to war to keep these millions of Russians under Ukrainian rule?
If not, upon what ground do we stand to condemn Chamberlain?
Chamberlain’s failure was that he trusted Hitler at Munich, as his great rival Winston Churchill would trust Joseph Stalin at Moscow, Tehran and Yalta.