Joel Fishman, an American-born and -trained historian living and thinking in Jerusalem and whom I am pleased to call a friend, has an excellent meditation on the 70th anniversary of the “Munich Agreement,” the prime example of the folly of appeasement in Western history. It is a sad tale of liberal cognitive egocentrism, moral arrogance, and, as Fishman puts it, “lack of imagination [for evil]” that drove Chamberlain not only to pursue a(n effectively) suicidal policy, but to silence anyone who disagreed with it and keep “his” public in the dark. The interesting thing is that not only are those who forget history condemned to repeat it, but especially those who refuse to learn from history… And therein lies our curious paradox: why are our leaders – even, here below, George Bush – so intent on denying the lesson Munich offers.
Seventy Years Since the Munich Agreement
By Joel Fishman
FrontPageMagazine.com Friday, September 26, 2008
Photographic stills and newsreels have immortalized the moment when Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain returned from Munich and at Heston airport triumphantly waved the signed agreement in the air. The British Prime Minister proclaimed that he had brought “Peace in our Time… Peace with Honor,” and the crowds received him as a hero because he responded to their deepest hopes.
The job of the historian is not merely to look back from a sadder and wiser time – after some 50 million people died in World War II, most of them civilians – and say, “what folly!” The historian needs to recreate that time of “innocence,” before people knew it was folly, and grasp the enthusiasm, the sense of triumph that this folly inspired at the time. Only then can we begin to grasp the conditions under which it can happen again. Note the reference to an “honorable peace” in Chamberlain’s statement
[The following is the wording of a printed statement that Neville Chamberlain waved as he stepped off the plane on 30 September, 1938 after the Munich Conference had ended the day before]:
“We, the German Führer and Chancellor, and the British Prime Minister, have had a further meeting today and are agreed in recognizing that the question of Anglo-German relations is of the first importance for our two countries and for Europe.
We regard the agreement signed last night and the Anglo-German Naval Agreement as symbolic of the desire of our two peoples never to go to war with one another again. We are resolved that the method of consultation shall be the method adopted to deal with any other questions that may concern our two countries, and we are determined to continue our efforts to remove possible sources of difference, and thus to contribute to assure the peace of Europe.”
[Chamberlain read the above statement in front of 10 Downing St. and said:]
“My good friends, for the second time in our history, a British Prime Minister has returned from Germany bringing peace with honour… I believe it is peace for our time… Go home and get a nice quiet sleep.”.
“Peace in our time… peace with honor!” Something for everyone. Curious that someone who had so little understanding of what “honor” meant in the Nazi context would declare his concessions honorable. And behind it lurks the coming of the worst war in history and the greatest disgrace imaginable for Chamberlain. As for sleeping soundly, it was almost two years to a day that the blitz began and Londoners slept underground.
The contemporary historian and Zionist, Sir Louis Namier, described this scene which has provided one of the iconic images of the twentieth century:
When Chamberlain, stepping from the aeroplane at Heston, waved his “treaty” with Hitler, like a happy autograph hunter—”here is a paper which bears his name”—Europe was astounded. Could Chamberlain’s trust, joy, and triumph be genuine? …. He was shrewd, ignorant, and self-opinionated, and had the capacity to deceive himself as much as was required by his deeper instincts and his purpose, and also to deceive those who chose to be deceived.
As my pappy says, “sincerity is the cheapest of virtues.” To which I would add, “and those who place their faith in cheap sincerity have no one but themselves to blame.”
This year, Rosh Hashanah falls on Tuesday, 30 September, the seventieth anniversary of the Munich Agreement.
And the eighth anniversary of the Al Durah affair.
Just after midnight on Sunday, 30 September 1938, Neville Chamberlain, Adolf Hitler, Eduard Daladier, and Benito Mussolini signed it. This agreement transferred to Germany the fortified frontier region, the Sudetenland which was inhabited by a German-speaking minority (as well as a good number of Czechs) whom the Nazis had incited into a state of revolt against the Czechoslovak government. This gathering took place under the threat of war, and no Czechoslovak representative was present. To make things worse, France, which had a treaty of alliance with Czechoslovakia, betrayed its junior partner.
Munich was a transaction by which the larger democratic powers of Europe, Britain and France, imposed fatal sacrifices on a smaller state in the name of peace. They forced Czechoslovakia to make “territorial concessions” in order to appease an aggressor, but the aggressor, Nazi Germany quickly violated the agreement and in March 1939 gobbled up the whole state of Czechoslovakia.
In the lingo, this is what’s known as “sharing your lunch with a polar bear.” But in this case, it’s really telling someone else to share his lunch with a polar bear. And it’s done by redefining polar bear. Would a polar bear by any other name be less of a carnivore?
After grabbing the sacrifices which England and France forced on others, Hitler went on to make fresh demands. This episode shows the high cost of politics without morality both to the large states that engaged in it and the small ones upon which they forced suicidal sacrifices.
I think Fishman understates a key element here. For Hitler, Chamberlains folly in misreading his intentions was not only useful in getting what he wanted without having to declare open hostility, it was a sign of weakness that invited further aggression. Appeasement not only did not quench Hitler’s thirst, it whet his appetite.
Frank McDonough, an historian from Manchester University, republished a citation from a document of 1926 which revealed how the policy-making elite of the Foreign Office viewed Britain’s place in the world:
We have all we want – perhaps more. Our sole object is to keep what we want and live in peace … The fact is that war and rumours of war, quarrels and friction, in any corner of the world, spell loss and harm to British commercial interests… whatever else may be the outcome of a disturbance of the peace, we shall be the losers.
Britain, according to this outlook, was a “satisfied” power and would have been reluctant to assume a world leadership role. Considering this cautious perspective and the great interests at stake, the principle of appeasement had a distinct appeal. Not the least, those who wished to maintain the status quo hoped to achieve a policy objective through what was essentially a commercial transaction, using the territory of others to purchase of peace and quiet.
Fishman’s emphasis brings out one element of the mentality revealed in the quotation: the positive-sum mentality that prevails among those who substitute business for war as the principle of international relations. It’s profitable for everyone (win-win), even if more so for some than others (what I call closed positive sum: everyone wins, we win more than anyone), and it’s above all “rational” in the sense that Adam Smith defined economic behavior in the Wealth of Nations.
But there’s more to this than just “rational, positive-sum behavior.” To those of us who benefit from it most – educated, capitally endowed or salaried individuals – it “makes sense.” It’s the definition of rational. But to assume that everyone else shares this perspective, or at least, once offered a chance to share the perspective, will in fact do so, is liberal cognitive egocentrism. And that projection is a masterpiece of “generous” self-deception: everyone is really “like us”; they all want peace and prosperity. The end product of this kind of projection of our liberal good will – everyone is, at heart, a good person – is what I’ve called the Politically Correct Paradigm (PCPI).
But as I have argued, this kind of mutually beneficial approach to human and international relations makes important emotional demands, in particular the renunciation of everything from the thrill of defeating someone (hard zero-sum, I only win when you lose, or as some historians describe the mentality of prime-divider societies, “take not make”), to trusting others to give up that thrill too, to renouncing the quiet pleasures of Schadenfreude (delighting in the suffering of others). It takes real emotional maturity and considerable courage to do so. We who grow up in societies where we are, from an early age, encouraged to relegate such zero-sum emotions to the playing fields, have difficulty appreciating how difficult these demands really are.
Shortly after the Second World War, Sir Orme Sargent, (1884–1962), a senior member of the Foreign Office, and opponent of appeasement, stated that under certain circumstances it could be justified, but
[Appeasement] becomes questionable as a method of negotiation only if it can be shown to be immoral; i.e. the appeaser sacrifices the rights and interests of a third party and not his own when making his concession; or if it is clearly dangerous, i.e. where the concession made seriously undermines the strength of the appeaser either internally or internationally; this is especially so when the concession has to be repeated, for appeasement then becomes nothing less than blackmail; and lastly when the whole process of appeasement is just ineffective; i.e. when the appeaser having to make his concession gets no quid pro quo in return.
Martin Gilbert, Churchill’s biographer and an historian, writing in the sixties explained that
Appeasement was rooted in the belief that human nature could not be entirely overwhelmed by evil, that even the most dangerous looking situation could be ameliorated and that the most irascible politician could be placated, if treated with respect.
Note the use of the term “respect.” What people want most of all is to be treated with respect, and since respect is a monetarily cost-free expense, for those most concerned about counting their coins, it’s cheap at half the price… why not?
This is, of course, the high-minded version: treat your “neighbor” well and he’ll reciprocate. Especially when your neighbor has mistreated you – shown you contempt publicly, moved your boundary stones so as to shave off land, cheated you or bullied you – to be kind is not to gain his confidence and good will, but his contempt. Positive sum behavior registers as generosity to those with liberal cognitive egocentrism, to those who work from an honor-shame paradigm, it registers as weakness.
Of course, such respect and trust “invested” in people who don’t deserve it has long term costs, as the nations led by Chamberlain and Daladier were soon to learn. Because, on one level, it’s pure self-deception to think you’re being generous when in fact you’re being bullied. And the key way to know that you’re being cowardly rather than brave, is when the person you respect betrays your expectations. If you continue to show him respect, you’re a coward. Once shame on you; twice shame on me.
A businessman who possessed great self-confidence, Chamberlain did not know European history and the characteristics of its different peoples. He took firm control of Britain’s foreign policy and regulated the information which reached the public. This was particularly dangerous, because he over-estimated his own abilities and failed to recognize the danger of Hitler’s methods as well as the moral costs of submitting to blackmail. As was frequently the case, personal ignorance and complacency found expression in over-optimism.
This aggressive optimism deserves close attention. It’s the same thing that drives groups like the “J Street” initiative. we know what the problem is. We know that if only the Israelis would make enough concessions, then the Palestinians would accept and we’d have peace. Therefore any means to make Israelis make concessions is legitimate… including keeping from the public information that could undermine the picture we have drawn.
I think Joel may actually understate the problem here. Chamberlain comes off in this paragraph as an over-confident, well-intentioned fool. My impression is that Chamberlain was an enthusiastic fool, someone who not only believed in himself, but did so with a kind of enlightened zeal. And that, further, he was assisted here by a media and a world of public opinion that eagerly embraced his perception of himself and reality. As Joel noted earlier: Chamberlain “had the capacity to deceive himself as much as was required by his deeper instincts and his purpose, and also to deceive those who chose to be deceived.” Aye, there’s the rub. Why would be “choose” to be deceived, especially when the costs are so high? And if they didn’t know what was coming down the pike, what’s our excuse today?
Over the decades, revisionist historians have written that Chamberlain was “strong-willed, competent and clear-sighted.” According to them, the blame for the Second World War really dated back to the harsh terms of the Treaty of Versailles which the victorious Allies imposed on Germany after the conclusion of the First World War.
Historian’s note here. I’ve always found the “cause” of WW II to be most bizarre. In the canon of international post-war behavior, the conditions of Versailles were hardly egregious in their desire to humiliate a defeated foe. (After all, putting them in their place, is often the point of a war.) The Germans had done far more humiliating things to the French in 1871, including using Versailles to crown their emperor. The problem after WW I — the war to end all wars — arose because the most paranoid, shame-enraged lunatics in German culture managed to sell the Germans on a narrative that fed their grievance. The victory of the “man of resssentiment” that Neitzsche had railed against a generation earlier.
And Chamberlain’s insistence on treating Hitler like an equal, a man who could share his world view if treated with enough respect, played right into that. Still worse, as Richard Bassett has recently argued, by cutting this hasty deal with Hitler, Chamberlain actually forestalled a plot to drive Hitler from power by people who understand the catastrophe that would befall Germany if it went to war with Europe. But apparently Chamberlain felt that Hitler’s anti-communist measures (including concentration camps for CP members), made keeping him in power a good idea.
It’s a similar approach — treat the problematic figure with respect no matter what he says or does — that one sees, for example, in Obama’s reference to Putin as a “20th century dictator,” whom we can bring ‘up’ to being a “21st century leader.” Idem our MSM’s treatment of Ahmadenijad.
Despite this insight and new findings, the great historical questions relating to this serious failure of judgment still haunt the present. How could Chamberlain have failed to grasp the intentions of his enemies; how did he fail to sense the danger before him; and why did he place his trust in Hitler?
Chamberlain’s contemporaries tried to answer these questions. One of these was the First Lord of the Admiralty Duff Cooper who wrote that Chamberlain’s greatest personal shortcoming was his lack of imagination. Cooper, who was a member of Chamberlain’s cabinet and resigned after the Munich Agreement, wrote that “Chamberlain … lacked experience of the world, and he lacked also the imagination which can fill the gaps of inexperience. He had never moved in the great world of politics or of finance, and the continent of Europe was for him a closed book. He had been a successful Lord Mayor of Birmingham and for him the Dictators of Germany and of Italy were like the Lord Mayors of Liverpool and Manchester, who might belong to different political parties and have different interests, but who must desire the welfare of humanity, and be fundamentally decent men like himself. This profound misconception lay at the root of his policy and explains his mistakes.”
This is what I call “liberal cognitive egocentrism” (LCE). It’s a tendency to project his world onto the world. In more brutal terms it boils down to the liberal’s lack of an imagination for evil. “Who would choose war? War is hell! We all know that.” To someone like this, the world of zero-sum emotions are a closed book (and hence, the European continent). After all, the Europe he visited was about to get swept by an ecumenical movement of the ultimate in hard zero-sum, exterminationist anti-Semitism).
Note that one of the findings of the 9-11 Commission was that our intelligence forces “lacked imagination” — they never imagined that hijackers would commit suicide rather than negotiate. If they had, for a moment, considered that the fires that drove suicide bombers in Israel, burned among the Islamic enemies of the USA (rather than that Palestinian rage at Israel was sui generis, and probably deserved), they might have not lacked the imagination. But then, who wants to imagine they have the same enemies the Jews do?
Chamberlain viewed the world in his own image and actually believed that Hitler at heart was as decent as he was.
Substitute Larry King for Chamberlain and Ahmadinejad for Hitler.
Therefore, he hoped to look him in the eye, talk to him man-to-man, and get his personal word. Chamberlain, who viewed the problem in personal terms, was not concerned with the message of weakness he conveyed to Hitler. His efforts strengthened Hitler in Germany at a time when his own generals opposed the invasion of Czechoslovakia. Hitler, for his part, contemptuously referred to Chamberlain as a fool, to use a generous euphemism.
The perfect pair of demopath and dupe and the inevitable conclusion of their interaction: “peace” in our time.
Winston Churchill, in his speech to the House of Commons, of 5 October1938 explained what Chamberlain did not quite grasp, that the real issue at stake was one of morality and justice: “Many people, no doubt, honestly believe that they are only giving away the interests of Czechoslovakia, whereas I fear we shall find that we have deeply compromised, and perhaps fatally endangered, the safety and even the independence of Great Britain and France….We have sustained a defeat without a war….”
In contemporary terms, Churchill would be (and was) labeled an (apocalyptic) alarmist who made a mountain out of a molehill. Czechoslovakia is the acorn, and Churchill is a Chicken-Little.
A parallel with the current situation may not be politically correct, but is worthy of some attention. In his address to the Nuremberg Rally, on 12 September 1938 Hitler made an explicit comparison between the Sudeten Germans and the Palestinian Arabs: “I am in no way willing that here in the heart of Germany a second Palestine [i.e., Jewish state within a state] should be permitted to arise. The poor Arabs are defenseless and deserted. The Germans in Czechoslovakia are neither defenseless, nor are they deserted, and people should take notice of that.”
The comparison is revealing, and parallels the current Palestinian effort to claim they are the “Jews” of the conflict, the innocent victims of terrible aggression. And certainly the German inhabitants of the Sudeten had grievances. But they were far from innocent. Hitler used them as a fifth column, and when the Nazis took power, they joined the Nazi party (17+%) at more than twice the rate of Germans (7+%). The best parallel today might be the way the Palestinians who lived in Kuwait behaved when Saddam took it over.
Thus, if in today’s discussions one compares the bitter fate of the Sudeten Germans with that of the Arabs of Palestine, it is a legitimate part of the discourse. Hitler made the comparison. Today, many Sudeten Germans now live in the German state of Bavaria, and as a result of hard work have largely rebuilt their lives and achieved financial comfort. This group is well-represented in German politics and vocal in its claims for return. Nonetheless, there seems to be a tacit international appreciation of the reason that the successors of Czechoslovakia have firmly refused to permit this minority to live in their midst.
Do the Israelis have to let the Palestinians misbehave so badly (try and almost succeed in their vicious desires) in order to have the world say, “you know, Arabs, do something about those poor Palestinian refugees, but don’t expect the world community to insist that they have a right to ‘do their thing’ within a sovereign Jewish state.”?
In recent times, the proposition known as “Land for Peace,” bears some similarity to the original appeasement transaction. For example, the leading powers of the West in their desire to gain favor with the Arab world, have forced Israel to make all manner of unreciprocated sacrifices. The method is similar to that of appeasement of the thirties as well as a cycle of concessions which are met with fresh demands. However, when such a process takes place in slow motion and the absence of a direct threat of war as in 1938, it is possible to conceal what is really happening. When on 4 October 2001, Prime Minister Sharon protested against this type of appeasement in his famous Czechoslovakia Speech, the Bush administration publicly and forcefully rebuked him.
This incident, occurred shortly after 9-11, and illustrates some fascinating dynamics of international diplomacy and the media. Sharon said:
“I call on the Western democracies, and primarily the leader of the Free World, the United States, do not repeat the dreadful mistake of 1938 when Europe sacrificed Czechoslovakia. Do not try to appease the Arabs at our expense… Israel will not be Czechoslovakia. Israel will fight terrorism.”
Sharon made this remark in anger at the pressure on Israel to make further concessions to the Palestinians — this is in the run-up to the “Road Map for Peace” — while the Palestinians carried on a campaign of murderous violence against Israelis — this was in the waxing wave of suicide bombings. In short, he felt he was being asked to share his lunch with a polar bear.
Bush, through a number of spokesmen, objected vehemently to the implied comparison to Chamberlain, insisting that the US was Israel’s best friend. The indignation needs to be understood in the context of Bush’s efforts to woo Arab countries in his fight against Bin Laden, and his need for Israel to keep a low profile during that process, just as they had for his father during the first Gulf War. Later, Bush indirectly took back his indignation and echoed Sharon’s remarks in his speech to the Knesset in 2008 — piquing an outraged response from Barrak Obama and the MSM.
Sharon had stepped on a politically incorrect mine. The prevailing wisdom, for reasons beyond reason, insists that no one can be compared to Hitler, that such things are inflammatory, the equivalent of hate speech, and if applied to Muslims, signs of extreme Islamophobia. (So an exhibit in Toronto that compares Ahmadinejad to Hitler has been banned as “too controversial and inflammatory.”) So we can’t analyze the situation, nor meditate on how sacrificing Israel (intentionally or not) will only whet the appetite of Jihadis, who’s problems with the West only begin with Israel.
Although much has been written on the subject, and new sources will still emerge, we may identify some of human shortcomings which seventy years ago led to the disastrous attempt to purchase peace at Munich with the “concessions of the weak.” Some of these were: a lack of imagination, self-delusion, denial of danger, ignorance of history and exaggerated optimism.
I would say that one of the more fruitful alleys to explore would be the operation of a “politically correct” atmosphere in 1930s England, in which anyone who warned of danger got dismissed as a war- and hate-monger.