October 10, 2013 | National Post

The Real Lessons of Munich

On Oct. 10, 1938, 75 years ago today, Nazi Germany formally took control of the Sudetenland, the iron-rich portion of Czechoslovakia containing most of that country’s ethnic German population. Five months later, Hitler gobbled up the Czech rump. Six months after that came the invasion of Poland, and the beginning of the Second World War.

The Munich Pact represents one of the great hinge points in human history. Czechoslovakia was a militarily sophisticated nation that had assembled an extensive network of fortifications in the Sudeten region. France wasn’t ready for war. But a Czechoslovak defensive campaign, supported explicitly by Britain and other powers, might have ended Nazi empire-building at an early stage.

Indeed, many German generals (especially Ludwig Beck, Chief of the General Staff) feared that a full-scale Czechoslovak invasion would end disastrously for Germany. Some even plotted to arrest the Führer if he declared war. But that proved unnecessary: At Munich, Hitler achieved his goals with the stroke of a pen.

Thus did the world get “peace for our time” (to cite Neville Chamberlain’s oft-misquoted phrase). “Our time” lasted a total of 11 months, while the industrial war of annihilation that followed it lasted six years and took more than 50 million lives. As Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly warned the world, this is the short-sighted arithmetic of appeasement.

But the Munich Pact was more than just a case study in pacifism and cowardice. It also was a symptom of the colonial mindset that still dominated the thinking of European leaders.

Czechoslovakia nominally had been a sovereign state since its creation in 1918. In Munich, however, its fate was decided entirely by Germans, Frenchmen, Britons and Italians. No Czechoslovak representative was asked to attend. The great powers had created Czechoslovakia for their convenience, and they saw themselves as equally entitled to dismantle it.

During the interwar years, Europe’s borders were seen as works in progress, to be amended in neo-colonial fashion according to the muscle of the competing ethnic constituencies. We often forget that it wasn’t just Nazi Germany that took a chunk out of Czechoslovakia in 1938: Poland and Hungary also opportunistically annexed parts of the beleaguered country.

Even many of Hitler’s enemies argued that bringing 3.5 million Sudeten Germans under Nazi control might be for the best. As Colgate University historian R.M. Douglas notes in a fascinating new book about the fate of the German peoples during this period, Orderly And Humane: The Expulsion Of The Germans After The Second World War, the London Times pronounced the transfer of the Sudetenland to Germany as “both necessary and just.” British foreign secretary Lord Halifax told the House of Lords that no matter how Munich had turned out, “no body of statesmen drawing the boundaries of a new Czechoslovakia would have redrawn them as they were left by the Treaty of Versailles.”

In our own era, the Munich metaphor has become overused. Last month, for instance, during his failed effort to rouse the world to military action against Syria, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry declared that “This is our Munich moment.” But that’s a huge stretch. Munich, 1938, was a tragically squandered opportunity for world powers to stand up to an unmistakably fascistic and hegemonic regime. Bashar Al-Assad, on the other hand, is engaged in the opposite project: trying to keep Syria stitched together in the face of a rebellion that includes Al-Qaeda jihadis fighting under the banner of Sunni Islamofascism. The problem with comparing Syria 2013 to Czechoslovakia 1938 is that we have metaphorical Hitlers on both sides.

One more difference between the Munich era and our own: Seven decades ago, it was widely understood that military aggression had consequences for the losers — not just for the leaders and armies, but also for the peoples on whose behalf these wars were waged. It’s a lesson that the Arab nations that declared war on Israel in 1948, most notably, still haven’t internalized.

Sudeten Germans were overjoyed to see Hitler’s tanks roll into Czechoslovakia in 1938. But seven years later, when the war was over, they were thrown out of their homes — along with millions of other Germans residing in parts of modern-day Hungary, Poland, Romania and the former Yugoslavia. As R.M. Douglas writes, it was “the largest forced population transfer — and perhaps the greatest single movement of peoples — in human history.”

These displaced Germans, perhaps as many as 14-million by Douglas’ count, became lifelong exiles. And yet very few of them defined themselves as “refugees” in the conventional political sense. Most found new jobs, and created new lives. They did not agglomerate in dead-end camps, become wards of the UN, manufacture a political identity based on suffering and displacement, or make violent political fetishes out of their desire to return to dimly remembered ancestral homes.

Perhaps that is why, 75 years later, Munich is a glittering tourist destination. Ramallah, not so much.

— Jonathan Kay is Managing Editor for Comment at the National Post, and a Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C.

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