The ghost of Neville Chamberlain

In all the excitement over the Obama administration’s moves with Syria and Russia, the usual commentators have been forgetting an important anniversary. Seventy-five years ago, in September 1938, the leader of Europe’s most powerful nation went hat-in-hand to an upstart dictator who was ready to start a global conflict because he felt personally slighted.

That fatal diplomatic event was the Munich agreement. Its main protagonists were Britain’s Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and Germany’s Fuhrer, Adolf Hitler. The meeting at Munich was called to resolve a crisis over Czechoslovakia, a thriving democratic republic in Central Europe whose only offense had been to draw Hitler’s ire by not rolling over for him as the leading Western powers had already done.

A crucial supporting player at the Munich meeting was the Italian Duce, Benito Mussolini. History tends to regard Mussolini as Hitler’s second fiddle; but, without Mussolini, the Munich meeting might not have occurred, and in that case Hitler would have lost the chance for his greatest foreign policy triumph.

Prime Minister Chamberlain, at his first meeting with Hitler on September 15, had quickly agreed that the western portions of Czechoslovakia would be served up to Nazi Germany on a platter. Hitler had presented his demands for western Czechoslovakia as a call for justice — the “return” of millions of ethnic Germans to the German Reich. This dispute, by the way, exactly prefigured the postwar crisis of the Middle East, wherein Arab leaders would make identical claims against Israel.

But Hitler did not care about social justice or ethnic reunification. His goal was the annihilation of Czechoslovakia. So, in the face of Chamberlain’s extraordinary offer, Hitler was not calmed or satisfied. Quite the contrary, he was provoked and enraged. With the rest of the world so compliant, why shouldn’t he go for the whole thing?

When Chamberlain came back to Germany, on September 22, to secure a formal settlement of what the two leaders had agreed the week before, Hitler treated the prime minister to a savage outburst that was remarkable even for him. Realizing he had carried things too far, Hitler altered course and threw the older statesman a bone. But Chamberlain, whose only objective was to please the German leader, had seen and heard enough. He left his meeting with Hitler and returned home to prepare for war.