The ghost of Neville Chamberlain

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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.

On September 27, the prime minister addressed his people over the radio and fully showed his conflicted feelings. “How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is,” he said, “that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas-masks here because of a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing.”

Chamberlain’s entire talk presents a unique spectacle of the reluctant warrior. In the annals of leadership, it is perhaps the best comparison to President Obama’s equivocal and confused gestures on Syria. One can rightly argue that the situation in present-day Syria has next to nothing in common with that of 1938 Czechoslovakia. But the proper goal of Obama’s intervention — upholding an international norm — would have been the same as Chamberlain’s. And in yielding to his public, Obama’s situation was not nearly so poignant as Chamberlain’s; the shadow of the Great War was a massive psychological obstacle to a military move by Britain, far greater than the present antiwar sentiment in the United States.

The day after his radio address, Chamberlain decided to grasp at the straw Hitler had left him. He did so by reaching out to Mussolini. The Italian leader was Hitler’s nominal ally; but while Hitler held his Italian friend in contempt, British leaders of all stripes, even Churchill, broadly admired him.

Mussolini played the role of intermediary; he arranged a great-power conference for Munich the following day. When Chamberlain, speaking to Parliament that evening, announced the conference, one of the members cried out, “Thank God for the prime minister,” and there was not a dry eye in the house. The entire British populace was firmly — and, as it turned out, mistakenly — in favor of peace.

Czechoslovakia, despite its valiant resistance, was destroyed under the terms of the Munich agreement, which ultimately gave the world a second great war. That war, in turn, brought Stalin and his agents to mastery in Eastern Europe, which for four long decades had to suffer under conditions that would make Hitler’s Reich seem genteel.

A dedicated servant of the Soviet Empire, Vladimir Putin, who now leads Russia, is in the current Syrian crisis the reincarnation of the Italian leader who arranged the Munich conference, emboldened Hitler, and brought the world to war. Invited into his present role by the United States, Putin may now bring great harm to the people of Syria, of neighboring countries, and of the wider world as well.

David Landau, a San Francisco novelist and playwright, got his start as a writer on foreign policy.