Munich, 1938: Appeasement and World War II
Simon & Schuster, 2009
528 pp., $30.00
Reviewed by Joseph Loconte
"A New Era of Friendship and Prosperity"
Not even Faber's meticulous narrative can fully explain the dissolution of moral and political will in Britain in the prelude to Munich. His story would be strengthened by a brief summary of the pacifist mood that infected the democracies after the Great War. In 1928, fifty-nine nations signed the Pact of Paris, pledging to abandon war regardless of the threats to international security. In 1933, the year Hitler became chancellor, students at the Oxford Union passed a resolution declaring "that this House will in no circumstances fight for its King and Country." Franklin Roosevelt, who gladly signed into law America's "Neutrality Acts," sounded roughly the same theme in a 1936 speech: "We shun political commitments which might entangle us in foreign war. … We seek to isolate ourselves completely from war." It was, in the words of W.H. Auden, "a low, dishonest decade." The idea of degenerate democracies took hold and informed the architects of terror.
Perhaps the most satisfying aspect of Munich, 1938 is how it weaves into its story bright reminders of those few individuals who, without the benefit of hindsight, nevertheless judged correctly the monstrosity of Munich. Most of them were reluctant hawks; all could easily remember the devastation of the World War I. Faber rightfully draws attention to these dissenters—including Anthony Eden, Duff Cooper, Leo Amery, Harold Macmillan, Sir Robert Vansittart, and, of course, Winston Churchill. "We have suffered a total and unmitigated defeat," Churchill told the House of Commons days after the Munich Pact. "And do not suppose that this is the end. This is only the beginning of the reckoning. This is only the first sip, the first foretaste of a bitter cup which will be proffered to us year by year unless … we arise again and take our stand for freedom as in the olden time."
Britain would take its stand for freedom. But it did so only after the shock of Hitler's absorption of what remained of Czechoslovakia, six months after Munich, in March 1939. The Czech foreign minister, Frantisek Chvalkovsky, had flown to Berlin to try to stave off a German invasion. Hitler warned him that it was "useless to cherish any hopes" of help from Britain or France. Neither government gave the Czech leader any reason to believe otherwise. "There was no resistance," writes Faber, "and, for the Wehrmacht, the occupation of the rump of Czechoslovakia represented little more than a routine training exercise." A statement from the Czechoslovak government put the matter squarely: "We had no other choice, because we were left alone." The betrayal of Czechoslovakia, instead of averting war, had made a prolonged and global conflagration virtually inevitable.
The transcendent tragedy of Munich is that it all might have been averted. The Czech frontier defenses were considerable, but once the country's borders were redrawn they were taken over by the Germans. The French Army, with a promise of help from Great Britain, might have held off the German advance. Hitler's generals, in fact, feared this outcome. Thus, when Roosevelt asked Churchill what the new conflict should be called, he replied immediately: "the unnecessary war."
Faber is content as an historian to chronicle the disaster of Munich, not to speculate about its implications in the post-9/11 era. Others, though, will wonder whether the world has learned the lessons of Europe's "catalogue of surrenders" to tyranny and terror. There are uncomfortable echoes of dictators who warn democracies not to "meddle" in their internal affairs. There is the ascendancy, and moral ruin, of realpolitik. The performance of the British press seventy years ago should give pause to contemporary media élites.
The central lesson of Faber's chronicle, the truth neglected today by many liberals and conservatives alike, is especially pertinent: that a political regime can become irretrievably wicked, and that accommodating such a regime only feeds its rapacious and murderous ambitions. "Our enemies are small worms," Hitler told his generals in the summer of 1939. "I saw them at Munich."
Joseph Loconte is a senior research fellow at The King's College in New York City and the editor of The End of Illusions: Religious Leaders Confront Hitler's Gathering Storm.
Copyright © 2009 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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