Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Does the Munich Analogy Fit?

My essay below, “Does the Munich Analogy Fit?”, was published in the online journal History News Network on 3 March 2003 (

Analogies appear frequently in historical writing. Julian Baggini and Peter S. Fosl in their helpful book The Philosopher’s Toolkit: A Compendium of Philosophical Concepts and Methods (Blackwell: Oxford), 2003, point out that analogies are also used by philosophers, lawyers, and journalists to enhance reasoning, to make arguments, and as illustrations.

Analogies are, according to Baggini and Fosl, “strong” if they “share a large or decisive number of relevant similarities” while at the same time they “do not exhibit a large or decisive number of relevant differences” (p. 47).

To the extent that an analogy does not satisfactorily fit those two conditions, then the analogy is “weak”.

The essay below discusses some of the difficulties of using analogies in historical arguments.

“Does the Munich Analogy Fit?”
By Robert Cook

Recent world events have stimulated an increase of interest into the events of the September 1938 Munich Conference that, among other things, gave us the so-called Munich Analogy for appeasement. Students, journalists, pundits and even neighbors are discussing the current debate about Iraq in terms of British and French foreign policy of 1938.

Historical analogies rely on continuities; that is, the analogy draws on those things that were the same then as they are now. Like literary metaphors, of which historical analogies are a subset, meaning is measured by the strength of the similarity: the stronger the similarity the stronger the historical argument. A brief re-capitulation of some of the salient features of European foreign policy in the 1930s might be helpful.

The remilitarization of the Rhineland by Germany on 7 March 1936 was the key event in the interwar period because it upset the military balance of power between Germany and France and because it destroyed the assumptions of collective security upon which European states had conducted foreign policy since the conclusion of the Versailles Treaty and the inauguration of the League of Nations. Germany's unopposed march into the Rhineland in direct violation of the Locarno Treaty set the stage for Munich two years later.

France and Great Britain's failure to enforce the Locarno Treaty was Europe's last best chance to halt German expansion and Hitler's planned destruction of the Versailles Treaty and the League of Nations.

Munich in 1938 was no more than a continuation of that failure. The Sudeten and Czechoslovakian crisis was, as Chamberlain said, "a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing."

If France and Britain were not going to go to war in 1936 to enforce the Locarno Treaty, the idea of collective security and the defense of France, then it was no surprise that no major power was going to war over the territorial integrity of Czechoslovakia, a faraway country that neither wanted to believe they knew much about.

After 1936, Hitler was increasingly seen within and without Germany as the man of the hour; he was "Europe's new Man of Destiny." In February 1937, well before the Munich conference, in the Munich Hoffbrauhaus in a speech at the annual celebration of the NSDAP's founding, Hitler proclaimed to a cheering audience, "Today we have once again become a world power!" To many in the NSDAP and in Germany, Hitler's long-time promise, a promise that went all the way back to his book Mein Kampf, was now fulfilled.

At the same time, France lost faith in its own policy of containing Germany through alliances. Few in France and fewer in Europe cared much whether Austria became a part of Germany and so in early 1938 the Austrian Anschlus was a fait accompli: Munich was only six months away.

Munich is important because it was the recognition of the changing balance of power in Europe that had been occurring over the previous two years. Munich is remembered because Winston Churchill's ringing objections from the floor of the House of Commons articulated the foreign policy weakness of Britain and France not by a complicated explanation of national power and diplomacy, but rather by focusing on the moral question of appeasement. The Munich Conference, Churchill said, was a major disaster.

In September 1938 few agreed with Churchill. Chamberlain's assurances of peace with honor and peace in our time were far more comforting to the general public, a public whose memory of World War I, then known as The Great War for no one knew an even greater one was coming, left them with little will to sacrifice themselves again for Europe.

Since 1938 the abandonment of Czechoslovakia at the Munich Conference has become a well-known metaphor, an historical analogy, for policies of real or presumed appeasement.

The actual events in Europe between 1936 and 1938 are far too complex to admit to a simple summary through analogy. But that by no means suggests the 1936-1938 period is devoid of fruitful insight and understanding. If a use of history is to help us understand rather than providing selective ammunition for various political justifications, then this important period of European history has much to say to us today.

A basic assumption of the Versailles Treaty and the League of Nations was the supremacy of military and political power of France within Europe. However, during the 1920s and 1930s France's relative position of power declined without significant adjustments in the system of collective security. During that time period, neither Britain, the United States nor the Soviet Union stepped in to support the nation-state system of Versailles or to guarantee French borders. France, for the most part, remained oblivious to these changes.

The events of 1936-1938 are also useful for examining the strengths and weaknesses of collective security. What did the League of Nations achieve? How did it react to the Ethiopian Crisis, Japanese expansion, the Spanish Civil War let alone events in central Europe? What use was the Locarno Treaty when its major signatories elected not to enforce it? In the abstract, those questions are relevant today.

The events of 1936-1938 also suggest a discussion of domestic affairs. Britain and France were much more traumatized by World War I than either country suspected in the early 1920s. With each passing year after 1918, the peoples of Western democracies began to re-examine the usefulness of war and the necessity of sacrifice. World diplomacy focused on disarmament as a solution to world security. An unarmed world would be a safe world it was believed. But what if some do not want to disarm? Few in the 1920s and 1930s confronted that question.

What about the idea of appeasement? To appease means to calm, to pacify or to buy off an aggressor through granting concessions while sacrificing principle.

In the early fall of 1938 England and France could not have militarily stopped Germany from occupying Sudeten Czechoslovakia even had they wanted to. Britain had no more influence in the affairs of central Europe than it would a year later. By going to Munich and acquiescing to Germany's limited expansion through what today we would call a summit meeting, kept Britain in the game as a major power. If Britain had ignored the Sudeten Crisis, then Britain would no longer have a seat at the table of the major players. As a consequence, Britain would have lost its position of power and prestige among its colonies and Commonwealth nations and, most importantly, it would have entered World War II as either an ally of Germany (not as unrealistic as it might seem at first blush) or America's very junior partner. Going to Munich, keeping a veneer of diplomatic propriety on events that Britain could not otherwise control, maintained Britain's position as a world power -- weak to be sure, but still on the playing field.

Today France faces a similar dilemma. France does not want the US to defeat and occupy Iraq but is too weak to prevent it. If France is to remain a major player, then France needs to find a way to create a diplomatic environment that makes it appear that France, reluctantly to be sure, allows the US to go forward. France remains weak, but at least still in the game.

Returning to the 1930s, without informing France, Chamberlain cut a deal with Hitler. It was not a good deal, but it was far better than any alternative Britain had or thought she had at that moment. Benes, of course, was stubborn and would not go along, but without British and French intervention, which was out of the question, Czechoslovakia could not defend its borders; besides, Czechoslovakia had its own ethnic limitations, so to speak: Czechs and Slovaks were not all that enthusiastic about dying for Sudeten Germans.

None of that, of course, worked. The following year Britain's bluff was called. There would be no side-deals for Poland. Chamberlain hesitated but the angry outcry in the House of Commons made it clear, as it had not been clear the previous year, that Chamberlain's government would fell unless war was declared on the principle of the pledges made to Poland. France falls the next year and the lights went out in Europe — which was just as well for the King of England was now naked.

Yet, even at the time the new-founded indignity of the Commons was hollow. After all, Poland could not be saved, there were no Germans at Hastings, the Royal Navy still owned the English Channel. Some of that could come later, but for the moment the Commons could rise to the occasion.

To describe Britain's foreign policy of the late 1930s as a policy of appeasement is inadequate. Rather, it was a foreign policy of tragic ineptitude equaled only by France. Neither nation had the military power with which to enforce their foreign policy goals and gravely lacked the diplomatic skills with which to play a weak hand. The costs of their mistakes are not to this day paid.

There are also numerous and important dissimilarities between the events of 1936-1938 in Europe and those of today concerning a likely war on Iraq.

To name just a few: in the late 1930s the League of Nations had become ineffectual on all fronts, the system of collective security through multi-national treaties was bankrupt, the world was in a deep economic depression, the United States was not an active let alone dominant military or political player in the world, the Soviet Union was following an unsteady as well as unpredictable course and most minor nation states had very little to say or do in the world of great power, imperial diplomacy. Comparisons between Adolph Hitler and Saddam Hussein are only superficial at their very best.

Today there is only one dominant political and military power in the world. Unlike the late 1930s, small and economically weak nation states can play significant although hardly positive roles on the world stage. Through the tactics of terror non-national entities can play highly dangerous and disruptive roles. Colonialism and imperialism are gone. Political ideologies have been replaced by religious fanaticism. Yet large numbers of people live in conditions of extreme poverty and political impotence with little hope that the benefits of economic globalization will ever grace their hovels. Unlike the late 1930s, demographically it is the least developed nations that are growing in population while the most developed nations are not.

With only a very cursory glance one can see that the world of today is quite unlike the world of the late 1930s. Historical parallels and analogies between the two periods are few. Those that do exist are often overlooked because they appear to be truisms. Let me suggest three. Military power does count; it counts a great deal. Secondly, as Adam Smith reminded us in his Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), man's moral limitations are defined by his egocentricity — and the behavior of nation-states follows accordingly. Last but not least, history is the result of many individual decisions, not all of which are consistent or predictable.

What we can learn from the late 1930s is that individuals will make decisions based on their own perceptions of power and self-interest. Whether or not those decisions will be inept or wrong will not always be immediately clear. By extension, however, we can understand what happened and what went wrong in Europe in the late 1930s; and to that extent we can discern what, if any, lessons of that period may be appropriate for consideration today. To do so, however, one must take into consideration both change and continuity.

Historical analogies are indeed powerful, both as heuristic constructs for learning and models for political polemic. Unfortunately, historical analogies do not always account for change. However, examining what is different from one historical event to another is as much if not more of an historical enterprise than formulating and applying historical analogies and metaphors. The above discussion of European foreign policy in the late 1930s is by no means intended as a definitive discussion; rather it is offered as a stimulus for further discussion on both historical continuity and historical change; that is, to what extent do the discontinuities negate the application of the Munich Analogy to contemporary events?