24 May 2006


In the past few years, war hawks have taken to calling doves “appeasers,” in reference to the legend of Neville Chamberlain foolishly imagining that he had acheived “peace in our time” by permitting the Nazis to keep their ill-gotten gains in Czechoslovakia without a military challenge ... rewarding their evil and emboldening Hitler to seek further gains by arms, plunging Europe into the Second World War.

If we don't invade Iraq, said the hawks, we're appeasing Saddam the same way that Chamberlain appeased Hitler. And now they're starting to say the same things about attacking Iran.

Billmon at Whisky Bar takes a closer look at the history. He makes a strong case for a rereading Chamberlain not as the fool of the legend, but rather a man who made a fatal misstep at the end of a long road of European foolishness.

In the neocon wisdom tale, Munich is always about Neville Chamberlain and that scrap of paper. But that's only half the story — or not even half. Hitler might never have risen to power in the first place if the allies had dealt justly with Germany and the other defeated powers at Versailles, or if the Western governments of the 1920s and early ’30s had shown one tenth the willingness to compromise with the democratic governments of the Weimer Republic that they later did to appease the Nazi regime.

The source of much of Hitler's political appeal — and the topic of most of his stump speeches before coming to power — was the spinelessness of the Weimer politicians in kowtowing to the Versailles Treaty, and the need for a strong leader who would stand up to the allies. The British and French only understand force, the would-be Furhrer shrieked. Germany must take what was rightfully hers, instead of going hat in hand to plead for concessions.

And of course, the allies proved Hitler right.

More importantly, the article digs into the implications in Iran, and sees us with a similar road of error lying behind us. A fascinating, if troubling, read.

Sep 2006 update:

Now I discover that Matthew Yglasias, filling in at Talking Points Memo, offers another examination of the question.

It's also certainly the case that, in retrospect, we can see that Hitler outlined those ambitions in advance, in Mein Kampf and elsewhere. People have, however, a terrible habit of overinterpreting these data points. In particular, they want to propose that the 1930s teach us the lesson that we should always take foreign leaders at their word.

Except, of course, that nobody actually thinks we should take that lesson away.


So the “lesson” people want to draw from the 1930s isn't that we should take people's statements more seriously. Rather, the “lesson” they've learned is that we should always adopt the most alarmist possible interpretation of every given situation. But, of course, they never put it that way. Why don't they? Well, because when you put it that way it sounds like a stupid lesson.

Speaking for myself, I am baffled when folks invoke the alleged lesson of Hitler to say that we have to take seriously that the United States is at war with the Muslim world because that's what Osama bin Ladin says he's doing.

Hitler said that Germany's destiny was the conquest of Europe and the elimination of the Jewish menace, and this was important ... because he was dictator of Germany. In comparison, yeah, bin Ladin has declared war between East and West, but he isn't in charge of the Muslim world. He's just a thug with a small network of dedicated, scary followers. That's bad, yes, but it doesn't mean we're fighting World War III just because he said so.

2012 update:

Leslie H. Gelb at Foreign Policy says something similar about misunderstandings of the Cuban missile crisis.

U.S. President John F. Kennedy's skillful management of the Cuban missile crisis, 50 years ago this autumn, has been elevated into the central myth of the Cold War. At its core is the tale that, by virtue of U.S. military superiority and his steely will, Kennedy forced Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to capitulate and remove the nuclear missiles he had secretly deployed to Cuba. As Secretary of State Dean Rusk rhapsodized, America went “eyeball to eyeball,” and the Soviets “just blinked.” Mythologically, Khrushchev gave everything, and Kennedy gave nothing. Thus the crisis blossomed as an unabashed American triumph and unmitigated Soviet defeat.

Kennedy's victory in the messy and inconclusive Cold War naturally came to dominate the politics of U.S. foreign policy. It deified military power and willpower and denigrated the give-and-take of diplomacy. It set a standard for toughness and risky dueling with bad guys that could not be matched — because it never happened in the first place.

Of course, Americans had a long-standing mania against compromising with devils, but compromise they did.

2014 update: Billmon returns to the subject in Twitter form.

If US seen refusing fair deal with Iran — under Israeli pressure — sanctions regime will soon crumble like punitive Versailles Treaty did. Without deal, with sanctions crumbling, with proof that hanging tough works, Iranian hardliners would be empowered, motivated to build bomb. So if neocons/Israel get their way now, it could easily lead to result they fear most … a weak, divided group of Western powers, unwilling either to invade or enforce sanctions on a hardline Iran. In other words: Munich.

2018 update: Nick Baumann for Slate in 2013, Neville Chamberlain Was Right

Historians often find themselves moving against popular opinion. In the case of Chamberlain, though, the gap between public perception and the historical record serves a political purpose. The story we're told about Munich is one about the futility and foolishness of searching for peace. In American political debates, the words “appeasement” and “Munich” are used to bludgeon those who argue against war. But every war is not World War II, and every dictator is not Hitler. Should we really fault Chamberlain for postponing a potentially disastrous fight that his military advisers cautioned against, his allies weren't ready for, and his people didn't support? “People should try to put themselves into the position of the head of the British government in the 1930s,” Dutton says. “Would they have taken the apparently huge risk of a war [that] might mean Armageddon for a cause that nobody was really convinced in?” Chamberlain's story is of a man who fought for peace as long as possible, and went to war only when it was the last available option. It's not such a bad epitaph.

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