Myths about Munich

Diplomacy is a business not famous for its honourable men, but even the diplomats have to admit that Munich was a classic of deceit. And it was not only the men in the Foreign Office who were deceived; many of the myths which were popular thirty years ago are still accepted today and even those which have been discarded have been replaced by others.

According to the myths, the Nazis in 1938 were a cunning and treacherous lot and against them Chamberlain, because of either a secret sympathy with Nazism or a weak and simple personality, was helpless. Cowardly, he delivered Czechoslovakia to the Nazis’ tender mercies and then allowed Hitler to trick him by signing a meaningless declaration of friendship. He came back from Munich claiming peace with honour in our time when in fact he had betrayed Europe, and the war which might have been averted by a firmer stand became unavoidable.

Those are the myths. Now what are the facts?

It is true that between the two world wars Germany broke many pacts. The injured innocence of the Foreign Office was meant to hide the fact that there was nothing new in this; in fact part of the Munich story was the unilateral revoking by the French, with British support, of their 1925 alliance with Czechoslovakia. A state usually breaks a treaty arrangement when it is under some sort of pressure, as the Germans were during the Thirties.

At that time German capitalism had resumed its expansion, which had been abruptly halted by the first world war. L. S. Amery once said to A. L. Rowse “Germany came so near to bringing it off the first time that it was only to be expected that she would have another try.”[1] Since that first “try” Germany had been stripped of her colonies; she had lost the valuable raw materials of the Ruhr, Silesia and Alsace Lorraine. Partly from her allies Austria and Hungary the state of Czechoslovakia had been created at the Versailles Conference. The German attempt to break the stranglehold imposed at Versailles was the infamous March to the East. First Austria was annexed—then Czechoslovakia stood in the way.

The expansion of a capitalist state is never a peaceful or honourable business. The expanding state meets with opposition from the established powers, who often try to control the situation with pacts and alliances which they are more or less forced to try to keep. The expanding state is under no such compulsion. This is not a matter of honour; where capitalist interests are concerned there is no good and bad but only an irreconcilable clash. The Nazis—brutal, intractable, ruthless—were apt expression of the expansionist ambitions of German capitalism and this gave them the role of double crossers which other ruling groups have occupied at other times.

The Nazi record provided convenient evidence for the fallacy that Hitler was an evil historical accident, whose personality (he actually did chew the carpet) was solely responsible for Munich and what followed. But the Nazis did not cry in the wilderness; in 1932 Hitler won over 13 million votes in the election for the Chancellorship; by the time of Munich Henlein’s pro-Nazi Sudeten German Party had virtually all the German vote in Czechoslovakia and forty four members in the Czech parliament.

This sort of support is no accident. The Nazis were men of their time, personifying the interests of German capitalism as it struggled to re-assert itself, and the patriotic hysteria and mob violence which that re-assertion needed. Nazi theories were hardly new; they were a ferociously extreme version of ideas which had been around for some time, in similar circumstances in other lands—for example in Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders and Tory Imperialists in England.

Complementary to the Hitler personality myth was that of Chamberlain. The British Prime Minister looked like a late Victorian gentleman and in fact he did express a preference for living in that age, before the motor car and the telephone. Modern art roused him to a fury and the intrusively ample nudes of Berchtesgaden disturbed him enough for him to mention them again and again in a letter to his sister. Chamberlain’s wing collar about his scrawny neck, his pouting moustache and his umbrella, made him look dull and narrow-minded. He suffered, like all self-respecting Victorian gentlemen, from gout.

He provoked many cruel epithets. Churchill, who said that in twenty years he had only one intimate social conversation with him, accused him of looking at world affairs “through the wrong end of a municipal drainpipe”. Masaryk raged about the ” . . .  calamity that this stupid and ill-informed man, a nonentity, should be Prime Minister of Great Britain”.  [3]

His was certainly an arid personality but just like any other politician Chamberlain expressed himself within the confines of his job of representing the interests of his ruling class. He may have been duped by Hitler; he did allow himself, in an emotional moment which he later regretted, to appear to believe in the durability of the Anglo/German agreement of Munich. But his general policy was quite clear. In the House of Commons on 24 March 1938 he listed the places which Britain would fight for—France and Belgium (to protect the Channel coast); Iraq (to protect British oil investments); Egypt (to protect Suez); and Portugal.

These were places where the interests of British capitalism were immediately and vitally involved. Czechoslovakia was not among them; Chamberlain had already “. . . abandoned any idea of giving guarantees to Czechoslovakia, or to France in connection with her obligations to that country.”[2] This was not his policy alone; a lot of the press, including the Times, Express and Observer, supported it and, according to Sir Samuel Hoare (as he then was), it also had the backing of Chamberlain’s colleagues.

The British policy of appeasement, which included the abandonment of Czechoslovakia, was the product, not of any man’s personality but of the European situation at the time. Behind the more publicised examples of political appeasement, out of the public eye, the policy was carried out in the fields of economics and trade. In the Thirties both Britain and Germany were trying to protect their economies with high tariffs and rigid exchange controls. The British Imperial Preference system denied Germany access to the markets of the Empire but Germany had to expand into somewhere. This they threatened to do by military conquest and a lot of their war equipment included imported materials paid for with exports financed by credits in the City of London. (There were £36 million of these outstanding on 3 September 1939.) [4]

The British solution was twofold. First, they would allow Germany to expand into an area where British interests were not vitally at stake and, by thus encouraging Germany’s economic development, ease the pressure of her re-armament, which would have allowed British industry to stay out of an arms race. This amounted to nothing more than a carve up of Europe; Dirksen, the man who succeeded Ribbentrop as Ambassador in London, wrote of the soundings which preceded Munich ” . . a delineation of economic spheres of interest was mentioned as a point in the programme.”[4] (Dirksen regarded Chamberlain, rather than Hitler, as the farsighted planner of foreign policy). In this carve-up South East Europe was recognised as Germany’s sphere; Halifax wrote on 1 November 1938 “Henceforward we must count with German predominance in Central Europe” which, he said, “once Germany recovered her normal strength .. .was inevitable for obvious geographic and economic reasons.”[4]

The second part of British policy was the development of her own trade with Germany; the declaration of friendship signed by Hitler and Chamberlain at Munich, which the British Premier flourished so triumphantly on his return, was supposed to be a start to this. In December 1938 the Board of Trade got negotiations going between the British and German Federations of Industry, with the object of reaching a comprehensive agreement on prices and markets. In January 1939 the Anglo/German Coal Agreement was signed. On the very day in March 1939, that the Germany Army marched into Prague, British and German industrialists put their signatures to another commercial pact.

The carve up meant that Czechoslovakia, in spite of the French guarantees to her, had to be swallowed up in the German expansion; the Czech coal and iron was a very acceptable bonus to German industry. It meant that millions of people were handed over to the Nazi dictatorship, to suffer and die in the concentration camps. But it served the purposes of capitalism. Munich was no accident. It was no historical turning point, when a different policy might have stopped the German expansion and avoided the second world war. The only other policies (apart from Socialism) which were on offer would have had a similar result. Munich was a chapter in the long story of capitalism’s economic disputes, a stepping stone towards the next war,

At the time, the agreements of Munich were greeted with hysterical relief. Chamberlain was honoured as an old man (he was sixty-nine) who braved an adventurous journey by air to try what was then the unusual method of face-to-face diplomacy. (Halifax said it “rather took his breath away”). This was why M.P.’s were in tears, when Chamberlain announced the invitation to his third visit to Hitler. It was why the people lined the roads from Heston to Buckingham Palace when he came back. It was why George Lansbury told him “You have done a most wonderful piece of work and done it under the guidance and providence of God.”[2]

It might have occurred to Lansbury, or Halifax, or somebody, to tell those people what treaties were worth; they might have told them that Czechoslovakia was itself created by a “peace” treaty, as part of “collective security” and that the disputed areas of that country had been deliberately tacked onto it to provide a natural, mountainous barrier to invaders from the west. Chamberlain might have mentioned that he was anything but a peace lover; he had written that he wanted to avoid a war with Germany ” . . .  unless we had a reasonable prospect of being able to beat her to her knees in a reasonable time.”  He was making his preparations; he said in the House of Commons on 3 October 1938 “For a long period now we have been engaged in this country in a great programme of rearmament. which is daily increasing in pace and volume.”

September 1938 was not a pleasant time to be alive. There was the rising nationalism on all sides, the gruesome stories from the concentration camps and the start of an official campaign to condition the people who would have to fight the war into accepting its necessity. The government had people digging trenches in the parks and commons, often by floodlight at night. They distributed the gas masks which they knew would be virtually useless. They circulated a masterpiece of bureaucratic waffle—a leaflet which told us that falling bombs could be easily recognised (and presumably dodged) because they looked like silver arrows.

And in the end it came down to the day when the deceits and the fallacies of the diplomats had to be suspended for a short time, as Chamberlain told us that war had been declared. Appeasement was dead but it didn’t take them long to think up the next trick, which went under the name of Unconditional Surrender.


Books Cited:
[1] The Hollow Men, by Margaret George.
[2] Neville Chamberlain, by lain Macleod.
[3] Munich, by Henri Nogueres.
[4] The Appeasers, by Martin Gilbert and Richard Gott.