The Ghosts of Munich: Barack Obama and the Wrong Lessons of History

March 18, 2014
June 30, 2016

The legacy of the Munich Conference of 1938 hangs over any international crisis like a Sword of Damocles, with comparisons to Neville Chamberlain’s infamous sellout invoked against politicians who appear through either inability or choice to be failing to live up to expectations. George Bush utilized the comparison against opponents of the Iraq War, while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not been shy about throwing it around regarding the need to confront Iran. Today it is being used, with somewhat more justification, regarding the response of Barack Obama and the European Union to Russia’s seizure actions in the Ukraine.

Yet, while the situation facing Washington and Brussels over the last two weeks almost certainly shares parallels with that which faced London and Paris in 1938, those parallels have been badly misunderstood and misapplied. The mistake at Munich was lay not in the failure of the West to fight for the Sudetenland; rather it lay in the West’s failure to give a clear impression of what they would and would not clearly fight for and it is also here where their successors today could learn the most from their failure.

The first lesson of Munich lies in the important role that public opinion plays in limiting the room leaders have to maneuver. In the eyes of posterity, the villains of Munich were the Western leaders who chose not to fight over “a faraway country of which we know little.” The result has been a myth of Munich, in which it represented a failure of will on the part of individuals, and that a greater show of determination would have deterred or overthrown Hitler. At worst, so it is argued, a stronger stand would have started the Second World War earlier, under more favorable circumstances.

Implicit is the assumption that a war with Hitler and Germany was inevitable, and that the question facing Chamberlain and his compatriots was not whether war could be avoided but where and when was the best place for it to begin. Even many of Chamberlain’s revisionist defenders have adopted this outlook, arguing that his objective at Munich was to buy the West time to rearm, thereby saving the late Prime Minister from the worse charge that he was as naïve as to believe war was avoidable.

Yet in 1938 Hitler did not appear the world-devouring demon he does with the benefit hindsight. While undoubtedly brutal domestically, this was the era of the Great Purges in Russia, and a mere decade and a half removed from the slaughter of the Great War. In such company Hitler’s regime seemed merely a slightly more efficient version of the nationalist and anti-Semitic regimes that dominated Southern and Eastern Europe.  

Internationally, Hitler had accepted the basic contours of the Versailles settlement more fully than previous German democratic governments. He had signed a 1934 Non-Aggression Pact with Poland, renounced Alsace-Lorraine, and shown little interest in colonies. Even his withdrawal from the League of Nations in 1933 came not from a position of defiance but over French refusal to disarm in parity with Germany. His objections to Versailles were not its principles – self-determination, borders based on nationalism, the rejection of the use of force in international affairs – but rather the hypocrisy with which they had been applied to Germany. This placed him on the side of both local and Western public opinion in all of his major confrontations with the international order, making it hard for London or Paris to mobilize public support to drive the Germans out of the Rhineland, which was legally German territory after all, or to fight a war for Austria, where the vast majority of locals had backed annexation in 1918 if not 1938.

The Sudeten crisis was a case in point. The Sudetenland contained about 3 million Germans and 750,000 Czechs, and the only plausible arguments for keeping it within Czechoslovakia were strategic, namely that it included most of the Czech defenses. A war would do little or nothing to solve the underlying problem, since even if the Allies won at enormous cost, after victory there would still be 3 million Germans in Czechoslovakia. The eventual solution of expelling them, implemented in 1945, was unthinkable at the time, and the prospect of sacrificing millions of lives to maintain a status quo that all parties and sides accepted was absurd to anyone without the foreknowledge that those sacrifices were be made in any case. Only the belief, evident with hindsight but restricted to the far left and old imperialist right at the time, that the destruction of Hitler's government in Germany itself should be the goal of foreign policy could serve to justify a war in 1939 that the issues in contention could not.

Chamberlain was aware of this, and knew the Commonwealth governments had made clear they would not fight to keep Germans under Czech rule. His goal at Munich then was not to stop Hitler from taking the Sudetenland or to convince him that the West would fight for it; rather it was to ensure that Hitler would not conclude that the West’s unwillingness to fight for the Sudetenland meant that it would not fight for anything else.

Chamberlain sought to accomplish this end by attempting to trade the Sudetenland for concessions regarding the nature, manner, and justification of its transfer to Germany. He felt that if Hitler was awarded the region by the will of the international community, the decision would strengthen, not weaken the ability of that “community” to determine the shape of Europe. These quibbles over details might seem small in the grand scheme of things. Nonetheless, they mattered and Hitler knew they mattered, and hence refused almost all of them. This was not mere intransigence or pique. Hitler was perfectly aware that Chamberlain was attempting to buy concessions through selling something he didn’t own. In fact, Hitler grew agitated and offended that Chamberlain was attempting to wrap up his own stolen goods as a gift.

Here lies another lesson of Munich; that diplomatic bluffing in is a subtle and difficult business, and if the other side already knows you are going to make a concession anyway, not only will they feel no gratitude, they may well take offense. Chamberlain went to Munich hoping to preserve the prestige of the international community, to improve relations with Hitler, and to hopefully satisfy him sufficiently that he would be inclined to work within the system in the future. Instead he undermined collective security, greatly angered Hitler, and most critically mismanaged public support for his policy.

The latter error proved key. When an emboldened Hitler moved into Prague six months later, public opinion forced Chamberlain to abandon his policy. The British public, which had not wanted to fight Hitler anywhere, now demanded that London promise to fight him everywhere, leading to ill-conceived guarantees to Poland, Romania and Hungary. As a consequence, Britain, which had refused to fight over a democracy’s control of a strategically vital region, was dragged into war to protect the Polish Military Junta’s prestige in strategically worthless Danzig, a 90% German city that by 1939 was no longer Poland’s main port. In a strategic sense it might have made sense to fight over the Sudetenland, but that was politically impossible. It made no sense whatsoever for either Warsaw or London to fight a war over Danzig, but political factors made it a necessity.

Current Precedents

Barack Obama and John Kerry in their response to the situation in the Ukraine are in serious danger of repeating Chamberlain’s mistakes at Munich. Not the mistake of not starting a war there. Obama has no more ability to fight a war over the Crimea or Donetsk than Chamberlain did. But Obama, rather than recognizing his weakness and working from it, has made the mistake of attempting to compensate for it by ever more aggressive pronouncements in the hope that Putin will be far too stupid to realize what is obvious.

In the process he has repeated America’s pre-2008 encouragement of Georgian aspirations, encouragement that led to misleading expectations of American support. Those misleading expectations in turn led the Georgian government to assume that if they used force against South Ossetia, that the United States would prevent Russian intervention. One of the most underappreciated moments of the Bush Administration was the quick decision by the President and Secretary of State Rice to ignore the entreaties of Neoconservatives, and to make clear to Tbilisi that they would have to make their own settlement with Moscow. With no prospect of US support, the best the Georgians could have hoped for was to sign a cease-fire as quickly as possible. By contrast, had the US instead sent Rice to Europe and Cheney to Asia to make the sort of pronouncements of Pro-Georgian sentiment that typified the 2008 Republican National Convention, the Georgians might have been led to believe that if they just held out long enough or the Russians crossed too many red lines, the US would have intervened. Obama has reached the same conclusion that Bush did, namely that the US can do nothing militarily. Yet instead of communicating this to the people who most need to hear it in Kiev, he has attempted to cover for it with loud pronouncements and threats. John Kerry visited Warsaw, Riga, and Kiev to make a show of solidarity, and American language has risen in volume in inverse proportion to its effectiveness.

Obama has also proceeded to follow a policy of maximum friction with Moscow. His half-hearted sanctions have earned contempt – the Russian Duma unanimously passed a resolution asking that they be imposed on the entire chamber –and his warnings of Russian isolation, of the dangers of nationalism and aggression, the suggestion that Putin is on the wrong-side of history, have if anything increased Russian belligerence. Putin is not opposed to offer his foes safe-saving compromises if he gets what he wants, the Syria agreement of this past August is an excellent case in point, but the American government is showing all the signs of not believing that it lost there, or that it has lost in the Crimea. As such, given that one of Putin’s goals in the Ukraine much as it was in Syria is to prove a point about the limitations of Western power and the need for the West to work within a wider international system, the failure of that message to get across acts as an incentive to further aggression. There is a personal aspect to this as well. Obama has disguised weakness behind petty insults. Over Syria he called Putin a disruptive kid in the back of the class; to the Olympics he sent a team of retied athletes.  These gestures have earned him nothing, but will cost him much.

Finally, Obama’s rhetoric creates the serious prospect of forcing the United States into a Danzig situation. Both Putin and Obama are aware of Western weakness, but it’s unclear if the American and European publics are, especially given the web of confusion and verbal obfuscation Obama and Kerry have laid down over the last two months. With Putin provoked, and the term “red line” reduced to a punch line, it’s unclear what Obama and NATO would actually do if Putin say, began stirring up trouble among the Russian minority in Estonia. Estonia, like the Ukraine, has a large Soviet-era Russian minority that if anything, has real, as opposed to manufactured, complaints about discrimination. Putin’s efforts could find a ready audience, and a stronger moral cause there, much as Hitler did with Poland. Yet Estonia is part of NATO and the EU. Even if the pragmatic arguments against intervention are the same as today – if anything they are stronger, the Crimea is of greater strategic value, the Russian minority better treated – legal obligations would place the Washington and Brussels in an untenable position. Public opinion would force a confrontation in a situation where neither the EU nor US can do much, much as it forced Paris and London into war in 1939 when they could do little for Poland, and the result would be disaster. Inaction would destroy NATO and the careers of those who turned away. Action could cause World War III.

Barack Obama’s position is not enviable, nor was Neville Chamberlain’s in the fall of 1938. Neville Chamberlain still managed to take a set of bad cards, and to play them so badly that he ended up not only in a war, but in a worse war than he would have had in the first place. Barack Obama cannot be held responsible for creating a situation in which he can do little about aggression, but he can be called out for a policy that has sent confusing messages to Kiev, Moscow, and Europe, which have bred resentment and unrealistic expectations on all sides. Obama actions, whether borne from frustration, a genuine desire to help, or a desire for domestic political gain are threatening to turn a minor regional conflict into a future geopolitical calamity. The ghost of Neville Chamberlain should remind him that even if he is out of office by that point, he will not easily escape the blame.


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