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On the 75th Anniversary of Munich

September 30, 2013

Nick Baumann, a senior editor for Mother Jones, recently published an article for Slate for the 75th anniversary of the Munich Conference. As Baumann recounts in the article, which you can find here, the Munich Agreement (signed in the wee hours of September 30, 1938) ceded the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia to Hitler’s Germany. The Munich Pact also lives on in popular memory as poster-child for Appeasement policy and its failure to halt German aggression and expansion. Baumann, however, counters the traditional narrative that British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was duped by Hitler, his promise of “peace for our time” lasting only eleven months. To the contrary, Baumann argues that British public opinion at the time cheered Appeasement and welcomed Chamberlain home a hero, while the Prime Minister in fact  made the best possible choice for his country, since it was still dreadfully behind Nazi Germany in the race to rearm.

Overall, Baumann’s piece is commendable for illustrating the rupture between historical record and popular perception, particularly in the United States where Chamberlain and Appeasement are buzzwords thrown about to mobilize support for military action and defense spending. However, I think more assessment of the German camp would make the argument even stronger. It was not just that Britain was unprepared for war, but also that Germany had a relatively small window during which they could have achieved victory before their technological and material superiority would have been outpaced by their competitors. What was Hitler’s motivation at the Munich Conference? It was not to win the marginal territorial concession of the Sudetenland, or even to neutralize Czech defensive fortifications in the Sudetenland en route to eventually taking Prague and the country. His goal was to provoke a war at the height of German military strength and logistical prowess. This is precisely why Hitler privately expressed disappointment over Munich–he lost his best chance at starting a war statistically in his favor. Just because Hitler and the Nazi regime were nevertheless able to claim it as a diplomatic victory for their onlooking public or that it satisfied a modicum of their expansionist aims does not immediately qualify it as an uncontested German victory. Chamberlain did not simply choose the best option for his country at the time, he also, if somewhat inadvertently, scuttled German war plans at the height of their effectiveness. This is precisely why I am skeptical of the common argument that Hitler, unlike Bismark, “got greedy” in occupying Czechoslovakia (the supposed “last straw” for the Allies) and invading Poland. His goal was not simply territorial expansion, but war itself.

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