The Lessons of Munich

Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, a Research Fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution, and a Professor of Classics and Humanities at the California State University. He is the author of nine books and numerous essays on classical culture and its influence on Western Civilization. His most recent book, Democracy's Dangers and Discontents (Hoover Institution Press), is now available for purchase.


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Originally published by the Hoover Institution

[Photo credit: Anna Newman]

During the recent foreign policy crises over Syria’s use of chemical weapons and the Obama administration’s negotiations with Iran, the Munich analogy was heard from both sides of the political spectrum. Arguing for airstrikes against Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, Secretary of State John Kerry warned that the nation faced a “Munich moment.” A few months later, numerous critics of Barack Obama’s diplomatic discussions with Iran evoked Neville Chamberlain’s naïve negotiations with Adolph Hitler. “This wretched deal,” Middle East historian Daniel Pipes said, “offers one of those rare occasions when comparison with Neville Chamberlain in Munich in 1938 is valid.” The widespread resort to the Munich analogy raises the question: When, if ever, are historical analogies useful for understanding present circumstances?

Since the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans, one important purpose of describing historical events was to provide models for posterity. Around 395 B.C., Thucydides wrote that his history was for “those inquirers who desire an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the understanding of the future, which in the course of human things must resemble if it does not reflect it.” Thus he proclaimed his history to be “a possession for all time.” Nearly four centuries later, the Roman historian Livy wrote his history of the Roman Republic from its foundations to Augustus in order to show “what to imitate,” and to “mark for avoidance what is shameful in the conception and shameful in the result.”

Both historians believed the past could inform and instruct the present because they assumed that human nature would remain constant in its passions, weaknesses, and interests despite changes in the political, social, or technological environment. As Thucydides writes of the horrors of revolution and civil war, “The sufferings . . . were many and terrible, such as have occurred and always will occur as long as the nature of mankind remains the same; though in severer or milder form, and varying in their symptoms, according to the variety of the particular cases.” Good history must take into account that “variety of the particular cases,” but an unchanging human nature will over time and space work similar effects. The past, then, can provide analogies for the present, provided they are based on “exact knowledge,” and the “variety of particular cases” is respected.

In contrast, the modern idea of progress––the notion that greater knowledge of human motivation and behavior, and more sophisticated technology, are changing and improving human nature––suggests that events of the past have little utility in describing the present, and so every historical analogy is at some level false. The differences between two events separated by time and different levels of intellectual and technological sophistication will necessarily outweigh any usefulness. The progressive improvement of human nature, however, is a cultural idea, not a scientific fact. If the gruesome twentieth century shows us anything, it is that the destructive passions, irrational motives, and dangerous weaknesses of human nature still persist. As long as the important differences between past and present events are respected, the similarities can be useful for understanding our own predicaments.

An example of a historical analogy that failed because it neglected important differences was one popular among those supporting the Bush Doctrine during the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Bush Doctrine was embodied in the president’s 2005 inaugural speech: “The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.” Promoting democracy and political freedom in the Middle East was believed to be the way to eliminate the political, social, and economic dysfunctions that presumably breed Islamic terrorism. Supporters of this view frequently invoked the transformation of Germany, Japan, and the Soviet Union from aggressive tyrannies into peaceful democracies to argue for nation building in the Muslim Middle East.

Natan Sharansky, a former Soviet dissident and political prisoner, used this analogy in his 2004 book The Case for Democracy, which was an important influence on President Bush’s thinking. Yet in citing the examples of Russia, Germany, and Japan as proof that democracy could take root in any cultural soil, including in Iraq and Afghanistan, Sharansky overlooked some key differences. Under Soviet communism, a highly religious Russian people were subjected to an atheist regime radically at odds with the beliefs of the masses. Communism could only promise material goods, and when it serially failed to do so, it collapsed. As for Germany and Japan, both countries were devastated by World War II, their cities and industries destroyed, the ruins standing as stark reminders of the folly of the political ideologies that wreaked such havoc. Both countries were occupied for years by the victors, who had the power and scope to build a new political order enforced by the occupying troops. As political philosopher Michael Mandelbaum reminds us, in Germany and Japan, democracy was introduced at gunpoint.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, neither of these important conditions existed when U.S. forces invaded. The leaders of these countries are Muslim, thus establishing an important connection with the mass of their people. Unlike Nazism and communism, which were political fads, Islam is the faith of 1.5 billion people, and boasts a proud, fourteen-centuries-long history of success and conquest. For millions of pious Muslims, the answer to their modern difficulties lies not in embracing a foreign political system like democracy, but in returning to the purity of faith that created one of the world’s greatest empires. Moreover, no Muslim country has suffered the dramatic physical destruction that Germany and Japan did, which would illuminate the costs of Islam’s failure to adapt to the modern world. Finally, such analogies downplay the complex social and economic values, habits, and attitudes––many contrary to traditional Islamic doctrine––that are the preconditions for a truly democratic regime.

More recently, people are invoking the Munich analogy to describe the Syria and Iran crises. But these critics of Obama’s foreign policy misunderstand the Munich negotiations and their context. The Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens, arguing that Obama’s agreement with Iran is worse than the English and French betrayal of Czechoslovakia, based his assessment on his belief that “neither Neville Chamberlain nor [French prime minister] Édouard Daladier had the public support or military wherewithal to stand up to Hitler in September 1938. Britain had just 384,000 men in its regular army; the first Spitfire aircraft only entered RAF service that summer. ‘Peace for our time’ it was not, but at least appeasement bought the West a year to rearm.”

Stephens, however, is missing an important historical detail that calls into question this interpretation. France in fact did have the “military wherewithal” to fight the Germans. The Maginot line had 860,000 soldiers manning it––nearly six times the number of Germans on the unfinished “Western Wall” of defensive fortifications facing the French—and another 400,000 troops elsewhere in France. Any move east by the French would have presented Germany with a two-front war it was not prepared to fight. Nor would Czechoslovakia have been an easy foe for Hitler. As Churchill wrote in The Gathering Storm, the Czechs had “a million and a half men armed behind the strongest fortress line in Europe [in the mountainous Sudetenland on Germany’s eastern border] and equipped by a highly organized and powerful industrial machine,” including the Skoda works, “the second most important arsenal in Central Europe.” Finally, the web of military agreements among England, France, Poland, and the Soviet Union was dependent on England backing France, which would not fight otherwise, and without the French, the Poles and the Soviets would not fight either. Had England lived up to its commitment to France, Hitler would have faced a two-front war against the overwhelming combined military superiority of the Allies. And he would have lost.

The lessons of Munich, and its value as a historical analogy, have nothing to do with a material calculation. Rather, the capitulation of the British and the French illustrates the perennial truth that conflict is about morale. On that point Stephens is correct when he writes that Chamberlain and Daladier did not have “public support,” and he emphasizes the role of morale in foreign policy. A people who have lost the confidence in the goodness of their way of life will not be saved by the material superiority of arms or money. And, as Munich also shows, that failure of nerve will not be mitigated by diplomatic negotiations. Talking to an enemy bent on aggression will only buy him time for achieving his aims. Thus Munich exposes the fallacy of diplomatic engagement that periodically has compromised Western foreign policy. Rather than a means of avoiding the unavoidable brutal costs of conflict, diplomatic words often create the illusion of action, while in reality avoiding the necessary military deeds. For diplomacy to work, the enemy must believe that his opponent will use punishing force to back up the agreement.

This truth gives force to the Munich analogy when applied to diplomacy with Iran. Hitler correctly judged that what he called the “little worms” of Munich, France and England, would not use such force, and were only looking for a politically palatable way to avoid a war. Similarly today, the mullahs in Iran are confident that America will not use force to stop the nuclear weapons program. Iran’s leaders are shrewd enough to understand that the Obama administration needs a diplomatic fig leaf to hide its capitulation to their nuclear ambitions, given his doubts about the rightness of America’s global dominance, and the war-weariness evident among the American people. Unfortunately, this deal allows the Iranians to continue spinning the centrifuges and inching ever closer to the capacity quickly to build a nuclear weapon, even as they receive the much needed funds that will come from sanctions relief.

The weakening faith in American goodness that afflicts millions of Americans, and the use of diplomacy to camouflage that failure of nerve and provide political cover for the leaders charged with protecting our security and interests, are a reprise of England and France’s sacrifice of Czechoslovakia in 1938. That similarity and the lessons it can teach about the dangers of the collapse of national morale and the risky reliance on words rather than deeds are what continue to make Munich a useful historical analogy.

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  • Dyer’s Eve

    ‘A people who have lost the confidence in the goodness of their way of life will not be saved by the material superiority of arms or money’ – that line nails it. The Iranians know this.

    • Paul of Alexandria

      And the Iranians view themselves as the Persian Empire – which has seen Greece, Rome, Byzantium, and many other empires come and go. They think, perhaps rightly, that they can simply outwait us.

      • Drakken

        There hasn’t been a Persian for over 800 years, the muslim invasions of Persia bred the Persian out of them. One way or another this comes to a bloody conclusion, there is no longer anyway out of this mess other than force of arms.

        • Raymond_in_DC

          You couldn’t be more wrong. Persians have long resented the Arabs and their attempt to “breed the Persian out of them”. Yet you’ll note that, unlike those in North Africa, Persians were not fully “Arabized”. They retained Farsi as their language (though using the Arab alphabet). They could take pride that Persian culture retained its vitality – it still had its poets and its scholars, whose products the Arabs would later claim for islam. They look south to Arabia and see they’ve created, well, nothing.

          What I’ve seen however is an ongoing battle for the “soul” of Persia, with the two drivers – Shia Islam and Persian identity – vying for primacy. In the 20th century under the Shahs, the Persian side won out. Secular, modernizing, celebrating 2500 years of history, even harking back to Cyrus and his relations with the Jews to establish ties to Israel. The 1979 revolution was an attempt to push most – but not all – of that aside. The one thing they’ve retained is the notion of empire, but this time in the service of Shia Islam. The majority of Iranians however remain secular.

          • Emilio

            The Persians as an Aryan group went extinct.

            Most Iranians look Semitic, like Arabs. The original Persians and Medes were blue eyed, tall white skinned Aryan invaders. Some of those genes can still be found among the Pashtun, Tajik and Kurds, but not much.

          • Raymond_in_DC

            When I taught long ago, I described identity as involving two factors: self-identification and external recognition. (Yes, it’s simplistic but I was just a teaching fellow and it was long ago.) The notion of Aryans is something of a 19th century construct, which may not even be valid. But even if genetic analysis were to suggest the Persians of today aren’t directly linked to those of 2500 years ago, they’ve certainly self-identified as Persians, and retained the historic memory and culture of ancient Persia. And yes, I know that today’s Iran includes numerous minorities, including Arabs, Kurds and Baluchis.

            Indeed, if one looks around the Middle East, one finds it replete with artificial states lacking any coherence between ethnicity or nationality and political state boundary. Yet there *are* three states that hark back to an earlier time: Egypt, Israel and Iran/Persia.

  • http://libertyandculture.blogspot.com/ Jason P

    While I share the author’s skepticism of Bush’s nation-building policy, the left turned on Bush not because of his overly generous commitment to democracy in Iraq but because they vilified our nation and our government’s intentions. In the end, their hatred of our core principles, not question of prudence, is what drove their traitorous attack on our policies. Now that we are exhausted (morally) Iran knows the door is open.

  • WhiteHunter

    For the parallel of the successful post-war transformation of Germany and Japan into nonbelligerent, Western-style liberal democracies [lower case "L" and "D" intentional] to apply to Iran and the rest of our mohammedan enemies today and defang them to the extent that they no longer threaten our existence or even want to, the entire WW II prescription must be filled and taken (or rather force-fed) as directed.

    This includes killing millions of them (and not just their armed troops) without the hindrance of the punctilious, suicidal Rules of Engagement that handcuff and endanger our own troops; dropping a few (or as many as required) atom bombs on them leading to unconditional surrender because they have no other choice; rounding up and hanging their political and military leaders, as we did at Nuremberg; the complete de-islamification (the equivalent of de-Nazification) of every level of government, society, the media, and the educational system; outlawing and stringently enforcing the ban on membership in the Party (i.e. islam); outlawing the regime’s foundational book (the koran today, as Mein Kampf is still outlawed in Germany); documenting, exposing, and publishing to the entire world the regime’s crimes against humanity; and identifying, thoroughly vetting, and training a new generation of truly moderate, civilized natives for leadership positions in the new government and society under a completely new, secular constitution dictated by the civilized world.

    This would be a herculean task indeed, and probably impossible for that reason and for a lack of stomach to carry it out to completion. But it’s hard to imagine that any “solution” that omits any of these elements would successfully wean savages from their savagery and grant them membership in the civilized world. Empty “negotiations” that make pusillanimous concessions while leaving the underlying disease intact certainly won’t.

    • Joel Cairo

      If we don’t have the stomach to carry it out, we may well not survive. After all, they have already demonstrated that quality by outlawing the Bible, churches and synagogues, etc. They have created a society where they control the discussion because dissent and choice is not allowed. Providing a lesson that such a course is destructive will change everything.

    • Drakken

      Nuremburg is what has made this current crisis possible, it was victors justice that had nothing to do with justice at all, as for the denazification stupidity, it just made rebuilding last 20 years longer than it should have. WW 2 in the grand scheme of things was a failure of the western allies just as WW 1 was and made the Soviet Union stronger and has made the current Islamic resurgence possible.
      As for how this ends with the muslim world? There will be war, no doubt about it and if we don’t have the will to do what must be done to ensure a total victory instead of the half azzed and pc addled stupidity that has been policy for 40 years, it is going to be a bloody nasty hard earned slog. The Russians don’t have this problem, for when they have a muslim problem, they do whatever it takes to eliminate them and that includes razing a city if they have too.

  • Mark Musser

    Excellent article, except I would say that long before the Greeks and Romans started writing history, the Old Testament itself is rooted in a strong historical tradition (albeit religious – which actually makes its historical tradition even more unique and outstanding – Deuteronomy 4:32-40) so that the Hebrews could learn the lessons of the past to help them face their own present problems. The Old Testament is replete with historical analogies so that each generation should have been fully armed with the lessons of the past to learn from. However, while the historical tradition in the Old Testament was clear, the people of Israel often found it very difficult to apply the past to their present circumstances (Psalm 78 & 95 for example) – a problem which has not gone away in our own modern ‘progressive’ era so-called. The Old Testament time and time again teaches us that ignorance of the past is often a fatal disease, and no matter how much a people and/or culture may ‘evolve,’ it cannot divorce itself from history like the leftist progressive agenda purports to do.

    • fush

      amen

  • Joel Cairo

    The author states that “no Muslim country has suffered the dramatic physical destruction that
    Germany and Japan did, which would illuminate the costs of Islam’s
    failure to adapt to the modern world.”

    This appears to indicate exactly what needs to be done to solve the problem. Visit death and destruction on a scale similar to what Germany and Japan experienced on, for example, Iran, and the situation will change. Treat them as if we are afraid to hurt them and they will take it as a sign of weakness.

    • defcon 4

      Millions of Germans had to die to stop nazism.

      • Emilio

        By your logic, millions of Israelis will have to die to stop ZioNazism?
        If it was good for the gander it will be good for the goose……..

        After all, both Nazism and Zionism are forms of racial based, extreme, exclusionary nationalism and both originated in German lands at around the same time.
        Zionists and Nazis were close collaborators until the outbreak of the war.

  • pneville

    Every article I read overlooks the most important result of the appeasement policy of the Chamberlain government. It caused the Soviets to cut a deal with Hitler to divvy up Eastern Europe and brought on the invasion of Poland.

    • defcon 4

      I always wonder if Israel will be sacrificed to appease islam0nazism, or if that’s the hope of corrupt, amoral leaders of western style democracies.

      • Raymond_in_DC

        Obama and Kerry appear quite willing to sacrifice Israel – or at least put it at greater risk – as they advance their vision for the Middle East, which includes outreach and accommodation toward political Islam and partnership with Iran.

      • Ottilia

        So, if a Western leader refuses to kowtow to Israel he is “corrupt and ammoral”?

        Your type of transparent, deceitful rhetoric is what creates an almost involuntary anti-Israeli,anti-Jewish backlash in normal people.
        For your information, the world does not exist to serve Israel, despite what this Talmudist snake says: http://www.newrepublic.com/blog/the-spine/78490/goyim-were-born-only-serve-us-the-moral-wisdom-rabbi-ovadia-yosef

    • Disgusted

      There was no appeasement policy, and Munich was not a betrayal of anyone except the Checkoslovak nationalists who wanted to lord it over another ethnic group in a territory that never belonged to any Chechoslovak state, since none ever existed before 1918.
      Chechoslovakia was an artificial creation which forcibly incorporated millions of Germans and Hungarians into a country that was not theirs and were never asked about it.
      Woodrow Wilson and the over 100,000 American troops who died so that the French could play King in Europe were played for the fools that they were.
      “Betrayal and appeasement at Munich” is a kind of mindless, quasi-religious mantra, being repeated ad nauseam all over the “respectable” media and political circles, almost like the Lord’s Prayer. It is symptomatic of the total intellectual bankruptcy and ignorance of the Western media/political class.

      It is all based on anti-German racist hatred, which is, as any idiot knows, is the only racism allowed in the media and actively promoted to boot.
      Of all nations, only the Germans (and Hungarians) were not permitted to exercise national self-determination, as was the clear case when 3.5 million Germans of the Sudetenland were placed under the rule of a foreign people, in a state that never existed before.
      This was a clear betrayal of the principle of national self determination, one of Wilson’s 14 points.

      Never mind, all we hear about is “appeasement and betrayal” at Munich.
      When will we read about what happened to these 3.5 million Sudeten Germans AFTER the war? The Benes decrees?
      Ethnic cleansing on an epic scale?

      • pneville

        What is your position on the slaughter of Jews by Germany during WWII.

        • Disgusted

          That is an entirely different subject matter.
          Sudetenland had nothing to do with the Jews.
          Neither did the South Tyrol, which Hitler betrayed to Mussolini.
          Neither did Austria, which was called German -Austria until 1919 and is German to this day.
          Neither did the 2/3rds of Hungary, simply scliced off and given away by the French.
          The Jews are not at the center of the Universe, but many act as if they were. They never seem to learn to mind their own business, an elementary lesson for any child in a schoolyard.
          Such mass megalomania and mass psychosis inevitably creates a backlash.

          • pneville

            You believe the Germans slaughtered 8 million Jews because they wouldn’t mind their own business. You are a monster.

          • Disgusted

            Well, you are either a swindler or you are insane, more likely a little bit of both.

            You raise the figure now from the “6 million” to 8 million.
            Wow, that is quite a leap!
            Second, you are supposed to be an adult, communicating with adults. If you think that any adult in his right mind will buy your lie that throughout history the Jews were singled out for persecution for no reason other than for simply being born Jews, you need to check into a mental institution.
            You live in La La Land. Unfortunately mental illness such as yours is the rule, rather than the exception among the Jews.

            Third, NO Jew was ever killed by the German government simply for being a Jew.
            That is the Hoax of the 20the Century, the biggest lie and fraud of all time: http://www.amazon.com/Hoax-Twentieth-Century-R-Butz/dp/0967985692/ref=sr_1_1/187-8856251-7728348?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1389901798&sr=1-1&keywords=the+hoax+of+the+20th+century

            The couple hundred thousand that were killed, were killed under Aktion Reinhard, in the East, mostly as hostages or saboteurs and partisans.

            I am sure your Grandma was gassed in a leaky gas chamber built after the war by the Polish government for the tourists, her skin was made into lampshades, her gold teeth melted down and her body fat was made into soap.
            I also have a used bridge in Brooklyn for sale. It is made of pure silver.

            What a demented, lying piece of human turd you are.