The Wrong Lesson of Munich

NEW YORK – Seventy years ago this month in Munich, the British prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, signed a document that allowed Germany to grab a large chunk of Czechoslovakia. The so-called “Munich Agreement” would come to be seen as an abject betrayal of what Chamberlain termed “a far away country of which we know little.” But that was not what many people thought at the time.

Chamberlain’s belief that Britain was not yet ready for war with Nazi Germany, and that diplomacy and compromise were safer options, was in fact shared by many Europeans, who knew from personal experience the horrible consequences of war. Nonetheless, Chamberlain has gone down in history as a coward, and his “appeasement” of Nazi Germany is often blamed for Hitler’s subsequent campaign to conquer the rest of Europe.

Chamberlain was probably wrong. Britain and France could have stopped Germany. “Munich, 1938,” was one of the rare occasions in the history of democracies when careful diplomacy was a mistake. What was needed was a bloody-minded romantic hero, willing to gamble the fate of his nation by fighting on, “whatever the cost may be,” in the words of Winston Churchill.

George Santayana famously warned that “those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” History, however, teaches many lessons, some of them contradictory, and is never repeated in quite the same way. Sometimes too much attention paid to the past can lead us badly astray. So, what, exactly, has the world learned from Munich, 1938?