Munich: The Price of Peace
The conference at Munich which led to the partition of Czechoslovakia was held over forty years ago on September 30, 1938. To judge from the books that still appear about it and the passionate feelings it evokes, the Munich conference was as significant as the congress of Vienna or the Paris peace conference of 1919. At first sight this is strange. As Telford Taylor rightly remarks, the conference settled nothing: its decisions had already been made in advance. “Munich” was above all a symbol. A symbol of appeasement for some, a symbol of betrayal and weakness for others.
In a wider sense the Munich conference was the last time when Europe appeared as the center of the world. The United States stood aside; Soviet Russia was excluded; and the four Great Powers—France, Germany, Great Britain, and Italy—imagined they were speaking for mankind. Munich marked the emergence of Greater Germany as the dominant power in Europe. Within seven years all was shattered. Germany was prostrate and partitioned; the other European Great Powers were diminished; Soviet Russia and the United States had become the masters of the world.
Telford Taylor’s book is the most formidable and scholarly yet written about Munich. More than that, it surveys the entire course of European diplomacy from the peace conference of 1919 up to Munich and after. The sources used are unrivaled in extent. When I wrote my Origins of the Second World War nearly twenty years ago I had to rely largely on printed records such as selections of British and German documents. Telford Taylor, like other contemporary scholars, has had a free run of the British Cabinet papers, the Chiefs of Staff’s reports, and comparable records from France, Germany, and, to some extent, Italy. The result is a book of 1,104 pages, hard going but none too long. No detail is neglected—for instance whether Hitler wore an armband on his left or his right arm. The most minor participants are meticulously catalogued. On a larger field the information about military affairs is particularly strong. We learn precisely what forces the Germans mobilized at the time of the Austrian and Czech crises and what the French could set against them. We can follow the arguments of the British Chiefs of Staff and the doubts some German generals expressed though to no great effect. This is more than a year-by-year, it is almost a day-by-day account.
Telford Taylor begins with the Munich conference itself. Since, as he says, the conference produced nothing new, this is an opportunity for a virtuoso “I was there” performance such as some historians favor. There is nothing missing except the curious fact that, when the participants came to sign their agreement, there was no ink in the glittering inkstand. Then we go back to the beginning. First a quick run from the Paris peace conference to the German reoccupation of the Rhineland. Then a more detailed survey of the two years there-after, which includes the Spanish civil war and the incorporation of Austria into Germany. Thus we arrive at the Czech affair, first with its background and the mounting tension during the summer of 1938, and then the actual crisis touched off by Chamberlain’s visit to Hitler at Berchtesgaden. Finally a summary of events after Munich up to the outbreak of the Polish war and a brief assessment of what Munich meant and achieved.
There is little to criticize in this voluminous narrative, except a few pedantic points. Telford Taylor is a little inclined to use “Versailles” as a general name for the peace settlement, whereas the treaty of Versailles concerned only Germany and the peace conference was held in Paris. He attributes the succession states mainly to the initiative of the Great Powers and does not appreciate how much they made themselves. He inflates Italian grievances. Italy gathered all the fruits of the treaty of London except for North Dalmatia (not the whole of Dalmatia) and a vague promise of colonies. The alleged meeting of May 23, 1939 when Hitler foretold the certainty of war was probably a fabrication designed by some anti-Hitler sources to stir the British into action. These are not serious lapses.
On the greater issues Telford Taylor is emphatically right. In his view, which is also mine, Hitler was intent to make Germany the dominant power in Europe but had no clear idea how to do it. The reoccupation of the Rhineland was an improvisation. Only Schuschnigg’s decision to hold a plebiscite surprised Hitler into action over Austria. After this Hitler intended the Czech problem to ripen gradually. Once more he was rushed into action by the Czech mobilization of May 21, 1938. Even then Hitler planned a surprise attack. This plan was upset by the prolongation of the diplomatic crisis. Hitler was rescued from the problem of how to launch a surprise attack that was not a surprise only by the dramatic appearance of Chamberlain from the air. As Telford Taylor rightly says, Chamberlain, not Hitler, gave the conclusion of the Czech crisis its final shape, though this is not to say that he caused it Still Chamberlain was the midwife of the Munich conference. Telford Taylor is also right in dismissing the vaunted conspiracy of the German generals to overthrow Hitler as no more than late-night grumbling and hot air.
Diplomacy is well treated; as are military affairs, particularly the stress on the fact that the Luftwaffe was not equipped for strategic bombing. Some themes are in my opinion passed over or treated inadequately. The first is public opinion in the principal countries. I can write of this at first hand. I was an advocate of resistance to Hitler from the time he came to power and, though a member of the Labour Party, an advocate of intense rearmament after his reoccupation of the Rhineland. I was one of the few who addressed public meetings outside London during the fortnight before Munich, again advocating resistance. I must sorrowfully confess that these were the most difficult meetings I have ever experienced. There was not only fear of war, particularly fear of a repetition of the First World War. There was also a constant assertion that Hitler’s claims were justified.
Telford Taylor quotes with disapproval a sentence of mine that the Munich settlement was “a triumph for all that was best and most enlightened in British life.” I am sorry to disillusion him about my own attitude. The sentence was a bitter “goak,” to use a favorite word of Artemus Ward’s, a writer now forgotten in England but not, I hope, in the United States. What I meant to convey was that all the most high-minded authorities in England had denounced the peace settlement of 1919 for many years. Hitler reaped where they had sown. I fear that I, too, had criticized the peace settlement during the 1920s. I was converted sooner than others. Certainly much of the British public had not been converted by September 1938.
I was in France during the first fortnight of September. On my return I told a friend on The Manchester Guardian: “The French people will not fight. They may mobilize. They may man the Maginot line. But they will not fight.” No doubt this was only a personal impression but it was one derived from country towns and villages as well as from many talks with historians and journalists whom I knew in Paris. The French people and, I think, the French politicians felt secure behind the Maginot line and had ceased to care what happened beyond it. As to Germany, of course I never went there after Hitler came to power. But I think we can say of Hitler what Sorel said of Napoleon III, “His origins condemned him to success.” Hitler, although a dictator, was acutely sensitive to public opinion. He never forgot the events of November 1918. Therefore he sought to provide a run of successes achieved by guile, not by actual war. What Mussolini and the Italian people thought is a matter of no great moment, though here, too, an easy triumph was the answer. Broadly speaking, the Munich conference secured what each of the participants thought their peoples wanted. It was easy for me at the time and is easy for Telford Taylor now to say that they, or at any rate Chamberlain and Daladier, were wrong, but wisdom and moral virtue are privileges accorded only to detached observers.
Another neglected theme is the effect of factors other than diplomatic and military on British policy. Telford Taylor does not seem to have read the book in German by Berndt Wendt on economic appeasement, a book based on papers in the Board of Trade, which British historians should have studied. From the onset of the Great Depression a main aim of British economic policy was the economic restoration of Germany. Coupled with this was the belief that National Socialism would lose its venom if Germany recovered her prosperity. Both the Board of Trade and the Bank of England strove to sustain the German currency. The Board of Trade tried to reach agreement with Germany over a partition of the Balkan market.
Walter Runciman was dismissed as an ignoramus when he was sent to Prague as mediator. But, as president of the Board of Trade, he knew a great deal about Eastern Europe. Like other British statesmen he was ready to recognize Germany as the economically dominant power there, but with some share still accorded to British interests. A British mission to negotiate in this sense was on the point of leaving for Berlin at the time of Hitler’s occupation of Prague in March 1939, and these negotiations were renewed during the summer of 1939.
Neville Chamberlain fully endorsed these negotiations. Even Churchill, when hard pressed, spoke on May 27, 1940, of according Hitler “the overlordship of central Europe.” British statesmen liked to think of themselves as realists. By 1938 they had ceased to hope that they could prevent Germany from becoming the dominant power in Europe east of the Rhine. They asked that this should be achieved by negotiation, not by force, that British interests should be not altogether excluded particularly in Romania, and they thought that Hitler would then be content. Alternatively, as we know from the negotiations in the autumn of 1939, they would be satisfied if Goering took the place of Hitler.
Telford Taylor never discusses what was the alternative. Sir Horace Wilson raised the issue in some notes he wrote for Chamberlain on September 10, 1938. Britain and Germany, he wrote, should be “the two pillars that support orderly civilisation against the onslaught of disorderly Bolshevism.” Nothing should “weaken the resistance that we can jointly offer to those who threaten our civilisation.” Alliance with Russia was the alternative to appeasement, as was recognized at the time by Lloyd George, Churchill, and Sir Lewis Namier. Even they did not recognize the ultimate consequences.
A war between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia would be disastrous from the British point of view at that time. If the Germans won, they would control all the resources of Russia as they nearly did in 1941. If the Russians won they would replace Germany as the dominant power in Eastern Europe. This was the actual outcome. Only those who believe, as I do, that Soviet overlordship, with all its faults, has been infinitely preferable to Nazi domination were entitled to advocate the Soviet alliance, and one can understand why British Conservatives of the 1930s hesitated.
Telford Taylor’s outlook is very much concentrated on Europe, as is only natural. But the British international outlook of that time was not so concentrated. In the twenty years between the wars Great Britain was the only remaining world power. France and Italy had fallen out of that class if they were ever in it; the United States and Soviet Russia had not yet entered it. After the ending of the Anglo-Japanese alliance the British were trying to carry a world empire all on their own. They had little interest in European affairs except to be left alone. Their preoccupation, especially at the Admiralty, was in the defense of the British Empire against Japan. Despite the alarms in Europe the underlying slogan of British policy, strongly urged by the imperialist Neville Chamberlain, was “Main Fleet to Singapore.” Though the Second World War began in Europe, the British did most of their fighting outside Europe and from this aspect the war could be called the War of the British Succession. Of course these wider considerations were often obscured during a crisis such as the Czech affair. But I think a historian should not lose sight of them.
I have a final, larger reservation. Telford Taylor tells us not only what was done, but what should have been done. Thus, during the Abyssinian crisis, “the wisest course, if bold, would have been to play the game of collective security to the hilt and bring Mussolini down, even if it meant war.” On the German reoccupation of the Rhineland, “the French commanders should, if nothing better offered, have loaded their men into trucks and sent them across the border.” The British Air Staff should not have been frightened by the bombing capacity of the Luftwaffe. I thought at the time, and still believe, that Hitler was bluffing in the summer of 1938. In my opinion he meant what he said when he told his generals that he would attack Czechoslovakia only if he were certain that England and France would not intervene. I remain convinced that I was right. But this was the opinion of a contemporary observer, not of a historian.
In my view historians should not deal in this class of goods. The historian is like an onlooker at a game of poker. He sees the cards of all the players; he even knows what cards are in the deck and precisely how they are arranged. It is not surprising that he knows how the hands should have been played. This makes an amusing intellectual game, but it is no part of his business as a historian. The duty of the historian is to explain what happened, not to speculate on what might have happened. Even the greatest statesman makes mistakes. The historian can catalogue these mistakes; he cannot correct them and should leave the drawing of morals to the reader. The study of history enables us to understand the past better—no more and no less.
Telford Taylor however wishes to draw the moral himself. He takes issue with Keith Robbins, an English historian who has written a fine account of Munich.* Robbins concluded his study of Munich with these words: “The only great lesson of Munich, the most difficult to learn, is that there are no great lessons. Historians, useless in predicting the future, achieve something if they prevent others doing so.” Telford Taylor however is determined to predict. He writes firmly: “Munich has become a symbol of decisions to yield, wrongly reached because of fear and selfishness…. It is a potent and historically valid symbol of the dangers of not facing up to unpleasant realities. This is not a new lesson, but it is a great one, and it is the lesson of Munich.” This sounds very much like the policy defined by Harry Elmer Barnes as Perpetual War for the sake of Perpetual Peace.
In 1946 I visited President Benes at the Hradschin Palace overlooking Prague. Taking me to the window, he said, “Is it not beautiful? The only unspoilt city in central Europe, and all my doing.” When I raised my eyebrows, he added: “By accepting the Munich settlement I saved Prague and my people from destruction.” I do not suggest that this was the lesson of Munich which a historian should necessarily accept.
Munich 1938 (Cassell. London, 1968).↩
Munich 1938 (Cassell. London, 1968).↩