Eagles Mere, PA, September 29 – Seventy years ago today, at a meeting in Munich, Neville Chamberlain tried to appease Adolf Hitler and prevent a new world war by yielding to the German fuehrer’s demands for a portion of Czechoslovakia, a country that the British prime minister infamously described as “a small country far away about which we know noting.”
In the words at that time of Winston Churchill, Chamberlain faced a choice between dishonor and war, but having chosen the former, the future leader of Britain said, he and the rest of the world were certain to get war – and on terms not of its choosing but those of the fanatic Hitler.
Thus began the transformation of Munich into a symbol of the dangers involved in playing Realpolitik, sacrificing small or weak nations in the name of preventing a clash between great powers, and failing to stand up to aggressors, however much they assure that meeting their demands will mean, as Chamberlain put it, “peace in our time.”
For half a century, Soviet and now Russian commentators have argued that it was Munich that put the world on the path to war and not the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between Hitler and Stalin that many Western analysts have suggested was the proximate cause of that conflict by assuring Hitler that he would not be threatened by a two-front war.
But on this 70th anniversary, some Russian commentators are putting a new spin on Munich, one that raises some disturbing questions about the direction Moscow may take not in its relationships not only with its immediate neighbors, the former Soviet republics, but also with the Western powers.
At the end of last week, the portal of the Russian Movement for the Restoration of Scholarship in the Fatherland published a story about the Sudetenland Germans who were at the center of the Munich crisis from a Russian language website about the Czechs and Slovaks (http://www.nazdar.ru/index.php?id=4&additional=4czmnichov).
The article traces the history of the Sudeten Germans back to the 13th century and devotes particular attention to their status after the collapse of Austro-Hungary at the end of World War II, an event that the German community viewed as a disaster but one that the Czechs welcomed as the occasion for the establishment of their independence as a state.
Hostility between the two groups grew, the article notes, and members of the German community began to identify themselves as “Sudeten Germans,” a term few had used before. (It was first used by the writer Franz Esser only in 1902.) And Sudeten German political parties began to appear.
In 1935, the article continues, the fascist Sudeten German party of Conrad Heinlein won the elections on a platform that called for full autonomy within Czechoslovakia and ultimately unification with Germany. Not surprisingly, that agenda led to heightened tensions with Prague, especially because Hitler’s Germany took up the cause of the Sudeten Germans.
In February 1938, Hitler “openly declared that Germany must defense the Sudeten Germans,” a declaration that took on particular menace after he seized Austria a month later and instructed Heinlein to begin to make unacceptable demands on Prague so that Germany would be in a position to intervene on behalf of the Sudeten Germans.
In September 1938, events moved quickly. Heinlein attempted a putsch but failed and fled to Germany, Prague declared general mobilization to defend the territorial integrity of Czechoslovakia. Hitler met with Chamberlain, and on September 19, England and France send a note to the Czechs telling them to accept Germany’s demands.
Then, as the article concludes, there followed “the signing of the shameful Munich accords and on September 30, under the pressure of the Western ‘alllies,’ Czechoslovakia accepted all of Germany’s conditions,” including most importantly giving Germany control of the Sudenland and its critical border defense facilities.
Lest anyone draw any parallels between these events and Russian policy more recently in Georgia and toward ethnic Russians living in the countries that emerged from the collapse of the USSR, the editors of the Russian site specify how they believe Munich must be understood (www.za-nauku.ru//index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1009&Itemid=36).
According to them, “the Munich episode shows that the strategy of capitulation, of ‘appeasing the aggressor,’ invariably leads to disaster by opening the way to war and defeat.” And they pointedly add, “Not one country in the world has made so many capitulations as post-Soviet Russia in the course of the last two decades.”
“Only once, in the case of Ossetia, has [Russia] acted in a worthy way and defended its position. The continuation of a policy of capitulation on which many key figures of Russian politics and economics now insist will entail a catastrophe for the state like the one which Czechoslovakia experienced in 1938.”