“We have no interest in oppressing other people….It is not so much the country of Czechoslovakia; it is rather its leader, Edward Benes. He has led a reign of terror….The Czech maintenance of a tremendous military arsenal can only be regarded as a focus of danger. We have displayed a truly unexampled patience, but I am no longer willing to remain inactive while this madman ill-treats millions of human beings.” –Adolph Hitler, April 14th, 1939 (quote not fully authenticated, see note at end of my article)
By Barry Rubin
Prague, Czech Republic
Visiting the Czech Republic prompts thoughts of the 1938 Munich agreement. Analogies with Nazism and the 1930s are overused today, made even more tasteless and cliché-ridden by the fact that many of those using them know very little about the situation then and now.
Beyond the simple narrative usually offered, a more detailed analysis shows a number of points that fit both situations better than people realize. That’s true despite the very important differences between the two cases.
After all, this pattern will not be repeated today. Western countries genuinely don’t want to sell Israel out, the balance of forces favors Israel and the West, they aren’t really afraid of direct war, the “other side” is badly divided, and Israel is much stronger than Czechoslovakia and is unwilling to sacrifice itself. Still there are lessons to be learned.
Let’s look at the 1938 crisis and its relationship with today from a different standpoint.
1. A bad cause with a good cover story
There was a large ethnic German minority in Czechoslovakia. These people, who lived in an area strategically important for Czech defense, certainly had some legitimate grievances British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain actually had some sympathy for the “suffering” Germans. Hitler didn’t just rant and rave. He knew, like radical regimes and movements today, how to play the victim.
Today, many people cannot believe that a humanitarian issue for which a real case can be made might also block understanding of a wider danger and the creation of a worse humanitarian issue.
The Palestinians are suffering. The Palestinians want a state. These are problems worthy of a solution, but what kind of a solution? Like saying the proletariat has poor living conditions or bigotry against Muslims is a bad thing, these are true enough statements but not ones that should overwhelm common sense and a legitimate self-interest.
Even the detail of blaming Netanyahu and Israel’s current government has its parallel in the 1938 case: the problem is portrayed as the intransigence of Benes rather than that of Czechoslovakia as a whole. Incidentally, after 1945 when he returned to power, Benes expelled by law virtually all of the country’s Hungarian and German minorities.
The Germans were victimized by an unfair diplomatic settlement after World War One. Guilt feelings, then as now, led the West to make some dangerous mistakes. Beware of aggressors and would-be committers of genocide asking for your sympathy.
2. Resentment against the “troublemaker” who is just trying to survive
it is forgotten how much antagonism there was at the time against Czechoslovakia. Western leaders made statements that it was all the fault of Czech President Edvard Beneš that there wasn’t peace, just like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is blamed today. In each case, the question was asked: Should this silly little stiff-necked people that is greedy for territory and doesn’t know its own interests endanger our very existence?
Chamberlain said in a radio interview:
“How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is, that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas masks here because of a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing.”
Contemporary terrorism or revolutionary Islamism or hatred of the West among Arabs and Muslims is blamed on Israel. One is going to hate somebody who unnecessarily endangers your life and well-being. This easily passes over into antisemitism: How dare that [expletive deleted] little country, to quote statements made in private by French and British diplomats in recent years, risk the fate of the world. Those same statements were made about Czechoslovakia.
3. Misunderstanding the enemy’s ideology, means and goals
Just as today governments have banned phrases like “the war on terrorism” or “the war on revolutionary Islamism,” so the British and French governments of the time refused to think about a “war on fascism,” “war on Nazism,” or “war on German imperialism.”
Not understanding the enemy—its nature, goals, and ideology—produced a massive miscalculation. Chamberlain believed that Hitler just wanted dominance over Czechoslovakia and there would be no more claims. In the same manner, much of the media, university, government complex (MUG) today thinks that an independent Palestinian state would be the end of history after which there would be no more aggression, claims, demands, or crises.
4. Creating a conflict resolution peace process that ensures war.
The British and French governments repeatedly advised the Czechs to give in and pushed them to do so. They appointed a special mediator (sound familiar?) who devised a number of plans. Each time the Czechs produced a plan, the “international community” pressed for more concessions to please the Germans. On the fourth round the Czechs finally were ready to surrender enough to meet the approval of London and Paris, though Prague still hesitated.
But at that point, Hitler again played the humanitarian card. The Czechs, he claimed, were murdering Sudeten Germans. The idea of Hitler effectively lying that others were murdering civilians in order to get his way while he was sending people to concentration camps seems bizarre but it worked.
Iran and other dictatorships and totalitarian movements do the same thing today. Check out the membership of the UN Human Rights council and the obsession with “human rights” groups in bashing Israel. An imaginary parallel would be if the League of Nations (the UN’s predecessor) had appointed a commission that found the Czechs guilty of human rights violations while refusing to investigate Nazi Germany.
The last straw in 1938 came when the British and French told the Czech government that its policies were so bad that they would not defend it if the Germans attacked. Once again the Czechs gave in.
Guess what happened then? Immediately, Hitler raised new demands and he got still more concessions! Today, the Palestinian Authority says that if it were to get its independence recognized at the UN it would immediately raise additional demands—for example, that all Palestinian refugees and their descendants who so wish can go to live in Israel .
In addition, the basic structure of the 1938 plan parallels today’s proposals on Palstine: first territory is given up by the victim, then once it is strategically weakened the other remaining issues will be dealt with. In exchange for territorial concessions, the victim receives international security guarantees that later prove worthless
5. Search for a cost-free (for them) solution leading the West into a maximum-cost crisis
Underlying the 1938 maneuvers was the search by the Western European allies for a solution that would cost them nothing because the victim would pay the bill. They didn’t want war or confrontation with Germany; they didn’t understand the nature of the adversary; they knew that promising “peace in our time,” Chamberlain’s phrase, would be popular with their constituents, they didn’t care about the Czechs.
Let me repeat, this is not 1938 and Israel is not in the same situation as Czechoslovakia back then. The adversary today is badly divided, for example, and Israel is willing and able to defend itself. Pressure on the West to appease and to give very much is far lower. They just talk and then go away to do something else for a while. Even the existence of the 1938 story contributes significantly to avoiding the same mistake.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn some important lessons.
–Don’t buy humanitarian explanations for aggressive and radical demands.
–Identify your enemies correctly and know their ideology, goals, and tricks.
–Don’t be angry at the intended victim and accept lies about it by your own common adversaries.
–Don’t engage in a process of progressive surrender in which a chain of unilateral concessions are substituted for standing on principle and demanding one’s own interests be respected
–Think about whether a proposed solution is really lasting or is just going to make things worse
–If you fear to confront an aggressive dictatorship or ideology you will end by confronting it on worse terms.
Note: I have not authenticated the Hitler quote to my full satisfaction. It does fit with his policy at the time. I will be happy to remove it if the quotation is not accurate or to add a proper source if it is .
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His book, Israel: An Introduction, will be published by Yale University Press in January. Latest books include The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center is at http://www.gloria-center.org and of his blog, Rubin Reports, http://www.rubinreports.blogspot.com