Is The West Approaching Its 21st Century Munich Moment?



by William Milam     March 19, 2022

As I watch and read about the ugly tragedy that is slowly unfolding in Ukraine, my mind goes back to the history of modern Europe that I studied at university so assiduously only six decades ago. The memory of Adolph Hitler’s assault in the 1930s on the uncodified and unenforced customs of the international system, on the rule of law, on humanity itself, was so recent then that its lessons seemed clear. These lessons centered on the word, the concept really, of appeasement, and made it a universally rejected policy option in international crises that threatened war.

Appeasement was not a new word or new behavior; small vulnerable nations had usually given way to larger, aggressive neighbors in the Hobbesian world that existed through most of human history, when might was usually right. Most of what I have read about a rules-based systems would have one believe that the idea began with the conquest of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan in 1945 fostered the desire to pivot from the more Hobbesian system that preceded the war. And of course, that war (at least its European version) is believed by many to have been caused by the appeasement of Hitler by the British and French at the Munich conference of September 1938. The word “Munich” has become synonymous with appeasement.

I suspect, however, that the idea of a rules-based system was first debated in the wake of World War One. The relatively primitive first exposition came from US President Woodrow Wilson who, to win public support for US entry in the war, formulated his famous 14 points on how the world should work in the coming peacetime. In the wake of the desecration of that war, the idea became popular with the publics of the belligerent countries, but not, for the most part, with their leaders. If anything, Wilson’s 14 points exacerbated the political tensions of the period between the two World wars in that to preserve his idea of a world body to make and enforce the rules, he gave in to so many vindictive desires of those other leaders that made it easy for demagogic leaders like Hitler and Mussolini to convince their publics of their victimization at the hands of the winners.

Hitler’s territorial ambitions and unending duplicity pushed Europe inexorably toward war from 1936 onward. After taking back the Rhineland that year and absorbing Austria in 1938, he turned to Czechoslovakia, and threatened war if the Czechs did not cede the German-speaking SudetenLand to Germany. Hitler claimed that all native German speakers were a single German nation, no matter where they were born and lived, and Germany had the right to take control of the Germans who lived in Czechoslovakia. Vladimir Putin echoed this obviously phoney theory (that Ukrainians were really Russians, and there was no such thing as a “Ukrainian nation”) to cover his invasion of Ukraine.

So much of what has happened in the past few months in Eastern Europe, the runup to the war in Ukraine, that is almost identical to this period in the 1930s that we could almost have thought that we were watching a rerun of a bad movie. And the worst parts of World War Two are being replayed in this war also, reminding us that war is likely to be the worst of all possible outcomes. It was World War Two which was a transition from the era when wars were fought mostly between armies, navies, and air forces to this new era when wars are mainly fought against civilians. The Irish writer, Fintan O’Toole, reminded us on a national TV newscast that 100 years ago the ratio of civilians killed to military combatants killed in wars was about 2 civilians to 8 military. In the wars of the 21st century it is reversed, 8 civilians to 2 military.

This trend really began during WW2 with the London Blitz, Guernica in Spain, the American high level bombing of Germany and Japan. These methods of killing were made possible by the development of modern high-flying aircraft, and later on by the development of rockets, missiles with aiming devices that can hit a precise target thousands of miles away. In WW2, these attacks were rationalized as strategic attacks aimed to destroy the industrial strength of the enemy, and we became familiar with the term “collateral damage” –  a bloodless way to describe what turned out to be indiscriminate killing. At least this term implied that the attacks were not intended to kill civilians. Now, in Ukraine, Russians make no pretense; their strategy is clearly aimed at killing civilians in order to break Ukrainian spirit and morale.

But I wander from the point. At Munich in September 1938, the leaders of the United Kingdom and France basically set the table for World War two by appeasing Hitler and taking his assurances that after rescuing the Sudeten Germans from Czech mistreatment (a lie on its own), he had no further territorial ambitions  in Europe. Almost a year later, in September 1939, German Forces invaded Poland using the same trumped up excuse of rescuing fellow Germans, and  lau nched World War Two when Britain and France declared war on Germany. Soon all Europe, from Soviet Russia in the east to Britain in the West was at war.

Wars spread easily, and the war spread to Asia after the Japanese Empire joined in an alliance with Germany and attacked the USA.  There were many other issues that were important in the spread of the war around the world, but the match that started the conflagration was struck at Munich in September 1938.

The leader most identified with Munich was British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, whose reputation has probably never recovered with the public. He remains in the public mind the as leader who led the Western appeasement of Hitler and is responsible for World War Two. Chamberlain was, however, very popular with the British public for avoiding war, and remained Prime Minister for almost two more years. Historians have treated him better generally than the public, and believe that in part, at least, his appeasement was prompted by Britain’s stunning unpreparedness to fight a war, and the fact that Germany after Hitler took over in 1933 had rearmed at a much faster rate than Britain or France.

This conflict is existential for Ukraine. Clearly Vladimir Putin is intent not just on regime change in Ukraine, but on destroying the sovereign state of Ukraine and making what is left an appendage of Russia. But there is a clear feeling among the Western countries and their peoples that the conflict could well be existential for the vast array of democratic countries, no matter what the state of their democracy is, and for the rules-based international system which has served much of the world so well in the last 50 years. (After all, even authoritarian countries such as China benefit from this rules based system, even though they don’t subscribe to it.)

I believe this revelation is what has spurred the overwhelming support for Ukraine around the world, and what has prompted the unheard of unity among western countries, both in supporting Ukraine, condemning Russia, and planning rapid upgrades in their defense posture. Four  weeks ago you wouldn’t have found many takers in a bet that Germany would double its defense budget almost overnight.

At the Munich Conference, Chamberlain understood that he had an existential choice to make. A man of peace, he dreaded making it. And he could not have known what we all now know—that the democratic countries would get a second chance, both because the Japanese attack on the US gave it the opportunity to enter the war on both fronts, and because Hitler went, shall we say, a bridge too far by attacking the Soviet Union. Here is what he said to the British public by radio the evening of September 27, 1938, a few days before the Munich conference began:

If I were convinced that any nation had made up its mind to dominate the world by fear of its force, I should feel that it must be resisted. Under such a domination, life for people who believe in liberty would not be worthwhile livingBut war is a fearful thing, and we must be very clear, before we embark on it, that it is really the great issues that are at stake, and that the call to risk everything in their defense, when all the consequences are weighed, is irresistible. 

Mr. Putin has shown no sign so far that he means to let up in his determination to crush Ukraine by killing as many Ukrainians as his army and air force can. Military experts I see on TV think that if the West can ramp up the supply of lethal anti aircraft and anti tank weapons so the Ukrainian military which has fought superhumanly so far can push back the Russian military and show Putin that not only is his military not up to the standards of the west, but that his objective in Ukraine is out of his reach, there may be a chance for a cease fire and an ultimate end to this blood bath.  But Putin is equally likely to react to the possibility of losing ground to Ukraine or to any other obstacle by escalating the conflict either attacking NATO countries or the supply lines they have established with Ukraine or by using illegal chemical or biological weapons. There is, of course, behind all this, the threat that Putin will reach for the nuclear button. The Russian highly respected expert on Russia, Fiona Hill, believes that Putin would not hesitate to push that button if pushed into a corner.  Escalation of this sort brings us straight into the dilemma Chamberlain described—would/should our leaders risk everything in defense of our most sacred values?

The article was published in the Friday Times