Analysis | Ukraine is not Czechoslovakia
Why it is high time to retire the Munich Analogy
The Influence of History is a limited spring blog series from the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy. With contributions from ISD director of programs and research, Dr. Kelly McFarland and guest authors, this series will focus on the enduring influence of history on foreign affairs. Read more from ISD on diplomatic history.
On February 22, 2022, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addressed a session of the Munich Security Conference at the Hotel Bayerischer Hof in Munich. Zelensky’s speech pointedly asked if the world had forgotten the mistakes of the 20th century. The parallel was lost on no one. The analogy was quickly taken up by others who feared a last-minute ‘Munich moment’ of sorts. British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace compared efforts to secure peace in Ukraine to the policy of appeasement that had culminated at Munich. American politicians wasted no time joining the chorus. Would the West once again give in to a dictator?
Inaccurate and confusing memes equating the Sudetenland with the events of 1939 flooded social media. Evidently any time a politician wants to denounce an opponent for perceived weakness in foreign policy, the twin cudgels of Munich and appeasement are at hand. While similarities between the current situation in Ukraine and what happened in Munich in 1938 can be certainly be found, nevertheless the two events are very different. Drawing historical analogies is not always helpful to guide us in the present. We need to begin by examining what actually took place in Munich in 1938.
Only a short twenty-minute walk from the hotel stands a building once known as the Führerbau. In 1938 it served as the Nazi party headquarters in Munich. The early morning hours of September 30, 1938, saw a wave of feverish activity sweep through the Führerbau. Building staff searched for an inkpot that could be used for a signing ceremony. Since the preceding afternoon Adolf Hitler had been in conference with the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, French premier Édouard Daladier and British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. The peace of Europe and the world hung on the outcome of their deliberations. For many months Hitler threatened war over the disputed Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia. The conference at the Fuhrerbau marked a last-ditch attempt to save the peace.
The Czechoslovakian state, created as a result of the Paris Peace conference of 1919, encompassed not only the historic homelands of Czechs and Slovaks, but also the Sudetenland. The victorious Allies considered that the Sudetenland, a horseshoe shaped area adjoining the German border and populated by 3.2 million Germans, formed an ideal strategic barrier protecting Prague. The Sudetenland’s hilly, semi-mountainous terrain could be counted upon to slow an advancing army, especially if fortified. But the incorporation of Sudeten Germans into Czechoslovakia violated US President Woodrow Wilson’s vaunted principle of self-determination of nations, supposedly the basis of a post-world order. First articulated in a speech to Congress in 1918, and subsequently elaborated upon by Wilson, self-determination held that the subject peoples of the old empires of Europe, especially the Austro-Hungarian empire, would have the right to determine their future, and to which state they would belong.
The Sudetenland had previously been part of the Austro-Hungarian empire and had never belonged to any German state. However, the logic of self-determination implied that the Sudetenland should have been given to Germany in 1919. Many Germans found themselves outside the boundaries of Germany in 1919. Germans in Alsace-Lorraine, Belgium, Denmark, Poland, Danzig, Austria and Czechoslovakia shared this fate. Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 featured promises to right the wrongs of Versailles and bring all Germans back into the embrace of the Third Reich. That is what Hitler meant when he claimed to be righting the wrongs of Versailles, although his real ambitions dwarfed his immediate claims. Thus, in 1938, having first remilitarized the Rhineland (March 7, 1936) and annexed Austria (March 13,1938) Hitler began his campaign against the Czech state.
Hitler hated the Czech state, regarded it as illegitimate, and wanted to launch a war that would destroy a major symbol of Versailles and an important French ally. Beginning in the spring of 1937, Hitler repeatedly stated his aim of wiping Czechoslovakia from the map and urged his generals to accelerate their plans for war.
Hitler had an invaluable ally in the person of Konrad Henlein, head of the pro-Nazi Sudeten Deutsche Partei. Henlein and Hitler worked in close collaboration. The German Nazis secretly funneled money to Henlein’s party. Henlein encouraged unrest among the Sudeten Germans, provoked confrontations with the Czech authorities and made allegations of crimes committed by Czechs against the Sudeten Germans. Hitler told Henlein to avoid making a deal with Prague under any circumstances and keep raising the pressure.
During the spring and summer of 1938, Hitler issued a series of public threats against the Czechs. Mass Nazi rallies in Germany and by Sudeten Germans ratcheted up the tension. Rumors of German troops movements on the border proliferated. Talks between Henlein and the Czech government repeatedly broke down.
British prime minister Neville Chamberlain decided to intervene to save the peace. He flew twice to Germany in September to meet personally with Hitler, first at Berchtesgaden and then at Godesberg but neither meeting produced results. Hitler seemed completely unpredictable and intent on war. At Hitler’s urging, Poland and Hungary pressed irredentist territorial demands against Prague. Isolated in the center of Europe, surrounded by hostile states, and with Britain and France unable to offer any practical assistance, the future looked bleak for the Czechs and Europe. War seemed a certainty.
At the last-minute, Hitler agreed to one last conference. We cannot be sure why Hitler backed down from a war he wanted so badly, but hesitations from German generals and the somber mood of the German public (some of whom cheered Chamberlain’s motorcade at Godesberg) undoubtedly turned the tide. Chamberlain, at sixty-nine years of age, flew to Munich one last time on September 29, to meet with the other three leaders. Little negotiation took place and the agreement signed in the early morning hours of September 30, once an inkpot had been found, provided for the handover of 800,000 Czech citizens to the Nazi state.
Later that morning, before returning to a rapturous welcome in London, Chamberlain persuaded Hitler to sign a typed statement that proclaimed the desire of the people of Britain and Germany never to go to war with one another again. This was the paper that Chamberlain waved before the cameras at Heston airport once he had disembarked from his plane. He proclaimed it meant ‘peace for our time.’ War in Europe broke out less than a year later. Chamberlain’s policy of trying to achieve a settlement with Hitler, culminating with Munich, is now known by the unflattering term ‘appeasement’, one of the great dirty words of modern politics.
Of course, it is possible to find some similarities between the two crises. Putin is a ruthless dictator determined to revise the international order, as was Hitler. Hitler used Henlein and the Sudenten Germans to disrupt the Czech state, and Putin has used Russians in Donetsk and Luhansk to disrupt Ukraine. Hitler’s campaign of intimidation against Czechoslovakia is mirrored by Putin’s campaign to intimidate Ukraine. Most disturbing, Hitler’s contempt for the Czech state can be likened to Putin’s denial of the validity of Ukraine as a state.
But the differences are substantial. Czechoslovakia was a relatively small state abandoned by its potential allies and surrounded by enemies. Ukraine, with a population of 40 million people, is bordered on the west by NATO states who have provided vast amounts of humanitarian and military assistance, not to mention diplomatic and moral support. No one in 1938 organized international sanctions to punish Hitler. Putin’s aggression has unified Ukrainians while Hitler successfully encouraged division within Czechoslovakia.
In relative terms, Germany in 1938 ranked as a great power with untapped military potential surrounded, especially to the south and east, by smaller and weaker states. Putin’s Russia is much weaker in relative economic terms while his military looks suddenly hapless and inept, with the notable exception of the wild card of nuclear weapons. Finally, while we cannot be sure of Putin’s long-term goals, much less what he might agree to, or how his aims might fluctuate, he is unlikely to hold the sorts of long-term aims that motivated Hitler.
Ukraine has chosen to fight because its leadership perceives an existential threat that can be challenged with the possibility of success. We reach for historical examples in times of crisis by instinct. We need signposts to guide us. But superficial historical analogies can be misleading and easily exploited by self-seeking politicians. The Munich analogy has been exploited constantly since 1945 and the time has come to retire it.
Paul W. Doerr teaches European diplomatic and military history at Acadia University. He is author of British Foreign Policy 1919–1939 (Manchester University Press).
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