It has come to this: In defending the Joint Action Plan reached between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany last month, one of the deal’s enthusiasts is now casting the infamous Munich Agreement reached between Britain and France and Hitler’s Germany in 1938 as a well-intentioned attempt to remedy an injustice.
In an article in The New Republic last week, the British historian and Guardian columnist Geoffrey Wheatcroft takes Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and others to task for analogizing the recent Joint Action Plan reached with Iran to the 1938 betrayal of Czechoslovakia, referring to Netanyahu as “the Open Champion for Muniching …whose latest effusions were part of a much larger oeuvre.” Wheatcroft further describes Netanyahu’s comparison of Israel to Czechoslovakia and the Arab states to the Third Reich as “breathtaking vulgarity and unseemliness.” Why this is the case, however, is never explained.
But even if Munich is a flawless analogy to the deal reached with Iran last month, Wheatcroft seems to say that the Munich Agreement is, in any event, unduly maligned. He quotes approvingly from A.J.P. Taylor’s 1961 book The Origins of the Second World War, that Munich “was a triumph for all that was best and most enlightened in British life.” (He fails to mention that Taylor also believed “in principle and doctrine Hitler was no more wicked and unscrupulous than many other contemporary statesmen.”) Wheatcroft makes the case for the Nazi occupation of the Sudentenland on the grounds that the Sudeten Germans didn’t want to be ruled by Czechs and claims that when Chamberlain betrayed Czechoslovakia “he thought he was remedying that injustice.”
This is, not to put too fine a point on it, nuts.
Self-determination for ethnic Germans was not the cause of the Munich crisis and the statesmen who invoke the Munich analogy today do not do so because they have any view on what Czechoslovakia’s exact borders should have been in 1938; they invoke it because Western powers voluntarily guaranteed the security of Czechoslovakia and then violated their commitments when threatened by Germany with force.
Sixty-eight years after Hitler’s death no one worries about Germany’s nuclear power plants, because the Federal Republic is not a rogue state that sponsors terrorism around the globe or threatens to invade its neighbors. By contrast, we rightly worry about Iran because of the nature of its regime, its stated intentions (which include genocide) and its track record of supporting terrorism and mass murder. Wheatcroft surely understands that what mattered then – as now – is the nature of the regime confronting the Western powers.
Munich was, as Winston Churchill noted, “a total and unmitigated defeat” because Chamberlain and Britain “capitulated to brute force.” But for Wheatcroft, the moral is not that capitulation is dangerous but that it is noble. He supports this proposition by, of all things, quoting Churchill’s speech when he at last joined Chamberlain’s government in 1939, and suggests that “it should be read regularly in Washington.” The speech is certainly conciliatory toward the Prime Minister and government he had spent years bitterly criticizing, and it is indeed vintage Churchill. The salient language Wheatcroft chooses to quote reads:
In this solemn hour it is a consolation to recall and to dwell upon our repeated efforts for peace. All have been ill-starred, but all have been faithful and sincere. This is of the highest moral value—and not only moral value, but practical value …
Wheatcroft claims that the speech was “a specific repudiation of any doctrine of preemptive war.” That assertion is belied by Churchill’s words in the same speech:
This is not a question of fighting for Danzig or fighting for Poland. We are fighting to save the whole world from the pestilence of Nazi tyranny and in defense of all that is most sacred to man.
In sum, although England had not been directly attacked by Germany, it was fighting, according to Churchill, not only to honor its commitments to its allies but also to uphold its foremost principles. Almost a year earlier, Churchill spoke to the House of Commons about the Munich Agreement:
When I think of the fair hopes of a long peace which still lay before Europe at the beginning of 1933 when Herr Hitler first obtained power, and of all the opportunities of arresting the growth of the Nazi power which have been thrown away, when I think of the immense combinations and resources which have been neglected or squandered, I cannot believe that a parallel exists in the whole course of history.
Let us hope that when we look back at the last 5 years and all the opportunities to stop Iran’s development of its nuclear weapons program, we don’t find ourselves recoiling with similar dismay and see the very parallel in the course of history that Wheatcroft so desperately wants to now denigrate. Of one thing we can be reasonably certain: If and when Iran does cross the nuclear threshold, history will echo Churchill’s words from 1938 once again. “So far as this country is concerned” he said, “the responsibility must rest with those who have had the undisputed control of our political affairs.”