Commenting on the nuclear deal between Western Powers and Iran, Republican presidential contender,Ted Cruz, said “We are at a moment like Munich in 1938.” He was referring to the tragic failure of Neville Chamberlain in dealing with Hitler regarding Czechoslovakia.
History has not been kind to Chamberlain. Just about any political failure draws this comparision. In all fairness, the time has come to put this in its proper perspective.
Hitler was determined to dominate Europe. Should Western Powers intervene, Nazi Germany was ready to strike back. Austria was incorporated into the German Reich by an “Anschluss” which today would be termed a referendum. The country was permitted to vote: Did it want to be part of Hitler’s Reich – or not? Reinhard Heydrich, one of the most vicious and dangerous Nazis, saw to it that the answer was an unequivocal “JA!” The annexation of Austria, without a shot being fired, was a personal triumph for Heydrich who made sure all oppositions were undermined and reduced to helplesssness. Bombings, demonstrations, subversion and a program of terror had been laid through Heydrich’s agents and Austrian Nazis. The rape of Austria succeeded and it was the first time an independent nation had been taken over in such a fashion. Hitler’s will would henceforth be carried out in Austria after the happy conclusion of the fierce struggle against the political, intellectual and criminal elements opposed to the unification of the German people.
In a speech to the Nazi parliament, Hitler made pointed reference to the ten million Germans living in the two states bordering Germany: Austria and Czechoslovakia. He made it very clear he would not tolerate the refusal of rights due to those people.
Hitler, a man driven by hatreds, disliked Czechoslovakia. That land had been cobbled together as one of the “settlements” of 1919 after the Great War. It contained deep divisions, consisting of several peoples forcibily brought together in the post-war “rearrangements” brokered by the Allies. Different segments lived in disharmony and despite the efforts of the Czech government, the divisions remained, especially between the Czechs and the Slovaks. The three million Germans living in the portion of Czechoslovakia, known as the Sudetenland, were Hitler’s pretext for intervention. The Czechs had their great Skoda arms factory with a high degree of engineering skill. Hitler realized Skoda would add greatly to the Nazi war-making capacity. Hitler had played a dangerous game in Austria — and won! He now reckoned France to be a country politically unstable and its military strength not to be feared. England was also weak militarily though it would raise a feeble hand in protest through Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. The “Munich Crisis” saw several visits by Chamberlain to try and placate Hitler and arrange some settlement – almost anything to prevent war. England had two ill-equipped divisions and British generals knew they could not stop Nazi Germany from taking Czechoslovakia. Delaying the outbreak of war would, at least, give the Royal Air Force time to acquire more planes to challenge the Luftwaffe.
In World War I, Britain’s declaration of war automatically brought Canada, Australia, New Zealand and India into the conflict. It was not clear those Commonwealth countries could be counted on should war break out over Czechoslovakia. Britain had a disdain for the stability and fighting abilities of France. Neutrality laws made it unlikely America would join the fight. And Nazi Germany was allied with Italy and Japan. It was also certain the British electorate would not be willing to make sacrifices like it had in World War I and go to war over Czechoslovakia – an artifically created nation. Demands for chunks of that country by Hitler appeared reasonable since so many Germans lived there. Negotiations seemed the only solution.
Incited by Gestapo agents the Sudeten Germans had demonstrated and rioted against their Czech “masters” marching through cities yelling: “Ein Reich, ein Vok, ein Fuehrer!” Hitler made it clear that a Great Power, cannot for the second time, suffer such an infamous encroachment on its rights. The Germans in Czechoslovakia were neither defencelsss not deserted and people should take note of that. He further reiterated his absolute determination not to tolerate that a small second-rate country should treat the mighty thousand-year Reich lightly. He was determined to settle it and did not care if a world war erupted. He reminded people the Czechoslovakian country began with a lie.There was no such country – only Czechs and Slovaks and the Slovaks did not wish to have anything to do with the Czechs! And he blurted out that this fellow, Neville Chamberlain had ruined his triumphant entry into Prague!
Consultations with Daladier of France and Mussolini of Italy, led to Chamberlain consenting to the occupation of Nazi Germany of the Sudetenland. The Czechs were not consulted and felt utterly betrayed. Chamberlain returned to Britain, waving the piece of paper that was to prove worthless – an “agreement” signed by Hitler that was supposed to guarantee “peace in our time.”
Before we condemn Neville Chamberlain as a coward who failed to stand firm against Hitler, we should consider President Kennedy in his dealings with Khrushchev regarding Berlin. In 1961, for the very first time in history, American and Soviet tanks faced each other, barely 100 metres apart. One mistake, one overzealous commander, one nervous soldier and a nuclear war could have erupted in a heartbeat. Kennedy was still reeling from the Bay of Pigs fiasco and a humiliating summit meeting in Vienna where he was bullied and browbeaten by Khrushchev. Prior to that meeting Khrushchev made it very clear to Kennedy that the U.S. had lost its nuclear monopoly and the Soviet Union now had unspecified number of nuclear weapons aimed at Britain, France and Uncle Sam. President Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech proved fruitless because he later conceded he preferred a wall to a war.