May 12, 2008
The Other Lesson Of Munich

Dean Lawrence R. Velvel

It is perhaps ironic that last week, while I was in Germany, and spent a day in Munich, I read a book showing that there are other lessons to be drawn from Munich than the one favoring military action that has been drawn -- often wrongly -- for the last 60 or 70 years.  The other lessons are more widely applicable:  they apply to much of American politics, and especially do they apply to the disasters of Viet Nam and Iraq.  They are lessons regarding politics, politicians and the media.  Paradoxically, while pertinent actions in the 1930s were used fruitlessly to try to keep Britain out of war, in the 1960s and early 2000s the same kinds of actions were used to get America into, and keep it in, two fruitless wars.

The book is Troublesome Young Men by Lynne Olson.  It is the story of the relatively small group of mainly young, Conservative Members of Parliament who, from early in the game, recognized the danger presented by Nazi Germany and who futilely attempted for years to persuade the Conservative government of Neville Chamberlain to stand fast against Hitler's demands.  And, once war finally came, they urged the Government to rearm fully and quickly, and take strong action offensively, instead of doing little or nothing during the early period of "phony war" (the sitzkrieg).  Had this small group of men -- of "rebels" -- succeeded, it is eminently conceivable that there would have been no takeover and remilitarization of the Rhineland by Hitler, and there almost certainly would have been no Anschluss with Austria, no dismemberment of Czechoslovakia by ceding of the Sudetenland to Hitler, no seizure of the rest of Czechoslovakia, no invasion of Poland, and no World War II. 

But the group failed until well after Hitler invaded Poland.  Why?  

The reasons are fascinatingly detailed in Olson's 364 pages of text.  Wholly aside from the Government's understandable horror at the possibility of another World War even worse than the first, there were a large number of reasons that in most instances were a precursor to what happened in America during Viet Nam and Iraq.  I can only summarize the reasons briefly here; it would repay one to read Olson's book to get an elaborate description and a gut level appreciation.

Neville Chamberlain and his Government had an overwhelming Tory majority in the House of Commons and were in total control of their party.  They brooked no dissent and no failure of support.  Opponents were spied upon, their phones were tapped, their homes were staked out, they were threatened with loss of party support, consequent loss of their seats, and an end to their political careers, and one or more did suffer such loss of seat and career.  They were called traitors, were called unpatriotic, and were accused of the cardinal British aristocratic sin of disloyally failing to support their own side, of batting against their own side. 

Most of the press was nothing but the tool of Chamberlain:  it printed what he wanted it to say, did not print what the Government told it not to print, would not print articles or editorials that allegedly might inflame Hitler, in an English reprint of Mein Kampf, left out much -- apparently most -- of the most inflammatory things said by Hitler in that book, refused to say what Hitler was doing to the Jews, and, in general, acted as Chamberlain's lapdog. 

Chamberlain became dictatorial in attitude (not to mention being overwhelmingly egotistical), and once virtually ordered the press, dictatorially, that it must not call him a dictator (which has its humorous side, does it not?).  He considered all disagreement to be a matter of personal disloyalty to him.  The Chamberlain Government kept the real foreign and military situations a secret from the people at large, who consequently were shocked when they learned of such matters as what happened to Czechoslovakia, the smashing of the British invasion of Norway, and the defeat in northern France that led to Dunkirk. 

Most MPs were completely cowed, and put party loyalty, and their own continued political success, ahead of country.  None but the few "rebels" were willing to "speak for England" in the famous phrase once uttered in Parliament.  The "rebels" themselves were often too cautious; one of their hoped-for leaders, Anthony Eden (a subsequent prime minister), was a weak-stick; and even Churchill was often reticent because he so strongly hoped and desired to be brought into Chamberlain's Government, as eventually he was.  And, once in the Government, he was loyal to Chamberlain because the latter had brought him in. 

Subsequently, when Churchill became Prime Minister, he kept Chamberlain and other appeasers in the Government -- and did not give appropriate, or any, positions to the "rebels" who were responsible for his accession -- because he had what likely was a misplaced fear that he might be thrown out of office by political enemies.
The short of the matter is that in a host of ways the politicians and the press acted in ways that suppressed dissent, promoted personal selfishness and moral cowardice, and kept people in the dark as to the truth of situations. 

Those of us who are Americans old enough to have lived through Viet Nam as adults, and now Iraq, have seen many of the same phenomena at work in the United States, during those two debacles, as occurred in England in the last half of the 1930s.  A somnolent, thoughtless, fact suppressing media (though it was better in Nam than Iraq), politicians who lack all moral courage and who put their seats, their party and their party's leader before their country, persons at the top who are egomaniacal, demand total loyalty, and function in a dictatorial manner, electronic and human spying on citizens and politicians, calling people unpatriotic and traitors if they disagree, false statements and hiding the truth by government -- we've seen it all, twice, just as England saw it i n the 1930s.  And therein lies the second, more widely applicable, yet ignored lesson of Munich and that general period of time.  To wit, when you get these kinds of things, the policy the government is following is probably quite wrong - - or else the government would not have to do such things to maintain the policy - - and you are in for big trouble, just as England got World War II despite Chamberlain and company's appeasement, and just as America got Viet Nam and Iraq.  (And, incidentally, also much as the slaveocracy got the devastation of the Civil War, from which the South did not recover for over 100 years).

Yet the historians ignore this lesson.  As an avid if autodidactical reader of history, I have never even seen it mentioned, let alone emphasized, by a historian.  Could it be that historians do not realize it?  Can it be -- as seemingly is true of many historians, apparently including an acknowledged leader of the profession whose most recent book I just read -- that historians think there are no lessons to be learned from history, so they ignore this lesson of the Munich period, and ignore it though it was repeated at least twice again since 1960?  Whatever the reason for it being ignored, we would do well to remember it the next time some fool in the White House seeks to involve us in a questionable war.

* * * * *

As said above, it is an irony that I read most of Troublesome Young Men while in Germany, the nation whose actions under Hitler were the reason for the British "rebels'" long, and long unsuccessful, campaign to get the British Government to take a strong stand.  But Germany is, of course, a very different country today, and on my last day there something occurred that added to the foregoing irony and was quite moving. 

I went to an American military base for the opening ceremony of a local baseball season in which there would be teams and competition in all age groups, from five and six year olds to high school kids.  In the opening ceremony, each of the teams, dressed in their uniforms, stood on the base paths and were introduced, and on the first and third base lines were two teams that would play each other in an "exhibition" game that day.  One was an American high school baseball team from the base, and the other was a local German team comprised of teenagers who were either fully German (both parents were German) or were half German (one parent was German, one American).  Into this teams-ringed infield marched a local high school color guard:  four young ladies in military uniform, the two on the outside carrying bolt action rifles at shoulder arms, one on the inside carrying the American flag, the other on the inside carrying the German flag.  When the color guard stopped in the middle of the infield, a very loud speaker system played, first, the German national anthem, Deutschland Uber Alles (perhaps the anthem should have been changed after WWII?), and then played the American national anthem, The Star Spangled Banner

An infield ringed with American and German kids, a color guard carrying the flag of each country, the national anthem of each country -- it was a moving experience, one which exemplified yet again how much has changed since Britain's troublesome young men had tried to persuade the British Government to stand up to and stop Germany.

How the world has changed.  In those days the world feared the dictator, Hitler, and a militarized Germany.  Today a democratic Germany is among the most peaceful of nations and the world fears a heavily militarized U.S. -- that's US, as in us.

This posting represents the personal views of Lawrence R. Velvel.  If you wish to respond to this email/blog, please email your response to me at velvel@mslaw.edu.  Your response may be posted on the blog if you have no objection; please tell me if you do object.


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