The Munich Crisis and Iraq

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Before the latest U.S. action in Iraq, a number of conservatives from Jonah Goldberg to Charles Colson to Thomas Sowell already were justifying a first strike on that nation by using the "Munich" analogy, referring to the September 1938 crisis in which Great Britain and France refused to aid Czechoslovakia after Adolph Hitler declared he wanted to annex some Czech territory.

Because Munich ultimately did not bring "peace in our time" — as British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had declared — it has become a rallying cry for those who believe that the "next Hitler" is just over the hilltop. Thus, the justification for war against Iraq goes as follows: The western powers refused to stand up against Hitler, and ultimately their cowardice enabled Germany to gain military strength, which ultimately produced an even more destructive war than what the cowardly politicians were trying to prevent. Therefore, we must never permit someone like Hitler — Saddam being the latest prospect — to gain and hold power, lest it come back upon our heads.

Saddam as Hitler was given as the justification for Gulf War I, and we have heard it repeated ad nauseum for this conflict as well. Of course, others who are against the war have said that the Saddam-Hitler axis is quite overblown, but few have dealt with the actual Munich Crisis itself. I believe this is a mistake, as the proponents of war have been able to use Munich as a justification for nearly any war in which the United States elects to fight.

I do believe there are lessons to learn from Munich, but only if we are willing to go back to the situation that was prevailing at the time. Indeed, Munich has much to teach us, but the lessons to learn are not the lessons that the current set of warriors are trying to teach us.

As noted earlier, the Munich Crisis revolved about Hitler’s demands that Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland, which was dominated by German-speaking people, be incorporated into the Third Reich. Having already annexed Austria earlier that year in the infamous Anschluss, Hitler claimed that he had no more territorial demands after the Sudetenland, something the world would find six months later was a lie.

As the history books tell us, the British and French political leaders gave in to Hitler’s demands, and the experience emboldened Hitler and ultimately led to his attacks on both Eastern and Western Europe a year later. Furthermore, we are treated to Winston Churchill’s declaration in Parliament after Chamberlain’s "peace in our time" remarks: "We have suffered a total and unmitigated defeat." What is the lesson here? According to the hawks, Churchill was right. We can fight now on our terms or fight later when the enemy dictates those terms to us.

We have the advantage of hindsight of Munich. For example, we know now that the German high command did not believe that Germany had a chance to defeat a united France, Britain and Czechoslovakia, and that some army officials even had a plan to depose Hitler had the West stood up to der Fhrer. Furthermore, we know now that Hitler had no intention of stopping his territorial demands and ultimately had wanted war all along.

Yet, none of those who engaged in the negotiations at Munich in 1938 — no matter what we may think of them today — had the privilege of being clairvoyant. All they knew, and all their constituents believed, was that another world war as had engulfed those nations from 1914—1918 was unacceptable. Furthermore, they knew that millions of men had died on the European battlefields during those four dark years for nothing more than a lie. The bright and democratic postwar world that the politicians had promised had deteriorated into Bolshevism in Russia, depression at home, and political turmoil in Eastern Europe, all because of the "War to End all Wars."

Just two years before Munich, students at Oxford had taken the "pledge" in which they declared they would "not fight for king and country." Again, this is depicted in hindsight as being craven, young men who would not stand up to murderous aggressors out of sheer cowardice, and ultimately helping to lead to the carnage and destruction that was the Second World War.

While it has been fashionable to think of those students as corrupt or naïve, I believe that we must understand their action from their perspectives at that particular time, not in hindsight. Nearly a generation removed from the Great War, they nonetheless had heard many times of how the state conscripted young men to fight unwinnable battles in horrid conditions and sent them to be slaughtered for what turned out to be nothing more than the glorification of a corrupt state.

Indeed, the young men of Britain and Europe and Russia died by the millions for a cause that was no cause at all, for King and Country, for governments that demanded their absolute obedience. Time after time, officers ordered their men to charge to certain slaughter against entrenched soldiers armed with machine guns and repeating rifles. Few soldiers survived four years of the war and by 1917, foot soldiers were shooting their incompetent superiors. The politicians who created the war in the first place were safe, far away from the killing and dying, and every soldier and sailor knew that. (For a description of some of the fighting and why people were reluctant to follow their governments into yet another war, read this link.)

The war’s aftermath made things even worse. From the terribly flawed Versailles Treaty to the financial shenanigans of the European, British and U.S. governments that brought about monetary crises — and ultimately the Great Depression — the democratic governments that supposedly held the keys to utopia managed to destroy what the bullets and bombs of the Great War could not.

By 1933, the young men of Great Britain instinctively understood that they and their fathers had been snookered by the state. They had no desire to be led like lambs to slaughter by a state that had no accountability. It was with that understanding that the Oxford Pledge came about.

Would Munich have prevented World War II had the British and French stood up to Hitler? We do not know, since war already was waging in Asia as Japan sought to create its "Greater Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere." Furthermore, we cannot know what did not happen, only speculate.

There is one thing that we do know. If leaders of a government are hell bent to go to war, whether that government be a dictatorship, a democracy, or a monarchy, there is little people can do to stop it. William Shirer writes about the reaction of ordinary Germans after the Nazis invaded Poland in September 1939. As the tanks and personnel carriers rattled over the cobblestones of Berlin, they were not greeted by waves and cheers, as most people standing along the streets either hung their heads or turned their backs, an eloquent yet silent demonstration of just how much they did not want to repeat the horror of 1914 — when cheering crowds greeted soldiers marching to the front only to realize later what a horrible misjudgment they had made. The response of the people in 1939 was minimal at best, but it was all they could do as they were slaves of the state.

In 1938, the people of France, Britain, Czechoslovakia — and Germany — did not want to fight. We cannot blame the British and French for backing down, as mistaken as that may seem to many people in hindsight. The events of 1914—1918 had already led them not to trust political authorities.

Many of those folks understood what many of us know today, that governments create wars that only lead to more wars. In 1991, as U.S. forces rolled nearly unopposed through Iraq, President George Bush declared that a "New World Order" would follow this conflict. Indeed, we got that new order — stepped up terrorist attacks and ultimately the destruction of the World Trade Center — but it was not as we had been told to expect.

Since the end of Gulf War I, which also was justified by using the Munich analogy, we have not enjoyed a moment’s peace. Today, the U.S. Government tells us that the defeat of Saddam and Iraq will bring "peace in our time." I do not believe a word of it. This war will bring things upon our heads, and the heads of our children and grandchildren that we never could have imagined.

Yes, call us cowards, call us appeasers, all in the spirit of Munich. Yet, Munich did not occur in a vacuum. It was the product of the deliberate and murderous actions of various heads of states and their bureaucratic underlings in 1914 and afterward. It was the product of governments that had grabbed from the people what rightfully was theirs and had intervened into a liberal system of trade and production only to cause destruction and poverty.

People like me oppose this war not only for its own sake, but also because we know that to support the state again — no matter what kind of tyrant Saddam might be (and I believe the man is murderous and evil, but so are many other men in power) — is to dig the hole that engulfs us a little deeper. The best solution, of course, would have been not to dig the hole in the first place. But now that it has been dug, we must begin to fill it up again, not to continue digging. It is never too soon to start doing just that.

Like those who view World War II only through the prism of Munich, the modern hawks see only a tiny picture, that being an enemy they believe to be dangerous to us and who must be destroyed. Yet, I believe there is a much bigger picture, and that is where I want to focus. We cannot begin to fill up this once-small hole that has become a crater until we envision a different world. That world is a place where we do not have a state that is at war with all of us, where everyone — and I mean everyone — is an enemy and must be watched at all times.

The modern state — whether in Iraq or here in the USA — has become a soulless Leviathan that demands total obedience. Those in power, along with the intellectuals — many of whom oppose this war, I believe, only because it is being waged by a Republican administration — have tried to control everything about our lives from what we believe to what we may eat. Perhaps it is time for those of us who still love liberty to declare our own Oxford Pledge.

April 7, 2003

William L. Anderson, Ph.D. [send him mail], teaches economics at Frostburg State University in Maryland, and is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute.

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