The 80th anniversary of the Munich Agreement passed without significant comment, although it was a pivotal event of the 20h Century. Perhaps it’s time for me to commit the ultimate political incorrectness and confess that I am a Municheer. I mean that if I had been there instead of a four year old in Brisbane, I would have cheered to the echo in the House of Commons as Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain announced that Hitler had invited him for the fateful meeting in Munich on 27-28 September 1938. When Chamberlain brought home the Munich Agreement which ceded the Sudentenland from Czechoslovakia to the Third Reich, then it would continue, I would have joined the ecstatic Londoners as Chamberlain blathered on about ‘peace with honour’ and ‘peace in our time’. I would have approved President Roosevelt’s cable to Chamberlain: ‘Good man’.
I choose this time for an examination of appeasement because the international mechanisms and attitudes on the prevention of war are weaker than they have been since the 1930s. But the myths surrounding Munich, particularly in the United States, prevent a proper examination of the causes of war.
To me, the marvel is not that Britain or France did not go to war with Nazi Germany over Czechoslovakia in September 1938, but that they went to war over Poland in September 1939, only 20 years after the last terrible struggle. And my retrospective belief is that the war that did happen in September 1939 was better for mankind than the war that was avoided in September-October 1938. And my witness-in-chief is Hitler himself. He wanted that war Chamberlain avoided or postponed. He never forgave Chamberlain for robbing him of it. What happened at Munich led to his fatal misjudgement about Chamberlain and the British. ‘I saw them at Munich’ he told his generals before Poland ‘they are little worms’. But the worms turned in 1939.
I do not for a moment accept American self-righteousness that the Second World War was a ‘good war’. There is no such thing. But I do take it as the Great Axiom of the 20th Century that Hitler and his Nazi regime had to be utterly destroyed if our civilisation was to survive. And I am convinced that the war that Britain and France might have declared in 1938 would have led to Hitler’s permanent mastery of Europe. It would have been a token war. The political will to fight Hitler in 1938 was too weak and divided to sustain a war against Nazi Germany. And after the three weeks or so it would have taken Hitler to overrun Czechoslovakia, Britain and France would have settled on Hitler’s terms, never to take up arms against him again; and even likely to have become his collaborators against the communist Soviet Union. Senator Harry Truman was not alone on either side of the Atlantic in thinking when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941 and Britain seemed finished: ‘If Germany looks like winning, we should help Russia. If Russia looks like winning, we should help Germany’!
One has to remember how discredited everywhere the Treaty of Versailles had become, in Britain and France as well as Germany.
By September 1938 the Czech issue had boiled down to whether Hitler would be allowed to incorporate the German majority in Sudetenland (part of Czechoslovakia) into the Third Reich by force or negotiation. All the pressure on Chamberlain was that it was not worth going to war over an issue that was already settled in principle. Prime Minister Joe Lyons of Australian and his Attorney General, R.G. Menzies, led the chorus on behalf of the Dominions.
The crucial legacy of Munich was Hitler’s breach of promise to Chamberlain that he had no more territorial ambitions after Sudetenland. In March 1939, Hitler gobbled up the rest of Czechoslovakia. Unusually for him, Chamberlain immediately responded by giving a guarantee of Polish sovereignty.
When Hitler invaded Poland in September 1939, there could be no more Munichs. However reluctantly, Chamberlain was forced by the House of Commons and British public opinion to declare war. This time it was for real. Hitler had got his war, a year too late. But if there had been no Munich, there would have been no guarantee to Poland and Hitler would have set his original plans for the conquest of Eastern Europe in motion at times and places of his choosing.
I argue that such a war would in all probability have claimed at least 100 million lives, three times the number estimated to have been lost in the actual Second World War. The extermination of the Jews in Europe would have been total. Assuming a German ‘victory’, by far the most likely outcome, the surviving Slavs, Africans and Asians would have been methodically culled and enslaved. Remember too, that Christianity was Hitler’s third target after the Bolsheviks and Jews. German science would certainly have developed nuclear weapons. Democracy could not conceivably have survived in such a world. Australia would have been consigned to the suzerainty of Japan as part of the South Asia Co-prosperity Scheme.
These are the reasons why I say that the war Chamberlain avoided in 1938 would have led to a far worse fate for civilisation than the war we had, and had to have.
I don’t recall having discussed appeasement with Gough Whitlam. I suspect he would have given my views short shrift. When he was 22, he wrote and performed a skit on Chamberlain and Munich for the 1938 Sydney University revue. Playing the part of Chamberlain, he adapted his speech from the balcony at 10 Downing Street. ‘I hold in my hand the paper in which Herr Hitler has agreed that our two nations will never go to war again’. Flourishing a roll of toilet paper with some brown crayon marks, Gough proclaimed ‘It bears his mark and mine’. That was very daring for 1938.