The real lessons of Munich

25 januari 2023 | John Laughland

The Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, reached for the neo-con playbook last week at a talk he gave at the Atlantic Council, a pro-NATO lobby group in Washington DC, when he compared the current situation in Ukraine with the Munich agreement of 30 September 1938.  This was when France and Britain agreed to let Nazi Germany annex parts of Western Czechoslovakia populated by Germans. 

Hitler did this and then, in March 1939, invaded the whole of Bohemia and Moravia and broke up the country by encouraging an independent Slovakia.  It was this betrayal by Hitler of the promises he had given at Munich which led London and Paris to issue their guarantee to Poland, which in due course led to the outbreak of war in September 1939.

The lesson Rutte was trying to teach us is that you must not give territorial concessions to aggressors in the hope that they will bring peace.  This argument has been trotted out remorselessly by the NATO war machine since at least 1999 as the Americans attack one country after another – Yugoslavia, Iraq, Libya, etc. – each successive national leader of the target state being presented as the new Hitler. 

Rutte added that Russia would not stop at Ukraine, if it prevailed there, but would instead advance further and eventually Finlandise the whole of Europe, just as Hitler went on to conquer the whole continent. This would be bad for the security of the USA, Rutte said, which amounts to an admission that Europe is fighting an American war.  This a variant of the “domino theory” argument used to justify the Vietnam war (1955-1975)

But is this the real lesson of Munich, of which Churchill famously said, “You had the choice between war and dishonour.  You chose dishonour and you will have war”?   France and Britain did not betray only their own principles at Munich.  They also demonstrated a contempt for reality.  The choice in 1938 was not so much between war and dishonour and still less between democracy and dictatorship or between aggressor and victim.  These are all abstract terms.  Instead, the choice was far more real: it was between Germany and Russia.  It was a matter of pure Realpolitik - and the Western powers chose Germany.

In 1938 it was simply not possible for France and Britain to stop Germany on their own.  They did not have the necessary public support for war and they had not undertaken the necessary rearmament.  Even if they had done these things, they could never have stopped Germany without the USSR, as the subsequent history of the Second World War demonstrated. Rutte’s notion (that of the neo-cons) that Munich was a failure of will is an illusion.  It was far worse than that.

Instead, at Munich, France and Germany showed that they were determined to exclude Russia from Europe.  In May 1935, France and the USSR had signed a security treaty in which each country promised to support the other in the event of an attack.  A fortnight later, the USSR signed an almost identical treaty with Czechoslovakia.

Three years later, France and Britain preferred to spit in Russia’s face rather than invoke those treaties.  This was in spite of the fact in 1934 the USSR had joined the League of Nations, convinced of the need for collective European security.  Maxim Litvinov, the Soviet foreign minister, worked tirelessly for this throughout the 1930s. 

As the crisis over the Sudetenland grew, Moscow made it explicitly clear to Prague that it intended to honour the security guarantees it had given to Czechoslovakia.  On 20 September 1938, ten days before Munich, the Soviet government sent a telegram to President Benes of Czechoslovakia reaffirming its support within the framework of the League of Nations. 

So why did London and Paris reject this proposal and decide to sacrifice Czechoslovakia instead?  The suspicion must be that they went to Munich not because they were cowards but instead because they were cynics.  They actually wanted Hitler to direct his aggression Eastwards, in the hope that the Nazis would finish off the Bolsheviks.  The Spanish civil war (1936-1939) had seen the Nazis and the Soviets fight a proxy war by supporting the two sides against each other: some wanted them to fight a real war in the East.  The Russians definitely believed that Munich was directed against them, whence their own cynical decision to sign a pact with the Germans instead, on 23 August 1939.

This can be seen in the fact that, in October 1938, a few weeks after Munich, a Ukrainian nationalist regime took power the far East of Czechoslovakia, in Ruthenia.  Prague was too weakened by Munich to prevent it and Germany encouraged it. Chamberlain’s special adviser, Sir Horace Wilson, eagerly predicted that Hitler would use this new Ukrainian nationalist entity and as a springboard for an invasion of Soviet Ukraine, invoking the principle of national self-determination, just as he had done in the Sudetenland.  In the end, Hitler did not do this, partly because he was still juggling the Poles against the Hungarians who occupied this rebel area.  Chamberlain and his team were no doubt disappointed. 

In any case, the sheer inability of the West to fight Germany in 1938 became terrifyingly clear the following year when France and Britain declared war on Germany, following the invasion of Poland.  The Russians had tried again, in the summer of 1939, to get the Western allies to agree to collective security but the Poles would not have it.  The failure to reach an agreement with Moscow is what caused the outbreak of the Second World War: Hitler saw his chance and took it. 

Without any hope of help from the USSR, the Western powers were powerless to stop Hitler in Poland.  Instead of attacking Germany in the West, as they should have done, and as the Germans feared they would, they did nothing.  This was the so-called “phoney war” which lasted until Hitler attacked the Netherlands, Belgium and France on 10 May 1940.  The extent of unpreparedness for war, even in 1940 let alone in 1938, was cruelly demonstrated by the rout of the British at Dunkirk and by the capitulation of France in June 1940.  Hitler no doubt calculated they would do nothing and that is why he felt able to launch the war against Poland.

Winston Churchill, the great opponent of Munich, started to realise that Russia was key around 1936.  He energetically opposed those who wanted “to keep Russia out of Europe altogether", to quote William Strang, the Foreign Office official who later headed a delegation to Moscow in 1939 as Britain under Chamberlain belatedly and incompetently tried to negotiate with the USSR. [1]  On 16 October 1937, Churchill wrote that the Soviet Union was an essential element in the European balance of power.[2]  Throughout these years, up to 1941 and beyond, the great anti-Communist learned to put aside his hatred of Bolsheviks and see the ancient nation of Russia and its geopolitical reality (“the great Russian mass” [3]) behind its ideological façade.

Munich therefore was not just an act of dishonour, it was also a severe act of aggression against Moscow.  Its violent rejection of the hand extended by Soviet Russia, and of the collective security Moscow proposed, anticipates the rejection by the USA and NATO of repeated proposals made by contemporary Russia for the same thing, the most recent and most violent rejection being those sent from Washington and Brussels to Moscow at the end of 2021 and the beginning of 2022, when Russia made one last-ditch attempt to obtain some sort of security guarantees from NATO.  This is what triggered the Ukraine war.

The lesson from Munich is therefore not the moralistic one that we should stand up against aggression.  Such statements are infantile and meaningless without the means to enforce them.  Rutte wants us to stand up to Russia now, but how? NATO probably cannot do it on its own, however many dozens of Leopard tanks eventually end up in Kiev’s hands.

The lesson, instead, is that attempts to direct other states against Russia – Germany in 1938, Ukraine today - generally fail because of that country’s immensity and gigantic resources. For centuries, Russia has been part of what Churchill called “the equipoise of peace both in the West and in the East."[4]  Whatever you think of the Russian regime, these are basic geopolitical facts which no amount of pious wishes about parallel history can remove.


John Laughland is currently a Visiting Fellow at the Mathias Corvinus Collegium in Budapest.


[1] Louise Grace SHAW, The British Political Elite and the Soviet Union 1937-1939 (London: Routledge, 2003) p.68.

[2] Winston CHURCHILL, Step by Step 1936 - 1939, (London: Thomas Butterworth, 1939) p. 59.

[3] Speech at the Free Trade Hall, Manchester, 9 May 1938.

[4] CHURCHILL, Speech to the House of Commons, 5 November 1936, Hansard Vol. 322, Col. 1063.


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