Was it really the most shameful episode?

Posted by Tory Historian Monday, October 06, 2008 ,

Last Tuesday saw the seventieth anniversary of Neville Chamberlain’s return from the Berchtersgarten negotiations with the infamous “piece of paper” in his hands. A good deal of ink has been spent over the years in discussions of the Munich agreement with surprisingly little in the way of new thinking rather than repetition of the old myth, started by Churchill, who was quite conscious of doing “poor old Neville” down and by the Labour Party in its dishonest “guilty men” campaign of 1945.

It is a little unfortunate that so many of today’s historians and writers are prepared to go along with that. Robert Self’s excellent biography that came out in 2006 does not seem to have challenged those widespread assumptions.

Let us be reasonable. In the autumn of 1938 neither Britain nor France was in a position to go to war with Germany. France was not in a position to do so even in 1939 – 40 and Britain did not exactly perform well in the first months of the war. Those who maintain that Chamberlain should have resisted Hitler, if necessary by declaring war, do not give any clear ideas as to what the country could have done, particularly as at that stage the Empire and the Dominions would not have given their support.

So, in reality, Chamberlain ensured that Britain did not lose the war against Germany and was much better equipped to fight when the inevitable time for it came. Tory Historian has to disagree with the great Andrew Roberts, who wrote in his article in the Daily Telegraph that

Although the Chamberlain Government had allowed Czechoslovakia to be abandoned and dismembered by the Munich agreement, it had (unwittingly, since Chamberlain had trusted Hitler) bought Britain and her Commonwealth nearly a year which they used to rearm.
Rearmament had been going on for some time and Chamberlain was not so trusting of Hitler as to abandon it. Indeed, he remained proud even after his resignation from the premiership right up to his death soon after it that he had helped to make Britain more capable of fighting the war and, certainly, defending herself. There was nothing unwitting about that. Avoiding or, more likely, postponing war seemed like a good idea.

Two questions are of particular interest. One is how is it that Munich has become such a word of shame when, for example, Yalta, a far greater betrayal of allies who had fought with Britain and the United States, is usually cited as an example of statesmanly conduct on the part of the two Western leaders. (The role of Soviet agents like Alger Hiss, in the background, is rarely mentioned.)

People who urge appeasement at every possible opportunity still fulminate when the word Munich is mentioned and weep crocodile tears over the unfortunate Czechs, without once explaining what exactly Britain could have done in practical terms in 1938.

The other rarely asked question is what would have happened if the Czechoslovak armed forces had resisted the German invasion of Sudetenland in 1938. After all, whatever one may think about French or British obligations, surely the obligations of President Beneš’s government to defend their country were far greater. Yet they refused to give the order, preferring to blame the western powers for the greatest betrayal history had ever known.

Could they have fought with any possibility of success? Most assuredly. In their 1997 biography of Edvard Beneš the Czech historians Zbynĕk Zeman and Antonín Klimek wrote:
The prospect of going to war with Germany came as no surprise to the Czechoslovak government of the 1930s. Prague had, in fact, been preparing for war seriously for years: by some estimates, over half of all government spending from 1936 to 1938 was for military purposes. Much of this went towards the construction of an elaborate system of bunkers and other defences in the Sudetenland, the border region shared with Germany.
Furthermore, it has been estimated that there were 200 fortified artillery batteries and 7,000 bunkers along the border. The Czechoslovak army was the third largest in Europe and a few days before the Munich Agreement 1.5 million people had been mobilized. The German mobilization of August 1938 resulted in 2 million people. In other words, this was not a titchy, badly prepared little force facing up to the might of Germany (at that time somewhat overestimated by Britain and France).

The Wikipedia entry on the occupation of Czechoslovakia says, for once reasonably accurately:
Czechoslovakia was a major manufacturer of machine guns, tanks, and artillery, and a highly modernized army. Many of these factories continued to produce Czech designs until factories were converted for German designs. Czechoslovakia also had other major manufacturing concerns. Entire steel and chemical factories were moved from Czechoslovakia and reassembled in Linz, Austria which, incidentally, remains a heavily industrialized sector of the country.
Given that the less well armed, Polish army that was relying on a smaller industrial base and was also attacked by the Soviet army simultaneously with the German one managed to inflict a great deal of damage on the Wehrmacht in 1939, the Czechoslovak forces might well have tied up the German for a considerable length of time, making Hitler’s claim to the inevitability of victory seem hollow. Yet the order to fight never came and the mobilized men went home.

Undoubtedly, this caused anguish in the way Czechs viewed their multinational country and their government. The myth of the supreme treachery of Munich may well have buried some of those feelings but they do surface from time to time.

In the meantime, it might be a good idea for us to rethink our conventional wisdom.

1 Responses to Was it really the most shameful episode?

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