(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

“History is the basis of all prediction, since the past is all we know . . . prediction is an extrapolation of the past.” This is the major concluding lesson Telford Taylor draws from his massive account of the Western appeasement of Nazi Germany in 1938. All attempts to appease aggressors will result in failure; all will lead to war rather than preserve peace. In 1938, perceptive statesmen such as Winston Churchill already realized this; they argued that war would be the price to be paid for the Munich Agreement. Churchill warned that the “feckless procrastination” of England and France would not result in the lesser evil of dishonor over war and predicted that the result would be both war and dishonor. History proved him right.

Since 1938, the disastrous consequences of the Munich Agreement have become a symbol of political weakness, fear, and selfishness. As Taylor makes clear, Munich provides a major lesson in the danger of not facing up to the unpleasant realities of international threats to peace. By 1939, the West learned the bitter lesson that German dictator Adolph Hitler could not be appeased. Hitler drew the opposite lesson, for his appetite had grown because of Munich. In 1942, during the early stages of World War II, he refused to recognize the unpleasant reality of Allied strength when he exclaimed, “My enemies are little worms. I saw them at Munich.”

Thirty years after Munich, United States Secretary of State Dean Rusk concluded that the failure of America to act in Vietnam would result in consequences similar to Munich. Like Hitler and the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, Rusk was proven to be wrong by subsequent events. The American military commitment to South Vietnam that was partially predicated on the Munich analogy was a disaster in its own right. Fortunately for the United States, the results of President Nixon’s phased withdrawal, which he called “peace with honor,” were far more favorable to world peace than Chamberlain’s “peace with honor” thirty years earlier. On the basis alone of the American miscalculations in Vietnam, it is evident that history does not necessarily furnish a basis for prediction. Thus, the analogies between the past and the present are more difficult to interpret than Taylor implies. Very often, as Rusk’s analogy of Vietnam with Munich shows, attempts to predict the future with the use of past models sometimes result in the opposite of what was predicted in the first place.

What does make the Munich Agreement of September, 1938, a turning point in history is the fact that it shattered the power structure of Europe by opening the way to German hegemony and speeded up the coming of World War II. Moreover, the failure of Munich utterly discredited the policy of Western appeasement in the 1930’s.

Unlike Telford Taylor, the participants at the Munich Conference had few historical precedents to draw upon. The last country that had been peacefully partitioned was eighteenth century Poland. This had been done by Prussia, Austria, and Russia to avoid war over the Eastern question. But national “self-determination” had not been an issue in the eighteenth century. In any case, Neville Chamberlain had little appreciation of the study of history. However, he and the other participants in the Munich conference were acutely aware of the standard of linguistic and cultural “self-determination” that had been applied by the Versailles Settlement of 1919. If the Western powers had insisted upon self-determination for the Czechs and Slovaks in 1919, then Germany had an equal right to claim self-determination for the Sudeten Germans who were under Czech rule. So reasoned Neville Chamberlain, who thought that he could reach an agreement with both Hitler and the Czechs on the issue of the Sudetenland for the purpose of avoiding war. Hitler, of course, sought to use the issue of self-determination for the Sudeten Germans as a cover for destroying Versailles and expanding Germany. Taylor concludes that once the Munich conference was called, the outcome was inevitable.

Taylor uses newly available source material to reassess the men and the methods by which the Czech crisis was resolved. He finds that Hitler was willing to risk war with Czechoslovakia in the spring of 1938, for he believed that Britain and France would not intervene on behalf of their Czech ally. Taylor affirms that Chamberlain actually initiated negotiations with Hitler, for the British Prime Minister believed that if the Czechs gave up the Sudetenland, Hitler would be satisfied and war would be avoided. The French Premier Edouard Daladier was willing to go along with Chamberlain’s efforts of peaceful negotiation. The Americans supported a conference. So did the Italian Duce, Benito Mussolini. The Soviet Union and the Czechs themselves were passed over. In retrospect, it appears that the majority of European statesmen and, in fact, the majority of West Europeans generally supported and applauded the initially peaceful results of the Munich Agreement. Why was this so?

The author attempts to provide a sometimes unnecessarily detailed background for the...

(The entire section is 2107 words.)