- The Washington Times - Friday, October 9, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

MUNICH, 1938: APPEASEMENT AND WORLD WAR II

By David Faber

Simon & Schuster, $30, 520 pages, illus.

Reviewed by Martin Rubin

The lessons of Britain and France’s shameful capitulation to Adolf Hitler at Munich 71 years ago have been invoked to justify the polar opposite in foreign policy - some might argue too readily - since then. So it was shocking to read a column by a distinguished former editor of the London Times on the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II last month actually arguing that Britain’s prewar appeasement of Germany was correct. Perhaps there’s just something in the DNA of that newspaper. After all, its editor had written in 1937 that “I did my utmost, night after night, to keep out of the paper anything that might have hurt their [Nazi Germany’s] susceptibilities.” David Faber, the author of this enthralling account of one of the most lamentable episodes in British history, is the grandson of Harold Macmillan, one of the few Conservative members of Parliament to oppose strongly and vocally his leader’s policy, so perhaps his right-minded attitude is built into his DNA. In any case, he has written a gripping account of what went on back then long before he was born, not just the climactic and disastrous Munich agreement at the end of September 1938, but all that led up to it earlier that year.

The book begins with an account of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s triumphant return home to a hero’s welcome after giving in to Hitler’s demands for the effective dismantling of a sovereign nation, Czechoslovakia, which France - and by extension, Britain - was pledged to defend. Mr. Faber then proceeds to describe the various political and diplomatic crises that blew up one after the other in 1938, from scandals in Berlin at the highest levels through the brutal Anschluss, which wiped Austria from the map of Europe, and the various gyrations immediately following aimed at the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia. He has a wonderful capacity to evoke both character and incident with a breathtaking immediacy for the reader. No detail is too small to be slotted into his mosaic, from the cutting edge Lockheed Electra aircraft on which the 69-year-old prime minister made the first flights of his life to the interior decoration of Hitler’s various lairs. And much, much more, all of it fascinating.

But, of course, Chamberlain is at the heart of this book: arrogant, devious, hell-bent on his desperate quest to appease Hitler, unaware that every message sent by his actions and his attitude strengthened the Nazis’ position and weakened his own. The very spectacle of an old man, democratically elected to lead Britain, flying no less than three times in two weeks to submit to the bullying and haranguing of an upstart dictator, sent all the wrong signals to Hitler. But Chamberlain was always ready with the apt quotation: “Try, try and try again” or Shakespeare’s “Out of this nettle, danger, we pluck this flower, safety.”

I have never forgotten seeing a clip of Chamberlain on a newsreel when he was chancellor of the Exchequer justifying a U-turn on raising taxes during the Depression: I have never seen a slicker or more effective media performance. If he could sell higher taxes, it was a no-brainer to convince an understandably scared British public terrified of aerial bombardment and other hitherto unknown features of modern warfare that peace at any price was worth it.

Not that Chamberlain wasn’t warned, as quoted in this book, not only by such figures as Macmillan and Winston Churchill in his own party, but even by some members of his Cabinet, such as Duff Cooper, that what he was actually sowing was war rather than peace. Cooper had the unique distinction of actually coming out of the Munich crisis with honor, since he felt compelled to resign, saying:

“I have forfeited a great deal. I have given up an office that I loved [First Lord of the Admiralty, minister in charge of the Royal Navy], work in which I was deeply interested. … I have ruined, perhaps, my political career. But that is a little matter; I have retained something which is to me of great value - I can still walk about the world with my head erect.”

The French premier and foreign minister felt a similar shame at what they had done to their Czech allies: When they saw ecstatic crowds like those that had greeted Chamberlain’s plane surrounding their own, they thought they were about to be lynched. But no such shame bothered Chamberlain, who actually had the gall to say that he had brought back peace with honor.

We all know the consequences of Munich: the terrible and costly war that came less than a year later, which might have been averted had someone actually stood up to Hitler. Let the last word from this book be from Jan Masaryk, the Czech statesman, to Chamberlain and his cohort in appeasement, Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax:

“If you have sacrificed my nation to preserve the peace of the world, I will be the first to applaud you. But if not, God help your souls.”

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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