Sunday, September 29, 2013

historical correction

I'm beginning to see this article defending Neville Chamberlain's capitulation at Munich cited with admiration as a audacious and compelling new interpretation.

It's neither compelling nor new, so let's have done with it. It is, simply, a restatement of what has long been known to historians as the "low case" for Munich, which is, "well, at least it bought Britain time to be more prepared for the war when it came."

The basic problem with this interpretation is that that's not what Chamberlain thought he was doing. When he came back to London waving his meaningless signed agreement with Hitler, he said he believed it was "peace for our time" and that's what he meant. Given the stakes at hand of peace or war, it would have been not just cynicism, but the criminal height of political irresponsibility, for him to have declared "peace for our time" if he was secretly thinking, "it will buy us a year to get readier for the inevitable war" and to have sacrificed Czechoslovakia, the only real democracy remaining in central or eastern Europe, on the altar of such a cold realpolitik. No: Chamberlain was a fool but not a criminal. He was sincere.

True that Britain was indeed better-prepared in September 1939 than September 1938, but not because of Chamberlain's calculations, and much of that preparation came after the invasion of Prague in the intervening March showed him how much he'd been fooled. And who was responsible for the earlier poor preparation? Well, who had been Chancellor of the Exchequer - in charge of determining how much money the entire government raised and spent - and then Prime Minister for the entire previous seven years? Neville Chamberlain.

British military rearmament had been going on since 1932, but in a desultory, half-hopeless manner best illustrated by this warning given that year by Stanley Baldwin, Chamberlain's mentor and predecessor as Prime Minister: "I think it is well also for the man in the street to realise that there is no power on earth that can protect him from being bombed. Whatever people may tell him, the bomber will always get through." In the event, it turned out that air defense was the turning point in winning the war, and that was done through a very late ramping up of defensive aircraft production. You can't be prepared if you take Baldwin's mournful view of military defense, and sharing it was the reason Chamberlain was so desperate for a peace agreement.

Baumann notes that Germany was also much better prepared in 1939 than 1938, and tries to cut off the question of Germany's and Britain's relative preparation - it's been argued by others that a 1938 war could have been more easily won than the 1939 one was - by claiming that the British military thought it wasn't ready in 1938 but would be in 1939. I haven't come across that combination of views in all my extensive reading on the subject, and it certainly didn't influence Chamberlain's thinking.

The "low case" for Munich, the one presented here, really only works as an "every cloud has a silver lining" backup to the failure of Chamberlain's "high case" (the argument that he really had brought peace). You can say, "Well, Munich was a total disaster, but look at the bright side: it gave us another year to get prepared." That's pretty pathetic, and not a moral argument at all.

The reason that appeasement was wrong in Munich was not that you should never appease anyone's legitimate grievances, but because Hitler was unappeasable. After having already broken public promises, not to mention the Treaty of Versailles, by occupying the Rhineland and annexing Austria, he suddenly announced that the oppression of the Sudeten Germans by the Czechs (which was at least 90% invented, and which, even if it did exist, he had previously ignored) was so outrageous that it must stop instantly and that the only solution was for Germany to annex the lot, which also happened to include all of Czechoslovakia's border defense and most of its heavy industry, and to do it right now.

Hitler acted this way as a deliberate ploy to stun everyone else into acquiescence, where a more reasonable complaint would have brought more reasonable consideration. His other tactic, which he also is on record as having specifically recommended to the Sudetens for their talks with the Czechs, was, once the other party has agreed to your extreme demands, to suddenly declare that that's no longer acceptable and up the demands. You can't negotiate with someone like that. You can't even say, "Tell us what you want and we'll give it to you," because they won't stick with it.

Chamberlain agreed to all of Hitler's demands of the moment, sacrificing Czechoslovakia's integrity without even consulting his supposed partner in the negotiations, the French prime minister (let alone the Czechs themselves, who didn't even have a seat at the conference), and in return received only a promise that this man who had already broken so many promises wouldn't ask for anything else. Hitler kept that promise for less than six months.

So let's apply this to the present-day claim by Republicans that to allow Obamacare would be like capitulating at Munich. When Obama began his negotiations by offering what Republicans had long said they wanted, a private-insurance-based health care system like the one they offered in response to Hillarycare in 1994 and actually enacted in Massachusetts, and then cut away provision after provision to woo Republican support which he never got, and once it was enacted without Republican votes, the Republicans started spouting Hitleresque lies as to its provisions, and then they demand more and more concessions, continually upping the ante, in order to prevent its implementation after it's been passed, even though they don't control all of Congress, let alone the Presidency, and then compare Obama and the Democrats to Hitler for not being reasonable, I think I know which side actually is the brazen Hitler and which the cringing Chamberlain in this metaphor.

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