Monday, December 16, 2013

In Praise of Conventional Wisdom on Munich



In an essay entitled: "Why Neville Chamberlain Was Right," one Nick Baumann bucks conventional wisdom and praises the so-called Munich agreement, signed September 30, 1938.  Under this agreement, Great Britain, led by then-Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, and France, led by Prime Minister Edouard Daladier, acquiesced in Hitler's illegal demand that Czechoslovakia cede the Sudetenland to Nazi Germany, thereby temporarily staving off a German invasion of the entire Czech nation.  In particular, Baumann contends that Chamberlain obtained the best deal he could, given that Britain was militarily weak and thus (according to a study by the British military) "could not possibly stop Germany from taking Czechoslovakia."  Baumman also contends that British public opinion would have opposed Britain's defense of Czechoslovakia and that other states within the British Empire, i.e., the Dominions, would have opposed such intervention as well.  Thus, Baumann concludes that: "Chamberlain's story is of a man who fought for peace as long as possible, and went to war only when it was the last possible option.  It's not such a bad epitaph."  (Chamberlain, of course, is pictured above, holding a copy of a September 30, 1938 joint declaration between the British Prime Minister and Hitler.  To hear Chamberlain's remarks upon returning from Germany after finalization of the Munich agreement, listen to this 1938 report from the BBC.  (Chamberlain's remarks begin at about 4:55.)).

This Blogger agrees that re-examination of conventional wisdom is always appropriate.  However, in my view, Baumann overlooks four considerations that weaken his case and support the conventional view that Chamberlain's policies, including those leading up to Munich, helped pave the way for a war that may well have been avoided.  In this case, conventional wisdom appears to be correct.
1. Baumann overlooks the origins of Britain's 1938 unpreparedness, namely, Chamberlain's own policies of appeasement and military weakness, policies also pursued by his predecessor, Stanley Baldwin.  From the early 1930s onward Winston Churchill (pictured above) and others consistently warned that Hitler was bent on aggressive expansion throughout Europe and urged Britain to rearm as quickly as possible to deter and, if necessary, oppose such conquest.     See William Manchester, Winston Spencer Churchill, The Last Lion: Alone 1932-1940 (1988).    Both Baldwin and Chamberlain (the latter of whom served as Baldwin's Chancellor of the Exchequer)  rejected these repeated calls, choosing instead more modest (but significant) increases in arms spending, increases that largely overlooked the need to modernize and expand Britain's army.  Both also assured the British public that appeasement, and not force, would contain Hitler.  Thus, both Chamberlain and Baldwin helped create the very weakness that Baumann invokes in support of the Munich accords.  Indeed, the supposed fact that Munich was the best deal Chamberlain could strike is itself a powerful indictment of the Baldwin-Chamberlain policy of rearmament in moderation.  Any epitaph that overlooks Chamberlain's role in creating the conditions that emboldened Hitler is woefully incomplete. 
2.    Baumann asks whether Britain herself could have prevented Hitler's annexation of the Sudetenland.  His answer, that Britain could not have prevented such an annexation, is obviously correct.  But the question is meaningless.  It is equally true that Britain could not have unilaterally prevented Hitler's conquest of Poland in September, 1939, and yet Baumann endorses Chamberlain's decision to go to war at that time. 

Indeed, so far as this blogger is aware, no contemporary or modern opponent of the Munich agreement believed that Britain could or should defend Czechoslovakia unilaterally.  On the contrary, Churchill and others contended that Britain should embrace a policy of what Churchill repeatedly called "collective security," building an alliance between Britain, France, Czechoslovakia and perhaps Russia to thwart Hitler's planned conquests.  Indeed, the Covenant of the League of Nations, adopted in 1924, expressly contemplated that member states would respond collectively to aggression.  (See Article 16)    Thus, the relevant question for those examining Chamberlain's decision is whether such an alliance, perhaps led and orchestrated by Great Britain, could have thwarted Hitler's designs on Czechoslovakia and the rest of Eastern Europe, averting general war and saving millions of lives.

The answer to this question seems to be "obviously yes."  To be sure, Britain's army was quite small at the time.  However, Czechoslovakia's army, the second most potent in Eastern Europe (behind Russia), was not.  Instead, the Czechs could field 35 divisions, well-equipped by the nation's modern munitions industry.  See Winston Churchill, The Second World War, Vol. I: The Gathering Storm 301-302 (1948).   More importantly, France could field 100 divisions after full mobilization.  See Benjamin Martin, France in 1938, 164 (2005).  Moreover, the mountainous and heavily-wooded Sudetenland was far more defensible than Poland or, for that matter, France, and the Czechs had been fortifying this portion of their country with pillboxes and forts in anticipation of a German invasion since 1935.     
France had entered a mutual defense agreement with Czechoslovakia in the mid-1920s, and Prime Minister Daladier urged Britain to join France in resisting German aggression against Czechoslovakia.  See John Lukacs, The Last European War, 14 (1976).  Such aggression, of course, contravened Article 10 of the Covenant of the League of Nations.   Such an alliance between Britain, France and Czechoslovakia would have presented Hitler with an insurmountable strategic problem, even assuming that Russia would have remained neutral. (Russia, it should be noted, did not border on Czechoslovakia, with the result that the Russian Army would have to march through an unwilling Poland to defend the Czechs.  Though it should be noted that Article 16 of the Covenant of the League of Nations required member states to allow transit through their territories of troops co-operating with those of other countries to enforce the Covenant.)

Germany's generals were well aware of Czechoslovakia's ability to defend herself.   As a result, Hitler's invasion plan would have required Germany to deploy most of her then-untested army in the East, leaving only 13 divisions, 8 of them reserve units, to defend her western border with France. See Churchill, Gathering Storm, at 302 ("According to [German] Generals Halder and Jodl, there were but thirteen German divisions, of which only five were composed of front-line troops, left in the West at the time of the Munich arrangement."). 

Simply put, even in 1938, Britain and France had the military wherewithal to prevent Germany's invasion of Czechoslovakia and thus vindicate International Law by presenting Germany with the prospect of a two-front war that Germany could not have won at that time.  See Churchill, Gathering Storm, at  302.  See also id. at 304 (explaining that Germany's production of tanks necessary for the 1940 invasion of France did not take place until after 1938).    Indeed, fearing such an all-out war, several German generals had conspired to overthrow Hitler if he ordered an invasion of Czechoslovakia, as he was planning to do.  See Richard Overy with Andrew Wheatcroft, The Road to War, 62 (Rev. ed. 1999); Churchill, Gathering Storm, at 280-81.  Instead, Chamberlain's intervention and the resulting extra-legal Munich accords stripped Czechoslovakia of its most defensible terrain and paved the way for Germany's occupation of most of Czechoslovakia  six months later.  See Overy and Wheatcroft, Road to War, at 57 ("Examination of the Czech frontier defenses a few weeks [after Munich] showed Hitler that war with the Czechs would not have been easy after all.  Without the defenses the rump Czech state was now powerless."); id. (noting Hitler's statement that Munich's elimination of Czechoslovakia's Sudetenland defenses left Germany in a "marvelous position"). 

3.    Baumann ignores the economic and military value of Czechoslovakia to Hitler. The Skoda Works, in Pilsen, was at the time one of the largest munitions factories in the world.  Churchill reports that Czechoslovakia's annual output of arms nearly equaled that of Great Britain during this period.  See Churchill, Gathering Storm at 302.   After Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, these works would supply munitions that outfitted 19 German Divisions, 4 of them armored.  See Overy and Wheatcroft,  Road to War, at 63.  Czechoslovakia was also an important source of coal, iron, and machine tools.  Id.   Thus, by granting Hitler the Sudetenland and thereby paving the way for German conquest of the entire Czech nation, Chamberlain both deprived the anti-Hitler alliance of a powerful ally and strengthened Hitler's economic position at a time when German munitions output doubled that of Britain and France combined.   See Churchill, Gathering Storm at 301.

4.    Baumann ignores the large gap between Anglo-French and German munitions output in 1938 and 1939 as well as the gap between German and French manpower.  As just noted, Germany produced far more weapons in 1938 and 1939 than Britain and France combined.   Germany, with a population much greater than France, used much of this production to outfit its rapidly-expanding army, inexorably altering the balance of military power on its Western Front.  Thus, by delaying the start of the war, the Munich agreement allowed Germany to enhance its military might relative to that of England and France, thereby altering the balance of power in Germany's favor.   As Churchill would put it shortly after the war:

   "[T]he year's 'breathing space' said to be 'gained' by Munich left Britain and France in a much worse position compared with Hitler's Germany than they had been at the Munich Crisis."
 * * * * *

None of this is to say that resisting Hitler in 1938 would have been easy, at least as a political matter.  British public opinion  was slow to awake from its pacifist slumber, and France was was badly divided politically.    But effective democratic leadership require identification of the best course, not that which is most popular, as well as articulate advocacy that sways public opinion in the right direction.  Judged by this standard, Chamberlain did not measure up.