Misunderstanding Munich

The Munich Agreement of September 1938 is often regarded as compelling evidence for the futility and danger of appeasing an aggressor. In the Munich Agreement France and the United Kingdom allowed Hitler’s Germany to annex the borderlands of Czechoslovakia called the Sudetenland. Hitler said that the Sudetenland would be his last territorial claim on Europe, but he soon revoked his promise and invaded the rest of Czechoslovakia. The Munich Agreement certainly spurred Nazi aggression and facilitated the outbreak of World War II in which over 60 million people died.

Opponents of diplomacy and advocates of military action frequently support their position by reference to the Munich Agreement. For example, politicians opposing any concessions to Russia regarding NATO membership for Ukraine often cite the Munich Agreement. Appeasement is sometimes a bad policy, but there is another more fundamental lesson to be learned from the Munich Agreement. It concerns the dangers of ignoring the security interests of a major power.

The Soviet Union was not invited to participate in the discussions that led to the Munich Agreement. The failure to invite the Soviet Union was a serious insult because (a) the Soviet Union was an ally of both France and Czechoslovakia, (b) Stalin and his foreign minister Maxim Litvinov had been trying to build an anti-fascist alliance for at least four years, and (c) the fate of Czechoslovakia had profound security implications for the Soviet Union.

In fact, both France and the Soviet Union were obligated by treaty to defend Czechoslovakia, but the Soviet’s commitment was conditional on France’s acting first. Stalin even said he would fight to defend Czechoslovak integrity if France met its defense obligation. But when France defaulted on the latter at Munich, it automatically cancelled the Soviet commitment.

If the Soviet Union had been invited to participate in Munich discussions, it is highly unlikely that the Sudetenland would have been ceded to Germany. This refusal would have greatly strengthened Czechoslovakia’s ability to resist Hitler. It might have induced France, with the support of the Soviet Union, to meet its obligation to defend Czechoslovakia. Hitler, confronted with the specter of two-front war against two or more strong opponents plus a Czechoslovakia willing and able to defend itself, might well have desisted from further military aggression. If so, World War Two might have been avoided and the entire course of modern world history decisively changed.

But as it was, the myopic Munich Agreement – made without Soviet participation – convinced Stalin and other Soviet leaders (Molotov, Voroshilov, Kaganovich, etc.) that France and the United Kingdom wanted to embroil Germany and the Soviet Union in an isolated war hoping that Fascism and Communism would destroy each other. Some Western leaders did indeed have this in mind.

Thus, the Munich Agreement of 1938 led almost inevitably to the Soviet-German Pact of August 1939. The secret protocols of this so-called “Non-Aggression Pact” partitioned Poland between Germany and the Soviet Union. The Pact also gave Germany the green light to attack a weakened Poland without thereby inviting a two front war. Soon after the German attack, the Soviet Union invaded eastern Poland and annexed what is now western Belarus and western Ukraine.

Most of western Ukraine had never been part of pre-Soviet Russian empire. Consequently, Ukrainians from this region regarded the Russians as hostile foreign invaders. After Germany attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941, the Nazi’s actually recruited some of these western Ukrainians to fight against the Soviet Union. And in 2014 right-wing western Ukrainians spearheaded the aggressive anti-Russian movement that overthrew the democratically elected government of Viktor Yanukovych.

The danger of appeasement is one lesson that can be learned from the Munich Agreement of 1938. However, an equally important and perhaps deeper lesson is the danger of ignoring the legitimate security concerns of a major power. Munich appeasement certainly greased the skids to World War Two. But the appeasement occurred largely because the security concerns of the Soviet Union were snubbed.

How would a historically savvy analyst apply the lessons of Munich to the current Ukraine crisis? Such a person would not think that strident insistence on NATO membership for Ukraine was a sensible and necessary refusal to appease Russia. Rather she would conclude that such insistence was a foolish, unwarranted, and calamity-inducing refusal to validate Russia’s justifiable security concerns.

Tom Mayer is a retired professor of sociology from the University of Colorado at Boulder and currently works with the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center.