Friday 2 December 2022

'For neo-cons it is always 1938': reading and thinking about Munich

As I mentioned, British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin in July 1936 told Austen Chamberlain and Winston Churchill,

"I am not going to get this country into a war with anybody for the League of Nations or anybody else or for anything else. There is one danger, of course, which has probably been in all your minds—supposing the Russians and Germans got fighting and the French went in as the allies of Russia owing to that appalling pact they made; you would not feel you were obliged to go and help France, would you? If there is any fighting in Europe to be done, I should like to see the Bolshies and the Nazis doing it.”

In April and May 1938 Baldwin's successor Neville Chamberlain strongly pressed the French Prime Minister to renounce the French-Czechoslovak alliance, without success.

Chamberlain, like Baldwin, was not concerned about Czechoslovakia, a country whose fate did not affect British interests, but about France. 

British military experts were almost unanimous that Germany would defeat France in a war unless Britain intervened. A Europe dominated by Germany and a German occupied Normandy was a great threat to British interests.

As Chamberlain said, and as everyone else knew, there was nothing Britain could do to help Czechoslovakia if Germany decided to destroy her. 

But France was bound by her alliance with Czechoslovakia. 

(France also had treaties of friendship, but not alliances, with Romania and Poland.) 

As British Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax stated at a Cabinet meeting in March 1938, "Whether we liked or not, we had to admit the plain fact that we could not afford to see France overrun."

So it was not a desire to prevent Germany from undoing the 1919 settlement that concerned the British government, but a clear-eyed assessment of British interests. 

A similar attitude made Attlee's government Cold Warriors in the late 1940s. They saw in Communist Russia another National Socialist Germany. I don't think Stalin was, in fact, a threat to Italy, France or other democratic countries but it is easy to understand why the post-war British Labour Government thought so. 

Greek Communists, rather than Moscow, insisted on fighting the Greek civil war.

Whether or not the view that preserving the balance of power in Europe was essential to protecting British interests was right, and I have many doubts, it was logical and had guided British foreign policy since the 18th century.

By contrast, does the Russian invasion of Ukraine directly affect Britain? 

No, you say, but  Boris Johnson modelled himself on Churchill, not Baldwin or Chamberlain. 

However, Churchill was worried about German mastery of Europe directly threatening Britain and the British Empire, certainly not by concern for the inviolability of Czechoslovakian borders. 

He was not a Wilsonian idealist. Very far from it, he believed in power, not morality, in foreign and colonial policy, and had campaigned for years against any concessions to the natives in India. 

The Liberal Unionist Chamberlain, on the other hand, argued for the old Liberal principle of non-interference in other countries, like John Bright and Richard Cobden had done over the Crimean war and as the Labour Party had over Churchill's desire to intervene in the Russian civil war.

The French Premier Daladier took the same line as Churchill when he told the British in a late April 1938 meeting that Hitler's real aim was to eventually secure 

"a domination of the Continent in comparison with which the ambitions of Napoleon were feeble..... Today, it is the turn of Czechoslovakia. Tomorrow, it will be of Poland and Roumania. When Germany has obtained the oil and wheat she needs, she will turn on the West. Certainly we must multiply our efforts to avoid war. But that will not be obtained unless Great Britain and France stick together, intervening in Prague for new concessions [to the Sudeten Germans] but declaring at the same time that they will safeguard the independence of Czechoslovakia. If, on the contrary, the Western Powers capitulate again, they will only precipitate the war they wish to avoid."

Was he right or were Baldwin and Chamberlain,  who thought Hitler wanted to attack Bolshevik Russia?

I'd say the latter. 

Redrawing German boundaries and acquiring living space in the East were surely Hitler’s objects, not marching into Paris.

In any case, France and Britain both pressed Prague to agree to concessions to the Sudeten Germans, to save France embarrassment. 

Yet in the end, despite arguing for war previously, Daladier made it clear that France would not go to war for Czechoslovakia, whatever Britain did. 

Britain, however, had tried to prevent a German invasion of Czechoslovakia, because of France's commitment to Czechoslovakia. Britain had sent Lord Runciman to Czechoslovakia to see if boundary changes could be made and had guaranteed the borders of Czecho-Slovakia as they were redrawn after the Sudetenland was given to Germany. 

This was an unprecedented commitment to a country in Central Europe and one which Chamberlain and Halifax immediately regretted. It was a moment that let the future in: Nato, its extension the Baltic States and now the Ukrainian war.

In the spring of 1939, Germany marched into Bohemia and Moravia, an opportunistic response to thedisintegration of Czecho-Slovakia rather than part of  a plan. Chamberlain, in response to this and the false assertion by the Romanian Minister in London that Hitler had issued an ultimatum to Romania, issued guarantees to Poland and Romania to deter further aggression. 

This was Chamberlain's hope, at least. Halifax had decided when the Germans took Prague that Hitler had Napoleonic ambitions and that another world war was inevitable.

Hitler,  far from being deterred, within an hour of hearing of the British guarantees asked his generals to draw up plans for an invasion of Poland. 

This is how wars begin, in a muddle. 

A muddle has led to the present war in the Ukraine.

In diplomacy and war everything is a muddle, always. Then myths are made by journalists and politicians and lazy and narrow-minded historians harden the myths into accepted fact.


  1. 'For neo-cons it is always 1938' was coined by Paul Gottfried.

  2. Irving Kristol described neo cons as liberals assaulted by reality and neoliberals as liberals assaulted by reality who didn’t press charges.

  3. [1/2] ‘[P]reserving the balance of power in Europe was … British foreign policy since the 18th century’ Actually goes back to Henry VIII, whose motto ‘Cui adhæreo, præest’—He whom I favour, wins—described siding with the second-strongest power to prevent the strongest becoming too powerful, eventually dictating terms to us. E.g. Queen Anne made reference to it, ‘preserving … the balance of Europe’, in her declaration of war on France and Spain in 1702.

    It was admirably described by Winston in a 1936 speech, reproduced in his The Gathering Storm, the first volume of his six-volume The Second World War (here, pp. 207–210). Note esp. his words on p.209:
    ‘[X], on the other hand, fears no one. She is arming in a manner which has never been seen in [X] history. She is led by a handful of triumphant desperadoes. The money is running short, discontents are arising beneath these despotic rulers. Very soon they will have to choose, on the one hand, between economic and financial collapse or internal upheaval, and on the other, a war which could have no other object, and which, if successful, can have no other result, than a [X-]ised [world] under [X] control.’

    Now, which country does that sound like in today’s world? (If a clue is needed, which country’s defence spending dwarfs everyone else’s—larger than the next ten combined, six of which are allies, two neutral, and only two political rivals?)

  4. [2/2] As regards Ukraine’s relationship to Britain, Churchill would not be standing on Moscow’s toes over the issue, in 1939 saying:
    ‘I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest. It cannot be in accordance with the interest of the safety of Russia that Germany should plant itself upon the shores of the Black Sea, or that it should overrun the Balkan States and subjugate the Slavonic peoples of south eastern Europe. That would be contrary to the historic life-interests of Russia.

    Morality should never dictate foreign policy, only the national interest; and both Winston and Neville were adhering to that (although Winston’s views of the US were too rose-tinted). Neville threw Czechoslovakia to the wolves to try and avoid embroiling our country in another bloody conflict, our having overestimated German strength; Winston took the view that if you throw people to the wolves, you’re eventually left on your own facing well-fed wolves. Both were following what they perceived as our national interest.

    However, our WW2 propaganda was so successful that people still labour under it. We didn’t go to war for ‘plucky little Poland’, whose irredentist aims (1919–21) we opposed—Poland was just a line in the sand, our saying ‘Thus far and no further’; and the only ‘freedom and democracy’ we were fighting for was British freedom and democracy.

    I wouldn’t say WW2 began ‘in a muddle’ but because Onkel Adi was a weak Beta who circumstances had placed in a position of power far beyond his capacity. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with Appeasement—in other contexts it’s called ‘compromise’, which rational actors do all the time. But Alphas compromise from strength; Betas submit from weakness. So whenever Neville (of whom it has been said, ‘He was a gentleman who treated others like gentlemen, not realising he was dealing with thugs.’) offered compromise, the Beta Adi perceived it as weakness. And what is scary about today’s world is those countries led by similarly weak, over-promoted Betas.