On Tuesday, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton compared the Russian invasion of the Crimea to Hitler’s seizure of the Czech Sudetenland and Sens. John McCain and Marco Rubio quickly agreed. But that frame says more about U.S. politics than it does about the Ukraine. (More)

Framing the Ukraine, Part III: The ‘Lesson’ of Munich

This week Morning Feature considers the ongoing crisis in the Ukraine. Tuesday we began with core concepts of international relations: peoples, places, and governments. Yesterday we asked whether the Ukrainian crisis echoes the 19th century, when Britain and Russia struggled to dominate southwest Asia in “the great game.” Today we see whether post-Soviet Russia today echoes post-Imperial Germany in the 1920s and 30s. Friday we’ll explore whether this crisis echoes the Cold War. Saturday we’ll conclude with the limits of historical frames and the need to assess and respond to the present, rather than the past.

“It’s what Hitler did back in the 30s”

Former Secretary of State Clinton made the comparison on Tuesday in Long Beach, California:

Now if this sounds familiar, it’s what Hitler did back in the 30s. All the Germans that were … the ethnic Germans, the Germans by ancestry who were in places like Czechoslovakia and Romania and other places, Hitler kept saying they’re not being treated right. I must go and protect my people and that’s what’s gotten everybody so nervous.

She wasn’t the first to make the comparison. On March 1st, George Jonas at Canada’s National Post wondered if the Ukraine crisis might change the popular assessment of Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister who negotiated the Munich Agreement that divided and ultimately doomed Czechoslovakia. But Jonas is not Hillary Clinton, and her words quickly drew widespread attention:

Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) also agreed, although he carefully hedged his language in speaking to the Washington Post:

I think Nazi Germany stands on its own as a unique and barbaric government that’s probably known no peer in terms of its brutality. I think the point that she was making, that in terms of the claims that they needed to move into a neighboring country to protect an ethnic group tied to them is certainly similar to the argument that Hitler made in the 1930s.

“Peace for our time”

And indeed there are some parallels. Germany in 1938 was still humiliated by World War I. The punitive reparations payments required by the Treaty of Versailles, coupled with the loss of the fertile Alsace-Lorraine region to France and the Allied occupation of the Rhineland and Saarland, left the German economy in shambles. The Weimar Republic faced an almost constant challenges from both the far left and far right, and the spread of the Great Depression deepened the political unrest. The Nazi Party – running on a promise to restore Germany’s past glory – won 18% of the seats in the Reichstag in 1930 and 44% three years later. Within three weeks after the 1933 elections, other parties provided the additional votes needed to pass the Enabling Act, allowing Hitler’s cabinet to enact laws without consulting the Reichstag and effectively giving him absolute power.

In 1935, 90% of voters in the Saarland chose to end their League of Nations administration and rejoin Germany. A year later Germany reoccupied the demilitarized Rhineland, in March of 1938 the Anschluss brought Austria under German rule. Each of these had been justified by Hitler’s claim of “reuniting” German-speaking populations, and he next targeted the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia.

But the Rhineland was nominally German despite demilitarization, and overwhelming majorities in both the Saarland and Austria had voted to join Germany. While the pro-Nazi Sudeten German Party demanded independence, the Czech government knew the loss of the Sudetenland would neuter the country’s defenses, and refused. Seeking to defuse the situation, Chamberlain went to meet Hitler, who assured him that the Sudeten Germans sought only self-determination. They negotiated the terms of the Munich Agreement, and on September 29th France and Italy joined Germany and Britain in approving the deal. A day later, Chamberlain returned home and made his now-infamous utterance:

My good friends, for the second time in our history, a British Prime Minister has returned from Germany bringing peace with honour. I believe it is peace for our time. We thank you from the bottom of our hearts. Go home and get a nice quiet sleep.

Of course it would not be “peace for our time.” German troops quickly occupied the Sudetenland, Czech President Edvard Beneš resigned, and six months later Germany occupied the rest of the country, all but encircling Poland. Within a year after Munich, the most devastating war in world history would begin.

“The false comfort of appeasement”

Despite the surface similarities, however, the allusions to Hitler in the Ukraine crisis have less to do with history than with contemporary politics. They reflect a long-standing conservative distrust of diplomacy – invariably maligned as “appeasement” – that long predates the current crisis:

The way the Kennedys played the Cuban missile crisis in public is deeply revealing of the power of Munich analogy – and later, the Vietnam analogy. After the crisis subsided in the fall of 1962, Kennedy arranged to have leaked to two friendly newsmen, Charles Bartlett and Stewart Alsop, the “inside story” of the crisis. The White House version, quite unfairly, made a villain of U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson, for allegedly counseling appeasement toward the Soviets. No mention was made of RFK’s secret dealings with the Russian ambassador to remove the U.S. missiles from Turkey. In the cold-war atmosphere of the early ’60s, that might have been seen as soft or weak. Bobby Kennedy, however, later wrote his own memoir of the crisis, “Thirteen Days,” published posthumously in 1969, in which he broadly hinted at the secret deal. RFK had written the book with the 1968 campaign in mind. By then, RFK was no hawk. He wanted a negotiated peace in Vietnam, and thus he wanted the world to know he had negotiated a truce with the Soviets during the missile crisis.

President Lyndon Johnson would cite Munich to justify the U.S. commitment in Vietnam, and President George W. Bush would accuse then Sen. Barack Obama of seeking “the false comfort of appeasement” in offering to negotiate with Iran. Heritage Foundation analyst and later National Tea Party founder Michael Johns said wrote that “the United States government and its allies are still dominated by the culture of appeasement that drove Neville Chamberlain to Munich in 1938.”

Johns wrote that in 1987 … about President Ronald Reagan’s arms control talks with Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev.

“It’s not such a bad epitaph”

In fact “the lesson of Munich” is more rhetoric than reality. Most historians now agree that Neville Chamberlain chose the best of the bad options at hand. Neither Britain nor France were ready for war with Germany. The Royal Air Force – of whom Winston Churchill would say “Never was so much owed by so many to so few” – was far too weak to defend Britain in 1938. As Slate’s Nick Bauman wrote last September:

The story we’re told about Munich is one about the futility and foolishness of searching for peace. In American political debates, the words “appeasement” and “Munich” are used to bludgeon those who argue against war. But every war is not World War II, and every dictator is not Hitler. Should we really fault Chamberlain for postponing a potentially disastrous fight that his military advisers cautioned against, his allies weren’t ready for, and his people didn’t support? “People should try to put themselves into the position of the head of the British government in the 1930s,” [British historian David] Dutton says. “Would they have taken the apparently huge risk of a war [that] might mean Armageddon for a cause that nobody was really convinced in?” 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 available option. It’s not such a bad epitaph.

Russia was humiliated and impoverished by the collapse of the Soviet Union, and President Vladimir Putin is indeed promising restoration and claiming to protect ethnic Russians in the Crimea. But this is not 1938, and the ‘lesson’ of Munich was far more complex than saber-rattlers care to admit.


Happy Thursday!