Dealing with Dictators

By Robin Jacobson. 

Some historical events cast a long shadow, and some words, like “appeasement,” are loaded. Today, whenever a government negotiates with a dictator – whether it’s Kim Jong Un or Bashar al-Assad or another present-day despot – we worry whether making concessions to dictators is “appeasement” that is doomed to fail. Pundits in the “never appease” camp point to the pre-World War II Munich Agreement that famously failed to satisfy Hitler’s appetite for European territory. Yet contrary to popular conception, “never appease” is not the lesson of the Munich Agreement – or so contends respected British author Robert Harris. If the West’s policy towards authoritarian regimes is to be informed by history, says Harris, we should have a better understanding of that history.

Packaged as a captivating thriller, Harris’s novel, Munich, draws on substantial scholarship to suggest that the Munich Agreement bought Britain necessary time to rearm and unite the British public to successfully fight a war. To Harris, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was not a foolish pacifist but instead a clear-eyed realist who hoped for peace while preparing for war.

The History

In 1938, Hitler threatened to invade Czechoslovakia on the pretext of liberating ethnic Germans from regions within Czechoslovakia known as the Sudetenland. Only 20 years after the carnage of World War I, Europe again tottered on the precipice of war. Prime Minister Chamberlain believed that another war could destroy Britain; the military was poorly armed, and the population had no will to fight.

In Munich, on September 30, 1938, Chamberlain, together with the French and Italian leaders, signed a pact agreeing to Germany’s annexation of the Sudetenland. Later that same day, he got Hitler to sign a separate Anglo-German statement declaring that the Munich Agreement was “symbolic of the desire of our two peoples never to go to war with one another again.” Back in England, Chamberlain flourished Hitler’s commitment to “peace for our time” and was hailed as a hero by relieved Britons. But behind the scenes, Chamberlain led the British government in a massive rearmament program.

Peace was short-lived. Within months, Germany occupied all of Czechoslovakia and within a year invaded Poland, igniting World War II. Chamberlain was pilloried as a naïve, gullible, weak leader who had shamefully acceded to Hitler’s demands. Yet under Chamberlain, Britain’s air power increased tenfold between 1938 and 1940. Tellingly, Hitler in February 1945 appeared to blame the Munich Agreement for Germany’s then-impending defeat, remarking bitterly, “We ought to have gone to war in 1938.”

The Novel

Set over four frenetic days in September 1938, Munich tells the story of the Munich Agreement through two fictional characters, one British and one German, young men who had been students together at Oxford. In 1938, when the characters’ lives again cross, Hugh Legat is one of Chamberlain’s secretaries and Paul von Hartmann is a translator for the German Foreign Ministry. Horrified by the Nazis’ treatment of Jews (“if they’re capable of that, they’re capable of anything“), Hartmann is plotting Hitler’s downfall with a German resistance group. He enlists Legat’s help to convey to Chamberlain a secret Nazi document revealing Hitler’s intention to conquer Europe.

Harris portrays Chamberlain as a shrewd leader with no good options. He credits Chamberlain with cannily publicizing Hitler’s signed promise of peace, so that if Hitler later reneged, Britain would have the moral authority needed to move the British public and Western allies towards war. But laying down that tripwire for Hitler cost Chamberlain his reputation as a statesman. Harris visualizes Chamberlain brandishing Hitler’s worthless commitment to peace “like a man who had thrown himself onto an electrified fence.”