On Munich Analogies

Of course, the Iran deal has unleashed the ever popular deployment of the Munich analogy.  Samuel Kleiner and Tom Zoellner critique the formulation and give us a run-down of its relevance over the decades in an LAT piece for earlier in the week:  Republicans’ ‘Munich’ fallacy.

The analogy is, of course, tired and pointless and yet it will not go away.  I think it is the foreign policy equivalent of using the words “Nazi” or “fascist”–people may not fully understand what the word means exactly or whether it is really appropriate to the discussion, but, by golly, they know it is bad!

As a side note:  it is amazing the degree to which WWII still shapes and dominates the way we talk about politics.

FILED UNDER: National Security, Quick Takes, US Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. gVOR08 says:

    WWII was the biggest event of the last hundred years, and was, for my generation, very much a part of culture. I tend to think of WWI and II as recent, 20th century history as opposed to the long ago Civil War. It always comes as a shock to me to realize that WWI was a hundred years ago, but only fifty after the Civil War. In a few years WWII will be closer in time to the Civil War than to now. Makes me feel very old.

  2. Mikey says:

    Seems to me what we’ve learned so far is the only “Munich” was Munich itself, because the other invocations have proven entirely baseless. Kennedy made the right decision in calling the Soviet bluff, Nixon’s outreach to China has proven beneficial to both countries, and Reagan’s dealings with Gorbachev helped bring about the end of the Cold War.

    I’d wager the current accusations will prove equally frivolous.

  3. al-Ameda says:

    Not withstanding the fact that even Ronald Reagan negotiated the Iran-Contra deal with the demonic satanic Iranians, it’s entirely understandable that Republicans want Democrats to be portrayed as Chamberlainian appeasers. One thing is certain, they won’t have too much difficulty convincing their base – those people already believe that Obama is a Manchurian Muslim.

  4. mantis says:

    They use it constantly, and none of their Munich analogies have turned out to accurate. Ever. Not once. That should tell you how much you should listen to these idiots on foreign policy.

  5. gVOR08 says:

    @mantis: Doesn’t matter. Their base are more into faith than analysis. And Rove was right, nobody gets persuaded, it all depends on turnout.

    You’d think Munich analogies would fall under Godwin’s law, but apparently it’s another example of IOKIYAR.

  6. Tillman says:

    Kennedy also got the Munich experience in the form of a fashion choice. Black umbrellas, such as the type Chamberlain carried with him on his meeting with Hitler, became the American right’s favorite emoji for kowtowing. Protesters waved black umbrellas at Kennedy, and later at President Nixon as he disembarked from Air Force One in 1972 after his historic gambit to China.

    Huh. My umbrella is a symbol of lily-livered appeasementmongering.

  7. @Tillman:

    Huh. My umbrella is a symbol of lily-livered appeasementmongering.

    Learn something new every day, eh?

  8. Ron Beasley says:

    Of course the entire Munich analogy shows a complete lack of understanding the actual history. The agreement was always to give Britain the time to build up is’t military to fight Germany.

  9. Neil Hudelson says:

    @Ron Beasley:

    I’ve argued that a few times. Generally someone will counter that Chamberlain’s “Appeasement” enabled Stalin to sign the Ribbentrop Molotov pact. However at the time of Chamberlain’s negotiation, Britain only had 2 combat ready divisions; they were negotiating from an extreme disadvantage. The RM pact was signed just weeks before Germany’s invasion of Poland, and nearly a year after the Munich agreement–long after it was apparent that Britain was gearing up to fight.

    Considering how tenuous Britain’s defense against the London blitzkrieg was–relying on so much American armament (and pilots)–after a year of building up their military, I think the argument can be made that Chamberlain saved Britain.

  10. Slugger says:

    What would have happened if Chamberlain had not made the deal? Some possibilities:
    1. Hitler would have been discredited, and Germany would have elected a moderate Social-Democrat leader at the next election.
    2. Hitler would have been cowed and turned into a Franco style moderate dictator.
    3. The Ribbentrop-Molotov talks would have gone ahead, and WW II started pretty much on the same schedule.
    I think #3 is the most likely.
    What was the outcome of Chamberlain’s move? Let’s look at what happened a few years later in 1948:
    1. Berlin is in ruins.
    2. Hitler has a bullet in his head.
    3. Chamberlain’s party is in charge of Parliament.

  11. Hal_10000 says:

    Someone compiled 61 occasions Bill Kristol has been reminded of Munich. It’s like the only history he knows.

    Of course the entire Munich analogy shows a complete lack of understanding the actual history. The agreement was always to give Britain the time to build up is’t military to fight Germany.

    But Germany wasn’t ready either, especially if they had to take the most strategically critical ares of Czechoslovakia by force. Schirer argues that, had war come, the generals might have refused to fight or even overthrown Hitler (and Chamberlain had intelligence to that effect). I’m dubious of that. They might not have fought for him; but they would have fought for Germany. And eventually did. But I can’t see how this was a stalling tactic. There was a definite drive to avoid war, having had a brutal one just twenty years earlier. It’s hard to read Chamberlain’s words and not see someone who was so smitten with the idea of diplomacy preventing war that it blinded him to all else.

  12. Tillman says:

    @Neil Hudelson: I’d be remiss if I didn’t promote the Cracked article that made the same case about Chamberlain, mentioned the Factories Act Chamberlain passed in ’37 as part of the reason Britain was able to mobilize for war at all, cites Hardball appearance of local talk radio dude who eventually admits he doesn’t know what “appeasement” is.

    An old Irish proverb says:

    You build a dozen roads, but do they call you Connor the road-builder? No. You sire six wonderful sons, but do they call you Connor the child-rearer? No. But you **** one sheep…

  13. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Neil Hudelson:

    I think the argument can be made that Chamberlain saved Britain.

    Churchill disagrees with you. 😉

  14. JohnMcC says:
  15. Neil Hudelson says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    Well it was certainly a team effort, no doubt about that.

  16. @Slugger:

    1. Hitler would have been discredited, and Germany would have elected a moderate Social-Democrat leader at the next election.

    I think it is important to note that there weren’t going to be any elections with Hitler in power, so option #1 was never on the table (and contrary to some public perceptions, Hitler did not come to power via election in the first place).

  17. humanoid.panda says:

    My favorite Munich reference story: in 1961, Mao and Khrushchev met to iron their differences (K wanted to negotiate with US, MAo thouthg that since china was the most populated country on earth, a nuclear war would end up with a socialist globe.) During the meeting, which took place inside a pool in Mao’s mansion ,Mao was doing laps as Khrushchev, who barelty knew how to swim tried to stay afloat, and Mao was bellowing at him that it was 1938, Kennedy was Hitler and Khrushchev was Chamberlain.

  18. Electroman says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: It’s true that Hitler wasn’t elected – most people who say that are a bit confused and really mean that he came to power by constitutional means (the constitution of Germany, of course), and that is indeed true. In other words, contrary to some other perceptions, Hitler didn’t grab power via a coup.

    Hitler’s assumption of national power was due to his being appointed Chancellor by Hindenburg, who defeated Hitler for the office of President in one of the last free elections of the Weimar Republic (in 1932). Oh yes, there was political violence involved; Hitler doesn’t get a free pass.

  19. @Electroman: Yes, he became Chancellor via legitimate means. What he then did to that office, however, was essentially a coup not long after his appointment (as the Weimar constitution was set aside for all practical purposes).

  20. (Actually, I would strongly state that the actions of Hitler as Chancellor very much qualifies as a coup–coups can come from inside an existing government).

  21. I wrote about this, after a fashion, here.

  22. Barry says:

    @al-Ameda: “Not withstanding the fact that even Ronald Reagan negotiated the Iran-Contra deal with the demonic satanic Iranians,…”

    Note that the story ‘Reagan got the hostages back because Tough and Strong Will and Horseback Riding…….’ is rather compromised by ‘Reagan secretly and illegally sold them weapons….’.

  23. Barry says:

    @Slugger:

    “1. Hitler would have been discredited, and Germany would have elected a moderate Social-Democrat leader at the next election.”

    We can rule that right the frak out – the Nazi Party and Hitler were in solid control loooooong before 1938.

    “2. Hitler would have been cowed and turned into a Franco style moderate dictator.”

    Why? He was a guy who ran it until he had to put a bullet in his brain to avoid being taken to Moscow for a richly deserved fun time with Stalin in the basement of the Kremlin.

  24. Barry says:

    @Hal_10000: ” Schirer argues that, had war come, the generals might have refused to fight or even overthrown Hitler (and Chamberlain had intelligence to that effect). I’m dubious of that. ”

    My general rule is to be dubious of plans which rely on the second-tier overthrowing the government. It works nicely for subject states (i.e., Latin America), where we paid off those generals for decades, but for actual enemies….

  25. Electroman says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: I agree with all of your comments about this.

    And yes, a coup can indeed come from within a government – General Haig was (possibly apocryphally) suspected of such a coup for a brief moment after Reagan’s assassination attempt.

  26. stonetools says:

    When someone makes a Munich analogy, I remove them from the list of people I consider to be serious thinkers.

  27. dazedandconfused says:

    It’s funny how flawed it is but it never dies, but to a large degree that is due to France and Britain being unwilling to frankly describe their own weakness at the time, and so must take a bit of the blame for it.

    If anyone wants to refute it as mere chicken heart, it’s pretty easy to google up the history of the modern fighters the Brits had at the time and how many of them. The Hurricane had been around for about a year and they had a several dozen in two squadrons. The first tiny Spitfire squadron had been around for six months and was pretty much a beta-testing outfit. A handful of operational planes.

    If Munich hadn’t gone through I’m pretty sure Britain and some other nations would be compelled to defend Poland. Lotsa luck with that.

  28. Slugger says:

    Please note that my options 1 and 2 were included to cover the spectrum, not as my guess as the likeliest outcome. The Munich agreement was considered a failure by people of that era because it did not ensure “Peace in our time.” From the perspective of our time the Wehrmacht was going to roll no matter what.

  29. stonetools says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    I wrote about this, after a fashion, here.

    So Thomas Sowell compared Obama to Hitler, eh? The guy was senile even back in 2008.
    Well, I’m glad you read Thomas Sowell columns so that I don’t have to, Steven.

    Pro tip: only Hitler should be compared to Hitler ( sort of like only Munich is well, Munich).

  30. Barry says:

    @Slugger: “Please note that my options 1 and 2 were included to cover the spectrum,…”

    The problem is that war advocates almost always throw in a bunch of dubious to impossible outcomes just to make things look better.

  31. Barry says:

    @Slugger: “The Munich agreement was considered a failure by people of that era because it did not ensure “Peace in our time.” From the perspective of our time the Wehrmacht was going to roll no matter what. ”

    I believe that the opinion of the people who’ve studies this is that the ‘peace in our time’ was purely for public consumption. Behind the scenes the UK was frantically rearming.

  32. stonetools says:

    Hey, if you want to go further down the rabbit hole of what would have happened had Munich gone another way, Harry Turtledove has gamed it out so you don’t have to. From the blurb:

    A stroke of the pen and history is changed. In 1938, British prime minister Neville Chamberlain, determined to avoid war, signed the Munich Accord, ceding part of Czechoslovakia to Hitler. But the following spring, Hitler snatched the rest of that country, and England, after a fatal act of appeasement, was fighting a war for which it was not prepared. Now, in this thrilling alternate history, another scenario is played out: What if Chamberlain had not signed the accord?

    In this action-packed chronicle of the war that might have been, Harry Turtledove uses dozens of points of view to tell the story: from American marines serving in Japanese-occupied China and ragtag volunteers fighting in the Abraham Lincoln Battalion in Spain to an American woman desperately trying to escape Nazi-occupied territory—and witnessing the war from within the belly of the beast. A tale of powerful leaders and ordinary people, at once brilliantly imaginative and hugely entertaining, Hitler’s War captures the beginning of a very different World War II—with a very different fate for our world today.

  33. Tyrell says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: One speculative scenario that has been out there for some time was that Heinrich Himmler, sometime around 1942, was plotting a move to get rid of Hitler, take over, negotiate with the Allied leaders to end the war in Europe and unite to keep the Russians out.There are variations on this. Some try to say that if this thing had succeeded, it would have saved millions of lives of soldiers and civilians. I don’t know about that. Hitler didn’t trust Himmler, or anybody else. Himmler was more feared than Hitler, even those who met him found him to be soft spoken and personable.
    A theory that has been around is that Himmler was killed while imprisoned to keep him from talking and giving out information that would have been embarrassing to some leaders.
    I still wonder about that Rufolf Hess guy – why kept locked up for all those years after everyone else had been freed ? What did he know ? And was it really Hess ?

  34. michael reynolds says:

    I’ve never quite understood why all this opprobrium is piled on Chamberlain. It wasn’t going to be the British army that would be called on to defend Czechoslovakia, the British barely had an army, so it would have fallen to the French. The French had the only serious army in western Europe not allied with the Germans. Why were the French not hopping into their Renaults and driving through, well, um. . . Okay, you can go through Bavaria. . . No, that’s no good. Austria? Um. . . Hey, Poland, do you mind if we land our army in Gdansk (Danizg) and drive south. . . Oh, there’s a problem there?

    There was literally no way, none, that the Brits or French could have defended Czechoslovakia. They could only have attacked Germany in retaliation and that would have fallen again, to the French. Or they could make a deal. They made the deal.

    Chamberlain ‘gave up’ what he had absolutely no means to hold onto. Even later, when it was Poland’s turn, the Brits had basically squat. Britain’s approach to defense was great big navy, little tiny expeditionary force. They think like people who live on an island.

    The point being that the analogy has some basis if you actually understand that the Brits got the best deal they could under the circumstances. Much as we are doing with Iran, with the screamingly obvious difference that Germany was a major economic and military powerhouse while Iran is a regional power already balanced off by competing regional powers, Israel and the KSA.

  35. @Tyrell:

    One speculative scenario

    As much fun as alt history is, I must confess that I consider them naught but fiction.

  36. Tyrell says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Yes, but fascinating.
    coolinterestingstuff.com/strangelifeofrudolfhess
    Rense.com/himmlersgreatbetrayal
    Rumors persist that prisoner #7 at Spandau Prison was not really Hess.

  37. michael reynolds says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    I’m actually writing an alt-history of WW2, with a single change: a 1940 Supreme Court decision subjects women to the draft and combat.

    But, yeah, it’s fiction, ’cause that didn’t really happen.

  38. dazedandconfused says:

    I’m working on one myself. In it George HW Bush was Chamberlain and the UK’s response to Germany’s invasion of Czechoslovakia was the invasion of Brazil.

  39. Tom M says:

    This is a dead thread but I’ll add one thing:
    Re reading the comments from 2008-9 are interesting. The same comments and (some of the same commenters) saying the same things about Obama – It never changes… We are still days/weeks/months away from tyranny!11! or a Hitler – like take over, we are still days/week/months away from losing our freedom! Lord almighty, it never stops. Even when proved wrong on point after point.
    The insanity of the far right never abates.