Even 75 years later, the Munich Agreement that handed over the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia to Hitler’s Germany, is seen as an example of the folly of appeasing tyrants. But the matter is still hotly debated.
The facts of the matter are well known. Fresh from making the western allies swallow the reoccupation of the Rhineland and the annexation of Austria, Adolf Hitler demanded the Sudetenland region which was majority ethnic German and threatened war if he did not get it. Britain and France duly obliged Hitler and forces the Czechs to give up their territory. Later Hitler swallowed up the rest of Czechoslovakia as a main course.
But Chamberlain, the then prime minister of Great Britain, returned from Munich declaring, to the great relief of his people, that he had brought “peace in our time.” It turned out to be peace for a time when, as Hitler invaded Poland a year later, Britain and France had enough and decided to fight.
Nick Baumann, writing in Slate, argues that Chamberlain, far from being a craven appeaser, was bowing to the reality that Britain was not ready to fight Germany, certainly not over territory in Central Europe. He paints the Munich Agreement as a brutal example of realpolitik, sacrificing the Czechs to buy time.
Conrad Black replies, in National Review, that Chamberlain was a craven appeaser, hoping to stave off war by giving Hitler free rein over Europe. While Black concedes that Britain was unprepared for war in 1938, he suggests that there were diplomatic means of opposing Hitler’s land grand, forging alliances with the Soviet Union, for example, which had not yet signed the nonaggression pact. The United States might have rendered some aid for Britain’s military, as it eventually did under the Lend Lease program. At the very least, even if the Sudetenland had to be conceded, Britain could have done more to render Czechoslovakia aid, helping to fortify its new, untenable borders.
Whether the strategy Black suggested would have staved off World War II or even caused it to happen sooner is open to question. However that is almost beside the point, as Black suggests:
“Above all, Chamberlain should not have made the whole British Commonwealth and the democracies generally appear craven supplicants and cowards before Hitler’s shrieked threats, and should not have affronted history and the stern realities of the time by inciting false euphoria and returning from Munich comparing himself to Disraeli when he came back from his triumph at the Congress of Berlin in 1878. Disraeli had faced down Bismarck and returned with more than he had sought (including the island of Cyprus): He did secure ‘peace with honor.’ Chamberlain, as Churchill said, ‘had to choose between war and shame. You chose shame and you will get war.’ So he did.”