More lessons from Munich

October 8th, 2013
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This Thursday marks the 75th anniversary of the occupation of the Sudetenland. That day, streets were lined with cheering crowds welcoming the German troops, while Jews and the politically-threatened hid or fled. The anniversary offers another opportunity to consider Chamberlain, Hitler and appeasement, and to learn other lessons about international conflict.

Firstly there is the use of historical grievance. The Sudetenland crisis occurred where it did for a reason, beyond mere German aggression. Czechoslovakia was carved out of the dead Austria-Hungary in 1919, as a client state of the victorious Entente. It was meant as much to contain Germany as to satisfy Wilsonian ideals of self-determination. Its founding leaders, like Masaryk and Benes, over-reached by demanding “historic” borders. Besides 10.2 million Czechs and Slovaks, the new country contained 3.3 million Germans, 700,000 Magyars and 500,000 West-Ukrainians. As self-determination went, some were more equal than others.

Czechoslovakia was not embraced by all its prospective citizens. At the end of World War One, the German members of the Austrian parliament, including those from the Sudetenland, voted to join defeated Germany and drafted a constitution to that effect. This union was prevented by the Entente, and Czech armed force, providing the kernel of legitimacy for Sudeten grievance and a pretext for Hitler’s later expansion.

No maps of the Sudetenland marred Canadian bus stops in 1938 as maps of Palestine do today. The controversial ad campaign suggests that territorial grievance is alive and well. It also shows that the Palestinians, much more than the hapless Sudeten Germans back in the day, have galvanized a certain segment of international opinion to their version of history. This is not trivial. Palestinians have floated an alternative history of the Middle East that largely denies ancient Israel, so the bus stop maps can be seen as part of a broader agenda of de-legitimization.

Arguing over lines on a map may seem futile, but it provides a framework for the larger conflict. If arguments over territory and boundaries neutralize or convert key players, as the Palestinians have achieved in much of the EU, you’ve stolen a march on your enemy.

Then there’s Realpolitik. Sudeten German aspirations in 1919, as legitimate as those of the Czechs, were squashed by the Great Powers – as so often happens. Prospects of Czechoslovakia as an “eastern Switzerland” were also stillborn, as founding president Masaryk spoke of possible autonomy for Czech Germans only “if they prove themselves to be loyal citizens”. In the same breath he alluded to a quick “de-Germanizing” of the border regions. Masaryk’s successor, Eduard Benes, made good on the “de-Germanizing”. The expulsion he implemented, beginning in 1945, expelled roughly three million Germans and caused up to 200,000 deaths. The refugees could keep what they could carry.

Interestingly, the verdict of history has been almost as harsh on the Sudeten Germans as on Chamberlain: how could so many have welcomed Hitler? Hindsight of course is 20-20, but what seems to be demanded here is 20-20 foresight. After all, no magic ballot question was posed 75 years ago: option one – Hitler, your sons killed in war, the Jews exterminated, expulsion with loss of all your property, thousands killed in the process or: option two – discrimination, economic hardship and possible assimilation in Czechoslovakia.

But this kind of choice is precisely what faces many groups today, including the Palestinians, even if they don’t realize it. And they aren’t particularly clairvoyant either. We see reports of a seething population under Israeli rule, much worse in fact than the Czechs in Austria-Hungary or the Germans under the Czechs. Despite Israel having already offered several key concessions, no agreement appears likely. Arguing continues over, among other things, lines on a map and “historic” boundaries; hence the signs in Canadian bus stops.

One clear lesson of Munich, for the aggrieved minority at least, is that their perceived way of “liberation” may be a delusion or, worse, fatal. A look around the region would give Palestinians an idea what their state may look like. But it doesn’t have to be that way, and they don’t have to repeat the mistakes of history. That said, the prospects of a state dominated by radical political parties and religious zealots appear dark. Nor will acting as proxies for other combatants in a regional or international conflict guarantee the Palestinians what they want. Ask the Sudeten Germans.

Lastly, it’s worth asking how much choice the pawns in the great game actually have. The most frequent outcome seems to be: when someone else lights the fuse, you have to choose sides. That rarely ends well.

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By John Weissenberger