Columns / Discourse / January 29, 2014

Voice of Reason: A critique of the Munich excuse

When I initially decided to do an Honors project I swore to myself that I would build a firewall between my project and this column. Just because I find the political situation of Europe from 1936-1939 interesting does not mean the general readership of TKS does.

This week I have finally sunk to breaching the firewall. Spending hours every day researching the foreign policy dynamics of a certain period makes one rather intolerant of those who use it for lazy historical metaphors. Of course, the year 1938 in particular inspires a number of them, for 1938 was the fateful year of the Munich conference.

We all know the basic story. Hitler was preparing to swallow up the German-speaking portions of Czechoslovakia and was willing to provoke a war to do so. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain cravenly flew to Munich and offered up the Czech lands on a plate in exchange for “peace in our time.” Hitler, however, was not satisfied and launched an attack on Poland the following year .

It is a tantalizingly simple morality tale and it is one that many, especially those on the American right-wing, simply adore. Stand up to aggression early or you will have to do it later under worse conditions.

Yet what could be a perfectly instructive example of bad foreign policy making has morphed into something else. “Munich” is now a one-word argument for never signing any agreement with an enemy for any reason. If ever anyone questions the necessity of preemptive aggression, Chamberlain’s dusty corpse is hauled out again to eternally symbolize cowardice and failure.

Nuance is eliminated; from the vast sea of history a single example as taken as the only one with any validity for dealing with aggression.

“The word has become a substitute for thought,” wrote Eugene Robinson in the Washington Post. “A replacement for argument; it relieves those who use it from the obligation of actual ideas.”

This is particularly apparent in the current debate over the nuclear deal with Iran.

The agreement is a complex issue that deserves serious discussion, yet some insist that waving the dusty banner of “Munich” yet again is all the complexity the issue needs.

Browsing some headlines one would think that Obama had personally given the ayatollahs a property deed to Tel Aviv, rather than the minor sanctions relief it actually offers. But if every unfriendly country in the world is Nazi Germany then such reasoning makes a great deal of sense.

A concession is a concession and sanctions relief for six months becomes the same thing as the Sudetenland.

Matt Barry
Matt Barry is a senior majoring in international relations and double minoring in economics and German. This is his third year working for TKS, having served previously as discourse editor. He has worked for such organizations as the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Premier Tourism Marketing and the Council on American Islamic Relations-Chicago, where his work appeared in such publications as Leisure Group Travel, Ski & Ride Club Guide and The Chicago Monitor. Matt has written his political opinion column, "The Voice of Reason," weekly for three years, which finished in first place at the 2012 Illinois College Press Association conference and was also recognized at the 2013 conference.

Tags:  1938 Honors project munich Munich conference Neville Chamberlain right-wing

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