Revisiting (and Reliving) 1938
By Rick Richman
“It is 1938; Iran is Germany; and it is racing to acquire nuclear weapons.” Benjamin Netanyahu repeatedly punctuated his speech in Los Angeles earlier this month with that sentence. It was an effective rhetorical device, conveying both a sense of threat and a sense of urgency.
But 1938 may be relevant in more ways than as a rhetorical device. Revisiting that year, through Winston Churchill’s compelling account in “The Gathering Storm,” is an instructive exercise, and one the Iraq Study Group might consider as it completes its deliberations.
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February 20, 1938: Churchill spent the entire night without sleep, “consumed by emotions of sorrow and fear” — the only time he went sleepless even after he became Prime Minister. He had received a call late that evening informing him that Anthony Eden had resigned as Foreign Secretary.
Eden, who shared Churchill’s views about Germany and Italy, had found himself almost isolated in the Cabinet, opposed by the Chiefs of Staff who “enjoined caution and dwelt upon the dangers of the situation.” Churchill was despondent over the resignation:
I must confess that my heart sank, and for a while the ark waters of despair overwhelmed me. . . . I watched the daylight slowly creep in through the windows, and saw before me in mental gaze the vision of Death.
A precipitating factor in Eden’s resignation had been Neville Chamberlain’s decision to enter into direct negotiations with Italy. Chamberlain’s position was that:
His Majesty’s Government would be prepared . . . to recognize de jure the Italian occupation of Abyssinia, if they found that the Italian Government on their side were ready to give evidence of their desire to contribute to the restoration of confidence and friendly relations.
For Churchill, it was evidence that “in the dawn of 1938 decisive changes in European groupings and values had taken place.” The Western democracies had “seemed to give repeated proofs that they would bow to violence so long as they were not themselves directly assailed.”
That same day, Germany had begun to raise the issue of Czechoslovakia, and “the usual techniques were employed” — the de-legitimization of the target through the rhetoric of grievances, combined with the knowledge that the West lacked both the will (“owing to their love of peace”) and the means (due to their failure to rearm) to protect its broader interests:
The grievances, which were not unreal, of the Sudeten Germans were magnified and exploited. The public case was opened against Czechoslovakia by Hitler in his speech to the Reichstag on February 20, 1938. . . . It was the duty of Germany [said Hitler] to protect those fellow-Germans and secure to them “general freedom, personal, political and ideological.”
August 27, 1938: Tensions over Czechoslovakia increased over the summer. Churchill told his constituents he knew it was difficult to realize “the ferocious passions which are rife in Europe.” But he warned them that “the whole state of Europe and of the world is moving steadily towards a climax which cannot be long delayed:”
Certainly it looks as if the Government of Czechoslovakia were doing their utmost to put their house in order, and to meet every demand which is not designed to compass their ruin as a State. . . . But larger and fiercer ambitions may prevent a settlement, and then Europe and the civilized world will have to face the demands of Nazi Germany….
Churchill told his constituents that a German invasion and subjugation of Czechoslovakia would “not be simply an attack upon Czechoslovakia; it would be an outrage against the civilization and freedom of the whole world.”
September 13, 1938: Chamberlain telegraphed Hitler, proposing to come see him. Hitler responded the next day, inviting him to come. The willingness of Chamberlain to meet with Hitler had an immediate demoralizing effect upon the Czechs:
When the news reached Prague the Czech leaders could not believe it was true. They were astonished . . . the British Prime Minister should himself pay a direct visit to Hitler . . . . [E]ven Lord Runciman realized that the last thing the Germans wanted was a satisfactory bargain between the Sudeten leaders and the Czech Government.
Chamberlain concluded from his meeting with Hitler that only by yielding Sudeten lands to Germany would Hitler refrain from invading Czechoslovakia. Chamberlain’s ministers supported the cession of part of Czechoslovakia, “finding consolation” (in Churchill’s words) in the use of phrases such as “the rights of self determination” for the Germans living there.
September 19, 1938: England and France presented their “decision” to the Czechs, informing them that the areas where German inhabitants were a majority should immediately be ceded to Germany. The British-French diplomatic note fairly dripped with the cynical subjugation of Czechoslovakia’s rights to the perceived interest of European “security:”
“Both the French and British Governments recognize how great is the sacrifice thus required of Czechoslovakia. They have felt it their duty jointly to set forth frankly the conditions essential to security.”
September 21, 1938: Churchill issued a statement to the press in response to the proposed partition of Czechoslovakia, calling it the “complete surrender of the Western Democracies to the Nazi threat of force” and warning it would have larger consequences:
It is not Czechoslovakia alone which is menaced, but also the freedom and the democracy of all nations. The belief that security can be obtained by throwing a small State to the wolves is a fatal delusion.
September 22, 1938: Chamberlain flew to his second meeting with Hitler, at Godesberg, Germany. He carried with him, “as a basis for final discussion,” the details of the Angle-French proposals regarding Czechoslovakia, which Czechoslovakia had been pressured to accept. To Chamberlain’s surprise, Hitler presented even more demands. As Chamberlain reported to the House of Commons on his return:
I do not want the House to think that [Hitler] was deliberately deceiving me – I do not think so for one moment – but, for me, I expected that when I got back to Godesberg I had only to discuss quietly with him the proposals that I had brought with me; and it was a profound shock . . . that these proposals were not acceptable, and that they were to be replaced by other proposals of a kind which I had not contemplated at all.
September 23, 1938: Chamberlain met again with Hitler at 10:30 p.m., in a meeting that lasted into the small hours of the morning. Chamberlain was relieved to receive Hitler’s assurance that his new demands would be his last:
Hitler repeated to me with great earnestness . . . that this was the last of his territorial ambitions in Europe . . . [H]e said, again very earnestly, that he wanted to be friends with England, and that if only this Sudeten question could be got out of the way in peace, he would gladly resume conversations….”
September 28, 1938: The terms Hitler laid out at Godesberg were initially rejected, and a crisis atmosphere resumed. But Hitler sent a new letter that Chamberlain thought offered hope of a peaceful resolution, and Chamberlain wrote back on September 28 that he was ready to come to Berlin for a third meeting. Hitler proposed a meeting at Munich on the following day, between England, France, Germany and Italy. The Czechs were excluded.
September 29, 1938: The Munich meeting started at noon and lasted until 2 a.m. the next morning, at which time a memorandum was signed that was, Churchill wrote, “in essentials the acceptance of the Godesberg ultimatum.” But the Czechoslovakia issue had been resolved.
Chamberlain returned to England and was welcomed at the airport by a crowd of notables, to whom he read a statement Hitler had signed attesting to “the desire of our two peoples never to go to war with one another again.” Chamberlain left the airport and drove back through cheering crowds. In the car, he said to his new Foreign Secretary that it was “peace for our time.”
In the debate that followed in the House of Commons, Churchill opposed the Munich agreement. “We have sustained,” he said, “a total and unmitigated defeat.” The House erupted into a storm of protest against Churchill, interrupting his speech. But he went on to warn that the country should “not suppose that this is the end.” It was “only the beginning of the reckoning . . . the first foretaste of a bitter cup which will be proffered to us year by year….”
The House approved Chamberlain’s actions by a vote of 366-114. A year later, after Hitler marched on Poland, the Second World War began, with Germany in a much stronger military position than it had been in 1938. The rest is history….
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Flash forward to 2006. Israel is in the sixth year of a barbaric war against its civilians, featuring mass-murder suicide bombers and rockets intentionally rained on civilian areas — after Israel attempted in 2000 to “meet every demand which was not designed to compass their ruin as a State.”
In 2006, Israel is subject to a continual drumbeat of de-legitimizing rhetoric that dwarfs what fell upon Czechoslovakia. The rhetoric includes charges of “apartheid,” accusations its formation was an historic “mistake,” and descriptions of its existence as an “anachronism.” Iran says Israel should be “wiped off the map,” and its threat against another U.N. member goes un-remarked upon at the U.N.
At the same time, barbaric attacks on civilians, with the obvious assistance of Iran and Syria, are effectively used to stifle the creation of a democratic government in Iraq after it was freed in a three-week war from one of the most brutal dictators of the age. In Lebanon, an Iranian proxy controls the southern part of the country and the democratic government is subjected to threats from the proxy and the continual assassination of political leaders adverse to Syrian control, with the principal suspects being the highest level of the Syrian government.
On September 20, the Council on Foreign Relations, the American foreign policy establishment, holds a meeting with the President of Iran. After the session, the Council’s “realist” president writes an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, informing readers he had learned three things of “considerable interest” at the meeting:
Ahmadinejad said that Iran was open to cooperating to stabilize Iraq; that Iran believed it had a right to enrich uranium but that, for religious reasons, it was prohibited from having nuclear weapons; and that Iran is open to relations with the United States if Washington is prepared to take the initiative.
Like Israel’s leader, who pronounced himself “tired” of war in 2005 and then ineptly managed one in 2006, the United States begins to show distinct signs of being tired itself. The electorate turns Congress over to a party whose plan for Iraq is to withdraw to somewhere “over the horizon” and let the Iraqis sort things out for themselves.
The Secretary of Defense, one of the chief architects of the Iraq liberation and war, is forced to resign. The administration then awaits the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group, widely expected to favor the negotiation of a “grand bargain” with Iran and Syria, with or without a “final push” in Iraq.
It is in the nature of “grand bargains” that something of considerable value would have to be given to Iran. What could that be? Stanley Kurtz predicted last week at National Review Online that “Iran will be offered security guarantees, a huge investment bonanza, a fair amount of regional influence, and general integration into the world community.”
But that would not seem to be enough. Iran undoubtedly views its nuclear program as a better “security guarantee” than the word of the United States. That nuclear program will itself also provide Iran with a fair amount of “regional influence” — and beyond. Iran will have a “huge investment bonanza” as long as the world needs oil (and as long as Russia, China and France are around); no agreement with the United States is necessary for that purpose. Finally, a regime that rejects a “corrupt” West and wants to replace the existing world order with a caliphate may not view “general integration into the world community” as a very significant goal. A “grand bargain” may thus require much more.
In historical terms, it seems clear that Iran and Syria are the Germany and Italy of 2006 — a totalitarian regime with global ambitions, with a fascist ally, already fighting proxy wars comparable to the Spanish Civil War. But Iran has learned something from history, since, as Netanyahu noted in his speech, it appears to want to avoid the mistake Germany made of going to a broader war before it has a nuclear weapon.
In the impending repetition of the history that Churchill wrote down to warn future generations, it is not yet clear who will be asked to play the role of Czechoslovakia. It might be Israel, or Lebanon, or Iraq — or perhaps all three. But “grand bargains” are rarely the end of the story. Churchill’s history of the Second World War extended for five more volumes after the one discussing Czechoslovakia.
Rick Richman edits “Jewish Current Issues.” His articles have appeared in American Thinker, The Jewish Press, and the Los Angeles Jewish Journal.
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