Neocons Ignore Real Lessons of Munich

The neocons are working overtime to overturn President Obama’s agreement with Iran to constrain but not eliminate its nuclear program. They are even referencing Munich in what ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar says is some very bad history.

By Paul R. Pillar

The victorious allies at the end of World War I were not entirely of one mind regarding the handling of the peace, but a strong sentiment (especially in France) was that it ought to be a tough, punitive peace.

Germany had been defeated but not crushed during the war, and most of the combat had not even taken place on its territory. It was therefore the peace, in the minds of many of the victors, that ought to be crushing, including the payment by Germany of heavy reparations.

German delegates at the Versailles peace conference that brought World War I to an end but planted the seeds for World War II. (Photo credit: German Federal Archives)

German delegates at the Versailles peace conference that brought World War I to an end but planted the seeds for World War II. (Photo credit: German Federal Archives)

Given such terms, German consent to the treaty in 1919 was, as described by the British historian A.J. P. Taylor in his classic The Origins of the Second World War, “given grudgingly and unwillingly, after long debate whether it would not be better to refuse to sign.” Germans called the Versailles treaty “a Diktat or a slave-treaty.”

The Diktat had three unfortunate and major effects in Germany. One was a determination to undermine the treaty itself. In Taylor’s words:

“The peace of Versailles lacked moral validity from the start. It had to be enforced; it did not, as it were, enforce itself. This was obviously true in regard to the Germans. No German accepted the treaty as a fair settlement between equals. … All Germans meant to shake off at any rate some part of the peace treaty as soon as it was convenient to do so.”

Another effect was a determination to assert more broadly Germany’s power and a dominant place for it in Europe, as a reaction to the treatment it was receiving at the hands of the World War I victors.

And a third effect was to boost extremist elements that expressed these resentments in their starkest and sharpest form. The harsh peace was a political bonanza for the Nazi Party, which railed against it throughout its rise to power.

Economic pressure was a key ingredient in the harsh treatment of Germany. Some of the thoughts in the allied countries about this began during the war, when an economic blockade, writes Taylor, “was believed to have contributed decisively to Germany’s defeat.” A continued blockade also “helped to push the German government into accepting the peace treaty in June 1919.” What sort of argument about a current issue does that remind you of?

The idea back then, as one hears now, is that if economic pressure helped to achieve some past success then keeping the pressure on would achieve still more success. This was part of thinking behind the reparations. But the reparations only accentuated all of the negative German responses to the peace treaty.

The reparations came to be blamed for everything going wrong in Germany in the postwar years: for poverty, for unemployment, for the hyperinflation of 1923, and for the depression of 1929. As Taylor writes, “Every touch of economic hardship stirred the Germans to shake off ‘the shackles of Versailles’.”

The strong negative sentiments came to be applied not just to the reparations themselves but to every other aspect of the peace that affected Germany. Taylor explains:

“Once men reject a treaty, they cannot be expected to remember precisely which clause they reject. The Germans began with the more or less rational belief that they were being ruined by reparations. They soon proceeded to the less rational belief that they were being ruined by the peace treaty as a whole. Finally, retracing their steps, they concluded that they were being ruined by clauses of the treaty which had nothing to do with reparations.”

For those reasons Germans came to reject disarmament. When Hitler had a chance, he discarded that part of the peace. For the same reasons the Germans came to reject the cession of land to Poland. And when Hitler had a chance he discarded that part of the peace as well.

Despite the implications of all of this for present-day handling by stronger powers of relations with economically pressured weaker powers, one seldom hears references to this piece of history. Instead one hears, ad infinitum, references to a piece of history about interwar Germany that came later — after the Nazi regime was firmly established.

References to Munich and appeasement have become so commonplace and so loosely applied that they have long since debased the rhetorical currency involved and have come to constitute an insult to the victims of Nazi crimes.

More such analogizing keeps getting done with reference to the current issue of Iran and its nuclear program. The analogy is very poor. Ali Khamenei is not Adolf Hitler, and Iran has neither the ability nor the will to try to conquer the rest of its region.

Perhaps a new low of ridiculousness in such comparisons was reached the other day when the columnist Bret Stephens argued not just that there is an analogy here but that the interim agreement reached with the Iranians in Geneva is worse than what took place at Munich in 1938. As Daniel Larison at The American Conservative notes, this assertion is so absurd that probably even Stephens doesn’t really believe it.

We indeed ought to extract lessons from the momentous events in Europe between the two world wars. And we ought not just to cry “Munich” as a substitute for thinking but instead to think carefully about how those lessons apply to current calls to keep turning the economic screws on Iran and to settle for nothing less than what would amount to capitulation by Iran on the nuclear issue.

We should think about the experience with Germany when we hear, for example, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, denounce the interim agreement because “we had a chance to deliver a body blow” but instead eased, to his distaste, some sanctions in return for Iranian concessions.

A “body blow,” if this means Iran capitulating on the issues rather than genuine bargaining that produces an agreement both sides consider fair, is not achievable. Even if it were, it would be a bad thing from the standpoint of U.S. interests because it would encourage the sort of effects that the post-World War I treatment of Germany encouraged in that country.

First, it would mean Iran would view any document it signed as a forced, unfair arrangement that it would have strong incentives to undermine and overturn when it was able to — rather than having, as is eminently achievable, an agreement that Iran as well as the West would have strong incentives to uphold.

Second, it would stoke among all Iranians a desire to find ways to assert Iran’s power and influence as redemption for the humiliation it had suffered. And third, it would boost politically the extreme, hardline tendencies in Iranian politics that favor the sorts of Iranian policies that we would consider most objectionable.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

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8 comments on “Neocons Ignore Real Lessons of Munich

  1. ypochris on said:

    We can only hope that the analysts remaining at the CIA have as much common sense as Mr. Pillar does. Judging by the President’s actions, he is being well advised – but let’s hope that he does not succumb to the madness of the warmongers in the far Right mainstream media and the halls of Congress.

  2. lastcamp2 on said:

    In Anglo-American law, with regard to contractual agreements, there is a concept known as “reality of assent” which tests whether the agreement should be considered binding. Among the components are duress and undue influence.
    I realize that this is not a perfect analogy when it comes to treaties, but it is worth considering in considering the strength or enforceability of treaties. It looks like the more pressure put on a party, particularly where there is an imbalance of power between them, the more easily a breach can be justified.
    So, did Iran “really” assent, and to what degree was this a result of coercion? I guess time will tell.

  3. F. G. Sanford on said:

    Pardon me, but virtually NONE of World War One was fought on German soil. Battlefield advances were grueling and often halted, but Germany was never forced to retreat. When the armistice was declared, the soldiers at the front still believed they could prevail. Theirs was a concept bereft of the economic reality which would have ultimately imploded Germany’s war effort. Even America’s entry into the war, which spelled certain defeat, could not explain what they perceived to be a rush to capitulation. With the means to fight at least momentarily intact, they believed a more equitable armistice could have been negotiated. This lead to the famous “STAB IN THE BACK” myth. The rise of Nazism stemmed directly from agitation based on this powerful but apocryphal antisemitic falsehood. The “stab in the back”, according to the lie, had been engineered by a cabal of Jewish traitors in the bowels of government. At beer hall rallies, Hitler raged about the “stab in the back”, proclaiming, “We know who they are”. The hysterical crowd would scream, “The Jews!”

    Financial aid from the United States nearly stemmed the economic misery which fueled much of this hatred, but the financial collapse of 1929 ended it. This gave more momentum to the myth, enabling blame to be laid on international financiers, who were of course dubbed the “International Jews”. As the hate mongering continued, Jewish groups promoted international trade boycotts against Germany which served, in the minds of Nazi supporters, to validate once again the “stab in the back” doctrine. These screeds were in major newspapers of the day, so you don’t have to take my word for it. See for example the 1920 Winston Churchill article, “Zionism Versus Bolshevism” in the London Illustrated Sunday Herald. Hitler and Churchill both blamed communism on the Jews.

    What I find incredible is that the Neocons, by campaigning to undermine the Obama administration’s efforts at diplomacy, are actually creating another “stab in the back” metaphor. The tragedy is that this one will have an irrefutable basis in fact. The Neocons are seething with anger. Not because it is peace, but rather the case for war that is at stake. Hillary Clinton is curiously silent on this issue. “Progressives” should start encouraging her to support the program or confess her real agenda. I suspect that they too will soon have a “stab in the back” to lament.

    • Brother Doc on said:

      Analogies do break down pretty quickly when post-WWI history gets held up as the model for current analysis, so I am not sure how the “stab in the back” legend, which equated Germany’s surrender in 1918 with traitors/Socialists/Bolsheviks/Jews on the home front, fits with the current debate over diplomacy between Iran and the West today. in fact, it seems to me that this time it is indeed the pro-Israel lobby, Tel Aviv’s policy, and AIPAC which are trying hard to undermine any settlement over Iran’s nuclear enrichment program that falls short of its total and immediate termination, whether for peaceful applicaitons or not. The heavy sanctions on Iran, which the author of the original piece sees as analagous to reparations forcing the German economy into turmoil and ruin during the 1920s and thus paving the way for the Nazis, might indeed lead to a backlash in that country against the West–although the recent elections would seem to indicate the opposite. The irony of course is that by the time the Great Depression came along, Germany had already been virtually freed from reparations obligations. Its economic woes post-1929 were as bad as those of most other countries, but the German people had already been taught to blame the rest of the world for their economic woes, which helps in part to account for the rise of Hitler. There are many good points made in the original article, although AJP Taylor’s work of 60 years ago is certainly not the best source for the interwar period.

  4. HISTORICVS on said:

    The issue decided at Munich was the peaceful return of the Sudeten Germans to their homeland, from which they had been exiled by the Versailles treaty in clear violation of Woodrow Wilson’s promise to Europe of self determination for her peoples. Czechoslovakia was created by the victors of World War I out of parts of Germany, Hungary, Austria and Roumania. It had no historical existence until 1919 and was brought into being, like Poland, specifically to surround a territorially reduced Germany within a ring of hostile militarized states. Remember that Germany’s “crime” in the first place was threatening the economic hegemony of the world’s two superpowers, Britain and France – nothing more.

    “Peace in our time” is quoted from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer and was the title of a book written in 1928 by Chamberlain’s half-brother Austen, who had won the Nobel Prize for Peace as the architect of the Lucarno Treaty. It was the Prime Minister’s intent to continue his late brother’s work of the pacification of Europe. It was not unreasonable, or a surrender to tyranny. At Munich Chamberlain declined to start a needless war with Germany that his country would not have been able to win. Recall if you will that the memory of The Great War was still fresh in everyone’s mind, perhaps in Germans’ the most. Every fourth young man of an entire European generation perished in that needless and fruitless disaster.

  5. Joe Tedesky on said:

    It was last year this time I decided to start brushing up on WWI history. I even found “Downton Abby” to be somewhat a visual help, if that counts. All this talk about Chamberlain gives me an opportunity to use some of what I have learned in regard to that time period.

    President Wilson in 1918 sent Ambassador Archibald Coolidge to Czechoslovakia. Coolidge suggested ceding parts of the German speaking areas of the Czech land over to Germany. That alone would have prevented a Munich meeting. A young Allen Dulles thought other wise. Dulles believed that “Lands of the Bohemian Crown” should be part of a united Czechoslovakia. Guess who won the argument?

    The map making of the post WWI era leaves a lot to the imagination. We are still fighting wars as result of some of those map lines.

    Rather than dwell on all of these Chamberlain stories that the Neocon’s bring up, why not imagine the worst?

    Imagine, the p5+1 Geneva conference being a failure. Iran does get a couple nuclear warheads. Why not use a 1950′s U.S. Cold War Strategy. Eisenhower didn’t need to run to war. We now know what Ike knew then, and that was, we were much bigger than our enemy. Yeah, build deeper bomb shelters. Think the worst, but always keep talking. Even when your not talking, be talking about talking.

    Why not really stretch our imaginations? What if part of the Iran deal was, all parties involved were to lessen their nuclear stock piles? This will never happen, but it’s always nice to imagine!

    • Brother Doc on said:

      Even Israel? Which doesn’t admit it even has them in the first place? You can say you are a dreamer, but you are not the only one….then the world can be as one.

      • Joe Tedesky on said:

        Thanks Brother Doc….love the John Lennon lyric quote! The former Beatle died this day 43 years ago!