Saturday, March 19, 2011

What if Munich had happened differently?

In history, as with most things, the "what if's" are difficult. We don't really know what would have happened when it did not happen. To a certain extent, any statement of causality is based on a "what if": when we say x caused y, we are saying "what if x never happened....would y not have happened, too?" But historians are admonished not to go too far on that track, lest they be trapped in a series of mutually reinforcing hypotheticals.

That is the difficulty that those who appeal to some variant of the "Munich syndrome" flirt with, and it is also the difficulty I am about to flirt with in this blog post. For those who aren't familiar, here's the story of Munich:

In 1938, Hitler threatened to take over the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia. This was an area that had a large number of ethnically German inhabitants and was the part of Czechoslovakia that, being mountainous, was militarily most defensible, and Hitler's saw this as one step in his attempt to dominate eastern Europe. The major European powers at the time that could have stopped Hitler--the UK and France--met in a a conference with Hitler, and they foolishly declined to invite the other major European power that might have stopped him, the Soviet Union. The British and French conferees, led by Neville Chamberlain, agreed to let Hitler take over the Sudetenland on the promise that he would take no other territory. Early the next year, Hitler ordered the invasion of the rest of Czechoslovakia, and in August, he set his sights on Poland. The Soviet Union, ostracized by the western European powers, made an alliance with Hitler, and thus did not stop--indeed, took its share--when Germany invaded Poland in September.

The lesson that people, in hindsight, are to take from this is that Chamberlain et al. should have stopped aggression when they could and not coddle it to the point where it was unmanageable. The idea was that Hitler might have been stopped much earlier, or at least might have been forced to play his war card when Germany was in a less strategically favorable position.

Here's my take--my "what if"--on what might plausibly have happened if Chamberlain had done all that he in retrospect was supposed to have done (invite the Soviet Union to the conference (and the Czechoslovaks, who had been excluded from the actual conference), stood firm against Hitler's position, and gone to war if he had insisted on invading the Sudetenland). Here are what I see as the most likely scenarios:
  1. Faced with the possibility of a two-, even three-front war (Russia on the East, Czechoslovakia to the southeast, and France and UK to the West), Hitler might have backed down, and war would not have only been diverted, but effectively prevented. Yet at the same time, a brutal dictatorship would be kept in power for x number of years, maybe to fall at the hands of a liberal-democratic revolution, maybe to fall to a succession of aggressive military juntas, maybe to lead to a bigger war in the 1950s or 1960s.
  2. Hitler might have invaded the Sudetenland, making World War II start 1 year earlier than it actually did. In this scenario, the war might have ended more quickly because the Soviet Union would not only have been in the war to prevent the invasion, Hitler's army would have to fight first in Czechoslovakia and not later in Poland. Or, the war might have dragged on and been something like a replay of World War I. Or, of course, some other possibility....
My point here is not merely to replay the "what if" game with all its potential "what if" fallacies and rough guestimates. In truth, other than the World War II books I used to read as an adolescent, I have done no real research in 20th century European diplomacy when it comes to World War II. My point is, rather, to ask how we might have perceived Munich.

If scenario 1 had happened, Munich might have seemed a success but also as part of a balance-of-power politics that kept in power, even as it checked, a brutal dictator who oppressed hundreds of thousands of his own people with his racist regime. If scenario 2 had happened, it might have been seen as the same thing, if the war ended quickly, or it might have seemed like 1914 all over again, leading to a long war of attrition. Of course, other things might have happened as well; we don't know.

My larger point is that if Chamberlain et al. had stood firm and Munich had "worked" like it was supposed to, we would not have known it with the certainty that some of us claim to know it now that it happened differently. I guess I have merely rediscovered the aphorism that "hindsight is 20/20," but it is helpful to know that our mistakes are more apparent than our right decisions.

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