The world has Munich on its mind, again. In a speech delivered in Paris on 7 September, US Secretary of State John Kerry described the dilemma being faced by the world powers over whether to launch a punitive strike on Syria as “our Munich moment”.
No one should fail to note the uncanny timing too. This September marks the 75th anniversary of the Munich Crisis and the Four Powers Conference where Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain secured what he genuinely believed to be “peace in our time”.
In a bid to avert war over the Sudeten crisis and Nazi ambitions for lebensraum in Czechoslovakia, Chamberlain paid three visits to Hitler in September, 1938. At each visit the world braced itself for war. In Britain trenches were dug in London; gas masks were distributed all around the country ; there was a spike in the suicide rate as some refused to contemplate the trauma of another war. The national body was diagnosed with myriad symptoms of hysteria and psychosis, suffering from what that great versifier of the national character, J.B. Priestley, called “the crisis mind.”
As September gave way to October, mass anxiety was transformed into mass relief. In Parliament and public Chamberlain’s supporters feted him. The Prime Minister enjoyed the outpouring of love, gratitude and thankfulness expressed by teeming crowds and in more intimate form in letters and gifts that were sent in their thousands to him and to his wife. In the days before Facebook and Twitter, these letters were all the gauges Chamberlain felt he needed to find the pulse of the popular mood.
While it is always ill-advised to make long drawn out historical analogies, it is just too irresistible for the historian not to seize this “Munich moment.” Under the tyranny of the calendar, already back in the spring I had anticipated writing something for this blog to mark the 75th anniversary of Munich, planning a commemorative and reflective piece that offered a history-from-below of the Crisis.
Indeed, what interests me most is not the diplomatic wrangling and intrigue, but the emotional and psychological aspect of this iconic moment in Britain’s national narrative. How did the people— women and men—experience the crisis and express their concerns? How did ‘ordinary people’ convey their experiences to the nation’s leaders? In turn, I am also looking at how these same leaders liked to give the impression that they were fulfilling the wishes of public opinion, even as most of them, and certainly this was the case with Chamberlain, had little interest in the recently launched experiments in measuring public opinion. The first Gallup poll in Britain was conducted in 1937, and both BIPO (British Institute of Public Opinion) and Mass-Observation were also launched in 1937, the latter making a close study of the Crisis. But for the most part politicians ignored all of these. Instead, what they meant when they used the term “public opinion” was their own wishful thinking.
That is something that has changed, and the politicians of the late 1930s could not have foreseen the empowerment of public opinion facilitated by the technologies of mass communication, or the way politicians are guided by their public approval ratings. But there are nonetheless some parallels to be drawn between September 1938 and September 2013. Indeed, the first remarkable coincidence is the time of year.
Is it all down to timing? Rather than spending the summer in search of congenial tennis partners, the question on the lips of the world’s sparring partners of-the-moment might well be: “Anyone for a crisis?” An astrologer would have something to say about why crises start under the sign of Leo and carry on into Virgo. The stars might help explain wars, but I am no expert here. Nonetheless, that there is a seasonal pattern seems hard to deny.
Under cover of the summer holidays and while democracies lie symbolically undefended as their representative institutions are on summer recess, dictators make their move. The First World War broke out in August 1914. The Spanish Civil War broke out in the summer of 1936. The Munich Crisis began in earnest on 12 September, 1938, when Hitler declared in a speech at Nuremberg that if others would not help the Sudetens to self-determination, Germany would. The end of the diplomatic crisis was resolved, temporarily, in the dark morning hours of 30 September in Munich. The Second World War broke out on 3 September, 1939, after a tense summer, and just as many were still on summer holiday. The Suez Crisis climaxed during the month of August, 1956. Iraq invaded Kuwait on 2 August, 1990, the causus belli of the First Gulf War. Al-qaeda terrorists struck the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon on 11 September, 2001, sparking the War on Terror. And now we wait with bated breath to see how world leaders will respond to the 21 August, 2013, chemical attack in Syria.
Indeed, September would appear to be the cruellest month. As the heat (and hotheads) of summer gives way to the cooling winds of autumn, this has been when the harsh realizations of both the strategic but more immediately the human costs of war set in. The Munich and the Syrian crises also share the backdrop of the deep ambivalence of populations fatigued by war.
Almost everyone agrees that the Iraq/Afghanistan effect goes a long way to explaining why on 30 August, 2013, David Cameron was the first British Prime Minister in 150 years to be prevented by Parliament from going to war. The hawks have had their wings clipped by the very recent memories of similar military entanglements.
The players might have changed to reflect the post-Cold War and post-9/11 (im)balances of power, with Britain effectively out of the equation for the time being, but there are parallels in terms of the ethical issues perceived to be at stake. We can’t but help notice that since 1938, in all the aforementioned crises, the memory of “appeasement” has drawn the rhetorical battle lines of debates about the moral rectitude of action. And again, as in 1938, across the pacifist-national security spectrum, it is acknowledged that there is no black and white. The clouds of smoke that billow from the battlefields of Syria’s civil war have exponentially expand the grey area.
In fact, the language of Munich is, and has long been, part of the lexicon. Anyone who like me is careful not to miss an episode of the brilliant Mad Men may have noticed the way the “Munich moment” was evoked in season 6, episode 3. Don Draper and Roger Sterling refer to a recent business strategy gone wrong as their “Munich”.
Although separated by three generations, in both crises the stuff of war-making is the sticking point. In the 1930s people were haunted by fear of the air war to come, that the bomber would always get through, of the gassing of defenceless civilian populations. These are both crises of chemicals.
Drawing these parallels—and yet others could also be found– is not the same as suggesting that historical analogizing carries with it the power of prophecy. It has yet to be seen whether there is a more general will to seize the Munich moment. What I will dare to predict, however, is that this will not be the last time we hear politicians’ speak of their ‘Munich moments’. The memory has hardly faded despite the fact that most people who would remember the September 1938 Crisis first-hand are experiencing their own ‘senior moments’.
Dr Julie Gottlieb is Senior Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Sheffield. She teaches and has published extensively on women and British politics between the wars. Most recently she is co-editor (with Richard Toye) and contributor to The Aftermath of Suffrage: Women, Gender and Politics in Britain, 1918-1945 (Palgrave, 2013), and she is currently finishing her monograph Guilty Women: Gender, Foreign Policy and Appeasement (Palgrave). You see all of Julie’s History Matters blogs here.
Header image: Neville Chamberlain showing the Munich Agreement to a crowd at Heston Aerodrome, 30 September 1938 [Wikicommons]
Inset image: John Kerry [Wikicommons]
 The most on so-called ‘Gas Mask Sunday’, 25 September.
 This has received blanket coverage in the historical scholarship for at least 73 of the last 75 years, starting with the publication of ‘Cato’s Guilty Men (1940).
 It was only 20 years since the end of the First World War when Britain was once again looking down the barrel of the anti-aircraft gun at another world war, everyone’s nerves further frayed by a succession of unresolved and unrelenting international crises—Manchuria, Abyssinia, the reoccupation of the Rhineland, the Spanish Civil War, the Anschluss etc..
 To Pete Campbell, too young to remember the prelude to the Second World War, they have to explain that the analogy is with giving a client an inch who then goes on to take a mile.