Munich 75 years later
Winston Churchill, the man who led the U.K. through the fire and brimstone of World War II, was an orator and wordsmith without peer. His short, pithy maxims routinely captured the essence of events that took other, less-gifted chroniclers pages to relate.
One especially Churchillian utterance, lobbed at the feckless British prime minister Neville Chamberlain 75 years ago, provided the perfect valediction for two decades of rare European calm that ended in blitzkrieg.
It was September 1938. Mr. Chamberlain had just made his triumphant return from a high-stakes poker game with Germany’s Adolf Hitler. During the betting, the PM had casually thrown British ally Czechoslovakia under the Little Dictator’s bus in a bid to spare England the wrath of a suddenly-muscular Germany. Misreading his hand, Chamberlain boasted he had achieved “peace in our time.”
Mr. Churchill scoffed at the notion, correctly characterizing Chamberlain’s grubby transaction as transparent appeasement. Not only was the act base and cowardly, said Churchill, but the gains were illusionary; it was a Faustian bargain in which Faust had been mousetrapped but was too dull to have noticed.
“You were given the choice between dishonor and war,” Churchill intoned. “You chose dishonor. You will have war.”
Never was there a more prescient Cassandra than Winnie the crusty pooh bear. Hitler proceeded to make a mockery of Chamberlain’s trust, using the crucial months the accommodating Brit had so generously bequeathed him to polish his battle plans, before proceeding to rip Poland, France and the low countries. All a prologue, of course, to raining hell down on London from the sky.
To be fair, it should be noted that Chamberlain’s showdown with Hitler followed years of serial enabling of the chancellor by the Allied powers, during which time the Germans re-armed. Numerous opportunities to strangle the Third Reich in its crib were missed by pusillanimous presidents and prime ministers; each wave-off raised the stakes of confrontation higher and further strengthened the hand of the German dictator. The luckless Chamberlain just happened to be the one standing in front of the stove when the pot finally came to a boil.
He must have felt in a box. If the prime minister returned from his do-si-do with the Fuhrer without a signed treaty, he would be pounced upon by his opponents in Parliament. This in addition to being targeted by Joseph Goebbels’ formidable disinformation machine.
The Nazi propaganda minister would surely paint him as the churl who had spurned the Chancellor’s magnanimous, peace-preserving offer. And Goebbels’ weasel words would doubtless land on willing ears amongst the Queen’s subjects. In 1938, depression-battered Brits were disposed to swallow any foolishness, however glib, if the alternative was a return to the blood, tears, toil and sweat of war.
Standing up to Hitler, therefore, might well have cost Neville Chamberlain his job. Churchill was unmoved. To Winston, honor, duty and the longer view demanded that the British prime minister act with courage and resolve at this pivotal moment in history, personal political calculations be damned.
It was all too much for Chamberlain. The weak-kneed negotiator buckled, and the rest is history. Exactly as Churchill foresaw, Mr. Chamberlain’s unconscionable deal, rather than sparing his country a war, actually assured Britain increased destruction, cost tens of millions of their lives and secured for Chamberlain an inglorious exit from public life.
The parallels between Neville Chamberlain and today’s beleaguered Republican leadership are uncanny. Speaker John Boehner stands confused and vacillating at the apex of a GOP that has for 20-plus years observed a policy of ingratiating appeasement, avoiding tough showdowns on nation-shaping issues and opting instead for tactical retreats calculated to protect incumbencies, and to garner praise from NY Times editorialists for showing “moderation.”
This year, the past-due bill for decades of legislative logrolling, earmarking and bipartisan overspending arrived, special delivery. The choices for the party of liberty, fiscal discipline and small, Constitutional government should have been clear in this black and white emergency.
But challenged to stick up for America against another socialist bully, squishy GOP moderates instead struck a Chamberlain-like pose, kicked the debt ceiling can down the road and let the unconstitutional insanity of government-managed health care roll forward with its funding intact.
The next witching hour, set for January, is right around the corner. These waters are uncharted, and the stakes are now near beyond calculation. Alas, the Gilbert and Sullivan cast of characters remains unchanged. Have to wonder how Churchill would have summed up this mess we have gotten ourselves into.
Bill Boyl lives in Nevada City.
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