Munich All over Again (and Again, and Again)

Although it is likely to get lost amidst the brouhaha over the proposed bailout, Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s article ”‘Munich’ Shouldn’t Be Such a Dirty Word,” in the Washington Post’s Sunday Outlook section is worth reading now, and storing away for future reference. (And, in case you missed it, also revisit Justin Logan’s article on the overuse of the Munich analogy.)

Advocates for preventive war and pledges of military support to would-be client states routinely invoke the Hitler/Chamberlain/Munich analogy, and heap scorn upon those who favor negotiations as naive appeasers. When every potential adversary who we might engage, from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Hugo Chavez, can be cast as the second coming of Adolf Hitler, what point can there possibly be in talking with such men?

Uber-hawk (and John McCain adviser) Robert Kagan offered the latest exhibit in the prosecution’s case against diplomacy by claiming that Russia’s attack on Georgia was comparable to the “Sudeten Crisis that led to Nazi Germany’s invasion of Czechoslovakia,” even though “the precise details” of the Russian-Georgian clash were not known.

I have long been skeptical of such claims, in part because they are cast about so often, and also because it is so easy to misconstrue historical analogies. Kagan’s certitude notwithstanding, the details do matter, but are usually papered over by those making the case for forceful action. The great diplomatic historian Ernest R. May made this point eloquently in his book Lessons” of the Past, and later with Richard Neustadt in Thinking in Time. With respect to that most-overused analogy, Wheatcroft has provided still more ammunition for those of us willing to dissent when the people around us seem hell-bent on war.