The Guardian asked a number of historians to comment on two parallels commonly drawn with the Iraq situation – Suez 1956 and Munich 1938 (others include the Austrian ultimatum to Serbia in 1914 and British intervention in Egypt in the 19th century). I’d like to look at five features of Munich that (arguably) made the decision to appease Hitler a wrong one.
(a) War was inevitable anyway – the pro-war case for an attack on Iraq assumes this, but it’s certainly less than 100 per cent obvious. Given a long containment operation, Saddam could die, be overthrown or even moderate his government as Gaddafi and the Iranian Ayatollahs have done.
(b) Hitler gained strength from the delay in going to war (so did the Allies but not as much) – I don’t think this is applicable in relation to the choice between an early war and containment. Saddam may well have hidden weapons, but no-one seems to be suggesting that he is actively developing new ones under the noses of the inspectors. And in conventional terms, sanctions continue to weaken Saddam while the Americans (and Europeans for that matter) grow ever stronger.
(c) By failing to stand up to Hitler in 1938, the Western European powers lost allies – Czechoslovakia directly and Stalin because he concluded that the West was decadent and doomed, hence the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. On this point, there is a 180 degree reversal. An early war will lose allies, not gain them.
(d) Hitler was an evil dictator and the world should have dealt with him earlier. I don’t think this argument stands up in relation to World War II. If Hitler had not been bent on aggressive war anyway, a war to overthrow him would have been a very bad idea. Most German Jews got out of Germany before 1939. It was only the war and Hitler’s conquest of Europe that enabled him to pursue his genocidal Final Solution. As far as historical parallels are concerned, containment won’t stop Iraq being a police state. But it is clearly capable of preventing the large-scale massacres that took place when Saddam had the unofficial backing of the West. A doctrine justifying war to overthrow dictatorships could be developed. But, as I’ve argued here this is a dangerous step that needs to be taken with much more care than we’ve seen in the case of Iraq.
(e) World War II formed the basis for a just and democratic peace, at least in the West. This wasn’t true in the Soviet bloc or the Third World. However, the Western Allies did commit themselves to a just peace in Europe and largely delivered on that commitment. In the present case, we’re seeing the sellout of ideals happening even before the war has started. The Kurds have been sold out to mollify the Turks (Of course, if the Turks don’t come in, the Kurds will be back in favor). Now arch-moralist Tony Blair has refused to make a commitment to a postwar democracy, presumably because he knows that the US Administration wants to install a military governor.
UpdateHaving been accused in the comments thread by Ken Parish (yet again!) of anti-Americanism, I’ve replaced a sloppy reference to “the Americans” with the correct “US Administration”. I’ll just point out (again!) that if vehement opposition to the current US Administration constitutes anti-Americanism, then most US Republicans were anti-American from 1993 to early 2001. Oddly, although I’ve been very critical of both Blair and Howard, Ken never seems to accuse me (or other opponents of war) of being anti-British or anti-Australian.