Evan Thomas: The Mythology of Munich

Roundup: Talking About History

[Evan Thomas is a journalist, author, and the Assistant Managing Editor for Newsweek.]

If you were making the movie, the scene might go something like this: It is late May 1940. France is collapsing and the Nazis are pushing the British Expeditionary Force into the English Channel. Britain stands alone against Hitler's mighty onslaught. In London the War Cabinet has gathered to consider a peace feeler: if Britain agrees to stop fighting, Hitler will allow the British to keep most of their empire. The notion seems tempting, under the dire circumstances, and politicians like Neville Chamberlain—the former British prime minister who, wrongly, thought he could appease Hitler by letting him swallow a chunk of Czechoslovakia in 1938—want to pursue it. But, lo, no! A lone voice—a familiar bulldog growl—fills the room. England must never yield, insists Winston Churchill (contemptuously mispronouncing the word Nazi as "Nahr-zee"). "If this long island story of ours is to end at last," Churchill rumbles, "let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood on the ground."

Stirring stuff, a Manichaean drama of courage standing against weakness and evil, and pretty much the way Churchill wanted the story told, though not quite the way it happened. The events of late May 1940 are a little less black and white than a docudrama would portray them. Recent accounts by historians like John Lukacs suggest that Churchill was not so much a lion at the ramparts as a brave and able but anxious statesman/politician, worried that his Army was not up to the fight and that the British people weren't really ready for the ordeal to come. For five days in late May 1940, he felt his way, calculating the odds, fretting about "slippery slopes" and working through the problem. At first he said that he wanted to think about the secret deal, but then stiffened and—ultimately with Chamberlain's support—decided to fight on. When he spoke to the British people on June 4, Churchill was magnificent: "We shall fight on the beaches … we shall fight on the fields … we shall never surrender." A human hero—not a man of myth, and all the more admirable for it.

And what of Churchill's great comrade, Franklin D. Roosevelt? When Chamberlain first announced, after returning from signing his deal with Hitler at Munich in 1938, that "peace is at hand," FDR sent Chamberlain a telegram: "Good man," it said. "I am not a bit upset over the final result," FDR wrote the U.S. ambassador to Italy. When Hitler began to chew up the rest of Europe in 1939, FDR temporized and maneuvered to build political support for intervention among his decidedly isolationist countrymen. Indeed, the United States did not declare war on Germany until Germany declared war on the United States in December 1941, four days after Pearl Harbor.

It may be true, as the saying goes, that leaders who ignore history are doomed to repeat it. But it's also true that leaders who carelessly or heedlessly use historical analogies, who twist or hype the lessons of the past, may be destined to make even bigger mistakes than their predecessors. ...

comments powered by Disqus