munich

Getting the Munich Crisis wrong…

January 07, 2019

David Boyle writes…

Those fascinated by the events of Munich eighty years ago will be aware that there are two books out which assume rather different interpretations. On is by the novelist Robert Harris, who has made no secret of his pro-Chamberlain views. The other one is by me, and Munich 1938 puts rather greater weight on the testimony of the pro-Czech writer Shiela Grant Duff than he does.

Now, it so happens that I have been sent a copy of the letter sent by Shiela to The Observer three decades ago, complaining about Robert Harris’s opinions back then (thank you, Penelope). I reproduce it here without further comment:

“20 September 1988

In his monstrously misleading article as your guest political diarist, Robert Harris follows the now embedded myth that what was at stake at Munich was whether we should fight for the Czechs. In fact, Chamberlain’s concern was, above all, to prevent the Czechs from fighting for themselves, and the French from honouring their solemn treaty obligation to go to their aid should Germany attack.

Munich was only the final scenario of a policy which the British government had been following more or less consciously since it came to power in 1935. The ‘wets’ in the Foreign Office were not those who opposed appeasement, as Robert Harris seems to think, but those who concealed – or perhaps honestly did not recognise – the true war aims of German policy and the iniquity of the Nazi regime.

The Czechoslovak government realised this from the start and, with greater foresight than ourselves, immediately began to fortify its frontier, build up its army and air force, augment its massive armaments industry and tried to develop the only international security system which would have prevented the German general staff from allowing Hitler to fight a war on two fronts – the Franco-Czech-Russian alliance.

Throughout the pre-war period, we not only refused to have anything to do with this allowed Hitler to “enter his backyard” in the Rhineland, thus depriving France of this demilitarised safety zone on a frontier, and positively encouraged him to look for German expansion in central Europe. Neither Austria nor the Sudetenland had ever formed part of Germany before.

What appalled Chamberlain was not the weakness of Czechoslovakia but its strength, in the dreadful fear that, if the Czechs defended themselves, we and the French would be drawn in. The Berchtesgaden-Godesberg meetings were concerned, not with preventing Hitler from invading Czechoslovakia, but making sure that the Czechs would neither defend their fortifications, nor use their army or air force.

At 2 o’clock in the morning of 22 September 1938, the British and French ministers aroused President Benes from his sleep to tell him that, if war broke out, not only would neither we nor the French intervene, but on the contrary, would hold the Czechs responsible for any catastrophe which followed. Benes surrendered. The German armies marched in, took possession of the tanks, planes, the guns, the armament factories, and turned them against us and the French on the Western front, defeating the French and expelling us from Europe just two years later.

“A triumph for all was best and most enlightened in British life”?

Shiela Grant Duff

Observer correspondent, Prague, 1936-8″

You can buy copies of Munich 1938 on kindle and as a paperback.

 

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Happy 80th anniversary, Munich Crisis!

September 29, 2018

Here’s the main point: this weekend marks the eightieth anniversary of the Munich crisis, the moment when the UK prime minister Neville Chamberlain gave away a chunk of Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany – with some slightly unwilling help from the French.

As it turns out, by flying to meet Hitler and Mussolini in Munich on 29 September, Chamberlain also unwittingly caused the cancellation of an army plot to kill Hitler – when the team was armed and in position and waiting for their order to storm the Chancellery.

I have three reasons for being interested in these events. First, my great-aunt, Shiela Grant Duff, was Observer correspondent in Prague until shortly before them. The Observer was an appeasement newspaper in those days, so she had resigned a few months before.

Second, my book Munich 1938 came out some months ago. It was intended to make the case that this was the great British mistake of the twentieth century, for a new generation that never knew the arguments.

Third and finally, because of the article I wrote for the Guardian today, where I compared Munich with the Salzburg summit, and – by implication – Chamberlain with Theresa May. It was one of those pieces where the arguments flew around in the comments ‘below the line’. It is worth reading that section alone for a cross-section of views – worrying perhaps that Chamberlain gets rather too much support in my view.

There is one parallel between them: both approached their defining European summit with a bullish disregard for reality, which led in very different ways to a critical crossroads for Europe.

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