The Munich Effect: Mark Rathbone Analyses the Continuing Influence of the Munich Conference on Post-War Events

By Rathbone, Mark | History Review, September 2009 | Go to article overview

The Munich Effect: Mark Rathbone Analyses the Continuing Influence of the Munich Conference on Post-War Events


Rathbone, Mark, History Review


As Neville Chamberlain returned to 10 Downing Street on 30th September 1938 after the Munich Conference, he went to the first floor window to acknowledge the crowd which had gathered outside and declared, 'My good friends, this is the second time in our history there has come back from Germany to Downing Street peace with honour. I believe it is peace for our time.'

Few shared Churchill's alternative view of the Munich agreement, that it was 'a total and unmitigated defeat', but as the events of 1938-39 moved rapidly towards their tragic denouement, it became hard to avoid the conclusion that Chamberlain's attempt to come to terms with Hitler had been misguided. When German troops invaded the rest of Czechoslovakia in March 1939, Hitler's promise that the Sudetenland was his 'last territorial demand' was revealed for the lie it had always been. At best Chamberlain's summit diplomacy had bought Britain another 11 months to prepare for war at the considerable expense of Czechoslovakia's freedom.

When Hitler went on to invade Poland on 1st September 1939, Britain sent an ultimatum demanding that Germany agree to withdraw their troops at once. When, two days later, Chamberlain was forced to broadcast to the nation 'that no such undertaking has been received, and that consequently this country is at war with Germany', he sounded like, and indeed was, a broken man.

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This article is concerned less with the events of the year after Munich, than with its longer term consequences, first towards the end of the Second World War.

Yalta

How was the Munich conference viewed in the very different circumstances of 19457 And to what extent did the shadow of Munich influence decision-making in the post-war ear.') In February 1945, with Hitler's Germany on the verge of defeat, Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill met at Yalta on the Black Sea to thrash out the outlines of an agreement about the shape of post-war Europe.

Some of the decisions taken about Poland at Yalta later led to the conference being labelled a second Munich. The handing over of Polish land east of the Curzon Line to Russia, in exchange for the transfer of German territory east of the Oder-Neisse Line to Poland, came in for particular criticism, especially as Britain had entered the war in September 1939 specifically to protect the territorial integrity of Poland. Had the country fought Hitler for five and a half years only to hand half of Poland over to Stalin? The Yalta agreement to exchange prisoners of war liberated from German camps by allied troops as they advanced led to the deaths of thousands of Soviet citizens labelled traitors by Stalin. The phrase 'victims of Yalta' became common currency in the 1970s as information about the fate of these unfortunate individuals came to light.

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As Churchill returned to Britain from Yalta on 19th February 1945, he was aware both of unease in the House of Commons about the concessions made to Stalin about Poland, and of the danger that unfortunate parallels would be drawn with Chamberlain returning from Munich. In the first draft of his speech to the Commons on Yalta, he even used the phrase 'peace with honour', though the words were deleted on the advice of his private secretary on the grounds that they were an 'echo of Munich'. Churchill himself told the Cabinet on 23rd February, 'Poor Neville Chamberlain believed he could trust Hitler. He was wrong. But I don't think I am wrong about Stalin.'

Others were not so sure. In the United States, Republicans were quick to accuse Roosevelt of being too soft on the Russians. Even some administration figures came to similar conclusions. Averill Harriman, Roosevelt's appointment as US Ambassador to Moscow, wrote a memo on 10th April, before Roosevelt's death, criticising the decision to go to Yaha, which, he wrote, 'has been interpreted as a sign of weakness'. …

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