Since Kevin James couldn’t do it, I’ll answer Chris Matthews question. What did Neville Chamberlain do wrong in Munich in 1938?

I’m going to gloss over a lot of detail here for brevity’s sake. Adolf Hitler invaded Austria in March 1938 as part of a larger program that was sold as a unification of Germanic peoples. His next step was to demand that a German speaking area of Czechoslovakia (called the Sudetenland) be ceded to Germany. Czechoslovakia had a mutual defense treaty with France, and France had a mutual defense treaty with England. If Germany invaded Czechoslovakia then France was duty-bound to declare war on Germany. And if France found itself at war with Germany, then England was duty-bound to come to France’s aid.

In other words, Hitler’s irresponsible demands were threatening to pull all of Europe into a Second World War. Just twenty years earlier, in the First World War, France had suffered 1.7 million killed and 4.2 million injured, while the U.K. suffered one million killed and 1.7 million injured. In total, the war had cost 20 million people their lives and injured another 22 million. And when it was all over, no one could make a convincing argument for why the war had been necessary. It was in this context that Neville Chamberlain sought to avoid a resumption of a continent-wide war, with new and more powerful weapons. He decided to sell-out the Czechoslovakians, and got France’s agreement to renege on their treaty obligations. Chamberlain and French Prime Minister Édouard Daladier decided to use a strategy of appeasement to prevent war. Here is what happened:

British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain met with Adolf Hitler in Berchtesgaden on 15 September [1938] and agreed to the cession of the Sudetenland. Three days later, French Prime Minister Édouard Daladier did the same. No Czechoslovak representative was invited to these discussions.

Chamberlain met Hitler in Godesberg on September 22 to confirm the agreements. Hitler however, aiming at using the crisis as a pretext for war, now demanded not only the annexation of the Sudetenland but the immediate military occupation of the territories, giving the Czechoslovakian army no time to adapt their defence measures to the new borders. To achieve a solution, Italian prime minister Benito Mussolini suggested a conference of the major powers in Munich and on September 29, Hitler, Daladier and Chamberlain met and agreed to Mussolini’s proposal (actually prepared by Hermann Göring) and signed the Munich Agreement accepting the immediate occupation of the Sudetenland. The Czechoslovak government, though not party to the talks, promised to abide by the agreement on September 30.

The Sudetenland was occupied by Germany between October 1 and October 10, 1938. This unification with the Third Reich was followed by the flight or expulsion of most of the region’s Czech population to areas remaining within Czechoslovakia.

The remaining parts of Czechoslovakia were subsequently invaded and annexed by Germany in March 1939.

The initial reaction to the Munich agreement in England and France was very positive. No one wanted war. But the strategy backfired because it only made Hitler stronger and more ambitious. And it made it much harder to defeat him when war eventually became unavoidable.

Ever since, it has been an article of faith that it is never a good idea to appease your enemies. However, this hard won lesson is being misappropriated by the Bush administration, and McCain and Lieberman, to suggest that simply talking to your enemies is constructively the same as appeasing them. Neville Chamberlain isn’t reviled by history for traveling to Munich and holding discussions with Adolf Hitler. He is reviled for handing over the Sudetenland to Hitler without a fight, as if that would make the problem of National Socialism go away.

Chamberlain made a gamble for peace. He tried to spare the world a catastrophe. And, remember, while Germany lost the war, England lost their empire. Ultimately, Chamberlain made the wrong call. He did so in part because he so wanted to avoid war. He also misjudged his enemy. And that is the real key.

Hitler did not have limited territorial objectives, but nearly boundless territorial ones. And everywhere he sent his armies he intended to commit atrocities of unprecedented and unimaginable savagery. Not only that, but he had the military wherewithal to carry these ambitions out. And the question we need to ask McCain, Lieberman, and Bush is, how does modern day Iran resemble Nazi Germany in any of these respects?

They have no military wherewithal to seize and hold territory. They are making no territorial demands. Their human rights record is fairly deplorable but nothing compared to Saudi Arabia or Zimbabwe. If you ask Iran what they want, they want assurances that we won’t attack them, not the other way around. They would like normalized relations and a lifting of sanctions. It’s hard to see how they have much of anything at all in common with Nazi Germany.

The one area where there is a similarity is in their anti-Semitic pronouncements, and in their aid to groups that commit and have committed lethal acts against innocent Jews. As long as Iran engages in this rhetoric and behavior, they have to be considered as a hostile nation. They cannot be rewarded or appeased for their irresponsible actions. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t talk to them. It means that if we are going to give them anything we must get something in return.

Iran is more powerful because we toppled Saddam Hussein and insisted on letting the Iraqis elect a Shi’ite-dominated government. They now have an ally in Iraq, rather than an implacable foe. That may have been a strategic error on our part, but it not Iran’s fault. We must now live with the consequences of our actions. We have a weaker negotiating hand than we had before Bush became president and ran our foreign policy off the rails. But Iran did not suddenly become as powerful as Nazi Germany. They do not require appeasement, nor do we need to attack them now before they get stronger. They cannot and will not attack Israel, except by proxy. And we have no good reason not to talk to them in the interests of peace.

Yes, they are our enemies and the enemies of Israel. But talking to them is not appeasing them. Neville Chamberlain didn’t make a mistake by talking to Hitler. He made a mistake by caving in to his demands. No one is suggesting that we cave in to Iran’s demands. And Iran isn’t about to conquer half of Central Asia and exterminate 9 million innocent people if we get our strategy wrong. Enough of the warmongering. It’s time to have a little diplomacy for a change.

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