Letter from Prague: What the Betrayal of Czechoslovakia in 1938 Can Teach Us About The World and Israel Today

"We have no interest in oppressing other people. ... It is not so much the country of Czechoslovakia; it is rather its leader, Edvard Benes....He has led a reign of terror. ... We have displayed a truly unexampled patience, but I am no longer willing to remain inactive while this madman ill-treats millions of human beings.

--Adolf Hitler, September 26, 1938

Visiting the Czech Republic prompts thoughts of the 1938 Munich agreement. Analogies with Nazism and the 1930s are overused today, made even more tasteless and cliché-ridden by the fact that many of those using them know very little about the situations then and now.

Beyond the simple narrative usually offered, a more detailed analysis shows a number of points that fit both situations better than people realize. That’s true despite the very important differences between the two cases.

After all, this pattern will not be repeated today. Western countries genuinely don’t want to sell Israel out. The balance of forces favors Israel; the West isn't really afraid of direct war; the “other side” is badly divided; and Israel is much stronger than Czechoslovakia and is unwilling to sacrifice itself.

Still there are lessons to be learned. Let’s look at the 1938 crisis and its relationship with today from a different standpoint.

Bad cause, good cover story

There was a large ethnic German minority in Czechoslovakia. These people, who lived in an area strategically important for Czech defense, certainly had some legitimate grievances. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain actually had some sympathy for the “suffering” Germans. Hitler didn’t just rant and rave. He knew, like radical regimes and movements today, how to play the victim.

Today, many people cannot believe that a humanitarian issue for which a real case can be made might also block understanding of a wider danger and the creation of a worse humanitarian issue.

The Palestinians are suffering, they say. The Palestinians want a state. These are problems worthy of a solution, but what kind of a solution? Like saying the proletariat has poor living conditions or bigotry against Muslims is a bad thing, these are true enough statements -- but not ones that should overwhelm common sense and a legitimate self-interest.

Even the detail of blaming Benjamin Netanyahu and Israel’s current government has a parallel in the 1938 case: the problem is portrayed as the intransigence of Benes, rather than that of Czechoslovakia as a whole. (Incidentally, after 1945 when he returned to power, Benes expelled by law virtually all of the country’s Hungarian and German minorities.)

The Germans were victimized by an unfair diplomatic settlement after World War I. Guilt feelings, then as now, led the West to make some dangerous mistakes. Beware of aggressors and would-be committers of genocide asking for your sympathy.

Resentment for the “troublemaker,” who is just trying to survive

It is forgotten how much antagonism there was at the time against Czechoslovakia.

Western leaders made statements that it was all the fault of Czech President Edvard Beneš that there wasn’t peace, just like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is blamed today. In each case, the question was asked: Should this silly little stiff-necked people that is greedy for territory and doesn’t know its own interests endanger our very existence?

Chamberlain said in a radio interview:

How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is, that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas masks here because of a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing.

Contemporary terrorism or revolutionary Islamism or hatred of the West among Arabs and Muslims is blamed on Israel. One is going to hate somebody who unnecessarily endangers your life and well-being. This easily passes over into anti-Semitism: How dare that [expletive deleted] little country -- to quote statements made in private by French and British diplomats in recent years -- risk the fate of the world?

Those same statements were made about Czechoslovakia.

Misunderstanding the enemy’s ideology, means, and goals

Just as today governments have banned phrases like “the war on terrorism” or “the war on revolutionary Islamism,” so the British and French governments of the time refused to think about a “war on fascism,” “war on Nazism,” or “war on German imperialism.”

Not understanding the enemy -- its nature, goals, and ideology -- produced a massive miscalculation. Chamberlain believed that Hitler just wanted dominance over Czechoslovakia, and that there would be no more claims. In the same manner, much of the media, university, government complex (MUG) of today thinks that an independent Palestinian state would be the end of history -- after which there would be no more aggression, claims, demands, or crises.