This Day in International Law: September 30th

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By Elez Ilya Akdemir

The Munich Agreement, signed in the early hours of September 30th, 1938, was an international settlement that allowed Hitler’s Germany to annex parts of Czechoslovakia, known in German as the “Sudetenland”. The peculiarity and the historical and legal significance of this agreement lies in the fact that Czechoslovakia itself had no say in this settlement, as it was signed between Germany, Britain, France and Italy. On the document, the signatures of Hitler and Mussolini are side by side with the signatures of the leaders of the great democratic powers of Europe of the time – the signatures of the British Prime Minister Chamberlain and the French Prime Minister Daladier. In essence, Czechoslovakia was sacrificed to Hitler by the democratic powers of Europe in hopes of achieving the “greater good” – that is, peace in Europe. However, to this day, the Munich Agreement is known among Czechs and Slovaks as the “Mnichovská zrada” – the Munich Betrayal.

The agreement itself was based on the policy of “appeasement,” that is, giving into the demands of Adolf Hitler in order to avoid the horrors of another “Great War.” The idea was simple, and in hindsight, terrifyingly compelling – the argument was that Adolf Hitler would be “appeased” once his demands were satisfied. While one could argue that giving up a defenseless nation and a defenseless people to satisfy the demands of a totalitarian regime hardly seems reasonable by today’s standards, it is important to remember that the First World War had ended a mere 20 years before, and was still fresh in people’s minds.

In light of this, it is perhaps no surprise that upon his return to Britain, the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was famously hailed as the “one man who saved us from the greatest war of all” – the “peace of our time”, as Chamberlain called it, seemed finally at hand. But as history has shown, nothing could be further from the truth. It is ironic perhaps, that on that very same day, September 30th, 1938, League of Nations’ Assembly – in response to the indiscriminate use of Aerial Warfare during the Spanish Civil War, the Japanese invasion of China, and the various colonial wars – unanimously adopted the “Resolution on the Protection of Civilian Populations Against Bombing from the Air in Case of War” – as if foreshadowing the horrors that were to unfold in just one year after the Munich Agreement was signed

Today, the Munich Agreement has become much more relevant outside history departments and once again, entered the scene of international law. Some argue that the dark echoes of the Munich Agreement – and the policy of appeasement in general – are reflected in the American and European approaches to the crisis in Ukraine and the international response to the annexation of Crimea by Putin’s Russia. Indeed, the similarities seem striking – firstly, the majority in Czechoslovakian Sudetenland was ethnically German, while the majority in Crimea is ethnically Russian; secondly, in both cases, the people in the annexed territories were willing to reunite with their perceived historical homelands; and finally, as in the Munich Agreement, the international response to the crisis has been arguably inadequate.

Others find parallels to the Munich Agreement in the recent Iran deal. In 2013, Secretary of State John Kerry referred to the decision of whether to militarily respond to the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian Government as the “Munich Moment.” Indeed, considering the plight of refugees that were forced to flee Syria, one can’t help but wonder whether the international legal order is adequate in dealing with human rights abuses and totalitarian regimes.

Are we perhaps always destined to repeat the mistakes of Chamberlain, that in fear of a greater war, we willingly sacrifice other peoples? Or is there no viable alternative to appeasing totalitarian regimes? Can appeasing dictators prevent wars, or does appeasement inevitably lead to war, as was the case with Hitler? Or does the answer lie in preventing situations that lead to “Munich Moments”?

 

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