This chapter places Churchill’s description of the Munich Agreement as ‘a total and unmitigated defeat’ within the context of his evolving attitudes to diplomacy over the course of the 1930s. In particular, it investigates his understanding of what he referred to as ‘the European system’. As a young man, he had adhered to a brutally realist view of Great Power politics, but in the interwar years this was somewhat tempered by his promotion of ideas of collective security. Such rhetoric had an opportunistic aspect, as he sought to court progressive opinion in Britain; and it was well said of him that he only became enthusiastic about the League of Nations when he thought it might lead to a war. Nevertheless, his views did undergo a genuine evolution. Notably, his approach to the USSR changed, as can be demonstrated by reference to newspaper articles that he published that have up to now escaped notice by scholars. He was never less than strongly anti-communist, but he was perhaps above all anti-Trotskyist; thus, whereas at the start of the decade he highlighted the threat of Soviet rearmament, by the mid-1930s he had become convinced that Stalin’s policy of ‘socialism in one country’ meant that Russia could potentially be trusted to act as a Great Power within the system on traditional tsarist lines. Churchill’s belief that the Soviet Union would behave selfishly but rationally and predictably therefore constituted a key element of his approach to the Munich Crisis.
Hungary and Poland in the vortex of the Munich Crisis of 1938
Hungary, like Germany, was a vanquished power after the Great War, and propaganda denouncing the peace settlement was ubiquitous. Slogans condemning the peace permeated public life, politics, education, academia, literature, the press and broadcasting. The mentality engendered by this atmosphere infused the private discourses of families and individuals. The victimhood mentality helped to mould and sustain Admiral Horthy’s interwar regency. The ‘Szeged idea’ – drawn up in the southern town of Szeged in 1919 – remained the binding element of public and private discourse, predicated on anti-liberal and anti-Western principles that would rebuild and govern Hungary along Christian-national lines. In this atmosphere, Hungary’s small liberal elite, who had no sympathy with Hitler’s regime, struggled to denounce the injustice of Munich. An annex of Munich referred the territorial dispute between Hungary and Czechoslovakia to direct negotiations that eventually awarded Hungary southern Slovakia in November 1938 and Subcarpathian Ruthenia in March 1939. Thus Hungary, a country with a largely silent opposition, became a beneficiary of Munich. The politicians’ views are easily decoded, deriving from geopolitical circumstances. However, the absence of dissent by public intellectuals, the press and public opinion points to a deeper crisis in interwar Hungarian political culture. Using a range of non-political publications, journals, literary magazines, private diaries and other sources, this chapter elucidates the social and psychological dynamic behind Hungary’s quiescent and often complicit attitude during the Munich Crisis.
In school textbooks, TV documentaries and political speeches, the Munich Agreement appears within a sweeping narrative of ‘the Road to War’ or the ‘Price of Appeasement’. This is a story in which the repeated failures of France, Britain and the League of Nations to ‘stand up’ to the dictators culminates in Germany’s Anschluss with Austria, annexation of the Sudetenland and attack on Poland. Into this interwar drama, featuring a bullying Germany, a hesitant France and a spineless Britain, a little-known country called ‘Czechoslovakia’ suddenly appears to take on the part of sacrificial lamb. In this familiar narrative, Czechoslovakia features imperfectly, not as a state that could influence other countries’ foreign policies, but simply as a victim. The Munich Agreement, which still haunts the Czech imagination, became part of an Allied wartime narrative that has proved remarkably resilient. Although Czechoslovak security was fatally weakened by the removal of the Sudetenland, and although Czechoslovakia was let down by its Allies and humiliated at Munich, this only tells part of the story. Czechoslovakia’s reputation as righteous victim has depended on its supposed record as an innately decent and tolerant state until the Munich catastrophe sapped its moral fibre. Examining more closely the interwar Czechoslovak state’s attitudes towards its non-Czech citizens, and the regional responses to Munich within the first and second republics, allows a more complicated picture to emerge. Taking a less sentimental and Whiggish view of the interwar Czechoslovak state leads to a cautionary tale with a rather different moral.
German popular opinion during the Czechoslovakian crisis, 1938
We already know much about Nazi propaganda in the build-up to the Sudeten crisis. But how did the average German actually experience the tense months from May to October 1938? To answer this question, this chapter examines a hitherto neglected source: the Sopade reports. These reports, published by the exiled Social-Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) between 1933 and 1940, were accumulated by a network of informants who sought opinions from a diverse range of groups – from factory workers to the German middle classes. The reports show that Nazi propaganda worked especially well on young people and women, who believed that the Sudeten Germans were seriously suppressed and needed support. They also perceived the Western democracies as weak, since they had not intervened militarily in Spain, had responded passively to the Anschluss, and would likely give up Czechoslovakia easily. Even old SPD supporters agreed, commenting, ‘who will stop Hitler? The French have one government crisis after the other, England is pro-Hitler and Russia will only march if France does, which will never happen’. Still, the Munich Conference shocked Hitler’s opponents who could not believe the betrayal of ‘those English pigs!’ While most Germans seemed relieved about the outcome, there was no great elation. Instead the average German thought the impoverished Sudeten Germans were a further financial burden who would have to be fed as much as the ‘poor’ Austrians. Despite the propaganda efforts of the regime, Munich did not impress the average German as much as Hitler’s previous successes.
Popular agency, activity and the reframing of history
Defined by a political and diplomatic elite, the Munich Agreement of 1938 deliberately excluded the people. Daladier was greeted with enthusiasm, but more politicised expressions of popular emotion were circumscribed by a police refusal to authorise mass meetings. Little wonder that research and recrimination have focused on a guilty few while assuming the esprit munichois of the many. Nevertheless, the Munich Crisis transformed the activity and agency of ordinary French people: 700,000 reservists were mobilised, urban areas were prepared for attack, and individuals and families fled the capital. The crisis was feverishly discussed in the streets and in the press, around radio sets in cafes and at private political gatherings. Both individuals and groups sought to shape events ostensibly outside their control. Engaging with recent research that challenges the image of a passive or pacifist populace, this chapter explores popular activity, agency and memory at a time when the anticipation of attack shaped both daily and nocturnal life. It examines how different sections of the population reacted to the crisis, as well as its transient but wide-ranging effects on transport, communication and the urban environment. New light is thus thrown on the relationships between populations and technology in the control of movement, information and emotion, probing questions of individual agency at a time of crisis. The chapter reveals how the ‘Munich moment’ shaped both individual and collective narratives, whether in reimagining French and European peoples in 1938, or in preparing mental and material pathways for the experiences of 1939–40.
This introduction provides a brief overview of the existing scholarship on the appeasement era in general and the Sudeten crisis in particular. It demonstrates how the vast historiography of this topic has been uniform, employing a ‘top down’ approach that focuses overwhelmingly on the key protagonists (all men), on the ‘appeasing’ countries (especially Britain but also France), and the diplomatic and strategic impact of the crisis and its aftermath. The introduction contends that a more holistic and inclusive appraisal of the crisis is long overdue, an approach that attends to the broader social, cultural, emotional, material and international responses. It suggests further that there are substantial benefits to be derived from tapping into more recent and germane disciplinary trends, including the ‘cultural’ and ‘emotional’ turns. The introduction also teases out the links between the various contributions, accentuating the key themes and motifs that lend the collection its focus and coherence. It showcases the advantages of curating a timely selection of original and methodologically innovative approaches to a well-documented event, with a view to unpicking the hitherto under-explored links between the cultural and the diplomatic. In so doing, it positions the collection as an additional insight into the popular cultural and emotional responses to the imminent threat of modern warfare.
This chapter analyses the hitherto unexamined contribution of Melanie Klein – a true pioneer of British psychoanalysis and beyond – to the historical thinking about war, violence, the self and the child in the twentieth century. It examines, for the first time, Melanie Klein’s extensive and never-before-used 1938 clinical records of her British patients’ dreams and thoughts about the Nazis, Hitler and the coming of the Second World War. The chapter interrogates and analyses the different reactions of her patients to both the Nazi invasion of Austria in March 1938 and the Sudeten crisis as it unfolded over the summer, while simultaneously providing an historical overview in order to contextualise these specific case studies within both the broader history of psychology and the history of total war.
Emotional inflammation, mental health and shame in Britain during the September crisis
Julie V. Gottlieb
The dramatic unfolding of the Sudeten crisis, followed by the months of political and diplomatic aftershocks, received blanket coverage at the time and prompted much contemporary political commentary and fictional and non-fictional writing. The historiography of appeasement has been dominated by diplomatic historians and international relations specialists who fixate on geopolitical manoeuvring, the political leaders and opinion formers, and the media rendering of the crisis. Insofar as public opinion has been considered, it has been the ways in which politicians perceived the popular mood and sought to manage, manufacture and manipulate it. More recently, cultural, material culture, and gender historians have thought more elastically about the crisis, either as a history from below and/or a history of mentalities. But what of private opinion and intimate experience? This dimension barely features in the existing scholarship despite its undoubted value. In myriad ways and forms, the international crisis was personalised and subjectified – by rich and poor, by women and men, by urbanites and country folk, by young and old, the healthy and the ill, and equally by those who were actors in the drama as well as by those who were powerless. How can we access and record the ethereal, emotional, psychological and visceral experience of the Munich Crisis? This chapter is interested in how those on the peripheries of power – the silenced vast majority – lived through the crisis, drawing on private diaries and correspondence, Mass-Observation, and press representations of the ‘war of nerves’, including a spate of crisis-triggered suicides.
Anglo-French appeasement at Munich had a transformative effect on the United States. This is something of a paradox: the proceedings at Munich were far from American shores, American public opinion was at the high point of ‘isolationism’, there was no large immigrant constituency of Czech-Americans to rally other Americans to their cause and US foreign policy had previously had little interest in Czechoslovakia. Before autumn 1938, American interests in Europe were peripheral. Yet even though the Roosevelt administration was a bystander, Munich brought the United States deep into the heart of European affairs, and the reason had everything to do with fear. Appeasement may have averted war in the short term, but it raised the spectre of longer-term and perpetual war. Americans began to fear not so much for their physical safety and their territorial integrity – although those fears were certainly amplified – but for the fate of ‘Judeo-Christian civilisation’ and the ‘American way of life’, themselves new cultural constructions, because Hitler had taken international society outside civilised norms. Though they did not yet use the term, Americans acutely felt the pressures of globalisation, of a shrinking world that made possible new types of threats to their ‘national security’. These new fears resonated throughout American society, from elite politics to ordinary churches. The response to Munich eventually saw the repudiation of ‘isolationism’ and an enthusiastic embrace of a militarised, globalist role for the United States. Munich, in other words, inadvertently conceived the ‘American Century’ three years before Henry Luce coined the term.
The turbulent diplomatic events of September 1938 aroused substantial public excitement, yet the ‘public’, the ‘people’, the ‘material’ and the ‘popular’ have hitherto been marginalised within a vast historiography dominated by traditional perspectives. Indeed, the most neglected aspects of this ‘model’ crisis – despite the abundance of sources – are the social, cultural, material and emotional, as well as public opinion, an oversight addressed in this collection. The book will also internationalise the original ‘Munich moment’, as existing studies are overwhelmingly Anglo- and Western-centric. It provides a corrective to the long-standing proclivity to consider the Munich Crisis almost exclusively from the viewpoint of politicians and diplomats. The original ‘moment’ will thus be analysed from a variety of relatively unchartered perspectives. Popular responses to the crisis will be prominent, comparing collective responses to individual ones, teasing out its psychological and emotional dimensions, allowing a more holistic and ‘emotional’ history to emerge. The variety of contributions provides an international breadth that is unprecedented in the existing literature, with chapters focusing not only on Britain but also Czechoslovakia, Hungary, the United States, Italy, Germany, France and the Soviet Union. It also furnishes a broader reflection on the status of our discipline, accentuating the benefits of exploring many of the hitherto under-scrutinised issues exposed by the ‘cultural’ and ‘emotional’ turns. The Munich Crisis will thus receive a thorough re-examination that moves beyond those formulaic and Anglo-centric analyses that fixate on positioning the (overwhelmingly male) practitioners of ‘high’ politics as either ‘appeasers’ or ‘anti-appeasers’.