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(photo credit: Courtesy)
Seventy years ago on September 29, 1938, the leaders of Germany, Italy, France and Great Britain concluded an agreement in Munich that has gone down in history as one of the West's greatest political debacles. According to it, Hitler was allowed to take over a region of the Czechoslovak Republic, known as the Sudetenland, which contained a large ethnic German population. He had been threatening to use force to achieve his ends, and the British and French appeased him hoping to avoid a new and devastating conflict. Of course the agreement did not foster peace: rather it paved the way to World War II. The failure of Munich has become so ingrained in our collective psyche that, whenever our leaders hesitate in the face of a threat, pundits immediately accuse them of repeating the blunder of Munich.
The lessons of Munich are plain, but what is much less obvious is when and how to apply them. From Munich we can learn that radical evil must be nipped in the bud, but recognizing it, before it has blossomed, is no simple matter. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and his French counterpart Ã‰douard Daladier totally misjudged Hitler. Hence Chamberlain's infamous statement upon returning to England: "My good friends this is the second time in our history that there has come back from Germany to Downing Street peace with honor. I believe it is peace in our time."
The scene, where he makes the statement with the signed agreement fluttering in the wind, causes Chamberlain to appear naÃ¯ve. We know that Hitler's word would carry no more weight than a piece of paper. At the time, however, Chamberlain and Daladier did not grasp that Hitler's mindset was vastly different from their own. They imputed to him their own aversion to war and their own code of honor. They were not able to think outside of the box, which is what they would have needed to do to comprehend Hitler's emerging evil. In part this was because of their wishful thinking, but in part it was because Hitler's evil had not yet matured.
GIVEN THE forces of radical evil arrayed against peace today, we must ask ourselves if we are assessing them judiciously. Most people throughout the West did not grasp the nature of Al Qaida until its evil was no longer embryonic, but had come into flower as a purveyor of mass death and destruction. Iran under Ahmadinejad is currently poised to develop nuclear capability, and the burning question for most of the rest of the world is: will Iran use that capability to launch a war? Is the regime of Ahmadinejad evil on a par with Hitler and Nazism, and therefore must be treated accordingly?
Chamberlain's second infamous statement during the Munich crisis has also left an indelible impression, because it appears to us to have been so hugely misspoken. Loath to intervene with force, he declared: "How horrible, how fantastic, how 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." In the post-World War II era, we recognize that we live in a global village. There are no people anywhere who are too distant for us not to be concerned when they are faced with radical evil. We are perturbed when we think such evil is rearing its head. But we are still not very good at translating that concern into concerted and timely action, or risking our own lives and fortunes to come to their aid. Darfur stands before us as a searing example of our deficiency.
Over two millennia ago King Solomon wrote: "Everything has an appointed season, and there is a time for every purpose under the heaven. A time to love and a time to hate; a time for war and a time for peace." Our challenge is to constantly assess our season and take appropriate action, lest our mistakes tar us with the same brush of failure as the policy of appeasement and enable new destruction on a scale that approaches that unleashed by Hitler in the wake of Munich.
The writer is director of the Yad Vashem libraries, and author of Approaching the Holocaust: Texts and Contexts, Vallentine Mitchell, 2005.
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