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Sympathy for Chamberlain

by Michael Austin, published
“Cheering crowds greeted Daladier in Paris and Chamberlin in London, when properly both men should have been stoned.”—Martha Gellhorn, August 25, 1938


Last night was one of those amazing discussions that teachers live for. The students in my honors seminar had read Martha Gellhorn’s novel A Stricken Field, set in the aftermath of Hitler’s 1938 invasion of the Sudetenland. Gellhorn, a committed anti-fascist who had experience reporting from both Spain and Czechoslovakia, wrote the novel to try to get people to do something, anything, to stop Hitler. She believed (or at least hoped) that if she could just get the people of the world to understand what she had seen, they would have no choice but to do something.

She was right about Hitler, of course, but she was wrong about the world. After Hitler annexed the largely German-speaking Czechoslovakian border region, the powers of Europe met in Munich (without Czechoslovakia) to trade the Sudetenland for “peace in our time.” It lasted less than a year, and Neville Chamberlain, the Prime Minister of England, has been reviled in history ever since. Appease Hitler, you say? Good luck with that.

When we started talking about these issues, the students — very bright honors students that they are — immediately saw the parallels to what is happening right now in the Ukraine. Russia has invaded, with the clear intention of annexing the Crimean Peninsula, a largely Russian-speaking region of the Ukraine to which it has a strong historical connection. It did not take long for two questions to merge into one: what should Europe and America have done about the Sudetenland? And, what should we do now about Crimea?

And in both cases, the answer was a resounding, "Who knows?"

In 1938, Chamberlain, Daladier, and Roosevelt had basically two options: go to war with Germany or let them keep the Sudetenland. At the time, they did not have enough popular support to launch a war. Europe still ached from the memory of the Great War a generation earlier. Hitler knew this and calculated, correctly, that the Allies would not risk another costly bloodbath to protect Czech territorial sovereignty.

Now, I recognize that there are a lot of differences between that situation and our own. Putin is not Hitler. Russia is not as strong as Germany was or as much of a threat to Europe. And, the world is a very different place than it was in 1938. But our options are basically the same: we can mobilize our military and go to war with Russia, or we can let Vladimir Putin ignore the laws of nations and annex the Crimean Peninsula. As long as Putin is willing to bear whatever economic penalties the West will impose, and I suspect that he is, then there really are no other options.

Gellhorn was no bright-eyed optimist. She wrote that fascism in Europe had to be stopped, even if it cost 6 million lives. It ended up costing 60 million lives, which is not to say that it did not have to be done. It did. But, we can have some sympathy for those like Chamberlain and Daladier who didn't want to start that conflict if they could find any way to avoid it. And Gellhorn knew this too. The great tension in A Stricken Field is the conflict between the feeling that one has to do something and the realization that there is nothing that one can do.

We would do well to remember this, and to acknowledge that President Obama and the leaders of Europe are in a similarly difficult situation today, with a similar menu of options ranging from "really, really, really bad" to "even worse."

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