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European Crises

3 March 2014

Just over 75 years ago the British press was preoccupied by a European crisis.

The crisis had begun when Adolf Hitler seized a German speaking part of Czechoslovakia called the Sudetenland. It would end with a short-lived agreement between Hitler and the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. This promised the end of further expansion in return for continued control over those territories already under Nazi control. It remains a defining moment of interwar political history.

The Munich Agreement – alongside Chamberlain’s infamous claim to have secured ‘peace for our time’ – is now remembered as the high point of appeasement. Many historians would now argue that the British government had little choice other than to let Hitler retain control over the Sudetenland. Yet ‘Munich’ became a byword for failure. A shameful policy that damaged British interests and ultimately failed to avoid the Second World War.

The current situation in Ukraine is different but there are interesting parallels.

Take the geographical context. The Sudetenland was a German speaking region of Czechoslovakia with strong cultural ties to eastern Germany. As a former part of Tsarist Russia and the USSR, the Crimea’s links with Moscow are even stronger.

There are also parallels between the 1994 Budapest Memorandum (between the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, the USA and Britain) guaranteeing Ukrainian sovereignty and a spate of agreements signed in the wake of the Munich Agreement. For example the guarantee of Polish sovereignty that forced the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939.

Then take the extent to which the annexation has left the international community in a state of confusion. Europe and the USA have spoken out to condemn Russian aggression in 2014 but have yet to formulate a coherent response. In 1938 Britain and France (the leading players in the League of Nations set up after the First World War) were similarly uncertain of how to respond. The crisis was at the periphery of their influence.

You could even draw a parallel between the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics and the Munich games of 1936…

All of which begs an important question: can history provide any clues about how to resolve the current crisis?

The answer is probably not. Chamberlain had little option but to sign the Munich Agreement. It allowed him to buy time and led to a ramping up of preparations for war. Today’s leaders also need time to formulate a response. This is vitally important if the mistakes of 1938 – granting guarantees of sovereignty that could not be defended and merely hardened attitudes – are to be avoided.

See https://history.blog.gov.uk/2013/09/30/whats-the-context-30-september-1938-the-munich-agreement/ for more of the context

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