Friday, September 23, 2011


Our book today is Telford Taylor's monumental 1979 work of history, Munich: The Price of Peace, with its damningly familiar black-and-white cover photo of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain vigorously shaking hands with Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler. Taylor provides deep background to the tumultuous summer of 1938, when the world tottered on the brink of war and the future seemed to depend entirely on the ability of these two men to come to some kind of agreement. That was an illusion, of course: the whole time Neville Chamberlain was scheming and feverishly losing sleep over how to accommodate Hitler's vociferous, belligerent nationalism with the treaty boundaries and stipulations that had been in place since the end of the First World War, Hitler was lying about his motivations and industriously planning for the invasion of Czechoslovakia and war. Everything he did and said with Chamberlain - all those diplomatic smiles and hours-long meetings - was only a cynical ploy to give his armed forces time to ready themselves. Early on in the series of meetings that culminated in Munich, Chamberlain infamously told his colleagues that Hitler was the sort of man who would keep his word if he looked you in the face and gave it solemnly. He held to this belief longer than anybody, longer even than his inestimable Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax, but he was entirely wrong. Hitler was a faithless.

As has been argued elsewhere, Chamberlain couldn't have acted differently even if he'd known his actions were futile: the way he saw things, peace for the entire West was worth throwing Czechoslovakia into the maw of German expansion. There was a good deal of old-fashioned British imperial racism involved in this (there's likewise no evidence that Hitler's treatment of Germany's Jews weighed on Chamberlain at all), but it shouldn't be entirely dismissed even so. Among the many magisterial aspects of Taylor's account his willingness to draw conclusions from all his research - including conclusions that were as unpopular in 1979 as they are today:
The character and motives of Neville Chamberlain, I believe, have been much distorted in the mirror of historical literature, in which his image is that of a timorous, bumbling, and naive old gentleman, waving an umbrella as a signal of cringing subservience to a bully. Nothing could be further from the truth. Chamberlain did what he did at Munich not because he thought he had to, but because he thought it right. For him, appeasement was a policy not of fear but of common and moral sense. In public life he was a dominant and often domineering man, profoundly convinced of the rightness of his own judgments, and skilled in bending others to his will. Sadly mistaken he may have been; cowardly or indecisive he was not, and for him Munich was no surrender, but a passionate moral act.

The key to Chamberlain's failure was Hitler himself; here at last was a man Chamberlain simply, tragically, couldn't understand. Throughout this big book, Taylor is at his best assessing this dark central figure of the drama - his Hitler is never just a one-dimensional ranter, and that adds greatly to the complexity of the story Taylor's telling:
 But it is quite wrong to regard Hitler as the creation of the magnates and generals. They supported him not because they were in all respects pleased by his methods, but because his program, vague as it was, had ingredients of persuasive appeal to them and to Germans of every station; because of his demagogic skill and remarkable ability to lead and inspire; because, to use an expression borrowed from quite another time and place, he and he alone showed the ability to get the country moving again.

Chamberlain's political enemies were quick to disparage his efforts in September of 1938, Churchill foremost among them:
This is only the beginning of the reckoning. This is only the first sip, the first foretaste of a bitter cup which will be proffered to us year by year unless, by a supreme recovery of moral health and martial vigour, we arise again and take our stand for freedom as in olden times.

And his characterization of events - his invoking of the curse of the Danegeld - was certainly justified by later events. Churchill went on to write his own enormous history of those events, and many, many other enormous books have appeared in their turn. On used bookshop shelves, they begin to look like amassed armies, implacable, interchangeable. But readers shouldn't miss Taylor's book. Munich: The Price of Peace is not only absorbing (it's the fastest 1000 pages you'll read all week!), it's also, almost accidentally, an unsurpassed examination of character, good and bad. Highly recommended.


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