Failing To Learn From History

Barney Gumbel makes the argument that Chamberlain’s concessions to the Nazis in 1938 wasn’t so bad after all, and in fact, had Chamberlain not sued for peace, the war would have been worse.

Ironically enough, last night I was thumbing through a brilliant little book called What If? 2: Eminent Historians Imagine What Might Have Been which deals with alternate scenarios for historical events. One of those scenarios deals with the concept of what would happen if Chamberlain had not conceded the Sudatenland of Czechoslavakia to Hitler.

Gumble cites this site that claims that the British were not prepared for war in 1938. However, what is left out is the fact that Germany was not prepared either. As historian Williamson Murray points out in What If? 2:

What the historians can suggest from the available evidence us that the strategic situation in 1938 was far more favorable to the Allies than it would prove in the following year. Tragically, in mid-September the British tried and failed to grapple with the question of whether the loss of Czechoslavakia to the Germans might fundamentally alter the European balance of power in German’s favor were war to break out in 1939. The evidence indicates that it did, and that a major factor in the catastrophic German victories in the spring of 1940 resulted from the additional year and a half the Germans had to prepare. Winston Churchill quite accurately described Munich as "a defeat without war." The tragedy of European history was the fact that the one great risk Hitler decided at the last moment not to take was the one risk that might have ended the terrible adventure before it had begun.

Murray finds that the German Army would have been heavily beaten by the relatively well-prepared Czech Army – not enough to stall an invasion, but enough to inflict heavy damage on the Wehrmacht at their weakest stage. Such an event would have weakened the Germans by forcing them to fight on two fronts early in the war, preventing the blitzkrieg attacks that overwhelmed Poland and France in 1939 and 1940.

Again, the left proves the wise words of George Satayana: "those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it."

8 thoughts on “Failing To Learn From History

  1. Of course, there’s one thing that bothers me in the comparison between Saddam’s Iraq and Hitler’s Germany:

    Germany was an industrial superpower that had, over the course of the 30’s, built one of the most powerful millitary machines the world had ever seen to date.

    Iraq, on the other hand, has been contained by sanctions and no-fly zones, had strategic sites bombed on several occasions (both in the ’93 strikes and the Clinton administration’s Operation Desert Fox in ’98). They couldn’t even mount a large enough millitary to take out any of their neighbors today. (And if they were trying to attack one of their neighbors, I’d be in full support of an invasion). Germany, in the 30’s, was not contained- Neville Chamberlain was naive. You’re comparing a very large apple to a very large orange, indeed.

    What I don’t understand is why we’re focusing all our attentions on the WEAKEST member of the Axis of Evil… North Korea and Iran are both being left uncontained and have significantly more formidable millitaries than Iraq…


    This is yet another problem I have with fighting such a war. UN-backed interventions and the defense of attacked allies is one thing, but if we’re going to be waging a pre-emptive war, we need an actual declaration from the Senate. If a war is justified, there should be no problem in getting such a declaration, especially considering that the President’s own party holds the majority in that body…

  3. I think there is no question that Brittain was much more willing to fight Germany after they invaded Poland than they were at the time of the Munch conference. I wonder if Brittain would have pursued a war against Germany with as much vigor as they did later if they fought over Czechoslovakia.

  4. Actually, Bush did get Congressional authorization for action against Iraq back in September or October…

    As for the comparion between Germany and Iraq, the fact that weapons of mass destruction are involved changes the calculations immensely. If you have a nuclear weapon, you no longer need as large a conventional force. All Saddam has to do is threaten to use a nuclear weapon if we interfere with an invasion of Saudi Arabia or Kuwait, and he has instant leverage. The principle of deterrence only works if we make it absolutely clear that we will respond to such an attack with a nuclear weapon – and Saddam knows that the chances of us using a nuke to defend the Saudis or the Kuwaitis is slim.

  5. “Actually, Bush did get Congressional authorization for action against Iraq back in September or October…”

    Yes, he recieved an authorization to use force- not an actual declaration of war. I want them to throw down the gauntlet.

    “As for the comparion between Germany and Iraq, the fact that weapons of mass destruction are involved changes the calculations immensely. If you have a nuclear weapon, you no longer need as large a conventional force. All Saddam has to do is threaten to use a nuclear weapon if we interfere with an invasion of Saudi Arabia or Kuwait, and he has instant leverage. ”

    We destroyed his nuclear capability years ago. If he had a bomb or the capabilities to develop one, he’d have played the card by now. Yes, he has some chemical weapons- but so do most millitarized countries. They’re only effective in a localized area.

  6. We don’t know that his nuclear capability has been destroyed… in fact, if his own former bombmaker is to be believed, the only thing standing between Iraq and a nuclear weapon is sufficient fissile material – which Iraq is desperately trying to find or create.

    Plus, it is known that Saddam has biological weapons, and quite possible that they include smallpox and highly weaponized anthrax. Either of those released in a major American city could have more of a deterrent effect on us than even a nuclear weapon.

    Unless someone can prove beyond any reasonable doubt that Saddam Hussein is disarmed, then the risk is still too high to warrant not taking decisive action to disarm him.

  7. I’m pleased to see reasoned discourse on the internet, of which I heartily approve. Jay points out that I didn’t point out the deficiencies of the Germans, which is true. Blogging is a format where even 100 words is considered a long post, and given the millions of words already written on WWII, I leave following the links as an exercise for the interested student.

    Jay has also read a history book, well more of a historical fantasy book, but it was a book and I also approve of reading books.

    My post was about what *did* happen, not what might have happened, however.

    Many scholars have concerned themselves with the question, what *would* have happened if Gollum hadn’t interferred with Frodo?

    Sauron sent every force at his command to the mountain when Frodo put on the ring and became visible to him, of which the winged Nazgul would likely have arrived first. A likely scenario is that the Nazgul would have feigned allegience to Frodo while luring him away from the cracks of doom, then smashed the cave openings once he was outside. Even with the ring he would have eventually succumbed to the forces of Sauron and Sauron would have retaken the ring.

    But we don’t know because it was a fantasy, it never happened. And leaders don’t have magic time and probability televisions to help them see what-might-have-been.

    Neville didn’t have the luxury of making decisions from an armchair 60 years after the fact.

  8. There’s a major difference between reasoned speculation based on evidence and sheer fantasy.

    In 1938, Nazi Germany was nowhere near as powerful as it was a year and a half later. The Czech defenders had created an impressive series of defenses which most certainly would have caused the Wehrmacht to endure significant losses. Not only that, but a conflict in Czechoslavakia would have forced Hitler to move his army westward, further diminshing its ability.

    All of this was known at the time, but Chamberlain decided that peace had to come at any cost, above the pleas of wiser men such as Churchill. The results were catastrophic.

    It’s easy to brush something aside as being mere fantasy without bothering to read it. However, anyone who had read Murray’s piece would see that it was based on factual evidence. In 1938, the Germans were far worse off than the British in terms of ground, naval, and air forces. If Hitler had been forced to fight for Czechoslavakia, he would have won – but it would have been a fight that would have severely weakened his ability to fight afterwards.

    Chamberlain may not have been able to see into the future, but we can most certainly look into the past and ensure that we do not emulate such mistakes.

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