Some Perspective On “Worse Than Munich”

The conservative reaction to the U.S.-backed six-country deal with Iran to temporarily curb that country's nuclear program has been predictably hyperbolic. Right-leaning commentators are falling over themselves to call deal the worst foreign policy debacle since the 1938 Munich Agreement, in which Allied powers ceded portions of Czechoslovakia to Adolf Hitler to avoid war. Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal (who won a Pulitzer for commentary earlier this year) took it a step further, calling the deal “worse than Munich” in a November 26 column.

The implied comparison of 2013 Iran to the Nazi war machine is, to put it gently, stupid. Reason's Matt Welch already took it apart (“2013 Iran is to 1938 Germany what a flea is to a Tyrannosaurus Rex”) and Foreign Policy's Daniel Drezner observes that spittle-flecked, sky-is-falling commentary of this sort is a too common feature of foreign policy punditry.

But let's take it face-value for a moment. The Iran deal is only a few days old and already it's “worse than Munich”? The reasoning behind that judgment, according to Stephens, was that while the Munich Agreement didn't prevent the war Hitler so desperately wanted, it did buy time for Britain and France to ramp up their war machines in preparation for the war's eventual outbreak. The Iran deal, he argues, has no “redeeming or exculpating aspects,” which might explain why he devoted precisely zero words of his column to explaining what the deal actually contains. And, as ThinkProgress' Zack Beauchamp notes, Stephens certainly didn't “point to anything in the Iran deal worse than delivering Czech Jews to Hitler's tender mercies.”

That right there is the missing perspective on all this “worse than Munich” business. Regardless of whether you think the Munich Agreement was a naïve attempt at peace-through-appeasement or the only option available to the Allies, it nonetheless precipitated a massive human rights calamity before the ink on the signatures had a chance to dry.

The major powers signed the Munich Agreement on September 30, 1938. German troops crossed into Czechoslovakia the following day. Historian Richard Evans described what happened next in his book The Third Reich In Power -- thousands of political prisoners sent to concentration camps, tens of thousands of refugees, and violent anti-Semitic pogroms:

Over 25,000 people, mostly Czech, had already fled from the Sudetenland into predominantly Czech areas in September. Now they were followed by another 150,000 from the same territory and other border areas between the signature of the Munich agreement and the end of 1938, and almost 50,000 more in the following few months. The refugees included Czechs and Germans who qualified as Jewish under the Nuremberg Laws; they knew only too well what awaited them if they stayed. By May 1939 the number of Jews in the Sudetenland had fallen from 22,000 to fewer than 2,000 in all. A fifth of the Czech population of the border areas fled. Almost a quarter of the Sudeten German population had opposed [pro-Nazi Czech politician Konrad] Henlein's party, and 35,000 of them fled too, mostly German Social Democrats and Communists. The fate of those who remained showed that they had been wise to leave. The Gestapo and the SS Security Service moved in behind the German troops, and they arrested about 8,000 ethnic German and 2,000 Czech opponents of Nazism, putting the majority of them into concentration camps, a minority into state prisons following formal trials. Little over a month later, the violence of the pogrom of 9-10 November was extended to the Sudetenland too, and those Jews who remained there were subject to widespread violence, looting and destruction of their property.

Again, that happened immediately after the agreement was signed. Even if it did buy the Allies time to rearm, the price paid up-front in human misery was steep. So if the six-party deal with Iran really is “worse than Munich,” then it has quite a hill to climb to get there.