Adrian Bingham (University of Sheffield), “‘Give yourself over to the world process’? Everyday politics and the Munich Crisis in Britain”
Recent research on public responses to the Munich Crisis has provided a welcome counterweight to traditional high political approaches to the subject, and has offered many valuable insights into the ways in which the events of September 1938 were debated and discussed at all social levels. There remains a danger, however, that too tight a focus on the crisis itself means that it becomes treated as a self-contained episode, abstracted from the broader patterns of political culture in the inter-war period. This paper, which emerges out of an AHRC-funded project ‘Everyday Politics, Ordinary Lives: Democratic Engagement in Britain, 1918-1992’, seeks to connect evidence about public reactions to the 1938 crisis to wider research on how British citizens understood politics and its relationship to their lives. It will consider the extent to which the responses to the Munich crisis followed, or deviated from, the patterns of popular political culture established after 1918, and will assess the extent to which members of the public believed they had any real democratic input into the unfolding events, or whether there was a widespread feeling that one had to, in the words of Orwell, ‘give yourself over to the world process’. In so doing, it hopes to provide new perspectives both on the crisis itself, and also on the nature of democratic life in pre-Second World War Britain.
Geoff Eley (University of Michagan), “Setting the Stakes: Munich, Peace, and the Contest of Futures”
In multiple respects, the Munich crisis produced a decisive parting of ways. This was true internationally and geopolitically, in relation to Europe’s international system and its grave instabilities, in the binary differences between the Soviet Union and the capitalist world, in the emergent crises of colonialism, and in the ethico-political imperatives attaching to the calls for global anti-fascism. It was true politically in the challenge to territorial sovereignties and demonstrable fragilities in the practices of democratic citizenship and governance. It was true of the growing threats to the settled livelihoods of millions of European residents, as refugee movements and the mass deportation and displacement of populations introduced new norms of precarity. It was true culturally as the actualities of the impending wartime began facing Europeans with new uncertainties of survival. Living inside these new dilemmas, with striking rapidity after September 1938, governments and peoples started drawing their conclusions.
Mary Heimann (Cardiff University): “Czechoslovakia and the Munich Agreement”
In school textbooks, TV documentaries and political speeches, the Munich Agreement is invariably presented as part of a sweeping narrative called something like ‘the Road to War’ or the ‘Price of Appeasement’. This is a story in which the repeated failures of France, Britain and the League of Nations to ‘stand up’ to the dictators culminates in Nazi Germany’s forcible union with Austria, annexation of the Sudetenland, and attack on Poland, which finally stirred the western powers into action. Into this interwar drama, featuring a bullying Germany, a hesitant France and a spineless Britain, a little-known country called ‘Czechoslovakia’ suddenly appears, at the eleventh hour, to take on the small, but emotionally charged, walk-on part of sacrificial lamb on the altar of Appeasement. In this familiar narrative, Czechoslovakia is not presented in the round, as a state that could influence other countries’ foreign policies, but simply as a victim. The Munich Agreement, which haunts the Czech imagination to the present day, became part of an Allied wartime narrative that has proved remarkably resilient, in today’s Czech Republic as well as in Britain and France. While it is true that Czechoslovak security was fatally weakened by the removal of the Sudetenland, and that the young republic was let down by its Allies and humiliated by the Munich Agreement, this only tells part of the story. Czechoslovakia’s reputation as righteous victim has depended on its supposed record as an innately decent and tolerant state until the Munich catastrophe sapped its moral fibre and corrupted its democratic and humanitarian ideals. This paper provides a closer examination of the interwar Czechoslovak state’s attitudes towards its non-Czech citizens, together with an exploration of regional responses to Munich within the first and second republics, resulting in a far more complicated and troubling picture. Taking a less sentimental and Whiggish view of the interwar Czechoslovak state may lead to a cautionary tale with a rather different moral.
Christian Goeschel (University of Manchester): “Mussolini, Munich and the Italian People”
In late September 1938, Benito Mussolini, Prime Minister of Italy, celebrated one of the greatest triumphs of his life. After his return from the Munich conference, Italian people from different classes and generations, men and women, celebrated the Duce as the saviour of peace in Europe. While Mussolini took credit for Munich and was basking in a public triumph, he deeply resented the fact that the Italian people had largely been in favour of peace, rather than war. For Mussolini, like for many Italian statesmen before him, war had a transformative quality. It would turn Italy into a great nation of warriors and a great power which explains why Mussolini had been a radicalising influence on Hitler in September 1938. This paper highlights the centrality of Italy in the Munich crisis, rather than rehash debates on appeasement that largely concentrate on France, Britain, and Germany. More specifically, it examines the impact of imagined and real attitudes of ordinary Italians on Italian decision-making during the crisis. Given that the Fascist regime sought to rest upon unanimous popular support, Mussolini, like other fascist leaders, was extremely aware of the importance of popular opinion. Given the many epistemological problems surrounding the notion of ‘popular opinion’ in dictatorships, official reports will be compared to a large body of letters sent by ordinary Italians to the Duce around the time of the Munich conference. Duly archived by Mussolini’s secretariat, these letters shed light on how Italians presented themselves to the Fascist authorities. This paper will question recent interpretations of these letters as direct representations of the emotions of ordinary Italians, and instead place them into a wider context of self-fashioning under the Fascist dictatorship.
Gabriel Gorodetsky (Fellow, All Souls College Oxford; Emeritus Professor at Tel Aviv University, Israel): “‘What, No Chair for Me?’ Russia’s Conspicuous Absence from the Munich Conference”
This paper challenges the common wisdom that appeasement was entrenched in the pragmatic, conciliatory and reasonable British approach to conflict resolution which assumes that unless national interests are deleteriously affected, the peaceful settlement of disputes is preferable to war. Instead it will focus on the repercussions of the deliberate exclusion from the Munich conference of the Soviet Union, arguably the key player in the events leading to war. It will contend that the way foreign affairs were perceived and handled in Britain reflected a priori principles and choices. Indeed, the existence of a viable Soviet alternative in 1938 is validated by the extensive Russian archival sources now available for research. Those are sustained by the unique and revelatory diary kept by Ivan Maisky, Soviet ambassador to London (1932-43) which Gorodetsky unearthed in Moscow and published recently. The diaries reveal the extent to which the legacy of two centuries of imperial rivalry between Russia and Britain, enhanced by anti-communism and the post-Russian Revolution ‘red scare’, raised an insurmountable obstacle to an anti-Hitler alliance during and after the Munich conference. The chapter will furnish a fresh examination of the cultural aspects of the formulation of foreign policy. It will show how the pessimistic assessments that wrote off the Soviet Union as a potential ally in a war against Germany, were made on the basis of embedded and preconceived attitudes. The chapter will also expose the pivotal role of the human factor, transcending controversies over policy and ideology. Indeed, Maisky’s diary reveals how much room for manoeuvre was left for diplomats, even under Stalin’s authoritarian regime. This is an entirely missing facet of Soviet politics in Western historiography, where personalities are largely anonymous and the impact of personal friendships, conflicts and rivalries within the Kremlin, even at the peak of Stalin’s terror and purges, are often overlooked. The ‘terror’ has been examined in depth in recent years, but its impact on the conduct of Soviet foreign policy remains under-explored, hence this too will be elucidated in this paper.
Julie Gottlieb (University of Sheffield): “The Private and Emotional History of the Munich Crisis”
The dramatic unfolding of the Sudeten Crisis culminating in the signing of the Four Powers Agreement in Munich on 30 September 1938, and followed by the months of political and diplomatic aftershocks, received blanket coverage at the time, becoming the focal point of much contemporary political commentary and fictional and non-fictional writing. Appeasement has received ample coverage in the historiography of modern Britain, with political and diplomatic historians and IR specialists tending to rely on the empirical matter (source material) and interpretive tools of their own disciplines. The scholarship has hitherto fixated on geo-political manoeuvring, the political leaders and opinion formers, and the media rendering of the Crisis. Insofar as public opinion has been considered, it has been the ways in which leading politicians perceived the popular mood, and sought to guide, manage, manufacture, and manipulate it, with the aid of the press, broadcasting and the newsreels. More recently, however, cultural, material culture, and gender historians have begun to think more elastically about the international crisis, either as a history from below and/or a history of mentalities. But what of private opinion and intimate experience? This is a dimension that has hardly been considered in itself in the vast historiography of appeasement, and yet there is a rich and deep intimate history, an internal and internalised history of international relations. In myriad ways and forms the international crisis was personalised and subjectified – by rich and poor, by women and men, by urbanites and country folk, by the young and the old, by the healthy and the ill, and equally by those who were actors in the drama as well as by those who were powerless. How can we access and record the tangible and material, the ethereal and emotional, and the psychological and visceral experience of the Munich Crisis? This paper is interested in how those on the peripheries of power and the silent and silenced vast majority lived through the Crisis. How did it feel to live through the Crisis and the ‘war of nerves’? This paper will draw on private diaries and correspondence, Mass-Observation, and press representations of the ‘war of nerves’, including a spat of war-fear and crisis-triggered suicides.
Susan Grayzel (Utah State University): “Gas Mask Sunday: Material Objects, the Body and the Munich Crisis”
“This was ‘Gas Mask’ Sunday” read the headline in The Daily Express on 26 September 1938, the height of the Munich Crisis. The accompanying article compared the gathering of everyone from “titled people” to “telephone girls” for “Chelsea’s first face-to-face meeting with gas masks” to a “church social.” The tone of this piece and other newspaper coverage of this first mass exercise in civil defence emphasized the lightheartedness with which the British public encountered the embodiment of government measures designed to safeguard them. Yet the material object at the centre of this exercise had itself undergone an amazing transformation in two decades, progressing from being the provenance of Great War soldiers to that of every man, woman and child subjected to the anticipated terrors of modern war. The fitting and partial distribution of gas masks launched that one Sunday in September 1938 meant that this object took centre-stage in public reactions, but for many participants it remained a thing to be awaited rather than possessed. There were insufficient masks to go around and no officially sanctioned devices for those under the age of four. Unlike other European states, the British government had opted for a policy of equal access – no one area was deemed in more urgent need than another, nor was any individual. Gas masks were to be free of charge, in any locale, to anyone. But whether or how this vision could be fulfilled remained a question. Was every subject of the British empire to be given a mask? Every resident of the British metropole, including refugees? The dispersal of this material object – epitomizing the war to come – brought centre-stage the question of which bodies merited protection. This paper has two main aims. First, by tracing the development of one key artifact of material cultural (the civilian respirator), it demonstrates how the gas mask, more than any other object, exemplifies a genuinely new role for the state vis-à-vis the individual body. Its unveiling amidst the Munich Crisis demands our attention to this moment as marking a crucial shift in the relationship between the state and the body. Second, it argues that that the prominence of certain key objects (the civilian gas mask) and rituals (the processes of receiving them) during the Munich Crisis, was instrumental in the militarization of the body as well as the home in light of the changing nature of warfare itself.
Miklos Lojko (Central European University, Budapest): ““Curs Yapping Round the Dying Stag”, or the Rituals of a Fractured Society: Hungary in the vortex of the Munich Crisis of 1938″
People often talk about Munich as a nail in the coffin of the Versailles settlement, but this approach fails to explain all the events of September-October 1938. Hungary, like Germany, was a vanquished power after the Great War, where propaganda denouncing a peace settlement which cost Hungary large parts of its pre-war territory was ubiquitous. Slogans condemning the peace permeated public life, politics, education, academia, literature, the press, and broadcasting. The mentality engendered by this atmosphere infused the private discourses of families and individuals. The victimhood mentality helped to mould and keep in power a quintessentially conservative regime under the aegis of Admiral Horthy’s interwar regency. A vague, and for many, menacing, concept, the so-called “Szeged Idea”, remained the binding element of public and private discourse. Drawn up in the southern town of Szeged in imprecise terms in 1919, the ‘idea’ was predicated on anti-liberal and anti-western principles that would wage ideological war on international “plutocrats” and rebuild and govern Hungary along Christian-national lines. In this atmosphere even Hungary’s small liberal elite, who had no sympathy with Hitler’s regime, struggled to denounce vigorously the injustice of Munich. An annex of the Munich decision referred the territorial dispute between Hungary and Czechoslovakia to direct negotiations between the two governments (soon to mean between Hungary and a new autonomous Slovak government). The process eventually awarded Hungary southern Slovakia in November 1938 and Sub-Carpathian Ruthenia (now in Ukraine) in March 1939. Thus Hungary, a country with a largely silent opposition, became a beneficiary of Munich. The politicians’ views are easily decoded, as they derived from the geopolitical circumstances. However, the absence of dissent by public intellectuals, the press and public opinion points to a deeper crisis in Hungarian political culture during the interwar years. Using a range of non-political publications, journals, literary magazines, private diaries, and other sources, this paper elucidates the social and psychological dynamic behind Hungary’s quiescent and often complicit attitude during the Munich crisis.
Michal Shapira (Tel Aviv University, Israel): “Melanie Klein and the Coming of World War II: Archival Writing on the Munich Crisis, 1938”
This paper analyzes the hitherto unexamined contribution of Melanie Klein—a true pioneer of British psychoanalysis and beyond— to the historical thinking about war, violence, the self and the child in the twentieth century. The paper examines, for the first time, Melanie Klein’s extensive and never-before-used 1938 clinical records of her British patients’ dreams and thoughts about the Nazis, of Hitler, and of the coming of World War II. As a result, this paper will interrogate and analyse the different reactions of her patients to both the Nazi invasion of Austria in March 1938 and the Sudeten Crisis as it unfolded over the summer, while simultaneously providing an historical overview in order to contextualize these specific case studies within the both the broader history of psychology and the history of total war.
Andrew Preston (University of Cambridge): “Fearful Empire: Munich and the Rise of American Power”
The Anglo-French appeasement at Munich had an utterly transformative effect on the United States. This is something of a paradox: the proceedings at Munich were far from American shores, American public opinion was at the high point of “isolationism,” there was no large immigrant constituency of Czech-Americans to rally other Americans to their cause, and U.S. foreign policy had previously held little interest in Czechoslovakia. Before the autumn of 1938, moreover, American interests in Europe were peripheral. Yet even though the Roosevelt administration was a bystander to the conference, Munich brought the United States deep into the heart of European affairs, and the reason had everything to do with fear. Appeasement may have averted war in the short-term, but it raised the spectre of longer-term and perpetual war. Americans began to fear not so much for their physical safety and their territorial integrity—although those fears were certainly amplified—but for the fate of “Judeo-Christian civilization” and the “American way of life,” themselves new cultural constructions, because Hitler seemed to have taken international society outside civilized norms. Though they didn’t yet use the term, Americans acutely felt the pressures of globalization, of a shrinking world that made possible new types of threats to their “national security” (yet another recent ideological invention). These new fears were reflected throughout American society, from elite politics to ordinary churches. The response to Munich eventually saw the repudiation of “isolationism” and an enthusiastic embrace of a militarized, globalist role for the United States. Munich, in other words, inadvertently conceived the “American Century” three years before Henry Luce coined the term.
Richard Toye (University of Exeter): “Winston Churchill, Munich, and ‘the European System’”
This paper places Churchill’s description of the Munich Agreement as ‘a total and unmitigated defeat’ within the context of his evolving attitudes to diplomacy over the course of the 1930s. In particular it investigates his understanding of what he referred to as ‘the European system’. As a young man he had adhered to a brutally realist view of Great Power politics, but in the interwar years this was somewhat tempered by his promotion of ideas of Collective Security. Such rhetoric had an opportunistic aspect, as he sought to court progressive opinion in Britain; and it was well said of him that he only became enthusiastic about the League of Nations when he thought it might lead to a war. Nevertheless, his views did undergo a genuine evolution. Notably, his approach to the USSR changed, as can be demonstrated by reference to newspaper articles that he published that have up to now escaped notice by scholars. He was never less than strongly anti-communist, but he was perhaps above all anti-Trotskyist; thus whereas at the start of the decade he highlighted the threat of Soviet rearmament, by the mid-thirties he had become convinced that Stalin’s policy of ‘socialism in one country’ meant that Russia could potentially be trusted to act as a Great Power within the system on traditional Tsarist lines. Churchill’s belief that the Soviet Union would behave selfishly but rationally and predictably therefore constituted a key element of his approach to the Munich Crisis.
Karina Urbach (IHR/Princeton): “‘Those English pigs!’ German Opinions on the Sudeten Crisis”
We already know much about the Nazi propaganda in the build-up to the Sudeten crisis. But how did the average German actually experience the tense months from May to October 1938? To answer this question, this paper will examine a key source that has been neglected in connection with the Sudeten crisis: the Sopade reports. These reports were published by the exiled Social-Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) between 1933 and 1940. They were accumulated by a network of informants who questioned as diverse a range of groups as possible – from factory workers to members of the German middle classes. The reports show that Nazi propaganda worked especially well on young people and women, who believed that the Sudeten Germans were seriously suppressed and needed support. They also perceived the western democracies as weak, since they had not intervened militarily in Spain, had been passive during the annexation of Austria, and would likely give up Czechoslovakia easily. Even old SPD supporters agreed with this argument, commenting: “who will stop Hitler? The French have one government crisis after the other, England is pro-Hitler and Russia will only march if France does, which will never happen.” Still, the Munich conference shocked Hitler’s opponents who could not believe the betrayal of “those English pigs!” While most Germans seemed relieved about the outcome, there was no great elation either. Instead the average German thought the impoverished Sudeten Germans were a further financial burden who would have to be fed as much as the “poor” Austrians. Despite all the propaganda efforts of the regime, Munich did not impress the average German as much as Hitler’s previous successes.
Jessica Wardhaugh (University of Warwick): “France in the Blue Light of Munich: Popular Agency, Activity, and the Reframing of History”
Defined by a political and diplomatic elite, the Munich agreement of 1938 deliberately excluded the people. In France, the Chamber of Deputies received the decision as a fait accompli. Daladier may have been greeted with a ‘delirium of popular enthusiasm’, as the Gaullist Michel Debré would later describe it, yet more politicized expressions of popular emotion were circumscribed by a rigorous police refusal to authorize mass meetings. Little wonder that research and recrimination have often focused on a guilty few, while assuming the esprit munichois of the many. Nevertheless, the decisions and implications of Munich transformed the activity and agency of ordinary people in France, as across Europe. 700,000 reserve soldiers were mobilized at minimal notice, and while urban and suburban areas were extensively prepared for the possibility of attack, individuals and families fled the capital in an exode much less well known than that of summer 1940. Both the events and the rumours surrounding them were feverishly discussed in the streets and in the press, around radio sets in cafés and at private political gatherings. Meanwhile, both individuals and groups sought through their own initiative to shape events ostensibly outside their control, whether through sponsorship schemes to support the families of mobilized soldiers, simultaneous prayer for peace, or financial aid to those exiled from Czechoslovakia. Engaging with recent research that challenges the image of a passive or pacifist populace, this contribution explores popular activity, agency, and memory at a time when – in Paris as in Munich – the blue paint dimming streetlights in anticipation of attack cast a very different light on both daily and nocturnal life. Tracing popular reactions across the political spectrum through archival documents, memoirs, and the press, it first examines the ways in which different sections of the population acted and reacted: as veterans, reservists, mothers, or children. Second, by examining the transient but wide-ranging effects of the Munich crisis in transport, communication, and the urban environment, it throws new light on the relationships between populations and technology in the control of movement, information, and emotion, probing questions of individual agency at a time of crisis. Third, it examines how the multifaceted experience of the Munich moment shaped both individual and collective narratives, whether in reimagining French and European peoples in 1938, or in preparing mental and material pathways for the experiences of 1939–40.