Mining The Munich Crisis For Meaning: Crises Past And Present
Julie Gottlieb | 8 March 2021
◇ COVID-19 / Democracy / Diplomatic History / Hitler / Nazism / WWII
We are the editors of a new book, The Munich Crisis, Politics and the People (Manchester University Press, 2021). The contributors came together for a conference in 2018, the 80th anniversary of the signing of the highly controversial but pivotal Munich Agreement, a diplomatic event that was all-absorbing for people throughout Europe and beyond. The days, weeks, and months when the world was on the brink of another global conflict war was a time of acute crisis, uncertainty, anxiety, and private and public suspense and nervousness.
In this blog post we reflect on the Munich Crisis in light of the current global crisis, hearing unmistakable resonances, drawing some parallels, as well as thinking about how the ‘People’s Crisis’ of 1938 differed in important ways from the all-consuming global pandemic today.
Julie V. Gottlieb (JG): The Munich Crisis and the repercussions of the international affairs on the home front and on private lives has been the focus of my research and my attention for many years now. It is therefore difficult not to hear (loud) resonances with crises in international affairs in the last few years and with heated debates about international intervention—Iraq, Syria, China etc. Other resonances can be heard with the current global people’s crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic. With regards to the latter, we need to be cautious about the parallels we see and the lessons we think we can draw from crisis events of the past. There is no easy symmetry here.
Richard Toye (RT): I agree, but there is one significant thing the crises have in common. Both involve(d) the fear of mass death. It is a commonplace in the literature that people during the interwar years tended to exaggerate the likely impact of bombing, thinking it would literally bring about the end of civilisation, but the actual results during World War II turned out to be somewhat less dramatic. However, one can hardly blame people for being fearful – of gas, as well as of bombs. On the other hand, as far as I know, there were no ‘Munich deniers’ in 1938. Nobody suggested that war was a non-existent threat that had been worked up by the authorities for their own political purposes.
Daniel Hucker (DH): A small minority of pacifists did argue that air raid precaution measures served only to normalise militarism whilst hoodwinking the people into believing that they could be protected against bombs and gas (are there echoes here in the anti-vaxxer’s arguments, who almost fear the solution more than the problem?), but nobody genuinely argued that the threat of war was imagined. I am struck, however, by the parallels between how far people are/were willing to go to mitigate the threat. In 1938, for the French and British at least, it was a question of sacrificing honour and prestige, with the ultimate price being paid by the Czechoslovakians. Today, we are all making sacrifices but, just as in 1938, some are making more substantial sacrifices than others.
JG: As this pandemic wears on, it is less and less reminiscent of the Munich Crisis. Rather it evokes if anything from that heavily-mined period and the rose-tinted nostalgia for the People’s War, the ‘Phoney’ or more aptly the ‘Bore’ war. This was the long months of anticipation from September 1939 to May 1940 when Britain was at war but there was little action.
RT: Yes, but looking at it another way, thousands of people have been dying every day–just as thousands died or were oppressed by the Nazis in Poland. This happens out of sight of most of us, which may be why it seems as though nothing is happening. A reasonably strong pro-peace movement emerged in the autumn of 1939, which is perhaps not unlike the calls today for Lockdown to be lifted.
JG: One of the main lessons I have drawn from the Munich Crisis, and from the way we have studied it in this book, is that to understand the national stories of the global pandemic these crises have to be understood as ‘people’s crises’. It seems all the more striking how little the earlier scholarship on appeasement has taken public opinion into account.
So far the scholarship has not had much if any concern with the subjective experience of diplomatic events. Holed up in our home offices—alone or with people who in normal times we only see a couple of hours a day—there is ample opportunity to think and feel our way through how the global pandemic affects us individually. Certainly one unmistakable parallel is the ‘crisis fatigue’ that Mass-Observation diagnosed in 1938, and the widespread feeling that we are at a saturation point with news of the pandemic, fed up, desperate for news of something else.
DH: Throughout the current pandemic the people have been at the forefront of politicians’ responses—we hear repeatedly of the need for clear and unambiguous messaging, for the public to do ‘their bit’ by following official guidelines, and how policy must be attentive to the public’s willingness to listen and adhere.
In an era of rolling news, social media, and unprecedented global interconnectivity, this is unsurprising. But as our book shows, the Munich ‘moment’ was also framed as a global crisis, with ramifications that would be felt far and wide. Not only was the crisis experienced subjectively by individuals, but it was experienced collectively, as an event. This clearly had a profound impact, and several of the contributions in this book demonstrate only too clearly the importance of public opinion.
JG: We seem to be congratulating ourselves quite a bit here in Britain—and I expect elsewhere as well—on our appreciation and willingness to deal with the mental health consequences of the current global crisis. It is a helpful reminder that there was genuine concern and many schemes to deal with just the same mental health fallout of the crisis itself and of the impending war from the air. Our mission with this collaborative work was to think about the Munich Crisis as ripe for the study of emotions—private, collective, imagined, prescribed and proscribed.
RT: Indeed, and it’s a very difficult thing to do. Perhaps it’s a bit easier in respect to Munich than with regards to the pandemic, as the 1938 crisis was relatively short-lived, people took particular note to record it, and everything was felt very intensely. How will historians reconstruct people’s feelings during Covid, when a lot of people are progressively, but imperceptibly, worn down a bit further every day, and perhaps feel less and less incentive to write down their emotions? True, the sociological research organisation Mass Observation sprang into action and recruited a lot of new observers in March/April 2020 to capture the experience of the pandemic. In the fullness of time we will learn how many of them stayed the course.
DH: The early stages of the Covid crisis were perhaps the most analogous to Munich—just as news of a new virus in China had played out in the background before March 2020, so the Sudeten crisis unfolded over the summer of 1938 in a way that didn’t affect people in a meaningful way until September. Then the reality dawned and a tangible ‘crisis’ set in—in 1938 air raid shelters were constructed and gas masks distributed; in 2020 we locked down, queued outside supermarkets, and fashioned face masks out of old clothes. We might acclimatise to a crisis, adapt to a ‘new’ normal, but new crises (today’s ‘variants’) are never far from the surface.
JG: Another issue is the use of the word ‘crisis’. Can a crisis drag on and on, for months and even years, or does longevity make the word unhelpful, misleading, or even useless? Certainly in September 1938 everyone immediately referred to the moment as ‘The Crisis’, specifically the four days at the end of September at the climax of the drama when Chamberlain was summoned to a third meeting with Hitler, and the meeting of the Four Powers at Munich when they came to the agreement for the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia.
In the first lockdown, thinking about Covid-19 as a crisis event was plausible. As we in Britain find ourselves in the third lockdown, and a year and counting into the global pandemic, we may very well require a different word, a different paradigm, to make sense of our historical moment, and how it will be bookended by historians of the future. The study of comparative crisis therefore prompts a fruitful discussion about periodisation.
Julie V. Gottlieb is Professor of Modern History at the University of Sheffield. Her related publications include ‘Guilty Women’, Foreign Policy and Appeasement (Palgrave, 2015), “The Munich Crisis: Waiting for the End of the World” historytoday.com/archive/feature/munich-crisis-waiting-end-world, and “Surviving a “War of Nerves”: Lessons for the age of coronavirus from 1930s Britain” newstatesman.com/science-tech/coronavirus/2020/03/surviving-war-nerves-lessons-age-coronavirus-1930s-britain
Professor Daniel Hucker is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Nottingham. His related publications include Public Opinion and the End of Appeasement in Britain and France (Ashgate, 2011) and Public Opinion and Twentieth-Century Diplomacy: A Global Perspective (Bloomsbury, 2020).
Professor Richard Toye is Professor of Modern History at the University of Exeter. His related publications include Winston Churchill: A Life in the News (Oxford University Press, 2020) and ‘“This famous island is the home of freedom”: Winston Churchill and the battle for “European civilization”’, History of European Ideas, 46 (2020).