Beware the Munich Lesson… especially in Ukraine

By Emiliano Polo, Fletcher Alum

“Appeasement in itself may be good or bad according to the circumstances. Appeasement from weakness and fear is alike futile and fatal. Appeasement from strength is magnanimous and noble, and might be the surest and only path to world peace”.  – Winston Churchill, 1950.

The recurrent blunders and incompetence of Vladimir Putin and the Russian military in Ukraine have destroyed the country’s previous aura of military might. Yet it is somewhat counterintuitive that the weakening of one of the warring parties has intensified the unease of the international community. The war has resuscitated a looming wrangling in history: how to deal with a decadent and diminished but still dangerous state. Historian Stephen Kotkin recently noted how “this aggression derives from weakness, a sense of grandeur that is unmet”[1] in Russia’s self-perception; history often emphasizes how the end of empires are seldom peaceful processes.[2] As Russian resources and options run out, the glitter of nuclear weapons becomes a more appealing last resource. Still, the West must be wary and avoid the ‘fear of looking weak’ as the bedrock for the design of foreign policy; this prejudice has led to preventable violent escalations in the past.

With the growing compilation of failures in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin has fallen into the trap and urge to micromanage and meddle in all kinds of military tactics and subtleties, raising the risk of mistakes, further escalation, and the creation of a personal link with the conflict that could diminish his power. As Tzar Nicholas II was warned during World War I about his own participation in the war, “beware of creating a personal association with the outcomes,” one of his advisers alerted, remember that the “[T]he army under your command must be victorious.”[3]

Earlier in the conflict, Vladimir Putin and his accomplice, Chinese President Xi Jinping, issued a joint statement: “Friendship between the two states has no limits; there are no forbidden areas of cooperation.”[4] Yet the “no-limit” friendship has to survive the persistent incompetence of Russian forces, their sinking morale on the battlefield, the internal opposition of Russian citizens, and the embarrassment on the international stage. It is unlikely that all this wreckage hasn’t made Putin cognizant that “he has no way to retire gracefully after all the damage he’s done.”[5] Hence the danger. The possibility of using nuclear weapons at least give him the cowardly solace to grumble, ‘après moi, le dèluge.’ In this volatile scenario, crammed with cruelty and grudge, the West should be careful not to misuse one of history’s most referenced and misunderstood lessons: the ‘Munich lesson.’

Appeasement is one of the worst insults in politics—a synonym for cowardice and naivety. The well-known image of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain stepping out of his airplane, waving a piece of paper in front of a cheering crowd, proclaiming “peace for our times” became the yardstick of weakness and political short-sightedness. But political strategies are rarely suitable or harmful in the abstract; they are advantageous or ineffective in specific contexts. The Munich Lesson needs to be reconsidered and used more scrupulously. The agreement of 1938 extended territorial concessions to Germany, allowing Adolf Hitler to occupy the Sudetenland, an ethnically German area in Czechoslovakia, hoping to stop further territorial claims by the Reich. Nonetheless, the event left the wrong lesson in history because it has been recreated as a binary scenario for action: tyranny must always be met with force. Not doing so represents moral bankruptcy, or as Churchill described it, “one who feeds the crocodile, hoping it will eat him last.”[6]

Appeasement has been a significant reference point in U.S. foreign policy on more than one occasion. It was explicitly pointed out to justify the invasion of Iraq during the G.W. Bush administration and to bolster the harsher versions of neoconservatism.[7]Journalist Gideon Rachman asserts that “misapplied ‘lessons of Munich’ have led to repeated foreign policy disasters since 1945”.[8] The gist of the ‘lesson’ and its use as the moral podium to advocate for the benefit of force and military interventions rests in the simplification that democracies in the 1930s ‘lacked the will’ to stop Hitler. The analogy was likewise employed during the Vietnam War. President Nixon wrote in his memoirs that “what had been true of the betrayal of Czechoslovakia to Hitler in 1938 was no less true of the betrayal of South Vietnam to the communists advocated by many in 1965”.[9]  But the analogy is deceptive because it draws a deduction in hindsight, a conclusion that at the time was “neither simple nor obvious.”[10] When Chamberlain made the agreement, the decision was the result of a political context that included the risk of Britain’s military overstretch, American isolationist trend, distrust of the Soviet Union, guilt for a recent vindictive Versailles Treaty, and the constraints of public opinion.[11]The correct ‘Munich lesson’ is not that appeasement is a moral disgrace, but rather that “appeasement failed because Hitler was unappeasable”; Hitler wanted war.[12] The narrower pejorative connotation needs to be reexamined, as it rests on the generalization that all “states are inherently insatiable.”[13] Furthermore, hindsight bias gives the wrong impression that facts were self-evident at the time and their consequences were predictable.

But security threats must not be confronted as simple dichotomies. A more sensible lesson is distrusting the tendency to use military responses as the ultimate and imperative foreign policy tool. This reconsideration is not an argument to turn a blind eye to bullies; but an invitation to outmaneuver them. The 1930s reveal “the danger of underestimating a security threat [however] the post-World War II decades contain examples of the danger of overestimating [one].”.[14] To grasp the events in Munich, we must consider other historical examples where “short-term self-discipline set the stage for long-term success,” like how H. Truman’s moderation in North Korea or D. Eisenhauer’s refusal to intervene in the Soviet invasion of Hungary[15] led to positive results. History shows that moderation and restraint must be considered as options in foreign policy; compromise is not tantamount to appeasement.

The essence of appeasement is probably best summarized by the phrase attributed to Churchill: “You were given the choice between war and dishonor. You chose dishonor, and you will have war”.[16] But this is an incomplete story. As former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Neville Chamberlain understood the confines of Britain’s crippled economy at the time. A vast array of foreign policy options was not the defining setting of a country traumatized by the Great War. Chamberlain was no feckless dove; he was a man of his generation, a man deeply abhorred, along with his countrymen, by the memory of the recent war, “the British and French people greeted the Munich agreement with heartfelt relief. It was not until “March 1939, when Hitler occupied what was left of Czechoslovakia, a revulsion of feeling had occurred in Britain, where war was now widely accepted as inevitable”.[17] Moreover, Chamberlain was aware of Britain’s insufficient military preparedness. He had received a report from the military chief staff concluding that the army’s capabilities were inadequate to stop a German takeover of Czechoslovakia[18]and to the possibility of a German air assault, “Britain was defenseless in the face of the bomber.”[19]  The Committee of Imperial Defense argued that delaying the outbreak of war was necessary for the acquisition of airplanes to counter the Luftwaffe.[20]

The events at Munich developed under a much more sophisticated and adverse context than it is usually recognized, “the failure to stand up to Hitler was not the real lesson to be learned […] For a liberal democracy to effectively oppose aggression, especially if it comes at the risk of a long and costly war, it requires the overwhelming support of the people”.[21] Delaying war was essential and ineluctable for Britain. The country needed to build up the army, and, not less importantly, the public was divided, “[…]public opinion dreaded the prospect of another war and welcomed any diplomatic initiative that might avert one.”[22] Additionally, Britain had no treaty obligation to defend Czechoslovakia. It was not until Hitler invaded Poland, violating the Munich Agreement, Britain was united and militarily prepared.[23] Historian Michael Howard proposed an insightful explanation of how Chamberlain and his generation understood the world and their context, which, of course, constrained what they envisaged as viable options:

“It is difficult for historians in retrospect, with all the wisdom of hindsight and all the time in the world, to comprehend the complex processes that went to the creation of the Third Reich and the nature of the society to which it gave political expression, we should not be too quick to condemn those contemporary British statesmen who so tragically misunderstood the phenomenon in their own day. For their perceptions were also constrained by their cultural framework. Neville Chamberlain and his closest colleagues had been brought up in the England of Queen Victoria and were middle-aged when the First World War began. Their world was that of the British Empire. The problems posed by the Congress Party in India, by the Wafd movement in Egypt, and by the relations of Briton and Boer in South Africa were more immediate to them, more real, more urgent, than were the racial antagonisms of Central Europe”.[24]

Back to the repercussions for our age, the West’s response -or lack thereof- to the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the aggressions in Georgia in 2008 was condemned as bashful and insubstantial, a careless green light that emboldened the Putin regime for the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Appeasement swiftly returned as the once again always-forgotten lesson of history. Once more, a tyrant in violation of international law, invaded a neighboring territory to protect stranded ethnic populations’ captured by made-up countries and corrupt Western regimes’.[25]

With Vladimir Putin’s criminal aggressions, Western leaders became paranoid and wary of being associated with arch-appeaser Neville Chamberlain.[26] Arguably, then as now, the unwillingness to establish redlines emboldened the dictators to demand more. The Munich lesson applied to Ukraine is often argued along the following lines:

“Any talk of a negotiated peace would only appease the aggressor, reward blatant aggression and crimes against humanity with territory or a neutral status of its target […] The Anschluss of Austria and the annexation of Czech Sudetenland did not prevent the Second World War; rather, global acceptance of these compromises hastened and invited it”.[27]  Therefore, the lesson is “confront evil regimes as soon as possible.”[28]

The problem with this rigid reconstruction of the analogy is that the world is different now than in the 1930s. Back then, with all its cruelty, war did not imply nuclear Armageddon. The far-fetched interpretation of Munich does not solve the usual complex details and more intricate aspects of policy and war, the concealed, and not so thrilling, role of economics, alliances, and function of public opinion in democratic politics. For example, does avoiding Appeasement means that the West should give Ukraine everything it needs to succeed? How should the U.S. deal with foes supporting Russia or with the “Ukrainian fatigue” as assistance becomes increasingly a partisan issue? The ghost of Chamberlain often hunts down those who even dare to have doubts or consider options in foreign policy.

Ukraine must win and Vladimir Putin should be persecuted as the fugitive criminal that he is. But historical lessons are usually misguidedly retrieved to shrink our options for action instead of widening our path and scope to appraise political dilemmas. The recollection of history seldom creates consensus, albeit it should be upheld for its capacity to shed light on dangerous zones and build signposts along the way of statecraft.

In hindsight, once catastrophes occur, it is not unusual to ask why these were not prevented in due time. Every crisis has its “where were you when” moment. If we only “had ‘stood up’ to Hitler sooner; or if we had given greater encouragement to the clandestine opposition within Germany,” we tell ourselves. But the “sad paradox of Munich is that when thuggish aggressors can be easily stopped, there’s rarely the moral case necessary for democracies to take action.”[29] Are all other options short of war only emboldening to the aggressor? This can undoubtedly be the case, but more often than not, bullies have already made up their minds.

The ‘Munich lesson’ is not a straightforward guide to action nor an unwavering moral principle. Its careless use sprouts from the generalization that all authoritarian regimes are equally insatiable, but a one-fits-all solution to all tyrants is irresponsible. Every autocrat needs to be faced according to their foibles. Dictators must be stopped, and their means condemned, yet a stringent application of the ‘Munich lesson’ constrains policy options and the required imagination to outwit their regimes.

[1] Stephen Kotkin, Foreign Affairs Podcast, “What Putin got wrong about Ukraine, Russia and the West, May 26, 2023: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/podcasts/what-putin-got-wrong-about-ukraine-russia-and-west

[2] Niall Ferguson, “Why the end of America’s Empire won’t be peaceful”, The Economist, August 2021:

[3] Tom Nichols, “Russia’s nuclear threats are all Putin has left”, The Atlantic, September 2022:

[4] Tony Munroe and Andrew Osborne, “China, Russia partner up against West at Olympics summit”, Reuters, February 2022:

[5] Andreas Kluth, “A decision tree for Biden if Putin goes nuclear”, The Washington Post, September 2022:

[6] Mathew Wills, “Reconsidering Appeasement”, Jstor, August 2055:

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Jeffrey Record, “Appeasement reconsidered: Investigating the mythology of the 1930’s”, August 2005:

[10] Ibid.

[11] Richard E. Neustadt and Ernest R. May, “Thinking in Time. The uses of history for decision makers”, The Free Press, 1986, p. 87.

[12] Jeffrey Record, “Appeasement reconsidered: Investigating the mythology of the 1930’s”, August 2005:

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Samuel Charap and Michael Mazarr, “The wisdom of U.S. restraint on Russia. As in the Cold War, Washington cannot wish Moscow away”, Foreign Affairs, September 2022:

[16] Mark W. Davis, “What would Churchill do?”, The Wilson Quarterly, Summer 2015:

[17] Michael Howard & WM. Roger Louis, “The Oxford History of the 20th Century”. Oxford, 1998, p. 111.

[18] Ishaan Tharoor, “In defense of Neville Chamberlain, hindsight’s most battered punching bag”, The Washington Post, July 20, 2015.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] John Storey, “War in Ukraine and the forgotten lesson of Munich”, The Strategist:

[22] Michael Howard & WM. Roger Louis, “The Oxford History of the 20th Century”. Oxford, 1998, p. 111

[23] Gideon Rachman, “The wrong lessons from Munich”, Financial Times, September 24, 2007: https://www.ft.com/content/9680de94-6aaf-11dc-9410-0000779fd2ac

[24] Michael Howard, “The lessons of history”, Yale University Press, 1991, p. 15.

[25] John Storey, “War in Ukraine and the forgotten lesson of Munich”, The Strategist:

[26] Ibid.

[27] Yaroslav Baran, “Ukraine and the Price of Appeasement”, Policy Magazine, February 23, 2023:

[28] Gideon Rachman, “The wrong lessons from Munich”, Financial Times, September 24, 2007: https://www.ft.com/content/9680de94-6aaf-11dc-9410-0000779fd2ac

[29] John Storey, “War in Ukraine and the forgotten lesson of Munich”, The Strategist

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