A few weeks ago, when the conflict between Russia and Georgia over the breakaway territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia erupted, Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek -- in an attempt to stick up for Georgia and to underline its unfavorable military and political situation -- mentioned "a new Munich."
He was referring to the agreement -- signed in the early morning hours of September 30, 1938, but officially dated September 29 -- under which the major European powers agreed to transfer border territories of Czechoslovakia to Hitler's Third Reich. Now, on the 70th anniversary of that momentous event, it is important to consider whether Topolanek's comparison has merit.
In many ways, the situation then was unique and unrepeatable.
Ethnic Czechs and Germans lived peacefully together on the territory of today's Czech Republic for centuries. The first German colonists were invited into the Czech lands by King Premysl Otakar I in the 12th century and were asked to settle the inhospitable mountain region along the border. They instructed the Czechs in mining -- especially silver -- and the early mining towns of Jihlava and Kutna Hora were settled by them.
The conflict -- which ended in the Munich accord and, after World War II, the forced expulsion of ethnic Germans from the country -- arose only in the 19th century. As the industrial revolution developed and the need for steel increased dramatically throughout the Austrian empire, the dynamic Germans prospered. The Czechs, however, continued to focus on traditional agricultural production. Liberec (or Reichenberg), which is considered by Czech Germans to be the capital of the Sudety region (Sudetenland), thrived and many of its public buildings were comparable to those in Vienna. The same architect who designed the parliament and opera buildings in Vienna also designed the town hall and the main theater in Liberec.
Economic power translated into political power. In the second half of the 19th century, one's right to vote depended on the amount of taxes one paid, and the poor were entirely disenfranchised. This practice was the norm until the Austrian emperor signed a decree on general male suffrage in 1907. As a result, even in towns with majority Czech populations, local government was dominated by Germans, who also held a majority in the provincial parliaments in both Bohemia and Moravia.
In 1867, despite appeals from Czech politicians, the German majorities in the legislature chose only ethnic Germans to represent the region in the imperial parliament. This watershed moment meant, in effect, that Czechs and Germans no longer lived together, but simply next to one another.
World War I deepened the mutual alienation. When the war ended and Czechoslovakia was formed, 3 million Germans were included in its territory largely involuntarily. Although there were ethnic Germans in the Czechoslovak government, the gap between the groups continued to grow as the economic crisis unfolded. The global depression hit the industrial, export-dependent regions hardest. These predominantly German areas soon had unemployment up to 40 percent, accompanied by despair, hunger, and misery. As Germany began its recovery under the National Socialists, Czech Germans looked across the border with envy.
Czechoslovakia's natural ally during this period was France. However, France was a distant ally and, as the events of September 1938 proved, not just geographically. In its immediate neighborhood, Czechoslovakia was surrounded by authoritarian states that were hostile to the young country. The 1930s, however, proved that France and Great Britain had not recovered from the blood bath of World War I. They had no interest in further adventures abroad. Both countries adopted neutral stances when the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936, even though German and Italy actively aided Francisco Franco's rebellion.
Paving Way For War
During this period, the democratic powers of Europe tried in vain to use diplomacy to resolve crises. It was this policy that lead to the Munich Agreement and, ultimately, to the liquidation of the only democracy in Central Europe. In fact, it is the nature of democracies to try to resolve conflicts through negotiations rather than by demonstrations of brute force. In 1938, however, this desire for peace through compromise paradoxically paved the way for war. Nazi Germany viewed the French and British desire for peace at all costs as a sign of weakness to be exploited.
However, Europe did not abandon the diplomatic path after the war. As early as September 1946, Winston Churchill advocated diplomatic reconciliation in a speech in Zurich. A similar impulse stood behind the U.S. Marshall Plan, adopted one year later. But the experience with Germany lead both Britain and the United States to insist that diplomacy and compromise be applied primarily when the participating sides were independent and democratic. At the same time, they adopted a tough stance against dictatorships, opposing the expansionist policies of Stalin's Soviet Union as much as they could. At times, such as the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the Western powers held to a hard line even when the risk of a hot war was considerable.
In 1967, after a series of provocations by Arab countries and statement by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser that he would drive the Jews into the sea, Israel launched a preemptive strike and defeated its Arab neighbors in the Six Day War. The Czechs endorsed Israel's action -- they remembered Munich, and so were one of the few European nations that understood Israel's behavior. They did not see Israel as an aggressor. Rather, Munich inculcated in them a belief that under certain circumstances, an offensive act can be defensive.
In contrast, Czechs are somewhat embarrassed that Topolanek applied the Munich comparison to Russia's actions in Georgia. Although Czechs have had their own negative experiences with Russia, they do not equate Russia with Nazi Germany. Rather, they share the opinion of French presidential adviser Alain Lamassoure, who told the newspaper "Hospodarske noviny": "[The Russians] still behave as if we were in the 20th century. They see the world as a permanent conflict of antagonistic interests in which one side must always win and the other must always lose. They see the West as a danger, and they do not realize that the danger for Russia will come rather from Iran, from the Islamic world, or from the Far East.... As far as we are concerned, we are not afraid of Russia; we are afraid of the spirit of the former Soviet Union. Today's Russia is a weak, undeveloped country that, if it asked for membership in the European Union, would be its poorest member."
"Our aim must be to help Russia understand the current century," Lamassoure continued. "We have not been successful in this because we are stupidly divided and weak. It is obviously not in the interests of France or Germany when we stand up on our own and provoke Russia, make it mad. But once we decide to speak with one voice, we will be able to withstand it."
The Czechs, and Europeans in general, watched how the Russian president dared to deceive the French president, and the lesson was clear: If Europe is to be on the weaker side, it must speak louder. It will not achieve anything with individual shows of force, but only through a common foreign policy. The Poles, the French, and the Germans are already saying this. Maybe the skeptical Czechs will come around tomorrow.
Ivan Stern is editor in chief of Czech Radio 6 and a political commentator. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.