499px-Munchen1The worst historical analogy ever was born seventy years ago, when British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and French Prime Minister Edouard Daladier achieved a momentous settlement in Munich with Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. The subject of their conversation was the fate of Czechoslovakia, whose Sudetenland — a heavily industrialized, ethnically German region — Hitler hoped to absorb into the Reich.

On 29 September 1938, the four leaders signed the “Munich Dictate” (as it was known to Czechs and Slovaks), thus ceding “the Sudeten German territory” to Germany and temporarily avoiding a war that only Adolf Hitler was willing to contemplate at the time. On October 10, the German acquisition of the Sudetenland was complete; in addition to being deprived of 3.5 million citizens, Czechoslovakia lost nearly three-quarters of its electrical power and an equal proportion of its iron and steel production. Germany also acquired the massive Skoda industrial complex, one of the largest arms production facilities in the world. Within six months, the rest of Czechoslovakia had quietly slipped beneath German tracks.

Although “the lessons of Munich” have been mindlessly recited by subsequent generations of American political leaders, it is worth recalling Chamberlain’s actual intent in settling the crisis over Czechoslovakia. Far from “appeasing” Hitler simply to avoid war at all costs, Chamberlain hoped instead to reach a broader Anglo-German “understanding” that might nudge the Third Reich toward an Eastern conflict with the Soviet Union. Viewing Germany and England as “two pillars of European peace and buttresses against Communism,” Chamberlain offered to restrain his nation’s allies in the event such a war transpired. These alternative “lessons of Munich” — including the folly of cajoling right-wing dictatorships to attack their enemies on the left — were less frequently cited over the next several decades, as the United States exchanged promise rings with some of the most appalling regimes on the planet.

The Soviets, dismayed by their exclusion from the Munich conference, understood the “lessons of Munich” quite clearly and soon looked to reach an understanding of their own with the expanding German state. On 23 August of the following year, the disastrous Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was signed; Poland vanished little more than a week later, with tens of million lives eventually to follow in a war that many people continue to describe, however implausibly, as “Good.”

Among those killed during those horrid six years were 100,000 Jewish, Sinti and Roma civilians, shot and gassed by the German Einsatzgruppen C in Kiev, Ukraine, along with Soviet POW’s and patients from the Pavlov Psychiatric Hospital. The bodies were dumped in a majestic ravine in northwestern Kiev called Babi Yar. The Babi Yar massacre continued for months, but it commenced on 29 September 1941, sixty-seven years ago today.