Written by: Kristýna Kvitkova
“Half a century ago, the world had a chance to stop a ruthless aggressor and missed it. I pledge to you: We will not make that mistake again,” stated President George H. W. Bush on 20th August 1990 following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.The “mistake” he vowed to never repeat was the Munich Conference.
In September 1938, Adolf Hitler threatened to start a war in Europe by invading Czechoslovakia in order to annex the Sudetenland, a Czechoslovak frontier region inhabited by over three million Germans. Aiming to preserve peace, British and French prime ministers Neville Chamberlain and Édouard Daladier engaged in a policy of appeasement vis-à-vis Hitler and asked Czechoslovakia to give up its territory. When Czechoslovakia refused, Chamberlain and Daladier met with Hitler and Benito Mussolini in Munich on September 29th and signed the Munich Agreement. The Sudetenland was surrendered to Germany and Chamberlain famously declared having achieved “peace in our time.” However, not even a year later Hitler invaded Poland and kicked off the Second World War. The Munich Conference came to be remembered as the lesson of Munich: appeasement only encourages more aggression; dictators must be stopped immediately before they get the opportunity to create a larger conflict. This famous lesson has been influential in American and British foreign policy ever since as it, for instance, played a prominent role during the Suez Crisis, the Vietnam War or the Iraq War.
However, in Czechoslovakia, and later the Czech Republic, the lesson of Munich is understood wholly differently. The Munich Agreement is remembered as the “Munich betrayal,” the “Munich dictate” or under the simple summarization “about us without us.” Appeasement of dictators is only secondary in this remembering of Munich; what matters is that Czechoslovakia was not invited to the negotiation table and was forced to accept the disastrous outcome “dictated” by the great powers. Moreover, the Conference is remembered as a “betrayal” from the West, particularly from France which had been considered an ally owing to a pledge of mutual military assistance made in mid-1920s.
This narrative of betrayal originated at the time of the Munich Conference and it persists in culture and education to this day. “Tolls tolls the treason bell the treason bell” (“Zvoní zvoní zrady zvon zrady zvon”), wrote poet František Halas in his poem The Song of Anxiety (Zpěv úzkosti) already in 1938. Thirty-five years later, the Munich Conference was depicted in Otakar Vávra’s film tellingly called The Days of Betrayal(Dny Zrady). Recently, Petr Zelenka made the film Lost in Munich (Ztraceni v Mnichově) as a satire on the simplistic general understanding of the event. The narrative of betrayal is still common in education, too. “Everyone betrayed us,” declares Czechoslovak president Edvard Beneš in an episodeof a popular educational cartoon The History of the Brave Czech Nation (Dějiny udatného českého národa). A commonly used high school history textbook calls the Agreement a “dictate” and claims that “it was lawfully said they [the great powers] negotiated ‘about us without us.’”
The above examples illustrate that the Munich Conference is a historical event firmly entrenched in public memory. It is considered one of the watershed events of Czech national history. Thus, it contributes to the construction of the Czech national identity. Furthermore, the generally held perception of the Munich Conference as a betrayal provides a narrative for the historical event and implies a lesson: a caution against great powers which can arbitrarily impose decisions onto a weak, small nation.
But this Czech version of the lesson of Munich is brought a step further by nationalist politicians and the disinformation webs. For them, the phrase “Munich betrayal” has become a tool for evoking a sense that the nation is threatened or that it is powerless because of the bad political leadership that accepts the will of Western great powers.
Arguably the most influential politician to use the “Munich betrayal” for nationalism is Tomio Okamura, the leader of the Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD, Svoboda a přímá demokracie). SPD is a far-right populist party and is the most significant nationalist party in the Czech Republic – in 2021 parliamentary election it gained over 500,000 votes (9,56%) and currently holds 20 seats in the Chamber of Deputies. SPD’s political programme is based on the emphasis on national sovereignty and direct democracy, and a strong opposition to the EU, immigration, and multiculturalism. Okamura uses the “Munich betrayal” to promote these policies. In a post on Okamura’s Facebook profile, now followed by over 380k users, he writes that the Munich Agreement constituted a betrayal from our allies and that there is no guarantee they will not betray Czechia again, especially France and Germany which “are now making hegemonistic great-power politics and want to unite Europe under an idealistic Marxist-Islamic ideology”. In a video with currently 20,7k views, Okamura claims that “Today, the country is under a similar pressure [as at the time of Munich]. It is expected to yield the reminder of its sovereignty, and to disappear in a multiculturalist project of the Islamised EU.” Not only is Okamura strengthening the perception that the Munich Agreement was unquestionably a betrayal with such posts, but he is also advocating that Western Europe is the dangerous “Other” to the Czechs.
The “Munich betrayal” is also commonly used on the disinformation webs which spread fake news and are usually nationalistically oriented. The “Munich betrayal” appears in several contexts. One of the common themes on these websites is Euroscepticism. In regard to this topic, one article equates the Munich Agreement to the Lisbon Treaty, both of which are claimed to have been naively intended to avoid possible harm and have led to the limitation of Czech independence. Another article defends Viktor Orbán from the “Brussels dictate” in reaction to a European Parliament resolution that is “comparable to the Munich betrayal.” Opposition to immigration is another prevalent theme; for instance, an article features quotes of politicians who opposethe EU asylum seeker relocation scheme and compare it to the “Munich dictate.” The “Munich betrayal” narrative has also been used in criticisms of the Green Deal, and of the Black Lives Matter movement which is claimed to be as evil as the NSDAP and forcing Czechia to yield and kneel again, this time on football fields. Finally, the “Munich betrayal” is used to create more misleading historical narratives, for example one article claims that it effectively pushed Stalin to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact so the Soviet Union should not be blamed for attacking Poland and contributing to the start of the Second World War.
Ultimately, the aforementioned examples of nationalist utilization of the “Munich betrayal” have one thing in common: they are inducing a feeling that there is a Western conspiracy against the Czech Republic, and that Czechs are forced to accept decisions made by the West which will harm their independence. By doing so, Czech nationalists are claiming the West is “the Other,” and mentions of the “Munich betrayal” indicate it has always been so. The lesson of Munich becomes not just a warning against great power arbitrary decisions as the general Czech understanding holds it, but rather a need to protect national sovereignty from Western Europe that wishes to impose its liberal agenda.
Featured Imagery: Bundesarchiv Bild 183-R69173, Münchener Abkommen, Staatschefs on Wikimedia Commons.