Quadrant - April 1999
MORE LESSONS FROM MUNICH
SIR: Garry Woodard's piece about Australia's role in the 1938 Munich affair is
interesting (January~February 1999). But why the assumption that Chamberlain's concessions
at Munich, and Canberraís involvement in those concessions, were a disaster for
the West? Seen from other directions, the conventional view of Munich as weak-kneed
appeasement can easily be turned on its head.
In Japan, for example, Munich is seen a stroke of hard-headed realpolitik and perfidious British diplomatic genius. In 1938 Hitler was torn between go-West and go- East strategies. The Munich concessions were crucial in persuading him to look East, the Japanese believe, which led him eventually to the attack on the Soviet Union. But for that attack, Germany would easily have won out against the West, and Japan would then have been able to consolidate its victories in Asia.
The Soviets used to be even more critical. They too saw the Munich concessions and Moscow's exclusion from the September 1938 Munich Conference as part of a clever conspiracy by Western anti-communists to encourage Hitler to attack East. The "conspiracy" may have backfired somewhat, in the sense that Hitler eventually went both East and West. But the damage done to the East was far greater than that done to the West.
As for the willingness-of the West to declare war on Hitler once he had attacked east into Poland, this is dismissed simply as a belated realisation by Western anti-communists that, while tossing the Sudetenland to the Nazi wolves had its look-East merits, the loss of Czechoslovakia and Poland, plus the Moscow/Hitler pact of August 1939 designed to counter Munich, all threatened the UK/French plans for a pan-European sphere of influence in ways unforeseen in 1938.
The West European (and Australian) conventional view of Munich as an ugly act of appeasement assumes that the West alone could have stopped or defeated Hitler if only it had stood firm. This is fantasy. Hitler was bent on aggression anyway and could easily have defeated anything the West could have thrown at him, including Churchill.
But for Germany's foolish attack on the Soviet Union, and the extraordinary sacrifices of the Soviet forces resisting that attack, German would be the lingua franca of Western Europe today, and Australians would be speaking much better Japanese than they do. In a perverse and probably unforeseen way, Canberra's "men of Munich" helped save Australia.
The irony does not stop there. For without the so-called "lessons of Munich", Australia would have been spared much of the Cold War confrontationalism that led to the tragedies, first of Korea, then Vietnam, and a host of other interventions that ultimately will see Australia's interests in Asia suffer far more from Islamic or other forms of post-Cold War fundamentalism than if the natural trend of postwar Asian events had been allowed to run its course.
Garry Woodard is right to praise Garfield Barwick's efforts to tone down Canberra's confrontationalism towards Indonesia's Sukarno regime (though Barwick more than made up for this wisdom by his rigidly hawkish approach over China and Vietnam). But this did not stop our gung-ho spies from co-operation with UK/US opposite numbers in the destabilising operations against that regime, which led eventually to the massacre of a generation of Indonesian progressives.
At the time, some of us tried to suggest that an Islamic South-East
Asia represented more of a long-term threat to Australia than anything that would be caused by left-wing Asians. But in those days, even Lee Kwan Yew was seen as a dangerous left-winger who also had to be destabilised and kept out of power, all in the name of avoiding Munich-style appeasement towards the communist "menace".
Fortunately Lee was gracious enough eventually to forgive Canberra for this folly (though as an initial punishment he sent the useless and incompetent Lim Yew Hock, whom the Western allies had backed strongly against Lee, to serve as ambassador in Canberra, a position he held for some months before disappearing with a Sydney stripper)
The real lesson of Munich is that the world is a much more complicated place than our Cold War warriors ever even began to understand.