On Sept. 30, 1938, 70 years ago, Neville Chamberlain visited Adolf Hitler's apartment in Munich, got his signature on a three-sentence declaration and flew home to Heston Aerodrome.
"I've got it," he shouted to Lord Halifax. "Here is a paper which bears his name." At the request of George VI, Chamberlain was driven to Buckingham Palace, where he joined the king on the balcony to take the cheers of the throngs below. An unprecedented honor.
Then it was on to 10 Downing Street, where, to choruses of "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow," Chamberlain declared: "This is the second time in our history that there has come back from Germany to Downing Street peace with honor. I believe it is peace for our time."
This was Munich, the summit of infamy, endlessly invoked as the textbook example of how craven appeasement leads to desperate war.
That is the great myth. And like all myths, there is truth to it.
Chamberlain had indeed signed away the Czech-ruled Sudetenland to Germany, rather than risk a new war like the one of 1914-1918 that had taken the lives of 700,000 British and 1.3 million Frenchmen.
Modernity spits on the name of Neville Chamberlain. Yet, consider the situation confronting the British prime minister that September.
The seeds of Munich had been planted at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, in the treaties of Versailles, St. Germain and Trianon.
Though Germany agreed to an armistice based on Wilson's 14 Points and principle of self-determination, millions of Germans had been consigned to alien rule. Some 3.25 million Bohemian Germans (Sudetenlanders) were handed over to Prague, as were 2.5 million Slovaks, 800,000 Hungarians, 500,000 Ukrainians and 150,000 Poles.
Germans will be "second class" citizens, President Masaryk told his parliament. Not a single German was in the National Assembly that drew up the constitution. Repeated protests by the German minority to the League of Nations were made -- to no avail.
Lloyd George said the Czechs had lied to him at Paris when they had promised to model Czechoslovakia on the Swiss Confederation, with autonomy for ethnic minorities.
By the 1930s, most British and the Tory government believed an injustice had been done to the Sudeten Germans that must be rectified by diplomacy if a new war was to be averted.
After the Saar voted 90 to 10 to rejoin the Reich, and Austria had been annexed, the Sudeten Germans began to agitate for secession and annexation by Germany. And as Chamberlain wrote his sister, he "didn't care two hoots whether the Sudetens were in the Reich or out of it." The issue was not worth a European or world war.