The appeasement of Adolf Hitler in Munich is what emboldened Germany to continue its march across Europe. That is the lesson that many politicians, historians, military leaders, and diplomats have invoked time and again to justify demonstrations of strength and resolve in the face of aggression. Bullies and tyrants, they argue, only listen to power.
But is this fundamentally true?
In 1938, Adolf Hitler ordered the German invasion and occupation of the Sudetenland, territory inside of Czechoslovakia. In response, representatives from the United Kingdom, France, and Italy convened with their German counterparts in Munich to negotiate a cessation of Nazi expansionism. They agreed that Germany could retain the Sudetenland as long as Hitler conceded that his ambition stopped there.
On 30 September 1938, the four parties signed the Munich Agreement, to which British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain famously remarked, “My good friends, for the second time in our history a British Prime Minister has returned from Germany bringing peace with honour. I believe it is peace for our time.” As history shows, that peace did not last long, and ever since, people have argued that it was the UK, French, and Italian appeasement at Munich that invited Hitler’s conquest of Europe.
One problem with the Munich analogy is that it is tautological; in other words, we cannot prove that a demonstration of strength at Munich would have derailed Hitler’s intended course of action. All we can know for sure is that Hitler had ambitions for conquering Europe and that he felt undeterred by his obligations under the Munich agreement.
Another problem is that the invocation of the Munich analogy can lead to dangerous courses of action that exacerbate an escalation cycle rather than deter an adversary. In effect, a desire to demonstrate strength can actually lead to more violence rather than preventing it.
Thus, when looking at the Munich analogy, we must question the legitimacy of the lesson many have learned from it. The central question is whether or not the aphorism, “Appeasement makes the aggressor more aggressive," is actually true.
First, it is necessary to break down this statement further. In a crisis, it is best not to look at a party as an "aggressor," as it implies that every crisis emerges from a planned incident. The better term is the more neutral "initiator," as in "the party that initiated the precipitating event to the crisis."
Second, "appeasement" implies giving in to all the other side’s demands. That is not what happened in Munich; rather, the UK, French, and Italian representatives sought a negotiated solution rather than the use of military force or other escalation to halt Germany’s advance. They (and many in their home governments) truly believed they had averted a second World War.
Thus, the question then becomes, does a willingness to negotiate rather than escalate make the initiator of the crisis more aggressive?
The answer depends on a crucial variable: whether the initiator of the crisis is committed to changing the pre-crisis status quo. If status quo change was always the goal, then acceding to the initiator’s demands is likely to convince them that achieving their broader goals is feasible. If the initiator is willing to accept conditions that do not alter the fundamental features of the pre-crisis status quo, then negotiating a mutually acceptable resolution to the crisis is unlikely to invite future aggression.
Two operative examples are useful in understanding this concept in practice.
Let’s say there is an unplanned incident involving border guards where one side (the initiator) kills two soldiers of the opposing side (the respondent). The respondent may feel compelled to issue a counter-attack as a means to deter future incidents. Using the Munich analogy, the respondent’s justification would be that failure to punish the other side would invite future attacks.
There are two problems there. First is that such a justification presupposes that failure to punish an accidental incident will subsequently invite intentional aggression. That is not a foregone conclusion. Second, retaliation (especially disproportionate retaliation) may beget yet another counter-attack from the initiator, thus moving the situation further up the escalation cycle.
Instead, if the incident is over, the respondent should take steps to determine the causes of the incident and seek to remedy any conditions that could have contributed to it.
Taking the same type of scenario, but making it intentional, let’s now say that the border guards intentionally attacked and took control of a portion of the other side’s territory. The important question here is what was the intention? Was it a rogue unit? Did the government order the attack to garner attention? Was it to placate internal policy actors? Was it to distract from domestic troubles? Was it because the initiator is actually seeking to conquer and absorb territory?
In all but one of those cases, the initiator is not necessarily seeking status quo change. Therefore, it is possible that a negotiation could result in the withdrawal of forces and a return to conditions from before the incident. Of course, it could be that the initiator was seeking to expand its territory, but it is impossible to figure out if that’s true unless there is engagement and dialogue.
In the case that the other side is intentionally seeking status quo change by unlawful means, then a negotiated settlement may invite them to pursue further unlawful actions to achieve their policy goals. The appropriate response here is to increase the costs associated with such status quo change enough to deter the initiator. Those can come in the form of economic sanctions, military strikes, or other actions.
Still, even in this situation, the goal is a negotiated settlement that recognizes the unlawful action and restores the fundamental elements of the pre-incident status quo. When paired with effective deterrents, such a deal could provide an off-ramp to further escalation.
The keys in all this are understanding each sides' interests and intentions and taking action based on measured assessments of each. If status quo change via unlawful means is the goal of the initiator, then acquiescence and conciliation may invite additional incidents in the future. If the incident was accidental or if the initiator is not committed to changing the status quo, then a negotiated agreement that recognizes the unlawful action and restores the fundamental elements of the pre-incident status quo can provide resolution that averts the risk of additional violence and escalation.