Where are the modern-day equivalents of Churchill, De Gaulle or Roosevelt, those prepared to plan for the decades to come?
Who’s heard of Sudetenland? That was my history teacher’s question to our class in the early 70’s. Unsurprisingly, not one of us had. A couple of years back, pupils would have been similarly clueless about the Donbas.
“Faraway lands of which we know nothing”, (as Chamberlain said in 1938), can suddenly burst into our everyday consciousness. What happens in eastern Ukraine today really matters. The world has become shockingly more dangerous. I confess, there have been moments when I’ve found it all too easy to imagine that mushroom cloud on the horizon. It feels like Munich 1938 and the Cuban Missile Crisis rolled into one.
Recently I heard an interview by James Naughtie with the 99-year-old Henry Kissinger. This bête-noire of my revolutionary youth forever associated with the horrors of Vietnam and Pinochet’s Chile, nevertheless had some interesting pearls to offer: “Countries need confidence in each other to survive together. And with particular reference to the west’s future relations with Russia (and indeed China).” Adding: “Democracies and autocracies will have to live side by side for the rest of this century, prepared to accommodate within the framework that their values permit.”
It is this long-term diplomatic perspective that seems to be wanting today. If France and Germany could do it after the horrors of the second world war by laying the foundations for the EU, why can’t our current politicians think beyond Putin and Zelensky? Where are the modern-day equivalents of Churchill, De Gaulle or Roosevelt, those prepared to plan for the decades to come?
Kissinger was admonished recently by Zelensky when he postulated a settlement of the current war as being a return to the 2014 boundaries; in other words, floating the idea that Ukraine should accept the de-facto loss of Crimea to Russia 8 years ago.
He was right to put the proposition out there. Zelensky’s immediate rejection of the idea is understandable because in the throes of battle it is not wise to offer any compromise that might weaken your position in future negotiations. But for Liz Truss to lay out the red lines on Ukraine’s behalf is not helpful if we are to avoid the mushroom clouds.
In my lifetime it seems that so many of our politicians’ responses to a head-to-head international threat is to pull out the ghost of Munich in 1938. ‘Appeasement’ is the heinous label to be avoided at all costs. It is seen as evidence of weakness in a face off with a bully. An accusation which Blair levelled against his opponents to give him the authority to take us into war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Which brings me back to Sudetenland. This was the land once occupied for generations by the Sudeten Germans, Czechoslovakia’s borderlands with Germany and Austria up until 1938. What happened there over 80 years ago has long fascinated me and I cannot help but see some concerning parallels with our conflict with Putin today.
The Munich Agreement was concluded at Munich on 30 September 1938, by the leaders of Germany, Britain, France, and Italy. It agreed to the annexation of Czechoslovakia’s Sudeten borderlands to Germany. In return, Britain and France received assurances on the security of the rump of Czechoslovakia that remained.
Hitler promised that this was his “last territorial claim in Europe.” Chamberlain declared “peace in our time.” And Churchill gave his dire warning in the House of Commons five days later that “we have passed an awful milestone in our history, when the whole equilibrium of Europe has been deranged.”
But in the lead up to Munich this was not seen simply as the bullying antics of a despot. This crisis had been brewing for a long time. A lot of people in this country sympathised with what the Sudeten Germans had been demanding – and it wasn’t initially incorporation into Germany.
This border was an old one, a fault line of history between the Hapsburg Empire of Austria-Hungary and Prussia’s maximum reach. The Sudeten Germans were Austrian, and they comprised over a quarter of the population of the western provinces of Bohemia and Moravia. They looked to Vienna and Prague, not Berlin.
The 1919 Treaty of Versailles had created a lifeline for the Sudeten Germans with its commitment to recognising the different ethnicities across central and eastern Europe. Czech, Slovak, Romanian, Bulgarian and Polish demands were met, but not those of the Sudeten Germans.
They had argued at Versailles for their right to remain as part of Austria but instead became an inconvenient ethnic minority in a new state dominated by their Slavic neighbours, the new multi-ethnic Czechoslovakia.
The Sudeten resentment came to a head in the Great Depression in the 30’s when unemployment amongst the Sudeten Germans rose to over 60%. By the mid 30’s a new lifeline had opened up. If they couldn’t re-join Austria, then maybe Germany would take them.
Of course, we all know what happened next. Hitler gleefully grasped his opportunity, and Sudetenland was welcomed into the Third Reich. Czechoslovakia was dismembered. Within a year Britain was at war with Germany, and we hear nothing of Sudetenland again - until 1945.
That’s the problem, we don’t hear about them. The atrocities after Germany surrendered were so many that what happened to the Sudeten Germans barely got a mention. Old scores across Europe were being settled, and the Czechs were damn sure Sudetenland was going to be an integral part of their newly liberated Czechoslovakia.
The Sudeten German problem had to be settled once and for all. With a nod and a wink from the Allied powers, the three million Sudeten Germans were force marched across the mountains into war torn Bavaria and Saxony. Thousands died from starvation, beatings, and summary executions – and the centuries old Sudeten German culture and identity was no more.
The clear difference between Sudetenland and Donbas is language. In Sudetenland the Sudeten Germans spoke German! In Ukraine, first language does not determine one’s national identity – just like in Scotland. We can all see and hear that most largely Russian speaking areas of Ukraine are as determined to resist Russia’s attack on their independence as Ukrainian speaking areas. But not all.
The actions of the west have put Ukraine firmly on the map. She is almost a de-facto member of NATO already. There is no way the clock can be turned back now. Ukraine, as an independent state will survive, but where will her settled borders lie? It is not our place to dictate terms on behalf of the Ukrainians, neither is it morally right to egg on the Ukrainians to provide a lifeline for this Conservative government.
The sorry tale of the Sudeten Germans has its echo in the plight of some small enclaves of Russian nationalists in parts of the Donbas today, self-declared ‘Russian peoples republics’ since 2014.
Perhaps later this year there will be a stalemate that lasts decades, like in Korea. Or maybe Ukraine’s government will at some point acknowledge, that while the vast majority of its citizens now enthusiastically and courageously embrace Ukrainian independence and a European future, there exist pockets of stubborn Russian resistance on its eastern edge, and in Crimea too, who will also not turn back the clock - and instead look to Moscow.
Kissinger has had his time, but I hope that when Zelensky is in the mood for listening to other world leaders on how to bring this high-stake nuclear poker game to a close, he discards the sabre rattling of Liz Truss and instead listens to cooler heads like Macron or Erdogan.
Because if we are to avoid world annihilation in the future, we need to avoid escalation in our words and actions now. ■
Sudetenland Germans being expelled from their historical homelands in early 1946, and their Coat of Arms