British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain returned home from a meeting with Adolf Hitler on September 30, 1938, waving a piece of paper and assuring the waiting crowd that the agreement he had signed that day with Hitler would “ensure the peace of Europe.”
World War II began exactly a year later.
This week, US President Donald Trump assured a delirious crowd of Israel supporters in the White House that the so-called Israel-Palestinian peace deal he had just announced would be “a giant step toward peace.”
The similarity between the two events is not just semantic. Not does it lie in the bombastic self-assurance exhibited by both leaders, each of whom had betrayed a small and, for him, insignificant nation to achieve his moment in the spotlight.
The true parallel is in the fact that the victim in both cases – Czechoslovakia in 1938 and the Palestinians in 2020 – had no say in the dismantling of its territory. Czechoslovakia was not present at the Munich conference at which Hitler and Chamberlain decided its fate and the Palestinians were neither consulted during the drafting of Trump’s plan nor invited to its ecstatic unveiling.
Chamberlain’s peace entailed the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia, a large chunk of which was handed over to Nazi Germany. Trump’s peace does the same to the Palestinian territories; he proposes dissecting them into small pieces and handing the juicy parts in-between to Israel.
Hitler took the formerly Czech Sudetenland sacrificed by Chamberlain and immediately began planning to grab the rest of Czechoslovakia, which he did six months later. Benjamin Netanyahu announced that he would begin the process of annexing the parts of the West Bank so graciously donated by Trump next week.
It is unlikely to end there. Part of the territory will not suffice for the far-rightists on which Netanyahu’s political life depends – just as the Sudetenland was merely the appetiser for Hitler. Like Czechoslovakia, Palestine will eventually be swallowed up entirely.
Over eighty years have passed since Munich, but small nations are still the playthings of their larger and more powerful masters, to be toyed with and disposed of as necessary. Nothing much has changed.
Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler, though deluded and reckless, was at least prompted by a sincere desire to preserve the peace. As far as I know, he was never accused of being motivated by ulterior motives, such as a desire to advance his political career. He resigned in May 1940, after Hitler’s invasion of Belgium, and died six months later.
Neither Trump nor his Rasputin, Benjamin Netanyahu, can be accused of sincerity or good faith. Both have elections coming up and both see benefit in the support of the other. Both are also encumbered by legal challenges. The Trump plan no doubt conforms with Netanyahu’s political agenda, but its timing and presentation were determined by pure self-interest.
Does self-interest and political expediency make them worse than Hitler? No, of course not – if only because we know what Hitler went on to do and how he (and much of Europe) ended up. But would a critical bystander in late-1938, unaware of what was to come, see much difference between Hitler’s Czechoslovakia gambit and the treachery of Trump and Netanyahu? I doubt it.