80th anniversary of the Great Treachery in Europe

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

British prime minister Neville Chamberlain declared that the Munich agreement meant "peace for our time". [Wikipedia]

In an exclusive op-ed for EURACTIV, the Russian Ambassador to the EU Vladimir Chizhov argues that present-days attempts to isolate Russia are similar to the chain of events that led to the infamous 1938 Munich agreement.

Vladimir Chizhov is a career diplomat. Before being appointed Ambassador to the EU in 2005, he was Russia’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs.

One would not doubt that the current turbulent situation in Europe requires close cooperation and respect of mutual interests in order to maintain peace and stability on the continent.

Unfortunately, this approach, being the only efficient response to common challenges and threats, and becoming progressively popular among the Europeans, is opposed by some politicians in the EU who try to revive the disruptive Cold War philosophy.

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This logic was thought to have definitely disappeared from the political armoury yet in recent years Russia has been seen as once again a welcome and convenient target. Almost everything can now be explained by “highly likely” rhetoric and alleged “omnipotent Russian threat”. Such developments are a source of grave concern in Russia, but at the same time do not cause surprise: it has more than once happened in the past.

Among the most striking of examples is the infamous Munich Agreement of 29 September 1938 that certified a conspiracy by major Western European powers. Their short-sighted policy of appeasement of the Nazi aggressor combined with strong desire to isolate Russia at any cost led to catastrophic consequences during World War II.

The above-mentioned Agreement signed in Munich 80 years ago as a result of lengthy talks between Adolf Hitler and prime ministers of Great Britain, France and Italy paved the way for the partition of Czechoslovakia, without its consent, between Germany, Poland and Hungary giving Hitler a carte blanche in his expansionist ambitions.

Thereby, the self-proclaimed “democratic powers of Europe” intended to divert the threat of Nazi aggression and direct it towards the Soviet Union. Later, in 1946, during the Nuremberg Tribunal, leaders of the Third Reich tried to justify the Munich Pact by the fact that its aim had been “to push Russia out of Europe”, as German field marshal Wilhelm Keitel said.

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So, what was the Soviet Union’s stance on it? Its position then, same as Russia’s position today, was based on the need to create a genuine European system of collective security, considering it unacceptable to ensure one’s security at the expense of others. Already in 1935 the Soviet Government signed treaties of mutual assistance with France and Czechoslovakia which could form a basis for such a system.

However, Great Britain opposed the very notion of collective efforts. Instead it launched a concept of “neutralising” Czechoslovakia amid dismantling treaties of mutual assistance.

In his address to the Assembly of the League of Nations on 21 September 1938 Maxim Litvinov, People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs of the Soviet Union, stated:

“It is not our fault if no effect was given to our proposals which, I am convinced, could have produced the desired results, both in the interests of Czechoslovakia, and in those of all Europe and of general peace.

Unfortunately, other steps were taken, which have led, and which could not but lead, to such a capitulation as is bound sooner or later to have quite incalculable and disastrous consequences”.

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In contrast, the then UK and French governments chose to negotiate the fate of Czechoslovakia with Hitler, in secret. Poland, which a year later would suffer the onslaught of Nazi aggression, in the days of Munich was more interested in getting a share of the spoils, effectively chopping off a sizeable chunk of Czechoslovak territory.

Meanwhile, the United States, still in its “glorious isolation” which was due to last for three more years until Pearl Harbour, did not hesitate to support the Munich conspirators. William Bullit, the US Ambassador in Paris, advised President Roosevelt in May 1938: “It would be a great tragedy, were France, in order to help Czechoslovakia, to launch an offensive against the “Ziegfried line” … The only result would be total destruction of Western Europe and spread of Bolshevism across the whole continent. We must find ways to help France get rid of its moral obligations”.

And the very next day after the Munich deal, as British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was waving its text promising “peace for our time”, London and Paris rushed to sign non-aggression declarations with Berlin, in the hope of channelling Nazi aggression eastwards.

The tragedy of Munich reflects all the fallaciousness and short-sightedness of the policy of great powers of those days – belief in their exclusiveness, mutual suspicions and lack of unity, strategy of sanitary cordons and buffer zones, as well as open interference in the internal affairs of other countries.

The very same approach is being developed by some modern great powers right now with total connivance of those who obviously never learned the lessons of Munich.

This year also marks other tragic anniversaries, such as the 80th anniversary of the so-called Kristallnacht in Berlin in November 1938, which became a prologue to the Holocaust. Today, when we are witnessing the creeping rehabilitation of Nazism, it is important not only to respect the memory of millions of innocent victims, but also to do our utmost to prevent the recurrence of such tragedies in the future.

The solution is quite simple. It includes overcoming mutual mistrust through dialogue, by “building bridges, not walls” and not dividing European countries according to their EU (or NATO) membership, at least when it comes to countering common threats to security on the continent.

To conclude, I would remind you that in today’s interdependent and interconnected world one cannot find a shelter on an island of peace solving one’s own problems at the expense of one’s neighbours’ security.

Genuine security can only be equal and indivisible and should be based on the fundamental principles of international relations stipulated in the UN Charter: respect for the sovereignty of states, non-interference in their internal affairs, and peaceful settlement of disputes.

Russia, I can assure you, is open to an equal partnership with the EU based on mutual respect and balance of interests in order to find efficient responses to modern challenges.

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