The Debate over the Munich Analogy

On January 14, Iran's Foreign Minister Javid Zarif made a publicized visit to Lebanon to lay a wreath at the tomb of arch-terrorist Imad Mugniyah. Shortly afterwards, it was announced that Zarif would be attending the Munich Security Conference to meet with American and EU officials over Iran's nuclear program.

On January 27, EU High Commissioner, Lady Catherine Ashton, delivered the EU's official statement on Holocaust Rememberance Day leaving out any mention of the Jews. That same day in France a "Day of Anger" march featured demonstrators chanting "Jews go Home" and "Jews, France is not your country."

On January 29, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper delivered a report to the Senate Intelligence Committee stating that "Iran has the scientific, technical, and industrial capacity to eventually produce nuclear weapons. This makes the central issue its political will to do so." (Commentary)

None of these items received much attention from the media. Maybe the media does not view them as newsworthy. But another factor may be the reluctance of the media to confirm Israel's dire view of the threat posed by Iran. This was evident in a heated exchange in November following news reports of a breakdown in negotiations between the United States and the Iranians over Iran's nuclear program.

The exchange was triggered by a Wall Street Journal editorial by Bret Stephens who called the current negotiations with Iran "worse than Munich (Nov. 25, 2013)," referring to the infamous Munich Agreement of 1938 where Great Britain and France sold out Czechoslovakia to appease Hitler. Stephens chastised the West, including the United States, for failing to use its overwhelming advantages as negotiating leverage against Iran. In his view, the British and French at Munich in 1938 at least could claim that neither had "the public support or military wherewithal to stand up to Hitler in September 1938."

Stephens' editorial generated a vigorous reaction. Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson derisively retorted, "But even commentators who should know better are resorting to the empty Munich analogy."

Peter Beinart, a detractor of Israel, wrote in the Daily Beast on Nov. 26, 2013 after the Geneva conference,

U.S. and Israeli hawks are rushing to call the interim nuclear agreement a capitulation and Obama another Chamberlain. It's another sign the doomsayers don't know their history... For Netanyahu and his American allies, it's always 1938, because if it's not 1938 and your opponents aren't Neville Chamberlain, then you're not Winston Churchill. And if you're not Churchill, you've got no compelling rationale for wielding power.

Beinart scoffed at the "Nazi analogy" as "laughable" because "Hitler used Europe's most advanced economy to build its most advanced military and for a time, conquer almost the entire continent." By contrast, "Iran would still be surrounded by a host of stronger countries" including Turkey and Pakistan, India and Israel, most of whom possess nuclear weapons.

Beinart also contended that Iran "lacks the ideological power" because of its economic weakness and offered reassurance that Iran "is not suicidal."

Beinart invariably steers the discussion back to alleged Israeli obduracy in dealing with the Palestinians. He accused pro-Israel hawks of having "stoked American Jewish fears of a second Holocaust" in order to relieve pressure on Israel to address Palestinian grievances. Beinart couldn't resist a parting shot at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu whom he described as ignorant of history and someone who seeks to "exploit historical analogies for political and ideological gain."

David Goldman, who also uses the pen-name Spengler, crafts thoughtful analyses that incorporate underlying societal processes often overlooked by political commentators. He delivered a powerful refutation of Beinart's arguments in "The Dead's Envy for the Living," where he observed,

Dying civilizations are the most dangerous, and Iran is dying. Its total fertility rate probably stands at just 1.6 children per female, the same level as Western Europe, a catastrophic decline from 7 children per female in the early 1980s. This has created what one analyst calls an "apocalyptic panic" that fuels Tehran's aggression.

In assessing Iran's next moves, Goldman concludes, "Iran must break out and establish a Shiite zone of power, or it will break down."

His description of the Iranian predicament has a familiar ring, recalling Hitler's obsession with acquiring Lebensraum (living space).

Indeed, Goldman has Hitler in mind. He continues,

Iran's theocracy displays the same apocalyptic panic about its demographic future that Hitler expressed about the supposed decline of the so-called Aryan race. Unlike Hitler, whose racial paranoia ran wild, Iran's presentiment of national death is well founded on the facts.

Iran is not so ready to go gently into that demographic night, however. It lashes out against enemies real and imagined, and the enemies it imagines in its worst nightmares are the Jews.

Goldman describes a paranoia common to German and Iranian ideologies and worries that the Iranians may be driven to extreme actions just as the Germans were. His focus on the impact of declining birth rates on the decision-making of the Iranian regime deserves more attention.

It is a common perception that nations are inclined to war when there is an excess of young males in the population. But 20th century history teaches a different lesson. Germany, on the eve of World War II, had to compensate for its "missing million," a reference to a deficit of males of prime combat age who otherwise would have been born had it not been for birthrate-suppressing effects of World War I. Although, the German birthrate partly recovered after the war, it never again approached prewar levels.

Nazi ideologues were obsessed with increasing German birthrates; the regime extolled women who had many children and portrayed childbearing as the most important duty of a National Socialist woman. The Nazis instituted the Lebensborn program, arranging unwed procreation and even kidnapping suitably "Aryan" children from conquered countries.

As Goldman points out, Iran has experienced a severe birth crunch and its leaders understand what that means for the future.

Compounding Iran's fears for its future as due to its diminished birthrate are the ominous portents from its external situation.

Beinart views the external circumstances facing Iran and concludes that this will restrain Iran from aggression.

Beinart's reading of history is narrow. The Germans too felt penned in. Peering eastward they saw an awakening giant, Russia, undergoing rapid industrialization and modernization. German fear of being overtaken by Russia became an obsession after the Bolsheviks seized power. German policymakers feared encirclement by traditional powers, Britain and France, and emerging Russia, as well as the distant United States.

For Iran's leadership, a similar paranoid obsession with outside powers, both existing and emerging, is discernible. Goldman fears that Iran's leadership may feel compelled, as the Nazis did in the 1930s, to act before irrevocable factors doomed them to oblivion.

There are parallels between the behaviors of these two irredentist states. The Nazis undertook rapid militarization in contravention of international treaties. They tested international resolve with small-scale interventions in the Rhineland and Spain and after confirming a weak response by the democracies, annexed part of Czechoslovakia and Austria before engaging in unbridled conquest. These aggressions were justified on the grounds of righting historical wrongs and on ethnic ties. Fifth columns played a crucial role.

Today, Iran pursues its nuclear and missile programs against international consensus. At the same time it intervenes in Syria, utilizing its fifth column, Hizb'allah, in Lebanon, and stirs up Shiites in other states. And Iran inveighs against Israel as a historical mistake that needs to be rectified. One can discern similarities between the incremental German steps in the 1930s and Iranian testing of the resolve of the status-quo powers.

To Beinart and others, Iran's limited capabilities exclude serious comparison with the 1930s. That is a superficial reading of history. German strength on the eve of World War II was impressive. But only a few years prior, Germany was not nearly as formidable. As late as 1936, when Hitler ordered the occupation of the Rhineland, his own generals so feared confrontation with the French army that a contingency plan was crafted in which the German army would retreat if the French army offered serious resistance. Today, Iran's military limitations are widely acknowledged, but one lesson of the 1930s is how fast circumstances can change, especially when the militarists are emboldened.

Goldman sees another parallel in "the response of the world's powers to the emergence of this monster."

During the 1920s, diplomats hammered out treaties, even treaties outlawing war. The League of Nations was established to resolve conflicts before they turned into wars. The international framework unraveled with the Japanese invasion of Manchuria and then the Italian assault on Ethiopia. Both aggressions revealed the fecklessness of the international bodies. Some see parallels in recent years to North Korea's circumventing nuclear agreements and the failure to contain Iran's drive toward nuclear weapons capability.

Central to any analogy between Iran and Germany in the 1930s is the convergence between the Nazis paranoid hatred of Jews and that of the Iranian regime. Goldman observes:

Iran's theocrats hate and fear the Jews for the same reason that Hitler did. The "Master Race" delusion of the Nazis twisted the Chosenness of Israel into a doctrine of racial election; for the "Master Race" to be secure in its dominion, the original "paragon and exemplar of a nation" (Rosenzweig) had to be exterminated.

This last observation cuts to the core of the debate over the Munich analogy. Then as now, people were divided on how seriously to take the extreme threats issued against the Jews.

Beinart is not alone in imagining Israeli manipulations or in seeing only political scheming behind the Munich analogy. Media Matters, an influential leftist media organization, described those making the comparisons as "rightwing." On, Elias Groll regards the Munich "metaphor" as the handiwork of neo-conservatives. National Public Radio [NPR] aired slanted debates on the negotiations with Iran in which Netanyahu is described as "far right-wing" and Israeli concerns are depicted as exaggerated.

While views on the current negotiations with Iran often line up along political lines, there is a more fundamental divide on the importance given to Israel's security. It is not surprising that Media Matters employed M.J. Rosenberg, a vitriolic anti-Zionist. featured a blog by Stephen Walt, whose spurious scholarship claimed a nefarious "Israel Lobby" controls American policy. Columbia University Professor Kenneth Waltz (in Foreign Affairs) even welcomed "a nuclear-armed Iran" to counter Israeli-American hegemony. The New York Times casts Prime Minister Netanyahu as the villain in the Middle East peace process and treats with skepticism anything he has to say, including his warnings about Iran. NPR's narrative is similar to the Times.

The Times did publish an op-ed by Ari Shavit, Israeli columnist for the left-wing Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz and a critic of the Netanyahu government. Although Shavit blamed the Bush administration for the current state of affairs, he saw the danger of the accord, writing,

Yes, Iran's race to the bomb would be slowed down -- but an accord would guarantee that it would eventually cross the finish line. The Geneva mind-set resembles a Munich mind-set: It would create the illusion of peace-in-our-time while paving the way to a nuclear-Iran-in-our-time.

Shavit's divergence from those who otherwise share his political orientation is telling. Those who hold Israel's security as paramount view with alarm the parallels between the crisis over Iran's nuclear program and the situation in 1930s that culminated in catastrophe. Those who demonstrate less concern -- or none -- for Israel's security tend to disparage the analogy and depict Israel's insistence on the dismantling of Iran's nuclear program as threatening world peace.

It is fitting to conclude a discussion of the "Munich analogy" with an observation about the Munich Security Conference. The conference is an annual affair where world leaders meet. Its purpose should not be confused with the Munich conference of 1938. But there is one similarity. In both cases negotiations over an ominous threat to the world excluded the one nation most immediately affected by whatever was agreed upon. In 1938 that was Czechoslovakia. In 2014, that nation is Israel.

Steven Stotsky is Senior Research Analyst for CAMERA

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