Eighty years ago today, on 15 March 1939, the president of Czecho-Slovakia, as it then was, signed away his country’s independence under Nazi pressure. German troops entered Prague, and their leader, Adolf Hitler, proclaimed the German protectorate of Bohemia-Moravia.
It was not Hitler’s first act of aggression, but it was the decisive one. Until that point, his expansion – in the Rhineland, Austria and the Sudetenland – had been in territory that was ethnically German and where he could claim the support of self-determination. With Prague, that was no longer the case.
At the Munich conference the previous year, when the other European powers had endorsed his seizure of the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia, Hitler had promised that he had no further territorial claims to make. Now the leaders of Britain and France realised that he could not be trusted.
As AJP Taylor put it, “Hitler took the decisive step in his career without realizing that it was decisive or indeed noticing that he had made it.” He assumed that by their surrender at Munich, Britain and France had conceded German supremacy in central Europe, and the extinction of Czech independence was just a logical consequence of that.
Instead, it led to a revolution in public opinion in the democracies and discredited the policy of appeasement. The British and French governments turned towards the path of resistance, which led, later that year, to war.
Almost exactly twenty years later, another rump state had its independence extinguished. Tibet had been occupied by Chinese troops in 1950, following the Communist victory in China’s civil war, but western Tibet was allowed to keep a considerable degree of autonomy under its leader, the Dalai Lama.
That ended in March 1959, when an uprising by the Tibetans was brutally crushed by the Chinese. The Dalai Lama fled into exile, where he has remained ever since. Western Tibet is still called the “Tibet Autonomous Region”, but it has no real autonomy: the Chinese government exercises total control.
Like the Germans in Prague, the Chinese had strategic logic on their side, and had plenty of historical precedents; Tibetan independence had never been better than precarious. But in both cases what the occupiers clearly lacked was the consent of the inhabitants.
Western governments didn’t care as much about Tibet as they had about Prague. Nonetheless, there was something of the same sort of shift in opinion. The ruthless character of Mao Zedong’s regime, like Hitler’s, was laid bare, and while Mao and his heirs retain much western support to this day, the occupation of Tibet forfeited them sympathy in many quarters.
But appeasement always has its advantages. When we marvel today at the wonders of Prague’s old city, we should recognise that it owes its preservation to Czech and western acquiescence in 1939. Poland, which resisted, had its cities destroyed.
Similarly, if the Tibetans had accepted their lot in the 1950s, they may well have been able to preserve much more of their cultural autonomy. Instead they chose to resist: we can admire their spirit, while recognising that they, not we, paid the price for it.
The larger question of appeasement of China is still with us. Some argue that Chinese domination of the Asia-Pacific is inevitable, and that countries like Australia need to accept that and make their peace with it as best they can. Others say that such things as democracy, human rights and national self-determination have to fought for, if necessary, whatever the cost.
A debate last week hosted by La Trobe University between Hugh White and Clive Hamilton presented the respective sides with great clarity.
My view is that the argument from inevitability rests on an equivocation, and that historical experience, although it is always to be treated with caution, can help us see the way through.
Germany today is dominant in Prague, in a sense: German economic power towers over central Europe, and Germany plays a leading role in the political integration of the region in the European Union. The strategic and demographic realities behind its position are substantially the same as they were in 1939.
But this is not the domination of armies, secret police and concentration camps. The difference is absolutely fundamental.
If Australia, in the course of another generation, comes to occupy the same sort of position in relation to China as Czechia does today in relation to Germany, I see no reason to be concerned. But if we succumb to the position that the Czechs did in 1939, or that Tibet is in today, that is a very different matter.
The difference between the two – between peaceful economic co-operation and subservience – will come down to the nature of the Chinese regime. Hitler and the Nazis could not be compromised with, and had to be fought despite the cost. Must we say the same of Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party?
I hope not; I hope China can still evolve into a state based on consent and not on force. But for now the prospects do not look good.