Among Winston Churchill’s most under-appreciated gifts was his gift of foresight, which was uncanny but also the product of his deep understanding of human nature and his sure grasp of history. Indeed, many of Churchill’s speeches leading up to (and during) World War II were great not only because of the matchless rhetoric he seemed to call forth effortlessly, but also because — as history would show — he was dead right in his assessment of the issue at hand, even though that assessment was invariably unpopular with, and unheeded by, his countrymen.
A perfect example of this is the little-known speech Churchill gave this week (Oct. 5) in 1938, just days after then-British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had returned from his meeting with Adolf Hitler in Munich, Germany, and declared that the agreement he and Hitler had signed (actually it was a scrap of paper that Hitler barely glanced at) had averted war and produced a “peace with honor.” Unfortunately, what Chamberlain and France’s leader Edouard Daladier had ignominiously agreed to at Munich, under pressure from Hitler, was that the Czech Sudetenland, which was part of the Democratic Republic of Czechoslovakia, would be forcibly transferred to Germany, and all non-German Czechs would be forced to leave the Sudetenland immediately.
It was an act of cowardice, a betrayal of Czechoslovakia’s sovereignty and an abrogation of valid treaty obligations. Nevertheless, when Chamberlain returned from Munich waving his peace agreement he was hailed as a hero. But Churchill spoke otherwise in the House of Commons:
We are in the presence of a disaster of the first magnitude which has befallen Great Britain and France … What I find unendurable is the sense of our country falling into the power, into the orbit of Nazi Germany and of our existence becoming dependent on their good will and pleasure. We have passed an awful milestone in our history, when the whole equilibrium of Europe has been deranged, and the terrible words have for the time being been pronounced against the Western democracies: “Thou art weighed in the balance and found wanting.”
And do not suppose this is the end. This is only the beginning of the reckoning. This is only the first sip, the first foretaste of a bitter cup which will be proffered to us year after year unless, by a supreme recovery of moral health and martial vigor, we arise again and take our stand for freedom as in the olden time.
Not long after Hitler gained the Sudetenland, he invaded the rest of Czechoslovakia despite promising not to. Not long after that he invaded Poland, and then France, beginning WWII. Not long after that Neville Chamberlain resigned and Winston Churchill took his place.