We spend a lot of time lambasting journalists for using clichéd phrases — the “recent surge of violence” and “the perfect storm” — but they are not the only ones guilty of relying too heavily on the tired and overused. Columnists and op-ed writers are often prone to committing an even worse crime — they exhaust conceptual clichés. And lately we’ve been collecting pretty good evidence on one of the most prevalent of these: Neville Chamberlain and the infamous 1938 appeasement in Munich of Hitler’s conquest of the Sudetenland.
In fact, all you really need to say are the words “Munich” and “1938,” or “Chamberlain” and “umbrella,” and appeasement jumps straight to mind.
Now, to be sure, there is a lesson one can draw from this historical moment — don’t trust dictators. But at what point, after how much use, does the analogy become incapable of helping us understand anything? At what point does it become an empty reference, rubbed raw by ubiquity?
Our answer: now.
With relations between the U.S. and Iran reaching a boiling point over the Iranian nuclear program, and the cessation of fighting in Lebanon on arguably favorable terms for the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, we’ve seen Munich and the umbrella trotted out one too many times.
The Washington Post is the worst culprit, with three of its columnists in the last month alone making the reference. First it was Harold Meyerson writing about the need for Europe to get more active in the Middle East, saying that what “we surely don’t need is a Europe guided by the spirit of Neville Chamberlain.” Then came David Ignatius acknowledging that analysts always turn to the events of 1938 “when international crises arise,” but then turning to them himself, with the only caveat being that the situation now might be more Sarajevo 1914 than Munich 1938. And finally, earlier this week, came the piece de resistance (pardon the French) in a column titled “Middle East Echoes of 1938,” in which Richard Cohen expressed the musty thought that what we are seeing in Europe now is reminiscent of — you guessed it — 1938: “This inability of Europe to get its act together is what suggests 1938. Back then, Winston Churchill was hardly the only one who thought Hitler was intent on war. After all, the German leader was an ideological zealot and a murderer to boot. Still, England did little. Similarly, you don’t have to have Churchillian prescience to see that what happened once in Lebanon can happen again. Hezbollah’s avowed aim is to eradicate Israel. Listen to what it says. Pay attention. It will renew its attacks the first chance it gets. This is why it exists.”
And the Post is not the only one looking seven decades back for clues to today. Niall Ferguson makes the same point about Europe in his column, “WWIII? No, but still deadly and dangerous.” Then there is also Arthur Herman’s piece in the New York Post, “The Mideast’s Munich,” where he makes this subtle and nuanced observation about the cease-fire: “It is pivotal in the same sense that the Munich agreement between Adolf Hitler and Neville Chamberlain was pivotal in an earlier battle against the enemies of freedom. The accord in October 1938 revealed to the world that the solidarity of the Western allies was a sham, and that the balance of power had shifted to the fascist dictators.”
Okay, we get it.
Columnists writing their 700 words need to use touchstones to make their point in such a small space. They need clichés. But this seems to be a bit over the top. There have to be original ways to describe the state of the world now without bringing in World War II.