This act would come to be seen as an abject betrayal of Czechoslovakia, which Chamberlain termed "a faraway country." But that was not what many people thought at the time. The prime minister's belief that Britain was not yet ready to go to war with Nazi Germany, and that diplomacy and compromise were safer options, was in fact shared by many Europeans, who knew from recent personal experience the horrible consequences of war.
Adolf Hitler is often blamed for the subsequent campaign by the Nazis to conquer the rest of Europe.
Looking back over the 70 years, Chamberlain was probably wrong to have signed the document. Britain and France could have stopped Germany. Munich in 1938 was one of the rare occasions in the history of democracies when cautious diplomacy was a mistake. What was needed then, it turns out, was a bloody-minded romantic hero willing to gamble the fate of his nation by fighting on, "whatever the cost may be" (as Winston Churchill later put it when he became prime minister).
George Santayana famously told us, "Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it." History, however, teaches many lessons, some of them contradictory, and it is never repeated in quite the same way. Sometimes too much attention paid to the past can lead us badly astray. What exactly has the world learned from Munich 1938, and is it the correct lesson?
If anything, West Europeans after World War II drew conclusions that were closer to Chamberlain's thinking in 1938 than Churchill's. After two catastrophic wars, Europeans decided to build institutions that would make military conflict redundant. Henceforth, diplomacy, compromise and shared sovereignty would be the norm, and romantic nationalism based on military prowess would be a thing of the past.
Out of the ashes of war a new kind of Europe arose, as did a new kind of Japan (which even had a pacifist constitution, written by idealistic Americans but gratefully accepted by most Japanese). Nationalism (except in soccer stadiums) made way for smug self-satisfaction, for having found a more civilized, more diplomatic, more pacific solution to human conflict.
Of course, the peace was only kept because it was guaranteed by a nation -- the United States -- that still stuck to pre-World War II notions of national and international security. But Europeans, or many of them in any case, conveniently ignored that.
In the United States, meanwhile, Munich has had a very different resonance. Here it has fed the Churchillian illusions of many a "war president," men who dreamed of going down in history as the heroic defenders of freedom against tyranny. Munich has been invoked over and over to explain why we had to stop communism, to stop Saddam Hussein, and why we have to stop Iran and "terrorism."
These different perspectives have caused peculiar tensions between the U.S. and its democratic allies. Europeans and Japanese often complain about the way the U.S. elects to use its power, but at the same time, they depend on U.S. military power for their security.
Too much dependence has also had an infantilizing effect. Like permanent adolescents, Europeans and Japanese crave the security of the great American father, and deeply resent him at the same time.
There is little doubt that the U.S., like all great powers, has embarked on some very foolish wars and has acted as a bully, especially toward nations in its own hemisphere. But even without invoking the ghosts of Munich, it is obvious that there are occasions when military force is the only way to deal with a tyrant. Europeans were unwilling to stand up to Serbian mass murderers. Americans (with initial reluctance) had to do the dirty work. When the U.S. decided to push Hussein's killers out of Kuwait, German protesters screamed that they would never "shed blood for oil."
There is, on the other hand, also little doubt that European diplomacy has had some remarkable successes. The prospect of joining the European Union has strengthened the democracies of central and eastern Europe, and of Turkey too. Some of these democracies have joined NATO, and others still desperately want to.
NATO, however, unlike the EU, is a military organization. And therein lies Chamberlain's old problem: Are Europeans prepared to fight wars on behalf of their fellow members?
While the Cold War lasted, this was not a serious dilemma. Europeans relied on NATO and the Pax Americana to defend them in case of Soviet aggression. Now, however, Georgia and Ukraine would like to join in the expectation that Europeans and Americans would shed blood to defend them against Russia. The choice is stark: If Europeans are prepared to fight for Georgia or Ukraine, these countries should be invited to join. If not, not. Instead of making this choice, major European countries, such as Germany, have dithered, first dangling NATO membership as a juicy carrot and then, on second thought, withdrawing the offer, leaving Americans to indulge in heroic rhetoric without necessarily following through.
All this is making the Western alliance look incoherent and, despite its vast wealth coupled with American military power, strangely impotent. It is time for European democracies to make up their minds. They can remain dependent on the protection of the U.S. and stop complaining, or they can develop the capacity to defend Europe, however they wish to define it, themselves. The first option may not be feasible for very much longer in the twilight days of Pax Americana. And the second will be expensive and risky. Given the many divisions inside the EU, Europeans will probably just muddle on until a serious crisis forces them to act, by which time it could well be too late.
Ian Buruma is a contributing editor to Opinion and a professor of human rights at Bard College.