The Peril of Historical Analogies: Iran and the Munich Agreement of the 21st Century

By Alex Yang


The millennial generation cannot be credit with a particularly extensive knowledge of history, but even the average student would have a basic conception of the Munich Agreement of 1938: a settlement permitting the Nazi annexation of certain portions of what was then Czechoslovakia, known today as the Sudetenland. Today, we look upon this agreement with unforgiving hindsight, citing it as one of the greatest humiliations experienced by the Allies in this failed attempt to appease Nazi Germany. Today, the international community faces what uncannily seems like a rerun in the form of the Ira nian nuclear deal.

The philosopher George Santayana famously declared, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The situation of today bears much resemblance to 1938 when you paint it in broad strokes; the forces of the Western Allies arrayed against a relentless belligerent. The historical reminder of Munich weighs heavy on the minds of policymakers, with a simple idea coming to the fore: we must not give in to tyranny. Though this, critics of the Iranian nuclear deal draw up their strongest argument; that we cannot repeat the mistake of Munich by giving in to Iran’s demands. But they might be wrong.

It is tempting for policymakers to fall back on historical analogy to prop up foreign policy decisions. The benefit of hindsight lends a sense of clarity to historical events – there is a right, and there is a wrong. Neville Chamberlain triumphantly returned to Britain from Munich amidst sentiment that the concessions given to Nazi Germany would avert a world war; but today we know the Munich Agreement to be a complete mistake.

One might argue that the power of historical analogy lies in the ethical certainty it provides in a morally ambiguous world. How do we know what the right option to take with regards to Iran is? Does anyone truly understand the innermost thoughts and policy inclinations of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani? The rhetorical question unerringly leads Western policymakers into the slippery slope of equating Rouhani to Hitler.

Parallels with Nazi Germany can only stretch so far, however. As convenient as it is to demonize Iran, it is obvious that the Iranian threat is incomparable to Nazi Germany, a world power bent on global domination. Britain and France negotiated with Nazi Germany, while today the entire permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council stands united against Iran. The stakes are different, and the stakeholders more so. Those who conveniently slap historical precedent to conflicts of the present risk going in the opposite direction of history, from appeasement to outright aggression, with no space for negotiation in between.

Dominic Tierney attempts to turn this hostile historical analogy entirely on its head by comparing the Iranian nuclear deal with the 1986 Reykjavik Summit instead. President Obama reminds us that “presidents like Nixon and Reagan struck historic-arms agreements with the Soviet Union… despite the fact that that adversary not only threatened to destroy our country and our way of life, but had the means to do so.” Indeed, the 1986 summit was the foundation of the 1987 Immediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, reducing the size of nuclear arsenals belonging to both sides, and played a major role in ending the Cold War. The historical comparison is equally applicable as Munich, yet lies on the other end of the foreign policy spectrum.

October 10, 1944: The French village of Oradour sur-Glane was massacred, with over 600 dying at German hands. After the war, a sign was erected at the entrance to the village, with one word inscribed on it – “Remember”.

The lessons of the past should never be forgotten, because we have to learn from our mistakes. However, to justify modern foreign policy on the basis of historical analogy is to commit the fatal mistake of negligence. By recognizing that every conflict is unique in its nuances, stakeholders and implications, leaders can then constructively apply normative judgment through the objective lens of history. Perhaps then, we can avoid repeats of the past.


Alex Yang is a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania.