In Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, an Athenian ambassador refutes the Spartans’ claim that they are going to war with Athens on the principle of justice: “Calculations of interest have made you take up the cry of justice––a consideration which no one ever yet brought forward to hinder his ambition when he had a chance of gaining anything by might.” Thucydides presents here a permanent truth of interstate conflict: when force will not get a people what they want, they will often cloak their ambitions in lofty principles like justice in order to gain sympathy, buy time, and win allies.
The conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Arabs is a textbook example of Thucydides’ insight. Only after three attempts to destroy Israel by force failed did we begin to hear about the “justice” of a “Palestinian homeland” and “national self-determination.” The Arabs, moreover, cast the conflict not in terms of their own Islamic ideology and ideals, in which the ummah, the global community of Muslims, is the primary locus of Muslim identity. Rather, they appeal to the Western idea of nationalism, something sure to find sympathy among Europeans and Americans who are already inclined to disfavor Israel because of short-sighted geopolitical realism, leftist hatred of a liberal-democratic American ally, or post-Holocaust stealth anti-Semitism.
Yet this tactic of appealing to the enemy’s ideals of justice to cloak one’s true aims is not original to Israel’s enemies. Adolf Hitler used it brilliantly in the Thirties to mask his grand ambition to create a racial German empire. The first step in achieving this goal was to undo the Versailles Treaty’s eastern settlement, which had stranded about 10 million ethnic Germans outside of Germany. Hitler, of course, concealed his real reason for the assault against Czechoslovakia in 1938, which was to gain control over the mountainous Sudetenland and its state-of-the-art defensive fortifications, a formidable barrier to his eastward expansion and the acquisition of lebensraum. Rather, he cast the issue as one of national and ethnic self-determination for the Sudeten Germans, necessary because of the Czechs’ “brutal treatment of mothers and children of German blood,” as Reichsminister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels put it. This appeal was a brilliant stroke, for the 1919 Versailles Treaty had enshrined the notion of ethnic and national self-determination as the keystone of the postwar international order: “National aspirations,” Woodrow Wilson told Congress in 1918, “must be respected; peoples may now be dominated and governed only by their own consent.” How, then, could it be just for the Sudeten Germans, and the millions of others scattered across Eastern Europe, to continue to be exiled from the German motherland?
This pretext, moreover, dangled before Czechoslovakia’s allies the seductive delusion that if only a settlement could be reached regarding the Sudeten Germans, war with Germany could be avoided. This false hope exploited the unwillingness of England and France to risk war in order to honor their security obligations to Czechoslovakia, in addition giving Hitler more time to undermine the Czechs and build up his war machine. In the meantime, Nazi stooges in Czechoslovakia fomented riots and fabricated incidents of violence against Germans, at the same time they kept escalating their outrageous demands: Hitler’s main puppet in Czechoslovakia, Konrad Henlein, correctly understood his master’s instructions to be “we must always demand so much that we cannot be satisfied.” The goal was to force the Czechs to break off negotiations and thus justify a German invasion. As we know, Hitler’s strategy succeeded. England and France handed over Czechoslovakia on a platter, and within a year World War II had begun.
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