Book Reviews

04 The Appeasers: Envy for Dictators

Perhaps the best argument against appeasement was that it built on a foundation that J. M. Keynes laid in his 1920 book, The Economic Consequences of the Peace. It’s easy to suspect that as an intellectual he disliked the treaty simply because the average Englishman thought it just. When Germany had invaded Belgium and France, it began a war in which millions died. No invasion, no war. There seems little doubt of the truth of that. France wasn’t planning to invade Germany. It was planning to come to the aid of Belgium and Britain’s army was far too small to invade anyone.

Germany could, of course, argue that it feared attack from the Russian army that was mobilizing to its east. But in that case, why divide its forces, attacking in the east and in the west? That only made sense if Germany wanted a war, wanted to win that war, and wanted to use that win to enlarge its territory in both the east and the west. And that sort of war can’t be justified. No, whatever Keynes might say, Germany’s punishment was just. The problem lay in the refusal of Germans to recognize their guilt no matter what the circumstances. G. K. Chesterton makes that point repeatedly in a collection of his writings that I edited, Chesterton on War and Peace.

In The Appeasers, Gilbert and Gott explain what motivated the appeasers of 1933.

Those who regarded Anglo-German friendship as possible were optimists. They sought to ignore the lessons of the past. Those who regarded that friendship as desirable, and were prepared to sacrifice common sense for the sake of their desire, were appeasers. Appeasement was a passion which ignored the rules, for it sought to create new ones. It saw the possibility of European peace and prosperity arising out of Anglo-German cooperation. Appeasement sprang from sympathy, as well as from fear. Often it was the sympathy of men in a slow, sluggish society for the dynamism of autocracy.

It’s not hard to see parallels to today’s response to Islamic terrorism. Just keep in mind what the “sympathy” they’re referring to is. It’s not the sympathy of Britain’s leaders for the average German citizen, who was living in a repressive police state. It was a sympathy, or perhaps what might be better called an envy, for dictators such as Mussolini and Hitler. They were envied because they didn’t have to deal with the messiness of democratic societies. They need not fear being voted out of office by a fickle electorate.

Much the same can be said of present-day liberals, who display a strange sympathy (meaning envy) for Arab dictatorships or the Iran theocracy. They care nothing about the suffering of Iraqis under Saddam, the Palestinians under their corrupt government, the people of Iran, or the average member of Arab dictatorships. Instead, they display a strange eagerness to meet with the region’s thugs and even, in the case of Obama, to bow down to them. It’s the ruthless power (and oil wealth) that the region’s leaders have that feeds their envy and creates what appears to us as a bizarre sympathy by secular liberals for theocratic reactionaries. It also explains the increasingly strange behavior of President Jimmy Carter since he was voted out of office in 1980.

03 The Appeasers: Delaying War

One of the most heated controversies about the pre-war years hinges on whether the later phase of appeasement (1938 and 1939) was justified. In the Foreword to The Appeasers, Gilbert and Gott state the appeasers’ argument.

Those who supported appeasement after October, 1938, did so for two reasons. Munich “bought” a year of peace, in which to rearm. It brought a “united nation” into the war, by showing Hitler’s wickedness beyond all doubt.

Gilbert and Gott disagree with that assessment.

Both these reasons were put forward by the Government, and accepted by many who could not check them. Both were false. If a year had been gained in which Chamberlain could have strengthened Britain’s defences and equipped the country for an offensive war, there should be evidence of growing strength, growing effort, and growing Cabinet unity.... Germany, not Britain, gained militarily during the extra year. German forces were strengthened by Czech munitions. Western forces weakened by the loss of the Czech Army and Air Force..... Chamberlain and his advisers did not go to Munich because they needed an extra year before they could fight. They did not use the year to arouse national enthusiasm for a just war. The aim of appeasement was to avoid war, not to enter war united.

They go on to argue that Chamberlain and others put their hope, not in a strong and united Britain able to defend itself and its allies against Germany aggression, but in establishing an Anglo-German alliance before public outrage at the Nazi occupation of country after country made any such agreement impossible. It’s a much more pessimistic assessment of the moral character of Britain’s leadership than anything else that I’ve read. Most important of all, it’s based on an actual reading British foreign policy documents that have managed to slip into public view despite the nation’s traditional 50-year embargo on the release of such documents. Gilbert and Gott also based much of what they say on other sources, including memoirs and private papers.

Having read their book. I find myself agreeing with them. To the extent that Chamberlain and others appeared to be standing up to Hitler in the year before the war, it was mere posturing for the public. Behind the scenes what they were saying was negated by private remarks to German officials. Hitler had good reason to believe that, no matter what he did, Britain would not fight. The one factor he wasn’t including in his calculations was Churchill as a replacement for Chamberlain.

My opinion about that last year of appeasement is a bit more ambiguous than theirs. I suspect that in one specific area and almost in spite of themselves, Chamberlain’s efforts at appeasement bought much needed time. That area was the development of Chain Home, a crude but effective radar-driven air defense system. It enabled Britain to make the best possible use of what fighter aircraft it had. That in turn enabled them to win the Battle of Britain and maintain sufficient air strength that Hitler never attempted an invasion.

It also meant that the blitz did not break British morale because the British people knew that they were giving as much as they were taking. Would their morale have broken if Britain had not been able to mount any effective defense? I don’t know. It is possible that Britain might have gone into an armaments death spiral in which German bombing would have weakened their defenses faster than their factories could rebuild them.

Of course the effectiveness of that depends on two other factors. Germany never developed the sort of heavy bomber that would be needed for that sort of campaign. It had prepared for land wars in Europe, not an air battle over Britain. Germany had also devoted too much of its limited resources to prestigious naval projects such as the Bismarck and the Graf Spree, both of which proved to be of limited value in the war. If that same effort had been devoted to having a powerful, long-range U-Boat fleet available at the start of the war, Britain might not have been able to hold out until other factors (Pearl Harbor) brought the US into the fighting. Even then, the Battle of the Atlantic was very close.

But this sort of speculation is ultimately fruitless. In the end, the only history we can know is the history that actually happened and not these might-have-beens.

02 The Appeasers: Acknowledging the Courage

In their “Acknowledgments” at the front of The Appeasers, Martin Gilbert and Richard Gott offer their thanks to those in the 1930s who refused to join the ranks of the appeasers.

We have been inspired by the example of Englishmen who refused to be bullied by Nazi bombast; who saw German threats for what they were, the brash noises of a successful bully; who determined to stand up to that bully, a by firm words to caution him; and who urged England not to compromise with evil, but to face the dictators with courage and conviction. These men were not warmongers. But they were quite willing to face war if the alternative was a dishonorable peace, bought at the expense of others.

Much the same can be said today of those who faced up to another bully called Islamic terrorism and who would not compromise with evil, even when others with far less courage than they called them warmongers and displayed a disgusting willingness to excuse evil and buy a dishonorable peace at the expense of the suffering of the Iraqi people under a cruel dictator and (more recently) of the a brave Israeli democracy. The spirit of Prime Ministers like Baldwin and Chamberlain still haunts our world.

Also, keep in mind a most revealing fact. Israel has built fences on the borders of Gaza and the West Bank to keep terrorists out. They did not build them to keep their own Arab population in. That population is free to leave at any time but it overwhelming prefers to live in a Jewish democracy rather than in the corruption and repression of a Palestinian state.

01 The Appeasers: The Folly Begins

I’ve begun to read The Appeasers, written by Martin Gilbert, who would later become Winston Churchill’s authorized biographer, along with Richard Gott. First published in 1963 and still in print, it describes Britain’s policy of appeasement from when Hitler rose to power in January of 1933 to Neville Chamberlain’s resignation as Prime Minister in May of 1940.

The book surprised me because, probably like most people, I thought British attempts to appease Hitler appeared after 1935, when Germany’s growing military power and obvious aggressive intentions made Britain’s leaders, the BBC, and most of the press so fearful of another war that they were willing to give Hitler virtually anything he wanted to keep the peace or, near the very end, to stall for time while Britain built up its woefully inadequate armed forces.

I was wrong. Appeasement didn’t begin after 1935; it began as soon as Hitler took power in 1933. That should tell you that it had nothing to do with fear. Germany in 1933 was militarily impotent. Its army had been limited to 100,000 men. It had no tanks. It had no air force. Its navy was small. And perhaps most important of all, Germany’s industrial heartland along the Rhine had been demilitarized. France could occupy it in a matter of hours. Those who’d written the Treaty of Versailles at the end of World War I had known what they were doing. Quite sensibly assuming that the greatest threat to the peace of Europe was Germany, they’d made sure it lacked the military power to defend itself, much less invade other countries.

Versailles wasn’t a failure because it was too harsh. As G. K. Chesterton would point out, it was far less harsh that the Treaty of Treaty of Brest-Litovsk that Germany had imposed on Russia in March of 1918. It was also far more generous than the two treaties Germany intended to impose on Belgium and France had they won the war. In actual fact, Germany had gotten off rather lightly for starting a war in which millions of people died. The two real failures of Versailles were as Chesterton pointed out at the time. It failed to change Germany’s deep-seated militaristic attitudes and it took no effective steps to protect the smaller countries of Eastern Europe from Germany aggression. It was those countries, Chesterton warned, that would tempt Germany to make war again. In 1932 Chesterton warned that, if something was not done, the next European war would break out over a border dispute between Germany and Poland, precisely what happened nine years later.

No, at the beginning appeasement was not based on fear. It was based on the belief that Germany had been treated unfairly by the Treaty of Versailles. Hitler’s repression of his political foes in Germany, his persecution of the Jews, and his threats to conquer “living space” for Germany in Eastern Europe were, strange as those words sound to us today, merely the rhetoric of a frustrated man and a frustrated nation. Remove the burdens and restrictions placed on Germany by Versailles, treat Hitler with dignity, taking care to always call him “Herr Hitler,” and he would moderate his demands. European peace would be assured for another generation. That’s what they believed and that’s why they sought, quite proudly, to appease Hitler.

Sound familiar? It should. It’s precise what liberals have been telling us for a number of years. President Bush, they said, did not understand the complexities and nuances of foreign policy like those wise Europeans. Treat the Nasties of the world with respect, they tell us, take the time to listen to their grievances,, to search for the root causes for things such as terrorism, and all will become better. It doesn’t matter what group we discussing, from Al Qaeda to North Korea or Cuba to the perennial problems of the Middle East, the problem in their eyes is Bush’s stern rejection of violence as a acceptable means of behavior. With Obama, appeasement has become the cornerstone of American foreign policy.

In further posts, I’ll hit the high points of The Appeasers and add my own comments, linking that book with a book I edited, Chesterton on War and Peace. From World War I until his death in 1936, G. K. Chesterton would warn of the danger countering German aggression with appeasement, noting that “Pacifism and Prussianism [militarism] are always in alliance, by a fatal logic far beyond any conscious conspiracy.” Both ideologies, he stressed, have in common the belief that might makes right. One uses terror as a tool and the other ensures that terror achieves its goal.