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.