What is Appeasement?

It occurs to me that with all the continuing discussion of the Bush charge of appeasement against a variety of Democrats, especially Carter and Obama (see yesterday’s post), most people really don’t know what appeasement was. They think it was an attempt to give Hitler whatever he wanted so that he wouldn’t go to war. The lesson, therefore, is that appeasement leads to war. The reality is more complex, and the lessons not quite so simple as the President would have us believe.

After World War I the victors met at the palace of Versailles, the very place where the unified German Reich was proclaimed in 1871 after the Franco-Prussian war, to hammer out a peace agreement. American President Woodrow Wilson wanted to base it on his 14 points, which included ‘no war guilt, no reparations, and self-determination.’ To Wilson, a Democratic Germany shouldn’t pay the price of the decisions of their old leaders, and indeed, he blamed the European system of power politics for the war. Wilson came off as preachy and arrogant to leaders David Lloyd George of Great Britain, and Georges Clemenceau of France. They rejected his ‘idealism,’ and argued that the only way to stop another war was to make Germans pay a price so high that there would be no way Germany could start another war. They had to admit war guilt, pay heavy reparations, lose chunks of territory, and keep their military at only 100,000. Wilson could not prevent this, and the Treaty of Versailles was extremely harsh (though to be fair, if the Germans had won, they’d have done similar things — witness the terms of Brest-Litovsk which ended their war against Russia). At one point Clemenceau took Wilson into a room of women who had been raped by German soldiers to make his case that the Germans had to pay a steep price.

When a staff economist at the treaty proceedings, John Meynard Keynes, wrote in 1924 that the treaty would so devastate Germany that another war was likely as Germany would have to rebel against its provisions, he was laughed at. Yet the treaty helped bring about the rise of radical nationalist movements in Germany, including the Nazis. It, along with inept German policies, led to a hyper inflation in 1923 that created mass poverty in Germany. In essence, the treaty assured that the public would hate the post-war order, demand change, and distrust their new democratic institutions. When the depression hit, Hitler rode the wave of discontent to power, promising to bring pride back to Germany.

In Great Britain the conservatives realized Keynes had been right. The treaty had been so harsh that it caused the rise and success of German fascism. Many also thought that it wasn’t so bad that a strong fascist Germany was a bulwark protecting Europe from Bolshevism. When Neville Chamberlain became Prime Minister, he and the conservative party (with Churchill dissenting) embraced appeasement as a policy, meaning they would appease the legitimate interests of Germany. Legitimate meant essentially that they’d undo the wrong and unequal treatment of Germany at Versailles, and try to make Germany an equal player in the system, hoping this would stop German resentment of the terms of the peace. With any other leader but Hitler this would have worked.

Hitler claimed to be a Bismarck. Bismarck started two wars to unify Germany, then worked to keep a stable Europe after that. Hitler said he only would fight if it was necessary to give Germany equal rights in the system. Chamberlain didn’t believe that. He expected war. But he wanted to make sure there wasn’t a rush to war, and his military said they wouldn’t be ready until 1943. Appeasement might work, but it also would buy time. The big event — the Munich agreement that gave Germany the Sudeutenland — was in line with Wilson’s principles. The Sudeuten folk were overwhelmingly Germany, and technically it wasn’t given to Germany but the people were allowed to vote to either be in Germany or in Czechoslovakia. Overwhelmingly, they chose the former. Alas, most of the Czech defenses, built by France, were in that part of Czechoslovakia, and thus handed over to the Nazis.

So what does all this mean? Consider: Appeasement was not meant to give Hitler everything he wanted, but rather to undo a harsh treaty that punished Germany and sowed the seeds of war. The Munich agreement followed the ideal of self-determination. Moreover, in private Chamberlain prepared for war, and even expected it. He hoped he could avert it — and after the countries of Europe rushed too quickly to war in 1914, he didn’t want to make that same mistake. It wasn’t clear in the 1930s just how evil Hitler’s plans were; Hitler talked like a Bismarck. One lesson to take from this: those with extremist rhetoric are often not as dangerous as those who pretend to be reasonable. Another is that bullying and trying to hold another country down will often create the kind of problem you wanted to avoid in the first place. And once the damage is done, it’s hard to undo. Finally, the lessons of history are often misunderstood. Chamberlain learned the lessons of 1914, but they were not applicable in 1938. History is a poor guide if you use glib and very general comparisons.

Appeasement was a policy which was rational, and definitely not meant to give Hitler whatever he wanted, or buy him off to prevent war. Rather the goal of the policy to undue the horrible terms of the Treaty of Versailles. It failed because Hitler had already used the treaty and economic depression to take power, and he wanted war no matter what. No policy would have worked with him except challenging him very early in his rule — but in a world decimated by World War I, that was never an option. Moreover, appeasement was never just “talking.” There was never a doubt that the Europeans would talk with Hitler. Appeasement was defined by the policy choices made.

Fast forward to the Mideast in 2008. There are real dangers. We don’t know the intent of Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas. We can debate as to how we should interact with them — and of course there are always back channel communications, even now. But to evoke a term from British foreign policy in the 1930s, redefined to seem like something it wasn’t, is a misapplication of history. Misapplying history leads to the opposite of learning lessons from history: using false history to try to promote a political argument. At best that’s unpersuasive. At worst, it could lead to another fiasco.

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