When appeasement led to dishonour

The belief that Britain should have stood up to Hitler rather than appeasing him in 1938 was invoked a number of times in the following decades, writes Geoffrey Roberts.

When appeasement led to dishonour

The belief that Britain should have stood up to Hitler rather than appeasing him in 1938 was invoked a number of times in the following decades, writes Geoffrey Roberts.

British prime minister Neville Chamberlain returned from meeting Adolf Hitler in Munich at the end of September 1938 waving the piece of paper which he famously claimed would secure “peace with honour” and “peace for our time”.

Chamberlain critic Winston Churchill retorted: “You were given the choice between war and dishonour. You chose dishonour, and you will have war.”

Churchill was right. Within six months, Chamberlain’s so-called peace was destroyed as Hitler went on the offensive and, within a year — in September 1939 — had invaded Poland.

Before the Munich debacle, “appeasement” was accepted as an honourable policy in international politics — pursuing peace through the achievement of reasonable compromises.

But after the Munich deal with Hitler failed and the Second World War erupted, appeasement became synonymous with craven behaviour and political capitulation to amoral dictators.

Chamberlain’s disastrous engagement with Hitler spawned what became known as the Munich analogy — the idea that appeasement of dictators must always be wrong.

It was widely believed that British and French leaders should have stood up to Hitler at the Munich conference since their surrender to Hitler’s demands for the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia had served only to embolden and strengthen the Nazi dictator.

The Hitler analogy then became the twin of the Munich analogy, whereby politicians deployed the rhetorical device of comparing any adversary with the Nazi dictator as justification for whatever extreme measures they wished to implement, including military action.

Throughout the Cold War, the US defended its nuclear stand-off with the Soviet Union by constant references to the Hitler and Munich analogies.

When the British, French, and Israelis occupied the Suez Canal in 1956, they claimed Egyptian leader Colonel Nasser was a new Hitler.

President George W Bush compared Saddam Hussein to Hitler to justify his war against Iraq, while Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and Russia’s Vladimir Putin have also been likened to the Nazi dictator by those urging western military intervention in Syria and Ukraine.

Barack Obama’s 2015 nuclear deal with Iran was denounced as appeasement by Republicans and was recently repudiated by his successor as US president, Donald Trump.

Bashar al-Assad
Bashar al-Assad

The problem with utilising such comparisons is that they gloss over the exceptional nature of Hitler and the Nazi regime.

Hitler was set on a course of expansionism, war, and racial extermination. With Germany ruled by Hitler and the Nazis, a new world war was virtually inevitable.

Hitler was a dictator who could not be appeased. But the same is not true for all dictators.

Joseph Stalin and his successors as leader of the Soviet Union, for example, were accepting of appeasement, compromise, and mutually beneficial deals with their adversaries.

Yet the spread of the Munich and Hitler analogies in international political discourse has undermined opportunities for negotiation by encouraging moral absolutism and posturing.

Unrealisable demands and unrealistic expectations of “the other“ have become the norm.

In doing so, the pursuit of the perfect solution has become the enemy of the good resolution in international politics and any efforts by diplomats to negotiate settlement of difficult issues have become hampered by loud accusations of betrayal.

Use of these analogies also oversimplifies the complex history that led to the betrayal of Czechoslovakia in 1938.

With the carnage of 1914-18 still fresh in people’s minds, the British and French governments agreed at Munich to give Hitler the Sudetenland because they wanted to avert the slaughter of millions of people in a new world war.

Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler at Munich was hugely popular at the time, though mostly because of relief that war had been averted. Chamberlain and Edouard Daladier, the French prime minister, were welcomed home from Munich as heroes.

Chamberlain was celebrated as a peacemaker and received 20,000 supporting letters and telegrams. US president Franklin Roosevelt described Chamberlain as a “good man”, while Éamon de Valera hailed him as a “knight of peace”.

The German public was equally effusive, although Hitler himself was not so pleased. He had been itching for an excuse to go to war and felt out-manoeuvred by Chamberlain.

Appeasement of Hitler at Munich was the culmination of a long-term Anglo-French policy to avoid confrontation with Nazi Germany and to negotiate a settlement of German grievances against the supposedly-punitive peace terms imposed after the First World War.

When Hitler repudiated restrictions on the size of Germany’s armed forces, the British and French acquiesced.

When Hitler remilitarised the Rhineland in March 1936, they protested but took no action.

During the brutal Spanish Civil War, both Britain and France pursued a policy of non-intervention that allowed massive Nazi and Fascist support to flow to Franco’s military mutiny.

Only the Soviet Union stood by Spain’s embattled Republican government.

Then, when Hitler seized control of Austria in March 1938, London and Paris were not even prepared to discuss Soviet proposals for a united front against future German aggression.

The Soviets characterised appeasement as a ‘policy of concessions’ at the expense of other countries and accused the British and French of attempting to divert Hitler’s malevolence into an anti-Bolshevik crusade.

While both the British and French governments included a good number of staunch anti-communists they also had other motives for appeasement: Fear of all-out war, an over-estimation of Germany’s military power, and the demands of defending their empires.

Nazi Germany was not the only threat to the over-stretched British and French forces in the 1930s.

They had to contend with the challenges of Imperial Japan and fascist Italy as well as many populist anti-colonial revolts in Asia and Africa.

Appeasement seemed a sensible strategy to buy time until British and French rearmament could be completed.

The Munich crisis was provoked by Hitler’s demand that the Sudetenland — the border areas of Czechoslovakia that contained the country’s 3m-strong German minority — be transferred to German control.

Czechoslovakia had defence pacts with both France and the Soviet Union, and the British were de facto allied with the French.

In the belief that he could avert a major European war, Chamberlain three times flew to meet Hitler in September 1938 to plead for peace.

The final capitulation came at the conference in Munich mediated by the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.

Chamberlain and Daladier’s decision to force the Czechoslovakians to concede the Sudetenland has often been defended on the grounds that Britain and France were not ready for war with Germany in 1938.

But for all his bluster, it is doubtful that Hitler was ready for war either. Certainly, the Soviets believed he was bluffing and urged the great powers to stand by their commitments to Czechoslovakia, a small but defendable country with its own, not inconsiderable, armed forces. 

Moscow’s confrontational strategy carried with it the risk of war that neither the British nor French were prepared to take.

The Soviet Union was excluded from the Munich conference, as was Czechoslovakia.

Moscow condemned the agreement signed by Britain, France, Germany, and Italy on September 29, 1938, as a diktat that would allow Hitler to make further demands and carry out more acts of aggression.

The Soviets were right. In March 1939 Hitler reneged on his promise to leave Czechoslovakia alone after the Sudetenland was detached and German troops marched to occupy Prague, the country’s capital.

Britain and France consequently lost faith in their appeasement policies and instead embraced the idea of an alliance with the Soviet Union in an effort to contain Hitler and his expansionist ambitions.

Poland was the next target of Hitler’s belligerence, since it controlled the German port of Danzig and occupied the so-called Polish Corridor — a strip of territory that bisected Germany and gave the Poles access to the Baltic Sea.

Confronted by Hitler’s demand for Germany to control Danzig, Britain and France chose to support Poland but were in no position to defend the country from German attack.

Geography dictated that only Poland’s big neighbour, the USSR, could do that. However, the anti-communist Poles did not want to entrust their security to the Soviets.

While Stalin was interested in a triple alliance with Britain and France, he no longer believed Hitler could be dissuaded from war.

For him, the triple alliance would have to be a war-fighting coalition with watertight guarantees the British and French would not revert to appeasing Hitler and abandon the Soviet Union to slug it out with Germany in the east.

Josef Stalin
Josef Stalin

Indeed, the triple alliance talks failed because Stalin did not trust the British and French.

He opted instead for a deal with Hitler that kept the USSR out of the war when Germany attacked Poland and placed limits on German expansion in the Soviet direction.

Stalin’s appeasement of Hitler was more cynical than Chamberlain’s but no more successful.

When France fell to Hitler in summer 1940, the Soviets occupied Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, and bolted the Baltic door to German expansion.

Stalin also took steps to strengthen his position in the Balkans — moves that provoked Hitler’s ire and sparked a crisis in German-Soviet relations that was to culminate with the Nazi invasion of the USSR in June 1941.

By this time, Churchill had succeeded Chamberlain as British prime minister and immediately held out the hand of friendship to the Soviet Union.

It was now Churchill’s turn to play the role of appeaser — of Stalin this time — a policy that made sense when the Red Army was engaged in gigantic battles with the Germans on the Eastern front.

Churchill flew to Moscow twice for bilateral meetings with Stalin and also met him at summits in Tehran, Yalta, and Potsdam.

The two men saw each other as comrades in arms and, in October 1944, Churchill even offered to divide parts of Europe into British and Soviet spheres of influence.

After the war, Churchill decried the ‘iron curtain’ that descended across Europe as a result of Soviet and communist expansion westwards, but he continued to favour co-operation with Stalin.

As Churchill said: “Appeasement may be good or bad according to the circumstances. Appeasement from weakness and fear is futile and fatal. Appeasement from strength is magnanimous and noble, and might be the surest and only path to world peace.”

Churchill lost power in 1945 but when he returned to office in 1951, he continued to insist that jaw-jaw with the Soviets was better than war-war.

As his old adversary Neville Chamberlain once said: “War wins nothing, cures nothing, and ends nothing.”

Geoffrey Roberts is emeritus professor of history at UCC and a member of the Royal Irish Academy. His book, Churchill and Stalin: Comrades in Arms during the Second World War, will be published in the spring.

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