Who are the appeasers?

Last year, Donald Trump used Twitter to accuse South Korea of “appeasement” in its confrontation with the north over nuclear armaments. If President Trump, who makes no claim to being an intellectual, uses the term “appeasement”, and of all places on Twitter, surely that term has entered the mainstream. But how did it get there? What is “appeasement” supposed to mean anyway? Are the words “appeasement” and “appeaser” at all related anymore to their historical basis?

The 1930s

Appeasement as policy originated in the dramatic events that led to WWII. It peaked on 30 September 1938, when Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain returned from the Munich Conference to proclaim “peace for our time”. Britain and France had given in to Hitler’s peremptory demands to carve up Czechoslovakia, a friendly nation and a key military asset. As Chamberlain and Edouard Daladier, his French counterpart, would soon discover, they had made a bad bargain. Far from having bought peace, they had fed Nazi appetites. Hitler had sworn this was the end of his territorial ambitions, as a token leaving standing a rump Czechoslovak state. Reneging on this six months later, he ordered his troops to march into Prague.

Winston Churchill, who was out of government at the time, commented after Munich : “You were given the choice between war and dishonour. You chose dishonour, and you will have war.” The Munich Agreement was the final and most dramatic milestone in appeasement, but the policy of bowing to the dictators had begun earlier. In 1935, Benito Mussolini launched an invasion of Abyssinia – now Ethiopia – from the Italian colonies of Eritrea and Somalia. It was a brutal, unprovoked attack. The Italians used tanks, aircraft, and poison gas against the heroic but helpless Africans. The French and British, for their part, were anxious not to push Mussolini into Hitler’s arms: all they imposed on Italy were limited trade sanctions, and even these were quickly withdrawn. In a secret bid to pacify the Italian dictator, they attempted to bribe him by recognising the annexation of the greater part of Abyssinia – the Hoare-Laval Pact, only aborted due to untimely press exposure.

In 1935, Hitler had reintroduced conscription in Germany. In 1936 he remilitarised the Rhineland, a buffer region declared armaments-free under the Versailles and Locarno treaties. That Nazi Germany was a violent country where innocents were sent to concentration camps and that Hitler harboured ambitions to change the European map were both public knowledge. Neither the French nor the British attempted to stop Germany’s remilitarization. In 1937, a German air-force squadron known as the Condor Legion bombed the Spanish town of Guernica, massacring its defenceless civilians. The very existence of the Condor Legion contravened international non-intervention agreements into the Spanish Civil War, whose terms the Italians were violating on an even greater scale. Rather than confront the offenders, France and Britain chose to believe the fiction that their troops were “volunteers”. In March 1938 – six months still before Munich – the German army marched into Austria, which was annexed in an action known as the Anschluss. This was the last straw, the French and British premiers announced. Hitler was warned: if he thought he could do the same to Czechoslovakia…

Obersalzberg, Münchener Abkommen, Vorbereitung

Hitler welcomes Chamberlain in Berchtesgaden (Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-H12478 / Unknown / CC-BY-SA 3.0)

It was only in March 1939, when Hitler violated the terms of the Munich Agreement itself, that appeasement was publicly unmasked as a failed policy. The French and British premiers were forced to acknowledge their error. To prevent any further losses, they guaranteed the borders of Poland, Greece, and Romania. In September, WWII began. Germany, of course, had by then amassed more than a hundred army divisions. It had taken its pick from the massive Czechoslovak armament factories and stockpiles, helping equip an unstoppable panzer corps. And it faced no eastern front, the Soviet Union having given up on the pusillanimous Western powers.

1930s appeasement contained a few basic features for noting by political scientists in future decades. First, the appeasers were compelled to deal with events in their own backyard, not on some distant shore upon which it was optional to busy themselves. Second, they faced an existential threat: Germany was a first-rank power with the potential to destroy them, at least after it had been allowed to rearm. Third, the situation they faced involved fundamental moral choices alongside strategic calculations: the pressure to surrender helpless populations to the Nazis had to be gauged against the associated military gains or losses. Incidentally, it is this combination of hard moral and strategic choices that accounts for appeasement’s endless fascination both among champions of Idealand Realpolitik, among foreign policy realists and their idealist opponents.

Drawing the lessons

None of this was much considered, however, by politicians supposedly drawing the lessons from appeasement after 1945. Appeasement’s strange post-war career underwent three broad phases. The first began in an immediate and complete condemnation: appeasement was the failed work of a few guilty men, in the words of a book published anonymously as early as 1940. This classic formulation would endure for a generation. It would also provide an excellent basis for making exactly the opposite mistakes.

In 1956, Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, who had recently taken power in Egypt, nationalised the Suez Canal. He was already at odds with Britain, Egypt’s former coloniser, and with France, who believed him to be covertly supporting Algerian independence fighters. The British and French premiers, Anthony Eden and Guy Mollet, concocted a plan. Israel, similarly concerned and secretly brought in, would invade the Sinai and advance as far as Port Said. This would provide an opening for Franco-British forces to intervene as “peacekeepers”, by the same token taking physical control of the canal. The plotters sounded out neither the US nor the Soviet Union.

The thinking behind this harebrained scheme, beside being emblematic of two declining colonial powers, was heavily influenced by the desire to draw the “lessons from Munich”. Eden and Mollet saw Nasser as a new Hitler, bent on regional domination according to a step-by-step plan. They were petrified of looking weak if they sat down to negotiate. Both premiers personally remembered the 1930s. Eden had been Foreign Secretary between 1935 and 1938. He had a hawk’s reputation because he had resigned, a few months before Munich, for being at odds with Chamberlain, but he had actually been a participant in appeasement before that. Mollet’s experience was different: too unimportant to be in office in the 1930s, he had fought as a resister during the war. Many of the politicians around Mollet and Eden, meanwhile, had cheered the Munich Conference from the backbenches. They were not guilty men so much as men with a guilty conscience. The result was disaster. The Suez operation went ahead and was a military success initially, but it had to be aborted when the Soviet Union threatened a nuclear war. The US disowned its duplicitous French and British allies, abandoning them to a humiliating climbdown. Nasser was not Hitler. Victorious Egyptian troops were not about to march down the Champs Elysées, and Port Said bore little resemblance to Munich. This was the not last time, though, that the wrong analogies would be made.

1960s domino theory – the notion that one country after the next would fall to communism if its progression was left unchecked – owed something to the negative example of appeasement. Other factors, though – they lie beyond the scope of this blog – were at work behind that theory and its main outcome: the Vietnam War. By then, first-hand memory of Munich was beginning to fade. The next stage in appeasement’s afterlife accordingly belonged to the historian’s sphere.

Immediately after WWII, the opening of the German archives had confirmed that the appeasers had from the beginning been played by Hitler. Several writers had produced excellent accounts of Munich, including a worthy tome by Telford Taylor, a former prosecutor at Nuremberg. By the 1960s, though, the time was ripe for revisionism. Beginning with the telegenic A.J.P. Taylor on the origins of WWII, a group of historians began to rehabilitate Chamberlain. Since painting the Nazis as good guys after all was not an option, this necessarily focused on the realist aspects of appeasement. The appeasers had been sincere men facing hard choices, said Taylor. They had enjoyed a wide following at the time. The key argument, though, became that appeasement had bought time for the democracies to rearm. As many have since then countered this was bogus, but the notion caught on and has achieved a degree of public recognition, especially in Britain. Peak revisionism was probably reached with a daring and original book by the diplomatic historian John Charmley: obeying a hard-headed logic, this argued that it had never been in Britain’s interest to confront Hitler, and that even fighting WWII had been a bad idea.

Charmley’s book came out in 1989. Ironically this was just before a major international crisis arose that would actually recall the 1930s – a crisis in which the British and French cabinets would choose most studiously to ignore the perceived “lessons” of appeasement, to an equally lamentable outcome.

In 1992, the Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic attacked neighbouring Bosnia. Like Hitler, Milosevic used local irredentists as a tool for conquest, in this case a ragtag body of paramilitaries with a government based in the provincial town of Banja Luka. Milosevic’s proxies ran concentration camps where they performed mass torture, rape, and murder. The assault was racially based and motivated, as evidenced by campaigns of terror and eviction or “ethnic cleansing”. It was designed as a prelude for creating a greater Serbia to encompass all or part of Croatia, Kosovo, and Macedonia. There was even a parallel with the Spanish Civil War in that the international community, Britain and France in the lead, imposed an arms embargo that Serbia consistently violated and that left the legitimate Bosnian government desperately short of weapons. The main difference with the 1930s was that Serbia was of course too weak to pose any direct threat to the Western powers, and there was no prospect of a world war. This did not stop the governments of John Major and Jacques Chirac from proclaiming that Serbia could not and should not be confronted. The Bosnian war dragged on, leaving 100,000 dead and many more displaced.

Margaret Thatcher, who was now out of office and became utterly exasperated, berated the foreign secretary Douglas Hurd: “Douglas, Douglas, you would make Neville Chamberlain look like a warmonger.”After much wavering, the US under Bill Clinton decided to intervene. At a UN meeting to halt the bloodbath, Madeleine Albright snapped at a delegate who quibbled with the latest resolution: “Where do you think you are, Munich?”

Appeasement now

If the Bosnian moral case was unimpeachable, the proverbial cat was nevertheless out of the bag. The Americans had been proven right, and the crypto-appeaser Hurd shown to be at fault. Among historians, as the twenty-first century dawned, the revisionist phase was ending and appeasement becoming unfashionable again. Among politicians, the use of the word was about to become ubiquitous, with a corresponding, final loss of meaning.

“Appeaser” as a term of abuse reached a peak it has never left in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, when the US led a coalition to topple Saddam Hussein and remove weapons of mass destruction (“WMDs”) that were never there. Donald Rumsfeld, George W. Bush’s Secretary of Defence, proclaimed himself a new Churchill. The French and the Germans, who opposed the war, were “appeasers” of the cheese-eating variety, like anyone who thought the inspectors might be right when they doubted the presence of WMDs. Tony Blair sided with Bush-Rumsfeld in their crusade against “appeasement”, prompting The Guardian to ask historians for their opinions and reaping a choice set of quotes on the misuse of the term. Saddam Hussein was, again, not Hitler. Nor was Iraq about to invade the US or Britain, or even plausibly any neighbouring state. As one of these historians responded: “Blair would do well to reflect on the lessons of Suez. Politicians, like everyone else, are free to repeat the mistakes of the past, but it is not mandatory to do so.” It was in vain. Appeasement had reached its terminal status as a bland and blameable catchall, a status from which the historian was unlikely to rescue it.

Munich probably does teach us a few lessons, though historians are rightly reluctant to admit so. One is that arrogance and the ignorance of all contradictory viewpoints – in my opinion Chamberlainite hallmarks – do not make for good diplomacy. Another is that the pursuit of détente should take into account the other party’s track record in sticking to their word. (In a key cabinet meeting days before Munich, Lord Hailsham produced a press cutting listing the many occasions when Hitler had broken his word: this failed to impress the British premier.) A third is that it is dangerous to hand over large armament stockpiles to an enemy. A fourth might be that self-determination is no panacea: Hitler invoked it to great effect in asking for populations to be delivered to him, but among them were many opponents and non-Germans who stood to suffer the worst depredations. None of these lessons, however, is that a warlike inflexibility should always be preferred to diplomacy and a preparedness to negotiate, and herein lies the problem.

From one false analogy to another or to one that was only partly good, “appeasement” has been drained of its historical meaning. From the description of someone leading a morally questionable and cowardly policy – itself a historically contingent description – the term “appeaser” has become a mere term of abuse, applicable to anyone who, in a given situation, is prepared to suggest diplomacy might work. In this light, all hawks are Churchill and all doves are Chamberlain. The appeasers are everyone and anyone, as long as they object to the use of violence to pre-empt some real or imagined act of aggression. This even explains why, like the South Korean president in Trump’s tweets, one can be an appeaser one day and a hero the next.

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