By Lamont Colucci
Eighty years ago today the camera’s flashed as the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain stepped out of 10 Downing Street and uttered these infamous words, “My good friends, for the second time in our history, a British Prime Minister has returned from Germany bringing peace with honour. I believe it is peace for our time…Go home and get a nice quiet sleep.” It was on September 30, 1938, and those words would hang in the air, forever; they would linger like an unwanted ghost in the halls of statecraft, decade after decade. (Within eight months Chamberlain would resign and be replaced by the great man who served God, Winston Churchill.)
History depends on the actions of great men. There is no sentence in the English language more out of favor among historians than this one. Actually, there is only one worse – history depends on the actions of great men who serve God. This idea is also amplified in reverse: history’s tragedies are amplified by small men, and such a man was Neville Chamberlain.
“It is a price which enables a dictator who would willingly destroy the last vestige of democracy in Europe to claim with justice that he scored over the democracies of Europe the greatest diplomatic triumph of modern times,” The New York Times wrote disapprovingly of the policy known as appeasement. Some in the British press and public approved appeasing Hitler. Many thought the horrors of the First World War would be avoided and the only sacrifice had been the liberty and freedom of the people of Czechoslovakia. Others protested the agreement in London’s Trafalgar Square.
Many who write about the Chamberlain policy of appeasement focus on the statement and discuss its folly in light of the Second World War. In March 1939, Hitler had annexed all of Czechoslovakia, and the war the West so desperately did not want was given to them under Hitler’s terms on September 1. Chamberlain, (and to a lesser degree the then French President Daladier), became the poster-boy for foreign policy appeasement: the policy that is willing to grant concessions in order to forestall conflict. The term appeasement became a slander used by realist and conservative statesmen, academics, and journalists who understood that dictators are fed by such victories.
By 1938 Hitler had scored a pile of bloodless victories starting with the withdrawal from the League of Nations in 1933 (akin to withdrawal or ignoring of U.N. or other international agreements today), the unilateral rejection of the disarmament in 1935 (similar to the research, development or sale of WMD today), the remilitarization of the Rhineland in 1936 (likened to spending on military modernization when other aspects of your country are in poverty), and the annexation of Austria in 1938.
We have seen this in the contemporary era with variations on appeasement with the USSR during parts of the Cold War, Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda in the 1990s, and North Korea and Iran during the last administration.
“Some seem to believe that we should negotiate with the terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along,” then President George W Bush said in a speech in Jerusalem in 2008, “We have heard this foolish delusion before. As Nazi tanks crossed into Poland in 1939, an American senator declared: “Lord, if I could only have talked to Hitler, all this might have been avoided.” We have an obligation to call this what it is — the false comfort of appeasement, which has been repeatedly discredited by history.”
Bush was alluding to Senator William E. Borah, an Idaho Republican in the 1930s who was many proponents of appeasement.
Even in Germany there were opponents of Hitler. In 1938, a small group of anti-Nazi activists had begged the West to pursue a different policy. This German anti-Nazi opposition made numerous attempts to inform the British and French governments of their plans, asking only that they stand-up to Hitler over Czechoslovakia.
By May 1938 a group of Germans within the Army, Foreign Office, and intelligence services had come to the decision that Hitler and the Nazi regime must be overthrown. This part of the German resistance was not the dissenters, protestors, student activists, or religious figures that often had great qualms against violence. This group was primarily made up of conservative Christian nationalists who differentiated between treason against the government, which they knew they were committing, versus treason against Germany and the German people. In other words, the loyalty they had to Germany justified treason against the Nazis. In an amazing memorandum, Chief of the General Staff, General Ludwig Beck, wrote in 1938, “Your military duty to obey [orders] ends where your knowledge, your conscience, and your responsibility forbids the execution of an order.” We might remember that the American revolutionaries made parallel arguments in the Declaration of Independence. There is a higher duty to God and righteousness than any manmade construct. These men, motivated by honor, duty, and obligation, created a plan to dismantle the Nazi regime by using the German army to take over the country and neutralize the SS.
We know of course the coup plot was a failure but, proud Germans continued to resist Hitler (two others by German military officers in 1943) with the more famous July 1944 Valkyrie plot.
Hitler, like modern-day tyrants, played both the belligerent and the peacemaker when it served his interests. Similar to the 1930s, today’s leaders in the West question their own systems, values, and civilization. The prospect of war was a greater horror than the prospect of evil or the protection of innocent lives. The arguments about saving lives in the short run ended up costing the lives of millions in the long run – the most colossal failures in all of human history.
The Western acceptance of the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia ensured the abject failure of the one attempt that had the greatest amount of success to rid the world of Hitler and Nazism. Had the allies stood up to Hitler, the resistance would have removed him from power. The result of this is beyond calculation, but it is not without credibility to suggest that there would have been no Second World War, no Holocaust and no Soviet enslavement of Eastern Europe.
The eightieth anniversary of appeasement writ large should cause us to reflect. There can never be accommodation with evil for it always ends in more innocent lives destroyed.
Lamont Colucci is a former diplomat with the U.S. State Department and a professor of international relations.
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