Monday, February 20

The history of appeasement

More and more people (okay, bloggers, but that's almost the same thing) are beginning to see disturbing similarities between the growing pressure to appease Islamic terrorists, and the attempts in the 1930s to avoid war by trying to appease Adolf Hitler.

If you're under 40 or so and weren't a history or poli-sci major, you almost certainly weren't taught much about the events leading up to WW2. And it's a particularly good bet that none of your teachers ever told you about the near-catastrophic results of the policy of "appeasement."

This is no accident: It's hardly a secret that war sucks, but the so-called "progressive" forces in the U.S.--which include virtually everyone in the U.S. education establishment--have always taught their students that
1) war is never necessary;
2) it can always be avoided, if only one isn't stuck in the primitive mind-set of (gasp!) patriotism;
3) there's no such thing as "evil," and if some foreign group kills a few thousand Americans then we probably deserved it and should put more effort into understanding their grievances--the "root causes" of their actions;
4) no foreign group really wants to kill Americans, and if any American claims otherwise, the speaker must be not only wrong, but actually dim-witted.
If any of these ideas sound familiar to you, you get points for learning what they were teaching.

Unfortunately, every one of the above points is false. In seeking to prevent future wars, so-called "progressive" educators have simply made up points that they wished were true.

In teaching you these things that were totally false, your teachers weren't being malicious (most of 'em, anyway): most adults agree that if children are taught the seamy or scary details of real life, they get traumatized. It's generally agreed that kids are happier and better adjusted if we let 'em believe the world isn't as threatening or grim as it really is.

(Ironically, this is one of the reasons society was so slow to recognize and develop defenses to child sexual abuse: very few adults wanted to let children know such threats to them even existed.)

But when one becomes an adult, most people are able to release the comforting myths of childhood. In fact, one of the hallmarks of being a "responsible adult" is that you deal with the world as it actually is, instead of as you wished it were.

So for you under-40 non-history majors, that's why you probably never heard about how the foolish strategy of "appeasement" almost resulted in Nazi Germany winning World War 2 and taking over the world. Here's how it happened:

The first World War (1914-1918) had seen the slaughter of millions of young men in a horribly efficient killing machine called "trench warfare." So many died that writers began calling them "the lost generation." By 1935--only 17 years after that ghastly war ended--the memory was still fresh. Moreover, the technology that had killed so many millions in the Great War had gotten even more deadly.

As a result, everyone was scared witless about the possibility of starting another war between the same nations.

This aversion was particularly strong in Britain, which had lost almost as many men as Germany. British universities--always centers of idealism untempered by reality--quickly became centers of radical pacifism, with young men formally signing pledges refusing to "die for king and country."

Not surprisingly, political parties in Britain that were the most vocal in renouncing war--regardless of provocation--won the most seats in Parliament and thus ran the government.

Unfortunately for the pacifists, reality intervened: Adolf Hitler had been a corporal in the German army in the Great War, and believed the real reason Germany had lost that war was because of Germany's king had surrendered even though the German army could eventually have turned the tide and won.

Hitler also believed the German race was genetically superior to others, and should logically rule the world. Finally, he claimed--with some justification--that the provisions of the treaty that ended the Great War were unreasonably harsh on Germany, and that they had intentionally been made that way because France and Britain wanted revenge against Germany for starting the war.

These three factors alone would probably have been enough to trigger a second world war. When set against the overriding British sentiment of "no war for any reason", the stage was set for disaster.

The extreme anti-war feelings in Britain--especially among young men of draft age--were well known throughout Europe, and Hitler correctly calculated that Britain would agree to virtually any demand he might make rather than risk war by opposing him.

Compounding the problem was an American president who was convinced that all problems between nations could be solved by negotiations. A bare majority in Congress agreed, which led Hitler and his advisors to conclude that America wouldn't intervene if war started in Europe. And in any case, in 1935 few analysts regarded America as a significant military power.

So with all Europe trying not to notice, Hitler proceeded to re-arm Germany and to move troops into a part of the country it was barred from by terms of the treaty ending the Great War. Internal German memos would later show that Hitler was worried that each of these acts would trigger military action against him, and was prepared to back down. But when other nations did nothing but talk, he concluded that the world would continue to avoid significant action against Germany regardless of what he did.

Convinced that the rest of the world would tolerate any provocation, Hitler became even more bold: He demanded that half of the nation that bordered Germany to the south--then called Czechoslovakia--be ceded to Germany. Not surprisingly, the Czech government objected. Hitler ordered his troops into Czechoslovakia and waited for the world's reaction.

This was the moment of truth: If the world would permit him to take possession of a large part of Czechoslovakia without firing a shot, Hitler knew he could probably continue the process indefinitely.

It was at this crucial moment that the Prime Minister of Britain--Neville Chamberlain--flew to Germany to meet with Hitler about this brazen provocation.

Hitler knew, both from Chamberlain's speeches in Britain and from the fact that Britain had made no preparations for war, that Chamberlain couldn't do anything more than talk. But the details of that talk were crucial: If the British PM threw down an ultimatum--withdraw your troops or we'll fight--Germany would have to choose between an embarrassing retreat and fighting before it was quite ready.

Accordingly, Hitler put on the appearance of being concessionary, promising Chamberlain that this would be Germany's last demand--and Chamberlain apparently believed him. On returning to Britain after the talks, Chamberlain was filmed stepping off the plane waving a piece of paper over his head and proudly proclaiming to the assembled crowds that he had achieved "peace in our time."

It would turn out to be one of the worst predictions ever: The second world war started barely a year after Chamberlain's fateful words.

Seven years and over 20 million dead later, the absurdity of the phrase--and the amazing degree of self-deception needed to utter it--was still sinking in. The phrase would later be used as a scathing metaphor for any politician who willfully ignored reality by trying to appease a tyrant whose demands were actually insatiable.

When children ignore reality, adults think it's cute. But when adults--and particularly the leaders of nations--do the same, the results are often disastrous. The extent to which Chamberlain ignored reality can be clearly seen in a speech he made to the House of Commons on his return from Munich, explaining what he had negotiated:
To those who dislike an ultimatum but who were anxious for a reasonable and orderly procedure, every one of [the] modifications [of the Godesberg Memorandum by the Munich Agreement] is a step in the right direction. It is no longer an ultimatum, but is a method which is carried out largely under the supervision of an international body.
Here the self-delusion is clear: In consecutive sentences an "ultimatum"--a demand that correctly describes Hitler's actions--becomes "no longer an ultimatum." It becomes acceptable--at least in Chamberlain's woefully naive view--because it is carried out "under the supervision of an international body."

Remind you of a recent American politician?

Chamberlain went on to make excuses for the "difficulty" of Hitler's position, and to praise him for making "a real and a substantial contribution" to the situation--by agreeing to take the meeting with Chamberlain.
I do feel that the House ought to recognise the difficulty for a man in that position to take back such emphatic declarations as he had already made amidst the enthusiastic cheers of his supporters, and to recognise that in discuss with the representatives of other Powers those things which he had declared he had already decided...was a real and a substantial contribution on his part.
Chamberlain went on to complete this demonstration of naivete by praising the fascist Italian dicatator Mussolini, who sided with Germany in WW2:
With regard to Signor Mussolini, . . . I think that Europe and the world have reason to be grateful to the head of the Italian government for his work in contributing to a peaceful solution.
Rarely are delusion and naivete so openly demonstrated. In hindsight it's hard to consider Chamberlain anything other than a complete fool--a naif totally gulled by the two fascist dictators, Hitler and Mussolini.

Today the American Left resolutely denies that radical Islamists want to impose their laws and rule on the world. By insisting that we make concession after concession to their demands, and by seeking to block any military action against them, they may be setting the stage for the inevitable war.

As has often been said, those who refuse to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them.

[H/t Wretchard at Belmont Club]


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