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READ: Appeasement

Appeasement. It sounds nice. But the failed attempts to appease Adolf Hitler in the lead up to World War II have become a historical punchline, with some serious consequences.


By Jeff Spoden
Appeasement. It sounds nice. But the failed attempts to appease Adolf Hitler in the lead up to World War II have become a historical punchline, with some serious consequences.


The dictionary defines appeasement as the attempt to bring about a state of peace, quiet, ease, or calm. In history, however, the word usually refers to the unsuccessful effort by British prime minister Neville Chamberlain to keep Adolph Hitler from starting World War II. Today, this historical example of appeasement is used by anyone who favors confrontation over negotiation, citing Chamberlain as a weak leader who was duped by Hitler. Many believe that if Chamberlain had not tried to appease the German dictator, and had taken a tough stance from the beginning, the war might have been avoided.
Neville Chamberlain holds up the Munich Agreement, signed by himself and Adolf Hitler in 1938. As he read the contents of the agreement, the crowd cheered him. Public domain.
It is true that Prime Minister Chamberlain, and his predecessor, Stanley Baldwin, did little to stop German aggression after 1935. The slaughter of the First World War was still fresh in people’s minds, and there weren’t a lot of leaders or citizens in Britain or France who were willing to risk yet another devastating war with Germany. At the same time, there were many Brits who believed that the Treaty of Versailles had been unfair to Germany. They believed that Hitler’s violations of the treaty—such as remilitarizing Germany and moving troops into the demilitarized Rhineland—were justified. Many even believed that fascism was preferable to the sort of communism being pioneered in Stalin’s Soviet Union. So, in the mid-1930s, appeasement was a very popular policy. Making nice with Hitler, in hopes that agreeing to limited German expansion would satisfy him, made sense to millions of Europeans.

Chronology of appeasement

But as Hitler continued to violate the Treaty of Versailles and began invading Germany’s neighbors, people in Britain and France grew concerned, and many condemned German expansion. Still, the British and French governments took no serious action. Here’s a chart of each German aggression and the British and French appeasement that followed:
Voting ballot from Austria in April 1938. Translation: “Referendum and Greater German Parliament; Ballot; Do you agree with the reunification of Austria with the German Reich (empire) that was enacted on 13 March 1938 and do you vote for the party of our leader; Adolf Hitler?; Yes; No”. Public domain.

Chamberlain in the rearview mirror

Looking back now, it seems obvious that appeasement was a bad strategy. For many, Chamberlain is a punchline—a weak leader who allowed the spread of Nazism across Europe. But at the time, this was far from obvious. Until the war started, many French and British citizens wanted their leaders to do anything and everything to keep them out of another war. France had been the main battlefield of the First World War, and the French were reluctant to face that destruction again. And in England, two prime ministers, much of the military, the royal family, and most citizens, believed in appeasement. They hoped that, if they gave Hitler what he wanted, he would be satisfied and they might avoid war. When Germany invaded Poland, however, many realized that conflict was inevitable. At that point, the public started to judge Chamberlain’s appeasement harshly. Interestingly, Winston Churchill, a chief critic of appeasement in 1939, had actually been a proponent of it until 1938, at least in terms of dealing with Italy and Japan.
Neville Chamberlain has come down through popular history as the weak, passive leader whom Hitler conned. And appeasement, the strategy favored by a large majority in Europe until late 1939, has come to represent a policy of failure. It’s now regarded as an approach to conflict that ranges from naïve and cowardly to extremely dangerous.

The specter of appeasement

Since the end of World War II, some politicians have even used Chamberlain’s failed appeasement to justify conflict and war. Some have connected serious diplomacy with Chamberlain and his misguided capitulation (giving in) to Hitler. Some examples:
U.S. president Harry Truman, writing about his decision to go to war in Korea in 1950:
I remembered how each time that the democracies failed to act, it had encouraged the aggressors to keep going ahead. Communism was acting in Korea just as Hitler, Mussolini and the Japanese had acted ten, fifteen and twenty years earlier.... If this was allowed to go unchallenged it would mean a third world war, just as similar incidents had brought on a second world war.
U.S. president Lyndon Johnson, spoke about Vietnam and implied that America would stand up to Ho Chi Minh and the Vietcong in a way that Chamberlain had not stood up to Hitler and the Nazi regime. Since Chamberlain was frequently photographed carrying an umbrella, Johnson was quoted as stating: “We’re not going to have any men with any umbrellas.”
Margaret Thatcher, prime minister of England from 1979 to 1990, responded to a critic of Britain’s involvement in the first Iraq war by recalling: “I seem to hear the stench of appeasement in here. A rather nauseating stench of appeasement.”
British prime minister, Neville Chamberlain leaving number ten Downing Street for Germany where he intends to hold peace talks concerning the Czech crisis with Adolf Hitler. © Getty Images.
Writing for the Los Angeles Times just before the first Gulf War, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, German author, poet, and editor, said:
“I would like to demonstrate that talk of Saddam Hussein as an heir to Hitler is no journalistic metaphor, no propagandistic exaggeration, but rather goes to the heart of the matter. We do not do justice to the “Fuhrer” of Iraq if we underestimate his dangerousness, if we portray him only as a traditional despot or a modern dictator.”
But this stop-the-next-Hitler line of thinking also has its critics. Using Hitler and appeasement to justify war certainly grabs one’s attention and emotions, but it’s seen by many as a pretty misleading, even reckless, analogy. None of the modern “villains” being equated to Hitler are anywhere near as harmful as he was, at least in the above examples. Critics say that playing the Hitler card over and over again is deceptive and dangerous. The worry is that it both downplays the real threat Germany posed to the world, and it acts to justify wars that may not need fighting. For example, the quotes above made Saddam Hussein out to be the next Adolph Hitler, when in fact, his country couldn’t win an 8-year war with its neighbor Iran, let alone pose a threat to the entire world. The relative power of Iraq’s army was a fraction of 1930s Germany, and there was little evidence to suggest that Hussein would use that power beyond his immediate neighbors. But once he was “Hitlerized’ into a madman bent on world domination, anyone looking for alternatives to war were branded modern-day Chamberlains, and this thinking helped launch two questionable wars.


It seems that as long as there are conflicts between nations, Neville Chamberlain will remain the great historical wimp. He seems doomed to be resurrected by those who use his legacy to stoke fears and justify conflict. But more recently, many historians have tried to salvage his legacy and contextualize his actions. Perhaps this historical reclamation project can help stimulate real debate about the significant differences between negotiation and appeasement—about what was happening in Europe during the 1930s and the lessons we can learn from Chamberlain’s failure.
Author bio
Jeff Spoden is a retired social studies teacher, having been in the classroom for 33 years. He taught US history, world history, sociology, international relations, and history of American popular music. He loves music, film, travel, the Golden State Warriors, and the number 32.

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