On Appeasement

On Appeasement

Sometimes on Sundays I leave the dreary world of economics behind and write of broader things.

Since most tomes covering American history have an underlying sunny optimism that is nowhere appropriate for our times, recently I’ve been reading more world history having to do with the rise of fascism or fall of democracy. Several of those books have been disappointing: they are thorough blow by blow descriptions, without organizing the material enough – or simply not including any material – to make a judgment about the underlying dynamics.

On such book is Tim Bouverie’s “Appeasement,” which as is obvious from the title, chronicle’s the UK’s, and in particular Neville Chamberlain’s, policies towards the rise of Hitler Germany in the 1930s.

There are three important issues with regard to the policy of Appeasement:

1. Was it at any point appropriate? (a question I never would have even included before reading this book)
2. Was it, at least temporarily, a necessary evil?
3. Did Chamberlain use it to “buy time” for the UK to re-arm in order to fight a war with Germany?

Only the second question gets an adequate answer from Bouverie’s book.

On the first issue, it is clear that Hitler’s initial moves into the Saarland and Rhineland, and to some extent even the Anschluss with Austria, were not opposed by either Britain or France not just because they believed they were not in a military position to do so, but also in substantial part because it was felt that Germany had an understandable grievance as to the former, and a reasonable claim for the unification of ethnic Germans as to the latter.

Since both of those acts by Germany were in direct violation of the Treaty of Versailles, it necessarily follows that by the 1930s there was a feeling on the part of Britain and France that the Treaty was indeed too draconian. As to which in a footnote on p. 46 Bouverie drops the  following bombshell:

“Keynes[‘s ‘The Economic Consequences of the Peace’] was later criticized by anti-appeasers for … having produced ‘the Bible of the Nazi movement.’ … [or being] one of the ‘most harmful’ books ever written. These views have been endorsed by recent scholarship which makes clear that the Treaty of Versailles was n[ot] as punitive as the Germans claimed ….”

This is quite simply a stunning, major assertion, and as the blog saying goes, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Bouverie produces exactly zero facts to back up this assertion. Since it completely contradicts at least an important portion of the appeasers’ initial motivations, the failure to do so is a remarkable failure by the author. After all, if the Treaty of Versaille wasn’t really so bad, why wouldn’t there be a much stronger impetus to nip any violation in the bud?

Especially since it wasn’t only Keynes who came to the conclusion that the Treaty of Versailles was a disaster. Herbert Hoover, who during World War I was personally and directly responsible for saving the lives of millions of Belgians and French in occupied German territory by organizing a massive food program that crossed enemy lines, also attended the peace conference, and also was aghast at the Carthaginian terms imposed on the civilian German populace. And Woodrow Wilson himself recoiled at the punitive terms, agreeing to the Treaty only because Lloyd George and Georges Clemenceau made sure that it was the only way he got his beloved League of Nations.

The second issue is better addressed. Unless the UK and France were willing to go against their own populations, and despite their poor preparation, Appeasement at least in the early stages was a necessary evil. While those who had read ‘Mein Kampf’ had no illusions about HItler’s aims, starting another World War without at least giving Germany a chance to demonstrate that it was acting in a good faith manner, with limited aims, was hardly an abdication of statesmanship. Only when Hitler showed that he intended to enforce his will on other states regardless of their own desires, as he first did with the Anschluss (invading Austria quickly in part to make sure that a plebiscite on the issue – that unification would likely have won – could not take place), did it become apparent that Hitler’s Nazi Germany was a malicious international actor.

But of course there were two ways of employing Appeasement. It could be one part of a dual strategy that actively pursued re-armament in case Germany was not to be trusted at the same time as Germany was being given a chance. Or it could simply be a  cowardly supplication. It seems that as originally envisioned by Britain’s Foreign Office, the first strategy was the case.

But it becomes quite clear throughout Bouverie’s book that Chamberlain proverbially “drank his own kook-aid,” believing that his own diplomatic ability (which was pitiful) would cause German grievances to be sated, and thereby ensure peace. Throughout the entire period of his Prime Ministership, Chamberlain undercut his own diplomats by signaling officially or through secret back channels that he was willing to give Germany pretty much whatever it wanted, so long as it did not affect the UK or France directly. Indeed, even *after* war was declared in September 1939, during the period of the “phony war,” Chamberlain employed back channels to signal that if Germany were willing to enter into a more permanent peace, the UK was willing to listen.

Which brings us to the third issue. There’s been a revisionist strain in the past ten years that asserts that Chamberlain was aware that war was likely, and used Appeasement to buy time so that the UK and France could be better prepared. This is an outgrowth of the “dual strategy” I mentioned above.

And here once again Bouverie’s narrative falls woefully short. Chamberlain agreed to certain re-armaments, but it is mentioned only in passing that he refused to do so at any scale that would have diverted resources from normal peacetime business (Americans would clearly recognize this as being the archetype of a country club Republican). This is a devastating point that deserved a much fuller explication.

Further, in his concluding chapter, Bouverie only discusses the rearmament issue for three paragraphs on pp. 413-14, pointing out that the UK and perhaps even more importantly France had big advantages in 1938 if any conflict broke out along the Rhine. Further, pre-Munich, Czechoslovakia was no bantamweight. It could have tied down or at least slowed down any German advance to the East while Britain and France were attacking the Rhineland. The Soviet Union was a wild card, but it too had made commitment to Czechoslovakia. In any event, the anti-Bolshevik British Torres made no timely approaches to the Soviets.
Finally, on p. 419 – the last page of the book – Bouverie devotes a paragraph to noting that the “buying time” arguments are ex post facto, stating that Germany out-armed Britain during 1938-39, and that Chamberlain viewed Appeasement as a permanent, not temporary solution. Hence, his “reluctance to increase rearmament [even] after Munich.”
But a refutation to the “buying time” thesis demands much more than 4 paragraphs in an entire book about Appeasement. In particular all evidence of Chamberlain’s foot-dragging on rearmament after the Anschluss and after Munich deserves a much fuller examination.
In the end the book is a powerful indictment of 1930s Toryism in general. As mentioned above, not just Chamberlain but most of the party approached Nazi Germany much as a businessperson might have approached a fellow oligopolist about dividing a market. An American (FDR?) is quoted as calling Chamberlain “a City man,” and a member of his cabinet, Duff Cooper, in his memoir wrote:
“Nobody in Birmingham had ever broken his promise to [ ] Mayor [Chamberlain]; surely nobody in Europe would break his promise to the Prime Minister of England.”
With 80 years of hindsight, it is clear that the indictment of Appeasement as a failure stands. It is a shame that this book fails to adequately address two of the three central issues surrounding it.