The Magazine

The Roots of European Appeasement

It's the 1920s all over again.

Sep 23, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 02 • By DAVID GELERNTER
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ON NOVEMBER 11, 1920, there was a strange and moving scene in London. The king and his entourage unveiled the Cenotaph in Whitehall and laid solemnly to rest, in Westminster Abbey, an unknown soldier of the Great War. The ceremony had been carefully planned. The whole nation came to a transfixed halt--which had not been planned. No one had foreseen (writes David Cannadine in his essay on Lord Curzon, who designed the ceremonials) the "overwhelming emotion" of that day. Cannadine quotes the Times: "The authorities frankly admit that the extent to which the public imagination has been stirred has exceeded all their expectations." By the end of the week, roughly a million people had visited the Cenotaph and the graveside.

There were ample grounds for grief-stricken remembrance: Some million British Empire soldiers had died in the First World War. But another memory (conscious or not) must have transposed the nation's grief into a different, nearly unbearable key. Almost every visitor at the Cenotaph or the graveside would have recalled August 1914, when war broke out andLondon rejoiced--uproariously. In fact, virtually all Europe rejoiced uproariously. "Europeans of all stripes," according to the historian Peter Gay, "joined in greeting the advent of war with a fervor bordering on a religious experience." The pacifist philosopher Bertrand Russell writes of discovering, "to my amazement," as he wandered the streets of London, "that average men and women were delighted at the prospect of war." In August 1914, the war's ghastly end was unforeseeable and unimaginable. On November 11, 1920, its jubilant beginnings were unimaginable. On that sad November day, millions of Englishmen confronted not merely grief but guilt, and modern Europe was born.

What happens when a fundamental axiom we have believed for generations turns out to be wrong? Today we are finding out. We have believed that the Second World War was a continuation of the First; that the Cold War was a grotesquely extended prolongation of the Second. But the truth cannot have been that simple, because the effects of the Second World War are vanishing while the effects of the First endure.

The First World War seemed unimaginable but turned out to be human, all too human when compared with the Second, which was too big for the mind to grasp. As the Second World War and its aftermath fade, they reveal a "new world order" that is strangely familiar--amazingly like the Western world of the 1920s, with its love of self-determination and loathing of imperialism and war, its liberal Germany, shrunken Russia, and map of Europe crammed with small states, with America's indifference to Europe and Europe's disdain for America, with Europe's casual, endemic anti-Semitism, her politically, financially, and masochistically rewarding fascination with Muslim states who despise her, and her undertone of self-hatred and guilt.

During the decades following the Second World War, this world of Versailles seemed to be gone for good. It had begun to unravel in the 1930s. "The year 1929, the midpoint in the two decades between the wars, was an important watershed," writes Donald Kagan in his "On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace" (1995). "In October of that year Gustav Stresemann died and with him the politically careful, if determined, program of the peaceful revision of the Versailles settlement in Germany's favor. In the same month the Wall Street stock market crash gave impetus to a great depression that swept across the industrialized world, causing political shock waves of great significance in Europe."

Looking around today, we find ourselves in a nightmare house where the clocks all stopped on the eve of an unthinkable disaster. It is 1928 all over again.

THE FIRST WORLD WAR ended on November 11, 1918. The victors met in Paris (the vanquished would have spoiled the party and were not invited); the Treaty of Versailles, which imposed peace terms on Germany, was signed on June 28, 1919. (The Allies settled separately with Austria, Turkey, and Bulgaria.)

Europe pondered the jubilant beginnings and tragic end of the World War--and her spirit was damaged irreparably. On top of which, the victorious allies soon came to feel that the peace they had dictated to the Central Powers was vindictive and unjust--especially the huge reparation payments imposed on Germany as punishment for having started the war. (The exact figure was left unspecified in the treaty, like a blank check.)