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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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The British diplomat Harold Nicolson kept a diary at the Paris Peace Conference, and included excerpts in his classic "Peacemaking, 1919." The last sentence of the book is his verdict on the conference: "To bed, sick of life." Before long, that sentence came to epitomize Europe. Horror-struck guilt and self-hatred blossomed into 1930s appeasement, the policy with which Britain and France approached Nazi Germany's increasingly outrageous violations of the Versailles treaty.

"To bed, sick of life"--the historian Christopher Thorne wrote (in 1967) of the "weary ignorance" of Stanley Baldwin, prime minister twice during the 1920s and again from 1935 to '37; of France's "weakness and despair" between the wars. In 1933, when Nazi rule was just beginning, Churchill spoke of "the mood of unwarrantable self-abasement into which we have been cast by a powerful section of our own intellectuals." That was the year in which the undergraduates of the Oxford Union passed (275 to 153) their infamous motion "that this House refuses in any circumstances to fight for King and Country." In 1936 R.M. Barrington-Ward, assistant editor at the Times, told a staffer that "We are, as the Prayer Book says, 'tied and bound by the chains of our sins' stretching all the way back to the General Election of 1918"--when Britain voted for Lloyd George and vengeance on Germany.

Once upon a time we thought of appeasement as a particular approach to Hitler. We have long since come to see that it is a Weltanschauung, an entire philosophical worldview that teaches the blood-guilt of Western man, the moral bankruptcy of the West, and the outrageousness of Western civilization's attempting to impose its values on anyone else. World War II and its aftermath clouded the issue, but self-hatred has long since reestablished itself as a dominant force in Europe and (less often and not yet decisively) the United States. It was a British idea originally; it was enthusiastically taken up by the French. Today (like so many other British ideas) it is believed more fervently in continental Europe than anywhere else.

Consider the "Continental attitude" towards our proposed war against Saddam Hussein. If you had the Second World War in mind, you might think: Nothing could be more dangerous than to dither while a bloody-minded tyrant builds his striking power. It is crazy to let him choose D-Day, on the theory that if you leave him alone long enough, he will switch personalities and call the whole thing off. Human adults do not switch personalities--but if someone were going to blaze a trail and be first, a bloody swaggering dictator is not the man. Hitler didn't change even when his whole world had burnt to ashes. The last testament he composed in his bunker in 1945 is strikingly like "Mein Kampf," dictated in the comfort of his five-star prison cell in 1924.

The wisdom of "act first, dither later" as an approach to threats from tyrannies was borne out by Western experience in the Cold War. When the Soviets threatened Western interests directly by trying to starve West Berlin, put nuclear missiles in Cuba, and float the Arabs to victory against Israel (in 1973) on a tidal wave of weaponry, America did not wring her hands and ponder; she acted fast, and won.

But suppose your attitudes were shaped, consciously or not, by the First World War and its aftermath. In that case, the lesson you'd take away would be very different: Whatever you do, never rush a war. Austria did not have to declare war against Serbia on July 28, 1914, but she was in a hurry to forestall proposed negotiations. Russia did not have to mobilize on the 30th, she was under no military threat, but she mobilized anyway. Germany did not have to go crashing into Belgium on August 4, she was in no danger of being overrun by hot-headed Flemings, but once she had mobilized (which she had to do because Russia had), her famous master-plan (to concentrate on the Western front, pivot through Belgium, and come down on France like a sledgehammer) would be exposed and rendered as useless as lightstruck film unless she hit right away.