Feeding the Beast
Appeasement is an appealing idea with appalling consequences.
Mar 29, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 27 • By DAVID AIKMAN
Appeasement and World War II
Seven decades after the outbreak of World War II in Europe, it is a good moment to look back on Europe’s inexorable slide towards war in the last two years of peace. The word “Munich” will forever be encumbered by its association with the concept of appeasement, that foolish and ultimately fatal policy by the British government under Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain of placating Adolf Hitler by conceding to him more and more of his territorial ambitions in Europe.
It has, however, been a few decades since the last burst of books dealing in a major way with the Munich crisis, and new material has become available since then. John Faber draws not only on the many memoirs and diaries of the era published by the participants, but on notes taken by the German-English interpreter of the Hitler-Chamberlain conversations, Paul Schmidt. What makes Faber’s account particularly engrossing is his stereoscopic view of the events leading up to and surrounding Munich. We see the German generals aghast at Hitler’s determination to unleash military force against Austria first and then Czechoslovakia when (in their view) the Wehrmacht was ill-prepared to plan and carry out either operation. We see Chamberlain’s sister-in-law in Rome allowing herself to be flattered and manipulated by Mussolini and his foreign minister (who was also his son-in-law), Count Galeazzo Ciano. We even catch tantalizing glimpses of German political figures opposed to Hitler pleading clandestinely—and vainly—for the British government to stand up to Hitler over Czechoslovakia and thus possibly give anti-Nazi opinion in Germany a chance to crystalize.
“Munich,” of course, has become a convenient abuse-word, like “fascist,” to hurl at political leaders whose policies are deemed by their critics to be wholly subservient to the ambitions of foreign adversaries. Yet the entire episode of British appeasement of Hitler is a moral lesson for all later generations of free peoples; a lesson that sincerity in the desire for peace doesn’t outweigh the need for an accurate assessment of the character, and hence the likely future behavior, of a potential adversary. One of Faber’s most illuminating habits in this excellent account is to juxtapose at the beginning of many chapters pithy quotations from leading protagonists in the unfolding drama. The quotations often sum up clashing worldviews. Thus, at the beginning of Chapter Three, we read the mutually contradictory comments on each other of Chamberlain and his foreign secretary (until his resignation in February 1938), Anthony Eden. Chamberlain wrote in October of that year: “I fear that the difference between Anthony and me is more fundamental than he realizes. At bottom he is really against making terms with the dictators.” But Eden’s perception of Chamberlain was a mirror-image of that: “I fear that fundamentally the difficulty is that Neville believes he is a man with a mission to come to terms with the dictators.”
Neville Chamberlain’s pervasive shortcoming in judgment was twofold. He was susceptible to flattery by the Führer to the extent of believing that if Hitler told him one thing, he would not then do something else. He seemed also incapable of envisaging a foreign leader having murderous ambitions that he himself did not have. Above all, Chamberlain was largely indifferent to Nazi domestic behavior. Within weeks of the Anschluss—Germany’s annexation of Austria—the SS was forcing Viennese Jews to clean latrines with their bare hands or with tefillin stolen from nearby synagogues. This could not have been unknown to Chamberlain.
One of his less attractive attributes, however, was manipulating London’s press corps. He favored journalists who wrote sympathetically and marginalized those who were critical of his policies, insisting on four hours’ advance notice before accepting the questions of certain journalists. He liked to ask journalists who dared to pose critical questions which publication they represented, implying that their employers would be displeased at the “lack of patriotism” inherent in the question. He often froze into silence journalists he disliked, or—even worse—responded to legitimate journalistic concerns about the persecution of Jews, Hitler’s broken promises, or Mussolini’s ambitions with an expression of surprise “that such an experienced journalist was susceptible to Jewish-Communist propaganda.”