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The Truth about Appeasement

By       Message James Pyland     Permalink
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In today's political climate, appeasement bashing has become a cultural phenomenon. Any who question a continuous state of warfare as the sole method of conducting foreign policy are labeled as traitors at worst, "appeasers" at best. "Appeaser" has become an epithet reserved for those not sufficiently loyal to the government and a favorite term of abuse among right-wingers, who never hesitate to define for everyone else what "terrorism" is, who practices it, and what motivates them.

But appeasement means to give in to your opponent and concede to them what they want. What bin Laden wants, according to his own statements, is for everyone in the West, especially the US, to convert to Islam.[1] But no one opposing the Bush administration's war policy has ever actually suggested that anyone in the West convert to Islam. Therefore, the right wing must resort to two tactics: the first, claiming that failure to bomb official enemies into complete devastation is what "the terrorists" want, and, therefore, failure to bomb official enemies into said devastation constitutes "appeasement." The right-wingers then draw a false analogy to the appeasement of Adolph Hitler and his Nazi government in the years leading to World War Two. In this fashion the right-wingers attempt to smear their political opponents as equivalent to those who appeased Hitler.

But was appeasement of Hitler really due to the pacifism of liberals and leftists? Were the appeasers themselves leftists and liberals? The facts suggest that both assertions are false.

Background of appeasement

Historically, the term appeasement is most often associated with the German city of Munich. In this city in 1938, a conference occurred between several great heads of state of Europe. Neville Chamberlain, the Prime Minister of Great Britain, met with Adolph Hitler, as well as representatives of France and Italy. At the conference these leaders agreed to turn over to Germany certain portions of Czechoslovakia, without the consent of the Czech government. Czech representatives were not invited to the Munich conference, presumably because they might have objected to such a blatant violation of their own sovereignty. The motivation of most of the participants was to avoid war by giving Hitler what he demanded.[2] When Neville Chamberlain returned from Munich, he gave a public speech claiming that "peace for our time" had been achieved.[3]

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Not all politicians, either British or American, agreed with appeasement. In Britain, Anthony Eden and Winston Churchill, politically out of favor, did not believe that Hitler would stop his political and military aggression no matter how much he was appeased. Had the world, and Neville Chamberlain in particular, stood up to Hitler and threatened war then to stop him, perhaps the carnage of World War Two would never had happened.

The partisan nature of appeasement accusations

The story of appeasement takes a partisan and distorted turn when the reasons for appeasement are considered. Among certain elements of the political punditry, there is only one possible interpretation of the years leading up to the Second World War. This interpretation of appeasement is interwoven with insinuations and outright accusations designed to denigrate the appeasers as spineless, pacifist liberals. Typical is the narrative published in The Wall Street Journal. Neville Chamberlain, we are told, was too weak to take a stand against Hitler. Because of such spineless liberals, and their pacifist backers, Hitler was strengthened instead of defeated. It was the 1930's liberals who spoke gleefully of appeasement, just as alleged "liberal" John Kerry cavorts with "Chamberlainesque" European diplomats while the foolish Spanish electorate "believes it can find security from al Qaeda terrorism" by throwing out "the pro-U.S. center-right government."[5]

In reality trying to guess who supported appeasement by knowing their party affiliation is not possible. Arch appeaser, Mr. Chamberlain, was in fact a member of the British Conservative (Tory) Party. Lord Halifax, a conservative, and Chamberlain's Foreign Minister at the time of Munich, also supported appeasement. But other conservatives such as Winston Churchill, who became prime minister after Chamberlain, and his conservative Secretary of State for War, Anthony Eden, were opposed to appeasement.

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Returning to the Journal, the author continues with analogies to every recent Middle Eastern crisis, portraying each as the inevitable result of appeasement. No critical context is provided. For example, the article discusses Jimmy Carter's failure to free the American hostages in Iran in 1979-1980. But no mention whatever is made of the US's successful overthrow of the democratically elected Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953, whose removal from power ushered in the brutal dictatorship of the Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlevi. No mention is made of a major incentive for the hostage taking, that is, the US role in the overthrow of Mossadegh.[4] But the article's most overarching distortion is the attempt to paint appeasement as the natural result of multiculturalism and liberalism, which in turn allegedly foster degeneracy, weakness, and cowardice. The article's many implications will be recognized instantly by conservatives or those familiar with conservative mythology: if only we in the West had all performed manual labor on the farm, pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps, and ignored racism, sexism, and slavery, we would have had the courage to stop Hitler.[5]

The Journal has much support in other right wing and mainstream outlets, where any efforts to de-escalate the maniacal mid east violence are "suicidal,"[6] where any course other than maximum scale destruction by the US military is tantamount to allowing the deaths of 60 million people.[7] By such megaphones the right-wing rendition of appeasement has reached legendary status among supporters of Bush's "war on terror." Spread by prominent government politicians,[8] whose unchallenged, distorted utterances are broadcast worldwide by mass media outlets,[9] along with the network of right wing think tanks[10], its "truth" is accepted implicitly.

Motivations for appeasement

It is true that pacifist sentiment was high among the populations of the victor nations after the Great War. But there is little reason to believe the political and economic elite of Britain and the US was motivated by pacifism. The elites themselves formulated the reasons for their activities quite clearly, if not publicly. Leaders might have appealed to popular pacifist sentiment, as in Chamberlain's "peace for our time" speech, but the notion that Britain's leaders, or their US counterparts, were naïve pacifists is severely weakened by the historical record.

In fact, there were five main factors that led British and American political leadership to formulate and pursue the policy of appeasement. First, there was an ideological quest among the capitalist societies to ensure that the post-Great War world conformed to the theories of anti-communist politics. Whether such a quest was justified is left up to the reader and is beyond the scope of this article. A second objective was to ensure, through foreign policy, the economic recovery of British industry in the face of the Depression. Third, the British financial community insisted that Britain continue its post-war policy of minimal government expenditure and financial austerity, a policy that reduces inflation, but limits the policy and military options of governments. Fourth, the Chamberlain government believed that deterrence through a limited rearmament program in the last years of the 1930's would constrain an increasingly belligerent Germany. Finally, many people, including members of the British political and economic establishment, truly believed that the Treaty of Versailles had decimated Germany, and that Germany had legitimate grievances that justified its aggressive policy.

Let us consider each reason in more detail.

Anti Communism

Nazi antipathy towards communists was well known. Nazis closed down newspapers of the Social Democrats and communists, raided their meetings, killed their leaders, and called for the gunning down of anyone opposed to the regime. The Nazis staged a fire in the German Reichstag with the help of a dupe, a disgruntled communist. The incident was used as an excuse to smash the Communist Party, and all other opposition to the Nazis, in Germany.[11] The Nazis blamed the German loss in the Great War not only on communists, but also Jews and other leftists. Hitler devoted significant portions of his polemic Mein Kampf to the Nazi struggle to destroy communists. Hitler himself emphasized anti-communism in a 1933 speech to the Reichstag, claiming that the Nazi revolution was a "bulwark" against the "threatened Communist revolution."[12]

In Great Britain Lord Lloyd of Dolobran of the British Parliament provided the statement of British acceptance of Nazism's role in fighting communism. No matter how violent, authoritarian, and undemocratic were Hitler's methods, the British elite preferred Nazism to communism:

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"For all the other acts of brutality at home and aggression without, Herr Hitler had been able to offer an excuse...the need for order and discipline in Europe, for strength at the center to withstand the incessant infiltration of false and revolutionary ideas...."

"However abominable his methods, however deceitful his diplomacy, however intolerant he might show himself of the rights of other European peoples...he could conceivably provide some day a basis for understanding with other nations equally determined not to sacrifice their traditional institutions and habits on the bloodstained altars of the World Revolution."[13]

In the United States, the acceptance of Nazism was predicated on the acceptance of Italian fascism in the 1920's. American analysis of Fascist Italy was based on the division between "moderate" and "extremist" members of the Fascist government. The moderates would provide a stable government and would welcome American investment and trade.[14]

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