Wednesday, August 30, 2006
The word appeasement is making the news again in reference to European policies before World War II. It is accompanied by claims that retreating from Iraq today will be equivalent to such policies. It should be noted that the analogy with pre-WW-II "appeasement" was used against those advocating ending the Vietnam war 35 years or so ago.
It seems that few people are fully familiar with the pre-WW II history, so I composed a little primer based both on some books (listed at the end) as well as what I was hearing from my parents and other adults in that period and its aftermath. (Yes, I was born well before WW-II.)
The term "appeasement" is usually applied to the September 1938 Munich agreement between the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain and Hitler (http://www.onwar.com/articles/0004.htm). Chamberlain claimed that he had achieved "peace in our time" but in less than a year Hitler invaded Poland starting WW-II so the "appeasement" postponed WW-II by less than a year. Would it have been easier to defeat Hitler in 1938 than it was in 1939? Few historians think it would have made a big difference. The time to stop Hitler without a major bloodshed was much earlier, before he had the chance to build his armored divisions. A great opportunity had been offered in the March of 1936 with the remilitarization of the Rhineland (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rhineland). Hitler's army was not ready yet (he had come to power in January 1933 and he had not consolidated his power until the summer of 1934). So the term "appeasement" should be more properly used for the 1936 rather than the 1938 events. Shirer (1, p. 293) claims that the result from a strong French reaction "would have been the end of Hitler." Later Hitler himself referred to the 48 hours after the occupation as the "most nerve-racking" period in his life. (ibid)
Why then Hitler was appeased in 1936 when it would have been easily dealt with? Because many political entities in Europe were in his favor! Hitler was seen as a bulwark against the Bolsheviks and had the support, amongst others, of the Pope. The British also (foolishly) worried about the French getting too strong in the Continent and were counting on a stronger Germany to counterbalance them . Some historians think that this factor was still in play in 1938 . Hitler became a monster not because people were not willing to fight him but because many of them liked him! Even the French, had many other problems besides defeatism .
I recall reading a Greek right wing pamphlet that had been published before WW-II and my father had saved. Its author was full of praise for the "Christian (sic) leaders Hitler and Mussolini" who were not only going to "free the world from the Bolsheviks but also from the Jews and the Free-Masons as well." Hitler's anti-communism and anti-semitism had broad support outside Germany so the lack of opposition to him had less to do with the desire to avoid war than with a lack of understanding of his true intentions. For many Europeans (and Americans) Hitler was the good guy who would save them from Stalin (the really bad guy). Such views would even surface after WW-II. I recall reading such articles during the cold war.
1. William L. Shirer The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1960, Simon Schuster reprint 1990) - An excellent overall source, although a bit dated. However Shirer's Afterword in the 1990 edition is remarkable.
2. James Pool Hitler and his Secret Partners (Pocket Books, 1997) - The book documents the widespread support of the Nazis both by the German establishment and outside powers, such as king of England Edward VIII (later the Duke of Windsor).
3. William L. Shirer The Collapse of the Third Republic: An Inquiry into the Fall of France in 1940 (1969, Da Capo Press reprint 1994) - while Hitler was building his armored divisions the French were concerned with the horse breeding program for their cavalry.