This is not 1938 — so stop talking about appeasement
In the minds of some, it is forever 1938. Whether the actual year is 1950, 1962, 1990 or even today, it is always that fateful annus horribilis when a Western politician is confronted by a bullying tyrant and must choose between two courses of action: resolute defiance or naïve appeasement. Make the wrong choice – appeasement – and the world will be plunged into catastrophic war. Make the right choice – resolute defiance – and the bully will back down and war will be averted. And in the minds of these “forever-1938ers” the stakes are always existential. Whatever the year, the fate of the (free) world is always in the balance.
In the original version, of course, the villain of the piece is British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, the statesman who made territorial concessions to Adolf Hitler in the forlorn hope of satisfying the führer’s revisionist ambitions and averting war.
Today, the villain is President Biden, the Western leader who is often portrayed as being on the verge of making comparable territorial concessions in the similarly vain hope of satisfying Vladimir Putin’s revisionist ambitions. Either way, the logic is the same: Biden is Chamberlain, Putin is Hitler and Ukraine is the Sudetenland. It’s 1938 all over again.
Except it’s not 1938. What’s more, 1938 wasn’t 1938 — at least not in the sense of being the definition of naïve appeasement that the “forever-1938ers” make it out to be.
The ‘38ers version of appeasement is as familiar as it is wrong. In September 1938, the story goes, the Chamberlain government agreed to allow Hitler to occupy the Sudetenland (a part of Czechoslovakia populated mostly by German-speakers) in exchange for Hitler’s pledge not to invade any other European territories. The hope was that this territorial concession would definitively resolve German post-World War I grievances and thus eliminate the danger of another world war.
But in reality, as the conventional appeasement narrative has it, this assumption was based on nothing more than a combination of naivete and wishful thinking. Hitler had much grander ambitions for Europe and was never going to be satisfied with the acquisition of an inconsequential sliver of territory like the Sudetenland.
In fact, quite the opposite. The ease with which he forced the concession of Czechoslovak territory at Munich in 1938 emboldened him first to seize all of Czechoslovakia and then to make demands on Poland — demands that would ultimately lead to the outbreak of a general war in Europe.
The end result of Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement, then, was not “peace in our time” but another cataclysmic global conflict. And the enduring “lesson” of 1938? When tyrants make demands, always choose resolute defiance over naïve appeasement. To do otherwise is to invite catastrophe.
There is only one problem with this account: There is no evidence – none at all – that the Chamberlain government naively believed that Britain could placate Hitler with a limited territorial concession. In fact, quite the opposite. All the evidence (Cabinet Office documents, private papers, memoirs and the like) reveals that British leaders fully recognized the ambitious scope and scale of Hitler’s ambitions but felt they lacked the military might, even with French support, to prevent him from realizing those ambitions.
In short, Chamberlain’s government did not believe that Britain had the military muscle either to deter German aggression or to actually defeat Germany in the event that it couldn’t be deterred. The British were well aware that a revisionist Germany had been rearming while Britain and France – in deference to post-war domestic political sensibilities – had been disarming. And the evidence suggests that they were painfully aware that by 1938 Britain had no realistic hope of prevailing in another war with Germany.
And so, the Chamberlain government decided to take the only course of action open to it: delay military confrontation with Germany until Britain had adequately prepared itself for a major war.
This strategy had two tracks. First, Britain would have to rearm. And this it did, initiating ambitious reequipment programs for all three services with an eye to achieving rough parity with Germany before the end of the decade. Second, in order to buy the time necessary to complete this rearmament program, London would have to avoid any confrontation that might lead to a premature outbreak of war.
Even bluffing was considered risky, given that it might incline Berlin to accelerate its own rearmament efforts. And so, when confronted in September 1938 with demands that could have led to confrontation and conflict, Chamberlain made territorial concessions to Hitler. Knowing Britain was not yet ready for war, he did what was necessary to avert war until it was.
The historical record, then, is clear. The conventional view of appeasement – the view of today’s ’38ers – is simply wrong. Rather than a catastrophically naïve misstep, Chamberlain’s attempt to appease Hitler in 1938 was in fact a cold, calculated attempt to buy time — one based on an unsentimental understanding of British interests, an unclouded picture of the balance of power in Europe, an unwavering opposition to Hitler’s long game and a realistic sense of the strategic options open to him.
Chamberlain’s concessions may have been framed in moralistic terms – as being all about “peace in our time” – but that framing was largely a sop to domestic anti-war constituencies. The actual motivating logic was the same one that had shaped British strategy for more than a century: prudent balancing to prevent the emergence of a hostile European hegemon.
It is perhaps in the nature of things that foreign policy debates are shaped by historical narratives that both frame our understanding of current events and limit our repertory of conceivable policy responses. And done properly, this sort of historical analogizing can be a useful aid to foreign policy formulation. But it must be done properly. At a minimum, that means that such analogizing must be based on the past as it actually happened, rather than on some imagined or concocted version of the past. Failing that, analogical reasoning will always be misleading. And this time, it might actually mislead us into war.
Andrew Latham is a professor of international relations at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn.
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