Comment: The great appeasers

Blessed are the peacemakers: Geoffrey Wheatcroft on the 60th anniversary of Munich

Share
Related Topics
IN SEPTEMBER 1938, the Czech crisis blew up, culiminating with the Munich agreement between Chamberlain and Hitler at the end of month. Sixty years later "Munich" and "appeasement" remain dirty words. Throughout the Cold War, which is the subject of Jeremy Isaacs's new BBC television series, cold warriors continuously intoned the name of Munich as a dreadful warning: the West should never capitulate to the Soviets as Chamberlain had to Hitler.

In reality, this supposed lesson was wholly misleading. Not only was Chamberlain's conduct more honorable and understandable than has been conceded since. "Appeasement" is the underlying principle of diplomacy, as the Cold War itself showed in practice, if not in theory.

That 1938 crisis had been simmering since the Anschluss in March, when Hitler absorbed Austria, though on another view it had been brewing since Hitler came to power in 1933. It concerned the "Sudetendeutsch": the three million Germans of Bohemia and Moravia, which had become the western end of the newly invented state of Czechoslovakia after the Great War.

After much coming and going - it was the first exercise in shuttle diplomacy - Chamberlain returned to London from Munich bringing, as he hoped, "peace with honour. I believe it is peace for our time". Three days earlier he had given another phrase to the language when he broadcast to the nation about "a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing". Little did he know how bitterly he would be reviled ever after, or how unjustly.

Even the proximate cause was not the simple question of ceding land and people to a rapacious dictator who was set on the dominance of Europe, as it has so often been represented. Liberal opinion had held for nearly 20 years that the position of the Sudeten Germans was a grave affront to the national principle which the post-war settlement had been meant to embody.

Not that national justice was Chamberlain's motive. He was trying to avoid war, which is never a bad principle, whatever the practice. Everyone knows now how wrong he was to tell his sister that "I have met a man with whom I can do business". As sundry German politicians had already learnt the hard way, no one could do business with Hitler. But the experience of one brutal criminal cannot invalidate the normal rules of good faith and fair dealing. In any case, the war which Chamberlain was trying to avoid eventually cost as many as 60 million lives: to try to forestall it was not inherently ignoble.

The "men of Munich" all remembered the charnel house of the Great War, even if they had not, like Daladier, the equally reviled French premier, actually fought in it. Anthony Eden had resigned as Foreign Secretary earlier in 1938 in disagreement with Chamberlain's policy, but he was far from advocating war come what may. Eden used to point out that the first Oxford English Dictionary definition of "appease" is "to bring peace, to settle strife". He had the mixed feelings about war natural to a man who had served in the trenches, had lost two brothers in the first war, and was to lose a son in the second.

The emotional charge of "Munich" was seen again in 1961 when AJP Taylor's book The Origins of the Second World War was published. It caused a furore, with some critics accusing Taylor of white-washing Hitler by discounting his long-laid plans to conquer Europe.

However that may have been, Taylor was unquestionably right about something else, and he hit a raw nerve. Ever since Chamberlain was reluctantly forced to go to war in 1939, or maybe since the Churchillian Finest Hour the following year, there had beeen an unconscious collective rewriting of history. Not only was "appeasement" a dirty word, it had become the name of a conspiracy. To quote the title of the tendentious and displeasingly bloodthirsty pamphlet Michael Foot and two others wrote in 1940, Chamberlain and his colleagues had been "Guilty Men". Their appeasement of Hitler and Mussolini had been wicked, and it had been foisted on a British people who would willingly have resisted the dictators.

This was completely false. As Taylor later wrote: "To judge by what is said now, one would suppose that practically all Conservatives were for strenuous resistance to Germany in alliance with Soviet Russia and that all the Labour Party were clamouring for great armaments." On the contrary, he said, few causes were ever more popular than appeasement. With the exception of Reynold's News, every newspaper in the country applauded the Munich agreement. The Labour Party was sunk deep in pacifism and most Tories disliked the idea of war in general and war in alliance with Russia in particular.

The few on the Tory side who opposed appeasement were eccentrics like Churchill. He was regarded as erratic and untrustworthy by the respectable classes (there was more rewriting of history in that regard also after 1940), while his realpolitisch balance-of-power arguments were peculiarly offensive to the liberal left.

There have been more subtle forms of dishonesty since. At the 1938 Oxford by-election, immediately after Munich, young Quintin Hogg stood as the government, or appeasement, candidate, and the philosopher JL Austin coined the slogan "A vote for Hogg is a vote for Hitler". Fifty years later, Lord Hailsham, as Hogg had become, explained that Chamberlain's policy had bought time for rearmament, especially the introduction of the fast eight-gun fighters which won the Battle of Britain.

This is a retrospective justification. Hailsham's sometime cabinet colleagues RA Butler and Lord Gilmour were more candid. As Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office in 1938, Butler was a strong appeaser (or munichois, as his enemy Macmillan would later say). And Butler, in the words of his admirer Gilmour, "regarded Munich not as a way of buying time but as a way of settling differences with Adolf Hitler".

The memory of Munich lay long and dark over postwar international politics. It was consciously evoked by Eden in 1956 when he stood up to Nasser and in 1956, and by Kennedy's claque in the early 1960s when they advocated standing up to Ho Chi Minh. Perhaps the Suez expedition and the Vietnam War should be included in the otherwise exiguous list of Michael Foot's political achievements.

The Cold War lasted for more than 40 years, from the estrangement between Stalin and the Anglo-American allies in 1946-47 until the final fall of Soviet Russia in 1989-91. Western Cold warriors weren't wrong about the nature of Russian Communism, of course: its crimes were actually worse than the most miltant anti-Communist knew 50 years ago. But they were wrong about the Cold War itself, about "appeasement", and about "Finlandisation".

This last became another battle cry, describing the way that Finland had supposedly adopted - and other countries might yet adopt - a policy of supine, voluntary subservience to Russian demands, or even become satellites without being conquered. As William Pfaff, the sanest of American commentators, has pointed out, this is a complete misreading.

What actually happened was that Russia had attacked Finland in 1939 and been fought to a draw, the Finns had ill-advisedly renewed the war when Germany attacked Russia, and had been forced to make peace in 1944, so that after the war Finland found herself in an almost hopeless position, politically and physically (as Stalin himself once said in an almost apologetic phrase, when bullying the Helsinki government, "I am not responsible for geography"). And by a mixture of patience, sensible accommodation, and, yes, appeasement "to settle strife", Finland protected her independence and political freedom for the next 40 years.

In spite of this, fear of Finlandistaion, or appeasemment, or domino effects, or another Munich underlay one folly after another in post-war Western policy. This is not to endorse the revisionist view that Stalin and his successors were benevolent pussy cats with no aggressive designs at all. It merely means that, as Taylor said of Chamberlain and Daladier, historians do a bad day's work when they write them off as stupid or cowards. "They were men confronted with real problems, doing their best in their circumstances of their time."

That was true also of the Western statesmen of the Cold War. And they were, not always but often, at their best when they sought to bring peace and to settle strife. It is scarcely too much to say that after the advent of the intercontinental nuclear missile, all leaders of super-powers had to be appeasers. Kennedy is portrayed as a Churchillian warrior during the Cuban crisis of 1962. It would be truer to say he was following Chamberlain's lead when he pulled back from the brink and gave us peace for our time. It was certainly a better legacy than his refusal to appease over Vietnam.

Again, Nixon was surely a "Chamberlainite" when he went to Peking, and Reagan when he met Gorbachev to "settle strife".

The lessons of the closing century are often curious. But one of them is surely that appeasement is among the noblest words in the language.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Account Manager, Spanish, London Bridge

£30,000 + 20K Commssion: Charter Selection: This rapidly expanding organisatio...

Account Manager, Spanish, London Bridge

£30,000 + 20K Commssion: Charter Selection: This rapidly expanding organisatio...

Account Manager, London Bridge

£30,000 + 20K Commssion: Charter Selection: This rapidly expanding organisatio...

Graduate / Trainee Recruitment Consultant - IT

£25000 per annum + OTE £40,000: SThree: Orgtel are seeking Graduate Trainee Re...

Day In a Page

Read Next
'Child Genius': A television show celebrating exceptional intelligence in childhood  

The parents of Channel 4's Child Genius might be bad, but we’re worse for watching

Anna Leszkiewicz
Richard Dawkins  

Richard Dawkins is wrong to suggest that there can be varying degrees of severity involved in rape

Sian Norris
The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on