A Passion for Peace or an Obsession with Indifference?

By Matthew Young, Foothill College

  From the Internet Book, Western Civilization

In the first decade of the twentieth century, a war was fought that changed the mindset about war of all of Europe, and to a lesser degree the world.  Previous to the years between 1914 and 1918, war was seen as a noble way to die, an honorable way of servicing one's beloved country. However, with this new war, a war on a scale previously never imagined, poison gas and blood quickly washed away those ideals. Millions perished year after year while the front lines remained unmoved. Trench warfare, with all of its horrors, was born. In a war where 900,000 would die to move the line forward one mile, how could anyone see such atrocities as a noble act? A generation was destroyed by that war, and the seeds sewn of the policy of Appeasement, a policy that helped allow a murderous megalomaniac with the power to captivate a nation with his orations run rampant all over Europe.

In the Great War of the early 1900s, the Alliance powers (chiefly Great Britain and France) suffered horrific losses. Great Britain lost approximately 900,000 young able-bodied men to the trenches, and France suffered a staggering 5,000,000 casualties to the Central Powers. To understand Appeasement, it is necessary to look back to the Great War, as it provides the reasoning behind the policy. The policy of Appeasement was a system of yields, compromises, and sacrificial offerings to Hitler's Germany that allowed him time to rebuild the German military into an amazing whirlwind machine. Why then, would the leaders of the countries that had to face the horrors of the Great War allow such a person to violate the conditions of surrender so blatantly? None of the leaders of France or Great Britain wanted to witness another large scale (or small scale) war in their time. The horrific events of the Great War had in a way shell shocked them into avoiding war at all costs, even if the war was needed to prevent a larger catastrophe later on down the road.

When Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany during the worldwide depression, Britain and France both wanted nothing to do with him militarily. The treaty of Versailles and its sub treaties drastically reduced the size of the German navy and military in order to prevent future German aggression. However, Hitler slowly walked all over those arms limitations, and he was able to do so thanks to the policy of appeasement. When Hitler rebuilt the navy an army, when he made the German airforce the mightiest in Europe, neither France or Britain acted. When Hitler made the first truly aggressive move and marched divisions into the DMZ between Germany and France, neither country acted. Hitler himself stated that those twenty-four hours after he initially moved his armies into the DMZ were the most nervous of his life. Yet the prime ministers of France and Britain sat complacent, and it was at that moment Hitler realized that he was in control of Europe.

Another factor that allowed for appeasement to occur was the relationship between Prime Minister Chamberlain and Hitler. Chamberlain admired Hitler's abilities to captivate the German people, and his policies that allowed Germany to recover from the Depression of the 1930s. He believed mistakenly that Hitler could be sated with a few sacrificial lambs of countries in order to meet Hitler's request for "breathing space" for the German people. After the Munich conference of 1938, Chamberlain believed that a peace had been brokered, and that belief was shattered within a year when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939. After the invasion of Poland, after countless unchecked moves, the Allies finally realized that Hitler had to be met with force. Some believed that Chamberlain virtually sold out his country to Hitler, and certainly he was not acting in Britain's best interests, even if the causation was the Great War or his personal feelings towards Hitler's Germany.

It has been argued that the policy of Appeasement allowed for the Allies to begin wartime production in order to stand up to the German war machine. However, this argument is partially flawed. Appeasement did allow the Allied powers to begin a new arms build up in order to be better prepared for the ensuing war. Yet Germany started the arms race with a smaller military and a worse economic situation. If, instead of appeasement, the allied powers had stood up to Hitler and/or acted with force once he began to violate the Versailles treaties, it is possible that the Great War would not have to be now called World War I.

Finally, there is no excuse for allowing such a person as Hitler to continue as "Chancellor" of Germany. Time allocation or not, to stand idle while such a man begins plans for the domination of Europe and eventually the world, and begins to institute his "final solution" to the Jewish "problem" of Europe is guilt by association. To even compromise with such a person is to be a party to the crimes of which he committed.

Could Hitler have been prevented? Perhaps. If the other European powers had intervened when Hitler was still trying to grapple power away from his opposition, or if they had responded promptly and soundly to his mobilization into the DMZ, then it is possible that the tens of millions of deaths that happened during the war years of WWII could have been prevented. Appeasement was not the direct cause of these atrocities, but it allowed them to take place unchecked for years.

Despite what appeasement allowed, one can not blame the people of Britain and France for not standing up to Hitler when one considers the events that took place 20 years earlier. With the appalling events that took place in the first decade of the 20th century, it is understandable to see why the countries would not want to risk seeing such events reoccur. The same effects can be witnessed in America regarding the Vietnam war that went on for a decade.

Today, the American public remembers the scenes of body bags being flown in every day, and will not tolerate more than four dead soldiers before demanding withdrawal unless the conflict is seen as a response to the infringement of the democratic rights of others, such as the Iraqi invasion and occupation of Kuwait, which prompted the Persian Gulf War. However in situations such as Somalia and Haiti, the potential gains were not enough to merit the loss of a handful of American soldiers, an idea which has its roots in the Vietnam conflict. The people who lived through WWI were not to blame for appeasement and what it allowed to happen - WWII and all its horrors.

December 1997

Western Civilization:  The Modern World