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May 19, 2008

Hitler, Churchill and Chamberlain
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

Matt Duss makes a great observation about the recent dust up on appeasement:

For conservative national security policy to function properly, it must always be 1938, the storm must always be gathering. There must always be new Hitlers to confront: Muammar Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic, Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein again, and now Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are among the various new Adolf Hitlers against whom America has faced off during my lifetime. And, of course, with new Hitlers always come new Neville Chamberlains who refuse to see the dangers. Naturally, the right always get to play Winston Churchill, who is, in their colouring book version of history, the paragon of manly manliness, knocking assorted Chamberlains aside as they brusquely sign declaration of war, and then reach for the brandy and cigars.

This reminds me of a final exam question I once had in graduate school.  "World War II and World War I yield exactly opposite lessons on how foreign policy should be conducted.  So what can we actually learn from this paradox about the nature of war and peace?"  After all, World War I was a war that no side wanted to fight and that all expected would be over quickly.  Posturing and a willingness to too casually jump to the use of force without thinking through the consequences played a significant role.  Poor communication between the Germans and the British who misunderstood each other's intentions was also critical.  And of course there were the German generals who felt that they had no choice but to attack first before they were attacked.

But conservatives tend to ignore that little war that killed millions in Europe.  Doesn't fit the narrative and the world view.


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Another similiarity is that the Germans just like todays neoconservatives only thought in terms of temporary military success and did not have a strategic plan on how to win the First World War, and just like them, the Bush administration has yet to find a strategy for the US exiting Iraq. Also Kaiser Wilhelm II with his bombastic rhetoric is very similiar to George W. Bush.

To give a brief impromtu on that exam question, the answer is of course diplomacy. In the drive to World War 1, the allied powers of France and Britain drove a wedge between themselves and the German powers. So while Serbia was the wedge that drove things forward, a lack of diplomacy earlier left automatic treaties that kicked things in motion once the Hapsburgs went into the Balkans.

Similarly the French were not only obstinate towards a defeated Germany, but they and the allies of WW1 were not communicative towards the defeated Germany. Diplomatic alliances with Germany would have strengthened trade between Germany and Britain, allaying tensions and promoting the growth that Germany so desperately needed in order to get out of the depression. France's efforts to squeeze blood from a stone and collect war reparations are indicative of a nation that was not using effective diplomacy with a neighboring country.

So to the conservatives that cry Chamberlain and appeasement, they see the wrong lesson from both wars. It wasn't appeasement, it was lack of diplomacy. After Chamberlain's peace in our time, the British diplomacy with Germany was quiescent, and the German war machine starting rolling into the Sudetenland. Where was diplomacy when the Molotov-Rippentrop act was signed?

Actually, both the Germans and the Austrians wanted to fight World War I. That's why they started it. David Fromkin's "The Last Summer: Who Started the Great War in 1914" is a very readable account, not very scholarly, but it reflects the consensus.

"Appeasement from strength is magnanimous and noble, and might be the surest and only path to world peace." - Winston Churchill, quoted in Donald Kagan (!), On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace, pp. 317-318

The best book so far at describing the origins of the First World War and the responsibilty of the German high command is "Helmuth Von Moltke and the origins of the First World War," by Annika Mombauer.

If the Germans and Austrians thought a general war was in their interests, it made no sense for them to wait until 1914 to start it. Russia was growing stronger in the preceding years. The best move would probably have been to join the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-05.

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