As most of you know, I’m a historian. As such I tend to get annoyed when people who should know better misunderstand–or worse, deliberately misapply–the supposed lessons of history. Over the last two weeks or so, since the announcement of the diplomatic agreement between various western powers and Iran over that country’s nuclear program, I’ve had occasion to get annoyed several times by statements I’ve read, all from politicians, flinging around a word called “appeasement.” When politicians use this word of course they’re referring to British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s policy of diplomatic engagement with Hitler shortly before World War II which preceded Hitler’s invasion of Poland. The word “appeasement,” which is universally a bad one when used by politicians, generally means a foolish policy of trying to buy off or placate a potential enemy who will never be satisfied with what you give them, and in which the process of negotiating with them makes yourself weaker. I am annoyed when politicians use this word as if they know what it means, because in fact they don’t. Not only do they grossly misunderstand the circumstances of the present, but they draw totally the wrong lessons from what happened in 1938 and 1939.

The truth about appeasement is, as are most things in history, a lot more complicated than some people (the aforementioned politicians) would have you believe. There were several interlocking issues going on in the 1930s surrounding Adolf Hitler and the rearmament of Germany, which he accomplished by unilaterally abrogating the Treaty of Versailles. In late 1937 Hitler began an expansionist policy of trying to expand Nazi control to other parts of Europe, most–though not all–populated by German-speaking peoples of whom he saw himself as the benefactor. He did this without reference to the will of the majority populations of these countries. Germany first absorbed Austria in a bloodless coup in March 1938. Then later in the same year Hitler demanded that Germany be given the Sudetenland, a part of the new (since 1918) nation of Czechoslovakia which was populated with ethnic Germans. This made Britain and France very, very nervous because they now had a remilitarized Germany near their borders. In September 1938 Chamberlain met Hitler at Munich, and emerged with a diplomatic deal he famously called “peace in our time.” It handed over the Sudetenland in exchange for Hitler’s promise that he was done absorbing territory.

Anschluss sudetendeutscher Gebiete

As German troops rolled into the Sudetenland in fall 1938, some pro-Nazi Czechs applauded their arrival. Not everyone was happy.

Of course, he wasn’t. Six months later in March 1939 Hitler sent troops into the rest of Czechoslovakia, essentially spitting on the treaty. Then he started grumbling that he wanted a piece of Poland called the Danzig Corridor. This time, however, Chamberlain wasn’t going to play ball. On March 31, 1939, he issued a guarantee that if Germany tried to take any piece of Poland, Britain would defend Poland’s neutrality by force. Hitler sneered at this and tried it anyway. Chamberlain had to make good on the guarantee, and on September 3, 1939, Britain declared war on Germany. World War II was on.

The criticism of the Munich Agreement–and Chamberlain’s policy to pursue it–comes from two unpleasant facts. The first is that in making this agreement with Hitler, Chamberlain didn’t bother to consult the Czechs at all, who obviously didn’t want Germany occupying any part of their country. Essentially he fed Czechoslovakia to Hitler hoping it would satisfy his hunger. The second fact is that Germany, in the fall of 1938, was not quite ready for all-out war. Some military experts argue that if Chamberlain called Hitler’s bluff and declared war, Germany would have lost pretty quickly. Supposedly it was easier to stop Hitler in fall 1938 than it was a year later. Ergo, from this comes the argument that Chamberlain was a duplicitous fool and his policy simply confirmed Hitler’s certainty that he was a paper tiger who would never put up a serious fight, and he also frittered away the chance to stop Nazi Germany at much lesser cost. Some, usually politicians, even claim that 1938 was way too late to still be making deals with Hitler; if the British and French tried to stop Germany in 1936, when Hitler remilitarized the Rhineland, it would have been a cakewalk.

neville chamberlain

Neville Chamberlain’s mistake was the betrayal of Czechoslovakia–not the decision to try to negotiate with Hitler in the first place.

As a historian I don’t find these arguments persuasive, and here’s why. First, the military argument is counterintuitive. Yes, a few people, notably Winston Churchill, were out there in 1937 and 1938 claiming that Hitler could be stopped militarily at a relatively small cost–but there’s little evidence to prove them right. “Stopping” Hitler would have essentially meant a full-scale invasion of Germany and decapitation of the Nazi regime, which would have taken millions of troops and an absolutely immense commitment of national resources. Britain and France didn’t have those resources in 1938, much less 1936. It was not British or French troops that ultimately conquered Germany in 1945–we can thank the United States and especially the USSR, who did have millions of troops at their disposal, for that. I don’t see how the gains in military preparedness Hitler made between October 1938 and September 1939 change this analysis very much. Even after Britain did decide to “stop” Hitler in 1939, it still could field only a token ground force, relying mostly on naval actions and bombing until the USSR and USA got into the conflict in 1941. Wars always kill more, cost more and take much longer than planners think they will. I just don’t buy the “it would have been easy to stop Hitler” argument. It would have been very hard and very, very bloody regardless of when it happened.

Secondly, denouncing “appeasement” as folly ignores the serious political realities of the time. The Munich deal was initially popular with the British people. Politically, Chamberlain’s strategy made sense. He was the leader of state of a democracy. Imagine what would have happened if he’d gone to his people and said, “You know, Britons, I think Hitler is a menace and he must be stopped. Let’s attack him right now with everything we have, and perhaps in 5 years after hundreds of thousands of our people have been killed, maybe we’ll defeat him. Who’s with me?” Simply no one would have been in favor of this. In hindsight, of course, it’s easy to see how Hitler was a menace to the whole world. But could that case have been made convincingly to the British and French public in 1938, or 1936? It’s just not possible.

jfk 1939

John F. Kennedy, shown here in 1939, wrote a book called Why England Slept, analyzing the failure of Britain to “stop” Hitler earlier. He thought “appeasement” was a reasonable policy at the time.

What Chamberlain could do–and in fact had a duty to do–was exhaust all possible diplomatic avenues before choosing force as a last resort. This he did. Certainly the way he did it was not very good, but can we really criticize the very idea of trying to come to some rational accord with Hitler? “Appeasement” junkies portray Chamberlain as a feckless twit who was outwitted by Hitler again and again. In fact, Chamberlain was “fooled”–if he was fooled at all–only once. He made the bad deal to sacrifice Czechoslovakia, which clearly was a betrayal, and Hitler broke his word. But after that, Chamberlain was firm: no more deals, Mr. Hitler. Next time you move, we’re at war. Hitler called his bluff and lost.

Neville Chamberlain was naive, but he was hardly the fool that his undeserved reputation suggests. He was a shrewd and gifted politician. He knew trusting Hitler was a risky gamble, but given the political realities of the time he simply had no choice. If there’s moral fault to be found in the appeasement story (besides the obvious conclusion that Hitler was an immoral, evil monster), let it be found in Chamberlain’s betrayal of Czechoslovakia. That’s certainly worth criticizing. But to frame the very idea of trying to find a diplomatic solution to an international problem–before resorting to a cataclysmic war that would cost millions of lives–as a mistake in and of itself, is in my opinion extremely unwise.

I cringe when I hear politicians abuse the word “appeasement.” I wish I could lock them in a room and give them a history lecture. People should not draw conclusions about historical precedents by listening to politicians talk about them. Maybe they should consult a historian first.

The header photo and those of JFK and Neville Chamberlain are in the public domain. The photo of the Sudeten occupation is by the German Bundesarchiv and is used under Creative Commons 3.0 (Attribution).