Echoes of the Great War
The discussion following my recent post suggests additional material on the topic of appeasement.
To understand the origins of and impulse towards appeasement one must look to the Great War. Paul Fussell has demonstrated that the awful carnage of 1914-1918 is the central trauma of our time, one that informs the modern culture of the West, one whose consequences are still unfolding. And one of the Great War’s unwanted children was appeasement.
The overwhelming feeling among political leaders after the war was: This must be prevented from happening again, at all costs. Even if an elected official in the Western democracies did not reach this conclusion for humane reasons, the instructive example of the Bolshevik revolution was always before him. Another war like that, and the red flag might fly over Big Ben or the Eiffel Tower.
The primary impulse towards war was thought to be the emergent force of nationalism. After all, it was Serbian nationalism in the person of Gavrilo Princip that shot down the archduke in Sarajevo and began the whole calamity. The recognition of nationalism — the impulse of a people of distinct language and culture to acquire its own sovereign polity — drove the terms of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 and helped redraw the map of Europe.
The Allies constructed the League of Nations to institutionalize the prevention of another Great War and enforce the terms of Versailles. But by the time the crises of the 1930s arrived, the paradoxical problem at the heart of the League was exposed: in order to prevent war, the League had to be ready to make war. To stop a nationalist tyrant like Hitler might require blood and iron, and the awful spectre of the Western Front loomed in public opinion to close off that option. War to stop the dictators became politically impossible in the Western democracies, and they appeased the tyrants instead.
By the time Chamberlain inked his deal with Hitler in Munich in 1938 and sealed forever the meaning of “appeasement” in the judgment of history, it was already clear that appeasement was no longer preventing war, it was simply postponing it. Wiser heads in the councils of the Allies knew the war was coming, and wanted time to prepare, since Hitler had a big lead on them in modern armament.
But the war was bound to come. If not over Poland, then over Finland, or Romania, or Norway, or the Ukraine. The war was coming, and the great appeasement of 1938 just bought a little more time.
But the earlier appeasements leading up to 1938 made the war the massive cataclysm that resulted. Each time the can was kicked down the road, it got bigger and deadlier.
My next post will address the direct parallels between the appeasement of the 1930s and our current appeasement of the Great Islamic Jihad.