Tim Bouverie on Learning the Lessons of Appeasement

Posted on 16th March 2020 by Mark Skinner

Appeasing Hitler, Tim Bouverie's acclaimed account of appeasement in the 1930s, presents a balanced, engrossing analysis of the tragic misunderstandings and misreadings that paved the path to war. In this exclusive essay, Bouverie reflects on the lessons that have (or have not) been learned from the actions of Neville Chamberlain and others, and whether or not appeasement is ever a valid course of action. 

The most frequent question I have been asked about my book – both while writing it and since – is: ‘Did you chose this topic in light of current events?’  The answer is, emphatically, ‘no’.  I began researching Appeasing Hitler in the summer of 2015 – before the EU Referendum and before the election of President Trump – but the more important point is that history should never be written backwards. 

This does not mean that there are not worrying parallels between our own age and the 1930s.  A resurgence of nationalism and isolationism; an assault on liberal values, including the freedom and plurality of the media; the fracturing and denigration of multi-national institutions; the politics of grievance, conspiracy theories and division; the decline of ‘truth’; these are the themes that led to depravity, dictatorship and destruction in the 1930s and these are the themes that have, unmistakably, enjoyed a resurgence over the last three years.  The task of countering them is primarily the responsibility of politicians.  Yet, despite the evidence that we learn nothing from history, it is only from a true understanding of the past that we can attempt to avoid repeating it.

In the years following the Second World War, western politicians felt that they had ‘learnt the lessons’ of appeasement.  The British and French had been sanguine about the rise of Hitler, turned a blind eye towards illegal German rearmament and tolerated serial treaty violations.  No more.  From now on, they would respond to acts of international brigandage by force and seek to topple undesirable and potentially aggressive regimes before things got out of hand.  Hence Anthony Eden’s decision to invade Egypt, seize the Suez Canal and remove President Nasser, in the autumn of 1956; hence President Kennedy’s attempt to instigate a coup in communist Cuba in 1961; hence the involvement of the United States in Vietnam in the 1960s and ’70s; hence NATO deployments in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s; hence the 2001 American-led invasion of Afghanistan; and hence two American-led invasions of Iraq, in 1990 and 2003.

To say that only a minority of the above can be considered to have been ‘successes’ would be a massive understatement.  The first two were disasters which humiliated Britain and the United States in turn.  Vietnam produced horrifying casualty lists and lowered American prestige.  The NATO interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo saved lives and demonstrated a (belated) lack of tolerance for genocide, but the war in Afghanistan proved unwinnable, while the 2003 invasion of Iraq succeeded in destabilising the region, proliferating terrorism and gravely undermining the authority of the West. 

As it turned out, the most important lesson from the appeasement period had not been learnt, namely the need to truly understand the regime/person/country with whom you are dealing.  Neville Chamberlain went wrong because Adolf Hitler could not be appeased.  The attempt, according to Lord Hugh Cecil, was akin to ‘scratching a crocodile’s nose in the hope of making it purr’.  Hitler’s ambition was un-satiable; the entire dynamic of the Nazi movement geared towards war.  But not everyone is Hitler.  Eden’s great mistake was in equating Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal with Hitler’s coups from the 1930s.  In fact, Nasser’s action posed little danger to British interests (the Suez Canal was nationalised not seized) let alone the peace of the world.  Similarly, Sadam Hussein (despite being a brutal dictator, responsible for killing hundreds of thousands of his own people) was not Hitler.  No threat to the West, he was (thanks to a lack of weapons of mass destruction), by 2003, barely a danger to the region.  President Kennedy underestimated the ability of the Cuban military, while no fewer than three American President’s discounted the difficulties of waging a jungle war against guerrilla fighters.  

Although it is easy to criticise in hindsight, the facts were generally there to be known.  In January 1938, Neville Chamberlain finished reading Stephen H Roberts’ The House that Hitler Built – a penetrating analysis of Nazism which concluded that Hitler could not achieve his objectives without war.  Briefly, Chamberlain was downcast.  ‘If I accepted the author’s decisions I should despair’, he wrote to his sister.  ‘But I don’t and won’t.’  Appeasement, then as now, can frequently be summed up as only the most tragic instance of wishful thinking.



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