Saturday 5 November 2022

Appeasement of dictators results in tragedy, not farce (The Sunday Guardian)


The capitulation of Daladier and Chamberlain to all of Hitler’s maximalist negotiating positions made Hitler certain that neither Britain nor France would take up arms against Germany.

There are two contrary views about why Britain’s Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain sought to placate Adolf Hitler rather than attack Nazi Germany at a time when it was militarily weak. The first view is that Chamberlain believed that Hitler had limited ambitions, and made decisions on war and peace based not on mystic faith but sound reasoning. As a consequence, he took the Attila the Hun of the 20th century at his word when Hitler said that getting the Sudetenland was the last conquest that was on his agenda. There were multiple indications, including not just in Hitler’s many speeches but in Mein Kampf, that much more was sought by the despot, but these were considered simply the promises of a politician, intended in the manner of empty pots and pans to make a loud noise, and quickly be forgotten. In such a telling, Chamberlain was a man of peace, who sought to avoid another continental war after the 1914-18 carnage, and in any case, was able to gain a bit of time for England to rearm through the sacrifice of Czechoslovakia for Britain. A movie was made about that period that showed Chamberlain to be clear eyed about Hitler, but dismissive of domestic public support for a Franco-British first strike on Germany. That an individual he loathed, Winston Churchill, had been advocating such a strike for years made Chamberlain all the more anxious to avoid such a portentous move. The other view of Chamberlain is the more common, which is that he misread Hitler, and failed to understand that the appetite of a street bully is whetted by concessions, not satiated. A book, “Travellers in the Third Reich”, written by Julia Boyd, compiles a series of views about Nazi Germany from the inside, from the years just before Hitler was appointed the Reichskanzler in 1933 to the final period marking the end of himself and the regime that he led until his death by suicide in 1945. It is clear from the anecdotes given in the book that Hitler had from the start planned for a great war, even installing iron brackets atop buses in the 1930s so as to affix machine guns on them once the war that he had planned from the start of his political career began.
As part of the training for wartime conditions of the German population, many of whom had blind faith in Hitler despite his hysterical gestures and hate-filled invective. Hitler used to hold mock drills in German cities that even mimicked the sound of bombs and artillery blasts, as well as total blackouts. All this from four years before the war began in 1939 with the invasion of Poland, a country where the leadership to the end of peacetime regarded Germany as a potential ally against the country they loathed, the Soviet Union. Of course, such a stance gave Chamberlain another excuse to ignore the persistent pleading of Soviet Foreign Minister Maxim Litvinov (who had a British wife) for France, Britain and the USSR to form a pact designed to attack and defeat Germany and destroy the Nazi regime together with its Fuehrer. In August 1939, Chamberlain and his French counterpart Eduard Daladier finally agreed to send a delegation to Moscow to “study and examine the possibility” of a Soviet-French-British pact designed to protect smaller European states against Germany. The delegation was given no plenary powers, and was headed by Sir Reginald Aylmer Ranfurly Plunkett-Ernle-Erle-Drax, whose most significant distinction was his longish name, which had been gifted to him by adoring parents. The Anglo-French mission set off for Moscow not by air but by ship, as Sir Reginald was a navy man. The Royal Navy vessel in which the delegation made its slow progress to the USSR included an Indian cook who was known throughout the service for the delicious curries that he produced for appreciative naval officers. Curry on the way back must have served as some solace, for when the delegation reached Moscow, Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov pointed out that the members had no powers to take any decisions, merely to talk, and that anyway, German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop had arrived a short while ago by air. Hours before, Ribbentrop had signed the Nazi-Soviet pact with Molotov in the presence of CPSU General Secretary J.V. Stalin. According to some anecdotes of the tragi-comedy that was the Drax delegation, both British and French members of the Franco-British delegation to the Soviet Union were visibly relieved at news of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. For this meant that neither France nor Britain would have to ally with the odious Soviet Union and its brutal dictator Stalin. In their view, Nazi Germany was not odious, nor was its dictator Hitler brutal. In a happy mood, they took sail back to France and Britain, and may have been seaborne enjoying the delights of onboard meat curry lunches when the German Wehrmacht invaded Poland on 1 September 1939.
The capitulation of Daladier and Chamberlain to all of Hitler’s maximalist negotiating positions made Hitler certain that neither Britain nor France would take up arms against Germany, were Hitler to next annex Poland after throwing a few scraps Stalin’s way, as he had intended from the start. Julia Boyd’s book shows the shock of those few who understood the mind of Hitler, knew that he would keep wanting more with each concession, with each perceived show of Allied lack of resolve. Other recollections show the surprise and joy among the Nazi faithful at the unexpected news that Chamberlain and Daladier abandoned Czechoslovakia to the Nazis in August 1939 much the way President Biden abandoned Afghanistan in August 2021. Will a present-day dictator draw from Biden’s surrender to the Taliban the conclusion that there would be little or no substantive blowback from the US (and therefore its Atlanticist allies) to a PRC invasion of Taiwan? Or another PLA attempt at grabbing Ladakh and Arunachal from India? Marx was wrong. A tragedy in history need not repeat itself only as farce, but could return as yet another tragedy. If only the White House had received that memo in time.

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