top of page

On Appeasement

Appeasement was a doctrine in international relations in the 1930’s in which Britain and France permitted Germany and, to a lesser extent, Italy, both of which countries had developed fascist dictatorships, to renounce their international treaty obligations without military force being used to prevent them. The number of incidents of appeasement are numerous but amongst those familiar with casual historians of the region will be the Italian annexation of Abyssinia (now Ethiopia); the Japanese invasion of Manchuria; the 1935 Anglo-German Naval Agreement permitting Germany to rebuild its navy (so essential to German initial successes in World War II), remilitarisation of the Rheinland; acquiescence to the Anschluss with Austria and the 1938 Munich Agreement in which Great Britain accepted Germany occupation of parts of Czechoslovakia. Every student of history from their schooldays knows or should know of this shocking and humiliating catalogue of events in which the major European powers (the United States had retreated into her internal affairs during the inter-war period) permitted fascist Germany and Italy and their ally Japan engage in wanton territorial enlargement of a kind that was an inevitable catalyst for war because on each occasion that it took place, it came with guarantees that there would be no further territorial absorptions but of course there were.

The logic of appeasement, which characterised Anglo-French foreign policy throughout the 1930’s, was that if you gave an aggressor what they wanted and discounted international treaties that had been made the backbone of an imagined new international order by the treaty establishing the League of Nations at the end of World War I, then that would satiate them and their territorial appetites would be diminished as they both respected the new agreements (after all, hadn’t the “old” agreements been unfair) and they came to absorb the new territories politically and legally into their motherland. In fact neither of these premises held true. The former proved false because dictatorial regimes, and in particular fascist ones, have no respect for rule of law at home or for international law and are perfectly comfortable signing an agreement and then promptly renouncing it on any whim or pretext.

The reason they are comfortable with this stems from a culture of not having a rules-based system of law at home and therefore being unable to understand the international analogy; these were police states in which domestic rule of law did not apply. It also failed to understand that dictatorships, as opposed to democracies, work by a different internal logic in which constant struggle, strife and territorial acquisition is a means of maintaining legitimacy typically in the name of some incoherent ideology often based upon nationalism and pseudo-historical claims to yet more territorial acquisitions. By contrast in a a democracy, in which there is a clear relationship between the interests of the people and the accountability of government, the prospect of relentless military clashes tends to get the elected officials removed from office because this is not what people want. Nevertheless if people in democracies ignore the distinctive imperatives of politics in dictatorships, they become natural appeasers.

Moreover the idea that a country might be satiated by colonial acquisitions as it works to absorb the new territory into its own legal and political structures is premised upon the existence of a society that values legal and political structures per se. In countries that do not do this - in particular those based upon the cult of the individual, who is all-powerful and dominates any ostensible institutional structures that run the society in question - there can be no question of satiating the imperial appetite. Because the imperial appetite in such cases is premised upon the personality of a single individual who associates territorial conquest with his own historical aggrandisement, the acquisition of territory, particularly in the face of democratic and international legal norms that the dictator often expressly repudiates as inferior forms of government, encourages imperialism still further.

For both these reasons then appeasement cannot possibly work against a totalitarian dictator who is not bound to his word because he does not live in a society governed by laws but instead governed by him; and because such people see success in the development of their nation state as involving relentless expansionism. Indeed in totalitarianism there is no theoretical boundary to how far the aggressive interloping state can go, because any old fictitious argument can be trawled from the barrels of history to justify just one more step. Moreover such characters show cynical disregard for what they see as weakness in the West in wanting to find legal agreements where it is obvious to dictators that these are fanciful. Hence Hitler looked grave as he pretended he was trying to seek compromise to avoid war with Britain, fully intending to breach the Munich agreement at just the moment he negotiated it and all he was doing was buying himself more time to expand the German armed forces to pursue his Napoleonic plans to conquer all of Europe.

Now we are in the same situation again and the parallels are obvious. Our current European leaders, while America is once again in its isolationist state of mind, are bending to appeasement, trying to find ways of agreeing with Vladimir Putin when he is so obviously a Hitler or Mussolini type and not a western democrat with whom reasoning about international law is even remotely feasible. Until new Churchill and De Gaulle characters step forth to gird the loins of European military determination, we are letting Vladimir Putin and his dictatorial ruthlessness become stronger every day. Our current generation of politicians will go down as appeasers, and we need some new ones in the West that will do the right thing and start the fight properly because each day that goes past is Russia getting stronger at our expense. Britain is so militarily unprepared after decades of decline since the 1980’s that she could could probably barely fight a war with Russia for more than about a week. This is pathetic, and we need a strong leader in London to change this course dramatically.


bottom of page