The term appeasement is unpopular today both in politics and in academia as it is associated with the policy pursued by France and Great Britain towards Nazi Germany in the 1930s. The highpoint of this policy was reached on September 29, 1938 in Munich when the Western Powers gave in to Hitler’s territorial demands concerning Czechoslovakia. Since then the term has been associated with political and military weakness and treachery. This article represents the second installment in a series dedicated to the commemorations of 70 years since the start of World War II and will deal with the political implications of appeasement. In the following lines I will outline the meaning of appeasement and its implications for the international system. My approach will draw upon the work of Robert Gilpin and of Mark R. Brawley and will concentrate on defining appeasement and explaining the political context in which it was implemented.
Appeasement is a part of a policy of retrenchment, which means reducing a nation’s foreign policy commitments in order to maintain its current position in the international system. It is a sign of a state’s relative weakness and declining power, and as such it has a negative impact on its prestige. A state can maintain its position in the international system by reducing the costs of its foreign commitments through economic, political and territorial retrenchment. It is a politically difficult strategy to implement, to carry out such a strategy is a quite a delicate matter, its success is highly uncertain and depends on timing. In the simplest form retrenchment takes the form of the unilateral abandonment of a state’s political economic and military commitment. A more complex form of retrenchment is entering into alliances and seeking rapprochement with less threatening powers. The final form of retrenchment is appeasement of a rising power by making concessions to its demands. Appeasement has become unpopular as a result of the 1938 Munich conference, when France and Great Britain gave in to German demands concerning Czechoslovakia. The fundamental problem of a policy of appeasement is to pursue it in such a manner that it does not lead to continuous deterioration in a state’s prestige and position within the international system. Retrenchment can affect a state’s relations with its allies, as their perceptions of its waning power may lead them to switch their alliance towards the rising state. Involuntary retrenchment as a result of military defeat is far worse than voluntary retrenchment as it involves a severe loss of prestige and a weakening of the state’s diplomatic standing. (Gilpin, 1983, pp. 193-194)
The diplomacy of the 1930s had been determined by strategic choices made in the 1920s by all of the great powers. It is also evident, after more than 70 years, that Britain, France and the USSR perceived Germany as a threat to the status quo, however for different reason these three countries failed to create an effective balancing coalition. In the 1920s France put an emphasis on the following strategic choices: firm alliance commitments to guarantee is security and borders, a strong League of Nations with military and intelligence capabilities (this was rejected by Britain and the US), economic reparations to weaken Germany’s potential as a great power and gain time in order to build up its armed forces against another German onslaught, disarmament as a means of easing international tensions and delay Germany’s re-armament and a weakened League of Nations, if guarantees for French security could be obtained from Britain and the US. (Brawley, 2009, pp. 81-84)
Britain favored arms limitation in order recover economically after World War I and later built up her defenses while using the League of Nations to settle international disputes. In the 1920s it refrained from giving firm alliance commitments and saw reparations as a measure of last resort to check German power. Reparations were seen as weakening European security, as an economically viable Germany was vital for Europe and for British. (Brawley, 2009, pp. 84-87)
Soviet Russia also perceived Germany as a threat, but not as intensely as the French. After the end of World War I Germany and the USSR did not share a border anymore and were considered pariah states by the rest of the international system, so the Soviets did not consider Germany an immediate threat . In the short run the USSR was willing to cooperate with the Germans and built up its economic base. In the 1920s the Soviet Union argued in favor of arms limitations and started developing its economy for war. (Brawley, 2009, pp. 87-88)
The failure to form a balancing coalition in the 1930s against Germany cannot be fully explained without understanding the political tensions existing between Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union. Great Britain avoided any firm alliance commitments because of its experience in the previous war, when it was drawn into the conflict by a crisis in the Balkans. Furthermore the British dismissed French concerns over Germany’s return to great power status and the threat it posed to France, as strategic paranoia. Britain also was suspicious of French efforts aimed at imposing severe reparations in order to delay Germany’s comeback. Relations between the USSR and the Western Powers were fraught with mutual suspicion, and few
In the 1930s the room for maneuver in response to Germany’s rise was severely constricted because of the strategic choices made in the previous decade. France soon realized that it could not compete with Germany’s economic wherewithal and adopted a defensive strategy. France’s situation was compounded by internal political and social crises and it soon abandoned any plans concerning building up any offensive military capability to strike at Germany and retreated behind the Maginot line. Britain gave up its moratorium on re-armament in the 1930s and concentrated on building up its air force and modernizing its fleet, as it most feared what was called then a “knock out blow”. Diplomatically the British used appeasement to win time and invest in their arms industry. Attempts had been made to co-opt the Soviet Union in an alliance in case of a German attack. However these diplomatic overtures were undercut by the opposition of Poland and Czechoslovakia to soviet troops crossing their territories in order to attack Germany. Moreover in the late 30s the British questioned the USSR’s ability to mount any offensive actions against Germany, because of the toll taken by Stalin’s purges on the Red Army. Stalin started to believe after Munich that the French and British security guarantees to Poland were a bluff, the French were militarily weak and that any British military contribution on the continent would have been purely symbolic. In the end Stalin preferred to throw in his lot with Hitler and agree to the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact, as he believed that bandwagoning will win him time to spare in order to prepare for a future war. (Brawley, 2009, pp. 89-95)
How should one evaluate appeasement? Appeasement failed to quail Hitler’s ambitions and reinforced his perception that the Western Powers were weak and unwilling to challenge Germany over its territorial ambitions in Central and Eastern Europe. Appeasement convinced Stalin that France and Great Britain were not serious in their efforts to deal with Germany. On the other hand appeasement bought time, however one should take this statement with a lot of salt, as the price was rather high and only Britain can actually claim that the time saved in this way proved vital later on, when it faced the German onslaught alone until 1941. Did appeasement pave the way to World War II? Appeasement should be viewed as an answer to a systemic disequilibrium within the international system however it is hard to consider it a cause of World War II. It was a mere prelude to the war.