Appeasement is a foreign policy strategy of making concessions to an adversary in order to avoid direct military conflict. As a foreign policy strategy it is rarely advocated today, largely as a result of the failure of British diplomacy vis-à-vis Nazi Germany in the later 1930s. It remains a central concept beyond this historical moment, however, in that it is often invoked in foreign policy debates in the United States and elsewhere as a term of opprobrium to describe concessions to adversaries. Appeasement is not necessarily a policy resulting from fear and weakness, however; it has the potential to be effective if political leaders can understand the distribution of power in the international system.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary (1993), the term appease means, “to bring peace” and was first used in English around the thirteenth century. Appeasement, thus, means “pacification” or “satisfaction.” Because it implies the satisfaction of the demands rather than the requests of an aggrieved party, appeasement has had an underlying negative connotation even when used to describe interpersonal relations. But its strongly negative connotations did not solidify in the English-speaking world until after World War II (1939–1945). Various dictionaries and encyclopedias of the social and political sciences demonstrate this negative valence quite clearly. One author, for example, describes the policy as the “surrender of a vital interest for a minor quid pro quo, or for no reciprocal concession at all” (Plano and Olten 1982, p. 229).
Despite this generally negative valence, however, some have described the policy in more positive ways: for example, as a form of conflict resolution (Walker 2005). Indeed, satisfying the demands of an opponent in order to avoid war need not be a negative policy, especially if the opponent is viewed as having been unfairly treated in the past. Conflict resolution often requires the granting of concessions, something that, while very few would call it appeasement, is not that far from the policies that were identified as such in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Appeasement as a foreign policy strategy is most closely associated with British policies in the interwar years (1919–1939). Martin Gilbert in his The Roots of Appeasement (1966) gives the clearest analysis of British appeasement policies. He argues that they should be seen as resulting from a combination of guilt over the harshness of the Versailles treaty, liberal policies favoring economic interdependence, and an abhorrence of war. The end of the “Great War” led to the Paris Peace Conference, during which the allied powers sought to both impose a settlement on Germany and create new institutions that would, it was hoped, eliminate war in the future. Although a desire for revenge animated many at the conference, others sought to counter those impulses. During the conference David Lloyd George, the British prime minister, authored the famous Fontainebleau Memorandum, which sought to limit the harshness of the reparations scheme, a proposal that Gilbert sees as being in the spirit of appeasement.
Appeasement during the interwar period revolved around two issues: reparations and rearmament. After the Versailles settlement, British policymakers soon recognized the precarious position in which Germany had been placed by the imposition of harsh reparations. John Maynard Keynes’s influential book The Economic Consequences of the Peace (1919) supplied the foreign policy community with strong economic reasons for decreasing reparations. In 1924 the Dawes Plan—the result of an American-led commission, but largely inspired by British attempts to improve the German economic situation—resulted in a reduction of German war reparations. The Young Plan of 1929 further reduced the burden of reparations, which were eventually abolished at the Lausanne Conference in 1932 (Carr 1947).
While the decrease in German reparations payments was generally perceived as positive, concessions on security agreements were more controversial. The Versailles settlement included the provision that the Rhineland was to be occupied for fifteen years by Allied forces and permanently demilitarized. Stringent limits were also placed on German armed forces. These limits were violated soon after Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933. Quickly dismantling any semblance of constitutional government in Germany, Hitler began the process of rearming the German nation. On March 7, 1936, Germany remilitarized the Rhineland, a move some British leaders considered acceptable, as in their view it rectified the unjust division of Europe created by Versailles (Rock 1977, p. 38). Others in the British political system, however—most prominently, Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden—were beginning to see the folly of appeasing the Nazis.
At this point, the policy of appeasement began to appear as one of weakness rather than strength. In March 1938, the Germans annexed Austria, an action that resulted in the British undertaking a high-level policy review of relations with Germany. Rather than seeing this as an opportunity to halt an aggressive dictator, however, British leaders proposed to further appease Hitler in order to avoid another shock to the fragile European system. When German troops began massing near the Sudetenland, a region of Czechoslovakia with a large percentage of German speakers, the British sought to convince Prague of the wisdom of appeasement. Failing to convince the Czechs to accept German demands, the British sought to negotiate directly with Germany. After two separate trips to Germany to convince Hitler to moderate his demands, in late September 1938 Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain flew to Munich, where an agreement was signed (without a Czechoslovakian signature) giving the Germans the Sudetenland. Germany occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia in March 1939, leading the British to finally stand up to Hitler by guaranteeing the borders of Poland. When Hitler attacked in September 1939, war erupted and appeasement lay in ruins.
In the postwar period, appeasement quickly became a term used to identify a failed or misguided policy. British and American policymakers, embroiled in the cold war, refused to “appease” the Soviet Union when faced with its aggressive policies. In 1956 Prime Minister Anthony Eden, who had resigned from the British government in the 1930s over appeasement policies, intervened in Egypt with the French and Israelis because he believed that concessions to Nasser would be a new form of appeasement. American president Lyndon Johnson’s unwillingness to back out of the Vietnam War resulted, in part, from his refusal to appease Ho Chi Minh. In the United States’ long war with Iraq, both Democratic and Republican leaders (for example, the Democratic secretary of state Madeline Albright and the Republican vice president Richard Cheney) claimed that to give into Saddam Hussein would be Chamberlain-esque appeasement all over again.
This reflexive view of appeasement as weakness, however, misunderstands its potential. Paul Kennedy points out that appeasement arose from a British tradition of ethical foreign policy reaching back to nineteenth century, when William Gladstone sought to create a foreign policy grounded in peace and economic prosperity. Great powers can indulge in policies of appeasement in order to manage the international system, as Kennedy argues the British did in their relations with the United States during the latter half of the nineteenth century when they allowed an emerging power to take control of the Western Hemisphere (Kennedy 1976).
If an adversary seeks a change in the international system that does not weaken but might actually improve the position of the stronger power, a policy of appeasement might well be a wise move. It is only when it is undertaken in response to the demands of a powerful state bent on aggrandizement that appeasement can be deemed a policy failure. This suggests that appeasement can only succeed if leaders can correctly appraise the distribution of power in the international system. When an adversary who is weak makes demands that will not necessarily increase its strength too much, appeasing those demands might decrease conflict in the future. At the same time, by constantly conceding to demands from different powers, a great power might eventually undermine its ability to deter others in the system.
The realist policy of maintaining a balance of power might include appeasement at key moments, in order to ensure stability. E. H. Carr, one of the leading realists of the twentieth century, suggested in his classic Twenty Years Crisis (1940) that British appeasement was a realist policy, in that it combined the interests of Britain with an honest appraisal of power—although in later editions, Carr excised those passages in which he justified appeasement (Hall 2006).
The normative foundations of appeasement that underlay British policies toward Germany in the interwar years correspond with the goals of modern liberal internationalism: defusing conflict, rectifying unjust settlements, and avoiding war. British policymakers’ inability to appreciate the emerging power of Germany prevented them from seeing how their good intentions could lead to war. The disastrous consequences of their policy choices continue to influence how appeasement is understood today. Although it is difficult to change the word’s connotations, appeasement, from a position of strength, should also be seen as a means to avoid conflict.
Carr, E. H. 1940. The Twenty Years Crisis, 1919–1939: An Introduction to the Study of International Relations. London: Macmillan.
Carr, E. H. 1947. International Relations between the Two World Wars, 1919–1939. Houndsmill, U.K.: Macmillan.
Gilbert, Martin. 1966. The Roots of Appeasement. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
Hall, Ian. 2006. “Power Politics and Appeasement: Political Realism in British International Thought, c. 1935–1955.” British Journal of Politics and International Relations 8 (2): 174–192.
Kennedy, Paul. 1976. “The Tradition of Appeasement in British Foreign Policy, 1865–1939.” British Journal of International Studies 2 (3): 195–215.
Keynes, John Maynard. 1919. The Economic Consequences of the Peace. London: Macmillan.
Plano, Jack C., and Roy Olton. 1982. The International Relations Dictionary. 3rd ed. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-Clio.
Rock, William R. 1977. British Appeasement in the 1930s. London: Edward Arnold.
Walker, Stephen. 2005. “Appeasement.” In Encyclopaedia of International Relations and Global Politics, ed. Martin Griffiths: 22–24 London: Routledge.
Anthony F. Lang Jr.
FINAL ATTEMPTS AT APPEASEMENT
Appeasement is a label used to describe the foreign policy of the British and French governments during the 1930s toward the aggressor nations of Germany, Italy, and Japan. The rise of Adolf Hitler saw Germany begin to challenge the rulings of the Treaty of Versailles (1919), while Japanese expansionism in China from 1931 threatened British and French imperial interests, and the Italians proved an ever-increasing threat in the Mediterranean and North Africa. Military chiefs in both Britain and France gloomily warned their political masters that they were in no position to fight a war on three fronts and this, as the British foreign secretary Edward Frederick Lindley Wood, 1st Earl of Halifax (1881–1959), conceded, placed a heavy burden on diplomacy while rearmament took place.
Appeasement has become synonymous with surrender, something apparently epitomized by the Munich agreement of September 1938. It was a view that quickly took hold from 1940 and, when coupled with the successes of the Axis war machine, encouraged a presumption that Hitler had planned and prepared for war, making the assumptions of British and French governments that the dictators could be bought off with concessions all the more foolish. The left-wing booklet by the pseudonymous Cato, Guilty Men (1940), published shortly after the Dunkirk Evacuation, ridiculed the British political establishment for its failure to foresee the dangers presented by the dictators and for failing to adequately rearm Britain. This "Guilty Men" thesis has proved itself to be enduring in the popular memory and forever tarnished the reputations of prime ministers Stanley Baldwin (1867–1947) and Neville Chamberlain (1869–1940). That France collapsed so quickly before the advancing German forces in May 1940 also ensured that French Third Republic's prewar diplomacy has been tarred with the brush of complacency and decadence.
Yet prior to these events, for many contemporaries appeasement was equated with realism. Britain showed a willingness to attempt to reach a general settlement for Europe during the mid-1930s. Although the specific details of a settlement differed from time to time, the main platform for such an agreement would involve a revision of the Treaty of Versailles (1919), a series of security pacts, and possibly limitations upon rearmament. The expectation was that by settling the outstanding grievances of the dictators they could be brought back into the international fold. In reality, Germany, while prepared for economic discussions and happy to make imprecise demands for a colonial deal alongside a desire to resolve issues in Eastern Europe, would not be drawn into an agreement.
Historians have debated about the nature of appeasement. Some have seen it as a policy specific to the period of the 1937–1939 Chamberlain government, where the personal quest of the prime minister to seek peace combined with a plethora of structural issues obliged Britain to seek a form of understanding with the fascist powers, Germany and Italy. Appeasement, it could be argued, was based upon apparently sound strategic reasons. Yet among the policy makers there was no unanimity about how to secure this understanding. Some, like foreign secretary Sir Anthony Eden (1897–1977), favored negotiations with Germany but were unwilling to sanction such discussions with the Italians. It would appear from Chamberlain's view that his motivations were driven by a belief that war with one or other of the dictators would cause the demise of the British Empire and allow Europe to be dominated by the Soviet Union.
Other historians have argued that appeasement was a broader phenomenon of the interwar era, arising from a need to seek to implement and sustain the Versailles peace settlement. Some, though, have questioned whether in actuality it was a form of traditional British foreign policy dating from the mid-nineteenth century—the idea of aiming to maintain the balance of power in Europe by negotiation because it was recognized that Britain was too weak both financially and militarily to intervene. The historical debate has been framed by the corresponding post-1945 Cold War and political climate: the Suez Crisis of 1956, the Czech Uprising of 1968, and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Since 1940 the British Conservative party, which Chamberlain led until shortly before his death, has sought to disassociate itself from appeasement. This occurred not least because many of the subsequent party leaders from Sir Winston Churchill (1874–1965) to Edward Heath (1916–2005) had established their reputations as internal opponents of Chamberlain's foreign policy.
Historical revisionism only began in the late 1960s, helped in part by the official release of governmental records. The revisionists began to argue that the inability of the democracies to resist the advances of the dictator nations was the inevitable result of various constraints: military and economic weakness, world and public opinion, and the realization that war would prove too costly for the democracies and their empires. They also began to debate as to whether Hitler intended to provoke war. It was a long-held view that French foreign policy during the 1930s was a mere appendage of London's appeasement. In the last decades of the twentieth century, this assumption was challenged. The idea that France's Third Republic was moribund and in the final stages of a long decline has been dismissed and instead a more subtle appreciation of French civil-military relations has emerged that stresses the limitations that political, economic, and strategic considerations placed on the policy makers. The French are portrayed as seeking to pursue their own foreign policy objectives after September 1938, which included enticing the British into a continental commitment so they could face the dictators together.
Appeasement was as much a state of mind as a specific strategic policy, which sought concession in preference to conflict as the democracies tried increasingly unsuccessfully to sustain the flawed Versailles settlement with rhetoric about collective security and self-determination. Sir Nevile Henderson (1882–1942), British Ambassador to Berlin 1937 to 1940, described appeasement as: "the search for just solutions by negotiation in light of higher reason instead of by the resort to force." The weight of scholarship in the area has shown that appeasement cannot be solely considered as a diplomatic experience, but needs to be examined in conjunction with the military, strategic, intelligence, domestic, and global perspectives. It has meant that historians have been warned to avoid using the term appeasement because it has been so all-embracing and subsequently too generalized. Central to the revisionist argument is that there was no alternative policy available; however, some historians have begun to question this assumption. The apparent task now for the counter-revisionists is, if they are to successfully undermine the argument that appeasement was the only option possible, to establish that there was a credible and viable alternative.
The path toward war was conducted within the context of an impotent League of Nations, an isolationist United States, and a Bolshevik-run Soviet Union. The League clearly showed its failings by its inability to act over the Japanese invasion of Manchuria. Its mortality was confirmed by its inability to press the Italians into ending their invasion of Abyssinia in 1935–1936. Hitler came to power in 1933, and by the end of the year had already left the Geneva disarmament conference and the League of Nations. By 1934 German rearmament had recommenced.
The British response was to initiate a rearmament program in March 1935; however, it was conducted on the presumption that it must not jeopardize the long-term economic recovery of Britain or interfere with normal trade. The economy was the fourth arm of defense, a view widely subscribed to in Britain and France that economic strength would be essential to victory in any future conflict. Anglo-French-Italian cooperation had ensured that Austria had been safeguarded from Hitler's advances in 1934, but the Italian invasion of Abyssinia destroyed the Stresa front (a coalition between Britain, France, and Italy formed in 1935) and weakened Anglo-French relations. Hitler seized his opportunity and in March 1936 reoccupied the Rhineland, flouting both the Versailles and the Locarno treaties. The descent of Spain into civil war in 1936 saw the British and French attempt to isolate this to a regional conflict through a policy of nonintervention, which essentially meant turning a blind eye to the involvement of the Germans and Italians on the side of Francisco Franco (1892–1975).
Meanwhile, the Japanese were in full-scaleconflict with the Chinese and threatening British interests in Shanghai. All this gave encouragement to those who felt it was necessary for the British to use diplomacy to detach the Germans and Italians. Attempts to resolve the concerns of Germany for a navy were made with the 1935 Anglo-German Naval Agreement, while sanctions were lifted from Italy in late 1936. During 1936 and 1937 the British increasingly felt that Germany might be pacified by a deal over the former German colonies confiscated at the end of World War I, but Hitler showed little real desire to reach a deal, and in reality was more interested in Eastern Europe, something the British and French were slow to appreciate. In March 1938 Germany sent troops into Austria. Although this action was condemned, many senior British figures felt that even at this stage Germany was merely seeking to resolve the inequities of the Treaty of Versailles. Similarly, too, the demands to absorb the Sudenten Germans into Germany provoked the Munich agreement of September 1938: the high point of appeasement. For the French, who had defense treaty obligations to the Czechoslovaks, this was a humiliating experience, and only thereafter did the threat from Hitler take precedence over France's internal problems in the making of policy.
When in March 1939 German troops crossed the Sudeten border and violated the Munich agreement, Britain was obliged to abandon appeasement. A combination of parliamentary and public opinion forced Chamberlain's hand. The Territorial Army was doubled in size and conscription was introduced for the first time to enable Britain to send a field force to continental Europe. On 31 March 1939, Chamberlain broke with the traditions of recent foreign policy and offered a guarantee to the Polish nation. At the same time Anglo-French negotiationswere begun, although reluctantly, with the Soviets about the possibility of a grand alliance against the dictators. Some contemporaries and historians are suspicious about whether Britain and France really abandoned appeasement in March. When it appeared that Britain might delay its declaration of war in September following the German attack on Poland, rumors spread that Chamberlain planned a second Munich. The reality could not be further from the truth. Chamberlain recognized in March 1939 that Britain had to prepare for the inevitability of war, no matter how horrid the prospect was. There were elements within the British government, in minor positions, like Richard Austen ("Rab") Butler (1902–1982) at the Foreign Office, who entertained hopes that perhaps Germany could be bought off with an economic deal; there was also a faction within the French government, centered around Georges Etienne Bonnet (1889–1973), that hoped to avoid war by further concessions, but neither group was in any position of significant influence. As soon as the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact (also known as the Molotov-von Ribbentrop Pact) was announced on 23 August 1939, Chamberlain began preparing the personnel who would form the British war cabinet. The delay in declaring war was less about securing a new Munich than ensuring that the British went to war simultaneously with their ally, the French.
Since 1940 the perception of appeasement as an ill-conceived diplomatic policy has meant that the label has become entrenched in the political vocabulary of the world as a dirty word. Politicians, policy makers, and commentators have widely used it to criticize, or justify, political responses to diplomatic crises around the world: from Suez (1956) to the Vietnam War (1955–1975), to the Falklands Islands War (1982), to the First and Second Gulf Wars (1990–1991; 2003–).
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Charmley, John. Chamberlain and the Lost Peace. London, 1989.
Jackson, Peter. France and the Nazi Menace: Intelligence and Policy Making, 1933–1939. Oxford, U.K., 2000.
Parker, R. A. C. Chamberlain and Appeasement: British Policy and the Coming of the Second World War. New York, 1993.
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Anglo-French acquiescence in Hitler's remilitarization of the Rhineland (March 1936), in violation of the treaties of Versailles and Locarno, marked a new phase of appeasement. In political circles in Britain, the Versailles settlement was widely blamed for the rise of the Nazis, and of Nazi sympathies amongst many ethnic Germans who, after 1918, found themselves excluded from Germany proper. In March 1938 Hitler ordered the anschluss, the union with Austria forbidden at Versailles, and almost at once indicated his determination also to meet the demands (real or imaginary) of Germans living in the Sudetenland, in Czechoslovakia, for union with Germany. Chamberlain could count on British public opinion for support of a policy aimed at giving the Nazis what they wanted. At Munich, on 29 September 1938, the Sudetenland was transferred to Germany, whilst more Czech territory was ceded to Poland and Hungary. Chamberlain, who visited Hitler twice during this crisis, was a national hero. Only after the German occupation of Prague (March 1939) was appeasement abandoned.
In its final phase, appeasement was an emergency measure. But it gave Britain a valuable year in which to rearm.