The Prime Ministership of Neville Chamberlain is closely associated with the word “appeasement.” The policy of appeasement followed by Britain in the late 1930s is generally viewed as a matter of foreign policy–the willingness to allow Germany’s absorption of other countries, first Austria and then Czechoslovakia, in the desperate but misguided hope of avoiding another war.
But appeasement also had domestic as well as foreign policy aspects. In a post several years ago, I quoted Winston Churchill, who spoke of the “unendurable..sense of our country falling into the power, into the orbit and influence of Nazi Germany, and of our existence becoming dependent upon their good will or pleasure…In a very few years, perhaps in a very few months, we shall be confronted with demands” which “may affect the surrender of territory or the surrender of liberty.” A “policy of submission” would entail “restrictions” upon freedom of speech and the press. Indeed, I hear it said sometimes now that we cannot allow the Nazi system of dictatorship to be criticized by ordinary, common English politicians.”
Churchill’s concern was not just a theoretical one. Following the German takeover of Czechoslovakia, photographs were available showing the plight of Czech Jews, dispossessed by the Nazis and wandering the roads of eastern Europe. Geoffrey Dawson, editor of The Times, refused to run any of them: it wouldn’t help the victims, he told his staff, and if they were published, Hitler would be offended.
I’ve just finished reading Niall Ferguson’s War of the World, and this book contains much more information about appeasement in British domestic society and politics. Some excerpts:
(Times Berlin correspondent Normal Ebbut) wrote regularly on…the (Nazi) regime’s persecution of Protestant churches. As early as November 1934, he was moved to protest about editorial interference with his copy, giving twelve examples of how his stories had been cut to remove critical references to the Nazi regime.
The Times was far from unique in its soft-soap coverage of Germany. Following his visit in 1937, Halifax lobbied near all the leading newspaper proprietors to tone down their coverage of Germany…The government succeeded in pressuring the BBC into avoiding ‘controversy’ in its coverage of European affairs…Lord Reith, the Director-General of the BBC, told Ribbentrop ‘to tell Hitler that the BBC was not anti-Nazi’…Pressure to toe the line was even stronger in the House of Commons. Conservative MPs who ventured to criticize Chamberlain were swiftly chastised by the whips or their local party associations.
At around the time of the Abyssinian crisis, the historian A L Rowse–who was just thirty-four at the time of Munich-recalled a walk with (Times publisher Dawson) along the towpath to Iffley, in the course of which he warned the older man: ‘It is the Germans who are so powerful as to threaten the rest of us together.’ Dawson’s reply was revealing: ‘To take your argument on its own valuation–mind you, I’m not saying I agree with it–but if the Germans are as powerful as you say, oughtn’t we to go in with them?
(Dawson’s “oughtn’t we to go in with them?” remark is pretty much the direct opposite of what William III said in 1672 when he was defending Holland against vastly superior armies. After being advised to surrender and asked “don’t you see your country is lost?”, he replied “It is indeed in great danger, but there is a sure way never to see my country lost, and that is to die in the last ditch.”)
And what of America…and Britain…and the rest of the Western world in 2013? In our case also, it seems that appeasement has extended beyond foreign policy matters and begun to encompass the intimidation of domestic discourse concerning the danger of radical Islamic terrorism. Immediately in the aftermath of the Benghazi attacks, Hillary Clinton was quick to blame those attacks on an obscure American filmmaker exercising his right of free expression and call for that filmmaker’s arrest…very, very similar to those appeasers Winston Churchill called out for saying that that “we cannot allow the Nazi system of dictatorship to be criticized by ordinary, common English politicians.”
And Senator Lindsay Graham, in response to a 2011 Koran-burning incident, appeared to be suggesting legal sanctions against such symbolic speech, saying:
I wish we could find a way to hold people accountable. Free speech is a great idea, but we’re in a war. During World War II, we had limits on what you could say if it would inspire the enemy.
Graham is here using the word “inspire” in an odd and misleading way, seeking an excuse to suppress the free expression of Americans who say anything judged “offensive” to anyone who might take hostile action against the U.S. on the grounds of such hostility…which is just what one might expect of an appeaser.
There are hundreds, probably thousands, of present-day examples of appeasement throughout the Western world. As I noted in a post just a few months ago, for example: Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer have been banned from entering Britain The reason? Fear that they might say something offensive to Muslims….especially those Muslims of the extremist and violence-prone stamp. At the Guantanamo Bay detention facility , inmates were unhappy that the treadmills provided for exercise were “Made in America.” So they were replaced with treadmills made in Muslim countries. And even worse: since detainees objected to the sight of the American flag, it is no longer raised at Guantanamo anywhere the inmates can see it. In Germany, a female Muslim student at the University of Duisburg-Essen ripped down parts of a graphic novel exhibit, which included the work of the internationally known Israeli artist Rutu Modan. Journalist Pascal Beucker says that the university’s management remains puzzled over the student’s conduct. Indeed, they were so puzzled that: “As a result of the student’s handiwork, school officials promptly closed the exhibit.” What about the vandal? ”The university management said it would conduct a conversation with the Muslim student about her conduct and reserves the right to take legal action against her…”
Domestic appeasement policies, of the type seen in Britain in the 1930s and being seen in America and other places today, exist at the intersection of cowardice and authoritarianism. They reflect an unwillingness to resist violent or otherwise-threatening enemies of civilization while at the same time eagerly stepping on the rights of fellow citizens. There are a disturbing number of people–especially among politicians and university administrators, but also among media types and elsewhere in society–who exist at this intersection point.