Bruce Bawer selects powerful books about appeasement
1. Guilty Men
Frederick A. Stokes, 1940
This brief, impassioned j’accuse, written under the pseudonym Cato by British journalists Michael Foot, Peter Howard and Frank Owen, was churned out and published at lightning speed in July 1940, a month after the British escape at Dunkirk from the German army advancing through France. It was a fateful moment, as Foot recalled in a 1988 preface, when the “shameful” era of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s feckless leadership had ended and “English people could look into each other’s eyes with recovered pride and courage.” To read “Guilty Men” now is to feel Englishmen’s shock at the might of the Nazi war machine and to share the authors’ rage at the obtuseness of the appeasers (Chamberlain and 14 others are listed) who sweet-talked Hitler in Munich, agreeing in 1938 to let him annex part of Czechoslovakia, and mocked Winston Churchill for assailing conciliation and urging rearmament. This urgent piece of journalism made appeasement and Chamberlain’s infamous claim, upon returning from Munich, of having secured “peace in our time” synonymous with naïveté and cowardice.
2. Munich, 1938
By David Faber
Simon & Schuster, 2009
Many fine histories of the fruitless attempts to avoid war by appeasing Hitler in the 1930s have been written, but none is more riveting—and more packed with revealing detail—than David Faber’s meticulously researched “Munich, 1938.” In one vividly reconstructed episode after another, Faber brings to life the fatuity of trying to placate a bellicose dictator. Meeting Hitler, British cabinet member Lord Halifax obsequiously extols his “achievements” and comes away praising his charm—while Hitler comes away reassured that he’s dealing with craven fools who won’t thwart his plans. Echoes of the present abound: In an episode that recalls the 2005 Danish cartoon crisis, British authorities, informed that Hitler doesn’t like the caricatures of him in the Evening Standard newspaper, order the offending cartoonist to stop. Rich in illuminating portraits and dramatic confrontations—and effective in its alternating narratives of Downing Street shilly-shallying and ruthless plotting at Berchtesgaden—this book makes it impossible to buy the revisionist argument (served up most famously in A.J.P. Taylor’s 1961 “Origins of the Second World War”) that appeasement was actually a smart policy.
3. Chamberlain and Appeasement
By R.A.C. Parker
Among the more readable academic works on the appeasement of Hitler and perhaps the most sensible of those that take revisionist arguments seriously, this study by an Oxford historian rejects the standard view that Chamberlain was a coward or fool, arguing that “in 1938 and after Chamberlain was probably wrong and Churchill probably right; but Chamberlain had good reasons for his moves into disaster.” Though ultimately unpersuasive, Parker does a skillful job of putting the best possible face on Chamberlain’s actions and, in doing so, offers a useful window on revisionist thinking. Not that Parker, in the end, is a true revisionist: As he concludes, “Chamberlain’s powerful, obstinate personality and his skill in debate probably stifled serious chances of preventing the Second World War.”
4. I Saw Poland Betrayed
By Arthur Bliss Lane
Arthur Bliss Lane writes in “I Saw Poland Betrayed” that, just as Chamberlain imagined that the notoriously deceitful Hitler respected him and would never lie to him, so Franklin Roosevelt thought that his personal charm “was particularly effective on Stalin” and that FDR could therefore trust him to keep his word. Lane originally shared Roosevelt’s credulity; this candid, absorbing memoir recounts his stint as U.S. ambassador to Poland in 1944-47, during which he gradually saw that there was “no difference between Hitler’s and Stalin’s aims [and] methods.” He concluded that the Teheran, Yalta and Potsdam agreements—and America’s failure to take a tougher stand against the establishment in Eastern Europe of police states run by Soviet puppets—amounted to appeasement of the same kind that Chamberlain had practiced. Lane quit the Foreign Service to write this book and dedicated the rest of his life (he died in 1956) to spreading the grim truth about life behind the Iron Curtain.
5. The Tyranny of Guilt
By Pascal Bruckner
It’s clear why democracies appeased Hitler and Stalin—they preferred making concessions to waging war. But why do current European leaders kowtow to tinhorn tyrants abroad and to the bullies who run European Muslim communities, none of whom wield the kind of power that those dictators did? In this eloquent book—virtually every line of which is an aphorism worth quoting—French intellectual Pascal Bruckner finds the answer to today’s appeasement largely in yesterday’s: remorse over Europe’s failure to prevent world war, the Shoah and the Gulag (not to mention remorse over colonialism) has led Europeans to view their civilization as intrinsically destructive and thus not worth defending. But by choosing guilt over responsibility, Bruckner argues, they’re only repeating past errors. The lesson of the 20th century, he says, isn’t that peace is worth any price; it’s that “democracies have to be powerfully armed in order not to be defeated by the forces of tyranny.”
Mr. Bawer is the author of “Surrender: Appeasing Islam, Sacrificing Freedom,” recently published in paperback.