In ‘Appeasement,’ How Making Peace With Nazis Led to War

Another source of inertia was the persistent strain of anti-Semitism among Britain’s ruling class. “The British attitude toward the Jews was complicated,” Bouverie writes, referring to John Maynard Keynes’s definition of an anti-Semite as someone who disliked Jews “unreasonably.” Still, the British were baffled by the virulence of German anti-Semitism; British anti-Semites tended to talk about Jews with snobbish condescension, and couldn’t quite understand why the Nazis fulminated so much.

Hitler kept presenting himself as a man of peace, even if “Mein Kampf,” his bellicose, self-aggrandizing autobiography, suggested otherwise. The English translations of the book were expurgated versions, omitting the nastiest passages. “Mein Kampf” had also been published in 1925, years before Hitler had attained the dignified position of chancellor; those who wanted to could simply dismiss the book as intemperate juvenilia.

Bouverie’s chronological narrative conveys how appeasement transformed over the years: from a reactive, fearful policy to an enthusiastic, idealistic project to what can only be deemed a strenuous exercise in willful denial.

Britain in the 1930s was still the most powerful country in the world, especially with the Americans in isolationist mode. Winston Churchill had sounded the alarm about Nazi ambitions early (“All the signals are set for danger. The red lights flash through the gloom”), but his responsibility for the disastrous Gallipoli campaign in World War I and his virulent opposition to even limited self-government for India made him untrustworthy to his fellow Conservatives.

Chamberlain, for his part, vacillated between extreme optimism (when it came to Hitler’s intentions) and extreme fatalism (when it came to Britain’s own military capabilities). A series of British emissaries, including the Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax, whose “volte-face” on Hitler came extremely late, kept insisting that Hitler’s desire for peace was “sincere.”

Sincerity typically requires consistency, but somehow Hitler’s volatility worked in his favor. He became so prone to tantrums that even when he talked to the British ambassador in Berlin about “annihilating Poland,” the relative lack of “the usual histrionics” meant that the genocidal comment wasn’t taken as an immediate threat. Hitler was constantly graded on a curve.

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