Appeasement does not work

On February 9th 1933 The Oxford Union held one of its weekly debates. It was destined to become the most famous one ever held. The result sent a strong political message around the world which was an influence on the international politics of a generation.

The debate’s motion was “This House will in no circumstances fight for its King and Country”. The motion was merely provocative, in best student traditions. The result was sensational. 275 voted for it, and only 153 voted against it.

The 1930s were dark years, the years of evil dictators, years of aggression by Italy,Germany and Japan. They were years of the vicious struggle between the two appalling creeds which disfigured so much of the twentieth century – communism and fascism.

In 1931 Japan showed how impotent the League of Nations was by invading Manchuria. In 1935 Italy invaded Ethiopia. In 1936 Germany remilitarised the Rhineland, and Germany and Italy intervened in the Spanish civil war. In 1938 Germany took Austria and began pressing for the Sudetenland. The West took no action to stop these flagrant violations of international law and peace.

Early in the decade the attitude of Oxford students sent a strong message to these dictators that pacifism was rife in the west, and that the young of the UK would do all they could to appease the strong nations that were prepared to fight. The message from the Union was backed up at the ballot box. In October 1933 in the Fulham by election the Conservative candidate lost a safe seat to Labour because he stood on a platform of rearmament. A 14,521 majority for the Conservatives became a 4,840 Labour majority. The Conservative leader Baldwin got the messages from these events and won the 1935 General Election on a platform of resisting Churchill and the other advocates of rearmament.

It is important to understand why both Oxford students and the wider public were in such a mood in the early 1930s. The Great War of 1914-18 cast an understandably long shadow. Whilst we all admire and respect the heroism and suffering of so many of our grandparents and great grand parents in the trenches of that conflict, we can understand the anger so many felt at the huge loss of life, the years of slaughter, and the feeling that they were lions led by donkeys. The young junior officers had shown great bravery and leadership, suffering with their troops, but the senior officers and the politicians, led by the Liberal government, had seemed unfeeling towards the slaughter. At best they had proved unable to find a way of bringing the war to a successful conclusion without so many battles where the death rate was obscene. It was difficult for many to see why the UK had to plunge itself in to these continental wars at all when the UK’s interests lay elsewhere in India, in Asia and in the Americas.There is no wonder that the public yearned for a long period of peace. They wanted to believe that the Great war had indeed been the war to end wars.

The politicians who picked up this mood worked on the proposition that if they treated the dictators as reasonable people, understanding their grievances from the Versailles settlement and elsewhere, they could keep the country from war. They could also stay elected. The appeasers were right in their judgement on domestic politics, but like the students at the Union they were bad judges of the dictators.

The sad truth turned out to be that the dictators were not reasonable people with a justified grievance, but international thugs and war criminals crazed by power. The resolution by the Oxford Union was not taken as student protest, or ignored as most Union debates are by the adult world. It was taken as an important indicator that the west in general, and the UK in particular, was decadent and lacking in resolve. The dictators decided to grab territory whilst conditions were so favourable. The appeasers in the UK were politicians desperate to deliver peace to their voters, but as we now know their judgement was sadly awry. Our fathers and grandfathers paid a heavy price when they had to go to war in 1939, to deal with dictators who had been permitted to get away with too much and had been allowed to get into a far stronger position than they enjoyed in 1933.

The final irony was that most of the 275 who vowed they would not fight for King and country in 1933 were conscripted into the services seven years later, to fight in the biggest war of all.


  1. Brian Tomkinson
    February 9, 2008

    No doubt the Archbishop of Canterbury would fail to recognise any parallels with his recent utterings. Fortunately, on this occasion, the public mood has been clearly shown to be in opposition to his appeasement.

  2. Neil Craig
    February 9, 2008

    I have seen this argument used before. My reading is different. The motion does not say that they will not fight but merely that it will not be for "king & country" & indeed when war broke out it wasn't – it was, at least in the view of ordinary people, to stop Hitler destroying other countries & peoples.

    The same argument was used about the Peace Pledge but again the majority of signatories were willing to fight, under a League of Nations mandate.

    I grant the Labour opposition to rearmament was dubious.

    However the Tories were no better. It was them who refused to impose oil sanctions on Mussolini over Etheopia & by produced the Hoare-Laval offer which was essentially Britain & France pulling out from the collective security of the League. This destroyed the League as a useful defence. Later it was the Tories who, on idealogical grounds, ensured the USSR was excluded from Munich & then tuirned down their offer of alliance against Hitler.

    The end result was that by spurning all alliances, not considered in the primary interest of "king & country", to stop aggression we ended up facing it almost alone.

    This is often known as realpolitick & is an example of why having an ethical dimension to your activities is often more realistic.

  3. mikestallard
    February 9, 2008

    I have just had the pleasure of reading Richard J Evans' "The Coming of the Third Reich". In it, to my surprise, he details the anti Semitism, the sheer love of Empire, the victory aims and the lack of political accountability of Wilhelmine Germany.
    When they beat the Russians, they took, at Brest Litovsk, the Ukraine, the Baltic and all states in between – just like Hitler.
    They were appallingly anti Semitic in a way that other nations weren't. On the other hand, as Niall Ferguson has shown, Jews were an integral part of German Society at the time too.
    (sentence left out)
    The First World was not in vain.
    But my father was quite surprised when the school sergeant told him that for nearly all the time he had enjoyed the First World war and that it had, for the most part been "Fun".
    Thank you for making me think!

  4. Tony Makara
    February 9, 2008

    I think it is sad that Neville Chamberlain is portrayed so negatively in history as an appeaser. I agree that appeasement does not work when dealing with an ideologically driven foe, but the art of diplomacy can still reap dividends as the talks with Mikhail Gorbachev shows. The detente that followed was a factor in the end of communism as the Soviets let down their guard and opened up to western ideas of democratic reform. In retrospect Chamberlain may seem naive, but we have the luxury of viewing history with hindsight, at the time Chamberlain was trying to avert a confrontation that Britain was ill prepared for and one that he knew would cost many lives and would eventually lead to an even greater theatre of war. I believe Chamberlain did what he could to avoid war, his efforts failed, but were not a sign of failure as such.

    Reply:Chamberlain was buying time – the appeasement had taken place earlier when less force applied for less time would have stopped the dictators.

  5. APL
    February 9, 2008

    We know from bitter experience that appeasment does not work, yet we still continue to appease the European Union. Paying it

  6. Chuck Unsworth
    February 9, 2008

    The Oxford Union continues these fine traditions today. It remains entirely and obdurately unrepresentative of the majority – hardly surprising, really. In the 1930s the members of the OU must have been but a tiny proportion of those who were ultimately conscripted. And the backbone of the Armed Forces is not – never has been – those who have had a relatively privileged upbringing, quite the contrary.

    Indeed the same could certainly be said of those who went to The Great War and all subsequent actions – including Afghanistan and Iraq today.

    If one examines the academic background of those who are in action right now I doubt that there are more than a handful of members of OU. Whether this by choice or by chance is open to conjecture. Equally, it is debatable as to whether the composition of the Armed Forces is representative of society as a whole.

    As to our enemies' (in)abilities to assess our intentions prior to the start of conflicts, well that is a given. From recent examples we can recall the lead up to Kosovo, The Falklands, Iraq, etc etc. Sadly far too many in recent years.

  7. Stuart Fairney
    February 10, 2008

    If you want to look at a country with a fine tradition of self defence, might I recommend "Target Switzerland" available from Amazon, which details Swiss armed neutrality in WW2, this is not the story I thought it was at all.

    Truly admirable people.

  8. Bazman
    February 10, 2008

    The War On Democracy by John Pilger
    This is well worth a look as it is an excellent primer on US destabilisation and anti-democracy measures in Latin America.
    Basically a film showing that America will stop at nothing to protect her interests and in reality does not believe in democracy.
    Appeasement certainly does not work.

  9. Evie Price
    October 14, 2012

    The Oxford Union was seen to be prestigious and the upperclass representatives, their debate influenced the international politics of the generation.
    By the production of the Hoare-Laval pact made France and Britain pulling out the League Nations which was already crumberling to a great extent. Such as when Japan invaded Manchuria which was one of the failiures of the League, the League was seen very unreliable and weak. During the same time, Hitler was very demanding which led to him demilitarizing the Rhineland and involving herself in the Spanish Civil war.
    Overall it shows that Appeasement does not work.

  10. Mr Doeback
    October 15, 2012

    The oxford union was in no format to present appeasement to dictators to Adolf Hitler. Hilter had no loyalty or respect to the British politicians like Neville Chamberlain and Lord Halifax as he defied the “25 years” of peace.
    It is quite obvious from this statement (not argument) that appeasement does not work in terms of stopping war as war did occur but however, war could have been said to prolonged because of the British relection of the labour government in Fulham. In argument to this though, War was probably and more subsequently prolonged by the German force as it gave them time to rebuild and define much more strength than what was shown in the Rhineland (1936).

    1. Arron cockell
      October 15, 2012

      you are amazing, your response is so insightful

    2. Craig Davies
      October 16, 2012

      wow this is amazing , the best on the blog.

  11. Nighthawk
    October 15, 2012

    John Redwood’s article refers to nations such as Italy, Germany and Japan as ‘strong nations’, merely because Britain is, as Stanley Baldwin described a ‘pacific democracy’ is something to be challenged in that Britain was the super power of the world after the Great War, and the reason that these ‘strong nations’ such as Japan, Germany and Italy became aggressors was because they were weak. Alternatively, it could be argued that Britain’s position was only portrayed as weak through the defeat of collective security through the League of Nation’s failure at Italy’s invasion of Abyssinia in 1935-6 and their reply in the Hoare-Laval Pact of 1935. This is arguably due to Britain’s complacency in treating the League of Nations like a panacea, being immersed in the ‘spirit of Locarno’ and being naïve to the League of Nations ability as a worldwide organisation without the USSR, USA and indeed Germany until 1936. An alternative interpretation of this would be is that politicians at this time pursued the interests of the people, all of whom had been given the vote in 1926, which had led to the increase in political competition because of the increasing support of the Labour Party and their eventual turn in office in 1924. This essentially meant that the politicians were not as short-sighted as the people, they possibly were sceptical of the League, as well as of other countries, as all political leaders had, essentially since the beginning of international diplomacy. On the other hand, it could also be argued that Britain themselves caused the collapse of collective security, the Washington Conferences of the early 1920s, the Hoare-Laval of 1935 and the Anglo-German Naval agreement of 1935 were all done outside the League of Nations, despite the fact there was such support for the League of Nations through the League of Nations Union, and that it was agreed that diplomacy was to be conducted through the League, arguably this represented the fault in the League as much as Manchuria and or Abyssinia invasions.

    Another way it could be argued that Britain made mistakes is with the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, which was in no way appeasing to the German people, thanks to the demands of the Clemenceau, leading a country crippled by German occupation and hungry for revenge. It was spookily described by French generals to create a ’20 year armistice’. In this way it could be argued that Britain should have appeased Germany from the start, by allowing at least it’s industry to be spared in order to keep it a trading partner and to ensure welfare of the German people. Britain had done this before to some success to the French in the Treaty of Paris in 1814 after the Napoleonic wars, on the other hand, Britain could have done even more to harm Germany to prevent it ever becoming a power again. The Treaty of Saint Germain was also arguably an object of a lack of appeasement, Wilson’s ideas of self-determination essentially meant that countries such as Italy missed out on the land they were promised by France and Britain throughout the war, which created bitterness and ultimately led to Mussolini’s rise to power in 1922. It also meant that several states were created that were weak and vulnerable to invasion, such as Poland, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, from a strengthen Germany in (1939-45) or Soviet Russia (1945-1991) or Italy (1941-1943), Britain argued that a strong Austro-Hungary presence would have kept the ‘balance of power’ on Europe. Furthermore, it could be argued that the melting pot of ethnicities and religions within these countries could cause problems, Yugloslavia in particular.

    Redwood arguably misses various factors in the arguments for and against appeasement, Britain had the largest empire the world had ever seen which had covered ¼ of the world, France also had a large empire, particularly in Africa throughout the 19th century, where various European powers engaged in a ‘struggle for Africa’ which eventually meant that by Mussolini had irrationally decided to invade Abyssinia in 1935, it was the only independent African states. In this way, it could be argued that it would be ridiculous for Britain and France to go to war over that country when it had done similar conquests, (but worse) across Africa throughout the last century and indeed across the whole world. In Woodrow Wilson’s self-determination and anti-empirical peace settlement and ‘Locarno spirit’ and ‘pacific democracy’, Britain really did seem to forget that it had slaughtered thousands of peoples for an empire far bigger than Mussolini’s. Mussolini also claimed that Africans were ‘inferior’ and that he would spread ‘civilised’ Italian culture to such areas all across the ‘our sea’, though in hindsight this appears racialist and chauvinist, these ideas were quite common at the time, Britain had indeed entered Africa with the same ideologies in the last century, the only thing that had changed since then, arguably, is the ‘war to end all wars’ between 1914-1918 and the League of Nations.

    Furthermore, it could be argued that the Manchurian Crisis of 1931 is also something blurred by hindsight and British imperial and conservative nationalist ideologies. Caused by Japan’s silk based industry, far right militarist government and China’s civil war. It essence, it was the Japanese invading an area close to them where they had a lot of economic investment, Britain had done this throughout its history, such as in Egypt in order to benefit from the Suez Canal. It could be argued that it is therefore similar to the American attempted invasion of Cuba through the Bay of Pigs 1961, yet this did not cause crisis within the United Nations at the time as many historians claim the Manchurian crisis did in 1931. Even so, it could be argued the failure of the Lytton report in 1932 and the League’s condemnation, lack of ability to enforce economic sanctions and Japan’s exit from the League could prove the League to be a failure, but only in the eyes of the British, who had imperial interests in the Far East, such as Singapore, Hong Kong and Burma which could seem threatened by Japan’s claims to a ‘sphere of influence’ in the far east. This could also be argued in the case of Abyssinia in 1935, Mussolini’s ‘new roman empire’ and emphasis of the Mediterranean as Italy’s sphere of influence was harmful to British imperial and naval interests in the Mediterranean such as Gibraltar, Cyprus, Malta and the Suez Canal. The invasion of Abyssinia also arguably threatened Britain’s colonies in Sudan and Egypt, therefore from a British point of view, this was a failure of the League of Nations because these events harmed their own imperial superiority which they had exacted upon the world for the last hundred years. Failures of the League of Nations had appeared much closer to home, but they did not affect British interests and are therefore overlooked as significant failures of the league of nations, merely because they were not thought of so for British interests, for example the crisis and fighting between Polish and Czechoslovakian troops in Teschan in 1919, Poland’s invasion of Lithuania’s capital of Vilna in 1920 and Poland’s invasion of Russia in the same year, this use of force arguably demonstrated the failure of the League of Nations in the same way Manchuria or Abyssinia did yet it was overlooked by Britain and France because this was arguably beneficial to Britain because a strong Poland would likely restore a ‘balance of power’, making a German invasion less likely as well as an ally against the feared USSR, as well as Poland’s alliance in general, thanks to Wilson’s plans of self-determination as well as generous territorial offerings implemented by Clemancea, Poland would be naturally friendly toward the ‘big three’, who had granted independence it had not had since 1795.

    Redwood also arguably underestimates the impact of the world’s worst economic depression after the wall street crash in 1929, ‘Geddes axe’ had been cutting throughout the 1920s, the Great Depression only worsened unemployment and increased the argument for defence cuts on rearmament, especially after the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928 and the Treaty of Locarno 1925 and the League of Nations demonstrated the promise of peace for the British people recovering from the shell-shock of the ‘war to end all wars’. On the other hand, it could be easy to add the Great Depression as a cause of the Second World War because it led to Hitler’s rise to power, yet it could also be argued that this was caused by the creation of Fascism by Benito Mussolini in 1921, however, within the German Workers Party in 1920, Adolf Hitler and Anton Drexler had already expressed their views of anti-communism and anti-Semitism, something which became more and more popular in Germany.

    Appeasement is also generalised by Redwood to specifically the end of the 1930s, it could be argued that the Dawes Plan of 1924, which was American loans which aided German industry and led to the ‘Weimar Golden Age’. However, it could also be argued that the Young Plan of 1929 allowed Germany’s war economy to function and not be crippled by reparations and Germany to become stronger and essentially want more and more concessions to be made, which eventually led to Hitler’s rearmament and demands for the Sudetenland, Saar Region and a union of Austria, and a failure of appeasement.

    Finally and most importantly, Redwood does not anticipate the view that appeasement was not necessarily a long term peace, he refers to how the soldiers during the second world war, ‘paid the price’ for appeasement, it could be argued that Chamberlain understood appeasement as a short-term preventative of war, he would have likely thought this necessary because Britain was military weak because of the unpopularity of rearmament. Another interpretation of appeasement is that he did not believe he had Britain behind him as a nation to enter the war until he had gone through all the stages of appeasement and proved to the British people that the only way to stop Hitler was through another world war. This could be shown by the British support for war as a last resort, which 70% of people had voted for during the Oxford Union debate in 1933 as well as by the fact that Britain had gone into the First World War on a very tenuous terms, various alliances and treaties with the countries of the Balkans which had aligned Britain against Germany, unconvincingly in hindsight to the British public in the 1930s.

  12. William Daws
    October 19, 2012

    Did appeasement work? The simple answer is no, no it didn’t. But did Britain do the right thing in the 30’s by letting the League of Nations crumble and allow Hitler to invade the Rhineland? In hindsight it is very easy to day ‘of course not! It led to WW2!’ But for one minute let’s put ourselves in the shoes of Chamberlain or Lord Halifax. Britain was fighting for democracy around the world, as we still are. But let’s start with our own democracy. Democracy gives the everyday citizens the right to speak their mind without fear of persecution, and another feature of democracy was the right to vote. Why are Chamberlain and Halifax even in power? They were voted in by everyday citizens, which mean they have to listen to what the public want.

    Although the Oxford debate is not fair representation of the whole country, but we can look at the 1936 Peace Pledge Union ( instead to give us a better idea of public opinion. In a few months over 30,000 people had responded to this pledge, showing that there was overwhelming support for appeasement. The general public were far more interested in the huge unemployment, the rise of the cost of housing and rising food prices. These everyday problems were far more important for the public, so naturally politicians were going to listen to them to keep their job, because if they didn’t, you can bet someone else would.

    We can also look at the international reasons for appeasement. Which country was the most threatening at this time? It was not Germany, Italy or Japan, it was actually Russia. Everyone was scared of this new ‘communistic’ Russia, and even Germany was against it. Why would we want to stop Germany from rearming when they were no real threat to us, but were instead more likely to halt the spread of communism? Germany could do all the dirty work.

    All in all, did appeasement stop fighting? No. Could we have stopped the war? Possibly. Would anybody here have done anything differently if they were Chamberlain or Halifax? If you say you would, you would be lying and voted out of power by an appeaser.

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