[VIEWPOINT]Heed Chamberlain’s lessonAn important time in the history of Great Britain, where glory and shame pass each other, that is still debated today is the appeasement policy Prime Minister Arthur Neville Chamberlain pursued up till the outbreak of World War II.
Mr. Chamberlain started off his position as prime minister in 1937 with a much weakened military force due to continuous military budget cuts. However, Britain was not in a disadvantageous position in terms of the balance of military power. Adolf Hitler did not yet have enough military force to suppress both Britain and France and there was a group of officers within the German army that were hostile to Hitler’s adventurism.
However, Hitler decided that both Britain and France did not have the determination to fight to the death and made a diplomatic gamble. In September 1938, Hitler demanded the cession of Sudeten, the northwestern region of Czechoslovakia that shared a border with Germany. He said he wanted the land for “self-determination of the German race” because Germans in Czechoslovakia were being discriminated against. He then added that peace would be maintained after the Sudeten was ceded.
Mr. Chamberlain, who had adopted an appeasement policy since he was inaugurated as prime minister of Britain, thought that meeting this demand was the only way to prevent war. Czechoslovakia, as the affected country, and its ally France were ready to fight to the death. When Britain declined to join the two, however, France also stepped back.
Czechoslovakia ended up helplessly giving up Sudeten, because it could not fight against Germany alone. Mr. Chamberlain, who was 69 years old at the time, went to Germany three times in one month for summit talks with Hitler to close the notorious “Munich Pact.” When Mr. Chamberlain finally returned to a London airport, he waved the document of agreement in the air and declared, “I believe it is peace for our time.”
After the surrender of Sudeten, however, Hitler then attacked Czechoslovakia in March of the following year and occupied the whole country. Czechoslovakia, which had already given up its most naturally fortified region, had to haplessly hand over the whole country to the Germans as they rushed in.
After the merger, Germany absorbed Czechoslovakia’s military industry and strengthened its military capability rapidly. When Stalin saw this, he abandoned any hopes he had of Britain and signed a nonaggression pact with Germany. Thanks to the Munich Pact, Hitler later occupied Poland and France and gained enough diplomatic and military power to drive Britain almost to the brink of extinction.
As in most other historic cases, the evaluation of the appeasement policy has been reversed a few times. As a policy decision, however, Chamberlain’s diplomacy ultimately showed us something that should not be repeated.
No leader can overcome the limits of his lifetime’s experience. Mr. Chamberlain had a lack of experience in diplomacy and security affairs and also suffered from an obsession with the weak financial situation of Britain because of his experience as Chancellor of the Exchequer. On top of that, as Germany continued to suffer from the Versailles Treaty, which imposed harsh reparations after World War I, there was public sentiment that alleviating dissatisfaction in Germany would help maintain peace, and Mr. Chamberlain jumped on that public sentiment.
Mr. Chamberlain was overconfident of his judgment of the situation and filled all of his staff with “yes men.” He appointed Neville Henderson, who was sympathetic towards Hitler, as Britain’s ambassador to Germany, and removed Foreign Minister Anthony Eden, who was against the appeasement policy, from the cabinet.
As he was surrounded by a “curtain of people,” Chamberlain naturally disregarded the group of critical people, including Winston Churchill, and the theory raised by experts in the foreign office that Hitler was a threat. On top of that, Mr. Chamberlain made the mistake of visiting Germany three times to meet Hitler, which apparently sent a signal in advance that Britain was planning to concede.
The lesson of the Munich talks was used to rationalize confrontation when the United States pursued a containment policy toward the Communist Bloc during the Cold War era. It is also true that the talks left a different lesson ― that too much attachment to the Munich lesson can lead to excessive tension.
However, the failure of Mr. Chamberlain still leaves a lesson beyond its time in that it demonstrated the problem that arises when a leading group becomes overconfident of its preliminary beliefs when making policy decisions.
* The writer is a lecturer of political science and international relations at the University of Aberdeen in the United Kingdom. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Kim Seung-young