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Schriftenreihe des Europa Institutes Budapest, Band 9:99–104.


The Lessons of Appeasement


Historia est magistra vitae – in my opinion this saying is more profound and true than Quis quid optat, cito credit (As you wish, so you believe). But perhaps the latter is more valid in today’s post-Communist world. Yet the saying I like to quote most often in these days is: Vincere scis Hannibal, victoriam uti mescis (You know how to win, Hannibal, but not how to utilize your victory). Can the West transform the victory won in the Cold War into lasting achievements, into a safer world?

There is little need to repeat the obvious, how tragic and foolish it was to allow Nazi Germany to rise from the hopeless mess it was in 1933, to allow her in 1939 to make an attempt to gain the mastery of Europe and indeed of the whole world. Historians remember the sad story of appeasement, but many people – I found – tend to believe that it was the Munich conference of 1938 when appeasement had its high tide, and it was perhaps unavoidable to sacrifice Czechoslovakia so as to gain time for Britain to rearm.

When I discuss that story with politicians today, I feel I have to emphasize that the big folly was to allow the first violations of treaties and commitments by Nazi Germany (the creation of an air force and the reintroduction of compulsory national military service in March 1935, the remilitarization of the Rhineland in March 1936, intervention in Spain in 1936 etc.) to take place and go unpunished, or even being rewarded by Britain in the naval treaty of June 1935. In fact each concession was father to a new aggression, and when Italy was allowed to invade and annex Ethiopia it showed the way to Hitler. When the Western democracies awoke it was already too late to discredit Hitler in the eyes of the German people, and in 1938 it was no longer possible to stop him short of war.

To me the most frightening aspect about appeasement is that it looked excellent on paper. Indeed Germany had real grievances and many thought that if that country’s “legitimate” claims (to walk into the Rhineland “backgarden”, to unite all Germans by way of the Anschluss and the occupation of the Sudetenland) were satisfied, Hitler and his nation would be cured”, so both rearmament and war could be averted. This line of thought was not represented by die-hard conservatives, or so-called right-wing people, but by moderate, intelligent, self-confident professionals. As Winston Churchill wrote in his The Second War, Neville Chamberlain’s approach had a “narrow, sharp-edged efficiency within the limits of the policy in which he believed”.

Today, with hindsight, all those mistakes look obvious which could have been averted relatively easily, by concerted action, but since politicians cannot have hindsight, they need foresight, and history may help them to develop the latter.

I am not, however, sure that today people are aware of another appeasement, which began in June 1941 and lasted until 1947, with disastrous consequences for my country and for the entire continent.

This new policy of appeasement was also spearheaded or first announced by The Times of London – the same paper that was so known for advocating an accommodation with Nazi Germany. On August 1 1941, in one of its characteristically thundering leaders, it called for appeasing Stalin and suggested that in Central and Eastern Europe the Soviet Union had special interests.

Obviously, the story of appeasing Stalin is only relevant today as an indication of what happens if the West’s desires for a free and stable continent are not matched by a coherent policy. As the Canadian scholar Bennet Kovrig said in his remarkable 1973 study The Myth of Liberation. East-Central Europe in US Diplomacy and Politics since 1941: “The principal failure of American statesmen was their inability, intellectual or political, to reconcile the operational and declaratory facets of their policies... For, seldom in the history of America’s foreign relations have good intentions reaped such a bitter harvest.” (p.x.)

Following the 1941 Nazi attack on the Soviet Union, it was undoubtedly right for Britain and, later for the US, to make an alliance with Stalin: the West had a strong interest in the survival of the Soviet Union. In my opinion, however, it was a mistake to give Stalin unconditional support, for acquiescing in the annexation of the Baltic states and eastern Poland in December 1941 during Eden’s talks in Moscow encouraged Stalin in his ambition to conquer the rest of the Eastern half of Europe. The entire tenor of the British-American-Soviet discussion from 1941 on led Stalin to believe that he had a free hand at least to resurrect the Soviet frontiers he agreed with Hitler before 1941. President Roosevelt asked at the Teheran conference that Soviet claims to Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia should not be reasserted immediately following re-occupation and that the Baltic peoples should be given an opportunity to express their will through some sort of referendum, although he expressed his confidence that the Baltic peoples would choose to remain part of the U. S. S. R. When Stalin firmly rejected any internationally supervised plebiscite and commented that the Soviet constitution provided ample opportunities for the expression of public will, the President merely asked for “some public declaration in regard to the future elections to which the Marshal had referred” (FRUS, Teheran Conf., p. 595.). Britain as well as the United States clearly accepted the expansion of the Soviet Union, despite Roosevelt’s vision of a new world order and the high sounding phrases of the Atlantic Charter, but for a considerable time, even after 1945, the peoples of Central and Eastern Europe were not informed about such a decision.

Perhaps the Anglo-American line is more obvious if we look not at their attitudes towards Hitler’s satellites but, rather, their attitudes towards Poland, their ally. Both Britain and the United States accepted Soviet policy as a guiding line on Central and Eastern Europe, and the media in these countries accepted and believed the Soviet version about the Katyn Forest murders. Nobody was willing to risk the displeasure of Stalin for the sake of the nations in Central or Eastern Europe.

It may have been easy to sacrifice Germany’s minor partners, but to do so with Poland, a valiant ally, who provided the fourth largest military contingent, was an invitation which Stalin would have been a fool not to seize. The way Poland’s hopes and later complaints were persistently ignored is well documented by a large number of scholarly works. Let me only quote a personal account from Jan Nowak, code name for a courier of the underground Polish state, who escaped via Stockholm to Britain in 1943, and who faced the ugly realities. This young idealistic Pole asked a compatriot at the Polish Legation, Tadeusz Pilch, in Stockholm how it was possible that the Poles, with all their heroic deeds, did not get the support they needed? The reply was as follows: “You are greatly mistaken to think that the British are guided in politics by moral considerations and by the search for objective truth. Even if the Polish side could present not only circumstantial evidence, but witnesses and the most convincing proof of Soviet guilt, [on the Katyn affair] the government and the press would never believe it or would pretend not to believe it. The British want to win the war, and know that they cannot do so without Russia. Moreover, as long as there is no second front in the West, they feel guilty about the Russians, on whom the whole burden of the war and casualties now rests. It would be a dangerous illusion to imagine that the Western Allies will support us against Moscow. That would be suicide from their point of view.” (Jan Nowak: Courier from Warsaw, p. 132.)

Left and right in Britain, particularly in the press, joined in increasingly loud criticism of Polish intransigence on the “practicality” of Polish independence. From the New Statesman to the Tribune and the Evening Standard and, of course, The Times, the case was always the same. Perhaps the most difficult (or most frightening) was still a series of articles in The Times in March 1943, which questioned the idea of “total independence” for “smaller nations” and described the danger of an independent bloc emerging between the Germans and the Russians. When the young Pole I quoted before reached London, he met R. M. Barrington-Ward, the Editor of The Times. It is interesting how he recalls this meeting: “As for the division of Europe into zones of influence, he [Barrington-Ward] pointed out that... what mattered was a realistic understanding of the post-war possibilities of Great Britain. ‘Influence’, he said, was not the same as ‘control’ or ‘domination’. Soviet influence in Eastern Europe after the war would be a logical outcome of geography and the balance of power.”

E. H. Carr, who was the author of these leading articles in The Times, did not mean, according to Barrington-Ward, “that Poland would cease to be an independent country. At most, it would remain like the other East European countries, a junior partner of Russia, tied to its powerful neighbour by treaty. ‘Benes and Czechoslovakia did not fear a partition of Europe into spheres of influence,’ he said.”

The Editor of The Times tried to calm the young Polish representative with a smile: “You Poles remind us of the Irish. You possess too long a historical memory, too many prejudices and attitudes inherited from the past. Under the influence of war, and the alliance with the western nations. Russia is undergoing a tremendous revolution. For the moment there is no reason to disbelieve Stalin when he says he wants a strong and independent Poland. You will see, my friend, that your fears are groundless.”

The Soviet refusal to help or allow others to help in the Warsaw Uprising of August 1944 showed who was ultimately correct. George Kennan, the US diplomat, writer and historian, quite rightly said that the Warsaw Uprising was the moment when there should have been a fully-fledged and realistic showdown with the Soviet leaders: when they should have been confronted with the choice of either changing their policy completely and agreeing to collaborate in the establishment of truly independent countries in Eastern Europe or forfeiting Western-Allied support and sponsorship for the remaining phases of their war effort to the establishment of truly independent countries in Eastern Europe or forfeiting Western allied support. It is just conceivable that Stalin, who still feared an “unholy alliance” between the West and Hitler, would have backed down then. But we know that there were much stronger Western fears of another, really unholy alliance: the revival of the Hitler-Stalin partnership. From there, the so called “percentages agreement” between Churchill and Stalin in October 1944 was a logical conclusion.

Although this agreement was meant to be for a limited period, there is little doubt that Stalin viewed it as a carte blanche to do as he pleased. This is confirmed by Milovan Djilas’ book Conversations with Stalin, where the Soviet dictator asserted that whoever controls a territory would also impose his political system, “it cannot be otherwise”. Subsequent Soviet behaviour certainly proved that, although senior officials at the British Foreign Office did their best to explain it away. Commenting on the insistence of the Soviet head of the Allied Control Commission, former People’s Commissar Vyshinsky in March 1945 that the Romanian government should appoint a “Popular Front” government in which Communists predominated, Sir Orme Sargent minuted: “We had to assume a similar development in Hungary and Poland and, possibly to a lesser extent, in Yugoslavia. We had also to take into account the fundamental disagreement between ourselves and the Russians on the meaning of democracy and to remember that our form of parliamentary democracy with free elections, a free press, and freedom of discussion, had never established itself in central and South-Eastern Europe, except in Czechoslovakia. The population of these areas was now so much exhausted and impoverished – one might say ‘proletarianized’ – by the war that their one wish must be for secure and stable government even at the cost of political and private liberty. They were unlikely to fight for parliamentary institutions which in any case they had never learned to rely on or respect. We might obtain some mitigation of pure totalitarianism in Poland and Yugoslavia, but it seemed useless to try to secure free elections and proper representative governments elsewhere. If we insisted on trying to enforce our own principles, we should endanger our fundamental policy of post-war cooperation with the Soviet Union for an issue which was not vital to our interests in Europe.”

We all know what followed. I would like, however, to add that there is an aftermath: we, Hungarians, believed that 1956 was also clear case of appeasement. I was 15 years old on 4 November 1956 when the second Soviet intervention started and, like many others, did not assume that it was very realistic to expect Western intervention in our aid. But, there were a few days when Hungary was transformed into a democracy with Imre Nagy as Prime Minister and a four-party coalition governing the country, while becoming a neutral state. So, between 29 October and 3 November, 1956, there was a kind of Western appeasement when it could have been possible to prevent the Soviet intervention with a strong US warning or some strong action by the UN.

My conclusion from this historical survey is that there is a very narrow edge between offering genuine friendship (or, if you like, partnership) and inviting disaster by giving too much away without guarantees for proper behaviour. Many still remember Churchill’s words after the Munich conference: England, he said, “had a choice between shame and war, she has chosen shame, and will get war”.

With the changes of 1989–90, the world was given an unprecedented chance to make so many old dreams come true. There is now universal agreement that a security vacuum exists in Central Europe. There is a no- man’s land between NATO and the European Union on the one hand and the Ukraine and Russia on the other. The Visegrád countries of Central Europe had thought that perhaps the best would be for the European Community to accept us, if not necessarily as full members, then at least by really opening their markets and accepting us as partners. Our traditions and history, as well as our behaviour over the last four years justifies it. But, more lately, it became clear that, although membership of the Union was promised at the 1993 Copenhagen Summit, this is still a long way off. People who are fed up with the old communist Five Year Plans cannot accept a Ten Year not to say a Fifteen Year Plan now.

Witnessing the war in the former Yugoslavia made many people think more about immediate security concerns and Central and East Europeans are seeking it within NATO. We know that membership in the European Union or NATO would not offer a solution for all the internal and external problems of Central and Eastern Europe. We also know that most of the work must be done by these countries themselves. But, for putting our economies and our house into order we need stability, protection from threat coming from outside and clear perspectives concerning membership in these institutions. It was not our fault that we did not accede to the Washington Treaty in 1949 which established NATO, or to the Treaty of Rome which established the European Community in 1957. In fact, I am quite sure that if the will of the Hungarian nation had been allowed to prevail at the time, according to the election results of 1945, Hungary would have developed into not only a viable democracy, but would have acceded both to the Washington Treaty and to the 1957 Treaty of Rome.

The people living in the former communist countries suffered very much and today they seek the pledge that they would not be left out in the cold again, abandoned as they were in 1945, 1956, 1968 and 1981. Hungary and the other victims of the communist utopia do not want to join NATO or the WEU and other organizations which represent our common European heritage in order to present a common front against somebody but, rather, in order to work jointly for the European utopia that is emerging as a reality.

Nations in Central and Eastern Europe do not want to become a kind of condominium, guaranteed by our Western and Eastern neighbours. We cannot accept the idea of another “Grand Alliance”, this time between NATO and Russia, the creation of an umbrella under which we all must find cover. That would smack of the attitudes of the Second World War or of the latter phase of the Cold War.

To go back to the lessons of appeasement: we have to be careful. There are dangers which can be avoided but, if the lessons of appeasement are not drawn, then we may well see our hopes dashed again. If the Western institutions do not fill the security vacuum in Central Europe, there would be others only too eager to do so. Videant consules...