By Victor Haug,
Many today believe that threats to the free world can be deterred or eliminated through a well-calculated use of economic incentives and sanctions. However, by looking back on the one hundred years leading up to the world wars, we find abundant reason to believe that international aggression is more likely to be deterred through strength and constant vigilance.
One year before the outbreak of the Second World War, Neville Chamberlin thought he could resolve the Nazi threat through a peace offering. He thus conceded the Sudetenland to Hitler in 1938. He subsequently delivered a speech entitled, “Peace in Our Time.” In retrospect, we know that Chamberlin was misguided and foolish in this decision and that, if anything, his conciliation to the Nazis only empowered them in their quest for world domination. But the history of the free world’s failure to respond to the German threat with appropriate gravity and preparation began well before Chamberlin’s infamous floundering.
The growth of Germanic militancy was recognized early in the 19th century. In 1834, Heinrich Heine, a German expatriate, warned of Germany’s warping ethos and the threat it posed. He predicted that bellicosity would follow the ongoing philosophical revolution in Germany:
Thought precedes action as lightning precedes thunder. German thunder is of true Germanic character; it is not very nimble, but rumbles along ponderously. Yet, it will come and when you hear a crashing such as never before has been heard in the world’s history, then you know that the German thunderbolt has fallen at last…A play will be performed in Germany which will make the French Revolution look like an innocent idyll.
Unfortunately, Heine was right on all counts. While Europe was sleeping in the decades of peace that followed the Napoleonic Wars, Prussia was feeding the dogs of war, which it unleashed in the second half of the nineteenth century. Otto Von Bismark led the push for German unification with the Austro-Prussian War of 1866 and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. And Germany’s aggressive ambition peaked in the early half of the twentieth century with the two world wars.
Heine, the man who saw the blood of Europe’s most violent struggles from a hundred years away, offered a stern warning to remain vigilant. He highlighted that even among the Greek immortals atop Olympus, “there is one goddess who amidst merriment and peace keeps her armour and her helmet and a spear in her hand – the goddess of wisdom [Pallas Athena].”
This warning, a century before Hitler’s rise to power, is a haunting reminder of why free countries, even amidst “merriment and peace,” should constantly be on guard for geopolitical threats, especially from autocratic countries (like Hitler’s in the 1930s, Ahmadinejad’s and Kim Jung Il’s today). Members of free, wealthy societies should fight the desire to sacrifice an accurate vision of geopolitical reality for psychological comfort as Neville Chamberlin did in the years leading up to the Second World War. In other words, we should see the world as it is—filled with dangerous dictators and autocrats—rather than cling to a conveniently pleasant (yet hopelessly distorted) vision of global reality.
The desperate hope that appeasement and pacifism can resolve pressing foreign policy dilemmas is nothing new to the world. In fact, Neville Chamberlin articulated its creed quite eloquently in 1938. In order to fully appreciate the tragic irony of his words, one should read the full speech. Here I will highlight several of his most disturbing conclusions after handing over part of Czechoslovakia to the Third Reich in 1938.
…the new Czechoslovakia will find a greater security than she has ever enjoyed in the past…
…Europe and the world have reason to be grateful to the head of the Italian government [Mussolini] for his work in contributing to a peaceful solution…
…Ever since I assumed my present office my main purpose has been to work for the pacification of Europe, for the removal of those suspicions and those animosities which have so long poisoned the air. The path which leads to appeasement is long and bristles with obstacles…
The path to appeasement is indeed long and bristling with obstacles. In fact, it is as treacherous as it is endless. I am not suggesting that WWII would have been avoided had a hawk been in power, but that Chamberlin’s concession emboldened a dangerous enemy and that a realist philosophy, rather than a utopian one, would have better served Britain’s (and the world’s) interests.
The free world’s failure to maintain vigilance throughout the gestation of German totalitarianism came at a high cost. Previous failures to quell international threats by diplomacy and appeasement alone are harrowing reminders of complacency during uneasy periods of peace, especially when we are well aware of the threats posed by Ahmadinejad and others.
The political landscape of today’s world is quite different from the one of the 1930s: the U.S. is much stronger now than it was in the early twentieth century; China has transformed itself into a monolithic economic and military power; political Islam has replaced communism and fascism as an eminent threat to peaceful civilizations.
Yet much also remains the same: the European powers have largely disarmed; several nations, like North Korea and Iran, now see dictatorial, maniacal men at the helm of their political institutions—one, and perhaps soon both, with access to nuclear weapons; Jews are threatened by a holocaust (now by Iranian nukes instead of gas chambers).
Concession and complacency come at a high cost in a world with tyrants, ultimately jeopardizing long term security and prosperity. This was true in 1938, and it is still true today. (Ask Czechs who lived through the 1930s and 1940s if Chamberlin’s pacifism and appeasement guaranteed their country “greater security than she ever enjoyed in the past.”)
The threats to free societies will never be exhausted and, human nature being what it is—often power-hungry, violent, and oppressive—words, charters, and progressive organizations alone will not, and cannot, bring perpetual peace.
Yet peace can be prolonged, and the devastation of wars can be minimized, if free countries like the U.S. deter attacks as the wise Pallas Athena would—through eternal vigilance, uncompromised strength, and powerful defenses.
This is not a call to action on the part of the State. It is a call to the wiser and stronger part of all individuals living in free societies throughout the world. It is an exhortation to assume the responsibility with which we are endowed by democratic institutions. And it is a plea to have the courage to see the world not as one wants it to be, but as it truly is—filled with both beauty and terror, courage and cowardice, freedom and tyranny.