YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Facing Down Dictators

Appease or Confront?

March 01, 1998|Ivan T. Berend | Ivan T. Berend is a history professor and director of the Center for European and Russian Studies at UCLA

The 20th century has been an age of aggression and war, but also a long struggle for peace and security. Can we recognize any pattern as a successful way to halt aggression: peace at any price, making concessions and compromises to avoid war; or an aggressive demonstration of strength and power, a risky willingness for confrontation to ensure lasting results? These are not only historical questions but the dilemma of the present.

We stood at the brink of a "small war." An uncompromising President Bill Clinton was determined to strike Iraq to avoid the deadly aggression of Saddam Hussein. He prepared for war but painfully had to learn he cannot count on most of his allies. President Jacques Chirac of France told President Boris N. Yeltsin of Russia in a phone conversation, "You and I are trying to avoid a war . . . . Bill wants to strike . . . . [We] have a role to play." Yeltsin even warned Clinton that pursuing this may lead to a new world war. Similarly, Middle East allies such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, among many others, preferred compromise rather than action. The U.S. tour de force, however, seemingly worked: The dictator, at last, bowed to strength and determination.

A historian, watching this crisis and controversy, cannot avoid a sense of deja vu: Similar situations have been repeated several times this century. However, the responses to the previous challenges of notorious aggressors varied: In some cases, the answers took the form of compromise and concession--one should "appease" and pacify the aggressor. In other occasions, readiness to wage war, though potentially escalating the threat of immediate conflict, provided a tactical means to maintain peace. The recollection of these two different historical patterns, and their consequences, offer eternal lessons.

On Oct. 19, 1933, Germany resigned from the League of Nations. In 1935, it denounced the Treaty of Versailles and openly broke its conditions: The Luftwaffe, the German air force, was established and universal conscription was reintroduced in March. London and Paris remained silent. Moreover, an agreement in June allowed Adolf Hitler to rebuild his navy. A shameful "appeasement policy" satisfied the aggressor's demands, thereby obviating further confrontation.

Within a year, the Wehrmacht had recovered the demilitarized Rhineland zone. Though Hitler was unprepared for war, and decisive action would have halted his advance, the great powers again failed to intervene.

Wasn't it clear that Hitler's goals were far greater than merely recovering neighboring areas with a German population? Didn't he state his aggressivedreams in "Mein Kampf" in the mid-1920s? He wrote about the "enlargement of our people's lebensraum [living space] in Europe." "Germany," stated Hitler, "regards the destruction of France as only a means which will afterward enable her to finally give our people the expansion made possible elsewhere." He disclosed his goal for a German-dominated Europe. London and Paris, however, believed in appeasement.

On a September day in 1938, after concluding talks with Hitler in Munich, Neville Chamberlain, prime minister of Britain, stepped from his plane in London, triumphantly waved a piece of paper and declared peace had been saved. Later, he conceded to Hitler's "last demand" and sacrificed Czechoslovakia to satisfy the aggressor. This "most degrading capitulation in history," as historian Norman Davies called it, was counterproductive: The more Hitler got, the more he wanted.

Britain's choice, as Winston Churchill stated, was "between shame and war . . . . We have chosen shame, and we will get war." Churchill's prophecy came true within months. In September 1939, German troops invaded Poland, and began the realization of Hitler's expansionist dream to conquer Europe. The "appeasement policy" led to the most devastating war in human history.

These events were painful experiences for older generations, but only history for middle-aged, postwar baby boomers, the generation of the president. He, however, knows the historical lesson and does not want to make concessions to a dangerous and overambitious dictator.

Prewar political miscalculations were so grave that their aftermath has provided lessons for politicians and governments of the postwar era, when the world has had to face the new challenge of avoiding World War III. For, in a strikingly short period of time after World War II, mutual distrust, misunderstanding and emerging hostility led to the collapse of the war alliance and the rise of a new confrontation, the Cold War.

Los Angeles Times Articles