Appeasement: A New Series Profiles the Issues Raised by Key A-Level Questions: Robert Pearce Identifies the Points to Discuss. (Survival Skills)

By Pearce, Robert | History Review, March 1998 | Go to article overview

Appeasement: A New Series Profiles the Issues Raised by Key A-Level Questions: Robert Pearce Identifies the Points to Discuss. (Survival Skills)


Pearce, Robert, History Review


Appeasement is one of the most controversial and hotly contested issues in modern history. The arguments for and against are so finely balanced that it is immensely difficult for hard-pressed students -- and academics -- to make up their minds. No longer can we accept the simplistic theory that portrayed the appeasers, and especially Neville Chamberlain, as cowardly, short-sighted and wishful-thinking Guilty Men who encouraged Hitler's territorial appetites and whose almost criminal negligence left Britain undefended. Nor can the anti-appeasers, pre-eminently Winston Churchill, any longer be assigned the role of valiant heroes, struggling manfully to avoid `the unnecessary war'. Instead, we have the unpleasant task of thinking for ourselves. How should we approach the topic?

The preliminary spade-work

The obvious starting point is a knowledge of events. Hence you must be familiar with European history from 1918 onwards. Try drawing up a table of relevant facts. From early in the period, you will no doubt include those provisions of the Treaty of Versailles which aggrieved the Germans. You should also be familiar with changing interpretations of the causes of the Great War. Initial notions of German war guilt, enshrined in Article 231 of the Treaty of Versailles, gave way by the early-1930s to the view that no one country had been responsible and that, in Lloyd George's phrase, `the nations slithered over the brink into the seething cauldron of war'. Do not forget, either, the stories of the atrocities committed by retreating German troops in 1918 which were later revealed as gross distortions and which, in consequence, led many to doubt the veracity of Nazi atrocities. But, of course, the bulk of your attention should go to the period when Hitler was in power. How far, by 1933, had Versailles been peacefully revised? In addition, you must know (which means not having to struggle to recall) a chronology of his actions and of the responses of the appeasers. Appeasement only has meaning in relation to Hitler's rearmament and to his territorial demands and acquisitions.

Next, try formulating a working definition of appeasement. Do not give a value-laden definition. At this stage you should avoid deciding whether appeasement was, essentially, `a good thing' or `a bad thing'. Later you can return to this issue and formulate a final judgement.

The rationale for appeasement

Once you are aware of what happened, you should list possible reasons why Britain's politicians tried to satisfy Hitler's grievances and thereby avoid war. Your list will probably include those in the panel below.

But do not be satisfied with drawing up a list like this. Rearrange your points so that they are in coherent order. (How would you rearrange the list below, so that groups of related causes appear together?) You should also attempt to rank them into some sort of order of importance. Next, you should add evidence, in order to substantiate them. This of course is absolutely vital, since a generalisation without evidence is merely an assertion. Try to compile enough evidence so that you can be confident of tackling any question that comes up, and try to pick the best evidence, which often means finding short, easily memorable quotations from contemporaries. For instance, quote Baldwin's assertion that `the bomber will always get through' to show the fear of another war. Or, to show defence weakness, quote General Ironside at the time of Munich insisting that `Chamberlain is of course right. We have not the means of defending ourselves and he knows it.... We cannot expose ourselves now to a German attack. We simply commit suicide if we do.' (Or, to get the highest grade, try to find evidence which is not quoted so often in the textbooks, in order to avoid boring the examiner with over-familiar material. Sometimes students assume that examiners are always fair, impartial and wide awake. Would that it were so! …

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