Why appeasement and salami-slicing will not defeat the nationalists

Why appeasement and salami-slicing will not defeat the nationalists

by Jill Stephenson
article from Monday 2, March, 2020

APPEASEMENT is a word with a pejorative sense in English. It conjures up images of Neville Chamberlain, in his wing collar shirt and dark coat, returning from a meeting with Hitler in Munich in 1938 (pictured) in an antique aeroplane, waving a piece of paper and intoning ‘peace in our time’. War broke out within the year. Appeasement was associated then, and has been ever since, with failure, with bending the knee to a tyrant. Yet it was not always so: in 1919, immediately after the First World War, 'appeasement' meant simply to pacify, to allay, or to propitiate by concessions – much as the ancient Romans talked about 'propitiating their gods'.

It is difficult to escape the pejorative connotations of ‘appeasement’, and the word is little used now. It does, however, have relevance in current politics, not least in Scotland, where rampant nationalism apparently requires to be pacified. No-one would seriously equate the situations of interwar Europe, faced with an increasingly assertive Germany, with what is happening today in Scotland. Yet there are in the present resonances of the processes that drove the appeasement policy of the victors of 1914-18, particularly that of Britain. The insatiable demands of the Scottish nationalists, and the willingness of some British politicians to accommodate them, are reminiscent of the way in which demands were appeased in the 1930s.

When appeasement was first used about policy towards Germany, after the First World War, it was in the sense of 'meeting the justifiable grievances of a power which was in a weak position, and doing so from a position of strength'. In this sense appeasement meant, for example, that the victorious Allied powers scaled down and rescheduled vanquished Germany's Reparations payments, in two stages, in 1924 and 1929; they included Germany in the Locarno Treaties of 1925 which guaranteed frontiers in western Europe, and in western Europe only; and they admitted Germany to the new League of Nations in 1926. There was nothing particularly controversial about these moves; they merely treated Germany as a civilised member of the European comity of nations which, under a new democratic government, deserved to be rehabilitated. However, in addition, Britain and other powers turned a blind eye to the beginnings of German rearmament – prohibited under the Versailles Treaty of 1919 – which was facilitated by Germany’s rapprochement with the Soviet Union in 1922 and beyond. German forces were able to train and to test forbidden weaponry there.

In the 1930s, however, 'appeasement' changed qualitatively, until it meant 'conceding the unreasonable demands of an aggressive power, and doing so from a position of weakness'. The presence of an assertive National Socialist government in Germany, that had come to power in 1933 partly on the promise of ‘righting the wrongs’ of the Versailles Treaty, meant that demands would be made that were less palatable to concede. The weakness of, and a lack of collective resolve among, the treaty-making powers, with America having retreated into isolationism and Britain and France scarcely amicable, led to concessions that presaged war. The USSR remained an outcast, although the French concluded a treaty with its ruler in 1935.

Germany’s exit from the League of Nations in 1933 demonstrated the earnestness of the new regime’s intent. Its violations of the Versailles Treaty began to escalate, without penalty. Not taking action over the announcement of German rearmament and the reintroduction of conscription in 1935, and the remilitarisation of the Rhineland in 1936, can be seen as appeasement by the Allied powers after faits accomplis: they took no action. The Rhineland was, of course, sovereign German territory, but the Versailles Treaty had declared it a demilitarised zone. That is, then, perhaps a marginal case. But the Anglo-German Naval Agreement of 1935 certainly can be classed as appeasement. Britain, without consulting other powers, now agreed to the building of a German navy that was 35 percent of the size of its own. This was in the face of the destruction of the German navy in 1918 and a prohibition in the Versailles Treaty on the building of a German navy. Beyond that, Britain and France steadfastly remained neutral in the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39 while Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany armed and aided Franco’s rebel side militarily.

Accepting the German Anschluss with Austria in 1938, after the botched attempt in 1934, when the union of the two countries had been specifically prohibited in the peace treaties of 1919 and 1920, showed how powerless the treaty-making powers were to uphold the treaties. The annexation of the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia in autumn 1938, agreed with Germany by Italy, France and Britain, was the climax of appeasement. Forcing a sovereign country to surrender a part of its territory to an aggressor has defined appeasement for subsequent generations. Hitler’s promise in 1938 that he wanted nothing from Czechs and Slovaks but the territory of ethnic Germans in the Sudetenland, in the country he hated and called ‘the so-called Czecho-Slovak state’, was shown up for the lie that it was when in March 1939 his troops occupied the Czech provinces of Bohemia and Moravia, leaving Slovakia as a compliant client state. That was the end of appeasement. Chamberlain’s subsequent guarantee to Poland meant war six months later.

Germany’s tactic in the face of appeasement was salami slicing. The course of its foreign policy in the 1930s did, as shown, consist of taking a little bit, then a little bit more, and then a little bit more than that, as the other powers failed to prevent it, with Britain, in particular, feeling that Germany had been harshly treated at Versailles. But, as we know, Hitler’s Germany would always demand more and, because of that, appeasing Germany could not work.

That is the lesson of appeasement: it cannot work. Yet that lesson has not been learned, even by those who should know better. The story of devolution in the United Kingdom has been a tale of appeasement. To start with, meeting the justifiable concerns of a group that appeared weak seemed magnanimous: let the peripheral nations of the UK have a degree of self-government, went the theory, and that will take the wind out of nationalists’ sails, with George Robertson, then Shadow Scottish Secretary, saying in 1995, with enormous chutzpah, that “Devolution will kill nationalism stone dead”. In January of that year, he had traded blows with Alex Salmond, SNP leader, who described Labour’s plan for a devolved assembly in Edinburgh as “a confidence trick”. Salmond was holding out for the whole loaf, secession from the UK. Robertson’s view was that this would be “a recipe for chaos and turmoil”. In that, at least, Robertson was correct.

We can now see that John Major, the Prime Minister of the time, was more prescient. He predicted that Labour’s devolution plans would do “immense damage to the people of Scotland” and to the UK as a whole. This is what has happened, with the an ever more assertive SNP demanding that ever more powers be devolved. Conceding this cannot work because appeasing the SNP with the devolution of more powers can never be enough. Their dismissal of the Scotland Acts of 2012 and 2016 as totally inadequate is evidence of that. The salami slicing, however, has continued and may well yet continue, with demands for the transfer of powers to hold another referendum and the demand for a ‘Scottish visa’ two of the latest attempts to wrest more authority from the central government in London.

Yet we know that a few more slices of salami will never be enough for the SNP. Nothing short of breaking up the UK, taking Scotland on a completely separate road, will satisfy the nationalists. The concession of further powers to try to appease ever more strident SNP demands will solve nothing. It is depressing that people such as Gordon Brown and Keir Starmer, who talk about reframing the UK to make it a federal system, cannot see that nothing short of complete separation will satisfy the SNP, and that more powers would merely play into the SNP’s hands by slicing the salami again and again until there is so little left that it seems worthless. That is precisely the aim of the SNP. One might have hoped that Gordon Brown, as a student of history, would understand the lessons of appeasement, but he apparently does not. Most recently, he has called again for more powers to be devolved to the Scottish government, and Scottish Labour MSP, Neil Findlay, has fallen into the same trap. Yet exercising effectively the powers that it already has seems beyond the SNP government of Nicola Sturgeon. Its record in health, education, justice, transport, policing, and more, has been lamentable.

The SNP has done its utmost to give the impression – one that is received at face value by many in the rest of the UK – that it speaks for all of Scotland, and that ‘the Scots’ want out of the UK. There have been, in return, calls to ‘let them go, if that is what they want’, which ignores the fact that half or more of Scots do not want that. It is to be hoped that the current UK government will not heed the siren calls of those who advocate appeasement, in the form of yet more powers. For the sake of Scotland, it must stand firm against the constant agitation of a very noisy minority.

Jill Stephenson is Professor Emeritus of Modern German History at the University of Edinburgh.

Photo by Bruno /Germany from Pixabay 

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