The history of appeasement is a warning to those who want to cosy up to China

The diaries of Chips Channon, the 1930s Tory MP, illustrate how making friends with dictators can be such a dangerous mistake.

1 October 2021 • 9:30pm

Charles Moore
Charles Moore

I am thinking about appeasement – for two reasons, one past, one present. First, the past. In this week in 1938, an excited House of Commons met, fearing war over Nazi Germany’s threat to Czechoslovakia. The prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, had just failed to reach agreement in a meeting with Hitler and had returned to London.

The Commons debate was described by the pro-appeasement Tory MP, Chips Channon, in his diary. Just as MPs, listening to Chamberlain’s speech, were preparing for an announcement of mobilisation, the prime minister was handed a note which allowed him a coup de théâtre. Waving it, Chamberlain announced that Hitler had invited him back for further talks. Suddenly everything felt all right. The House cheered and bellowed.

“I felt sick with enthusiasm,” wrote Channon, “I wanted to clutch him…” The Prime Minister left the chamber alone – “The Saviour of Peace, the greatest man since Christ, got into his car, umbrella and all.”

It was with the announcement of the ensuing Munich Agreement two days later that Simon Heffer, who is editing and publishing the full Channon diaries, aptly chose to end his first volume. Now the second volume is out. Even more gripping than the first, it takes us to war.

For almost a year, and despite the German invasion of Czechoslovakia in March 1939, Channon keeps his hopes alive. Although he sometimes criticises Hitler for breaking his word and being a “bandit”, he does not waver. “The sooner we get him [Chamberlain] back to appeasement, the better.” “The PM’s heart,” Channon judges, “… is Hitler’s, as much as he may deplore the Führer’s methods and resent his treachery.”

On the day, May 10 1940, when Chamberlain resigns and Winston Churchill becomes prime minister, Channon is consumed with rage, “England in her darkest hour had surrendered her destiny to the greatest opportunist and political adventurer alive!!!” He and three leading Chamberlainites commiserate. They part, “but not before we had resolved to get him [Churchill] out as soon as possible. Winston, with too much rope, is certain to crash one day.”

It is easy to laugh at Channon – or simply to turn away from him in disgust – since history proved him so egregiously wrong. And it is true that, although he was not actually a Nazi, he hero-worshipped Hitler right up until 1939. In this he was, fortunately, unusual – though his diaries show he was by no means alone. But his record is of great value, not only for historical detail and literary flair, but because it shows why appeasement often feels right, and why it can be so dangerous.

In the 1930s, “appeasement” was not the term of abuse it later became. The word derives from the French for making peace. Making peace is, if honourably possible, a good thing. It never felt a better thing than when trying not to repeat the horrors of the First World War.

On top of this right instinct to seek all that makes for peace, come other feelings too. For many in the 1930s, including Channon, it was Soviet Communism which seemed the greatest threat to peace and freedom. This was not an unreasonable view, but it was abused by people who, hating one side so much, let off the other. Just as many Western thinkers in the 1930s were blind to Stalin’s mass murders and appeased the Soviet Union because it opposed Fascism, so people like Channon saw Hitler as a bulwark against Bolshevik revolution. The Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939 exposed the truth about both its signatories.

Usually in the minds of many appeasers, too, is some resentment of the state of one’s own country. It is a theme in Channon’s work that his adopted Britain (he was American by birth) is suffering from “an illness of the spirit”. “We are soft, degenerate; there are few great men,” he complains, as he fails to see just such a one in Churchill.

Particularly in democracies, those who lament the loss of their country’s former greatness tend to look admiringly at dictatorships. They see them as more virile, active and decisive. With this comes another mistake that flatters the dictators’ view of themselves. A certain sort of appeaser sees dictatorships as the authentic voice of their people, even though their people are not allowed to speak.

From this admiration, it is a small step to presenting one’s own leaders as the aggressors. In Channon’s case, this meant seeing Churchill, not Hitler, as the primary danger to peace. In more recent times, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) always complained about Western, not Soviet, aggression as a threat to world peace. CND’s insults were hurled at Thatcher and Reagan, not the Soviet Politburo.

Which brings us to the present. Are we in the West appeasing China?

If we are, we may have a better excuse than appeasing Germany in the 1930s. I say this not because the Chinese regime is markedly less reprehensible. In its more than 70-year reign, the Chinese Communist Party has probably murdered or starved larger numbers of its citizens than any other government in history.

The difference has been in trend and timescale. Under Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping, China did open up to the world and let freer economics (though not much freer politics) improve the life of citizens. This process began in 1978 and, even now, has not completely reversed.

Last month, I was asked to address an informal group of MPs, peers, leading business people and academics which meets occasionally to share differing views on public affairs. I spoke about the challenge of China, asking people to face how bad things had got under the nationalistic reign of Xi Jinping, and consequently to question how our relations with China should change.

The occasion was under “Chatham House rules”, so I shall not report 
any single person’s view, but I was struck by the real dilemma that faces many. China’s prosperity, size and power are enduring facts. Should we – indeed, can we – not trade with it? Should we refuse admission to their students and offers of money to our universities? Should British firms not employ Chinese people, here or there? Should our scientists share research?

These are genuinely tricky questions, but I would make the following challenges to the appeasers.

Are things getting better or worse under Xi? Surely worse: see China’s destruction of its own agreement on the future of Hong Kong, its repression of the Uighurs, its infiltration of Western companies and universities to spy, steal ideas and promote regime propaganda, its military expansion, its scramble for empire (the Belt and Road Initiative) and its angry secrecy about how its biggest recent export, Covid-19, began and spread.

If worse, how did all our “Golden Era” engagement help? If it didn’t, what is the basis for future trust?

Appeasers have a psychological problem: as the nation appeased becomes more unreasonable, it is the appeaser who feels he must give ground. He has invested in peace: he does not want to admit it was a bad investment.

This leads him to deceive himself and others about what is really happening. The country appeased sees it is getting away with murder (I do not mean that only figuratively). It senses weakness. In our weakness, we defer, even secretly admire, its brute strength.

In one way, our appeasement of China is much more tempting than was that of Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia: there is lots more money in it. China understands that, too.

3 comments

  • Chips Channon is alive and well today. Inhabiting the skulls of multiple western ‘leaders’.

    Liked by 2 people

  • “A certain sort of appeaser sees dictatorships as the authentic voice of their people, even though their people are not allowed to speak.”
    Ain’t that the truth? Conservative commenters posting groveling comments about putler in UK and US news sites confirm this.
    The left of course, love dictators anyway.

    Liked by 2 people

  • “We are soft, degenerate; there are few great men,”
    History repeating itself. Alas, we are pretty much in the same predicament as during the 1930s and it is of our own making. We have no great men … or women. We have dickless, yellow-bellied sap-sucking cowards and women who should also have been kept out of politics. There are no Churchills, no Thatchers and no Reagans to take the reigns. This goes not only for bat virus land but for mafia land as well.
    The West IS the driving force of the world. We still can stop the chink juggernaut and the mafia state that once was Russia. We only need the politicians to take us there. I, personally, have achieved to pretty much eliminate chink products from my life. If most people would do that too, it would be a huge step forward to reduce bat virus land’s power. But, we know that it’s not only our politicians who are stupid. Most people are too. We are surrounded by stupid, braindead, frivolous, carefree morons who think that driving electric cars will solve our climate problems (electricity comes clean out of the socket, right?) or who still drive two-ton, fuel-guzzling behemoths to work every day and eat meat like it never came from a living creature.
    But, I am straying…
    Appeasement works only if the appeased will adhere to agreements. As soon as you see that this is not the case, appeasement should cease and other methods must be implemented. But, we see one appeasement effort after another. Certainly, either our politicians are indeed pea-brained morons … or they are bought and paid for whores. Maybe it’s a combo of both.

    Liked by 3 people

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