Seventy-five years ago this week, Austria and Nazi Germany became united in the Anschluss. Thus, with celebration in the streets, passed the last point in time when Britain and France could have prevented World War II.
The disastrous policy of appeasement is often attributed to foolish governments in London and Paris. But the truth is more complicated, and 75 years of hindsight have brought us no closer to understanding it.
Simply put, France and Britain demonstrated in 1938 that the democratic system of government has a grave weakness: To a certain extent, it is structurally incapable of defending itself.
Because democracy can generate vastly more military power than any other political system ever devised, it can win wars. The problem is that because of the constraints of democratic politics, it can’t always prevent them.
In particular, as the Anschluss showed, democracies are very bad at defending the balance of power from a determined challenger, even one playing a comparatively weak military hand. They are therefore bad at preventing the downward spirals through which small events lead to major catastrophes.
Start with this simple observation: To avert the downward spiral that led to global war in 1939, it was absolutely vital to prevent — by war, if necessary — the Anschluss of Germany and Austria in 1938. Otherwise, the balance of power on which the peace of Europe depended would become impossible to maintain.
The interwar alliance of Western powers — Britain, France, Czechoslovakia, Poland — depended vitally on a strong and secure Czechoslovakia. Czechoslovakia’s industrial base had made it a formidable military power by 1938. As long as Czechoslovakia remained independent, with a neutral Austria to its south, Germany would be tied down in a defensive straitjacket.
But if the anschluss was allowed to proceed, Czechoslovakia would be virtually surrounded by Nazi Germany. It might then be a matter of months before she was cowed to her knees, and Britain and France cowed into abandoning her — the most vital bastion of their strategic defense. Once that happened, it would no longer be possible for them to defend Poland, and the alliance keeping Germany on defense would unravel, leaving all of Europe at Hitler’s mercy.
And so it happened. Just weeks after the Anschluss, the Sudeten crisis began, and in September of that year the leaders of Britain and France traveled to Munich to offer Czechoslovakia up to Hitler for free.
Absolute monarchies had many weaknesses; they tended, among other things, to cause lots of unnecessary conflicts. World War I likely would never have happened if the monarch who ruled Germany had not been quite so reckless.
But under proper management, monarchies could also prevent unnecessary conflict — by properly managing the balance of power, as European governments had done for nearly 100 years before World War I. Liberated from the vicissitudes of public opinion, and able to conduct foreign policy according to reasons of state, absolute monarchies could prevent dangerous situations from deteriorating into catastrophes. That’s not an argument in favor of absolute monarchies; the point, rather, is to illustrate a dangerous vulnerability of the democratic system of government.
In the 1930s, Britain and France were parliamentary democracies. That made the vicissitudes of public opinion an overwhelming determinant of government policy, chiefly by severely restricting the range of options available to the government.
For example, a government in Paris or London that decided to threaten war in order to prevent the Anschluss would face major hurdles. The people had grown more pacifist than ever. They were still picking up the pieces of the last war and had no stomach for another. And, as free people, accustomed to self-determination and self-governance, they might wonder why Germans and Austrians should be denied the right to unify when that was what they wanted to do.
The reason Britain and France had to deny them that right was necessity — the basis for the right of self-defense in virtually every legal system known to man. But Western leaders had bought into the foolish attempt to make all wars illegal, and had therefore failed to gain acceptance of any principles that could justify a forcible prevention of the Anschluss. So the democracies of Europe were led to World War II like docile sheep to the slaughter.
The only way for leaders to overcome this democratic vulnerability is to gain public support for the principles that will guide their actions as they seek to maintain the balance of power. It is vital to convince people that aggression does not always come in the form of an “imminent threat,” and that sometimes the threat of war is necessary to maintain the peace. That effort is vital not just for domestic politics but also for foreign policy. Hence the importance of international law, an enormously valuable strategic asset that in the modern era has been hijacked by proponents (both witting and unwitting) of world government.
Perhaps the most brilliant achievement of Hitler’s career was that in just a few years, he managed to disarm Europe’s democracies without firing a shot. Before the Anschluss of March 1938, Germany couldn’t afford to go to war with anyone. A year later, the German high command was putting the final touches on its plan for the invasion of Poland — and the conquest of Europe.
The United Nations was invented, supposedly, to prevent anything like that from happening again. But the U.N. Charter doesn’t facilitate “the prevention and removal of threats to the peace” as it proclaims — on the contrary. Had the charter existed during the 1930s, it would only have shielded Hitler’s various moves toward war, much as it is now shielding Iran’s nuclear program.
Henry Kissinger has made a career of trying to square this circle: How can democracies institutionalize a rational balance-of-power foreign policy? The question remains as unanswered — and as urgent — as it was in 1938.
— Mario Loyola is former counsel for foreign and defense policy to the U.S. Senate Republican Policy Committee.