Moviegoers are experiencing a heavy dose of history by watching the recently released film, “Valkyrie,” starring Tom Cruise. A more poignant and important film (perhaps entitled “The Beck Gambit”) would have been one that focused not on the dramatic events of July 1944, but on the potential titanic possibilities in fall, 1938. This is even more important as a new administration takes office while international relations are not on the front burner for most Americans. If the message of “Valkyrie” is about the nobility of self sacrifice, even in defeat, the message of “The Beck Gambit” would be about the price paid for the moral cowardice of appeasement.
While much has been written about appeasement increasing Hitler’s appetite for conquest, little is discussed about the true price of appeasement as a cause for the continuance of the Nazi regime, genocide and destruction.
By May, 1938 a group of Germans within the Army, Foreign Office and intelligence services had come to the decision that Hitler and the Nazi regime must be overthrown. This part of the German resistance was not the dissenters, protestors, student activists, or religious figures that often had great qualms against violence. This group, which we can call the “sword resistance,” was primarily made up of Christian conservative nationalists who differentiated between treason against the government, which they knew they were committing, versus treason against Germany and the German people; the loyalty they had to Germany justified treason against the Nazis. In an amazing memorandum, Chief of the General Staff, General Ludwig Beck, wrote in 1938, “Your military duty to obey [orders] ends where your knowledge, your conscience and your responsibility forbids the execution of an order.”We might remember that the American revolutionaries made parallel arguments in the Declaration of Independence. There is a higher duty to God and righteousness than any manmade construct. These men, motivated by honor, duty, and obligation, created a plan to dismantle the Nazi regime by using the German army to take over the country and neutralize the SS.
This anti-Nazi opposition made numerous attempts to inform the British and French governments of their plans, asking only that they take a strong stance with Hitler over the issue of Czechoslovakia. The success of the coup was based entirely on the threat of war that the officers thought would come from the West. This would prove that Hitler had overplayed his hand, plunging Germany into a foreign-policy disaster. Hitler had assumed the West’s surrender and their profound weakness caused by a psychology of victimization, fear, and an inward focus on their own economies. This had all been paved by a drumbeat of bloodless victories by Hitler starting with the withdrawal from the League of Nations in 1933 (akin to withdrawal or ignoring of U.N. or other international agreements today), the unilateral rejection of the disarmament in 1935 (similar to the research, development or sale of WMD today), the remilitarization of the Rhineland in 1936 (likened to spending on military modernization when other aspects of your country are in poverty), and the annexation of Austria in 1938.
We have witnessed the same pathway for the West regarding Iraq in the late 1980s, Al Qaeda throughout the 1990s and Iran and North Korea today. Hitler, like modern-day tyrants, played both the belligerent and the peacemaker when it served his interests. Similar to the 1930s, today’s leaders in the West question their own systems, values and civilization. The prospect of war was a greater horror than the prospect of evil or the protection of innocent lives. The arguments about saving lives in the short run ended up costing the lives of millions in the long run. It was perhaps, one of the most colossal failures in all of human history.
The debate of whether or not the British and the French governments believed that the opposition could pull it off is irrelevant to the systemic policy of appeasement that was conducted. The Western acceptance of the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia ensured the abject failure of the one attempt that had the greatest amount of success to rid the world of Hitler and Nazism. Had the allies stood up to Hitler, the resistance would have removed him from power. The result of this is beyond calculation, but it is not without credibility to suggest that there would have been no Second World War, no Holocaust and no Soviet enslavement of Eastern Europe.
As we usher in a new chapter for American foreign policy, the new policy makers should take a long hard look at the consequences for weakness.
Dr. Lamont Colucci, a former diplomat with the State Department, is assistant professor of politics and government at Ripon College.