11th Grade: Defending the Indefensible


This week we tried to understand why England and other nations allowed Germany under Hitler to increase its power, in repeated violations of the Versailles treaty.  Hindsight is always 20/20, and of course we know that lack of action spelled disaster for millions around the world.  But we need to avoid finger-wagging, and we need to shun the assumption that if we had only been there in the 1930’s, we would have done the right thing.  If we do not attempt to understand the past, we cannot learn from it.

We note first that the Versailles treaty that ended World War I was unpopular in England almost from the very beginning. Many perceived that it came down too hard on Germany.  As parents, perhaps you too have known the position of being too harsh at first with your kids, and then facing the dilemma of either a) Stick to an unjust course and not back down, or b) Change your initial pronouncement and back down.  Neither option satisfies, but especially if option ‘a’ would also mean hard work at keeping several countries on the same page and equally contributing, it’s easy to see why England went with option ‘b.’  They did so despite the protestations of France, who usually wanted to be harder on Germany than the British, which puts France’s 1940 collapse in a slightly different light.  Ironically, we celebrate (rightly) England’s resistance to the Nazi’s in the early 1940’s and mock France for surrendering.  But in the 1930’s, France in general wanted to be much tougher on Germany than England, but could never get English backing to prevent Germany’s rise to power.

Secondly, for a century prior to World War I England’s basic foreign policy goal meant establishing a continental balance of power.  After the Congress of Vienna in 1815, their basic theory stated that the presence of weak nations induced the stronger ones to fight over them.  Hence, a weak Germany might tempt both France and the Soviet Union towards war over German territory.

So many English statesman actually wanted a stronger Germany to balance out eastern and western Europe.  England drew upon quite recent history for this, as the Austria and Russia’s mutual interest in the Balkans (see map) plunged the world into World War I.

If we look at the map of Europe in 1933, we see British fears that central Europe could be a second Balkans, keeping in mind that the Soviet Union has seized the ‘slashed’ territory.

We also should not forget the situation in Asia in the 1930’s.  Traditionally we date the beginning of World War II in 1939, but Japan began an aggressive foreign policy in 1931 with their invasion of Manchuria.  While Japan did not directly threaten anything Britain held, they began to edge closer to their crucial outposts in Singapore and Hong Kong.  From Hong Kong, India stood just around the corner.  British policy had to take into account the possibility of enemies in the Pacific as well as the continent, and they got almost no help from the U.S. in dealing with the Japanese in the 1930’s.  One gets a sense of this if you look at the British empire ca. 1930.

Japan’s stark rise is almost as dramatic as Germany’s.  They had a rich cultural heritage but almost no natural resources with which to construct a modern military.  Japan looks like an aggressor in 1941, and in many ways they certainly were.  But we must rewind 100 years to the treaty imposed by Admiral Perry in 1858 upon them that forced open their borders.  While one can argue that forcing Japan to open up to western trade benefitted them in some ways, it was done on our terms and not theirs.

The allies made the mistake of humiliating Germany in the wake of W.W. I, and both England and the U.S. made the same mistake with Japan.  The humiliation continued in 1922 when England and the U.S. imposed upon  Japan a treaty that forced the Japanese to have a smaller navy than either England or the U.S.  Many in Japan felt that the west would only tolerate Japan remaining in an “inferior” position.  Japan could have acquiesced to this inferior status, and accepted what geography gave them, or they could try and change it.  The 1922 treaty proved that western powers were not going to let them do it in a peaceful way.  If they wanted more power, they were going to have to take the raw materials of others, which they began to try and do in 1931 by invading Manchuria.  One could argue that England was their in how to craft an empire.

The Allies were the good guys in W.W. II, but it is unfortunately a relative term, and we must be careful not to be smug about it.  In some ways we created the monsters that tried to destroy us.  The only real image of “great nations” they had in 1930’s were European ones who got there via imperialistic colonialism.  With China and Manchuria, I’m sure they thought they were doing what it took to be a “great nation.”

Finally, the economic situation needs our consideration.  Prior to World War I, Germany and England traded more with each other than anyone else.  Like other nations, the Depression hit England hard.  A stronger Germany would mean a stronger German middle class, and a stronger middle class meant better markets for English manufactured goods.  Many economists today believe, that a rising Chinese middle class will benefit our economy.  Ford, I believe, sells more cars in China than they do in the U.S., for example.   We have seen recently in our own time how “the economy” can dominate our own nation’s psyche.  I posed this dilemma to students. . .

Suppose you are a Senator whose state has a technology company that employs thousands of people, one that does  hundreds of millions of dollars in business with China.  Into your office comes someone from your state, who argues that because of human rights abuses and persecution of Christians in China, you should push for severe trade restrictions to try and get China to change their behavior.  Would you agree with her?

In class nearly every student said something like. . .

  • We cannot afford to lose business with China and put thousands of people out of work.
  • China’s human rights abuses is an internal matter for China, and while unfortunate and regrettable, we really can do little to change it.

Does this not sound similar, perhaps, to how nations reacted to Nazi persecution of Jews, ca. 1935?


Much of what I said above I found in Niall Feguson’s book The War of the World, and especially from his chapter “Defending the Indefensible.”  In fact Ferguson makes the claim that appeasement did not cause W.W. II.  Rather, a war which had already began in the Pacific led to appeasement in Europe.  Interestingly, though England tragically miscalculated in regards to Germany, they thought that Japan posed a more imminent danger than Germany was in one sense correct.  Japan’s attack of China predated Germany’s attack on Poland by a couple of years.

Neither Ferguson or I mean to exonerate England of course, but hopefully the students had a better understanding of why events transpired as they did.

Many thanks,

Dave Mathwin