German Ambassador Joachim von Ribbentrop (l) with Lord Mount Temple during a joint dinner of the Anglo-German community and the Deutsch-Englische Gesellschaft.
The isolationist United States of America has withdrawn from its overseas military commitments. A veteran Democratic president faces unrelenting hostility from across the aisle. A vicious and relentless war has erupted in Europe following an unprovoked attack on a young democracy by a conceited and insecure dictator. Meanwhile, America’s once-civilian relationship with Asia’s most powerful nation sours as the latter flexes its economic and military muscles to intimidate its neighbors and rivals. In Britain, the clumsy ally of the United States, the ruling Conservative party is debating whether to change its discredited leader, fearing that the replacement will be even less reliable than the incumbent.
Such flippant comparisons between today’s politics and the 1930s are as tempting as ever if we substitute Franklin D. Roosevelt, Adolf Hitler, Czechoslovakia, Imperial Japan, China, and Neville Chamberlain for Joe Biden, Vladimir Putin, Ukraine, China, Taiwan and Boris. Johnson, respectively. It is therefore not surprising that politicians and experts on both sides of the Atlantic have quickly achieved their goal Rise of the Nazis primers. Quickly, this term loaded with “appeasement” is widespread. In February this year, as Russian tanks massed on the Ukrainian border, British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace cut his vacation short and (to the dismay of his Ukrainian counterpart) suggested there was a “smell of Munich”, accusing Putin and his generals of “Reflecting the tyranny of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis.” In the US Congress, Senator Lindsey Graham announced it was “the 1930s again”, while House Speaker Nancy Pelosi compared Ukraine to the Sudetenland, that German-speaking slice of Czechoslovakia ceded by the Allies to Hitler in return for worthless protests. peace. Not to be outdone, President Putin ridiculously cited his own country’s (very real) sacrifices in its “Great Patriotic War” to justify calling Ukraine’s Jewish President a “Nazi.” Meanwhile, channeling his wartime predecessor with optimism, President Biden signed the Ukraine Democracy Defense Lend-Lease Act of 2022eight decades after Roosevelt outwitted Congressional isolationists to provide vital support to European democracies in their fight against Germany.
In evoking Neville Chamberlain and his infamous scrap of paper, these contemporary politicians joined the long list of post-war politicians who weaponized appeasement and referred to the rise of the Nazis as a lighter in international diplomacy to justify military incursions from Suez and Vietnam into Iraq and Afghanistan. But more than thirty years ago, at the dawn of the Internet age, an American lawyer and author, Mike Godwin, devised “Godwin’s Law”. Simply put, this posits that the longer a debate on any topic (especially on the internet) is sustained, the sooner the chances of a participant referencing Hitler or the Nazis will reach certainty. As a corollary, he argued that any reference to the Third Reich ends the discussion.
It is therefore with caution that a historian of the 1930s must dip his toe into modern geopolitics. My recently published book, Coffee with Hitler: The Untold Story of the Amateur Spies Who Tried to Civilize the Nazistakes a new approach, moving away from the heated debate over appeasement to explore the concept of civilize dictatorial regimes and their leaders rather than soothing their. Although a respectable diplomatic strategy before 1938, the latter is now such a polarizing term that it risks alienating all but the most specialized readers of history. Appeasement, in the sense that one nation makes concessions to the demands of another to prevent an escalation of hostilities, is essentially reactive and passive. The civilizing mission of the protagonists of my book – to charm, cultivate and connect with the new regime – was on the contrary proactive and dynamic.
By retracing Europe’s descent into war from a new angle, Coffee with Hitler challenges conventional interpretations and popular tropes around Britain’s relationship with the Nazis – “Munich, Mosley and the Mitfords” – to tell the startling and harrowing story, for the first time, of a handful of amateur British intelligence operatives who drank, dined and befriended the National Socialist leaders of the interwar period. With the support of royalty, aristocracy, politicians and businessmen, they hoped to use the much mythologized Anglo-German community as a vehicle to civilize the Nazis. A Welsh pacifist historian, a Great War flying ace and a butterfly-collecting businessman offered the British government better insight into the horrific rise of the Nazis than anyone.
It is clear that civilization and appeasement strategies failed then – just as they seem to be failing now. But Coffee with Hitler raises the question of whether, if we had civilized the Nazis better, the Second World War could have been avoided or shortened. He concludes that a diplomatic strategy that requires charming people you may not like and trust may serve you better than standing isolated on high moral ground. Trade, commerce and finance between countries should facilitate cooperation and discourage conflict. Communication with allies is essential. Dictators and other political villains – like small children – respond best to firm boundaries and constant discipline. Dehumanizing the enemy is rarely helpful. And despite his reputation as a warmonger, Winston Churchill agreed, acknowledging that “meeting jaw to jaw is better than war”, and echoing his distant cousin John Adams, second President of the United States, who reminded us that ” great is the guilt of a useless war.
Over the past two decades, the United States and its European allies have made intermittent and clumsy attempts to civilize both President Putin and the Chinese leadership. As recently as 2015, the British honored President Xi Jinping with a full state visit to the UK – carriage processions, marching bands, a banquet hosted by Her Majesty The Queen and a 41-gun salute. In 2003, President Putin was the first Russian head of state in 130 years to be greeted in the same way. After several visits during the Bush era, Putin met President Obama in New York in 2015 but, although dragged on, his invitation to the White House promised by President Trump never materialized.
So, could we have learned from the 30s and done a better job? With Russia, it seems too late unless domestic politics destabilize Putin (as it nearly did with Hitler). Despite the financial sanctions, the imbalance between Germany’s dependence on Russian gas and Putin’s citizens’ willingness to do without Golden Arks and iPhones indicates that economic appeasement has failed. But the scale of mutual trade with China is a bigger factor and so all does not seem lost yet. While Nancy Pelosi’s recent visit to Taiwan has undoubtedly strained China-US relations, President Xi is scheduled to visit Southeast Asian countries in November, his first international trip in nearly three years, and meets Biden for their first in-person meeting. since the inauguration of the American leader.
The echoes of the 1930s in today’s feverish international diplomatic chaos are therefore hard to ignore. And with three nuclear states now at loggerheads, we must learn the lessons of history to avoid another unnecessary war.