Re-reading William Manchester's "Alone"
In popular memory there was no interval between the end of the British policy of Appeasement towards Hitler and the new resolution ushered in by Winston Churchill. But in fact there was a phase known as the Phoney War during which Britain was technically at war with Nazi Germany without engaging in major operations against it. The Phoney War spanned the period from September 1939 to May 1940 -- the Fall of France -- and marked a time when though Appeasement had died its ghost had not yet been laid to rest. In addition to the natural fear of incurring mass casualties by confronting the Wehrmacht, some in Britain like Lord Halifax and perhaps Chamberlain himself, still Prime Minister, hoped that Hitler would not attempt the Maginot Line and turn his energies East.
Although today it is fashionable to think of Appeasement as the political embodiment of cowardice it was coldly calculated to bring the Dictators into conflict and -- so Chamberlain hoped -- into annihilating each other. By selling out Austria in the Anchluss, the Czechs in the Sudetendland and nearly betraying Poland over the Danzig corridor Chamberlain was tempting Hitler ever further east into what he hoped would be an eventual clash with the other monster, Joseph Stalin. He did not reckon that evil, while coarse, is surpassingly cunning. The announcement of the Molotov-Ribbentrop nonagression pact on August 23, 1939, just a week before Poland was finally invaded by both Hitler and Stalin, made plain to Chamberlain that he had been outwitted. If Britain intended to drive Hitler East, Stalin had instead turned Hitler West. Nothing remained to Chamberlain and Britain's enervated armed forces but to gather up the tatters of their strategy and huddle behind the army of France. Having staked everything on diplomatically containing Hitler while neglecting Britain's defense -- not provoking Hitler was a deemed essential for diplomacy to succeed -- Chamberlain had no Plan B. He had wagered all and lost. Churchill assumed the Prime Ministership the day Hitler raced his armies across France. Every catastrophe he had warned against had come to pass. And he was finally handed the reins in haste by the very men who had taken Britain to the edge of precipice, its armies trapped on the continent, its allies smashed, its air force outnumbered; desperate and alone.
It is an old and familiar story which bears repeating because it illustrates how far leaders can be trapped by webs of their own making. Like the politicians of the 1930s the leaders of the West after September 11 each made their own calculation. In America's case it took the shape of thinking that it could make common cause with the most enlightened elements of Islamic civilization against fundamentalist extremists who were vying for Islam's soul. The strategy for achieving this goal, though reviled as simplistic, was anything but: America would not pick a fight with Islam itself. Rather it would make itself Islam's friend, ally with its most moderate elements, overthrow its worst oppressors and enlist the aid of the Muslim everyman against the Osama Bin Ladens of the world. In practice it would build a web of relationships with intelligence services, soldiers, intellectuals and politicians in Islamic countries who would provide the information and in cases the manpower to hunt down fundamentalist villains. The War on Terror would be to wars what Smart Bombs were to bombs. It would destroy the miscreants while leaving the surrounding structure untouched. It may be that Europe's calculation was more cynical. But it was equally sophisticated. It would pursue a policy of Appeasement which like Chamberlain's was calculated to drive one nuisance against another, pitting America against Islamic fundamentalism in the hopes that one would wear the other out. And the key to Europe's establishing its bona fides with Islamic countries was to make nice at every opportunity; avoid giving offense; be lavish with aid; open to immigration and obstructive to America at every turn. Like the appeasers of the 1930s it paid for its diplomatic strategy by systematically weakening itself.
The crisis over the Danish cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed has ironically struck the weakest point of both strategies. At present the crisis is not a danger to the grand strategies of either. But as the days pass the danger grows that it may get out of hand; that some Islamic cell may detonate a bomb in Europe or some skinhead burn a mosque. And then the consequences may incalculable. For America an open antipathy between the West and Islam would destroy its carefully crafted attempt to ally itself with the Muslim street. It would place Washington in the intolerable position of having to choose between its old European allies and its newfound friends in the Middle East and Central Asia. For Europe the consequences would be no less disastrous because in following the policy of Appeasement its leaders have risked falling so far behind their publics that they now find themselves unable to steer the course of popular events. Europe is angry and Chirac, like Chamberlain after the Sudeten crisis, is too far behind the curve of popular opinion to seize its leadership. Chamberlain understood it and brought Churchill into his cabinet to bolster his credentials when he himself had none.
The Dutch blog Zacht Ei shows how far things have come in the space of a few days.
In a move which is both courageous and stupid, Dutch blogger 'Reet' (a Dutch colloquialism for 'ass') of the blog 'Retecool' (a Dutch colloquialism for, er, "really" cool) has started a Photoshop contest in which participants create parodies of Mohammed. The contest can be viewed here (a mirror can be found here).
A contest to humiliate Mohammed has been launched not in Texas, not in Israel but in the Netherlands. The Netherlands. Almost inconceivable. A smoldering match in a continent riddled with unassimilated Muslim enclaves. Now the European leaders who staked their careers on political correctness and oleagenous kowtowing to radical Islam find themselves unable to assert themselves. It's a moment when Nicolas Sarkozy or Hirsi Ali may count for more in dampening the anti-Mohammed wave than Chirac or Dominique de Villepin. The key challenge for the leaders of Europe is how to get out in front of their publics; hard because they are so far behind.
Yet the cartoon crisis has been cruelest to radical Islam because it has upset the timetable for the slow demographic conquest of Europe. It forced the crisis before the time was ripe to win an outright trial of strength. And it has deranged the carefully crafted plan to hold Europe politically neutral while the Islamists concentrated their force on their most dangerous enemy, the United States. Unless the Islamists can reverse or at least pause the process of confrontation it will find itself engaged on two fronts, against Europe and the United States simultaneously.
Like all historical comparisons this one is inexact. The world of the late 1930s can never be compared to the opening decade of the 21st century. Nazism is not Islam nor is Hitler Osama Bin Laden. But I think some valid correspondences still remain between the Phoney War and the period between September 11 to the present. Both are marked by an attempt to maintain a disintegrating status quo long after it became imperative to exchange it for a new model of relationships. Both are marked by miscalculation as political leaders find themselves struggling to overtake the tide of events. Both mark the end of the last boundaries between the familiar and the dark, unknown future. What did Churchill feel, one wonders, in those desperate days when he did not know the end yet went on?
‘I wonder what sort of a tale we’ve fallen into?’ said Sam. ‘I wonder,’ said Frodo.
‘But I don’t know. And that’s the way of a real tale… The people in it don’t know…’
‘The old stories! Why, to think of it, we’re in the same tale still! It’s going on. Don’t the great tales never end?’
‘No, they never end as tales,’ said Frodo. ‘But the people in them come, and go when their part’s ended.’
‘You and I, Sam, are still stuck in the worst places of the story,
and it is all too likely that some will say at this point: “Shut the book now, dad; we don’t want to read any more.”’