Avoiding the Mistakes of World War II: Why Democracies Cannot Afford To Appease Putin Commentary
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Avoiding the Mistakes of World War II: Why Democracies Cannot Afford To Appease Putin

Editor’s note on historical context: On Sept. 30, 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain signed the Munich Agreement with Germany, France and Italy, which allowed Berlin to annex the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia. Upon his return, Chamberlain said of the agreement: “…for the second time in our history, a British Prime Minister has returned from Germany bringing peace with honor. I believe it is peace for our time.” History has shown us otherwise; the Agreement is broadly viewed as a failed attempt to appease Adolf Hitler and prevent a second world war. 

Neville Chamberlain’s “peace for our time” comment, made in 1938 after the Munich Agreement with Hitler, reflects the historical use of appeasement to avoid conflict. However, this approach ultimately failed, as it emboldened Hitler, leading to World War II.

In the present situation with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there’s a focus on not repeating the mistakes of appeasement. Democracies around the world have reacted with sanctions, condemnations, and support for Ukraine. The belief is that appeasing authoritarianism, as seen with Russia’s actions, often emboldens aggressors and can lead to further conflict… for now.

The theme remains relevant today: Appeasement in the face of tyranny is generally seen as a short-term solution that can ultimately result in more significant and protracted conflicts. Democracies should strive to take a firm stance against authoritarianism to maintain peace and stability.

In the 1938 Munich agreement, Western democracies — particularly Britain and France — sought to appease Adolf Hitler by allowing him to annex parts of Czechoslovakia. The hope was that by satisfying Hitler’s territorial ambitions, they could prevent war. The Munich Agreement failed as it didn’t deter Hitler’s expansionist agenda. Instead, it emboldened him, and within a year, World War II began.

This historical example highlights that concessions to authoritarian regimes, motivated by a desire to avoid conflict, often backfire, as aggressors see appeasement as weakness. Putin, like Hitler, is well aware of this and is betting Europe will fold.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014 (its annexation of Crimea) and the ongoing invasion of Ukraine serve as contemporary examples of aggression by an authoritarian regime. Western democracies, including the European Union and the United States, have responded with economic sanctions, diplomatic pressure, and support for Ukraine politically and militarily. They are apparently avoiding appeasement and instead showing solidarity against Russian aggression. Time will tell.

The lesson from history is that appeasement doesn’t guarantee lasting peace. Authoritarian regimes often perceive it as an opportunity to further their ambitions. The situation in Ukraine underscores the importance of democracies standing together against authoritarianism to deter aggression and maintain global stability.

Democracies today are generally guided by a commitment to international norms, human rights, and the sovereignty of nations. They view authoritarian regimes that undermine these principles as threats to the global order. Instead of appeasement, democracies advocate for diplomacy, multilateralism, and international institutions to resolve conflicts peacefully and promote cooperation among nations backed by the use of lawful force. The goal is to prevent conflicts from escalating into large-scale wars, as seen in the past.

The theme that “appeasement in the face of tyranny never works and always leads to conflict eventually” is based on historical lessons. Modern democracies should apply these lessons by taking a firm stance against authoritarian regimes like Russia, using diplomatic means, sanctions, and international cooperation to promote peace and uphold democratic values with a determined showing of military might. The hope is that through these efforts, the cycle of appeasement and subsequent conflict can be broken, leading to a more stable and peaceful world order. Other regimes are watching what the global community chooses to do about Russian aggression.

Time and distraction are Putin’s ultimate weapon. He knows Europe lacks the long-term ability to stay focused and determined to face down his aggression and hold him accountable for those aggressive acts. You can almost feel the resolve of democracies to stand firm against Russia slipping through our fingers. It happened in Syria. We can’t let it happen with Ukraine. If we do little to nothing conflict will follow. Through history, we know this to be true.

David M. Crane is the Founding Chief Prosecutor of the UN Special Court for Sierra Leone; Founder of the Global Accountability Network; leads a working group assisting the international community in setting up a Special Tribunal for Ukraine on the Crime of Aggression.

Suggested citation: David M. Crane, Peace in Our Time?, JURIST – Academic Commentary, Sept. 25, 2023, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2023/06/Russia-and-Geneva-Conventions.

This article was prepared for publication by JURIST staff. Please direct any questions or comments to them at commentary@jurist.org

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