Summary: Diplomacy by Kissinger – Chapter 12 – The End of Illusion

Diplomacy by Henry Kissinger. Book cover detail.

In 1994, Henry Kissinger published the book Diplomacy. He was a renowned scholar and diplomat who served as the United States National Security Advisor and Secretary of State. His book provides an extensive sweep of the history of foreign affairs and the art of diplomacy, with a particular focus on the 20th century and the Western World. Kissinger, known for his alignment with the realist school of international relations, inquires into the concepts of the balance of power, raison d’État, and Realpolitik across different eras.

His work has been widely praised for its scope and intricate detail. Yet, it has also faced criticism for its focus on individuals over structural forces, and for presenting a reductive view of history. Also, critics have also pointed out that the book focuses excessively on Kissinger’s individual role in events, potentially overstating his impact. In any case, his ideas are worthy of consideration.

This article presents a summary of Kissinger’s ideas in the twelfth chapter of his book, called “The End of Illusion: Hitler and the Destruction of Versailles”.

You can find all available summaries of this book, or you can read the summary from the previous chapter of the book, by clicking these links.

The rise of Hitler to power represents a significant tragedy in global history, fundamentally altering the course of the 20th century. Hitler, a charismatic orator with a unique blend of extreme ideas, managed to rise from obscurity to lead Germany. His ability to exploit political and psychological vulnerabilities was unmatched, allowing him to gain and consolidate power through intimidation and manipulation. His leadership style was impulsive and erratic, marked by a disdain for structured governance, which led to a chaotic approach to policymaking. Hitler’s reliance on his demagogic talent and instinct rather than strategic planning or intellectual rigor was evident throughout his rule.

Hitler’s foreign policy successes in the early years of his reign were predicated on the appeasement and misjudgments of other nations, who initially underestimated his ambitions. However, once he shifted from seeking to rectify perceived injustices to outright aggression, his strategic miscalculations became apparent. Hitler’s personal experiences and beliefs, especially those formed during World War I, deeply influenced his actions and decisions. He viewed Germany’s defeat not as a military failure but as a betrayal, which fueled his desire for revenge and domination, driving the country into further conflict.

Despite achieving significant early victories, Hitler’s leadership was characterized by a lack of fulfillment and an obsession with his own legacy, often disregarding strategic rationality. His egomania and inability to engage in meaningful dialogue isolated him further, as he was convinced of his unparalleled significance and the urgency of realizing his vision within his lifetime. This mindset led to reckless decisions, including the initiation of major conflicts based on his personal health conjectures rather than strategic necessity.

The initial underestimation of Hitler by both German and international leaders facilitated his rise. The Western democracies’ responses, particularly their continued commitment to disarmament despite Hitler’s clear intentions for rearmament and expansion, exemplified a failure to grasp the threat he posed. This complacency and the inability to act decisively allowed Hitler to pursue his aggressive policies with little initial resistance, highlighting a broader failure to confront and contain the growing menace before it was too late.

Ultimately, Hitler’s tenure was a catastrophic period that could have evolved differently had the global community recognized and countered his ambitions more effectively. His leadership not only led to immense suffering and destruction but also demonstrated the dangers of underestimating demagogic leaders and the importance of international cooperation and decisive action in the face of aggression.

The early years of Hitler’s reign were marked by efforts to consolidate his power, with his aggressive foreign policy and anti-communism earning him a cautious tolerance from British and French leaders. This period illustrates the challenge statesmen face: the need to act decisively often arises before they have a clear understanding of the threat, leading to inaction until it’s too late. The enormous cost of underestimating Hitler’s ambitions was paid in the devastation of World War II. There’s speculation that had the democracies confronted Hitler earlier, historical debates might focus on whether his threats were misunderstood rather than acknowledging his pursuit of global domination.

The focus on Hitler’s motives by Western powers was a critical mistake. The principles of balance of power suggest that the real issue was Germany’s growing strength relative to its neighbors, not Hitler’s intentions. Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda chief, highlighted how the democracies missed opportunities to suppress the Nazi movement early on. Winston Churchill was one of the lone voices advocating for rearmament in response to Germany, but his warnings were dismissed across the British political spectrum, highlighting a widespread denial of the strategic danger posed by Hitler.

France’s response to the threat was to form defensive alliances with Eastern European countries and a political alliance with the Soviet Union without military cooperation. These moves were ineffective in forming a credible deterrent against Germany. Britain and France’s approach to Germany’s rearmament and aggressive policies, including the British-German Naval Treaty, demonstrated a preference for appeasement and bilateral agreements over collective security measures.

The failure of the Stresa Front, formed to oppose German violations of the Versailles Treaty, and the subsequent British naval agreement with Germany, marked a clear shift towards appeasement. Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia further strained the fragile collective security system, revealing the limitations and contradictions of the League of Nations’ approach to aggression and international law. This series of missteps and miscalculations by the European powers set the stage for the outbreak of World War II, highlighting the dangers of underestimating aggressive dictators and the importance of a unified and timely response to threats to international peace and security.

France and Great Britain faced a critical choice regarding their approach to Italy’s aggression in Abyssinia (Ethiopia) and the growing threat of Germany. They could either align with Italy to counter Germany’s ambitions or fully commit to the League of Nations’ principles by enforcing sanctions against aggressors. However, they chose a middle path, attempting to impose sanctions while also trying to avoid war, which led to ineffective measures against Italy. This indecision highlighted the democracies’ lack of resolve in dealing with authoritarian regimes.

The Hoare-Laval Plan was an attempt to find a diplomatic solution to the Abyssinian crisis by dividing the country, but it collapsed due to public outcry when the plan was leaked. This failure underscored the limitations of attempting to appease aggressive nations while maintaining public support for collective security measures. The League of Nations’ inability to enforce meaningful sanctions against Italy for its invasion of Abyssinia demonstrated the weaknesses in the international system designed to prevent such conflicts.

Italy’s successful conquest of Abyssinia, followed by the recognition of this conquest by Great Britain and France, marked a significant failure of collective security and emboldened other aggressive states. Mussolini’s subsequent drift towards alignment with Hitler’s Germany was motivated by a combination of opportunism and fear, further destabilizing the European balance of power.

Germany’s reoccupation of the Rhineland in 1936 was a strategic move that exploited the weaknesses and indecision of the Western democracies. Hitler’s gamble paid off, as neither France nor Great Britain was willing to enforce the demilitarization stipulations of the Versailles Treaty and the Locarno Pact. This action effectively removed the last checks on Germany’s territorial ambitions in Europe, underscoring the failure of the democratic powers to confront the growing threat of Nazi Germany effectively.

France’s hesitancy to challenge Germany’s actions, particularly regarding the Rhineland’s reoccupation, reflected its deep-seated reliance on Great Britain for security. Despite warnings of Germany’s intentions, France refrained from military preparations, fearing accusations of provocation and uncertain of British support. The Maginot Line, intended as a formidable defense, symbolized France’s commitment to a passive strategy, revealing a lack of foresight and a misunderstanding of modern warfare’s dynamics. This defensive posture was further complicated by intelligence assessments that exaggerated Germany’s military capabilities, leading to an overcautious approach to the Rhineland situation.

The reluctance of Great Britain to confront Germany directly further complicated matters. British policy, focused on disarmament and appeasement, sought to avoid conflict at all costs, even at the expense of compromising the principles of collective security established by the League of Nations. The British government’s response to the Rhineland occupation highlighted its unwillingness to uphold its commitments under the Locarno Treaties, prioritizing the avoidance of war over maintaining the balance of power in Europe.

The aftermath of Hitler’s Rhineland gambit saw the deterioration of the strategic situation for France and Great Britain. The appeasement policy, now fully embraced, led to further concessions to Germany, with the British leadership even willing to negotiate the relinquishment of established rights in the Rhineland. The opposition in Britain echoed this sentiment, advocating for a revision of the Versailles Treaty rather than defending the status quo.

The Spanish Civil War presented another test of resolve for France and Great Britain, with both countries choosing non-intervention as fascist forces, supported by Germany and Italy, fought to overthrow the Spanish Republic. This decision reflected a broader unwillingness to confront fascist aggression and further weakened the position of the democracies in Europe.

A pivotal meeting between French and British leaders in 1937 underscored the shift towards appeasement, with discussions focused on finding loopholes to avoid supporting Czechoslovakia against potential German aggression. The talks marked a turning point, effectively sealing Czechoslovakia’s fate by signaling that France and Great Britain would not stand in the way of German expansionism in Eastern Europe. This meeting laid the groundwork for the policy of appeasement that would culminate in the Munich Agreement, by which the Western democracies sacrificed Czechoslovakia in a vain attempt to appease Hitler and avoid war.

In 1937, Hitler openly shared his long-term strategic goals with his military and foreign policy leaders, revealing plans that extended well beyond reversing the outcomes of World War I. He envisioned the conquest of vast territories in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, acknowledging that such ambitions would inevitably clash with England and France. Hitler stressed the urgency of initiating war before 1943, given the temporary advantage Germany held in rearmament. Despite the enormity of Hitler’s plans, his military leadership, disturbed by the scope and timing, did not challenge his directives, partly due to a lack of moral justification and partly because Hitler’s rapid successes seemed to validate his approach.

The Western democracies, still hopeful for peace, failed to recognize the fundamental differences in ideology and intent between themselves and Hitler, who believed in the necessity of war for strength and despised the idea of lasting peace. In 1938, Hitler targeted Austria, exploiting ambiguities and the principle of self-determination to execute the Anschluss without significant resistance from Austria or meaningful opposition from the democracies. This event further emboldened Hitler and exposed the inadequacies of collective security and the democracies’ commitment to appeasement.

Czechoslovakia, with its complex ethnic composition and strategic importance, was next in Hitler’s sights. Despite its democratic governance, strong military, and alliances with France and the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia found itself vulnerable to Hitler’s demands for the Sudetenland. Britain, prioritizing appeasement, and France, unwilling to act without British support, essentially left Czechoslovakia to fend for itself. The Munich Agreement, facilitated by Britain and France’s willingness to dismember Czechoslovakia in the name of peace, resulted in the betrayal and disintegration of a democratic ally, underlining the failure of appeasement as a policy.

The Munich Agreement has since become synonymous with the futility of appeasement and the dangers of yielding to aggression. It was not an isolated incident but the culmination of a series of concessions to Germany that began in the 1920s, each eroding the Versailles Treaty’s restrictions and emboldening Hitler. Munich represented a significant moral and strategic failure for the Western democracies, marking a turning point that led inexorably to World War II, as it demonstrated their unwillingness to confront aggression and uphold the principles of collective security and international law.

The acknowledgment by the victors of World War I that the Versailles Treaty was unjust began to undermine the very foundation it was built upon. Unlike the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, where a clear commitment to uphold the peace was established, the post-World War I era saw the victors dismantle their own treaty through attempts at appeasement and disarmament, fueled by a desire to establish a new world order based on higher moral principles rather than balance of power. This shift led to a situation where, when faced with aggression from Germany, the democracies had little option but to attempt appeasement to demonstrate to their populations that war with Hitler could not be avoided through conciliation alone.

The Munich Agreement was celebrated widely at the time, seen as a victory for peace, with leaders like Franklin Roosevelt and the prime ministers of Canada and Australia praising Chamberlain’s efforts. However, Hitler was dissatisfied with the outcome, having been deprived of the war he sought to further his ambitions. This marked a psychological endpoint for Hitler’s strategy of exploiting the democracies’ guilt over Versailles. From Munich onward, his only recourse was to brute force, as the limits of appeasement had been reached, particularly in Great Britain where Chamberlain initiated a significant rearmament program following Munich.

Chamberlain’s reputation suffered a dramatic reversal as it became clear that Munich had not secured peace. The initial acclaim turned into blame for surrendering to Hitler’s demands. Yet, the actions taken by Chamberlain and other leaders of the time were rooted in an earnest attempt to avoid the horrors of another war, influenced by the prevailing hope that international relations could be governed by reason and justice rather than power politics.

Hitler’s occupation of Czechoslovakia in March 1939 demonstrated his disregard for rational geopolitical strategy and signaled his intent for European domination. This move prompted Great Britain and France to finally draw a line, despite the occupation not altering the balance of power significantly. It was Hitler’s violation of the moral principles underlying British foreign policy—especially the principle of self-determination—that led to a shift in British public opinion and policy.

The occupation of Czechoslovakia underscored the failure of appeasement and the necessity of confronting Hitler, setting the stage for World War II. The Wilsonian idealism that had allowed Hitler to advance further than would have been possible under traditional European diplomacy ultimately contributed to a firmer stance against him once he unmistakably violated its moral standards. The claim to Danzig and the Polish Corridor in 1939 was met with unwavering opposition from Great Britain, a shift from pliability to intransigence, driven by a moral imperative rather than strategic calculations. The international system’s final pre-war shock came from Stalin’s Soviet Union, another revisionist power that had been largely overlooked during the 1930s.

You can read the summary of the next chapter of the book by clicking this link.





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