For most of us, the word "appeasement" conjures up the feckless figure of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who after his return from Munich on September 30, 1938, waved a worthless treaty and proclaimed "peace in our time" just hours after he had surrendered Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany, thus lighting the fuse of World War II. Yet it would be a mistake to think that the debacle of Munich was the fault of Chamberlain’s timidity and naïveté. A state’s temptation to appease an aggressor it is strong enough to resist has complex origins beyond the failings of any one leader.
A survey of three historical examples of democratic states confronted with illiberal regimes bent on aggression reveals that the roots of appeasement lie not just in the fear of conflict and violence natural to most humans. The weaknesses of democracies and the power of unexamined ideas also factor into an anatomy of appeasement. Understanding the complex answers to why a nation gives in to an aggressor may point us to more effective policies that avoid the fate of appeasers in the past.