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“Moral paralysis” is a term that has been used to describe the inaction of France, England and other European democracies in the 1930s, as they watched Adolf Hitler build up the military forces he later used to attack them. It is a term that may be painfully relevant to our own times.
Back in the 1930s, the governments of the democratic countries knew what Hitler was doing — and they knew they had enough military superiority at that point to stop his military buildup in its tracks but did nothing to stop him.
Instead, they turned to what is still the magic mantra today — “negotiations.”
No leader of a democratic nation was ever more popular than British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain — wildly cheered in the House of Commons by opposition parties as well as his own — when he returned from talks in Munich in 1938, waving an agreement and declaring it meant “peace in our time.”
We know now how short that time was. Less than a year later, World War II began in Europe and spread across the planet, killing tens of millions of people and reducing many cities to rubble in Europe and Asia. Looking back after that war, Winston Churchill said, “There was never a war in all history easier to prevent by timely action.” The earlier it was done, the less it would have cost.
At one point, Hitler could have been stopped in his tracks “without the firing of a single shot,” Churchill said. That point came in 1936 — three years before World War II began — when Hitler sent troops into the Rhineland, in violation of two international treaties.
At that point, France alone was so much more powerful than Germany that the German generals had secret orders to retreat immediately at the first sign of French intervention. Hitler himself confided that the Germans would have had to retreat “with our tail between our legs,” because they did not yet have enough military force to put up even a token resistance.
Why did the French not act and spare themselves and the world the years of horror Hitler’s aggressions would bring? They had the means but not the will.
“Moral paralysis” came from many things. The death of a million French soldiers in World War I and disillusionment with the peace that followed cast a pall over a whole generation. Pacifism became vogue among the intelligentsia and spread into academe. As early as 1932, Winston Churchill said: “France, though armed to the teeth, is pacifist to the core.” It was morally paralyzed.
History may be interesting but the present and the future pose the crucial question: Is America today the France of yesterday?
It is a sign of our irresponsible Utopianism that anyone would even expect the United Nations to do anything that would make any real difference.
The history of the U.N. and of the League of Nations before it, demonstrates again and again that going to such places is a way for weak-kneed leaders of democracies to look like they are doing something when they are doing nothing.
The Iranian leaders will not stop unless they get stopped. And, like Hitler, they don’t think we have the guts to stop them.
Incidentally, Hitler made some of the best antiwar statements of the 1930s. He knew that this was what the Western democracies wanted to hear — and that it would keep them morally paralyzed while he continued building up his military machine to attack them.
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