The Policy of Appeasement

After a relatively peaceful 1920s, the prospect of a second world war began to show itself in the 1930s. With conflict spouting from the rules of Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler, countries tried their best to avoid another costly war. Aside from a policy of non-involvement in the Spanish Civil War of 1936 to 1939, Britain and France embarked on a policy of appeasement in the 1930s. 

For example, little was done against Italy as punishment for their invasion of Abyssinia in 1935, aside from the sanctions implemented by the League, which were soon dropped due to a lack of effectiveness.

The main examples of the policy of Appeasement being used were with Adolf Hitler’s much more powerful Nazi Germany. There were a few reasons why the policy was initially supported by the British Public and those in government. One of them being that they were desparate to avoid another war, but also significantly, the fact that by the 1930s, British leaders and intellectuals largely agreed on the fact that all major powers had contributed to the First World War taking place in 1914, rather than Germany alone, as with the Guilt Clause of the Treaty of Versailles. 

As a result, the British were willing to allow Germany to reverse elements of the Treaty of Versailles as they carried out their policy of appeasement. Let's take a look at a few examples of when the policy of appeasement was implemented.

German Rearmament in violation of the Treaty of Versailles

In 1933, Hitler walked out of the World Disarmament Conference and quit the League of Nations as he faced opposition from leading countries in the League and at the Conference. He had blamed France for the failure of disarmament, claiming that he could not leave his border defenceless when France refused to compromise and react by reducing their armaments. After Hitler’s withdrawal from the World Disarmament Conference, it was clear that he aimed to rearm Germany, against the Treaty of Versailles’ terms. Germany began to openly rearm in violation of the Treaty of Versailles which restricted Germans armed forces to only 100,000 men in the army, no submarines or airplanes, and only six battleships.

The Stresa Front was an alliance between Britain, France and Italy formed in April 1935 which aimed to ensure there were no changes made to the Paris Peace Settlement, oppose Hitler’s plans for German rearmament, reaffirm the Locarno Treaties and maintain Austria’s independence. However, the Stresa Front's weaknesses were quickly exposed as preventing Hitler from rearming would mean that the members of the Stresa Front would have to launch a full-scale invasion of Germany, which none of them were prepared for.

This pact was later eroded by the Anglo-German Naval Treaty; a bilateral agreement made between Britain and Germany, without the consultation of Italy or France. In June 1935, just two short months after the Stresa Front was established, Britain and Germany signed the Anglo-German naval agreement in which Germany was allowed to increase its navy to a maximum of 1/3 of the British navy.  While this guaranteed that Britain would have a superior navy, Britain was allowing Germany to break a term of the Treaty of Versailles, which had severely limited the German navy. Britain’s opposition to German rearmament had been effectively removed and Hitler felt free to continue to increase the size of his army. He ordered the construction of new battleships and began to develop a large and efficient air force.

Remilitarisation of the Rhineland

Hitler further defied the Treaty of Versailles in March 1936 when he took a massive risk by moving German troops into the demilitarised Rhineland area of Germany, which had been demilitarised with the aim of reducing the threat of Nazi Germany from Central Europe. With the German army totally unprepared for war, he would have been forced to withdraw and he would have faced public humiliation, angered the German public and lost the support of the German army.

However, the gamble of remilitarisation was a huge success for Hitler, who had timed the action well as France was in the middle of a major financial crisis and was increasingly reliant on loans to avoid bankruptcy. 

France did not take any action as it was in the middle of a General Election and would not act without Britain's support. Anthony Eden, the British Foreign Secretary at the time, had met with the German ambassador and made his proposals. However, when Hitler refused to withdraw his troops, the British Government did nothing as the British people already felt the Treaty of Versailles was too harsh, while British politicians believed that a strong Germany would be a good defence against communism.

Due to the lack of effective action in response to Germany’s remilitarisation of the Rhineland, it has exposed major weaknesses in the relationship between Britain and France and the growing distrust between them. Hitler’s believed that both Britain and France would do nothing to prevent his further attempts to undermine the Treaty of Versailles, such as reuniting with Austria (and annexing them) and taking over Czechoslovakia (after claiming the Sudetenland).

Anschluss with Austria

On March 11, Hitler believed that Germany had nothing to fear if they united with Austria. Hitler wished to practise his policy of a united Germany with Austria, who were German speaking. Many people in Austria supported this idea as their country's economy was weak. They believed that unification with Germany would make them stronger.

In early 1938, Hitler had encouraged Austrian Nazis to stir up trouble and stage demonstrations and riots across the country. They called for unification with Germany. In a meeting with the Austrian Leader, Kurt Schuschnigg, Hitler told him that the crisis would only be resolved if he accepted the anschluss with Germany. He reluctantly agreed, however in a last-minute attempt, he called a referendum for the people to decide whether to unite with Germany. Hitler, worried that the Austrians would vote against the Anschluss, forced Schuschnigg to resign, appointing the leader of the Austrian Nazis in his place. 

In the elections, voters were watched over by German soldiers and 99.75% of Austrians voted for the unification with Germany. This meant that Austria's army, weapons, rich deposits of valuable ores and resources were added to Germany's growing Army and industry.

Hitler had been sure that Mussolini would not oppose him, as they had formed the Rome-Berlin Axis, making them allies. Hitler knew that only Britain and France would be able to oppose him, but was confident that both nations would not take any actions against Germany due to their policy of appeasement. After they failed to take action as Germany had broken yet another term of the Treaty, it had become clear that Britain and France were unlikely to react as Hitler followed his policy and reversed the Treaty of Versailles.

In response to the rearmament, Britain condemned Germany, but due to the Anti-Comintern Pact, Britain was unwilling to risk war with Germany as it could lead to Japan and Italy taking action against Britain. As they were in no position to enter a major war, Britain decided not to take decisive action. Meanwhile, France was in a state of political turmoil after its whole government resigned and were only in a position to condemn Germany’s actions.

The Sudetenland Crisis

In September 1938, Hitler was demanding the Sudetenland, which had a 50% German population of three million who claimed they were being oppressed and mistreated by the Czechs. The Sudetenland contained 70% of Czechoslovakia's heavy industry and it was a strong area of defence for the country, so losing this area would leave them defenceless against Germany.

Hitler encouraged the Germans to stir up trouble in Czechoslovakia and demand for unification with Germany. After Hitler made an anti-Czech speech in mid-September, Chamberlain feared war, a war that could be worse than the devastating First World War. He believed the British military was not ready to fight Germany and the British public wished to avoid war whatever possible.

The Czech leader, Edvard Benes, became concerned that Hitler would invade his country, so he asked Britain and France to support him if it came to war. However, they were reluctant to do so and Britain sent a politician to Czechoslovakia to recommend that certain parts be given to Germany.

British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, met with Hitler, declaring that the Czech government had agreed to give him certain parts of the Sudetenland. Hitler was unhappy with this settlement and demanded the whole of the Sudetenland. As Chamberlain refused, war seemed likely, so people in Britain began constructing air raid shelters.

The Munich Agreement

Mussolini helped to arrange a meeting, which became known as the Munich Agreement, between Britain (PM Chamberlain), France (PM Daladier) and Germany (FHR Hitler) in September 1938 where they agreed that Hitler be given the entire Sudetenland.

As Chamberlain returned to Britain, he was saluted as a hero as he was able to prevent war. German soldiers seized the Sudetenland on October 1st 1938 with no shots fired, with the Czech leader resigning.

The Failure of the Policy of Appeasement

After Hitler took the rest of Czechoslovakia on March 15, 1939, there was no denying that the policy of appeasement had failed. 

It is clear that the British government already knew that in 1938, but decided to keep it up in order to buy themselves time to prepare for war. In 1938, the government had begun to build new warships and increase its armaments after British military leaders warned that a War was looming, and without a year or two to prepare, they would have no chance at defeating Germany.