International concern for sustained peace grew proportionally to the rise of Nazism in 1930s Germany.
After being elected Chancellor in 1933 and declaring himself Fï¿½hrer in 1934, Hitler continued to rebuild Germany by rearming in 1935 and retaking the Rhineland in 1936. It was clear to most that he was a man with ambitions for both himself and for Germany, but it was not clear exactly what he wanted. He had written his aims down eight years previous to his election, but his comments in ‘Mein Kampf’ (‘My Struggle’) were either not taken at face value or ignored.
After retaking the Rhineland in 1936 and uniting Germany with Austria to form Groï¿½deutschland in the Anschluss of 1938, Hitler began to make demands that were not so anticipated. He demanded that the mountainous Sudetenland be made part of Germany, on the grounds that the population was predominantly German. To most (Czechs excluded), this was seen as entirely reasonable and was granted at the Munich Conference of September 1938.
The conditions set were that Hitler would not invade Czechoslovakia and instead work with Chamberlain’s Britain and Daladier’s France towards international peace. Hitler also added Danzig, Czechoslovakia and Poland to his collection of ‘acquired’ countries before the rest of the world finally realised the reality of the situation in September 1939.Chamberlain argued for appeasement of this sort on several grounds. Firstly, memories of the Great War although not fresh, were still amongst the British people. There were still people alive who had lost fathers and brothers in ‘the war to end all wars’, and the country was not going to volunteer itself for another war that would probably be worse. They based this judgement on a quote from the former PM Stanley Baldwin that ‘the bomber will always get through’.
Britain had nothing to challenge the Luftwaffe in 1938, save a few Sopwith Camels and other assorted bi-planes. Now civilians in London would experience conditions more akin to troops on the front line than they had in the war of 1914-18. Secondly, there was the inevitable question of how best to strike at Germany.Our military strength was in our navy, and repeat attacks on Kiel and Wilhemshaven were not going to force a German surrender. France was engrossed in a self-fulfilling practice of defending the Maginot line, and would be of little help.
It can only be described as an historical irony that France fell quicker with great strategical defence in 1939 than it did without in 1914. Thirdly, mass rearmament over such a short time span would cripple a recovering economy. Baldwin had announced rearmament to a level capable of maintaining national security but not one whereby we could invade a country as militarily strong as Germany. There were only two ways by which sufficient rearmament could possibly be achieved. Printing money (and therefore inflation) was not a wise decision, nor was raising taxes. Chamberlain was not prepared to throw away years of economical development to pay for an unpopular war. Fourthly, Britain was still concerned with protecting her empire.The newly aggressive Italy could step in at any time to conquer any part of Britain’s one third of Africa.
In the Pacific, Japan poised dangerously near to Australia and New Zealand. Withdrawing military support from these areas would almost certainly prove disastrous. Fifthly, it wasn’t clear until Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in March 1939 quite what Hitler’s aims were. He appeared as two; one Hitler discussing fishing amiably with Chamberlain trying earnestly to restore Germany to its pre-1914 status, and a second Hitler declaring the Slavic nations as an oxygen-wasting rabble. Sixthly, any alliance with Stalin in Russia was unlikely due to Chamberlain’s intense dislike of Communism. Stalin was more murderous than Hitler, a fact overlooked by the British public favouring perversely the greater of two evils.
Added to all this, there naturally was little alternative presented by Chamberlain’s National Government to appeasement.In hindsight, though, an alternative was presented by R.A.C.
Parker, Oxbridge historian. He suggests that Chamberlain could have offered France an alliance, supported by a B.E.F.
presence on the border. In return for this, France would change their military stance from defensive to offensive. France had had cause to enter the Rhineland since 1936, when it was remilitarized.
They did not cross the Rhine for a multitude of reasons, not the least of which was the overwhelming French desire to not repeat the events of 1914-18. France was also deeply committed to the defence of the Maginot line, created at cost to the French people. In addition to turning France offensive, Chamberlain would advocate improvements in Polish-Czech relations. By encouraging their co-operation, Poland would be ready to fight and Czechoslovakia ready to defend their large natural defences.The third measure Chamberlain would make was to ally Britain with Stalin’s Russia (the USSR had joined the League of Nations in 1937). This is quite a singular suggestion, as Chamberlain’s intense dislike of Communism was well known. Perhaps the strongest argument against appeasement was that it would most likely be seen as a weakness on the part of Britain, and so only encourage Hitler.
Chamberlain’s greatest misjudgement of Hitler was that he believed Hitler was moderate. His second and almost equally grave misjudgement was that he believed Hitler could be trusted (i.e. would keep his word). Had Chamberlain ventured outside of Hitler’s sight and seen the true nature of Nazi Germany, he would surely have seen the truth. Parker’s argument relies heavily on the use of the word ‘if’, and so is just an argument.
In reality, it seems that there is little chance that it would have worked.In summary, it is interesting to understand how appeasement has been viewed by people since 1938. Up until the 1960s, Chamberlain was seen by most as a weak leader who did not stand up to Hitler as perhaps he should. With the advantage of hindsight, the great majority of popular opinion deemed the events leading up to the Second World War obvious. Naturally, we can only believe that each of Chamberlain’s critics would have made a better job of dealing with Hitler than he did.
It is fair to say that Chamberlain grossly misinterpreted Hitler and his aims, but Hitler was a genuinely ambiguous politician, who managed to fool most of his own country as to what his aims were. It would have surely been disastrous for Britain to have entered into a conflict for which it was not prepared. The population was also not going to volunteer itself either for the effects of inflation or the burden of increased taxes. Singularly, Chamberlain can be defended on the grounds that his hesitation and half-measures actually saved Britain from a war it would never have won if started in March 1939.From the 1960s, the informed judgement of Chamberlain has been more appreciative of the constraints under which he was operating. The country remembered just how much they lauded Chamberlain and his meaningless (although they were not to know this at the time) little piece of paper. If Chamberlain had entered into war at the first sign of German aggression, he would have been cast in the same light as Winston Churchill, then a warmongering political renegade.
Chamberlain was also bound by the inability to mount an effective B.E.F. representation on the continent. Britain had disarmed post-1918 (made popular by public opinion and the League of Nations) and had a small army backed up by a strong, yet overstretched navy.
The Royal Navy was responsible for the defence of the British Empire, and so was represented in part over most of the world. The policy of appeasement, as applied by Neville Chamberlain was the best policy to deal with the politically ambiguous Hitler in 1938.