In books written immediately after 1945, historians blamed the French and especially the English leaders that their appeasement policy towards Nazi Germany between 1936 and 1939 caused the WW2. However, the appeasement myth is present even today, although the opinions of what led to the WW2 have changed more or less. Therefore, it is very important to shed light on the reasons that made the Western leadership implement such a controversial policy towards a dictator like Hitler.
The German Danger Made France Adopt a Defensive Foreign Policy
Since 1936, the Western Democracies perceived National Socialist Germany as a real threat to the international state system. In March 1936, Berlin had already re-militarized Rhineland which was according to the Versailles treaty the Western security guarantee. Thus, between 1919 and 1936, France would have been able to enter the German territory through the demilitarized zone, if the Reich threatened its Western or Eastern neighbours.
However, this window of opportunity was shut forever in 1936, because the French leadership was overwhelmed by the rapid movements of the Wehrmacht. Yet, Paris was military superior to the Reich:France and its allies – the USSR, Poland and Czechoslovakia-could have mobilized together 90 divisions and had another 100 divisions on stand-by. However, since then, Paris assumed a defensive foreign policy by trying not to provoke Berlin and accepting even more London’s vision on the West – Reich relations.
Thus, the French system of alliances became redundant in 1936, because Paris was geopolitically unable to aid Eastern European states in case of a German attack. Moreover, the Reich took the initiative in Continental affairs and thus, Berlin started its race towards hegemony. This way, Germany finished what the WW1 began-France was effectively eliminated as the Continental hegemon and its Great Power status was very much affected. Hitler made sure that France was no more an active element of European diplomacy. Afterwards, the Reichskanzler attempted to make the UK enter an alliance with Germany, which would offer Hitler a free hand in imposing the Nazi domination over Europe.
The UK assumes the West – Reich relations
Since France adopted a defensive policy, London took on the major responsibility for the relations between the West and Germany. However, the English leadership and especially Neville Chamberlain (most of the times accused of being the one who made the most concessions to Hitler) did not manage to understand Berlin’s continental domination or (even) war plans.
Here could be find the main difference between Germany’s and England’s perception:Chamberlain thought that Hitler had limited intentions, thus they were manageable, yet he acknowledged that National Socialist Germany was a systemic threat. Therefore, Berlin had global interests. But this meant that London had a contradictory perception of Germany’s ambitions:on one hand, it acknowledged that Hitler had global interests which menaced the British Empire, yet they could be managed. On the other hand, Berlin intended to provoke the West so as to destroy the Anglo-French connection which would have allowed Hitler an easier administration of the Continent.
UK’s Reasons to Adopt the Appeasement Policy
There was more than one reason behind London’s decision to adopt the policy of appeasing the German dictator. First of all, these grounds were domestic. The British society was still recovering from the trauma caused by the WW1 and thus, it would have never supported a rearmament law which would have given the Government the instruments for a more aggressive foreign policy. Furthermore, a 1935 referendum revealed that the British supported collective security. Also, they were of the opinion that London should sanction Italy economically for its aggression against Ethiopia.
The same reason was behind London’s decision to quickly demobilise its army and to implement the Ten Year Rule right after it won the Great War. The Ten Year Rule was the British Government’s estimation that in the following 10 years after 1919 there would be no more wars in Europe. Therefore, the British Treasury decided to reduce the armaments expenditures. In 1928, the Rule was reconfirmed, yet the British Government relinquished it after the Japanese attacked Shanghai in 1932. Nevertheless, the UK began the rearmament process in 1932 – 1933. However, this activity would take a long time before the new armaments could be used, because the UK had to create firstly a plan for rearmament and then a mobilisation infrastructure. Only after these steps were taken could the actual process of building the armaments begin. Yet, even when the rearmament began, it was concentrated on extending the navy and the number of airplanes. The infantry was more or less ignored when it was the only one which would have made a difference in a Continental conflict. This mean that neither in 1935 nor in 1938 or 1939 did Great Britain possess a large number of troops to send to France’s aid.
Thus, there was an intrinsic reticence of the British, but also structural problems which obstructed London to take on a more aggressive stance towards Berlin. Moreover, London as the centre of the Empire perceived itself to be alone in front of Nazi Germany between 1937 and 1939. That was because the Dominions and especially Canada and Australia (which were autonomous since the 1931 Statute of Westminster) were not in favour of an aggressive British policy in Europe. London had respected their wishes and in 1939, they “repaid” the UK by entering the WW2 on their side.
Therefore, the UK had to take into account not only its structural vulnerabilities such as systemic threats (in Europe, Mediterranean and in Pacific Ocean which came from Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and its former ally, Imperial Japan respectively), but also the domestic tendencies of the Dominions. The decisions in the English foreign policy were taken not only according to London, but also to the almost sovereign states of the Commonwealth. The appeasement policy towards Germany was the result of domestic weaknesses and not of an excessive fear of Berlin.
A source which toned down the English foreign policy was the attitude of the US, the Western Hemisphere’s main Great Power. Although after the Great War, Washington possessed the world’s greatest financial resources, it systematically declined to be politically involved in peacekeeping in Europe. Until Hitler’s rise to power and even afterwards, the US was Germany’s main investor, because the American leadership believed that economic welfare would lead to the averting of another war. Furthermore, the US did not want to assume Great Britain’s systemic role and Neville Chamberlain realised this when he declared that Washington would only aid London with words and nothing else. The US had similar reasons as the British not to be involved in European affairs, even though the American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt might have understood more acutely the Hitlerist menace.
Thus, Chamberlain acknowledged that he could not oppose simultaneous threats in different areas of the world. He tried not to provoke Germany which was considered by the British leadership a rational actor with limited interests. Therefore, London approved of Berlin’s Anschluss (annexation) of Austria which violated a very important clause from the Versailles Treaty and it reversed the Entente’s victory in Europe. In March 1938, the British Foreign Minister answered to the Austrian Chancellor Schuschnigg’s desperate appeals to oppose Germany that “His Majesty’s Government is incapable to guarantee protection.”
September 1938 – the Apex of the Appeasement Policy
However, London’s foreign policy of appeasement culminated in September 1938 with the Munich Conference. Here, the Anglo-French approved of Czechoslovakia’s cession of Sudetenland to Germany. Although the Westerners attempted to impose negotiation as the method of solving European security issues, paradoxically, the Conference managed only to justify Berlin’s aggression. Moreover, after 1938, Nazi Germany became more aggressive and clearly menacing to its neighbours as well as to Europe’s order.
In 1938, London immensely pressured Prague and accused it of provoking Berlin because of the Weekend Crisis– the mobilization of May, 20th– 21st. Yet, after the dismembering of Czechoslovakia in March 1939, the UK stopped blaming the states that did not submit to German demands.
March 1939 – the „Revolution” in British Foreign Policy
Moreover, London radically changed its foreign policy which was dubbed a “revolution”. This meant offering guarantees to Poland, the state which seemed to be the next target of German aggression. After French pressures, Great Britain offered the same guarantees to Greece and Romania. Chamberlain realised that England could have won the war only by entering a long time conflict, because the UK possessed many resources which had to be gradually mobilised.
Thus, between 1936 and 1939, Great Britain and France in subsidiary, implemented an appeasement policy which implied compromising in favour of National Socialist Germany. London’s ultimate goal was to satisfy Berlin which was considered a rational actor with limited interests. Although it proved to be a major error, London was coerced into accepting this policy, because of domestic and foreign conditions. The internal issues were related to the security of the Empire and the foreign ones were influenced by the policy adopted by the US and the other revanchist states. Moreover, London had a perception error of what the real Nazi objectives were.
- Duroselle, Jean-Baptiste, The History of International Relations 1919 – 1947, first volume, translated into Romanian by Anca Airinei, Ştiinţele Sociale şi Politice Publishing House, 2006
- Kershaw, Ian, Hitler:1936 – 1945 Nemesis, Published by the Penguin Group, Penguin Books, England, 2001
- Bullock, Alan, Hitler:A Study in Tyranny, Penguin Books, Middlesex, England, Great Britain, 1962
- Steiner, Zara, The Lights that Failed:European International History 1919 – 1939, Oxford University Press, UK, 2005