British Appeasement Essay, Research Paper
TITLE: Why did the British government follow a policy of appeasement in the 1930s?
After World War I Germany limped back, licking its wounds that the Treaty of Versailles had so mercilessly rubbed in salt. As one looks back on the events leading up to World War II it has to be asked whether France and England helped to start World War II by their actions at Versailles. It seems that the revenge that the Allies took at the Treaty came back to haunt them with the aggression of Hitler in 1936. However, we can not blame Neville Chamberlain for something with which he had no part. Chamberlain?s actions in the years 1936 to 1939 are enough to help one appreciate the dilemma he found himself in. Chamberlain did not, in the beginning, realise exactly what Hitler was after. Hitler was after vengeance for Germany because of the Treaty of Versailles, but Chamberlain did not realise that Hitler was after domination of Europe. When confronted about Germany?s plan to attack Czechoslovakia Chamberlain responded, “I think it would be wrong to assume that the German government has any intention of doing such.” The eyes of the world were on Chamberlain?s every move, criticising, praising, and waiting. With the pressure of the world on his shoulders Chamberlain proceeded cautiously not wanting the tensions to explode. Historically, Britain had followed a foreign policy of appeasement and not getting involved with the rest of Europe. Thus in the 1920s, Britain appeased Weimar Germany with the aim of achieving justice, and paid the price of reducing reparations and treating Germany as an equal. In the 1930s Britain appeased Hitler’s Germany with the aim of security and paying the price of turning a blind eye to Germany’s ambitions. This essay shall offer analysis on Chamberlain’s personal reasons to follow appeasement, the reasons on behalf of Britain and the reasons due to the views of the British public. A description of the course of appeasement will be given, and arguments for and against Chamberlain’s use of appeasement against Hitler will be given. Thus the question as to “why did the British government follow a policy of appeasement in the 1930s” will be addressed and evidence will be given as to whether or not this policy was effective in achieving its aim.
After World War 1, Britain wanted a purged Germany to take her place among European nations once again. Many of the British ruling class preferred the Germans to the French. The British treated Hitler as a responsible statesman who would keep his bargains. He was in a responsible position and had to be treated like a head of state. They believed that if Hitler was given enough surrounding territory and some colonies there was a point at which he would become reasonable, and war would be averted.
In May 1937, Neville Chamberlain became Prime Minister. He saw Britain’s role as that of the peacemaker – the only hope if war was to be avoided in Europe, as the USA was not willing to be involved and France was no help. Britain was isolated so there was no strong ally to help her deal with Hitler. She even tried to make friendship with Mussolini in 1937. Chamberlain distrusted Stalin and Communism. Only in 1939 did he try to reach an understanding with Stalin, and many historians think that even then it was an insincere attempt on both sides. It failed anyhow as Stalin made the Nazi-Soviet Pact instead in August 1939.
Chamberlain had a deep personal horror of war. Many close relatives or friends had died in the previous world war, and it is understandable that this was one reason that he tried so hard to avert war. But he was inclined to rely on his own judgement and made some big errors. Also, Britain was not ready for war. She had spent less on arms in the 1930s due to the Depression. Chamberlain thought that the social problems should come first. Slowly coming out of the economic depression that followed World War I the British people wanted to avoid war at all costs. The wishes of the people were embodied in their leader. Chamberlain was after one thing: to keep Great Britain out of war. His reasoning in appeasing Hitler was that of sacrificing a little instead of sacrificing much through war. It could be said that Neville Chamberlain was frozen by fear. We cannot blame him for being fearful, but many of his actions were not only fearful but also eventually deadly for many people.
In February 1938, Anthony Eden the Foreign Secretary resigned. He did not agree with Chamberlain’s approach, as he wanted to rely on collective security rather than appeasement. Lord Halifax became the new Foreign Secretary. He agreed with the policy of appeasement and a personal approach to Hitler. In September 1938, Chamberlain made three visits to appease Hitler – in Berchtesgaden, in Godesberg and Munich. However, Calvocoressi and Wint in their book “Total War” argue that this policy was foolish and contributed to longer war when it did come. They say that Britain should have fought in 1938 over Czechoslovakia. Chamberlain said Britain was not ready and would have lost. But Calvocoressi and Wint say that Germany was not ready either and Czechoslovakia was the only country ready and willing to fight in 1938. She had a good armaments industry and huge fortifications and a very well equipped army. By letting Hitler take over Czechoslovakia in September 1938 and March 1939, they let him have all the Czech planes, tanks, guns etc for his own use, and the huge output of Czech factories to supplement German output – all without a fight. Calvocoressi and Wint say that this was “shameful” and “foolish”. It was shameful in that Britain let down an ally and foolish in that they made battle worse by postponing it and indeed, they nearly lost it.
It was true that France was not ready to help – but she collapsed in six weeks in 1940, and could hardly have done much worse in 1938. Also it was true that British aircraft production was behind German production and had improved by 1940. But Calvocoressi and Wint argue that if Germany had had to fight Czechoslovakia at the same time they could not have bombarded Britain from the air in 1938 in the same way as they did in the Battle of Britain in 1940.
At home, Britain faced public protest over the failure to help Czechoslovakia in March 1939. Chamberlain justified it by pointing out the disunity between Czechs and Slovaks and the possibility that Czechoslovakia would break up anyhow. Then Chamberlain made a grand diplomatic gesture in March 1939 as he gave a guarantee to Poland of military protection if Germany attacked. The British-French alliance pledged to aide Poland with all available power “…in the event of any action which clearly threatened Polish independence and which the Polish Government accordingly considered it vital to resist with their national forces.” Calvocoressi and Wint point out that this is a reversal of British Foreign Policy. For twenty years she had avoided accepting responsibility for stability in Eastern Europe, but she was now accepting it. Appeasement was backfiring, as Chamberlain was getting in deep over his head and ended up having to defend Poland, which he had never been prepared to do. Britain would need the help of the USSR – Poland’s eastern neighbour – to make the guarantee effective. So, Britain and France negotiated with Stalin throughout the summer of 1939 – four months of complicated diplomatic manoeuvres. Chamberlain wanted to present Hitler with a solid diplomatic front against him. But he really distrusted the USSR and had not much confidence in her military strength. Stalin played along as he wanted time and space. Eventually he opted for the pact with Germany as the best way of protecting his own interests. So this element of British foreign policy was gone. In fact the failure of the policy of appeasement to prevent war was shameful in that it was actually a cause of World War II.
The British government even tried to appease Hitler economically. In the words of H.N. Brailsford England tried to buy peace, if possible, without direct loss to oneself. Robert S Hudson, head of the English Board of Trade gave Hitler a billion-pound loan. Yet, a loan for defence weapons was denied to Poland who was arming to defend itself against Hitler. In an article entitled “England Shows Her Colours” it was stated, “Britain is not just being cowed by the aggressors: she consistently, in action, gives them assistance.” It seems that Chamberlain?s fear caused nearsightedness in that he acted at the moment weighing the long-term consequences of his actions.
Then on the 1st September 1939 Germany invaded Poland and on the 3rd September Britain and France declared war on Germany. The policy failed to avert war. Calvocoressi and Wint say that Britain helped to bring about the war by not acting sooner. They suggest Britain should have acted over the Rhineland in 1936. But counter argument could be made that Britain and France would have helped unite the Germans behind Hitler if they had humiliated him at that stage. It is true that we know the German troops had instructions to withdraw if France fought – but it is arguable that the conflict would have been postponed. Britain should have defended Czechoslovakia in 1938 and 1939. It would have been a quick war in 1938. There are arguments against this judgement too. We know that Hitler never intended a long war of the type that came. His preparations indicate that he expected a series of short campaigns rather than total war. Action in 1938 might have led to this – a different war rather than no war. German generals were plotting to remove Hitler in 1938. If Britain and France had faced up to Hitler, the generals might have been successful, but there was no way of proving this.
We can question the wisdom of Britain’s actions, but there is no way of saying definitely that any other course of action would certainly have been better. The League of Nations had failed to restrain Hitler – it was powerless against any of its members who really wanted to break the rules. Britain was in a somewhat similar situation. She made mistakes but also bought time in 1938-1939 which she used to rearm (the problem was that this also gave Hitler time). Basically, Britain’s leaders were deeply anxious to avoid war and so were reluctant to believe that any responsible statesman would use war to get his own way and fulfil his aims. Britain treated Hitler as a responsible statesman and perhaps that was the biggest mistake of all. As we see Chamberlain trying desperately to stay out of war we also see a man compromising values because of fear. The styles of Chamberlain as compared to Hitler is that of a weak child facing a bully. Hitler refused to back down while Chamberlain took giant steps backward giving Hitler more time. Chamberlain?s appeasement and hesitation allowed Hitler the badly needed time to better prepare himself for war. In a sense Chamberlain prolonged the war and allowed greater destruction that may have been avoided. The weight of destruction of Europe must weigh heavily on the conscience of the members of the British government because they know they may have been able to prevent some of the destruction and desolation caused by the war.
In the late 1930s, France was divided politically and was unwilling to act against Germany without Britain’s help. The USA was in splendid isolation, Italy was allied with Germany and the USSR was pursuing her own aims. Thus Britain dominated Europe’s reaction to Hitler and has been accused of pursuing a course, which led to war. Undoubtedly, Britain’s foreign policy has a part to play in the outbreak of war but there is a far wider range of issues to be considered as well. For instance, Hitler’s policies as set out in “Mein Kampf”, which included a desire to undo the Treaty of Versailles, for lebensraum and a Groβdeutschland, which ultimately resulted in the invasion of Poland and was equally as critical a factor in the outbreak of World War II. Ultimately, appeasement failed. The commencement of World War II forced the western allies to realise the flaws of the policy of appeasement. Though appeasement appeared to be the solution to all problems, it ensured a peace that would have been very costly to maintain. To a great extent, appeasement was a course that tended to ignore some hard political ideas. The question of the Rhineland occupation presented differences in diplomatic procedures, testing the durability of the French-British alliance. The western Allies emerged from the war having defeated Hitler and his army in 1945, yet somehow, the word “winner” seems inappropriate.
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