To fully understand the political actions of Britain and France during the 1930s, a concise definition of the term appeasement must first be provided. As a policy, appeasement is the act of negotion with a country deemed to be a threat to peace and stability, through the provision of limited concessions in which to satisfy its demands.In this case, it was Britain and France’s belief that showing leaniance to an increasingly powerful and threatening Germany under fascist leader, Adolf Hitler, would secure eventual peace and stability within Europe. The outcome, as we know from hindsight, was unsuccessful and lead to the outbreak of war in 1939, however before it can be dismissed as a failure on behalf of Germany’s rivals, futhur investigation has to be made into why it took so long for Chamberlain to abandon his policy of appeasement in the eye of the storm, and why it was carried out in the first place.The consequences and political implications in the aftermath of World War I had left Europe an unstable power vaccum. The collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire made way for smaller states with little military strength or defense borders, and Russia, with its new Communist agenda declared itself hostile. The USA, after its decisive intervention in the War, had gone into a state of isolation and Britain and France, with their previous desires of European leadership, were far from relishing in a victory which had in reality, left them socially and economically wounded.This left Germany, in its defeat, burdened with the guilt of the outcome of the war and subject to punishment in the form of the Treaty of Versailles, within which the country was faced with six million pounds worth of debt, reduction of vast areas of land such as Alsace-Lorraine and a disarmament programme which left the German Army at a seemingly unthreatening force of 96000 men.
Drawn together by what is described by historian E. Mantoux as a “turbulant collision of embarrassed damagogues” the harsh implications of the Treaty of Versailles is often criticised by historians as provoking an invitable German backlash.And backlash did come, when, in 1935 Hitler went against the disarmament programme bound to Germany by the Treaty of Versailles and introduced conscripton, drawing up a total of thirty six invantry divisions. The exsistance of a 2,500 strong Nazi military airforce, the Luftwaffe, was also made public and although both Britain and France made formal protests against these advancements, very little action was carried out, despite it being an indefinate breach of already imposed regulations.The British then, in a swift change in attitude and without any consolidation with the French, signed a naval agreement almost immediately afterwards with the Germans, permitting them to build a naval fleet thirty five percent of the size of the Royal Navy.
Britain was descrediting the plans drawn out by the League of Nations in one of many unilateral alliances going on at the time, and Hitler, tactful as ever, used the leaniance he received to push his plan of Lebansraum furthur and begin his expansionist plans into the Rhineland in 1936. Historian P. M.H Bell describes this move and its effects on the position of France as “the closing of (the) door by military occupation”, as it blocked the French entirely from its allies in Eastern Europe.
Yet again, formal protests towards Hitler’s advancements were made by Britain and France, but still no actions were carried out, despite it severely affecting their defence stretegies. Germany took it’s next step on the 11th of March 1938, when after a series of threats to the Austrian government, German troops marched into Austria to the sound of bands playing and celebration.A country once protected by a number of allies vanished under Hitler’s control in a matter of days, under the guise that Germany had a right to self-determination.
Chamberlain, quoted as saying the country’s troops were merely “marching into her own back yard” failed in intervene, despite a widespread feeling in Britain and France that Hitler’s move was unjust. A number of protests were made at Berlin by the two countries, but yet again, nothing was followed through. The neighbouring country Czechoslovakia was, as historian P.M. H Bell quotes, now in the “jaws of a German nutcracker”, and, with an already established Nazi contingent named ‘The Sudetan German Nazi Party’ seemed the next obvious step for Hitler.
Their demands for union with Germany threatened to destroy Czechoslovakia entirely, and so, on the 29th of September 1938, the Munich conference was called in which political leaders, Hitler, Mussolini, Deladier and Churchill were to discuss, and satiate Hitler’s terrotorial demands.This conference is believed to be the crowning error of judgement on behalf of the appeasement strategy within which a vast chunk of Czechoslovakia was handed over to Germany, freely, without need of military agression. By snatching up more than he was given to swallow, and then shortly moving on to Poland the following year, Hitler confirmed his aspirations lay simply not with self-determination alone but global dominance. Regardless of whether this came to Britain and France as realisation or inevitability is debatable, what isn’t debatable, is that Hitler’s next steps completely eradicated the legimacy of thier appeasement strategy.In hindsight it is easy to question the passivity of two countries who, at this point had failed to intervene with a rapidly advancing Germany; a country going against all sanctions imposed by the Treaty of Versailles and of which was becoming increasingly threatening not only militarily, but economically aswell. Hitler’s policy of autarky was thriving, employment was at an all-time high and the generous subsidies for exporters had meant that Germany was not only becoming the most self-sufficient country in Europe, but the most successful in terms of international trade.Britain’s exports, suffering from severe deflation after the collapse of the American Stock Market in late 1937, in comparison, had fallen by 10%.
Robert Hudson, Junior Minister at the Department of Overseas Trade believed “negation with Germany was the key to reviving Britain’s economy”. With that in mind, Historian S. Newton argues that the reasoning behind appeasement as a policy was infact based on industrial strategy – an attempt to wean Germany away from autarky and become more involved in the world economic system, making shares in international trade a much more equal balance.
France, in an economic situation far bleaker than its ally, inevitably would’ve supported Britain’s reasoning if this was, as Newton argues, the real reasoning behind this policy. Another factor that has to be taken into consideration when exploring the reasoning behind appeasement is the travesty of World War I and the invitable fear amongst British and French citizens for a repeat performance. 1,327,000 French and 723,000 in British military deaths were caused in its outbreak, and one in three British families had experienced the death of a loved one.
The series of alliances and the naval arms race which provoked its outbreak were seen by the two countries, who, at the time were unaware of the probablity of war on the horizon, as an unadvisable path to go down again. To add to that, it economically unfeasable; appeasement was a sensible option because land warfare on any scale was of a price neither country could afford, especially considering the USA were unwilling to offer out any more financial assistance, with the Johnson Act of 1934 stating “no loans would be given out to any government which had defaulted on previous debts”. Alongside that is the strong notion on behalf of Britain that appeasement would work, despite ignoring the blatant advocations of Hitler’s desires seen in the contents of Mein Kampf and the Hossbach Memorandum.
P. M. H Bell suggests that Britain was more committed to this policy than France and that the French were “More inclined to take polical theories more serious than the pragmatic British”.France, as a country, was in much more of a vulnerable position at the time; the French government was experiencing turbulance and their initial plans had always lied in defense strategies rather than offence, which, after the sorry defeat and numerous death count at the Occupation of the Ruhr in 1923, is understandable. This would pehaps explain why France fell to fascism during war, where Britain did not.
Despite their doubts, France was in a very difficult position and during pre-war time, a policy of appeasement would’ve been the wisest, if not their only, choice.To label appeasement as a “success” would be to ignore the obvious conclusion Britain and France were faced with when they abandoned their policy of appeasement in 1939. However it is too easy to dismiss this as an unsuccessful policy when looking these events in hindsight. Both Britain and France were in very weak economic and social positions at the time, so a repeat of World War I would just not have been feasable without time to prepare militarily, and appeasement was successful in providing them that time.
One could argue there was a genuine sense of belief that reasoning with Germany through providing it with limited concessions would provide the “peace in our time” Chamberlain so longed for. Appeasement can be labelled as a an unsuccessful policy but there are many legitimate reasons to support why it was carried out. It may not have been the success initially hoped for by Britain and France, but to blame the policy for the outbreak of war in 1939 would be to brash of a conclusion when Hitler had been craving for conflict from the very beginning.