Appeasement was the foreign policy of the British and French governments, an effort to prevent war in the face of Nazi Germany’s aggressive expansion.
During the mid-to-late 1930s Hitler and Nazi Germany made aggressive territorial acquisitions which directly contravened some of the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. However, Hitler was aware that entering into another war would be the very last resort for the British and French governments, and he was confident that he could pursue aggressive territorial gains with no military repercussions.
Legacy of the First World War
One of the main reasons Britain and France to avoid war and instead resort to the appeasement policy was because the Great War was still in very recent memory of all countries involved. The Great War had devastated Europe politically and economically and led to the fall of monarchs, and a period of instability.
There had never been a war like it before with such heavy use of mechanised vehicles and the slaughter caused by weapons such as machine guns. In addition to these factors, the military forces of Britain and France were not particularly strong and neither country felt they could succeed in another war at this point.
Hitler’s Territorial Policies
In 1936, Hitler ordered the remilitarisation of the Rhineland area, which had become a demilitarised zone under the Treaty of Versailles. This policy was undertaken very cautiously and was an opportunity for Hitler to test the water; he did fear a military response from Britain and France, but it never came.
Boosted by this lack of action by the Allies, Hitler sought to make more territorial gains to fulfil the Nazi goal of Lebensraum; and in 1938 Anschluss, or unification of Germany and Austria took place. The only reaction from Britain and France to the Anschluss was verbal. Later in 1938 Hitler sought to reclaim the Sudetenland, which despite its large German population, now formed part of Czechoslovakia. The government of Czechoslovakia refused to negotiate over the territory, and Hitler threatened the country with war.
Munich Agreement 1938
The crisis with Czechoslovakia was mounting and the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain met with Hitler in Germany to rectify the problem. A conference was arranged in Munich at the end of September 1938 between Hitler, Chamberlain, Edouard Daladier (representing France), and Benito Mussolini, notably excluding Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union. At the conference it was agreed that Hitler could incorporate the Sudetenland into Nazi Germany but was not to claim any further territories, thus preventing a war.
Chamberlain returned to Britain with the Munich Agreement, and enjoyed great support among the general population for obtaining peace. Some politicians were very critical of appeasement policy, most outspoken amongst these critics were Anthony Eden and Winston Churchill.
Appeasement seemed to many to be the best option to follow in the period. Many in Britain felt that the terms of the Treaty of Versailles were overly harsh on Germany and they should reclaim at least some of the territory they lost. In addition, Britain was more willing to deal with Nazi Germany than with the Soviet Union, as Communism was widely distrusted then, entering into another war would mean having to ally with Russia again. Only in hindsight can the policy be criticised for its naivety for trusting Nazi Germany.
- Brendon, Piers. The Dark Valley: A Panorama of the 1930s. London: Pimlico, 2000.