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Appeasement and War: Europe 1919-1939

After World War I, France, Britain and the US had the option of continuing the military alliance with which they defeated Germany militarily. France and Britain maintained their alliance but the US chose to disengage.

In the US and Britain, anti-war sentiments had grown. There were those who saw military alliances as having been one of the causes of the war. And many Americans wanted "normalcy." They wanted no more involvement with Europe's conflicts.

Opinion in Britain swung to support for peace through what by the mid-1920s was called the "spirit of Locarno," which involved good will rather than the threat of military retaliation implicit in a military treaty.

The spirit of Locarno included Germany joining the League of Nations in 1926 and the withdrawal of Allied troops occupying Germany's Rhineland. The Nobel Peace Prize was given to negotiators of the Locarno Treaty, to Britain's Austen Chamberlain in 1925 and jointly to Aristide Briand of France and Germany's Gustav Stresemann in 1926.

Germany had solved its 1923 inflation crisis. In the mid-1920s it had a new currency pegged to the US dollar. Germany was making regular reparations payments to France, helping France and Britain pay off loans to the US. And American financiers were pouring money into investments in Germany, helping economic growth there. Gold was flowing to the US. But unforeseen was an economic bubble in the US. Enthusiasm for making money in stocks was outpacing economic realities Americans were buying stocks on borrowed money, and the bubble burst in October 1929. The Great Depression followed. Germany was hit the hardest as US investors pulled out of Germany. The Great Depression changed Germany's politics, and the prospect for peace dependent on goodwill and the "spirit of Locarno" was in jeopardy.

Left-of-center Germans, from the Social Democrats to the Communists were split. There would be no Popular Front coalition government in Germany, as there would be in France. Germany's right-wing president, the old World War I Field Marshall von Hindenburg hated socialists of all kinds. He noted the growing strength of Hitler's political party in parliament (the Reichstag), from 12 seats to 107 in the last election — compared to 143 for the Social Democratic Party. And in January 1933 Hindenburg appointed Adolf Hitler to lead a coalition government.

Like Hindenburg, Hitler believed that the German army had been stabbed in the back. He wanted Germany and its military to be great again. He wanted to undo the Paris Peace Treaty signed at Versailles. He thought Germans were the most capable and deserving people. He wanted German lands taken by the peace treaty returned to Germany, and in his book, My Struggle (Mein Kampf) published in the mid-1920s, he argued that the Germans needed territory in the East to fulfill Germany's "historic destiny" and properly nurture the German people.

When Hitler came to power, the British became more concerned about the likelihood of war, a war that they didn't want. That year in Britain the question of fighting "for king and country' was debated. At Oxford University the pacifists won that debate 750 to 138. Similar debates at the London School of Economics resulted in a pacifist resolution that was supported unanimously. Aberystwyth University in Wales voted 186 to 99 for pacifism. Manchester University voted for pacifism 371 to 196. And students in Canada and New Zealand voted with the Oxford pacifists. Hitler was watching, and, contemptuous of pacifism, he was encouraged. Winston Churchill was outraged — while pacifists viewed him as a warmonger.

The peace movement was growing. A peace enthusiast from California sent to London a book sixteen feet wide which he wished to have driven around Europe on a flatbed truck, hoping that the book would be filled with declarations for peace from every prominent man and woman in Europe.

Gandhi was popular among those opposed to war. Gandhi had to counter exaggerations about his passivism, stating that his "non-violence does not admit of running away from danger and leaving dear ones unprotected." But he did proclaim in 1935 that "Non-violence is an active force of the highest order. It is soul force or the power of Godhead within us." In Europe, some saw Gandhi was seen as a pacifist ally. Many in Europe and the United States could not fathom the idea of preventing war by a willingness to go to war. It defied their sense of logic in a context of thought that didn't include scaring off would-be aggressors.

Meanwhile, in November 1934 the Soviet Union had joined the League of Nations. Stalin's regime was denouncing fascism, and, on 16 May 1935, it claimed that if France fulfilled its defensive treaty obligations with Czechoslovakia it too would support Czechoslovakia. Hitler denounced the French and the Soviet Union and spoke of the absurdity of war and of the "follies" of the past. Wars of revenge, he said, were out of date. "A deliberate maker of war may have been a patriot in the old days," he declared, "but today such a person would be a traitor." "We are not imperialist," he added, and he held to his position that the German people wanted only "equal rights for all" and its honor restored. But there were many who didn't trust him.

In October that year, Italy invaded Abyssinia — Mussoloni's attempt at the glory of empire. Italy was joining its former World War I allies in the so-called “Scramble for Africa.” It was a blow to the "spirit of Locarno" illusion. A debate about sanctions against Italy followed, and the League of Nations voted for only light sanctions, leaving Italy with the oil that it needed for its war effort. (In Britain were those opposed to the sanctions because they might lead to war.) League of Nations was exposed as impotent, and Italy was on its way to conquering all of Ethiopia, with Hitler giving Germany's support to Mussolini, the two dictators becoming friends. The Soviet Union was hostile toward Italy's imperialism, while Mussolini's popularity in Italy surged.

In March 1936, Hitler defied both the Versailles and the Locarno treaties by moving troops into the Germany's Rhineland, which had been demilitarized for the sake of security for France. Hitler claimed as an excuse the French-Soviet alliance, saying it was a threat to Germany. Churchill in the House of Commons complained that Britain was confronting dictators "without weapons or military force" and that the spirit of British people was being tamed and cowed "with peace films, anti-recruiting propaganda and resistance to defense measures."

France was divided in its political passions, and parliamentary elections in 1936 made an anti-fascist government possible — the Popular Front (Communists and "moderate" socialists) — headed by the first Jewish premier, Léon Blum. Blum's plans to establish effective state controls over private industry and finance aroused hostility among French business leaders, and it was at this time that sections of France's political rightwing adopted the slogan, "Better Hitler than Blum, and "better Hitler than Stalin."

The Soviet Union suggested a League of Nations conference to prepare a deterrence against further aggression by Hitler. Great Britain rejected the idea. There was in Britain's government distrust and dislike for the Soviet regime. Britain's prime minister since May 1937, Neville Chamberlain (Austen's half-brother), announced that he would not agree to any mutual pledge against aggression with the Soviet Union and that he would not make any commitment to the Soviet Union's allies: Czechoslovakia or France. But he announced that British armament must be accelerated.

Mussolini was giving Hitler his approval to Germany absorbing Austria (the Anschluss) and making a greater Germany. And, on 11 March 1938, German troops crossed into Austria without resistance — another defiance of the Versailles Treaty. On the 14th, Léon Blum reassured the government of Czechoslovakia that France would honor its treaty obligations to aid Czechoslovakia in event of German invasion.

This was the year of the infamous Munich conference, to be known for its appeasement of Hitler. The issue was Czechoslovakia. Czechoslovakia had been created by the Versailles Treaty — a country consisting of Czechs, Slovaks, Magyars, Ruthenians, Poles and Germans. Barely half the population was Czech. About one-quarter were Germans, and Germans were a majority in that part of Czechoslovakia called the Sudetenland which bordered Germany. The Sudeten Germans resented living under Czech officials and police, and they were excited by Austria having been absorbed into a greater Germany. They wanted political equality and autonomy. Hitler made a show of wanting to rescue the Sudeten Germans, and now that he was in control of Austria he had Czechoslovakia surrounded on three sides. On 30 May 1938, in Hitler told his generals (in secret I suppose) that he had decided "to smash Czechoslovakia by military action" at least by October 1. (David Reynolds, Summits: Six Meetings that Shaped the 20th Century, 2007, p 40.) The commander-in-chief of the German armies, General Ludwig Beck, was opposed and resigned. He and his replacement, General Halder thought Hitler imbalanced and they planned a coup against his rule.

Czechoslovakia's president, Eduard Beneš (pronounced Benesh), welcomed the confrontation with Hitler, hoping to demonstrate to France and Britain the need to stand up to Hitler. The Czech government ordered the mobilization of its army and called on its allies to honor their agreements.

France wished to honor its treaty to defend Czechoslovakia, but without backing from Britain it demurred. And the Soviet Union backed away from helping defend Czechoslovakia because its commitment to defend Czechoslovakia was contingent upon France living up to its agreement.

With war between Germany and Czechoslovakia appearing imminent, Mussolini responded to an appeal to mediate. According to historian David Reynolds, Hitler was shaken in his determination to go to war by anti-war sentiment demonstrated in Berlin. Reynolds writes that "Hitler pulled back and accepted a summit meeting at Munich.

Prime Minister Chamberlain abhorred the idea of another war. He wanted both military preparedness and to explore the possibility of peace. At the Munich conference he chose to abandon Czechoslovakia and give Germany the Sudetenland to Germany. The new French premier, Daladier, went along with it. He was a World War I veteran who had been traumatized by the bloodbath he had witnessed.

For the British, Chamberlain made a show of having preserved peace. "Peace in our time," he called it, as he held aloft the paper he, Hitler, Mussolini and others had signed. And he gained popularity. He told his advisor, Edward Halifax, however, that "We must hope for the best and prepare for the worst."

Daladier was distraught over having abandoned Czechoslovakia. On his return to Paris he was expecting a hostile crowd. Instead, the crowds were cheering, and he commented to his aide: "Ah, the morons."

On 1 October — the day after the signing — Hitler sent his troops on a peaceful march into the Sudetenland, Hitler deprived of the war that he had wanted against the Czechs, but triumphant. The Sudeten Germans were joyous, confirmed in a plebiscite held after a few days.

On 2 October, Hitler stepped up the harassment of Germany's Jews. The German government issued the Decree on the Confiscation of Jewish Property, regulating the transfer of assets from Jews to non-Jews in the country. On the 7th, the Fascist Grand Council of Italy approved the first Italian Racial Laws, banning interracial marriage and prohibiting Jews from enrolling in the Fascist Party or serving in the military.

Czechoslovakia was starting to break up. The Slovak People's Party unilaterally declared Slovak autonomy within Czechoslovakia. On the 11th, Czechoslovakia granted autonomy to Ruthenia, which took the name Carpathian Ukraine. And against Czechoslovakia, Hungary was making territorial demands.

On the 15th in Germany, Jews were told they could not practice law starting December. On October 16th, Churchill made his "Lights are Going Out" radio address to the United States. On the 21st, under pressure from Germany, Czechoslovakia terminated its mutual assistance pact with the Soviet Union. On the 24th, Germany told Poland's ambassador that it was time for Danzig to revert to Germany.

On November 9–10, in what became known as Kristallnacht (the Night of Broken Glass), throughout Germany, Jewish homes, hospitals, and schools were ransacked, as the attackers demolished buildings with sledgehammers. Over 1,000 synagogues were burned. Attackers pulled old men into the streets and forced them to scrub the street on their hands and knees with toothbrushes.

Many within the Nazi Party thought Kristallnacht was too much, and the international reaction was outrage and a decline of sympathy for Germany. It was a turning point in relations between Hitler's Germany and the rest of the world.

Hitler responded to complaints from Britain about Kristallnacht, declaring that Germany would not allow itself "to suffer under British governesses." Then the British embassy received a report that Hitler no longer gave any importance to friendship with Britain.

Hitler was concerned about Danzig, a city with a German majority and Polish minority that had taken from Germany by the Versailles Treaty and made a "free-city," giving Poland access to the Baltic Sea via a "Polish corridor." On November 24, 1938, he ordered his military to prepare for an occupation of Danzig. In January 1939, he told the Poles that eventually Danzig would again become a part of Germany. The Poles saw themselves as stronger and harder than the Czechs and saw themselves as standing up to Hitler.

On January 19th, Hitler demanded that Czechoslovakia quit the League of Nations, drastically reduce the size of its military and pass anti-Semitic legislation. In a speech to Germany's Reichstag Hitler warns that if "Jewish financiers" start a war, the result will be "the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe." On 19 February, Italy's Fascist Party excluded Jews from membership. The next day in Germany it was decreed that all Jews were to turn in their gold, silver and other valuables to the state without compensation.

On March 14, the Slovak Republic was established, to be recognized by Germany. And with Germany now including Austria, it was on both sides of the Czech land called Bohemia and Moravia. At Munich, Hitler had promised to respect what remained of Czechoslovakia, but after midnight on 15 March, in Berlin, he told the Czech president, Emil Hácha, that the German army was invading what was left of Czechoslovakia and if it tried to resist it would face massive destruction. Hácha fainted, but he recovered to sign a document claiming that he had "confidently placed the fate of the Czech people and country in the hands of the Führer and German Reich." The German army moved to Prague unopposed. Hitler arrived that evening. The following day, Bohemia and Moravia became a German protectorate. Czechoslovakia was no longer on the map. A so-called Czechoslovakian government led by former president d Beneš, went into exile (first to France and after 1940 to Britain).

The British and Chamberlain were displeased. Chamberlain spoke of Hitler's promises as worthless. France's Chamber of Deputies voted 321 to 264 to give Minister Daladier the power to rule by decree until November 30.

On March 31, Chamberlain pledged support Polish independence if threatened by Germany. The appeasement of Munich was no more. Public opinion in Britain had changed. The British were now preparing for war in earnest, including the public acquiring and practicing with gas masks.

Hitler had said, "Our opponents are poor creatures. I saw them at Munich." Now he was angry over Britain's guarantee to Poland, and he saw Chamberlain as bluffing. On April 3rd he issued a military directive for Operation White: the invasion of Poland. The Spanish civil war had just ended in a total victory for the fascists.

On April 6, Britain and France agreed on a mutual assistance pact with Poland, pledging to come to Poland's aid in the event of a German attack. Mussolini envied Hitler's recent annexations, and on April 7 he invaded Albania (across the Adriatic Sea from Italy). On the 11th, Hitler's fascist ally, Hungary, announced its withdrawal from the League of Nations. On April 13, Britain and France guaranteed the independence of Greece and Romania. On the 14th, France and the Soviet Union established military agreements. On the 18th, Chamberlain promised Britain's support for the Netherlands, Denmark or Switzerland if they are attacked.

A Gallup poll on May 3 finds that 84 percent of those surveyed in the US believe that their country should not become involved in a new European war. On May 22, Italy and Germany formally established their alliance, calling it their "a Pact of Steel."

The King and Queen of England have been in Canada, and on July 5 they dine in the White House with the Roosevelts. Soon the Queen will learn how to eat a hotdog. They had been talking of the bond between the United Kingdom and the United States, perhaps in response to the threat of more war.

On June 8, members of the Hitler Youth were told by their organization's leadership that the eating of ice cream cones on the street was not in conformity with the dignity of the Hitler Youth uniform.

On June 28, Winston Churchill said if he could he would advise Hitler to ...

pause and consider well before you take a plunge into the terrible unknown. Consider whether your life's work – which may even now be famous in the eyes of history – in raising Germany from frustration and defeat to a point where all the world is waiting for her actions, consider whether all this may not be irretrievably cast away."

On July 17, Chamberlain declared in the House of Commons that the British government "would not and could not" reverse its policy in the Far East concerning Japan's demands regarding China. On the 23rd, Mahatma Gandhi wrote a letter to Hitler, addressing him as "friend" and asking that he not start a war.

August was the last month before the Great War would return to Europe. Conflicts flared in Danzig between the Germans and Poles. Documents declassified in 2008 reveal that Stalin was prepared to send more that a million troops to the German border to scare off or stand up to any German aggression. Talks began in Moscow with a British delegation, but the Soviets are said to have felt more of a sense of urgency than did the British. Concerned about its security and disappointed over its attempts at an alliance with France and Britain, the Soviet Union had been exploring an alternative: better relations with Germany. On August 19, Hitler received a message from his ambassador in Moscow reporting that the Russians are prepared to negotiate and sign a non-aggression pact. The Soviet regime will be described as trying, in the words General Stoskov, to gain time to prepare for a "conflict that was clearly coming." Hitler welcomed an agreement that would allow his invasion of Poland without the Soviet Union's opposition. On the 21st, the Soviet Union informed the British and French that because Poland rejected having its army enter Polish territory a military pact with them was not possible. On the 23rd the German foreign minister was in Moscow photographed shaking hands with Stalin. And on the 24th their pact was signed.

The Hitler-Stalin was a big surprise for the world. Some Communist Party members outside of the Soviet Union had seen themselves as fighting fascism and quit the Party. Others accepted the pact as a move of importance by the Soviet Union as a champion of peace. The US Communist Party members added their tiny voice to others supporting neutrality and against an American involvement in Europe's wars. The Daily Worker editorialized that the people of the world wanted peace, and it described atrocities by Germany's National Socialists as no worse than British atrocities in India.

In late August, Britain tried again to mediate their conflict with Germany, without abandoning the Poles. It didn't work. Germany invaded Poland on 1 September. At 11:15 a.m. on the 3rd, Chamberlian announced on the radio that Britain and Germany were at war. Germany. By 6 p.m. France also was officially at war with Germany. A war more horrendous that the Great War that began in August 1914 had begun in Europe.

Copyright © 2016 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.