ESSAYS ON 20TH CENTURY EUROPE

INTERWAR APPEASEMENT AS NAIVETE

Why Did Only Churchill See It?

By Jennifer Coates, Foothill College

  From the Internet Book, Western Civilization

The policy of appeasement in Britain and France in the 1930's was the expression of each country's naivete concerning foreign threat. Britain and France were bent on finding resolution to their own internal issues with foreign policies pushed into the background. I sense that international pressures catalyzed appeasement policies. In a legitimate short term way, France and Britain could not afford getting heavily involved in the various foreign problems after the bitter end of World War I. The Depression lay at the root of most of the internal problems in these countries. With very high unemployment and a continuing fear of inflation, economic and budget issues became of utmost importance in the 1930's.

For British interests, economic policy focused on maintaining a balanced budget at all times. The popular way to justify this lack of foreign policy was to say that there was virtually no foreign threat to Britain. Also, significant sympathy for Germany developed after WWI. Many thought Germany had been treated too harshly in the Treaty of Versailles and that if some of the restrictions were lifted, then Germany would be a contented and passive power.

These beliefs directly influenced Neville Chamberlain's way of dealing with Germany. Chamberlain trusted that Hitler did not have ulterior motives at Munich in 1938 - a direct indication of his naivete. Hitler was also seen as someone who was doing a good job in destroying communism and socialism in Germany. It seemed as though Churchill was the only one who saw Hitler for what he really was - a direct threat.

The Depression effected France in a different way than in Britain, but led to a similar outcome. It directly effected the balance of trade and created a deficit. In 1936 Leon Blum became Prime Minister and as a Socialist, his main concern lay in social reform - not in foreign policy. The armament industry was nationalized but remained very weak, and the budget was not balanced. The government was spending freely, in fact. In 1938 Daladier became Prime Minister of France and the foreign policy focused on non-involvement. WWI had been so devastating to France that many wanted to avoid conflict at all costs. Yet, many saw no reason why Hitler should not set his sights eastward.

Well aware of these policies in France and Britain, Hitler "tested the waters" with the Spanish Civil War and his march into the Rhineland. France dealt with the Rhineland situation in the nonmilitary fashion of negotiation. Both Britain and France stayed out of Spain and stood by watching Hitler and Mussolini arm the Fascists. When the conflicts in Austria and Czechoslovakia came along, Hitler anticipated that the two western nations would demonstrate their weakness by their "do nothing" tactics - which is basically what they did.

Since France had ties to Czechoslovakia and the British wanted to avoid a military clash, Hitler deemed it prudent to hold a conference to discuss the matter - on the advice of Mussolini, who had his own reputation in mind by suggesting this diplomatic approach. The result: the Munich conference. There, Hitler, Mussolini, Chamberlain, and Daladier met (without Czechoslovakia. Hitler somehow convinced the western powers that his sincere mission was one of unification of all German people. Hitler secured the northern portion of Czechoslovakia and only made one concession - a ten-day postponement of the complete occupation of the area. In return for agreeing to leave the West alone, Hitler was given the freedom to explore his interests in Southeastern Europe.

Chamberlain tried to justify Munich by saying that it gave France and Great Britain ample time to rearm; but Chamberlain did not care about Czechoslovakia. He wanted to keep things settled and free from conflict through close economic ties with Germany. As he believed Hitler was sincere, he most likely believed he was securing peace. Unfortunately, he was dead wrong. As far as rearmament was concerned, increasing military strength in Germany was not compensated for by France and Great Britain working to increase their own. In fact, the chasm between the strength of the military forces grew drastically.

It should have been no surprise that within a year of Munich, Hitler tried to add the rest of Czechoslovakia to his domain. Chamberlain should have listened to his own statement of buying the West time to rearm. Conflict was inevitable. Hitler's expansionist policy was crystal clear. The West tried to appease, to pacify. Yet, had Britain and France not adopted a policy of appeasement, I think Hitler still would have found a way to carry out his expansionist policy. His vision was too grand to be stifled by a couple of western nations. Hitler knew exactly what he was doing and he also knew exactly how the West would react to what he was doing. I think Britain and France and others did buy themselves valuable time to rearm. But they did not make proper use of the time - as they did not find it to be necessary for some naive odd reason.

At the risk of simplifying this issue, it seems clear to me that Hitler had motives beyond bringing the German people under one unified state. He was bitter about the outcome of WWI and it showed. Unfortunately, Chamberlain was not made for politics - as his family was well aware and he was not driven by logic. Great Britain did need to focus on its economic situation but not at the expense of national security issues - which Chamberlain apparently did not see. But Churchill saw the threat. Why was it that no one listened to him until later? This is a puzzling question to me. Probably the misplaced sympathy for Germany dictated what happened at Munich. Great Britain was naïve. France was naïve. Appeasement did make Hitler's aspirations possible, but not solely. I do not think Hitler or the war could have been prevented. He was obviously clever enough to find another avenue with which he might carry out his missions. He could have tricked someone else, like the Russians - which he ended up doing anyway!


December 1997

Western Civilization:  The Modern World