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The policy of appeasement, which both Britain and France took toward Nazi Germany and it’s expansionist aims during the late 1930s, is one of the most controversial and criticised foreign policies in history. Appeasement policy has been given short shrift by historians and the public alike since the 1930s, with the general consensus being that if Britain and France would have taken a harder line against the Nazi’s then Hitler’s aggressive policy could have been checked. However, the view of appeasement has not been totally one sided. Many revisionist historians have arrived at the view that appeasement was necessary for both Britain and France as a way of buying time for rearmament so that they would militarily be able to oppose Nazi Germany. This essay will closely look at that viewpoint to correctly assess whether that was one of the chief aims of appeasement.
Firstly it is apt to actually define what appeasement actually was. Appeasement was the policy of satisfying Hitler’s demands by making certain concessions in order to avoid conflict. But was this policy motivated by ideology, the actual view that it was the morally right and just policy to follow, or was it, as the question prompts, merely a front to buy more time? To rightly answer that question one must look at the environment in which appeasement developed and actually took place.
For both Britain and France the First World War had devastating effects upon them. The idea of war up until the Great War was one that it was a noble gesture to die for one’s country. The massive human cost of the war changed everybody’s perception about conflict, Britain (and it’s dominions) lost approximately 900,000 men during the war. France suffered to an even greater extent, with approximately 5,000,000 military and civilian casualties as well as vast damage to French agricultural land and industry.1 Therefore after the First World War public and political opinion was staunchly against the use of force to settle disputes, and a new form of international diplomacy, of solving problems through negotiation was thought to be the best strategy. It is from this view that British and French appeasement sprung in the middle of the 1930s. This is important when regarding the question. When the British and French were first trying to appease Hitler, they actually believed that by giving Nazi Germany these concessions on paper, they were averting conflict.
The theme of appeasement being an ideological policy can be easily shown in two of the earliest uses of the policy: the Anglo-German Naval pact of 1935 and the remilitarization of the Rhineland. Obviously the former was a use of appeasement solely by the British, but it is important in relation to the question. This pact’s importance is due to the fact that it represented the open abandonment of the Treaty of Versailles. The British knew that the Nazi’s wished to create a naval fleet, by stepping in and agreeing a pact with them, they then would at least know what the size of the German’s fleet would be, limiting it to 35% of the tonnage of the Royal Navy.
This was the first real act of British appeasement as Carr points out “here were the roots of the appeasement policy associated with Neville Chamberlain.”2 However this action of the British, is clearly representative of why they followed the line of appeasement. The British were keen to keep a balance of power in Europe, and due to the vast extent of her overseas commitments to the colonies they didn’t want to become too embroiled in European matters. Britain thought that their Empire was far more important than Europe, so that is a vital factor when relating to appeasement of Nazi Germany.
Similarly the reoccupation of the Rhineland by Germany military forces in March of 1936 can be seen as the beginning of French appeasement towards the Nazis. When the Germans entered the demilitarised zone on the 7 March there was no response from the French military, even though they would have been quite within their right, under the terms of the Versailles Treaty to enter Germany and expel the troops back to the position stated in the Versailles Treaty. The French did not act because they were militarily too weak, indeed at this time they had a larger standing army than Germany, the main reasons were due to public opinion and incorrect information on the invading force.
The incoming Germans numbered approximately 60,000, yet the Army General Staff reported to the French government that in addition to that figure there were further 235,000 paramilitaries.3 Public opinion was also against intervention, as Bell states; “the almost unanimous view of the press on 8 March and the following days was to renounce the idea of war, or action of any kind.”4 France was politically fragile at this time, with temporary government being lead by a widely renowned weak leader, Albert Sarraut. Any action taken would deem to be unpopular, especially as 1936 was an election year in France. This sets the scene for future French appeasement. The reaction of Britain to Hitler’s remilitarisation of the Rhineland was indifference, and further highlights Britain’s disinterest at this time in European matters, and as with the French the public and the press showed little interest in conflict with Germany over what was seen as ‘their own back garden’.
The remilitarisation of the Rhineland has been pointed out as being the key moment in European relations in the 1930s. Geoff Layton states that it was “the decisive turning point in European International Relations”5 in that it provided Hitler with a first real triumph of his Foreign Policy and it showed to him that Britain and France would not oppose Germany by force. The Rhineland also demonstrated to the British and the French that the policy of appeasement could work, that solutions could be found without aggression, and paved the way for future appeasement strategies.
Undoubtedly the great moment for appeasement came with the Sudeten crisis of 1938. At this time, anti-war feeling was incredibly strong in both Britain and France at this time, in public opinion polls in both Britain and France at this time the public backed the policy of appeasement: 43% in Britain opposed assistance to Czechoslovakia, and 53% of French people polled approved of the Munich agreement.6 This is strong evidence to show that, in public opinion at least, appeasement was a viable policy to pursue. However, despite this public opinion, politicians in both Britain and France were acutely aware of how powerful Nazi Germany had become, and after Chamberlain’s declaration of ‘peace in our time’, rearmament was stepped up in both Britain and France.
But this view of rearmament can now be looked at with the hindsight of actually knowing what the military capabilities of Britain France and Nazi Germany actually were during the 1930s. Both Britain and France took a highly pessimistic view of German rearmament, and despite intelligence reports, believed that Germany was way ahead of them. Prime evidence produced by Bell to support the theory of appeasement buying time was that “By September 1939 the mobilised strength of the French army was 84 divisions…this army had been in the process of being re-equipped since 1936.”7 However despite this rearmament, Bell points out, that militarily thinking, France was far behind the Germans. Most of the French forces were geared towards defence, and that they were lumbered with a “defensive mentality.”
8 As stated above despite the French rearmament the French politicians and military high command believed they were behind Germans. The French believed that the Germans had 130 divisions ready for mobilisation when in fact there was only 103, the French also over estimated the strength of the Luftwaffe, although as Bell states “the figures were too high, and contributed to the process were the French contrived to frighten themselves about German air strength.”9 So, with respect to the French position, sufficient evidence can be produced to show that appeasement was used by the French to buy time to sufficiently rearm.
The British position, however, is different from that of the French. The French were correct in assuming that their direct enemy was Germany, and as stated earlier, at the start of the 1930s Britain was more concern with the defence of the Empire, and that any attempts at aligning the theory that appeasement was used to buy time must be seen with that in context. However the crises of 1938 and 1939 brought the threat of European war closer to the British.
The British had the foresight to see that air power would be the key to the next war, this was shown as early as December 1937 when paper by Thomas Inskipp which was accepted as policy by the Cabinet stated “British strategic objects would have the following priority: 1) the protection of the home country against air attack; 2) the safety of trade routes; 3) defence of British territory overseas; and 4) co-operation in the defence of territory of any allies we might have in war.”10 This presents the shift in policy of defence for Britain, and it also shows how low down in importance allies in Europe actually were to the British. The fear of German attack was foremost in the minds of the British politicians, and because of which the RAF was virtually given unlimited funds with which build up the air force, again this was further backed up by over estimates of the Luftwaffes strength.
In conclusion, it would have to be said that the question of appeasement just being simply a policy with which to buy time is wrong. Appeasement started off with the clear aim to avoid conflict and preserve peace in Europe. It was only after Munich in 1938 that it also became a tool with which to buy time with which to build up military strength. However with that view in mind, it can also be said that appeasement was a failure. The time it bought for France wasn’t enough, hence Germany’s easy victory over her neighbour in 1940. Yet the opposite could be said for Britain, appeasement allowed the RAF to build up it’s strength, with which it was able to defeat the Germans in the Battle of Britain. The time appeasement bought for the British aided it’s survival, as the champion of appeasement Neville Chamberlain said in a letter to his sister in 1939: “they [the Germans] could not make nearly such a mess of us now as they could have done, while we could make much more of a mess of them.”11
Matthew Young, Appeasement’s cause: A passion for peace or an obsession with indifference?, From the Internet Book Western Civilisation (1997), http://www.omnibusol.com/westernciv.html
William Carr, A History of Germany 1815 – 1990, (Edward Arnold, London, 1990)
P.M.H. Bell, The Origins of the Second World War in Europe, (Longman, Edinburgh
Geoff Layton, Germany: The Third Reich, 1933-45, (Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1992)
Public Opinion Quarterly, March 1940, quoted in The Lost Peace: International relations in Europe 1918-1939, Anthony Adamthwaite (ed.), (Edward Arnold, London, 1980)
P.J Dennis, Decisions by Default: peacetime conscription and British Defence, 1919-1939, (London, 1972)
John Charmley, Chamberlain and the Lost Peace, (London, 1989), p. 159.
1 Matthew Young, Appeasement’s cause: A passion for peace or an obsession with indifference?, From the Internet Book Western Civilisation (1997), http://www.omnibusol.com/westernciv.html
2 William Carr, A History of Germany 1815 – 1990, (Edward Arnold, London, 1990), p 343.
3 P.M.H. Bell, The Origins of the Second World War in Europe, (Longman, Edinburgh, 1986), p.191.
4 Bell, The Origins of the Second World War in Europe, p. 235.
5 Geoff Layton, Germany: The Third Reich, 1933-45, (Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1992), p. 122.
6 Public Opinion Quarterly, March 1940, quoted in The Lost Peace: International relations in Europe 1918-1939, Anthony Adamthwaite (ed.), (Edward Arnold, London, 1980), pp. 215 – 217.
7 Bell, The Origins of the Second World War in Europe, p. 185.
8 Bell, The Origins of the Second World War in Europe, p. 186.
9 Bell, The Origins of the Second World War in Europe, p. 192.
10 P.J Dennis, Decisions by Default: peacetime conscription and British Defence, 1919-1939, (London, 1972), p. 134 – 135.
11 John Charmley, Chamberlain and the Lost Peace, (London, 1989), p. 159.
HST242 Assignment 1 Stephen Wilson