5.2 Appeasement?

World War II

By 1938, Hitler felt that Germany was prepared enough that it could sustain a limited war; by 1939 he felt confident that the German war machine was ready for a full-scale effort to seize the space he imagined for the new Reich. In a sense, this period consisted of Hitler “playing chicken” with the rest of Europe: he would launch a dangerous and provocative initiative, then see if the rest of Europe (meaning primarily France and Britain) would respond with the threat of force or instead back down.

During the Interwar period, especially after the start of the Great Depression, the British began to believe that Germany had been treated too harshly by the Treaty of Versailles and were willing to make concessions to allow Germany to address the growing threat of hyperinflation. The French, who had the largest army on the continent, refused to fight another offensive war. Instead, they were only willing to defend their own borders. These perspectives, both remnants of the Great War, shape appeasement. The entire point of the policy of appeasement was to prevent another world war. Watch the following film clips about appeasement and consider how these policies directly and indirectly lead to World War II.

The political leadership of France and Great Britain did back down, repeatedly, until the invasion of Poland in September of 1939 finally proved to the world beyond a doubt that Hitler could not be stopped without war. This is the period remembered as “appeasement.” The term refers to the policy adopted by the French and British governments in giving Hitler what he wanted in hopes that he would not do it again. Pieces of foreign territory, political unions with closely related German territories, and the growth of German military power were seen by desperate British and French politicians as things that Germans might have legitimate grievances about, and thus they played along with the idea that Germany, and more to the point Hitler, might be appeased once those issues were addressed.

It was a popular critique long after the war to vilify the French and British leadership for being willing to concede so much to Hitler when a strong militarized response might have cut the rug out from under the Nazi war machine before it was ready for its full-scale assault. Arguably, one should not be too quick to write off appeasement. World War I had been so awful that it was very difficult for most Europeans, even most Germans, to believe that Hitler could actually want to plunge Europe back into another world war. It is certain that the French and British wanted to avoid full-scale war at any cost; their civilian populations were totally opposed to war and, especially in France, their governments were unstable and unpopular as it was. Thus, British and French political leaders did not think of their concessions to Hitler as caving in: they thought of them as preserving peace.

In March of 1938, Germany annexed Austria. Despite the German pseudo-invasion being poorly organized, most Austrians welcomed the German tanks that rolled into Austrian cities, and there was practically no resistance. Germans were at first apprehensive that this blatant violation of both the Versailles Treaty and the sovereignty of another nation would result in war, but instead it became a public relations boost for Hitler and the Nazis when there was no foreign response. In one fell swoop, Nazi laws and policies (most notably the entire edifice of anti-Semitic legislation) were imported to Austria, and there was a looting spree as Catholic Austrians attacked their Jewish countrymen.

In September of 1938, the threat of German intervention in the Sudetenland, a region of northwestern Czechoslovakia with a significant German minority, prompted an international crisis. The British and French governments hastily convened a conference in Munich to stave off war, and there, instead of defending Czech sovereignty (which the Czechs were demanding), the French and British agreed that Germany should annex the Sudetenland to “protect” its German population. Then, in early 1939, German troops simply occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia. The Czech lands were divided between Germany and a newly-created protectorate, while Slovakia became a puppet.


“Chamberlin in Munich.” The Dark Charisma of Adolf Hitler: Part 2. 2012. Films on Demand. 1:29.

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"Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler." September 24, 1938.
“Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler.” September 24, 1938. German Federal Archives. Wikimedia. November 6, 2019.

Even as Germany was expanding its territories against a backdrop of international vacillation, it was forming political alliances. In May of 1939 Italy and Germany pledged alliance with one another, more or less a formality given their long-standing fascist kinship. More importantly, in August of 1939 Germany and the USSR signed a mutual non-aggression pact. This pact was absolutely crucial for the Nazis, as they could not envisage a successful war against Western and Northern Europe unless the major eastern threat, the USSR, was neutralized. Whereas Hitler had absolutely no intention of honoring the pact in the long term, the Soviet Premier Josef Stalin did, believing both that Germany was not strong enough to threaten Soviet territory and that the future war (which he accepted as inevitable) would be a squabble among the capitalist nations that did not involve his own resolutely communist state.

To sweeten the deal for the Soviets, the pact secretly included provisions to divide Poland between Germany and the USSR in the immediate future.


“Dismantling Poland.” Eastern Europe: 1900-1939. 1991. Films on Demand. 4:47.


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PPSC HIS 1320: Western Civilization: 1650-Present by Wayne Artis, Sarah Clay, and Kim Fujikawa is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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