WWII. Everyone knows it happened and who caused it. Everyone knows about Pearl Harbor, “Never forget”, but what really started the war? WWII way well underway by the time the United States entered the fight, yet people neglect to learn of the course of events that led the world into its second global war. Yes, Hitler’s conquest began with his invasion of Poland, but his intentions had been clear for years previous. Why, then, one might ask, was nothing done to stop him? To kill the weed before it grew? If it was evident that Germany’s Fuhrer had cruel intentions, why weren’t armies raised to counter him?
The answer is that not everyone, most importantly not the man who had the power to, believed armies were necessary to stop Hitler. Neville Chamberlain, the Prime Minister of Great Britain at the time, saw Hitler as a greedy young boy, who wanted more than his own share of the pie. He decided that if he gave the boy a bit of that desired piece of pie, he would have his fill and be satisfied, and so he gave Czechoslovakia to Hitler in hopes of peace. But human nature leads us to be ever unsatisfied with what we are given.
For a while the boy is content, but soon, he wants more, so in the night, he sneaks to the kitchen, and takes what he wishes to be his. In this case, the process of appeasement failed, and where it was supposed to prevent war, it simply delayed it. This, in retrospect, this failure to negotiate peace, created more than one turning point in history. While the practice of peacemaking through the fulfillment of a set of demands, formally known as appeasement, is often a condemned policy throughout history, it is relevant even in today’s world.
Hitler’s 1939 invasion of Poland marked not just the dawn of war, but too, the dusk of appeasement. It had not done the job that was needed be done, and war broke out despite Britain’s concession to Germany’s demands. In the 40 years following, appeasement was used successfully on multiple occasions, but never had a voice not called to “remember the lessons of Munich”, when peaceful measures were used where a powerful response was critical. Second of two turning points is the result of the failure to appease Germany and prevent war.
With the first bomb to explode upon Polish soil that early September morn, 1939, came the beginning of the world’s deadliest and most extensive war, as still viewed today. Together, this single act of appeasement proves to become the source of two turning points, not for the better, or as a first, but rather, a turning point towards one of the world’s darkest and most despairing eras in history, World War II. In many ways, the road to WWII began where WWI ended. The Treaty of Versailles was signed in 1918, written by the Allies to formally end WWI, while placing blame of the war solely on Germany.
In the months leading to the signing of the Treaty, Germany had believed it would receive a lenient peace settlement, because they had signed armistice at the end of the war. When they were presented the terms of the treaty, however, what they were given was quite contrary. The conditions of the settlement were considered harsh, even to those who wrote it. The German army was reduced to 100,000 men, and not allowed to possess tanks, submarine, battleship or aircraft. Germany’s territory was diminished by 13 percent, while all German colonies were placed under British rule.
While these actions were taken to prevent another war, the monetary reparations that came next were astonishing. France demanded that Germany pay for the damage and death caused by the war, a total of $31. 4 billion ($442 billion in 2012) that would be paid until 1983. The economic results of the stunting of Germany’s economy affected the countries that imposed the compensation as much as Germany herself. As a crucial part in European trade, Germany’s weakened economy and increased inflation poorly affected many countries that previously thrived off trade with the Fatherland.
These restrictions outraged the German population, and the Treaty was signed reluctantly. The 10 quiet years of peace following the signing of the Treaty of Versailles presented many German attempts to revise the Treaty, and an early policy of Anglo-German appeasement was used to ease Germany into its new diminished military position in Europe. In hindsight, it would lead Hitler to abuse the lenient treatment he was given. As the world settled into the Great Depression, the German democracy, imposed by the League of Nations after WWI, collapsed.
For three years, from 1930 to 1933, Germany had no real political structure other than the rule of the undemocratic president Paul von Hindenburg, whose political affiliations with the extreme right-wing paved the road that led to the appointment of Nazi Party leader Adolf Hitler in January 1933. It may be noted, however, that even before Hitler’s rise to Chancellor, signs of German resistance to the circumstances of the Treaty were evident through the refusal to pay its reparation payments in 1931, then later its secret rearmament program in 1932. German rearmament increased rapidly after his appointment to chancellor.
In 1925, Hitler had written the autobiography Mein Kamph that outlined his political goals for Germany. Even in this time of relative peace he called for a breach in the Treaty of Versailles, beckoning that in order to restore the Fatherland to its former size, and to even acquire more, it was necessary that the German army needed to reestablished. While Hitler secretly built his armies, he called for equality in European affairs. He appealed to the British government through kind speeches, and he effectively created guilt in the British psyche for the harsh punishment that Versailles imposed.
His reason for this was written in the autobiography Mein Kamph, where he exposed his aspirations for an Anglo-German alliance in which Britain simply allowed Germany to slowly gain control of greater Europe, including Czechoslovakia, Austria, Poland, and possibly parts of Soviet Russia. Though these desires were simply that, they provided the Chancellor with a plan for future expansion. One critical accomplishment toward this idea of British indifference was reached in 1935 with the Anglo-German agreement that allowed Germany to create a navy equal to 35% the size of the British Royal Navy.
The years leading to the 1938 Munich Conference are marked by an alarming lack of concern in regard to the swiftly expanding German militia. 1n 1936 Hitler stations German army troops in the Rhineland Demiliterized Zone, which under the Versailles and Locarno Treaties, is forbidden. Little action was taken, and Hitler’s expected move into the Rhineland was met only with unanimity. While France was uncertain of its security, a small minority of British became unsure of the future threats that Germany and its extreme right policies held. Hitler’s intentions became clear by the summer of 1938, just months before the Munich Conference was called.
As Hitler’s call to invade and “crush” Czechoslovakia is heard by the British authority, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain becomes increasingly concerned by the threat of war. At this point Hitler was calling for the “freedom” of Germans residing in Czechoslovakia, known as Sudetens, As the crisis grew, a war scare spread across Europe leading Britain and France to take an active interest in the situation as both nations were eager to avoid a war for which they were not prepared. In an attempt to calm the situation, Chamberlain sent a telegram to Hitler requesting a meeting with the goal of finding a peaceful solution.
Traveling to Berchtesgaden on September 15, Chamberlain met with the German leader. It is from these meetings in September and October that appeasement will acquire its bad reputation, through Chamberlain’s desire for a solution. This eagerness allows him to be outplayed by Hitler on many levels. At Berchtesgaden, Hitler asks for the secession of the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia, and after discussion with the Czechoslovaks, who had no other option, Chamberlain grants to Hitler the desired portions of Czechoslovakia, where more than 80% of the population is of German heritage.
Here lies the root for the failure of the plans for appeasement. This was not enough for Hitler, who wanted to station military in the whole of the Sudetenland, as well as expel those who were not of German heritage. When Chamberlain found these terms extreme, Hitler replied that if his demands were not met, he would respond with military action. At this news, Britain and France each began their own process of rearmament in the situation that force was indeed taken.
At the sudden possibility of war, for which Germany was not completely prepared, Hitler changed his terms of agreement. He stated that rather, he would promise peace if only Sudetenland ceded from Czechoslovakia. Eager to prevent war, Chamberlain calls for a meeting of four nations: Britain, France, Italy, and Germany, to negotiate terms for the situation. The resulting Munich Agreement, effectively a document of England’s appeasement of Germany’s wishes, was signed early on September 30, 1938.
Chamberlain trusted that what he had committed to was a proper means of preventing war, and returned to England declaring that he had “…stopped the bombs from dropping on London that very night…” German forces quickly occupied the Sudetenland as thousands of Czechoslovakians fled. For England, it was a foreign policy success… for Czechoslovakia, it was a disaster. Czechoslovakian General Syrovy declared they were forced to accept ‘the most ruthless and unfair terms ever forced upon anybody in history. ’ 16 hours later the Sudetenland was occupied by over 10,000 German troops.