Hitler’s expansionist ideologystemmed from the belief that the German race was superior to others. This ledto his ambition for territorial expansion, primarily in the east, to create anew racial empire, or Lebensraum(living space). Hitler’s aims were made clear as early as 1920 in the 25-pointprogramme of the Nazi Party, and once in power in 1933 he set about pursuinghis expansionist ideas by seeking destruction of the Treaty of Versailles’restrictions of German rearmament and territory1.This presented a direct threat to other European powers, particularly GreatBritain primarily because of her Empire. To avoid a conflict with Hitler,British PM Neville Chamberlain, along with other European politicians, adopteda policy of appeasement. Some historians have deemed it a unreasonable policyof cowardice; however, considering that public opinion was strongly anti-war, thatBritain was financially unprepared for war, and the growing belief that theTreaty of Versailles had been too harsh, appeasement can be considered areasonable political response for Britain to Hitler’s expansionist ideologies. The failure of the League ofNations led Chamberlain to adopt the policy of appeasement as a solution tointernational threats facing Britain.
After the First World War, the League ofNations was relied on to resolve disputes, in the belief that countries actingtogether could discourage aggression and, if required, act together to stopaggressors2, known as ‘collective security’. However, it was clearby the mid-1930s that this was unsuccessful, and the League of Nations hadfailed. Without its own army or committed support from powerful members, the League had proven unable to preventaggression from expansionist powers such as Italy and Japan. With no League tocollectively deal with Hitler’s aggression, Chamberlainreasonably adopted appeasement to prevent Britain unilaterally being drawn intoconflict.
In the 1930s, Britain’s economyhadn’t fully recovered from the First World War and the Great Depressionworsened the economy further; Britain had 3 million unemployed in the early1930’s.3 Additionally, after WWI significantcuts were made in expenditure to the armed forces; from £692 million in 1919-20to £115 million by 1922. Furthermore, rearmament did not resume in Britainuntil 1936. This meant that there was a lack of British home defences and few forcesimmediately available to deploy against expansionist moves by Hitler. Britishdefence staff warned the government that a European conflict with Germany mightencourage other powers, particularly Japan, to take advantage of Britain’s increasinglyunder-resourced empire2.Given Britain’s economic situation and how costly it may have been to stand up effectivelyto Hitler, the policy of appeasement was a reasonable political response toprotect Britain’s entanglement in an expensive conflict.
The horrors of the First World Warleft a widespread anti-war feeling amongst the British public, thus creating apolitical need to prevent another war. The Franchise Act of 1918 had increasedthe number of voters in Britain from 8 million to 21 million, largely due towomen (over the age of 30) being granted the vote; in 1928 female voting age waslowered to 21, expanding the electorate further still3. Thisincrease in the electorate meant that politicians were more likely to takenotice of public opinion, particularly that of women, which was strongly againstwar. Conflicts that arose in the 1930s showed the even greater potential costsof modern war; events such as the bombing of Guernica in 1937 highlighted thevulnerability of London to attack from air. However, defence spending could notbe significantly increased without compromising people’s living standards, whichwould undoubtedly have had significant political consequences includingprobable electoral defeat for the politicians that executed such a policy.
Thegeneral anti-war feeling among the British public and the government’sinability to increase military expenditure meant that in the interests ofmaintaining domestic stability and harmony the Prime Minister had little otheroption but to appease Hitler, rather than face war. Additionally, in the 1930’scommunism was seen as a much greater threat to world peace than Hitler’sexpansionist ideology and it was general opinion that it was “better Hitlerismthat Communism”4. It was widely believed that a sympathetic attitude to Hitler’s Germany could supporta united defence against communism if the Soviets decided to invade Europe. Furthermorea growing tide of opinion within the British polity held that the Treaty ofVersailles had been too harsh on Germany and needed revising, which led to furthersympathy towards Hitler and a belief that he should be accommodated. So whenHitler openly held the German Rearmament rally of 1935 no nations opposed him,and in 1936 Britain even made a naval agreement with Germany, acknowledgingthat Germany had a right to have a navy 35% that of the British. The opinionsof the British public – to avoid another costly war, Nazism being the lesserevil than communism and the Treaty of Versailles being too harsh – are evidencethat appeasement was a reasonable political response to Hitler’s expansionistideology, as Chamberlain was following the opinions of the vast majority of hiselectorate. However, appeasement was clearly aflawed policy as it caused the British Government to miss opportunities thatcould have restricted Hitler’s expansionism, and prevent a large-scale war. Akey example came with the remilitarisation of Rhineland in 1936; Hitler was notprepared to go to war over the Rhineland, and if the European powers hadconfronted Hitler, his army were under strict orders to retreat immediately.
Ascritics of appeasement such as David Low (see Source 1) implied, failure tostop Hitler in the Rhineland only emboldened him to more ambitious expansion. Beforethe Munich Conference, Hitler’s leading generals insisted that Germany was notready for a major war and combined with apparent lack of enthusiasm from theGerman public for war this seemingly contributed to Hitler’s decision to stepdown over Czechoslovakia. Despite this, in the Munich agreement Chamberlainstill appeased Hitler by allowing the Germans to occupy the Sudetenland. Appeasementwas a flawed political response in September 1938 as Chamberlain ignored theweight of evidence of Hitler’s growing expansionist actions since 1933,presenting him instead as a rational leader who would be content once heoccupied the Sudetenland. Chamberlain was greeted as a hero on his return fromMunich, for preventing imminent war (see Source 2); but the Munich Agreement tookappeasement beyond moral justification. Britain and France may have avoidedimmediate war, but by betraying Czechoslovakia and openly allowing Hitler to ignoreinternational agreements, including the Treaty of Versailles5,appeasing politicians undermined the moral code of their own democracies.
Appeasement was also not areasonable political response to Hitler’s expansionist ideology as it allowedGermany to rearm to a degree that it was competitive with other European powers,whereas in 1933, when Germany left the disarmament conference, the Germanforces were no match for the British. After 1935, Hitler reintroduced conscription,and began to pump huge sums into Germany’s armed forces, increasing militaryexpenditure from 2.7 billion marks in 1933 to 8 billion marks in 1935, andinvesting in modern and efficient weaponry.
This meant that when war broke outin 1939, it was on a much larger scale than it could have been in 1933 afterHitler’s first intransigence, for example, or even in 1936 after hisexpansionism in the Rhineland. Furthermore,appeasement lulled the western powers into continuing to disarm (though thiswas also caused by international agreements and economic pressures because ofthe Great Depression) which left them in a far weakened position by 1938. Chamberlainauthorised some rearmament in Britain in 1936, but primarily only fordeterrence; it wasn’t until March 1939, when he accepted that appeasement overCzechoslovakia had failed, that large scale rearming began. Thus appeasementleft the western powers unjustifiably weak militarily, given the clearlyapparent threat from Hitler’s Germany since the mid-1930s.
As appeasement not only ultimately failedto avoid war but allowed Hitler’s Germany to physically and militarily expandto a degree that became incredibly difficult to counter after 1939, there issome justification for the argument that it was an unreasonable politicalresponse to Hitler’s expansionist ideology. However, while appeasement in1938-9 seems particularly flawed, it did buy the western powers additional timeto prepare, so that when war eventually broke out Britain was better equippedand more united having exhausted pacifist diplomacy. Furthermore, when takinginto consideration Britain’s economy, anti-war public opinion and widespreaddisarmament after the First World War, it is clear that appeasement was areasonable political response, for much of the 1930s at least.