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Hitler’s expansionist ideology
stemmed from the belief that the German race was superior to others. This led
to his ambition for territorial expansion, primarily in the east, to create a
new racial empire, or Lebensraum
(living space). Hitler’s aims were made clear as early as 1920 in the 25-point
programme of the Nazi Party, and once in power in 1933 he set about pursuing
his 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 Great
Britain primarily because of her Empire. To avoid a conflict with Hitler,
British PM Neville Chamberlain, along with other European politicians, adopted
a policy of appeasement. Some historians have deemed it a unreasonable policy
of cowardice; however, considering that public opinion was strongly anti-war, that
Britain was financially unprepared for war, and the growing belief that the
Treaty of Versailles had been too harsh, appeasement can be considered a
reasonable political response for Britain to Hitler’s expansionist ideologies.

The failure of the League of
Nations led Chamberlain to adopt the policy of appeasement as a solution to
international threats facing Britain. After the First World War, the League of
Nations was relied on to resolve disputes, in the belief that countries acting
together could discourage aggression and, if required, act together to stop
aggressors2, known as ‘collective security’. However, it was clear
by the mid-1930s that this was unsuccessful, and the League of Nations had
failed. Without its own army or committed support from powerful members, the League had proven unable to prevent
aggression from expansionist powers such as Italy and Japan. With no League to
collectively deal with Hitler’s aggression, Chamberlain
reasonably adopted appeasement to prevent Britain unilaterally being drawn into
conflict.

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In the 1930s, Britain’s economy
hadn’t fully recovered from the First World War and the Great Depression
worsened the economy further; Britain had 3 million unemployed in the early
1930’s.3 Additionally, after WWI significant
cuts were made in expenditure to the armed forces; from £692 million in 1919-20
to £115 million by 1922. Furthermore, rearmament did not resume in Britain
until 1936. This meant that there was a lack of British home defences and few forces
immediately available to deploy against expansionist moves by Hitler. British
defence staff warned the government that a European conflict with Germany might
encourage other powers, particularly Japan, to take advantage of Britain’s increasingly
under-resourced empire2.
Given Britain’s economic situation and how costly it may have been to stand up effectively
to Hitler, the policy of appeasement was a reasonable political response to
protect Britain’s entanglement in an expensive conflict.

The horrors of the First World War
left a widespread anti-war feeling amongst the British public, thus creating a
political need to prevent another war. The Franchise Act of 1918 had increased
the number of voters in Britain from 8 million to 21 million, largely due to
women (over the age of 30) being granted the vote; in 1928 female voting age was
lowered to 21, expanding the electorate further still3. This
increase in the electorate meant that politicians were more likely to take
notice of public opinion, particularly that of women, which was strongly against
war. Conflicts that arose in the 1930s showed the even greater potential costs
of modern war; events such as the bombing of Guernica in 1937 highlighted the
vulnerability of London to attack from air. However, defence spending could not
be significantly increased without compromising people’s living standards, which
would undoubtedly have had significant political consequences including
probable electoral defeat for the politicians that executed such a policy. The
general anti-war feeling among the British public and the government’s
inability to increase military expenditure meant that in the interests of
maintaining domestic stability and harmony the Prime Minister had little other
option but to appease Hitler, rather than face war.

Additionally, in the 1930’s
communism was seen as a much greater threat to world peace than Hitler’s
expansionist ideology and it was general opinion that it was “better Hitlerism
that Communism”4
. It was widely believed that a sympathetic attitude to Hitler’s Germany could support
a united defence against communism if the Soviets decided to invade Europe. Furthermore
a growing tide of opinion within the British polity held that the Treaty of
Versailles had been too harsh on Germany and needed revising, which led to further
sympathy towards Hitler and a belief that he should be accommodated. So when
Hitler openly held the German Rearmament rally of 1935 no nations opposed him,
and in 1936 Britain even made a naval agreement with Germany, acknowledging
that Germany had a right to have a navy 35% that of the British. The opinions
of the British public – to avoid another costly war, Nazism being the lesser
evil than communism and the Treaty of Versailles being too harsh – are evidence
that appeasement was a reasonable political response to Hitler’s expansionist
ideology, as Chamberlain was following the opinions of the vast majority of his
electorate.  

However, appeasement was clearly a
flawed policy as it caused the British Government to miss opportunities that
could have restricted Hitler’s expansionism, and prevent a large-scale war. A
key example came with the remilitarisation of Rhineland in 1936; Hitler was not
prepared to go to war over the Rhineland, and if the European powers had
confronted Hitler, his army were under strict orders to retreat immediately. As
critics of appeasement such as David Low (see Source 1) implied, failure to
stop Hitler in the Rhineland only emboldened him to more ambitious expansion. Before
the Munich Conference, Hitler’s leading generals insisted that Germany was not
ready for a major war and combined with apparent lack of enthusiasm from the
German public for war this seemingly contributed to Hitler’s decision to step
down over Czechoslovakia. Despite this, in the Munich agreement Chamberlain
still appeased Hitler by allowing the Germans to occupy the Sudetenland. Appeasement
was a flawed political response in September 1938 as Chamberlain ignored the
weight of evidence of Hitler’s growing expansionist actions since 1933,
presenting him instead as a rational leader who would be content once he
occupied the Sudetenland. Chamberlain was greeted as a hero on his return from
Munich, for preventing imminent war (see Source 2); but the Munich Agreement took
appeasement beyond moral justification. Britain and France may have avoided
immediate war, but by betraying Czechoslovakia and openly allowing Hitler to ignore
international agreements, including the Treaty of Versailles5,
appeasing politicians undermined the moral code of their own democracies.

Appeasement was also not a
reasonable political response to Hitler’s expansionist ideology as it allowed
Germany to rearm to a degree that it was competitive with other European powers,
whereas in 1933, when Germany left the disarmament conference, the German
forces were no match for the British. After 1935, Hitler reintroduced conscription,
and began to pump huge sums into Germany’s armed forces, increasing military
expenditure from 2.7 billion marks in 1933 to 8 billion marks in 1935, and
investing in modern and efficient weaponry. This meant that when war broke out
in 1939, it was on a much larger scale than it could have been in 1933 after
Hitler’s first intransigence, for example, or even in 1936 after his
expansionism in the Rhineland.  Furthermore,
appeasement lulled the western powers into continuing to disarm (though this
was also caused by international agreements and economic pressures because of
the Great Depression) which left them in a far weakened position by 1938. Chamberlain
authorised some rearmament in Britain in 1936, but primarily only for
deterrence; it wasn’t until March 1939, when he accepted that appeasement over
Czechoslovakia had failed, that large scale rearming began. Thus appeasement
left the western powers unjustifiably weak militarily, given the clearly
apparent threat from Hitler’s Germany since the mid-1930s.

As appeasement not only ultimately failed
to avoid war but allowed Hitler’s Germany to physically and militarily expand
to a degree that became incredibly difficult to counter after 1939, there is
some justification for the argument that it was an unreasonable political
response to Hitler’s expansionist ideology. However, while appeasement in
1938-9 seems particularly flawed, it did buy the western powers additional time
to prepare, so that when war eventually broke out Britain was better equipped
and more united having exhausted pacifist diplomacy. Furthermore, when taking
into consideration Britain’s economy, anti-war public opinion and widespread
disarmament after the First World War, it is clear that appeasement was a
reasonable political response, for much of the 1930s at least.  

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