June 2006 - How far was GB foreign policy to blame for the outbreak of war in 1939?
The reasons for the outbreak of war in 1939 has been the subject of considerable debate since 1945. The extent to which British foreign policy in the 1920’s and 1930’s was responsible is contentious. Certainly the likes of Churchill and Cato (Michael Foot), in his work ‘The Guilty Men’, place tremendous emphasis on Chamberlain and the policy of Appeasement. However this view does not take into account the ambition and plans of Hitler or indeed the ability of Britain to follow a different course. It also places little emphasis on the significance and legacy of the Paris peace settlements in ‘sowing the seeds’ of the second world war. Ultimately, the most important cause of WWII was not the men who tried to appease Hitler but Hitler himself who had set goals that would inevitably bring him into conflict with other countries. His gambles of the late 1930’s had finally failed when he invaded Poland and Britain and France declared war on Germany on Sept 3rd 1939.
British foreign policy in the inter war years was, and had to be, focused on avoiding getting embroiled in another major conflict whilst at the same time safeguarding Britain’s economic and imperial interests. British politicians had realised immediately after the Great War, Britain could not police Europe and manage its Empire. The policy of Appeasement was well established in British foreign policy long before Chamberlain became PM. Britain’s economic limitations and the general public opinion meant that getting involved in a conflict to defend whatever principles, was a non starter thus negotiation and diplomacy was the only alternative. This manifested itself in the work at Locarno in 1925 in which Austen Chamberlain had been a key architect.
The onset of the depression, and the challenges it presented, meant that GB even more so, was looking to keep itself out of any conflict. Disarmament was also an economic necessity and whatever military resources GB had, was to be used to police the Empire. When Hitler came to power in January 1933, withdrew Germany from the disarmament conference and the League of Nations in 1933, introduced rearmament and conscription by 1935, GB could have done nothing to stop him. There wasn’t the political will in GB, France or anywhere else in Europe nor was there the popular will, economic or military capability to stop Hitler. It is also worth mentioning that the issues that Hitler was challenging were seen by many in GB as legitimate grievances. How could it possibly be justified to try and stop him?
Many critics of British foreign policy in the interwar period have the benefit of hindsight. The fact that war did break out and that GB was unable to stop it, is often used as a stick to beat Chamberlain and his policy of appeasement with. What the critics fail to explain is the lack of an alternative. When Churchill criticised the govt for not stopping Hitler when he rearmed or entered the Rhineland in 1936 he failed to appreciate that GB could not do anything. Churchill’s call to arms was denounced by the vast majority of the Commons and GB media as ‘sabre rattling’. The voices of dissent were few and far between until as late as March 1939, when Germany invaded Czechoslovakia after which point GB was already rearming and giving military assurances to Poland along with several other European countries. The French followed suit.
The most important reason for war breaking out in 1939 was not a failed GB foreign policy of appeasement or weak and spineless politicians as depicted by David Low in his political cartoons. It was Hitler and other aggressive nationalists, both in Europe and further afield. The cooperation between democratic countries in the 1920’s was replaced by a more confrontational policy where disputes were settled by force and not negotiation. Key to this change was the impact of the Great Depression. Countries were more introspective, protective of own interests and unwilling to support the concept of collective security upon which the League of Nations depended. When it came to long standing disputes arising out of the Peace settlements, it was easier to turn a blind eye or to accept the situation. After all, even contemporaries of 1919 could see that the issues arising from the peace settlement contained the ingredients for future conflict.
Hitler came to power vowing to avenge Versailles and to make Germany great again. His speeches and propaganda talked incessantly about creating Lebensraum in the east, creating a racially pure volk by reuniting all ethnic Germans under a Greater German Reich. These ambitions were bound to bring him into conflict, according to Hugh Trevor Roper, at some time in the future. It is unfair, however, to say that GB should have stopped him. Up until Oct 1938, every step Hitler had taken was to challenge the unjust terms of Versailles including the Anschluss with Austria. The ‘betrayal’ of Czechoslovakia at the Munich Conference may be cited as the time when GB foreign policy should have made a stand against Germany but the reality is, GB would have lost that war in 1938. The decision to concede the Sudetenland whilst getting assurances’ from Hitler made absolute sense. Chamberlain could hope for peace but now had time to prepare for war. With the collapse of the League of Nations, pressure on the British Empire in Asia and economic considerations, what else could Chamberlain have done? The claim that an alliance with the USSR was an option is wishful thinking and does not take into account both the strong anti soviet sentiment in GB and the lack of trust between the 2 countries. Stalin’s actions in recent years had done little to convince Chamberlain he could trust him any more than he could trust Hitler. At least Chamberlain had personal experience of Hitler.
The war in 1939 was not a result of the failed policy of appeasement; in fact appeasement had delayed war until a time where GB could better defend itself. War in 1939 was a consequence of Hitler’s long term ambitions and aims coupled with short term strategy and decisions made. Hitler needed to expand for economic reasons. He had put tremendous pressure on the economy rearming and now needed raw materials that came from conquest to maintain rearmament and sustain a reasonable standard of living in Germany. He gambled on GB and France not standing by Poland after he signed the Nazi Soviet pact and got it wrong. It was Stalin’s decision to sign this agreement that made war in Europe in 1939 more likely because it emboldened Hitler to go further.
From the outset in 1933, Hitler made it his goal to go to war. The failure of the Paris peace settlements gave him his long term cause and justification and made it incredibly difficult for the Western powers to follow any other policy than appeasement. Whether it was series of short ‘blitzkrieg wars’ or not, is irrelevant. Hitler was the aggressor who pushed and pushed and ultimately his gambles did not pay off.
Hitler may not have had a master plan and he may have been an opportunist but that does not mean that the appeasers and British foreign policy in general, was responsible for the outbreak of war. Churchill’s analysis that this was the easiest war in history to have been prevented without a single bullet being fired and that the appeasers were spineless cowards is only possible with hindsight. It was not a view upheld pre 1939 and fails to take into account the limitations and restrictions on GB and the ambitions and plans Hitler had.
Appeasement hoped for the best but prepared for the worst. It was the only viable policy available to Chamberlain both in political and economic terms. The peace settlements had left them in a very difficult position, a situation compounded by the impact of the great depression.