Peace to War 1919-1939

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Picassos painting Guernica commemorating the German destruction of the town during the Spanish Civil War.

Austria 1938

In July 1934 Hitler suffered a setback to his ambitions of an Anschluss (union) between Germany and Austria. The Austrian Nazis, encouraged by Hitler, staged a revolt and murdered the Chancellor, Egelbert Dollfuss. However, when Mussolini moved Italian troops to the Austrian frontier and warned the Germans off, the revolt collapsed; Hitler, taken aback, had to accept that Germany was not yet strong enough to force the issue and disclaimed responsibility for the actions of the Austrian Nazis.

In October 1936 Hitler and Mussolini signed agreements known as the Rome-Berlin Axis. This clinched Mussolini's drift into the arms of Hitler. They described it as

"an axis around which can revolve all those European states with a will to collaboration and peace."

In reality it gave Hitler the ally he had lacked so far (as well as ending any Italian objections to a future German move on Austria). Hitler seemed at the centre of a new alliance, potentially global in scope and ambition; a cause of concern to Britain, France, Russia, even the USA.

The Anschluss with Austria (March 1938) was Hitler�s greatest success to date. Matters came to a head when the Austrian Nazis staged huge demonstrations in Vienna, Graz and Linz, which Chancellor Schuschnigg�s government could not control. Realising that this could be the prelude to a German invasion, Schuschnigg announced a plebiscite about whether or not Austria should remain independent. Hitler decided to act before this took place, in case the vote went against union; German troops moved in and Austria became part of the Third Reich. In a plebiscite organised by Hilter after the Anschluss, 99.75% of Austrians supported the union with Germany.

It was a triumph for Germany, Britain and France again did no more than protest, and it dealt a severe strategic blow at Czechoslovakia which could now be attacked from the south as well as from the west and north. All was ready for the beginning of Hitler�s campaign to acquire the German-speaking Sudetenland, a campaign which ended in triumph at the Munich Conference in September 1938.

Appeasement and Chamberlain

Appeasement was the policy of giving in to some of the demands of dictators like Hitler and Mussolini in the hope that they would be satisfied and not ask for more. This policy has been most closely identified with British and French foreign policy in the 1930s. The leading figure in Britain was Neville Chamberlain.

British politicians traditionally held the view that Eastern Europe fell under Germany's sphere of influence; Chamberlain wanted to turn Germany eastwards to act as a bulwark against Communist Russia.

After 1919 the British policy towards Germany was to recognise that there were a number of German speaking peoples outside Germany who would one day want to be part of the Reich. Appeasement aimed to achieve German reunification peacefully. Britain would and could not effectively defend the new countries of Eastern Europe e.g. Poland, Czechoslovakia, and therefore encouraged these states to make concessions to Germany in a peaceful way.

Chamberlain's mistake was the failure to recognise that Britain was declining in power and prestige and he also failed to recognise that Fascism and Nazism were unappeasable.

Appeasement was a very popular part of British foreign policy. No one wanted a repeat of the First World War. Chamberlain had total faith in the policy of appeasement and believed that eventually Hitler could be controlled. His hopes deceived him as he admitted with the outbreak of hostilities:

�Everything that I have worked for, everything that I have hoped for, everything I have believed in during my public life, has crashed into ruins.�

Weakness of France

During the 1930s French governments followed Britain�s lead. The French were very nervous of further German aggression and attempted to weaken Germany as far as possible. The French put their faith in a series of alliances with the new Eastern European states, these were known as the Little Ententes. Militarily the French established a huge network of military defences on the German border known as the Maginot Line.

Between 1917-1940 France�s democracy produced 44 governments under 20 different Prime Ministers. This rapid change of governments left France weak and divided. There were deep divisions between left and right wing parties. This decline deprived Britain of the one strong ally who could have helped to stand up to Germany. French weakness was one of the main reasons why Britain and France did not stand up to Germany in the mid 1930s.

Sudetenland and the Munich Agreement 1938

After the Anschluss Hitler turned his attention to Czechoslovakia and the three million Sudeten Germans. The region was now bordered by Germany on 3 sides. In April 1938 Chamberlain and Halifax made it clear to Daladier that they would not guarantee France or Czechoslovakia if the latter were attacked. Britain and France put pressure on Benes, the Czech President to give in to Germany. Chamberlain tried to convince Hitler that he could have what he wanted without resorting to war.

The Issues

Czechoslovakia was a new country, born out of the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The new state was set up as part of the Treaty of St. Germain (the treaty which had dealt with Austria-Hungary in 1919.) Ethnically Czechoslovakia was diverse with large numbers of Czechs, Slovaks, Poles and Hungarians. One of the largest minority groups was the Sudeten Germans who lived in the mountainous region of western Czechoslovakia. This region was relatively wealthy compared to the rest of the country and contained all the major industrial complexes such as Skoda. Hitler detested Czechoslovakia for its Slav peoples, especially as they had control over ethnic Germans; he also disliked the fact that Czechoslovakia was a successful democracy. In fact in 1938 it was the last democracy in eastern Europe.

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