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Sarah Newman

German sentries on guard in the Rhineland, March 1936.

Why Appeasement?

Recognition that much of the Treaty of Versailles was unjust blinded many to the dangers inherent in Hitler's moves to amend it.

rearmament in Britain to try to deter Hitler from further aggression and ensure that Britain was ready for a war if it should break out. Nevertheless, many historians have criticised what they see as Chamberlain's naivety regarding Hitler's real intentions and his arrogance in believing that he could come to a successful agreement with the dictators — unlike the weaker brethren in the Cabinet and his political opponents. Historians accept that it was not easy for politicians to pursue alternative policies to those of appeasement, and that such alternatives might not have prevented war.

But to ignore all the evidence to the contrary and to believe that Hitler was a 'moderate' Nazi in the grip of extremists, who could be persuaded to behave reasonably, was a great error of judgment. Those like Churchill, who had a more accurate perception of Hitler, were understandably incensed by Chamberlain's stubbornness and blinkered approach; and not unnaturally they held him partly to blame when war broke out in 1939.


" We cannot be certain of the extent to which Hitler might have been encouraged in his expansionist course by the lack of opposition he received. The view he already held that Britain and France were powers in serious decline, who would not put up any serious resistance to his eastern expansion. was reinforced — and this may have speeded up his plans.

But historians are now in no doubt that Hitler was intent on expansion and was prepared to fight a war, or series of wars, to achieve his objectives. The other powers ultimately had only two choices: they could acquiesce in his plans or try to resist them. And whenever resistance came — whether over Nazi demands for the return of the Sudetenland, or Danzig and the Polish Corridor — it was likely to provoke war.

Further reading

]. P. M. H. (1986) The Origins of the Second World

War in Europe, Longman. Henig. R. (1985) The Origins of Die Second World War,

Methuen. Martell. G. (ed) (1992) Modem Germany Reconsidered,

Routledge. Overy, R. (1987) The Origins of the Second World

War, Longman. Parker, R. A. C. (1993) Chamberlain and Appeasement,

Macmillan. Robbins, K. (1988) Appeasement, Historical Association.

Dr Ruth Henig is Dean of Arts and Humanities at Lancaster University and a specialist in twentieth- century interna­tional history. She has written extensively on the origins of the world wars and on international diplomacy in the 1920s.


Appeasement pre-dated Neville Chamberlain's premiership. It began, not in 1937, but at the Paris Peace Conference which drew up the Treaty of Versailles. To Lloyd George, this was 'a temporary measure of a nature to satisfy public opinion'. Appeasement originated during the actual process of crafting the Treaty.


Woodrow Wilson's vision of 'making the world safe for democracy', and his 14 points, attracted Asquithians, Radicals and Conservative idealists like Lord Robert Cecil and Harold Nicolson. The Germans believed that the Treaty would be based on the 14 points. Once the Kaiser had resigned and Germany emerged as a democratic republic. Germans believed that they would be involved in the peace process.

Britain and France had not entered the war for gain. When in January 1918 Lloyd George stated Britain's war aims to a gathering of trade unionists, he stressed that there was 'no demand for indemnity'. As late as November he was still saying that the Allies did not 'want a war indemnity... A war indemnity has been ruled out'.

But the prospect of others' gain led to British

demands. Many in Britain were eager to eliminate Germany as an imperial and economic rival. Unlike France, Britain had not been devastated: but submarines had destroyed civilian shipping and Lloyd George demanded compensation for all damage by land, sea and air to the civilian population of the Allies and their property. To this Woodrow Wilson agreed. Lloyd George then persuaded Wilson that injury to soldiers was 'civilian damage' — so that compensation for those crippled, widowed and orphaned could be claimed.

So whereas in early November 1918 Lloyd George had spoken against 'revenge or avarice', by the end of the month he supported the idea of a Cabinet committee to consider the question of indemnity. The committee demanded £24 billion indemnity, which was wishful thinking — but a general election was imminent. Lloyd George could probably have won this election whatever his attitude to reparations: but he felt he needed Conservative support and so his public stance altered. 'Germany must pay the costs of the war up to the limit of her capacity.' he argued, demanding 'indemnity as well as reparations'.

The Liberal, Edward Montagu, was upset at demands for 'terms of peace which had no justifica-


February 1999

The Spanish civil war weakened the feeling that nothiiif! could be worse tliau another tea:: Spanish legion troops board a Gentian plane in Morocco to attack the Republicans.
tion in our war aims, based ... on revenge... and determination for swag'. Asquith still favoured 'a peace that did not contain in itself the seeds of future quarrels'. George V wanted Asquith included in the British delegation to Paris, but this Lloyd George refused to consider. Milner and Churchill opposed any idea of indemnity, the latter from fear that Germany might turn com­munist. The king himself, and many others, deplored the elec­tion hysteria and tried to calm popular passions.

The Treaty of Versailles

Robert Cecil argued:

The Treaty is out of harmony with the professed war aims ... We were said to be 'fighting for peace', engaged in a 'war to end war' anxious 'to make the world safe for democracy' ... In these negotiations our moral prestige has greatly suffered.

George Barnes remonstrated:

'The terms seem to be out of

character with the aims of the

mass of our people.' But they

and many others were unable to move Lloyd

George. He determined to see that Britain did no

worse than any of its allies in the final treaty.

Lord Beaverbrook described the Prime Minister as having 'no policy permanent, no pledge final'. Colonel House. \Voodrow Wilson's representative, felt that the British premier 'does not seem to have any ingrown sense of right or wrong, but only looks at things from the stand­point of expediency'.

In May 1919. when the aggregate of demands were seen, British representatives were shocked. What had seemed individually justified looked collectively impossible. But the inter-allied nego­tiations could not be unravelled. The Treaty was denounced as 'peace with a vengeance' and as laying the foundations for a 'just and lasting war'. To this condemnation Lloyd George retaliated. Terrible the deeds it requites.'

Lloyd George felt that public opinion in Britain, as elsewhere among the victors, demanded a harsh peace. Once war-time passions had died down, the newly-formed League of Nations could be used to modify the harshness of the treaty. Others echoed this idea. C. P. Scott wrote in the Manchester Guardian: 'No one supposes that the terms now accepted are eternal and immutable:

and the day may not be far distant when they will be sensibly modified.'

In Britain the anti-German tide soon turned. Lord Buckmaster. formerly Lord Chancellor, declared: 'I cannot understand any public man who desired to show his face in public and state that he was prepared to attempt to extract from an enemy who had laid down their arms on certain conditions, something which the conditions did not justify.' The Manchester Guardian, the Observer, the Daily Netcs and Daily Chronicle, all favoured moderation. Most Liberals opposed the Treaty: the Fabian Beatrice Webb denounced it as 'a harsh and brutal peace'.

The effect of the revulsion the Treaty caused so many to feel, and the fact that so little was done to modify it before the Nazis came to power in 1933. led to a continued desire for its modification among British politicians in the 1930s. Philip Kerr. Lloyd George's secretary, who had supported him in 1919, later wrote:

You cannot deal with Nazi Germany until you give her justice ... The theory of sole war guilt led to certain permanent and unilateral discriminations against Germany which are the root of all our troubles.

In 1939 he argued:

It was because of the feeling that Germany had not been justly treated that so many people in England failed to realise the true nature of the National Socialist movement.

Sir Archibald Sinclair, a Liberal fnend of Churchill, pronounced in the Commons: 'Germany is already breaking the shackles of Versailles: we ought to have struck them off before now.' And many in Britain, feeling that in 1919 the idea of self-determination had been applied to all save the Germans, and .sharing per­haps some Aryan racial theories, would have agreed with Nevile Hen-derson. British ambassador in Berlin, when he wrote in 19ISM:

I feel very strongly about the Sudeten question. Living as thrv do in a solid block on the German Irontier. they have, in my opinion, a moral right to at least sell-administration and eventually lo self-determination. It is morally unjust to subject thi> solid Teutonic minority to remain subjected to a Slav government at I'rague.

But of course Liberal regrets for the perceived harshness of the Versailles Treaty were far from being the only reasons for appeasement.

'Never again'

For many the threat of Communism was a worse evil than the prospect of a Nazi-dominated Kurnpe. Germany provided a bulwark against the >>viei>. But of more immediate emotional impact were memories of the horrors of trench warfare, which led to the sentiment 'never again', evinced in pla\> \\kejoitmcy 's End and in the work of the war poets. Chamberlain himself had lost relatives in the slaughter of 1914-18, a point he never forgot, and the background to his statement in the Commons of February 1938:

The peace of Europe depends upon the four major powers: Germany. Italy. France and ourselves ... If we can bring these tour nations into friendly discussion, into a settling of their difficulties, we shall have saved the peace of Europe for a generation.

After 1936 the Spanish civil war weakened the feeling that nothing could be worse than another war. Indeed, from 1933 onwards a number of

Modern History Review


leading figures, including Ernest Bevin, realised that Hitler would need to be fought. Bevin eventually triumphed over Lansbury in winning the Labour party over to this opinion. This became the secret view of the majority in the government, but it was not stated openly for two reasons.

The first was that the government feared to antagonise British voters. The loss in 1933 of the East Fulham by-election was believed by many at the time to be due to the pacifist vote. But the reason why the Conservative vote was down by 9,000 and the Labour vote up by 10.000 was thought by Chamberlain to be a protest against the means test. It was also, no doubt, partly a reaction to the strong swing against the Labour party in 1931.

The strength of the Peace Pledge Union, set up by Dick Sheppard. Vicar of St Martin's in the Field, in 1934. also convinced many leading Conservatives of the strength of pacifism. 100.000 people signed a pledge to renounce war and 11.500,000 — 40" o of the electorate — voted in its 1935 'ballot', with a clear majority supporting international disarmament.

The second reason the government did not openly voice the need for rearmament was fear of antagonising Hitler into attacking Britain before adequate preparations had been made.

British preparedness

The First World War had ended British pre­eminence as a financial power and left it weaker than the United States. Britain owed the US £1,365 million. The national debt had risen to £7.435 million, interest on which constituted 40"a of the interwar budget. Any future war was likely further to damage the British economy.

The British Empire grew to its greatest extent as a result of the Great War, but the resources to defend 25"o of the globe were lacking. In 1920 the liritish Army was 'spread all over the world' and was 'strong nowhere, weak everywhere'. In 1933 defence spending was about £100 million, or 3" o of national wealth. By 1939 it was £700 million, or 1QUo of national wealth. In 1931 the balance-of-

, ments deficit was £18 million; in 1937 it was £55 million: and in 1939 £250 million. A week after war was declared, the Chancellor of the Exchequer warned: 'We are in danger of our gold reserves being exhausted at a rate that will render us incapable of waging war. if the war is prolonged.'

Before 1939 Britain lacked the strength to tackle Germany — let alone Italy and Japan. The Dominions were unwilling to fight, America was neutral, and Russia was Communist, with an army weakened by Stalin's purges. Britain's only real ally, France, was also weak.

By 1930 the Depression had reduced Britain's steel production to half that of Germany. Aircraft production did not match Germany's before 1939. Baldwin believed that, The bomber will always get through.' When Chamberlain flew for the first time

in 1938. he was deeply conscious of the effect bombs could have on unprotected Londoa The devastation left after the bombing of Guernica in the Spanish civil war made a deep impression on many people.

In February 1937 the Chiefs of Staff reported: 'Our forces inevitably remain inadequate to meet the full weight of the liabilities which they may have to face.' In November they concluded:

Our naval, military and air forces, in their present stage of development, are still far from sufficient to meet our defensive commitments, which now extend from Western Europe through the Mediterranean to the Far East.

Chamberlain wrote in January 1938:

In the absence of any powerful ally, and until our armaments are completed, we must adjust our foreign policy to our circumstances, and even bear with patience and good humour actions which we should like to treat in a very different fashion.

A minute written by General Ismay in September 1938 made it clear that, although from the point of view of naval and military preparedness. Britain and France were ready to take on Germany, the crucial issue was that of air defence. German superiority in air defence was such that Britain needed time to insure itself 'against the greatest danger to which we are at present exposed'. He concluded: Time is in our favour ... If war with Germany has to come, it would be better to fight her in. say, & 12 months' time, than to accept the present challenge.'

This advice reinforced the fear of the bomber voiced by Baldwin in 1932 and felt by Chamberlain himself earlier in 1938. The radar system would not be complete before 1939. The message Chamberlain received was to the effect that Britain would not be ready for war before then.

Why 1939?

It was not until 1939 that Hitler's aggressive seizure of the rump of Czechoslovakia showed that he had gone beyond amending the Treaty of Versailles and beyond the idea of a Greater Germany, by attacking those who were not German speakers, and by-taking over land that had not previously been part of Germany. He was also going against the promise Chamberlain believed him to have made at Munich.

Once Hitler went beyond undoing the perceived injustice of Versailles, then the likelihood of his going further, of attacking other areas of Europe, made the danger more obvious. The Dominions became less reluctant to consider supporting Britain in a future war. America's neutrality was more likely to be benevolent.

Opinion in Britain itself was less pacifist, less divided. And. despite the government expecting literally millions of casualties from air attacks, gas

masks had been distributed, shelters built, evacuation plans made. And Britain's air defences were now more secure.


After the war it suited both Winston Churchill, who as Chancellor of the Eexchequer in the period 1924-29 had cut the amount of money available to the armed forces, and the Labour party, which had followed a pacifist line before 1936, to blame Chamberlain for appeasement.

The arguments for not antagonising Japan. Italy and Germany are still open to debate but. with Hitler stating in February 1945 that: 'At Munich we lost a unique opportunity of easily and swiftly winning a war that was in any case inevitable.' there are grounds for believing that Chamberlain's handling of the situation secured Dominion support (which might well have been lacking in 1938) for a more united and better prepared Britain than would otherwise have been the case.

Further reading

Lentin. A. (1984) Lloyd George. Woodroic \\'iifon and the Guilt of Germany. Leicester I'niversiiv l'ri-s~.

Ranson, E. (1993) British Defence I'n'ncy tniil Appeasement Between the Wars, 191 fi /.'AVV. Historical Association.

Wood, S. (1975) Britain's Intentar Years. Blackie.

Sarah Newman is the author of lu-o forlli-coming books from Basil Blackwell: Europe, 1815-1914 and Europe in the Twentieth-Century World, 1918-1989.

[ K E f. E Jt .

'A Peace to End Peace'

A two-day conference is to be held at the Public Record Office, Kew, on 29-30 June to mark the eightieth anniversary of the Paris Peace Conference and ensuing treaties. The conference will examine the issues which confronted the peace makers and the impact of their decisions on the remainder of the twentieth century and beyond.

Lord Hurd of Westwell is guest speaker and the following are also among the speakers: John Darwin, Erik Goldstein. Ruth Henig, Antony Lentin, Keith Neilson. Keith Robbins, Alan Sharp, Zara Steiner, Keith Wilson, Feroz Yasamee.

Full details are available from James Guthrie, Public Events Manager at the PRO, tel: 0181-876 3444 ext 2628; fax: 0181-392 5266; e-mail: events(g)

February 1999


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