Appeasement, the policy of making concessions to the dictatorial powers in order to avoid conflict, governed Anglo-French foreign policy during the 1930s. It became indelibly associated with Conservative Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. Although the roots of appeasement lay primarily in the weakness of post-World War I collective security arrangements, the policy was motivated by several other factors.
Firstly, the legacy of the Great War in France and Britain generated a strong public and political desire to achieve ‘peace at any price’. Secondly, neither country was militarily ready for war. Widespread pacifism and war-weariness (not too mention the economic legacy of the Great Depression) were not conducive to rearmament. Thirdly, many British politicians believed that Germany had genuine grievances resulting from Versailles. Finally, some British politicians admired Hitler and Mussolini, seeing them not as dangerous fascists but as strong, patriotic leaders. In the 1930s, Britain saw its principle threat as Communism rather that fascism, viewing authoritarian right-wing regimes as bulwarks against its spread.
The League of Nations was intended to resolve international disputes peacefully. Yet the League’s ineffectiveness soon became apparent. In 1931, when Japan invaded Manchuria, the League condemned the action. However, without either the weight of the US or the power of its own army, it was unable to stop Japan. By 1937, Japan had launched a full-scale invasion of China. In October 1935, the League imposed economic sanctions but little more when Mussolini invaded Abyssinia. In March 1936, a cautious Hitler remilitarised the Rhineland, forbidden under Versailles. The feared Anglo-French reaction never came. In the League’s council, the USSR was the only country to propose sanctions. British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin ruled out the possibility.
Germany and Italy now realised that the democracies were seeking to avoid confrontation, so both countries continued to ‘test the limits’. During the Spanish Civil War, Hitler and Mussolini contravened the ‘Non-Intervention Agreement’, sending troops, equipment and planes to back the rebels. Their intervention was ignored by the international community. When Chamberlain became Prime Minister in May 1937, the pattern of appeasement had already been set. In March 1938, Hitler’s Anschluss (union) with Austria was once again met with Anglo-French impotence and inaction.
Czechoslovakia had been created under Versailles, and included a large German minority mostly living in the Sudetenland on the border with Germany. In mid-September 1938, Hitler encouraged the leader of the Sudeten Nazis to rebel, demanding union with Germany. When the Czech government declared martial law, Hitler threatened war.
On 15 September, Chamberlain met Hitler at Berchtesgaden. Without consulting the Czech authorities, he pledged to give Germany all the areas with a German population of more than 50 per cent. France was persuaded to agree. Hitler then altered his criteria, demanding all the Sudetenland. At the Munich Conference on 30 September, Britain and France agreed to his demands. Chamberlain was confident that he had secured ‘peace for our time’.
Appeasement was not without its critics. Churchill believed in a firm stand against Germany, and Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden resigned in February 1938 over Britain’s continued acquiescence to fascist demands. The left-wing also attacked Chamberlain’s blindness. In March 1939, when Germany seized the remainder of Czechoslovakia, it was clear that appeasement had failed. Chamberlain now promised British support to Poland in the case of German aggression. A misguided belief in ‘peace in our time’ was replaced by a reluctant acceptance of the inevitability of war.