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Appeasement-Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time

After the First World War, Europeans didn’t want to fight anymore. They wanted to try to pick up the pieces of their lives. Governments wanted to get economies back on track. Both citizens and governments found their desires hard to satisfy, though. Doom and gloom prevailed for a while before prosperity returned. The prosperity was short-lived, though, because so much of the money going back into the economies of Europe was borrowed. As hard times hit in 1930, radical political groups emerged all over Europe because the established governments didn’t seem to be getting the job done. Tensions remained among a few nations; however, none wanted to go back to fighting. The League of Nations convinced itself that it would actually be able to prevent war in the future.

Would You Believe?

As the governments changed under Stalin, Hitler, and Mussolini, European nations took notice but did little else. Though nations like France and England weren't particularly fond of dictatorships, no one wanted trouble, so they didn't dare rock the boat by interfering in other nations' affairs.

Not surprisingly, with all that was preoccupying the rest of Europe, nobody noticed as Germany picked itself up and dusted itself off. Germany’s government seemed to be turning things around. Maybe the people didn’t benefit much, but production was way up. Hitler worried a number of leaders, but the moderate national leaders didn’t want to instigate anything;

there was already enough post-war tension. Therefore, other than the equivalent of a few stern glances in his direction, Hitler didn’t have to deal with much interference as he carried out his master plan. In short, the nations that watched Hitler rise to power and annex territories chose appeasement, or nonaction in order to maintain harmony, over confrontation.

The Rough Interwar Years

The interwar years were toughest on Germany, Russia, and France. The Soviet people suffered under Stalin, but his Five Year Plans got production and the economy going. Germany finally managed to expand its economy and its production when the reparations no longer choked the life out of the German budget. France, though, struggled mightily as did Britain. France in particular had counted on the German reparation payments to help rebuild, but what payments did come in did little to stabilize France’s economic crisis.

Economically, France struggled with stabilizing its currency and controlling prices. Politically, France experienced unbelievable turnover during the interwar years; the average French government between the two world wars lasted about a year. Diplomatically, France found itself at odds with almost everyone over its harsh demands of Germany.

Britain’s economic and political landscape, though not as stormy as France’s, faced uncertainty. The British had a difficult time readjusting to peacetime life. Labor lashed out at management. Control of the government went back and forth from one party to the other. When the Depression hit, Britain’s leaders quarreled and dragged their feet. The government experienced more turnover just as things heated up with Germany again. David Lloyd George resigned and Neville Chamberlain (1869-1940) succeeded him, but foreign policy did not change.

Would You Believe?

Pablo Picasso's famous painting Guernica represented the horrors of the Nationalist bombing of the town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. As the bombs fell, Nationalists massacred people while they tried to escape.

In eastern Europe, the fledgling states experienced quite a few growing pains. Poland and Hungary found themselves under dictatorial control and the other eastern states, save Czechoslovakia, barely got by; Czechoslovakia actually did fairly well, but nationalism sent many running for Nazi Germany once the Depression hit.

In Spain, leftists and monarchists battled over the government in an all-out civil war. In 1931, the Spanish monarchy was unseated and a provisional government installed in its place. For several years the nation stood divided between monarchists and socialists. Fed up with the chaos, General Francisco Franco (1892-1975) led a group of generals in an overthrow of the government. Hitler and Mussolini both offered support to Franco while the Soviet Union, as well as liberal idealists from everywhere, supported the Republicans, or those fighting Franco. Franco and his Nationalists finally won the war in 1939, and Spain remained a dictatorship until 1975.

Hitler Breaks Some Rules

With so much going on in Europe, Hitler believed, arrogantly but correctly, that no one would notice if he bent the rules just a little. Hitler and all of Germany resented the Treaty of Versailles and he had no intention of following it. In 1935, after establishing control of the government and the military, Hitler instituted a military draft, a direct violation of the Treaty of Versailles. In the same year, he began work on a bigger, stronger navy and a new air force known as the Luftwaffe. France and Britain protested but Hitler was undeterred. A year later, Hitler secretly moved his troops into the Rhineland, the area that was set aside as a demilitarized zone. Hitler instructed his troops to retreat if France showed even the slightest resistance. France did nothing.

As a Matter of Fact

When Adolf Hitler marched his troops into the Rhineland in 1936, he rolled the dice and held his breath. Hitler gambled that France would do nothing about the presence of some 32,000 Nazi troops. His troops had orders to retreat at the slightest hint of resistance, but the French did nothing and the gamble paid off. Hitler later said, “If France had then marched into the Rhineland, we would have had to withdraw with our tails between our legs." Hitler also commented that the 48 hours following the initial occupation were the most nerve-racking of his career.

Since nobody seemed to mind too much, Hitler pushed for unification with Austria. After successfully adding Austria, Hitler targeted the Sudetenland, part of Czechoslovakia inhabited by many Germans. This finally prompted the Munich Conference in 1938; Europe had started to worry about Hitler’s rearmament and aggression. Hitler exaggerated his strength through inflated military figures, and no one wanted to call his bluff—even though he appeared to have exceeded the parameters laid out in the Treaty of Versailles.

Europe expected war but the conference accomplished its goal; war had been averted. The Munich Agreement gave Hitler the Sudetenland as long as he agreed to stop there. Of course Hitler agreed. Britain’s Chamberlain returned to England and told cheering crowds that he believed they had secured “peace in our time.” Time magazine made Hitler their 1938 Man of the Year. Given Hitler’s track record, why was anyone surprised when Hitler took the rest of Czechoslovakia in 1939?

The Price of Appeasement

After Hitler took Czechoslovakia, Britain and France finally mobilized their troops. Hoping to avoid another war at all costs, the European powers had repeatedly ignored Hitler, his rearmament, his aggression toward weaker states, and his blatant disregard for the Treaty of Versailles. The powers generally did not fear Hitler the way they feared Stalin, so perhaps they didn’t take him seriously. They also thought the League of Nations would handle problems like Hitler. Pretty much every member of the League agreed to use force if a member nation were attacked, but the League wasn’t unanimous on using force against belligerent nations. No nation in Europe had the budget to rearm after the First World War, and challenging Hitler probably would have required building armed forces again.

Regardless of the reasons, the appeasement of Hitler cost Europe dearly in the long run. Hitler, of course, didn’t stop after Czechoslovakia. In August, he signed a secret treaty with Stalin known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact or the Non-Aggression Pact. The pact earned its name because of the two agents who negotiated for their leaders: Vyacheslav Molotov (1890-1986) for Stalin and Joachim von Ribbentrop (1893-1946) for Hitler. With the treaty, the two nations agreed not to fight in case of war. The treaty also included a secret provision for the mutual division of states like Poland and Finland after the fighting ceased.

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