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How the great powers appeased Hitler

This article is over 14 years, 6 months old
Chris Bambery starts our new series by looking at the road to the war of 1939-45
Issue 2060
Neville Chamberlain
Neville Chamberlain

The legacy of the Second World War echoes in today’s world. Justifying the Iraq war George Bush compared it to the 1939-45 conflict.

Dick Cheney, the US vice president, said, “This is not an enemy that can be ignored, or negotiated with, or appeased.’’ He added that the enemy was a “new type of fascism”.

He bracketed opponents of the war with those pre-war Western governments who tried to buy off Adolf Hitler.

What Cheney did not say was that the appeasers then were right wingers who saw Hitler as a fellow anti-communist.

The Second World War is generally regarded as a “good war” that was necessary to fight against a genuine axis of evil. Few would talk about the First World War in those terms.

Yet the Second World War was about the repartition of the world among the great powers.

It was a continuation of the 1914-18 conflict. What made it different was the ideological question – millions of working people understood fascism posed a mortal danger to them and had to be resisted.

They had a better understanding of Hitler than the primary appeaser, Britain’s Tory prime minister Neville Chamberlain. He believed Hitler was following the traditional German policy of pursuing dominance in central Europe and that he could be steered towards a war with Russia.

Hitler wanted more – domination of Europe and ultimately the globe.

War was central to creating a warrior society that Nazis saw as essential to fascism. That turned on pursuing racial genocide. This would begin with the Jews, but Hitler saw it being extended to the Slavs and other “lesser races”.

Britain and France had gained the most from the post-First World War peace treaties. But by the late 1920s both nations were in decline compared to the US, a resurgent Germany and Japan, who all wanted to redivide the spoils.

The recession which followed the Wall Street Crash of 1929 created a collapse in international trade. Britain and France used their colonial empires, and the US its control of Latin America, to create trade blocs which excluded their rivals.

Germany, Japan and Italy were denied markets and the means to earn foreign currency with which to buy raw materials. German big business was pressing for a policy of expansion into eastern Europe.

They were not too keen on giving power to Hitler. But their fear that mass unemployment might spark revolution and their belief that Hitler could be house-trained encouraged them to invite him to become head of government­ – chancellor.

Once he had begun rebuilding German military might he began grabbing neighbouring territory.

Chamberlain was convinced the US was a greater threat to Britain and the empire. As Chamberlain and his French allies agreed to each expansion of the Third Reich, Hitler became convinced neither state would fight.

The Russian dictator Joseph Stalin viewed matters in terms of diplomatic interests.

In 1933 he believed Germany would come into conflict with the Western powers and seek agreement with Russia. A year later he understood the Third Reich was gearing up to war with Russia. Stalin attempted to form an alliance with Britain and France but they rebuffed him.

Britain and France handed over western Czechoslovakia to Germany without reference to the Czechs in September 1938 at a summit in Munich.

But then Hitler broke his word and gobbled up the rest of the Czech state. Even within Chamberlain’s government there were some who believed Britain needed to assert itself.

Britain pledged to fight if Poland was subjected to German aggression.

Chamberlain viewed this as a bargaining chip and continued to pursue a deal with Hitler even after war eventually came.

Stalin decided to reach an agreement with Hitler. They agreed to divide up Poland and signed a treaty of friendship in August 1939.

Apologists for Stalin would claim the pact bought time for Russia to prepare its defences. But when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941 there was no evidence of such preparations.

Vital supplies of oil and other raw materials flowed west giving Hitler the means to wage war.

When Poland was invaded in September 1939, Britain and France reluctantly declared war. They then did nothing.

The British establishment had loved up to Hitler. Few ordinary people had faith in the ability of Chamberlain and his government to defeat Nazism.


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