International relations between the two world wars: 1933-1939 (Part-2)


(a) Hitler aimed to make Germany into a great power again

He hoped to achieve this by:

  • destroying the hated Versailles settlement;
  • building up the army – something forbidden by the Treaty of Versailles;
  • recovering lost territory such as the Saar and the Polish Corridor;
  • bringing all German-speaking peoples inside the Reich; this would involve annexing Austria and taking territory from Czechoslovakia and Poland, both of which had large German minorities as a result of the peace settlement.

There is some disagreement about what, if anything, Hitler intended beyond these aims. Some historians believe that annexing Austria and parts of Czechoslovakia and Poland was only a beginning, and that Hitler planned to follow it up by seizing the rest of Czechoslovakia and Poland, and then conquering and occupying Russia as far east as the Ural Mountains. ‘National boundaries’, he said, ‘are only made by man and can be changed by man.’ The changes of boundary which Hitler had in mind would give the Germans what he called Lebensraum (living space). He claimed that Germany’s population was much too large for the area into which it was constrained; more land was needed to provide food for the German people as well as an area in which the excess German population could settle and colonize. Certainly Hitler had made clear his hatred of what he called ‘Jewish Bolshevism’. This suggests that war with the USSR was unavoidable at some point, in order to destroy communism. The next stage would be to get colonies in Africa and naval bases in and around the Atlantic.

Other historians disagree about these further aims; back in 1961 A. J.P. Taylor claimed that Hitler never had any detailed plans worked out for acquiring Lebensraum and never intended a major war; at most he was prepared only for a limited war against Poland. ‘He got as far as he did because others did not know what to do with him’, concluded Taylor. Martin Broszat, writing in 1983, also believed that Hitler’s writings and statements about Lebensraum did not amount to an actual programme which he followed step by step. It is more likely they were a propaganda exercise designed to attract support and unite the Nazi party. More recently Mark Mazower suggests that there is very little evidence that Hitler had given much serious thought to the problems of creating and organising a Nazi empire in Europe.

(b) A series of successes

Whatever the truth about his long-term intentions, Hitler began his foreign policy with an almost unbroken series of brilliant successes, which was one of the main reasons for his popularity in Germany. By the end of 1938 almost every one of the first set of aims had been achieved, without war and with the approval of Britain. Only the Germans in Poland remained to be brought within the Reich. Unfortunately it was when he failed to achieve this by peaceful means that Hitler took the fateful decision to invade Poland.

  1. Given that Germany was still militarily weak in 1933, Hitler had to move cautiously at first. He withdrew Germany from the World Disarmament Conference and from the League of Nations, on the grounds that France would not agree to Germany having equality of armaments. At the same time he insisted that Germany was willing to disarm if other states would do the same, and that he wanted only peace. This was one of his favourite techniques: to act boldly while at the same time soothing his opponents with the sort of conciliatory speeches he knew they wanted to hear.
  2. Next Hitler signed a ten-year non-aggression pact with the Poles (January 7934), who were showing alarm in case the Germans tried to take back the Polish Corridor. This was something of a triumph for Hitler: Britain took it as further evidence of his peaceful intentions; it ruined France’s Little Entente, which depended very much on Poland; and it guaranteed Polish neutrality whenever Germany decided to move against Austria and Czechoslovakia. On the other hand, it improved relations between France and Russia, who were both worried by the apparent threat from Nazi Germany.
  3. 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, Engelbert Dollfuss, who had been supported by Mussolini. 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 he denied responsibility for the actions of the Austrian Nazis.
  4. The Saar was returned to Germany (January 1935) after a plebiscite resulting in a 90 per cent vote in favour. Though the vote had been provided for in the peace settlement, Nazi propaganda made the most of the success. Hitler announced that now all causes of grievance between France and Germany had been removed.
  5. Hitler’s first successful breach of Versailles came in March 1935 when he announced the reintroduction of conscription. His excuse was that Britain had just announced air force increases and France had extended conscription from 12 to 18 months (their justification was German rearmament). Much to their alarm, Hitler told his startled generals and the rest of the world that he would build up his peacetime army to 36 divisions (about 600 000 men) – six times more than was allowed by the peace treaty. The generals need not have worried: although the Stresa Front (consisting of Britain, France and Italy) condemned this violation of Versailles, no action was taken; the League was helpless, and the Front collapsed anyway as a result of Hitler’s next success.
  6. Shrewdly realizing how frail the Stresa Front was, Hitler detached Britain by offering to limit the German navy to 35 per cent of the strength of the British navy. Britain eagerly accepted, signing the Anglo-German Naval Agreement (June 1935); British thinking seems to have been that since the Germans were already breaking Versailles by building a fleet, it would be as well to have it limited. Without consulting her two allies, Britain had condoned German rearmament, which went ahead with gathering momentum. By the end of 1938 the army stood at 51 divisions (about 800 000 men) plus reserves, there were 21 large naval vessels (battleships, cruisers and destroyers), many more under construction, and 47 U-boats. A large air force of over 5000 aircraft had been built up.
  7. Encouraged by his successes, Hitler took the calculated risk of sending troops into the demilitarized zone of the Rhineland (March 1936), a breach of both Versailles and Locarno. Though the troops had orders to withdraw at the first sign of French opposition, no resistance was offered, except the usual protests. At the same time, well aware of the mood of pacifism among his opponents, Hitler soothed them by offering a peace treaty to last for 25 years.
  8. Later in 1936 Hitler consolidated Germany’s position by reaching an understanding with Mussolini (the Rome-Berlin Axis) and by signing the Anti-Comintern Pact with Japan (also joined by Italy in 1937). Germans and Italians gained military experience by helping Franco to victory in the Spanish Civil War. One of the most notorious exploits in this war was the bombing of the defenceless Basque market town of Guernica by the German Condor Legion.
  9. 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. Realizing that this could be the prelude to a German invasion, Schuschnigg announced a referendum about whether or not Austria should remain independent. Hitler decided to act before it was held, in case the vote went against union; German troops moved in and Austria became part of the Third Reich. It was a triumph for Germany: it revealed the weakness of Britain and France, who again only protested. It showed the value of the new German understanding with Italy, and it dealt a severe blow to 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 get the German-speaking Sudetenland, a campaign which ended in triumph at the Munich Conference in September 1938.

Before examining the events of Munich and after, it will be a good idea to pause and consider why it was that Hitler was allowed to get away with all these violations of the Versailles settlement. The reason can be summed up in one word – appeasement.

(a) What is meant by the term ‘appeasement’?

Appeasement was the policy followed by the British, and later by the French, of avoiding war with aggressive powers such as Japan, Italy and Germany, by giving way to their demands, provided they were not too unreasonable.

There were two distinct phases of appeasement

  1. From the mid-1920s until 1937, there was a vague feeling that war must be avoided at all cost, and Britain and sometimes France drifted along, accepting the various acts of aggression and breaches of Versailles (Manchuria, Abyssinia, German rearmament, the Rhineland reoccupation).
  2. When Neville Chamberlain became British prime minister in May 1937, he gave appeasement new drive; he believed in taking the initiative – he would find out what Hitler wanted and show him that reasonable claims could be met by negotiation rather than by force.

The beginnings of appeasement can be seen in British policy during the 1920s with the Dawes and Young Plans, which tried to conciliate the Germans, and also with the Locarno Treaties and their vital omission – Britain did not agree to guarantee Germany’s eastern frontiers, which even Stresemann, the ‘good German’, said must be revised. When Austen Chamberlain, the British Foreign Minister (and Neville’s half-brother), remarked at the time of Locarno that no British government would ever risk the bones of a single British grenadier in defence of the Polish Corridor, it seemed to the Germans that Britain had turned her back on eastern Europe. Appeasement reached its climax at Munich, where Britain and France were so determined to avoid war with Germany that they made Hitler a present of the Sudetenland, and so set in motion the destruction of Czechoslovakia. Even with such big concessions as this, appeasement failed.

(b) What were the reasons for the policy of appeasement?

At the time appeasement was being followed, there seemed to be many very good things in its favour, and the appeasers (who included MacDonald, Baldwin, Simon and Hoare as well as Neville Chamberlain) were convinced that their policy was right:

Economic difficulties

  • Europe’s economy was still recovering from WWI and the effects of the Wall Street Crash. It was thought that a strong, prosperous Germany could help revitalise the economy of these nations.
  • During the 1930s there was a great trade depression and money was tight. With three million people unemployed, the government had to spend money on social welfare rather than weapons and soldiers. British Prime Minister Chamberlain wanted to increase the amount of money used for social welfare, so was reluctant to increase military spending.


Economic co-operation between Britain and Germany would be good for both.

  • If Britain helped the German economy to recover, Germany’s internal violence would die down.


Public Opinion

  • Feelings expressed by Lord Lothian during the Rhineland crisis that Germany was only going into their own back garden had support.
  • Popular opinion in Britain at the time was that German had been punished too heavily by the terms of the Versailles treaty. Paying reparations to the nations it had invaded had crippled the German economy.
  • Before the outbreak of war, many people admired Hitler. After the ruinous end of WW I, Hitler appeared to have rebuilt Germany and made it a powerful country again.
  • Many people thought Hitler’s demands to regain control of territories that used to belong to Germany were justified as many of these territories had German-speaking populations.
  • After Guernica in April 1937 support for non-intervention increased as it was feared that another war would become inevitable. Of the British public only a minority favoured a stronger line, and then only when British interests/lives were threatened. Few were very critical of non intervention however this was a minority view.
  • Closer links between Germany and Austria were seen as inevitable. Some politicians held the view that Austria generally welcomed the Anschluss (Nazi propaganda term for the invasion and forced incorporation of Austria by Nazi Germany in March 1938) and that it would be futile to try and preserve their independence against their own wishes. There was a lack of public concern as Austria was German speaking, and had subsequently supported the Anschluss in a plebiscite. The Anschluss was not seen as a problem by most people because the Anschluss was seen as a product of the Versailles Settlement which was already widely discredited.
  • Minority opinions showed serious concern – part of the wider scheme of expansion and aggression by Hitler, this was the view of some Conservatives such as Churchill and other anti-appeaser’s such as Low. Churchill called the Anschluss a programme of aggression, nicely calculated and timed. Minority of public concerned over immediate persecution of Austrian Jews reported in the press.


  • The Oxford University student debating society voted by 257 votes to 153 that this house will in no circumstances fight for King and Country. This caused shock waves in the country because it was interpreted as a sign that the ruling classes had been converted to pacifism.
  • A Conservative candidate supporting increases in defence spending was heavily defeated by a Labour candidate who was widely regarded as antiwar.
  • The Peace Ballot 1934: A house to house survey carried out across the whole country by the League of Nations Union had 11.5 million replies. The response was overwhelming support for the principle of collective security through the League of Nations.
  • After the horrors of WWI, there was a widespread revulsion at the thought of war. Since then, new advances in weaponry, such as long distance bombers, meant towns and cities could be targeted and the civilian death toll could be huge in a future war.The peace movement was expanding in Britain and rest of the Europe and public mood was very much against another European war.

Concern over the Empire

  • Any war in Europe involving Britain could threaten the security of her Empire. During the 1930s Britain’s empire had come under threat from Japan and Italy furthermore Britain had to deal with trouble in India and the Middle East and in Ireland.
  • In 1938 several countries in the British Empire, including Canada and South Africa said they would not go to war in support of Britain should war break out with Germany over Czechoslovakia.

Lack of reliable allies of Britain

  • France at this time was politically divided. France had only a static defence policy based on the Maginot line and would be unlikely to assist any attempt to oust Germany from the Rhineland. The USA was in isolation and wanted nothing to do with Europe. (The Maginot Line dominated French military thinking in the inter-war years. The Maginot Line was a vast fortification that spread along the French/German border but became a military liability when the Germans attacked France in the spring of 1940 using blitzkrieg – a tactic that completely emasculated the Maginot Line’s purpose)
  • At time of Anschluss, Britain had no allies in the area around Austria. Italy was no longer a protector of Austria as it had been in 1934.
  • At the Imperial Conference in London in 1937, member states of the British Empire, such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, made it clear that they would not take part in another war in Europe.
  • The USA was following a policy of isolation and was inclined to stay out of European affairs. There were question marks over France’s ability to be an effective ally. The country was politically unstable during the 1930s with violent clashes in the streets between supporters of right and left wing parties.
  • The League of Nations, established after WWI to help prevent future conflicts, had proved ineffective. The member states could not reach agreements or enforce their decisions.

Military weaknesses

  • The British Government was concerned with the weakness of its armed forces, notably the lack of home defences, especially against the bomber. There had been widespread disarmament in the 1920s; there were no troops immediately available to mount a challenge.
  • British military chiefs told Chamberlain that Britain was not strong enough to fight a war against more than one country at the same time. At the time of the Anschluss, Chiefs of Staff warned the Government that fighting Hitler now might encourage Italy and Japan to take advantage of Britain’s overstretched and under-resourced overseas commitments. Nazi propaganda encouraged Britain and France to believe that Germany’s forces were a lot stronger than they really were.
  • Even the navy, which was the strongest in the world apart from the American navy, would have found it difficult to defend Britain’s far-flung Empire and at the same time protect merchant shipping in the event of war against Germany, Japan and Italy simultaneously. The air force was woefully short of long-range bombers and fighters. The USA was still in favour of isolation and France was weak and divided. Chamberlain speeded up British rearmament so that ‘nobody should treat her with anything but respect’. The longer appeasement lasted, the stronger Britain would become, and the more this would deter aggression, or so Chamberlain hoped.

Fear over spread of Communism

  • Many British politicians regarded Communism as a greater threat than Nazi Germany. Their view of brutal Communism was reinforced by the brutal show trials if the 1930s in Stalin’s Soviet Union. A common saying at the time was better Hitlerism than Communism.
  • In Britain during most of the 1930s, the Conservative party was in power. They believed that Communism was a far greater threat to world peace than Hitler.
  • The Conservatives believed that Hitler’s Germany would be a buffer against communist expansion westwards. In fact, many admired Hitler’s drive and his achievements.

Beliefs of Chamberlain

  • Chamberlain believed that Hitler was making extreme statements only to gain publicity and that he was essentially a reasonable man who would choose negotiation rather than conflict.
  • Since the League of Nations seemed to be helpless, Chamberlain believed that the only way to settle disputes was by personal contact between leaders. In this way, he thought, he would be able to control and civilize Hitler, and Mussolini into the bargain, and bring them to respect international law.
  • Several prominent British politicians were very impressed by Hitler. The former PM Lloyd George, who met Hitler in 1936 returned to Britain to describe him as a man of supreme quality. The Labour MP and former party leader George Lansbury, who was a pacifist, wrote in 1937 that Hitler would not go to war unless other people pushed him into it.

(c) What part did appeasement play in international affairs, 1933-9?

Appeasement had a profound effect on the way international relations developed. Although it might have worked with some German governments, with Hitler it was doomed to failure. Many historians believe that it convinced Hitler of the complacency and weakness of Britain and France to such an extent that he was willing to risk attacking Poland, thereby starting the Second World War.

It is important to emphasize that appeasement was mainly a British policy, with which the French did not always agree. Poincare stood up to the Germans, and although Briand was in favour of conciliation, even he drew the line at the proposed Austro-German customs union in 1931. Louis Barthou, foreign minister for a few months in 1934, believed in firmness towards Hitler and aimed to build up a strong anti-German group which would include Italy and the USSR. This is why he pressed for Russia’s entry into the League of Nations, which took place in September 1934. He told the British that France ‘refused to legalize German rearmament’, contrary to the Versailles Treaties. Unfortunately Barthou was assassinated in October 1934, along with King Alexander of Yugoslavia, who was on a state visit to France. They were both shot by Croat terrorists shortly after the king had arrived in Marseilles. Barthou’s successor, Pierre Laval, signed an alliance with Russia in May 1935, though it was a weak affair – there was no provision in it for military co-operation, since Laval distrusted the communists. He pinned his main hopes on friendship with Mussolini, but these were dashed by the failure of the Hoare-Laval Pact (It was a December 1935 proposal by British Foreign Secretary Samuel Hoare and French Prime Minister Pierre Laval for ending the Second Italo-Abyssinian War). After this the French were so deeply split between left and right that no decisive foreign policy seemed possible; since the right admired Hitler, the French fell in behind the British.

Examples of appeasement at work

  1. No action was taken to check the obvious German rearmament. Lord Lothian, a Liberal, had a revealing comment to make about this, after visiting Hitler in January 1935: ‘I am convinced that Hitler does not want war … what the Germans are after is a strong army which will enable them to deal with Russia.’
  2. The Anglo-German Naval Agreement condoning German naval rearmament was signed without any consultation with France and Italy. This broke the Stresa Front, gravely shook French confidence in Britain, and encouraged Laval to look for understandings with Mussolini and Hitler.
  3. There was only half-hearted British action against the Italian invasion of Abyssinia.
  4. The French, though disturbed at the German reoccupation of the Rhineland (March 1936), did not mobilize their troops. They were deeply divided, and ultra cautious, and they received no backing from the British, who were impressed by Hitler’s offer of a 25-year peace. In fact, Lord Londonderry (a Conservative, and Secretary of State for Air from 1931 to 1935), was reported to have sent Hitler a telegram congratulating him on his success. Lord Lothian remarked that German troops had merely entered their own ‘back garden’.
  5. Neither Britain nor France intervened in the Spanish Civil War, though Germany and Italy sent decisive help to Franco. Britain tried to entice Mussolini to remove his troops by officially recognizing Italian possession of Abyssinia (April 1938); however, Mussolini failed to keep his side of the bargain.
  6. Though both Britain and France protested strongly at the Anschluss between Germany and Austria (March 1938), many in Britain saw it as the natural union of one German group with another. But Britain’s lack of action encouraged Hitler to make demands on Czechoslovakia, which produced Chamberlain’s supreme act of appeasement and Hitler’s greatest triumph to date – Munich.

Opponents of appeasement

  • Although the vast majority of British people agreed with the government and its policy of appeasement, there were some individuals who disagreed.
  • One of those individuals was Winston Churchill. Churchill believed that Hitler could not be dealt with because his aims and objectives were not rational. As such, no amount of appeasement would satisfy the man – he would always want more.
  • After the Rhineland crisis in a debate in the House of Commons in Britain in March 1936, Winston Churchill warned that the atmosphere in Europe had changed recently to the extent that war was being regarded as a serious responsibility. He also described the German occupation of the Rhineland as a menace to Holland, Belgium and France.
  • Churchill was not alone in voicing concern. British Communists and those on the left wing of the Labour Party were alarmed at German militarization and aggression and demanded action against Hitler.



2 thoughts on “International relations between the two world wars: 1933-1939 (Part-2)”

Leave a Reply