When The Great War came to an end in November 1918, the suffering of the nations involved was so appalling that many hoped never to repeat such an experience again. The fact that the Second World War took place just twenty years later is indeed intriguing. There were three prominent underlying factors from the 1920’s onwards that can be evaluated when discussing the causes of the war. They are the Treaty of Versailles, the weakness of the League of Nations and the world economic crisis of the early 1930’s. In short, these factors formed the basis for the starting of a war by providing a tense atmosphere in Europe. However, the Treaty of Versailles and the weakness of the League could only be responsible to a limited extent as Europe in the mid 1920’s was on the road to recovery, with peaceful foreign policies that could have prevented war. Clearly, more major factors were needed in order for a war to breakout. In fact, the three main parties responsible for causing the war were the appeasers (British and French), the Soviet Union and Hitler. In addition, the different viewpoints of historians are also compared in the course of this investigation.
The policy of appeasement adopted by the British and the French was a factor that played a critical role in the outbreak of the war. As the British Prime Minister, Stanly Baldwin was the first to introduce appeasement in the mid 1930’s. However, when Neville Chamberlain came into office in 1937, he took appeasement to a whole new level. According to the British government, the meaning of appeasement was “pacification through the settlement of issues by negotiation and compromise”. The British pursued this policy with great confidence as they had several logical reasons to justify their actions. It was only after the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, that many British began to feel that Germany was indeed “harshly” and unjustly treated. They were also afraid that Germany would turn towards aggression once again and perhaps spark another war. Therefore, Britain was willing to give in to Hitler’s demands as it was a way of “redressing Germany’s legitimate grievances”. Especially after the Wall Street Crash of 1929, the British were interested for various reasons in the “preservation of peace”. With a crippled economy, Britain could not afford to spend on rearming her armed forces, and therefore was in no position to wage a war against aggressor nations.
Hitler came into power with a goal to make Germany into a great power again. Through his foreign policies, Hitler hoped to achieve this by overthrowing the Treaty of Versailles, strengthening the armed forces, recovering lost territory and uniting all Germans within the Reich. This ambition of his was another factor that played a critical role in the outbreak of the war.
Hitler saw himself as “catalyst of the will to Germanic greatness”, and he believed that Germany would only become strong again through the use of aggression and war. In 1934, Hitler posed a direct challenge to the Treaty of Versailles by rearming the German armed forces. He managed to do so by reintroducing conscription and ordering the mass production of submarines, tanks and aircrafts. Upon announcing Germany’s rearmament programme in 1935, the initial response of the British and the French “amounted to little more than solemn protestations and appeals to the League of Nations”. At the Stresa Conference, Britain, together with France and Italy did not attempt to stop Hitler’s rearmaments. Instead, they only assured the protection of Austria’s sovereignty. Similarly, even the League of Nations did not attempt to restrict Hitler’s aggressive rearmament plans as there were “no economic or military sanctions imposed”. As a result of appeasement, Hitler’s confidence grew significantly. The Anglo-German Naval Agreement signed in June 1935 was Britain’s form of appeasement towards the German rearmaments. The terms of the agreement acknowledged the German rearmament of her Navy and it was limited to thirty-five percent of the British fleet. It was the first time where the British openly approved a German contravention of the Versailles Settlement. Besides, the signing of the agreement was solely made by Britain, without the consent of France and Italy. The agreement did not only undermine the mutual trust between Britain and France, but also compromised the Stresa Front.
As the agreement was effective in helping Germany flout the Treaty of Versailles, Hitler felt assured that the appeasers would not stop his rearmament programmes and perhaps even his goals to overthrow the treaty. In 1936, Hitler ordered the remilitarization of the Rhineland. As the Rhineland was a strategic “military position from which the French could have struck at the heart of Germany’s power” , reoccupying it removed a serious threat to Germany’s sovereignty. Prior to the reoccupation, the appeasers were well aware of Hitler’s plans to carry out a “coup”. However, they did not attempt to stop him from taking back what was originally Germany’s. France could have stopped Hitler by sending in troops, but however she was afraid of waging a war with Germany, given the lack of British support. Germany could then deter future French aggression by building heavy defenses and deploying troops in the Rhine region.
As a result, Hitler grew even bolder and he began to challenge the balance of power in Europe.
The German annexation of Austria was finally successful in March 1938. Hitler saw the annexation of Austria “as a solution to the problems of Germany’s war-orientated economy”, and also as a way of uniting all Germans within the Reich. Following the demonstrations staged by the Austrian Nazis on Hitler’s order, German troops were sent to occupy Austria. As Britain believed that Austria was under the sphere of German influence, the responses of the appeasers were nothing more than protests. The Anschluss with Austria did not only strengthen the friendship between Germany and Italy, but it also provided Hitler with a “direct passage into Southeast Europe”. Appeasement from Britain and France once again gave Hitler a confidence boost to continue his conquest.
Following the Anschluss with Austria, Czechoslovakia was next on Hitler’s agenda. Assured by his previous successes, Hitler demanded for the incorporation of the Sudetenland into the Third Reich. The Sudetenland was the wealthiest and the most industrialized region of Czechoslovakia, with the largest population of German minorities living outside Germany. In support of the Sudeten Nazis led by Henlein, Hitler caused a widespread political turmoil with his propaganda campaign. Afraid that a war might breakout, the appeasers called on the Czech President, Benes to make compromises with Hitler. Hoping to resolve the issues, Chamberlain met Hitler on three separate occasions. At Berchtesgaden, Hitler honored Chamberlain’s proposal that there would be self-determination for Sudetenland. However, at Godesberg, Hitler demanded the immediate impartment of Sudetenland into the Third Reich. Unwilling to compromise any further, Chamberlain returned to Britain and ordered the armed forces to prepare for war. At the Munich Conference, the Big Four gave in to Hitler’s harshest terms. The Czechs, on the other hand were forced to sign the agreement. Chamberlain then signed another pact with Hitler, stating that the two nations would never go to war again. As Hitler invaded the rest of Czechoslovakia in March 1939, it was clear that the policy of appeasement was a failure. Hitler “had now reached the limits of what the appeasers were willing to tolerate from him”.
Yet with the rising tension, Hitler took a risk and invaded Poland. When he ignored the ultimatum issued by Britain and France to stop his invasion of Poland, the appeasers declared war on Germany.
Appeasement was also to blame as it was a way of seeking peace at the expense of others. In order to prevent a war, Britain and France not only gave in to Hitler’s demands for the strengthening of Germany, but also granted him territories outside of Germany. From the evidence gathered, it can be seen that the appeasers were indirectly assisting Hitler as he embarked on his expansionist campaign. This in turn severely undermined the sovereignty of these smaller nations, causing much tension in Europe. With more resources to sustain the war-orientated economy, Hitler’s Germany grew stronger with every acquisition made. This was clearly shown when Hitler incorporated the Sudetenland into the Third Reich after the signing of the Munich Agreement.
However, it is important to note that appeasement could not be totally blamed for the outbreak of the war. Based on the evidence gathered, Britain and France had legitimate and practical reasons for adopting the policy of appeasement. During the 1930’s, both Britain and France were faced with several genuine domestic problems. The Wall Street Crash of 1929 severely weakened the British economy, and thus the government had to put rearmaments on hold. As Britain was unprepared for war, appeasement seemed to be the best option to avoid one. France, on the other hand was in fact not capable of waging a war with Germany without the support of the British. In addition, the British government sought appeasement with Germany only after taking into consideration the welfare of the country as well as others. Given the economic situation Britain was in, appeasement was the most practical and realistic approach for Chamberlain to take as it would bring about peace and stability not only for the British people but hopefully for the rest of Europe. The response from the British public regarding the policy of appeasement was welcoming. Therefore, even though appeasement is usually associated with only Baldwin and Chamberlain, it is crucial to note that it was generally Britain’s policy as a whole.
Appeasement could also not be totally blamed for the outbreak of the war as there was a widespread fear of Communism among the Western Powers. One of the main reasons why Britain adopted appeasement was because she saw Germany as a “buffer zone” against the USSR. Britain was therefore afraid that should Germany fall, the British Empire would be directly threatened by the USSR. As a result, pursuing appeasement was also Britain’s approach to prevent the spread of Communism. Furthermore, seeking appeasement with Germany was a much more “realistic” approach in ensuring peace compared to collaborating with France and the USSR. However, as Britain was unwilling to form an alliance with the USSR due to her fear of Communism, Hitler managed to sign the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact with the USSR. This in turn had a part to play in the outbreak of the war.
As seen, Britain was not totally at fault when she signed the Munich Agreement in September 1938. This is because even though Britain and France gave in to Hitler’s demands of the Sudetenland, it bought precious time for them to rearm their forces and prepare to war. This step was especially essential for Britain in her war preparations. Furthermore, it was Hitler who misinterpreted the policy of appeasement as a weakness of Britain and France. This in fact, according to the appeasers was only intended to preserve peace. Therefore, the policy of appeasement cannot be totally blamed for the outbreak of the war.
From a traditionalist viewpoint, Hitler was to be blamed to a large extent for the outbreak of the war. This was following an agreement made right after the war ended by the victor nations that Germany should be blamed. The main reason for this accusation was because of Hitler’s blueprints for the war. With total control over the German foreign policy, Hitler made the “German policy in diplomacy, economics and armaments compatible with his absolute determination to prepare for war”. Besides, he also made it clear on several occasions that in order for Germany to regain her status as a superpower, a war was inevitable. Furthermore, in the Hossbach Memorandum, Hitler announced to his military chiefs about his expansionist plans, with “Lebensraum being the ultimate objective of his government’s foreign policy”. By doing so, Hitler set out the blueprints for the war, which was to achieve Lebensraum through the invasion of Poland and the USSR. Such a plan was indeed beneficial to Germany as well as Hitler himself, as it ensured the extermination of the Red Menace.
Contrastingly, from a revisionist point of view, Hitler was still at fault but for a different reason. As argued by AJP Taylor, Hitler was an opportunist who “exploited events far more than he followed precise coherent plans.” In addition, he made use of numerous occasions to express his desire for peace and to emphasize the importance of the preservation of peace. This enabled him to convince the other leaders such as Chamberlain that his intentions were completely peaceful. Furthermore, Hitler was also at fault for misreading the intentions of Britain and France. Instead of looking at appeasement from the appeasers’ point of view, Hitler saw it as a weakness of the two nations. This misinterpretation of his provided him with much confidence and a sense of security. As a result, Hitler grew bolder with each success which eventually culminated in a war. Hitler’s aggressive approach was also to blame as it undermined the balance of power in Europe, causing a rise in tension among European nations.
Hitler was also to blame for the outbreak of the war as he repeatedly manipulated the appeasers. His “German peace propaganda, aimed at mollifying and blackmailing the international community” was highly effective. As a result, he often managed to assure the appeasers that his intentions were genuinely unaggressive. Britain and France therefore had no reason to spark a war with Germany, especially when they were avoiding one. Instead, they continued to adopt the policy of appeasement, which in a way was pacifying Hitler. Hitler was therefore assured that Britain and France would do whatever they could to prevent a war from breaking out. He was confident that he could expand his demands, and the appeasers would continue to give in to him. Hitler was a skilful strategist in a way that he presented his demands to the “international community in a reasonable and understandable manner”. Furthermore, as he presented them as his final demands, the appeasers had more reasons to give in to him.
However, according to AJP Taylor, even Hitler himself was not fully responsible for the outbreak of the war. Hitler’s preparation for war was justifiable as it was his job as Chancellor to protect Germany’s national sovereignty in light of rising tensions in Europe. Besides, even Britain and France themselves were in the process of rearming. From the beginning, Hitler’s ambition was no doubt to strengthen Germany and make her into a superpower once again. This ambition of his however was shared among the Germans and thus it cannot be solely associated with Hitler alone. In addition, Hitler was not fully responsible for the outbreak of the war as he could not have accomplished everything by himself. In fact, he was aided by thousands of Germans who obeyed his orders unquestioningly. Besides, based on the evidence gathered, Hitler was mainly a “sounding board” for Germany.
From AJP Taylor, Hitler was not fully at fault as he never wanted a general war. Hitler’s mentality was such that he aimed to gain by peaceful methods and to be victorious without waging a war. Indirectly, it was a folly on the side of the appeasers who gave in to his demands, and as a result should bear the responsibility for the outbreak of the war. Hitler was also a victim as he had never thought that Britain and France would stand up to him and declare war on Germany after he invaded Poland, given his previous successes from 1936 to 1939. In conclusion, the outbreak of the Second World War was a shared responsibility mainly between Hitler, Britain and France. The policy of appeasement which was intended by Britain and France to preserve peace was misread by Hitler as a weakness. The appeasers were partially responsible for causing the war as appeasement provided Hitler with a platform to increase his demands with each success he attained. Furthermore, they were inconsistent in their stand towards Hitler’s aggression. As the appeasers have been giving in to Hitler’s demands since 1936, Hitler assumed that they would do the same for his invasion of Poland.
Unexpectedly, Britain and France declared war on Germany and this sparked off the war. Hitler himself was also partially at fault for causing the war as he misinterpreted the intentions of the appeasers and turned towards aggression. The other underlying factors such as the Versailles Settlement, the weakness of the League and the world economic crisis all played minor roles in the outbreak of the war. They were primarily responsible for creating a tense atmosphere in Europe but were too trivial to spark a war. The Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact was also partially responsible as it provided the assurance Hitler needed in order to invade Poland without having to worry about a Soviet invasion. In short, the outbreak of the war was the result of a series of misunderstandings and miscalculations made by the respective leaders.