Punch, 2 April 1919 (cartoon by Bernard Partridge). ©Chinook Multimedia Inc.

"The Reckoning."


In the immediate aftermath of the war, European nations had little sympathy for Germany. Over time, however, a consensus developed that Germany had been punished too harshly.

Given the horrors of the First World War, European leaders were very reluctant to confront Hitler. Moreover, many of them felt somewhat guilty regarding their treatment of Germany following the war; they admitted that Germany had legitimate grievances that required concessions. As well, the European nations that had led the world in the nineteenth century were no longer as strong following the First World War. Recovery was uneven. Then, the Great Depression hit. France's governments of the 1930s were loath to act unaccompanied by Britain. And the Great Depression hit Britain even harder than France. British domestic policy was based on balanced budgets and its foreign policy on the avoidance of confrontation and costly rearmament.

Hitler was skilled in exploiting this reluctance and guilt. For example, in March 1936, German troops reoccupied the Rhineland, a territory that was supposed to be a demilitarized zone. Many historians cite the failure of Britain and France to react here as a decisive moment. These scholars argue that intervention at this point could have prevented war since Germany had just started to rebuild its army. Germany annexed Austria in March 1938. By September of that year, Germany was demanding that the Sudetenland, a predominantly German-speaking region of Czechoslovakia that had been part of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, suffer the same fate. Despite these provocations, however, the rest of Europe still hoped that Hitler could be controlled peacefully.

Germany's Sudetenland demands placed Europe on the brink of war. The British prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, and the French premier, Edouard Daladier, flew to Munich in September 1938 to meet with Hitler and his ally, Mussolini, in hopes of reaching an accommodation. Czechoslovakia, the nation most directly concerned, was excluded from the negotiations. At Munich, the French and British leaders accepted German annexation of the Sudetenland in exchange for Hitler's assurance that these new borders would be respected. When Chamberlain returned to Britain, he claimed to have achieved "peace in our time." Such optimism proved unjustified. In March 1939, only a few months after the signing of the Munich agreements, German troops occupied the remaining areas of Czechoslovakia. Appeasement, as the policy of conceding to Hitler's demands came to be called, was finally discredited. Europe mobilized for war. Finally, Britain and France recognized that appeasement had only encouraged the Nazi expansionist policies and done little to avert a crisis in Europe.


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