Road to War



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British foreign policy under Stanley Baldwin had been characterised by confusion and drift, as was shown by the government's handling of both the Abyssinian Crisis and the German re-occupation of the Rhineland. Mussolini was alienated from the allied cause but Hitler was only further encouraged in his policy of confronting the allies directly on the remaining terms of the Treaty of Versailles. Neville Chamberlain was not a man to allow matters to drift and he head decided that on becoming prime Minister he would follow a more positive policy. Simply stated Chamberlain hoped to prevent a future war in Europe b y removing the legitimate grievances of the Germans by peaceful negotiations. Chamberlain was a businessman and he belived that UK PLC could do business with Germany AG. The name given to this policy was appeasement and it was a controverial policy then and has remained one ever since. Its fiercest critis was Winston Churchill and he used the first volume of his post war history of the Second World war to demolish Chamberlain's reputation. He, and other critics, argued that the correct policy was to stand firm and call Hitler's bluff, even if this meant war. Since the late 1960s there has been considerable revision of this view. So what lay behind Chamberlain's policy?


Chamberlain's policy was not simply that Britain should give in to Hitler. In fact Chamberlian followed a two track policy of appeasement and rearmament, though he hoped that the former would make the latter unnecessary. He appointed the energetic Leslie Hore-Belisha to the war Office to speed up the modernisation of the army. He rejected Anthony Eden's idea that you had no contact with the dictators until you were ready to fight them. This risked war when you were least prepared for it. Chamberlain had no sympathy with the League of Nations since while the organisation was prepared to debate action he believed that the burden of any action would fall on Britain. Therefore Britain must act independently. The following seven factors help to explain Chamberlain's attitude and why he followed the policy of appeasement.

Fear of Communism - Chamberlain saw Communism as a greater threat to the British Empire than Nazism. Communism destroyed the established order, caused famines and Red Terrors, and was for export. Nazism was aggressive but limited and left capitalism untouched unless the companies were Jewish. There was enough latent anti-semitism in Britain in the 1930s for this not to raise too many eyebrows. From 1936 onwards Stalin talked of forming a common front with the democracies against the Fascist dictators but the Comintern still agitated for world revolution. Given these ambiguities Chamberlain felt that he could not trust the USSR. Also the countries of eastern Europe, especially Poland and Rumania, were unwilling to receive Soviet help fearing that once the Red Army was in their countries they would not leave. Fear of revolution was a strong motive in Conservative circles in the interwar period and many believed that war and revolution went hand in hand, as it had done in many places in 1917-18. Better to avoid war and prevent revolution.

Military Unpreparedness - From 1919 onwards the British army and the RAF were deliberately run down by governments anxious to keep government spending as low as possible. Both forces had become little more than imperial police forces with the army helping to maintain order in Ireland and Pa;estine and the RAF dropping bombs on the "mad Mullah" in the Middle East. The Royal Navy had been seriously diminished by the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922 and she had to face new more modern navies from Italy and Japan. In particular there was a profound fear of the bomber which was expected to cause very heavy casualties from the moment the war broke out. Chamberlain commented on the vulnerability of London, as his plane flew up the line of the Thames on his way back from the Munich Conferenmce in September 1938. Rearmament had started in 1934 but the pace was slow due to the need to allay popular distrust of large armaments and also to prevent a serious financial crisis caused by excessive public spending.

World Power or European Power? - Britain was not just a European power but a world power with an Empire that stretched from Gibralter all round the world to Hong Kong and back. Germany was not the only potential threat to Imperial stability. In the Mediterranean Mussolini was building up a modern navy and apparently an equally modern and efficient army. In the far east the Japanese had invaded and seized manchuria from China in 1931 and in 1937 they renewed their onslaught on China by bombing Shanghai and raping Nanking. This seemed to pose a much more serous threat to India than the vague threat from Hitler. In any case Chamberlain argued there was no vital British interest at stake in Eastern Europe. These really were quarrels "in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing". Since Britain did not have the strength to take on all these potential aggressors it made sense to Chamberlain to negotiate rather than fight.

Attitude of The Dominions - Australian, New Zealand, South African and Canadian troops had all contributed greatly to britain's war effort in the First World War. Gallipoli and Vimy Ridge were only two areas where Imperial War Graves provided eloquent and moving testimony to the sacrifices of the Dominions. These countries were, by 1936, more apt to be isolationist and in the case of South Africa there was a certain sympathy with the rascist philosophy of the Nazis. Australia and New Zealand were more concerned with the future behaviour of Japan than they were of Germany. Who was to rule Teschen was of little concern to someone in Alice Springs. Canada sheltered behind the isolationism of the USA. In 1937 the Canadian prime Minister, mackenzie King, visited Berlin and reported back to his fellow Imperial Prime Ministers that the German leader meant no harm to the Empire.

Lack of Reliable Allies - It had taken the combined forces of the British Empire, France and her Empire, Russia and the USA four bloody and destructive years to bring Germany to the point of surrender. In 1937 Chamberlain saw little hope of renewing this allied force. Russia was now Communist and of doubtful help. France was sliding more and more into an undeclared civil war. In February 1934 there had been serious riots on the streets of paris and from then onwards there had been grave political instability in France. Right wing paramilitary groups such as Action Francaise and the more sinister Cagoulards were determined to undermine French democracy and prevent another war. When Socialists and Communists formed a Popular front Government in 1936 there were many French conservatives who boldly announced that Hitler was preferrable to the leadership of the French socialist Leon Blum. The French army were defeatist in attitude preferring to shelter behind the Maginot Line than further develop the ideas of Colonel De Gaulle on modern tank warfare. To defeat Hitler vthe UK neede a strong continental arm. This was something the French could not provide. After 1918 the Americans withdrew into isolationism and would have nothing to do with European affairs except utter fine sounding platitudes (the Kellog-Briand Pact). Such actions irritated Chamberlain since they offered the maximum of distraction with the minimum of support. How to react to the USAwas one of the factors that caused Chamberlain's breach with Anthony Eden and the latter's replacement by Lord Halifax

Popular Opinion - In the absence of opinion polls it is difficult to establish exactly what the British people felt about war but certainly the popular reaction to Munich, responses to the League of Nations Peace ballot of 1935, and the result of the Fulham By Election, all seem to indicate popular suspicion of rearmament and war. The Labour party criticised the government for its policy of appeasement but was not prepared to support rearmament to give British opposition teeth.

Sympathy with Hitler and Mussolini - There was an undercurrent of synpathy towards boith the dictators in certain social circles in Britain. There were a number of groups dedicated to improving Anglo-German relations, such as the Anglo-German Fellowship and The Link. There was a widely held belief that Germany had been harshly treated by the Treaty of Versailles and that it was now time to make amends. Hitler had restored German respectability, he was a former First World war soldier who had on many occasions spoken of his hatred of further wars, and he was securely anti Communist. Likewise Mussolini was seen by many as a patriotic Italian who had brought much neede stability to Italy and made the trains run on time. Also he might be a useful bulwark to Hitler if he could be worked round to the Franco-British camp. Chamberlain was in secret cporrespondence with Mussolini through his siter in law, Mrs Ida Chamberlain and this was the second factor in the rupture with Eden.

In the end Chamberlain could not prevent Hitler's aggressiveness reaching too far. Hitler's invasion of the rest of Czechoslovakia was the turning point. There was no possible legitimate reason for the German action. There were no German minorities, it had never been part of Germany and Hitler had said that the Sudetenland was his last territorial claim in Europe. Public opinion swung against Hitler, so too did the Dominions. In the cabinet, the Foreign Secretary now spoke out against further appeasement. Guarantees were issued to Poland and others but the key one was Poland.

On September 1st 1939, the Germans invaded Poland and at 11.15am on the 3rd Chamberlain announced that "a state of war" now existed between Britain and Germany.



© History Man, 2001