The Road to World War II How Appeasement Failed to Stop Hitler

Part 3: A Disaster for the West


Munich 1938. The meeting of the statesmen seemed to have become a symbol of a great day in European history, of a willingness to make compromises and promote peace, and of reason and political foresight.

But from the standpoint of military strategy, the appeasement policy proved to be a disaster for the West. Without the natural barrier of Sudetenland and deprived of the system of border fortifications there, Czechoslovakia had become impossible to defend.

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Politically speaking, however, Chamberlain's willingness to compromise eventually contributed to the demise of Nazi Germany, because the prime minister's concessions left no doubt as to the Germans' sole culpability for any further escalation.

Hitler had not taken things too far yet, and everything could still have ended peacefully -- without the invasion of Poland, without Stalingrad and without the bombing of Dresden.

But in the early morning hours of March 15, 1939, German tanks rolled through a late winter snowstorm sweeping across Bohemia and Moravia. Because resistance would have been a lost cause, the government in Prague ordered its own soldiers to lay down their arms.

'The Most Beautiful Day of My Life'

Hitler triumphantly referred to the invasion by his troops as the "destruction of the remains of Czechoslovakia." The western portion of the republic was incorporated into the Reich as the "Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia," while Slovakia became a satellite state within the German empire.

"Children, now each of you give me a kiss here and here," called out an exuberant Hitler to his secretaries, pointing to this cheeks. "This is the most beautiful day of my life!" The British, on the other hand, called it "the rape of Prague." In their view, the German soldiers had defiled the golden city on the Vltava River.

Within hours, the euphoric enthusiasm millions of Britons had shown for the appeasement policy turned into outrage and, bit-by-bit, fierce resistance.

In a major speech he gave in his native Birmingham, Chamberlain warned that "no greater mistake could be made than to suppose that, because it (Great Britain) believes war to be a cruel and senseless thing, this nation has so far lost its fiber that it will not take part, to the utmost of its power, in resisting such a challenge."

Now the prime minister introduced conscription. Now he was prepared to negotiate with the hated Soviet Union. And now Great Britain and, in its wake, France voiced a guarantee for Hitler's former junior partner, Poland. Intelligence agents had reported that Germany was preparing an attack on Warsaw.

But was it still possible to deter Hitler?

The Goal of Lebensraum

April 1939. The Nazis had ruled Germany for more than six years, and if their supreme party leader had died then and not six years later, the Germans of that generation would have viewed him as one of the greatest men in history. The so-called disgrace of Versailles had been completely wiped out, and the Reich was more powerful than ever before.

But Hitler wasn't satisfied. His true goal, with British acquiescence and Poland's help, was to invade the Soviet Union to acquire Lebensraum ("living space") for the Aryan race.

But ever since Munich, he was increasingly convinced that a war with Britain had to be taken into consideration. And the Poles, for their part, did not submit to the wishes of the Führer.

Hitler had offered them a "permanent settlement" of relations, a non-aggression pact that would remain in place until 1959, at which time Warsaw would join forces with him to fight the Soviets. He also wanted to regain control over Danzig (today Gdansk), which was under the protection of the League of Nations, and to create an extraterritorial road and railroad line from the heart of the Reich to East Prussia, that is, a corridor of sorts through the Polish Corridor. Compared with Hitler's other demands, this was downright restrained.

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