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

By Klaus Wiegrefe

In the years leading up to World War II, Britain and France underestimated just how determined Adolf Hitler was in his lust for conquest. The failure of Neville Chamberlain's policy of appeasement meant war was inevitable.

Editor's note: This is part two of a SPIEGEL article about the beginning of World War II. You can read part one here.You can also read an accompanying interview with former German President Richard von Weizsäcker about his personal experiences as a soldier in World War II.

A few days after returning from Vienna, Hitler, beaming with joy, told Goebbels "Czechoslovakia is next." Goebbels noted in his diary: "The Führer is wonderful. A true genius."

To Goebbels and Hitler, European dominance seemed within their grasp. Eighteen months later, they would take the final step into World War II.

Hitler met with Konrad Henlein, leader of the Sudeten German Party. In 1919, the Allied victors had incorporated Sudetenland, which had formerly been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, into Czechoslovakia. However most Sudeten Germans rejected the newly formed nation, which discriminated against them. Particularly hard-hit by the Great Depression, many Sudeten Germans became increasingly enthusiastic about the chancellor in neighboring Germany.

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In March 1938 Henlein, referring to the government in Prague, told Hitler: "We must always demand so much that we can never be satisfied."

Hitler's ambitions, of course, extended beyond the Sudetenland. He used the escalating crisis in Czechoslovakia, instigated with Henlein's help, as an excuse to invade, and said that it was his "staunch desire to wipe Czechoslovakia off the map." The Wehrmacht received orders to be prepared for an invasion by no later than Oct. 1. Henlein's Sudeten German Party took on the task of provoking a growing number of incidents, and soon his supporters were engaging in gun battles with government soldiers in the region bordering the German Reich.

'Force Is the Only Argument'

Europe was already consumed by fears of an approaching war. Insurance companies in London were no longer issuing policies with coverage against war damage.

British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain noted: "It is perfectly evident surely now that force is the only argument Germany understands."

And yet, in the end, no one came to the defense of Czechoslovakia, the only true democracy east of the Elbe River. Why not? Paris and Moscow were allied with Prague. However, neither of the two major powers could prevent a German invasion. The Soviets would have had to traverse Poland and Romania to reach Czechoslovakia, but both countries refused to allow Soviet troops to cross their territory. And France, which still had the option of attacking the Third Reich from the West, deferred to London once again.

As a result, in the summer of 1938 all eyes were on Prime Minister Chamberlain who, despite his 69 years, was inexperienced when it came to foreign policy. With his upturned collar, Homburg hat and watch chain, he seemed like a relic of the 19th century. Nevertheless, behind Chamberlain's old-fashioned appearance lay a serious determination which led Hitler to call him a "crazy old bastard."

Chamberlain, the conservative product of a family of politicians, was part of a large faction that sought to appease Germany by fulfilling its wishes, provided they appeared legitimate and were not enforced with violence.

Appeasement was a policy that fed on emotions as well as intellect, at least with Chamberlain. The British prime minister had lost his beloved cousin in World War I. From then on, he advocated the basic principle of all pacifists: Wars have no winners, only losers.

Looking the Other Way

As a former chancellor of the exchequer, Chamberlain was also keenly aware that the weary empire was stretched too thin, facing, as it did, challenges from Italy in the Mediterranean, from Japan in the Far East, and from Germany and the Stalinist Soviet Union in continental Europe.

Under these circumstances, it was tempting to appease the Third Reich at least by accommodating its demands. By 1938, several thousand people had fallen victim to Nazi terror. But most of them were communists and social democrats, making it easier for London's conservative establishment to look the other way. In the Soviet Union, on the other hand, Stalin's thugs had murdered more than a million people. Chamberlain could easily imagine cooperating with a more moderate Hitler to stabilize Central Europe against communist influences.

For this reason, the premier was willing to give the Germans free rein in dealing with the Sudeten "problem." In fact, he could even argue that the existing borders were not in keeping with the frequently invoked principle of self-determination.

The appeasers were later accused of have lost their moral compass. Critics are quick to point to the servility of British diplomats, which Hitler secretly derided, and the contempt with which many appeasers spoke of Eastern Europe.

But there was more to London's soft stance toward the Nazis. Even though a generation had passed since the "Great War," the majority of Britons shied away from another war. Great Britain's dominions, like South Africa, Australia and Canada, were also reluctant to sacrifice their soldiers on Europe's battlefields for the Sudetenland. From the standpoint of domestic policy, there was no alternative to Chamberlain's course.

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