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

Part 2: 'I Know that England Will Remain Neutral'


Historians have since realized that the military situation for the Western Allies was far from hopeless. Hitler had exposed western Germany by moving troops eastward for the invasion of Czechoslovakia. In addition, Germany's gasoline reserves were barely sufficient for a four-month military campaign. Significantly, senior German military officials feared a world war. A small group, which included Beck and Weizsäcker, even planned to stage a coup in the event that war broke out.

But while Hitler shrugged off his generals' warnings -- "I know that England will remain neutral," he said -- the worst-case scenarios being painted by British and French experts played into the hands of those politicians who wanted to avoid war at all costs.

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The West, at the time, was as puzzled over Hitler's personality and goals as it is today over the motives and plans of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Could a determined approach deter Hitler and thus preserve the peace? Or would Western resoluteness merely encourage Hitler's fanatical supporters to rally behind him, making it more difficult for him to make compromises?

In early September, as the signs of a German attack increased, Chamberlain decided to meet with Hitler in person, apparently in the belief that he, and he alone, could develop a reasonable relationship based on trust.

The premier met with the Führer twice, first on Sept. 15, 1938, at Hitler's mountain retreat near Berchtesgaden, and a week later at the Hotel Dreesen in Bad Godesberg, near Bonn. He was not overly impressed by his host; in a letter to his sister, Chamberlain wrote that Hitler looked "entirely undistinguished" and would not stand out in a crowd.

Serious Miscalculation

To Hitler's amazement, Chamberlain, a democrat he despised, proved to be unbending. Admittedly, the British premier did agree, together with the French, to urge the Czechs and Slovaks to give up the Sudetenland. But Chamberlain was unwilling to yield on the remainder of Czechoslovakia, and he made it clear to Hitler that if Czechoslovakia were attacked, Great Britain and France would side with Prague. Hitler could have it all -- just not with violence. The two men parted ways without having reached a conclusive agreement.

By that point, Chamberlain should have rethought his strategy, since Hitler's stance must have raised the question as to why he would risk a military conflict if he were merely interested in Sudetenland, a concession that the West had already made. But after his first meeting with Hitler, the premier noted: "Here was a man who could be relied upon when he had given his word." The Reich chancellor's intentions were "limited," Chamberlain said. Rarely had a statesman made such a serious miscalculation.

Of course, Hitler's analysis of the situation was also off the mark. He raved, threatened and set ultimatums -- the usual performance. On the evening of Sept. 26, he whipped up 20,000 of his supporters at Berlin's Sportpalast arena. In response, the crowd chanted: "Führer, command us! We will follow you!"

For the first time, however, people proved to be unimpressed by such performances. Hitler's announcement that there would be war by the following week if the British maintained their position was at risk of backfiring on him.

The dictator was pressured from all sides -- by advisers, ministers and military officers -- not to hazard the leap into the dark. Even leading Nazis like Göring could not understand why Germany should go to war for something it could have for nothing.

'I Cannot Wage a War with These People'

To impress foreign diplomats, Hitler ordered a division to conduct a parade in Berlin on the afternoon of Sept. 27. The Führer expected a flood of public enthusiasm, similar to the response in 1914. Instead, he was forced to look on as passersby ducked into entryways or stared at the soldiers in icy silence.

It was the "most striking demonstration against the war that I've ever seen," wrote Berlin-based US journalist William L. Shirer. Hitler turned away from the parade and said: "I cannot wage a war with these people yet."

When Mussolini, under pressure from Chamberlain, argued for a peaceful solution the next morning, the dictator complied. "We have no starting point for war," noted a disappointed Goebbels, one of the few hawks in the Nazi leadership.

Twenty-four hours later, the Allies met in Munich with Hitler and Mussolini, who sought to position himself as a European peace broker, to sign an agreement. Under the plan, Czechoslovakia was to give the Sudetenland to the Third Reich. A few days later the Polish junta attacked defenseless Prague with what Churchill called "the hunger of a hyena" and annexed a disputed region. In return for the Sudetenland, the Führer vowed to renounce all use of violence.

In London, the residents of the British capital greeted their prime minister with ovations, calling him "good old Neville" and singing "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow."

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