In 1938, Germany was a total dictatorship under the Nazi Party and Chancellor Adolf Hitler. Although the 1919 Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I had imposed strict disarmament terms on Germany, by the late 1930s, Hitler had dropped all pretense of observing the terms of the treaty. He began not only to rebuild his military rapidly, but also to speak openly of Germany’s need for lebensraum , or “living space.”
In March 1938, offering little in the way of justification, Nazi troops took control Austria, which put up no resistance. Hitler claimed that the annexation was supported by his doctrine of Anschluss , or natural political unification of Germany and Austria. Though gravely disturbed, Britain and France took no action. Shortly thereafter, Hitler demanded that Czechoslovakia cede to Germany the Sudetenland, a territory along the German-Czech border. Hitler accused the Czechs of repressing the large German population there and asserted that the territory rightly belonged to Germany.
The September 1938 Munich Conference was called to address the situation; ironically, Czechoslovakia was not present. After several rounds of negotiation, and despite their own treaties with Czechoslovakia, Britain and France agreed to give in to Hitler’s demand, as long as he agreed not to seize any further European territory. Hitler did sign an agreement to that effect, promising no further invasions.
After taking the Sudetenland, however, Hitler ignored the agreement and proceeded to occupy most of western Czechoslovakia, along with several other territories in eastern Europe. Britain and France again took no action. This policy of appeasement of Hitler’s demands, which was advocated primarily by British prime minister Neville Chamberlain, has been much criticized as paving the road to World War II.
The decisions made by the Allied nations leading up to World War II, as well as those of the first six months or so after the war began, have dumbfounded historians ever since. The appeasement of Hitler, in particular, has been so often held up as an example of how not to deal with a rising dictator that it has become a stereotype.
However, although it may be obvious in hindsight that Hitler should not have been appeased, the actions of Prime Minister Chamberlain must be considered within the context of the time. Europe was still recovering from World War I: many of the countries of Europe were adjusting to new parliamentary governments, and the newly created League of Nations was a new force in international affairs. Few European leaders understood the full scope of Hitler’s intentions, and a decision to go to war would have been hugely unpopular in countries, such as Britain and France, that had been so devastated in World War I. Indeed, many sincerely believed that the very concept of war had become obsolete.