Did appeasement cause the Second World War?

When Hitler came to power, British prime minister Neville Chamberlain did all he could to appease him. But had he listened to another voice; that of Conservative backbencher Winston Churchill, might history have taken a very different course?

Did appeasement cause the Second World War? (Public Domain)

What is appeasement?

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Appeasement is most often used to describe the response of British policy makers to the rise of Nazi Germany in the 1930s. It is seen as a policy of one-sided concessions to an aggressor state, often at the expense of third parties, with nothing offered in return except promises of better behaviour in the future.

Chamberlain hoped that it would bring a quicker end to the crisis created in Europe by the Nazi clamour for revision of the Treaty of Versailles.

He believed that pacification could be achieved through negotiating a general settlement that would in almost all respects replace the Treaty of Versailles, and bring Germany into satisfactory treaty relations with her neighbours.

A "miracle of deliverance" – the Dunkirk evacuation © Getty Images

Churchill: The Prophetic Statesman

Following the Nazis’ rise to power in 1933, Churchill warned of the perils of German nationalism. But the British government ignored him and did all it could to stay out of Hitler’s way. The nation was weary of war and reluctant to get involved in international affairs again so soon.

The Enabling Act of 1933 (Public Domain)
The Enabling Act of 1933 (Public Domain)

By this time, Churchill had become an increasingly marginalised voice and he was side-lined by Neville Chamberlain. Winston Churchill was the most well known opponent of appeasement, and consistently warned the government of the dangers posed by Nazi Germany, though his warnings went unheeded. He argued that faster British rearmament could have deterred the German dictator, and that a readiness to make a stand at crucial moments could have halted Hitler’s progress before it was too late.

The Munich Agreement

Appeasement reached its climax in September 1938 with the Munich Agreement. Chamberlain hoped to avoid a war over Czechoslovakia by conceding to Adolf Hitler’s demands. The Agreement allowed Nazi Germany to annex the Sudetenland, the German-speaking parts of Czechoslovakia.

Chamberlain promised it would bring “peace in our time”, but Churchill scolded him for “throwing a small state to the wolves” in exchange for a promise of peace.

Speaking after Chamberlain signed the Agreement, Winston Churchill said: “You were given the choice between war and dishonour. You chose dishonour and you will have war.”

PM Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler, 1938 (Public Domain)
Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler, 1938 (Public Domain)

Chamberlain’s Fall From Grace

A year later, on 1 September 1939, Hitler broke his promise and invaded Poland. Peace was shattered. By 3 September 1939, Britain was once again at war with Germany. Chamberlain declared war against Hitler, but during the next eight months, showed himself to be ill equipped for the daunting task of saving Europe from Nazi conquest.

After British forces failed to prevent the German occupation of Norway in April 1940, Chamberlain lost the support of many members of his Conservative Party. By May 1940, the Allies were losing, and on 10 May 1940, Hitler invaded Holland, Belgium, and the Netherlands.

The same day, Chamberlain formally lost the confidence of the House of Commons, so he resigned. In the face of the Nazis’ relentless march across Europe, Chamberlain bowed to pressure and resigned as Prime Minister. When Lord Halifax – the man fancied to assume the Premiership – refused the role, Churchill was the only credible alternative to lead.

Winston Churchill as Prime Minister, 1940 (Public Domain)
Winston Churchill as Prime Minister, 1940 (Public Domain)

The commonly accepted version of events states that Lord Halifax, Chamberlain’s original choice of successor, turned down the post of Prime Minister because he believed he could not govern effectively as a member of the House of Lords instead of the House of Commons.

Churchill Takes Control

Typically the Prime Minister doesn’t advise the King on the former’s successor, but Chamberlain wanted someone who would command the support of all three major parties in the House of Commons. A meeting between Chamberlain, Halifax, Churchill and David Margesson, the government Chief Whip, led to the recommendation of Churchill, and, as constitutional monarch, George VI asked Churchill to be prime minister. Churchill’s first act was to write to Chamberlain to thank him for his support.

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Had World War II ended before May 1940 as many had hoped, history would now know Churchill as an average First Lord with an embarrassing share of responsibility for the failures of the Norwegian campaign. But by a strange turn of history, this failure led to the increased unpopularity of Chamberlain and gave Churchill his big chance.