Appeasement is a policy of granting political and material concessions to an aggressive, foreign power. It often occurs in the hope of saturating the aggressor’s desires for further demands and, consequently, avoiding the outbreak of war.
The most famous instance of the policy in action is during the build-up to World War Two when the major European powers failed to confront German expansionism in Europe, Italian aggression in Africa and Japanese policy in China.
It was a policy motivated by several factors, and one that tarred the reputations of several politicians, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain notable among them.
Aggressive foreign policy
Against the backdrop of forcible seizure of political control at home, from 1935 on-wards Hitler began an aggressive, expansionist foreign policy. This was a key element of his domestic appeal as an assertive leader who was unashamed of German success.
As Germany grew in strength, she began to swallow German speaking lands around her. Meanwhile in 1936 the Italian dictator Mussolini invaded and established Italian control of Abyssinia .
Chamberlain continued to follow his appeasement until 1938. It was only when Hitler reneged on the promise he had given to the British Prime Minister at the Munich Conference – that he would not occupy the rest of Czechoslovakia – that Chamberlain concluded his policy had failed and that the ambitions of dictators such as Hitler and Mussolini could not be quelled.
Hitler’s subsequent invasion of Poland at the start of September 1939 led to another European war. In the Far East, Japanese military expansion was largely unopposed until Pearl Harbour in 1941.
Why did the Western Powers appease for so long?
There were several factors behind this policy. The legacy of the Great War (as it came to be known at the time) had generated a great reluctance among the public for any form of European conflict, and this manifested in France and Britain not being prepared for war in the 1930s. France had suffered 1.3 million military deaths in the Great War, and Britain close to 800,000.
Since August 1919, Britain had also followed a policy of the ’10 Year Rule’ whereby it was assumed that the British Empire would not “be engaged in any great war during the next ten years.” Thus defence spending was dramatically cut during the 1920s, and by the early 1930s the equipment of the armed forces was out of date. This was compounded by the effects of the Great Depression (1929-33).
Even though the 10 Year Rule was abandoned in 1932, the decision was countered by the British Cabinet: “this must not be taken to justify an expanding expenditure by the Defence Services without regard to the very serious financial and economic situation.”
Many also felt that Germany was acting on legitimate grievances. The Treaty of Versailles had imposed debilitating restrictions on Germany and many held the view that Germany should be allowed to regain some prestige. Indeed some prominent politicians had predicted that the Treaty of Versailles would precipitate another European war:
I cannot imagine any greater cause for future war that that the German people…should be surrounded by a number of small states…each containing large masses of Germans clamoring for reunion’ – David Lloyd George, March 1919
“This is not a peace. It is an armistice for twenty years”. – Ferdinand Foch 1919
Finally an overriding fear of Communism bolstered the idea that Mussolini and Hitler were strong, patriotic leaders who would act as bulwarks to the spread of a dangerous ideology from the East.