This article is an edited transcript of Appeasing Hitler with Tim Bouverie on Dan Snow’s History Hit, first broadcast 7 July 2019. You can listen to the full episode below or to the full podcast for free on Acast.
In 1937 not much within the main European continent occurred, although there was a Spanish Civil War going on which created huge angst in Britain and France. The next major test was the Anschluss with Austria, which occurred in March 1938.
It was not so much a test once it happened, because once it was going on, there was pretty much nothing that the British and French could do. The Austrians seemed to welcome the Germans. But as a point of view of deterrence, the British really gave Hitler the green light.
Undermining British foreign policy
Neville Chamberlain and Lord Halifax completely undermined the official foreign policy of Great Britain as set out by the Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden and by the Foreign Office. This was that Austrian integrity must be respected, as must Czechoslovak integrity.
Instead, Halifax visited Hitler at Berchtesgaden in November 1937 and said that the British had no problem with him incorporating Austrians or Czechoslovaks into the Reich, providing it was done peacefully.
These were not strategic British interests, there was nothing that we could have done to stop a German invasion anyway. So as long as Hitler did it peacefully, we didn’t really have a problem with it. And unsurprisingly, Hitler viewed this as a sign of weakness that the British wouldn’t become involved.
Why did Halifax and Chamberlain do this?
I think a lot of people would say, as the saying went at the time, “Better Hitler than Stalin at the Channel ports.” I don’t think that was quite as important for Chamberlain and Halifax. I think both were not very military men.
Neither of them had seen front-line action in the First World War. Chamberlain hadn’t fought at all. He’d been too old. But fundamentally they disagreed with the analysis of Churchill and Vansittart that Hitler was a man intent upon European hegemony.
They thought that his intentions were limited and that if only they could get to some sort of readjustment of the European status quo, then there was no reason to have another war. And on the face of it, the issues of Austria or Czechoslovakia were not issues on which Britain would normally think of going to war.
These were not, “We were a maritime and imperial power.” Eastern Europe, Central Europe, those were not British concerns.
Opposing European hegemony
What Churchill and others pointed out was that it was not about the rights or wrongs of 3 million Sudeten Germans being incorporated into the Reich or the Anschluss. It was about one power dominating the continent.
British foreign policy as they saw it, being better versed in history, had always been to oppose one power dominating the continent. It was why we opposed Louis XIV in the 17th century, why we opposed Napoleon in the 18th and 19th centuries, why we opposed the Kaiser Reich in the 20th century and why we eventually opposed the Third Reich. It wasn’t over the rights or wrongs of self-determination for some fringe population.
Featured image credit: German soldiers enter Austria. Bundesarchiv / Commons.