As a student in early 2000, I was sat in a modern history class. The syllabus covered Britain and Europe from 1919 to 1938, and 1946 to the present day. You may notice this neatly cuts out a couple of fairly large events. As a fourteen-year-old boy, like all teenage boys, I was an absolute moron. I had no interest in the wider socio-economic picture, or how domestic policy shaped the recovery of our nation after the wars. I think a large part of this comes down to experience. At fourteen I hadn’t experienced, life or the world. I thought I was smart, but I had no appreciation of the nuances of international diplomacy. As an adult I find studying the economic landscape between the wars fascinating, seeing how policy was made to account for the lack of young, able bodied, men, in a society that wouldn’t allow women to do many of the jobs where there were suddenly vast workforce deficits.
The Treaty of Versailles
After the defeat of the central powers in World War One, peace talks were held in Paris. The narrative was dominated by The Big Four. Leaders from four victorious Allied Nations; David Lloyd George (Britain), Woodrow Wilson (USA), Georges Clemenceau (France) and Vittorio Orlando (Italy). Whilst they were primarily responsible for the drafting of the terms of peace with the central powers, they each had conflicting agendas. Mostly though it appears they just wanted to take Germany from the world stage, crippling it economically and militarily so it could never again cause trouble. The terms were also extremely favourable for Britain, the USA and France, Italy got almost nothing out of the agreement, a situation which becomes an issue later.
Germany is required to give up 65,000 square kilometres of land. Which must have been fairly confusing for the people in those territories who, presumably, had no say in their change of nationality. Large areas of land were also required to be demilitarised. Germany was prevented from developing an air force, and had its army and navy limited to laughable levels. That popping sound you can hear are Germanys testicles being pulled off. Understandably a lot of Germans felt like they had been mugged, their national identity was bruised, and bleeding, its pockets had been emptied.
Germany’s troubles weren’t entirely the fault of Versailles. The victorious nations funded the war by increasing taxation. This was not popular however prevented the absolute annihilation of their economies. Germany didn’t want to raise taxes; they took a far more direct approach. They wanted more money, so they printed more money. This is what most economists call “fucking insane”. The more money there is in circulation, the less its value. As a result, Germany entered Hyperinflation, a term that didn’t exist before this event and hasn’t been applied since. The German Mark was traded at a value of roughly forty marks to every pound Stirling before the war. At its worst almost a thousand marks were worth one pound Stirling. Ultimately many Germans entered a situation of bartering goods for goods.
The Weimar Republic, the government of Germany immediately after the Great War seems to have been genuinely dedicated to peace and rebuilding. It was moderate in its policy making. The German people were starving, the Big Four had left them feeling humiliated and reduced them to the court jesters of Europe. Today we know this is a warning sign. These factors are a breeding ground in which extremism will often rise and thrive. Enter an unhinged little man with a toothbrush moustache. Even as early as the Munich Putsch in 1923, his contemporaries noted that in no other climate could Hitler have amassed such a following. He was however considered universally to be a once in a generation orator. These dejected and broken people were suddenly faced with an incredibly powerful and emotive speaker, a true believer, who was offering to restore their pride.
In school appeasement was squarely placed in the hands of Neville Chamberlain. However, in 1935, when Germany remilitarised the Rhineland, Ramsey McDonald was the Prime Minister of Great Britain, it was Ramsey McDonald who started the appeasement ball rolling. Further concessions took place under the premiership of Stanley Baldwin. In this regard all Neville Chamberlain can be accused of is continuing a process that had been set in place long before he took office. A decision made by a Prime Minister from a different political party. In researching this post, I found very few publicly accessible works that weren’t utterly impenetrable, which even mentioned Ramsey McDonald or Stanley Baldwin.
Hansard, the record of discussions in the Houses of Parliament, proved extremely interesting. In May 1935 questions were asked about the export of nickel to Germany. Nickel, at the time, had few routine uses outside of arms manufacture and was primarily mined and refined in France and in Canada. In 1934 over eleven thousand tonnes of Nickel were exported from Canada to Germany. In the same month conversations were had about Germany pulling out of the League of Nations. In May 1935 a question is also asked of The Lord of the Admiralty if he knew any details of the submarines now under construction in Germany. The reply was that the German chancellorship had informed the British Government that the displacement of these submarines was about 250 tonnes. Not a large vessel but still an absolute violation of the Treaty of Versailles and seemed to cause very little stir in the commons.
None of the actions taken by Germany appeared to be a surprise or even intended as a secret. Hitler gave a speech in the Reichstag on 21st May 1935 in which he laid out a thirteen-point plan for his government. In this he spoke of disarmament but refused to reduce the German military below that of other nations. Whilst this may have seemed a promising indication of his peaceful intentions, in the same sitting he introduced conscription.
Breeches of the original terms, drawn up at Versailles were not altogether left without answer. Germany was required to pay its reparation in goods, as these were worth more than currency. In 1923 Germany defaulted on its payment to France. As a result of this France and Belgium sat down and tried to decide what the most moderate and level-headed course of action would be, they immediately marched their armies into the Ruhr, the industrial powerhouse of Germany, and they occupied it for two years. Further crippling Germanys ability to make its repayments and pissing the German people off at the same time.
In contrast to the concessions offered to Germany. In 1935 Italy, under the fashismo of Benito Mussolini, stepped up its aggression towards Abyssinia. A prelude to war. Britain’s foreign minister Sir Samuel Hoare announced that further unprovoked aggression from Italy would result in, not only the moral condemnation of the British Government, but active opposition of Britain and her allies. Italy was clearly a far more tempting target. Whilst Mussolini had undertaken a rapid period of militarisation, the Italian military was still dwarfed by that of the British Empire.
At the same time as Sir Samuel’s blustering at Italy, Hitler had made a speech outlining the policies for his chancellorship. He endorsed the policies laid out by Gorbals and Gering, “bringing the German sword of state to bare against the verminous Jews”. A statement of intolerance worthy of the modern labour party. He announced the establishment of what we could reasonably call apartheid. Separate Schools and residential areas for Jewish peoples. If evidence of his emerging megalomania wasn’t complete, he referenced a replica of the sword of Charlemagne he had been gifted. On his speech the British Government remained silent. You have to wonder if either moral condemnation or threat of force at this point would have averted the most horrific genocide to which humanity had ever born witness.
I have made no secret of the fact that I feel the harsh terms of the Treaty of Versailles was a significant contributing factor to the outbreak of war in 1939. However, there had always been tensions present between the powers of Europe. The spark that ignited World War One was a conflict and domestic unrest in the Balkans. There has been conflict and unrest in the area we now call the Balkans (Bosnia, Serbia, etc) for centuries, this was nothing new. However, in 1914 the pressure cooker was whistling. The assassination of Franz Ferdinand was just the tipping factor. Those passions were, in most nations cooled under the wave of blood and gore provided by the Great War. With the exception of Germany, formerly proud, and powerful, now castrated, grounded with its pocket money docked. I can understand why the Allied Powers had no more appetite for violence and I can understand why the German people turned to Hitler, the only man offering to restore their pride.
Ultimately this was a humbling lesson for the mighty British Empire. A bit more magnanimity in victory at Versailles could have prevented the horrifying cost of a second war. In addition to this Mussolini rose to power on a wave of public anger at how little Italy got out of the first world war.
My great failing as a teenage student, and the failing of my teachers, was seeking an answer, but not seeking the right question. When assessing the success of appeasement, it’s important to actually work out what it was intended to achieve. If it was, as I was taught in school, an attempt to avert war, it was clearly an abject failure. However, if it was a stalling tactic, buying time to allow Britain to rearm, and France to upgrade its woefully outdated military. I would argue it was successful. Britain started rearming at the first appeasement in 1935, with up to 40% of the national budget over the next few years, leading to war, being spend on defence. Germany rearmed far more efficiently and rapidly; however, I would argue that is because Hitler had no idea how far he could push his luck before the Allied powers would feel compelled to intervene militarily. Arguably the only possible outcome of his actions leading up to 1939 was to precipitate a war. The world was not blind to this, in review of hundreds of Hansard entries, and hundreds more newspaper articles from 1920 to 1938, war is discussed often as an inevitability.
Something I have come to realise as I have considered modern world events. Particularly in the nuclear age, is that sanctions and public condemnation are the correct first steps for a world power, even if you believe military action to be inevitable, non-violent resolutions should always be the first step in the hopes of avoiding something as catastrophically costly as war.
I have been deliberately vague on the interface between the Nazi Party and the German people in this post. I have used Hitler as the representative of the Nazi Party and used the rest of German society as one homogenous mass. I have not acknowledged the important distinction between Germans and Bavarians. I have done this for the sake of brevativy. There are a number of areas in which I got very distracted in my original drafts. In my first drafted I sacrified three thousand words to the USA underwriting Germanys economy with the Dawes Plan and later the Young Plan, and the impact of the wallstreet crash on the recovering German economy. My exclusion of these points isnt because I feel they are unimportant, I just found myself in a position where I could have written a book not a blog post.
I have selected a very limited sample of examples for this post. It’s a fascinating period of world history with a great many lessons still to teach us. For a more detailed look I would highly recommend The Great War series by Jessie Alexander. Additionally you can access Hansard for free or the National Newspaper Archieves for a subscription fee.