To what extent was appeasement “a policy driven by economic decline”?
During the 1920-30’s, Britain adopted a policy of appeasement in the aftermath of World War One. Appeasement is the policy of “settling international quarrels …through negotiation and compromise thereby avoiding war” (Paul Kennedy 1976), and was implemented with a general view to avoiding conflict in Europe.
The view of appeasement as a reputable policy was thrown into question with the publication of the book, “The Guilty Men”. The authors of the book believed the actions of Prime Ministers Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain were cowardly, and had inadvertently made the prospect of war more likely. The book has since sparked great debate among historians, who have highlighted a series of factors that led to Britain’s adoption of this policy. The relative importance of these factors can be seen through four key incidents in the build-up to the Second World War: the Rhineland crisis, the Spanish Civil War, the Anshcluss and the Sudetenland Crisis in Czechoslovakia.
Firstly, there had been many indicators that showed the extent to which British public opinion opposed war. The results of the Oxford University Union debate of 1933, the East Fulham By-Election in October of the same year and the Peace Ballot 1934-35 suggested strong anti-war feelings. Stanley Baldwin cited the events as an indication of public opinion as a whole, stating, “that was the feeling of the country in 1933-34”. By 1928 all men and women over 21 had the right to vote, meaning MPs were at the mercy of a far larger electorate. In addition, the rapid growth of the mass media meant that public opinion had a greater influence than at any other time in Britain’s history.
Secondly, many historians cite military weakness as a key reason for Britain’s policy of appeasement. The 10-year rule and the Blue Water Strategy held back Britain’s armed forces technically and the British Defence Budget fell to an interwar low of £103.3 million in 1932. As the authors of Baldwin: A Biography, point out, “Consciousness of Britain’s readiness for war…affected both Baldwin and the Foreign Office and…fettered diplomacy”.
Lastly, the Wall Street Crash of 1929 had wide-scale repercussions throughout the world, and Britain was no exception. The country’s economy nose-dived: key sectors such as coal, shipbuilding, iron and steel industries were badly affected and overall trade fell by 40%. Throughout the 1930’s, Neville Chamberlain placed the economy at the very top of the political agenda. As Robert Self comments, “(Chamberlain) was the most influential single force shaping British Defence policy during the 1930’s”. Chamberlain saw rearmament as something that would damage a fragile economy and could only be financed through reduced spending on other sectors.
Other factors have also been suggested as reasons for appeasement and while they should not be ignored, it is these three that hold the most importance. Of the three principal factors, there is no doubt that had Britain had a stronger economy, the British government would have had more options.
By the beginning of the 1930’s, Britain continued to hold onto a large empire, and it was thought that Britain could simply not afford to fight a war in Europe as well as protect its vital interests further abroad. The consensus within the country’s political system was that, “We have got all that we want – perhaps more. Our sole objective is to keep what we have and to live in peace”. A successful policy of appeasement in Europe was therefore the ideal strategy to safeguard Britain’s empire; however its role is largely insignificant in the context of the four crises, beginning with the Rhineland in March 1936.
The mere suggestion of war that arose as a result of the Rhineland crisis evoked post-war sentiment. The staggering human cost of the Great War had become a scar on the British consciousness, while many saw The Versailles Treaty as being unjust towards Germany. As Hugh Dalton, a leading Labour MP at the time declared at the time, “public opinion in this country would not support…the taking of military sanctions, or even economic sanctions against Germany”. This highlights the stance of Britain’s politicians who backed appeasement at the time; therefore showing public opinion was a strong influence during the Rhineland.
British politicians also had a fear of communism and saw a strong, stable Germany in central Europe as a barrier to the spread of this ideology from Russia. Neville Chamberlain and Winston Churchill were united in the view that “Hitlerism was preferable to Bolshevism”. Appeasement was a suitable option during the Rhineland as it essentially kept Germany in between Britain and Russia.
From a military point of view, the crucial factor in Britain’s adoption of appeasement, during the crisis, was the Italian invasion of Abyssinia in 1935. As David Armstrong notes, “Abyssinia seemed the most urgent problem facing the country and there were already concerns that the British armed forces were overstretched in the Mediterranean”. However, Britain’s military weakness has been overstated during the Rhineland crisis. This is because of the fact that Germany only introduced conscription in 1935; therefore it is unlikely that she could have held off combined British-French military action.
Two years previous to the Rhineland crisis, the Cabinet Defence Requirements Committee agreed that Britain had not invested enough in rearmament since the end of WWI to be ready for another war. However, the Prime Minister at the time, Stanley Baldwin, was more inclined to agree with Chamberlain’s view that heavy rearmament would be financially disastrous for the country. It was thought that rearmament would drive skilled workers away from their respective jobs, which would weaken a British trade that was already in decline. Chamberlain clearly outlined his opposition to rearmament saying, “if we were to follow advice to the manufacture of arms, we should inflict a certain injury upon our trade from which it would take generations to recover.” In addition, many people began to see the potential benefit that could be gained from trade with Germany. Britain’s economic weakness, and subsequent desire to escape it, was therefore a highly significant reason for Britain’s inaction.
Finally, the failures of the League of Nations have been highlighted as a reason for the appeasement policy. Established in 1920, the League of Nations sought to settle international disputes through sanctions and negotiation. The League’s successes were few and far between and its failure to impose sanctions on Italy over Abyssinia exposed its shortcomings. The League came out of the Rhineland crisis with nothing to show, and at the Spanish Civil War a few months later in 1936, it was effectively replaced by the Non-Intervention Committee.
Public opinion regarding the Spanish Civil War based largely on the grounds of ideology, as opposed to any particular British interest. As Elizabeth Trueman says, “the majority of the public simply wished to avoid involvement in a brutal conflict that could easily spread outside Spain’s borders”. Some of the incidents that emerged from the civil war, such as the German Condor Legion’s bombing of Guernica in 1937, brought the horror of war back to the British public. As a result, the majority of British people supported appeasement, and more specifically the policy of Non-Intervention.
After the Rhineland crisis, defence estimates increased by £34 million and in February 1937 the Defence Loans Act authorised the Treasury to borrow up to £400 million over 5 years to help fund rearmament. This shows that military weakness did not overly influence appeasement during the Spanish Civil War, given that the strength of German and Italian forces at the same time were not significantly greater than Britain’s.
Lastly, Prime Minister Baldwin, and later Chamberlain, both used appeasement during the Spanish Civil War to keep Britain’s economy stable. The Non-Intervention Committee was essentially set up in order to ensure Britain did not become involved in an expensive war that did not concern her, politically, and threatened to spill into the rest of Europe. As Chamberlain himself said later in 1938, “our policy has been to maintain the peace of Europe by confining war to Spain”. In addition, there were several British business interests in Spain, as well as key shipping lanes. The Non-Intervention Committee was used by the government with the economy in mind as it guaranteed the country would not supply any costly resources to either side in the war.
The League of Nations had been so ineffectual at the Rhineland and in the Spanish Civil War that, by the time of the Anschluss on the 13th March 1938 it was, in the words of David Armstrong, “so discredited…that no member state referred the issue to the League”. The Anschluss shows that appeasement was one of the causes of the League’s failure, due to its waning power over the course of the crises, rather than a consequence of it.
British public opinion over the annexation of Austria showed really for the first time, a desire to move away from appeasement. While most, such as George Bernard Shaw writing in the Evening Times, believed that the Anschluss, “is an excellent thing”, the anti-appeasement view held principally by Winston Churchill began to gather momentum. A Gallup poll held in 1938 showed that more than half did not agree with Chamberlain’s foreign policy. Given that Chamberlain remained fully committed in the face of turning public opinion shows that appeasement was no longer a policy governed to any real extent by public opinion.
While the overall importance of military weakness has been overstated, during the Anschluss it was a prominent factor. Despite increased spending, 1937-38 was the time where the gulf between German and British forces was clearly evident. German military aircraft production reached 5,605 while Britain’s was at just 2,153. Chamberlain was aware tthat, “nothing could have arrested this action (Anschluss) by Germany unless we and others with us had been prepared to use force to prevent it”. These words are clear evidence of Britain’s lack of preparedness to fight a war. Chamberlain’s reference to “others with us” implies that only in the event of a combined stance against Germany could the Anschluss have been stopped.
However, the Anschluss is undoubtedly the most prominent example of the country’s economy influencing appeasement. After the steps taken to rearm during 1937, many economists within Britain began to worry about the rate of defence expenditure. The new Chancellor, Sir John Simon told the cabinet in March 1938 that Britain was, “in the position of a runner in a race who wants to reserve his spurt for the right time but does not know where the finishing tape is”, essentially warning that unless military spending was controlled, economic stability would be jeopardised. Chamberlain had to try and find short-term military strength, whilst guaranteeing long-term economic safety and this was part of his reasoning for reluctantly agreeing to increase rearmament expenditure. With the wary words of Simon his ears, it is clear that Chamberlain wished no further spending on the military.
During the Anschluss, it is clear that Hitler’s foreign policy aims of Lebensraum, uniting German speaking peoples and revising the Treaty of Versailles, became of increasing relevance, replacing any irrational fear of communism. It can therefore be seen that, by the time of the Sudetenland crisis in September 1938 fear of communism played no part in influencing appeasement.
While early indications of public opinion were positive in the aftermath of the Munich conference, (the majority of local and national newspapers supported Chamberlain’s policy and actions), it quickly began to turn. An opinion poll from 1938 shows that 72% favoured increased expenditure on rearmament, while the view that, as Labour leader Clement Atlee described it, Czechoslovakia’s “gallant, civilised and democratic people have been betrayed” became more popular. By this stage, however, Chamberlain’s determination to avoid a costly war through negotiation was so great that, despite increasing numbers of anti-appeasers within the country, his choice of policy was unaffected.
Compared to the British forces Germany was stronger in nearly every department during the Sudetenland crisis. However, there is evidence to show that Britain could have successfully fought Germany. German military strength was hugely exaggerated by British generals. As Alan Farmer points out, “Germany was short of tanks, fuel, ammunition, trained officers and reserves.” Also, for the first time since WWI Britain could have relied upon a system of Allies. Her closest ally France had the largest and best equipped army in Europe while Czechoslovakia, France’s ally, had a very resilient army and defensive line. Finally, the Defence Loans Act of 1937 had been designed so that military spending peaked during 1938. The fact that Chamberlain chose to ignore these reasons is evidence that military weakness was not part of the reasons for appeasement during the Sudetenland crisis.
As the threat of war increased, so did Chamberlain’s desire to avoid it. Of all the factors it is that of Britain’s economy which remained in his mind during the three appeasement conferences at Berchtesgaden, Bad Godesberg and eventually Munich. As Robert Self says, “Chamberlain’s resistance to rearmament stemmed from well-founded forebodings about the potentially disastrous economic consequences of such a course”. A month before the meetings, Chamberlain and his cabinet had agreed to increase rearmament expenditure to £2.1 billion. Spending on the sectors of social care that he had championed throughout his early political career had been put aside to fund rearmament. For this reason Chamberlain strongly opposed further expenditure that would divert funding from the sectors such as healthcare in which he had a vested interest, and so remained committed to appeasement over the Sudetenland.
The views expressed by the authors of the “Guilty Men” are, as Edward Ranson says, “certainly too simplistic” to be seen as valid. Appeasement was never a policy controlled by cowardice, but by the range of factors that has been discussed throughout the four crises. Appeasement helped lessen the chances of the Empire losing strength abroad, while the League of Nations’ failures prompted its use. Britain’s fear of communism was another influence but not to the same extent as anti-war public opinion and the fact that Britain’s military was not in a position to fight alone.
While these factors did influence appeasement, the constant fear of a weak economy being ruined by over-spending on rearmament remained throughout the crises and consequently appeasement was a “policy driven by economic decline” to a large extent.