A Wider European War

Brad yesterday highlighted the final act of the Second World War, the formal surrender proceedings on the quarterdeck of USS Missouri, on 2 September 1945.    The defeat of the Axis powers was complete at long last, the end of a six-year nightmare which extinguished the lives of almost forty million souls.

Today marks the seventy-third anniversary of the affirmation that the German invasion of Poland had brought about the “wider European war” that a generation of French and British statesmen and diplomats had bargained so assiduously to avoid.   At 11:15 AM, London time, on 3 September 1939, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain spoke from Number 10 Downing Street to a somber and apprehensive, but resolute, Britain:

This morning the British Ambassador in Berlin handed the German Government a final note stating that unless we heard from them by 11.00 a.m. that they were prepared at once to withdraw their troops from Poland, a state of war would exist between us.  I have to tell you that no such undertaking has been received, and that consequently this country is at war with Germany.

You can imagine what a bitter blow it is to me that all my long struggle to win peace has failed. Yet I cannot believe that there is anything more or anything different I could have done and that would have been more successful.

Up to the very last it would have been quite possible to have arranged a peaceful and honourable settlement between Germany and Poland, but Hitler would not have it.  He had evidently made up his mind to attack Poland whatever happened; and although he now says he has put forward reasonable proposals which were rejected by the Poles, that is not a true statement.

The proposals were never shown to the Poles nor to us; and although they were announced in a German broadcast on Thursday night, Hitler did not wait to make comment on them, but ordered his troops to cross the Polish frontier.

His actions show convincingly that there is no chance of expecting that this man will ever give up his practice of using force to gain his will. He can only be stopped by force.

The Western Democracies, France and England, had spent the majority of the previous half-decade negotiating with a cruel and despotic dictator whose virulent anti-semitism and design for world domination had been lain open in Mein Kampf for all to see and read.

They were concerned but unmoved when Austrian Nazis with ties to Germany’s Third Reich assassinated Chancellor Dollfuss in 1934.

They had stood idly by when, in 1935, Hitler unilaterally abrogated the Versailles Treaty and began to build the weapons and forces expressly forbidden by that treaty.

They were paralyzed by fear and inaction when Hitler’s nascent Wehrmacht reoccupied the Rhineland in March of 1936, and when Germany swallowed Austria with the Anschluss two years later.

In the early Autumn of 1938, Chamberlain and France’s Edouard Daladier, being desperate to avoid the war that Hitler demanded, dismantled Czechoslovakia at Munich, and handed it to Der Fuhrer in the most notorious act of appeasement in the entire sordid Allied failure.

The spectacle of Chamberlain, arriving in the rain to wave the Munich Agreement and proclaim “Peace in our time” was a travesty of responsible statesmanship and a stain on the Western Democracies that has not faded appreciably in the seven and a half decades hence.

Despite the warning cries from an Essex back-bench MP whose time on the world stage had seemingly passed, both the French and British leaders clung to the absurd hope that Hitler was being forthright in claiming that the Sudetenland represented his “last territorial claim in Europe”.


Of course, he was not.  Germany occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia in March of 1939, and turned it sights to the “oppression” of the German minority population in the “free city” Port of Danzig, on the Polish border.    When the German armor rumbled through the Polish defenses on 1 September 1939, neither Britain nor France had any choice.   And when Hitler ignored British pleas to cease military operations immediately and return all forces to the German side of the border, the “wider European war” that had terrified the Western Democracies into inaction and appeasement was upon them.   German forces would not return to the German side of the Polish border until the Soviet armies of the 1st Byelorussian and 1st Ukrainian Fronts smashed across the Oder in the first months of 1945.  By that time, the damage had been done, and Europe had been awash in blood for more than five years.

So, on the morning of 3 September 1939, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was impelled to admit to England and the world that his course of appeasement and accommodation had failed.   Chamberlain was forced to verbalize the conclusion that eventually must be reached regarding every dictator who desires wars of conquest and extermination;  one that, had it been acknowledged five years earlier, might have saved Europe perhaps the greatest and most preventable tragedy of its long history:

His actions show convincingly that there is no chance of expecting that this man will ever give up his practice of using force to gain his will. He can only be stopped by force.

8 thoughts on “A Wider European War”

  1. Neville Chamberlain rightly comes in for large amounts of scorn. But we must recall that his appeasement was politically popular at home. There’s a reason Churchill was a back-bencher.

    I’ll also add that, in his history of WWII, Churchill heaps scorn on the policy of appeasement, he also very magnanimously speaks of Chamberlain’s good works and personal virtues after his resignation as Prime Minister.

    Mind you, NO ONE comes off as well in those books as Churchill himself. “History shall be kind to me, for I intend to write it.”

    1. Chamberlain is a tragic figure, to be sure. A good and honest man who sold his soul in a pact with the devil. A study of the negotiations at Munich, and the way the Allies disregarded Czechoslovakia’s sovereignty in the pursuit of appeasing Hitler, reveals the bankruptcy of the entire course of thinking.

      Subsequent justification of the Munich Agreement as a stalling tactic to ready the Allies for war is little more than post-event rationalization of a disastrous policy.

  2. though of course in hindsight he was tragically wrong, chamberlain and others in the government had seen how hellish the 1st world war (still the great war to them) had been, and feared it all happening over again. the british, and more so the french, had seen the devastation to the soldiers and the countryside they fought over. more importantly so had their voters and made their vews clear. they really, really didn’t want another war in europe. as xbradtc puts it, churchill may have been right, but his message was very unpopular (perhaps a case of the public head in the sand). if the appeasement had worked, or for instance the west had been left alone whilst the nazis fought the communists alone, would we judge it all a bit differently? wasn’t the prevailing feeling in the US at the time one of leaving the old world alone to destroy itself if it should happen, it wasn’t our problem etc, especially in the late 30s? only the nutcases and mad dictators wanted war …

  3. I am afraid those who desire wars of conquest and extermination are not simply “nutcases” nor “mad”. They tend toward the more brutal of our reality, and take full advantage of the fact that most of us do not, the assertions of Code Pink notwithstanding.

    While the ignoring/muted responses to Hitler in the early years of the Reich may be understandable, the looming threat by 1937 as he was testing his commanders, equipment, and doctrine in Spain made the desperate wishful thinking of Chamberlain, Daladier, et al., a dangerous course indeed. “Give him what he wants and we can avoid war” meant giving him all he wanted and war still came.

    “My enemies are worms! I saw them at Munich!”

    Those are the words of an emboldened dictator whose desire for conquest was whetted by appeasement, and who had utter contempt for the character of his enemies. Had they stood firm, just once, at ANY time, history would have been vastly different.

  4. Had Stanley Baldwin had come brass ones they could have stopped Hitler when he moved into the Rhineland. But appeasement at all costs has repeatedly been shown to be nothing more than feeding your enemy. Loved “The Last Lion” on Churchill. Seems we see a lot of that same Head In Sand Syndrome among today’s leaders.

  5. I personally find Chamberlain less sympathetic than he is often presented. He did so much more than appease Hitler, he sold another sovereign country into slavery for the most craven of reasons. The Czechs did not have a seat at the table where their nation was dismantled, they were told of it after the decision was made. In one fell swoop, Hitler not only avoided fighting the Allies, he avoided fighting the Czechs (who, it needs to be said, he was not certain of defeating), and armed Germany with Czech tanks. Chamberlain is the author of that, and had he but refused to trade the freedom of another people, he might have actually PREVENTED the war he feared.

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