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There are accounts that British Prime Minister Chamberlain sought to appease Hitler because he just didn't want Britain involved in a war at that time. Others also argue that Chamberlain was naive and gullible.

Given the clear provocations of Germany during this time, why did Chamberlain actively choose to appease Hitler leading up to World War 2? Furthermore, why didn't parliament and influential advisers seek to override his decisions?

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7 Answers 7

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I would say it was a combination of a few reasons that made Chamberlain, and by extension, the British government during that time, willing to appease Hitler ambitions.

First it had been less then two decades since WWI, which Britain was a major player in, and the memories of the horror of trench warfare, mustard gas and other supplementaries that that came with "The war to end all wars" would have put the kibosh on any hawkish actions that would have led to another war of that magnitude, as 1939-1945 would prove it would be. This is why Chamberlain figured if appeasing Hitler with such actions and "treating him with kid gloves" prevented sending his nation into another great war, so be it.

Second, the Nazi government's darker side was for the most part, mostly unknown, hadn't happened yet (aka the "Final Solution"), and what little had leaked out was dismissed or ignored. Meanwhile the powers that be in the Western World saw their hardline take on communism as a wonderful thing, which earned them a bit of leeway in annexing half of central Europe.

Third, Europe didn't have many allies at the time that would have joined them should they declare war on the Germans. Italy and Spain were firmly in the Axis camp, the United States was staunchly isolationist in nature, and Russia wasn't much happier to deal with Britain then it was with Germany. While Britain had her colonies, most were far from Britannia and not of a size to where they could match Germany's military might, plus most were vulnerable to a resurgent Japan, who was also in the Axis camp.

References: WWII history classes, WWII references books (can't remember the name of it as I don't have it any more, will continue to search)

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Upped this. Even when war started, they didn't really want it and hoped it would go away before any real shooting started. Hence the phoney war at the start of WWII. –  Rincewind42 Oct 12 '11 at 4:33
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Good answer but one correction: the USSR was not unwilling to deal with Britain. It was British which did not want to deal with the USSR at the time. –  Anixx Dec 27 '11 at 3:41
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The USSR played a double game with both Britain and the Nazi. It ended in the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact as it was in the best interest of both Nazi Germany and the USSR. –  Sardathrion Feb 6 '12 at 13:26
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@Anixx - Quite. To be more specific, getting help from Russia meant smaller allied countries like Poland and the Czeck's allowing Soviet armies to march through their territories. They were just as afraid of Soviet "help" as they were of Nazi aggression. –  T.E.D. May 4 '12 at 15:50
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w.r.t. to ignorance of Hitler's "final solution"/racism, remember that racism and classism wasn't really as unpopular throughout Europe at the time. Open discrimination against people based on race or sex or religion was not illegal. Anti-Semitism wasn't unheard of either. Chamberlain was born ~ 10 years after Jews were allowed elected to Parliament. The horrors of what Nazi Germany did, has changed human society. –  Rory Jun 15 '12 at 12:44

The main reason was because nobody in Europe wanted another war, as WWI was still fresh in the mind and nobody wanted to relive that. He most likely hoped that Germany would stop and he wouldn't be the Prime minster in office during the second world war. This however wasn't the case and the war started anyway. The same reason other bodies didn't stop him is the one he held, they didn't want to see Britain in another war either.

Source

The Beginnings of WWII, The History Channel

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History Channel is not a good source. –  quant_dev Oct 12 '11 at 10:39
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@quant_dev - OMG are they a bad source. Few things make me angrier than the mystic crap my kids come to me convinced of because they saw it on The History Channel. The point itself is quite true though. –  T.E.D. May 4 '12 at 15:58

Initially, Hitler's position regarding Czechoslovakia was considered "reasonable" by Chamberlain and others.

"Czechoslovakia" was an artificial creation, as evidenced by the fact that the two parts separated voluntarily in 1992, after the end of the Cold War. In 1938, the country had seven million Czechs in today's Czech Republic, three and a half million Germans (in the Sudetenland), two million Slovaks (in Slovakia), plus some others, mainly Ruthenians and Hungarians.

Originally, Hitler's demands for the "repatriation" of the Sudetenland, and its Germans seemed "reasonable." Even the Czechs were willing to give up almost half of the disputed territory to reduce the "minority" (German) population. The problem was that the cession of the mountainous Sudetenland in 1938 left the rest of the country defenseless against invasion.

When Hitler swallowed ALL of the Czech "Republic" in 1939, Chamberlain woke up, and signed a mutual assistance treaty with Poland, the next likely victim. But Hitler's "salami" tactics had confused the issue long enough for him to succeed.

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+1, but my problem with this is that it is a bit to generous. Most accounts I have read indicate that Hitler was actually trying to provoke a war over Czechoslovakia. That's probably what made his threats so effective. If they'd give it to him for free, then fine. He could easily move on to the next country with a large German minority. But he wanted a war. –  T.E.D. May 4 '12 at 15:57
    
@T.E.D. Interesting point. That's the way it looks to us, of course. But that's not the way it looked to Chamberlain in 1938. He changed his mind, but that was in 1939. –  Tom Au May 4 '12 at 16:00
    
@TomAu It may not have looked to Chamberlain like he wanted war, but Hitler was actually terribly disappointed when it happened without a war. –  David Navarre Aug 15 '12 at 21:34
    
@DavidNavarre Do you have a reference for this statement? –  Felix Goldberg Oct 3 '13 at 7:12
    
@FelixGoldberg I wish I'd footnoted it there. A quick search reveals this reference to David Reynolds indicating that Hitler was disappointed in Reynolds' 2007 book, "Summits: Six Meetings that Shaped the 20th Century" fsmitha.com/h2/ch21bmunich.htm While it's certainly not where I'd read it, it is a source and indicates that it has been in at least a few places. –  David Navarre Oct 3 '13 at 21:05

There's another reason that I don't see fleshed out in any of the existing answers and that is that Britain lacked the means for war in 1938.

Max Hastings, in his book "Inferno: The World at War 1939 - 1945" argues that the British (and French) did not have the military equipment or trained men to go to war and that even their treaty to intervene on behalf of Poland was more about deterring Hitler than about any realistic effort to save the Poles.

Hitler did not anticipate the British and French declarations of war. Their acquiescence in his 1938 seizure of Czechoslovakia, together with the impossibility of direct Anglo-French military succour for Poland, argued a lack of both will and means to challenge him.

There are several references to Britain's soldiers being under-prepared and poorly equipped in the early chapters of the book.

Additionally, Britain's main strength was its navy, which was not a valuable asset in a continental war. In 1938 Britain's regular army consisted of 230,000 men, distributed around the Empire, mostly employed as policemen or peacekeepers. I can't find a precise, cited number for Germany's army in 1938, through a Google search several online sources give a size of around 36 divisions with a strength of around 600,000.

This lack of military preparedness and strength in comparison to Germany should therefore also be considered as part of Chamberlain's reluctance to go to war.

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Let's not forget the exaggerated size of the Luftwaffe, and the tremendous overestimation of the effects of air power before the war. –  David Thornley Feb 6 '12 at 5:04
    
Note that Churchill counters this by pointing out the surprising quality of Czech preparedness, particularly their industry. Czech factories provided a surprisingly large number of early war tanks for the Germans, tanks that continued to be used even in the invasion of Russia. –  Paul Hutton Mar 28 '12 at 19:44
    
Sorry, to clarify my comment, Churchill posits that the Czech military would have been a valuable addition to any early allied resistance against Germany; instead it became a liability. –  Paul Hutton Mar 28 '12 at 19:46
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The Czechs possessed the Skoda Works, the single largest arms complex in Europe, which they inherited from the old Austro-Hungarian Empire. The "best" thing that might have happened is that Czechs went to war against Germany, and it was destroyed in the process. Instead, it was surrendered to Germany intact, and became a GERMAN asset, that produced one quarter of the ammunition used by Germany in World War II. –  Tom Au May 6 '12 at 16:26

My answer will probably be very unpopular here, I'm afraid. :(

One of the causes for appeasement was democracy: most people were opposed to any military actions and the politicians had to cater to the populace. In his monumental book "World War II" Winston Churchill writes about a former Prime Minister Baldwin ordering unilateral disarmament of Royal Air Force, even though he knew from intelligence reports that Hitler was taking steps to revive Luftwaffe. When asked why he was doing that Baldwin blatantly replied that he needed pacifists' votes to win the election. He couldn't quite publish the intelligence reports in the papers, so he chose to act as blindly as an average voter would.

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Well, if that is so, then why did the democratic countries eventually go to war with Hitler? –  Felix Goldberg Oct 3 '13 at 7:13
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They delayed well beyond reasonable, until it wasn't possible to lie to themselves that the war could be avoided. Even after declaration of war British and French didn't get into action for many months, certainly nothing has been attempted throughout the rest of 1939. Similarly, US help to British prior to December 1941 had to be downplayed to the public because average American was against the war. FDR and Churchill were very careful about framing arms supply as "Lend-Lease", bullshitting about the extent of US navy patrol, etc. –  Michael Oct 3 '13 at 14:13
    
Felix you ask why then did democratic countries eventually go to war with Hitler? Perhaps self interest after all America did not intervene until attacked at pearl harbour 3 years later. Britain and France had a credibility problem once Poland was invaded and upon that credibility hung France's security. –  user2357 Jun 18 at 22:36

The Horror of another large scale war. Many believed that another large war would be much more horrific than ww1. There was a belief that "the bomber always gets through" it was thought that in any major conflict there would be many many civilian casualties even to the victors. The German propaganda about the strength of the Luftwaffe was believed, and the British air defences were not regarded as being up to scratch.

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Hitler put up a cogent argument from the German perspective that prior to 1918 Czechoslovakia had simply been a part of Austria and Czechoslovakia's independence had therefore isolated and disadvantaged large communities of Germans outside of Germany's new borders. It is the same argument playing out now in the eastern Ukraine as pretext for Russian intervention.

With Anschluss in Austria, Hitler felt empowered to seek "reunification" of the old pre-1918 Austria and thus issued a series of demands known as the Carlsbad Program. Edvard Benes rejected Hitler's demands and mobilised the Czech Army. A propaganda war emerged and lurid false tales of Sudeten Germans being abused by Czech forces were relayed to Britain. The Nazis instigated a series of mass demonstrations and protests by Sudeten Germans inside Czechoslovakia.

In talks with Hitler attempting to avert a crises Chamberlain agreed with Hitler to appease him. France and Britain gave the Czechoslovaks an ultimatum: to cede all the territories with a German population of 50 percent or greater to the German Reich in return for the security of knowing Czechoslovakia would remain independent. Czechoslovakia replied with a resounding “no.”

Finally in September 1938 the Czech position faltered when Mussolini withdrew Italy's support for Czech independence. Benes refused to resist the Germans any further without western support thus Chamberlain pulled the plug on all hope of resistance. Benes placed his country's fate in the hands of negotiation by the British and French

What is little understood however is that Czechoslovakia had very large Gold reserves lodged with the Bank for International Settlements in Switzerland so Chamberlain and Daldier negotiated the Munich Agreement with Hitler to permit reunification of the Sudetenland. Hitler undertook to go no further into Czechoslovakia but the subsequent internal collapse of what was left permitted Hitler to take all of the country not long after.

Shamefully France and Britain tied their acquiescence to German demands with their obtaining a share of the loot and seizure of Czech Gold reserves in Switzerland as German war reparations. This is the deepest shame of what Britain did to the people of a once prosperous little nation.

Chamberlain did not merely let down the Czech people. He helped himself to that nation's Gold reserves.

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