Appeasing Hitler

Posted: December 28, 2010 in World War 2
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As the 1930s wore on & Nazi Germany grew ever stronger, Britain & France continued to rearm, but they were still loath to threaten force against Hitler. This encouraged Hitler to become increasingly aggressive in the territorial demands he made from Germany‘s neighbors.

Throughout 1937, the Germans fomented trouble in Austria through their Nazi cells. Matters came to a head in January 1938. Hearing of an assassination plot against him, Chancellor Schuschnigg ordered his police to raid a house used by a Nazi cell. They found plans for a Nazi revolt, which would provide the excuse for German forces to enter Austria to prevent Germans fighting Germans.

Outrageous Demands

Horrified by this, Schuschnigg went to Germany to complain in person to Hitler. He was forced to listen to a lecture on the treatment of the Austrian Nazis. Hitler then demanded that all Austrian Nazis be released from jail & that the head of the Austrian Nazis be made interior minister & another Nazi sympathizer defense minister.

Furthermore, Austria’s economy was to be absorbed by that of Germany. The Austrian chancellor refused to give in to these demands & organized a referendum of the Austrian people over whether they wanted to maintain their independence or accept Anschluss with Germany.

Fearful that the vote would go the wrong way, Hitler ordered his troops into Austria on March 12th, the eve of the referendum. The Austrian Nazis had done their work well. The German soldiers were greeted by cheering crowds & there was no attempt to oppose them. The following day Schuschnigg resigned, was arrested, & spent until the end of the war in concentration camps. Anschluss had been achieved with Austria now little more than a province of Greater Germany.

Britain & France made diplomatic protests over the annexation of Austria, but that was all. Neither was prepared for war &, in any event, there appeared to be little protest by the Austrian people themselves.

The Sudeten Germans

The British & French soon had to face another crisis provoked by Hitler. During 1937, Hitler had also set sights on Czechoslovakia, a new state created by the Treaty of Versailles, & had drawn up plans for a surprise attack on it. The annexation of Austria meant that the Czechs were now surrounded on three sides by Germany.

Hitler made his first move almost as soon as Austria had been secured. The Sudetenland, the westernmost part of Czechoslovakia, had a sizeable German population, & Hitler instructed its leader, Konrad Henlein, to campaign for greater autonomy. He also began to threaten Czechoslovakia, which mobilized its armed forces & called on its ally, France, for support. The French turned to the British & prime minister Neville Chamberlain went to Prague to try to persuade Czechoslovakia’s president, Eduard Benes, to agree to Henlein’s demands. The Germans, meanwhile, concentrated troops on the Czech border. Hitler told his generals that he would take military action if the matter had not been resolved by October 1938.

The Brink of War

Hitler continued his saber-rattling & this resulted in an uprising by the Germans in the Sudetenland in mid-September, which the Czech army quickly crushed. Fearful that Hitler would now invade, the British prime minister, with French support, decided that he should meet Hitler in person to defuse the situation. In the meantime, both Britain & France carried out a partial mobilization.

Chamberlain felt strongly that Sudetenland was not worth the horrors of another European war. Through the Munich Agreement of September 1929, the German parts of Sudetenland were exchanged for a declaration by Hitler that he had no further territorial ambitions. The agreement was signed by Britain, France, Italy & Germany, but the Czechs had no say in the matter. On October 1st, German troops marched into Sudetenland, while Chamberlain returned in triumph to Britain, declaring that he had secured peace. The British & French expressed wholesale relief that war had been averted, but Hitler was frustrated that he had been denied the opportunity to deal with the Czechoslovakian problem.

While Hitler planned his next moves on the European stage, attention in Germany & outside it turned to a new dramatic phase in the persecution of Jews. The night of November 9/10, 1938, which became known as Kristallnacht, saw the most widespread & concerted outbreak of violence yet directed against Germany’s Jews.

From World War II: The Definitive Visual History, by Richard Holmes

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