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Steps toward War: 1935-38

When Hitler came to power in 1933, the British became more concerned about the likelihood of war, and that year in Britain the question of fighting "for king and country' was debated. At Oxford University the pacifists won that debate 750 to 138. Similar debates at the London School of Economics resulted in a pacifist resolution that was supported unanimously. Aberystwyth University in Wales voted 186 to 99 for pacifism. Manchester University voted for pacifism 371 to 196, and students in Canada and New Zealand voted with the Oxford pacifists. Hitler was watching, and, contemptuous of pacifism, he was encouraged. Winston Churchill was outraged — while pacifists viewed him as a warmonger.

Gandhi was popular among those in Britain and the United States opposed to war. Gandhi had to counter exaggerations about his passivism, stating that his "non-violence does not admit of running away from danger and leaving dear ones unprotected." But he did proclaim in 1935 that "Non-violence is an active force of the highest order. It is soul force or the power of Godhead within us." Meanwhile, in Europe and the United States many advocates of peace had difficulty with the idea of preventing war by expressing a willingness to go to war and scaring off would be aggressors.

On 16 March 1935, Adolf Hitler announced that Germany was rearming in response to the failure of other European powers to disarm. Meanwhile, in November 1934 the Soviet Union had joined the League of Nations. Stalin's regime was denouncing fascism, and on 16 May 1935 it claimed that if France fulfilled its defensive treaty obligations with Czechoslovakia it too would support Czechoslovakia. Hitler denounced the French and the Soviet Union and spoke of the absurdity of war and of the "follies" of the past. Wars of revenge, he said, were out of date. "A deliberate maker of war may have been a patriot in the old days," he declared, "but today such a person would be a traitor." "We are not imperialist," he added, and he held to his position that the German people wanted only "equal rights for all" and its honor restored.

In October 1935, Italy invaded Ethiopia — Mussolini's attempt at the glory of empire. It was a blow to the hope for an era of international peace and goodwill that had arisen with the Locarno Treaties negotiated in Switzerland in the mid-1920s. A debate about sanctions against Italy followed. Franklin Roosevelt invoked the US Neutrality Act to place a blanket ban on all weapons shipments to Italy. In Britain were those opposed to the sanctions against Italy because they might lead to war. The League of Nations voted for light sanctions, leaving Italy with the oil it needed for its war effort. This left many with a view of the League of Nations as impotent. Italy was on its way to conquering all of Ethiopia, with Hitler giving Germany's support to Mussolini and the two dictators becoming friends.

In March 1936, Hitler defied both the Versailles and the Locarno treaties by moving troops into Germany's Rhineland (which the Allies in 1919 demilitarized for the sake of security for France). Hitler pointed to the French-Soviet alliance as an excuse, saying it was a threat to Germany. Churchill in the House of Commons complained that Britain was confronting dictators "without weapons or military force" and that the spirit of British people was being tamed and cowed "with peace films, anti-recruiting propaganda and resistance to defense measures."

The response in France was an anti-fascist coalition government, the Popular Front (Communists and "moderate" socialists) — headed by the country's first Jewish premier, Léon Blum. He took office in June (1936), and his plans to establish effective state controls over private industry and finance aroused hostility among French business leaders. It was at this time that sections of France's political rightwing adopted the slogan, "Better Hitler than Blum, and "better Hitler than Stalin."

Hitler was hoping that his anti-Communism would attract Britain to his side. In October he signed an anti-Comintern Pact with Japan (against Moscow's Communist International). Britain was not interested, but Italy and the fascist regime in Spain joined the Pact in November.

The Anschluss with Austria

Back in Germany, Hitler wanted his own expansion. He wanted German unity with Austria (another defiance of the Versailles Treaty). Mussolini was grateful for Hitler's benevolence regarding Italy's conquest of Ethiopia and he gave Hitler his approval. In mid-February 1938, Hitler demands that Austria's National Socialists be included in its government. Hitler threatened to invade, and Austria's chancellor, Schuschnigg, felt abandoned by Italy and he expected no help from France or Great Britain. He resigned. A pro-Hitler lawyer in the pay of Germany, Seyss-Inquart, became Austria's chancellor. On March 11, German troops crossed into Austria without resistance, said to have been invited by Seyss-Inquart to put down a Communist uprising. It was Hitler's first move beyond Germany's frontiers. Many Austrians responded with jubilation, especially Austria's National Socialists. On March 13, Austria was declared a province of Germany and Hitler returned to his native Austria, to Vienna, with many Austrians welcoming him as a conquering hero.

The persecution of Jews in Austria would now begin. Jews would be forced to get on their hands and knees and scrub the pavement. In Vienna over 2,000 persons crowded the American Consulate General office seeking visas. People in Austria known to be hostile toward the National Socialists were arrested, including Schuschnigg, who was imprisoned in a small room for seventeen months, tortured with sleeplessness, and in the months that followed he was forced to perform menial tasks, such as cleaning the latrines of his guards. He lost fifty-eight pounds. Then he was sent to a concentration camp.

The Munich Conference

1938 was the year of the Munich Conference, to be known for its appeasement of Hitler. The issue was Czechoslovakia. Czechoslovakia had been created by the Versailles Treaty — a country consisting of Czechs, Slovaks, Magyars, Ruthenians, Poles and Germans. Barely half the population was Czech. About one-quarter were Germans, and Germans were a majority in that part of Czechoslovakia called the Sudetenland which bordered Germany.

The Sudeten Germans resented living under Czech officials and police, and they were excited by Austria having been absorbed into a greater Germany. Hitler spoke of wanting to rescue the Sudeten Germans, and now that he was in control of Austria he had Czechoslovakia surrounded on three sides. On 30 May 1938, Hitler told his generals that he had decided "to smash Czechoslovakia by military action" at least by October 1. (David Reynolds, Summits: Six Meetings that Shaped the 20th Century, 2007, p 40.)

The commander-in-chief of the German armies, General Ludwig Beck, was opposed to Hitler's decision and resigned. He and his replacement, General Halder thought Hitler imbalanced and they planned a coup against his rule.

Czechoslovakia's president, Eduard Beneš (pronounced Benesh), welcomed a confrontation with Hitler, hoping to demonstrate to France and Britain the need to stand up to Hitler. The Czech government ordered the mobilization of its army and called on Czechoslovakia's allies to honor their agreements. France wished to honor its treaty to defend Czechoslovakia, but without backing from Britain it demurred. And the Soviet Union backed away from helping defend Czechoslovakia because its commitment to defend Czechoslovakia was contingent upon France living up to its agreement.

War between Germany and Czechoslovakia appeared imminent. Mussolini made a show of offering to rescue Europe with his mediation. Anti-war sentiments appeared in Berlin and because of it, writes historian David Reynolds,"Hitler pulled back." Hitler accepted Mussolini's offer and a summit conference.

Mussolini, Hitler, Britain's prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, and France's premier, Daladier, agreed to meet in Munich. President Benes of Czechoslovakia was not invited. Neither was a representative of the Soviet Union.

Prime Minister Chamberlain abhorred the idea of another war, perhaps as much as he abhorred the idea of an alliance with the Soviet Union. Chamberlain wanted military preparedness and also to explore the possibility of peace. At the Munich conference, held in September, Hitler talked about Germany's great military machine that once in motion could not be stopped. In fact, Hitler's army was too weak at that time to fight against Czechoslovakia and France simultaneously, not to mention the Soviet Union and Britain. Chamerlain was overestimating Germany's ability to wage war.

Britain gave Germany its acceptance of Germany occupying the Sudetenland. France and Italy went along with it, and Czechoslovakia was informed by Britain and France that it had to accept Germany's annexation of the Sudetenland unless it wanted to stand up to Germany without their support. The new French premier, Daladier, went along with it. He was a World War I veteran who had been traumatized by the bloodbath he had witnessed.

General Halder, one of the German generals plotting a coup against Hitler, believed that with Chamberlain and Daladier having given Hitler what they did, the best chance for overthrowing Hitler had been lost.

Daladier was distraught over having abandoned Czechoslovakia. On his return to Paris he was expecting a hostile crowd. Instead, the crowds were cheering, and he commented to his aide: "Ah, the morons."

For the British, Chamberlain made a show of having preserved peace. "Peace in our time," he called it, as he held aloft the paper he, Hitler, Mussolini and others had signed. People responded with cheers, but Chamberlain was worried and told his advisor, Edward Halifax, that "We must hope for the best and prepare for the worst." Winston Churchill said, "Britain and France had to choose between war and dishonor. They chose dishonor. They will have war."

On 1 October (the day after the Munich Agreement was signed), in accord with what the agreement gave him, Hitler sent his troops into the Sudetenland — peacefully. Hitler had been deprived of the war that he had wanted against the Czechs, but he postured triumph. The Sudeten Germans were delirious with joy. Germany's possession of the Sudetenland was confirmed in a plebiscite held a few days later. Czechoslovakia's President Benes watched the events. He had thirty-five well-trained divisions, said to be perhaps as formidable as Germany's army, but he had decided not to fight the Germans with the Soviet Union as his ally.

CONTINUE READING: Kristallnacht (Night of the Broken Glass)

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