Appeasement can be defined as ‘giving a bully what he wants’. It describes animal behaviour, where a weaker animal adopts a submissive posture towards a more powerful animal. It is claimed that this is what Britain and France did with Hitler in the 1930s.
Hitler built up his army. After 1936, he reintroduced conscription, and by 1939 Germany had 95 warships, 8,250 airplanes and an army of 1m.. Hitler even war-tested his armed forces in the Spanish Civil War. Britain and France turned a blind eye to these breaches of the Treaty of Versailles – Britain even made a naval agreement with Germany, accepting Germany’s right to a navy 35% of the British navy. This looked like appeasement. In 1936, Hitler moved his troops into the Rhineland. The appeasement here, again, was that France did nothing to stop this open breach of Versailles.
In 1938 Hitler went further. He invaded Austria and declared Anschluss. This, too broke the Treaty of Versailles. Again, France and Britain did nothing – even though the Austrian Chancellor Schuschnigg asked Britain and France to help. This (and the west’s ignoring of human rights violations such as Kristallnacht, 1938) might be regarded as appeasement – failing to confront the bully.
Up to 1938, however, France and Britain were not wholly appeasing Hitler. Some people sympathised with Hitler’s aims – their inaction was not the result of fear alone. Wasn’t it reasonable that Germany have an army? The Rhineland belonged to Germany, shouldn’t German troops be stationed there? Versailles had given other countries self-determination, why not Austria and Germany? This was not appeasement, it was agreement.
It is the 1938 crisis that is usually presented as appeasement. In 1938, Hitler got the Sudeten Nazis, led by Henlein, to cause trouble, then he demanded union. But then Chamberlain intervened. On 15 September he met Hitler at Berchtesgaden. Hitler threatened war, but promised that this was the ‘last problem to be solved’. Chamberlain decided that Hitler was ‘a man who can be relied upon’, and persuaded the Czechs to hand over the Sudetenland. But when he met Hitler again, at Bad Godesberg (22 September), there were more demands, and Chamberlain refused. War seemed near, and Chamberlain was not sure Czechoslovakia was a ‘great issue’ which needed war. Instead, he decided that it was ‘a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing’ and, at Munich (29 September), Britain and France gave the Sudetenland to Germany. They gave the bully what he wanted.
These actions of Britain and France are called appeasement, and Chamberlain did want to avoid war. But it can be argued that it was not appeasement only, and that other factors were important – such as agreeing with the Germans, a feeling that this wasn’t Britain’s business, and playing for time to build up Britain’s armed forces.