As Hitler sought to expand Germany's sphere of influence in Europe, Britain's policy of appeasement reflected the interests of the British ruling classes – until German power became overwhelming
By late 1939, the working-class movement lay defeated and broken across most of Europe. Stalinism and fascism were dominant. Dictatorship had triumphed over democracy. Revolutionary hope had given way to counter-revolutionary despair.
Ten million were imprisoned in Stalin’s gulags, 150,000 in Hitler’s concentration camps. Franco’s Nationalists had murdered 200,000 people during and immediately after the Spanish Civil War. Union membership in France had fallen by three-quarters.
Authoritarian governments, to varying degrees fascist, were now the rule across the continent. They had been established in Turkey, Hungary, Italy, Poland, and Portugal during the 1920s, and in Yugoslavia, Germany, Austria, Bulgaria, the Baltic states, Greece, and Spain during the 1930s.
‘Totalitarianism’ was not, however, a uniform phenomenon. Stalinism and Nazism were equally brutal, but different in character and purpose.
Russia’s backwardness meant that rapid accumulation of capital (to create infrastructure, heavy industry, and armaments) was possible only with very high levels of exploitation. This was made possible by state terror to destroy any possibility of resistance.
Germany was not backward at all: it was the greatest industrial power in Europe. But economic collapse had torn society apart, driven the middle class mad, and threatened the ruling class with revolution. Nazism was an extreme right-wing response to this crisis.
The Nazi regime had three basic characteristics. First, it was a mass movement of the enraged petty-bourgeoisie, the salaried middle class, and unorganised sections of the working class and the unemployed. What held this otherwise disparate ‘human dust’ together was the party and its mission – the destruction of internal enemies and the rebuilding of German power.
Second, Nazism was an instrument of counter-revolution. Before coming to power, its paramilitary army of 400,000 Brownshirts had been used to attack unions, left-wing parties, and workers’ protests. After January 1933, the Nazi paramilitaries fused with the German state and swelled into a monstrous police apparatus that liquidated all opposition.
Third, Nazism was an expression of German imperialism. Hitler’s demands for Lebensraum (‘living space’) at the expense of Slavic Untermenschen (‘sub-humans’) echoed the traditional imperialist ambitions of German capitalism in Central and Eastern Europe.
During the First World War, German leaders had dreamed of a vast imperial domain stretching from the Baltic to the Bosphorus – Mitteleuropa (‘Middle Europe’) – and a further sphere of influence extending from there down to the Persian Gulf.
Hitler revived and expanded these ambitions in the 1930s. He was a racist psychopath and a totalitarian dictator, but he was not hell-bent on a world war for global domination. This is a myth perpetuated by those who deny that the Second World War was an imperialist war.
The tensions between the great powers were not resolved in 1918. In many ways, they were intensified. The Treaty of Versailles had imposed partial dismemberment on Germany, built up rival states on her borders, and imposed crippling reparations payments and arms limitations. This did not end the conflict, however; it simply created the context for its next phase.
Underlying the rising tensions of the 1930s was the impact of the Great Depression. As trade collapsed, each state devalued its currency to make home-produced goods cheaper on world markets, and imposed protective tariffs on foreign imports. The world became divided into ‘autarkic’ blocs of rival capitalists.
State power was also used to stimulate growth through public investment. Russia, where all economic activity was state-controlled, was the most extreme example. But the Nazi state also borrowed money to invest in infrastructure (especially motorway construction) and rearmament.
Lucrative state contracts combined with wage cuts of around 25% led to a huge expansion of German industrial investment. Unemployment fell from 6 million in 1933 to virtually zero in 1939.
But Germany’s booming capitalist economy was at risk of being choked by lack of raw materials and closed markets. Further capital accumulation could not be accommodated within existing national boundaries.
Germany needed the iron-works of Alsace-Lorraine (returned to France in 1919), the arms industries of Czechoslovakia, the coal-mines of Poland, and the oil-fields of Romania; perhaps even the grain-producing prairies of the Ukraine and the oil-fields of the distant Caucasus or Middle East.
Hitler’s challenge to the Versailles settlement ramped up as German economic and military strength increased. In March 1936, the demilitarised Rhineland, designed as a buffer zone protecting France’s eastern frontier, was reoccupied by German troops.
Between 1936 and 1939, Germany supplied guns, tanks, bombers, and ‘volunteers’ to the Nationalists in Spain, using the war there as a training ground for its fast-growing armed forces.
In March 1938, Hitler annexed Austria to the German Reich. The Anschluss (‘link-up’) was uncontested by the Austrian authorities and widely welcomed by Austrian Nazis.
In October 1938, Hitler annexed the mainly German-speaking Sudetenland of neighbouring Czechoslovakia, a seizure made possible by the Munich Agreement signed by Germany, Italy, Britain, and France on 30 September.
Loss of the Sudetenland stripped Czechoslovakia of its mountain barrier and rendered it defenceless against further aggression. In March 1939, the rest of Czechoslovakia was absorbed into the growing Nazi empire.
By now, Europe was firmly divided into two blocs. Germany and Italy had formed an Axis in November 1936. Both were expansionist powers with ambitions that threatened the interests of Britain and France.
The rulers of Britain, however, were keen to avoid war, and the rulers of France could not challenge the Axis on their own. Appeasement was the official policy of the western powers. This meant refusing to supply the Spanish Republic, acquiescing in Hitler’s European annexations, and ignoring Italy’s conquest of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) in north-east Africa.
The British ruling class was increasingly divided, but appeasement reflected the interests of the majority, at least until September 1939.
Britain’s rulers wanted to defend the substance of the 1919 carve-up of the world between the great powers. Minor European states were expendable pawns in a wider game. They hoped to ‘contain’ Hitler and preserve ‘the balance of power’.
They were also sympathetic to fascism as a hammer against the working class, they regarded Nazi Germany as a bulwark against Soviet Russia, and another world war risked a renewal of revolutionary turmoil.
Appeasement was not wilful stupidity. It reflected the interests of British capitalism at the time.
What made it unsustainable in the long run was the way in which the expansion of German capital continued to push against the limits of the European geopolitical system. The danger for British and French imperialism was that a tipping-point would be reached when German economic and military power became overwhelming.
Poland was judged to be that tipping-point. The result was frenetic last-minute diplomacy.
Britain and France guaranteed military support to Poland in the event of invasion on 31 March 1939. But they continued to search for a diplomatic solution to German territorial demands, and refused to enter into any sort of agreement with the Soviet Union.
Stalin, unable to secure an alliance with Britain and France, opted for a non-aggression pact with Hitler for the partition of Poland (the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 23 August 1939).
The Germans attacked Poland from the west on 1 September 1939. The Russians attacked from the east on 17 September. Within three weeks, Poland had been defeated, overrun by foreign armies, and, despite pockets of resistance, ceased to exist as an independent nation-state.
Britain and France had declared war on 3 September, but failed to provide any military assistance to Poland. Nonetheless, the Second World War had begun.
The defeat of the socialist revolution in the interwar period meant the victory of fascism. The victory of fascism meant the victory of imperialism. The final cost of working-class defeat in interwar Europe would therefore be the most barbarous war in human history.
Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a writer, lecturer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster. His books include ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics‘ and ‘A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals‘.
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