Just one week after the Germans and Russians signed a non-aggression treaty, Adolf Hitler’s Germany began its invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, triggering the chain of events that led to the outbreak of the Second World War.
The invasion seemed to have caught British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, the architact of appeasement with Nazi Germany through the September 1938 Munich Agreement, totally dumbfounded by the audacity of Hitler’s next step in his quest to dominate Europe. Chamberlain had plenty of warnings from informed sources, including Winston Churchill, who was correct in predicting that ceding the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia to the Nazis would not sate Hitler’s appetite for expansion. Hitler successfully gambled on the weakness of France’s and England’s political leadership not to oppose his ever-expanding land grabs; that is, until Poland.
When the invasion of Poland occurred and became a land grab too far, Chamberlain told the German people in radio broadcasts:
“He (Hitler) gave his word that he would respect the Locarno Treaty (the 1925 treaty between Germany, Belgium, France, Great Britain and Italy guaranteeing the existing borders of Europe); he broke it.
“He gave his word that he niether wished nor intended to annex Austria; he broke it.
“He declared he would not incorporate the Czechs in the reich; he did.
“He gave his word after Munich that he had no further territorial deamnds in Europe; he broke it.
“He gave his word wanted no Polish province; he broke it.
“He has sworn to you for years he was the mortal enemy of bolshevism; he is now its ally.
“Can you wonder that for us his word is not worth the paper it is written on?”
Given the previous expansion of Nazi control beyond German borders, Chamberlain should have been prepared to answer most of those statements himself prior to September 1, 1939, and also realized earlier on that Hitler had no intention of honouring any treaties.
The September 11, 1939, headline in the Winnipeg Free Press proclaimed, Canada Officially Enters War Against Nazi Germany. On September 10, the House of Commons had voted nearly unanimously — only four dissenters — to join Britain and France (both declared war on September 3) in opposition to the regime headed by Hitler, the embodiment of evil.
Decades after the outbreak of the Second World War, historians are still debating its causes and outcomes. But what is most evident is that there would have been no war without the advent of Hitler and the emergence of totalitarian regimes in Germany, Russia, Japan and Italy, all bent upon aggrandizement through aggression toward others.
In Russia, which bore the brunt of Nazi aggression after 1941 until the joint Anglo-American-Canadian D-Day landing in Normandy on June 6, 1944, the war is seen from a different viewpoint than in the West. In fact, Russia claims no responsibility for the outbreak of the war, despite having signed a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany which allowed Hitler to invade Poland. In return for Stalin’s assurances of support, the Soviet Union shared with Nazi Germany in the division of the hapless country’s territory.
A few years ago, Poland’s President Lech Kaczynski reminded Russian President Vladimir Putin that the Soviet Union had “stabbed Poland in the back” when it invaded the country on September 17, 1939, to claim territory under the terms of the Nazi-Soviet pact. Putin’s only reply was that the August 23, 1939, pact was one mistake among many, likening it to the Munich Agreement of 1938, when Britain and France bullied Czechoslovakia to cede some of its territory to Germany. Of course, Putin has his own aspirations to reclaim territory lost by the break-up of Soviet Union — so far Crimea and eastern portions of Ukraine.
The hindsight of history shows that appeasement was a grave error that emboldened Hitler and intensified his dream of territorial expansion. It is known that Hitler considered French Premier Edouard Daladier and Chamberlain laughable fools for believing the Munich agreement was the beginning of “peace in our time,” or that the agreement signalled an end to Nazi expansion in Europe.
For many, the massive bloodletting of the First World War remained an horrific memory which led a majority to consider peace at any cost a valuable commodity, but there was a minority that foresaw the implications of appeasement.
Among the early dissenters was Winnipeg Free Press editor John W. Dafoe (an inductee into the WinnipegREALTORS®-established Winnipeg Citizens Hall of Fame), who recognized the rising threat posed by Hitler and sent reporter Grant Dexter across the Atlantic to cover the “gathering storm.”
“Dafoe had smelled the coming advent of a European war,” wrote George Ferguson, a pupil under the renowned editor, “and before the war broke out, he had sent Dexter to cover it as early as 1936. When Dexter got there, he discovered that Dafoe’s sense of timing had been just right, and he found himself with a ring-side seat at the rapidly unfolding drama.”
Dafoe came to hate Hitler and Chamberlain, as well as the “confused” men and women who didn’t think clearly and merely sought peace at any cost.
When the Munich Agreement was signed in 1938, Dafoe wrote his most famous editorial under the heading, What’s the Cheering For? It was a strong criticism of the policy of appeasement which allowed Hitler’s bloodless expansion in Europe. “Austria yesterday,” he wrote, “Czechoslovakia today; what of tomorrow and the day after.”
Free Press journalist James Gray wrote that the editorial solicited an “explosive” response by the newspaper’s readership. “The switchboard was flooded with calls from irate readers eager to denounce the editor as a war-monger.”
But, Dafoe was right — there was no stopping Hitler without drawing a line that he could not cross without being punished. In the end, that line became Poland.
“You can’t have appeasement with dictators like Hitler and Mussolini,” said Sir George Paish, a former advisor of the chancellor of the exchequer in Britain, during a speech at the Fort Garry Hotel, reported in a front page article published in the November 29, 1938, Free Press. “In critical times like these, policies need to be determined not by dictators but the people, so that the responsibilities of what happens may be shared by many. I almost pity the leaders of the nations, including Mr. Chamberlain and Mr. Daladier, premier of France, for pursuing policies that must increase the distress of their peoples.”
Of the Munich agreement, he said, “It’s not appeasement, it’s a policy of giving way to the aggressor.”
The obvious lesson for democracies to learn is that appeasing dictators and autocrats rarely has the desired outcome.