In the years following the First World War, the general mood in Europe was one of wariness. People were cautious.
Countries didn’t want to get into another war like they just got out of, and things weren’t going very well economically for most of the countries in Europe.
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So, the mood was one of wariness. Everyone was a little worried about what was going to happen next. Most nations were exhausted by the conflict, and few felt that the signing of the Treaty of Versailles and the formation of the League of Nations had created a permanent peace. So, at the end of World War I, all of these nations had signed the Treaty of Versailles. And they had formed the League of Nations, which said that none of the countries within the League of Nations would go to war with the other ones. They would maintain their boundaries, they wouldn’t try to invade any other countries, and basically, everyone would commit to having peace in Europe. But none of the nations really felt that this was going to give a permanent peace to Europe.
In the 1920’s, Britain, Germany, France, and the United States were all liberal democracies without a strong executive. So, these countries, the ones who had pretty much come out on top, were all liberal democracies without a strong executive. So, they did have that in common. However, even the victorious nations in Europe suffered a great economic depression. They had just spent a lot of money on a war, and pretty much all of the countries had lost a significant number of citizens to the war as well. So, there was a great economic depression throughout most of the European nations.
Still shell-shocked from World War I, the nations of Western Europe were slow to respond to the growing menace of Nazi Germany. So, as Germany kind of took a turn and became a stronger country, no one in Europe was really prepared to deal with it. None of them jumped to stop Hitler and the Nazis in Germany before they got too strong, before they got too much power, before they took too many steps in the wrong direction. In general, these other European nations pursued a policy of appeasement and isolation. They tried to appease the Germans and let them have what they wanted.
If they took a little something here or there, would that really matter? As long as they weren’t taking anything too big, as long as they weren’t invading any countries too large. And so, they kind of turned a blind eye to what Nazi Germany was doing in the rest of Europe because it wasn’t impacting any of the larger nations right away. And a policy of isolation, and if they really just weren’t communicating with Germany that much, they said, “Let them do what they want, we’re not really going to pay attention to that, we’ll turn a blind eye to it and just let Germany be fine over there on its own.”
The British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was especially committed to diplomacy over war. So, whenever they did see anything going wrong in Europe, they didn’t want to immediately go, “Stop it,” physically with troops, they wanted to try to work it out by talking. Then in 1936, Hitler sent troops to occupy the Rhineland, and this is a strip of territory on the German border. But it’s significant because the Treaty of Versailles, which was signed after World War I, said that Germany should not go any farther west than the Rhine River, and it shouldn’t occupy any land within 50 kilometers east of the Rhine River.
And Germany was occupying the Rhineland, which was this land surrounding the river. They had invaded lands that they were told not to in the Treaty of Versailles, and that they had agreed not to enter. So, doing this was Germany’s first aggressive move where they were taking over some other area that they were not supposed to be in. But, again, these western nations kind of just said, “Okay, they took that. That’s fine, they can have that back. We won’t worry about it.” But that’s not where Nazi Germany stopped.
At around the same time, we had Mussolini in Italy, and Mussolini invaded Ethiopia around this time, and was showing its first aggressive move. And these two aggressors, Italy and Germany, entered into an alliance, which made them the Axis Powers. So, these were the two countries who had kind of grown economically, grown stronger after World War I, and they were wanting to branch out. They were wanting to take over more land. And as the aggressors in this area, they joined together as the Axis Powers.
In 1938, Germany annexed Austria, and this was a much bigger piece of land than the Rhineland. And Germany also indicated that it would soon attack Czechoslovakia as well and take over that area. So, now, these Western European nations couldn’t just ignore it anymore. Germany was occupying larger and larger areas and they said, “Oh, this isn’t okay. Eventually, they’ll try to do more than we want them to.” So, in response to these actions, Chamberlain brought together Mussolini and Hitler for the Munich Conference of 1938, because remember, Chamberlain was very committed to diplomacy over war.
He didn’t want to fight back and push these people out of Ethiopia, push them out of Austria, Czechoslovakia, the Rhineland. He didn’t want to have to fight. He wanted to talk it out and get Hitler and Mussolini to agree to stop what they were doing. However, these talks would only briefly suspend German aggression. So, while they did go to the Munich Conference, that didn’t mean that Mussolini or Hitler and Nazi Germany were going to stop their aggression.
So, after World War I, you had most of the European nations in a great economic depression, and coming up out of that, Nazi Germany began to thrive. It began to become stronger, and they began to have a boost in their economy due to creating more weapons, and this weapons-making industry was going to provide more jobs, and it boosted the German economy. And you also had Italy, who was becoming a little bit stronger, and both of those countries started to take over small territory in Europe. And as the Western European nations didn’t want to rock the boat, they didn’t want to destroy the peace that they had that was so fragile, they just kind of turned a blind eye to this at first, but as Italy and Germany both started taking over larger and larger countries, they had to finally do something, and they started with the Munich Conference in 1938, but that was only going to stop Germany and Italy for a brief amount of time, and then they were going to go back on their aggressive streak of taking over different lands, which would eventually lead to World War II.
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