In October 1925 British, French, Belgian, and Italian representatives met in Locarno, Switzerland, to settle postwar territory claims in eastern Europe and normalize diplomatic relations with Weimar Germany. Germany also sought to establish guarantees protecting its western borders as established by the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I.
Under the Locarno Pact, Germany, France, and Belgium agreed not to attack each other, while Great Britain and Italy signed as guarantors to the agreement. As such, all parties pledged assistance if Germany, France, or Belgium took any aggressive action against any of them.
Additionally, Germany agreed with France, Belgium, Poland, and Czechoslovakia to handle any disputes diplomatically through the League of Nations, while France guaranteed mutual aid to Poland and Czechoslovakia in the event of a German attack.
Under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, Germany was forced to disarm, lost all territorial gains, and had to pay reparations as part of the acceptance of guilt in starting the war. Germans resented the treaty, considering it far too harsh and demeaning.
Many blamed the treaty for compromising Germany's economy, so much so that by 1923 the Weimar Republic could not make the required reparation payments. The situation worsened when the Great Depression hit in the 1930s, heightening the already-bleak socioeconomic pressures of the country.
As a result, Germans faced a complete disintegration of their society, as a majority of citizens became disillusioned about the future of the country. Upon his ascension to the chancellorship in January 1933, Adolf Hitler sought changes to the treaty that would allow for German lebensraum (living space).
With that in mind, Hitler formally repudiated the Treaty of Versailles in March 1935, using it as both scapegoat and propaganda for the ills of the nation. He set about restructuring the economy and, more importantly, rearming the military in violation of the treaty.
Industrial production and civic improvements were expanded, the results of which were both positive and negative: The unemployment rate fell with continued arms production and construction projects, while inflation increased due to currency manipulation and deficit spending.
The German military (Wehrmacht) reintroduced conscription, which helped to lower the unemployment rate further, and reorganized to include a new navy, the Kriegsmarine, and an air force, the Luftwaffe—both of which were severe violations of Versailles.
Hitler made the argument that rearmament was a necessity for Germany's continued security. At the time, European leaders felt such allowances simply corrected certain wrongs that bitter victors had set in the aftermath of a brutal world war; thus, Germany faced no repercussions other than formal protests.
When France and the Soviet Union signed a treaty of alliance in 1936, Hitler's aims became even more significant. In response to the Franco-Soviet treaty, Hitler pressed for the stationing of German troops in the Rhineland. In accordance with the Treaty of Versailles, the entire Rhineland area was demilitarized to serve as a buffer between Germany and France, Belgium, and Luxembourg.
By 1930 Allied forces had completely withdrawn under the terms of the treaty, which equally prohibited German forces from entering the area. Further, the Allies could reoccupy the territory if it was unilaterally determined that Germany had violated the treaty in any way.
France was not prepared militarily to dispute any claim over the territory without British aid. Great Britain could not provide such support. As a result, both countries had no choice but to allow Germany to retake the region.
Thus, a policy of appeasement toward Germany was officially born under British prime minister Stanley Baldwin (1935–37), though it had already begun under his predecessor, Ramsey McDonald (1929–35).
Guided by the growing pacifist movement, both Ramsey and Baldwin realized that national consensus did not favor military action. In spite of pressure from outspoken critics like Winston Churchill, who recognized the dangers of German rearmament, both were determined to keep the country out of war.
Hitler's ambitions grew greater. Unwilling to assist the Republican government, Baldwin initiated a pact of nonintervention with 27 countries, including Germany and Italy.
Despite being signatories, Hitler and Italy's Benito Mussolini, in violation of the agreement, sent weapons and troops to support General Francisco Franco and his nationalist forces. By December both countries were fully involved in the Spanish conflict, having agreed two months earlier to an alliance, known as the Axis, to solidify their positions in Europe.
Using the war as a test for its armed forces and methods, particularly the Luftwaffe and blitzkrieg tactics, Germany demonstrated how far its remilitarization efforts had advanced. On April 26, 1937, the town of Guernica came to symbolize and foreshadow the German advancements. German and Italian forces in a joint operation began a bombing campaign against the town.
The attack happened so swiftly that it appeared as one continuous assault, with no other intent than the complete decimation of the civilian population. However, several thousand refugees had come to the town in the wake of the war; by all estimates the number of dead stood near 1,700, consisting mainly of women, children, and elderly, with over two-thirds of the town in ruins.
As the Axis powers continued to lend support in Spain, Hitler forced his native Austria to unify politically (Anschluss) with Germany in March 1938. Despite the Treaty of Versailles's prohibition of union between Germany and Austria, again the Allies' response to the Anschluss went no further than formal diplomatic protests.
A month earlier, on February 12, Austrian chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg had met with the führer in Berchtesgaden, Bavaria. Hitler had demanded the ban on the Austrian Nazi Party be lifted and that they be allowed to participate in the government, or Austria would face military retaliation from Germany.
With little choice, Schuschnigg complied with the demands by appointing two Nazis to his cabinet, Arthur Seyss-Inquart and Edmund Glaise-Horstenau. He also announced a referendum to decide independence or union with Germany—a stall tactic aimed at preserving Austrian autonomy.
However, the gradual usurpation of authority by Schuschnigg's newly appointed ministers and pressure from Germany—in the form of an ultimatum from Hitler that threatened a full invasion—forced Schuschnigg to hand power over to Seyss-Inquart and the Austrian Nazi Party. When Hitler further threatened invasion, Miklas reluctantly acquiesced.
On March 12 the German Wehrmacht 8th Army entered Vienna to enforce the Anschluss, facing no resistance from the Austrians. Many Austrians gave their support to the Anschluss with relief that they had avoided a potentially brutal conflict with Germany. Others fled the country in fear of the Nazi seizure of power.
Austria was only the beginning. When Neville Chamberlain became prime minister of Great Britain in May 1937 he adhered to the policy of appeasement that his two predecessors had cultivated. He believed that the continued consent of changes to the Treaty of Versailles could prevent another war with Germany.
To that end, Chamberlain, France's Édouard Daladier, and Italy's Benito Mussolini met with Hitler in Munich, Germany, in September 1938 to settle a dispute over the German speaking Sudetenland, which both Czechoslovakia and Germany claimed.
Hitler claimed that the Czech government was mistreating Sudeten Germans in Czechoslovakia, despite no evidence of such treatment and adamant denials from government officials; the same argument was made for German minorities living in Hungary and Poland. Exploiting ethnic tensions as a pretext to gain a foothold in eastern Europe, Germany demanded the incorporation of the region into Nazi Germany.
The Allies urged the Czech government to comply. In what is known as the Munich Pact, the parties agreed on September 29, 1938, without Czech representation, to the transfer of the Sudetenland to German control. Terms of the agreement included the allowance of German settlements in the region, with Germany exacting no further claims of Czech lands.
Triumphant that the situation had been resolved and war resoundingly avoided, Chamberlain and Daladier returned to England and France, declaring that the peace had been preserved. Feeling abandoned by its allies, particularly France, Czechoslovakia had no choice but to capitulate to Hitler.
As German troops moved into the newly acquired territory, the Czech population fled to central Czechoslovakia. Six months later Germany violated the Munich agreement by invading Czechoslovakia itself. Despite an alliance with France and the Soviet Union, neither came to Czechoslovakia's aid. Hitler's main motivation for the invasion involved the seizure of Czech industrial facilities.
However, Hitler's intentions to invade Poland following the breakdown of negotiations over territorial concessions deemed it necessary that he eliminate Czechoslovakia first. Accordingly, on March 15, 1939, German forces entered the Czech capital of Prague, proclaiming the regions of Bohemia and Moravia as German protectorates.
Chamberlain and the Allied nations now faced a major international impasse. They had granted concessions to Hitler, with no repercussions when Germany violated the agreements. If Hitler were to continue that course of action, the Allies would find themselves in a difficult position in regard to other international commitments. In particular, both Great Britain and France pledged aid to Poland were Germany to invade it.
The scenario became a reality when Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. In a final attempt to avert war Great Britain and France lodged formal warnings and diplomatic protests against the invasion, to no avail. As a result, notwithstanding the Soviet-German agreement, both countries were forced to declare war on Germany.