In September 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain returned from Munich after a series of discussions with Adolf Hitler. Documented on film, Chamberlain famously waved the final agreement and proclaimed he had secured "peace for our time." This image, striking and ultimately misleading, has cemented Chamberlain’s reputation as the figure most responsible for appeasing Hitler. However, the broader appeasement policy—seeking peace with dictators by any means necessary—preceded Chamberlain by several years. Its roots can be traced back to the "Versailles Guilt" Britain experienced after World War I. By the 1930s, two additional factors influenced this policy: the decline in British military power due to prolonged spending cuts, and growing pacifist sentiment across Britain. Consequently, appeasement appeared to be the only feasible choice for many British politicians, even if they did not share Chamberlain’s ethical enthusiasm for it.

The policy of appeasement was initially made more acceptable by the nature of Nazi foreign policy in the early 1930s. British politicians were generally willing to tolerate actions such as rearmament and the reoccupation of the Rhineland, viewing them as a relatively justified response to the harsh Versailles restrictions. However, from 1936 onwards, Hitler’s foreign policy became increasingly ideological and belligerent. This shift became evident in 1938 with the German annexation of Austria in March, unopposed by Hitler’s new ally, Mussolini. A Nazi plan for invading the Sudetenland followed. The Sudetenland, a primarily German-speaking region of Czechoslovakia, had long been on Hitler’s agenda. The announcement of his intention to invade was clearly meant to test Western reactions.

A series of Anglo-German talks ensued, culminating in the Munich Agreement, where Chamberlain conceded Germany's "right" to the Sudetenland in exchange for Hitler’s promise to leave the rest of Czechoslovakia untouched. For Chamberlain's supporters, of whom there were many at the time, his patient tactics were considered the only viable strategy given Britain’s lack of preparedness for war. However, for others, Munich served as a damning indictment of the moral bankruptcy inherent in the policy of appeasement.

The evolving nature of Nazi foreign policy, from seemingly justified acts to overtly ideological and aggressive maneuvers, underscores the complexities and challenges faced by British politicians in the lead-up to World War II.

In March 1939, Nazi Germany invaded the remaining parts of Czechoslovakia, blatantly violating the Munich Agreement. Infuriated and humiliated, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain responded assertively with the "Polish Guarantee," wherein Britain pledged to protect Poland's sovereignty against Nazi threats. A closer examination of the terms of this guarantee reveals that it assured the concept of Polish independence rather than its specific territorial integrity, suggesting some room for negotiation.


Top photo: The front page of the Chicago Daily News on Sept. 1, 1939, proclaimed the news of the Nazi invasion of Poland. From the Sun-Times archives. In the Public Domain.

Middle photo: Somewhere over Poland, 16 September 1939. German machine gunner in a Luftwaffe aircraft during first days of Nazi Germany's invasion. Source: War History Network license.

Bottom photo: Poland, September 1939. Hitler watching German soldiers march into the invasion of Poland. Source: Wikimedia. 


This series of events marked a significant shift in British attitudes, as the public began to grasp the severity of the Nazi threat. This realization bolstered the anti-appeasement movement led by Winston Churchill and the Labour Party. Consequently, Chamberlain's government faced increased pressure to take a firm stance against Adolf Hitler and initiated measures to enhance Britain's war readiness, including the introduction of conscription.

12665738483?profile=RESIZE_584xHowever, the stark reality remained that neither Britain nor France was prepared for a full-scale European war in the short term. Additional alliances were essential, preferably with a major power. With the United States still reluctant to involve itself in European matters, the Soviet Union emerged as the only viable alternative. Despite his initial resistance to aligning with a communist power, Chamberlain eventually agreed to engage with the Soviets from late April 1939. Nevertheless, his reluctance was evident as he refrained from personally participating in the discussions, a marked contrast to his approach with Hitler.

In the months leading up to the invasion, tensions between Germany and Poland had been escalating. Germany had been making demands on Poland, including the return of the city of Danzig (now Gdańsk), which had been taken by Poland after World War I. Poland refused these demands, and on 31 August 1939, Germany claimed that Poland had attacked a German radio station near the border. This was a fabricated excuse for Germany to launch their invasion, and the world would soon learn the true extent of Hitler's ambitions.

By late summer, the geopolitical landscape shifted dramatically with the announcement of the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact in August 1939. This agreement surprised many, given the ideological chasm between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. The pact eliminated Hitler's immediate fear of a two-front war. Consequently, on 1 September 1939, Hitler launched the invasion of Poland, defying Chamberlain's guarantee and plunging Europe into another devastating conflict, which marked the beginning of World War II.

The invasion of Poland was the result of Hitler's expansionist policies, which aimed to create a vast empire and establish Germany as a dominant power in Europe. Hitler had long believed in the concept of Lebensraum, or "living space", which held that Germany needed more land to sustain its growing population. He also sought revenge for the Treaty of Versailles, which he saw as a humiliation for Germany after World War I.

The invasion of Poland was swift and brutal. German troops, tanks, and planes crossed the Polish border, overwhelming Polish defenses and cities. Polish defenses and advanced deep into the country. Poland's army, vastly outnumbered and outmatched, fought valiantly but could not withstand the might of the German war machine. Polish cities were bombed and destroyed, civilians were displaced and killed, and the country was plunged into chaos. The Luftwaffe, Germany's air force, bombed Polish cities and infrastructure, causing widespread destruction and loss of life. The Polish army was ill-equipped and poorly trained and was no match for the German war machine.

Differing perspectives of the invasion of Poland must be considered, as they give insight into Hitler's overall failure to conquer western and eastern Europe. Karl-Heinz Frieser in The Blitzkrieg Legend: The 1940 Campaign in the West writes that "...the image of the fully motorized German blitzkrieg army is a figment of propaganda imagination." Germany's motorization during the war was exceptionally anemic compared to the Allied Powers. Moreover, "...the horse was to take the place of the engine. Thus, in the spring of 1940 the Wehrmacht was characterized not by Panzers and motor vehicles but by horses. During World War I, the German army used 1.4 million horses; during World War II, it used 2.7 million, almost twice as many" (Freiser, 2005, p. 29).

10978052694?profile=RESIZE_584xThis reliance on horses over motor vehicles significantly hindered Germany's logistical efficiency and operational flexibility. While the initial success in Poland gave the impression of an unstoppable German war machine, it masked systemic weaknesses that became more evident as the conflict progressed. The Overestimation of German motorization was part of a broader propaganda effort aimed at intimidating opponents and bolstering domestic morale. However, this façade crumbled in the prolonged campaigns, where the mobility and industrial capabilities of the Allied forces outmatched those of the Germans.

The invasion of Poland caused a ripple effect throughout Europe. Britain and France, two of the major powers at the time, had signed a pact with Poland promising to defend it against aggression. When Hitler invaded Poland, Britain and France declared war on Germany, triggering the start of World War II. The invasion of Poland also led to the Soviet Union's entry into the war, as it had signed a pact with Germany to divide up Poland.

For thoughts on the War in Europe from a German perspective, pick up a copy of The Blitzkrieg Legend: The 1940 Campaign in the West by Karl-Heinz Frieser and John T. Greenwood (for translation). Frieser is a retired colonel in the German Army and was head of the Department of World Wars I and II at the Military History Research Institute of the Bundeswehr in Potsdam. He earned his doctorate in History from Würzburg University in 1981 and effectively dispels the 'blitzkrieg' myth. One of the world's top historians, Victor David Hanson, gives unique insight into the "how" the wars in Europe and the Pacific--and all theaters--were different and won, in The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won. This thoughtful work was first published in 2017 by Basic Books and is a "must read." For an "on the ground" perspective, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany by William L. Shirer remains a classic. Shirer reported from Berlin during the War for Universal News Service and CBS. First published by Simon & Schuster in 1960, this classic is still in print today and has been a worldwide bestseller. At 1,294 pages, Shirer's work provides a perspective that could only have been written by one who was there during this dark period in Germany's history.



Churchill, Winston S. Memoirs of the Second World War: An Abridgement of the Six Volumes of the Second World War. Boston: HOUGHTON MIFFLIN COMPANY, 1987.

Churchill, Winston. The Second World War: The Gathering Storm. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005.

Evans, Richard J. The Third Reich at War. New York: Penguin, 2009.

Frieser, Karl-Heinz. The Blitzkrieg Legend: The 1940 Campaign in the West. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2013.

Hanson, Victor D. The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won. New York: Basic Books, 2017.

McDonough, Frank. The Hitler Years: Triumph, 1933-1939. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2021.

Overy, Richard J. The Dictators: Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Russia. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2004.

Shirer, William L. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011.

Weinberg, Gerhard L. A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.



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