Protest in Prague against German invasion sanctioned by Britain and France in scope of the Munich agreement, 22 September 1938

Empires are not heroic

When one reads a lot of materials on WWII, you often find the idea that one or more good states (the Allies with exception of the Soviet Union) heroically fought evil Nazis. This idea is wrong, and here is why.

Everyone tried to cover their ass before the war

It is not true that the Allies always hated Hitler. One reason was that it wasn’t until spring 1945 that the worst crimes against humanity became known to the larger public. Before the liberation of the concentration camps nobody was aware how horrible the Nazi regime was. In the 1930es even the primary targets of Hitler — the Jews — didn’t take his ideas regarding their extermination seriously.

When “Mein Kampf” came out for the first time, 91 years ago, German Jews hardly noticed it. They certainly did not view it as a threat to their existence, or even as a harbinger of a changing political climate in the Fatherland.

Times of Israel (PDF)

Therefore, before 1945 Nazi Germany was not an evil state. It was imperialistic, but so were some of the “decent” states (colonial empires Britain and France).

So it is understandable that some of the “good” nations regarded the Nazis and their allies as potential partners. Winston Churchill, for example, admired Benito Mussolini (who became an ally of Hitler later).

Towards the end of the 1930es the feeling arose that the Nazis are dangerous and may defeat stronger enemies. Every single one of the Allies tried to stay out of a conflict with Hitler for as long as possible.

The first two nations who tried to appease Hitler by complying with his demands were Britain and France. In exchange for the promise that Hitler wouldn’t attack them, they allowed him to take over Chechoslovakia. The country didn’t want to be invaded by the Germans. The image at the top of this post shows a demonstration in Prague against German invasion (1938-09-22).

Czechoslovakia was informed by Britain and France that it could either resist Nazi Germany alone or submit to the prescribed annexations.

The Czechoslovak government, realizing the hopelessness of fighting the Nazis alone, reluctantly capitulated (30 September) and agreed to abide by the agreement.

The settlement gave Germany the Sudetenland starting 10 October, and de facto control over the rest of Czechoslovakia […]

Wikipedia (PDF)

Czechoslovakia had a treaty with the Soviet Union (Czechoslovak-Soviet Treaty of Alliance from 1935-05-16), according to which the Soviet Union was obligated to defend Czechoslovakia from military aggression, but only if France was helping the Czechoslovaks as well. France didn’t, therefore the Soviet Union had could not defend Czechoslovakia legally.

On May 16, 1935 the Czechoslovak-Soviet Treaty of Alliance was signed between the two states as the consequence of Soviet alliance with France (which was Czechoslovakia’s main ally). At the insistence of the Czechoslovak government, a protocol on the signing of the treaty stipulated that the treaty would go into force only if France gave assistance to the victim of aggression. However, France did not support Czechoslovakia in 1938, having signed the Munich agreement instead.

Wikipedia (PDF)

Whether or not the Soviet Union would fulfill its obligations is debatable. Several sources, including Anti-Soviet ones, claim it would:

The Soviet Union, on the other hand, would go down in history as the one European power which was prepared to live up to its international obligations. Often quoted is the Soviet assurance to Prague that the Red Army was prepared to assist the Czechs “under any circumstances, even in spite of Munich.” The authoritative History of Soviet Foreign Policy, edited by Boris Ponomaryov and Andrei Gromyko, no less, states that “at all stages of the Czechoslovak tragedy springing from the Munich betrayal, the Soviet Union was prepared to carry out its treaty obligations.”
[…]
Dr. Benes paints a flattering portrait of Moscow’s behavior in his Memoirs.
[…]
Rudolf Beran, a Czech banker and conservative politician known for his extreme anti-Sovietism, stated according to Pravda that “the only ally who remained faithful to Czechoslovakia was the Soviet Union.”

Stalin’s Diplomatic Maneuvrers During the 1938 Czechoslovak Crisis, Igor Lukes (PDF)

Western powers discouraged Czechoslovakia from invoking the treaty with the Soviet Union:

Shortly before the notorious Munich Agreement of 1938 – in which Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister, effectively gave Hitler the go-ahead to annexe the Sudetenland – Czechoslovakia’s President Eduard Benes was told in no uncertain terms not to invoke his country’s military treaty with the Soviet Union in the face of further German aggression.

The Telegraph, Stalin ‘planned to send a million troops to stop Hitler if Britain and France agreed pact’ (PDF)

The result of British and French betrayal was that Czechoslovakia lost

  • 70 % of its iron and steel production,
  • 70 % of its electricity, and
  • 3.5 million citizens

as a result of the agreement. With or without Stalin, at this point in time, it would be relatively easy to choke Hitler and prevent a long war. The reason is that by invading Czechoslovakia, Hitler massively strengthened his military:

By occupying Czechoslovakia, Germany gained

  • 2,175 field guns and cannons,
  • 469 tanks,
  • 500 anti-aircraft artillery pieces,
  • 43,000 machine guns,
  • 1,090,000 military rifles,
  • 114,000 pistols,
  • about a billion rounds of small-arms ammunition and
  • three million rounds of anti-aircraft ammunition.

This amount of weaponry would be sufficient to arm about half of the then Wehrmacht.

Czechoslovak weaponry later played major part in the German conquest of Poland and France, the latter country having urged Czechoslovakia to surrender to Germany in 1938.

Wikipedia (PDF)

One year later, the Soviet Union also started to fear Hitler’s invasion. At first, it attempted to ally with Britain and France to defend itself against Nazi Germany. On August 15th, 1939, the Soviet Union made Western powers an offer.

The Soviet offer – made by war minister Marshall Klementi Voroshilov and Red Army chief of general staff Boris Shaposhnikov – would have put up to 120 infantry divisions (each with some 19,000 troops), 16 cavalry divisions, 5,000 heavy artillery pieces, 9,500 tanks and up to 5,500 fighter aircraft and bombers on Germany’s borders in the event of war in the west

The Telegraph, Stalin ‘planned to send a million troops to stop Hitler if Britain and France agreed pact’ (PDF)

According to the Soviets, accepting this offer (or a slightly modified version of it), had the potential to change the course of history, and make World War II shorter and less bloody:

“Had the British, French and their European ally Poland, taken this offer seriously then together we could have put some 300 or more divisions into the field on two fronts against Germany – double the number Hitler had at the time,” said Gen Sotskov, who joined the Soviet intelligence service in 1956. “This was a chance to save the world or at least stop the wolf in its tracks.”

The Telegraph, Stalin ‘planned to send a million troops to stop Hitler if Britain and France agreed pact’ (PDF)

At least one Western researcher, Simon Sebag Montefiore, concurs:

The detail of Stalin’s offer underlines what is known; that the British and French may have lost a colossal opportunity in 1939 to prevent the German aggression which unleashed the Second World War. It shows that Stalin may have been more serious than we realised in offering this alliance.

The Telegraph, Stalin ‘planned to send a million troops to stop Hitler if Britain and France agreed pact’ (PDF)

When the British and the French refused an Anti-Nazi alliance with the Soviet Union, it did the same thing that Britain and France did one year earlier — attempt to appease Hitler by handing him over another country. The Soviets signed the non-aggression pact with the Germans. Poland became to Soviet Union what Czechoslovakia was to Britain and France.

The Americans also wanted to stay out of war as long as possible: It was only after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor that the US declared war to Japan, but not to Germany. There was a strong isolationist movement, supported, among others, by Charles Lindbergh. It was Germany who declared war to the United States (source, PDF). It is thinkable that if Germany hadn’t declared the war, the US would stay out of the war even longer, potentially never declaring war to Germany at all (I found this idea in the episode Fighting the Shadow War of the World War 2 Podcast).

All Allies tried to appease Hitler as long he was attacking other countries. They weren’t eager to put their security at risk for Hitler’s first victims (Czechoslovakia, Poland, and, technically, Austria).

Everyone committed war crimes after the war

After the Nazis were defeated, the Allies weren’t angels, either. The troops of virtually all Allies committed numerous rapes in the countries of their former enemies (Germany) and even allies (Americans in France).

The Soviet authorities regarded their prisoners of war as potential Nazi collaborators. As a result, the Soviets who managed to survive captivity in German concentration camps were put into Soviet ones after liberation.

Britain and the US started the Cold War with the Soviet Union, which led to the division of Europe and various proxy wars (e. g. in Korea and Vietnam). Under the pretext of fighting the Soviets, the US meddled in internal affairs of other countries on countless occasions.

Is there really no such thing as heroism?

Of course there is. Heroic acts are done by individuals or groups small enough to not develop politicians, bureaucrats, and other parasites.

Sources

Other sources are given below the respective quotes.