Were there any options?
Yes, but the key is when, not what
I keep running into popular discussions as well as historical accounts of what British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain might have done differently in negotiations with German Chancellor Adolf Hitler, culminating in the subsequently infamous Munich Agreement of September 1938. The central point of this treaty was the surrender by Czechoslovakia to Germany of the former's borderland territory of Sudetenland, largely inhabited by German-speakers. Although not itself adjacent to Germany, Britain was the one Great Power which might unite and lead opposition to German territorial ambitions. In some "revisionist" interpretations, even further appeasement than at Munich, substantially wider compromises by the British with Adolf Hitler, could have limited the looming general war, and thereby prevented the disintegration of the British Empire in the aftermath of World War II.
This sketch is largely off the top of my head, and is not meant to be a scholarly analysis, simply a personal overview built upon reading history over the years.
- I have read that after the German occupation of the Sudetenland in October 1938, Wehrmacht officers inspecting the ground estimated that it would have taken them six months to reduce the Czech defenses. If a determined France had attacked Germany in the West during this period, it could have faced a significantly two-front war three years earlier than the partial one that developed from June 1941, and which Germany might well have lost in 1938-1939.
- The mountainous Sudetenland was the Czechs' physical barrier as well as where their defenses were concentrated. Giving it up would have been national suicide, and everyone knew it ahead of time, and so it turned out. As though Britain abandoned the English Channel and their Fleet to Germany.
- None of the countries in Central Europe trusted the Soviet Union — with good reason. They would not allow Soviet armies to pass through their territories, even in their own alleged interest. They were not overly paranoid. In the long fallout of the Munich Agreement, Soviet occupation of their countries lasted six to ten times as long as the Nazi occupation.
- As one or two of those smaller countries came into clear danger of German domination, their neighbors sought to snip off pieces for themselves. They did not at that time consider each other natural allies, even against Nazis and/or Soviets. Only Czechoslovakia was a democracy, and at the Munich Conference, Czechoslovakia explicitly and officially was abandoned by the Western Powers.
- The strong isolationist sentiment and minimal military preparedness in America would not have allowed intervention or even serious diplomatic influence in Europe by America in 1938.
- Not until the German territorial takeovers continued did Chamberlain realize that Hitler had been lying to him all along. Hitler always was determined on war, joining and building the Nazi Party and then German rearmament to that end.
The critical juncture was earlier: the French failure to invade Germany after Hitler's remilitarization of the Rhineland in March 1936 — Germany's own borderland with France — which the German generals opposed because Germany could not at that time stand up to France militarily. Britain was diplomatically complicit in the German remilitarization, but even if Britain opposed, could not effectively have stopped it on the ground. Of all Germany's potential opponents, only France was geographically positioned, and militarily strong enough, to topple the Nazi state before the latter was strong enough to open a general war.
This inaction by France was a foreign-policy disaster: one of the greatest missed opportunities of the 1930s, and of the Twentieth Century, opening the gate wide for Hitler's ambitions and World War II. In the event, fifty million people dead.
France's weakness was political, and in the leadership more than its population.
To pick up the question on the value to Britain of even greater pre-war appeasement of Adolf Hitler: would that have kept Britain out of a general war, and thus preserved the British Empire?
The short answer is no. The long answer is that Britain would have had to fight Germany later, possibly all alone; and the British Empire would have survived in peace only while the Nazis running the Grossdeutsches Reich, victor and controller of all Continental Europe and European Russia, found it convenient to their interests.
Elective Affinities, Offensive Alliances
Several relevant Wikipedia articles:
Munich Agreement, 1938
Remilitarization of the Rhineland, 1936
Britain at Troynovant
British Empire & Commonwealth
history, geography, literature
Germany at Troynovant
Imperial Germany, Third Reich
Prussia, Bavaria, Austria
history, geography, literature
Peace at Troynovant
the happy interregnum betwixt war & war:
admonitions, provocations, "peace in our time";
Home Front, Occupation & Reconstruction, veterans