Today I’m going to show you how a popular children’s picture book is really an allegory for Europe during the years leading up to World War II.
Before I do that, we’ll need to backtrack to the end of World War I. On June 28, 1919, Germany agreed to the Treaty of Versailles, which effectively ended the war between the Germans and the Allied Powers. While Germany got to remain a country, the treaty stifled any ability they had to govern themselves and to grow their economy over the next 20 years.
- The German armed forces would number no more than 100,000 and the draft would be abolished.
- German naval forces could only include 15,000 men, six battleships, six cruisers, 12 destroyers, and 12 torpedo boats. Submarines were not allowed.
- Germany was prohibited from having armed forces in the Rhineland – basically the area closest to France.
- Germany had to pay reparations that would equal $442 billion in today’s dollars. At the time, noted economist John Maynard Keynes predicted the treaty was too harsh.
The treaty was brutal, especially when you take the Great Depression into account. In America we learn about the Stock Market Crash and the Dust Bowl and John Steinbeck novels as if we were the sole sufferers in the 1930’s. It was a worldwide Depression and Europe, particularly Central Europe was hard-hit. Germany, in particular suffered unemployment as high as 25 percent.
In steps Adolf Hitler.
After all of the punishments from the Treaty of Versailles, Hitler came into office and ushered in a wave of German nationalism. In a way, you can’t blame the Germans – they’d been blamed for every bad thing that had happened in Europe during World War I, but they were still Germans and they were still proud.
Hitler began building up the army, contrary to the Treaty of Versailles – and this is where the children’s book comes into play.
If you aren’t familiar with the book, it’s a cute story about a boy who gives a cookie to a mouse. The mouse then wants a glass of milk to go with that cookie, then a straw, then a mirror (so he won’t have a milk mustache), then scissors and a broom. Then comes a nap, a story read to him, to draw a picture and to hang that picture on the fridge. By the end of the book, the mouse has gotten everything he wanted and the little boy is run ragged by the endless wants of the mouse.
Now let’s say the mouse is Hitler and the boy is Europe and their policy of appeasement in the mid-1930’s.
Britain and France were basically in charge of keeping Germany in check, but not everybody thought that the Treaty of Versailles was fair, especially the land and military restrictions imposed by the terms of the treaty. Thus, when Hitler ordered the army to re-arm and to begin conscription, France and Britain looked the other way.
The mouse had his cookie. Now he wanted milk.
Then Hitler moved troops into the demilitarized Rhineland near France in 1936 and again the Allies did nothing.
The mouse had his milk.
From there, Hitler kept taking and Europe kept giving (perhaps the Giving Tree would have been appropriate as well?)
The biggest kicker came in 1938. Hitler declared that he wanted the German-speaking portion of Czechoslovakia called Sudetenland. By actually invading a foreign country, Hitler would be inviting war – his boldest step by far.
In steps British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. He, along with a few French leaders tried to “appease” Hitler. Their (mistaken) belief was that if they gave this to Hitler, he would finally be happy and he would leave the rest of Europe alone. In fact, Czechoslovakia was not even allowed to participate in the Munich Conference that decided this. Britain and French gave Sudetenland away.
The mouse had the run of the house now. Soon, Hitler had his eyes on the rest of Europe, primarily Poland and France.
The slippery slope that Europe had allowed Germany to begin in 1935 had now allowed Hitler to claim part of another sovereign land. In Numeroff’s kid’s book, the mouse became so comfortable in the house that the boy was allowing a nap and actually read a book to the mouse. Hitler had achieved the same on the European continent.
While Chamberlain and Europe thought Hitler was a rational human being, they were wrong. He was simply a mouse that wanted a cookie.