Hitler’s Foreign Policy 1933-1939

When Germany lost the First World War, it was forced to sign the Treaty of Versailles.

Treaty of Versailles 1919

  1. Germany had to take the blame for the war
  2. Germany had to pay reparations.
  3. Germany had to cut its army to 100,000 soldiers, and have no tanks, submarines or air force.
  4. Germany was not allowed soldiers in the Rhineland.
  5. Germany was forbidden to unite with Austria.
  6. Germany lost land to Poland.
  7. Germany lost all its territory overseas.

When he came to power in 1933 Hitler promised to get back all that was lost by the treaty. Hitler promised also to make Germany powerful and to gain extra lands for the Aryan master-race.

In 1934, Hitler introduced conscription for the army. He ordered the build up of submarines, tanks and an air force.

In 1936, Hitler put soldiers into the Rhineland. Many people in Britain thought this was only fair. Why shouldn’t Hitler be able to defend Germany?

In 1938, Hitler forced Austria to unite with Germany. This seemed to be popular with many Austrians. Britain let Hitler do this. Nobody in Britain wanted a war with Germany.

Later on in 1938 Hitler forced Czechoslovakia to give up a part of its land called the Sudetenland. Many Germans lived in the Sudetenland. Britain’s Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, let Hitler have all of his demands. This was called appeasement. Chamberlain believed that if Hitler got what he wanted, Britain could avoid war with Germany.

In March 1939, Hitler invaded the rest of Czechoslovakia, although he promised Chamberlain he would not. In August 1939, Hitler invaded Poland. Chamberlain decided enough was enough and declared war on Germany. This was the start of the Second World War.

Hitler’s aims in foreign policy 1933-38

Hitler aimed to make Germany into a great power again and this he hoped to achieve by:

• destroying the hated Versailles settlement,
• building up the army,
• recovering lost territory such as the Saar and the Polish Corridor, and
• bringing all Germans within the Reich.

This last aim would involve the annexation of Austria and the acquisition of territory from Czechoslovakia and Poland, both of which had large German minorities as a result of Versailles.

There is some disagreement about what, if anything, Hitler intended beyond these aims. Most historians believe that the annexation of Austria and parts of Czechoslovakia and Poland was only a beginning, to be followed by the seizure of the rest of Czechoslovakia and Poland and by the conquest and permanent occupation of Russia as far east as the Ural Mountains. This would give him what the Germans called lebensraum (living space) which would provide food for the German people and an area, in which the excess German population could settle and colonise. An additional advantage was that communism would be destroyed. However, not all historians agree about these further aims; A.J.P. Taylor, for example, claims that Hitler never intended a major war and at most was prepared for only a limited war against Poland.

Whatever the truth about his long-term intentions, Hitler began his foreign policy with a series of brilliant successes (one of the main reasons for his popularity in Germany). By the end of 1938 almost every one of Hitler’s aims had been achieved, without war and with the approval of Britain. Only the Germans of Poland remained to be brought within the Reich. Unfortunately, it was when he failed to achieve this by peaceful means that Hitler took his fateful decision to invade Poland.

First Steps 1933-38

a) Given that Germany was still militarily weak in 1933, Hitler had to move cautiously at first. He withdrew from the Disarmament Conference and the League of Nations on the grounds that France would not agree to German equality of armaments. At the same time he insisted that Germany was willing to disarm if other states agreed to do the same, and that he wanted only peace. This was one of his favourite techniques: to act boldly while soothing his opponents with the sort of conciliatory speeches he knew they wanted to hear.

b) Next Hitler signed a ten-year non-aggression pact with the Poles (January 1934) who were showing alarm in case the Germans tried to take back the Polish Corridor. This was something of a triumph for Hitler:

• Britain took it as further evidence of his peaceful intentions,
• it ruined the French Little Entente which depended very much on Poland, and
• it guaranteed Polish neutrality whenever Germany should move against Austria and Czechoslovakia.

On the other hand it improved relations between France and Russia, who were both worried by the apparent threat from Nazi Germany.

c) In July 1934 Hitler suffered a setback to his ambitions of an Anschluss (union) between Germany and Austria. The Austrian Nazis, encouraged by Hitler, staged a revolt and murdered the Chancellor, Engelbert Dollfuss, the protege of Mussolini. However, when Mussolini moved Italian troops to the Austrian frontier and warned the Germans off, the revolt collapsed; Hitler, taken aback, had to accept that Germany was not yet strong enough to force the issue and disclaimed responsibility for the actions of the Austrian Nazis.

d) The Saar was returned to Germany (January 1935) after a plebiscite resulting in a 90% vote in favour. Though the plebiscite had been provided for at Versailles, Nazi propaganda made the most of the success, and Hitler announced that now all causes of grievance between France and Germany had been removed.

e) Hitler’s first successful breach of Versailles came in March 1935 when he announced the reintroduction of conscription. His excuse was that Britain had just announced air force increases and France had extended conscription from 12 to 18 months (their justification was German rearmament). Much to their consternation, Hitler told his startled generals and the rest of the world that he would build up his peacetime army to 36 divisions (about 600,000 men). The generals need not have worried: although the Stresa Front (a planned alliance between France, Britain and Italy) condemned this violation of Versailles, no action was taken, the League was helpless, and the Front collapsed anyway as a result of Hitler’s next success.

f) Shrewdly realising how frail the Stresa Front was, Hitler detached Britain by offering to limit the German navy to 35% of the strength of the British navy. Britain eagerly accepted in the resulting Anglo-German Naval Agreement (June 1935) apparently believing that since the Germans were already breaking Versailles by building a fleet, it would be as well to have it limited. Without consulting her two allies (France and Italy), Britain had condoned German rearmament; from now on it was going to be impossible to prevent German rearmament, which proceeded with gathering momentum. By the end of 1938 the army stood at 51 divisions (about 800,000 men) plus reserves, there were 21 large naval vessels (battleships, cruisers and destroyers), many more under construction, and 47 U-boats. A large air force of over 2000 aircraft had been built up.

g) Meanwhile, encouraged by his successes, Hitler took the calculated risk of sending troops into the demilitarised zone of the Rhineland (March 1936) - a breach of both Versailles and Locarno. Though the troops had orders to withdraw at the first sign of French opposition, no resistance was offered beyond the usual protests. At the same time, well aware of the mood of pacifism among his opponents, Hitler soothed them by offering a peace treaty to last for 25 years.

h) Later in 1936 Hitler consolidated Germany’s position by reaching an understanding with Mussolini (the Rome-Berlin Axis) and by signing the Anti-Comintern Pact with Japan (also joined by Italy in 1937). Germans and Italians gained military experience helping Franco to victory in the Spanish Civil War, one of the most notorious exploits being the bombing of the defenceless Basque market town of Guernica by the German Condor Legion.

i) The Anschluss with Austria (March 1938) was Hitler’s greatest success to date. Matters came to a head when the Austrian Nazis staged huge demonstrations in Vienna, Graz and Linz, which Chancellor Schuschnigg’s government could not control. Realising that this could be the prelude to a German invasion, Schuschnigg announced a plebiscite about whether or not Austria should remain independent. Hitler decided to act before this took place, in case the vote went against union; German troops moved in and Austria became part of the Third Reich. It was a triumph for Germany:

• it revealed the weaknesses of Britain and France, who again did no more than protest,
• it demonstrated the value of the new undertaking with Italy, and
• it dealt a severe strategic blow at Czechoslovakia which could now be attacked from the south as well as from the west and north.

All was ready for the beginning of Hitler’s campaign to acquire the German-speaking Sudetenland, a campaign which ended in triumph at the Munich Conference in September 1938.

The Hossbach Memorandum
In 1937 Hitler called a meeting of the German War Minister Blomberg, three chiefs of staff and the Foreign Minister Neurath. At this meeting Hitler delivered a haranguing monologue which was recorded by a Colonel Hossbach. At the Nuremberg trials this Hossbach Memorandum was used as evidence that Hitler had planned a major war all along and had not just wanted small wars to achieve small aims. The meeting can be summarised as follows:

1) Aim of German policy was to preserve the racial community and gain space.
2) Britain and France were Germany’s main opponents.
3) Germany must use force to secure her objectives.
4) Germany would peak in 1943; the problem of space had to be solved by 1943-45.
5) If France suffered internal strife, Germany should seize Czechoslovakia.
6) If France was involved in a war, Germany should seize Austria and Czechoslovakia. Britain and Italy would not oppose Germany in Czechoslovakia. Italy might still oppose annexation of Austria. France would no nothing without Britain.

There have been two interpretations of this memorandum:

a) Hugh Trevor-Roper: Hitler’s blueprint for war
b) A.J.P. Taylor: Hitler was just ranting and saying nothing new, he wanted to avoid a discussion on steel shortages, which is what the meeting was supposed to be about. Dates were wrong, Russia was ignored and France did not suffer a civil war.

Most agree that it is remarkably accurate in predicting what actually happened.

(Link to original document from atschool.eduweb.co.uk is now broken)