Nazi Counter-Revolution – Germany (Part 5)

Hitler’s Actions Leading to the Second World War

Rhineland Invasion, March 1936



  • For many years the Rhineland area had been a key industrial region of Germany, producing coal, steel and iron resources.
  • The Rhineland also formed a natural barrier to its neighbour and rival, France. In the event of a war, the River Rhine, if properly defended, would be a difficult obstacle for an invading force to cross.
  • One of the terms of the Treaty of Versailles was that the Germans would not be able to keep military forces in a 50km stretch of the Rhineland. Hitler resented this term as it made Germany vulnerable to invasion. He was determined to enlarge his military capability and strengthen his borders.

Hitler’s calculated aggression

  • In 1935, Hitler’s plans to strengthen Germany and undermine the Treaty of Versailles were given a boost when the German-speaking Saar region voted to reunite with Germany. The region, important for coal production, had previously been removed from German control as a term of Versailles to weaken Germany industrially.
  • When the leading European nations did not react to this violation of Versailles, Hitler was encouraged to see how far he could go in breaking other terms of Versailles.
  1. In 1935 he reintroduced conscription of men into the armed forces.
  2. In the same year he revealed that he had built up an air-force and signed the Anglo-German Naval Agreement that allowed him to enlarge his naval forces.
  3. In 1936 Hitler boldly marched 22,000 German troops into the Rhineland, in a direct contravention of the Treaty of Versailles.
  4. Hitler offered France and Britain a 25 year non-aggression pact and claimed ‘Germany had no territorial demands to make in Europe’.

Reactions to Hitler


  • Britain did not act. The nation was weak economically and militarily and so did not want to commit itself to war unless it definitely had to.
  • At the time, Britain was in dispute with Italy over its military campaigns in Abyssinia (Ethiopia) and British forces had been moved into the Mediterranean in case Italy became aggressive. There was little Britain could do to stop Germany.
  • There was a popular view that the Germans were only ‘going into their back-garden’ by re-entering an army to the Rhineland. Although the British government denounced the breaking of the terms of Versailles, they did not think it merited war.


  • France did not act. France was politically unstable when Germany re-occupied the Rhineland. The Hoare-Laval fiasco (where France and Britain tried to appease Italy’s leader Mussolini by agreeing to offer him land in Abyssinia) had been deeply unpopular and had eventually brought down the government. France could not act to stop the Germans.
  • French military forces had previously been moved from the Rhine to the Alps and Tunisia because of the political tension with Italy. As such, their forces near the Rhineland were weakened.
  • French generals also thought the German occupying forces were much bigger than they actually were. They would not attack without more support.
  • The French would only act on Germany with Britain’s aid. British reluctance to stand up to Hitler meant the French also took no action. France placed its faith in the Maginot Line of fortifications on the Franco-German border. (The Maginot Line dominated French military thinking in the inter-war years. The Maginot Line was a vast fortification that spread along the French/German border but became a military liability when the Germans attacked France in the spring of 1940 using blitzkrieg – a tactic that completely emasculated the Maginot Line’s purpose)


  • Hitler had significantly improved his status. Over the next two years the Germans built defences and within 18 months their rate of rearmament passed that of Britain and France. He did not agree to an Air Force Pact with Britain. He began to think he was infallible.
  • France continued to strengthen the Maginot Line in an attempt to safeguard against future German aggression.
  • France’s alliance with Britain became strained due to Britain’s refusal to stand up to Germany.
  • French alliances with eastern European countries were undermined as France concentrated solely on defence against possible German aggression.
  • Italy formed the Rome-Berlin Axis in July 1936.
  • Hitler signed the Anti-Comintern Pact with Japan in November 1936 which formed an anti-Communist alliance between the two nations.
  • Britain promised France and Belgium help if they were invaded (reaffirming Locarno Pact).
  • Austria now came under more German pressure.
  • Britain began rearming its military forces.

Austrian Anschluss, March 1938



  • Hitler wanted all German-speaking nations in Europe to be a part of Germany. To this end, he had designs on re-uniting Germany with his native homeland, Austria. Under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, however, Germany and Austria were forbidden to be unified.
  • Hitler also wanted control of the largely German-speaking area within Czechoslovakia, called the Sudetenland. Importantly, Austria shared a border with this area.
  • In an attempt to realise his goals, Hitler was determined to destabilise Austria and undermine its independence. His ultimate goal was anschluss (union) with Austria.

The failed coup

  • The Austrian Chancellor, Dollfuss, tried to crack down on the Socialists and Nazis – political factions that he thought were tearing the country apart. Dollfuss banned the Nazi party.
  • In 1934, Hitler ordered the Austrian Nazis to create havoc in Austria. This turned into an attempt to overthrow the government. Chancellor Dollfuss was murdered but the attempted coup failed because the Austrian military intervened to back up the government.
  • In 1934, Italy had an agreement with Austria that it would protect Austria from outside aggression. The Italian dictator, Mussolini, honoured the agreement and moved Italian troops to the Austrian border to deter Hitler from invading.

Events in Austria

  • The new Austrian Chancellor, Schuschnigg tried to preserve the country from German invasion by trying not to give Hitler an excuse for aggression. He tried to co-operate with Hitler as much as possible.
  • Schuschnigg signed the German-Austrian Agreement of 1936. This pact recognised the independence of Austria but the price was that Austria’s foreign policy had to be consistent with Germany’s. The agreement also allowed Nazis to hold official posts in Austria. Schuschnigg hoped this would appease Hitler. He was wrong.
  • Schuschnigg’s position was undermined in 1936 when Hitler and Mussolini formalised the Rome-Berlin Axis during their joint involvement in the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). With Germany and Italy now firm allies, Austria had lost the protection of Italy and was vulnerable to German attack.
  • In 1938 Schuschnigg visited Hitler at his summer retreat at Berchtesgaden, near the Austrian border. Hitler demanded that Nazis be given key government posts in Austria. Schuschnigg compromised and the Nazi member, Seyss-Inquart, was made Minister of the Interior.
  • Hitler ordered Austrian Nazis to create as much trouble and destruction as possible in order to put pressure on Schuschnigg. If Hitler could claim that Austrian law and order had broken down he could justify marching German troops into Vienna to restore peace – despite the fact that he was responsible for the chaos in the first place.

Four days in March

Wednesday 9th March 1938

  • On the 9 March 1938, in a desperate act, Schuschnigg announced a referendum whereby the Austrian people would decide for themselves if they wanted to be a part of Hitler’s Germany. Hitler was furious. If the Austrians voted against joining Germany his excuse for invasion would be ruined.

Thursday 10th March 1938

  • Hitler told his generals to prepare for the invasion of Austria. He ordered Schuschnigg to call off the referendum. Knowing he would receive no help from Italy, and that France and Britain would not interfere in Hitler’s plans, Schuschnigg conceded. He called off the referendum and resigned.
  • The Nazi Austrian Interior Minister, Seyss-Inquart, was ordered by Hitler to ask for German help in restoring order in Austria.

Friday 11th March 1938

  • Hitler reassured Czechoslovakia that they had nothing to fear.

Saturday 12th March 1938

  • German troops marched into Austria unopposed. Hitler now had control of Austria. A month later, Hitler held a rigged referendum. The results showed that the Austrian people approved of German control of their country.

Foreign reaction


  • French politics were in turmoil in March 1938. In fact, two days before Germany invaded Austria the entire French government had resigned. France was not in a position to oppose the invasion.


  • In March 1938, Britain was having its own political problems. Anthony Eden, the Foreign Secretary, had resigned over Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s decision to open negotiations with the Fascist dictator of Italy, Mussolini. As such, with Chamberlain determined to appease Hitler, there was no political will to oppose Germany.
  • Furthermore, the British population were against the idea of another European war. The Anschluss was not seen as a threat to Britain and, as both nations were German-speaking, there was a sense that there was no good reason why Austria and Germany shouldn’t unify.
  • Anti-appeasers, such as Winston Churchill, were alarmed by Germany’s annexation of Austria. They believed that if Hitler had a true claim to Austria, he should have used negotiation and diplomacy rather than force.


  • Germany added seven million people and an army of 100,000 to its Reich.
  • Germany gained useful resources such as steel, iron ore and Austria’s foreign exchange reserves.
  • The balance of power in south-eastern Europe shifted in favour of Germany, increasing their influence in the Balkans.
  • Czechoslovakia was now surrounded on three fronts by Germany.

The Spanish Civil War 1936 – 39

Background to the war

  • In the 1930s, Spain was a deeply divided country that was politically torn between right-wing Nationalist and left-wing Republican parties. The Nationalist party was made up of monarchists, landowners, employers, the Roman Catholic Church and the army. The Republicans consisted of the workers, the trade unions, socialists and peasants.
  • Economically, the country had been deeply hit by the Great Depression after the Wall Street Crash. Partly due to this turmoil, in 1929 the military dictatorship that had ruled Spain since 1923 collapsed. In 1931 the King abdicated after the Republicans came to power.
  • There followed a period where the two political rivals had periods in power as the elected government. The country was so divided and unstable that in 1936 the army rebelled and forcibly removed the Republicans from power. Civil war ensued.

The importance of Spain in Europe

  • If Spain fell to the Nationalists (who were supported by Fascist powers), France would be surrounded by Fascist powers (Germany and Italy). If France was invaded by Fascist nations, the alliances between other anti-Fascist nations would be weakened. In effect, there would be one less nation to resist Fascist plans to expand their borders – one less army to stand up to them.
  • Spain also had strategic naval bases on the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean that could be used by the Fascists to control shipping and for setting up submarine bases. These could be used to put military and economic pressure on other European nations.

International intervention

The Fascist powers

  • Hitler and Mussolini (Italy’s Fascist leader) both sent thousands of troops and weapons to Spain to aid the Nationalist forces. They both had similar aims and a common desire to see Spain fall to the right-wing Nationalists.
  • As Fascist allies, it was in both Germany’s and Italy’s interest to fight the spread of Communism. They did not want Spain, a near neighbour to both nations, to become a Soviet-backed stronghold. Indeed, the opposite was true. If Spain came under right-wing control it could be an important ally to the two countries in any future conflict.
  • Furthermore, if yet another major European nation were to adopt the Fascist creed, it would send a message to the whole world that the Fascists were a power to be reckoned with.


  • The bombing of Guernica (26 April 1937) was an aerial attack on the Basque town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. It was carried out at the behest of the Spanish nationalist government by German air force under the code name Operation Rugen.
  • German bombers appeared in the skies over Guernica in the late afternoon of April 26, 1937 and immediately transformed Guernica  an everlasting symbol of the atrocity of war. The attack quickly became the symbol of senseless destruction and for Nazi brutality.

The Democracies

  • France and Britain were both in an awkward situation regarding Spain. They did not want the nation to fall to the Nationalists, as this would strengthen the power of the Fascist alliance of Germany and Italy. Equally, though, they would be no better off if Spain fell to the Soviet-backed Republicans, as Communism was seen as a huge threat to world peace.
  • The French and British agreed a mutual policy and set up a Non-Intervention Committee that effectively blocked international aid reaching Spain. They could not, however, stop Germany and Italy sending forces and supplies to the Nationalists. The result of this was that the Republicans had to rely solely on the dubious charity and benevolence of Stalin’s Russia.

The Soviet Union

  • The USSR sent weapons and supplies to aid the Republicans in their struggle against the forces of Fascism, but it was never as committed to the conflict as either Germany or Italy. The Russian leader, Stalin, sold only enough supplies to the Republicans to keep them fighting. Stalin was content that Germany was being kept busy with Spain rather than concentrating its efforts in eastern Europe.

The International Brigades

  • The fight against Fascism drew young men and women from all over Europe and the USA to Spain. Fighting for the Republicans, these idealists, socialists and communists, formed a rag-tag army determined to uphold democracy against the right-wing threat. At any one time up to 15,000 people were fighting in the International Brigades.

The results

  • The better organised and better equipped Nationalist forces won the war after Madrid was captured in March 1939.
  • Hitler’s position in Europe was now strengthened since he had another potential ally in the right-wing dictator of Spain, General Franco.
  • Participation and co-operation in the Spanish war strengthened the bond between Italy and Germany. As a result, the Rome-Berlin Axis was formed. Italy and Germany were now firm allies.
  • By ignoring the Non-Intervention Committee and its chief architects, France and Britain, Hitler had shown his strength in European affairs.

Sudetenland Invasion, October 1938



  • In 1938, Hitler turned his attention to the Sudeten area of Czechoslovakia.
  • The nation of Czechoslovakia had been created after WWI. Two Slavic peoples, the Czechs and the Slovaks, came together to form the country along with three million German speakers from the Sudeten area on the border with Germany, and smaller numbers of Hungarians, Ukrainians and Poles. The 20 years since its creation had seen its democracy and economy flourish.
  • The main threat to the fledgling nation was from Hitler’s plans for expansion and from the Sudeten Germans who, used to being part of the German-speaking Austrian empire, were not happy at their inclusion in a Slav-controlled state.
  • By March 1938, Hitler had successfully invaded Austria without a shot being fired. With one major German-speaking territory under his control he then turned his attention to another – the Sudeten area of Czechoslovakia.
  • Hitler wanted to use the Sudeten Germans to create trouble in Czechoslovakia and, as he had in the Rhineland and Austria, use this as a pretence for invading and “restoring order”.
  • Not content with merely one piece of Czechoslovakia, Hitler planned to smash the country. The Czechs and Slovaks were of Slavic origin and, according to Hitler’s racial proclamations that the German/Aryan people were superior to other races, they were considered Untermenschen (subhuman).



Hitler builds the tension

  • Hitler financed and supported the Sudeten German Party under Conrad Henlein. With Hitler’s backing the party became a force to be reckoned with in Czechoslovakia.
  • In March 1938, Hitler ordered Henlein to create a crisis in the country. The Sudeten Germans made increasingly bold demands from the government. When the demands could not be met they insisted that they were being persecuted.
  • In April 1938, Henlein announced his Karlsbad Programme for Sudeten self-government, and organised civil unrest.
  • In May 1938, Hitler moved his armies to the Czech border to intimidate the Czechoslovakian President, Benes. In response, Benes mobilised the Czech army into positions along the border.
  • In July 1938, Hitler promised Britain’s Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, that he would not invade Czechoslovakia if he were given control of the Sudetenland.
  • In September 1938, Hitler made an inflammatory speech against the Czechoslovakian President, Benes, at a Nazi rally at Nuremberg.
  • On the 12 September, the Sudeten Germans rioted and martial law was declared in Czechoslovakia.

The meetings

  • 15 September 1938, Neville Chamberlain met Hitler at his summer retreat on the Austrian border, Berchtesgaden. With German invasion of Czechoslovakia looking imminent and a future European war a very real possibility, Chamberlain agreed in principle that Hitler could claim the Sudetenland without reprisal from Britain. On his return to Britain, Chamberlain managed to persuade his Cabinet and the French (who were allies of the Czechoslovakians) to accept the deal.
  • 22 September 1938, Chamberlain met Hitler again at Godesberg. With the reluctant agreement of the Czechoslovakian government, Chamberlain offered Hitler control of the Sudetenland. Hitler demanded that the Czechoslovakian army leave the Sudetenland by 1 October. This was a demand designed to provoke the Czechs and provide an excuse for invasion of the whole country.
  • 29 and 30 of September 1938, representatives of France, Britain, Italy and Germany met at Munich to discuss the Sudetenland problem. Neither the Czechs, nor their allies Russia, were consulted. Hitler traded the promise of peace in Europe for the Sudetenland. The Czechs had to either accept or face the might of the German army alone. They accepted.


Partition of Czechoslovakia, 1938 – 1939


  • Germany entered the Sudetenland on 1 October. Hitler now had control of the Czech fortifications and this would make his next act of aggression much easier.
  • Hitler and Chamberlain signed a piece of paper promising never to go to war with each other.
  • Czechoslovakia was further divided when, encouraged by Hitler, Hungary took control of the region of Ruthenia and Poland claimed Teschen.

Other results

  • Czech military effectiveness had been fatally weakened. Britain and France had lost the help of a strong ally for the sake of a few months to rearm their forces.
  • Russia was offended at being left out and more suspicious of Britain and France.
  • The British public celebrated their relief that war had been, for the present, avoided. However, there was growing concern that Hitler was not, as Chamberlain believed, just another politician who was open to negotiation. Instead, increasing numbers of people believed that he would continue to behave aggressively and that war would come, sooner or later. Even Chamberlain began to build up British forces against that possibility.



The road to the second world war

  • 15 March 1939, the German army invaded the rest of Czechoslovakia.
  • 31 March 1939, Britain promised to defend Poland.
  • 22 May 1939, Italy and Germany signed the Pact of Steel to help each other in the event of war.
  • 23 August 1939, to the dismay of France and Britain, the Nazi-Soviet Non Aggression pact was signed by Germany and Russia. The two nations promised not to fight each other.
  • 1 September 1939, German forces invaded Poland.
  • 3 September 1939, Britain declared war on Germany.


Q. There was one element of system in Hitler’s foreign policy, … His outlook was “continental,” Comment.

  • (See the section of previous years solved paper for answer)

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