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International Relations Between Two World Wars: Part III

International Relations Between Two World Wars: Part III

Hitler’s foreign policy

  • Hitler aimed to make Germany into a great power again
    • He hoped to achieve this by:
      • destroying the hated Versailles settlement;
      • building up the army – something forbidden by the Treaty of Versailles;
      • recovering lost territory such as the Saar and the Polish Corridor;
      • bringing all German-speaking peoples inside the Reich;
        • this would involve annexing Austria and taking territory from Czechoslovakia and Poland, both of which had large German minorities as a result of the peace settlement.
  • There is some disagreement about what, if anything, Hitler intended beyond these aims.
    • Some historians believe that annexing Austria and parts of Czechoslovakia and Poland was only a beginning, and that Hitler planned to follow it up by seizing the rest of Czechoslovakia and Poland, and then conquering and occupying Russia as far east as the Ural Mountains.
      • ‘National boundaries’, he said, ‘are only made by man and can be changed by man.’
      • The changes of boundary which Hitler had in mind would give the Germans what he called Lebensraum (living space).
      • He claimed that Germany’s population was much too large for the area into which it was constrained; more land was needed to provide food for the German people as well as an area in which the excess German population could settle and colonize.
      • Certainly Hitler had made clear his hatred of what he called ‘Jewish Bolshevism’. This suggests that war with the USSR was unavoidable at some point, in order to destroy communism. The next stage would be to get colonies in Africa and naval bases in and around the Atlantic.
    • Other historians disagree about these further aims:
      • A. J.P. Taylor:
        • He claimed that Hitler never had any detailed plans worked out for acquiring Lebensraum and never intended a major war; at most he was prepared only for a limited war against Poland.
        • Taylor concluded: ‘Hitler got as far as he did because others did not know what to do with him’.
      • Many historians believed that believed that Hitler’s writings and statements about Lebensraum did not amount to an actual programme which he followed step by step.
        • It is more likely they were a propaganda exercise designed to attract support and unite the Nazi party.
        • There is very little evidence that Hitler had given much serious thought to the problems of creating and organising a Nazi empire in Europe.
  • A series of successes
    • Whatever the truth about his long-term intentions, Hitler began his foreign policy with an almost unbroken series of brilliant successes, which was one of the main reasons for his popularity in Germany.
    • By the end of 1938 almost every one of the first set of aims had been achieved, without war and with the approval of Britain. Only the Germans in Poland remained to be brought within the Reich. Unfortunately it was when he failed to achieve this by peaceful means that Hitler took the fateful decision to invade Poland.
    • Given that Germany was still militarily weak in 1933, Hitler had to move cautiously at first.
      • He withdrew Germany from the World Disarmament Conference and from the League of Nations, on the grounds that France would not agree to Germany having equality of armaments.
      • At the same time he insisted that Germany was willing to disarm if other states would do the same, and that he wanted only peace.
      • This was one of his favourite techniques: to act boldly while at the same time soothing his opponents with the sort of conciliatory speeches he knew they wanted to hear.
      • Ten-years non-aggression pact:
        • 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 France’s Little Entente, which depended very much on Poland; and
          • it guaranteed Polish neutrality whenever Germany decided to 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.
    • Return of Saar after plebiscite:
      • The Saar was returned to Germany (January 1935) after a plebiscite resulting in a 90 per cent vote in favour.
      • The region, important for coal production, had previously been removed from German control as a term of Versailles to weaken Germany industrially.
      • Though the vote had been provided for in the peace settlement, Nazi propaganda made the most of the success.
      • Hitler announced that now all causes of grievance between France and Germany had been removed.
    • First successful breach of Versailles treaty: reintroduction of conscription
      • 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 alarm, Hitler decided build up his peacetime army of about 600 000 men – six times more than was allowed by the peace treaty.
      • Although the Stresa Front (consisting of Britain, France 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.
      • Anglo-German Naval Agreement (June 1935):
        • Shrewdly realizing how frail the Stresa Front was, Hitler detached Britain by offering to limit the German navy to 35 per cent of the strength of the British navy.
        • Britain eagerly accepted, signing the Anglo-German Naval Agreement (June 1935); British thinking seems to have been 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, Britain had condoned German rearmament, which went ahead with gathering momentum.
      • By the end of 1938 German army stood at 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 5000 aircraft had been built up.
    • Rhineland invasion (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.
      • Encouraged by his earlier successes, Hitler took the calculated risk of sending troops into the demilitarized 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, except the usual protests.
      • At the same time, well aware of the mood of pacifism among his opponents, 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
          • 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
          • 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.
          • 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 was a vast fortification that spread along the French/German border)
      • Results
        • 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.
        • 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.
    • Other successes:
      • 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) which formed an anti-Communist alliance.
      • Germans and Italians gained military experience by helping Franco to victory in the Spanish Civil War. One of the most notorious exploits in this war was the bombing of the defenceless Basque market town of Guernica by the German Condor Legion. (Will be discussed later in detail)
    • Anschluss (Union) (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.
      • Earlier setback to Anchluss in July 1934:
        • 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, who had banned the Nazi party and had been supported by Mussolini.
        • 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. The revolt collapsed.
        • Hitler, taken aback, had to accept that Germany was not yet strong enough to force the issue, and he denied responsibility for the actions of the Austrian Nazis.
      • 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.
      • Hitler demanded that Nazis be given key government posts in Austria. Schuschnigg compromised and the Nazi member 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.
      • Matters came to a head when the Austrian Nazis staged huge demonstrations in Austria which Chancellor Schuschnigg’ s government could not control.
      • Realizing that this could be the prelude to a German invasion, Schuschnigg announced a referendum about whether or not Austria should remain independent. Hitler was furious. If the Austrians voted against joining Germany his excuse for invasion would be ruined.
      • Hitler 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.
      • German troops marched into Austria unopposed. Hitler now had control of Austria. A month later, Hitler held a rigged referendum which showed that the Austrian people approved of German control of their country.
      • Foreign reaction:
        • France
          • 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.
        • Britain
          • Prime Minister Chamberlain was determined to appease Hitler and 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.
      • The Anschluss with Austria (March 1938) was Hitler’s greatest success to date. It was a triumph for Germany:
        • 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.
        • It revealed the weakness of Britain and France, who again only protested.
        • It showed the value of the new German understanding with Italy.
        • The balance of power in south-eastern Europe shifted in favour of Germany, increasing their influence in the Balkans.
        • It dealt a severe blow to Czechoslovakia, which could now be attacked from the south as well as from the west and north and Czechoslovakia was now surrounded on three fronts by Germany.
    • All was ready for the beginning of Hitler’s campaign to get the German-speaking Sudetenland, a campaign which ended in triumph at the Munich Conference in September 1938. (will be discussed later).
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