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German Foreign Policy: 1933-1939

Updated on August 19, 2013

The Road to War: Hitler’s foreign policy 1933-39.

The Great Depression hit in October 1929; shares on Wall Street plunged ruining shareowners. This in turn made businesses go into administration and causes mass unemployment. The depression spreads to other countries as America stopped buying goods internationally, causing further unemployment. To add to the misery, America stops lending money to other nations, aggravating the problem more. To combat such economic downturn, countries begin to start to use protectionism (placing high tariffs on goods imported from other countries). Consequently, countries turn politically extreme due to desperation and need for drastic change. Hitler was able to rise to power, since his promises of overturning the Treaty of Versailles and fully employment would end the depression Germany found itself a part of.

Adolf Hitler had three main aims for foreign policy. Firstly he wished to abolish the Treaty of Versailles, which he claimed was unjust and a constant reminder of German humiliation (for further information on the Treaty of Versailles, its instigators, effects and impacts see this hub: International Relations 1919-1939). Hitler was determined to make Germany great again. Secondly Hitler was determined to expand German territory, to restore the former glory of its once large empire. He intended to do that by forming an Anschluss (link) with Austria, this in turn would provide Lebensraum (living space) for the growing population, under Hitler’s plans to increase the birth rate. He would reverse the Treaty of Versailles, which forbid a reunification with Austria and return the population back as many Germans had been moved to foreign powers after 10% of German land was stripped under the Treaty. Thirdly Hitler wanted to defeat communism, the polar opposite to Fascism, and the ethos of the Nazis. He believed Bolsheviks (Russian communists) wanted to invade Germany and he needed to ensure this would not happen.

The first step of Hitler’s foreign policy, leading to the eventual cause of the Second World War was rearmament, which was indeed one of Hitler’s first steps in power. The process began secretively since it opposed the military restrictions under the Treaty of Versailles. To accomplish this, thousands of unemployed workers were drafted in to help, in turn reducing unemployment. Hitler justified his defiance of the Treaty was that other countries had refused to disarm (the League of Nation’s attempts at disarmament conferences were futile at best) and this rendered Germany vulnerable to its neighbours. Germany withdrew from the League of Nations and in 1935 the Proclamation of Freedom to Rearm Rally happened. Hitler reintroduced conscription too reducing unemployment even further, boosting Nazi support. Hitler knew no retaliation would come from the Allies: Britain sympathised as other countries had rearmed and the French refused to act alone. Britain saw it as a buffer to communism and thus more benefiting than intimidating.

The Saar Plebiscite occurred in 1935. The Saarland (an industrial part of western Germany) had been ruled by the League of Nations since 1919 (under the Treaty of Versailles). In 1935 the League of Nations held a promised plebiscite to allow the Saar population a chance to decide whether to be reunited with Germany or not. An astounding 90% voted in favour of returning to Germany providing a morale boost for Hitler.

Troops marching into the Rhineland
Troops marching into the Rhineland
'The Goose Step' a cartoon of the time
'The Goose Step' a cartoon of the time

Remilitarisation of the Rhineland was the first big risk Hitler undertook. In March 1936 Hitler moved troops into the Rhineland which had been demilitarised (forbidden from military presence) under the Treaty of Versailles seventeen years earlier. If Hitler was forced to withdraw he would potentially face humiliation and no further support from the army, especially since he had accepted demilitarisation in not only the Treaty of Versailles but also the later Locarno Treaty. Hitler was able to justify his behaviour since he felt threatened by the Franco-Russian mutual assistance pact to protect each other from Germany. Hitler knew Britain would continue to appease his actions and the French were holding elections, of which no candidate wanted responsibility of waging war and repeating the horrors of the First World War; besides the French would not act without Britain’s assistance anyhow. The League of Nations was at this time distracted by the Abyssinian crisis and thus Hitler’s acts of remilitarising the Rhineland were not challenged.

The Spanish Civil War (1936-37) was fought between communists and right wing rebels; this provided a perfect setting and opportunity for Hitler to both fight against communism and try new weapons. Consequently, German aircraft made bombing raids on Spanish cities (Guernica would be the most famous example). The League of Nations was helpless to intervene. The Anti-Comintern Pact was signed in 1937. Mussolini, the Italian dictator, was also involved in Spain; both leaders found they had lots in common (and indeed also with Japan). They signed a pact to limit global communist influence and formed the Axis Alliance.

Hitler invading Austria. Below: the delighted reactions of young Nazi supporters.
Hitler invading Austria. Below: the delighted reactions of young Nazi supporters.

Hitler turned his attention to his homeland, Austria, in 1938 and was determined to annex the two countries. In Mein Kampf, Hitler expresses the need he feels for Austria and Germany to be united. Hitler encouraged Austrian Nazis to create trouble, before telling the Chancellor of Austria, Schuschnigg, Anscluss was the only option. Schuschnigg asked for Ally help, was refused and held a referendum within Austria. For fear of losing Hitler sent troops (allegedly to guarantee a trouble-free vote). 99.75% of pressurised Austrians voted in favour. There was no ally intervention as Chamberlain saw it as a right. Lord Halifax had previously told Hitler that the UK would not intervene with this reunification.

It seems surprising to many that both Britain and France followed a policy of appeasement and allowed Hitler to get away with so much, which eventually led to World War Two. In hindsight, we can see that appeasement was wrong as it allowed and encouraged Hitler to grow too strong. Furthermore it alienated Stalin, forcing him to sign the Nazi-Soviet pact. Why did Britain and France not act before? There are perhaps five reasons why they chose to appease Hitler rather than wage war.

  1. Britain was not ready for war against Germany and would thus lose resulting in a great number of casualties and fatalities.
  2. There was a determination not to repeat the horrors of World War One which saw 996,000 British deaths and 1,698,000 French fatalities; representative of 2.19% and 4.29% of the respective populations.
  3. Hitler provided a useful buffer to communism, which Britain and France feared more than fascism.
  4. Britain and France were denied support from America who were determined not to get dragged into another war.
  5. Britain agreed that the Treaty of Versailles was wrong and too harsh. They followed the belief that Germany would revert to peace after the wrongs instigated by the Treaty had been rectified.

Food for thought

Was it right for Britain ad France to follow the policy of appeasement under the given circumstances?

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The Czechoslovakian leader Benes horrified by the Anschluss established between Germany and Austria. He sought commitment from Britain and France to defend in the likely event Hitler would ever invade. Hitler assured Neville Chamberlain he would not do so. Despite this, Hitler encouraged Henlein, the Nazi leader of the Sudetenland (a rich industrial part of Czechoslovakia formerly part of Germany) stirred up trouble. In May 1938 Hitler threatens with war and over the summer of the same year tensions rise; air raid shelters are built in Britain. In September 1938 Chamberlain flew to meet Hitler, at this meeting Hitler asks for less land and will annexe the Sudetenland only subject to plebiscite; but quickly increases his demands as he believed Czechs were mistreating the Germans living in the Sudetenland and intended to rescue them. Chamberlain argued it was unreasonable and the British navy was mobilised. Hitler wins the Sudetenland, ignoring the Czechs and the Russians. This is called the Munich agreement and war is thus averted, albeit without questioning the policy of appeasement first. Chamberlain flies back to Britain satisfied and presents the infamous ‘peace in our time’ speech. In March 1939 German troops take over the rest of Czechoslovakia, facing no resistance. This is a step too far even for Chamberlain and he promises he will wage war if Poland is invaded.

Neville Chamberlain waving the Munich Agreement.
Neville Chamberlain waving the Munich Agreement.

The USSR joined the League of Nations in 1934 and signed a treaty (mutual assistance pact) with the French against Hitler since Stalin was suspicious of the Nazis. The USSR never trusted the French either and Stalin could not comprehend why nobody had yet stood up to Hitler. Stalin decided thus to negotiate with Hitler to protect the USSR and the Nazi-Soviet Pact was signed in August 1939. The countires agreed not to attack each other and also secretly to carve up Poland (the USSR would gain Latvia, Estonia, Finland and Eastern Poland).

Satirical look at the Nazi-Soviet pact. The caption reads 'How long will the honeymoon last?'.
Satirical look at the Nazi-Soviet pact. The caption reads 'How long will the honeymoon last?'.

September 1939

On the 1st September Hitler invades Poland.

On the 3rd September Britain and France declare war against Germany as promised.

On the 17th September Stalin invades Poland from the East and Poland quickly falls.


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