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Section: Life in Nazi-controlled Europe

Foreign policy and the road to war

On 30 January 1939, prior to the start of the Second World War, Hitler made a speech to the Reichstag. This speech hinted at a justification for war and the Nazis potential plans for the mass murder of Europe’s Jews.

On 30 January 1939, prior to the start of the Second World War, Hitler made a speech to the Reichstag. This speech hinted at a justification for war and the Nazis potential plans for the mass murder of Europe’s Jews.

Courtesy of The Wiener Holocaust Library Collections.

Overturning the conditions of the Treaty of Versailles and, following this, a war of expansion, were the major priorities in Hitler’s foreign policy. As the plan for war contained in the Hossbach Memorandum from 1937 indicates, the question was not if a war would happen, but when.

The war, when it came, had an unimaginable impact on the Jews of Europe.

This section explores the Nazis’ aggressive foreign policy and the causes of the Second World War.

Early Nazi foreign policy

When the Nazis came to power in 1933, Germany was economically and militarily weak.

As the Nazis focused on stabilising internal problems, they maintained the guise of moderation abroad.

However, the Nazi regime still took steps to break with international order, even at this early stage.

Concordat with the Vatican

The first success in Nazi diplomacy was the Concordat signed between the Vatican and Nazi Germany on the 20 July 1933.

This Concordat agreed that the Nazis would not interfere in the activities of the Catholic Church. In return, the Vatican would diplomatically recognise the Nazi regime – the first state to officially do so.

The Concordat was an international success. It also helped to consolidate Nazi power internally within Germany by reducing Catholic opposition to the party.

Withdrawal from the League of Nations

One of the key priorities of early Nazi foreign policy was overturning aspects of the Treaty of Versailles.

Just three months after signing the Concordat, Hitler made his first major break with the Treaty of Versailles by withdrawing Germany from the League of Nations on the 14 October 1933.

Under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, and following the creation of the League of Nations, there was an international consensus that disarmament should take place.

France, however, had refused to disarm due to fears about future wars with Germany following the devastation that they experienced in the First World War.

Hitler used other countries refusal to disarm as a pretext for withdrawing Germany from the League of Nations.

On the 12 November 1933, Hitler held a plebiscite on his decision to withdraw Germany from the League of Nations. The results of the plebiscite seemed to show that the German public overwhelmingly voted in support of the move, although this should not be taken at face value, as there was a large amount of pressure from the Nazis to vote this way.

Polish Non-Aggression Pact

On the 26 January 1934, the Nazis made an unexpected diplomatic peace move by signing the German-Polish Non-Aggression Pact. Hitler signed this pact because he wanted to ensure that Poland did not sign a military alliance with France, as Germany was not yet prepared for another war.

This pact gave Poland assurance that Germany would not invade in the immediate future and therefore gave them no reason to have a military alliance with France. This, in turn, gave Germany time to fully rearm.

The pact agreed that both countries would work together diplomatically to address any issues, and would not engage in armed conflict with each other for a minimum of ten years.

The pact caused some concern to France, who was a close ally of Poland. France was still highly suspicious of Germany following the devastation that France suffered during the First World War.

A change in direction

Following the Anglo-German Naval Agreement in 1935, Germany expanded the number of warships produced. This photograph was taken at the launch of armour-plated vessel Admiral Graf Spee, which officially joined the German fleet on the 6 January 1936. The Admiral Graf Spee was used in the Spanish Civil War, before being sunk by the British at the start of the Second World War in 1939.

Following the Anglo-German Naval Agreement in 1935, Germany expanded the number of warships produced. This photograph was taken at the launch of armour-plated vessel Admiral Graf Spee, which officially joined the German fleet on the 6 January 1936. The Admiral Graf Spee was used in the Spanish Civil War, before being sunk by the British at the start of the Second World War in 1939.

Courtesy of The Wiener Holocaust Library Collections.

The relative caution of early Nazi foreign policy did not last very long.

Conscription and Rearmament 1935

On the 26 February 1935, the German air force the Luftwaffe was officially established. On the 16 March 1935, Hitler publically announced his plan to reintroduce conscription and increase the size of the German Army to 500,000 men.

Under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, Germany had been banned from having an air force since 1920, and was only allowed a limited army of 100,000 men.

The announcements establishing the Luftwaffe and then increasing the size of the German Army were public declarations that Germany was breaking international law and the conditions of the Treaty of Versailles.

By 1939, the German Army had approximately a million men, and the Luftwaffe had 8000 planes.

Anglo-German Naval Agreement 1935

Just three months later, on the 18 June 1935, the Nazis agreed the Anglo-German Naval Agreement with Britain. Under this agreement, Germany could expand its navy to 35% of the size of the British Navy.  Britain made this agreement in order to avoid a major naval arms race against Germany.

This pact again broke the limitations on armaments set out in the Treaty of Versailles.

The British signed the agreement without consulting other European nations such as France or Italy. This undermined the chances of creating of a united front against Germany’s rule breaking.

The agreement was the first sign of the British, and European, policy of appeasement against Hitler, which had the aim of avoiding war at all costs.

Remilitarisation of the Rhineland 1936

The Rhineland was a strip of German territory bordering France, which had first become occupied and demilitarised following the end of the First World War and the resulting Treaty of Versailles.

Continuing with his policy of breaking the conditions of the Treaty of Versailles, Hitler cautiously instigated the remilitarisation of the Rhineland on the 7 March 1936.

This international community did not respond. France was in a state of internal political disarray due to a change in government, and therefore they were not prepared to take military action without British support. Whilst the British protested that the action broke the terms of the Treaty, they were not willing to go to war over it. As the British politician Lord Lothian famously remarked, they saw it as ‘no more than the Germans walking into their own backyard’.

With hindsight, it is easy to see the remilitarisation of the Rhineland as the beginning of Hitler’s aggressive steps towards war. At the time, this was less clear as it seemed that all Germany was doing was reinstating the army in a part of its own country.

Planning for War: The Hossbach Memorandum

One of the causes of the Second World War was the Nazis’ aggressive foreign policy. The Hossbach Memorandum is often used as early evidence of this, showing Hitler’s plans for a war of expansion.

The Hossbach Memorandum was a note compiled by Colonel Count Friedrich Hossbach of a secret meeting between Hitler and his top military and political leadership on the 5 November 1937.

At the meeting, Hitler discussed his plans for foreign policy in the years ahead. Here, according to Hossbach, Hitler stated that the time for a war for Lebensraum was near.

Hitler declared that the primary targets for this desired ‘living space’ were Austria and Czechoslovakia. The question, Hitler stated, was not if, but when and how.

Hitler also identified a time frame in which the war for Lebensraum would ideally take place: 1943-45. At this stage, the Nazis believed that the German industry would be fully mobilised for war. Hitler declared that action could possibly take place before this date if other countries had internal problems that would make the war for Lebensraum easier.

Whether or not the Memorandum is a genuine document has been the subject of much debate amongst historians.

Nowadays, the Hossbach Memorandum is generally regarded to be a genuine document and a blueprint for Hitler’s foreign policy leading into the Second World War. It is regarded as proof that Hitler had planned to go to war to achieve Lebensraum.

Anschluss

Anschluss refers to the annexation of Austria in 1938. There was growing support in Austria for the Nazis from 1933. The country had a (non-Nazi) semi-fascist government from around this time. In 1934, the Nazis assassinated the Austrian chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss in the hope of establishing a Nazi regime. The coup failed and Kurt von Schuschnigg replaced Dollfuss as chancellor. However, his ring-wing regime was one full of political factions, and its success rested on support from fascist Italy.

From 1938, as Italy grew closer to Nazi Germany, Austria became increasingly isolated and vulnerable to German takeover. The Nazis were keen to expand their territory, and support for the Nazis and a union with Germany among the Austrian people was high.

The German Army marched into Austria on the 12 March 1938, with little to no opposition from the population or any other foreign powers.

On the 13 March 1938, Austria was incorporated into the Greater German Reich. The result of a retrospective plebiscite held by the Nazis indicated that 99% of Austrian nationals supported the move. Despite this, as with previous plebiscites, those who voted were subject to a large amount of pressure from the Nazis to vote this way. As such, the result should be treated with caution.

Occupation of the Sudetenland

From the 29 – 30 September 1938, the British, French, Italian and German leaders met in Munich to discuss Hitler’s demands for the Sudetenland. This photograph of the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, was taken following talks in Hitler's apartment on the 30 September 1938.

From the 29 – 30 September 1938, the British, French, Italian and German leaders met in Munich to discuss Hitler’s demands for the Sudetenland. This photograph of the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, was taken following talks in Hitler’s apartment on the 30 September 1938.

Courtesy of The Wiener Holocaust Library Collections.

Following the success of Anschluss, Hitler’s next target was Czechoslovakia, which was now surrounded by German territory. The northern part of Czechoslovakia was known as the Sudetenland.

The Sudetenland was desired by Germany not only for its territory, but also because a majority of its population were ‘ethnically’ German.

In the summer of 1938 Hitler demanded the annexation of the Sudetenland into Germany. At this point Hitler was aware that the Allies were desperate to avoid war, and thought it likely that they would appease his demands.

Hitler threatened war over the issue of the Sudetenland. On the 29 – 30 September 1938 the British, Italian, French and German leaders met in Munich to discuss the issue.

The Allies agreed to concede the Sudetenland to Germany in exchange for a pledge of peace. This agreement was known as the Munich Pact.

DID YOU KNOW...

Munich Pact

 

On 29 September 1938, leaders from Britain, France, Italy and Germany met in Munich to discuss Germany’s demands for the Sudetenland.

The Sudetenland was a province in northern Czechoslovakia, bordering Germany.

Germany wanted to expand its territory to include the Sudetenland and gain control of key military defences in the area. Once it had control of these defences, invading the rest of Czechoslovakia would be considerably easier.

To the Allies, Germany justified its demands by asserting that the population of the Sudetenland were ‘ethnically German’, and therefore the annexation of this land would simply be returning these people to their ‘home’ country.

On the 30 September 1938, after just one day, an agreement was reached. The Sudetenland was annexed to Czechoslovakia. This agreement was called the Munich Pact.

The Czechoslovakian government and people were not involved or invited to the discussions. In response, the democratic government of Czechoslovakia resigned.

Annexation of Czechoslovakia

Just six months after agreeing the Munich Pact, Hitler invaded and occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia. Here, Hitler is pictured looking out of a window of the occupied Prague Castle in March 1939.

Just six months after agreeing the Munich Pact, Hitler invaded and occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia. Here, Hitler is pictured looking out of a window of the occupied Prague Castle in March 1939.

Courtesy of The Wiener Holocaust Library Collections.

Less than half a year after it was signed, Nazi Germany broke the Munich Pact. Germany invaded the Czech provinces of Bohemia and Moravia on the 15 March 1939.

Unlike with the Sudetenland, these provinces were not incorporated directly into the German Reich. They instead became known as the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, and were placed under Nazi rule.

Following Nazi Germany’s move, Hungary soon made territorial claims on the south of what was formerly Czechoslovakia.

Slovakia, a province of Czechoslovakia, just above the Hungarian annexed zone, became an independent Catholic state with close links to Nazi Germany.

By the end of 1939, Czechoslovakia had completely disappeared from the map.

Despite breaking the Munich Pact almost immediately, Hitler did not face a military response from the Allies.

Build up to war

Hitler’s next target was Poland. Following the annexation of Czechoslovakia, Poland was already partially surrounded by German controlled territories by 1939. As such, it was in a geographically weak situation.

In response to Hitler’s annexation of Czechoslovakia in March 1939, the British pledged military support to Poland in the case of an attack from Nazi Germany. The French supported this agreement. This became known as the Polish Guarantee. Hitler responded by renouncing the German-Polish Non-Aggression Pact and the Anglo-German Naval Agreement.

On the 23 August 1939, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Non-Aggression Pact (also known as the Nazi-Soviet Pact) between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union was announced. The two countries, which were ideological enemies, agreed to peace between each other for ten years. The pact also secretly divided up Poland between Germany and the Soviet Union.

Poland was surrounded. Germany could now attack without worrying about a war with the Soviet Union. Hitler thought it was unlikely that Britain and France would respond militarily to an invasion of Poland, but even if they did respond Hitler’s pact with the Soviet Union would allow the German Army to retaliate.

On the 1 September 1939, Germany attacked Poland. Britain and France issued an ultimatum to Germany: to either withdraw troops from Poland or face a declaration of war from Britain and France.

The policy of appeasement that the British and French had been following for since the start of the Nazis aggressive foreign policy was over. Britain especially had began preparing for war following the German invasion of Czechoslovakia in March 1939.

On 3 September 1939, having received no reply and unwilling to accept further German expansion, Britain and France declared war on Germany.

The Second World War had begun.

DID YOU KNOW...

The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact

In the summer of 1939, the Second World War was not inevitable.

The Soviet Union was engaged in talks with Britain and France over a defensive strategy for Poland. The Soviets demanded free passage for their troops through Poland. However, Poland refused to agree to this clause. Britain was also hostile to agreeing to share intelligence with the Soviet Union.

As a result of these hostilities, the talks with Britain, France and Poland broke down and the Soviet Union turned back towards Germany. Despite their ideological opposition, a pact between Germany and the Soviet Union suited both of their territorial aims.

Germany and the Soviet Union quickly announced the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (also known as the Nazi-Soviet Pact) on the 23 August 1939.

Following this announcement, Poland was almost completely encircled by her enemies.

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