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Militarist Aggression in Europe
From the early days of his political career, Hitler dreamed of forging a vast German
empire in central Europe. He believed that only by conquering Russia could the German nation
gain the living space (lebensraum) and security it required and, as a superior race, deserved. War
was essential to National Socialist ideology, and it fit Hitler’s temperament. For the former
corporal from the trenches, the war had never ended. Hitler wanted political power in order to
mobilize the resources of the German nation for conquest. Historians debate whether or not
Hitler single-handedly started the largest war in history. Obviously, he could not set the world
on fire all by himself. But Hitler took even his own generals by surprise with his audacious plans
regarding where and when to strike in a master plan that almost worked. Unfortunately, even
though leaders across Europe had sufficient warnings that Hitler was a threat to peace and to the
essential values of Western civilization, they failed to rally their people and to take a stand until
Germany had greatly increased its capacity to wage an aggressive war.
World War I had shown that Germany was the strongest power on the Continent. In the
east, the German army had triumphed over Russia; in the west, Britain and France were at a
standstill until they received aid from the United States. The Treaty of Versailles had severely
weakened but did not cripple Germany. In the decade after the war, responsibility for preserving
the peace settlement rested essentially with France. The United States had rejected the treaty and
withdrawn from European affairs; Soviet Russia was busy completing its revolution; Britain,
burdened with severe economic problems, disarmed, and traditionally aloof from Continental
squabbles, did not want to join with France in holding Germany down. France sought to contain
Germany by forging alliances with the new states of eastern Europe, which would serve as a
substitute for the missing Russian ally which could no longer be trusted. So France entered into
alliances with Poland, Czechoslovakia, Rumania, and Yugoslavia during the 1920s. But no
combination of small eastern European states could replace Russia as a true counterweight to
Germany. Against Hitler’s Germany, the French alliance system would prove useless.
A feeling of hope generally prevailed during the 1920s. The newly created League of
Nations provided an apparent authority above the national level to which nations could submit
their quarrels. At the Washington Naval Conference (1921-22), the leading naval powers—the
United States, Britain, France, Italy, and Japan—agreed not to construct new battleships or heavy
cruisers for ten years and established a ratio of capital ships between them (5:5:3:1.5:1.5). They
hoped that the ending of the naval arms race would promote international peace. On land in the
Locarno Pact (1925), Germany, France, and Belgium agreed not to change their existing borders.
This meant, in effect, that Germany had accepted both the loss of Alsace and Lorraine to France
and the demilitarization of the Rhineland, two provisions of the Versailles Treaty. The Locarno
Pact held promise of a détente between France and Germany. This peace was only illusory,
however, for Germany gave no such assurances for its eastern border with Czechoslovakia and
Poland to which France was allied.
Other gestures that promoted reconciliation followed the Locarno Pact. In 1926,
Germany was admitted to the League of Nations, and in 1928 the Kellogg-Briand Pact
renouncing war was signed by most nations. The signers condemned war as a solution to
international disputes and agreed to settle quarrels through peaceful means. Ordinary people
welcomed the Peace Pact, as it was known, as the dawning of a new era of peace, but because the
pact contained no clauses for enforcing the agreement (how could it?) again it only fostered the
illusion of peace. Nevertheless, between 1925 and 1930, hopes for reconciliation and peace were
high. Recovery from the war and increased prosperity coincided with the easing of international
tensions. As evidence of the new spirit, France and Britain withdrew their forces from the
Rhineland in 1930, four years ahead of the time prescribed by the Treaty of Versailles.
After consolidating his power and mobilizing the German nation’s will, Hitler moved to
implement his foreign policy objectives. He sought the destruction of the Treaty of Versailles,
the conquest and colonization of eastern Europe, and the domination and exploitation of racial
“inferiors.” In some respects, Hitler’s foreign policy aims were synonymous with those of Otto
the Great or any other German leader of old. Hitler said he would “remove the shackles” of
Versailles, rearm Germany, and then make Germany the pre-eminent power in Europe
(something on the scale of the Holy Roman Empire, but the similarity is even greater with
Napoleon’s schemes). Germany had conquered extensive regions of eastern Europe in WW I,
and in the Brest-Litovsk Treaty Germany took Poland, the Ukraine, and the Baltic states from
Russia. Hitler’s racial nationalism, however, parted ways with the more traditional German
rulers of twenty years ago. Hitler set out to subjugate and annihilate inferior races in favor of the
master German race. Earlier German rulers had never restricted the civil rights of German Jews
and had sought to assimilate, not enslave, the Poles living under the German flag.
In foreign affairs, Hitler demonstrated the same blend of opportunism and singlemindedness that had brought him to power. He behaved like a man possessed, driven by a
fanatical belief that his personal destiny was tied to Germany’s future. Here, too, he made use of
propaganda to undermine his opponents’ will to resist. The Nazi propaganda machine, which
had effectively won the minds of the German people, became an instrument of foreign policy.
Nazi propaganda tried to win support of the 27 million Germans living outside the borders of the
Reich proper, to promote social and political disorientation in other lands by propagating antiSemitism on a worldwide basis, and to draw international support for Hitler as Europe’s best
defense against the Soviet Union and Bolshevism. The Nazi anti-communist campaign
convinced many Europeans that Hitler’s dictatorship was more acceptable than Stalin’s and that
Germany, the “bulwark against Bolshevism,” should be allowed to grow in strength.
As Hitler anticipated, Britain and France backed down when faced with his violations of
the Versailles Treaty and his threats of war. Haunted by the memory of WW I, Britain and
France went to great lengths to avoid a similar catastrophe. Many in Britain suffered from a bad
conscience regarding the Treaty of Versailles. They believed that Germany had been treated too
severely and leaned toward making concessions to Germany. They refused to prepare for war
from 1933-1939. Although France had the strongest army on the Continent, it was prepared to
fight only a defensive war, the reverse of its WWI strategy. France built immense fortifications,
called the Maginot Line, to protect its borders from a German invasion, but it lacked a mobile
striking force that could punish an aggressive Germany. The United States, concerned with
problems of the Great Depression and standing aloof from Europe’s troubles, was not there to
strengthen the resolve of France and Britain. Since both France and Britain feared and
mistrusted the Soviet Union, the grand alliance of WWI was not renewed. There was an added
factor. Suffering from a failure of leadership and political and economic unrest that eroded
national unity, France was experiencing a decline in morale and a loss of nerve. France turned
persistently to Britain for direction.
British statesmen championed a policy of appeasement—giving in to Germany in the
hope that Hitler would not drag Europe into another war. British policy rested on the disastrous
illusion that Hitler, like the German leaders of the Weimar Republic, sought peaceful revision of
the Versailles Treaty and that he could be contained through concessions. This perception was
as misguided as the expectation of Weimar conservatives that the responsibility of power would
compel Hitler to abandon his National Socialist radicalism. Some British appeasers also
regarded Hitler as a defender of European civilization and the capitalistic economic system
against Soviet communism—a view that Nazi propaganda cleverly propagated and exploited. In
Mein Kampf, Hitler had explicitly laid out his philosophy of racial nationalism and the quest for
living space. As dictator, he established a one-party state, imprisoned political opponents, and
persecuted Jews. But the proponents of appeasement did not properly assess these signs. They
still believed that Hitler could be reasoned with. Appeasement, which in the end was
surrendering to blackmail, failed. Germany grew stronger, and the German people grew more
devoted to the Fuehrer. Hitler did not moderate his ambitions, and whereas other leaders wanted
to avoid war, Hitler actively sought it, and got it.
To fight his war Hitler needed Germany to rearm. The Treaty of Versailles had limited
the size of the German army to 100,000 volunteers; restricted the navy’s size; and forbidden the
production of military aircraft, heavy artillery, and tanks; and disbanded the officer corps at the
level of generals. Throughout the 1920s even the Weimar Republic had evaded these provisions.
In March 1935, Hitler declared that Germany was no longer bound by the Versailles Treaty.
Germany would restore conscription, build an air force (which it had been doing secretly
already), and strengthen its navy. The German people were ecstatic at Hitler’s boldness. France
protested but offered no resistance, and Britain negotiated a separate naval agreement with
Germany, thus tacitly accepting Hitler’s rearmament.
A decisive event in the breakdown of peace was Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia in October
1935. Mussolini sought colonial expansion and revenge for a defeat the African kingdom had
inflicted on Italian troops in 1896. The League of Nations called for economic sanctions against
Italy, and most League members restricted trade with the aggressor. But Italy continued to
receive oil, particularly from American suppliers. Believing that the conquest of Ethiopia did not
affect their vital interests and hoping to keep Italy friendly in the event of a clash with Germany,
neither Britain nor France sought to restrain Mussolini, despite its act of aggression against
another member of the League of Nations (Ethiopia, or Abyssinia, had recently joined).
Mussolini’s subjugation of Ethiopia discredited the League which had already been weakened by
its failure to deal effectively with Japan’s invasion of the mineral-rich Chinese province of
Manchuria in 1931. At that time the League formed a commission of inquiry and urged nonrecognition of the puppet state of Manchukuo created by Japan, but the member states did not
restrain Japan. Ethiopia, like Manchuria, showed that the League was reluctant to use force to
resist aggression.
On March 7, 1936, Hitler marched troops into the Rhineland, violating both the
Versailles Treaty and the Locarno Pact. German generals had cautioned Hitler that such a move
would provoke a French invasion of Germany and reoccupation of the Rhineland, which the
German army, still in the first stages of rearmament, could not repulse. But Hitler gambled that
France and Britain, lacking the will to fight, would take no action. Hitler was right. Britain was
not greatly alarmed by Germany’s move. Hitler, after all, was not expanding the borders of
Germany, but was only sending soldiers to Germany’s frontier. Such a move, they reasoned, did
not warrant risking a war. France regarded the act as a grave threat. The buffer area that had
existed between the nations was now gone. Now German forces could concentrate in strength on
the French frontier, either to invade France or to discourage a French assault if Germany attacked
Czechoslovakia or Poland, France’s eastern allies. The 22,000 German troops could not have
withstood French retaliation, and historians ponder if firm action in 1936 could have staved off
WW II. France would not act alone, and Britain could not be persuaded to use force. The
French overestimated the strength of the German forces which, coupled with their studiously
defensive posture, combined to rule out initiating a strike against Germany. No leader arose in
France to persuade the French people otherwise.
The Spanish Civil War of 1936-39 was another victory for fascism. Nazi Germany and
Fascist Italy aided Francisco Franco; the Soviet Union supplied the Spanish Republic. The
republic appealed to France for help, but the French government feared that the civil war would
expand into a European war. With Britain’s approval, France proposed a nonintervention
agreement that Italy, Germany, and the Soviet Union all signed. Italy and Germany, however,
continued to supply the Spanish fascists even to the extent of sending 60,000 Italian troops,
6,000 Germans, and hundreds of German planes. The Soviet Union tried to keep up but was too
far away. Without considerable help from France, the Spanish Republic was doomed. In 1939,
the Republic fell, and Franco established a dictatorship. Mussolini and Hitler discovered they
could cooperate. They reveled in the opportunity to test weapons and troops and in the
continued reluctance of Britain and France to fight.
One of Hitler’s next aims was incorporation of Austria into the Third Reich. The Treaty
of Versailles had expressly prohibited the union of the two German-speaking countries, but in
Mein Kampf Hitler had insisted that such a union (Anschluss) was necessary for German living
space. In February 1938, under intense pressure from Hitler, the Austrian Chancellor promised
to accept Austrian Nazis in his cabinet and agreed to closer relations with Germany. Austrian
independence was slipping away, and Austrian Nazis increasingly undermined the existing
government. Seeking to gain the support of his people, Chancellor Schuschnigg made plans for
a vote on the issue of preserving Austrian independence. An enraged Hitler ordered his generals
to draw up plans for an invasion of Austria. Hitler then demanded the Chancellor’s resignation
and the formation of a new government headed by an Austrian Nazi leader. Believing that
Austria was not worth a war, Britain and France informed the embattled chancellor that they
would not help in the event of a German invasion. Schuschnigg then resigned, and Austrian
Nazis began to take control of the government. Under the pretext of preventing violence, Hitler
ordered his troops to cross into Austria, and on March 13, 1938, Austrian leaders declared that
Austria was a province of the German Reich. The Austrians celebrated by ringing church bells,
waving swastika banners, and attacking Jews and looting their property.
Hitler had obtained Austria merely by threatening force. Another threat would give him
the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia. Of the 3.5 million people living in the Sudetenland, some
2.8 million were ethnic Germans. The Sudetenland contained key industries and strong
fortifications; since it bordered Germany, it was vital to Czech security. Deprived of the
Sudetenland, Czechoslovakia could not defend itself against a German attack. Encouraged and
instructed by Germany, the Sudeten Germans denounced the Czech government for persecuting
its German minority and depriving it of its right to self-determination. The Sudeten Germans
agitated for local autonomy and the right to profess the National Socialist ideology. Behind this
demand was the goal of German annexation. While negotiations between the Sudeten Germans
and the Czech government proceeded, Hitler’s propaganda machine accused the Czechs of
hideous crimes against the German minority and warned of retribution. Hitler also ordered his
generals to prepare for an invasion of Czechoslovakia and to complete the fortifications on the
French border. Fighting between the Czechs and the Sudeten Germans heightened the tensions.
Seeking to preserve peace, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain of Britain offered to confer with
Hitler, who then extended an invitation.
Czechoslovakia thought it had friends. The Czechs and the French had agreed to defend
each other if either was attacked by Germany. The Soviets made a similar agreement, but they
would only help if France helped. Britain had made no such agreement. Some British officials
even believed the Sudeten Germans were indeed a suppressed minority entitled to selfdetermination and that the Sudetenland, like Austria, was not worth a war that could destroy all
of Europe. Hitler, they said, only wanted to incorporate Germans living outside of Germany; he
was only carrying the principle of self-determination to its logical conclusion. Once these
Germans lived under the German flag, they argued, Hitler would be satisfied. In any case,
Britain’s failure to rearm between 1933 and 1938 weakened its position. The British chiefs of
staff believe that the nation was not prepared to fight, that it was necessary to sacrifice
Czechoslovakia in order to buy time.
Czechoslovakia’s fate was decided at the Munich Conference (September 1938) attended
by Chamberlain, Hitler, Mussolini, and Prime Minister Édouard Daladier (1884-1970) of France
(there were no Czech leaders present). The Munich Agreement called for the immediate
evacuation of Czech troops from the Sudetenland and its occupation by German forces. Britain
and France then promised to guarantee the territorial integrity of the now smaller
Czechoslovakia. Bother Chamberlain and Daladier were showered with praise by the people of
Britain and France for keeping the peace. Critics of Chamberlain have insisted that the Munich
Agreement was an enormous blunder and tragedy. Chamberlain, they say, was a fool to believe
that Hitler, who sought domination over Europe, could be bought off with the Sudetenland.
Hitler regarded concessions by Britain and France as signs of weakness; they only increased his
appetite for more territory. The critics said that it would have been better to fight Hitler in 1938
than a year later when war actually did break out. To be sure, in the year following the Munich
Agreement, Britain increased its military arsenal, but so did Germany, which built submarines
and heavy tanks, strengthened western border defenses, and trained more pilots.
Had Britain and France resisted Hitler at Munich, Hitler would likely have attacked
Czechoslovakia. The Czechs, however, would not have gone down without a fight. Their border
defenses, similar to those of the Maginot Line, were formidable. The Czechs had a large number
of good tanks and the Czech people were willing to fight to preserve their nation’s territorial
integrity. By itself the Czech army could not have defeated Germany, but while they battled the
main elements of the German army, the French could have mobilized a hundred divisions against
the nine divisions on Germany’s western border and taken back the Rhineland. Even the Soviets
might have lived up to their commitments and come to the aid of their Czech allies.
After the annexation of the Sudetenland, the Fuehrer plotted to extinguish
Czechoslovakia’s existence. He encouraged the Slovak minority in the country to demand
complete separation from Czechoslovakia. On the pretext of protecting the rights of the Slovak
people to self-determination, Hitler ordered his troops to enter Prague. Czech independence was
over by March 1939. The destruction of Czechoslovakia was of a different character than the
advance into the Rhineland, the Anschluss with Austria, or the annexation of the Sudetenland. In
all these previous cases, Hitler could claim the right of self-determination, Woodrow Wilson’s
grand principle from the Fourteen Points. The occupation of Prague and the end of Czech
independence, though, showed that Hitler really sought European hegemony. Outraged
statesmen now demanded that the Fuehrer be stopped. Chamberlain, however, did not
completely abandon appeasement; he still thought that war was not inevitable and that
Germany’s claims could be dealt with through negotiations. Did you notice, by the way, that no
nation came to Czechoslovakia’s aid? What message do you suppose that sent to Hitler?