When Hitler came to power, the international
situation was not unfavorable to Germany. Step by step the foreign policy of
the Republic had succeeded in lightening the severe conditions of the
Versailles Treaty. Germany's isolation in Europe had been ended. Of all the
European Powers, only Poland remained hostile. Relations with France
continued to be uneasy since France consistently opposed German revisionism.
But relations with Britain, Italy and the United States were good. Amicable
relations with the Soviet Union had become almost traditional with the
Weimar Republic after the Treaty of Rapallo in 1922. They were not disturbed
by Germany's struggle against Communism, and they were particularly
important for Germany from an economic point of view.
I. Foreign Policy Assumptions
However, whatever foreign policy successes the Weimar Republic had achieved
were net appreciated by the general public. Hitler's anti-Versailles
propaganda overshadowed these successes because the public was impatient and
wanted more substantial results. The full extent of the political mobility
regained by Germany since 1919 was not generally appreciated until Hitler,
in the early days of power, began to make capital out of it. Time and again
the public gave him personal credit for what was really the result of
protracted labor by his predecessors.
Hitler had never been abroad and spoke no foreign language. He regarded
foreign policy as his own personal preserve. While prepared to give his
collaborators considerable scope in domestic affairs, he disliked and
discouraged their advice in external matters. As time went on, his distrust
of career diplomats led him to eliminate, as far as he could, the influence
of the German Foreign Service.
In his early work of propaganda, Mein Kampf, he had already developed his
conception of German foreign policy. He admired the historical achievements
of England, in which he saw proof of his theory of the superiority of the
Germanic race. He admired Fascist Italy and its creator, Mussolini. He saw
an alliance with England and Italy as Germany's security for the future
against the "unrelenting mortal enemy" France. An alliance with England was
also protection against Soviet Russia, at whose expense, in particular, he
wished to enlarge Germany's "living space." Austria, the country of his
birth, was for him an integral part of Germany, and her reunification with
the Reich "a life's task, to be carried out by every means."
II. Early Diplomatic Victories
In the first years sf Nazi foreign policy it looked as if Hitler had
abandoned most of the fundamentals of his program. Only later did it become
apparent that it was precisely in foreign politics that he had held fast to
his early beliefs.
A. Withdrawal from League of Nations
To begin with, Hitler continued the foreign policy of his predecessors. He
made no experiments, particularly as Germany's international prestige was
much affected by events at home. The most vital international issue,
disarmament, was soon to be dominated by the fact that Hitler was secretly
rearming. Since the western powers, particularly France, were not quite
willing to give Germany equality in armaments, Hitler withdrew from the
Disarmament Conference and the League of Nations as well.
This happened in October 1933 and was approved by 88% of the electorate in a
plebiscite. The public, unfortunately, did not realize the consequences, one
of which was Hitler's order to accelerate rearmament. Hitler, of course,
continued to profess his love of peace and to make proposals for
disarmament. But at the same time he made it clear that he preferred
bilateral agreements to that of securing peace by multilateral treaties.
B. Polish-German Non-aggression Pact
The first such bilateral agreement was the Polish-German Non-aggression Pact
of January 1934. It gave Nazi foreign policy a twofold advantage by reducing
tensions on the Eastern frontier and by reducing the importance of the
French alliance system. This pact also proved a great advantage to Hitler
four years later when he could move against Austria and Czechoslovakia
without fear of Polish intervention. Poland's motives were mainly uneasiness
about the Soviet Union.
It was Hitler's obsession with bilateral pacts which led him to reject
Franco-Soviet attempts to conclude an "Eastern Locarno" pact, vigorously
pursued by French Foreign Minister Barthou. This rejection came immediately
after the Soviet Union had joined the League of Nations and came as no
surprise since German-Soviet relations were fast deteriorating.
C. Rearmament and the Stresa Front
After Barthou's assassination in October 1934, his successor Laval, made
overtures to Italy in order to win her over to the anti-revisionist powers.
At the same time England and France once more invited Germany to participate
in the solution of the rearmament problem by adhering to the proposed
settlement of the Yugolslav-Italian border dispute. Hitler's reply to these
overtures was unmistakable: on March 16, 1935 he announced general
conscription, thereby officially admitting what the world already knew,
although it had been done in secret-that Germany was rearming.
Britain, France and Italy protested. The three powers met at Stresa in April
to form a united front in combination with the League (the so-called Stresa
Front). Sanctions against Germany were contemplated. Meanwhile, France
concluded a Mutual Assistance Pact with the Soviet Union on May 2 and the
Soviet Union entered into an alliance with Czechoslovakia on May 16. Hitler
seemed isolated by the embrace of a European coalition.
D. Naval Agreement with Britain
But the sanctions were never put into effect, and the unity of the Stresa
Front went no farther than oratory. Hitler's critics were thus silenced and
in no time at all he was able to claim a remarkable success for his policy
of bilateral alliances, which only seemed to prove the discord of the
western Powers and encouraged him to continue in the same way. On June 18,
1935 Britain signed a Naval Agreement with Germany, which laid down the
strengths of the British and German fleets in a ratio of 100 to 35, with
parity in submarines. Thus Britain tacitly accepted German rearmament, which
shortly before she had condemned at Stresa. Among British statesmen the
pressure of world events, particularly in the Far East, began to encourage
the idea that peace in Europe could best be preserved by appeasing Hitler
The transitory nature of the Stresa Front became even clearer when Mussolini
attacked Abyssinia in the fall of 1935 despite League of Nations sanctions.
By the summer of 1936 Abyssinia had been annexed. It was during this period
that the relationship between Italy and Germany was cemented. Since Germany
helped Italy with raw materials, Mussolini was willing to downgrade his
opposition to Hitler's designs on Austria. This German-Italian rapprochement
was further enhanced by close collaboration in the Spanish Civil War which
began in July 1936. Italy and Germany intervened on the side of Franco's
insurgents, thus assuring their ultimate victory over the Republicans, who
were supported by the Soviet Union.
E. March into the Rhineland
During the Abyssinian campaign, and under cover of the political confusion
it had caused, Hitler had risked a highly dangerous move: on March 7, 1936
German troops marched into the Rhineland, designated a demilitarized zone by
the Treaty of Versailles. Hitler justified this new breach of the treaty by
arguing that he had to protect Germany from the effect of the Franco-Soviet
Pact, which had been ratified by the French Chamber on February 27, and
which was incompatible with the Locarno Treaty. Once again he was proved
right against all warnings, particularly from his generals. The only outcome
was paper protests.
F. "Anti-Comintern Pact"
The first phase of Nazi foreign policy ended with a further spectacular
success. On November 25, 1936 Hitler signed a treaty with Japan-the
so-called "Anti-Comintern Pact"-for their common struggle against the Third
International. Its propaganda effect was greater than its political
substance. But it paved the way for future German-Japanese collaboration
with far-reaching possibilities.
In less than four years Hitler had achieved full freedom of movement for
Germany and had practically invalidated the Treaty of Versailles. He had
shattered the system of European collective pacts initiated by France, and
he bad gained the partnership of Poland, Italy and Japan with his policy of
bilateral agreements. He might have been taken for a politician of genius.
But only if one accepted the basic assumption of his political actions: the
conviction that one's own nation was the most important in the world,
regardless of the claims of any other, and the assumption that breach of
contract and the use of force were legitimate means of policy.
III. The Path to War
But what were the aims of Nazism? Hitler never stopped assuring the world
that he wanted peace. But all the measures he took to restore the economy,
to raise production, increase exports, secure raw materials, build up new
industries and establish the self-sufficiency of agriculture were designed
for war. Did Hitler fear an attack on Germany? On September 9, 1936 at
Nuremberg, announcing the second Four-Year Plan, which summarized economic
preparations for war, he spoke of the possibility of a "Bolshevik invasion,"
but this was in the tradition of Nazi propaganda and, at this time, purely
demagogic. Or did Hitler himself want a war? We know now that by the autumn
of 1937, if not earlier, he was prepared to "rink using force," i.e., to
make war at a relatively short notice.
A. Hossbach Memorandum
For on November 5, 1937, in the presence of the foreign Minister, von
Neurath, Hitler explained his plans for external policy to his closest
military collaborators, Blomberg, Fritsch, Raeder and Goering, in an address
lasting several hours, of which his Wehrmacht aide-de-camp Hossbach made a
memorandum a few days later. He underlined the importance of his statement
by adding that he "wished it to be regarded as his testament in case of
death." He defined the aim of German policy as an effort to "safeguard and
preserve the nation and its growth." This, he said, could only be achieved
by a solution of the problem of "overcrowding," that is by achieving greater
"living space" for the German people, not in colonial territories overseas,
but "in the immediate proximity of the Reich in Europe."
There was only one way of achieving this, the way of force." It was his
"irrevocable decision" to solve Germany's "living space problem,"-at the
latest by 1943-1945, but earlier still if the political circumstances were
favorable, and perhaps even in 1938. In any event, strategic considerations
made the overthrow and annexation of Czechoslovakia and Austria the
inevitable first steps.
Some of his remarks may have been intended to spur his hesitant generals to
speed up military preparations: nevertheless, the further course of events
showed Hitler to have been expressing the ideas which guided his future
policy. An entirely new note had been struck. He foresaw the development of
German rearmament to the point where he could include military force in his
plans for foreign policy. From now on he seems to have waited impatiently
for the chance to play the card of Germany's military might accumulated over
the past five years.
There is no doubt that Hitler was extremely displeased when Blomberg and
Fritsch replied to his address with political and military objections
expressing a sharp and fundamental difference of views. Their reaction was
but one of a series of disappointments which he had suffered in his
relations with the command of the armed forces. These relations had
certainly not developed in accordance with the close understanding behind
his decisions in the summer of 1934.
Since assuming supreme command after the death of Hindenburg he had met with
resistance by the generals on several occasions. He felt they had been too
hesitant in carrying out rearmament. They had entertained political doubts
about the moment for introducing conscription, and technical doubts as to
how it was to be carried out. They had advised against the occupation of the
Rhineland as being still too great a risk. The doubts of Blomberg and
Fritsch about his plans for conquest were but one more instance of that
caution and hesitancy which irritated him because it hindered him in his
plans, and which he despised because he had already so often triumphed over
B. Blomberg and Fritsch
In the light of his experiences Hitler decided on sweeping changes in the
personnel of the Wehrmacht leadership, and they took place in highly
questionable circumstances at the beginning of 1938. The occasion was a
scandal involving the War Minister von Blomberg. In January 1938 Blomberg
had married for a second time. Hitler and Goering had been witnesses at his
wedding. Shortly afterwards it became known that Blomberg's bride was a lady
of doubtful reputation. On January 24 Goering presented the evidence to
Hitler, who decided that Blomberg must relinquish his office. Hitler seems
to have been surprised at this turn of affairs, which scarcely left him with
But the matter did not rest there. By January 25 a Gestapo file was lying on
Hitler's desk, incriminating von Fritsch, the Commander-in-Chief of the
Army, in homosexual activities. Hitler had seen the same file before, in
1936. At that time he had refused to take up the matter, and ordered the
file to be destroyed. We now know that at this juncture Hitler himself had
the file reconstructed in order to bring about the fall of Fritsch, who was
already highly inconvenient in his present position and would be even more
so as Blomberg's successor. Hitler relieved Fritsch of his command and
forced him to resign from the Army even before a court of inquiry could
investigate the matter.
As it tuned out, the court of inquiry established Fritsch's innocence. His
defence was able to prove that the incriminating evidence did not concern
him, but an ex-officer by the name of von Frisch. In the end the Gestapo
witness, a man with several previous convictions, admitted that he had lied
under pressure of Gestapo threats. But the verdict did nothing to revoke
Fritsch's dismissal. He bad the greatest difficulty in being
rehabilitated-and then not publicly-by Hitler. On the outbreak of war he
accompanied his regiment without power of command, seeking his death, which
he met before Warsaw.
The driving personalities behind this odious game were Goering. Himmler and
Heydrich. Goering pursued personal aims: he wanted Blomberg's job, or at
least the joint supreme command of the Army and Air Force. Himmler and
Heydrich, in the interests of the SS, welcomed anything which would
compromise its military rival and weaken the position of the military
leadership. The trio was furthermore backed by the Party's old resentment of
the Army. The Party welcomed the downfall of Blomberg and Fritsch as a kind
of revenge for the Wehrmacht's triumph of June 30 1934. The Wehrmacht
accepted it without a murmur. But Goering's hopes were not fulfilled and he
had to be content with his appointment as a Field-Marshal.
C. Creation of OKW
Hitler had used the situation which chance and calculation had placed into
his hands to make decisive inroads upon the Wehrmacht's independence. He
performed a final act of ''coordination," hoping thereby to do away with
some of the resistance which had become so troublesome. He abolished the
office of War Minister, in which Blomberg had hitherto deputized for Hitler
as supreme commander of the armed forces, and assumed this designation
himself. From the Wehrmacht Office in the War Ministry he formed the
Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (or OKW) to be his personal staff as supreme
At the same time the new Supreme Command took over the War Ministry's work.
He appointed as its chief a compliant general, Keitel, who had succeeded
Reichenau as Chief of the Wehrmacht Office in 1935. General von Brauchitsch
became Fritsch's successor as Commander-in-Chief of the Army in
circumstances which made him dependent on Hitler.
This new arrangement was strangely incongruous in so far as the newly
created OKW was not made senior to the commanders of the three services but
equal with them. This led to countless rivalries and was to have disastrous
consequences in the war. But it was entirely in accordance with Hitler's
principle o of creating within the same department competing authorities, so
as to counteract the influence of individuals and lend greater weight to his
D. Ribbentrop replaces von Neurath
Hitler combined the changes in the command of the armed forces with a whole
series of personnel changes in the military and diplomatic field. The most
important of these concerned the Foreign Ministry. Joachim von Ribbentrop,
his diplomatic adviser of long standing and former Ambassador tn London,
became Foreign Minister-a change which meant that at last the Wilhelmstrasse
too was included in the "co-ordination." To cover this with a smoke-screen,
Hitler invented a "Privy Cabinet Council," ostensibly to advise him on
foreign affairs, and made the outgoing Foreign Minister von Neurath, its
President. The Council never once met.
The German public was not informed of what had happened behind the scenes.
On February 4, 1938 a communique merely announced the changes that had been
made. How Hitler wanted them to be received becomes clear from two sentences
entered in the diary of General Alfred Jodl, Keitel's closest collaborator,
on January 31, 1938:
"Führer wants to divert the searchlights from the Wehrmacht, keep
Europe on tenterhooks, and by recasting various roles give the impression of
a concentration of strength, not of a moment of weakness. Schuschnigg must
not take courage but fright."
During the impending visit of the Austrian Chancellor, Hitler meant to carry
the question of German-Austrian unification a decisive step farther. A few
weeks after the crisis over Blomberg and Fritsch he marched into Austria.