Conscription Restored, March 1935. Rhineland Re-occupied, March 1936. Annexation of Austria, March 1938. Sudetenland Crisis, 1938. Czechoslovakia Dismembered. Results of Czechoslovakia’s Disruption. Italian Invasion of Albania, April 1939.
4. GERMANY'S FOREIGN POLICIES
Restored, March 1935
of the aggressions, leading step by step to open war in September 1939,
were the outcome of the deliberate policy of Hitler…
By 1933 and 1934 he had established his supremacy in Germany.
Thenceforward he aimed to wipe out the stigma placed upon Germany
by the Treaty of Versailles, to recover territories that that Treaty had
taken away, and to re-establish Germany as one of the great Powers of
The first step towards these ends was taken on 16th March 1935 when the German Government issued a decree restoring universal military service. The decree was accompanied by a statement that when, under compulsion, Germany had submitted to disarmament, the Allies had declared this to be part of a policy of general disarmament, yet this general policy had never been carried out. (Indeed, on the day previous to Germany’s decree, France had increased the length of service in her own Army.) Germany therefore refused any longer to remain disarmed while surrounded by neighbours whose own armaments were increasing. Whatever may be thought of this justification for German rearmament, the action unquestionably was a breach of the Treaty of Versailles. Moreover, by its very nature, more breaches were likely to follow: clearly Germany’s purpose was to use military force in order to assert herself as a power in Europe, and sooner or later this would involve a clash with some other nation that thought its security threatened.
Re-occupied, March 1936
had to wait less than twelve months for the first evidence of the use to
which Hitler intended to put his new army.
On 7th March 1936 he sent it to re-occupy the Rhineland,
up to the French frontier, which the Treaty of Versailles had
It was a risky undertaking, and Hitler’s own generals had advised
strongly against it.
The German Army, new and small, could have been routed by the
French alone; and a combination of neighbouring armies could have
overwhelmed Germany and reduced her to a new powerlessness.
It was one of Hitler’s early gambles, and his guess proved to be
None of the former Allies felt certain that in a crisis the others
would give support, and none was willing to act alone.
So Hitler not only achieved his immediate objective but he was
encouraged to use similar methods elsewhere in the future.
of the most serious aspects of the re-occupation of the Rhineland was that
it was a breach of the Locarno Agreements of 1925.
Hitler might claim that Germany was no longer bound by the
Versailles Treaty because it had been imposed by force, but she could
offer no such reason for ignoring the Locarno Pact to which she had agreed
freely on equal terms with her fellow signatories France, Britain, Italy,
Indeed the originator of the Pact had been Germany’s Foreign
If, to suit his convenience, Hitler could thus violate a promise
freely given, the nations could have little confidence in any future
assurances that he might give.
Without such confidence in the good faith of nations, there could
be no secure peace.
As time passed, and as Hitler became stronger, he grew bolder in aggression. In April 1938 Germany annexed Austria; in September 1938 she claimed the Sudeten areas of Czechoslovakia which in consequence was dismembered and destroyed; and in March 1939 Hitler began his attack on Poland, and it was in order to make good their assurances to Poland that Britain and France finally went to war in September 1939.
of Austria, March 1938
between Germany and Austria was not a new idea.
The union (Anschluss) movement went back to the days
immediately following the First World War, and the initiative towards it
had then come not from Germany but from Austria.
Early in 1919 the Austrian Assembly declared that Austria was a
democratic republic and proclaimed the union of Austria with the German
There were strong arguments, economic and national, in favour of
such a union; but neighbouring Powers, particularly France and
Czechoslovakia, fearing that the combined State would become dangerously
powerful, vigorously opposed the union.
Consequently the Treaty of St Germain, of September 1919, forbade
any modification of Austrian independence.
In spite of this, there always had been people in both Germany and
Austria in favour of the Anschluss,
attack on Austrian independence, of which some account was given above,
had other motives.
His was a policy of German aggrandizement which was helped by the
growth of an Austrian Nazi Party.
In 1934 an attempt of the Nazis to seize power resulted in the
death of Chancellor Dollfuss but failed in its main objective.
This was due mainly to Mussolini’s support of Austria.
But the formation of the Rome-Berlin Axis in 1936 altered the whole
balance of political power in central Europe.
Thereafter it could be only a question of time before Hitler
renewed his attack on Austria.
1938 he felt himself strong enough to act, and it was difficult to see who
was likely to stop him.
The League of Nations, though nominally still in existence, was in
practice defunct: the United States still abstained from it; Japan had
withdrawn from membership in March 1933, Germany in October 1933, and
Italy in 1937.
In the earlier threats to peace, the League had done nothing
France, the only Continental nation that might be disposed to
challenge Germany, would be barred geographically by Germany and Italy
from contact with Austria.
Moreover, Austria would not be of one mind in opposing union with
Germany: the Austrian Nazi Party had a good deal of support and was the
counterpart of the old Anschluss movement.
Thus Hitler could feel confident that the time was ripe to use his
new army to overrun Austria.
February 1938 the Austrian Chancellor Schuschnigg received an invitation
to visit Hitler at the latter’s residence at Berchtesgaden in Bavaria.
Schuschnigg, imagining this to be a normal meeting for friendly
consultation, found himself browbeaten by Hitler who, after a long
harangue, delivered an ultimatum: a Nazi named Seyss-Inquart was to be
appointed Austrian Minister for Public Security (that is, in charge of the
police); all imprisoned Nazis were to be released; and a hundred
German officers were to be accepted for service in the Austrian Army.
After some resistance Schuschnigg was forced to sign his acceptance
and he was given three days during which to carry out the terms of the
He then was allowed to return to Vienna.
There he tried to escape from the net, but no help was forthcoming
either from within Austria or from outside.
9th March Schuschnigg announced the holding of a plebiscite on the
question of Austrian independence.
This was angrily forbidden by Hitler.
On 11th March Seyss-Inquart was appointed Austrian Chancellor in
place of Schuschnigg.
By that time German soldiers already were crossing the frontier,
and on 12th March Vienna was a German-occupied city.
Two days later Hitler arrived in the city, greeted with all the
usual paraphernalia of Nazidom: masses of saluting people, swastikas hung
or flown from every possible point (including the cathedral spire), and
peals of church bells.
Austria as a separate State no longer
existed: it became the ‘Ostmark’ of Germany, and Seyss-Inquart was
The Austrian national bank was absorbed by the Reichsbank, and the
Austrian Army by the Reichswehr.
German troops plundered shops and other premises almost at will.
There were wholesale arrests of non-Nazi Austrians, and Jews in
particular were subject to terrible privations and persecution and
deportation to concentration camps.
Clearly Hitler, who was capable of perpetrating such violence,
would be capable of any action that suited his convenience or ambition.
Events showed that each success enlarged his violent ideas and
inflamed his passion for further power.
His next victim was Czechoslovakia.
In the previous chapter some explanation was given of the minority
problem of Germans living in Sudetenland and of the effect that
Germany’s seizure of Austria would have upon Czechoslovakia: she would
be vulnerable to any foreign attack because her important western half
would be surrounded by German-controlled territory.
Sudetenland was the ridge of mountain territory on the borders of Bohemia
and Moravia in which lived 3 million German-speaking people formerly
subjects of Austria. The Czechoslovakian Government had been wise enough to
treat this minority group liberally: it had full parliamentary
representation and equal political facilities.
On the other hand most of the public officials were Czechs, and
this was liable to produce local friction. Nevertheless
it is true that the Sudeten Germans were treated much more generously than
minorities usually were, and there need never have been serious trouble if
it had not been stirred up from the outside.
first open sign of political movement among the Sudetens was the formation
of the Sudeten-German Party in 1935 under the leadership of Konrad Henlein.
At first this was not allied to the German Nazi Party, but in so
far as it emphasized the rights of Germans, there was much common ground
between the followers of Hitler and of Henlein.
Here was fertile soil to work when the proper season should arrive.
For the success of German intervention,
much would depend upon the attitude of other Powers. France held one of the keys to the situation.
It had been with French encouragement that the Little Entente had
been formed, and during the years 1924-27 France made alliances with each
of the three members Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and Rumania.
Consequently, if Hitler intended to interfere in Czechoslovakia he
would need to calculate the chances of French intervention.
As the years passed after 1935 the Sudetenland movement grew
stronger in its pro-German ideas until in April 1938 Henlein boldly
demanded self-government for the Sudetenland areas.
This was Hitler’s moment.
It was also a moment when France was powerless to take effective
action. In that same month a new ministry came into office in
France, following another which had lasted only four weeks. The new Premier, Daladier, was a man of some ability
and vigour (and was to achieve the somewhat remarkable feat of remaining
in office for two years, that is, until March 1940), but his Foreign
Minister, Bonnet, was a peace-at-any-price man.
Bonnet was content to hitch his policy to that of the British
Premier, Neville Chamberlain, whose policy of ‘appeasement’ tallied
closely with Bonnet’s. Because it became clear that France
would not honour her treaty obligations, Czechoslovakia’s fellow-members
in the Little Entente felt it unsafe to support her.
Thus the events of 1938 make up a deplorable story in which France
and Britain, yielding to one after another of Hitler’s demands, step by
step gave away Czechoslovakia’s territories and rights until her
defences were completely destroyed and she could be broken up at
the middle months of 1938 the political atmosphere in Europe was working
to a climax. It was a
speech by Hitler on 12th September which kindled the Sudeten blaze.
He declared: ‘Three and a half million Germans are being
oppressed in the Czech State .
. . If
these tortured souls cannot obtain rights and help by themselves, they can
obtain them from us.’ Riots
in the Sudetenland caused the Czech Government to declare martial law, and
Henlein fled to Germany.
explosive was the situation that Neville Chamberlain, the British Premier,
decided to try what personal negotiations with Hitler would effect.
Three times within a fortnight Chamberlain flew to meet Hitler,
each time making concessions in the hope that they would satisfy
Hitler’s ambitions and so would avoid a general war.
September Chamberlain was at Hitler’s mountain residence at
Berchtesgaden. There it was agreed that the ‘principle of
self-determination’ should be applied.
That meant that the inhabitants of the Sudetenland should be
allowed to determine by their votes whether they would prefer to remain in
Czechoslovakia or to be transferred to Germany.
New boundaries were to be drawn according to the results of the
voting. This plan was
accepted by the British Government and by the French; and Britain and
France were to guarantee the new boundaries.
In order to convey to the Fuhrer this
acceptance, and to settle its details, Chamberlain flew to Godesburg on
the Rhine on 22nd September.
To his dismay he found that during the interval the situation had
changed drastically in two respects.
First, Hitler had abandoned
all ideas of a plebiscite and was demanding that German soldiers should
march at once into the German areas of the Sudetenland. It would seem that, imagining that the British and the
French would reject the Berchtesgaden proposals, he had expected that he
would have a pretext for the war that he was itching to wage. Second, Hungary and Poland also had put forward claims
to areas of Czechoslovakia in which their languages were spoken, and these
claims were supported by Hitler.
Hitler fixed 1st October as the date on which the German
occupation would take place. Chamberlain
returned to London a defeated negotiator.
France ordered the partial mobilization of her Army, and the
British Admiralty ordered the mobilization of the Royal Navy.
September Mussolini intervened to ask Hitler to postpone the occupation of
the Sudetenland for twenty-four hours beyond 1st October. The result was that on 29th September
Chamberlain flew to Germany a third time.
A four-Power Conference was held at Munich where Chamberlain,
Daladier, Hitler, and Mussolini met to settle the question of war or
peace. Perhaps the most
notable fact about the Munich Conference was the absence from it of a
Russian delegate. Russia
had been ignored deliberately.
Thus four statesmen conferred on the fate of Czechoslovakia and, on
30th September, they drew up the Munich Agreement.
In essence it conceded all Hitler’s demands with the addition of
certain face-saving clauses. The
German-Czechoslovakian frontier was to be fixed not by Germans but by
representatives of the four Powers and of Czechoslovakia; inhabitants of
the border areas were to be allowed to move into another adjoining area if
they so wished; Britain and France would guarantee the new boundaries; and
Hitler moved his occupation date from 1st to 10th October.
Momentarily Europe breathed freely.
Munich had saved the world from war.
But the sense of relief was brief.
France had defaulted from her treaty undertakings with
had no such undertakings and therefore could not be accused of treachery.
But these Powers together had submitted completely to Hitler’s
blustering threats, and in the process had consented to watch one of the
most truly democratic countries in
Europe while it was crushed by a
history had shown that Hitler’s assurance that: ‘This is the last
territorial claim I shall make in Europe’ was not likely to be kept any
longer than his other promises had been.
Winston Churchill’s speech in Parliament proved to be only too
true: ‘Terrible words have for the time being been pronounced against
the western democracies: Thou art weighed in the balances and found
For Czechoslovakia the result of Munich was
disastrous. In spite of
British and French guarantees, the Germany Army was allowed to move into
Sudetenland and to work its will.
Slovakia became self-governing; the Poles sliced off a piece of
Moravia; and the Hungarians took Ruthenia from Slovakia.
In October Benesh resigned as President of Czechoslovakia and went
into exile. In March
1939 the process of disintegration was completed: the German Army overran
what was left of Czechoslovakia; they occupied Prague; and the great Skoda
armament works henceforward would produce for Germany.
While Slovakia became a separate and nominally self-governing
State, what remained of Bohemia and Moravia became a Protectorate of the
Results of Czechoslovakia’s
virtual annexation of Czechoslovakia was in line with others of Hitler’s
aggressions in that it showed a complete disregard of his own pledged
word. But in one
important respect it was different: hitherto Hitler had claimed that his
purpose was to give justice to Germans in the Rhineland and in Sudetenland.
His treatment of Czechoslovakia, however, was the annexation of
non-German territory and people.
Inevitably the rest of Europe asked where this process would stop.
Hitler’s use of the name ‘Third German Reich’ carried
people’s minds back to the Reich which had been the Holy Roman Empire:
this had stretched across the Alps into Italy and across the Rhine into
France. It would seem
that there was no limit to Hitler’s ambitions, that his real object was Lebensraum:
living-space for Germans and therefore that no country would be safe from
his aggressions, least of all countries like France and Britain that had
colonial empires ideal for occupation by an expanding population.
On two grounds, therefore,
Czechoslovakia’s disruption changed the attitude even of peace-loving
Britain and France. First,
Hitler’s flagrant breach of solemn promises at Munich was an insult to
his fellow-signatories so that even Chamberlain swung from further
fear for their own security drove Britain and France to feverish military
preparations. In April 1939 Britain adopted a measure of military
conscription: never before in her history had she done so in time of
peace. Perhaps the best
that can be said for the Munich agreement is that it allowed a little time
during which preparations could begin for Hitler’s next threat to peace.
Invasion of Albania, April 1939
invasion and annexation of Ethiopia in 1935 had been an example to Hitler
in making foreign conquests. Since
then Hitler had outclassed his instructor: he had annexed Austria,
Sudetenland, and the Slavic part of Czechoslovakia.
Mussolini felt himself being left behind and his prestige in danger
of being overshadowed. To
adjust this was undoubtedly one of his reasons for invading Albania.
During the spring of 1939 considerable
troop concentrations took place in the neighbourhood of Bari and Brindisi,
ports on the ‘heel’ of Italy.
On Good Friday, 7th April 1939, transports carried these
troops across to Albania. Within
twenty-four hours they had seized the capital, Tirana, and King Zog and
his family fled to Greece. Italy
annexed the country, and King Victor Emmanuel proclaimed himself King of
Albania. It was an
action following closely the pattern set in Ethiopia.
RUSSIA AND POLAND
Germany’s last, and decisive, act of
aggression was her invasion of Poland.
To understand the nature of this event, we need to consider the
situation not only in Poland itself but also of Poland in relation to
of the outstanding and unalterable characteristics of the Nazi creed was
bitter hatred of Communism and therefore of Soviet Russia.
The natural result should have been common action between Russia
and the Western Powers to check Hitler as he went from aggression to
aggression. This did
not happen, and the responsibility for Russia’s isolation lay mostly
with the West. Britain,
and to a less degree France, disliked Communism only a little less than
Hitler did, because Communist dictatorship was the opposite of Western
democracy. Also, in
spite of all that the Five-Year Plans had done to develop the economic and
military resources of Russia, there was a widespread belief that she would
not be able to sustain a large-scale war.
The Russians, on their part, mistrusted
both the integrity and the effectiveness of the West, and with some
watching the feebleness and indecision of Britain and France in face of
Hitler’s threats, could not but conclude that such nations would not be
reliable allies for herself. More
than this, the Russians believed that the four capitalist Powers, during
their negotiations at Munich, from which Russia had been excluded, had
agreed secretly upon a policy against Communist Russia.
Alongside this, many Russians suspected that the Western Powers
would be glad to see Germany and Russia exhausting themselves fighting
each other while the Westerners preserved their resources ready to make war on the victor.
Nevertheless it was Nazi Germany that
Russia chiefly feared. In
any conflict between them, the all-important factor would be Poland which
was a buffer-State separating one from the other.
It was essential to Russian security that Germany should not be
allowed to absorb or dismember Poland as she had done Czechoslovakia. If German troops were allowed to mass behind Poland’s
eastern frontier they would be able to launch an attack on Russia with all
the advantages of a planned offensive.
Russia’s policy towards Poland was to reverse this policy: she
insisted that any treaty must include a proviso that would give to her the
right, immediately any act of German aggression took place, to send troops
into Poland and the Baltic States as a defence against a
German invasion of Russia.
The Poles always refused to consider any such proposal because they
were afraid that if the Russians were once established in Polish territory
they would remain after the war ended.
Thus, while there was hatred between the
Nazi-Fascist Axis and Communist Russia, there was no confidence between
Russia and the Western democracies.
Stalin therefore began to think of obtaining at least a temporary
measure of security by making his own terms with Hitler.
Germany and Poland
the meantime Hitler’s own experiences were leading to a similar
conclusion. This also
arose from his dealings with Poland. Under the Treaty of Versailles, Poland was given access
to the sea by a ‘corridor’ of territory much of which had been German
which reached the Baltic at Danzig, though Danzig was to be a free city
under League administration. One
of Hitler’s earliest aims when he attained power was to annex Danzig to
Germany. Towards the end of 1934 Nazis in Danzig obtained
control of the city and then ignored its constitution and the authority of
the League. From time
to time Hitler’s speeches included demands for the transfer of Danzig
and for a strip of land across the Corridor so that road and rail
communication could be built to link East Prussia to the rest of the
Reich. After German
successes against Austria and Czechoslovakia in 1938, Hitler renewed these
It was on this point that Britain and
France at last took a stand. In
March 1939 Britain gave to Poland a guarantee that if her independence was
threatened, so that Poland felt compelled to use force to resist, the
British would ‘lend to the Polish Government all the support in their
power’. In one
respect it was strange that Britain, having watched the dissolution of
Austria and Czechoslovakia without moving a soldier to prevent it, should
give such a pledge to Poland whose remoteness would make it impossible for
Britain to help her if she were attacked.
The fact was that Chamberlain had become disillusioned at last:
Hitler’s repeated breaches of promises were felt to be deliberate
humiliations of the Prime
Minister himself and of Britain.
The point had been reached at which even Chamberlain would yield no
On Hitler’s side there was one fatal
obstacle to his occupation of Poland: he was confident that he could
defeat the Poles; Britain was too remote to be effective in Poland’s
defence; France would follow Britain; but what would Russia do?
If Russia supported Poland the result might be in doubt, and
Russian support of Poland would give time and encouragement to Germany’s
enemies to attack from the west.
There seemed only one answer: reluctantly Hitler decided that he
must make temporary terms with Stalin as a preliminary to attacking
Non-Aggression Pact, 23rd August 1939
Stalin and Hitler, each from his own standpoint and each in his own
interests, had reached a common conclusion the need for a Russo-German
Pact. Having reached
it, they lost no time in carrying it into effect.
After brief preliminary negotiations, on 23rd August Ribbentrop,
the German Foreign Minister, flew to Moscow and that same day a Pact was
its terms the two countries undertook that neither would go to war against
the other and they agreed on a line of demarcation between their
respective spheres of influence in Poland.
The Pact was to remain valid for ten years.
more important than the details of the clauses was the fact of the
agreement itself. It was the complete reversal of what had been
fundamental in the political creeds of the German Nazis and of the Russian
Communists. It was the
one event that the diplomatists of the world had known could never happen.
It has been called truly ‘the greatest diplomatic bombshell of
the century’ which ‘exploded over a stunned Europe’.
The immediate, practical effect of the Pact
was to clear the way for an offensive against Poland.
Once again, there would be no difficulty in finding or inventing
reasons for hostilities. It
was claimed that Germans in Poland were being brutally ill-treated, that
Polish troops had fired across the frontier, and so forth.
Without any formal declaration of war, on 1st September
1939 German troops and planes crossed the frontier into Poland.
On 3rd September Britain, in accordance with her
guarantee to Poland, declared war on Germany and France, somewhat
hesitatingly, followed her lead.
The Second World War had begun.
S Reed Brett, European History 1900-1960 (1967)