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Nazi Germany’s Road to War
The popular conception is that Germany’s journey toward war in 1939 began in the immediate aftermath of WWI and the Paris Peace negotiations, which sought to punish, weaken and humiliate Germany. Evidence of German rejection of the Versailles Treaty could be found at all levels of the Weimar Republic and by the middle of the 1920s, Weimar leaders had begun a process of undermining some of the key principles agreed to in 1919, including the size and capacity of German armed forces and the territorial integrity of Germany’s neighboring states.
Nonetheless, war would not have come as it did if German aims remained as they were under the republican leadership, who wanted to restore Germany military capacity and re-integrate German minorities in neighboring states. These goals of the Weimar actors were mere first steps for the Nazis. Hitler and the Nazi leadership possessed a grandiose vision of German domination of Europe and a total reconfiguration of central and eastern Europe to serve German needs and desires. Without such megalomaniacal visions of a Germanic future, tensions would have persisted but war—and certainly not total war—would not have come.
Two diplomatic processes occurred throughout the mid-late 1930s that bolstered Hitler’s strategic position in prelude to war. The first was the fracturing of the alliances meant to contain German power—both the alliances between the great powers (Russia, France, and Britain) and between those great powers and the smaller European states. The second process that occurred was a gradual strengthening of the economic and diplomatic position of Germany in relation to the smaller states of Central Europe—in short, the establishment of a de facto German economic zone.
Three immediate goals motivated the Nazis with respect to its foreign policy in 1933—keeping in mind the ultimate long-term goal of dominating a huge swathe of territory to its east and achieving economic autarky and racial hierarchy. First, the Nazis wanted to move forward with rapid military expansion while at the same time not precipitating war with France or England before Germany was ready. Second, the Nazis wanted to establish a protective shield around German borders by peeling neighboring states away from French and Russian alliances. Third, the Nazis wanted to extend their power to the east and south, first into “German” zones like Austria and the Czech Sudetenland.
Throughout the first years of Nazi rule, Germany decisively broke out of the limitations imposed in Paris in 1919. Though the Weimar government had already started this process, the Nazis continued and accelerated it. Hitler withdrew from international disarmament negotiations already in 1933. Three years later, in the face of a Franco-Russia pledge of mutual support, Germany sent its military into the demilitarized Rhineland, breaking one of the central circumscriptions of Versailles. The failure of the French or British to respond to the military occupation of the Rhineland had massive consequences, the biggest of which was the move by Belgium, now convinced that the French would do little to protect it, from a French ally to a neutral territory. This meant that the French could no longer use Belgium as a staging ground for military action in Germany. It also meant that if war with Germany came, the French could not count on Belgium to cooperate in the protection of its northern flank, leaving the French defensive position (based on the two principles of the impregnable Maginot Line and the military coordination of France and Belgium) vulnerable. In sum, Hitler’s rejection of limitations on the German military and his refusal to stay within the bounds of the Paris treaties effectively meant an end to the notion of “collective security” that had reigned in Europe since WWI.
At the same time as Hitler was breaking the bounds of the Paris agreements, he was also looking to insulate Germany from preemptive attacks by the French or the Russians. French timidity over the Rhineland and Belgian neutrality seemed to take care of the western border for the time being. To the east, Hitler looked to Poland to provide a shield against possible Russian encroachment. The result of this strategy shocked Europe—in early 1934 Germany and Poland concluded a mutual reassurance agreement that stressed bilateral economic cooperation and a guarantee of borders. This agreement essentially took Poland out of the French diplomatic orbit for the time being and signaled that the Poles preferred a tighter relationship with Berlin than with Moscow. In addition, the Poles communicated to the Russians that Russian troops would not be permitted to cross Polish territory in the event of conflict with Germany, thus hamstringing the Russian ability to project its force.
Feeling relatively secure, Germany moved to strengthen its continental position, first and foremost by exerting its economic influence to the east and south. This meant forging stronger relationships with important producers of raw materials and natural allies like the Austrians. This push was incremental and multifaceted, ranging from support of General Franco in the Spanish Civil War to the German-Romanian agreement of 1937, which called for an exchange of German military equipment for Romanian oil, to the Rome-Berlin Axis, the agreement between Hitler and Mussolini that opened the door to the Nazis absorbing Austria in the so-called Anschluss in 1938.
By 1938, the Nazis had succeeded in dramatically shifting the balance of power in Europe and undermining the Versailles system. Belgium was now neutral. Poland had been coaxed out of the French sphere of influence. Austria was now part of Germany, bringing important resources and productive capacity. Italy was now a German ally rather than a French and English one. And even England had agreed to allow Germany to overstep the limitations the Paris agreements had placed on its naval fleet in hopes that Germany would act as a bulwark against Soviet Russia. Beyond Europe, the Nazis had allied with Japan in the so-called Anti-Comintern Pact, a nominally anti-communist alliance whose main goal was to contain and confront the Soviet Union on its eastern and western borders. As Germany pushed ahead in all these directions, the French responded by formalizing an alliance with Soviet Russia—an alliance that would be completely useless to French and Russian security.
In the summer of 1938, Hitler turned his attention to the nation of Czechoslovakia. Claiming that the German state was acting to protect the three million ethnic Germans living in the Czech Sudetenland, Hitler worked to pressure the Czech government and the international community to recognize the region’s autonomy. Of course, the plight of the Sudeten Germans was a pretext for Hitler to a) test the resolve of the international community and b) to weaken the Czechoslovak state in prelude to crushing it. To the first point, the French and British signaled clearly that they were not willing to go to war over the Sudetenland and agreed to the carving up of Czechoslovakia at the Munich Conference in September. This was the so-called “policy of appeasement,” so vociferously criticized by future Prime Minister Winston Churchill and by the Anti-Soviet intellectuals in the United States after WWII. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had made an understandable but massive error in Munich. He considered the territorial acquisition of the Sudetenland as Hitler’s end goal, as it might have been for traditional Weimar conservatives. But the Sudeten affair was no end—it was the means to end, the first link in a process of regional domination.
Czechoslovakia now served Nazi interests in two important ways. First, the territory contained important raw materials and vital industrial capacity to support the Nazi war machine. Second, the dying body of the Czech state itself could be used to solidify alliances with regional players. The Nazis supported Slovak independence, for example, in order to further isolate the Czechs. Parts of Czechoslovakia were given to Hungary in return for Hungarian support. A small area was given to Poland to reinforce the 1934 agreements. And, of course, the central portion of Bohemia and Moravia fell to the Nazi military in the spring of 1939 without a fight.
By the spring of 1939, it was becoming clear that Hitler’s ambitions far exceeded those of the old generation of German conservatives and Weimar political actors. It was clear that the Western powers had badly misjudged the security situation on the continent and now had little leverage or capacity to turn the tide away from Nazi hegemony in central, eastern and southern Europe. The Poles, too, saw that while they had worked to isolate the Czechs to their own advantage, the destruction of central European order and the credibility of the Western security structure now left them in the unenviable position of being alone and stranded between Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia. Still, attempts to forge a grand alliance of France, England, Russia and Poland came to nothing, as the Poles refused to align with communist Russia.
In March of 1939, in an effort to forestall further German action the British declared that they would guarantee the territorial integrity of Poland and began preparations for a possible war. The Russians approached France and England for a renewal of WWI’s Triple Alliance, though at the same time began a double game of negotiating a separate pact with Germany.
By the fall of 1939, Hitler was ready for his next step—a war of lighting attacks or wars (Blitzkrieg) against isolated and vulnerable neighbors, including Poland, the Low Countries and eventually France. Poland would be the first victim of the Nazi war machine.