Hitler’s Foreign Policy
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Hitler took these steps in order to achieve his aims:
The Saar, with its rich coalfields was an industrial area that had been taken from Germany by the Treaty of Versailles and put under the control of the League of Nations. A plebiscite (a vote by the people living in an area to decide the answer to an important question) was to be held after 15 years to decide if it was to be returned to the Germans. The plebiscite was held in January, 1935. The results of the plebiscite showed that over 90% of the population of the Saar wanted to reunite with Germany. Hitler regarded this as a great triumph because it was the first of the injustices of the Treaty of Versailles to be reversed.
One of the first things that Hitler chose to do when he came to power was to begin to increase the German Armed Forces. He did have to do this secretly at first due to the terms of the Treaty of Versailles.
The Disarmament Conference – 1932 – 1934
The conference first met in the February of 1932. The main problem that they were discussing was what to do with Germany. Germany had been involved in the League for 6 years and many people now accepted that Germany should be treated more fairly than it was said in the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. The question was, should everyone disarm to the level that Germany had been forced to or should the Germans be allowed to rearm to the level of other countries? The Germans walked out of the conference in July 1932 when the other counties refused to disarm to the level that Germany had had to. In May 1933, Hitler returned to the conference and promised that he wouldn’t rearm if ‘in five years all other nations destroyed their arms’. They refused and Hitler withdrew from the conference in October and not much later, the League of Nations.
Non-Aggression Pact with Poland 1934
Germany signed a non-aggression pact with Poland in January 1934. Hitler signed this for various reasons, including:
Hitler staged a huge military rally celebrating the armed forces of Germany in 1935. He also reintroduced conscription and announced an army of 550,000 in the same year. An Air Ministry was set up to train pilots and build 1,000 aircraft. Hitler was breaking the terms of the Treaty of Versailles but he believed that he would get away with it due to the collapse of the Disarmament Conference. He was correct.
French, Italian and British representatives meet at the town of Stresa where they agreed to co-operate to preserve the peace in Europe. They condemned the rearmament of Germany. This was known as the Stresa Front against German aggression. But it didn’t last long. It collapsed due to the Abyssinian Crisis which destroyed the relations between France, Britain and Italy, and the Anglo-German Naval Treaty.
Anglo-German Naval treaty 1935
Hitler was aware that Britain had some sympathy towards Germany regarding rearmament. Britain did believe that the terms of the treaty had been too harsh on Germany and that a strong Germany would be a buffer against Communism. In 1935, Britain signed a naval agreement with Germany. This allowed the Germans to have navy fleet up to 35% of the size of the British fleet and have the same number of submarines. The British were accepting Hitler’s breach of the Treaty.
The Remilitarisation of the Rhineland 1936
On the 7th of March, 1936 Hitler moved German troops back into the demilitarised area of the Rhineland. This was a risk for Hitler as it was clearly a breach of the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. Also, the German army consisted of only 22,000 men and if the French army had reacted then they would have been no opposition. The men were also under strict orders to withdraw if they were faced with any opposition). But, neither the French nor British did anything. The troops remained in the Rhineland.
Anschluss with Austria 1938
Hitler was Austrian born and he wished to see Germany and Austria united as one country. In 1938 he felt ready to attempt this.
The Anschluss was another breach of the Treaty of Versailles. The French and British governments did complain about it but they didn’t take any action.
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Britain followed a Policy of Appeasement from 1935 to 1938. This meant giving in to the demands that Hitler made when they believed the demands to be reasonable. The policy is mainly associated with Neville Chamberlain who was the Prime Minister of Britain from 1937 to 1940.
Arguments for Appeasement
Arguments against Appeasement
The Sudeten Crisis
German speakers who lived in Czechoslovakia lived in an area called the Sudetenland. Hitler wanted these people back.
At a meeting at Godesburg on the 22nd of September Beneš refused to accept the demands. War seemed like it was going to be a real possibility but Chamberlain appealed to Hitler to give him more time to try and find a solution.
The Munich Agreement
Neville Chamberlain made one last attempt to maintain peace on the 29th of September at the Munich Conference.
Chamberlain and Hitler also had a further meeting in Munich in which they both agreed that Britain and Germany would not go to war with each other. Hitler promised that he didn’t want the rest of Czechoslovakia. Chamberlain was treated as a hero when he returned back to Britain as he had, supposedly, saved Europe from going to war.
The results of the Munich Agreement also had quite a serious effect on the Czechoslovakians as well as Europe.
Even though the Munich Agreement had been seen as a success, both Britain and France increased the speed of their rearmament.
The collapse of Czechoslovakia, March 1939
Hitler invaded and occupied the remains of Czechoslovakia in the March of 1939. Bohemia and Moravia were now controlled by Germany. Slovakia was independent in theory; however it was largely dominated by Germany. Ruthenia was given to Hungary.
The end of appeasement
When Hitler occupied the remainder of Czechoslovakia it suggested that war was eventually going to come. The occupation of Czechoslovakia proved that the promises that Hitler had made at the Munich Agreement were not going to be upheld. Britain and France were also now rapidly rearming and they accepted that the Policy of Appeasement had obviously failed.
The Pact of Steel, May 1939
Events in the Spring of 1939 seemed to be favouring the countries with dictatorships. Hitler had forced to hand over the Baltic town of Memel as well as an area of land that was along their south-west border in March. In May, Mussolini also followed the example that Hitler had set in Czechoslovakia by invading Albania.
The Pact of Steel was signed between Hitler and Mussolini in May 1939. They promised to act together regarding future events that may take place. It was clear that Europe was now divided into two sections. Britain and Germany both began looking to the USSR as a possible source of support.
Hitler’s next target then became Poland. The Treaty of Versailles had taken away German territory and given it to the Polish, giving them access to a sea port (this was the Polish Corridor) and Danzig (which had been a German city) had also been put under League of Nations control. After Hitler’s success in Czechoslovakia, he demanded the return of the Polish Corridor and Danzig.
The French and British Governments had both been greatly humiliated by Munich and the events that had followed the conference. They decided to act decisively. They gave guarantees of support to the Poles, Greeks and Rumanians that they would support them in the case of German Aggression. They also increased their production of arms and equipment.
The role of the USSR
Britain and France had made promises that they would help to protect Poland however there was no way that they would be able to actually help Poland because of its distance from the West of Europe. The only country that would be able to prevent a German attack on Poland was the USSR. The British and French did begin talks with the USSR to try and reach an agreement.
The USSR was suspicious of the Western motives. Stalin felt that throughout the 1930s that Britain had been trying to send Hitler over to the East. Many British people did actually fear communism more than fascism. The USSR’s exclusion from the Munich Conference was evidence to prove this when the future of Czechoslovakia was also important to them. Britain and France didn’t really show any urgency in relation to making an agreement with the USSR in 1939. That made Stalin even more suspicious and contributed to him signing the Nazi-Soviet Pact. He didn’t believe that the British and French could be trusted.
The Nazi-Soviet Pact
The German Foreign Minister, Ribbentrop, and the Soviet Foreign Minister, Molotov, signed the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact on the 23rd of August 1939.
The world was shocked when the two enemies agreed not to attack each other. Hitler and Stalin represented two political systems which totally opposed each other. Although, despite their differences of beliefs on policy, Hitler and Stalin had a lot to offer each other.
Poland and the outbreak of the war
Hitler decided to invade Poland soon after Germany had signed the Nazi-Soviet Pact. He did this because:
On the 1st of September 1939, Hitler sent German troops into Poland. War was declared soon after this but both Britain and France. The USSR also invaded Poland on the 15th of September and took the territory which had been agreed in the Nazi-Soviet Pact. Poland was defeated in 6 weeks.
Hitler does have to take most of the blame for the war but it wasn’t just his fault. The other countries that were involved also held some responsibility.
The USSR had made the deal with Germany which led to the invasion of Poland as the German forces wouldn’t have to face the risk of a Soviet attack.
Poland had signed the alliance with France and Britain which then led to it trying to resist the German demands.
Britain and France’s Policy of Appeasement had led Hitler to believe that he could get away with anything (including the invasion of Poland). The alliance that they had signed with Poland had also encouraged the Poles to refuse German demands.