Last week we talked about the origins of fascism and our two key examples were Italy and Germany. Today, we want to bring together our understanding of fascism with Germany’s behavior between 1933 and 1945. As we have already discussed, Germany was a revisionist power from 1919 on. Rather than integrating Germany into a European-wide security system, the Versailles Treaty isolated Germany and repeatedly inflamed national passions. Had Germany been only as powerful as, say, Rumania, Versailles’ effects would not have been a problem. Germany was, however, Western Europe’s most powerful state, and as such its revisionist agenda could only cause trouble. When Germany’s power and grievances were wedded to an aggressive nationalist ideology, European and worldwide instability was the result. Things were supposed to have gone differently. The Treaty of Versailles was supposed to end all wars. It didn’t, and the main reason for this was the Nazi German state. When war broke out in 1939, no one in Europe, including many if not most Germans, wanted another war. In fact, no one could even conceive of another war. Unfortunately, Adolf Hitler understood this state of affairs better than anyone else, and as the head of a powerful and revisionist power, he was in a position to exploit the possibilities it presented.
In 1933, Adolf Hitler came to power in a country that confronted significant internal and external problems. Internally, its economy and politics were a disaster. Externally, it had a list of foreign policy grievances. Hitler would address all of Germany’s problems—one way or another. Internally, Hitler alleviated many of Germany’s economic problems, at least in the short term. To that end, he used public works programs, a massive rearmament program, and public scapegoating of Jews to convince Germans that he was their economic savior. Hitler’s economic policies were unsustainable over the long term, however, though most people failed to recognize that fact. And the personal effect on Germany’s Jews, who were often super patriots, was horrible. (One of history’s more vicious ironies is that contrary to what the Nazis may have believed, one effect of German unification was that Jews in central and eastern Europe embraced the glory of German culture completely, becoming the most conservative of German nationalists. On the one hand, many Jews were deeply sorry to see Imperial Germany disappear. There were Jews in Berlin, for example, who celebrated the Kaiser’s birthday every year, during the Weimar era. On the other hand, German Jews cultivated their own national hierarchy within German nationalism. Newly arrived Jews from eastern Europe who spoke German with a Yiddish accent and clung to Jewish culinary and sartorial traditions were referred to dismissively as Ostjuden, or Eastern Jews.) These realities aside, Hitler was not content with simply rearranging Germany in accord with his demented ideas about race; he also wanted to rework the post-World War I order. To understand how he achieved this, we must turn to the successes of his diplomacy and the failures of his counterparts’ diplomacy.
Adolf Hitler was a genius when it came to judging the strength of other people’s will. He understood that no one in Europe, least of all its major statesmen, was willing to challenge his demands. Rather than stand up to Hitler, other countries responded by trying to understand the nature of his grievances before giving him everything that he wanted. This was known as appeasement and was supposedly a more rational way of doing business. For many European policy makers war was the ultimate evil, which meant that it was better to talk and yield than enforce one’s will and risk war. (The term appeasement has an interesting history of its own. Before WWII it had a positive connotation. After WWII, of course, this word has taken on a negative connotation. Whatever else states may do, they do not appease other states, for fear that it will lead to further bad behavior.) Thus, Adolf Hitler brilliantly exploited the Western powers’ desire to avoid war by constantly threatening them with it.
In this diplomatic environment, revising the most onerous aspects of the Versailles treaty was the first item on Hitler’s agenda. His first big move came in 1933, when he pulled Germany out of the League of Nations. Germany had only been admitted in 1926 as part of the rapprochement unfolding between Germany and France. This was a fatal move for the League, since it now lacked Europe’s most powerful state. (It already lacked the world’s greatest power, the United States, since the U.S. Senate had refused to ratify American entry into the League.) The world had already seen how weak the League was, when Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931 and the League fulminated while doing nothing. This set the diplomatic tone for the 1930s. The Soviet Union gained admission in 1934, but by then Italy had stopped attending council meetings and would go even further. In 1935, Benito Mussolini sent troops into Ethiopia, essentially daring the League to do something about it. It did nothing. In 1939, the Soviet Union invaded Finland and was expelled from the League for its behavior. Stalin did not mind, and over the next few pages we will see exactly why.
An example of the League’s fundamental weakness was its relations with Germany and the Soviet Union. During the 1920s both countries were diplomatic pariahs. Germany had been saddled with responsibility for the First World War and was denied admission into the League of Nations. The Soviets, for their part, were reviled for being Communist. None of the other major powers wanted to do business with a state whose official ideology called for violent overthrow of the capitalist system. Thus, the two biggest powers on the Continent were isolated and angry, a situation that ultimately drove them together. In 1922, Germany and Russia reached a series of agreements now called retrospectively the Treaty of Rapallo. The essence of the deal was that Germany offered military training and industrial expertise to the Soviets in exchange for the right to train its armed forces and test its weapons on Russian soil. Thus, although the German army remained small, its tactics became ever more lethal, and when Adolf Hitler increased military spending in the 1930s, the German armed forces quickly became the world’s premier fighting force.
Against this backdrop we can better understand Hitler’s aggressive policies. His next step after leaving the League was to gain full control of German territory. In 1936, Hitler remilitarized the Rhineland by sending in German troops. The Treaty of Versailles had demilitarized the Rhineland, in response to France’s pronounced desire to secure its borders. This was a legacy of France’s defeat in 1870-1. When Prussia unified Germany, one practical outcome was that the French could not counter German power by themselves. They needed allies, and if they lacked them at any given moment, had to choose between backing down, or suffering military defeat. Nonetheless, Hitler’s move into the Rhineland is often considered one of the greatest lost opportunities in the history of international relations. Although the fundamental strategic situation was in Germany’s favor, the remilitarization was a giant bluff. Hitler knew that at that moment Germany was not strong enough militarily to oppose a concerted allied response. German troops were, in fact, given orders to retreat at the slightest sign of resistance. The allies, not knowing this, did nothing, and German troops entered the area amidst great fanfare.
Hitler’s political triumph had important diplomatic consequences. The Belgians were a French ally and had agreed to build an extension of the Maginot Line through their country to the sea. France’s lack of nerve and German diplomatic pressure, however, convinced the Belgians not only to cancel the alliance but also to pull out of the Maginot project. (In France’s defense, we should also note that the British had made quite clear that they were unwilling to go to war over the Rhineland issue.) The upshot was that France’s great defensive network simply stopped at the Belgian border, which made it easy for the Germans to sweep around it later and pin the French army against its own defenses. The French could have simply completed the line within their own borders, but here two problems arose. First, the French feared that cutting off the Belgians would drive them into Germany’s arms. Second, France completing the original section had already strained French finances and the potential diplomatic consequences of completing it made the cost seem extreme.
From the Rhineland Hitler then turned to the next great diplomatic problem, Austria. Prussia had denied Austria a central role in German politics by its victory at the Battle of Königgrätz in 1866. Thus, from 1866 until 1918, Austria was a multi-national state centered on a German-speaking region that was excluded from Germany. After World War I, however, Austria-Hungary was broken up into a series of smaller states, the largest among which were Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia. Austria was now a rump state without access to the ocean, and many believed that it was too small and isolated to be economically viability. This impression was false. Today’s Austria has exactly the same boundaries and is quite wealthy. Austria’s main problems were the Treaty of Versailles, which saddled Austria with a reparations bill that it could not pay, and the general economic crisis of the 1920s.
Adolf Hitler was, of course, an Austrian native and adding it to his great German Reich was a heady dream. Austria’s political economic problems made it an easy target; like Weimar Germany, it had descended into chaos during the 1920s and 30s, which pushed Austrian politics to political extremes, with rival left-wing and right-wing armies clashing in the streets of Vienna. One result of these troubles was the victory of authoritarianism. Austria had always been a conservative region, but during the 1930s politicians such as Engelbert Dollfuss arose who believed that authoritarianism was the only way to save Austria. Dollfuss was a member of the conservative Christian Social Party and became Chancellor in 1932. Borrowing heavily from Italian fascism he founded an authoritarian umbrella organization called the Fatherland Front (Vaterländische Front) that was supposed to unite all the conservative parties against the left. Dollfuss kept the left at bay, but he was not able to control the right.
As the Nazi party became more powerful in Germany, so too did the Austrian Nazis. In 1934, the Nazis held a coup and executed Dollfuss. The coup failed, because Benito Mussolini forced Adolf Hitler to disavow the conspirators. Dollfuss’ conservative successor, Kurt von Schuschnigg enjoyed more success early on in controlling the right, but was unable to maintain Austrian independence against German pressure. In 1936, the Austrian government signed an agreement that unified its foreign policy with Germany’s. In February 1938, Schuschnigg went to Berchtesgaden intent on getting Adolf Hitler to stop supporting Nazi plots in Austria. Adolf Hitler humiliated Schuschnigg, flying into a wild rage and demanding a series of unpalatable concessions, before sending him home. Schuschnigg tried to save his government by calling for a plebiscite on unification with Germany. Hitler responded quickly, however, ordering an invasion in March 1938. This is what the Germans call Anschluss: Austria was now part of the German Reich. In spite of the Versailles treaty’s specific prohibition of such unification, the allies did nothing while Nazi Germany revised Europe’s territorial arrangements.
As before, however, Hitler remained unsatisfied. Another one of the great historical problems left over from WWI was the presence of roughly 3 million Germans in Czechoslovakia. Created after the breakup of Austria-Hungary, Czechoslovakia was a multi-national state that included Czechs, Slovaks, and Hungarians, in addition to many Germans in a mountainous area known as the Sudetenland. Here we really begin to see Hitler’s genius for bluster as a negotiating tactic. He began by making vague threats against the Czechoslovak state, trumping up charges about discrimination and violence against the resident German minority. It is instructive to note that Hitler never actually asked for anything nor threatened any specific action. This would have made his position a matter of negotiation. No, instead he raged against a small neighboring state and waited for the western allies to give him everything he wanted—which, of course, they promptly did. In late September 1938, Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister flew to Munich and betrayed the Czechoslovak state in the name of peace. Together with the French Premier, Édouard Daladier, Chamberlain gave Hitler everything he wanted, turning the entire Sudetenland over to Germany. Chamberlain then returned to Britain triumphantly waving the treaty he and Hitler had signed, proclaiming that it guaranteed “peace in our time.” In exchange, the Czechs got a promise that the British would defend what was left of their state. It was an empty promise.
One could argue that the Sudetenland was full of Germans and if they wanted to be in Germany they should be allowed to join. (National self-determination was, after all, a basic principle behind Wilson’s Fourteen Points, though it had been unevenly applied with respect to Germans.) But whether there were sufficient Germans in the Sudetenland to justify this is beside the point, since true national determination by the Germans was a practical impossibility. Without the Bohemian Mountains under its control, the Czech state had no defensible borders. Hitler’s charge that Germans were being sorely mistreated was bogus, but the Sudeten Germans did have legitimate grievances, as local Czech officials openly practiced ethnic discrimination against the German minority. Discontent over their treatment led to the rise of a German ethnic party called the Sudeten German Home Front (Sudentendeutsche Heimatfront) under the leadership of a man named Konrad Heinlein. Heinlein actively campaigned for German annexation of the Sudetenland and in 1935 his party received 2/3 of the Sudeten German vote, making it the second largest party in the Czech chamber. Under domestic and foreign pressure, the Czech government yielded to almost all German and Sudeten demands, granting the Sudetenland almost complete autonomy. Unfortunately, there was no reaching an accommodation with Adolf Hitler, especially after the Munich agreement. Annexing the Sudetenland was not Hitler’s real goal; he wanted all of Czechoslovakia. On March 14, 1939, Nazi troops invaded the rest of Czechoslovakia while the West again did nothing. Britain did not want war, and France, fearful of confronting Germany all alone, let her Czech ally be dismantled.
Having reached this point we need to consider how Hitler’s triumphs emboldened not only Hitler but also all Germans. Hitler saw each of these victories as vindication of his foresight and diplomatic skills; that is, his head kept getting bigger. Domestically, too, Hitler was looking more and more like a genius. He had remilitarized German soil, brought distant Germans back into the Reich, and increased employment, and all of this was done without firing a shot. One historian has even suggested that had Hitler never gone to war, he would be considered an even greater statesman that Bismarck.
As you already know, this was hardly the end for Hitler, since the problem of Poland still existed. As part of the Versailles treaty a Polish state with access to the sea was created. The problem was, however, that in order to give this state access to the sea, the new Poland had to go through majority-German territories, specifically the city of Danzig. Thus, East Prussia was split away from Germany and Danzig was declared a free international city. The Danzig issue was a real thorn in the German nationalist eye. Not only was German territory being taken away, but it was also given to the Poles, a people whom many Germans had never liked. The feeling was, of course, mutual. The Poles, proud of their new independence, refused to return the so-called Polish Corridor, even though they did not really need it. Thus, national pride kept both sides from cutting a reasonable deal.
This was not, however, Poland’s real problem. The bigger issue was that both Germany and the Soviet Union had designs on Poland. On August 23, 1939, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union reached a wide-ranging accord on matters such as the future of Poland and economic cooperation. The accord had two parts. The first was a non-aggression pact that was to last for ten years and included a trade agreement that was very favorable to Germany. The second carved up Eastern Europe. Germany got 2/3 of Poland, while Russia took the other third, as well the Baltic States and Finland. This accord shocked the world. Mortal enemies had signed it. That Nazism and Communism, two totalizing and hostile worldviews with a deep antipathy to each other, could make a deal threw everybody’s worldview out of whack. Moreover, these two states had agreed to make the Polish state disappear from the map once again, and there was nothing that anyone could do about it. On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland and occupied roughly half the country. Immediately thereafter, the Soviet Union invaded from the East not only taking over the rest of Poland but also snuffing out the Baltic States’ experiment with democratic freedom. When Britain and France responded with a declaration of war, World War II was officially underway.
The war’s early months of the war are best characterized by two German words, Blitzkrieg and Sitzkrieg. Blitzkrieg, or lightning war, was a method of attack that Germany had perfected during the Spanish Civil war, and which relied on heavy aerial bombardment and concentrated use of armor. Germany’s Blitzkrieg in Poland was savage and quick, as Nazi dive-bombers and artillery hammered Polish cities into submission, and German armored columns smashed brave Polish resistance. The battle for Poland war lasted ten days.
Confronted with yet another act of naked aggression, Britain and France were finally forced to fight a war their policies had encouraged. Only, once again, neither side could demonstrate sufficient will to fight. Instead, British and French troops hunkered down behind the Maginot line, expecting that the German army would be smashed on the complicated network of defenses. Thus, began what the Germans called Sitzkrieg, or sitting war, as the Brits and the French did nothing, while the Germans on the other side of the Rhine waited until the Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe were finished with Poland in the East.
Although he did not send troops to attack the Western Allies right away, Hitler kept busy in other areas. In April 1940, he launched attacks on Denmark and Norway. Denmark could offer no resistance and surrendered immediately. In Norway, the Germans launched a large amphibious invasion, but suffered heavy initial losses, due to determined Norwegian resistance. Nonetheless, German airpower was so overwhelming that the Norwegian resistance collapsed within a few days. On May 9 and 10, Hitler turned west, invading Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. This invasion allowed German troops to swing around the Maginot line and cut off a host of British and French troops, who then fled to Dunkirk, where they were evacuated on anything that would float. The German army’s failure to pursue the retreating troops to the beach was an enormous blunder, as basically the entire French and British armies were evacuated to fight another day. The equipment that the allies left behind could be replaced, but dead soldiers and POW’s could not. The decision to halt the advance would haunt the German war effort, though on June 14 German troops still entered Paris. On June 22, France surrendered. The north of France became occupied territory and the south became a puppet state, led by Marshal Pétain in the city of Vichy.
The problem for Hitler now was, however, that the Brits refused to give up. Germany had no way to invade the British Isles, so it hoped that air attacks would force the Brits to their knees. Unfortunately for the Nazis, Winston Churchill had become Prime Minister on May 11, 1940, and under his leadership that simply was not going to happen. This set the stage for the great air war that became known as the Battle of Britain. The battle’s early stages went rather well for the Germans. German bombing raids concentrated on airfields, factories and radar installations, which almost did bring Britain to its knees. But this was not working fast enough for the German leadership, so the Germans changed tactics, turning on British cities—the idea being that a terror campaign would break the British will. This shift in tactics allowed the British to survive, since they could now produce enough aircraft to meet their losses, find German planes with their radar, and send their own planes up on airfields that were still working. The Germans, by contrast, were flying over hostile territory. By the summer of 1941, the Brits had clearly won this battle; like Napoleon before him, Adolf Hitler found that invading Britain was an impossible task. A strategic stalemate ensued that would only be altered by the entry of two greater powers into the war, the United States and the Soviet Union. We will trace these events and what they meant over the next two lectures.