How German policy from 1935 to March 1938 lead to increased tension in Europe

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Last updated: November 13, 2019

Hitler came to power in 1933 and became Fuhrer in 1934. He had made it clear in his book entitled ‘Mein Kampf’ that he wanted to create a new, stronger Germany and become the dominant power in Europe. In order to do this he had several aims. The first was to over throw the Treaty of Versailles and recover the land lost in 1919. He wanted to unite all German-speaking people in a new ‘Greater Germany’. Hitler also wanted to give all Germans ‘lebensraum’ or living space, as he believed that Germany was crowded and did not have enough food or raw materials.In order to do this he would have to conquer Czechoslovakia, Poland and Russia. He believed that the conquest of ‘inferior’ Slavs would show the world that the Aryans were the master race.

Hitler knew that most of this would lead to a war but felt that it would be a good thing to strengthen the nation. However, he also knew that Germany hadn’t re-armed and wasn’t strong enough to fight a war. This meant that Hitler would have to tread slowly. Hitler had pretended to believe in peace in the earlier years and said he was looking for the ‘ rectification of Germanys just grievances’.

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Many people in Europe, especially the British, believed that the Treaty of Versailles had been too harsh on the Germans and so sympathised with Hitler. He wanted to see how much he could get away with. He was prepared to back down if the opposition seemed strong until Germany was capable of winning a war. As part of the Treaty of Versailles, the Saar Coalfield was given to the League of Nations for 15 years.

After this, a plebiscite was to be held. This was organised by the League of Nations in January 1935. The people could vote whether to stay under the control of the League of Nations, join France or rejoin Germany.Luckily for Hitler, the people voted to rejoin Germany. He got he Saar back without having to do any actual work, which boosted his confidence.

As a result, Hitler announced conscription in Germany. He waited for a reaction from the League but none came. The only country to protest was France, but no action was taken. This encouraged Hitler to try more. Hitler realised that he needed to divide France and Britain, especially since Britain, France and Italy had pledged to protect the Treaty of Versailles at Stressa in 1935.

In a bid to do this, Germany asked to discuss the size of her navy with Britain.Hitler was clever in that he was playing on Britain’s opinions to the Treaty of Versailles. The Hoare-Ribbentrop agreement had said that the German Navy should be no more than 35% of the size of Britain’s Navy. The British government were surprised at Hitler’s reasonableness. They knew that a Navy of that size would be of no threat to them and so agreed to Hitler’s request. This, in effect, was breaking the Treaty of Versailles. This was called the Anglo-German Naval Agreement.

To the rest of Europe, it seemed that Britain was accepting that Hitler had a right to rearm. France and Italy were not happy with the British.Hitler had succeeded in causing tension between Britain and her allies. By the end of 1935, Hitler felt even more confident and became more ambitious. March 1936 saw Hitler taking a risk.

He sent all 30,000 German troops to re-occupy the Rhineland, again breaching the Treaty of Versailles and the Larnanco Treaty. Germany was not sure if she could get away with such a risk, and so the armies were instructed to withdraw if they met any opposition. However, the German generals opposed the idea as they thought that France would resist. They were almost right; unfortunately for the French, they were not strong enough to tackle Germany alone.They had many internal political difficulties; the government were weak and not prepared to take any decisive action. They asked the British government for help but they refused saying that Germany was only taking action ‘in her own back yard’.

Therefore, nothing was done to stop Hitler reclaiming the Rhineland. So far, Hitler had started to reach to of his aims; Germany had expanded and strengthened the Seigfried line of fortifications. He had also blatantly broken the Treaty of Versailles – and gotten away with it. He succeeded in causing bed feelings between Britain and her allies.His confidence continued to grow.

Hitler felt that France and Britain would not be prepared to fight Germany. His popularity also increased. The army generals in particular felt confident that Hitler would be successful.

The Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936. The European Powers signed a non-intervention pact, meaning that they all agreed not to help either side in the war. However, Italy and Germany broke the agreement and sent troops into Spain to assist the Nationalists. The Germans and Italians sent over 10,000 of their troops, weapons and Germany’s best air force.Mussolini, the fascist leader in Italy at the time, no longer wanted to stay friendly with Britain or France and so attacked Abyssinia, part of the British Empire, to increase the size if the Italian Empire.

Germany, being enemies of Britain and France, supported the actions of Mussolini. As a result, Mussolini was able to capture Abyssinia and withdraw from the League of Nations. Germany wanted fellow fascists to control Spain. Hitler wanted to give his new army and air force experience in war as well as try out the new weapons.

Germany rightly believed that Britain and France would do nothing but protest against these actions.As a result of this, Italy and Germany helped enable Franco to win control of Spain by 1939. Franco had received no help from Britain or France, something that he would not forget. He was grateful to and friendly with the other fascist leaders, particularly Hitler. Hitler got to try out his new weapons and armies, perhaps in preparation for a war against the allies. Japan, a nationalistic, expansionist, anti-communist country were impressed by what they had seen from the German forces in Spain and so signed an ‘anti-comminten’ pact with Germany in 1936.The following year, Italy joined the pact and the Rome-Berlin-Tokyo Axis was formed. Germany now had tow major allies.

Hitler had achieved his aims yet again. He was even more confident for the next step in his plan. Now that Hitler was friendly with Mussolini, it became possible to revive the plans to unite Germany with Austria, to create a new greater Germany.

In November 1937 Hitler outlined plans to his generals to conquer Austria and Czechoslovakia – a vital source of raw materials. In January 1938, Hitler orders the Nazi’s in Austria to increase the violence against the Jews and other minorities.The following month, Hitler summoned the Austrian Chancellor Schuschnigg to Berlin and demanded a share in the government for the Austrian Nazi’s. Hitler threatened Schuschnigg with a German invasion of Austria. Consequently, Schuschnigg agreed to meet Hitler’s demands, perhaps to escape a war. On March 9th, Schuschnigg tried to out do Hitler by arranging a vote in Austria as to whether or not the people wanted to unite with Germany. Since 90% of the Austrian population were German, the outcome was obvious.

However, Schuschnigg still hoped the people would vote against uniting with Germany. When Hitler found out he was furious. He threatened to invade Austria unless Shuschnigg resigned. Schuschnigg made one final plea for help to Britain and France. They refused. Schuschnigg had no choice but to resign. The next day the new Austrian-Nazi Government invited the German Nazis over to ‘restore law and order’ in Austria.

The following day, March 13th, Hitler announced an anschluss (union) with Austria. He held a plebiscite the next month where 98% of the population voted to unite with Germany.Austria had now become a German province. Why didn’t Britain or France answer Schuschnigg’s plea for help? Britain still thought that the Treaty of Versailles had been very unfair to Germany. They also thought that Austria, being surrounded by land, could not have been helped even if they had wanted to.

France, being the weak country that they were, would not act without Britain. Britain also thought that Germany had not actually invaded Austria – they had simply entered the country, so Hitler had done nothing wrong.The only wrong Hitler did do was to break the Treaty of Versailles, which did not seem to matter to anybody anymore. Throughout 1933-1935, Britain followed a policy of appeasement. This meant agreeing to the reasonable demands of Germany to avoid a war.

Chamberlain, the British Prime minister, stuck to this policy to avoid any situation in which he may have to fight Japan in the far east at the same time as fighting Germany in the west. Chamberlain believed that a war with Germany would cause appalling damage to Britain, and so appeasement was an easier and safer option.

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