Germany path to World War II can be seemn in a series of stepd begun even before the seizure of power by the NAZIs. The Germany military even in Weimar Republic was violating the terms of the Versailles Peace Treaty. Many Germans and not just NAZIs viewed the Versailles Treaty as unfair and affornt to national honor. NAZI Germany withdrew from the Laeague of Nations soon after Hiltler seized power in 1933, but the next few years were spent in supressing domestic oppositon and steadily excluding Jews from national life. The NAZIs next proceeded with a series of steps aimed a regaining control of parts of Gernmany that had been occupied or of German populations placed under non-German rule. The NAZIs renounced the provisions of the Versailles Treaty limiting arms production in 1935. The NAZIs remilitarized the Rhineland in 1936 and carried out the Anchluss with Austria in early 1938. These actions could be seen as domestic German matters. The next target was Czecheslovakia which had been created by the Versilles Peace Treaty. Hitler in 1938 demanded the Sudetenland in Czecheslovakia which had a minority German population. The British and French gave in at talks held in Munich. Then the Germans crossed over the line of regaining German populations. The NAZIs then seized the rest of Czecheslovakia in March 1939, areas without major German poulations. The Germans beginning in 1936 were also active in Spain helping Franco establish a Fascist regime. The defenseless Basque village of Guernica was the first European city to be destroyed by the Luftwaffe.
Although called a World War, World War I was more of a European war. Although the Central Powers defeated Tsarist Russia and was victorious in the East. the war ended in 1918 when the German spring offensive conducted with the forces relased from the Eastern Front failed. The Allied armies strengthen by the American Expoditionay Force defeated the vaunted German Army in the field. The Allies then made a serious mistake. They refused to allow the Imperial German Army to surrender. Rather they insisted only in dealing with a republican government. This gave rise to a lie the NAZIs promoteted ceasely, that the German Army had not been defeated, but haf been sold out by Jews and Socialists associated with the new Weimar Republic.
Germany's path to World War II can be seen in a series of steps begun even before the seizure of power by the NAZIs. In many ways, World war II was a continuation of World War I after a 20 years armistace. The Versailles Peace Treaty ending World War I was signed on June 28, 1919, about 7 months after the Armistace stopping the fighting on November 11, 1918. It had a huge impact on the international status of Germany, impacting the country territorially, militarily, and econimically. Germany was made a pariah country and
largely blamed for the start of the War. Of major significance, the Germany being published was the Grmany of the Weimar Republic and not Imperial Germany as the Kaiser had abdigated. As a result, the domestic German oposition to the changes, including the territorial changes, came to be directed at the Weimar Republic and not the Imperial Government that had cnducted the War. The NAZIs and other right-wing groups were to saddle demoncratic politicans with the "shame of Versailles". Germany under the terms of the Treaty suffered many consequences. The navy and merchant marine was lost. The battleships had to be turned over the the Allies. The battleships ships in fact steamped into the British naval base at Scappa Flow. The German captains, however, rather than turning them over to the
British, scuttled them. Germany lost her African and Pacific colonies. Along with territorial losses in Europe were important natural resources. The German Army
was reduced to virtual impotence. And the country was sattled with immense retributions. A critical elemement in the treaty was the principle of national self
determination promoted by President Wilson. This resulted in the creatiion of a large number of small, weak states in Eastern Europe. It must be said that the the
Versailles Treaty was not as onerous as the Treaty of Breast-Litovsk (1918) imposed on the Russians. Still it was undenuably harsh. Many historians see it at the
first step toward World War II.
German rearmament is generally conceived as a program initiated by the NAZIs after Hitler seized power (1933). Many Germans and not just NAZIs viewed the Versailles Treaty as unfair and affornt to national honor. The Germany military even in Weimar Republic was violating the terms of the Versailles Peace Treaty. There were a range of programs devrloped by the German Army to expand the military beyond the limits agreed to under the Versailles Agreement. One of the major such programs was a rotational system which involved officers and non-commissioned officers rotating active duty with the Reichwehr so only about 100,000 men were on active duty at any given time. Thus a much larger body of men were associated with the Army than that provided for in the Versailles agreement. Other subterfuges were adopted so the actual number of men exceeded 100,000. It is difficult to determine what the axtual size of the Reichwehr was. Military equipment was secretly tested in the Soviet Union during the 1920s under the Rappolo Agreement. Early German Panzers were actually tested in Russia. German companies set up operations in other countries like the Netherlands where airplanes were built. German companies wirked on submarines in Japan. The Army promoted glider clubs where many future Luftwaffe pilots learned basic flying skills. As rockets were not mentiined in thecVersailles Treaty, the Army began work on rockets which was to lead to the V-2. The Army conducted many of the programs in secret. It is unclear to what extent the German Government was informed. The programs were of such an extent that if the Government was not aware of some of the projecrs it was because officials did not want to sk to many questions. Of cours in the last years of the Weimar Republic, Field Marshall Hindenburg was elected president. As a result, Hitler and the NAZIs did not begin from scratch when they seized power in 1933, but inherited a professiinal military that was substantially larger than known to the Allies with an advanced weapons development program.
The NAZI's after the July 1932 election were the largest German political party, but did not have a majority in the Reichstag. President Hindenburg refused to appoint Hitler Chancellor and instead turned to Papen. The political situatation remain unstable. The newly elected Reichstag in eptember voted no confidence in the Papen government. The
November 1932 Reichstag election results were: NAZI Party 196 seats, Social Democrats 121 seats, The Communist Party 100 seats, and the Centre Party 70 seats. The NAZIs lost a few seats, but continued to be the biggest party in the Reichstag. Hitler continued to demand to be appointed Chancellor, Hindenburg refused saying that he said he did not trust Hitler to rule democratically. Hindenburg preferred Papen, but the Army objected. Hindenburg turned to General Kurt von Schleicher who lasted 57 days. Finally Hidenberg, running out of options, turned to Hitler whom he appointed January 30, 1933. Hidenberg attempted to control Hitler by placing Papen as vice-chancellor and surrounding Hitler with moderate ministers who supported Papen. Hitler bycarefully selecting his cabinent posts was within days gaining control. To be sure of success, however, he needed a mahority in the Reichstag. He insisted on a new election. In the middle of the elections the Reichstag went up in flames on Februarry 27, 1933. A Dutch Communist was blamed. Historins still debate who was responsible. Many blamed the NAZIs, but it appears that neither they or the Communist Party was responsible. [Davidson, pp. 17-22.] Hitler took full advantage of the situation and claimed that the fire was a Communist plot, and
persuaded Hindenburg to sign an emergency Law for the Protection of the People and State. The law suspended people's rights and allowed the Nazis to arrest many Communists and others. Fear of Communism gained the NAZIs additional support at the polls. The March 1933 election results were: NAZI Party 288 seats, Social Democrats 120 seats, Communist Party 81 seats, Centre Party 73 seats, and Others 85 seats. The NAZIs still did not have a majority. Over half of the voters chose other parties. The Nationalist Party, however, decided to support the NAZIs. Their 53 deputies added to the 288 NAZI deputies provided the slim majority Hitler needed. Hitler immediately put an Enabling Act before the Reichstag and asked the members to vote for it. The Enabling Law (the NAZIs called it the Law for the Removal of Distress frommPeople and Reich) gave Hitler as Chancellor the power to make laws by decree for the next 4 years without Reichstag approval. NAZI SA storm troopers lined the entrance to the Reichstag to intimidate the opposition delegated. Only 94 members Social Democrat deputies (the Communists had been arrested) voted against the Enabling Law. Hitler now had the legal authority to reshape Germany.
The League of Nations was the first international organization established oin the basis of collective security to preserve world peace. It was created by the
Versailles and other peace treaties ending World War I. The unbrialded nationalism that had inflamed Europe in the early 20th century was widely seen as a major
cause of World War I. The horendous losses in the War convinced many Europeans that there must never be another war. A League of Nations as proposed by
President Wilson was seen as a way of preventing war in the future through a system of collective security. The Laeague was a culminatioin of other political thinkers
who had lated the intelectual background, men like the duc de Sully and Immanuel Kant. There had also been the development of international organizations in the
19th century with more limited objectives. These included the International Telegraphic Union (1865) and the Universal Postal Union (1874). The Red Cross, the
Hague Conferences, and the Permanent Court of Arbitration (Hague Tribunal) were all organizations that before World War I were drawing nations together in an
expanding web of international relations. President Wilson was unable to convince the American Senate to ratify the Versailles Peace Treaty which included a
provision for the League as its leading provision. This weakened the League from the onset as did the exclusion of the new Soviet Union. Germany was allowed to join the Lague, but
NAZI Germany withdrew from the Laeague of Nations soon after Hiltler seized power in 1933. The NAZIs saw the League as a creature of the hated Versilles Treaty. The victorious Allied nations, Britain and France, during the 1930s refuse to insist on decisive action against Japanese militarists and Italian and German Fascism. Had the Allies acted
decisely, World War II with all its horrors could have been prevented. Winston Churchill in political exile at the time came toi call World War II as the unecessary war because decissive action through the League could have prevented the War. [Churchill] President Roosevelt as a vice presidebtial candidate in 1920 had been a strong supporter of U.S. membership in the League. While this never occurred, the President stringly promoted the League's successor, the United Nations, although he died before the U.N charter was signed in 1945.
The first few years were spent in supressing domestic oppositon and steadily excluding Jews from national life. Himmler organized the concentration camp system which effectively muzzled domestic opposition. The represion of the Jews also began early after the NAZI seizure of power. One necessary step was for Hitler to murder his old coleahue Earnst Roem, commander if the SA. The Wehrmact insisted on this as the Roem was assembling a private army. This sas accomplished by Himmer and the SS in the Night of the Long Knives (1934). A military expansion program was secretly initiated in violation of the Versailles treatgy. Once Hitler and the NAZIs felt that their domestic power was secured and the military expansion began, the NAZIs next proceeded with a series of steps aimed a regaining control of parts of Gernmany that had been occupied or of German populations placed under non-German rule.
Many historians stress the Recooupation of the Rhineland (1936) as the beginning of the NAZI steps toward war. In fact this was made possible in 1936 and the failure of the allies to react. The NAZIs renounced the provisions of the Versailles Treaty limiting arms production in 1935. The NAZI rearmament program was thus made public, although the dimensions of the program was not yet apparent. The NAZIs in 1935 reintroduced conscription and the Anglo-German Naval Agreement is secretly arranged.
The Saar was a small territory in southwestern Germany with a population of about 800,000 people in 1933. It is located in southwestern Germany and is bounded by France on the south, Luxembourg in the west, and the German Rhineland-Palatinate on the north and east. The capital is Saarbrücken, a city on the Saar River. The Saarland was not a region that had any notable cohesion or historical role before World War I. The population was largely German-speaking Catholics. The region is named after the Saar River which rises in the
French Vosges Mountains and is located west of the Rhine. Important coal mines are located in the Saarland and is heavily industrialized. After World War I, the Treaty of Versailles made the Saarland an autonomous territory to be administered by France until 1935 when a plebecite would determine its final status. This reflected the general pribciple of national self-determination employed by the Allies after the War. The Versailles and other treaties which ended the War did not determine the final disposition of several territories. This was left to a series of plebecites. The population in the Saarland voted in a plebiscite to rejoin Germany which at the time meant NAZI Germany (January 1935). The vote probably reflected a the population's desire to rejoin Germany and not a referendum on the NAZIs. It is likely that the vote would have gone to rekoin Germany regardless of the government in Berlin. One author describes it as a choice for "ethno-unification". The Saarlanders were the first German speakers to rejoin Reich under NAZI rule. The whole process was totally legal under the terms of the Versailles Treaty. Hitler who at the time was attempting to establish an image as a moderate leader, took the opportunity to renounce any further claims on France (January 1934).
The Rhineland had been permanently demilitarized under the terms of the Versailles Peace Treaty ending World War I. This was one of the restictions that Hitler railed against in his speeches. The situation in the Rhineland was different than in Saarland. French authorities had been in control of the Saarland. Germany was in control of the Rhineland, they were simply not allowed to militarize it. Hitler's developing relationship with Mussolini by 1936 had ensured that Italy would not object. By 1936 the question was what France would do. The French agreement wth the Soviets in 1936 gave Hitler a pretext for action. This allowed Hitler the ability to appeal to the anti-Communist forces in Britain and France to dnounce the Locarno Pact. Hitler had reason to believe that the French would not react. [Davidson, p. 131.] The Whermacht was ordered to march into the Rhineland March 7, 1936). The Whermacht force sent uinto the Rhineland was weak one. They were under orders to withdraw if the British and French responded militarily. A military response from Britain and France could have dramatically changed 20th century history. Germany at the time did not have the capability of wageing a major war. And there was Poland and Czechoslovakia in the east if the Allies struck in the west. Hitler had gambled nd was proven right. Neither France or Britain reacted with force. Many in both countries, especially pacifist spokespersons, charged that the Versailles Treaty was unfair to Germany. The Allies meerly submitted diplomatic protests. This was Hitler's second flagrant violation of the Versailles Treaty. The first was the reintroiduction of conscription. Of course he had already begun the secret rearmanent program which was a violation of the Treaty and details on the rearmament program became apparent in 1936. Perhaps the major outcome of Hitler's gamble was the imense prestige it brought him domestically. The German people approved his action in the Third NAZI Referendum (March 1936).
The Germans beginning in 1936 were also active in Spain helping Franco establish a Fascist regime. Gighting began in Spain in July 1936. Spanish Generals Francisco Franco and Quiepo de Llano revolted against a new left-wing Republican Government elected in Madrid. Franco appealed for help. Hitler immeduately ordered Luftwaffe transport plans to
transport Franco's loyalist troops in Morroco to participate in the fighting. He saw a left-wing government in Madrid as harful to the Reich, aiding the French policy of encirclement. [Davidson, pp. 57-58.] Both Italy and Germany were soon sending arms and men to the loyalists and provided important air elements. The defenseless Basque village of Guernica was the first European city to be destroyed by the Luftwaffe. The democracies and League of Nations respnded with an arms embargo. Only the Soviets aided the Republic.
Hitler convened a secreat meeting of the major military and foreign policy officials in his government (November 5, 1937). The neeting was held in the Chancellery. Present were Gôring (Luftwaffe Commander), Raeder (Navy Commander), Von Blomberg (War Minister), Von Fritsch (Wehrmacht Commander), abd Von Neurath (Foreign Minister). Notably Himmler (commander of the SS) was not there. The SS was not yet a major military force. Hitler subjected the assembled officials to a 4 hour lecture. The layed out his argument in Mein Kampf and insisted that the "problem od space" had to be confronted. He told them that once the decession to resolve the problem of space was taken, the question became only as to when was the most favorable time and circumstance for applying force. Hitler added that this meant resolving the issue by 1943-45. He indicated that after that time conditions could only resolve unfavorably for Germany. He said that Austria and Czechoslovakia would come first and he made it clear that his goals in Czechoslovakia were not limited to the Sudetenland. Many of the officals were apauled by the implications of Hitler's plans. Clearly he was talking about war. Several of the officials (Blombrg. Fritsch, and Neurath) disagreed with Hitler and told him so. They were surprised that he really seriously prepared to persue what he had constantly described. Hitler for his part was disturbed with the opposition to his plans. Note the number of officiakls with the "von" in their name--meaning the old conservative aristocracy. Hitler coming from the lower middle-class hated the pretensions of the aristocracy. He was changing Germsany into a new class-less society. And those that opposed him in this meetin were soon to lose power to those that were willing to carry out his orders rather thn to question them. [Fest, pp.539-41.]
There was considerable sentiment in both Germany and Austria after World War I to join the two German-speaking states. France adamently refused. Hitler after seizing power revived the issues. Austrain NAZIs were encouraged to promote the idea. Hitler and Austrian NAZIs throughout 1937 demanded an Anschluss with Austria. Belaegered
Austrian Chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg on March 9, 1938, announced plans to hold a plebiscite on the independence of Austria. Hitler used this opportunity to take action against the Austrian State. The NAZIs with the Wehrmacht on the border pressed Schuschnigg was pressed to resign. The NAZI surrogate, Arthur Seyss-Inquart, took over the chancellorship and formed a new government dominated by the Austrian NAZIs. The German Wehrmacht and the SS, armed with list of NAZI opponents, crossed the German-Austrian frontier. Hitler on March 13, speaking before a jubilent crowd in Linz, announced the "Anschluss" (Annexation) of Austria into the German Reich. Jouous celebrations occurred throught Austria. Even while the celebrations were going on, the SS and local NAZIs began rounding up those who had opposed the NAZIs. Violence occured against the Jews. Jewish students and professors were attacked in universities. Jews at random were dragged into the streets to scrun thed sidewalks on theor hands and knees--surounded by taunting crowds.
The next target was Czecheslovakia which had beeen created by the Versailles Peace Treaty. After the Anchluss, Hitler began to escalate his tirades against Czecheslovakia, claiming that the erhnic Germans in the Sudetenland were being mistreated. The NAZI rearmament program, the remilitarization of the Rhineland and the Anchluss with Austria came as a shock to Czecheslovakia. Even more so, the lack of response from Britain and France. The Czechs who had defensive alliance with France were prepared to fight. Even with the Anchluss, many Europeans chose to see the NAZI actions as domestic German matters. This changed with Hitler's next target--Czecheslovakia. Hitler in 1938 demanded the Sudetenland in Czecheslovakia which had a minority German population. Neville Chamberlin, the British Prime Miniister mused how terrible it was that war should be threatened by a "... quarel in a far away country by people of which we know little." A prominent member of
the British parliament displayed even more ignoramce when he told the press, "Why should we bother with those gypsies in the Balkans?", meaning the Czechs who were of course not located in the Balkans. In the end, The British and French gave in at talks held in Munich. Vhamberlain flew back to London and stepping off the plane waved the agreement signed ny Herr Hitler which he assured the waiting repoters guaranteed "Peace in our time." Churchill was apauled. Most British anf French people were releaved. One European leader, Soviet Marshall Stalin, who was not at the conference drew the conclusion that the British and French could not be trusted as potential allies against Hitler.
Next Hitler crossed over the line of regaining German populations. The NAZIs then seized the rest of Czechoslovakia, areas without major German poulations. The Wehrmacht crossed the border and seized Prague om March 15, 1939. This was the real turning point in Hitler's policies. Until this he has carefully desguised his actions, usually by the subterfuge of returning Germans to the Reich. German propaganda could paint the Führer's sactions in such a way that they did not look like naked agression. Seizing Czechoslovakia was a different matter. When the Wehrmacht crossed the Czech frontier and then went on the Prague, it was not a German population that was seized by the Reich, but Czechs. The implivations were clear to the British and French and other Europeans. It was now crystal clear to even the appeasers that if they gave into Hitler's next demands, they would only be followed by new demands. Hitler appears to have realized this and after the eurphoria suround the entry into Prague, ordered Goebbels to instruct the press that the term "the Greater German Empire was undesirable" and should be "reserved for later occassions". [Fest, p. 573.] There were of course many Germans in the Polish corridor, but because of Hitler's seizure of Czechoslovakia, his attempt to use the ehnuc argument again would not work. The stage was set for World War II. Hitler himself was now prepared for war, although he still doubted that Britain and France wouldd actually declare war. The next month as the Reich was preparing for his 50th birthday, he instructed Ribbentrop "to invite a number of foreign guests, among them as many cowardly civilians and democrats as possible, and I will show them a parade of the most modern of all armned firces." [Fest, p. 573.]
After losing Vilinus to Poland, Lithuania lost Memel / Klaipeda which before World War I had been a part of East Prussia. There was a substantial ethnic-German population in Memel. As in the Sudetenland, they began strongly pr-NAZI, hopething that Hitler would seize the city nd return it to the Reich. Hitler ordered them to cause trouble as he had instructed the Sudetens. As a resuklt, the Lithuanian authorities had increasing trouble maintaining order in the city and were hesitant to use real force against the Germans as it might provide a pretext for a German invasion. As a result, the Lithuanians had largely lost control of the city (late-1938). Only days after seizing Czechoslovakia, Hitler moved on Memel. A Lithuanian delegation headed by Foreign Minister Juozas Urbys traveled to Berlin. There as a German naval task force was preparing to seize the city, Urbys in the early morning hours was forced to sign an agreement presented him by German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop (March 23, 1939). The Treaty of the Cession of the Memel Territory to Germany transferred the Memel to the Reich. The Lithuanians were granted a free trade zone, access to the port facilities they had built at considerable cost. Hitler accompanied a naval forece sent to reclaim Memel. Armed sailor landed to seize the city hours after the agreement was signed. This action probably would have been accepted as part of British Primeminister Chamberlain's appeasement policy because Memel it was done without military action and Memel had a large German populstion. Hitler had, however, fundamentally changed European power politics by seizing what remained of Czechoslovakia a few days earlier. .
NAZI Foreign Minister Ribbentrop and newly appointed Soviet Commissar for Foreign Affairs Molotov on August 23, 1939, signed the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact. At the time of thesigning, British and French delegations were in Moscow trying to reach an understanding with Stalin. Hewas convinced, however, that they were tring to draw him into
a war with Hitler. The two countries which until that time had been bitter foes, pledged not attack each other. Any problems developing between the two countries were to be delt with amicably. It was last for 10 years. The Pact shocked the world and the purpose was immedietly apparent. It meant that Germany could attack Poland without fear
of Soviet intervention. Thus after defeating Poland, Germany did not have to fear a full-scale European war on two fronts. What was not known at the time was that
there was a secret protocol to the pact which in effect divided Eastern Europe betwen the two countries. This protocol was discoered after the end of the World War II in 1945. The Soviets continued to deny this protocol until 1989. The NAZIs 8 days after signing the Pact invade Poland on September 1, 1939, launching World War II. Although the Soviet's did not enter the War against Britain and France, the Soviets were virtual NAZI allies as they provided large quantaies of strategic materials, especially oil. Communist parties in Britainand France opposedthe war effort. The Communst Party in America opposed President Roosevelt's efforts to expand defense spending and assist Britain and France.
The Germans more than any other military, correctly assessed the lessons of World War II. The War in Europe began on September 1, 1939 when the German blitzkrieg smashed
Poland in only a few weeks. The invasion was made possible the preceeding week when Stalin signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler. The Panzers crossed the Polish frontier on September 1 along with a devestating strike by the Luftwaffe. The Polish Army and Air Force was shattered. Britain and France declared war September 3. Within 6 days Cracow, the center of Polish nationhood, fell. Pincer movements began on September 9 to encirle the major remaining Polish forces. Once certain of Polish defeat, Stalin ordered the
Red Army to attack from the East. German and Russian forces met at Brest-Litovsk on September 18. Warsaw fell a few days later after a ruthless bombing assault.
The Blitzkrieg tactics that were to prove so devestaing in the West during 1940 were all on display in 1939. Neither the British or French showed much attention,
abscribing Polish defeat to military incompetance. The French had promissed the Poles an offensive in the West. It never came. [Fest, pp. 602-603.] Poland's fate was sealed on September 17, when the Soviets invaded Poland from the east.
Davidson, Eugene. The Unmaking of Adolf Hitler (Univesity of Missouri: Columbia, 1996), 519p.
Fest, Joachim C. Hitler (Vintage Books: New York, 1974), 844p.
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