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There are two schools of thought on Hitler’s actions while he was ruler of the Third Reich. One says he has a blueprint of all his intended achievements1 which is based upon Mein Kampf, his autobiography written in the 1920s while the other believes that Hitler did not have any concrete plans which he followed diligently. The latter argued that he rode on opportunities and was propelled into power by circumstances rather than his own abilities. The basis of this essay is to find out which school offers a more convincing argument. Due to the wide aspects of the information and views on Hitler, the scope of discussion would be limited to Hitler’s foreign policies, the various interpretations by different historians and my own analysis. One point to note is that although A.J.P. Taylor does not fall into either of the schools, his views seems slanted towards structuralist theory which would also be discussed.
To determine whether Hitler had a plan or was just waiting to cash in on opportunities, we must look at his foreign policies implemented and his autobiography, Mein Kampf, which he wrote in 19252 while serving his prison sentence. Mein Kampf could be used as a benchmark in finding out whether Hitler was following a laid-out plan. This is because Hitler had claimed so often that all his plans and goals were actually written in Mein Kampf.
In Mein Kampf, Anschluss was described as the “first stage” in Hitler’s foreign policy plans, which, with the benefit of hindsight, is true. In a speech on 30 January 1941 in Berlin, Hitler had spoken implicitly of how his intention of abolishing the Treaty of Versailles had been declared or recorded so often that it was impossible for people to not know of his programme of expansionism until 1933, or 1935 or 1937.3 Hitler had also written in Mein Kampf that he wanted to extend the frontiers of Germany to include all Germans, regardless of where they came from.4 Prior to Anschluss, Hitler had been trying to improve his relations with Italy as the latter had interfered in Austria’s affairs in 1934 due to concerns about her “own territorial integrity”5 and. Hitler knew the importance of Italy and tried to improve relations with her. He hoped in this way, Austria would be isolated without Italy defending her. It could thus be argued that Hitler was planning for Anschluss through diplomatic preparations.
However, Anschluss also represented Hitler’s opportunism. Notes written from Goebbels’s diary revealed that Hitler had kept “his watchful eyes on opportunities for German expansion”,6 suggesting that Hitler was always waiting for opportunities to expand German territory, an argument put across by Kershaw. In fact, it was Goering who pressed Hitler to take actions.7 Kershaw argued Goering was pushing the pace for Anschluss, perhaps for economic interests over Austria.
Hitler was waiting for a crisis in Austria which would provide the excuse for German intervention and not invasion.8 This arrived on 9th March 1938, when Austrian Chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg announced a plebiscite on the independence of Austria. Hitler seized this opportunity to intervene in Austrian affairs and pressed Schuschnigg to resign. The National Socialist Arthur Seyss-Inquart took over the chancellorship and formed a new government. With Austrian National Socialists in power in Austria, troops of the German Wehrmacht and the SS crossed the German-Austrian border unopposed on the morning of 12th March 1938. The proclamation of Anschluss into the Third Reich was announced the following day.
Taylor argued this was a last minute decision and the belief that Hitler’s seizure of Austria was a deliberate plot was a myth. He argued that the crisis was one provoked by Schusschnigg and not Hitler. Kershaw also suggested the view that the decision for annexation of Austria came only after the military invasion. The German military lacked preparations when they marched from the frontier to Vienna. The fact that 70% of their vehicles broke down9 indicated clearly there was neither military preparation nor any back-up plan. Had Hitler made any plans initially, such a situation would not have occurred. Hitler’s address to the masses on the balcony of Linz town hall showed that he did not have any intentions to annex Austria.10 Kershaw suggested that the decision to annex Austria might have come from the “delirious reception” Hitler received at Linz. The Anschluss thus represented Hitler’s opportunism where the decision to annex Austria came at the last minute.
Although Hitler might have intentions to annex Austria into the German Reich long ago, it was not one of the maturing of carefully thought out plans. Thus I would find it appropriate to agree with the structuralist argue that Hitler was indeed an opportunist. Anschluss came at a point when Hitler least expected it he was smart enough to seize to seize the opportunity.
Bullock had argued that following the annexation of Austria, the annexation of Czechoslovakia would be the “second necessary step in the development of [Hitler’s] programme for securing Germany’s future”11, the second objective that was discussed during the Hossbach Conference on 5th November 1937 which outlined Hitler’s view of the future. It was agreed that Austria and Czechoslovakia should be taken simultaneously.12 However, this did not occur accordingly as planned. Anschluss with Austria had instead, improved Germany’s strategic position in central Europe13, to allow Hitler to take over Czechoslovakia should an opportunity arise. He might have thought of using Austria to “encircle the Czechs and act as a satellite in the conflicts to come”14, which in some ways indicated his programme in achieving Lebensraum for Germany.
Taylor argued that the conclusion which drawn from the Hossbach Conference showed that Hitler did not really have any concrete plans as to what he wanted. He might have been taking a gamble as usual, hoping that by some chance, he would be successful in achieving aims in his foreign policies. In a situation similar in Austria, I do agree with Taylor that the crisis over Czechoslovakia was presented to Hitler rather than him creating it. Hitler merely took advantage of the situation. According to Kershaw, it was the “fatal calculation” made by Schuschnigg that gave Hitler the chance he long awaited. Hitler seemed to be least interested in what was the next step he should undertake after the Munich conference.
Evidence showing Hitler spending time at the Berghof “drawing dream plans for the rebuilding of Linz”15 revealed perhaps he was waiting to take over Czechoslovakia through another internal crisis. This opportunity arrived in March 1939 when President of Czechoslovakia Hacha dismissed Tiso the Slovak Premier from office and subsequently declared martial law in Slovakia. The latter then appealed to Hitler for help, who was taken by surprise by the turn of events. He was leaving for Vienna to celebrate the anniversary of Anschluss.
Even Alan Bullock agreed, as he puts it, that it was not long before Hitler was able to seize the opportunity that he waited for16, showing that Hitler was relying on opportunities. Protests by the British and French ambassadors against Germany’s occupation was countered by the argument that Hitler had “acted only at the request of the Czech President, just as the occupation of Austria had been undertaken only in response to the telegram sent by Seyss-Inquart”.17 Hitler had spent no more than three days in the process of take-over lasted no more than three days and he was back in Vienna on the 18th. Both fate and opportunity had worked in favour of Hitler once again in allowing him to complete his aims.
The Hossbach memorandum was supposed to reveal Hitler’s plans and provide a summary of Hitler’s foreign policy in 1937-38. Although it indicated that Hitler had some plans in his mind, it was not very specific. Through the examination of the above examples, it would be appropriate to conclude that Hitler was an opportunist. Although much of Mein Kampf was put into action, there was doubt as to whether he was following some form of agenda or programme.
Although ideas were laid out in Mein Kampf, it did not mean that they would be implemented inevitably. There was no timescale stated as to when they would be implemented too. In the words of A.J.P. Taylor, I agree that Hitler “exploited events far more than he followed precise coherent plans”18. Alan Bullock also believes that be it planning or spontaneity, Hitler had only one programme: the gain of power19. Thus the structuralist school which stated that Hitler did not have any concrete plans to which he diligently adhered to seems more appropriate. Most of the time, Hitler was simply waiting for opportunities which he could take to achieve his aims.
1 Stephen J. Lee, “Aims of Hitler’s Foreign Policy” in “European Dictatorships 1918-1945”, (Great Britain, Routledge, Taylor &Francis Group, 2000, 2nd edition), p.217
2 A.J.P. Taylor, “Hitler: A ‘Traditional’ German Statesman”, in “Hitler and Nazi Germany”, ed.Robert G.L. Waite( United States of America, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc, 1966), p. 94
3 Alan Bullock, “The Counterfeit Peace, 1933-7” in “Hitler: A Study in Tyranny”, (Great Britain, Hamlyn Publishing Group Limited, 1973), p. 315.
4 Ibid. p. 315
5 Gerhard L. Weinberg, “German-Italian Relations and the Anschluss” in ” The Foreign Policy of Hitler’s Germany: Starting World War II, 1937-1939″, (United States of America, The University of Chicago Press Chicago and London, 1980), pp.261-262
6 Ian Kershaw, “Ceaseless Radicalization” in “Hitler 1936-1945:Nemesis”, (United States of America, W.W. Norton & Company, 2000), p.44
7 Ibid. p. 67
8 Ibid. p.67
9 Taylor, “Hitler: A ‘Traditional’ German Statesman”, p.99
10 Kershaw, “The Drive for Expansion”, p.79
11 Bullock, “From Vienna to Prague, 1938-9”, p. 439
12 Taylor, “Hitler: A ‘Traditional’ German Statesman”, p.96
13 Jackson J. Spielvogel, “Hitler’s War” in “Hitler and Nazi Germany A History”, (United States of America, Prentice Hall, 2001), p. 206
14 K. Hildebrand, “German Foreign Policy: from Revisionism to Expansionism” in “The Third Reich”, (Great Britain, George Allen & Unwin, 1984), p.30
15 Ibid. p.101
16 Bullock, “From Vienna to Prague, 1938-9”, p. 480
17 Ibid, p. 485
18 A.J.P. Taylor, “Second Thoughts” in “The Origins of the Second World War”, (Great Britain, Hamish Hamilton, 1965), p.X
19 Lee, “Aims of Hitler’s Foreign Policy”, p. 218
Bullock, Alan, “Hitler: A Study in Tyranny”, (Great Britain, Hamlyn Publishing Group Limited, 1973)
Hildebrand, K., “The Third Reich”,(Great Britain, George Allen & Unwin, 1984)
Kershaw, Ian, “Hitler 1936-1945:Nemesis”, (United States of America, W.W. Norton & Company, 2000)
Lee, Stephen J., “European Dictatorships:1918-1945”, (Great Britain, Routledge, Taylor &Francis Group, 2000, 2nd edition)
Taylor, A.J.P., “Hitler and Nazi Germany”, ed.Robert G.L. Waite( United States of America, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc, 1966)
Taylor, A.J.P. ,”The Origins of the Second World War”, (Great Britain, Hamish Hamilton, 1965)
Spielvogel, Jackson J. , “Hitler and Nazi Germany A History”, (United States of America, Prentice Hall, 2001)
Weinberg, Gerhard L., “The Foreign Policy of Hitler’s Germany: Starting World War II, 1937-1939”, (United States of America, The University of Chicago Press Chicago and London, 1980)