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“Hitler’s foreign policy successes between 1936 and 1939 rested on his remarkable tactical skills and ability to exploit his opponent’s weaknesses?” Discuss this view.
Many of Hitler’s foreign policy aims had been recorded since the publication of “Mein Kampf”, but none of his plans had any time scale to them. His only concept of time appeared to be that he wanted war by 1942, in fear of an arms race with the likes of Britain and France, resulting in Germany no longer holding the upper hand – also, he was under the impression that he would face his own death close to this time. It appears that, despite his aims having been set in stone for many years, Hitler was quite an opportunist, grabbing at fortunate circumstances rather than planning. Very little tactical skill or exploitation appeared to go into any of his actions (with minor exceptions); he just appeared to assume that most things would work out to his expectations regardless. Luckily for Hitler, this often appeared to be this case – but rarely via the means which he intended.
A long running aim of Hitler’s was to overturn the Treaty of Versailles, of which the first step was made towards by the reoccupation and militarisation of the Rhineland. The Rhineland was France’s greatest barrier between itself and the German threat, and so it would be fair to assume that they would be far more than just keen to retain its demilitarised state. However, when France signed the Franco-Soviet pact, Hitler deemed that it had broken the Locarno treaty, and so used this as reasoning to reoccupy the Rhineland.
The reoccupation in itself was a huge gamble – the German army was still notably weak at this point, and any opposition from France would result in them having to withdraw immediately. Nonetheless, Hitler disregarded the opinion of his generals (all of whom were opposed to the move), and ordered German forces into the Rhineland on 7th March, 1936, to be met by no opposition whatsoever. There was a small amount of protest from Britain and France, but as Hitler had presumed, they were unwilling to take any real action against him. France was war weary; Britain was suffering economically and concerned with the defence of their empire in the east. Hitler had further reason for believing this move would be a successful one. Little action had been taken by the League of Nations at Manchuria in 1931, and they were unlikely to taken any at this point either; also, Germany now benefited from friendly relations with Italy, following Hitler’s support for the invasion of Abyssinia.
Appeasement on Britain’s part had also played a roll in convincing Hitler his actions were achievable. The 1935 Anglo-German naval agreement had effectively broken the Stresa front, showing him that he could successfully push boundaries. Although all these moves came down to being a series of fortunate circumstances (except good relations with Italy – something Hitler had long strived for), a small amount of skill went into this move. Hitler aimed to isolate France (namely by deny it of its allies) to make many of his aims simpler, and started to do so by achieving the German-Polish non aggression pact. This broke the little entente, and began to drive a wedge into Europe. This aside however, the reoccupation of the Rhineland was a minimally planned gamble, and by no means a show of neither skill nor exploitation.
On 5th November 1937, a secret meeting took place at the Reichstag chancellery in Berlin, the minutes of which would come to be known as the Hossbach Memorandum. It was here that Hitler outlined his more drastic future foreign policy aims (including plans for expansion into Eastern Europe), and the strategies by which he would achieve them. It stated his desire to annex Austria and to crush Czechoslovakia, and the need for war within the next six years, to avoid an arms race with two “hate inspired antagonists” – Britain and France.
His strategy for moving into east Europe was via a series of small wars to benefit the German economy – which, in it’s strive for autarky, was overheating and struggling. It was a radical move at the time – Hitler’s previous actions had been hidden under a veil of nationalism, and were never outwardly “Nazi”. However, there was no real plan. There may well have been a strategy – that being, the series of small wars – but no real time scale or method. It would appear that Hitler, as with the reoccupation of the Rhineland, was intending to grab at opportunities as they arose, rather than tactically planning his actions.
Hitler’s next territorial move was to achieve the annexation of Austria. This had already been once attempted in 1934, but failed and left bad relations with Italy, and Hitler had denied all involvement. Regardless, the second attempt of Anschluss was barely planned, and its success was owed greatly to the improvisations offered by Herman Goering.
Due to the disruption being caused by Austrian Nazis, Chancellor Schuschnigg requested a meeting with Hitler. Seizing the opportunity before him, Hitler took the chance to bully Schuschnigg, who emerged from the meeting with more Nazis being allowed into to parliament, the freedom of Nazi prisoners and Seyss-Inquart as interior minister – quite the opposite to what he had intended to achieve. It would seem that Hitler, rather than exploiting a weakness, had instead created one in his opponent. At this point, it appeared to Hitler that Germany may well be able to hold dominance over Austria without even the need for an official annexation. However, to his anger, Schuschnigg called for a referendum upon his return to Austria, in which he asked the people to “affirm their support for Austrian impendence”.
Allowing this referendum to take place could have spelt bad news for the possibility of Anschluss – a negative result on Hitler’s part would make it far more difficult to achieve the union. As the referendum was so unexpected, there was no plan from this point onwards. Hitler began to exert pressure through right-wing Austrian parliament members, demanding that the referendum be cancelled and that Seyss-Inquart replace Schuschnigg as Chancellor. From here on however, Herman Goering became the “man of the hour”. He threatened President Miklas with German invasion unless Schuschnigg was allowed to resign (which, under pressure, he did), and also dictated a telegram from Seyss-Inquart, inviting the German army to enter Austria to “preserve law and order”.
Consequently, German troops entered Austria on 12th March 1938. Evidently, little skill was played by Hitler here – had it not been for Goering’s intervention, Hitler and his lack of plan may have been faced with another failed Anschluss. Hitler merely assumed no action would be taken against him by the western allies, for much the same reasons with the Rhineland, and it would be fair to assume that he had expected Schuschnigg to simply give in to his demands. In this situation, Goering was the one displaying tactical skill, and not Hitler.
Following the fortunate success of Anschluss, Hitler was encouraged to push forwards to Czechoslovakia. His first aim was the predominately German speaking Sudetenland, which he hoped to seize by means of a small war. He was to be faced by Neville Chamberlain and his policy of appeasement however, with whom he met on 15th September 1938, at Berteschgaden. Here, Hitler demanded the swift takeover of the Sudetenland, with threat of military action. No visible plan from Hitler here – it appears that he hoped to gain what he desired by threats and pressure. Following discussions between Britain and France, it was agreed that areas of over 50% German population within the Sudetenland would be handed over to Hitler, without so much as the formality of a plebiscite.
Seeing that he had the upper hand, and knowing that Britain and France were reluctant to go to war (particularly over Czechoslovakia), Hitler rejected this agreement at his second meeting with Chamberlain on 22nd September 1938, on the grounds that it “would take too long to implement”. Instead, he demanded that the German army be able to occupy the Sudetenland within 2 days (claiming that the Czechs were slaughtering Sudeten Germans), and that the Czechs met the territorial demands of Poland and Hungary. Benes rejected these demands, and rebelled against Anglo-French pressure, ordering military mobilisation.
On 26th September, Hitler gave the Czechs 24 hours to agree to hand over the Sudetenland before 1st October. The situation at this point looked as though war was on the horizon. Although this was what Hitler had wanted, he had only wanted a local war with Czechoslovakia – not a continental one. Still set on avoiding war, Chamberlain asked Mussolini to arrange another meeting with Hitler. The meeting was held at Munich, between Hitler, Daladier, Chamberlain and Mussolini, where it was agreed that Germany military occupation of the Sudetenland would be phased over 1st-10th October. The Czechs were told to accept these agreements or fight alone.
It would seem Hitler had a lot of thanks to give to Chamberlain and his policy of appeasement. Had he not been faced with this, Hitler would have sent German forces into the Sudetenland with minimal planning or direction. France had military ties with Czechoslovakia, as did Russia (which came into effect only if the French honoured their commitments); although the likelihood of France taking any action was unlikely, it was not impossible, and Hitler may well have been faced countless other forms of opposition. Besides, Chamberlain had handed him exactly what he desired on a silver platter anyway – and in turn, left open a gateway to the rest of a somewhat defenceless Czechoslovakia. Although this was a great foreign policy success for Hitler, there was practically no means for him to exert neither tactical skill nor exploitation anyway. As ever, he gained exactly what he had set out for; just through unexpected means.
Despite a weak agreement made at Munich to respect the territorial integrity of what was left of Czechoslovakia, Hitler made military plans for an attack on its remains within days of the agreement.
He encouraged Poland, Hungary and Romania to demand territory from Czechoslovakia, and the Slovaks to demand autonomy. In February 1939, Hitler met with the Slovak leader Bela Tuka, telling him to demand complete separation from Czechoslovakia. President Hacha responded by declaring martial war to try to prevent the break-up, but Hitler retaliated with demands that Slovakia declare it’s independence, or it would be taken over by Hungary. The Slovak government complied and, in desperation, Hacha visited Hitler seeking help to retain the remnants of a broken Czechoslovakia. Wasting no opportunity, Hitler demanded for Czechoslovakia be split; a number of hours later, Hacha gave into the demands. On 15th March, German troops marched on Prague, and Bohemia-Moravia became a German protectorate. The following day, Slovakia asked for German protection, leading to it becoming a satellite state.
Although a situation which was somewhat handed to him as a result of the Munich agreement, some degree of tactical skill was evidently used in bringing down the rest of Czechoslovakia. As a country of various nationalities, Hitler could see an opportunity to create a great divide amongst them, and used this to his advantage. Knowing Hacha wanted to preserve what of Czechoslovakia he could, Hitler exploited him by offering him only the options of German attack or to hand over Bohemia-Moravia. In addition to this, Slovakia was left in such a state of disruption anyway that it became under heavily German influence. For once, Hitler had used his own skill to gain territory, and did so without a single shot being fired and barely any opposition.
Poland was next on Hitler’s territorial hit list, but it was unlikely to come as easily as his previous gains. Following the fall of Prague, there had been a change in mood from the west towards Hitler – he could no longer be trusted. No longer would his desires be handed to him; tactical skill was needed if Poland were to be successfully claimed.
Ribbentrop had already attempted to negotiate a deal with the Poles by offering them guarantees of their borders and the possibility of gains in the Soviet Ukraine if they were to give up Danzig; however, fearful of Soviet response, the Polish government did not want to become involved in such a deal with Germany. In January 1939, Hitler met with Beck, the Polish foreign minister, where he added a demand for a German road/rail link across the Polish Corridor. To Hitler’s surprise, the Poles refused the demand, as they were unwilling to become a German satellite state – British and French guarantees of support had made the Poles less inclined give in to German pressure at the expense of their independence. Around spring of 1939 however, it was becoming clear to Hitler that defensive action against Poland needed to be taken.
Diplomatic bridges were formed with Bulgaria, Hungary and Yugoslavia, whilst non-aggression pacts were signed with Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. This was Hitler’s means of preparing for war with Poland, which was extended by the surprising Nazi-Soviet pact, of 23rd August 1939, forged by Ribbentrop. As ideological enemies, it was an unlikely move, but one that Hitler saw advantage to. Both countries had lost lands to Poland following WW1, and uniting would provide a huge threat to Poland on both fronts, and, in Hitler’s eyes, it isolated Poland from her allies (as he assumed Britain and France would not commit to their guarantees).
The pact itself agreed that for the next 10 years, they would remain neutral if the other attacked a third party, and also contained a secret protocol, providing for the partition of Poland and creating Nazi and Soviet spheres of influence in eastern Europe. To Hitler, this had all been a great success – not only was he in a great for the invasion of Poland, but also for the invasion of Russia later on. German troops entered Poland on 1st September 1939, and to Hitler’s dismay, Britain and France declared war on 3rd September.
The road leading up to the invasion of Poland shows that Hitler could put tactical skill and exploitation to good use when required. Forging relations with the Baltic republics and small east European nations left Poland with little to no German opposition surrounding it, but Ribbentrops Nazi-Soviet pact was by far the most effective tactic against Poland. It allowed both a great offensive against Poland, and a pathway to the invasion of Russia in the future. As with the Anschluss of 1938, this was a great success in foreign policy – but not, for the most part, thanks to himself.
It is clear to see that Hitler’s foreign policy success rarely laid thanks to his own skill, exploitation or tactful planning, particularly prior to the fall of Prague. Although these feats would unlikely have been achievable without any display of skill, Hitler was very fortunate that the situations around him played well into his hands, such as Britain’s insistence on appeasement concerning the Sudeten crisis. Hitler also owed a lot of thanks to the likes of Ribbentrop and Goering, each who stepped in and allowed some of the successes to happen. The success of Hitler’s foreign policies between 1936 and 1939 did not rest on him at all – they merely benefited from his actions, the aid of those around him, and the situations which created them.