Hitler claimed that his foreign policy was original; most of it having been written down in the also ‘original’ Mein Kampf, which included a huge mix of ideological hatred, that had mainly been written before in some kind during the previous 50 years. So it was with foreign policy. Although some elements were new, they were mostly because Hitler’s predecessors had not had a chance to deal with them; they were results of the outcome of the First World War. These included lebensraum and pan Germanism, along with the desire to smash Communism and the idea of a racial war, including the destruction of the Jewish race worldwide. However, the most important idea was to crush the treaty of Versailles, something which Bismarck could not have envisaged, as he was dead before the war even started.
However, Stresemann was interested in totally revising Versailles, although not going so far as ripping it up. There are also several ambiguous points, which featured before in German policy, but to which Hitler added a little of his own personal flavour. For example, the desire to expand into Russia was clear before even the war, and shown with the humiliating treaty of Brest-Litovsk, but no-one envisaged that Hitler would then try to use the Russians after annexing them as a slave labour force. Hitler perhaps owes a debt to the Kaiser, for they shared many of the same qualities. It has been mused that Hitler was the natural successor to the Kaiser, and this is certainly true when it comes to the area of Foreign policy.
The Kaiser and Bismarck operated a right wing government from the creation of a united Germany in 1871, and in the 1870 Franco-Prussian war. Bismarck, however, was more cautious than the war-mongering Kaiser, and his personal ideas are perhaps more similar to Hitler before 1938, whilst the Kaiser’s mirror the second period, from 1938 to 1941 and the invasion of the Soviet Union. This was because Bismarck was always worried about Germany’s dangerous geopolitical position sandwiched between several other great powers of the continent. He also had to be wary of the results of 1870, because French hostility to the Germans from then onwards became a constant element of European foreign policy and diplomacy. Thus, to offset this disadvantage, he concluded the Dual alliance with Austria-Hungary in 1879, which Italy joined in 1882. He also signed a defensive treaty with Russia and Austria.
This policy was pursued by Hitler with similar effect, as he pushed for several alliances that did not necessarily mean anything. These included the Rome-Berlin Axis, the Anti-Comintern Pact, and non-aggression pacts with Russia and Poland. However, although Germany wanted ‘a place in the sun,’ Bismarck was happy to stay on the sidelines when it came to Africa and Asia, as colonies not only led to tensions among the nations, but most of the nations with any economic appeal had already been grabbed by the other imperialist powers. Hitler, however, subscribed to Weber, who in 1895 stated that the foundation of thee German empire was not a terminal achievement, but that it was a step towards more glory and success. The Kaiser also shared this feeling, initiating Weltpolitik, and Admiral Tirpitz decided to build a fleet to support this, similar to Hitler, who built up a huge army after the introduction of conscription in 1935.
Under the Kaiser, politics were perceived by foreigners as inflammatory, swaggering, insensitive and overly aggressive. Like Hitler, the Kaiser believed preserving the status quo would lead to decline, and thus Germany had to expand, preferably eastwards, the policy of Mittleuropa. Possibly Hitler implemented a kind of Weltpolitik for the same reasons that the Kaiser did, which were actually domestic. After the failure of the anti-socialist laws, the ruling elite wanted to reconcile the working class with the state, through integrative nationalism, passion for overseas expansion and concern for national prestige. Finally, the personality of the Kaiser was such that it can be compared to Hitler, for they both were nationalists, racists, obsessed with expansion, industrialisation and creating a Germany super-state with a huge army at its head.
On the other hand, one might at first state that Stresemann, a servant of Weimar, would present a total discontinuation of foreign policy, but his right wing roots means that he actually presented Hitler with some ideas, despite the fact Hitler portrayed himself as totally anti-Weimer, and indeed was in so many ways. However, although Stresemann had some different policies, this was due to pressure, for he was a right wing fish in a socialist sea. Despite his leanings, though, he was never concerned with racial ideology which so motivated Hitler’s conduct. The only man around in the Weimar Republic who had the same leanings as Hitler, was Ludendorff, (who later joined the Nazis) who believed that establishing a large German area in the east at the expense of Russia would give Germany a large hegemonial position in Europe and beyond, from which position Germany would be able to fight a war self-sufficiently, called autarky.
However, Stresemann believed Germany had to remain a trading nation and part of the international economic system. After the defeat of 1918, he became more of a realist, with a sharp sense of what could be done within the realm of practical politics. Although hating Versailles, he came to realise Germany could not destroy it by force, (Hitler’s aim) but only by collaborating with the Western powers in gradually modifying it. He decided to play Germany’s strongest card, her economic importance, should be played in cooperation with the international community, rather than in defiance of it, as some nationalists argued. After his period as chancellor, he remained as foreign minister until his death, deciding to advance by finesse rather than by force. He did this through several deals and treaties, which reduced the damage Versailles did to Germany rather than removing it completely. This included Locarno, the Dawes Plan, and the admission of Germany into the League of Nations in 1926.
Shortly before his death, he claimed that the three great tasks of his foreign policy of finesse were as follows: a solution of the reparations question, protection for the 10 or so million Germans living outside the new German border, and a revision of the German border with Poland. He did not believe Anschluss would be beneficial, as it would raise religious questions. Also, what was more important, and a greater parallel with Hitler than with most of his other policies, was to ensure that Germany advanced through any means, namely through deals, including with the Russians. The treaty of Berlin greatly helped both outcasts, and was a prelude to some of Hitler’s policies, for it enabled secret training of troops and testing of weapons etc. As Stresemann had dismantled much of the system, this gave Hitler the chance to claim that originally his foreign policy would merely be the continuation of previous German governments.
So, were Hitler’s policies a continuation of others, or were they radically different? Although this subject has been crossed, the best way of seeing whether this is true is to look at individual pieces of policy implemented by Hitler during the period 1933 to 1941. However, there are, as previously explained, two distinct periods, one of which Hitler appeared to be on a sort of metaphorical leash.
Hitler proposed a very radical plan, more than anything that the majority of the German people, even the conservative elite would have proposed. He hoped tom win Britain as an ally, due to their concern over the growing power of the Japanese empire and the United States. He projected his crude Darwinism, but the British were never going to give Hitler a blank cheque for Eastern expansion. However, he implemented it with caution, like his predecessors, until 1938. This could be shown with the peaceable non-aggression pact with Poland, the return of the Saar, the Anglo-German naval agreement, the remilitarisation of the Rhineland (he was ready to retreat at any time), and cautiously involved himself in Abyssinia, and the Spanish civil war. He did this to help get Mussolini on side, without totally alienating France or Germany. Involvement in Spain also helped show his anti-communist policy, without seeming overly aggressive.
This helped Hitler greatly, as these events led to the signing of the Rome-Berlin axis and the anti-Comintern pact. He also introduced the four-year plan, which was actually about re-armament, but Hitler portrayed the plan as mainly economic to the outside world. Hitler was also helped by the fact that the British government then decided to adopt the controversial policy of appeasement, which meant that for two years, Hitler could effectively gather territory peaceable, without fear of foreign intervention. However, after Anschluss, Hitler then sacked Neurath and promoted Ribbentrop, which resulted in the turn in policy, which became more aggressive, in the style of the Kaiser.
This aroused concern with many of the generals, who tried to warn the British government, but they would not listen. This new aggression was shown by the fact that Hitler was in fact very angry after the Munich conference, for he would have to control himself somewhat until he had chance to strike. He also felt things were rising to a head where a large war would start, and in reality, he would have preferred a ‘little war.’ The fact that he was willing to make deals with anyone also helped his cause, for the signing of the Nazi-soviet pact was of vital importance. Hitler had been helped by the fact that Chamberlain had done everything possible to keep Stalin away from the negotiating table, for he wanted Britain to be the major mediator in European affairs.
Therefore, although none of his predecessors’ aims were criminal, Hitler did indeed borrow a great deal from them, even Stresemann to an extent. He was helped by the fact that hardly anyone knew that Hitler was indeed serious about his racial policies or the extent he would go to carry them out. In fact, it has been said, that once Hitler was fairly sure that he had lost the military war, he put all his efforts into winning the racial war. Despite the fact that some policies were new, these were mainly because of events that were recent, and so, Hitler, in terms of foreign policy, could definitely be described as a plagiarist.