Although in 1933 Germany was still to some extent a pariah nation, and many countries were still cautious of Germany’s actions; the international climate in which Hitler was operating actually favoured his foreign policy aims. Germany was still regarded by Western nations as a defeated state, under the constraints of the Versailles Treaty. This was emphasised by the fact that at first Hitler’s foreign policies were moderate and cautious; any action was matched with a peaceful, diplomatic gesture. So to a certain extent in 1933 Germany was underestimated. Britain appeared to be fairly, willing to be pragmatic and acquiescent. Its general policy was that the Versailles Treaty had been unfair on Germany and needed revision.
Although France favoured a tougher line against Germany, they were in a particularly weak position due to their domestic situation and relied increasingly on Britain. France was unable to take an independent line in foreign affairs; they would have liked to have taken a tougher line on Germany but were unable to do so as Britain allowed Hitler a free hand. To add to this, the general international situation was greatly affected at this time by the worldwide economic depression.
An attitude of national insularity and self-sufficiency was fostered; many countries concentrated on their own domestic situation rather than that of Europe. This was particularly true of the USA; after the 1929 Wall Street Crash, isolationism was at the heart of their foreign policy. Similarly in the USSR, they were preoccupied with domestic matters, such as industrialisation. Stalin’s main concern was to avoid war at all costs, a policy which was reflected world wide due to the horrors and destruction of the first war.
In 1933, there was a growing change of attitude in Britain; it was suggested that Germany had not been solely responsible for the outbreak of war. Britain’s attitude towards Hitler was particularly favourable; the British Prime Minister felt Hitler should and could be accommodated, and that it would be possible to do business with him. The emergence of the communist Russia made Britain more wary of the ‘Red’ threat to the east, and looking at the leaders in Russia, Hitler was comparatively seen as the ‘lesser evil’.
The general attitude in Britain was that the Versailles Treaty had been unfair on Germany, and was in need of revision. Britain was quite prepared to allow Germany some rearmament, and Macdonald proposed the reduction of French troops from 500,000 to 200,000, and to increase German troops level to this. Britain also agreed that Germany should have an air force half the size of France’s. However, France declined this offer, causing Hitler to withdraw Germany from the rearmament conference. This gave Hitler a good cover for the first stages of rearmament, and consequently German military expenditure increased.
Another important point to note was that in 1933 Britain remained primarily an imperial power. Its main concern was its empire, and was largely preoccupied with its imperial responsibilities. It is arguable that as Britain had too many colonial commitments, and too few resources, attention was distracted away from issues relating to Germany. Britain was also concerned with Japanese expansionism, again diverting Britain’s attention away from Germany. This favoured Hitler’s foreign policy aims as it meant that he could continue to revive Germany’s military power, without being under significant suspicion from other great powers.
The fact that France was considerably economically and politically weak in 1933 also favoured Hitler’s foreign policy aims. In 1933 France had become a polarised state, and had seen four changes in government throughout the year. Ideological conflicts and the frequent changes of government led to a lack of policy making. The worst affects of the Depression struck France later than other countries, so by the mid-30s it was very economically weak. France was also militarily weak; the air force was ineffective, and army numbers were insufficient. Due to France being increasingly reliant on Britain, they were unable to take an independent line in foreign affairs. This benefited Hitler significantly, as had it not been for Britain’s moderation, France would have been able to take a much tougher line against Germany.
Poland was a potential obstacle to German expansionism; it had a strong army and the military-style dictatorship could have been a serious threat. However much of their military equipment was outdated, and their tactics were not suitable for modern warfare. Due to the large German minority, fighting Poland would have proven difficult. Adding to this, Poland was allied with France, making Hitler’s position even more secure due to France’s weak position.
The rise of nationalism in Japan also benefited Hitler’s aims. The military style leadership and expansionist ideas put pressure on the eastern Empires, such as Australia and India, therefore taking the attention away from Hitler’s expansionist ideas.
America’s isolationism also favoured Hitler’s foreign policy aims. The world’s foremost power had little intention to try to contain Hitler in what was seen as a European affair.
The situation in Russia in 1933 also favoured Hitler’s aims. One of his most significant foreign policies was lebensraum; Hitler believed that in order to accommodate the Teutonic empire, expansion to the East was highly necessary. However, Stalin’s main concern was to avoid war at all costs. Therefore any early attempts Hitler may have made to gain USSR territory were dealt with as diplomatically as possible. Stalin was also preoccupied with his Five Year Plans; his main aim was to rapidly industrialise the USSR in order to catch up with other powers. Great suspicion of communism was aroused in the West, directing the focus away from Hitler. It is also notable that after the fear of communism, many people welcomed right wing politics, and compared to the horrors of Stalin’s regime, Hitler did not appear as bad.
The international economic crisis also favoured Hitler’s aims. Firstly, the crisis helped bring Hitler into power. Fearing another year of hyperinflation similar to 1923 and communist revolution, many turned to the Nazi party. Mass unemployment also led to a feeling of nationalism. The depression greatly affected the conduct of international relations, and was at the heart of the USA isolationist policies, turning their back on European affairs. The crisis also forced all countries to protect their own interests, diverting attention away from Hitler’s revival of the army. Due to mass unemployment and poverty, the depression saw a growth in military conscription and prompted rearmament policies. This favoured Hitler’s aims, as he saw it central and vital to his policies to have great military strength.
However, it must also be considered that Germany still had to contend with French distrust. Although politically weak and reliant on Britain, France still held an important position in European politics, and continued to have a very significant influence. The Maginot Line signalled France’s defensive mentality towards Germany, as it prevented German troops entering France. Therefore Hitler was confident that France was not prepared to engage in military conflict with Germany. France also had an extensive system of alliances, such as Belgium and the Little Entente. This was particularly unfavourable to Hitler as the Little Entente countries, e.g. Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia were places Hitler had viewed as part of his plans for Lebensraum. However in 1933 Germany’s only alliance was the USSR.
Fascist Italy, Germany’s most likely alliance, continued to hold a large amount of hostility towards Germany due to its Anschluss plans. In 1933 relationships between Hitler and his fascist counterpart in Italy, Mussolini were strained. Hitler’s plans to unite all German speakers caused Mussolini great concern as South Tyrol in northern Italy had a high population of German speakers. Consequently, he moved Italian troops up to the Austrian border, fearing that any attempt to defy Versailles and unite Austria with Germany would be a severe threat to Italy.
Therefore, in 1933 Italy would prove to be a major obstacle in the way of Hitler’s plans for Grossdeutschland. The demilitarisation of the Rhineland was also an obstacle to Hitler. Due to being demilitarised under Versailles, it was Germany’s major weak spot. Hitler could not put troops into the area, therefore making him unable to get troops into France, although as France were allowed their troops in the Rhineland, they got get their troops into Germany. Therefore Hitler would be unable to mount any counterattack if France entered Germany.
Although it looked on the surface unfavourable to Hitler’s foreign policies, the international situation had many major flaws that would have allowed Hitler to achieve his aims without fearing any retaliation from other world powers. Although many elements were against him, if looked at carefully the international situation in itself did favour Hitler. Great Britain were content to double the German armed forces and allowing a small Luftwaffe, whilst reducing France’s. Much of Europe saw any potential threat as coming from the Japanese or Soviet Russia in the east, or was preoccupied with defending their own foreign interest.
Europe was also focussing on recuperating from the Great Depression, and many felt it was a time for peace and focussing on internal affairs rather than worrying about what was happening other countries. In 1933 the amendment of Versailles was seen as more acceptable to the world due to work done by the Weimar government. Hitler was also confident that no country or the League of Nations was prepared to take strong steps to counter him unless absolutely unavoidable. Therefore, in 1933 the pursuit of his aims were unlikely to be allowed to continue unchallenged.
Hitler and The Road to War, Ted Townley
Hitler, Appeasement and the Road To War, Graham Darby
The European Dictatorships 1918-1945, Stephen J.Lee