The Road to World War II
The unpaid debt of World War One
author Paul Boșcu, November 2016
The path to World War II originated from unresolved territorial issues between France and Germany at the end of World War One. These, coupled with economic and social upheaval in Germany and Italy, old colonial ambitions and a desire for conquest led by Hitler and Mussolini resulted in the second world war.

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World War I was over. The united forces of Great Britain, France, Italy and the United States of America - the Entente - defeated the armies of Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire - the Central Powers.

The armistice between the Entente and Germany was called the Armistice of Compiègne, after the place it was signed. This was the deal which stopped the fighting in western Europe.

Even though the armistice ended the fighting, it took six months to negotiate peace. Peace was signed during the Paris Peace Conference. The peace treaty was recorded by the Secretary of the League of Nations and printed amongst the treaties of the League of Nations.

The Treaty of Versailles was signed. In this treaty, Germany was forced to demobilize, to make substantial territorial concessions and pay damages to the countries which were part of the Entente.

The treaty affected Germany in various ways. Germany lost the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, which were returned to France. Eupen-Malmedy was given to Belgium, and Schleswig-Holstein to Denmark. The most serious losses were in the east, where Germany lost a large portion of western Poland. The region was given back because Poland regained its independence after more than a century in which its territory had been divided between the Tsarist Empire, the German Empire and Austria-Hungary. Also, Germany lost territories to the new state of Czechoslovakia.

Germany lost its African colonies and was forbidden to create a united state with Austria. The Rhineland was demilitarized. Thus, the number of German armed forces was reduced to 100,000 people, with no obligatory military service. At the same time, Germany was forbidden to produce or import weaponry.

The German economy was so weak that only a small percentage of the 132 billion gold marks of damages demanded was actually paid in currency. Even so, this was a significant burden for the German economy. Although the causes of hyperinflation after the war were complex and hotly contested, still the Germans blamed the Treaty of Versailles for the collapse of their economy. Some economists estimated that the payment of war damages was responsible for one third of the hyperinflation.

Germany was not accepted at the peace negotiations. Thus, shortly after their withdrawal from the actions of the Peace Conference, the German government emitted a protest against the demands of the treaty. The Germans considered the requests to be disloyal, seeing them as an affront to their honor. Regardless of their political stance, all Germans denounced the treaty as an insult to national honor, especially the article blaming Germany for beginning the war.

Concerning the domestic reaction in Germany, public opinion viewed the treaty with anger and even hostility from the moment it was made public. The Germans did not consider themselves responsible for starting the war.

German public opinion initially thought that Versailles was a peace conference. They didn’t know that it was actually a conference in which Germany would be presented with the conditions of her surrender. At first, the new government led by chancellor Gustav Bauer refused to sign the treaty, and the German navy scuttled some of its ships in protest.

The hostile German reaction only strengthened the determination of the Entente, which issued an ultimatum to Germany for the signing of the treaty. The alternative was the resumption of hostilities, this time on German territory. Under these conditions, the new German president, Friedrich Ebert, gave his accord for the signing of the treaty. This took place exactly five years after the assassination of archduke Franz Ferdinand, the event which caused the outbreak of World War I.

Later, conservative nationalistic elements, together with former military leaders, began to criticize the imposed peace, together with German politicians, Jews, socialists and communists. These latter had been accused of betraying Germany during the war. This theory of betrayal had its source in the fact that in November 1918, when Germany surrendered, its armies were still on French and Belgian territory. At the same time, on the eastern front, the German forces gained victory over the Russians. In the west, it seemed that Germany was about to win the war when the offensive began during the spring of the last year of war.

The one who used Germany’s national humiliation for his own purposes was Adolf Hitler. He profited from the political and economic crisis which followed World War I. Hitler believed that the defeat suffered in World War I was due to the betrayal of communists and socialists, who stabbed Germany in the back.

Adolf Hitler became the leader of the Nazi Party. In virtue of his dynamism and aided by his oratorical abilities, Hitler began to win the sympathy of the Germans.

Anti-Semitism and anti-communism intensified with the creation of the so-called Bavarian Soviet Republic, a communist government which governed Munich for two weeks, before being crushed by the forces of the German government. Many of the Bavarian communist leaders were Jews. This allowed the Nazis to carry out an intense anti-Semitic propaganda campaign and, at the same time, to link this to treason carried out by the communists.

Hitler’s clumsy attempt to take power, in the episode known to history as the Beer Hall Putsch or the Munich Putsch, brought him a five-year sentence in the Landsberg prison. During the time Hitler was imprisoned, Germany’s situation improved considerably, limiting his opportunities of political agitation.

While in prison, Hitler wrote Mein Kampf, which in English is called My Struggle. It was originally called Four and a Half Years (of Struggle) Against Lies, Stupidity and Cowardice. In this book, Hitler was clearly demonstrating his intention to transform German society, based on the racial principle.

In Mein Kampf, the author’s main thesis was the so-called ‘Jewish peril’. This was a Jewish conspiracy to attain world domination. At the same time, Hitler described the process through which he became anti-Semitic, especially during the years he spent in Vienna. He mentioned that, when he arrived in Vienna, he had a liberal attitude, and didn’t consider the anti-Semitic press as being worthy of his attention. Later, however, he accepted these anti-Semitic points of view, which became crucial in his program of reconstruction of Germany.

Initially, Hitler wrote Mein Kampf for the followers of the Nazi Party, but the book gradually grew in popularity. By the time he became Chancellor of Germany, Hitler had sold approximately 220,000 copies. However, by the end of the war, approx. 10 million copies had been sold or distributed in Germany alone.

In one of the chapters of the work, Hitler mentioned Germany’s need to expand towards the east. Hitler believed that Russia’s organisation as a state was not due to the political abilities of the Russians, but thanks to the German minority’s ability to form a state.

After the end of World War II, Mein Kampf was forbidden in the FRG and the GDR, as part of the de-Nazification programs instituted by the Allies and the Soviet Union. In 2016, when the copyright held by the Bavarian government expired, the book was republished in Germany for the first time since 1945.

After the end of World War I, both Germany and the Soviet Union were in a state of diplomatic isolation from the rest of the world. The two countries signed a treaty at Rapallo in which they reestablished diplomatic relations. The Soviets and the Germans also reached a secret agreement at Rapallo in which the Russians allowed the Germans to carry out military tests on USSR territory. In exchange, the Germans trained a number of Soviet officers in military academies in Germany. Also, Germany gave the Soviet Union economic assistance in its industrialization process.

The two countries, realising that a normalisation of relations between them could help them come out of the diplomatic isolation they were in, signed a treaty at Rapallo. This treaty contained a reciprocal renunciation of any pretense to war damages, and also the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries. Thus, collaboration between Germany and the USSR, even on a military plane, became possible.

General Otto Hasse traveled to Moscow to negotiate the terms of the future collaboration. Thus, Germany aided the Soviet Union in its industrialization process. Also, Soviet officers would be trained in Germany. In exchange, the USSR allowed Germany to carry out a series of military experiments on Soviet territory.

German specialists in aviation and armored vehicles were allowed to carry out research on Soviet territory. Germany began a program of creating chemical weapons, besides other projects. Around 300 German pilots were trained in Russia, at Lipetsk. Close to the locality of Kazan, the German army tested its tanks, while at Saratov it had a program for testing different toxic gases.

Immediately after the signing of the treaty, Germany began, in subtle ways, to disobey the military restrictions which had been imposed at Versailles. It began a secret collaboration with the Soviet Union after the signing of the Rapallo Treaty.

With the signing of the Peace Treaty at Versailles came the problem of enforcing conformation to the treaty, and beginning the process of disarming and demilitarization, especially of Germany. It was desired that this process would be coordinated by the League of Nations. In the Locarno conference, France and Great Britain offered guarantees of security to Czechoslovakia and Poland. Although in this treaty Germany promised to respect France’s borders, it did not offer the same guarantees to Poland and Czechoslovakia.

The League of Nations, precursor to the United Nations, was created in the system of Paris peace treaties. The goal of the league was to maintain peace, and to uphold the decisions made in Paris. The main problem faced by the League of Nations, during the interwar period, was the problem of disarmament, in order to ensure that a future European conflict would be avoided.

France proposed a treaty of mutual assistance through which certain obligations of assistance would be laid down, together with measures against aggressors. The treaty was rejected due to the fact that the member states could not arrive at a common definition for the term ‘aggressor’.

The failure it suffered concerning the treaty of mutual assistance made France try to ensure its security through regional treaties. Thus, during the Locarno Conference, treaties were signed between Germany, Belgium, France, Great Britain and Italy. The accords were about protecting the borders between Germany and Belgium and between Germany and France. Germany refused to give the same guarantees for Czechoslovakia and Poland. Under these conditions, in Locarno, France signed treaties with the two states, in which it promised to accord assistance, if one of the two states were attacked.

European efforts to sign a common security treaty came to fruition in the signing of the Briand-Kellogg Pact, although the pact ultimately failed in its mission of outlawing war.

The Briand-Kellogg Pact contained, amongst other things, the renunciation of war as an instrument of national policy. A protocol was also signed in Moscow, through which the Briand-Kellogg Pact became applied immediately.

The pact was signed by 44 countries, including the USSR. The main drawback of the Briand-Kellogg pact was the fact that, although aggression was condemned, the term ‘aggressor’ was not defined. At the same time, solutions and pecuniary measures in the case of aggressions and conflicts were not identified.

An important step towards pacification was made at the London Disarmament Conference. There, the Soviet Union proposed a draft convention for the definition of an aggressor. The USSR draft was at the foundation of the international conventions signed in London.

A state was called an aggressor under certain conditions: if it declared war on another state, if it invaded the territory of another state with ground, naval or air forces, if it instituted a naval blockade on another state or if it supported armed bands on its own territory which were prepared to invade the territory of another state. As repressive measures against the aggressor, only economic boycott and cessation of diplomatic relations were allowed.

The improvements in Germany’s position were completely wiped out by an unforeseen event: The Wall Street Crash.

The economic crisis had a great impact on Germany. Unemployment reached 30%, but the German government did not increase expenditure in order to cope with the new situation. There was fear that this could lead to a new wave of major inflation, similar to that in 1923.

The immediate effect of the stock exchange crash was the fact that all American loans, which had artificially sustained the entire world’s economy, were withdrawn. The consequence on global economy was dramatic, but Germany took the hardest blow. This new round of economic difficulties gave Hitler the opportunity to create political capital.

The crisis led to the splintering of the political parties in Parliament. Instead of forming an alliance to adopt the legislation they needed, they split up into groups which were compromised from the beginning. In the end, Hitler and the Nazi Party were the ones promising a brighter future for Germany.

A referendum took place in Germany. This proved to be an unsuccessful attempt to renounce the Versailles Treaty and to declare it a criminal offense against the German officials who were cooperating in collecting war damages. The referendum was favorable to the Nazi Party and is considered to be an important event in German history. The exposure in Hugenberg’s widely circulated newspaper brought notoriety to the Nazis. Their leader, Adolf Hitler, became a household name in Germany.

Hitler stood for election as the president of Germany. Although he didn’t win the elections, he gained political capital in Germany.

The president of the German Republic, Paul von Beneckendorff und Hindenburg, declared Hitler Chancellor of Germany. This event was an important victory for Hitler, since he had gained power.

The results of the election showed that the Nazi Party obtained 44 percent of the votes. It was enough to give them 288 of the 647 seats in Parliament. From the moment Hitler gained power, he immediately began to destroy the old structures of the state and society and to rebuild them according to the nationalist-socialist model. All political parties, except the Nazi Party, were forbidden.

Hitler ordered a rapid extension of the state police, the Gestapo. He named Hermann Göring as responsible for controlling this new security force. The Gestapo was completely made up of dedicated Nazis, ready to take the party’s side in the face of any opposition.

Hitler’s appointment as chancellor of Germany was a turning point in German history and, ultimately, in world history. His plan, which was embraced by a large part of the population, was to eliminate politics and make Germany a unified state with a single political party.

Gradually, the Jews began to be excluded from society and publicly avoided.

The Deutschland Pact was a secret agreement made between Adolf Hitler and the head of the German armed forces, General Werner von Blomberg. Through this deal, the army was committed to support Hitler in assuming total power in Germany.

The meeting between Hitler and von Blomberg took place aboard the Deutschland cruiser. At that point, von Blomberg was Defense Minister in Germany. From this position he became the political leader of the German army. He expressed his support for Hitler to become the president of the Reich after the death of Paul von Hindenburg. The condition imposed by von Blomberg on Hitler stipulated that the Reichswehr must maintain absolute control of military decisions.

The chief of the SA, the Sturmabteilung - Brownshirts, Ernst Röhm, applied pressure to form a new ministry which would include all the German armed forces. This ministry would have Röhm as its leader. The situation did not look good for Blomberg or for Hitler. Showing his willingness to immediately act on the Deutschland Pact, Blomberg ordered the addition of swastikas to the uniforms of the armed forces. During this time, Röhm continued to apply pressure for his cause. Blomberg warned Hitler that, if measures were not taken to ensure domestic peace, Hindenburg would declare martial law.

If the chief of the SA, Ernst Röhm, had come to control the German army, Hitler would have been pushed into a marginalized and weakened position. Hitler understood the danger. Thus, his personal SS bodyguards acted with unexpected cruelty against Röhm. This action became known as The Bloody Purge or The Night of the Long Knives. The SS acted in a series of kidnappings and summary executions which left over 200 dead. The army did not intervene during the purge. Blomberg issued an Order of the Day in which he praised the ‘soldierly decision of the Führer and his exemplary courage’ in liquidating the ‘rebels and traitors’ from the SA.

After Hindenburg’s death, with the full support of the Army, Hitler took over the presidency and supreme command of the armed forces. This was made possible by a law approved by the Cabinet in Hindenburg’s lifetime. At Hindenburg’s funeral, Blomberg suggested to the new president that all soldiers should address him as ‘Mein Führer’. This proposal was met with approval from Hitler.

Blomberg gave the order that the new oath of allegiance should be made to Hitler and not to the presidential function or to the state. The wording of the oath lacked all ambiguity: ‘I swear to God this sacred oath that to the Leader of the German Empire and people, Adolf Hitler, supreme commander of the armed forces, I shall render unconditional obedience and that as a brave soldier I shall at all times be prepared to give my life for this oath.’

Hitler gained supreme power, but only with the permission of the German army. Only two days after Hindenburg’s funeral, Blomberg wrote Hitler a one-line letter: ‘Mein Führer, I would like to remind you of your statement to the Wehrmacht. Blomberg.’ The tone was rather categorical, reminding Hitler of his obligations in the Deutschland Pact. Without this agreement, Hitler could not win political and military supremacy. This supremacy allowed him to throw the world into the most disastrous war it had ever seen.

Hitler continued to pay the debt he owed since signing the Deutschland Pact. He wrote a letter to Blomberg in which he confirmed that the secret pact was still valid. He thanked the general for the army’s oath of allegiance and added: ‘I shall always regard it as my highest duty to intercede for the existence and inviolability of the Wehrmacht, in fulfilment of the testament of the late Field Marshal, and in accord with my own will to establish the Army firmly as the sole bearer of the arms of the nation.’

Hitler began to revise the Treaty of Versailles. Many Germans believed that Hitler was only trying to reinstall order. No one took measures against him or against his political decisions.

The arrival in power of the National-Socialist Party in Germany accelerated the process in which the international peace efforts were unravelling. Germany’s withdrawal from the League of Nations opened up the possibility of accelerating the German process of arming.

The aggressive plans of the Nazis began to come to the fore with more and more boldness. Thus, in preparing to annex Austria, the Nazi government supported the organization of the national putsch carried out by Austrian Nazis. At that time, the chancellor of Austria, Engelbert Dollfuss, was assassinated. He opposed the annexation of his country by Nazi Germany.

In the official foreign policy program of Nazi Germany, the revision of borders became a principal objective. Hitler and Mussolini had intense policies in this area. Thus, conciliatory circles in Great Britain, led by prime minister Ramsay MacDonald, upheld, in the House of Commons, the fascist dictator’s project concerning signing an accord between England, France, Italy and Germany. The accord aimed to revise the Paris treaties in the League of Nations.

In London, Germany’s right to rearm was once again acknowledged by Great Britain and France. This happened in spite of the fact that Nazi Germany began to openly violate the terms of the Paris peace treaty.

Encouraged, the German government decreed the institution of obligatory military service. Through this measure, the Versailles restrictions were definitively ignored. These restrictions had imposed a limit of 100,000 people on Germany’s armed forces.

A new encouragement for German revisionist policies was the Anglo-German naval accord. Violating the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, Great Britain acknowledged Germany’s right to build a naval battle fleet three-fifths of the size of the British fleet.

Hitler’s usual protests concerning his pacifist intentions managed to quiet the suspicions of the foreigners. The commanders of the Wehrmacht realised that his words were meaningless, since Hitler ordered them at the same time to prepare for a generalized European conflict. Hitler declared to the journalist George Ward Price, from the London newspaper Daily Mail that ‘Germany will of its own accord never break the peace.’ However, a few days later, he decided that the Wehrmacht must grow from 21 to 36 divisions. His intention was to have a 63-division army, similar to that of pre-1914.

The rhythm of the Hitlerist aggression grew exponentially as the German dictator gained confidence. During this time, the German generals withdrew from the political decision-making process. A major step in the militarization of Germany was the decree for the creation of the German air force, called Luftwaffe.

The official announcement made by Hermann Göring concerning the creation of the Luftwaffe took place in the same month in which Germany publicly rejected the disarmament clauses of the Treaty of Versailles. These clauses had been secretly infringed by the Germans since Hitler’s rise to power.

Concurrently with the forming of the Luftwaffe, the Nuremberg laws were adopted. These effectively outlawed German Jews. At the same time, the laws made the swastika the official flag of Germany.

Hitler violated the terms of the Treaty of Versailles by sending troops into the industrial region of the Rhine. This, according to article 180 of the Paris Peace Treaty, had been designated a demilitarized zone. If the French and British forces stationed nearby had resisted the German army, the latter had orders to retreat. Such a retreat would almost certainly have cost Hitler his position as chancellor. However, the western powers were eaten up with guilt at having imposed what was described as an unjust peace on the Germans. Thus, they allowed the Germans to enter the Rhineland without putting up resistance.

An influential liberal politician and newspaper editor, Philip Kerr, Marquess of Lothian, was chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in the national government of Ramsay MacDonald. He declared: ‘they are only going into their own back garden’. When Hitler assured the western powers that Germany only wanted peace, Arthur Greenwood, vice president of the Labour Party, declared to the House of Commons that ‘Herr Hitler has made a statement… holding out the olive branch… which ought to be taken at face value… It is idle to say that those statements are insincere.’ At the same time, Germany introduced a two-year obligatory military service.

The international situation was characterized by a tension which got stronger and stronger after Italy invaded Ethiopia.

Italy’s attack on Ethiopia severely worsened the international situation. The League of Nations adopted economic sanctions against Italy. However, the formal nature of these sanctions and the lack of will from the western powers to end the Italian aggression destroyed the authority and prestige of the League of Nations and proved that the League was incapable of stopping aggression, as in the case of Japan.

The difference between the two opposing armies was great as concerns military technique. When a conflict seemed inevitable, some of the 500,000 men mobilized at the orders of the Ethiopian emperor were armed with bows and spears. The guns they had dated from before World War I.

The Italian army was much better equipped than the Ethiopians. They had far more modern weapons at their disposal, such as machine guns, tanks and airplanes.

Due to the technological superiority of the Italian army, the inevitable defeat of Ethiopia took place once the capital, Addis Ababa, was captured.

Victory in Ethiopia marked the peak of Italian leader Benito Mussolini’s popularity and prestige in international circles. All the leaders with colonial ambitions supported his actions.

After the end of hostilities, the emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie I, went in exile. The country remained under Italian occupation until 1943, when the Italian army was defeated on the African front of World War II.

The official recognition of Ethiopia’s independence from Italy only took place in 1947, at the Paris Peace Conference.

After the Italian attack on Ethiopia, an alliance was formed between Germany, Italy and Japan.

Benito Mussolini had wanted an alliance with Germany even from the end of World War I. At that time, Mussolini was only the leader of the fascist movement and had no role in the Italian government. At the same time, Hitler had wanted an alliance with Italy since the 1920’s.

After he became chancellor, Hitler sent a personal message to Mussolini. In this message, he expressed his admiration and respect for the Italian leader.

At first, relations between the two dictators were rather tense. This was due to the fact that Mussolini did not want Germany to annex Austria. The first meeting between Mussolini and Hitler took place in Venice, where the German dictator assured Mussolini that he wouldn’t intervene in Austria. Shortly afterwards, however, the Austrian Nazis assassinated the Austrian chancellor, provoking a harsh reaction from Mussolini, who warned Hitler that an invasion of Austria would bring about war with Italy.

Relations between the two countries improved considerably when Germany supported Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia. The two countries signed a treaty of cooperation after the event.

The military alliance between the three countries came into being with the signing of the Tripartite Pact. Hungary, Romania, Slovakia and Bulgaria also adhered.

Germany and Japan signed an anti-communist pact. The pact stated that the two countries would defend each other in the case of a Soviet attack. Italy joined this pact too, and when Germany invaded the USSR, the pact was signed by the other countries participating in the invasion.

The origins of the alliance between Japan and Germany can be found in the visit of the Japanese diplomat, Oshima Hiroshi, to Berlin. He proposed to Joachim von Ribbentrop an alliance between the two countries, against the Soviet Union. At the same time, Italy expressed an interest in joining the two countries in an alliance.

Another event which contributed to the outbreak of World War II was the beginning of the Spanish Civil War. This broke out due to internal dissatisfaction amongst the factions in the Spanish army.

The war was fought between the Republicans, who were loyal to the democratic leftist government, and the group of nationalists called Falangists. The latter were led by General Francisco Franco, who was supported by Hitler and Mussolini. The two dictators sent considerable aid to Franco during the war.

The war began with a declaration of opposition made by a group of generals from the Spanish army, against the leftist government, led by president Manuel Azana. Initially, they were led by Jose Sanjurjo. However, Sanjurjo was killed on his return from Portugal, where he had been in exile. General Franco took over the leadership of the Falangists.

After the hostilities began, the rebels were unable to capture the important cities of Spain: Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, Bilbao and Malaga. Thus, the country was politically and economically divided, whilst the Republicans and Nationalists fought for control.

The nationalists advanced from the south and the west, capturing almost the whole coast of Spain. They also laid siege to Madrid for almost the entire duration of the war.

The nationalists also captured large parts of Catalonia. Thus, the war ended with the victory of Franco’s forces. After the war, thousands of Republicans chose exile, while those who remained in Spain were persecuted by the Nationalists.

Although Spain remained neutral during World War II, it actually offered tacit support to Germany and Italy. The civil war in this country was also a factor which contributed to the outbreak of hostilities between the Allies and the Axis.

General Franco was installed as dictator of Spain until his death in November 1975. Then, king Juan Carlos came to power, and Spain gradually made the transition to a democracy.

Germany actively intervened in the Spanish Civil War. Hitler sent the Condor Legion to Spain, a unit composed of over 12,000 ‘volunteers’. To this legion were added Luftwaffe fighter planes. Hitler sent these forces to support his fascist counterpart, General Francisco Franco. In the meantime, Benito Mussolini’s fascist Italy was sending armed forces which, by the end of the war, added up to a total of 75,000 men.

Spain was the theatre of operations in which the Condor Legion perfected the ‘carpet’ bombing technique. Through this technique, approximately 1,225,000 kg of bombs were dropped and over 4 million machine gun bullets were fired.

Great Britain and France organized a conference in London, with 26 participating countries. As a result of this conference, a committee for the supervision of the application of nonintervention in Spain’s internal affairs was formed. Both Germany and Italy participated as members of the committee, until the moment when the farce was uncovered. The support received by Franco from Germany and from Italy was one of the decisive factors of the Spanish civil war.

Hitler unleashed his militaristic policy on his neighbors. This policy was especially carried out on countries containing a significant population of ethnic Germans close to the borders of the Reich. The fact that it was all part of a much more ambitious plan was demonstrated by the minutes of a reunion called by Hitler at the Reich Chancellery. The meeting lasted almost four hours. It was called with the intention of dispelling any illusions held by the leaders of the general staff concerning the direction of his plans.

Hitler spoke to Blomberg, first Field Marshal of the Third Reich, General Werner von Fritsch, supreme commander of the Wehrmacht, Admiral Erich Raeder, supreme commander of the German navy, to Göring, supreme commander of the Luftwaffe, and to the foreign affairs minister, Baron Konstantin von Neurath. While his assistant, Colonel Friedrich Hossbach, carefully recorded the minutes, the Führer began by declaring that the purpose of the meeting could not be discussed before the Reich Cabinet ‘just because of the importance of the matter’.

Hitler explained to the generals the fact that the history of the Roman and British Empires ‘had proved that expansion could be carried out only by breaking down resistance and taking risks’. These risks, which he understood to mean short-term war against Great Britain and France, should be taken before the period of 1943-1945. Hitler saw this period as being ‘the turning point of the regime’ because, after this interval, ‘the world would be expecting our attack and would be increasing its countermeasures from year to year. It would be while the world was still preparing its defences that we would be obliged to take the offensive.’

In order to protect Germany’s flanks, Hitler intended ‘to overthrow Czechoslovakia and Austria’ simultaneously and ‘with lightning speed’ in an offensive war. Hitler considered that the British and the French had ‘already tacitly written off the Czechs’ and that ‘without British support, offensive action by France against Germany was not to be expected.’ First, Austria and Czechoslovakia must be rapidly destroyed. Then, England and France would follow. After that, Hitler could concentrate on creating a huge colonial empire in Europe.

Hitler’s plans troubled Generals Werner von Blomberg and Werner von Fritsch. The latter even intended to delay his planned vacation. It was possible that, working together, Blomberg and Fritsch could have hindered Hitler in finalizing the last stage of his plans. However, von Blomberg was forced to resign from his important position. He resigned after it was discovered that his new wife, Margarethe Gruhn, who was 35 years younger than him, had modelled for a pornographic catalogue, made by a Czech Jew, with whom she had lived. Margarethe Gruhn was also found on a register of known prostitutes held by the Berlin police.

Hitler appointed himself and Keitel in the place of Blomberg and Fritsch. Thus, de facto, if not immediately de jure, he sealed his control of the German armed forces. In only a few days, he carried out a massive reorganization of the higher echelons of the military machine. Twelve generals were removed, and 51 who held different positions were moved to other places. The way was open for Hitler to install his complete domination of the German armed forces.

Even though Hitler did not intend to obtain von Blomberg’s resignation, he promptly exploited a potentially complicated situation. Thus, Hitler extended his personal control over Germany’s armed forces. Due to the fact that he did not name an official successor to Blomberg, Hitler effectively took over the role of War Minister himself. Hitler appointed Wilhelm Keitel as personal counsellor concerning all issues relating to the Wehrmacht.

Making matters worse was the fact that both Hitler and Hermann Göring had been witnesses to the marriage of the couple, carried out in the War Ministry. Fritsch was also forced to resign, since he was suspected of being blackmailed by a Berlin ‘rentboy’ called Otto Schmidt. Fritsch was innocent of this accusation. Later he was acquitted in court, on the grounds of mistaken identity. It’s very probable that this was set up by Heinrich Himmler, chief of the SS. Any collective opposition of German generals to Fritsch’s elimination was undermined by General Wilhelm Keitel, a devotee of Hitler.

During the Nuremberg Trials, which took place after the war, Keitel declared: ‘From then on, Hitler began to give direct orders to the army, navy and air force. No one issued orders independently of Hitler. Of course I signed them… but they originated with Hitler. It was the wish and desire of Hitler to have all the power and command reside in him. It was something he could not do with Blomberg.’

Hitler became more and more involved in every aspect of the process of strategic decision-making. He did this through Keitel and through his obedient deputy, Major-General Alfred Jodl. The members of the German High Command, often of Prussian rigor, were mostly of aristocratic origins. They were full of resentments against the humiliations suffered at the end of World War I. They allowed their traditional role of strategists to be usurped by a man whom many of them admired only as a statesman, although none of them knew anything of his military talent.

Hitler’s next preoccupation was the annexation of Austria. Anschluss was the Nazi propaganda term for the invasion and forced annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany.

There was no need for a war against Austria for this country to be included in the Reich. German troops entered the country and gained strong enough popular support for Hitler to be able to declare Anschluss two days later. He was led by the army in a triumphant march through the streets of Vienna. Although the unification of the two countries had been forbidden by the Treaty of Versailles, Hitler presented it to the West as a fait-accompli. The only shots fired in anger, during Anschluss, were fired by the numerous Jews who committed suicide while the Wehrmacht crossed the border.

The German army marched towards Austria, and Hitler declared the unification of Austria with Nazi Germany. In the first days of the third Reich, Austria had many contradictions. Hitler’s regime began to limit every aspect of society, beginning with mass arrests of Austrians who tried to leave the country. At the same time, others acclaimed Hitler and his armies, welcoming them to their territory.

Shortly after this, the public humiliation of the Jews in Vienna was organized, including forcing them to clean the streets with toothbrushes. A concentration camp was organized in Mauthausen. The camp became famous for the cruelty and barbarity with which those imprisoned were treated. Many victims died while working in the camp’s quarry.

Anschluss, which increased the danger Czechoslovakia was in, was not sanctioned in any way by the League of Nations. It also only provoked a formal protest from the English. The protest was cancelled three days later by a declaration made by the British prime minister in the House of Commons, in which the annexation of Austria was accepted as a done deal.

Nazi Germany, profiting from the pacifistic attitude of the western states, progressed to the next step. It handed a note to the representatives of Great Britain and France, in which it informed them that ‘the right moment for the guaranteeing of the territorial status of Czechoslovakia must be left to Germany’s appreciation’ and that ‘no interference of the western powers in this part of Europe will contribute to the organization of peace.’ Thus, the door was opened through which Germany would annex the Sudeten region of Czechoslovakia.

Hitler managed the next crisis just as well as the earlier ones. This crisis was concerning the Sudeten area in Czechoslovakia, a German-speaking region transferred to Prague at Versailles. The Sudeten Germans had begun to agitate to unite with the Reich, in carefully orchestrated demonstrations. These demonstrations occasionally degenerated into violence.

It was necessary for him to have a second meeting with Hitler, at Bad Godesberg, before Chamberlain could reach the conclusion that Great Britain and France could make the Czechs accept the situation. The goal was to avoid a war for which the western powers were still unprepared. Reporting to the cabinet on his return from Godesberg, Chamberlain declared that he was convinced of the fact that Hitler ‘would not deliberately deceive a man whom he respected, with whom he had been in negotiation’.

The Sudeten Nazis in the Czech parliament began a strike, following an interdiction against organizing political meetings. Hitler ably alimented the crisis during the year, mobilizing the Wehrmacht and requesting, the following month, the annexation of the Sudeten region to Germany. Then he declared that this was his last territorial acquisition in Europe.

A third meeting, in Munich, was needed before Germany, Italy, Great Britain and France could come to an agreement concerning the territorial expansion and integration plan of the Sudeten Region into the Reich. Presenting the Munich Accord to the House of Commons, Chamberlain declared: ‘It is my hope, and my belief, that under the new system of guarantees the new Czechoslovakia will find a greater security than she has ever enjoyed in the past.’ In spite of the naivety of this declaration, we can at least be certain that Chamberlain believed it.

The British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, flew to Hitler’s mountain residence in Berchtesgaden to try to negotiate a solution to the crisis. On his return, Chamberlain wrote to his sister, Ida: ‘In short I had established a certain confidence which was my aim and on my side in spite of the hardness and ruthlessness I thought I saw in his face I got the impression that here was a man who could be relied upon when he had given his word.’

Hitler actually wanted the Czechoslovakian arsenal, the communications networks in the country and positions close to the borders of Poland and Romania. Speculating on the dissensions between Czechs and Slovaks, the Nazis obtained the proclamation of the ‘independence’ of Slovakia.

One month after Munich, Hitler and Mussolini supported the annexation of southern Slovakia by Hungary. This annexation took place rapidly and without consulting Great Britain or France. This put Chamberlain in the position of declaring in the House of Commons that: ‘We never guaranteed the frontiers as they existed. What we did was to guarantee against unprovoked aggression – quite a different thing.’ One week later, the Nazis unleashed the six-day pogrom against German Jews, known to history as Kristallnacht.

German troops occupied what was left of Bohemia and Moravia, in Czechoslovakia. Hitler entered in triumph through a depressed Prague. The Chamberlain cabinet was left without explanations and excuses, especially since, during that month, Hitler had denounced the pact of nonaggression he had signed with Poland five years earlier.

Great Britain and France gave guarantees to Poland, promising to go to war against Germany if that country invaded. The guarantee was designed to be a safety measure to discourage any other adventurous intentions from Hitler. Two weeks later, similar promises were made to Romania and Greece.

Great Britain introduced conscription for men of 20 and 21 years of age. In the same day, Hitler denounced the Anglo-German Naval Accord, which limited the size of the fleets of both countries.

The last political act before the outbreak of war was the signing of the nonaggression pact between the USSR and Germany. The pact was signed by the foreign affairs ministers of the two countries, Joachim von Ribbentrop and Vyacheslav Molotov.

Hitler managed to strike the greatest blow of his entire career up to that point. The German generals insisted that Poland should not be invaded until the neutrality of Russia was ensured. Hitler decided to carry out the most impressive political tactic change of the 20th century. In complete contradiction to what he had always maintained concerning the aversion he felt towards Bolshevism, Hitler sent his foreign affairs minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, to Moscow. The purpose of the visit was to negotiate with Stalin’s new foreign affairs minister, Vyacheslav Molotov.

The two countries were brought together since Stalin found it necessary to encourage a war between Germany and the west. Hitler, on the other hand, wanted the war to be fought on one front and not two, as had happened in the Great War. Thus, communist and fascist ideologies took second place, while an ample pact of Soviet-Nazi non-aggression was signed.

Hitler believed that Germany was not yet prepared for war with the Soviet Union. For the time being, the pact ensured Germany’s security in the east, while it was preparing for war with the western powers.

Although the Soviet Union had carried out negotiations for a treaty with the western democracies, Stalin chose to sign a treaty with Germany. The signing of a treaty with the western powers would have put the USSR into an imminent conflict with Germany, a war for which the Soviets were not prepared. On the other hand, Hitler was offering them peace and territories. Thus, from Stalin’s point of view, a pact with Germany seemed to best protect Soviet interests, at least in the short term.

The pact also contained a secret protocol which divided the areas of influence in Europe between the two countries. Lithuania and a large part of Poland entered into the sphere of German influence. The other part of Poland, Latvia, Estonia, Bessarabia and Finland would come under Soviet influence.

After the signing of the nonaggression pact with the Soviet Union, Germany began preparations for war. The invasion of Poland was the first step in this direction. Once he was sure of the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Hitler lost no more time. One week later, an anonymous prisoner from a German concentration camp was taken by the Gestapo to a radio transmission station near the border town of Gleiwitz. He was then dressed in Polish military uniform and shot.

After the prisoner dressed in Polish uniform was shot, it was the turn of the Nazi propaganda to act. It rapidly invented a story claiming that the Poles had attacked Germany. Thus, the propaganda allowed Hitler to invade Poland as a measure of ‘self-defense’ without needing a declaration of war. Operation Himmler, as this farce was called, claimed the first victim of World War II. Taking into account the horrible way in which 50 million people died during the conflict, the hapless prisoner could count himself among the lucky ones.