Hitler’s Foreign Policy

In a meeting with his leading generals and admirals on 3 February 1933, Hitler spoke of “conquest of Lebensraum in the East and its ruthless Germanisation” as his ultimate foreign policy objectives. In March 1933, the first major statement of German foreign policy aims appeared with the memo submitted to the German Cabinet by the State Secretary at the Auswärtiges Amt (Foreign Office), Prince Bernhard Wilhelm von Bülow, which advocated Anschluss with Austria, the restoration of the frontiers of 1914, the rejection of Part V of Versailles, the return of the former German colonies in Africa, and a German zone of influence in Eastern Europe as goals for the future. Hitler found the goals in Bülow’s memo to be too modest. In March 1933, to resolve the deadlock between the French demand for sécurité (“security”) and the German demand for gleichberechtigung (“equality of armaments”) at the World Disarmament Conference in Geneva, Switzerland, the British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald presented the compromise “MacDonald Plan”. Hitler endorsed the “MacDonald Plan”, correctly guessing that nothing would come of it, and that in the interval he could win some goodwill in London by making his government appear moderate, and the French obstinate.

In May 1933, Hitler met with Herbert von Dirksen, the German Ambassador in Moscow. Dirksen advised the Führer that he was allowing relations with the Soviet Union to deteriorate to a unacceptable extent, and advised to take immediate steps to repair relations with the Soviets. Much to Dirksen’s approval, Hitler informed him he wished for a Soviet understanding concerning Poland in time, hinting at a future solution to the Polish “issue.”

In June 1933, Hitler was forced to disavow Alfred Hugenberg of the German National People’s Party, who while attending the London World Economic Conference put forth a programme of colonial expansion in both Africa and Eastern Europe, which created a major storm abroad. Speaking to the Burgermeister of Hamburg in 1933, Hitler commented that Germany required several years of peace before it could be sufficiently rearmed enough to risk a war, and until then a policy of caution was called for. In his “peace speeches” of 17 May 1933, 21 May 1935, and 7 March 1936, Hitler stressed his supposed pacific goals and a willingness to work within the international system. In private, Hitler’s plans were something less than pacific. At the first meeting of his Cabinet in 1933, Hitler placed military spending ahead of unemployment relief, and indeed was only prepared to spend money on the latter if the former was satisfied first. When the president of the Reichsbank, the former Chancellor Dr. Hans Luther, offered the new government the legal limit of 100 million Reichmarks to finance rearmament, Hitler found the sum too low, and sacked Luther in March 1933 to replace him with Hjalmar Schacht, who during the next five years was to advance 12 billion Reichmarks worth of “Mefo-bills” to pay for rearmament.

A major initiative in Hitler’s foreign policy in his early years was to divide the former Entente: Britain, France, Russia, and Italy. In the 1920s, Hitler wrote that a future National Socialist foreign policy goal was “the destruction of Russia and domination of Central and Eastern Europe.” In May 1933, Alfred Rosenberg in his capacity as head of the Nazi Party’s Aussenpolitisches Amt (Foreign Political Office) visited London as part of a disastrous effort to win an alliance with Britain. In October 1933, Hitler pulled Germany out of both the League of Nations and World Disarmament Conference after his Foreign Minister Baron Konstantin von Neurath made it appear to world public opinion that the French demand for sécurité was the principal stumbling block.

In line with the views he advocated in Mein Kampf and Zweites Buch about the necessity of dividing Germany’s former enemies, Hitler, in a meeting in November 1933 with the British Ambassador, Sir Eric Phipps, hinted at the growth of the German Army to 300,000 soldiers to serve as a buffer between the Soviet Union and Western Europe. In response, the British stated a 10-year waiting period would be necessary before Britain would support an increase in the size of the German Army.

In February 1934, Hitler met with the British Lord Privy Seal, Sir Anthony Eden, and hinted strongly that Germany already possessed an Air Force, which had been forbidden by the Treaty of Versailles. In the fall of 1934, Hitler was seriously concerned over the dangers of inflation damaging his popularity. In a secret speech given before his Cabinet on 5 November 1934, Hitler stated he had “given the working class his word that he would allow no price increases. Wage-earners would accuse him of breaking his word if he did not act against the rising prices. Revolutionary conditions among the people would be the further consequence.”

Although a secret German armaments programme had been on-going since 1919, in March 1935, Hitler rejected Part V of the Versailles treaty by publicly announcing that the German army would be expanded to 600,000 men (six times the number stipulated in the Treaty of Versailles), introducing the Luftwaffe and increasing the size of the Kriegsmarine. Britain, France, Italy and the League of Nations quickly condemned these actions. However, after re-assurances from Hitler that Germany was only interested in peace, no country took any action to stop this development and German re-armament continued. Later in March 1935, Hitler held a series of meetings in Berlin with the British Foreign Secretary Sir John Simon and Eden, during which he successfully evaded British offers for German participation in a regional security pact meant to serve as an Eastern European equivalent of the Locarno pact. During his talks with Simon and Eden, Hitler first used what he regarded as the brilliant colonial negotiating tactic, when Hitler parlayed an offer from Simon to return to the League of Nations by demanding the return of the former German colonies in Africa.

Starting in April 1935, disenchantment with how the Third Reich had developed in practice as opposed to what been promised led many in the Nazi Party, especially the Alte Kämpfer, and the SA into lashing out against Germany’s Jewish minority as a way of expressing their frustrations against a group that the authorities would not generally protect. The rank and file of the Party were most unhappy that two years into the Third Reich, and despite countless promises by Hitler prior to 1933, no law had been passed banning marriage or sex between those Germans belonging to the “Aryan” and Jewish “races”. A Gestapo report from the spring of 1935 stated that the rank and file of the Nazi Party would “set in motion by us from below,” a solution to the “Jewish problem,” “that the government would then have to follow.” As a result, Nazi Party activists and the SA started a major wave of assaults, vandalism and boycotts against German Jews.

On 18 June 1935, the Anglo-German Naval Agreement (AGNA) was signed in London which allowed for increasing the allowed German tonnage up to 35% of that of the British navy. Hitler called the signing of the AGNA “proof of the West’s decay and cowardice” which he predicted in Mein Kampf. This agreement was made without consulting either France or Italy, directly undermined the League of Nations and put the Treaty of Versailles on the path towards irrelevance. After the signing of the AGNA, in June 1935 Hitler ordered the next step in his expansionist drive by taking all the societies demanding the restoration of the former German African colonies and coordinating (Gleichschaltung) them into a new Reich Colonial League (Reichskolonialbund) which over the next few years waged an extremely aggressive propaganda campaign for colonial restoration. Hitler had no real interest in the former German African colonies. In Mein Kampf, Hitler had excoriated the Imperial German government for pursuing colonial expansion in Africa prior to 1914 on the grounds that the natural area for Lebensraum was Eastern Europe, not Africa. It was Hitler’s intention to use colonial demands as a negotiating tactic that would see a German “renunciation” of colonial claims in exchange for Britain making concessions with the Reich regarding territorial claims including the Sudetenland, Austria, and Danzig.

In the summer of 1935, Hitler was informed that, between inflation and the need to use foreign exchange to buy raw materials Germany lacked for rearmament, there were only 5 million Reichmarks available for military expenditure, and a pressing need for some 300,000 Reichmarks/day to prevent food shortages. In August 1935, Dr. Hjalmar Schacht advised Hitler that the wave of anti-Semitic violence was interfering with the workings of the economy, and hence rearmament. Following Dr. Schacht’s complaints, plus reports that the German public did not approve of the wave of anti-Semitic violence, and that continuing police toleration of the violence was hurting the regime’s popularity with the wider public, Hitler ordered a stop to “individual actions” against German Jews on 8 August 1935. From Hitler’s perspective, it was imperative to bring in harsh new anti-Semitic laws as a consolation prize for those Party members who were disappointed with Hitler’s halt order of 8 August, especially because Hitler had only reluctantly given the halt order for pragmatic reasons, and his sympathies were with the Party radicals. The annual Nazi Party Rally held at Nuremberg in September 1935 was to feature the first session of the Reichstag held at that city since 1543. Hitler had planned to have the Reichstag pass a law making the Nazi Swastika flag the flag of the German Reich, and a major speech in support of the impending Italian aggression against Ethiopia. Hitler felt that the Italian aggression opened great opportunities for Germany. In August 1935, Hitler told Goebbels his foreign policy vision as: “The division of the Entente. A temporary truce with Russia . . . Expansion to the East. The Baltic belongs to us . . . Conflicts Italy-Abyssinia-England, then Japan-Russia imminent.”

At the last minute before the Nuremberg Party Rally was due to begin, the German Foreign Minister Baron Konstantin von Neurath persuaded Hitler to cancel his speech praising Italy for her willingness to commit aggression. Neurath convinced Hitler that his speech was too provocative to public opinion abroad as it contradicted the message of Hitler’s “peace speeches”, thus leaving Hitler with the sudden need to have something else to address the first meeting of the Reichstag in Nuremberg since 1543, other than the Reich Flag Law. On 13 September 1935, Hitler hurriedly ordered two civil servants, Dr. Bernhard Lösener and Franz Albrecht Medicus of the Interior Ministry to fly to Nuremberg to start drafting anti-Semitic laws for Hitler to present to the Reichstag for 15 September. On the evening of 15 September, Hitler presented two laws before the Reichstag banning sex and marriage between Aryan and Jewish Germans, the employment of Aryan woman under the age of 45 in Jewish households, and deprived “non-Aryans” of the benefits of German citizenship. The laws of September 1935 are generally known as the Nuremberg Laws.

In October 1935, in order to prevent further food shortages and the introduction of rationing, Hitler reluctantly ordered cuts in military spending. In the spring of 1936 in response to requests from Richard Walther Darré, Hitler ordered 60 million Reichmarks of foreign exchange to be used to buy seed oil for German farmers, a decision that led to bitter complaints from Dr. Schacht and the War Minister Field Marshal Werner von Blomberg that it would be impossible to achieve rearmament as long as foreign exchange was diverted to preventing food shortages. Given the economic problems which was affecting his popularity by early 1936, Hitler felt the pressing need for a foreign policy triumph as a way of distracting public attention from the economy.

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