Hitler’s Foreign Policy

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Hitler’s Aims:

Hitler controlled German Foreign Policy from January 1933.

  • Hitler took Germany out of the League of Nations immediately. (They had been allowed to join in 1926).
  • He saw the Treaty of Versailles as one of the main causes of the problems that Germany faced. He promised the German’s that he would reverse the treaty and regain the territory that Germany had lost.
  • He planned to expand into the East of Europe so that he would gain Lebensraum (German for ‘Living Space’. Hitler wanted to create space for the growing population) for the people, which he believed they needed.

Hitler took these steps in order to achieve his aims:

  • When he was taking over the territory that had been lost due to the Treaty of Versailles he managed to convince many of the European leaders that once Germany had regained the territory lost, no further demands would be made.
  • Hitler had the benefit of seeing the Japanese successfully defy the League of Nations over the situation in Manchuria.
  • Hitler also developed close relations with the leader of Italy, Mussolini, who had withdrawn from the League as a result of the Abyssinian crisis.

The Saar

The Saar, with its rich coalfields was an industrial area that had been taken from Germany by the Treaty of Versailles and put under the control of the League of Nations. A plebiscite (a vote by the people living in an area to decide the answer to an important question) was to be held after 15 years to decide if it was to be returned to the Germans. The plebiscite was held in January, 1935. The results of the plebiscite showed that over 90% of the population of the Saar wanted to reunite with Germany. Hitler regarded this as a great triumph because it was the first of the injustices of the Treaty of Versailles to be reversed.


One of the first things that Hitler chose to do when he came to power was to begin to increase the German Armed Forces. He did have to do this secretly at first due to the terms of the Treaty of Versailles.

The Disarmament Conference – 1932 – 1934

The conference first met in the February of 1932. The main problem that they were discussing was what to do with Germany. Germany had been involved in the League for 6 years and many people now accepted that Germany should be treated more fairly than it was said in the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. The question was, should everyone disarm to the level that Germany had been forced to or should the Germans be allowed to rearm to the level of other countries? The Germans walked out of the conference in July 1932 when the other counties refused to disarm to the level that Germany had had to. In May 1933, Hitler returned to the conference and promised that he wouldn’t rearm if ‘in five years all other nations destroyed their arms’. They refused and Hitler withdrew from the conference in October and not much later, the League of Nations.

Non-Aggression Pact with Poland 1934

Germany signed a non-aggression pact with Poland in January 1934. Hitler signed this for various reasons, including:

  • He hoped to weaken the alliance that already existed between Poland and France.
  • He hoped to reduce the Polish fears of German aggression.
  • He wanted to show that he didn’t have a quarrel with Poland, merely the USSR.


Hitler staged a huge military rally celebrating the armed forces of Germany in 1935. He also reintroduced conscription and announced an army of 550,000 in the same year. An Air Ministry was set up to train pilots and build 1,000 aircraft. Hitler was breaking the terms of the Treaty of Versailles but he believed that he would get away with it due to the collapse of the Disarmament Conference. He was correct.

French, Italian and British representatives meet at the town of Stresa where they agreed to co-operate to preserve the peace in Europe. They condemned the rearmament of Germany. This was known as the Stresa Front against German aggression. But it didn’t last long. It collapsed due to the Abyssinian Crisis which destroyed the relations between France, Britain and Italy, and the Anglo-German Naval Treaty.

Anglo-German Naval treaty 1935

Hitler was aware that Britain had some sympathy towards Germany regarding rearmament. Britain did believe that the terms of the treaty had been too harsh on Germany and that a strong Germany would be a buffer against Communism. In 1935, Britain signed a naval agreement with Germany. This allowed the Germans to have navy fleet up to 35% of the size of the British fleet and have the same number of submarines. The British were accepting Hitler’s breach of the Treaty.

The Remilitarisation of the Rhineland 1936

On the 7th of March, 1936 Hitler moved German troops back into the demilitarised area of the Rhineland. This was a risk for Hitler as it was clearly a breach of the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. Also, the German army consisted of only 22,000 men and if the French army had reacted then they would have been no opposition. The men were also under strict orders to withdraw if they were faced with any opposition). But, neither the French nor British did anything. The troops remained in the Rhineland.

Anschluss with Austria 1938

Hitler was Austrian born and he wished to see Germany and Austria united as one country. In 1938 he felt ready to attempt this.

  • He bullied Schuschnigg, who was the Austrian Chancellor, into accepting Seyss-Inquart, who was a Nazi, as Austrian Minister of the Interior.
  • Schuschnigg ordered for a plebiscite to take place in order to find out if the Austrians really wanted to unite with Germany.
  • Hitler worried that the people would vote against the unification. He moved German troops to the Austrian border and threatened to invade if Schuschnigg didn’t resign.
  • Seyss-Inquart then became Chancellor of Austria. He invited the German troops into the country. On the 12th of March 1938, the Germany army entered Vienna. They were welcomed with cheers and salutes. The Anschluss was complete.
  • The Nazis also held their own votes regarding the unification with Germany and 99% of those who voted were in favour of the union. (But it was believed that people opposed the unification were taken away and locked up or killed.) Austria became a province of the new German Reich.

The Anschluss was another breach of the Treaty of Versailles. The French and British governments did complain about it but they didn’t take any action.

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Britain followed a Policy of Appeasement from 1935 to 1938. This meant giving in to the demands that Hitler made when they believed the demands to be reasonable. The policy is mainly associated with Neville Chamberlain who was the Prime Minister of Britain from 1937 to 1940.

Arguments for Appeasement

  • Nobody wished to repeat the horrors of the First World War, they wanted to avoid another war at all costs.
  • A lot of people believed that Germany had been unfairly treated by the Treaty of Versailles.
  • To some people, Communism was seen as the biggest threat. They believed that Germany could act as a buffer because Hitler was anti-communist.
  • Britain wasn’t ready to go to war. Rearmament had only started slowly in 1936 and the British forces were no match of the Germans.
  • Britain was also preoccupied with problems that had been caused by the Depression e.g Unemployment and they wanted to stay out of foreign involvement.
  • The Spanish Civil War had shown how powerful Germany was. The events showed how horrific another war might be.

Arguments against Appeasement

  • Hitler was given an advantage. He was growing stronger. If war came it would be against a strong Germany.
  • It wasn’t right that Britain and France were allowing Germany to break the terms of the Treaty of Versailles.
  • Chamberlain misjudged Hitler. He had believed that he was simply a normal leader. Appeasement encouraged Hitler that he could do anything he wanted.
  • They missed opportunities to stop Hitler e.g the reoccupation of the Rhineland in 1936.
  • It didn’t prevent a war.

The Sudeten Crisis

German speakers who lived in Czechoslovakia lived in an area called the Sudetenland. Hitler wanted these people back.

  • He ordered Konrad Henlein (who was the leader of the Sudetenland Germans) to cause trouble in the Sudetenland.
  • German newspapers printed allegations of crimes which had apparently been committed by the Czechs towards the Sudeten Germans.
  • Hitler threatened to go to war if a solution wasn’t reached.
    Chamberlain, the British Prime-Minister, believed that a peaceful solution could be reached. He attempted to convince the Czech President to accept self-government for the Sudetenland. Beneš did agree but Hitler then produced new demands and claimed that the Sudetenland should become part of the German Reich.

At a meeting at Godesburg on the 22nd of September Beneš refused to accept the demands. War seemed like it was going to be a real possibility but Chamberlain appealed to Hitler to give him more time to try and find a solution.

The Munich Agreement

Neville Chamberlain made one last attempt to maintain peace on the 29th of September at the Munich Conference.

  • Chamberlain met with Daladier (the French leader), Hitler and Mussolini at Munich in a bid to resolve the Sudeten Crisis.
  • The Czech representatives weren’t actually invited to this meeting.
  • The Czechs were made to hand over the Sudetenland to Germany. A commission was set up to decide precisely which territory would be lost.

Chamberlain and Hitler also had a further meeting in Munich in which they both agreed that Britain and Germany would not go to war with each other. Hitler promised that he didn’t want the rest of Czechoslovakia. Chamberlain was treated as a hero when he returned back to Britain as he had, supposedly, saved Europe from going to war.

The results of the Munich Agreement also had quite a serious effect on the Czechoslovakians as well as Europe.

  • The Czech Government had been completely humiliated.
  • The vital area of the Sudetenland was lost and, later on, in October and November, both Poland and Hungary occupied further areas of Czech territory.
  • Once again, Britain and France had given in to the demands of Hitler.

Even though the Munich Agreement had been seen as a success, both Britain and France increased the speed of their rearmament.

The collapse of Czechoslovakia, March 1939

Hitler invaded and occupied the remains of Czechoslovakia in the March of 1939. Bohemia and Moravia were now controlled by Germany. Slovakia was independent in theory; however it was largely dominated by Germany. Ruthenia was given to Hungary.

The end of appeasement

When Hitler occupied the remainder of Czechoslovakia it suggested that war was eventually going to come. The occupation of Czechoslovakia proved that the promises that Hitler had made at the Munich Agreement were not going to be upheld. Britain and France were also now rapidly rearming and they accepted that the Policy of Appeasement had obviously failed.

Towards War

The Pact of Steel, May 1939

Events in the Spring of 1939 seemed to be favouring the countries with dictatorships. Hitler had forced to hand over the Baltic town of Memel as well as an area of land that was along their south-west border in March. In May, Mussolini also followed the example that Hitler had set in Czechoslovakia by invading Albania.

The Pact of Steel was signed between Hitler and Mussolini in May 1939. They promised to act together regarding future events that may take place. It was clear that Europe was now divided into two sections. Britain and Germany both began looking to the USSR as a possible source of support.


Hitler’s next target then became Poland. The Treaty of Versailles had taken away German territory and given it to the Polish, giving them access to a sea port (this was the Polish Corridor) and Danzig (which had been a German city) had also been put under League of Nations control. After Hitler’s success in Czechoslovakia, he demanded the return of the Polish Corridor and Danzig.

The French and British Governments had both been greatly humiliated by Munich and the events that had followed the conference. They decided to act decisively. They gave guarantees of support to the Poles, Greeks and Rumanians that they would support them in the case of German Aggression. They also increased their production of arms and equipment.

The role of the USSR

Britain and France had made promises that they would help to protect Poland however there was no way that they would be able to actually help Poland because of its distance from the West of Europe. The only country that would be able to prevent a German attack on Poland was the USSR. The British and French did begin talks with the USSR to try and reach an agreement.

The USSR was suspicious of the Western motives. Stalin felt that throughout the 1930s that Britain had been trying to send Hitler over to the East. Many British people did actually fear communism more than fascism. The USSR’s exclusion from the Munich Conference was evidence to prove this when the future of Czechoslovakia was also important to them. Britain and France didn’t really show any urgency in relation to making an agreement with the USSR in 1939. That made Stalin even more suspicious and contributed to him signing the Nazi-Soviet Pact. He didn’t believe that the British and French could be trusted.

The Nazi-Soviet Pact

The German Foreign Minister, Ribbentrop, and the Soviet Foreign Minister, Molotov, signed the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact on the 23rd of August 1939.

  • In this pact the Soviets and Germans agreed not to fight each other if a war in Europe took place.
  • The powers secretly agreed to divide up Polish territory between them.
  • Hitler also let Stalin occupy part of Romania as well as the Baltic states; Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.

The world was shocked when the two enemies agreed not to attack each other. Hitler and Stalin represented two political systems which totally opposed each other. Although, despite their differences of beliefs on policy, Hitler and Stalin had a lot to offer each other.

  • The Pact removed the possibility of war on two fronts for Hitler. He was given the opportunity to deal with Poland as well, regardless of the threats given by France and Britain.
  • Stalin had already been suspicious about the motives of the British and French who had not shown much friendship to the USSR before Hitler rose to power. Hitler had more to offer to Stalin e.g territory in the East of Europe.

Poland and the outbreak of the war

Hitler decided to invade Poland soon after Germany had signed the Nazi-Soviet Pact. He did this because:

  • Because of the pact he didn’t have to worry about the possibility of a Soviet reaction.
  • The guarantees that Britain and France had made with Poland in the April of 1939 were made too late for Hitler to believe that they would really go to war.
  • Because of the Policy of Appeasement, Hitler believed that he could get away with almost anything. He thought that the British and French would do almost anything to avoid a war.
  • He knew that Poland was too far away for the British and French to provide support and decided that even if war came then it would be over very quickly.

On the 1st of September 1939, Hitler sent German troops into Poland. War was declared soon after this but both Britain and France. The USSR also invaded Poland on the 15th of September and took the territory which had been agreed in the Nazi-Soviet Pact. Poland was defeated in 6 weeks.

Who was to Blame?

Hitler does have to take most of the blame for the war but it wasn’t just his fault. The other countries that were involved also held some responsibility.

The USSR had made the deal with Germany which led to the invasion of Poland as the German forces wouldn’t have to face the risk of a Soviet attack.

Poland had signed the alliance with France and Britain which then led to it trying to resist the German demands.

Britain and France’s Policy of Appeasement had led Hitler to believe that he could get away with anything (including the invasion of Poland). The alliance that they had signed with Poland had also encouraged the Poles to refuse German demands.

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All text copyright © 2006 to EJ Taylor. Page Template created by James Taylor. Site created: 10 April, 2006. Last revised: 2 August, 2015