Seventy years ago, Europe was plunged into the deepest crisis experienced since the end of the first world war, paving the way for the rapid descent into a new, even more terrible, world conflict. Few historical developments have been more extensively researched and reassessed than the critical events of 1938, and there have been fierce debates, in particular, about Hitler’s aims. Did he have a clear ideological programme, a blueprint consistently followed? Or was he a brutal, unprincipled opportunist, with a gift for propaganda and lust for power, together with a sharp eye for exploiting the weakness of the western democracies? Could German aggression be attributed simply to Hitler’s megalomania, or did it represent more deep-seated forces in society, particularly the strength of the military and of big business? Did Hitler, in other words, follow or break with traditional aims in German foreign policy?
Historians have wrestled with these questions over the years. But they have gradually arrived at some clear answers. We are currently enjoying a rush of major books about the Third Reich by British historians, and these books are noteworthy not least because they reflect the fact that there are now generally – if not universally – accepted conclusions about Hitler and the run-up to war.
An obvious starting point in the debate is the publication in 1961 of AJP Taylor’s Origins of the Second World War, which set out to be controversial. For Taylor, Hitler was no more than an opportunist, operating without any plan or programme other than vague notions of expansion. Taylor’s real villains were the appeasers in Britain and France whose political ineptitude opened the door. It was a maverick interpretation, which was heatedly contested. Hugh Trevor-Roper convincingly argued that Hitler was a man of ideas, however repulsive. Tim Mason, emphasising the economic pressures arising from German expansionism that made a drive to war inevitable, came close to claiming Taylor did not know what he was talking about. In Germany, Taylor’s interpretation was scarcely taken seriously, but the antithesis of his approach was at its most forthright in a work that still forms the most fundamental assessment of prewar German foreign policy, Gerhard L Weinberg’s masterly The Foreign Policy of Hitler’s Germany, in which Hitler’s goal of domination is absolutely central.
Recently, Adam Tooze’s acclaimed study The Wages of Destruction (Penguin, 2006) has offered a novel approach – looking at Germany’s long-term economic weakness in relation to the US as the key to German aggression. As a determinant of prewar foreign policy Tooze perhaps overemphasises Hitler’s preoccupation with the threat from America. But he successfully adds increasing economic pressures on the Nazi regime to the ideological thrust that produced those pressures. And he is also one of the few historians to link the radicalisation of antisemitism to the growing proximity of war, as increased international tension underpinned notions of a “world Jewish conspiracy” behind US policy.
Jonathan Wright has produced the incisive Germany and the Origins of the Second World War (Palgrave, 2007), while German foreign policy is also explored, as part of the structure of the Nazi regime, in Richard J Evans’s The Third Reich in Power (Penguin, 2005) and, with particular focus on Hitler’s role, in my own biography of the German leader.
So what are the generally accepted conclusions? Hitler had no plainly defined programme. But to dismiss him as merely an opportunist would be wrong. He did have a limited but inflexible framework of ideas that gave consistent direction to his leadership. Its twin tracks, embedded in a sense of race as the key determinant in history, were “removal” of the Jews and expansion to the east to obtain land to secure Germany’s future. Both imprecise, distant goals served, once Hitler had taken power in January 1933, as guidelines for action for every facet of the regime, without ever having to be spelt out in overt policy terms. Much was adapted to rapidly changing circumstances – but within the parameters embodied by Hitler’s ideological “vision”.
Before 1938 there was no incompatibility between Hitler’s long-term goals and the interests of the military (and other sections of the power elite) in the build-up of German armed force, renewed national strength and standing, and the profits to be made from an expanding armaments industry. But, as would become ever more apparent from 1938 onwards, Hitler was not just following traditional lines of German policy. Taylor’s characteristic throwaway line that “in international affairs there was nothing wrong with Hitler except that he was a German” (leaving aside the fact that he was actually Austrian) is misleading. Hitler could indeed build on expansionist traditions in the German power elite. But his increasingly unassailable leadership position and his racial obsessions distorted those traditions, then took policy into uncharted territory as the war progressed – producing ultimately the moral and physical ruination of his country.
If even in retrospect it hasn’t been easy to arrive at a clear assessment of Hitler’s aims, it is little wonder that contemporaries inside and outside Germany were unsure how to deal with him. The year 1938 marked the high-tide of the attempts of the western democracies to appease Hitler. “Munich” is still a byword for the ignominy that attaches to Chamberlain’s attempts to buy off Hitler at the expense of Czechoslovakia. Chamberlain’s reputation cannot be rescued. But recognition of the grave errors of judgment of policy-making in the 1930s has come to be seen in the perspective of the realistic options open to the British government at the time.
The first crisis of 1938, over Austria, arose so suddenly that the Nazi leadership was itself caught unawares. It was triggered by the announcement on March 9 by the Austrian chancellor, Kurt von Schuschnigg, that there would be a plebiscite three days later to determine whether Austria would remain an independent country. The result would have been a foregone conclusion, but the plebiscite never took place. Incensed by Schuschnigg’s move, Hitler reacted swiftly. On March 11 the Austrians were bullied into submission, Schuschnigg and the president, Wilhelm Miklas, forced to resign. Lord Halifax, the British foreign secretary, had told Schuschnigg that “his majesty’s government are unable to guarantee protection”.
Hitler’s axis partner, Italy, offered support for the annexation, prompting effusive expressions of Hitler’s gratitude. Hitler’s man, Arthur Seyss-Inquart, was installed as the new chancellor. But even with Austria under Nazi control, Hitler ordered the Wehrmacht to cross the Austrian border. He himself followed later that day, March 12, making slow progress through the jubilant crowds of Austrians before reaching his home town of Linz. Under the emotional impact of his tumultuous reception, Hitler decided that mere satellite status for Austria was not enough. It had to be full incorporation. Legislation for this was hurriedly devised on March 13. Before the evening was out, Austria was merely a German province. A month later, on April 12, in the perfect result for a plebiscite staged by a dictatorial regime, 99% approved the Anschluss.
Though the Anschluss crisis had erupted rapidly and the Nazis had largely made brutal policy on the hoof, it would be mistaken to share Taylor’s view that the way in which Austria had fallen under German control had been for Hitler “a tiresome accident, an interruption of his long-term policy”. It was in fact a direct outcome of the interlinked ideological, military-strategic and economic strands of Nazi policy that had developed over the previous five years. The ideological imperative of expansion, necessitating rapid rearmament, which ensured Hitler’s backing in the military leadership and big business, made Austria a strategic target – even apart from Hitler’s wish to unite his homeland with the Reich and the growing clamour for union among Austrian Nazi supporters (about a third of the population). The speed of rearmament had led to severe economic bottlenecks. Austria offered much-needed iron-ore deposits, other raw materials and supplies of labour.
It was little wonder that there was growing pressure for political union between Germany and Austria, which was already heavily dependent economically on the Reich. In the second half of 1937, Hitler spoke menacingly about moving soon against Austria. And when, on February 12 1938, Hitler met Schuschnigg, he browbeat him into major concessions on German influence there. The plans for a gradual absorption of Austria by Germany were then thrown overboard by Schuschnigg’s peremptory announcement of the plebiscite. The crisis followed. But it was a crisis waiting to happen. It was indeed directly provoked by Schuschnigg, rather than Hitler, as Taylor stated, but only in the sense that an unlocked car might provoke someone to steal it. Hitler’s furious reaction at Schuschnigg’s move should not be taken as evidence that the crisis was unwelcome to the German dictator. On the contrary: it was an opportunity he was avid to grasp with both hands.
Hitler knew his action would be swallowed by the western powers. Halifax had implied as much when he had met Hitler the previous November. Chamberlain certainly did not like the brutal methods used. But, speaking to the cabinet’s foreign policy committee two days after the Anschluss, he said “he did not think anything that had happened should cause the government to alter their present policy” of seeking a general settlement of Europe’s problems through the appeasement of Germany. He was, in fact, even more sure that this policy was correct. Appeasement was about to be subjected to a much sterner test in the Czech crisis that was widely expected to follow Hitler’s triumph in Austria.
The German takeover in Austria left Czechoslovakia completely exposed. And it was even more important than Austria as far as German expansionist aims were concerned. But German aggression was fraught with danger. Since France was treaty-bound to back Czechoslovakia in the event of aggression, and Britain was allied with France, a German attack ran the high risk of European war. The Soviet Union, too, had treaty obligations with the Czechs and had indicated its willingness to help the French.
For Hitler, however, there could be no holding back. Precisely because of the alliances between Germany’s enemies east and west there was no time to lose in destroying Czechoslovakia if his expansionist intentions were to be realised. Economically, too, the country was a tempting prospect, with its strong industrial base, big armaments factories and important sources of raw materials. The 3 million-strong ethnic German minority in the Sudetenland, abutting Germany, offered the pretext for an allegedly nationalist policy publicly targeted at bringing them “home to the Reich”. Across the summer of 1938 Hitler ratcheted up pressure on the Czechs. War appeared increasingly likely. But most Germans were horrified at the prospect of another conflict only 20 years after the end of the first world war. Internal reports spoke of a “war psychosis” in the German population. The army was divided. The chief of the general staff, Ludwig Beck, advocated a collective stand by the military leadership, but was left isolated and he resigned in August. Whatever their apprehensions, most generals remained loyal. However, for the first time, there were stirrings of resistance among some individuals in high places, and plans began to take shape to have Hitler deposed in the event of a strike against Czechoslovakia.
Probably nothing would have materialised. There were inevitable weaknesses in the clandestine planning, the most obvious being a dependence on the willingness of the army’s commander-in-chief, Walter von Brauchitsch, a weak reed if ever there was one, to support a coup. But in any case the hopes of the plotters were destroyed by Chamberlain. Wedded to his policy of buying off Hitler, and determined to save Europe’s peace, Chamberlain had desperately embarked on shuttle-diplomacy, flying on September 15 to visit Hitler at Berchtesgaden, then a week later at Bad Godesberg. The German dictator simply increased his demands. Even now, Chamberlain was persuaded that Hitler was speaking the truth in wanting no more than “racial unity” with the Sudeten Germans. But his personal appeal to Hitler fell on deaf ears. War seemed inevitable.
Then the near impossible happened: Hitler backed down. Britain, supported by France, had pressed the Czechs into cession of the Sudetenland to Germany. Mussolini had then intervened, appealing to Hitler for a postponement of troop mobilisation and acceptance of a negotiated settlement along the lines of the British proposal. Being effectively given what he had claimed he wanted, Hitler conceded with bad grace. The result was the infamous carve-up of Czechoslovakia in the Munich agreement on September 30, decided at a four-power conference of the Germans, French, Italians and British. The Czechs themselves were not present at the mutilation of their own country.
Hitler had wanted war to destroy Czechoslovakia completely, not a negotiated settlement for a part of the country. His plans went way beyond the “homecoming” of the Sudeten Germans. But when Britain and France agreed to give him what he purportedly wanted without war, he had no pretext to fight. “You can’t carry out a world war on account of modalities,” his propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, remarked.
Born out of weakness, with resources and military commitments (in different parts of the world) stretched to their utmost, and rearmament programmes (opposed until late in the day by Labour and the Liberals) still in their early stages, Chamberlain’s drive for appeasement was a logical outcome of the years of drift, hesitancy and hope for the best in British foreign policy, coupled with the deep fears of a repeat of 1914-18. His military chiefs advised against going to war. The Dominions did not want to fight over Czechoslovakia. Despite their large army, the French, too, had no appetite for a fight: Verdun was too recent a memory. The League of Nations was by this time scarcely even a paper tiger, devoid of credibility since its divisions and pusillanimity had been so clearly laid bare following Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia in the autumn of 1935.
And across the Atlantic, the militarily weak US was only just emerging from the comforting illusion of isolationism and starting to show concern about developments in Europe. On hearing that Chamberlain was on his way to Munich, where a sellout to the German bully was the only outcome in sight, Roosevelt cabled “Good Man!” to the British prime minister.
All in all, Chamberlain was dealt a terribly bad hand, which, however, he then proceeded to play badly through his mistaken assessment of Hitler’s aims and his over-eagerness to placate the dictator with territorial concessions. The only hope resided, as Churchill advocated, in creating a “grand alliance” with the Soviet Union to deter and put pressure on Hitler. Chamberlain opposed this. Antipathy to communism undoubtedly played its part. But his stated reasoning was that an alliance of Britain, France and the Soviet Union, evoking the alignment before 1914, would ensure that Hitler went to war rather than pull back from conflict. He was probably right that this would have acted as a provocation to Hitler rather than a deterrent.
In any case, the “grand alliance” had, in practice, little to offer. Though Stalin claimed his troops were ready to march if Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia, the Red Army – devastated by recent purges – would have had its passage through Poland and Romania blocked. In the west, France was looking for a way out of honouring its commitment to Czechoslovakia, and Britain did not want to be tied through its alliance with France to fighting for a people in a “faraway country” of whom “we know nothing”. So Chamberlain, having laid his poor hand of cards on the table at Berchtesgaden and Bad Godesberg, was forced to surrender them – and with them the fate of Czechoslovakia – at Munich.
The elation at having preserved “peace for our time”, which Chamberlain reported to delirious crowds on his return from Munich (he received 40,000 letters of congratulation), evaporated almost instantly. Shame and national humiliation at what had been done in Britain’s name replaced it. Yet many who came to heap opprobrium on Chamberlain after the event had earlier supported the policy of appeasement. Tumultuous cheering came from all sides of the House of Commons when Chamberlain announced he was going to Munich. Members of all parties were eager to shake the prime minister’s hand, though it was obvious to everyone what the trip to Munich must mean: that peace could only be saved through sacrificing the Czechs.
Was Chamberlain merely buying time, as he still claimed in 1940, when he remained adamant he had done the right thing? What would have happened had Britain gone to war over Czechoslovakia in the autumn of 1938? No military aid from Britain or France would have been forthcoming for Czechoslovakia. Probably Hitler’s forces would have quickly vanquished the Czechs (as war games predicted). Internal opposition in Germany would have come to nothing. A phoney war somewhat similar to 1938-39 would have set in a year earlier. True, German forces and defences in autumn 1938 were nowhere near as strong as they were by spring 1940. But Britain’s forces were at that time proportionally still weaker. Given the pressure to act, the weakness of his adversaries, and his own temperament, Hitler would probably have invaded France in 1939, which would have necessitated some (temporary) deal in the east with the Poles or the Russians. The French may well have caved in as they did in 1940.
Whether Churchill would have assumed the premiership in Britain and succeeded in bolstering morale and defiance had war commenced a year earlier cannot, like much else, be known. But without his leadership, Britain might have been tempted to look for a settlement that would have left Germany in the ascendancy in Europe. Who knows? What did not happen is open only to the realms of fantasy, not the methods of historical research. But it is at least feasible that Chamberlain’s capitulation at Munich proved ultimately beneficial to Britain – if at the expense of the Czechs and lasting national ignominy.
Each of the crises over Austria and Czechoslovakia had a crucial effect on Nazi anti-Jewish policy and paved the way for the third major crisis of 1938: “Crystal Night”. Though foreign policy and the persecution of the Jews are usually treated separately in the literature – Hermann Graml’s Antisemitism in the Third Reich (1992) and Saul Friedländer’s Nazi Germany and the Jews: The Years of Persecution (Phoenix, 1997) have to stand proxy for a vast literature on the latter – it is important to recognise the connections. These emerge plainly in the events surrounding the nationwide pogrom of the night of November 9-10 1938.
The pogrom was not planned. However, it was also no accidental development. The occasion was the shooting by a young Jew of a German embassy official in Paris, Ernst vom Rath, on November 7, and his death two days later. Goebbels, with Hitler’s express approval, seized the opportunity to spur on party radicals throughout Germany to give vent to the “anger of the people” and unleashed the orgy of violence that destroyed synagogues and other property, led to the brutal beatings and often death of hundreds of Jews, and ended with 30,000 male Jews being rounded up and sent to concentration camps as blackmail to dredge up the money to pay for their emigration. Hurried legislation was passed to force Jews out of the economy altogether, and to levy a huge, cynical “fine” on them – effectively for having provoked the destruction of their own property.
Anti-Jewish violence had been escalating for months before the pogrom. Hitler had given the green light to a new wave of attacks on Jews in a tirade at the party rally in September 1937. Soon afterwards the drive to “Aryanise” the economy took hold and accelerated throughout 1938 as German big business, keen to maximise profits from the booming armaments industry, eagerly colluded in pressure to force Jewish concerns to sell out for knock-down prices. The economic assault on Jews was accompanied by a raft of discriminatory legislation turning Jews increasingly into pariahs on the fringes of society. And as the year progressed, the violent attacks on Jews, their property, businesses, synagogues and cemeteries drastically intensified. The growing assertiveness of the regime played its part. So did the radicalisation of anti-Jewish policy that followed the Anschluss.
The savagery towards Jews on the streets of Vienna immediately following the Anschluss, as the pent-up aggression of Nazi hordes was let loose, surpassed even what had happened in Germany itself since 1933. The uncontrolled violence soon gave way to the more orchestrated violence of organised expulsion in the hands of the man whose ability to force out Austrian Jews established the reputation that would take him to the role of manager of the “final solution”: Adolf Eichmann. In Germany, attacks on Jews provided a useful distraction for Nazi gangs in a summer of mounting tension. Then the Munich agreement gave a great boost to the regime’s self-confidence. By the autumn, the antisemitic climate was extraordinarily menacing for Jews. The powder keg was ready to explode. It needed only a spark. Vom Rath was shot. Crystal Night followed.
There was now a stampede to get out of the country, producing a refugee crisis. Around 120,000 escaped over the next few months. But the door to emigration was only partially pushed open. The barriers against acceptance of Jewish refugees, recently reinforced at the international conference at Evian in France in July 1938, prevented many from getting away. Chamberlain agreed to some easing of admission to Britain of Jewish refugees fleeing Germany. But appeasement was only temporarily suspended, not abandoned. He expressed hope that the “moderates” in Germany might even now restrain Hitler.
In Germany itself, the unpopularity, which went deep into Nazi circles, of the violence of the pogrom (though not of the aim of removing Jews) meant that such an open outrage was not again tried within the Reich. Something even more sinister happened. In January 1939, responsibility for finding a solution to the “Jewish Question” (still through forced emigration) was handed over to the security police – clearing a path that would end in the gas chambers. There was no thought of gas chambers at the end of 1938. But in the fetid anti-Jewish atmosphere before and after the pogrom, notions that war would bring a showdown with the Jews – seen as responsible for Germany’s defeat in the first world war and now viewed as pernicious agents in agitating for a new war – were voiced by leading Nazis. These marks of a genocidal mentality found their most outright expression in Hitler’s baleful “prophecy” made in his big speech to the Reichstag on January 30 1939 that “if the international Jewish financiers in and outside Europe should succeed in plunging the nations once more into a world war, then the result will not be the Bolshevising of the earth, and thus the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe”.
At the end of 1938, then, the twin Nazi aims – expansion to gain domination in Europe, and “removal” of the Jews – had blended into the vision of a war soon to be fought and the destruction of the Jews as an outcome of that war. The appeasers, by means of their sellout of Czechoslovakia at Munich, had bought a respite. They had not, even now, given up. Only when, in March 1939, Hitler tore up the Munich agreement and occupied what was left of the Czech lands did the scales finally fall from their eyes. Another crisis, now over Poland, was inevitable, with Britain and France finally committed to action in the event of German aggression. Hitler thought the western democracies would give in over Danzig as they had done over the Sudetenland. This time he was wrong. This time there was war.
Looking back at 1938, we see “old Europe” approaching its end, before war enveloped it and before the entry on to the scene of the superpowers that would determine the ruined continent’s postwar destiny. It is not a pretty sight – a Europe of bitterly competing nations, riven by the age-old clashes for dominance, now taking place in an era of hyper-nationalism with its attendant imperialist ambitions, buttressed by the technologies of total war and mass death.
Seventy years on, our present Europe, for all its flaws and faultlines, provides such an attractive contrast that it is hard not to see the European project that arose from the lessons of the second world war and out of the far-sightedness of, especially, postwar German and French statesmen as a huge success story. The main objective of these postwar visionaries was to prevent circumstances ever again arising in which European nations could go to war with each other. The former Yugoslavia gives an example of what, not long ago, was still possible outside the framework of what became the European Union. Though “1938” will not be repeated, the crisis spots have moved elsewhere. The dangers to world peace are different, but still present. Having come this far, logic suggests that we need to look to a future in which, without any loss of national identity, a European voice can speak more strongly and urgently for the interests of a united continent than can the current prevailing and persistent dissonance.
· Ian Kershaw’s Hitler is published by Allen Lane.
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