The Origins of the Second World War

by Dr Ruth Henig. University of Lancaster

new perspective. Volume 3. Number 1. September 1997


Summary: There is now general agreement amongst historians that the chief responsibility for unleashing war in Europe, in 1939, rests on Hitler and the Nazis. While there are still debates about the role of Hitler vis-…-vis other Nazi leaders, and about the extent of influence of army leaders and of industrialists working in partnership with the Nazis, Taylor's contention that the outbreak of war owed as much to 'the faults and failures of European statesmen' as it did to Hitler's ambitions, has been firmly repudiated. The consensus now is that it was Hitler's determination to transform the basis of European society which brought war to Europe in 1939. It was not necessarily the war he was planning for; the evidence suggests that Hitler was aiming to prepare Germany for a massive conflict with Russia in the early 1940s. Unquestionably, however, it was a war provoked by his relentless pursuit of policies based on 'race' and on 'space'.

THE DEBATE ABOUT the aims of Nazi foreign policy and about the extent to which they were responsible for the war, which broke out over Poland in 1939, continues as vigorously as ever. This article aims to summarise some of the most recent interpretations about the causes of the war, by considering the ideology or set of beliefs which lay at the heart of Nazi foreign policy and outlining the ways in which Nazi foreign policy differed from that pursued by previous German governments. It will then examine whether the Nazis pursued any consistent set of foreign policy objectives between 1933 and 1939 and to what extent they were preparing for war by the late 1930s.

Nazi Ideology

Historians are now generally in agreement that Nazi foreign policy cannot be assessed without a clear understanding of the set of beliefs and strong convictions which shaped it. Historians, such as Professor Norman Rich (in Hitler's War Aims) and Professor Gerald Weinberg (in The Foreign Policy of Hitler's Germany), point to the fact that in writings, in speeches and in policy pronouncements throughout the 1920s and 1930s, leading Nazis identified a set of concerns relating to 'race and space' which ran as a consistent thread through their policies. These concerns centred on the importance of racial purity and on the need for a nation to be prepared to compete with its neighbours in a brutal, uncompromising and ceaseless struggle to survive and to expand. In Mein Kampf, Hitler emphasised his belief in a 'healthy and natural relationship between the number and growth of the population, on the one hand, and the extent and quality of its soil, on the other.' He argued that 'only a sufficiently large space on this earth can ensure the independent existence of a nation' and that, therefore, 'the aim of our political activity must be ... the acquisition of land and soil as the objective of our foreign policy'. More specifically, he wrote that 'when we speak of new land in Europe today we must principally bear in mind Russia and the border states subject to her'. These themes, of racial purity and the need for constant struggle to secure 'living space' or lebensraum in the East are echoed again and again in speeches to the faithful, at election meetings, in addresses to specific interest groups and in party literature.

A.J.P. Taylor and The Debate

While there is no dispute that such themes run through Nazi speeches and writings of the 1920s and early 1930s, the argument was advanced, in the 1960s, that they did not materially shape Nazi foreign policy once Hitler actually became Chancellor. In his controversial 1961 publication The Origins of the Second World War, A.J.P. Taylor argued that Hitler's foreign policies after 1933 were shaped much more by the international situation and by the responses of other European leaders than by his previously-expressed convictions. Taylor dismissed Mein Kampf as consisting of 'fantasies from behind bars', a rambling and turgid collection of half-baked ideas which Hitler dictated to his prison cronies in 1924 to while away the long months in prison. Once in power, however, Hitler had to temper his views to the prevailing international situation, and acted as a typical German statesman pursuing traditional German objectives. He was not driven by any underlying ideology or timetable for aggressive expansion in eastern Europe, and it was not his fault if other European leaders failed to make a stand against his predictable re-assertion of German power. Having acquiesced in the remilitarisation of the Rhineland, Anschluss (union) with Austria and the incorporation into Germany of the Sudeten Germans of Czechoslovakia, how was Hitler to know that British and French leaders would actually be serious in making a stand over the Polish Corridor and Danzig?

Taylor's book unleashed a hail of criticism. Many historians were incensed at what they saw as an attempt to 'whitewash' Hitler by suggesting that he was a typical German leader when, in fact, he was anything but typical, an Austrian German mob orator of limited education and few social connections. Furthermore, Taylor's critics were not prepared to ignore Mein Kampf as he had. Some saw it as a 'blue-print for aggression' which set out in a fair amount of detail Hitler's foreign policy ambitions after 1933. While some historians were prepared to acknowledge that Hitler was an opportunist in the way he approached crises after 1933, most agreed with Professor Alan Bullock that this merely demonstrated Hitler's 'flexibility of method' which was allied to a 'consistency of aim'. Indeed, a German historian, Eberhard Jäckel, has asserted: 'Perhaps never  in history did a ruler write down before he came to power what he was to do afterwards as precisely as did Adolf Hitler'.

Wide Agreement on the Dominance of Ideology

In recent years, there has been considerable agreement amongst historians of the Third Reich that ideology was fundamental to the shaping of Nazi policies after 1933. They argue that it was the basic ingredients of Nazi ideology - a belief in racial purity, in the importance of balancing population, resources and soil, and the necessity of acquiring 'living space' in the East - which made Hitler's foreign policy so dynamic and so difficult to combat. Taylor's interpretation of Hitler's foreign policy aims after 1933 is now seen as fatally flawed because it completely ignores the dynamic ingredient of Nazi ideology. In a chapter in Modern Germany Reconsidered (ed. Martel, 1993) Professor David Kaiser has argued that Taylor's views, that Hitler did not intend war to break out in September 1939, that he lacked any real plan for the conquest of Europe or the world, and that other governments played a crucial role in unleashing German expansion, 'are no longer regarded as valid'. Instead, the domestic and foreign policies of the Third Reich are now seen as two sides of the same coin. The main aim of domestic policies - which involved strengthening and purifying the German race - was to secure the successful implementation of an expansionist foreign policy. As Hitler instructed a group of Reichswehr commanders soon after coming to power, in January 1933, it was necessary for them all to work together for 'the conquest and ruthless Germanisation of new living space in the East.'

The Debate about Continuity

While historians accept that there are some similarities between the foreign ambitions of Wilhelmine Germany, the Weimar Republic and the Third Reich, recent studies (such as Germany and Europe 1919-39 by Professor John Hiden) place more emphasis on those characteristics which made Nazi foreign policy objectives so different from those of preceding regimes. We can identify four areas of policy which clearly illustrate a change of policy after 1933 rather than a continuity of aim.

Lack of Continuity. 1 The Racial Element

While Germany's geographical position made it inevitable that she would seek to exert power in eastern Europe, it was only the Nazi regime which sought to establish in the East and in Russia an empire based on race, in which those of Aryan descent would rule over lesser Slav subject races. As John Hiden has pointed out, German leaders during the First World War 'followed an expansionist policy in the East primarily to help them preserve a conservative reactionary status quo, not a racially-driven revolution of German, then European and, ultimately, world society!' In this sense, Hitler's aims were truly revolutionary. As he wrote in Mein Kampf:

We National Socialists have intentionally drawn a line under the foreign policy of prewar Germany. We are taking up where we left off six hundred years ago. We are putting an end to the perpetual German march towards the South and West of Europe and turning our eyes towards the land in the East. We are finally putting a stop to the colonial and trade policy of the prewar period and passing over to the territorial policy of the future.

The change was to have far-reaching implications, as Hitler later declared: `with the concept of race, National Socialism will carry its revolution abroad and recast the world'.

Lack of Continuity. 2 Colonial and Trade Policy

Hitler himself pointed out in Mein Kampf that, whereas the aim of German governments before 1914 was to secure colonies overseas and to acquire markets worldwide, the objectives of the Third Reich would be very different: to expand Germany's living space in the East and to try to make the country economically as self-sufficient as possible. Hitler was not greatly interested in the return of the pre-1914 German colonies; what he sought was the productive soil of eastern Europe which could support an expansionist Aryan state and enable it to become one of the world's dominant powers. He was convinced that Germany's former dependence on international trade had laid it open to the malign influence of external enemies, particularly scheming Jewish financiers. Thus, his aim was to ensure that through bilateral trade agreements and the manufacture of synthetic materials, Germany could be in full control of its economic development and therefore master of its political and military destiny.

Lack of Continuity. 3 The Role of Russia

Russo-German relations were a central element in European history from the mid-nineteenth century onwards. Both Bismarck, after 1870, and Weimar governments of the 1920s recognised the importance of cultivating good relations with Russia, to prevent Germany from becoming encircled by a ring of hostile powers and to allow some freedom to manoeuvre within the European diplomatic system. Even in the period between 1892 and 1914, when Russia and France were in alliance against Germany, there were dynastic ties between the Kaiser and the Tsar, and the recognition of similar domestic social and political goals.

Hitler's attitude to Bolshevik Russia was very different. He viewed it as an ideological enemy, a monstrous regime based on Communist doctrines of class division and led by racially-unfit Jews. His hostility to Russia was, therefore, based not on its potential strategic threat or military power but on its capacity to undermine Germany's social and political foundations and contaminate its Aryan race. In the long run, there could be no compromise between the Third Reich and Bolshevik Russia. The Russian regime had to be defeated and dismantled to make way for the establishment of an enlarged Aryan empire.

Lack of Continuity. 4 The International System

It has sometimes been argued that, as Foreign Secretary in the 1920s, Stresemann pursued aims similar to those of Hitler, centred on the removal of the shackles of Versailles and revision of frontiers in eastern Europe which would allow for the recovery of German power and for substantial expansion eastwards. There is no doubt that Stresemann, like all Weimar leaders, and like Bismarck before him, aimed to restore Germany's power within the existing international system, working through the League of Nations and through the conference diplomacy of Locarno. Like Bismarck, he sought a pivotal and possibly dominating role in European diplomacy, but he did not aim to overturn the whole system.

Hitler, however, viewed alliances and diplomatic agreements as tactical ploys, which would protect Germany from attack while she was still relatively unarmed and vulnerable, but which could be repudiated later on. His overriding aim was to build up Germany's power to the point where he would be in a position to challenge and to overthrow the existing international system, replacing it with a racially-based global order. Whereas Stresemann and Bismarck worked through diplomacy and negotiated agreement to achieve defined goals, Hitler emphasised the importance of ceaseless struggle to achieve his aims. As he wrote in 1928: 'Wherever our success may end, that will always be only the starting-point of a new fight'.

Thus, Hitler's approach to international affairs was very different from that of his predecessors or, indeed, from that of the foreign leaders with whom he was dealing after 1933. They sought to negotiate with him and were agreeable to the restoration of a considerable degree of German power, so long as it was negotiated within the existing European order. Hitler's aim was to destroy that order but, in the short term, he was prepared to work through it to achieve his long-term goals. It was both the revolutionary nature of Hitler's ultimate objectives and the accommodating flexibility of his methods which made him so different from previous German leaders and so dangerous to Europe.

Was there a Foreign Policy 'Programme' which Hitler Pursued after 1933?

One cannot help but be struck by the consistency between Hitler's words and his actions. Running through all his writings, speeches, addresses and private conversations was a set of racist and expansionist aims which began to be carried out after 1933 in a number of domestic and foreign policies. While the actions did not always follow the exact sequence of the words, they embodied the substance, and both pointed inexorably eastwards, towards lebensraum and the establishment of a racial empire on east European and Russian soil.

Most historians would not accept the notion of a detailed 'programme' for expansion, fully worked-out before 1933, but they do believe that Hitler had a clear strategy for transforming the Germany of 1933 into a dominant racial state vying for world power. The strategy was to concentrate first on rearmament and on the removal of the remaining Versailles restrictions. Success in these areas, together with the pursuit of racial purity policies within Germany, would enable the Third Reich to embark on an ambitious programme of eastern expansion.

A Consistent Policy. 1 Rearmament

Rearmament was, unquestionably, Hitler's first priority in 1933 and dominated the first two years of his foreign policy. He was painfully aware that Germany's military forces were no match for those of its neighbours and rivals - France, Poland, Czechoslovakia - who, between them, could mobilise armies of well over a million compared to Germany's 100,000. He told his first cabinet meeting on 8 February 1933 that rearmament was to have top priority for the next four to five years, and to this end the services, particularly the army and air force, were mobilised for rapid expansion. While the rearmament process was under way and Germany was still, to some extent, at the mercy of other powers, Hitler's diplomacy was cautious and even included a non-aggression treaty with the despised upstart, Poland. However, as German military strength grew, so did the pace and scope of Hitler's diplomatic demands.

A Consistent Policy. 2 The Struggle against Versailles

The rejection of the military restrictions of the Versailles treaty marked the first stage of Hitler's 'struggle against Versailles'. Rearmament was accompanied by Hitler's dramatic departure from the League of Nations Disarmament Conference in October 1933 and then from the League itself. In 1935, the inhabitants of the Saar region voted to return to Germany, and conscription was introduced, in flagrant defiance of the Treaty of Versailles. Remilitarisation of the Rhineland, in 1936, in contravention of the treaties of both Versailles and Locarno, was followed, in March 1938, by Anschluss with Austria. The Sudeten Germans of Czechoslovakia were incorporated into Germany as a result of the Munich conference of October 1938 and, by the following March, German troops were in Prague, and Czechoslovakia had disappeared from the map of Europe. Hitler now turned his attention to Danzig and the Polish Corridor, and it was his demand for the return of these areas, heavily populated by Germans, which finally provoked the opposition of Britain and France. Hitler's response to their guarantee of support to Poland was to sign a pact with the Soviet Union in August of 1939 and to declare war on Poland.

A Consistent Policy. 3 Preparing for War

There can be no doubt whatever that, by the late 1930s, the Third Reich was mobilising for war. The meticulous research which has been carried out in the last two decades, notably by Richard Overy, has revealed the full extent of German rearmament between 1936 and 1939. The Four Year Plan of 1936 aimed to put Germany on a war footing by the end of the decade, and heavy industry, iron and steel and chemical works expanded enormously. There were growing labour shortages, as military spending soared to about 23 per cent of gross national product (as against 3 per cent in 1913). By 1939 a quarter of the German workforce were working on direct orders for the armed forces. In addition, Germany was stockpiling synthetic materials and building up its supplies of aluminium for aircraft construction. By 1939 it had become the world's largest producer of aluminium, surpassing the USA. Professor Overy has calculated that a half or more of the German economy by 1939 was devoted to war or war-related products. We should not, therefore, be surprised that a war broke out in eastern Europe in 1939. The only surprise, perhaps, was that the invasion of Poland in 1939 found Nazi Germany and communist Russia for the time being fighting on the same side. Does this suggest any major inconsistency or change of strategy on Hitler's part?

A Consistent Policy. 4 Establishment of a Racial Empire in the East

The evidence suggests that the invasion of Poland, followed by war in northern and western Europe, represented a tactical switch by Hitler rather than a retreat from his long-term objectives. He told his army commanders, in May 1939, that:

It is not Danzig that is at stake. For us it is a matter of expanding our living space in the East and making food supplies secure and also solving the problem of the Baltic states.

At this point, however, spirited opposition on the part of Britain and France necessitated a change in tactics. In the midst of a lengthy tirade directed at the League of Nations High Commissioner in Danzig in August, Hitler declared:

Everything I undertake is directed against the Russians; if the West is too stupid and blind to grasp this, then I shall be compelled to come to an agreement with the Russians, beat the West, and then after their defeat turn against the Soviet Union with all my forces. I need the Ukraine so they can't starve us out like in the last war.

And, as had happened before, the words were followed in due course by the actions.

Words and concepts to note

contravention: contrary to a law or treaty.

turgid: pompous or pretentious.

status quo: the existing position.

strategy: plans on a large scale or for a longer period.

tactic: plans on a smaller scale for more immediate aims.

pivotal: something on which other matters depend.

Questions to consider

w What is the connection between Hitler's ideology and the details of Hitler's expansionist foreign policy plans?

w Why have some historians found Mein Kampf forwarded their understanding of Hitler's policy while others see the book as an obstruction to that understanding?

w Why did Hitler launch attacks on western Europe (in 1940)?

w What were the major discontinuities between Hitler's foreign policy and those of his predecessors?

w Which were the assumptions, which Hitler ignored, behind the existing European order if he was to achieve his foreign policy aims?


Further Reading: P.M.H. Bell, The Origins of the Second World War in Europe, Addison Wesley Longman, 1986; Alan Bullock, Hitler: A Study in Tyranny, rev. edn, Penguin, 1964; Ruth Henig, The Origins of the Second World War, Methuen, Lancaster Pamphlet, 1985; John Hiden, Germany and Europe 1919-39 (second edn, Addison Wesley Longman, 1993; Gordon Martel (ed.), Modern Germany Reconsidered (Chapter 9), Routledge, 1992; Richard Overy, The Road to War, Macmillan, 1989; A.J.P. Taylor: The Origins of the Second World War, Hamish Hamilton, 1961.

The Origins of the Second World War by Ruth Henig © new perspective 1997

Dr Ruth Henig is Head of History at Lancaster University, and specialises in twentieth-century international history. She has written three Lancaster Pamphlets, on the origins of the First and Second World Wars and on the Treaty of Versailles and international diplomacy in the 1920s. A textbook in the Longman Advanced History series, Modern Europe 1870-1945, co-written with Christopher Culpin, was published this year.

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