Once his regime was consolidated, Hitler took little interest in domestic policy, his sole concern being that Germany become sufficiently strong to realize his long-term geopolitical goal of creating a German empire that would dominate western Europe and extend deep into Russia. In a first step toward this goal, he made a de facto revision to the Treaty of Versailles by ceasing to heed its restrictions on German rearmament. Soon after becoming chancellor, Hitler ordered that rearmament, secretly under way since the early 1920s, be stepped up. Later in 1933, he withdrew Germany from the League of Nations to reduce possible foreign control over Germany. In 1935 he announced that Germany had begun rearmament, would greatly increase the size of its army, and had established an air force. Italy, France, and Britain protested these actions but did nothing further, and Hitler soon signed an agreement with Britain permitting Germany to maintain a navy one-third the size of the British fleet. In 1936 Hitler remilitarized the Rhineland, in violation of various treaties. There was no foreign opposition.
An extensive armaments program, expansion of the small armed force permitted the Reich under the treaty, and public construction work brought Germany a measure of economic recovery and improved the country's military posture. Germany soon regained a semblance of the position it had held as a European power before its defeat in 1918.
Planning had already been accomplished for a wartime armed force to be formed by the expansion of the Reichswehr. Hitler decided to apply these plans to a peacetime expansion instead. The Army was to be increased to 21 divisions and a total strength of 300,000 men. At first the year 1937 was set as the target date for the completion of this program. Hitler put an end to the military and industrial collaboration with the Soviet Union in the summer of 1933.
On 14 October 1933 Hitler's government withdrew from the disarmament conference then in progress and from the League of Nations. Henceforth, Germany was to follow a more independent path in foreign affairs, not allowing itself to be bound by such restrictions as the Versailles Treaty, which had already been violated repeatedly. Hitler then insisted on moving the target date for the expansion of the armed forces up to the autumn of 1934. The tempo of rearmament was increased and the strength of the Army rose to 2*0,000 by the end of the year.
The clauses of the Versailles Treaty that had disarmed Germany were publicly denounced by Hitler on 16 March 1935. The Fuehrer took advantage of the occasion to promulgate a new defense law that provided for an increase in the size of the peacetime Army to 12 corps and 36 divisions and reinstituted conscription.
The restriction of conscript training to one year was necessitated by a lack of cadre personnel. Fifteen months later the expansion of the armed forces would permit the extension of the period of service to two years. Conscription offices proceeded to register the class of 1914 (all men born in that year), veterans of World War I still within military age limits (18 to 45 years, except in East Prussia, where the maximum was set at 55 years), and the large mass of men of the classes 1901 to 1913 and too young to have had service in the Imperial Army. This large group of men born in the years 1901 to 1913 were to form a special problem. Few had had any military training, yet were in the age groups from which a large part of the reserve had to be drawn. Also, those" born in the first few years between 1901 and 1913 were already becoming a little old to begin military training. As a result, a large proportion of these classes received two or three months of training and were assigned to those new reserve divisions which would be utilized for defensive service or in a security capacity, or to various support units.
The former Allies presented an obstacle to whatever plans Hitlet may have had to recover the territories taken from Germany. Their armed forces had not been modernized or equipped with great numbers of the latest weapons, but these countries collectively controlled an industrial and military base stronger than Germany's. Britain had the preponderance of seapower and could rely upon the population and material resources of its world-wide empire for support. France had the largest reservoir of trained manpower in western Europe by reason of its conscription program. Moreover, France had made defensive arrangements with Romania and the postwar states of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, in addition to its alliance with Poland.
Britain and France were reluctant to engage in an armed conflict with Germany to compel compliance with the territorial changes made at the time of Allied victory which were not absolutely essential to their own vital interests. Hitler estimated correctly this sentiment of the former Allied nations, and his foreign policy became a game of bluff. But to minimize the risks of an armed conflict while he executed his first designs in Europe, the German dictator felt it necessary to effect a rapproachment with Poland.
In 1936 Germany began closer relations with fascist Italy, a pariah state because of its invasion of Ethiopia the year before. The two antidemocratic states joined together to assist General Francisco Franco in overthrowing Spain's republican government during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). In November 1936, Germany and Italy formed the Berlin-Rome Axis. That same year, Germany, Italy, and Japan signed the Anti-Comintern Pact, the three signatories pledging to defend each other against the Soviet Union and international communism.
An extensive changing of the guard at the beginning of 1938 saw the removal of Blomberg, Fritsch, Neurath, Papen, and Hassell. In March 1938, the German army was permitted to occupy Austria by that country's browbeaten political leadership. The annexation (Anschluss) of Austria was welcomed by most Austrians, who wished to become part of a greater Germany, something forbidden by the Treaty of Versailles. In September 1938, British prime minister Neville Chamberlain consented to Hitler's desire to take possession of the Sudetenland, an area in Czechoslovakia bordering Germany that was inhabited by about 3 million Germans. In March 1939, Germany occupied the Czech-populated western provinces of Bohemia and Moravia, and Slovakia was made a German puppet state.
Immediately after the German occupation of Bohemia and Moravia, Britain and France finally became convinced of Hitler's expansionist objectives and announced their intention to defend the sovereignty of Poland. Because Hitler had concluded that he could not hope for British neutrality in the coming war, he formed a formal military alliance with Italy -- the Pact of Steel. In August he signed a nonaggression pact with the Soviet Union, thus apparently freeing Germany from repeating the two-front war it had fought in World War I.
Hitler's visions were of quick victories, prepared by setting potential enemies against each other. His series of successes in Austria and Czechoslovakia and the continued reluctance of Britain and France to take action, inclined Hitler to become more reckless. German military planning thus had to include numerous improvisations to meet sudden demands, a practice that was to become typical of the Reich's World War II operations.
The International Military Tribunal placed the full burden of guilt for the war on Hitler Germany.
- On November 5, 1937, Hitler summoned to the New Chancellery in Berlin his ministers of war and foreign affairs as well as the commanders-in-chief of the German army, navy, and air force. He discussed the need to increase Germany's Lebensraum and the various means by which he intended to do it. He spoke bluntly of war and of the urgency of preparing for it.
- At a conference of Hitler with his generals on May 23, 1939, Hitler explained to his military leaders the goals of his policy, was held after the march on Prague and dismemberment of Czechoslovakia, the annexation of Memel, and the repudiation of the naval agreement with London and the nonaggression pact with Warsaw. Goebbels's press campaign against Poland was becoming more and more intense, focusing on Danzig and the Polish Corridor. But Hitler is recorded as having assured his generals that Danzig was not the basic issue. What he was really interested in was acquisition of territory in the East and what he called the "solution of the Baltic problem."
- On August 22, 1939, on the eve of Ribbentrop's flight to Moscow to sign the Nazi-Soviet Pact and little more than a week before the invasion of Poland, Hitler summoned to Obersalzburg the senior admirals and generals of the German armed forces for an all-day briefing on the political situation and his military plans.
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