Foreign policy aims

Hitler’s aims were expressed in his book Mein Kampf (my struggle). There were three main aims in his foreign policy:

  • revise the Treaty of Versailles. This meant recovering the land lost in 1919. It also meant rearmament
  • unite all German-speaking people into one Reich (realm)
  • expand eastwards to achieve Lebensraum (living space) for the German people. This would be at the expense of those Hitler believed were the inferior peoples who lived in Eastern Europe

Historians have disagreed about Hitler’s aims.

A. J. P. Taylor argued that Hitler did not deliberately set out for a destructive war. Instead, Hitler was an opportunist. He made gains in his foreign policy by taking advantage of situations that emerged due to the actions of Britain and France.

Other historians, such as Hugh Trevor-Roper, have argued that Hitler had a long term plan - a programme of colonisation of Eastern Europe and a war of conquest in the West. The German Historian Andreas Hillgruber called this the Stufenplan. It was a step-by-step policy which resulted in the outbreak of war in 1939.

Probably the most convincing argument is that Hitler had consistency of aims, but that he was also an opportunist and flexible in his strategy.

There were three stages to his foreign policy.

  • a cautious policy up to 1935
  • increased activity between 1935 and 1937
  • a more confident foreign policy after 1937, certain that there would be little opposition to his plans.

Rearmament and conscription

Rearmament started almost as soon as Hitler came to power but was announced publicly in 1935. The included revealing the existence of the Luftwaffe or Air force which had been forbidden under the terms of Versailles.

Conscription or compulsory military service was also introduced. This meant that all young men spent six months in the RAD (German Labour Front) and then they were conscripted into the army. The intention was to increase the German army to 36 Divisions in 1935. This was around 500,000 men. Both Conscription and the increase in the size of the army violated Versailles.

Britain, France and Italy reacted by forming the Stresa Front to condemn German rearmament. This unity lasted only a few months.

In June 1935 Britain and Germany signed a Naval Agreement. This allowed Germany to increase the number of warships it possessed. It also allowed Germany to build U-Boats. This annoyed France and Italy as the British did not tell them of their plans.

In October 1935, Italy launched an attack on Abyssinia. This increased the split with the British and French. It meant that the international opposition to Hitler’s plans were divided.

In January 1935, 90% of the population of the Saar voted to reunite with Germany in a plebiscite. They had been under the control of the League of Nations since 1919. Hitler regarded this as a great triumph because it was the first of the injustices of the Treaty of Versailles to be reversed.