Eviscerating Versailles - Hitler: Ascent 1889-1939 - Volker Ullrich

Hitler: Ascent 1889-1939 - Volker Ullrich (2016)

Chapter 15. Eviscerating Versailles

“No one else has ever explained and written down what he intends to do more often than I have,” Hitler stated in a speech on 30 January 1941. “And I have written over and over about the eradication of Versailles.”1 That was true. From the very start of his political career as a popular agitator in the autumn of 1919, Hitler left no doubt that he would seek to remove the constraints of the Treaty of Versailles should he achieve power. Revising the post-First World War geopolitical order was only the first step—not the ultimate goal—of Hitler’s foreign policy. After being named chancellor, Hitler did not at all lose sight of one of the other core points of his programme, the conquest of “living space” in eastern Europe. He made that clear in his speech to Germany’s army and navy commanders on 3 February 1933. By late January 1941, when Hitler commemorated the eighth anniversary of the Nazi “seizure of power” in Berlin’s Sportpalast, the racist, annihilationist war Hitler had envisioned against the Soviet Union was soon to become reality. A little over a month before, on 18 December 1940, Hitler had signed Order 21, which launched Operation Barbarossa.

Nonetheless, in the first years of his regime, Hitler scrupulously avoided any public mention of his radical expansionist aims. The Third Reich’s precarious international position forced him to manoeuvre carefully. It was logical to assume that France, in particular, would not simply accept German rearmament and might launch a pre-emptive military strike. The phase between “the theoretical recognition of Germany’s equal military rights and the achievement of a certain level of armament” would be “the most difficult and dangerous one,” Hitler explained at a meeting of the Committee for the Creation of Work on 9 February 1933, where he stressed that rearmament would be given “absolute priority.”2 In a confidential speech to select representatives of the press in April 1940, a few weeks before Germany’s invasion of France, Goebbels frankly admitted how much the Nazi leadership had feared a pre-emptive French strike in the early phase of rearmament. “A French premier,” Goebbels admitted, “should have said in 1933, as I certainly would have, had I been French premier: ‘The author of Mein Kampf, which contains this and that, has become German chancellor. This man cannot be tolerated as a neighbour. Either he will have to disappear, or we will start marching.” That would have been completely logical, but it was not done. They let us be, and we were able to proceed unhindered through the zone of risk.”3

Hitler was at pains during the first phase of rearmaments to conceal his real intentions and placate the other European powers with conciliatory gestures. He repeatedly insisted that Germany only desired equal status within the community of nations, and that this was in the interest of world peace. These clichéd assurances of benevolence were completely calculated, as he admitted in a confidential speech to select members of the press in November 1938. The circumstances of the past few years, Hitler told them, meant that he had been forced to speak “almost exclusively” of peace: “It was only by constantly emphasising Germany’s peaceful desires and intentions that I was able, bit by bit, to liberate the German people and give them the arms that were the necessary precondition of the next step.”4 Hitler was essentially applying the same tactics of reassurance and deception that had worked so well with his conservative coalition partners in his “seizure of power” to the arena of foreign policy. And much like German conservatives, most foreign diplomats were mistaken in their appraisals of Hitler. They, too, thought that his compulsive need for action could be “tamed” by binding him in international treaties. In November 1933, Sir Eric Phipps, the new British ambassador in Berlin, declared that Hitler could not be treated simply as the author of Mein Kampf since to do that would have left no option other than a pre-emptive military strike. On the other hand, Hitler could not be ignored. Would it not be more advisable, Phipps reasoned, to tie down this terribly dynamic politician in an agreement that he himself had freely and proudly signed?5

Only a handful of foreign observers realised that Hitler would never be content with a mere revision of the Treaty of Versailles. One man who did was the U.S. consul general in Berlin, George S. Messersmith. As early as May 1933, he warned that while the Hitler regime would probably desire peace in the next few years in order to consolidate its position, ultimately the “new Germany” would “strive in every way to impose its will on the rest of the world.”6

One reason foreign politicians widely underestimated Hitler was the initial lack of personnel changes at the German Foreign Ministry after 30 January 1933. Baron Konstantin von Neurath stayed on as foreign minister at Hindenburg’s express wish, as did Neurath’s deputy, Bernhard von Bülow. Germany’s ambassadors to the world’s leading nations also retained their posts. The only one to leave the diplomatic service in the spring of 1933 was Germany’s ambassador to the United States, Friedrich von Prittwitz und Gaffron.7 The appearance was thus maintained that German foreign policy was still being determined by the Foreign Ministry, and that seemed to the rest of the world to be a guarantee of not just personnel but policy continuity. In early February, when Germany’s ambassador to the Soviet Union, Herbert von Dirksen, reported the Moscow government’s unease about the new Hitler government, Bülow told him:

I think people there overestimate the effect of the change of government on German foreign policy. In government, the National Socialists are of course different people and pursue different policies than the ones they have previously supported. That is always the way it is, and all parties are the same…They, too, put their pants on one leg at a time.8

Just as, domestically, hopes that the responsibility of government would make Hitler and the Nazis more “moderate” quickly proved illusory, similar ideas also emerged as dangerously misjudged in the arena of foreign policy, even if it took longer for the mistake to become clear. In the first months of his regime, Hitler’s emphasis was on consolidating and expanding his power domestically. Abroad he was content to take a back seat and let the career diplomats at the Foreign Ministry go about their business. That changed once Hitler had established his dictatorship. Increasingly he took the reins in dealing with other countries. “[Hitler is] entirely occupied with foreign policy,” wrote Goebbels as early as March 1934.9 Henceforth Hitler would determine the direction of all important decisions, and as he had in destroying the political Left and subjugating his conservative coalition partners, he displayed a sure sense for his adversaries’ weaknesses, boldly and unscrupulously exploiting them on what was for him new terrain. As a result he needed only three years to engineer a succession of remarkable coups that eviscerated the system put in place by the Treaty of Versailles.

A series of factors helped Hitler along, one of which was that the Versailles system was already beginning to fall apart when he took office. At the Lausanne Conference of June 1932, Papen had succeeded in freeing Germany from the pressures of reparations payments, reaping the fruit Brüning had sown before him. The Schleicher government, too, had achieved a spectacular foreign-policy triumph with the Five-Power Declarations of 11 December 1932, which acknowledged as a basic principle that the German Reich would be allowed to arm itself like any other nation. While the declaration stipulated that the details would be decided at a League of Nations arms conference in Geneva, it was nonetheless apparent that German foreign policy had gained far more leeway during the phase of presidentially appointed governments than it had enjoyed in the Stresemann era.10

This trend was encouraged by the effects of the Great Depression, which caused Britain and France massive economic and social problems and limited their ability to take action abroad.11 Moreover, in the two leading democratic nations of Europe, the trauma of the First World War had given rise to powerful pacifist movements that rejected any thought of another European war and restricted their respective governments’ ability to maintain their military strengths. Particularly in Britain, many people thought that the Versailles system was unjust and that Germany was owed something.12 Hitler also profited from the fear of communism rampant among western Europe’s bourgeois political elites. By casting himself as a radical vanguard opponent of Bolshevik Russia, the Führer was able to overcome numerous doubts about himself personally and his government.

Additionally, what has often been called the “crisis of democracy” in inter-war Europe put the wind in Hitler’s sails. To a degree, Mussolini had kicked off this trend with his “March on Rome” in October 1922 and his establishment of a Fascist regime in Italy. Only two of the new nations formed after 1918-19, Finland and Czechoslovakia, had remained democratic through the post-war years of crisis. All the others—the Austrian Republic, Hungary, Croatia and Slovenia (as of 1929 the Kingdom of Yugoslavia), Poland and the Baltic states—had sooner or later all become authoritarian regimes. Even states that had existed prior to 1918, including Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, Albania, Portugal and Spain were subjugated to “authoritarian transformation.”13 Hitler and National Socialism benefited from this general development. The regime they created, so it seemed at least, was part of the mainstream of the epoch.

Foreign Minister von Neurath articulated his ministry’s future foreign policy for the first time at a cabinet meeting on 7 April 1933. The presentation was based on a lengthy memorandum which Bülow had produced in March. The primary goal was the complete eradication of the Treaty of Versailles, and the plan was to proceed in stages. First, Germany had to focus on rearming itself and regaining its economic strength, all the while taking care not to provoke a pre-emptive strike by France or Poland. The second phase aimed at “territorial revisions of borders,” with the main aim being the redrawing of Germany’s eastern border so as to regain the territory ceded to Poland in 1919. Further goals were pushing back the northern border in Schleswig and regaining the German-speaking parts of Belgium. Later aims included retaking Alsace-Lorraine, regaining Germany’s former colonies or acquiring new ones, and merging with Austria. An understanding between Germany and France, Neurath said, was “as good as impossible,” while an understanding with Poland was “neither feasible nor desirable,” which meant that for the time being Germany had to stay on good terms with Russia. Moreover, Germany should pursue friendly relations with Britain and “the closest possible cooperation” with Italy and “wherever there are mutual interests.” Neurath concluded that foreign conflicts had to be avoided “until we have completely regained our strength.”14 This long-term strategy developed by the top diplomats at the Foreign Ministry continued in the tradition of German imperialism—although, as soon became clear, it only partly conformed to Hitler’s own ideas.

The Foreign Ministry, the Reichswehr and Hitler also agreed that Germany’s accelerated rearmament had to be disguised and that foreign nations had to be deceived about the true intentions of German policy by demonstrative gestures of peace. That was the goal of Hitler’s first major foreign-policy speech to the Reichstag on 17 May 1933. In it, he emphasised Germany’s demands for equal status but rejected any hint of war or force:

No new European war would be able to replace the unsatisfactory conditions of today with anything better. On the contrary, neither politically nor economically could the use of violence call forth a better situation than the one we have now…It is the profound wish of the national government of the German Reich to work honestly and actively to prevent any non-peaceful developments.

Hitler also declared his respect for the national rights of other people, claiming that the idea of “Germanification” was alien to the National Socialists. This was an out-and-out lie. In his speech of 3 February to the German generals, he himself had called for the “ruthless Germanification” of the territories to be conquered in eastern Europe. Hitler also spoke with a forked tongue when he signalled German willingness to disarm during the very phase when the country was rearming itself to the teeth. Moreover, Hitler’s assurances of his peaceful intentions always contained the calculated, implicit threat that Germany might withdraw from the Geneva Disarmament Conference and quit the League of Nations, should the country continue to be denied equal status.15

Hitler’s “peace speech” hit its mark. In terms of foreign policy Hitler played the role of the moderate, conciliatory politician so convincingly that even the SPD Reichstag faction, decimated though it was by oppression, voted for the government’s declaration. “Even our bitter enemy Adolf Hitler seemed moved for a moment,” recalled SPD deputy Wilhelm Hoegner. “He stood up and applauded us.”16 The nationalist Elisabeth Gebensleben’s admiration for Hitler knew no bounds after the speech. “This man is so excellent he could become the leader [Führer] of the world,” she wrote to her daughter in Utrecht. “I’m proud again to be German, boundlessly proud.” Her daughter wrote back that Dutch newspapers had been full of approval of Hitler’s speech, adding that it “made up for much of the sympathy Germany had lost abroad in recent years.”17

Indeed, the foreign reception of the speech was overwhelmingly positive. In London The Times wrote that for the first time the world had seen Hitler the statesman.18 Count Harry Kessler, who himself found the speech “surprisingly moderate,” reported on 18 May from Paris that it had put the French press in a bind. “They have to admit that there is nothing objectionable in it,” he wrote.19 By contrast, Thomas Mann saw through the charade with unusual penetrating vision. “Hitler’s speech in the Reichstag a complete pacific retreat—ridiculous,” he remarked succinctly and correctly.20

At the Geneva disarmament negotiations, which resumed in February 1933, German and French interests collided head-on. The British government tried to mediate but hesitated, in deference to French demands for security, to give Germany full equality in terms of arming itself. By May, Blomberg and Neurath were determined to scupper the conference. Hitler, however, who was fully occupied with pushing forward his campaign to Nazify Germany and had no interest in foreign-policy disputes for the moment, reacted with greater tactical flexibility. He had the diplomat Rudolf Nadolny instruct the German delegation not to reject all offers of mediation on principle. While he was uninterested in a breakthrough in Geneva, Hitler wanted to avoid creating the impression that Germany was trying to sabotage the proceedings. Instead the blame was to fall on the other side. As Hitler’s representative, Goebbels travelled to Geneva in September to take part in the annual meeting of the League of Nations as part of the German delegation. “Depressing” was his verdict. “An assemblage of the dead. Parliamentarianism of nations.”21 That October, when British Foreign Minister John Simon presented a revised disarmament plan that included a four-year trial period for Germany, in which German arms would have been internationally monitored, he gave the German delegation the pretext it wanted to abruptly quit the conference.22

On 13 October, Hitler informed his cabinet about his decision to “break up the conference” and announce Germany’s withdrawal from the League of Nations the following day. This step was to be supported by a re-election of the Reichstag, which had only been in office since 5 March. This would give the German people, Hitler argued, the chance “to identify itself through a plebiscite with the peace policies of the Reich government.” In turn, the world could no longer “accuse Germany of aggressive politics.” In the face of possible League of Nations sanctions, the main thing was “to keep our nerve and stay true to our principles.”23

As Goebbels noted in his diary, Hitler “struggled long and hard with himself” before reaching this decision, since quitting the League of Nations was not without risk.24 German rearmament was still in its early stages, and the Reich would hardly have been prepared for a military confrontation. Sanctions could also do real harm to the process of German economic recovery. At the very least, Germany faced the danger of diplomatic isolation. “Our departure from the community of nations that had been created with great difficulty over fifteen years is of massive import, the significance of which we cannot anticipate today,” wrote Erich Ebermayer in Leipzig.25 Kessler spoke of the “most portentous European event since the occupation of the Ruhr,” adding that it “could within a short time lead to a blockade of Germany or perhaps even war.”26

On the evening of 14 October, Hitler turned to the world in a radio address in which he used for the first time the double strategy that would be instrumental in a series of foreign-policy coups. On the one hand, he announced irrevocable decisions without regard for diplomatic niceties while, on the other hand, he deflected potential consequences with nebulous rhetoric, conciliatory gestures and seductive offers. “Both victors and vanquished,” Hitler said, “will have to find their way back into the community of mutual understanding and trust.” He particularly appealed to Germany’s “perennial but venerable adversary,” France. “It would be a huge event for all of humanity if these two people were able to ban violence once and for all from their mutual existence,” Hitler intoned.27 Goebbels was particularly enthused about this passage from Hitler’s speech: “A hand extended to France. Really powerful. Well, he can do it like no one else.”28 Goebbels was right. In terms of lying and dissembling, no other European politician was a match for Hitler.

By 17 October, Hitler could reassure his cabinet: “Neither have threatening steps been taken against Germany not are they to be expected…The critical moment seems to have passed. The excitement will probably calm down shortly.”29 Goebbels, too, was relieved: “World echo fabulous. Better than I thought. The others are already looking for ways out. We have the upper hand again. Hitler’s coup was daring but correct.”30 On 18 October, Hitler gave a lengthy interview to the correspondent of the Daily Mail, George Ward Price, in which he sought to dispel the worries of the British government and populace about Germany going it alone in foreign policy. Hitler stressed how happy he would be if Germany and Britain, which he characterised as related nations, rediscovered their former friendship. He also emphasised his desire for an honest agreement with France and denied planning war against Poland. He did not rule out Germany rejoining the League of Nations, but only on the condition that it was recognised as a full equal. He also promised that Germany would honour all its agreements and treaties: “What we have signed up to we will fulfil to the best of our abilities.”31

On 24 October, Hitler opened the campaign for the Reichstag election and the referendum on his foreign policy with a speech in Berlin’s Sportpalast. With great pathos, he announced that he would “rather die” than sign anything he was convinced was not in the interest of the German people. “If I ever lose my way in this regard or if the German people should come to believe that it cannot stand behind my actions, it can have me executed,” Hitler exclaimed. “I will stand calm and still.”32 During the days that followed, he flew from city to city—Hanover, Cologne, Stuttgart, Frankfurt am Main, Weimar, Breslau, Elbing and Kiel—as he had during the hotly contested elections of 1932. On his approach to Kiel on 6 November, Captain Hans Baur briefly lost his orientation, and Hitler’s plane only just reached Travemünde airport.33

On 8 and 9 November, Hitler interrupted his election tour to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the 1923 putsch in Munich. On the evening of 8 November, he spoke in the Bürgerbräukeller, the spot where he had proclaimed a “national revolution” a decade earlier. Back then, he said, he had not acted rashly, but rather “on behalf of a higher power.” It was down to the “wisdom of Providence” that the putsch had not succeeded, since the time had not been ripe. Nonetheless, it was then that the young National Socialist movement had gained the “heroism” that had led to the successful “rebellion” of 1933.34 At noon on 9 November, a parade of the “old fighters” from the beer hall to the Feldherrnhalle underscored the mythic reinterpretation of the events of 1923. The ceremony would be repeated every year and became a fixed component of the Nazi holiday calendar.

“Hitler looked very pale,” Goebbels noted after seeing his performance at the ceremony at the Feldherrnhalle.35 What the chancellor had put himself through in the preceding weeks would have exhausted even a man of the strongest physical constitution. On 10 November, the day after the Munich festivities, he appeared before workers in the Berlin factory district of Siemensstadt, with Goebbels producing the accompanying radio report as he had in March. Hitler cleverly adapted to his audience by presenting a home-made legend about his childhood and passing himself off as a man of proletarian origins and sentiment. “In my youth, I was a worker like you,” he told his audience. “I worked my way up by working hard, learning and, I can also say, by going hungry.” He went on to brag about the government’s initial successes in combating unemployment and reiterated his desire for peace: “I should not be accused of being insane enough to want war.”36

It seems that the role of peace-loving labour leader allowed Hitler to score some points. Goebbels, in any case, wrote of the audience’s reaction: “Great celebrations. Only workers. A year ago they would have struck us dead. The boss in his best form. Huge success. Hard to get out of the hall.”37 Victor Klemperer, who listened to the speech on the radio, had an entirely different reaction: “A largely hoarse, overly shouted, excitable voice, long passages in the self-pitying tone of a preaching sectarian…disordered but passionate. Every sentence was a lie, but I almost think an unconscious lie. The man is a narrow-minded fanatic. And he’s learned nothing.”38 As accurate as Klemperer’s assessment might have been, the fact that Hitler was an arriviste autodidact led even an educated and intelligent person like the Dresden professor to underestimate him. The same was doubly true of Count Harry Kessler, who noted in his diary in mid-October that Hitler was “ultimately nothing more than a hysterical, half-educated house painter, whose big mouth has earned him a position for which he is not qualified.”39

On 12 November, 45 million Germans had their say on the question: “Do you, German man and German woman, approve of this policy of your Reich government and are you prepared to declare it to be your own view and your own will to solemnly profess your belief in it?” A total of 40.5 million (95.1 per cent) voted yes, 2.1 million (4.9 per cent) voted no, and 0.75 per cent of the ballots were declared invalid. In the Reichstag elections, the Nazi Party list received 39.6 million (92.2 per cent) valid and 3.4 million invalid votes.40 The Nazi leadership celebrated this as a great triumph. “Moved, Hitler put his hands on my shoulders,” noted Goebbels, who himself took most of the credit for the result. “It has been achieved. The German people are unified. Now we can confront the world.”41 Electoral approval may have been higher than expected, but the picture of a single unified people was propaganda. Klemperer, who had twice voted no, in so far as his non-Jewish wife turned in two empty ballots, concluded: “That was almost an act of bravery since the entire world expected that the ballots would not be secret.”42

Indeed, there were so many irregularities in the election that the result can only be seen as a partially accurate reflection of the prevailing mood.43 On the other hand, there is no denying that the vast majority of Germans willingly gave the Hitler regime their approval. In the estimation of the Swiss envoy in Berlin, Paul Dinichert, the broad masses of Germans voted yes to the question “because they believed that they had to defend ‘German honour,’ saw inequalities in disarmament as intolerable and never had much affection for the League of Nations, and also because the vast majority pins its hopes for a better future on Hitler, whom they regard as their saviour from political, social and economic misery.”44 Even the observers working for the SPD leadership in exile could not deny that “the mood of patriotism” had gained “the upper hand” among blue-collar workers.45 Within Catholic and Social Democratic milieus, too, which had resisted National Socialism prior to 1933, Hitler’s standing had demonstrably improved.

Within the cabinet, Papen took on the task of expressing positively Byzantine thanks to Hitler on behalf of the conservative ministers: “Everyone was completely bowled over by the unique, overwhelming expression of faith such as no nation ever before had given to its leader.” In just nine months, Papen added, Hitler’s “genius” had succeeded in converting “an internally divided people into a Reich unified by its hopes for and belief in the future.”46 What the vice-chancellor must have repressed at this point was his own dramatic loss of political influence, which meant that he could no longer serve as a counterweight to the Nazi leader and his lust for power. The fact that after Papen’s encomium, the ministers all rose from their seats to honour the chancellor spoke louder than any words at how completely Hitler now dominated the cabinet. And in foreign-policy matters, too, he began increasingly to take the lead.

The next bombshell dropped on 26 January 1934 when the German Reich and Poland announced the conclusion of a non-aggression pact that was supposed to last for ten years and that required both sides to seek peaceful solutions to any conflicts of interest. The author of this coup was not the Foreign Ministry, but rather Hitler himself. In early May 1933, he had expressed his wish to the Polish envoy, Alfred Wysocki, “that both countries dispassionately take stock of and embrace their mutual interests.”47 The resulting exchange of ideas was intensified in the autumn of 1933. In late September Goebbels met with Polish Foreign Minister Józef Beck in Geneva. “He wants to break free from France and move towards Berlin,” Goebbels noted. “These threads will continue to be pursued.”48 In mid-November, Hitler received and held lengthy talks with Poland’s new ambassador to Germany, Józef Lipski. With that, the official negotiations that led to the non-aggression pact commenced between Berlin and Warsaw.49

Understandably, this spectacular development created a stir both inside and outside Germany. It represented a break with previous German foreign policy, which had never accepted the territorial concessions the Treaty of Versailles had forced Germany to make to Poland, in particular the creation of the Polish Corridor that separated East Prussia from the rest of the Reich. For this very reason, Neurath had rejected the idea of Germany’s reaching any understanding with its eastern neighbour in the spring of 1933. Now Hitler appeared to have engineered just that. “A diplomatic miracle has occurred!” wrote Ebermayer in his diary. “Germany and Poland have reached an agreement!”50

Of course Hitler’s change of tack was not motivated by a sudden fondness for the authoritarian regime of Marshal Józef Piłsudski. On the contrary, the German chancellor had weighed up the advantages of the non-aggression pact. On the one hand, it offered protection against a joint pre-emptive strike by Poland and France—a danger that Hitler’s regime initially took very seriously.51 “Ten years of calm, even with sacrifices,” was how Hitler summarised his foreign policy in November 1933.52 On the other hand, the agreement with Poland served Hitler as a welcome means of proving that he was the man of peace he constantly claimed to be. And that was exactly how foreign diplomats now saw him—British Ambassador Phipps called the non-aggression pact the “achievement of a great statesman.”53 Nevertheless, despite pledging not to resort to violence, Hitler had not accepted the territorial integrity of the Polish state. The pact was not a “Locarno for the east.” For Hitler, the priority was to keep his eastern flank safe. The future would offer opportunities for redrawing Germany’s borders there, even if Hitler was careful not to mention this in public. On the contrary, in his speech to the Reichstag on the first anniversary of his coming to power, he touted the agreement with Poland as a new chapter in the history of the two peoples: “Germans and Poles will have to learn to live with the fact of their mutual existence. It is therefore more effective to shape a situation, which the previous thousand years could not eradicate and the years after us will not be able to either, in such a way that both nations can derive the greatest possible benefit from it.”54

The pact chiselled away at France’s security concept of a cordon sanitaire in eastern Europe. It also “resolutely reversed the ABCs of Germany’s eastern European policy,” as the historian Klaus Hildebrand put it. “Instead of pursuing, as it had previously, an anti-Polish policy together with the Soviet Union, Germany now pursued an anti-Soviet policy together with Poland.”55 The regime may have renewed the German-Soviet Neutrality and Non-aggression Pact of April 1926 on 5 May 1933, but Hitler also made it clear that closer ties to Poland implied distancing Germany from the Soviet Union. That meant that the ideological conflict with the wielders of power in Moscow would determine future German foreign policy. “The burdensome moments in our relations with Russia have always been greater than the fruitful ones,” Hitler told his cabinet in late September 1933.56 And in fact, German-Soviet relations markedly worsened throughout 1933 and 1934. The cooperation between the Reichswehr and the Red Army in the Weimar Republic was abruptly terminated and Soviet foreign policy now reorientated itself westwards, particularly towards France. In September 1934, the Soviet Union joined the League of Nations, after the United States had politically recognised the Communist government the preceding November.

One year after taking power, Hitler was now determining the direction and pace of German foreign policy. If the diplomats in the Foreign Ministry had reservations about the methods Hitler used, they still loyally served the new regime. “Our kind must support the new era,” the ambitious young envoy Ernst von Weizsäcker said. “What would succeed it, were it to fail?” The “expertise” of career diplomats had to complement the “idealistic drive of the national revolution,” Weizsäcker argued, in order to prevent unfortunate developments.57 Yet although they so eagerly placed themselves at his disposal, Hitler thoroughly mistrusted the elites at the Foreign Ministry. He still felt the inferiority complex of an arriviste when confronted by experienced and usually very worldly civil servants. In Hitler’s eyes, the career diplomats lacked agility, were plagued by doubts and stuck in their bureaucratic ways. For that reason, he began early on to promote a number of competing organisations that could pursue foreign policy independent of traditional diplomacy. One of them was the NSDAP Foreign Policy Office, which was founded on 1 April 1933 by Alfred Rosenberg, the chief Nazi ideologue and one of Hitler’s main foreign-policy advisers. Others were the NSDAP Foreign Organisation under Ernst Wilhelm Bohle and Joachim von Ribbentrop’s office, which as of 1934 functioned as Hitler’s extended arm on foreign-policy matters.58

Although Hitler disliked reading diplomatic reports—studying documents was never his forte—his vast memory allowed him to get enough of a grasp of foreign policy to impress diplomats with his knowledge of details. After meeting the new man in charge of the Chancellery for the first time, Weizsäcker came away with a positive impression: “Hitler was very serious and introverted, without doubt far beyond all the others. Something like a metaphysical quality gives him his advantage.”59 French Ambassador André François-Poncet, whom Hitler first received in early April 1933, found the Führer “thoroughly polite, by no means self-conscious, but rather unconstrained, if somewhat reticent, almost cool.” Hitler, François-Poncet wrote, expressed himself “clearly and decisively” and gave “the impression of being completely honourable.”60 Anthony Eden, the British government’s expert on disarmament and later Britain’s foreign secretary, was surprised when he first visited Berlin in February 1934 to find Hitler a charming conversational partner: measured, friendly, well prepared and open to counter-arguments. Hitler had “nothing Prussian” about him, Eden wrote, but was instead a “typical Austrian.”61 Hitler assured Eden that the German government did not have any “aggressive intentions.” On the contrary, it was prepared to accept “every European combination that can be seen as a guarantee for the preservation of peace.”62

But even in 1933 and 1934, there was reason to doubt Hitler’s assurances. In Germany’s relations with Austria, for example, the Nazi regime charted a course that was anything but conciliatory and moderate. The native Austrian Hitler had dreamed about creating a greater Germany ever since his years in Vienna, and on the very first page of Mein Kampf he had supported the return of German Austria “to the great motherland” since “the same blood…belongs in a joint empire.”63 After 30 January 1933, National Socialists in Austria sensed a change of fortunes. They began demanding that Austria be united with the Reich and received massive support from the German NSDAP. But their initiative was blocked when Austrian Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss of the conservative Christian Social Party dissolved parliament in March 1933 and began creating an authoritarian, caste-based state that was soon described as “Austro-fascist.” It insisted on its autonomy and looked to Fascist Italy and not Nazi Germany as a role model.

In early May 1933, in response to the increasingly subversive activities of Austrian Nazis, the Dollfuss regime prohibited them from wearing their brown uniforms in public. On 19 June, the party was officially banned. Hitler countered with what amounted to a ban on Germans travelling to Austria: any Germans wanting to visit their southern neighbour were required to pay a fee of 1,000 reichsmarks—a serious blow to Austrian tourism. “This measure is likely to lead to the collapse of the Dollfuss government and new elections,” Hitler told his cabinet. “These new elections will bring Austria into line from within so that an external annexation will not be necessary.”64 He was wrong. The Austrian government reacted by introducing visa requirements for local border traffic, a move that primarily affected National Socialists commuting between the two countries. The Austrian chapter of the NSDAP led by National Inspector Theodor Habicht now went on the offensive and staged a number of attacks throughout the country.65

At this point Mussolini, who viewed German plans to incorporate Austria with great mistrust, offered protection for the Dollfuss regime. In a joint declaration on 17 February 1934, Italy, France and Britain pledged to ensure Austrian independence and territorial integrity. The following month, Italy, Austria and Hungary signed the “Rome Protocols,” which mandated close, primarily economic, cooperation between the three countries. Nazi Germany’s designs on its neighbour seemed to have been thwarted, and a gap had opened up between the Reich and Italy, Hitler’s preferred ally.

Thus the first meeting between Hitler and Mussolini on 14 and 15 June 1934 in Venice—the first trip abroad by the new German head of state—took place under inauspicious circumstances. On Neurath’s advice, the Führer wore civilian clothing, and he did not cut a good figure next to the uniformed Duce. Visibly uncomfortable and insecure, he looked “more like a subordinate than a partner,” his photographer Heinrich Hoffmann recalled.66 More than likely, Hitler’s thoughts were distracted by the imminent domestic purge of Ernst Röhm and the SA. The two men held their political talks in private, after Mussolini, who knew some German, refused an interpreter, and they failed to reach agreement about the Austrian issue. Afterwards, Mussolini gave a less than flattering account of Hitler to his wife, calling the German chancellor a violent man incapable of self-control. “He is more mule-headed than intelligent,” Mussolini said, “and nothing positive came from our discussion.”67

Only six weeks after the Venice meeting, the situation came to a head when the Austrian National Socialists staged a putsch. On 25 July Viennese SS men forced their way into the Chancellery on Ballhausplatz, shot Dollfuss dead and took over the headquarters of the Austrian Broadcasting Service. But the attempted coup was ill-prepared, and the Austrian army was able to put it down, albeit at the cost of 200 casualties. Former Justice Minister Kurt von Schuschnigg formed a new government and had the putschists arrested.68

That day, Hitler was at the Wagner Festival in Bayreuth. There is no doubt that he not only knew of but had approved the attempted coup. On Sunday, 22 July, three days before the putsch, he had summoned Habicht, the Austrian SA leader Hermann Reschny and Franz Pfeffer von Salomon, the former head of the SA who had a post in the intermediary staff of the NSDAP in Berlin, to Bayreuth, where they discussed the details of the action. Prior to that, he had received Major General Walther von Reichenau, the head of the Wehrmacht office in the Reichswehr Ministry, which suggests that the German military was also in the know. Goebbels noted: “Sunday: with the Führer [are] Gen v. Reichenau, then Pfeffer, Habicht, Reschny. The Austrian question. Will it succeed? I’m very sceptical.”69

On 25 July, a nervous jolt went through Hitler’s immediate circle. Goebbels confided to his diary: “Alarm from Austria. Chancellery and the Broadcasting Service occupied. Much to do, major excitement, terrible waiting. I remain sceptical. Pfeffer utterly optimistic, as is Habicht. Wait and see!”70 That evening, during a performance of Rheingold in the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, the first news arrived that the putsch had failed. “In turns, Schaub and Brückner ran between Hitler’s box and the room in front of ours which had a telephone,” Friedelind Wagner observed. “One received the news over the phone, while the other hastened to Hitler and whispered it in his ear.” After the performance, Hitler accompanied the Wagners to the restaurant in the Festspielhaus, where he had some liver dumpling soup. “I have to hold out here for an hour and let people see me,” he said. “Otherwise people will think I had something to do with this matter.”71 Indeed, Hitler and Goebbels had their hands full denying and concealing any connection with the putschists. Goebbels’s diaries reveal the hectic atmosphere: “One report after another. Prop[aganda] Ministry working well. Foreign Ministry still asleep. German envoy recalled from Vienna. Committed a boundless stupidity. Got involved in domestic Austrian affairs. Border closed. Anyone crossing it will be arrested. No other choice.”72

Around 2 a.m., Hitler woke up a completely uninitiated Papen in Berlin to inform him “in an extremely agitated voice” that he would have to go to Vienna as Germany’s new envoy. The situation was “extraordinarily serious.” In Papen’s recollection, Hitler even referred to the Austrian situation as a “second Sarajevo.” The vice-chancellor initially demurred, saying that after the events of 30 June he could hardly be expected to take over a new function within the government. Hitler plied him with pleas and flattery. Papen, he said, “was the only man who could bring this gnarled and dangerous situation back to normal.” He could at least come to Bayreuth to discuss the issue face to face. Hitler would send his personal aeroplane to pick him up.73

It is possible that Papen overdramatised this early-morning telephone call in his memoirs, but he did arrive in Bayreuth early on 26 July and was immediately named special German envoy in Vienna. The previous envoy was recalled, and Theodor Habicht was summoned to Bayreuth to answer extremely angry accusations. Several days later the directorate of the Austrian NSDAP was dissolved. In Papen’s estimation, Hitler was still in a state of hysteria on 26 July. He had good reason to be. After learning of Dollfuss’s assassination, Mussolini had sent two army divisions to Italy’s Austrian border near the Brenner Pass. This threatening gesture unleashed panic within the Führer’s entourage. For a time, Goebbels even saw “the danger of an intervention by the major powers.”74

Rightly, no one in Rome believed a word of the German government’s declaration on 26 July that “no German office had any connection with these events.”75 The Italian press was full of angry attacks on the Reich, and Goebbels instructed German newspapers to fire back in kind. A war of words unfolded that would last for months. Mussolini expressed the anti-German mood on 6 September at the Fair of the Levant in Bari, declaring: “Thirty centuries of history allow us to look down with pity on certain theories beyond the Alps, put forth by the descendants of a people that at a time when Rome had Caesar, Virgil and Augustus did not even possess a written language with which to keep records of its existence.”76

German-Italian relations had hit a low point. “It’s all over with Italy,” Goebbels complained on 30 July. “The same old disloyalty. The Führer has internally written [Italy] off…He has broken with Rome once and for all.”77 That same day, in a conversation with the chief of the general staff, Colonel General Ludwig Beck, State Secretary Bülow stated that no one in the world believed that Hitler had not been involved in the events of 25 July. The putsch, Bülow said, had been “staged with unbelievable carelessness,” and Germany’s foreign position was now “dismal.” “Everything is at risk, in particular all our rearmament…” was Bülow’s gloomy prediction. “All the major powers that matter are against us. France, which continues to represent a threat in the background, does not need to lift a finger to create a favourable situation for itself.”78

For Hitler, the failed putsch and the international reaction to it was a major embarrassment and setback in his quest to fundamentally revise the post-First World War political order of Europe. The lesson he drew from it was that he had to be more careful on the issue of incorporating Austria into the Reich and wait for a more promising moment. He continued his strategy of numbing the vigilance of Europe’s leading powers with assurances of his peaceful intentions while secretly pursuing his rearmament policies. “Keep our traps shut and keep rearming” was how Goebbels summarised his master’s tactical restraint in the latter half of 1934. “We cannot provoke anyone right now. We have to be completely gentle and mild.”79 At a Reich governors’ conference in early November, Hitler asserted that the foreign-policy situation had improved since the summer but remained somewhat precarious. “The Reich government has no interest in getting drawn into a war,” he said. “If we are granted ten to twelve years of peace, the National Socialist reconstruction will be complete. Then war against Germany would represent a serious danger for any enemy.”80 The long-term goals of Hitler’s foreign policy still went well beyond a mere revision of the Treaty of Versailles. He made this clear in a confidential talk with his propaganda minister on the evening of 26 July 1934, after he had calmed down from the agitation of the previous hours, and the tension had yielded to a kind of euphoria. “Hitler talked about the future,” Goebbels recorded. “He wore the expression of a prophet. Germany as the master of the world. The mission of a century.”81

With this remark, Goebbels unwittingly underlined one of the most bewildering contradictions of Hitler as a politician. As realistic as he was about the scope of his foreign policy in the first years of his regime, he increasingly ignored Bismarck’s axiom that politics was the art of the possible. Germany’s ambassador to Italy, Ulrich von Hassell, was always struck in his encounters with the Führer by the “puzzling proximity of clear-sighted, realistic thoughts and wild, confused constellations of ideas.”82 Following this logic, Hitler was both a realist and a fantasist, and this unusual combination made it equally difficult for admirers and adversaries to know what Hitler really thought.

A popular referendum in the Saar region in January 1935 gave Hitler the chance to erase the humiliation of July 1934. Under the Treaty of Versailles, the area had been placed under international administration for fifteen years, after which the populace was to decide whether it wanted to be part of Germany or France, or whether it wanted to remain under League of Nations control. Supporters and opponents of the “return home to the Reich” engaged in a bitter battle. Opponents, principally Social Democrats and Communists, campaigned under the slogan “Defeat Hitler in the Saar!” Meanwhile proponents also formed a unified block called the German Front, which consisted of the NSDAP and the remnants of the bourgeois parties.83 They based their campaign on the appeal of nationalism—as well as the fact that economic recovery in Germany was progressing noticeably while France was only just beginning to feel the effects of the Great Depression. A German Front victory was preordained, but the margin of that triumph was a surprise. On 13 January, 90.8 per cent of voters in the Saar region opted to be reunited with the German Reich, 8.8 per cent preferred to maintain the status quo and only 0.4 per cent wanted to join France. The numbers indicated that the vast majority of the left-wing camp had defected to the “Back Home to the Reich” cause—a huge disappointment for the Social Democratic leadership in exile.84Klaus Mann, who had placed great faith in the referendum, found the results extremely sobering: “This is our worst political defeat since January 1933. It proves that the slogans of the Left have no appeal…For the foreseeable future, all hope is dead.”85

Nazi propaganda wasted no time in interpreting the election results as a personal triumph for the Führer. “90.5 per cent for Hitler—extremely moving,” noted Goebbels. “Telephoned the Führer. He’s beaming with joy…Gradually we’re escaping the dilemma. Our first major foreign-policy triumph.”86 To his cabinet Hitler gushed about the patriotism of the people in the Saar, declaring: “We cannot even begin to appreciate the foreign-policy significance of this event.”87 On 1 March, the day on which the Saar region was officially returned to the Reich, Hitler struck the pose of the liberator on the square in front of Saarbrücken city hall and celebrated an “act of compensatory justice” that would “finally” improve relations with France. “Because we want peace,” Hitler declared, “we must hope that the great neighbouring people are willing and prepared to look for peace with us. It must be possible for two great peoples to reach out to one another and jointly combat the miseries that threaten to swamp Europe.”88 The enthusiasm of Hitler’s audience seems to have been genuine, not staged. As Goebbels recorded: “The people on the square below reeled as if in a frenzy. The cries of ‘Heil’ sounded like a prayer. A province has been reconquered.”89

By that point, Hitler was already plotting his next move. “Plans are churning within him,” Goebbels wrote on 22 January 1935 after a long conversation with the Führer. “He’s now completely occupied with foreign policy. And armaments. These are still the main problems. We have to become a power. Everything else will sort itself out.”90 Since being named chancellor, Hitler had accelerated the expansion of the army, navy and air force. It was his absolute priority, and after quitting the Geneva disarmament conference in the autumn of 1933, he had accelerated the process. By 1935, Germany’s illegal rearmament had reached a point where it could hardly be concealed. The question was how to announce it publicly and make it seem legitimate without completely alienating the Western powers.

In the London communiqué of 3 February, the governments of Britain and France condemned Germany’s unilateral arms build-up but also expressed their wish to resume negotiations over an arms treaty. Among other things, they suggested concluding a “Locarno for the east” and an international convention banning aerial warfare. The Reich government gave an evasive answer on 15 February. In lieu of negotiations with both countries, Germany proposed a bilateral exchange of opinion with the British government and invited Foreign Secretary John Simon and now Lord Privy Seal Anthony Eden to Berlin for talks on 7 March.91 On 4 March, three days before the scheduled meeting, the British government published a White Paper announcing a 50 per cent increase in funding for the Royal Air Force within five years as a reaction to Germany’s covert rearmament. The step outraged Berlin, and Hitler rescinded his invitation to the British politicians, although he did use the excuse of having lost his voice. Goebbels noted: “London has published a vile White Paper about German armaments as an excuse for a British arms build-up. As a result, the Führer went hoarse and cancelled the English visit.”92

On 10 March, Göring gave an interview to George Ward Price in which he admitted for the first time the existence of a German air force. “The main thrust of our activities,” he announced, “was not to create an offensive weapon capable of threatening other peoples but to set up a military aviation division strong enough to repel attacks on Germany at any time.” At the same time he boasted to a Royal Air Force attaché that Germany already had 1,500 warplanes: in reality, the Luftwaffe had slightly over 800 aircraft in the spring of 1935.93 A few days later, on 15 March, the French government presented parliament with a draft law to extend compulsory military service to two years. With that, Hitler had a welcome excuse to reintroduce compulsory military service in Germany, something he had decided upon on the Obersalzberg. He informed the ambassadors of France, Britain, Italy and Poland of this measure on the afternoon of 16 March. “His voice betrayed no signs of hoarseness,” recalled François-Poncet. “He was very sure of himself and collected, earnest, pervaded by the solemnity of the hour.”94

Initially, the government and the Reichswehr had no clear idea about the desirable future strength of the German armed forces. In a memorandum of 6 March 1935, Ludwig Beck, as head of the Army Office, had set the strength of Germany’s peacetime army at twenty-three divisions, which was to be increased to thirty-six divisions within three to four years. The chief of army command, Werner von Fritsch, on the other hand, pleaded for a quicker expansion of the army.95 On 13 March, Hitler summoned his Wehrmacht adjutant, Colonel Friedrich Hossbach, to Munich and confided in him that in the days to come he would “announce the reintroduction of compulsory military service and legally set the future parameters of the army.” In response to a question by Hitler, Hossbach specified thirty-six divisions as “the ideal final future organisation of the army as desired by the army command.” This meant that Germany would maintain a peacetime army of 550,000 men, five and a half times larger than the size of the Reichswehr as set out in the Treaty of Versailles. Hitler immediately adopted the figure without consulting either War Minister von Blomberg or Foreign Secretary von Neurath. Blomberg was horrified when he was informed of Hitler’s decision on 15 March. He was afraid that the western European powers would not accept a unilateral abrogation of military agreements in the Treaty of Versailles, and especially not such a gigantic increase in the size of the German forces. He expressed his concerns “frankly and passionately” at a conference of the most important ministers that evening.96

But Hitler would not be swayed. Through the night, he himself composed a proclamation entitled “To the German people!” that would be issued on Saturday, 16 March. It stated, contrary to fact, that Germany had faithfully fulfilled its disarmament responsibilities while the victorious powers had continued to stockpile arms and boycotted all attempts to negotiate an international arms-limitation treaty. Hitler wrote: “Under these circumstances, the German government sees itself compelled to take the measures necessary to end the unworthy and dangerous, defenceless state of a great people and Reich.” The Law for the Build-Up of the Wehrmacht announced both the reintroduction of compulsory military service and the expansion of the army to include thirty-six divisions.97

Blomberg, who had tried in vain that morning to get Hitler to abandon the idea of thirty-six divisions,98 had given up his opposition in the meantime. At the cabinet meeting in the early afternoon of 16 March, Hitler’s ministers were of one mind. “The Führer laid out the situation,” Goebbels noted. “Extreme solemnity. Then he read out the proclamation together with the law. Everyone was profoundly moved. Blomberg stood up and thanked the Führer. For the first time, there was the salute of ‘Heil’ in this room. Versailles has been erased by a law. A historic hour…We are once again a major power.”99

Hitler’s weekend coup caused little worry among the German people. On the contrary, Germans were generally enthusiastic. “In Berlin, people fought over the special editions of the newspapers,” François-Poncet observed. “Groups formed. People cried ‘Bravo! Finally!’ The masses assembled in front of the Chancellery and showered Hitler with ovations!”100 In bourgeois nationalist circles, 16 March 1935 represented the day, as Luise Solmitz wrote in her diary, “that we have longed for since the disgrace of 1918.” She added: “We would never have experienced Versailles if such actions had always been taken, such answers always given.”101 Hitler gained in stature even among the working classes. “All of Munich was on its feet,” an observer for the Social Democratic leadership in exile reported. “You can force a people to sing, but you cannot force a people to sing with such enthusiasm…[Hitler has] picked up extraordinary ground among the people and is loved by many.”102 On 17 March, the traditional day for mourning the war dead, which had been renamed the “Heroes’ Memorial Day,” the regime celebrated its open violation of the Treaty of Versailles with an official act of state in Berlin’s main opera house. With the last living Wilhelmine field marshal, August von Mackensen, at his side, and the current military leadership in tow, Hitler marched down Unter den Linden boulevard to the royal residence, where he inspected a military parade.103

The big question was how the Western powers would respond to Hitler’s provocation. Detractors argued that if Hitler were not opposed energetically enough, he would think that “he could get away with anything and dictate the laws of Europe.” François-Poncet wrote that he had “already been appeased far too much.”104 But Hitler’s immediate circle felt that the risks were calculable. “A daring gambit,” Goebbels admitted but then added: “You have to create a fait accompli. The others won’t declare war. If they complain, we should stuff cotton in our ears.”105 By 18 March, Goebbels believed the critical time was over: “We’re all very happy. The Führer can be proud. The worst has been overcome.” William L. Shirer, the American foreign correspondent in Berlin, concurred that “Hitler had got away with it.”106 And in fact, Britain, France and Italy did nothing more than issue some half-hearted protests. The three nations met for a conference in the town of Stresa on Lake Maggiore from 11 to 14 April, at which they condemned the German Reich’s “unilateral abrogation of treaties” and guaranteed the European status quo. Mussolini issued a threat: “All bridges with Germany have been burned. If the country wants to work towards peace in Europe all the better. If not, we will smash it since we have now put ourselves completely on the side of the Western powers.”107 But these strong words notwithstanding, the “Stresa Front” showed cracks right from the start. The three countries did not agree on any concrete steps to be taken if Hitler continued to violate agreements, and they were far from willing to intervene militarily. Thus a relieved Goebbels wrote in his diary: “Communiqué Stresa. The same old song. Condemnation of German violation of treaties. That need not interest us as long as they do not attack. Anyway, keep on rearming.”108

If truth be told, Britain had already abandoned the mutual defensive front. In a note of protest on 18 March, the British government had also asked, to astonishment in Berlin, whether Simon and Eden’s visit might not be rescheduled for a later date. The Nazi regime happily took the hint, and on 25 March, only nine days after Germany’s crass violation of the Treaty of Versailles, the two British politicians arrived in the German capital. Paul Schmidt served for the first time as an interpreter for Hitler, and his memoirs contain a highly revealing account of the course of the talks and the behaviour of the German chancellor.

Hitler received his visitors with ostentatious cordiality and was visibly at pains to create a relaxed atmosphere. Schmidt was astonished how different Hitler was in his role as a diplomatic negotiator from the image of the “raging demagogue” he presented at many of his public appearances. “He expressed himself clearly and articulately, seemed very confident of his arguments and was easy to understand and translate into English,” Schmidt wrote.

He seemed to know exactly what he wanted to say. He had an empty notepad on the desk in front of him during the entire negotiations, but he never used it. Nor did he have any notes with him. When he paused to search for the right way to phrase something, and I did not have to take notes, I had the chance to observe him closely. He had clear, blue eyes that he fixed penetratingly on whomever he was talking to…His face was lively when he began speaking of this or that important point. His nostrils quivered slightly with agitation when he described the danger Bolshevism represented for Europe. He underscored his words with sudden, energetic motion of his right hand. Occasionally, he clenched his hand in a fist…That morning and during the entire negotiations with the Englishmen, I found him to be a man who represented his standpoint skilfully, intelligently and in keeping with the etiquette I was accustomed to in political talks. It was as if he had done nothing other than conduct such negotiations for years.

The only aspect of Hitler’s behaviour that struck Schmidt as odd was the length at which he spoke. Hitler could not suppress his tendency to hold monologues, and the first morning session was taken up by him repeatedly invoking the supposed threat represented by Bolshevik Russia. When Eden asked about the basis of his fears, Hitler answered with the evasive remark that he had begun his political career “in the moment that the Bolsheviks had struck out for the first time against Germany.” In the afternoon, the talks were more substantive. The British diplomats suggested the creation of an “eastern treaty” that would include Poland, the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania as well as Germany. The mention of Lithuania brought a change over Hitler. “Suddenly he seemed to become someone else,” Schmidt recalled.

In the time to come I often experienced him becoming unforeseeably emotional. His anger came with almost no warning. His voice got hoarse, and he started rolling his R’s and clenching his fists, while his eyes flashed thunderbolts. “Under no circumstances will we reach agreement with a state that tramples on the German minority in the Memel region,” he declared. Then as suddenly as this storm had arisen, it disappeared. From one second to the next, Hitler was once more the calm, polite negotiator he had been before the Lithuania intermezzo.

Schmidt’s account is impressive evidence of how skilfully Hitler employed his talent as an actor in diplomatic negotiations. He could slip from one role to the next as if pressing a button.

Hitler made it clear to his British visitors that he preferred bilateral treaties to any collective agreements. For this reason, he was reluctant to accept their suggestion of creating a “Danube pact” that would preclude incorporating Austria into the Reich. He did not rule out Germany returning to the League of Nations, but he insisted on the condition that Germany be given back all of its former colonies—a demand Simon and Eden could not accept. That evening, Foreign Secretary von Neurath, who had been a silent listener at the talks, hosted a dinner in the Reich president’s palace in honour of the British diplomats. In attendance were Hitler, all of his ministers, many of their deputies and other high-ranking Nazi Party figures.

The second day of talks focused on the question of armaments. In response to the British protests against Germany’s unilateral abrogation of the Treaty of Versailles, Hitler answered with a reference to the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. “When Blücher arrived to bring help,” Hitler asked, “did Wellington first contact the Foreign Ministry to check whether Prussian troop strengths were in accordance with the applicable treaties?” This was an extremely dubious historical analogy, but it seems to have left Simon and Eden speechless. When asked about the German air force, Hitler responded after a bit of hesitation: “We have already reached parity with Great Britain.” As Schmidt recalled, “I thought I could read dismayed surprise and scepticism about the accuracy of Hitler’s statements in the faces of the British diplomats.”

Towards the end of the talks, Hitler broached the idea of a German-British naval agreement, suggesting that he would be willing to limit German naval strength to 35 per cent of Britain’s. The British diplomats did not respond to this idea, but neither did they reject it. Their unchanging friendly and relaxed demeanour had Schmidt asking himself whether Hitler’s method of presenting his discussion partners with faits accomplis did not in fact get more done than the usual Foreign Ministry method of conducting negotiations. The British visit culminated with dinner in the Chancellery on the evening of 26 March. “Hitler occasionally seemed shy without being awkward,” Schmidt recalled. “Whereas he had appeared during the day for the negotiations in a brown uniform with a red swastika armband on his left sleeve, he now wore a tuxedo, an outfit that seemed to rebel against him.”109 Although the parvenu had grown noticeably more self-confident, he still seemed hesitant in polite society.

The visit yielded no concrete results, but Hitler was satisfied. “He’s in very good spirits,” noted Goebbels on 27 March. “The Englishmen’s visit has steeled his resolve even more.”110 Still, in the coming weeks, the Nazi leadership was not entirely convinced it was out of the danger zone. In early April, Goebbels found Hitler very earnest and pensive. “Foreign policy is torturing him,” the propaganda minister noted. On 5 April, after a long talk with Hitler on a stroll around the Chancellery garden, Goebbels wrote:

He does not think it will come to war. If it did, it would be horrible. We have no raw materials. Doing everything to escape this crisis. Stockpiling a great amount of arms. We have no choice but to hold our nerve…The Führer says we must all hope we’re not attacked. Mussolini might do something rash. So take care and do not let anything provoke us.111

By late April, as it became clear that the threats from Stresa were empty, the mood changed. “Everything’s brightening up,” Goebbels noted on 5 May. “The Führer will prevail. The seeds he’s sown will bear fruit in their own good time.”112

Hitler had already decided to hold a second major “peace speech” on German foreign policy, which he worked on intensely until mid-May. He repeatedly went over the details with Goebbels and was convinced that it would be “a great success all around.”113 On the evening of 21 May, Hitler appeared before the Reichstag in top form. His speech was continually interrupted by frenetic applause from the more than 600 Nazi deputies. “A superb speaker,” concluded William Shirer, who listened to it from the gallery with other foreign diplomats and journalists.114 Hitler made a good impression when he declared: “National Socialist Germany wants peace from its deepest ideological convictions.” He assured his listeners that he had no intention of “annexing or incorporating Austria,” that with the status of the Saar region now determined Germany would present France with no more territorial demands, and that he would fulfil the promises made in the Locarno agreements as long “as the other parties to the pact abide by it.” Furthermore, Hitler expressed his fundamental willingness to participate in a “system of collective cooperation to ensure peace in Europe” and to conclude non-aggression treaties with Germany’s neighbours as he had already with Poland. In conclusion, he repeated the suggestion he had made to Simon and Eden of a bilateral agreement limiting Germany’s naval strength: “The German government has the honest intention to do everything it can to create and maintain a relationship with the British people and state that will for ever prevent a repetition of the only conflict in history between our two nations.”115

The historian Klaus Hildebrand has called Hitler’s address of 21 May 1935 “an especially infamous lesson in deception and lying,”116 and indeed no other single speech did more to pull the wool over people’s eyes inside and outside Germany concerning Hitler’s real intentions. Nazi reports about the public mood concluded unanimously that the speech had met with an enthusiastic echo throughout the people.117 Even a committed Hitler adversary like Harry Kessler, who read the transcript of the speech while in Palma de Mallorca, was positively impressed for the first time by the Nazi leader: “You can think what you want of him,” he wrote, “but this speech is a great achievement by a statesman. It is perhaps the greatest and most important speech any German statesman has made since Bismarck.”118

Nor did the speech fail to have the desired effect in London, as the British government declared itself willing to start talks over the naval agreement. On 1 June, Hitler named Joachim von Ribbentrop special ambassador to Britain and put him in charge of negotiations. The reason for the appointment was not just his experience abroad. Ribbentrop behaved with an almost canine subservience to Hitler and was willing to do anything to ingratiate himself to his idol. As the German ambassador to Italy, Ulrich von Hassell, described him: “With a worshipful expression, he hung on Hitler’s lips, constantly saying ‘mein Führer’ and transparently parroting back everything Hitler said, which the latter seemed not to notice.”119 Goebbels, perennially jealous of all rivals for Hitler’s favour, also made no secret of his antipathy for Ribbentrop: “A vain blabbermouth. I cannot understand what Hitler sees in him.”120

Negotiations commenced on 4 June, and immediately Ribbentrop almost caused a diplomatic incident by categorically insisting that the other side accept Germany’s building up its navy to 35 per cent of the British strength. “If the British government does not immediately accept this condition,” he declared, “it makes no sense to continue these negotiations.” The visibly irritated British foreign secretary had to remind his German colleague that issuing such an ultimatum violated all diplomatic conventions and left the room with a “frosty” goodbye. Nonetheless, the British did not break off the talks. After a few days of mulling over the proposition, they accepted Ribbentrop’s condition as the basis for further talks, which took place not in the Foreign Office, but in the historic boardroom of the British Admiralty.121 The Anglo-German Naval Agreement was signed on 18 June. Hitler, who received word from Ribbentrop by telephone, called it the happiest day of his life.122 In his eyes, Ribbentrop had passed his first test, which qualified him for high-level tasks within the foreign service. With the naval agreement, Hitler believed he had achieved one of the goals he had formulated all the way back in the 1920s: an alliance with Britain on the basis of a global political understanding. In Hitler’s mind the agreement meant that the German Reich now had a free hand to pursue its hegemonic ambitions on the Continent, in return for acknowledging British supremacy at sea. “Huge success for the Führer’s policy,” Goebbels commented after the agreement was signed. “The first step towards good relations with England—the end result has to be an alliance. In five years, the time will have come.”123

But the idea of allying itself with Nazi Germany was far from the minds of the British government. London’s main priority was to avoid a ruinous naval arms race of the sort it had pursued with the Wilhelmine Empire before 1914. Britain saw the naval agreement not as a preliminary stage to an alliance but as a step towards tying the Third Reich into a system of collective European security. But it came at a huge cost, since the agreement destroyed the already-fragile Stresa Front. Hitler had succeeded in overcoming Germany’s international isolation, and he was determined to exploit this new situation. On 18 August 1935, he summarised his foreign-policy plans to a group of confidants:

An eternal alliance with England. A good relationship with Poland. Colonies within a limited scope. Eastward expansion. The Baltic states belong to us. Dominate the Baltic Sea. Approaching conflicts: Italy-Abyssinia-England and Japan-Russia. Probably in several years. Then our great historic hour will come. We must be ready. Grand prospects.124

Hitler’s summary was prompted by Italy’s looming war against Abyssinia. Mussolini had long been covetously eyeing the northern African empire, ruled by Haile Selassi I, which had joined the League of Nations in 1927. Conquering Abyssinia was a way of revenging Italy’s defeat by the Ethiopians at Adua in 1896. It was also part of a larger imperial project intended to make Italy a major colonial power comparable to Britain and France. Essentially, Mussolini was aiming at a kind of latter-day Roman Empire. In January 1935, Il Duce confronted French Foreign Minister Pierre Laval, demanding Italy be given a free hand in Abyssinia. He received what amounted to a green light for a military occupation. London, by contrast, repeatedly warned Mussolini that war against a League of Nations member would have consequences. But Britain did nothing to hinder the transport of Italian troops across the Mediterranean.125 On 3 October, they attacked Abyssinia without an official declaration of war. The operation quickly turned into one of the most horrifying colonial wars of recent history. The Italian air force attacked the civilian population, using shrapnel, incendiary and poison-gas bombs.126 On 7 October, the League of Nations condemned Italy and imposed economic sanctions but took no military action.

Hitler immediately realised that Mussolini’s war in Africa was a chance to drive a wedge between Italy and the Western powers and dissolve the Stresa Front once and for all. Officially, Germany remained neutral in the conflict, but secretly Berlin played both sides off against each other. That summer, Hitler agreed to Selassi’s request for weapons.127 At the same time, he helped Mussolini get around the League of Nations sanctions by exporting militarily relevant raw materials and products to Italy. The idea was to “let the war in Abyssinia sink its teeth in”128 and to force Mussolini into a corner that might encourage him to change his foreign policy. “Europe is in motion again,” Goebbels noted in mid-October. “If we’re clever, we’ll be the winners.”129

In May, Mussolini had already communicated a clear message to Berlin: “The stance of the European powers towards us in the Abyssinian question will determine Italy’s friendship or enmity.”130 Berlin interpreted this as an overture and closely monitored the situation. “Mussolini seems to have entangled himself in Abyssinia,” Goebbels remarked. “He cordially received Hassell. He’s seeking our friendship again.”131 That July, the Italian ambassador, Vittorio Cerruti, a critic of Hitler, was recalled and replaced by the Germanophile Bernardo Attolico.132 The longer the war went on, the more Mussolini distanced himself from the Western powers and the more he protested his fondness of Hitler. “I was his friend even before he came to power,” Mussolini claimed.133 At the same time, Berlin began to take Italy’s side more and more openly. On 5 December 1935, after lunching with Hitler at the Chancellery, Goebbels noted: “Conversation about Abyssinia/Italy. Sympathies increasingly with Mussolini.”134

In January 1936, Mussolini made the decisive advance. In conversation with Ulrich von Hassell he suggested “fundamentally improving German-Italian relations and settling the one quarrel, the Austrian issue.” Austria had to remain nominally independent, the Italian leader insisted, but it could become a “virtual satellite of Germany.” Mussolini also declared that the Stresa Front was “dead once and for all,” which meant that Italy would not act in solidarity with France and Britain in case of future German treaty violations and would not take part in any sanctions against Nazi Germany.135 These assurances were a direct encouragement for Hitler to prepare his next foreign-policy coup: the remilitarisation of the left bank of the Rhine River, which was forbidden by the treaties of Versailles and Locarno.

Hitler had long been toying with the idea of a surprise operation. On 20 January 1936, he informed his entourage over lunch at the Chancellery of his determination “to go after a sudden solution to the question of the [demilitarised] Rhineland zone,” although not at the moment “so as not to give the others the opportunity to get out of the Abyssinian conflict.”136 Only one month later, however, Hitler seems to have made up his mind. He told Hassell, whom he received in his private Munich apartment on 14 February, of his conviction that “the right moment psychologically” had come for remilitarising the Rhineland. Originally he had planned to launch the operation in early 1937, but the propitious circumstances demanded immediate action. The Soviet Union, he said, “was only concerned with maintaining calm on its western border, England was in bad shape militarily and seriously burdened with other problems, and France was domestically divided.” Hitler predicted that “no military action would be forthcoming after such a step by Germany—at the most there would economic sanctions, and these had become unpopular among the vassals of the great powers, who often served as punching bags.”137 Hassell came away with the impression that Hitler was “more than 50 per cent decided.” But as he confided to his diary, the ambassador highly doubted “that it was worth the risk to bring forward an event which would probably happen in one or two years anyway.”138

Hassell shared his doubts not only with Konstantin von Neurath, but several German military leaders. The army command had long regarded the remilitarisation of the Rhineland as necessary, but, as Werner von Fritsch told Hitler on 12 February, it should be done “without running any risk that the issue would lead to war.”139 In a further conference with Hassell, Neurath and Ribbentrop at midday on 19 February in the Chancellery, Hitler emphasised that in the long term “passivity could not be a policy” and that going on the offensive “was here, too, the better strategy.” Ribbentrop hastened to agree, while Hassell and Neurath were apparently very cautious about expressing their doubts. Hitler also explained why he thought he had to hurry. On 11 February, the French government had passed on a mutual defence treaty agreed with the Soviet Union the previous year to the French parliament for ratification. The treaty, which was also controversial in France, offered the perfect pretext for the planned operation. “We should use the pact with the Russians as an excuse,” Hassell summarised Hitler’s argument. In order to deny the other side the chance to “brand our operation as an attack,” he wanted to combine the remilitarisation of the Rhineland with a seemingly broad package of offers, including the establishment of a demilitarised zone on both sides of the Rhine, a guarantee of the territorial integrity of the Netherlands and Belgium, a three-powers aerial warfare treaty and a Franco-German non-aggression pact.140

Hitler’s desire to proceed with the remilitarisation was also motivated by domestic issues. According to Security Service reports, the public mood had been worsening since the autumn of 1935. Parts of the populace were unhappy about Nazi attacks on the Churches and especially with the one-sided prioritisation of the arms build-up at the expense of private consumers. Food imports were cut in favour of raw materials imports, which was leading to shortages. Hitler needed a spectacular foreign-policy success to distract attention from these domestic shortcomings. “He senses a decline in popular approval of the regime,” Neurath speculated in conversation with Hassell, “and is seeking a national cause to fire up the masses again, to stage the usual elections with a popular referendum, or one of the two, and then we get them on side again.”141

But as always when faced with major decisions, Hitler hesitated to take the final plunge. “He’s still brooding,” Goebbels noted on 21 February. “Should he remilitarise the Rhineland? Difficult question…The Führer is about to forge ahead. He thinks and ponders, and then suddenly he acts.”142 On 28 February, the day after the lower chamber of the French parliament ratified the treaty with the Soviet Union, Hitler still appeared “undecided.” During an overnight train journey to Munich on 28-29 February, Goebbels advised him to wait at least until the upper house of the French parliament had approved the deal. “Then we should grab the bull by the horns,” Goebbels wrote. “A difficult and decisive choice faces us.”143

Hitler finally made up his mind for good on 1 March. That noon, he visited Goebbels in his Munich hotel and once again ran through his reasoning. “He’s now completely determined,” Goebbels noted. “His face projected calm and resolve. Once again a critical moment has come that calls for action. The world belongs to the bold! He who dares nothing, gains nothing.”144

Hitler informed the Wehrmacht leadership about his decision the following day. As in March 1935, the operation was scheduled for a weekend. On Saturday 7 March, the Reichstag was to be convened for a meeting at which Hitler would announce the remilitarisation. Then the Reichstag would be dissolved, and fresh elections called for 29 March. Preparations were to be kept top secret to ensure the operation was a surprise. In order not to raise suspicions, Reichstag deputies would be summoned to Berlin for a “social evening.” Troop deployments were to be disguised by marches of the SA and the German Labour Front. “Everything must proceed with lightning speed,” Goebbels wrote.145

On 4 March, as Hitler began dictating his address to the Reichstag, voices of warning issued from the Foreign Ministry—much to Goebbels’s irritation. “From all sides, scaredy-cats are appearing disguised as cautioners,” the propaganda minister noted. “Especially in the Foreign Ministry they exist in large clumps. They are incapable of any sort of bold decision.”146 In any case, once Hitler had made up his mind there was no changing it. On the evening of 6 March, he informed his cabinet about the operation for the first time. The Franco-Soviet mutual defence pact, he told his ministers, represented “an obvious violation of the Treaty of Locarno,” and he had therefore decided “to occupy the demilitarised zone on the Rhine once more with German troops.” Hitler added: “All preparations for this have been made. The German troops are already on the march.”147 “Everyone was initially shocked,” Goebbels noted. “But there’s no turning back.”148 The following morning, German troops moved into the Rhineland to the cheers of residents of the region. At 10 a.m., Neurath sent the diplomatic representatives of France, Britain, Italy and Belgium a memorandum announcing the abrogation of the Treaty of Locarno after the Franco-Soviet mutual defence pact and calling for negotiations to create a demilitarised zone on both sides of Germany’s western border, a twenty-five-year non-aggression pact between Germany and France and Belgium, and a treaty concerning aerial warfare. The German government also signalled its willingness to rejoin the League of Nations. In his memoirs, François-Poncet insightfully characterised Hitler’s modus operandi as “hitting his opponent in the face while at the same time saying ‘What I suggest is peace.’ ”149

There was a feverish atmosphere in the Reichstag as Hitler approached the microphone around 12 a.m. William Shirer noticed that Reichswehr Minister von Blomberg looked pale as a ghost and kept nervously drumming his fingers on the armrest of his chair.150 The only order of business on the agenda was the “receipt of a declaration by the Reich government.” Hitler began with a series of digressive tirades about the unfairness of the Treaty of Versailles and its allegedly crass denial of equal status to Germany. Only towards the end of the speech did he raise his actual point. By concluding a mutual defence treaty with the Soviets, France had violated the spirit of the Treaty of Locarno so that Germany no longer felt bound by the agreement. He read out the memorandum that Neurath had sent to the ambassadors of signatory states and declared to frenetic applause: “In the interest of the most basic right of a people to secure its borders and maintain its ability to defend itself, the government of the German Reich has today restored its full and unlimited sovereignty in the demilitarised zone of the Rhineland.”151

More than 20,000 troops had crossed the Rhine, but only 3,000 penetrated further inland. They were under strict orders to retreat if attacked by French troops. But the French general staff was hesitant to launch such an attack, believing that their troops were no match for the Wehrmacht. In reality, a single French division would have sufficed to thwart Hitler’s gambit. The Führer was well aware of the risk he was taking and anxiously awaited the first responses to the operation. According to Schmidt and other sources, Hitler later described the forty-eight hours after German troops reoccupied the Rhineland as the tensest period of his life. “If the French had invaded the Rhineland,” Hitler said, “we would have had to retreat in humiliation and shame since the military forces at our disposal would not at all have been equal to even moderate resistance.”152

From his exile in Küstnacht, Switzerland, Thomas Mann offered “fervent prayers” to heaven that someone “finally teach this monster a lesson that will finally dampen the foreign-policy impertinence of his worshippers.”153 But Hitler was once again successful with his tactic of simultaneously appearing conciliatory and presenting adversaries with faits accomplis. It was already clear by the evening of 7 March that protests would once more be the only response of the Western powers. “France wants to summon the League of Nations council—let it,” Goebbels crowed. “It’s not going to do anything. That’s the main thing. Everything else does not matter…We’re all swimming in glee. What a day!…The Führer is beaming…We’ve regained sovereignty over our own country.”154 The next day, the regime celebrated Heroes’ Memorial Day, as it had the previous year. Shirer noted that the faces of Hitler, Goebbels and Blomberg were “all smiles” as they took their place in the royal box at the State Opera House.155

On 19 March, the council of the League of Nations met in London to condemn the German treaty violation. But this was an empty gesture, particularly as Anthony Eden said in his speech to the council that Germany’s illegal behaviour represented “no threat to peace” and did not call for a counterstrike since French security was not affected.156 Goebbels commented laconically: “In London we were unanimously taken to task. That was expected. Decisive is what comes next.”157 Not much, was the answer, aside from some empty diplomatic talk that changed nothing. Once again Hitler had led the Western powers around by the nose without any repercussions. France and Britain’s refusal to punish a flagrant breach of contract undermined international confidence in their willingness to defend Germany’s smaller neighbours in case of aggression and meant a serious loss of face for the League of Nations.

In Germany the remilitarisation of the Rhineland had initially occasioned fears of a new military escalation. Yet as soon as people realised that the West again would do nothing but issue verbal protests, Germany was swept by a wave of national euphoria. Admiration for Hitler’s daring was mixed with relief that the enterprise had had a happy ending. “Hitler succeeds at everything, people say,” reported Social Democratic observers. “Not entirely buried hopes that the regime might be toppled from outside Germany have once more been deeply disappointed.”158 Wherever the Führer appeared during the “election campaign” in the second half of March, he was venerated by the masses. His most triumphant appearance was at the concluding rally in Cologne on 28 March. The official results of the “election” gave Hitler’s party list 98.8 per cent of the vote. Even if the election was probably manipulated to some degree, this was an astonishing vote of confidence for Hitler and his foreign policy. “Triumph upon triumph,” gloated Goebbels. “We did not dare hope for this in our wildest dreams. We were all stunned. The Führer was very still and said nothing. He only laid his hand on my shoulder. There were tears in his eyes.”159

Hitler had taken a huge gamble and won. The diplomats and military leaders who had warned him about the risks looked like timorous naysayers, and Hitler’s immediate circle now registered a change in the way the Führer appeared and behaved. More than ever before, Otto Dietrich recalled, Hitler considered himself infallible and began to perceive objections and doubts as attacks upon the “sovereignty of his will.”160 Martha Dodd, the daughter of the American ambassador in Berlin, also noticed the transformation. Whereas Hitler had previously seemed modest, even shy, on social occasions, he now behaved as if he were the creator of the world and mankind.161 Hitler’s increasing overestimation of himself went hand in hand with his growing impatience to achieve his foreign-policy goals. In 1934, he had assumed that Germany would need ten years of peace to arm the Reichswehr so it would be combat-ready. Now he set much shorter deadlines.162 His coup in the Rhineland reinforced his tendency to go for broke. “Neither threats nor warnings will make me stray from my path,” he had announced in Munich on 14 March. “With the certainty of a sleepwalker, I am travelling the road Providence has sent me down.”163 Hitler’s popularity was so great by this point that the majority of Germans did not bat an eyelid at such hubris.