Germany's involvement in the Second World War

  • Created by: l.r12
  • Created on: 08-05-18 17:25

How far was Hitler's foreign policy responsible?

Historical debate: In many ways the causes of the Second World War can seem as a result of Hitler's aggression and ideology. However, most historians agree that there are other reasons behind it:

  • The influence of German history on Nazi foreign policy
  • Hitler's ideas and his role in shaping foreign policy
  • The reasons for the German invasion of Poland in 1939
  • The contribution of the other nations to the outbreak of the war

Influence of German history: Some historians have argued that Germany's modern development had followed a Sonderweg, or special path, that caused the country to become more militaristic and aggressive than other foreign nations. Historians who hold this view point to the authoritarianism and militarism in German culture, the fact that the Second Reich was created after a series of military conflicts and the influence of militaristic traditions of the Prussian Army on German culture. According to this arguement, these are long term-causes of the war.

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Nazi policy

Nazi policy and German history: There are some ways in which Nazi foreign policy was a reflection of historical events or attitudes.

  • The 'September Program' drawn up by German government at the start of WW1 set out Germany's ambition to take over vast areas of Europe.
  • In some respects, Kaiser Wilhelm's Weltpolitik scheme of colonial expansion, prior to 1914 was a forerunner to Hitler's idea of Lebensraum. Additionally, Weltpolitik was based on racist assumptions
  • The idea that the German-speaking people needed to be untited and needed 'living space' - Lebensraum had grown into popularity in Germany in the late 19th century. The desire to conquer territory in Eastern Europe and Russia was popular prior to 1914
  • Anti-Semitism, and other kinds of racism had a deep-seated presence in Germany's history and in the late 19th century pseudo-scientific ideas about 'racial purity' and 'strength' were also being commonly adopted
  • The idea that all German people should be united into one country was also held by some pre-war Germany and some German speakers in the Austro-Hungarian Empire
  • Critics of this view:Most other major European countries were imperialist and racist too
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Franco-German tensions and the Treaty of Versaille

Some historians think that long-term relations between France and Germany led to the outbreak of the Second World War. The Second Reich was formed in the aftermath of the defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. At the end of this conflict, the new German Reich took over the French regions of Alsace-Lorraine. French resentment of German aggression and suspicions about German actions continued throughout the period 1871-1914. After the end of the First World War, the French were determined to get their territory back and also ensure that Germany would never humiliate France again.

Most historians accept that the ideas of right-wing German and Austrian nationalists such as the unity of all Germans and Lebensraum did influence Nazi ideas. However, how far these issues were the main cause of the outbreak of the war are debateable.

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Hitler's role

Many historians argue that Hitler's actions and ideas werea major cause of the Second World War. Hitler sought Lebensraum and wanted to overturn the Treaty of Versailles. In order to achieve this he expanded the German military, and annexed Austria and the whole of Czechoslovakia prior to the invasion of Poland in September 1939. His vision of a huge, 'racially pure' German state in the heart of Europe , supported by satelite states whose populations would be enslaved.

Hitler was personally instrumental in pushing foreign and economic policy in a more aggressive direction that made war more likely. For example, it was Hitler's decision to redirect the economy towards the war in 1936 with the 4 year plan. Additionally, in 1936 he went ahead with the remilitarisation of the Rhineland which directly contravened the Treaty of Versailles.

In 1938 Hitler and Goering were behind the decision to push forward with the annexation of Austria. Hitler steered hsi military generals towards preparation for a major European war from 1938, and purged any generals who opposed him in the Bloomberg-Fritsch Affair of 1938. Hitler was central to events in Czechoslovakia in 1938 and 39 as well as the decision to invade Poland in 1939, which unlike much of his previous foreign policy aims, was unpopular with the German population

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Masterplan or opportunist?


  • The NAzi 25 Points programme he drew up with Drexler in 1920 demanded the abolition of the Treaty of Versailles and land for Germany to colonise
  • Mein Kampf (1923) outlined his vision to create Lebensraum in Eastern Europe
  • Hitler's Second Book (1928 but published after his death) set out Stufenplan which was a stage-by-stage process to make Germany a dominant world power
  • Four Year Plan (1936) in order to prepare Germany for a major war
  • Hossbach Memorandum- a record of Hitler's discussion with Generals in 1937 outlined his desires for Anchluss and the destruction of Czechoslovakia by 1945

It is clear that Hitler's writings an his goals influenced the Nazi foreign policy. However, while Hiter's aims were clear, some historians argue that his writings do not consitiute a fully-formulated plan. Moreover, he never wrote of starting a world war

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Opportunist or masterplan?

Other historians argue that Hitler tended to improvise, taking advantage of the situations which presented themselves to him. For example, he was unsure of how Britain and France would respond to the militarisation of the Rhineland but after they accepted it his foreign policy became bolder.

Plan for peace?

Some historians argue that throughout the 1930s Hitler's main goal was to avoid war. From this point of view, Hitler's attempt to find excuses to justify expansion into Czechoslovakia and Poland and his willingness to sign treaties with Britain and France and the USSR, all can be viewed as evidence that Hitler was keen to expand without starting a major war.

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Contribution of other nations to the outbreak of w

While there is no doubt that Hitler and Germany played an important role in starting WW2- other nations also played a role.

  • The USA and the USSR largely stayed out of foreign affairs
  • Britain and France were not in a strong position to try to uphold international order as they both had been hit hard by the Depression and France was very unstable politically
  • The League of nations was ineffective, the League was supposed to work for peace, but lacked the unity and power to take decisive action over aggression. E.g it was unable to stop Italy's invasion of Abyssinia in 1936
  • The events of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) which was won by the nationalists and fascists strengthened Germany's position internationally and also led to greater unity between Germany and Italy. As Britain and France remained neutral they gave the impression that they were unlikely to intervene.

Appeasement: This was the policy which was taken by Britain and France towards Germany from 1935 to the invasion of Czechoslovakia in March 1939. They made concessions to avoid war and appeared to be 'passive' in the face of the bold and strong Germany

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Other nations and the outbreak of WW2

Causes of appeasement:

  • Britain and France wanted to avoid war. In the context of the Depression and the aftermath of the First World War they were unprepared. France was preparing for a new election and was very untable politically at this time and both populations were not in favour of another war
  • Many in Britain believed that the Treaty of Versailles was excessively harsh and they sympathised to some extent in the anger of the Germans towards it
  • France's political crises of the 1930s meant that it would not enter a war without the support of the British


From 1935-38 Britain and France were prepared to allow Germany to breach the terms of the Treaty of Versailles and pursue more of an aggressive foreign policy.By taking the approach of appeasement, Britain and France consented to aggressive acts by the Nazi government. Britain and France took no action to force German forces to withdraw after the remilitarisation of the Rhineland in 1936. Furthermore, when Hitler threatened Czechoslovakia in 1938 Nevile Chamberlain preferred to negotiate the Munich agreement - which the Czech had little choice but to sign- rather than taking decisive action.

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Lack of unity?

Concerted action by the USSR, Britain and France may have prevented the Polish attack of 1939 and therefore prevented the outbreak of the war. However, the three countries could not work together.

Britain was reluctant to work with the USSR. British leaders did not want to share information and intelligene with a communist country, suspicion of communim made an alliance impossible.

Was appeasement missguided?

Chamberlain was often criticised. But appeasement gave the British time to prepare for war as much as they could before they fought Hitler. Between signing the Munich Agreement in 1938 and the commencement of WW2 almost a year later, Britain developed radar and expanded its rearmament program. Nevertheless, creating an impression that they would not intervene may have encouraged Hitler further.

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Outbreak of WW2

British, French and the Polish Guarantee of 1939: They signed an agreement in March 1939 stating that they would support Polish independence, and French and British politicians hoped that this would persuade Hitler to stop German expansion- in some ways the guarantee also marked an end to appeasement.

Hitler and Poland: Hitler did not take the Polish guarantee seriously and hoped that he could continue without any intervention from Britain and France.

Nazi-Soviet Pact: August 1939 the Nazis and the Soviets signed a pact in which they agreed to share Poland and this pact also meant that the Nazis could attack Poland without fear of opposition from the USSR

Masterplan or miscaluclation?

Historians have considered that Hitler's invasion of Poland in September 1939 was a miscalculation as he did not trust that Britain and France would take force on the side of Poland.

Mistake? Some historians have claimed that he made a mistake in misjudging the situation and did not actually want a European war.

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Economics and public opinion

The impact of the Four Year Plan: The Four Year Plan and rearmament more generally, actually had a negative effect on the German economy. Some historians argue that this pushed Germany into the war.

  • The need for raw materials to make weapons caused a balance of payments crisis. In 1939, Germany was forced to slow down its rearmament drive. Hitler believed that a solution to this was to gain more territory and in doing so, take hold of more resources. This could have been one of Hitler's motives for eastern expansion as it has a high abundance in natural resources
  • Rearmament also had a negative impact on German living standards. Devoting large amounts of resouces to rearmament meant that Germany did not have the resources to improve wages, and it meant that the supply of consumer goods and food became limited. The economic pressure created discontent. Some historians argue that Hitler needed to go to war instead of needing to unite the country.
  • Blitzkreig- some historians argue that Blitzkreig provided a solution to Hitler's economic and political troubles. According to this view, Hitler was prepared to launch a Blitzkreig- lightning war with Poland- benefit of uniting Germany behind the war effort- government would be popular and they could seize all Polish resources.
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Role of other individuals

  • Ribbentrop-became Foreign Minister in 1938- he replaced Von Neurath who was a conservative and some may see this as another example of Hitler's move towards aggessive politics. Ribbentrop also played a key role in negotiating the Nazu-Soviet Pact of August 1939
  • Goering- Responsible for the Four Year Plan and equipping the Luftwaffe. Moreover as Head of the Four Year Plan he was responsible for much of the rearmament and the damage to the economy. He also may have helped lay the economic and miliaristic foundations for war. He also advocated an aggressive approach to Anchluss
  • He hid the failures of the Four Year Plan and the weaknesses of the Luftwaffe from Hitler- in doing so he encouraged Hitler to think that his methods were successful

Nature of the government:

Cumulative radicalisation of the government and the rising competition for the accumulating power between key Nazi figures meant that policies became more aggressive towards the end of the 1930s.

At the same time the conservatives and the pragmatists had no way of stopping Hitler from taking more risks as the checks and balances of the Weimar Constitution were widely ignored. This allowed Hitler to pursue an aggressive foreign policy without any effective governmental opposition.

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