The Road to World War II: Why Wasn't Hitler Stopped?

By Klaus Wiegrefe

Part 3: Mouthpiece of the Nationalist Masses

Ardent support among the German public was another contributing factor to Hitler's success. Far from being an unpopular despot, Hitler was the "mouthpiece of the nationalist masses," as his biographer Ian Kershaw writes, and the dictator was intoxicated by the enthusiasm he generated among Germans. Indeed, the hubris that eventually led to his demise was only made possible by the interaction between the Führer and the people.

This conclusion is not weakened by the absence of scenes of celebration on streets and at railway stations at the beginning of the war. We now know that the mood quickly shifted after the first victories. Despite the millions killed in World War I, the Germans had not become radical pacifists. Instead, they merely wanted to avoid an overly high death toll.

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On Sept. 20, the American journalist William Shirer wrote, in Berlin: "I have still to find a German, even among those who don't like the regime, who sees anything wrong in the German destruction of Poland." As long as there were no significant losses, Shirer wrote, "this will not be an unpopular war." It was an apt prognosis.

Finally, the long-term consequences of World War I prepared the ground for catastrophe. Various powers sought to revise the postwar order and sheer anarchy soon prevailed. Italy's fascists, Japan's military leaders, the Soviet Union under Josef Stalin, even the military regime in Poland -- all of these powers aspired to build zones of influence or empires, and to do so they cooperated, at one time or another, with the Nazis. Even democrats in Great Britain and France appeased the German dictator for far too long, albeit mainly for an honorable reason: to save the peace.

Isolated

Of course, it all started with the Germans. When Hitler became chancellor of the Reich in 1933, it had been less than a generation since the end of World War I, and yet Germany's own role in that war remained unexamined. Disappointed by defeat and resentful over the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles, Germans of all classes and political stripes yearned to correct these perceived wrongs. Revisionism, as the German historian Rolf-Dieter Müller notes, was "the most powerful force" in the country.

At this time, the Third Reich was isolated internationally. Democrats in London, Paris and Prague kept their distance, as did fascist Italy and the Soviet Union. Initially Hitler even feared that neighboring countries could launch a pre-emptive war against Germany.

But his concerns were exaggerated. It soon became clear just how fragile the postwar order was. Ironically, the military junta in Poland, a country that would suffer more than any other during World War II, entered into what the German-Polish historian Frank Golczewski calls a "junior partnership" with Hitler. In 1934, Warsaw and Berlin signed a non-aggression pact, opening up Hitler's options in the East. The Polish regime, for its part, took advantage of the arrangement to exert pressure on neighboring countries.

Hitler, at first, found himself in the unfamiliar situation of having to rein in the Foreign Ministry and military officers. His generals wanted a faster and more comprehensive military buildup than the dictator felt was opportune from the standpoint of foreign policy.

In this context, contemporaries were taken aback by the breathtaking speed with which the Third Reich shook off the constraints of Versailles. On March 10, 1935, Aviation Minister Hermann Göring let it be known that he was in command of an air force, and less than a week later Hitler announced the introduction of compulsory military service to increase the size of the Wehrmacht to 550,000 men. Both actions were clear violations of the Treaty of Versailles, which had stipulated an extensive disarmament of Germany.

The European victors in World War I -- Great Britain, France and Italy -- had long recognized that the terms of Versailles stood in the way of lasting peace. Who knows how the history of the 20th century would have progressed if the Allies had conceded all the things to the unpopular Weimar Republic that they would later grudgingly accept when Hitler simply helped himself.

Restraining Hitler

In the spring of 1935, Mussolini invited British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald and French President Pierre-Étienne Flandin to talks at the chic Grand Hotel in Stresa, on Lake Maggiore in Italy. Taking advantage of the propaganda value of the summit, the vain Mussolini arrived by speedboat at the Art Nouveau building, located directly on the magnificent lakeside promenade. By the end of the meeting, the Italian schoolteacher, the Scottish pacifist and the mustached Frenchman vowed to take "all appropriate steps" to punish Hitler's future encroachments.

Il Duce was particularly outraged by the attempts of Austrian Nazis to assume power in Vienna. He called for a "punitive expedition" against Berlin. "Everyone who is gathered here knows that Germany intends to conquer everything from here to Baghdad," he said.

But Mussolini had his own aspirations, which included his dream of the rebirth of a Roman empire that was to include Abyssinia, or modern-day Ethiopia. A few months after Stresa, he attacked the African kingdom, an act that permanently damaged his relationships with other countries, particularly Great Britain.

Hitler turned the situation to his benefit with diabolical skill. He secretly supplied the Africans with weapons to prevent an early Italian victory. At the same time, he offered the internationally isolated Mussolini economic and military aid.

In early 1936, the Führer had the Italians where he wanted them. Mussolini, anxious to secure Germany's backing, declared the so-called Stresa Front "dead and buried once and for all" and gave Hitler to understand that he would have no objections to Austria becoming a satellite of Germany. Soon afterwards, Mussolini began referring to a Rome-Berlin Axis.

Without Italian protection, Austria was at the mercy of pressure from the Third Reich. Once Austria had fallen into Germany's sphere of influence, Czechoslovakia's strategic situation deteriorated. And once Hitler had taken care of Prague and Bratislava, it became next to impossible to successfully defend Poland, non-aggression pact or not.

"The Führer is pleased," Goebbels noted.

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