By Thomas Childers, Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania
The Nazis had come to power with their program of restoring German grandeur. By undoing the hated Treaty of Versailles, they had restored the German military to a position of prominence among the powerful nations of the world. Let us see how Hitler envisioned Germany’s relationship with the rest of the world.
Between 1933 and 1938, Hitler had registered a series of extremely impressive foreign policy victories that, in many ways, overcame the reservations that some had about his government and, particularly, his domestic policy.
One often hears things about Nazi foreign policy and Hitler’s conception of it in particular; this sort of madman’s determination to expand at all costs across Europe and then possibly around the globe.
A famous SA song contributed to this image: “Heute da hort uns Deutschland, und morgen die ganze welt.” That means, “Today Germany is listening to us, and tomorrow the whole world will.” But in German, with a very slight change of a prefix, it is “Heute gehort uns Deutschland, und morgen die ganze welt,” which means, “Today Germany belongs to us, and tomorrow the whole world will.”
This is a transcript from the video series A History of Hitler’s Empire, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, Wondrium.
Hitler’s Conception of Foreign Policy
One could get a sense of Hitler being absolutely maniacal and fanatic in his determination, driven by ideological goals that would drive Germany toward war. But this is not the picture that Hitler presented to the German public, and he operated on the basis of his own notion of the international system.
He certainly had basic goals; these were laid out in the 25 points of the NSDAP in 1920. Germany, Hitler argued, was a volk ohne raum, a people without space. Traditionally, Germans have looked eastward, in many ways the way Americans looked at the west.
Learn more about the rise of the Nazi party.
Nazi Germany and the Colonization of the East
The east was there to be colonized, clearly after the First World War, when new states were created.
After the Great War, Poland was restored as a large Polish state, with a corridor that had attached it to the Baltic Sea and with the port Danzig being under the administration of the League of Nations. Czechoslovakia was a completely new creation; and farther south, Yugoslavia.
The Nazis certainly didn’t see them as legitimate states. The Lebensraum, the living space, was to be gained in the east. Of course, beyond those states lay the real prize, and that was the Soviet Union—the great agricultural potentialities of Russia, Ukraine—and these beckoned to the Nazis in particular.
Hitler’s Autarchic Greater German Reich
Hitler wanted to create an economically independent German Reich, one that could withstand, for example, blockades such as the ones England imposed on Germany during the Great War and had led to starvation of tens of thousands and diseases related to dietary problems during the First World War.
What that meant was probably going to be the seizure of territory in the east, and there was an ideological element to this as well. This wasn’t just a traditional notion of expansion to the east.
For Hitler, the great objective was, from the beginning of his career to the end, the showdown with the Soviet Union. Russia wasn’t just Russia any longer; it was now the center of Judeo-Bolshevism. So, what might have been a geopolitical objective now became a crusade to rid the world of this terrible Judeo-Bolshevist threat.
Hitler envisioned Germany as a hegemonic power on the continent of Europe. He believed that Great Britain would have its empire all around the world, which Germany wouldn’t threaten; that Germany would be a bulwark against Bolshevism on the continent of Europe.
The Four Superpowers in the World
Across the Atlantic, there was the United States, which Hitler thought was legitimately the dominant power in the Western hemisphere. But he also thought, in the long run, that the United States was doomed, that you could not have a country of such racial mixture that could survive over the long haul.
And then across the Pacific, there was Japan: the Aryans of the East, he sometimes called them. The Japanese would have a legitimate claim to dominate Asia. What Hitler was really talking about was Germany’s ability to act much the way a superpower would act. These would be the four superpowers in a multi-polar world: Germany, United States, Great Britain, and Japan.
All of this meant, in practical terms, not only the revision of the Treaty of Versailles, but its absolute destruction.
Learn more about the Weimar Republic.
Equality and the Treaty of Versailles
In all of his public statements from the moment he became chancellor, right down to when the first shots were fired in 1939, Hitler always talked about equality. Germany had been denied its rightful position by the Treaty of Versailles, and now all Germany wanted to do was to restore its rightful position. Other countries had armies, but not Germany.
Hitler would always say,
I was there in the trenches, and I know what war means, and I’m not in favor of war, I don’t want war. The German people want peace, and that’s what I want, but we want peace with equality.
Once these were perfectly reflected in his first foreign policy action, Germany was already a participant in a world disarmament conference, and at that conference, Hitler decided to make a splash.
Nazi Germany’s Dramatic Proposal
His representative at the conference made a dramatic proposal: Germany would completely disarm if France, Britain, the United States, Japan, Russia—all the other powers—would disarm, too. Since Germany only had an armed force of 100,000 troops, this wasn’t much of an offer.
When the French balked at this, Hitler in a huff withdrew Germany’s representation from the conference and withdrew from the League of Nations, which was involved in it.
This played very well at home. First of all, it was thumbing his nose at the Western powers that were responsible for Versailles. It didn’t matter if you were the most radical Communist, whether you were a moderate Catholic Center Party member, or whether you were a Nazi. The Versailles Treaty was universally hated as unfair in Germany.
This would then be Hitler’s approach, to emphasize Germany’s determination to revise the treaty.
Common Questions about Hitler’s Diplomacy
Hitler‘s representative at the conference proposed that Germany would completely disarm if France, Britain, the United States and all the other powers would disarm, too.
Hitler believed that Germany had been denied its rightful position by the Treaty of Versailles.
Hitler envisioned Germany as a hegemonic power on the continent of Europe.