By Patrick Allitt, Emory University
Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, facilitated by the faults of the Versailles Treaty and the feebleness of the League of Nations, caused a growing alarm in America. His astonishingly successful attacks on the European neighbors in 1939 and 1940, and his vicious anti-Jewish policies caused many Americans to seek intervention on behalf of Britain—Hitler’s sole undefeated European foe.
An Unjust Treaty of Versailles
The United States did nothing to prevent Hitler’s rise to power in Germany. Many Germans nurtured an acute sense of grievance over the Versailles Treaty, which from the beginning they’d regarded as completely unjust, and it always compromised the legitimacy of the Weimar republic.
Hitler won the election of 1933, and quickly cemented his position in power by abolishing the constitution. Hitler persecuted Socialists and the Jews, obviously a policy that culminated in his extermination policy during the Second World War.
An Uncontrollable Germany
Throughout the Second World War, the ‘Final Solution’, the attempt to exterminate the Jews once and for all, enjoyed his highest priority. Even when his armies were in desperate straits, he’d make them wait while shipments to the death camps were sent through.
The League of Nations, founded in the early 1920s but lacking in American presence, proved powerless against aggressors in the 1930s. The League was unable to stop a Japanese invasion of China in the early 1930s; it was unable to prevent the Italian conquest of Ethiopia in the mid-1930s; and it was powerless to stop the Spanish Civil War, which raged between 1936 and 1939.
Hitler’s military successes in 1939 and 1940 astonished the world, and alerted America to some new geopolitical realities.
This is a transcript from the video series A History of the United States, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Period of Appeasement
As Hitler’s aggressions in Europe began, he was constantly reassuring British and French politicians that he had no territorial ambitions in Europe as a whole, and the British and French leaders were desperately eager to believe him.
The European powers didn’t want to go back to war and were very willing to conciliate, to wait, to consider alternative options. It was called the ‘Period of Appeasement’, to hope that some peaceful solution to the problem might be found.
Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister, was the embodiment of appeasement. He was popular and widely admired, whereas Winston Churchill was regarded an old warrior whose usefulness had long gone behind. However, throughout the 1930s, Churchill had been anticipating the return of war and recognizing the ferocity of German power. The fortunes of Churchill rose vertically once the war had begun, just as those of Chamberlain fell very rapidly.
Advantage of Air Power and Tanks
Hitler’s new technique of fighting was called blitzkreig, and it made maximum advantage of air power and tanks—two offensive weapons that had been perfected in the interwar years—to restore the initiative to attackers.
During the First World War, artillery and machine guns gave a crucial advantage to defenders. It was very difficult to attack. Tanks broke that deadlock, as did dive bombers and aerial bombing campaigns.
Through the blitzkreig, Hitler overpowered first Poland, then Norway and Denmark, and then Belgium, the Netherlands, and France—all done very, very rapidly. Britain finally declared war against Germany in September 1939 when Hitler attacked Poland.
The British army was sent to support the French armies on the eastern French frontiers, but they didn’t invade Germany. Instead, they simply waited, and for about eight or nine months an eerie farce called the ‘Phony War’ took place; no actual fighting, just this calm waiting.
Then, however, when Hitler did turn his full attention to the western front—that is to France, Belgium, and the Netherlands—he overran all of them in 50 days, in one of the most incredible campaigns in the history of warfare. France was a world power. Yet, Germany annihilated French resistance in the space of just a few weeks.
Battle of Britain
By the summer of 1940, after this rapid and very successful campaign, Britain alone remained as Hitler’s only significant undefeated enemy. Later that summer, the battle of Britain began, where British and German fighter and bomber planes sparred over Britain, and bombing raids attacked British cities very heavily, which is remembered in British history as the blitz.
American journalists like Edward Murrow were there—watching the bombing campaigns, and reporting sympathetically on the pluck and determination of the British people in the face of this bombing not to surrender. This was the period when Winston Churchill, now the Prime Minister, made his most famous speeches about the way in which Britain would never surrender, whatever the circumstances in which they had to fight, and in doing so swung more and more of American public opinion in favor of intervention on the British side.
Common Questions about Hitler’s Aggressions and Rise in Power in Europe
The ‘Final Solution’ was Hitler’s attempt to exterminate the Jews once and for all. This was his highest priority, and even when his armies were in desperate straits, he’d make them wait while shipments to the death camps were sent through.
Though Hitler had begun with his aggressions, the European powers didn’t want to go back to war and were very willing to conciliate, to wait, to consider alternative options. It was called the ‘Period of Appeasement’, to hope that some peaceful solution to the problem might be found.
Hitler’s new technique of fighting was called blitzkreig. It made maximum advantage of air power and tanks