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Assess the Importance of Ideology in the Formulation of Nazi Foreign Policy to 1939

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From Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor on January 30 1933 to the beginning of WWII on Sept 3 1939, the Nazi state pursued an aggressive foreign policy that contributed largely to the outbreak of war. This foreign policy was largely reflective of the goals Hitler had set out in his 1924 autobiography “Mein Kampf”, particularly Germany’s easterly moving aggressions. However, although Nazi ideology played a dominant role in structuring foreign policy to 1939, it was also greatly influenced by the response of the Allies to aggressions and therefore Hitler’s perception of which foreign policies could be most successful.

Hence, whilst Nazi ideology surmises the ultimate goals of Nazi foreign policy to 1939, the role of events from 1933-1939 played a significant detail in determining Germany’s actions. Hitler’s understanding of politics and race can be summed up in “Weltanschauung” (world view), as described in Mein Kampf. Written in 1924 after Hitler had been arrested for an attempted coup, the autobiography deals with the issues plaguing Germany at the time, including the instability of the Weimar Republic and the problem of WWI reparation payments as set out in the 1919 Treaty of Versailles.

Hitler, as a member of nationalist Nazi party, despised democracy, and believed that it undermined Germany’s success. Further, Hitler gave validity to the “stabbing in the back” myth, claiming that WWI’s loss had been unnecessary, and had been caused as a result of the “scheming” Jewish population. Using these understandings, Hitler believed that should Germany be expanded into a grossdeutschland by creating Lebensraum (living room) in the resource-rich East, wherein the superior Aryan race could reside.

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All other races, particularly Slavs & Jews, were denoted as racially inferior, and were intended by Hitler to be used as slaves. Throughout Mein Kampf, Hitler euphorically and openly describes his war intentions for Germany, in quotes such as “Any alliance whose purpose is not the intention to wage war is useless”. However, when Hitler came to power in 1933, Germany was unfit to pursue Hitler’s aims, and required a great deal of restructuring in order to increase output and production.

Therefore, despite Hitler’s ultimately war goals, he was forced to delay aggressions until the German military could be rebuilt. This began in 1935, when Hitler announced open plans for rearmament and introduced conscription, in order to strengthen and prepare the Wehrmacht. This was a direct violation of the Treaty of Versailles, however the Allies chose not to act. At this stage, Hitler’s popularity as a leader was large, seen by the success of the Saar plebiscite in January 1935 in which the Saarland’s population chose to rejoin Germany, as before the Treaty.

Even by the end of 1935, it was clear that Nazi Germany was expanding, and intended to continue. On March 7th 1936, Hitler ordered the invasion of the Rhineland. This foreign policy was incredibly aggressive, and showed even greater disregard for the terms of treaty. The Rhineland had been established by the Treaty as buffer between France and Germany, in order to ensure France’s safety after the German invasion of WWI. By invading it, Hitler directly threatened France, and demonstrated his serious intent to expand Germany, as outlined in Mein Kampf.

However, although this invasion coheres to the ideologies outlined in Mein Kampf, namely the reversal of the Treaty of Versailles, the invasion was largely experimental, and based on the previous non-action of the Allies to Hitler’s defiance of the treaty. A mere 22,000 German troops entered the Rhineland, and could have easily been suppressed by Allied forces, Hitler himself admitting that had the French resisted, Germany would be forced to retreat immediately. Despite this, the Allies chose not to respond yet again.

This was a critical point in structuring future Nazi foreign policy, as it demonstrated the Allies unwillingness to participate in conflict, and preference to appease. Had the Allies stopped the occupation of the Rhineland, it is unlikely that Hitler’s aggressive foreign policies would have been so actively pursued, as they risked increased resistance and further embarrassment. In October 1936, the Rome-Berlin axis was created, a political alliance linking the fascist forces of Italy under Mussolini with Nazi Germany.

At this time, Italy too was pursuing an aggressive foreign policy in order to create a racially perfect Italy, goals similar to those of Hitler. Hence, the signing of this agreement indicates Hitler’s intention to keep to his racial ideologies, and to link with necessary powers in order to achieve lebensraum for the Aryan race. Further, the Hossbach memorandum of 1937 clearly demonstrates Hitler’s plans to expand Europe in order to strengthen Europe, and his intentions to formulate foreign policy based on these aims.

In March 1938, Hitler demanded Anschluss with Germany-a union that had been forbidden by the Treaty. This demand was met with opposition by Austrian Chancellor Schuschnigg, who insisted on a plebiscite. However, after a large amount of pressure, the Anschluss was agreed to, and shortly after, German troops entered Austria. German and Austrian union had been forbidden specifically after their strong alliance in WWI, and the threat they posed as a combined force. By 1938, Hitler had defied the Treaty of Versailles several times, and had yet to meet resistance by the Allies.

Particularly in the case of Austria, the Allies chose to not intervene because of a belief that Germany was simply “marching into its backyard”. On top of this, by 1938 Germany was experiencing high living standards as a result of Hitler’s volksgemeinschaft and was a formidable power, thus the Allies recognised German desire for expansion into a previously had region. It also evident that Hitler understood this detail in the timing of the Anschluss-when in 1936 Hitler had made similar demands, the Allies stood opposed, and the Wehrmacht was ill-equipped to defy Allied wishes.

In 1938 Hitler understood Germany’s military capacity, and used its position to pursue the foreign policies based on the ideologies in Mein Kampf. By 1938, Hitler had acquired all desired territories with relative ease, as a result of their size and insignificance to the balance of power on the European continent. It was this confidence that allowed Hitler to pursue his most aggressive foreign policy yet-the demand for the Sudetenland. The Sudetenland was part of Czechoslovakia, which had been created post WWI.

Previously German territory, it still contained 3 million German speakers. Hitler’s demand was based on the reasoning that its German population should be united with the rest of Germany, in spite of Czechoslovakia’s sovereignty. In this demand, Hitler demonstrated his willingness to defy the right of independent states in order to achieve his own ends. President Banes refused not only out of principal, but also because of the region’s massive industrial production and abundance of resources. Hitler stood adamant and threatened that invasion was imminent.

British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, in recognition of the situation, flew to meet with Hitler in his Wilhelmshaven residence on September 15, in order to reason with him. Hitler stood firm, justifying his demand by claiming that a Czech-Soviet pact was a threat to European security. Chamberlain, a conservative politician, believed that Hitler could be appeased, and thus suggested that perhaps Germany’s takeover of the Sudetenland could be achieved through non-aggressive means, a suggestion far surpassing his authority. On Sept 26, German, British, French and Italian delegates met in Munich to discuss the details of the takeover.

Czech and Soviet delegates were not invited to this meeting, despite their large role in the outcomes. Once the terms had been agreed to, and delegates, particularly Chamberlain, were satisfied, Germany annexed the Sudetenland. Yet again, Hitler had been appeased and had accomplished his expansionary goals, managing to attain another territory prohibited by the Treaty. The movement of Germany’s aggressions were those aimed for in Mein Kampf-hence suggesting that ideology had played an integral role in formulating Nazi foreign policy to that success.

This idea is further reinforced by the extension of Hitler’s grasp on Czechoslovakia, when in 1939 Hitler ordered that the rest of the state be handed over to Germany, which was quickly agreed to. Hitler’s accomplishments had all been aimed for in 1924-however, without the non-response of the Allies, and Chamberlain’s continuing belief that appeasement would succeed in limiting Hitler’s aggressions, Nazi foreign policy would not have been as ambitious, and it is unlikely that aggressions would have succeeded, thus further aggressions, such as with the demand for the Sudetenland, would have been unlikely.

This suggests that although foreign policy was based on ideological principles, its formulation was responsive to the European powers. The responsive nature of Nazi foreign policy is highlighted by the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact of 1939. In Hitler’s understanding of race, Slavs were considered racially inferior, and Hitler’s own political directly opposed Stalin’s communism. In fact, Hitler’s ultimate intentions in Mein Kampf included obtaining Eastern Europe, by crushing the Slavs.

Thus, this non-aggression pact completely contradicted what seemed to be the intention of Nazi foreign policy to 1939, and what Hitler had been adamant about in Mein Kampf. However, the pact was of strategic brilliance for Germany, for several reasons. With serious intentions to invade Poland, Hitler was faced with the possibility of a two-front war from Russia, which he understood would be crippling to the Wehrmacht. Further, whilst the German military was capable of fighting Allied resistance, should the Russians have made an alliance with the Allies, the struggle would intensify.

Therefore, when German and Russian foreign minister Ribbentropp and Molotov, respectively, signed the pact on August 23 1939, it guaranteed temporary security for both powers, and allowed for rapid capture of Poland beginning on September 1 1939. This pact demonstrated Hitler’s flexibility in achieving his aims, sacrificing one of his fundamental ideological principles in order to create an effective Nazi foreign policy. In analysing the weightings of ideology and circumstances in the formulation of Nazi foreign policy, there exists two main schools of thought: intentionalist and structuralist.

Intentionalist historians believe that Nazi foreign policy was based entirely on the principles clearly outlined in Mein Kampf, whilst structuralists, such as AJP Taylor, believe Hitler’s foreign policy was created by opportunities presented to him between 1933-1939, and that documents such as the Hossbach memorandum do not demonstrate clear intentions based on ideological principles but simply aggressive intentions, as per many European powers at the time.

In reality, neither arguement encompasses the scope of considerations taken in the formulation of Nazi foreign policy, however to disregard Mein Kampf and the ideological pursuits described in it which Hitler’s foreign policies to 1939 directly reflected is unacceptable in understanding the aims of Nazi foreign policy.

Therefore it can been seen that whilst the racial and political ideologies of Hitler, as outlined in 1924, played a significant role in Nazi foreign policy to 1939, several other factors, including the response of the Allies to Hitler’s aggressions and Germany military’s capacity, greatly affected Nazi foreign policy, and were pivotal in both its timing and creation.

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