What Were the Key, Early Moments That Led to the Outbreak of World War Two?

History Hit Podcast with Tim Bouverie

4 mins

01 Aug 2019

This article is an edited transcript of Appeasing Hitler with Tim Bouverie on Dan Snow’s History Hit, first broadcast 7 July 2019. You can listen to the full episode below or to the full podcast for free on Acast.

The first big moment is when Hitler began to rearm Germany. It was fairly clear that he was breaking the Treaty of Versailles: he’s created an air force, which is proscribed, he’s talked about the need for a larger German navy.

And then in March 1935 he announced the introduction of conscription, and the Treaty of Versailles had said that you could only have an army of 100,000 men in Germany.

The Heinkel He 111, one of the technologically advanced aircraft that were designed and produced illegally in the 1930s as part of the clandestine German rearmament. Image Credit: Bundesarchiv / Commons.

Why did Britain and France not challenge this?

There are two reasons none of these things get challenged, and I think it’s important that we remember that contemporaries didn’t know that they were on an escalator towards war.

They didn’t know that this demand would be succeeded by the next demand, succeeded by the next demand, firstly because they thought that Hitler just did want equality of status among the Western powers.

There was a huge sense both in Britain and France that the Treaty of Versailles had been too harsh and had created the Nazis. They felt that if the Treaty of Versailles had been more lenient, then the German sense of grievance wouldn’t have arisen and the Weimar Republic might have survived.

If only Hitler were given that equality of status he demanded with the other great powers, then he might calm down and Europe could have that time of appeasement.

Appeasement was not a dirty word then. It was used as a perfectly acceptable aim. And it was always a perfectly acceptable aim. The criticism is of how the policy was going to work, rather than it not being a good aim.

The other reason these tests aren’t met is there was no appetite whatsoever for the only way of stopping them, which would have been a preventive war. Nobody was going to go march into Germany to stop her having 500,000-man army rather than 100,000, or even an air force.

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A lack of background research

Hitler had set out his ideas and his aims in Mein Kampf fairly consistently, and those people that really understood what the Hitler government was about had read Mein Kampf. But tons of people hadn’t.

I find it absolutely astonishing that the major figure that was threatening world peace had only produced one book. You would have thought they could have all read that one book, but they didn’t.

The aims of restoring Germany’s territorial integrity, regaining lost colonies, creating Lebensraum in Eastern Europe, defeating France – all of these are the consistent aims Hitler had throughout the 1930s.

Dust jacket of 1926–1928 edition.

The only thing that changed, I think, is he initially desired an alliance with Great Britain, who he hugely admired, particularly for our empire. By about 1937, however, he’s realised that this can’t happen, and he told his generals that they must count Great Britain among their most implacable enemies.

The next step: re-militarising the Rhineland

I think most historians now agree that the reoccupation of the Rhineland was the last chance of stopping a major war, which the British and the French had. But the British had no desire to chuck the Germans out of their own territory or go to war over that.

The high watermark of support for Nazi Germany in this country was 1936 in the aftermath of the Rhineland, which is quite strange. I mean, there were reasons for it, but it’s still nevertheless, a strange thought.

Hitler marched into the Rhineland in March 1936 – it had been kept open as a demilitarised zone separating France and Germany. The French wanted to occupy it themselves, but they weren’t allowed to by the British and the Americans at Versailles.

It was kept demilitarised because it was essentially the front door to Germany. This was the route through which the French army would march if they wanted a preventive war. It was their safety mechanism for removing a German government or reoccupying Germany should a great threat ever appear.

But they showed no real willingness in the 1930s to ever use it. And then in 1936, when Hitler moved into the Rhineland, the French showed no willingness at all to eject the very, very small number of German troops that had occupied it.

Dan Plesch is director of the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy at SOAS, University of London. He is the author of 'America, Hitler and the UN', co-editor of 'Wartime Origins and the Future United Nations', and has been a frequent contributor to the Guardian and other media. His latest book is entitled 'Human Rights After Hitler: The Lost History of Prosecuting Axis War Crimes'.Listen Now

A huge gamble

Hitler had ordered his soldiers to resist, but then it would only have been a token resistance before a major retreat.

The French army outnumbered the German army by about 100 times at that moment.

Hitler’s generals told him not to reoccupy the Rhineland. Hitler was profoundly nervous and said later on, possibly boasting because it showed his nerves of steel, that it was the most nervous 48 hours of his life.

It would have dealt a huge blow to his prestige within Germany had he been ejected from there, and it would have increased dissatisfaction among his generals. Whereas after this, the generals and the far more cautious military were at a disadvantage when they were trying to restrain Hitler from other outlandish acts of foreign policy.

Featured image credit: Reichswehr soldiers swear the Hitler oath in August 1934, with hands raised in the traditional schwurhand gesture. Bundesarchiv / Commons.