Hitler’s political maneuvers prior to the Second World War highlight the question: Did all of these actions represent a premeditated grand strategy or were they just situations that presented themselves with a low risk of confrontation with other nations? Without a doubt, Hitler wanted to dismantle the Treaty of Versailles. “Every power-seeking politician in the country, including Adolf Hitler, spokesman of the upstart National Socialist German Workers’ (Nazi Party), attacked the treaty.” This platform, combined with Hitler’s almost hypnotic talent as an orator, facilitated his rise to power and control over Germany’s destiny which he felt he, and he alone, should control. H. R. Trevor- Roper best captures Hitler’s belief in himself as the only one with the capability to restore the lost German empire to her greatness when he states:
Hitler distrusted his successors, as he distrusted his predecessors, who had been too soft. Only he, he believed, ‘the hardest man in centuries’, had the qualities for such a ‘Cyclopean task’: the vision, the will-power, the combination of military and political, political and ‘world-historical’ insight. Therefore the whole programme of conquest, from beginning to end, must be carried through by him, personally. Nor could it be left to his subordinates, his generals. He distrusted his generals too. Like all professional soldiers, they disliked the prospect of great wars. Military parades, quick victories in limited campaigns—these were part of their business; but a major war of revenge against the West, or a major war of conquest against the East, was a prospect that alarmed them. It alarmed them as soldiers; it also alarmed them as conservatives. To envisage such a war with confidence one had to be, not a conservative Prussian staff-general, but a revolutionary nationalist, able to command obedient, if reluctant, generals: in fact, a Hitler.
Hitler was committed and driven by his obsession for power and his pursuit of lebensraum to the point of resorting to war if his objectives could not be obtained by political means. The grand strategy to attain those objectives, however, followed more closely to that of an opportunist than of a grand strategist. This does not mean that Hitler’s strategy was ad hoc; it simply implies that each step was taken one at a time to test the waters before proceeding to the next. With the will of the people behind him, Hitler began to make his vision a reality.
The West, and more specifically France, was unsure of Hitler’s long range plans for Germany and apprehensive to say the least with regard to the future state of affairs. In order to quiet the fears of the West, Hitler signed a non-aggression pact with Poland in January of 1934 which he used as a major propaganda victory and frequently cited as an example of Germany’s peaceful intentions. “The pact with Poland is a perfect example of Hitler’s intuitive genius and of the way in which he was able to manipulate his foreign audience much as he had done with his domestic audience.”
With the West temporarily at ease with Hitler’s actions, his next move was directed against the Treaty of Versailles. In March of 1935, Hitler announced to the world that Germany would no longer honor the disarmament clauses of the treaty and reinstated military conscription. One year later, on March 7, 1936, Hitler sent a poorly equipped and undermanned German army marching into the Rhineland. This action was in direct violation of Articles 42, 43, and 44 of the treaty which had created a “demilitarized zone” in the Rhineland and barred any German military activity within 50 kilometers of the Rhine River. Hitler’s generals were so assured that France would go to war over the Rhineland that they had prepared an evacuation plan to save as many German troops as possible from their inevitable fate. Hitler, however, went ahead with his plan ignoring their concerns and regained the territory without a shot being fired. Surprisingly, the French and the British, whose combined strength could have stopped Hitler in his tracks, did nothing more than voice their disapproval of Germany’s actions, which meant in effect they looked the other way. Hitler again seized the moment and in order to prove to the rest of the world that his future intentions were indeed peaceful, proposed a twenty-five-year non-aggression pact with France. The world breathed easier once more while Hitler scored yet another diplomatic victory.
The next two years passed by without any further indication of Hitler’s overt conquest for eastward expansion. During this period, however, Hitler continued to strengthen his military forces to a point where he felt confident enough to make his next move—Austria. On March 12, 1938, Hitler decided to send German troops into Austria at the request of Seyss-Inquart, the leader of the Austrian Nazi party, under the premise of restoring order to the land. As the German army crossed the border, they were met by cheering crowds of Austrians welcoming their arrival. Hitler himself went to Austria that same day to proclaim the union of Austria and Germany. He gave the Austrians an opportunity to vote on the union in early April and an overwhelming majority (over 99 percent of the voters) voted in favor of the reunification of Austria with the German Reich effective as of March 13, 1938. Again, the British and French Governments seemed to condone Hitler’s march into Austria by not taking any action against him.
Czechoslovakia was next on Hitler’s agenda. After World War I, over 3.2 million Germans were left in the region of Czechoslovakia called the Sudetenland. They claimed they were being mistreated by the Czech people and government and wanted nothing more than to be reunited with their German homeland. When Hitler informed his staff of his plans to take the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia, General Ludwig Beck, the Chief of the General Staff, was convinced this action would lead to Germany’s ruin and resigned from office. Hitler, inspired by his own self-confidence and against the advice of his generals, decided that Britain and France would not go to war over the Sudetenland and threatened to use force against the Czech government if they refused to recognize the Sudeten Germans’ demands for independence. His bold statements sparked the fear in Europe of yet another war. On September 29, 1938, Britain and France agreed to a meeting with Hitler in Munich sponsored by Mussolini to try and resolve the situation through peaceful means. The Soviet Union and, more importantly, Czechoslovakia were not invited to attend the meeting. Britain and France agreed to Hitler’s terms regarding the German occupation of the Sudetenland and were confident peace was once again to be maintained. This appeasement did not last long and on March 15, 1939 Hitler decided to send in his troops and occupy what was left of Czechoslovakia.
Within a matter of days after Hitler’s occupation of Czechoslovakia, Britain and France publicly announced their commitment to defend Poland against Hitler’s aggression if he decided to move against her. Britain’s sudden hard line stance against Hitler may have been due to Prime Minister Chamberlain’s embarrassment after Hitler’s violation of the Munich Agreement in which Chamberlain felt “the pressure of public indignation, or his own indignation, or his anger at having been fooled by Hitler, or his humiliation at having been made to look a fool in the eyes of his own people.”
Despite repeated proclamations that Britain and France would defend Poland, Hitler was confident they would not interfere with his plans. To bolster his confidence, Hitler signed the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact with Joseph Stalin on August 22, 1939. Hitler’s decision to arrange the pact with Stalin proved to be mutually beneficial to both parties. Stalin was more than willing to sign the agreement since he felt the West was trying to isolate him by excluding the Soviet Union from the Munich proceedings. Hitler, on the other hand, was now assured that if war was inevitable, the Soviet Union would not be a factor against him thus, insuring victory for Germany.
Up to this point, Hitler’s quest for lebensraum had been accomplished by purely political means. His self-confidence and arrogance had grown to the point that everyone and everything around him appeared to be unimportant since he was the one who, against the advice of his generals, masterminded each and every critical, bloodless, and unchallenged victory for Germany without going to war. Hitler saw himself as a true military genius—a master of strategy and tactics unlike the conservative generals who served under him.