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Interwar years concluded

After the governmental purges, Hitler put himself as the head of the military. He created the OKW (Ober Kommando Wehrmacht), the armed forces high command, and wanted a military leader as its figurehead--General Wilhelm Keitel and appointed General Walter von Brauchitsch as chief of the army. Hitler had to be absolutely sure that his military leaders would follow his every command, no matter how controversial they were, which was an essential element in Hitler's plan to conquer Europe. The first step was to annex Austria to the south in a carefully orchestrated plan of deception and intimidation which became Hitler's trademark. He publicly told the world one thing and proceeded to do the opposite, like holding out one hand for a handshake with the other hand holding a dagger behind his back. The Treaty of Versailles prohibited Austria from uniting with Germany, but 20 years later Hitler had other plans. In February 1938 he called the chancellor of Austria, Kurt von Schuschnigg, to his lair in Berchtesgaden and doled out false charges of breaking the Austrian-German Pact of July 1936. Not only did Hitler want Schuschnigg to legalize the Nazi party in Austria, but he also had the gall to demand that the head of the Austrian Nazi party (Arthur Seyss-Inquart) be appointed to his cabinet. Naturally Schuschnigg was reluctant to give in, but weeks later Hitler incited Austrian Nazis to riot and threatened to invade Austria if his demands were not met.

Finally the Austrian chancellor allowed Seyss-Inquart into the government, but Hitler continued with his plan of theft and on 12 March marched his troops into Austria. In what became known as Anschluss, Hitler dissolved the state Austria into a territory of Germany to give him more money, materials and leverage to use against the Allies. Many Austrians hailed the Nazis as their saviors because they had gained back the noteriety they lost in WWI, but it was at the cost of their own independence. The rest of the world looked on and for the most part ignored Hitler's actions, because he cleverly touted it as a unification of the German people, altough no Austrian had a choice in the matter--Hitler simply took what he wanted. And yet on 30 January 1934 he had announced to the world "The assertion that it is the intention of the German Reich to coerce the Austrian state is absurd." Four years later the Austrian state no longer existed. One interesting sidenote: once Hitler controlled Austria, he took even greater lengths to cover up his past--specifically the possibility of his Jewish heritage on his illegitimate father's side. The Austrian town of Döllerscheim held the birth record of his father, so Hitler turned it into an artillery range, destroying it and any record of his father's ancestry. Even the tombstones became unreadable. Meanwhile, the Soviets met with the Finns in April, asking them to help the Soviet Union in a blockade of the Gulf of Finland. Finland refused, infuriating Moscow.

Hitler's next target was Czechoslovakia, but he could not take it completely without arrousing opposition. He continued to deceive the world with his dream of "uniting the German people" by pointing to the westernmost part of Czechoslovakia, called the Sudetenland. He told Czechoslovakia that the people of the Sudetenland were ethnically German and that it was his duty to liberate and unite all German peoples in solidarity. The truth was that the Sudetenland used to be a part of the Austrian-Hugarian Empire, not Germany, and was given to Czechoslovakia in 1919 as a buffer between them and Germany. Hitler ignored history, and then used isolated pockets of Nazi leaders in the region to stir things up by claiming the Czech government had repressed the ethnic Germans for years, which put the country into turmoil. Riots and street fights ensued, and Hitler once again threatened military action if his "people" were not "liberated" and once again Hitler made empty promises to get what he wanted. "It is the last territorial claim I have to make in Europe. I have assured Mr. Chamberlain and I repeat it here: when this problem is solved, there is for Germany no further territorial problem in Europe. We want no Czechs!" However, at the same time, Hitler was threatening to invade Czechoslovakia, which prompted Britain and France to ask for an emergency summit.

In what became known as the infamous Munich Conference, the four powers of western Europe met in Munich during 29-30 September 1938, including Britain's Neville Chamberlain, France's Edouard Deladier, Italy's Benito Mussolini, and Germany's Adolf Hitler. Czechoslovakia's president, Eduard Beneš, was not offered to take part in the talks; they were only strongly encouraged by the Allies to settle with Germany to avoid a conflict. He had his own meeting with Sudeten officials, who were amazed that Beneš said in advance he would concede to their demands of the Sudetenland becoming a German province. The Czech president had become a tired old man with no strength left for politics of such magnitude and shortly afterwards, Beneš resigned in exile and was replaced by an even weaker leader, Emil Hácha. After much deliberation, the Allies agreed to let Germany have the Sudetenland by 10 October 1938, in 4 stages, as well as agreeing on other European borders which gave away small portions of Czechoslovakia to Poland and Hungary.

Hitler and Chamberlain also signed a separate treaty which guaranteed the two countries would not go to war, which led to one of the most ill-fated speeches of all time. Chamberlain addressed the free world, holding up the treaty signed by Hitler and boasted that he had achieved "peace in our time." Little did he know that the Allies had only fed Hitler's ambitions instead of quenching them. He had built a world perception of himself based on fear and intimidation, and all the while keeping his true ambitions concealed. The Allies had been looking for the best political situation but completely misinterpreted Hitler’s intents. They overestimated the strength of the German military and underestimated his territorial desires. The Munich Conference only further weakened Czechoslovakia, because all of its natural and military defenses were lost when the Sudetenland was taken. The Soviets grew uneasy with the Western appeasement of Hitler and again asked Finland for a partnership, this time for a 30 year lease on several Finnish islands in the Gulf of Finland. The Finns again refused, adhering to their neutrality, but also did not want to make any kind of alliance with the Soviets, given their history with Finland.

Meanwhile, Hitler's plan to dominate Europe was quickly unfolding at an alarming rate. On 12 March Slovakia had announced their autonomy from the government in Prague, effectively leaving the Czechs at the mercy of Hitler's threats to carpet bomb Czechoslovakia into submission. The world watched with disbelief on 14 March 1939 as Hitler went into Czechoslovakia and told Hácha that German troops would march in the next day, and would do so peacefully if met without resistance. Hácha was even more frail than Beneš and had no strength to argue as the deck was stacked against him. Reluctantly he capitulated, and Czechoslovakia became Germany's next victim as Hitler announced, "Czechoslovakia has ceased to exist." Soon all of Czechoslovakia and its people, regardless of ethnic origin, would be in the chokehold of the Third Reich.

Things in Europe went from bad to worse as the American ambassador to Germany left the country, fueling speculation of the coming war. Hitler further tested the waters of his intimidation by deploying soldiers to the Lithuanian city of Memel, which had previously been a part of East Prussia. The Lithuanians protested but ultimately capitulated to avoid a fight and on 22 March it was in German hands. Hitler knew it was time to move in on Poland, his largest territorial goal thus far, but wanted to avoid an all out declaration of war in the hopes that he could weasel his way in. He pointed to the port city of Danzig, in the "Polish Corridor" that had been carved out of East Prussia and given to Poland after WWI, to give it access to the Baltic Sea. Hitler once again demanded that Danzig, although a free and independent city under the Treaty of Versailles, was ethnically German and therefore it belonged to him and his people. The Poles refused to even listen to Hitler's demands and on 28 March Germany revoked its treaty with Poland, in which Hitler had promised on 21 May 1935, "Germany has concluded a non-aggression pact with Poland. We shall adhere to it unconditionally." Of course by this point the world knew that Hitler's word was not worth the paper it was printed on, and this time Britain and France would not appease Hitler's bloodlust any longer. On 31 March, Chamberlain drew a line in the sand, and announced to the world that Britain and France would uphold their friendship treaty to come to Poland's aid if Germany should attack them. Stalin also offered his advice in the matter but Poland wanted no help from the Red Army--they knew that once the Soviets entered Poland they would keep it for themselves. Months later that theory would prove to be true.

Meanwhile, as Hitler took over Austria and Czechoslovakia, Mussolini was outraged because he wanted European territory too. Not to be outdone, on 7 April 1939 he invaded Albania using their current revolution as an excuse. It was a success, but only because the Albanians didn’t put up a fight. Italy’s army was completely unprepared and untrained and if the Albanians put any muscle at all into a counter-attack, Italy's attack would have been crushed before it began. Still, Mussolini considered himself to be Hitler’s equal and saw himself running Southern Europe and North Africa while his German partner handled Eastern and Western Europe. He did have the common sense to know he could not do it by himself, so he asked Hitler for men and supplies, to which Hitler agreed because he did not want to bother much with that part of Europe and had his eyes on other adversaries. In order to strengthen Italy’s place in Europe, Mussolini formed an alliance with Hitler on 29 May 1939 (the “Pact of Steel”), which stipulated that each country would help the other in time of war. Mussolini soon discovered that Hitler was in fact preparing for war, but Italy’s army was nowhere near a suitable level for a large military operation, and estimated at least 3 years to develop his army enough.

In August 1939, the British and French realized Hitler no longer wanted to unite the German people, but rather conquer all of Europe. The Allies now knew Hitler intended to invade Poland, so they told him that they would declare war on Germany if he took any more aggressive actions. Sensing the impending war, they began to build up their military strength, but at that point it was far too late. The final step in Hitler's march to war came on 23 August 1939 in an event which shocked the world, made front page headlines, and became the focal point of political debate in America and Europe. Despite being ideological enemies, the Nazis and Soviets signed a non-aggression treaty, called “The Molotov- Ribbentrop Pact,” named after the Soviet and German foreign ministers. The treaty stipulated that Stalin would not interfere with the German military occupation of Europe, and that Hitler would not invade Soviet territory. Hitler’s plan was to avoid a two-front war (like the “Schlieffen Plan” of WWI) and take out western Europe first, then concentrate on the east, namely the Soviet Union.

The Germans wanted the Pact because it would give them a free hand to pillage Europe without Soviet interference. The Soviets wanted the Pact because the Red Army wasn’t as big as Stalin wanted, and he wanted a buffer zone between Germany and the Soviet Union. They were also afraid of a two front war because Japan had attacked them earlier that year, and although they were repelled by the leadership of the Red Army’s General Zhukov, they knew they could not fight both Germany and Japan at the same time. Stalin saw the aggression of the capitalist western European countries as a natural course of history as Karl Marx predicted and the Soviets even went so far as to give the Germans supplies to further the treaty. If it were not for the pact, the Soviet Union would have likely been defeated by the Germans, had they invaded in 1939. Fortunately the Soviets built up their military enough from 1939 to 1941 that they could repel a German attack which in 1939 was only two years away. In the meantime, the Soviets focused their attention on the situation with Finland, and established military bases in the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to strengthen their presence.

The origins of war

The rise of the Nazis


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