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About this book

Jonathan Wright explores the events, discusses rival interpretations and places the policies of Hitler in the context of Germany as a whole. Wright explains that support rose and fell, but, nevertheless, by December 1941 Hitler had succeeded in carrying Germany into a world war for racial empire.

Table of Contents

Introduction

Abstract
The origins of the Second World War lay in and with Germany. This book has therefore in one sense a simple task: to explain German policies which led to war. But a moment’s thought shows that is far from simple. Hitler and the origins of the Second World War or the Third Reich and the origins of the Second World War could be dealt with as an essay in policy making.1 But Germany and the origins of the Second World War introduces another, much larger and more obscure picture. Why were the German people prepared to follow Hitler and the Nazis into war, and not just the European War which broke out in 1939 but the world war which followed after 1941? For if Hitler had not been able to secure the support or at least the consent of civil servants, the military, industry, the judiciary, the universities, the churches and the great mass of ordinary people who fought and died, there would have been no war.
Jonathan Wright

1. Debates and Themes

Abstract
A history of nineteenth-century Germany opens with the words ‘In the beginning was Napoleon’.1 The same could be said in relation to the writing of the history of the Third Reich about Hitler. Particularly as regards foreign policy, interpretations were and remain Hitler-centric.2 But that is not the whole story. In 1961 A. J. P. Taylor stirred up a hornets’ nest by arguing that while Hitler may have had some vague notions of expansion to the East he had no clear plans.3 In Taylor’s view he simply seized the opportunities presented to him as any German statesman would have done. That challenged the general consensus among historians that Hitler’s aims were both radical and implemented in a logical order. Those who subscribed to that view included Hitler’s then leading English biographer, Alan Bullock, and Hugh Trevor Roper and German scholars like Klaus Hildebrand and Andreas Hillgruber.4 With varying emphases they maintained that Hitler imposed on German foreign policy the specific goals, timing and methods of expansion. He followed, they suggested, a clear programme, from removing the sanctions clauses of Versailles, to expansion in Europe, to living space in the Soviet Union and from there to an — albeit less well-defined — final conflict for world mastery. These historians became loosely lumped together in the discussion as the ‘intentionalists’ because they stressed Hitler’s intentions as the primary part of any explanation. Taylor too was an intentionalist — he simply did not believe that Hitler had any real intentions.
Jonathan Wright

2. Hitler’s World

Abstract
To understand how far Hitler’s foreign policy represented the wishes of most Germans we have first to consider where he came from and how his politics related to other German political traditions. Hitler was born in 1889 in the Austrian part of the then Austro-Hungarian empire. This was a multinational state that had survived into the age of European nation states. Its constitution was that of a dual monarchy from 1867, representing its Austrian and Hungarian halves and presided over by the Habsburg dynasty in the person of the Emperor Francis Joseph from 1848 to 1916. But in addition to the Austrian and Hungarian ruling groups, the empire also contained populations of Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Serbs and Croats.
Jonathan Wright

3. From the Margin to the Mainstream

Abstract
The crisis that brought Nazism to power was the great depression. Yet this was not a simple matter of cause and effect. The unemployed did not vote overwhelmingly for the Nazi party. On the contrary the working class in the main continued to vote for the Social Democrats and, in increasing numbers, for the Communists (KPD). The Catholic Centre Party also held its ground though its policies shifted to the right. The main effect of the great depression was to drive the Protestant middle classes into the right-radical camp.1 The liberal parties virtually disappeared and the Conservative DNVP suffered heavy losses. As the crisis deepened, the various middle-class protest parties — regional parties, a ‘business’ party, a savers’ party, farmers’ parties — also went under. In addition, turn-out rose from 75.6 per cent in 1928 to 84.1 per cent in July 1932. The Nazi party was the single beneficiary of this volcanic eruption within the middle-class camp, though the KPD also made gains among the working class. The Nazi share of the vote rose from 2.6 per cent in 1928 to 18.3 per cent in 1930 and peaked at 37.4 per cent in July 1932 (the KPD rose from 10.6 per cent in 1928 to 16.9 per cent in November 1932). The Nazi party became a genuine mass party of the Protestant middle classes, the first one in German history, and it succeeded in attracting a significant minority of the working-class vote as well.
Jonathan Wright

4. Dismantling Versailles, 1933–36

Abstract
Hitler wasted no time in setting the new course and winning over the military leadership. On 3 February 1933, only four days after his appointment as Chancellor, he addressed a group of senior officers at the home of the commander-in-chief of the army, Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord, together with the Foreign Minister, Neurath.1 The notes of the discussion by one of the generals present, Curt von Liebmann, have recently been confirmed by a second account from an unlikely source. It seems that one of General Hammerstein-Equord’s daughters, who was a Communist, passed on a record of what Hitler said to a KPD contact and from there it went to the offices of the Communist International in Moscow.2
Jonathan Wright

5. Preparing for War: From Rhineland Occupation to Anschluss

Abstract
The two years from the occupation of the Rhineland in March 1936 to Anschluss with Austria in March 1938 saw the Third Reich move from defence to offence. Having removed the sanctions imposed by Versailles, the next decision was whether to go for expansion or stability. It was a moment of truth. Was Hitler serious about the conquest of an empire with all the risks involved? Or would he settle for a process of negotiation to achieve gradually those limited gains which could be justified by self-determination — Austria, revision of the Polish frontier, the acquisition of the mainly German Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia — and perhaps some colonies?
Jonathan Wright

6. To War in Europe: From Anschluss to the Invasion of Poland

Abstract
From March 1938 to September 1939 Hitler moved from preparation for a great war to deciding the where and when of expansion. That involved a new degree of risk. It was no longer a question of undoing Versailles: union with Austria had accomplished the last major goal of that kind in Europe where Hitler’s aims were shared by most Germans. Increasingly, he faced the problem that his aim of empire in the east would be made more difficult to achieve by simply revising the Versailles frontiers in line with self-determination. He continued to make use of that principle but a return to the frontiers of 1914 — even extended to include the German populations of the former Habsburg monarchy — was not what he wanted. He was not fundamentally interested in the Sudetenland (where most of the 3 million strong German minority in Czechoslovakia lived) or Danzig (with its German population) and the Polish corridor or Memel (another German port on the Baltic which had been ceded by the treaty of Versailles and subsequently annexed by Lithuania). He was interested in these only in so far as they served his larger goal. The puzzle for Hitler was how to make use of them as a pretext. He needed them as justification both for German public opinion, which was nervous as the risks increased, and to stave off foreign intervention — from France, Britain and possibly the Soviet Union — before Germany was strong enough for full-scale European war.
Jonathan Wright

7. To World War: September 1939–December 1941

Abstract
The invasion of Poland marked the beginning of the European war. The rapid defeat of Poland was followed by the occupation of Denmark and Norway in April 1940, the invasion of Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg and France in May, the battle of Britain from August to October, the invasion of Greece and Yugoslavia in April 1941 and the campaign in North Africa in which the Germans supported the Italians from February 1941, the invasion of the Soviet Union in June and, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the declaration of war on the United States on 11 December 1941. It is possible to argue that each escalation of the conflict followed from the invasion of Poland. But each also required a decision by the German leadership and the willingness of Germans to fight, to administer the occupied territories, to produce the weapons for victory and to maintain morale on the home front. A study of Germany and the origins of the Second World War cannot therefore stop in September 1939. From the invasion of Poland, justified by a deeply felt frontier dispute, to war with the western powers which revived memories of a struggle since the 1890s for Germany to be the equal of the great powers, to the invasion of the Soviet Union which drew on both anti-Communism and specifically ‘Jewish Bolshevism’, Hitler found the support he needed. Germany, which had been fearful and divided at the prospect of war in 1938 and unenthusiastic in 1939, became Germany in occupation of much of the European continent by 1941, and moreover an occupation in Poland, parts of the Balkans and the Soviet Union of extraordinary ferocity and ruthlessness. How did it happen?
Jonathan Wright

Conclusion

Abstract
An account of Germany and the origins of the Second World War must include not simply Hitler and the Nazis but their ability to carry the German public with them. As the above quotation shows, that story began in the 1890s with German aspirations to be a world power on the model of the British empire. The experience of the First World War with its unparalleled losses ending in defeat led to intense soul-searching about what had gone wrong.2 Among a section, mainly of the Protestant middle class, that resulted in a renewed and more fanatical nationalism against those who were perceived to be enemies at home and abroad. The depression seemed to confirm the radical nationalist view that the ideology of the Paris peace — democracy, the League of Nations and international trade — did not correspond to reality. The only security seemed to them to lie in acquiring and exploiting empire or ‘living space’ in a Darwinian struggle for survival between different nations or races. That brought Hitler and the Nazis to power, as some 37 per cent of German voters turned to them. In power, Hitler managed German public opinion deftly, presenting himself as a man of peace concerned only to claim the same rights for Germany as other nations already enjoyed. That stance, buttressed by rearmament, gained overwhelming support and helped to popularize the Nazis with the half of the nation, mainly Catholic and Socialist, who were not natural supporters. It also helped to undermine the will of the democracies, in any case never strong, to maintain the peace settlement.
Jonathan Wright
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