Chapter Six

German Nazism

There has always been a strong and natural tendency to conflate Italian fascism and German Nazism under the general label of ‘fascism’. The partners in the Rome-Berlin Axis proclaimed their unity. Mussolini declared in 1936 that ‘between Germany and Italy there exists a community of destiny’; and Hitler said in 1942 that ‘the brown shirt might perhaps not have arisen without the black shirt.’1 They displayed very similar outward appearances, in their uniforms, marching columns, and propaganda. At a deeper level too they had a good deal in common, especially in what they were against: communism, liberalism, capitalism; and to a lesser extent in what they were for: the vague but potent ‘leadership principle’. For many of their friends, and even more of their enemies, the identity between the two movements appeared obvious. In a study of the origins of the war they form a natural pair. They were dynamic forces, glorifying violence and war, and breaking the mould of the European order of 1919. Italian fascism was first in the field; German Nazism had greater power at its disposal. Coming together in an alliance, they provided the impulse which drove Europe towards war — thus contemporaries declared, and many have continued to believe.

In all this there is much truth; and yet it is a mistake to compound the two phenomena under the one name ‘fascism’. Their sources were different, with Nazism deeply rooted in the racial theories and social Darwinism of the nineteenth century, while fascism was more recent in its origins and unconcerned with race. In the long run too their fruits were different, as was shown in their dealings with that other powerful organisation with far-reaching claims, the Catholic Church. Italian fascism came to terms with the Church and co-existed with it; but Nazism was deeply anti-Catholic, and its totalitarian claims were pressed to the point of fundamental conflict. With Nazism one is dealing with a phenomenon more profound and far-reaching, as well as infinitely more brutal, than Italian fascism.

The Nazi dictatorship: Hitler and the new men

There is no agreement about the origins of national socialism in Germany. Some writers (mostly non-Germans) have found its roots deep in German history, going right back to the Teutonic knights and their struggle against the Slavs, or even to the Germanic tribes which fought successfully against the Romans. Others have seen Nazism as part of a contemporary movement, whose roots were European rather than specifically German. Right across the Continent there was a reaction against industrialisation and the anonymity of the production line. The Great War, inflation, and economic depression spread their effects throughout Europe. Nazism met the psychological needs which were thus created. It gave the individual an identity and a place in a hierarchy. It restored confidence after defeat, and promised economic recovery and a stable currency. It provided German solutions to European problems, in a way that was attractive to many outside Germany.

In fact, Nazism was able to appear both revolutionary and traditional. New ideas of a ‘national socialism’, which appealed to the instinct for national unity as against the Marxist doctrine of class struggle, and of revolutionary dynamism, were grafted on to a sense of racial superiority and a martial tradition which went far back into German history. The graft was not wholly successful, but it produced a stronger growth than would have resulted from anything which was solely either contemporary or traditional.

It was through an alliance between the revolutionary and the conservative that Hitler and the Nazis came to power in Germany. Hitler grasped, after the failure of his putsch in Munich in 1923, that he must attain power legally, with the consent of the existing authorities, and above all of the army. This he did. In the Reichstag elections of July 1932, the Nazi Party polled 13.74 million votes and won 230 seats — not a majority in the country or in the Reichstag, but enough to be the largest single party. They lost ground in the elections of November 1932, dropping some two million votes and winning only 196 seats; but they still remained the largest single party in a smaller Reichstag.2

After these electoral successes, Hitler became Chancellor on 30 January 1933, through negotiations with the conservative Franz von Papen and the nationalist Alfred Hugenberg. Hitler was one of only three Nazi ministers in the Cabinet, and the conservatives were confident they could control him. One of von Papen's friends remarked that ‘We have him framed in’ — which Gordon Craig rightly thought ‘should be included in any anthology of famous last words’.3 The conservatives thought they were using Hitler; in fact he was using them. But he still needed them, as he recognised in the splendidly staged ceremony at the Potsdam Garrison Church on 21 March 1933, when the high officers of the old imperial regime (including the former Crown Prince) gathered to mark the opening of the new Reichstag, and to see the President, Field Marshal Hindenburg, give his blessing to the new Chancellor amid all the panoply of the old regime. The black, white, and red colours of the former German Empire hung alongside the swastika banners of the Nazis, while the army and the SA (Sturm Abteilung — the Nazi storm-troopers) formed the guard of honour together. A new élite thus took its place alongside the old.

For some time the old and the new co-existed; but in the next few years the new élite displaced the old, sometimes by drastic methods. Only fifteen months after the ceremony at Potsdam, General von Schleicher, a former Chancellor of Germany, was murdered in his own home by Nazi gunmen. On 2 August 1934 the officers and men of the German Army took an oath of unconditional allegiance to the Führer, Adolf Hitler. This oath was devised by Generals Blomberg and Reichenau, in the belief that they were binding Hitler to the army; but in fact the opposite happened, and the army became bound to Hitler.4 By 1938 the army high command and the Foreign Ministry, formerly the preserves of the old aristocracy and ruling groups, were brought under Nazi control. Other long-standing centres of influence — universities, the legal profession, industrialists' organisations — raised no opposition.

Among the new men, the one who was nearest to the old pattern was Hermann Goering, whose father was a Prussian officer and at one time Governor of German South-West Africa, and who had himself been an air force officer in the Great War. The others were outsiders, with Hitler himself as the prime example. In the days of the German Empire, Hitler rose to the rank of corporal. In the new, fluid Germany of the 1920s and early 1930s he created a powerful political party and became Chancellor, even though to conservatives he was ‘neither a gentleman nor a German’.5 His supporters were often young, and tended to be personally unstable. In 1934 the average age of Nazi Party members was seven years lower than that of the population as a whole, and the average age of its leaders was eight years lower than that of non-Nazi élite groups. Few of those who held leading positions in the Party had had regular jobs outside it; of those who attended university, few completed their courses.6 The drop-outs and misfits had come to power, with no traditions and no code of conduct except that learned in the struggle for power and fighting in the streets. They owed their rise to the Party and its leader. There is every sign that most of them believed in its causes, but even if they did not there was no future for them outside it.

The new élite exercised power without institutional restraints. Existing constitutional procedures were suspended rather than abolished, and no new constitution was created to replace that of Weimar. The so-called enabling law of 23 March 1933, passed in the Reichstag by 441 votes to 94 in circumstances of heavy Nazi pressure, gave the government power to impose laws without the Reichstag, and to depart from the constitution. (Technically, these dispensations were for four years.) All political parties other than the Nazi Party were suppressed. All trade unions were absorbed into the Nazi Labour Front. Other opposition was crushed by drastic methods. Ernst Roehm, head of the SA and leader of a radical faction within the Nazi Party, was murdered along with many of his associates (and others who had little or nothing to do with him) in the Night of the Long Knives, 30 June 1934. Already the camps existed to which enemies of the regime were despatched. Hitler remarked in Mein Kampf that authority was founded on popularity, force, and tradition; when all three were combined, it was unshakeable. Hitler and his movement were short on tradition (though he tried to make up by the ceremony at Potsdam and appeals to the Germanic past); but for much of the time strong on popularity and very strong on force.7

This did not mean that the state was monolithic and firmly structured. Various entities within the state retained some cohesion and freedom of action: the Party, the SS, the army officer corps, heavy industry, the chemical industry. Individuals set up their own bases of power and patronage. Ribbentrop first created his own private Foreign Service, and then when he became Foreign Minister tried to restore the position of the official Service which he had previously undermined. Goering accumulated offices like a demented Pooh-Bah — he was ruler of Prussia, commander of the Luftwaffe (1935), head of the Four-Year Plan (1936), and designated as Hitler's successor. He tried in 1938 to secure control of the army, but Hitler prevented it — such a concentration of authority would have been too great. Groups and individuals were engaged in ceaseless, though usually concealed, struggles — the Luftwaffe against the army, chemical industry against steel industry, Himmler against the army high command. This played into the hands of Hitler, as the only man at the top who could resolve disputes. In that way it worked to the advantage of his personal dictatorship, but at the expense of long-term efficiency. The Nazi system was extremely good at doing certain things — it revived the economy, built aeroplanes, cars, and roads, and generated a tremendous drive. But the government of a modern state, and even more the preparation of a state for war, demands effective administration and the setting of priorities in the use of resources. Despite its real achievements, and its terrifying reputation for ruthless efficiency, Hitler's Germany failed to devise a regular system for setting priorities and was subject to damaging administrative rivalries.

In the course of time, two main views of the nature of Hitler's authority have emerged. One school of thought (often called ‘intentionalist’) holds that Hitler wielded supreme power within the state, and depicts the course of events in Nazi Germany as the fulfilment of his intentions. The other (termed ‘functionalist’ or ‘structuralist’) argues that policy was heavily influenced by various structural constraints, and that Hitler's own actions were restrained by the existence of semi-independent bodies within the state, and by the near-chaotic nature of the state itself. It was surely true that the new Germany was a ‘dual state’, in which elements of the old and new ruling groups co-existed, sometimes co-operating and sometimes in conflict. But the soundest conclusion is that adopted by Ian Kershaw: ‘Hitler's power was indeed real, not a phantasm’, even though that power was exercised in collaboration with other individuals and groups. In particular, in matters of foreign and military policy, it was Hitler and the new élite who called the tune. What did they set out to do?8

Hitler and Mein Kampf

German Nazism was identified with Hitler. At the end of his biography, Alan Bullock concluded that ‘the evidence seems to me to leave no doubt that no other man played a role in the Nazi revolution or in the history of the Third Reich remotely comparable with that of Adolf Hitler’.9 His success was certainly remarkable. In 1939 he had taken Germany in six years from being a country with millions of unemployed, disarmed and subject to restrictions by various international treaties, supervised by powerful neighbours, to being the dominant military power in Europe, with the treaties torn up and unemployment almost vanished. As one of his opponents remarked, ‘It is not an achievement anyone can belittle.’10

The scale of this achievement often seemed out of key with his personality and intellect. Despite his immense powers of oratory and his ability to hold a mass audience in thrall, one of his German biographers has written that ‘he coined not a single memorable phrase’.11 His one published book, Mein Kampf, is commonly dismissed as confused and absurd. He is sometimes depicted as a madman, perhaps in a technical sense a psychopath, an abnormal personality, given to abnormal concepts and reactions. Lord Halifax, on the other hand, in his aristocratic way, claimed to have mistaken Hitler for a footman.

The danger of all such comments is that of underrating the man. A nonentity or a psychopath cut adrift from reality could scarcely have done what Hitler did. It is more realistic to agree with John Lukacs: ‘The mind of Adolf Hitler was a very powerful instrument. To deduce from his awesome defects of the heart that he was wanting insight or intelligence is the commonest mistake most people make about him. Nor was he mad.’12 George Orwell, unfashionable as always, wrote a review of a translation of Mein Kampf in March 1940, arguing that it was too easy to say that Hitler succeeded because he was backed by industrialists — ‘They would not have backed him… if he had not talked a great movement into existence already.’ It was necessary to accept the attractive power of Hitler's outlook: ‘he has grasped the falsity of the hedonistic attitude to life…. Hitler, because in his own joyless mind he feels it with exceptional strength, knows that human beings don't only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene, birth-control and, in general, commonsense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice, not to mention drums, flags and loyalty-parades.’13

In Hitler's lifetime it was safer to take him seriously than to underestimate him; and those who failed to do so paid the price. It is better not to fall into that trap, but rather to see what Hitler had to say in writings which contained what has been variously described as a programme, a world outlook, or a world picture.14

As so often, Churchill set the pattern in the immediate post-war years. He wrote of Hitler's Mein Kampf:

When eventually he [Hitler] came to power there was no book which deserved more careful study from the rulers, political and military, of the Allied Powers. All was there — the programme of German resurrection; the technique of party propaganda; the plan for combating Marxism; the concept of a National-Socialist State; the rightful position of Germany at the summit of the world. Here was the new Koran of faith and war: turgid, verbose, shapeless, but pregnant with its message.15

It was frequently said that if only British and French statesmen had read Mein Kampf they would have known what Hitler was going to do, and would not have been bamboozled by his professions of moderation in the 1930s. There was little substance in these lamentations and accusations. Western statesmen had Mein Kampf summarised for them and the salient elements drawn out by thoroughly competent ambassadors like Sir Horace Rumbold and André François-Poncet. The problem was not to know what Hitler had written, but to know what to make of it.

‘Drums, flags and loyalty-parades’: the Nuremberg Rally, September 1934. These massive demonstrations inspired support at home and fear abroad.

Source: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

This has remained the crucial question: what is to be made of Hitler's writings? Some forty years after the start of the war, German historians went back to Hitler's books and their background, and concluded that their substance was of real importance. Werner Maser noted the many defects of Mein Kampf as an account of Hitler's early life, but argued that in its pronouncements on politics and race the book was an authentic reflection of Hitler's mind and a guide to what he intended to do. On occasion, he took an almost fundamentalist view: ‘Mein Kampf in fact sets out a clear and detailed programme of the fearful catastrophe which Hitler loosed upon Germany and the world by faithfully following the declarations and forecasts in his book.’16 Eberhard Jäckel, in a closely reasoned book on Hitler's Weltanschauung, concluded that, even if Hitler did not have in the fullest sense a ‘world outlook’, he had at least a ‘world picture’, with a ‘systematic and inherent coherence’.17 He draws attention to Hitler's remark in Mein Kampf that ‘The enormous difference between the tasks of the theoretician and the politician is also the reason why a union of both in one person is almost never found.’ Politics is the art of the possible, but the theoretician must demand the impossible and be content with the fame of posterity. ‘In long periods of humanity, it may happen once that the politician is wedded to the theoretician.’ Jäckel observes, surely with justice, that Hitler believed he was such a man.18 Historians outside Germany have also concluded that before Hitler came to power he had some firm ideas on foreign policy, which were closely connected with his fundamental ideological outlook.19

It may be argued that such considerations should be discounted on the ground that after he became Chancellor in 1933 Hitler showed signs of finding Mein Kampf something of an embarrassment. He told Hans Frank in 1938 that if he had known he was going to become Chancellor he would not have written Mein Kampf. In 1940 he refused to allow pages from the original typescript of the book to be exhibited during that year's Nuremberg rally. But actions speak louder than words. In 1934 the Prussian Ministry of Education ordered that extracts from Mein Kampf should be included in all school-books dealing with racial questions, genetics, or demographic policy. In 1936 the Ministry of the Interior recommended that a copy of Mein Kampf should be provided for every couple married in a registry office in Germany, or a consulate abroad. In 1939 the Nazi Party stated it was the Party's duty to ensure that every German family should one day possess a copy of ‘the Führer's fundamental work’. In 1940 a special rice-paper edition was published for issue to the troops.20 If Mein Kampf had become an embarrassment, these were strange measures; what they in fact indicate is the official standing of the work with the Nazi regime.

Hitler's world picture: anti-Semitism, race, living space, struggle

What are the main outlines of the world picture that may be discerned in Hitler's writings? They may be summed up as anti-Semitism, race, living space, and the idea of life as perpetual struggle; all of which overlapped and merged with one another.

In a letter of September 1919, and in one of Hitler's earliest fully reported speeches in August 1920, he referred to the need for a rational anti-Semitism, and to the ultimate aim of the elimination of the Jews -which at that stage was left vague, but appeared to mean emigration or the deportation of Jews from Germany. In Mein Kampf, anti-Semitism was one of the main centres of attention, and the tone of the discussion was fierce and radical. ‘There is no making pacts with Jews; there can only be the hard: either-or.’21 The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (forged documents purporting to reveal a Jewish conspiracy to control the world) were treated as genuine. ‘Elimination’ began to have a ring of physical extinction about it. The Secret Book, which was mostly about foreign policy, ended with a few pages, largely repeated from Mein Kampf, about the Jews: the ultimate aim of the Jew was ‘the denationalisation, the promiscuous bastardisation of other peoples…. The end of the Jewish world struggle … will always be a bloody Bolshevisation.’22 On 30 January 1939 Hitler prophesied that if international Jewry forced the nations into war, the result would be the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe; a prophecy to which he returned with a strange insistence four times in the course of 1940. Events proved that anti-Semitism was an end, not just a means. Nazi policy developed from a phase of harassment of the Jews, through deportation and concentration, to the phase of the final solution. From 1942 onwards Jews (along with Slavs and other peoples) were being transported across Europe in tens of thousands in order to be massacred, at a time when by any normal calculation Germany needed all its rolling stock for the war effort, could have used the SS guards from the camps on the battlefield, and might have exploited the victims as forced labour. But against all rational calculations, the extermination went on.

Anti-Semitism was an aspect of the racial theories which were prominent in Hitler's thought. His reflections on race in Mein Kampf (notably in Ch. 11) asserted the position of the Aryan race as the founders and transmitters of culture. The Aryan race itself was left undefined; but Hitler claimed it was his mission to preserve certainly the German people, and probably others linked to them, from degeneration. His principal idea of the state was as a means of preserving the race. The opposite to the Aryan, the lowest race, without true culture, merely parasitic, was the Jew — and so we are back to anti-Semitism. But the Slav too was an enemy. Among the cloudy verbiage of much of Hitler's writing, it is startling to encounter a brief, precise assertion in the Secret Book:

The folkish state … must under no conditions annex Poles with the intention of wanting to make Germans out of them some day. On the contrary it must muster the determination either to seal off these alien radical elements, so that the blood of its own people will not be corrupted again, or it must without further ado remove them and hand over the vacated territory to its own national comrades.23

This is very much what happened in Poland after September 1939. German policies and actions towards both Slavs and Jews during the war bear the mark of Hitler's racial theories. Ian Kershaw, in his massive biography of Hitler, emphasises that he saw ‘racial struggle and survival of the fittest as the key determinants in human history’ — a basic idea which, once formed, never left him. Ultimately it was Hitler's racial obsession that led to his own destruction and that of the empire he had built.24

The preservation of the race was closely bound up with the idea of living space (Lebensraum). This is a repeated — not to say repetitious — theme in Mein Kampf, the Secret Book, and various of Hitler's private talks after he came to power. In Mein Kampf, in the course of a critique of German foreign policy before 1914, Hitler argued that the basis of foreign policy must be the question of feeding a growing population. He discussed various options for dealing with this problem, rejecting out of hand the restriction of births, and dismissing the possibility of ‘internal colonisation’ and increasing the productivity of agriculture as inadequate. There remained only two choices: to secure new soil, and settle the superfluous millions on it (‘thus keeping the nation on a self-sustaining basis’); or selling industrial products in foreign markets, and paying for imports from the proceeds. Germany had in fact taken the last course; but Hitler argued that it would be healthier to seek new terrain, noting that ‘such a territorial policy cannot be fulfilled in the Cameroons, but today almost exclusively in Europe’. He went on: ‘If land was desired in Europe, it could be obtained by and large only at the expense of Russia and this means that the new Reich must again set itself on the march along the road of the Teutonic Knights of old, to obtain by the German sword sod for the German plough and daily bread for the nation.’25

Much of what followed was repetition of this theme, with or without variations.

The foreign policy of the folkish state must safeguard the existence on this planet of the race embodied in the state, by creating a healthy, viable natural relation between the nation's population and growth on the one hand and the quantity and quality of its soil on the other hand…. Only an adequately large space on this earth assures a nation of freedom of existence.

Space must be judged not only in relation to the yield of the soil, but also in terms of military and political considerations — ‘the German nation can defend its future only as a world power’.26 In the Secret Book: ‘… the bread which a people requires is conditioned by the living-space at its disposal. A healthy people, at least, will always seek to find the satisfaction of its needs on its own soil. Any other condition is pathological and dangerous.’27 He went again through the options considered in Mein Kampf with the same conclusion. In an almost lapidary chapter on German aims, Hitler rejected completely a policy of having no aims, of deciding nothing and being committed to nothing: ‘… just as in ordinary life a man with a fixed life-goal that he tries to achieve at all events will always be superior to those who live aimlessly, exactly likewise is it in the life of nations’. To be aimless in general was to be planless in particulars, and would turn Germany into another Poland, which was for Hitler the nadir. He rejected any attempt to secure the sustenance of the German people by peaceful economic means; and declared that the simple restoration of the German borders of 1914 was an inadequate aim from every point of view. This left only one choice: Germany must adopt ‘a clear, farseeing territorial policy’, abandoning the device of world trade and seeking ‘sufficient living space for the next hundred years’ — which ‘can only be in the East’.28

It is necessary to subject the reader to some small part of Hitler's constant reiteration of this theme, to convey something of its fortissimo quality. It must be added that Hitler expounded the same theme in speech after speech between 1928 (when he composed the Secret Book) and January 1933 (when he came to power). After that he fell silent in public, but took up the same tale on several important private occasions. When he first addressed military and naval chiefs on 3 February 1933 he asked how political power should be used, once gained. ‘That is impossible to say yet. Perhaps fighting for new export possibilities, perhaps — and probably better — the conquest of new living space in the east and its ruthless Germanisation.’29 At another meeting of the generals, after war had begun, on 23 November 1939, Hitler told them that the eternal problem was to bring German territory in line with its population; they could not commit themselves against the Soviet Union unless they had free hands in the west, and must therefore attack France and England at the earliest opportunity. Between these two occasions, other examples could be quoted.

The idea of struggle as the basis of life may be briefly dealt with. Hitler absorbed the social Darwinism of the late nineteenth century, according to which the ideas of the life and death of species and the survival of the fittest were translated into terms of states and human societies. In the Secret Book he wrote: ‘If … politics is history in the making and history itself the presentation of the struggle of men and nations for self-preservation and continuance, then politics is in truth the execution of a nation's struggle for existence.’30 He deduced from this the separate roles of foreign and domestic policy: foreign policy was to pursue the struggle for existence by safeguarding the necessary living space; while domestic policy preserved the force for this task, primarily in terms of the race value and numbers of the population. He believed, therefore, that domestic policy was the servant of foreign policy — a restatement in his own way of the long-standing German view of the primacy of foreign policy in affairs of state.

These main lines of Hitler's world picture were primarily set out in terms of general aims for German policy. There was also, in Mein Kampf and the Secret Book, a good deal about ways and means of achieving the aims, and specifically about the sort of alliance policy Germany should pursue. Hitler's scheme of things envisaged two enemies: Russia, as the target for living space in the east; and France, partly as the long-standing hereditary enemy, and partly to cover Germany's rear for an attack on Russia. To deal with these enemies, he proposed to seek two allies: Italy and Britain. His references to an alliance with Italy go back to 1920, before there was any question of an ideological link. Hitler was in touch with Mussolini through emissaries in 1922, and Mein Kampf included a brief favourable reference to Italian fascism. However, Hitler seems to have found the main basis for an alliance with Italy in power politics rather than ideology. He set the case out with some care in the Secret Book, arguing that Italian expansion in the Mediterranean would bring her into conflict with France, and so into a natural alliance with Germany. For this purpose, Hitler was prepared to give up any claims to the South Tyrol (formerly Austrian, and from 1919 in Italy), where he estimated that there were 200,000 Germans: Italian friendship was worth this sacrifice, just as on her part Italy should give up her opposition to the union of Germany and Austria (the Anschluss). As for Britain, Hitler was highly critical of pre-1914 German policy, which had failed to choose between an anti-Russian stance, with British support, and an imperial-cum-naval anti-British stance, with Russian support. Germany had finished up antagonising both Russia and Britain. In future, it would be necessary to choose Britain as an ally against the Soviet Union, and also against France, for Hitler observed that French hegemony on the Continent in the 1920s was displeasing to Britain. General ideas about the nature of society and of international affairs; a firm statement of German policy aims; and proposals about methods in terms of alliance policy were all to be found in Hitler's writings. To what extent did they affect the course of Nazi foreign policy?

Nazism and foreign policy

A considerable correspondence between what Hitler wrote and what he did (for example, in terms of anti-Semitism and racial theory) has already appeared. But it is not clear how far German foreign policy under Hitler was actually governed by ideology. There is a strong consensus in support of Jäckel's contention that the outline picture that emerged from Hitler's writings formed the guidelines for his policies as actually pursued, though it had to be adapted to fit circumstances. Opportunism within the framework of a seriously (indeed tenaciously) held set of general ideas is a common way of explaining Nazi foreign policy. Wilhelm Deist, for example, wrote that Hitler pursued long-term aims with ‘bewildering tactical versatility’.31 But this remains a consensus between some fairly wide outer limits, even discounting the more extreme fringes. For example, Hans Mommsen argued that ‘Hitler's foreign policy aims, purely dynamic in nature, knew no bounds: [a] reference to “expansion without object” is entirely justified. For this very reason, to interpret their implementation as in any way consistent or logical is highly problematic.’32 On the other hand, Werner Maser has written that ‘One of the decisive causes of the 1945 catastrophe was the fact that Hitler attempted to adhere rigidly to the doctrine which he had expounded in Mein Kampf.’ Dietrich Bracher stated firmly that ‘The foreign policy of the Third Reich derived directly from the ideological principles and long-range goals of National Socialism’; this applied particularly to the ‘racist and geopolitical national imperialism of Mein Kampf’, to which ‘Hitler clung … with almost manic obsessiveness, up to the eerie end in the bunker of his Chancellery’.33 Klaus Hildebrand developed an argument which attributes to Hitler a definite foreign policy programme, in three phases: first the conquest of Europe and the Soviet Union, using an alliance with Britain; next, a conflict with the USA — the struggle of Europe against America for world supremacy; and finally, German mastery of the world, to be held through the racial superiority of the German people. Hitler saw the first of these three phases as his own central task, with the rest left to the future; but in the event, with the British failing to behave according to plan, the stage of European conquest ran directly into the second, Atlantic phase; and in the heady days of 1941 even the aim of world supremacy seemed within immediate reach.34

The arguments are not of a kind to be resolved by the available evidence; or, in all likelihood, by the accumulation of evidence in the future. They turn on assessments of Hitler's personality (a dark and murky subject), and on views of the role of planning and consistency as against chance and circumstance in human affairs, as well as on the direct evidence on Hitler's thought and actions.

There are a number of problems in the picture of Hitler adhering (with various degrees of opportunism and adaptation) to the main lines set out in his writings. One is the danger of exaggerating Hitler's control of events, even at the height of his power. Within Germany itself there were obstacles to his will, individuals and pressure groups to be squared or side-tracked; and moreover foreign policy was bound to be affected by the actions and attitudes of other states, and could not be wholly dictated by Hitler. The second is that Hitler was undoubtedly much given to presenting arguments which would be suitable to his readers (or hearers) at any given time, and was increasingly concerned to show in retrospect that he had always been consistent and always been right. Moreover, he was not deeply committed to telling the truth as a matter of principle; so it must be a matter of judgement to know when he was to be believed.

There are also lesser problems relating more to ways and means than to objectives. The policy of an alliance with Britain, much emphasised in Mein Kampf and the Secret Book, was in practice pursued with a good deal less than single-minded determination. Hitler's attitude to Britain was complex and ambivalent, more of a love-hate relationship than the plain calculation set out in his writings. The English (as Hitler usually called them) were Aryans and successful imperialists, and so commanded admiration; on the other hand he later came to see them as hate-filled antagonists. In the early years of the Nazi regime, the presentation of Britain in German propaganda was mild and cautious — the press was instructed not to call the Labour Party Marxist, or to enquire whether Sir John Simon, the Foreign Secretary, was a Jew. Hitler was delighted with the Anglo-German Naval Treaty of June 1935, a success in relations with Britain that had eluded the Kaiser's government before 1914. Yet later he made little or no attempt to follow up British offers of negotiations. The British invited the German Foreign Minister, Neurath, to London in June 1937, and were eager for him to come; but the Germans prevaricated, and seized on a thin excuse to decline. At the Hossbach conference in November 1937, Hitler referred to Britain as a ‘Hassgegner’ — ‘a hate-inspired antagonist’ — which was a far cry from his earlier thoughts about an alliance.35 Similar questions are raised by the Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939, which went against the whole direction of his thought, and especially that of the Secret Book, where Hitler went out of his way to rule out an alliance with the USSR as making no sense in terms of either ideology or expediency. Yet it is in terms of a short-term expedient, designed to be exploited and then discarded, that the pact can be fitted into the general pattern of Hitler's aims: it is only if the agreement was meant to last that it presents real difficulties.

These problems, which arise in regarding Hitler's foreign policy as being fundamentally linked with his world picture, must be set against the problems, and indeed the dangers, of seeking to separate the two. To deny all significance to ideology in the conduct of Nazi foreign policy must imply that policy was determined either by definable material interests, or by impersonal forces which reduce men to mere puppets, or by sheer opportunism. Any such explanations raise more difficulties than they resolve, leaving unexplained the large and important areas of consistency between Hitler's writings, talk, and actions, and in particular those areas where ideology carried the day against the obvious appeal of opportunism and material interest. We are faced with a balance of probabilities rather than with certainty; but the balance lies on the side of the importance of ideology. One of the advantages that Hitler held in his conduct of foreign policy (exactly as he wrote in the Secret Book) was that of a man with a purpose, giving him an advantage over those (whether at home or abroad) whose main object was only to turn the next corner. Equally, one of the handicaps of those who dealt with Hitler was their failure to take him seriously in all his aspects. They believed that there must be a distinction between ideology and practical politics, between dream and reality. ‘Surely he is a man like unto ourselves’ — such seems to have been the thought of Chamberlain and Stalin, and others who dealt with Hitler. (It is true that Chamberlain once described Hitler as ‘half-mad’, but he did not act on that assumption.) They dealt with him, therefore, as a realist, a calculator, an opportunist who could wait for the right moment. So he was. The trouble was that he was more. In Rauschning's striking phrase, he was ‘a master tactician with a daemon’.36

A further question remains. If it is accepted that Nazi ideology played a significant part in foreign policy, and gave that policy a recognisable pattern, how far was that pattern different from that of earlier German policy? What did Nazism add to the policy already practised by the German Empire up to 1918? There was much in common between the two. Even before its coming to power in 1933, the Nazi Party attracted support from nationalists of the old Empire, members of the Pan-German League, the Navy League, and colonial societies. Hitler is known to have approved of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (March 1918), which brought German predominance over the whole of eastern Europe and the Ukraine. The main aspects of Hitler's policy in central and eastern Europe — union with Austria, living space in the east, and colonisation of territory by a German agricultural population, the subordination of the Slav peoples — all were under discussion in Germany before and during the First World War. Hitler picked up the ideas and events of his own time to which he was sympathetic; put them into his writings; and pursued them in action. Similarly, his actions attracted the support of conservative German nationalists — it is notable that in 1938 Carl Goerdeler, the conservative mayor of Leipzig and an important figure in the German resistance to Hitler, took it for granted that the Sudeten areas of Czechoslovakia must be incorporated into Germany. The lines of continuity were important; and Hitler owed much of his success to the support they brought him. But Nazism went further. The restoration of the old German Empire, even at its furthest extent, was not enough; and conservative nationalists found that their country was launched on a war of racial conquest with unlimited objectives that was almost certain to end in disaster. At different times from 1937 onwards, and with varying degrees of commitment, numbers of German conservatives parted company with the Nazi regime; though they failed to check its growing momentum.

The methods of Nazi foreign policy: the expendable diplomat

‘A master tactician with a daemon’ wrote Rauschning of Hitler; and he explained the nature of the tactics involved, which were profoundly different from those of orthodox diplomacy, whether of the old-fashioned nineteenth-century kind or the new style of President Wilson and the League of Nations. The Nazis applied to foreign affairs the methods of their struggle for power: ‘pressure combined with sudden threats, now at one point, and now at another, in an unending activity that tires out opponents’. They aimed their subversive efforts against individual states and against the whole European order — ‘the transfer of the modern technique of the coup d'état … to foreign affairs’.37 These techniques were clearly visible in dealings with Austria in February and March 1938, when the Austrian Chancellor Schuschnigg was summoned to meet Hitler and subjected to a day of bluff and bullying which was unusual for a conference between the heads of ostensibly friendly and independent states; and then the state of Austria was taken over by a combination of external pressure and internal subversion. At the end, no one could say that the Germans had actually invaded Austria; they had been invited in as the result of the disintegration of the state from within.38

The new style was marked institutionally by a downgrading of the role of the Foreign Minister. When the Nazis came to power, diplomats and officials almost to a man stayed at their posts. To serve the state was their tradition; to provide continuity, perhaps to steady the new regime, was their function. But Hitler had a low opinion of the Foreign Ministry, and while willing to make use of it he was determined not to be dependent on it. He used parallel organisations for some aspects of foreign policy. The Auslandsorganisation (abbreviated to AO — Foreign Countries Organisation) of the Nazi Party was used to influence German populations in other countries; and in January 1937 this organisation was placed within the Foreign Ministry, with its head actually responsible to Hess, not to the Foreign Minister, Neurath. The AO played an important role in relations with Austria, and in dealings with General Franco at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War. Another organisation was the Dienststelle Ribbentrop, the ‘Ribbentrop Office’, which Joachim von Ribbentrop created in 1933 when he set himself up as foreign policy adviser for Hitler. He was appointed Ambassador at large in 1935, and pulled off a spectacular success in the Anglo-German Naval Agreement; and then went as Ambassador to London in 1936, whence he reported directly to Hitler rather than fitting into the normal system of the Foreign Ministry. At the same time, and just as significantly, the Foreign Ministry found itself bypassed or disregarded on vital questions — it was informed only belatedly of the decision to announce conscription in March 1935. Other illustrations of the new approach may be seen in the Nazi plan to murder the German Military Attaché in Vienna, General Wolfgang Muff, to provide a pretext for intervention in Austria; and Hitler's later idea of producing an incident to justify an invasion of Czechoslovakia by having the German Minister in Prague, Ernst Eisenlohr, assassinated.39 These plans were not carried out, but they are worth recalling. To be assassinated by one's own government had not previously been a hazard of diplomatic life; but this was the new style. Not just the Foreign Ministry, but its members, were expendable.

The new style made itself felt in other ways. The most obvious to the public eye was the surge of self-confidence, indeed arrogance, that came with Nazi methods and successes.

No one who did not live in Central or Eastern Europe can understand the force of the impressions of Hitler's year [1938]. The Germans were now the master race. From Podolian villages to the avenues of great cities such as Budapest or Trieste or Prague, Germans, whether tourist visitors or their white-stockinged youth, walked or marched with an arrogance and self-confidence that had never been theirs before. They seemed, moreover, as if they were the incarnations of a new world: strong and contemptuous of the old bourgeois civilization of Europe, or what remained of it. They were feared and admired for this. To new generations come of age across Europe … National Socialism had become an object of emulation.40

This was the new wave, the wave of the future. Behind the wave, and less publicly, there moved another manifestation of Nazi methods in foreign policy. When Austria, the Sudetenland, and Czechoslovakia were occupied, the Gestapo and the security police moved in alongside the army to gather in enemies of the state. On the one hand there was the open, flaunting appeal of vigour and success; on the other, the hidden but pervasive influence of fear.

For a long time, the tactics and methods of Nazi foreign policy contributed to its success, and enabled it to advance without war. Its potential opponents were baffled by methods far removed from the orthodox forms of European diplomacy. But eventually a revulsion set in, as much against Nazi methods as against their objectives, which were still only dimly perceived. By 1939 and 1940 the representatives of old-fashioned, bourgeois Europe had come to the conclusion that Hitler and his Nazis simply could not be trusted. There was no point in negotiating with them: the only thing was to fight them and get rid of them. Thus it was that, while the aims of national socialism, if seriously meant, were almost bound to bring about a great war at some time, it was its methods that did much to decide when that war came about.


1. Quoted in MacGregor Knox, Common Destiny: Dictatorship, Foreign Policy and War in Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany (Cambridge 2000), p. 53.

2. Election results in Chris Cook and John Paxton, European Political Facts, 1900–1996, 4th ed. (Basingstoke 1998), p. 207.

3. Gordon A. Craig, Germany 1866–1945 (Oxford 1978), p. 568.

4. Ian Kershaw, Hitler, vol. I, 1889–1936: Hubris (London 1998), p. 525.

5. Alastair Hamilton, The Appeal of Fascism (London 1971), p. 110.

6. The figures and comments on the national socialist élite are taken from K. D. Bracher, The German Dictatorship (London: Penguin Books 1973), pp. 342–344.

7. Paraphrased from Eberhard Jäckel, Hitler's Weltanschauung (Middletown, Conn. 1972), pp. 79–80.

8. Ian Kershaw, Hitler (London 1991), provides a clear exposition of the two schools of thought; the quotation is on p. 8. See Manfred Messerschmidt in Militärgeschichtliches Forschungsamt, Germany and the Second World War, vol. I, The Build-up of German Aggression (Oxford 1990), p. 4, for a very similar conclusion.

9. Alan Bullock, Hitler: A Study in Tyranny (London 1952), p. 805.

10. Hermann Rauschning, Germany's Revolution of Destruction (London 1939), p. 284.

11. Joachim Fest, Hitler (London: Penguin Books 1977), p. 788.

12. John Lukacs, The Last European War (London 1977), p. 17.

13. Review of Mein Kampf in New English Weekly, 21 March 1940, in Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus (eds), Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, vol. II (London: Penguin Books 1970), p. 29.

14. The texts with which we are concerned are Mein Kampf (‘My Struggle’), originally published in two volumes, 1925 and 1926; the English translation by Ralph Mannheim, introduction by D. C. Watt (London 1974); and Hitler's Secret Book (New York 1962), a translation of Hitlers Zweites Buch (Stuttgart 1961), a book composed in 1928 but not published in Hitler's own lifetime. All quotations from Mein Kampf are from the English translation by Mannheim.

15. W. S. Churchill, The Second World War, vol. I (London 1948), p. 43.

16. Werner Maser, Hitler's Mein Kampf. An analysis (London 1970); the quotation is from p. 117.

17. Jäckel, Hitler's Weltanschauung, pp. 23–24.

18. Hitler, Mein Kampf, pp. 192–193; Jäckel, Hitler's Weltanschauung, pp. 13–15.

19. See Geoffrey Stoakes, Hitler and the Quest for World Dominion: Nazi ideology and foreign policy in the 1920s (Leamington Spa 1986); Gerhard L. Weinberg, Germany, Hitler and World War II. Essays in modern German and world history (Cambridge 1995), pp. 30–53; Kershaw, Hitler, p. 29.

20. Maser, Hitler's Mein Kampf, pp. 28–29.

21. Hitler, Mein Kampf, p. 187.

22. Hitler, Secret Book, p. 213.

23. Hitler, Secret Book, pp. 47–48.

24. Ian Kershaw, Hitler, vol. II, 1936–1945: Nemesis (London 2000), p. xli. Cf. the similar views in Richard Overy, The Dictators: Hitler's Germany, Stalin's Russia (London 2004), p. 22; Christian Leitz, ‘Nazi Germany’, in Robert Boyce and Joseph Maiolo (eds), The Origins of World War Two: The Debate Continues (Basingstoke 2003), p. 28.

25. Hitler, Mein Kampf, pp. 120–129.

26. Ibid., pp. 587–588.

27. Hitler, Secret Book, pp. 13–14.

28. Hitler, Secret Book, pp. 142–145.

29. Quoted in Jeremy Noakes and Geoffrey Pridham (eds), Documents on Nazism, 1919–1945 (London 1974), p. 509.

30. Hitler, Secret Book, p. 7.

31. Wilhelm Deist, ‘The road to ideological war: Germany, 1918–1945’, in Williamson Murray, Macgregor Knox and Alvin Bernstein (eds), The Making of Strategy (Cambridge 1994), p. 382.

32. Hans Mommsen, ‘National Socialism: continuity and change’, in Walter Laqueur (ed.), Fascism: a reader's guide (London: Penguin Books 1979), p. 177.

33. Maser, Hitler's Mein Kampf, p. 138; Bracher, German Dictatorship, pp. 359–360.

34. Klaus Hildebrand, The Foreign Policy of the Third Reich (London 1973); the argument is developed through the whole book, but see especially pp. 21–23.

35. See the discussion in G. T. Waddington, ‘Hassgegner: German Views of Great Britain in the late 1930s’, History, vol. 81, 1996, pp. 22–39.

36. Hermann Rauschning, Germany's Revolution of Destruction (London 1939), p. 194.

37. Ibid., pp. 148–149.

38. For the Anschluss, see below, pp. 261–265.

39. Ernest R. May, Strange Victory: Hitler's Conquest of France (New York 2000), pp. 52, 83.

40. Lukacs, Last European War, p. 24.

You can support the site and the Armed Forces of Ukraine by following the link to Buy Me a Coffee.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!