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How Nazi policies of expansion led to World War II

Sarah Judith Hoffman / sbSeptember 1, 2014

On September 1, 1939, the Wehrmacht invaded neighboring Poland without warning. Hitler had been planning the Blitzkrieg since 1933. DW takes a look at the events leading up to WWII.

Polen Deutschland Geschichte Jahrestag Überfall auf Polen Grenze
Image: AP

The war did not come as a surprise. Hitler was not secretive about his aggressive expansion policies.

But again and again, says Klaus Hesse from the Topography of Terror Documentation Center in Berliner, he maintained publicly that he was taking the peaceful route.

"Everything Hitler did was geared toward war ever since he came to power in 1933. From the very beginning, his aim was to revise the post-war order ordained in the Treaty of Versailles - to regain hegemony in Europe through an enlarged Germany. Everything was aimed at creating a large-scale economy that would allow Germany to wage a vast and long-term war in Europe."

Domestic war

The Treaty of Versailles in 1919 forced Germany and its allies to accept sole responsibility for causing the First World War and committed it to making territorial concessions, disarming and paying reparations. As Hitler saw it, this was a great humiliation, and he made it his mission to rectify it.

The so-called "stab-in-the-back" conspiracy theory was particularly convenient for Hitler's plans. And it wasn't very difficult to convince the public that the Social Democrats and the Jews had "stabbed the Reich in the back." And so a new war began within the country's own boundaries.

Deutschland Geschichte Bildergalerie Juden in Berlin SA Hetze 1938
The extent of Nazi brutality became obvious after the progrom of 1938Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Just a few days after he gained power, Hitler called for a country-wide boycott of Jewish shops on April 1, 1933. After that he passed the "Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service," which forced all non-"Aryans" and those not loyal to the National Socialist (NS) Party to retire from civil service.

From the very beginning, it was also about securing the financial means to wage war. Before the Nazis created a legal framework to regulate the pillaging of Jewish property and possessions, Jewish businesspeople were put under pressure to make profits off others fleeing the country. Emigrants had to pay 25 percent of their taxable assets to the German government, which in the first two years of NS rule alone earned the government 153 million reichsmark. On all bank transfers abroad, there was a fee that had to be paid to a state banking institution, the "Deutsche Golddiskontbank."

By September 1939, that fee had risen to 96 percent of the transfer sum.

Berlin 1936 - Olympic Games and war plans

Up to 1939, the majority of Germans saw Hitler as someone who could fix the country. His dictatorship brought about a positive change in the economic situation for many people. Unemployment sank, consumerism increased.

"So in this sense, Hitler was quite a populist - he knew you had to give the people butter along with guns," Hesse told DW.

But weapons were, in fact, more important for the government.

While Berlin was hosting the Olympic Games, Hitler was busy solidifying his war plans. In four years, the Nazi armed forces, the Wehrmacht, were to be fit to carry out the war in the east. Hitler's plan as noted in his classified "Four-Year Plan" was to make Germany self-sufficient in many areas so it could isolate itself from the world market and invest all its resources in arms and military buildup. Soon, half of the state's expenditures were going towards weapons.

The same year, the Wehrmacht occupied the demilitarized Rheinland in the west of the country - in clear violation of the Treaty of Versailles. In November 1937, Hitler told his secret plans to a select circle of the Wehrmacht's top generals: Germany needs more space, or "Lebensraum," for the "preservation and growth of the German people."

Olympia 1936 Berlin Owens Long
Berlin won the bid to host the '36 Summer Olympics two years before the Nazis came to powerImage: AP

September 1938 - war postponed

In the year 1938, Hitler annexed his birth country Austria. Shortly thereafter, he threatened to invade Czechoslovakia because the local German population there supposedly suffered from discrimination.

British and French politicians feared a European war - and tried to avoid one through politics of appeasement. By giving Hitler what he understood to be his nation's right, he would calm down - that was the hope.

In the Munich Agreement, the Sudetenland, the German-speaking border regions of Czechoslovakia, were ceded to Germany.

"Chamberlain let Hitler get away with a whole lot of territorial expansion without letting it come to war," says historian Antony Beevor.

As for the what would have happened had an anti-appeasement Winston Churchill already been prime minister at the time, the historian can't say.

"Would the British and the French have been in a stronger position in September 1939? We will never know."

Hesse says the fear of war was palpable in Germany in 1938. "It became evident that the transformation from a weak Germany to a strong one was not going to be possible without war."

The Munich Agreement was packaged by Nazi propaganda and sold to the German public as one of Hitler's successful peace policies. But in reality, Hitler was upset about the agreement because he would have preferred to go to war then.

In September 1939 - no coup

Münchner Konferenz 1938
The Munich Agreement gave German-speaking parts of Czechoslovakia to GermanyImage: picture-alliance/dpa

What is tragic about the events around this time in history was that, as of September 1938, Hitler was very alone with his plans for war. His generals wanted to avoid a war at any cost. Chief of the German General Staff Franz Halder, who was a top commander in and around Berlin, along with Berlin's chief of police had already formed a new government with civil service workers critical of the NS and former Social Democrat politicians. A secret brigade of assault troops was prepared to overrun the Reich Chancellery as soon as Hitler declared war.

But a year later, a coup was no longer on the agenda. Though no one cheered on September 1, 1939, most Germans stood behind Hitler nonetheless. And they were prepared to wage war for their "Führer."

Sixty million people lost their lives in the Second World War. The National Socialists killed six million Jews. For Antony Beevor, the Second World War was the "biggest disaster caused by man in all of history."