Following the Nazi rise to power, Adolf Hitler's government conducted a foreign policy aimed at the incorporation of ethnic Germans (Volksdeutsche) living outside German borders into the Reich; German domination of western Europe; and the acquisition of a vast new empire of "living space" (Lebensraum) in eastern Europe.
Creating German control in Europe, Hitler calculated, would require war, especially in eastern Europe. The "racially inferior" Slavs would either be driven east of the Urals, enslaved, or exterminated. Besides acquiring Lebensraum, Hitler anticipated that the "drive to the East" would destroy Bolshevism.
Policy and Pacts
From 1933–1938, Konstantin von Neurath, a conservative career diplomat, served as German foreign minister. During his tenure, Germany followed a revisionist policy aimed at overcoming the restrictions imposed on Germany by the Treaty of Versailles and seizing the diplomatic initiative from Britain and France.
Germany withdrew from the League of Nations; began rapid rearmament; signed a nonaggression pact with Poland; reacquired the Saar territory through a plebiscite; militarily assisted the supporters of Francisco Franco in the Spanish Civil War; and remilitarized the Rhineland.
From 1938–1945, Joachim von Ribbentrop, a Nazi Party member and former ambassador to Great Britain, served as the foreign minister. During these years, Germany strengthened its ties to Fascist Italy and to Japan by signing the Anti-Comintern Pact, which aimed to combat international communism. It also signed the Pact of Steel (with Italy) and the wartime Three-Power Agreement (with Italy and Japan).
In 1938, Germany acquired new territories using the threat of war. In February, Hitler pressured Austrian chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg into signing the German-Austrian agreement (Berchtesgaden Diktat), which brought Nazis into the Austrian cabinet. In March 1938, Germany carried out the Anschluss, the annexation of Austria.
Hitler then began demanding a solution to the Sudeten crisis, a conflict over the Sudetenland (a region of Czechoslovakia settled largely by ethnic Germans). On September 30, 1938, British prime minister Neville Chamberlain (an advocate of appeasement), French premier Edouard Daladier, Italian prime minister Benito Mussolini, and Hitler signed the Munich agreement. The Munich agreement ceded the Sudetenland to Germany. In March 1939, Germany occupied and dismembered the rump Czechoslovak state.
In August 1939, Ribbentrop signed the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact. A temporary deviation from Germany's normally anti-Communist foreign policy, this agreement allowed Hitler the freedom to attack Poland on September 1, 1939, without fear of Soviet intervention. Britain and France, Poland's allies, declared war on Germany on September 3, 1939. Hitler's aggressive foreign policy resulted in the outbreak of World War II.
Critical Thinking Questions
- What obligations, if any, do other nations and international organizations have when a country forcibly expands?
- How can ideology shape foreign policy? Which parts of the government may be involved? How and why might a nation’s foreign policy change?
- Did German foreign policy shape the Holocaust?