Early diplomatic triumphs
Alliance with Japan
In February 1938, Hitler finally ended the dilemma that had plagued German Far Eastern policy: whether to continue the informal Sino-German alliance that had existed with the Republic of China since the 1910s or to create a new alliance with Japan. The military at the time strongly favoured continuing Germany's alliance with China. China had the support of Foreign Minister Konstantin von Neurath and War Minister Werner von Blomberg, the so-called "China Lobby" who tried to steer German foreign policy away from war in Europe. Both men, however, were sacked by Hitler in early 1938. Upon the advice of Hitler's newly appointed Foreign Minister, the strongly pro-Japanese Joachim von Ribbentrop, Hitler chose to end the alliance with China to gain an alignment with the more modern and powerful Japan. In an address to theReichstag, Hitler announced German recognition of Manchukuo, the Japanese-occupied puppet state in Manchuria, and renounced the German claims to the former colonies in the Pacific held by Japan. Hitler ordered an end to arms shipments to China, and ordered the recall of all the German officers attached to the Chinese Army. In retaliation for ending German support to China in its war against Japan, Chinese Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek canceled all Sino-German economic agreements, depriving the Germans of raw materials such as tungsten that the Chinese had previously provided. The ending of the Sino-German alignment increased the problems of German rearmament, as the Germans were now forced to use their limited supply of foreign exchange to buy raw materials on the open market.
Austria and Czechoslovakia
In March 1938, Hitler proclaimed the unification of Austria with Germany (the Anschluss) and made a triumphant entry into Vienna on 14 March. Next, he intensified a crisis over the German-speakingSudetenland districts of Czechoslovakia.
On 3 March 1938, the British Ambassador Sir Nevile Henderson met with Hitler and presented on behalf of his government a proposal for an international consortium to rule much of Africa (in which Germany would be assigned a leading role) in exchange for a German promise never to resort to war to change the frontiers. Hitler, who was more interested in Lebensraum in Eastern Europe than in participating in international consortiums, rejected the British offer, using as his excuse that he wanted the former German African colonies returned to the Reich, not an international consortium running Central Africa. Moreover, Hitler argued that it was totally outrageous on Britain's part to impose conditions on German conduct in Europe as the price for territory in Africa. Hitler ended the conversation by telling Henderson he would rather wait 20 years for the return of the former colonies than accept British conditions for avoiding war.
On 28–29 March 1938, Hitler held a series of secret meetings in Berlin with Konrad Henlein of the Sudeten Heimfront (Home Front), the largest of the ethnic German parties of the Sudetenland. During the Hitler-Henlein meetings, it was agreed that Henlein would provide the pretext for German aggression against Czechoslovakia by making demands on Prague for increased autonomy for Sudeten Germans that Prague could never be reasonably expected to fulfill. In April 1938, Henlein told the foreign minister of Hungary that "whatever the Czech government might offer, he would always raise still higher demands ... he wanted to sabotage an understanding by all means because this was the only method to blow up Czechoslovakia quickly". In private, Hitler considered the Sudeten issue unimportant; his real intentions being to use the Sudeten question as the justification both at home and abroad for a war of aggression to destroy Czechoslovakia, under the grounds of self-determination, and Prague's refusal to meet Henlein's demands.Hitler's plans called for a massive military build-up along the Czechoslovak border, relentless propaganda attacks about the supposed ill treatment of the Sudetenlanders, and finally, "incidents" between Heimfrontactivists and the Czechoslovak authorities to justify an invasion that would swiftly destroy Czechoslovakia in a few days campaign before other powers could act. Since Hitler wished to have the fall harvest brought in as much as possible, and to complete the so-called "West Wall" to guard the Rhineland, the date for the invasion was chosen for late September or early October 1938.
In April 1938, Hitler ordered the OKW to start preparing plans for Fall Grün (Case Green), the codename for an invasion of Czechoslovakia. Further increasing the tension in Europe was the May Crisis of 19–22 May 1938. The May Crisis of 1938 was a false alarm caused by rumours that Czechoslovakia would be invaded the weekend of the municipal elections in that country, erroneous reports of major German troop movements along the Czechoslovak border just prior to the elections, the killing of two ethnic Germans by the Czechoslovak police, and Ribbentrop's highly bellicose remarks to Henderson when the latter asked the former if an invasion was indeed scheduled for the weekend, which led to a partial Czechoslovak mobilization and firm warnings from London against a German move against Czechoslovakia before it was realized that no invasion was intended for that weekend. Though no invasion had been planned for May 1938, it was believed in London that such a course of action was indeed being considered in Berlin, leading to two warnings on 21 May and 22 May that the United Kingdom would go to war with Germany if France became involved in a war with Germany. Hitler, for his part, was, to use the words of an aide, highly "furious" with the perception that he had been forced to back down by the Czechoslovak mobilization and the warnings from London and Paris, when he had, in fact, been planning nothing for that weekend. Though plans had already been drafted in April 1938 for an invasion of Czechoslovakia in the near future, the May Crisis and the perception of a diplomatic defeat further reinforced Hitler in his chosen course. The May Crisis seemed to have had the effect of convincing Hitler that expansion "without Britain" was not possible, and expansion "against Britain" was the only viable course. In the immediate aftermath of the May crisis, Hitler ordered an acceleration of German naval building beyond the limits of the A.G.N.A., and in the "Heye memorandum", drawn at Hitler's orders, envisaged the Royal Navy for the first time as the principal opponent of the Kriegsmarine.
At the conference of 28 May 1938, Hitler declared that it was his "unalterable" decision to "smash Czechoslovakia" by 1 October of the same year, which was explained as securing the eastern flank "for advancing against the West, England and France". At the same conference, Hitler expressed his belief that Britain would not risk a war until British rearmament was complete, which Hitler felt would be around 1941–42, and Germany should in a series of wars eliminate France and her allies in Europe in the interval in the years 1938–41 while German rearmament was still ahead. Hitler's determination to go through with Fall Grün in 1938 provoked a major crisis in the German command structure. The Chief of the General Staff, General Ludwig Beck, protested in a lengthy series of memos that Fall Grün would start a world war that Germany would lose, and urged Hitler to put off the projected war. Hitler called Beck's arguments against war "kindische Kräfteberechnungen" ("childish power play calculations").
On 4 August 1938, a secret Army meeting was held at which Beck read his report. They agreed something had to be done to prevent certain disaster. Beck hoped they would all resign together but no one resigned except Beck. However his replacement, General Franz Halder, sympathised with Beck and together they conspired with several top generals, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris (Chief of German Intelligence) and Graf von Helldorf (Berlin's Police Chief), to arrest Hitler the moment he gave the invasion order. However, the plan would only work if both Britain and France made it known to the world that they would fight to preserve Czechoslovakia. This would help to convince the German people that certain defeat awaited Germany. Agents were therefore sent to England to tell Chamberlain that an attack on Czechoslovakia was planned and their intentions to overthrow Hitler if this occurred. However the messengers were not taken seriously by the British. In September, Chamberlain and French Premier Édouard Daladier decided not to threaten a war over Czechoslovakia and so the planned removal of Hitler could not be justified. The Munich Agreement therefore preserved Hitler in power.
Starting in August 1938, information reached London that Germany was beginning to mobilize reservists, together with information leaked by anti-war elements in the German military that the war was scheduled for sometime in September. Finally, as a result of intense French, and especially British diplomatic pressure, Czechoslovakian President Edvard Beneš unveiled on 5 September 1938, the "Fourth Plan" for constitutional reorganization of his country, which granted most of the demands for Sudeten autonomy made by Henlein in his Karlsbad speech of April 1938, and threatened to deprive the Germans of their pretext for aggression. Henlein's Heimfront promptly responded to the offer of "Fourth Plan" by having a series of violent clashes with the Czechoslovak police, culminating in major clashes in mid-September that led to the declaration of martial law in certain Sudeten districts. In a response to the threatening situation, in late August 1938, the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had conceived of Plan Z, namely to fly to Germany, meet Hitler, and then work out an agreement that could end the crisis. On 13 September 1938, Chamberlain offered to fly to Germany to discuss a solution to the crisis. Chamberlain had decided to execute Plan Z in response to erroneous information supplied by the German opposition that the invasion was due to start any time after 18 September. Though Hitler was not happy with Chamberlain's offer, he agreed to see the British Prime Minister because to refuse Chamberlain's offer would confirm the lie to his repeated claims that he was a man of peace driven reluctantly to war because of Beneš's intractability. In a summit at Berchtesgaden, Chamberlain promised to pressure Beneš into agreeing to Hitler's publicly stated demands about allowing the Sudetenland to join Germany, in return for a reluctant promise by Hitler to postpone any military action until Chamberlain had given him a chance to fulfill his promise. Hitler had agreed to the postponement out of the expectation that Chamberlain would fail to secure Prague's consent to transferring the Sudetenland, and was, by all accounts, most disappointed when Franco-British pressure secured just that. The talks between Chamberlain and Hitler in September 1938 were made difficult by their innately differing concepts of what Europe should look like, with Hitler aiming to use the Sudeten issue as a pretext for war and Chamberlain genuinely striving for a peaceful solution.
When Chamberlain returned to Germany on 22 September to present his peace plan for the transfer of the Sudetenland at a summit with Hitler at Bad Godesberg, the British delegation was most unpleasantly surprised to have Hitler reject his own terms he had presented at Berchtesgaden as now unacceptable. To put an end to Chamberlain's peace-making efforts once and for all, Hitler demanded the Sudetenland be ceded to Germany no later than 28 September 1938 with no negotiations between Prague and Berlin and no international commission to oversee the transfer; no plebiscites to be held in the transferred districts until after the transfer; and for good measure, that Germany would not forsake war as an option until all the claims against Czechoslovakia by Poland and Hungary had been satisfied. The differing views between the two leaders were best symbolized when Chamberlain was presented with Hitler's new demands and protested at being presented with an ultimatum, leading Hitler in turn to retort that because his document stating his new demands was entitled "Memorandum", it could not possibly be an ultimatum. On 25 September 1938 Britain rejected the Bad Godesberg ultimatum, and began preparations for war. To further underline the point, Sir Horace Wilson, the British government's Chief Industrial Advisor, and a close associate of Chamberlain, was dispatched to Berlin to inform Hitler that if the Germans attacked Czechoslovakia, then France would honour her commitments as demanded by the Franco-Czechoslovak alliance of 1924, and "then England would feel honour bound, to offer France assistance".
Initially determined to continue with the attack planned for 1 October 1938, Hitler changed his mind sometime between 27 and 28 September, and asked to take up a suggestion, of and through the intercession of Mussolini, for a conference to be held in Munich with Chamberlain, Mussolini, and Daladier to discuss the Czechoslovak situation. Just what had caused Hitler to change his attitude is not entirely clear, but it is likely that the combination of Franco-British warnings, and especially the mobilization of the British fleet, had finally convinced him of what the most likely result of Fall Grün would be; the minor nature of the allegedcasus belli being the timetables for the transfer made Hitler appear too much like the aggressor; the view from his advisors that Germany was not prepared either militarily or economically for a world war; warnings from the states that Hitler saw as his would-be allies in the form of Italy, Japan, Poland and Hungary that they would not fight on behalf of Germany; and very visible signs that the majority of Germans were not enthusiastic about the prospect of war. Moreover, Germany lacked sufficient supplies of oil and other crucial raw materials (the plants that would produce the synthetic oil for the German war effort were not in operation yet), and was highly dependent upon imports from abroad. The Kriegsmarine reported that should war come with Britain, it could not break a British blockade, and since Germany had hardly any oil stocks, Germany would be defeated for no other reason than a shortage of oil. The Economics Ministry told Hitler that Germany had only 2.6 million tons of oil at hand, and that war with Britain and France would require 7.6 million tons of oil. Starting on 18 September 1938, the British refused to supply metals to Germany, and on 24 September the Admiralty forbade British ships to sail to Germany. The British detained the tanker Invershannon carrying 8,600 tons of oil to Hamburg, which caused immediate economic pain in Germany. Given Germany's dependence on imported oil (80% of German oil in the 1930s came from the New World), and the likelihood that a war with Britain would see a blockade cutting off Germany from oil supplies, historians have argued that Hitler's decision to call off Fall Grün was due to concerns about the oil problem.
On 30 September 1938, a one-day conference was held in Munich attended by Hitler, Chamberlain, Daladier and Mussolini that led to the Munich Agreement, which gave in to Hitler's ostensible demands by handing over the Sudetenland districts to Germany. Since London and Paris had already agreed to the idea of a transfer of the disputed territory in mid-September, the Munich Conference mostly comprised discussions in one day of talks on technical questions about how the transfer of the Sudetenland would take place, and featured the relatively minor concessions from Hitler that the transfer would take place over a ten day period in October, overseen by an international commission, and Germany would wait until Hungarian and Polish claims were settled. At the end of the conference, Chamberlain had Hitler sign a declaration of Anglo-German friendship, to which Chamberlain attached great importance and Hitler none at all. Though Chamberlain was well-satisfied with the Munich conference, leading to his infamous claim to have secured "peace for our time", Hitler was privately furious about being "cheated" out of the war he was desperate to have in 1938. As a result of the summit, Hitler was TIME magazine's Man of the Year for 1938.
By appeasing Hitler, Britain and France left Czechoslovakia to Hitler's mercy. Though Hitler professed happiness in public over the achievement of his ostensible demands, in private he was determined to have a war the next time around by ensuring that Germany's future demands would not be met. In Hitler's view, a British-brokered peace, though extremely favourable to the ostensible German demands, was a diplomatic defeat which proved that Britain needed to be ended as a power to allow him to pursue his dreams of eastern expansion. In the aftermath of Munich, Hitler felt since Britain would not ally herself nor stand aside to facilitate Germany's continental ambitions, it had become a major threat, and accordingly, Britain replaced the Soviet Union in Hitler's mind as the main enemy of the Reich, with German policies being accordingly reoriented. Hitler expressed his disappointment over the Munich Agreement in a speech on 9 October 1938 in Saarbrücken when he lashed out against the Conservative anti-appeasers Winston Churchill, Duff Cooper and Anthony Eden, whom Hitler described as a warmongering anti-German faction, who would attack Germany at the first opportunity, and were likely to come to power at any moment.
In the same speech, Hitler claimed "We Germans will no longer endure such governessy interference. Britain should mind her own business and worry about her own troubles".In November 1938, Hitler ordered a major anti-British propaganda campaign to be launched with the British being loudly abused for their "hypocrisy" in maintaining world-wide empire while seeking to block the Germans from acquiring an empire of their own. A particular highlight in the anti-British propaganda was alleged British human rights abuses in dealing with the Arab uprising in the British Mandate of Palestine and in British India, and the "hyprocrisy" of British criticism of the November 1938 Kristallnacht event. This marked a huge change from the earlier years of the Third Reich, when the German media had portrayed the British Empire in very favourable terms. In November 1938, the Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop was ordered to convert the Anti-Comintern Pact into an open anti-British military alliance, as a prelude for a war against Britain and France. On 27 January 1939, Hitler approved the Z Plan, a five-year naval expansion program which called for a Kriegsmarine of 10 battleships, four aircraft carriers, threebattlecruisers, eight heavy cruisers, 44 light cruisers, 68 destroyers and 249 U-boats by 1944 that was intended to crush the Royal Navy. The importance of the Z Plan can be seen in Hitler's orders that henceforward the Kriegsmarine was to go from third to first in allotment of raw materials, money and skilled workers. In the spring of 1939, theLuftwaffe was ordered to start building a strategic bombing force that was meant to level British cities. Hitler's war plans against Britain called for a joint Kriegsmarine-Luftwaffeoffensive that was to stage "rapid annihilating blows" against British cities and shipping with the expectation that "The moment England is cut off from her supplies she is forced to capitulate" as Hitler expected that the experience of living in a blockaded, famine-stricken, bombed-out island to be too much for the British public.
In November 1938, in a secret speech to a group of German journalists, Hitler noted that he had been forced to speak of peace as the goal in order to attain the degree of rearmament "which were an essential prerequisite ... for the next step". In the same speech, Hitler complained that his peace propaganda of the last five years had been too successful, and it was time for the German people to be subjected to war propaganda. Hitler stated: "It is self-evident that such peace propaganda conducted for a decade has its risky aspect; because it can too easily induce people to come to the conclusion that the present government is identical with the decision and with the intention to keep peace under all circumstances", and instead called for new journalism that "had to present certain foreign policy events in such a fashion that the inner voice of the people itself slowly begins to shout out for the use of force." Later in November 1938, Hitler expressed frustration with the more cautious advice he was receiving from some quarters. Hitler called the economic expert Carl Friedrich Goerdeler, General Ludwig Beck, Dr. Hjalmar Schacht, the diplomat Ulrich von Hassell, and the economist Rudolf Brinkmann "the overbred intellectual circles" who were trying to block him from fulfilling his mission by their appeals to caution, and but for the fact that he needed their skills "otherwise, perhaps we could someday exterminate them or do something of this kind to them".
In December 1938, the Chancellery of the Führer headed by Philipp Bouhler received a letter concerning a severely physically and mentally disabled baby girl named Sofia Knauer living in Leipzig. At that time, there was a furious rivalry existing between Bouhler's office, the office of the Reich Chancellery led by Hans-Heinrich Lammers, the Presidential Chancellery of Otto Meißner, the office of Hitler's adjutant Wilhelm Brückner and the Deputy Führer's office which was effectively headed by Martin Bormann over control of access to Hitler. As part of a power play against his rivals, Bouhler presented the letter concerning the disabled girl to Hitler, who thanked Bouhler for bringing the matter to his attention and responded by ordering his personal physician Dr. Karl Brandt to kill Knauer. In January 1939, Hitler ordered Bouhler and Dr. Brandt to henceforward have all disabled infants born in Germany killed. This was the origin of the Action T4 program. Subsequently Dr. Brandt and Bouhler, acting on their own initiative in the expectation of winning Hitler's favour, expanded the T4 program to killing, first, all physically or mentally disabled children in Germany, and, second, all disabled adults.
In late 1938 and early 1939, the continuing economic crisis caused by problems of rearmament, especially the shortage of foreign hard currencies needed to pay for raw materials Germany lacked, together with reports from Göring that the Four Year Plan was hopelessly behind schedule, forced Hitler in January 1939 to reluctantly order major defence cuts with the Wehrmacht having its steel allocations cut by 30%, aluminium 47%, cement 25%, rubber 14% and copper 20%. On 30 January 1939, Hitler made his "Export or die" speech calling for a German economic offensive ("export battle", to use Hitler's term), to increase German foreign exchange holdings to pay for raw materials such as high-grade iron needed for military materials. The "Export or die" speech of 30 January 1939 is also known as Hitler's "Prophecy Speech", coming from Hitler's "prophecy" issued towards the end of the speech:
"One thing I should like to say on this day which may be memorable for others as well for us Germans: In the course of my life I have very often been a prophet, and I have usually been ridiculed for it. During the time of my struggle for power it was in the first instance the Jewish race which only received my prophecies with laughter when I said I would one day take over the leadership of the State, and that of the whole nation, and that I would then among many other things settle the Jewish problem. Their laughter was uproarious, but I think that for some time now they have been laughing on the other side of the face. Today I will be once more the prophet. If the international Jewish financiers outside Europe should succeed in plunging the nations once more into a world war, then the result will not be the bolsheviszation of the earth, and thus the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe!"
A significant historical debate has swung around the "Prophecy Speech". Historians who take an intentionist line, such as Eberhard Jäckel, have argued that, at least from the time of the "Prophecy Speech" onwards, Hitler was committed to the genocide of the Jews as his central goal. Lucy Dawidowicz and Gerald Fleming have argued that the "Prophecy Speech" was simply Hitler's way of saying that once he started a world war, he would use it as a cover for his already pre-existing plans for genocide. Functionalist historians such as Christopher Browning have dismissed this interpretation on the grounds that if Hitler were serious with the intentions expressed in the "Prophecy Speech", then there would not have been a 30-month "stay of execution" between the outbreak of World War II in September 1939, and the opening of the first Vernichtungslager in late 1941. Browning has also pointed to the existence of the Madagascar Plan of 1940–41 and various other schemes as proof that there was no genocidal master plan. In his opinion, the "Prophecy Speech" was simply an expression of bravado on Hitler's part, and had little connection with the actual unfolding of antisemitic policies.
Hitler ordered Germany's army to enter Prague on 15 March 1939, and from Prague Castle proclaimed Bohemia and Moravia a German protectorate. At least part of the reason why Hitler violated the Munich Agreement by seizing the Czech half of Czechoslovakia in March 1939 was to obtain Czechoslovak assets to help with the economic crisis.