Revisiting Hitler’s Aims for World War II: Was Appeasement a Futile Strategy?
Shortly after his election to the chancellorship, Adolf Hitler gave his 1933 Reichstag speech where he stated that he would demand equal armaments in four years. If the ideology of Mein Kampf had not alerted politicians to Hitler’s aims, this speech surely would. However, this period was just the start of the appeasement that continued until 1939. After the destruction of World War I and the economic impact of the Great Depression, France and Britain were in no place to fight another war. As such, they wanted to avoid war with Germany at all costs. In contrast, Germany with Hitler at its lead was fueled by anger surrounding the Treaty of Versailles and his fervent ideology. The key tenet of Hitler’s fascist ideology, lebensraum, which will be explored in more depth, is characterized by a desire to gain more living space for Germans.
A common argument describing the ineffectiveness of appeasement is that Hitler was determined to fight another large-scale war. However, this assumption is slightly misleading. I argue that a more accurate comment on the nature of Hitler’s foreign policy and appeasement might be that Hitler was prepared to fight for his ideology; thus, appeasement was futile. By contrasting these two arguments about appeasement, I am able to comment on the larger historical debate about the effectiveness of appeasement as a strategy. Although the difference between using ‘determined’ compared to ‘prepared’ or ‘large-scale war’ as opposed to ‘fight’ may seem like an unnecessary discussion of semantics, I believe that this word choice matters. Recounting history relies on a precise lexicon and the language of these comments leads to fruitful arguments about appeasement. As such, I will first disprove the language of the original statement. Next, I will demonstrate that the abridged statement is a more appropriate comment. Finally, I will seek to prove that the violence of Hitler’s policy led to the ineffectiveness of appeasement.
Firstly, it’s worth noting the commonality between the two statements. With the specification of ‘Hitler’ in both comments, both are indicating that Hitler was the driver of ideology and war. Hitler as the main determiner of German foreign policy is demonstrated by the opposition he faced within his government. Ludwick Beck, the German army chief of staff in the leadup to WWII, adamantly disagreed that war was necessary. Beck’s hesitation suggests that Hitler was leading the march towards war. Furthermore, Ian Kershaw, a biographer of Hitler, posits that the final decisions on foreign policy lay in Hitler’s hands. Although Hitler was aided in his ideology by others, it is reasonable to say that he was the leader of an ideology that saw war as a valuable means to an end.
The language ‘determined to fight another large-scale war’ fails to account for Hitler’s war plans and the type of war that he wanted to fight. In order to understand why ‘determined to fight another large-scale war’ is a misleading description of Hitler’s foreign policy, it’s helpful to discuss the nature of Hitler’s war plans. Some historians believe that Hitler was the clear protagonist of Nazi Germany’s policy and had an explicit vision of how to execute his ideology. The alternative perspective is that Hitler had impromptu action with no overarching masterplan. Wolfgang Shieder balances both concepts and puts forth the idea that Hitler’s policy was a combination of concrete fundamental ideology with some opportunism and nihilism. Corroborating Shieder, P.M.H. Bell summarizes the general historical thinking, describing Hitler’s policy as: “opportunism within the framework of a seriously (indeed tenaciously) held set of general ideas.” Combining Schieder and Bell produces a very convincing framework. This understanding of Hitler considers Hitler’s overarching goal, lebensraum, and how his plan actually played out. Given this paradigm, it seems that the word ‘determined’ is too strong an adjective to use when discussing Hitler’s desire for war. ‘Determined’ seems too certain, and so, neglects the constantly adapting strategy that Hitler took in the run-up to World War II. The phrase ‘another large-scale war’ also poses some historical issues. ‘Another large-scale war’ seems to indicate that Hitler wanted a war that was similar in scale and nature to WWI. He was actually deeply concerned with the military stalemate and German loss in WWI. Mein Kampf demonstrates that the German defeat in WWI caused Hitler deep embarrassment and a feeling of vengefulness. Due to these heavy emotions, wanting to fight another war of this nature seems illogical. Instead, Hitler was prepared to fight for his ideology, rather than being ‘determined to fight another large-scale war’. In sum, the phrasing of this comment paints Hitler’s process as too narrow and miscalculates the war Hitler wanted to fight.
Given that I have now established it is misleading to state that Hitler was determined to fight another large-scale war, I will next shift my focus to demonstrate why ‘Hitler was prepared to fight for his ideology’ is a more appropriate view of politics at the time. The word choice ‘prepared’ can be interpreted in both a logistical and ideological sense. Hitler was, in an operational sense, prepared to fight. As discussed above, Hitler was terrified of fighting a war similar to WWI. He rearmed with the types of weapons that would reduce the prospect of such a war such as, “gas canisters and shells, tunnelling, airplanes, and tanks.” Hitler’s tangible preparation for war demonstrates that he was ready to fight for his ideology given the right opportunity. Furthermore, Hitler wanted a series of short, isolated wars that would provide Germany with more land and resources to fight the next war. These small wars would continue until Germany was ready to fight a larger war effort to gain a large sum of territory. In Hitler’s ideal scenario, this war effort would begin in 1943-1945, while Germany was strong and other European powers were not. Hitler’s plan for war is hardly meticulous; most of his planning relies on the time being right. Additionally, the wars Hitler did want to fight aimed to further his ideology. Hence, it can reasonably be concluded that Hitler was ‘prepared to fight for his ideology.’
Given Hitler’s determination to achieve lebensraum, appeasement was futile. The Hossbach Memorandum, a document that is generally accepted as laying out the terms for Hitler’s foreign policy aims, states that “if the Fuehrer was still living, it was his unalterable resolve to solve Germany's problem of space at the latest by 1943-45.” ‘Germany’s problem of space’ might best be interpreted as meaning lebensraum. For Hitler, lebensraum was the solution to deal with Germany’s growing population in a way that would still leave Germany independent from other nations. The best way to achieve this was through expanding Germany’s land area at the expense of other countries. A historiographical debate is whether Hitler’s lebensraum was on a continental or global level. Within this debate, Klaus Hildebrand and Andreas Hillgruber argue that Hitler’s policy of lebensraum would be executed in three parts: the defeat of Europe and the Soviet Union, then conquering the United States, and finally world domination. Regardless of if it was continental or global domination Hitler sought, the end goal of lebensraum required the pillage of numerous established nations. Hitler’s lebensraum was only attainable through gaining other country’s territory and this ultimately meant war. The strong language of this statement (‘unalterable resolve’) corroborates that lebensraum equates to war. Later in the Hossbach Memorandum, it is stated, “Germany's problem could only be solved by means of force and this was never without attendant risk.” This statement indicates that ‘Germany’s problem’, or lebensraum, would lead to violence, or most likely war. If and ultimately when Hitler decided to carry out lebensraum, violence would be imminent. If Hitler’s main ideology would always result in violence, any attempt at appeasement would end in defeat for the appeasers. This theory plays out multiple times prior to WWII. In the final case of appeasement before September 1939, the Munich Agreement leading to the annexation of the Sudetenland, Hitler displayed extreme preparedness to go to war over the issue. In the revised Case Green, German military preparations before WWII, Hitler writes, “It is my unalterable decision to smash Czechoslovakia by military action in the foreseeable future.” The violent verbiage of ‘unalterable’, ‘smash’, and even most explicitly ‘military action’ can be taken as an indication of Hitler’s willingness to engage in violence in order to gain the territory of Czechoslovakia. The intensity of this statement indicates that even if the Munich agreements had not occurred and Hitler had not been appeased, he would have invaded Czechoslovakia anyway. This alternate scenario demonstrated the preparedness for Hitler to go to war over lebensraum and did play out with slight variation a year later when his demands for more land turned to Poland. At this point, the British put their foot down and would no longer entertain appeasing Hitler. The British had finally woken up to the fact that Hitler was unappeasable, and the war was one of the few solutions to stopping him. Jeffrey Records believes that once Hitler came to power and gained some momentum, in order to prevent WWII would have been through a preventative war or removal, most likely through assassination, of Hitler from the Chancellor’s seat. Record’s evaluation of preventing WWII displays the unappeasable nature of Hitler. Appeasement of Hitler was futile because Hitler’s ideology went beyond what appeasement would ever provide him.
Looking back almost a century later, one can see that appeasing Hitler was an unsuccessful strategy; appeasement did not prevent war, it merely delayed the conflict. Yet, at the time, Britain and France were determined to find a solution that would not involve war. Britain and France were still traumatized from WWI. It is difficult to underestimate the psychological and material damage of WWI. Although France recognised the danger of Hitler earlier than Britain, France had no power to stop Hitler without a military alliance with Britain. Thus, the strategy of appeasement was carried out until a war that Britain and France were terrified of occurred. Even Hitler did not want the war that followed. Hitler’s plan did not include another war of the same size and damage to Germany as WWI. Hitler’s reticence to fight such a war demonstrates the inappropriate nature of the comment ‘Hitler was unappeasable because he was determined to fight another large-scale war.’ Despite this war not being the one Hitler wanted, he was ready and willing to fight in order to further his policy of lebensraum. Thus, a more accurate way to describe politics at the time would be, ‘Hitler was prepared to fight for his ideology; thus, appeasement was futile.’
 Norman A. Graebner and Edward M. Bennett, The Versailles Treaty and Its Legacy: the Failure of the Wilsonian Vision (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 124.
 Gerhard L Weinberg, “Hitler's Preparations, 1937-38,” in The Foreign Policy of Hitler's Germany: Starting World War II 1937-39 (Humanities Press International Inc. , 1993), 40.
 Ian Kershaw, Hitler 1936-1945: Nemesis (London: Penguin, 2001), 63, 93.
 Lars Lüdicke, “Hitler, German Foreign Policy and the Road to War: A German Perspective,” in The Origins of the Second World War: an International Perspective (London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2011), pp. 100-106, 101-103.
 Ian Kershaw, The Nazi Dictatorship: Problems and Perspectives of Interpretation (London: Arnold, 2000), 112.
 P.M.H Bell, The Origins of the Second World War in Europe (Taylor & Francis Group, 2007), https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/londonschoolecons/detail.action?docID=4976956#, 92.
 Weinberg, Foreign Policy of Hitler’s Germany, 20-21
 Ibid, 20.
 Ibid, 37.
 “Hossbach Memorandum ,” Avalon Project - Documents in Law, History and Diplomacy , n.d., https://avalon.law.yale.edu/imt/hossbach.asp.
 Bell, Origins of the Second World War in Europe, 89.
 Ibid, 49.
 Jeffrey Record, “Appeasement: A Critical Evaluation Seventy Years On ,” in The Origins of the Second World War: an International Perspective, ed. Frank McDonough (London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2011), pp. 210-223, 219-221.
 “Hossbach Memorandum ,” Avalon Project - Documents in Law, History and Diplomacy , n.d., https://avalon.law.yale.edu/imt/hossbach.asp.
 Kershaw, Hitler 1936-1945: Nemesis, 101.
 Record, Origins of the Second World War: an International Perspective, 220.
Bell, P.M.H. The Origins of the Second World War in Europe. ProQuest Ebook Central. Taylor & Francis Group, 2007. https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/londonschoolecons/detail.action?docID=4976956#.
Graebner, Norman A., and Edward M. Bennett. The Versailles Treaty and Its Legacy: the Failure of the Wilsonian Vision. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014.
“Hossbach Memorandum.” Avalon Project - Documents in Law, History and Diplomacy, n.d. https://avalon.law.yale.edu/imt/hossbach.asp.
Kershaw, Ian. Hitler 1936-1945: Nemesis. London: Penguin, 2001.
Kershaw, Ian. The Nazi Dictatorship: Problems and Perspectives of Interpretation. London: Arnold, 2000.
Lüdicke, Lars, and Peter Bierl. “Hitler, German Foreign Policy and the Road to War: A German Perspective.” Essay. In The Origins of the Second World War: an International Perspective, 100–106. London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2011.
Record, Jeffrey. “Appeasement: A Critical Evaluation Seventy Years On.” Essay. In The Origins of the Second World War: an International Perspective, edited by Frank McDonough, 210–23. London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2011.
Weinberg, Gerhard L. “Hitler's Preparations, 1937-38.” Essay. In The Foreign Policy of Hitler's Germany: Starting World War II 1937-39. Humanities Press International Inc. , 1993.