Hitler and Appeasement: Ideology or Opportunism?

How much interaction was there between Nazi foreign policy and appeasement? Did Adolph Hitler pursue ideological goals with such determination that nothing could deflect him from a programme of conflict? This article compares the ‘intentionalist’ perspective with the ‘structuralist’ view to ascertain the role played by ideology in Nazi foreign policy. How far did Hitler have a clear plan and how much of Nazi foreign policy was opportunistic?

A Clear Plan
The intentionalist perspective argues that Hitler had a clear and radical ideology, as well as a master plan, both of which he put forward in his book Mein Kampf in 1925-7 and more explicitly in its unpublished follow-up of 1928. In his writings, Hitler expressed two important themes. One was a need for Germans to acquire Lebensraum (living space) in Eastern Europe via the conquest of lands occupied by ‘subhuman’ Slavs, something which was to be achieved mainly through war with the USSR and defeat of the ‘Jewish-Bolsheivik’ regime in Moscow. The other was a loathing of Jews and a passionate desire to create a ‘final solution’.

Hitler, after gaining power, resolutely pursued a stage-by-stage plan for Lebensraum and imperialist racial domination by a unified ethnic German population. These comprised the main thrust behind Nazi foreign policy and, given Hitler’s obvious determination, it was unlikely that he would have allowed appeasement to put a stop to his ambitions. Hitler had a programme to implement and after only three years in power the Nazis had already moved to remilitarise the Rhineland, something which can be seen as a preparation for further conquest and as ‘testing the waters’ of international reaction. The French, overestimating German strength, would not act on this matter without British assistance, but British prime minister Stanley Baldwin accepted the remilitarisation.

In this early period of German expansion, Nazi foreign policy proceeded in a bold but realistic fashion without being ‘shaped’ as such by foreign powers. Hitler was cautiously acting according to his plan, whilst taking into account the behaviour of other nations.

Hence the Germans proceeded to conquer much of Europe – in spite of attempts by the British and French to let him have, by peaceful means, what they thought he desired. Historian Conan Fischer has argued that Hitler’s foreign policy, while ‘legitimised’ by his racist and antisemitic ideology, was also informed by his long-held view that war was how international relations should be conducted and also that trade relations was a ‘zero sum game’. Export markets were shrinking due to the spread of industrialisation and self-sufficiency, and Lebensraum was necessary both for settlement and for resources. Thus, in 1937 Hitler declared that Czechoslovakia was in his sights, marking the conversion of long-held desires into a specific timetable. Unity of ethnic Germans, creation of living space and the subjugation of Slavs could now be realistically aimed at. In the event Britain and France took no military action to prevent either the annexation of Austria in 1938 or the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia in 1939. Hitler had, in fact, expressed his contempt for the Czechs in Mein Kampf, providing further support of the intentionalist view of Hitler and Nazi policy.

The view of Hitler as programmatic leader is also supported by the fact that soon after he became chancellor in 1933 his regime began a systematic persecution of Jews, with the boycott of Jewish businesses and the dismissal of Jews from the civil service leading, via various measures including the Nurnberg laws, to genocide in Germany and various Nazi-occupied territories.

Flexibility and encouragement
By contrast, the structuralist perspective holds that Hitler was flexible and opportunistic, and that his ideological aims did not drive foreign policy. Hitler’s writings actually contradict the last of these assertions, but his behaviour in achieving the incorporation of the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia, which had a majority ethnic-German population, into the German Reich does show that Hitler could adjust to circumstances and to the actions of appeasers. Britain and France were amenable to this incorporation, although British prime minister Neville Chamberlain made it clear that Paris and London would support Prague if the rest of the country was attacked. Hitler, in realising that the Germans were not ready for War, agreed at the 1938 Munich Conference that Germany could have the Sudetenland if he renounced all use of force. Nevertheless, Hitler’s aggressive plans, which drew on ideology expounded in his writings of the previous decade, unfolded via the invasion of the remainder of Czechoslovakia and according to a timetable for German expansion that was flexible. Munich, as far as Hitler was concerned, was a further sign of weakness from Chamberlain and French premier Édouard  Daladier and therefore appeasement offered Hitler encouragement, shaping the pace at which Nazi foreign policy was implemented rather than shaping the policy itself.

Nazi flexibility was also dramatically illustrated by their willingness in 1939 to enter a non-aggression pact with their ideological enemies, the Soviet Union, who were told by Germany that Mein Kampf was ‘out of date’. And so just as the British and French were abandoning appeasement the Soviets began appeasing Hitler. This, however, did not fundamentally reshape Nazi policy towards the USSR and in 1941 the Germans invaded the Soviet Union.

While the Nazis were influenced by appeasement, it was ultimately Hitler’s ideology and its centrality to Nazi domestic and foreign policy that proved decisive to the actions of Germany in the runup to the Second World War. While there was a certain degree of improvisation and opportunism, the main thrust of Nazi Foreign policy – Lebensraum for a unified master race through conquest, domination and even the extermination of the enemies of Aryan purity – can be traced back to ideas expressed in Hitler’s early writings and to the actions of the Nazis well before Chamberlain’s government adopted appeasement as its official policy. Thus, there is a strong case for an instrumentalist interpretation of a nonetheless flexible and responsive Nazi foreign policy.

Neville Chamberlain, Édouard  Daladier, Adolph Hitler, Italian prime minister Benito Mussolini and Italian minister of foreign affairs Galeazzo Ciano at the Munich Conference, 29th September 1938.
Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R69173 / CC-BY-SA 3.0 (https://www.bild.bundesarchiv.de/dba/en/search/?yearfrom=1938&yearto=1938&query=M%C3%BCnchen+Hitler&page=2) (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en)

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