On March 16, 1935, in clear violation of the Treaty of Versailles, Hitler ordered the remilitarization of Germany, including the reactivation of the Luftwaffe (air force). As the German army grew through conscription, the other European powers voiced minimal protest as they were more concerned with enforcing the economic aspects of the treaty. In a move that tacitly endorsed Hitler's violation of the treaty, Great Britain signed the Anglo-German Naval Agreement in 1935, which allowed Germany to build a fleet one third the size of the Royal Navy and ended British naval operations in the Baltic.
Two years after beginning the expansion of the military, Hitler further violated the treaty by ordering the reoccupation of the Rhineland by the German Army. Proceeding cautiously, Hitler issued orders that the German troops should withdrawal if the French intervened. Not wanting to become involved in another major war, Britain and France avoided intervening and sought a resolution, with little success, through the League of Nations. After the war several German officers indicated that if the reoccupation of the Rhineland had been opposed, it would have meant the end of Hitler's regime.
Emboldened by Great Britain and France's reaction to the Rhineland, Hitler began to move forward with a plan to unite all German-speaking peoples under one "Greater German" regime. Again operating in violation of the Treaty of Versailles, Hitler made overtures regarding the annexation of Austria. While these were generally rebuffed by the government in Vienna, Hitler was able to orchestrate a coup by the Austrian Nazi Party on March 11, 1938, one day before a planned plebiscite on the issue. The next day, German troops crossed the border to enforce the Anschluss (annexation). A month later the Nazis held a plebiscite on the issue and received 99.73% of the vote. International reaction was again mild, with Great Britain and France issuing protests, but still showing that they were unwilling to take military action.
The Munich Conference
With Austria in his grasp, Hitler turned towards the ethnically German Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia. Since its formation at the end of World War I, Czechoslovakia had been wary of possible German advances. To counter this, they had built an elaborate system of fortifications throughout the mountains of the Sudetenland to block any incursion and formed military alliances with France and the Soviet Union. In 1938, Hitler began supporting paramilitary activity and extremist violence in the Sudetenland. Following the Czechoslovakia's declaration of martial law in the region, Germany immediately demanded that the land be turned over to them.
In response, Great Britain and France mobilized their armies for the first time since World War I. As Europe moved towards war, Mussolini suggested a conference to discuss the future of Czechoslovakia. This was agreed to and the meeting opened in September 1938, at Munich. In the negotiations, Great Britain and France, led by Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and President Édouard Daladier respectively, followed a policy of appeasement and caved to Hitler's demands in order to avoid war. Signed on September 30, 1938, the Munich Agreement turned over the Sudetenland to Germany in exchange for Germany's promise to make no additional territorial demands.
The Czechs, who had not been invited to conference, were forced to accept the agreement and were warned that if they failed to comply, they would be responsible for any war that resulted. By signing the agreement, the French defaulted on their treaty obligations to Czechoslovakia. Returning to England, Chamberlain claimed to have achieved "peace for our time." The following March, German troops broke the agreement and seized the remainder of Czechoslovakia.
The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact
Angered by what he saw as the Western Powers colluding to give Czechoslovakia to Hitler, Josef Stalin worried that a similar thing could occur with the Soviet Union. Though wary, Stalin entered into talks with Britain and France regarding a potential alliance. In the summer of 1939, with the talks stalling, the Soviets began discussions with Nazi Germany regarding the creation of a non-aggression pact. The final document, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, was signed on August 23, and called for the sale of food and oil to Germany and mutual non-aggression. Also included in the pact were secret clauses dividing Eastern Europe into spheres of influence as well as plans for the partition of Poland.
The Invasion of Poland
Since World War I, tensions had existed between Germany and Poland regarding the free city of Danzig and the "Polish Corridor." The latter was a narrow strip of land reaching north to Danzig which provided Poland with access to the sea and separated the province of East Prussia from the rest of Germany. In an effort to resolve these issues and gain Lebensraum for the German people, Hitler began planning the invasion of Poland. Formed after World War I, Poland's army was relatively weak and ill-equipped compared to Germany. To aid in its defense, Poland had formed military alliances with Great Britain and France.
Massing their armies along the Polish border, the Germans staged a fake Polish attack on August 31, 1939. Using this as a pretext for war, German forces flooded across the border the next day. On September 3, Great Britain and France issued an ultimatum to Germany to end the fighting. When no reply was received, both nations declared war.
In Poland, German troops executed a blitzkrieg (lightning war) assault using combining armor and mechanized infantry. This was supported from above by the Luftwaffe, which had gained experience fighting with the fascist Nationalists during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). The Poles attempted to counterattack but were defeated at the Battle of Bzura (Sept. 9-19). As the fighting was ending at Bzura, the Soviets, acting on the terms of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, invaded from the east. Under assault from two directions, the Polish defenses crumbled with only isolated cities and areas offering prolonged resistance. By October 1, the country had been completely overrun with some Polish units escaping to Hungary and Romania. During the campaign, Great Britain and France, who were both slow to mobilize, provided little support to their ally.
With the conquest of Poland, the Germans implemented Operation Tannenberg which called for the arrest, detainment, and execution of 61,000 Polish activists, former officers, actors, and intelligentsia. By the end of September, special units known as Einsatzgruppen had killed over 20,000 Poles. In the east, the Soviets also committed numerous atrocities, including the murder of prisoners of war, as they advanced. The following year, the Soviets executed between 15,000-22,000 Polish POWs and citizens in the Katyn Forest on Stalin's orders.
Hitler’s rise to power
The July 31, 1932, election produced a major victory for Hitler’s National Socialist Party. The party won 230 seats in the Reichstag, making it Germany’s largest political party, but it still fell short of a majority in the 608-member body.
On the basis of that victory, Hitler demanded that President Hindenburg appoint him chancellor and place him in complete control of the state. Otto von Meissner, who worked for Hindenburg, later testified at Nuremberg,
Hindenburg replied that because of the tense situation he could not in good conscience risk transferring the power of government to a new party such as the National Socialists, which did not command a majority and which was intolerant, noisy and undisciplined.
Political deadlocks in the Reichstag soon brought a new election, this one in November 6, 1932. In that election, the Nazis lost two million votes and 34 seats. Thus, even though the National Socialist Party was still the largest political party, it had clearly lost ground among the voters.
Attempting to remedy the chaos and the deadlocks, Hindenburg fired Papen and appointed an army general named Kurt von Schleicher as the new German chancellor. Unable to secure a majority coalition in the Reichstag, however, Schleicher finally tendered his resignation to Hindenburg, 57 days after he had been appointed.
On January 30, 1933, President Hindenburg appointed Adolf Hitler chancellor of Germany. Although the National Socialists never captured more than 37 percent of the national vote, and even though they still held a minority of cabinet posts and fewer than 50 percent of the seats in the Reichstag, Hitler and the Nazis set out to to consolidate their power. With Hitler as chancellor, that proved to be a fairly easy task.
Mar 7, 1936:
Hitler reoccupies the Rhineland
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Nazi leader Adolf Hitler violates the Treaty of Versailles and the Locarno Pact by sending German military forces into the Rhineland, a demilitarized zone along the Rhine River in western Germany.
The Treaty of Versailles, signed in July 1919--eight months after the guns fell silent in World War I--called for stiff war reparation payments and other punishing peace terms for defeated Germany. Having been forced to sign the treaty, the German delegation to the peace conference indicated its attitude by breaking the ceremonial pen. As dictated by the Treaty of Versailles, Germany's military forces were reduced to insignificance and the Rhineland was to be demilitarized.
In 1925, at the conclusion of a European peace conference held in Switzerland, the Locarno Pact was signed, reaffirming the national boundaries decided by the Treaty of Versailles and approving the German entry into the League of Nations. The so-called "spirit of Locarno" symbolized hopes for an era of European peace and goodwill, and by 1930 German Foreign Minister Gustav Stresemann had negotiated the removal of the last Allied troops in the demilitarized Rhineland.
However, just four years later, Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party seized full power in Germany, promising vengeance against the Allied nations that had forced the Treaty of Versailles on the German people. In 1935, Hitler unilaterally canceled the military clauses of the treaty and in March 1936 denounced the Locarno Pact and began remilitarizing of the Rhineland. Two years later, Nazi Germany burst out of its territories, absorbing Austria and portions of Czechoslovakia. In 1939, Hitler invaded Poland, leading to the outbreak of World War II in Europe.
Rome-Berlin Axis, Coalition formed in 1936 between Italy and Germany. An agreement formulated by Italy’s foreign minister Galeazzo Ciano informally linking the two fascist countries was reached on October 25, 1936. It was formalized by the Pact of Steel in 1939. The term Axis Powers came to include Japan as well.
October 25, 1936
Rome-Berlin Axis Pact
The Italian Foreign Minister, Count Nobile Ciano, conducted a two-day visit to Germany which resulted in the Rome-Berlin Axis Pact. The agreement strengthened the positions of Germany and Italy against Britain and France by establishing a league of revisionist powers against a league of status quo states. Premier Benito Mussolini proclaimed the agreement in Rome on November 1st.