1936–1938: Setting the Stage for the Second World War

From the Lecture series: A History of Hitler's Empire, 2nd Edition

By Thomas Childers, Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania

With the successful wrapping up of the Olympics in 1936, Hitler knew exactly what he wanted to do next. Unlike his foreign policy advisers, he was pretty confident about his next moves. Let us see how these actions paved the way for another catastrophic war that engulfed the whole world.

A photograph of Hitler with Mussolini.
Hitler’s association with Italy’s Mussolini was an important move in his diplomacy. (Image: Bundesarchiv/CC-BY-SA 3.0/Public domain)

Mussolini: Hitler’s Ally in Europe

In 1936, Hitler sent troops and equipment to help Francisco Franco in Spain to fight against the Republic of Spain. Mussolini, in many ways Hitler’s model in Italy, had done the same.

This helped Hitler move closer to Mussolini and drove the wedge between Mussolini and England and France.

The Hossbach Memorandum

In 1937, a controversial meeting that took place between Hitler and his foreign policy advisers and top military people. It was to be a secret meeting so no notes were to be taken. However, Hossbach, a colonel, did take notes. We know these notes as the Hossbach Memorandum.

In that memorandum, we read that Hitler had laid out his foreign policy and military goals for the foreseeable future, that Hitler believed that Germany needed and would achieve Lebensraum (living space in the east) somewhere between 1943 and 1945. This would call for probably the annexation of both Austria and Czechoslovakia. There’s no mention of Poland; there’s no mention of the Soviet Union.

Learn more about Hitler assuming power in Germany.

Resistance to Hitler’s Goals

A photograph of Baron von Neurath.
Baron von Neurath raised his concerns about Hitler’s plans. (Image: Robert Sennecke/Public domain)

The two military generals present in the meeting complained in a very congenial fashion, that this looked like a tall order for the German army to do, and that surely this would involve them in a war in the West with England and France.

Baron von Neurath, the foreign minister, raised concerns that this would lead to a two-front war.

But, what’s controversial about the memorandum is what it means.

Interpreting Hitler’s Ambitions

Was Hitler talking in very general terms that he wanted Germany to be ready for a war by 1943–45? Or, was he thinking in very concrete terms? It’s been interpreted in both ways: as a blueprint, or a typical kind of Hitler oration, in which he’s talking in very general terms.

Within a year, two military leaders, generals Fritz and Blomberg, were removed from their positions in the German army. Baron von Neurath was also replaced by a Nazi named Joachim von Ribbentrop as foreign minister. So, these potential obstacles on the road to Hitler’s policy had been removed.

This is a transcript from the video series A History of Hitler’s Empire, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Increasing Concerns of Austria

In early 1938, Austria became very nervous about the German designs. There was a German Nazi Party in Austria; it had been banned in 1934, but they were still there. There were still lots of protests, a lot of Nazis in Austrian prisons, but also many were demanding some sort of Anschluss, some sort of linkage with Germany, which the Austrian government certainly did not want.

The Prime Minister of Austria, Kurt von Schuschnigg, sought support from Italy, France, and England, took soundings to see if there was any guarantee of Austrian sovereignty. He didn’t receive any, but the Germans found out about it, and provoked a crisis.

Learn more about the origins of the Second World War.

Papen’s Intervention in the Crisis

The Nazis argued that this action showed lack of faith by the Austrians; there’d been an agreement between Austria and Germany in 1934, in which Germany and Austria tried to talk about coordinating their policies.

At the last moment, when it looked like Hitler might, in fact, be willing to actually invade Austria over this, the German ambassador to Vienna, an old friend by the name of Franz von Papen resurfaced. Papen suggested a bit of summit diplomacy.

The Summit Diplomacy

A photo of Kurt von Schuschnigg.
Kurt von Schuschnigg had to finally give in to Hitler’s demands. (Image: KurtVonSchuschnigg/Public domain)

Thus, Schuschnigg traveled to Salzburg, went across the border, was taken in motorcade up to Hitler’s place in Berchtesgaden, but not at the usual big house. He went round and round a mountain in a long motorcade of cars, got out in a parking lot, and it looked like just the side of a mountain there, when he realized that there was an opening in a tunnel.

Two enormous doors opened, and Schuschnigg was led inside, all the way down this long tunnel with torch lights. He walked down the long hall into a small room, which Schuschnigg realized was actually moving. It was an elevator. He was taken to the top of the mountain, the elevator doors opened, and there was Hitler with the high command of the German army.

Hitler’s Ultimatum to Schuschnigg

Hitler gave an ultimatum that Schuschnigg should give in. He should allow certain things, free the Nazis, and so on, which Schuschnigg refused to do. He somehow got off the mountain in one piece, went back to Vienna, and decided to hold a plebiscite.

This sent Hitler into a fury, and so the Nazis, forced an ultimatum on Schuschnigg. The Austrian government caved in, and there was an Anschluss, a linkage between Germany and Austria.

The One Greater German Reich

Hitler moved into Austria with great cheering crowds on his way to Vienna and announced to everybody’s surprise—nobody had really thought he was going to annex Austria—that Austria had now become a part of Germany. He had fulfilled his childhood dream, he said, of bringing the Germans of Austria and Germany together in one Gross Deutsche Reich, one greater German Reich.

As soon as that was done, Czechoslovakia moved from the back burner to the front, and Europe was set to begin a slide toward the outbreak of war in 1939, as events in 1938 came to a close.

Common Questions about Setting the Stage for the Second World War

Q: What is the Hossbach Memorandum?

Colonel Hossbach took notes of a secret meeting that Hitler had with his military officials and foreign policy advisers in 1937. These notes are known as the Hossbach Memorandum.

Q: What was Hitler’s ultimatum to Kurt von Schuschnigg?

Hitler gave an ultimatum that Kurt von Schuschnigg should should allow certain things, including freeing the Nazis in Austria.

Q: How did Hitler help Francisco Franco?

In 1936, Hitler sent troops and equipment to help Francisco Franco in Spain to fight against the Republic of Spain.

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