The Nazi leaders were planning for a war, but to fight a war they needed an army, equipment, and an economy that could support both.
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War episode 32, the Third Reich Part 18 - Rearmament. This week a big thank you goes out to Justin, Barun, and Joseph for choosing to support his podcast on Patreon where they get access to special ad free versions of all of these episodes plus special Patreon only episodes released once a month, the current series of episodes is a bit of a deep dive into the evolution of the Reichswehr during the 1920s, with a special focus on how the German Army of the 1920s planned to fight a future war. If that sounds interesting to you head on over to historyofthegreatwar.com/members to find out more information. During most of this series of episodes, which have been highly focused on political developments in Germany for what I think are pretty obvious reasons, the German military, or the Reichswehr, has only played a secondary role. This episode will shift focus a bit to discuss how the political and social changes in Germany during the 1930s allowed the German military to achieve many of its goals which had been part of its planning since the end of the First World War. Hitler’s complete and total support for these goals would create the perfect conditions within Germany to first reject the limitations placed upon the Reichswehr by the Versailles treaty and then later to massively expand into the new Wehrmacht. The fact that all of this would happen without provoking a military response from other nations was impressive. Probably the most important thing to keep in mind during this period is that both sides of the German military and political split saw the other as an important tool towards their own ends. Hitler saw the German military as a tool to achieve his goals of breaking the chains of the Versailles treaty and then territorial expansion. The German officer corps saw Hitler as a politician that would finally allow them to massively expand the German military without concern for immediate response from outside nations. This fact was very important in August 1934 when there was an alteration made to the oath said by German soldiers. These alterations were made and initiated by the Defense Minister General Blomberg and General Reichenau in the weeks before the death of President Hindenburg in the hope that they would put more pressure on Hitler to work closely with the army in pursuit of its goals. An oath had always been a part of the Reichswehr since its creation during the early 1920s, and the contents of that oath were exactly what you might expect, protect and serve the nation. However, after Hindenburg’s death it shifted to be a personal oath to Adolf Hitler: “I swear by almighty God this sacred oath: I will render unconditional obedience to the Fuehrer of the German Reich and people, Adolf Hitler, Supreme Commander of the Wehrmacht, and, as a brave soldier, I will be ready at any time to stake my life for this oath.” This oath would have important consequences, it would be a cause of some of the hesitation that would be evident in later years when it came to support from the military for resistance movements to Hitler, but far more importantly it would be used an excuse to not support those resistance movements. Many of these ramifications of the oath, and how various individuals would try to use it to excuse their later actions are for later episodes, but it is important in the current context because it shows how much the German Generals saw Adolf Hitler as an individual that they could work with to achieve their goals, a feeling that was reciprocated.
There had always been the possibility that Germany could have adapted to the new restrictions placed upon the nation within the Treaty of Versailles. it would have required a complete re-examination of German foreign policy and a shift away from the militarism that had been a part of Germany for many generations, but it could have been done. This path did not rule out changes or revision of the restrictions placed upon Germany, and as events of the 1930s would prove many nations were more than willing to accept changes to the Versailles restrictions which were already 15 years old and which had been made by the previous generation of European statesmen. There were event opportunities to do this in a way that would have bolstered Germany’s international standing. For example, at the World Disarmament Conference which took place from 1932 to 1934. The Conference was the climax of efforts of the League of Nations to try and make disarmament a reality, which had been one of the League’s original goals. Germany’s position in the conference had always been that of strict arms equality, they wanted all of the major powers to be on equal footing, even if that meant everybody else had to come down to the Versailles specified levels that Germany had been forced to accept in 1919. This idea met with some acceptance from many nations, although there would always be concern from nations like France who were concerned with Germany’s intentions. Eventually, and only after many months of negotiations the outlines of an agreement was reached, but it would be one where it would almost certainly take years of negotiating for the exact details to be finalized and then another lengthy period of time before the nations involved would need their quotas. This delay gave Hitler the excuse he wanted and needed to announce that situation was unacceptable and that in protest Germany was withdrawing from both the Conference and the League, and while at this point Germany did not announce that rearmament had begun, it seemed clear that their intention was to do so. I generally refrain from using the word inevitable, but I think that in general the path to rearmament was inevitable as soon as the Nazi party came to power in Germany. The glorification of war, or at least of combat and struggle, was just too engrained within the rhetoric and belief system of Nazism and its leaders. There was a general belief within the Nazi party that war was not just inevitable, but desirable, and in fact an important part of society. It would allow an amount of societal cleansing to occur with the strong people and nations able to assert their control over weaker groups. The German military saw the emaciation of the Germany military as a huge threat to German society, and probably would have supported any decisions that would have resulted to a more comprehensive rearmament program. For most Germans, while they often had different views on specific parts of these actions, the overall course of events and decisions made by the government during these early years was popular throughout Germany. The Treaty of Versailles was unpopular in Germany, for obvious reasons, and the limitations contained within it were widely seen as humiliating. These feelings were also influenced by party propaganda which sought to amplify and crystallize public sentiment against the international agreements that placed restrictions on German actions.
After the change in leadership in 1933 Germany did not immediately jump into some massive rearmament program, however they almost immediately began laying the groundwork for that program which involved two key areas: preparing the people and preparing the economy. To quote the German writer Thomas Mann “The meaning and purpose of the National Socialist state system can only be ‘to condition the German people for the “coming war”, while remorselessly excluding, suppressing, and exterminating any opposing factor; to turn the nation into an infinitely obedient instrument of war, afflicted by no critical thought, spellbound in blind, fanatical ignorance.'” Many of the efforts to prepare the people are exactly what we have been discussing over the last many episodes. These efforts would begin shortly after the Nazis came to power with the persecution and destruction of other political parties within Germany. This would eventually result in Germany becoming a single party state, which served the political purposes of the regime to guarantee its position of power. It had the added benefit of, by removing possible political opposition, removing any possible disunity on the path to war. Another action that would be taken along these lines was the subjugation of the SA during the Night of the Long Knives. In its place the SS, a group that was almost guaranteed to be far more loyal to Hitler and the regime, was elevated. These efforts were important to the regime, with its plans for an offensive war requiring as much national unity as possible, whether that was forced unity or real unity. There were events that really helped to create that real support and real unity during the 1930s, for example the diplomatic victories that the regime would have between about 1934 and 1938 would greatly assist it in its goal of convincing the German people that those successes would continue.
Preparing the German economy was almost equally important to the future war effort, and this meant not just preparing for the war, but also for the rearmament program that had to proceed it. Again, so much of what we have discussed in the last several episodes comes into play here, with many of the policies put in place by the Nazi government done to prepare the German economy for these tasks. This included actions like greatly reducing the power of trade unions, increasing government control of certain vital industries, and ensuring the support of the industrial leaders that would be crucial for future production. A key part of these efforts were around government spending and the mefo bills that were used to obfuscate spending and to make it possible on the scale required. Great effort was put into financing the armament programs, with an incredibly important caveat. All of the planning and preparations were done with the understanding that it could not be a long term solution. The money shuffling activities that were started by Schacht and others could only be kept working for a finite amount of time, for example the mefo bills and their creation and structure bought five years worth of time, and when they started to come due in 19389 there began to be serious issues for the government as it had to start redeeming them. It might have been acceptable for this to happen if the proper priorities were made in the economy, but after 1935 the rearmament programs were continually pushed to greater and greater levels, which prevented any possibility of spending being brought back under control. The understanding was that the plans for territorial expansion would solve many of these issues, or at least it was hoped that they would, because it would involve a massive influx in capital and resources. These efforts, even if they could help assist the economy during the rearmament phase, could do very little for some of the problems that would be faced by the German economy at the outset of a war. There were certain actions that were expected the instant Germany entered a war with foreign nations, especially if one of those nations was the British Empire, and those actions included an economic blockade just like the one that had suffocated Germany during the First World War. This required the German leaders to recognize and mitigate the risks inherent with this fact in the years leading up to a war. For many of these resources, most of them very rare in Germany, the problem was the amount of raw materials needed for rearmament and then during a war. Germany would have to find sources for food and raw materials that were at far less risk. Some of this could be found through continental sources and trade agreements, but some of them would mandate conquest, putting additional pressure on the initial German campaigns. There were also efforts to try and increase domestic production of many of these goods, or to create substitutes or synthetic options, but they were only able to accomplish so much.
Obviously, preparing the nation for war meant increasing the size of the German military, however there was a period of several years where the Germany army was not large enough to defend Germany, but the only way to get through that period was to continue to increase its size and capabilities. During that period the preparations for rearmament and expansion had to be kept as secret as possible, or at least not openly apparent. These preparations came in many forms, and were restricted based on what could be done while also maintaining some level of deniability on the international stage. So for example, the German many increased investment in foreign construction of submarines, which were wholly owned by Germany but were constructed in other nations, a practice that had been common during the Weimar years. Along with this part and pieces for future submarines were constructed and stored, with the vessels not assembled, anybody who has been to IKEA knows it is easier to store and even hide non-constructed pieces of furniture if necessary, and the same was true for submarines. Along with this Goering would start laying the groundwork for the Luftwaffe. There were also heavy investments made in technologies that were considered incredibly important to future war efforts. None of these were more critical than the investments made by the government and the Chemical conglomeration I.G. Farben into the creation and production of synthetic oil and rubber, two resources that were critical to modern war but incredibly difficult for Germany to obtain in the quantities that would be required during a conflict. For the German Army one of the ways that it prepared for future expansion was through a large increase in the number of officers that were in the ranks. Since the First World War the German Army had always been a very top heavy force, with a huge number of officers and NCOs for its total size. This was just one part of the many preparations that the Reichswehr had done while looking ahead and to what the future held. There had always been the belief that the heavy restrictions placed upon the size of the Reichswehr were temporary, and eventually they would be removed in some way which meant that there was always a planning emphasis on preparing for the army of the future. This came in the form of having NCOs to provide the leadership necessary for a massive influx of enlisted men, and also within the theoretical planning. For example, the Reichswehr studied the use of planes and armor formations and made plans on how to use them, even though they were not allowed to openly own and operate the pieces of military equipment that were needed to make them a reality. They would also work out deals with nations like the Soviet Union, where the Reichswehr and the Red Army would work together on secret armor exercises during the 1920s on bases in the Soviet Union. These and many other actions were taken while looking forward to a time when the Reichswehr could expand. This was just amplified during the first two years after 1933, during that time Hitler made it clear that he wanted the strength of the army to greatly expand, and that in the coming years he planned to reintroduce conscription, which would result in a much large force. This required an even large group of officers and leaders to be trained and prepared, with this expansion hidden from foreign parties partially by the absence of a published officer list which had been published in previous years but was avoided after 1932 to keep the information from foreign intelligence services.
While efforts were being made to keep these actions as secret as possible, there were limits on how much the German military could expand and what it could do without it being clear what was happening. Eventually, the secret preparations would have to start being made in the open, and be openly admitted by the German government. To this end, on March 16, 1935 Hitler would inform foreign ambassadors of an announcement which would soon be made, an announcement that the German Army, now called the Wehrmacht, would be expanding to 36 divisions and to achieve this number universal conscription would be reintroduced on March 16th. Domestically this news caught many by surprise, and it was not necessarily expected. There was also some trepidation, maybe even some concern, about what the reaction would be from abroad. However, all of this very quickly gave way to widespread celebrations. This was yet another piece of the Versailles treaty, again never popular in Germany, that was being repudiated. This rejoicing could occur due to the lack of action taken by other nations. The announcement and then the expansion of the Germany army was a breach of the Versailles treaty, which Germany had signed, giving other nations a reason to declare war if they wished to do so. However, this was not done for many reasons. A rearming Germany had been a fear of many of its neighboring countries since the end of the First World War. In 1920 France had signed alliances with both Poland and Czechoslovakia with the goal of ensuring that there was always pressure on Germany to stay in line. Some of these efforts had been undone in 1925 with the signing of the Locarno agreements, which were made between Italy, France, Great Britain, and Germany to guarantee borders in Western Europe. However, it did not protect Germany’s borders with Poland, which caused relations between Paris and Warsaw to be a bit strained. The growing friendship between Paris and Moscow also did not help Franco-Polish relations at all. Another piece of the Locarno agreements was that if France believed that Germany was beginning to rearm, it should refer the matter to the League of Nations. When Germany made its open declaration of what it planned European diplomatic offices went into overdrive. Pre-existing relationships were used and Paris and Prague became focal points, especially as they both tried frantically to bolster relations with Russia. In Italy Mussolini also registered his concerns. Eventually these concerns became pronounced enough for representatives of France, Britain, and Italy to meet and create an agreement known as the Stresa Front at a conference in Stresa Italy. These agreements were for the nations to join together and agree to resist any further attempts by Germany to alter the restrictions placed upon it by the Treaty of Versailles. This was on paper a strong deterrent to further German actions, but there were many problems with the agreements between the three nations, and in a matter of weeks there would begin to be problems. One of the problems was the Italian actions that would lead to the Italo-Abyssinian War, which will be a topic of several episodes in the near future. The other was the hesitancy of the British government to get too involved in specific agreements that would limit their freedom of action.
Historically the British government was hesitant to enter into specific military agreements that would require it to go to war on the continent, a sentiment that was just as strong in the 1930s as it had been in earlier decades and centuries. This was critical at this point, because it was difficult for anything to happen without the full support of the British government. Almost immediately the British would begin to undercut a united and strong response, because on March 18th, without discussing it with the French a note would be sent from London to Berlin. The note contained a formal protest of Germany’s actions, but then also asked if the already planned meetings between the British Foreign Secretary and Hitler were still being planned, making it clear that existing diplomatic relations and activity would continue. This essentially ruled out any drastic British led action. Then both the British and Italians would try and remove any actual teeth from the Stresa agreement, with the British not wanting to limit their freedom of action and the Italians not wanting too great of a focus placed upon their own expansionist agenda in Africa.
The British viewpoint would be put into perfect relief in the Anglo-German Naval Agreement which was signed in June 1935, just a few months after the rearmament announcement. The new Anglo-German naval agreement meant that the German Fleet could be built up to 35% of the size of the Royal Navy, which was a far cry from the much lower amount permitted by the Treaty of Versailles. This agreement will have a dedicated episode later, because it requires a lengthy discussion of British politics and the British military position in 1935, but for the purposes of this episode I think its mere existence is enough to show how it would effect things. it was seen as an important step for the Royal navy, which was already thinly stretched due to concerns in the Pacific, but the limitation was was little hinderance on German Naval expansion, because it could not build ships fast enough to even get to the limit for many years, the shipyards simply did not exist. During all of this the League of Nations should have been playing an integral role, such international disputes and concerns was essentially why it existed in the first place. However, by 1935 the League was already having problems, and any decisive League action required the full support and cooperation of Britain and France. Meanwhile, Hitler was continuing to make speeches saying that all Germany wanted was peace, everything it does was to ensure peace, and that all it wanted to was defend itself and Western Europe. This continued rhetoric of reconciliation would continue, even while the next step in the German rejection of the Versailles shackles was being planned and put in place. That next step would be the remilitarization of the Rhineland, which will be the topic for our next episode, and the last in this Third Reich series.