When the Wehrmacht entered the Rhineland to re-take it, most were not armed. Due to a shortage of troop vehicles many rode bicycles. Hitler’s rearmament project was just getting started. While his shift of economic focus had been completely diverted to the military, the move was only a temporary fix. Construction projects were expensive, both in material and labor costs, and they created jobs; they couldn’t be put on hold. Soldiers needed to be paid, too, as did party members. Hitler’s plan was to expand Germany on a grand scale – that would generate quite a bit of revenue.
He suggested an “Anglo-German Alliance”, inviting Italy, Britain, France, Poland, China and Japan to sign the Anti-Comintern Pact. Only Italy and Japan signed the Pact. I think Hitler made the offer knowing full well that European nations would refuse; upon their refusal, he publicly stated his aim of Lebensraum, or “living space” for the German people. The pact strengthened ties with Japan and ended German support for China (whom Japan was trying to conquer); as a result, Hitler lost essential raw materials that China produced.
The issue didn’t faze him. On March 12, 1938, Anschluss was declared, and Austria was reunified with Germany. Hitler also wanted the Sudetenland – another “buffer zone” set up by Versailles, one that was home to a large number of ethnic Germans. A secret political plan to excuse military action against Czechoslovakia, which governed the Sudetenland, was hatched, but it was summarily canned when Hitler realized that he was still dependent upon oil imports and Britain’s superior navy could bring those imports to a grinding halt if he was too aggressive too soon.
The French and British were so averse to the idea of going to war again that they were willing to do anything to end it before it began. While Hitler’s plant in Sudetenland stirred up trouble on the ground, Hitler met with British PM Neville Chamberlain, French president Edouard Daladier, and Italian dictator Benito Mussolini in Munich on September 29, 1938. The Czechs were deliberately left out of the Munich Summit. Chamberlain returned to London declaring “peace in our time,” holding the Munich Agreement aloft.
Hitler, meanwhile, was publicly disappointed that Germany didn’t have an excuse to declare war. His rearmament began faltering for lack of raw materials, particularly iron. He finally cracked and cut the military budget, but he refused to sit still for long. On March 15, 1939, Hitler invaded and conquered Prague. The Allies condemned him again, but refused to do anything tangible. The British vowed that Poland was their line in the sand and any German effort to invade would be met with military resistance.
Hitler took it as a challenge. He signed a non-aggression pact with Russia to set the stage for war and ordered the invasion of Poland (what most don’t know is that the pact also included a promise to split Poland between Germany and Russia, securing Russian military assistance). France and Britain declared war on Germany on September 3, 1939, but did not actually respond.
While all of this was going on, a plan to systematically rid Germanic Europe of the Jews was being put into place. Hitler was merely one man in a historic string of hardline anti-Semitic Europeans (to include Martin Luther), but he was the culmination of beliefs that the Jews were responsible for all of the world’s ills. Whereas political enemies and “moral” enemies (particularly homosexuals) were seen as salvageable, Jews were race enemies and – along with Gypsies and Poles – to be eradicated.
Dachau actually opened in 1933. At the height of the Third Reich, some 42,000 concentration camps were being operated, primarily in Germany, Austria and Poland. Shoah (literally “The Calamity”, known to most as The Holocaust) did not begin with a bang; rather, it began with a slogging gait, slowly introducing injustice after injustice until it became an act of pure horror. In April 1933, Jewish businesses were boycotted. Throughout that year, Jews were banned from nearly every respectable profession in Germany – law, medicine, and agriculture chief among them. Hereditary Health Courts were set up to order the sterilization of “undesirables”, mostly those who had physical or mental impairments.
In 1935, Hitler passed the “Blood Laws”. They stripped Jews of German citizenship, barred Jews from marrying non-Jews, and forbade German women from working as maids in Jewish households – in essence, they deprived all Jews of any semblance of civil rights. In footage from Der Ewige Jude (The Eternal Jew), Hitler gives a speech in which he says, “if international-finance Jewry inside and outside Europe should succeed once more in plunging the nations into yet another world war, the consequences will not be the Bolshevization of the earth and thereby the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe.” Jewish scholars began leaving in droves around this time, with the upper- and middle-class Jews hot on their heels. Despite the globally-recognized persecution of Jews in Germany, the 1936 Olympic Games were held in Berlin.
On November 7, 1938, a Jewish teenager named Hermann Grünspan walked into the German embassy in Paris and assassinated Nazi diplomat Ernst vom Rath in retaliation for the persecution of some 12,000 Polish Jews in Germany (they had been forced from their homes, herded onto trains and forced back to Poland, only to be left in the snow when the Polish government refused to allow them entry). The act was used as an excuse to take more drastic action. Almost immediately, a wave of new pogroms now known as Kristallnacht began; by the end, 7,000 Jewish businesses had been vandalized, every synagogue in Germany had been either badly damaged or destroyed, and an estimated 100 Jews were dead (although the true figure is unknown). It was also used as an excuse to ban Jews from owning any kind of weapon, particularly firearms (which the Nazis required registration and permits for anyway, and now knew where to go to collect them).
Jews were forced to wear a yellow cloth badge in the form of the Star of David so that good Aryans would know whether to have civil dealings with them. Many tried desperately to leave, but with most countries enacting strict laws to halt the flow of Jewish immigrants, it became increasingly difficult. With the opening of Dachau, Jews in German-held territories who gave any excuse at all were sent to concentration camps. In 1940, they were relocated to ghettos while their homes were given to German citizens.
In April 1940, Hitler invaded Denmark and Norway. A month later he took France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. The British, having realized that they should have acted long before this point when Winston Churchill had first warned them, invited Churchill to be the PM and began fighting the Nazi onslaught. Hitler badly wanted to take England and ordered London to be firebombed when the Luftwaffe failed to upstage the Royal Air Force. He asked Russia for help, but Stalin’s emissary refused. Hitler quietly ordered a plan to invade Russia for their insolence.
He didn’t know it, but he had just sealed the fate of the Third Reich. The rest of the world feared that they would never defeat him. Nobody knew where this massive conflict would go.