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10-08-2015, 17:02


By the end of 1936, the Treaty of Versailles had been virtually scrapped, and Germany had erased much of the stigma of defeat. Hitler, whose foreign policy successes had earned him much public acclaim, was convinced that neither the French nor the British would provide much opposition to his plans and decided in 1938 to move on Austria. By threatening Austria with invasion, Hitler coerced the Austrian chancellor into putting Austrian Nazis in charge of the government. The new government promptly invited German troops to enter Austria and assist in maintaining law and order. One day later, on March 13, 1938, Hitler formally annexed Austria to Germany. The annexation of Austria, which had not raised objections in other European capitals, put Germany in position for Hitler’s next objective—the destruction of Czechoslovakia. Although the latter was quite prepared to defend itself and was well supported by pacts with France and the Soviet Union, Hitler believed that its allies would not use force to defend it against a German attack. He was right again. On September 15, 1938, Hitler demanded the cession to Germany of the Sudetenland (an area in western Czechoslovakia that was inhabited largely by ethnic Germans) and expressed his willingness to risk “world war” to achieve his objective. Instead of objecting, the British, French, Germans, and Italians—at a hastily arranged conference at Munich—reached an agreement that essentially met all of Hitler’s demands. German troops were allowed to occupy the Sudetenland as the Czechs, abandoned by their Western allies, as well as by the Soviet Union, stood by helplessly. The Munich Conference was the high point of Western appeasement of Hitler. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain returned to England from Munich boasting that the agreement meant “peace in our time.” Hitler had promised Chamberlain that he had made his last demand (see the box on p. 120). In fact, Munich confirmed Hitler’s perception that the Western democracies were weak and would not fight. Increasingly, he was convinced of his own infallibility and had by no means been satisfied at Munich. In March 1939, Hitler occupied the Czech lands (Bohemia and Moravia), and the Slovaks, with his encouragement, declared their independence of the Czechs and set up the German puppet state of Slovakia. On the evening of March 15, 1939, Hitler triumphantly declared in Prague that he would be known as the greatest German of them all. At last, the Western states reacted vigorously to the Nazi threat. Hitler’s naked aggression had made it clear that his promises were utterly worthless. When he began to demand the return to Germany of Danzig (which had been made a free city by the Treaty of Versailles to serve as a seaport for Poland), Britain recognized the danger and offered to protect Poland in the event of war. Both France and Britain realized that they needed Soviet help to contain Nazi aggression and began political and military negotiations with Stalin. Their distrust of Soviet communism, however, made an alliance unlikely. Meanwhile, Hitler pressed on in the belief that Britain and France would not go to war over Poland. To preclude an alliance between the western European states and the Soviet Union, which would create the danger of a two-front war, Hitler, ever the opportunist, approached Stalin, who had given up hope of any alliance with Britain and France. The announcement on August 23, 1939, of the Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact shocked the world. The treaty with the Soviet Union gave Hitler the freedom he sought, and on September 1, German forces invaded Poland. Two days later, Britain and France declared war on Germany. Europe was again at war.