Hitler intended to regain lands lost by Germany in the Versailles Treaty (1919), to take Austria and to conquer Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union for 'living space'. In 1934 Germany made a pact with Poland in which each agreed not to attack the other. Hitler wanted to deceive other governments as to his plans. The Nazi Party in Austria staged a rising for union with Germany, but before Hitler was ready for action. Mussolini, the dictator of Italy, regarded himself as a friend and protector of Austria moved Italian troops to the Austrian frontier. Hitler backed down and disowned the rising in Austria. Clearly, before he could take that country, he had to win Italy to his side.
Hitler started to re-arm Germany and in 1935 he re-introduced conscription (the recruiting of all young, able men into the army). This was against the terms of the Versailles Treaty. Britain, France and Italy condemned Germany's actions but did nothing to stop her.
Mussolini wanted to create an Italian empire in Africa and take Abyssinia (Ethiopia). The Abyssian Emperor appealed for help from the League of Nations, which existed to prevent war. Britain in the League demanded the imposition of sanctions against Italy. Then, in October 1935, Mussolini invaded Abyssinia. But Britain and France fearing sanctions might drive Italy to join Germany, did not enforce them. Even so, Mussolini was annoyed and became friendlier with Germany. The episode revealed that the League was useless as a force for stopping war.
Hitler, judging then that Britain and France would do nothing to stop him, took his first great diplomatic risk. The Versailles Treaty had stated that no German troops or guns were to be stationed in the Rhineland area it was to be a 'demilitarised' zone. But in 1936 Hitler marched troops into the Rhineland. The French had a much bigger army than the Germans and could have driven the German troops out. But the French army took no action.
In 1936 a terrible civil war broke out in Spain. The army led by General Franco, rose against the Popular Front coalition government of liberals, socialists and communists. France and Britain decided not to interfere. Mussolini, meanwhile, sent troops to help Franco. Hitler also gave aid to Franco and German and Italian co-operation during the Civil War brought the two powers closer together. In November 1936 Germany and Italy formed the Rome-Berlin Axis, a kind of alliance. And in the same month Hitler got Japan to sign his Anti-Comintern Pact, as 'guardians of civilisation against communism', each promising not to let the Soviet Union attack the other. In November 1937 Italy also joined the Anti-Comintern Pact.
With Italy on his side in the Axis Hitler thought it unlikely that there would be much resistance to a German take-over of Austria, even though the Versailles Treaty had forbid it. The German generals were still worried that Britain and France would make war on Germany. But when Hitler marched troops into Austria, Britain and France only protested. Hitler triumphantly announced the Anschluss (joining) of Germany with Austria. Many people in Britain and France thought that it was only natural that the German-speaking population of Austria should join in a union with Germany. It marked the beginning of Hitler's expansion of Germany eastwards.
Czechoslovakia was now almost surrounded by German territory. And in the borderlands of Czechoslovakia, the Sudetenland, there were 3 million Germans, as well as some valuable natural resources and industries. Hitler now encouraged these Germans to demand self-rule. He hoped an incident would occur which would give him an excuse to attack Czechoslovakia and destroy her. But the Czechs did not lose their nerve under Hitler's bullying and their forces put down a rising of the Sudeten Germans.
Britain, alarmed at the growing tension in Europe and the Far East, had already begun, slowly and cautiously, to re-arm. Neville Chamberlain, who had become Prime Minister in 1937, was determined that Europe should not be dragged into another world war. He wanted to find out what Hitler wanted and if necessary, give it to him in order to maintain peace. This was the policy, popular at the time known as appeasement. Hitler told Chamberlain that once the question of the Sudetenland was settled he had 'no further territorial ambitions Europe'. Britain and France therefore persuaded Czechoslovakia to hand over the Sudetenland to Germany in order to maintain peace in Europe Hitler had lied. What he really wanted was the whole of Czechoslovakia. The Czechs mobilise their army; the French promised aid if German attacked. But Germany was not yet prepared war on this scale and Hitter reluctantly agreed Mussolini's suggestion for a four-power conference. In September 1938 Hitler, Chamberlain, Mussolini and Daladier (the French Prime Minister) met in Munich and agreed that the German-speaking areas of Czechoslovakia should be handed over to Germany.
However, in March 1939 Germany destroyed and carved up the rest of Czechoslovakia. At last the Western Powers realised that Hitler was not to be trusted. Appeasement had not worked. Poland now looked like being Hitler's next victim, and Britain and France agreed to support her if Germany attacked her. In April, after Italian troops had overrun Albania, they made similar promises to Greece and Rumania.
Britain and France could do little for Poland without the co-operation of the Soviet Union. They had talks with the Russians, but without much sincerity on either side. The Poles could not bear the thought of Russian troops on their soil, without which the Soviet Union could not do much to resist a German advance. So when Hitler made approaches to him, Stalin, the Soviet leader, agreed to a non- aggression pact with Germany.
The world was stunned when they heard of this Nazi-Soviet Pact, an agreement between Nazi Germany and Communist Russia who had been such bitter enemies. They would have been even more surprised if they had known of the secret clauses in the Pact whereby Germany and the Soviet Union had agreed to divide up Poland between them. The Russians had also been promised Finland, Estonia and Latvia. Hitler was delighted. 'I've got it! I've got it!' he shouted. He felt sure that with the Soviet Union on his side he could attack Poland, and Britain and France could do nothing about it.
When Hitler asked the Poles for access to Danzig their answer was no. On I September 1939 the German army invaded Poland. But this time Britain and France did not stand by and idly watch. On 3 September they joined Poland in war against Germany. World War Two had started.
Stalin has been blamed for opening the way to war by making the pact with Hitler. Stalin was deeply suspicious of all other powers, including both Britain and Germany, because they were capitalist. His main concern was to preserve Communist Russia. Could he tie his future to Britain and France, who had seemed so weak in appeasing Hitler? Stalin believed Hitler planned to attack the Soviet Union, but a temporary friendship with Germany, he calculated, would put off the expected attack and give him time to build up Soviet strength. Besides, Hitler had offered something in return-half of Poland, plus Finland, Estonia and Latvia.