Hitler's Prewar Territorial Gains

Hitler's Prewar Territorial Gains

Hitler's Territorial Gains: 1935-1938


In 1935, two years after coming to power in Germany, Hitler began preparing Germany to seize territory in Europe. Against provisions of the Treaty of Versailles, he remilitarized Germany. The draft was reintroduced in Germany in the spring of 1935, and Hitler further expanded the German Navy and the German Air Force. Over the next three years, Hitler carried out a series of incremental conquests,  testing the tolerance of Great Britain and France.


Learning Objectives

  • Explain the significance of Hitler's acquisition of European territories between 1935-1938

  • Evaluate the significance of the Allies' policy of appeasement


Key Terms / Key Concepts

annexation of Austria: the incorporation of Austria into Nazi Germany's Third Reich in March 1938.

appeasement: a diplomatic policy of making political or material concessions to an enemy power in order to avoid conflict 

Munich Conference: in September 1938, an internationally-agreed upon settlement permitting Nazi Germany’s annexation of portions of Czechoslovakia along the country’s borders mainly inhabited by German speakers

Rhineland: a strip of land along Germany's western border with France, Belgium, Holland that is rich in natural resources and industries

Saarland: a small pocket of territory in present-day southwest territory rich in natural resources and industry


Hitler's Prewar Conquests


The Saarland and Rhineland


By 1935, the German military had grown exponentially. Hitler turned his attention to western Germany. Under the provisions of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, Germany had lost control of two of the most industralized, and resource-rich areas along their western border: the Saarland, and the Rhineland. Historically German territory rich in coal and iron deposits, as well as heavy industry, Hitler wanted to reclaim them.

Under the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, Germany had lost much of its territory along its western border. The Saarland, a small territory in Germany's southwest, was carved away. It operated under the joint rule of the League of Nations but was primarily controlled by the French, who also controlled its resource and industrial production. In 1933, the Nazis began applying pressure to the people to rejoin Germany. Two years later, a referendum was held. To the shock of Western European nations, and the Germans alike, the people of the Saarland voted overwhelming to rejoin Germany. Thus, the Saarland was restored to Germany, becoming Hitler's first territorial acquisition. It would set the stage for his subsequent advances.


Contemporary map of Germany showing the Saarland in red.


In  1935, another development took place that would give Hitler the context he needed to reclaim his main target, the Rhineland. France and the Soviet Union signed a pact assuring one another mutual assistance if either were attacked by a foreign nation. This thinly-veiled action in effect said, "Germany, if you attack either of our nations, then you will have to fight both Russia and France." Hitler was outraged but used the treaty to his advantage.

In the spring of 1936, under the pretext of protecting Germany from a French threat,  Hitler sent troops to reoccupy Germany's Rhineland. This was undertaken in direct violation of the Treaty of Versailles, which demanded complete demilitarization of the region. But the act was bold and unexpected, and it caught the British and French surprised and unprepared. They watched and questioned the situation. Ultimately, neither nation did anything. Hitler, thus, secured his second territorial goal in only one year, and he had done so with no decisive response from the British and French. Their inaction bolstered his courage to proceed with further territorial expansion, and his goal of uniting all German peoples.


Map showing the location of the Rhineland in yellow.


The Annexation of Austria


Like Germany, Austria suffered significantly during the Great Depression and endured its own political struggles. Austrians also created their own branch of the Nazis, and the Austrian Nazis became enormously popular and influential. Hitler, himself an Austrian by birth, dreamed of uniting Germany and Austria into one German state. The two countries shared languages, many cultural features, as well as economic ties. After a failed coup four years earlier, German and Austrian Nazis began working together to create one German state. Hitler and his cabinet applied political pressure on the sitting Austrian government. The Austrian government also faced with growing discontent internally. Ultimately, they refused to willingly capitulate to Hitler's pressure. On March 12, 1938, the Nazis invaded Austria. Overwhelmingly, they were welcomed by the Austrian people. Such fanfare followed the Nazi invasion that twenty-four later, Hitler formally annexed Austria into his German Reich (empire). 


Germans arriving in Austria during the annexation in March 1938.


For their parts, Britain and France continued to watch and consider the annexation of Austria. What should they do? How should they respond? Again, their sluggishness and inactivity would only encourage further expansion by Hitler and the Nazis.


The Sudetenland Crisis


The success of the annexation of Austria emboldened Hitler. He spoke loudly of its triumph, and of uniting German peoples. However, he also spoke of the need to reunite all German peoples under one enormous, German empire, his Third Reich. Once again, he set his eyes on a target. This time, it was the Sudetenland. The Sudetenland is the present-day Czech Republic, just south and east of Germany. In 1938, it was a part of Czechoslovakia--a multiethnic nation that was home to a large German minority population. It was also a region rich in natural resources such as coal, which would be essential to fueling a war, and industry. Under the pretext of uniting Germans, Hitler began a campaign to annex the Sudetenland. Germans who lived there, he argued, were mistreated by the dysfunctional Czechoslovakian government, and needed to return home. In May 1938, he verbally launched his campaign to attack Czechoslovakia and annex the Sudetenland. War seemed immienent.


Map of the Sudetenland (present-day Czech Republic).
The red areas show where German minorities lived.
The darker red represents the highest concentrations of Sudeten-Germans.
Most of them lived along the western border of the Sudetenland with Germany.


British and French fears about Hitler's growing power and territorial acquisitions prompted them to take action. In September 1938, the British and French leaders agreed to meet with Hitler in the German city, Munich, to negotiate with him about his Sudetenland demands. Fascist Italian leader, Benito Mussolini, also joined in the negotiations at the Munich Conference in late September 1938. Neither the Czechs, not the Soviet Union, were present at the conference. Instrumental in the negotiations was British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain. A confirmed pacifist, he believed that war with Germany must be avoided at all costs. During the negotiations, Chamberlain became the main voice for launching a policy of appeasement. Rather than confront Hitler militarily, Chamberlain argued successfully that the British and French should allow Hitler to occupy parts of the Sudetenland in exchange for peace in Europe. Moreover, the agreement was made that Germany would pursue no further territorial acquisitions. The four heads of state shook hands, and Chamberlain returned to England, and said of the conference, "We have achieved peace for our time."

German soldiers occupied the Sudetenland in October 1938. The following spring, Hitler pushed beyond the boundaries of the Sudetenland given to him at the Munich Conference. In March 1939, German troops entered the capital city of the Sudetenland, Prague. Six months later, they would invade Poland and launch Europe into a Second World War.


The Munich Conference, Sept. 1938. Left to right: British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, French Prime Minister Édouard Daladier, Adolf Hitler, and Benito Mussolini.


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