America at War: World War II
|Digital History ID 3487|
A third threat to world peace came from a revived Germany. Hitler had vowed to reclaim Germany's position as a world leader. True to his word, he pulled Germany out of the League of Nations and secretly began to rearm. In 1935, he publicly announced that he was building an air force and a 550,000-man army. He also declared that Germany would have a peacetime draft, a clear violation of the Treaty of Versailles.
Next, Hitler concentrated on forging alliances with nations that shared Germany's taste for expansion and aggression. Germany and Japan signed the Anti-Comintern Pact (forerunner of a full-scale military alliance) in 1936. Shortly thereafter, Germany formed the Rome-Berlin Axis with Italy's fascist dictator, Mussolini. Also in 1936, German troops re-occupied the Rhineland, the German-speaking region between the Rhine River and France. Once again, France and Great Britain did not oppose Hitler's bold advance, for they believed (or wanted to believe) the Rhineland would satisfy his ambitions.
The Rhineland, however, only whetted Hitler's appetite. Intent on reuniting all German-speaking peoples of Europe under the "Third Reich," Hitler annexed Austria in 1938 and imprisoned the country's chancellor. Once again, the British and the French acquiesced, hoping Austria would be Hitler's last stop. Later that year, he demanded the Sudentenland, the German-speaking region of western Czechoslovakia.
This time France and Britain felt compelled to act. In September 1938, Edouard Daladier, the premier of France, and Neville Chamberlain, Britain's prime minister, met with Hitler in Munich, Germany, to determine whether he had further designs on Europe. Fearing they could not count on each other to use force, British and French leaders eagerly accepted Hitler's promises not to seek additional territory in Europe. Upon arriving in England, Chamberlain told his anxious countrymen that he had returned with an agreement that guaranteed "peace in our time." In less than a year, Munich would become synonymous with shameful appeasement, and Chamberlain would be vilified for believing Hitler's lies.
In August 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union signed a non-aggression treaty. In exchange for the pact, Hitler agreed to grant the Soviet Union a sphere of influence over eastern Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Finland, and Bessarabia (northeastern Romania), while Stalin approved Germany's designs on western Poland and Lithuania. With his eastern front protected from attack, Hitler was now prepared for war.