Formal End of the Second World War

The Second World War formally ended on May 8th, 1945. Here, Adam Tooze examines the events in Germany that ignited the Second World War. Did Hitler intend to provoke a general war over Poland in September 1939?

At 6am on a wintery March morning in 1939 Adolf Hitler shattered the fragile European peace brokered six months earlier at the Munich conference by sending the Wehrmacht across the border into what remained of Czechoslovakia. This act of aggression triggered a dramatic international escalation, which led directly to the outbreak of war in September 1939.

Within weeks of the occupation of Prague, Britain and France had issued formal guarantees of the security of Poland, Romania and Greece. At the same time, London entered into unprecedented conversations with Moscow in search of a  military alliance. Germany was confronted with a possible resurrection of the Entente alliance of the First World War and Hitler and Goebbels responded by raising the propaganda war to a new pitch. On April 1st, 1939, at the launching of the giant Tirpitz battleship in Wilhelmshaven, Hitler harangued an appreciative crowd on the horrors of the blockade and the perfidy of Albion. Meanwhile, German diplomats worked hard to persuade Italy and Japan to forge a true triple threat to the British Empire. In the end neither side was able to achieve their desired coalition. Japan refused to be drawn into an offensive alliance against Britain. Stalin mistrusted Chamberlain. So, in August, in a remarkable volte face, Molotov and Ribbentrop concluded the Nazi-Soviet Pact. Hitler unleashed his troops on Poland on September 1st, safe in the knowledge that the Soviet Union would take its share. Two days later, true to their declarations of six months earlier, France and Britain declared war on Germany.

On this basic narrative there is no disagreement. But why Hitler escalated international tension at this point remains a controversial question. There are those historians – notably Richard Overy and Ian Kershaw – who continue to maintain that Hitler did not in fact intend to provoke a general war over Poland in the autumn of 1939. They cite Hitler’s boastful speech of August 22nd, 1939, to the German military in which he claimed that the ‘men of Munich’ would shrink from war over Poland. Ian Kershaw speaks of a ‘miscalculation’. But this is by no means universally accepted. Among British historians it was a view most bitterly opposed by the late Tim Mason, who in the pages of Past and Present in 1989 engaged in a furious dispute with Overy on the question of whether or not Hitler had in fact been driven to war by the pressure of an impending economic crisis. In a more measured but no less determined tone the thesis of an ‘unintended war’ has been consistently rejected by Gerald Weinberg, the foremost American authority on Hitler’s foreign policy. Of course no one questions that Hitler would have preferred to occupy Poland without taking on the Western powers. And this was clearly a wish fervently shared by the majority of Germany’s military leaders. However, as Weinberg and others argue, from the beginning of the Sudeten crisis in May 1938 onwards, Hitler knew that he would eventually have to confront the Western powers. And in the autumn of 1939 he attacked Poland because he had decided that he was willing to risk that wider war sooner rather than later.

But what pushed Hitler into this relentless and ultimately self-destructive aggression? Hitler’s chief German biographer Joachim Fest argues that it was the Führer’s growing sense of mortality that convinced him that he had no time to lose. The Weinberg-Mason case, by contrast, is founded on considerations of the balance of power in the broadest sense. Albert Speer later recalled that in the autumn of 1939 Hitler was haunted by the idea that he might miss a crucial strategic opportunity. He had to strike sooner rather than later because he knew that the military advantage that Germany currently enjoyed over its enemies was fleeting. And he made this point  explicitly in correspondence with Mussolini in the spring of 1940. From the spring of 1939 onwards the ‘decisive circles in British government’ had set themselves to the ‘elimination’ (Beseitigung) of the ‘totalitarian states’. Chamberlain’s unprecedented introduction of peace-time conscription and the acceleration of RAF expenditure had direct implications for Hitler’s strategic assessment. ‘As far as the Wehrmacht was concerned’, Hitler wrote, ‘in light of England’s forced rearmament, a significant shift in the balance of forces in our favour was barely conceivable. And towards the east the situation could only deteriorate.’ Of course to Overy this smacks of ex post rationalization. In his view Hitler was certainly preparing Germany for war with Britain and France, but over a timetable that stretched as far as 1942. Poland was intended not as a major confrontation but as a ‘police action’.

Since the exchanges between Overy and Mason in the late 1980s, the positions have remained essentially deadlocked. While other areas of the historiography of the Third Reich have moved forward over the last two decades, an air of ennui has settled over the question of the war and the state of the German armaments economy in the late 1930s. How to break this intellectual stalemate? In light of the contradictory nature of Hitler’s utterances in the course of 1938 and 1939, dogmatism is clearly not called for. However,  reference to new archival evidence may be able to tilt the balance of probabilities, enabling a fresh effort to relate hypotheses about Hitler’s foreign policy to our understanding of the wider history of his regime. In particular we need to explore the connections between Hitler’s other principal obsession – the ‘race war’ – and his assessment of Germany’s strategic situation in 1939.

The diplomatic archive of the Third Reich has been thoroughly mined. But the same cannot be said of the material pertaining to the economic and industrial aspects of rearmament. If one follows the course of German rearmament in the late 1930s through the eyes of its military administrators it becomes clear that Hitler was not engaged in idle talk when he referred to 1939 as a window of strategic opportunity. Previously neglected papers on the management of the German armaments effort show precisely that. In the first half of 1939, at the moment at which Britain and France were accelerating their armaments efforts, the much vaunted rearmament of the Third Reich was in deep trouble.

On June 19th, 1939, General Walther von Brauchitsch, Commander in Chief of the German Army, sent desperate letters to Hitler and to his colleague Wilhelm Keitel, chief of the Wehrmacht High Command. The letter to Keitel began:

Dear Keitel

The current raw material provision for the Army … is unbearable … . The head of the Army Weapons Office has reported to me the prospective impact on procurement. Viewed in the round it amounts to the practical liquidation [Liquidierung] of the Army armaments effort. … if the reductions in rations announced by the military economic staff of the Wehrmacht were to be implemented, a large part of the Army armaments industry would, in a short period of time, come to a complete halt. … These serious concerns led me to direct my personal letter to the Führer of June 19th, 1939, a copy of which was forwarded to you.’


Brauchitsch was not simply seeking to extract concessions for the Army by overstating the gloominess of the situation. It would have been extremely dangerous to do so. After his clashes with the German Army leadership over the Sudeten crisis in 1938 Hitler had banned staff officers from bombarding him with pessimistic assessments of the armaments situation. When, a few weeks after von Brauchitsch’s letter, Hitler requested an up-to-date statement on ammunition production and its likely development over the next eighteen months, the officer responsible personally double checked all the calculations to ensure that they had not been coloured by self-serving pessimism. The picture presented to Hitler showed a flat line, which by the summer of 1940 was 70 per cent below optimal production capacity given a full complement of copper and steel.

Nor were the problems confined to the Army. The aircraft industry was suffering from the same severe cutbacks in raw material allocations. The rapid increase in production of the new Junkers 88 medium-bomber, the centrepiece of Luftwaffe planning in the late 1930s, was only preserved by slashing the planned production of all other aircraft, including the famous Stuka – Ju 87 dive bomber. In the face of severe cuts in the allocation of copper and aluminium the Luftwaffe was forced to adopt an ever-more risky procurement programme, trading combat-tested models against aircraft that had only just passed preliminary testing. 

The cause of this severe setback to armaments production in the first half of 1939 was the problem that had haunted the managers of the German economy since the early 1930s – the balance between the country’s hunger for imported food and raw materials and its ability to sell manufactured goods as exports.

German exports in the interwar period were not the world-beaters that they had been before 1914, or would become after 1945. Throughout the interwar period the Reichsmark was chronically overvalued, making exports uncompetitive and imports unnaturally cheap. The problem was compounded after Hitler’s accession to power by the ill-feeling generated abroad by the mistreatment of the Jewish population and Germany’s ruthless default on its international debts. To make matters worse, from early 1934 onwards, the Reichsbank had virtually no reserves with which to provide temporary cover for any shortfall in exports. In 1939, even allowing for the large quantities of gold and foreign exchange seized in Austria and Czechoslovakia, the Third Reich managed with foreign exchange reserves of less than one seventh of those available to the Bank of England. It is no coincidence that the notorious Reinhard Heydrich first proved himself to Goering – the man who was later to give him the order for the execution of the Final Solution – as the head of a special police unit charged with tracking down  Germany’s last remaining private holdings of gold and foreign exchange, Jewish and Aryan alike.

Three times between 1933 and 1939 Hitler’s regime dramatically accelerated the pace of economic recovery and rearmament only to find itself facing potentially crippling shortages of foreign exchange. In 1934, 1936-37 and 1939, it teetered on the edge of crisis. Each time the crisis was resolved, but at the expense of cutting back on one or other aspect of economic expansion. Goering’s much-quoted choice between ‘guns or butter’ was made not in 1936, at the time of the announcement of the Four Year Plan, but two years earlier during the foreign exchange crisis of 1934, which provided the backdrop to the better known events of the Night of the Long Knives. Just as the SA leadership were eliminated to ensure Army control over the rearmament programme, the priorities of the military were also ruthlessly asserted in the economic sphere. The choice thereafter was not between ‘guns or butter’ but between ‘guns or exports’. In early 1937 and then again in early 1939 it was the armaments programme that bore the brunt of the Nazi regime’s efforts to live within the balance of payments constraint. Armaments production was cut back, in the first instance to reduce the demand for imported materials, most notably iron and copper ore, and at the same time to release industrial capacity, labour and raw materials for the production of exports. At its most crude the trade-off involved exporting weapons intended for the Wehrmacht, or machine-tools with which to make them, to pay for imports of food and raw materials.

Nor should one imagine that the Führer was in any way detached from these supposedly ‘technical’ questions. Hitler was a child of his times. His political consciousness had been formed in the blockaded economy of the First World War, when problems of foreign currency and raw material imports were the stuff of every day political discussion. After he took power in 1933, he was directly involved in the decision to default on Germany’s foreign debts. During the height of the financial crisis of 1934, he personally authorized Minister of Economics Hjalmar Schacht’s decision to slash spending on consumer imports by means of the so called ‘New Plan’. Two years later it was Hitler who made the final decisions on the resolution of the renewed currency problems and the decision to launch Goering’s Four Year Plan. More importantly from the autumn of 1937 and possibly before, no major reallocation of steel or other raw material rations was conceivable without the Führer’s approval. In 1939, as we have seen, he was fully informed about the difficulties experienced by both the Army and the airforce as a result of the short raw material rations. Indeed, Hitler chose one of the most significant speeches of his entire career, the oration to the Reichstag on the sixth anniversary of the Nazi seizure of power, on January 30th, 1939, explicitly to address his nation’s acute economic problems.

Hitler’s ‘January 30th speech’ is now widely cited as a defining moment in the history of his regime because about half way through the two-and-a-half hour address he made one of his most far-reaching public pronouncements on the ‘Jewish question’. If, he declared, ‘international finance Jewry inside and outside Europe’ were once more to ‘instigate a world war’ then the result would be not the ‘victory of the Jews, but the destruction [Vernichtung] of the Jewish race in Europe’. The key term here is ‘world war’, which gives a clue as to whom the speech was addressed. A few weeks earlier, on January 4th, in his annual State of the Union address, President Roosevelt had challenged Hitler directly. In the wake of the Anschluss, the Sudeten crisis and Kristallnacht, Roosevelt declared that any nation that respected neither religion, democracy nor ‘international good faith’ posed a direct threat to the security of the United States. It was to Roosevelt that Hitler  was responding on January 30th. The very structure of Hitler’s address makes this clear, with long and otherwise inexplicable passages about the state-funding of churches in Germany, designed to disarm Roosevelt’s attack on Nazi irreligion. And this is crucial because it points to a highly significant shift in Hitler’s world view in the course of 1938. As a result of the American response to the anti-semitic outrages that followed the Anschluss (which culminated in Roosevelt’s failed effort at the Evian conference to seek an international solution to the problem of Jewish refugees), followed by yet greater public outrage in the wake of Kristallnacht, Hitler and the SS leadership convinced themselves that the centre of the world Jewish conspiracy had shifted across the Atlantic to Washington and Wall Street. This in turn rebounded on the situation in Europe, because from America the tentacles of the ‘conspiracy’ extended into British and French foreign policy. For Berlin it was Roosevelt who stood behind the growing hostility towards Germany in London and Paris. Indeed, given Hitler’s insistence since the days of Mein Kampf that Britain was a natural partner of German expansionism, the only way to explain the ‘unnatural’ stiffening of the British resolve was by reference to the influence of war-mongering Anglo-American Jews and their puppets, notably Winston Churchill.

However, outright war was only the last resort of the Jewish octopus. Its main means of influence against Germany was economic. And it is here that the two strands of this reinterpretation of Hitler’s strategy in 1939 reconnect. Few historians read the speech of January 30th from end to end. This is understandable. Padded with much of the usual Hitlerine boilerplate, it was an exhausting performance even by his standards. However, a casual inspection of the text is enough to reveal that a large part, building up to the famous threat against European Jewry, was taken up with a discussion of Germany’s economic problems, offering a tacit justification of Hitler’s decision ten days earlier to sack Hjalmar Schacht, the widely respected head of the Reichsbank, and to replace him with Walther Funk, a Nazi flunky. This move to assert unified command by the Party, and by implication by the Führer himself, was necessitated, according to Hitler, by the dire situation in which Germany found itself. After the exhaustion of the Austrian windfall during 1938, Germany’s foreign exchange reserves were again in danger of complete exhaustion, a point acknowledged by Goering as early as November 1938. In response to this situation Hitler demanded that every German must direct their full energies towards a new production drive that would enable the Third Reich to square the circle: both to continue its armaments programme and to ensure the necessary exports. Germany, Hitler declared, faced a stark choice ‘to live, i.e. to export, or to die’. The Führer had not spoken in such dire tones about the economic situation at any point since his accession to power, not in 1934 or even in 1936. And who were the main culprits behind this situation of economic emergency? The enemies of Germany in the West, who, egged on by their Jewish backers, closed their borders to German exports and through political and economic pressure sought to deny Germany access to such potentially lucrative markets as Latin America.

At this crucial moment in Hitler’s regime it was racial ideology that provided the bridge between his strategic assessment and his understanding of Germany’s economic difficulties. To stress ideological impulses with regard to Hitler’s foreign policy in 1939 may seem paradoxical in light of the fact that Hitler ended up going to war against Britain in alliance with the Soviet Union, the reverse of the alliance he had called for in Mein Kampf. However, the core of his ideology was not a particular alliance scheme, but a world view based on the idea of implacable racial struggle. In 1938 the locus of the anti-German conspiracy appeared to have shifted across the Atlantic and it was that in turn which added such menace to the precarious balance of the arms race and the chronic problems of Germany’s balance of international payments. The Germans were well aware that over the winter of 1938-39 French procurement officials had been in America inspecting the latest generation of Boeing bombers. It was no secret that Roosevelt was anxious to get Congress to modify America’s restrictive legislation on arms exports to friendly democracies. In contrast, US-German economic relations, once the rock on which Weimar democracy had been based, were at an all-time low. They plumbed even further depths on  March 18th, 1939, when in response to the occupation of Prague, Roosevelt imposed punitive tariffs on imports from Germany.

It was America’s increasingly obvious alignment with the Western democracies, an alignment that was more ideological than practical at this point, which gave such extreme urgency to the question of the arms race. In May 1939 the leading economic expert of the Wehrmacht compiled an assessment of the overall armaments effort of the major global powers which showed that with the United States expending a mere 2 per cent of its national income on armaments, the ‘three democracies’ were already outspending Germany and Italy combined. To a conventional strategic thinker this kind of calculation might suggest that any large-scale war was a losing proposition for Germany. But Hitler’s reaction to the economic difficulties of 1939 cannot be understood in such terms. He viewed the situation through the lens of his racial ideology. And this dictated that conflict was inevitable. He might have wished, as he suggested in the famous Hossbach memorandum of November 1937, to fight a ‘big war’ against Britain and France at a moment of his choosing at some point in the early 1940s, but by early 1939 the pace of events had rendered such long-term plans impractical. With America, France and Britain appearing to draw ever closer together, there was no time to lose. If Hitler’s sworn enemies were improvising, so would he. It was time, as he famously put it to Goering in August 1939, to play vabanque, to wager everything. Otherwise, faced by a global coalition animated by its implacable Jewish enemies, Germany would face certain ruin.


Adam Tooze is senior lecturer in history at the University of Cambridge. He is Director of Studies at Jesus College and the author of Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy (Penguin, 2006).

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