Nazi plans for a racial community also involved expanding its living space [Lebensraum]. As historian Gerhard L. Weinberg has succinctly put it, Hitler’s central concerns were race and space (26). The expansion of German Lebensraum, however, could only be fully achieved through war. The key questions for Nazi military and foreign policy were the extent, timing, and nature of that war. Ultimately, Hitler would decide all three.
In the early years of the Nazi regime, the goals of Hitler’s government and the German military were overlapping but not identical. Both, for example, wanted to eliminate the restrictions imposed on Germany’s military strength by the Treaty of Versailles and to reestablish the country’s capacity for successful military action. But Hitler also had a larger, more ambitious agenda. His goals, described loosely in Mein Kampf and articulated more clearly in an unpublished second book on foreign policy (27), involved no less than the German domination of Europe and the acquisition of a vast empire in the East, at the expense of both Poland and the Soviet Union. By the time the army officer corps realized that Hitler’s foreign policy objectives far exceeded a return to Germany’s 1914 borders, the military was no longer able (or willing) to assert itself cohesively against the regime.
Hitler courted support among senior Reichswehr officers before and after his appointment as Reich Chancellor. In November 1932, Colonel Walther von Reichenau (1884-1942), commander of military district I in Königsberg, East Prussia (which was isolated from the rest of the country), expressed concern about the threat of a Polish attack. In a December 4, 1932, letter to Reichenau, Hitler agreed that a Polish or Polish-French preventive war against Germany was a real danger. At the same time, however, he wanted to avoid any military or diplomatic move that would force Germany to depend on the Soviet Union. On February 3, 1933, four days after becoming chancellor, Hitler attended a dinner with military commanders at the home of Commander-in-Chief General Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord (1878-1943). There, he spelled out an ambitious domestic and international agenda and spoke more concretely about the conquest of additional living space in the East for the German people. Hitler’s remarks on the need for the armed forces to remain “unpolitical and impartial” and separate from the SA might have reassured the assembled leadership that night, but time would ultimately reveal that the military could not escape the kind of far-reaching indoctrination that Hitler envisioned. On January 30, 1936, Reich Minster of War and Commander-in-Chief of the Wehrmacht Werner von Blomberg (1878-1946) issued a decree on political instruction for members of the Wehrmacht.
(26) Gerhard L. Weinberg, The Foreign Policy of Hitler’s Germany, vol. I, Diplomatic Revolution in Europe, 1933-1936 (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1970).
(27) Gerhard L. Weinberg, ed., Hitler’s Second Book: The Unpublished Sequel to Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler (New York: Enigma, 2003).