We have detected that you are using an older version of Internet Explorer and to have access to all the features on this site, you will need to update your browser to Internet Explorer 8. Alternatively, download Mozilla Firefox or Chrome.

Hitler and rearmament

LAURENCE REES: Can you give us an idea of the scale of German rearmament, under Hitler, in the years before the war?

ADAM TOOZE: Well, it goes through a succession of phases. The original programme from 1933 onwards is still framed within the fairly conventional parameters of German armaments thinking in the 1920s. So they have a staggered programme under which the first phase is to build a defensive fighting force, and they set a timeframe of about four years for that, and then in the second phase they want to build defensive capacity which then, over the course of 1933-34, gets defined as Panzer divisions. These are then incorporated into the armaments build up programme. And that is for the construction of a force capable, essentially, of containing an offensive by France and its allies in the first instance, and then inflicting some kind of offensive punishment on France and Poland in the second phase.

What happens then is that this programme gets compressed and accelerated and expanded and then, of course, you have to take into account the addition of the other arms: the air arm and the navy. The scale by 1936 is already extraordinary, so in the summer of 1936 the German army manages to gang up with Goering and force an armaments programme from the army that was essentially unsustainable, so the level of spending by 1939 posed the question, according to one armament's expert, of whether Germany would slow down the armaments programme, bring it to a halt, or go to war. In other words, we would have so much armament in the army that we would be faced with the question of whether or not to use it. You couldn’t maintain it in being. So from 1936 onwards they’re already moving towards a state of fundamental imbalance as a result of the scale and the speed of the army build up. And that then builds further momentum with the major expansion programmes of the Luftwaffe. The first is 1934 and then very dramatically in the autumn of 1938 they plan to establish an airforce of 20,000 aircraft in being, which is the size of the US Army Airforce at the end of World War Two, the largest air arm that anybody had seen up to that point. So it’s an extraordinarily ambitious programme for a small European state to have maintained, far bigger than anything the RAF was able to assemble by 1945. It would have consumed in terms of annual spending something like a third of German gross domestic product in peacetime before the war had even started, whereas normal military expenditure would be something like two, three, four percent of GDP, so tenfold what NATO, for instance, was demanding of its members in the 1970s and 1980s.

LAURENCE REES: So given this extraordinary expenditure on armaments, it was clear that Hitler, almost from his earliest days in power, intended war?

ADAM TOOZE: I don’t think there's any real question about that. Hitler’s entire world view is dominated by the belief that history is struggle, racial struggle. If Karl Marx said all history is the history of class struggle, and then for Hitler it’s fundamentally a question of, well, Darwin’s almost too optimistic because Hitler doesn’t really know how this struggle is going to end. To understand Hitler you have to understand that he’s not sure, the way that liberals are, that things are going to turn out well. So he is seized by the idea that peace is just another form of struggle. There are various forms of economic war being waged against Germany in his view and so, yes, it’s just simply a question of when fighting will break out and on what terms, but not a question of whether war is part of his equation.

War is essential to the health of the German nation and Germany needs to break out of the encirclement that it’s in. So the idea that the Nazis could have somehow just extended the prosperity of the 1930s into some sort of peaceful VW future of modernity and satisfaction is just not on the cards for Hitler’s regime. It’s a fundamental misunderstanding that many people succumb to, but it’s really not what’s on Hitler’s mind at all.

LAURENCE REES: So you would answer the question 'why did the war happen?' with the answer that 'Hitler always intended the war to happen'?

ADAM TOOZE: Yes, absolutely. In my view even in 1939 he’s steering towards the outbreak of an armed conflict in quite an open eyed way. In fact, he’s obviously slightly disappointed that they didn’t come to blows over Czechoslovakia on the 1st of October 1938 and he regrets in retrospect that he didn’t take the risk of actually using armed force without the co-operation of the British and the French.

LAURENCE REES: And yet then in 1939 Hitler’s actually aware that he hasn’t got the level of armaments that he thinks he needs in order to go into this war and succeed, and yet he goes into war anyway?

ADAM TOOZE: I think this comes back to the fundamental idea about Hitler, that he isn’t a statesman in the normal sense of the word, making straightforwardly rational calculations and assuming always that there will be a high probability of ultimate success. This is a man for whom politics is drama, a tragic drama that may not have a happy end. And so he is willing to take risks that he thinks are inescapable even if the odds are very highly stacked against Germany. And I don’t think one can overestimate how highly the odds appear to be stacked against Germany in the autumn of 1939. The fact that they succeed so brilliantly against France has clouded our judgement in retrospect very fundamentally. In September 1939 the war that they’ve started against Britain and France looks like one for which Germany doesn’t really have an answer.

LAURENCE REES: So why start a war when you can’t see how it’s going to end?

ADAM TOOZE: Because he thinks the alternatives are worse. Because he’s fundamentally convinced, in my view, that the world Jewish conspiracy has taken on a whole new ominous character. This starts in the summer of 1938 with the Evian Conference in which America becomes involved in European affairs around the issue of the organised emigration of Eastern European Jews. And this is triggered, of course, by the incredible violence that the Germans unleash in Austria after the Anschluss. And this, in Hitler’s mind, shifts the focus of the world Jewish conspiracy, which in his view is Germany's ultimate enemy, from Moscow which has previously been aligned with Communism, to a very clear statement by early 1939 that the real centre of the world Jewish conspiracy is Washington, Wall Street and Hollywood. That, of course, fundamentally shifts your assessment of the strategic picture because behind Britain and France, as in World War One, ultimately stands the full force of the American armaments economy.

And so with that in mind, the balance of force in Europe in 1939 looks extremely ominous because British rearmament is beginning with real intensity from the beginning of 1939. The Germans understand this, and so even though the situation is bad in the autumn of 1939 they quite rightly predict that it’ll become worse in 1940-42 and this is because they’ve come face to face, for the third time, with the limitations of their own economy. So after attempting in 1938 to achieve a huge spurt in armaments production in conjunction with the Munich crisis, they find themselves having to dial back in early 1939 precisely at the moment that international tension is really boiling to a head. And it’s in that conjuncture that Hitler, I think, decides on a leap into the future by means of an unleashing of a war.

LAURENCE REES: So Hitler's actually going to war, you think, knowing that he's not just going to war with Poland, Britain and France, but he's almost certainly going to have a war with America in some form. But that’s a war he can’t win?

ADAM TOOZE: It’s a war that they gamble on being able to sustain by means of the classic German military solution, which is to achieve a series of decisive battlefield victories against your continental neighbours. And that will buy you enough time to then build the long range strategic capability, a navy and an airforce, with which to fight the new dimensions of war which will clearly be required against Britain and the US. But the contradictions that you’re pointing to are evident to everybody in Germany at the time. It’s not for nothing that Raeder, the Commander of the German navy, is in a thoroughly suicidal mood in the autumn of 1939. It’s not for nothing that Halder, one of the key figures in the German army, is going to his meetings with Hitler with a loaded pistol in his pocket and but for his oath of loyalty which ran deep in somebody whose entire family had for generations served in the German army, would have quite happily assassinated Hitler.

LAURENCE REES: What you demonstrate is that whilst the 1940 victory against the French was a brilliant military achievement, it’s wrong of us now to look at that success as being predestined, because so much of it was almost accidental?

ADAM TOOZE: Accidental and also phenomenally high risk. There’s always a problem in history of determining after something’s happened what the balance of probabilities was before it happened. And the German plan is a plan which is again a spectacular gamble, and it succeeds because the forces in the German offensive are concentrated in an extraordinarily tight pack which is going to drive through the Ardennes in a single offensive move all the way across northern France to the Channel. This is an operation of unprecedented logistical risk and gives the opponents of Germany - Britain, France, Belgium and Holland - the chance, if they’re sufficiently well organised, to mount a devastating counterattack on Germany and on the pincer moving across northern France. And for this reason the Germans fully understand that if this plan fails they’ve lost the war. So it’s, rather than simply the result of a series of coincidences, more that the Germans are simply taking a very, very high risk gamble. The gamble bears the possibility of total victory, which is what they ultimately achieve over France, but also a risk of catastrophic defeat which they’re fully conscious of.