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Hitler’s expansionist aims

LAURENCE REES: So it’s as simple and straightforward as that?  If we focus just on the war in the West, that was occasioned very simply by German expansionist aims?

SIR IAN KERSHAW: That is the underlying cause of it. Those aims, of course, can themselves be explained and they go back really to the Second World War being the unfinished business of the First. And so at the end of the First World War Germany is left a very aggrieved country. It seems as if it’s an undefeated nation, undefeated in the field. The claims are in Germany that they’ve been – by the radical right, not just by Hitler and so on, but by the radical right – there’s been a stab in the back, that the fighting front was stabbed in the back by unrest at home, so they hadn’t really been defeated. Then comes the Versailles Treaty and they have territory which is taken away from them and so on. So this is like a running sore throughout the 1920s and the 1930s.

The conditions of the depression then allow a radical nationalist and revisionist to come to power who then want to reverse the outcome of the First World War. And part of the way of doing this, the major way of doing this, is through recovery of these territories - through expansion to secure Germany’s long term future. The German expansion, as Hitler repeatedly said, could only come about through the sword, people weren’t going to give you this land back willy-nilly, so you had to take it. And that, therefore, was the underlying cause of the beginning of the Second World War in Europe.

And the Japanese case in the Far East was a sort of parallel. The Japanese wanted to expand, which they saw was the only way to ensure their own future, and Germany and Japan were both, from their own perception, have-not nations – they were countries which had lost out as a result of the First World War. And their chance now came with the depression, which gave the radical right a chance in Germany and brought the military into strong positions of dominance in Japan. Now was the opportunity to grab this land and, in a way that was, therefore, the underlying cause of the Second World War.

LAURENCE REES: Many of the people I’ve met, Germans who were there at the time, say: ‘Well, it made complete sense to us that what we should have back was the land that had been taken from us at Versailles – land which had been German for centuries.’ So to what extent was that the only goal that Hitler also wanted, or did he always want much more than that? And to what extent was Hitler open and clear with people about which of those two goals he wanted?

SIR IAN KERSHAW: Well, he always wanted more but, of course, in terms of the public image, what the Nazis seemed to be about, but also other groups – nationalists who supported them – was actually attaining the territory back which they had lost through the Versailles Treaty, through restoring Germany’s boundaries, acquiring that land back again. And, hence, in the 1930s all sorts of people from the outside, including Neville Chamberlain and the government in this country and in France, they regarded Hitler as an extreme nationalist who wanted now to restore German pride and German territory, of course, and acquire back the land which had been lost at Versailles.

However, that image was destroyed when the Germans entered Prague in March 1939 and now for the first time are acquiring land which had not been taken away from them at Versailles, it was not part of an earlier Germany and nation state. The majority of the people who had now been taken over were not ethnic Germans at all but they were Czechs. And so to this extent, now, the march into Prague was the instant where it became recognizable that Hitler was not interested just in a greater Germany of ethnic Germans, but his ambitions were imperialist ones which stretched who knows where? And in reality Hitler had always had these aims and actually hadn’t made much of a secret of it, because in Mein Kampf as well, written in the middle of the 1920s, he’d said that Germany’s future has to lie in the acquisition of land in the East at the expense of Russia, which he openly stated in Mein Kampf.

The question was, from these people, whether that was Hitler as a youth, as a young firebrand, or whether as a statesman he would change his mind. And for a long time they preferred to believe that he’d changed his mind on that, whereas he hadn’t. And that war in the East, to acquire land that had never belonged to Germany, that was, of course, the ultimate aim of Hitler in the policies that led up to the war and then were carried on during the war.