After coming to power, Hitler immediately set about ripping apart the Treaty of Versailles. The payment of reparations may have been quietly dropped, but the rest of the treaty remained in place. Four days after being appointed chancellor, Hitler spoke of the need for an expanded military force by 1938 so that Germany would be strong enough to make good his objective of finding living space in eastern Europe. But during these early years of power, Hitler usually hid his real intentions claiming that Germany only wanted parity with the other European powers. Beyond these ‘reasonable’ demands, further military claims were not on the agenda: ‘Germany will of its own accord never break the peace,’ Hitler told one British correspondent in 1935.
Britain and Italy were prepared to discuss what they felt were legitimate claims but the French were unwilling to allow Germany permission to rearm. This lack of compromise gave Hitler the excuse, in October 1933, to withdraw from both disarmament talks and the League of Nations. He talked insincerely of coming back to the League once it had addressed Germany’s grievances but now, free of the League’s interference, Hitler was able to step up Germany’s rearmament programme.
In January 1934 Hitler signed a ten-year non-aggression pact with Poland. The Nazi Party bore a grudge against Poland, given the amount of German territory that was now part of this newly established country, so many in the Nazi Party questioned Hitler’s motives for signing such a pact. But Hitler, in a clever and duplicitous piece of diplomatic manoeuvring, wanted to create the impression of a Germany accepting of the terms of the Treaty of Versailles and bearing no ill-feeling towards Poland.
In 1935 Hitler announced the existence of the German air force, the Luftwaffe, which had been built up in secret in direct violation of the Treaty of Versailles. He introduced conscription in another direct snub to the Allied powers and continued apace with rearmament. Britain, France and Italy were now sufficiently worried as to meet in the Italian town of Stresa and form the Stresa Front to formally protest, as did the League of Nations, at Germany’s blatant breaches of the treaty.
Hitler ignored such protests. France signed treaties with the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia, which displeased the British, who in turn signed a naval agreement with Germany. The agreement allowed Germany to build a fleet of ships 35 per cent the size of Britain’s, and an equal number of submarines. Britain had, as France saw it, condoned Germany’s total disregard for the Treaty of Versailles. The Stresa Front, now greatly weakened, collapsed entirely when, in October 1935, Italy invaded Abyssinia. Benito Mussolini, Italy’s fascist leader since 1922, had been desperate for a show of military strength and the prestige of colonial conquest. Abyssinia was a member of the League of Nations, and Britain and France, as leading lights of the League, should have protested, but fearful that in doing so they might push Mussolini on to Hitler’s side, decided to allow Italy their colonial triumph.