In July 1936 Spain erupted into a bitter civil war that was to last until 1939, a war between fascism and democracy. With the Soviet Union lending her support to the left, both Italy and Germany lent their support, financially, morally and with military intervention, to General Francisco Franco’s nationalist cause. The Spanish Civil War suited Hitler – it diverted international attention away from Germany while he steadily increased military output and gave his air force, still very new, the chance to test its wings in combat, most notoriously in April 1937 when the Luftwaffe bombed the Basque town of Guernica.
The civil war also brought about, in October 1936, the alliance of Germany and Italy and the signing of the Rome-Berlin Axis Pact. The following month, Germany signed the Anti-Comintern Pact with Japan, a mutual declaration against communist expansion, to which Mussolini added his signature a year later.
There were those in the higher echelons of the Nazi hierarchy who felt sufficiently worried about Hitler’s expansionist plans to voice their concerns, including the army chief, Werner von Blomberg, who had done so much to help Hitler consolidate his power. In 1938, in a purge of his party, Hitler removed Blomberg and other moderates from power and replaced them with those more in tune with his own objectives. Abolishing the job of minister of war, Hitler appointed himself as commander-in-chief of the armed forces. One of those removed, the army commander-in-chief, Werner von Fritsch, later wrote: ‘This man, Hitler, is Germany’s destiny for good or bad. If he now goes over the abyss, he will drag us all down with him. There is nothing we can do.’