Throughout his tenure in office, Hitler was active in foreign affairs. A major goal, abolishing the restrictions imposed on Germany by the Versailles treaty, required him to negotiate with the signatory powers that had ratified it. This was an uphill battle, since these nations benefited from the compact. The Führer strove to realize his goal through non-belligerent means. The last war had provoked a Communist revolution in Russia. His own country had nearly suffered a similar fate in 1918. Hitler believed that another European conflict would be exploited by the Soviets to overthrow existing governments and “lead to the collapse of the present-day social and state order."1
The Reich’s chancellor weighed foreign policy decisions according to their advantages for Germany. Contrary to the cosmopolitan attitude of today’s democratic leaders, he allowed no particular obligation to the collective interests of an abstract “global community” to influence his actions. In his own words, “I cannot feel responsible for the fate of a world which showed no sympathy for the miserable plight of my own people. I regard myself as called upon by providence to serve only my own nation."2 Great Britain and France were among the primary advocates of the Versailles system. Though aware of the treaty’s injustices, neither of their governments initiated a single voluntary concession to Germany from 1920-1939.
The objective of National Socialist foreign affairs was securing Lebensraum, sufficient living space to provide nourishment for Germany’s increasing population and natural resources for industry. A serious hindrance to economic well-being was her lack of overseas colonies. Prior to World War I, the control of expansive territories in Africa had provided the imperial Reich with raw materials. Nearly 12,000,000 native inhabitants had offered a market for German manufactured goods, and the flourishing trade had made a substantial contribution to industrial growth and prosperity.
Woodrow Wilson’s 14 Points, which lulled the Reich’s Government into accepting an armistice in 1918, promised “a free, open-minded and absolutely impartial adjustment of all colonial claims.” This proved to be an illusion. In Africa, France gained the former German colony of Kamerun totaling nearly 50,000 square miles. The Versailles settlement awarded Ruanda and Burundi to Belgium. England took the lion’s share, incorporating German East Africa, German Southwest Africa and Togo, augmenting the British Empire by over 630,000 square miles. Italy received about 50,000 square miles. Britain and Japan divided Germany’s Pacific colonies.
The Allies classified the seized colonies as mandate states that England and France administered as trustees. This avoided the appearance of outright annexation, which would have raised the inconvenient argument that so much valuable territory appropriated from Germany should be credited to the reparations account. The League of Nations charter stated that administering colonies “inhabited by peoples not yet able to stand by themselves under the strenuous conditions of the modern world” was a “sacred trust of civilization."3 It sanctioned Anglo-French colonial administration as a blessing for underdeveloped nations, overlooking the fact that Syria, India, Egypt and several other countries under British and European subjugation had requested independence after World War I.
The peace treaty created other obstacles for German commerce. Beginning in 1922, the Allies imposed a 26 percent duty on all German export wares. Despite this disadvantage, Germany continued to conduct overseas trade in order to meet reparations payments and import necessities previously available from Africa. The Germans' profit margin was too small to alleviate the economic distress to industry. A German delegate at Versailles, Otto Landsberg, stated, “This peace is a slow murder of the German people."4 The worldwide financial crisis caused German exports to sink by two thirds between 1930 and 1933.
Hitler publicly reopened the colonial issue in September 1935. Speaking in Nuremberg, he announced that Germany would not relinquish her claims in Africa. Days later, Britain’s foreign secretary, Sir Samuel Hoare, addressed the topic before the League of Nations in Geneva. Dismissing the notion that the ex-German colonies should be returned, Hoare argued that it was necessary only to guarantee that countries without possessions on the Dark Continent should have fair access to their natural resources through an “open door” policy. Berlin pointed out that the mother countries England, France, and Belgium would unavoidably enjoy preference in trade. The option to buy raw materials from mandate states was of little use to Germany anyway; she lacked the purchasing power to do so, thanks to the loss of her colonies. Nearly a year and a half passed before the League of Nations appointed a committee to investigate. Its findings endorsed Hoare’s position.5
In 1936, Hitler authorized Schacht to negotiate settlements with France and England regarding some of their major differences with Germany. Schacht introduced a proposal to change the status of French-controlled Kamerun and of Togo, Britain’s smaller African acquisition. Under the plan, the Germans would assume economic management of, but not sovereignty over, the two mandate states. Both would maintain an open door trade policy with other countries as Hoare had suggested, while the Reich would enjoy commercial advantages to compensate for the previous forfeiture of its African territories. The compromise avoided the impression that the Allies were returning the German colonies, which would have represented a tacit admission that their seizure was unjust. Considering Germany’s poverty of natural resources and the pride of its population, Schacht’s proposal was moderate. London and Paris categorically rejected it the following winter.6
Subsequent personal dialogs between Hitler and British statesmen proved equally fruitless. In November 1937, the Führer hosted the English emissary Lord Halifax at Berchtesgaden. He asked his guest what London proposed regarding Africa. Halifax admitted that “the mistakes of the Versailles treaty must be set right."7 He stipulated that England could not negotiate this without the other continental powers and that redistribution of the colonies could only take place within the framework of an overall European settlement. Halifax offered no proposals.
The following March, Nevile Henderson, the British ambassador in Berlin, warned Hitler that English public opinion was “especially sensitive” about the African issue. He vaguely suggested that Germany could perhaps receive administration of the Congo. This was not even a British dominion. Hitler questioned the purpose of such an arrangement, instead of solving the colonial problem “in the simplest and most natural way, namely by giving back the German colonies.” He again pledged not to force the issue, expressing willingness to “patiently wait four, six or ten years” for a favorable solution. As for the genuine attitude of the British government, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain confided to his cabinet a year later that discussing with Germany the return of her colonies was “completely out of the question."8 In March 1939, British Secretary of Trade Robert Hudson told the German economist Helmuth Wohlthat that the English people would never accept the transfer. For his part, Hitler kept the promise once made to Chamberlain, that he would not present Germany’s appeal as a “belligerent demand."9