With Germany lacking colonies, Hitler consolidated the Reich’s commercial position on the continent, focusing on the southeastern European market. This coincided with his intention to regain frontier provinces of Germany proper, some with valuable industry, which the Versailles construction took from the Reich and awarded to neighboring states. Italy, France, Belgium, Denmark, Lithuania, Poland, and Czechoslovakia now controlled territories populated by ethnic Germans, whose loss weakened Germany.

The diplomatic question that received Hitler’s initial priority was national security. Article 160 of the treaty stated that the armed forces, the Reichswehr, may be deployed “exclusively for maintaining order within German territory and as border police."10 The Allies therefore denied Germany the right to protect her frontiers from foreign aggression.

The lack of adequate defense forces had already caused negative consequences for the Reich. When the Germans fell 1.6 percent behind on the crippling reparations payments to France, the French and Belgian armies militarily occupied the Ruhr industrial region in January 1923. In Essen, French troops shot 14 German miners resisting the invaders' attempt to confiscate coal. Others the French arrested and deported to France’s colonies. They forced 80,000 Germans to leave their homes in the Ruhr and relocate further into Germany.11 Clemenceau told his secretary, “We'll stay longer than 15 years, we'll stay 100 years if we must, until they pay what they owe us. . . . And after we've withdrawn, if these swine violate their obligation then fine, we'll occupy again."12French and Belgian troops remained until the summer of 1925.

The governments of Germany and Austria arranged to form a customs union in 1931. The elimination of tariffs would boost commerce between the two countries and lessen the economic distress, particularly in Austria. France interpreted this “fearsome bloc” of her former antagonists as a violation of the Treaty of St. Germaine, which forbade Austria to become part of the Reich. Paris threatened to boycott German wares and initiate price wars to disrupt continental trade. Possessing the largest army in Europe, France was in a position to dictate terms without arbitration. That September, Austrian Chancellor Johannes Schober announced that his government would abandon plans for a trade agreement with Germany. U.S. President Hoover remarked, “A customs union with a little country of six million can scarcely be conceived as a serious threat. . . . This is nothing more than a new, crass example of European power politics."13 The incident demonstrated that without armed forces, Germany and Austria would remain unable to conduct an independent foreign policy.

The League of Nations had been holding preliminary talks for several years in preparation for a universal disarmament conference scheduled for 1932. In February 1927, Belgian Foreign Minister Emile Vandervelde predicted, “Either the other powers must reduce their armies in proportion to the German Reichswehr, or the peace treaty becomes invalid and Germany claims the right to possess fighting forces capable of defending her territory."14

The disarmament conference opened in Geneva in February 1932. Germany, a member of the League since 1927, demanded military parity with the other European powers. Delegates debated the issue for over four months without progress. In June, President Hoover proposed the reduction by two thirds of all ground and naval forces. He recommended sending bombers to the scrap yard and banning strategic aerial bombardment. The plan found favor with Italy and the USSR, but France rejected it.

Berlin saw in Franco-German dissonance a primary hindrance to the conference. On August 23, 1932, the Reichswehr and the Reich’s Foreign Office therefore asked France’s ambassador, Andre Francois-Poncet, for a private audience. At the meeting, General Kurt von Schleicher presented moderate suggestions to Francois-Poncet. Germany wished to develop prototypes of combat aircraft, armored vehicles and heavy artillery, but pledged not to put them into mass production. Schleicher’s plan called for an increase in military personnel by 30,000 soldiers per year. Considering that the French army numbered 655,000 men, it would take the Reich over 18 years to achieve parity. Further, the 30,000 annual recruits would serve an enlistment of just three months. Paris rejected Berlin’s modest proposals in a note on September 11, 1932. The French bluntly reminded the Germans of their obligation to observe the arms limitations imposed by the Versailles treaty.

Within two days, the Germans notified the president of the Geneva conference that Germany was withdrawing from the talks. Three months later, England, France, and Italy conceded that “Germany must receive the same rights in a security system valid for all nations,” and that this would be on the agenda.15 The German delegation thereupon returned to Geneva. This was the state of Europe’s arms race when Hitler became chancellor in January 1933. He inherited a military establishment whose ordnance department had recently estimated that there was only enough ammunition stockpiled for one hour of combat.

British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald introduced a comprehensive armaments plan on March 16. It permitted Germany to double the size of the Reichswehr to 200,000 men. It called for France to reduce her continental army to the same number, but granted her an additional 200,000 to police the colonies. MacDonald proposed a 200,000-man fighting force for Italy as well, plus 50,000 more for her overseas possessions. The USSR would maintain 500,000 men under arms, Poland 200,000, and Czechoslovakia 100,000. All countries except Germany would have an air force. Almost every nation affected responded favorably. France however, categorically rejected the plan.

The German diplomat Freiherrn von Freytagh-Loringhoven summarized the implications confronting Hitler in his deliberations: “The forces it allowed Germany in no way guaranteed her parity with the other Great Powers, nor corresponded to the size of her population and natural resources.... Germany would be permitted to maintain a field army of 200,000 men. France on the other hand, was promised 200,000 men for the mother country and just as many for the colonies. In case of war these colonial troops would be immediately transported to Europe, so France would have twice as strong a standing army right from the start, not even including reservists. For Poland too, whose population is just half of Germany’s, the plan also envisioned 200,000 men. Considering the entire French alliance system...there would be a fighting force on the French side of 1,025,000 men, whereas Germany could only parry with an army one fifth as strong."16

In the Reichstag on May 17, 1933, Hitler publicly responded: “Germany would be ready without delay to disband her entire military establishment and destroy what little remains of her arsenal, if the other nations involved will do the same. But if the other states are unwilling to implement the conditions of disarmament the peace treaty of Versailles obligates them to, then Germany must at least insist on her right to parity. The German government sees in the English plan a possible basis to solve these questions. . . . Germany therefore agrees in essence to accept a transitional period of five years for the establishment of her national security, in the expectation that Germany’s equal footing with the other states will result."17

The only objection to MacDonald’s proposal Hitler posed was that his country should be permitted to develop an air force. Since the 1932 Reichswehr plan envisioned a maximum of just 200 planes by 1938, this was a minor exception. The Führer’s acceptance of the MacDonald plan meant leaving Germany virtually defenseless for nearly five years, basing national security purely on the good faith of neighboring powers to honor the agreement; an obligation which they had not met so far. Even after the five year period, the Reichswehr would be heavily outnumbered and outgunned. As Hitler pointed out in his speech, “The only nation justified in fearing an invasion is Germany."18

Hitler’s approval of the MacDonald plan received mixed reviews. The chairman of the conference, Arthur Henderson, stated on May 19 that Hitler’s speech clearly demonstrates that Germany’s desire to achieve balance rests not with expanding the Reichswehr, but with multilateral disarmament. Anthony Eden, representing Britain in Geneva, called the speech encouraging. The American delegate, Norman Davis, declared his country’s readiness to accept MacDonald’s proposals. Only France reacted unfavorably. At the session in Geneva on May 23, the French delegate, Paul Boncour, insisted that Germany’s political organizations, the Stahlhelm (Steel Helmets), SA, and SS, represent a military fighting force augmenting the size of the Germany army by nearly a million men.

In his May 17 speech, Hitler defended the Stahlhelm as a veterans' society preserving the comradeship forged in World War I. Its members had helped quell Communist uprisings in the Reich from 1919 to 1923. He added, “In a few years, the SA and SS lost over 350 dead and 40,000 injured as a result of Communist murder attempts and terrorism. If Geneva counts these organizations serving an exclusively internal political purpose as part of the army, then the fire department, athletic associations, police societies, gun lodges, sailing clubs, and other sports leagues might as well also be considered armed forces."19 Hitler in fact had no interest in militarizing the party’s affiliates. The Stahlhelm soon all but disappeared, and SA chief Ernst Roehm caused so much trouble demanding that his storm troops, not the army, take over national defense that Hitler had him shot a year later.

During a recess at Geneva, French statesmen conducted confidential deliberations with England and the United States regarding the MacDonald plan. Supported by the French press, Paris advocated a minimum four year period before even initiating multilateral disarmament. The German army, they recommended, should be restructured, replacing the present system of long-term enlistments with an active duty tour of eight months for every soldier. Under this arrangement, the Reichswehr would forfeit in less than a year its professional officer corps and NCO cadre of instructors. On October 7, the German government announced its acceptance of the proposal. The Reich agreed not to develop offensive weapons such as heavy artillery, bombers and heavy tanks. With the exception of a demand for modern defensive weaponry, Hitler voluntarily agreed to the reshaping of his country’s armed forces by a foreign power.

One week later, a British delegate, Sir John Simon, announced revisions to the MacDonald plan based on consultation with other nations. He extended the original five-year disarmament period - which Hitler had already accepted - to eight years. The new arrangement expressly forbade all signatories from producing more weapons. The Germans therefore would not have the right to sufficiently arm the additional 100,000 soldiers the plan allowed for. Germany withdrew from the conference the same day, and from the League of Nations.

Despite the concessions Hitler had offered, he reaped harsh criticism from the international press. As Freytagh-Loringhoven summarized, “Most of its readers must have gained the impression that Germany frivolously sabotaged all the grand work toward disarmament, and by withdrawing from the Geneva League of Nations, parted ways with the community of civilized states."20 America’s new president, Franklin Roosevelt, had already told a German emissary that he considered “Germany the only possible obstacle to a disarmament treaty."21 The military advisor with the English delegation to the disarmament conference sent a report to the Foreign Office in London, describing Hitler as a “mad dog running around loose” who needs to be “either destroyed or locked away."22 The permanent undersecretary in the Foreign Office, Robert Vansittart, added a note of approval to the document and distributed copies to the staff. French newspapers published bogus reports of secret German war plans. Le Journal in Paris described how Stahlhelm, SS and SA men receive extensive combat training from the Reichswehr.23

Explaining Germany’s withdrawal from Geneva on October 14, Hitler reminded his countrymen how the Allies had pledged in their own peace treaty to reduce their military establishments. “Our delegates were then told by official representatives of the other states in public speeches and direct declarations that at the present time, Germany could no longer be granted equal rights.” The Führer maintained that “the German people and their government were repeatedly humiliated” during the negotiations. He concluded that this “world peace, so ultimately necessary for us all, can only be achieved when the concepts of victor and vanquished are supplanted by the loftier vision of the equal right to life for everyone."24

Conscious of the gravity of this foreign policy decision, Hitler presented it to the German public for approval. He asked Reich’s President Paul von Hindenburg to authorize new parliamentary elections coupled with a referendum on Geneva. The Führer repeated his position on the League to employees of the Siemens factory in Berlin on November 10, and the national radio broadcast the speech. In the referendum two days later, 95 percent of German voters endorsed their chancellor’s break with Geneva.

Even after leaving the League that October, Hitler still sought rapprochement. In January 1934, he petitioned Geneva to approve a 300,000-man army for his country. The British government asked him to settle for a force somewhere between 200,000 and 300,000 instead. Hitler agreed. France’s foreign minister, Jean-Louis Barthou, insisted that the SA be counted as part of Germany’s army. The Führer expressed willingness to eliminate the SA’s paramilitary structure. He stood firm for an air force, but pledged not to expand its size beyond 50 percent of that of France. He completely renounced German development of bombers. Hitler was content to wait five years for the Great Powers to begin arms reduction, if France would accept the proposals.

Many prominent Frenchmen endorsed the compromise. The novelist Alphonse de Chateaubriant observed, “Germany neither seeks war with France nor even considers it.” Henri Pichot stated, “The youth who did not experience the war don't know what war is. It’s up to us to tell them. It is our duty, and that of those we fought, to build bridges across the trenches that still divide us."25 France’s ambassador in Berlin, Francois-Poncet, supported the compromise with Germany. French statesman Andre Tardieu told him, “You're wasting your time! The agreement you advocate will never be concluded. We'll never sign it. Hitler won't be at the helm much longer. . . . When war breaks out, a week won't pass before he’s ousted and replaced by the crown prince."26 On April 17, 1934, Barthou issued an official reply to the British mediation plan and Hitler’s offer: “The French government formally refuses to allow Germany to rearm.... From now on, France will guarantee her security through her own resources."27 This caused the collapse of the Geneva disarmament conference.

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