Why did war break out in Europe in September 1939?

Essay 2002 14 Pages

History Europe - Germany - National Socialism, World War II


War broke out in Europe in September 1939 because of the conjunction of several factors. However, the over-riding factor was the fruition of Hitler’s dynamic ideological foreign policy aims to create lebensraum and racial mastery. Although Hitler’s aims did not run to a strict timetable this does not mean that they were unimportant, or that there was no associated plan and that he was therefore a mere opportunist. After all, the strength of any plan lies, not in its rigidity, but in its flexibility to adapt to beneficial developments as they arise. To be able so to do the German domestic, economic and military infrastructure had to be in place – such was Hitler’s plan. In addition, the breakdown of the European diplomatic order in the face of new, dynamic ideologies and the manipulation of the international system by Hitler clouded his true intentions. Britain and France’s foreign policies also contributed to initially delaying the onset of war, as did the dilatory foreign policy of Soviet Russia. A change of attitude towards Germany from the western democracies and the increase in pace of German expansionism, together with a policy change to an alliance with the Soviet Union, would herald the outbreak of eventual war in September 1939.

Neither structuralist historians’ portrayal of Hitler in relation to his foreign policy as “ a man of improvisation, of experiment and the spur-of-the-moment bright idea”[1] , nor Taylor’s dismissive view of Hitler’s foreign policy aims “so far as he had them”[2] take full cognisance of the dynamism and unstoppable ideological vision and impetus of both Hitler and National Socialism. The central emphasis of Nazi foreign policy from Hitler’s rise and consolidation of power was that “only a sufficient large space on this earth can ensure the independent existence of a nation“ hence “the aim of our political activity must be …. the acquisition of land and soil as the objective of our foreign policy.”[3] Although Germany may not have had a definitive blueprint to achieve her foreign policy aims, she had clear intentions. Specifically the creation of living space on the lands occupied by the Soviet Union and the creation of a superior German race with the elimination of perceived inferior peoples including Jews, Slavs and Bolsheviks. Indeed, Goebbels was so confident in the overall progress towards these aims that “In 1938 we’ll be completely ready. The showdown with Bolshevism is coming.”[4] Hence, war broke out in September 1939 because the prerequisite of an aggressor nation was evident in Germany – with a foreign policy driven by the insatiable desire for European mastery and living space of Hitlerian ideology.

Furthermore, German foreign policy, or perhaps more succinctly Hitler’s foreign policy, was not a continuation of traditional German expansionist policy but was in fact a significant discontinuation. Hitler significantly changed the direction of foreign policy as he had little desire for overseas colonial expansion whilst the “demand for the restoration of the frontiers of 1914 is a political absurdity … we are …. turning our eyes towards the lands of the east.”[5] Furthermore, a racial element was introduced which raised the stakes with the elimination of perceived inferior peoples being replaced with superior Germans. Although Churchill may have been overly complimentary in describing German policy as being “a programme of aggression, nicely calculated and timed, unfolding stage by stage,”[6] Hitler was pursuing a purposefully constructed radicalization of his aims. For instance, the Hossbach Memorandum of 1937 not only reconfirms these aims but also sets a target for their completion by 1943-45. Moreover, “no parliamentary minister between 1920 and 1933 could have gone so far”[7] in distinguishing his foreign policy. The fact that the outbreak of war did not find the initial protagonists as Germany and the Soviet Union does not mean that there was no plan, only that the plan could be adapted to suit circumstances while still seeking the same goals. Therefore, the outbreak of war in September 1939 was not simply another German war with traditional aims but was given specific new direction which directly challenged the traditional European order.

Moreover, the infrastructure for war was put in place prior to September 1939. The principles of Hitler’s domestic policy were to overthrow the terms of the Treaty of Versailles and put the nation on a war footing. In order to do so he dramatically increased the rate of rearmament and the growth of the German economy. Even whilst consolidating his authority as Chancellor between 1933 and 1935 he commenced his push towards war. For example,


[1] H. Mommsen quoted in I. Kershaw “Nazi Foreign Policy: Hitler’s ‘programme’ or ‘expansion without object’? in P. Finney (ed.) The Origins of the Second World War (1997), p. 122.

[2] A.J.P. Taylor in “The British View” in R. Douglas (ed.) 1939 A Retrospect Forty Years After (1983), p.47.

[3] A. Hitler quoted in R. Henig “The Origins of the Second World War” at http://www.users.globalnet.co.uk/~semp/origins.htm

[4] Goebbels quoted in I. Kershaw “Nazi Foreign Policy: Hitler’s ‘programme’ or ‘expansion without object’? in P. Finney (ed.) The Origins of the Second World War (1997), p. 138.

[5] A. Hitler quoted in G.Darby Hitler, Appeasement and the Road to War 1933-1941 (1999), p.20.

[6] W. Churchill quoted in P.M.H. Bell The Origins of the Second World War in Europe (1997), p.49.

[7] Ambassador von Weizsäcker quoted in I. Kershaw “Nazi Foreign Police: Hitler’s ‘programme’ or ‘expansion without object’? in P. Finney (ed.) The Origins of the Second World War (1997), p.137.


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World War Two 1939




Title: Why did war break out in Europe in September 1939?