What was Hitler’s Foreign Policy in the East?

Background Information

Following the events in Czechoslovakia, tension in Europe was at all all-time high. It was widely believed that any further aggression would lead to war. Furthermore, Hitler had reversed all of the main articles of the Treaty of Versailles. Except for one.

The Polish Corridor stood out as a violation of German territory and pride. This was the last main article of Versailles which Hitler was determined to undo; however, after Czechoslovakia it was fairly clear that the allies would not permit him to do so.

Hitler’s foreign policy in the East consisted of two main events:

  1. The Nazi-Soviet Pact (August 1939)
  2. The Invasion of Poland (September 1939).

We will look at how these two events happened, how other countries reacted, and how they ultimately resulted in war.

The Nazi-Soviet Pact

What happened?

In August of 1939, Stalin (the leader of the U.S.S.R.), and Hitler signed a friendship agreement called the Nazi-Soviet Pact.

The Pact agreed that Germany and the U.S.S.R. would support each other in Eastern Europe. This meant that neither side would declare war on the other. They also agreed to ‘share’ Poland, when they jointly invaded it. This made Hitler happy as it meant that Stalin would support his policy of Lebensraum in Eastern Europe. Stalin made Hitler promise that he would never target Russia for more Lebensraum land.

Stalin signed the Pact because he had not been successful in gaining the friendship of Britain and France. Furthermore, Stalin correctly feared that Britain and France wanted Hitler to go to war with Soviet Russia, to beat back the Communist advance. Also, Britain and France did not trust Stalin, as Russia had abandoned them in the First World War. As such, Stalin realised that whilst Britain and France would be unwilling allies, he might protect himself through an alliance with Hitler. Stalin had also been very unimpressed with the policy of Appeasement, as he felt that Britain and France were not strong or brave enough to stand up against Hitler.

Ironically, after the problems in Czechoslovakia, Britain and France started seriously considering an alliance with Stalin. However, they had left it too late, and rebuffed Stalin too many times. He was no longer interested.

Furthermore, Stalin was not stupid. He knew that Hitler was not trustworthy; however, he did not feel prepared for a war in 1939. He knew that if he signed the Pact, he would buy himself a little more time to prepare Russia for an inevitable conflict with Germany later on. He planned to use the land he would conquer in Poland as a ‘buffer’ against German attack, to keep the U.S.S.R. safe.

What was Hitler’s Foreign Policy in the East?, figure 1

This map shows how the U.S.S.R. and Germany planned to divide up Eastern Europe between themselves.

How did other countries react?

Britain and France were extremely worried. They had only just realised how important Russia could be as an ally, and now they had lost Russia to Germany. Britain, however, decided that it was time to act. They reinforced their promise to Poland and with France, and began to carry out final preparations for war.

Poland was also devastated – they knew that this spelled certain invasion. Previously, the only thing keeping Russia and Germany from invading Poland was the worry that the other country would fight them too. Now that Russia and Germany were allied, this was inevitable.

What did this mean for Hitler’s power and growing tension?

Many historians argue that the Nazi-Soviet pact made the Second World War inevitable. Whilst the Pact did not necessarily cause any more tension than the other events, it fully enabled the War. It meant that Hitler had a sure route into Poland, but also that he only now had to worry about war on one front. Where before, he was worried about splitting his forces over a Western and Eastern Front, which had led to German defeat in the First World War, now Hitler only had to worry about the West. He was backed up by Mussolini in the South and Stalin in the East.

As such, this hugely built tension and moved Europe one step closer to a significant war.

The Invasion of Poland

What happened?

On the first of September, 1939, Hitler invaded Poland. A German battleship began to fire on the Polish/League city of Danzig. The German army also marched into Poland, supported by 1300 Luftwaffe aeroplanes. The attack was so swift and precise that the Polish airforce was caught still on the ground, and annihilated. Poland was very swiftly overrun.

What was Hitler’s Foreign Policy in the East?, figure 1

These pictures perfectly document the German invasion of Poland in 1939. The scale and speed of Nazi mechanised tactics took everyone by surprise.

What was Hitler’s Foreign Policy in the East?, figure 2

_ Poland struggled to react effectively to the German attack. The Polish army was underfunded and outdated - as pictured above, some of their core soldiers were mounted ‘hussars’ - soldiers that had not changed that much since the Middle Ages. They charged on horseback against tanks. Poland was overrun within four weeks._

How did other countries react?

Britain knew that this was the line over which they were not willing to compromise. On the 3rd of September, Britain sent an ultimatum to Germany. They said that if Germany did not withdraw their forces from Poland that same day, Britain would declare war on Germany. Hitler did nothing, so Britain declared war. France followed swiftly and declared war too.

The U.S.S.R., on the other hand, joined Hitler in his invasion of Poland. Stalin took a fair part of Polish land too, and the two newly-allied countries simply divided up the country between themselves.

What did this mean for Hitler’s power and growing tension?

Hitler focussed initially on overtaking all of Poland. He was entirely successful within four weeks, and he actually believed that he could then persuade Britain and France to stand down. He thought that he could charm Chamberlain again, and if Poland was already overtaken then Britain and France would have nothing to fight for.

Hitler was wrong, Britain and France were fully committing to the war, and continued to mobilise their troops even after Poland fell. The Second World War had started in full.

Define the following terms:

Your answer should include: order / no choice / consequence
Your answer should include: free / city / Treaty of Versailles / Poland
Nazi-Soviet Pact
Your answer should include: August / 1939 / Germany / USSR / friendship / Poland / split / share
German Air Force