I’ve seen many people ask questions like, “How was it possible for Hitler to amass so much power so quickly without any resistance from the other European countries?” This is an important question because the answer reveals how dictators can rise quickly when geopolitical conditions create cultures of fear. Today, we are entering a new international culture of fear due to many of the counterproductive and corrupt economic and foreign policies that I’ve written about frequently in my articles. So here is a brief summary of the primary reasons that Hitler was able to rampage through Europe virtually unopposed until 1939.
Throughout the 19th and 20th Centuries, many people in Europe feared the spread of Communism. Starting with the Jacobins in the early 19th Century in France, the ideology of Communism had been spreading rapidly across Europe. Then, after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, Communism was supported by the official government apparatus and economic power of a large country in their backyard, which instilled fear and anxiety throughout the entire European continent.
These alarming and relatively rapid developments caused many Europeans to be sympathetic to Hitler’s ambitions because he was fiercely against the Bolsheviks; thus, they perceived Hitler as a bulwark against Communism, which seemed to serve their own self-interest. Their fear was not unfounded; it was based on Stalin’s ruthless behavior, which the world witnessed during his reign of terror throughout the 1920s and 1930s. During his terror campaigns, Stalin purged his own officer corps of political adversaries and anybody else who appeared to be opposed to his iron grip on power. Stalin’s brutal personal actions became a symbol of everything that was wrong with the ideology of Communism, which portrayed the USSR as a deadly menace to the world.
Additionally, after approximately 10 million deaths and another 20 million casualties in World War I, many Europeans had a strong bias toward pacifism. This bias influenced their decision-making and their ability to see Hitler’s manipulative tactics in the early years of his dictatorship. Under the auspices of economic development, Hitler engaged in many forms of political espionage and sabotage to move Germany into a strategically powerful position vis-à-vis Russia and the other European nations.
Many European politicians initially interpreted Hitler’s actions as relatively benign because they assumed he would abide by the substantive terms of the Versailles Treaty. However, the Treaty of Versailles was regarded as excessively punitive by nearly all Germans, especially by the German army, who felt they had been “stabbed in the back” by their leaders. This widely-shared perception within German society undermined the integrity, legitimacy, and governing capacity of Germany’s post-WWI Wiemar Republic. This created severe institutional dysfunction within the democratic German Government, which Hitler was able to skillfully exploit.
With virtually no institutional accountability remaining, Hitler was able to rise to power legally in the early 1930s and then systematically annex Austria (“Anschluss”), the Sudetenland (and later all of Czechoslovakia), large chunks of Poland, and other parts of Eastern Europe as part of Hitler’s Lebensraum (“Living Space”) doctrine. In his book, Mein Kampf, Hitler said he modeled his Lebensraum doctrine after the United States’ Manifest Destiny doctrine. He appreciated how Manifest Destiny enabled the United States to economically oppress other countries and justify the extermination of the Native American population, which was over 100 million when Columbus discovered America in 1492. Hitler believed this was the perfect ideological tool that the Germans could use to exterminate the Jews, Bolsheviks, and anybody else who represented an obstacle to Aryan racial purity.
Among other perceived indignities of the Versailles Treaty, France regained the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine. The Rhineland was occupied by the Allied Powers. Germany’s colonies in Asia and Africa were handed over to Britain, France, and Japan. Germany’s army would be limited to a 100,000-soldier force, with no tanks and no heavy artillery. The German navy would have only six warships–no submarines and no military air force. Germany would pay $5 billion in cash immediately; $33 billion total, which was far beyond Germany’s ability to pay. And a “war guilt” clause implicitly blamed the Central Powers (Germany, in particular) for starting the war. Under these intolerable conditions, which short-sighted politicians in Europe and the U.S. imposed upon Germany after WWI, Hitler felt he was completely justified in lying and deceiving the world about his actions and intentions.
Colonial rivalries were also common, which inhibited alignment between the European powers. France was competing with Britain and the Netherlands for colonial supremacy in Southeast Asia and they all competed with Italy for supremacy in Africa. Belgium, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Luxembourg were all trying to remain neutral to avoid angering any nation. Under these geopolitical conditions, it was virtually impossible for any strong, multinational coalition to form at all, much less resist the German juggernaut earlier than 1939.
As a result of all these factors, the European powers were essentially paralyzed, which allowed Hitler to consolidate power and build up the German military machine until 1939. By the time they finally realized that Hitler was intent on dominating all of Europe, Germany invaded Poland and World War II had begun.