James M. Lindsay

The Water's Edge

Lindsay analyzes the politics shaping U.S. foreign policy and the sustainability of American power.

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Lessons Learned: Hitler’s Rearmament of Germany

by James M. Lindsay
March 13, 2012


A new installment of “Lessons Learned” is now out. This week I discuss Adolf Hitler’s announcement on March 16, 1935, that he would rearm Germany in violation of the Treaty of Versailles. In the video, I discuss the difficulty of recognizing when to confront an aggressive and expansionist state. Here’s a question to consider: what are the tell-tale signs that a country can only be confronted and not accommodated? I encourage you to weigh in with your answer in the comments section below.

I hope you enjoy the video.

If you are interested in learning more about Hitler and German rearmament, here are some books worth reading:

Edward W. Bennett. German Rearmament and the West, 1932-1933. (1979)

Joseph Maiolo. Cry Havoc: How the Arms Race Drove the World to War, 1931-1941. (2010)

Zara Steiner. The Triumph of the Dark: European International History, 1933-1939. (2011)

Barton Whaley. Covert German Rearmament, 1919-1939: Deception and Misperception. (1984)

Post a Comment 6 Comments

  • Posted by Greg R. Lawson

    There are no clear cut lessons.

    Hitler was a distinctly atypical, though not entirely unique figure in world history. His appetites essentially knew no bounds, but he successfully hid those views in public rhetoric. It is easy to say, well, didn’t anyone read Mein Kampf? But the point is equally applicable today with the grandiose rhetoric of Ahmadinejad.

    Appropriate responses are at best a matter of close monitoring and calibration of one’s own response to one’s capabilities and accepting the level of risk inherent in any limitations upon those capabilities.

    The tragedy of Nazi Germany that has led to a thousand calls of “Never Again” will be repeated even if on smaller scales because at the end of the day its intuition and guesswork that makes statesmanship, even prudential statesmanship, an art and not a science.

  • Posted by Daniel

    Nice quick post. I doubt either China or Iran are currently pursuing a grand scheme to become dominant regional powers, although both are at a sort of threshold of doing so – China more so.
    This morning I thought about the ‘sanity’ of regimes – how likely are they to conform to international norms and treaties like bans on chemical weapons. In class we talked about H.G. Wells’ prediction that chemical weapons would wipe out a majority of humanity in the next great war – it did not. Therefore, nations would appear to be sane. But what about the Iran/Iraq war where gas was used again on the battlefield? My next blog post will probably discuss this as well as the inability of Israel’s arsenal to be a deterrent before or after Iran goes nuclear. Will the U.S.’s be any different? Is the probability of a regional arms race therefore the likely outcome if massive bombing exchanges don’t happen first?

  • Posted by Simon

    Thanks for the book recomendations. Can I also recommend the Wages of Destruction by Adam Tooze. On the Nazi economy more generally but very interesting discussion of the uprecedented pace of German remarmament in the 30s. From memory Germany went from spending .5% of GDP on arms to 10% in less than five years.

  • Posted by Peter Duveen

    One must examine whether a nation holds the moral high ground. Surely Hitler hoped to contain any threat to his own initiatives, and might have done so through the same sort of reasoning applied in this essay. Likewise, nations may seek to bolster their defense positions because they legitimately perceive a threat to their sovereignty and security. The legitimate aim of the state–the security and prosperity of its citizens and the wellbeing of the world community–may indeed be undermined by a nation that, using Hitler’s former abuses as a pretext–aggressively invades that country by deeming it a threat. For example, Richard Haass has pointed out that the NATO attack on Libya was motivated by political, and not by humanitarian, considerations.

    Interestingly, the geopolitical equation moves in a direction that mitigates such abuses, as has been the case throughout history. Rome’s expansion was ultimately checked by Northern Europe. Spain’s hegemonic tendencies were contained by Britain, and when Britain rose, it was opposed by a rising power with more legitimate aims and ideals–the United States. If US power, in conjunction with its allies, flows beyond its legitimate bounds, history appears to teach us that another center of power will rise to stem this abuse and from which will emerge an improved world climate.

    One must also draw the distinction between Hitler’s ideology of racial superiority and Iran’s Islamic underpinnings. While some of Ahmadinejad’s aggressive remarks in which he defends Iran’s right to self defense have often been emphasized at the expense of others, taken as a whole, they are a plea for international cooperation toward a peaceful world. My understanding is that Iran has not embarked on a program to develop nuclear weapons, and Iran has repeatedly said that possession of such weapons is solidly against the ideals of Islam.

    On the other hand, America and its allies have embarked on wars of choice, and the character of their actions, demonstrated by the careless and wonton destruction of societies, a high death toll extracted upon civilian populations, torture and murder of captives, extrajudicial killings of those declared enemies of the state, may indicate these countries do not hold the moral high ground. It may be best, then, for America to find ways to support the legitimate aspirations of rising power centers rather than to confront them by destructive means under the guise of stemming a threat to world peace and stability.

  • Posted by Tim

    Evil should be stopped. I think everyone can agree to that – from the average joe to the militant islamist. But who defines evil? Of the hundreds of innocent civilians recently killed in the the middle east as a result to drone bombs, wouldn’t the United States be “evil” to the families of the deceased? Can you imagine if the Mexican government had drone capability and accidentally killed a few hundred American citizens in its effort to fight its war on drugs?

    You speak of “aggressive expansionist states” and before you mentioned China and Iran I thought you were referring to the USA. The utter disregard of the constitution is in effect the same disobedience Hitler exhibited when breaking the treaty of Versailles. That is the first warning sign. The change of tune to preemptive aggression is another, not to mention the assassination of American citizens abroad. And although the United States is not expanding in the traditional sense, territorially, it does encourage its economic system worldwide and maintains hundreds of army bases throughout the world.

    In no sense do I defend Iran or China but you come off hypocritical without acknowledging the United States expanding roll in aggression, expansion, and rule breaking.

  • Posted by Mainvision

    Hitler had many apologists in the US and even some in the UK.
    It’s not that surprising that people come to the defence of Ahmadinejad or, earlier, Saddam – the West can never do anything right so that whoever opposes it is fine. Libertarians, contrarians, anarchists… high principles and great news for the dictators.

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