The Hossbach Memorandum was the summary of a meeting on 5 November 1937 between German dictator Adolf Hitler and his military and foreign policy leadership where Hitler's future expansionist policies were outlined. The meeting marked a turning point in Hitler's foreign policies, which then began to radicalize. It outlined Hitler's plans for expansion in Europe. According to the Memorandum, Hitler did not want war in 1939 with Britain and France. What he wanted was small wars of plunder to help support Germany's struggling economy. Hitler wanted a full-scale European war with Britain and France between 1941 and 1944–5. The memorandum was named for the keeper of the minutes of the meeting, Hitler's military adjutant, Colonel Count Friedrich Hossbach. Besides Colonel Hossbach and Hitler, those attending the meeting were: the Reich Foreign Minister, Baron Konstantin von Neurath; the Reich War Minister, Field Marshal Werner von Blomberg; the Army Commander, General Werner von Fritsch; the Kriegsmarine Commander, Admiral Erich Raeder; and the Luftwaffe Commander, Hermann Göring.
Intentionalist and structuralist arguments
The Memorandum is often used by intentionalist historians such as Gerhard Weinberg, Andreas Hillgruber and Richard Overy to prove that Hitler planned to start a general European war, which became the Second World War, as part of a long-range master plan. However, functionalist historians such as Timothy Mason, Hans Mommsen, and Ian Kershaw argue that the document shows no such plans, and they instead contend that the Hossbach Memorandum was an improvised ad hoc response by Hitler to the growing crisis in the German economy in the late 1930s. A. J. P. Taylor dismissed the Hossbach Memorandum as evidence of Hitler's intent, pointing out that the document had already been edited by US lawyers during the Nuremberg Trials, that most of the people who attended the meeting were dismissed soon afterwards, and the actual memorandum itself was filed away and forgotten. Instead, Taylor believes that the meeting was merely an attempt by Hitler to drum up support from the military.
The conference of 5 November 1937 had been called in response to complaints from Admiral Raeder that the Navy (Kriegsmarine) was not receiving sufficient allocations of steel and other raw materials, and as a result, the entire Kriegsmarine building program was in danger of collapse. Neither the Luftwaffe nor the Army were willing to see any reductions of their steel allocations, and as the conference had been called in response to resolve the dispute, Hitler took the opportunity afforded by the conference to provide a summary of his assessment of the foreign policy situation. Hitler stated that in the event of his death, the contents of the conference were to be regarded as his "political testament". In Hitler's view, the German economy had reached such a state of crisis that the only way of stopping a drastic fall in living standards in Germany was to embark on a policy of aggression sooner rather than later to provide sufficient Lebensraum by seizing Austria and Czechoslovakia. Moreover, Hitler announced it was imperative to act sometime within the next five or six years before "two hate-inspired antagonists", Britain and France, closed the gap in the Arms race, in which, Hitler noted, Germany was already falling behind.
A striking change in the Hossbach Memorandum is Hitler's new evaluation of Britain, from the prospective ally of 1928 in the Zweites Buch to the "hate-inspired antagonist" of 1937 unwilling and unable to accept a strong Germany. This change marked a total volte-face in Hitler's view of Britain. The German historian Klaus Hildebrand has argued that the Memorandum marked the beginning of an "ambivalent course" towards Britain. Likewise, the late Andreas Hillgruber contended that Hitler was embarking on expansion "without Britain", preferably "with Britain", but if necessary "against Britain".
The first part of the document minuted Hitler's wish that Germany become an autarkic state, reasoning that a reliance on others makes a state weak. This has been labelled by some historians as a way of preparing Germany for conflict, by ensuring that it was not economically reliant on states with which it could soon be at war. The memorandum's suggestion that certain types of autarky were not possible can thus be considered reasons for regarding the war as something of a necessity.
Autarky: Achievement only possible under strict National Socialist leadership of the State, which is assumed. Accepting its achievement as possible, the following could be stated as results:
- A. In the field of raw materials only limited, not total, autarky.
- 1) In regard to coal, so far as it could be considered as a source of raw materials, autarky was possible;
- 2) In regard to ores, the position was much more difficult. Iron requirements can be met from home resources and similarly with light metals, but with other raw materials – copper or tin – this was not the case.
- 3) Synthetic textile requirements can be met from home resources to the limit of timber supplies. A permanent solution impossible.
- 4) Edible fats-possible.
- B. In the field of food the question of autarky was to be answered by a flat "No."
- With the general rise in the standard of living compared with that of 30 to 40 years ago, there has gone hand in hand an increased demand and an increased home consumption even on the part of the producers, the farmers. The fruits of the increased agricultural production had all gone to meet the increased demand, and so did not represent an absolute production increase. A further increase in production by making greater demands on the soil, which already, in consequence of the use of artificial fertilizers, was showing signs of exhaustion, was hardly possible, and it was therefore certain that even with the maximum increase in production, participation in world trade was unavoidable. The not inconsiderable expenditure of foreign exchange to insure food supplies by imports, even when harvests were good, grew to catastrophic proportions with bad harvests. The possibility of a disaster grew in proportion to the increase in population, in which, too, the excess of births of 560,000 annually produced, as a consequence, an even further increase in bread consumption, since a child was a greater bread consumer than an adult.
- It was not possible over the long run, in a continent enjoying a practically common standard of living, to meet the food supply difficulties by lowering that standard and by rationalization. Since, with the solving of the unemployment problem, the maximum consumption level had been reached, some minor modifications in our home agricultural production might still, no doubt, be possible, but no fundamental alteration was possible in our basic food position. Thus autarky was untenable in regard both to food and to the economy as a whole.
Indeed, the economic arguments appear to all but guarantee a war-as a result of fears for food supplies being reliant upon foreign trade in a world dominated by British-policed sea trade lanes:
"There was a pronounced military weakness in those states which depended for their existence on foreign trade. As our foreign trade was carried on over the sea routes dominated by Britain, it was more a question of security of transport than one of foreign exchange, which revealed, in time of war, the full weakness of our food situation. The only remedy, and one which might appear to us as visionary, lay in the acquisition of greater living space – a quest which has at all times been the origin of the formation of states and of the migration of peoples."
The second part of the document detailed three 'contingencies' that Hitler would take if certain situations prevailed in Europe, purportedly in order to ensure the security of the Reich. Beyond that, Hitler claimed that two “hate-inspired antagonists", namely Britain and France, were blocking German foreign policy goals at every turn, and sometime in the next five years or so, Germany would have to achieve autarky by seizing Eastern Europe to prepare for a possible war with the British and the French.
After the conference, three of the attendees, Blomberg, Fritsch and Neurath, all argued that the foreign policy Hitler had outlined was too risky – Germany needed more time to re-arm. Additionally, they stated that the "contingencies" Hitler described as the prerequisite for war were too unlikely to occur: such as the apparent certainty expressed in the document, of the Spanish Civil War leading to a Franco-Italian war in the Mediterranean or that France was on the verge of civil war. Moreover, it was argued any German aggression in Eastern Europe was bound to trigger a war with France because of the French alliance system in Eastern Europe, the so-called Cordon sanitaire, and if a Franco-German war broke out, then Britain was almost certain to intervene rather than risk the prospect of France’s defeat. Thus, any German attack on the states of Eastern Europe, like Czechoslovakia, was likely to embroil Germany in war not only with the Czechoslovaks, but also with the British and the French before Germany was fully re-armed and ready for war with the other "Great Powers". As such, Fritsch, Blomberg and Neurath advised Hitler to wait until Germany had more time to re-arm before pursuing a high-risk strategy of pursuing localized wars that was likely to trigger a general war before Germany was ready for such a war (none of those present at the conference had any moral objections to Hitler’s strategy, with which they were in basic agreement; only the question of timing divided them) By February 1938, Neurath, Fritsch and Blomberg had been removed from their positions. Some historians, such as Sir John Wheeler-Bennett and William L. Shirer, believed that Blomberg, Fritsch and Neurath were removed because of their opposition to the plans expressed in the Hossbach memorandum.
The accuracy of the Hossbach memorandum is in question, as the minutes were drawn up five days after the event by Hossbach, partially from notes he took at the meeting and partially from memory. Also, Hitler did not review the minutes of the meeting, instead insisting, as he commonly did, that he was too busy to bother with such small details. The British historian A.J.P. Taylor contended that the manuscript used by the prosecution in the Nuremberg Trials appeared to be a shortened version of the original, as it had passed through the US Army prior to arriving at the trial. Taylor drew attention to one thing that the memorandum can be used to prove; “Goering, Raeder and Neurath had sat by and approved of Hitler’s aggressive plans,” but this does not necessarily mean that Hitler laid down his plans for the domination of Europe: there was no active decision to start a war made in the memorandum, just a decision about when war would be practical. However, Hitler did make mention of the wish for increased armaments.
Taylor attempted to discredit the document by using the fact that the future annexations described in the 'contingencies' were unlike those that occurred in 1939, but opposing historians, such as Taylor's arch-rival, Hugh Trevor-Roper, have pointed out that the memorandum still demonstrated an intention for adding Austria, Czechoslovakia, Lithuania and Poland to the Reich. Taylor also stipulated that the meeting was most likely a piece of internal politics, pointing out that Hitler could have been trying to encourage the gathering's members to put pressure on Reich Minister of Economics and President of the Reichsbank, Dr. Hjalmar Schacht, to release more funding for Germany's re-armament. In fact Schacht soon resigned in protest at the preeminence of re-armament in Nazi economics. Contending historians have also pointed out that re-armament is an integral part of preparation for conflict. In response, Taylor argued that Hitler's policy was one of bluff (he wished to re-arm Germany so as to frighten and intimidate other states) to allow him to achieve his foreign policy goals without going to war.
In addition, Taylor argued that most of the 'contingencies' Hitler listed as the prerequisite for war, such as an outbreak of civil war in France or the Spanish Civil War leading to a war between Italy and France in the Mediterranean, did not occur. Trevor-Roper countered this criticism by arguing that Hitler expressed an intention to go to war sooner rather than later, and it was Hitler's intentions in foreign policy in late 1937 as opposed to his precise plans at a later moment in history that really mattered.
- Aigner, Dietrich “Hitler’s Ultimate Aims” pages 251–266 from Aspects of the Third Reich edited by H.W. Koch, Macmillan Press: London, United Kingdom, 1985 page 264
- Messerschmidt, Manfred “Foreign Policy and Preparation for War” from Germany and the Second World War pages 636–637; Carr, William Arms, Autarchy and Aggression pages 73–78
- Robertson, E.M. Hitler's Pre-War Policy and Military Plans page 106
- Hildebrand, Klaus The Foreign Policy of the Third Reich page 42.
- Hillgruber, Andreas "England's Place In Hitler's Plans for World Dominion" pages 5–22 from Journal of Contemporary History, Volume 9, 1974 pages 13–14
- Hossbach Memorandum Berlin, 10 November 1937
- Weinberg, Gerhard The Foreign Policy of Hitler's Germany Starting World War II University of Chicago Press: Chicago, Illinois, United States of America, 1980 pages 39–40
- Weinberg, Gerhard The Foreign Policy of Hitler's Germany Starting World War II University of Chicago Press: Chicago, Illinois, United States of America, 1980 pages 39–40.
- Taylor, A.J.P. The Origins of the Second World War, Greenwich, Conn.: Fawcett Publications, Inc., 1965 (see especially pages 266–68 & 278–93.
- Trevor-Roper, Hugh "A. J. P. Taylor, Hitler and the War" pages 86–96 from Encounter, Volume 17, July 1961.
- Overy, Richard. "Misjudging Hitler: A. J. P. Taylor and the Third Reich", 1999.