The Course of Rearmament before the Second World War

After the First World War wrought its bloody course, the statesmen of Europe and the world began to come to conclusions about its origins. Many of these – well intentioned analyses to a fault – centred on the ideas of ‘power politics’, conceptions of militarism and imperialism, and the notion that arms races cause wars. The Anglo-German naval race of the early twentieth century, as well as its continental equivalents, was held to be the harbinger of future conflict. It was therefore determined that large concentrations of arms should be avoided; that nations should be disarmed – by force if necessary; and that another arms race could not be allowed to occur. All of these aspirations were to fail before the end of the 1930s. Not only did apparent instruments of international peace fail; they also were unable to prevent the coming rearmament, which was built upon a new and ultimately more volatile global order.


In Germany, the nation which was to start the next war, there was limited rearmament even before Hitler came to power; Weimar wanted to beat the terms of Versailles. Under the terms of the Treaty of Rapallo in 1922, Germany worked with the USSR to develop tanks; furthermore, submarines were designed in Sweden, and aeroplanes were produced in the Netherlands. The “Deutschland” class pocket-battleships were another example of this national trait, each of them being both a triumph of engineering and a naked challenge to the apparently peaceful European order. The final governments to rule before the ascent of Hitler managed to persuade Western nations to agree to the cutting down of reparations at Lacarno in 1925; and Germany was given ‘equality of rights’ at the World Disarmament Conference in February 1932. Germany did increase military spending under Weimar, though. In November 1932, the German state planned for large increases in military spending.

Then Hitler came to power. Hitler said that he was not bound by the post-war treaties. In 1935 he reintroduced conscription and created (or rather announced the existence of) the Luftwaffe. But all of this, rather cleverly, was carried out in phases; by distributing veteran soldiers among new conscripts, Hitler made seven divisions into 21 divisions, and that total into 63 divisions. This allowed quality to be maintained and avoided the creation of too many bottlenecks in the production of this new army. Rearmament of the Luftwaffe was different; it was expanded very rapidly indeed, and the size of Hitler’s air force was even exaggerated; he and his generals used it as a means of creating fear, and this was used like a weapon.

Some argue that Hitler had a long term ‘programme’ to defeat France and Russia, build up a large navy and make a bid for world power. It was known as the Stufenplan. Other historians argue that he was purely opportunist in his actions; the classic exponent of this argument was A. J. P. Taylor, whose Origins of the Second World War paints Hitler as an entirely opportunistic politician.  Alan Bullock surmised that Hitler had consistency of aim, but his route was entirely opportunistic.

Hitler soon ordered the production of a large number of warplanes. He recognised how scared his neighbours were of such a large air force; this strategy was a little like the Riskflotten which created such animosity between Britain and Germany in the years immediately preceding the First World War. He demanded ‘equality of numbers’, and therefore Germany withdrew from the Geneva Disarmament Conference when this idea was rebuffed.

Hitler went public in March 1935; he said that the army would expand his army to 500,000 men and that he would introduce conscription. He formally announced the fact that Luftwaffe existed and said that it was larger than it was; again, this was designed to sow fear and discord among Germany’s enemies. In a narrow sense it worked perfectly.

The Stresa Front of April 1935 was the agreement between Britain, France and Italy not to permit the unilateral changing of the post-war peace treaties. The clear target of this was Germany, but it is interesting in this regard; in June 1935, Italy invaded Abyssinia and became a violator of the post-war peace dividend (this irony was not lost on commentators at the time, many of whom reviled the proposed the Hoare-Laval Pact, which might have salvaged a corner of Abyssinia from Italian aggression).

Also in June 1935 came the Anglo-German Naval Agreement. Germany agreed to have a navy 35% the size of the Royal Navy, expect in submarines, where she would have parity. This allowed Hitler to appear constructive (he would later repudiate the treaty after it had served its purpose). The British gave in to German wishes; it was a bilateral breaking of other post-war peace treaties, many of which restricted the accumulation of arms. The French were not terribly happy at this development.

The decisive phase – the Four Year Plan – came in 1936; the German army was set to expand dramatically, which would essentially bring the army back to Great War strength, and alongside it would be a vastly expanded Luftwaffe. The Hossbach Memorandum of 1937 represented the army and air force ‘ganging up’, according to Adam Tooze. Hitler assumed that Germany must be ready for war in 1939. In practice that meant a decision in favour of the Wehrmacht and the Luftwaffe; both were to become national and economic priorities. (This supports the idea that Hitler was following some kind of blueprint for war.) Other historians, however, suggest that this is not the case; they argue that Hitler came up with scenarios – the Spanish Civil War spreading into France or an economic crisis and a shortage of food necessitating war – which could cause a war to break out. None of these were correct.

Tooze suggests that Hitler saw war as inevitable because of his Social Darwinist beliefs. Hitler thought that the nation was at war even before one was declared. In material, cultural and economic terms Hitler thought Germany at war with local and international rivals; and he also thought war advantageous. Tooze states that Hitler wanted a war and was upset when one didn’t come about in 1938.

But in 1939, it can be surmised that the Germans were simply not ready for war. Tooze states that Hitler didn’t mind; the alternatives were worse; the World Jewish Conspiracy, Hitler thought, was changing and becoming American. (An important source for studying Hitler’s foreign policy is the unpublished sequel to Mein Kampf; Zweites Buch spoke of a grand war against the United States, in which the Germanic nations would ally together to face this apparently ultimate threat.)

Germany can be seen to have initiated all of this. And Hitler can be seen to have had the initiative. The month after Britain announced yet another scheme for expanding the nation’s air defences, Hitler reoccupied the Rhineland, changing the face of the strategic game.


British rearmament, by contrast, did not begin in earnest until 1936. 1932 represented a low point in British defence spending. Rearmament began – at least in part – as a consequence of Japanese action. After the Manchurian invasion in 1931, Britain could no longer pretend that there was not going to be a war. The Ten Year Rule had to be abandoned; it assumed that the Foreign Office could predict the world situation in ten years, and that ministers would take it seriously. The chiefs of staff wrote a report in which they stated bluntly that Britain could have been forced to fight Japan in as little as a single day. In 1933 they made the same point again; by that time it was hard to argue that something would stop the multitudinous problems gathering on the horizon.

The government therefore instituted the Defence Requirements Sub-Committee. It was very powerful, comprising the head of each service, the Cabinet Secretary and the under-secretary at the Treasury. Their brief was to find the ‘worst deficiencies’ in Britain’s already overstretched defence, which covered both national security and the safety of a burgeoning overseas empire; this was all very complex, as can be demonstrated in the findings of the committee.

In its first report in 1934, the DRC assumed that the main priorities of British policy were, first, the Far East; second, the protection of India; and, third, the security of Europe. It also assumed that five years seemed like a reasonable gap before war would break out. The final assumption was that Japan was ‘the most immediate threat’ but that Germany was the ‘ultimate long-term threat’. Germany was in a class of her own in terms of threat due to geography; after all, only Germany could threaten the United Kingdom – the very British Isles – with relative ease.

The programme included the modernisation of ships and the completion of Singapore’s naval base in 1939; the Army got the BEF – to keep the Germans out of Belgium and the Netherlands in order to stop them bombing the mainland – and anti-aircraft guns; the RAF was afforded an increase in the Home Defence Squadrons. The cost was set at £75 million over five years. It was balanced, sound and affordable. ‘Moral disarmament’ was seen as the ‘worst deficiency’.

Neville Chamberlain simply took it apart; he was the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and financial matters were his metier. He said the plan was too big; he said that the British public would accept spending on the RAF and BEF but not the Royal Navy. He cut it to £50 million and spread it over 10 years rather than five. The RAF got to expand at the expense of other services.

The DRC then came up with another report, in 1935. It said that the government needed to accelerate everything. More aircraft were needed, it said; this was to be a common refrain. The third DRC report came out in 1936. It was decisive. It looked at war with Germany, Japan and Italy; the report contained a stark warning: Britain could not win this coming war. Therefore, it suggested, appeasement was a good idea.

At this point it said also that rearmament was necessary, and not just in terms of repairing deficiencies. It suggested the Navy wanted a new Two Power Standard, one which required seven new battleships, five cruisers a year and four new aircraft carriers. The Army wanted a BEF backed by reserves. The RAF wanted 1,736 aircraft with full reserves by 1939. It also wanted shadow factories, all the better to avoid total annihilation in the coming air war – and this was a proposition which was never far from the mind; witness the film Things to Come, which was based on the novel by H. G. Wells, and which begins with a catastrophic, civilisation-destroying bombing raid.

In February 1936, the Cabinet accepted this latest report, but the naval expansion had to be kept quiet; and only two battleships could be begun before April 1937. The Army would get the desired BEF, but not the reserves it had requested. The RAF, which had mutated into a catch-all defence mechanism, got more or less everything it had requested.

These reports set the parameters for rearmament; after all, Germany was seen as a threat from the beginning, and the RAF was therefore a priority. The Army was, to an extent, completely sidelined. Rearmament and appeasement were complementary for some of the time; there was also the incorrect assumption that Germany could be deterred. A second assumption was that Britain would be better in a longer war than a shorter war; this was not, however, true in the Second World War.

British rearmament, it must be remembered, was predicated on the notion of deterrence. Only in the latter period of the period ‘preparatory to war’ did Britain prepare for actual war fighting. In March 1939 the Navy was allocated money to build convoy escorts; no navy in the world would buy them in peacetime. This is the best indication that Britain was thinking about war at this point. It was to be a fundamental commitment to the war which was ever-likely to erupt in the very near future.


France, like many European nations, had terrible domestic problems in the 1920s and 30s. Foreign policy became more political, for one. There were a profusion of factions, all of whom thought their interpretation the best and their enemies the embodiment of international pariah-states, such as the USSR and Germany. The pacifist Left held sway, but there was also another faction: the anti-fascist Left, which wanted a war with Nazism. There was, furthermore, an expansion in the support for the ‘realist Right’, which suggested that, since the First World War had been such a catastrophe, France must accept her status as a second-rate power. Some suggested that France needed allies; others said that it was a bad idea to ally with anyone and be dragged into their wars as a result. There was also an anti-German Right, which considered Germany an eternal threat to France seemed to portray as justified the pursuit of alliance with anyone. A final faction was the anti-communist Right, which said that the real threat to France was communism; its leaders thought that Hitler was a defence against the westward tide of potential communists. With this politically fractured set up, consensus was very hard to construct.

Another problem France had was the apparently poor state of its generals, who planned, in essence, to re-fight the last war. They decided to sit back, using overwhelming firepower to destroy German soldiers until they were weak enough to attack. This defensive doctrine was essentially counterproductive. The Maginot Line – which did not cover the whole border (it would be difficult to pay for it and would alienate Belgium) and was more of a force multiplier than a defensive frontier, making forces ‘go further’ – did not work in practice. It was also incredibly expensive, and its construction stopped the French from modernising the rest of their army. The French air force was the largest in the world in the 1920s, but the French produced fewer planes when they modernised their stock; their economy was also entirely stagnant. Daladier was told in 1938 that the French air force would be wiped out within two weeks of war with Germany.

France had allied with Poland (1921), Czechoslovakia (1925), and even the USSR (1935). But she did not help the Polish in 1939; the defensive doctrine simply did not allow it. The French also needed Britain, but they did not act accordingly, as they thought that Britain agreed with the conclusion that it had to fight.

When Hitler reoccupied the Rhineland in 1936, France did nothing militarily. It was a clear violation of Versailles, but the French could not afford to mobilise their army. And the French did not even have a government. The French waited for Britain to act, but Britain thought that since France did not act, she didn’t need to do. This lack of co-operation and sense was to have immensely damaging consequences.

Daladier thought personally that Poland was next and that Hitler wanted to attack westward, but he was also very pessimistic, not allowing himself – for example – to think of France as ready to fight. When he got back from the airport after Munich, there was a crowd cheering; he, knowing better, called them ‘fools’.

After Munich, France reasserted itself; she did not like Chamberlain’s plan of appeasing Mussolini with bits of France such as Nice, Tunisia, Corsica and so on. But she had effectively run out of options by September 1939.


Italy also undertook rearmament, but (i) Mussolini’s ambition overtook Italy’s ability to rearm; (ii) some of his foreign policy decisions made it harder to rearm, taking vital resources away from the business of rearmament; and (iii) it also became increasingly clear that Italy would do little more than play second fiddle to Germany.

Fascist propaganda was heavily militaristic, even as far back as 1922. Mussolini was not militaristic in the way Hitler was, though; there was no initial sense of national and racial superiority. Mussolini was not too keen on war with his neighbours; a lot of his act was flamboyant and concerned with little more than show – and a war would not work in that situation.

In the 1920s, Italy set distance records for airship and seaplane voyages. It was an attempt at wresting from other nations the appearance of modernity. Mussolini declaration the creation of of ‘8 million bayonets’, which was intended to symbolise the power of his military; but while the Italians could find the men, they were not able to find the equipment. Other people built tanks; the Italians relied on the tiny CV33 ‘tankettes’ – glorified armoured cars with 8mm thick armour. Aircraft were designed, but they were not bought or manufactured. In 1940-41, many Italian aircraft were still biplanes.

The Italian navy was better, but it was still unable to compete with the biggest military powers. In 1941, the Italians attempted to run a convoy from Italy to Libya; the Royal Navy sunk six ships – including two heavy cruisers – using radar rather than sight.

The invasion of Abyssinia was also a huge waste of resources. It required a quarter of a million men. They did win the territory, but it was not a victory in the conventional sense. A vast amount of resources was required; there were serious deficiencies in domestic rearmament. Italy sent 50,000 men to fight in the Spanish Civil War, and it did so for no discernable reward.

Things were just as bad on the international stage. In 1934, Mussolini was able to stop and Anschluss; by 1938, however, there was nothing he could do. In June 1940, he declared war on Britain and France; the resolution was either to ally with Germans when they win, or await defeat by Germany in time. Mussolini told his generals that Italy was either ‘friends of Germany or her next victim’. This was not a position of strength.


Stalin was worried about the strength of his nation as early as 1927. Poland elected a very right-wing government in that year; the USSR ran war games assuming that there would be some form of attacking German-Polish alliance on the horizon. Stalin’s response was super-industrialisation; but it was only the third Five-Year Plan of 1938-41 which tackled substantial rearmament. Many of the new factories which this industrialisation created were located east of the Urals, out of bombing range. The result of that was that by 1940 the Red Army was the biggest army in the world, with more tanks and aircraft than every other nation added together. But about a third of everything did not work; a lot of it was broken, or in disrepair, or in a state of abject uselessness.

Diplomatically, Stalin definitely responded to the perceived threat from Hitler. In 1934 the USSR joined the League of Nations; its leaders had opposed it before then for a long time (Lenin even called it a ‘Robbers’ League’). In 1935 the USSR allied with Czechoslovakia – even though they did not share a land border. Stalin also ordered COMINTERN to cooperate with non-communists.

In the Spanish Civil War, Stalin assisted in the formation of International Brigades against the Nationalists and for the Republicans. He also sent military advisors and money. In 1939 he held out the prospect of an alliance with Britain and France; whether he was serious remains disputed. Britain sent an admiral, Drax, to discuss terms – but the mission was marred by absurdity. For one thing, Stalin’s purges made Britain and France worry about his value as an ally; and Poland was adamant that there was to be no alliance with the Soviets.

Stalin made a deal with Hitler in August 1939. Stalin’s thinking was that a war between France, Britain and Germany would be a long one, and that this would allow the USSR to rearm and acquire a strong position. Obviously this was proven wrong by events, but it is not difficult to imagine Stalin, still effectively fighting wars within his own nation, celebrating this new and ultimately transient security.


Japanese rearmament began earliest of all; by 1931, the Japanese military had a stranglehold on the government. 1936 contained the February 26 Incident, in which young officers failed successfully to carry out a coup against the government. The significance of the armed forces was enhanced by a militarised population – there was a civilian uniform; rationing was introduced in the 1930s to free up resources for the military; stockpiling of scrap metal was encouraged; the 1931 Manchuria Crisis, initiated by the Japanese Army, made the nation more attentive to military matters; and the walking out of the London Naval Agreement and the League of Nations stoked nationalistic tendencies. By 1938, Japan was spending 50 per cent of its GDP on rearmament, up from 23 per cent in 1933.

Japan’s big problem was that it began further operations in China; but this was not to be helped, to an extent. There was a belief that Japan’s problems could only be solved by military expansion – and this was bound to lead to war in one form or another.


The United States, by contrast, did no real rearmament until 1939. As late as 1938, she was spending only 1 per cent of her GDP on defence. That rose to 13 per cent in 1940, as there was a perception that the US was preparing to be drawn into the European war. Most of the 1920s and 30s was focussed on the navy, however; after the Washington Naval Treaty, the US navy could be the size of the Royal Navy, but most of the money went on maintaining naval bases; it was political, as the US has a long coastline, and no state wanted to lose its bases. There were more bases than ships at one point. The bases meant that the US had a great capacity to build ships, but they did not have many ships at the outbreak of the war. This is not a shock when one considers the prevailing isolationist mood which predominated the US political sphere.


There were, in many cases, good reasons for rearmament. It could be a tool for increased employment, a necessary stepping stone to self-defence and security, and even a vehicle for increasing national prestige abroad. Such sentiments are not shared today. But I would caution against condemnation – and especially vehemently if they were attached to similar logic to that which followed the First World War. History has no real predictive power; and perhaps because of that reason, we will never definitively know whether the old saying was right – whether, in other words, arms races cause wars. This is ultimately unknowable; but I would like to venture to give an answer. The responsibility for the Second World War lies on its instigators: the fascist and revisionist powers. To denude them of agency by suggesting that attempts to rearm – many of which were sensible – would be folly. Arms races do not cause wars, after all; people do.

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