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We think of Adolf Hitler, rightly, as hell-bent on genocide and world conquest. But what if, after his rise to power, he had behaved with the combination of opportunism and discretion characteristic of many other authoritarian leaders of the 1930s? With just a few departures from the path of what occurred historically, such a scenario is surprisingly easy to imagine:

In 1933 Hitler becomes chancellor of the Weimar Republic. Just 43 years old, he is the driving force behind the National Socialist German Worker’s Party (NSDAP), a political juggernaut that in 10 short years has risen from cabal to mass movement. Fiercely nationalist and anti-Communist in its domestic policy, the NSDAP seeks to weld the German people into a tight community where NSDAP ideology reigns supreme. Its foreign policy seeks to overturn the Treaty of Versailles peace settlement that has shorn Germany of territory, demilitarized its Rhineland, stripped it of a navy and air force, reduced its army to 100,000 men, and burdened it with reparations.

Within a year, Hitler consolidates his grip on power. He then systematically pursues a scheme of Erfüllung—fulfillment—whereby Germany will regain its rightful place in the European order. “First we must get the throttler from our throat,” Hitler tells his inner circle. Then they must achieve complete success by “being crafty.”

Hitler is indeed crafty. He capitalizes on the knowledge that the victors of the Great War are having second thoughts about the Versailles settlement. Historically, many American, British, and (to a lesser extent) French leaders agreed that certain terms of the treaty were unfair; the Allies greatly reduced the amount of reparations in the mid-1920s, and in 1932, France and Britain permitted Germany to suspend payments entirely. Hitler shrewdly exploits this disenchantment to further adjust the settlement.

He proposes a plan for multilateral disarmament and, when Britain and France predictably reject it, uses their refusal to justify a buildup of the German armed forces. He announces full-scale conscription and the reestablishment of an air force. The Allies shrug. But the revival of the armed forces gives Hitler something his predecessors have lacked: military leverage to back an increasingly forceful diplomacy.

Even as he moves to dismantle the Versailles settlement, Hitler carefully cloaks his foreign policy in its language. “Self-determination”—the right of peoples of similar ethnicity to govern themselves—was a fundamental principle of the settlement, yet its terms forbid Austria, the German-speaking rump of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, from any political connection with Germany. Hitler first engineers a customs union with Austria—a technical violation of the treaty. When this meets no resistance he announces the Anschluss, or incorporation, of Austria into Germany: something Austrian leaders have resisted, but most Austrians have long desired.

Hitler then turns his gaze toward the Sudetenland, a region of western Czechoslovakia inhabited by 3.25 million ethnic Germans. Like Poland and several other Eastern European states, Hitler observes, Czechoslovakia owes its existence to the settlement’s restructuring of boundaries to accord with self-determination, yet the Sudeten Germans have been forced into a union with the Czechs and the Slovaks.

In April 1938 Konrad Heinlein, a leading spokesman for Sudeten Germans, presents the Czech government with demands that include internal autonomy. That government offers significant concessions, then abruptly mobilizes its army in response to a perceived massing of Hitler’s army along the German-Czechoslovakian border. This triggers the provisions of a military alliance between France and Czechoslovakia. France warns Germany not to intervene in the Sudetenland dispute.

Hitler calmly but firmly responds: Although committed to keeping the peace, he cannot ignore the legitimacy of the Sudeten Germans’ demands. In any case it is the Czech government, not his own, that has mobilized for war. Horrified, British prime minister Neville Chamberlain ponders his nation’s military obligations to France. Fearing that Britain will once again be dragged into war on the Continent by a minor quarrel in Eastern Europe, he forces the recalcitrant Czech government to accede to the Sudetenland’s union with Germany.

Flushed with success, Hitler next targets the Polish Corridor, a strip of territory the Versailles settlement had taken from Germany to provide Poland with an outlet to the Baltic Sea. This provision also violates the principle of self-determination, especially with regard to the overwhelmingly German population of Danzig—so much that the treaty’s framers declined to attach this major port city to Poland but instead declared it a “free city.”

This time things go awry. Poland resists, and Britain and France, although quietly hopeful for a diplomatic solution, think that Hitler is moving too fast and too forcefully. To buttress Poland’s bargaining position they guarantee the integrity of its borders, confident that this move will signal to Hitler that he must back down. But Britain and France do not have the geographical ability to defend Poland directly. To get at Germany they must cross the demilitarized Rhineland, a move that Hitler’s propaganda machine could easily place in a bad light. And the German army can readily defend the Rhine River.

Firm in his belief that the Franco-British guarantee is a bluff, Hitler arranges a border incident as a pretext for an invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, gambling that a limited war will not only secure the Polish Corridor but also Upper Silesia, another region of Germany given to Poland under the Versailles settlement. He is genuinely surprised when, two days later, Britain and France honor their guarantee, albeit reluctantly, and declare war.

The above scenario closely resembles what actually happened in the 1930s. The chief departures are several omissions: the rabid racism that characterized the historical NSDAP, better known as the Nazi Party; the reoccupation of the Rhineland in March 1936; and the Nazi seizure of rump Czechoslovakia in March 1939. The other major change is the fact that the Erfüllung scheme flowed not from the mind of Adolf Hitler, but from that of Gustav Stresemann, who for much of the 1920s served Germany as chancellor and foreign minister before his premature death in 1929 at age 51. (The remark about removing “the throttler” from Germany’s throat is not Hitler’s either, but Stresemann’s.)

Stresemann was no Hitler. He acquired world renown as a voice for conciliation and even received the Nobel Peace Prize. But in his desire to destroy the Versailles settlement, Stresemann resembled not just Hitler but virtually every German leader of the interwar period. It follows that a series of diplomatic collisions with France and Great Britain would have been inevitable, no matter who led Germany. At some point a miscalculation would likely have converted diplomatic challenge into military confrontation. Thus, even if Hitler had behaved merely as a canny statesman like Stresemann rather than a rapacious monster, the 1930s would probably have ended in a second world war.