Was it the rule back then "if you start a war for no reason, you should die"?

I know that it was a question for the Nuremberg trial, but was there an informal rule that "starting wars has personal consequences"?


1 Answer 1


Frame challenge: it is very unlikely he was thinking in those terms.

Firstly, he did not believe that he was starting a large war when he invaded Poland. He thought that France and the UK would either not go to war, or make peace after he conquered the part of Poland that he'd agreed with the USSR he'd take. In fact, both the UK and France declared war on 3rd September 1939, although they did not stage significant land attacks on Germany.

Since France and the UK had accepted all his previous acquisitions, and, in the case of the Munich Agreement of September 1938, pressured other countries to do the same, his assumption wasn't crazy. He'd failed to understand that his seizure of the rest of the Czech lands in March 1939 had been taken as proof that none of his promises meant anything, and the only way to stop him was war. Nazi views of democratic states as inherently weak, as repeated to him by Ribbentrop, his Foreign Minister since February 1938, meant that he was unlikely to understand the change, or to consider it significant if he had grasped it.

Secondly, he did not think losing was a plausible consequence of events. He took half of Poland, Denmark, Norway, The Netherlands, Belgium and France without any major difficulties. Had he stopped there, and avoided war with the USSR and USA, he might well have been able to consolidate his empire, and then embark on further conquests after a decade or so. However, he didn't do those things. Elements in that decision may have included:

  • Hitler's growing belief in the propaganda that he was the greatest conqueror of modern history. When your achievements to date are so large, and all your generals are telling you that you're amazing, it can't have been hard to believe.
  • Hitler's sense of his own mortality. He was in his fifties, and not in great health. If you believe in your own destiny, it's hard to see reasons to delay.

The British refused to make peace with him, reckoning that peace would allow him to grow stronger. He attacked the USSR, because that was always his primary, ideological enemy, and felt Stalin would attack him if left alone. He was likely right about that, if Stalin had been given a couple of years to build up and re-organise his forces. He expected the USSR to collapse when attacked, and so did the British and the Americans: many people were surprised when that collapse did not happen in 1941, and some expected it in 1942.

Ribbentrop, adding to his achievements, tried to get the Japanese to attack the USSR. They were not interested, having tried that in 1932-39, and decided they didn't want any more. Once it was clear that they would not attack the USSR, Ribbentrop pushed them to attack the USA. They did so, of course, largely for their own reasons, and Hitler declared war on America too. He seriously under-estimated the preparations the US had already made for mobilisation and war production, and seems to have believed that the US would need all of its arms production for its own use against Japan. The idea that it could increase arms supply to Britain as well as arming its own forces, and put major forces into the field against both Germany and Japan simultaneously seems to have been beyond what Hitler's regime could imagine or accept.

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    You have said an awful lot of things here, some of which may well be true. But you have supplied no citational evidence.. (Though the question is not one that any historian could answer - unless they stumbled upon a piece of direct evidence, which is extremely unlikely ever to be available.) I take issue with the idea that Hitler thought France would not go to war. What did he think would happen when Germany invaded that country? He probably thought he would get a deal with Britain, and was possibly surprised when the latter entered an alliance with the USSR.
    – WS2
    Oct 9, 2022 at 2:33
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    France had not gone to war over the Rhineland in '36 or Czechoslovakia in '38. Not sure what you take issue with here? That people might have thought that actions of the past might predict actions of the future?
    – nvoigt
    Oct 9, 2022 at 7:37
  • What I take issue with, is the first sentence of the questioner's second paragraph. He says "[Hitler] didn't think France would go to war". Well France didn't until it was attacked. The Rhineland and Czechoslovakia were not parts of France. When German troops came across the Meuse in May 1940, and began blitzkreiging their way to Paris it was an altogether different matter. The French army had no option but to fight.
    – WS2
    Oct 9, 2022 at 20:32
  • @WS2: France declared war against Germany on 3rd September 1939, although they did not do very much about it. Hitler seems to have thought that the British and French ultimatums were bluffs, or that they would make peace. Oct 9, 2022 at 20:51

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