The 1930s bgan with the effects of the great depression dominating the agendas of all major and developing countries with soup kitchens the only refuge for many of the working classes and beyond. Germany suffered worst, Britain not as badly as most. Both countries were to recover but in entirely different ways.
Hitler’s accession to power saw the beginning of a policy whereby, with the guidance of a financial genius, Hjalmar Schacht, he bucked the orthodoxy of recovery from depression by several means, mainly by the tactic of deficit spending. This put people to work using money borrowed from banks and big business, mainly American sourced. The infrastructure and agriculture received most attention, with the world’s first motorway built – the Munich to Berlin autobahn – and the peoples’ car, the Volkswagen, built in quantity. Workers paid tax instead of receiving benefits and the economy grew. More revenue was gathered by confiscation of assets from Jews and others which would later be augmented by seizure of assets, produce and gold reserves from invaded countries which would continue, together with slave labour, until the middle of the following decade. In total defiance of the Versailles terms he began the building of his massive military capability much of it in total secrecy. His Luftwaffe was built largely in underground factories, not all of them in Germany. His naval units, limited to standard cruisers, were surreptitiously turned out much larger and with heavier armament. The British later referred to them as pocket battleships. The army simply grew in widespread garrisons and would become counted in millions and be very well equipped.
In Britain a laissez faire attitude prevailed. Two periods of National Government, one led by Ramsay MacDonald, the second by Stanley Baldwin were followed by a Conservative return to power under Baldwin.
Parliament and in particular, Baldwin himself, were engaged in three weighty problems in the ’30s’. Disaffection was growing in India with the British presence being challenged by two England-trained lawyers, Mahatma Gandhi and Jarwaharial Nehru. The most voluble voice disputing their fitness for self-government was that of Winston Churchill. This, followed by his backing for King Edward VIII during the abdication crisis left him isolated in Parliament in what became known as his ‘wilderness years’. His most passionate cause though began in 1934 with his repeated warnings about the danger of ignoring the threat posed by Nazi Germany. Though labelled as a warmonger by many in the House and the country at large. the government belatedly realised that there was much substance to his case and at least started to build forces , especially RAF Fighter Command, to react when the time came, as Churchill’s prescience had predicted.
Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister, travelled three times to Germany in the hope of restraining Hitler’s ambitions in Europe by a process of appeasement, even returning to Britain finally with Hitler’s promise of no further armed incursions into neighbouring countries. The prime minister had been duped. World War II was declared against Germany on September 3rd, 1939 after Hitler threw the weight of his Luftwaffe and Wehrmacht against Poland.