Book Review of What Hitler Knew: The Battle for Information in Nazi Foreign Policy

Zachary Shore. What Hitler Knew: The Battle for Information in Nazi Foreign Policy. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. ISBN 978-0-19-515459-7. Photographs. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Pp. xi, 159.

Zachary ShoreThis is an interesting study of information flow, or the lack of it, in the making of Nazi foreign policy.  Dr Zachary Shore, Associate Professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School at Monterey and a Senior Fellow at the Institute of European Studies, University of California at Berkeley, argues the importance of information control during the Third Reich and its impact on decision-making in German foreign policy.  The study is the published version of Shore’s doctoral thesis in modern history titled “Dictatorship, Information, and the Limits of Power: Hitler and Foreign Policy Decision Making, 1933-1939” (University of Oxford, 1999).  Shore is also known for his Breeding Bin Ladens: America, Islam, and the Future of Europe (2006) and Blunder: Why Smart People Make Bad Decisions (2008).

This study looks at several issues and how they unfolded.  Shore is most interested in the manner in which certain German officials received, controlled, and forwarded information.  He argues that there was a gradual breakdown in the traditional decision-making process in the German government from 1933 to 1939.  In its place, certain advisors manipulated the flow of information, limiting what Hitler knew, to keep, and possibly increase, their influence with the Führer.  Hitler did not have the “full picture” when making decisions.  Strange enough, as the author points out, Hitler was the one who created the system, one full of competition between government agencies that kept him ill-informed.

Shore describes information flow during several important foreign policy decisions.  In April 1933, German Foreign Ministry officials, especially Bernhard Wilhelm von Bülow, the State Secretary, had knowledge of a possible Polish preemptive military strike against a still vulnerable Germany (p.19).  The ministry also received reports of secret Polish-Romanian-Soviet alliance talks.  As such, Bülow and the Foreign Ministry, armed with such knowledge, guided Hitler’s anti-Polish position, especially the desire to regain Danzig, towards improving German-Polish relations.  The Foreign Ministry was instrumental in the decision to negotiate the German-Polish nonaggression pact of January 1934.

In another episode, Shore describes the role of the German Foreign Minister Constantin Freiherr von Neurath in Hitler’s decision to remilitarize the Rhineland in March 1936.  Neurath possessed information that France would not respond militarily to a German attempt to remilitarize the Rhineland.  He closely guarded this information, and strongly urged Hitler to take action.  The Foreign Minister gained significant credibility with Hitler and his inner circle when the French failed to oppose the German action.  Nevertheless, Neurath was challenged for control of the Foreign Ministry by the rising Joachim von Ribbentrop.  The author believes that Neurath was replaced by Ribbentrop in February 1938 because the Foreign Minister had lost the battle for information with his Nazi rival.

Shore next addresses British appeasement with Hitler’s Germany.  The Chamberlain government continued to seek an agreement with Hitler after the Munich Conference in 1938.  The author argues that an Anglo-German agreement failed to materialize in 1939 because Hermann Göring and Ribbentrop kept the secret British proposals from the Führer’s ears.  Ribbentrop sought a pact with the Soviet Union, not Britain.

The study connects the failed Anglo-German talks with the making of the Nazi-Soviet pact.  Shore points out that Hitler was kept uninformed about Stalin reaching out publicly at the Communist Party Congress for an agreement with Germany in March 1939.  According to the author, Ernst von Weizsäcker, State Secretary at the Foreign Ministry, “withheld information on Stalin’s speech in an effort to prevent or forestall a Nazi-Soviet rapprochement” (p.112).  He also leaked information about a possible German-Soviet alliance to the British Foreign Office.  Stalin knew of “secret” British attempts to negotiate with Germany.  These are the same talks that German officials failed to provide information on British offers to Hitler.  These talks, according to the author, may have added more fuel for Stalin to seek an immediate agreement with Germany.  Hitler finally became aware of Stalin’s interest in an agreement, and German and Soviet officials hammered out and signed the Nazi-Soviet nonaggression pact in August 1939, which included the creation of German and Soviet spheres of influence in Eastern Europe.

This is a fascinating study concerning the making of Nazi foreign policy.  It points out how the chaotic flow of information limited what Hitler knew and how it affected his decisions in the making of foreign policy.  The study adds to our knowledge of German policy by focusing on information flow, giving a fresh look at certain events as they unfolded.  The work is based on archival research in Germany.  The study is now available in a paperback version (ISBN 978-0-19-518261-3) published in 2005 for $30.00.  There are numerous other studies concerning German foreign policy during the Third Reich.  Some of these works are Jonathan Wright’s Germany and the Origins of the Second World War (2007), William Young’s German Diplomatic Relations, 1871-1945: The Wilhelmstrasse and the Formulation of Foreign Policy (2006), Christian Leitz’s Nazi Foreign Policy, 1933-1941: The Road to Global War (2004), Klaus Hildebrand’s The Foreign Policy of the Third Reich (1984), Norman Rich’s Hitler’s War Aims (two volumes, 1972-73), William Carr’s Arms, Autarky and Aggression: A Study in German Foreign Policy (1972), and Gerhard L. Weinberg’s The Foreign Policy of Hitler’s Germany (2 volumes, 1970-80).

Dr William Young
University of North Dakota
Grand Forks, North Dakota

About William Young

Dr William Young is a retired historian with more than 30 years of experience in teaching and research. He has 18 years of teaching experience at the University of North Dakota and Valley City State University. Moreover, he was a historian in the United States Air Force History Program for 15 years. He possesses a doctoral degree in international and military history and master’s degrees in history and international relations. Young is the author of German Diplomatic Relations, 1871-1945 (2006), International Politics and Warfare in the Age of Louis XIV and Peter the Great (2004), and European War and Diplomacy, 1337-1815 (2003). He has also written 42 official Air Force unit histories, two monographs, and other studies. Young is the recipient of many history awards, including three U.S. Air Force Historian of the Year Awards and a U.S. Air Force History Program of the Year Award. He has studied and worked for 13 years overseas in the United Kingdom, The Netherlands, Germany, and Saudi Arabia. He has traveled extensively in Europe and the Middle East. His hobbies include collecting and reading history books and attending college ice hockey games.
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, British Foreign Policy, French Foreign Policy, German Foreign Policy, Interwar Period (1919-1939), Russian Foreign Policy and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Book Review of What Hitler Knew: The Battle for Information in Nazi Foreign Policy

  1. William Young says:

    Reblogged this on The War Studies Group.

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