Unleashing the War
“I have overcome the chaos in Germany, restored order and hugely increased productivity in all areas of our national economy,” Hitler proclaimed to the Reichstag when he looked back on his first six years of rule on 28 April 1939, a few days after his fiftieth birthday. “To ward off the threats by another world, I have not only politically united the German people but armed them militarily, and I have tried to eradicate, page for page, that treaty whose 448 articles contained the most dastardly rape ever perpetrated on peoples and human beings. I have given back to the Reich those provinces that were taken away from us in 1919 . . . I have restored the 1,000-year-old territorial integrity of the German living space, and I have . . . endeavoured to do all of this without shedding blood or inflicting the pain of war on my people or others. I have done this . . . solely on the back of my own strength as someone who was an unknown worker and soldier for my people twenty-one years ago. I can thus claim before history a place among those human beings who achieve the maximum of what can be fairly and justly demanded of an individual.”
What the German dictator did not mention, of course, was the dark side of his seemingly perfect record of success. Hitler had indeed reimposed “order”—but only with the help of a finely honed system of repression and terror that targeted his former political opponents, the communists and Social Democrats; dissident Catholic priests and Protestant pastors; various marginal groups stigmatised as “anti-social”; and above all Germany’s Jewish minority, which had been harassed, pressured and stripped of all civil rights. With the pogrom in November 1938, ordered by Hitler, the Third Reich had departed the community of civilised nations for good. Mass unemployment had indeed been taken care of unexpectedly quickly, and Germany rearmed at a furious pace, but only at the cost of recklessly shaky finance politics which in the long term could only end in disaster. The terms of the Treaty of Versailles had been revised one after another, but only because the Western powers had allowed themselves to be fooled repeatedly by Hitler’s assurances about his peaceful intentions and felt too weak to offer decisive resistance. With the annexation of the remainder of the Czech part of Czechoslovakia in March 1939, in breach of the Munich Agreement, the German dictator had irrevocably crossed a line and forfeited any claim to be trustworthy in future.
When Hitler crowed about having “restored the 1,000-year-old territorial integrity of the German living space,” he conveniently forgot to mention that his ultimate, non-negotiable goal was to conquer “living space” that extended well beyond the Greater German Reich deep into eastern Europe, and that this was to be achieved by a racist and ideological war of annihilation against the Soviet Union. Moreover, what he considered to be his achievements were by no means down to his own strength alone, as he claimed. In all his endeavours, he had received help from all German institutions and all social classes, which had not only done his bidding, but often acted in anticipation of his wishes on their own initiative.
In his 1978 book Defying Hitler, Sebastian Haffner argued that in 1938, at the height of Germany’s general faith in the Führer, “probably more than 90 per cent of Germans” were behind Hitler.2 That is no doubt an exaggeration, but it can scarcely be denied that the Führer enjoyed the overwhelming support of the German populace, particularly after the Anschluss of Austria. If Hitler had been assassinated at that point, Joachim Fest once wrote, hardly anyone would have hesitated to call him “one of the German people’s greatest statesmen and perhaps the man who completed their historical destiny.” We can extend this counter-factual game of imagination by asking: what would have happened if in the spring of 1939, after his latest foreign policy coup, the absorption of the rest of the Czech state and the Lithuanian Memel (Klaipeda) region, he had changed his course and been satisfied with what he had achieved.
Yet such speculations are completely futile. As we saw in the first volume of this biography, stopping or reversing the course leading to war would have run contrary not only to the massive momentum of his regime but also to Hitler’s own personality. “A high-tension electrical condenser that slowly recharges after every powerful discharge, only to release another jolt when a certain ignition point has been reached—that is what Hitler reminded me of in the fateful year of 1939,” the head of the Reich Press Office, Otto Dietrich, would later recall. “He was like a roulette player who refuses to quit while he has a winning streak because he believes he has a system that can recoup all his losses and break the bank.” And indeed, immediately after the Munich conference of 29–30 September 1938, whose result he interpreted as a defeat because it averted the war he wanted with Czechoslovakia and prevented him from annexing the entire country, Hitler had already set his eyes on the next victim of his aggression: the country with which he had, to the astonishment of many, concluded a non-aggression pact in January 1934.
Hardly had British prime minister Neville Chamberlain left Hitler’s private apartment on Munich’s Prinzregentenstrasse on the morning of 30 September 1938, to fly back to London with their joint pledge to settle all future disagreements peacefully, than the German dictator told his military adjutants Rudolf Schmundt and Gerhard Engel that he did not feel bound by his word. “There is no rush to resolve the controversial issues with Poland,” he remarked, but when the time was ripe he was going to soften up Poland with “tried-and-tested methods” to prepare for the final assault.5 By that Hitler meant a combination of seduction, deception and blackmail—everything up to and including the threat of declaring war.
Initially, the regime tried diplomatic means to make Poland receptive to German wishes. On 24 October 1938, German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop invited the Polish ambassador, Józef Lipski, to the Grand Hotel in Berchtesgaden and suggested a “general clearing up” of all sources of friction between their two countries. Specifically, he demanded the return of the Free City of Danzig (Gdansk) to the German Reich and Warsaw’s assent to the construction of an extraterritorial German rail line and motorway to East Prussia through the Polish “corridor.” In addition, Ribbentrop wanted Poland to join the 1936 Anti-Comintern Pact between Germany, Italy and Japan. In return, Germany would guarantee the borders of the Polish state and extend the 1934 non-aggression pact for “ten to twenty-five years.”
Although the three-hour discussion had been friendly in tone, the Polish government was not fooled. In Warsaw it was only too apparent that the German proposals were the start of an offensive aimed at making Poland dependent on the Third Reich and forcing it into a common front against the Soviet Union. In his official answer to Ribbentrop’s suggestions on 19 November, the Polish foreign minister, Józef Beck, rejected the reincorporation of Danzig into the Reich, although he agreed to consider replacing the League of Nations statute with a German-Polish treaty as long as Danzig continued to be a Free City and the customs union with Poland was maintained. Beck did not comment on the idea of an extraterritorial connection with East Prussia, although when he delivered the answer to Ribbentrop, Lipski made it known that he believed a compromise could be found on this score. In an unmistakable demonstration of its intent to stake out an independent position between its powerful neighbours to the east and west, on 27 November Poland extended the non-aggression pact it had concluded with the Soviet Union in July 1932.
Hitler was angered by the unexpected rejection of his offer and on 24 November ordered the Wehrmacht Supreme Command to prepare for a “surprise occupation of Danzig.” Nevertheless, at that point he did not want to start a war with Poland: he was only going to exploit the “politically favourable situation” for a lightning-quick strike. On 5 January 1939, Hitler received Beck at the Berghof for lengthy consultations, confronting him again with the list of German demands from the previous October. While declaring that Germany viewed “a strong Poland . . . simply as a necessity,” Hitler reiterated German claims on Danzig, telling Beck that “Danzig is German, will always be German and will join Germany sooner or later.” The Polish foreign minister reacted evasively, saying that he was going to take time to think things over, but cited public opinion in Poland, which was very sensitive on the issue and did not give him much room to manoeuvre. In conversation with Ribbentrop in Munich the following day, Beck stuck to his formally cordial, but resolutely negative position. Ribbentrop also returned empty-handed from a reciprocal visit to Warsaw at the end of the month.
Nonetheless, in his speech to the Reichstag on 30 January 1939, Hitler avoided an aggressive tone towards Poland. On the contrary, he characterised the non-aggression pact signed five years previously as a “truly relieving agreement” and praised German-Polish friendship as “one of the calming phenomena of European political life.” What was foremost on Hitler’s mind in the first months of 1939 was not the coming conflict with Germany’s eastern neighbour, but the question of how he could take over the rest of Czechoslovakia. After lunch in the Chancellery in early February, Goebbels noted: “Almost all the Führer talks about now is foreign policy. He is mulling over new plans again. A Napoleonic personality!” But it was clear to keen observers that the German dictator would turn his attention to Poland after landing his coup in Prague on 15 March. It was generally assumed, the Polish consul general in Dresden reported to Lipski, that as soon as the Memel region had been incorporated, Hitler “would have to move on to the demands on Poland, first and foremost a takeover of Danzig and the ‘corridor.’ ” In his attempts to resolve these issues, he could count on the “understanding and acceptance” of the German people.
On 21 March, Ribbentrop summoned Lipski to the Foreign Ministry and reiterated, this time in the form of a near ultimatum, the German demands of October 1938 and January 1939. Hitler was “baffled” by the Polish government’s position, Ribbentrop said, adding that it was imperative to “avoid the impression that Poland was simply refusing to play ball.” For Warsaw it was now clear that Poland faced the same fate as Czechoslovakia. If the Polish government acceded to the German demands, Berlin would simply make more, and the case of Prague amply illustrated what a guarantee of territorial integrity from Hitler was worth. On 24 March, Beck told his staff that Germany had “lost its predictability.” There was no giving in to Hitler, he added. The German dictator should be met with decisiveness and clear signals that Poland was prepared to fight if necessary. As Count Jan Szembek, state secretary in the Polish Foreign Ministry, noted in his diary: “In my opinion, we must now bare our teeth at the Germans.”
On 26 March, Lipski returned to Berlin and presented Ribbentrop with a memorandum from the Polish government that flatly rejected the German proposals. Politely but unmistakably, Beck also made it known that while he would like to accept Ribbentrop’s invitation to visit Berlin, such a visit would have to be subject to careful diplomatic planning. The Polish foreign minister was not about to expose himself to the same brutal strong-arming experienced by Austrian chancellor Schuschnigg in February 1938 and Czech president Hácha earlier in March. Ribbentrop reacted in extremely brusque fashion. If things continued to develop the way they were going, the German foreign minister growled, “a serious situation could arise in the near future.” Ribbentrop threatened outright that Germany would regard “a violation of Danzig’s sovereign territory by Polish troops” as an attack on the Reich and react accordingly. In response, on the evening of 28 March, Beck summoned Germany’s ambassador in Warsaw, Hans-Adolf von Moltke, to the Polish Foreign Ministry and informed him that Poland would see it as a casus belli if Germany “unilaterally tried to alter the statute governing the Free City.” Poland continued to be interested in negotiations, Beck said, but was increasingly getting the impression that they had reached “a turning point in German-Polish relations.”
At that juncture, Hitler was still unsure how to react to Poland’s wait-and-see position. On the evening of 24 March, after returning from the German-annexed Memel district, he discussed his future plans with Goebbels, who wrote: “The Führer is mulling over how to solve the Danzig question. He wants to put some pressure on Poland and hopes it will cause a reaction.” In this vein, Hitler said over lunch at the Chancellery the following day: “Poland has yet to make up its mind concerning Danzig, but our pressure will be increased. We hope we can achieve our goal.” To the commander of the army, Walther von Brauchitsch, Hitler revealed that he did not intend at that point to try to solve the “Danzig question” with violence because he did not want to drive Poland “into England’s arms.” Nonetheless, he added, in the “near future,” under “particularly favourable political circumstances,” a situation could arise in which a solution to the “Polish question” would become a necessity. The Wehrmacht general staff should begin preparing for this eventuality. If it became a reality, Hitler declared, “Poland must be defeated so thoroughly that it will no longer be regarded as a political factor in the coming decades.”
In the late evening of 25 March, Hitler travelled to Munich and Berchtesgaden to relax for a few days. Thus he was not in Berlin when Ambassador Lipski delivered Poland’s ultimate refusal of the German proposal, although Ribbentrop no doubt swiftly informed him of it. Goebbels described Hitler’s reaction after a telephone call with the Führer, noting in his diary on 27 March: “Poland is creating major difficulties. The Poles will always be our enemies, even if for selfish reasons they have done us several favours in the past.”
On 30 March, Hitler returned to Berlin and immediately met with his foreign minister. “There was a certain tension in the air,” Hitler’s adjutant Nicolaus von Below remembered. The next day events took a turn the dictator had not anticipated, when Chamberlain guaranteed Polish independence before the House of Commons. If Polish sovereignty came under serious threat, Chamberlain declared, the British government would offer all forms of assistance in its power. The French government also endorsed this guarantee. With that, it became clear that a German attack on Poland would mean war with the Western powers. (Similar guarantees were issued for Romania and Greece on 13 April.) After Hitler’s crass violation of the Munich Agreement, London finally understood that the German dictator could not be appeased. As Foreign Office under-secretary Alexander Cadogan explained the change of direction, the main objective of Britain’s guarantee to Poland was to deter Germany from further acts of aggression.
Copyright © 2020 by Volker Ullrich. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.