(CRISIS and WAR in EUROPE, 1937 to 1940 – continued)

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CRISIS and WAR in EUROPE, 1937 to 1940 (4 of 11)

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German Army to Prague and the Hitler-Stalin Pact

In response to complaints from Britain about Kristallnacht, Hitler declared that Germany would not allow itself "to suffer under British governesses," and Britain received reports through its embassy of Hitler stating that he no longer gave any importance to friendship with Britain. Hitler never had much interest in the amity of nations, including the amity won gradually through patience and peaceful accommodation. He was sick of politics. Politics was give and take, and by now he had distanced himself from those he had worked with within the National Socialist movement. He talked business with people but he hardly conversed. He treated his mistress, Eva Braun, as little more than a subordinate to be dismissed as soon as he wanted to be alone, which was most of the time. When he did talk, rather than converse he was inclined to lecture, as he did during a dinner he was having with Mussolini, Hitler haranguing Mussolini for ninety minutes without letting the impatient Mussolini get a word in edge-wise. He was not reading as he had years before. He was confident that he understood everything, including his adversaries, well enough. He believed he was thinking big. It was the monumental that interested him. Hitler wanted gigantic accomplishments and was frustrated by circumstances. On November 10, 1938, he spoke to insiders about being forced "to talk almost exclusively of peace."

By January 1939, Hitler was complaining about another creation of the treaty signed at Versailles: the free-city status of Danzig. Danzig was a German city. Hitler told the Poles that eventually Danzig would again become a part of Germany, and the Poles responded to Hitler's comment with open contempt. The Poles saw themselves as stronger and harder than the Czechs. They were determined not to give the Germans an inch of territory.

With the rise in tensions, the British began earnest preparations for war, including the British public acquiring and practicing with gas masks. In March, 1939, what was left of Czechoslovakia fell apart. Encouraged by the Germans, Slovakia declared independence. Hitler bullied the Czech government in Prague into making the two Czech provinces, Bohemia and Moravia, a German protectorate. He spoke publicly about Bohemia and Moravia having been living space for Germans for a millennium and having been "torn from them arbitrarily." Hitler sent his army into Prague, without shooting, and the British were amazed. Hitler had promised at Munich to respect what remained of Czechoslovakia, and the British now believed that Hitler's word was worthless, and they were now wondering whether Hitler wanted to dominate the entire continent of Europe.

Within days of German troops having marched into Prague came another crisis -- over the city of Memel. This was a predominately German city that had been given to Lithuania by the treaty signed at Versailles. Germans there were encouraged by Germany's gains and they were agitating for inclusion into the German fatherland. Hitler threatened to take Memel by force. Lithuania capitulated, and on March 23 Hitler made a triumphant entry into Memel, where he was greeted by joyous German crowds.

Poland was surprised by Hitler's success against Lithuania, and on March 26, Poland's ambassador to Germany made it clear to Hitler that Poland would agree to none of his proposals for settling differences between their two nations. Hitler remained concerned about Danzig and he spoke of his concern for Germans living within Poland's borders. Hitler broke diplomatic relations with Poland, and Europe was again alarmed by the possibility of war.

In Poland and in Britain people went into the streets to demonstrate against Germany. Chamberlain's government swung momentarily with British public opinion. Chamberlain declared that if France were attacked, Britain would go to its aid, and Britain joined France in offering Poland support against an attack by Germany. Whether there would be another Great War in Europe now depended on the judgment of Hitler.

Despite the new military alliances, Hitler still believed that Britain and France were reluctant to enter another great war. Britain's guarantee to Poland angered Hitler. He saw Chamberlain's move as a bluff, accompanied as it was by neither by an effort to get military cooperation from the Soviet Union nor the introduction of conscription. And, responding to this apparent bluff, on April 3 Hitler issued a military directive for Operation White: the invasion of Poland.

Mussolini envied Hitler's recent annexations, and on April 7 he invaded Albania (across the Adriatic Sea from Italy). On April 13, Britain and France guaranteed the independence of Greece and Romania. On April 14, the French offered Moscow an agreement with defined military arrangements. But the Soviet Union wanted Britain to be a part of the agreement, and Chamberlain remained opposed to any alliance with the Russians. He spoke of the Soviet Union's fighting forces being "of little military value for offensive purposes." He remained suspicious of Soviet motives, although Soviet motives were clear enough: the Soviet Union was looking for security.

On April 26 the British re-introduced conscription. In late April a contemptuous Hitler renounced the non-aggression pact that Germany had with Poland, and he renounced Germany's naval agreement with the British. While doing this he continued to speak of himself as a man of peace, and he denounced those in Britain and France who were questioning the settlement at Munich as "warmongers." 

On May 23 Hitler had a secret meeting with his military chiefs in which he made it clear that he was intent on going to war against Poland. Danzig, he said was not the question. The question was "expanding our living space in the East" and "securing our food supplies." He accurately predicted that the German army would be able to defeat the Poles within a few days and then take a few weeks to consolidate its victory. He said that if attacking Poland were followed by a war with England and France, they would be finished off at the same time as Poland. As for the Soviet Union, Hitler was not afraid of it.

The Hitler-Stalin Pact

Stalin and Ribbentrop

Stalin and Hitler's Foreign Minister Ribbentrop in Moscow, August 23, 1939. Courtesy of the German Federal Archives.

In the coming months, Britain's military chiefs of staff annoyed Chamberlain by speaking in favor of an alliance between France, Britain and the Soviet Union. Chamberlain's cabinet had agreed to a formula for an alliance with the French. Under pressure, Chamberlain joined the move toward an agreement with Moscow, but he believed he was in a good bargaining position and that no urgency was required. He sent a mission to Moscow by slow ship rather than by airplane.

Documents declassified in 2008 note51 reveal that Stalin was prepared to send more that a million troops to the German border to scare off or stand up to any German aggression. Talks between Chamberlain's delegation to Moscow and the Russians began on August 2, but the Russians decided that the British were not serious about an alliance with them. They felt more of a sense of urgency than did Chamberlain. Concerned about its security and disappointed over its attempts at an alliance with France and Britain, the Soviet Union had been exploring an alternative: better relations with Germany.

Stalin had a tendency to side with what he thought was best for the Soviet Union in the present rather than do whatever was best for revolution in the future. He had not shaken off his "Socialism in One Country" thinking, and some on the left outside of Russia and eager for revolution hated him because of it. Outside the Soviet Union he was under verbal assault from the Left for his China strategy.

Stalin had been worried that some in the West wanted to push Hitler eastward against the Soviet Union, and, with no alliance with Britain and France, Stalin was interested in an alliance with Germany, hoping that Hitler's belligerence would be directed against Britain, whom Hitler was continuing to denounce.

Germany responded by offering the Soviet Union a free hand in the direction of India, including India. But that was not what Stalin and his colleagues were about. Stalin was hanging onto the old tsarist empire, but he still saw himself as anti-imperialist. He did not believe in empire. Also, he had enough to worry about with the Soviet Union's nationalities and the Japanese – who really did believe in empire – rather than to spend time and resources engaging in a conflict with Indian nationalism.

Germany offered the Soviet Union territory that had been a part of tsarist Russia's empire: Finland and Bessarabia. And Germany offered the Soviet Union territory that Poland had taken during Russia's civil war – territory east of the Curzon Line. In exchange, the Soviet Union agreed to give Germany a free hand in Poland west of the Curzon Line. And on 24 August 1939 Germany and the Soviet Union signed their pact. Hitler's armies were one week away from invading Poland.

Evidence does not exist that Hitler considered this agreement necessary to attack Poland. It appears that Hitler was eager to sign the agreement mainly because it helped, not because he thought it to be necessary to pursue his expansion eastward. Hitler had contempt for the Soviet Union as a power, believing, as he would say in 1941, that kicking in its door would lead to its whole "rotten structure" falling down.

Announcement of the Hitler-Stalin Pact (officially the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, named after the foreign ministers) confused much of Europe. Across Europe many were spectators interested in what appeared to them to be the coming of a showdown between the forces of the Left and the anti-Communist Rightists. Many outside Germany saw Communists as a threat to their way of life, including their Christian faith, and they didn't understand why Hitler would make an agreement with Stalin.  Some Communist Party members outside of the Soviet Union had seen themselves as fighting fascism and quit the Party. Others accepted the pact as a move of importance by the Soviet Union as a champion of peace. The US Communist Party members added their tiny voice to others supporting neutrality and against an American involvement in Europe's wars. The Daily Worker editorialized that the people of the world wanted peace, and it described atrocities by Germany's National Socialists as no worse than British atrocities in India. 


Copyright © 1998-2014 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.