(CRISIS and WAR in EUROPE, 1937 to 1940 – continued)
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, and he was not now considering 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 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 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. At Munich Hitler had promised to respect what remained of Czechoslovakia. The British now believed that Hitler's word was worthless, and they wondered whether he wanted to dominate the entire continent of Europe.
Within days after German troops had 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 Great 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.
Despite the new military alliances, Hitler still believed that Britain and France were reluctant to enter another great war. And Britain's guarantee to Poland angered Hitler. He saw Chamberlain's move as a bluff, accompanied as it was 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. Hitler spoke of attacking Poland "at the first suitable opportunity" and that if this 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. It was to prove to be Hitler's biggest strategic blunder. He had won much for Germany in territory. He had undone much of the Versailles Treaty. But he was an overconfident gambler with a big appetite, a distorted assessment and hungry for action.
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. And he sent no one who would impress the Russians as someone of importance.
Documents declassified in 2008 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 Great 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 near 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 ot it. He was under verbal assault from the Left for his China strategy. Regarding Germany, Stalin was willing to be brutal regarding the Poles or anyone else in defending Soviet interests.
Stalin had been worried that some in the West wanted to push Hitler eastward against the Soviet Union. And in the place of a treaty with Great 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 offered the Soviet Union a free hand in the direction of India, including India. But that what not was Stalin, the Marxist, was about. Stalin was hanging onto the old tsarist empire, but he did not believe it was empire and 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 apart 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 August 24, Germany and the Soviet Union signed their pact.
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. Back on May 23, 1939, Hitler had spoken of the possibility of the Soviet Union joining an alliance with Britain and France, in which case, Hitler had said, it "would lead me to attack England and France with a few devastating blows." Hitler was not afraid of the Soviet Union militarily, and the pact that Stalin signed with Hitler bought for the Soviet Union only a little less than two years of peace.
Announcement of the Hitler-Stalin pack 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 opponents of the left. Many outside Germany, in Romania for example, saw Communists as a threat to their way of life, including their Christian faith, and they disliked and targeted what they believed were Jewish influences. They saw Germany as Europe's great military power and as the predominant force that would settle Europe's divisions, anxieties and political unrest. And many did not fathom the motives of Hitler in making his agreement with Stalin.
Hitler's general staff had warned him that if war broke out with France the French would be able to pour into Germany. Germany had only 23 divisions along the German-French border. But Hitler was not impressed, and he still believed that Britain and France would not go to war against Germany.
On the night of August 31, Hitler faked an attack against a German radio station near the Polish border, which he planned to blame on the Poles and use as an excuse for his invasion. At 4:30 in the morning, September 1, Hitler's invasion began. It was a mechanized assault, with tanks, aircraft and trucks and only a few horse-drawn wagons. It was called Bewegungskrieg (War of Movement). In the US, Time magazine called it Blitzkrieg (lightning war), and that name stuck.
Poland's army was about as large as that of Germany, but its airforce was one-tenth the size of Germany's, and they had no armored and mechanized divisions. Poland's military leaders still believed in offensive and counter-offensive operations using cavalry. Contrary to myth, the calvary knew better than to charge tanks. They were not idiots. But as the historian Max Boot writes, "some did wind up getting mauled" by the tanks (War Made New, p.225). And, confirming Hitler's confidence, Germany's military began to overwhelm the Poles.
Chamberlain continued trying to negotiate with Germany, hoping the German invasion could be halted. Chamberlain's cabinet rebelled, and Chamberlain saw that his position as leader of the Conservative Party was in jeopardy. His cabinet advised Chamberlain that he had to announce an ultimatum to Germany. Chamberlain did so. Britain and France declared war on Germany on September 3 and were joined by India and New Zealand.
The British had no way of reaching Poland with an army. The French could have invaded Germany as they had at the start of World War I, but they did now what they should have done then: they sat in their trenches. It was the beginning of what would be called the sit-down war (Sitzkrieg). After only eight days (September 8) the Germans were on the outskirts of Warsaw. Some British forces landed in France on September 10. And Soviet armies moved to the Curzon line on the 17th, with hardly any opposition from the Poles – occupied as they were with the Germans
Poland surrendered to Germany on September 24, with Hitler hoping that Britain would soon change its mind and give up its intent to wage war against Germany. Having taken Poland, Hitler was once more for peace. But Britain was not. Churchill, now appointed by Chamberlain as the First Lord of the Admiralty, announced that Britain was not in the war over the question of Danzig or merely to fight for Poland. "We are fighting," he said, "to save the whole world from the pestilence of Nazi tyranny, and in defense of all that is most sacred to man." He spoke of the Soviet Union but did not find fault with it for having moved to the Curzon Line, only that he regretted that they were not still friendly with Poland.
The German public, meanwhile, had shown none of the enthusiasm that had erupted at the beginning of World War I. This was especially so in Berlin, where people were still accustomed to saying good morning rather than Heil Hitler! Berlin had a victory parade for troops returning from the Polish campaign, but despite the efforts of National Socialists to whip up an enthusiastic demonstration for the troops, the Berliners remained reserved and silent. Many Berliners feared war, and they remained concerned about everyday matters. Many in Germany's upper-middle and upper classes continued their effort to remain aloof from the influences of Hitler. Some women preferred collecting for private charity and doing volunteer work through the Red Cross rather than work with the National Socialist League of Women.
Across the whole of Germany, meanwhile, were a multitude of young men who loved their country and were willing to fight for it, believing that Hitler was fighting for what was best for Germany. And across the whole of Germany common young people were absorbing popular culture – National Socialist culture. They were as inclined to conform to these cultural tastes as were young people in other industrial societies. They were enjoying new certainties and joining the ranks of parading National Socialists. They were no more turned off by National Socialist stridency than many young people in the 1990s would be turned off by the strident tones of their popular form of music. The aggressive males among them might push around or ridicule a Jew if one happened by. Jews leaving Germany had to dodge young "Aryan" men and teenagers.
Copyright © 1998-2011 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.