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9-08-2015, 21:54

THE OUTBREAK OF WAR IN EUROPE, 1937–9

Responsibility is a portmanteau word covering many different meanings. All the nations in a complex international society are to some degree involved with each other and in that sense share ‘responsibility’ for the most important international events such as war. In that sense, too, it is both true and misleading to conclude that Hitler’s Germany was not alone responsible for the outbreak of war in 1939 – misleading when responsibility is equated with blame, and blame, like responsibility, is considered something to be shared out between all the nations involved. Such an analysis of responsibility for the outbreak of the second great war in Europe, confuses more than it illuminates. Hitler, in September 1939, posed before the German people as the injured party, as acting in defence of Germans persecuted by Poles, and in response to actual Polish attacks across the frontier (in fact, secretly organised by the Gestapo). Since coming to power he had built up the armed forces of the Reich, not simply to gain his ends by the bluff of overawing Germany’s weaker neighbours: the Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe were fighting instruments prepared for real use. Although not precisely certain of the right timing, Hitler intended all along to pass from a policy of piecemeal territorial acquisition by blackmail to actual wars of conquest. In September 1938, he was frustrated when he could not make war on Czechoslovakia. A year later he was not again deterred. On 23 November 1939, a few weeks after war began, he summoned the chiefs of the armed services and explained that he had not been sure whether to attack first in the East or in the West (it should be noted that it was only a question of either/or); but Polish resistance to his demands had decided the issue: One will blame me [for engaging in] war and more war. I regard such struggle as the fate of all being. No one can avoid the fight if he does not wish to be the inferior. The growth of population requires a larger living space. My aim was to bring about a sensible relationship between population size and living space. This is where the military struggle has to begin. No people can evade the solution of this task unless it renounces and gradually succumbs. That is the lesson of history . . . While Hitler remained in power he intended passing from the phase of preparation for war to actual wars of conquest, and the purpose of these conquests was the aggrandisement of Germany itself, and the reduction of the conquered nations who would retain a separate existence only as satellites. The dominated people would all have to conform to Hitler’s racialist plan for the New Order of Europe. This racialist basis of Nazi policy meant not that Hitler aimed at a Wilhelmine German domination of Europe, but that he planned a European revolution entailing mass population movements in the East, murder and the enslavement of ‘inferior’ races. For Hitler, then, the question of war and peace was a question of timing, of choosing the moment that promised the greatest chance of success. The French, whose assessment of Hitler’s aims tended to be more realistic than that of the British, would not in any case risk war with Germany without a cast-iron guarantee of Britain’s backing. Even then doubts about France’s survival as a great power if it were further weakened by heavy losses of men and reserves made the French look at the prospect with horror. What was true of France was also true of Germany’s smaller neighbours. As for the Soviet Union, it shared no frontier with Germany and hoped to contain it by deterrence in association with the Western powers; but that policy was bluff since the Soviet alternative to the failure of deterrence was not war but a truce, an accommodation with Germany. The US championed democracy abroad, though imperfectly at home and, equally fervently, neutrality if it should come to war in Europe. That gave Britain the key role. Until the spring of 1939, Neville Chamberlain dominated the Cabinet as few prime ministers had before him. He was Hitler’s most formidable protagonist. Chamberlain too, though subject to public opinion and the pressure of his colleagues, would have to decide when to accept that general European war was inevitable, unless Britain were simply to stand by while Hitler secured the domination of the European continent. The conquest of Poland would have been followed by other conquests, though no one can be sure in what direction Hitler would have struck first and so what precise sequence he would have followed. Nor did he intend to spare a hostile and independent Britain. When Hitler passed from ‘cold’ war to ‘hot’ war, Chamberlain reluctantly accepted that a great European war would become inevitable if Britain’s independence and security were to survive. Chamberlain’s attitude stands in stark contrast to Hitler’s. Chamberlain abhorred war. He belonged to the generation of the Great War. Humanitarian feelings were the positive motivations of his life. He wished to better the lot of his fellow men, to cure the ills, in particular unemployment, that still beset Britain’s industrial life. War, to him, was the ultimate waste and negation of human values. He believed in the sanctity of individual human life and rejected the crude notions of a people’s destiny, purification through violence and struggle, and the attainment of ends by brute force. He had faith in the triumph of reason and, believing himself to be fighting the good fight for peace, he was prepared to be patient, tenacious and stubborn, drawing on inner resources to maintain a personal optimism even when conditions all around pointed the other way. To the very end he hoped for some miracle that would ensure a peaceful outcome. Only a week away from war at the end of August 1939 he expressed his feelings in a private letter to his sister Hilda: I feel like a man driving a clumsy coach over a narrow cracked road along the face of a precipice . . . I sat with Annie [Mrs Chamberlain] in the drawing room, unable to read, unable to talk, just sitting with folded hands and a gnawing pain in the stomach. When Chamberlain spoke to the nation over the BBC at the outbreak of war, he, unlike Hitler, could say with sincerity: You can imagine what a bitter blow it is to me that all my long struggle to win peace has failed. Yet I cannot believe that there is anything more or anything different that I could have done and that would have been more successful. His [Hitler’s] action shows convincingly that there is no choice of expecting that this man will ever give up his practice of using force to gain his will. He can only be stopped by force. There is no meaningful way Chamberlain’s responsibility for war can be compared on the same basis as Hitler’s, any more than a man who violently attacks his neighbour is less responsible for his action because of the weakness of the police force. This is not to suggest that the origins of the war in Europe can be reduced to a contrast between two men, Hitler and Chamberlain. Hitler could not safely wage war without the assurance that rearmament had progressed sufficiently – an assurance that required the cooperation of industry and the management of finance. Actually the reserves were very low. Nor could he totally ignore technical military considerations. He needed the cooperation of the army. The overlapping party and state machinery of government, and the gearing of the economy to war preparations under Hermann Göring’s overall direction, created many problems. The ‘court’ of leading Nazis around the Führer – Himmler, Goebbels, Hess, Bormann, Göring, and lesser sub-leaders such as Rosenberg, Ribbentrop and Ley – were engaged in bitter infighting, jockeying for Hitler’s favour and a more influential place in the hierarchy. German policy making was not monolithic; various highly placed people and organisations influenced policy. Hitler certainly had the last word on all major issues, but took care to try to carry the leaders of the army, industry and the mass of the people with him. His speeches were a torrent of untruths, carefully calculated; he was well aware that war with Britain and France was widely regarded with apprehension. The many dimensions of British policy and influences shaping it are just as complex, though different. Party political considerations play an important role in the making of policy in a parliamentary democracy. Governments were more directly affected by public feeling, which could be freely expressed, unlike in Germany. Decisions in Britain were taken by committees, the supreme government committee being the Cabinet, which met at the prime minister’s residence. Chamberlain’s control was never dictatorial as Hitler’s was. Chamberlain’s ascendancy over his ministerial colleagues was at its height in 1938, but he could not act without carrying them with him – resignations had to be contained to the single minister in disagreement. In 1939, Chamberlain’s influence lessened as the assumption behind his policies was seen to be more and more at variance with unfolding events in Europe. Belated rearmament was a particular handicap, narrowing Britain’s policy options. There was one further, striking difference between German and British policy. Hitler paid relatively little attention to his two ‘allies’, Italy and Japan, and fashioned policy without allowing their reactions to affect his own decisions. Not so the British government, which, while taking the lead in the framing of the policy in the West, could not ignore France’s reactions and later Poland’s. Britain stood at the centre of the Commonwealth, and the views of Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand also made themselves felt. The greatest difference between Britain’s and Germany’s positions derived from Britain’s role not only as a European but a world power with imperial interests in every continent. These interests were each supported by different politicians and pressure groups which conflicted with each other when the priorities of policies came to be resolved. Britain’s commitments to defend Australia, New Zealand and India from the Japanese threat were as absolute as considerations of security at home which required Britain to stand by France if it were attacked by Germany. The Defence Requirements Committee, specifically assigned the task of analysing Britain’s military needs, came to a clear decision when it reported to the Cabinet in February 1934 that Germany was ‘the ultimate potential enemy against whom all our “long range” defence policy must be directed’. For many years none of Britain’s armed forces would be strong enough to meet all potential enemies. At first there were only two of these: Germany in Europe, rapidly arming, and Japan in Asia. With the outbreak of the Italian–Abyssinian war and Britain’s support for League sanctions there was now a third potential enemy with naval forces in the Mediterranean – Italy. The need to defend every British possession was equally absolute. How then was the lack of resources to be matched to these requirements? That was the task of diplomacy. The real question was not whether or not to appease, but which nation to stand up to and which to conciliate. In the Far East much would depend on the attitude of the US. Britain’s situation vis-à-vis the US in Asia was similar to that of France vis-à-vis Britain in Europe. France could not risk war with Germany without British support; Britain could not afford to contemplate war with Japan without the guarantee of American support unless driven into war in defence of the territory of the empire and Commonwealth. In Europe also, Britain could only act defensively. Its air force, intended as a deterrent, lagged behind the strength of the German air force and so its deterrent value never materialised. It did not even figure in Hitler’s calculations: Germany made great efforts towards self-sufficiency (autarky) under Göring’s Four- Year Plan after 1936, though Hitler recognised that, without conquests, self-sufficiency could not be completely attained. Nevertheless, dependence on foreign supplies was reduced and to that extent the damage that a British blockade by sea could inflict lessened. How then did Britain conceive a war with Germany might be conducted so that it would end in Germany’s defeat? The one consistent military assumption that the politicians in the British Cabinet made until February 1939 was the extraordinary one that Britain needed no large army to fight Germany on the continent. Chamberlain, as chancellor of the exchequer, argued that there was not enough money to expand all three services and everyone, except the chiefs of staff, agreed that the British public would never accept that Britain should, as in 1914–18, send an army of millions to France and Belgium. The French realised that they could not opt out of providing the land army to repel Germany. All the heavy casualties would thus fall on them. No wonder that in the circumstances they sought to protect their depleted manhood by reliance on the Maginot Line and felt bitterness towards their British ally. While the British and French service chiefs were agreed that the most dangerous enemy would be a rearmed Germany, their policy towards Italy was never coordinated. When France wanted to conciliate Mussolini in 1935, Britain gave no backing and in January 1939 the reverse occurred. British attention, moreover, and French too, was not exclusively fixed on Germany. From 1931 to 1933 Japanese aggression in Manchuria and the question of support for the League of Nations occupied the attention of the public and of governments. Alarm at Germany’s growing armament was next diverted by the Italian–Abyssinian war in 1935. Hitler was singularly lucky at having these ‘diversions’ during his years of military preparations. In just the same way the remilitarisation of the Rhineland, Germany’s own ‘backyard’, soon came to be overshadowed by the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. While Hitler incessantly worked in his foreign relations to extend and strengthen Germany, he was simultaneously transforming the country from inside with increasing emphasis on Nazi ideology and the militarisation of the whole of society. German women were admonished to ‘give’ the Führer many babies, the soldiers of the future. The Führer cultivated the image of the lone leader on whom rested all the burdens of his people. He was occasionally shown more humanly in the company of children and dogs. But the existence of his blonde mistress, Eva Braun, was one of the best-kept secrets of the Third Reich. The middle 1930s were years of feverish preparation for the great moment when Nazi Germany would consummate Hitler’s revolution and establish the new racial order in Europe. The preparations were still taking place within the frontiers of Germany, though party propaganda was reaching out and spawning local parties not only in Austria but as far afield as Latin America. Within Germany, incessant propaganda was directed against one arch-opponent in Nazi demonology, the Jews. Despite widespread anti-Semitism Hitler felt he had to move with caution so as not to arouse sympathy for the Jews: many good ‘Aryans’ knew at least ‘one good’ Jew. The Jews were bewildered. Many saw themselves as patriotic Germans, tied to German culture, and thought the Hitler phenomenon was a passing madness. The tide of emigration was slow. They could transfer only a fraction of their possessions out of the country. Opportunities of earning a living abroad were restricted, and the language and customs were strange. Most German Jews hung on. Despite all the discrimination against them they continued to enjoy the protection of the law from common violence. By and large they were not physically molested before November 1938. Nevertheless, the screw was being turned more tightly year by year. The notorious anti-Semitic Nürnberg Laws, first proclaimed at the Nazi Party rally in 1935, and in subsequent years constantly extended, were but a logical step in the direction of the new Nazi world that Hitler and his followers were creating. The persecution of the Jews was not an accidental blemish of Hitler’s rule. Without hatred of Jews and the relentless persecution waged against them, the core of Nazi ideology collapses. In 1935 all Jews remaining in the civil service were dismissed. The definitions of ‘full’ Jew, ‘half’ Jew or Mischlinge – ‘mixtures’ of various degrees – were determined not by a man’s baptism or personal belief but by descent. Three Jewish grandparents made the second-generation descendants all Jews. The ‘full’ Jews, or ‘non-Aryans’ as they were called, felt the total weight of persecution from the very start. The only temporary exception was made in cases where Jews were married to Aryans and there were ‘mixed’ children from the marriage. Pressure was placed on the Christian partner to divorce the Jewish spouse. Some did so. Other German wives and husbands protected their partner and children with the utmost courage and loyalty throughout the years of persecution and so saved their lives; the war ended before Hitler could take measures against them. These brave people came from every walk of life. Their behaviour alone should serve as a caution against crude generalisations about the ‘German character’, even though they formed, like the active resistance, only a small minority of the population. The Nürnberg Laws made the German Jews second-class citizens officially and forbade further marriages between Jews and non-Jews and any sexual relations between Aryans and Jews. This latter crime was called Rassenschande and severe sentences were passed where Jewish men were accused. Over a period of time Jews were removed from all professional contact with non- Jews. Only in business activities were Jews permitted to carry on until 1938, since it was feared that their sudden removal would harm the German economy. This concession was not due to Hitler’s moderation – rather it is an indication that he was prepared to countenance a tactical delay while never deviating one inch from his ultimate ideological goals. This pressure on the helpless, small German Jewish population in 1933 – there were about 500,000 racially defined as Jews – drove them into increasing isolation and hardship. Even so they did not emigrate to Palestine or elsewhere fast enough. The majority of German Jews wanted to stay in their homes and in their country, whose cultural heritage they cherished. German culture was their culture. Not in moments of blackest nightmare could they imagine that in the twentieth century in Western Europe women and children would be murdered in factories of death. Many Jews were still living in reasonable comfort, and for the most part relationships with their fellow Germans were correct and occasionally even friendly. But official discrimination steadily increased; Jews were expelled by the autumn of 1938 from all professions, they could no longer study in universities, and their shops were compulsorily purchased and Aryanised. It was by then clear that there was no future for young Jews, but the older generation expected to live out the rest of their days in Germany on their pensions and savings. During the summer of 1938, however, the Nazi leadership had decided to take far harsher measures against the Jews. First, it was the turn of Jews from Poland to be expelled brutally overnight. Then concentration camps were readied inside Germany. The German people would be given a practical demonstration of how to treat their Jewish neighbours as their enemies. Only a pretext was needed. It was provided on 7 November 1938 by the fatal shooting of the third secretary of the German Embassy in Paris. The perpetrator was a half-crazed young Jew whose parents (of Polish origin) had just been deported. Paradoxically, the diplomat, Ernst vom Rath, was no Nazi. After news of Rath’s death reached Germany on the afternoon of 9 November, a pogrom all over Germany was launched. Synagogues were set on fire, Jewish shop windows smashed. With typical black humour, Berliners dubbed the 9 November ‘Kristallnacht’, the night of shards of glass. Gangs of ruffians roamed the streets and entered Jewish apartments – it was a night of terror. Jewish men were arrested in their homes on the following day and incarcerated in concentration camps. Goebbels’ diary fully implicates Hitler, thus adding more evidence, if any were needed, that no major action could be undertaken in the Reich without the Führer’s explicit approval. It so happened that 9 November was the annual occasion when all the Nazi leaders met to commemorate the abortive Putsch of 1923. In Munich, Goebbels wrote in his diary: I report the situation to the Führer. He decides: let the demonstrations continue. Pull back the police. The Jews should be made to feel the wrath of the people. . . . As I head for the hotel, I see the sky is blood-red. The synagogue is burning. . . . the Führer has ordered 20,000– 30,000 Jews to be arrested immediately. The purpose of the great November pogrom of 1938 was to force the remaining Jews into emigration. A visa to a foreign country gained release from concentration camps. The question is often asked: why did Hitler try to force the Jews out of Germany even after the war began? Does this mean he would have preferred this solution to murdering them later? We do not know exactly what was in Hitler’s mind but it is safe to conclude that humanitarian considerations did not come into his calculations on so central a question as his hatred of the Jews. He certainly was sensitive to German public feeling and presumably concluded that the German people were not ready to back his rule with increasing enthusiasm if he simply massacred all German Jews, men, women and children, inside the Reich. During the war, vain efforts were made to preserve the secrecy of the death camps. Hitler wished to remove physically all Jews from the territory ruled by him. Emigration would ‘export’ anti-Semitism. And when he had won his wars the Jews would be done for in any case, as Nazi policies in all occupied Europe were to show during the war. After November 1938 the Jews in panic belatedly attempted to leave: the civilised world debated but could not agree to absorb the remaining 300,000. But tens of thousands of people were saved, with the ‘children’s transports’ to Britain forming a poignant part of these emigrants. Most of these children never saw their parents again. The exodus was made possible by the response of thousands of concerned individuals who collected money and pressurised their reluctant governments to let the refugees in. The Jewish persecution by bureaucratic machine involved and implicated more and more Germans in the criminal activities of the Nazi regime under pseudo-legislative cover. Opposition became more risky as the grip of the totalitarian state tightened. There were still a few who spoke out openly, such as the Protestant pastor Martin Niemöller, and were placed in concentration camps. Amid the general enthusiasm for the Nazis, it must be remembered that there were many, too, who were terrorised into silence. The Jews were the most obvious and open targets of persecution. But there were hundreds of thousands of others who suffered. In ruthless pursuit of the supposedly racially healthy German Volk, laws were passed in 1933 which permitted mass sterilisation of those deemed able to pass on genetic defects, such as medical handicaps, epilepsy and deafness, mental defects or even social defects, one of which was identified as drunkenness and another as habitual criminality. Not only were pregnancies aborted and sterilisation ordered for the individual affected, but the whole family, including young adolescents, were sterilised. Convicted homosexuals were incarcerated in concentration camps. In the interests of ‘racial hygiene’ it was then but a step to proceed to murder people with disabilities during the war under the pretence that they were being released from their suffering – this was the ‘euthanasia’ programme. But, as with the murder of the Jews, Hitler decided that the extermination of ‘lives not worthy of life’ would have to wait for the cover of war. Racial discrimination after 1935 was also suffered by the 22,000 gypsies living in Germany. They too, men, women, children and babies, together with the tens of thousands of Polish and European gypsies, were designated for extermination. 1 THE OUTBREAK OF WAR IN EUROPE, 1937–9 225 Hitler was still telling the German people that he wanted peace and desired no more than to bring home to the Reich those German people living beyond the German frontier: not just the people of course but also the lands in which they were living. At a meeting of his military commanders and in the presence also of the foreign and war ministers in his chancellery on 5 November 1937 Hitler spoke his mind. Colonel Hossbach recorded the meeting. The aims Hitler expressed contained nothing new; they were all familiar from his previous statements and writings. He referred to the need to realise them within six to eight years at the latest. The German race needed space in the east to expand and multiply or it would be doomed to decline. More land and resources were an economic necessity. The solution to Germany’s problems could be found only by using force. Beyond the years 1943–5 the rearmament of Germany’s enemies would exceed the ageing equipment of the German military. Germany had to assume the enmity of Britain and France. Hitler speculated on international complications like a civil war in France or a war between the Mediterranean powers which would divide Germany’s enemies to its advantage. As a first step, a strategic necessity was an ‘attack’ on Austria and Czechoslovakia. It was therefore obvious that rearmament expenditure could not be reduced. The immediate objective of winning Austria and Czechoslovakia, however, would be attained by a little war conducted with lightning speed; and Hitler assured the generals that this would not lead to general war. What is noteworthy about Hitler’s policy from 1937 to 1939 is the acceleration of pace – his reluctance simply to await events and to exploit suitable opportunities. He became more confident and reckless; he wanted to carry through his grand design without waiting much longer. He became obsessed with his health, nerves and various disorders. He was ageing and would do so rapidly during the war. Such independence as the army had retained, as a professional body whose independent judgement was expressed on the military feasibility of Hitler’s plans, was an obstacle to their realisation. The commanderin- chief of the Wehrmacht as well as the war minister were forced to resign early in 1938. Hitler assumed personal supreme control with his own military staff by replacing the War Ministry with the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW, or high command of the armed forces). The general staff of the army was subordinated to the OKW. The army was purged of generals unenthusiastic about Nazi plans. The foreign minister, Konstantin von Neurath, was also replaced – by an ardent Nazi, Joachim von Ribbentrop – and the diplomatic service was purged. Before embarking on action, Hitler had thus powerfully strengthened his authority. Hitler had no immediate plans for the annexation of independent Austria. Yet within a few weeks it was a fact. The events as they unfolded made possible a quick finish to Austria’s independence and convinced Hitler in the spring of 1938 that the tide was running swiftly and favourably towards Germany’s destiny. He had wished to cow Austria into satellite status without, for the time being, openly destroying its independence. From 1936 to February 1938 he succeeded well with the Austrian chancellor, Schuschnigg, who was finally summoned to his mountain retreat at Berchtesgaden a month before the Anschluss to be bullied into agreeing to make far-reaching further concessions to the Nazis in Austria entailing the certain erosion of what independence had remained. Deserted by Mussolini, he had little choice but to agree to German demands. Mussolini preferred a German alignment ever since his conflict with Britain over Italian aggressions in Abyssinia and involvement in Spain. He was jealous of German success, but in 1936 bombastically claimed that European affairs now revolved around the Axis of Berlin and Rome. He visited Hitler in September 1937 and was impressed by the spectacle of Germany’s might and flattered by the Führer’s attentions. He had already secretly removed his objection to German dominance over Austria and had been assured that its independence would not be too blatantly destroyed. That is one reason why Hitler as late as 28 February 1938 sought an ‘evolutionary’ Austrian course. But Schuschnigg in the end would not play the game; the rabbit bolted. When he returned to Austria he announced he would hold a plebiscite on 13 March, intending to ask the people whether they desired independence or union with Germany. Despite the suppression of the socialists and trade unions, who had no love for Schuschnigg, their vote would have been cast against Hitler’s Germany. Hitler demanded a ‘postponement’ of the plebiscite. Schuschnigg conceded and resigned. But now the president would not appoint the National Socialist nominee in his place, a new demand. Göring, given responsibility for the Austrian Nazi takeover, had completed the military preparations. On 12 March 1938 the Wehrmacht crossed the frontier; Hitler followed close behind. There was no military opposition. Hitler was received in Linz with cheers and flowers by part of the population. He decided on an instantaneous acceleration of his plans. Instead of a gradual fusion of the two countries, complete union, or the Anschluss, was announced on 13 March and later approved by a charade of a plebiscite. It all happened so quickly that international reaction in the first place consisted merely of some ineffectual protests. But this ruthless expansion of Germany’s frontiers forced the British and French governments into a fresh stock-taking. In February 1938 Eden resigned and Halifax replaced him at the Foreign Office. Eden had resigned over the immediate difference of opinion with Prime Minister Chamberlain on whether Mussolini should be appeased before he had given concrete proof of abiding by international undertakings and withdrawing troops from Spain. Eden was testing the good faith of the dictators, while Chamberlain was following a grand design of foreign policy and was ready to subordinate ‘secondary’ questions to its fulfilment. Chamberlain’s grand design for peace and stability involved working separately on Hitler and Mussolini. His ideas had already been clearly formulated the previous November 1937 when he sent Halifax, then lord president of the Council and not foreign secretary, on a mission to Hitler. Halifax, according to the official British record, told Hitler that Britain accepted: possible alterations in the European order which might be destined to come about with the passage of time. Amongst these questions were Danzig, Austria, Czechoslovakia. Britain was interested to see that any alterations should come through the course of peaceful evolution . . . The German record is more pointed and has Halifax expressing the view that he ‘did not believe that the status quo had to be maintained under all circumstances’. As further baits to persuade Germany into the paths of peace, Chamberlain was prepared to make economic concessions and even envisaged some eventual African colonial appeasement. Privately, Chamberlain explained to his sister Ida in November 1937 that he regarded the visit a great success because it had created an atmosphere that would make possible discussions with Germany on ‘the practical questions involved in a European settlement’: What I wanted to do was to convince Hitler of our sincerity and to ascertain what objectives he had in mind . . . Both Hitler and Göring said separately and emphatically that they had no desire or intention of making war and I think we may take this as correct at any rate for the present. Of course they want to dominate Eastern Europe; they want as close a union with Austria as they can get without incorporating her in the Reich and they want much the same thing for the Sudeten Deutsch as we did for the Uitlanders in the Transvaal. . . . But I don’t see why we shouldn’t say to Germany give us satisfactory assurances that you won’t use force to deal with the Austrians and Czecho-Slovakians and we will give you similar assurances that we won’t use force to prevent the changes you want, if you can get them by peaceful means. The flaws in Chamberlain’s reasoning were several and serious. First, it was wrong that Hitler was pursuing a nationalist foreign policy that could be satisfied by limited territorial adjustments. Down to the outbreak of war in 1939 Chamberlain failed to comprehend the central racialist kernel of Hitler’s policy and therefore the significance of the persecution of the Jews. There is one interesting piece of evidence about this in an unpublished private letter. His sister Hilda had passed the absurd information to him that it was possible for Jews to be admitted to the Hitler Youth, and Chamberlain replied in July 1939: I had no idea that Jews were still allowed to work or join such organisations as the Hitler Youth in Germany. It shows, doesn’t it, how much sincerity there is in the talk of racial purity. I believe the persecution arose out of two motives: a desire to rob the Jews of their money and a jealousy of their superior cleverness. Chamberlain, unlike Churchill, did not have warm feelings for Jews in general. He wrote that he did not regard them a ‘lovable people’ but condemned their persecution: ‘I don’t care about them myself’ but that was not sufficient reason to justify pogroms. Chamberlain failed to grasp early on the limitless nature of Hitler’s demands. He worked for a ‘reasonable’ settlement so that a great war would be seen as a needless and criminal sacrifice of life. The second flaw, which led to the taint of moral guilt, was that Chamberlain believed in the justification of the greater good, or more precisely the avoidance of the greater evil, which for him was a general war. This played into Hitler’s hands. Hitler intended to secure the maximum advantages at minimum cost. He would thus without risk of general war provide Germany with a strong base before launching his ultimate wars of conquest. The sacrifices Chamberlain called for, moreover, were not of British territory. It would be the Austrians, Czechs and other ‘foreigners’ who would actually suffer the consequences. So, too, the colonial concessions in Africa would be offered largely at the expense of Portugal and Belgium and, far more importantly, would have placed racist Nazis in control of black peoples whom they looked on as subhumans. It is doubtful whether Chamberlain really grasped this fact. The third flaw was the weakening of Britain’s allies, actual and potential, on the continent. But Chamberlain was essentially right when he assessed the US as an unlikely ally at the outset of any war in Europe. Whatever Roosevelt might say, he was the prisoner of an overwhelmingly isolationist Congress. Also Chamberlain was right that no reliance could be placed on the Soviet Union, which was not ready for war and would not fight Germany in alliance with Britain and France as long as she could divert the German attack from her own territory. By the spring of 1938 the Anglo-French alliance had reached a pretty low point. The British Cabinet was forging ahead with the grand design of Chamberlain’s peace policy, intermittently consulting French ministers. A consistent British policy was followed throughout 1938. It was obvious that the German-speaking inhabitants of Czechoslovakia would be the next target. Germany was informed that the November 1937 assurances to Hitler still held. Britain was willing to come to an agreement over the Sudeten question on Germany’s terms provided this could be accomplished peacefully. The new French government of Prime Minister Édouard Daladier and Foreign Minister Georges Bonnet was promised the support of the British alliance if Germany launched an unprovoked attack on France. The sting in this seemingly satisfactory guarantee was that it was not extended to the case where France declared war on Germany in fulfilment of its commitment to the Franco-Czechoslovakian alliance. In this way the British alliance became a potent weapon which Chamberlain and Halifax used to force the French into line behind a policy of concessions to Germany at Czechoslovakia’s expense. Not that the French had much spirit of resistance given the pessimism of General Gamelin and the British attitude. French policy too was to reach agreement with Germany. The French consistently sought to influence British policy, without ever taking a position in advance of Britain’s which risked war. France, the ministers had decided in March 1938, ‘could only react to events, she could not take the initiative’. In dealing with Germany, Britain offered the carrot and the stick. The colonial, territorial and economic carrots dangled before the Germans have already been noted. The ‘stick’ consisted of refusing to bind Britain to neutrality if Hitler did resort to force. Chamberlain declared in the House of Commons after the Anschluss: His Majesty’s Government would not however pretend that, where peace and war are concerned, legal obligations are alone involved and that if war broke out it would be likely to be confined to those who have assumed obligations. It would be quite impossible to say where it might end and what Governments might become involved. It was a clear warning to Hitler not to attack Czechoslovakia, though secretly the Cabinet had already concluded that there was no way in which Czechoslovakia could be helped militarily. Plans for attacking Czechoslovakia were discussed by Hitler and the generals in April 1938. To ensure that Czechoslovakia would receive no support, a crisis was to be worked up. At the end of May Hitler declared to his generals his ‘unshakeable will that Czechoslovakia shall be wiped off the map’. He signed a military directive which set a final date, 1 October 1938. He had been infuriated by indications that Czechoslovakia would not tamely submit as Austria had done. Rumours of German military moves had in May led to a partial Czech mobilisation and warnings from Britain and France. He was not yet ready to smash Czechoslovakia but soon would be. Among all the Eastern European states, only Czechoslovakia had retained its Western democratic constitution – an added reason to make it unfit for German partnership. Another sin was the prominent support Czech statesmen gave to the ideals of the League of Nations. Czechoslovakia, largely because of its national composition, faced grave difficulties as a new successor state. In 1930 the country was inhabited by 7.1 million Czechs, 3.3 million Germans, 2.6 million Slovaks, 720,000 Hungarians, 569,000 Ruthenes, 100,000 Poles and a smaller number of Romanians and Yugoslavs. The cohesion of the state depended on the cooperation of Slovaks and Czechs as symbolised by the founding fathers, Thomas Masaryk and Eduard Benesˇ. The peasantry of Slovakia was administered mainly by the more educated Czechs, which caused discontent and the creation of a Slovak People’s Party, led by Father Hlinka, demanding autonomy. But the most serious difficulty was caused by relations with the Germanspeaking ex-Habsburg population living in Bohemia and Moravia and along the frontiers with Germany and the new Austria. Most of the Germans, once the masters, now resented their subordination to the ‘Slav’ state. Czech suspicions of German loyalties and attempts to favour Czech education and discriminate against Germans aroused anger and resentment. The depression of the 1930s and the consequent economic crisis sharpened nationality conflicts as both Slovaks and Sudeten Germans blamed the Czechs. It coincided with the rise of Hitler, whose movement inspired imitations. In Bohemia and Moravia Konrad Henlein led the German National Front, which claimed rights for the Germans within the state, but secretly in 1938 worked for its disruption and union with Germany. Meanwhile, Hitler publicly proclaimed that he would ‘protect’ the Sudeten Germans, who were unable to protect themselves. But not all Germans were enamoured of the Nazis. A significant minority of Social Democrats opted for Czechoslovakia out of hatred for Hitler. In 1938 the Czechs made far-reaching attempts to satisfy the German minority in negotiations with Henlein. But as Henlein had been told at a meeting with Hitler always to ask for more than the Czechs would accede to, these negotiations were doomed. Despite the genuine catalogue of internal difficulties, the ‘multinational’ army was patriotic and loyal and Czechoslovakia was in no danger of internal disruption. It was Hitler’s aggression and Anglo-French diplomacy that destroyed Czechoslovakia in two stages, in September 1938 and in March 1939. The agony of Czechoslovakia had its counterpart in Chamberlain’s triumphant reception after saving the peace in September 1938. For the first time the Western democracies had been brought to the brink of war. The German army high command was alarmed as well by Hitler’s tactics and warned Hitler that the Wehrmacht was not ready for war against France and Czechoslovakia. In August 1938 Colonel Ludwig Beck, the chief of the army general staff, courageously resigned in protest at Hitler’s insistence that Czechoslovakia must be attacked regardless of the risks of war with France. His successor was General Halder. In August both Halder and Beck plotted against Hitler and planned to arrest him before he could plunge Germany into war. The attitude of the majority of the army, including General von Brauchitsch, the commander-in-chief, makes it extremely doubtful whether the plot would have succeeded had it ever materialised. It depended in part on the appeal sent to London secretly urging Chamberlain to stand firm. Not unreasonably, Chamberlain was not prepared to risk the issue of war and peace on the success of a few conspirators in Germany. Chamberlain was pursuing his own peaceful policy. He induced the Czech government to ‘invite’ Lord Runciman early in August to assist as ‘mediator’ in the negotiations between the Czech government and Henlein. In view of Hitler’s instructions to Henlein not to reach a settlement the mission was futile from the start. On 7 September Henlein broke off the negotiations. Hitler now deliberately worked for his pretext to attack Czechoslovakia, having carefully made all the necessary military preparations. The last stage of the German propaganda campaign began with Hitler’s attack on President Benesˇ in a speech to the faithful at Nürnberg. But Chamberlain now began to interfere with Hitler’s well-laid plans. Chamberlain’s personal diplomacy, his flight to visit Hitler at Berchtesgaden on 15 September, caught the public imagination not only in Britain but also in Germany. He had come to find out what Hitler wanted. The crisis would be solved by diplomacy not force. The Czechs were diplomatically bludgeoned into agreeing on the cession of the Sudeten region to Germany and the French were persuaded to desert their Czech ally. But when Chamberlain met Hitler with these fruits of his diplomacy on a second occasion in Godesberg, the Führer refused to give up the use of force and Chamberlain broke off the negotiations. The Czechs mobilised. It looked as if war might still result. What made Hitler draw back on the brink at the end of September and forgo his Blitzkrieg or ‘lightning war’? We can only surmise. He delivered another almost unbelievably insulting speech abusing Benesˇ on 26 September. But the likelihood of war with France and Britain made Hitler hesitate. A probable major influence on his decision not to force a war was the ‘unsatisfactory’ state of German public opinion. Watching the dramatic newsreels, the German cinema audiences applauded the old gentleman with his umbrella so determined to struggle for peace. The Germans feared the consequences of another war with Britain and France. And so Hitler allowed Mussolini the glory of arranging for a peaceful outcome. A conference was called at Munich and Hitler, Mussolini, Daladier and Chamberlain assembled on 29 September. By the early hours of 30 September the formalities of arranging for a German occupation of the Sudeten areas between 1 and 10 October were agreed and a few other details such as a declaration that what was left of Czechoslovakia would be guaranteed once the Poles and Hungarians too were satisfied. Chamberlain even got Hitler to sign the piece of paper he waved at the airport on his return to Britain promising to settle all future Anglo- German differences by diplomacy. The Czechs were not allowed to participate. Nor were the Russians, who in 1938 were still the sworn Bolshevik enemies of Nazi Germany. The new rump Czech–Slovak state did not last long, although she tried to avoid all offence in Germany. The Slovak autonomy movement proved disruptive and in March 1939 Hitler browbeat the Czech president Hacha in Berlin to sign away what was left of the independence of his country. Göring threatened that he would otherwise obliterate Prague with bombs. The Czech will to resist had already been broken at Munich. On 15 March 1939 the Wehrmacht moved in and Hitler hastened to Prague to savour his new triumph. But his cynical breach of the Munich settlement caused revulsion in the West and the crowds that had so recently applauded Chamberlain on his triumphant return from Munich demanded that something should now be done to stop Hitler. Thirty-five well-equipped Czechoslovak divisions were lost to the French ally. Could the French without a ‘second front’ in the east still check Germany on land? Fears were voiced in the British Cabinet that France might even abandon the British alliance and make the best terms it could with Germany. These worries drove both the Cabinet and the military advisers of the government to accept the need for a continental commitment. At the end of March 1939 plans were approved which would double the strength of the British Territorial Army from thirteen to twenty-six divisions. Britain’s foreign policy now had to be aligned to the recently perceived shift in the balance of power on the European continent. After initial hesitations Chamberlain responded in a speech he delivered in Birmingham on 17 March 1939. He accused Hitler of breaking his word and taking the law into his own hands, and asked rhetorically: Is this the end of an old adventure or is it the beginning of a new? Is this the last attack upon a small state or is it to be followed by others? Is this, in effect, a step in the direction of an attempt to dominate the world by force? In London, the Cabinet insisted on steps to create a deterrent alliance to save the peace if it could still be saved. They believed that only the threat of force might stop Hitler. Rumours of an impending German ultimatum to Romania, false as it turned out, served as the initial impetus which led to a unilateral Anglo-French guarantee, announced on 31 March 1939, to defend Romania and Poland against German aggression. Although Chamberlain continued to place faith in conciliating Hitler, he too was converted to the need for a deterrent alliance. Halifax and the Cabinet also urged that the alliance of the Soviet Union, too, should be sought. A sceptical Chamberlain had to give way. The long and weary Anglo-French–Soviet negotiations which followed lasted until 23 August 1939 when Stalin decided that Soviet interests were best served by concluding a non-aggression treaty with Nazi Germany instead. If Britain’s negotiations with Russia and its guarantee (and later alliance) with Poland prove anything, it is that the British never sought to embroil the Germans in a war with Russia while they, themselves, stood aside. Hitler could have invaded Russia on a broad front only by way of Poland or Romania, and Britain’s policy had put up a barrier which could not be breached without involving Britain and France in war as well. It was ironic that the Western democracies should now be aligned with authoritarian Poland, having sacrificed democratic Czechoslovakia. It has been argued that Britain and France were unnecessarily dragged into war by the March 1939 guarantees to Poland. Hitler, so this reasoning runs, would have followed the attack on Poland with an invasion of the Soviet Union. Would this not have been in Britain’s and France’s interest? The speculation about benefit is highly dubious. The evidence, moreover, is by no means so conclusive. At various times after Munich Hitler spoke of having to strike at France first before turning eastwards, on other occasions of finishing Poland first. He hoped by coercion and cajolery to keep Britain neutral. Logically the strategy of the lightning war suggested a quick campaign against Poland, then France, before resuming the war in the east again. In any case this was the path Hitler followed. Our uncertainty concerns only his timing and strategic priorities. Hitler’s well-tried step-by-step policy of aggrandisement entered a new phase in 1939. He recognised that further bloodless successes were unlikely; he welcomed the opportunity of war, preferably against a small, weaker neighbour. Britain and France fought in September 1939 not because Hitler had then forced war on them. They fought because there could no longer be any doubt about the pattern of Hitler’s violence nor about his ultimate goals. It would have been madness to allow him to pick off his victims one by one and to choose his time for overpowering them while reassuring those whose turn had not yet come. Belatedly, by September 1939, Hitler was no longer able to call the tune. For Chamberlain, Hitler’s choice of how to settle his Polish demands was the ultimate test. The intricate diplomacy of the powers from March to September 1939 can only be briefly summarised here. The British and French governments were still seeking a settlement with Hitler and were even prepared to make far-reaching concessions to him after March 1939. They had accepted his seizure of Memel on the Baltic only a week after his entry into Prague. Poland, moreover, had not been guaranteed unconditionally. Its frontiers were not regarded as inviolate. As in the case of Czechoslovakia, if Hitler made ‘reasonable’ demands the Western powers hoped that the Poles would be ‘reasonable’ too. What the two Western powers ruled out, however, was that Hitler should simply seize what he wanted by launching with impunity a war against Poland. In October 1938 Poland was first approached by the Nazi foreign minister Ribbentrop with demands that it return Danzig to Germany, create an extra-territorial corridor to East Prussia and join with Italy and Japan in the anti-communist alignment known as the Anti-Comintern Pact. Then in January 1939 the Polish foreign minister Colonel Beck visited Hitler and was offered a junior partnership as Germany’s ally, with promises of Czech territory and the Soviet Ukraine. During the earlier Czech crisis Hitler had already been helpful in permitting the Poles to acquire the Czech territory of Teschen. It seems that because of Poland’s strong anti-communist past, and the ‘racial’ mixture of Balt and Slav in the population, Hitler was ready to see the ‘best’ Polish elements as a suitable ally. Anti-Semitism and the Polish government’s desire to force Poland’s own Jewish population into emigration was another link between them. But the Poles proved stubborn. They overestimated the worth of their own army and with a population of more than 34 million regarded themselves as almost a great European power. The cession of territory was anathema to them; in Polish history cession of territory had been the prelude to partition. Hitler had offered the Poles what amounted to an alliance in the east. Later, during the war against the Soviet Union, other Slav nations, the Slovaks and Croats, were to become allies. Does this mean that Hitler was flexible about his definition of ‘subhumans’ other than the Jews? Might Poland have been spared the carnage that followed? For 3 million Poles who were Jews the outcome would have been no different; for the rest of the Poles, of whom another 3 million were murdered, the great majority would probably have survived the war as the Czechs did. But the rejection by the Poles of Hitler’s offers as late as 1939 sealed their immediate fate. Beck’s rejection and the Anglo-French guarantee determined Hitler to smash the Poles at the first opportunity. In May 1939 Germany and Italy ostentatiously signed the bombastically named Pact of Steel which, by its terms, committed Italy to go to war whenever Hitler chose that Germany would fight, despite the duce’s explanations that Italy would not be ready for war for another three years. The conquest of Abyssinia and the more recent occupation of little Albania by Italian troops (in April 1939) were one thing, war with France and Britain quite a different prospect. The alliance nevertheless served the purpose of dashing any hopes Chamberlain might have had left of detaching Italy from Germany after his own abortive attempt to achieve this on a visit to Rome the previous January. It was intended to pressurise Britain into neutrality. Far more important was the conclusion on 23 August of a Nazi–Soviet pact, which Hitler hoped would convince Britain and France that it was useless to fight for Poland. August 1939 turned out to be the last full month of peace. The crisis started when Poland insisted on its treaty rights in Danzig and Hitler chose to regard this as a provocation. However, Danzig was not the real issue; nor even was the future of the territory lying between East Prussia and the rest of Germany – the Polish corridor. Rather, it was that Hitler could not tolerate an independent Poland which blocked his road to Lebensraum in the east. The Poles were not impressed either by efforts at intimidating them by the Nazis on the one hand and pressure to be ‘reasonable’ exerted by Britain and France on the other. They had no intention of suffering the fate of Czechoslovakia. But the Chamberlain Cabinet in London and Daladier’s government vainly hoped that the dispute was about no more than Danzig and the corridor and that war could be avoided if Poland gave way. However, from Hitler’s point of view, war with France and Britain would only be postponed, not avoided, that is postponed until he decided that the balance of power was most advantageously in Germany’s favour. To the extent that one can fathom Hitler’s mind, war with Poland was by now a certainty. He told his commanders-in-chief on 22 August that the destruction of Poland was necessary even if it meant conflict with Britain and France. He added that he did not believe it likely that Britain and France would go to war. What was desirable, politically and militarily, was not a settling of all accounts, but concentration on single tasks. Hitler had no intention of allowing the British or French any role as mediators. According to Hitler’s original plans, the attack on Poland was to begin on 26 August. On 25 August at 3 p.m. the order to attack was given and then, much to the annoyance of the Wehrmacht countermanded at 7 p.m. when the final troop movements were already under way. The attack was postponed by Hitler for a few days. How significant was the postponement? Was there a real chance of peace somehow missed by lack of communication or misunderstanding? Chamberlain was aware of the parallel with July 1914. In a personal letter to Hitler on 22 August he made it clear that Britain would stand by its Polish commitments regardless of the German– Soviet pact. Hitler received the letter on 23 August. The flurry of negotiations principally between London and Berlin during the last days of peace were undertaken by Britain to induce Germany and Poland to negotiate the differences over Danzig and the corridor. In that respect there was a parallel between the Czech crisis of 1938 and the Polish crisis. Britain and France would have acquiesced in any territorial gains Germany succeeded in obtaining from Poland without use of force. Mere German blackmail had become almost an acceptable fact of life as far as diplomacy was concerned. But if Germany attacked Poland to gain her ends by force then there was no doubt that Britain would support Poland by declaring war on Germany. The British Cabinet knew no other policy was possible and that the country would not accept another Munich, especially with the Poles, unlike the Czechs, fighting for their country. In France, Daladier firmly controlled his government and Bonnet, the foreign minister, counted for little now; there was no doubt here, too, that an actual German invasion of Poland meant war. That is not to say that Britain and France wanted to fight Germany. Quite the contrary; the two governments were ready to talk and negotiate as long as Hitler did not actually attack. There was no certainty in their minds that he would actually go to war – so talk they did from 25 August until the outbreak of war with Poland, and even for two days beyond that. Only Hitler was sure that he was going to attack Poland and that his military timetable allowed only a few days’ leeway. He used these days not to make any genuine attempt to draw back from the war with Poland, but to try to persuade Britain and France to abandon it. He wanted to postpone war with them until after Poland had been defeated and so avoid, if he could, a war on two fronts. Hitler concentrated on Britain. The most dramatic day of the crisis in Berlin was 25 August. At 1.30 p.m. Hitler talked to the British ambassador, Nevile Henderson, and he put on a very good act; he declared that he wanted to live on good terms with Britain, that he would personally guarantee its world empire, that Germany’s colonial demands were limited and that his offer of a general settlement would follow the solution of the Polish–German disputes, which in any case he was determined to settle. This, he emphasised, was his last offer. He overdid it a little, stretching credulity too far by confiding to Henderson that once the Polish question was out of the way he would conclude his life as an artist and not as a war-maker. About half an hour after Henderson had left the chancellery in Berlin to fly with this offer to London, Hitler ordered the attack on Poland to commence the following day. The war machine was set in motion at 3 p.m. At 5.30 p.m. Hitler received the French ambassador to tell him Germany wanted to live at peace with France and that the issue of peace and war was up to the French. But Hitler was unsettled that afternoon by the news of the imminent conclusion of the Anglo-Polish alliance, and by Mussolini’s message revealing his unwillingness to join Germany in war. In London, meanwhile, the news that the Soviet Union and Germany had signed a treaty, and that the Anglo-French alliance negotiations with Russia had thus ended in failure, meant that nothing now stood in the way of the formal conclusion of the Anglo-Polish alliance, which was signed on 25 August. It promised Poland that Britain would go to war with Germany if Germany attacked Poland. In Berlin it was dawning on Hitler that Britain might not simply desert Poland the very moment Germany attacked it. Then, in the late afternoon of 25 August, Mussolini informed Hitler that Italy did not have the resources to go to war. Not surprisingly Hitler now thought it prudent to give his ‘offer’ to Britain a last chance of being accepted and not to jeopardise his overture by simultaneously attacking Poland. Hitler did not rely on Henderson alone. Göring had initiated the use of an unofficial emissary, Birger Dahlerus, a Swedish businessman, who shuttled between London and Berlin from 25 to 30 August. After his first return from London he saw both Göring and Hitler; unwittingly he became a tool of Hitler’s diplomacy to detach Britain from Poland. If that succeeded, then France also could be counted on to remain out of the war. The British reply on 28 August to Hitler’s ‘last’ offer was to welcome the opportunity of an Anglo- German settlement, but not at Poland’s expense. Instead, the British Cabinet urged direct Polish–German negotiations, offered to act as mediators and informed Hitler that the Poles were willing to enter such negotiations. Germany was warned against the use of force. Henderson saw Hitler on the 28th and again on the evening of 29 August when Hitler angrily conceded direct negotiations – solely, so he claimed, to prove his desire for lasting friendship with Britain. Such proof, he hoped, would dissuade the British from supporting an unreasonable Poland. As Goebbels recorded in his diary, Hitler’s aim was ‘to decouple Warsaw from London and still find an excuse to attack’. Hitler demanded that a special envoy must reach Berlin the very day following, on 30 August. Henderson was upset by the peremptory German reply. He gave as good as he got, shouting back at Hitler and warning him that Britain was just as determined as Germany and would fight. The British Cabinet refused to ‘mediate’ what amounted to an ultimatum. The German demands were unknown yet Hitler was insisting that the Poles should come immediately to Berlin to settle all that Germany required within a time limit of only a few hours. The time limit was ignored in London and discussions about starting direct negotiations were still proceeding on 31 August. Hitler’s time limit for a Polish plenipo- tentiary to present himself in Berlin expired at midnight on 30 August. The Poles were not prepared to rush cap in hand to Hitler. Polish policy has been characterised as suicidal. How could the Poles hope to maintain their independence sandwiched, as they were, between Germany and the Soviet Union? It is perfectly true that Poland’s military situation in September 1939 was hopeless. The Poles overrated their capacity to resist in the short term. So did the French commander-in-chief, General Gamelin, who expected the Poles to be able to hold out until the following spring. The Poles also counted on effective help from France and Britain. There was logic and reason in Poland’s refusal to contemplate significant concessions to Germany in 1939. The recent example of Czechoslovakia showed only too clearly that independence could not be bought for long by making concessions to Hitler. Once started on that road, the Poles believed with good reason, the end at best would be that they might be permitted to remain Germany’s satellite. So they reasoned that if the Germans intended the destruction of Polish independence, it would be better to fight them at the outset with Britain and France as allies than to accept piecemeal subordination to Germany and to risk the loss of the French and British alliance. Furthermore, there was just the possibility that Hitler’s objectives were limited to Danzig and access, through the Polish corridor. For such aims alone, Hitler, so they thought, might not risk a great European war. But if his aims were not limited, then Poland’s only choice was to submit or fight. Accordingly the Polish government came to the conclusion that Poland’s national interests were best served by resisting Hitler’s territorial demands, by holding tight and so testing his real intentions. Hitler’s determination, the Poles vainly hoped, might crack if his policy was based on bluff. Did this Polish attitude then dash hopes of a peaceful settlement? That would have been so only to the extent that, if the Polish government had submitted to whatever Hitler demanded in August 1939, then France and Britain would have had no cause for war in September 1939. But while the British Cabinet and the French government were anxious for the Poles to explore all possibilities of a peaceful settlement with Germany by opening direct negotiations with Hitler, they did not expect the Poles simply to submit to time limits and the threat of force. Hitler, too, would have to demonstrate Germany’s desire for peace by putting forward reasonable terms for a settlement, and by negotiating in a reasonable way without ultimatums. At first sight he appeared to be putting forward what in London and Paris might be considered ‘reasonable’ terms. The German demands were embodied in sixteen points; they struck the British ambassador in Berlin as moderate, when he eventually heard what they were. They included the immediate takeover by Germany of Danzig and a plebiscite later in the corridor to decide whether it was to remain Polish or become German, with the loser being granted extraterritorial rights across the strip of territory. But the method of negotiation belied the apparent moderation of the sixteen points. They were drawn up in strict secrecy and not communicated until after the time set for the appearance in Berlin of a Polish plenipotentiary with full powers to negotiate. In fact, they first reached the ears of the British ambassador just after midnight – in the early hours of 31 August. Henderson had called on the German foreign minister, Ribbentrop, who after a stormy discussion pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket and then read the sixteen demands aloud in German, according to Henderson, at ‘top speed’. Ribbentrop added that since no Pole had arrived they were superseded anyway. He refused the ambassador’s request for a copy. Henderson was astonished at this breach of diplomatic practice and had to rely on his memory for the gist of the proposals. Henderson in Berlin, and Halifax in London, nevertheless tried to persuade the Poles to act quickly to open discussions in Berlin. Not until noon on 31 August did Dahlerus, the innocent intermediary, who was being used by Göring and Hitler in an attempt to keep Britain out of the war, communicate the full terms to the British and Polish ambassadors in Berlin. All the efforts of the professional and amateur diplomats were in vain. The sixteen points and Hitler’s diplomatic manoeuvres in August were designed to provide an alibi to put the Poles in the wrong and so justify war to the German people. Furthermore, Hitler almost to the last seemed to have had some hopes that, if the Poles could be shown to be unreasonable, then France and Britain would refuse to live up to their alliance commitments. But in the last resort he was prepared to risk war with France and Britain rather than abandon the war he was preparing to launch against Poland. The first order to the Wehrmacht, to attack Poland at 4.35 a.m. on 1 September, reached the army high command at 6.30 a.m. on 31 August, that is, several hours before the full text of the ‘moderate’ proposals was communicated to the British and Polish ambassadors in Berlin. It was finally confirmed by Hitler at 4 p.m., little more than three hours after the full text of the sixteen points was first revealed. Hitler was driven by his conviction that the Wehrmacht, navy and Luftwaffe needed a Feuertaufe, a baptism of fire, to maintain their fighting fibre. The German people too had to be taught to accept a real war, not be softened into believing that every victory would be bloodless. Hitler did not hesitate for long. If war with Poland risked a great European war, that risk had to be taken. As Henderson later wrote in his memoirs, the conclusion that Hitler did not want to negotiate at all on the basis of these proposals is inescapable. The invasion of Poland began at 4.45 a.m. on 1 September. Now it is true that in both Paris and London, while Poland fought back, the ministers were still clutching at hopes of restoring peace even less substantial than straws. Mussolini offered again, as at the time of Munich, his mediation and held out hopes that another conference of the powers might be called. But the British Cabinet made it a firm precondition that Germany should first withdraw its troops from Poland. As Hitler would never have accepted this, Mussolini told the British and French that there was no point in his attempting further mediation. Meanwhile, between Paris and London, there was an extraordinary lack of coordination on the very eve of the war. On 1 September, Germany was warned about the consequences of war on Poland only by Britain. On 2 September, Chamberlain faced a hostile and suspicious House of Commons. Was another Munich in the making? But there was no chance that Britain and France this time could avoid war. On 3 September, separate British and French ultimatums led to the declaration of war on Germany, the French actually going to war a few hours after the British, though they did not start attacking Germany for a while longer, and then only ineffectually. There could be no other outcome but a European war once Hitler had decided to attack Poland. Not a single country in Europe wished to attack Germany, but in September 1939 the British and French governments were forced to the conclusion that they must fight in their own defence and not allow Hitler to pick off one European state after another. There can be little doubt that this is precisely what Hitler would have done had he been allowed his war against the Poles. Hitler’s aggression against Poland, despite the clear warnings he received of its consequences on the one hand and the perception of the British and French governments of his real intentions after the unprecedented concessions to his demands in the previous year on the other, thus led to the outbreak of the second great European war within twenty-five years of the first.

 

 

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