Modern history



The anxiety that many ordinary Germans felt about war was, if anything, increased by the international reaction to the destruction of CzechoSlovakia. The British government, led by Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, had regarded the hard-fought Munich Agreement as sacrosanct, a great diplomatic achievement that settled all remaining problems in Central Europe. Chamberlain had believed Hitler’s assurances that he had no more territorial demands to make. Now the piece of paper that Chamberlain had waved at his ecstatic supporters as evidence that he had secured ‘peace for our time’ had been torn to shreds. British opinion, reflected on the back benches of the House of Commons, shifted dramatically against the Germans. Hesitantly, following the advice of the Foreign Office, Chamberlain gave public voice in a speech on 17 March to the suspicion that Hitler was seeking not to right the wrongs of the 1919 Peace Settlement but ‘to dominate the world by force’.164

The next day, the British cabinet agreed to open talks with the Polish government to see how best to stop the Germans threatening their country next. While Britain and France redoubled their efforts to rearm, and feverish negotiations continued with the Poles, news of the German threat to Poland was made public in reports from Berlin carried in the British press on 29 March. Chamberlain immediately issued a public guarantee that if Poland’s independence were threatened, Britain would step in to defend it. The guarantee was intended to deter the Germans. However, it was hedged about with secret qualifications that left the door open for the policy of appeasement to continue. The British cabinet agreed that the guarantee would only come into effect if the Poles did not show ‘provocative or stupid obstinacy’ in the face of German demands for the return of Danzig and the Polish Corridor. Chamberlain, therefore, was still thinking of a negotiated settlement: one which would have left Poland as vulnerable as the Munich Agreement had left Czechoslovakia. Poland, after all, was a far-away country too. Moreover, the guarantee would be effective only if the Polish national forces were mobilized to resist a German invasion by force. The British coupled this condition with dire - and entirely justified - warnings to the Poles about the consequences to them should they actually do this. Chamberlain still continued to hope for peace, therefore, while shifting his ground from outright appeasement to a mixture of appeasement and containment.165

From the German point of view, Chamberlain’s guarantee lacked credibility on a number of grounds. How, to begin with, was Britain actually going to come to the aid of Poland if war really did break out? How could the geographical and logistical problems be overcome? The vagueness of the guarantee, and Chamberlain’s continued equivocations, only served to reinforce these questions. Above all, the experience of the previous years, from the Rhineland to Austria to the Munich Agreement, had implanted in Hitler’s mind the firm conviction that Britain and France would shy away from taking action. Their leaders were spineless nonentities, he thought.166 Moreover, unlike the situation of the previous year, the German army and its leadership had no hesitation about taking on the Poles, who - in contrast to the modern and well-armed Czechs - they regarded as backward, poorly led and poorly equipped. Already at the end of March 1939, Brauchitsch, informed by Hitler that military action would be required against Poland if negotiations over Danzig and the Corridor failed, had drafted a plan of invasion, codenamed ‘Case White’. Hitler approved it, wrote the introduction, in which he declared that he would aim to localize the conflict, and ordered it to be ready for action by the beginning of September 1939. Just as in the previous year, a propaganda campaign now began in Berlin against the object of Germany’s hostile attentions. A five-hour military parade through the city on Hitler’s fiftieth birthday, on 20 April 1939, provided, as Goebbels wrote in his diary, ‘a brilliant representation of German power and strength. Our heaviest artillery’, he added, ‘is being displayed for the first time.’ Just over a week later, on 28 April 1939, Hitler formally announced to the Reichstag the abrogation of the Non-Aggression Pact with Poland signed in 1934 and the Naval Agreement with Britain signed the following year. Early in April 1939, Weizsäcker informed the Poles that the time for negotiation over Danzig and the Corridor was now at an end.167

On 23 May 1939 Hitler told military leaders, including Goring, Halder and Raeder, that ‘further successes cannot be won without bloodshed’. ‘It is not Danzig that is at stake,’ he went on. ‘For us it is a matter of expanding our living-space in the East and making food supplies secure . . . If fate forces us into a showdown with the West it is a good idea to possess a largish area in the East.’ It was necessary therefore to attack Poland at the first suitable opportunity. Hitler conceded that Britain and France might come to Poland’s aid. ‘England is therefore our enemy and the showdown with England is a matter of life and death.’ If possible, Poland would perish alone and unaided. But in the longer run, war with England and France was inevitable. ‘England is the motive force driving against Germany.’ It was to be hoped that such a war would be short. But it was as well to prepare, he said, for a war lasting ten or fifteen years. ‘Time will decide against England.’ If Holland, Belgium and France were occupied, English cities bombed and overseas supplies cut off by a maritime and airborne blockade, England would bleed to death. However, Germany would probably not be ready for the conflict for another five years, he added. German policy in 1939 therefore had to isolate Poland as far as possible and to ensure that the coming military action did not lead immediately to a general European war.168 These rambling and in places even incoherent remarks betrayed Hitler’s uncertainty about the consequences of invading Poland. However, they were accompanied by a concerted diplomatic campaign to cut the Poles off from any possible support. On 22 May the German alliance with Italy was upgraded to a ‘Pact of Steel’, while non-aggression agreements were concluded successfully with Latvia, Estonia and Denmark. A treaty signed in March 1939 gave Germany access to Romanian oil supplies in the event of a war, while similar, if less one-sided, trade links were also negotiated with Sweden and Norway, important sources of iron ore. However, negotiations with Turkey, Yugoslavia and Hungary proved less successful, leading to expressions of goodwill, especially on the economic front, but to few really concrete results.169 The most startling opening was made in the direction of Moscow. Already in May, Hitler was beginning to realize that securing the benevolent neutrality of the Soviet Union, whose long border with Poland was of central strategic importance, would be vital for the success of the invasion. There was a danger that Britain and France would secure Soviet backing for the attempt to contain German aggression. By 6 June 1939, Hitler was no longer including in his speeches his customary diatribes against the menace of world Bolshevism. Instead, he began directing his fire against the Western democracies.170 Behind the scenes, Ribbentrop began pushing for a formal pact with the Soviets. He was encouraged by a speech given by Stalin on 10 March 1939, in which he declared that he would not be willing to come to the rescue of the Western capitalist powers if they got into a conflict with Germany, since their policy of appeasing Hitler’s demands had obviously strengthened Hitler’s long-term aim of attacking the Soviet Union. On 3 May 1939, Stalin sent an unmistakable signal to Berlin by dismissing Maxim Litvinov, his long-term Foreign Minister and a proponent of collective security and civilized relations with the West. He replaced him with his hard-line henchman Vyacheslav Molotov. It escaped nobody’s attention that Litvinov was a Jew, and Molotov was not.171

Stalin was in a difficult position in 1939. Over the previous few years he had carried out violent purges of his top generals, munitions factory managers and senior army officers. There were few left in the higher echelons of the regime with any direct experience of warfare. Competent technical experts had been arrested and killed in their thousands. Soviet military preparedness was lamentable.172 Stalin was aware from June 1939 onwards of Hitler’s intention to invade Poland in late August or early September.173 More than anything else, he needed to ensure that the invasion went no further. He needed time to regroup and rebuild the Red Army, refashion his arms and equipment production, and get ready for the assault he was sure would follow some time after the German conquest of Poland. To some extent, he left open the option of forging an alliance with the Western powers; but they were hesitant, regarding him as unreliable, and Ribbentrop and the German Foreign Office were eager, despite Hitler’s own personal reservations. As the hints from Moscow grew stronger, Ribbentrop saw an opportunity to shock the British, whom he still hated intensely after the humiliations of his time as ambassador in London, and deliver a coup that would win Hitler’s undying gratitude and approval. Negotiations on improving Soviet- German trade relations started, faltered, and started again. Molotov and Ribbentrop both indicated that an economic agreement should have a political dimension. This was not long in taking shape. By early August 1939, Ribbentrop and Weizsäcker, with Hitler’s approval, had drawn up plans for a joint partition of Poland with the Soviets. Still Stalin hesitated. Finally, however, on 21 August he agreed to Hitler’s increasingly urgent requests for a formal pact. Sidelining half-hearted British attempts to reach an agreement, the Soviet dictator invited Ribbentrop to Moscow. By 23 August, Ribbentrop had arrived. By the early hours of the following morning, the Non-Aggression Pact had been signed.174

A formal alliance between two powers that had spent the previous six years mutually vilifying each other in public, and had been the major backers of the two opposing sides in the Spanish Civil War, was unexpected, to say the least.175 However, there were strong reasons for the agreement on both sides. From Hitler’s point of view, it was necessary to secure Soviet acquiescence in the German invasion of Poland, otherwise the nightmare scenario of the invasion broadening out into a European war on two fronts began to look a distinct possibility. From Stalin’s perspective, it provided a respite and opened up the enticing prospect of Europe’s capitalist powers, Germany, France and Britain, fighting a war of mutual destruction between themselves. Moreover, while the published version of the Pact committed both states not to make war on each other for ten years, to settle disputes by negotiation or third-party arbitration, and to increase their trade with one another, its secret clauses allocated spheres of influence in East-Central Europe to Germany and the Soviet Union, under which Stalin would take over the eastern part of Poland, together with Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, and Hitler the western part. The significance of these clauses was enormous. Both Hitler and Stalin realized that the Pact was unlikely to last the stipulated ten years. Indeed, it did not even last two. But in the longer run, the boundary it drew in Poland between the German and Soviet spheres was to prove permanent, while the Soviet occupation of the Baltic states was to last until near the end of the twentieth century.176

There were other consequences of the Pact too. During the detailed negotiations, the German side raised the question of German political refugees in the Soviet Union. Stalin had no interest in protecting them; indeed he was deeply suspicious of foreigners of any kind who had found a home in Russia, and of many of the Russians who came into contact with them. So he agreed to send them back to the Third Reich. Some 4,000 German citizens were duly rounded up and handed over to the Gestapo by the Soviet authorities after the Pact had been signed. Between 1,000 and 1,200 were German Communists. Some, like Margarete Buber-Neumann, had already been imprisoned by Stalin’s secret police before being sent to a German concentration camp; her husband, Heinz Neumann, had been purged from the German Party leadership in 1932 for urging a united front with the Social Democrats against the Nazi threat; sent first to Spain, then Moscow, he had been arrested in 1937 and executed. His widow was deported directly from a Soviet labour camp to Ravensbrück concentration camp in 1940. For those German Communist exiles who were Jewish, an even worse fate was in store. The conductor and composer Hans Walter David was one of their number. Born in 1893, he had fled to Paris in 1933 then Moscow in 1935. He fell victim to Stalin’s great purge in 1937, and was sentenced to a labour camp in 1939 for allegedly spying for the Germans, an example of Stalin’s paranoid suspicion of foreigners in the Soviet Union. In April 1940, David was informed that his sentence had been commuted into one of deportation. He was handed over to the Germans on 2 May 1940, and murdered by the SS. In February 1940 a grateful German Embassy in Moscow thanked the Soviet authorities for their co-operation in locating and surrendering a large number of exiles like him.177

Meanwhile, Communist parties all over Europe struggled to sell the Pact to their members, many of whom had joined in the first place because the party seemed to offer the best guarantee of carrying the fight against fascism to the enemy. Disorientation followed disbelief. Many felt betrayed. Yet before long, most Communists had come round to the idea that the Pact might not be such a bad thing after all. Years of schooling in party discipline, of supporting every twist and turn in party doctrine and policy, made it easy in the end to accept even this startling U-turn. Some thought it might even lead to the legalization of the Communist Party in Germany; many believed that a war between the capitalist powers was none of their business anyway; all revered Stalin as a great thinker and master of political tactics, a world genius who always knew best and whose decisions were always right.178 Some Nazis, too, were doubtful about the wisdom of the Pact. Anti-Communism was a central tenet of Nazi ideology, and now Hitler seemed to be betraying it. The morning after the Pact’s announcement, the front garden of the Brown House, the Nazi Party headquarters in Munich, was covered in Party badges thrown there in disgust by disgruntled Party members. Alfred Rosenberg, the arch-anti-Communist, blamed Ribbentrop’s ambition for the Pact. An alliance with Britain would have been preferable, he thought. Nevertheless, like most other Nazis, he was so inured to accepting Hitler’s every decision as above discussion that he acquiesced anyway. Many realized therapprochement with the Soviet Union was purely tactical. ‘The Leader has made a brilliant move,’ wrote Goebbels admiringly in his diary.179


Hitler’s growing sense of urgency in the last days and weeks before the signing of the Pact derived not least from the fact that the invasion of Poland had already been fixed for 26 August 1939.180 In the meantime, Hitler had taken steps to avoid a build-up of the kind of ‘war psychosis’ that had made the mass of ordinary Germans so uneasy during the Czechoslovak crisis the previous summer. He made a point of carrying on in public as if nothing out of the ordinary was going on, going on a tour of his childhood haunts in Austria, visiting the Bayreuth Festival, taking part in a massive street parade of German art and culture in Munich and whiling away several weeks at his mountain retreat on the Obersalzberg. He announced that the annual Party Rally in Nuremberg would be a ‘Rally of Peace’ and would begin early in September (by which time he in fact envisaged that German armies would be marching across Poland). And he made a point of focusing public references to Poland on the position of Danzig. In reality this was a side-issue, no more than a pretext, if that. But from May onwards, Goebbels’s daily press instructions unfolded a hate campaign against Poland that made it seem as if the ethnic German inhabitants of the country, and above all of Danzig, were in constant, mortal and growing danger from violence meted out to them by Poles. ‘Ethnic Germans flee from Polish terror’, screamed the headlines. ‘German houses broken into with axes - Terrorized by Poles for weeks - Hundreds of refugees are arrested by the Poles’. Poles were allegedly murdering ethnic Germans, shooting at German passers-by in Danzig, and generally threatening to make their lives unbearable. Although the Polish government’s policy towards the ethnic German minority had been considerably less liberal and tolerant than that of its Czech counterpart, these stories were grotesque exaggerations if not pure invention. For their part, the Nazis who dominated the political scene in Danzig kept up the pressure by provoking the Poles and staging incidents for the German press to exploit, such as mounting violent attacks on Polish customs officers and spreading atrocity stories when the officers defended themselves.181

But the barrage of propaganda let fly by Goebbels made it seem as if it was the Sudetenland all over again, and that the incorporation of Danzig into the Reich, coupled with some as yet undefined arrangement over the Polish Corridor, and perhaps brokered again by Britain and France, was what Hitler was after. Even the Social Democrats conceded that the Poles were despised and disliked by the vast majority of the German population, including workers, who saw them as dirty, backward, and cheap competition in the labour market. The clashes that had taken place in Silesia at the end of the First World War had lost none of their bitter resonances twenty years on. Yet the hope was general that the issue would be settled peacefully. ‘Danzig’, Social Democratic sympathizers were reported as thinking, ‘. . . is a purely German city after all. Who can have anything against Germany gathering it to itself again? The Danzig matter is basically much simpler than things were with Czechoslovakia.’ Surely England and France would understand that.182

Such sentiments were common amongst supporters of the Nazis too. ‘None of us’, Melita Maschmann later recalled, ‘doubted that Hitler would avoid war if he could possibly contrive to do so.’183 He had, after all, done it so many times before. Hitler was a diplomatic genius, and they believed his assurances that he was a man of peace.184 Reporting on the attitude towards the crisis shown by the rural population in the Bavarian district of Ebermannstadt, a local official concluded bluntly on 30 June 1939: ‘The desire for peace is stronger than the desire for war. Amongst the overwhelming majority of the population a solution to the Danzig question will therefore only find agreement if this happens in the same bloodless way as the previous annexations in the East have.’185The idea that Hitler wanted a peaceful solution to the Danzig problem was not just intended to keep the anxieties of the domestic population at a minimum; on 11 August 1939 Hitler met the League of Nations High Commissioner in Danzig, the Swiss diplomat Carl Burckhardt, at the Obersalzberg, at his own request, to indicate his readiness to negotiate with the British. At the same time, he managed to spoil this calculated pose of reasonableness by shouting that he would destroy Poland completely if its government failed to comply with his demands.186

None of Hitler’s diplomatic moves had much of an effect on the stance taken by the other international players in this deadly game, not even his announcement of the Nazi-Soviet Pact. The Polish government had always been suspicious and resentful of the Soviet Union, with which Poland had fought a bitter war in the early 1920s, so from this point of view the Pact made little difference. The events in Danzig and similar disturbances in Silesia only stiffened the Poles’ resolve to resist any kind of deal, given the fact that it would deliver them up to Germany just as the Munich Agreement had delivered up the Czechs. But in any case a deal seemed unlikely. Both the British and the French governments insisted that the Nazi-Soviet Pact could not alter their decision to stand by Poland, as Chamberlain told Hitler in a letter couriered to him at the Obersalzberg by the generally pro-German British Ambassador Sir Nevile Henderson on 23 August 1939. Receiving the letter, Hitler subjected Henderson to a wild tirade against the British, who were, he shouted accusingly, determined to exterminate Germany altogether in the interests of inferior races. On 25 August 1939, however, back in Berlin, Hitler took a different tack, offering Henderson in sweeping if rather vague terms a general settlement with Britain once the Polish question was solved. While Henderson flew back to London for consultations, Hitler learned that the British had just signed a military alliance with Poland. Ribbentrop’s poor reputation in Britain was clearly frustrating his attempt to win Chamberlain round. Sidelining his Foreign Minister for the moment, Hitler turned to Goring, who had always enjoyed a better reputation in London. Göring’s Swedish friend Birger Dahlerus was sent to take further soundings in the British capital. They elicited the response, delivered by Henderson on 28 August 1939, that the British government was willing to guarantee peacefully negotiated German-Polish boundaries and to support the return of the German overseas colonies mandated to the League of Nations in the 1919 Peace Settlement, but that the British were still committed to back Poland by force of arms should the Germans invade.187

On 22 August 1939, Hitler summoned top commanders of the armed forces to the Obersalzberg to tell them the invasion was going ahead. They arrived in civilian clothing so as to avoid suspicion. The Pact with Stalin was about to be signed, and he was in a confident mood. He had already decided in the spring that he was going to invade Poland, he said. ‘I first thought I would turn against the West in a few years, and only after that against the East. But the sequence of these things cannot be fixed.’ The Polish situation had become intolerable. The moment to strike had come. ‘England and France have undertaken obligations which neither is in a position to fulfil. There is no real rearmament in England, but only propaganda.’ Thus there would be no general war if he invaded Poland. The risks for the Western democracies were too great. At the same time, the conquest of the East would open up supplies of grain and raw materials which would frustrate any future attempt at a blockade. ‘A start has been made on the destruction of England’s hegemony.’ ‘Our enemies’, he added, ‘are tiny little worms. I came to know them in Munich.’188 Over lunch, a number of the officers present had let their disquiet at these sentiments become apparent. Many of them felt that Hitler was deceiving himself when he claimed that Britain and France would not intervene. To stiffen their resolve, Hitler addressed them again in the afternoon. ‘Everyone’, he told them, ‘must hold the view that we have been determined to fight the western Powers from the start. A life and death struggle.’ The Western leaders were ‘weaker men’. Even if they declared war, there was little they could do in the short run. ‘The destruction of Poland remains the priority,’ he concluded.189

Hitler in fact continued to believe that the British would not intervene; the long-term threat of American power, he thought, would drive them towards an alliance with Germany.190 But the intention, which he made clear to the generals at this time, of launching the invasion on 26 August was unexpectedly frustrated by Mussolini, who felt affronted that despite all the assurances contained in the Pact of Steel, Hitler had chosen not to take him fully into his confidence over Poland. The news of the planned invasion, communicated to Ciano by Ribbentrop earlier in the month, had come as a complete surprise to the Italians. On 24 August 1939 Hitler had written to Mussolini personally asking for Italian backing. The troops had already been given their marching orders on 25 August 1939, when Mussolini’s reply arrived at the Reich Chancellery: German airports had already been closed, the annual Nuremberg Rally cancelled, and food rationing introduced with effect from 27 August 1939. Mussolini told Hitler that Italy was not in a position to offer any military assistance in the event of a war. ‘The Italians are behaving just like they did in 1914,’ fumed Hitler. He cancelled the marching orders, and the invasion ground to a halt just before it reached the Polish border.191

The endgame was now under way. Overcoming his fury at the Italians, who compounded their offence by offering to call a conference with the British and the French to impose a settlement on the lines of the Munich Agreement, Hitler made a last effort to secure Anglo-French neutrality. Further meetings with Henderson failed to budge the British on the crucial issue of their guarantee to Poland in the event of armed conflict. Much of what Hitler had to say, including the offer of a plebiscite in the Corridor coupled with the return of Danzig to Germany, was no more than window-dressing designed to assure the German public that he had made every effort to maintain peace. When Ribbentrop communicated the offer to Henderson in the Reich Chancellery at midnight on 29 August 1939, he read it out at a speed too great for the ambassador to make proper notes, then flung it on the table saying it was out of date anyway. The interpreter at the meeting later reported that the atmosphere had been so bad he thought the two men would come to blows. Hitler had his offer broadcast on German radio on the evening of 30 August 1939, blaming the British and the Poles, who had been asked at the last minute to send an emissary to Berlin, for its failure. By this time, the army had been given a fresh set of orders to march into Poland in the early hours of 1 September 1939.192

Acting according to plans arranged some time before by Heydrich, SS men in civilian clothing staged a mock assault on the German radio station at Gleiwitz, in Upper Silesia. Its staff were replaced by another detachment from the SS. Evidence of the Poles’ supposedly murderous assault was provided by two concentration camp inmates from Sachsenhausen, killed by lethal injections and dumped at the radio station to be photographed by the German media. The orders, approved by Hitler personally, referred to the bodies as ‘canned goods’. A third man, Franz Honiok, a pro-Polish German citizen, was arrested on 30 August 1939 as someone who could be plausibly identified as a Polish irregular, and taken out of the police gaol by the SS at Gleiwitz the next day. He was put to sleep with an injection, placed inside the radio station, and, still unconscious, shot dead. To lend further authenticity to the action, the Polish-speaking SS men shouted anti-German slogans into the microphone before leaving. Normally the radio station was only used for emergency weather forecasts, so hardly anybody was listening. Elsewhere, two other border incidents were staged by SS men dressed in Polish army uniforms. As one SS man came out of a German customs house that he had just helped smash to pieces, he stumbled over several dead bodies wearing Polish uniforms. Their heads, he reported later, were shaven, their faces had been beaten to make them unrecognizable, and their bodies were completely rigid.193

At a quarter to five on the morning of 1 September 1939 the German battleship Schleswig-Holstein opened fire on the Polish garrison and ammunition depot at the Westerplatte, a peninsula off the Vistula estuary which commanded the entrance to Danzig’s harbour, and Stuka dive-bombers passed low over the city. Polish railway and postal officials were attacked by local German police units and shooting broke out in a number of places. Albert Forster, the Nazi Party Regional Leader in Danzig, put the League of Nations commissioner Burckhardt under house arrest and then gave him two hours to leave. Burckhardt packed his bags and drove off to Lithuania. All along the border between Poland and Germany, units of the German armed forces raised the customs barriers and drove through into Polish territory, while planes of the German air force flew into Polish airspace laden with bombs to drop on Poland’s railways, roads and bridges, army bases, towns and cities. At ten in the morning, Hitler addressed a hastily summoned Reichstag. Exhausted and overwrought by the frantic negotiations of the previous days, Hitler was nervous and confused, stumbling over his words several times and making an unusually hesitant impression. The Poles had committed no fewer than fourteen serious violations of the border the previous night, he said (alluding to the incidents staged by Heydrich’s men). Retaliation was necessary for these and other outrages. ‘Henceforth, bomb will be avenged with bomb. He who fights with poison shall be fought with poison gas. He who distances himself from the rules of a humane conduct of warfare can only expect us to take the same step.’ After the speech was over, the deputies solemnly voted to incorporate Danzig into the Reich. But not before Hitler had sounded a note that was not only full of foreboding but also replete with prophecy. He was ready to make any sacrifice, he said. ‘I now wish to be nothing other than the first soldier of the German Reich. Therefore I have put on that tunic which has always been the most holy and dear to me. I shall not take it off again until after victory is ours, or - I shall not live to see the day!’ Suicide in the event of defeat was already at the back of his mind.194


In Britain and France, as in Poland, the armed forces had been preparing for war since the beginning of the crisis. The British government ordered full mobilization on 31 August and, fearing air attacks, began to evacuate women and children from the cities. Sandbags were piled up outside government buildings, orders were given for nightly blackouts, and Chamberlain began discussing the formation of a war cabinet including such opponents of appeasement as Winston Churchill. But the feverish comings and goings of late August had begun to convince Chamberlain that a peaceful solution might be possible. Furious arguments broke out within the British cabinet. While Chamberlain dithered, his Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax continued to negotiate with the French, the Italians and the Germans. The negotiations got nowhere. A majority of the cabinet, brushing aside arguments for a delay, backed the issuing of a ‘final warning’ to Hitler. On the evening of 1 September 1939, Henderson told the German government that the conference proposed by the Italians on the Polish situation, based on Hitler’s offer of 29 August, could only take place if German forces ceased fire and withdrew.195

On 2 September 1939, after more hours of telephone conversations between the British Foreign Office, the French and the Italians, Chamberlain faced a packed House of Commons shortly before eight o’clock in the evening. He began by telling members that he had received no reply from Hitler to the final warning delivered the previous day. ‘It may be’, he went on, ‘that the delay is caused by consideration of a proposal which, meanwhile, had been put forward by the Italian Government, that hostilities should cease and that there should then immediately be a conference between the Five Powers, Great Britain, France, Poland, Germany and Italy.’ He made no mention of a time-limit for a response, no reference to the carnage and devastation now in progress as Polish troops and civilians were being slaughtered by German ground and air attacks. His equivocal words made it look like Munich all over again. But the mood in the political elite, as in the country, had changed since March 1939. The great majority were now convinced that the Third Reich was aiming at European if not world domination, and that the time had come to stop it. A wave of fury swept across the House. As Arthur Greenwood stood up to deliver the opposition’s reply, he was rudely interrupted. ‘Speaking for the Labour Party,’ Greenwood began. ‘Speak for England!’ shouted a Tory backbencher, Leo Amery. It was a sentiment widely felt across the House.196

Greenwood rose to the occasion. ‘I am greatly disturbed’, he said. ‘An act of aggression took place thirty-eight hours ago . . . I wonder how long we are prepared to vacillate at a time when Britain, and all that Britain stands for, and human civilization are in peril.’ Chamberlain was shattered by the hostility his words had aroused. A visitor in the public gallery later described him as ‘a dithering old dodderer with shaking voice and hands’. A majority of the cabinet met informally immediately afterwards without him, appalled at his backsliding. He would have to issue an ultimatum to the Germans, they decided. Halifax and Chamberlain feared that if they did not issue it, the government would fall. Public opinion in Britain was behind firm action. As a huge thunderstorm broke over London, the cabinet met at 11.20 in the evening and took its decision. The next morning, at nine o’clock on 3 September 1939, Henderson handed a formal ultimatum to the German Foreign Ministry. Unless the Germans agreed to a ceasefire and withdrawal within two hours, Britain and Germany would be at war.197

The Germans replied in a lengthy, pre-prepared document handed over to Henderson shortly after the ultimatum expired at 11 a.m. It asserted that all Germany wanted to do was to correct the injustices of the Treaty of Versailles and blamed Britain for encouraging Polish aggression. At noon the French presented a similar, if somewhat lengthier ultimatum. It too was rejected, amidst assurances that Germany had no intention of invading France. By this time, Chamberlain had already broadcast to the British people that in the absence of a satisfactory reply to the ultimatum, ‘this country is now at war with Germany’. ‘Everything that I have worked for,’ he told the House of Commons shortly afterwards, ‘everything that I have hoped for, everything that I have believed in in my public life has crashed into ruins.’ In the early afternoon, the news was broadcast to the German nation in a series of proclamations issued by Hitler. He had done everything he could to preserve peace, he told them, but British warmongering had made it impossible. The British people were not to blame, only their Jewish-plutocratic leaders. To the Nazi Party and its members he was more forthright. ‘Our Jewish democratic global enemy has succeeded in placing the English people in a state of war with Germany,’ he told them, and added: ‘The year 1918 will not repeat itself.’198

Others were not so sure. The conservatives who had come together during the Munich crisis of the previous year to oppose Hitler’s drive towards war were even more appalled as he turned his attention to Poland. In various ways they tried to make contact with the British and French governments, but their messages were mixed - some urged greater firmness, others a general European settlement - and they were not taken very seriously.199 When Hitler rescinded his initial orders for the invasion of Poland, a few, including Schacht, Oster and Canaris, thought briefly that the blow to his prestige would bring him down. But they had no backing from the generals this time. The senior officers’ greater, and wholly justified, military confidence in the face of Polish opposition, their long-nurtured ambitions to deal a blow to the Poles, their further months of being browbeaten and intimidated by the Nazi Leader, and their surprise and relief at the successful dismemberment of Czechoslovakia had overcome any reservations they still had about the overall thrust of Hitler’s policy. A year on from the Munich crisis, the armed forces were in a far greater state of readiness; the Soviet Union had been neutralized; and there was in reality nothing the British or the French could do to rescue Poland from oblivion. Hitler had wanted to go to war in September 1938 and been frustrated at the last minute by Anglo-French intervention. This time, his resolve was far greater. For all the tergiversations of the last days of August 1939, his determination to invade Poland, even at the risk of a general European war, could not be shaken. When Goring, still trying to avoid a conflict with the British, suggested to him on 29 August 1939 that it was not necessary to ‘gamble everything’, Hitler replied: ‘In my life, I’ve always put my whole stake on the table.’200

Going for broke was not something that appealed immediately to the mass of the German people. By 29 August 1939 they were becoming seriously alarmed. The mood in the rural Bavarian district of Ebermannstadt, reported an official, was ‘considerably depressed . . . Although signs of a fear of war are nowhere to be found . . . there can be no question of enthusiasm for war either. The memory of the world war and its consequences is still much too fresh to allow space for a jingoistic mood.’ The outbreak of war, added another report filed a few weeks later, caused a general ‘despondency’ amongst the population.201 Social Democratic observers concurred: there was ‘no enthusiasm for war’.202 Standing on the Wilhelmplatz around noon on 3 September, William L. Shirer joined a crowd of about 250 people who heard the loudspeakers announce the British declaration of war. ‘When it was finished,’ he reported, ‘there was not a murmur.’ He decided to sample the mood a little further: ‘I walked in the streets,’ he went on. ‘On the faces of the people astonishment, depression . . . In 1914, I believe, the excitement in Berlin on the first day of the World War was tremendous. To-day, no excitement, no hurrahs, no cheering, no throwing of flowers, no war fever, no war hysteria.’ There was no rebirth of the legendary spirit of 1914 in September 1939. The propaganda war to fill Germans with hate for their new enemies had failed.203

Apprehension and anxiety were the commonest emotions as Germany entered a state of war. In Hamburg, Luise Solmitz was in despair. ‘Who is going to carry off the miracle?’ she asked on 29 August 1939. ‘Who is going to help tortured humanity away from war to peace? Easy to answer: nothing and no one . . . A butchery is beginning such as the world has not yet experienced.’204 It was, above all, fear of bombing raids on German cities that spread despondency. If anything, it was made worse by the elaborate air-raid precautions people were now enjoined by their Block Wardens to undertake. ‘ “Air-raids,” ’ said an acquaintance to Luise Solmitz’s husband on 31 August 1939, ‘ “well, it’s not so terrible if we really do cop it a bit. It will take the pressure off the front.” Is the front relieved, said Fr[iedrich], if the soldiers’ parents, wives, children and homes are annihilated?’205 Without expecting much protection from them, Luise Solmitz sewed sandbags to put in front of her windows. ‘A world full of blood and atrocity,’ she noted as the war broke out. ‘And so we enter a time that has been so dreaded and feared, a time in comparison to which the 30 Years’ War was a Sunday School outing . . . Now that Europe’s wounds have been healed after 21 years, the West will be annihilated.’206


War had been the objective of the Third Reich and its leaders from the moment they came to power in 1933. From that point up to the actual outbreak of hostilities in September 1939, they had focused relentlessly on preparing the nation for a conflict that would bring European, and eventually world, domination for Germany. The megalomania of these ambitions had been apparent in the gigantism of the plans developed by Hitler and Speer for Berlin, which was to become Germania, the new world capital. And the limitless scale of the Nazi drive for conquest and dominion over the rest of the world entailed a correspondingly thoroughgoing attempt to remould the minds, spirits and bodies of the German people to make them capable and worthy of the role of the new master-race that awaited them. The ruthlessly thorough co-ordination of German social institutions that gave the Nazi Party a near-monopoly over the organization of daily life from 1933 onwards was only a beginning. To be sure, Hitler and the leading Nazis had proclaimed in 1933-4 that they wanted to combine the best of the old and the new Germany in the creation of the Third Reich, to synthesize tradition and revolution and to reassure conservative elites as much as they channelled the élan of their own movement into the building of a new Germany. At the end of June 1934, indeed, the demands of the more radical Nazis for permanent revolution were ruthlessly quashed in the ‘Night of the Long Knives’ at the same time as conservatives were given a bloody reminder that the Third Reich was not going to go back to anything like the old order of the Kaiser’s day.

Yet the synthesis of the old and the new that the bloodshed of 30 June 1934 seemed to restore was in reality already being undermined.

Unevenly, but unmistakeably, the balance was shifting in favour of the new. Unlike other regimes founded on the defeat of a Marxist revolution, such as Hungary, the Third Reich brought with it far more than a mere counter-revolution. Its ambitions extended far beyond the restoration of any real, imagined, sanitized or improved status quo. Almost immediately, the Nazi regime began attempting to co-ordinate all the major institutions that, for tactical reasons, it had not tried to bring under its aegis at the beginning of the Third Reich: the army, the Churches and business. This proved a difficult task, since the priorities of rearmament required circumspection where business and the military were concerned, while the assault on people’s most deeply held religious beliefs aroused perhaps the most open and outspoken opposition that the Nazis encountered following the suppression of the labour movement. Yet by 1939 a good deal of headway had been made. Business, initially enthusiastic about the profits to be made from recovery and rearmament, had proved insufficiently patriotic from the Nazi point of view, and from 1936 onwards it was increasingly dragooned, regimented and outflanked in a state-led drive for military preparedness that relegated the profit motive to an issue of secondary importance. Schacht’s bold, imaginative but ultimately conventional economic management was thrown overboard in 1937-8 when it began to impose limits on the drive to all-out war. The armed forces had been brought willingly under Hitler’s control from 1934, and happily co-operated with rearmament for the next three years. But as senior officers like Beck, Blomberg and Fritsch began to drag their feet as the pace of events quickened early in 1938, they were replaced, along with Foreign Minister Neurath; the remaining doubters were silenced for the moment by Hitler’s successful annexation of the Sudetenland in September 1938.

By this time, too, the regime had imposed itself unambiguously in the sphere of cultural policy, making its views on modernist art patently clear in the Degenerate Art exhibition staged in Munich in July 1937. And it had begun to impose a ruthlessly eugenic social policy that swept traditional Christian morality aside in the search to produce a physically and spiritually perfect Aryan race. Here, radical policies were introduced from the very beginning, with the forcible sterilization of the allegedly degenerate and the beginnings of the removal of Jews from the civil service, the professions, economic life, and, with the promulgation of the Nuremberg Laws of 1935, the sexual life of the Germans as well. Here too, however, the pace quickened noticeably in 1938, with new laws on marriage and divorce designed to ensure that only hereditarily fit Germans were allowed to procreate, and childless couples were encouraged to split up in the interests of the race. The antisemitic violence of the pogrom of 9-10 November 1938, the subsequent final expropriation of Germany’s Jewish community, and their removal from the remaining areas of social and cultural life shared with the rest of the population, were only the most dramatic expressions of this quickening of pace. Less widely noticed, but for those it affected no less serious in its consequences, was the transformation of the concentration camps in 1937-8 from places of confinement and coercion for the remnants of the Social Democratic and Communist political opposition, now thoroughly defeated, to dumping-grounds for the eugenically undesirable, who were increasingly employed as slave labourers in heavy quarrying and other jobs designed, ultimately, to kill them.

In none of this were the Nazis attempting to turn the clock back. On the contrary, in every sphere, their infatuation with modernity quickly became apparent. It was present not just in the design rooms of arms factories, shipyards, aircraft construction companies, munitions production lines, medical research laboratories and chemical companies. Eugenics, including forced sterilization, was itself commonly accepted by scientists and commentators across the world as the modern face of social policy. For those who espoused it, belief in the centrality of race in human affairs also derived its legitimacy from what they regarded as the latest discoveries of modern science. Modernity also took on a concrete, physical form in the Third Reich. New drugs, synthetic substitutes for petrol, rubber and natural fibres, new means of communication such as television, new kinds of metal alloy, rockets that could be fired into space - all of these and much more were enthusiastically backed by the state, through government-financed research institutes and subsidies to big companies for research and development. The public face of Nazi modernism was evident in the motorways, carving imperiously through hills and spanning deep valleys in gleaming-white, clean and modern constructions; in Nazi buildings like the Order Castles or the site of the Nuremberg Party Rally or the new Reich Chancellery in Berlin, where the latest techniques were clothed in a neo-Classical garb that was the latest fashion in public architecture across the globe. Even in art, where Hitler ensured that every product of the leading modernist movements of the day was swept off the walls of German galleries and museums, the massive, muscular figures sculpted by Arno Breker and his imitators spoke not of traditional human forms but of a new type of man, physically perfect and ready for violent action. Even the idyllic country scenes painted by the ‘blood-and-soil’ school of German artists spoke not of a return to a rural world mired in the hierarchical and hidebound past, but rather of a new order where the peasant would be independent, prosperous and proud, delivering the food that would sustain Germany in the conflicts to come. For millions of Germans, the Third Reich, with its real or planned mass distribution of technological wonders such as the People’s Receiver or the People’s Car, meant modernity and progress available to all.207

Modernity was linked in the minds of the leading Nazis to conflict and war. Social Darwinism, the scientifically sanctioned principle that underlay so much Nazi thinking, postulated a world in which nations and races were engaged in a perpetual struggle for survival. Thus there was a paramount need, as Hitler and the leading Nazis saw it, to make Germany and the Germans fit for combat. As the urgency of this need grew rapidly, above all from late 1937 onwards, so the radicalism and the ruthlessness of the regime grew with it.208 Traditional restraints were cast aside. The thoroughness and ruthlessness of the Nazi attempt to remould Germany and the Germans were virtually unparalleled elsewhere. Every part of intellectual and cultural life was bent to serve the purposes of preparing the people’s minds for war. Schools and universities were increasingly turned into training-camps, to the detriment of scholarship and learning. Training camps, indeed, sprang up everywhere and affected almost every area of life, and not just for the young. The Third Reich was engaged in a vast experiment in human engineering, both physical and spiritual, that recognized no limits in its penetration of the individual’s body and soul, as it tried to reconfigure them into a co-ordinated mass, moving and feeling as one. From the outset, coercion and fear were as much a part of this process as propaganda and persuasion. If ever a state merited being called totalitarian, then it was the Third Reich.

In all these spheres, the Third Reich moved appreciably closer to its goals in the six and a half years that elapsed between its beginnings in the spring of 1933 and the outbreak of war in the autumn of 1939. And yet, six and a half years is not a long time; scarcely long enough to achieve the scale and depth of the transformations the Nazis sought. In one area after another, the totalitarian impulse was forced to compromise with the intractability of human nature. The scale and severity of repression drove people into the private sphere, where they felt relatively safe in talking freely about politics; in public they paid the regime its necessary dues, but for most of them, that was all. The regime’s most popular domestic policies and institutions were those that catered for people’s private aspirations and desires: Strength Through Joy, National Socialist Welfare, job creation, the reduction of unemployment, a general feeling of stability and order after the alarms and excursions of the Weimar years. The overwhelming majority of adults, whose minds and beliefs had been formed before the onset of the Third Reich, kept their own values more or less intact; sometimes they overlapped strongly with those of the Nazis, sometimes they did not. It was above all the younger generation whom the Nazis targeted. In the long term, as the Third Reich moved steadily through its projected thousand years, the reservations of the older generations would not matter. The future lay with the young, and the future would be Nazi.

The young too, of course, like their elders, wanted their private pleasures, and the more they felt cheated of them by their perpetual mobilization in the Hitler Youth, the schools and the universities, the more they grumbled about life under the Third Reich. Some teachers and university professors managed to distance themselves from Nazi ideology, though the alternatives they had to offer were seldom dramatically different from the ideas the Nazis purveyed. The entertainment content of the media, film, radio, magazines, theatre and the rest, grew over time as boredom with outright propaganda amongst young and old became apparent. Education and culture did manage to survive, though only in a compromised form. Yet despite all this, six and a half years of incessant, unremitting propaganda had their effect. All commentators, whatever their point of view, were united in their belief that the younger generations, those born from the mid-1920s onwards, were on the whole more thoroughly imbued with the ideas and beliefs of National Socialism than their elders were. It was for example above all young people, even children, who took part in the pogrom of November 1938 in the wake of the stormtroopers and SS who began the violence, while their elders in many places stood aside, aghast at the mayhem on the streets. But even the older generations were far from completely immune: antisemitism in particular was so insistently propagated that people began to use its language almost without thinking, and to think of the Jews as a race apart, however much they might have deplored the open violence of the November pogrom in 1938 or sympathized with individual Jews with whom they were personally acquainted.

Map 22. Prewar German Annexations

Above all, however, it was the Nazis’ nationalism that won people’s support. However concerned they were at the threat of a general war, there was no mistaking the pride and satisfaction of the great majority of Germans, including many former Social Democrats and in all likelihood not a few ex-Communists as well, at Hitler’s achievement in throwing off the universally hated yoke of Versailles. Resignation from the League of Nations, the plebiscite in the Saar, the remilitarization of the Rhineland, the annexation of Austria, the incorporation of the Sudetenland, the regaining of Memel, the takeover of Danzig - all of this seemed to Germans to be wiping out the shame of the 1919 Peace Settlement, restoring Germany to its rightful place in the world, claiming for Germans the right to self-determination granted to so many other nations at the end of the First World War.

All of this also appeared to Germans as the work above all of one man, Adolf Hitler, Leader of the Third Reich. The propaganda image of Hitler as the world statesman who had given back Germans pride in their country almost single-handedly did not, of course, entirely correspond to reality. Even in the area of foreign policy there were occasions, notably the annexation of Austria, where he had followed the lead of others (in this case Goring), or, as in the Munich crisis, been forced against his inclination to yield to international pressure. Others, notably Ribbentrop, had also wielded considerable influence on the decision-making process at key moments. Nevertheless, it had indeed been Hitler above all others who, sometimes encouraged by his immediate entourage, sometimes not, drove Germany down the road to war between 1933 and 1939. He laid down the broad parameters of policy and ideology for others to apply in detail. At crucial junctures he took personal command, often uncertainly and hesitantly at particular moments of crisis, but always pushing on towards his ultimate goal: war. The story of the Third Reich from 1933 to 1939 was not a story of ceaseless radicalization driven on by inherent instabilities in its system of rule, or by a constant competition for power between its satraps and minions, in which the most radical policy was always the most likely to be implemented. Irrational and unstable though it was, the Third Reich was driven in the first place from above, by Hitler and his key henchmen, above all Goring and Goebbels, later on joined by Ribbentrop. When Hitler was determined to slow down the implementation of a particular policy, for example in the case of antisemitism in the run-up to the 1936 Olympic Games, he had little difficulty in doing so. This does not mean that everything that happened in the Third Reich was ordained by Hitler; but it does mean that he was in the driving-seat, determining the general direction in which things moved.

Hitler himself of course had no doubts of his central importance to everything that happened in Nazi Germany. As time went on, his foreign policy successes began to convince him that he was indeed, as he said on more than one occasion towards the end of the 1930s, the greatest German who had ever lived: a man ordained by destiny, a gambler who won every throw, a sleepwalker guided by Providence. Well before 1939 he had come to believe in his own myth. Anyone who tried to restrain him was pushed aside. So far, his increasingly unshakeable faith in himself had proved more than justified. In September 1939, however, he made his first serious miscalculation. Despite all his efforts, despite Ribbentrop’s assurances, despite Göring’s intervention, despite Chamberlain’s last-minute equivocations, the British had declared war. For the moment, however, Hitler was not concerned with them. In the West, the first few months of the conflict saw so little action that they quickly came to be known as the ‘twilight war’ or the ‘drôle de guerre’. It was in the East that the real war was taking place. The war launched against Poland on 1 September 1939 was from the outset a war of racial conquest, subjugation and extermination. ‘Close your hearts to pity,’ Hitler told his generals on 22 August 1939. ‘Act brutally! The stronger man is right! Eighty million people must obtain what is their right. Their existence must be made secure. The greatest harshness!’209 Brutality and harshness, death and destruction were what the war would mean for millions of people in the conflict that had now begun.

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