Military history


The news on the evening of August 25 that Hitler had called off the attack on Poland caused great jubilation among the conspiratorial members of the Abwehr. Colonel Oster gave Schacht and Gisevius the news, exclaiming, “The Fuehrer is done for,” and the next morning Admiral Canaris was even more in the clouds. “Hitler,” Canaris declared, “will never survive this blow. Peace has been saved for the next twenty years.” Both men thought there was no further need of bothering to overthrow the Nazi dictator; he was finished.

For several weeks as the fateful summer approached its end the conspirators, as they conceived themselves, had again been busy, though with what purpose exactly it is difficult to comprehend. Goerdeler, Adam von Trott, Helmuth von Moltke, Fabian von Schlabrendorff and Rudolf Pechel had all made the pilgrimage to London and there had informed not only Chamberlain and Halifax but Churchill and other British leaders that Hitler planned to attack Poland at the end of August. These German opponents of the Fuehrer could see for themselves that Britain, right up to its umbrella-carrying Chamberlain, had changed since the days of Munich, and that the one condition they themselves had made the year before to their resolve to get rid of Hitler, namely that Britain and France declare they would oppose any further Nazi aggression by armed force, had now been fulfilled. What more did they want? It is not clear from the records they have left, and one gathers the impression that they did not quite know themselves. Well-meaning though they were, they were gripped by utter confusion and a paralyzing sense of futility. Hitler’s hold on Germany—on the Army, the police, the government, the people—was too complete to be loosened or undermined by anything they could think of doing.

On August 15, Hassell visited Dr. Schacht at his new bachelor quarters in Berlin. The dismissed Minister of Economics had just returned from a six-month journey to India and Burma. “Schacht’s view is,” Hassell wrote in his diary, “that we can do nothing but keep our eyes open and wait, that things will follow their inevitable course.” Hassell himself told Gisevius the same day, according to his own diary entry, that he “too was in favor of postponing direct action for the moment.”

But what “direct action” was there to be put off? General Halder, keen as Hitler to smash Poland, was not at the moment interested in getting rid of the dictator. General von Witzleben, who was to have led the troops in the overthrow of the Fuehrer the year before, was now in command of an army group in the west and was, therefore, in no position to act in Berlin, even if he had wished to. But did he have any such wish? Gisevius visited him at his headquarters, found him listening to the BBC radio news from London and soon realized that the General was interested merely in finding out what was going on.

As for General Halder, he was preoccupied with last-minute plans for the onslaught on Poland, to the exclusion of any treasonable thoughts about getting rid of Hitler. When interrogated after the war—on February 26, 1946—at Nuremberg, he was exceedingly fuzzy about why he and the other supposed enemies of the Nazi regime had done nothing in the last days of August to depose the Fuehrer and thus save Germany from involvement in war. “There was no possibility,” he said. Why? Because General von Witzleben had been transferred to the west. Without Witzleben the Army could not act.

What about the German people? When Captain Sam Harris, the American interrogator, reminding Halder that he had said the German people were opposed to war, asked, “If Hitler were irrevocably committed to war, why couldn’t you count on the support of the people before the invasion of Poland?” Halder replied, “You must excuse me if I smile. If I hear the word ‘irrevocably’ connected with Hitler, I must say that nothing was irrevocable.” And the General Staff Chief went on to explain that as late as August 22, after Hitler had revealed to his generals at the meeting on the Obersalzberg his “irrevocable” resolve to attack Poland and fight the West if necessary, he himself did not believe that the Fuehrer would do what he said he would do.18 In the light of Halder’s own diary entries for this period, this is an astonishing statement indeed. But it is typical not only of Halder but of most of the other conspirators.

Where was General Beck, Halder’s predecessor as Chief of the Army General Staff and the acknowledged leader of the conspirators? According to Gisevius, Beck wrote a letter to General von Brauchitsch but the Army Commander in Chief did not even acknowledge it. Next, Gisevius says, Beck had a long talk with Halder, who agreed with him that a big war would be the ruin of Germany but thought “Hitler would never permit a world war” and that therefore there was no need at the moment to try to overthrow him.19

On August 14, Hassell dined alone with Beck, and recorded their feeling of frustration in his diary.

Beck [is] a most cultured, attractive and intelligent man. Unfortunately, he has a very low opinion of the leading people in the Army. For that reason he could see no place there where we could gain a foothold. He is firmly convinced of the vicious character of the policies of the Third Reich.20

The convictions of Beck—and of the others around him—were high and noble, but as Adolf Hitler prepared to hurl Germany into war not one of these estimable Germans did anything to halt him. The task was obviously difficult and perhaps, at this late hour, impossible to fulfill. But they did not even attempt it.

General Thomas, perhaps, tried. Following up his memorandum to Keitel which he had personally read to the OKW Chief at the middle of August,* he called on him again on Sunday, August 27, and, according to his own account, “handed him graphically illustrated statistical evidence … [which] demonstrated clearly the tremendous military-economic superiority of the Western Powers and the tribulation we would face.” Keitel, with unaccustomed courage, showed the material to Hitler, who replied that he did not share General Thomas’ “anxiety over the danger of a world war, especially since he had now got the Soviet Union on his side.”21

Thus ended the attempts of the “conspirators” to prevent Hitler from launching World War II, except for the feeble last-minute efforts of Dr. Schacht, of which the canny financier made much in his own defense at the Nuremberg trial. On his return from India in August he wrote letters to Hitler, Goering and Ribbentrop—at the fateful moment none of the opposition leaders seem to have gone beyond writing letters and memoranda—but, to his “very great surprise,” as he said later, received no replies. Next he decided to go to Zossen, a few miles southeast of Berlin, where the Army High Command had set up headquarters for the Polish campaign, and personally confront General von Brauchitsch. To tell him what? On the witness stand at Nuremberg Schacht explained that he intended to tell the Army chief that it would be unconstitutional for Germany to go to war without the approval of the Reichstag! It was therefore the duty of the Army Commander in Chief to respect his oath to the constitution!

Alas, Dr. Schacht never got to see Brauchitsch. He was warned by Canaris that if he came to Zossen the Army commander “would probably have us arrested immediately”—a fate that did not seem attractive to this former supporter of Hitler.22 But the real reason Schacht did not go to Zossen on his ridiculous errand (it would have been child’s play for Hitler to get the rubber-stamp Reichstag to approve his war had he wanted to bother with such a formality) was stated by Gisevius when he took the witness stand on behalf of Schacht at Nuremberg. It seems that Schacht planned to go to Zossen on August 25 and called off the trip when Hitler on that evening called off the attack on Poland scheduled for the next day. Three days later, according to the testimony of Gisevius, Schacht again decided to carry out his mission at Zossen but Canaris informed him it was too late.23 It wasn’t that the “conspirators” missed the bus; they never arrived at the bus station to try to catch it.

As ineffective as the handful of anti-Nazi Germans in staying Hitler’s hand were the various neutral world leaders who now appealed to the Fuehrer to avert war. On August 24, President Roosevelt sent urgent messages to Hitler and the President of Poland pressing them to settle their differences without resorting to arms. President Mościcki, in a dignified reply the following day, reminded Roosevelt that it was not Poland which was “formulating demands and demanding concessions” but that nevertheless it was willing to settle its disputes with Germany by direct negotiation or by conciliation, as the American President had urged. Hitler did not reply (Roosevelt had reminded him that he had not answered the President’s appeal to him of last April) and on the next day, August 25, Roosevelt sent a second message, informing Hitler of Mościcki’s conciliatory response, and beseeching him to “agree to the pacific means of settlement accepted by the Government of Poland.”

To the second letter there was no answer either, although on the evening of August 26 Weizsaecker summoned the American chargé d’affaires in Berlin, Alexander C. Kirk, and asked him to tell the President that the Fuehrer had received the two telegrams and had placed them “in the hands of the Foreign Minister for consideration by the government.”

The Pope took to the air on August 24 to make a broadcast appeal for peace, beseeching “by the blood of Christ … the strong [to] hear us that they may not become weak through injustice … [and] if they desire that their power may not be a destruction.” On the afternoon of August 31 the Pope sent identical notes to the governments of Germany, Poland, Italy and the two Western Powers “beseeching, in the name of God, the German and Polish Governments … to avoid any incident,” begging the British, French and Italian governments to support his appeal and adding:

The Pope is unwilling to abandon hope that pending negotiations may lead to a just pacific solution.

His Holiness, like almost everyone else in the world, did not realize that the “pending negotiations” were but a propaganda trick by Hitler to justify his aggression. Actually, as shortly will be shown, there were no bona fide negotiations, pending or otherwise, on that last afternoon of the peace.

A few days earlier, on August 23, the King of the Belgians, in the name of the rulers of the “Oslo” powers (Belgium, the NetherlandsLuxembourg, Finland and the three Scandinavian states), had also broadcast a moving appeal for peace, calling “on the men who are responsible for the course of events to submit their disputes and their claims to open negotiation.” On August 28 the King of the Belgians and the Queen of the Netherlands jointly offered their good offices “in the hope of averting war.”24

Noble in form and in intent as all these neutral appeals were, there is something unreal and pathetic about them when reread today. It was as if the President of the United States, the Pope and the rulers of the small Northern European democracies lived on a different planet from that of the Third Reich and had no more understanding of what was going on in Berlin than of what might be transpiring on Mars. This ignorance of the mind and character and purposes of Adolf Hitler, and indeed of the Germans, who, with a few exceptions, were ready to follow him blindly no matter where nor how, regardless of morals, ethics, honor, or the Christian concept of humanity, was to cost the peoples led by Roosevelt and the monarchs of Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg, Norway and Denmark dearly in the months to come.

Those of us who were in Berlin during those last few tense days of peace and who were attempting to report the news to the outside world knew very little either of what was going on in the Wilhelmstrasse, where the Chancellery and the Foreign Office were, or in the Bendlerstrasse, where the military had their offices. We followed as best we could the frantic comings and goings in the Wilhelmstrasse. We sifted daily an avalanche of rumors, tips and “plants.” We caught the mood of the people in the street and of the government officials, party leaders, diplomats and soldiers of our acquaintance. But what was said at Ambassador Henderson’s frequent and often stormy interviews with Hitler and Ribbentrop, what was written between Hitler and Chamberlain, between Hitler and Mussolini, between Hitler and Stalin, what was talked about between Ribbentrop and Molotov and between Ribbentrop and Ciano, what was contained in all the secret, coded dispatches humming over the wires between the stumbling, harassed diplomats and foreign-office officials, and all the moves which the military chiefs were planning or making—of all this we and the general public remained almost completely ignorant at the time.

A few things, of course, we, and the public, knew. The Nazi–Soviet Pact was trumpeted to the skies by the Germans, though the secret protocol dividing up Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe remained unknown until after the war. We knew that even before it was signed Henderson had flown to Berchtesgaden to emphasize to Hitler that the pact would not prevent Britain from honoring its guarantee to Poland. As the last week of August began we felt in Berlin that war was inevitable—unless there was another Munich—and that it would come within a few days. By August 25 the last of the British and French civilians had skipped out. The next day the big Nazi rally at Tannenberg scheduled for August 27, at which Hitler was to have spoken, was publicly called off, as was the annual party convention at Nuremberg (the “Party Rally of Peace,” Hitler had officially called it), due to convene the first week of September. On August 27 the government announced that rationing of food, soap, shoes, textiles and coal would begin on the following day. This announcement, I remember, above all others, woke up the German people to the imminence of war, and their grumbling about it was very audible. On Monday, August 28, the Berliners watched troops pouring through the city toward the east. They were being transported in moving vans, grocery trucks and every other sort of vehicle that could be scraped up.

That too must have alerted the man in the street as to what was up. The weekend, I remember, had been hot and sultry and most of the Berliners, regardless of how near war was, had betaken themselves to the lakes and the woods which surround the capital. Returning to the city Sunday evening, they learned from the radio that there had been a secret, unofficial meeting of the Reichstag at the Chancellery. A D.N.B, communiqué stated that the “Fuehrer outlined the gravity of the situation”—this was the first the German public had been told by Hitler that the hour was grave. No details of the meeting were given and no one outside of the Reichstag members and of Hitler’s entourage could know of the mood the Nazi dictator was in that day. Halder’s diary of August 28 supplied—much later—one account, given him by Colonel Oster of the Abwehr.

Conference at Reich Chancellery at 5:30 P.M. Reichstag and several Party notables … Situation very grave. Determined to solve Eastern question one way or another. Minimum demands: return of Danzig, settling of Corridor question. Maximum demands: “Depending on military situation.” If minimum demands not satisfied, then war: Brutal! He will himself be on front line. The Duce’s attitude served our best interests.

War very difficult, perhaps hopeless; “As long as I am alive there will be no talk of capitulation.” Soviet Pact widely misunderstood by Party. A pact with Satan to cast out the Devil … “Applause on proper cues, but thin.”

Personal impression of Fuehrer: exhausted, haggard, croaking voice, preoccupied. “Keeps himself completely surrounded now by his S.S. advisers.”

In Berlin too a foreign observer could watch the way the press, under Goebbels’ expert direction, was swindling the gullible German people. For six years, since the Nazi “co-ordination” of the daily newspapers, which had meant the destruction of a free press, the citizens had been cut off from the truth of what was going on in the world. For a time the Swiss German-language newspapers from Zurich and Basel could be purchased at the leading newsstands in Germany and these presented objective news. But in recent years their sale in the Reich had been either prohibited or limited to a few copies. For Germans who could read English or French, there were occasionally a few copies of the London and Paris journals available, though not enough to reach more than a handful of persons.

“How completely isolated a world the German people live in,” I noted in my diary on August 10, 1939. “A glance at the newspapers yesterday and today reminds you of it.” I had returned to Germany from a brief leave in Washington, New York and Paris, and coming up in the train from my home in Switzerland two days before I had bought a batch of Berlin and Rhineland newspapers. They quickly propelled one back to the cockeyed world of Nazism, which was as unlike the world I had just left as if it had been on another planet. I noted further on August 10, after I had arrived in Berlin:

Whereas all the rest of the world considers that the peace is about to be broken by Germany, that it is Germany that is threatening to attack Poland … here in Germany, in the world the local newspapers create, the very reverse is maintained … What the Nazi papers are proclaiming is this: that it is Poland which is disturbing the peace of Europe; Poland which is threatening Germany with armed invasion …



You ask: But the German people can’t possibly believe these lies? Then you talk to them. So many do.

   By Saturday, August 26, the date originally set by Hitler for the attack on Poland, Goebbels’ press campaign had reached its climax. I noted in my diary some of the headlines.


   On my way to Broadcast House at midnight I picked up the Sunday edition (August 27) of the Voelkischer Beobachter. Across the whole top of the front page were inch-high headlines:


There was no mention, of course, of any German mobilization, though, as we have seen, Germany had been mobilized for a fortnight.

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