Chapter Sixteen

The Expanding War, 1939–1940

Accounts of the origins of the Second World War in Europe usually end with the German invasion of Poland and the British and French declarations of war on Germany at the beginning of September 1939. Later developments are treated as being simply consequent upon these events, or as part of the war and therefore separate from its origins. This mode of presentation focuses attention sharply on the Polish-German conflict and the British and French reactions to it; and in this perspective theories of a European war arising largely by accident assume considerable plausibility. True, there was nothing accidental about Hitler's attack on Poland, which he pursued with single-minded determination. But when he began that war, he did not expect Britain and France to join in, and when they did so he found himself in a wider war at a time and in circumstances he had not envisaged, and well before German military preparations for a general war were complete.

For the events of 1–3 September 1939, this interpretation holds good. But to narrow the focus of our attention in this way is misleading. In the simplest geographical sense, the four powers which went to war in September 1939 made up only a part of Europe and a minority of its population. Moreover, it seemed likely for a time that the conflict would remain localised between Germany and Poland, with Britain and France as little more than spectators, striking belligerent attitudes but abstaining from serious fighting. If this situation had persisted, then the events would not have constituted a Second World War, or indeed a European war of any significance. They might well have passed as a War of Polish Partition, another brief if bloody passage in the troubled history of eastern Europe. There was a long way to go before it became clear that there was indeed to be a major European war, with world-wide connotations. The question of why the German-Polish War was followed by other conflicts, merging to become what we call the Second World War, is a necessary part of our enquiry.

To end the story in September 1939 is to assume that Hitler's attack on Poland revealed the essence of his ambitions, rather than being an episode (albeit an important one) in a long process of German expansion. To stop in 1939 is to endow the actions of Britain and France with a greater and more active role in the coming of war than they actually deserve. The British and French declarations of war have given the date of 3 September 1939 a symbolic significance, but they represented only a brief seizure of the initiative by states which for the most part responded to the pressure of others. In Italian policy, abstention from the conflict of September 1939 was an isolated and uncharacteristic part of the whole story, which can only be fully understood if we take up the thread and follow it through to the events of 1940. In the vital matter of German-Soviet relations the events of August and September 1939 marked only a temporary halting-place; and the greatest single issue in European politics remained in suspense until the German attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941. In all these ways, to bring down the final curtain in September 1939 is to leave the play without its last act and its denouement.

There is another reason for pressing on with the enquiry. It is only between late 1939 and 1941 that it becomes possible to apply the test of events to the questions we have already raised about Germany's motives and intentions, which are crucial to any interpretation of the origins of the war. What sort of wars did the Germans wage, and what use did they make of their victories? This test is not infallible, because intentions are rarely carried out to the letter, and actions often have unforeseen consequences. But it is still important to see how far Germany under the Nazis did what it had said it intended to do; and this involves looking well beyond September 1939.

The course of events, 1939–40: Germany conquers half Europe

The events of 1939–40 may be briefly described. The Germans won a rapid and overwhelming victory in Poland. Their armies reached the outskirts of Warsaw as early as 8 September, though the capital then held out until the 27th. On 17 September the Soviet Union joined in the conflict, and invaded Poland from the east. The Polish defence crumbled swiftly, and the last fighting ended on 5 October, only five weeks after the German attack began. On 6 October, in a speech to the Reichstag, Hitler made a vague ‘peace offer’, holding out the possibility of the restoration of a small Polish state and claiming that Britain and France had no reason to continue the war. Daladier rejected these proposals on 10 October, and Chamberlain on the 12th: neither would accept a peace based on a recognition of German conquests, with the certain prospect of more to come.

There followed a prolonged pause in military operations. Britain and France stood on the defensive in the west, though they toyed with various ideas for diverting the war to other parts of Europe, by opening a Balkan front, by bombing the Soviet oil-fields at Baku to reduce German oil supplies, or by launching a Scandinavian campaign to cut off German imports of iron ore from Sweden; but they pursued none of these speculations to the point of action. Hitler, for his part, sought no pause, but was compelled to accept one. As early as 27 September, before the fighting in Poland was over, he told the commanders of the three services that he intended to attack in the west at an early date, to smash France to pieces and bring England to her knees. On 18 October he signed a directive for Operation Yellow, an attack on France through Luxemburg, Belgium, and the Netherlands. His generals were reluctant, needing time to regroup after the Polish campaign and conscious of the deficiencies in their forces. They urged postponement until the spring, but Hitler would not allow it. On 25 October he set the date for the offensive at 12 November, and postponed it only because of adverse weather conditions. Throughout the autumn and winter new dates were repeatedly set, and fresh postponements imposed by the weather. The purpose never wavered: only the date was in doubt.

In the event, the winter imposed a pause even on Hitler. When operations resumed, they took the unexpected direction of a German invasion of Denmark and Norway on 9 April 1940. Denmark was occupied without resistance, but fighting went on in Norway for two months. The great German offensive in western Europe opened on 10 May, with astonishing success. The Panzer divisions moved with a speed and boldness which far outweighed deficiencies in their equipment, while the Luftwaffe acted as flying artillery in close support of the army. In a few days the Germans broke through the Ardennes and reached the Channel coast. Whatever ‘Blitzkrieg’ meant to the German command earlier, it made its name and its mark in May–June 1940.

The Dutch were defeated in less than a week, the army capitulating on 15 May, though the Queen and government went to Britain to continue the war. Belgium held out for just under three weeks. The army surrendered on 28 May; the King chose to remain with his people, but the government went to London. The greatest stroke was the defeat of France in a mere six weeks. The Germans entered Paris on 14 June. On 16 June the government headed by Paul Reynaud resigned, and a new government under Marshal Pétain asked for an armistice in the early hours of the 17th. By this time, Italy had entered the war (on 10 June), and the French signed armistices with Germany on 22 June and Italy on the 24th. The terms were severe but not catastrophic, leaving a French government in existence, about one-third of the country unoccupied, and the empire and the fleet intact. A new exchange rate between the mark and the French franc was fixed, highly favourable to Germany. By the end of June, all was over.

Poland partitioned: racial policy in action

The nature of these campaigns and the uses to which the victories were put revealed much about German policy and objectives. The case of Poland was particularly instructive. For a brief period, Hitler appeared to contemplate the retention of a residual Polish state. The former German Ambassador in Warsaw, Moltke, prepared a scheme for a satellite state on 25 September; Hitler mentioned the possibility to Ciano on 2 October; and he referred to it publicly in his speech to the Reichstag on 6 October. But this idea was abandoned even while it was being discussed. On 27–28 September Ribbentrop made a second visit to Moscow, during which the German and Soviet governments concluded a Treaty of Friendship, and agreed on revisions of the lines of partition laid down in the agreement of 23 August. Lithuania was transferred from the German to the Soviet sphere of influence, and in return the Polish province of Lublin and part of the province of Warsaw, previously allotted to the USSR, went to Germany. The new line through Poland gave the predominantly Polish areas to Germany, and the rest, with a large Polish minority among Ukrainian, Byelorussian, and Lithuanian populations, to the USSR. Both the Germans and the Soviets agreed to suppress any Polish agitation directed against the other state; and with that agreement, any satellite Polish state under German control was effectively ruled out, because it might offer cover for anti-Soviet activities.1

Hitler's true intentions for Poland emerged swiftly. Fighting ceased on 5 October, and on the 8th Hitler annexed to Germany northern and western areas of Poland which had been German territory in 1918.2 On 12 October the rest of the territory occupied by Germany was organised as the Government-General of Poland, with Hans Frank as Governor of what was rapidly to become an SS state. In the territories annexed to Germany, a policy of total Germanisation was begun at once. A list was drawn up of Germans resident in these former Polish territories, and a few Poles deemed capable of being Germanised. The remainder — the vast majority — were deprived of the normal rights of citizenship. They could not own property, form associations, receive education beyond the primary level, or be employed in any managerial capacity. At a conference on 2 October with Hans Frank and Martin Bormann, Hitler emphasised that the Poles must have only Germans as their masters. All Polish leaders and members of the intelligentsia were to be executed. There must be no mixture of blood between Germans and Poles. The elimination of the Polish élites began at once; and in the long term all Poles thought to be a threat to Germany or unfit for Germanisation were to be deported to the Government-General or to Germany, for eventual extermination. The Government-General too was in the long run to be Germanised, and meanwhile was to serve as a reservoir of manpower for Germany, paid at cheap rates and fed on small rations. It was also used as a depository for Jews. From the beginning of October Jews in the annexed territories were rounded up and sent to the Government-General, and Hitler directed that the Jews of Vienna were to be treated in the same way. A decree of 26 January 1940 confined Jews in the Government-General to their places of residence — effectively, to ghettos in which they were confined. Mass extermination followed from 1941 onwards.

These actions put into practice the proclaimed racial doctrines of Nazism. In the 1920s Hitler had written of his intention to remove Poles from areas annexed to Germany and replace them with Germans. In August 1939 he told his service commanders that the object of war with Poland was not to reach certain lines but to destroy the people (see above,p. 306). This is exactly what he set out to do from the very beginning of October 1939, even before the fighting had ended in Poland and his ‘peace offer’ was made in the Reichstag. The war in Poland, and above all the occupation policy, was a racial conflict against the Poles and the Jews; and the driving force behind it was Nazi ideology.

In the Soviet-occupied part of Poland, an elaborate charade of elections and petitions to enter the Soviet Union preceded formal annexation of the area in November 1939. The NKVD moved in to deport ‘politically and socially dangerous’ persons to Siberia or Central Asia; and it is probable that over a million people, most of them Poles, were forcibly removed. The Ukrainians and Byelorussians, on the other hand, were allowed the use of their languages for official purposes.

The new Europe: German policy in the west

What of the policies pursued by Germany elsewhere? We have seen that Hitler was determined upon an attack in the west even before the Polish campaign was over, and pressed on with his plans despite the reluctance of his generals. His ‘peace offer’ of 6 October was fraudulent. He spoke of the restoration of a small Polish state when that had already been ruled out; and he emphasised that he had always wanted friendship with Britain and France at the same time as he said in private that his aim was a final military settlement with the western powers, amounting to their destruction. Certainly by this stage, and probably before, Hitler was firmly set on achieving predominance, not just in Poland, but in Europe as a whole.

The Scandinavian campaign of April–May 1940 was a side-show in this grand design, conceived as a riposte to Allied plans rather than undertaken on German initiative. The Germans were determined to secure their supplies of iron ore from Sweden, and at first sought to do so by means of a war-trade agreement with the Swedes, fixing the level of purchases at slightly under the total for 1938. During the winter of 1939–40 the western Allies considered various ideas for disrupting this traffic. During the Soviet war with Finland (November 1939–March 1940),3 they prepared to send an expeditionary force to the ore-fields under the cover of helping the Finns. The British also considered mining the Norwegian coastal waters through which the ore trade passed in the winter months, when the direct route across the Gulf of Bothnia was frozen. Reports of these projects reached Germany, and in response plans for the occupation of Norway were put in hand during December 1939. In February 1940 the British destroyer Cossack boarded a German vessel, the Altmark, in Norwegian territorial waters, and released British prisoners being clandestinely taken to Germany. At this, the Germans decided to move, and in March and early April 1940 German preparations for an invasion of Norway and British plans to sow mines in Norwegian waters went ahead simultaneously. The British began to lay mines on 5 April; the Germans launched their attack on Denmark and Norway during the night of the 8th/9th. The Germans occupied Norway, and were then able to apply irresistible pressure on Sweden. In July 1940 the Swedes had little choice but to allow German troops rights of transit across their country, and to accept a new trade agreement favourable to Germany. A campaign with a limited but important economic objective had been successfully concluded.

The German objectives in the west were on a different scale. Germany aimed at predominance in Europe, and victory over France secured it. To what end? What was Germany to do with the fruits of victory? One thing became clear at once: German policy was not following a ‘blueprint’. The speed of the victories took everyone by surprise — the German high command, government ministries, even Hitler himself. So far from there being any detailed programme ready to be put into operation, nothing was prepared. As the surprise faded, however, some lines of approach quickly emerged.

The element of continuity with the German aims of 1914–18 was very strong in western Europe. What the German victories secured, this time with astonishing speed, was an opportunity to put into effect the western aspects of Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg's programme of September 1914. The German Army occupied the Low Countries and most of France, and the economies of all these countries passed under German control. The old objectives of Mitteleuropa had been achieved. It remained to be seen how this great area should be organised and exploited.

At the end of May and the beginning of June 1940, papers prepared in the German Foreign Ministry envisaged a zone of very tight control, comprising the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxemburg, Norway, and Denmark. The Danubian states were thought to be already closely bound to Germany, and Sweden and Finland were to be drawn into the same position. These discussions were brought up short by Goering, who thought they were trespassing on his prerogatives in economic policy, and were followed by further proposals drawn up in the Economics Ministry. These envisaged an inner ring of states in western Europe and the Danube valley very closely bound to Germany; an outer ring, including Sweden, Finland, and Switzerland, treated separately but still associated with Germany; and others, including the USSR, Italy, France, and Britain, not belonging to the German bloc but in close relations with it. German industrialists working through the Reichsgruppe Industrie and the giant chemical firm of IG Farben also produced a number of proposals for the economic organisation of Europe, concentrating on the advanced economies of western Europe and Scandinavia rather than upon the east or the Balkans, and seeking to suppress competition and secure markets. Hitler himself made no definite statement on the question of economic organisation, but he frequently referred to it, especially when talking to visiting foreign statesmen, between autumn 1940 and spring 1941. His basic theme was that other countries should accept specialisation of functions in the service of the German economy, providing agricultural produce, raw materials, and fuel in return for German industrial goods. Rumania, for example, was to give up its own industries and concentrate on the production of cereals and oil, while Norway would supply not only Germany but much of Europe with hydroelectric power.

Countries occupied by Germany or under German influence were in fact compelled to accept trade agreements on German terms, as Denmark, Sweden, and Finland all did before the end of 1940. In France, occupation costs were set at 20 million marks per day, which was well above the actual cost of the operation, and the surplus was used to make purchases from the whole of France. The occupied countries were also used to provide labour, at cheap rates or without pay at all. This did not amount to a fully coherent economic policy, uniformly applied. In Lorraine, for example, German industrialists moved in to take over factories and amalgamate the area with the Saar and Ruhr for the profitable production of both iron and steel; but the government chose instead to concentrate on the production of iron ore, and deliberately ran down steel production to about one-third of its capacity by the end of the year. Eastern Europe brought out grave discrepancies between economic needs and Nazi racial policy. Poland, and later the Ukraine and the Baltic states, should have provided Germany with large quantities of agricultural imports, especially cereals. In practice, Nazi rule in these territories reduced them to ruin, and no attempt was made to encourage the population to sustain agricultural activity, so that food production fell drastically, and the chance of economic gain was thrown away. What might have happened in the long term, if the area had been systematically Germanised and colonised, remains unknown; but in the short run the economic and racial elements in Nazi ideology came into conflict, and the racial element prevailed.

Over much of Europe, however, an outline economic organisation took shape. It was accompanied by a new political order, partly provisional, but much of it intended to be permanent. By the end of 1940 the new Greater Germany had taken into full sovereignty Austria, the Sudetenland, a large part of Poland, Alsace-Lorraine, Luxemburg, and Eupen-Malmédy (formerly in Belgium). Germany exercised direct rule through Governors-General in Bohemia-Moravia and the Government-General of Poland. Slovakia was a Protectorate, with its government under close German control. The German Army occupied two-thirds of France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Norway, pending political decisions as to their future. Denmark was also occupied, but with its own government still functioning. The German Empire, like most empires, was not wholly systematic in its administration; but it was of formidable strength, and in the Gestapo and SS it possessed a powerful binding force.

In the western and northern parts of the empire, the ideological element was much less prominent than in Poland. In France and the Low Countries the German Army was in charge, with the SS only in the background, and conduct towards the civilian population was correct and restrained. Only in Alsace-Lorraine, effectively annexed to Germany on 15 July 1940, was a policy of Germanisation and deportation applied. Otherwise the peoples of western Europe were not at this stage subjugated, transported, or massacred in the same way as the Poles. There were, however, ideological aspects to the war, even in the west. In Norway, the Germans tried to install in power Vidkun Quisling, the Norwegian Nazi with whom they had long been in touch. In the Netherlands, Belgium, and France the German victories brought a sharp revival in the fortunes of fascist or near-fascist parties which had been in decline since 1936. Many, of course, merely hastened to the help of the victor in the hope of a share in the spoils; but there were also those who genuinely believed that Nazi Germany represented the wave of the future, and threw in their lot with it out of conviction. In France, the parliamentary regime of the Third Republic was widely discredited and held responsible for the country's defeat and disgrace. Pétain preached the need for national regeneration under an authoritarian form of government. Although the war in the west was far removed from the ruthless racial struggle waged in Poland, it still appeared inevitable that the German conquests must be followed by ideological adaptation.

While Europe was being organised, what was to be the next step in German policy? The first question was what to do about Britain; and on this Hitler displayed great uncertainty. One possibility was to make peace on compromise terms, leaving the British Empire, or most of it, intact. Several of Hitler's remarks, private and public, indicated that he expected the British to ask for terms. He told his entourage at the end of May 1940 that he would grant peace to England at the price of the colonies seized from Germany in the First World War, or perhaps simply in return for recognising German predominance in Europe. He told an American journalist on 13 June that France was already beaten and he would soon reach an understanding with England. On 13 July he remarked to General Halder that a military victory over Britain would merely break up the British Empire for the benefit of Japan, the USA, and others; and there was no point in shedding German blood for that end. After the armistice with France, Hitler was apparently waiting for the British to approach him, and he was disappointed to hear nothing from London. He made a sightseeing visit to France, put off a speech scheduled for 8 July, and finally made a vague appeal for peace in a speech to the Reichstag on the 19th. He mentioned no terms, even in outline, but merely asserted, not for the first time, that he had never intended to harm the British Empire, and that he could see no reason why the war should go on.

There is no proof, but it may well be that at this point Hitler would have offered terms leaving the British Isles and most of the empire untouched; though the long-term prospects would have been a different matter. He seems to have been genuinely disappointed by the British resistance, which he attributed to the influence of world Jewry — ‘If London did not act as expected, it meant that “the Jew” had won over “the Briton”.’4 He was then faced by the question of how the British were to be defeated. The German staffs had no plan ready for an invasion of the British Isles, and Hitler did not order them to prepare one until 2 July. Even when under way, the planning was half-hearted. Hitler's directive for Operation Sealion (16 July) stated, with an unaccustomed note of uncertainty: ‘I have decided to prepare a landing operation against England and, if necessary, to carry it out.’5 An opposed sea-borne landing was notoriously one of the most difficult of military operations, and one of which the German services had no experience. Counsels were divided and preparations uncertain. The one point on which all agreed was that the key lay in air superiority, which was never quite achieved. After prolonged hesitation, the plan was tacitly abandoned on 17 September by the face-saving device of postponing the date for fixing a date for the invasion.

As the prospects for an invasion receded, the Germans looked round for other means of defeating the British. One was a Mediterranean campaign, drawing Spain into the war and closing the straits of Gibraltar in the west, while reinforcing the Italians in Libya for an attack on the Suez Canal in the east. These projects were actively pursued between August 1940 and the end of the year, but were obstructed by evasiveness on the part of both Spain and Italy. In September Franco named his price for entry into the war as the whole of French Morocco, part of Algeria and the French Cameroons, and some territory in the Pyrenees. Hitler went personally to meet Franco at Hendaye on 23 October, and was presented with requests for supplies and military equipment so extensive that they could not be met. There is much evidence that Franco regarded himself as being in the Axis camp (which was after all the winning side), and that he was willing to enter the war, but only on his own terms, which were not forthcoming.6 Hitler's Directive No. 18 of 12 November 1940 still referred to bringing Spain into the war and mounting an attack on Gibraltar, but nothing materialised. Franco confined himself to providing limited assistance to the Axis powers. Meanwhile, Germany twice offered, in August and October, to send forces to help the Italians in Libya, but Mussolini prevaricated, and Hitler did not press the matter, though he instructed an armoured division to stand by for North Africa. This plan eventually took shape in the despatch of Rommel's Afrika Korps to Tripoli in February 1941; but the general plans for a full Mediterranean campaign were never followed up.

Cartoon, ‘The Harmony Boys'. Low's perception of Hitler's motley collection of supporters — Mussolini, Franco and Stalin.

Source: David Low/Evening Standard 2/5/1940/Associated Newspapers/Solo Syndication and Centre for the Study of Cartoons and Caricature, University of Kent.

Another possibility was to bring together, in a grand diplomatic design, a combination of powers comprising Spain, Vichy France, the Soviet Union, and Japan, as well as the Axis powers, which would be so formidable as to compel a British surrender. Hitler had been at work off and on since 1938 to secure an alliance with Japan, and on 27 September 1940 a fresh bout of negotiations was brought to a successful conclusion with the signature of the Tripartite Pact between Germany, Italy, and Japan. The three participants recognised each other's spheres of influence in Europe and the Far East, and the treaty was openly designed to threaten both the USA and Britain. In October 1940 Hitler pursued his diplomatic efforts through meetings with Franco and Pétain, but with little tangible result. Franco, as we have seen, remained reticent, and though Pétain agreed in principle to collaboration with Germany (and so endowed the word with a new and pejorative meaning), the ways and means were left to be worked out in the future. The roles of Spain and France in the general coalition remained sketchy and insubstantial.

Hitler and Franco meet at Hendaye, 23 October 1940. Despite the smiles, Franco sat on the fence.

Source: Ullstein Bild/AKG Images

That left the Soviet Union. Molotov was invited to Berlin for talks with Hitler and Ribbentrop on 12–13 November 1940. Hitler talked sweepingly of the break-up of the British Empire — an estate in bankruptcy, as he put it; and Ribbentrop presented a draft agreement for the division of large parts of the world into German, Italian, Japanese, and Soviet spheres of influence. Molotov for his part was dismayingly precise, asking stern questions about Finland, Rumania, and Bulgaria, where Germany appeared to be trespassing on the Soviet sphere of influence already agreed on in 1939 (see below, pp. 342–3). However, he took Ribbentrop's proposals back to Moscow, and on 25 November produced a reply expressing agreement in principle, though requiring far-reaching conditions. German troops should be withdrawn from Finland at once; the Soviet Union was to negotiate a treaty with Bulgaria permitting the establishment of a Soviet base there; there should be another Soviet base in Turkey, at the straits into the Mediterranean; and Japan must renounce all claims to coal and oil concessions in northern Sakhalin. The proposed Soviet sphere in the grand partition of the world should be more clearly defined as lying between Batum, Baku, and the Persian Gulf. Many of these demands were to remain consistent elements in Soviet policy over the next five years, and there is no need to doubt the seriousness of the reply; but in the event the exchange stopped at that point. The Germans never answered the Soviet note, though the Soviet government reminded them of it a number of times.

With this, the negotiations for a grand coalition stretching from Madrid to Tokyo by way of Moscow came to an end. They had not got very far, and even the Tripartite Pact with Japan, which was their most solid achievement, proved less effective than Hitler hoped. However, all these schemes for the defeat of Britain came to assume a secondary importance as 1940 came to an end. Hitler's mind had already moved to an attack on the Soviet Union, a project never far from his thoughts. He began talk of it to his generals in late July 1940, and he even thought of launching the attack that autumn, until he was persuaded that this was impossible. Planning and practical preparations went forward from August onwards, until in December all was sufficiently ready for Hitler to issue his directive for Operation Barbarossa. The significance of this will be examined in Chapter 17. It is enough to note here the speed with which Hitler turned towards an attack on the Soviet Union, long before other prospects had been exhausted, or even fully tried.

What emerges from German policies after the victories of summer 1940 to illuminate the origins of the war? There was no ‘blueprint’. There were no plans ready for the invasion of Britain or for the organisation of a conquered Europe. Hitler hesitated, uncertain what to do with his victory. Yet through the hesitation, and almost because there were no plans, the main impulses behind German policy emerged with great clarity. Economic demands had to be met: the supply of Swedish iron ore had to be secured. In the general economic and political organisation of central and western Europe, the influence of ideas about Mitteleuropa, going back to the First World War and earlier, was strong. Hitler shared these ideas and began to put them into practice; but for him they were not enough. He had no clear idea about how to deal with the recalcitrant British, and his heart was never in a Mediterranean campaign. Always in the background there was the idea of an attack on the Soviet Union. The compass needle of Nazi policy swung erratically in the summer and autumn of 1940, but it came to rest pointing east.

The forces behind the expansion of Germany stand out clearly in the light of that expansion itself in 1934–40. In Poland, the themes of race and living space were predominant, and the most extreme theories of Nazi racial doctrines were unhesitatingly put into practice. In the west and north, the war was one which would have been easily recognisable to Bethmann-Hollweg and the German General Staff of 1914, fought to establish German political and economic domination. The new, Nazi, elements in German policy marched side by side with the old; though with the growing success of the regime the Nazi element grew steadily more powerful.

Reactions to the German victories: Italy joins the war

The German victories confronted almost every state in Europe with choices, and their responses both extended the scope of the war and further illuminated its nature. Of all the powers that had remained neutral in 1939, Italy was the only one to make a deliberate choice to enter the war. In September 1939 Mussolini declared Italy a ‘non-belligerent’, in the hope that this would sound better than being merely neutral. In practice, he recognised that his country, despite seventeen years of fascist rule, was not ready to fight. During the next few months Italy followed no fixed policy. Ciano thought that the war would be long and that the British would eventually win it, and he therefore tried to keep Italy out and to promote a negotiated peace. Mussolini lent some support to these efforts, and in a letter of 3 January 1940 tried to persuade Hitler that the restoration of a small Polish state under German tutelage would make a starting-point for peace. This made no headway, and the role of peacemaker proved both unproductive and humiliating — for two months Hitler did not even trouble to reply to Mussolini's letter. On the other hand, the prospects for war were still unpromising, and in January 1940 Marshal Badoglio advised Mussolini that Italy would not be ready for war that year, nor fit to take the offensive until 1942.

Despite this advice, Mussolini now saw that there would be no compromise peace, and he did not believe that Italy could afford to stay out of the war until it ended. A reversal of alliances was impossible: as a fascist he could not join the democracies, and only the German alliance would enable Italy to attain her goals in the Mediterranean. In a memorandum of 31 March 1940 Mussolini concluded that Italy's only course was to wage a war parallel to that of Germany, and break free from her imprisonment in the Mediterranean. The problem was not whether to fight, but when and how. As to when, he set no date; as to how, he acknowledged that the main lines of strategy on land must be defensive in Europe and Libya, with local offensives from Ethiopia, but at sea the navy must launch an all-out attack. The comments on this memorandum from the service chiefs were not encouraging. Badoglio thought that action on all land fronts would have to be defensive, and the Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral Cavagnari, reported that the navy was not strong enough to take the offensive in either the eastern or western Mediterranean.

This cautious military advice was never likely to be heeded, because Mussolini was thinking essentially on political, not military, lines. In any case, the issue was decided by the German victories of April and May 1940. When Hitler wrote on 9 April with his rather belated announcement of the invasion of Norway, Mussolini said that he could not stand by with folded arms while others made history. On 13 May, three days after the Germans opened their offensive in the west, he told Ciano that the Allies had lost the war. Italy had already suffered enough dishonour, and he would declare war within a month. At a conference with service chiefs on 29 May he said that any date after 5 June would be suitable, and after consultation with Hitler 10 June was fixed upon. On that day, Italy declared war on France and Britain.

Mussolini's decision was a personal one. He refused to be restrained by the caution of Ciano, who had grown disillusioned with the German alliance, or by the pessimism of the generals and admirals. There was evidence in the police reports of the time that some sections of the Italian population favoured war, but at best the nation was divided on the issue. It is a clear example of a deliberate and individual choice for war, with no question of accident, or of war being forced upon Italy. Why did Mussolini make this choice?

His most prominent motive was an extremely simple opportunism. He remarked more than once in May and June 1940 that he needed a few thousand casualties to allow him to take his seat at the peace conference; and since the war, to all appearance, was almost over, he had to move quickly. But there was more to it than that. Mussolini had spoken repeatedly of Italy's need to break out of her imprisonment in the Mediterranean, and he had long sought a sphere of influence in the Balkans. War seemed to open the way to both objectives. Moreover, his own personal prestige and that of the fascist regime were at stake. He believed that to remain neutral would be to admit failure to prepare for war, and so accept humiliation. To fight, on the other hand, would give the fascist regime a new impetus and strengthen Mussolini's hand against internal opposition. In the event, during the next three years, the exact opposite happened. The fate of the fascist regime indeed proved to be bound up with the war, but not in the way that Mussolini hoped.7

The Italian declaration of war had far-reaching results. It extended the existing conflict to the Mediterranean, and resulted for a time in the waging of a separate and parallel war, as Mussolini claimed — a third war to follow the two in Poland and western Europe. It was the culminating point in a series of events through which Italy had played a considerable part in destabilising Europe — Ethiopia, Spain, and Albania marked the earlier stages. It was almost the end of the road for Italian influence, which was at its greatest when Italy was courted on all sides and when her military strength was not too severely tested. Once at war, Italian weakness rapidly became apparent, and Italy sank to become merely a junior partner in the Axis.

Reactions to the German victories: choosing sides

On the other side of the conflict, a number of states made choices during 1939 and 1940 which brought out their views of the nature of the war and what was at stake in it. The first, and in many ways the most striking, case was that of Poland. As we have seen, Poland disappeared from the map, and the Polish people were ground between the upper and nether millstones of Germany and the Soviet Union. The Polish response was to continue the war. The government that began hostilities went to Rumania in September 1939, and its members were interned; but the President of the Republic delegated his powers, and on 30 September a new government was formed in Paris under General Sikorski. Warships had escaped, new army and air force units were formed, and Polish forces continued to fight, as they did for the next six years. In Poland itself, before the end of September, a clandestine resistance movement began to take shape in opposition to both the German and the Soviet occupations. For the Poles, in exile and at home, the issue at stake was nothing less than the existence of their nation, and the war was so important that it was not to be ended even by apparently total defeat. The pattern thus set of a government in exile continuing the war and an internal resistance movement maintaining opposition to an occupying power was later widely followed, and became a characteristic feature of the Second World War in Europe.

The German victories of April–June 1940 placed before several governments the choice of whether to leave their countries and continue the war from abroad, or to take the more usual course of staying at home, asking for terms, and continuing to administer the country, if necessary under foreign occupation. The crisis first came in Denmark, where in an extremely short time in the early hours of 9 April 1940 the government had to decide whether or not to resist the German attack. Seeing no chance of successful resistance, the government refused to declare war, and accepted German occupation. The possibility of going into exile was not considered. In Norway, invaded at the same time, events turned out differently. The Norwegian forces resisted from the start; and Hitler made what proved to be the capital error of trying to install Quisling, the Norwegian Nazi leader, as the head of a new government. German parachute troops also tried but failed to capture King Haakon. Quisling's government proved a flop. The King remained at liberty; he and his government refused all negotiations with the Germans; and at the end of April they decided to go to Britain to continue the war. The ideological element, and perhaps the precedent of Austria in 1938, here led Hitler into a significant political failure. In the Netherlands, Queen Wilhelmina, who was determined that neither she nor her country should be bullied into submission, sailed for England on 13 May, followed by her ministers. When the Prime Minister later showed signs of wishing to seek a negotiated peace, he was speedily removed and replaced by a man of sterner stuff. In Belgium, counsels were divided. King Leopold saw it as his duty to stay with his army and his people, but the government went to London and pursued the war.

The most significant of all these decisions was made in France. By the middle of June 1940 it was clear that organised resistance to the German armies could no longer be maintained, and the French government had to choose between asking for an armistice and going abroad (to Algiers or London) to continue the struggle. On 16 June Paul Reynaud, who advocated continued resistance, resigned as Premier, and was replaced by Marshal Pétain, who at once asked for an armistice and peace terms. In part his decision arose from a simple determination to remain on the soil of France and with the French people; but it also reflected a belief that it was possible to save something from the wreck and establish a place for France in a German-dominated Europe. Reynaud thought this was an illusion. They were not dealing with someone like the Kaiser in the previous war — ‘Hitler is Gengis Khan’, as Reynaud once exclaimed.

The division between Pétain and Reynaud reflected a profound difference of view on the nature of the war and the forces behind it; and the same question arose in each of the invaded countries. The governments which chose to accept defeat believed that the consequences would be tolerable. Those who chose exile believed on the contrary that occupation by Hitler's Germany represented a fundamental challenge which must be resisted to the end. That this latter view was so widely (though by no means universally) held and acted upon was an indication of the forces which lay behind the war, and especially their ideological element.

The British faced a similar choice, though in a less acute form. The likelihood that France would surrender was borne in upon the British government before the end of May 1940, and raised the question of whether Britain should also seek terms. The War Cabinet rejected the idea after long and tense discussions on 26, 27, and 28 May, and the question was not reopened at the actual time of the French armistice at the end of June, when it was largely taken for granted in the government, Parliament, and the press that the war should be continued. The pacific mood of the 1930s had vanished almost completely: when the Germans were at Calais, there were few who wished to see them at Dover. The coalition government under Churchill represented a unity of feeling based on a combination of instinctive self-defence, patriotism, and ideological opposition to Nazism. In the disastrous circumstances of 1940, the British resolve to continue the war was a demonstration of the depth and significance of the reasons for which it had been begun, and for which it would be carried through.

The German victories of 1940, and above all the fall of France, also showed in a flash that the war was far more than merely European in its significance. In the Far East, Japan was presented with a tremendous opportunity. The defeat of France and the Netherlands left their Far Eastern possessions (Indo-China and the Dutch East Indies) open to attack; and the apparently impending collapse of Britain promised to offer even wider prospects. In the Atlantic, the USA faced dangers far more immediate and acute than most Americans had ever envisaged. The fall of France might well allow German influence to be extended to the French colonies in the Caribbean. If the Germans seized the French fleet, and if, worse still, the British surrendered and handed over the Royal Navy, the command of the Atlantic might pass into German hands. Many Americans, including President Roosevelt, also saw Nazi ideology as a long-term challenge to American democracy. The USA, so long set on creating for itself an iron-clad neutrality, came increasingly to realise that its own interests and security were bound up with the fate of Europe, and extended its help to Britain as the first line of American self-defence.

The crisis of 1940 revealed much about the nature of the war, and therefore also about its origins. It was an ideological war, most plainly in Poland, though there were ideological elements also in the war in western Europe, which was more obviously a war about power and economic predominance. It was a war brought about by two expansionist powers, Germany and Italy, not working to detailed preconceived plans, but still pursuing long-held objectives. Mussolini could have remained neutral in 1940, but chose instead to make a bid for his Mediterranean aims. Hitler stood at the end of 1940 as the master of most of Europe, but this was still not enough. He was determined upon the invasion of the Soviet Union, which was to complete the process by which almost the whole of Europe was swept into war.


1. Geoffrey Roberts, The Unholy Alliance (Bloomington, Indiana 1989), p. 172; Gerhard L. Weinberg, Germany, Hitler and World War II (Cambridge 1995), p. 169. Jan Ciechanowski, in R. F. Leslie (ed.), Poland Since 1863 (Cambridge 1980), p. 214, gives the approximate population in the Soviet zone of Poland in September 1939 as 13.2 million, including 5 million Poles, 4.4 million Ukrainians and 1.2 million Byelorussians.

2. The population of those areas comprised 8.9 million Poles, 600,000 Germans, and 600,000 Jews (Ciechanowski, in Poland Since 1863, p. 214).

3. The Soviet Union demanded territorial concessions from Finland and the use of the Finnish base at Hangö, and attacked Finland in pursuit of these aims on 30 November 1939. The Finns resisted with unexpected tenacity and success, and did not surrender until 12 March 1940, when the Soviets imposed a harsher version of their original terms.

4. Jürgen Förster, in Militärgeschichtliches Forschungsamt, Germany and the Second World War, vol. IV, The Attack on the Soviet Union (Oxford 1998), p. 33.

5. H. R. Trevor-Roper (ed.), Hitler's War Directives 1939–1945 (London 1964), p. 34.

6. See the analysis of Franco's position in Paul Preston, Franco. A Biography (London 1993), pp. 380, 394–400. Cf. Militärgeschichtliches Forschungsamt, Germany and the Second World War, vol. III, pp. 191–194.

7. See the discussions of Italy's entry into the war in John Gooch, ‘Fascist Italy’, in Robert Boyce and Joseph Maiolo (eds), The Origins of World War Two: The Debate Continues (Basingstoke 2003), p. 48; MacGregor Knox, Common Destiny: Dictatorship, Foreign Policy and War in Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany (Cambridge 2000), p. 100; and Militärgeschtliches Forschungsamt, Germany and the Second World War, vol. III, pp. 123–124, 755.

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