/ Language: English / Genre:nonf_biography / Series: Hitler

Hitler. 1936-1945: Nemesis

Ian Kershaw

The climax and conclusion of one of the best-selling biographies of our time. The New Yorker declared the first volume of Ian Kershaw’s two-volume masterpiece “as close to definitive as anything we are likely to see,” and that promise is fulfilled in this stunning second volume. As Nemesis opens, Adolf Hitler has achieved absolute power within Germany and triumphed in his first challenge to the European powers. Idolized by large segments of the population and firmly supported by the Nazi regime, Hitler is poised to subjugate Europe. Nine years later, his vaunted war machine destroyed, Allied forces sweeping across Germany, Hitler will end his life with a pistol shot to his head. * * * Following the enormous success of HITLER: HUBRIS this book triumphantly completes one of the great modern biographies. No figure in twentieth century history more clearly demands a close biographical understanding than Adolf Hitler; and no period is more important than the Second World War. Beginning with Hitler’s startling European successes in the aftermath of the Rhinelland occupation and ending nine years later with the suicide in the Berlin bunker, Kershaw allows us as never before to understand the motivation and the impact of this bizarre misfit. He addresses the crucial questions about the unique nature of Nazi radicalism, about the Holocaust and about the poisoned European world that allowed Hitler to operate so effectively. Amazon.com Review George VI thought him a “damnable villain,” and Neville Chamberlain found him not quite a gentleman; but, to the rest of the world, Adolf Hitler has come to personify modern evil to such an extent that his biographers always have faced an unenviable task. The two more renowned biographies of Hitler—by Joachim C. Fest (Hitler) and by Alan Bullock (Hitler: A Study in Tyranny)—painted a picture of individual tyranny which, in the words of A. J. P. Taylor, left Hitler guilty and every other German innocent. Decades of scholarship on German society under the Nazis have made that verdict look dubious; so, the modern biographer of Hitler must account both for his terrible mindset and his charismatic appeal. In the second and final volume of his mammoth biography of Hitler—which covers the climax of Nazi power, the reclamation of German-speaking Europe, and the horrific unfolding of the final solution in Poland and Russia—Ian Kershaw manages to achieve both of these tasks. Continuing where Hitler: Hubris 1889–1936 left off, the epic Hitler: Nemesis 1937–1945 takes the reader from the adulation and hysteria of Hitler's electoral victory in 1936 to the obsessive and remote “bunker” mentality that enveloped the Führer as Operation Barbarossa (the attack on Russia in 1942) proved the beginning of the end. Chilling, yet objective. A definitive work. —Miles Taylor From Booklist At the conclusion of Kershaw’s Hitler, 1889–1936: Hubris (1999), the Rhineland had been remilitarized, domestic opposition crushed, and Jews virtually outlawed. What the genuinely popular leader of Germany would do with his unchallenged power, the world knows and recoils from. The historian's duty, superbly discharged by Kershaw, is to analyze how and why Hitler was able to ignite a world war, commit the most heinous crime in history, and throw his country into the abyss of total destruction. He didn't do it alone. Although Hitler's twin goals of expelling Jews and acquiring “living space" for other Germans were hardly secret, “achieving” them did not proceed according to a blueprint, as near as Kershaw can ascertain. However long Hitler had cherished launching an all-out war against the Jews and against Soviet Russia, as he did in 1941, it was only conceivable as reality following a tortuous series of events of increasing radicality, in both foreign and domestic politics. At each point, whether haranguing a mass audience or a small meeting of military officers, the demagogue had to and did persuade his listeners that his course of action was the only one possible. Acquiescence to aggression and genocide was further abetted by the narcotic effect of the “Hitler myth,” the propagandized image of the infallible leader as national savior, which produced a force for radicalization parallel to Hitler’s personal murderous fanaticism; the motto of the time called it “working towards the Fuhrer.” Underlings in competition with each other would do what they thought Hitler wanted, as occurred with aspects of organizing the Final Solution. Kershaw’s narrative connecting this analysis gives outstanding evidence that he commands and understands the source material, producing this magisterial scholarship that will endure for decades. —Gilbert Taylor

Ian Kershaw


1936–1945: Nemesis


Every effort has been made to contact all copyright holders. The publishers will be glad to make good in future editions any errors or omissions brought to their attention. (Photographic acknowledgements are given in brackets.)

1. Adolf Hitler, September 1936 (Ullstein Bilderdienst, Berlin)

2. Hitler discussing plans for Weimar, 1936 (Corbis/Hulton-Deutsch Collection)

3. The Berlin Olympics, 1936 (Ullstein Bilderdienst, Berlin)

4. Hitler meets the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, 1937 (Corbis/Hulton-Deutsch Collection)

5. Werner von Blomberg (Corbis/Hulton-Deutsch Collection)

6. Werner von Fritsch (Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte, Stuttgart)

7. Hitler addresses crowds in the Heldenplatz, Vienna, 1938 (AKG London)

8. Hitler, Mussolini and Victor-Emmanuel III, 1938 (Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte, Stuttgart)

9. Hitler in Florence, 1938 (Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte, Stuttgart)

10. ‘The Eternal Jew’ exhibition, Munich, 1937 (AKG London)

11. ‘Jews in Berlin’ poster, Berlin, 1938 (Corbis/Bettmann)

12. Synagogue on fire, Berlin, 1938 (Corbis/Hulton-Deutsch Collection)

13. Jewish Community building, Kassel, 1938 (Ullstein Bilderdienst, Berlin)

14. Looted Jewish shop, Berlin, 1938 (AKG London)

15. Joseph Goebbels and his family, 1936 (Corbis/Hulton-Deutsch Collection)

16. Goebbels broadcasting to the people, 1939 (Hulton Getty)

17. Eva Braun, c.1938 (Hulton Getty)

18. Wilhelm Keitel greets Neville Chamberlain (Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte, Stuttgart)

19. German troops, Prague, 1939 (Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte, Stuttgart)

20. Hitler’s study in the Reich Chancellery (Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte, Stuttgart)

21. Göring addresses Hitler in the New Reich Chancellery, 1939 (Bayerisches Hauptstaatsarchiv, Munich)

22. Hitler presented with a model by Ferdinand Porsche, 1938 (Hulton Getty)

23. Heinrich Himmler presents Hitler with a painting by Menzel, 1939 (Bundesarchiv, Koblenz)

24. Hitler with Winifred Wagner, Bayreuth, 1939 (Bayerisches Hauptstaatsarchiv, Munich)

25. Molotov signs the Non-Aggression Pact between Soviet Union and Germany, 1939 (Corbis)

26. Hitler in Poland with his Wehrmacht adjutants (Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte, Stuttgart)

27. Hitler reviewing troops in Warsaw, 1939 (Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte, Stuttgart)

28. Hitler addresses the Party’s ‘Old Guard’ at the Bürgerbräukeller, Munich, 1939 (Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte, Stuttgart)

29. Arthur Greiser (Bundesarchiv, Koblenz)

30. Albert Forster (Süddeutscher Verlag, Munich)

31. Hitler reacting to news of France’s request for an armistice, 1940 (Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte, Stuttgart)

32. Hitler visiting the Maginot Line in Alsace, 1940 (Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte, Stuttgart)

33. Hitler in Freudenstadt, 1940 (Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte, Stuttgart)

34. Crowds in the Wilhelmplatz, Berlin, 1940 (Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte, Stuttgart)

35. Hitler bids farewell to Franco, Hendaye, 1940 (Ullstein Bilderdienst, Berlin)

36. Hitler meets Marshall Petain, 1940 (Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte, Stuttgart)

37. Ribbentrop talking to Molotov, Berlin, 1940 (Bildarchiv Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Berlin)

38. Hitler meets Matsuoka of Japan, 1941 (Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte, Stuttgart)

39. Hitler talks to Alfred Jodl, 1941 (Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte, Stuttgart)

40. Hitler and Keitel, en route to Angerburg, 1941 (Ullstein Bilderdienst, Berlin/Walter Frentz)

41. ‘Europe’s Victory is Your Prosperity’, anti-Bolshevik poster (Imperial War Museum, London)

42. Walther von Brauchitsch and Franz Halder (AKG London)

43. Keitel with Hitler at the Wolf’s Lair (Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte, Stuttgart)

44. Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich (Süddeutscher Verlag, Munich)

45. Nazi propaganda poster featuring Hitler’s ‘prophecy’ of 30 January 1939 (The Wiener Library, London)

46. Hitler salutes the coffin of Heydrich, 1942 (Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte, Stuttgart)

47. Hitler comforts Heydrich’s sons (Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte, Stuttgart)

48. Hitler addresses 12,000 officers at the Sportpalast, Berlin, 1942 (Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte, Stuttgart)

49. The crowd reacting (Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte, Stuttgart)

50. Fedor von Bock (Ullstein Bilderdienst, Berlin/Walter Frentz)

51. Erich von Manstein (Ullstein Bilderdienst, Berlin/Walter Frentz)

52. Hitler speaks at ‘Heroes’ Memorial Day’ at the Arsenal on Unter den Linden, Berlin, 1942 (Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte, Stuttgart)

53. Motorized troops pass a burning Russian village on the Eastern Front, 1942 (Hulton Getty)

54. Hitler greets Dr Ante Pavelic, 1943 (Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte, Stuttgart)

55. Hitler with Marshal Antonescu, 1942 (Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte, Stuttgart)

56. Hitler greets King Boris III, 1942 (Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte, Stuttgart)

57. Hitler greets Monsignor Dr Josef Tiso, 1943 (Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte, Stuttgart)

58. Hitler greets Marshal Mannerheim, 1942 (Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte, Stuttgart)

59. Admiral Horthy speaks with Ribbentrop, Keitel and Martin Bormann (Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte, Stuttgart)

60. A ‘Do 24’ seaplane, Norway (Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte, Stuttgart)

61. Train-mounted cannon, Leningrad (Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte, Stuttgart)

62. German tanks, Cyrenaica, Libya (Hulton Getty)

63. Hunting partisans, Bosnia (Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte, Stuttgart)

64. Exhausted German soldier, the Eastern Front (Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte, Stuttgart)

65. Hitler reviewing the Wehrmacht parade, Berlin, 1943 (Ullstein Bilderdienst, Berlin/Walter Frentz)

66. The Party’s ‘Old Guard’ salute Hitler, Munich, 1943 (Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte, Stuttgart)

67. Martin Bormann (Hulton Getty)

68. Hitler and Goebbels on the Obsersalzberg, 1943 (Ullstein Bilderdienst, Berlin/Walter Frentz)

69. German soldiers pushing vehicle through mud, the Eastern Front (Corbis)

70. Armoured vehicles lodged in snow, the Eastern Front (Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte, Stuttgart)

71. Waffen-SS troops, the Eastern Front (Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte, Stuttgart)

72. French Jews being deported, 1942 (Bildarchiv Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Berlin)

73. Polish Jews dig their own grave, 1942 (Bildarchiv Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Berlin)

74. Incinerators at Majdanek, 1944 (Ullstein Bilderdienst, Berlin)

75. Hitler and Himmler walking on the Obersalzberg, 1944 (Ullstein Bilderdienst, Berlin/Walter Frentz)

76. The ‘White Rose’, 1942 (Gedenkstätte Deutscher Widerstand, Berlin)

77. Heinz Guderian (Hulton Getty)

78. Ludwig Beck (AKG London)

79. Claus Graf Schenk von Stauffenberg (AKG London)

80. Henning von Tresckow (Süddeutscher Verlag, Munich)

81. Hitler just after the assassination attempt, 1944 (Süddeutscher Verlag, Munich)

82. Hitler’s trousers (Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte, Stuttgart)

83. Last meeting of Hitler and Mussolini, 1944 (Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte, Stuttgart)

84. Karl Dönitz professes the loyalty of the Navy, 1944 (Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte, Stuttgart)

85. An ageing Hitler at the Berghof, 1944 (Ullstein Bilderdienst, Berlin/Walter Frentz)

86. V1 flying-bomb (Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte, Stuttgart)

87. V2 rocket (Corbis/Hulton-Deutsch Collection)

88. Messerschmidt Me 262 (HultonGetty)

89. The ‘Volkssturm’, 1944 (Hulton Getty)

90. The last ‘Heroes’ Memorial Day’, Berlin, 1945 (Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte, Stuttgart)

91. Women and children fleeing Danzig, 1945 (AKG London)

92. Hitler views a model of Linz (National Archives and Records Administration, Washington)

93. Hitler in the ruins of the Reich Chancellery, 1945 (Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte, Stuttgart)


1. The legacy of the First World War

2. Poland under Nazi occupation

3. The Western offensive, 1940: the Sichelschnitt attack

4. The German Reich of 1942: the Nazi Party Gaue

5. Nazi occupied Europe

6. Limits of the German occupation of the USSR

7. The Western and Eastern fronts, 1944“5

8. The Soviet drive to Berlin


The first part of this study, Hitler, 1889–1936: Hubris, tried to show how the people of a highly cultured, economically advanced, modern state could allow into power and entrust their fate to a political outsider with few, if any, special talents beyond undoubted skills as a demagogue and propagandist.

By the time his Chancellorship was devised through the intrigues of influential individuals close to Reich President von Hindenburg, Hitler had been able in free elections to garner the votes of no more than a good third of the German electorate. Another third — on the Left — stood implacably opposed, though internally in disarray. The remainder were often sceptical, expectant, hesitant, and uncertain. By the end of the first volume we had traced the consolidation of Hitler’s power to the point where it had become well-nigh absolute. Internal opposition had been crushed. The doubters had been largely won over by the scale of an internal rebuilding and external reassertion of strength which, almost beyond imagination, had restored much of the lost national pride and sense of humiliation left behind after the First World War. Authoritarianism was seen by most as a blessing; repression of those politically out of step, disliked ethnic minorities, or social misfits approved of as a small price for what appeared to be a national rebirth. While the adulation of Hitler among the masses had grown ever stronger, and opposition had been crushed and rendered inconsequential, powerful forces in the army, the landed aristocracy, industry, and high ranks of the civil service had thrown their weight behind the regime. Whatever its negative aspects, it was seen to offer them much in advancing their own interests.

Hitler, by the time the first volume drew to a close with the remilitarization of the Rhineland in 1936, enjoyed the support of the overwhelming mass of the German people — even most of those who had not voted for him before he became Chancellor. From the depths of national degradation, most Germans were more than content to share the new-found national pride. The sense that Germany was well on its way to becoming the dominant power in Europe was widespread. Hitler’s own profound sense of personal degradation, felt in his Vienna years, had long since been supplanted by a gathering sense of political mission — that of Germany’s redeemer from chaos and champion against the dark and menacing forces challenging the nation’s very existence. By 1936, his narcissistic self-glorification had swollen immeasurably under the impact of the near-deification projected upon him by his followers. By this time, he thought himself infallible; his self-image had reached the stage of outright hubris.

The German people had shaped this personal hubris of the leader. They were about to enter into its full expression: the greatest gamble in the nation’s history — to acquire complete dominance of the European continent. They would have to live with the consequences. The size of the gamble itself implied an implicit willingness to court self-destruction, to invite the nemesis which was seen by a prescient few as likely to follow hubris on such a scale.

In Greek mythology, Nemesis is the goddess of retribution, who exacts the punishment of the gods for the human folly of overweening arrogance, or hubris. The English saying ‘pride comes before a fall’ reflects the commonplace occurrence. History has no shortage of examples among the high and mighty, though ‘nemesis’ tends to be a more political than moral judgement. The meteoric rise of rulers, politicians, or domineering court favourites has so often been followed by an arrogance of power leading to an equally swift fall from grace. Usually, it afflicts an individual who, like a shooting star, flashes into prominence then fades rapidly into insignificance leaving the firmament essentially unchanged.

Very occasionally in history, the hubris of the individual reflects more profound forces in society and invites more far-reaching retribution. Napoleon, arising from humble origins amid revolutionary upheavals, taking power over the French state, placing the imperial crown upon his own head, conquering much of Europe, and ending in defeat and exile with his empire displaced, dismantled, and discredited, provides a telling example. But Napoleon did not destroy France. And important strands of his legacy remained intact. A national administrative structure, educational system, and legal code form three significant positive remnants. Not least, no moral opprobrium is attached to Napoleon. He can be, and often is, looked upon with pride and admiration by modern-day Frenchmen.

Hitler’s legacy was of a totally different order. Uniquely in modern times — perhaps Attila the Hun and Ghengis Khan offer faint parallels in the distant past — this legacy was one of utter destruction. Not in architectural remains, in artistic creation, in political structures, or economic models, least of all in moral stature was there anything from Hitler’s Reich to commend to future generations. Big improvements in motorization, aviation, and technology generally did, of course, take place — in part forced through the war. But these were occurring in all capitalist countries, most evidently in the USA, and would undoubtedly have taken place in Germany, too, without a Hitler. Most significantly, unlike Napoleon, Hitler left behind him an immense moral trauma, such that it is impossible even decades after his death (other than for a residue of fringe support) to look back upon the German dictator and his regime with approval or admiration — in fact with anything other than detestation and condemnation.

Even in the cases of Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Mussolini, or Franco the level of condemnation is not so unanimous or so morally freighted. Hitler, when he realized the war was irrevocably lost, looked to his place in history, at the highest seat in the pantheon of Germanic heroes. Instead, he stands uniquely as the quintessential hate-figure of the twentieth century. His place in history has certainly been secured — though in a way he had not anticipated: as the embodiment of modern political evil. However, evil is a theological or philosophical, rather than a historical, concept. To call Hitler evil may well be both true and morally satisfying. But it explains nothing. And unanimity in condemnation is even potentially an outright barrier to understanding and explanation. As I hope the following chapters make abundantly plain, I personally find Hitler a detestable figure and despise all that his regime stood for. But that condemnation scarcely helps me to understand why millions of German citizens who were mostly ordinary human beings, hardly innately evil, in general interested in the welfare and daily cares of themselves and their families, like ordinary people everywhere, and by no means wholly brainwashed or hypnotized by spellbinding propaganda or terrorized into submission by ruthless repression, would find so much of what Hitler stood for attractive — or would be prepared to fight to the bitter end in a terrible war against the mighty coalition of the world’s most powerful nations arrayed against them. My task in this volume, as in the first part of this study, has been, therefore, not to engage in moral disquisitions on the problem of evil in a historical personality, but to try to explain the grip Hitler had on the society which eventually paid such a high price for its support.

For, ultimately, Hitler’s nemesis as retribution for unparalleled hubris would prove to be not just a personal retribution, but the nemesis of the Germany which had created him. His own country would be left in ruins — much of Europe with it — and divided. What was formerly central Germany — ‘Mitteldeutschland’ — would experience for forty years the imposed values of the Soviet victor, while the western parts would eventually revive and thrive under a ‘pax americana’. A new Austria, having experienced Anschluß under Hitler, would prove in its reconstituted independence to have lost once and for all any ambitions to be a part of Germany. The eastern provinces of the Reich would have gone forever — and along with them dreams of eastern conquest. The expulsion of the German ethnic minorities from those provinces would remove — if at a predictably harsh price — the irredentism which had plagued the inter-war years. The big landed estates in those provinces, basis of the influence of the Junker aristocracy, would also be swept away. The Wehrmacht, the final representation of German military might, would be discredited and disbanded. With it would go the state of Prussia, bulwark of the economic and political power of the Reich since Bismarck’s day. Big industry, it is true, would survive sufficiently intact to rebuild with renewed strength and vigour — though it would now be increasingly integrated into a west-European and Americanized set of economic structures.

All this was to be the outcome of what the second part of this study attempts to grasp: how Hitler could exercise the absolute power which he had been permitted to acquire; how the most mighty in the land became bound still further to a highly personalized form of rule acclaimed by millions and exceptional in a modern state, until they were unable to extricate themselves from the will of one man who was taking them unerringly down the road to destruction; and how the citizens of this modern state became complicitous in genocidal war of a character hitherto unknown to mankind, resulting in state-sponsored mass murder on a scale never previously witnessed, continent-wide devastation, and the final ruination of their own country.

It is an awesome story of national as well as individual self-destruction, of the way a people and their representatives engineered their own catastrophe — as part of a calamitous destruction of European civilization. Though the outcome is known, how it came about perhaps deserves consideration once more. If this book contributes a little to deepen understanding, I will be well satisfied.

Ian Kershaw

Manchester/Sheffield, April 2000


It is with the greatest of pleasure that I use this opportunity to add to the expressions of thanks which I made on concluding the first volume of this study. All the debts of gratitude — institutional, intellectual, and personal — owed two years ago apply now in equal, or even greater, measure. I hope those mentioned there will accept on this occasion my renewed, most sincere thanks even if I do not list them all once more by name. In some cases, however, my gratitude has to be explicitly reinforced. And in other instances new debts have been incurred.

For help with archival material specifically related to this volume, I am most grateful to the Directors, archivists, and staff of: the Bayerisches Hauptstaatsarchiv; the Berlin Document Center; the Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte (Stuttgart); Birmingham University Library; the Borthwick Institute (York); the Bundesarchiv, Berlin (formerly Koblenz); the Bundesarchiv/Militärarchiv, Potsdam (formerly Freiburg i.B.); the Gumberg Library, Duquesne University, Pittsburgh; the former Institut für Marxismus-Leninismus, Zentrales Parteiarchiv, East Berlin (GDR); the Library of Congress, Washington DC; the National Archives, Washington DC; Princeton University Library; the Public Record Office, London; the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, Hyde Park, New York; the ‘Special Archiv’, Moscow; the Wiener Library, London; the former Zentrales Staatsarchiv, Potsdam (GDR); and, not least, to Frau Regnauer, Director of the Amtsgericht Laufen, who went beyond the call of duty in giving me access to post-war testimony of some of the key witnesses to the events in the bunker in 1945.

Above all, as with the previous volume, I have been able to depend upon the indispensable expert assistance from the renowned Institut für Zeitgeschichte in Munich. I would like once more to voice my warmest thanks to the Director, Professor Dr Horst Möller, to all colleagues and friends at the Institut, and, quite especially, to the library and archive staff who performed wonders in attending to my frequent and extensive requests. Singling out individuals is invidious, but I must nevertheless mention that Hermann Weiß, as with the first volume, gave most generously of his time and archival expertise. And with her unrivalled knowledge of the Goebbels diaries, Elke Fröhlich was of great help, not least in dealing with a query regarding one important but difficult point of transcription of Goebbels’s awful handwriting.

Numerous friends and colleagues have supplied me at one time or another with valuable archival material or allowed me to see so far unpublished work they had written, as well as sharing views on evidence, scholarly literature, and points of interpretation. For their kindness and assistance in this regard, I am extremely grateful to: David Bankier, Omer Bartov, Yehuda Bauer, Richard Bessel, John Breuilly, Christopher Browning, Michael Burleigh, Chris Clarke, François Delpla, Richard Evans, Kent Fedorowich, Iring Fetscher, Conan Fischer, Gerald Fleming, Norbert Frei, Mary Fulbrook, Dick Geary, Hermann Graml, Otto Gritschneder, Lothar Gruchmann, Ulrich Herbert, Edouard Husson, Anton Joachimsthaler, Michael Kater, Otto Dov Kulka, Moshe Lewin, Peter Longerich, Dan Michmann, Stig Hornsriøh-Møller, Martin Moll, Bob Moore, Stanislaw Nawrocki, Richard Overy, Alastair Parker, Karol Marian Pospieszalski, Fritz Redlich, Steven Sage, Stephen Salter, Karl Schleunes, Robert Service, Peter Stachura, Paul Stauffer, Jill Stephenson, Bernd Wegner, David Welch, Michael Wildt, Peter Witte, Hans Woller, and Jonathan Wright.

A special word of thanks is owing to Meir Michaelis for his repeated generosity in providing me with archival material drawn from his own researches. Gitta Sereny, likewise, not only offered friendly support, but also gave me access to valuable papers in her possession, related to her fine study of Albert Speer. A good friend, Laurence Rees, an exceptionally gifted producer from the BBC with whom I have had the pleasure and privilege of cooperating on the making of two television series connected with Nazism, and also Detlef Siebert and Tilman Remme, the able and knowledgeable heads of the research teams on the programmes, have helped greatly, both with probing inquiries and with material derived from the films they helped create. Two outstanding German historians of the Third Reich, whose own interpretations of Hitler differ sharply, have been of singular importance to this study. Eberhard Jäckel has given great support as well as expert advice throughout, and Hans Mommsen, friend of many years, has been unstinting in his help, generosity, and encouragement. Both have also made unpublished work available to me. Finally, I am most grateful to two British experts on Nazi Germany, Ted Harrison and Jeremy Noakes, for reading and commenting on the completed typescript (though, naturally, any errors remaining are my own responsibility). The particular inspiration I derived from Jeremy’s work I was keen to acknowledge in the first volume, and am equally keen to underline on this occasion.

In a different way, I would like to express my thanks to David Smith, Director of the Borthwick Institute in York (where papers on Lord Halifax’s meeting with Hitler sitting alongside archival deposits from medieval Yorkshire correspond to my intellectual schizophrenia as a historian of Nazi Germany who still dabbles in the history of monasticism in Yorkshire during the Middle Ages). Through the generous offer of his time and expertise, it has proved possible to see through the press our edition of the thirteenth-and fourteenth-century account-book of Bolton Priory without interrupting the work needed to complete this volume. Without David’s help and input, this would not have been feasible.

Given the need to accommodate the writing of this book to my normal duties at the University of Sheffield, I have had to make notable demands on the patience of my editors, both at Penguin and abroad. I have been most fortunate in my editor at Penguin, Simon Winder, who has been an unfailing source of cheerful encouragement and optimism, as well as a perceptive reader and critic. I am extremely grateful to Simon, also for his advice on the photographic material and maps for the book, and to Cecilia Mackay for searching out and assembling the photographs. In this connection, I would also like to thank Joanne King of the BBC, and, for the notable assistance provided by the Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte in Stuttgart, its Director, Dr Gerhard Hirschfeld (excellent scholar and long-standing friend), and Irina Renz, who supervises its extensive photographic collection. In preparing the lengthy text for the printers, I owe a large debt of gratitude, as with the first volume, to the expert copy-editing of Annie Lee, the superb indexing skills of Diana LeCore, and the great help and support of all the excellent publishing team at Penguin.

Outside Britain, I am hugely indebted to Don Lamm, my editor at Norton in the USA, who never ceased to keep me on my toes with his extensive knowledge, his many insights, and his inexhaustible queries. To Ulrich Volz and Michael Neher at Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, and to my editors at Flammarion, Spektrum, and Ediciones Peninsula, who either did not panic or concealed their panic from me when delivery of a lengthy typescript still needing translation became delayed, I offer my gratitude for their patience and forbearance. And to the translators of the German, French, Dutch, and Spanish editions who worked miracles to enable the simultaneous appearance of the book in those languages, my warm thanks for their efforts are combined with my utmost admiration for their skills.

As with the previous volume, much of the checking of the extensive references provided in the notes had to be undertaken in a highly concentrated spell at the Institut für Zeitgeschichte in Munich. This time, thanks to Penguin and DVA, I could make use of invaluable assistance from Wenke Meteling (during a break in her own promising historical studies at the University of Tübingen); from my niece Charlotte Woodford (who took time out from her own doctoral research on early-modern German literature at Oxford University, was of great help also in subsequently locating a number of arcane works which I needed, and, not least, compiled so thoroughly and meticulously the List of Works Cited); and from my elder son, David, who, as two years earlier, generously took a week’s holiday from his work in the airline business — somewhat to the amazement of his colleagues — to come to Munich to check references for me. I am deeply grateful to all three of them. Without them, I would have been quite unable to complete the work in time.

As with the preparation of the first volume, the incomparable Alexander von Humboldt-Stiftung in Bonn-Bad Godesberg offered to support the month’s stay in Munich while the references were checked. I would like to express my sincere gratitude for this support, and for all the generosity from which I have been privileged to benefit since I first became a Fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt-Stiftung in the mid-1970s.

I would also like to thank most warmly a long-standing friend, Traude Spät, whose great skills as a language-teacher set me on the path many years ago to research on the darkest chapter in the history of her country, and who provided not only hospitality but also continuing encouragement of my work when, during my time in Munich, I was able to stay at her home.

In the flourishing Department of History at the University of Sheffield, I have at times had to rely more than I would have wished on the tolerance as well as good services of my colleagues and the patience of my students. I would like to thank them all most sincerely for their support, encouragement, and forbearance, and some colleagues quite especially for easing my path through taking on and efficiently carrying out sometimes quite onerous Departmental duties.

Most of all I have to thank Beverley Eaton, whose efficient help and encouragement in ten years of working as my secretary and personal assistant have been of immeasurable value in enabling the completion of this book in the face of many other pressing duties. More than anyone she has borne the brunt of the work — in the day-to-day running of a busy Department, in handling an extensive and mounting correspondence, and in coping with a variety of other tasks — which spilled over from my attempts to combine writing a biography of Hitler with being a professor at a university in a British system currently choking under the weight of its own bureaucracy. She has also been a constant source of support during the entire period of the writing of this work.

Finally, on home ground in Manchester, the Convenor and Fellows of SOFPIK, the club of which I am most proud to be a member, have shown their friendship and support for even longer than it has taken to write these two volumes on Hitler. I can never forget, though it is now many years ago, the sacrifices made by my mother and late father, who lived through Hitler’s war, to give me and my sister, Anne, the priceless opportunity to study at university. And, meanwhile, not just Betty, David, and Stephen, but now also as the years roll on Katie, Becky, and — though she is not yet aware of it — Sophie have lived in the shadow of a biography of Hitler for too long. I hope we can soon move out of this shadow and into the sunlight again. But I would like to thank them all as much as words can express for the different ways in which they have contributed to the making of this work.


April 2000


1. The legacy of the First World War.

2. Poland under Nazi occupation.

3. The Western offensive, 1940: the Sichelschnitt attack.

4. The German Reich of 1942: the Nazi Party Gaue.

5. Nazi occupied Europe.

6. Limits of the German occupation of the USSR.

7. The Western and Eastern fronts, 1944–5.

8. The Soviet drive to Berlin.


‘That this new deed of Hitler is another milestone on the way to the hell’s jaws of destruction seems hardly to have entered the consciousness of anyone.’

‘Germany Report’ of the Sopade, April 1936


‘After three years, I believe that, with the present day, the struggle for German equal rights can be regarded as closed.’ The day was 7 March 1936. The words were those of Hitler addressing the Reichstag as German troops, defying the western democracies, crossed into the demilitarized Rhineland. ‘Great are the successes which Providence has let me attain for our Fatherland in these three years,’ Hitler continued. ‘In all areas of our national, political, and economic life, our position has been improved… In these three years, Germany has regained its honour, found belief again, overcome its greatest economic distress and finally ushered in a new cultural ascent.’ In this paean to his own ‘achievements’, Hitler also explicitly stated that ‘we have no territorial claims to make in Europe’. He ended with an appeal — received to rapturous acclaim — to support him in new ‘elections’ (though only one party, the Nazi Party, was standing), set for 29 March.1 The outcome of these ‘elections’ was a vote of 98.9 per cent backing Hitler. But however ‘massaged’ the figures had been, whatever the combined weight of propaganda and coercion behind them, there can be no doubt that the overwhelming mass of the German people in March 1936 applauded Hitler’s recovery of German sovereignty in the Rhineland (as they had his earlier steps in throwing off the shackles of Versailles). It was a major triumph for Hitler, both externally and internally. It was the culminating point of the first phase of his dictatorship.

Hitler’s triumph also marked the plainest demonstration of the weakness of France and Great Britain, the dominant powers in Europe since the First World War. Hitler had broken with impunity the treaties of Versailles and Locarno, the main props of the post-war peace-settlement. And he had signalled Germany’s reassertiveness and new importance in international affairs.

Within Germany, by this point, Hitler’s power was absolute. The largest, most modern, and most thrusting nation-state in central Europe lay at his feet, bound to the ‘charismatic’ politics of ‘national salvation’. His position as Dictator was unchallenged. No serious threat of opposition faced him.

The mood of national exhilaration whipped up by the Rhineland spectacular was, it is true, of its nature short-lived. The worries and complaints of daily life returned soon enough. Worker discontent about low wages and poor work conditions, farmer resentment at the ‘coercive economy’ of the Food Estate, the grumbling of small tradesmen about economic difficulties, and ubiquitous consumer dissatisfaction over prices continued unabated. The behaviour and corruption of party functionaries was as much a source of grievance as ever. And in Catholic areas, where the ‘Church struggle’ had intensified, the party’s attacks on the Church’s practices and institutions, the assault on denominational schooling, and the harassing of clergy (including highly publicized trials of members of religious orders for alleged foreign-currency smuggling and sexual impropriety) left the mood extraordinarily sour. But it would be as well not to overestimate the significance of the discontent. None of it was translated into political opposition likely to cause serious trouble to the regime.

Oppositional forces on the Left, the Communists and Socialists, were crushed, cowed, and powerless — dismayed at the supine acquiescence of the western democracies as Hitler continued to upturn the post-war international order. The propaganda image of a statesman of extraordinary boldness and political genius seemed as a consequence of weakness of the western powers to match reality in the eyes of millions. Under threat of draconian recrimination, the perilous illegal work of undercover resistance had continued, even revived, for a brief period in late 1935 and early 1936 as foodstuff shortages led to rising unrest in industrial areas, and was never halted. But following a huge onslaught by the Gestapo to crush all indications of a short-lived Communist revival, any threat of resistance from below by illegal organizations was effectively ruled out.2 Resistance cells, especially those of the Communists, were constant prey to Gestapo informers, and were as a result frequently penetrated, the members arrested and interned in prisons or concentration camps. It has been estimated that around one in two of the 300,000 Communist Party members of 1932 was imprisoned at some stage during the Third Reich — a statistic of unrelenting attritional repression.3 Even so, new cells invariably sprang up. Those risking liberty, even life, showed great courage. But they lacked any semblance of power or influence, had no contacts in high places, and consequently lacked all opportunity to overthrow the regime. By this time, they could pose no real threat to Hitler. Opposition endangering his dictatorship — leaving aside the unpredictable actions of an outsider acting alone, as would occur in 1939 — could now in practice only come from within the regime itself.4

Meanwhile, the pillars of the regime — armed forces, Party, industry, civil service — were loyal in their support.

The national-conservative élites who had helped Hitler into power in imagining that they would be able to control and manipulate him, had largely swallowed their differences. Disquiet in such circles had been marked especially during the gathering internal crisis of spring and summer which had been ended by the massacre of the stormtroopers’ leadership (and the liquidation of numerous other genuine or presumed opponents) in the ‘Night of the Long Knives’ on 30 June 1934. But whatever their continuing misgivings about anti-capitalistic tendencies in the Party, the highhanded behaviour of Party bosses, attacks on the Christian Churches, the lawlessness of Party formations, and other disquieting aspects of the regime, the conservative élites had by early 1936 not distanced themselves from Hitler in any serious fashion.

The armed forces, though the officer corps often turned up their noses at the vulgar upstarts now running the country, had fewer grounds than most for dissatisfaction. The tensions with the SA which had preoccupied the military leaders in the early months of the regime were now long past. The political murder of two generals, the former Reich Chancellor Kurt von Schleicher and Major-General Ferdinand von Bredow, in the ‘Night of the Long Knives’ had seemed a small price to pay for removing the scourge of SA leader Ernst Röhm and his associates. Meanwhile, military leaders had seen their aim of rebuilding a powerful Wehrmacht, cherished even in the dark days of the 1920s, fully backed.5 The army had been delighted when general conscription, despite the prohibition under the Versailles Treaty, had been reintroduced (as the basis of a greatly expanded thirty-six-division peacetime army) in March 1935. In line with Hitler’s promise in February 1933 ‘that for the next 4–5 years the main principle must be: everything for the armed forces’,6 rearmament was now rapidly gathering pace. The existence of the Luftwaffe — a further flouting of Versailles — had been announced, without recrimination, in March 1935. And, remarkably, Great Britain had proved a willing accomplice in the undermining of Versailles in its willingness in June 1935 to conclude a naval treaty with the Reich allowing Germany to attain 35 per cent of the strength of the British Navy. With the remilitarization of the Rhineland Hitler had then accomplished a cherished desire of the military leadership long before they had contemplated such a move being possible. He was doing all that the leaders of the armed forces wanted him to do — and more. There could be few grounds for complaint.

Leaders of big business, though often harbouring private concerns about current difficulties and looming future problems for the economy, were, for their part, grateful to Hitler for the destruction of the left-wing parties and trade unions. They were again ‘masters in their house’ in their dealings with their work-force. And the road to massively increased profits and dividends was wide open. Even where Party interference was criticized, problems of export trade or shortage of raw materials were raised, or worries about the direction of the economy voiced, no industrialist advocated, even in private, a return to the ‘bad’ old democratic days of the Weimar Republic.

Some individuals from within the national-conservative élite groups — mainly in the leadership of the army and the upper echelons of the state bureaucracy — would some two years later at first gradually and falteringly begin to feel their way towards fundamental opposition to the Nazi regime. But at this time, they still saw their own interests, and what they took to be the national interest, served by the apparently successful policies of national assertiveness and reconstruction embodied in the figure of Hitler.

Only the intensified ‘Church Struggle’, causing heightened friction between clergy and churchgoers on the one side and Party activists on the other, cast a substantial shadow, notably in Catholic rural districts where the influence of the clergy remained unbroken, over what amounted otherwise to an extensive prevailing consensus (in part, of course, manufactured through a mixture of repression and propaganda). But the stance of both major Christian denominations was riddled with ambivalence. Though still wielding considerable influence over the churchgoing population, the clergy felt they had to tread warily in public pronouncements, particularly where religious matters were not directly concerned. In some ways, they were led by public opinion more than they were willing or able to lead it. They had to take account of the fact that Hitler’s national ‘successes’, most of all his triumph in remilitarizing the Rhineland, were massively popular even among the same members of their flocks who harshly criticized the Nazi attacks on the Churches.

The unrest stirred up by the ‘Church Struggle’ was extensive. But it was largely compartmentalized. It seldom equated with fundamental rejection of the regime, or with any commitment to active and outright political opposition. Fierce defence of traditional observances, customs, and practices against Nazi chicanery was compatible with support for Hitler personally, with approval for his assault on the Left, with applause for his national ‘triumphs’, with readiness to accept his discriminatory measures against Jews, with most measures, in fact, which did not directly impinge on Church affairs. Catholic bishops had, in the very first weeks of Hitler’s chancellorship, exhorted their charges to obedience to the new regime.7 And even at the height of the ‘Church Struggle’, they publicly endorsed its stance against ‘atheistic’ Bolshevism and affirmed their loyalty to Hitler.8 The brutality of the concentration camps, the murder in 1934 of the SA leaders, and the mounting discrimination against the Jews had brought no official protests or opposition. Similarly in a Protestant Church divided within itself, unease, criticism, or dissent over Nazi high-handedness towards the Church and interference in its affairs, practices, structures, and doctrine coexisted — apart from the examples of a few exceptional individuals — with official avowals of loyalty and a great deal of genuine approval for what Hitler was doing.

Underpinning Hitler’s unchallenged authority in spring 1936 was the adulation of the masses. Large sections of the population simply idolized him. Even his opponents acknowledged this. ‘What a fellow, Hitler. He had the courage to risk something,’ was a sentiment frequently recorded at the time by the underground socialist opposition. ‘The spirit of Versailles is hated by all Germans. Hitler has now torn up this accursed treaty and thrown it at the feet of the French,’ was the reason given for the upsurge of support for the Dictator even among those who up to then had been less than enthusiastic about him.9 In 1936, the German people — at any rate the vast majority of them — revelled in the national pride that Hitler (almost single-handedly, it often seemed, in the relentless trumpetings of effusive propaganda) had restored to the country.

The backing of a huge mass movement, the mainstay of his plebiscitary support, guaranteed that the flow of adulation was never stemmed. But the support for Hitler was genuine enough, and massive in extent. Most Germans, whatever their grumbles, were at least in some respects Hitler supporters by summer 1936. Unquestionably, the foreign-policy triumphs had united the overwhelming majority of the population behind his leadership. Admiration for the Führer was widespread. Indeed, at the level of humdrum daily life, too, many were prepared to credit Hitler with bringing about a change in Germany that seemed to them little short of miraculous. For most of those who did not belong to a persecuted minority, remain firm adherents of the suppressed Social Democrats or Communists, or feel wholly alienated by the attacks on the Churches, things seemed incomparably better than they had been when Hitler took over. Unemployment, far from increasing again (as the Jeremiahs had predicted), had practically been wiped out. Modestly, but noticeably, living standards were beginning to improve. More consumer goods were becoming available. The ‘people’s radio’ (Volksempfänger) was spreading to more and more households.10 Leisure pursuits, entertainment, and minor forms of tourism were expanding. The cinemas and dance-halls were full. And even if the much-trumpeted ‘glamour’ trips to Madeira or Norway on cruise-ships run by ‘Strength Through Joy’ (the leisure organization of the German Labour Front) remained the preserve of the privileged and made little real dent on class divisions, far more people were able to take advantage of days out in the country or visits to theatres and concerts.11 For many, even looking back long after the war, these were the ‘good times’.12

In a mere three years, Hitler appeared to have rescued Germany from the miseries and divisions of Weimar democracy, and to have paved the way for a grandiose future for the German people. The demagogue and political firebrand had apparently been transformed into a statesman and national leader of a stature to match that of Bismarck. That the the national revival had been accompanied by rigid authoritarianism, loss of civil rights, brutal repression of the Left, and intensifying discrimination against Jews and others thought unfit to belong to the ‘national community’ was seen by most as at least a price worth paying — by many as positively welcome.

Few at this stage had the foresight to imagine what would come — that Germany’s new international standing in spring 1936 would prove the prelude to boundless expansion, world war bringing slaughter on an immeasurable scale, unparalleled genocide, and the eventual destruction of the Reich itself. ‘That this new deed of Hitler is another milestone on the way to the hell’s jaws of destruction,’ the same perceptive report of the exiled Social Democratic movement added, ‘seems hardly to have entered the consciousness of anyone.’13


For most dictators, the acquisition of unrivalled power over the state would have been enough. For Hitler, this was no end in itself. In his thinking, power served a twin ideological purpose: destroying the Jews — for him, Germany’s mortal enemy; and, through their destruction, acquiring mastery over the entire continent of Europe — a platform for subsequent world dominance. Both interlocking aims, resting on a ‘world-view’ that saw racial struggle and survival of the fittest as the key determinants in human history, had been central to his thinking since the 1920s. However uncharted the route to attaining them, these basic ideas, once formed, never left him.

The obsessiveness and tenacity with which he held to these fixed ideas were part of Hitler’s unique role in steering Germany, Europe, and the world to disaster. However, relatively few of the millions of followers attracted to Nazism on its road to power saw matters precisely as Hitler did, or were drawn by fanatical adherence to the fixed points of the personal ‘world-view’ that constituted his own prime ideological driving-force.14 The growing appeal of Hitler as an alternative to Weimar democracy rested to a far greater extent on the forcefulness of his uncompromising, frontal assault on a visibly failing political system undermined in high places and increasingly haemorrhaging mass support. During his rise to power, his central ideological tenets had been embedded within the general, all-embracing armoury of hate-filled tirades against the Weimar ‘system’ and within the appealing counter-image he conjured up of national rebirth once the ‘criminals’ who had instigated defeat and revolution, with catastophic consequences, had been destroyed. His success as a demagogue lay in his ability to say what the disaffected masses wanted to hear, to speak their language — to capture and exploit a psychology of despair and invest it with new hope for a phoenix-like resurgence of the nation. He was able as no one else to give voice to popular hatreds, resentments, hopes, and expectations. He spoke more stridently, more vehemently, more expressively and appealingly than any of those with a similar ideological message. He was the mouthpiece of the nationalist masses at a decisive time of all-embracing national crisis.

And in showing that he could galvanize the nationalist masses as no one else could, he made himself an increasingly attractive proposition to those with power and influence, who saw him and his rapidly expanding Movement as an indispensable weapon in the fight against ‘Marxism’ (code not just for attacks on the Communists, but on the Social Democrats, the trade unions, and the democratic system itself), which the conservative élites had done everything possible to undermine. Through their help, in the final stage of the collapse of the Weimar Republic, Hitler was at last given what he had long striven for: control over the German state. Their fatal error had been to think that they could control Hitler. Too late, they discovered how disastrously they had underestimated him.

By the time he was levered into power, the ‘redemptive’ politics which Hitler preached — the overturning of the defeat and revolution of 1918 at their heart — had won the support of over 13 million Germans, among them an activist base of well over a million members of the various branches of the Nazi Movement. Hitler embodied their expectations of national salvation. The pseudo-religious strains of the cult built up around him — in an era when popular piety was still strong — had been able to portray him as a secular ‘redeemer’. A lost war, national humiliation, profound economic and social misery, lack of faith in democratic institutions and politicians, and readiness to look to a ‘strong man’ able to overcome through force the apparently insurmountable acute political chasms prevailing in a comprehensive state crisis, had all contributed to drawing large sections of the masses towards seductive slogans of national salvation.

But not only the politically naïve had been attracted. The deep cultural pessimism widespread in neo-conservative and intellectual circles could also find appeal in the idea of ‘national rebirth’, however much the vulgarity of Hitler and his followers might be disparaged. Already before the First World War, the sense of unstoppable cultural decline — often directly coupled with increasingly fashionable views on the allegedly inexorable growth of racial impurity — was gathering pace.15 In the aftermath of the war, the mood of cultural despair gripped ever more tightly among conservative intellectuals. Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West, with its melancholy prognosis of unstoppable cultural decay, was highly influential.16 Abstract art and modern theatre could be vilified as ‘Jewish’ and not truly German. Syncopated hot jazz — labelled ‘nigger music’ — seemed to epitomize the inevitable coming Americanization of not only music, but all walks of life, in the land of Bach and Beethoven.17

Germany’s cultural descent seemed mirrored in politics. Where only decades earlier Bismarck had bestridden the political stage as a giant, the country’s representatives now appeared reduced to squabbling pygmies, the irredeemably divided Reichstag a reflection of an irredeemably divided Germany — irredeemable, that is, unless a new national hero creating (if need be by force) new unity should emerge. Hopes could be invested only in the vision of such a hero — warrior, statesman, and high priest rolled into one — who would arise from the ashes of national humiliation and post-war misery to restore national pride and greatness.18 The seeds of subsequent intellectual backing for Hitler and his Movement were fertilized in such soil — however distant reality proved to be from the ideal.

The shrill antisemitism of the Nazis was no barrier to such support. The Jews — less than 1 per cent of the population, the vast majority more than anxious to be seen as good, patriotic German citizens — had few friends. Even those who might criticize overt Nazi violence and the frequent outrages which the Jewish community had to suffer during the Weimar Republic were often infected by some form of resentment, envy, or suspicion of the Jews. Though relatively few were drawn to the outright violence against Jews (which was nonetheless commonplace in Weimar Germany), latent or passive antisemitism was widespread.19 As incessant Nazi agitation shored up layers of animosity already intensified by the search for scapegoats for a lost war, revolution, mounting political crisis, and deep social misery, prejudice intensified. Allegations that Jews were disproportionately wealthy, harmfully dominant in the economy, and unhealthily influential in the cultural sphere proliferated. The sense, in other words, that Jews were different (however much they strove to prove the opposite) and were responsible for Germany’s ills was spreading fast even before Hitler took power.

Once he had done so, the anti-Jewish premisses of Nazism were able to build on such negative feelings, permeate the entire regime and, magnified by incessant propaganda, touch all levels of society. The intention of ‘removing’ the Jews from Germany, as a basis of national renewal resting upon racial ‘purification’, was therefore guaranteed to prompt initiatives from every corner of the regime. And among the many who felt unease or disquiet at the ferocity of antisemitism in the new state, widespread latent dislike of Jews and moral indifference to discrimination offered no barriers to spiralling persecution.

The restraining of open aggression towards the Jews in the Olympic year of 1936 was regarded by activists as a mere temporary device, and simply kept the pressure for further discriminatory measures simmering below the surface. Social resentment, malice, and greed, as well as outright hatred and ideological correctness made sure the screw of persecution did not loosen. By late 1937 the ‘aryanization’ of the economy was starting to advance rapidly. By 1938, open assaults on the Jewish community were again commonplace. The internal dynamics of an ideologically driven police force with its own agenda, on the look-out for new racial target-groups, searching for fresh possibilities of ‘solving the Jewish Question’, additionally meant that radicalism in the fight against the ‘racial enemy’ mounted, rather than subsided, in the ‘quiet years’ of 1936 and 1937.

Gradually, then, the ‘removal of the Jews’, which Hitler as early as 1919 had advanced as the necessary aim of a national government, began to seem like a realizable aim.20

In the other sphere most closely linked with Hitler’s own ideological obsessions, the expansion of Germany’s borders, radicalizing forces were also at work. If Hitler was the chief, most single-minded, and most unscrupulous exponent of the German expansionist drive, the dream of mastery in Europe was far from his dream alone. Rooted in certain strains of German imperialist ideology,21 it had been embedded as a key component in Hitler’s thinking by the mid-1920s at the latest. It had then gained momentum as the Nazi Movement itself had gained momentum and swollen massively in size in the early 1930s. It had formed part of the great ‘mission’ of ‘national redemption’ embodied in Hitler’s Utopian ‘vision’ of a glorious German future. However unreal acquisition of ‘living space’ in eastern Europe at the expense of the Soviet Union ‘by the sword’ (as Hitler had repeatedly stated in the later 1920s) might have seemed in conditions of unprecedented impoverishment and enfeeblement of the German state in the early 1930s, the vaguely expressed Hitlerian ‘vision’ of mastery in Europe had the great advantage that it could encompass (while not being identical with) long-held and differing conceptions of the revival of German dominance close to the hearts of powerful groups within the leadership of the army, in the upper echelons of the Foreign Ministry, in some prominent business circles, and among many intellectuals. As self-confidence returned during the first years of the Hitler dictatorship, as the economy recovered, as rearmament began to gather pace, and as the regime swept from one diplomatic triumph to another, the varying ideas of German expansion and dominance began gradually to congeal and to seem increasingly realistic.

Expansion, moreover, began to appear not just ideologically desirable as the fulfilment of the reborn nation, the culmination of the ‘national salvation’ which Hitler had preached; it was more and more seen to be desirable — even necessary — on economic and military grounds.

For businessmen, Hitler’s idea of ‘living space’ blended easily into their notions of a ‘greater economic sphere’ (Großraumwirtschaft), even if they favoured expansion to recover traditional German dominance in southeastern Europe rather than looking to the brutal colonization of Russia. As thoughts of economic recovery turned to thoughts of economic domination, and as the pressures of an increasingly armaments-orientated economy laid bare the mounting shortages of labour and raw materials, the attractiveness of expansion became all the more evident. The economic balancing-act of accommodating the demands of both consumer and armaments spending urgently needed a solution. The eventual setting of priorities in favour of an armaments economy effectively set the points for expansion. Indeed, for those sections of the economy aligned to armaments production, fervent backing for the regime’s expansionist programme was the certain route to soaring profits.

For the military, forced to bide its time as long as Germany had been shackled by the terms of the Versailles Treaty and the burden of reparations imposed on the country after the First World War (and effectively written off in 1932), the aim of restoring the army to its former stature in order to regain the lost territories and to establish dominance in central Europe was long-standing.22 The speed of the rebuilding of the armed forces after 1933 and the evident reluctance and inability of the western democracies to counter it now produced their own momentum. Not just to Hitler, but to some military leaders, too, it seemed opportune to take advantage of circumstances which could rapidly become less favourable once Britain and France entered an arms race to counter Germany’s rearmament. The international instability following the break-up of the post-Versailles order, the weakness of the western democracies, and the incipient arms-race all suggested that the time was more propitious than it might ever be again to establish Germany’s dominant role on the European continent. It was an argument that Hitler could often deploy with effect when addressing his generals. The proximity of potentially hostile neighbours in Poland and Czechoslovakia, prospects of conflict at some future point with France and Britain, and, above all, the fears — whatever the perception of current weakness — of Bolshevism to the east all added to the allure of expansionism and, in so doing, helped to tie the military to Hitler and to his own dreams of domination in Europe.

In such ways, Hitler’s fixed points of ideology — ‘removal of the Jews’ and preparations for a future titanic struggle to attain ‘living-space’ — acted as such broad and compelling long-term goals that they could easily embrace the differing interests of those agencies which formed the vital pillars of the Nazi regime. As a result, the instruments of a highly modern state — bureaucracy, economy, and, not least, army — in the heart of Europe increasingly bound themselves to Hitler’s ‘charismatic’ authority, to the politics of national salvation and the dream of European mastery embodied in the personalized ‘vision’ and power of one man. Hitler’s essential, unchanging, distant goals had inexorably become the driving-force of the entire Nazi regime, constituting the framework for the extraordinary energy and dynamism that permeated the entire system of rule. It was a dynamism which knew no terminal point of domination, no moment where power-lust could be satiated, where untrammelled aggression could lapse into mere oppressive authoritarianism.

The ‘good times’ which the first three years of Hitler’s dictatorship had seemingly brought to Germany — economic revitalization, order, prospects of prosperity, restored national pride — could not last indefinitely. They were built on sand. They rested on an illusion that stability and ‘normality’ were within reach. In reality, the Third Reich was incapable of settling into ‘normality’. This was not simply a matter of Hitler’s personality and ideological drive — though these should not be underestimated. His temperament, restless energy, gambler’s instinctive readiness to take risks to retain the initiative, were all enhanced through the gain in confidence that his triumphs in 1935 and 1936 had brought him. His expanding messianism fed itself on the drug of mass adulation and the sycophancy of almost all in this company. His sense that time was against him, the impatience to act, were heightened by the growing belief that he might not have much longer to live. But beyond these facets of Hitler’s personality, more impersonal forces were at work — pressures unleashed and driven on by the chiliastic goals represented by Hitler. A combination of both personal and impersonal driving-forces ensured that in the ‘quiet’ two years between the march into the Rhineland and the march into Austria the ideological dynamism of the regime not only did not subside but intensified, that the spiral of radicalization kept turning upwards.

The triumph of 1936, which had given Hitler’s own self-confidence such a huge boost, proved in this way not an end but a beginning. Most dictators would have been content to relish such a momentous triumph — and to draw the line. For Hitler, the remilitarization of the Rhineland was merely an important stepping-stone in the quest for mastery in Europe. The months that followed paved the way for the sharp radicalization of all aspects of the regime that became noticeable from late 1937 onwards, and which would take Germany and Europe two years later into a second cataclysmic conflagration.


‘The showdown with Bolshevism is coming. Then we want to be prepared. The army is now completely won over by us. Führer untouchable… Dominance in Europe for us is as good as certain. Just let no chance pass by. Therefore rearm.’

‘The Jews must get out of Germany, yes out of the whole of Europe. That will still take some time. But it will and must happen. The Führer is firmly decided on it.’

Goebbels’s diary entries of 15 November 1936 and 30 November 1937, indicating Hitler’s views


Hitler was more convinced than ever, following the Rhineland triumph, that he was walking with destiny, guided by the hand of Providence. The plebiscite of 29 March 1936 was both at home and outside Germany a demonstration of Hitler’s enhanced strength. He could act with new confidence. During the summer, the international alignments that would crystallize over the next three years began to form. The balance of power in Europe had unmistakably shifted.1

Characteristically, Hitler’s first step after his ‘election’ success was to present a ‘peace plan’ — generous in his own eyes — to his coveted allies, the British. On 1 April, his special envoy in London, Joachim von Ribbentrop, the former champagne salesman who had become his most trusted adviser in foreign affairs, passed on the offer Hitler had drafted the previous day to the British government. It included a four-month moratorium on any troop reinforcements in the Rhineland, together with an expression of willingness to participate in international talks aimed at a twenty-five-year peace pact, restricting production of the heaviest forms of artillery alongside bans on the bombing of civilian targets and usage of poison-gas, chemical, or incendiary bombs.2 The seemingly reasonable ‘offer’ had arisen from the serious diplomatic upheaval following the German march into the Rhine-land, when belated French pressure for action against Germany had prompted British attempts to gain a commitment from Hitler to refrain from any increase in troop numbers on the Rhine and from fortifying the region.3 Naturally, on these concrete points Hitler had made no concessions. The reply of 6 May 1936 from the British Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, left the door open for improved relations through new international agreements to replace the now defunct Locarno settlement of 1925. But for all its diplomatic language, the reply was essentially negative. Eden informed the German Foreign Minister, Konstantin Freiherr von Neurath, that ‘His Majesty’s Government regret that the German Government have not been able to make a more substantial contribution towards the re-establishment of the confidence which is such an essential preliminary to the wide negotiations which they both have in view.’4 With this, the British government’s distrust of Hitler was plain. It would sit ever more uneasily alongside the determination, at practically any cost, to prevent Britain once more being embroiled in war.5 As Stanley Baldwin, the British Prime Minister, had put it at the end of April: ‘With two lunatics like Mussolini and Hitler you can never be sure of anything. But I am determined to keep the country out of war.’6

If Hitler was to encounter increased difficulties in attaining his desired alliance with Great Britain, his Rhineland triumph opened up new opportunities elsewhere. Italy, taken up since the previous autumn with the repercussions of the invasion of Abyssinia, now heading to a belatedly victorious conclusion for Mussolini, was more than content to see the attention of the western powers diverted by the remilitarization of the Rhineland. More than that: the diplomatic fall-out from the invasion of Abyssinia had forged better relations between Italy and Germany. As Mussolini had signalled earlier in the year, Italy’s interest in protecting Austria from German inroads had sharply diminished in return for Germany’s support in the Abyssinian conflict. The way was opening for the eventual emergence of the Berlin-Rome ‘axis’ towards the end of the year. Meanwhile, the inevitable consequence of the removal of any protection from Italy was that Austria was forced to acknowledge — as would be the case in a one-sided agreement in July — that the country had now fallen within Germany’s orbit.

Within a fortnight of the Austrian agreement, the diplomatic fault-lines in Europe would widen still further with Hitler’s decision to commit Germany to intervention in what would rapidly emerge as the Spanish Civil War — a baleful prelude to the catastrophe soon to engulf the whole of Europe. To shrewd observers, it was becoming clear: Hitler’s Rhineland coup had been the catalyst to a major power-shift in Europe; Germany’s ascendancy was an unpredictable and highly destabilizing element in the international order; the odds against a new European war in the foreseeable future had markedly shortened.

To the German public, Hitler once more professed himself a man of peace, cleverly insinuating who was to blame for the gathering storm-clouds of war. Speaking to a vast audience in the Berlin Lustgarten (a huge square in the city centre) on 1 May — once an international day of celebration of labouring people, now redubbed ‘National Labour Day’ — he posed the rhetorical question: ‘I ask myself,’ he declared, ‘who are then these elements who wish to have no rest, no peace, and no understanding, who must continually agitate and sow mistrust? Who are they actually?’ Immediately picking up the implication, the crowd bayed: ‘The Jews.’ Hitler began again: ‘I know…,’ and was interrupted by cheering that lasted for several minutes. When at last he was able to continue, he picked up his sentence, though — the desired effect achieved — now in quite different vein: ‘I know it is not the millions who would have to take up weapons if the intentions of these agitators were to succeed. Those are not the ones… ‘7

The summer of 1936 was, however, as Hitler knew only too well, no time to stir up a new antisemitic campaign. In August, the Olympic Games were due to be staged in Berlin. Sport would be turned into a vehicle of nationalist politics and propaganda as never before. Nazi aesthetics of power would never have a wider audience. With the eyes of the world on Berlin, it was an opportunity not to be missed to present the new Germany’s best face to its hundreds of thousands of visitors from across the globe. No expense or effort had been spared in this cause. The positive image could not be endangered by putting the ‘dark’ side of the regime on view. Open anti-Jewish violence, such as had punctuated the previous summer, could not be permitted. With some difficulties, antisemitism was kept under wraps. Manifestations thought distasteful for foreign visitors, such as anti-Jewish notices — ‘Jews not wanted here’, and other vicious formulations — at the roadside at the entry to towns and villages, had already been removed on Hitler’s orders at the insistence of Count Henri Baillet-Latour, the Belgian President of the International Olympic Committee, before the commencement the previous February of the Winter Olympics in the Bavarian alpine resort of Garmisch-Partenkirchen.8 The antisemitic zealots in the Party had temporarily to be reined in. Other objectives were for the time being more important. Hitler could afford to bide his time in dealing with the Jews.

Frenetic building work, painting, renovation, and refurbishment aimed at offering the most attractive appearance possible to Berlin, the city of the Games.9 The centre-point was the new Olympic Stadium. Hitler had angrily denounced the original plans of the architect Werner March as a ‘modern glass box’, and, in one of his usual childlike temper tantrums, had threatened to call off the Olympics altogether. It was probably a device to make sure he got his own way. And like pandering to a spoilt child, those around him made sure he was not disappointed. Speer’s rapidly sketched more classically imposing design immediately won his favour.10 Hitler was more than assuaged. Now fired with enthusiasm, he demanded at once that it should be the biggest stadium in the world — though even when under construction, and outstripping the size of the previous largest stadium at Los Angeles, built for the 1932 Games, he complained that everything was too small.11

The whole of Berlin was wreathed in swastika banners on 1 August as the arrival of the Olympic torch signalled, amid spectacular ceremonial, the commencement of the XIth modern Olympiad — Hitler’s Olympics. Overhead, the massive airship Hindenburg trailed the Olympic flag. In the stadium, a crowd of 110,000 people had assembled in great expectation. Over a million others, it was estimated, unable to get tickets, lined the Berlin streets for a glimpse of their Leader as a cavalcade of black limousines conveyed Hitler with other dignitaries and honoured guests to the newly designed high temple of sport. As he entered the great arena that afternoon, a fanfare of thirty trumpets sounded. The world-famous composer Richard Strauss, clad in white, conducted a choir of 3,000 in the singing of the national anthem, ‘Deutschland, Deutschland über alles’, and the Nazi Party’s own anthem, the ‘Horst-Wessel-Lied’, before conducting the new ‘Olympic Hymn’ which he had composed specially for the occasion. As the music faded, the giant Olympic bell began to toll, announcing the parade of the competing athletes that then followed. Many national delegations offered the Nazi salute as they passed Hitler’s dais; the British and Americans demonstrably refrained from doing so.12 All around the stadium, cameras whirred. The camera teams of Leni Riefenstahl, the talented director who, after her success in filming the 1934 Party Rally, had been commissioned to produce a film on the Olympics, had been installed in numerous strategic positions, accumulating their material for a celluloid record of the stirring events.13

At last, the opening ceremonials out of the way, the Games were under way. During the following two weeks, a glittering display of sporting prowess unfolded. Amid the notable achievements in the intense competition, none compared with the towering performance of the black American athlete Jesse Owens, winner of four gold medals. Hitler, famously, did not shake Owens’s hand in congratulation. It had not, in fact, been intended that he should congratulate Owens or any other winners. He had indeed, though this had apparently not been foreseen by the organizers, shaken the hands of the medal winners on the first day — Finnish and German. Once the last German competitors in the high jump had been eliminated that evening, he had left the stadium in the gathering dusk before completion of the event, which had been delayed and was running late. Whether a deliberate snub or not, this prevented him having to decide whether to shake the hands of Cornelius Johnson and David Albritton, two black Americans who came first and second in the high jump. But Jesse Owens did not compete in a final that day. And before he won any of his medals, Count Baillet-Latour had politely informed Hitler that as a guest of honour of the Committee, if the most important one, it was not in line with protocol for him to congratulate the winners. Thereafter, he congratulated none.14 He was, therefore, in no position to offer a direct affront to Owens when the American sprinter won the first of his gold medals next day for the 100 metres dash. That he would nevertheless have been prepared to snub Owens can be inferred from what he apparently said to Baldur von Schirach, the Hitler Youth leader: that the Americans should be ashamed at letting their medals be won by negroes, and that he would never have shaken hands with one of them. At Schirach’s suggestion that he be photographed alongside Jesse Owens, Hitler was said to have exploded in rage at what he saw as a gross insult.15

Alongside the sporting events, the Nazi leadership lost no opportunity to impress prominent visiting dignitaries with extravagant shows of hospitality. Joachim von Ribbentrop, just appointed by Hitler to be the new Ambassador in London, entertained hundreds of important foreign guests in lavish style at his elegant villa in Dahlem. Reich Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels threw a huge reception with an Italian theme and spectacular fireworks display for over 1,000 notable visitors — more than half of them from abroad — on the lovely Pfaueninsel (Peacock Island) in the Havel (the wide expanse of water to the west of Berlin), linked for the occasion to the mainland by specially built pontoon bridges. Hermann Göring, head of the Luftwaffe and recognized as the second man in the state, outdid all others in his festive extravaganza. The well-heeled and highly impressionable British Conservative Member of Parliament Sir Henry ‘Chips’ Channon, then in his late thirties, attended an unforgettable party: ‘I don’t know how to describe this dazzling crowded function,’ he confided to his diary. ‘We drove to the Ministerium’ — the Air Ministry in Berlin, where Göring’s own palatial residence was housed — ‘and found its great gardens lit up and 700 or 800 guests gaping at the display and the splendour. Goering, wreathed in smiles and orders and decorations received us gaily, his wife at his side… Towards the end of dinner a corps de ballet danced in the moonlight: it was the loveliest coup-d’œil imaginable, and there were murmurs of delighted surprise from all the guests… The end of the garden was in darkness, and suddenly, with no warning, it was floodlit and a procession of white horses, donkeys and peasants, appeared from nowhere, and we were led into an especially built Luna Park. It was fantastic, roundabouts, cafés with beer and champagne, peasants dancing and “schuhplattling” vast women carrying bretzels and beer, a ship, a beerhouse, crowds of gay, laughing people, animals… The music roared, the astonished guest[s] wandered about. “There has never been anything like this since the days of Louis Quatorze,” somebody remarked. “Not since Nero,” I retorted… ‘16

However magnificent the stadium, however spectacular the ceremonials, however lavish the hospitality, it would have been embarrassing for Hitler, and for national pride, had the German performance at the Games been a poor one. There was no need for concern. The German athletes — much to Hitler’s delight — turned the Games into a national triumph. They won more medals than the athletes of any other country.17 This did nothing to harm the nation’s belief in its own superiority.18

Above all, the Olympics were an enormous propaganda success for the Nazi regime. Hitler attended almost every day — underlining the significance of the Games — the crowd rising in salute each time he entered the stadium.19 The German media coverage was massive. Over 3,000 programmes were transmitted worldwide in around fifty languages; over 100 radio stations in the USA alone took transmission; they were even the first Games to be shown on television — though the coverage, confined to Berlin, gave out only fuzzy pictures.20 Almost 4 million spectators had watched the games (spending millions of Reich Marks for the privilege).21 Many more millions had read reports of them, or seen newsreel coverage. And of paramount importance: Hitler’s Germany had been open to viewing for visitors from all over the world. Most of them went away mightily impressed.22 ‘I’m afraid the Nazis have succeeded with their propaganda,’ noted the American journalist William Shirer. ‘First, they have run the games on a lavish scale never before experienced, and this has appealed to the athletes. Second, they have put up a very good front for the general visitors, especially the big businessmen.’23 An outsider within Germany, the Jewish philologist Victor Klemperer, living in Dresden, took a similarly pessimistic view. He saw the Olympics as ‘wholly and entirely a political affair… It’s incessantly drummed into the people and foreigners that here you can see the revival (Aufschwung), the blossoming, the new spirit, the unity, the steadfastness, the glory, naturally too the peaceful spirit of the Third Reich lovingly embracing the whole world.’ The anti-Jewish agitation and warlike tones had disappeared from the newspapers, he noted, at least until 16 August — the end of the Games. Guests were repeatedly reminded of the ‘peaceful and joyful’ Germany in stark contrast to the pillage and murder carried out (it was claimed) by ‘Communist hordes’ in Spain.24 The enthusiastic Hitler Youth activist Melita Maschmann later recalled young people returning to their own countries with a similar positive and peaceful image of Germany. ‘In all of us,’ she remembered, ‘there was the hope in a future of peace and friendship.’25 In her eyes and those of the many sharing her enthusiasm, it was a future which had no place for the Victor Klemperers and others regarded as racial misfits. In any case, the expectations of peaceful coexistence would reveal themselves only too soon as no more than pipe-dreams.

Away from the glamour of the Olympic Games and out of the public eye, the contrast with the external image of peaceful goodwill was sharp. By this time, the self-induced crisis in the German economy arising from the inability to provide for both guns and butter — to sustain supplies of raw materials both for armaments and for consumption — was reaching its watershed. A decision on the economic direction the country would take could not be deferred much longer. The outcome in the summer of 1936 was an economic policy geared inexorably to expansion, making international conflict all the more certain. By then, the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War had already started to move Europe closer towards explosion.


By the spring, it had become clear that it was no longer possible to reconcile the demands of rapid rearmament and growing domestic consumption. Supplies of raw materials for the armaments industry were by then sufficient for only two months.26 Fuel supplies for the armed forces were in a particularly critical state.27 Economics Minister Hjalmar Schacht was by now thoroughly alarmed at the accelerating tempo of rearmament and its inevitably damaging consequences for the economy. Only a sharp reduction in living standards (impossible without endangering the regime’s stability) or a big increase in exports (equally impossible given the regime’s priorities, exchange rate difficulties, and the condition of external markets) could in his view provide for an expanding armaments industry. He was adamant, therefore, that it was time to put the brakes on rearmament.28

The military had other ideas. The leaders of the armed forces, uninterested in the niceties of economics but fully taken up by the potential of modern advanced weaponry, pressed unabatedly for rapid and massive acceleration of the armaments programme. Within weeks of the reoccupation of the Rhineland, General Ludwig Beck, Chief of the General Staff of the army, had come up with plans to expand the thirty-six divisions envisaged in March 1935, when military service was reintroduced, into forty-one divisions. By the summer, the projections had been worked out for an army to be bigger in 1940 than the Kaiser’s war army had been in 1914.29

The army leaders were not acting in response to pressure from Hitler. They had their own agenda. They were at the same time ‘working towards the Führer’, consciously or unconsciously acting ‘along his lines and towards his aim’ (in phrases tellingly used by one Nazi official in a speech two years earlier, hinting at how the dynamic of Nazi rule operated)30 in the full knowledge that their rearmament ambitions wholly coincided with Hitler’s political aims, and that they could depend upon his backing against attempts to throttle back on armament expenditure. Reich War Minister Werner von Blomberg, Colonel-General Werner Freiherr von Fritsch, Commander-in-Chief of the Army, and his Chief of Staff, Beck, were thereby paving the way, in providing the necessary armed might, for the later expansionism which would leave them all trailing in Hitler’s wake.31

Even so, the economic impasse seemed complete. Huge increases in allocation of scarce foreign currency were demanded by both the Ministry of Food and the Ministry of Armaments.32 The position could not be sustained. Fundamental economic priorities had to be established as a matter of urgency. Autarky and export lobbies could not both be satisfied. Hitler remained for months inactive. He had no patent solution to the problem. The key figure at this point was Göring.

Several factors contributed to Göring’s arrival centre-stage in the arena of economic policy: his own insatiable drive to aggrandizement of power; his involvement the previous autumn when acting as Hitler’s troubleshooter in a dispute between Schacht and Richard Walther Darre, Reich Minister for Food and Agriculture, over the allocation of scarce foreign currency to import food products in short supply instead of for raw materials needed by the expanding armaments industries; Schacht’s attempt to use him as a barrier against Party intrusions into the economic sphere; the increasing desperation of Blomberg about the raw-materials crisis in armaments production which eventually forced him to back the power pretensions of the Luftwaffe chief; and not least Hitler’s patent reluctance to become involved, especially if it meant taking decisions in opposition to Party demands.33 Blomberg had been pressing for months for a ‘Fuel Commissar’. Schacht’s repeated rejection of the proposition, realizing the threat to his own sphere of competence, opened the door for Göring, as Air Minister and head of the Luftwaffe, to demand that the Fuel Commissar be answerable to him. Then in March 1936, as the fuel shortage reached crisis-point, Göring decided to put himself forward as ‘Fuel Dictator’.34 Keen for different reasons to block Göring’s ambitions, Schacht and Blomberg tried to tie him down within the framework of a four-man commission involving the three of them and Reich Minister Hanns Kerrl (a close ally of Göring to whom Hitler had assigned a role in economic affairs in spring 1936) to tackle the foreign-exchange crisis.35 Hoping to keep the party off his back, Schacht helped persuade Hitler to install Göring at the beginning of April as Plenipotentiary for the Securing of the Raw Materials and Foreign Exchange Demands of the Reich. Göring’s brief was to overcome the crisis, get rearmament moving again, and force through a policy of autarky in fuel production.36 But by now Göring was in the driving-seat. Schacht was rapidly becoming yesterday’s man. In May, shocked at the new power-base that his own Machiavellian manoeuvrings had unwittingly helped to create for Göring, the Economics Minister protested to Hitler. Hitler waved him away. He did not want anything more to do with the matter, he was reported as telling Schacht, and the Economics Minister was advised to take it up with Göring himself.37 ‘It won’t go well with Schacht for much longer,’ commented Goebbels. ‘He doesn’t belong in his heart to us.’ But Göring, too, he thought would have difficulties with the foreign-exchange and raw-materials issue, pointing out: ‘He doesn’t understand too much about it.’38

It was not necessary that he did. His role was to throw around his considerable weight, force the pace, bring a sense of urgency into play, make things happen. ‘He brings the energy. Whether he has the economic know-how and experience as well? Who knows? Anyway, he’ll do plenty of bragging,’ was Goebbels’s assessment.39

Göring soon had a team of technical experts assembled under Lieutenant-Colonel Fritz Löb of the Luftwaffe. In the research department of Löb’s planning team, run by the chemical firm IG Farben’s director Karl Krauch, solutions were rapidly advanced for maximizing production of synthetic fuels and rapidly attaining self-sufficiency in mineral-oil extraction.40 By midsummer, Löb’s planners had come up with a detailed programme for overcoming the unabated crisis. It envisaged a sharp tilt to a more directed economy with distinct priorities built on an all-out drive both to secure the armaments programme and to improve food provisioning through maximum attainable autarky in specific fields and production of substitute raw materials such as synthetic fuels, rubber, and industrial fats.41 It was not a war economy; but it was on the road to becoming the nearest thing to a war economy in peacetime.

At the end of July, while Hitler was in Bayreuth and Berchtesgaden, Göring had a number of opportunities to discuss with him his plans for the economy. On 30 July he obtained Hitler’s agreement to present them with a splash at the coming Reich Party Rally in September. ‘A big speech of the Colonel-General at the Party Congress’ was envisaged, according to a note in Göring’s desk-diary.42 Göring intended to reap the glory. The new economic programme would dominate the Rally. That was what the Luftwaffe chief had in mind. But when it came to propaganda, Hitler, sniffing another chance to enhance his image through the major announcement of a ‘Four-Year Plan’, was unwilling as ever to concede the star-role. He decided to deliver the key speech himself.43

Hitler had meanwhile become increasingly preoccupied with the looming threat, as he saw it, from Bolshevism, and with the prospect that the mounting international turmoil could lead to war in the nearer rather than more distant future.44 Whatever tactical opportunism he deployed, and however much he played on the theme for propaganda purposes, there is no doubt that the coming showdown with Bolshevism remained — as it had been since the mid-1920s at the latest — the lodestar of Hitler’s thinking on foreign policy. In 1936, this future titanic struggle started to come into sharper focus.

At his private meeting with the former British Air Minister Lord Londonderry in February 1936, Hitler had concentrated on what he described as ‘the growing menace to the world of Bolshevism’. He was, he said, destined to play the part of the prophet internationally, as he had done within Germany some fifteen years earlier. He understood the dangers of Bolshevism better than other European statesmen, he went on, since ‘his political career had grown out of a struggle against Bolshevist tendencies’. Continental Europe was unbalanced and unstable, he claimed. Most governments were weak and short-lived. The continent was living ‘from hand to mouth’. The ‘extraordinary development of Soviet power’ had to be seen against this background of ‘decay’. Moreover, he added, playing up the bogey of Bolshevism to his British guest, the Soviet Union was not merely the greatest military power on the continent, but also ‘the embodiment of an idea’. He went on to provide Lord Londonderry with facts and figures on Soviet military and economic might. The admission of Russia to the League of Nations reminded him of the fable of Reynard the Fox — overcoming the suspicion of the other animals, then devouring them one after another. ‘Just in the same way as one does not allow germ-carriers in ordinary life to frequent the society of healthy people, so we must keep Russia at a distance,’ he maintained. But if the decomposition of Europe and the strengthening of the Soviet Union continued, he asked, ‘what will the position be in ten, twenty, or thirty years?’45

Hitler had visualized for Lord Londonderry the prospect of war between the Soviet Union and Japan, with defeat for the Japanese opening the path for Soviet domination also of the Far East. After meeting the Japanese ambassador in Berlin early in June, Hitler repeated his view that deepening conflict was on the way in the Far East, though he now thought that Japan would ‘thrash’ Russia. At that point, ‘this colossus will start to totter (ins Wanken kommen). And then our great hour will have arrived. Then we must supply ourselves with land for 100 years,’ he told Goebbels. ‘Let’s hope we’re ready then,’ the Propaganda Minister added in his diary notes, ‘and that the Führer is still alive. So that action will be taken.’46

Holidaying in Berchtesgaden in mid-July, Hitler told Goebbels that ‘the next Party Rally will again be against the Bolsheviks’.47 A few days later in Bayreuth, where as usual he was attending the Wagner Festival, he warned two of his most ardent English devotees, the good-looking daughters of the British aristocrat Lord Redesdale, Unity Valkyrie Mitford (who said that sitting next to Hitler was ‘like sitting beside the sun’)48 and her sister Diana (divorced from a member of the wealthy Guinness family and on the verge of marrying — in a ceremony attended by Hitler and Goebbels — the leader of the British Union of Fascists, Oswald Mosley), of the ‘Jewish and Bolshevik danger’.49 By this time, events in Spain were also focusing Hitler’s attention on the threat of Bolshevism. Until then, he had scarcely given a thought to Spain. But on the evening of 25 July, following a performance of Siegfried conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler, his decision — against the advice of the Foreign Office — to send aid to General Franco committed Germany to involvement in what was rapidly to turn into the Spanish Civil War.50

The refusal of the Spanish Right to accept the narrow victory of the left-wing Popular Front in the elections of February 1936 had left Spain teetering on the brink of civil war. During late spring and early summer, horror stories of terroristic outrages, political murders, violent attacks on clergy, and burning churches had started to pour out of a country rapidly descending into political chaos. Europe was alarmed. For the Spanish Right, there was little difficulty in portraying it as the work of Marxist revolutionaries and evoking the image of a country on the verge of Communist takeover.51 Between May and July, army plans for a coup took shape.52 On 17 July army garrisons in Spanish Morocco rose against the elected government. The Commander-in-Chief of the army in Morocco, General Francisco Franco, put himself next morning at the head of the rebellion. But a mutiny of sailors loyal to the Republic denied him the transport facilities he needed to get his army to the mainland, most of which remained in Republican hands. The few planes he was able to lay hands upon did not amount to much in terms of an airlift.53 In these unpropitious circumstances, Franco turned to Mussolini and Hitler. It took over a week to overcome Mussolini’s initial refusal to help the Spanish rebels. Hitler was persuaded within a matter of hours. Ideological and strategic considerations — the likelihood of Bolshevism triumphing on the Iberian peninsula — were uppermost in his mind. But the potential for gaining access to urgently needed raw materials for the rearmament programme — an aspect emphasized by Göring — also appears to have played its part in the decision.54

Good luck was on Franco’s side in his approach to Germany to send transport planes. His initial request for German aid had been coolly received by the Foreign Office. He decided to make a direct appeal to Hitler. A German businessman, Johannes Bernhardt, the head of an export firm which had close dealings with the Spanish army in Morocco and a member of the Nazi Party Foreign Organization (the Auslandsorganisation, or AO), had offered his help in mediation to Franco. As late as 22 July, Franco had not had a plane at his disposal capable of reaching Germany. But the following day a Lufthansa Junkers Ju-52/3m mail plane, sequestered by the rebels in Las Palmas amid German protests, arrived in Morocco, carrying the rebel General Orgaz. Franco now took up Bernhardt’s offer of help. Carrying a written request from Franco to Hitler — and in all probability a similar one to Göring55 — Bernhardt flew to Berlin, accompanied by the sixty-year-old branch leader of the AO in Tetuán, Adolf Langenheim, arriving on the evening of 24 July at Tempelhof aerodrome.56

Meanwhile, the German Foreign Office had been increasingly worried about the deteriorating situation in Spain. A number of attacks on German citizens by Communists and anarchists led to two warships being dispatched into Spanish coastal waters. Concern grew that a victory of the government forces would pave the way for a Communist takeover. The prospect of Bolshevik dominance also in the south-west of Europe — compounding the victory of the left-wing Popular Front in France earlier in the year — seemed a real one.57 Even so, the Foreign Office thought direct involvement in Spain too risky. Gauleiter Ernst Wilhelm Bohle, the head of the AO, who had advanced the case of Franco’s emissaries, was told in no uncertain terms to take the matter no further.58 Ignoring the warning, however, Bohle telephoned Rudolf Heß, Deputy Head of the Party, who immediately arranged for the emissaries to fly in his personal plane to meet him in Thuringia. After a two-hour discussion, Heß rang Hitler. A meeting with the Führer was fixed for the evening of the following day, 25 July, in Bayreuth.59

It was close to ten o’clock in the evening when Bernhardt and Langenheim were ushered into Hitler’s presence in the Wagner residence, ‘Haus Wahnfried’. Hitler had by then been well briefed on the situation in Spain. He knew the rebels’ position had worsened. The last report from the German Embassy in Madrid that morning had warned that a long civil war was in prospect, and that a Republican victory would have damaging consequences for German interests. The report raised the spectre of a Spanish soviet regime closely bound into the French-Soviet alliance.60 Göring had by this time also had the opportunity to brief Hitler on the economic advantages to be gained from supporting Franco, were the rebel cause to succeed.61

That, however, was far from a foregone conclusion. Bernhardt reinforced the message that Franco’s struggle against Communism was lost without German aid.62 The talk moved on to the question of payment for the aid. Noticing that Hitler looked ‘somewhat shocked’ when he mentioned purely nominal sums, Bernhardt stressed the ‘rich sources’ to be gained from Andalusia, almost certainly going on to indicate benefits to Germany from increased raw material imports in exchange for armaments.63 Hitler was still hesitant. But once he had turned the audience into another lengthy monologue, in which he praised the idealism of Spanish nationalists and ranted endlessly about the dangers of Bolshevism, the outcome was little in doubt. In contrast to the position of the Foreign Ministry, he had convinced himself that the dangers of being sandwiched between two Bolshevik blocs outweighed the risks of German involvement in the Spanish crisis — even if, as seemed likely, it should turn into full-blown and protracted civil war. War against the Soviet Union — the struggle for Germany’s ‘living space’ — was, in his view, at some point inevitable. The prospect of a Bolshevik Spain was a dangerous complication.64 He decided to provide Franco with the aid requested. It was an indication both of Hitler’s own greatly increased self-confidence and of the weakened position of those who had advised him on international affairs that he took the decision alone. Possibly, knowing the reluctance of the Foreign Office to become involved, and aware that Göring, for all his interest in possible economic gains, shared some of its reservations, Hitler was keen to present doubters with a fait accompli?65 Possibly, too, Hitler was also still under the influence of Wagner’s Siegfried, which he had come from earlier in the evening. At any rate, the operation to assist Franco came to be dubbed ‘Unternehmen Feuerzauber’ (‘Operation Magic Fire’), recalling the heroic music accompanying Siegfried’s passage through the ring of fire to free Brünnhilde.66

Only after Hitler had taken the decision were Göring and Blomberg summoned. Göring, despite his hopes of economic gains from intervention, was initially ‘horrified’ about the risk of international complications through intervention in Spain. But faced with Hitler’s usual intransigence, once he had arrived at a decision, Göring was soon won over.67 Blomberg, his influence — not least after his nervousness over the Rhineland affair — now waning compared with the powerful position he had once held, went along without objection.68 Ribbentrop, too, when he was told on arrival in Bayreuth that Hitler intended to support Franco, initially warned against involvement in Spain. But Hitler was adamant. He had already ordered aircraft to be put at Franco’s disposal. The crucial consideration was ideological: ‘If Spain really goes communist, France in her present situation will also be bolshevised in due course, and then Germany is finished. Wedged between the powerful Soviet bloc in the East and a strong communist Franco-Spanish bloc in the West, we could do hardly anything if Moscow chose to attack us.’69 Hitler brushed aside Ribbentrop’s weak objections — fresh complications with Britain, and the strength of the French bourgeoisie in holding out against Bolshevism — and simply ended the conversation by stating that he had already made his decision.70

Twenty Junkers Ju-52 transport planes — ten more than Franco had asked for — supported by six Heinkel He 51 fighters were to be provided and were soon en route to Spanish Morocco and to Cádiz, in southern Spain, which had rapidly fallen to the insurgents. Subsequent aid was to follow through a barter system of German equipment for Spanish raw materials under cover of two export companies, one German and one Spanish.71 Despite the warnings he had received that Germany could be sucked into a military quagmire, and however strongly ideological considerations weighed with him, Hitler probably intervened only on the assumption that German aid would tip the balance quickly and decisively in Franco’s favour. ‘We’re taking part a bit in Spain. Not clear. Who knows what it’s good for,’ commented Goebbels laconically the day after the decision to help Franco had been taken.72 Short-term gains, not long-term involvement, were the premiss of Hitler’s impulsive decision. Significant military and economic involvement in Spain began only in October.73 By then, Göring — spurred by his role as head of the new Four-Year Plan as well as chief of the Luftwaffe — was the driving-force. Hitler agreed to substantial increases in German military assistance to Spain. Fighters, bombers, and 6,500 military personnel — the future Legion Condor (a mixed Luftwaffe unit assigned to support for the Spanish nationalists) — were dispatched to take part in what was rapidly developing into a rehearsal for a general showdown between the forces of Fascism and Communism.74

The ideological impetus behind Hitler’s readiness to involve Germany in the Spanish maelstrom — his intensified preoccupation with the threat of Bolshevism — was not a cover for the economic considerations that weighed so heavily with Göring.75 This is borne out by his private as well as his public utterances. Publicly, as he had told Goebbels the previous day would be the case, in his opening proclamation to the Reich Party Rally in Nuremberg on 9 September, he announced that the ‘greatest world danger’ of which he warned for so long — the ‘revolutionizing of the continent’ through the work of ‘Bolshevik wire-pullers’ run by ‘an international Jewish revolutionary headquarters in Moscow’ — was becoming reality. Germany’s military rebuilding had been undertaken precisely to prevent what was turning Spain into ruins from taking place in Germany.76 Out of the public eye, his sentiments were hardly different when he addressed the cabinet for three hours on the foreign-policy situation at the beginning of December. He concentrated on the danger of Bolshevism. Europe was divided into two camps. There was no more going back. He described the tactics of the ‘Reds’. Spain had become the decisive issue. France, ruled by Prime Minister Léon Blum — seen as an ‘agent of the Soviets’, a ‘Zionist and world-destroyer’ — would be the next victim. The victor in Spain would gain great prestige. The consequences for the rest of Europe, and in particular for Germany and for the remnants of Communism in the country, were major ones. This was the reason, he went on, for German aid in armaments to Spain. ‘Germany can only wish that the crisis is deferred until we are ready,’ he declared. ‘When it comes, seize the opportunity (zugreifen). Get into the paternoster lift at the right time. But also get out again at the right time. Rearm. Money can play no role.’77 Only two weeks or so earlier, Goebbels had recorded in his diary: ‘After dinner I talked thoroughly with the Führer alone. He is very content with the situation. Rearmament is proceeding. We’re sticking in fabulous sums. In 1938 we’ll be completely ready. The showdown with Bolshevism is coming. Then we want to be prepared. The army is now completely won over by us. Führer untouchable… Dominance in Europe for us is as good as certain. Just let no chance pass by. Therefore rearm.’78


The announcement of the Four-Year Plan at the Nuremberg Party Rally in September had by then pushed rearmament policy on to a new plane. Priorities had been established. They meant in practice that balancing consumer and rearmament spending could only be sustained for a limited period of time through a crash programme which maximized autarkic potential to prepare Germany as rapidly as possible for the confrontation which Hitler deemed inevitable and other leading figures in the regime thought probable, if not highly likely, within the following few years. Through the introduction of the Four-Year Plan, Germany was economically pushed in the direction of expansion and war. Economics and ideology were by now thoroughly interwoven. Even so, the decision to move to the Four-Year Plan was ultimately an ideological one. Economic options were still open — even if the policies of the previous three years meant they had already narrowed sharply. Schacht, Goerdeler, and others, backed by important sectors of industry, favoured a retreat from an armaments-led economy to a re-entry into international markets. Against this, the powerful IG-Farben lobby, linked to the Luftwaffe, pushed for maximizing production of synthetic fuels. The stalemate persisted throughout the summer. The economic crisis which had dogged Germany during the previous winter and spring was unresolved. With no end to the dispute in sight, Hitler was pressed in late August to take sides. The preoccupation with Bolshevism, which had weighed heavily with him throughout the summer, was decisive in his own inimitable approach to Germany’s economic problems.

The driving-force behind the creation of what came to be known as the Four-Year Plan was not, however, Hitler but Göring. Following their discussions in Berchtesgaden and Bayreuth in July, Hitler had requested reports from Göring on the economic situation, and how the problems were to be overcome. At the beginning of August Göring had in turn demanded memoranda from different branches of the economy to be sent to him as rapidly as possible. The timing was determined by propaganda considerations, not economic criteria: the proximity of the Reich Party Rally in early September was what counted. The complex reports could not be put together as swiftly as Göring had wanted. By the time he travelled to Berchtesgaden at the beginning of the last week in August, he only had a survey from his Raw Materials and Currency staff about the possibilities of synthetic raw-material production within Germany to hand.79 He had meanwhile been encountering powerful opposition to his economic plans from Schacht, who was voicing feelings in some important sectors of business and industry, such as those of one of the most important Ruhr industrialists, Albert Vögler, head of the biggest steel concern in Europe, the Vereinigte Stahlwerke, who had strongly backed a Hitler Chancellorship in the final phase of the Weimar Republic. Carl Goerdeler, too, Lord Mayor of Leipzig, who had served Hitler as Reich Price Commissioner and would eventually become a leading opponent of the regime, joined in the criticism towards the end of the month.80 It was in these circumstances that Hitler was persuaded during the last week of August to dictate a lengthy memorandum on the future direction of the economy — one of the extremely rare occasions in the Third Reich (leaving aside formal laws, decrees, and directives) that he put forward his views in writing.

Most likely, the memorandum, containing neither title nor signature and possibly completed only on 2 September, two days before it was presented to government ministers, was compiled at Göring’s suggestion.81 The Luftwaffe chief stood to gain most directly from it in the power-struggle with Schacht for dominance over the economy. ‘The lack of understanding of the Reich Economics Ministry and the resistance of German business to all large-scale (großzügigen) plans prompted him to compose this memorandum on the Obersalzberg,’ Hitler told his Armaments Minister Albert Speer, when handing him a copy eight years later.82 The only two copies of the memorandum originally distributed went to Göring himself, and to his ally against Schacht, War Minister Blomberg. The Economics Minister himself was not shown a copy of the memorandum, and in fact only heard as late as 2 September of Hitler’s intention to proclaim a new economic policy at the Reich Party Rally.83

The memorandum fell into two parts. The first, on ‘the political situation’, was pure Hitler. It was couched exclusively in ideological terms. The ‘reasoning’ was, as it had been in Mein Kampf and the Second Book, social-Darwinist and racially determinist. ‘Politics are the conduct and course of the historical struggle for life of peoples,’ he began. ‘The aim of these struggles is the assertion of existence.’ The world was moving towards a new conflict, centred upon Bolshevism, ‘whose essence and aim… is solely the elimination of those strata of mankind which have hitherto provided the leadership and their replacement by world-wide Jewry’. Germany would be the focus of the inevitable showdown with Bolshevism. ‘It is not the aim of this memorandum to prophesy the time when the untenable situation in Europe will become an open crisis. I only want, in these lines, to set down my conviction that this crisis cannot and will not fail to arrive,’ he asserted. A victory of Bolshevism over Germany would lead not to a Versailles Treaty but to the final destruction, indeed to the annihilation, of the German people… In face of the necessity of defence against this danger, all other considerations must recede into the background as being completely irrelevant.’ The defensive capacity of the German people had been greatly strengthened under National Socialism. The level of ideological solidarity was unprecedented. But making the German Army ‘into the first army in the world, in training, in the raising of units, in armaments, and, above all, in spiritual education (in der geistigen Erziehung)’ was vital. If this did not happen, then ‘Germany will be lost,’ he declared.84

The second part of the memorandum, dealing with ‘Germany’s economic situation’, and offering a ‘programme for a final solution of our vital need’, bore unmistakable signs of Göring’s influence, resting in turn on the raw material programmes drawn up by his planning staff, with significant input by IG Farben.85 The resemblance to statements on the economy put forward by Göring earlier in the summer suggests that Hitler either had such statements before him when compiling his memorandum, or that his Raw Materials Commissar worked alongside him in preparing the memorandum.86 The tone was nonetheless classically Hitlerian — down to the threat of a law ‘making the whole of Jewry liable for all damage inflicted by individual specimens of this community of criminals upon the German economy’, a threat put into practice some two years later.

A temporary solution to the economic problems was to be found in partial autarky. Maximizing domestic production wherever possible would allow for the necessary food imports, which could not be at the cost of rearmament. Fuel, iron, and synthetic-rubber production had to be stepped up. Cost was irrelevant. Objections — and the opposition voiced in the previous weeks — were taken on board and brushed aside. The nation did not live for the economy; rather, ‘finance and the economy, economic leaders and theories must all exclusively serve this struggle for self-assertion in which our people are engaged’. The Ministry of Economics had simply to set the national economic tasks; private industry had to fulfil them. If it could not do so, the National Socialist state, Hitler threatened, would ‘succeed in carrying out this task on its own’. In typical fashion, he couched his threat in stark alternatives: ‘The German economy will either grasp the new economic tasks or else it will prove itself quite incompetent to survive in this modern age when a Soviet State is setting up a gigantic plan. But in that case it will not be Germany that will go under, but, at most, a few industrialists.’ Though Germany’s economic problems, the memorandum asserted, could be temporarily eased through the measures laid down, they could only finally be solved through the extension of ‘living space’. It was ‘the task of the political leadership one day to solve this problem’. Again this was redolent of Mein Kampf and the Second Book. But it also matched Göring’s aggressive tone in his economic statements earlier in the summer. Only nuances separated Göring’s more pragmatic nationalist-imperialism from Hitler’s race-determined version. Both variants implied war at some point in the future — when economic mobilization, wrote Hitler, would become ‘solely a question of will’. The memorandum closed by advocating a ‘Several Years Plan’ — the term ‘Four-Year Plan’ was not mentioned in the document — to maximize self-sufficiency in existing conditions and make it possible to demand economic sacrifices of the German people. Opportunities had been missed during the previous four years; in the next four years, the German army had to be made operational, the economy made ready for war.87

Even in the economic sections, few concrete details were offered. No organizational structure was laid down. The economic ideas mooted in the second part were in themselves not new. But the drive for maximum autarky in the interests of a forced rearmament drive was now taken on to a new plane, and established as the outright priority.88 Hitler’s economic notions were confined, as always, to an ideological imperative. The memorandum was wholly programmatic. The more pragmatic expansionist notions of Göring and Blomberg both in the military and in the economic sphere were accommodated within the Hitlerian ideological vision. Moreover, Hitler’s way of argumentation was characteristic. The inflexibility of its ideological premisses coupled with the very broadness of its dogmatic generalities made it impossible for critics to contest it outright without rejection of Hitler himself and his ‘world-view’. This ‘world-view’, whatever tactical adjustments had proved necessary, showed again its inner consistency in the central place assigned to the coming showdown with Bolshevism — an issue which, as we have seen, preoccupied Hitler throughout 1936.

Göring got what he wanted out of Hitler’s memorandum. Armed with Hitler’s backing he was able to determine his supremacy in the central arena of the armaments economy.89 Schacht recognized the scale of the defeat he had suffered.90 Hitler was reluctant to drop him because of the standing he enjoyed abroad.91 But his star was now waning fast. Alternative policies to that advanced in Hitler’s memorandum could now be condemned out of hand. Goerdeler’s memorandum rejecting the autarkic programme and arguing for curtailment of rearmament in favour of re-entry into the international market economy was peremptorily dismissed by the new armaments supremo. The dictatorial style in which he conducted the meeting of the Prussian Ministerial Council on 4 September was that of the victor in the power-struggle, basking in the certainty of control over the massive economics empire now opening up before him.92

The growth of this huge domain did not derive from a clearly conceived notion of economic planning. Hitler — in so far as he had given any consideration at all to organizational matters — had, it appears, simply imagined that Göring would work through only a small bureaucracy and function as an overlord in coordinating economic policy with the relevant ministries, which would retain their specific responsibilities.93 Instead, Göring rapidly improvised a panoply of ‘special commissioners’ (Sonderbeauftragte), each backed by their own bureaucratic apparatus, for different facets of the Four-Year Plan, often without clear lines of control, not infrequently overlapping or interfering with the duties of the Ministry of Economics, and all of course answerable to Göring himself. It was a recipe for administrative and economic anarchy.

But the momentum created by the Four-Year Plan was immense. All areas of the economy were affected in the following peacetime years. The resulting pressures on the economy as a whole were not sustainable indefinitely. The economic drive created its own dynamic which fed directly into Hitler’s ideological imperative. The ambitious technocrats in the offices and sub-organizations of the Four-Year Plan, not least the leaders of the rapidly expanding chemicals giant IG Farben, were in their own way — whatever their direct motivation — also ‘working towards the Führer’. Territorial expansion became necessary for economic as well as for ideological reasons. And racial policy, too, was pushed on to a new plane as the spoils to be gained from a programme of ‘aryanization’ were eagerly seized upon as easy pickings in an economy starting to overheat under its own, self-manufactured pressures.

When Hitler drew up his memorandum in late August 1936 all this was in the future. Hitler had no clear notion himself of how it would all unfold. Nor was he specially interested in such questions. Propaganda concerned him more immediately than economics in drawing up the memorandum. He needed the new economic programme as the cornerstone of the Party Rally. His big speech there on the economy — which, as we have seen, Göring had initially wanted to deliver — was closely based, occasionally word for word, on his August memorandum.94 He now spoke publicly for the first time of a ‘new Four-Year Programme’ (recalling his initial ‘four-year plan’ put forward immediately after his appointment as Chancellor in 1933).95 A planned economy sounded modern. A ‘Five-Year Plan’ had already been taken up in the Bolshevik state at which German preparations were ultimately targeted.96 The designation ‘Four-Year Plan’ rapidly caught on in the German press. It became officially so called some weeks later, on 18 October, with Hitler’s ‘Decree for the Implementation of the Four-Year Plan’.97


In the foreign-policy arena, the shifts which had begun during the Abyssinian crisis were hardening across the summer and autumn of 1936. Clearer contours were beginning to emerge. Diplomatic, strategic, economic, and ideological considerations — separable but often closely interwoven — were starting to take Germany into more dangerous, uncharted waters. The possibility of a new European conflagration — however unimaginable and horrifying the prospect seemed to most of the generation that had lived through the last one — was starting to appear a real one.

The long-desired alliance with Britain, which had seemed a real possibility in June 1935 at the signing of the Naval Pact, had remained elusive. It was still a distant dream. The Abyssinian crisis and the reoccupation of the Rhineland, now the Spanish Civil War, had all provided hurdles to a closer relationship despite German efforts to court those they imagined had power and influence in Britain and some British sympathizers in high places.98 Ribbentrop, appointed in the summer an unwilling Ambassador to London with a mandate from Hitler to bring Britain into an anti-Comintern pact, had since his triumph with the Naval Treaty become increasingly disillusioned about the prospects of a British alliance.99 Hitler pointed out to Mussolini in September that Ribbentrop’s appointment marked the last attempt to win over Great Britain.100 But the new ‘Ambassador Brickendrop’, as he was lampooned on account of the innumerable faux pas (such as saluting the King with the ‘Hitler Greeting’) for which he became renowned in London diplomatic circles, or ‘Half-Time Ambassador’ because of his frequent absences, in any case made his own personal contribution to the growing alienation felt in Britain towards the Third Reich.101 Hitler saw the abdication on 11 December 1936 of King Edward VIII, in the face of opposition in Britain to his proposed marriage to a twice-divorced American, Mrs Wallis Simpson, as a victory for those forces hostile to Germany.102 Ribbentrop had encouraged him in the view that the King was pro-German and anti-Jewish, and that he had been deposed by an anti-German conspiracy linked to Jews, freemasons, and powerful political lobbies.103

By the end of the year (according to a reported indication of his view), Hitler had become more lukewarm about a British alliance, claiming — whether with total conviction may be doubted — that it would at best bring some minor colonial gains but would, on the other hand, hinder Germany’s plans for expansion in central and south-eastern Europe. The reason he gave was that Italy would, through an Anglo-German alliance which undermined its policy in the Mediterranean, be forced on to the side of France, leading to a block by the two countries on any attempt at a new order in south-eastern Europe. Germany, he concluded, had its interests better served by close ties with Italy.104

The rapprochement with Italy — slow and tenuous in the first half of 1936 — had by then come to harden into a new alliance of the two fascist-style militaristic dictatorships dominating central and southern Europe. The Abyssinian crisis, as we have noted, had turned Italy towards Germany. The repercussions on Austria were not long in the waiting. Deprived de facto of its Italian protector, Austria was swept inevitably further into the German slipstream.105 Encouraged by the Italians as well as put under pressure by the Germans, Austria was ready by 11 July 1936 to sign a wide-ranging agreement with Germany, improving relations, ending restrictions placed upon the German press, and upon economic and cultural activities within Austria.106 Though recognizing Austrian independence, the agreement in reality turned the Reich’s eastern neighbour into an economic and foreign-policy dependency.107 It was a development which by this time suited both Germany and Italy.108 And within weeks, the aid provided by the two dictatorships to the nationalist rebels in Spain, and the rapidly deepening commitment to the Spanish Civil War, brought Italy and Germany still closer together. German and Italian pilots in Spain were soon operating in unison.109 The annihilation of the small Basque market town of Guernica, leaving over 2,500 citizens dead or injured, in a devastating three-hour bombing raid on the afternoon of 26 April 1937 by combined German and Italian forces, immortalized in Picasso’s famous painting, would become an emblem of the horror of the Spanish Civil War, and of innocent civilians defenceless against the new menace of terror from the skies.110

The diplomatic benefits from closer ties with Italy were reinforced in Hitler’s own eyes by the anti-Bolshevik credentials of Mussolini’s regime. In his August memorandum on the economy, Hitler had highlighted Italy as the only European country outside Germany capable of standing firm against Bolshevism.111 In September, he made overtures to Mussolini through his envoy Hans Frank, inviting the Duce to visit Berlin the following year — an invitation readily accepted.112 Mussolini’s son-in-law, the vain Count Ciano — the ‘Ducellino’ — arranged matters with Neurath in mid-October. There was agreement on a common struggle against Communism, rapid recognition of a Franco government in Spain, German recognition of the annexation of Abyssinia, and Italian ‘satisfaction’ at the Austro-German agreement.113

Hitler was in effusive mood when he welcomed Ciano to Berchtesgaden on 24 October. He described Mussolini as ‘the leading statesman in the world, to whom none may even remotely compare himself’.114 In a conversation of two and a quarter hours, Hitler, noted Ciano, ‘talked slowly and in a low voice’, with ‘violent outbursts when he spoke of Russia and Bolshevism. His way of expressing himself was slow and somewhat verbose. Each question was the subject of a long exposition and each concept was repeated by him several times in different words… The principal topics of his conversation were Bolshevism and English encirclement.’115 Ciano had drawn Hitler’s attention to a telegram, which had fallen into Italian hands, to the Foreign Office in London from the British Ambassador in Berlin, Sir Eric Phipps, stating that the Reich government was in the hands of dangerous adventurers. Hitler’s furious response was that ‘England, too, was led by adventurers when she built the Empire. Today it is governed merely by incompetents.’ Germany and Italy should ‘go over to the attack’, using the tactic of anti-Bolshevism to win support from countries suspicious of an Italo-German alliance. There was no clash of interests between Italy and Germany, he declared. The Mediterranean was ‘an Italian sea’. Germany had to have freedom of action towards the East and the Baltic.116 He was convinced, he said, that England would attack Italy, Germany, or both, given the opportunity and likely chances of success. A common anti-Bolshevik front, including powers in the East, the Far East, and South America, would however act as a deterrent, and probably even prompt Britain to seek an agreement. If Britain continued its offensive policy, seeking time to rearm, Germany and Italy had the advantage both in material and psychological rearmament, he enthused. In three years, Germany would be ready, in four years more than ready; five years would be better still.117

In a speech in the cathedral square in Milan a week later, Mussolini spoke of the line between Berlin and Rome as ‘an axis round which all those European States which are animated by a desire for collaboration and peace can revolve’.118 A new term was coined: ‘Axis’ — whether in a positive or negative sense — caught the imagination. In Italian and German propaganda, it evoked the might and strength of two countries with kindred philosophies joining forces against common enemies. For the western democracies, it raised the spectre of the combined threat to European peace by two expansionist powers under the leadership of dangerous dictators.

The menacing image became global when, within weeks of the formation of the Axis, Hitler entered a further pact with the one power outside Italy he had singled out in his August memorandum as standing firm against Bolshevism: Japan.119 Hitler had told Ciano in September that Germany had already made considerable progress towards an agreement with Japan within the framework of an anti-Bolshevik front. The anti-British thrust had been explicit.120 The driving force behind the pact, from the German side, had from the beginning been Ribbentrop, operating with Hitler’s encouragement.121 The professionals from the German Foreign Office, far more interested in relations with China, found themselves largely excluded as a new body of ‘amateurs’ from the Dienststelle Ribbentrop (Ribbentrop Bureau) — the agency for foreign affairs founded in 1934, by now with around 160 persons working for it, upon which Hitler was placing increasing reliance — made the running.122 Neurath was not alone in disapproving of the overtures to Tokyo (once he had belatedly come to learn of them).123 Schacht, Göring, and Blomberg, along with leading industrialists (including the Ruhr armaments magnate Krupp von Bohlen), were also among those keen not to damage relations with China — a source of extensive deliveries of indispensable raw materials for the armaments industry, notably manganese ore and tungsten.124 In ‘Official’ German foreign policy, Japan was still little more than a sideshow. But in the ‘alternative’ foreign policy being conducted by Ribbentrop, keen to establish his credentials as Hitler’s spokesman in international affairs and attuned to Hitler’s ideological interest in a symbolic anti-Bolshevik agreement, Japanese relations had a far higher profile.

Ribbentrop used his intermediary, Dr Friedrich Wilhelm Hack, who had good connections to the Japanese military and important industrial circles, to put out feelers in January 1935. The Japanese military leaders saw in a rapprochement with Berlin the chance to weaken German links with China and to gain a potential ally against the Soviet Union.125 The prime initiative during the second half of 1935 appears, in fact, to have been taken by the Japanese military authorities, through Hack, in close collaboration with Ribbentrop.126 Proposals for an anti-Soviet neutrality pact were put forward in October by the Japanese Military Attaché in Berlin, Hiroshi Oshima. Ribbentrop took the proposals — couched as a pact against the Comintern, not directly against the Soviet Union — to Hitler in late November, and gained his approval. Internal upheaval in Japan in the wake of a military revolt of February 1936, and the rapidly changing international situation, led to almost a year’s delay before the pact finally came to fruition.127 On 27 November 1936 Hitler approved what became known as the Anti-Comintern Pact (which Italy joined a year later), under whose main provision — in a secret protocol — neither party would assist the Soviet Union in any way in the event of it attacking either Germany or Japan.128 The pact was more important for its symbolism than for its actual provisions: the two most militaristic, expansionist powers in the world had found their way to each other. Though the pact was ostensibly defensive, it had hardly enhanced the prospects for peace on either side of the globe.129

In his Reichstag speech on 30 January 1937, celebrating the fourth anniversary of his takeover of power, Hitler announced that ‘the time of the so-called surprises’ was over. Germany wished ‘from now on in loyal fashion’ as an equal partner to work with other nations to overcome the problems besetting Europe.130 This pronouncement was soon to prove even more cynical than it had appeared at the time. That further ‘surprises’ were inevitable — and not long postponed — was not solely owing to Hitler’s temperament and psychology. The forces unleashed in four years of Nazi rule — internal and external — were producing their own dynamic. Those in so many different ways who were ‘working towards the Führer’ were ensuring, directly or indirectly, that Hitler’s own ideological obsessions served as the broad guidelines of policy initiatives. The restlessness — and recklessness — ingrained in Hitler’s personality reflected the pressures for action emanating in different ways from the varied components of the regime, loosely held together by aims of national assertiveness and racial purity embodied in the figure of the Leader. Internationally, the fragility and chronic instability of the post-war order had been brutally exposed. Within Germany, the chimeric quest for racial purity, backed by a leadership for which this was a central tenet of belief, could, if circumstances demanded, be contained temporarily, but would inevitably soon reassert itself to turn the screw of discrimination ever tighter. The Nazi regime could not stand still. As Hitler himself was to comment before the end of the year, the alternative to expansion — and to the restless energy which was the regime’s lifeblood — was what he called ‘sterility’, bringing in its wake, after a while, ‘tensions of a social kind’, while failure to act in the near future could bring internal crisis and a ‘weakening point of the regime’.131 The bold forward move (Flucht nach vorne), Hitler’s trademark, was, therefore, intrinsic to Nazism itself.


To most observers, both internal and external, after four years in power the Hitler regime looked stable, strong, and successful. Hitler’s own position was untouchable. The image of the great statesman and national leader of genius manufactured by propaganda matched the sentiments and expectations of much of the population. The internal rebuilding of the country and the national triumphs in foreign policy, all attributed to his ‘genius’, had made him the most popular political leader of any nation in Europe. Most ordinary Germans — like most ordinary people anywhere and at most times — looked forward to peace and prosperity. Hitler appeared to have established the basis for these. He had restored authority to government. Law and order had been re-established. Few were concerned if civil liberties had been destroyed in the process. There was work again. The economy was booming. What a contrast this was to the mass unemployment and economic failure of Weimar democracy. Of course, there was still much to do. And many grievances remained. Not least, the conflict with the Churches was the source of great bitterness. But Hitler was largely exempted from blame. Despite four years of fierce ‘Church struggle’, the head of the Protestant Church in Bavaria, Bishop Meiser, publicly offered prayers for Hitler, thanking God ‘for every success which, through your grace, you have so far granted him for the good of our people’.132 The negative features of daily life, most imagined, were not of the Führer’s making. They were the fault of his underlings, who frequently kept him in the dark about what was happening.

Above all, even critics had to admit, Hitler had restored German national pride. From its post-war humiliation, Germany had risen to become once more a major power. Defence through strength had proved a successful strategy. He had taken risks. There had been great fear that these would lead to renewed war. But each time he had been proved right. And Germany’s position had been inordinately strengthened as a consequence. Even so, there was widespread relief at the indication, in Hitler’s speech of 30 January 1937, that the period of ‘surprises’ was over. Hitler’s comment was seized upon throughout the land as a sign that consolidation and stability would now be the priorities.133 The illusion would not last long. The year 1937 was to prove the calm before the storm.134

Not only ordinary people were taken in by Hitler. And not only through the imagery of the mass media was the impression created that the leader of the Third Reich was a man of unusual talent and vision. No less a figure than David Lloyd George — product of Welsh radical traditions, former Liberal Party leader, and British Prime Minister at the time of the Versailles Treaty — came away from a three-hour meeting with Hitler at the Berghof at the beginning of September 1936 (at which the old adversaries had exchanged memories of the First World War) enormously impressed, convinced that the German leader was ‘a great man’.133 Even more remarkably, the British Labour Leader and famed pacifist George Lansbury — whose crumpled suit and woolly sweater prompted the introduction of a new dress-code for audiences with the Führer — went away from his meeting with Hitler in mid-April 1937 firmly convinced that the latter was prepared to do what was necessary to avoid war.136 He had been so enthused at the meeting that he had not noticed how bored Hitler had been, and how vague and non-committal were his unusually monosyllabic responses to Lansbury’s own idealistic plans for peace.137 Other eminent foreign visitors who met Hitler also took away positive impressions. ‘He did not only spread fear or aversion,’ recalled the French Ambassador François-Poncet. ‘He excited curiosity; he awakened sympathy; his prestige grew; the force of attraction emanating from him had an impact beyond the borders of his country.’138

Even for those within Germany known to be critical of the regime, Hitler could in a face-to-face meeting create a positive impression. He was good at attuning to the sensitivities of his conversation-partner, could be charming, and often appeared reasonable and accommodating. As always, he was a skilled dissembler. On a one-to-one basis, he could pull the wool over the eyes even of hardened critics. After a three-hour meeting with him at the Berghof in early November 1936, the influential Catholic Archbishop of Munich-Freising, Cardinal Faulhaber — a man of sharp acumen, who had often courageously criticized the Nazi attacks on the Catholic Church — went away convinced that Hitler was deeply religious. ‘The Reich Chancellor undoubtedly lives in belief in God,’ he noted in a confidential report. ‘He recognizes Christianity as the builder of western culture.’139

Few, even of those who were daily in his company — the regular entourage of adjutants and secretaries — and those with frequent, privileged access, could claim to ‘know’ Hitler, to get close to the human being inside the shell of the Führer figure. Hitler himself was keen to maintain the distance. ‘The masses need an idol,’ he was later to say.140 He played the role not just to the masses, but even to his closest entourage. Despite the torrents of words he poured out in public, and the lengthy monologues he inflicted upon those in his circle, he was by temperament a very private, even secretive, individual. A deeply ingrained sense of distrust and cynicism meant he was unwilling and unable to confide in others. Behind the public figure known to millions, the personality was a closed one. Genuine personal relations were few. Most even of those who had been in his immediate company for years were kept at arm’s length. He used the familiar ‘Du’ form with a mere handful of people. Even when his boyhood friend August Kubizek met him again the following year, following the Anschluß, Hitler used the formal ‘Sie’ mode of address.141 The conventional mode of addressing Hitler, which had set in after 1933, ‘Mein Führer’, emphasized the formality of relations. The authority of his position depended upon the preservation of the nimbus attached to him, as he well realized. This in turn demanded the distance of the individual even from those in his immediate familia. The ‘mystery’ of Hitler’s personality had important functional, as well as temperamental, causes. Respect for his authority was more important to him than personal warmth.

Hitler’s dealings with his personal staff were formal, correct, polite, and courteous. He usually passed a pleasant word or two with his secretaries when any engagements in the late morning were over, and often took tea with them in the afternoons and at night.142 He enjoyed the joking and songs (accompanied on the accordion) of his chef and Hausintendant or major-domo Arthur Kannenberg.143 He could show sympathy and understanding, as when his new Luftwaffe adjutant, Nicolaus von Below, had — to his embarrassment — to ask to leave for his honeymoon immediately on joining Hitler’s service.144 He sent Christa Schroeder, one of his secretaries, presents when she was ill and visited her in hospital.145 He enjoyed giving presents to his staff on their birthdays and at Christmas, and paid personal attention to selecting appropriate gifts.146

But genuine warmth and affection were missing. The shows of kindness and attentiveness were superficial. Hitler’s staff, like most other human beings, were of interest to him only as long as they were useful.147 However lengthy and loyal their service, if their usefulness was at an end they would be dispensed with. His staff, for their part, admired ‘the Boss’ (der Chef) as they called him. They respected, at times feared, him. His authority was unquestioned and absolute. Their loyalty to him was equally beyond question. But whether they genuinely liked him as a person is doubtful. There was a certain stiffness about the atmosphere whenever Hitler was present. It was difficult to relax in his company. He was demanding of his staff, who had to work long hours and fit into his eccentric work habits.148 His secretaries were often on duty in the mornings, but had to be prepared to take dictation of lengthy speeches late at night or into the early hours.149 Patronizingly complimentary to them on some occasions, on others he would scarcely notice their existence.150 In his own eyes, more even than in the eyes of those around him, he was the only person that mattered. His wishes, his feelings, his interests alone counted. He could be lenient of misdemeanours when he was unaffected. But where he felt a sense of affront, or that he had been let down, he could be harsh in his treatment of those around him. He was brusque and insulting to the lady-friend, of whom he disapproved, of his Chief Adjutant Wilhelm Brückner, a massive figure, veteran of the SA in the party’s early days, and participant in the Beerhall Putsch of 1923. A few years later he was peremptorily to dismiss Brückner, despite his lengthy and dutiful service, following a minor dispute.151 On another occasion he dismissed his valet Karl Krause, who had served him for several years, again for a trivial matter.152 Even his jovial hospitality manager, Arthur Kannenberg, who generally enjoyed something of the freedom of a court jester, had to tread carefully. Always anxious at the prospect of any embarrassment that would make him look foolish and damage his standing, Hitler threatened him with punishment if his staff committed any mistakes at receptions.153

Hitler strongly disliked any change in the personnel of his immediate entourage. He liked to see the same faces around him. He wanted those about him whom he was used to, and who were used to him. For one whose lifestyle had always been in many respects so ‘bohemian’, he was remarkably fixed in his routines, inflexible in his habits, and highly reluctant to make alterations to his personal staff.154

In 1937 he had four personal adjutants: SA-Gruppenführer Wilhelm Brückner (the chief adjutant); Julius Schaub (formerly the head of his bodyguard, a Putsch veteran who had been in prison in Landsberg with Hitler and in his close attendance ever since, looking after his confidential papers, carrying money for the ‘Chief’s’ use, acting as his personal secretary, general factotum, and ‘notebook’); Fritz Wiedemann (who had been Hitler’s direct superior in the war); and Albert Bormann (the brother of Martin, with whom, however, he was not on speaking terms).155 Three military adjutants — Colonel Friedrich Hoßbach for the army, Captain Karl-Jesko Otto von Puttkamer for the navy, and Captain Nicolaus von Below for the Luftwaffe — were responsible for Hitler’s links with the leaders of the armed forces. Secretaries, valets (one of whom had to be on call at all moments of the day), his pilot Hans Baur, his chauffeur Erich Kempka, the head of the Leibstandarte-SS Adolf Hitler and long-standing Hitler trustee Sepp Dietrich, the leaders of the bodyguard and criminal police attachments, and the doctors who, at different times, attended upon him all formed part of the additional personal staff.156

By 1937, Hitler’s day followed a fairly regular pattern, at least when he was in Berlin. Late in the morning, he received a knock from his valet, Karl Krause, who would leave newspapers and any important messages outside his room. While Hitler took them in to read, Krause ran his bath and laid out his clothes. Always concerned to avoid being seen naked, Hitler insisted upon dressing himself, without help from his valet.157 Only towards midday did he emerge from his private suite of rooms (or ‘Führer apartment’) — a lounge, library, bedroom, and bathroom, together with a small room reserved for Eva Braun — in the renovated Reich Chancellery.158 He gave any necessary instructions to, or received information from, his military adjutants, was given a press summary by Otto Dietrich, and was told by Hans Heinrich Lammers, head of the Reich Chancellery, of his various engagements. Meetings and discussions, usually carried out while Hitler walked backwards and forwards with his discussion partner in the ‘Wintergarten’ (or conservatory) looking out on the garden, generally filled the next couple of hours — sometimes longer — so that lunch was frequently delayed.159

The spacious and light dining-room had a large round table with a dozen chairs in the centre and four smaller tables, each with six chairs, around it. Hitler sat at the large table with his back to the window, facing a picture by Kaulbach, Entry of the Sun Goddess.160 Some of the guests — among them Goebbels, Göring, and Speer — were regulars. Others were newcomers or were seldom invited. The talk was often of world affairs. But Hitler would tailor the discussion to those present. He was careful in what he said. He consciously set out to impress his opinion on his guests, perhaps at times to gauge their reaction. Sometimes he dominated the ‘conversation’ with a monologue. At other times, he was content to listen while Goebbels sparred with another guest, or a more general discussion unfolded. Sometimes the table talk was interesting. New guests could find the occasion exciting and Hitler’s comments a ‘revelation’. Frau Below, the wife of the new Luftwaffe-Adjutant, found the atmosphere, and Hitler’s company, at first exhilarating and was greatly impressed by his knowledge of history and art.161 But for the household staff who had heard it all many times, the midday meal was often a tedious affair.162

After lunch there were usually further meetings in the Music Salon with ambassadors, generals, Reich Ministers, foreign dignitaries, or personal acquaintances such as the Wagners or Bruckmanns. Such meetings seldom lasted longer than an hour, and were arranged around tea. Thereafter, Hitler withdrew to his own rooms for a rest, or went for a stroll round the park attached to the Reich Chancellery.163 He spent no time at all during the day at his massive desk, other than hurriedly to attach his signature to laws, letters of appointment, or other formal documents placed before him. Beyond his major speeches, letters to foreign heads of state, and the occasional formal note of thanks or condolence, he dictated little or nothing to his secretaries.164 Apart from his temperamental aversion to bureaucracy, he was anxious to avoid committing himself on paper. The consequence was that his adjutants and personal staff often had the task of passing on in written form directives which were unclear, ill-thought-out, or spontaneous reactions. The scope for confusion, distortion, and misunderstanding was enormous. What Hitler had originally intended or stated was, by the time it had passed through various hands, often open to different interpretation and impossible to reconstruct with certainty.165

The evening meal, around 8p.m., followed the same pattern as lunch, but there were usually fewer present and talk focused more on Hitler’s favourite topics, such as art and history. During the meal, Hitler would be presented by one of the servants (most of whom were drawn from his bodyguard, the Leibstandarte) with a list of films, including those from abroad and German films still unreleased, which Goebbels had provided. (Hitler was delighted at his Christmas present from Goebbels in 1937: thirty feature films of the previous four years, and eighteen Mickey Mouse cartoons.)166 After the meal, the film chosen for the evening would be shown in the Music Salon. Any members of the household staff and the chauffeurs of any guests present could watch. Hitler’s secretaries were, however, not present at the meals in the Reich Chancellery, though they were included in the more relaxed atmosphere at the Berghof. The evening ended with conversation stretching usually to about 2 a.m. before Hitler retired.167

In this world within the Reich Chancellery, with its fixed routines and formalities, where he was surrounded by his regular staff and otherwise met for the most part official visitors or guests who were mainly in awe of him, Hitler was cocooned within the role and image of the Führer which had elevated him to demi-god status. Few could behave naturally in his presence. The rough ‘old fighters’ of the Party’s early days now came less frequently. Those attending the meals in the Reich Chancellery had for the most part only known him since the nimbus of the ‘great leader’ had become attached to him.168 The result only reinforced Hitler’s self-belief that he was a ‘man of destiny’, treading his path ‘with the certainty of a sleepwalker’.169 At the same time, he was ever more cut off from real human contact, isolated in his realm of increasing megalomania. A ways glad to get away from Berlin, it was only while staying with the Wagners during the annual Bayreuth Festival and at his alpine retreat ‘On the mountain’ above Berchtesgaden that Hitler relaxed somewhat.170 But even at the Berghof, rituals were preserved. Hitler dominated the entire existence of his guests there too. Real informality was as good as impossible in his presence. And Hitler, for all the large numbers of people in attendance on him and paying court to him, remained impoverished when it came to real contact, cut off from any meaningful personal relationship through the shallowness of his emotions and his profoundly egocentric, exploitative attitude towards all other human beings.

It is impossible to be sure of what, if any, emotional satisfaction Hitler gained from his relationship with Eva Braun (whom he had first met in 1929 when, then aged seventeen, she worked in the office of his photographer, Heinrich Hoffmann). It could not have been much. For prestige reasons, he kept her away from the public eye. On the rare occasions she was in Berlin, she was closeted in her little room in the ‘Führer Apartment’ while Hitler attended official functions or was otherwise engaged.171 Even in his close circle she was not permitted to be present for meals if any important guests were there. She did not accompany Hitler on his numerous journeys, and had to stay for the most part either in his flat in Munich or at the Berghof, the only place where she could emerge as one of the extended ‘family’.172 Even there, however, she was hidden away during receptions for important guests.173 Hitler often treated her abysmally when she was present, frequently humiliating her in front of others.174 The contrast with the olde-worlde charm — kissing hands, linking arms, cupping elbows — that he habitually showed towards pretty women in his presence merely rubbed salt in the wounds.175 That Eva had long suffered from Hitler’s neglect of her is evident from her plaintive diary entries two years earlier, in 1935.176 Her deep unhappiness had culminated in her second suicide attempt in the May of that year — an overdose of sleeping tablets that amounted, like her first attempt (with a revolver) in 1932, to a cri de cœur rather than a serious effort to kill herself.177

Probably the closest that Hitler came to friendship was in his relations with Joseph Goebbels and, increasingly, with his court architect and new favourite, Albert Speer, whom in January 1937 he made responsible for the rebuilding of Berlin.178 Hitler frequently sought out their company, liked their presence, was fond of their wives and families, and could feel at ease with them. The Goebbels home was a frequent refuge in Berlin. Lengthy talks with Speer about the rebuilding of the capital city amounted to the nearest thing Hitler had to a hobby, a welcome respite from his otherwise total involvement in politics. At least in Goebbels’s case there were elements of a father-son relationship.179 A rare flicker of human concern could be glimpsed when Hitler asked Goebbels to stay for an extra day in Nuremberg after the Rally in September 1937, since (according to the Propaganda Minister) he did not like him flying at night.180 Hitler was the dominant figure — the father figure. But he may have seen something of himself in each of his two protégés — the brilliant propagandist in Goebbels, the gifted architect in Speer.

In the case of Speer, the fascination for architecture provided an obvious bond. Both had a liking for neo-classical buildings on a monumental scale. Hitler was impressed by Speer’s taste in architecture, his energy, and his organizational skill. He had rapidly come to see him as the architect who could put his own grandiose building schemes, envisaged as the representation of Teutonic might and glory that would last for centuries, into practice. But other architects, some better than Speer, were available. The attractiveness of Speer to Hitler went beyond the building mania that linked them closely to each other. Nothing homoerotic was involved — at least not consciously. But Hitler perhaps found in the handsome, burningly ambitious, talented, and successful architect an unconsciously idealized self-image.181 What is plain is that both Goebbels and Speer worshipped Hitler. Goebbels’s adoration of the father-figure Hitler was undiminished since the mid-1920s. ‘He is a fabulous man’ was merely one of his effusions of sentiment in 1937 about the figure who was the centre-point of his universe.182 For Speer, as he himself later recognized, his love of Hitler transcended the power-ambitions that his protector and role-model was able to satisfy — even if it originally arose out of them and could never be completely separated from them.183

In earlier years, Hitler had invariably spoken of his own ‘mission’ as the mere beginning of Germany’s passage to world domination. The whole process would take generations to complete.184 But, flushed with scarcely imaginable triumphs since 1933 and falling ever more victim to the myth of his own greatness, he became increasingly impatient to see his ‘mission’ fulfilled in his lifetime.

Partly, this was incipient megalomania. He spoke on numerous occasions in 1937 about building plans of staggering monumentality.185 At midnight on his birthday, he, Goebbels, and Speer stood in front of plans for rebuilding Berlin, fantasizing about a glorious future.186 Hitler even thought for a while of creating a new capital city on the Müritzsee in Mecklenburg, eighty miles or so north-west of Berlin, but eventually dropped an idea which was patently absurd.187 ‘The Führer won’t speak of money. Build, build! It will somehow be paid for!’ Goebbels has him saying. ‘Frederick the Great didn’t ask about money when he built Sanssouci.’188

In part, too, it was prompted by Hitler’s growing preoccupation with his own mortality and impatience to achieve what he could in his lifetime. Before the mid-1930s, his health had generally been good — astonishingly so given his lack of exercise, poor diet (even before his cranky vegetarianism following the death in 1931 of his niece, Geli Raubal), and high expenditure of nervous energy. However, he already suffered from chronic stomach pains which, at times of stress, became acute spasms.189 A patent medicine he took — an old trench remedy with a base in gun-cleaning oil — turned out to be mildly poisonous, causing headaches, double vision, dizziness, and ringing in the ears.190 He had been worried in 1935 that a polyp in his throat (eventually removed in the May of that year) was cancerous.191 It turned out to be harmless. During 1936, a year of almost continual tension, the stomach cramps were frequently severe, and Hitler also developed eczema on both legs, which had to be covered in bandages.192 At Christmas 1936, Hitler asked Dr Theodor Morell, a physician who had successfully treated his photographer Heinrich Hoffmann, to try to cure him. Morell gave him vitamins and a new patent remedy for intestinal problems.193 Goebbels mentioned in June, and again in August 1937, that Hitler was unwell.194 But by September, Morell’s treatment had apparently made a difference. At any rate, Hitler was impressed. He felt fit again, his weight was back to normal, and his eczema had vanished.195 His belief in Morell would last down to the bunker in 1945. From late 1937 onwards, his increasing hypochondria made him ever more reliant on Morell’s pills, drugs, and injections.196 And the fear of cancer (which had caused his mother’s death) never left him. At the end of October, he told a meeting of propaganda leaders that both his parents had died young, and that he probably did not have long to live. ‘It was necessary, therefore, to solve the problems that had to be solved (living-space) as soon as possible, so that this could still take place in his lifetime. Later generations would no longer be able to accomplish it. Only his person was in the position to bring it about.’197

Hitler was seldom out of the public eye in 1937. No opportunity was missed to drive home to the German public an apparently endless array of scarcely credible ‘achievements’ at home and the glories of his major ‘triumphs’ in foreign policy. Flushed with success and certain of the adulation of the masses, he wanted to be seen. The bonds between the Führer and the people — the cement of the regime, and dependent upon recurring success and achievement — were thereby reinforced. And for Hitler the ecstasy of his mass audiences provided each time a new injection of the drug to feed his egomania.

A constant round of engagements ensured that he was ever visible. By 1937 the Nazi calendar, revolving around Hitler’s major speeches and appearance at parades and rallies, was well established, the rituals firmly in place. A speech to the Reichstag on 30 January (the anniversary of his appointment as Chancellor), speeches to the Party’s ‘Old Fighters’ on 24 February (the anniversary of the promulgation of the 1920 Party Programme) and 8 November (the anniversary of the 1923 putsch), taking the salute at big military parades on his birthday on 20 April, a speech at the huge gathering (estimated at 1,200,000 in 1937) in Berlin’s Lustgarten on the ‘National Day of Celebration of the German People’ (1 May), and, of course, the week of the Reich Party Rally at Nuremberg in the first half of September all formed fixed points of the year. Other public appearances in 1937 included: the opening of the International Car Exhibition in Berlin on 20 February, next day laying a wreath at the Berlin cenotaph and reviewing troops on ‘Heroes’ Memorial Day’, the launch of the ‘Strength Through Joy’ ship Wilhelm Gustloff (intended as a cruise-ship for German workers) on 5 May, the opening of the Reich Food Estate’s Agricultural Exhibition in Munich on 30 May, a speech to 200,000 people at the Gau Party Rally of the Bayerische Ostmark (Bavarian Eastern Marches) in Regensburg on 6 June, and to a further mass rally of the Gau Unterfranken (Lower Franconia) on 27 June, a speech at the festive opening of the ‘House of German Art’ (the imposing new art gallery designed by one of Hitler’s early favourite architects, Paul Ludwig Troost) in Munich on 19 July, an address to half a million attending the Festival of the League of German Singers in Breslau on 1 August, five days of Mussolini’s state visit to Germany between 25 and 29 September, speeches in early October at the harvest festival on the Bückeberg, near Hanover, and in Berlin at the opening of the ‘Winter Aid’ campaign (the annual collection, initially established in 1933 to help the unemployed over the winter months), a speech to the Party faithful in Augsburg on 21 November, and a speech at the laying of the foundation stone of the Military Technical Faculty of Berlin’s Technical University on 27 November. In all, Hitler held some twenty-six major speeches during the course of the year (thirteen alone at the Nuremberg Rally), apart from lesser addresses, and appearances at parades and other meetings where he did not speak.198

As always, the effect of his speeches depended heavily upon the atmosphere in which they were held. The content was repetitive and monotonous. The themes were the familiar ones. Past achievements were lauded, grandiose future plans proclaimed, the horrors and menace of Bolshevism emphasized. But there was no conflict between propaganda and ideology. Hitler believed what he was saying.

The ‘nationalization of the masses’ — the prerequisite for German power and expansion, which he had posited since the early 1920s — he thought well on the way to being accomplished. At his three-hour speech to the Reichstag on 30 January 1937, the anniversary of the takeover of power, giving account of his first four years in office, he claimed he had restored German honour through the reintroduction of conscription, the creation of the Luftwaffe, the rebuilding of the navy, and the reoccupation of the Rhineland, and announced that he was solemnly withdrawing the German signature from the admission of war-guilt in the Versailles Treaty, ‘wrung out of a then weak government’.199 On 1 May, he lauded Germany as a classless society where individuals from all backgrounds had a chance to rise to the top through their own achievements — as long as they were in the collective interest of the nation, and as long as the total subservience such as he had himself practised for almost six years as a soldier was forthcoming.200 Wholly detached from the practical considerations of day-to-day politics, he held out a breathtaking vision of German grandeur, power, and dominance enshrined in heroic art and architecture which would monumentalize Teutonic cultural achievements for 1,000 years. ‘The building of a temple’ for ‘a true and eternal German art’ was how he described the ‘House of German Art’ at its opening in July.201 Presenting ‘a thousand-year people with a thousand-year historical and cultural past’ with a fitting ‘thousand-year city’ was what he foresaw in November as the task of turning Berlin into the world-capital ‘Germania’.202 At the Reich Party Rally at Nuremberg in early September, the themes of great national and social achievements in the past years were coupled with the aims of a racial revolution whose profound consequences would ‘create the new man’ (Menschen).203 His lengthy concluding speech to the Party Congress was an onslaught on ‘Jewish Bolshevism’.204 In passages at times reminiscent of Mein Kampf, and in his fiercest public attack on the Jews for many months, he portrayed them as the force behind Bolshevism and its ‘general attack on the present-day social order’, and spoke of ‘the claim of an uncivilized Jewish-Bolshevik international guild of criminals to rule Germany, as an old cultural land of Europe, from Moscow’.205 This is what the Party faithful wanted to hear. But it was far more than window-dressing. Even in private, dictating the speeches to his secretary, when it came to passages on Bolshevism Hitler, red-faced and eyes blazing, would work himself to a frenzy, bellowing at full volume his thunderous denunciations.206


Away from the continual propaganda activity revolving around speeches and public appearances, Hitler was largely preoccupied in 1937 with keeping a watchful eye on the changing situation in world affairs and with his gigantic building plans. The continuing conflict with both the Catholic and Protestant Churches, radical though his own instincts were, amounted to a recurrent irritation, especially in the first months of the year, rather than a priority concern (as it was with Goebbels, Rosenberg, and many of the Party rank-and-file). With regard to the ‘Jewish Question’ — to go from the many private discussions with Goebbels which the Propaganda Minister reported in his diary notes — Hitler, unchanged though his views were, showed little active interest and seldom spoke directly on the subject. But however uninvolved Hitler was, the radicalization of the regime continued unabated, forced on in a variety of ways by Party activists, ministerial bureaucracy, economic opportunists, and, not least, by an ideologically driven police.

In February 1937 Hitler made it plain to his inner circle that he did not want a ‘Church struggle’ at this juncture. The time was not ripe for it. He expected ‘the great world struggle in a few years’ time’. If Germany lost one more war, it would mean the end.207 The implication was clear: calm should be restored for the time being in relations with the Churches. Instead, the conflict with the Christian Churches intensified. The anti-clericalism and anti-Church sentiments of the grass-roots Party activists simply could not be eradicated. Provincial Nazi leaders such as the Gauleiter of Upper Bavaria (and Bavarian Education and Interior Minister) Adolf Wagner were often only too keen to keep the conflict on the boil.208 The eagerness of Party activists and local leaders (a disproportionate number of whom were teachers) to break the Christian influence reinforced through denominational schools sustained the momentum at grass-roots level. It was met by determined (if ultimately unsuccessful) rearguard action of the clergy and churchgoing population.209 The stranglehold that the Churches maintained over the values and mentalities of large sections of the population was an obvious thorn in the side of a Movement with its own highly intolerant ‘world-view’, which saw itself as making a total claim on soul as well as body. The assault on the practices and institutions of the Christian Churches was deeply embedded in the psyche of National Socialism. Where the hold of the Church was strong, as in the backwaters of rural Bavaria, the conflict raged in villages and small towns with little prompting from on high.210

At the same time, the activists could draw on the verbal violence of Party leaders towards the Churches for their encouragement. Goebbels’s orchestrated attacks on the clergy through the staged ‘immorality trials’ of Franciscans in 1937 — following usually trumped-up or grossly exaggerated allegations of sexual impropriety in the religious orders — provided further ammunition.211 And, in turn, however much Hitler on some occasions claimed to want a respite in the conflict, his own inflammatory comments gave his immediate underlings all the licence they needed to turn up the heat in the ‘Church struggle’, confident that they were ‘working towards the Führer’.

Hitler’s impatience with the Churches prompted frequent outbursts of hostility. In early 1937, he was declaring that ‘Christianity was ripe for destruction’ (Untergang), and that the Churches must yield to the ‘primacy of the state’, railing against any compromise with ‘the most horrible institution imaginable’.212 In two conferences he summoned in February to try to end the damaging consequences of the conflict which Church Minister Kerrl had done nothing to solve, he eagerly seized upon Goebbels’s suggestion for new elections — to be publicized as ‘the peace move of the Führer in the Church Question’.213 However, he indicated that at some point in the future Church and state would be separated, the Concordat of 1933 between the Reich and the Vatican dissolved (to provide the regime with a free hand), and the entire force of the Party turned to ‘the destruction of the clerics (Pfaffen)’ For the time being it was necessary to wait, see what the opponents did, and be tactically clever. Everything was a means to an end — ‘the life of the people’. He expected in five or six years’ time ‘a great world showdown (Auseinandersetzung)’. In fifteen years, he would have liquidated the Peace of Westphalia — the treaty of 1648 which had brought religious accord in the German states, ending the Thirty Years War. ‘A grandiose outlook for the future,’ Goebbels called it.214

Addressing the Gauleiter in mid-March, Hitler announced that he wanted ‘no ordinary victory’ over the Churches. Either one should keep quiet about an opponent (totschweigen), or slay him (totschlagen), was how he put it.215 In April, Goebbels reported with satisfaction that the Führer was becoming more radical in the ‘Church Question’, and had approved the start of the ‘immorality trials’ against clergy.216 Goebbels noted Hitler’s verbal attacks on the clergy and his satisfaction with the propaganda campaign on several subsequent occasions over the following few weeks.217 Much of the ranting was probably at Goebbels’s prompting. But Hitler was happy to leave the Propaganda Minister and others to make the running. In as divisive an issue as this, Goebbels himself fully recognized that what must be avoided at all costs was ‘to send the Führer into the field’.218 Hitler was nevertheless again in the glare of world publicity about the persecution of the clergy when, in early July, Pastor Martin Niemöller, the leading voice of the ‘Confessing Church’, was arrested as part of an assault on ‘disloyal’ Protestant churchmen.219 But, if Goebbels’s diary entries are a guide, Hitler’s interest and direct involvement in the ‘Church struggle’ declined during the second half of the year. Other matters were by now occupying his attention.

The ‘Jewish Question’ does not appear to have figured prominently among them. Goebbels, who saw Hitler almost on a daily basis at this time and who noted the topics of many private conversations they had together, recorded no more than a couple of instances where the ‘Jewish Question’ was discussed. On the first day of the Party Rally in Nuremberg, Hitler talked in his hotel to Goebbels about ‘race questions’. ‘There too there’s a lot still to be clarified,’ commented the Propaganda Minister.220 At the end of November, among ‘a thousand things talked about’ over lunch was the ‘Jewish Question’. The discussion appears to have been prompted by Goebbels’s preparations for legislation to ban Jews from attending theatres and cultural events. ‘My new law will soon be ready,’ he wrote.221 ‘But that is not the goal. The Jews must get out of Germany, yes out of the whole of Europe. That will still take some time. But it will and must happen. The Führer is firmly decided on it.’222 It was a statement of belief, not a political decision resting on clearly thought-out strategy. Anti-Jewish policy, as we have seen, had gathered pace since 1933 without frequent or coherent central direction. It was no different in 1937. Hitler’s views, as his comment to Goebbels makes clear, remained unchanged since his first statement on the ‘Jewish Question’ back in September 1919. He gave a clear indication to a gathering of some 800 district leaders (Kreisleiter) in April 1937 of his tactical caution but ideological consistency in the ‘Jewish Question’. Though he made plain to his enemies that he wanted to destroy them, the struggle had to be conducted cleverly, and over a period of time, he told his avid listeners. Skill would help him manoeuvre them into a corner. Then would come the blow to the heart.223 It was in line with these precepts that he now sanctioned, following the prompting in June 1937 of the Reich Doctors’ Leader Gerhard Wagner, measures (eventually coming into effect in 1938) to ban all Jewish doctors from medical practice — a step he had regarded as inopportune when the issue had been raised in late 1933.224

But this was a rare instance of direct involvement around this time. For the most part, he was content to remain for the time being inactive in the ‘Jewish Question’. His tacit approval was all that was required. And no more was needed than his tirade against ‘Jewish Bolshevism’ at the Party Rally in September to act as a green light inviting the new antisemitic wave — even fiercer than that of 1935 — that was to unfold throughout 1938.225

After two relatively quiet years, discrimination against the Jews again intensified. Increasingly radical steps were initiated to eliminate them from the economy, and from more and more spheres of social activity. The Security Service (Sicherheitsdienst, SD), whose ‘Jewish Section’ (Judenreferat) was run by the ambitious Adolf Eichmann, had in fact since the start of the year been advocating renewed pressure on the Jews to force them out of the economy and speed up their emigration from Germany.226 The manufacture of a ‘popular mood hostile to Jews’ and the deployment of illegal ‘excesses’ — mob violence, which was seen as particularly effective — were recommended.227 By autumn, the climate was becoming more hostile than ever for the Jewish population.228 Schacht’s loss of influence, and finally his departure from the Economics Ministry on 27 November, now removed an obstacle to the ‘aryanization’ of the economy. Pressure to fulfil this aspect of the Party’s Programme mounted.229 Göring, by this time in effect in charge of the economy, was more than ready to push forward the ‘aryanization’. The upswing of the economy made big business, losing the uncertainties of the first years of Nazi rule, willing partners, eager to profit from the takeover of Jewish firms at knock-down prices.230 By April 1938 more than 60 percent of Jewish firms had been liquidated or ‘aryanized’.231 From late 1937 onwards, individual Jews also faced an expanding array of discriminatory measures, initiated without central coordination by a variety of ministries and offices — all in their way ‘working towards the Führer’ — which tightened immeasurably the screw of persecution.232 Hitler’s own contribution, as usual, had largely consisted of setting the tone and providing the sanction and legitimation for the actions of others.

In world affairs, events beyond Hitler’s control were causing him to speculate on the timing and circumstances in which the great showdown would occur. By the end of 1937, the signs were that radicalization was gathering pace not just in anti-Jewish policy (and, largely instigated by the Gestapo, in the persecution and repression of other ethnic and social minorities), but also in foreign policy.233

Hitler began the year by expressing his hope to those at his lunch table that he still had six years to prepare for the coming showdown. ‘But, if a very favourable chance comes along,’ commented Goebbels, ‘he also doesn’t want to miss it.’ Hitler stressed Russian strength and warned against underestimating the British because of their weak political leadership. He saw opportunities of winning allies in eastern Europe (particularly Poland) and the Balkans as a consequence of Russia’s drive for world revolution.234 Hitler’s remarks followed a long briefing by Blomberg earlier that morning in the War Ministry about the rapid expansion of rearmament and the Wehrmacht’s preparations for ‘Case X’ — taken to be Germany, together with its fascist allies against Russia, Czechoslovakia, and Lithuania. The question of German occupation was evidently raised. Hitler, Goebbels, and Blomberg discussed the installation of senior Gauleiter as Civilian Commissars. Hitler was satisfied with what he had heard.235

A foretaste of what might be expected from the German leadership in war followed the dropping of two ‘red bombs’ on the battleship Deutschland, stationed off Ibiza, by a Spanish Republican plane on the evening of 29 May, killing twenty-three and injuring over seventy sailors. Admiral Raeder, Commander-in-Chief of the Navy, was dispatched by Blomberg to Munich to bear the brunt of Hitler’s fury. Hitler’s immediate reaction, ‘fuming with rage’, as Goebbels put it, was to bomb Valencia in reprisal. But after a hastily arranged conference with Blomberg, Raeder, Göring, and von Neurath, he ordered instead the cruiser Admiral Scheer to fire on the southern Spanish harbour town of Almería. Hitler, seething but nervous at the outcome, paced up and down his room in the Reich Chancellery until three o’clock in the morning. The shelling of Almería for an hour left twenty-one civilians dead, fifty-three injured, and destroyed thirty-nine houses. Hitler was satisfied. He had seen it as a prestige question. Prestige had now been restored.236

He had by this time lost faith in Spain becoming a genuinely fascist country. He saw Franco as a Spanish variant of General Seeckt (the former ‘strong man’ in the German army in the 1920s) — a military man without any mass movement behind him.237 Despite his worries about Spain, however, he had no regrets about ordering German intervention, and pointed to the many advantages which Germany had drawn from its involvement.238 Goebbels’s diary notes reflect Hitler’s wider perceptions of world affairs during the latter half of 1937, and his watchful eye on opportunities for German expansion. The radicalization in foreign policy which brought the Anschluß with Austria and then the Sudeten crisis in Czechoslovakia in 1938 were foreshadowed in Hitler’s musings on future developments during these months.

The arch-enemy, the Soviet Union, was in Hitler’s eyes weakened both by its internal turmoils and by Japanese triumphs in the war against China.239 He was puzzled by the Stalinist purges. ‘Stalin is probably sick in the brain (gehirnkrank),’ Goebbels reported him as saying. ‘His bloody regime can otherwise not be explained. But Russia knows nothing other than Bolshevism. That’s the danger we have to smash down some day.’240 A few months later, he was repeating the view that Stalin and his followers were mad. ‘Must be exterminated (Muß ausgerottet werden)’ was his sinister conclusion.241 He was anticipating that the opportunity might arise following a Japanese victory over China. Once China was smashed, he guessed, Tokyo would turn its attention to Moscow. ‘That is then our great hour,’ he predicted.242

Hitler’s belief in an alliance with Britain had by now almost evaporated. His attitude towards Britain had come to resemble that of a lover spurned.243 Contemptuous of the British government, he also saw Britain greatly weakened as a world power.244 Egged on by Ribbentrop, by now aggressively anti-British, and diverging sharply from the more cautious Foreign Office line that looked to a negotiated settlement in time with Britain (involving territorial revision and concession of colonies), his hopes now rested — too strongly for Goebbels’s liking — on his new friend Mussolini.245

Nothing was spared in the preparations for a huge extravaganza with all conceivable pomp and circumstance to make the maximum impact on the Duce during his state visit to Germany between 25 and 29 September. Hitler even had an aeroplane dispatched to fetch ripe pears for the Duce, concerned that there was not a sufficiently wide choice of fruit to offer his guest from southern Europe.246 Not even the torrential rain that drenched the hundreds of thousands assembled at Tempelhof on 28 September to hear speeches from the two dictators, and made it difficult for Mussolini to read his prepared German text, could damage the impression that the visit made on the Duce.247 He took home with him an image of German power and might — together with a growing sense that Italy’s role in the Axis was destined to be that of junior partner. Hitler was also overjoyed at the outcome. There had been agreement on cooperation in Spain, and on attitudes towards the war in the Far East. Hitler was certain that Italian friendship was assured, since Italy had in any case little alternative. Only the ‘Austrian Question’, on which Mussolini would not be drawn, remained open. ‘Well, wait and see,’ commented Goebbels.248

From remarks recorded by Goebbels, it is clear that Hitler was already by summer 1937 beginning to turn his eyes towards Austria and Czechoslovakia, though as yet there was no indication of when and how Germany might move against either state. Nor were ideological or military-strategic motives, however important for Hitler himself, the only ones influencing notions of expansion in central Europe. Continuing economic difficulties, especially in fulfilling the Wehrmacht’s demands for raw materials, had been the main stimulus to increased German pressure on Austria since the successful visit by Göring to Italy in January.249 Gold and foreign-currency reserves, labour supplies, and important raw materials were among the lure of a German takeover of the alpine Republic.250 Not surprisingly, therefore, the office of the Four Year Plan was at the forefront of demands for an Anschluß as soon as possible. The economic significance of the ‘Austrian Question’ was further underlined by Hitler’s appointment in July 1937 of Wilhelm Keppler, who had served before 1933 as an important link with business leaders, to coordinate Party affairs regarding Vienna.251 Further concessions to follow on those of the 1936 agreement — including the ending of censorship on Mein Kampf — were forced on the Austrian government in July. ‘Perhaps we’re again coming a step further,’ mused Goebbels.252 ‘In Austria, the Führer will some time make a tabula rasa,’ the Propaganda Minister noted, after a conversation with Hitler at the beginning of August. ‘Let’s hope we can all still experience it,’ he went on. ‘He’ll go for it then. (Er geht dann aufs Ganze.) This state is not a state at all. Its people belong to us and will come to us. The Führer’s entry into Vienna will one day be his proudest triumph.’253 At the end of the Nuremberg Rally, a few weeks later, Hitler told Goebbels that the issue of Austria would some time be resolved ‘with force’.254 Before the end of the year, Papen was unfolding to Hitler plans to topple the Austrian Chancellor Schuschnigg.255 Göring and Keppler were by then both convinced that Hitler would tackle the question of Austria during the spring or summer of 1938.256

In the case of Czechoslovakia, too, Hitler’s intentions were unmistakable to Goebbels. ‘Czechia (die Tschechei) is also no state,’ he noted in his diary in August. ‘It will one day be overrun.’257 The refusal by Czech authorities to allow children from the Sudeten area to go for holidays to Germany was used by Goebbels as the pretext to launch the beginning of a vitriolic press campaign against the Czechs.258 Göring had by this time been stressing to the British Ambassador, Nevile Henderson — who gave the air of being more accommodating to German claims than his predecessor Sir Eric Phipps, whom he had replaced in April, had been — Germany’s rights to Austria and the Sudetenland (in due course also to revision of the Polish border). To a long-standing British acquaintance, the former air attaché in Berlin, Group Captain Christie, he went further: Germany must have not simply the Sudetenland, but the whole of Bohemia and Moravia, Göring asserted.259 By mid-October, following the demands of Konrad Henlein, the Sudeten German leader, for autonomy, Goebbels was predicting that Czechoslovakia would in the future ‘have nothing to laugh about’.260

On 5 November 1937 the Propaganda Minister lunched, as usual, with Hitler. The general situation was discussed. The Czech question was to be toned down for the time being because Germany was still not in a position to take any action. The issue of colonies was also to be taken more slowly, so as not to awaken false expectations among the population. In the run-up to Christmas, the heat had, too, to be turned down on the ‘Church struggle’. The long-running saga of Schacht was nearing its dénouement. Schacht had to go, it was agreed. But the Führer wanted to wait until after the Party’s ritual Putsch commemoration on 9 November before taking any action. In the afternoon, Goebbels went home to continue work. The Führer, he noted, had ‘General Staff talks’.261


In the gloom of late afternoon, the chiefs of the army, Luftwaffe, and navy, together with War Minister Blomberg, made their way to the Reich Chancellery for a meeting, as they thought, to establish the allocation of steel supplies to the armed forces. The reason for the meeting dated back to late October, when Admiral Raeder, increasingly concerned about Göring’s allocation of steel and the preferential treatment of the Luftwaffe, had posed an ultimatum to Blomberg indicating that no expansion of the navy was possible without additional steel supplies. Raeder was unwilling to make concessions. He thought an immediate decision by the Führer was necessary.262 With the dispute among the branches of the armed forces simmering and the prospect of the arms drive stagnating, Blomberg pressed Hitler for clarification. Eventually, Hitler agreed to the meeting. Blomberg, not Hitler, sent out the invitations to discuss ‘the armaments situation and raw materials demands’ to the chiefs of the three armed forces’ branches.263 The military leaders had a surprise when they reached the Reich Chancellery at 4p.m. to find present, alongside Hitler and his military adjutant, Colonel Hoßbach, also the Foreign Minister von Neurath. Another surprise was waiting for them when, instead of dealing with the issue of raw materials allocation (which was discussed relatively briefly only towards the end of the lengthy meeting), Hitler, speaking from prepared notes, launched into a monologue lasting over two hours on Germany’s need to expand by use of force within the following few years.264

He began by emphasizing the importance of what he had to say. He wanted, he said, to explain his thinking on foreign policy. In the event of his death, what he had to say ought to be viewed as his ‘testamentary legacy’. No arrangements had been made for minutes to be taken, but Hoßbach, sitting opposite Hitler at the table, decided that what he was about to hear might be of some moment and started to scribble notes in his diary. He was sure his mentor, the increasingly critical General Beck, would be interested.265

Hitler launched into a familiar theme: the need to expand German ‘living space’. Without this expansion, ‘sterility’, leading to social disorder, would set in — an argument reflecting Hitler’s premiss that permanent mobilization and ever new goals, foreign and domestic, were necessary to ensure the popular support of the regime. In characteristic vein, he raised alternatives to expansion of ‘living space’, only to dismiss them. Only limited autarky could be achieved. Food supplies could not be ensured by this route. Dependence on the world economy could never bring economic security, and would leave Germany weak and exposed. Here, Hitler was attacking the views associated with Schacht, whose departure as Economics Minister had already been decided. Schacht had also been a strong proponent of a colonial policy. Hitler dismissed the ‘liberal capitalist notions in the exploitation of colonies’. The return of colonies would only come about, argued Hitler, once Britain was seriously weakened and Germany more powerful. ‘Living space’, he asserted, meant territory for agricultural production in Europe, not acquisition of overseas colonies. Britain and France, both implacably hostile, stood in Germany’s way. But Britain and its Empire were weakened. And France faced internal difficulties. His conclusion to the first part of his address was that Germany’s problem could only be solved by the use of force, which was always accompanied by risks. Only the questions ‘when?’ and ‘how?’ remained to be answered.

He went on to outline three scenarios. Typically, he first argued that time was not on Germany’s side, that it would be imperative to act by 1943–5 at the latest. The relative strength in armaments would decrease. Other powers would be prepared for a German offensive. Alluding to the problems of 1935–6, he raised the prospect of economic difficulties producing a new food crisis without the foreign exchange to master it — a potential ‘weakening-point (Schwächungsmoment) of the regime’. Declining birthrates, falling living standards, and the ageing of the Movement and its leaders were added points to underline what he declared was his ‘unalterable determination to solve the German problem of space by 1943–5 at the latest’.

In the other two scenarios, Hitler outlined circumstances in which it would be necessary to strike before 1943–5: if France became so enveloped by internal strife, or embroiled in war with another power, that it was incapable of military action against Germany. In either case the moment would have arrived to attack Czechoslovakia. A war of France and Britain against Italy he saw as a distinct possibility arising from the protracted conflict in Spain (whose prolongation was in Germany’s interest). In such an eventuality, Germany must be prepared to take advantage of the circumstances to attack the Czechs and Austria without delay — even as early as 1938. The first objective in any war involving Germany would be to overthrow Czechoslovakia and Austria simultaneously to protect the eastern flank for any possible military operation in the west. Hitler conjectured that Britain, and probably France as well, had already written off Czechoslovakia. Problems within the Empire — Hitler had in mind here primarily the growing pressure for independence in India — and reluctance to become embroiled in a long European war would, he thought, prove decisive in deterring Britain from involvement in a war against Germany. France was unlikely to act without British support. Italy would not object to the elimination of Czechoslovakia. Its attitude towards Austria could not at the moment be determined. It would depend on whether Mussolini were still alive — another implied argument for avoiding delay. Poland would be too concerned about Russia to attack Germany. Russia would be preoccupied with the threat from Japan. The incorporation of Austria and Czechoslovakia would improve the security of Germany’s borders, freeing up forces for other uses, and would allow the creation of a further twelve divisions. Assuming the expulsion of 3 million from the two countries, their annexation would mean the acquisition of foodstuffs for 5 to 6 million people. Hitler ended by stating that when the moment arrived the attack upon the Czechs would have to be carried out ‘lightning fast’ (‘blitzartig schnell’).266

Hitler’s comments to his armed forces’ commanders were in line with what he had been saying for weeks to Goebbels and other Party leaders. He wanted to use the occasion of the meeting about raw materials allocation to impress similar arguments upon his military leaders. His disdain for the caution of the military leadership had grown alongside his own self-confidence. The Deutschland affair had increased his contempt. He wanted to see how the chiefs of staff would react to the bold ideas for expansion that he put forward.267 It would have been surprising had the military high command not got wind of Hitler’s heavy hints of expansion directed at Austria and Czechoslovakia, been aware of his disillusionment with Britain and his views that the weakness of the Empire made Italy a preferable ally, known of his opinion that the threat from Russia (mentioned only in passing at the meeting on 5 November) had receded, and that sustained conflict in the Mediterranean involving the major powers was in Germany’s interest.268 But the meeting on 5 November was the first time that the Commanders-in-Chief of the Wehrmacht had been explicitly told of Hitler’s thoughts on the likely timing and circumstances of German expansion into Austria and Czechoslovakia.269

Hitler’s arguments did not convince most of his small audience. He was under no illusion at the negative response to his comments.270 It was perhaps out of pique that he more than once refused to read the memorandum of the meeting that Hoßbach had constructed five days later out of the notes he had jotted down at the time.271 Blomberg, Fritsch, and Neurath in particular were alarmed at what they heard. It was not the aim of expansion that concerned them. There was no disagreement here with Hitler. His familiar racial interpretation of Lebensraum had a different emphasis, but accorded well enough with military-strategic interests in German supremacy in central Europe, and with Göring’s aims of economic dominance in south-eastern Europe. Nor did talk of the annexation of Austria and destruction of Czechoslovakia worry them. That both would happen at some point was by late 1937 largely taken for granted.272 Even General Beck’s sharp criticism of Hitler’s statement, when he read an account some days later, did not dispute ‘the expediency of clearing up (bereinigen) the case of Czechia (Tschechei) (perhaps also Austria) if the opportunity presents itself’.273

What did shock them was the prospect of the early use of force, and with that the grave danger that Germany would be plunged into war with Britain and France. Hitler, they thought, was taking foolhardy risks. They raised objections. Neurath saw an expansion of the Mediterranean conflict, in the way Hitler had conceived it, as highly unlikely. The generals pointed to deficiencies in Hitler’s military analysis.274 On no account must Germany find itself at war with Britain and France was the essence of their remarks.275 Even Göring, though he kept quiet until the discussion moved on to armaments matters, still favoured trying to reach agreement with Britain.276 Only Raeder, who had wanted the meeting in the first place, seemed unperturbed. If his later testimony is to be believed, he did not take Hitler’s remarks seriously, other than as a vehicle to spur on the army to speed up its armaments. Possible future conflict with Britain was, for Raeder, an inevitable component of planning for naval expansion. But an imminent conflict in the present state of Germany’s armaments was, in his view, such ‘complete madness’ that it could not be envisaged as a serious proposition.277

Others were less relaxed. Fritsch had to be reassured by Hitler at the end of the meeting that there was no immediate danger of war, and no need to cancel his planned leave.278 General Beck, shown a copy of Hoßbach’s record of the meeting, found Hitler’s remarks ‘crushing’ (niederschmetternd).279 It was not the prospect of expansion into Austria and Czechoslovakia and attainment of German dominance in central Europe, once military strength had been consolidated, that appalled him, but the irresponsibility and dilettantism with which Hitler was prepared to run the risk of involving Germany in a catastrophic war with the western powers. His own, detailed and devastating ten-point critique of Hitler’s statement, probably drawn up as the basis of comments to be made to Blomberg, indicated how seriously he viewed the danger and how far he was estranged from the high-risk policy of the head of state and supreme commander of the armed forces.280 Neurath, who had arranged with Beck and Fritsch that he would speak to Hitler, had the opportunity to do so in mid-January 1938. Hitler’s policies, he warned, meant war. Many of his plans could be attained by more peaceful methods, if somewhat more slowly. Hitler replied that he had no more time.281

Blomberg’s own doubts expressed at the November meeting were, as usual, short-lived. The pliant War Minister was soon conveying Hitler’s wishes to the upper echelons of the Wehrmacht. Within weeks, without Hitler having to give any express order, Chief of Defence Staff Colonel Alfred Jodl, recognizing what was needed, had devised a significant alteration to the previous mobilization plans against Czechoslovakia, aimed at preventing Czech intervention in the event of a war against France. The new directive included the sentence: ‘Once Germany has attained its full war preparedness in all spheres, the military basis will have been created to conduct an offensive war (Angriffskrieg) against Czechoslovakia and thereby also to carry the German space problem to a triumphant conclusion, even if one or other great power intervenes against us.’282

Externally as well as internally, the Third Reich was entering a new, more radical phase. The drift of Hitler’s thinking was plain from the November meeting, and from his comments earlier in the autumn. Nothing had been decided, no plans laid, no programme established. It was still ‘wait and see’. But Hitler’s hand became further strengthened at the end of January and beginning of February 1938 by a chance set of events — a personal scandal involving the War Minister Werner von Blomberg.


Blomberg was not popular in the top leadership of the army. He was seen as too much Hitler’s man and too little the army’s. A friendly word from Hitler or touch of pathos in a speech could move him to tears.283 Behind his back, some generals called him ‘Hitlerjunge Quex’ after the Hitler Youth hero of a propaganda film, prepared to sacrifice his life for his belief in the Führer.284 They thought his admiration of Hitler clouded his professional judgement. For Fritsch, his immediate superior was too impulsive, too open to influence, too weak in his own judgement.285 The snobbish and conservative officer corps also thought him too close to the Party bigwigs whom they commonly held in contempt. That Blomberg wore the Golden Party Badge on his uniform and marched each year at the celebration of the Putsch was scarcely held to his credit.286 When his personal life led to professional trouble in late January 1938, he had no friends to count upon. But until then, until he was struck down by the scandal he had brought upon himself, his position as Hitler’s right hand in all matters to do with the Wehrmacht was secure. As he later acknowledged, he remained firmly behind Hitler, ‘would have gone the Führer’s way to Austria’, and was expecting a period of ten years in order to build up the armed forces for the war he recognized as inevitable.287 For Hitler’s part, as he had done since 1933, he continued to look to Blomberg to prepare for him the war machine he intended to use, as he had indicated in November, well before the decade envisaged by Blomberg had passed. To be rid of his War Minister at this juncture was not remotely on his agenda.

On a September morning in 1937, walking in the Tiergarten, the Field-Marshal, widowed with five grown-up children, met the woman who would change his life and, unwittingly, usher in the biggest internal crisis in the Third Reich since the Röhm affair in the summer of 1934. Blomberg, a lonely and empty individual, rapidly became totally besotted with his new lady-friend, Fräulein Margarethe Gruhn, thirty-five years younger than he was, and from a crassly different social background. Within weeks he had asked her to marry him. He needed the consent of Hitler, as supreme commander of the Wehrmacht. He hinted that his fiancée was a typist, a simple ‘girl from the people’, and that he was concerned about the response of the officer class to his marriage to someone below his status. Hitler immediately offered to be a witness to the marriage to emphasize his rejection of such outmoded class snobbery, and recommended Göring as the second witness.288 The wedding was prepared in great secrecy. Even Blomberg’s adjutant knew nothing of it until the previous afternoon. The ceremony, attended only by Blomberg’s five children and the bride’s mother, apart from the wedding couple and the witnesses, Hitler and Göring, took place in the War Ministry on 12 January. There were no celebrations. The simplest note of the wedding was published in the newspapers.289

Blomberg had good reason for wanting to keep his bride out of the public eye. She had a past. Around Christmas 1931, then aged eighteen, she had posed for a number of pornographic photos which had come into the hands of the police. The following year the police officially registered her as a prostitute. In 1934 she Hadagain come to the attention of the police, accused of stealing from a client.290 Now, within days of the wedding, Berlin prostitutes started talking about ‘One of them’ rising so far up the social ladder that she had married the War Minister. An anonymous phone-call tipped off the head of the army, Colonel-General Fritsch.291 The Gestapo had by this time also picked up the rumours. The Berlin Police Chief, Wolf Heinrich Graf von Helldorff, was put in the picture and, aware of the political sensitivity of what he saw on the card registering her as a prostitute, immediately took the matter to Blomberg’s closest colleague, Head of the Wehrmacht Office, General Wilhelm Keitel, to ascertain that the woman with the police record was indeed identical with the wife of the War Minister. Keitel, who had seen Fräulein Gruhn on only one occasion, heavily veiled at the funeral of Blomberg’s mother, could not help Helldorf, but referred him to Göring, who had been a witness at the wedding. Göring established the identity on 21 January. Three days later, Göring stood nervously in the foyer of the Reich Chancellery, a brown file in his hand, awaiting the return of Hitler from a stay in Bavaria.292

Hitler was stunned at the news that awaited him. Prudery and racial prejudice went hand in hand when he heard that the indecent photos of Blomberg’s bride had been taken by a Jew of Czech origin, with whom she was cohabiting at the time. Scurrilous rumours had it that Hitler took a bath seven times the next day to rid himself of the taint of having kissed the hand of Frau Blomberg. What concerned him above all, however, was the blow to prestige which would follow; that, as a witness at the wedding, he would appear a laughing-stock in the eyes of the world. All night long, as he later recounted, he lay awake, worrying how to avoid a loss of face.293 The next day, as his adjutant Fritz Wiedemann recalled, he paced up and down his room, his hands behind his back, shaking his head and muttering, ’ “If a German Field-Marshal marries a whore, anything in the world is possible.” ‘294 Goebbels and Göring tried to cheer him up over lunch.295 That morning, Hitler had spoken for the first time to his military adjutant Colonel Hoßbach about the matter. He praised Blomberg’s achievements. But the Field-Marshal had caused him great embarrassment through not telling him the truth about his bride and involving him as a witness at the wedding. He expressed his sadness at having to lose such a loyal colleague. But because of his wife’s past, Blomberg had to go as War Minister.296 ‘Blomberg can’t be saved,’ noted Goebbels. ‘Only the pistol remains for a man of honour… The Führer as marriage witness. It’s unthinkable. The worst crisis of the regime since the Röhm affair… The Führer looks like a corpse.’297

Presuming that Blomberg was ignorant of his wife’s shady past, and hoping to hush the matter up and prevent a public scandal, Göring hurried to persuade the Field-Marshal to have his marriage immediately annulled. To the astonishment and disgust of Göring and of Hitler, Blomberg refused. On the morning of 27 January, Hitler had his last audience with Blomberg. It began in heated fashion, but became calmer, and ended with Hitler offering Blomberg the prospect of rejoining him, all forgotten, if Germany should be involved in war. A day later, Blomberg was gone — over the border to Italy to begin a year’s exile, sweetened by a 50,000 Mark ‘golden handshake’ and his full pension as a Field-Marshal.298

The crisis for Hitler had meanwhile deepened. On the very evening, 24 January, that he was recoiling from the shock of the news about his War Minister, and in a bleak mood, he remembered the whiff of a potential scandal two years earlier concerning the head of the army, Colonel-General von Fritsch. Himmler had presented him at the time, in the summer of 1936, with a file raising suspicions that Fritsch had been blackmailed by a Berlin rent-boy by the name of Otto Schmidt on account of alleged homosexual practices in late 1933. Hitler had refused to believe the allegations, had rejected out of hand any investigation, said he never wanted to hear any more of the matter, and ordered the file destroyed. Now, he told Himmler that he wanted the file reconstructed as a matter of urgency. The reconstruction posed no difficulties since, counter to Hitler’s express orders to destroy it, Reinhard Heydrich, head of the Security Police, had had the file put in a safe. Within hours, by 2.15a.m. in the early morning of 25 January, the file was on Hitler’s desk.299

Hitler had not summoned the file as part of a well-thought-out strategy to be rid of Fritsch as well as Blomberg. In fact, he was apparently still thinking of Fritsch on the morning of 26 January, a day after he had seen the ‘reconstructed’ file, as Blomberg’s possible successor as War Minister.300 Fritsch had presumably been thought of by Hitler in this capacity immediately on realization that Blomberg had to go. In the light of the shock he had just received, and his immediate loss of confidence in his leading officers, Hitler now wanted assurance that no further scandals were likely to be forthcoming.301 But just as the Blomberg case was unexpected, so were developments in the Fritsch case to unfold in an unpredictable fashion. Without the Blomberg affair, Hitler is said subsequently to have told his army adjutant Major Gerhard Engel, the Fritsch case would never have come up again.302 The second crisis arose from the first.

On the morning of 25 January, in his state of depression over Blomberg, Hitler gave the thin file on Fritsch to Hoßbach with instructions for absolute secrecy. Hoßbach was horrified at the implications for the Wehrmacht of a second scandal. He thought Fritsch, whom he greatly admired, would easily clear up the matter — or would know what to do.303 Either way, the honour of the army would be preserved. In this frame of mind, he disobeyed Hitler’s express order and informed Fritsch about the file.304 It was a fateful step.

Fritsch, when Hoßbach broke the news of the file on the evening of 25 January, reacted with anger and disgust at the allegations, declaring them a pack of lies. Hoßbach reported back to Hitler. The Dictator showed no sign of anger at the act of disobedience. In fact, he seemed relieved, commenting that since everything was in order, Fritsch could become War Minister.305 However, Hitler added that Hoßbach had done him a great disservice in destroying the element of secrecy.306 In fact, Hoßbach had unwittingly done Fritsch an even greater disservice.

When he heard from Hoßbach what was afoot, Fritsch not unnaturally brooded for hours about the allegations. They must have something to do, he thought, with the member of the Hitler Youth with whom he had lunched, usually alone, in 1933–4, in a willingness to comply with the request of the Winter Aid Campaign to provide free meals for the needy. He presumed that malicious tongues had manufactured an illicit relationship out of harmless acts of charity. Thinking he could clear up a misunderstanding, he sought out Hoßbach the following day, 26 January. All he did, however, was to raise the private doubts of Hitler’s military adjutant. Hoßbach did not think to indicate to Fritsch that to mention the Hitler Youth story might not be tactically the best way to convince Hitler of his innocence.307

During the afternoon, Hitler conferred with Himmler, Reich Justice Minister Gürtner, and Göring (who saw Fritsch as his rival for Blomberg’s post as War Minister).308 There was a general air of mistrust. By early evening, Hitler was still wavering. Göring pressed him to come to a decision. Hoßbach chose the moment to suggest that Hitler speak directly about the matter to Fritsch. After some hesitation, Hitler agreed.309 In the meantime, four Gestapo officers had been sent to the Börgermoor internment camp in the Emsland to fetch Otto Schmidt to Berlin.310 In Hitler’s private library in the Reich Chancellery that evening a remarkable scene ensued: the head of the army, in civilian clothing, was confronted by his accuser, an internee of proven ill-repute, in the presence of his Supreme Commander and head of state, and the Prussian Minister President Göring.

Hitler looked despondent to Fritsch. But he came straight to the point. He wanted, he said, simply the truth. If Fritsch acknowledged his guilt, he was prepared to have the matter hushed up and send him well away from Germany. He had contemplated the possibility of Fritsch perhaps serving as military adviser to Chiang Kai-shek.311 Fritsch vehemently professed his innocence. He then made the mistake of telling Hitler about the harmless episode of the Hitler Youth boy. It had precisely the opposite effect to that hoped for by Fritsch. Hitler’s suspicions rose immediately. He now gave Fritsch the file. While he was reading it, Fritsch’s alleged blackmailer was brought in. Otto Schmidt, who had proved a reliable witness in a number of other cases where he had blackmailed individuals, insisted that he recognized Fritsch as the man in question. Fritsch repeated several times, in a cool and collected manner, that he had never seen the man in his life before and gave Hitler his word of honour that he had nothing to do with the entire affair. Hitler had expected, so he told his generals a few days later, that Fritsch would have thrown the file at his feet. His subdued behaviour did not impress Hitler as an impassioned display of injured innocence.312 Fritsch for his part found it difficult to believe that Hitler and Göring retained their suspicions and simply ignored the word of honour of a high-ranking German officer.313 The reality, as Goebbels recognized, was that Hitler had by now lost faith in Fritsch.314

The Gestapo’s interrogation of Fritsch on the morning of 27 January, when he again faced his tormentor Schmidt, was inconclusive. Schmidt remained adamant in his accusations, Fritsch indignantly vehement in his denial of any involvement. The level of detail in the accuser’s story seemed telling. But as Fritsch pointed out, though to no avail, the detail was erroneous. The alleged meeting with Fritsch was said to have taken place in November 1933. Schmidt claimed to have remembered it as if it had been the previous day. Yet he had Fritsch smoking (which he had not done since 1925), wearing a fur coat (such as he had never possessed), and — Schmidt was repeatedly pressed on this point — announcing himself as ‘General of the Artillery von Fritsch’, a rank he had attained only on 1 February 1934.315 The inconsistency in evidence was not picked up or acted upon. It remained a matter of word against word.

Meanwhile, Hitler had given the Fritsch file to Justice Minister Franz Gürtner, and asked for his views. Goebbels had little confidence in the outcome. ‘Gürtner has now still to write a legal report,’ he wrote. ‘But what use is all that. The porcelain is smashed.’316 Gürtner’s report, delivered before the end of the month, was damning. Upturning conventional legal notions, Gürtner stated that Fritsch had not proved his innocence and regarded the issue of the Hitler Youth boy as damaging to his case.317 But Gürtner insisted upon a legal trial for Fritsch in front of a military court. The military leadership backed the demand. Even if reluctantly, in the case of so prominent a person as the head of the army Hitler had little choice but to concede.318

The double scandal of Blomberg and Fritsch had left the Nazi leadership with a major public relations problem. How was it all to be explained to the people? How was a serious blow to prestige and standing to be avoided? On Thursday 27 January, Hitler, looking pale and grey, decided to cancel his big speech to the Reichstag on the anniversary of the ‘seizure of power’. The meeting of the Reich cabinet was also cancelled. Goebbels suggested that a way out of the political crisis would be for Hitler himself to take over the whole of the Wehrmacht, with the different sections of the armed forces turned into separate ministries. ‘And then comes the most difficult question,’ he added: ‘how to put it to the people (wie dem Volke sagen). The wildest rumours are circulating. The Führer is at the end of his tether (ganz erledigt). None of us has slept since Monday.’319

Goebbels’s suggestion — if indeed it originally came from him — for restructuring the Wehrmacht leadership entirely was at least in part taken up.320 It offered a neat way out of a choice of successor for Blomberg. Göring’s self-evident ambitions for this post were never seriously entertained by Hitler. Blomberg, Keitel, and Wiedemann all spoke out in Göring’s favour. Göring himself would have been prepared to give up his control of the Four Year Plan in return for the War Ministry. Hitler was, however, dismissive of his military abilities. He was not even competent, Hitler scoffed, in running the Luftwaffe, let alone the whole of the armed forces. For the army and the navy, the appointment of Göring (who had in his regular military career never had a rank higher than that of captain) would have been insulting. More than that, it would have amounted for Hitler to a heavy concentration of military command in the hands of one man.321 Heinrich Himmler also cherished ambitions — though always wholly unrealistic ones for a police chief who headed a small rival military force to that of the army in what would develop into the Waffen-SS, who had not served in the First World War, and who, in the later disparaging comment of one general, scarcely knew how to drive a fire-engine. Hitler told his generals on 5 February that rumours of Himmler taking over had been ‘insane twaddle’ (wahnsinniges Geschwätz). A third ambitious hopeful, General Walter von Reichenau, was seen as far too close to the Party and too untraditionalist to be acceptable to the army.322

In fact, already on 27 January, picking up a suggestion made by Blomberg at his farewell audience, Hitler had decided to take over the Wehrmacht leadership himself, appointing no successor to the War Ministry.323 Within hours, he was initiating General Keitel (scarcely known to him to this point, but recommended by Blomberg) in his — that is to say, initially Blomberg’s — ideas for a new organizational structure for the Wehrmacht. Keitel, he said, would be his sole adviser in questions relating to the Wehrmacht.324 With one move, this shifted the internal balance of power within the armed forces from the traditionalist leadership and general staff of the army (as the largest sector) to the office of the Wehrmacht, representing the combined forces, and directly dependent upon and pliant towards Hitler.325 In a statement for army leaders on 7 February, explaining the changes that had taken place, it was claimed that Hitler’s takeover of the Wehrmacht command ‘was already intended in his programme, but for a later date’.326 In reality, it was a rapidly taken decision providing a way out of an embarrassing crisis.

His removal for days a matter of little more than timing, Fritsch was asked by Hitler on 3 February for his resignation.327 By then, an increasingly urgent answer — given the rumours now circulating — to the presentational problem of how to explain the departure of the two most senior military leaders had been found: ‘In order to put a smoke-screen round the whole business, a big reshuffle will take place,’ noted Goebbels.328 In a two-hour discussion, alone with Goebbels in his private rooms, Hitler went over the whole affair — how disillusioned he had been by Blomberg, whom he had trusted blindly; how he disbelieved Fritsch despite his denials — ‘these sort of people always do that’; how he would take over the Wehrmacht himself with the branches of the armed forces as ministries; and the personnel changes he intended to make, particularly the replacement of Neurath by Ribbentrop at the Foreign Office.329 ‘Führer wants to deflect the spotlight from the Wehrmacht, make Europe hold its breath,’ recorded Colonel Jodl in his diary. The Austrian Chancellor Schuschnigg, he added ominously, should be ‘trembling’.330

Within four days the reshuffle was in place. Twelve generals (apart from Blomberg and Fritsch) were removed, six from the Luftwaffe; fifty-one other posts (a third in the Luftwaffe) were also refilled.331 Fritsch’s post was given to Walther von Brauchitsch — a compromise candidate suggested by Blomberg and Keitel to keep out Reichenau.332 The navy was left alone. Raeder had, according to Goebbels’s report of Hitler’s views, ‘behaved splendidly during the entire crisis and everything is in order in the navy’. Göring was given a Field-Marshal’s baton as consolation prize for missing the War Ministry.333 Major changes were also undertaken in the diplomatic service. Neurath, having to make way for his arch-rival Ribbentrop, was ‘elevated’ to a pseudo-position as head of a ‘privy council’ (Geheimer Kabinettsrat) of ministers which was never to meet.334 The key ambassadorial posts in Rome, Tokyo, London, and Vienna were given new occupants. Schacht’s replacement by Funk at the Ministry of Economics was also announced as part of the general reshuffle.335

Blomberg and Fritsch were said to have retired ‘on health grounds’.336 Blomberg would survive the war, still praising the ‘genius’ of the Führer but dismayed that Hitler had not called upon his services once more, and would die, shunned to the last by his former army comrades, in prison in Nuremberg in March 1946.337 Fritsch’s innocence — the victim of mistaken identity — would be established by a military court in Berlin on 18 March 1938.338 Though his name had been cleared, he did not gain the rehabilitation he hoped for. Deeply depressed and embittered, but still claiming to be ‘a good National Socialist’,339 he volunteered for his old artillery regiment in the Polish campaign and would fall fatally wounded on the outskirts of Warsaw on 22 September 1939.340

A communiqué on the sweeping changes — said to be in the interest of the ‘strongest concentration of all political, military, and economic forces in the hand of the supreme leader’ — was broadcast on the evening of 4 February.341 The sensational news covered page after page of the following day’s newspapers. Great surprise, worries about the likelihood of war, and a flurry of the wildest rumours — including an attack on Hitler’s life, mass shootings and arrests, attempts to depose Hitler and Göring and proclaim a military dictatorship, war-plans opposed by the dismissed generals — were common reactions over the next days.342 The real reasons were kept dark. ‘Praise God the people know nothing of it all and would not believe it,’ Goebbels reported Hitler as saying. ‘Therefore greatest discretion.’ Hitler’s way to handle it was to emphasize the concentration of forces under his leadership and ‘let nothing be noticed’.343

The following afternoon, 5 February, a pallid and drawn-looking Hitler addressed his generals. He described what had happened, cited from the police reports, and read out sections of Gürtner’s damning assessment on Fritsch. The assembled officers were benumbed. No objections were raised. Hitler’s explanations appeared convincing. No one believed that he could have acted differently.344 As one of those present, General Curt Liebmann, acknowledged, ‘the impression of these disclosures, both over Blomberg and over Fritsch, was downright crushing, especially because Hitler had described both matters so clearly that there could be scarcely any remaining doubt about the actual guilt. We all had the feeling that the army — in contrast to the navy, Luftwaffe, and Party — had suffered a devastating (vernichtenden) blow… ‘345 At a crucial moment, the undermining of the moral codex of the officer corps by its leading representatives had weakened the authority of the military leadership and in so doing had considerably strengthened Hitler’s position. That evening, Hitler spoke in an emotional tone for an hour to the cabinet, unfolding the drama once more, finding words of praise for Blomberg, Fritsch, and especially Neurath, explaining the need to stick to the official version of events, and recalling with much pathos his own feelings of despair during the crisis.346 It proved to be the last cabinet meeting in the Third Reich. Afterwards, Hitler told Goebbels he felt in the same position with regard to the Wehrmacht that he had been in regarding the German people in 1933. ‘He would first have to fight for his position. But he would soon succeed.’347

Two weeks later, on 20 February, Hitler addressed the Reichstag. His extraordinarily lengthy speech — replacing the one he ought to have given on 30 January — predictably had nothing new to offer on the Blomberg-Fritsch crisis.348 In countering rumours of rifts between Party and Wehrmacht, he returned to the ‘two pillars’ notion of political and military props of the state. To the careful listener, it was, however, plain. Any semblance that the Wehrmacht was a power in its own right, standing above politics, had now vanished. ‘In this Reich, everyone in any responsible position is a National Socialist,’ Hitler intoned. Party and Wehrmacht simply had separate functions, both of which were united in his undisputed leadership.349

Though the crisis was unforeseen, not manufactured, the Blomberg– Fritsch affair engendered a key shift in the relations between Hitler and the most powerful non-Nazi élite, the army. At precisely the moment when Hitler’s adventurism was starting to cause shivers of alarm, the army had demonstrated its weakness and without a murmur of protest swallowed his outright dominance even in the immediate domain of the Wehrmacht. Hitler recognized the weakness, was increasingly contemptuous of the officer corps, and saw himself more and more in the role not only of Head of State, but of great military leader.

The outcome of the Blomberg-Fritsch affair amounted to the third stepping-stone — after the Reichstag Fire and the ‘Röhm-Putsch’ — cementing Hitler’s absolute power and, quite especially, his dominance over the army. With the military emasculated and the hawkish Ribbentrop at the Foreign Office, Hitler’s personal drive for the most rapid expansion possible — blending with the expansionist dynamic coming from the economy and the arms race — was unshackled from the forces which could have counselled caution. In the months that followed, the radical dynamic that had been building up through 1937 would take foreign and domestic developments into new terrain. The threat of war would loom ever closer. Racial persecution would again intensify. Hitler’s ideological ‘vision’ was starting to become reality. The momentum which Hitler had done so much to force along, but which was driven too by forces beyond his personality, was carrying him along with it. ‘Vision’ was beginning to overcome cold, political calculation. The danger-zone was being entered.


‘Perhaps I’ll appear some time overnight in Vienna; like a spring storm.’

Hitler to Kurt Schuschnigg, the Austrian Chancellor, 12 February 1938

‘I am utterly determined that Czechoslovakia should disappear from the map.’

Hitler, addressing his generals on 28 May 1938

‘If you recognize the principle of self-determination for the treatment of the Sudeten question, then we can discuss how to put the principle into practice.’

Hitler to Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister, 15 September 1938

‘I got the impression that here was a man who could be relied upon when he had given his word.’

Chamberlain, in a private letter of 19 September 1938, on return from his first meeting with Hitler

Hitler’s ‘mission’ since he entered politics had been to undo the stain of defeat and humiliation in 1918 by destroying Germany’s enemies — internal and external — and restoring national greatness. This ‘mission’, he had plainly stated on many occasions during the 1920s, could only be accomplished through ‘the sword’.1 It meant war for supremacy. The risk could not be avoided. ‘Germany will either be a world power, or there will be no Germany,’ he had written in Mein Kampf.2 Nothing had changed over the years in his fanatical belief in this ‘mission’. He had made necessary dove-like noises for international consumption. And his early speeches and writings had often been dismissed as no more than wild rantings which had little to do with the practical realities of international diplomacy and were not to be taken over-seriously as true expressions of intent.3 But, whatever the public rhetoric, the first five years since he became Chancellor had in fact over and again confirmed the belief of a Leader becoming ever more convinced of his own messianism, certain that his ‘mission’ was on course to fulfilment. His own actions — decisions such as those in 1936 to remilitarize the Rhineland and to introduce the Four-Year Plan — had been instrumental in making the ‘mission’ seem more realizable.

Powerful forces beyond ‘triumph of the will’ had made those actions possible. The final decision had invariably been Hitler’s. He had determined the timing of the critical moves in foreign policy. But the significant steps taken since 1933 had in every case been consonant with the interests of the key agencies of power in the regime, above all with those of the Wehrmacht.4 Hitler’s own obsessively held convictions had served as a spur to, and blended in with, the ambitious armaments plans of the armed forces, varying notions of restoration of hegemony in Europe entertained by the Foreign Office (along with the ‘amateur’ agencies involved in international affairs), and autarkic aims of big industrial firms. His vision of Germany’s greatness through racial purity, strength of arms, and national rebirth had proved an inspiration for hundreds of thousands of fervent activist followers, anxious to put his maxims into practice and forcing along the pace of radicalization by ‘working towards the Führer’. Not least, the ideological fanaticism which Hitler embodied had been institutionalized in the massive Party and its affiliate organizations, above all in the growing power of the SS. Controlling the German police and entertaining unconcealed military ambitions, the SS had become the key organization behind the regime’s ideological dynamism.

By the end of 1937, as his remarks at the ‘Hoßbach meeting’ showed, Hitler acutely sensed that time was not on Germany’s side. The Reich, he had concluded, could not simply wait passively on international developments; by 1943–5 at the latest it had to be prepared to take military action, sooner if circumstances presented themselves. His keenness to accelerate the momentum of expansionism was partly sharpened by his growing feeling that he might not have long to live in order to accomplish his aims.5 But beyond that it reflected an awareness that the pressures accumulating could not be contained without the expansion which he in any case strove after, and a recognition that Germany’s current advantage in armaments build-up would be lost as other countries undertook their own armaments programmes. At precisely this juncture, with Hitler already in such a frame of mind, the Blomberg–Fritsch affair served to underline his absolute supremacy, to highlight the compliance of the army, and further to weaken the lingering influence of the diminishing number of voices advising caution.

Before the reverberations of the crisis had subsided, a fatal miscalculation by the Austrian Chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg over a plebiscite to back Austrian independence gave Hitler a welcome opportunity to turn the spotlight away from his domestic troubles — as Jodl had hinted he would like to do — through the drama of the Anschluß.6 It amounted to a defining moment in the Third Reich. Even more than following the Rhineland triumph two years earlier, Hitler felt after the Anschluß that he could take on the world — and win. And both internally and externally, the impetus to radicalization provided by the Anschluß formed a crucial link in the chain of events that eventually plunged Europe into a new war in September 1939.


Since his boyhood days in Linz, Hitler had seen the future of Austria’s German-speaking population lying in its incorporation in the German Reich. Like many in his part of Austria, he had favoured the ideas of Georg Schönerer, the Pan-Germanist leader, rejecting the Habsburg monarchy and looking to union with the Wilhelmine Reich in Germany. Defeat in the First World War had then brought the dismembering of the sprawling, multi-ethnic empire of the Habsburgs. The new Austria, the creation of the victorious powers at the Treaty of St Germain in September 1919, was no more than a mere remnant of the former empire. The small alpine republic now had only 7 million citizens (compared with 54 million in the empire), 2 million of them in Vienna itself. It was wracked by daunting social and economic problems, and deep political fissures, accompanied by smouldering resentment about its loss of territory and revised borders. The new Austria was, however, almost entirely German-speaking. The idea of union (or Anschluß) with Germany now became far more appealing and was overwhelmingly supported in plebiscites in the early 1920s. Hitler’s rise to power in Germany changed this. It accentuated the already acute divisions between socialists, pan-Germans, and Catholic-conservatives (with their own Austrian-nationalist brand of fascism). Only for the pan-Germans, by now entirely sucked into the Austrian Nazi Movement, was an Anschluß with Hitler’s Germany an attractive proposition.7 But, despite the ban on the Nazi Party in Austria following the German-inspired assassination of the Austrian Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuß in July 1934, the increasing might of the Third Reich and the growing exposure of Austria to German dominance as Italy’s protection waned in the wake of the Abyssinian conflict kept the Anschluß hopes alive among one sizeable part of the Austrian population.

For Hitler’s regime in Germany, meanwhile, the prospects of attaining the union with Austria implicit in the first point of the Nazi Party Programme of 1920, demanding ‘the merger of all Germans… in a Greater Germany’,8 had become much rosier in the changed diplomatic circumstances following Italy’s embroilment in Abyssinia and then the triumphant remilitarization of the Rhineland. Hitler had written on the very first page of Mein Kampf: ‘German-Austria must return to the great German mother-country, and not because of any economic considerations. No, and again no: even if such a union were unimportant from an economic point of view; yes, even if it were harmful, it must nevertheless take place. One blood demands one Reich.’9 Ideological impulses were, however, far from alone in driving on the quest to bring Austria under German sway. Whatever his emphasis in Mein Kampf, by the late 1930s Austria’s geographical position, straddling strategically vital stretches of central Europe, and the significant material resources that would accrue to Germany’s economy, hard-pressed in the push to rearm as swiftly as possible under the Four-Year Plan, were the key determinants in forcing the pace of policy towards the Reich’s eastern neighbour.

On a number of occasions during the second half of 1937, as we have noted, Hitler had spoken in imprecise but menacing terms about moving against Austria. During the summer he had bound the Austrian Nazi Party closer to Berlin through the appointment of his economic adviser Wilhelm Keppler to run party affairs in Vienna.10 Alongside the direct reporting to Hitler of Franz von Papen — the former Vice-Chancellor in the Reich Cabinet who had been sent as a special envoy to Vienna to pour oil on troubled waters following Dollfuß’s assassination, and had been appointed Ambassador after the signing of the Agreement of July 1936 — this provided a further channel of information on developments inside Austria. The effect was to lessen even more the influence of the German Foreign Ministry.11 In September Hitler had sounded out Mussolini about a likely Italian reaction, but received inconsequential, if not discouraging, replies. At the beginning of November, at the ‘Hoßbach meeting’, he had strongly intimated early action to destroy Austria. The visit to Germany in mid-November by Lord Halifax, Lord Privy Seal and President of the Council in the British Government, close to the recently appointed British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and soon to become his Foreign Secretary, had confirmed in Hitler’s mind that Britain would do nothing in the event of German action against Austria.12

The questions of Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Danzig, Lord Halifax had told Hitler, ‘fell into the category of possible alterations in the European order which might be destined to come about with the passage of time’. (In his diary entry on the discussion, Halifax had noted telling Hitler that ‘On all these matters we were not necessarily concerned to stand for the status quo as today, but we were concerned to avoid such treatment of them as would be likely to cause trouble’.) Hitler had responded by stating that ‘the Agreement of July 11th [1936] had been made with Austria and it was to be hoped that it would lead to the removal of all difficulties’. Halifax’s subsequent confidential memorandum on the meeting noted Hitler as saying: ‘Germany did not want to annex Austria or to reduce her to political dependence — her desire was to bring about by peaceful means full economic, cultural, commercial, and possibly monetary and currency union with Austria and to see in Austria a Government really friendly to Germany and ready to work hand in hand for the common welfare of both branches of the Teutonic race.’13

A few days earlier, Hitler had told the Danzig Gauleiter Albert Forster that he wanted Danzig kept quiet from January onwards to allow for concentration on Austria.14 In December, he informed von Papen, who had talked of ways of toppling Schuschnigg, that he wanted to avoid force in the Austrian matter as long as this were desirable to prevent international repercussions.15 Göring and Keppler both had the impression that Hitler would act on Austria in spring or summer 1938.16

Plainly, Hitler had moved during the second half of 1937, despite his express disavowal to Lord Halifax, to a readiness to end Austria’s independence within the foreseeable future. He was, however, in this fully in line with other forces in the Third Reich. The Austro-German treaty of 11 July 1936 together with improved relations with Italy had inevitably brought greater German pressure on Austria. Only increasingly fragile reliance on Italy and recognizably unrealistic hopes placed in the western powers could hinder the relentless squeeze on Austria’s exposed position in central Europe. Papen and Foreign Minister Neurath exerted their own influence where possible, the former largely through direct links with Hitler, the latter through official Foreign Office channels; the growing numbers of Austrian Nazis unfolded a ceaseless clamour of agitation; the bosses of the Four-Year Plan and leaders of the ferrous industries cast envious eyes on Austria’s iron-ore deposits and other sources of scarce raw materials; above all, it was Hermann Göring, at this time close to the pinnacle of his power, who, far more than Hitler, throughout 1937 made the running and pushed hardest for an early and radical solution to the ‘Austrian Question’.

Göring was not simply operating as Hitler’s agent in matters relating to the ‘Austrian Question’. His approach differed in emphasis in significant respects.17 As with Hitler, anti-Bolshevism was central to his thinking. But Göring’s broad notions of foreign policy, which he pushed to a great extent on his own initiative in the mid-1930s, drew more on traditional pan-German concepts of nationalist power-politics to attain hegemony in Europe than on the racial dogmatism central to Hitler’s ideology. Return of colonies (never a crucial issue for Hitler), the alliance with Britain (which he continued to strive for long after Hitler’s ardour had cooled), and an emphasis on domination in south-eastern Europe to ensure German raw material supplies from a huge economic sphere of exploitation (Großraumwirtschaft, a notion that differed from Hitler’s racially determined emphasis on Lebensraum), were the basic props of his programme to ensure Germany’s hegemony.18 Within this framework, Austria’s geography and raw materials gave it both strategically and economically a pivotal position.19

Göring was increasingly determined, now as supremo of the Four-Year Plan, in the face of Germany’s mounting problems of securing raw material supplies, to press for what he called the ‘union’ or ‘merger’ (Zusammenschluß) of Austria and Germany — even, if necessary, at the expense of the alliance with Italy on which Hitler placed such store.20 Göring had come close to offending Mussolini on his visit to Rome in January 1937 with his brusque demands for Italy’s need to come to terms with the fact that Austria would eventually have to fall to Germany. But by the time he had next broached the topic to the Duce four months later, Mussolini had appeared tacitly to recognize that the Anschluß was purely a matter of time. A month before his second (nominally private) visit to Italy that year, in April, amid severe blockages in Germany’s raw material supplies, Göring had told leaders of the iron industry in confidence that the rich iron ores of Austria must come to Germany.21 No time-scale was envisaged. But in view of the pressing economic difficulties, it was plain that Göring did not have the distant future in mind.

As diplomatic feelers, also put out by Neurath and Papen, appeared to be fruitless, Göring’s impatience for a more radical solution to the ‘Austrian Question’ grew. Before Mussolini’s visit to Germany in September, Hitler gave Göring instructions to tread delicately with his important guest on matters relating to Austria. He wanted Mussolini to understand that Germany had no intention in the foreseeable future of bringing the Austrian problem to a head, but that German intervention would be possible should a crisis be otherwise provoked in Austria. By whom or in what circumstances was left to the imagination. How much notice Göring took of Hitler’s instructions was plain when, on the Duce’s visit to Carinhall, he showed him a map of Europe which had Austria already incorporated within Germany. The lack of any negative reaction from Mussolini was taken by his host as a sign that Italy would not object to an Anschluß.22 Göring showed the same map in November to Guido Schmidt, state secretary in the Austrian Foreign Ministry, and his guest at an international hunting exhibition. Good huntsmen knew no boundaries, a grinning Göring told him.23 It was an attempt to bully Schmidt into accepting the inevitability of a currency union between Germany and Austria which, it was plain, was meant to evolve over time into a full merger of the two countries.24 Göring assured Lord Halifax (whose visit to Germany he had instigated) later the same month that German intentions towards Austria were not aggressive, and that relations between the two countries could be settled by diplomatic means.25 At the same time, he took additional steps to isolate Austria still further in south-east Europe.26

By the beginning of 1938, the noose had tightened around Austria’s neck. Göring was pushing hard for currency union. But with Austria stalling for time, and Italy’s reactions uncertain, immediate results through diplomatic channels seemed unlikely. An Anschluß resulting from German intervention through force in the imminent future appeared improbable.

At this unpromising juncture, the idea emerged of a meeting between Hitler and the Austrian Chancellor, Schuschnigg. Such a meeting may well have formed part of Papen’s scheme for bringing down the Austrian Chancellor, noted by Goebbels in mid-December 1937.27 According to Papen’s own later account, he had suggested such a meeting to the Austrian Chancellor in December — in accordance with Schuschnigg’s own expressed wish that month for personal discussions with Hitler (which the Austrian Chancellor naively saw as the only hope of stabilizing his country’s deteriorating situation by reaffirming its independence and the terms of the agreement of July 1936). He had then put the same suggestion to Neurath and Hitler.28 He repeated the suggestion to Guido Schmidt on 7 January, indicating Hitler’s readiness to have a meeting towards the end of the month. Schuschnigg agreed the date.29 Hitler had then had the meeting postponed because of the Blomberg–Fritsch crisis. It was eventually rearranged for 12 February.30 For Hitler, looking, as Jodl had intimated, for a foreign-policy deflection from the internal problems which had dominated the previous weeks, the meeting with the Austrian Chancellor offered the prospect of winning Austrian concessions, giving him something tangible to include in his speech to the Reichstag, rescheduled from 30 January to 20 February.

The Austrians had meanwhile uncovered documents embarrassing to the German government, revealing the plans of the Austrian NSDAP for serious disturbances (including, as a provocation, the murder of Papen by Austrian Nazis disguised as members of the Fatherland Front) aimed at bringing down Schuschnigg.31 At the same time, Schuschnigg was trying to win over Arthur Seyß-Inquart — an Austrian lawyer and Nazi sympathizer who had kept his distance from the rowdier elements within the NSDAP — to incorporate the Nazis in a united patriotic Right in Austria which would appease Berlin but preserve Austrian independence.32 Seyß was, however, in Hitler’s pocket, betraying to Berlin exactly what Schuschnigg was prepared to concede.33 The terms forced upon Schuschnigg by Hitler at the meeting on 12 February were in essence an expanded version of those which the Austrian Chancellor himself had put to Seyß — and were already fully known in Berlin prior to the meeting.34 The main difference was nevertheless a significant one: that Seyß be made Minister of the Interior, and that his powers should be extended to include control of the police.35

At 11a.m. on 12 February, Papen met the Austrian Chancellor, in the company of Guido Schmidt and an adjutant, on the German-Austrian border at Salzburg, where they had spent the night. The Austrian visitors were not enamoured at hearing that three German generals would be among the party awaiting them at the Berghof.36 Nicolaus von Below, Hitler’s Luftwaffe adjutant, had been told to make sure Keitel was present, and in addition one or two generals of particularly ‘martial’ demeanour. Below’s recommendation of the commanding generals of army and Luftwaffe in Munich, Walter von Reichenau (one of the most thoroughly nazified generals) and Hugo Sperrle (who the previous year had commanded the Legion Condor, the squadrons sent to aid the nationalists in Spain), had met with Hitler’s enthusiastic approval. Keitel had arrived that morning from Berlin, along with Ribbentrop. The two generals had travelled from Munich. They were told by Hitler that their presence was purely intended to intimidate Schuschnigg by the implied threat of military force.37

Hitler, tense and keyed up, received Schuschnigg on the steps of his alpine retreat with due politeness.38 However, as soon as they entered the great hall, with its breathtaking view over the mountains, Hitler’s mood abruptly changed. When Schuschnigg remarked on the beauty of the panorama, Hitler snapped: ‘Yes, here my ideas mature. But we haven’t come together to talk about the beautiful view and the weather.’39

Hitler took Schuschnigg into his study while Papen, Schmidt, Ribbentrop, and the others remained outside. Once inside he launched into a ferocious attack, lasting till lunchtime, on Austria’s long history of ‘treason’ against the German people. ‘And this I tell you, Herr Schuschnigg,’ he reportedly threatened. ‘I am firmly determined to make an end of all this… I have a historic mission (Auftrag), and this I will fulfil because Providence has destined me to do so… You don’t believe you can hold me up for half an hour, do you? Who knows? Perhaps I’ll appear some time overnight in Vienna; like a spring storm. Then you’ll see something.’40

Meanwhile, Ribbentrop had presented Guido Schmidt with Hitler’s ultimatum: an end to all restrictions on National Socialist activity in Austria, an amnesty for those Nazis arrested, the appointment of Seyß-Inquart to the Ministry of the Interior with control over the security forces, another Nazi sympathizer, Edmund Glaise-Horstenau (a former military archivist and historian), to be made War Minister, and steps to begin the integration of the Austrian economic system with that of Germany.41 The demands were to be implemented by 15 February — timing determined by Hitler’s major speech on foreign policy, set for 20 February.42

The negotiations were initially intended to last only until lunchtime. But the first session had been taken up almost solely with Hitler’s rantings. It would be evening before the Austrian visitors could depart. At lunch, however, Hitler was as if transformed — once more the genial host. The generals were brought in. They told Schmidt they had no idea why they had been invited. Conversation avoided the Austrian question. It was mostly small-talk, apart from Sperrle speaking of his experiences in the Spanish Civil War, which gave Hitler the opportunity to turn to a pet theme: the dangers of Bolshevism.43 It was late afternoon when Schuschnigg, now apprised by Schmidt of the text of the German demands, returned to Hitler’s study. Hitler threatened to march into Austria if his demands were not met in full. Schuschnigg refused to buckle to the threats. Only the Austrian President, he declared, could make cabinet appointments and grant an amnesty. He could not guarantee that such action would be taken. As Schuschnigg was retreating for further discussions with Schmidt, Hitler’s bellow for Keitel to come immediately could be heard throughout the house. When the general, arriving at the double in Hitler’s study, asked what was required of him, he was told: ‘Nothing. Sit down.’ After ten minutes of inconsequential chat, he was told to go.

But the impact of the charade on Schuschnigg was not lost.44 The threat of military invasion seemed very real. Eventually, Papen brokered a number of alterations in the German demands and, under pressure, the Austrians finally accepted the chief difficulty, the appointment of Seyß-Inquart. Hitler told Schuschnigg: ‘For the first time in my life I have made up my mind to reconsider a final decision.’45 With a heavy heart, Schuschnigg signed.

It was by now late evening. The Austrians, browbeaten and depressed after subjection to such merciless bullying, preferred to travel back hungry than accept Hitler’s invitation to dinner. They returned to Salzburg in complete silence. Only Papen spoke. ‘Now you have some idea, Herr Bundeskanzler, how difficult it is to deal with such an unstable person,’ he remarked, adding that next time it would be different and that the Führer could be ‘distinctly charming.’46

Keitel returned to Berlin early next morning to organize fake military manoeuvres near the Austrian border to exert further pressure on the Reich’s eastern neighbours.47 There was no question of genuine military preparations for an invasion. Keitel had to report to the newly appointed supreme commander of the army, von Brauchitsch, that Hitler was not thinking of a military conflict.48

Hitler was dissatisfied at the outcome of the meeting with Schuschnigg.49 But he told Goebbels that his threats of force had had their effect: ‘cannons always speak a good language’.50 Only when Schuschnigg had complied with his demands, on 15 February, did Hitler’s mood improve.51 ‘The world press rages. Speaks of rape. Not entirely without justification,’ wrote Goebbels.52 Hitler spent the next days largely withdrawn in his private quarters in the Berghof, preparing drafts of his big speech on the 20th, and dictating it to the two secretaries working in rotation on the typewriter.53 In his speech, he thanked the Austrian Chancellor ‘for the great understanding and warmhearted readiness’ in accepting his invitation to talks and his efforts to find a way of serving ‘the interest of both countries’.54

Two weeks after the notorious meeting at the Berghof, when laying down directives for the restless Austrian NSDAP, which had threatened to upset developments through its own wild schemes for disturbances, Hitler emphasized, according to Keppler’s notes of the meeting, that he wanted to proceed along ‘the evolutionary way whether or not the possibility of success could be envisaged at present. The protocol signed by Schuschnigg,’ he went on, ‘was so far-reaching that if implemented in full the Austrian Question would automatically be solved. A solution through force was something he did not now want if it could in any way be avoided, since for us the foreign-policy danger is diminishing from year to year and the military strength becoming year by year greater.’55 Hitler’s approach was at this time still in line with Göring’s evolutionary policy. He plainly reckoned that the tightening of the thumbscrews on Schuschnigg at the February meeting had done the trick. Austria was no more than a German satellite. Extinction of the last remnants of independence would follow as a matter of course. Force was not necessary.

In line with the ‘Trojan horse’ policy of eroding Austrian independence from the inside, following the Berchtesgaden meeting Hitler had complied with demands from Seyß-Inquart — matching earlier representations by Schuschnigg himself — to depose Captain Josef Leopold, the leader of the unruly Austrian National Socialists, and his associates.56 Even so, the meeting at the Berghof and Hitler’s speech on 20 February, his first broadcast in full on Austrian radio — stating that ‘in the long run’ it was ‘unbearable’ for Germans to look on the separation of 10 million fellow Germans by borders imposed through peace treaties — had given the Austrian Nazis a new wind.57 Disturbances mounted, especially in the province of Styria, in the south-east of the country, where resentment at the loss of territory to the new state of Yugoslavia after the First World War had helped fuel the radicalism that had turned the region into a hotbed of Austrian Nazism.58 The situation was by now highly volatile, the Nazis barely controllable by Austrian state forces. Schuschnigg’s own emotional appeals to Austrian patriotism and independence had merely exacerbated the tension within the country and further irritated Hitler.59 At the same time, Schuschnigg, evidently impressed by Hitler’s threats to use force and anxious to avoid anything that might occasion this, was reassuring Britain, France, and Italy that he had the situation in hand rather than rousing foreign sympathy at German strong-arm tactics.60 The resignation as Foreign Secretary on 21 February of Anthony Eden, despised by the German leadership, and his replacement by Lord Halifax — known particularly since his visit to Germany the previous November to favour a conciliatory approach to revisionist demands in the interests of preserving peace in Europe and preventing a conflict which could threaten Great Britain’s position as a world power — was meanwhile seen in Berlin as a further indication of British appeasement.61

The same tone came across in comments of Sir Nevile Henderson, the British Ambassador in Berlin, when he met Hitler on 3 March. Hitler, in a vile mood, was unyielding. If Britain opposed a just settlement in Austria, where Schuschnigg had the support of only 15 per cent of the population, Germany would have to fight, he declared. And if he intervened, he would do so like lightning (blitzschnell). His aim was nevertheless ‘that the just interests of the German Austrians should be secured and an end made to oppression by a process of peaceful evolution’.62 However inadequately the undermining of the Austrian state from within through a combination of infiltration and agitation, backed by German bullying, could be described as ‘peaceful evolution’, pressure-tactics, not armed takeover, still formed the preferred solution to the Austrian Question.

Such notions were thrown overboard by Schuschnigg’s wholly unexpected decision, announced on the morning of 9 March, to hold a referendum on Austrian autonomy four days later. The Nazis themselves had been pressing for years for a plebiscite on Anschluß, confident that they would gain massive support for an issue backed by large numbers of Austrians since 1919.63 But Schuschnigg’s referendum, asking voters to back ‘a free and German, independent and social, Christian and united Austria; for peace and work, and for the equal rights of all who declare themselves for people and fatherland’, was couched in a way that could scarcely fail to bring the desired result. It would be a direct rebuff to union with Germany.64 German plans were immediately thrown into disarray. Hitler’s own prestige was at stake. The moves that followed, culminating in the German march into Austria and the Anschluß, were all now improvised at breakneck speed.

The German government was completely taken aback by Schuschnigg’s gamble. For hours, there was no response from Berlin. Hitler had not been informed in advance of Schuschnigg’s intentions, and was at first incredulous. But his astonishment rapidly gave way to mounting fury at what he saw as a betrayal of the Berchtesgaden agreement.65 Goebbels recorded the decision to hold an Austrian plebiscite in his diary, though initially without further commentary.66 In the evening, when he was addressing a gathering of newspaper editors at a reception in the Propaganda Ministry, he was suddenly summoned to Hitler’s presence. Göring was already there. He was told of Schuschnigg’s move — ‘an extremely dirty trick’ (ganz gemeinen Bubenstreich) to ‘dupe’ (übertölpeln) the Reich through ‘a stupid and idiotic plebiscite’. The trio were still unsure how to act. They considered replying either by Nazi abstention from the plebiscite (which would have undermined its legitimacy), or by sending 1,000 aeroplanes to drop leaflets over Austria ‘and then actively intervening’.67 For the time being, the German press was instructed to publish nothing at all about Austria.68

By late at night, perhaps egged on by Göring, Hitler was warming up. Goebbels was again called in. Glaise-Horstenau (along with Seyß-Inquart a Nazi sympathizer in the Austrian cabinet), on a visit in southern Germany when suddenly summoned to Berlin by Göring, was also present. ‘The Führer drastically outlines for him his plans,’ Goebbels recorded. ‘Glaise recoils from the consequences.’ But Hitler, who went on to discuss the situation alone with Goebbels until 5a.m., was now ‘in full swing’ and showing ‘a wonderful fighting mood’. ‘He believes the hour has arrived,’ noted Goebbels. He wanted to sleep on it. But he was sure that Italy and England would do nothing. Action from France was possible, but not likely. ‘Risk not so great as at the time of the occupation of the Rhineland,’ was the conclusion.69

Just how unprepared the German leadership had been was shown by the fact that the Foreign Minister, Ribbentrop, was in London, Reichenau had to be recalled from Cairo, and General Erhard Milch (Göring’s right-hand man in the Luftwaffe) was summoned from holiday in Switzerland.70 Göring himself was scheduled to preside over the military court to hear the Fritsch case, meeting for the first time on 10 March. The hearing was abruptly adjourned when a courier brought a message demanding Göring’s presence in the Reich Chancellery.71 Goebbels had also been called there, arriving to find Hitler deep in thought, bent over maps. Plans were discussed for transporting 4,000 Austrian Nazis who had been exiled to Bavaria, together with a further 7,000 paramilitary reservists.72

The Wehrmacht leadership was taken completely by surprise through Hitler’s demand for plans for military intervention. Keitel, abruptly ordered to the Reich Chancellery on the morning of 10 March, spinelessly suggested calling in Brauchitsch and Beck, knowing full well that no plans existed, but wishing to avoid having to tell this to Hitler. Brauchitsch was not in Berlin. Beck despairingly told Keitel: ‘We have prepared nothing, nothing has happened, nothing.’ But his objections were dismissed out of hand by Hitler. He was sent away to report within hours on which army units would be ready to march on the morning of the 12th.73

By this time, Goebbels had again had intensive discussions alone with Hitler. It seems to have been Goebbels who came up with the idea of having the two Nazi supporters in the Austrian cabinet, Seyß-Inquart and Gleise-Horstenau, demand the referendum should follow the procedures laid down for the Saar plebiscite in 1935. Should Schuschnigg refuse, as was to be expected, the two ministers would resign and 600–800 German planes would shower Austria with leaflets on the Saturday, exhorting the people to resistance against their government. The people — meaning the Nazi activists — would rise in revolt. And on the Sunday, 13 March, the day of the referendum, the Wehrmacht followed by the Austrian ‘Legionaries’ — exiled paramilitaries based in Bavaria — would march in. The SA-Obergruppenführer Hermann Reschny, leader of the Austrian stormtroopers, thought that the Austrian army would open fire. This, too, had to be reckoned with. But Mussolini was unable and London unwilling to act, while Paris was handicapped by a government crisis. ‘So it must be risked. In any case, prepare everything. The Führer works out the military plans… March was always the Führer’s lucky month.’74

Around midnight Goebbels had once more been called to see Hitler. ‘The die is cast,’ he noted. ‘On Saturday march in. Push straight to Vienna. Big aeroplane action. The Führer is going himself to Austria. Göring and I are to stay in Berlin. In 8 days Austria will be ours.’ He discussed the propaganda arrangements with Hitler, then returned to his Ministry to work on them until 4a.m. No one was now allowed to leave the Ministry till the ‘action’ began. The activity was feverish. ‘Again a great time. With a great historical task… It’s wonderful,’ he wrote.75

After three hours’ sleep, Goebbels was back with Hitler by 8a.m. dictating leaflets for distribution in Austria.76 An hour later, when Papen arrived post-haste from Vienna, he found the Reich Chancellery in a frenzy of activity. Apart from Goebbels and his propaganda team, Neurath, Frick (with several officials from the Ministry of the Interior), Himmler (‘surrounded by a dozen giant SS officers’), Brauchitsch, Keitel, and their adjutants were all in attendance. Ribbentrop was missing — sidelined in London, where he was making his official farewells as former ambassador, his recall to Berlin now hindered by Göring.77

Prominent in Hitler’s mind that morning was Mussolini’s likely reaction. Around midday, he sent a handwritten letter, via his emissary Prince Philipp of Hessen, telling the Duce that as a ‘son of this [Austrian] soil’ he could no longer stand back but felt compelled to intervene to restore order in his homeland, assuring Mussolini of his undiminished sympathy, and stressed that nothing would alter his agreement to uphold the Brenner border.78 But whatever the Duce’s reaction, Hitler had by then already put out his directive for ‘Case Otto’, expressing his intention, should other measures — the demands put by Seyß-Inquart to Schuschnigg — fail, of marching into Austria. The action, under his command, was to take place ‘without use of force in the form of a peaceful entry welcomed by the people’.79

Hitler, when Papen was ushered in to see him that morning, was ‘in a state bordering on hysteria’.80 During the course of the day, Göring (so he claimed), rather than Hitler, made most of the running. ‘It was not the Führer so much as I, myself, who set the pace and, even overruling the Führer’s misgivings, brought everything to its final development,’ he proudly insisted at his Nuremberg trial, anxious to establish his own ‘Göring myth’ for posterity.81 ‘Without actually discussing it with the Führer,’ he recalled, ‘I demanded spontaneously the immediate resignation of Chancellor Schuschnigg. When this was approved, I put the next demand, so that now the entire business was ready for the Anschluß.’82 This was something of an over-simplification.

Hitler had put the first ultimatum around 10a.m., demanding Schuschnigg call off the referendum for two weeks to allow a plebiscite similar to that in the Saarland in 1935 to be arranged — the idea that Goebbels had raised the previous day. Schuschnigg was to resign as Chancellor to make way for Seyß-Inquart. All restrictions on the National Socialists were to be lifted.83 It was when Schuschnigg, around 2.45p.m., accepted the postponement of the plebiscite but rejected the demand to resign that Göring acted on his own initiative in repeating the ultimatum for the Chancellor’s resignation and replacement by Seyß. Göring reported back to the Reich Chancellery: Seyß had to be named Chancellor by 5.30p.m., the other conditions of the original ultimatum accepted by 7.30p.m.84 He had simply overridden the objections of Seyß himself, who was still hoping to avoid a German invasion and preserve some shreds of Austrian independence.85 Looking harassed and tense, Seyß put the ultimatum to the Austrian cabinet, remarking that he was no more than ‘a girl telephone switchboard operator’.86 At this point, the military preparations in Germany were continuing, ‘but march in still uncertain’, recorded Goebbels. Plans were discussed for making Hitler Federal President, to be acclaimed by popular vote, ‘and then eventually (dann so nach und nach) to complete the Anschluß’.87 In the immediate future, the ‘coordination’ (Gleichschaltung) of Austria, not the complete Anschluß, was what was envisaged.88

Then news came through that only part of the second ultimatum had been accepted. Schuschnigg’s desperate plea for British help had solicited a telegram from Lord Halifax, baldly stating: ‘His Majesty’s Government are unable to guarantee protection.’89 About 3.30p.m. Schuschnigg resigned.90 But President Wilhelm Miklas was refusing to appoint Seyß-Inquart as Chancellor.91 A further ultimatum was sent to Vienna, expiring at 7.30p.m.92 By now Göring was in full swing. Returning to the Reich Chancellery in the early evening, Nicolaus von Below found him ‘in his element’, constantly on the phone to Vienna, the complete ‘master of the situation’.93 Just before 8.00 that evening, Schuschnigg made an emotional speech on the radio, describing the ultimatum. Austria, he said, had yielded to force. To spare bloodshed, the troops would offer no resistance.94

By now, Nazi mobs were rampaging through Austrian cities, occupying provincial government buildings. Local Nazi leaders were hoping for Gleichschaltung through a seizure of power from within to forestall an invasion from Germany.95 Göring pressed Seyß-Inquart to send a prearranged telegram, dictated from Berlin, asking the German government for help to ‘restore order’ in the Austrian cities, ‘so that we have legitimation’, as Goebbels frankly admitted.96 Keppler rang at 8.48p.m. to inform Göring that Seyß was refusing to send the telegram. Göring replied that the telegram need not be sent; all Seyß needed do was to say ‘agreed’.97 Eventually, Keppler sent the telegram, at 9.10p.m. It was irrelevant. Twenty-five minutes earlier, persuaded by Göring that he would lose face by not acting after putting the ultimatum, Hitler had already given the Wehrmacht the order to march.98 Brauchitsch had left the Reich Chancellery, the invasion order in his pocket, depressed and worried about the response abroad.99 Just before 10.30p.m. Hitler heard the news he had been impatiently awaiting: Mussolini was prepared to accept German intervention. ‘Please tell Mussolini I will never forget him for it, never, never, never, come what may,’ a hugely relieved Hitler gushed over the telephone to Philipp of Hesse. ‘If he should ever need any help or be in any danger, he can be sure that do or die I shall stick by him, come what may, even if the whole world rises against him,’ he added, carried away by his elation.100

At midnight, President Miklas gave in. Seyß-Inquart was appointed Federal Chancellor.101 All German demands had now been met. But the invasion went ahead. As the American journalist William Shirer, observing the scenes in Vienna, cynically commented: with the invasion Hitler broke the terms of his own ultimatum.102 A last attempt by Seyß-Inquart, at 2.30a.m., to have the invasion stopped was brusquely rejected by Hitler: the military intervention could no longer be halted.103 Keitel did not dare pass on a plea he received at 4a.m. from General Max von Viebahn, in the Wehrmacht Head Office, imploring him to intervene with the Führer to desist from the invasion. Had Hitler known of the request, Keitel claimed, he would have been utterly contemptuous of the army leadership.104 That, in Keitel’s eyes, had to be avoided at all costs in the light of the events of the previous weeks. The ‘friendly visit’ of German troops began at 5.30a.m.105

Later that morning, Hitler, accompanied by Keitel, landed in Munich, en route for his triumphal entry into Austria, leaving Göring to serve as his deputy in the Reich.106 By midday, the cavalcade of grey Mercedes, with open tops despite the freezing weather, had reached Mühldorf am Inn, close to the Austrian border. General Fedor von Bock, Commander-in-Chief of the newly formed 8th Army, hastily put together in two days out of troop units in Bavaria, reported to Hitler. The motorized Leibstandarte-SS Adolf Hitler had joined them from Berlin. Bock could tell Hitler that the German troops had been received with flowers and jubilation since crossing the border two hours earlier. Hitler listened to the report of reactions abroad by Reich Press Chief Otto Dietrich. He did not expect either military or political complications, and gave the order to drive on to Linz.107

Back in Berlin, Frick was drafting a set of laws to accommodate the German takeover in Austria. A full Anschluß — the complete incorporation of Austria, marking its disappearance as a country — was still not envisaged; at any rate, not in the immediate future. Elections were prescribed for 10 April, with Austria ‘under Germany’s protection’. Hitler was to be Federal President, determining the constitution. ‘We can then push along the development as we want,’ commented Goebbels.108 Hitler himself had not hinted at an Anschluß in his proclamation, read out at midday by Goebbels on German and Austrian radio, stating only that there would be a ‘true plebiscite’ on Austria’s future and fate within a short time.109

Shortly before 4p.m. that afternoon, Hitler crossed the Austrian border over the narrow bridge at his birthplace, Braunau am Inn. The church-bells were ringing. Tens of thousands of people (most of them from outside Braunau), in ecstasies of joy, lined the streets of the small town. But Hitler did not linger. Propaganda value, not sentiment, had dictated his visit. Braunau played its brief symbolic part. That sufficed. The cavalcade passed on its triumphal progression to Linz.

Progress was much slower than expected because of the jubilant crowds packing the roadsides. It was in darkness, four hours later, that Hitler eventually reached the Upper Austrian capital. Seyß-Inquart and Glaise-Horstenau, along with Himmler and other leading Nazis, had long been waiting for him.110 So had an enormous crowd, gathered on the marketplace. The cars could go no further. Hitler’s bodyguards pushed a way through the crowd so that he could go the last few yards to the town hall on foot.111 Peals of bells rang out; the ecstatic crowd was screaming ‘Heil’; Seyß-Inquart could hardly make himself heard in his introductory remarks. Hitler looked deeply moved.112 Tears ran down his cheeks.113 In his speech on the balcony of the Linz town hall, he told the masses, constantly interrupting him with their wild cheering, that Providence must have singled him out to return his homeland to the German Reich. They were witnesses that he had now fulfilled his mission. ‘I don’t know on which day you will be called,’ he added. ‘I hope it is not far off.’ This somewhat mystical remark seemed to indicate that even up to this point, he was not intending within hours to end Austria’s identity by incorporating the country into Germany.114

Once more, plans were rapidly altered. He had meant to go straight on to Vienna. But he decided to stay in Linz throughout the next day, Sunday the 13th, and enter Vienna on the Monday.115 To the accompaniment of unending cries of ‘One people, one Reich, one Leader’ (‘ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer’), his party took up rooms in the Hotel Weinzinger on the banks of the Danube. Beds were hastily allocated. The restaurant could not cope with the food requirements. The single telephone in the hotel had to be reserved solely for Hitler’s use.116 The extraordinary reception had made a huge impact on him. He was told that foreign newspapers were already speaking of the ‘Anschluß’ of Austria to Germany as a fait accompli. It was in this atmosphere that the idea rapidly took shape of annexing Austria immediately.

In an excited mood, Hitler was heard to say that he wanted no half-measures. Stuckart, from the Reich Ministry of the Interior, was hurriedly summoned to Linz to draft legislation.117 In an interview he gave to the British journalist Ward Price in the Hotel Weinzinger, Hitler hinted that Austria would become a German province ‘like Bavaria or Saxony’.118 He evidently pondered the matter further during the night.119 The next day, 13 March — the day originally scheduled for Schuschnigg’s referendum on Austrian independence — the Anschluß, not intended before the previous evening, was completed.120 Hitler’s visit to Leonding, where he laid flowers on his parents’ grave and returned to the house where the family had lived, meeting some acquaintances he had not seen for thirty years, perhaps reinforced the belief, stimulated the previous evening by his reception in Linz, that Providence had predestined him to reunite his homeland (Heimat) with the Reich.121

At some point during the day Hitler contacted Mussolini to assure himself of the Duce’s acceptance of the final move to full Anschluß. On hearing the news he wanted, he dispatched an effusive telegram, in the same vein as his telephone message two days earlier: ‘Mussolini, I will never forget you for this!’122 The Duce’s reply the following day, addressed simply to ‘Hitler. Vienna’, was less emotional: ‘My stance is determined by the friendship between our two countries sealed in the axis,’ he wrote.123

Stuckart had meanwhile arrived overnight and sat in the Hotel Weinzinger on the morning of the 13th drafting the ‘Law for the Reunion of Austria with the German Reich’.124 This was put together in all haste through much toing and froing between Stuckart in Linz and Keppler in Vienna.125 Hitler told a group of surprised and jubilant Austrian Nazi leaders, invited to lunch in the Hotel Weinzinger, around 3p.m. that ‘an important law’ announcing Austria’s incorporation within the German Reich was about to appear.126 Around 5p.m. the Austrian Ministerial Council — a body by now bearing scant resemblance to the cabinet under Schuschnigg — unanimously accepted Stuckart’s draft with one or two minor reformulations. The meeting lasted a mere five minutes and ended with the members of the Council rising to their feet to give the ‘German Greeting’. The Austrian President, Wilhelm Miklas, laid down his office at about the same time, refusing to sign the reunion law and handing his powers over to Seyß-Inquart. That evening, Seyß-Inquart and Keppler drove to Linz to confirm that the law had been accepted. Hitler signed the law before the evening was out.127 Austria had become a German province.128 Göring, who before the events triggered by the Berchtesgaden meeting had, as we have seen, been the one most strongly pressing for the union of the two countries, was taken by surprise — astonished at the manner in which the actual Anschluß had come about.129

Immediately, the Austrian army was sworn in to Hitler. In a surprise move, Gauleiter Josef Bürckel, a trusted ‘old fighter’ of the Movement but with no connections with Austria, was brought in from the Saar to reorganize the NSDAP.130 Hitler was well aware of the need to bring the Party in Austria fully into line as quickly as possible, and not to leave it in the hands of the turbulent, ill-disciplined, and unpredictable Austrian leadership.

In mid-morning on 14 March, Hitler left Linz for Vienna. Cheering crowds greeted the cavalcade of limousines — thirteen police cars accompanied Hitler’s Mercedes — all the way to the capital, where he arrived, again delayed, in the late afternoon.131 On the orders of Cardinal Innitzer, Archbishop of Vienna, all the Catholic churches in the city pealed their bells in Hitler’s honour and flew swastika banners from their steeples — an extraordinary gesture given the ‘Church struggle’ which had raged in the Reich itself over the previous years.132 The scenes of enthusiasm, according to a Swiss reporter who witnessed them, ‘defied all description’.133 An English observer of the scene commented: ‘To say that the crowds which greeted [Hitler] along the Ringstraße were delirious with joy is an understatement.’134 Hitler had to appear repeatedly on the balcony of the Hotel Imperial in response to the crowd’s continual shouts of ‘We want to see our Führer.’135 Keitel, whose room faced the front of the hotel, found it impossible to sleep for the clamour.136

The next day, 15 March, in beautiful spring weather, Hitler addressed a vast, delirious crowd, estimated at a quarter of a million people, in Vienna’s Heldenplatz. The Viennese Nazi Party had been impatiently expecting him to come to the capital for three days.137 They had had time to ensure the preparations were complete. Work-places were ordered to be closed (though employees were still to be paid — some compensation for the hours spent standing and waiting for Hitler’s speech); many factories and offices had marched their employees as a group to hear the historic speech; schools had not been open since the Saturday; Hitler Youth and girls from the Bund Deutscher Mädel were bussed in from all parts of Austria; party formations had turned out in force.138 But for all the organization, the wild enthusiasm of the immense crowd was undeniable — and infectious. Those less enthusiastic had already been cowed into submission by the open brutality of the Nazi hordes, exploiting their triumph since the weekend to inflict fearful beatings or to rob and plunder at will, and by the first waves of mass arrests (already numbering between 10,000 and 20,000 in the early days) orchestrated by Himmler and Heydrich, who had arrived in Vienna on 12 March.139

Ominous in Hitler’s speech was his reference to the ‘new mission’ of the ‘Eastern Marches (Ostmark) of the German People’ (as the once independent country of Austria was now to be known) as the ‘bulwark’ against the ‘storms of the east’.140 He ended, to tumultuous cheering lasting for minutes, by declaring ‘before history the entry of my homeland into the German Reich’.141

After attending a military parade in the afternoon, Hitler had a short but important audience, arranged by Papen, with the Austrian primate, Cardinal Innitzer.142 The Cardinal assured Hitler of the loyalty of Austria’s Catholics, the overwhelming body of the population.143 Three days later, along with six other Austrian bishops and archbishops, he put his signature to a declaration of their full support and blessing for the new regime in Austria and their conviction ‘that through the actions of the National Socialist Movement the danger of godless Bolshevism, which would destroy everything, would be fended off’.144 Cardinal Innitzer added in his own hand: ‘Heil Hitler.’145

In the early evening, Hitler left Vienna and flew to Munich, before returning next day to Berlin to another ‘hero’s welcome’.146 Two days later, on 18 March, a hastily summoned Reichstag heard his account of the events leading up to what he described as the ‘fulfilment of the supreme historical commission’.147 He then dissolved the Reichstag and set new elections for 10 April. On 25 March, in Königsberg, he began what was to prove his last ‘election’ campaign, holding six out of fourteen major speeches in the former Austria.148 In both parts of the extended Reich, the propaganda machine once more went into overdrive. Newspapers were prohibited from using the word ‘ja’ in any context other than in connection with the plebiscite.149 When the results were announced on 10 April, 99.08 per cent in the ‘Old Reich’, and 99.75 per cent in ‘Austria’ voted ‘yes’ to the Anschluß and to the ‘list of the Führer’.150 Goebbels’s Propaganda Ministry congratulated itself. ‘Such an almost 100 per cent election result is at the same time a badge of honour for all election propagandists,’ it concluded.151

From Hitler’s perspective, it was a near-perfect result. Whatever the undoubted manipulative methods, ballot-rigging, and pressure to conform which helped produce it, genuine support for Hitler’s action had unquestionably been massive.152 Once again, a foreign-policy triumph had strengthened his hand at home and abroad. For the mass of the German people, Hitler once more seemed a statesman of extraordinary virtuoso talents. For the leaders of the western democracies, anxieties about the mounting instability of central Europe were further magnified.

The Austrian adventure was over. Hitler’s attentions were already moving elsewhere. Within days of returning from Vienna, he was poring over maps together with Goebbels. ‘First comes now Czechia (Tschechei),’ the Propaganda Minister recorded. ‘… And drastically (rigoros), at the next opportunity… The Führer is wonderful… A true genius. Now he sits for hours over the map and broods. Moving, when he says he wants to experience the great German Reich of the Teutons (Germanen) himself.’153

The Anschluß was a watershed for Hitler, and for the Third Reich. The backcloth to it had been one of domestic crisis. Yet almost overnight any lingering threat in the Blomberg–Fritsch affair had been defused by a triumph greater than any that Hitler had enjoyed before. The overwhelming reception he had encountered on his grandiose procession to Vienna, above all his return to Linz, had made a strong impression on the German Dictator. The intoxication of the crowds made him feel like a god. The rapid improvisation of the Anschluß there and then, fulfilling a dream he had entertained as a young Schönerer supporter all those years earlier, proved once more — so it seemed to him — that he could do anything he wanted. His instincts were, it seemed, always right. The western ‘powers’ were powerless. The doubters and sceptics at home were, as always, revealed as weak and wrong. There was no one to stand in his way. As Papen later put it: ‘Hitler had brought about the Anschluß by force; in spite of all warnings and prophecies, his own methods had proved the most direct and successful. Not only had there been no armed conflict between the two countries, but no foreign power had seen fit to intervene. They adopted the same passive attitude as they had shown towards the reintroduction of conscription in Germany and the reoccupation of the Rhineland. The result was that Hitler became impervious to the advice of all those who wished him to exercise moderation in his foreign policy.’154

Hitler had, with the Anschluß, created ‘Greater Germany’ (‘Großdeutschland’), now incorporating his homeland. As Goebbels’s diary entry, just noted, indicates, he was impatient for more. He had once seen himself as the ‘drummer’, paving the way for the ‘great leader’ to follow. He had then come to see himself as that ‘great leader’, rebuilding Germany, ‘nationalizing’ the masses for the great future conflict. Would he live to see the creation of the Great Germanic Reich, embracing all Germans and dominating the continent of Europe, himself? He had doubted it. Perhaps a later ‘great leader’ would be needed to complete the task. But from 1936 onwards, he was sure, Europe was ‘on the move’; the conflict would not be long delayed. By late 1937 he was envisaging expansion in the foreseeable future. The Anschluß now suggested to him that the Great Germanic Reich did not have to be a long-term project. He could create it himself. But it had to be soon. The incorporation of Austria had seriously weakened the defences of Czechoslovakia — the Slav state he had detested since its foundation, and one allied with the Bolshevik arch-enemy and with France. The next step to German dominance on the European continent beckoned.

The Anschluß did not just set the roller-coaster of foreign expansion moving. It gave massive impetus to the assault on ‘internal enemies’. Early arrivals in Vienna had been Himmler and Heydrich. The repression was ferocious — worse even than it had been in Germany following the Nazi takeover in 1933. The Austrian police records fell immediately into the Gestapo’s hands. Supporters of the fallen regime, but especially Socialists, Communists, and Jews — rounded up under the aegis of the rising star in the SD’s ‘Jewish Department’, Adolf Eichmann — were taken in their thousands into ‘protective custody’.155

Many other Jews were manhandled, beaten, and tortured in horrific ordeals by Nazi thugs, looting and rampaging. Jewish shops were plundered at will. Individual Jews were robbed on the open streets of their money, jewellery, and fur coats. Groups of Jews, men and women, young and old, were dragged from offices, shops, or homes and forced to scrub the pavements in ‘cleaning squads’, their tormentors standing over them and, watched by crowds of onlookers screaming ‘Work for the Jews at last,’ kicking them, drenching them with cold, dirty water, and subjecting them to every conceivable form of merciless humiliation.156

The pent-up fury of the Nazi mobs threatened to explode into a full-scale pogrom. The Daily Telegraph’s long-standing correspondent in Vienna, G.E.R. Gedye, described the menacing atmosphere: ‘As I crossed the Graben [one of the main streets in the centre of Vienna] to my office, the Brown flood was sweeping through the streets. It was an indescribable witches’ sabbath — stormtroopers, lots of them barely out of the schoolroom, with cartridge belts and carbines, the only other evidence of authority being swastika brassards, were marching side by side with police turncoats, men and women shrieking or crying hysterically the name of their leader, embracing the police and dragging them along in the swirling stream of humanity, motor-lorries filled with stormtroopers clutching their long-concealed weapons, hooting furiously, trying to make themselves heard above the din, men and women leaping, shouting, and dancing in the light of the smoking torches which soon began to make their appearance, the air filled with a pandemonium of sound in which intermingled screams of: “Down with the Jews! Heil Hitler! Heil Hitler! Sieg Heil! Perish the Jews!…”’157

‘Hades had opened its gates and released its basest, most despicable, most unpure spirits,’ was how the esteemed playwright and writer Carl Zuckmayer, his own works banned in Germany since 1933, described the scene. Vienna had transformed itself, in his eyes, ‘into a nightmare painting of Hieronymus Bosch’.158

One seventeen-year-old Jew later recalled his own experience, only a short few weeks after being part of a fun-loving crowd enjoying the dancing, drinking, and merriment of the Viennese carnival: ‘I rushed to the window and looked out into Nußdorferstraße… Then the first lorry came into sight. It was packed with shouting, screaming men. A huge swastika flag fluttered over their heads… Now we could hear clearly what they were shouting: “Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer!” they were chanting in chorus, followed by “Ju-da verr-rrecke! Ju-da verr-rrecke!” (“Per-rish Judah!”)… I was still looking out into Nußdorferstraße when I suddenly heard a muffled shout from right below our window. I craned my neck and saw an Austrian policeman, a swastika brassard already over his dark green uniform sleeve, his truncheon in his fist, lashing out with berserk fury at a man writhing at his feet. I immediately recognized that policeman. I had known him all my life…’159

Thousands tried to flee. Masses packed the railway stations, trying to get out to Prague. They had the few possessions they could carry with them ransacked by the squads of men with swastika armbands who had assembled at the stations, ‘confiscating’ property at will, entering compartments on the trains and dragging out arbitrarily selected victims for further mishandling and internment. Those who left on the 11.15p.m. night express thought they had escaped. But they were turned back at the Czech border. Their ordeal was only just beginning. Others tried to flee by road. Soon, the roads to the Czech border were jammed. They became littered with abandoned cars as their occupants, realizing that the Czech authorities were turning back refugees at the borders, headed into the woods to try to cross the frontier illegally on foot.160

For many, there was only one way out. Suicide among the Viennese Jewish community became commonplace in these terrible days.161

The quest to root out ‘enemies of the people’, which in Germany had subsided in the mid-1930s and had begun to gather new pace in 1937, was revitalized through the new ‘opportunities’ that had opened up in Austria. The radicalized campaign would very quickly be reimported to the ‘Old Reich’, both in the new and horrifying wave of antisemitism in the summer of 1938, and — behind the scenes but ultimately even more sinister — in the rapid expansion of the SS’s involvement in looking for solutions to the ‘Jewish Question’.162

After the tremors of the Blomberg–Fritsch affair, Hitler’s internal position was now stronger than ever. His leadership was absolute. The officer corps of the army, deeply angered at the treatment of Fritsch, had had the wind taken out of their sails by the Anschluß triumph. For a small number of officers, the seeds of resistance had been sown which would eventually germinate into a conspiracy that would nearly take Hitler’s life on 20 July 1944. But at this stage the bitter animosity was directed largely against Himmler, Heydrich, and Göring, not Hitler. And they recognized that there were no forces capable of carrying through a putsch since, as Major-General Friedrich Olbricht put it, ‘the people are behind Hitler’.163 Nor was the reception accorded to the German troops on the Austrian roads lost on them. The vast majority of officers were, as regards the Anschluß, of one mind with the people: they could only approve and — if sometimes begrudgingly — admire Hitler’s latest triumph.

Among the mass of the population, ‘the German miracle’ brought about by Hitler released what was described as ‘an elemental frenzy of enthusiasm’ — once it was clear that the western powers would again stand by and do nothing, and that ‘our Führer has pulled it off without bloodshed’.164 It would be the last time that the German people — now with the addition of their cousins to the east whose rapid disillusionment soon dissipated the wild euphoria with which many of them had greeted Hitler165 — would feel the threat of war lifted so rapidly from them through a foreign-policy coup completed within days and presented as a fait accompli. The next crisis, over the Sudetenland, would drag over months and have them in near-panic over the likelihood of war. And if Hitler had had his way, there would have been war.


The crisis over Czechoslovakia in the summer of 1938 took Germany’s expansionist drive on to a new plane. This crisis was different from those which had preceded it in a number of significant ways. Down to the Anschluß, the major triumphs in foreign policy had been in line with the revisionist and nationalist expectations of all powerful interests in the Reich, and quite especially those of the army. The withdrawal from the League of Nations in 1933, the reintroduction of general military service in 1935, the reoccupation of the Rhineland in 1936, and probably the Anschluß, too, would have been sought by any nationalist government in Germany at the time. The methods — on which the army, the Foreign Office, and others often looked askance — were Hitlerian. The timing had been determined by Hitler. The decisions to act were his alone. But in each case there had been powerful backing, as well as some hesitancy, among his advisers. And in each case, he was reflecting diverse currents of revisionist expression. The immense popularity of his triumphs in all sections of the political élite and among the masses of the population testified to the underlying consensus behind the revisionism. The earlier crises had also all been of brief duration. The tension had in each case been short-lived, the success rapidly attained. And in each case, the popular jubilation was in part an expression of relief that the western powers had not intervened, that the threat of another war — something which sent shivers of horror down the spines of most ordinary people — had been averted. The resulting popularity and prestige that accrued to Hitler drew heavily upon his ‘triumphs without bloodshed’.166 In reality, as we have seen, there had in every instance been little chance of allied intervention, even to counter the reoccupation of the Rhineland. The weakness and divisions of the western powers had in each case been the platform for Hitler’s bloodless coups.

For the first time, in the summer of 1938, Hitler’s foreign policy went beyond revisionism and national integration, even if the western powers did not grasp this. Whatever his public veneer of concern about the treatment of the Sudeten Germans,167 there was no doubt at all to the ruling groups in Germany aware of Hitler’s thinking — his comments at the ‘Hoßbach meeting’ had already made it plain — that he was aiming not just at the incorporation of the Sudetenland in the German Reich, but at destroying the state of Czechoslovakia itself. By the end of May this aim, and the timing envisaged to accomplish it, had been outlined to the army leadership. It meant war — certainly against Czechoslovakia, and probably (so it seemed to others), despite Hitler’s presumption of the contrary, against the western powers. Hitler, it became unmistakably plain, actually wanted war. ‘Long live war — even if it lasts from two to eight years,’ he would proclaim to the Sudeten leader Konrad Henlein in September, at the height of the crisis.168 ‘Every generation must at one time have experienced war,’ his adjutant Fritz Wiedemann recalled him commenting around the same time.169 Whatever the warnings, he was even prepared for war (though he did not think it likely at this juncture) against Britain and France.

The sheer recklessness of courting disaster by the wholly unnecessary (in their view) risk of war at this time against the western powers — which they thought Germany in its current state of preparation could not win — appalled and horrified a number of those who knew what Hitler had in mind.

It was not the prospect of destroying Czechoslovakia that alienated them. The state that had been founded in 1918 out of the ruins of the Habsburg empire had sustained its democracy despite German, Hungarian, Polish, and Ruthenian minorities alongside Czechs and Slovaks (though since Hitler’s assumption of power in Germany the German ethnic minority, over 3 million strong, had proved increasingly restless). The country had a strong industrial base, and had expanded its defence capabilities until its army had to be regarded as a force to be reckoned with. Given that its long north and south borders abutted Germany, Austria, Hungary, Romania, the Ukraine, and Poland, the emphasis on defence was scarcely surprising. Czechoslovakia looked to Germany’s arch-enemies — not just to France, but also to the Soviet Union — for support, and Communism had a sizeable following in the country. To German nationalist eyes, therefore, Czechoslovakia could only be seen as a major irritant occupying a strategically crucial area. Coloured in addition by anti-Slav prejudice, there was little love lost for a democracy, hostile to the Reich, whose destruction would bring major advantages for Germany’s military and economic dominance of central Europe. The army had already planned in 1937 for the possibility of a pre-emptive strike against Czechoslovakia — ‘Case Green’ — to counter the possibility of the Czechs joining in from the east if their allies, the French, attacked the Reich from the west.170 As the prospect of a war with the French, something taken extremely seriously in the mid-1930s, had receded, ‘Case Green’ had been amended a month after the ‘Hoßbach meeting’ to take account of likely circumstances in which the Wehrmacht could invade Czechoslovakia to solve the problem of ‘living space’.171

In economic terms, too, the fall of Czechoslovakia offered an enticing prospect. Göring, his staff directing the Four-Year Plan, and the leaders of the arms industry, were for their part casting greedy eyes on the raw materials and armaments plants of Czechoslovakia. The problems built into an economy so heavily tilted towards armaments production but still heavily dependent upon costly imports of food and raw materials, facing too an increasingly acute labour shortage, and with an agricultural sector strained to the limit, were — as countless reports indicated — mounting alarmingly.172 The economic pressures for expansion accorded fully with the power-political aims of the regime’s leadership. Those who had argued for an alternative economic strategy, most of all of course Schacht, had by now lost their influence. Göring was the dominant figure. And in Göring’s dreams of German dominion in south-eastern Europe, the acquisition of Czechoslovakia was plainly pivotal.

But neither military strategy nor economic necessity compelled a Czech crisis in 1938. It is true that Beck, the Chief of Staff, could state in late May 1938 that ‘Czechia (die Tschechei) in the form that the Versailles Diktat compelled it to take is intolerable for Germany’, so that ‘a way must be found to eliminate it as a danger-spot for Germany, if necessary through a military solution’. He nevertheless took the lead in the army in opposing what he saw as a catastrophic step in involving the Reich in conflict with the west.173 Göring, the arch-bully of the Austrian government during the Anschluß crisis, whose rapaciousness was second to no one’s, shared Beck’s forebodings, and pressed for territorial concessions from the western powers in Czechoslovakia in order to avoid what he saw as the disaster of war with Britain. There were few keener than he was to see the end of the Czech state. But his views on how that end should come about — gradual liquidation over time through relentless pressure — were closer to those of the national-conservatives than to Hitler’s intention to achieve it through military might in the near future. As war with Britain seemed increasingly likely, Göring’s feet became ever colder. At the peak of the crisis, he would push for peace at Munich rather than Hitler’s preferred military aggression against the Czechs. It did not enhance his standing as a foreign-policy adviser with a disappointed Hitler. His political influence would never again be as high after Munich.174

It was the vision of national disaster that led for the first time to the tentative emergence of significant strands of opposition to what was regarded as Hitler’s madness. In the army leadership (still smarting from the Fritsch scandal), in the Foreign Office, and in other high places, the germs of resistance were planted among those certain that Germany was being driven headlong into catastrophe.175 In the military, the leading opponents of Hitler’s high-risk policy emerged as Colonel-General Beck, who resigned as Chief of Staff in the summer, and Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, head of the Abwehr (military intelligence).176 In the Foreign Office, the State Secretary Ernst von Weizsäcker was at the forefront of those in opposition to the policy supported avidly by his immediate superior, Foreign Minister von Ribbentrop.177 Among civilians with inside knowledge of what was going on, Carl Goerdeler, the former Reich Price Commissar, used his extensive foreign contacts to warn about Hitler’s aims.178

Nor was there any popular pressure for a foreign adventure, let alone one which was thought likely to bring war with the western powers. Among ordinary people, excluded from the deliberations in high places which kept Europe on the thinnest of tightropes between war and peace in September, the long-drawn-out crisis over Czechoslovakia, lasting throughout the late spring and summer, unlike earlier crises allowed time for the anxieties about war to gather momentum. The acute tension produced what was described as a ‘real war psychosis’.179 No love was lost on the Czechs. And the relentless propaganda about their alleged persecution of the German minority was not without impact. There were indeed some feelings of real gung-ho aggression, though these were largely confined to gullible younger Germans, who had not lived through the World War. The overwhelming sentiment was a fervent desire that war should be avoided and peace preserved. For the first time there was a hint of lack of confidence in Hitler’s policy. Most looked to him to preserve peace, not take Germany into a new war.180 But this time, both to the leading actors in the drama and to the millions looking on anxiously, war looked a more likely outcome than peace.

Among those with power and influence, the most forthright supporter of war to destroy Czechoslovakia was the new Foreign Minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, an entirely different entity to the displaced conservative, von Neurath. Ribbentrop was more than keen to stamp his imprint on the Foreign Office — and to make up for the embarrassment he had sustained when, largely at Göring’s doing, he had been sidelined in London and allowed to play no part in the Austrian triumph that his arch-rival in foreign policy had been instrumental in orchestrating.181 He provided Hitler with his main backing in these months. His hatred of Britain — the country which had spurned and ridiculed him — as well as his fawning devotion to the Führer made him the most hawkish of the hawks, a warmonger second only to Hitler himself. When he was not directly spurring on Hitler, he was doing his utmost to shore up the conviction that, when it came to it, Britain would not fight, that any war would be a localized one. State Secretary von Weizsäcker was sure of Ribbentrop’s baleful influence on Hitler in this respect. When, in the middle of August, Weizsäcker contradicted Ribbentrop’s assertion that the western powers would not act, the Foreign Minister retorted that ‘the Führer had so far never made a mistake; his most difficult decisions and actions (Rhineland occupation) were already behind him. One had to believe in his genius, just as he, Ribbentrop, did from long years of experience.’ He hoped that Weizsäcker could also come to have ‘such blind faith’. The State Secretary would later regret it if that were not the case, and the facts then spoke against him.182

For all Ribbentrop’s influence, however, there could be no doubt that the crisis that brought Europe to the very brink of war in the summer of 1938 was instigated and directed by Hitler himself. And unlike the rapid improvisation and breakneck speed which had characterized previous crises, this one was consciously devised to escalate over a period of months.

Until 1938, Hitler’s moves in foreign policy had been bold, but not reckless. He had shown shrewd awareness of the weakness of his opponents, a sure instinct for exploiting divisions and uncertainty. His sense of timing had been excellent, his combination of bluff and blackmail effective, his manipulation of propaganda to back his coups masterly. He had gone further and faster than anyone could have expected in revising the terms of Versailles and upturning the post-war diplomatic settlement. From the point of view of the western powers, his methods were, to say the least, unconventional diplomacy — raw, brutal, unpalatable; but his aims were recognizably in accord with traditional German nationalist clamour. Down to and including the Anschluß, Hitler had proved a consummate nationalist politician. During the Sudeten crisis, some sympathy for demands to incorporate the German-speaking areas in the Reich — for another Anschluß of sorts — still existed among those ready to swallow Goebbels’s propaganda about the maltreatment of the Sudeten Germans by the Czechs, or at any rate prepared to accept that a further nationality problem was in need of resolution. It took the crisis and its outcome to expose the realization that Hitler would stop at nothing. Some of the shame felt at the Munich settlement in the western democracies as soon as the elation at the salvation of peace had evaporated was that they had merely bought off Hitler for a time through sacrificing Czechoslovakia. Before that point was reached, there had been increasing incomprehension among western statesmen during the course of the summer about Hitler and his aims. Some of the comments doubting his sanity reflect the sense of British statesmen at the time that they were dealing with someone who had crossed the bounds of rational behaviour in international politics. In the view of the British Ambassador, Nevile Henderson, Hitler had ‘become quite mad’ and, bent on war at all costs, had ‘crossed the borderline of insanity’.183

They were not far wrong. The spring of 1938 marked the phase in which Hitler’s obsession with accomplishing his ‘mission’ in his own lifetime started to overtake cold political calculation. As Goebbels had put it in the passage already cited, Hitler wanted to experience the ‘Great Germanic Reich’ himself.184 Probably, as we have already noted, his increased health worries and preoccupation with his own mortality played their part in heightening his sense of urgency. A deep-seated hatred of the Czechs — a legacy of his Austrian upbringing (when rabid hostility towards the Czechs had been endemic in the German-speaking part of the Habsburg Empire) — added a further personal dimension to the drive to destroy a Czechoslo-vakian state allied with the arch-enemies of the USSR in the east and France in the west. Prestige — as always — also came into it. He was to feel slighted and embarrassed at the diplomatic outfall from sudden Czech military mobilization in May (generally, though mistakenly, believed to have been in response to initial threatening moves by Germany).185 This at the very least reinforced his decision to act with speed to crush Czechoslovakia by the autumn.186 Finally, the sense of his own infallibility, massively boosted by the triumph of the Anschluß, underscored his increased reliance on his own will, matched by his diminished readiness to listen to countervailing counsel. That he had invariably been proved right in his assessment of the weakness of the western powers in the past, usually in the teeth of the caution of his advisers in the army and Foreign Office, convinced him that his current evaluation was unerringly correct. He had come during 1937 to be dismissive about the strength and will to fight both of Britain, which had spurned his advances, and of France, wracked by internal divisions. Partly prompted, and at any rate greatly amplified, by Ribbentrop, his views had hardened to the point where he felt the western powers would do nothing to defend Czechoslovakia. At the same time, this strengthened his conviction that the Reich’s position relative to the western powers could only worsen as their inevitable build-up of arms began to catch up with that of Germany. To remain inactive — a recurring element in the way he thought — was, he asserted, not an option: it would merely play into the hands of his enemies. Therefore, he characteristically reasoned: act without delay to retain the initiative.

These various strands of his thinking came together in the conclusion that the time was ripe to strike against Czechoslovakia. Until Czechoslovakia was eliminated — this was the key strategic element in Hitler’s idea — Germany would be incapable of taking action either in the east or in the west. He had moved from a position of a foreign policy supported by Great Britain to one where he was prepared to act without Britain, and, if need be, against Britain. Despite the forebodings of others, war against Czechoslovakia in his view carried few risks. And if the western powers, contrary to expectation, were foolish enough to become involved, Germany would defeat them.

More important even than why Hitler was in such a hurry to destroy Czechoslovakia is why he was by this time in a position to override or ignore weighty objections and to determine that Germany should be taken to the very brink of general European war. Decisive in this was the process, which we have followed, of the expansion of his power, relative to other agencies of power in the regime, to the point where, by spring 1938, it had freed itself from all institutional constraints and had established unchallenged supremacy over all sections of the ‘power cartel’.187 The five years of Hitler’s highly personalized form of rule had eroded all semblance of collective involvement in policy-making. This fragmentation at one and the same time rendered the organization of any opposition within the power-élite almost impossible — not to speak of any attached dangers to life and liberty — and inordinately strengthened Hitler’s own power. The scope for more cautious counsel to apply the brakes had sharply diminished. The constant Hobbesian ‘war of all against all’, the competing power fiefdoms that characterized the National Socialist regime, took place at the level below Hitler, enhancing his extraordinary position as the fount of all authority and dividing both individual and sectional interests of the different power entities (the Movement, the state bureaucracy, the army, big business, the police, and the sub-branches of each). Hitler was, therefore, as the sole linchpin, able internally to deal, as in foreign policy, through bilateral relations — offering his support here, denying it there, remaining the sole arbiter, even when he preferred (or felt compelled) to let matters ride and let his subordinates battle it out among themselves. It was less a planned strategy of ‘divide and rule’ than an inevitable consequence of Führer authority. Without any coordinating bodies to unify policy, each sectional interest in the Third Reich could thrive only with the legitimacy of the Führer’s backing. Each one inevitably, therefore, ‘worked towards the Führer’ in order to gain or sustain that backing, ensuring thereby that his power grew still further and that his own ideological obsessions were promoted.

The inexorable disintegration of coherent structures of rule was therefore not only a product of the all-pervasive Führer cult reflecting and embellishing Hitler’s absolute supremacy, but at the same time underpinned the myth of the all-seeing, all-knowing infallible Leader, elevating it to the very principle of government itself. Moreover, as we have witnessed throughout, Hitler had in the process swallowed the Führer cult himself, hook, line, and sinker. He was the most ardent believer in his own infallibility and destiny. It was not a good premiss for rational decision-making.

The compliance of all sections of the regime in the growth of the Führer cult, the exemption made for Hitler himself even by vehement internal critics of the Party or Gestapo, and the full awareness of the immense popularity of the ‘great Leader’, all contributed to making it extraordinarily difficult by summer 1938 — the first time that deep anxieties about the course of his leadership surfaced — now to contemplate withdrawing support, let alone take oppositional action of any kind.

In any case, the extent of opposition to plans for an assault on Czechoslovakia should not be exaggerated. From within the regime, only the army had the potential to block Hitler. The Blomberg — Fritsch affair had certainly left a legacy of anger, distaste, and distrust among the army leadership. But this was directed less at Hitler personally, than at the leadership of the SS and police. Even Beck, by far the most vehement critic of the regime among the top military leadership, went out of his way — and not for tactical reasons — to emphasize that the resistance needed towards the methods of the SS and the corrupt Party ‘bigwigs’ was a ‘fight for the Führer’ and that there should not be even the ‘slightest presumption of anything like a plot’ against him.188

Following the changes of February 1938, the army’s own position, in relation to Hitler, had weakened. In the process, the army leadership had, as has been claimed, been transformed from a ‘power-élite’ into a ‘functional élite’ — an adjunct of Hitler’s power rather than the ‘state within the state’ which it had effectively been since Bismarck’s era.189 The Anschluß had then further bolstered Hitler’s supremacy. By the summer of 1938, whatever the anxieties about the risk of war with the western powers, the leadership of the armed forces was divided within itself. Hitler could depend upon unquestioning support from Keitel and Jodl in the Supreme Command of the Wehrmacht. Brauchitsch could be relied upon to keep the army in line, whatever the reservations of some of the generals. Raeder was, as always, fully behind Hitler and already preparing the navy for eventual war with Britain. The head of the Luftwaffe, Göring, fearful of such a war and seeing it as the negation of his own conception of German expansionist policy, nevertheless bowed axiomatically to the Führer’s superior authority at all points where his approach started to diverge from Hitler’s own. When Beck felt compelled to resign as Chief of Staff, therefore, he stirred no broad protest within the army, let alone in the other branches of the Wehrmacht. Instead, he isolated himself and henceforth formed his links with equally isolated and disaffected individuals within the armed forces, the Foreign Office, and other state ministries who began to contemplate ways of removing Hitler. They were well aware that they were swimming against a strong tide. Whatever doubts and worries there might be, they knew that the consensus behind Hitler within the power-elites was unbroken. They were conscious, too, that from the masses, despite mounting anxieties about war, Hitler could still summon immense reserves of fanatical support.190 The prospects of successful resistance were, therefore, not good.

It was scarcely surprising, then, that there would be overwhelming compliance and no challenge to Hitler’s leadership, or to his dangerous policy, as the crisis unfolded throughout the summer. Despite reservations, all sections of the regime’s power-elite had by this point come to bind themselves to Hitler — whether to flourish or to perish.


The international constellation also played completely into Hitler’s hands. Czechoslovakia, despite its formal treaties with France and the Soviet Union, was exposed and friendless. France’s vacillation during the summer reflected a desperation to avoid having to fulfil its treaty obligations to Czechoslovakia through military involvement for which there was neither the will nor the preparation. The French were fearful of Czechoslovakia coming under German control. But they were even more fearful of becoming embroiled in a war to defend the Czechs.191 The Soviet Union, in any case preoccupied with its internal upheavals, could only help the defence of Czechoslovakia if its troops were permitted to cross Polish or Romanian soil — a prospect which could be ruled out.192 Poland and Hungary both looked greedily to the possibility of their own revisionist gains at the expense of a dismembered Czechoslovakia. Italy, having conceded to the rapidly emerging senior partner in the Axis over the key issue of Austria, had no obvious interest in propping up Czechoslovakia.193 Great Britain, preoccupied with global commitments and problems in different parts of its Empire, and aware of its military unreadiness for an increasingly likely conflict with Germany, was anxious at all costs to avoid prematurely being drawn into a war over a nationality problem in a central European country to which it was bound by no treaty obligations. The British knew the French were not prepared to help the Czechs.194 The government were still giving Hitler the benefit of the doubt, ready to believe that designs on Sudeten territory did not amount to ‘international power lust’ or mean that he was envisaging a future attack on France and Britain.195 Beyond this, it was accepted in London that the Czechs were indeed oppressing the Sudeten German minority.196 Pressure on the Czechs to comply with Hitler’s demands was an inevitable response — and one backed by the French.

On top of its increasingly hopeless international position, Czechoslovakia’s internal fragility also greatly assisted Hitler. Not just the clamour of the Sudeten Germans, but the designs of the Slovaks for their own autonomy placed the Czech government in an impossible situation. Undermined from without and within, the only new democracy surviving from the post-war settlement was about to be deserted by its ‘friends’ and devoured by its enemies.

In the very days before Schuschnigg had prompted the Anschluß crisis, Goebbels had noted, after discussions with Hitler, that Czechoslovakia would ‘be torn to pieces (zerfetzt) one day’.197 Even as Göring was reassuring the Czechs that there was no contemplation of military action against them, he was telling the Hungarians that the turn of Czechoslovakia would certainly come once the Austrian question was settled.198 Hitler himself, according to Jodl, also made similar comments around the same time: ‘Austria would have to be digested first.’199 Within two weeks of the Anschluß, in discussions in Berlin with the Sudeten German leader Konrad Henlein, Hitler was indicating that the Czech question would be solved ‘before long’. He also prescribed the general strategy of stipulating demands which the Prague government could not meet — vital to prevent the Czecho-slovakian government at any stage falling in line with British pressure to accommodate the Sudeten Germans.200 Henlein wasted no time in putting forward his demands, amounting to autonomy for Sudeten Germans, on 24 April at the Congress of the Sudeten German Party at Carlsbad (Karlovy Vary).201 One demand to be kept up Henlein’s sleeve, which Hitler was certain from his knowledge of the Austria-Hungarian multinational state could never be accepted, was for German regiments within the Czechoslo-vakian army.202 In Germany itself, the strategy was to turn up the volume of propaganda at the alleged oppression of the Sudeten Germans by the Czechs. If necessary, incidents to fuel the agitation could be manufactured.203 Militarily, Hitler was hoping to prevent British intervention, and was certain the French would not act alone.204 A key deterrent, in his view, was the building of a 400-mile concrete fortification (planned to include ‘dragon’s teeth’ anti-tank devices and gun emplacements, with over 11,000 bunkers and reinforced dug-outs) along Germany’s western border — the ‘Westwall’ — to provide a significant obstruction to any French invasion. The direct interest which Hitler took in the Westwall and the urgency in completing the fortifications were directly related to the question of timing in any blow aimed at the Czechs.205 At this stage, in late March and April 1938, Hitler evidently had no precise time-scale in mind for the destruction of Czechoslovakia.206

This was still the case when Hitler instructed Keitel, on 21 April, to draw up plans for military action against Czechoslovakia. According to Keitel’s account of the meeting, Hitler mentioned that the problem would have to be solved some time on account of the oppression of the German minority, but especially because of Czechoslovakia’s strategic position, which was of immense danger to the Reich in the event of ‘the great showdown in the east, not only with the Poles but above all with Bolshevism’.207 However, Hitler had indicated that he did not intend to attack Czechoslovakia in the near future unless circumstances within the country or fortuitous international developments offered an opportunity. This would then have to be seized so rapidly — military action would have to prove decisive within four days — that the western powers would realize the pointlessness of intervention.208 Keitel and Jodl were in no hurry to work out the operational plan which, when eventually presented to Hitler in draft on 20 May, still represented what Keitel had taken to be Hitler’s intentions a month earlier. ‘It is not my intention to smash Czechoslovakia by military action within the immediate future,’ the draft began.209

In the interim, Hitler had reacted angrily to a memorandum composed on 5 May by army Chief of Staff General Beck, emphasizing Germany’s military incapacity to win a long war, and warning of the dangers of British intervention in the event of military action against Czechoslovakia that year.210 An indication of the divisions within the leadership of the army itself, let alone of the Wehrmacht as a whole, and its enfeebled relations with the Führer, was the decision by Keitel and Brauchitsch, without consulting Beck, not to place the first parts of the memorandum before Hitler since they knew he would dismiss them out of hand and not even read the third part.211 Hitler was even more scathing when Göring reported to him how little progress had been made on the Westwall (where construction work had been under the direction of Army Group Command 2, headed by General Wilhelm Adam). He accused the General Staff of sabotaging his plans, removed the army’s construction chiefs, and put Fritz Todt — his civil engineering expert who, since 1933, had masterminded the building of the motorways — in charge.212 It was an example of Hitler’s increasingly high-handed way of dealing with the army leadership.213 Hitler still recalled what he saw as the army’s obstructionism as late as 1942.214

The question of Mussolini’s attitude towards German action over Czechoslovakia had been high on Hitler’s agenda during his state visit to Italy at the beginning of May. Three special trains, carrying around 500 diplomats, officials, party leaders, security men, and journalists had set off for Rome on 2 May.215 The return visit, lavish in the extreme in its arrangements, ran less smoothly than Mussolini’s state visit to Germany had done the previous September. Hitler was irritated by the fact that King Victor Emmanuel III, not Mussolini, was his host. He felt ill at ease and out of place at the court ceremonials. He sensed, too, not without reason, that he was treated with some disdain by the King and Queen and their court circle.216 The low-point for Hitler came when, following a gala performance of Aida in Naples, he found himself, without prior warning, alongside the King (who was dressed in full uniform), still in his evening dress, right arm outstretched, his left pressed against his waistcoat, coat-tails flapping behind him, inspecting a guard of honour while resembling, in the eyes of his adjutant Fritz Wiedemann, a flustered head-waiter in a restaurant.217 A furious Hitler vented his wrath on Ribbentrop, who in turn sought a scapegoat and sacked the head of protocol.218

Diplomatically, too, there were hiccups. Ribbentrop, clumsy as ever, chose a wholly inopportune moment to press upon the Italians a mutual assistance pact, directed against France and Britain, formalizing the Axis agreement. Ciano was contemptuous about Ribbentrop. Mussolini, interested in the long run in such a pact, told his son-in-law that Ribbentrop ‘belongs to the category of Germans who bring misfortune to Germany. He talks left and right all the time about making war, without having a particular enemy or clear objective in view.’ He was not to be taken seriously.219

Hitler, on the other hand, had done much to dispel any initial coolness towards the visit with his speech in Rome on the evening of 7 May in which he enthused over the natural ‘alpine border’ providing a ‘clear separation of the living spaces of the two nations’.220 This public renunciation of any claim on the South Tyrol was no more than Hitler had been stating since the mid-1920S. But, coming so soon after the Anschluß, it was important in assuaging the Italians, not least since Hitler was anxious to sound them out over Czechoslovakia. The soundings were, from Hitler’s point of view, the most successful part of the visit. He took Mussolini’s remarks as encouragement to proceed against the Czechs.221 State Secretary von Weizsäcker noted that Italy intended to stay neutral in any war between Germany and Czechoslovakia.222 Reporting on Hitler’s visit in a circular to German diplomatic missions, Ribbentrop stated: ‘As far as the Sudeten Question is concerned, discussions indicated without further ado that the Italians have understanding for our involvement in the fate of the Sudeten Germans.’223 Diplomatically, Hitler had achieved what he wanted from the visit.

Before the ‘Weekend Crisis’ of 20–22 May, no timetable had been established for an attack on Czechoslovakia. Nevertheless, Hitler had plainly become increasingly interested in acting within the foreseeable future. Already in mid-May, he had spoken of solving the ‘Sudeten question’ by the end of the year, since the international situation might well deteriorate thereafter.224 At this point the ‘Weekend Crisis’ intervened.225

Reports reaching the French and British embassies and the Prague government on 19–20 May of German troop movements near the Czech border were treated seriously, given the shrill German anti-Czech propaganda and the tension in the Sudetenland on account of the imminent local elections there. The Czechoslovakian government responded to what they took to be a threat of imminent invasion by partially mobilizing their military reserves — close on 180,000 men.226 Tension rose still further when two Sudeten Germans were killed in an incident involving the Czech police. Meanwhile, Keitel’s explicit reassurance to the British Ambassador Henderson, which had been given to the press, that the movements were no more than routine spring manoeuvres, had led to a furious tirade by Ribbentrop, incensed that Henderson had not gone through proper diplomatic channels in publishing the information, and threatening that Germany would fight as it had done in 1914 should war break out.227

This had the effect of stirring genuine alarm in the British Ambassador, worried that he had been misled by Keitel, and that a German invasion of Czechoslovakia was imminent. On the afternoon of Saturday, 21 May, Henderson was instructed by the British Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax to inform Ribbentrop that the French were bound to intervene in the event of an attack on Czechoslovakia, and that the Germans should not depend upon the British standing by.228 Ribbentrop’s hysterical reply was scarcely reassuring: ‘If France were really so crazy as to attack us, it would lead to perhaps the greatest defeat in French history, and if Britain were to join her, then once again we should have to fight to the death.’229 By the Sunday, 22 May, however, British reconnaissance on the borders had revealed nothing untoward.230 It had been a false alarm.

The crisis blew over as quickly as it had started. But reactions abroad, not least in Britain, ran along the lines that German action had been intended, and that Hitler had backed down under pressure.231 According to Jodl’s diary notes — though they were compiled some weeks later — Hitler was affronted by the loss of German prestige.232 Keitel later recalled Hitler stating that he was not prepared to tolerate ‘such a provocation’ by the Czechs, and demanding the fastest possible preparations for a strike.233 It was not as a result of the crisis that Hitler resolved to crush Czechoslovakia before the year was out. That, as we have noted, was his intention already before the crisis. But the crisis accelerated matters. The blow to pride reinforced his determination to act as soon as possible. Delay was ruled out. ‘After 21 May it was quite clear that this problem had to be solved one way or the other. Every further postponement could only make the question more difficult and the solution thereby bloodier,’ was how he himself put it in retrospect.234

After days of brooding over the issue at the Berghof, pondering the advice of his military leaders that Germany was ill-equipped for an early strike against the Czechs, Hitler returned to Berlin and summoned a meeting of his top generals, together with leading figures from the Foreign Ministry, for 28 May.235 The day before the meeting, Hitler had told Raeder to speed up the construction programme for battleships and submarines.236 The target was plainly Britain. But Hitler did not expect war with the British over Czechoslovakia. The conflict with the west, he declared at the military conference the next day, would come after a further three or four years.237 Hitler told his generals bluntly: ‘I am utterly determined that Czechoslovakia should disappear from the map.’238 He claimed Germany was stronger than in 1914. He pointed to the train of successes since 1933. But there was no such thing as a lasting state of contentment. Life was a constant struggle. And Germany needed living-space in Europe, and in colonial possessions. The current generation had to solve the problem. France and Britain would remain hostile to an expansion of German power. Czechoslovakia was Germany’s most dangerous enemy in the event of conflict with the west. Therefore it was necessary to eliminate Czechoslovakia. He gave the incomplete state of Czech fortifications, the underdeveloped British and French armaments programmes, and the advantageous international situation as reasons for early action. The western fortifications were to be drastically speeded up. These would provide the framework for a ‘lightning march into Czechoslovakia’.239

Two days later, the revised ‘Case Green’ was ready. Its basic lines were unchanged from those drawn up earlier in the month by Keitel and Jodl. But the preamble now ran: ‘It is my unalterable decision to smash Czechoslovakia by military action in the foreseeable future.’ Keitel’s covering note laid down that preparations must be complete by 1 October at the latest.240 From that date on, Hitler was determined to ‘exploit every favourable political opportunity’ to accomplish his aim.241 It was a decision for war — if need be, even against the western powers.242

Chief of Staff Beck responded with two memoranda of 29 May and 3 June, highly critical both of Hitler’s political assumptions with regard to Britain and France, and of the operational directives for ‘Case Green’.243 Even so, as in his earlier memorandum of 5 May, there was significant overlap with Hitler’s basic assumptions about the need for ‘living-space’ (even if Beck had a much more limited conception of what this implied) and to eliminate — if necessary through war — the state of Czechoslovakia. The ‘cardinal point’ (as he put it) of disagreement was about the prospect of a war against France and Britain which, Beck was certain, Germany would lose.244 Beck was still at this time labouring under the illusion that Hitler was being badly advised by the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW, High Command of the Wehrmacht). His chief target was less Hitler than what in his view was a malformed structure of military command.245 What only gradually became clear to Beck was how far he had isolated himself even in the army’s own high command. In particular, the head of the army, Brauchitsch, though sharing some of Beck’s reservations, would undertake nothing which might appear to challenge or criticize Hitler’s plans.246 The distance between Brauchitsch and Beck became more marked. Increasingly, the head of the army looked to Beck’s deputy, General Franz Haider.247

At a meeting of around forty army high commanders at Barth in Pom-erania on 13 June, Brauchitsch served initially as Hitler’s mouthpiece, in a morning session informing the assembled officers, most of whom had until then known nothing of Hitler’s directive and were taken completely by surprise, of the decision to solve the Czech problem by force. In such a tense situation, Brauchitsch appealed for, and received, the loyalty of his leading officers. The meeting had been called by Hitler to inform the officers about the Fritsch affair and head off the disaffection about the treatment of the former highly revered army leader which had lingered, and had been growing, since his complete exoneration by a military court.248 By the time Hitler arrived, around noon, Brauchitsch’s surprise announcement about the imminence of war had helped him out of his internal difficulties. Hitler’s subsequent skilfully toned ‘rehabilitation’ of Fritsch — though without restoring him to his office — had then fully warded off the possible crisis of confidence. He ended by taking up the theme introduced by Brauchitsch: in the face of impending danger of war, he appealed to his generals for loyalty.249 The generals complied. Any hopes that Beck — not present at the meeting — might have cherished of a united rejection by the military leadership of Hitler’s Czech adventure were revealed as futile.

Beck’s own position, and the force of his operational arguments, weakened notably in mid-June when the results of war games — initiated by the General Staff itself, and requested neither by Hitler nor the OKW — demonstrated, in contrast to Beck’s grim prognostications, that Czechoslovakia would in all probability be overrun within eleven days, with the consequence that troops could rapidly be sent to fight on the western front.250 His differences with Brauchitsch were unmistakably evident at the concluding discussion of the war-games exercise during the second half of June. Even in the General Staff itself, Beck’s Cassandra warnings were regarded as exaggerated.251 Increasingly despairing and isolated, Beck went so far in summer as to advocate collective resignation of the military leadership to force Hitler to give way, to be followed by a purge of the ‘radicals’ responsible for the high-risk international adventurism.252 ‘The soldierly duty [of the highest leaders of the Wehrmacht],’ he wrote on 16 July 1938, ‘has a limit at the point where their knowledge, conscience, and responsibility prohibits the execution of an order. If their advice and warnings in such a situation are not listened to, they have the right and duty to the people and to history to resign from their posts. If they all act with a united will, the deployment of military action is impossible. They will thereby have saved their Fatherland from the worst, from destruction (Unter-gang)… Extraordinary times demand extraordinary actions.’253

It proved impossible to win over Brauchitsch to the idea of any generals’ ultimatum to Hitler, even though the Army Commander-in-Chief accepted much of Beck’s military analysis and shared his fears of western intervention. At a meeting of top generals summoned for 4 August, Brauchitsch did not deliver the speech which Beck had prepared for him. Instead, distancing himself from the Chief of the General Staff, he had Beck read out his own memorandum of 16 July, with its highly pessimistic assessment of eventualities following an invasion of Czechoslovakia.254 Most of those present agreed that Germany could not win a war against the western powers. But Reichenau, speaking ‘from his personal knowledge of the Führer’, warned against individual generals approaching Hitler with such an argument; it would have the reverse effect to that which they wanted. And General Ernst Busch questioned whether it was the business of soldiers to intervene in political matters. As Brauchitsch recognized, those present opposed the risk of a war over Czechoslovakia. He himself commented that a new world war would bring the end of German culture. But there was no agreement on what practical consequences should follow. Colonel-General Gerd von Rundstedt, one of the most senior and respected officers, was unwilling to provoke a new crisis between Hitler and the army through challenging him on his war-risk policy. Lieutentant-General Erich von Manstein, Commander of the 18th Infantry Division, who would later distinguish himself as a military tactician of unusual calibre, advised Beck to rid himself of the burden of responsibility — a matter for the political leadership — and play a full part in securing success against Czechoslovakia.255

Brauchitsch, spineless though he was, was plainly not alone in his unwillingness to face Hitler with an ultimatum. The reality was that there was no collective support for a frontal challenge. Brauchitsch contented himself with passing on Beck’s memorandum to Hitler via one of his adjutants.256 When Hitler heard what had taken place at the meeting, he was incandescent. Brauchitsch was summoned to the Berghof and subjected to such a ferocious high-decibel verbal assault, lasting several hours, that those sitting on the terrace below the open windows of Hitler’s room felt embarrassed enough to move inside.257

Hitler responded by summoning — an unorthodox step — not the top military leadership, but a selective group of the second tier of senior officers, those who might be expecting rapid promotion in the event of a military conflict, to the Berghof for a meeting on 10 August. He was evidently hoping to gain influence over his staff chiefs through their subordinates. But he was disappointed. His harangue, lasting several hours, left his audience — which was fully acquainted with the content of Beck’s July memorandum — still unconvinced.258 Enraged at one point by doubts about the western fortifications, he snarled: ‘General Adam said the Westwall would only hold for three days. I tell you, it will hold for three years if it’s occupied by German soldiers.’259 The crisis of confidence between Hitler and the army general staff had reached serious levels. At the same time, the assembled officers were divided among themselves, with some of them increasingly critical of Beck.260

Five days later, Hitler attempted once more to counter the effects of Beck’s memorandum on the leading generals during artillery exercises at Jüterbog, some forty miles south of Berlin. He rehearsed once more his array of arguments about the favourable international constellation justifying his decision to solve the Czech problem by force that autumn. What he could not dispel was the fear and belief that the west would act to defend Czechoslovakia.261 Beck made a last attempt to persuade Brauchitsch to take a firm stance against Hitler.262 It was whistling in the wind. On 18 August, Beck finally tendered the resignation he had already prepared a month earlier.263 Even then, he missed a last trick. He accepted Hitler’s request — ‘for foreign-policy reasons’ — not to publicize his resignation. A final opportunity to turn the unease running through the army, and through the German people, into an open challenge to the political leadership of the Reich — and when Beck knew that only Ribbentrop, and perhaps Himmler, fully backed Hitler — was lost.264 Beck’s path into fundamental resistance was a courageous one. But in summer 1938 he gradually became, at least as regards political strategy, an isolated figure in the military leadership. As he himself saw it several months later: ‘I warned — and in the end I was alone.’265 Ironically, he had been more responsible than any other individual for supplying Hitler with the military might which the Dictator could not wait to use.266

By midsummer, therefore, Hitler was assured of the compliance of the military, even if they were reluctant rather than enthusiastic in their backing for war against the Czechs, and even if relations were tense and distrustful. And as long as the generals fell into line, his own position was secure, his policy unchallengeable.

As it transpired, his reading of international politics turned out to be closer to the mark than that of Beck and the generals. In the guessing — and second-guessing political poker-game that ran through the summer, the western powers were anxious to avoid war at all costs, while the east-European neighbours of Czechoslovakia were keen to profit from any war but unwilling to take risks. Diplomatic activity, increasingly feverish as the summer wore on, in any case appeared less and less likely to bear dividends — not least since the greatest warmonger other than Hitler himself was his Foreign Minister, Ribbentrop.

Messages, often doom-laden, sometimes conflicting, and invariably treated with differing degrees of belief and scepticism, were passed from those close to oppositional sources within Germany.267 Soundings were taken by unorthodox routes. Göring put out feelers through a number of informal links. He let it be known that he would be interested in coming to London himself to carry out discussions about Anglo-German relations at the highest level. Göring was instrumental in the invitation extended by the British government to Fritz Wiedemann, Hitler’s adjutant, to come to London.268

The ostensible purpose was to discuss the possibility of a future visit by Göring himself. Becoming increasingly estranged from Hitler over the high-risk foreign policy, Wiedemann was particularly anxious to bypass Ribbentrop when he met Lord Halifax in London in mid-July. He had been given his instructions not by Hitler, but by Göring. Hitler had approved the visit, though given Wiedemann no message to convey to London. Wiedemann, connected with Beck, Göring, and others anxious to avoid military conflict, tried to assure the British that Germany wanted a peaceful solution to the Czech crisis. But he himself knew differently. He had been present at Hitler’s explicit briefing on 28 May.269 In any case, Hitler was uninterested in Wiedemann’s ‘mission’. On his adjutant’s return to Berlin, Hitler accorded him a mere five minutes to report, and ruled out any visit by Göring.270 Ribbentrop’s wrath at being bypassed helped discredit Wiedemann in Hitler’s eyes, leading to the former adjutant’s ‘exile’ as Consul General in San Francisco.271

By midsummer, the German Foreign Minister regarded the die as cast. He told his State Secretary, Ernst von Weizsäcker, ‘that the Führer was firmly resolved to settle the Czech affair by force of arms’. Mid-October was the latest possible date because of flying conditions. ‘The other powers would definitely not do anything about it and if they did we would take them on as well and win.’272 Weizsäcker, whose efforts remained urgently concentrated on a diplomatic solution which would concede the Sudeten territory to Germany and at the same time further the ‘chemical dissolution process’ (‘chemischer Auflösungsprozeß’) of Czechoslovakia, would temporarily find solace in the pact among the leading powers which would be concluded in Munich.273 But he only gradually realized what he was up against in his own ministry, let alone with Hitler. In post-war reflections on his own behaviour at the time, he candidly admitted: ‘I too much wanted to apply the art of the possible and underestimated the value of the irrational.’274

Hitler himself spent much of the summer at the Berghof. Despite the Sudeten crisis, his daily routine differed little from previous years: he got up late, went for walks, watched films, and relaxed in the company of his regular entourage and favoured visitors like Albert Speer. Whether on the basis of newspaper reports, or through information fed to him by those able to gain access, he also intervened — sometimes quirkily — in an array of minutiae: punishment for traffic offences, altering the base of a statue, considerations of whether all cigarettes should be made nicotine-free, or the type of holes to be put into flagpoles. He also interfered directly in the course of justice, ordering the death penalty for the perpetrator of a series of highway robberies, and the speediest possible conviction for the alleged serial killer of a number of women.275

But the Czechoslovakian crisis was never far away. Hitler was preoccupied with the operational planning for ‘Green’. His confidence in his generals dwindled as his anger at their scepticism towards his plans mounted.276 He also involved himself in the smallest detail of the building of the Westwall — a key component in his plans to overrun the Czechs without French intervention and the bluff to discourage Germany’s western neighbours from even attempting to cross the Rhine. He was still expecting the fortifications to be complete by the autumn — by the onset of frost, as he told Goebbels — at which point he reckoned Germany would be unassailable from the west.277 But the sluggish progress made by the army made him furious. When General Adam claimed that the extra 12,000 bunkers he had ordered were an impossibility, Hitler flew into a rage, declaring that for Todt the word ‘impossible’ did not exist.278 He felt driven to dictate a lengthy memorandum, drawing on his own wartime experiences, laying down his notions of the nature of the fortifications to be erected, down to sleeping, eating, drinking, and lavatory arrangements in the bunkers — since new recruits in their first battle often suffered from diarrhoea, he claimed to recall.279 The Westwall had priority over all other major building projects. By the end of August, 148,000 workers and 50,000 army sappers were stationed at the fortifications. Autobahn and housing construction had been temporarily halted to make use of the workers.280

At the end of August, Hitler paid an inspection visit to the western front. General Adam had the unenviable task of informing him that by the end of October no more than around a third of the requirements would be in place — and this only if the promised raw materials arrived. Adam could see that Hitler was close to an explosion. This came when the general remarked that the western powers would, in his view, certainly intervene in the event of a German attack on Czechoslovakia. Hitler fumed: ‘We have no time to listen any longer to this stuff. You don’t understand that. We produce in Germany 23 million tons of steel a year, the French only 6 millions and the English only 16 millions. The English have no reserves and the French have the greatest internal difficulties. They’ll beware of declaring war on us.’ More dubious ‘facts’ followed. Hitler’s technique of throwing out a torrent of statistics — correct, fabricated, or embellished — to support an argument made countering it extremely difficult. Adam, struck — so he later claimed — by Hitler’s ‘lack of education (Unbildung)’, inability to confront reality, and readiness to resort to lies to get his way, retorted provocatively that if that was the case, there was little point in worrying any longer about the western front. After a tense few moments, during which those present braced themselves for a further violent outburst, Hitler calmed himself, and the inspection continued without further incident.281

By this time, the end of August, the crisis was beginning to move towards its climacteric phase. The question of Czechoslovakia now dominated all conversation at midday meals in the Reich Chancellery.282 ‘In the country there is serious unrest on account of the situation,’ noted Goebbels. ‘Everywhere there’s talk of war… The hot topic: war and Prague. These questions weigh heavily at present on all.’283 The Propaganda Minister, unlike some of his immediate subordinates in his ministry, still felt confident that when it came to it Britain, which held the key, would do no more than protest.284 Hitler, too, when Goebbels saw him on the Obersalzberg on the last day of August, was in a determined and optimistic mood: he did not think Britain would intervene. ‘He knows what he wants and goes straight towards his goal,’ remarked Goebbels. By this time, Goebbels too knew that the planned time for action was October.285

Ordinary people were, of course, wholly unaware of the planned aggression. The weeks of anti-Czech propaganda, often near-hysterical in tone, had shaped the impression that the issue was about the despicable persecution of the German minority, not the military destruction of Czechoslovakia. But whether or not the Sudeten Germans came ‘home into the Reich’ was, for the overwhelming majority of the population, less important than avoiding the war which Hitler was determined to have. Beck had emphasized the widespread popular opposition to war in his July memoranda.286 ‘In Berlin the best opinion is that Hitler has made up his mind for war if it is necessary to get back his Sudetens,’ wrote the American journalist William Shirer in early September. ‘I doubt it for two reasons: first, the German army is not ready; secondly, the people are dead against war.’287 ‘The war psychosis is growing,’ noted Goebbels. ‘A gloomy mood lies over the land. Everyone awaits what is coming.’288 Reports on popular opinion compiled by the SD and other agencies uniformly registered similar sentiments.289 Looking for diversions from their worries, many people acted as if there were no tomorrow. ‘The theatres are well patronized, the cinemas full, the cafés overcrowded, with music and dancing till the early hours,’ ran one report in early September. ‘Sunday excursion traffic is setting record figures.’ But the mood was depressed. ‘There exists in the broadest sections of the population the earnest concern that in the long or short run a war will put an end to the economic prosperity and have a terrible end for Germany.’290


During August, the British had indirectly exerted pressure on the Czechs to comply with Sudeten German demands through the mission of Lord Runciman, aimed at playing for time, mediating between the Sudeten German Party and the Prague government, and solving the Sudeten question within the framework of the continued existence of the state of Czechoslovakia.291 By the end of the month, the British government had learnt from their contacts with oppositional sources in Germany that Hitler intended to attack Czechoslovakia within weeks. The crucial moment, they imagined, would probably follow Hitler’s speech to the Reich Party Rally in Nuremberg in mid-September.292 On 30 August, in an emergency meeting, the British cabinet declined to offer a formal warning to Hitler of likely British intervention in the event of German aggression. Instead, it was decided to apply further pressure on the Czechs, who were effectively given an ultimatum: accept Henlein’s programme to give virtual autonomy for the Sudeten Germans within the Czechoslovakian state, as laid down in his Karlsbad speech in April, or be doomed.293 On 5 September, President Eduard Beneš, faced with such an unenviable choice, bowed to the pressure.294

This in fact left Henlein and the Sudeten German leadership in a predicament: entirely against expectations, their demands had been met almost in their entirety.295 With that, Hitler’s pretext for war was undermined. Desperate for an excuse to break off negotiations with the Czechs, the Sudeten Germans grasped at an incident in which the Czech police manhandled three local Germans accused of spying and smuggling weapons.296 It was enough to keep matters on the boil until Hitler’s big speech on 12 September.

Increasingly worried though the Sudeten German leaders themselves were about the prospect of war, Henlein’s party was simply dancing to Hitler’s tune. Hitler had told Henlein’s right-hand man, Karl Hermann Frank, as early as 26 August to instigate provocative ‘incidents’.297 He followed it up with instructions to carry out the ‘incidents’ on 4 September.298 He had left Frank in no doubt at all of his intentions. ‘Führer is determined on war,’ Frank had reported. Hitler had verbally lashed Beneš, saying he wanted him taken alive and would himself string him up.299 Three days later, on 29 August, it was known, from what was emanating from Hitler’s entourage, that Czech compliance, under British pressure, to the Karlsbad demands would no longer be sufficient. ‘So the Führer wants war,’ was the conclusion drawn by Helmuth Groscurth, head of Department II of the Abwehr.300

When he met Henlein at the Berghof on 2 September, however, Hitler was giving little away. He implied to the Sudeten leader that he would act that month, though specified no date.301 Knowing that Hitler had a military solution in mind, Henlein nevertheless told his British contact, Frank Ashton-Gwatkin, Runciman’s assistant, that the Führer favoured a peaceful settlement — information which further nourished appeasement ambitions.302 The reality was very different: at a military conference at the Berghof on the day after his meeting with Henlein, Hitler determined details of ‘Case Green’, the attack on Czechoslovakia, ready to be launched on 1 October.303

Hitler was by this stage impervious to the alarm signals being registered in diplomatic circles. When Admiral Canaris returned from Italy with reports that the Italians were urgently advising against war, and would not participate themselves, Hitler took them simply as a reflection of the divisions between the general staff and the Duce, similar to those he was experiencing with the army in Germany.304 He remained adamant that Britain was bluffing, playing for time, insufficiently armed, and would stay neutral.305 Warnings about the poor state of the German navy met with the same response.306 The present time, with the harvest secured, he continued to argue, was the most favourable for military action. By December, it would be too late.307 He was equally dismissive about warning noises from France. When the German ambassador in Paris, Johannes von Welczek, reported his strong impression that France would reluctantly be obliged to honour the obligation to the Czechs, Hitler simply pushed the report to one side, saying it did not interest him.308 Hearing of this, Lord Halifax pointed it out to the British cabinet as evidence that ‘Herr Hitler was possibly or even probably mad.’309

With German propaganda reaching fever-pitch, Hitler delivered his long-awaited and much feared tirade against the Czechs at the final assembly of the Party Congress on 12 September. Venomous though the attacks on the Czechs were, with an unmistakable threat if ‘self-determination’ were not granted, Hitler fell short of demanding the handing over of the Sudetenland, or a plebiscite to determine the issue.310 In Germany there was an air of impending war and great tension.311 The anxious Czechs thought war and peace hung in the balance that day.312 But in Hitler’s timetable, it was still over two weeks too early.313

Even so, Hitler’s speech triggered a wave of disturbances in the Sudeten region.314 These incidents, and the near-panic which had gripped the French government, persuaded Neville Chamberlain that, if the German offensive expected for late September were to be avoided, face-to-face talks with Hitler — an idea worked out already in late August — were necessary.315 On the evening of 14 September, the sensational news broke in Germany: Chamberlain had requested a meeting with Hitler, who had invited him to the Obersalzberg for midday on the following day.316

Early on the morning of 15 September, the sixty-nine-year-old British Prime Minister — a prim, reserved, austere figure — took off from Croydon airport in a twin-engined Lockheed, hoping, as he said, to secure peace.317 He was apprehensive at what lay in store for him; and nervous about flying.318 It was his first flight, and his first experience of what a later age would call shuttle-diplomacy.

Chamberlain was cheered by the Munich crowds as he was driven in an open car from the airport to the station to be taken in Hitler’s special train to Berchtesgaden. Along with his accompaniment of Sir Horace Wilson, his close adviser, and William Strang, head of the central European section of the Foreign Office, the British Ambassador Sir Nevile Henderson, and Ribbentrop, Chamberlain had to watch one troop-transport train after another pass by during the three-hour journey. It was raining, the sky dark and threatening, by the time Chamberlain reached the Berghof.

Hitler was waiting to greet him on the steps. Chamberlain noticed the Iron Cross, First Class, pinned to his uniform. Like all visitors, Chamberlain was impressed by the grandeur of Hitler’s alpine residence, regretting that the view of breathtaking mountain scenery from the vast window looking towards Salzburg was spoilt by the low cloud. He was less impressed by the physical appearance of Germany’s leader. He found Hitler’s expression, he told one of his sisters, Ida, on return to London, ‘rather disagreeable… and altogether he looks entirely undistinguished. You would never notice him in a crowd…’319

After some desultory small-talk, Hitler and the British Prime Minister retreated to his study. Ribbentrop, to his intense irritation, was left out of the discussions. Only the interpreter Paul Schmidt was present. For three hours Hitler and Chamberlain talked as the peace of Europe hung in the balance. Hitler paraded the German grievances, with occasional outbursts against Beneš. Chamberlain listened expressionless as the storm outside swelled to match the menacing atmosphere inside the alpine retreat. He said he was prepared to consider any solution to accommodate German interests, as long as force was ruled out. Hitler angrily retorted: ‘Who is speaking of force? Herr Beneš is using force against my countrymen in the Sudetenland. Herr Beneš, and not I, mobilized in May. I won’t accept it any longer. I’ll settle this question myself in the near future one way or another.’ ‘If I’ve understood you correctly,’ Chamberlain angrily replied, ‘then you’re determined in any event to proceed against Czechoslovakia. If that is your intention, why have you had me coming to Berchtesgaden at all? Under these circumstances it’s best if I leave straight away. Apparently, it’s all pointless.’ It was an effective counter-thrust to the bluster. Hitler, to Schmidt’s astonishment, retreated. ‘If you recognize the principle of self-determination for the treatment of the Sudeten question, then we can discuss how to put the principle into practice,’ he stated. Chamberlain said he would have to consult his cabinet colleagues. But when he declared his readiness thereafter to meet Hitler again, the mood lifted. Chamberlain won Hitler’s agreement to undertake no military action in the meantime. With that, the meeting was over.320

During their stay that night in a hotel in Berchtesgaden, before flying back the next day, the British party were refused — a remarkable breach of diplomatic courtesy — a copy of interpreter Schmidt’s transcript of the proceedings. The order had come from Hitler himself, not Ribbentrop.321 He evidently wanted his bargaining position to be kept as open as possible, and to avoid being bound by particular verbal formulations.322

Immediately after the meeting, Hitler told Ribbentrop and Weizsäcker what had happened, rubbing his hands with pleasure at the outcome. He claimed he had manoeuvred Chamberlain into a corner. His ‘brutally announced intention, even at the risk of a general European war, of solving the Czech question’ — he had not spoken of the ‘Sudeten question’ — along with his concession that Germany’s territorial claims in Europe would then be satisfied, had, he asserted, forced Chamberlain to cede the Sudetenland. He had, Hitler went on, been unable to reject Chamberlain’s proposal of a plebiscite. If the Czechs were to refuse one, ‘the way would be clear for the German invasion’.323 If Czechoslovakia yielded on the Sudetenland, the rest of the country would be taken over later, perhaps the following spring. In any event, there would have to be a war, and during his own lifetime.324

Hitler was clearly satisfied with the way the talks had gone.325 He spoke to his immediate circle at the Berghof the next day about the discussions. As the night before, it appeared that he might now after all be prepared to consider a diplomatic solution — at least for the immediate future. Chamberlain’s visit had impressed him and, in a way, unsettled him. Dealing at first hand with a democratic leader who had to return to consult with the members of his government, and was answerable to parliament, left a tinge of uncertainty. He was, he said, still basically intending to march on Prague. But for the first time there were signs of wavering. He was starting to look for a possible retreat. Only very unwillingly, he hinted, if it proved unavoidable in the light of the general European situation, would he go along with the British proposal. Beyond that, things could be settled with the Czechs without the British being involved. Czechoslovakia was in any case, he added, difficult to rule, given its ethnic mix and the claims of the other minorities — Poles, Hungarians, and especially the Slovaks. There was, Hitler’s immediate circle felt, now a glimmer of hope that war would be avoided.326

Chamberlain reported to the British cabinet his belief that he had dissuaded Hitler from an immediate march into Czechoslovakia and that the German dictator’s aims were ‘strictly limited’. If self-determination for the Sudeten Germans were to be granted, he thought, it would mark the end of German claims on Czechoslovakia.327 The extent to which Chamberlain had allowed himself to be deluded by the personality and assurances of Germany’s dictator is apparent in the private evaluation he offered his sister on returning to England: ‘In spite of the harshness and ruthlessness I thought I saw in his face, I got the impression that here was a man who could be relied upon when he had given his word.’328

The next days were spent applying pressure to the Czechs to acquiesce in their own dismemberment. Preferably avoiding a plebiscite, the joint approach to Prague of the British and French was to compel the Czechs to make territorial concessions in return for an international guarantee against unprovoked aggression. On 21 September, the Czechs yielded.329

Chamberlain’s second meeting with Hitler had meanwhile been arranged for 22 September in Bad Godesberg, a quiet spa-resort on the Rhine, just outside Bonn. The Germans had originally contemplated including the French premier Édouard Daladier, but this idea had been discarded.330 The pressure of the British and the French on the Czechs simply laid bare for Hitler the weakness of the western powers. Serious resistance was not to be expected from Britain; France would do what Britain did; the war was half-won.331 That was how Hitler saw it. He was uncertain whether the Czechs would resist alone. Goebbels assured him they would not.332 But Hitler too was feeling the tension. He relaxed by watching entertainment films. He did not want to see anything more serious.333 His options remained open. On the day after his meeting with Chamberlain he had ordered the establishment of a Sudeten German Legion, a Freikorps volunteer unit made up of political refugees under Henlein to sustain disturbances and terror attacks.334 They would serve if need be as a guarantee of the staged provocation which would form the pretext of a German invasion. But Hitler, as his comments following Chamberlain’s visit had shown, was now evidently moving away from the all-out high-risk military destruction of Czechoslovakia in a single blow, on which he had insisted, despite much internal opposition, throughout the summer. Instead, there were pointers that he was now moving towards a territorial solution not unlike the one which would eventually form the basis of the Munich Agreement. He did not think he would get the Sudetenland without a fight from the Czechs, though he reckoned the western powers would leave Beneš to his fate. So he reckoned with limited military confrontation to secure the Sudetenland as a first stage. The destruction of the rest of Czechoslovakia would then follow, perhaps immediately, but at any rate within a short time.335

On 19 September he showed Goebbels the map that would represent his demands to Chamberlain at their next meeting. The idea was to force acceptance of as broad a demarcation line as possible. The territory to be conceded was to be vacated by the Czechs and occupied by German troops within eight days. Military preparations, as Goebbels was now informed, would not be ready before then. If there was any dispute, a plebiscite by Christmas would be demanded. Should Chamberlain demand further negotiations, the Führer would feel no longer bound by any agreements and would have freedom of action.336 ‘The Führer will show Chamberlain his map, and then — end (Schluß), basta! Only in that way can this problem be solved,’ commented Goebbels.337


On the afternoon of 22 September, Hitler and Chamberlain met again, this time in the plush Hotel Dreesen in Bad Godesberg, with its fine outlook on the Rhine. Chamberlain had flown from England that morning, and was accommodated on the opposite bank of the river at the Petersberg Hotel.338 When William Shirer, one of the journalists covering the visit, observed Hitler at close quarters in the garden of his hotel, he thought he looked very strained. The dark shadows under his eyes and the nervous twitch of his right shoulder when he walked made Shirer think he was on the edge of a breakdown. Other journalists in the group had started the rumour that in his rages Hitler chewed the edge of the carpet. The term ‘carpet-biter’, once coined, was to have a long life.339

The meeting began with a shock for Chamberlain. He initially reported how the demands raised at Berchtesgaden had been met. He mentioned the proposed British-French guarantee of the new borders of Czechoslovakia, and the desired German non-aggression pact with the Czechs. He sat back in his chair, a self-satisfied look on his face. He was astounded when Hitler retorted: ‘I’m sorry Herr Chamberlain that I can no longer go into these things. After the development of the last days, this solution no longer applies.’ Chamberlain sat bolt upright, angry and astonished. Hitler claimed he could not sign a non-aggression pact with Czechoslovakia until the demands of Poland and Hungary were met. He had some criticisms of the proposed treaties. Above all, the envisaged time-scale was too long. Working himself up into a frenzy about Beneš and the alleged terroristic repression of the Sudeten Germans, he demanded the occupation of the Sudeten territory immediately. Chamberlain pointed out that this was a completely new demand, going far beyond the terms outlined at Berchtesgaden. He returned, depressed and angry, to his hotel on the other bank of the Rhine.340

Chamberlain did not return for the prearranged meeting the next morning. Instead, he sent a letter to Hitler stating that it was impossible for him to approve a plan which would be seen by public opinion in Britain, France, and the rest of the world as deviating from the previously agreed principles. Nor had he any doubts, he wrote, that the Czechs would mobilize their armed forces to resist any entry of German troops into the Sudetenland. Hitler and Ribbentrop hastily deliberated. Then Hitler dictated a lengthy reply — amounting to little more than his verbal statements the previous day and insisting on the immediate transfer of the Sudeten territory to end ‘Czech tyranny’ and uphold ‘the dignity of a great power’. The interpreter Schmidt was designated to translate the four — to five-page letter, and take it by hand to Chamberlain. Chamberlain received it calmly.341 His own response was given to Ribbentrop within two hours or so. He offered to take the new demands to the Czechs, said he would have to return to England to prepare for this, and requested a memorandum from the German government which, it was agreed, would be delivered later that evening by Hitler.

It was almost eleven o’clock when Chamberlain returned to the Hotel Dreesen. The drama of the late-night meeting was enhanced by the presence of advisers on both sides, fully aware of the peace of Europe hanging by a narrow thread, as Schmidt began to translate Hitler’s memorandum. It demanded the complete withdrawal of the Czech army from the territory drawn on a map, to be ceded to Germany by 28 September.342 Hitler had spoken to Goebbels on 21 September of demands for eight days for Czech withdrawal and German occupation.343 He was now, late on the evening of 23 September, demanding the beginning of withdrawal in little over two days and completion in four. Chamberlain raised his hands in despair. ‘That’s an ultimatum,’ he protested. ‘With great disappointment and deep regret I must register, Herr Reich Chancellor,’ he remarked, ‘that you have not supported in the slightest my efforts to maintain peace.’344

At this tense point, news arrived that Beneš had announced the general mobilization of the Czech armed forces. For some moments no one spoke. War now seemed inevitable. Then Hitler, in little more than a whisper, told Chamberlain that despite this provocation he would hold to his word and undertake nothing against Czechoslovakia — at least as long as the British Prime Minister remained on German soil. As a special concession, he would agree to 1 October as the date for Czech withdrawal from the Sudeten territory. It was the date he had set weeks earlier as the moment for the attack on Czechoslovakia. He altered the date by hand in the memorandum, adding that the borders would look very different if he were to proceed with force against Czechoslovakia. Chamberlain agreed to take the revised memorandum to the Czechs. After the drama, the meeting ended in relative harmony. Chamberlain flew back, disappointed but not despairing, next morning to London to report to his cabinet.345

While Chamberlain was meeting his cabinet, on Sunday 25 September, Hitler was strolling through the gardens of the Reich Chancellery on a warm, early autumn afternoon, with Goebbels, talking at length about his next moves. ‘He doesn’t believe that Benesch [Beneš] will yield,’ noted the Propaganda Minister the following day in his diary. ‘But then a terrible judgement will strike him. On 27–28 September our military build-up (Aufmarsch) will be ready. The Führer then has 5 days’ room for manoeuvre. He already established these dates on 28 May. And things have turned out just as he predicted. The Führer is a divinatory genius. But first comes our mobilization. This will proceed so lightning-fast that the world will experience a miracle. In 8–10 days all that will be ready (ist das alies fertig). If we attack the Czechs from our borders, the Führer reckons it will take 2–3 weeks. But if we attack them after our entry (Einmarsch), he thinks it will be finished in 8 days. The radical solution is the best. Otherwise, we’ll never be rid of the thing.’346 This somewhat garbled account appears to indicate that Hitler was at this juncture contemplating a two-stage invasion of Czechoslovakia: first the Sudeten area, then at a later, and unspecified, point, the rest of the country. This matches the notion reported by Weizsäcker after the first meeting with Chamberlain.347 Hitler was not bluffing, therefore, in his plans to take the Sudetenland by force on 1 October if it was not conceded beforehand. But he had retreated from the intention, which had existed since the spring, of the destruction of the whole of Czechoslovakia by a single military operation at the beginning of October.348

The mood in London was, meanwhile, changing. Following his experience in Godesberg, Chamberlain was moving towards a harder line, and the British cabinet with him. After talks with the French, it was decided that the Czechs would not be pressed into accepting the new terms. Sir Horace Wilson, Chamberlain’s closest adviser, was to go as the Prime Minister’s envoy to Berlin to recommend a supervised territorial transfer and at the same time warn Hitler that in the event of German military action against Czechoslovakia France would honour its alliance commitments and Britain would support France.349

On the late afternoon of 26 September, Wilson, accompanied by Sir Nevile Henderson and Ivone Kirkpatrick, first secretary in the British embassy, was received by Hitler in his study in the Reich Chancellery. That evening Hitler was to deliver a ferocious attack on Czechoslovakia in the Sportpalast. Wilson had not chosen a good moment to expect rational deliberation of the letter from Chamberlain that he presented to the German dictator. Hitler listened, plainly agitated, to the translation of the letter, informing him that the Czechs had rejected the terms he had laid down at Godesberg. Part-way through he exploded with anger, jumping to his feet, shouting: ‘There’s no point at all in somehow negotiating any further.’ He made for the door, as if ending the meeting forthwith with his visitors left in his own study. But he pulled himself together and returned to his seat while the rest of the letter was translated. As soon as it was over, there was another frenzied outburst. The interpreter, Paul Schmidt, later commented that he had never before seen Hitler so incandescent. Wilson’s attempts to discuss the issues rationally and his cool warning of the implications of German military action merely provoked him further. ‘If France and England want to strike,’ he ranted, ‘let them go ahead. I don’t give a damn (Mir ist das vollständig gleichgültig).’ He gave the Czechs till 2.p.m. on Wednesday, 28 September, to accept the terms of the Godesberg Memorandum and German occupation of the Sudetenland by 1 October. Otherwise Germany would take it by force. He recommended a visit to the Sportpalast that evening to Wilson, so that he would sense the mood in Germany for himself.350

The ears of the world were on Hitler’s speech to the tense audience of around 20,000 or so packed into the cavernous Sportpalast.351 The large number of diplomats and journalists present were glued to every word. The American journalist William Shirer, sitting in the balcony directly above the German Chancellor, thought Hitler ‘in the worst state of excitement I’ve ever seen him in’.352 His speech — ‘a psychological masterpiece’ in Goebbels’s judgement353 — was perfectly tuned to the whipped-up anti-Czech mood of the Party faithful. He was soon into full swing, launching into endless tirades against Beneš and the Czechoslovakian state. Beneš was determined, he asserted, ‘slowly to exterminate Germandom (das Deutschtum langsam auszurotten)’.354 Referring to the memorandum he had presented to Chamberlain, and the ‘offer’ he had made to the Czechs, he indicated that his tolerance towards the intransigence of Beneš was now at an end.355 Cynically, he praised Chamberlain for his efforts for peace. He had assured the British Prime Minister, he went on, that he had no further territorial demands in Europe once the Sudeten problem was solved.356 He had also guaranteed, he stated, that he had no further interest in the Czech state. ‘We don’t want any Czechs at all,’ he declared.357 The decision for war or peace rested with Beneš: ‘He will either accept this offer and finally give freedom to the Germans, or we will take this freedom ourselves!’ he threatened. He would lead a united people, different to that of 1918, as its first soldier. ‘We are determined. Herr Beneš may now choose,’ he concluded.

The masses in the hall, who had interrupted almost every sentence with their fanatical applause, shouted, cheered, and chanted for minutes when he had ended: ‘Führer command, we will follow! (Führer befiehl, wir folgen!)’ Hitler had worked himself into an almost orgasmic frenzy by the end of his speech. When Goebbels, closing the meeting, pledged the loyalty of all the German people to him and declared that ‘a November 1918 will never be repeated’, Hitler, according to Shirer, ‘looked up to him, a wild, eager expression in his eyes… leaped to his feet and with a fanatical fire in his eyes… brought his right hand, after a grand sweep, pounding down on the table and yelled… “Ja”. Then he slumped into his chair exhausted.’358

Hitler was in no mood for compromise when Sir Horace Wilson returned next morning to the Reich Chancellery with another letter from Chamberlain guaranteeing, should Germany refrain from force, the implementation of the Czech withdrawal from the Sudeten territory. When Wilson asked whether he should take any message back to London, Hitler replied that the Czechs had the option only of accepting or rejecting the German memorandum. In the event of rejection, he shouted, repeating himself two or three times, ‘I will smash the Czechs.’ Wilson, a tall figure, then drew himself to his full height and slowly but emphatically delivered a further message from Chamberlain: ‘If, in pursuit of her Treaty obligations, France became actively engaged in hostilities against Germany, the United Kingdom would feel obliged to support her.’359 Enraged, Hitler barked back: ‘If France and England strike, let them do so. It’s a matter of complete indifference to me. I am prepared for every eventuality. I can only take note of the position. It is Tuesday today, and by next Monday we shall all be at war.’360 The meeting ended at that point. As Schmidt recalled, it was impossible to talk rationally with Hitler that morning.361

Still, Wilson’s warnings were not lost on Hitler. In calmer mood, he had Weizsäcker draft him a letter to Chamberlain, asking him to persuade the Czechs to see reason and assuring him that he had no further interest in Czechoslovakia once the Sudeten Germans had been incorporated into the Reich.362

Late that afternoon a motorized division began its ominous parade through Wilhelmstraße past the government buildings. For three hours, Hitler stood at his window as it rumbled past.363 According to the recollections of his Luftwaffe adjutant Nicolaus von Below, he had ordered the display not to test the martial spirit of the Berlin people, but to impress foreign diplomats and journalists with German military might and readiness for war.364 If that was the aim, the attempt misfired. The American journalist William Shirer reported on the sullen response of the Berliners — ducking into doorways, refusing to look on, ignoring the military display — as ‘the most striking demonstration against war I’ve ever seen’.365 Goebbels, who had been uninvolved in the arrangements, recorded that the display had made ‘the deepest impression’.366 But in contradiction to this comment he apparently acknowledged that people had taken little notice of the parade.367 Hitler was reportedly disappointed and angry at the lack of enthusiasm shown by Berliners.368 The contrast with the reactions of the hand-picked audience in the Sportpalast was vivid. It was a glimpse of the mood throughout the country. Whatever the feelings about the Sudeten Germans, only a small fanaticized minority thought them worth a war against the western powers.

But if Hitler was disappointed that the mood of the people did not resemble that of August 1914, his determination to press ahead with military action on 1 October, if the Czechs did not yield, was unshaken, as he made clear that evening to Ribbentrop and Weizsäcker.369 The Foreign Minister was, if anything, even more bellicose than Hitler. He told Rudolf Schmundt, Hoßbach’s successor as Hitler’s chief military adjutant, that acceptance by the Czechs of the German ultimatum would be the worst that could happen.370 But Ribbentrop was by now practically the only hawkish influence on Hitler.371 From all other sides, pressures were mounting for him to pull back from the brink.

For Hitler, to retreat from an ‘unalterable decision’ was tantamount to a loss of face. Even so, for those used to dealing at close quarters with Hitler, the unthinkable happened. The following morning of 28 September, hours before the expiry of the ultimatum to Czechoslovakia, he changed his mind and conceded to the demands for a negotiated settlement. ‘One can’t grasp this change. Führer has given in, and fundamentally,’ noted Helmuth Groscurth.372

The decisive intervention was Mussolini’s. Feelers for such a move had been put out by an increasingly anxious Göring a fortnight or so earlier. Göring had also tried, through Henderson, to interest the British in the notion of a conference of the major powers to settle the Sudeten question by negotiation.373 Before Mussolini’s critical move, the British and French had also applied maximum pressure. Chamberlain had spoken the previous evening on the radio of the absurdity of war on account of ‘a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing’.374 He had followed this up with a reply to Hitler’s letter, emphasizing his incredulity that the German Chancellor was prepared to risk a world war perhaps bringing the end of civilization ‘for the sake of a few days’ delay in settling this long-standing problem’.375 His letter contained proposals, agreed with the French, to press the Czechs into immediate cession of the Sudeten territory, the transfer to be guaranteed by Britain and to begin on 1 October. An International Boundary Commission would work out the details of the territorial settlement. The British Prime Minister indicated that he was prepared to come to Berlin immediately, together with the representatives of France and Italy, to discuss the whole issue.376 Chamberlain also wrote to Mussolini, urging agreement with his proposal ‘which will keep all our peoples out of war’.377

The French, too, had been active. The ambassador in Berlin, André François-Poncet, had been instructed at 4a.m. to put proposals similar to Chamberlain’s before Hitler.378 His request early next morning for an audience with Hitler was not welcomed by Ribbentrop, still spoiling for war.379 But after intercession by Göring, prompted by Henderson, Hitler agreed to see the French ambassador at 11.15a.m.380 By then the Reich Chancellery was buzzing with adjutants, ministers, generals, and party bosses, conferring in little groups or scurrying to some hasty discussion with Hitler. To the interpreter Schmidt, the Reich Chancellery resembled an army camp more than a seat of government. Every now and again Hitler would retire with Ribbentrop, Göring, or Keitel to discuss some point or other. But for the most part, he seemed to be passing through the rooms delivering mini Sportpalast harangues to anyone who cared to listen.381 Before François-Poncet arrived, Göring and Neurath had both urged Hitler to settle by negotiation. Göring and Ribbentrop had a fierce row, though not in Hitler’s presence, in which the Foreign Minister was accused of warmongering. He knew what war was, shouted Göring. If the Führer ordered it, he would be in the first aeroplane. But he would insist upon Ribbentrop being in the seat next to him.382

François-Poncet, when eventually his audience was granted, warned Hitler that he would not be able to localize a military conflict with Czechoslovakia, but would set Europe in flames. Since he could attain almost all his demands without war, the risk seemed senseless.383 At that point, around 11.40a.m., the discussion was interrupted by a message that the Italian ambassador Bernardo Attolico wished to see Hitler immediately on a matter of great urgency. Hitler left the room with his interpreter, Schmidt. The tall, stooping, red-faced ambassador lost no time in coming to the point. He breathlessly announced to Hitler that the British government had let Mussolini know that it would welcome his mediation in the Sudeten question. The areas of disagreement were small. The Duce supported Germany, the ambassador went on, but was ‘Of the opinion that the acceptance of the English proposal would be advantageous’ and appealed for a postponement of the planned mobilization.384 After a moment’s pause, Hitler replied: ‘Tell the Duce I accept his proposal.’385 It was shortly before noon. Hitler now had his way of climbing down without losing face.386 ‘We have no jumping-off point for war,’ commented Goebbels. ‘You can’t carry out a world war on account of modalities.’387

When the British Ambassador Henderson entered at 12.15p.m with Chamberlain’s letter, Hitler told him that at the request of his ‘great friend and ally, Signor Mussolini’, he had postponed mobilization for twenty-four hours. The climax of war-fever had passed. During Henderson’s hour-long audience, Attolico interrupted once more to tell Hitler that Mussolini had agreed to the British proposals for a meeting of the four major powers.388 When the dramatic news reached Chamberlain, towards the end of a speech about the crisis he was making to a packed and tense House of Commons, which was expecting an announcement meaning war, the house erupted. ‘We stood on our benches, waved our order papers, shouted until we were hoarse — a scene of indescribable enthusiasm,’ recorded one Member of Parliament. ‘Peace must now be saved.’389

War was averted — at least for the present. ‘The heavens are beginning to lighten somewhat,’ wrote Goebbels. ‘We probably still have the possibility of taking the Sudeten German territory peacefully. The major solution still remains open, and we will further rearm for future eventualities.’390

Already early the next afternoon, Hitler, Mussolini, Chamberlain, and Édouard Daladier, the small, quiet, dapper premier of France (who looked somewhat ill at ease at the task of dispensing parts of Czechoslovakia, without even a representative of that country present), together with Ribbentrop, Weizsäcker, Ciano, Wilson, and Alexis Léger, State Secretary in the French Foreign Office, took their seats around a table in the newly constructed Führerbau amid the complex of Party buildings centred around the Brown House — the large and imposing Party headquarters — in Munich. There they proceeded to carve up Czechoslovakia.391 Chamberlain, who privately wrote on return to England that the day had been for him a ‘prolonged nightmare’, felt ‘instant relief at Hitler’s ‘moderate and reasonable’ opening remarks.392 The four heads of government began by stating their relative positions on the Sudeten issue. They all — Hitler, too — spoke against a solution by force. The only lack of harmony occurred when the German dictator launched into ferocious attacks on Beneš, which provoked a spirited counter from the otherwise reserved Daladier, and when Chamberlain irritated Hitler by doggedly insisting upon financial compensation to Czechoslovakia for government property which was now to be transferred to Germany. ‘Our time is for me too precious to waste it on such trivialities,’ Hitler exploded. After a short break in mid-afternoon, the discussions focused upon the written proposal to settle the Sudeten question, by now translated into all four languages, that Mussolini had delivered the previous day (though the text had actually been sketched out by Göring, then formalized in the German Foreign Office under Weizsäcker’s eye with some input by Neurath but avoiding any involvement by Ribbentrop, before being handed to the Italian ambassador). It provided the basis for what would become known as the notorious Munich Agreement. The circle of those involved in discussions had now widened to include Göring and the Ambassadors of Italy, France, and Great Britain (Attolico, François-Poncet, and Henderson), as well as legal advisers, secretaries, and adjutants. But it was now mainly a matter of legal technicalities and complex points of detail. The main work was done. That evening, Hitler invited the participants to a festive dinner. Chamberlain and Daladier found their excuses. After the dirty work had been done, they had little taste for celebration.393

The deliberations had lasted in all for some thirteen hours.394 But, sensational though the four-power summit meeting was for the outside world, the real decision had already been taken around midday on 28 September, when Hitler had agreed to Mussolini’s proposal for a negotiated settlement.395 Eventually, around 2.30a.m. on the morning of 30 October, the draft agreement was signed.396 These terms were essentially those of the Godesberg Memorandum, modified by the final Anglo-French proposals, and with dates entered for a progressive German occupation, to be completed within ten days.397 ‘We have then essentially achieved everything that we wanted according to the small plan,’ commented Goebbels. ‘The big plan is for the moment, given the prevailing circumstances, not yet realizable.’398

The following day, Goebbels added: ‘We have all walked on a thin tightrope over a dizzy abyss… The word “peace” is on all lips. The world is filled with a frenzy of joy. Germany’s prestige has grown enormously. Now we are really a world power again. Now, it’s a matter of rearm, rearm, rearm…’399 Hitler and Ribbentrop did not share the general elation. Ribbentrop had pushed for war until the last minute. He felt robbed of his humiliation of the British — all the more so since Chamberlain was feted on his journey through Munich in an open-topped car as the hero of the moment, the actual saviour of Europe’s peace.400 Hitler’s own mood had altered overnight. The impressions he had given of savouring his triumph over the western powers had vanished by the next morning.401 He looked pale, tired, and out of sorts when Chamberlain visited him in his apartment in Prinzregentenplatz to present him with a joint declaration of Germany’s and Britain’s determination never to go to war with one another again. Chamberlain had suggested the private meeting during a lull in proceedings the previous day. Hitler had, the British Prime Minister remarked, ‘jumped at the idea’. Chamberlain regarded the meeting as ‘a very friendly and pleasant talk’. ‘At the end,’ he went on, ‘I pulled out the declaration which I had prepared beforehand and asked if he would sign it.’402 After a moment’s hesitation, Hitler — with some reluctance it seemed to the interpreter Paul Schmidt — appended his signature.403 For him, the document was meaningless. And for him Munich was no great cause for celebration. He felt cheated of the greater triumph which he was certain would have come from the limited war with the Czechs which had been his aim all summer.404 Even military action for the more restricted goal of attaining the Sudetenland by force had been denied him. He had been compelled, through the readiness of the western powers to make Czechoslovakia concede the Sudetenland, to compromise on the directives that he had upheld since May despite internal opposition. During the Polish crisis the following summer this would make him all the more determined to avoid the possibility of being diverted from war. But when that next crisis came, he was even more confident that he knew his adversaries: ‘Our enemies are small worms,’ he would tell his generals in August 1939. ‘I saw them in Munich.’405

Of those in Hitler’s immediate entourage, none had done more to bring about the eventual acceptance of a negotiated settlement than Göring. He had ultimately scored a victory over his arch-rival, and leading hawk, Ribbentrop. The draft which formed the basis of the Munich Agreement had been largely Göring’s work. His excellent mood at Munich reflected his pleasure that his own approach had ultimately triumphed. But it marked the end of Göring’s influence on foreign policy. It was the first, and last, time that he had pressed for a solution which did not meet with Hitler’s favour. The Führer’s displeasure was apparent to him. His standing with Hitler was diminished. During the following months, he would be totally displaced by Ribbentrop as Hitler’s right hand in all matters related to foreign policy. Weakened and depressed, Göring would take himself on an extended holiday in the Mediterranean in early 1939, leaving the way clear for his arch-rival, and would be largely excluded from decisions on the expansionist programme that culminated in the Polish crisis and war.406

Hitler was scornful, too, of his generals after Munich.407 Their opposition to his plans had infuriated him all summer. How he would have reacted had he been aware that no less a person than his new Chief of Staff, General Haider, had been involved in plans for a coup d’état in the event of war over Czechoslovakia can be left to the imagination.408 Whether the schemes of the ill-coordinated groups involved in the nascent conspiracy would have come to anything is an open question. But with the Munich Agreement, the chance was irredeemably gone. Chamberlain returned home to a hero’s welcome, proclaiming to cheering crowds from the window of the Prime Minister’s residence in 10 Downing Street — choosing words which he associated with Benjamin Disraeli, Prime Minister under Queen Victoria, following the Berlin Conference six decades earlier — that he had brought ‘peace with honour’ and ‘peace for our time’.409 Distancing itself from the general euphoria, the Manchester Guardian shrewdly noted the external consequences: the Czechs could scarcely see the forcible break-up of their country as ‘peace with honour’; Czechoslovakia was now ‘rendered helpless’; ‘Hitler will be able to advance again, when he chooses, with greatly increased power.’410 The consequences within Germany were also profound. For German opponents of the Nazi regime, who had hoped to use Hitler’s military adventurism as the weapon of his own deposition and destruction, Chamberlain was anything but the hero of the hour. ‘Chamberlain saved Hitler’, was how they bitterly regarded the appeasement diplomacy of the western powers.411

Hitler’s own popularity and prestige reached new heights after Munich. He returned to another triumphant welcome in Berlin. But he was well aware that the elemental tide of euphoria reflected the relief that peace had been preserved. The ‘home-coming’ of the Sudeten Germans was of only secondary importance. He was being feted not as the ‘first soldier of the Reich’, but as the saviour of the peace he had not wanted.412 At the critical hour, the German people, in his eyes, had lacked enthusiasm for war. The spirit of 1914 had been missing. Psychological rearmament had still to take place. A few weeks later, addressing a select audience of several hundred German journalists and editors, he gave a remarkably frank indication of his feelings: ‘Circumstances have compelled me to speak for decades almost solely of peace,’ he declared. ‘It is natural that such a… peace propaganda also has its dubious side. It can only too easily lead to the view establishing itself in the minds of many people that the present regime is identical with the determination and will to preserve peace under all circumstances. That would not only lead to a wrong assessment of the aims of this system, but would also above all lead to the German nation, instead of being forearmed in the face of events, being filled with a spirit which, as defeatism, in the long run would take away and must take away the successes of the present regime.’ It was necessary, therefore, to transform the psychology of the German people, to make it see that some things could only be attained through force, and to represent foreign-policy issues in such a way that ‘the inner voice of the people itself slowly begins to cry out for the use of force’.413

The speech is revealing. Popular backing for war had to be manufactured, since war and expansion were irrevocably bound up with the survival of the regime. Successes, unending triumphs, were indispensable for the regime, and for Hitler’s own popularity and prestige on which, ultimately, the regime depended. Only through expansion — itself impossible without war — could Germany, and the National Socialist regime, survive. This was Hitler’s thinking. The gamble for expansion was inescapable. It was not a matter of personal choice.

The legacy of Munich was fatally to weaken those who might even now have constrained Hitler. Any potential limits — external and internal — on his freedom of action instead disappeared. Hitler’s drive to war was unabated. And next time he was determined he would not be blocked by last-minute diplomatic manoeuvres of the western powers, whose weakness he had seen with his own eyes at Munich.


‘In Germany the Jew cannot hold out. This is a question of years. We will drive them out more and more with an unprecedented ruthlessness.’

Himmler, addressing SS leaders on 8 November 1938

‘If the German Reich comes into foreign-political conflict in the foreseeable future, it can be taken for granted that we in Germany will think in the first instance of bringing about a great showdown with the Jews.’

Göring, at a meeting in the Air Ministry, 12 November 1938

‘The Jews have not brought about the 9 November 1918 for nothing. This day will be avenged.’

Hitler, speaking to the Czechoslovakian Foreign Minister, Franzisek Chvalkovsky, 21 January 1939

‘I want today to be a prophet again: if international finance Jewry inside and outside Europe should succeed in plunging the nations once more into a world war, the result will be not the bolshevization of the earth and thereby the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe!’

Hitler, addressing the Reichstag, 30 January 1939

The ideological dynamic of the Nazi regime was a vital component of the drive for expansion. This was by no means solely a matter of Hitler’s personalized Weltanschauung. In fact, Hitler’s ideological aims had so far played only a subordinate role in his expansionist policy, and would not figure prominently in the Polish crisis during the summer of 1939. The Party and its numerous sub-organizations were, of course, important in sustaining the pressure for ever-new discriminatory measures against ideological target-groups. But little in the way of coherent planning could be expected from the central Party office, under the charge of Rudolf Heß, Hitler’s deputy in Party affairs.1 The key agency was not the Party, but the SS.

The interest in expansion was self-evident. Buoyed by their successes in Austria and the Sudetenland, Himmler, Heydrich, and the top echelons of the SS were keen to extend — naturally, under Hitler’s aegis — their own empire. Already in August 1938, a decree by Hitler met Himmler’s wish to develop an armed wing of the SS. It provided in effect a fourth branch of the armed forces — far smaller than the others, but envisaged as a body of ideologically motivated ‘political soldiers’ standing at the Führer’s ‘exclusive disposal’.2 It was little wonder that Himmler had been one of the hawks during the Sudeten crisis, aligning himself with Ribbentrop, and encouraging Hitler’s aggression.3 The leaders of the SS were now looking to territorial gains to provide them with opportunities for ideological experimentation on the way to the fulfilment of the vision of a racially purified Greater German Reich under the heel of the chosen caste of the SS élite. In a world after Hitler, with ‘final victory’ achieved, the SS were determined to be the masters of Germany and Europe.

They saw their mission as the ruthless eradication of Germany’s ideological enemies, who, in Himmler’s strange vision, were numerous and menacing. He told top SS leaders in early November 1938: ‘We must be clear that in the next ten years we will certainly encounter unheard of critical conflicts. It is not only the struggle of the nations, which in this case are put forward by the opposing side merely as a front, but it is the ideological (weltanschauliche) struggle of the entire Jewry, freemasonry, Marxism, and churches of the world. These forces — of which I presume the Jews to be the driving spirit, the origin of all the negatives — are clear that if Germany and Italy are not annihilated, they will be annihilated (vernichtet werden). That is a simple conclusion. In Germany the Jew cannot hold out. This is a question of years. We will drive them out more and more with an unprecedented ruthlessness…’4

The speech was held a day before Germany exploded in an orgy of elemental violence against its Jewish minority in the notorious pogrom of 9–10 November 1938, cynically dubbed in popular parlance, on account of millions of fragments of broken glass littering the pavements of Berlin outside wrecked Jewish shops, ‘Reich Crystal Night’ (Reichskristallnacht).5 This night of horror, a retreat in a modern state to the savagery associated with bygone ages, laid bare to the world the barbarism of the Nazi regime. Within Germany, it brought immediate draconian measures to exclude Jews from the economy, accompanied by a restructuring of anti-Jewish policy, placing it now directly under the control of the SS, whose leaders linked war, expansion, and eradication of Jewry.

Such a linkage was not only reinforced in the eyes of the SS in the aftermath of ‘Crystal Night’. For Hitler, too, the connection between the war he knew was coming and the destruction of Europe’s Jews was now beginning to take concrete shape. Since the 1920s he had not deviated from the view that German salvation could only come through a titanic struggle for supremacy in Europe, and for eventual world power, against mighty enemies backed by the mightiest enemy of all, perhaps more powerful even than the Third Reich itself: international Jewry. It was a colossal gamble. But for Hitler it was a gamble that could not be avoided. And for him, the fate of the Jews was inextricably bound up with that gamble.


The nationwide pogrom carried out by rampaging Nazi mobs on the night of 9–10 November was the culmination of a third wave of antisemitic violence — worse even than those of 1933 and 1935 — that had begun in the spring of 1938 and run on as the domestic accompaniment to the foreign-political crisis throughout the summer and autumn. Part of the background to the summer of violence was the open terror on the streets of Vienna in March, and the ‘success’ that Eichmann had scored in forcing the emigration of the Viennese Jews. Nazi leaders in cities of the ‘Old Reich’, particularly Berlin, took note. The chance to be rid of ‘their’ Jews seemed to open up. A second strand in the background was the ‘aryanization’ drive to hound Jews out of German economic life.6 At the beginning of 1933 there had been some 50,000 Jewish businesses in Germany. By July 1938, there were only 9,000 left. The big push to exclude the Jews came between spring and autumn 1938. The 1,690 businesses in Jewish hands in Munich in February 1938, for instance, had fallen to only 666 (two-thirds of them owned by foreign citizens) by October.7 The ‘aryanization’ drive not only closed businesses, or saw them bought out for a pittance by new ‘aryan’ owners. It also brought a new flood of legislative measures imposing a variety of discriminatory restrictions and occupational bans — such as on Jewish doctors and lawyers — even to the extent of preventing Jews from trying to eke out a living as pedlars. It was a short step from legislation to pinpoint remaining Jewish businesses to identifying Jewish persons. A decree of 17 August had made it compulsory for male Jews to add the forename ‘Israel’, females the forename ‘Sara’ to their existing names and, on pain of imprisonment, to use those names in all official matters. On 5 October, they were compelled to have a ‘J’ stamped in their passports.8 A few days later, Göring declared that ‘the Jewish Question must now be tackled with all means available, for they [the Jews] must get out of the economy’.9

Alongside the legislation, inevitably, went the violence. Scores of localized attacks on Jewish property and on individual Jews, usually carried out by members of Party formations, punctuated the summer months. Far more than had been the case in the earlier antisemitic waves, attention of Party activists increasingly focused on synagogues and Jewish cemeteries, which were repeatedly vandalized. As an indicator of their mood, and an ‘ordered’ foretaste of what would follow across the land during ‘Crystal Night’, the main synagogue in Munich was demolished on 9 June, the first in Germany to be destroyed by the Nazis. During a visit to the city a few days earlier, Hitler had taken objection to its proximity to the Deutsches Künsterlerhaus (‘German Artists’ House). The official reason given was that the building was a hindrance to traffic. The Jewish Community in Munich was given only hours’ notice of the synagogue’s destruction.10 Learning quickly from his master, Julius Streicher, the Nazi Party’s Jew-baiter-in-chief soon instigated the demolition of Nuremberg’s main synagogue, claiming that the building disfigured ‘the beautiful German townscape’ (das schöne deutsche Stadtbild). Tens of thousands gathered to view the demolition on 10 August.11

Hitler saw it as important that he should not be publicly associated with the anti-Jewish campaign as it gathered momentum during 1938. No discussion of the ‘Jewish Question’ was, for example, permitted by the press in connection with his visits to different parts of Germany in that year.12 Preserving his image, both at home and — especially in the light of the developing Czech crisis — abroad, through avoiding personal association with distasteful actions towards the Jews appears to have been the motive. Hence, he insisted in September 1938, at the height of the Sudeten crisis, that his signing of the fifth implementation ordinance under the Reich Citizenship Law, to oust Jewish lawyers, should not be publicized at that stage in order to prevent any possible deterioration of Germany’s image — clearly meaning his own image — at such a tense moment.13

In fact, he had to do little or nothing to stir the escalating campaign against the Jews. Others made the running, took the initiative, pressed for action — always, of course, on the assumption that this was in line with Nazism’s great mission.14 It was a classic case of ‘working towards the Führer’ — taking for granted (usually on grounds of self-interest) that he approved of measures aimed at the ‘removal’ of the Jews, measures seen as plainly furthering his long-term goals. Party activists in the Movement’s various formations needed no encouragement to unleash further attacks on Jews and their property. ‘Aryans’ in business, from the smallest to the largest, looked to every opportunity to profit at the expense of their Jewish counterparts. Hundreds of Jewish businesses — including long-established private banks such as Warburg and Bleichröder — were now forced, often through gangster-like extortion, to sell out for a pittance to ‘Aryan’ buyers. Big business gained most. Giant concerns like Mannesmann, Krupp, Thyssen, Flick, and IG-Farben, and leading banks such as the Deutsche Bank and the Dresdner Bank, were the major beneficiaries, while a variety of business consortia, corrupt Party functionaries, and untold numbers of small commercial enterprises grabbed what they could.15 ‘Aryan’ pillars of the establishment like doctors and lawyers were equally welcoming of the economic advantages that could come their way with the expulsion of Jews from the medical and legal professions.16 University professors turned their skills, without prompting, to defining alleged negative characteristics of the Jewish character and pyschology.17 And all the time, civil servants worked like beavers to hone the legislation that turned Jews into outcasts and pariahs, their lives into torment and misery.18 The police, particularly the Gestapo — helped as always by eager citizens anxious to denounce Jews or those seen as ‘friends of Jews’ (Judenfreunde)19 — served as a pro-active enforcement agency, deploying their ‘rational’ methods of arrest and internment in concentration camps rather than the crude violence of the Party hotheads, though with the same objective. Not least, the Security Service (the Sicherheitsdienst, or SD) — beginning life as the Party’s own intelligence organization, but developing into the crucial surveillance and ideological planning agency within the rapidly expanding SS — was advancing on its way to adopting the pivotal role in the shaping of anti-Jewish policy.20

Each group, agency, or individual involved in pushing forward the rad-icalization of anti-Jewish discrimination had vested interests and a specific agenda. Uniting them all and giving justification to them was the vision of racial purification and, in particular, of a ‘Jew-free’ Germany embodied in the person of the Führer. Hitler’s role was, therefore, crucial, even if at times indirect. His broad sanction was needed. But for the most part little more was required.

There is no doubt that Hitler fully approved of and backed the new drive against the Jews, even if he took care to remain out of the limelight. One of the main agitators for radical action against the Jews, Joseph Goebbels, had no difficulty in April 1938 — in the immediate wake of the savage persecution of the Jews in Vienna — in persuading Hitler to support his plans to ‘clean up’ Berlin, the seat of his own Gau. Hitler’s only stipulation was that nothing should be undertaken before his meetings with Mussolini in early May. A successful outcome of his talks with the Duce was of great importance to him, particularly in the context of his unfolding plans regarding Czechoslovakia. Possible diplomatic repercussions provoked by intensified persecution of Jews in Germany’s capital were to be avoided. Goebbels had already discussed his own aims on the ‘Jewish Question’ with Berlin’s Police Chief Wolf Heinrich Graf von Helldorf before he broached the matter with Hitler. ‘Then we put it to the Führer. He agrees, but only after his trip to Italy. Jewish establishments (Judenlokale) will be combed out. Jews will then get a swimming-pool, a few cinemas, and restaurants (Lokale) allocated to them. Otherwise entry forbidden. We’ll remove the character of a Jew-paradise from Berlin. Jewish businesses will be marked as such. At any rate, we’re now proceeding more radically. The Führer wants gradually to push them all out. Negotiate with Poland and Romania. Madagascar would be the most suitable for them.’21

The ‘Madagascar solution’ — which would be considered seriously for a brief time in 1940 — had been touted among radical antisemites for decades.22 Reference to it at this juncture seems to signify that Hitler was moving away from any assumption that emigration would remove the ‘Jewish problem’ in favour of a solution based upon territorial resettlement. He was conceivably influenced in this by Heydrich, reporting the views of the ‘experts’ on Jewish policy in the SD. The relative lack of success in ‘persuading’ Jews to emigrate — little short of three-quarters of the Jewish population recorded in 1933 still lived in Germany, despite the persecution, as late as October 1938 — together with the mounting obstacles to Jewish immigration created by other countries had compelled the SD to revise its views on future anti-Jewish policy.23 By the end of 1937 the idea of favouring a Jewish state in Palestine, which Eichmann had developed, partly through secret dealings with Zionist contacts, had cooled markedly. Eichmann’s own visit to Palestine, arranged with his Zionist go-between, had been an unmitigated failure. And, more importantly, the German Foreign Office was resolutely hostile to the notion of a Jewish state in Palestine.24 However, emigration remained the objective.

Hitler, too, favoured Palestine as a targeted territory. In early 1938, he reaffirmed the policy, arrived at almost a year earlier, aimed at promoting with all means available the emigration of Jews to any country willing to take them, but looking to Palestine in the first instance.25 But he was alert to the perceived dangers of creating a Jewish state to threaten Germany at some future date. In any case, other notions were being mooted. Already in 1937 there had been suggestions in the SD of deporting Jews to barren, unwelcoming parts of the world, scarcely capable of sustaining human life and certainly, in the SD’s view, incompatible with a renewed flourishing of Jewry and revitalized potential of ‘world conspiracy’. In addition to Palestine, Ecuador, Columbia, and Venezuela had been mentioned as possibilities.26 Nothing came of such ideas at the time. But the suggestions were little different in essence from the old notion, later to be revamped, of Madagascar as an inhospitable territory fit to accommodate Jews until, it was implied, they eventually died out.27 The notion of Jewish resettlement, already aired in the SD, was itself latently genocidal.

Whatever line of policy was favoured, the ‘final goal’ (as Hitler’s comments to Goebbels indicated) remained indistinct, and as such compatible with all attempts to further the ‘removal’ of the Jews. This eventual ‘removal’ was conceived as taking a good number of years to complete. Even following ‘Crystal Night’, Heydrich was still envisaging an ‘emigration action’ lasting from eight to ten years.28 Hitler himself had already inferred to Goebbels towards the end of July 1938 that ‘the Jews must be removed from Germany in ten years’. In the meantime, he added, they were to be retained as ‘surety’ (Faustpfand).29 He would abandon this ‘hostage’ idea, characteristic of his mentality, only in December 1941, when the declaration of war on the USA made the notion redundant.30 By that time, the Reich’s Jews were already being deported to the east, to their certain death.

Goebbels, meanwhile, was impatient to make headway with the ‘racial cleansing’ of Berlin. ‘A start has to be made somewhere,’ he remarked. He thought the removal of Jews from the economy and cultural life of the city could be accomplished within a few months.31 The programme devised by mid-May for him by Helldorf, and given his approval, put forward a variety of discriminatory measures — including special identity cards for Jews, branding of Jewish shops, bans on Jews using public parks, and special train compartments for Jews — most of which, following the November Pogrom, came to be generally implemented.32 Helldorf also envisaged the construction of a ghetto in Berlin to be financed by the richer Jews.33

Even if this last aim remained unfulfilled, the poisonous atmosphere stirred by Goebbels’s agitation — with Hitler’s tacit approval — had rapid results.34 Already on 27 May, a 1,000-strong mob roamed parts of Berlin, smashing windows of shops belonging to Jews, and prompting the police, anxious not to lose the initiative in anti-Jewish policy, to take the owners into ‘protective custody’.35 When in mid-June Jewish stores on the Kurfürstendamm, the prime shopping street in the west of the city, were smeared with antisemitic slogans by Party activists, and plundering of some shops took place, concern for Germany’s image abroad dictated a halt to the public violence. Hitler intervened directly from Berchtesgaden, following which Goebbels ruefully banned all illegal actions.36 However, Berlin had set the tone. Similar ‘actions’, initiated by the local Party organizations, were carried out in Frankfurt, Magdeburg, and other towns and cities.37 The lack of any explicit general ban from above on ‘individual actions’, as had been imposed in 1935, was taken by Party activists in countless localities as a green light to step up their own campaigns. The touchpaper had been lit to the summer and autumn of violence. As the tension in the Czech crisis mounted, local antisemitic initiatives in various regions saw to it that the ‘Jewish Question’ became a powder-keg, waiting for the spark.38

Hitler’s own approval of the antisemitic campaign of the summer may well have been linked to his expectation of a short war to crush Czechoslovakia in the autumn.39 Successful completion of that enterprise was, it appears, to have been accompanied by the completion of the expropriation of Jewish property and exclusion of Jews from the economy.40 Hitler had, in the event, no choice but to be content for the time being with the Sudetenland, and the tension had suddenly evaporated. But the triumphalism of the Nazi Movement, the pressures to exclude Jews from the economy as a matter of urgency, the demands to speed up emigration, and the general momentum of violence and discrimination that had built up over the summer meant that the radical tide surged forward. The atmosphere had become menacing in the extreme for the Jews.

Even so, from the perspective of the regime’s leadership, how to get the Jews out of the economy and force them to leave Germany still appeared to be questions without obvious answers. As early as January 1937, Eichmann had suggested, in a lengthy internal memorandum, that pogroms were the most effective way of accelerating the sluggish emigration.41 Like an answer to a prayer, the shooting of the German Third Legation Secretary Ernst vom Rath in Paris by a seventeen-year-old Polish Jew, Herschel Grynszpan, on the morning of 7 November 1938 opened up an opportunity not to be missed. It was an opportunity eagerly seized upon by Goebbels. He had no difficulty in winning Hitler’s full backing.


Grynszpan had meant to kill the Ambassador. Vom Rath just happened to be the first official he saw. The shooting was an act of despair and revenge for his own miserable existence and for the deportation of his family at the end of October from Hanover — simply deposited, along with a further 18,000 Polish Jews, over the borders with Poland.42 Two and a half years earlier, when the Jewish medical student David Frankfurter had killed the Nazi leader in Switzerland, Wilhelm Gustloff, in Davos, circumstances had demanded that the lid be kept firmly on any wild response by Party fanatics in Germany. In the menacing climate of autumn 1938, the situation could scarcely have been more different. Now, the Nazi hordes were to be positively encouraged to turn their wrath on the Jews. The death of vom Rath — he succumbed to his wounds on the afternoon of 9 November — happened, moreover, to coincide with the fifteenth anniversary of Hitler’s attempted putsch of 1923. All over Germany, Party members were meeting to celebrate one of the legendary events of the ‘time of struggle’. The annual commemoration marked a high point in the Nazi calendar. In Munich, as usual, the Party bigwigs were gathering.

On the morning following the fateful shooting, the Nazi press, under Goebbels’s orchestration, had been awash with torrents of vicious attacks on the Jews, guaranteed to incite violence.43 Sure enough, that evening, 8 November, pogroms — involving the burning of synagogues, destruction of Jewish property, plundering of goods, and maltreatment of individual Jews — were instigated in a number of parts of the country through the agitation of local Party leaders without any directives from on high. Usually, the local leaders involved were radical antisemites in areas, such as Hessen, with lengthy traditions of antisemitism.44 Goebbels noted the disturbances with satisfaction in his diary: ‘In Hessen big antisemitic demonstrations. The synagogues are burnt down. If only the anger of the people could now be let loose!’45 The following day, he referred to the ‘demonstrations’, burning of synagogues, and demolition of shops in Kassel and Dessau.46 During the afternoon, news of vom Rath’s death came through. ‘Now that’s done it (Nun aber ist es g[ar]),’ remarked Goebbels.47

The party’s ‘old guard’ were meeting that evening in the Old Town Hall in Munich. Hitler, too, was present. On the way there, with Goebbels, he had been told of disturbances against Jews in Munich, but favoured the police taking a lenient line.48 He could scarcely have avoided being well aware of the anti-Jewish actions in Hessen and elsewhere, as well as the incitements of the press. It was impossible to ignore the fact that, among Party radicals, antisemitic tension was running high. But Hitler had given no indication, despite vom Rath’s perilous condition at the time and the menacing antisemitic climate, of any intended action when he had spoken to the ‘old guard’ of the Party in his traditional speech at the Bürgerbräukeller the previous evening.49 By the time the Party leaders gathered for the reception on the 9th, Hitler was aware of vom Rath’s death. With his own doctor, Karl Brandt, dispatched to the bedside, Hitler had doubtless been kept well informed of the Legation Secretary’s deteriorating condition and had heard of his demise at the latest by 7 o’clock that evening — in all probability by telephone some hours earlier.50 According to his Luftwaffe adjutant, Nicolaus von Below, he had already been given the news — which he had received without overt reaction — that afternoon while he was engaged in discussions on military matters in his Munich apartment.51

Goebbels and Hitler were seen to confer in agitated fashion during the reception, though their conversation could not be overheard. Hitler left shortly afterwards, earlier than usual and without his customary exchanges with those present, to return to his Munich apartment. Around 10p.m. Goebbels delivered a brief but highly inflammatory speech, reporting the death of vom Rath, pointing out that there had already been ‘retaliatory’ action against the Jews in Kurhessen and Magdeburg-Anhalt. He made it abundantly plain without explicitly saying so that the Party should organize and carry out ‘demonstrations’ against the Jews throughout the country, though make it appear that they were expressions of spontaneous popular anger.52

Goebbels’s diary entry leaves no doubt of the content of his discussion with Hitler. ‘I go to the party reception in the Old Town Hall. Huge amount going on (Riesenbetrieb). I explain the matter to the Führer. He decides: let the demonstrations continue. Pull back the police. The Jews should for once get to feel the anger of the people. That’s right. I immediately give corresponding directives to police and party. Then I speak for a short time in that vein to the party leadership. Storms of applause. All tear straight off to the telephone. Now the people will act.’53

Goebbels certainly did his best to make sure ‘the people’ acted. He put out detailed instructions of what had and had not to be done. He fired up the mood where there was hesitancy.54 Immediately after he had spoken, the Stoßtrupp Hitler, an ‘assault squad’ whose traditions reached back to the heady days of pre-putsch beerhouse brawls and bore the Führer’s name, was launched to wreak havoc on the streets of Munich. Almost immediately they demolished the old synagogue in Herzog-Rudolf-Straße, left standing after the main synagogue had been destroyed in the summer. Adolf Wagner, Gauleiter of Munich and Upper Bavaria (who as Bavarian Minister of Interior was supposedly responsible for order in the province), himself no moderate in the ‘Jewish Question’, got cold feet. But Goebbels pushed him into line. The ‘capital city of the Movement’ of all places was not going to be spared what was happening already all over Germany. Goebbels then gave direct telephone instructions to Berlin to demolish the synagogue in Fasanenstraße, off the Kurfürstendamm.55

The top leadership of the police and SS, also gathered in Munich but not present when Goebbels had given his speech, learnt of the ‘action’ only once it had started. Heydrich, at the time in the Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten, was informed by the Munich Gestapo Office around 11.20p.m., after the first orders had already gone out to the Party and SA. He immediately sought Himmler’s directives on how the police should respond. The Reichsführer-SS was contacted in Hitler’s Munich apartment.56 He asked what orders Hitler had for him. Hitler replied — most likely at Himmler’s prompting — that he wanted the SS to keep out of the ‘action’.57 Disorder and uncontrolled violence and destruction were not the SS’s style. Himmler and Heydrich preferred the ‘rational’, systematic approach to the ‘Jewish Question’. Soon after midnight orders went out that any SS men participating in the ‘demonstrations’ were to do so only in civilian clothing.58 At 1.20a.m. Heydrich telexed all police chiefs instructing the police not to obstruct the destruction of the synagogues and to arrest as many male Jews, especially wealthy ones, as available prison accommodation could take.59 The figure of 20–30,000 Jews had already been mentioned in a Gestapo directive sent out before midnight.60

Meanwhile, across the Reich, Party activists — especially SA men — were suddenly summoned by their local leaders and told to burn down synagogues or were turned loose on other Jewish property.61 Many of those involved had been celebrating at their own commemoration of the Beerhall Putsch, and some were the worse for wear from drink. The ‘action’ was usually improvised on the spot. The dozen or so men from the SA-Reserve in Marburg, still drinking solidly when they were told, to their surprise, by their Standartenführer that they were to burn down the synagogue that night, could not find anything with which to set the building alight until someone had the idea that there were four large canisters of oil in the nearby theatre.62 In Tübingen, three Party members making their unsteady way home in the early hours were picked up en route by a car containing the District Leader. He told them that he had received a telegram from the Gauleiter in Stuttgart that all the synagogues in the Reich were to be set on fire. They returned with him to their Party headquarters to look for incendiary material. When they arrived at the synagogue, they found it already vandalized. A group of eight SA and SS men had broken in around midnight, smashing the windows and door, and had carried off some of the contents and hurled them in the river Neckar. Only with difficulty, and with the help of a rotting wreath of oak-leaves and some floor-polish, could the Party members get the synagogue to catch fire. Eventually they managed it. The fire-brigade saw to it that the nearby houses were protected. By morning, the synagogue was a burnt-out shell.63 The pattern, more or less, repeated itself all over Germany.

At midnight, at the Feldherrnhalle in Munich where the attempted putsch in 1923 had met its end, Goebbels had witnessed the swearing-in of the SS to Hitler. The Propaganda Minister was ready to return to his hotel when he saw the sky red from the fire of the burning synagogue in Herzog-Rudolf-Straße.64 Back he went to Gau headquarters. Instructions were given out that the fire brigade should extinguish only what was necessary to protect nearby buildings. Otherwise they were to let the synagogue burn down. ‘The Stoßtrupp is doing dreadful damage,’ he commented. Reports came in to him of seventy-five synagogues on fire throughout the Reich, fifteen of them in Berlin. He had evidently by this time heard of the Gestapo directive. ‘The Führer has ordered,’ he noted, ‘that 20–30,000 Jews are immediately to be arrested.’ In fact, it had been a Gestapo order with no reference in it to a directive of the Führer. Clearly, however, though he had instigated the pogrom, Goebbels took it that the key decisions came from Hitler.65 Goebbels went on: ‘That will go down (Das wird ziehen). They should see that our patience is exhausted.’ He went with Julius Schaub, Hitler’s general factotum, into the Artists’ Club to wait for further news. Schaub was in fine form. ‘His old Stoßtrupp past has been revived,’ commented Goebbels. He went back to his hotel. He could hear the noise of shattering glass from smashed shop windows. ‘Bravo, bravo,’ he wrote. After a few hours snatched sleep, he added: ‘The dear Jews will think about it in future before they shoot down German diplomats like that. And that was the meaning of the exercise.’66

All morning new reports of the destruction poured in. Goebbels assessed the situation with Hitler. ‘I weigh up our current measures with the Führer. Allow to strike further or stop. That’s now the question.’67 In the light of the mounting criticism of the ‘action’, also — though naturally not for humanitarian reasons — from within the top ranks of the Nazi leadership, the decision was taken to halt it.68 Goebbels prepared a decree to end the destruction, cynically commenting that if it were allowed to continue there was the danger ‘that the mob would start to appear’.69 He reported to Hitler, who was, Goebbels claimed, ‘in agreement with everything. His opinions are very radical and aggressive.’ ‘With minor alterations, the Führer approves my edict on the end of the actions… The Führer wants to move to very severe measures against the Jews. They must get their businesses in order themselves. Insurance will pay them nothing. Then the Führer wants gradually to expropriate the Jewish businesses.’70

By that time, the night of horror for Germany’s Jews had brought the demolition of around 100 synagogues, the burning of several hundred others, the destruction of at least 8,000 Jews’ shops and vandalizing of countless apartments. The pavements of the big cities were strewn with shards of glass from the display windows of Jewish-owned stores; merchandise, if not looted, had been hurled on to the streets. Private apartments were wrecked, furniture demolished, mirrors and pictures smashed, clothing shredded, treasured possessions wantonly trashed. 71 The material damage was estimated soon afterwards by Heydrich at several hundred million Marks.72

The human misery of the victims was incalculable. Beatings and bestial maltreatment, even of women, children, and the elderly, were commonplace. A hundred or so Jews were murdered. One woman in Innsbruck told despairingly on 10 November of how a troop of young men had broken into the apartment she shared with her husband and four-year-old daughter. They knew none of their assailants. ‘What do you want of me?’ her husband had asked. He received no answer. Ten minutes later she found him stabbed to death. The Jewish Community was allowed only to enter, as cause of death, ‘wound in the chest’ (Brustverletzung).73 It was little wonder that suicide was commonplace that terrible night. Some tried, but did not manage, to kill themselves. One Jewish doctor in Vienna, held back from throwing himself from a third-storey window, slit his wrists and throat, but could still not end his own life, and was hauled off to a psychiatric clinic.74 Many more succumbed to brutalities in the weeks following the pogrom in the concentration camps of Dachau, Buchenwald, and Sachsenhausen, where the 30,000 male Jews rounded up by the police had been sent as a means of forcing their emigration.75 Hans Berger, a forty-year-old from Wiesbaden, was one of those taken into custody by the Gestapo on 10 November. Like those arrested with him, he was subjected to indescribable sadism and torture by the camp-guards in Buchenwald, where he was interned. To maximize the humiliation, the prisoners — many suffering from chronic diarrhoea — were left to stand in their own excrement. It was as if the dirt and stench were to emphasize the separation of the Jews from the ‘healthy’, ‘clean’, and ‘wholesome’ German ‘national community’.76 Three weeks of hell on earth were finally over for Herr Berger when he was eventually released to emigrate to Brussels, and from there to southern France. He, his wife, and two sons, were presumed to be among those later deported to the death camps.77

The scale and nature of the savagery, and the apparent aim of maximizing degradation and humiliation, reflected the success of propaganda in demonizing the figure of the Jew — certainly within the organizations of the Party itself — and massively enhanced the process, under way since Hitler’s takeover of power, of dehumanizing Jews and excluding them from German society — a vital step on the way to genocide.78

The propaganda line of a spontaneous expression of anger by the people was, however, believed by no one. ‘The public knows to the last man,’ the Party’s own court later admitted, ‘that political actions like that of 9 November are organized and carried out by the party, whether this is admitted or not. If all the synagogues burn down in a single night, that has somehow to be organized, and can only be organized by the party.’79

Ordinary citizens, affected by the climate of hatred and propaganda appealing to base instincts, motivated too by sheer material envy and greed, nevertheless followed the Party’s lead in many places and joined in the destruction and looting of Jewish property. Sometimes individuals regarded as the pillars of their communities were involved. In Düsseldorf, for example, doctors from a local hospital were said to have taken part in the violence; in the Lower Franconian village of Gaukönigshofen, well-respected farmers smashed the Torah shrine, hurled the Torah Rolls and other sacred objects into the flames enveloping the synagogue, and came with wash-baskets to carry away wine and foodstuffs from Jewish homes.80 Schoolchildren and adolescents were frequently ready next day to add their taunts, jibes, and insults to Jews being rounded up by the police, who were often subjected to baying, howling mobs hurling stones at them as they were taken into custody.81 Many young Germans had been fanaticized and inured to the brutality by their years of indoctrination in the Hitler Youth. The BDM functionary Melita Maschmann, for instance, told herself that the Jews were the enemies of the new Germany and had now learnt what that meant. World Jewry had to see what had happened as a warning. If they sowed hatred against Germany, they had to realize ‘that hostages of their people found themselves in our hands’.82

At the same time, there is no doubt that many ordinary people were appalled at what met them when they emerged on the morning of 10 November. ‘All reports agree,’ summarized the Sopade — the exiled Social Democratic Party’s leadership — in its verdict on the events of ‘Crystal Night’, ‘that the outrages are strongly condemned by the great majority of the German people.’83 A mixture of motives operated. Some, certainly, felt human revulsion at the behaviour of the Nazi hordes and sympathy for the Jews, even to the extent of offering them material help and comfort. Jews who managed to flee to safety told in later months of how ‘Christian neighbours’ in Schweinfurt had brought them milk and bedding. In Burgsinn, also in Lower Franconia, Jews were given money, fresh clothing, bread, and other foodstuffs by local inhabitants. Jews from other neighbourhoods had similar stories to tell.84 Not all motives for the condemnation were as noble. Often, it was the shame inflicted by ‘hooligans’ on Germany’s standing as a ‘nation of culture’ which rankled. ‘One could weep, one must be ashamed to be a German, part of an aryan noble people (Edelvolk), a civilized nation guilty of such a cultural disgrace,’ wrote one Nazi sympathizer in an anonymous letter to Goebbels.85 Most commonly of all, there was enormous resentment at the unrestrained destruction of material goods at a time when people were told that every little that was saved contributed to the efforts of the Four-Year Plan. ‘On the one hand we have to collect silver paper and empty toothpaste tubes, and on the other hand millions of Marks’ worth of damage is caused deliberately,’ ran one such bitter complaint.86


By the morning of 10 November, anger was also rising among leading Nazis responsible for the economy about the material damage which had taken place. Walther Funk, who had replaced Schacht as Economics Minister early in the year, complained directly to Goebbels, but was told, to placate him, that Hitler would soon give Göring an order to exclude the Jews from the economy.87 Göring himself, who had been in a sleeping-compartment of a train heading from Munich to Berlin as the night of violence had unfolded, was furious when he found out what had happened. His own credibility as economics supremo was at stake. He had exhorted the people, so he told Hitler, to collect discarded toothpaste tubes, rusty nails, and every bit of cast-out material. And now, valuable property had been recklessly destroyed.88

When they met at lunchtime on 10 November in his favourite Munich restaurant, the Osteria Bavaria, Hitler made plain to Goebbels his intention to introduce draconian economic measures against the Jews. They were dictated by the perverted notion that the Jews themselves would have to foot the bill for the destruction of their own property by the Nazis. The victims, in other words, were guilty of their own persecution. They would have to repair the damage without any contributions from German insurance firms and would be expropriated. Whether, as Göring later claimed, Goebbels was the initiator of the suggestion to impose a fine of 1,000 million Marks on the Jews is uncertain. More probably Göring, with his direct interest as head of the Four-Year Plan in maximizing the economic exploitation of the Jews, had himself come up with the idea in telephone conversations with Hitler, and perhaps also with Goebbels, that afternoon. Possibly, the idea was Hitler’s own, though Goebbels does not refer to it when speaking of his wish for ‘very tough measures’ at their lunchtime meeting. At any rate, the suggestion was bound to meet with Hitler’s favour. He had, after all, in his ‘Memorandum on the Four-Year Plan’ in 1936 already stated, in connection with accelerating the economic preparations for war, his intention to make the Jews responsible for any damage to the German economy. With the measures decided upon, Hitler decreed ‘that now the economic solution should also be carried out’, and ‘ordered by and large what had to happen’.89

This was effectively achieved in the meeting, attended by over 100 persons, which Göring called for the following morning, 12 November, in the Air Ministry. Göring began by stating that the meeting was of fundamental importance. He had received a letter from Bormann, on behalf of the Führer, desiring a coordinated solution to the ‘Jewish Question’. The Führer had informed him, in addition, by telephone the previous day that the decisive steps were now to be centrally synchronized. In essence, he went on, the problem was an economic one. It was there that the issue had to be resolved. He castigated the method of ‘demonstrations’, which damaged the German economy. Then he concentrated on ways of confiscating Jewish businesses and maximizing the possible gain to the Reich from the Jewish misery. Goebbels raised the need for numerous measures of social discrimination against the Jews, which he had been pressing for in Berlin for months: exclusion from cinemas, theatres, parks, beaches and bathing resorts, ‘German’ schools, and railway compartments used by ‘aryans’. Heydrich suggested a distinctive badge to be worn by Jews, which led on to discussion of whether ghettos would be appropriate. In the event, the idea of establishing ghettos was not taken up (though Jews would be forced to leave ‘aryan’ tenement blocks and be banned from certain parts of the cities, so compelling them in effect to congregate together); and the suggestion of badges was rejected by Hitler himself soon afterwards (presumably to avoid possible recurrence of the pogrom-style violence which had provoked criticism even among the regime’s leaders).90 They would not be introduced in the Reich itself until September 1941.

But ‘Crystal Night’ had nevertheless spawned completely new openings for radical measures. This was most evident in the economic sphere, to which the meeting returned. Insurance companies were told that they would have to cover the losses, if their foreign business was not to suffer. But the payments would be made to the Reich, not, of course, to the Jews. Towards the end of the lengthy meeting, Göring announced, to the approval of the assembled company, the ‘atonement fine’ that was to be imposed on the Jews.91 Later that day, he issued decrees, imposing the billion-Mark fine, excluding Jews from the economy by 1 January 1939, and stipulating that Jews were responsible for paying for the damage to their own property.92 ‘At any rate now a tabula rasa is being made,’ commented Goebbels with satisfaction. ‘The radical view has triumphed.’93

Indeed, the November Pogrom had in the most barbaric way imaginable cleared a pathway through the impasse into which Nazi anti-Jewish policy had manoeuvred itself by 1938. Emigration had been reduced to little more than a trickle, especially since the Evian Conference, where, on the initiative of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, delegates from thirty-two countries had assembled in the French resort, deliberated from 6 to 14 July, then confirmed the unwillingness of the international community to increase immigration quotas for Jews. Moves to remove the Jews from the economy were still proceeding far too slowly to satisfy Party fanatics. And anti-Jewish policy had suffered from complete lack of coordination. Hitler himself had been little involved. Goebbels, a driving-force, as we have noted, in pressing for tougher measures against the Jews since the spring, had recognized the opportunity that vom Rath’s assassination gave him. He sniffed the climate, and knew conditions were ripe. In a personal sense, too, the shooting of vom Rath was timely. Goebbels’s marital difficulties and relationship with the Czech film actress Lida Baarova had threatened to lower his standing with Hitler.94 Now was a chance, by ‘working towards the Führer’ in such a key area, to win back favour.

One consequence of the night of violence was that the Jews were now desperate to leave Germany. Some 80,000 fled, in the most traumatic circumstances, between the end of 1938 and the beginning of the war.95 Some, like the Fröhlichs, the family of the eminent American historian Peter Gay, were able through daring ingenuity, involving minor but dangerous forms of illegalities in forging documents and smuggling out possessions, to outwit intimidating and obstructive bureaucrats, and to subvert their chicanery in managing, amid constant anxiety and with many travails, to buy exit visas for Cuba, after being denied entry to Great Britain.96 Countless others were less fortunate — sick with worry at the unknown fate of husbands and fathers marched off by the Gestapo, or taking flight with no more than they could carry with them. Many, with little hope of an official exit route, fled across the borders illegally — 1,500 into the Netherlands alone.97 Many other Jews pleading for asylum were turned back at the Dutch frontier as border guards were doubled in number to deny entry to the Nazis’ victims.98 By the time the Dutch closed their borders on 17 December, nevertheless, some 7,000 German Jews had, legally or illegally, found refuge there.99 In the same days, the British government opened the country’s doors to 10,000 Jewish children — though it rejected an appeal to allow a further 21,000 Jews to enter Palestine.100 By whatever desperate means, tens of thousands of Jews were able to escape the clutches of the Nazis and flee across neighbouring borders, to Britain, the USA, Latin America, Palestine (despite British prohibitions), and to the distant refuge with the most lenient policy of all: Japanese-occupied Shanghai.101

The Nazis’ aim of forcing the Jews out had been massively boosted. Beyond that, the problem of their slow-moving elimination from the economy had been tackled. Whatever his criticism of Goebbels, Göring had wasted no time in ensuring that the chance was now taken fully to ‘aryanize’ the economy, and to profit from ‘Reichskristallnacht’. When he spoke, a week later, of the ‘very critical state of the Reich finances’, he was able to add: ‘Aid first of all through the billion imposed on the Jews and through the profits to the Reich from the aryanization of Jewish concerns’.102 Others, too, in the Nazi leadership, critical or not of Goebbels, also seized the chance to push through a flood of new discriminatory measures, intensifying the hopelessness of Jewish existence in Germany.103 Radicalization fed on radicalization.

The radicalization now encountered no opposition of any weight. Any opposition would have had to come from those with access to the levers of power. The ordinary people who expressed their anger, sorrow, distaste, or shame at what had happened were powerless. Those who might have articulated such feelings, such as the leaders of the Christian Churches, among whose precepts was ‘love thy neighbour as thyself’, kept quiet. Neither major denomination, Protestant or Catholic, raised an official protest or even backing for those courageous individual pastors and priests who did speak out. Within the regime’s leadership, those, like Schacht, who had used economic or otherwise tactical objections to try to combat what they saw as counter-productive, wild ‘excesses’ of the radical antisemites in the party, were now politically impotent. In any case, such economic arguments lost all force with ‘Crystal Night’. The leaders of the armed forces, scandalized though some of them were at the ‘cultural disgrace’ of what had happened, made no public protest. Brauchitsch shrugged his shoulders when outraged comments from generals came to his ears. His gutless response mirrored the broader feeling of powerlessness among an officer corps whose collective strength and moral authority vis à vis Hitler had been greatly diminished across the months spanning the Blomberg — Fritsch crisis, the Anschluß, the Sudeten crisis, and now ‘Reichskris-tallnacht’. And despite all that had happened, there was evidently a readiness to believe that Hitler was not responsible, and blame could be attached to Goebbels.104

Beyond that, the deep antisemitism running through the armed forces meant that no opposition worth mentioning to Nazi radicalism could be expected from that quarter. Characteristic of the mentality was a letter which the revered Colonel General von Fritsch wrote, almost a year after his dismissal and only a month after the November Pogrom. Fritsch was reportedly outraged by ‘Crystal Night’. But, as with so many, it was the method not the aim that appalled him. He mentioned in his letter that after the previous war he had concluded that Germany had to succeed in three battles in order to become great again. Hitler had won the battle against the working class (Arbeiterschaft). The other two battles, against Catholic Ultramontanism, and against the Jews, still continued. ‘And the struggle against the Jews is the hardest,’ he noted. ‘It is to be hoped that the difficulty of this struggle is apparent everywhere.’105

‘Crystal Night’ marked the final fling within Germany of ‘pogrom antisemitism’. Willing though he was to make use of the method, Hitler had emphasized as early as 1919 that it could provide no solution to the ‘Jewish Question’.106 The massive material damage caused, the public relations disaster reflected in the almost universal condemnation in the international press, and to a lesser extent the criticism levelled at the ‘excesses’ (though not at the draconian anti-Jewish legislation that followed them) by broad sections of the German population ensured that the ploy of open violence had had its day. Its place was taken by something which turned out to be even more sinister: the handing-over of practical responsibility for a coordinated anti-Jewish policy to the ‘rational’ antisemites in the SS. On 24 January 1939, Göring established — based on the model which had functioned effectively in Vienna — a Central Office for Jewish Emigration under the aegis of the Chief of the Security Police, Reinhard Heydrich.107 The policy was still forced emigration, now transformed into an all-out, accelerated drive to expel the Jews from Germany. But the transfer of overall responsibility to the SS nevertheless began a new phase of anti-Jewish policy. For the victims, it marked a decisive step on the way that was to end in the gas-chambers of the extermination camps. Heydrich was to refer back to this commission from Göing when opening the Wannsee Conference, to coordinate extermination measures, in January 1942.108

Hitler was directly involved in the shaping of anti-Jewish policy in the weeks following ‘Crystal Night’. On 5 December, Göring transmitted to the Gauleiter on his behalf directives on a variety of discriminatory measures relating, for instance, to the banning of Jewish access to hotels and restaurants, but allowing them to shop in ‘German’ stores. At the end of December, Göring again sought Hitler’s views on the restrictions to be placed on Jews, which he passed on to all Party and state offices. These were left as open to interpretation as possible, and were characteristically ill-defined. The radical suggestions put forward by Goebbels and Heydrich at the meeting on 12 November were neither taken up in full, nor completely rejected. Jews were to be banned from railway sleeping — and restaurant-cars, for example, but no special compartments for them were to be erected; they were still to be allowed to use public transport. Or, another example, rent protection for Jews was not to be abolished; but it was nonetheless desirable that they be concentrated in specific apartment blocks. Pensions were not to be taken away from dismissed Jewish civil servants. And a number of exceptions were also made for Mischlinge — those deemed to be of mixed Jewish and ‘Aryan’ descent. These were not signs of any ‘moderation’ or lack of radicalism on Hitler’s part. An indication of his own hard line was his communication to Reich Minister of the Interior Frick in December 1938 that he would no longer make use of the rights he had to exempt individuals from the provisions of the Nuremberg Laws. For the rest, he was prepared, as he had been following previous antisemitic waves in 1933 and 1935, to let the radicalization of anti-Jewish policy develop organically.109


The open brutality of the November Pogrom, the round-up and incarceration of some 30,000 Jews that followed it, and the draconian measures to force Jews out of the economy had, Goebbels’s diary entries make plain, all been explicitly approved by Hitler even if the initiatives had come from others, above all from the Propaganda Minister himself.

To those who saw him late on the evening of 9 November, Hitler had appeared to be shocked and angry at the reports reaching him of what was happening.110 Himmler, highly critical of Goebbels, was given the impression that Hitler was surprised by what he was hearing when Himmler’s chief adjutant Karl Wolff informed them of the burning of the Munich synagogue just before 11.30 that evening.111 Nicolaus von Below, Hitler’s Luftwaffe adjutant, who saw him immediately on his return to his apartment from the ‘Old Town Hall’, was convinced that there was no dissembling in his apparent anger and condemnation of the destruction.112 Speer was told by a seemingly regretful and somewhat embarrassed Hitler that he had not wanted the ‘excesses’. Speer thought Goebbels had probably pushed him into it.113 Rosenberg, a few weeks after the events, was convinced that Goebbels, whom he utterly detested, had ‘on the basis of a general decree (Anordnung) of the Führer ordered the action as it were in his name’.114 Military leaders, equally ready to pin the blame on ‘that swine Goebbels’, heard from Hitler that the ‘action’ had taken place without his knowledge and that one of his Gauleiter had run out of control.115

Was Hitler genuinely taken aback by the scale of the ‘action’, for which he had himself given the green light that very evening? The agitated discussion with Goebbels in the Old Town Hall, like many other instances of blanket verbal authorization given in the unstructured and non-formalized style of reaching decisions in the Third Reich, probably left precise intentions open to interpretation. And certainly, in the course of the night, the welter of criticism from Göring, Himmler, and other leading Nazis made it evident that the ‘action’ had got out of hand, become counter-productive, and had to be stopped — mainly on account of the material damage it had caused.

But when he consented to Goebbels’s suggestion to ‘let the demonstrations continue’, Hitler knew full well from the accounts from Hessen what the ‘demonstrations’ amounted to.116 It took no imagination at all to foresee what would happen if active encouragement were given for a free-for-all against the Jews throughout the Reich. If Hitler had not intended the ‘demonstrations’ he had approved to take such a course, what, exactly, had he intended? Even on the way to the Old Town Hall, it seems, he had spoken against tough police action against anti-Jewish vandals in Munich.117 The traditional Stoßtrupp Hitler, bearing his own name, had been unleashed on Jewish property in Munich as soon as Goebbels had finished speaking. One of his closest underlings, Julius Schaub, had been in the thick of things with Goebbels, behaving like the Stoßtrupp fighter of old. During the days that followed, Hitler took care to remain equivocal. He did not praise Goebbels, or what had happened. But nor did he openly, even to his close circle, let alone in public, condemn him outright or categorically dissociate himself from the unpopular Propaganda Minister. Indeed, within a week Hitler was seen again in Goebbels’s presence at a performance of Kabale und Liebe (‘Intrigue and Love’) at the opening of the Schiller Theatre, and stayed that night at the Goebbels’ villa at Schwanenwerder. On that occasion, too, he ‘spoke harshly about the Jews’. Goebbels had the feeling that his own policy against the Jews met with Hitler’s full approval.118

None of this has the ring of actions being taken against Hitler’s will, or in opposition to his intentions.119 Rather, it seems to point, as Speer presumed, to Hitler’s embarrassment when it became clear to him that the action he had approved was meeting with little but condemnation even in the highest circles of the regime. If Goebbels himself could feign anger at the burning of synagogues whose destruction he had himself directly incited, and even ordered, Hitler was certainly capable of such cynicism.120 What anger Hitler harboured was purely at an ‘action’ that threatened to engulf him in the unpopularity he had failed to predict. Disbelieving that the Führer could have been responsible, his subordinate leaders were all happy to be deceived. They preferred the easier target of Goebbels, who had played the more visible role. From that night on, it was as if Hitler wanted to draw a veil over the whole business. At his speech in Munich to press representatives on the following evening, 10 November, he made not the slightest mention of the onslaught against the Jews.121 Even in his ‘inner circle’, he never referred to ‘Reichskristallnacht’ during the rest of his days.122 But although he had publicly distanced himself from what had taken place, Hitler had in fact favoured the most extreme steps at every juncture.

The signs are that ‘Crystal Night’ had a profound impact upon Hitler. For at least two decades, probably longer, he had harboured feelings which fused fear and loathing into a pathological view of Jews as the incarnation of evil threatening German survival. Alongside the pragmatic reasons why Hitler agreed with Goebbels that the time was opportune to unleash the fury of the Nazi Movement against Jews ran the deeply embedded ideological urge to destroy what he saw as Germany’s most implacable enemy, responsible in his mind for the war and its most tragic and damaging consequence for the Reich, the November Revolution. This demonization of the Jew and fear of the ‘Jewish world conspiracy’ was part of a world-view that saw the random and despairing act of Herschel Grynszpan as part of a plot to destroy the mighty German Reich. Hitler had by that time spent months at the epicentre of an international crisis that had brought Europe to the very brink of a new war. In the context of continuing crisis in foreign policy, with the prospect of international conflict never far away, ‘Crystal Night’ seems to have reinvoked — certainly to have re-emphasized — the presumed links, present in his warped outlook since 1918–19 and fully expounded in Mein Kampf, between the power of the Jews and war.

He had commented in the last chapter of Mein Kampf that ‘the sacrifice of millions at the front’ would not have been necessary if ‘twelve or fifteen thousand of these Hebrew corrupters of the people had been held under poison gas’.123 Such rhetoric, appalling though the sentiments were, was not an indication that Hitler already had the ‘Final Solution’ in mind. But the implicit genocidal link between war and the killing of Jews was there. Göring’s remarks at the end of the meeting on 12 November had been an ominous pointer in the same direction: ‘If the German Reich comes into foreign-political conflict in the foreseeable future, it can be taken for granted that we in Germany will think in the first instance of bringing about a great showdown with the Jews.’124

With war approaching again, the question of the threat of the Jews in a future conflict was evidently present in Hitler’s mind. The idea of using the Jews as hostages, part of Hitler’s mentality, but also advanced in the SS’s organ Das Schwarze Korps in October and November 1938, is testimony to the linkage between war and idea of a ‘world conspiracy’. ‘The Jews living in Germany and Italy are the hostages which fate has placed in our hand so that we can defend ourselves effectively against the attacks of world Jewry,’ commented Das Schwarze Korps on 27 October 1938, under the headline ‘Eye for an Eye, Tooth for a Tooth’.125 ‘Those Jews in Germany are a part of world Jewry,’ the same newspaper threatened on 3 November, still days before the nationwide pogrom was unleashed. ‘They are also responsible for whatever world Jewry undertakes against Germany, and — they are liable for the damages which world Jewry inflicts and will inflict on us.’ The Jews were to be treated as members of a warring power and interned to prevent their engagement for the interests of world Jewry.126 Hitler had up to this date never attempted to deploy the ‘hostage’ tactic as a weapon of his foreign policy.127 Perhaps promptings from the SS leadership now reawakened ‘hostage’ notions in his mind. Whether or not this was the case, the potential deployment of German Jews as pawns to blackmail the western powers into accepting further German expansion was possibly the reason why, when stating that it was his ‘unshakeable will’ to solve ‘the Jewish problem’ in the near future, and at a time when official policy was to press for emigration with all means possible, he showed no interest in the plans advanced by South African Defence and Economics Minister Oswald Pirow, whom he met at the Berghof on 24 November, for international cooperation in the emigration of German Jews.128 The same motive was probably also behind the horrific threat he made to the Czechoslovakian Foreign Minister Franzisek Chvalkovsky on 21 January 1939. ‘The Jews here (bei uns) will be annihilated (vernichtet),’ he declared. ‘The Jews had not brought about the 9 November 1918 for nothing. This day will be avenged.’129

Again, rhetoric should not be mistaken for a plan or programme. Hitler was scarcely likely to have revealed plans to exterminate the Jews which, when they did eventually emerge in 1941, were accorded top secrecy, in a comment to a foreign diplomat. Moreover, ‘annihilation’ (Vernichtung) was one of Hitler’s favourite words. He tended to reach for it when trying to impress his threats upon his audience, large or small. He would speak more than once the following summer, for instance, of his intention to ‘annihilate’ the Poles.130 Horrific though their treatment was after 1939, no genocidal programme followed.

But the language, even so, was not meaningless. The germ of a possible genocidal outcome, however vaguely conceived, was taking shape. Destruction and annihilation, not just emigration, of the Jews was in the air. Already on 24 November Das Schwarze Korps, portraying the Jews as sinking ever more to the status of pauperized parasites and criminals, had concluded: ‘In the stage of such a development we would therefore be faced with the hard necessity of eradicating (auszurotten) the Jewish underworld just as we are accustomed in our ordered state (Ordnungsstaat) to eradicate criminals: with fire and sword! The result would be the actual and final end of Jewry in Germany, its complete annihilation (Vernichtung).,’131 This was not a preview of Auschwitz and Treblinka. But without such a mentality, Auschwitz and Treblinka would not have been possible.

In his speech to the Reichstag on 30 January 1939, the sixth anniversary of his takeover of power, Hitler revealed publicly his implicitly genocidal association of the destruction of the Jews with the advent of another war. The ‘hostage’ notion was probably built into his comments. And, as always, he obviously had an eye on the propaganda impact. But his words were more than propaganda.132 They gave an insight into the pathology of his mind, into the genocidal intent that was beginning to take hold. He had no idea how the war would bring about the destruction of the Jews. But, somehow, he was certain that this would indeed be the outcome of a new conflagration. ‘I have very often in my lifetime been a prophet,’ he declared, ‘and was mostly derided. In the time of my struggle for power it was in the first instance the Jewish people who received only with laughter my prophecies that I would some time take over the leadership of the state and of the entire people in Germany and then, among other things, also bring the Jewish problem to its solution. I believe that this once hollow laughter of Jewry in Germany has meanwhile already stuck in the throat. I want today to be a prophet again: if international finance Jewry inside and outside Europe should succeed in plunging the nations once more into a world war, the result will be not the bolshevization of the earth and thereby the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation (Vernichtung) of the Jewish race in Europe!’133 It was a ‘prophecy’ that Hitler would return to on numerous occasions on several occasions in the years 1941 and 1942, when the annihilation of the Jews was no longer terrible rhetoric, but terrible reality.134


‘I will go down as the greatest German in history.’

Hitler, speaking to his secretaries after imposing a German Protectorate over the remainder of Czechoslovakia, 15 March 1939

‘In the event of any action which clearly threatened Polish independence… His Majesty’s Government would feel themselves bound at once to lend the Polish Government all support in their power.’

The British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, addressing the House of Commons, 31 March 1939

‘I’ll brew them a devil’s potion.’

Hitler, on hearing of the British Guarantee to Poland, 31 March 1939


After Munich things started to move fast. None but the most hopelessly naïve, incurably optimistic, or irredeemably stupid could have imagined that the Sudetenland marked the limits of German ambitions to expand. Certainly, neither the British nor the French governments thought that to be the case. Chamberlain had been rapidly disabused of his initial naïve belief, following his first meeting with the German Dictator, that Hitler was a man of his word, and of any hopes that the Munich Agreement would bring lasting peace. He and the British government were resigned to Germany’s further expansion in south-eastern Europe, but thought that Hitler could be contained for at least two more years.1 Both France and Britain were now rearming furiously. Fears of an imminent strike against Britain most probably stirred up by Colonel Hans Oster — at the hub of Germany’s counter-intelligence service as Chief of Staff at the Abwehr, and a key driving-force in the plot against Hitler that had petered out with the signing of the Munich Agreement — proved groundless.2 But there was serious and growing concern in London at the prospect of a new ‘mad dog act’ by Hitler in the near future. Where and when he might strike were matters of guesswork.3

The diplomatic turmoil in central Europe certainly opened up further opportunities of revisionism — and not just from Germany. Almost before the ink was dry on the Munich Agreement, Hungary — egged on by Poland, looking to its own interests in a strong central European cordon of states between Germany and the Soviet Union — was eyeing up the eastern tip of Czechoslovakia known as Ruthenia (or the Carpatho-Ukraine), a mountainous tract so backward that some of its peasant population had never heard of Hitler.4 Hungary had disappointed Hitler through its hesitancy during the Sudeten crisis. And it suited Germany at this point to encourage the Ukrainian nationalists in the ethnically divided Ruthenian population.5 Hungarian hopes of gaining Ruthenia were, therefore, for the time being firmly vetoed.6 Hitler’s own aims for the total destruction of Czechoslovakia had, as we noted, only been temporarily interrupted, not halted, by the Munich settlement.7 With the dismembered state of Czechoslovakia now friendless and, with its border fortifications lost, exposed, and at Germany’s mercy, the completion of the plans made in 1938 for its liquidation was only a matter of time. As we have seen, that had been Hitler’s view even before he acceded to the Munich Agreement.

Beyond the rump of Czechoslovakia, German attention was immediately turned on Poland. There was no plan at this stage for invasion and conquest. The aim — soon proving illusory — was to bind Poland to Germany against Russia (thereby also blocking any possibility of an alliance with the French). At the same time, the intention was to reach agreement over Danzig and the Corridor (the land which Germany had been forced to cede to Poland in the Versailles Treaty of 1919, giving the Poles access to the sea but leaving East Prussia detached from the remainder of the Reich).8 Already by late October, Ribbentrop was proposing to settle all differences between Germany and Poland by an agreement for the return of Danzig together with railway and road passage through the Corridor — not in itself a novel idea — in return for a free port for Poland in the Danzig area and an extension of the non-aggression treaty to twenty-five years with a joint guarantee of frontiers.9

The proposal met with a predictably stony response from the Polish government.10 Most vehement of all was the refusal to join the Anti-Comintern Pact, which would have been tantamount to admitting to a position as Germany’s puppet.11 The obduracy of the Poles, especially over Danzig, rapidly brought the first signs of Hitler’s own impatience, and an early indication of preparations to take Danzig by force.12 Hitler was nevertheless at this point more interested in a negotiated settlement with the Poles. Misleadingly informed by Ribbentrop of Polish readiness in principle to move to a new settlement of the Danzig Question and the Corridor, he emphasized German-Polish friendship during his speech to the Reichstag on 30 January 1939.13 Some army leaders, a few days earlier, had been more belligerent. In contrast to their overriding fears of western intervention during the Sudeten crisis, a number of generals now argued that Britain and France would remain inactive — a direct reflection of the weakness of the western powers fully revealed at Munich — and that negotiations with the Poles should be abandoned in favour of military measures. A war against Poland, they claimed, would be popular among the troops and among the German people.14

Ribbentrop, aided by Göring, played — for strategic reasons — the moderate on this occasion. For him, the main enemy was not Poland, but Britain. He countered that, through a premature attack in 1939 on Poland and Russia, Germany would become isolated, would forfeit its armaments advantage, and would most likely be forced by western strength to give up any territorial gains made. Instead, Germany needed to act together with Italy and Japan, retaining Polish neutrality until France had been dealt with and Britain at least isolated and denied all power on the Continent, if not militarily defeated.15 War by Germany and Italy to defeat France and leave Britain isolated had been the basis of the military directives laid down by Keitel, in line with Hitler’s instructions, in November 1938.16 The priority which Hitler accorded in January 1939 to the navy’s Z-Plan, for building a big battle-fleet directed squarely at British naval power, indicates that he was looking at this stage to an eventual showdown with the western powers as the prime military objective. The construction at the same time of an ‘East Wall’ — limited defensive fortifications for the event of possible conflict with Poland over Danzig — is a further pointer in that direction.17 Russia, and the eradication of Bolshevism, could wait. But neither Hitler nor anyone in his entourage expected war with Britain and France to come about in the way that it would do that autumn. Hitler had told Goebbels in October 1938 that he foresaw ‘for the more distant future a very serious conflict’, to decide European hegemony. This would be ‘probably with England’.18 Göring — who had lost face with Hitler since helping to engineer the Munich Agreement that had thwarted his intention of taking Czechoslovakia by force, and by this time no longer initiated into his plans — had no expectation of any general war before about 1942.19 Keitel had seen his right-hand man in the High Command of the Wehrmacht, General Jodl, transferred to Vienna at the end of October 1938, a move he later stated he would have prevented had he had any notion that war might have been imminent.20

In the late autumn and winter of 1938–9, differing views about foreign-policy aims and methods existed within the German leadership. The army was more ready to turn to military action against Poland than it had been against Czechoslovakia. But the specific measures adopted, particularly the building of the eastern fortifications, were still defensive in nature. The ‘Ostwall’ comprised little more than basic fortifications — castigated by Hitler as grossly lacking in fire-power and death-traps for those manning them — along a bend in the river Oder some sixty miles east of Berlin.21 Long-term military preparations were directed towards eventual confrontation with the West, but it was well recognized that the armed forces were years away from being ready for any conflict with Britain and France.22 As in 1938, military leaders’ prime fear was confrontation being forced on Germany too soon through impetuous actions and an over-risky foreign policy. Göring and Ribbentrop were advocating diametrically opposed policies towards Britain. Göring’s hopes still rested on an expansive policy in south-eastern Europe, backed for the foreseeable future by an understanding with Britain.23 Ribbentrop, by now violently anti-British, was, as we have noted, pinning his hopes on smoothing the problems on Germany’s eastern front and tightening the alliance with Italy and Japan to prepare the ground for a move against Britain as soon as was feasible. But at this stage, Göring’s star was temporarily on the wane and Ribbentrop’s usually clumsy diplomacy was meeting in most instances with little success.24 Hitler’s thoughts, whether or not influenced by Ribbentrop’s reasoning, were broadly consonant with those of his Foreign Minister. The coming show-down with Bolshevism, prominent in the foreground in 1936, though certainly not displaced in Hitler’s own mind as the decisive struggle to be faced at some point in the future had by now moved again into the shadows. Hitler favoured at this point rapprochement with the Poles, to bring them into the German orbit, and preparations for confrontation with the West (which he continued to indicate would not be before 1943 or 1944).25 But he was, as usual, content to keep his options open and await developments.

The one certainty was that developments would occur, thus providing the opportunity for German expansion. For there was no agency of power or influence in the Third Reich advocating drawing a line under the territorial gains already made. All power-groups were looking to further expansion — with or without war.

Military, strategic, and power-political arguments for expansion were underpinned by economic considerations. By late 1938, the pressures of the forced rearmament programme were making themselves acutely felt. The policy of ‘rearm, whatever the cost’ was now plainly showing itself to be sustainable only in the short term. Bottlenecks were building up in crucial areas of the economy.26 Lack of coherent and comprehensive economic planning exacerbated them. Expansion into Austria, with its well developed industrial areas around Vienna, Steyr, north Styria, and the Sudetenland, a relatively well industrialized part of Czechoslovakia, had eased matters somewhat. The unemployed from these additions to the Reich were swiftly put to work. New sources of skilled labour became available. Existing industrial plant could be extended into armaments factories, as in the huge steel complex erected at Linz by the state-run Reichswerke Hermann Göring. Iron ore from Austria and high-quality lignite from the Sudetenland were valuable for synthetic fuel production. The Sudeten area also yielded stocks of tungsten and uranium ore, which Germany had not previously possessed.27 In economic terms, expansion in 1938 had given German industry a significant boost. But further expansion was necessary if the tensions built into the overheated armaments-driven economy were not to reach explosion point. The Four-Year Plan had been implicitly directed at offloading the costs of German rearmament on to the areas of Europe to be exploited after a successful war.28 By 1938–9, it was absolutely evident that further expansion could not be postponed indefinitely if the economic impasses were to be surmounted.

When Göring met the members of the Reich Defence Council (Reichsverteidigungsrat) at its first meeting on 18 November 1938, he told them: ‘Gentlemen, the financial situation looks very critical.’29 The following month, Goebbels noted in his diary: ‘The financial situation of the Reich is catastrophic. We must look for new ways. It cannot go on like this. Otherwise we will be faced with inflation.’30 Indeed, the massive rearmament programme, stimulating increased demand from full employment, but without commensurate expansion of consumer goods, was intrinsically inflationary.31 Price controls and the threat of draconian punishment had contained inflationary pressures so far. But they could not be kept in check indefinitely. In early January 1939, the Reichsbank Directorate sent Hitler a submission, supported by eight signatories, demanding financial restraint to avoid the ‘threatening danger of inflation’.32 Hitler’s reaction was: ‘That is mutiny!’ Twelve days later, Schacht was sacked as President of the Reichsbank.33

But the Cassandra voices were not exaggerating. Nor would the problem go away by sacking Schacht. The insatiable demand for raw materials at the same time that consumer demand in the wake of the armaments boom was rising had left public finances in a desolate state. By the time of Schacht’s dismissal, the national debt had tripled since Hitler’s takeover of power. The Ministry of Economics concluded that it would simply have to be written off after the war. Hitler was aware of the problem, even if he did not understand its technicalities. He ordered a reduction in the Wehrmacht’s expenditure in the first quarter of 1939 — an order which the army simply ignored.34 A way of addressing the problem through more conventional fiscal policies and a reversal to an export-led re-entry into the international economy could not, of course, be entertained. The decision to reject such a course had been taken in 1936. There was now no turning back.

Beyond the crisis in public finances, the labour shortage which had been growing rapidly since 1937 was by this time posing a real threat both to agriculture and to industry. The repeated plaintive reports of the Reich Minister for Food and Agriculture, Richard Walther Darré, left no doubt of the severity of the difficulties facing farming.35 There had been a 16 per cent drop in the number of agricultural workers between 1933 and 1938 as the ‘flight from the land’ to better-paid jobs in industry intensified.36 No amount of compulsion or propaganda could prevent the drain of labour. Nor was mechanization the answer: scarce foreign exchange was needed for tanks, guns, and planes, not tractors and combine-harvesters. Signs of falling production were noted. That meant further demands on highly squeezed imports.37 Women, many of them members of the farmer’s household, were already employed in great numbers in agricultural work. Girls’ labour service on the land and drafting the Hitler Youth in to help with the harvest could help only at the margins.38 The only remedy for the foreseeable future was the use of ‘foreign labourers’ that war and expansion would bring. It was little wonder that when the first ‘foreign workers’ were brought back after the Polish campaign and put mainly into farm work, they were initially regarded as ‘saviours in a time of need’ (‘Retter in der Not’).39

Industry was faring no better than agriculture, despite the influx of labour from the land. By 1938, reports were regularly pouring in from all sectors about mounting labour shortages, with serious implications for the productive capacity of even the most crucial armaments-related industries.40 A sullen, overworked, and — despite increased surveillance and tough, state-backed, managerial controls — often recalcitrant work-force was the outcome.41 One indication among many of the dangerous consequences for the regime of the labour shortage was the halt on coal exports and reduction in deliveries to the railways in January 1939 on account of a shortage of 30,000 miners in the Ruhr. By that time, the overall shortage of labour in Germany was an estimated 1 million workers. By the outbreak of war, this had risen still further.42

Economic pressures did not force Hitler into war. They did not even determine the timing of the war.43 They were, as we have noted, an inexorable consequence of the political decisions in earlier years: the first, as soon as Hitler had become Chancellor — naturally, with the enthusiastic backing of the armed forces — to make rearmament an absolute spending priority; the second, and even more crucial one, in 1936 to override the objections of those pressing for a return to a more balanced economy and revived involvement in international markets in favour of a striving for maximum autarky within an armaments-driven economy focused on war preparation. The mounting economic problems fed into the military and strategic pressures for expansion. But they did not bring about those pressures in the first place. And for Hitler, they merely confirmed his diagnosis that Germany’s position could never be strengthened without territorial conquest.


Hitler’s regrets over the Munich Agreement and feeling that a chance had been lost to occupy the whole of Czechoslovakia at one fell swoop had grown rather than diminished during the last months of 1938.44 His impatience to act had mounted accordingly. He was determined not to be hemmed in by the western powers. He was more than ever convinced that they would not have fought for Czechoslovakia, and that they would and could do nothing to prevent Germany extending its dominance in central and eastern Europe. On the other hand, as he had indicated to Goebbels in October, he was certain that Britain would not concede German hegemony in Europe without a fight at some time.45 The setback which Munich had been in his eyes confirmed his view that war against the West was coming, probably sooner than he had once envisaged, and that there was no time to lose if Germany were to retain its advantage.46

Already on 21 October 1938, only three weeks after the Munich settlement, Hitler had given the Wehrmacht a new directive to prepare for the ‘following eventualities’: I. securing the frontiers of the German Reich and protection against surprise air attacks; 2. liquidation of remainder of the Czech state; 3. the occupation of Memelland.’ The third point referred to the district of Memel, a seaport on the Baltic with a largely German population, which had been removed from Germany by the Versailles Treaty. On the key second point, the directive added: ‘It must be possible to smash at any time the remainder of the Czech State should it pursue an anti-German policy.’47 Recognizing the perilous plight they were in, the Czechs in fact bent over backwards to accommodate German interests. In extremis, rather than end their existence as a country, the Czechs were prepared to turn themselves into a German satellite.48 Why, then, was Hitler so insistent on smashing the remnants of the Czech state? Politically it was not necessary. Indeed, the German leadership cannot fail to have recognized that an invasion of Czechoslovakia, tearing up the Munich Agreement and breaking solemn promises given only such a short time earlier, would inevitably have the most serious international repercussions.

Part of the answer is doubtless to be found in Hitler’s own personality and psychology. His Austrian background and dislike of Czechs since his youth was almost certainly a significant element. Yet after occupation, the persecution of the Czechs was by no means as harsh as that later meted out to the conquered Poles. ‘They must always have something to lose,’ commented Goebbels.49 And, following his victorious entry into Prague, Hitler showed remarkably little interest in the Czechs.

More important, certainly, was the feeling that he had been ‘cheated’ out of his triumph, his ‘unalterable wish’ altered by western politicians. ‘That fellow Chamberlain has spoiled my entry into Prague,’ he was overheard saying on his return to Berlin after the agreement at Munich the previous autumn.50

His ‘sheer bloody mindedness’ — his determination not to be denied Prague — probably also has to be regarded as part of the explanation.51 And yet, the Goebbels diary entries, which we have noted, indicate plainly that Hitler had decided before Munich that he would concede to the western powers at that point, but gobble up the rest of Czechoslovakia in due course, and that the acquisition of the Sudetenland would make that second stage easier.52 That was Hitler’s rationalization at the time of the position he had been manoeuvred into. But it does indicate the acceptance by that date of a two-stage plan to acquire the whole of Czechoslovakia, and does not highlight vengeance as a motive.

There were other reasons for occupying the rump of Czechoslovakia that went beyond Hitler’s personal motivation. Economic considerations were of obvious importance. However pliant the Czechs were prepared to be, the fact remained that even after the transfer of October 1938, which brought major raw material deposits to the Reich, immense resources remained in Czecho-Slovakia (as the country, the meaningful hyphen inserted, was now officially called) and outside direct German control. The vast bulk of the industrial wealth and resources of the country lay in the old Czech heartlands of Bohemia and Moravia, not in the largely agricultural Slovakia. An estimated four-fifths of engineering, machine-tool construction, and electrical industries remained in the hands of the Czechs.53 Textiles, chemicals, and the glass industry were other significant industries that beckoned the Germans. Not least, the Skoda works produced locomotives and machinery as well as arms. Czecho-Slovakia also possessed large quantities of gold and foreign currency that could certainly help relieve some of the shortages of the Four-Year Plan.54 And a vast amount of equipment could be taken over and redeployed to the advantage of the German army. The Czech arsenal was easily the greatest among the smaller countries of central Europe.55 The Czech machine-guns, field-guns, and anti-aircraft guns were thought to be better than the German equivalents. They were all taken over by the Reich, as well as the heavy guns built at the Skoda factories.56 It was subsequently estimated that enough arms had fallen into Hitler’s possession to equip a further twenty divisions.57 Significantly, Hitler had refused the previous autumn to allow the Poles to occupy the area of Moravská-Ostrava, of importance for its minerals and industries. It was the first area to be taken over by the Germans in March 1939.58

But of even greater importance than direct economic gain and exploitation was the military-strategic position of what remained of Czecho-Slovakia. As long as the Czechs retained some autonomy, and possession of extensive military equipment and industrial resources, potential difficulties from that quarter could not be ruled out in the event of German involvement in hostilities. More important still: possession of the rectangular, mountain-rimmed territories of Bohemia and Moravia on the south-eastern edge of the Reich offered a recognizable platform for further eastward expansion and military domination. The road to the Balkans was now open. Germany’s position against Poland was strengthened. And in the event of conflict in the west, the defences in the east were consolidated.59

By the winter of 1938–9, the Polish Question, its significance growing all the time, was of direct relevance to considerations of how to handle Czecho-Slovakia. According to Below, Hitler regretted not occupying the whole of Czecho-Slovakia the previous autumn because the starting-point for negotiations with the Poles over Danzig and the extra-territorial transit-routes through the Corridor would then have been far more advantageous.60 As we have seen, German hopes of a peaceful revisionism to acquire Danzig and access through the Corridor while bringing Poland into the German orbit were already running into the sand. The future of the rump state of Czecho-Slovakia featured in the diplomatic manoeuvrings. The Poles had seen the possibility blocked of detaching Ruthenia from the Czech heartlands through cession to Hungary (which from the Polish point of view would have undermined the Ukrainian nationalist movement within Ruthenia, with its obvious dangers for inciting trouble among the sizeable Ukrainian minority within Poland). They had consequently turned their attention to Slovakia. Slovakian autonomy from Prague would, so the Poles reasoned, isolate Ruthenia from Bohemia and thereby attain the same effect as would have been achieved by the Hungarian takeover.61

Göring, keen to defend what he could of his waning influence in foreign policy by making the most of his extensive contacts in eastern Europe, was able to persuade Hitler of the advantages of a separate Slovakian state. Goring himself wanted to use Slovakia for German air bases for operations in eastern Europe, especially targeting the Balkans. But the Slovakian solution to Poland’s worries about Ukrainian nationalism in Ruthenia could in his view be used as a bargaining-counter to persuade Poland to accept some territorial adjustments in return for former German areas coming back to the Reich.62 And if the Poles remained intransigent, a Slovakia under German tutelage pursuing an anti-Polish policy could help concentrate their minds.63

As late as December 1938, there was no indication that Hitler was preparing an imminent strike against the Czechs. There were hints, however, that the next moves in foreign policy would not be long delayed. Hitler told the German leader in Memel, Ernst Neumann, on 17 December that annexation of Memelland would take place in the following March or April, and that he wanted no crisis in the area before then.64 Occupation of the Memel, as we noted, had been mentioned in the same military directive in October as the preparations for a strike against Czecho-Slovakia. In mid-January, Hitler indicated to the Hungarian Foreign Minister Count István Csáky that no military action was possible between the previous October and March.65 On 13 February, Hitler let it be known to a few associates that he intended to take action against the Czechs in mid-March. German propaganda was adjusted accordingly.66 The French had already gleaned intelligence in early February that German action against Prague would take place in about six weeks.67

Hitler’s meeting at the Berghof with the Polish Foreign Minister and strong man in the government, Joseph Beck, on 5 January had proved, from the German point of view, disappointing. Hitler had tried to appear accommodating in laying down the need for Danzig to return to Germany, and for access routes across the Corridor to East Prussia. Beck implied that public opinion in Poland would prevent any concessions on Danzig.68 When Ribbentrop returned empty-handed from his visit to Warsaw on 26 January, indicating that the Poles were not to be moved, Hitler’s approach to Poland changed markedly.69

From friendly overtures, the policy moved to pressure. Poland was to be excluded from any share in the spoils from the destruction of the Czech state (though Hungary, having been denied substantial benefits the previous autumn, would in due course be granted Ruthenia). And turning Slovakia into a German puppet-state intensified the threat to Poland’s southern border. Once the demolition of Czecho-Slovakia had taken place, therefore, the Germans hoped and expected the Poles to prove more cooperative.70 The failure of negotiations with the Poles had probably accelerated the decision to destroy the Czech state.71

In January and February 1939, Hitler gave three addresses — not intended for general public consumption — to groups of officers. Partly, he hoped to repair the poor relations with the army that had prevailed since the Blomberg–Fritsch affair. Partly, he wanted to emphasize the type of mentality he expected in face of the conflicts ahead.

On 18 January, before 3,600 recently promoted younger officers assembled in the Mosaic Hall of Speer’s New Reich Chancellery, opened only a few days earlier, in a paean to the virtues of belief, optimism, and heroism in soldiers, Hitler demanded ‘the unconditional belief that our Germany, our German Reich, will one day be the dominant power in Europe’. The size and racial stock of the German population, and the overcoming of the ‘decomposition’ of people and state that had prevailed after 1918, provided the basis for this. Now there was a new spirit in Germany, ‘the spirit of the world-view which dominates Germany today… a deeply soldierly spirit’. The new Wehrmacht had arisen as the guarantor of the military strength of the state. It was his ‘unshakable will’, he declared, ‘that the German Wehrmacht should become the strongest armed force of the entire world’, and it was the task of the young officers to help in constructing it.72 The responsiveness of his audience — frequently breaking into applause, in contrast to the usual military tradition of listening to his speeches in silence, which he did not like — pleased him. Afterwards, he spent some time sitting and talking with groups of officers. He felt the meeting had gone well. He did not even show displeasure at reports that drunken officers, unable to find the toilets in the brand new building, had vomited in the corners of his new splendrous Mosaic Hall.73

A week later, on 25 January, he spoke to 217 officers, including top generals and admirals, underlining his vision of a glorious future, now within reach, built on a return to the heroic values of the past. These had embraced ‘brutality, meaning the sword, if all other methods fail’. They also meant the elimination of ‘the principles of democratic, parliamentary, pacifistic, defeatist mentality’ which had characterized the catastrophe of 1918 and the Republic which had followed Germany’s defeat. The British Empire was put forward as a model; but as an example, too, of how empires were destroyed by pacifism. Hitler concluded by holding out an enticing prospect to the young officers listening: when the work of constructing the new society was consolidated in 100 years or so, producing a new ruling élite, ‘then the people that in my conviction is the first to take this path will stake its claim to the domination of Europe’.74

In a third address, in the Kroll Opera House on 10 February to a large gathering of senior commanders, Hitler forcefully restated his belief that Germany’s future could only be secured by the acquisition of ‘living space’. He expressed disappointment at the attitude of some officers during the crises of 1938, and sought to convince his audience that all his steps in foreign policy (though not their precise timing) had followed a carefully preconceived plan. The events of 1938 had formed part of a chain, reaching back to 1933, and forwards as a step on a long path. ‘Understand, gentlemen,’ he declared, towards the end of his lengthy speech, ‘that the recent great successes have only come about because I perceived the opportunities… I have taken it upon myself… to solve the German problem of space. Note that as long as I live this thought will dominate my entire being. Be convinced, too, that, when I think it possible to advance a step at some moment, I will take action at once and never draw back from the most extreme measures (vor dem Äußersten)… So don’t be surprised if in coming years, too, the attempt will be made to attain some German goal or other at every opportunity, and place yourselves then, I urge you, in most fervent trust behind me.’75

Around this time, according to Goebbels, Hitler spoke practically of nothing else but foreign policy. ‘He’s always pondering new plans,’ Goebbels noted. ‘A Napoleonic nature!’76 The Propaganda Minister had already guessed what was in store when Hitler told him at the end of January he was going ‘to the mountain’ — to the Obersalzberg — to think about his next steps in foreign policy. ‘Perhaps Czechia (die Tschechei) is up for it again. The problem is after all only half solved,’ he wrote.77


By the beginning of March, in the light of mounting Slovakian nationalist clamour (abetted by Germany) for full independence from Prague, the break-up of what was left of the state of Czecho-Slovakia looked to close observers of the scene to be a matter of time. German propaganda against Prague was now becoming shrill. Relations between the Czech and Slovak governments were tense. But for all their pressure the Germans were unable to prise out of the Slovakian leaders the immediate proclamation of full independence and request for German aid that was urgently wanted.78

When the Prague government deposed the Slovakian cabinet, sent police in to occupy government offices in Bratislava, and placed the former Prime Minister, Father Jozef Tiso, under house arrest, Hitler spotted his moment. On 10 March, he told Goebbels, Ribbentrop, and Keitel that he had decided to march in, smash the rump Czech state, and occupy Prague. The invasion was to take place five days later; it would be the Ides of March. ‘Our borders must stretch to the Carpathians,’ noted Goebbels. ‘The Führer shouts for joy. This game is dead certain.’79

Göring, on holiday on the Riviera enjoying the luxury comforts of San Remo, was sent a message telling him not to leave before German troops entered Czecho-Slovakia in order not to stir suspicions abroad.80 On 12 March orders were given to the army and Luftwaffe to be ready to enter Czecho-Slovakia at 6a.m. on the 15th, but before then not to approach within ten kilometres of the border.81 German mobilization was by that stage so obvious that it seemed impossible that the Czechs were unaware of what was happening.82 The propaganda campaign against the Czechs had meanwhile been sharply stepped up.83 Ribbentrop, Goebbels, and Hitler discussed foreign-policy issues until deep into the night. Ribbentrop argued that conflict with England in due course was inevitable. Hitler, according to Goebbels, was preparing for it, but did not regard it as unavoidable. Goebbels criticized Ribbentrop’s inflexibility. ‘But the Führer corrects him, for sure.’84

That evening, 12 March, Tiso had been visited by German officials and invited to Berlin. The next day he met Hitler. He was told the historic hour of the Slovaks had arrived. If they did nothing, they would be swallowed up by Hungary.85 Tiso got the message. By the following noon, 14 March, back in Bratislava, he had the Slovak Assembly proclaim independence. The desired request for ‘protection’ was, however, only forthcoming a day later, after German warships on the Danube had trained their sights on the Slovakian government offices.86

Goebbels listened again to Hitler unfolding his plans. The entire ‘action’ would be over within eight days. The Germans would already be in Prague within a day, their planes within two hours. No bloodshed was expected. ‘Then the Führer wants to fit in (einlegen) a lengthy period of political calm,’ wrote Goebbels, adding that he did not believe it, however enticing the prospect. A period of calm, he thought, was necessary. ‘Gradually, the nerves aren’t coping.’87

On the morning of 14 March, the anticipated request came from Prague, seeking an audience of the Czech State President Dr Emil Hácha with Hitler. Hacha, a small, shy, somewhat unworldly, and also rather sickly man, in office since the previous November, was unable to fly because of a heart complaint.88 He arrived in Berlin during the course of the evening, after a five-hour train journey, accompanied only by Foreign Minister Chvalkov-sky, his secretary, and his daughter. Hitler kept him nervously waiting in the Adlon Hotel until midnight to increase the pressure upon him — ‘the old tested methods of political tactics’, as Goebbels put it.89 While Hácha fretted, Hitler amused himself watching a film called Ein hoffnungsloser Fall (A Hopeless Case).90

The fiction of normal courtesies to a visiting head of state was retained. When he arrived at the New Reich Chancellery at midnight, Hácha was first put through the grotesque ceremonial of inspecting the guard of honour. It was around 1a.m. when, his face red from nervousness and anxiety, the Czech President was eventually ushered into the intimidating surrounds of Hitler’s grandiose ‘study’ in the New Reich Chancellery.91 A sizeable gathering, including Ribbentrop, the head of his personal staff Walther Hewel, Keitel, Weizsäcker, State Secretary Otto Meissner, Press Chief Otto Dietrich, and interpreter Paul Schmidt, were present. Göring, summoned back from holiday, was also there. Hácha’s only support was the presence of Chvalkovsky and Dr Voytech Mastny, the Czech Ambassador in Berlin.92

Hitler was at his most intimidating. He launched into a violent tirade against the Czechs and the ‘spirit of Benes’ that, he claimed, still lived on. It was necessary in order to safeguard the Reich, he continued, to impose a protectorate over the remainder of Czecho-Slovakia. Hácha and Chvalkovsky sat stony-faced and motionless. The entry of German troops was ‘irreversible’, ranted Hitler. Keitel would confirm that they were already marching towards the Czech border, and would cross it at 6a.m.93 His Czech ‘guests’ knew that some had in fact already crossed the border in one place.94 Hácha should phone Prague at once and give orders that there was to be no resistance, if bloodshed were to be avoided. Hácha said he wanted no bloodshed, and asked Hitler to halt the military build-up. Hitler refused: it was impossible; the troops were already mobilized.95 Göring intervened to add that his Luftwaffe would be over Prague by dawn, and it was in Hácha’s hands whether bombs fell on the beautiful city. In fact, the 7th Airborne Division detailed for the operation was grounded by snow.96 But at the threat, the Czech President fainted. If anything happened to Hácha, thought Paul Schmidt, the entire world would think he had been murdered in the Reich Chancellery.97 But Hácha recovered, revived by an injection from Hitler’s personal physician, Dr Morell.

Meanwhile, Prague could not be reached by telephone. Ribbentrop was beside himself with fury at the failings of the German Post Office (though it was established that any difficulty was at the Prague end). Eventually, contact with Prague was made. The browbeaten President went immediately to the telephone and, on a crackly line, passed on his orders that Czech troops were not to open fire on the invading Germans. Just before 4a.m., Hácha signed the declaration, placing the fate of his people in the hands of the Leader of the German Reich.98

Overjoyed, Hitler went in to see his two secretaries, Christa Schroeder and Gerda Daranowski, who had been on duty that night. ‘So, children,’ he burst out, pointing to his cheeks, ‘each of you give me a kiss there and there… This is the happiest day of my life. What has been striven for in vain for centuries, I have been fortunate enough to bring about. I have achieved the union of Czechia with the Reich. Hacha has signed the agreement. I will go down as the greatest German in history.’99

Two hours after Hacha had signed, the German army crossed the Czech borders and marched, on schedule, on Prague. By 9a.m. the forward units entered the Czech capital, making slow progress on ice-bound roads, through mist and snow, the wintry weather providing an appropriate back-cloth to the end of central Europe’s last, betrayed, democracy. The Czech troops, as ordered, remained in their barracks and handed over their weapons.100

Hitler left Berlin at midday, travelling in his special train as far as Leipa, some sixty miles north of Prague, where he arrived during the afternoon. A fleet of Mercedes was waiting to take him and his entourage the remainder of the journey to Prague. It was snowing heavily, but he stood for much of the way, his arm outstretched to salute the unending columns of German soldiers they overtook. Unlike his triumphal entries into Austria and the Sudetenland, only a thin smattering of the population watched sullenly and helplessly from the side of the road. A few dared to greet with clenched fists as Hitler’s car passed by. But the streets were almost deserted by the time he arrived in Prague in the early evening and drove up to the Hradschin Castle, the ancient residence of the Kings of Bohemia.101 Little was ready for his arrival. The great iron gates to the castle were locked. No food was on hand for the new occupiers as Hitler sat down with Reich Minister of the Interior Frick and his Secretary of State Stuckart to finalize the decree initiating the German Protectorate. The military escort were sent out in the early hours to find bread, ham, and Pilsner. Hitler, too, was given a glass of beer. He tasted it, pulled a face, and put it down. It was too bitter for him.102 He dictated the preamble to the decree. It stated that ‘the Bohemian and Moravian lands had belonged to the living space of the German people for 1,000 years’.103 The terminology, sounding alien to Prussian ears, hinted at his Austrian origins; the name of the Protectorate was derived from the designations of the old Habsburg imperial crown lands. He spent the night in the Hradschin. When the people of Prague awoke next morning, they saw Hitler’s standard fluttering on the castle. Twenty-four hours later he was gone.104 He showed little further interest in Prague, or the Protectorate. For the Czechs, six long years of subjugation had begun.

Hitler returned to Berlin, via Vienna, on 19 March, to the inevitable, and by now customary, triumphator’s reception. Despite the freezing temperatures, huge numbers turned out to welcome the hero. When Hitler descended from his train at the Görlitzer Bahnhof, Göring, tears in his eyes, greeted him with an address embarrassing even by the prevailing standards of sycophancy. Thousands cheered wildly as Hitler was driven to the Reich Chancellery. The experienced hand of Dr Goebbels had organized another massive spectacular. Searchlights formed a ‘tunnel of light’ along Unter den Linden. A brilliant display of fireworks followed. Hitler then appeared on the balcony of the Reich Chancellery, waving to the ecstatic crowd of his adoring subjects below.105

The real response among the German people to the rape of Czechoslovakia was, however, more mixed — in any event less euphoric — than that of the cheering multitudes, many of them galvanized by Party activists, in Berlin. This time there had been no ‘home-coming’ of ethnic Germans into the Reich. The vague notion that Bohemia and Moravia had belonged to the ‘German living-space’ for a thousand years left most people cold — certainly most north Germans who had traditionally had little or no connection with the Czech lands.106 For many, as one report from a Nazi District Leader put it, whatever the joy in the Führer’s ‘great deeds’ and the trust placed in him, ‘the needs and cares of daily life are so great that the mood is very quickly gloomy again’.107 There was a good deal of indifference, scepticism, and criticism, together with worries that war was a big step closer. ‘Was that necessary?’ many people asked. They remembered Hitler’s precise words following the Munich Agreement, that the Sudetenland had been his ‘last territorial demand’.108 In the industrial belt of Rhineland-Westphalia, according to a report from the Social Democrat underground movement, there was a good deal of condemnation of the invasion while sympathy for the Czechs was openly expressed in coal-pits, workers’ washrooms, and on the streets. The Nazi regime was criticized; but there was also contempt for the way France and Britain had let Hitler do what he wanted.109 Similar sentiments were commonplace among those who detested the Nazis. ‘No shot fired. Nowhere a protest,’ noted one woman in her diary — adding to her comment the forecast of a friend: ‘I bet they now get Danzig and Poland still without war… and if they’re lucky, even the Ukraine.’110 ‘Can’t he get enough?’ murmured the mother of a fourteen-year-old girl in Paderborn. The young girl herself, who had been appalled the previous summer at the ‘outrages’ allegedly perpetrated against the German minority in the Sudetenland, now found herself sympathizing with the Czechs, and at the same time asking what Germany was doing in annexing the territory of ‘an entirely alien people’ who could under no circumstances be ‘germanized’. She consoled herself with the thought that no blood had been shed, that it could even be an advantage for a small country to be under the protection of a great power, and that the German people would be ‘much more generous, tolerant, and fair’ protectors than ‘some Slavic people’.111 It was a reflection of the widespread latent hostility towards Slavs, the impact of propaganda, and of the confused sentiments that continued to accompany Hitler’s expansionism. Even opponents of Hitler recognized that moral scruples carried little weight in the face of another major prestige success. ‘Internal opponents, too, are now declaring that he’s a great man,’ ran a report sent to the exiled Social Democrat leadership in Paris. It indicated the difficulty in challenging those lauding his ‘achievements’. Counterarguments, it was said, were pointless — not least ‘the argument that Czechoslovakia has been invaded and Hitler has done something wrong’.112

Hitler had been contemptuous of the western powers before the taking of Prague. He correctly judged that once more they would protest, but do nothing. However, everything points to the conclusion that he miscalculated the response of Britain and France after the invasion of Czecho-Slovakia. The initial reaction in London was one of shock and dismay at the cynical demolition of the Munich Agreement, despite the warnings the British government had received. Appeasement policy lay shattered in the ruins of the Czecho-Slovakian state. Hitler had broken his promise that he had no further territorial demands to make. And the conquest of Czecho-Slovakia had destroyed the fiction that Hitler’s policies were aimed at the uniting of German peoples in a single state. Hitler, it was now abundantly clear — a recognition at last and very late in the day — could not be trusted. He would stop at nothing. Chamberlain’s speech in Birmingham on 17 March hinted at a new policy. ‘Is this the last attack upon a small State, or is it to be followed by others?’ he asked. ‘Is this, in fact, a step in the direction of an attempt to dominate the world by force?’113 British public opinion was in no doubt. Hitler had united a country deeply divided over Munich. On all sides people were saying that war with Germany was both inevitable and necessary. Recruitment for the armed forces increased almost overnight.114 It was now clear both to the man in the street and to the government: Hitler had to be tackled.

The following day, 18 March, amid rumours circulating that Germany was threatening Romania, the British cabinet endorsed the Prime Minister’s recommendation of a fundamental change in policy. No reliance could any longer be placed on the assurances of the Nazi leaders, Chamberlain stated. The old policy of trying to come to terms with the dictatorships on the assumption that they had limited aims was no longer possible. Chamberlain regarded his Birmingham speech, he told the cabinet, ‘as a challenge to Germany on the issue whether or not Germany intended to dominate Europe by force. It followed that if Germany took another step in the direction of dominating Europe, she would be accepting the challenge.’ Lord Halifax, the Foreign Secretary, underlined the view that ‘the real issue was Germany’s attempt to obtain world domination, which it was in the interest of all countries to resist’. Britain alone, he argued, could organize such resistance — though he admitted that it was hard to see how Britain could effectively attack Germany — if the Germans invaded Romania or whether they turned on Holland. ‘The attitude of the German government was either bluff, in which case it would be stopped by a public declaration on our part; or it was not bluff, in which case it was necessary that we should all unite to meet it, and the sooner we united the better. Otherwise we might see one country after another absorbed by Germany.’ The policy had shifted from trying to appease Hitler to attempting to deter him. In any new aggression, Germany would be faced at the outset with the choice of pulling back or going to war. As the Foreign Secretary’s comments made clear, the geographical thrust of any new move by Hitler was immaterial to this new strategy. But the Prime Minister had little doubt as to where trouble might next flare up. ‘He thought that Poland was very likely the key to the situation… The time had now come for those who were threatened by German aggression (whether immediately or ultimately) to get together. We should enquire how far Poland was prepared to go alone these lines.’115 The British Guarantee to Poland and the genesis of the summer crisis which, this time, would end in war were foreshadowed in Chamberlain’s remarks.

Similar reactions were registered in Paris. Daladier let Chamberlain know that the French would speed up rearmament and resist any further aggression. The Americans were told that Daladier was determined to go to war should the Germans act against Danzig or Poland. Even strong advocates of appeasement were now saying enough was enough: there would not be another Munich.116


Before the Polish crisis unfolded, Hitler had one other triumph to register-though compared with what had gone before, it was a minor one. As we noted, Hitler had referred in his directive of 21 October 1938 to preparation for ‘the occupation of Memelland’.117 The incorporation of Memelland in the German Reich was now to prove the last annexation without bloodshed. After its removal from Germany in 1919, the Memel district, with a mainly German population but a sizeable Lithuanian minority, had been placed under French administration. The Lithuanians had marched in, forcing the withdrawal of the French occupying force there in January 1923. The following year, under international agreement, the Memel had gained a level of independence, but remained in effect a German enclave under Lithuanian tutelage. Trouble had flared briefly in 1935 when the Lithuanians put 128 Memelland National Socialists on trial, sentencing four of them to death. But other than launch a fierce verbal onslaught on the Lithuanians, Hitler had at the time done nothing. The matter died down as quickly as it had arisen. The Memel question was not raised again for another four years. But in March 1938, the German army had prepared plans to occupy the Memel in the event of war between Poland and Lithuania. Then in October Hitler had included the recovery of the Memel in the directive for taking over Czecho-Slovakia. By the end of the year, interested in agreement with Poland, Hitler had insisted that there should be no agitation from the restless Nazis in the Memel. Early in 1939, anxious to avoid any action which might provoke German intervention, the Lithuanians had yielded to all the wishes of the now largely nazified Memel population.118

Politically, the return of the territory to Germany was of no great significance. Even symbolically, it was of relatively little importance. Few ordinary Germans took more than a passing interest in the incorporation of such a remote fleck of territory into the Reich. But the acquisition of a port on the Baltic, with the possibility that Lithuania, too, might be turned into a German satellite, had strategic relevance. Alongside the subordination to German influence of Slovakia on the southern borders of Poland, it gave a further edge to German pressure on the Poles.119

On 20 March, Ribbentrop subjected the Lithuanian Foreign Minister, Joseph Urbsys, to the usual bullying tactics. Kowno would be bombed, he threatened, if Germany’s demand for the immediate return of the Memel were not met.120 Urbsys returned the next day, 21 March, to Kowno. The Lithuanians were in no mood for a fight. They sent in a draft communiqué. It did not suffice and had to be redrafted in Berlin. By then the Lithuanian ministers had gone to bed and had to be awakened by the German ambassador, who had been told, figuratively, to put a pistol to their chest. ‘Either-or,’ remarked Goebbels.121 At 3a.m. everything was finally accepted. The revised communiqué arrived about three hours later. A Lithuanian delegation was sent to Berlin to arrange the details. ‘If you apply a bit of pressure, things happen,’ noted Goebbels, with satisfaction.122

Hitler left Berlin that afternoon, 22 March, for Swinemünde, where, along with Raeder, he boarded the pocket-battleship Deutschland. Late that evening, Ribbentrop and Urbsys agreed terms for the formal transfer of the Memel district to Germany. Hitler’s decree was signed the next morning, 23 March. German troops crossed the bridge near Tilsit and entered the Memel. Squadrons of the Luftwaffe landed at the same time. At 1.30p.m., Hitler was put on shore in the new German territory. He gave a remarkably short speech on the balcony of the theatre. In under three hours he was gone. He was back in Berlin by noon next day. This time, he dispensed with the hero’s return.123 Triumphal entries to Berlin could not be allowed to become so frequent that they were routine. Goebbels was aware of ‘the danger that the petty-bourgeois (Spießer) think it will go on like this forever. A lot of quite fantastic ideas about the next plans of German foreign policy are being put about.’124

According to Goebbels, Hitler repeated what he had said a few days earlier. He now wanted a period of calm in order to win new trust. ‘Then the colonial question will be brought up (aufs Tapet).’ ‘Always one thing after another,’ added the Propaganda Minister.125 He did not anticipate things becoming quiet. Hitler, however, was evidently not looking to war with the western powers within a matter of months.


His own pressure on Poland forced the issue. Wasting no time, Ribbentrop had pushed Ambassador Lipski on 21 March to arrange a visit to Berlin by Beck. He indicated that Hitler was losing patience, and that the German press was straining at the leash to be turned loose on the Poles — a threat that German feeling could be as easily inflamed against Poland as it had been against Czecho-Slovakia. He repeated the requests about Danzig and the Corridor. In return, Poland might be tempted by the exploitation of Slovakia and the Ukraine.126

But the Poles were not prepared to act according to the script. Beck, noting Chamberlain’s Birmingham speech, secretly put out feelers to London for a bilateral agreement with Britain.127 Meanwhile, the Poles mobilized their troops.128 On 25 March, Hitler still indicated that he did not want to solve the Danzig Question by force to avoid driving the Poles into the arms of the British.129 He had remarked to Goebbels the previous evening that he hoped the Poles would respond to pressure, ‘but we must bite into the sour apple and guarantee Poland’s borders’.130

However, just after noon on 26 March, instead of the desired visit by Beck, Lipski simply presented Ribbentrop with a memorandum representing the Polish Foreign Minister’s views. It flatly rejected the German proposals, reminding Ribbentrop for good measure of Hitler’s verbal assurance in his speech on 20 February 1938 that Poland’s rights and interests would be respected. Ribbentrop lost his temper. Going beyond his mandate from Hitler, he told Lipski that any Polish action against Danzig (of which there was no indication) would be treated as aggression against the Reich. The bullying attempt was lost on Lipski. He replied that any furtherance of German plans directed at the return of Danzig to the Reich meant war with Poland.131 Hitler’s response can be imagined.132 Goebbels recorded in his diary: ‘Poland still makes great difficulties. The Polacks are and remain naturally our enemies, even if from self-interest they have done us some service in the past.’133 Beck confirmed the unbending attitude of the Poles to the German ambassador in Warsaw on the evening of 28 March: if Germany tried to use force to alter the status of Danzig, there would be war.134

By 27 March, meanwhile, Chamberlain, warned that a German strike against Poland might be imminent, was telling the British cabinet he was prepared to offer a unilateral commitment to Poland, aimed at stiffening Polish resolve and deterring Hitler.135 The policy that had been developing since the invasion of Czecho-Slovakia found its expression in Chamberlain’s statement to the House of Commons on 31 March 1939: ‘In the event of any action which clearly threatened Polish independence, and which the Polish Government accordingly considered it vital to resist with their national forces, His Majesty’s Government would feel themselves bound at once to lend the Polish Government all support in their power.’136

This was followed, at the end of Beck’s visit to London on 4–6 April, by Chamberlain’s announcement to the House of Commons that Britain and Poland had agreed to sign a mutual assistance pact in the event of an attack ‘by a European power’.137

On hearing the British Guarantee of 31 March, Hitler fell into a rage. He thumped his fist on the marble-topped table of his study in the Reich Chancellery. ‘I’ll brew them a devil’s potion,’ he fumed.138

Exactly what he had wanted to avoid had happened. He had expected the pressure on the Poles to work as easily as it had done in the case of the Czechs and the Slovaks. He had presumed the Poles would in due course see sense and yield Danzig and concede the extra-territorial routes through the Corridor. He had taken it for granted that Poland would then become a German satellite — an ally in any later attack on the Soviet Union. He had been determined to keep Poland out of Britain’s clutches. All of this was now upturned. Danzig would have to be taken by force. He had been thwarted by the British and spurned by the Poles. He would teach them a lesson.139

Or so he thought. In reality, Hitler’s over-confidence, impatience, and misreading of the impact of German aggression against Czecho-Slovakia had produced a fateful miscalculation.

The next day, 1 April, speaking in Wilhelmshaven after attending the launch of the Tirpitz (the second new modern battleship, following the Bismarck, intended to spearhead Germany’s challenge to the supremacy of the Royal Navy during the next few years),140 Hitler used the opportunity to castigate what he claimed was Britain’s ‘encirclement policy’, and to voice scarcely veiled threats at both Poland and Britain. He summarized his brutal philosophy in a single, short sentence: ‘He who does not possess power loses the right to life.’141

At the end of March Hitler had indicated to Brauchitsch, head of the army, that he would use force against Poland if diplomacy failed. Immediately, the branches of the armed forces began preparing drafts of their own operational plans. These were presented to Hitler in the huge ‘Führer type’ that he could read without glasses. He added a preamble on political aims. By 3 April the directive for ‘Case White’ (Fall Weiß) was ready.142 It was issued eight days later.143 Its first section, written by Hitler himself, began: ‘German relations with Poland continue to be based on the principles of avoiding any disturbances. Should Poland, however, change her policy towards Germany, which so far has been based on the same principles as our own, and adopt a threatening attitude towards Germany, a final settlement might become necessary in spite of the Treaty in force with Poland. The aim then will be to destroy Polish military strength, and create in the East a situation which satisfies the requirements of national defence. The Free State of Danzig will be proclaimed a part of the Reich territory by the outbreak of hostilities at the latest. The political leaders consider it their task in this case to isolate Poland if possible, that is to say, to limit the war to Poland only.’144 The Wehrmacht had to be ready to carry out ‘Case White’ at any time after 1 September 1939.145

Army commanders had been divided over the merits of attacking Czechoslovakia only a few months earlier. Now, there was no sign of hesitation. The aims of the coming campaign to destroy Poland were outlined within a fortnight or so by Chief of the General Staff Haider to generals and General Staff officers. Oppositional hopes of staging a coup against Hitler the previous autumn, as the Sudeten crisis was reaching its dénouement, had centred upon Haider. At the time, he had indeed been prepared to see Hitler assassinated.146 It was the same Haider who now evidently relished the prospect of easy and rapid victory over the Poles and envisaged subsequent conflict with the Soviet Union or the western powers. Haider told senior officers that ‘thanks to the outstanding, I might say, instinctively sure policy of the Führer’, the military situation in central Europe had changed fundamentally. As a consequence, the position of Poland had also significantly altered. Haider said he was certain he was speaking for many in his audience in commenting that with the ending of ‘friendly relations’ with Poland ‘a stone has fallen from the heart’. Poland was now to be ranked among Germany’s enemies. The rest of Haider’s address dealt with the need to destroy Poland ‘in record speed’ (‘einen Rekord an Schnelligkeit’). The British Guarantee would not prevent this happening. He was contemptuous of the capabilities of the Polish army.147 It formed ‘no serious opponent’. He outlined in some detail the course the German attack would take, acknowledging cooperation with the SS and the occupation of the country by the paramilitary formations of the Party. The aim, he repeated, was to ensure ‘that Poland as rapidly as possible was not only defeated, but liquidated’, whether France and Britain should intervene in the West (which on balance he deemed unlikely) or not. The attack had to be ‘crushing’ (‘zermalmend’). He concluded by looking beyond the Polish conflict: ‘We must be finished with Poland within three weeks, if possible already in a fortnight. Then it will depend on the Russians whether the eastern front becomes Europe’s fate or not. In any case, a victorious army, filled with the spirit of gigantic victories attained, will be ready either to confront Bolshevism or… to be hurled against the West…’148

On Poland, there was no divergence between Hitler and his Chief of the General Staff. Both wanted to smash Poland at breakneck speed, preferably in an isolated campaign but, if necessary, even with western intervention (though both thought this more improbable than probable). And both looked beyond Poland to a widening of the conflict, eastwards or westwards, at some point. Hitler could be satisfied. He need expect no problems this time from his army leaders.

The contours for the summer crisis of 1939 had been drawn. It would end not with the desired limited conflict to destroy Poland, but with the major European powers locked in another continental war. This was in the first instance a consequence of Hitler’s miscalculation that spring. But, as Haider’s address to the generals indicated, it had not been Hitler’s miscalculation alone.


‘The answer to the question of how the problem “Danzig and the Corridor” is to be solved is still the same among the general public: incorporation in the Reich? Yes. Through war? No.’

Reported opinion in a district of Upper Franconia, 31 July 1939

‘When starting and waging a war it is not right that matters, but victory.’

Hitler to his military leaders, 22 August 1939

‘In my life I’ve always gone for broke.’

Hitler to Göring, 29 August 1939.

For 20 April 1939, Hitler’s fiftieth birthday, Goebbels had orchestrated an astonishing extravaganza of the Führer cult. The lavish outpourings of adulation and sycophancy surpassed those of any previous ‘Führer’s Birthday’. The festivities had already begun on the afternoon of the 19th. In mid-evening, followed by a cavalcade of fifty limousines, Hitler was driven along the thronged seven kilometres of the newly opened ‘East-West Axis’, lit by flaming torches and bedecked with hundreds of banners, built as the main boulevard of the intended new capital of the Nazi empire, ‘Germania’. After Albert Speer had declared the new road open, Hitler returned to the Reich Chancellery, watching from the balcony, as Party deputations from all the Gaue wound their way in torchlight procession through the vast, cheering crowd assembled in Wilhelmsplatz. At midnight he was congratulated by all the members of his personal entourage, beginning with his secretaries. Speer, by now the firmly established court favourite, presented a delighted Hitler with a four-metre model of the gigantic triumphal arch that would crown the rebuilt Berlin. Captain Hans Baur, Hitler’s pilot, gave him a model of the four-engined Focke-Wulf 200 ‘Condor’, under construction to take service as the ‘Führer Machine’ in the summer. Row upon row of further gifts — marble-white nude statues, bronze casts, Meissen porcelain, oil-paintings (some valuable, including a Lenbach and even a Titian, but mostly the standard dreary exhibits found in the House of German Art in Munich), tapestries, rare coins, antique weapons, and a mass of other presents, many of them kitsch (like the cushions embroidered with Nazi emblems or ‘Heil mein Führer’) — were laid out on long tables in the hall where Bismarck had presided over the Berlin Congress of 1878. Hitler admired some, made fun of others, and ignored most.1

The central feature of the birthday itself was a mammoth display of the might and power of the Third Reich, calculated to show the western powers what faced them if they should tangle with the new Germany. The ambassadors of Britain, France, and the USA, recalled after the march into Czecho-Slovakia, were absent. The Poles had sent no delegation.2 The parade on the ‘East-West Axis’ began at 11a.m. and lasted almost five hours. His secretaries returned to the Reich Chancellery exhausted from the ‘dreadfully long’ show; but Hitler never tired of being the centre of attraction at propaganda displays, however long he had to stand with his arm raised.3 The entire parade was recorded on 10,000 metres of film. The image of Hitler the ‘statesman of genius’ had now to be complemented by the portrayal of the ‘future military leader, taking muster of his armed forces’.4

‘The Führer is feted like no other mortal has ever been,’ effused Goebbels.5 Hitler’s most adoring disciple was scarcely a rational judge. But, elaborately stage-managed though the entire razzmatazz had been, there was no denying Hitler’s genuine popularity — even near-deification by many — among the masses. What had been before 1933 bitterly anti-Nazi Communist and Socialist sub-cultures remained, despite terror and propaganda, still largely impervious to the Hitler adulation. Many Catholics, relatively immune throughout to Nazism’s appeal, and, in lesser measure, Protestant churchgoers had been alienated by the ‘Church Struggle’ (though Hitler was held less generally to blame than his subordinates, especially Rosenberg and Goebbels). Intellectuals might be disdainful of Hitler, old-fashioned, upper-class conservatives bemoan the vulgarity of the Nazis, and those with remaining shreds of liberal, humanitarian values feel appalled at the brutality of the regime, displayed in full during ‘Crystal Night’. Even so, Hitler was without doubt the most popular government head in Europe. The exiled Social Democratic leaders, analysing the Führer cult as reflected in the plethora of letters, poems, and other devotalia sent in by ordinary citizens and published in German newspapers around Hitler’s fiftieth birthday, admitted that the phenomenon could not be explained by propaganda alone. Hitler, a national leader arising from the lower ranks of society, had tapped a certain ‘naïve faith’ embedded in lengthy traditions of ‘heroic’ leadership. Internal terror and the readiness of the western powers to hand Hitler one success after another in foreign policy had undermined the scepticism of many waverers. The result was that, although there was much fear of war, belief in the Führer was extensive.6 ‘A great man, a genius, a person sent to us from heaven,’ was one seventeen-year-old girl’s naïve impression.7 She spoke for many.

Whatever the criticisms ordinary people had about everyday life in the Third Reich, its irritations and vexations, the cult constructed around the Führer represented an enormous force for integration. The daily reality of Nazi rule spawned much antagonism. Grandiose Party buildings, erected at vast cost, greatly affronted a hard-pressed and poorly housed working population in the big cities. Massive criticism continued to be heaped on the self-evident corruption, scandalous high-living, and arrogance of Party functionaries. And, though the ‘Church struggle’ had died down somewhat, compared with intensity of the years 1936 and 1937, the attritional conflict between Party anti-Church fanatics and the churchgoing population remained a source of repeated friction.8 But Hitler’s ‘successes’ offered a counter — a set of ‘achievements’, put forward as those of a national, not party, leader, in which almost any German could take pride. ‘I have overcome the chaos in Germany,’ claimed Hitler in his speech to the Reichstag on 28 April, ‘restored order, massively raised production in all areas of our national economy.’ His litany of what were advanced as his own, personal accomplishments, continued: ‘I have succeeded in completely bringing back into useful production the seven [!] million unemployed who were so dear to all our own hearts, in keeping the German peasant on his soil despite all difficulties and in rescuing it for him, in attaining the renewed flourishing of German trade, and in tremendously promoting transportation. I have not only politically united the German people, but also militarily rearmed them, and I have further attempted to tear up page for page that Treaty, which contained in its 448 articles the most base violations ever accorded to nations and human beings. I have given back to the Reich the provinces stolen from us in 1919. I have led back into the homeland the millions of deeply unhappy Germans who had been torn away from us. I have recreated the thousand-year historic unity of the German living-space, and I have attempted to do all this without spilling blood and without inflicting on my people or on others the suffering of war. I have managed this from my own strength, as one who twenty-one years ago was an unknown worker and soldier of my people.’9

People worried how long it could all last. But the contrast with the dark days of economic depression and national humiliation was scarcely credible. What had been achieved seemed staggering. Most people did not want to see it put at risk through external conflict. For those who did not dwell too long on the causes and consequences, one man alone appeared to have masterminded it all. For that man, what had been achieved so far was no more than a preparation for what was to come.

As what was to prove the last peacetime spring and summer wore on, Hitler’s subordinates were in no doubt about the difficulties at home, and their impact on large sections of the population. The SD had spoken of a ‘mood close to complete despair’ among the peasantry at the end of 1938 owing to the ‘flight from the land’ and ensuing massive labour shortage. The feeling of being crushed, the SD claimed, was partly reflected in resignation, partly in outright revolt against the farmers’ leaders.10 In the first months of 1939, the peasants’ mood was said to have deteriorated still further.11 In Bavaria, it had reportedly reached ‘boilingpoint’ (‘Siedehitze’).12 The SD concluded that the ‘production battle’ had passed its peak, and was now facing decline, with the extensification of agriculture, and threat to the ‘völkisch substance’.13 In fact, the whole economic expansion, the SD suggested, had now reached its limits. Further pressure on the work-force would result only in declining performance and production.14

‘Growing unrest and discontent’ as a consequence of living, working, and housing conditions was reported among the working class of one of the most industrialized regions, the Ruhr District, in early 1939.15 By summer, reports from the same area were pointing to the sharp rise in the cases of sickness among industrial workers in armaments factories and coal-mines — whether, as some claimed, from ‘lack of discipline’, or, more likely, from genuine overwork, or from a combination of both can only be surmised.16 By then, the labour situation was described as ‘catastrophic’.17 Yet sullen apathy, not rebelliousness, characterized a work-force worn down by intensified production demands.18 Even so, if the industrial working class was politically neutralized, its productive capacity had by all accounts reached its peak. This in itself posed an evident threat to any long-term preparations for war.

Hitler showed no interest in the details of economic difficulties pouring in from every part of the Reich. He was sensitive, as he had been in the mid 1930s, to the impact on morale, refusing in 1938 to entertain any rise in food prices.19 But he had become increasingly preoccupied with foreign policy. Domestic issues were largely pushed to one side. Decisions were left untaken; much business was postponed or neglected; access to him was difficult. Even Lammers, in the absence of cabinet meetings now the sole link with the various government ministers, had been forced to plead with the Führer’s chief adjutant, Wilhelm Brückner, on 21 October 1938 for a brief audience with Hitler to discuss urgent business since, because of the demands of foreign policy, he had managed only one short meeting with him since 4 September.20 The reports of the ‘Trustees of Labour’ (Treuhänder der Arbeit) had normally been passed to Lammers and often brought directly to Hitler’s attention in 1937. But in 1938–9, as the labour crisis became acute, Hitler was verbally informed of the content, emphasizing the seriousness of the mounting labour problems, on only one occasion (at the meeting with Lammers in early September 1938) and most of the reports, regarded as highly repetitive, were by now not even reaching Lammers.21

With regard to agriculture, Hitler’s disinterest was even more marked. He simply refused to accede to Darré’s repeated requests for an audience and did not respond to the Agriculture Minister’s bombardment of the Reich Chancellery with memoranda about the critical situation. Only in October 1940 was Hitler finally persuaded to comment on the intense bitterness in the farming community about the labour shortage. He replied that their complaints would be attended to after the war.22

This reflected a key feature of Hitler’s thinking: war as panacea. Whatever the difficulties, they would be — and could only be — resolved by war. He was certainly alert to the dangers of a collapse in his popularity, and the likely domestic crisis which would then occur.23 The fears of a repeat of 1918 were never far away.24 He even seemed to sense that his own massive popularity had shaky foundations. ‘Since I’ve been politically active, and especially since I’ve been leading the Reich,’ he told his audience of newspaper editors in November 1938, ‘I have had only successes… What would then happen if we were some time to experience failure? That, too, could happen, gentlemen.’25 But he was speaking here of the ‘intellectual strata’, for whom he felt in any case nothing but contempt. If he took cognizance at all of the reports of poor mood among industrial workers and farmers, they must merely have confirmed his view that he had been correct all along: only war and expansion could provide the answer to Germany’s problems.

It is, in fact, doubtful whether he would have believed the accounts of poor morale, even if he had read them. Even three years or so earlier, when his adjutant at the time, Fritz Wiedemann, had tried to summarize the content of negative opinion reports, Hitler had refused to listen, shouting: ‘The mood in the people is not bad, but good. I know that better. It’s made bad through such reports. I forbid such things in future.’26 On the day Poland was invaded he would say to members of the Reichstag: ‘Don’t anyone tell me that in his Gau or his district, or his constituency (Gruppe), or his cell the mood could at some point be bad. You are responsible for the mood.’27 In April 1939, he took the adulation of the crowds at his fiftieth birthday celebrations, which, he claimed, had given him new strength, as the true indication of the mood of the people.28 Following one extraordinary triumph upon another, his self-belief had by this time been magnified into full-blown megalomania. Even among his private guests at the Berghof, he frequently compared himself with Napoleon, Bismarck, and other great historical figures.29 The rebuilding programmes that constantly preoccupied him were envisaged as his own lasting monument — a testament of greatness like the buildings of the Pharaohs or Caesars.30 He felt he was walking with destiny. Such a mentality allowed little space for the daily worries and concerns of ordinary people. It was much the same when Schacht or Göring brought the deteriorating economic situation to his attention. Such problems were, in his view, a mere passing phenomemon, a temporary irritant of no significance compared with the grandeur of his vision and the magnitude of the struggle ahead. Conventional economics — however limited his understanding — would, he was certain, never solve the problems. The sword alone, as he had repeatedly advocated since the 1920s, would produce the solution: the conquest of the ‘living space’ needed for survival. The lands of the East would one day provide for Germany. There would be no economic problems then. The opportunities awaited. But they had to be grasped quickly. His enemies — he had said so after Munich — were puny. But they were gathering strength. There was no time to lose.

It was a bizarre mentality. But in the summer of 1939, such a mentality was driving Germany towards European war. All along the way, Hitler had pushed at open doors. Revanchism and revisionism had given him his platform. Foreign Ministry mandarins, captains of industry, and above all the leaders of the armed forces had done everything — in their own interest — to ‘work towards the Führer’ in destroying Versailles and Locarno, pushing for economic expansion, building up a war machine. The weakened and divided western powers had given way at every step. They had provided the international backcloth to the expansion of Hitler’s power, to the diplomatic triumphs cheered to the echo by millions. The exalting of Hitler’s prestige had in turn elevated him to a position where he was held in awe even by his close entourage. The Führer cult removed him more and more from criticism, undermined opposition, inordinately strengthened his own hand against those who had done everything to build him up but now found themselves sidelined or bypassed. The traditional national-conservative power-elites had helped to make Hitler. But he now towered above them.31 The major shifts in personnel in the army leadership and Foreign Ministry in February 1938, and the great foreign-policy triumphs that followed, had removed the last possible constraining influences. Surrounded by lackeys, yes-men, and time-servers, Hitler’s power was by this time absolute. He could decide over war and peace.32


Hitler made public the abrupt shift in policy towards Poland and Great Britain in his big Reichstag speech of 28 April 1939.

The speech, lasting two hours and twenty minutes, had been occasioned by a message sent by President Roosevelt a fortnight earlier.33 Prompted by the invasion of Czecho-Slovakia, and in direct response to the German dictator’s aggressive speech in Wilhelmshaven on 1 April, the President had appealed to Hitler to give an assurance that he would desist from any attack for the next twenty-five years on thirty named countries — mainly European, but also including Iraq, Arabia, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and Iran. Were such an assurance to be given, the United States, declared Roosevelt, would play its part in working for disarmament and equal access to raw materials on world markets.34 Hitler was incensed by Roosevelt’s telegram. That it had been published in Washington before even being received in Berlin was taken as a slight. Hitler also thought it arrogant in tone.35 And the naming of the thirty countries allowed Hitler to claim that inquiries had been conducted in each, and that none felt threatened by Germany. Some, such as Syria, however, had been, he alleged, unable to reply, since they were deprived of freedom and under the military control of democratic states, while the Republic of Ireland, he asserted, feared aggression from Britain, not from Germany.36 Roosevelt’s raising of the disarmament issue (out of which Hitler had made such capital a few years earlier) handed him a further propaganda gift. With heavy sarcasm, he tore into Roosevelt, ‘answering’ his claims in twenty-one points, each cheered to the rafters by the assembled members of the Reichstag, roaring with laughter as he poured scorn on the President.37

He returned to the Reich Chancellery drenched in sweat, ready for the hot bath that had been prepared for him.38 Civil servants in the Foreign Ministry thought he had ‘lashed out’ (ausgekeilt) in all directions, which Hitler took as a compliment. Many German listeners to the broadcast thought it one of the best speeches he had made.39 William Shirer, the American journalist in Berlin, was inclined to agree: ‘Hitler was a superb actor today,’ he wrote.40 The performance was largely for internal consumption. The outside world — at least those countries that felt they had accommodated Hitler for too long — were less impressed.

Preceding the vaudeville, Hitler had chosen the occasion to renounce the Non-Aggression Pact with Poland and the Naval Agreement with Britain. Memoranda to this effect had been handed over by the German embassies in Warsaw and London to coincide with the timing of the speech. Hitler, repeating his admiration for the British Empire, his search for an understanding, and that his only demand on Britain was the return of the former German colonies, blamed the renunciation of the naval pact on Britain’s ‘encirclement policy’.41 In reality, he was complying with the interests of the German navy, which felt its construction plans restricted by the pact and had been pressing for some time for Hitler to renounce it.42 The intransigence of the Poles over Danzig and the Corridor, their mobilization in March — in Hitler’s eyes almost as big an affront as the Czech mobilization the previous May — and the alignment with Britain against Germany were given as reasons for the ending of the Polish pact.43 The reasons were scarcely regarded as compelling outside Germany.

Since the end of March, which had brought the British guarantee for Poland, followed soon afterwards by the announcement that there was to be a British-Polish mutual assistance treaty, Hitler had, in fact, given up on the Poles. The military directives of early April were recognition of this. The Poles, he acknowledged, were not going to concede to German demands without a fight. So they would have their fight. And they would be smashed. Only the timing and conditions remained to be determined.

Hitler’s new aggressive stance towards Poland was certain of a warm welcome throughout the regime’s leadership, even among those who had opposed the high risk on Czecho-Slovakia the previous summer, and among broad swathes of the German population. The traditional anti-Polish sentiment in the Foreign Ministry was reflected in the relish with which Weizsäcker had conveyed the news to the Poles in early April that Germany was ending all negotiations.44 Anti-Polish feeling in the military was also rampant. Military leaders — even those with little time for Hitler — were enthusiastic about a revision of the disputed borders with Poland where they had been cool about Czecho-Slovakia. Ordinary soldiers were raring to be let loose at the Poles.45 The commanders of the armed forces’ branches were, moreover, better integrated from the outset into the military planning on Poland than they had been in the early stages of the Sudeten crisis.46 Despite the British guarantee, they had greater confidence than the previous year in Hitler pulling off yet another coup, and fewer fears of western involvement.47

At a meeting in his study in the New Reich Chancellery on 23 May, Hitler outlined his thinking on Poland and on wider strategic issues to a small group of top military leaders. The main points of his speech were noted down by his Wehrmacht Adjutant Lieutenant-Colonel Rudolf Schmundt. It was a frank address, even if some points (according to the noted record) were left ambiguous. It held out the prospect not only of an attack on Poland, but also made clear that the more far-reaching aim was to prepare for an inevitable showdown with Britain. Unlike the meeting on 5 November 1937 that Hoßbach had recorded, there is no indication that the military commanders were caused serious disquiet by what they heard. As on that occasion, the meeting had been called to deal with questions of raw materials allocation, arising from the priority that had been given in January to the naval Z-Plan.48 As then, Hitler did not deal with such specifics, but launched into a broad assessment of strategy, this time regarding Poland and the West. Other countries, including the Soviet Union, were scarcely touched upon.

Significantly — and an indication that reports of the mounting difficulties had not passed him by — Hitler began by emphasizing the need to solve Germany’s economic problems. His answer was the one he had been rehearsing for over fifteen years, though it was now more plainly stated than it had been in his first speech to military leaders on being appointed Chancellor, over six years earlier. ‘This is not possible without “breaking in” to other countries or attacking other people’s possessions,’ he baldly stated. In characteristic vein he continued: ‘Living space proportionate to the greatness of the State is fundamental to every Power. One can do without it for a time, but sooner or later the problems will have to be solved by hook or by crook. The alternatives are rise or decline. In fifteen or twenty years’ time the solution will be forced upon us. No German statesman can shirk the problem for longer.’

He turned to Poland. The Poles would always stand on the side of Germany’s enemies. The Non-Aggression Treaty had not altered this in the least. He made his intentions brutally clear. ‘It is not Danzig that is at stake. For us it is a matter of expanding our living space in the East and making food supplies secure and also solving the problem of the Baltic States. Food supplies can only be obtained from thinly populated areas. Over and above fertility, thorough German cultivation will tremendously increase the produce. No other openings can be seen in Europe.’ Colonies were no answer, he averred, since they were always subject to blockade by sea. In the event of war with the West, the territories in the East would provide food and labour.

He moved from economic to strategic considerations. The problem of Poland could not be dissociated from the showdown with the West. The Poles would cave in to Russian pressure. And they would seek to exploit any German military involvement with the western powers. He drew the conclusion from this that it was necessary ‘to attack Poland at the first suitable opportunity. We cannot expect a repetition of Czechia. There will be war. Our task is to isolate Poland. Success in isolating her will be decisive.’ He reserved to himself, therefore, the timing of any strike. Simultaneous conflict with the West had to be avoided. Should it, however, come to that — Hitler revealed here his priorities — ‘then the fight must be primarily against England and France’. He repeated — directly contradicting himself, if Schmundt’s notes are accurate — that the attack on Poland would only be successful if the West were kept out of it, but if that proved impossible ‘it is better to fall upon the West and finish off Poland at the same time’.

For the first time, there was less than outright hostility in his comments about the Soviet Union. Economic relations would only be possible, he said, once political relations had improved — an oblique reference to comments made by the new Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov a few days earlier.49 He did not, as had previously been the case, rule out such an improvement. He even suggested that Russia might be disinterested in the destruction of Poland.

His main concern was the coming showdown with the West, particularly with Britain. He doubted the possibility of peaceful coexistence in the long run. So it was necessary to prepare for conflict. A contest over hegemony, he implied (as he had done privately to Goebbels earlier in the year), was unavoidable. ‘Therefore England is our enemy and the showdown with England is a matter of life and death.’ He speculated on what the showdown would be like — speculations not remote from what was to happen a year later. Holland and Belgium would have to be overrun. Declarations of neutrality would be ignored. Once France, too, was defeated (which he did not dwell upon as a major difficulty), the bases on the west coast would enable the Luftwaffe and U-boats to effect the blockade that would bring Britain to its knees. The war would be an all-out one: ‘We must then burn our boats and it will no longer be a question of right or wrong but of to be or not to be for 80 million people.’ A war of ten to fifteen years had to be reckoned with. A long war had, therefore, to be prepared for, even though every attempt would be made to deliver a surprise knock-out blow at the outset — possible only if Germany avoided ‘sliding into’ war with Britain as a result of Poland. Clearly, Hitler was here, too, envisaging the elimination of Poland before any conflict with the West took place.50

Decisive in the conflict with Britain — and here Hitler indirectly provided the answer on raw materials allocation, and showed himself at the same time strategically still locked in the past — would not be air-power but the destruction of the British fleet. How, exactly, this would be achieved was not clarified. A special operations staff of the armed forces was to be set up to prepare the ground in detail and keep Hitler informed. ‘The aim is always to bring England to its knees,’ he stated.

Only Göring responded at the end of the forthright, if rambling, address. Not surprisingly, he wanted to hear something concrete about the priorities for raw materials, and about the likely timing of the conflict with the West. Hitler replied, vaguely, that the branches of the armed forces would determine what was to be constructed. On naval requirements, however, he was adamant, as his remarks had indicated: ‘Nothing will be changed in the shipbuilding programme.’ To the relief of those present, who took it as an indication of when he envisaged the conflict with the West taking place, he stipulated that the rearmament programmes were to be targeted at 1943–4 — the same time-scale he had given in November 1937. But no one doubted that Hitler intended to attack Poland that very year.51


Throughout the spring and summer frenzied diplomatic efforts were made to try to isolate Poland and deter the western powers from becoming involved in what was intended as a localized conflict. On the day before Hitler’s address to his military leaders, Italy and Germany had signed the so-called ‘Pact of Steel’, meant to warn Britain and France off backing Poland.52 The Italians had been soured by being kept in the dark about the invasion of Czecho-Slovakia. ‘Every time Hitler occupies a country he sends me a message,’ Mussolini had lamented.53 But Ribbentrop had striven to mend fences. The Italian annexation of Albania in early April — partly to show the Germans they could do it too — had been applauded by Berlin. The Japanese, interested only in an anti-Soviet alliance and keen to avoid any commitments involving the West, adamantly refused to fall in with Ribbentrop’s grand plan and establish a tripartite pact.54 But the pompous German Foreign Minister — even Hitler described him as swollen-headed — duped the Italians into signing a bilateral military pact on the understanding that the Führer wanted peace for five years and expected the Poles to settle peacefully once they realized that support from the West would not be forthcoming.55

In the attempt to secure the assistance or benevolent neutrality of a number of smaller European countries and prevent them being drawn into the Anglo-French orbit, the German government had mixed success. In the west, Belgian neutrality — whatever Hitler’s plans to ignore it when it suited him — was shored up to keep the western powers from immediate proximity to Germany’s industrial heartlands. Every effort had been made in preceding years to promote trading links with the neutral countries of Scandinavia to sustain, above all, the vital imports of iron ore from Sweden and Norway.56 In the Baltic, Latvia and Estonia agreed non-aggression pacts. But in central Europe, diplomatic efforts had more patchy results. Hungary, Yugoslavia, and Turkey were unwilling to align themselves closely with Berlin. Turkey could not be prevented from siding officially with Britain. But even here, Turkey’s need for good relations with Germany meant a willingness to provide the vital supplies of chrome. Economic penetration of the Balkans had, moreover, ensured that copper and other minerals would be forthcoming from Yugoslavia. And persistent pressure had turned Romania into an economic satellite, sealed by treaty in late March 1939, more or less assuring Germany of crucial access to Romanian oil and wheat in the event of hostilities.57

The big question-mark concerned the Soviet Union. The regime’s antichrist it might be. But it held the key to the destruction of Poland. If the USSR could be prevented from linking hands with the West in the tripartite pact that Britain and France were half-heartedly working towards; better still, if the unthinkable — a pact between the Soviet Union and the Reich itself — could be brought about: then Poland would be totally isolated, at Germany’s mercy, the Anglo-French guarantees worthless, and Britain — the main opponent — hugely weakened. Such thoughts began to gestate in the mind of Hitler’s Foreign Minister in the spring of 1939.58 In the weeks that followed, it was Ribbentrop on the German side, rather than a hesitant Hitler, who took the initiative in seeking to explore all hints that the Russians might be interested in a rapprochement — hints that had been forthcoming since March.59

Within the Soviet leadership, the entrenched belief that the West wanted to encourage German aggression in the East (that is, against the USSR), the recognition that following Munich collective security was dead, the need to head off any aggressive intent from the Japanese in the east, and above all the desperate need to buy time to secure defences for the onslaught thought certain to come at some time, pushed — if for a considerable time only tentatively — in the same direction.60 However, Stalin kept his options open. Not until August was the door finally closed on a pact with the foot-dragging western powers.61

Stalin’s speech to the Communist Party Congress on 10 March, attacking the appeasement policy of the West as encouragement of German aggression against the Soviet Union, and declaring his unwillingness to ‘pull the chestnuts out of the fire’ for the benefit of capitalist powers, had been taken by Ribbentrop, so he later claimed, as a hint that an opportunity might be opening up. He showed the speech to Hitler, asking for authorization to check what Stalin wanted. Hitler was hesitant. He wanted to await developments.62 Ribbentrop nevertheless put out cautious feelers. The unofficial response was encouraging. But Ribbentrop thought Hitler would disapprove, and did not bring it to his attention.63 By mid-April, however, the Soviet Ambassador was remarking to Weizsäcker that ideological differences should not hinder better relations.64 Still there was no response from Hitler. He remained unconvinced when Gustav Hilger, a long-serving diplomat in the German Embassy in Moscow, was brought to the Berghof to explain that the dismissal of the Soviet Foreign Minister Maxim Litvinov (who had been associated with retaining close ties with the West, partly through a spell as Soviet Ambassador to the USA, and was moreover a Jew), and his replacement by Vyacheslav Molotov, Stalin’s right-hand man, had to be seen as a sign that the Soviet dictator was looking for an agreement with Germany.65

Again it was Ribbentrop who was stirred by the suggestion.66 He heard around the same time from the German ambassador in Moscow, Count Friedrich Werner von der Schulenburg, that the Soviet Union was interested in a rapprochement with Germany.67 He scented a coup which would dramatically turn the tables on Britain, the country which had dared to spurn him — a coup that would also win him glory and favour in the Führer’s eyes, and his place in history as the architect of Germany’s triumph. Hitler for his part thought that Russian economic difficulties and the chance spotted by ‘the wily fox’ Stalin to remove any threat from Poland to the Soviet western borders were at the back of any opening towards Germany. His own interests were to isolate Poland and deter Britain.68

Ribbentrop was now able to persuade Hitler to agree to the Soviet requests for resumption of trade negotiations with Moscow, which had been broken off the previous February.69 Molotov told Schulenburg, however, that a ‘political basis’ would have to be found before talks could be resumed. He left unclear what he had in mind.70 Hitler again poured cold water on Ribbentrop’s eagerness to begin political talks. Weizsäcker’s view was that the Foreign Minister’s notions of offering mediation in the Soviet conflict with Japan and hinting at partition of Poland would be rejected ‘with a peal of Tartar laughter’.71 Deep suspicions on both sides led to relations cooling again throughout June. Molotov continued to stonewall and keep his options open. Desultory economic discussions were just kept alive. But at the end of June, Hitler, irritated by the difficulties raised by the Soviets in the trade discussions, ordered the ending of all talks.72 This time the Soviets took the initiative. Within three weeks they were letting it be known that trade talks could be resumed, and that the prospects for an economic agreement were favourable.73 This was the signal Berlin had been waiting for. Schulenburg in Moscow was ordered to ‘pick up the threads again’.74

Four days later, Ribbentrop’s Russian expert in the Foreign Ministry’s Trade Department, Karl Schnurre, invited the Soviet Chargé d’Affaires Georgei Astakhov and trade representative Evengy Babarin to dinner in Berlin. Acting under detailed instructions from the Foreign Minister himself, he indicated that the trade agreement could be accompanied by a political understanding between Germany and the Soviet Union, taking into account their mutual territorial interests. The response was encouraging.75 Within three days Ribbentrop was directing Schulenburg to put the same points directly to Molotov. Schnurre wrote himself to Schulenburg: ‘Politically, the problem of Russia is being dealt with here with extreme urgency.’ He was in daily contact with Ribbentrop, he stated, who in turn was in constant touch with the Führer. Ribbentrop was concerned to obtain a breakthrough in the Russian question, to disturb Soviet — British negotiations, but also to bring about an understanding with Germany. ‘Hence the haste with which we sent you the last instructions.’76 Molotov was non-committal and somewhat negative when he met Schulenburg on 3 August. But two days later, through his informal contacts with Schnurre, Astakhov was letting Riobentrop know that the Soviet government was seriously interested in the ‘improvement of mutual relations’, and willing to contemplate political negotiations.77

Towards the end of July, Hitler, Ribbentrop, and Weizsäcker had devised the basis of an agreement with the Soviet Union involving the partition of Poland and the Baltic states.78 Hints about such an arrangement were dropped to Molotov during his meeting with Schulenburg on 3 August.79 But Stalin was in no rush. And by now he had learned what the Germans were up to, and the broad timing of the intended action against the Poles.80 But for Hitler there was not a moment to lose. The attack on Poland could not be delayed. Autumn rains, he told Count Ciano in mid-August, would turn the roads into a morass and Poland into ‘one vast swamp… completely unsuitable for any military operations’. The strike had to come by the end of the month.81


Hitler, meanwhile, did everything possible to obscure what he had in mind to the general public in Germany and to the outside world. He had told the NSDAP’s press agency in mid-July to publish the dates of the ‘Reich Party Rally of Peace’ — longer than ever before, and scheduled to take place at Nuremberg on 2-II September 1939. It was also announced that he would attend a huge gathering, expected to attract 100,000 people, on 27 August to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Battle of Tannenberg.82 By then, detailed military plans to launch the attack to destroy Poland no later than 1 September had been in existence for several weeks.83

Remarkably, for the best part of three months during this summer of high drama, with Europe teetering on the brink of war, Hitler was almost entirely absent from the seat of government in Berlin. Much of the time, as always, when not at his alpine eyrie above Berchtesgaden, he was travelling around Germany. Early in June he visited the construction site of the Volkswagen factory at Fallersleben, where he had laid the foundation stone a year or so earlier. From there it was on to Vienna, to the ‘Reich Theatre Week’, where he saw the première of Richard Strauss’s Friedenstag, regaling his adjutants with stories of his visits to the opera and theatre there thirty years earlier, and lecturing them on the splendours of Viennese architecture. Before leaving, he visited the grave of his niece, Geli Raubal (who had shot herself in mysterious circumstances in his Munich flat in 1931). He flew on to Linz, where he criticized new worker flats because they lacked the balconies he deemed essential in every apartment. From there he was driven to Berchtesgaden via Lambach, Hafeld, and Fischlham — some of the places associated with his childhood and where he had first attended school.84

At the beginning of July, he was in Rechlin in Mecklenburg, inspecting new aircraft prototypes, including the He 176, the first rocket-propelled plane, with a speed of almost 1,000 kilometres an hour. Whenever he expressed particular interest, Göring told him that everything would be done to ensure it would soon be ready for service. No one dared explain that their deployment lay in the distant future.85

Then in the middle of the month Hitler attended an extraordinary four-day spectacular in Munich, the ‘Rally of German Art 1939’, culminating in a huge parade with massive floats and extravagant costumes of bygone ages to illustrate 2,000 years of German cultural achievement.86 Less than a week later he paid his regular visit to the Bayreuth festival. At Haus Wahnfried, in the annexe that the Wagner family had set aside specially for his use, Hitler felt relaxed. There he was ‘Uncle Wolf, as he had been known by the Wagners since his early days in politics. While in Bayreuth, looking self-conscious in his white dinner-jacket, he attended performances of Der fliegende Holländer, Tristan und Isolde, Die Walküre, and Götterdämmerung, greeting the crowds as usual from the window on the first floor.87

There was also a second reunion (following their meeting the previous year in Linz) with his boyhood friend August Kubizek. They spoke of the old days in Linz and Vienna, going to Wagner operas together. Kubizek sheepishly asked Hitler to sign dozens of autographs to take back for his acquaintances. Hitler obliged. The overawed Kubizek, the archetypal local-government officer of a sleepy small town, carefully blotted every signature. They went out for a while, reminiscing in the gathering dusk by Wagner’s grave. Then Hitler took Kubizek on a tour of Haus Wahnfried. Kubizek reminded his former friend of the Rienzi episode in Linz all those years ago. (Wagner’s early opera, based on the story of a fourteenth-century ‘tribune of the people’ in Rome, had so excited Hitler that late at night, after the performance, he had hauled his friend up the Freinberg, a hill on the edge of Linz, and regaled him about the meaning of what they had seen.) Hitler recounted the tale to Winifried Wagner, ending by saying, with a great deal more pathos than truth: ‘That’s when it began.’ Hitler probably believed his own myth. Kubizek certainly did. Emotional and impressionable as he always had been, and now a well-established victim of the Führer cult, he departed with tears in his eyes. Shortly afterwards, he heard the crowds cheering as Hitler left.88

Hitler spent most of August at the Berghof. Other than when he had important visitors to see, daily life there retained its usual patterns. The routine was more relaxed than in Berlin, but its rituals were equally fixed and tedious. Lengthy midday meals, dominated by the sound of Hitler’s voice, the arrival of the press reports (typed in large letters on the special ‘Führer typewriter’, and usually necessitating the household to search for the misplaced reading glasses that he refused to be seen wearing in public), walks down the hill to the ‘Tea House’ for afternoon tea or coffee and cakes (usually producing further monologues on favourite themes), an evening snack followed by a film and more late-night talk for those unable to escape. Magda Goebbels told Ciano of her boredom. ‘It is always Hitler who talks!’ he recalled her saying. ‘He can be Führer as much as he likes, but he always repeats himself and bores his guests.’89

If less so than in Berlin, strict formalities were still observed. The atmosphere was stuffy, especially in Hitler’s presence. Only Eva Braun’s sister, Gretl, lightened it somewhat, even smoking (which was much frowned upon), flirting with the orderlies, and determined to have fun whatever dampening effect the Führer might have on things. What little humour otherwise surfaced was often in dubious taste in the male-dominated household, where the women in attendance, including Eva Braun, served mainly as decoration. But in general, the tone was one of extreme politeness, with much kissing of hands, and expressions of ‘Gnädige Frau’.90 Despite Nazi mockery of the bourgeoisie, life at the Berghof was imbued with the intensely bourgeois manners and fashions of the arriviste Dictator.

Hitler’s lengthy absence from Berlin, while European peace hung by a thread, illustrates how far the disintegration of anything resembling a conventional central government had gone. Few ministers were permitted to see Hitler. Even the usual privileged few had dwindled in number. Goebbels — the most hated man in Germany according to Rosenberg (who, as the Party’s self-professed ideological ‘expert’ was himself detested so much for his radical attacks on the Christian Churches, and ought to have been a good judge) — was still out of favour following his affair with Lida Baarova.91 Göring had not recovered the ground he had lost since Munich.92 Speer enjoyed the special status of the protégé. He spent much of the summer at Berchtesgaden.93 But most of the time he was indulging Hitler’s passion for architecture, not discussing details of foreign policy. Hitler’s ‘advisers’ on the only issue of real consequence, the question of war and peace, were now largely confined to Ribbentrop, even more hawkish, if anything, than he had been the previous summer, and the military leaders. On the crucial matters of foreign policy, Ribbentrop — when not represented through the head of his personal staff, Walther Hewel, far more liked by the Dictator and everyone else than the preening Foreign Minister himself — largely had the field to himself. The second man at the Foreign Ministry, Weizsäcker, left to mind the shop while his boss absented himself from Berlin, claimed not to have seen Hitler, even from a distance, between May and the middle of August. What the Dictator was up to on the Obersalzberg was difficult to fathom in Berlin, Weizsäcker added.94

The personalization of government in the hands of one man — amounting in this case to concentration of power to determine over war or peace — was as good as complete.


Danzig, allegedly the issue dragging Europe towards war, was in reality no more than a pawn in the German game being played from Berchtesgaden. Gauleiter Albert Forster — a thirty-seven-year-old former Franconian bank clerk who had learnt some of his early political lessons under Julius Streicher and had been leader of the NSDAP in Danzig since 1930 — had received detailed instructions from Hitler on a number of occasions throughout the summer on how to keep tension simmering without allowing it to boil over. As had been the case in the Sudetenland the previous year, it was important not to force the issue too soon.95 Local issues had to chime exactly with the timing determined by Hitler. Incidents were to be manufactured to display to the population in the Reich, and to the world outside, the alleged injustices perpetrated by the Poles against the Germans in Danzig. Instances of mistreatment — most of them contrived, some genuine — of the German minority in other parts of Poland, too, provided regular fodder for an orchestrated propaganda campaign which, again analogous to that against the Czechs in 1938, had been screaming its banner headlines about the iniquities of the Poles since May.

The propaganda certainly had its effect. The fear of war with the western powers, while still widespread among the German population, was — at least until August — nowhere near as acute as it had been during the Sudeten crisis. People reasoned, with some justification (and backed up by the German press), that despite the guarantees for Poland, the West was hardly likely to fight for Danzig when it had given in over the Sudetenland.96 Many thought that Hitler had always pulled it off without bloodshed before, and would do so again.97 Some had a naïve belief in Hitler. One seventeen-year-old girl recalled much later how she and her friends had felt: ‘Rumours of an impending war were spreading steadily but we did not worry unduly. We were convinced that Hitler was a man of peace and would do everything he could to settle things peacefully.’98 Fears of war were nevertheless pervasive. The more general feeling was probably better summed up in the report from a small town in Upper Franconia at the end of July 1939: ‘The answer to the question of how the problem “Danzig and the Corridor” is to be solved is still the same among the general public: incorporation in the Reich? Yes. Through war? No.’99

But the anxiety about a general war over Danzig did not mean that there was reluctance to see military action against Poland undertaken — as long as the West could be kept out of it. Inciting hatred of the Poles through propaganda was pushing at an open door. ‘The mood of the people can be much more quickly whipped up against the Poles than against any other neighbouring people,’ commented the exiled Social Democratic organization, the Sopade. Many thought ‘it would serve the Poles right if they get it in the neck’.100 Other reports from the Sopade’s observers, whose anti-Nazi attitude needs no underlining, emphasize the impact the propaganda was having even among those hostile to the regime. Existing anti-Polish feelings were being massively sharpened. ‘An action against Poland would be greeted by the overwhelming mass of the German people,’ ran one report. ‘The Poles are enormously hated among the masses for what they did at the end of the War.’101 ‘If Hitler strikes out against the Poles, he will have a majority of the population behind him,’ commented another.102 In Danzig, too, where, not surprisingly, fear of a war was especially pronounced, the daily reports about ‘Polish terror’ were manufacturing antagonism among those who had never been ‘Pole haters’. Above all, no one, it was claimed, whatever their political standpoint, wanted a Polish Danzig; the conviction that Danzig was German was universal.103

The issue which the Danzig Nazis exploited to heighten the tension was the supervision of the Customs Office by Polish customs inspectors. These had indeed sometimes abused their position in the interests of increased Polish control over shipping. But there had been nothing serious, and matters could quite easily have been amicably resolved, or at least a modus vivendi reached, if that had been the intention. As it was, the customs officers were increasingly subjected to violent attacks.104 This had the desired effect of keeping the tension in the Free City at fever pitch. When the customs inspectors were informed on 4 August — in what turned out to be an initiative of an over-zealous German official — that they would not be allowed to carry out their duties and responded with a threat to close the port to foodstuffs, the local crisis threatened to boil over, and too soon. The Germans reluctantly backed down — as the international press noted.105 Forster was summoned to Berchtesgaden on 7 August and returned to announce that the Führer had reached the limits of his patience with the Poles, who were probably acting under pressure from London and Pans.106

This allegation was transmitted by Forster to Carl Burckhardt, the League of Nations High Commissioner in Danzig. Overlooking no possibility of trying to keep the West out of his war with Poland, Hitler was ready to use the representative of the detested League of Nations as his intermediary.107 On 10 August, during a dinner in honour of the departing Deputy Representative of Poland in Danzig, Tadeusz Perkowski, Burckhardt was summoned to the telephone to be told by Gauleiter Forster that Hitler wanted to see him on the Obersalzberg at 4p.m. next day and was sending his personal plane ready for departure early the following morning.108 Following a flight in which he was regaled by a euphoric Albert Forster with tales of beerhall fights with Communists during the ‘time of struggle’, Burckhardt landed in Salzburg and, after a quick snack, was driven up the spiralling road beyond the Berghof itself and up to the Eagle’s Nest (Adlerhorst), the recently built spectacular Tea House in the dizzy heights of the mountain peaks.109

Hitler was not fond of the Eagle’s Nest and seldom went up there. He complained that the air was too thin at that height, and bad for his blood pressure.110 He worried about an accident on the roads Bormann had had constructed up the sheer mountainside, and about a failure of the lift that had to carry its passengers from the huge, marble-faced hall cut inside the rock to the summit of the mountain, more than 150 feet above.111 But this was an important visit. Hitler wanted to impress Burckhardt with the dramatic view over the mountain tops, invoking the image of distant majesty, of the dictator of Germany as lord of all he surveyed.112

The imperious image had been somewhat dented just after Burckhardt arrived, when one of the serving staff had managed to drop a heavy armchair on Hitler’s foot and had him hopping in pain.113 But he quickly recovered to play every register in driving home to Burckhardt — and through him to the western powers — the modesty and reasonableness of his claims on Poland and the futility of western support. It was a calculated attempt to keep the West out of the coming conflict. His voice rose in a crescendo of anger one moment, fell to feigned sadness and resignation the next. The threats gave way to hopes even at this stage of an arrangement with Britain. Almost speechless with rage, he denounced press suggestions that he had lost his nerve and been forced to give way over the issue of the Polish customs officers. His voice rising until he was shouting, he screamed his response to Polish ultimata: if the smallest incident should take place, he would smash the Poles without warning so that not a trace of Poland remained. If that meant general war, then so be it. He would not fight like Wilhelm II, held back by his conscience, but ruthlessly to the bitter end. He poured out, as usual, an array of facts and figures to demonstrate Germany’s superiority in armaments. He could hold the western line, thanks to his fortifications, with seventy-four divisions. The rest of his forces would be hurled against Poland, which would be liquidated within three weeks. All he wanted was land in the east to feed Germany, and a single colony for timber. International trade offered no basis of security. Germany had to live from its own resources. That was the only issue; the rest nonsense. He emphasized more than once that he wanted nothing of the West, but demanded only a free hand in the East. He was ready, he said, to negotiate, but not when he was insulted and confronted with ultimata. He accused Britain and France of interference in the reasonable proposals he had made to the Poles. Now the Poles had taken up a position that blocked any agreement once and for all. His generals, hesitant the previous year, were this time raring to be let loose against the Poles.

Hitler took Burckhardt outside on to the terrace. He had had enough turmoil, he intimated. He needed the peace and quiet that he found there. Burckhardt enjoined that this lay in his hands more than any other person’s. This was not so, replied Hitler in a low voice. If he knew that England and France were inciting Poland to war, he would prefer war ‘this year rather than next’ But he was coming to the point of Burckhardt’s visit. Were the Poles to leave Danzig in peace, he could wait. He was prepared for a pact with Britain, guaranteeing British possessions. For him, he repeated, it was a matter of grain and timber. He was ready for negotiations on this issue. ‘But it will be another matter if they revile me and cover me with ridicule as in May last. I do not bluff. If the slightest thing happens in Danzig or to our minorities I shall hit hard.’ Again shifting from threats to apparent reason, he suggested that a German-speaking Englishman, possibly General Ironside — tall, handsome, and dashing, but ‘more bluff and brawn than brain’, who had been dispatched to Poland by the British government for a time in July — should go to Berlin.114

Burckhardt, as intended, rapidly passed on to the British and French governments the gist of his talks with Hitler.115 The dictator had seemed much older than when he had last met him, two years earlier, Burckhardt told his British and French contacts, and had been nervous, even anxious.116 ‘Hitler apparently undecided, rather distracted, rather aged,’ was the laconic comment of Sir Alexander Cadogan, head of the Foreign Office.117 No conclusions were drawn from Burckhardt’s report other than to urge restraint on the Poles.118

While Hitler and Burckhardt were meeting at the Eagle’s Nest on the Kehlstein, another meeting was taking place only a few miles away, in Ribbentrop’s newly acquired splendrous residence overlooking the lake in Fuschl, not far from Salzburg. Count Ciano, resplendent in uniform, was learning from the German Foreign Minister, dressed, to his visitors’ surprise, in casual civilian dress, that the Italians had been deceived for months about Hitler’s intentions. The atmosphere was icy. Ribbentrop told Ciano that the ‘merciless destruction of Poland by Germany’ was inevitable. The conflict would not become a general one. Were Britain and France to intervene, they would be doomed to defeat. But his information ‘and above all his psychological knowledge’ of Britain, he insisted, made him rule out any intervention. Ciano found him unreasoning and obstinate. Discussion with him was pointless. He evaded all requests for details of Germany’s plans by saying ‘all decisions were still locked in the Führer’s impenetrable bosom’. Dinner passed without a word. Ciano left after ten hours of discussion, greatly depressed, sure ‘that he intends to provoke the conflict and will oppose any initiative which might have the effect of solving the present crisis peacefully’.119 Ciano added in his diary: ‘The decision to fight is implacable. He [Ribbentrop] rejects any solution which might give satisfaction to Germany and avoid the struggle.’120

The impression was reinforced when Ciano met Hitler at the Berghof the next day. Among the reasons put forward for the need to act, most of which echoed the points that had been made by Ribbentrop, Hitler again revealed the extent to which he was affected by matters of prestige. He claimed that Germany, as a great nation, could not tolerate the continued provocation by Poland ‘without losing prestige’. He was convinced that the conflict would be localized, that Britain and France, whatever noises they were making, would not go to war. It would be necessary one day to fight the western democracies. But he thought it ‘out of the question that this struggle can begin now’.121 Ciano noted that he realized immediately ‘that there is no longer anything that can be done. He has decided to strike, and strike he will.’122

Important news came through for Hitler at the very time that he was underlining to the disenchanted Ciano his determination to attack Poland no later than the end of August: the Russians were prepared to begin talks in Moscow, including the position of Poland. A beaming Ribbentrop took the telephone call at the Berghof. Hitler was summoned from the meeting with Ciano, and rejoined it in high spirits to report the breakthrough.123 The way was now open.

The idea seems initially to have been to send Hans Frank, the Nazis’ chief legal expert, who had been involved in the talks producing the Axis in 1936, to Moscow to conduct negotiations.124 But by 14 August Hitler had decided to send Ribbentrop.125 A flurry of diplomatic activity — Ribbentrop pressing with maximum urgency for the earliest possible agreement, Molotov cannily prevaricating until it was evident that Soviet interest in the Anglo-French mission was dead — unfolded during the following days.126 The text of a trade treaty, under which German manufactured goods worth 200 million Reich Marks would be exchanged each year for an equivalent amount of Soviet raw materials, was agreed.127 Finally, on the evening of 19 August, the chattering teleprinter gave Hitler and Ribbentrop, waiting anxiously at the Berghof, the news they wanted: Stalin was willing to sign a non-aggression pact without delay.128

Only the proposed date of Ribbentrop’s visit — 26 August — posed serious problems. It was the date Hitler had set for the invasion of Poland.129 Hitler could not wait that long. On 20 August, he decided to intervene personally. He telegraphed a message to Stalin, via the German Embassy in Moscow, requesting the reception of Ribbentrop, armed with full powers to sign a pact, on the 22nd or 23rd.130 Hitler’s intervention made a difference. But once more Stalin and Molotov made Hitler sweat it out. The tension at the Berghof was almost unbearable. It was more than twenty-four hours later, on the evening of 21 August, before the message came through. Stalin had agreed. Ribbentrop was expected in Moscow in two days’ time, on 23 August. Hitler slapped himself on the knee in delight. Champagne all round was ordered — though Hitler did not touch any. ‘That will really land them in the soup,’ he declared, referring to the western powers.131

The news, announced just before midnight, struck like a bombshell. Most German citizens, once they had adjusted to the surprise, felt simply a sense of relief. The understanding with the unlikely new friends in the east had eliminated the threat of encirclement and a war on two fronts.132 Older army leaders, schooled in the tradition of Seeckt’s Reichswehr of good relations with Russia, felt the same way. Most presumed that Poland would now not dare to fight, and that the conflict would be resolved in much the same way as the Sudeten crisis of the previous year.133 But reactions were mixed, even among the Nazi leadership. ‘We’re on top again. Now we can sleep more easily,’ recorded a delighted Goebbels.134 ‘The question of Bolshevism is for the moment of secondary importance,’ he later added, saying that was the Führer’s view, too. ‘We’re in need and eat then like the devil eats flies.’135

For the dyed-in-the-wool old anti-Bolshevik Alfred Rosenberg, who hailed from the Baltic and had personal experience of conditions at the time of the Russian Revolution, the response was predictably different. ‘A moral loss of respect in the light of our by now twenty-year long struggle,’ was how he described the pact. Even so, he was prepared to attribute Hitler’s 180-degree shift — the U-turn of all time — to necessity, and blamed Ribbentrop, whom he believed occupied the post of Foreign Minister that ought to have been his own, for destroying any hopes of the desired alliance with Britain.136 In his dismay at the pact, but ready as always to place his trust in the Führer’s judgement, Rosenberg undoubtedly spoke for most ‘old fighters’ of the Party.137 A good number of SA men, veterans of many a street fight with the Communists, had even less sympathy with the dramatic change of course. Voices were heard that it was about time that Mein Kampf was taken out of the bookshops since Hitler was now doing the exact opposite of what he had written.138 Heinrich Hoffmann, according to his later account, raised the reactions of the Party faithful with Hitler. ‘My Party members know and trust me; they know I will never depart from my basic principles, and they will realize that the ultimate aim of this latest gambit is to remove the Eastern danger,’ Hitler is said to have replied. But next morning the garden of the Brown House was reportedly littered with badges discarded by disillusioned Party members.139

Abroad, Goebbels remarked, the announcement of the imminent non-aggression pact was ‘the great world sensation’.140 But the response was not that which Hitler and Ribbentrop had hoped for. The Poles’ fatalistic reaction was that the pact would change nothing.141 In Paris, where the news of the Soviet-German pact hit especially hard, the French Foreign Minister Georges Bonnet, fearing a German–Soviet entente against Poland, pondered whether it was now better to press the Poles into compromise with Hitler in order to win time for France to prepare its defences.142 But eventually, after dithering for two days, the French government agreed that France would remain true to its obligations.143 The British cabinet, meeting on the afternoon of 22 August, was unmoved by the dramatic news, even if MPs were asking searching questions about the failure of British intelligence. The Foreign Secretary coolly, if absurdly, dismissed the pact as perhaps of not very great importance.144 Instructions went out to embassies that Britain’s obligations to Poland remained unaltered. Sir Nevile Henderson’s suggestion of a personal letter from the Prime Minister to Hitler, warning him of Britain’s determination to stick by Poland, was taken up.145

Meanwhile, in excellent mood on account of his latest triumph, Hitler prepared, on the morning of 22 August, to address all the armed forces’ leaders on his plans for Poland. The meeting, at the Berghof, had been arranged before the news from Moscow had come through.146 Hitler’s aim was to convince the generals of the need to attack Poland without delay.147 The diplomatic coup, by now in the public domain, can only have boosted his self-confidence. It certainly weakened any potential criticism from his audience.

The generals arrived mainly by plane, landing in Salzburg, Munich, or on the small airfield near Berchtesgaden, from where they were driven during the course of the morning to the Obersalzberg.148 They were dressed in civilian clothing in order not to arouse particular attention — an objective not best furthered by Göring turning up in outlandish hunting garb.149 General Liebmann had met Papen on the way through Salzburg. Papen told him that he had spoken with Hitler the previous evening, warning him not to risk war with England, where the chances of winning would be under 50 per cent. He had the feeling that his arguments had made no impression at all.150 Around fifty officers (including the Führer’s adjutants) had assembled in the Great Hall of the Berghof by the time that Hitler began his address at noon.151 Ribbentrop was also present.152 The generals were seated on rows of chairs. Hitler, leaning on the grand piano, spoke with barely a glance at the sparse notes he clutched in his left hand.153 No minutes were taken. Those listening were explicitly told not to make any record of the proceedings.154 One or two of those present, including Admiral Canaris, head of the Abwehr, ignored the instruction and surreptiously jotted down the main points. Others, including Chief of Staff Colonel-General Halder and Admiral-General Boehm, thought what they heard was so important that they hastily compiled a summary of what had gone on later that day.155

‘It was clear to me that a conflict with Poland had to come sooner or later,’ began Hitler. ‘I had already made this decision in the spring, but I thought that I would first turn against the West in a few years, and only after that against the East.’ Circumstances had caused him to change his thinking, he went on. He pointed in the first instance to his own importance to the situation. Making no concessions to false modesty, he claimed: ‘Essentially all depends on me, on my existence, because of my political talents. Furthermore, the fact that probably no one will ever again have the confidence of the whole German people as I have. There will probably never again in the future be a man with more authority than I have. My existence is therefore a factor of great value. But I can be eliminated at any time by a criminal or a lunatic.’ He also emphasized the personal role of Mussolini and Franco, whereas Britain and France lacked any ‘outstanding personality’. He briefly alluded to Germany’s economic difficulties as a further argument for not delaying action. ‘It is easy for us to make decisions. We have nothing to lose; we have everything to gain. Because of our restrictions (Einschränkungen) our economic situation is such that we can only hold out for a few more years. Göring can confirm this. We have no other choice. We must act.’ He reviewed the constellation of international forces, concluding: ‘All these favourable circumstances will no longer prevail in two or three years’ time. No one knows how much longer I shall live. Therefore, better a conflict now.’

In typical vein, he continued. It was better to test German arms now. The Polish situation had become intolerable. The initiative could not be handed to others. There was a danger of losing prestige. The high probability was that the West would not intervene. There was a risk, but it was the task of the politician as much as the general to confront risk with iron resolve. He had done this in the past, notably in the recovery of the Rhineland in 1936, and always been proved right. The risk had to be taken. ‘We are faced,’ he stated with his usual apocalyptic dualism, ‘with the harsh alternatives of striking or of certain annihilation sooner or later.’ He compared the relative arms strength of Germany and the western powers. He concluded that Britain was in no position to help Poland. Nor was there any interest in Britain in a long war. The West had vested its hopes in enmity between Germany and Russia. ‘The enemy did not reckon with my great strength of purpose,’ he boasted. ‘Our enemies are small worms (kleine Würmchen). I saw them in Munich.’ The pact with Russia would be signed within two days. ‘Now Poland is in the position in which I want her.’ There need be no fear of a blockade. The East would provide the necessary grain, cattle, coal, lead, and zinc. His only fear, Hitler said, in obvious allusion to Munich, was ‘that at the last moment some swine or other will yet submit to me a plan for mediation’. Hinting at what was in his mind following the destruction of Poland, he added that the political objective went further. ‘A start has been made on the destruction of England’s hegemony. The way will be open for the soldiers after I have made the political preparations.’ Göring thanked Hitler, assuring him that the Wehrmacht would do its duty, and around 1.30p.m. the meeting broke up for a light lunch on the terrace.156

After the lunch break, Hitler spoke again for about an hour, partly about operational details.157 His broader remarks were now largely aimed at boosting fighting morale. Style and diction were inimitable, the sentiments brutally social-Darwinist. He repeated the need for ‘iron determination’. The would be ‘no shrinking back from anything’. It was a ‘life and death struggle’. The destruction of Poland, even if war in the West were to break out, was the priority, and had to be settled quickly in view of the season. The aim was, he stated, somewhat unclearly, if with evident menace, ‘to eliminate active forces (Beseitigung der lebendigen Kräfte), not to reach a definite line’.158 He would provide a propaganda pretext for beginning the war, however implausible. He ended by summarizing his philosophy: ‘The victor will not be asked afterwards whether he told the truth or not. When starting and waging a war it is not right that matters, but victory. Close your hearts to pity. Act brutally. Eighty million people must obtain what is their right. Their existence must be made secure. The stronger man is right. The greatest harshness.’159

The reactions of Hitler’s audience were mixed. Some three months later General Liebmann, certainly no Hitler admirer, recalled his own feelings. He had heard some effective speeches by Hitler, he wrote, but this one lacked all objectivity and was full of illusions. ‘Its bragging and brash tone was downright repulsive. One had the feeling that here a man spoke who had lost all feeling of responsibility and any clear conception of what a victorious war signified, and who, with unsurpassed wantonness, was determined to leap into the dark.’ He thought that many, who left with grave faces or expressions of black humour, felt like he did.160

Probably this was the case. But if the generals were not enthused by what Hitler had to say, they posed no objections. The mood was largely fatalistic, resigned. After the war, Liebmann tried to summarize the broad impact of the speech. The assembled generals, he commented, were certain that the picture was less rosy than Hitler’s description. But they took the view that it was too late for objections, and simply hoped things would turn out well.161 No one spoke out against Hitler.162 Brauchitsch, who ought to have replied if anyone were to do so, said nothing. Any objections on his part, in Liebmann’s view, could only have been made as representing all the generals. Evidently he doubted whether Brauchitsch could have spoken for all. In any case, he thought such objections would have to have been raised by spring. By August it was too late. Liebmann added one other telling point. For Hitler it was only a matter of a war against Poland. And the army felt up to that.163

The disastrous collapse in the army’s power since the first weeks of 1938 could not have been more apparent. Its still lamented former head, Werner von Fritsch, had remarked to Ulrich von Hassell some months earlier: ‘This man — Hitler — is Germany’s fate for good or evil. If it’s now into the abyss, he’ll drag us all with him. There’s nothing to be done.’164 It was an indication of the capitulation of the Wehrmacht leadership to Hitler’s will. Hitler’s own comments after the meeting indicated that, on the eve of war, he had little confidence in and much contempt for his generals.165

Towards the end of his speech, Hitler had broken off momentarily to wish his Foreign Minister success in Moscow. Ribbentrop left at that point to fly to Berlin. In mid-evening, he then flew in Hitler’s private Condor to Königsberg and, after a restless and nervous night preparing notes for the negotiations, from there, next morning, on to the Russian capital.166 So large was his retinue of around thirty persons (including Heinrich Hoffmann, to ensure the historic moment was captured on film, and do the profits of his family concern no harm in the process) that a second Condor was needed.167 Within two hours of landing, Ribbentrop was in the Kremlin. Attended by Schulenburg (the German Ambassador in Moscow), he was taken to a long room where, to his surprise, not just Molotov, but Stalin himself, awaited him. Ribbentrop began by stating Germany’s wish for new relations on a lasting basis with the Soviet Union. Stalin replied that, though the two countries had ‘poured buckets of filth’ over each other for years, there was no obstacle to ending the quarrel. Discussion quickly moved to delineation of spheres of influence. Stalin staked the USSR’s claim to Finland, much of the territory of the Baltic states, and Bessarabia. Ribbentrop predictably brought up Poland, and the need for a demarcation line between the Soviet Union and Germany. This — to run along the rivers Vistula, San, and Bug — was swiftly agreed. Progress towards concluding a non-aggression pact was rapid. The territorial changes to accompany it, carving up eastern Europe between Germany and the Soviet Union, were contained in a secret protocol. The only delay occurred when Stalin’s claims to the Latvian ports of Libau (Liepaja) and Windau (Ventspils) held up matters for a while. Ribbentrop felt he had to consult.168

Nervously waiting at the Berghof, Hitler had by then already had the Moscow embassy telephoned to inquire about progress at the talks.169 He paced impatiently up and down on the terrace as the sky silhouetted the Unterberg in striking colours of turquoise, then violet, then fiery red. Below remarked that it pointed to a bloody war. If so, replied Hitler, the sooner the better. The more time passed, the bloodier the war would be.170

Within minutes there was a call from Moscow. Ribbentrop assured Hitler that the talks were going well, but asked about the Latvian ports. Inside half an hour Hitler had consulted a map and telephoned his reply: ‘Yes, agreed.’171 The last obstacle was removed. Back at the Kremlin in late evening there was a celebratory supper. Vodka and Crimean sparkling wine lubricated the already effervescent mood of mutual self-congratulation. Among the toasts was one proposed by Stalin to Hitler.172 The texts of the Pact and Protocol had been drawn up in the meantime. Though dated 23 August, they were finally signed by Ribbentrop and Molotov well after midnight.173 Hitler and Goebbels had been half-watching a film, still too nervous about what was happening in Moscow to enjoy it. Finally, around 1a.m. Ribbentrop telephoned again: complete success. Hitler congratulated him.174 ‘That will hit like a bombshell,’ he remarked.175

In fact, the impact abroad was somewhat lessened through the earlier announcement that an agreement was imminent.176 Even so, the implications were obvious. ‘A black day,’ noted Sir Alexander Cadogan at the British Foreign Office.177 Harold Nicolson, a critic of the Chamberlain government, felt ‘stunned’.178 ‘A partition of Poland seems inevitable,’ remarked the Conservative MP Chips Channon. ‘I cannot bear to think that our world is crumbling to ruins.’179 ‘Everybody is agreed that war is unthinkable… but the gulf between the British and the Hitlerian viewpoints is so wide that it really seems all but unavoidable,’ commented Collin Brooks, a journalist with strong Conservative connections, adding: ‘The engines of destruction may become so many and so terrible that there will be no war for generations.’180

The Comintern, meanwhile, consoled the shocked members of its constituent Communist parties by interpreting the Pact as the only avenue open to the USSR, given the appeasement of Hitler by the western democracies. There was renewed advocacy of a popular front against Hitlerian aggression, accompanied by the remarkable illusion that the chances of preventing war and rallying Germans to overthrow Hitler might have been enhanced.181 Falling immediately and predictably in line with Moscow, the exiled leadership of the German Communist Party greeted the Pact as ‘a successful act of peace on the part of the Soviet Union’, contributing to the defusing of the international situation.182

Relief as well as satisfaction was reflected in Hitler’s warm welcome for Ribbentrop on the latter’s return next day to Berlin.183 While his Foreign Minister had been in Moscow, Hitler had begun to think that Britain might after all fight.184 Now, he was confident that prospect had been ruled out.


While Ribbentrop had been on his way to Moscow, Sir Nevile Henderson, the British Ambassador in Berlin, was flying to Berchtesgaden to deliver the letter composed by the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, following the cabinet meeting on 22 August. In his letter, Chamberlain emphasized his conviction ‘that war between our two peoples would be the greatest calamity that could occur’. But he left Hitler in no doubt about the British position. A German–Soviet agreement would not alter Great Britain’s obligation to Poland. Britain was, however, ready, if a peaceful atmosphere could be created, to discuss all problems affecting relations with Germany. And Britain was anxious for Poland and Germany to cease their polemics and incitement in order to allow direct discussions between the two countries on the reciprocal treatment of minorities.185

Accompanied by Weizsäcker and Hewel, Henderson arrived at the Berghof at 1p.m. on 23 August. Hitler was at his most aggressive. ‘He made no long speeches but his language was violent and exaggerated both as regards England and Poland,’ Henderson reported.186 The German Chancellor launched into a series of wild tirades about British support of the Czechs the previous year, and now of the Poles, and how he had wanted only friendship with Britain. He claimed Britain’s ‘blank cheque’ to Poland ruled out negotiations. He was recriminatory, threatening, and totally unyielding. He finally agreed to reply to Chamberlain within two hours.187

On return to Salzburg, Henderson was rapidly recalled to the Berghof. This time the meeting was shorter — under half an hour. Hitler was now calmer, but adamant that he would attack Poland if another German were to be maltreated there. War would be all Britain’s fault. ‘England’ (as he invariably called Britain) ‘was determined to destroy and exterminate Germany,’ he went on. He was now fifty years old. He preferred war at this point than in five or ten years’ time.188 Henderson countered that talk of extermination was absurd. Hitler replied that England was fighting for lesser races, whereas he was fighting only for Germany. This time the Germans would fight to the last man. It would have been different in 1914 had he been Chancellor then. His repeated offers of friendship to Britain had been contemptuously rejected. He had come to the conclusion that England and Germany could never agree. England had now forced him into the pact with Russia. Henderson stated that war seemed inevitable if Hitler maintained his direct action against Poland. Hitler ended by declaring that only a complete change of British policy towards Germany could convince him of the desire for good relations.189 The written reply to Chamberlain that he handed to Henderson was couched in much the same vein. It contained the threat — clear in implication if not expression — to order general mobilization, were Britain and France to mobilize their own forces.190

Hitler’s tirades were, as so often, theatricals. They were a play-acted attempt to break the British Guarantee to Poland by a calculated demonstration of verbal brutality. As soon as Henderson had left, Hitler slapped his thigh — his usual expression of self-congratulation — and exclaimed to Weizsäcker: ‘Chamberlain won’t survive this discussion. His cabinet will fall this evening.’191

Chamberlain’s government was still there next day. Hitler’s belief in his own powers had outstripped realistic assessment. His comment revealed how out of touch he was with the mood of the British government, now fully backed by public opinion, by this time. He was puzzled, therefore, the following day by the low-key response in Britain to the Soviet Pact, and irritated by the speeches made in Parliament by Chamberlain and Halifax reasserting Britain’s resolve to uphold its obligations to Poland.192 Within twenty-four hours Ribbentrop had persuaded him, since wielding the big stick had produced little effect, to dangle the carrot.193

At 12.45p.m. on 25 August, Henderson was informed that Hitler wished to see him at 1.30p.m. in the Reich Chancellery. The meeting lasted over an hour. Ribbentrop and the interpreter Paul Schmidt were also present. Hitler was far calmer than he had been in Berchtesgaden. He criticized Chamberlain’s speech. But he was prepared to make Britain, he said, ‘a large comprehensive offer’ and pledge himself to maintain the continued existence of the British Empire once the Polish problem had been solved as a matter of urgency.194 Hitler was so anxious that his ‘offer’ be immediately and seriously considered that he suggested that Henderson fly to London, and put a plane at his disposal. Henderson stated that the offer would only be considered if it meant a negotiated settlement of the Polish question. Hitler refused to guarantee this. Hitler ended the interview with pathos: he was by nature an artist not a politician, and once the Polish question were settled he would end his life as an artist.195 Henderson flew next morning to London.196 Goebbels expected little to come from it.197

The ‘offer’ to Britain was, in fact, no more than a ruse, another — and by now increasingly desperate — attempt to detach Britain from support for Poland, and prevent the intended localized war from becoming a general European war. How honest Hitler’s ‘offer’ was can be judged from the fact that at the very time that Henderson was talking in the Reich Chancellery, final preparations were being made for the start of ‘Case White’ next morning, Saturday, 26 August, at 4.30a.m.198 While Henderson was flying to London in the plane Hitler had put at his disposal, the attack on Poland was meant to be under way. By the time the British government had considered his ‘offer’, the Wehrmacht ought to have been making devastating inroads into Poland. It would have been another fait accompli.199 As he had told his generals on 22 August, this time he was not going to be deprived of his war through last-minute negotiations.

Already on 12 August, Hitler had set the likely date of the 26th for the invasion of Poland.200 This had been reaffirmed as the probable start of ‘Case White’ at the meeting with military leaders on 22 August.201 Schmundt picked up Hitler’s decision confirming this the following afternoon, while Ribbentrop was in Moscow, and after seeing Henderson at the Berghof.202 Goebbels learnt on the morning of the 25th that the mobilization was due to take place that afternoon. At midday, Hitler then gave him propaganda instructions, emphasizing that Germany had been given no choice but to fight against the Poles, and preparing the people for a war, if necessary lasting ‘months and years’.203 Telephone communications between Berlin and London and Paris were cut off for several hours that afternoon. The Tannenberg celebrations and Party Rally were abruptly cancelled. Airports were closed from 26 August. Food rationing was introduced as from 27 August.204 By midday on the 25th, however, even while Hitler was giving propaganda directives to Goebbels, Keitel’s office was telephoning Halder to find out what was the latest time for the march-order, since there might have to be a postponement. The answer was given: no later than 3p.m. The final order was delayed at 1.30p.m. because Henderson was at that time in the Reich Chancellery. It was then further held back in the hope that Mussolini would have replied to Hitler’s communication of earlier that morning. Under pressure from the military timetable, but anxious for news from Rome, Hitler put the attack on hold for an hour. Finally, without awaiting Mussolini’s answer, but able to wait no longer, Hitler gave the order at 3.02p.m. Directives for mobilization were passed to the various troop commanders during the afternoon.205 Then, amazingly, within five hours the order was cancelled.206 To a great deal of muttering from army leaders about incompetence, the complex machinery of invasion was halted just in time.207

Mussolini’s reply had arrived at 5.45p.m. At 7.30p.m. Brauchitsch telephoned Halder to rescind the invasion order.208 A shaken Hitler had changed his mind.

On 24 August Hitler had prepared a lengthy letter for Mussolini, justifying the alliance with the Soviet Union, and indicating that a strike against Poland was imminent.209 The letter was delivered by the German Ambassador in Rome on the morning of the 25th.210 Mussolini’s answer gave the overconfident Hitler an enormous shock. The Duce did not beat about the bush: Italy was in no position to offer military assistance at the present time.211 Hitler icily dismissed Attolico, the Italian Ambassador. ‘The Italians are behaving just like they did in 1914,’ Paul Schmidt heard Hitler remark.212

‘That alters the entire situation,’ judged Goebbels. ‘The Führer ponders and contemplates. That’s a serious blow for him.’213 For an hour, the Reich Chancellery rang with comments of disgust at the Axis partner. The word ‘treachery’ was on many lips.214 Brauchitsch was hurriedly summoned. When he arrived, around seven that evening, he told Hitler there was still time to halt the attack, and recommended doing so to gain time for the Dictator’s ‘political game’ (‘politisches Spiel’). Hitler immediately took up the suggestion. Vormann was dispatched at 7.45p.m. with a frantic order to Halder to halt the start of hostilities.215 Keitel emerged from Hitler’s room to tell an adjutant: ‘The march order must be rescinded immediately.’216

Another piece of bad news arrived for Hitler at much the same time. Minutes before the news from Rome had arrived, Hitler had heard from the French Ambassador Robert Coulondre, that the French, too, were determined to stick by their obligations to Poland.217 This in itself was not critical. Hitler was confident that the French could be kept out of the war, if London did not enter.218 Then Ribbentrop arrived to tell him that the military alliance between Great Britain and Poland agreed on 6 April had been signed late that afternoon.219 This had happened after Hitler had made his ‘offer’ to Henderson. Having just signed the alliance, it must have been plain even to Hitler that Britain was unlikely to break it the very next day.220 Yesterday’s hero, Ribbentrop, now found himself all at once out of favour and, in the midst of a foreign-policy crisis on which peace hinged, was not in evidence for over two days.221 Hitler turned again to the Foreign Minister’s great rival, Göring.222

Immediately, Göring inquired whether the cancellation of the invasion was permanent. ‘No. I will have to see whether we can eliminate England’s intervention,’ was the reply.223 When Göring’s personal emissary, his Swedish friend the industrialist Birger Dahlems, already in London to belabour Lord Halifax with similar vague offers of German good intent that Henderson would shortly bring via the official route, eventually managed, with much difficulty, to place a telephone call to Berlin, he was asked to report back to the Field Marshal the following evening.224

In the meantime, Hitler wrote again to Mussolini, who had indicated that lack of matériel prevented Italy from joining Germany’s war, to ask what precisely was needed.225 The reply next day brought a deliberately impossible list of demands. Hitler could do nothing but tell Mussolini that he had understanding for Italy’s position, hoped for propaganda support, but would not hold back from solving the eastern question even at the risk of the involvement of the West.226 Mussolini, ‘really out of his wits’, was left vainly proposing that there should be a political solution.227 Hitler’s rage was directed at the King of Italy, not at his friend, the Italian dictator. He was glad, he said, that there was no longer a monarchy in Germany.228

The mood in the Reich Chancellery had not been improved by the message from Daladier on 26 August underlining France’s solidarity with Poland.229 Things at the hub of the German government seemed chaotic. No one had a clear idea of what was going on. Hewel, head of Ribbentrop’s personal staff, though with different views to those of his boss, warned Hitler not to underestimate the British. He was a better judge of that than his Minister, he asserted. Hitler angrily broke off the discussion. Brauchitsch thought Hitler did not know what he should do.230

Dahlerus certainly found him in a highly agitated state when he was taken towards midnight to the Reich Chancellery. He had brought with him a letter from Lord Halifax, indicating in non-committal terms that negotiations were possible if force were not used against Poland.231 It added in reality nothing to that which Chamberlain had already stated in his letter of 22 August.232 It made an impact on Göring, but Hitler did not even look at the letter before launching into a lengthy diatribe, working himself into a nervous frenzy, marching up and down the room, his eyes staring, his voice at one moment indistinct, hurling out facts and figures about the strength of the German armed forces, the next moment shouting as if addressing a party meeting, threatening to annihilate his enemies, giving Dahlerus the impression of someone ‘completely abnormal’.233 Eventually, Hitler calmed down enough to list the points of the offer which he wanted Dahlerus to take to London. Germany wanted a pact or alliance with Britain, would guarantee the Polish borders, and defend the British Empire (even against Italy, Göring added). Britain was to help Germany acquire Danzig and the Corridor, and have Germany’s colonies returned. Guarantees were to be provided for the German minority in Poland.234 Hitler had altered the stakes in a bid to break British backing for Poland. In contrast to the ‘offer’ made to Henderson, the alliance with Britain now appeared to be available before any settlement with Poland.

Dahlerus took the message to London next morning, 27 August. The response was cool and sceptical. Dahlerus was sent back to report that Britain was willing to reach an agreement with Germany, but would not break its guarantee to Poland. Following direct negotiations between Germany and Poland on borders and minorities, the results would require international guarantee. Colonies could be returned in due course, but not under threat of war. The offer to defend the British Empire was rejected.235 Astonishingly, to Dahlems, back in Berlin late that evening, Hitler accepted the terms, as long as the Poles had been immediately instructed to contact Germany and begin negotiations.236 Halifax made sure this was done. In Warsaw, Beck agreed to begin negotiations.237 Meanwhile, the German mobilization, which had never been cancelled along with the invasion, rolled on.238 On the very day of Dahlerus’s shuttling, the Abwehr had word that the new date for the attack was 31 August.239 Next day, before Henderson arrived back in Berlin to bring the official British response, Brauchitsch informed Halder that Hitler had provisionally fixed the invasion for 1 September.240

As Henderson was setting out for Berlin, Hitler was addressing a meeting of SS and Party leaders in the Reich Chancellery. Himmler, Heydrich, Bormann, and Goebbels were among those present. Whatever his state of mind, Hitler could expect nothing but enthusiastic backing from this grouping for whatever hard line he wished to take. He told them he was determined to have the eastern question settled one way or the other. He posed a minimal demand of the return of Danzig and the settling of the Corridor issue. The maximum demand depended upon the military situation. He could not retreat from the minimalist position, and would attain it. ‘It has already become a question of honour,’ Goebbels noted.241 If the minimum demands were not met, ‘then war: brutal!’ The war would be hard, and Hitler did not even rule out eventual failure. But, Halder recorded him saying, ‘as long as I am alive, there will be no talk of capitulation’. The agreement with the Soviets had been widely misunderstood in the Party. It was nothing but ‘a pact with Satan to cast out the Devil’, Hitler declared. He looked worn and haggard to Halder, speaking in a breaking voice. It was said he kept himself completely surrounded by his SS advisers.242

Henderson handed Hitler a translation of the British reply to his ‘offer’ of 25 August at 10.30p.m. that evening, the 28th. Ribbentrop and Schmidt were there.243 Hitler and Henderson spoke for over an hour. For once, Hitler neither interrupted, nor harangued Henderson. He was, according to the British Ambassador, polite, reasonable, and not angered by what he read.244 The ‘friendly atmosphere’ noted by Henderson was so only in relative terms. Hitler still spoke of annihilating Poland.245 The British reply did not in substance extend beyond the informal answer that Dahlems had conveyed (and had been composed after Hitler’s response to that initiative was known).246 The British government insisted upon a prior settlement of the differences between Germany and Poland. Britain had already gained assurances of Poland’s willingness to negotiate. Depending upon the outcome of any settlement and how it was reached, Britain was prepared to work towards a lasting understanding with Germany. But the obligation to Poland would be honoured.247 Hitler promised a written reply the next day.248

Goebbels quickly learned that Hitler was not satisfied with what he had seen.249 The Propaganda Minister nonetheless thought he detected a weakening of the British stance, a greater readiness to negotiate. The Führer, he commented, now wanted a plebiscite in the Corridor under international control. He hoped through this device to prise London away from Warsaw ‘and to find an occasion to strike’.250 Hitler planned to ponder his reply overnight, and come up, Himmler noted, with a ‘masterpiece of diplomacy (ein Meisterstück an Diplomatie)’ that would put the British on the spot.251

At 7.15p.m. on the evening of 29 August, Henderson, sporting as usual a dark red carnation in the buttonhole of his pin-striped suit, passed down the darkened Wilhelmstraße — Berlin was undergoing experimental blackouts — through a silent, but not hostile, crowd of 300–400 Berliners, to be received at the Reich Chancellery as on the previous night with a roll of drums and guard of honour.252 Otto Meissner, whose role as head of the so-called Presidential Chancellery was largely representational, and Wilhelm Brückner, the chief adjutant, escorted him to Hitler. Ribbentrop was also present. Hitler was in a less amenable mood than on the previous evening. He gave Henderson his reply. He had again raised the price — exactly as Henlein had been ordered to do in the Sudetenland the previous year, so that it was impossible to meet it. Hitler now demanded the arrival of a Polish emissary with full powers by the following day, Wednesday 30 August. Even the pliant Henderson, protesting at the impossible time-limit for the arrival of the Polish emissary, said it sounded like an ultimatum.253 Hitler replied that his generals were pressing him for a decision. They were unwilling to lose any more time because of the onset of the rainy season in Poland.254 Henderson told Hitler that the success or failure of any talks with Poland depended upon his good will, or lack of it. The choice was his. But any attempt to use force against Poland would inevitably result in conflict with Britain.255 Henderson’s telegram to the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, early the following afternoon, stated: ‘If Herr Hitler is allowed to continue to have the initiative, it seems to me that [the] result can only be either war or once again victory for him by a display of force and encouragement thereby to pursue the same course again next year or the year after.’256

When Henderson had left, the Italian Ambassador Attolico was ushered in. He had come to tell Hitler that Mussolini was prepared to intercede with Britain if required. The last thing Hitler wanted, as he had made clear to his generals at the meeting on 22 August, was a last-minute intercession to bring about a new Munich — least of all from the partner who had just announced that he could not stand by the pact so recently signed. Hitler coldly told Attolico that direct negotiations with Britain were in hand and that he had already declared his readiness to accept a Polish negotiator.257

Hitler had been displeased at Henderson’s response to his reply to the British government. He now called in Göring to send Dahlerus once more on the unofficial route to let the British know the gist of the ‘generous’ terms he was proposing to offer the Poles — return of Danzig to Germany, and a plebiscite on the Corridor (with Germany to be given a ‘corridor through the Corridor’ if the result went Poland’s way). By 5a.m. on 30 August, Dahlerus was again heading for London in a German military plane.258 An hour earlier Henderson had already conveyed Lord Halifax’s unsurprising response, that the German request for the Polish emissary to appear that very day was unreasonable.259

During the day, while talking of peace Hitler prepared for war. In the morning he instructed Albert Forster, a week earlier declared Head of State in Danzig, on the action to be taken in the Free City at the outbreak of hostilities.260 Later, he signed the decree to establish a Ministerial Council for the Defence of the Reich with wide powers to promulgate decrees. Chaired by Göring, its other members were Heß as Deputy Leader of the Party, Frick as plenipotentiary for Reich administration, Funk as plenipotentiary for the economy, Lammers, the head of the Reich Chancellery, and Keitel, chief of the High Command of the Wehrmacht.261 It had the appearance of a ‘war cabinet’ to administer the Reich while Hitler preoccupied himself with military matters. In reality, the fragmentation of Reich government had gone too far for that. Hitler’s own interest in preventing any centralized body operating as a possible check on his own power was to mean that the Ministerial Council was destined not to bring even a limited resurrection of collective government.262

Hitler spent much of the day working on his ‘proposals’ to be put to the Polish negotiator who, predictably, never arrived. From the outset it had not been a serious suggestion. But when Henderson returned to the Reich Chancellery at midnight to present the British reply to Hitler’s communication of the previous evening, he encountered Ribbentrop in a highly nervous state and in a vile temper. Diplomatic niceties were scarcely preserved. At one point it seemed to the interpreter Paul Schmidt — in attendance though Henderson, as usual, insisted on speaking his less than perfect German — that the German Foreign Minister and the British Ambassador were going to come to blows.263 After Ribbentrop had read out Hitler’s ‘proposals’ at breakneck speed, so that Henderson was unable to note them down, he refused — on Hitler’s express orders — to let the British Ambassador read the document, then hurled it on the table stating that it was now out of date (überholt), since no Polish emissary had arrived in Berlin by midnight.264 Henderson reported to Halifax ‘that Herr von Ribbentrop’s whole demeanour during an unpleasant interview was aping Herr Hitler at his worst’.265 In retrospect, Henderson thought that Ribbentrop ‘was wilfully throwing away the last chance of a peaceful solution’.266

There had, in fact, been no ‘last chance’… No Polish emissary had been expected. Ribbentrop was concerned precisely not to hand over terms which the British might have passed to the Poles, who might have been prepared to discuss them. Hitler had needed his ‘generous suggestion over the regulation of the Danzig and Corridor Question’, as Schmidt later heard him say, as ‘an alibi, especially for the German people, to show them that I have done everything to preserve peace’.267 Immediately following Henderson’s audience with Ribbentrop, Hitler had told Goebbels that he wanted the document published ‘at a suitable opportunity’.268 It was arranged for a radio broadcast that evening.269 By then, Göring had heard, unsurprisingly, from his intermediary Dahlerus that there was no further movement in London: the British government insisted, as it had throughout, on peaceful settlement of the Polish question before there could be any negotiations towards a better relationship between Britain and Germany.270

The army had been told on 30 August to make all preparations for attack on 1 September at 4.30a.m. If negotiations in London required a postponement, notification would be given before 3p.m. next day. But 2 September was the last day possible for a strike.271 At 6.30a.m. on the morning of 31 August, within hours of Henderson’s departure from the Reich Chancellery after hearing the terms of the German ‘offer’ to Poland, Halder learnt that Hitler had given the order to attack on 1 September — a day before the deadline ran out.272 For some reason, Göring, on behalf of the Luftwaffe, had objected to having the timing set for 4.30a.m.273 By 12.40p.m. the order directive had been completed and signed by Hitler.274 At 1.50p.m. — still well before the possible cancellation point of 3p.m. — the order was confirmed to go ahead, with the starting time changed to 4.45a.m. ‘Armed intervention by Western powers now said to be unavoidable,’ noted Halder. ‘In spite of this, Führer has decided to strike.’275

When informed that Ribbentrop had arrived at the Reich Chancellery, Hitler told him he had given the order, and that ‘things were rolling (die Sache rolle)’. Ribbentrop wished him luck.276 ‘It looks as if the die is finally cast,’ wrote Goebbels.277

After making his decision, Hitler cut himself off from external contact.278 He refused to see the Polish Ambassador, Jozef Lipski, later in the afternoon. Ribbentrop did see him a little later. But hearing that the Ambassador carried no plenipotentiary powers to negotiate he immediately terminated the interview. Lipski returned to find telephone lines to Warsaw had been cut off.279

At 9p.m. the German radio broadcast Hitler’s ‘sixteen-point proposal’ which Ribbentrop had so crassly presented to Henderson at midnight.280 By 10.30p.m. the first reports were coming in of a number of serious border incidents, including an armed ‘Polish’ assault on the German radio station at Gleiwitz in Upper Silesia. These had been planned for weeks by Heydrich’s office, using SS men dressed in Polish uniforms to carry out the attacks. To increase the semblance of authenticity, a number of concentration-camp inmates killed by lethal injections and carried to the sites provided the bodies required.281

Throughout Germany, people went about their daily business as normal. But the normality was deceptive. All minds now were fixed on the likelihood of war. A brief war, with scarcely any losses, and confined to Poland, was one thing. But war with the West, which so many with memories of the Great War of 1914–18 had dreaded for years, now seemed almost certain. There was now no mood like that of August 1914, no ‘hurrah-patriotism’. The faces of the people told of their anxiety, fears, worries, and resigned acceptance of what they were being faced with. ‘Everybody against the war,’ wrote the American correspondent William Shirer on 31 August. ‘How can a country go into a major war with a population so dead against it?’ he asked.282 ‘Trust in the Führer will now probably be subjected to its hardest acid test,’ ran a report from the Upper Franconian district of Ebermannstadt. ‘The overwhelming proportion of people’s comrades expects from him the prevention of the war, if otherwise impossible even at the cost of Danzig and the Corridor.’283

How accurate such a report was as a reflection of public opinion cannot be ascertained. The question is in any case irrelevant. Ordinary citizens, whatever their fears, were powerless to affect the course of events. While many of them were fitfully sleeping in the hope that even now, at the eleventh hour and beyond, some miracle would preserve peace, the first shots were fired and bombs dropped near Dirschau at 4.30a.m. And just over quarter of an hour later in Danzig harbour the elderly German battleship Schleswig-Holstein, now a sea-cadet training-ship, focused its heavy guns on the fortified Polish munitions depot on the Westerplatte and opened fire.284

By late afternoon the army leadership reported: ‘Our troops have crossed the frontier everywhere and are sweeping on toward their objectives of the day, checked only slightly by the Polish forces thrown against them.’285 In Danzig itself, the purported objective of the conflict between Germany and Poland, border posts and public buildings manned by Poles had been attacked at dawn. The League of Nations High Commissioner had been forced to leave, and the swastika banner raised over his building.286 Gauleiter Albert Forster proclaimed Danzig’s reincorporation in the Reich.287 In the turmoil of the first day of hostilities, probably few people in Germany took much notice.

On a grey, overcast morning Shirer had found the few people on the streets apathetic.288 There were not many cheers from those thinly lining the pavements when Hitler drove to the Reichstag shortly before 10a.m. A hundred or so deputies had been called up to serve in the army. But Göring saw to it that there were no empty spaces when Hitler spoke. The vacancies were simply filled by drafting in Party functionaries.289 Hitler, now wearing Wehrmacht uniform, was on less than top form. He sounded strained. There was less cheering than usual.290 After a lengthy justification of the alleged need for Germany’s military action, he declared: ‘Poland has now last night for the first time fired on our territory through regular soldiers. Since 5.45a.m.’ — he meant 4.45a.m. — ‘the fire has been returned. And from now on bomb will be met with bomb.’291

Hitler had still not given up hope that the British could be kept out of the conflict. On his return from the Reichstag he had Göring summon Dahlerus to make a last attempt.292 But he wanted no outside intercession, no repeat of Munich. Mussolini, under the influence of Ciano and Attolico, and unhappy at Italy’s humiliation at being unable to offer military support, had been trying for some days to arrange a peace conference. He was now desperate, fearing attack on Italy from Britain and France, to stop the war spreading.293 Before seeing Dahlerus, Hitler sent the Duce a telegram explicitly stating that he did not want his mediation.294 Then Dahlerus arrived. He found Hitler in a nervous state. The odour from his mouth was so strong that Dahlerus was tempted to move back a step or two. Hitler was at his most implacable. He was determined to break Polish resistance ‘and to annihilate (vernichten) the Polish people’, he told Dahlerus. In the next breath he added that he was prepared for further negotiations if the British wanted them. Again the threat followed, in ever more hysterical tones. It was in British interests to avoid a fight with him. But if Britain chose to fight, she would pay dearly. He would fight for one, two, ten years if necessary.295

Dahlerus’s reports of such hysteria could cut no ice in London.296 Nor did an official approach on the evening of 2 September, inviting Sir Horace Wilson to Berlin for talks with Hitler and Ribbentrop. Wilson replied straightforwardly that German troops had first to be withdrawn from Polish territory. Otherwise Britain would fight.297 This was only to repeat the message which the British Ambassador had already passed to Ribbentrop the previous evening.298 No reply to that message was received.299 At 9a.m. on 3 September, Henderson handed the British ultimatum to the interpreter Paul Schmidt, in place of Ribbentrop, who had been unwilling to meet the British Ambassador.300 Unless assurances were forthcoming by 11a.m. that Germany was prepared to end its military action and withdraw from Polish soil, the ultimatum read, ‘a state of war will exist between the two countries as from that hour’.301 No such assurances were forthcoming. ‘Consequently,’ Chamberlain broadcast to the British people then immediately afterwards repeated in the House of Commons, ‘this country is at war with Germany.’302 The French declaration of war followed that afternoon at 5p.m.303

Hitler had led Germany into the general European war he had wanted to avoid for several more years. Military ‘insiders’ thought the army, 2.3 million strong, through the rapidity of the rearmament programme, was less prepared for a major war than it had been in 1914.304 Hitler was fighting the war allied with the Soviet Union, the ideological arch-enemy. And he was at war with Great Britain, the would-be ‘friend’ he had for years tried to woo. Despite all warnings, his plans — at every turn backed by his warmongering Foreign Minister — had been predicated upon his assumption that Britain would not enter the war — though he had shown himself undeterred even by that eventuality. It was little wonder that, if Paul Schmidt’s account is to believed, when Hitler received the British ultimatum on the morning of 3 September, he angrily turned to Ribbentrop and asked: ‘What now?’305


‘Responsibility for this terrible catastrophe lies on the shoulders of one man,’ Chamberlain had told the House of Commons on 1 September, ‘the German Chancellor, who has not hesitated to plunge the world into misery in order to serve his own senseless ambitions.’306 It was an understandable over-simplification. Such a personalized view necessarily left out the sins of omission and commission by others — including the British government and its French allies — which had assisted in enabling Hitler to accumulate such a unique basis of power that his actions could determine the fate of Europe.

Internationally, Hitler’s combination of bullying and blackmail could not have worked but for the fragility of the post-war European settlement. The Treaty of Versailles was ‘the blackmailer’s lucky find’.307 It had given Hitler the basis for his rising demands, accelerating drastically in 1938–9. It had provided the platform for ethnic unrest, that Hitler could easily exploit, in the cauldron of central and eastern Europe. Not least, it had left an uneasy guilt-complex in the West, especially in Britain. Hitler might rant and exaggerate; his methods might be repellent; but was there not some truth in what he was claiming? The western governments, though Britain more than France, backed by their war-weary populations, anxious more than all-else to do everything possible to avoid a new conflagration, their traditional diplomacy no match for unprecedented techniques of lying and threatening, thought so, and went out of their way to placate Hitler. The blackmailer simply increased his demands, as blackmailers do. By the time the western powers fully realized what they were up against, they were no longer in any position to bring the ‘mad dog’ to heel.

Within Germany, Hitler’s personal power had expanded after 1933 at the expense of other power-groups — notably the army — until it was absolute and unchallenged. The year 1938, beginning with the near-showdown with the army over the Blomberg–Fritsch affair, crossing the triumph of the Anschluß, and ending with peace just about saved at Munich — but no thanks to the German army or to those in powerful positions in the regime who opposed Hitler — brought vital steps in this process.

As war loomed in 1939, a number of individuals who had begun to establish contact with each other the previous year and whose disparate approaches and aims would eventually coalesce into the 1944 attempt on Hitler’s life — nationalists, with access to the levers of power, horrified at the madness of the risks being taken to court war — had warned the West of the dictator’s plans. Colonel Oster of the Abwehr had leaked vital information. Lieutenant-Colonel Gerhard Graf von Schwerin had tried to encourage a greater show of British belligerence to undermine Hitler’s claims that Britain would not fight. Adam von Trott zu Solz, former Oxford Rhodes scholar with a wide circle of friends in high places in Britain, had attempted — reflecting Weizsäcker’s views — to suggest a deal restoring Czech independence but acceding to German claims over Danzig and the Corridor. The attempts of Hitler’s opponents fell on stony ground. The mood in Britain had changed drastically following the march into Czecho-Slovakia. There was too much suspicion of motives, too few certainties that there was any coherent ‘opposition’ (which there was not), too little clarity of how, if at all, Hitler was to be replaced. Well-intentioned though the efforts were, it was hardly surprising that nothing came of them.308

Within Germany in the last days of peace, the conservative opponents of Hitler were uncoordinated, unclear about what was happening, and uncertain how to act themselves. An example was their behaviour when Hitler rescinded his order to attack on 26 August, just hours after it had been given. Hans-Bernd Gisevius, one-time Gestapo officer but by now radically opposed to Hitler, went straight to Schacht, and both had the news confirmed by General Thomas, head of office of the War Economy (Wehrwirtschaft). All three now thought the time was ripe to persuade Halder and Brauchitsch to intervene by deposing Hitler. Whether any scheme involving Brauchitsch had a hope of success is highly doubtful. But the matter was never even broached. Oster, second to none in his detestation of the regime, and his boss Canaris thought a putsch would prove unnecessary. Their misunderstanding of political realities was breathtaking. A supreme warlord who rescinds such a decisive order as that over war and peace within a few hours was finished, ran their wildly over-optimistic view.309 Canaris added: ‘He’ll never recover from this blow. Peace has been saved for twenty years.’310 Armed with such ‘insights’, Hitler’s opponents did nothing.

Nor, unless the army leadership could have been stirred into action, could they have achieved anything. But the army leadership, as we have seen, was weakened and divided. We noted something of the feeling among the generals after Hitler’s speech at the Berghof on 22 August. The mood was much the same in the tense days that followed. Some leading officers thought Hitler’s optimism about the non-intervention of the West was likely to prove false. Others still thought the conflict could be localized. Most were sceptical, anxious even, but fatalistic and in depressed frame of mind. Resignation, not gung-ho enthusiasm for war, prevailed. But it was no platform for opposition.311 Compliance, even if reluctant on the part of some generals, was all that was needed. Hitler remained unhindered by any action such as that which Beck had mooted at the height of the Sudeten crisis the previous year, by any threat of refusal to collaborate in the destruction of Poland.

Close to the epicentre of power in the Reich, but following a line that differed from that of both Hitler and Ribbentrop, was Göring, now attempting something of a comeback after months in the doldrums. Over the summer he had tried through three intermediaries — the Swedish millionaire Axel Wenner-Gren, his own deputy in the Four-Year Plan organization Helmut Wohltat, and, as we have seen, Birger Dahlerus, also a Swede — to coax the British into negotiations.312 Predictably, nothing had come of such moves. The mood in the British government was not amenable to initiatives resting on major concessions to Germany, based on unclear authority, and leaving Hitler’s power untouched, the future potential for aggression undiminished. Göring was certainly anxious to avoid war with Britain, at least until Germany was ready for the big showdown. His entire political thinking over the previous years had rested on a rapprochement with Britain. This strategy was faced with imminent ruin, a development which Göring blamed exclusively on Ribbentrop. But, ultimately, Göring had no real alternative to offer Hitler. His informal approaches were no more successful than Hitler’s threats in severing the British from the Poles. Nor did he have the will to stand up against Hitler. For all the differences in emphasis, Göring remained Hitler’s man through and through.313

Göring was scarcely alone in blaming the war not on Hitler, but on Ribbentrop. It was the view, among others, of Dahlerus, Hassell, Hewel, Papen, Weizsäcker, and the British Ambassador Henderson.314 Unquestionably, Ribbentrop’s self-certainty, derived from his ‘understanding’ of the British and his absolute conviction that in the end they would not fight over Poland, helped to influence Hitler in his miscalculation.315 Despite the impression he tried to leave behind in his memoirs, Ribbentrop had — as in the previous year — been an outright warmonger, his crass aggression fuelled by smouldering resentment at his treatment in Britain. Alongside Goebbels and Himmler he could always be relied upon to egg on Hitler. While he acted, as always, as an amplifier, it is — given the domineering assertiveness of Hitler and his own fawning subservience — difficult to imagine Ribbentrop as the moving force. Hitler’s liaison officer with army command, Nikolaus von Vormann, had in retrospect no doubts about the relationship: ‘Hitler did not believe in a war with the western powers because he did not want to believe in it. From the difference in character and on the basis of the entire atmosphere in the Führer headquarters’ — he evidently meant, since he was writing of the last days before the war, the Reich Chancellery — he concluded ‘that the initiative rested with Hitler and that the essentially submissive (weiche) Ribbentrop, who in any case represented no opinion of his own, thought it appropriate and expedient to reinforce him in this view’.316

Hitler decided. That much is clear. The fracturing of any semblance of collective government over the previous six years left him in the position where he determined alone. No one doubted — the suffocating effect of years of the expanding Führer cult had seen to that — that he had the right to decide, and that his decisions were to be implemented. His style was not to listen to differing or conflicting advice, weigh up the pros and cons, and arrive at a conclusion. He would ponder things overnight, hit on what he saw as a solution, and put it forward for acclaim.317 Or he would expound his ideas in endless monologues until he had convinced himself that they were right.318 In the critical days, he saw a good deal of Ribbentrop, Göring, Goebbels, Himmler, and Bormann. Other leading figures in the Party, government ministers, even court favourites like Speer, had little or no contact with him.319 He was naturally also in constant touch with the Wehrmacht leadership. But while Goebbels, for instance, only learnt at second hand about military plans, leaders of the armed forces often had less than full information, or were belatedly told, about diplomatic developments. The cabinet, of course, never met. Schacht, still nominally a member of that non-functioning body as Reich Minister without Portfolio, had notions of insisting on it being summoned, since constitutionally any declaration of war had to be preceded by cabinet consultation.320 It was an empty hope, rapidly discarded. Whichever way one viewed it, and remarkable for a complex modern state, there was no government beyond Hitler and whichever individuals he chose to confer with at a particular time. Hitler was the only link of the component parts of the regime. Only in his presence could the key steps be taken. But those admitted to his presence, apart from his usual entourage of secretaries, adjutants, and the like, were for the most part officers needing operational guidelines or those like Ribbentrop or Goebbels who thought like he did and were dependent on him. Internal government of the Reich had become Führer autocracy.

For those in proximity to Hitler, the personalized decision-making meant anything but consistency, clarity, and rationality. On the contrary: it brought bewildering improvisation, rapid changes of course, uncertainty. Hitler was living off his nerves. That conveyed itself to others around him. ‘He was no man of logic or reason (Raison),’ reflected Ernst von Weizsäcker almost a decade later. This showed, he went on, in the ‘bizarre zigzag’ of his intentions and actions in those last days of peace: ‘On 22 August Hitler indicated in an address to his generals that he was firmly determined to start war in a few days whether or not it remained localized; the day after he reckoned with it being localized, but he could also conduct a European war.’ With the Moscow Pact, according to Weizsäcker, Hitler ‘crossed the Rubicon’. ‘By the 25th at midday he took the West on board; on the 25th in the evening he withdrew the order for attack that had already been given for fear that England would march, but Italy would not. On 31 August neither matters to him any more; he orders the attack on Poland although he knows that nothing has altered, namely that Italy remains out of it and England has firmly promised assistance to the Poles. On 3 September, finally, Hitler is surprised by the British-French declaration of war and at first clueless.’321 Hitler, Weizsäcker went on to remark, with some insight, was the prisoner of his own actions. The wagon had begun in the spring to roll towards the abyss. In the last days of August, Hitler ‘could hardly have turned the carriage around without being thrown off himself’.322

External pressures of the course he had embarked upon met Hitler’s personal psychology at this point. At the age of fifty, men frequently ruminate on the ambitions they had, and how the time to fulfil them is running out. For Hitler, a man with an extraordinary ego and ambitions to go down in history as the greatest German of all time, and a hypochondriac already prepossessed with his own approaching death, the sense of ageing, of youthful vigour disappearing, of no time to lose was hugely magnified. He had more than hinted as much on 23 August, as we noted, to the British Ambassador, Nevile Henderson.323 To his own entourage, at the evening meal a few days later, he had said: ‘I’m now fifty years old, still in full possession of my strength. The problems must be solved by me, and I can wait no longer. In a few years I will be physically and perhaps mentally, too, no longer up to it.’324 The grandiose parades on 20 April had been held to demonstrate Germany’s military strength to the world. To Hitler the celebrations of his fiftieth birthday had merely reminded him how old he was getting.325

Between the Hoßbach meeting in November 1937 and the outbreak of war at the start of September 1939, Hitler had constantly felt time closing in on him, under pressure to act lest the conditions became more disadvantageous. He had thought of war against the West around 1943–5, against the Soviet Union — though no time-scale was ever given — at some point after that. He had never thought of avoiding war. On the contrary: reliving the lost first great war made him predicate everything on victory in the second great war to come. Germany’s future, he had never doubted and had said so on innumerable occasions, could only be determined through war. In the dualistic way in which he always thought, victory would ensure survival, defeat would mean total eradication — the end of the German people. War — the essence of the Nazi system which had developed under his leadership — was for Hitler inevitable. Only the timing and the direction were at issue. And there was no time to wait. Starting from his own strange premisses, given Germany’s strained resources and the rapid strides forward in rearmament by Britain and France, there was a certain contorted logic in what he said.326 Time was running out on the options for Hitler’s war.

This strong driving-force in Hitler’s mentality was compounded by other strands of his extraordinary psychological make-up. The years of spectacular successes — all attributed by Hitler to the ‘triumph of the will’ — and the undiluted adulation and sycophancy that surrounded him at every turn, the Führer cult on which the ‘system’ was built, had by now completely erased in him what little sense of his own limitations had been present. This led him to a calamitous over-estimation of his own abilities, coupled with an extreme denigration of those — particularly in the military — who argued more rationally for greater caution. It went hand in hand with an equally disastrous refusal to contemplate compromise, let alone retreat, as other than a sign of weakness. The experience of the war and its traumatic outcome had doubtless cemented this characteristic. It was certainly there in his early political career, for instance at the time of the attempted putsch in Munich in 1923. But it must have had deeper roots. Pyschologists might have answers. At any rate the behaviour trait, increasingly dangerous as Hitler’s power expanded to threaten the peace of Europe, was redolent of the spoilt child turned into the would-be macho-man. His inability to comprehend the unwillingness of the British government to yield to his threats produced tantrums of frustrated rage.327 The certainty that he would get his way through bullying turned into blind fury whenever his bluff was called. The purchase he placed on his own image and standing was narcissistic in the extreme. The number of times he recalled the Czech mobilization of May 1938, then the Polish mobilization of March 1939, as a slight on his prestige was telling. A heightened thirst for revenge was the lasting consequence. Then the rescinding of the order to attack Poland on 26 August, much criticized as a sign of incompetence by the military, he took as a defeat in the eyes of his generals, feeling his prestige threatened.328 The result was increased impatience to remedy this by a new order at the earliest possible moment, from which there would be no retreat, without any alteration to the diplomatic situation. On a broader scale, the same applies to Hitler’s reaction to the Munich Settlement the previous year. All his actions during the Polish crisis can be seen as a response to the defeat he felt he had suffered personally in agreeing to pull back at the end of September 1938. His comment to his generals that he wanted at all costs to prevent ‘some swine’ from interceding this time; his determination to prevent Mussolini mediating; and his increase of the stakes to avoid negotiation at the last were all reflections of his ‘Munich syndrome’.

Not just external circumstances, but also his personal psyche, pushed him forwards, compelled the risk. Hitler’s reply on 29 August, when Göring suggested it was not necessary to ‘go for broke’, was, therefore, absolutely in character: ‘In my life I’ve always gone for broke.’329 There was, for him, no other choice.

The gambler has to think he will win. Hitler’s dismay on 3 September at hearing of the British ultimatum quickly gave way to the necessary optimism. Goebbels was with him that evening. Hitler went over the military situation. The Führer ‘believes in a potato-war (Kartoffelkrieg) in the West,’ he wrote. Hearing that Churchill, long seen in Berlin as the leading western warmonger, had been called into the British cabinet as First Lord of the Admiralty, Goebbels was not so sure.330


‘…Extensive shootings were planned in Poland and… especially the nobility and clergy were to be exterminated.’

Admiral Canaris, seeking clarification from General Keitel, 12 September 1939, about information that had come to his attention

‘…This matter has already been decided by the Führer.’

General Keitel’s reply

‘You are now the master race here. Nothing was yet built up through softness and weakness… That’s why I expect, just as our Führer Adolf Hitler expects from you, that you are disciplined, but stand together hard as Krupp steel. Don’t be soft, be merciless, and clear out everything that is not German and could hinder us in the work of construction.’

Ludolf von Alvensleben, head of the ‘Volksdeutscher Selbstschutz’(‘Ethnic German Self-Protection’) militia squads in West Prussia, 16 October 1939

‘It was immaterial to him if some time in the future it were established that the methods to win this territory were not pretty or open to legal objection.’

Note by Martin Bormann, 20 November 1940, on Hitler’s comments to the Gauleiter of incorporated territories

In war Nazism came into its own.1 The Nazi Movement had been born out of a lost war. The experience of that war and erasing the stain of that defeat were at its heart. ‘National renewal’ and preparation for another war to establish the dominance in Europe which the first great war had failed to attain drove it forwards. Mobilizing the people in an attempt at perpetual re-creation of the ‘spirit of 1914’ was essential preparation for the new conflict.2 The keynote of the message was ‘struggle’. National survival — the future of the German people — its Leader had preached for fifteen years or more, could only be assured through acquiring ‘living-space’. And this could only be gained, he had repeatedly stated, ‘through the sword’.

Six years of Nazi rule had brought the ‘world-view’ that Hitler stood for into much sharper focus. Almost imperceptibly at first, restoration of territory taken away from Germany at Versailles had been transformed into a drive for expansion. Hitler had done more than any other individual to bring about this transformation. But it could not have been accomplished without the avid involvement of all ruling groups, but quite especially the armed forces’ leadership, in the push for massive and rapid rearmament. And all sections of the regime’s élites had supported expansion, baulking only at its speed and what were seen as the unnecessary dangers of conflict with the western powers. Meanwhile, with remarkably little direction from Hitler, other than — though this was crucial — to provide the green light for action at key moments, and sanction for what had been done, the aim of ‘racial purification’ had been greatly advanced. Traditional social prejudice and resentment had played its part. Widespread denunciation of fellow-citizens by ordinary Germans had kept the mill of discrimination and persecution turning. Obsession with ‘law and order’ easily slipped into an obsession with the exclusion of ‘troublemakers’ and ‘social outsiders’. Social hygiene fetishism translated readily into pressure for measures to improve ‘racial hygiene’.

Victims of social prejudice far from confined to inter-war Germany were readily to hand: prostitutes, homosexuals, Gypsies, habitual criminals, and others seen as sullying the image of the new society by begging, refusing work, or any sort of ‘antisocial’ behaviour. Beyond these, of course, were the Number One racial and social enemy: the Jews. Where Germany differed from other countries with regard to such ‘outsider’ groups was that licence was provided from the highest leadership in the land to every agency of control and power to look for radical solutions to ‘cleanse’ society, offering the widest scope for increasingly inhumane initiatives that could ignore, override, or bypass the constraints of legality. To serve their own organizational vested interests, those agencies most directly involved — the medical and health bureaucracy, legal authorities, and criminal police — did not hesitate to exploit the general remit of the Nazi state’s philosophy to lead the drive to rid society of ‘racial undesirables’, ‘elements harmful to the people’, and ‘community aliens’. Sterilization and eugenics programmes gained in attraction. Not least, as we have seen, the relentless persecution of the Jews, the foremost racial target, had produced even before the war distinct signs of the mentality which would lead to the gas chambers.

The war now brought the circumstances and opportunities for the dramatic radicalization of Nazism’s ideological crusade. Long-term goals seemed almost overnight to become attainable policy objectives. Persecution which had targeted usually disliked social minorities was now directed at an entire conquered and subjugated people. The Jews, a tiny proportion of the German population, were not only far more numerous in Poland, but were despised by many within their native land and were now the lowest of the low in the eyes of the brutal occupiers of the country.

As before the war, Hitler set the tone for the escalating barbarism, approved of it, and sanctioned it. But his own actions provide an inadequate explanation of such escalation. The accelerated disintegration of any semblance of collective government, the undermining of legality by an ever-encroaching and ever-expanding police executive, and the power-ambitions of an increasingly autonomous SS leadership all played important parts. These processes had developed between 1933 and 1939 in the Reich itself. They were now, once the occupation of Poland opened up new vistas, to acquire a new momentum altogether. The planners and organizers, theoreticians of domination, and technocrats of power in the SS leadership saw Poland as an experimental playground. They were granted a tabula rasa to undertake more or less what they wanted. The Führer’s ‘vision’ served as the legitimation they needed. Party leaders put in to run the civilian administration of the parts of Poland annexed to the Reich, backed by thrusting and ‘inventive’ civil servants, also saw themselves as ‘working towards the Führer’ in their efforts to bring about the speediest possible ‘Germanization’ of their territories. And the occupying army — officers and rank-and-file — imbued with deep-seated anti-Polish prejudice, also needed little encouragement in the ruthlessness with which the conquered Poles were subjugated.

The ideological radicalization fed back into the home front — one important manifestation being the unfolding of a ‘euthanasia action’ to eliminate the incurably sick, something which had been put on ice during the peacetime years, but which could now be attempted. And as the war went on in its early stages to produce almost unbelievable military triumphs in the West, so the options for ‘solving the Jewish Question’ and for tackling the still unresolved ‘Church struggle’ (which Hitler had wanted dampened down at the start of the war) appeared to open up.

But the key area was Poland. The ideological radicalization which took place there in the eighteen months following the German invasion was an essential precursor to the plans which unfolded in spring 1941 as preparation for the war which Hitler knew at some time he would fight: the war against Bolshevik Russia.


Towards nine o’clock on the evening of 3 September, Hitler boarded his special armoured train in Berlin’s Stettiner Bahnhof and left for the front. 3 For much of the following three weeks, the train — standing initially in Pomerania (Hinterpommern), then later in Upper Silesia — formed the first wartime ‘Führer Headquarters’. 4 Among Hitler’s accompaniment were two personal adjutants, for the most part Wilhelm Brückner and Julius Schaub, two secretaries (Christa Schroeder and Gerda Daranowski), two man-servants, his doctor, Karl Brandt (or sometimes his deputy, Hans-Karl von Hasselbach), and his four military adjutants (Rudolf Schmundt, Karl-Jesko von Puttkamer, Gerhard Engel, and Nicolaus von Below). 5 Behind Hitler’s carriage, the first on the train, containing his spacious ‘living-room’, sleeping compartment, and bathroom, together with compartments for his adjutants, was the command carriage that held communications equipment and a conference room for meetings with military leaders. In the next carriage Martin Bormann had his quarters.6 On the day of the invasion of Poland, he had informed Lammers that he would ‘continue permanently to belong to the Führer’s entourage’.7 From now on, he was never far from Hitler’s side — echoing the Führer’s wishes, and constantly reminding him of the need to keep up the ideological drive of the regime.

The Polish troops, ill-equipped for modern warfare, were from the outset no match for the invaders.8 Within the first two days, most aerodromes and almost the whole of the Polish air-force were wiped out.9 The Polish defences were rapidly overrun, the army swiftly in disarray. Already on 5 September Chief of Staff Haider noted: ‘Enemy practically defeated.’10 By the second week of fighting, German forces had advanced to the outskirts of Warsaw.11 Hitler seldom intervened in the military command.12 But he took the keenest interest in the progress of the war. He would leave his train most mornings by car to view a different part of the front line.13 His secretaries, left behind to spend boring days in the airless railway carriage parked in the glare of the blazing sun, tried to dissuade him from touring the battle scenes standing in his car, as he did in Germany.14 But Hitler was in his element. He was invigorated by war.

On 17 September, in the move which Hitler had impatiently awaited, Stalin’s army invaded Poland from the east. German generals, kept in the dark until then about the precise details of the demarcation line drawn up in the secret protocol to the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact, did not conceal their anger at having to withdraw from territories way beyond the agreed line that had cost casualties to capture. ‘A day of disgrace for the German political leadership’ was how Haider recorded it.15

Two days later, Hitler entered Danzig to indescribable scenes of jubilation. He took up accommodation for the next week in the Casino-Hotel at the adjacent resort of Zoppot.16 From there, on the 22nd and again on the 25th, he flew to the outskirts of Warsaw to view the devastation wrought on the city of a million souls by the bombing and shelling he had ordered. By 27 September, when the military commander of Warsaw eventually surrendered the city, he was back in Berlin, returning quietly with no prearranged hero’s reception.17 Poland no longer existed. An estimated 700,000 Polish soldiers were taken prisoners of war.18 Around 70,000 were killed in action, and a further 133,000 wounded.19 German fatalities numbered about 11,000, with 30,000 wounded, and a further 3,400 missing.20

Among the German dead was Colonel-General Werner von Fritsch, unexpectedly caught in heavy Polish fire on 22 September on an inspection of the front where his artillery regiment was fighting.21 Typical of the mentality of conservative nationalists who had deep reservations about Hitler but rejoiced in the territorial gains he had brought about, Fritsch had commented in his last letter from the front that victory in the war would bring ‘the united states of Central Europe in a strong continental block under Germany’s leadership’.22 Hitler scarcely reacted when informed of Fritsch’s death.23 Publicity was kept to a minimum.24 On the anniversary of Fritsch’s death a year later Hitler expressly banned any floral tributes.25

Territorial and political plans for Poland had not been finalized before the invasion. They were improvised and amended as events unfolded in September and October 1939. Hitler had, in fact, shown remarkably little interest in Poland before autumn 1938. As an Austrian, his main anti-Slav antipathies were directed at the Czechs, not the Poles. For Prussians, the age-old antagonisms revolving around the disputed territory on the eastern borders of the Reich tended in the opposite direction. In the face of traditional anti-Polish feeling in the Foreign Ministry and the army, Hitler had pushed through the pact with Poland in 1934 and repeatedly expressed admiration for the Polish head of state, until his death in 1935, Marshal Pilsudski, victor over the Red Army in 1920. Though the pact had obvious tactical value during the build-up of rearmament, and was presumed by many Nazi followers to be merely a ploy with limited life-span, Hitler’s preference continued in autumn 1938 and spring 1939, as we have seen, to have Poland as an ally (if now more or less as a German satellite). The British Guarantee had changed all that. But the new aim of destroying Poland by military force in summer 1939 was still not coupled with clear plans for the post-war future of the country. Neither in Mein Kampf nor in subsequent writings or speeches had Hitler had much to say about Poland. In his Second Book he had indicated that Poles ought to be removed from their property and the land given to ethnic Germans. He rigorously opposed, in this brief passage, the incorporation of Poles in the Reich (as had happened before 1914). ‘The völkisch state,’ he declared, ‘must on the contrary take the decision either to seal off these racially alien elements in order not again to allow the blood of our own people to be debased (zersetzen), or it must remove them forthwith and transfer the land (Grund und Boden) made available to our own people’s comrades.’26 Otherwise, there was remarkably little on Poland. The vast expanses of Russia, as he had often stated, were what he had in mind as the answer to Germany’s alleged ‘space problem.’ But Hitler had repeatedly shown that he was prepared to put off long-term ideological goals in favour of short-term advantage.

The pact concluded with the Soviet Union in August, and in particular its secret protocol agreeing to partition Poland, naturally altered the situation. ‘Living space’ further east dropped for the foreseeable future out of the equation. Any resettlement of populations and ethnic experimentation would now have to take place in the former territory of Poland, not farther east. Whether a Polish state should continue in existence had been left open in the secret protocol. A country divided among two occupying powers held little prospect of sustaining even a puppet state. However, the lack of immediate invasion by the Soviets and Hitler’s hope even at this point of persuading the West, faced with the fait accompli of a Polish defeat, to pull out of the war and strike a deal with him left German plans still uncertain.27

On 7 September Hitler had been ready to negotiate with the Poles, recognizing a rump Polish state (with territorial concessions to Germany and breaking of ties with Britain and France), together with an independent western Ukraine.28 Five days later he still favoured a quasi-autonomous Polish rump state with which he could negotiate a peace in the east, and thought of limiting territorial demands to Upper Silesia and the Corridor if the West stayed out.29 Another option advanced by Ribbentrop was a division between Germany and Russia, and the creation, out of the rump of Poland, of an autonomous Galician and Polish Ukraine — a proposal unlikely to commend itself to Moscow.30 The belated Soviet occupation of eastern Poland on 17 September in any case promptly ruled out this possibility. Hitler still left open the final shape of Poland in his Danzig speech on 19 September.31 During the next days, Stalin made plain his opposition to the existence of a Polish rump state. His initial preference for the demarcation line along the line of the Pissia, Narev, Vistula, and San rivers was then replaced by the proposal to exchange central Polish territories within the Soviet zone between the Vistula and Bug rivers for Lithuania. Once Hitler had accepted this proposal — the basis of the German-Soviet Treaty of Friendship signed on 28 September 1939 — the question of whether or not there would be a Polish rump state was in Berlin’s hands alone.32

Hitler was still contemplating the possibility of some form of Polish political entity at the end of the month.33 He held out the prospect of re-creating a truncated Polish state — though expressly ruling out any re-creation of the Poland of the Versailles settlement — for the last time in his Reichstag speech of 6 October, as part of his ‘peace offer’ to the West.34 But by then the provisional arrangements set up to administer occupied Poland had in effect already eliminated what remained of such a prospect. Even before the formality of Chamberlain’s rejection of the ‘peace offer’ on 12 October, they had created their own dynamic militating towards a rump Polish territory — the ‘General Government’, as it came to be known — alongside the substantial parts of the former Polish state to be incorporated in the Reich itself.

By 26 October, through a series of decrees characterized by extraordinary haste and improvisation, Hitler brought the military administration of occupied Poland to an end, replacing it by civilian rule in the hands of tried and tested ‘Old Fighters’ of the Movement. Albert Forster, Gauleiter of Danzig, was made head of the new Reichsgau of Danzig-West Prussia. Arthur Greiser, former President of the Danzig Senate, was put in charge of the largest annexed area, Reichsgau Posen (or ‘Reichsgau Wartheland’, as it was soon to be renamed, though generally known simply as the ‘War-thegau’). Hans Frank, the Party’s legal chief, was appointed General Governor in the rump Polish territory.35 Other former Polish territory was added to the existing Gaue of East Prussia and Silesia. In each of the incorporated territories, most of all in the Wartheland, the boundaries fixed during the course of October enclosed sizeable areas which had never been part of the former Prussian provinces. The borders of the Reich were thereby extended some 150—200 kilometres to the east. Only in the Danzig area were ethnic Germans in the majority. Elsewhere in the incorporated territories the proportion of Germans in the population seldom reached much over 10 percent.36

It was imperialist conquest, not revisionism. The treatment of the people of the newly conquered territory was unprecedented, its modern forms of barbarism evoking, though in even more terrible fashion, the worst barbaric subjugations of bygone centuries. What was once Poland amounted in the primitive view of its new overlords to no more than a colonial territory in eastern Europe, its resources to be plundered at will, its people regarded — with the help of modern race theories overlaying old prejudice — as inferior human beings to be treated as brutally as thought fit.

In Germany itself, despite new economic restrictions, life went on during the Polish campaign much as normal.37 Berlin’s cafés, restaurants, and bars had been packed, as usual, on the first night of the war.38 On the evening that the British and French had declared war, William Shirer heard people saying that the ‘Polish thing’ would soon be over, and that the West would not move. ‘There were food cards and soap cards and you couldn’t get any petrol and at night it was difficult stumbling around in the blackout,’ he reported. ‘But the war in the east has seemed a bit far away to them.’39 A week later, fears of the conflagration in the west had not materialized. Leisure pursuits were not affected by the war raging in the east. Two hundred football matches were played in Germany that weekend. Berliners flocked to cinemas, to the opera to see Madame Butterfly and Tannhäuser, or to the State Theatre, where Goethe’s Iphigenie was playing.40 Shirer listened to a crowd of mainly women who had come out of the opera. They ‘seemed oblivious of the fact that a war was on, that German bombs and shells were falling on the women and children in Warsaw’, he observed.41 ‘I have still to find a German, even among those who don’t like the regime,’ he added on 20 September, ‘who sees anything wrong in the German destruction of Poland… As long as the Germans are successful and do not have to pull in their belts too much, this will not be an unpopular war.’42 Reports from the exiled Social Democrat leadership (the Sopade), resting on information filtered out from within Germany, told much the same tale.43 The propaganda version of a war forced on Germany was widely believed. So were lurid stories — mainly wild exaggeration — of Polish atrocities against the ethnic German minority in western Poland. Many approved of the ‘rigorous approach’ towards the Poles.44 This stance was given encouragement by letters sent home by soldiers. One, not exceptional, ran: ‘Anything more vile than Polish soldiers has never been seen in a war. They’ve taken hardly any prisoners. Those falling into their hands have been butchered in a horrible fashion, and the Polacks have been treated in such brotherly fashion by us.’45 People followed the military advance with keen interest.46 They rejoiced in the victory.47 But the military triumph in Poland was taken largely for granted. Hitler’s popularity was undiminished.48 Most people hoped that the West would now see sense, and that the war would then be over.


The terror unleashed from the first days of the invasion of Poland left the violence, persecution, and discrimination that had taken place in the Reich itself since 1933 — dreadful though that had been — completely in the shade.49 The orgy of atrocities was unleashed from above, exploiting in the initial stages the ethnic antagonism which Nazi agitation and propaganda had done much to incite. The radical, planned programme of ‘ethnic cleansing’ that followed was authorized by Hitler himself. But its instigation — everything points to this — almost certainly came from the SS leadership. The SS had readily recognized the opportunities there to be grasped from expansion. New possibilities for extending the tentacles of the police state had opened up with the Anschluß. Einsatzgruppen (task forces) of the Security Police had been used there for the first time. They had been deployed again in the Sudeten territory, then the rest of Czecho-Slovakia, where there was even greater scope for the SS’s attack on ‘enemies of the state’. The way was paved for the massive escalation of uncontrolled brutality in Poland. Once more, five (later six) Einsatzgruppen were sent into action. They interpreted most liberally their brief to shoot ‘hostages’ in recrimination for any show of hostility, or insurgents’ — seen as anyone giving the slightest indication of active opposition to the occupying forces. The need to sustain good relations with the Wehrmacht initially restricted the extent and arbitrariness of the shootings.50 It probably also at first constrained the ‘action’ aimed at liquidating the Polish nobility, clergy, and intelligentsia.51 This ‘action’ nevertheless claimed ultimately an estimated 60,000 victims.52 Plainly, with the occupation of Poland, the barbarities of the Einsatzgruppen had moved on to a new plane. The platform was established for what was subsequently to take place in the attack on the Soviet Union in 1941.53

There was no shortage of eager helpers among the ethnic Germans in the former Polish territories. The explosion of violence recalled, in hugely magnified fashion, the wild and barbarous treatment of ‘enemies of the state’ in Germany in spring 1933. But now, after six years of cumulative onslaught on every tenet of humane and civilized behaviour, and persistent indoctrination with chauvinistic hatred, the penned-in aggression could be let loose externally on a downtrodden and despised enemy.

There had been undoubted discrimination against the German minority — around 3 per cent of the total population — in pre-war Poland, mounting sharply during the summer crisis of 1939. The Germans had also been economically disadvantaged. The incorporation of Austria and the Sudeten-land had then raised expectations among the Germans in Poland of their own ‘return to the Reich’.54 And, in a climate of mounting ethnic conflict, Goebbels’s propaganda, grossly exaggerating or simply fabricating incidents of sporadic violence against the German minority (while of course keeping quiet about worse outrages on the German side), contributed immensely to inciting venomous antagonism towards the Poles.

For their part, immediately following the German invasion the Poles, reacting to real or alleged cases of sabotage by the German minority — taken to be a ‘fifth column’ — arrested some 10–15,000 ethnic Germans (1–2 percent of the German minority) and force-marched them eastwards.55 Though the brutality accompanying the marches was later hugely magnified for propaganda purposes, the prisoners were indeed often beaten, or otherwise maltreated, and subjected to violence by the local population as they passed through Polish towns and villages. In some cases, those unfit to walk any further were shot.56

Outrages against the minority German population occurred in numerous places. Most notoriously in Bromberg (Bydgoszcz), attacks on Germans on 3 September had the character of a local pogrom. Precisely how many died at Bromberg has never been satisfactorily established.57 For German propaganda, the attacks on ethnic Germans were exploited as an apparent justification for a policy of ‘ethnic cleansing’ that had surpassed in its first days anything that could be regarded as retaliation.58 The Germans claimed in November 1939 that 5,400 had been killed in the ‘September Murders’ (including what they dubbed the ‘Bromberg Bloody Sunday’). Then, in February 1940, on Hitler’s own instructions (it was later claimed) this was simply multiplied by around ten-fold and a figure of 58,000 German dead invented.59 The most reliable estimates put the total number of ethnic Germans killed in outrages, forced marches, bombing and shelling at around 4,000.60 Terrible though these atrocities were, they were more or less spontaneous outbursts of hatred that took place in the context of panic and fear following the German invasion. They did not remotely compare with, let alone provide any justification for, the calculated savagery of the treatment meted out by the German masters, directed at wiping out anything other than a slave existence for the Polish people.61

Some of the worst German atrocities in the weeks following the invasion were perpetrated by the Volksdeutscher Selbstschutz (Ethnic German Self-Protection), a civilian militia established on Hitler’s directions in the first days of September and within little more than a week coming under the control of the SS.62 Himmler’s adjutant, Ludolf von Alvensleben, took over its organization, and later led the Selbstschutz in West Prussia, where the extent of its brutality stood out even in the horrific catalogue of misdeeds of the organization’s other branches.63 Tens of thousands of male ethnic Germans between seventeen and forty-five years of age served in the Selbst-schutz.64 Von Alvensleben told his recruits, at a meeting in Thorn on 16 October: ‘You are now the master race here. Nothing was yet built up through softness and weakness… That’s why I expect, just as our Führer Adolf Hitler expects from you, that you are disciplined, but stand together hard as Krupp steel. Don’t be soft, be merciless, and clear out everything that is not German and could hinder us in the work of construction.’65 Especially in West Prussia, where ethnic conflict had been at its fiercest, the Selbstschutz carried out untold numbers of ‘executions’ of Polish civilians. On 7 October, von Alvensleben reported that his units had taken the ‘sharpest measures’ against 4,247 former Polish citizens.66 When one subordinate Selbstschutz leader reported to von Alvensleben that no executions had been carried out that week, he was asked whether there were no more Poles left at all in his town.67 The Selbstschutz was eventually wound up — in West Prussia in November, and elsewhere by early 1940 — but only because its uncontrolled atrocities were becoming counter-productive on account of the resulting conflicts with the army and German civil authorities in the occupied areas.68

The rampaging actions of the Selbstschutz were only one element of the programme of radical ‘ethnic struggle’ (Volkstumskampf) designed by the SS leadership for the ‘new order’ in Poland. More systematic ‘ethnic cleansing’ operations, involving widespread liquidation of targeted groups, were mainly in the hands of the Security Police Einsatzgruppen, following in the wake of the military advance. Already at the end of the first week of the invasion, Heydrich was reported to be enraged — as, apparently, was Hitler too — at the legalities of the military courts, despite 200 executions a day. He was demanding shooting or hanging without trial. ‘The nobility, clerics, and Jews must be done away with (umgebracht),’ were his reported words.69 He repeated the same sentiments, referring to a general ‘ground cleansing’ (Flurbereinigung), to Haider’s Quartermaster-General Eduard Wagner some days later.70 Reports of atrocities were not long in arriving. By 10–11 September accounts were coming in of an SS massacre of Jews herded into a church, and of an SS shooting of large numbers of Jews.71 On 12 September Admiral Canaris, chief of the Abwehr, told Keitel that he had heard ‘that extensive shootings (Fusilierungen) were planned in Poland and that especially the nobility and clergy were to be exterminated (ausgerottet)’. Keitel replied ‘that this matter had already been decided by the Füihrer’.72 Chief of Staff Haider was already by then heard to have said that ‘it was the intention of the Führer and of Göring to annihilate (vernichten) and exterminate (auszurotten) the Polish people’, and that ‘the rest could not even be hinted at in writing’.73

What it amounted to — an all-out ‘ethnic cleansing’ programme — was explained by Heydrich to the commanders of the Einsatzgruppen on 21 September. The thinking was that the former German provinces would become German Gaue. Another Gau with a ‘foreign-speaking population’ (mit fremdsprachiger Bevölkerung) would be established, with its capital in Cracow. An ‘eastern wall’ would surround the German provinces, with the ‘foreign-speaking Gau’ forming a type of ‘no man’s land’ in front of it. The Reichsführer-SS was to be appointed Settlement Commissar for the East (an appointment of vital importance, giving Himmler immense, practically unrestricted powers in the east, confirmed by secret edict of Hitler on 7 October).74 ‘The deportation of Jews into the foreign-speaking Gau, expulsion over the demarcation-line has been approved by the Führer,’ Heydrich went on. The process was to be spread over a year. As regards ‘the solution of the Polish problem’, the 3 per cent at most of the Polish leadership in the occupied territories ‘had to be rendered harmless’ and put in concentration camps. The Einsatzgruppen were to draw up lists of significant leaders, and of various professional and middle-class groups (including teachers and priests) who were to be deported to the rump territory (soon to be known as the General Government). The ‘primitive Poles’ were to be used as migrant workers and gradually deported to the ‘foreign-speaking Gau’. Poles were to remain no more than seasonal and migrant workers, with their permanent homes in the Cracow region. Jews in urban areas were to be concentrated in ghettos, giving better possibilities of control and readiness for later deportation. Jews in rural areas were to be removed, and placed in towns. Jews were systematically to be transported by goods-train from German areas. Heydrich also envisaged the deportation to Poland of the Reich’s Jews, and of 30,000 Gypsies.75

Hitler spoke little over a week later to Rosenberg of the Germanization and deportation programme to be carried out in Poland. The three weeks spent in Poland during the campaign had confirmed his ingrained racial prejudices. ‘The Poles,’ Rosenberg recalled him saying: ‘a thin Germanic layer, below that dreadful material. The Jews, the most horrible thing imaginable. The towns covered in dirt. He has learnt a lot in these weeks. Above all: if Poland had ruled for a few decades over the old parts of the Reich, everything would be lice-ridden (verlaust) and decayed. A clear, masterful hand was now needed to rule here.’ Hitler then referred, along similar lines to Heydrich’s address to his Einsatzgruppen chiefs, to his plans for the conquered Polish territories. ‘He wanted to divide the now established territory into three strips: 1. between the Vistula and the Bug: the entire Jewry (also from the Reich) along with all somehow unreliable elements. On the Vistula an invincible Eastern Wall — even stronger than in the West. 2. Along the previous border a broad belt of Germanization and colonization. Here there would be a great task for the entire people: to create a German granary, strong peasantry, to resettle there good Germans from all over the world. 3. Between, a Polish “form of state” (Staatlichkeit). Whether after decades the settlement belt could be pushed forward will have to be left to the future.’76

A few days later, Hitler spoke to Goebbels in similar vein. ‘The Führer’s judgement on the Poles is annihilatory (vernichtend),’ Goebbels recorded. ‘More animals than human beings… The filth of the Poles is unimaginable.’ Hitler wanted no assimilation. ‘They should be pushed into their reduced state’ — meaning the General Government — ‘and left entirely among themselves.’ If Henry the Lion — the mighty twelfth-century Duke of Saxony and Bavaria, who had resettled peasants on lands in northern and eastern Germany — had conquered the east, the result, given the scope of power available at the time, would have been a ‘slavified’ German mongrel-race, Hitler went on. ‘It’s all the better as it is. Now at least we know the laws of race and can act accordingly.’77

Hitler hinted in his Reichstag speech of 6 October, though in the vaguest terms for public consumption, at ‘cleansing work’ (Sanierungsarbeit) and massive ethnic resettlement as preparation for the ‘new order of ethnographical relations’ in former Poland.78 Only in confidential dealings with those in the regime’s leadership who needed to know — a characteristic technique of his rule not to spread information beyond essential limits — did Hitler speak frankly, as he had done to Rosenberg and Goebbels, about what was intended. At a meeting on 17 October in the Reich Chancellery attended by Keitel, Frank, Himmler, Heß, Bormann, Lammers, Frick, and the State Secretary in the Reich Ministry of the Interior, Stuckart, Hitler outlined the draconian policy for Poland.79 The military should be happy to be freed from administrative responsibility. The General Government was not to become part of the Reich. It was not the task of the administration there to run it like a model province or to establish a sound economic and financial basis. The Polish intelligentsia were to be deprived of any chance to develop into a ruling class.80 The standard of living was to remain low: ‘We only want to get labour supplies from there.’ The administration there was to be given a free hand, independent of Berlin ministries. ‘We don’t want to do anything there that we do in the Reich,’ was ominously noted. Carrying out the work there would involve ‘a hard ethnic struggle (Volks-tumskampf) that will not permit any legal restrictions. The methods will not be compatible with our normal principles.’ Rule over the area would ‘allow us to purify the Reich area too of Jews and Polacks’. Cooperation of the General Government with the new Gaue of Posen and West Prussia was to take place only for resettlement purposes (through Himmler’s new role as Commissar for Settlement). ‘Cleverness and hardness in this ethnic struggle,’ Hitler ended, with usual recourse to national needs as justification, ‘must save us from again having to enter the fields of slaughter on account of this land.’81 ‘The devil’s work’, he called it.82

Hitler’s approval for what Heydrich had set in motion cannot be doubted.83 Referring back several months later to the chequered relations of the SS and police in Poland with the army leadership, Heydrich pointed out that the work of the Einsatzgruppen in Poland (as it had been in Austria and Czecho-Slovakia) was ‘in accordance with the special order of the Führer’. The ‘political activity’ carried out in Poland by the Reichsführer-SS, which had caused conflict with some of the army leadership, had followed ‘the directives of the Führer as well as the General Field Marshal’. He added ‘that the directives according to which the police deployment took place were extraordinarily radical (e.g. orders of liquidation for numerous sectors of the Polish leadership, going into thousands)’. Since the order was not passed on to army leaders, they had presumed that the police and SS were acting arbitrarily.84

Indeed, the army commanders on the ground in Poland had been given no explicit instructions about any mandate from Hitler for the murderous ‘ethnic cleansing’ policy of the SS and Security Police, though Brauchitsch, like Keitel, was well aware of what was intended.85 This was in itself characteristic of how the regime functioned, and of Hitler’s keenness — through keeping full knowledge to the smallest circle possible, and speaking for the most part even there in generalities, however draconian — to cloud his own responsibility. The army’s hands were far from unsullied by the atrocities in Poland. Brauchitsch’s proclamation to the Poles on 1 September had told them that the Wehrmacht did not regard the population as its enemy, and that all agreements on human rights would be upheld.86 But already in the first weeks of September numerous army reports recounted plundering, ‘arbitrary shootings’, ‘maltreatment of unarmed, rapes’, ‘burning of synagogues’, and massacres of Jews by soldiers of the Wehrmacht.87 The army leaders — even the most pro-Nazi among them — nevertheless regarded such repellent actions as serious lapses of discipline, not part of a consistent racially motivated policy of unremitting ‘cleansing’ to be furthered with all means possible, and sought to punish those involved through the military courts. (In fact, most were amnestied by Hitler through a decree on 4 October justifying German actions as retaliation ‘out of bitterness for the atrocities committed by the Poles’.)88 The commanders on the ground in Poland, harsh though their own military rule was, did not see the atrocities which they acknowledged among their own troops — in their view regrettable, if inevitable, side-effects of the military conquest of a bitter enemy and perceived ‘inferior’ people — as part of an exterminatory programme of ‘ethnic struggle’. Their approach, draconian though their treatment of the Poles was, differed strikingly from the thinking of Hitler, Himmler, and Heydrich.

Gradually, in the second half of September the unease among army commanders in Poland at the savagery of the SS’s actions turned to unmistakable criticism.89 Awareness of this fed complaints from the Nazi leadership about the ‘lack of understanding’ in the army of what was required in the ‘ethnic struggle’.90 Hitler told Goebbels on 13 October that the military in Poland were ‘too soft and yielding’ and would be replaced as soon as possible by civil administration. ‘Only force is effective with the Poles,’ he added. ‘Asia begins in Poland.’91 On 17 October, in a step notably contributing to the extension of the SS’s autonomy, Hitler removed the SS and police from military jurisdiction.92 Two days later an unpublished decree stipulated that military administration of Poland would cease on 25 October, to be replaced by civilian rule. This had already been anticipated a fortnight earlier by Hitler’s decision to establish civilian administration in Danzig and West Prussia — a decision directly prompted, it seems, by Forster’s complaints about the army’s ‘lack of understanding’ for the measures being taken there.93

The transfer of responsibility from the army did little to affect the deteriorating relations between army and SS in Poland. The most forthright — and courageous — denunciations of the continuing horrendous outrages of the SS were made in written reports to Brauchitsch by Colonel-General Johannes Blaskowitz, following the ending of military administration the commander of the army in Poland.94 His reports condemned the ‘criminal atrocities, maltreatment, and plundering carried out by the SS, police, and administration’, castigating the ‘animal and pathological instincts’ of the SS which had brought the slaughter of tens of thousands of Jews and Poles. Blaskowitz feared ‘immeasurable brutalization and moral debasement’ if the SS were not brought under control — something, he said, which was increasingly impossible within Poland ‘since they can well believe themselves officially authorized and justified in committing any act of cruelty’. General Wilhelm Ulex, Commander in Chief of the southern section of the front, reported in similar vein.95.

The weak-kneed response of army Commander-in-Chief von Brauchitsch — in effect an apologia for the barbaric ‘ethnic cleansing’ policy authorized by Hitler — was fateful.96 It compromised the position of the army, and pointed the way to the accommodation between army and SS about the genocidal actions to be taken in the Soviet Union in 1941. Brauchitsch spoke of ‘regrettable mistakes’ (‘bedauerliche Miβgriffe’) in the ‘difficult solution’ of the ‘ethnic-political tasks’. After lengthy discussions with the Reichs-fiihrer-SS, he was confident that the future would bring a change. Criticism endangering the ‘unity and fighting power of the troops’ had to be prohibited. ‘The solution of ethnic-political tasks, necessary for securing German living space and ordered by the Führer, had necessarily to lead to otherwise unusual, harsh measures against the Polish population of the occupied area,’ he stated. ‘The necessarily accelerated execution of these tasks, caused by the imminently decisive struggle of the German people, naturally brought about a further intensification of these measures.’97 Doubtless anticipating the inevitable explosion at the inadequacies of the army, Brauchitsch did not even deliver Blaskowitz’s reports in person to Hitler. As he had done with Beck’s memorandum in July 1938, he passed on at least the first report on 18 November 1939 via Hitler’s army adjutant Gerhard Engel. At first there was little reaction. Then the expected ferocious denunciation of the ‘childish attitudes’ inevitably followed. ‘You can’t wage war with Salvation Army methods,’ Hitler raged.98

The inquiries Himmler had set in train following the army complaints predictably concluded that it was a matter only of ‘trivialities’.99 But the Reichsführer-SS was angered by the attacks. In March 1940 he eventually sought an opportunity to address the leaders of the army. He accepted responsibility for what had happened, though played down the reports, attributing the accounts of serious atrocities to rumour.100 According to the memory of one participant, General Weichs, he added that ‘he was prepared, in matters that seemed perhaps incomprehensible, to take on responsibility before the people and the world, since the person of the Führer could not be connected with these things’.101 Another participant, with more cause than most to take a keen interest in Himmler’s comments, General Ulex, recalled the Reichsführer-SS saying: ‘I do nothing that the Führer does not know about.’102

With the sanctioning of the liquidation programme at the core of the barbaric ‘ethnic cleansing’ drive in Poland, Hitler — and the regime he headed — had crossed the Rubicon. This was no longer a display of outright brutality at home that shocked — as had the massacre of the SA leadership in 1934, or even more so the November Pogrom against the Jews in 1938 — precisely because the structures and traditions of legality in the Reich, whatever the inroads made into them, had not been totally undermined. In what had once been Poland, the violence was unconstrained, systematic, and on a scale never witnessed within the Reich itself. Law, however draconian, counted for nothing. The police were given a free hand. Even the incorporated areas were treated for policing terms as outside the Reich.103 What was taking place in the conquered territories fell, to be sure, still far short of the all-out genocide that was to emerge during the Russian campaign in the summer of 1941. But it had near-genocidal traits. It was the training-ground for what was to follow.

Hitler’s remarks to Rosenberg and Goebbels illustrated how his own impressions of the Poles provided for him the self-justification for the drastic methods he had approved. He had unquestionably been strengthened in these attitudes by Himmler and Heydrich. Goebbels, too, played to Hitler’s prejudices in ventilating his own. In mid-October Goebbels told him of the preliminary work carried out on what was to become the nauseating antisemitic ‘documentary’ film Der ewige Jude (The Eternal Jew). Hitler listened with great interest. What Goebbels said to Hitler might be implied from his own reactions when he viewed the first pictures from what he called the ‘ghetto film’. The appearance of the degraded and downtrodden Jews, crushed under the Nazi yoke, had come to resemble the caricature that Goebbels’s own propaganda had produced. ‘Descriptions so terrible and brutal in detail that your blood clots in your veins,’ he commented. ‘You shrink back at the sight of such brutishness (Roheit). This Jewry must be annihilated (vernicbtet).’104 A fortnight or so later Goebbels showed Hitler the horrible ritual-slaughter scenes from the film, and reported on his own impressions — already pointing plainly in a genocidal direction — gleaned during his visit to the Lodz ghetto: ‘It’s indescribable. Those are no longer human beings. They are animals. So it’s not a humanitarian but a surgical task. Otherwise Europe will perish through the Jewish disease.’105

In a most literal sense, Goebbels, Himmler, Heydrich, and other leading Nazis were ‘working towards the Führer’, whose authority allowed the realization of their own fantasies. The same was true of countless lesser figures in the racial experiment under way in the occupied territories. Academics — historians at the forefront — excelled themselves in justifying German hegemony in the east.106 Racial ‘experts’ in the Party set to work to construct the ‘scientific’ basis for the inferiority of the Poles.107 Armies of planners, moved to the east, started to let their imagination run riot in devising megalomaniac schemes for ethnic resettlement and social restructuring.108 Hitler had to do no more than provide the general licence for barbarism. There was no shortage of ready hands to put it into practice.

This began with the heads of the civil administration in occupied Poland. Forster in Danzig-West Prussia, Greiser in the Warthegau, and Frank in the General Government were trusted ‘Old Fighters’, hand-picked for the task by Hitler. They knew what was expected of them. Regular and precise directives were not necessary.

The Warthegau provides clear illustration of the ways ‘working towards the Führer’ — anticipating Hitler’s presumed wishes and intentions — translated into ever more radical actions. Hitler’s man in Posen, head of the civil administration in ‘Reichsgau Wartheland’ (as it was officially known from January 1940 onwards), was Arthur Greiser. For Greiser, a native of the Posen area, the way to Hitler had been the classical one. As with Hitler himself, the war had been a formative experience. He identified completely with the ‘front-soldier’ mentality. Defeat and the loss of his home province left a searing mark on him. Service in the Freikorps was followed by years where he scraped by, earning a living as best he could, including running boat-rides round Danzig harbour.109 His resentment at his parlous financial situation doubtless helped drive him further into the völkisch camp, then on into the Nazi Party. He was apparently unemployed when, in 1929, he was attracted to what he later called ‘the solution of the great social question’ — unquestionably synonymous in his mind with the ‘ethnic question’ in the former Prussian provinces. He believed that ‘in the chaos of party politics, only Hitler was capable of this solution’.110

Greiser was clever and ambitious enough to work his way through the intrigues of the Danzig Party to become Forster’s deputy and President of the Senate in the Free City, surviving scandals about financial corruption, his membership of a Freemasons’ Lodge in the 1920s, and the stormy break-up of his first marriage. Greiser’s survival owed not a little to his good connections with Himmler. He was also already prepared to do anything to retain favour with Hitler. ‘For this favour,’ recalled Carl Burck-hardt, ‘no price was too high. A wish expressed by Hitler counted for even more than an order.’111 When appointed by Hitler Reich Governor and Gauleiter of the Warthegau, Greiser’s ‘gratitude knew no bounds’, according to one contemporary.112 He lost no opportunity to emphasize ‘that he was persona gratissima with the Führer’, and also had the ear of the Reichsführer-SS.113 He saw his task as working to put into practice the Führer’s ‘heroic vision’ for the Germanization of the Warthegau, to turn it into the ‘model Gau’ of the ‘New Order’. He was given full scope to do so.

The combined headship of state and party in the incorporated area, following the structure used in the ‘Ostmark’ and Sudetenland, provided far greater influence for the Party than was the case in the ‘Old Reich’.114 Greiser met any obstacles by pointing to ‘the special plenipotentiary powers personally given to me by the Führer’ which, he claimed, according to his mandate had to be more extensive than in other areas of the Reich.115

Greiser demanded of his own subordinates that they be ‘brutal, harsh, and again harsh’ in the ‘ethnic struggle’.116 Brutality reproduced itself; it became the norm. Leniency was banned. The climate in the Warthegau can be gauged from the directive of the head of the constabulary (not the dreaded Security Police) in one district of the Posen province. Speaking of what he called the ‘Polacks’, he laid down that he did not ‘want to see any officer showing mildness to such elements’.117 The same constabulary chief added, some months later: ‘The Pole is for us an enemy and I expect from every officer… that he acts accordingly. The Poles must feel that they do not have the right to put themselves on the same level as a people of culture.’118 This ethos was passed on to and adopted by practically every one of the 25,000 or so police and 22,500 members of the civil administration — mostly drawn from the Reich — who controlled the Warthegau.119

Hitler’s attitude towards policy in the incorporated territories was typical. He placed great value on giving his Gauleiter the ‘necessary freedom of action’ to carry out their difficult tasks. He stressed ‘that he only demanded a report from the Gauleiter after ten years that their area was German, that is purely German. He would not ask about the methods they had used to make the area German, and it was immaterial to him if some time in the future it were established that the methods to win this territory were not pretty (unschön) or open to legal objection.’120 The inevitable consequence of this broad mandate — though it was alleged that it ran counter to Hitler’s intention — was competition between Greiser and his arch-rival Forster to be the first to announce that his Gau was fully Germanized.121 Greiser and Forster went about meeting this aim in different ways. While, to Himmler’s intense irritation, Forster swept as many Poles in his area as possible into the third group of the Deutsche Volksliste (German Ethnic List), giving them German citizenship on approval (constantly subject, that is, to revocation), Greiser pushed fanatically and ruthlessly for complete apartheid — the maximum separation of the two ethnic groups.122 While Forster frequently clashed with Himmler, Greiser gave full support to the policies of the Reichsführer-SS, and worked in the closest cooperation with the Higher SS-and-Police Chief in the Warthegau, Wilhelm Koppe.

The Warthegau turned years of indescribable torment for the subjugated people into the nearest approximation to a vision of the ‘New Order’ in the east. The vast deportation and resettlement programmes, the ruthless eradication of Polish cultural influence, the mass-closing of Catholic churches and arrests or murder of clergy, the eviction of Poles from their property, and the scarcely believable levels of discrimination against the majority Polish population — always accompanied by the threat of summary execution — were carried out under the aegis of Greiser and Koppe with little need to involve Hitler. Not least, the vicious drive by the same pairing to rid their Germanized area of the lowest of the low — the Jewish minority in the Warthegau — was to form a vital link in the chain that would lead by late 1941 to the ‘Final Solution’.123

The rapidity with which the geographical divisions and administrative structure for the occupied territories of former Poland had been improvised, the free hand given to Party bosses, the widespread autonomy which the police had obtained, and the complete absence of legal constraint, had created a power free-for-all in the ‘wild east’. But where conflict among the occupying authorities was most endemic, as in the General Government, the greatest concentration of power was plainly revealed to lie in the hands of the Security Police, represented by the Higher SS-and-Police Chief, backed by Himmler and Heydrich. Himmler’s ‘Black Order’, under the Reichs-fuhrer’s extended powers as Reich Commissar for the Consolidation of Germandom, and mandated by Hitler’s to ‘cleanse’ the east, had come into its own in the new occupied territories. The unlimited power that war and occupation had brought, and the lessons in barbarism rapidly learnt in former Poland, would be put to immediate use during the onslaught on the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941.


Meanwhile, within the Reich itself the beginning of the war had also marked a vital step in the descent into modern barbarism. Here, too, Hitler now authorized mass murder.

Parallel to the murders in occupied Poland, it was an irreversible advance in the direction of genocide. The programme — euphemistically called the ‘euthanasia action’ — to kill the mentally ill and others incurably sick that he launched in autumn 1939 was to provide a gangway to the vaster extermination programme to come. And, like the destruction of European Jewry, it was evidently linked in his own mind with the war that, he was certain, would bring the fulfilment of his ideological ‘mission’.

It was some time in October that Hitler had one of his secretaries type, on his own headed notepaper and backdated to 1 September 1939 — the day that the war had begun — the single sentence: ‘Reichsleiter Bouhler and Dr med. Brandt are commissioned with the responsibility of extending the authority of specified doctors so that, after critical assessment of their condition, those adjudged incurably ill can be granted mercy-death.’ He took a pen and signed his name below this lapidary, open-ended death-sentence.124

By this time, the killing of mental patients, already authorized verbally by Hitler, was well under way. It suited neither Hitler’s style nor his instinct to transmit lethal orders in writing. The reason he did so on this one and only occasion was because of the difficulties, in a land where the writ of law was still presumed to run, already being encountered by those attempting, without any obvious authority, to build an organization in conditions of secrecy to implement a murderous mandate.125 Even then, knowledge of Hitler’s written authorization was confined to as few persons as possible. It was ten months later, on 27 August 1940, before even the Reich Minister of Justice, Franz Gürtner, faced with growing criticism of the illegality of what was inevitably leaking more and more into the open, was shown a facsimile of it.126

Indeed, there was no basis of legality for what was taking place. Hitler explicitly refused to have a ‘euthanasia’ law, rejecting the prospect of a cumbersome bureaucracy and legal constraints.127 Even according to the legal theories of the time, Hitler’s mandate could not be regarded as a formal Führer decree and did not, therefore, possess the character of law.128 But an order from the Führer, whatever its legal status, was nonetheless seen as binding.129 That applied also to Reich Justice Minister Gürtner. Once he had seen with his own eyes that Hitler’s will stood behind the liquidation of the mentally sick, and that it was not the work of Party underlings operating without authority, he gave up his attempts on legal grounds to block or regulate the killings.130 To a courageous district judge, Lothar Kreyssig, who had written frank protest letters to him about the crass illegality of the action, and on being shown Hitler’s authorization had exclaimed that even on the basis of positivist legal theory wrong could not be turned into right, Gürtner gave a simple reply: ‘If you cannot recognize the will of the Führer as a source of law, as a basis of law, then you cannot remain a judge.’ Kreyssig’s notice of retirement followed soon afterwards.131

The exchange between Gürtner and Kreyssig shows how far the acceptance of ‘Führer power’ had undermined the essence of law. The genesis of the ‘euthanasia action’ that Hitler authorized in writing in October 1939 provides, beyond that, a classic example of the way ‘working towards the Führer’ converted an ideological goal into realizable policy.

Hitler was indispensable to the process. His well-aired views from the 1920s on ‘euthanasia’ served after 1933 as an encouragement to those, most notably represented in the National Socialist Doctors’ League but by no means confined to fanatical Nazis, anxious to act on the ‘problem’ of what they described as the ‘ballast’ of society (Ballastexistenzen),132

The notion of the ‘destruction of life not worth living’ (‘Vernichtung lebensunwerten Lebens’) had already been the subject of much public debate following the publication in 1920 of a tract by the lawyer Professor Karl Binding and the psychiatrist Dr Alfred Hoche — neither of them a National Socialist — demanding the killing of the incurably sick and insane on request of relatives or the decision of a commission comprising two doctors and two lawyers who had thoroughly investigated the circumstances of a particular case. Among the reasons given for such a policy — later to be voiced by the Nazis — was the need to avoid having to spend money otherwise available for ‘productive’ purposes on the care of those deemed to be no more than a social burden.133

Doctors had, however, overwhelmingly rejected euthanasia during the Weimar era. Psychiatrists began by doing the same, despite arguments already being aired that money spent upon ‘idiots’ could be put to better use. As professional conditions in psychiatry deteriorated, as pychiatrists’ public standing declined — they were often regarded as second-class doctors — and as conditions in the asylums drastically worsened in the wake of severe cuts in public spending by the early 1930s, radical suggestions for reducing the cost of institutionalized support of the mentally ill gained ground. But it was recognized that the public climate for such changes was still not propitious.

Hitler’s takeover of power changed that climate — and opened up new possibilities to the medical profession. Some leading psychiatrists were more than ready to exploit them. Hitler’s presumed intentions provided guidelines for their endeavours, even if the time was still not deemed right to introduce the programme they wanted. Above all, Hitler’s role was decisive in 1938–9 in providing approval for every step that extended into the full ‘euthanasia’ programme from the autumn of 1939 onwards. Without that approval, it is plain, and without the ideological drive that he embodied, there would have been no ‘euthanasia action’.

But the mentality which led to the killing of the mentally sick was no creation of Hitler. Building on foundations firmly laid, especially in the wake of the catastrophic public funding cuts during the Depression years, the erection of the dictatorship had provided licence to the medical and pyschiatric professions after 1933 to think the unthinkable. Minority views, constrained even in a failing democracy, could now become mainstream. The process gathered pace. By 1939, doctors and nurses attached to the asylums were aware of what was required. So was the medical bureaucracy which oiled the wheels of the killing machinery.134 The climate of opinion among the general public was by this time also not unfavourable. Though there were strong feelings against euthanasia, particularly among those attached to the Churches, others were in favour — notably, it seems, in the case of mentally ill or disabled children — or at least passively prepared to accept it.135

Finally, but not least, the point at which, coinciding with the outbreak of war, a secret programme of mass murder could be implemented would have been unimaginable without the progressive erosion of legality and disintegration of formal structures of government that had taken place since 1933.

Hitler had given a strong indication of his own thoughts on how to deal with the incurably ill in Mein Kampf, where he advocated their sterilization. His remarks were made in the context of a diatribe on the need to eradicate sexually transmitted diseases from society. He wanted no half-measures. ‘It is a half-measure,’ he wrote, ‘to let incurably sick people steadily contaminate the remaining healthy ones… The demand that defective people be prevented from propagating equally defective offspring is a demand of the clearest reason… If necessary, the incurably sick will be pitilessly segregated — a barbaric measure for the unfortunate who is struck by it, but a blessing for his fellow men and posterity.’136

For Hitler, typically, when he spoke at the Nuremberg Party Rally in 1929 about how the weakest in society should be handled, the economic argument used by the eugenics lobby in the medical profession and others weighed less heavily than questions of ‘racial hygiene’ and the ‘future maintenance of our ethnic strength (Volkskraft), indeed of our ethnic nationhood (unseres Volkstums) altogether’.137 ‘If Germany were to have a million children a year,’ he declared, ‘and do away with (beseitigen) 700,000–800,000 of the weakest of them, the result would finally be perhaps even a rise in strength.’138 This implied racial engineering through mass murder, justified through social-Darwinist ideology, not ‘euthanasia’ in the conventional sense as the voluntary release from terminal illness.

According to the comments of his doctor, Karl Brandt, in his post-war trial, Hitler was known to favour involuntary euthanasia at the latest from 1933 onwards.139 Lammers, too, later recalled Hitler musing on the killing of mental patients in 1933 during discussions on the ‘Sterilization Law’.140 But in 1933, German public opinion was nowhere near prepared for such a drastic step. The Nazi regime could not contemplate introducing as controversial a measure as compulsory ‘euthanasia’ for the incurably sick, certain at the very least at that time to provoke the condemnation of the Catholic Church.

But the idea did not disappear from view. In 1933 a published lengthy memorandum on National Socialist penal law, whose author was the Prussian Minister of Justice, Hanns Kerrl, did not classify voluntary euthanasia, certified by two doctors, as a criminal offence. Kerrl also stated that it would not be an offence, were the state ‘legally to order the elimination from life of incurably mentally sick by official organs’.141 The hierarchy of the Catholic Church responded in predictably hostile manner (though in an unpublished memorandum).142 In 1935, Gürtner’s published report on the work of the commission set up to review the penal code, in direct contrast to Kerrl’s line of interpretation, then appeared to rule out explicitly the prospect of any legalization of the killing of the mentally sick.143 However, Hitler’s own position was indicated in his reply in 1935 to the Reich Doctors’ Leader Gerhard Wagner (who was instrumental in the drive to introduce an anti-Jewish ‘Blood Law’). Evidently, Wagner was pressing for radical measures to bring about the ‘destruction of life not worth living’. Hitler reportedly told him that he would ‘take up and carry out the questions of euthanasia’ in the event of a war. He was ‘of the opinion that such a problem could be more smoothly and easily carried out in war’, and that resistance, as was to be expected from the Churches, would then have less of an impact than in peacetime. He intended, therefore, ‘in the event of a war radically to solve the problem of the mental asylums’.144

For the next three years, Hitler had little involvement with the ‘euthanasia’ issue. Others were more active. Evidently encouraged by Hitler’s remarks that he did intend, once the opportunity presented itself through the war for which the regime was preparing, to introduce a ‘euthanasia programme’, Reich Doctors’ Leader Wagner pushed forward discussions on how the population should be prepared for such action. Calculations were published on the cost of upkeep of the mentally sick and hereditarily ill, instilling the impression of what could be done for the good of the people with vast resources now being ‘wasted’ on ‘useless’ lives. Cameras were sent into the asylums to produce scenes to horrify the German public and convince them of the need to eliminate those portrayed as the dregs of society for the good of the whole population.145 The National Socialist Racial and Political Office(NS-Rasse und Politisches Amt) produced five silent films of this kind between 1935 and 1937·146 Hitler himself liked one of them, Erbkrank (Hereditarily Ill), made in 1936, so much that he commissioned a sequel with sound, Opfer der Vergangenheit (Victims of the Past) and had the film shown in all German cinemas in 1937.147

From 1936 onwards, the Churches were forced to transfer the patients in the sanatoria they ran into asylums controlled by the state.148 These had already had their budgets slashed as the overcrowding grew, and the quality of the staff deteriorated.149 Rumours circulated that the Reich Ministry of the Interior was pondering the drastic reduction of food-rations for asylum patients in the event of war.150 In the SS organ Das Schwarze Korps a reader’s letter in 1937 demanding a law to permit the killing of mentally retarded children, if their parents gave consent, was accompanied by a commentary advocating a law ‘that helps nature to its right’. The view that there was no right to kill, the paper declared, could be countered by stating that there was a hundred times less right to defy nature by keeping alive ‘what was not born to life’.151 It was to take away nothing from a seriously brain-damaged child to ‘extinguish its light of life’. The ‘child-euthanasia’ programme was presaged in such sentiments. Murder in the asylums was in the air. It was a matter of time and occasion until it was implemented.

In the interim, the ‘Chancellery of the Führer of the NSDAP’, the agency which would come to run the ‘euthanasia action’ from 1939 onwards, was doing all it could to expand its own power-base in the political jungle of the Third Reich. Despite its impressive name, the Führer Chancellery had little actual power. Hitler had set it up at the end of 1934 to deal with correspondence from Party members directed to himself as head of the NSDAP. It was officially meant to serve as the agency to keep the Führer in direct touch with the concerns of his people.152 Much of the correspondence, as Hitler himself made clear, was a matter of trivial complaints, petty grievances, and minor personal squabbles of Party members. But a vast number of letters to Hitler did pour in after 1933 — around a quarter of a million a year in the later 1930s.153 And, to preserve the fiction of the Führer listening to the cares of his people, many of them needed attention.

Hitler put the Führer Chancellery under the control of Philipp Bouhler — a member of the Party’s Reichsleitung (Reich Leadership) since 1933, a quiet, bureaucratic type but intensely loyal and deferential. Tenacious and efficient, Bouhler had been in no small measure responsible for setting up the Party’s administrative organization after its refoundation in 1925.154 At the time of his appointment he was thirty-five years old, somewhat owlish-looking with round, black horn-rimmed spectacles and swept-back hair. His soft-voiced and polite manner was unusual in the Nazi leadership. He was a quiet man behind the scenes who, at another time in another place, might have become a company secretary. But Bouhler, still bearing a walking disability — and perhaps psychological scars — from the serious injuries to his legs sustained towards the end of the war which had prevented him from pursuing an officer’s career in the army as his father had done, was ambitious.155 He was also, whatever his introverted mannerisms, ideologically fanatical. And exploiting his direct connections with Hitler, the vagueness of his remit, and the randomness of the business that came the way of the organization he headed, he was now able to expand his own little empire — treading on numerous toes along the way. By the time the Führer Chancellery moved in 1936 into new accommodation close to the Reich Chancellery, it consisted of six departments, and the original twenty-six employees had almost doubled, increasing five-fold by 1942.156 Of the various departments, the most important was Department (Amt) II (from 1939 Main Department — Hauptamt) headed by Bouhler’s deputy, Viktor Brack. This Department itself covered a wide range of heterogeneous business but, in its section ‘IIb’, under Hans Hefelmann, was responsible for handling petitions relating to the Reich Ministry of the Interior, including sensitive issues touching on the competence of the health department of the Ministry.157 Brack, five years younger than Bouhler, was, if anything, even more ambitious than his boss. He had a classical Nazi background: völkisch upbringing, Freikorps, participation in the Beerhall Putsch, study of agricultural economics at the Technische Hochschule in Munich, student activism, entry into the Party and SS at the age of twenty-five in 1929. His father was Frau Himmler’s doctor. He himself acted for a time as Himmler’s chauffeur.158 Brack was ideologically attuned to what was wanted. And he was ready to grasp an opportunity when he saw one.

This came some time in the first months of 1939. Around that time the father of a severely handicapped child — born blind, with no left forearm and a deformed leg — in Pomßen, near Leipzig, sent in a petition to Hitler, asking for the child to be released through mercy-killing. The petition arrived in Hefelmann’s office in the Führer Chancellery.159 Hefelmann did not consider involving either the Reich Ministry of the interior or the Reich Ministry of Justice. He thought it should be taken to Hitler himself, to see how the Führer thought it should be handled.160 This was probably in May or June 1939. Hitler sent his doctor, Karl Brandt, to the University of Leipzig Children’s Clinic, to consult the child’s doctors with the mandate, and, if the position was as the father had described it, to authorize the doctors in his name to carry out euthanasia.161 This was done towards the end of July 1939. Soon after Brandt’s return, he was verbally empowered by Hitler, as was Bouhler, to take similar action should other cases arise. (The case of the child from Pomßen was evidently not an isolated instance around this time.)162 Whether Hitler took this step unprompted, or whether it followed a suggestion from Brandt or the ambitious Bouhler is not known. But between February and May 1939 Hefelmann, on Brandt’s instructions, carried out discussions with doctors known to be sympathetic and eventually set up a camouflaged organization that was given the title ‘Reich Committee for the Scientific Registration of Serious Hereditary and Congenital Suffering’ [Reich sausschufißzur wissenschaftlichen Erfassung erb — und anlagebed-ingter schwerer Leiden’). Between 5,000 and 8,000 children are estimated to have been put to death, mostly with injections of the barbiturate luminal, under its aegis.163

In July Hitler told Lammers, Bormann, and Dr Leonardo Conti (recently appointed Reich Health Leader and State Secretary for Health in the Reich Ministry of the Interior) that he favoured mercy-killing for seriously ill mental patients. Better use of hospitals, doctors, and nursing staff could be made in war, he stated. Conti was commissioned to investigate the feasibility of such a programme.164 By then, war was looming. Hitler’s own comments showed that he continued to see a ‘euthanasia programme’ in the context of war. By that time, too, Hitler had probably received the evaluation commissioned around the start of the year by Brack from Dr Joseph Mayer, Professor of Moral Theology at the University of Paderborn. Hitler had been uneasy about likely reaction of the Churches in the event of the introduction of a ‘euthanasia programme’. He imagined both the Catholic and Protestant Churches would outrightly oppose it. Mayer, who in 1927 had published a tract in favour of the legal sterilization of the mentally sick, was now asked to assess the attitude of the Catholic Church. He sided with the right of the state to take the lives of the mentally ill. Though this was against orthodox Catholic teaching, Mayer left the impression that unequivocal opposition from the Churches was not to be expected. This was the conclusion which Hitler apparently drew, following further discreet inquiry.165 The biggest internal obstacle to such a programme appeared to be surmountable. The programme could go ahead.

The organization, set up to deal with the ‘euthanasia’ of children, was to hand. Brack had heard indirectly of Hitler’s instructions to Conti at the July meeting.166 Spotting his chance, but needing to act without delay, if control were not to be lost to Conti and the Reich Ministry of the Interior, he had Hefelmann draw up a short statistical memorandum on the asylums and took it to Bouhler. The head of the Führer Chancellery had little difficulty in persuading Hitler to extend the authorization he had earlier granted to himself and Brandt to deal with the children’s ‘euthanasia’. It was in August 1939 that Hitler told Bouhler that he wanted the strictest secrecy maintained, and ‘a completely unbureaucratic solution of this problem’. The Reich Ministry of the Interior should be kept out of it as far as possible.167

Shortly after this, a sizeable number of doctors were summoned to a meeting in the Reich Chancellery to seek their views on such a programme. They were overwhelmingly in favour and ready to cooperate. They suggested that around 60,000 patients might be ‘eligible’.168 The number involved meant there was a serious problem about maintaining secrecy. Once more, camouflaged organizations were needed. Three were set up to distribute questionnaires to the asylums (the Reich Association of Asylums), handle personnel and finance matters (Community Foundation for the Care of Asylums), and organize transport (Community Patients’ Transport). They were based, under Brack’s direction, in an unpretentious villa in Berlin-Charlottenburg, Tiergartenstraße 4, from which the entire ‘euthanasia action’ drew its code-name ‘T4’. Apart from Bouhler, Brandt, and Brack the organization comprised 114 persons.169

Plainly, the construction of such an organization and the implementation of its gruesome task needed more than simply the verbal authorization that had sufficed for the children’s ‘euthanasia’ up to then. This is what prompted Hitler’s almost casual written authorization some weeks later, backdated (as we noted) to I September. This formless empowering, and the way the Führer Chancellery had been able, without the ministries of state even being informed, to expropriate control over a programme calculated to bring the deaths of tens of thousands in an action lacking any basis in law, is the clearest indication of how far internal structures of government had been deformed and superseded by executive agencies devoted to implementing what they saw as the will of the Führer. The cloak-and-dagger secrecy — some leading figures, including Brack, even worked with false names — highlighted the illegality of what was taking place.170 The regime had taken the step into outright criminality.

The medical staff of the asylums selected their own patients for inclusion in the ‘euthanasia action’. They, too, were ‘working towards the Führer’, whether or not this was their overt motivation. Patients included had their names marked with a red cross. Those to be spared had a blue ‘minus’ sign against their names.171 The killing, mostly by carbon monoxide gas administered by doctors under no compulsion to participate, was carried out in selected asylums, the most notorious of which were Grafeneck, Hadamar, Bernburg, Brandenburg, Hartheim, and Sonnenstein.172

Alongside the T4 ‘action’, the Gauleiter of Pomerania, Franz Schwede-Coburg, rapidly alerted to the new possibilities, worked closely with the SS in October 1939 to ‘clear’ the asylums near the coastal towns of Stralsund, Swinemünde, and Stettin to make space for ethnic Germans from the Baltic region (and for an SS barracks at Stralsund). Patients were removed from the asylums, transported to Neustadt, not far from Danzig, and shot by squads of SS men. Gauleiter Erich Koch was quick to follow suit, arranging to pay for the costs of ‘evacuating’ 1,558 patients from asylums in his Gau of East Prussia, liquidated by an SS squad provided by Wilhelm Koppe, newly appointed Police Chief in Gauleiter Arthur Greiser’s Reichsgau Posen. This was the ‘Sonderkommando Lange’, which was soon put to use in Greiser’s own Gau, deploying prototype mobile gas-vans to kill the mentally sick in this part of annexed Poland. By mid-1940, these regional ‘actions’ had claimed the lives of an estimated 10,000 victims.173

By the time ‘Aktion-T4’ was halted — as secretly as it had begun — in August 1941, the target-figure laid down by the doctors in the late summer had been surpassed. In the T4 ‘action’ alone by this date, between 70,000 and 90,000 patients are reckoned to have fallen victim to Hitler’s ‘euthanasia programme’.174 Since the killings were neither confined to the T4 ‘action’, nor ended with the halt to that ‘action’ in 1941, the total number of victims of Nazism’s drive to liquidate the mentally ill may have been close on double that number.175


Was there the will to halt the already advanced rupture of civilization and descent into modern barbarism that had so swiftly broken new ground since the start of the war? And even if there were the will, could anything be done?

Given Hitler’s outright dominance and unassailable position within the regime, significant change could by this time, autumn 1939, be brought about only through his deposition or assassination. This basic truth had been finally grasped the previous summer, during the Sudeten crisis, by those individuals in high-ranking places in the military, Foreign Ministry, and elsewhere close to the levers of power who had tentatively felt their way towards radical opposition to the regime. For long even some of these individuals had tended to exempt Hitler from the criticism they levelled at others, especially Himmler, Heydrich, and the Gestapo. But by now they were aware that without change at the very top, there would be no change at all. This realization started to forge tighter links between the disparate individuals and groups concerned. Oster, backed by his boss, the enigmatic Canaris, was the driving-force in making the Abwehr the centre of an oppositional network, building on the contacts made and relationships forged the previous summer. Oster placed his most trusted associate, and implacably opposed to Hitler, Lieutenant-Colonel Helmuth Groscurth, as liaison with Chief of Staff Haider at the headquarters of the Army High Command in Zossen, just south of Berlin. He encouraged Weizsäcker to appoint, as the Foreign Office’s liaison at army headquarters, another opponent of the regime, Rittmeister (Major in the Cavalry) Hasso von Etzdorf. This was probably done on the initiative of Erich Kordt, head of the Ministerial Bureau who continued, under Weizsäcker’s protection, to make the Foreign Office another centre of oppositional contacts, placing sympathizers (including his brother, Theo) in embassies abroad. Oster also appointed to his own staff another individual who would play an energetic role in extending and deepening oppositional contacts while officially gathering foreign intelligence: the able and well-connected lawyer Hans Doh-nanyi, for some years a close associate of Reich Justice Minister Gürtner, and who had helped clear former Commander-in-Chief of the Army Fritsch of the trumped-up charges of homosexual relations that had been laid against him. Dohnanyi would regularly drive Oster during autumn 1939 — dismal weeks for those opposed to Hitler — to see the man whom practically all who hoped to see an early end to the Nazi regime regarded as the patron of the oppositional groups, former Chief of the General Staff, Ludwig Beck.176 Gradually, something beginning to resemble a fundamental, conspiratorial resistance movement among, necessarily, existing or former ‘servants’ of the regime was in the process of emerging.177 The dilemma for those individuals, mostly national-conservative in inclination, patriots all, in contemplating the unseating of the head of state was great, and even more acute now that Germany was at war.

The autumn of 1939 would provide a crucial testing-time for the national-conservative resistance. In the end, they would resign themselves to failure. At the centre of their concern was not in the first instance the bestiality in Poland (though the detailed reports of the abominations there certainly served to cement oppositional feeling and the sense of urgency, both for moral reasons and out of a sense of national shame, at the need to be rid of Hitler and his henchmen who were responsible for such criminal acts).178 Nor was it the ‘euthanasia action’. Of the mass murder in the asylums they had not for months any real inkling. At any rate, it was not voiced as a matter of prime concern. The key issue for them, as it had been for two years or so, was the certainty that Hitler was leading Germany to catastrophe through engaging in war with the western powers. Preventing a calamitous attack on France and Britain, and ending the war, was vital. This issue came to a head in the autumn of 1939, when Hitler was determined to press on with an early attack on the West. But even before Hitler pulled back — because of poor weather conditions — from such a risky venture in the autumn and winter, then went on the following spring to gain unimaginable military successes in the western campaign, the fragility, weakness, and divisions of the nascent resistance had been fully laid bare. No attempt to remove Hitler had been made.179

Hitler could by late 1939 be brought down in only one of two ways: a coup d’état from above, meaning a strike from within the regime’s leadership from those with access to power and military might; or, something which the Dictator never ruled out, an assassination attempt from below, by a maverick individual operating entirely alone, outside any of the known — by now tiny, fragmented, and utterly powerless — left-wing underground resistance groups which could so easily be infiltrated by the Gestapo.180 While generals and leading civil servants pondered whether they might act, but lacked the will and determination to do so, one man with no access to the corridors of power, no political links, and no hard-and-fast ideology, a Swabian joiner by the name of Georg Elser, did act. In early November 1939 Elser would come closer to destroying Hitler than anyone until July 1944. Only luck would save the Dictator on this occasion. And Elser’s motives, built on the naïvety of elemental feeling rather than arising from the tortured consciences of the better-read and more knowledgeable, would mirror not the interests of those in high places but, without doubt, concerns of countless ordinary Germans at the time. We will return to them shortly.

For Hitler, the swift and comprehensive demolition of Poland did not signal a victory to sit upon and await developments. Certainly, he hoped that the West, having now witnessed the might of the Wehrmacht in action, would — from his point of view — see sense, and come to terms with Germany. The peace feelers that he put out in September and October were couched in this vein. As Weizsäcker — reckoning the chances of peace to be no higher than 20 per cent — put it early in October, summarizing what he understood as Hitler’s desired outcome, in the somewhat unlikely event that London might agree to a settlement at the expense of Poland, Germany ‘would be spared the awkward decision on how England could be militarily forced down’.181 The western powers had done absolutely nothing militarily to help Poland.182 Perhaps they could now be persuaded to accept the fait accompli, agree to a relatively generous victor’s peace, and end the war, giving him the return of former German colonies and, especially, the free hand in the east that he had always demanded.183 Had the western powers complied with such proposals — and further overtures to Britain would be made during 1940 — it would merely have deferred the inevitable conflict that Hitler had reckoned with since 1937. As it was, Hitler, though his overtures were serious enough, had few expectations that Britain would show interest in a settlement, particularly once the British cabinet had announced that it was preparing for a war that would last at least three years. He was sure that the western powers would try to hold out as long as possible, until their armaments programmes were complete.184 That would mark a danger-point for Germany. Though — a view not shared by his generals — he held the French military in some contempt, he had a high esteem of British resilience and fighting-power.185 And behind the British, there was always the threat (which at this time he did not rate highly) that in due course the Americans would intervene. So there was no time to lose. On the very day after his return to Berlin, with the shells still raining down on Warsaw, Hitler told his military leaders to prepare for an attack on the West that very autumn.186

‘Militarily,’ he declared, ‘time, especially in the psychological and material sense, works against us.’ Victory over Poland had brought a growth in prestige. But, he went on, ‘all historical successes come to nothing when they are not continued’. Meanwhile, Germany’s enemies were improving their military capacity. If they were to reach the borders of the Reich, it would be too late for a counter-attack. They could destroy the Ruhr. ‘Therefore, no delay until the enemy arrives, but, should peaceful efforts fail, direct assault in the West.’ He derided the French who, he said, ‘have less value than the Poles’. The British, however, ‘are deciders’. It was, therefore, ‘essential that immediate plans for an attack against France be prepared’. The defeat of France, it was plainly inferred, would force Britain to terms. Hitler brought out obvious objections to an early strike. The rainy season would arrive within a few weeks. The air-force would be better in spring. ‘But we cannot wait,’ he insisted. If a settlement with Chamberlain were not possible, he would ‘smash the enemy until he collapses’. The goal was ‘to bring England to its knees; to destroy France’.187 His favoured time for carrying out the attack was the end of October.188 The Commanders-in-Chief — even Göring — were taken aback. But none protested. Hitler casually threw his notes into the fire when he had finished speaking.189

Two days later, Hitler told Rosenberg that he would propose a major peace conference (together with an armistice and demobilization) to regulate all matters rationally. Rosenberg asked whether he intended to prosecute the war in the West. ‘Naturally,’ replied Hitler. The Maginot Line, Rosenberg recorded him saying, was no longer a deterrent. If the English did not want peace, he would attack them with all means available ‘and annihilate (vernichten) them’ — again, his favourite phrase.190

Hitler’s speech to the Reichstag on 6 October indeed held out, as he had indicated to Rosenberg, the prospect of a conference of the leading nations to settle Europe’s problems of peace and security.191 But a starting-point was that the division of Poland between Germany and the Soviet Union was to remain. There would be no re-creation of the Poland of the Versailles settlement.192 It would be peace on Hitler’s terms, with no concessions on what he had won. He painted a lurid picture of death and destruction if the western powers should decline his ‘offer’. He blamed the warmongering on ‘a certain Jewish-international capitalism and journalism’, implying in particular Churchill and his supporters.193 If Churchill’s view should prevail, he concluded, then Germany would fight. Riding one of his main hobby-horses, he added: A November 1918 will never be repeated in German history.’194 The speech amounted to an olive-branch clenched in a mailed fist.

Hitler’s ‘offer’ was dismissed by Chamberlain in a speech in the House of Commons six days later.195 It was what Hitler had expected. He had not waited. On the very day of his Reichstag speech, he stressed to Brauchitsch and Haider that a decisive move in the north-west was necessary to prevent a French advance that autumn through Belgium, threatening the Ruhr.196 Two days later Brauchitsch was informed that Hitler had provisionally set 25 November as the date of attack.197 One general, Colonel-General Ritter von Leeb, noted in his diary that day that there was evidently a serious intent to carry out ‘this mad attack’, breaching the neutrality of Holland, Belgium, and Luxemburg, which meant that the Reichstag speech had been ‘merely lying to the German people’.198 On this same day, 9 October, Hitler completed a lengthy memorandum that he had worked on for two nights, outlining and justifying his plans for an attack on the West. He had specifically prepared it because of his awareness of opposition to the idea in the army leadership.199 Again, he emphasized that time was of the essence. The attack could not begin soon enough. The aim was the complete military defeat of the western powers.200 He read out the memorandum at a meeting with his military leaders on 10 October.201 Its contents were embodied in ‘Directive No.6 for the Conduct of War’ issued later that day (though dated 9 October), stating Hitler’s determination ‘without letting much time pass by’ to take offensive action.202

When Hitler heard on 12 October of Chamberlain’s rejection of his ‘peace offer’, he made no effort — as Weizsäcker thought might still have been possible — to probe for feasible openings to defuse the situation, but lost no time in announcing, even without waiting for the full text of Chamberlain’s speech, that Britain had spurned the hand of peace and that, consequently, the war continued.203 On 16 October Hitler told Brauchitsch he had given up hope of coming to an agreement with the West. ‘The British,’ he said, ‘will be ready to talk only after defeats. We must get at them as quickly as possible.’ He reckoned with a date between 15 and 20 November.204 Within a matter of days, Hitler had brought this date forward and now fixed ‘Case Yellow’, as the attack on the West had been code-named, for 12 November.205

Speaking to his generals, Hitler confined himself largely to military objectives. To his trusted circle, and to Party leaders, he was more expressive. Goebbels found him high in confidence on 11 October. Germany’s defeat in the last war, he stated, was solely attributable to treachery. This time traitors would not be spared.206 He responded to Chamberlain’s dismissal of his ‘peace offer’ by stating that he was glad that he could now ‘go for England’ (‘gegen England losgehern’). He had given up almost all hope of peace. ‘The English will have to learn the hard way,’ he stated.207

He was in similar mood when he addressed the Reichs — and Gauleiter in a two-hour speech on 21 October. He reckoned war with the West was unavoidable. There was no other choice. But at its end would be ‘the great and all-embracing (umfassende) German people’s Reich (Volksreich)’208 He would, Hitler told his Party leaders, unleash his major assault on the West — and on England itself — within a fortnight or so. He would use all methods available, including attacks on cities. After defeating England and France he would again turn to the East. Then — an allusion to the Holy Roman Empire of the Middle Ages — he would create a Germany as of old, incorporating Belgium and Switzerland.209 Hitler was evidently still thinking along such lines when he told Goebbels a few days later he had earmarked Burgundy for the resettlement of the South Tyroleans. ‘He’s already distributing French provinces,’ noted the Propaganda Minister. ‘He hurries far ahead of all steps of development. Just like every genius.’210

On 6 November Goebbels was again listening to Hitler’s views on the war. ‘He’s of the opinion that England has to get a knock-out blow. That’s right. England’s power is now simply a myth, not a reality any longer. All the more reason why it must be smashed. Before then there will be no peace in the world. The military say we’re not ready. But no army will ever be ready. That’s not the point. It’s a question of being more ready than the others. And that’s the case… The strike against the western powers will not have to wait much longer.’ ‘Perhaps,’ added Goebbels, ‘the Führer will succeed sooner than we all think in annulling the Peace of Westphalia. With that his historic life will be crowned.’211 Goebbels thought the decision to go ahead was imminent.212

All the signs are that the pressure for an early strike against the West came directly from Hitler, without initiation or prompting from other quarters. That it received the support of Goebbels and the Party leadership was axiomatic. Within the military, as Goebbels’s comments hinted, it was a different matter. Hitler could reckon with the backing — or at least lack of objection — of Raeder, Commander-in-Chief of the Navy.213 And whatever his private anxieties, Göring would never deviate in public from Hitler’s line.214 But, as Hitler recognized, the decision to attack the West already in the autumn set him once more on a collision course with the army leadership, spearheaded by Brauchitsch and Haider. On 14 October, primed by Weiz-säcker about Hitler’s reaction to Chamberlain’s speech rejecting his ‘peace offer’, the head of the army and his Chief of Staff met to discuss the consequences. Haider noted three possibilities: attack, wait, ‘fundamental changes’. None offered prospects of decisive success, least of all the last one ‘since it is essentially negative and tends to render us vulnerable’.215 The qualifying remarks were made by Brauchitsch. The weak, ultra-cautious, and tradition-bound Commander-in-Chief of the army could not look beyond conventional attempts to dissuade Hitler from what he thought was a disastrous course of action. But he was evidently responding to a suggestion floated by Haider, following his discussions with Weizsäcker the previous day, to have Hitler arrested at the moment of the order for attack on the West.216 The cryptic third possibility signified then no less than the extraordinary fact that in the early stages of a major war the two highest representatives of the army were airing the possibility of a form of coup d’état involving the removal of Hitler as head of state.217

The differences between the two army leaders were nonetheless wide. And nothing flowed from the discussion in the direction of an embryonic plan to unseat Hitler. Brauchitsch attempted, within the bounds of orthodoxy, to have favoured generals such as Reichenau and Rundstedt try to influence Hitler to change his mind — a fruitless enterprise.218 Haider went further. By early November he was, if anything, still more convinced that direct action against Hitler was necessary to prevent the imminent catastrophe. In this, his views were coming to correspond with the small numbers of radical opponents of the regime in the Foreign Ministry and in the Abwehr who were now actively contemplating measures to remove Hitler.219

In the last weeks of October various notions of deposing Hitler — often unrealistic or scarcely thought through — were furtively pondered by the tiny, disparate, only loosely connected oppositional groups. Goerdeler and his main contacts — Hassell, Beck, and Popitz — were one such cluster, weighing up for a time whether a transitional government headed by Göring (whose reluctance to engage in war with Britain was known to them) might be an option.220 This cluster, through Beck, forged loose links with the group based in the Abwehr — Oster, Dohnanyi, Gisevius, and Groscurth. The latter worked out a plan of action for a coup, involving the arrest of Hitler (perhaps declaring him mentally ill), along with Himmler, Heydrich, Ribbentrop, Göring, Goebbels, and other leading Nazis.221 Encouraged by their chief, Admiral Canaris, and driven on by Oster, the Abwehr group attempted, though with little success, to gain backing for their ideas from selected officers at General Staff headquarters in Zossen. Their ambivalence about Haider meant that they did not approach him directly. Moreover, they knew nothing of the thoughts he had aired to Brauchitsch on 14 October.222 A third set of individuals sharing the view that Hitler had to be removed and war with the West prevented centred on Weizsäcker in the Foreign Ministry, and was chiefly represented by Erich Kordt, who was able to utilize his position as head of Ribbentrop’s Ministerial Bureau to foster contacts at home and abroad.223 As we have noted, this grouping had contact to the Abwehr group and to known sympathizers in the General Staff — mainly staff officers, though at this point not Haider himself — through Weizsäcker’s army liaison, Legation Secretary Hasso von Etzdorf.224

Haider himself (and his most immediate friend and subordinate General Otto von Stülpnagel) came round to the idea of a putsch by the end of the month, after Hitler had confirmed his intention of a strike on 12 November.225 Haider sent Stülpnagel to take surreptitious soundings among selected generals about their likely response to a coup. The findings were not encouraging. While army-group commanders such as Bock and Rundstedt were opposed to an offensive against the West, they rejected the idea of a putsch, partly on the grounds that they were themselves unsure whether they would retain the backing of their subordinate officers. In addition, Haider established to his own satisfaction, based on a ‘sample’ of public opinion drawn from the father of his chauffeur and a few others, that the German people supported Hitler and were not ready for a putsch.226 Haider’s hesitancy reflected his own deep uncertainty about the moral as well as security aspect of a strike against the head of state and supreme commander of the armed forces. Others took a bolder stance. But, though loosely bonded through parallel thoughts of getting rid of Hitler, the different oppositional clusters had no coherent, unified, and agreed plan for action. Nor, while now accepting Haider’s readiness to act, was there full confidence in the determination of the Chief of Staff, on whom practically everything depended, to see it through.227

This was the position around noon on 5 November when Brauchitsch nervously made his way through the corridors of the Reich Chancellery to confront Hitler directly about the decision to attack the West. If the attack were to go ahead on schedule on 12 November, the order to make operational preparations had to be confirmed to the Supreme Commander of the Army by 1p.m. on the fifth. Among the oppositional groups, the hope was that Brauchitsch could finally be persuaded to go along with a putsch if Hitler, as was to be expected, held firm to his decision for an attack. Haider waited in the ante-room while Brauchitsch and Hitler conferred together. Keitel joined them some while later. The meeting was a fiasco. It lasted no longer than twenty minutes. Brauchitsch hesitantly began to tell Hitler that preparations were not sufficiently advanced for an offensive against the West which, therefore, had every chance of proving catastrophic. He went on to back up his argument by pointing out that the infantry had shown morale and technical weaknesses in the attack on Poland, and that the discipline of officers and men had often been lacking. The Front showed similar symptoms to those of 1917–18, he claimed. This was a bad mistake by Brauchitsch. It diverted from the main issue, and, as Brauchitsch could have anticipated, it provoked Hitler into a furious outburst. He wanted concrete evidence, he fumed, and demanded to know how many death-sentences had been carried out. He did not believe Brauchitsch, and would fly the next night to the Front to see for himself. Then he dismissed Brauchitsch’s main point. The army was unprepared, he asserted, because it did not want to fight. The weather would still be bad in the spring — and furthermore bad for the enemy too. He knew the ‘spirit of Zossen’, he raged, and would destroy it. Almost shaking with anger, Hitler marched out of the room, slamming the door, leaving the head of the army speechless, trembling, face as white as chalk, and broken.228

‘Any sober discussion of these things is impossible with him,’ Haider commented, in something of an understatement.229 But for Haider the impact of the meeting went further. Talk of destroying the ‘spirit of Zossen’ suggested to the Chief of Staff that Hitler knew of the plot to unseat him. The Gestapo could turn up in Zossen any time. Haider returned in panic to his headquarters and ordered the destruction of all papers relating to the conspiracy.230 Next day he told Groscurth that the attack in the West would be carried out. There was nothing to be done. ‘Very depressing impression,’ recorded Groscurth.231

Hitler had given the order for the offensive at 1.30p.m. on 5 November, soon after his interview with Brauchitsch.232 Two days later the attack was postponed because of poor weather.233 But the chance to strike against Hitler had been lost. The circumstances would not be as favourable for several years. The order for the attack, meant to be the moment to undertake the proposed coup, had come and gone. Brauchitsch, badly shaken by his audience with Hitler, had indicated that he would do nothing, though would not try to hinder a putsch. Canaris, approached by Haider, was disgusted at the suggestion that he should instigate Hitler’s assassination. Other than this suggestion that someone else might take over responsibility for the dirty work, Haider now did little. The moment had passed. He gradually pulled back from the opposition’s plans. In the end, he lacked the will, determination, and courage to act. The Abwehr group did not give up. But they acknowledged diminishing prospects of success. Oster’s soundings with Witzleben, then with Leeb, Bock, and Rundstedt, produced mixed results.234 The truth was that the army was divided. Some generals opposed Hitler. But there were more who backed him. And below the high command, there were junior officers, let alone the rank-and-file, whose reactions to any attempt to stop Hitler dead in his tracks were uncertain. Throughout the conflict with the army leadership, Hitler continued to hold the whip-hand. And he had not yielded in the slightest. Despite repeated postponements because of bad weather — twenty-nine in all — he had not cancelled his offensive against the West.235 Divisions, distrust, fragmentation, but above all a lack of resolve had prevented the oppositional groups — especially the key figures in the military — from acting.

The plotters in the Abwehr, Foreign Ministry, and General Staff head-quarters were as astonished as all other Germans when they heard of an attack on Hitler’s life that had taken place in the Bürgerbräukeller on the evening of 8 November 1939. They thought it might have come from someone within their own ranks, or been carried out by dissident Nazis, or some other set of opponents — Communists, clerics, or ‘reactionaries’ — and that Hitler had been tipped off in time.236 In fact, Hitler, sitting in the compartment of his special train and discussing with Goebbels how the showdown with the clergy would have to await the end of the war, was wholly unaware of what had happened until his journey to Berlin was interrupted at Nuremberg with the news. His first reaction was that the report must be wrong.237 According to Goebbels, he thought it was a ‘hoax’ (‘Mystifikatiorn’).238 The official version was soon put out that the British Secret Service was behind the assassination attempt, and that the perpetrator was ‘a creature’ of Otto Strasser.239 The capture next day of the British agents Major R.H. Stevens and Captain S. Payne Best on the Dutch border was used by propaganda to underpin this far-fetched interpretation.240

The truth was less elaborate — but all the more stunning. The attempt had been carried out by a single person, an ordinary German, a man from the working class, acting without the help or knowledge of anyone else.241 Where generals had hesitated, he had tried to blow up Hitler to save Germany and Europe from even greater disaster.

His name was George Elser. He was a joiner from Königsbronn in Württemberg.242 At the time that he attempted to kill Hitler he was thirty-six years old, small in stature, with dark, wavy hair brushed back. Those who knew him — they were not many — thought well of him. He was a loner with few friends — quiet, reserved, industrious, and a perfectionist in his work. He had little education to speak of, did not read books, and scarcely bothered with newspapers. Even in the days immediately preceding his assassination attempt, he took so little interest in the news that he did not realize that because of the pressing business of the war — these were, as we have seen, precisely the days when the decision for the western offensive was taken, then rescinded — Hitler had pulled out of giving his usual address to the ‘Old Fighters’ on the anniversary of the Beerhall Putsch, and was to be replaced by Heß. The bomb-attack would, therefore, have been unnecessary. But Elser knew nothing of this, nor of Hitler’s decision then to give the speech after all. Elser was, remarkably enough, not really interested in politics. He took no part in political discussions, and was not ideologically well-versed. He had, it is true, joined the Communist Roter Frontkämpferbund (Red Front Fighters’ League), and had been a member of the woodworkers’ union, but he had taken an active role in neither. Before 1933 he had supported the KPD in elections, but because in his view it stood for improving the lot of the working classes, not on account of an ideological programme. After 1933 he said he had observed the deterioration in the living-standard of the working class, and restrictions on its freedom. He noticed the anger among workers at the regime. He took part in discussions with workmates about poor conditions, and shared their views. He also shared their anxieties about the coming war which they all expected in the autumn of 1938. After the Munich Agreement he remained convinced, he said, ‘that Germany would make further demands of other countries and annex other countries and that therefore a war would be unavoidable’. Prompted by no one, he began to be obsessed by ways of improving the condition of workers and preventing war. He concluded that only the ‘elimination’ (Beseitigung) of the regime’s leadership — by which he meant Hitler, Göring, and Goebbels — would bring this about. The idea would not leave him. In autumn 1938 he decided that he himself would undertake ‘the elimination of the leadership’.243

He read in the newspapers that the next gathering of Party leaders would be in the Bürgerbräukeller in early November and travelled to Munich to assess the possibilities for what he had in mind. The security problems were not great. (Security for the events was left to the Party, not to the police.) He worked out that the best method would be to place a time-bomb in the pillar behind the dais where Hitler would stand. During the next months he stole explosives from the armaments factory where he was currently working, and designed the mechanism for his time-bomb. In early April he travelled again from Königsbronn to Munich and returned to the Bürgerbräukeller. This time he reconnoitred more carefully, making detailed sketches and taking precise measurements. His new work, at a quarry, now enabled him to steal dynamite. In the next weeks he constructed a model of the bomb in the most minute detail and carried out a practical test with the exploding mechanism in his parents’ garden. At the beginning of August he returned to Munich. Between then and early November he hid over thirty times during the night in the Bürgerbräukeller, working on hollowing out a cavity in the selected pillar and leaving by a side-door early next morning. So meticulous was he that he even lined the cavity with tin to prevent any hollow sound, should anyone tap on the pillar, or damage the bomb-mechanism by nailing up decorations. The bomb was in place, and set, by 6 November. Elser was leaving nothing to chance. He returned on the night of 7 November to make sure it was functioning properly. He pressed his ear to the side of the pillar, and heard the ticking. Nothing had gone wrong. Next morning he left Munich for Konstanz, en route — as he thought — to Switzerland, and safety.244

That evening, as always on 8 November, the ‘Old Guard’ of the Party assembled. Hitler had announced the previous day that he would, after all, give his annual address.245 Usually, this lasted from about 8.30p.m. until about ten o’clock. It had already been announced that, in the circumstances of the war, this year’s meeting would begin earlier and that the two-day commemoration of the Putsch would be shortened.246 Hitler began his speech soon after his arrival in the Bürgerbräukeller, at 8.10p.m., and finished at 9.07p.m. The speech itself was one long tirade against Britain, highly sarcastic in tone, well tailored to his raucous audience of Party fanatics.247 Hitler normally spent some time after his speech chatting to the Movement’s ‘Old Fighters’. This time, escorted by a good number of Party bigwigs, he left immediately for the station to take the 9.31p.m. train back to Berlin.248

At twenty past nine the pillar immediately behind the dais where Hitler had stood minutes earlier, and part of the roof directly above, were ripped apart by Elser’s bomb. Eight persons were killed in the blast, a further sixty-three injured, sixteen of them seriously.249 Hitler had been gone no more than ten minutes when the bomb went off.

He attributed his salvation to the work of ‘Providence’ — a sign that he was to fulfil the task destiny had laid out for him.250 In its headline on 10 November, the Völkischer Beobachter called it ‘the miraculous salvation of the Führer’.251 There was, in fact, nothing providential or miraculous about it. It was pure luck. Hitler’s reasons for returning without delay to Berlin were genuine enough. The decision to attack the West had been temporarily postponed on 7 November, with a final decision set for the 9th. Hitler had to be back in the Reich Chancellery by then. It was more important than reminiscing about old times with Party stalwarts in the Bürgerbräukeller.252 Elser could have known nothing about the reasons for the curtailment of Hitler’s quick trip to Munich. It was mere chance that the Swabian joiner did not succeed where the generals had failed even to mount an attempt. Whether the generals would then have acted, had Elser’s attempt been successful, and once the main object of their putsch plans had been removed, is open to question. But with Elser’s failure, the possibility of more ‘moderate’ forces taking over and pulling back from the brink of all-out war with the West had gone.

Elser himself was already under arrest at the customs post near Konstanz when the bomb went off. He had been picked up trying to cross the Swiss border illegally. It seemed a routine arrest. Only some hours after the explosion did the border officials begin to realize that the contents of Georg Elser’s pockets, including a postcard of the Bürgerbräukeller, linked him with the assassination attempt on Hitler. On 14 November, Elser confessed. A few days later he gave a full account of his actions, and the motives behind them. He was interned in Sachsenhausen concentration camp, and treated, remarkably, as a privileged prisoner. Probably Hitler, who continued to believe that Elser was the front-man of an international conspiracy, intended a post-war show-trial to incriminate the British Secret Service. At the end of 1944 or in early 1945 Elser was brought to Dachau. There was to be no show-trial. With the war as good as lost, Elser had no more value to the regime. Shortly before the Americans liberated Dachau, he was taken out and killed.253

Elser had acted alone. But the concerns which had motivated him — worries about living-standards, anxieties about extending the war — were widespread in the autumn of 1939. Reports abounded of unrest in the working class around that time. The War Economy Decree of 4 September had brought an instant worsening of living standards, higher taxes, abolition of higher rates for overtime and weekend work, and other restrictions. A wage-freeze had followed.254 Industrial indiscipline, including absenteeism and refusal of overtime, eventually forced the regime to back down.255 But longer hours, rises in food prices, and an acute coal shortage affected the poorer in society most of all that autumn. And for those stepping out of line, increased police presence in factories was a constant reminder of the threat of the labour camp.256

Euphoria over the victory in Poland had soon faded. Alongside the daily worries were those of an extension of the war. The ‘Phoney War’ (as American journalists dubbed the autumn and winter months of 1939—40), with no action from the West, raised hopes. Above all else most people wanted the war to be over. In his anxieties about the war, Elser spoke for many. He was on far less sure ground with his attribution of blame for the war to the Nazi leadership. The signs are that propaganda had been successful in persuading most ordinary Germans that the western powers were to blame for the prolongation of a war which Hitler had done all he could to avoid.257 Whatever criticisms — and they were many and bitter — people had of the Party and the regime, Hitler still retained his massive popularity. The view of one Munich upper-class conservative, antagonized above all by the assault on Christianity, that there was no one in the city who did not regret the failure of Elser’s attempt, was no more than wishful thinking.258 Few would have applauded a successful assassination attempt. Vast numbers would have been appalled. The chances of a backlash, and a new ‘stab-in-the-back’ legend, would have been great. As it was, the failure of the attempt brought, as could be expected, a new, great upsurge of support for Hitler, accompanied by feelings of intense hatred for Britain, held to be behind the bomb-attack. Not only internal reports stressed that ‘the devotion to the Führer has deepened still further’.259 The underground opponents of the regime also acknowledged that Elser’s bomb had brought a ‘strengthening of determination’. People were saying that if the attempt had been successful it would have resulted in internal confusion, benefit to Germany’s enemies, loss of the war, worse misery than was caused by Versailles, and the upturning of everything achieved since 1933.260

Hitler’s hold over Germany was as strong as ever. The failure of those in positions of power to move against him and the repercussions of Elser’s bomb-attack demonstrated that his authority was unchallengeable from within the regime’s élites and that he was still immensely popular with the masses. He played on this latter point when he addressed a gathering of around 200 commanding generals and other senior Wehrmacht officers in the Reich Chancellery at noon on 23 November.

Hitler’s speech was remarkable for its frankness. In the light of the conflict with the army leadership in the previous weeks, its aim was to convince the generals of the need to attack the West without delay. First of all he paraded before his audience the successes of the previous years. Then he came to the conflict with Poland. He was, he said, reproached that he wanted to ‘fight and fight again’. His next words represented the core of his philosophy: ‘In fighting (Kampf) I see the fate of all creatures. Nobody can avoid fighting if he does not want to go under.’261 This led him into the struggle for Lebensraum. Again reiterating words which he had repeatedly preached in the late 1920s, he was adamant: ‘Solution only with the sword.’ The people lacking the strength to fight must yield. The struggle now, he went on, was different than it had been 100 years earlier. ‘Today we can speak of a racial struggle.’ This had a self-evident material dimension. It was a struggle, he added, for oil-fields, rubber, and mineral wealth.262

He went on to review the strategic position. Germany no longer faced a war on two fronts. The West front stood open. But no one knew for how long. He had long pondered whether to strike in the East first, then in the West. ‘Basically I did not organize the armed forces in order not to strike. The decision to strike was always in me.’263 The Polish front could now be held by a few divisions — something long held scarcely attainable. The question was how long Germany could sustain the position in the West. He spoke openly of future policy towards the Soviet Union. Russia, he stated, was currently not dangerous, and was preoccupied with the Baltic. ‘We can oppose Russia only when we are free in the West. Further, Russia is seeking to increase her influence in the Balkans and is striving toward the Persian Gulf. That is also the goal of our foreign policy.’264 He moved on to Italy. There, he said, everything depended on Mussolini. ‘Italy will not attack until Germany has taken the offensive against France. Just as the death of Stalin, so the death of the Duce can bring danger to us.’ ‘How easily the death of a statesman can come about,’ he remarked with reference to Elser’s near-miss: ‘I have myself experienced that recently.’265 After his tour d’horizon he reached the characteristic conclusion: ‘Everything is determined by the fact that the moment is favourable now; in six months it might not be so any more.’266

He turned to his own role. ‘As the last factor I must in all modesty describe my own person: irreplaceable. Neither a military man nor a civilian could replace me. Attempts at assassination may be repeated. I am convinced of my powers of intellect and of decision. Wars are always ended only by the annihilation of the opponent. Anyone who believes differently is irresponsible. Time is working for our adversaries. Now there is a relationship of forces which can never be more propitious for us, but which can only deteriorate. The enemy will not make peace when the relationship of forces is unfavourable for us. No compromises. Hardness towards ourselves. I shall strike and not capitulate. The fate of the Reich depends only on me.’267

He underlined Germany’s military superiority over Britain and France. He flattered the armed forces’ leadership that it was better than that of 1914. But there was unmistakable criticism of army leaders. While there was express praise for the navy, the Luftwaffe, and the army’s achievements in Poland, Hitler — in a barbed comment directed straight at Brauchitsch — remarked that he could not ‘bear to hear people say the army is not in good order. Everything lies in the hands of the military leader. I can do anything with the German soldier if he is well led.’268

Internal conditions also favoured an early strike, he went on. Revolution from within was impossible. And behind the army stood the strongest armaments industry in the world. But Germany had an Achilles’ heel: the Ruhr. An advance by Britain and France through Belgium and Holland would imperil the Reich. Once the French army had marched into Belgium it would be too late.269 He put forward another argument for breaching Dutch and Belgian neutrality. Laying mines off the English coast to bring about a blockade could only be done through occupation of Belgium and Holland. He compared himself — as he would do throughout the war — with Frederick the Great. ‘Prussia owes its rise to the heroism of one man. Even there,’ Hitler declared, an aside aimed at his army leaders, ‘the closest advisers were disposed to capitulation. Everything depended on Frederick the Great.’270 Hitler said he was now gambling all he had achieved on victory. At stake was who was to dominate Europe in the future.271 His decision was unalterable, Hitler went on. ‘I shall attack France and England at the most favourable and earliest moment. Breach of the neutrality of Belgium and Holland is of no importance. No one will question that when we have won… I consider it possible to end the war only by means of an attack… The whole thing means the end of the World War, not just a single action. It is a matter of not just a single question but of the existence or non-existence of the nation.’272 Hitler demanded that the ‘spirit of determination’ be passed on to the lower ranks.273

His final point was the psychological readiness of the German people. He would return to stress this five years later when justifying to his generals the need to go to war in 1939. At that time he would say it was impossible to preserve enthusiasm and readiness for self-sacrifice as if it could be corked up in a bottle.274 This was not merely a retrospective reflection. With an eye on the possible deterioration of the backing he had from the German people, he now told the military: ‘I want to annihilate the enemy. Behind me stands the German people, whose morale can only grow worse.’275 Here, too, Hitler saw no possibility of waiting. Time was not on Germany’s side. Hitler ended with a rhetorical flourish — and with a prophecy: ‘If we come through this struggle victoriously — and we shall come through it — our time will go down in the history of our people. I shall stand or fall in this struggle. I shall never survive the defeat of my people. No capitulation to the outside, no revolution from within.’276

That evening, at 6p.m., Hitler summoned Brauchitsch and Haider to see him. He berated them once more with the failings of the army leadership, threatening to root out the ‘spirit of Zossen’ and crush any opposition from the General Staff. Brauchitsch offered his resignation. Hitler refused it. Brauchitsch, he said, should do his duty.277 Hitler had no need to go further. His speech earlier in the day, with its scarcely veiled criticism of army leaders set against praise for the Luftwaffe and navy, and its threats to destroy any opposing him, had offended some generals. But it had cowed them. None had protested at what Hitler had said. Afterwards, they complained in private but only Guderian could be prevailed upon to voice, and then in mild terms, a few days later their disquiet at Hitler’s evident distrust. The radicals in the opposition had meanwhile given up on Haider. And Brauchitsch had been reduced to a withdrawn depressive, prepared to take Hitler’s insults and still accept responsibility for the western offensive that he inwardly opposed.278

Hitler had been right in his speech: no revolution could be expected from within. Heydrich’s police-state ruled that out. But it was not only a matter of repression. Alongside the ruthlessness of the regime towards internal opponents stood the widespread basic consensus reaching across most of society behind much of what the regime had undertaken and, in particular, what were taken to be the remarkable achievements of Hitler himself. This was embodied in the extraordinary adulation of the Leader. Hitler enjoyed a level of popularity exceeded by no other political leader at the time. He was correct in saying that he had the German people — certainly an overwhelming majority of the German people — behind him. This had strengthened him inordinately in his conflicts with the army, and had weakened the resolve of oppositional groups on many occasions. By the end of 1939 his supremacy was assured. Elser’s bomb had merely brought a renewed demonstration of his popularity. Meanwhile, the internal opposition was resigned to being unable to act. The navy and Luftwaffe were behind Hitler. The army leadership would, whatever its reservations, fulfil its duty. The division of the generals, coupled with their pronounced sense of duty even when they held a course of action to be disastrous, was Hitler’s strength.

Nothing could stop the western offensive. Hitler was by now obsessed with ‘beating England’.279 It was purely a matter of when, not if, the attack on the West would take place. After further short-term postponements, the last of them in mid-January, on 16 January 1940 Hitler finally put it off until the spring.280

The war was set to continue, and to widen. Also set to escalate was the barbarism that was an intrinsic part of it. At home the killings in the asylums were mounting into a full-scale programme of mass murder. In Poland, the grandiose resettlement schemes presided over by Himmler and Heydrich were seeing the brutal uprooting and deportation of tens of thousands of Poles and Jews into the ‘dumping-ground’ of the General Government.281 Not least, the centre-point of the ‘racial cleansing’ mania, the ‘removal’ of the Jews, was farther from solution than ever now that over 2 million Polish Jews had fallen into the hands of the Nazis. In December Goebbels reported to Hitler on his recent visit to Poland. The Führer, he recorded, listened carefully to his account and agreed with his views on the ‘Jewish and Polish question’. ‘The Jewish danger must be banished from us. But in a few generations it will reappear. There’s no panacea.’282

Evidently, no ‘complete solution’ to the ‘Jewish problem’ was yet in sight. The constant quest to find such a ‘panacea’ by Nazi underlings working directly or indirectly ‘towards the Führer’ would nevertheless ensure that, in the conquered and subjugated territories of the east, a ‘solution’ would gradually begin to emerge before long.


‘The Führer is greatly puzzled by England’s persisting unwillingness to make peace… He sees the answer (as we do) in England’s hope in Russia…’

‘Decision: Russia’s destruction must therefore be made a part of this struggle… If we start in May 1941, we would have five months to finish the job.’

Diary entries of General Halder, Chief of the General Staff, 13 and 31 July 1940

‘Only when there’s no more going back… is the courage found for very big decisions… That’s how it is, too, in our present situation.’ Goebbels was summarizing what Hitler had been saying at lunch on 15 January 1940. Hitler had begun by grumbling about unreliable weather-forecasts; half-decent weather was needed for the offensive, he had stated. He then went on to philosophize about strength in adversity — one of his regular themes, and to become even more repetitive as the war wore on. He referred to the usual heroes in the German pantheon — Bismarck and, even more so, Frederick the Great — adding on examples from his own ‘time of struggle’ to illustrate how danger brought forth special qualities of courage and boldness in the ‘historical genius’. ‘The Führer was always greater in adversity than in fortune,’ added the impressionable Propaganda Minister. Goebbels had, however, registered the serious point of Hitler’s typically narcissistic musings on his own ‘greatness’: there could be no going back. This imperative had been directly linked to German policy in Poland — an indication that Hitler and Goebbels were only too aware of the Rubicon that had been crossed with the descent into the barbaric treatment of the Poles. ‘We simply must not lose the war,’ Goebbels summed up. ‘And all our thinking and action has to follow from that.’1