Before Ribbentrop had even arrived in Moscow to sign the Nazi-Soviet
Pact, the British were already reacting to news of the agreement which
had leaked out.
The Pact didn't change anything as far as the British government was
concerned and it so informed Adolf Hitler. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain
sent the Führer a personal letter warning
him that if the Nazis invaded Poland, the British would "employ without
delay all the forces at their command, and it is impossible to foresee
the end of hostilities once engaged..."
The letter was delivered to Hitler at Berchtesgaden on August 23rd by
British Ambassador Nevile Henderson and sent Hitler into one of his classic
fits of rage. Up to this point, Hitler had been assuring his generals that
Britain and France would not go to war over Poland. "The men I got
to know at Munich are not the kind to start a new world war," Hitler
boasted during a military conference at Berchtesgaden.
All during 1939, Hitler had been spending more and more of his time
atop his Berchtesgaden mountain retreat trying to figure things out. Thus
far in his career, he had been the master chess player on the European
stage, humbling and outmaneuvering all of his opponents, always a step
or two ahead of everyone.
But now the game had changed. No longer was it
a matter of bluff and dare. It had come down to actual threats of war,
upon which rested the fate of millions. Hitler threatened war. Poland threatened
war. Britain and France were threatening war.
Even the Americans were getting involved. President
Franklin Roosevelt barged into the whole mess with a telegram to Hitler
inquiring: "Are you willing to give assurance that your armed forces
will not attack or invade the territory of the following independent nations?"
Roosevelt listed 31 nations including Poland, the Baltic States, Denmark,
the Netherlands, Belgium, France, and Britain.
Hitler gave his answer during a speech to the Reichstag and assured
'Herr Roosevelt' that Germany only had peaceful intentions toward its neighbors.
Germany, Hitler declared, "had not thought of proceeding in any way
The problem was that nobody outside Germany believed him anymore. Hitler
had lied once too often. And he had made the dreadful mistake of humbling
and embarrassing the leaders of the British Empire, who would never forgive
him for trashing the Munich Agreement. Britain would fight, they warned
him and it could mean a new world war. But despite
the repeated warnings, Hitler was still convinced Britain would back off
at the last moment.
The great problem for Hitler at this point in
his career was that his own bloated ego was fogging up his formerly crystal
clear insight into international politics. The Führer-god
of Germany was ever so slowly succumbing to the belief that he was infallible,
that if he said such-and-such a thing was true, then indeed it must
be true. He was suffering from a kind of creeping megalomania and it was
clouding his judgment, blinding him to reality.
However, there was nobody left in Germany willing
to tell him he was wrong, no one willing to question anything he said,
no matter how outlandish it seemed.
When Hitler gathered his top generals for three
separate pre-war conferences in 1939, they listened in complete silence
to the dictates of the Führer,
which would bring about the worst catastrophe in the history of humanity.
On May 23, 1939, the Führer
assembled fourteen senior military officers in Berlin
including Hermann Göring, Admiral Raeder, Generals Brauchitsch, Halder
and Keitel, and explained that Germany needed a war because the Reich's
economy was in such dire straits. And fixing Germany's economy would be
"impossible without invading other countries or attacking other
For Nazi Germany, the acquisition of Lebensraum
had now become an economic necessity. This was due to Hitler's massive
re-armament program which was soaking up an amazing 23 percent of Germany's
annual Gross National Product. Hitler had ordered German industry to drop
everything and re-arm the country as fast as possible. As a result, the
employment level in the Reich stood at 125 percent, technically,
meaning there was a huge labor shortage with many jobs left unfilled, especially
in agriculture. This was occurring even though the overall population of
the Greater Reich had swollen to 80 million with the acquisitions of Austria
The lopsided Nazi economy was headed for a crash unless there was an
immediate reallocation of labor and raw materials, or, unless fresh supplies
of men and materials were acquired from outside the Reich. This is the
option Hitler chose and so informed his generals on May 23rd.
A month later, June 23rd, Göring convened
a meeting of the Reich Defense Council to coordinate the total mobilization
of German manpower and resources for the coming war. Hitler was not there,
but 35 civil and military officials were present including Keitel, Raeder,
Halder and SS Leader Heinrich Himmler. Hitler, it was announced, had decided
to draft seven million men into the armed services. The resulting severe
labor shortage was to be made up by forced labor, utilizing prisoners of
war, along with inmates from concentration camps and prisons. Himmler stated that "greater use will be made of concentration camps
in wartime." Göring said that "hundreds
of thousands" of Czech workers would be taken into Germany as forced
laborers in agriculture. This marked the inception of the Nazi slave labor
program, designed to fill the Reich's insatiable need for cheap manual
By late August, the path to conquest was cleared for Hitler by the Non-Aggression
Pact with Stalin, insuring that Germany would not have to fight a war on
two fronts. While Ribbentrop was in Moscow to sign the Pact, and the ink
on the paper was not even dry, Hitler gathered his generals at Berchtesgaden
for their final pre-war conference to give them the green light for the
invasion of Poland.
It was now, Hitler announced, his "irrevocable decision" to
go to war.
"Our economic situation is such that we cannot hold out more than
a few years. Göring can confirm this.
We have no other choice. We must act," Hitler said. Thus far, all
of Germany's territorial gains had come as a result of "political
bluff" but it was now necessary to utilize Germany's "military
"I shall give a propagandist reason for starting the war. Never
mind whether it is plausible or not. The victor will not be asked afterward
whether he told the truth or not. In starting and waging a war it is not
right that matters but victory."
And how were his soldiers to behave during this coming war?
"Close your hearts to pity!" the Führer
ordered. "Act brutally! Eighty million people must obtain what is
their right...The stronger man is right...Be harsh and remorseless! Be
steeled against all signs of compassion!"
Hitler's 'propagandist reason' for starting the war had already been
arranged by Himmler and Heydrich at the Führer's
request. The plan was of such importance that it was code named Operation
Himmler and involved having the SS stage fake attacks by the Polish Army
against German troops along the German-Polish border. At the Gleiwitz radio
station, a Polish-speaking German working with the SS would grab the microphone
and broadcast an inflammatory speech in Polish declaring that the time
had come for Poles to fight the Germans. Concentration camp inmates dressed
in Polish Army uniforms would be killed by lethal injections then riddled
with bullets and left as evidence of the attacks, to be viewed later by
members of the press.
Preparations for Operation Himmler were fully underway, with the invasion
of Poland now scheduled by Hitler to begin at 4:30 a.m. on Saturday, August
26th. As a prelude to the invasion, Goebbels' propaganda machine went into
overdrive spinning out stories of alleged atrocities committed by Poles
against tens of thousands of ethnic Germans living inside Poland.
For several months now, Nazi journalists had also
been trying to prepare the German people for the inevitable war in Europe.
They had been personally instructed by Hitler to build enthusiasm for war
and to counter civilian pessimism. But the propaganda only had limited
success. Most Germans still did not want a war.
Amazingly, on the eve of battle, Friday, August
25th, Hitler lost his nerve and postponed the whole invasion. There were
two big diplomatic developments that day which had shaken the Führer's
confidence. First, Hitler became aware that Britain and Poland had signed
their treaty of mutual assistance against German aggression. Secondly,
Mussolini informed the Führer
that Italy was unprepared for war and would not join
the fight, despite the military Pact of Steel it had signed with Germany.
About 6:30 p.m. that day, Hitler summoned General
Keitel to the Reich Chancellery and told him: "Stop everything at
once...I need time for negotiations."
Above all, Hitler wanted to prevent British military
intervention, even at this late date. The Nazis now tried a back-door diplomatic
channel, utilizing a Swedish friend of Göring's named Birger Dahlerus
as an informal go-between. Göring sent him to London to tell Foreign
Secretary Halifax that the Nazis hoped to achieve some kind of "understanding"
with the British. Halifax sent him back to Berlin with a letter stating
the British still hoped for some kind of peaceful settlement.
Göring thought the letter from Halifax was
important enough to bring to Hitler immediately. Accompanied by Dahlerus,
Göring arrived at the Chancellery in Berlin around midnight on Saturday,
August 26th. Hitler, normally a night owl, had already gone to bed and was
awaken at Göring's request.
Surprisingly, Hitler paid no attention to the
letter but instead quizzed Dahlerus at length about the true nature of
the British people. Hitler, like many of the top Nazis, both admired and
hated the British, but could never seem to understand them.
Dahlerus, who had lived and worked in England,
obliged the Führer and
spoke about the British. But Hitler started behaving strangely. According
to an account later provided by Dahlerus, the Führer
"suddenly got up, and becoming very nervous,
walked up and down...suddenly he stopped in the middle of the room and
stood there staring. His voice was blurred, and his behavior that of a
completely abnormal person. He spoke in staccato phrases: 'If there should
be war, then I shall build U-boats, build U-boats, U-boats, U-boats, U-boats'...then
he pulled himself together, raised his voice as though addressing a large
audience and shrieked: 'I shall build airplanes, build airplanes, airplanes,
airplanes, and I shall annihilate my enemies!' "
Unknown to Dahlerus, the Führer
had good reason to be so edgy. Several hours earlier,
he had abruptly changed his mind regarding the attack on Poland and telephoned
his Army High Command, ordering them to get everything ready for the new
invasion date, Friday, September 1st.
Over the next few days, Dahlerus made several
more trips between Berlin and London carrying proposals and counter proposals
back and forth, all of which came to nothing. The Nazis essentially wanted
Poland to hand over Danzig and the Polish Corridor, while the British were
reluctant to do anything that smelled like another Munich Agreement.
| September 1939 - Stuka dive-bombers in action over Poland. The war commenced with a devastating aerial and artillery attack followed by rapidly advancing tanks and troops - the pattern for all that was to come. Below: German troops on half-tracks roll into the city of Czestochowa, Poland.
Hitler and Ribbentrop also saw Ambassador Henderson
several times and successfully manipulated him into rushing the Poles into
some last minute negotiations to preserve the peace. For propaganda purposes,
the Nazis wanted to make it appear to the world that they had been willing
to discuss a peaceful solution with Poland. In reality, they deliberately
concocted one obstacle after another to prevent any meaningful negotiations
from ever occurring and then said the Poles were uncooperative.
All along the German-Polish border, military preparations
were now fully underway to launch the invasion. At 12:30 p.m. on Thursday,
August 31st, the Supreme Commander of the German Armed Forces, Adolf Hitler,
issued Directive No. 1 for the Conduct of the War. Hitler's objective was
to destroy Poland quickly via an overwhelming lightning attack then turn
his armies westward and deal with Britain and France if they attacked Germany
from the west. He was still not sure whether they would actually honor
their much vaunted commitment to Poland.
By nightfall on Thursday, a million and a half
German soldiers were moving into final position for the invasion of Poland.
Operation Himmler was put into effect at 8 p.m. as SS men dressed in Polish
Army uniforms staged a series of fake border attacks, including the one
at Gleiwitz where they seized the radio microphone and shouted out in Polish,
"People of Poland, the time has come for war between Poland and Germany!"
Hitler now had his propaganda excuse for launching the war.
At dawn on Friday morning, September 1st, German
troops roared across the border into Poland smashing everything in their
way. The hopelessly outdated Polish Army put up brave resistance but was
crushed without mercy by the incredible German military machine.
At 10 a.m. that morning Hitler appeared before
the Reichstag in Berlin and announced: "This night for the first time
Polish regular soldiers fired on our own territory. Since 5:45 a.m. we
have been returning the fire, and from now on bombs will be met with bombs."
The war for Lebensraum that Hitler always wanted had finally begun.
Five years, eight months and six days of bloodshed and destruction lay
ahead that would see some 40 million persons killed and much of the cultural
heritage of Germany and Europe destroyed. The German
people had surrendered their will to one man and he had plunged them into
a new world war to fulfill his own mad ambitions.