The History Place - Defeat of Hitler

A New World War

Like most of the German leaders who had come before him, Adolf Hitler had a fascination with the British. For the better part of three centuries, as the Germans duly noted, people from the small island nation of Britain had managed to rule a fifth of the world via an all-powerful navy, a well-trained army, and cagey diplomatic gamesmanship.

The British also had a long and impressive history of squashing rival empires such as Spain and wrecking upstarts like Napoleon. By the late 1800s, the British Empire was the envy of the world and the focal point of the world's diplomatic and financial activity. Watching from the sidelines, the Germans both admired and envied the British, and wanted very much to be like them. As a result, in August 1914, German solders marched off to war in Europe, cheered on by a people who thought they were embarking on a great adventure that, among other things, would help them secure an empire of their own.

In the First World War, the leaders of Imperial Germany had considered the British to be their real enemy, not the French, Russians, Belgians, Americans or anyone else. For four years, the British fought the Germans in Belgium, in France and on the high seas. They also waged global warfare against Germany's allies in Turkey, the Middle East and elsewhere. Not only did the British help to squash the German quest for empire, but the British Empire itself actually expanded by acquiring chunks of the Middle East including Jerusalem and surrounding areas.


Now, some 21 years after that war had ended badly for the Germans, the Führer, Adolf Hitler, and his top aides, in the aftermath of their attack on Poland, began to obsess over the question: What would the British do?

Hitler already knew he had gravely offended the British a year earlier at Munich. He had dangled the prospect of peace before Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain only to snatch it away, rather like teasing a child, then imposed demands that weakened Czechoslovakia and paved the way for its humiliating dissolution.

For Hitler, the consequences of his antics at Munich were ominous. Outraged members of the British Parliament had vowed they would never again compromise with Hitler – on anything. Subsequently, the British had guaranteed to protect Poland from Nazi aggression. The French followed the British lead and issued a guarantee as well. Thus the stage had been set for a Second World War.

At the same time, memories of the disastrous First World War were still quite fresh in the minds of the German people. On Friday morning, September 1, 1939, about five hours after the invasion of Poland had begun, Hitler was driven through the streets of Berlin, going from the Chancellery building to the Kroll Opera House, home of the Nazi Reichstag. News of the invasion had spread by now via radio announcements and special edition newspapers. However, people on the street reacted to the news of war with silent dread. The only cheering Hitler heard this day was from the handpicked members of his Nazi Reichstag.

As he had done so often in the past, Hitler used the Reichstag podium to put forward his own version of events, broadcast live on radio for the ears of the German people and for the outside world as well.

At the onset of his speech, Reichstag members that morning could see Hitler was not wearing his usual brown-colored Führer tunic. Instead, he wore a new field-grey tunic precisely matching the color of a German Army uniform. In his speech, Hitler claimed the invasion of Poland was in response to Polish aggression along the border. In truth, those border incidents had been faked by the Germans as a propaganda excuse for the invasion.

Knowing his people were uneasy about the war, Hitler tried to reassure them: “I am from now on just the first soldier of the German Reich. I have once more put on that [Army style] coat that was most sacred and dear to me [in the First World War]. I will not take it off again until victory is secured, or I will not survive the outcome.”

This statement was indeed true and had broader implications. The Führer by now was Germany – therefore it was the German nation itself that would either secure victory or not survive along with Hitler.

In any case, the grandiose statements by Hitler and his war posture on display that morning were a bit premature. At that moment, he still didn't know whether or not the British, and therefore the French, would honor their pledge to Poland and engage in a shooting war with him.

The nagging uncertainty began to get on Hitler's nerves. When he returned to the Chancellery after his speech, he let off some steam, telling Hermann Göring, "If England wants to fight for a year, I shall fight for a year; if England wants to fight two years, I shall fight two years...if England wants to fight for three years, I shall fight for three years." Finally, with a clenched fist, Hitler shouted, "And if necessary, I will fight for ten years!"

The face of Nazi arrogance--Hitler's Foreign Minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, wearing an SS uniform. He served for a time as Hitler's ambassador to Britain--and never lived down the fact he foolishly greeted the King of England with the Nazi salute.

British reaction to the events of September 1st was less emotional. At 9 p.m. that day, Ambassador Nevile Henderson met with Hitler's Foreign Minister, Joachim Ribbentrop, and simply handed him a note containing the official British response – a demand that German troops in Poland halt their aggression immediately and prepare to withdraw. If this did not occur, "His Majesty's Government will without hesitation fulfill their obligation to Poland."

An hour later, the French ambassador met with Ribbentrop and handed him a similarly worded note, which had been composed in coordination with the British.

For Hitler, the idea of backing down and ordering his soldiers to halt in their tracks and withdraw was ludicrous, and so he decided not to respond at all to either the British or French notes.

Meanwhile, Hitler's Italian ally, Benito Mussolini, decided the best thing right now would be to arrange another Munich-style conference to sort everything out. But the British would have none of it. In Parliament there were calls for Prime Minister Chamberlain to put his foot down and honor the Polish guarantee "at a time when Britain and all that Britain stands for, and human civilization, are in peril."

Therefore, at 9 a.m. Sunday morning, September 3rd, the British ultimatum was formally delivered by Ambassador Henderson to the German Foreign Office in Berlin. It said that a state of war would exist by 11 a.m. that day unless the Germans complied with the original demand of September 1st for troop withdrawal from Poland.

In the meantime, a nervous Hitler and his top advisors, including Ribbentrop, had somehow deluded themselves into thinking the British weren't serious about war, and would either change their minds about negotiating, or simply back down. Thus the ultimatum came like a slap in the face. When it was read to Hitler, he just glared at Ribbentrop and said, "What now?"

"I assume the French will hand in a similar ultimatum within the hour," Ribbentrop responded. And they did.

Nevertheless, Hitler was not about to back down and be humiliated in the eyes of the world. Shortly after the 11 a.m. British deadline passed, Ribbentrop summoned Henderson and told him Germany flatly refused to cooperate.

Blaring loudspeakers in Berlin then made it official, informing the people they were at war with Great Britain once again. Germans on the street just stared at the pavement as they walked along in morbid silence.

Seeking to rally his people, Hitler issued a proclamation that afternoon entitled "Appeal to the German People" which blasted the British, saying, "Great Britain has for centuries pursued the aim of rendering the peoples of Europe defenseless against the British policy of world conquest." The British, Hitler claimed, had pursued a "policy of encirclement" against Germany in Europe and "oppressed the German people under the Versailles Diktat."

In a second proclamation that day, intended only for the German Army, Hitler said, "The British Government, driven on by those war mongers whom we knew in the last war, have resolved to let fall their mask and to proclaim war on a threadbare pretext."

In London, Prime Minister Chamberlain reacted to the day's events in a speech before the House of Commons: "This is a sad day for all of us, and to none is it sadder than to me. Everything that I have worked for, everything that I have believed in during my public life, has crashed into ruins...I trust I may live to see the day when Hitlerism has been destroyed and a liberated Europe has been re-established."

The people of Britain reacted much the same as their German counterparts upon the news of war. There were no cheering crowds or marching bands to be seen in London or elsewhere as there had been at the outbreak of World War I. No one rushed to enlist as they had back then.

The French, having received a negative response to their ultimatum as well, began mobilizing troops to defend the French-German border. They would be allies once again with the British against their traditional foe, the Germans. All that remained was to wait and see who would fire the first shot.

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