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’. 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. Nothing had changed over the years in his fanatical belief in this ‘mission’.
In war Nazism came into its own. The Nazi Movement had been born out of a lost war. As with Hitler personally, 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. The new 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 which took place in Poland in the eighteen months following the German invasion was an essential precursor to the plans which would unfold 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 had boarded his special armoured train in Berlin’s Stettiner Bahnhof and left for the front. 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’. 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 manservants, 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). 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. On the day of the invasion of Poland, he had informed Lammers that he would ‘continue permanently to belong to the Führer’s entourage’. 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. Within the first two days, most aerodromes and almost the whole of the Polish air force were wiped out. The Polish defences were rapidly overrun, the army swiftly in disarray. Already on 5 September Chief of Staff Halder noted: ‘Enemy practically defeated.’ By the second week of fighting, German forces had advanced to the outskirts of Warsaw. Hitler seldom intervened in the military command. 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. 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. But Hitler was in his element. He was invigorated by war.
On 19 September, 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. 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. Poland no longer existed. An estimated 700,000 Polish soldiers were taken prisoners of war. Around 70,000 were killed in action, and a further 133,000 wounded. German fatalities numbered about 11,000, with 30,000 wounded, and a further 3,400 missing.
Territorial and political plans for Poland were improvised and amended as events unfolded in September and October 1939. On 7 September he 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.
Hitler was still contemplating the possibility of some form of Polish political entity at the end of the month. He held out the prospect of recreating a truncated Polish state – though expressly ruling out any recreation 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. 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 ‘ReichsgauWartheland’, as it was soon to be renamed, though generally known simply as the ‘Warthegau’). Hans Frank, the party’s legal chief, was appointed General Governor in the rump Polish territory. 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 per cent.
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.
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. 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. It probably also at first constrained the ‘action’ aimed at liquidating the Polish nobility, clergy, and intelligentsia. This ‘action’ nevertheless claimed ultimately an estimated 60,000 victims. 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.
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.
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. 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. Especially in West Prussia, where ethnic conflict had been at its fiercest, the Selbstschutz carried out untold numbers of ‘executions’ of Polish civilians. 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.
The rampaging actions of the Selbstschutz were only one element of the programme of radical ‘ethnic struggle’ 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,’ were his reported words. He repeated the same sentiments, referring to a general ‘ground cleansing’, to Halder’s Quartermaster-General Eduard Wagner some days later. 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. On 12 September Admiral Canaris, chief of the Abwehr, told Keitel that he had heard ‘that extensive shootings were planned in Poland and that especially the nobility and clergy were to be exterminated’. Keitel replied ‘that this matter had already been decided by the Führer’. Chief of Staff Halder was already by then heard to have said that ‘it was the intention of the Führer and of Göring to annihilate and exterminate the Polish people’, and that ‘the rest could not even be hinted at in writing’.
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’ 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). ‘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 designated ‘dumping-ground’ of the General Government. The ‘primitive Poles’ were to be used as migrant workers and gradually deported to the ‘foreign-speaking Gau’. 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.
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 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”. Whether after decades the settlement belt could be pushed forward will have to be left to the future.’
A few days later, Hitler spoke to Goebbels in similar vein. ‘The Führer’s judgement on the Poles is annihilatory,’ 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.’
Hitler hinted in his Reichstag speech of 6 October, though in the vaguest terms for public consumption, at ‘cleansing work’ and massive ethnic resettlement as preparation for the ‘new order of ethnographical relations’ in former Poland. 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. 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. 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 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 head of the programme for the ethnic reordering of Poland). ‘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.’ ‘The devil’s work,’ he called it.
Hitler’s approval for what Heydrich had set in motion cannot be doubted. 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 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.
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. 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. But already in the first weeks of September numerous army reports recounted plundering, ‘arbitrary shootings’, ‘maltreatment of the unarmed, rapes’, ‘burning of synagogues’, and massacres of Jews by soldiers of the Wehrmacht. 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’.) 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. 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’. 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.’ 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.
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. 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.
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. 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’ in the ‘difficult solution’ of the ‘ethnic-political tasks’. After lengthy discussions with the Reichsführer-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.’ Doubtless anticipating the inevitable explosion at the inadequacies of the army, Brauchitsch did not even deliver Blaskowitz’s reports in person to Hitler, but passed on at least the first report on 18 November 1939 via Hitler’s army adjutant Gerhard Engel. The expected ferocious denunciation of the ‘childish attitudes’ in the army leadership inevitably followed. ‘You can’t wage war with Salvation Army methods,’ Hitler raged.
The inquiries Himmler had set in train following the army complaints predictably concluded that it was a matter only of ‘trivialities’. 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. 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’. 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.’
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. 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. This Jewry must be annihilated.’ 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.’
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. Racial ‘experts’ in the party set to work to construct the ‘scientific’ basis for the inferiority of the Poles. Armies of planners, moved to the east, started to let their imagination run riot in devising megalomaniac schemes for ethnic resettlement and social restructuring. 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 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’. 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 sometime in the future it were established that the methods to win this territory were not pretty or open to legal objection.’ 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. 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. 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’.
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 Reichsführer’s extended powers as Reich Commissar for the Consolidation of Germandom, and mandated by Hitler to ‘cleanse’ the east, had come into its own in the new occupied territories.
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.
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. 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.
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. 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. But an order from the Führer, whatever its legal status, was nonetheless seen as binding. 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. 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 positive 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.
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.
The notion of the ‘destruction of life not worth living’ had already been the subject of much public debate. Doctors had, however, overwhelmingly rejected euthanasia during the Weimar era. Hitler’s takeover of power changed the 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 psychiatric 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. 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.
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. 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, indeed of our ethnic nationhood altogether’. ‘If Germany were to have a million children a year,’ he declared, ‘and do away with 700,000–800,000 of the weakest of them, the result would finally be perhaps even a rise in strength.’ 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. His position was indicated in his reply in 1935 to the Reich Doctors’ Leader Gerhard Wagner. 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’.
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 resouces 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. The National Socialist Racial and Political Office produced five silent films of this kind between 1935 and 1937.
Meanwhile, 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. Much of the correspondence 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 quarter of a million a year in the later 1930s. 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, and ideologically fanatical. 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. 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. Brack, five years younger than Bouhler, was, if anything, even more ambitious than his boss, and was ideologically attuned to what was wanted. 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. 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. 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, if the position was as the father had described it, to authorize the doctors in his name to carry out euthanasia. 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.) 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’. 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.
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. 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 the 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. 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. 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.
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’. 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.
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 1 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. 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. 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.
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 Reichsgau Posen. This was the ‘Sonderkommando Lange’, which was soon put to use 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.
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’. 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.
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. Colonel Hans Oster, Chief of Staff at the Abwehr, backed by his boss, the enigmatic Admiral 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, implacably opposed to Hitler, Lieutenant-Colonel Helmuth Groscurth, as liaison with Chief of Staff Halder 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 (Cavalry Major) 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 a further centre of oppositional contacts, placing sympathizers (including his brother, Theo) in embassies abroad. Oster also appointed to his own staff an 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 Dohnanyi, 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. 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. 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). 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 he 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.
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. 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’. 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. 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. 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.
‘Militarily,’ he declared, ‘time, especially in the psychological and material sense, works against us.’ It was, therefore, ‘essential that immediate plans for an attack against France be prepared’. 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 defeat of France, it was plainly inferred, would force Britain to terms. The goal was ‘to bring England to its knees; to destroy France’. His favoured time for carrying out the attack was the end of October. 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.
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 them’ – again, his favourite phrase.
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. But a starting-point was that the division of Poland between Germany and the Soviet Union was to remain. There would be no recreation of the Poland of the Versailles settlement. 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. 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.’ 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. It was what Hitler had expected. He had not waited. On the very day of his Reichstag speech, he stressed to Brauchitsch and Halder that a decisive move in the north-west was necessary to prevent a French advance that autumn through Belgium, threatening the Ruhr. Two days later Brauchitsch was informed that Hitler had provisionally set 25 November as the date of attack. On 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. 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. He read out the memorandum at a meeting with his military leaders on 10 October. 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.
When Hitler heard on 12 October of Chamberlain’s rejection of his ‘peace offer’, he 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. 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. 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.
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. He responded to Chamberlain’s dismissal of his ‘peace offer’ by stating that he was glad that he could now ‘go for England’. He had given up almost all hope of peace. ‘The English will have to learn the hard way,’ he stated.
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 German people’s Reich’. 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. 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.’
On 6 November Goebbels was again listening to Hitler’s views on the war. ‘The strike against the western powers will not have to wait much longer,’ he recorded. ‘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.’ Goebbels thought the decision to go ahead was imminent.
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, 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. And whatever his private anxieties, Göring would never deviate in public from Hitler’s line. 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 Halder. On 14 October, primed by Weizsäcker 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. Halder 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’. 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 Halder, following his discussions with Weizsäcker the previous day, to have Hitler arrested at the moment of the order for attack on the West. 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.
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. Halder 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.
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 (the former Ambassador to Rome), Beck, and Johannes Popitz (former State Secretary in the Reich Finance Ministry) – 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. This cluster, through Beck, forged loose links with the group based in the Abwehr – Oster, Dohnanyi, Hans-Bernd Gisevius (one-time Gestapo officer but by now radically opposed to Hitler), and Groscurth. The latter grouping 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. 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 Halder meant that they did not approach him directly. Moreover, they knew nothing of the thoughts he had aired to Brauchitsch on 14 October. 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. As we 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 Halder himself – through Weizsäcker’s army liaison, Legation Secretary Hasso von Etzdorf.
Halder 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. Halder 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, Halder 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. Halder’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 Halder’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.
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 Commander-in-Chief of the Army by 1 p.m. on the 5th. 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. Halderwaited 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.
‘Any sober discussion of these things is impossible with him,’ Halder commented, in something of an understatement. But for Halder 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. Halder returned in panic to his headquarters and ordered the destruction of all papers relating to the conspiracy. 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.
Hitler had given the order for the offensive at 1.30 p.m. on 5 November, soon after his interview with Brauchitsch. Two days later the attack was postponed because of poor weather. 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 Halder, 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, Halder 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 Generals Witzleben, Leeb, Bock, and Rundstedt produced mixed results. 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. 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 headquarters 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. 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. According to Goebbels, he thought it was a ‘hoax’. 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. 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.
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. Where generals had hesitated, he had tried to blow up Hitler to save Germany and Europe from even greater disaster.
His name was Georg Elser. He was a joiner from Königsbronn in Württemberg, thirty-six years old, a loner with few friends. 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’ 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 see it was done.
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. 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. 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.
That evening, as always on 8 November, the ‘Old Guard’ of the party assembled. Hitler’s annual address usually lasted from about 8.30 p.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. Hitler began his speech soon after his arrival in the Bürgerbräukeller, at 8.10 p.m., and finished at 9.07 p.m. Escorted by a good number of party big-wigs, he left immediately for the station to take the 9.31 p.m. train back to Berlin.
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. 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. In its headline on 10 November, the Völkischer Beobachter called it ‘the miraculous salvation of the Führer’. 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. 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.
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.
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. Whatever criticisms – and they were many and bitter – that people had of the party and the regime, Hitler still retained his massive popularity. 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. 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.
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. After his usual 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.’ 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 … I shall strike and not capitulate. The fate of the Reich depends only on me.’ 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. Hitler said he was now gambling all he had achieved on victory. At stake was who was to dominate Europe in the future. 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 …’ His final point was the psychological readiness of the German people. 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.’
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. 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’. It was purely a matter of when, not if, the attack on the West would take place. After further short-term postponements, on 16 January 1940 Hitler finally put it off until the spring.
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. 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.’
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.