Race and war were inextricably intertwined in Nazi thinking. While ruthlessly imposing their radical racial vision on the country, the Nazis simultaneously launched a systematic campaign to militarize German society. If Germany was to reach its rightful potential as a great—indeed, hegemonic—power and provide a self-sustaining base for the healthy cultivation of its racial stock, the Reich would have to expand beyond its cramped frontiers. Even a return to the borders of 1914 was unacceptable. The German people required Lebensraum, living space, that would provide the territory and resources necessary to make Germany economically self-sufficient—“autarkic” was the term favored by the regime. The acquisition of new territory and a self-sustaining economy would render Germany invulnerable to an enemy blockade and would provide the raw materials necessary for exerting German power over the European continent—and perhaps beyond. Although Hitler maintained a public pretense that this living space could be acquired by peaceful means, it was palpably obvious to both the Foreign Office and the military and increasingly to the public that it could not be attained without military conquest.
Hitler’s determination to acquire Lebensraum was hardly a hidden agenda. Expansion meant continental expansion—and continental expansion meant the East. In this, Hitler’s geopolitical aims did not differ significantly from those of Imperial Germany during the Great War, but the ideological vision underlying them did. Hitler hoped to establish a vast central European imperium, the geographic and racial nucleus of which would be a “Greater Germany,” uniting all ethnic Germans and cleansed of Jews, Gypsies, Slavs, and other racially inferior elements. Some territories would be annexed outright, their native populations expelled; others would be transformed into satellite states. Hardy German settlers would be dispatched to people the eastern borderlands—warrior farmers, tilling the land and guarding the frontier against Slavs and other racial enemies. Diplomacy would set the stage for German expansion, but ultimately Hitler trained his sights on a war of conquest.
All of this, of course, required a full demolition of the Versailles Treaty, but during 1933 and 1934 Hitler’s attention was absorbed by the seizure and consolidation of power. Germany was militarily weak and vulnerable to foreign, especially French, intervention, a situation that dictated restraint in international affairs. Hitler was careful. As he set about undermining the Versailles settlement, his standard operating procedure was to proclaim his fervent desire for peace and international cooperation, while privately plotting a more aggressive strategy. Until the very brink of war in 1939, this modus operandi never varied. Every assault on the Treaty of Versailles was invariably couched in the language of international understanding.
Despite repeated assurances from Hitler, suspicions of German intentions were heightened in October 1933 when, in his first initiative in foreign policy, Hitler abruptly withdrew Germany from the World Disarmament Conference and the League of Nations. The disarmament conference sponsored by the League of Nations had been convened in February 1932, and when Hitler assumed the chancellorship, his opening performance on the stage of world politics was to make a typically theatrical offer. “Our boundless love for and loyalty to our own national traditions makes us respect the national claims of others and makes us desire from the bottom of our hearts to live with them in peace and friendship.” But Germany alone had been forced to disarm at Versailles, rendering the country defenseless. Germany would be willing at any time “to undertake further obligations in regard to international security, if all the other nations are ready on their side to do the same.”
Since Germany was restricted by the Versailles Treaty to a military of only 100,000 troops, had no heavy weapons, no air force, and no battle fleet, it was an easy—and disingenuous—offer to make. If the international community was unprepared for such a radical offer, Hitler suggested more specifically that France might reduce its military down to German levels or alternatively that Germany be allowed to increase its forces to match those of France. When, not surprisingly, France balked, Hitler insisted that all Germany was seeking was to be treated as an equal in matters of international security. Had not Germany, “in her state of defenselessness and disarmament, greater justification in demanding security than the over-armed states bound together in military alliances?” But that, he implied, was apparently not the intention of the French, who seemed determined to maintain their vast military superiority over Germany.
While expressing his deepest regrets, Hitler announced that Germany was forced to leave the Disarmament Conference. At the same time, he also declared Germany’s withdrawal from the League of Nations. In a statement to the public on October 14, he explained that since the powers gathered in Geneva were intent on perpetuating “an unjust and degrading discrimination of the German people,” the Reich government could not “under these circumstances, feel itself able to participate any longer as a second-class nation without rights of its own in negotiations which can only result in further dictates.”
The move aroused uneasiness in the international community, especially in France, where Hitler’s grand proposal to disarm completely if France and other states did the same was scorned as a sham—an offer that he knew would not, could not, be accepted. It was, Paris maintained, nothing more than a transparent ruse to allow Germany to cast off the armaments restrictions of Versailles. Besides, France’s armed forces were the largest in Europe, and Paris was not about to forfeit its strategic advantage.
To those abroad who accused him of harboring aggressive intentions, Hitler dipped into his limitless stock of sanctimony to reply that all he wanted was “to provide work and bread to the German Volk,” and this he could do only if “peace and quiet” prevailed. No one should assume that “I would be so mad as to want a war.” Foreign statesmen were unimpressed, but Hitler’s action played very well inside Germany. Here at last was a German leader who would not be pushed around by France and Britain. Not only was Hitler ruthlessly combating Germany’s domestic enemies, he was standing up for Germany’s rights in the international arena. He was bent on expunging Germany’s disgrace of 1918. This theme remained a major leitmotif of Hitler’s policy in these years, reprised in speeches without number.
Eager to display the public’s enthusiastic support for the Hitler government, the Nazis staged an “election” on November 12, summoning the nation to approve the regime’s actions since January 30. Back in fighting form, Goebbels embarked on a vigorous public campaign in the usual Nazi style. It was a plebiscite not only on Hitler’s audacious foreign policy but his murderous suppression of domestic opposition. The results were not surprising. Ninety-eight percent of those voting cast a “yes” ballot in support of the regime, and although the usual intimidation no doubt played a significant role, there can be little doubt that Hitler’s moves found favor with a majority of Germans.
While Germans hailed Hitler’s audacity, French suspicions proved well founded. In December 1933, the German High Command, with Hitler’s encouragement, drafted a program for a vast expansion of the armed forces. It called for a peacetime army of twenty-one divisions, or about 300,000 troops, by 1938 and a field army of sixty-three divisions—proposals that were a blatant violation of the armaments clauses of the Versailles Treaty. These strength levels were intended to provide Germany with a force capable of fighting a defensive war on multiple fronts. It was to be a “Peace Army,” strong enough to guarantee German security. Then in the spring of 1934 Hitler demanded that these goals be attained by October, a target date the army felt was unrealistic. Yet by the end of February 1935, the German army had already reached a troop strength of 280,000. In early March, the High Command proposed a peacetime army of thirty to thirty-six divisions, numbers that Hitler gladly endorsed.
Hitler meanwhile continued to portray himself as a man of peace. In January 1934 he entered into a ten-year nonaggression pact with Poland, a move that to some seemed to signal Germany’s willingness to recognize its existing eastern borders—or at least to pledge that any modification would come via peaceful negotiation. It was a step that his Weimar predecessors had signally refused to take and both his generals and Foreign Office opposed. The pact was not popular in Germany, but it strengthened Hitler’s claim to be a reasonable statesman determined to revise the Versailles Treaty but willing to live in peace with his neighbors. Above all, however, it was a shrewdly calculated move to undermine the system of Eastern European alliances—the Little Entente—that France had concluded with Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia over the course of the 1920s.
Hitler’s international credibility suffered a serious setback in July 1934 when Austrian Nazis, with unofficial support from Berlin, attempted a coup against Engelbert Dollfuss and his dictatorial government in Austria. Austrian Nazis assassinated Dollfuss, briefly seized the national radio, and battled pro-government forces all across the country. The Putsch was quickly crushed. The army remained loyal to the government; Nazis were arrested; Dollfuss’s assassins were hanged; and the party slipped deeper underground. The Germans continued to insist that they had played no part in the Putsch, but their fervent protestations of innocence only served to convince international opinion of their complicity. Most important, the Putsch dealt a blow to Hitler’s efforts to establish closer ties with Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, who distrusted Hitler and viewed himself as the protector of Austrian sovereignty.
For all of his reassurances, Hitler was determined to rearm, and his efforts were already under way when Germany exited the Disarmament Conference in October 1933. In his first days in office, he had pledged to military leaders that rearmament would be his highest priority, even if that meant radically reordering Germany’s economic priorities, committing the country’s still-fragile economy to an immense program of rearmament. Hitler interpreted the tepid response of the Western powers to his brusque withdrawal from the Disarmament Conference as evidence that Britain and France were weak, that they would do little to thwart his determination to rearm and acquire Lebensraum in the East. That assumption was put to the test in the spring of 1935, when on March 9 Hitler suddenly announced his intention to build an air force and hinted darkly that the process was already well under way. A week later he informed the international community that he would create a mass army of half a million troops. Germany would also introduce compulsory military service, a move explicitly forbidden by the Versailles settlement. These measures were a direct challenge to the Western powers, but they were, as usual, presented as purely defensive moves; surely, Hitler argued, Germany had the right of self-defense.
The international response was swift and daunting. In April, French foreign minister Pierre Laval and British prime minister Ramsay MacDonald joined Mussolini in the Italian city of Stresa to discuss Germany’s threat to peace and stability in Europe. Their immediate aim was to reaffirm the independence of Austria, and the closing Stresa communiqué censured Germany and declared the signatories’ determination to forcefully oppose any unilateral alteration of the Versailles Treaty and the 1926 Locarno Pact according to which Germany recognized its postwar western borders.
The Stresa Front was a sobering reminder to Hitler of his virtually complete diplomatic isolation and prompted a new fusillade of reassuring rhetoric meant to defuse a potentially dangerous situation. “The government of today’s German Reich will continue to do what [is] in its power to promote the cause of peace,” he told an American journalist. Striking a note of great solemnity, he declared that the German government pledges “never to step beyond the bounds of preserving German honor and the freedom of the Reich and in particular shall never make of the German national arms an instrument of warlike aggression, but an instrument confined exclusively to defense and thereby to the preservation of peace.”
While Hitler’s dramatic announcement was unsettling to Germany’s neighbors, the reaction at home was enthusiastic. “All Munich was on its feet,” the Social Democratic underground reported, when Hitler arrived in the city on March 17. The jubilation that greeted Hitler’s appearance in Munich that day surpassed even the wild frenzy that accompanied the call for general mobilization in August 1914. “I experienced the days of 1914,” one agent reported, “and can only say that the declaration of war didn’t have the impact that Hitler’s reception [made] on March 17. . . . You can force a people to sing but you can’t force them to sing with such enthusiasm.”
That mood of patriotic exhilaration, however, soon gave way to a more sober assessment of the situation. Many, especially older Germans whose memories of the slaughter and privations of 1914–18 were still vivid, were convinced that the British and French would never permit such defiance and that war was now an inevitability. Fears were already widespread that Hitler’s determination to rearm would plunge Europe into an arms race that would create the same volatile situation as on the eve of the Great War. An arms buildup was already under way in England and France, and Russia had “strengthened its army by 30 percent.” In spite of such worries, the underground concluded that “the mass of the people doubtless views the reintroduction of universal military service as a desirable good, since the victors, aside from England, were determined to hold that right for themselves while denying it to Germany.” Younger Germans in particular remained convinced that despite the dangers, the Führer had restored Germany’s honor and had scored a great diplomatic victory. Hitler’s popularity soared. As the SPD underground organization Sopade glumly reported, “he is loved by many.”
Within six weeks, the Stresa Front, so imposing on paper, was already beginning to fray. The first sign of trouble came in May and from an unexpected source. Hitler had appointed Joachim von Ribbentrop as a special ambassador to London, bypassing Neurath’s Foreign Office, a move symptomatic of Hitler’s predilection for ad hoc or parallel appointments. Ribbentrop would report not to the Foreign Office but directly to Hitler. The ambitious Ribbentrop was convinced that some sort of arrangement with Britain could be reached on armaments questions—especially naval strength. The Foreign Office thought this highly unlikely, and was privately hoping that Ribbentrop would fall flat on his face. An international conference on naval matters was scheduled for London in June, but before it convened, Hitler made a proposal to Britain on naval armaments, and London responded immediately. Formal Anglo-German talks began in Berlin on June 4, with Ribbentrop presiding.
Hitler offered a bilateral pact under which Britain would agree to expanded German naval construction, and the Reich in turn would limit its tonnage to 35 percent of Britain’s. It also allowed for German submarine construction to amount to 45 percent of the navies of the British Commonwealth. The negotiations were left in Ribbentrop’s hands. The Foreign Office was not involved. Ribbentrop, whose arrogance was matched only by his blundering tactlessness, surprised the British by bluntly informing them that this was Germany’s final offer and was not open to negotiation. After hesitating for a day, the British agreed to sign. To London it was clear that Hitler was intent on building not only an air force and army but also a high-seas battle fleet. Determined to hold German rearmament within limits and to avoid a debilitating arms race, Britain shocked its French ally on June 18 by concluding a separate naval treaty with the Third Reich—and on Hitler’s terms.
The rationale guiding Britain’s policy was to meet what it considered legitimate German demands, demands that were consistent with international law and based on the Reich’s just desire for arms equality. Many in the British policy elite had come to the conclusion that the Versailles Treaty, especially the armaments clauses and certain territorial arrangements, were, indeed, unfair and had inflicted considerable damage on postwar efforts at international cooperation in Europe. Britain would, therefore, endeavor to meet Germany’s legitimate demands, hoping to entangle the Germans in a thicket of treaties and international commitments that would limit German rearmament and severely restrict Hitler’s freedom of action. London was convinced that military intervention to prevent German rearmament was out of the question, that it was best to agree to Germany’s reasonable terms. To the British, the Anglo-German Naval Agreement of June 1935 was strategically sensible and politically pragmatic. To the French it was betrayal.
The Anglo-German Naval Agreement was a coup for Ribbentrop, whose influence with Hitler and in foreign affairs was on the rise. To Hitler, Ribbentrop’s aggressive approach to international relations more fully reflected National Socialism’s revolutionary dynamism than the overcautious orientation of the professionals. Since 1934 Ribbentrop had operated an independent organization whose activities paralleled those of the Foreign Office. The Büro Ribbentrop remained largely independent of the Foreign Office, competed with it, and exploited every opportunity to usurp its role in the formulation and execution of foreign policy. The result was that the foreign policy of Nazi Germany was increasingly characterized by a system of parallel competing institutions and individuals—an organizational modus operandi symptomatic of the Third Reich.
The Anglo-German Naval Agreement represented the high-water mark of Hitler’s efforts to woo the British into a closer relationship, perhaps even an alliance. He had long believed that Britain and Germany were natural allies. Their interests were compatible and, to Hitler, immanently compelling. Germany would support Britain’s imperial interests around the globe, while Britain would recognize Germany’s preeminence on the European continent. The Royal Navy would ensure that Germany was not vulnerable to blockade, and Britain would recognize the Third Reich as a force for stability on the continent and a bulwark against Bolshevism. It was obvious to Hitler and Ribbentrop that the interests of the two countries were also compatible for a more profound reason—they were “of common racial stock.”
Britain wasn’t the only weak link in the Stresa Front. In June 1935 Italy invaded Abyssinia, a first step in Mussolini’s grandiose ambition to reestablish the Roman Empire in the Mediterranean. Italian troops quickly crushed the outnumbered and poorly equipped forces of Haile Selassie and occupied the country, an act of naked aggression that brought swift censure and sanctions from the League of Nations. Britain and France were especially vocal in their condemnation of Mussolini’s action and voted for sanctions. Hitler, on the other hand, saw in the situation an opportunity to draw closer to the Duce, who remained suspicious of Nazi ambitions in southeastern Europe. While proclaiming a neutral stance, Hitler applauded Mussolini’s defiance of the League and the Western powers, and refused to join in the League’s measures. Instead, he offered Mussolini economic support in the face of sanctions. Most important, he saw in the Abyssinian War an opportunity to exploit the widening rift between Mussolini and his Stresa partners and to demonstrate his support for Fascist Italy.
His courting of Mussolini bore fruit in the following year, when Germany intervened, along with Italy, to support Francisco Franco in his military rebellion against the Spanish Republic. Hitler dispatched some seven thousand military advisors to Spain and provided Franco’s forces with armaments and air support. The conflict in Spain also offered an opportunity to field-test new German aircraft and other heavy weapons. With two devastating attacks against the Spanish cities of Durango and Guernica, the latter inspiring Pablo Picasso’s savage painting of the same name, the German Luftwaffe tested the efficacy of aerial bombardment. While Britain and France stood by, unwilling to invest significant support in the Republican cause, the Soviets rose to the occasion, sending aid to the faltering Republican forces. But their intervention was too little to save the Republic. Meanwhile Mussolini, though still mistrustful of Hitler’s motives, was grateful for Germany’s display of solidarity. The Stresa Front was dead.
With the Stresa Front in shambles, France cast about for more reliable allies and began negotiations for a mutual aid pact with the Soviet Union. The deal was signed on February 27, 1936, and Hitler immediately denounced the treaty, declaring that France had now introduced the Bolshevik state into the heart of Europe, upsetting the established power arrangements in Western Europe. And besides, Soviet Russia wasn’t like other states; it was “the exponent of a revolutionary political and philosophical system” and “its creed” was “world revolution.” The Franco-Soviet Pact was directly aimed at Germany, he insisted, and by concluding a military alliance with the Soviet Union, France had fatally undermined the Locarno Treaty. Given its pact with Czechoslovakia and now the Soviet Union, France, Hitler contended, was tightening a noose around the neck of the defenseless Reich.
In the face of such “provocations,” Hitler decided to take bold action. He alerted General Werner von Fritsch, commander-in-chief of the army, that he intended to send German troops into the demilitarized Rhineland. Based on their feeble response to his announcement of rearmament in 1935, Hitler was convinced that neither Britain nor France would take military action to enforce the treaty. Fritsch did not share this sanguine view, and both he and Minister of War Werner von Blomberg strongly opposed such a risky undertaking. German rearmament, they reminded the Führer, was still in its early stages, and military commanders were acutely aware of France’s vast military superiority. If the French sent so much as a single division into the Rhineland, Blomberg believed, they would easily rout the German troops there and force the Wehrmacht into a humiliating retreat. If Hitler could not be convinced to scrap his reckless plan, then they suggested perhaps a largely symbolic action could be undertaken—an incursion into the Demilitarized Zone, a one-day occupation of certain key points on the west bank of the Rhine, and then a withdrawal.
Hitler was not to be moved. In a memorandum to his generals, he insisted that Germany had no choice but to assert “its fundamental right . . . to secure its frontiers and ensure its possibilities of defense.” Then, speaking before a hastily called Reichstag on March 7, 1936, he made a dramatic announcement: at that very moment, he informed the deputies, German troops were marching across the Rhine bridges, streaming into the Rhineland, occupying Cologne, Saarbrücken, Aachen, and other key points. “The German Government has today restored the full sovereignty of Germany in the demilitarized zone of the Rhineland.” Wild cheering resounded through the crowded chamber.
Before the powers could respond, Hitler issued the by now predictable appeal to peaceable reason. He proposed the creation of a demilitarized zone on both sides of the Rhine; the conclusion of a twenty-five-year nonaggression pact between Germany, France, and Belgium, with Italy and Britain serving as guarantors of the agreement. He also floated a plan to minimize the danger of air attack, a nonaggression pact with Germany’s eastern neighbors; and, since the Reich’s equality of rights and full sovereignty over its territory had been restored, Germany was prepared to rejoin the League of Nations. Finally, he declared that henceforth Germany had “no territorial claims to put forward in Europe.”
The French lodged a stern protest, as did the League of Nations, but, significantly, Britain did not join them. It was, after all, German territory, and it broke no international law. France vastly overestimated the number of German forces in the operation, fooled by the numerous police units that marched along with the military. The response, in other words, was largely as Hitler anticipated. He had ignored his generals and gambled, and the gamble had paid off. He had correctly read the international situation, had predicted the British and French response, and taken bold action over the objections of the generals.
The remilitarization of the Rhineland had momentous consequences. It fatally weakened the credibility of France’s Eastern European alliance system. As long as the Rhineland was a demilitarized zone, French troops could march swiftly into Germany and occupy the Reich’s industrial heartland. That threat alone would serve to restrain German ambitions in the East. Now that deterrent was gone. The occupation of the Rhineland also dealt another body blow to the League of Nations, one of several it suffered between 1935 and 1939, and the most significant. League sanctions had failed to deter Mussolini in Abyssinia or Spain, and in 1937 Japan simply ignored the League’s censure when it invaded China and withdrew from the organization.
Perhaps as important, the seizure of the Rhineland also further eroded the confidence of Germany’s military commanders in their own professional judgment. It would not be the last time. Could it be that this crude, uneducated former corporal understood the international array of forces better than they? In prevailing over his generals, the remilitarization of the Rhineland boosted Hitler’s already colossal confidence in the superiority of his instinct-driven decisions. Intuition had prevailed over the caution of the professional diplomats and military men. Always aloof, in 1936 Hitler became more unapproachable, more convinced of the infallibility of his views. Brimming with self-confidence, he became virtually immune to differing opinions, whether from the party, the Wehrmacht, or the Foreign Office. From his boyhood days with his friend August Kubizek, Hitler could never abide objections to his ideas, never allowing reference to inconvenient realities to intrude into his hermetically sealed world of illusion. As he told a crowd in Munich, “I go the way that Providence dictates with the assurance of a sleepwalker.”
To these dramatic foreign policy victories came the spectacular success of the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin and Garmisch. Lavish preparations had been under way in the capital for over a year. Visitors found an enormous 100,000-seat stadium, the largest in the world, monumental statuary, flag-lined boulevards flanked by cheering crowds. Visitors were to have a good time. Bands played American music; dance halls overflowed; beer gardens flourished; and seven thousand prostitutes, who had only recently been swept off the streets, were allowed to return. The regime had ordered the removal of anti-Jewish signs from shop windows, and delivered strict orders to party officials to desist from harassing Jews in public. Many foreign visitors left impressed by the display of Nazi organization and the elaborate orchestration of the games. The Germans they saw seemed so happy, so prosperous, so proud. Where were signs of the brutal street violence, midnight arrests, anti-Semitism, and concentration camps? Many departed wondering if the horror stories they had read about Nazi oppression and brutality, especially directed at the Jews, could really be true.
Adding to the sense of German pride was the outcome of the games. Despite African American Jesse Owens’s awesome achievements in track and field—he took four gold medals—Germany won the Olympic medal count, accumulating more gold, silver, and bronze than the favored United States, an achievement the Nazi propaganda machine never tired of touting. Contrary to popular belief, which tends to focus on Hitler’s putative embarrassment by Jesse Owens’s spectacular victories, the games represented a tremendous public relations triumph for the Third Reich. The world had come to Berlin, and Germany, under National Socialist leadership, had regained its rightful status as a great international power.
Following the Olympics, the “Jews Not Wanted” signs resurfaced, and the Nazis resumed their campaign against “the world Jewish conspiracy.” At the same time, the regime escalated its anti-Soviet agitation, and the two themes merged into one. At the Nuremberg party rally in September, Goebbels unleashed a fiery diatribe against Bolshevist terror in Spain and Russia. Who was responsible for this peril? It was the Jew, “the inspirer, the author, and the beneficiary of this terrible catastrophe: look, this is the enemy of the world, the destroyer of cultures, the parasite among the nations, the son of chaos, the incarnation of evil, the ferment of decomposition, the visible demon of the decay of humanity.” On the final day of the rally, Hitler underscored the pernicious link between this world Jewish conspiracy and ruinous Bolshevism. The National Socialist state was locked in battle with that dual threat; it was not an ordinary battle but “a struggle for the very essence of human culture and civilization. . . . What others profess not to see because they simply do not want to see it, is something we must unfortunately state as a bitter truth: the world is presently in the midst of an increasing upheaval, whose spiritual and factual preparation and whose leadership undoubtedly proceed from the rulers of Jewish Bolshevism.”
Building on that theme and working without the knowledge of the Foreign Office, Ribbentrop engineered a treaty with Japan aimed at the looming Bolshevist menace. Although the agreement, signed on November 26, did not explicitly mention the Soviet Union, focusing instead on the Moscow-directed Communist International (Comintern), the real target was the Soviet Union. Both Japan and Germany recognized “that the aim of the Communist International . . . is to disintegrate and subdue existing states by all the means at its command.” They further agreed that “the toleration of interference by the Communist International in the internal affairs of the nations not only endangers their internal peace and social well-being, but is also a menace to the peace of the world desirous of co-operating in the defense against Communist subversive activities.” The parties pledged to assume a position of benevolent neutrality should one become involved in a war with another power, but beyond that, the Anti-Comintern Pact offered little that was concrete. Its value was in propaganda, a sign of Germany’s growing global influence.
By year’s end Hitler could point to an impressive string of accomplishments—the stunning foreign policy successes, the Olympic Games, and a striking economic recovery, albeit an uneven, shallow one. By 1936 Germany was enjoying full employment, and predictions circulated that Germany would face a labor shortage in the near future. But beneath the surface of these triumphs lurked a serious and escalating problem, one that threatened to undermine the regime’s successes. Since 1934 rearmament was proceeding at an ever-accelerating pace, and military demands on the economy were growing by the month. By winter 1936 rationing had been put in place on many consumer items. The rising price of food, especially meat, led to considerable grumbling. William Shirer, an American journalist stationed in Berlin, reported in his diary that he had seen “long lines of sullen people before the food shops, that there is a shortage of meat and butter and fruit and fats, that whipped cream is verboten, that men’s suits and women’s dresses are increasingly being made out of wood pulp, gasoline out of coal, rubber out of coal and lime; that there is no coverage for the Reichsmark or for anything else, not even for vital imports.” Already in the summer of 1935, state police officials in the Münster district were reporting that “the dissatisfaction mentioned over the past months has not abated but escalated. The cause is the tough economic situation that shows no sign of a quick turnaround, and can be traced back to higher prices and shortages of food.” The manifestations of that rising discontent could really “only be seen in the palpable passivity of a great portion of the population toward the movement and its events.” The reasons for this disenchantment could be found “in the great poverty of a large portion of the population which stands in stark contrast to the grand style of certain offices of the party and state.”
It was growing increasingly clear to policymakers that the Third Reich faced an intractable dilemma: to build the military machine Hitler desired, Germany needed to import vast quantities of raw materials. To pay for these imports the Reich needed hard currency. Exports, primarily of consumer goods, had previously provided the bulk of that hard currency, but with an ever-increasing share of the economy being devoured by the military, production of consumer goods began a steep decline in 1935 and steadily gathered momentum. The man Hitler called on to manage his ambitious rearmament program was Reichsbank president Hjalmar Schacht. Appointed minister of economics in June 1934, Schacht was an internationally recognized financial wizard, and the task before him was to find the funds necessary for Hitler’s ambitious rearmament plans. Schacht fully supported Hitler’s desire to rearm and devised a system of off-budget financing to increase military spending that would avoid detection from Germany’s neighbors. Using a variety of financial and foreign trade strategies to fund (and disguise) Germany’s rearmament in 1933 and 1934, Schacht had managed to lay the economic foundation for the military’s expansion. His “New Plan” called for rearmament that would unfold in two phases, each phase taking roughly four years. The initial phase called for the creation of a defensive army, capable of protecting the Reich from all possible enemies. The second phase would be devoted to developing offensive capabilities, tanks, and other armored vehicles.
But the Wehrmacht, with Hitler’s wholehearted approval, was impatient. Its demands for raw materials escalated steadily in 1934 and 1935, and astronomically thereafter. In November 1935 Minister of War Blomberg informed all the service chiefs that they were no longer to concern themselves with costs and to order anything they needed. The response was swift. In the following month the army added forty-eight tank battalions to its projected thirty-six divisions, adding an offensive capability that Schacht’s plan had not foreseen until 1938. The air force also scheduled a vast expansion of its strength from forty-eight squadrons in 1935 to over two hundred by October 1938, and the navy was quick to follow suit. By 1936 military spending dominated the German economy and continued to climb; by 1938 the military accounted for 80 percent of the goods and services purchased by the Reich.
For Schacht this was altogether too much too soon. In a series of increasingly frank memoranda and meetings with Hitler, Schacht tried to impress upon the Führer that the German economy simply could not cope with such demands. The Wehrmacht desperately needed ever-greater supplies of raw materials, especially iron, rubber, and oil, and needed them as soon as possible. Other states, jolted into action by Germany’s feverish rearmament, had begun to increase their military spending. There was no time to waste. The problem, as Schacht tried to explain, was that Germany lacked the necessary hard currency to procure the needed goods. Autarky had possibilities but was not the answer. Germany needed to rejoin the world economy and export. If the regime persisted in its massive rearmament and at this accelerated pace, the economy would simply implode.
To prevent an economic catastrophe, Germany must either slow the pace of rearmament or temporarily halt it. Schacht was not reticent in presenting this gloomy prognostication to Hitler, which he pressed with ever greater bluntness. Unaccustomed to hearing such direct criticism and uninterested in either of Schacht’s unpalatable options, Hitler turned a deaf ear to such worries. He did not want to hear about the laws of economics as Schacht saw them and was not at all concerned about how the raw materials were acquired, just that they were. His overarching goal was preparation for war, and he was not about to let troublesome economic realities stand in his way. He would brook no criticism, even from his experts. The economy was there to serve the regime, to provide the state with what it required to realize its goal, and that goal was war. By 1936 he had grown weary of the economics minister’s pessimism and bleak forebodings. “He must go,” Goebbels noted in his diary. “He is a cancerous shadow on our politics.”
In July, Hitler removed Schacht from his post as economics minister and forced him to take a leave of absence as director of the Reichsbank. Schacht would remain a member of the cabinet and continued to express his objections to the course of German economic planning, but Hitler wasn’t listening. He needed someone to lead the economy who would not be deterred by economic “inconveniences” but would make his preparations for war with ruthlessness and energy. That man was Hermann Göring. At the Nuremberg party rally in September 1936, Hitler announced a new Four Year Plan that would make Germany militarily and economically prepared for war within four years. He also revealed the creation of a new ad hoc organization that would assume command of the economy. Göring would lead this Office of the Four Year Plan, and his mission was abundantly clear: he was not to worry about the balance of payments, currency issues, foreign trade, or civilian needs; his job was to ensure the Reich’s preparedness for war within four years, whatever the costs. Hitler was aware of the privations being forced on the German people, but could only state that the people should be prepared to sacrifice for the good of the nation.
In December, Göring spelled out the dire situation to a gathering of industrialists. Germany was engaged in a life-or-death struggle, and “no end of rearmament is in sight. The struggle which we are approaching demands a colossal measure of productive ability.” It mattered not if every investment could be amortized. “The whole deciding point to this case is victory or destruction. If we win, then business will be sufficiently compensated. . . . We are now playing for the highest stakes . . . All selfish interests must be put aside. Our whole nation is at stake. We live in a time when the final battles are in sight. We are already on the threshold of mobilization and are at war, only the guns are not yet firing.”
Under Göring’s management of the economy, a dramatic surge in military spending, astronomical in scope, began. To raise and equip an army of roughly three and a half million troops in only four years, large parts of German industry would have to be retooled; other manufacturing plants brought on line; workers retrained. The economy would be stretched to the limit—and beyond. By 1940 the army was to be a fully equipped fighting force of 102 divisions and more than 3.6 million men. At least five thousand tanks were to be produced in the same time frame. The Luftwaffe also issued an order that its forces should be at full strength by 1937, a full year ahead of schedule, adding more complications for economic planning. Wehrmacht thinking was no longer focused on defensive considerations but on a force trained and equipped for offensive operations.
This massive military buildup imposed serious strains on the economy. Aside from the currency and balance of payments problems, for which there was no obvious financial solution, there was the looming question of what was to happen when this massive flood of spending subsided, when the factories had filled all their orders and the production targets had been met. Would the armaments factories then function at half time, lay off millions of workers, or close their doors? If this rapacious military machine was not to be used in the near future, would armaments production at the same pace be necessary? Although the Nazis did not trouble themselves very much about such long-range questions, they had, in fact, created an economy that was based on war and expansion. As economic historian Adam Tooze has aptly put it, “War now had to be contemplated not as an option, but as the logical consequence of the preparations being made.”
The year 1937 was bereft of any major foreign policy crisis, and yet amid all the frenzied military and economic activity, an air of nervousness prevailed. The Socialist underground reported that “more than ever all strata of the population are filled with the worry that war is imminent.” That fear was heightened in September when the regime conducted air raid drills in Berlin, blacking out the city for three consecutive nights. Other cities were encouraged to do the same. The Socialist underground reported that “the Four-Year-Plan, the rationing of food supplies, the deployment orders for the event of a general mobilization, the heightened activity of air defense, the involvement of Germany in Spain, and the boundless agitation against the Soviet Union—all this provides constant nourishment for the war psychosis.” Women in the National Socialist Women’s Organization were “being trained to take over men’s jobs,” and “in recent months the Hitler Youth has introduced special training afternoons, during which the youths practiced throwing hand grenades and firing machine guns.”
Hitler needed some sort of foreign policy success, some new surprise or dramatic exhibition of Nazi dynamism to reignite the people’s enthusiasm. He decided to host a lavish state visit by Mussolini to demonstrate the newfound solidarity between Germany and Italy. Preparations on the usual Nazi scale were undertaken. For three days in late October, the Duce was saluted, celebrated, and cheered by excited crowds that greeted him wherever he appeared. Mussolini was impressed. The visit culminated on a rainy night in Berlin, when the Führer and Duce gave speeches effusively touting Fascist solidarity to a rain-soaked crowd of 62,000 on the Maifeld. It was, a rapturous Goebbels believed, the largest crowd Mussolini had ever addressed. The stadium was bathed “in a magical light . . . Unfortunately much rain. But what does that matter on this night! I am completely happy.”
Nothing concrete was achieved during the visit and potential problems still remained between the two regimes, especially over the status of Austria, but both powers considered the visit a spectacular success. Mussolini returned to Rome impressed with German power, organization, and Hitler himself. For his part, Hitler could feel that Germany was no longer isolated in Europe. Shortly after the visit, on November 6, Ribbentrop announced that Italy had joined the Anti-Comintern Pact, making for a Rome-Berlin-Tokyo axis of power, an apparent sign of Germany’s global reach.
It was under these circumstances that on November 5, 1937, Hitler convened a meeting of his top military commanders in the Reich Chancellery. The purpose of the meeting was ostensibly to settle mounting disagreements between the different branches of the armed forces over the allocation of increasingly scarce raw materials. Present in this small circle were Göring, in his dual capacity as head of the Four Year Plan and as commander of the Luftwaffe; Blomberg, minister of war; Fritsch, Commander; and chief-of-staff of the army, and Admiral Erich Raeder, supreme commander of the navy. Foreign Minister Constantin von Neurath was also in attendance, as was Hitler’s military attaché, Friedrich Hossbach. Raeder, whose complaints about steel allocations had prompted the meeting, was particularly galled by what he considered the preferential treatment given to Göring’s Luftwaffe—a grievance shared by Blomberg and other service chiefs. Raeder hoped that Hitler would resolve the dispute. Instead, and typically for Hitler, the Führer did not address the issue at hand until late in his presentation and then only fleetingly. To the surprise of his listeners, he launched into a lengthy monologue on foreign and economic policy, providing a sweeping overview of his strategic thinking. His demeanor was grim. This would be no blustery propaganda speech.
“The aim of German policy,” Hitler began, was “to make secure and preserve the racial community and to enlarge it.” Preservation of “the German racial core” was, above all, a question of space. Lack of Lebensraum represented “the greatest danger to the German race,” and securing Germany’s future was “wholly conditional on solving the issue of space.” Over the next three hours, he assessed Germany’s economic options, particularly with regard to raw materials. Tin, steel, rubber, and oil were of course essential, but the food supply drew his greatest attention. Although some gains had been made, especially in the area of synthetics, the policy of pure autarky could not solve Germany’s food problems. Nor could a return to world trade, an oblique swipe at Schacht’s position. Expansion was the only realistic solution, as it had been for the great empires from the Romans to Frederick the Great to Bismarck. “Germany’s problem could only be solved by force and this was never without attendant risk. The only real question was ‘when and how.’ ”
Germany’s first objective was to secure its southern and eastern flanks, and that meant seizing Czechoslovakia and Austria. Austria should be absorbed, if possible without military conflict, but the Czechs deserved no such consideration. “Die Tschechi,” as Hitler and the Nazis referred to Czechoslovakia, was an illegitimate state, created by the victors at Versailles. It was rich in raw materials and would simply disappear into the German Reich. Hitler then reviewed the strengths and weaknesses of the major powers and their likely responses to an act of German aggression. Britain and its empire were weaker than widely assumed and did not represent a serious threat; France would not act without Britain. Poland would not intervene alone, and if the German offensive was “lightning fast,” Russia would stay on the sidelines. Bolshevik Russia posed a long-term threat but, confronted by a fait accompli, would not take action. Italy, despite some difficulties regarding Austria, would be a reliable ally.
With the other powers increasing their own military spending in response to Germany’s massive rearmament, the Reich could not afford a lengthy delay. Germany must act soon or lose its momentary advantage. It was his unalterable resolve that at the very latest the German economy and armed forces must be ready to act by 1943–45 or earlier if circumstances were favorable. At the conclusion of his presentation, the issue of resource allocation among the services was briefly addressed and resolved to Raeder’s satisfaction. But after the Führer’s remarkable talk, that question slipped distinctly into the background.
The small circle of listeners was shocked by what they heard. Although the generals were certainly familiar with the basic thrust of Hitler’s ideas, never before had he laid them out so directly and so exhaustively. If they were taken aback by Hitler’s presentation, they were just as surprised when he solicited their comments. He listened attentively, sometimes jotting down notes, as Generals Fritsch and Blomberg raised serious objections. They were not opposed to the idea of Lebensraum, but they were stunned that Hitler was considering a course of action that would certainly lead to war not only with Czechoslovakia but with Britain and France—a war for which the Wehrmacht was ill prepared. Hitler did not interrupt or try to dissuade them—Göring was left to respond to their criticisms—but he must have been disappointed. He was not accustomed to dissent and certainly not the sharpness of their objections.
No formal minutes were taken, and the only record of the proceedings are the notes written several days later by Colonel Hossbach. In the Hossbach Memorandum, many historians have seen a clear blueprint for action, an actual plan for German aggression. Others have claimed that Hitler’s speech was merely a tour d’horizon, a typical diversionary tactic to avoid having to address the armaments issue. But Hitler carried notes with him for the meeting, although he did not refer to them, and he displayed his famous memory for details. Hitler’s performance that day may have been an effort to avoid taking a side in the interservice dispute, but it seems more likely that his talk was a genuine effort to convince the generals of his vision. He clearly expected them to be carried along with him. Instead, the meeting ended with disagreement and harsh language.
Blomberg left the meeting so disturbed that he requested a meeting with Hitler the next day. After consulting with Fritsch, he attempted once again to persuade Hitler to drop what the military men saw as reckless thinking that would drive Germany into a major war. The meeting was stormy, and Hitler would not be persuaded. Neurath, equally alarmed at Hitler’s overly optimistic assessment of the international situation and his conviction that Britain and France would not intervene, also sought a meeting with the Führer, but Hitler brushed him off, refusing to see him until mid-January. Slow to come to decisions, Hitler rarely changed his mind once he had made them. As Ribbentrop later remarked, “it would have been easier to shift Mont Blanc than to get the Führer to reverse a decision.”
Within three months, Blomberg, Fritsch, and Neurath were forced out, and although it is often treated as a well-designed purge, the circumstances were quite different and unanticipated in each case. Blomberg was the first to fall. In January, the general married a young woman thirty-five years his junior. Blomberg sought Hitler’s approval, worrying that his fellow officers would shun her. She was a common shopgirl, a girl of the people. And, indeed, the army through the person of General Fritsch did protest that such a match was intolerable. Hitler was indignant at the snobbishness of the officer class—didn’t they know that there were no classes in the Third Reich? He even volunteered to serve as witness to the wedding and dragged Göring along as well. The wedding was a small, private affair and took place in the tender atmosphere of the War Ministry.
While the happy couple was vacationing, the Gestapo discovered disturbing evidence that the new Frau Blomberg was a woman with a past. They produced police files that revealed that the young bride had at one time been arrested for prostitution and that she had posed for pornographic photographs, taken, to make matters even more intolerable, by a Jewish photographer with whom she was living. Hitler, Goebbels noted, was “shattered” by these discoveries: “If a German Field Marshal marries a whore,” the Führer said in disbelief, “then anything in the world is possible.” The only honorable way out for Blomberg, Goebbels asserted, was the pistol. But Blomberg was a longtime Hitler supporter, and the Führer was reluctant to part with him. Unwilling to face the disgraced Blomberg under these awkward circumstances, he dispatched Göring to make the general an offer. If Blomberg would agree to annul the marriage, he would be permitted to remain at his post; if not, he would be compelled to leave. To the consternation of one and all, Blomberg refused to part with his bride and submitted his resignation.
The reverberations of the Blomberg affair were still resounding when a second scandal rocked the military. In vetting General Fritsch for the post of chief of staff of the army some three years earlier, the Gestapo had unearthed allegations that Fritsch had had a homosexual encounter with a young man from the Hitler Youth. Fritsch was a highly respected officer with an unblemished record. He categorically denied the allegations, and no charges were filed. The matter seemed settled. But with the Blomberg scandal in full bloom, Heydrich produced the earlier case file, and a new investigation was launched. The evidence gathered by the Gestapo was at best unreliable. Yet, pressed by Goebbels and Himmler, Hitler was convinced that the army, indeed, the regime, could not afford another high-profile scandal. He would not let the matter drop. Vehemently denying the charges, Fritsch resigned under pressure on February 3 but demanded a military court-martial, which Hitler reluctantly granted. On March 18 Fritsch was acquitted—it proved to be a case of mistaken identity, which Himmler and Heydrich had known for some time—but the damage was done. Fritsch was allowed to retain his rank but was removed from the command hierarchy and allowed to rejoin his old artillery unit.
The purge was not over. In the following days Hitler relieved fourteen generals and reassigned forty-six senior officers, many of whom were known to be less than committed to National Socialism. He tapped General Walther von Brauchitsch to replace Fritsch, and he rebuffed the efforts of both Göring and Himmler to succeed Blomberg as minister of war. As a consolation prize, he promoted Göring to the rank of Reich marshal. To complete the reshuffling of his military command, Hitler abolished the post of war minister and anointed himself Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht or OKW), giving him formal control over Germany’s entire military establishment. Wilhelm Keitel, a desk general known for his pliability, became chief of staff of the OKW, and General Alfred Jodl assumed the post of chief of operations. Resentment in the army ran high.
Neurath did not escape the wave of dismissals. On February 6, 1938, Hitler dismissed his foreign minister. It hardly came as a surprise. A conservative holdover from the Schleicher government, he had been a reassuring presence for the old conservative elites, who viewed him as a restraining influence on Hitler. But by 1938, his cautious approach to diplomacy was increasingly out of step with the aggressive policies now being pursued by the regime. His influence had diminished steadily since 1935, gnawed away by the peripatetic Ribbentrop and his organization. Cleaning house of the old guard, Hitler also dismissed conservative ambassadors to Rome and Tokyo, along with Franz von Papen, who had served as German ambassador in Vienna since 1934. It was to Ribbentrop that Hitler turned to replace Neurath.
The haughty Ribbentrop was almost universally disliked by other Nazi leaders, but he had steadily gained in influence with Hitler since the Anglo-German Naval Agreement, moving from the periphery of power in 1933 to its center five years later. Supremely confident of his own views and impervious to criticism, he was convinced that he understood the Führer’s wishes and eagerly took them up as his own. As French ambassador François-Poncet observed, Ribbentrop seemed determined to be “more Hitlerian than Hitler,” reinforcing Hitler’s most bellicose tendencies. Ribbentrop had a talent for ascertaining Hitler’s policy desires and then telling him exactly what he wanted to hear. In this symbiotic relationship, Hitler, not surprisingly, thought his new foreign minister brilliant.
The circumstances that led to the dismissals of Blomberg and Fritsch were unanticipated, hardly part of a carefully planned purge, but the upshot of their sacking, combined with the removal of Schacht and Neurath, was to leave Hitler in unfettered control of Germany’s military, economic, and foreign establishments. His power was absolute. With little to restrain him, the Third Reich entered a new, radical phase in both foreign and domestic policy. It began unexpectedly in February 1938 when Kurt von Schuschnigg, the chancellor of Austria, cast about for a strategy to deal with an increasingly threatening Germany. In July 1936 Schuschnigg had agreed to a treaty with Germany that called for the Reich to recognize full Austrian sovereignty, to abstain from interference in Austria’s domestic affairs, and for Austria to follow a policy “that was at all times in conformity with the fact that Austria considers itself a German state.” But by 1938 he was becoming anxious about mounting Nazi agitation in Austria and about Hitler’s menacing foreign policy posture. Within the Reich government, Göring was aggressively calling for the absorption of Austria. Acting in his capacity as head of the Four Year Plan, he pressed for a customs union with Austria and a coordination of the Austrian economy with that of Germany. Incorporation of Austria into the Reich would be even better, bringing Austria’s rich iron deposits and skilled workforce into the Four Year Plan.
Austria found itself increasingly isolated, and Nazi agitation was increasing. In 1934, in the aftermath of the failed Nazi Putsch, Italy had pledged to act as a guarantor of Austrian sovereignty, but with the improved relations between Italy and Germany, Mussolini had begun to drift away from that commitment. In talks with Austrian representatives he insisted that Italy’s position had not changed, that Italy still strongly favored an independent Austria, but he also intimated that this was essentially an internal German issue, a matter to be dealt with by the two German states. Perhaps, he suggested, the most fruitful course of action was a bit of face-to-face diplomacy, allowing the leaders of the two German states to talk through their difficulties. For some time, Schuschnigg had himself been interested in such a meeting, and others, in both the Austrian and German governments, endorsed this idea. Franz von Papen, whom Hitler had just sacked as ambassador to Austria, was sent scurrying back to Vienna to broach the topic with Schuschnigg.
Schuschnigg liked the idea, and Papen eagerly arranged for him to travel to Hitler’s Alpine retreat on the Obersalzberg, just across the Austrian border. The meeting was set for February 12. On the night before, the Austrian chancellor arrived at Salzburg. Accompanying him were only his foreign minister and another official. The meeting was to be a secret, low-key encounter to clear the air. The next morning Papen met the small Austrian party at the border and escorted them to Hitler’s vastly expanded Berghof, where over the next crisis-laden months so much diplomatic activity was centered. The roads leading from Berchtesgaden to the Berghof were so ice-covered and foggy that the party had to travel in a military tracked vehicle, adding to the pervasive atmosphere of isolation.
The meeting did not go as Schuschnigg had expected. Present in the Berghof he found Ribbentrop and three generals, led by Keitel, who had just flown in from Berlin. After a cold, formal greeting, Schuschnigg was ushered into Hitler’s study for a private discussion. There all diplomatic niceties beat a hasty retreat. Hardly giving his guest a chance to speak, Hitler launched into a tirade that lasted two hours. Austria, Hitler began, had never helped Germany; “the whole history of Austria is just one uninterrupted act of treason, and,” he added ferociously, “I am absolutely determined to put an end to all this.” Schuschnigg made an effort to defend his homeland, but Hitler was not having it. “I have a historic mission and this mission I will fulfill because Providence has destined me to do so, I thoroughly believe in this mission; it is my life.” German troops were massing on the Austrian border, merely waiting for his order to begin the invasion. The presence of the three generals, who looked terribly intimidating but said not a word the entire day, was intended to reinforce that ominous threat. At one point during a pause in the meeting, Keitel confessed to one of the Austrian party that he had no idea why he or the other military men were there. It was all theater. “You don’t seriously believe you can hold me up for half an hour, do you?” Hitler sneered. “Who knows, perhaps I’ll appear some time overnight in Vienna, like a spring storm. Then you’ll see something.”
After a break for lunch, while Hitler consulted with aides, Schuschnigg was led into a room where Ribbentrop and Papen were waiting for him. There they presented him with a draft of the agreement Germany demanded. Vienna must agree to coordinate its foreign and economic policy with the Reich and to an exchange of army officers. The Austrian government must issue an amnesty for Nazis languishing in its prisons, and all restrictions on the activities of the Austrian Nazis must be lifted. Hitler also demanded the appointment of Arthur Seyss-Inquart, a prominent Nazi sympathizer, as minister of the interior in charge of all Austrian security forces, a move ominously reminiscent of the first step in the Nazis’ seizure of power in Germany. When Schuschnigg raised objections to several points, Ribbentrop warned that the agreement must be accepted unconditionally. These measures were not talking points for negotiation, Ribbentrop stressed, but demands, and they must be met immediately. It was an ultimatum.
When later in the afternoon the agreement had been typed up and Schuschnigg and Hitler again sat down together, the Führer reiterated that position. “Here is the draft of the document,” he said. “There is nothing to be discussed about it. I will not change one single iota. You will either sign it as it stands or else our meeting has been useless. In that case I shall decide during the night what will be done next.” Despite Hitler’s bullying rants, Schuschnigg did not give in. He explained that he was willing to sign the draft agreement, but, citing the Austrian constitution, he did not have the authority to act on these matters without the consent of the Austrian president, Wilhelm Miklas. He would sign the document, as Hitler insisted, but the Führer must understand that it meant nothing without the president’s signature. He would consult with President Miklas upon his return to Vienna and then communicate with Berlin. Hitler relented. With his generals looming in the background, he informed Schuschnigg that he had decided to change his mind “for the first time in my life. But I warn you,” he said, “this is your very last chance. I have given you three more days before the Agreement goes into effect.”
Darkness had fallen before a badly shaken Schuschnigg and his party managed to escape back down the mountain into Berchtesgaden and across the border. He mustn’t worry, Papen assured him as they rode along, the next meeting would be different. “Now you have seen what the Führer can be like at times.” But, he assured Schuschnigg, “the next time it will be different. You know the Führer can be absolutely charming.” Having seen Hitler revealed as the gangster that he was, Schuschnigg knew that “there would be no next time. . . . There would be no more discussions about Austria.” Of that he was sure. “And I also knew that there was little room for any hope.”
In the following days, Schuschnigg turned to Mussolini, Austria’s protector, who had no comfort to offer. Neither did France or Britain. With no international support and no viable options short of war, Schuschnigg complied with the terms of the agreement and, despite Miklas’s profound reservations, appointed Seyss-Inquart interior minister. But Berlin was impatient. Hitler was scheduled to deliver a major speech on February 20, and was anxious to have the Austrian matter settled. He intended to announce the agreement with Austria, thanking Schuschnigg for his “great understanding and warmhearted readiness” to serve the interests of both countries.
Hitler’s speech on that day lasted more than two hours and offered a preview of the themes that would govern Nazi policy in the coming months. Germany was only too aware of “the painful consequences of the confusion introduced to the European map and the economic and political constellation of the peoples by the insane act of Versailles.” He lamented that “two of the states at our borders alone encompass a mass of over ten million Germans. . . . Against their own free will, they were prevented from uniting with the Reich by virtue of the peace treaties.” That was distressing enough, but this imposed separation could not be allowed to lead to “a situation in which the races are deprived of rights . . . the general rights of völkisch self-determination . . . which were solemnly guaranteed to us by Wilson’s Fourteen Points.” This was a situation that could not be sustained in the long run. “It is unbearable for a world power to know that there are racial comrades at its side being constantly subjected to the most severe suffering because of their sympathy or affiliation with their race, its fate, and its world view.”
Though Austria was ostensibly the issue of the day, Hitler was establishing a broader context for his policy, and while not mentioning either country explicitly, the linkage between Austria and Czechoslovakia was obvious. “It cannot be denied that, as long as Germany was powerless and defenseless, it had no choice but to tolerate this unremitting persecution of German beings at its borders.” But now that the situation had changed, he saw it as “Germany’s duty to protect those German racial comrades who are not, of their own power, in a position to secure for themselves . . . the right of general human, political, and philosophical freedom!”
Hitler’s remarks on February 20 seemed to suggest that the Austrian issue was essentially resolved, but in Vienna Schuschnigg had a surprise of his own. While speaking at a mass meeting in Innsbruck on March 9, the Austrian chancellor dropped a bombshell, announcing that a national plebiscite would be held on March 13, only four days away. The people were to vote yes or no on “a free and independent, German and Christian Austria,” wording that was bound to alarm the Germans. For a change, it was Hitler who was caught off guard. Beside himself with rage, he informed the army that the die was now cast. A military operation, which he had hoped to avoid, now seemed unavoidable.
From this point, events moved swiftly. Germany immediately protested, demanding postponement of the plebiscite for another two weeks. A full-blown crisis was upon them, and a pall of uneasiness descended upon the German public. A broad “war psychosis” was everywhere, both the Gestapo and the Social Democratic underground reported. “There was not a trace of enthusiasm as there was in August 1914. On the contrary,” the Sopade (Social Democratic Underground) observed, “a great worry, uneasiness, and deep anxiety prevailed. . . . One could hear comments like ‘what in the end does Austria matter to us. One should just leave us in peace. Should we become involved in a war over this? What do we get out of it?’ ”
While the public worried, the Wehrmacht was frantically drafting an operational plan for an invasion of Austria. It was a slapdash, improvised affair. The generals were concerned about the reaction of the Czechs, who in turn were nervous about a possible German attack on their territory. Perhaps they would seize this opportunity to launch a preventive assault on the Reich. Even a mobilization of their troops would threaten the entire operation. Despite these concerns, Hitler, on March 11, issued an order for German troops to move against Austria. The order emphasized that the entire operation must “be conducted without the use of force, in the manner of a peaceful entry, welcomed by the population.” However, “if resistance be encountered . . . it is to be broken with utmost ruthlessness by force of arms.”
On Friday, March 11, Schuschnigg was awakened at 5:30 a.m. by a phone call from his chief of police. “The German border at Salzburg was closed completely about an hour ago,” he said. “All German customs officials have been withdrawn. Railroad traffic has been stopped.” A few hours later, Seyss-Inquart informed Schuschnigg that he had been in telephone contact with Göring, who gave orders to inform the Austrian chancellor that “the plebiscite has to be postponed within the hour.” Instead, another plebiscite was to be announced. This was to be held in two weeks, in the same fashion but according to wording supplied by the Reich government. Seyss-Inquart was given an hour to respond. If no response was received, Göring would assume that he had been prevented from calling and would take appropriate action.
Meanwhile in some parts of the country Nazi activists had taken to the streets, and trucks, with loudspeakers blaring, had been announcing that Schuschnigg’s plebiscite had been canceled. Göring upped the ante. Schuschnigg must resign immediately and Seyss-Inquart be appointed chancellor within two hours. If those conditions were not fulfilled, German troops would cross the frontier into Austria. Almost immediately Göring sent Seyss-Inquart yet another wire, ordering him to dispatch a telegram to Berlin asking for German help to deal with widespread Bolshevik rioting. There was, of course, no rioting by leftists; the only troublemakers in the streets were Nazis. When Seyss-Inquart hesitated, Göring was back on the phone. Don’t bother sending Berlin such a message, he said. The troops were already moving. Seyss-Inquart need only claim that he had sent such a telegram. Lie compounded by lie, underwritten by threats and blatant gangsterism, was now the modus operandi of Nazi diplomacy.
Hitler did seek to reassure the British and French, who had lodged stern protests, but he expected little serious trouble from either. He had correctly anticipated the reactions of both London and Paris. Neither was willing to go to war over Austria, a country that in 1919 had chosen to be joined with Germany only to have its desire vetoed by the victorious powers. Austria could expect no help from the outside. Meanwhile Nazi agitation in the streets gathered steam. In accordance with Hitler’s demands, Nazi prisoners were freed from Austrian jails and returned to their former posts—many within the police, further undermining the authority of the Austrian state. Schuschnigg tried to resign, but Miklas would not accept his resignation. That night the chancellor took to the radio to address the Austrian people.
Schuschnigg explained to his national audience how the situation had developed and called on the international community to bear witness to the fact that Austria had fulfilled the terms of agreement it had signed with Hitler. The Austrian government “protested the threatened violation of our country’s sovereignty, which was as uncalled for as it was unjustifiable.” Austria, he made clear, was now yielding to force. He was determined at all costs to avoid bloodshed in a fratricidal war. As a consequence an order had been issued to the army not to oppose the invading German forces. He closed his speech with a word of farewell. He had spoken for ten minutes.
President Miklas yielded to the Nazis, but refused to appoint Seyss-Inquart as chancellor, an act of defiance that the Nazis simply brushed aside. On March 12 German motorized units rolled into Austria unopposed. Far from a display of military might, their progress was glacial. One panzer division had no maps and was forced to rely on a Baedeker’s guide. Low on fuel, some stopped at gas stations along the way. Many of the tanks and other vehicles broke down. Their armored carcasses littered the roads, blocking traffic in some places. While traffic to the south was snarled, Hess, Himmler, and Heydrich flew into the Vienna aerodrome before dawn. The vanguard of the Gestapo and SD was rushing to the city.
The next day, March 13, Hitler crossed the frontier, standing despite the icy cold in an open car. He had planned to stop briefly at Braunau, his birthplace, before motoring on to Linz, where he spent his boyhood. But in Braunau a large, frenetic crowd of well-wishers had gathered in the town square, and Hitler, deeply moved, responded with a heartfelt speech. In Braunau and all along the road, crowds pressed forward to get a glimpse of the Führer. They cheered; they wept with joy; they brandished Nazi flags and tossed flowers. So thick were the exuberant throngs that Hitler’s motorcade could only struggle forward, not reaching Linz until well after nightfall.
There Hitler was greeted by Seyss-Inquart and other leading Nazis as well as another near-hysterical crowd of some 100,000 that had gathered in the town square. He spoke from the balcony of the city hall, his address repeatedly interrupted by chants of “Sieg Heil” and “Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer” (One people, one Reich, one leader). Overwhelmed by his reception, tears ran down Hitler’s cheeks. “If Providence once called me forth from this town to be the leader of the Reich,” he shouted, his voice brimming with genuine emotion, “it must in so doing have charged me with a mission, and that mission could only be to restore my dear homeland to the German Reich. I have believed in this mission, I have lived and fought for it, and I believe I have now fulfilled it.”
Hitler had planned to carry on to Vienna the next day, but Himmler phoned during the night to suggest that he delay his entry until the SS had completed security arrangements. Hitler spent the following day visiting the old family home and laid flowers on the graves of his parents at Leonding. He quickly toured his old school, where former classmates had gathered to greet him. Everywhere he went, he was showered with adulation. At this point, he still had not decided what was to be the fate of Austria, but his reception in Linz and all along the roadway crystallized his thoughts. Seyss-Inquart and other Nazi leaders who met him in Linz believed that the country would become a National Socialist state, a satellite, but would retain its sovereign status. This had been Hitler’s rather vague idea as well. Certainly no formal plans had been made. But Linz changed all that. By the time he reached Vienna late the next day, he had made his decision. Austria would be absorbed by the German Reich.
Hitler’s caravan did not reach the Austrian capital until well after dark and stopped at the elegant Hotel Imperial, a favorite of Viennese high society. As a struggling young homeless nobody, he would never have dared enter; now he was shown to the royal suite. Crowds were already gathering outside the hotel, chanting deep into the night for Hitler to appear. Again and again he stepped out onto the balcony and acknowledged them. It had been an overwhelming forty-eight hours. He had come a long way from the soup kitchens and warming rooms and the Home for Men in the Meldemannstrasse.
Next day the scene was even more madly tumultuous than in Linz. The Ringstrasse, whose grand imperial buildings he had so admired as a would-be art student, was lined with delirious supporters, and the gigantic Heldenplatz before the Hofburg, seat of the Austrian government, was a sea of 200,000 flag-waving, jubilant, ecstatic people. When Hitler alighted from his Mercedes and at last reached the balcony of the Hofburg to address the frenzied multitude, he sprang his surprise. “I now proclaim for this land its new mission,” he said, his voice ringing through the loudspeakers. “The oldest eastern province of the German people shall be from now on the youngest bulwark of the German nation. I can in this hour report before history the conclusion of the greatest aim in my life: the entry of my homeland into the German Reich.” Austria, he shouted, had come home; it would become an integral part of the Reich. The once grand Habsburg state, ruler of a global empire, had been annexed.
Almost overnight sixty thousand people were arrested. Schuschnigg was among them. He was destined to spend the next seven years in German concentration camps, his liberation by American troops coming in April 1945. Himmler ordered the construction of a concentration camp at Mauthausen, twelve miles from Linz, which began receiving prisoners later in the year. Like the other camps operating in the old Reich, it was intended to hold political prisoners, though some Jews were imprisoned there as well. Thousands would be worked to death in its infamous stone quarry, extracting gigantic granite slabs for Speer’s colossal building projects in Berlin and Nuremberg.
At the same time Hitler’s entry into the city triggered an avalanche of terror against the Jews even more extreme, more hateful than anything yet seen in Germany. Jews were forced to clean toilets in the SS barracks and, on their hands and knees, scrub pro-Schuschnigg slogans from the sidewalks, while taunting crowds gathered around to spit on them and jeer. The violence of the rampaging Nazi radicals reached new depths of cruelty and hate; a tidal wave of beatings, vandalism, and looting swept over the country. Nazi mobs dragged Jews from their homes and businesses and dispatched the men to concentration camps. Some Jews hastily fled, leaving behind virtually all their possessions. Some who had boarded trains bound for Prague and elsewhere were torn from the train at the border and returned to Vienna before landing in concentration camps in Bavaria. So savage and so public were the excesses of the Austrian Nazis that in late April Heydrich had to threaten those responsible with arrest by the Gestapo or expulsion from the SA in order to curb the violence. Like other similar orders, its effect was minimal.
Just as 1938 brought a new phase of Nazi anti-Jewish policy, the more brazen moves in Hitler’s foreign policy marked a dramatic turning point. Until the Anschluss, Hitler’s policy aimed at a revision of the loathsome Versailles Treaty. The withdrawal from the League of Nations in 1934, rearmament in 1935, and remilitarization of the Rhineland in 1936 were all moves that could be seen as revising an unfair treaty and could be supported by the traditional right. But the Anschluss and later in the year the Czech crisis moved beyond revision into a new realm of National Socialist ideological politics.
A plebiscite was conducted with the usual Nazi intimidation on April 10, and its results were foreordained: just over 99 percent of the Austrian voters registered their support for their homeland’s incorporation in the Greater German Reich, as Hitler now called it. What the result might have been had Schuschnigg’s plebiscite been allowed to proceed is impossible to say. In late 1937 the Nazis were entangled in a bitter conflict with the Christian churches, and the pope’s encyclical “With Burning Concern” should have been a warning to Catholic Austria. Yet, on Hitler’s triumphal arrival in Vienna, Cardinal Theodor Innitzer, Archbishop of Vienna, ordered the bells of all Catholic churches to ring, and swastika banners fluttered from steeple after steeple. There can be no denying that a substantial part of the Austrian public, perhaps a majority, embraced, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, Anschluss with Germany, both for nationalist reasons and in the hope that it might bring an improvement to an Austrian economy still mired in the Depression.
In Germany, the Anschluss propelled Hitler’s popularity to new heights. After the pervasive “war psychosis” that had infected the public throughout the crisis, its triumphal conclusion prompted a tremendous burst of adulation for the Führer. No small amount of that sentiment was due to the fact that a great triumph had been achieved and war had been averted. “A powerful surge of enthusiasm and joy, a jubilation that knew almost no bounds” engulfed the country “when it became clear that the whole Austrian affair would go successfully, and that it would not come to war.” It was “difficult,” the Sopade concluded, “to judge how much of this general public euphoria sprang from the certainty that there would be no war because of Austria.”
Throughout the Austrian crisis, Hitler and his military commanders had worried about Czech intervention. Its territory protruded into central Germany, and with its highly developed armaments industry, sizable, well-equipped army, and formidable border fortifications, Czechoslovakia presented a serious obstacle to Germany’s eastward expansion. And, unlike Austria, Czechoslovakia was hardly isolated diplomatically; it had treaties with Germany’s two most implacable enemies, France and the Soviet Union. For months before the unanticipated Austrian crisis, Goebbels’s propaganda machine had churned out story after story of alleged Czech persecution of the German minority in the mountainous Sudeten border area. Equally intolerable, Hitler charged, Czechoslovakia and its Soviet ally were inserting Bolshevism into the very heart of Europe. Hitler loathed the Czech state: everything about it was, according to the German idiom, “a thorn in the Führer’s eye.” It was an illegitimate creation of the Versailles settlement; it was a parliamentary democracy; and its very existence was an impediment to Hitler’s expansionist aims.
The opportunity for intervention in Austria had fallen more or less into Hitler’s lap, but settling with Czechoslovakia, not Austria, had been Hitler’s top priority. It was then hardly a surprise that no sooner was the Anschluss a reality than Hitler turned his full attention once more to the Czech problem. The Sudetenland, a ragged mountainous region that rimmed western Czechoslovakia bordering the Reich, had a largely German population. With the rise of Hitler, the Sudeten German Party led by Konrad Henlein had begun to agitate against the Prague government. Hitler’s call for all ethnic Germans to come “home to the Reich” found considerable resonance among the three million Germans in the Sudetenland, especially after the Anschluss had brought ten million German Austrians into the Reich.
For years Berlin had covertly subsidized Henlein’s party, encouraging it to ratchet up the ongoing agitation against “Czech oppression.” Henlein was brought to Berlin and ordered to manufacture incidents that would whip up outrage among the German minority and provoke the Czech government to react with undue force. If a Sudeten German was shot, so much the better. Outrage piled upon outrage was Goebbels’s relentless propaganda drumbeat, each providing added justification for German intervention to protect the oppressed Sudeten Germans.
During the week of May 20–22, events seemed to push Europe to the brink of war. On Thursday, May 19, intelligence reports reaching Prague, Paris, and London claimed that German troop movements were under way near the Czech border. The intelligence was persuasive. Czech president Eduard Benes placed his military on high alert and ordered mobilization of the reserves, calling some 180,000 men to the colors. Exacerbating the mounting tension that weekend, Czech police shot and killed two Sudeten Germans. The threat of war seemed very real. On May 21, Lord Halifax, the British foreign secretary, who had only recently been quite amenable to German claims on Austria, informed Ribbentrop that the French were bound by treaty to intervene if Czechoslovakia were invaded, and Germany should not assume that Britain would simply stand aside.
Confronted by this apparently united front, Hitler retreated. He had been caught off guard, all the more so since there were no German maneuvers on the Czech frontier and no plans for an immediate invasion. After all the warlike bombast of the previous weeks, he was not prepared for this. While an almost audible sigh of relief rose from the capitals of Europe, Hitler’s fury was incandescent. Benes had humiliated him, and this he could not tolerate. A week later, on May 28, he summoned Keitel to prepare a revised Case Green. Originally drawn up in late 1937, Case Green was a contingency plan for an invasion of Czechoslovakia. Hitler now ordered Keitel to begin planning for a military strike against Czechoslovakia in the near future. It was not a plan to liberate the Sudeten Germans; it was a plan to destroy the Czech state. “It is my unshakable will to wipe Czechoslovakia off the map,” he told a special conference of his military commanders on May 28. They must understand that the destruction of Czechoslovakia was but a step in a much larger strategy to secure Lebensraum for the German people. But Germany could not proceed in the East if the hostile Czech state lurked to its rear. The time to strike was now. Britain and France did not want war; the Soviets were unprepared; Italy would be supportive or at the very least neutral. October 1 was set as the target date for invasion. In the meantime Germany would wage an intense propaganda campaign against the Czechs—its purpose “to intimidate the Czechs by means of threats and wear down their power of resistance.”
These plans alarmed General Ludwig Beck, chief of staff of the army. He had no qualms about moving against the Czechs at some point in the future, but he believed the German army was not yet ready for a war that would almost certainly involve Britain and France. He was not convinced by Hitler’s glib assurances that there would be no intervention by the Western powers. Just two days after Hitler’s conference with military leaders, Beck composed a memorandum that laid out his objections to Hitler’s plan. Some were technical and strategic, but his most scathing criticism was directed at Hitler’s political assumptions. An attack on Czechoslovakia was sheer madness and would almost certainly plunge Germany into catastrophe. He passed the memo along to General Brauchitsch, who agreed with its substance but chose to omit Beck’s damning preamble before presenting it to Hitler. Hitler, of course, scorned Beck’s memorandum, dismissing it as unworthy of discussion. He would brook no resistance; he was determined to smash Czechoslovakia.
After the weekend crisis in May, Europe enjoyed a brief respite, but it was but a fleeting moment in a summer that bristled with high-voltage tension. Stung by his retreat in May, Hitler missed no opportunity to lash out at Czechoslovakia. His hatred of the Czechs and especially Benes knew no bounds, and his speeches grew more intemperate, his warlike rhetoric more incendiary. Hardly anyone in the West could believe that Hitler was seriously contemplating a war with the Czechs that would inevitably escalate into a major European conflict. But Hitler was unpredictable, his moods mercurial. Some, even in the diplomatic community, thought that he might be mad. Among the Nazi elite, Ribbentrop alone lent enthusiastic support to Hitler’s dangerous plans, concurring with his Führer’s evaluation of Britain and France. As the summer days passed and tensions mounted, Göring, who only months before had led the charge against Austria, grew more and more concerned about the international implications of an attack on Czechoslovakia.
Hitler was also encountering reservations from the military. Over the summer months Beck wrote a series of memoranda dilating on the dangers inherent in Hitler’s plans and circulated his objections to other leading military figures. He finally convinced Brauchitsch to call a meeting of senior army commanders in early August to discuss the issues. Many of the generals found much to agree with in Beck’s position; they, too, were deeply concerned about British and French intervention that would turn a limited war with Czechoslovakia into a European, perhaps world, war. None, however, was prepared to mount a direct challenge to the Führer. Brauchitsch approached Hitler on the matter, but after a severe tongue-lashing by the Führer, his courage deserted him. Beck’s hope of confronting Hitler with an ultimatum from a united front of his military commanders found little to no support. Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, head of military intelligence (Abwehr), shared many of Beck’s concerns and indicated a willingness to take action, as did a number of other generals—Erwin von Witzleben, Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord, and Franz Halder—who were considering a plan to arrest Hitler as soon as the go-order for Case Green was given. But they were at this point an isolated minority.
Hitler’s drive toward war also stimulated a growing concern among the civilian population. Although the public was not aware of Hitler’s plans, signs of impending war were everywhere. On June 22 Göring issued a decree giving the regime the authority to conscript workers from one industry or area and transfer them to another. Workers were drafted to work on the construction of fortifications in the west or build strategically important roads on Bavaria’s eastern and northern borders with Czechoslovakia. Buses were requisitioned; labor camps erected. Air raid drills increased; civil defense formations were organized. In some areas gas masks were issued. Although a full-blown rationing system was not in place until August 1939, certain food items virtually disappeared, and artificial substitutes were introduced. Military training for the Hitler Youth was intensified, and women were being prepared to take jobs in essential economic sectors formerly held by men. These measures, accompanied by an intensified propaganda campaign against Czechoslovakia, convinced the German public that the Reich stood on the brink of war.
Yet, despite Goebbels’s relentless demonization of the Czechs, the German public remained largely unmoved by the plight of their Sudeten cousins. What they did feel was considerable anxiety about the possibility of war. A Sopade report out of Silesia stated that “leading Nazi circles are convinced that the people do not want war. They have, therefore, made every effort to generate the necessary psychological preconditions for war.” But it was not working. “Even people who have hardly been critical of the regime before are . . . astounded by how in the last weeks attitudes about the system have turned around. One hardly recognizes the people and the openness with which they speak out against Hitler and the whole system. They accuse Hitler and his circle of wanting war because they no longer know any way out of this extremely critical situation.” Some, party activists and the young, remained enthusiastic, but most Germans were deeply ambivalent about Hitler’s course of action.
No less anxious were Prague, Paris, and London. Western diplomats had already come to believe that Hitler was determined to strike Czechoslovakia and that they would be drawn into the conflict. In interviews with French and German diplomats, Hitler railed against the Czechs, against Benes personally, shrilly repeating that his patience was at an end. The German press was ablaze with hysterical headlines: “WOMEN AND CHILDREN MOWED DOWN BY CZECH ARMOURED CARS” or “BLOODY REGIME—NEW CZECH MURDERS OF GERMANS” or “EXTORTION, PLUNDERING, SHOOTING—CZECH TERROR IN SUDETEN GERMAN LAND GROWS WORSE FROM DAY TO DAY.” All were the pernicious creations of the Reich Propaganda Ministry, and the offensive was unrelenting.
With a mounting sense of dread, British and French leaders assumed that Hitler would use his address at the Nuremberg party rally on September 12 to declare war on Czechoslovakia. But Hitler’s speech that night was surprisingly mild. He touched on the mounting Czech crisis only briefly and in the most general, though menacing, terms, but did declare ominously that there would be “grave consequences” if the “democracies persist in their conviction to . . . accord their protection to the oppression of German men and women.” He was “under no circumstances willing to stand quietly by and observe from afar the continued oppression of German Volksgenossen (people’s commander) in Czechoslovakia. All the Sudeten Germans were demanding was the right of national determination, a right of all peoples guaranteed by the Versailles settlement.
Shortly after Hitler’s speech, demonstrations broke out in the Czech town of Eger, near the German border, where ten thousand protesters jammed the town square screaming for self-determination. When the crowd grew disorderly, Czech police opened fire, killing one and wounding a number of others. Violent demonstrations quickly spread to other cities in the Sudetenland, twenty-one people were killed, and the Czech government declared martial law in the border areas. Again rumors spread that Germany was preparing an invasion. At this point, French premier Edouard Daladier conferred with British prime minister Neville Chamberlain, declaring above all it must not come to war. He recommended that they meet with Hitler immediately. When Chamberlain wired Hitler suggesting a face-to-face meeting, Hitler jumped at the chance. He invited the British prime minister, but not Daladier, to join him the very next afternoon at the Berghof. It would be summit diplomacy, a two-person conference.
On September 15, the sixty-nine-year-old Chamberlain flew to Munich. It was his first airplane trip. From Munich, he was taken by train to Berchtesgaden, and then driven up the same mountain road that Schuschnigg had followed in February. His reception was quite different from that which greeted the Austrian prime minister. After stilted pleasantries over tea, the two men and Paul Schmidt, Hitler’s interpreter, adjourned to a small wood-paneled room. Chamberlain began by saying that he was prepared to discuss the possibility of righting any German grievances so long as force was not used. This set Hitler off. In a storm of words, he angrily exclaimed that it was the Czechs who had threatened to use force in May, not Germany. “I shall not put up with this any longer. I shall settle the question in one way or another. I shall take matters into my own hands.”
To Chamberlain, this sounded like an ultimatum, in which case he saw no point in continuing the meeting. He would return to London at once. This seemed to sober Hitler, who, regaining his composure, said that if Chamberlain were willing to recognize the principle of self-determination of peoples in the case of the Sudeten Germans, the talks might continue. Chamberlain responded that he could not make such guarantees without first consulting the cabinet and suggested that they suspend the discussion until he could confer with both his own government and that of France. Hitler agreed and promised not to take military action “unless a particularly atrocious incident occurred,” and Chamberlain left with the impression “that here was a man who could be relied upon when he had given his word.”
It was clear to Chamberlain that some transfer of territory to the Reich was essential, and Daladier agreed that some “friendly pressure” should be applied to the Czechs. European peace hung in the balance; Prague must understand that some portions of Sudeten territory must be ceded to Germany. They agreed that an international guarantee of the remaining Czech state must be made, and that not only should Britain and France participate in such a guarantee but Germany as well. When these terms were presented to Prague on September 20, Benes was shocked and refused to agree. But Chamberlain was determined to resume talks with Hitler within forty-eight hours and pressed Benes to accept. It was the best way for Czechoslovakia to retain its independence and avoid a devastating war. For his part, Benes was convinced that the Sudetenland was merely a first step in Hitler’s plan to dismember the Czech state. Presented with what amounted to an ultimatum from London and Paris, he bowed to pressure and indicated his willingness to accept the terms. He issued a communiqué to the Czech people, explaining that he had “relied upon the help that our friends might have given us, but when it became evident that the European crisis was taking on too serious a character,” they had abandoned the Czech state. “Our friends therefore advised us to buy freedom and peace by our sacrifice. . . . The President of the Republic and our government had no other choice, for we found ourselves alone.”
The next morning, Chamberlain once again boarded a plane bound for Germany, this time to Bad Godesberg on the Rhine. There he proudly presented the results of his consultations to Hitler. He began a discussion of the complicated plans for a phased Czech turnover of territory to Germany, explaining the guarantee that Britain and France would extend to Prague and his hope that Germany would join them. Hitler listened politely, then stunned the prime minister by saying softly, “I am exceedingly sorry, Mr. Chamberlain, but I can no longer discuss these matters. This solution after the developments of the last few days is no longer practicable.” He could not consider a deal with the Czechs before the claims of Poland and Hungary on Czech territory were settled. After rebutting Chamberlain’s proposal point by point, he closed by stating the Sudetenland must be occupied by German troops immediately. Final frontiers could be settled at a later date. When a shocked and angry Chamberlain replied that all the conditions Hitler had insisted upon in Berchtesgaden had been met, Hitler replied, with no trace of irony, that the Czechs could not be trusted and that “if Prague fell under Bolshevik influence, or if hostages continued to be shot, he would intervene at once.”
The situation seemed hopeless. Hitler was implacable, and in the following days his threats grew more reckless, his language more inflammatory. In conversations with British and French diplomats, Hitler seemed to have lost all sense of perspective. Sir Horace Wilson, among Chamberlain’s closest advisors, accompanied by British ambassador Sir Nevile Henderson and senior diplomat Sir Ivone Kirkpatrick, met with Hitler on September 26, bringing a letter from the prime minister informing Hitler that the Czechs had rejected the Godesberg proposal. They had been amenable to the transfer of the Sudeten districts Hitler desired but could not accept Hitler’s demands for an immediate occupation by German troops. Hitler sat restlessly through the translation of the letter, until suddenly he launched himself from his chair and shouted, “There’s no point at all in going on with negotiations,” and made for the door, where he must have realized that this was his office and three British diplomats were left sitting there. “It was an incredibly painful scene,” Hitler’s translator Paul Schmidt recalled. When Hitler gained control of himself and Schmidt reached the letter’s conclusion, once more Hitler could not restrain himself. Hitler “let himself go more violently” than Schmidt “ever saw him do during a diplomatic interview.” Wilson’s calm attempts to persuade Hitler to be reasonable only served to heighten the Führer’s rage. Ribbentrop chimed in, fanning the flames of Hitler’s fury by denouncing Benes as a “terrorist” and the Czechs as “war mongers.”
That night, in addressing an enormous crowd of baying Nazis at the Sportpalast, Hitler unloosed a hate-filled tirade against Benes and the Czechs that shocked even longtime Hitler watchers in the foreign press. “The Czech state was born in a lie,” he thundered, his voice quaking with scorn. “The name of the father of the lie was Benes. He convinced the framers at Versailles that there was a Czechoslovakian nation. . . . He built up a regime of terror! Back then already, a number of Germans attempted to protest against this arbitrary rape of their people. They were summarily executed. Ever since, a war has been waged to exterminate the Germans there. . . . The entire development since 1918 is proof of one thing only: Herr Benes is determined to exterminate Deutschtum slowly but surely.” His brutal rule over the Sudeten Germans amounted to “a military occupation,” but the time had come “to tell him what’s what.” The Reich, calumnied as a warmonger in the international press, had shown superhuman restraint in the face of Czech provocations, but Benes had gone too far. The Czech president should remember, Hitler shouted, that while he “may have seven million Czechs . . . here there is a Volk of seventy-five million.” Now the Reich’s “patience was at an end with regard to the Sudeten German problem! I have put forward an offer to Herr Benes, an offer that is nothing other than realization of his promises. The decision is his now! Be it war or peace! He can either accept my offer and give the Germans their freedom, or we Germans will go get it for ourselves.”
Leo Amery, a Conservative politician and minister in several British governments, was in the audience that night, and described Hitler’s performance as “more like the snarling of a wild animal than the utterance of a human being, and the venom and vulgarity of his personal vilifications of ‘Benes the liar’ almost made me feel sick. There was something terrifying and obscenely sinister in this outpouring of sheer hatred.” William Shirer, who as CBS’s top reporter in Germany was broadcasting from the balcony that night, observed in his diary that in all the years he had been covering Hitler, “for the first time . . . he seemed tonight to have completely lost control of himself.” When Hitler finished, Goebbels leapt to the podium and roared: “One thing is sure: 1918 will never be repeated.” At this, Hitler sprang to his feet and, according to Shirer, “with a fanatical look in his eyes I shall never forget brought his right hand, after a broad sweep, pounding down on the table and yelled with all the power in his mighty lungs, ‘Ja!’ ” Then he slumped back down in his chair thoroughly spent.
The following day, Wilson sought another audience with Hitler. So stormy was their earlier meeting and so belligerent was Hitler’s demeanor, that British diplomat Ivone Kirkpatrick felt an aura “of such ruthless wickedness that it was oppressive and almost nightmarish to sit in the same room.” The atmospherics did not improve in this second meeting. Wilson tried to convey Britain’s commitment to ensuring that the Czechs honored their agreement to transfer the territory in question, but when Wilson asked if Hitler had a message for London, the Führer replied that it was all quite simple. The Czechs had but two choices. They could either accept the Godesberg Memorandum or reject it. If they chose the latter course, Hitler bellowed, “I will smash the Czechs,” a threat repeated throughout the tense meeting. When Wilson stated forcefully that if Germany attacked Czechoslovakia and Paris honored its treaty obligations, Britain would feel compelled to support the French, Hitler erupted. “If France and England strike,” he shouted, “let them do so. It is a matter of complete indifference to me. I am prepared for every eventuality. . . . It is Tuesday today, and by next Monday we will all be at war.” To impress the world with the nation’s enthusiastic support for war, Hitler planned a military parade through the government quarter later in the day. He had ordered the High Command to publish an announcement that in the afternoon the 2nd Motorized Division would drive through the city on its way toward the Czech frontier. After the wild cheering by the carefully selected audience at the Sportpalast the night before, Hitler anticipated a passionate crowd of thousands to be gathered in the Wilhelmplatz just across from the Reich Chancellery.
The peripatetic Shirer was on the scene that afternoon as the vehicles of the 2nd Motorized Division turned down the Wilhelmstrasse toward the Reich Chancellery. Like Hitler, he expected to see a tremendous demonstration, reminiscent of those he had read about during the summer of 1914 when cheering throngs had tossed flowers at the columns of marching troops. “The hour,” Shirer wrote in his diary, “was undoubtedly chosen . . . to catch hundreds of thousands of Berliners pouring out of their offices at the end of the day’s work, but they ducked into the subways, refused to look on, and the handful that did stood at the curb in utter silence.” No frenzied cries of Sieg Heil, no patriotic songs. A sparse crowd of only two hundred or so had congregated in the Wilhelmplatz. “It has been the most striking demonstration against war I’ve ever seen,” Shirer observed. “The German people are dead set against war.” Hitler, who watched the sullen, silent crowd on the Wilhelmplatz from the windows of the Chancellery, was disgusted. “With such people,” he said in dismay, “I cannot wage war.”
Events now were rushing toward a climax. While publicly insisting on their support to the Czechs, both the British and French were desperately seeking ways out of their obligations, pressuring Benes to accept the Godesberg Memorandum. They spoke of plebiscites, phased occupation, international commissions to oversee territorial transfers, and Anglo-French guarantees of the remainder of Czechoslovakia. But Benes responded by ordering a mobilization of Czech forces. The French unhappily followed suit, and Chamberlain, with great reluctance, ordered the mobilization of the British fleet. Chamberlain, whose entire policy was based on preserving peace, gave vent to his feelings in a surprisingly candid radio address on the evening of September 27. “How horrible, fantastic, incredible, it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas masks here because of a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing.” He had done his best to save Europe from war, but, he admitted, “however much we may sympathize with a small nation confronted by a big powerful neighbor, we cannot in all circumstances undertake to involve the whole British Empire in a war on her account.”
With peace perched precariously on a razor’s edge, Chamberlain decided to make one final appeal to Hitler. In a letter delivered on September 26 but unread until the following day, he stated his firm conviction that the differences between the two sides had narrowed to a point where “really it was inconceivable that they could not be settled by negotiations.” The British, after all, were offering a settlement according to which German troops would enter selected areas in the Sudetenland, their occupation monitored by an international commission, which would set the final borders, and finally a plebiscite would be held in the areas affected. The occupation would proceed in two phases between October 1 and October 10. It was, in essence, the Godesberg agreement, but with logistical amendments. Despite his ferocious bluster and the ongoing military plans to invade, reservations had begun to creep into Hitler’s thinking. Ernst von Weizsäcker, state secretary in the Foreign Office, had long cautioned restraint, gingerly urging Hitler to draw back from the precipice. Negotiation would render the desired results without armed conflict, he insisted.
Göring also expressed his growing apprehension about British military intervention. As Hitler’s September 28 deadline for Benes to accept or reject his terms loomed ever nearer, Göring grew less confident that the British were bluffing, and, he argued, it made little sense to risk a world war over details when Hitler had already gained essentially what he wanted. Goebbels, too, urged restraint. Only Ribbentrop remained unflinchingly supportive of Hitler’s war plans, and Ribbentrop’s judgment, Goebbels noted, was clouded by his “blind hatred against England.”
Influenced by Göring and Weizsäcker, Hitler responded to Chamberlain’s letter with one of his own. He denied that he had any desire to “cripple Czechoslovakia in her national existence or in her political and economic independence.” He had no intention of occupying the whole country. He wanted no Czechs. The Sudetenland, as he had repeated several times in meetings with French and British diplomats, was his last territorial demand to make in Europe. The Czechs had until two o’clock on the 28th, forty-eight hours, to decide.
The ensuing hours were filled with frantic telephone messages, telegrams, and letters. On the morning of September 28, French ambassador François-Poncet delivered a message to Hitler in the Reich Chancellery, presenting a new French proposal that went further than that of the British. According to François-Poncet, France was willing to see Germany occupy the entire Sudetenland so long as force was not used and other guarantees were in place. The occupation would proceed in phases, between October 1 and October 10. If Hitler accepted the proposal, France would demand acceptance by the Czechs. At roughly the same time, Chamberlain sent a message to Berlin indicating that he would be willing to make another trip to Germany to discuss the arrangements for the transfer of territory. He also suggested that Mussolini and French premier Edouard Daladier join the discussion. Mussolini, whom he had already contacted, agreed to act as mediator.
Mussolini, whose support Hitler desperately wanted, signaled Berlin that he would stand beside the Führer come what may, but he noted that the differences between the parties were now so small that in his opinion “the proposal ought to be accepted.” Hitler agreed, and sent invitations to Rome and Paris—but not to Prague or Moscow. The Duce, who was not keen on the prospect of war with Britain and France, for which Italy was unprepared, readily accepted; Daladier did as well. It was agreed that the meeting of the four major powers would take place on the following day, September 29, in Munich.
The arrangements for the conference had to be thrown together at the last moment. It was decided that the four leaders would meet in the newly completed Führer Building on the Königsplatz. Hitler’s official residence in Munich was a neoclassical building of white stone with marble floors, immense hallways, interior columns, and a sweeping staircase that led to the first floor (second floor in American usage) where Hitler’s office was located. The discussions were to take place in a spacious conference room just adjacent. A dinner was to be held in the evening for the participants in the banquet room.
Early in the morning Hitler decided to meet the Duce’s train in Kufstein in the Tyrolean Alps near the Italian border, so that the two dictators could confer before the conference convened. Daladier arrived in Munich before noon, and shortly thereafter Chamberlain’s plane touched down at the Oberwiesenfeld aerodrome after a seven-hour flight. He was met, as was Daladier, by Ribbentrop, an SS honor guard, and the obligatory band. Without stopping at the hotel, where the British delegation was to stay, he was driven through the city directly to the Führer Building in an open car. Along the way from the airport to the Königsplatz, excited, friendly crowds clogged the sidewalks, waving and cheering both men, but especially Chamberlain. He had come to save the peace.
When the four leaders gathered in the conference room, the improvised character of the conference became painfully clear. There was no agenda, no chairman, no arrangements for minutes to be taken, and not even pencil and paper for the participants. The four principals sat in plush easy chairs in a semicircle around the large marble fireplace, a low coffee table between them. As the day wore on, the room filled up, as assistants, interpreters, foreign ministers and their staffs, and other members of the different delegations came and went. It was, one of the British delegation recalled, “a hugger-bugger affair.” Mussolini, the only participant who spoke all the languages represented, acted as de facto chair and presented a memorandum that was to serve as the conference’s working document. He had composed it during the night, he said, but it was, in fact, based on a draft by Göring and Weizsäcker. The two men had drafted the memorandum and dispatched it to Italy without the knowledge of Ribbentrop, who remained opposed to a peaceful settlement of the crisis. The document basically reiterated the terms of the Godesberg agreement. Chamberlain and Daladier both made weak efforts to include the Czechs in the meeting, but Hitler was adamant.
The meeting dragged on into the early hours of the morning, when the four heads of state affixed their signatures to the document at 1:30 a.m. According to the terms agreed upon, German troops would occupy “predominantly German territory” beginning on October 1. The territory would be divided into four military zones, and Italy, Britain, and France would guarantee that the evacuation of Czechs would be completed by October 10 and that no military installations would be destroyed. A newly created international committee of these powers plus Germany would determine the conditions for the plebiscites to be held in certain areas and would propose a final frontier. The Munich Agreement was, in effect, the Godesberg Memorandum, with certain adjustments. The Czechoslovakian Republic had been dismantled without having a say in the matter.
Chamberlain had promised the two-man Czech delegation that was waiting in its hotel that he would negotiate with Czech interests in mind. Now he received them in his suite at the Regina Palast and broke the news of their country’s dismemberment. Daladier was also present, and the two sought to explain, though not too vigorously, what had happened and why. It was, they insisted, a far better arrangement than the Godesberg Memorandum, but no words could disguise or soften their cruel betrayal. Jan Mastny, the Czech ambassador, wept. The Czechs were informed that their agreement was not really required. If Prague refused, Czechoslovakia would be left to deal with the Germans alone. “Then they were finished with us,” wrote Hubert Masaryk, the other Czech representative, “and we were allowed to go.”
The next morning Chamberlain paid a visit to Hitler’s apartment on the Prinzregentenplatz. It was not a scheduled meeting; during a break in the proceedings on the previous day, the prime minister surprised the Führer by requesting a personal meeting, and Hitler, pleased but puzzled, agreed. When Chamberlain arrived at the apartment, he produced from his briefcase a one-page document, a declaration that pledged that the two countries would never go to war with one another again. “We regard the Agreement signed last night, and the Anglo-German Naval Agreement, as symbolic of the desire of our two peoples never to go to war with each other again,” it read. Hitler hesitated momentarily, then signed to wan smiles and handshakes all round. For Chamberlain this was the crowning achievement of a successful mission to Munich, and it was this paper that he waved in triumph upon his return to London, uttering words that would soon prove painfully ironic: “I believe this means peace in our time.”
Chamberlain’s trip back to the Munich aerodrome was even more triumphant than on his arrival. Tumultuous crowds cheered as the hero of the hour passed by. To interpreter Paul Schmidt, riding with Chamberlain in the open car, “these obviously spontaneous and unorganized ovations for Chamberlain implied a certain criticism of Hitler.” Hitler, “the man of war,” received “a certain tribute of routine applause,” but “it lagged far behind the spontaneous manifestations of sympathy . . . accorded to Chamberlain . . . and Daladier” outside their hotels.
For all the drama surrounding the meeting in the Führer Building, the Munich Agreement did not end the Czech crisis; it was merely the beginning of the multinational republic’s dismemberment. Germany emerged from the Munich Conference with eleven thousand square miles of strategically important territory, acquiring in the process the extensive Czech system of fortifications, much of its armaments industry, and 3.5 million new German speakers. And once German troops marched into the Sudetenland, Hitler simply ignored the few restrictions and conditions the Western powers had attempted to impose on him: no plebiscites were held and the boundaries that were finally set reflected Hitler’s strategic concerns more than ethnic considerations (some 250,000 Germans were left in Czechoslovakia and 800,000 Czechs were marooned in areas annexed to the Reich). The Czech state was left virtually defenseless, and within days Poland, with Hitler’s encouragement, seized territory on the Czech-Polish border, the Hungarians grabbed a strip of territory in southern Slovakia, and the Slovaks, with Hitler’s blessing, declared autonomy within the rump Czech state.
To Hitler, Chamberlain’s Anglo-German declaration was meaningless. He had no intention of abiding by the previous night’s four-power agreement, and he signed this bilateral protocol with England without a care. Although he came to view the conference as a failure, entangling him in agreements that left him far short of his goal, Hitler’s prestige soared. Once again he had plunged Germany into an international crisis, and once again he had emerged triumphant without a shot being fired. But war was the ultimate terminus of Nazi policy, and after the statesmen had returned home and a sense of profound relief settled over Europe, Hitler found himself deflated, disappointed, cheated of his war. Throughout the Sudeten crisis he had possessed an enormous advantage in dealing with the Western democracies: while Britain and France scrambled to maintain the peace at virtually all costs, Hitler was not only willing to go to war, he wanted to go to war. Confident that Britain and France would not intervene, he was determined to have his war, though a limited one, only to find that Chamberlain had robbed him of it.
Munich had profound repercussions. It convinced Hitler that the Western powers, even when sorely provoked, would not risk war, especially over his ambitions in Eastern Europe. Britain and France were, as he had concluded after his march into the Rhineland in 1936, “no longer heroic peoples.” His designs for acquiring Lebensraum in the East, which had animated his foreign policy from the outset, were reinforced by Western weakness. Stalin drew much the same conclusion. The West was weak and, worse, was determined to channel German aggression eastward. Although the Soviets had continued to voice their support for the beleaguered Czechs throughout the crisis, they, too, felt certain that France would not act and hence Russia would be relieved of its treaty obligations to Prague. The West, in short, was not to be trusted.
Munich also confirmed Hitler’s faith in his own “intuition” and emboldened him for further action. His military, his Foreign Office, and even his ally, Mussolini, had been wrong, and he had, again, been proven right. The embryonic military conspiracy collapsed, and the army’s trust in its own judgment suffered another blow, one that would keep it quiescent until the latter stages of the coming war. The peaceful conclusion of the Sudeten crisis also sent his domestic popularity skyrocketing and undermined what had been a mounting undercurrent of dissatisfaction with his reckless policies.
By the close of 1938, Hitler had gutted the Versailles Treaty, overturned the postwar European order, and raised German power and prestige to dizzying heights, all without bloodshed. The radical turn in German foreign policy accompanied a radicalization of Nazi racial policy, culminating in the nationwide violence of Kristallnacht just over a month after the Munich conference. The regime, in both foreign and racial policy, had turned a corner. Nor was Hitler through. While synagogues were still smoldering all over the Reich on November 10, Hitler held a remarkably candid meeting with German journalists. “For decades, circumstances caused me to speak almost exclusively of peace,” he began.
Only by constantly emphasizing the German Volk’s desire for peace and peaceful intentions was I able to gain the German prerequisite for accomplishing the next step. It is self-evident that this peace propaganda throughout the decades may well have had quite questionable effects. It might well leave the mistaken impression in the minds of many that the present regime stands for the resolution and the willingness to preserve peace under all conditions. . . . For years, I spoke only of peace because of this forced situation. Now it has become necessary to slowly prepare the German Volk psychologically for the fact that there are things that cannot be achieved by peaceful means. Some goals can only be achieved through the use of force. That meant that certain of these events needed to be portrayed in a manner in which they would automatically trigger certain reactions in the brains of the mass of the German Volk: if you cannot stop these things in a peaceful manner, then you will just have to stop them by force—in any event, things cannot go on like this.