On January 30, 1939, Adolf Hitler addressed the German Reichstag on the sixth anniversary of his ascension to power, and with a year of stupendous foreign policy victories behind him, he had much to boast about. He began with a recital of the triumphs of the past year, but he could not let an opportunity pass without enumerating the perils facing the new Germany. The menace of Bolshevism, Jewry, and plutocracy had been met at home, but “the Jewish world enemy” was still lurking beyond Germany’s borders, always scheming. This international Jewish conspiracy, the “wire pullers” of both Bolshevism and Wall Street plutocracy, was driving the peoples of Europe toward a cataclysmic war. These themes were inextricably entwined in Hitler’s fantasies, and on this day he explicitly fused the two obsessions more directly, more menacingly than ever before.
France and England were not Germany’s enemies, he declared. Germany had “no feelings of hatred towards England, America, or France.” Germany wished to live “in peace and quiet,” and all “the assertions about the Reich’s intended attacks on other nations” were lies spread by Jewish agitators and their unwitting front men. The threat to European, indeed, world peace was not the work of a nation or a state but the machinations of a single enemy, “international Jewry.” Some countries, especially the benighted democracies, refused to recognize the menace, but National Socialist Germany, with its systematic campaign of enlightenment and propaganda, was raising the alarm. Thanks to that tireless effort, the nations of Europe would “no longer be willing to die on the battlefield so that this unstable international race may profiteer from a war or satisfy its Old Testament vengeance. The Jewish watchword ‘Workers of the world unite’ will be conquered by a higher realization, namely ‘Workers of all classes and of all nations, recognize your common enemy!’ ” But if the nations of the world would not learn this lesson, Hitler offered a chilling prophecy for the future: “In the course of my life,” he said,
I have very often been a prophet and have usually been ridiculed for it. During the time of struggle for power it was in the first instance the Jewish race which only received my prophecies with laughter when I said that I would one day take over the leadership of the state, and with it that of the whole nation and that I would then among many other things settle the Jewish question. Their laughter was uproarious, but I think that now that once ringing laughter is choking in their throats. Today I will once more be a prophet: If the international Jewish financiers in and outside Europe should succeed in plunging the nations once more into a world war, then the result will not be the bolshevization of the earth, and thus the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe.
The Nazis’ use of such apocalyptic language was not new. For years the Nazis had spoken, with mounting ferocity, of the world Jewish conspiracy, the global enemy, and Judeo-Bolshevism. But in the crisis-laden months of 1938 and 1939, terms such as “annihilation,” “eradication,” and “extermination” grew exponentially and infused the already threatening environment with mounting anxiety. Nazi Jewish policy was at this time still emigration, but Nazi rhetoric grew increasingly violent. Speaking to the Czech foreign minister in January 1939, Hitler fumed that Germany had been too lenient with the Jews. “Our own kindness was nothing but weakness and we regret it. This vermin must be destroyed. The Jews are our sworn enemies and at the end of this year there will not be a Jew left in Germany.” They were not going to get away with what they had done in November 1918. “The day of reckoning has come.”
In 1939 war was in the air. The Munich Agreement had provided a much needed respite from the serial crises of 1938, but that pause proved to be of short duration. From the outset of the Sudeten crisis Hitler’s objective, stated explicitly to his generals, was a war against Czechoslovakia that would wipe the multinational state off the map, and although he emerged from the fall crisis a great hero and savior in Germany, he was frustrated. Chamberlain, for whom he had nothing but contempt, had denied him the smashing military victory he so ardently desired. He was livid at the idea that this “old man,” this senile, umbrella-toting Englishman had managed to ensnare him in international agreements that had denied him his conqueror’s entry into Prague. This state of affairs could not be allowed to stand. After encouraging Poland and Hungary to seize border territory from the crumbling Czech state, he proceeded in early 1939 to foment unrest among the Slovaks and Ruthenians in Czechoslovakia’s eastern provinces. Both had attained far-reaching autonomy within the rump Czech state, but now Hitler pressed separatist elements in both provinces to agitate for full independence from Prague.
Following the script that had played so well in both Austria and the Sudetenland, anti-Czech agitation reached crisis proportions among the restive Slovaks and Ruthenians. On March 6 and 9 Czech president Emil Hacha, who had succeeded Benes, disbanded first the Slovak and then the Ruthenian governments and declared martial law. Although the move was unexpected, Hitler quickly seized the initiative. German arms were slipped into Slovakia from across the former Austrian border and distributed to the well-organized German minority. On March 13, Hitler summoned Slovak leader Jozef Tiso to Berlin. There Hitler demanded that either the Slovaks declare their immediate independence, which would be guaranteed by Berlin, or be left to their own devices. Ribbentrop also noted pointedly that Hungarian troops were preparing to seize Ruthenia, and parts of Slovakia were being restrained only by Germany. Tiso rushed back to Bratislava where, before the Slovak parliament, he read out a declaration of independence that had been composed by Ribbentrop. On March 14 Slovakia became an independent nation, recognized by Germany, and another Czech crisis broke over Europe.
While these events were unfolding in the eastern provinces of the Czech state, the German press was ablaze with stories of alleged Czech atrocities against the German minority in Bohemia and Moravia. Such tales by now had a familiar ring, reprising the allegations being reported in Nazi newspapers from the previous August. Prague denied these charges, but it hardly mattered. Fearing that a German invasion was looming, Hacha and his foreign minister, Frantisek Chvalkovsky, decided, despite the unhappy experiences of Schuschnigg and Benes, to make a personal appeal to Hitler. On March 14 they traveled by train to Berlin, but the elderly Hacha, who was suffering from a serious heart condition, was kept waiting for hours before being admitted to Hitler’s study. Exhausted from an already trying day, he made an abject appeal to Hitler, in which he voiced his own doubts as to whether an independent Czechoslovakian state was viable, and asked whether a German invasion might be averted if the Czech army disarmed itself. Perhaps then the Führer might recognize the rights of Czechs to live an independent national life.
It was a pitiful performance. When Hacha had finished his remarks, Hitler launched into a tirade, ranting against the reign of Benes and Masaryk and announcing that he had no confidence in the present Czech government. In just a few short hours, the German army would descend on Czechoslovakia, and the Luftwaffe would begin bombing Czech targets. Hacha had two choices: if the invasion encountered armed resistance, Czech forces would be ruthlessly crushed. The alternative was that German troops be allowed to enter in a peaceable manner. If that was the case, then Hitler would be open to the possibility of some sort of autonomy for the Czechs, who would retain something of their national freedom. This part of his offer was altogether vague, but if the Czechs resisted, the Wehrmacht would mercilessly demolish the Czech army, and Göring’s Luftwaffe would destroy Prague. It was 2 a.m. German troops would begin their invasion in just four hours.
Overwrought and weary, Hacha fainted. A general panic ensued. The Nazis couldn’t afford to have the president of Czechoslovakia die in the Reich Chancellery in the middle of the night. Hitler’s personal physician was hastily summoned and administered an injection, and Hacha revived. He had barely come to when he was confronted by a written statement prepared by Ribbentrop, inviting the Reich to establish order in the beleaguered Czech state. At first Hacha refused to sign and was literally pursued around the table by Ribbentrop and Göring, who, cajoling and threatening, kept thrusting the agreement at him. After a second injection, a resigned and despondent Hacha signed the document, inviting German forces to enter Bohemia and Moravia and placing “the fate of the Czech people in the hands of the Führer.” It was the death certificate of Czechoslovakia. Beside himself with joy, Hitler bounded into his secretaries’ room and gushed: “Kiss me, children. This is the greatest day of my life! I shall go down in history as the greatest German.”
At 6 a.m. on March 15, German troops crossed the frontier. Obeying Hacha’s order, the formidable Czech army offered no resistance. Later that day Hitler began an automobile journey to Prague in a blinding snowstorm. His ten-car motorcade passed through columns of German soldiers trudging in the snow and ice, until at last they reached the city and Hitler installed himself in the Hradschin Castle, ancient residence of the kings of Bohemia. Next day he signed a decree announcing the creation of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia and also placed the newly independent state of Slovakia under German protection. Himmler’s SS was already at work. For the Jews of Czechoslovakia, the nightmare was just beginning. Ruthenia, having served its purpose, Hitler left to the Hungarians, who eagerly gobbled it up. Three days later, Germany seized Memel, a thin slice of formerly German territory on the northeastern border of East Prussia, which had been ceded to Lithuania in the Versailles settlement. The move was unopposed.
The German occupation of Bohemia and Moravia came as a surprise to the German public and the international community and hence lacked the drama that had characterized Hitler’s absorption of the Sudetenland. But it was ominously clear that a decisive turning point in the foreign policy of the Third Reich had been reached. For the first time Hitler had seized a state that could in no way be justified by invoking the principle of national self-determination. Nor was it a matter of gaining equality for Germany in the international arena or protecting an oppressed German minority. The Nazi press, of course, continued to churn out Czech atrocity stories, but few outside Germany were paying attention. It was an act of naked aggression against a sovereign state and stripped away in one stroke Hitler’s mask of committed peacemaker and gallant defender of ethnic Germans stranded abroad by Versailles. No amount of high-minded rhetoric could hide what lay beneath.
Domestically the response was relief and admiration for the Führer, who had once again managed a great foreign policy coup without shedding German blood. He had created the Greater German Reich about which he had so often preached, and he had done so by audacity and daring. Despite the intense anti-Czech propaganda campaign that Goebbels had unleashed in February, the news caught the German public by surprise. Most felt that it provided yet another boost to Hitler’s stature, but the level of excitement did not match the public response to the dramatic resolution of the Sudeten crisis. And there was an undercurrent of uneasiness. Some found the move at odds with Hitler’s professed desire to purge Germany of all foreign elements; still others were convinced that this was not the last strike the Nazis would make. “The next would follow soon, one just doesn’t know where. When would this madness end?” Another Sopade report claimed that “a great anxiety prevails among the people. Almost everyone believes that war is inevitable.”
International opinion had already been shocked by the Nazi brutality of Kristallnacht, and Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement, long under assault from Conservative leader Winston Churchill and others in the Parliament, crashed virtually overnight. In a speech in Birmingham brimming with rueful indignation, Chamberlain excoriated Hitler’s brazen breach of faith. What was the world to make of Hitler’s promises now? he exclaimed.
No one believed that Hitler would long be satisfied with these triumphs. The occupation of Czechoslovakia had significantly strengthened Germany’s military. Large stocks of Czech military equipment fell into German hands as did the gigantic Skoda arms complex, the second largest in Europe, and Germany’s eastern frontier was greatly strengthened. Seizure of Prague’s foreign currency and gold reserves also reduced pressure on the German economy and eased the import for crucial raw materials. All across Europe observers now anticipated another move, and that move, it was widely assumed, would come against Poland. Germany’s relations with Poland had been strained since the Versailles settlement. Not only did the new Polish state receive the German provinces of West Prussia and Posen, but in order to give it access to the sea, it had been granted a corridor along the Vistula to the Baltic that separated Germany proper from East Prussia. Danzig, for centuries a German city, was detached from the Reich and declared a free city to be administered by the League of Nations. It was to be in effect Poland’s port on the Baltic. Despite these deeply resented territorial arrangements, Hitler had maintained surprisingly good relations with the conservative, anti-Marxist, anti-Russian, and notoriously anti-Semitic government of Poland during the first years of the Third Reich. In 1934 he had signed a nonaggression treaty with Warsaw, good for ten years, and at Munich had supported Polish claims to Czech territory.
Almost immediately after the fall of Prague, Ribbentrop approached the Polish ambassador, Jozef Lipski, with a proposal. The Reich desired the return of Danzig to Germany and wished to build an extraterritorial road or railway connecting East Prussia to the Reich. In return, Germany would allow Poland’s use of Danzig as a free port, assure Polish economic interests in the city, and guarantee Poland’s current borders. Hitler would also extend the German-Polish nonaggression treaty of 1934, even floating the idea of a mutual defense agreement aimed at the Soviet Union. Ribbentrop also suggested that the two countries might cooperate on the emigration of Jews from Poland.
The Poles flatly refused the German gambit. They had no desire to become a satellite of the Third Reich, and the Nazi liquidation of Czechoslovakia was not reassuring. Instead, on the last day of March, they reached an agreement with Britain, in which London pledged to defend Polish sovereignty and its frontiers. France quickly joined in the guarantee, and a week later that agreement was formalized in a treaty. A similar guarantee was issued by Britain and France to Greece and Romania. Announcing the pact, Chamberlain’s message was unambiguous: “In the event of any action which clearly threatens Polish independence and which the Polish Government accordingly consider it vital to resist with their national forces, H.M. Government would feel themselves bound at once to lend the Polish Government all support in their power.”
Hitler was furious but undaunted. He still could not bring himself to believe that if push came to shove, the British would actually intervene. Three days after Chamberlain’s announcement, Hitler directed his military to begin preparations for an invasion of Poland any time after September 1. Orders for an attack on Poland, code-named Case White, were formally issued on April 11, explaining that the mission of the Wehrmacht was the swift destruction of Polish military strength while the task of the political leadership was to isolate Poland diplomatically. A few days later, in a conversation with Romania’s foreign minister at the Reich Chancellery, Hitler vented his disdain for the British and his frustration at his inability to reach some sort of understanding with them. He had tried again and again to reach an agreement with London, he complained, only to be rebuffed. Well, if the British were determined to have a war, they could have it. “And it will be a war of unimaginable destructiveness,” he warned. “How can the English picture a modern war when they can’t even put two fully equipped divisions in the field!”
Despite these developments, Hitler still hoped to arrange a deal with Poland, recruiting Warsaw into an anti-Soviet alliance. But should Warsaw remain obdurate, plans for an invasion of Poland moved ahead. On April 15, with anxiety mounting over Hitler’s next move, President Roosevelt intervened. He had recalled America’s ambassador to Germany in the aftermath of Kristallnacht, and American newspapers had led the way in condemning the Nazi pogrom. Nearly a thousand editorials had been published in the American press in the weeks after Kristallnacht, Goebbels grumbled. “It is an open secret,” he continued, that the American president had “gathered around him a great number of Jewish advisers. One can just imagine what they are blaring into his ear.” Washington had joined London and Paris in fomenting the current “war psychosis” and was widely viewed as already allied with Great Britain.
It was perhaps then only mildly surprising when on April 15 Roosevelt addressed himself directly to the deteriorating situation in Europe. He sent what amounted to an open letter to Hitler, appealing for “assurances against further aggression.” Hitler had repeatedly asserted that neither he nor the German people wanted war, but it was clear in Roosevelt’s eyes—and, he implied, the world’s—that Germany was the source of the pervasive international tension. If it was true that neither Hitler nor the German people wanted war, as the Nazi leader maintained, then, the president stated, “there need be no war.” He went on to ask Hitler in the most straightforward terms whether he was prepared to give assurances that Germany harbored no aggressive intentions against an extensive list of countries in Europe and beyond. It was, according to Goebbels, “a shameless, hypocritical” document, composed by the “charlatan from Washington.”
Hitler responded in a much anticipated speech on April 28. It was to be an address of such importance that Britain and France returned their ambassadors, withdrawn in protest of the occupation of Bohemia and Moravia, to Berlin to hear it. Speaking before a packed Reichstag in the Kroll Opera House, he began with a vigorous defense of his foreign policy, justifying German action in a crumbling Czechoslovakia as an act to preserve peace and stability in Central Europe. He valued friendship with Britain, but the British had obviously come to view war with Germany as inevitable and had acted in a manner inconsistent with the Anglo-German Naval Agreement of 1935. “Now that journalists and officials in England publicly advocate opposition to Germany in any case, and this is confirmed by the well known policy of encirclement, then the foundations on which the Anglo-German Naval Agreement rested have been destroyed.” He resolved, therefore, to withdraw from the Naval Agreement. At this the Reichstag erupted in thunderous applause. As for the Poles, their new alliance with England and their refusal to enter discussions with Germany were inconsistent with the German-Polish Friendship Treaty of 1934, and he renounced that as well.
Finally, toward the close of his remarks, Hitler addressed himself directly to Roosevelt’s letter. It was a masterpiece of sarcasm, a combination of faux humility and mockery that left his audience roaring with appreciative laughter. Mr. Roosevelt had lectured him on the evils of war, he said, but who should know better than the German people who for twenty years had been victimized by an unjust treaty? The president seemed to believe that all problems could be solved at the conference table, but the United States had failed to ratify the Versailles Treaty that its own president, Woodrow Wilson, had inspired and helped draft. Roosevelt had expressed hopes for disarmament, as if that might be a solution to international tension, but, Hitler reminded the president, the German people had trusted another American president only to find that they alone were forced to disarm. Germany, he declared, had had enough of unilateral disarmament.
The denouement of his response came when he turned to Roosevelt’s demand for a promise that Germany would attack none of the states the president proceeded to list. Hitler rattled off the countries one by one that the president believed in danger—Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Poland, Belgium, Holland, France, Liechtenstein, Russia, Arabia, Iran, Turkey, Palestine, on and on, with the laughter building ever louder as the list grew longer. Hitler could barely contain himself, so delighted was he with his performance and his witty humiliation of Roosevelt. He claimed to have sounded out these countries to inquire whether they felt threatened by Germany or if they had requested the president to voice their anxieties. He had not done so, but no matter. The answer was in all cases no—except, he added with relish, that some countries—Syria, Arabia, Iran, and Palestine—were unable to respond due to their occupation by troops of the democratic nations. Nonetheless, he assured the American president that he fully understood that the “vastness of your nation and the immense wealth of your country allow you to feel responsible for the history of the whole world and the history of all nations. I, sir, am placed in a much smaller and modest sphere.” He could not feel himself responsible for the fate of the world, as this world took no interest in the pitiful fate of the German people. “I have regarded myself as called upon by Providence to serve my own people alone. I have lived day and night for the single task of awakening the powers of my people, in view of our desertion by the rest of the world. . . . Conditions prevailing in your country are on such a large scale that you can find time and leisure to give your attention to universal problems.” It was a bravura performance—many thought it the best speech he had ever delivered—and what it lacked in veracity or accuracy, it made up for in political theater. Goebbels, of course, exulted. Hitler had given Roosevelt “a public flogging. . . . The Führer is a genius of political tactics and strategy. No one is his equal. Compared to him, what a dwarf is a man like Roosevelt.”
Hitler’s speech settled no one’s nerves, either in Germany or abroad. It wasn’t intended to. Less than a month later, Ribbentrop pressed the Italians into signing the “Pact of Steel.” It was in many ways redundant, since a treaty between the two Axis dictators also existed, but this was a more sweeping and frankly aggressive document. The two regimes, bound together by the “inner affinity of their ideologies and the comprehensive solidarity of their interests,” pledged to give full political and diplomatic support to each other if their interests were threatened, and in the event of hostilities, would “act side by side and with united forces to secure their Lebensraum and to maintain peace.” The Pact of Steel, touted by the German press as “the mightiest alliance in world history,” did not cause an international stir, and it did not impress either the German public or military. Its purpose was to intimidate the West.
Shortly after this speech, Hitler summoned his top military commanders to a briefing on the Polish situation. After the Great War, Hitler began, a closed circle of victorious powers had established a balance of power without German participation. Germany’s revival under National Socialism had disturbed that balance, so that every effort by Germany to claim its legitimate rights was viewed as “breaking in.” Germany’s economic life demanded living space, and that could not be attained “without ‘breaking in’ to other countries or attacking other people’s possessions.” Acquiring Lebensraum was essential to the nation’s survival, and would have to be faced either now or in ten, twenty years’ time. The moment for expansion was now. “With regard to the present situation in Poland, it is not Danzig that is at stake. For us it is a matter of expanding our living space in the East and making food supplies secure. . . . Therefore there is no question of sparing Poland and we are left with the decision: To attack Poland at the first suitable opportunity.” Germany could “not expect a repetition of Czechoslovakia,” he declared bluntly. “There will be war,” and the key to victory was the isolation of Poland, a political task that was his responsibility. “It must not come to a simultaneous showdown with the West. An attack on Poland will only be successful if the West keeps out of the ring.” England “is our enemy and the showdown with England is a matter of life and death.” There was no question of “getting out cheaply. . . . We must then burn our boats, and it will no longer be a question of right or wrong but of to be or not to be for 80,000,000 people.”
Throughout the following summer months the international situation simmered. Hitler retreated to Berchtesgaden and was rarely in Berlin. The Germans made desultory overtures to the Poles—Hitler still believed that they might have a role to play in an anti-Soviet alliance—but the return of Danzig and a rail or road connection across the Corridor were the unalterable German demands for any deal. Warsaw spurned these soundings as well as overtures from Russia. The key to the diplomatic situation, however, was not to be found in London or Paris or even Warsaw but in Moscow. British and French guarantees to Poland would be effective only if placed in a context of a collective security structure that included the Soviet Union, and both the English and French worked during the summer to coax the Russians into some sort of agreement. But Chamberlain was highly mistrustful of the Soviets, a sentiment reciprocated by Stalin, and the talks dragged on with little sense of urgency. Ultimately they foundered on Stalin’s conviction that the West was simply trying to force war between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany and that the English and French could not be trusted to honor their obligations. This, for Stalin, was the lesson of Munich.
Germany, too, was seeking to improve relations with Moscow. Ribbentrop was a keen advocate of closer ties, and while a rapprochement made no ideological sense, it would serve the short-run interests of both regimes. A Nazi-Soviet pact would upset Nazi party members for whom anti-Bolshevism was a central pillar of National Socialist ideology, but conservatives, especially within the military, were more open to the possibility of an accord. After all, cooperation with Russia had been a traditional element of Prussian/German foreign policy through much of the nineteenth century, and during the Weimar era the two pariah states had signed a secret agreement that established close military cooperation. In 1922 they formalized that cooperation in the Treaty of Rapallo, whereby Germany helped train Russian troops and instructed them on modern weaponry. In return the Soviets allowed the Germans to develop and test weapons far from the prying eyes of Versailles inspectors. With the installation of Hitler in the Reich Chancellery in 1933 that cooperation had come to a halt, but by the close of the decade, the exigencies of international politics created space for some sort of agreement—not simply on trade but also on security matters.
In May Stalin signaled a shift in Soviet policy. He dismissed his foreign minister, Maxim Litvinov, a pro-Western advocate of good relations with Britain and France, the League of Nations, and collective security. Litvinov was also a Jew, and his dismissal was received in Berlin as an unmistakable message. Trade talks between the two governments sputtered intermittently along during the summer until at last, in August, the Soviets hinted that they might be open to something more. Discussions turned to security matters, and the Russians indicated that they would be interested in some sort of nonaggression pact. Ribbentrop quickly picked up the idea. Knowing that the invasion of Poland was imminent, he was eager to reach an understanding with the Soviets. Adding to his anxiety, the British and French were still negotiating with the Russians. But convinced that a Nazi-Soviet pact was a political impossibility, the British and French were in no rush.
As the days passed and the pressure mounted, Ribbentrop pressed hard for an agreement. In Berlin and Berchtesgaden nerves were frayed. Hitler, who had been initially skeptical about a deal with the Soviets, was now more eager than his foreign minister. An accord with Russia would remove the threat of a two-front war, against which he had preached since the earliest days of his political life. It would also, he believed, act as a deterrent to Western intervention. But the Soviets confirmed their reputation as difficult negotiators, and their interest for a pact with Hitler seemed to run hot and cold. Then, in mid-August, came a sudden breakthrough. Moscow presented a draft of a nonaggression pact, which thrilled Ribbentrop, but then insisted that the trade deal that had been under discussion over several months be completed first. On August 20 Hitler wrote a personal message to Stalin urging him to come to terms—and quickly. The Germans hastily agreed to sign the trade agreement, and Stalin responded directly to Hitler, inviting Ribbentrop to Moscow to sign the nonaggression pact on August 23. Hitler received the message while having dinner with Albert Speer and others at the Berghof. After scanning the note, “he stared into space for a moment,” Speer recalled, “flushed deeply, then banged on the table so hard that the glasses rattled, and exclaimed in a voice breaking with excitement: ‘I’ve got them! I’ve got them.’ ”
While the Ribbentrop delegation was preparing for its secret mission to Moscow, Hitler convened a meeting of his senior military commanders at the Berghof to brief them on the political situation. There would be a war with Poland, he stated bluntly, and it was better to act now than delay. Several factors weighed in his decision. “First of all, two personal factors: my own personality and that of Mussolini. Essentially all depends on me, on my existence, because of my political talents. Probably no one will ever again have the confidence of the German people as I have. My life is, therefore, a factor of great value. But I can be eliminated at any time by a criminal or an idiot.” Hitler had become increasingly preoccupied with his own mortality and was determined to achieve his goals while he was still in good health. “No one knows how long I shall live,” he said, “therefore conflict is better now.”
A second factor had to be taken into the equation. The Western powers were governed by men “who are below average. No personalities. No master, no men of action.” This time he was not interested in negotiations. There would be no more Munichs. “I am only afraid,” he declared, “that at the last minute some Schweinhund will produce a plan of mediation!” It was, of course, an enormous gamble, he understood this, but a lightning victory over Poland would leave the Western powers no viable course of military action. Speed, therefore, was everything. And once the fighting had commenced, moral considerations would play no role. “When starting and waging a war it is not right that matters,” he declared, “but victory. Close your hearts to pity. Act brutally. Eighty million people must obtain what is their right. . . . The wholesale destruction of Poland is the military objective. Speed is the main thing. Pursuit until complete annihilation.”
The next evening at six, in the presence of Stalin himself, Ribbentrop joined Russian foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov in signing a German-Russian nonaggression pact that no one thought possible. The two bitter ideological enemies promised to observe benevolent neutrality in the event that one or the other should become involved in a European war. In secret clauses the pact called for a partition of Poland—an indication that this agreement was intended to address an immediate situation. The signatories also divided Eastern Europe into spheres of influence: Lithuania and Vilnius would fall to the Germans, while Finland, Estonia, and Latvia would be in the Soviet sphere. No agreement could be reached about Romania, with its rich oil fields, and the issue was tabled.
For Hitler, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact put an end to the threat of a two-front war. The Nazi-Soviet agreement, he was certain, would serve as a deterrent to Western interference. After all, with Russia at Germany’s side, how could Britain and France hope to come to Poland’s aid? Russia would also be a source of much needed raw materials—timber, grain, iron, oil, among others—and render Germany impervious to an English blockade. At some point in the future, the score would be settled with Bolshevik Russia, but for the moment, cooperation between the two dictatorships was essential.
For Stalin, the pact was a hedge against betrayal by the West, which, he was convinced, was only interested in directing Nazi aggression eastward; it shifted the Soviet frontier westward, providing a buffer between Germany and the Soviet Union. The pact also gave him time to rebuild the Red Army, which had been decimated by the military purges of 1938. Those purges were staggering in scope: of the eighty members of the Military Soviet in 1934, only five survived. All eleven deputy commissars were eliminated; every commander of a military district, including their replacements, had been liquidated by the summer of 1938; thirteen of the fifteen army commanders, fifty-seven of the eighty-five corps commanders were purged; and 220 out of the 446 brigade commanders had been executed. But the losses didn’t stop there. The greatest number of victims were junior-grade officers from the rank of colonel downward; company commanders by the score were liquidated. Distasteful as it was to many in the Soviet hierarchy, the deal with the hated Nazis would buy time for Stalin to rebuild the army he had so thoroughly eviscerated.
For Chamberlain, the news from Moscow resounded like the crack of doom. Speaking to a tense House of Commons he warned that the Germans were suffering from a “dangerous illusion” if they believed that this surprise agreement would convince the British and French to abandon their obligations to Poland. He followed these words with a stern letter to Hitler, hand-delivered by Ambassador Sir Nevile Henderson. Britain would leave no stone unturned to prevent war, but “if the need should arise, His Majesty’s Government is resolved, and prepared, to employ without delay all the forces at its command, and it is impossible to foresee the end of hostilities once engaged.” Chamberlain also announced that the British guarantee to Poland had been formally translated into a military alliance.
Hitler’s response to the prime minister’s letter was to inform Henderson defiantly that with Russia at its back, if it came to it, Germany would not shrink from a war with the West. He reminded Henderson that “this time Germany will not have to fight on two fronts.” He then made a typically grandiose proposal. Germany was prepared to guarantee the continued existence of the British Empire and to offer military help “in any part of the world where such help might be needed.” He was also willing to offer guarantees of frontiers in the West and a limitation on armaments. But the question of Danzig and the Corridor must be resolved without delay.
Chamberlain’s stern message was reinforced by Robert Coulondre, the new French ambassador, who called at the Reich Chancellery later in the day. After listening to Hitler fume about the Poles and their alleged atrocities, Coulondre replied that “in a situation as critical as this, Herr Reichskanzler, misunderstandings are the most dangerous things of all. Therefore, to make the matter quite clear, I give you my word of honor as a French officer that the French army will fight by the side of Poland if that country should be attacked.” At the same time, he explained, “the French Government is prepared to do everything for the maintenance of peace right up to the last, and to work for moderation in Warsaw.”
As if these declarations were not sobering enough, Bernardo Attolico, the Italian ambassador, followed Coulondre into Hitler’s study and delivered an eagerly awaited letter from Mussolini. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact had come as a disturbing surprise to the Duce, and Hitler had written an awkward communication to Rome attempting to explain how it would actually strengthen the Axis. His message also made it clear that Italy should anticipate important developments in the near future. Mussolini’s response was apologetic, embarrassed, but blunt: “In one of the most painful moments of my life, I have to inform you that Italy is not ready for war.” He complained about low stocks of fuel, ammunition, iron, and other shortages that made a sustained military effort impossible.
The Duce’s missive was a blow. When Hitler inquired what Mussolini would need in the way of supplies, he found that Italy’s needs were so exorbitant they simply could not be met. That, of course, was Mussolini’s intent. If Italy felt compelled to remain neutral, Hitler asked Mussolini to give every appearance of preparing for war. The appearance of Fascist solidarity was important to Hitler, as was the deterrent value of possible Italian action against France and England. Let off the hook, Mussolini readily agreed. But the Pact of Steel was badly strained, and Italian bitterness at being left in the dark and then perhaps towed into a war they did not seek was palpable.
Faced with these setbacks Hitler ordered a twenty-four-hour postponement of the invasion, scheduled to begin at dawn the next day. On August 30, Henderson delivered Chamberlain’s reply to Hitler’s last proposal. The British wanted good relations with Germany “but could not . . . acquiesce in a settlement which would put in jeopardy the independence of a State to whom they have given a guarantee.” The note proposed resumption of direct negotiations between Germany and Poland to address their points of difference and concluded with the unambiguous declaration: “A just settlement of these questions . . . may open the way to world peace. Failure to reach it would ruin the hopes of better understanding between Germany and Great Britain, would bring the two countries into conflict, and might well plunge the whole world into war. Such an outcome would be a calamity without parallel in history.”
As the diplomatic situation deteriorated, party officials and the Socialist underground throughout Germany reported growing anxiety. Initially, the popular mood was calm, confident that “the Führer will make everything all right.” But as the crisis deepened, the public’s mood sobered. A Sopade informant detected “a certain nervousness” among the public, especially women, who were worried about the call-ups and generally were of the opinion that “those in Berlin don’t understand the situation and the feelings of the people.” There was a widespread attitude “that a war because of Danzig [was] madness; it is irresponsible to sacrifice possibly millions of people for the sake of one city.”
The last dwindling days of August brought a series of feverish meetings, midnight telegrams, urgent appeals. The atmosphere was electric. The Reich Chancellery, teeming with generals and their adjutants, diplomats, state ministers, and party leaders, seemed more like the frenetic halls of the nearby Anhalter station than a center of government. Nerves, already frayed, were not calmed when a blackout went into effect in Berlin, casting the giant metropolis into stygian darkness. Hitler’s response to the British note did little to reduce tensions. The German government was open to negotiation and would accept British mediation, Ribbentrop informed Henderson. To that end, the German Foreign Office had drafted a sixteen-point proposal that the Germans believed to be generous. Danzig would be returned to Germany; a plebiscite, administered by an international commission, would be held in the Corridor; the Poles would be guaranteed an international road and railway through territory that was to become German as well as unfettered economic rights in Danzig. Britain was to produce a Polish emissary with full powers to negotiate, and that emissary, the Germans insisted, was to arrive in Berlin on Wednesday, August 30, leaving the Poles a scant twenty-four hours to prepare. It was, as Henderson protested, an ultimatum, but the Germans refused to budge, accusing the British government of indifference to the continuing persecution of Germans in Poland. The Poles must accept this condition.
Under the circumstances, the British did not even attempt to convince the Poles to meet the German deadline. They opposed both the unreasonable time frame and the site of the talks. After the experiences of Hacha and Tiso, neither the British nor the Poles were willing to contemplate another visitation to the Reich Chancellery. Instead, Poland announced the mobilization of its forces. Though they held out little hope of success, the British now urged Warsaw at least to begin negotiations. But when Polish ambassador Jozef Lipski presented himself at the Foreign Office on August 30, Ribbentrop had only one thing to say: “Have you the authority to negotiate with us on the German proposals?” When Lipski admitted that he had not, Ribbentrop brusquely terminated the meeting. There was no point of continuing. The Germans, it was plain, were not interested in negotiations, and the Poles had seen enough of Hitler to know that he could not be trusted. They were prepared to fight.
Hitler’s grand sixteen-point proposal was read out over German radio on the night of August 31. It was intended for domestic consumption, demonstrating to the German people that the Führer was striving mightily for peace and was magnanimous in his dealings with the Poles. Only Polish intransigence and blind British support for Warsaw had sabotaged Germany’s last-gasp offer of a peaceful settlement. Later Hitler admitted that the proposal was nothing but a propaganda ploy, “an alibi, especially with the German people, to show them that I had done everything to maintain peace. That explains my generous offer about the settlement of Danzig and the Corridor.”
Throughout these last days of August, Ribbentrop remained intent on scuttling any hint of serious negotiations. Although he realized that British intervention was a distinct possibility, he was willing to take the risk. At every opportunity he emphasized to Hitler that London was bluffing, reinforcing the Führer’s gambling instincts. While Ribbentrop pressed the case for war, no policy consensus existed at the highest levels of the military or among the regime’s political elite. Göring sought to use both official and backdoor channels to engage the British and avert the descent into war. In one remarkable initiative, he enlisted the services of a well-connected Swedish businessman, Birger Dahlerus, to shuttle between London and Berlin, seeking the basis for some sort of understanding. Although Dahlerus was able to engage Lord Halifax’s interest, he could not dispel the deep British skepticism about Hitler’s intentions. At a midnight meeting in the Reich Chancellery on August 26, Dahlerus, just back from London, attempted to convey Britain’s desire for negotiations but also its profound wariness about entering into discussions with Hitler.
Hardly listening to Dahlerus, Hitler launched into a tirade against the British, becoming more and more excited as he spoke. He listened to Dahlerus’s report, but it only seemed to provoke him to greater fury. He stalked up and down the room, then, suddenly stopping, he began another rant. Hitler’s voice was blurred, and his behavior that of a completely abnormal person. He spoke in staccato phrases: “If there should be war, then I shall build U-boats, build U-boats, U-boats, U-boats.” His voice became more indistinct and finally one could not follow him at all. Then he pulled himself together, raised his voice as though addressing a large audience, and shrieked: “I shall build aeroplanes, build aeroplanes, aeroplanes, aeroplanes, and I shall annihilate my enemies.” Finally, his rage subsided, and after a few moments he walked up to Dahlerus and said: “Herr Dahlerus, you who know England so well, can you give me any reason for my perpetual failure to come to an agreement with her?” When Dahlerus, choosing his words with care, suggested that it was the English people’s lack of confidence in Hitler personally and in the Nazi regime, “Hitler flung out his right arm, striking his breast with his left hand, and exclaimed: ‘Idiots, have I ever told a lie in my life?’ ”
Despite the feverish diplomatic activity in late August, a sense of resignation hung over the governments of Europe. War seemed inevitable. Attolico, the tireless Italian ambassador, made one last desperate attempt on August 31, urging Hitler to reconsider Mussolini’s offer to mediate, but Hitler again refused. It was too late. Just after noon that day, he had issued Directive No. 1 for the conduct of the war. One and a half million troops that had been waiting anxiously for days began to move into their forward positions near the Polish frontier, ready to launch the war Hitler was determined to have. The attack on Poland was to commence at 4:45 a.m. During the night Heydrich’s SD was to stage “incidents” along the German-Polish border, code-named Operation Himmler. The most elaborate of these ruses was a “Polish” raid on the German radio facility at Gleiwitz in Silesia. For the Gleiwitz attack, Heydrich produced several condemned prisoners from the concentration camps—“canned goods,” as he referred to them—dressed them in Polish uniforms, provided by German counterintelligence, and transported them to the deserted Gleiwitz station. They were given a fatal injection, shot, and their bodies left strewn about the station. Before slipping away, the SD operatives screamed Polish nationalist slogans into a microphone while sounds of a struggle could be heard in the background. The German press was invited to cover the “Polish” raid, and news of this “dire violation of Germany territory,” one of over twenty in the past week, was broadcast over the radio later that night. The Gleiwitz incident convinced hardly anyone beyond the frontiers of the Reich, but it served its purpose, allowing the regime to portray—however transparently false—the massive assault that followed as an act of self-defense against a rapacious Poland.
At 4:17 a.m. on September 1, 1939, the German cruiser Schleswig-Holstein, moored in Danzig harbor on a “courtesy visit,” opened fire on the Polish military installation on the Westerplatte, a small peninsula that guarded the entrance to the harbor. The shelling was intense and Polish resistance fierce. At virtually the same time sixty divisions of German troops smashed into Poland from the north, south, and west, while fleets of Luftwaffe aircraft roared into Polish airspace to bomb airfields, munitions dumps, communications centers, and other military targets. Throughout the night German radio broadcast terse reports from the front, each indicating the rapid advance of German forces.
At 10 a.m. the following morning Hitler left the Reich Chancellery for the Kroll Opera House, where he would address a special session of the Reichstag. Berlin’s usually teeming streets were virtually deserted; only a few civilians stopped to watch in silence as the Führer’s car swept past. Scattered shouts of “Heil Hitler” pierced the gloomy quiet, but most Berliners, standing behind an unnecessary cordon of SA and SS troopers, simply stared, wordless, as the Führer passed by. That glum reaction was a reflection of the country’s dark mood. “Everybody against the war,” Shirer noted on August 31. “People talking openly. How can a country go into a major war with a population so dead set against it.”
Addressing the Reichstag, an edgy Hitler declared that “this night for the first time Polish regular soldiers fired on our own territory. We have been returning fire since 5:45,” he declared, confusing the time of the attack. “Henceforth, bomb will be met with bomb.” He appeared that morning for the first time in a gray military tunic, which, he proclaimed, “has always been the most holy and dear to me. I shall not take it off again until after victory is ours or—I shall not live to see the day.” He had labored for months, he said, to resolve the Polish situation peacefully, as he had done with Austria, the Sudetenland, and Bohemia-Moravia, but the intransigence of the Polish leadership had frustrated that effort and led to the present crisis.
He was at pains to reassure Britain and France that Germany was not “pursuing any interests in the West,” and “I repeat this here, that we desire nothing of them. We shall never demand anything of them. I have assured them the border separating France and Germany is a final one. Time and time again I have offered friendship, and if necessary close cooperation, to England. But love cannot remain a one sided affair. It must be met by the other side.” He was resolved to meet whatever challenges that might confront him, to suffer any hardship, to make any sacrifice. He would also “demand sacrifice from the German Volk, even the ultimate sacrifice should there be need.” He had a right to do this, he proclaimed, “because today I am as willing as I was before to make any personal sacrifice. I am asking of no German man more than I myself was ready to do through four years.” Then, recapitulating a theme that had been a leitmotif of National Socialism’s appeal since its earliest days in the beer halls of Munich and that would resound shrilly throughout the war, he declared: “There will never be another November 1918 in German history.”
As the Wehrmacht ground relentlessly toward Warsaw, using a combination of armor and airpower to devastate the overmatched Poles, Attolico made yet another effort to convince the Führer that Mussolini was prepared to convene a conference, an offer he had already made only forty-eight hours before. The Duce remained confident that he could bring the British onboard. But Hitler was not interested. Just as he expected, the Western powers were hesitating to take action, and if they did make a military move, it would be merely a face-saving, symbolic gesture before retiring. Meanwhile, the British cautiously indicated that they would be prepared to discuss Danzig, the Corridor, and other issues, but insisted that no talks could begin until German troops halted their aggressive action and withdrew from Polish territory. Still convinced that Britain would not fight, Hitler dismissed Mussolini’s offer out of hand.
Then on September 2, the British informed Berlin that Ambassador Henderson would appear at the Foreign Office the following morning at nine to deliver an urgent communication from His Majesty’s Government. The German government, it read, had failed to respond to Britain’s message of September 1, calling for a cessation of military operations and a withdrawal of German forces from Poland. Instead, Germany had intensified its onslaught, and as a consequence, London had been compelled to draw a grim conclusion. “If His Majesty’s Government has not received satisfactory assurances of the cessation of all aggressive action against Poland, and the withdrawal of German troops from that country, by 11 o’clock British Summer Time, from that time a state of war will exist between Great Britain and Germany.”
Interpreter Schmidt hurried to the Reich Chancellery to report the contents of the message to Hitler. He found the Führer at his desk and Ribbentrop standing to his right at the window. “As I came in, both looked up expectantly. I stopped at some distance from Hitler’s desk and then slowly translated the British ultimatum. There was complete silence when I finished. Hitler sat as though petrified, staring before him. . . . After some time, which to me appeared an eternity, he turned to Ribbentrop, who, completely paralyzed, had remained standing by the window. ‘What now?’ asked Hitler,” glaring at his foreign minister. Ribbentrop had no answer except to mutter, “I assume that the French will hand in a similar ultimatum within the hour.” He was correct.
Despite repeated warnings that Britain would honor its obligation to Poland if Germany attacked, the ultimatum came as a shock. Hitler, spurred on by Ribbentrop, had for the first time badly miscalculated. His vaunted intuition had failed him. He was certain that the pact with Russia would deter the Western Powers from intervening and that they would fold, as they had done before over rearmament, the Rhineland, the Anschluss, and Czechoslovakia. Chamberlain and Daladier were “little worms” and had neither the courage nor the fortitude to thwart German ambitions. “I know,” Hitler told his generals. “I saw them at Munich.” The war against Poland, which Hitler was determined to have, was to have been a localized war, fought in the East, while Britain and France stood aside. That set of strategic assumptions was now in peril, and Hitler was compelled to confront the prospect of war in both the East and West.
His spirits soon revived as reports from the front brought news of rapid advances and German victories. Polish forces fought tenaciously but were hopelessly overmatched. The Poles possessed few tanks or motorized vehicles—the Germans could count on a fifteen-to-one advantage—and the small Polish air force, equipped with obsolete aircraft, was vastly outnumbered by Göring’s modern Luftwaffe. It was destroyed in a matter of days, leaving German dive-bombers free to terrorize Polish towns and cities—and anything that moved on the rails and roadways. Despite Hitler’s assurances to the contrary, the Luftwaffe made little distinction between military and civilian targets. It was a rout.
On September 6, Cracow fell with virtually no resistance. The Corridor was taken by September 8 and the remnants of the Polish army had been pushed back into Warsaw, where they were encircled. For days German bombers pulverized the near-defenseless city, reducing it to a desolate landscape of shattered buildings and rubble-filled streets. The unnerving howl of the Stuka dive-bombers and the shrill whistling of bombs falling from the sky offered a chilling preview of an utterly new kind of war. On September 17, the date the French had promised to launch their counteroffensive (they did not), the Red Army swept into eastern Poland, taking up positions agreed to in the pact with the Reich. A demarcation line between Russian and German troops was established, and a formal treaty setting the new borders of what had been Poland was signed on September 28. Poland had been partitioned three times in the last half of the eighteenth century by Prussia, Russia, and Habsburg Austria. The Nazi-Soviet partition marked the fourth. The Russians proved as ruthless as their German allies, killing fifty thousand Poles and sending more than a million, including elements of the Polish intelligentsia—to prisons in the Soviet Union, where they were executed and deposited in mass graves.
The destruction of the Polish military was quick and decisive; organized fighting ceased by the close of September. No surrender was signed but all combat ended on October 6. In a month of combat, the Polish army had suffered 65,000 men killed and 130,000 wounded, while the Wehrmacht had lost 16,000 dead and 20,000 wounded. That was only the beginning. Before the invasion, Hitler had instructed his troops that this was to be a different sort of war, a war shorn of all previous notions of combat. The old rules of engagement would not be applied. “Genghis Khan had millions of women and men killed by his own will and with a light heart. History sees him only as a great state-builder. . . . I have sent my Death’s Head [SS] units to the east with the order to kill without mercy men, women and children of the Polish race or language. Only in such a way shall we win the Lebensraum we need.”
Moving into Poland along with regular troops were special SS commando units, Einsatzgruppen, charged with orders to carry out Hitler’s racial wishes. First deployed in Austria and Czechoslovakia, they had served a limited policing function; in Poland they took on a far more extensive and sinister role. Seven Einsatzgruppen were created, numbering about 2,700 men in all. Each was attached to one of the seven armies operating in Poland. Their official mission was to secure the army’s rear, which meant policing conquered territory and battling insurgents, but wholesale murder was their primary activity. They were “ideological soldiers” of the Third Reich, laying the foundations of the new racial order in Europe. Although technically subordinate to the army, these ideologically schooled death squads acted largely on their own, receiving direction from Reinhard Heydrich in his capacity as head of the newly created Reich Security Main Office (Reichssicherheitshhauptamt, RSHA). Himmler placed the RSHA in charge of all German police forces in Germany and in the occupied territories and selected Heydrich, his longtime deputy, to lead it. It was the cold-blooded Heydrich who presided over the tidal wave of terror that crashed over Poland in 1939 and who, two years later, would be the prime architect of the “Final Solution” to the “Jewish problem” in Europe.
Initially, the Nazis planned to “cleanse” those areas of Poland to be annexed to the Reich. The regime created two new states, Danzig–West Prussia and the Wartheland, both incorporated into the Greater German Reich, while the borders of Silesia and East Prussia were also pushed eastward. Poles, Gypsies, and Jews were to be removed, deported to a third region, the newly created General Government of Poland. The General Government, established in an area consisting of the Polish province of Lublin as well as parts of Cracow, the seat of its new government, and Warsaw, was not to be integrated into the Reich but was to be ruled as a colony, with a German governor. All three of these territories were governed by hard-line Nazis, and each was determined to display his ideological zeal.
Hitler appointed Himmler Reich Commissar for the Strengthening of German Folkdom, a new title that gave him responsibility for Nazi racial policy in the occupied territories. Himmler delegated that authority to Heydrich and the RSHA, where specialists were already at work on finding a solution to the “Jewish question.” In a memorandum drafted on September 19, 1939, entitled “The Jewish Question in the Occupied Territories,” Heydrich laid out the foundations of Nazi policy. In those territories annexed to the Reich all non-Germans were to be expelled, a racial cleansing in preparation for future settlement by Germans. This meant evacuating thousands of Slavs and all Jews, consistent with prewar Nazi racial policy. But the very nature of “immigration” had undergone a radical change. It was one thing to insist on forced immigration, but where would the dispossessed go? Little thought had been devoted to this dimension of the evacuation program, and, symptomatically, little uniformity existed in SS policy on the ground.
Along with the Einsatzgruppen, Hitler established an Ethnic German Self-Defense Militia, which was, if anything, more independent and even more brutal than the Einsatzgruppen. As the leader of one such militia proclaimed to his troops: “You are now the master race here . . . don’t be soft, be merciless, and clear out everything that is not German and could hinder us in the work of construction.” Acting on their own, these militias carried out mass shootings of Polish civilians throughout the country. In one month alone, the militia massacred 2,000 Poles—men, women, and children—in Klammer; 10,000 Poles and Jews were herded by militia units to Mniszek, where they were lined up on the edge of gravel pits and shot. Aided by German soldiers, the militia marched another 8,000 into the woods near Karlshof and mowed them down. Of the 65,000 Poles and Jews murdered in the last quarter of 1939, roughly half were murdered by the militias.
Not to be outdone, the Einsatzgruppen took up their charge with stunning savagery. In Bydgoszcz they slaughtered 900 Poles and Jews; in Katowice another 750 including women and children; in the Bydgozca area, 5,000; in Zloczew, a small town in western Poland, they murdered nearly 200 people. These were not exceptional cases. Sometimes the Einsatzgruppen and army troops claimed to be responding to “provocation” from Polish saboteurs and guerrillas and would then inflict merciless retribution. This pattern of alleged provocation and savage reprisal would characterize German operations in the East, although as the fury of war intensified, no provocation was necessary to prompt German brutality. In all, Heydrich’s henchmen slaughtered some 50,000 Poles, not including the 61,000 professors, schoolteachers, police, administrators, army officers, clergy, and other groups considered to compose the country’s intelligentsia.
Poland was to be left in a state of devastation, not to be rebuilt for the duration of the war. The ravaged country was to be kept in a primitive condition, its population reduced to the status of second-class citizens or, in the case of Jews, slaves. In the following months the Germans unleashed a torrent of restrictions and prohibitions on the native Polish population. Poles were forbidden to use public beaches, swimming pools, or visit municipal gardens. Polish universities closed; Polish social and cultural organizations were dissolved; Polish military uniforms and decorations could not be worn in public; all adults were required to salute Germans wearing military uniforms and to remove their hats in the presence of Nazi officials; Poles were required to sit in the back of buses, train carriages, and other public conveyances. Their food rations were cut—“a lower race needs less food,” Robert Ley, head of the German Labor Front, declared—and thousands of Polish homes, especially in the countryside, were seized, their owners evicted at a moment’s notice (thirty minutes or less) to make room for German settlers imported from the Baltic.
All of these restrictions and more applied to the Jews. Poland’s large Jewish community offered an easy target. Poland was home to Europe’s largest Jewish community, and from the beginning of the Polish campaign, Jews were singled out for especially ruthless treatment. Jews were forced to flee across the demarcation line into Soviet-held territory, while a pitiless bloodbath engulfed those left behind. In many areas the Einsatzgruppen killed Jews wherever they found them. In Bedzin, one unit burned down the local synagogue and killed about five hundred Jews in two days of terror. In Dynow, near the San River, an Einsatzgruppe consisting of SS personnel and members of the Order Police, burned alive a dozen Jews in the local synagogue, then shot another 60 in a nearby forest. Similar killing operations were conducted in neighboring villages. By September 20 the unit had murdered 560 Jews in the vicinity.
While the Nazis decided that some categories of Poles would be spared—those in key economic sectors or occupations—and others “Germanized,” Jews were shown no mercy. They were simply eliminated. All Jews in the territories to be incorporated into the Reich were expelled and driven into the General Government. They left their homes, businesses, even their clothes behind, to be appropriated by Germans imported into the area. Many were killed by the militias and the Einsatzgruppen, shot, beaten to death, burned alive in schools or synagogues. For those who escaped that fate, no plans had been made in the General Government—or Berlin—for their settlement or survival. Ghettos sprang up in the major Polish cities, where in the following months, Jews died on the streets, shrunken by starvation or frozen, their bodies crumpled on sidewalks, as cold and rigid as gravestones. The first—and largest—ghetto was established in October–November in Warsaw; the Lodz ghetto in February 1940. Other ghettos and labor camps would open in other areas in roughly the same period. Most were located in or near cities with good transport facilities and were viewed as temporary holding areas or transit camps. Officially, the final solution was still forced immigration and would await further developments in the war.
While Heydrich’s forces pursued their ruthless objectives, army commanders were deeply mistrustful of the SS and its leaders, and only reluctantly agreed that the Einsatzgruppen be tasked with combating “all elements in foreign territory and behind the fighting troops that are hostile to the Reich and the German people.” Just exactly what this meant was unclear, but after observing the Einsatzgruppen in action and realizing just how little actual control the military exercised over these death squads, a number of army officers protested. Brauchitsch, commander-in-chief of the army, told the officers that it was the Führer’s policy and that he had selected the Einsatzgruppen to carry out certain “ethnic-political” tasks in the occupied territories that were beyond the providence of local army commanders. Confusion reigned.
Halder, the army’s chief of staff, noted in his war diary on September 10 that “an SS artillery unit . . . has herded Jews into a church and murdered them.” He tersely added: “A court martial has given them a one year prison sentence.” Other army commanders were appalled at the bestial behavior of the SS, and sought to court-martial men under their command for war crimes. One commander in Poland reported bluntly that the violence of the police units demonstrated “a totally inconceivable lack of human and moral feeling . . . a demeaning situation, which tarnished the honor of the entire German nation.” He recommended disbanding and dispersing “all the police units, including all their senior leaders, and all the directors of administrative offices in the General Government, and replacing them with sound and honorable men.” Nor was this disdain confined to the military leadership. General Johannes Blaskowitz, supreme commander in the East, was moved to report that “the attitude of the troops toward the SS and the police fluctuates between revulsion and hatred. Every soldier feels nauseated and repelled by the crimes being perpetrated in Poland by men representing the state authorities. The men fail to understand how such things . . . can go unpunished.”
To put an end to the arrests and courts-martial, Hitler intervened to make sure that those in the field understood that neither the Einsaztgruppen nor soldiers were to worry about the legality of their actions: everything was allowed. Himmler gave the order that when insurgents were encountered they were “to be shot on the spot.” And insurgents there were. The Poles organized guerrilla and saboteur groups to kill not only Wehrmacht troops but German civilians living in Poland. Outlandish stories in the Nazi press about Polish atrocities against the German minority were wildly exaggerated but not without some basis in fact. After the German seizure of Czechoslovakia, the Polish government had become concerned about German underground groups and self-defense militias and had shut down a number of German cultural and religious institutions. When the invasion came in 1939 they marched ten to fifteen thousand ethnic Germans away from the front, approximately two thousand of whom were killed by Polish civilians while trudging eastward.
Efforts to rein in the Einsatzgruppen were ineffectual, and for the most part the army simply looked the other way—or joined in. Murder and torture were not confined to the ideologically trained SS. To clarify matters, Hitler on October 4 issued an amnesty for those whom the army wished to punish—as far as Hitler and hence the law was concerned there were no war crimes in Poland. Torture, looting, and public humiliation of Jews were rampant and were not only tolerated but were seen, unofficially of course, almost as an entertainment for the troops. Orthodox Jews, with their distinctive beards and side locks, were the victims of choice. They were whipped, forced to smear feces on each other, to jump, crawl, clean excrement with prayer shawls, dance around a bonfire of burning Torah scrolls; some had the Star of David carved on their foreheads. The “beard game” was by far the most popular: beards and side locks were cut or torn, roots and all, from their heads, much to the delight of the laughing soldiers gathered around. Carefree men out on a spree. They took photographs and sent them home.
Despite these radical steps and the genocidal language in which they were swathed, Hitler’s plans were at this point still in flux. The solution to the Jewish problem in 1939 was still officially immigration, but with the Reich now in control of more than two million Jews, this was no longer a realistic option. It was at this time that the idea of a “Jewish reservation” somewhere in occupied Poland was discussed. The scheme seems to have been tentatively approved by Göring and Himmler but was dropped when no agreement could be reached on the location of such an installation. Hans Frank, the governor of the General Government, complained that his territory, which was the most likely site, was already being turned into a dumping ground for undesirables and could not handle a major influx of Jews. In addition to the millions of Polish Jews, the regime was now contemplating transporting Jews from Bohemia-Moravia and Austria to the General Government. The newly appointed Gauleiter of Danzig–West Prussia and the Wartheland were already conducting brutal deportations of Jews in a feverish competition to be the first to declare themselves as “judenrein” (free of Jews).
But where could they go? The Nazi authorities tried at first to push them into Russian-occupied eastern Poland or force them into the General Government. But this was obviously not an acceptable long-term solution. With the Reich now in control of Austria, Bohemia, and Moravia, and much of Poland, Heydrich and his SD specialists were facing a mounting crisis of their own making. Hitler charged Himmler with direction of overall racial policy in the East, but in practice much of that authority was delegated to Heydrich. The goal of the forced expulsions in 1939–40 was the creation of “a new ethnographic order” in Europe through forced population movements to create more racially homogeneous territories. Central to Heydrich’s mission, as Hitler explained it to him, was to arrange “the liquidation of various circles of the Polish leadership,” which would run “into the thousands.” The “driving force” behind the Polish resistance, Hitler believed, was the intelligentsia and it must, therefore, be eliminated—a view enthusiastically shared by Stalin. On the eve of the invasion, the army leadership acquiesced to SS plans to arrest up to thirty thousand Poles, overwhelmingly civilians, and Heydrich ordered his men to prepare to liquidate them. But that was only a beginning. As the Nazis assumed control of Poland, they discovered that fulfilling Hitler’s vision of “a new ethnographic order” in occupied Europe was an extraordinarily complex undertaking.
Groping for options, the SS considered another possible solution: the transport of Europe’s Jews to somewhere in Africa, where the French colony of Madagascar seemed like an ideal destination. During the 1930s Poland and France had discussed the possibility of deporting Poland’s unwanted Jews to the French colony off Africa’s eastern coast. With its primitive conditions—few settlements, hospitals, and basic infrastructure, its hostile equatorial climate, its fevers and diseases—life in Madagascar would be unbearable for European Jews. It was a death sentence. Such plans had come to nothing, but in 1940 the Nazis revived the idea. In May, Himmler wrote a memorandum for Hitler on the “Treatment of Foreign Nationals in the East,” in which he stated: “I hope to see the concept of Jews completely obliterated, with the possibility of a large migration of all Jews to Africa or else in a colony.” In pursuance of this option, SS specialists drafted numerous memoranda on issues of international law and transport, but the logistical problems were ultimately deemed insurmountable. Mass deportations, ghettoization, even murder were now on the agenda. The Nazis were still seeking a “final solution” to the “Jewish problem,” but it was becoming increasingly clear that for the Germans, the East had become a morally distinct area of operations. Traditional codes of conduct, of law, of morality were left behind on the border.
In the fall of 1939 and the months that followed, international attention to these ominous developments and Nazi attempts to establish a new racial order in Poland tended to recede, overshadowed by military events in the West. The speed of the German onslaught was stunning, and Blitzkrieg, lightning war, entered into the world’s military lexicon. Mechanized warfare—the use of tanks in combination with aircraft, especially the Stuka dive-bombers and their uncanny, howling shriek—heralded a new epoch of warfare. Yet, for all the cutting-edge technology of the Wehrmacht, the German advance into Poland in 1939 was carried forward by some 300,000 horses, and most German soldiers marched in on foot, much as Napoleon’s army had done more than a century before. Heavy reliance on horses would characterize all major German operations in the Second World War.
For Hitler, the campaign against Poland was a splendid success, just as he had predicted, and the British and French, beyond a declaration of war, had not intervened. Yet the war in Poland did not come without costs. The Poles fought courageously; their casualties in the German conflict reached over 70,000 deaths and another 50,000 resisting the Russians. But the assault on Poland had also taken a surprisingly stiff toll on the victorious Wehrmacht, which suffered 41,000 casualties, killed and wounded.
In October Stalin surprised both Hitler and the Western powers by sending the Red Army into neighboring Finland. Stalin wished to secure his northern flank, and the city of Leningrad was particularly vulnerable, lying only miles from the Finnish border. Soviet troops entered the snowbound landscape of dense woods and swamps in October, and although they vastly outnumbered the Finns, their progress was glacially slow. The Finns, donning white uniforms and skis, proved masters of winter warfare, inflicting serious casualties on the Russians. For his heroic defense against overwhelming odds, the Finnish general Carl Gustav Mannerheim became something of a hero in Western Europe, hailed in Britain and France. Some in Parliament, especially Churchill, loudly advocated sending troops and supplies to Mannerheim across northern Scandinavia, but Chamberlain wisely demurred.
Hitler, who had not been informed of Stalin’s plans in advance, found himself in an uncomfortable position. He yearned to aid the Finns, but due to the Nazi-Soviet pact, he could not. The lackluster performance of the Red Army in the snows of Finland confirmed his low opinion of the Soviet military power. What could one expect of a military establishment so thoroughly honeycombed by Communist commissars? It was a view widely shared by military staffs all over Europe.