Modern history

7

THE ROAD TO WAR

FROM WEAKNESS TO STRENGTH

I

Hitler’s working habits were irregular. He had always been a stranger to routine. His Bohemianism was still evident in his lifestyle after he came to power. He often stayed up well into the small hours watching movies in his private cinema, and he was often very late to rise the next day. Generally, he would start work at about ten in the morning, spending two or three hours hearing reports from Hans Heinrich Lammers, head of the Reich Chancellery and Hitler’s principal link with his Ministers, and Walther Funk, Goebbels’s deputy in the Propaganda Ministry. After covering the administrative, legislative and propaganda issues of the day, he would sometimes take time for urgent consultations with individual Ministers, or with State Secretary Otto Meissner, who ran what had once been the President’s office. Lunch was routinely prepared for one in the afternoon, but sometimes had to be postponed if Hitler was delayed. Guests would generally consist of Hitler’s immediate entourage, including his adjutants, his chauffeurs and his photographer, Heinrich Hoffmann. Goring, Goebbels and Himmler attended with varying degrees of frequency, and later on Albert Speer, but most senior Ministers were seldom to be seen. If they were out of favour, indeed, they were never admitted to Hitler’s presence at all: Agriculture Minister Walther Darré for instance tried without success for more than two years to see Hitler in the late 1930s to discuss the worsening food supply situation. After lunch, Hitler would hold discussions on foreign policy issues and military matters with a variety of advisers, or pore over architectural plans with Speer. Rather than spend hours wading through mountains of paperwork, Hitler always preferred to talk to people, which he did at great length, and usually without interruption from his sycophantic listeners, over lunch or dinner.1

When Hitler was in residence at his retreat at the Obersalzberg in the Bavarian Alps his lifestyle was even less regular. Originally a small hilltop chalet, this was reconstructed after 1933 to form a large complex of buildings known collectively as the Berghof (‘mountain court’ or ‘mountain farm’), with stunning views across the mountains from a terrace and further buildings down the hill for members of his entourage. Here, he would sometimes fail to emerge from his private quarters until the early afternoon, go for a walk down the hill (a car was waiting at the bottom to take him back up again), greet the streams of ordinary citizens who toiled up the mountain to file silently past him and removed pieces of his fence as souvenirs and take refreshments on the terrace if the weather was good. After dinner there would be more old movies, and he seldom went to bed before two or three in the morning. He was often accompanied here by Eva Braun, an attractive young woman, twenty-three years his junior, and a former employee of Heinrich Hoffmann. Hitler’s sex life, the subject of much lurid speculation then and later, appears to have been completely conventional, except for the fact that he refused to marry or to admit to any relationships to the wider public, for fear that doing so would compromise the aura of lonesome power and invulnerability with which propaganda had surrounded him. Earlier on, in 1931, his niece Angela (‘Geli’) Raubal was killed in an accident, giving rise to unsavoury, but unfounded, rumours about their relationship. Eva Braun, a naive and submissive young woman, was clearly in awe of Hitler, and felt overwhelmed by his attention. The relationship was quickly accepted by Hitler’s entourage, but kept secret from the public. Living in luxury, with few duties, Eva Braun was present at the Berghof as Hitler’s private companion, not his official consort.2

The absence of routine in Hitler’s style of leadership meant that he paid little attention to detailed issues in which he was not interested, such as the management of the labour force, or the details of financial management, which he happily left to Schacht and his successors. This could mean on occasion that he put his signature to measures which had to be shelved because of opposition from powerful vested interests, as in a decree on the Labour Front issued in October 1934.3 It also meant that those who had, or controlled, direct personal access to him could wield considerable influence. Access became an increasingly important key to power. Hitler’s Bohemian lifestyle did not mean, however, that he was lazy or inactive, or that he withdrew from domestic politics after 1933. When the occasion demanded, he could intervene powerfully and decisively. Albert Speer, who was with him often in the second half of the 1930s, observed that while he appeared to waste a great deal of time, ‘he often allowed a problem to mature during the weeks when he seemed entirely taken up with trivial matters. Then, after the “sudden insight” came, he would spend a few days of intensive work giving final shape to his solution.’4 Hitler, in other words, was erratic rather than lazy in his working habits. He wrote his own speeches, and he frequently engaged in lengthy and exhausting tours around Germany, speaking, meeting officials and carrying out his ceremonial functions as head of state. In areas where he did take a real interest, he did not hesitate to give a direct lead, even on matters of detail. In art and culture, for instance, Hitler laid down the policy to be followed, and personally inspected the pictures selected for exhibition or suppression. His prejudices - against the composer Paul Hindemith, for example - invariably proved decisive. In racial policy, too, Hitler took a leading role, pushing on or slowing down the implementation of antisemitic and other measures as he thought circumstances dictated. In areas such as these, Hitler was not merely reacting to initiatives from his subordinates, as some have suggested. Moreover, it was Hitler who laid down the broad, general principles that policy had to follow. These were simple, clear and easy to grasp, and they had been drummed into the minds and hearts of Nazi activists since the 1920s through his bookMy Struggle, through his speeches and through the vast and ceaselessly active propaganda machine built up by the Party before 1933 and the Propaganda Ministry after that. Hitler’s underlings did not have to imagine what he would want in any given situation: the principles that guided their conduct were there for all to grasp; all they had to do was to fill in the small print. Beyond this, too, at decisive moments, such as the boycott action of 1 April 1933 or the pogrom of 9-10 November 1938, Hitler personally ordered action to be taken, in terms that necessarily, from his point of view, avoided specifics, but were none the less unmistakeable in their general thrust.5

The area in which Hitler took the most consistent and most detailed interest, however, was undeniably that of foreign policy and preparation for war. It was without question Hitler, personally, who drove Germany towards war from the moment he became Reich Chancellor, subordinating every other aspect of policy to this overriding aim and, as we have seen, creating a growing number of stresses and strains in the economy, society and the political system as a result. The war he envisaged was to be far more extensive than a series of limited conflicts designed to revise the territorial provisions of the Treaty of Versailles. On one of many similar occasions, he announced on 23 May 1928 that his intention was ‘to lead our people into bloody action, not for an adjustment of its boundaries, but to save it into the most distant future by securing so much land and ground that the future receives back many times the blood shed’.6 He did not modify this intention after he came to power. In early August 1933, for instance, he told two visiting American businessmen that he wanted to annex not only Austria, the Polish corridor and Alsace-Lorraine but also the German-speaking parts of Denmark, Italy, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and Romania as well. This meant total German domination over Europe.7 In the long run, indeed, he intended Germany to dominate the world.8 But to begin with, of course, Hitler had to contend with the problem that Germany was extremely weak internationally, its armed forces severely limited by the Treaty of Versailles, its economy depressed, its internal constitution, as he thought, chaotic and divided, beset by enemies within. Hitler’s initial aim, therefore, which guided his foreign policy for the first two years and more of the Third Reich, was to keep Germany’s potential enemies at bay while the country rearmed.9

It was in practice not difficult to do this. Germany enjoyed a great deal of sympathy internationally in the early-to-mid-1930s. The idealism that had played such a huge part in the creation of the Peace Settlement of 1918-19 had long turned round to work against it. The principle of national self-determination, invoked to give independence to countries like Poland, had manifestly been denied to Germany itself, as millions of German-speakers in Austria, in the Czech Sudetenland, in parts of Silesia (now part of Poland), and elsewhere had been refused the right for the lands they lived in to become part of the Reich. A widespread feeling amongst British and French elites that the First World War had been the disastrous result of a chapter of accidents and poor decisions fuelled a sense of guilt at the harshness of the peace terms and a general disbelief in the war guilt clause that pinned the blame on Germany. Reparations had been brought to a premature end in 1932, but the continued restrictions on Germany’s armaments seemed unfair and absurd to many, especially in the face of belligerently nationalist and authoritarian governments in countries like Hungary and Poland. For Britain and France the Depression meant financial retrenchment, and a huge reluctance to spend any more money on arms, especially in view of the perceived need to defend and maintain their far-flung overseas empires in India, Africa, Indo-China and elsewhere. In France, the late onset of the Depression, in the mid-1930s, made rapid rearmarment extremely difficult anyway. Most of the postwar generation of politicians in Britain and France were second-rate figures. Having seen the best and brightest of their generation killed on the front in the First World War, they were determined to avoid a repetition of the slaughter if they were humanly able to. Their reluctance to prepare for, still less to go to, war, over problems of European politics that seemed eminently soluble by other means, with a modicum of goodwill on all sides, was compounded, finally, by a nagging fear of what such a war would bring: not only renewed carnage in the trenches but also massive aerial bombardment of the great cities, huge destruction and loss of civilian life, and possibly even social revolution as well.10

Map 17. Ethnic Germans in Central and Eastern Europe, 1937

Thus in effect all Hitler had to do to get through the initial, dangerous phase of rearmament was to appease international opinion by assuring everybody that all he wanted to do was to redress the wrongs of the Peace Settlement, achieve an acceptable degree of national self-determination for the Germans and restore his country to its rightful, equal place in the world of nations, complete with adequate means with which to defend itself against potential aggressors. And this, essentially, is what he did up to the middle of 1938, with the backing not only of the Nazi Party’s Foreign Policy Office under Alfred Rosenberg but also of the conservative bureaucrats who still dominated the German Foreign Office under Baron Konstantin von Neurath. Nationalists to a man, the officials had chafed at the policy of fulfilment pursued by Foreign Minister Gustav Stresemann in the 1920s, and welcomed the change of tack brought about by Reich Chancellor Heinrich Bruning, who had replaced Stresemann’s senior aide with the more aggressively inclined Bernhard von Bülow as State Secretary in 1930. The diplomats welcomed the new regime in January 1933, especially since Neurath, who continued as Foreign Minister from the previous government at the express wish of President Hindenburg, was one of their own. On 13 March 1933 Bulow submitted a memorandum to Neurath and Defence Minister Blomberg in which he stressed that the medium-term aims of foreign policy, now that reparations had been wound up and the French, British and Americans had ended their military occupation of the Rhineland, should be to get back the territory lost to the Poles in 1918-19, and to incorporate Austria into the Reich. In the immediate future, however, he advised, Germany should avoid any aggressive moves until rearmament had restored its strength.11

But the road to achieving this was a rocky one. International disarmament negotiations begun in Geneva early in 1932 had run into the sands because the British and French had been unwilling to allow parity to Germany either by running down their own armed forces or permitting the Germans to build up theirs. Increasingly keen to introduce conscription, particularly in view of the growing threat of Ernst Röhm’s brownshirts as an ersatz army, Defence Minister Blomberg, with the support of the Foreign Ministry, bypassed Hitler and encouraged the German representatives in Geneva to take a hard line in the face of continuing Anglo-French objections to the removal of limitations on German arms. As negotiations reached deadlock, Blomberg persuaded Hitler to pull out on 14 October 1933, and to underscore the significance of this move by withdrawing Germany from the League of Nations, the main sponsor of the negotiations, at the same time.12 The move was made, Hitler declared, ‘in view of the unreasonable, humiliating and degrading demands of the other Powers’. Protesting his desire for peace and his willingness to disarm if the other Powers did the same, Hitler declared, in a lengthy speech broadcast on the radio the same evening, that the deliberate degradation of Germany could no longer be tolerated. Germany had been humiliated by the Peace Settlement and plunged into economic disaster by reparations; to add insult to injury by refusing to grant equality in disarmament talks was too much to bear. The decision, he announced, would be put to the German people in a plebiscite.13 Held a few weeks later, it delivered the predictably overwhelming majority in favour of Hitler’s decision, thanks not least to massive intimidation and electoral manipulation. Although it is impossible to say with certainty, it is likely that a majority of the electors would have backed withdrawal in a free vote; only former Communists and left-wing Social Democrats would have been likely to have voted ‘no’ if voting had been free.14

Departure from the League of Nations was the first decisive step in the foreign policy of the Third Reich. It was followed rapidly by another move that caused general astonishment both within Germany and without: a ten-year non-aggression pact with Poland, signed on 26 January 1934, forced through by Hitler personally over serious reservations on the part of the Foreign Office. For Hitler, the pact’s advantage was that it covered Germany’s vulnerable eastern flank during the period of secret rearmament, improved trade relations, which were extremely poor at the time, and provided some security for the free city of Danzig, which was now run by a Nazi local government under League of Nations suzerainty but was cut off from the rest of Germany by the corridor to the Baltic granted to Poland by the Peace Settlement. The pact could be used to demonstrate to Britain and other powers that Germany was a peaceful nation; even the much-admired Gustav Stresemann, Foreign Minister during the Weimar Republic, had not concluded an ‘Eastern Locarno’, only managing to settle matters in the West through the treaty of that name. For the Poles, it served as a substitute for the security formerly provided by the League of Nations, and replaced the alliance concluded in 1921 with France, whose internal political and economic situation was making it look increasingly unsatisfactory as a defensive support against German aggression (undermining French influence was another bonus for Hitler, of course). The pact was, however, a purely temporary expedient on Hitler’s part: a piece of paper, serving its purpose for the moment, to be torn up without ceremony when it was no longer of any use. There were to be many more like it.15

I I

For most of 1934, Hitler’s attention was directed towards internal politics, particularly with the tensions that led up to and followed the purge of the SA carried out at the end of June. Just before the purge, Hitler paid his first visit abroad as German Chancellor, to the Fascist leader Mussolini, in Venice, to try and secure his understanding for the events that were about to unfold. Hitler’s admiration for Mussolini was patently sincere. However, the atmosphere at the meeting was distinctly frosty. Mussolini was deeply suspicious of the Nazis’ intentions in Austria, which he felt lay within his own sphere of influence. A small, landlocked country half in the Alps bordering Italy, German-speaking Austria had experienced repeated political turbulence since the international rejection of the proposal to merge it into Germany after the collapse of the Habsburg monarchy in 1918-19. Few Austrians had much confidence in the viability of their state. Massive inflation in the early 1920s had been followed by deflation, and then came the Depression, much as in Germany. The country was divided politically into two great political camps, the Socialists, based mainly in the working class of ‘Red’ Vienna, where nearly a third of the country’s seven million inhabitants lived, and the Catholic-oriented Christian Social Party, which drew its strength from the Viennese middle classes and from conservative farmers and small-town voters in the provinces. Tension between them had broken out into open hostility in 1933, when the Christian Social Chancellor, Engelbert Dollfuss, permanently dissolved parliament and established an authoritarian regime. Increased police harassment of the Socialists provoked an armed uprising in the working-class districts of Vienna in February 1934. It was put down with brutal force by the Austrian army. Leading Socialists, including their most influential ideologue, Otto Bauer, fled to safety through Vienna’s famous underground sewers. Dollfuss now outlawed the Socialists altogether. Thousands were arrested and put in prison. On 1 May 1934 the Austrian dictator pushed through a new constitution for his country. It abolished elections and established, at least on paper, a pale version of the Corporate State based on the model devised by Mussolini.16

For all their seeming decisiveness, these moves left Dollfuss looking distinctly shaky. The economic situation was worse than ever. The large Viennese working class was seething with resentment. On the right, the paramilitary Home Defence Brigades, who wanted a more radical kind of fascism, based more clearly on the Italian model, were causing unrest. The previously tiny Austrian Nazi Party was growing rapidly in size and ambition. Its formal banning by Dollfuss in July 1933 had little effect. Bringing together tradesmen and small shopkeepers in Vienna and the Austrian hinterland, lower civil servants, army veterans, recent university graduates and significant elements of the police and gendarmerie, the Party counted nearly 70,000 members at the time of its banning. It gained a further 20,000 in the following months. Held together, though always somewhat precariously, by a violent, vicious brand of antisemitism, fortified by anticlericalism and anti-Catholicism, it looked back to the pan-Germanism of Georg Ritter von Schönerer, whose ideas had so powerfully influenced the young Adolf Hitler in Linz and Vienna before 1914. Its main aim was immediate unification with the Third Reich. As its members listened to the constant stream of Nazi propaganda poured out by radio stations across the border, they became ever more convinced that unification was imminent. Violence and terror became their favoured means of undermining the Austrian state so as to leave it easy prey for the Third Reich. 17

By the early summer of 1934, the moment seemed ripe for action. Fridolin Glass, leader of the SS Standard 89 in Vienna, decided to overthrow the Austrian government. On 25 July 1934, 150 of his men, mostly unemployed workers and soldiers who had been cashiered from the army because of their Nazism, dressed themselves in borrowed Austrian army uniforms and entered the Austrian Chancellery. The cabinet had already left the building, but the SS men caught Dollfuss trying to leave by a side-entrance and shot him dead on the spot. Rushing into the neighbouring headquarters of the Austrian broadcasting corporation, the putschists commandeered a radio microphone and announced to the country that the government had resigned. Sympathizers in the police had probably made it easy for them to enter the buildings. But this was about the extent of the backing they got from anybody. The Austrian SA, whose leaders were gathered in a nearby hotel, pretended they had known nothing of the putsch at any stage, and refused to intervene. Less than four weeks after the German SA leaders had been shot by the SS, they could not bring themselves to let bygones be bygones. Uprisings in many parts of the country, triggered off, as arranged, by the putschists’ radio broadcasts, were put down by the Austrian army, aided in places by the Home Defence Brigades. There were several hundred deaths and injuries. Where the SA did stage an uprising, the SS refused to support them. Even Nazi officers in the army and police in many places took part willingly in the suppression of the revolt. The Austrian Nazis turned out to be poorly trained and ill prepared for such a venture, over-confident, internally divided and incompetent. In Vienna, the Minister of Justice, Kurt von Schuschnigg, formed a new government and after brief negotiations with the putschists had them all arrested. Hitler abandoned them to their fate. The two men who had fired the fatal shots at Dollfuss were hanged in the yard of the Vienna Regional Court. Their last words were ‘Hail, Hitler!’ The German Ambassador in Rome, who had been implicated in the plot, tried unsuccessfully to commit suicide. Even before these events, an Austrian Nazi had complained that ‘the Austrian on average is incapable as an organizer. In the organizational field he needs Prussian help! . . . Without the Prussian power of organization there will always be chaos at decisive moments.’ The bloody but farcical putsch seemed to bear him out. From now on, Schuschnigg was able to reconstruct the clerico-fascist dictatorship on a firmer basis, curbing the Home Defence Brigades and sending the Nazis underground, from where they continued to commit acts of violence and sabotage against state institutions, for the moment without much effect.18

Hitler undoubtedly knew about these events in advance. The Austrian SS had undergone training for the putsch at the Dachau concentration camp. After the banning of the Austrian Nazi Party in June 1933 Dr Theo Habicht, a German Reichstag deputy whom Hitler had appointed to lead the Austrian Nazis, had organized its underground activities from exile in Munich. He poured clandestine antisemitic propaganda into Austria, accusing Dollfuss of presiding over a regime run by Jews. It was in Habicht’s flat in Munich that leading Austrian Nazis met shortly before the putsch to finalize preparations. He told Hitler what was being planned, and Hitler gave his blessing for a general uprising - though in the belief, evidently inspired by Habicht’s exaggerated optimism on the occasion, that the Austrian army would back the putsch. From his exile in Munich, Habicht in reality was less than well informed about the true state of affairs in Austria. Not only did the putsch fail, and the army stick by the government, but Mussolini moved his troops to the Brenner Pass and made it abundantly clear that he would intervene on the side of the Austrian government if the situation got out of control. Hitler was beside himself with rage and embarrassment. Amidst assurances of disapproval that convinced nobody, he dismissed Habicht and closed down the Munich office of the Austrian Party.19

In one respect, however, the catastrophe provided an opportunity. Such was the gravity of the breach in relations with Germany’s neighbour, Hitler told Deputy Chancellor von Papen, who was still under effective house arrest after the ‘Night of the Long Knives’, that it required a senior statesman to smooth things over: as a personal friend of the murdered Austrian Chancellor, and a well-known Catholic statesman, Papen was the man to pour oil on the troubled waters of Austro-German relations. So Hitler appointed him ambassador in Vienna. Realizing he had little choice, Papen accepted. At his request, his secretary, Günther von Tschirschky-Bögendorf, was released from the prison where he had been held since the action of 30 June and accompanied him to Austria. The last remaining independent-minded conservative politician in the government was finally out of the way - an unexpected by-product of the mismanaged putsch.20

III

Germany’s diplomatic isolation in the winter of 1934-5 seemed complete. 21 The only light in the gloom was provided by the results of a plebiscite held in the small territory of the Saarland, on the western side of the Rhineland on 13 January 1935. At the peace negotiations in 1919 the French, who clearly hoped they would be able to detach it from Germany, given enough time, had the Saarland mandated to them by the League of Nations, with the commitment that a referendum would be held after fifteen years to give the area’s inhabitants a final choice as to which country they wanted to belong to. The fifteen years were up at the end of 1934. The Saarland’s mainly German-speaking citizens had never wanted to be separated from Germany in the first place: 445,000 Saarlanders, nearly 91 per cent of those who cast their ballots, duly expressed their desire to become citizens of the Third Reich. They did so from a number of motives. The prospect of living as a German-speaking minority in France was not an enticing one: in Alsace-Lorraine, the French authorities had gone to great lengths to try and suppress the German language and culture of the inhabitants and discriminated heavily against those who remained loyal to their heritage. In the Saarland too, the French rulers had been tactless and exploitative. They were almost universally seen not as democrats but as imperialists. In Germany, relations between Nazis and Catholics had not deteriorated at this stage to such a point where the Catholic Church, representing the vast majority of Saarlanders, would have felt it necessary to advise a continuation of the status quo, still less adherence to France, where the Communist Party seemed to be gaining steadily in strength. To encourage priests to advise their flocks to vote for Germany, the Nazis toned down their anti-Catholic propaganda in the run-up to the plebiscite. The clergy duly obliged with their support.22

Moreover, when the Centre Party had voluntarily dissolved itself in Germany in 1933 as a quid pro quo for the Concordat, it had done the same in the Saarland too, though it was not strictly necessary. Throughout the 1920s it had vigorously campaigned for a return of the Saarland to Germany - indeed, every political party in the Saarland had done the same - and in June 1934 it joined forces with the Nazis and the remnants of the Nationalists and other parties to fight for a ‘yes’ vote in a unified ‘German Front’ which projected itself to voters as being above politics. Only the Communists and Social Democrats remained outside, but since they too had fought for reunification for many years, their sudden volteface confused their supporters and was accepted by few as sincere. Up to this point, indeed, patriotic rituals, war memorials to the German dead, national festivals and much more besides, supported financially and in other ways by nationalist enthusiasts within Germany, had worked to strengthen German national consciousness in the Saar. Their effect was not going to be undone in a couple of years. The Nazi Party in Germany also offered a variety of material inducements to the Saarlanders, sending Winter Aid over the border to help the needy, pointing out to teachers and other state employees the superior pension and other financial arrangements for them that could be obtained in Germany, and contrasting the economic recovery in the Reich with the rapidly deepening Depression in France. Goebbels’s Propaganda Ministry blared out propaganda on German radio and exported large numbers of cheap ‘People’s Receivers’ into the Saar to help the population receive the message. Rhenish printing presses rolled off millions of leaflets that were soon being read all over the Saarland; 80,000 posters went up in the region urging people to vote for Germany. Fifteen hundred public meetings were held to help convince people of the rightness of reunification. For the vote itself, 47,000 Saarlanders living in the Reich were brought in to cast their ballots, further strengthening the nationalists’ support. The campaign against reunification scarcely existed in comparison, and was hamstrung by internal divisions over whether to campaign for a continuation of the status quo or for absorption into France.23

In many parts of the Saarland, the local Nazi Party exerted massive intimidation and violence behind the scenes to deter the opposition from voting against reunification with Germany. The terror it unfolded was reminiscent of the early months of 1933 in Germany. Social Democratic meetings were broken up by brownshirts wielding steel bars. People distributing propaganda against reunification were beaten up with rubber truncheons or even shot. Anti-fascist pubs were attacked and their windows shattered in a hail of bullets. Opposition meetings were turned into riots. The atmosphere resembled that of a civil war, as one local inhabitant remarked. The local police stood by while all this went on. While German SS units were sent into the area to help escalate the terror, rumours put about by the ‘yes’ campaign encouraged voters to believe that the ballot would not be secret, a plausible enough suggestion in view of what had been going on in plebiscites and elections in Germany itself. Strong hints were dropped that those known to have voted ‘no’ would be carted off to concentration camps once the Germans came in. Especially in small communities, the identity of the local Communists and Social Democrats was generally known anyway, so anti-Nazis were aware that this was no empty threat. The international monitors appointed to oversee the plebiscite admitted that the campaign was violent and called for the terror to stop, but their soldiers on the ground were commanded by officers strongly hostile to the Communists and Social Democrats, and so took no action.24 It was not surprising that a majority of former Communist and Social Democratic voters decided that unity with Germany was the best course; they had not experienced the reality of life in the Third Reich, and their national identity as Germans was strong. The labour movement had always been weak in the Saarland, where, one German trade unionist noted, the Prussian state had been a major employer, putting miners in uniform and disciplining dissidents, and the big industrialists had wielded huge influence. ‘The population of the Saar’, he concluded resignedly, ‘belongs among the politically most backward population in Germany.’25 How far it was possible to draw general conclusions from the plebiscite about the attitude of the majority of Germans to the Third Reich must remain in doubt, particularly given the small size of the population and its peculiar political culture as a border region. For most Saarlanders, the vote was a ‘yes’ for Germany irrespective of Hitler and the Nazis.26

Under pressure, the government in Berlin had been obliged to promise that German laws and practices would only be introduced gradually into the Saar, and that Jews in particular would not be exposed to the kind of violence that had been common in the Reich since the end of January 1933. However, it was not long before the Saarlanders began to experience the realities of life in the Third Reich. ‘Prussian’ carpet-baggers moved in to take over offices and jobs, the Gestapo set up its headquarters in the old trade union building, and people suspected of pro-French sympathies were unceremoniously sacked from their jobs. Prominent Communists and Social Democrats fled the country without delay. The mass of ordinary Saarlanders doubtless never wished they had voted otherwise than for reunification, but all the same, it failed to bring them the immediate improvements they had been promised. Unemployment did not vanish overnight, and food shortages quickly began to affect the region. The region’s Jews were initially allowed to emigrate on more favourable terms than those on offer in the rest of Germany, but from September 1935, with the promulgation of the Nuremberg Laws, they were exposed to the full rigours of Nazi antisemitism. There were mutterings, even strikes, but no real resistance; conditions in this largely rural and small-town society, with its weak labour movement traditions, made it virtually impossible.27 It was not until 1938 that economic recovery, fuelled by rearmament, began to reconcile the Saarlanders to their lot, and the continuing propaganda barrage from Berlin, the Nazification of education, and compulsory enrolment in the Hitler Youth, began to spread acceptance of the Third Reich amongst young Saarlanders in particular.28

All this was still to come when, on 1 March 1935, the day of formal incorporation, Hitler spoke in Saarbrücken of his joy at the Saarlanders’ decision. It was a great day for Germany, he said, and a great day for Europe. It showed the power and popularity of the Third Reich and its ideas for all Germans. ‘In the end’, he proclaimed, ‘blood is stronger than any documents of mere paper. What ink has written will one day be blotted out by blood.’ The implications for German-speaking minorities in other European countries, notably Poland and Czechoslovakia, were unmistakeable.29 The Hamburg schoolteacher Luise Solmitz celebrated the ‘Day of the Saar’s Homecoming’ by hoisting up her old black-white-red Imperial banner for the last time, before raising her new one, decorated with the swastika, over her house.30 All over Germany, flags were flown to celebrate the event. Correspondingly, the vote spread despondency among the clandestine Social Democratic and Communist opposition in Germany and gave a boost to the self-confidence of the Nazi rank and file.31

It also injected a new boldness in foreign affairs into the German Leader. Hitler was increasingly unable to conceal the pace or extent of rearmament from the world, and indeed the Saar plebiscite provided the spur to fresh demands from the military which would be completely impossible to keep from prying eyes abroad if they were carried out. The success of the Saar plebiscite seems to have prompted his announcement of the existence of a German air force and the introduction of conscription, on 16 March 1935. The army would be expanded to more than half a million men, five times the size permitted by the Treaty of Versailles, he said. The following day saw a grandiose military parade in Berlin, at which Defence Minister General Werner von Blomberg announced that Germany was about to take up its rightful place in the world of nations once again.32 Naturally Hitler assured everyone that all Germany wanted was peace. Many of his middle-class sympathizers believed him. ‘We’ve got general conscription again!’ wrote Luise Solmitz triumphantly in her diary:

The day that we have longed for since the disgrace of 1918 . . . In the morning France had its much-fought-over two-year period of military service in its pocket, in the evening we had general conscription as an answer to it. We would never have experienced Versailles if such actions had always been taken, such answers always given . . . General conscription is to serve not war but the maintenance of peace. For a defenceless country in the midst of heavily armed people must necessarily be an invitation and encouragement to maltreat it as territory to march into or to plunder. We haven’t forgotten the invasion of the Ruhr.33

As the formal announcement came over the radio, Luise Solmitz reported, ‘I rose to my feet. It overcame me, the moment was too great. I had to listen standing.’34

But the announcement sparked widespread anxiety amongst many Germans too, particularly those who had experienced the First World War. Many young men groaned at the prospect of being conscripted after they had already spent many months doing labour service. At the same time, however, some older workers welcomed the relief that would be given to the unemployment situation by the move. And accompanying what one report called a general ‘really particularly strong war psychosis’, often in the very same people, was also a widespread feeling of satisfaction that Germany was at last achieving international respect again. ‘There is no doubt’, reported a Social Democratic agent in Rhineland-Westphalia, ‘that the perpetual banging-on about equality of honour and German freedom has had an effect far into the ranks of the formerly Marxist working-class and caused confusion there.’35

International reaction was sobering. The British, French and Italian governments responded by meeting at Stresa, in Italy, on 11 April 1935, and declaring their determination to defend the integrity of Austria against the German threat that had been obvious since July 1934 and now seemed to be looming once again. Less than a week later, the League of Nations formally censured Germany’s rearmament programme. Shortly after this, France concluded an agreement with the Soviet Union. These moves had more rhetorical effect than real clout. Continuing the policy of bilateral negotiations with individual countries begun with the Polish pact. Hitler had been discussing a naval agreement with the British since November 1934. He realized that it would be a very long time before the renascent German fleet could hope to match the size of Britain’s enormous navy, and for the time being at any rate he wanted to reassure the British so that they would not interfere with Germany’s achievement of Continental hegemony. Later on, as he told the head of the navy, Admiral Raeder, in June 1934, the fleet could be built up to its full strength and turned against Britain, as Raeder and his fellow officers envisaged; but not now. Hitler accompanied his reassurances to the British with threats. He warned British negotiators that German rearmament was far advanced, particularly in air power (more so, indeed, than it actually was). In the long run Germany needed colonies to expand its living-space (a scarcely veiled threat to the far-flung British Empire). But Hitler declared that his preferred choice was to take the first step along this road with Britain rather than against, in the hope of smoothing things over later on. The British, realizing they were not going to get Germany to rejoin the League of Nations, and worried about the growing naval strength of Japan, agreed to what seemed perfectly reasonable terms, and on 18 June 1935 a joint Anglo-German Naval Agreement was signed, allowing the Germans to build up their navy to 35 per cent of the strength of the British navy and to reach parity with the British in the number of submarines. This rode a coach and horses through the Stresa agreement, concluded only a few months before, and was a major diplomatic triumph for Hitler.36

The German negotiating team in London was led by a man who was soon to join the top rank of Nazi leaders: Joachim von Ribbentrop. Born in 1893 in the Rhineland, son of a professional soldier of bourgeois origin, Ribbentrop had graduated from grammar school, but instead of going to university he spent time in a variety of jobs in Britain, Canada and Francophone Switzerland, gaining a good command of English and French, and making a number of contacts that were to prove useful later on. He served on both the western and eastern fronts in the First World War, and was awarded the Iron Cross for bravery. At the end of the war, he was at the Prussian military mission in Constantinople, after which he was assigned to a military team preparing for the Peace Conference. By the time he left the army in 1919, therefore, Ribbentrop’s travels and diplomatic activities had given him a strong interest in foreign affairs. But it was business to which he initially returned - first cotton, then the drinks trade, through his marriage to Annelies Henkell, the daughter of a well-known manufacturer of Sekt, German sparkling wine. The marriage gave him financial security and an entrée into high society. By getting himself adopted by an aunt from the aristocratic branch of his family, he was able to add the noble prefix ‘von’ to his name. But the move backfired. It was rumoured that he had paid his aunt for this service. Moreover, some noted that while the complicated adoption legislation governing his choice treated the ‘von’ as part of the adoptive parent’s name and therefore transferable with it to the adopted children, it insisted at the same time that the transfer of the noble prefix did not in any way transfer noble status to the adoptee. The incident was characteristic as much of Ribbentrop’s social pretentiousness as it was of his social ineptitude: in London, in the 1930s, he was sometimes known as ‘von Ribbensnob’.37

Ribbentrop was far from being a Nazi of the first hour. For most of the Weimar Republic he shared the hatred of most middle-class Germans for the Peace Settlement, despised the parliamentary system, and was considerably alarmed by the menace of Communism, but he did not gravitate towards the far right until 1932. As a member, inevitably, of the fashionable Herrenclub, the gentlemen’s club in Berlin patronized by the aristocracy, including Papen and his friends, Ribbentrop met Hitler and became involved in the complex negotiations that eventually led to his appointment as Reich Chancellor in January 1933. To the provincial Hitler, Ribbentrop, rather like the Nazi Leader’s old intimate Putzi Hanfstaengl, seemed a man of the world, experienced in foreign travel, multi-lingual, socially adept. Hitler began to use him for special diplomatic missions, bypassing the conservative, routine-bound Foreign Ministry. Doubtless with Hitler’s approval, Ribbentrop set up his own independent office, along the lines of Alfred Rosenberg’s, to develop and influence policy on foreign affairs. Before long it had a staff of 150, who were engaged in a kind of institutional guerrilla warfare with the mandarins of the Foreign Ministry. Ribbentrop’s success in negotiating the Anglo-German Naval Agreement brought him the reputation of getting on with the British, and in the late summer of 1936 Hitler appointed him ambassador to London, his mission to improve relations still further and if possible deliver a formal Anglo-German alliance.38

Unfortunately, all of this was something of a misapprehension. Ribbentrop’s style of diplomacy - brusque, peremptory, authoritarian - may have appealed to Hitler, but it did not go down well with diplomats, and in London the new ambassador soon acquired another derisive nickname: ‘von Brickendrop’. Soon he was burning with resentment at imagined slights by British high society. Many of these were of his own making. A low point was reached at a reception at court in 1937, when he startled the shy, stuttering King George VI by greeting him with clicked heels and a Nazi salute. Ribbentrop did not in fact like Britain and the British at all. When Sir John Simon, the British Foreign Secretary, expressed his pleasure during the naval negotiations at Ribbentrop’s unusual frankness, he probably did not mean it as a compliment. Ribbentrop did not want the London posting, delayed taking it up for three months, and went home to Berlin so often that the humorous London magazine Punch called him ‘the Wandering Aryan’. Hated and despised by the ‘old fighters’ in the Nazi leadership, including Goebbels and Goring, who resented the influence wielded by this Johnny-come-lately, Ribbentrop needed to maintain a presence in Berlin if he was not to be marginalized. But he was not without influence on Hitler himself. He bombarded Hitler with dispatches from London proclaiming the total incompatibility of British and German aims in the world and forecasting war between the two powers in the end. At the same time, however, he also considered the British effete and vacillating and so he repeatedly told Hitler not to take the possibility of British intervention in Europe too seriously. Hitler listened to him. But this too proved in the end to be bad advice.39

IV

Initally, however, it seemed all too plausible. For, towards the end of 1935, the international situation in Europe had begun to undergo a dramatic series of changes. First of all, Mussolini launched an invasion of Abyssinia, the last major uncolonized African state remaining, in October 1935, in pursuit of his dream of creating a new Roman Empire, and revenge for the humiliating defeat of an Italian army by Ethiopian forces at the battle of Adowa in 1896. The motley feudal armies of the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie were no match for the mechanized legions of the Italians. The brief war demonstrated perhaps for the first time the murderous potential of supremacy in the air. Without any serious opposition, Italian planes obliterated the Ethiopian forces by bombing them incessantly, using not only high explosives to destroy the gaudily arrayed cavalry but also poison gas to wipe out the poorly discipined foot-soldiers. It was no contest. But Abyssinia was a vast country, and it took time for the Italian forces to penetrate to its interior and place it under occupation. Haile Selassie made a dramatic journey to Geneva, where he earned widespread sympathy with a moving appeal for help to the League of Nations. For his part, Mussolini had supposed that the French and British would not intervene, but public opinion forced the hand of the new British Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, who lent his support to the imposition of economic sanctions on Italy by the League. Suddenly isolated, the Italian dictator, urged on by his pro-German son-in-law Galeazzo Ciano, turned to Hitler for help.40

Hitler saw this as an opportunity to break out of Germany’s diplomatic isolation. The murder of Dollfuss had marked a low point in his relations with Mussolini, from whom he had taken so many ideas, and whom he still greatly admired.41 Things now began to improve. The German Foreign Ministry was still deeply suspicious of the Italians’ motives, however. Summoning the German Ambassador in Rome, Ulrich von Hassell, to Berlin, Hitler told him in the presence of Foreign Minister Neurath that it was time to regard the tensions of 1934 as ‘a closed chapter’ and to come to Italy’s aid. ‘We must do everything’, he said, ‘to prevent the various opponents throughout the world of the authoritarian system of government from concentrating upon us as their sole object.’ If Italian Fascism were destroyed, Germany would be alone. Accordingly, Germany, while remaining formally neutral on the Abyssinian issue, refused to impose sanctions on Italy, and carried on business as usual. Grateful for this support, Mussolini let Hitler know that as far as he was concerned, from now on, Austria lay within the German sphere of influence. Stresa, he told von Hassell, was dead.42 Sanctions in any case proved totally without effect. The Italians pressed the war on to a successful conclusion in May, 1936, while Britain, France and the League continued to bicker and dither. These events sealed the fate of the League, whose ineffectiveness was now palpable. They also convinced Hitler and Mussolini that they had nothing to fear from Britain and France. More immediately, the Italian victory seemed to provide concrete evidence that air supremacy was the key to military success. The British, who had hitherto dominated the Mediterranean by virtue of their naval power, now seemed suddenly vulnerable. To cement his new friendship with Germany, Mussolini sacked his pro-French Foreign Minister and replaced him on 9 June 1936 with Ciano.43

By this time, too, France’s position in Europe had been dramatically weakened, making an alliance seem less attractive to the Italians anyway. The British and French had not seen eye to eye over the response to the Ethiopian War. Internal political upheavals in France that culminated in the electoral victory of the Popular Front in May 1936 seemed to have focused the attention of French politicians on the domestic scene. The international community had displayed a complete inability to curb Italian imperialism. And the Italian rapprochement with Germany had increased Germany’s freedom of action. All these factors came together to convince Hitler that France and Britain would not try to prevent the German army marching into the Rhineland. The western part of Germany still remained a demilitarized zone according to the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles even after the departure of the Anglo-French occupying forces at the end of the 1920s. Hitler had got away with quitting the League of Nations. He had got away with announcing German rearmament. And the domestic situation in Germany was so bad in the spring of 1936, with food shortages, worsening conflict with the Catholic Church and general grumbling and discontent, that a diplomatic coup was badly needed to cheer people up. Hitler had already obtained assurances from the army leadership that it could be done. They agreed that it was necessary to establish proper defences in the West. Nevertheless, Blomberg and the leading generals were extremely nervous, realizing that the army was still no match for the French should they choose to act. Even Hitler hesitated, knowing full well the risk he was taking. By the beginning of March, encouraged at every juncture by Ribbentrop, he had made up his mind. The forthcoming ratification of the Franco-Soviet Pact by the French Chamber of Deputies would provide the pretext. The German army units who marched into the Rhineland would be reinforced by police units to make them seem more numerous than they really were. The whole operation would be prepared in the utmost secrecy, with troops moving into their pre-arranged positions overnight. Even the cabinet would not be told until the last minute.44

On Saturday 7 March 1936, Hitler appeared in the Reichstag, summoned at short notice to a noontide session in the Kroll Opera House. As he rose to speak, unknown to the deputies, German troops had already been marching into the demilitarized zone since dawn; at one o’clock in the afternoon they reached the river itself. Hitler began with a tirade against Bolshevism. Yet, he went on, the French had recently signed a pact with the Soviet Union, and ratified it on 4 March. In view of this, he told the Reichstag, Germany no longer felt bound by the Locarno Pact of 1925, which had regulated its relations with France. The American journalist William L. Shirer, who was present, observed the hysterical scenes that followed:

Now the six hundred deputies, personal appointees all of Hitler, little men with big bodies and bulging necks and cropped hair and pouched bellies and brown uniforms and heavy boots, little men of clay in his fine hands, leap to their feet like automatons, their right arms upstretched in the Nazi salute, and scream ‘Heil’s’ . . . Hitler raises his hand for silence . . . He says in a deep, resonant voice: ‘Men of the German Reichstag!’ The silence is utter. ‘In this historic hour, when in the Reich’s Western provinces German troops are at this minute marching into their future, peace-time garrisons, we all unite in two sacred vows.’ He can go no further. It is news to this hysterical ‘Parliamentary’ mob that German soldiers are already on the move into the Rhineland . . . They spring, yelling and crying, to their feet . . . Their hands are raised in slavish salute, their faces now contorted with hysteria, their mouths wide open, shouting, shouting, their eyes, burning with fanaticism, glued on the new god, the Messiah.45

The two pledges Hitler made were, characteristically, that Germany would never yield to force on the one hand, but would strive for peace on the other. As before, he declared that Germany had no territorial demands in Europe. And he offered a series of peace pacts to reassure Germany’s neighbours. All of this was merely rhetorical. To underline the importance of the moment, he also dissolved the Reichstag and called elections, coupled with a plebiscite on his action, for 29 March 1936. His first speech of the campaign, on 12 March, was delivered in Karlsruhe, on the banks of the Rhine, a stone’s throw away from France.46

German propaganda films and press reports showed pictures of ecstatic Rhinelanders welcoming the troops with Hitler salutes and strewing their path with flowers. Luise Solmitz wrote:

I was completely overpowered by the events of this moment . . . delighted by our soldiers marching in, by the greatness of Hitler and the power of his language, the force of this man . . . We’ve been longing for this language, this firmness, as subversion reigned over us, together with the Entente. But we hadn’t dared think of such deeds. Again and again the Leader puts a fait accompli before the world . . . If the world had heard us use such language for 2,000 years - we would have needed to use it only sparingly, would always have been understood and would have been able to spare ourselves much blood, many tears, loss of land and humiliation . . . Reports of the mood in every town speak of unprecedented jubilation.47

Social Democratic observers, however, told a different story. ‘The occupation of the Rhine zone,’ one agent reported, ‘has allegedly been greeted by the entire population with huge jubilation. But reports from the whole of the West are agreed that it was only the Nazis who celebrated.’48

Some businessmen were admittedly pleased because they thought things would now improve for them. Most people indeed quietly approved of the remilitarization. Young people in particular were enthusiastic in some places. ‘It’s our country, after all,’ declared one worker. ‘Why shouldn’t we be allowed to have any military there?’49 But there were also widespread fears that the action would lead to war. Many active Nazis responded to them by pointing to Hitler’s professions of pacific intent. Only a few boasted that they would welcome a war.50 People were proud of the recovery of national sovereignty, but at the same time, they were desperately worried about the dangers of a general war, about the prospect of mass bombing of German cities and about a repeat of the death and destruction of 1914-18.51 The fears of the great majority were not diminished by the extensive air-raid precautions that accompanied the remilitarization action. ‘The people’, one Social Democratic agent summed up, ‘are very worked-up. They’re afraid of war, since everyone is clear that Germany will lose this war and then will go to its downfall.’52

In March 1936, Germans held their breath while 3,000 troops marched deep into the Rhineland, backed by another 30,000 who remained on or near the eastern bank of the river. Had the French chosen to send their own troops in, the Germans would have been driven out within a few hours despite Hitler’s orders for them to resist. But they did not. Believing that the German military presence was ten times greater than it really was, and hamstrung by public anxiety about war at a time when a general election was looming, the French government chose inaction. Their position was bolstered by the British, who moved quickly to restrain any precipitate response. What had happened, after all, was only a recovery of Germany’s sovereignty over its own territory, and no one thought that was worth risking a general war. Nobody at this stage thought of Hitler as different from previous German statesmen, and these had never hidden their desire to move troops back into the Rhineland. Indeed, such was the public indifference to the issue in Britain that the government even refused to support the idea of imposing League of Nations sanctions on Germany for what was in fact a breach of international treaty agreements. Hitler had taken his biggest gamble yet, and got away with it.53 The experience, confirmed by another rigged election and plebiscite held on 29 March 1936, which delivered the inevitable 98.9 per cent for the Nazi Party and the government’s actions, confirmed Hitler in the belief that he could not fail. Convinced in the myth of his own invincibility, he now began to quicken the pace of Germany’s march towards European domination and world conquest. ‘Neither threats nor warnings’, he declared in Munich on 14 March 1936, ‘will prevent me from going my way. I follow the path assigned to me by Providence with the instinctive sureness of a sleepwalker.’54

Map 18. The Saarland Plebiscite and the Remilitarization of the Rhineland, 1935-6

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