Having escaped assassination, or so it was made to seem, and quelled defiance among his generals, Hitler went ahead with his plans for the big attack in the West. On November 20, he issued Directive No. 8 for the Conduct of the War, ordering the maintenance of the “state of alert” so as to “exploit favorable weather conditions immediately,” and laying down plans for the destruction of Holland and Belgium. And then to put courage in the fainthearted and arouse them to the proper pitch he thought necessary on the eve of great battles, he summoned the commanding generals and General Staff officers to the Chancellery at noon on November 23.
It was one of the most revealing of the secret pep talks to his principal military chiefs, and thanks to the Allied discovery of some of the OKW files at Flensburg it has been preserved in the form of notes taken by an unidentified participant.31
The purpose of this conference [Hitler began] is to give you an idea of the world of my thoughts, which govern me in the face of future events, and to tell you my decisions.
His mind was full of the past, the present and the future, and to this limited group he spoke with brutal frankness and great eloquence, giving a magnificent résumé of all that had gone on in his warped but fertile brain and predicting with deadly accuracy the shape of things to come. But it seems difficult to imagine that anyone who heard it could have had any further doubts that the man who now held the fate of Germany—and the world—in his hands had become beyond question a dangerous megalomaniac.
I had a clear recognition of the probable course of historical events [he said in discussing his early struggles] and the firm will to make brutal decisions … As the last factor I must name my own person in all modesty: irreplaceable. Neither a military man nor a civilian could replace me. Assassination attempts may be repeated. I am convinced of the powers of my intellect and of decision … No one has ever achieved what I have achieved … I have led the German people to a great height, even if the world does hate us now … The fate of the Reich depends only on me. I shall act accordingly.
He chided the generals for their doubts when he made his “hard decisions” to leave the League of Nations, decree conscription, occupy the Rhineland, fortify it and seize Austria. “The number of people who put trust in me,” he said, “was very small.”
“The next step,” he declared in describing his conquests with a cynicism which it is unfortunate that Chamberlain never heard, “was Bohemia, Moravia and Poland.”
It was clear to me from the first moment that I could not be satisfied with the Sudeten-German territory. That was only a partial solution. The decision to march into Bohemia was made. Then followed the establishment of the Protectorate and with that the basis for the conquest of Poland was laid, but I was not quite clear at that time whether I should start first against the East and then against the West, or vice versa. By the pressure of events it came first to the fight against Poland. One might accuse me of wanting to fight and fight again. In struggle I see the fate of all beings. Nobody can avoid fighting if he does not want to go under.
The increasing number of [German] people required a larger Lebensraum. My goal was to create a rational relation between the number of people and the space for them to live in. The fight must start here. No nation can evade the solution of this problem. Otherwise it must yield and gradually go down … No calculated cleverness is of any help here: solution only with the sword. A people unable to produce the strength to fight must withdraw …
The trouble with the German leaders of the past, Hitler said, including Bismarck and Moltke, was “insufficient hardness. The solution was possible only by attacking a country at a favorable moment.” Failure to realize this brought on the 1914 war “on several fronts. It did not bring a solution of the problem.”
Today [Hitler went on] the second act of this drama is being written. For the first time in sixty-seven years we do not have a two-front war to wage … But no one can know how long that will remain so … Basically I did not organize the armed forces in order not to strike. The decision to strike was always in me.
Thoughts of the present blessings of a one-front war brought the Fuehrer to the question of Russia.
Russia is at present not dangerous. It is weakened by many internal conditions. Moreover, we have the treaty with Russia. Treaties, however, are kept only as long as they serve a purpose. Russia will keep it only as long as Russia herself considers it to be to her benefit … Russia still has far-reaching goals, above all the strengthening of her position in the Baltic. We can oppose Russia only when we are free in the West.
As for Italy, all depended on Mussolini, “whose death can alter everything … Just as the death of Stalin, so the death of the Duce can bring danger to us. How easily the death of a statesman can come I myself have experienced recently.” Hitler did not think that the United States was yet dangerous—“because of her neutrality laws”—nor that her aid to the Allies yet amounted to much. Still, time was working for the enemy. “The moment is favorable now; in six months it might not be so any more.” Therefore:
My decision is unchangeable. I shall attack France and England at the most favorable and earliest moment. Breach of the neutrality of Belgium and Holland is of no importance. No one will question that when we have won. We shall not justify the breach of neutrality as idiotically as in 1914.
The attack in the West, Hitler told his generals, meant “the end of the World War, not just a single action. It concerns not just a single question but the existence or nonexistence of the nation.” Then he swung into his peroration.
The spirit of the great men of our history must hearten us all. Fate demands from us no more than from the great men of German history. As long as I live I shall think only of the victory of my people. I shall shrink from nothing and shall annihilate everyone who is opposed to me … I want to annihilate the enemy!
It was a telling speech and so far as is known not a single general raised his voice either to express the doubts which almost all the Army commanders shared about the success of an offensive at this time or to question the immorality of attacking Belgium and Holland, whose neutrality and borders the German government had solemnly guaranteed. According to some of the generals present Hitler’s remarks about the poor spirit in the top echelons of the Army and the General Staff were much stronger than in the above account.
Later that day, at 6 P.M., the Nazi warlord sent again for Brauchitsch and Halder and to the former—the General Staff Chief was kept waiting outside the Fuehrer’s office like a bad boy—delivered a stern lecture on the “spirit of Zossen.” The Army High Command (OKH) was shot through with “defeatism,” Hitler charged, and Halder’s General Staff had a “stiff-necked attitude which kept it from falling in with the Fuehrer.” The beaten Brauchitsch, according to his own account given much later on the stand at Nuremberg, offered his resignation, but Hitler rejected it, reminding him sharply, as the Commander in Chief remembered, “that I had to fulfill my duty and obligation just like every other soldier.” That evening Halder scribbled a shorthand note in his diary: “A day of crisis!”32
In many ways November 23, 1939, was a milestone. It marked Hitler’s final, decisive triumph over the Army, which in the First World War had shunted Emperor Wilhelm II aside and assumed supreme political as well as military authority in Germany. From that day on the onetime Austrian corporal considered not only his political but his military judgment superior to that of his generals and therefore refused to listen to their advice or permit their criticism—with results ultimately disastrous to all.
“A breach had occurred,” Brauchitsch told the Nuremberg tribunal in describing the events of November 23, “which was later closed but was never completely mended.”
Moreover, Hitler’s harangue to the generals that autumn day put a complete damper on any ideas Halder and Brauchitsch might have had, however tepidly, to overthrow the Nazi dictator. He had warned them that he would “annihilate” anyone who stood in his way, and Halder says Hitler had specifically added that he would suppress any opposition to him on the General Staff “with brutal force.” Halder, for the moment at least, was not the man to stand up to such terrible threats. When four days later, on November 27, General Thomas went to see him, at the prompting of Schacht and Popitz, and urged him to keep after Brauchitsch to take action against the Fuehrer (“Hitler has to be removed!” Halder later remembered Thomas as saying), the General Staff Chief reminded him of all the “difficulties.” He was not yet sure, he said, that Brauchitsch “would take part actively in a coup d’état.”33
A few days later Halder gave Goerdeler the most ludicrous reasons for not going on with the plans to get rid of the Nazi dictator. Hassell noted them down in his diary. Besides the fact that “one does not rebel when face to face with the enemy,” Halder added, according to Hassell, the following points: “We ought to give Hitler this last chance to deliver the German people from the slavery of English capitalism … There is no great man available … The opposition has not yet matured enough … One could not be sure of the younger officers.” Hassell himself appealed to Admiral Canaris, one of the original conspirators, to go ahead, but got nowhere. “He has given up hope of resistance from the generals,” the former ambassador confided to his diary on November 30, “and thinks it would be useless to try anything more along this line.” A little later Hassell noted that “Halder and Brauchitsch are nothing more than caddies to Hitler.”34