Military history

HITLER MEETS WITH SUMNER WELLES AND MUSSOLINI

Hitler’s ignorance of the United States, as well as that of Goering and Ribbentrop, was abysmal.* And though their policy at this time was to try to keep America out of the war, they, like their predecessors in Berlin in 1914, did not take the Yankee nation seriously as even a potential military power. As early as October 1,1939, the German military attaché in Washington, General Friedrich von Boetticher, advised OKW in Berlin not to worry about any possible American expeditionary force in Europe. On December 1 he further informed his military superiors in Berlin that American armament was simply inadequate “for an aggressive war policy” and added that the General Staff in Washington “in contrast to the State Department’s sterile policy of hatred and the impulsive policy of Roosevelt—often based on an overestimation of American military power—still has understanding for Germany and her conduct of the war.” In his first dispatch Boetticher had noted that “Lindbergh and the famous flyer Rickenbacker” were advocating keeping America out of the war. By December 1, however, despite his low estimate of American military power, he warned OKW that “the United States will still enter the war if it considers that the Western Hemisphere is threatened.”18

Hans Thomsen, the German chargé d’affaires in Washington, did his best to impart some facts about the U.S.A. to his ignorant Foreign Minister in Berlin. On September 18, as the Polish campaign neared its end, he warned the Wilhelmstrasse that “the sympathies of the overwhelming majority of the American people are with our enemies, and America is convinced of Germany’s war guilt.” In the same dispatch he pointed out the dire consequences of any attempts by Germany to carry out sabotage in America and requested that there be no such sabotage “in any manner whatsoever.”19

The request evidently was not taken very seriously in Berlin, for on January 25, 1940, Thomsen was wiring Berlin:

I have learned that a German–American, von Hausberger, and a German citizen, Walter, both of New York, are alleged to be planning acts of sabotage against the American armament industry by direction of the German Abwehr. Von Hausberger is supposed to have detonators hidden in his dwelling.

Thomsen asked Berlin to desist, declaring that

there is no surer way of driving America into the war than by resorting again to a course of action which drove America into the ranks of our enemies once before in the World War and, incidentally, did not in the least impede the war industries of the United States.

Besides, he added, “both individuals are unfitted in every respect to act as agents of the Abwehr.”*

Since November 1938, when Roosevelt had recalled the American ambassador in Berlin in protest against the officially sponsored Nazi pogrom against the Jews, neither country had been represented in the other by an ambassador. Trade had dwindled to a mere trickle, largely as the result of American boycotts, and was now completely shut down by the British blockade. On November 4, 1939, the arms embargo was lifted, following votes in the Senate and the House, thus opening the way for the United States to supply the Western Allies with arms. It was against this background of rapidly deteriorating relations that Sumner Welles arrived in Berlin on March 1, 1940.

The day before, on February 29—it was a leap year—Hitler had taken the unusual step of issuing a secret “Directive for the Conversations with Mr. Sumner Welles.”20 It called for “reserve” on the German side and advised that “as far as possible Mr. Welles be allowed to do the talking.” It then laid down five points for the guidance of all the top officials who were to receive the special American envoy. The principal German argument was to be that Germany had not declared war on Britain and France but vice versa; that the Fuehrer had offered them peace in October and that they had rejected it; that Germany accepted the challenge; that the war aims of Britain and France were “the destruction of the German State,” and that Germany therefore had no alternative but to continue the war.

A discussion [Hitler concluded] of concrete political questions, such as the question of a future Polish state, is to be avoided as much as possible. In case [he] brings up subjects of this kind, the reply should be that such questions are decided by me. It is self-evident that it is entirely out of the question to discuss the subject of Austria and the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia …

All statements are to be avoided which could be interpreted … to mean that Germany is in any way interested at present in discussing possibilities of peace. 1 request, rather, that Mr. Sumner Welles not be given the slightest reason to doubt that Germany is determined to end this war victoriously …

Not only Ribbentrop and Goering but the Leader himself followed the directive to a letter when they saw Welles separately on March 1, 3 and 2, respectively. Judging by the’ lengthy minutes of the talks kept by Dr. Schmidt (which are among the captured documents), the American diplomat, a somewhat taciturn and cynical man, must have got the impression that he had landed in a lunatic asylum—if he could believe his ears. Each of the Big Three Nazis bombarded Welles with the most grotesque perversions of history, in which facts were fantastically twisted and even the simplest of words lost all meaning.* Hitler, who on March 1 had issued his directive for Weseruebung, received Welles the next day and insisted that the Allied war aim was “annihilation,” that of Germany “peace.” He lectured his visitor on all he had done to maintain peace with England and France.

Shortly before the outbreak of the war the British Ambassador had sat exactly where Sumner Welles was now sitting, and the Fuehrer had made him the greatest offer of his life.

All his offers to the British had been rejected and now Britain was out to destroy Germany. Hitler therefore believed “that the conflict would have to be fought to a finish … there was no other solution than a life-and-death struggle.”

No wonder that Welles confided to Weizsaecker and repeated to Goering that if Germany were determined to win a military victory in the West then his trip to Europe “was pointless … and there was nothing more for him to say.”21

Though he had emphasized in his talks with the Germans that what he heard from the European statesmen on this trip was for the ears of Roosevelt only, Welles thought it wise to be sufficiently indiscreet to tell both Hitler and Goering that he had had a “long, constructive and helpful” talk with Mussolini and that the Duce thought “there was still a possibility of bringing about a firm and lasting peace in Europe.” If these were the Italian dictator’s thoughts, then it was time, the Germans realized, to correct them. Peace yes, but only after a resounding German victory in the West.

Hitler’s failure to answer Mussolini’s letter of January 3 had filled the Duce with mounting annoyance. All through the month Ambassador Attolico was inquiring of Ribbentrop when a reply might be expected and hinting that Italy’s relations with France and Britain—and their trade, to boot—were improving.

This trade, which included Italian sales of war materials, aggravated the Germans, who constantly protested in Rome that it was unduly aiding the Western Allies. Ambassador von Mackensen kept reporting his “grave anxieties” to his friend Weizsaecker and the latter himself was afraid that Mussolini’s unanswered letter, if it were “disregarded” much longer, would give the Duce “freedom of action”—he and Italy might be lost for good.23

Then on March 1 Hitler received a break. The British announced that they were cutting off shipments of German coal by sea via Rotterdam to Italy. This was a heavy blow to the Italian economy and threw the Duce into a rage against the British and warmed his feelings toward the Germans, who promptly promised to find the means of delivering their coal by rail. Taking advantage of this circumstance, Hitler got off a long letter to Mussolini on March 8, which Ribbentrop delivered personally in Rome two days later.24

It made no apologies for its belatedness, but was cordial in tone and went into considerable detail about the Fuehrer’s thoughts and policies on almost every conceivable subject, being more wordy than any previous letter of Hitler’s to his Italian partner. It defended the Nazi alliance with Russia, the abandonment of the Finns, the failure to leave even a rump Poland.

If I had withdrawn the German troops from the General Government this would not have brought about a pacification of Poland, but a hideous chaos. And the Church would not have been able to exercise its function in praise of the Lord, but the priests would have had their heads chopped off …

As for the visit of Sumner Welles, Hitler continued, it had achieved nothing. He was still determined to attack in the West. He realized “that the coming battle will not be a walkover but the fiercest struggle in Germany’s history … a battle for life or death.”

And then Hitler made his pitch to Mussolini to get into the war.

I believe, Duce, that there can be no doubt that the outcome of this war will also decide the future of Italy … You will some day be confronted by the very opponents who are fighting Germany today … I, too, see the destinies of our two countries, our peoples, our revolutions and our regimes indissolubly joined with each other …

And, finally, let me assure you that in spite of everything I believe that sooner or later fate will force us after all to fight side by side, that is, that you will likewise not escape this clash of arms, no matter how the individual aspects of the situation may develop today, and that your place will then more than ever be at our side, just as mine will be at yours.

Mussolini was flattered by the letter and at once assured Ribbentrop that he agreed that his place was at Hitler’s side “on the firing line.” The Nazi Foreign Minister, on his part, lost no time in buttering up his host. The Fuehrer, he said, was “deeply aroused by the latest British measures to block the shipment of coal from Germany to Italy by sea.” How much coal did the Italians need? From 500,000 to 700,000 tons a month, Mussolini replied. Germany was now prepared, Ribbentrop answered glibly, to furnish a million tons a month and would provide most of the cars to haul it.

There were two lengthy meetings between the two, with Ciano present, on March 11 and 12, and Dr. Schmidt’s shorthand minutes reveal that Ribbentrop was at his most flatulent.25 Though there were more important things to talk about, he produced captured Polish diplomatic dispatches from the Western capitals to show “the monstrous war guilt of the United States.”

The Foreign Minister explained that these documents showed specifically the sinister role of the American Ambassadors Bullitt [Paris], Kennedy [London] and Drexel Biddle [Warsaw] … They gave an intimation of the machinations of that Jewish-plutocratic clique whose influence, through Morgan and Rockefeller, reached all the way up to Roosevelt.

For several hours the arrogant Nazi Foreign Minister raved on, displaying his customary ignorance of world affairs, emphasizing the common destiny of the two fascist nations and stressing that Hitler would soon attack in the West, “beat the French Army in the course of the summer” and drive the British from the Continent “before fall.” Mussolini mostly listened, only occasionally interjecting a remark whose sarcasm apparently escaped the Nazi Minister. When, for example, Ribbentrop pompously declared that “Stalin had renounced the idea of world revolution,” the Duce retorted, according to Schmidt’s notes, “Do you really believe that?” When Ribbentrop explained that “there was not a single German soldier who did not believe that victory would be won this year,” Mussolini interjected, “That is an extremely interesting remark.” That evening Ciano noted in his diary:

After the interview, when we were left alone, Mussolini says that he does not believe in the German offensive nor in a complete German success.

The Italian dictator had promised to give his own views at the meeting the next day and Ribbentrop was somewhat uneasy as to what they might be, wiring Hitler that he had been unable to obtain a “hint as to the Duce’s thoughts.”

He need not have worried. The next day Mussolini was a completely different man. He had quite suddenly, as Schmidt noted, “turned completely prowar.” It was not a question, he told his visitor, of whether Italy would enter the war on Germany’s side, but when. The question of timing was “extremely delicate, for he ought not to intervene until all his preparations were complete, so as not to burden his partner.”

In any event he had to state at this time with all distinctness that Italy was in no position financially to sustain a long war. He could not afford to spend a billion lire a day, as England and France were doing.

This remark seems to have set Ribbentrop back for a moment and he tried to pin the Duce down on a date for Italy’s entry into the war, but the latter was wary of committing himself. “The moment would come,” he said, “when a definition of Italy’s relations with France and England, i.e., a break with these countries, would occur.” It would be easy, he added, to “provoke” such a rupture. Though he persisted, Ribbentrop could not get a definite date. Obviously Hitler himself would have to intervene personally for that. The Nazi Foreign Minister thereupon suggested a meeting at the Brenner between the two men for the latter part of March, after the nineteenth, to which Mussolini readily agreed. Ribbentrop, incidentally, had not breathed a word about Hitler’s plans to occupy Denmark and Norway. There were some secrets you did not mention to an ally, even while pressing for it to join you.

Though he had not succeeded in getting Mussolini to agree to a date, Ribbentrop had lured the Duce into a commitment to enter the war. “If he wanted to reinforce the Axis,” Ciano lamented in his diary, “he has succeeded.” When Sumner Welles, after visiting Berlin, Paris and London, returned to Rome and saw Mussolini again on March 16, he found him a changed man.

He seemed to have thrown off some great weight [Welles wrote later] … I have often wondered whether, during the two weeks which had elapsed since my first visit to Rome, he had not determined to cross the Rubicon, and during Ribbentrop’s visit had not decided to force Italy into the war.26

Welles need not have wondered.

   As soon as Ribbentrop had departed Rome in his special train the anguished Italian dictator was prey to second thoughts. “He fears,” Ciano jotted in his diary on March 12, “that he has gone too far in his commitment to fight against the Allies. He would now like to dissuade Hitler from his land offensive, and this he hopes to achieve at the meeting at the Brenner Pass.” But Ciano, limited as he was, knew better. “It cannot be denied,” he added in his diary, “that the Duce is fascinated by Hitler, a fascination which involves something deeply rooted in his makeup. The Fuehrer will get more out of the Duce than Ribbentrop was able to get.” This was true—with reservations, as shortly will be seen.

No sooner had he returned to Berlin than Ribbentrop telephoned Ciano—on March 13—asking that the Brenner meeting be set earlier than contemplated, for March 18. “The Germans are unbearable,” Mussolini exploded. “They don’t give one time to breathe or to think matters over.” Nevertheless, he agreed to the date.

The Duce was nervous [Ciano recorded in his diary that day]. Until now he has lived under the illusion that a real war would not be waged. The prospect of an imminent clash in which he might remain an outsider disturbs him and, to use his words, humiliates him.27

It was snowing when the respective trains of the two dictators drew in on the morning of March 18, 1940, at the little frontier station at the Brenner Pass below the lofty snow-mantled Alps. The meeting, as a sop to Mussolini, took place in the Duce’s private railroad car, but Hitler did almost all the talking. Ciano summed up the conference in his diary that evening.

The conference is more a monologue … Hitler talks all the time … Mussolini listens to him with interest and with deference. He speaks little and confirms his intention to move with Germany. He reserves to himself only the choice of the right moment.

He realized, Mussolini said, when he was finally able to get in a word, that it was “impossible to remain neutral until the end of the war.” Co-operation with England and France was “inconceivable. We hate them. Therefore Italy’s entry into the war is inevitable.” Hitler had spent more than an hour trying to convince him of that—if Italy did not want to be left out in the cold and, as he added, become “a second-rate power.”28 But having answered the main question to the Fuehrer’s satisfaction, the Duce immediately began to hedge.

The great problem, however, was the date … One condition for this would have to be fulfilled. Italy would have to be “very well prepared” … Italy’s financial position did not allow her to wage a protracted war …

He was asking the Fuehrer whether there would be any danger for Germany if the offensive were delayed. He did not believe there was such a danger … he would [then] have finished his military preparations in three to four months, and would not be in the embarrassing position of seeing his comrade fighting and himself limited to making demonstrations … He wanted to do something more and he was not now in a position to do it.

The Nazi warlord had no intention of postponing his attack in the West and said so. But he had a “few theoretical ideas” which might solve Mussolini’s difficulty of making a frontal attack on mountainous southern France, since that conflict, he realized, “would cost a great deal of blood.” Why not, he suggested, supply a strong Italian force which together with German troops would advance along the Swiss frontier toward the Rhone Valley “in order to turn the Franco–Italian Alpine front from the rear.” Before this, of course, the main German armies would have rolled back the French and British in the north. Hitler was obviously trying to make it easy for the Italians.

When the enemy has been smashed [in northern France] the moment would come [Hitler continued] for Italy to intervene actively, not at the most difficult point on the Alpine front, but elsewhere …

The war will be decided in France. Once France is disposed of, Italy will be mistress of the Mediterranean and England will have to make peace.

Mussolini, it must be said, was not slow at seizing upon this glittering prospect of getting so much after the Germans had done all the hard fighting.

The Duce replied that once Germany had made a victorious advance he would intervene immediately … he would lose no time … when the Allies were so shaken by the German attack that it needed only a second blow to bring them to their knees.

On the other hand,

If Germany’s progress was slow, the Duce said that then he would wait.

This crude, cowardly bargain seems not to have unduly bothered Hitler. If Mussolini was personally attracted to him, as Ciano said, by “something deeply rooted in his make-up,” it might be said that the attraction was mutual, for the same mysterious reasons. Disloyal as he had been to some of his closest associates, a number of whom he had had murdered, such as Roehm and Strasser, Hitler maintained a strange and unusual loyalty to his ridiculous Italian partner that did not weaken, that indeed was strengthened when adversity and then disaster overtook the strutting, sawdust Roman Caesar. It is one of the interesting paradoxes of this narrative.

At any rate, for what it was worth—and few Germans besides Hitler, especially among the generals, thought it was worth very much—Italy’s entrance into the war had now at last been solemnly promised. The Nazi warlord could turn his thoughts again to new and imminent conquests. Of the most imminent one—in the north—he did not breathe a word to his friend and ally.

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