Military history


“It is no victory, for the enemies were lacking,” observed Oswald Spengler in commenting on how easily Hitler had conquered and Nazified Germany in 1933. “This seizure of power—” the author of The Decline of the West wrote early in the year, “it is with misgiving that I see it celebrated each day with so much noise. It would be better to save that for a day of real and definitive successes, that is, in the foreign field. There are no others.”24

The philosopher-historian, who for a brief moment was an idol of the Nazis until a mutual disenchantment set in, was unduly impatient. Hitler had to conquer Germany before he could set out to conquer the world. But once his German opponents were liquidated—or had liquidated themselves—he lost no time in turning to what had always interested him the most: foreign affairs.

Germany’s position in the world in the spring of 1933 could hardly have been worse. The Third Reich was diplomatically isolated and militarily impotent. The whole world had been revolted by Nazi excesses, especially the persecution of the Jews. Germany’s neighbors, in particular France and Poland, were hostile and suspicious, and as early as March 1933, following a Polish military demonstration in Danzig, Marshal Pilsudski suggested to the French the desirability of a joint preventive war against Germany. Even Mussolini, for all his outward pose of welcoming the advent of a second fascist power, had not in fact been enthusiastic about Hitler’s coming to power. The Fuehrer of a country potentially so much stronger than Italy might soon put the Duce in the shade. A rabidly Pan-German Reich would have designs on Austria and the Balkans, where the Italian dictator had already staked out his claims. The hostility toward Nazi Germany of the Soviet Union, which had been republican Germany’s one friend in the years since 1921, was obvious. The Third Reich was indeed friendless in a hostile world. And it was disarmed, or relatively so in comparison with its highly armed neighbors.

The immediate strategy and tactics of Hitler’s foreign policy therefore were dictated by the hard realities of Germany’s weak and isolated position. But, ironically, this situation also provided natural goals which corresponded to his own deepest desires and those of the vast majority of the German people: to get rid of the shackles of Versailles without provoking sanctions, to rearm without risking war. Only when he had achieved these dual short-term goals would he have the freedom and the military power to pursue the long-term diplomacy whose aims and methods he had set down so frankly and in such detail in Mein Kampf.

The first thing to do, obviously, was to confound Germany’s adversaries in Europe by preaching disarmament and peace and to keep a sharp eye for a weakness in their collective armor. On May 17, 1933, before the Reichstag, Hitler delivered his “Peace Speech,” one of the greatest of his career, a masterpiece of deceptive propaganda that deeply moved the German people and unified them behind him and which made a profound and favorable impression on the outside world. The day before, President Roosevelt had sent a ringing message to the chiefs of state of forty-four nations outlining the plans and hopes of the United States for disarmament and peace and calling for the abolition of all offensive weapons—bombers, tanks and mobile heavy artillery. Hitler was quick to take up the President’s challenge and to make the most of it.

The proposal made by President Roosevelt, of which I learned last night, has earned the warmest thanks of the German government. It is prepared to agree to this method of overcoming the international crisis … The President’s proposal is a ray of comfort for all who wish to co-operate in the maintenance of peace … Germany is entirely ready to renounce all offensive weapons if the armed nations, on their side, will destroy their offensive weapons … Germany would also be perfectly ready to disband her entire military establishment and destroy the small amount of arms remaining to her, if the neighboring countries will do the same … Germany is prepared to agree to any solemn pact of nonaggression, because she does not think of attacking but only of acquiring security.

There was much else in the speech, whose moderateness and profession of love for peace pleasantly surprised an uneasy world. Germany did not want war. War was “unlimited madness.” It would “cause the collapse of the present social and political order.” Nazi Germany had no wish to “Germanize” other peoples. “The mentality of the last century, which led people to think that they would make Germans out of Poles and Frenchmen, is alien to us … Frenchmen, Poles and others are our neighbors, and we know that no event that is historically conceivable can change this reality.”

There was one warning. Germany demanded equality of treatment with all other nations, especially in armaments. If this was not to be obtained, Germany would prefer to withdraw from both the Disarmament Conference and the League of Nations.

The warning was forgotten amid the general rejoicing throughout the Western world at Hitler’s unexpected reasonableness. The Times of London agreed that Hitler’s claim for equality was “irrefutable.” The Daily Herald of London, official organ of the Labor Party, demanded that Hitler be taken at his word. The conservative weekly Spectator of London concluded that Hitler had grasped the hand of Roosevelt and that this gesture provided new hope for a tormented world. In Washington the President’s secretary was quoted by the official German news bureau as saying, “The President was enthusiastic at Hitler’s acceptance of his proposals.”

From the Nazi firebrand dictator had come not brutal threats, as so many had expected, but sweetness and light. The world was enchanted. And in the Reichstag even the Socialists’ deputies, those who were not in jail or in exile, voted without dissent to make the assembly’s approval of Hitler’s foreign policy declaration unanimous.

But Hitler’s warning was not an empty one, and when it became clear early in October that the Allies would insist on an interval of eight years to bring their armaments down to Germany’s level, he abruptly announced on October 14 that, denied equality of rights by the other powers at Geneva, Germany was immediately withdrawing from the Disarmament Conference and from the League of Nations. At the same time he took three other steps: He dissolved the Reichstag, announced that he would submit his decision to leave Geneva to a national plebiscite and ordered General von Blomberg, the Minister of Defense, to issue secret directives to the armed forces to resist an armed attack should the League resort to sanctions.25

This precipitate action revealed the hollowness of the Hitler conciliatory speech in the spring. It was Hitler’s first open gamble in foreign affairs. It meant that from now on Nazi Germany intended to rearm itself in defiance of any disarmament agreement and of Versailles. This was a calculated risk—also the first of many—and Blomberg’s secret directive to the Army and Navy, which came to light at Nuremberg, reveals not only that Hitler gambled with the possibility of sanctions but that Germany’s position would have been hopeless had they been applied.* In the West against France and in the East against Poland and Czechoslovakia, the directive laid down definite defense lines which the German forces were ordered “to hold as long as possible.” It is obvious from Blomberg’s orders that the German generals, at least, had no illusions that the defenses of the Reich could be held for any time at all.

This, then, was the first of many crises over a period that would extend for three years—until after the Germans reoccupied the demilitarized left bank of the Rhine in 1936—when the Allies could have applied sanctions, not for Hitler’s leaving the Disarmament Conference and the League but for violations of the disarmament provisions of Versailles which had been going on in Germany for at least two years, even before Hitler. That the Allies at this time could easily have overwhelmed Germany is as certain as it is that such an action would have brought the end of the Third Reich in the very year of its birth. But part of the genius of this one-time Austrian waif was that for a long time he knew the mettle of his foreign adversaries as expertly and as uncannily as he had sized up that of his opponents at home. In this crisis, as in those greater ones which were to follow in rapid succession up to 1939, the victorious Allied nations took no action, being too divided, too torpid, too blind to grasp the nature or the direction of what was building up beyond the Rhine. On this, Hitler’s calculations were eminently sound, as they had been and were to be in regard to his own people. He knew well what the German people would say in the plebiscite, which he fixed—along with new elections of a single-party Nazi slate to the Reichstag—for November 12, 1933, the day after the anniversary of the 1918 armistice, a black day that still rankled in German memories.

“See to it that this day,” he told an election rally at Breslau on November 4, “shall later be recorded in the history of our people as a day of salvation—that the record shall run: On an eleventh of November the German people formally lost its honor; fifteen years later came a twelfth of November and then the German people restored its honor to itself.” On the eve of the polling, November 11, the venerable Hindenburg added his support in a broadcast to the nation: “Show tomorrow your firm national unity and your solidarity with the government. Support with me and theReich Chancellor the principle of equal rights and of peace with honor, and show the world that we have recovered, and with the help of God will maintain, German unity!”

The response of the German people, after fifteen years of frustration and of resentment against the consequences of a lost war, was almost unanimous. Some 96 per cent of the registered voters cast their ballots and 95 per cent of these approved Germany’s withdrawal from Geneva. The vote for the single Nazi list for the Reichstag (which included Hugenberg and a half-dozen other non-Nazis) was 92 per cent. Even at the Dachau concentration camp 2,154 out of 2,242 inmates voted for the government which had incarcerated them! It is true that in many communities threats were made against those who failed to vote or who voted the wrong way; and in some cases there was fear that anyone who cast his vote against the regime might be detected and punished. Yet even with these reservations the election, whose count at least was honest, was a staggering victory for Adolf Hitler. There was no doubt that in defying the outside world as he had done, he had the overwhelming support of the German people.

   Three days after the plebiscite and election, Hitler sent for the new Polish ambassador, Josef Lipski. At the end of their talk a joint communiqué was issued which amazed not only the German public but the outside world. The Polish and German governments agreed “to deal with the questions touching both countries by means of direct negotiations and to renounce all application of force in their relations with each other for the consolidation of European peace.”

Even more than France, Poland was the hated and despised enemy in the minds of the Germans. To them the most heinous crime of the Versailles peacemakers had been to separate East Prussia from the Reich by the Polish Corridor, to detach Danzig and to give to the Poles the province ofPosen and part of Silesia, which, though predominantly Polish in population, had been German territory since the days of the partition of Poland. No German statesmen during the Republic had been willing to regard the Polish acquisitions as permanent. Stresemann had refused even to consider an Eastern Locarno pact with Poland to supplement the Locarno agreement for the West. And General von Seeckt, father of the Reichswehr and arbiter of foreign policy during the first years of the Republic, had advised the government as early as 1922, “Poland’s existence is intolerable, incompatible with the essential conditions of Germany’s life. Poland,” he insisted, “must go and will go.” Its obliteration, he added, “must be one of the fundamental drives of German policy … With the disappearance of Poland will fall one of the strongest pillars of the Versailles Peace, the hegemony of France.”26

Before Poland could be obliterated, Hitler saw, it must be separated from its alliance with France. The course he now embarked on offered several immediate advantages besides the ultimate one. By renouncing the use of force against Poland he could strengthen his propaganda for peace and allay the suspicions aroused in both Western and Eastern Europe by his hasty exit from Geneva. By inducing the Poles to conduct direct negotiations he could bypass the League of Nations and then weaken its authority. And he could not only deal a blow to the League’s conception of “collective security” but undermine the French alliances in Eastern Europe, of which Poland was the bastion. The German people, with their traditional hatred of the Poles, might not understand, but to Hitler one of the advantages of a dictatorship over democracy was that unpopular policies which promised significant results ultimately could be pursued temporarily without internal rumpus.

On January 26, 1934, four days before Hitler was to meet the Reichstag on the first anniversary of his accession to power, announcement was made of the signing of a ten-year nonaggression pact between Germany and Poland. From that day on, Poland, which under the dictatorship of Marshal Pilsudski was itself just eliminating the last vestiges of parliamentary democracy, began gradually to detach itself from France, its protector since its rebirth in 1919, and to grow ever closer to Nazi Germany. It was a path that was to lead to its destruction long before the treaty of “friendship and nonaggression” ran out.

   When Hitler addressed the Reichstag on January 30, 1934, he could look back on a year of achievement without parallel in German history. Within twelve months he had overthrown the Weimar Republic, substituted his personal dictatorship for its democracy, destroyed all the political parties but his own, smashed the state governments and their parliaments and unified and defederalized the Reich, wiped out the labor unions, stamped out democratic associations of any kind, driven the Jews out of public and professional life, abolished freedom of speech and of the press, stifled the independence of the courts and “co-ordinated” under Nazi rule the political, economic, cultural and social life of an ancient and cultivated people. For all these accomplishments and for his resolute action in foreign affairs, which took Germany out of the concert of nations at Geneva, and proclaimed German insistence on being treated as an equal among the great powers, he was backed, as the autumn plebiscite and election had shown, by the overwhelming majority of the German people.

Yet as the second year of his dictatorship got under way clouds gathered on the Nazi horizon.

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