Military history

THE BREACHING OF VERSAILLES

In the meantime Hitler pursued with unflagging energy his program of building up the armed services and procuring arms for them. The Army was ordered to treble its numerical strength—from 100,000 to 300,000 by October 1, 1934—and in April of that year General Ludwig Beck, Chief of the General Staff, was given to understand that by April 1 of the following year the Fuehrer would openly decree conscription and publicly repudiate the military restrictions of the Versailles Treaty.5 Until then the utmost secrecy must be observed. Goebbels was admonished never to allow the words “General Staff” to appear in the press, since Versailles forbade the very existence of this organization. The annual official rank list of the German Army ceased to be published after 1932 so that its swollen lists of officers would not give the game away to foreign intelligence. General Keitel, chairman of the Working Committee of the Reich Defense Council, admonished his aides-as early as May 22, 1933, “No document must be lost, since otherwise enemy propaganda will make use of it. Matters communicated orally cannot be proven; they can be denied.”6

The Navy too was warned to keep its mouth shut. In June 1934 Raeder had a long conversation with Hitler and noted down:

Fuehrer’s instructions: No mention must be made of a displacement of 25-26,000 tons, but only of improved 10,000-ton ships … The Fuehrer demands complete secrecy on the construction of the U-boats.7

For the Navy had commenced the construction of two battle cruisers of 26,000 tons (16,000 tons above the Versailles limit) which would eventually be known as the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau. Submarines, the building of which Versailles had prohibited, had been secretly constructed in Finland, Holland and Spain during the German Republic, and recently Raeder had stored the frames and parts of a dozen of them at Kiel. When he saw Hitler in November 1934 he asked permission to assemble six of them by “the time of the critical situation in the first quarter of 1935” (obviously he too knew what Hitler planned to do at that time) but the Fuehrer merely replied that “he would tell me when the situation demanded that the assembly should commence.”8

At this meeting Raeder also pointed out that the new shipbuilding program (not to mention the tripling of naval personnel) would take more money than he had available, but Hitler told him not to worry. “In case of need, he will get Dr. Ley to put 120–150 million from the Labor Front at the disposal of the Navy, as the money would still benefit the workers.”9 Thus the dues of the German workers were to finance the naval program.

Goering too was busy those first two years, establishing the Air Force. As Minister of Aviation—supposedly civil aviation—he put the manufacturers to work designing warplanes. Training of military pilots began immediately under the convenient camouflage of the League for Air Sports.

A visitor to the Ruhr and Rhineland industrial areas in those days might have been struck by the intense activity of the armament works, especially those of Krupp, chief German gunmakers for three quarters of a century, and I. G. Farben, the great chemical trust. Although Krupp had been forbidden by the Allies to continue in the armament business after 1919, the company had really not been idle. As Krupp would boast in 1942, when the German armies occupied most of Europe, “the basic principle of armament and turret design for tanks had already been worked out in 1926 … Of the guns being used in 1939–41, the most important ones were already fully complete in 1933.” Farben scientists had saved Germany from early disaster in the First World War by the invention of a process to make synthetic nitrates from air after the country’s normal supply of nitrates from Chile was cut off by the British blockade. Now under Hitler the trust set out to make Germany self-sufficient in two materials without which modern war could not be fought: gasoline and rubber, both of which had had to be imported. The problem of making synthetic gasoline from coal had actually been solved by the company’s scientists in the mid-Twenties. After 1933, the Nazi government gave I. G. Farben the go-ahead with orders to raise its synthetic oil production to 300,000 tons a year by 1937. By that time the company had also discovered how to make synthetic rubber from coal and other products of which Germany had a sufficiency, and the first of four plants was set up at Schkopau for large-scale production of buna, as the artificial rubber became known. By the beginning of 1934, plans were approved by the Working Committee of the Reich Defense Council for the mobilization of some 240,000 plants for war orders. By the end of that year rearmament, in all its phases, had become so massive it was obvious that it could no longer be concealed from the suspicious and uneasy powers of Versailles.

These powers, led by Great Britain, had been flirting with the idea of recognizing a fait accompli, that is, German rearmament, which was not nearly so secret as Hitler supposed. They would concede Hitler complete arms equality in return for Germany’s joining in a general European settlement which would include an Eastern Locarno and thus provide the Eastern countries, especially Russia, Poland and Czechoslovakia, with the same security which the Western nations enjoyed under the Locarno Treaty—and, of course, furnish Germany with the same guarantees ofsecurity. In May of 1934 Sir John Simon, the British Foreign Secretary, who was to be a good forerunner of Neville Chamberlain in his inability to comprehend the mind of Adolf Hitler, actually proposed equality of armaments to Germany. The French sharply rejected such an idea.

But the proposals for a general settlement, including equality of armaments and an Eastern Locarno, were renewed jointly by the British and French governments early in February 1935. The month before, on January 13, the inhabitants of the Saar had voted overwhelmingly—477,000 to 48,000—to return their little coal-rich territory to the Reich and Hitler had taken the occasion to publicly proclaim that Germany had no further territorial claims on France, which meant the abandoning of German claims on Alsace and Lorraine. In the atmosphere of optimism and good will which the peaceful return of the Saar and Hitler’s remarks engendered, the Anglo–French proposals were formally presented to Hitler at the beginning of February 1935.

Hitler’s reply of February 14 was somewhat vague—and, from his viewpoint, understandably so. He welcomed a plan which would leave Germany free to rearm in the open. But he was evasive on Germany’s willingness to sign an Eastern Locarno. That would be tying his hands in the main area where, as he had always preached, Germany’s Lebensraum lay. Might not Britain be detached in this matter from France, which with its mutual-assistance pacts with PolandCzechoslovakia and Rumania, was more interested in Eastern security? Hitler must have thought so, for in his cautious reply he suggested that bilateral discussions precede general talks and invited the British to come to Berlin for preliminary discussions. Sir John Simon readily agreed, and a meeting was arranged for March 6 in Berlin. Two days before that date the publication of a British White Paper caused a great deal of simulated anger in the Wilhelmstrasse. Actually the White Paper struck most foreign observers in Berlin as a sober observation on Germany’s clandestine rearmament, the acceleration of which had moved Britain to a modest increase of her own. But Hitler was reported furious with it. Neurath informed Simon on the very eve of his departure for Berlin that the Fuehrer had a “cold” and the talks would have to be postponed.

Whether he had a cold or not, Hitler certainly had a brain storm. It would be embarrassing to have Simon and Eden around if he transformed it into a bold act. He thought he had found a pretext for dealing the Versailles Diktat a mortal blow. The French government had just introduced a bill extending military service from eighteen months to two years because of the shortage of youth born during the First World War. On March 10, Hitler sent up a trial balloon to test the mettle of the Allies. The accommodating Ward Price was called in and given an interview with Goering, who told him officially what all the world knew, that Germany had a military Air Force. Hitler confidently awaited the reaction in London to this unilateral abrogation of Versailles. It was just what he expected. Sir John Simon told the Commons that he still counted on going to Berlin.

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