Military history

A SATURDAY SURPRISE

On Saturday, March 16—most of Hitler’s surprises were reserved for Saturdays—the Chancellor decreed a law establishing universal military service and providing for a peacetime army of twelve corps and thirty-six divisions—roughly half a million men. That was the end of the military restrictions of Versailles—unless France and Britain took action. As Hitler had expected, they protested but they did not act. Indeed, the British government hastened to ask whether Hitler would still receive its Foreign Secretary—a query which the dictator graciously answered in the affirmative.

Sunday, March 17, was a day of rejoicing and celebration in Germany. The shackles of Versailles, symbol of Germany’s defeat and humiliation, had been torn off. No matter how much a German might dislike Hitler and his gangster rule, he had to admit that the Fuehrer had accomplished what no republican government had ever dared attempt. To most Germans the nation’s honor had been restored. That Sunday was also Heroes’ Memorial Day (Heldengedenktag). I went to the ceremony at noon at the State Opera House and there witnessed a scene which Germany had not seen since 1914. The entire lower floor was a sea of military uniforms, the faded gray uniforms and spiked helmets of the old Imperial Army mingling with the attire of the new Army, including the sky-blue uniforms of the Luftwaffe, which few had seen before. At Hitler’s side was Field Marshal von Mackensen, the last surviving field marshal of the Kaiser’s Army, colorfully attired in the uniform of the Death’s-Head Hussars. Strong lights played on the stage, where young officers stood like marble statues holding upright the nation’s war flags. Behind them on an enormous curtain hung an immense silver-and-black Iron Cross. Ostensibly this was a ceremony to honor Germany’s war dead. It turned out to be a jubilant celebration of the death of Versailles and the rebirth of the conscript German Army.

The generals, one could see by their faces, were immensely pleased. Like everyone else they had been taken by surprise, for Hitler, who had spent the previous days at his mountain retreat at Berchtesgaden, had not bothered to apprise them of his thoughts. According to General von Manstein’s later testimony at Nuremberg, he and his commanding officer, of Wehrkreis III (the Third Military District) in Berlin, General von Witzleben, first heard of Hitler’s decision over the radio on March 16. The General Staff would have preferred a smaller army to begin with.

The General Staff, had it been asked [Manstein testified], would have proposed twenty-one divisions … The figure of thirty-six divisions was due to a spontaneous decision of Hitler.10

There now took place a series of empty gestures of warning to Hitler by the other powers. The British, the French and the Italians met at Stresa on April 11, condemned Germany’s action and reiterated their support of Austria’s independence and the Locarno Treaty. The Council of theLeague of Nations at Geneva also expressed its displeasure at Hitler’s precipitate action and duly appointed a committee to suggest steps which might impede him the next time. France, recognizing that Germany would never join an Eastern Locarno, hastily signed a pact of mutual assistance with Russia, and Moscow made a similar treaty with Czechoslovakia.

In the headlines this closing of ranks against Germany sounded somewhat ominous and even impressed a number of men in the German Foreign Office and in the Army, but apparently not Hitler. After all, he had gotten away with his gamble. Still, it would not do to rest on his laurels. It was time, he decided, to pull out the stops again on his love of peace and to see whether the new unity of the powers arrayed against him might not be undermined and breached after all.

On the evening of May 21* he delivered another “peace” speech to the Reichstag—perhaps the most eloquent and certainly one of the cleverest and most misleading of his Reichstag orations this writer, who sat through most of them, ever heard him make. Hitler was in a relaxed mood and exuded a spirit not only of confidence but—to the surprise of his listeners—of tolerance and conciliation. There was no resentment or defiance toward the nations which had condemned his scrapping of the military clauses of Versailles. Instead there were assurances that all he wanted was peace and understanding based on justice for all. He rejected the very idea of war; it was senseless, it was useless, as well as a horror.

The blood shed on the European continent in the course of the last three hundred years bears no proportion to the national result of the events. In the end France has remained France, Germany Germany, Poland Poland, and Italy Italy. What dynastic egotism, political passion and patriotic blindness have attained in the way of apparently far-reaching political changes by shedding rivers of blood has, as regards national feeling, done no more than touched the skin of the nations. It has not substantially altered their fundamental characters. If these states had applied merely a fraction of their sacrifices to wiser purposes the success would certainly have been greater and more permanent.

Germany, Hitler proclaimed, had not the slightest thought of conquering other peoples.

   Our racial theory regards every war for the subjection and domination of an alien people as a proceeding which sooner or later changes and weakens the victor internally, and eventually brings about his defeat … As there is no longer any unoccupied space in Europe, every victory … can at best result in a quantitative increase in the number of the inhabitants of a country. But if the nations attach so much importance to that they can achieve it without tears in a simpler and more natural way—[by] a sound social policy, by increasing the readiness of a nation to have children.

No! National Socialist Germany wants peace because of its fundamental convictions. And it wants peace also owing to the realization of the simple primitive fact that no war would be likely essentially to alter the distress in Europe … The principal effect of every war is to destroy the flower of the nation …

Germany needs peace and desires peace!

   He kept hammering away at the point. At the end he made thirteen specific proposals for maintaining the peace which seemed so admirable that they created a deep and favorable impression not only in Germany but in all of Europe. He prefaced them with a reminder:

   Germany has solemnly recognized and guaranteed France her frontiers as determined after the Saar plebiscite … We thereby finally renounced all claims to Alsace-Lorraine, a land for which we have fought two great wars … Without taking the past into account Germany has concluded a nonaggression pact with Poland … We shall adhere to it unconditionally…. We recognize Poland as the home of a great and nationally conscious people.

   As for Austria:

   Germany neither intends nor wishes to interfere in the internal affairs of Austria, to annex Austria, or to conclude an Anschluss.

   Hitler’s thirteen points were quite comprehensive. Germany could not return to Geneva until the League divested itself of the Versailles Treaty. When that was done and full equality of all nations recognized, he implied, Germany would rejoin the League. Germany, however, would “unconditionally respect” the nonmilitary clauses of the Versailles Treaty, “including the territorial provisions. In particular it will uphold and fulfill all obligations arising out of the Locarno Treaty.” Hitler also pledged Germany to abide by the demilitarization of the Rhineland. Though willing “at any time” to participate in a system of collective security, Germany preferred bilateral agreements and was ready to conclude nonaggression pacts with its neighbor states. It was also prepared to agree to British and French proposals for supplementing the Locarno Treaty with an air accord.

As for disarmament, Hitler was ready to go the limit:

   The German government is ready to agree to any limitation which leads to abolition of the heaviest arms, especially suited for aggression, such [as] the heaviest artillery and the heaviest tanks … Germany declares herself ready to agree to any limitation whatsoever of the caliber of artillery, battleships, cruisers and torpedo boats. In like manner, the German government is ready to agree to the limitation of tonnage for submarines, or to their complete abolition …

   In this connection Hitler held out a special bait for Great Britain. He was willing to limit the new German Navy to 35 per cent of the British naval forces; that, he added, would still leave the Germans 15 per cent below the French in naval tonnage. To the objections raised abroad that this would be only the beginning of German demands, Hitler answered, “For Germany, this demand is final and abiding.”

   A little after ten in the evening, Hitler came to his peroration:

   Whoever lights the torch of war in Europe can wish for nothing but chaos. We, however, live in the firm conviction that in our time will be fulfilled not the decline but the renaissance of the West. That Germany may make an imperishable contribution to this great work is our proud hope and our unshakable belief.11

   These were honeyed words of peace, reason and conciliation, and in the Western democracies of Europe, where the people and their governments desperately yearned for the continuance of peace on any reasonable basis, on almost any basis, they were lapped up. The most influential newspaper in the British Isles, the Times of London, welcomed them with almost hysterical joy.

… The speech turns out to be reasonable, straightforward and comprehensive. No one who reads it with an impartial mind can doubt that the points of policy laid down by Herr Hitler may fairly constitute the basis of a complete settlement with Germany—a free, equal and strong Germany instead of the prostrate Germany upon whom peace was imposed sixteen years ago …

It is to be hoped that the speech will be taken everywhere as a sincere and well-considered utterance meaning precisely what it says.12

   This great journal, one of the chief glories of English journalism, would play, like the Chamberlain government, a dubious role in the disastrous British appeasement of Hitler. But to this writer, at least, it had even less excuse than the government, for in its Berlin correspondent, Norman Ebbutt, it had, until he was expelled on August 16, 1937, a source of information about Hitler’s doings and purposes that was much more revealing than that provided by other foreign correspondents or foreign diplomats, including the British. Though much that he wrote for the Times from Berlin in those days was not published,* as he often complained to this writer and as was later confirmed, the Times editors must have read all of his dispatches and have been in the position therefore of knowing what was really going on in Nazi Germany and how hollow Hitler’s grandiose promises were.

   The British government, no less than the Times, was ready and anxious to accept Hitler’s proposals as “sincere” and “well-considered”—especially the one by which Germany would agree to a Navy 35 per cent the size of Britain’s.

Hitler had shrewdly thrown out a hint to Sir John Simon, when the British Foreign Secretary and Eden made their postponed visit to him at the end of March, that a naval agreement might easily be worked out between the two powers which would guarantee English superiority. Now on May 21 he had made a public and specific offer—a German fleet of only 35 per cent of the tonnage of the British—and he had added in his speech some especially friendly words for England. “Germany,” he had said, “has not the intention or the necessity or the means to participate in any new naval rivalry”—an allusion, which apparently was not lost on the English, to the days before 1914 when Tirpitz, enthusiastically backed by Wilhelm II, was building up a high-seas fleet to match England’s. “The German government,” continued Hitler, “recognizes the overpowering vital importance, and therewith the justification, of a dominating protection for the British Empire on the sea … The German government has the straightforward intention to find and maintain a relationship with the British people and state which will prevent for all time a repetition of the only struggle there has been between the two nations.” Hitler had expressed similar sentiments in Mein Kampf, where he had stressed that one of the Kaiser’s greatest mistakes had been his enmity toward England and his absurd attempt to rival the British in naval power.

With incredible naïveté and speed, the British government fell for Hitler’s bait. Ribbentrop, who had now become Hitler’s messenger boy for foreign errands, was invited to come to London in June for naval talks. Vain and tactless, he told the British that Hitler’s offer was not subject to negotiation; they must take it or leave it. The British took it. Without consulting their allies of the Stresa front, France and Italy, which were also naval powers and much concerned over German rearmament and German flouting of the military clauses of Versailles, and without even informing the League of Nations, which was supposed to uphold the 1919 peace treaties, they proceeded, for what they thought was a private advantage, to wipe out the naval restrictions of Versailles.

For it was obvious to the most simple mind in Berlin that by agreeing to Germany’s building a navy a third as large as the British, the London government was giving Hitler free rein to build up a navy as fast as was physically possible—one that would tax the capacity of his shipyards and steel mills for at least ten years. It was thus not a limitation on German rearmament but an encouragement to expand it, in the naval arm, as rapidly as Germany could find the means to do so.

To add insult to the injury already done France, the British government, in fulfillment of a promise to Hitler, refused to tell her closest ally what kind of ships and how many Great Britain had agreed that Germany should build, except that the German submarine tonnage—the building of submarines in Germany was specifically forbidden by Versailles—would be 60 per cent of Britain’s and, if exceptional circumstances arose, might be 100 per cent.13 Actually the Anglo–German agreement authorized the Germans to build five battleships, whose tonnage and armament would be greater than that of anything the British had afloat, though the official figures were faked to deceive London—twenty-one cruisers and sixty-four destroyers. Not all of them were built or completed by the outbreak of the war, but enough of them, with the U-boats, were ready to cause Britain disastrous losses in the first years of the second war.

Mussolini took due notice of the “perfidy of Albion.” Two could play at the game of appeasing Hitler. Moreover, England’s cynical attitude of disregarding the Versailles Treaty encouraged him in the belief that London might not take too seriously the flouting of the Covenant of the League of Nations. On October 3, 1935, in defiance of the Covenant, his armies invaded the ancient mountain kingdom of Abyssinia. The League, led by Great Britain and supported halfheartedly by France, which saw that Germany was the greater danger in the long run, promptly voted sanctions. But they were only partial sanctions, timidly enforced. They did not prevent Mussolini from conquering Ethiopia but they did destroy the friendship of Fascist Italy with Britain and France and bring an end to the Stresa front against Nazi Germany.

Who stood the most to gain from this chain of events but Adolf Hitler? On October 4, the day after the Italian invasion began, I spent the day in the Wilhelmstrasse talking with a number of party and government officials. A diary note that evening summed up how quickly and well the Germans had sized up the situation:

   The Wilhelmstrasse is delighted. Either Mussolini will stumble and get himself so heavily involved in Africa that he will be greatly weakened in Europe, whereupon Hitler can seize Austria, hitherto protected by the Duce; or he will win, defying France and Britain, and thereupon be ripe for a tie-up with Hitler against the Western democracies. Either way Hitler wins.14

This would soon be demonstrated.

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