In his address to the robots of the Reichstag on January 30, 1937, Hitler proclaimed, “The time of so-called surprises has been ended.”
And in truth, there were no weekend surprises during 1937.* The year for Germany was one of consolidation and further preparation for the objectives which in November the Fuehrer would at last lay down to a handful of his highest officers. It was a year devoted to forging armaments, training troops, trying out the new Air Force in Spain, † developing ersatz gasoline and rubber, cementing the Rome–Berlin Axis and watching for further weak spots in Paris, London and Vienna.
All through the first months of 1937, Hitler sent important emissaries to Rome to cultivate Mussolini. The Germans were somewhat uneasy over Italy’s flirtation with Britain (on January 2 Ciano had signed a “gentleman’s agreement” with the British government in which the two countries recognized each other’s vital interests in the Mediterranean) and they realized that the question of Austria was still a touchy subject in Rome. When Goering saw the Duce on January 15 and bluntly spoke of the inevitability of the Anschluss with Austria, the excitable Italian dictator, according to the German interpreter, Paul Schmidt, shook his head violently, and Ambassador von Hassell reported to Berlin that Goering’s statement on Austria “had met with a cool reception.” In June Neurath hastened to assure the Duce that Germany would abide by its July 11 pact with Austria. Only in the case of an attempted restoration of the Hapsburgs would the Germans take stern action.
Thus placated on Austria and still smarting from the opposition of France and Britain to almost all of his ambitions—in Ethiopia, in Spain, in the Mediterranean—Mussolini accepted an invitation from Hitler to visit Germany, and on September 25, 1937, outfitted in a new uniform created especially for the occasion, he crossed the Alps into the Third Reich. Feted and flattered as a conquering hero by Hitler and his aides, Mussolini could not then know how fateful a journey this was, the first of many to Hitler’s side which were to lead to a progressive weakening of his own position and finally to a disastrous end. Hitler’s purpose was not to engage in further diplomatic conversations with his guest but to impress him with Germany’s strength and thus play on Mussolini’s obsession to cast his lot with the winning side. The Duce was rushed from one side of Germany to the other: to parades of the S.S. and the troops, to Army maneuvers in Mecklenburg, to the roaring armament factories in the Ruhr.
His visit was climaxed by a celebration in Berlin on September 28 which visibly impressed him. A gigantic crowd of one million persons was gathered on the Maifeld to hear the two fascist dictators speak their pieces. Mussolini, orating in German, was carried away by the deafening applause—and by Hitler’s flattering words. The Duce, said the Fuehrer, was “one of those lonely men of the ages on whom history is not tested, but who themselves are the makers of history.” I remember that a severe thunderstorm broke over the field before Mussolini had finished his oration and that in the confusion of the scattering mob the S.S. security arrangements broke down and the proud Duce, drenched to the skin and sorely put, was forced to make his way back to his headquarters alone and as best he could. However, this untoward experience did not dampen Mussolini’s enthusiasm to be a partner of this new, powerful Germany, and the next day, after reviewing a military parade of Army, Navy and Air Force detachments, he returned to Rome convinced that his future lay at the side of Hitler.
It was not surprising, then, that a month later when Ribbentrop journeyed to Rome to obtain Mussolini’s signature for the Anti-Comintern Pact, a ceremony held on November 6, he was told by the Duce of Italy’s declining interest in the independence of Austria. “Let events [in Austria] take their natural course,” Mussolini said. This was the go-ahead for which Hitler had been waiting.
Another ruler became impressed by Nazi Germany’s growing power. When Hitler broke the Locarno Treaty and, in occupying the Rhineland, placed German troops on the Belgian border, King Leopold withdrew his country from the Locarno Pact and from its alliance with Britain and France and proclaimed that henceforth Belgium would follow a strict course of neutrality. This was a serious blow to the collective defense of the West, but in April 1937 Britain and France accepted it—an action for which they, as well as Belgium, would soon pay dearly.
At the end of May the Wilhelmstrasse had watched with interest the retirement of Stanley Baldwin as Prime Minister of Great Britain and the accession of Neville Chamberlain to that post. The Germans were pleased to hear that the new British Prime Minister would take a more active part in foreign affairs than had his predecessor and that he was determined to reach, if possible, an understanding with Nazi Germany. What sort of understanding would be acceptable to Hitler was outlined in a secret memorandum of November 10, written by Baron von Weizsaecker, then head of the Political Department of the German Foreign Office.
From England we want colonies and freedom of action in the East … The British need for tranquillity is great. It would be profitable to find out what England would be willing to pay for such tranquillity.45
An occasion for finding out what England would pay arose in November when Lord Halifax, with Mr. Chamberlain’s enthusiastic approval, made the pilgrimage to Berchtesgaden to see Hitler. On November 19 they held a long conversation, and in the lengthy secret German memorandum on it drawn up by the German Foreign Office46 three points emerge: Chamberlain was most anxious for a settlement with Germany and proposed talks between the two countries on a cabinet level; Britain wanted a general European settlement, in return for which she was prepared to make concessions to Hitler as regards colonies and Eastern Europe; Hitler was not greatly interested at the moment in an Anglo–German accord.
In view of the rather negative outcome of the talk, it was surprising to the Germans that the British seemed to be encouraged by it.* It would have been a much greater surprise to the British government had it known of a highly secret meeting which Hitler had held in Berlin with his military chiefs and his Foreign Minister exactly fourteen days before his conversation with Lord Halifax.