Military history

THE FATEFUL DECISION OF NOVEMBER 5, 1937

An indication of things to come and of the preparations that must be made to meet them had been given the commanders in chief of the three armed forces on June 24, 1937, by Field Marshal von Blomberg in a directive marked “Top Secret,” of which only four copies were made.47 “The general political situation,” the Minister of War and Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces informed the three service chiefs, “justifies the supposition that Germany need not consider an attack from any side.” Neither the Western Powers nor Russia, he said, had any desire for war, nor were they prepared for it.

“Nevertheless,” the directive continued, “the politically fluid world situation, which does not preclude surprising incidents, demands constant preparedness for war on the part of the German armed forces … to make possible the military exploitation of politically favorable opportunities should they occur. Preparations of the armed forces for a possible war in the mobilization period 1937–38 must be made with this in mind.”

What possible war, since Germany need not fear an attack “from any side”? Blomberg was quite specific. There were two eventualities for war (Kriegsfalle) “for which plans are being drafted”:

I. War on two fronts with the main struggle in the West. (Strategic Concentration “Rot.”)

II. War on two fronts with the main struggle in the Southeast. (Strategic Concentration “Gruen.”)

The “assumption” in the first case was that the French might stage a surprise attack on Germany, in which case the Germans would employ their main forces in the West. This operation was given the code name “Red” (Rot.)*

For the second eventuality:

The war in the East can begin with a surprise German operation against Czechoslovakia in order to parry the imminent attack of a superior enemy coalition. The necessary conditions to justify such an action politically and in the eyes of international law must be created beforehand.[Emphasis by Blomberg.]

Czechoslovakia, the directive stressed, must be “eliminated from the very beginning” and occupied.

There were also three cases where “special preparations” were to be made:

   I. Armed intervention against Austria. (Special Case “Otto.”)

II. Warlike complications with Red Spain. (Special Case “Richard.”)

III. England, Poland, Lithuania take part in a war against us. (Extension of “Red/Green.”)

   Case Otto is a code name that will appear with some frequency in these pages. “Otto” stood for Otto of Hapsburg, the young pretender to the Austrian throne, then living in Belgium. In Blomberg’s June directive Case Otto was summarized as follows:

   The object of this operation—armed intervention in Austria in the event of her restoring the Monarchy—will be to compel Austria by armed force to give up a restoration.

   Making use of the domestic political dissension of the Austrian people, there will be a march to this end in the general direction of Vienna, and any resistance will be broken.

   A note of caution, almost of despair, creeps into this revealing document at the end. There are no illusions about Britain. “England,” it warns, “will employ all her available economic and military resources against us.” Should she join Poland and Lithuania, the directive acknowledges, “our military position would be worsened to an unbearable, even hopeless, extent. The political leaders will therefore do everything to keep these countries neutral, above all England.”

Although the directive was signed by Blomberg it is obvious that it came from his master in the Reich Chancellery. To that nerve center of the Third Reich in the Wilhelmstrasse in Berlin there came on the afternoon of November 5, 1937, to receive further elucidation from the Fuehrer six individuals: Field Marshal von Blomberg, Minister of War and Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces; Colonel General Baron von Fritsch, Commander in Chief of the Army; Admiral Dr. Raeder, Commander in Chief of the Navy; Colonel General Goering, Commander in Chief of the Air Force; Baron von Neurath, Foreign Minister; and Colonel Hossbach, military adjutant to the Fuehrer. Hossbach is not a familiar name in these pages, nor will it become one. But in the darkening hours of that November day the young colonel played an important role. He took notes of what Hitler said and five days later wrote them up in a highly secret memorandum, thus recording for history—his account showed up at Nuremberg among the captured documents48—the decisive turning point in the life of the Third Reich.

The meeting began at 4:15 P.M. and lasted until 8:30, with Hitler doing most of the talking. What he had to say, he began, was the fruit of “thorough deliberation and the experiences of four and a half years of power.” He explained that he regarded the remarks he was about to make as of such importance that, in the event of his death, they should be regarded as his last will and testament.

“The aim of German policy,” he said, “was to make secure and to preserve the racial community and to enlarge it. It was therefore a question of space [Lebensraum].” The Germans, he laid it down, had “the right to a greater living space than other peoples … Germany’s future was therefore wholly conditional upon the solving of the need for space.”*

Where? Not in some far-off African or Asian colonies, but in the heart of Europe “in immediate proximity to the Reich.” The question for Germany was, Where could she achieve the greatest gain at the lowest cost?

The history of all ages—the Roman Empire and the British Empire—had proved that expansion could only be carried out by breaking down resistance and taking risks; setbacks were inevitable. There had never … been spaces without a master, and there were none today; the attacker always comes up against a possessor.

Two “hate-inspired” countries, Hitler declared, stood in Germany’s way: Britain and France. Both countries were opposed “to any further strengthening of Germany’s position.” The Fuehrer did not believe that the British Empire was “unshakable.” In fact, he saw many weaknesses in it, and he proceeded to elaborate them: the troubles with Ireland and India, the rivalry with Japan in the Far East and with Italy in the Mediterranean. France’s position, he thought, “was more favorable than that of Britain … but France was going to be confronted with internal political difficulties.” Nonetheless, Britain, France and Russia must be considered as “power factors in our political calculations.”

Therefore:

   Germany’s problem could be solved only by means of force, and this was never without attendant risk … If one accepts as the basis of the following exposition the resort to force, with its attendant risks, then there remain to be answered the questions “when” and “where.” There were three cases to be dealt with:

Case I: Period 1943–45

After this date only a change for the worse, from our point of view, could be expected. The equipment of the Army, Navy and Airforce … was nearly completed. Equipment and armament were modern; in further delay there lay the danger of their obsolescence. In particular, the secrecy of “special weapons” could not be preserved forever … Our relative strength would decrease in relation to the rearmament … by the rest of the world … Besides, the world was expecting our attack and was increasing its countermeasures from year to year. It was while the rest of the world was increasing its defenses that we were obliged to take the offensive.

Nobody knew today what the situation would be in the years 1943–45. One thing only was certain, that we could not wait longer.

If the Fuehrer was still living, it was his unalterable resolve to solve Germany’s problem of space at the latest by 1943–45. The necessity for action before 1943–45 would arise in Cases II and III.

Case II

If internal strife in France should develop into such a domestic crisis as to absorb the French Army completely and render it incapable of use for war against Germany, then the time for action against the Czechs had come.

Case III

If France is so embroiled by a war with another state that she cannot “proceed” against Germany….

Our first objective … must be to overthrow Czechoslovakia and Austria simultaneously in order to remove the threat to our flank in any possible operation against the West … If the Czechs were overthrown and a common German–Hungarian frontier achieved, a neutral attitude on the part of Poland could be the more certainly counted upon in the event of a Franco–German conflict.

But what would France, Britain, Italy and Russia do? Hitler went into the answer to that question in considerable detail. He believed “that almost certainly Britain, and probably France, had already tacitly written off the Czechs. Difficulties connected with the Empire and the prospect of being once more entangled in a protracted European war were decisive considerations for Britain against participation in a war against Germany. Britain’s attitude would certainly not be without influence on that of France. An attack by France without British support, and with the prospect of the offensive being brought to a standstill on our western fortifications, was hardly probable. Nor was a French march through Belgium and Holland without British support to be expected … It would of course be necessary to maintain a strong defense on our western frontier during the prosecution of our attack on the Czechs and Austria.”

Hitler then outlined some of the advantages of the “annexation of Czechoslovakia and Austria”: better strategic frontiers for Germany, the freeing of military forces “for other purposes,” acquisition of some twelve million “Germans,” additional foodstuffs for five to six million Germans in the Reich, and manpower for twelve new Army divisions.

He had forgotten to mention what Italy and Russia might do, and he now returned to them. He doubted whether the Soviet Union would intervene, “in view of Japan’s attitude.” Italy would not object “to the elimination of the Czechs” but it was still a question as to her attitude if Austria was also taken. It depended “essentially on whether the Duce were still alive.”

Hitler’s supposition for Case III was that France would become embroiled in a war with Italy—a conflict that he counted upon. That was the reason, he explained, for his policy in trying to prolong the Spanish Civil War; it kept Italy embroiled with France and Britain. He saw a war between them “coming definitely nearer.” In fact, he said, he was “resolved to take advantage of it, whenever it happened, even as early as 1938”—which was just two months away. He was certain that Italy, with a little German help in raw materials, could stand off Britain and France.

If Germany made use of this war to settle the Czech and Austrian questions, it was to be assumed that Britain—herself at war with Italy—would decide not to act against Germany. Without British support, a warlike action by France against Germany was not to be expected.

The time for our attack on the Czechs and Austria must be made dependent on the course of the Anglo–French–Italian war … This favorable situation … would not occur again … The descent upon the Czechs would have to be carried out with “lightning speed.”

Thus as evening darkened Berlin on that autumn day of November 5, 1937—the meeting broke up at eight-fifteen—the die was cast. Hitler had communicated his irrevocable decision to go to war. To the handful of men who would have to direct it there could no longer be any doubt. The dictator had said it all ten years before in Mein Kampf, had said that Germany must have Lebensraum in the East and must be prepared to use force to obtain it; but then he had been only an obscure agitator and his book, as Field Marshal von Blomberg later said, had been regarded by the soldiers—as by so many others—as “a piece of propaganda” whose “large circulation was due to forced sales.”

But now the Wehrmacht chiefs and the Foreign Minister were confronted with specific dates for actual aggression against two neighboring countries—an action which they were sure would bring on a European war. They must be ready by the following year, 1938, and at the latest by 1943–45.

The realization stunned them. Not, so far as the Hossbach records show, because they were struck down by the immorality of their Leader’s proposals but for more practical reasons: Germany was not ready for a big war; to provoke one now would risk disaster.

On those grounds Blomberg, Fritsch and Neurath dared to speak up and question the Fuehrer’s pronouncement. Within three months all of the three were out of office and Hitler, relieved of their opposition, such as it was—and it was the last he was to suffer in his presence during the Third Reich—set out on the road of the conqueror to fulfill his destiny. In the beginning, it was an easier road than he—or anyone else—had foreseen.

* Earlier that day Hitler had promulgated the secret Reich Defense Law, putting Dr. Schacht, as we have seen, in charge of war economy and thoroughly reorganizing the armed forces. The Reichswehr of Weimar days became the Wehrmacht. Hitler, as Fuehrer and Chancellor, was Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces (Wehrmacht) and Blomberg, the Minister of Defense, was designated as Minister of War with the additional title of Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces—the only general in Germany who ever held that rank. Each of the three services had its own commander in chief and its own general staff. The camouflage name of “Truppenamt” in the Army was dropped for the real thing and its head, General Beck, assumed the title of Chief of the General Staff. But this title did not denote what it did in the Kaiser’s time, when the General Staff Chief was actually the Commander in Chief of the German Army under the warlord.

* “I do my utmost, night after night, to keep out of the paper anything that might hurt their [German] susceptibilities,” Geoffrey Dawson, the editor of the Times, wrote on May 23, 1937, to his Geneva correspondent, H. G. Daniels, who had preceded Ebbutt in Berlin. “I can really think of nothing that has been printed now for many months past to which they could possibly take exception as unfair comment.” (John Evelyn Wrench, Geoffrey Dawson and Our Times.)

* According to Jodl’s testimony at Nuremberg, only three battalions crossed the Rhine, making for Aachen, Trier and Saarbruecken, and only one division was employed in the occupation of the entire territory. Allied intelligence estimates were considerably larger: 35,000 men, or approximately three divisions. Hitler commented later, “The fact was, I had only four brigades.”19

* Despite François-Poncet’s warning of the previous fall, Germany’s action apparently came as a complete surprise to the French and British governments and their general staffs.

* On March 7 Hitler had dissolved the Reichstag and called for a new “election” and a referendum on his move into the Rhineland. According to the official figures of the voting on March 29, some 99 per cent of the 45,453,691 registered voters went to the polls, and 98.8 per cent of them approved Hitler’s action. Foreign correspondents who visited the polling places found some irregularities—especially, open instead of secret voting—and there was no doubt that some Germans feared (with justification, as we have seen) that a Nein vote might be discovered by the Gestapo. Dr. Hugo Eckener told this writer that on his new Zeppelin Hindenburg, which Goebbels had ordered to cruise over German cities as a publicity stunt, the Ja vote, which was announced by the Propaganda Minister as forty-two, outnumbered the total number of persons aboard by two. Nevertheless, this observer, who covered the “election” from one corner of the Reich to the other, has no doubt that the vote of approval for Hitler’s coup was overwhelming. And why not? The junking of Versailles and the appearance of German soldiers marching again into what was, after all, German territory were things that almost all Germans naturally approved. The “No” vote was given as 540,211.

* More than a year later, on November 5, 1937, Hitler would reiterate his Spanish policy in a confidential talk with his generals and his Foreign Minister. “A hundred per cent victory for Franco,” he told them, was “not desirable from the German point of view. Rather we are interested in a continuance of the war and in keeping up the tension in the Mediterranean.”38

* Wilhelmstrasse officials used to say jokingly that Hitler pulled his surprises on Saturdays because he had been told that British officials took the weekend off in the country.

 In his testimony at Nuremberg on March 14, 1946, Goering spoke proudly of the opportunities which the Spanish Civil War gave for testing “my young Luftwaffe. With the permission of the Fuehrer I sent a large part of my transport fleet and a number of experimental fighter units, bombers and antiaircraft guns; and in that way I had an opportunity to ascertain, under combat conditions, whether the material was equal to the task. In order that the personnel, too, might gather a certain experience, I saw to it that there was a continuous flow [so] that new people were constantly being sent and others recalled.”44

* Chamberlain wrote in his diary: “The German visit [of Halifax] was from my point of view a great success because it achieved its object, that of creating an atmosphere in which it is possible to discuss with Germany the practical questions involved in a European settlement.” (Keith Feiling, The Life of Neville Chamberlain, p. 332.)

Halifax himself seems to have been taken in by Hitler. In a written report to the Foreign Office he said: “The German Chancellor and others gave the impression that they were not likely to embark on adventures involving force or at least war.” To Chamberlain Halifax reported orally, says Charles C. Tansill, that Hitler “was not bent on early adventures, partly because they might be unprofitable, and partly because he was busy building up Germany internally … Goering had assured him that not one drop of German blood would be shed in Europe unless Germany was absolutely forced to do it. The Germans gave him [Halifax] the impression … of intending to achieve their aims in orderly fashion.” (Tansill, Back Door to War, pp. 365–66.)

* This is the first of many such code names for German military plans which we shall meet in the ensuing narrative. The Germans used the word Fall, literally “Case” (Fall Rot, Fall Gruen—Case Red, Case Green—the code names for operations in the West and against Czechoslovakia, respectively) and in the beginning, according to the arguments of the German generals in Nuremberg, it was merely the designation commonly used by all military commands for plans to cover hypothetical situations. But as will become obvious in the course of these pages, the term, as the Germans used it, soon became a designation for a plan of armed aggression. The word “Operation” would probably be a more accurate rendering of Fall than the word “Case.” However, for the sake of convenience, the author will go along with the word “Case.”

* From here on, the reader will note that what obviously is indirect discourse has been put within quotation marks or in quotations in the form of extracts. Almost all the German records of the remarks of Hitler and of others in private talks were written down in the third person as indirect discourse, though frequently they abruptly slipped into direct, first-person discourse without any change of punctuation. This question posed a problem for American English.

Because I wanted to preserve the accuracy of the original document and the exact wording used or recorded, I decided it was best to refrain from tampering with these accounts by rendering them into first-person direct discourse or by excluding them from within quotation marks. In the latter case it would have looked as though I were indulging in liberal paraphrasing when I was not.

It is largely a matter in the German records of verb tenses being changed by the actual recorders from present to past and of changing the first-person pronoun to third-person. If this is borne in mind there will not be, I believe, any confusion.

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