Military history

THE FIRST CRISIS: MAY 1938

The weekend which began on Friday, May 20, developed into a critical one and would later be remembered as the “May crisis.” During the ensuing forty-eight hours, the governments in London, Paris, Prague and Moscow were panicked into the belief that Europe stood nearer to war than it had at any time since the summer of 1914. This may have been largely due to the possibility that new plans for a German attack on Czechoslovakia, which were drawn up for Hitler by OKW and presented to him on that Friday, leaked out. At any rate, it was believed at least in Prague and London that Hitler was about to launch aggression against Czechoslovakia. In this belief the Czechs began to mobilize and Britain, France and Russia displayed a firmness and a unity in the face of what their governments feared to be an imminent German threat which they were not to show again until a new world war had almost destroyed them.

On Friday, May 20, General Keitel dispatched to Hitler at the Obersalzberg a new draft of Case Green which he and his staff had been working on since the Fuehrer had laid down the general lines for it in their meeting on April 21. In an obsequious letter to the Leader attached to the new plan, Keitel explained that it took into account “the situation created by the incorporation of Austria into the German Reich” and that it would not be discussed with the commanders in chief of the three armed services until “you, my Fuehrer,” approved it and signed it.

The new directive for “Green,” dated Berlin, May 20, 1938, is an interesting and significant document. It is a model of the kind of Nazi planning for aggression with which the world later became acquainted.

It is not my intention [it began] to smash Czechoslovakia by military action in the immediate future without provocation, unless an unavoidable development … within [emphasis in the original] Czechoslovakia forces the issue, or political events in Europe create a particularly favorable opportunity which may perhaps never recur.8

Three “political possibilities for commencing the operation” are considered. The first, “a sudden attack without convenient outward excuse,” is rejected.

Operations preferably will be launched, either:

(a) after a period of increasing diplomatic controversies and tension linked with military preparations, which will be exploited so as to shift the war guilt on the enemy.

(b) by lightning action as the result of a serious incident which will subject Germany to unbearable provocation and which, in the eyes of at least a part of world opinion, affords the moral justification for military measures.

Case (b) is more favorable, both from a military and a political point of view.

   As for the military operation itself, it was to attain such a success within four days that it would “demonstrate to enemy states which may wish to intervene the hopelessness of the Czech military position and also provide an incentive to those states which have territorial claims upon Czechoslovakia to join in immediately against her.” Those states were Hungary and Poland, and the plan counted on their intervention. Whether France would honor its obligations to the Czechs was considered doubtful, but “attempts by Russia to give Czechoslovakia military support are to be expected.”

The German High Command, or at least Keitel and Hitler, were so confident that the French would not fight that only a “minimum strength is to be provided as a rear cover in the west” and it was emphasized that “the whole weight of all forces must be employed in the invasion of Czechoslovakia.” The “task of the bulk of the Army,” aided by the Luftwaffe, was “to smash the Czechoslovak Army and to occupy Bohemia and Moravia as quickly as possible.”

It was to be total war, and for the first time in the planning of German soldiers the value of what the directive calls “propaganda warfare” and “economic warfare” is emphasized and their employment woven into the over-all military plan of attack.

   Propaganda warfare [emphasis in the original] must on the one hand intimidate the Czechs by means of threats and wear down their power of resistance; on the other hand it must give the national minorities indications as to how to support our military operations and influence the neutrals in our favor.

Economic warfare has the task of employing all available economic resources to hasten the final collapse of the Czechs … In the course of military operations it is important to help to increase the total economic war effort by rapidly collecting information about important factories and setting them going again as soon as possible. For this reason the sparing—as far as military operations permit—of Czech industrial and engineering establishments may be of decisive importance to us.

   This model for Nazi aggression was to remain essentially unchanged and to be used with staggering success until an aroused world much later woke up to it.

Shortly after noon on May 20, the German minister in Prague sent an “urgent and most secret” wire to Berlin reporting that the Czech Foreign Minister had just informed him by telephone that his government was “perturbed by reports of concentration of [German] troops in Saxony.” He had replied, he said, “that there were absolutely no grounds for anxiety,” but he requested Berlin to inform him immediately what, if anything, was up.

This was the first of a series of feverish diplomatic exchanges that weekend which shook Europe with a fear that Hitler was about to move again and that this time a general war would follow. The basis for the information received by British and Czech intelligence that German troops were concentrating on the Czech border has never, so far as I know, come to light. To a Europe still under the shock of the German military occupation of Austria there were several straws in the wind. On May 19 a newspaper in Leipzig had published a report of German troop movements.Henlein, the Sudeten Fuehrer, had announced the breaking off of his party’s negotiations with the Czech government on May 9 and it was known that on his return from London on the fourteenth he had stopped off at Berchtesgaden to see Hitler and that he was still there. There were shooting affrays in the Sudetenland. And all through May Dr. Goebbels’ propaganda war—featuring wild stories of “Czech terror” against the Sudeten Germans—had been stepped up. The tension seemed to be reaching a climax.

Though there was some movement of German troops in connection with spring maneuvers, particularly in the eastern regions, no evidence was ever found from the captured German documents indicating any sudden, new concentration of armed forces on the Czech border at this moment. On the contrary, two German Foreign Office papers dated May 21 contain confidential assurances to the Wilhelmstrasse from Colonel Jodl of the OKW that there had been no such concentrations either in Silesia or in Lower Austria. There had been nothing, Jodl asserted in messages not intended for foreign perusal, “apart from peacetime maneuvers.”9 It was not that the Czech border was denuded of German troops. As we have seen, on May 16 Hitler had been informed by OKW, in answer to his urgent request for information, that there were twelve German divisions on the Czech frontier “ready to march within twelve hours.”

Could it have been that Czech or British intelligence got wind of the telegrams which exchanged this information? And that they learned of the new directive for “Green” which Keitel dispatched for Hitler’s approval on May 20? For on the next day the Czech Chief of Staff, General Krejci, told the German military attaché in Prague, Colonel Toussaint, that he had “irrefutable proof that in Saxony a concentration of from eight to ten [German] divisions had taken place.”10 The figures on the number of divisions were not far from correct, even if the information on the manner of their deployment was somewhat inaccurate. At any rate, on the afternoon of May 20, following an emergency cabinet session at Hradschin Palace in Prague presided over by President Beneš, the Czechs decided on an immediate partial mobilization. One class was called to the colors and certain technical reservists were mobilized. The Czech government, in contrast to the Austrian two months before, did not intend to give up without a fight.

The Czech mobilization, partial though it was, sent Adolf Hitler into a fit of fury, and his feelings were not assuaged by the dispatches that arrived for him at Obersalzberg from the German Foreign Office in Berlin telling of continual calls by the British and French ambassadors warning Germany that aggression against Czechoslovakia meant a European war.

The Germans had never been subjected to such strenuous and persistent diplomatic pressure as the British employed on this weekend. Sir Nevile Henderson, the British ambassador, who had been sent to Berlin by Prime Minister Chamberlain to apply his skills as a professional diplomat to the appeasement of Hitler and who applied them to the utmost, called repeatedly at the German Foreign Office to inquire about German troop movements and to advise caution. There is no doubt that he was egged on by Lord Halifax and the British Foreign Office, for Henderson, a suave, debonair diplomat, had little sympathy with the Czechs, as all who knew him in Berlin were aware. He saw Ribbentrop twice on May 21 and on the next day, though it was a Sunday, called on State Secretary von Weizsaecker—Ribbentrop having been hastily convoked to Hitler’s presence at Obersalzberg—to deliver a personal message from Halifax stressing the gravity of the situation. In London, the British Foreign Secretary also called in the German ambassador on the Sabbath and emphasized how grave the moment was.

In all these British communications the Germans did not fail to note, as Ambassador von Dirksen pointed out in a dispatch after seeing Halifax, that the British government, while certain that France would go to the aid of Czechoslovakia, did not affirm that Britain would too. The furthest the British would go was to warn, as Dirksen says Halifax did, that “in the event of a European conflict it was impossible to foresee whether Britain would not be drawn into it.”11 As a matter of fact, this was as far as Chamberlain’s government would ever go—until it was too late to stop Hitler. It was this writer’s impression in Berlin from that moment until the end that had Chamberlain frankly told Hitler that Britain would do what it ultimately did in the face of Nazi aggression, the Fuehrer would never have embarked on the adventures which brought on the Second World War—an impression which has been immensely strengthened by the study of the secret German documents. This was the well-meaning Prime Minister’s fatal mistake.

   Adolf Hitler, brooding fitfully in his mountain retreat above Berchtesgaden, felt deeply humiliated by the Czechs and by the support given them in London, Paris and even Moscow, and nothing could have put the German dictator in a blacker, uglier mood. His fury was all the more intense because he was accused, prematurely, of being on the point of committing an aggression which he indeed intended to commit. That very weekend he had gone over the new plan for “Green” submitted by Keitel. But it could not be carried out at once. Swallowing his pride, he ordered the Foreign Office in Berlin to inform the Czech envoy on Monday, May 23, that Germany had no aggressive intentions toward Czechoslovakia and that the reports of German troop concentrations on her borders were without foundation. In Prague, London, Paris and Moscow the government leaders breathed a sigh of relief. The crisis had been mastered. Hitler had been given a lesson. He must now know he could not get away with aggression as easily as he had done in Austria.

Little did these statesmen know the Nazi dictator.

After sulking at Obersalzberg a few more days, during which there grew within him a burning rage to get even with Czechoslovakia and particularly with President Beneš, who, he believed, had deliberately humiliated him, he suddenly appeared in Berlin on May 28 and convoked the ranking officers of the Wehrmacht to the Chancellery to hear a momentous decision. He himself told of it in a speech to the Reichstag eight months later:

I resolved to solve once and for all, and this radically, the Sudeten question. On May 28, I ordered:

1.     That preparations should be made for military action against this state by October 2.

2.     That the construction of our western defenses should be greatly extended and speeded up …

The immediate mobilization of 96 divisions was planned, to begin with … 12

To his assembled confederates, Goering, Keitel, Brauchitsch, Beck, Admiral Raeder, Ribbentrop and Neurath, he thundered, “It is my unshakable will that Czechoslovakia shall be wiped off the map!”13 Case Green was again brought out and again revised.

Jodl’s diary traces what had been going on in Hitler’s feverish, vindictive mind.

   The intention of the Fuehrer not to activate the Czech problem as yet is changed because of the Czech strategic troop concentration of May 21, which occurs without any German threat and without the slightest cause for it. Because of Germany’s self-restraint, its consequences lead to a loss of prestige of the Fuehrer, which he is not willing to take again. Therefore, the new directive for “Green” is issued on May 30.14

   The details of the new directive on Case Green which Hitler signed on May 30 do not differ essentially from those of the version submitted to Hitler nine days before. But there are two significant changes. Instead of the opening sentence of May 21, which read: “It is not my intention to smash Czechoslovakia in the near future,” the new directive began: “It is my unalterable decision to smash Czechoslovakia by military action in the near future.

What the “near future” meant was explained by Keitel in a covering letter. “Green’s execution,” he ordered, “must be assured by October 1, 1938, at the latest.”15

It was a date which Hitler would adhere to through thick and thin, through crisis after crisis, and at the brink of war, without flinching.

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