After five and a half years of National Socialism it was evident to the few Germans who opposed Hitler that only the Army possessed the physical strength to overthrow him. The workers, the middle and upper classes, even if they had wanted to, had no means of doing it. They had no organization outside of the Nazi party groups and they were, of course, unarmed. Though much would later be written about the German “resistance” movement, it remained from the beginning to the end a small and feeble thing, led, to be sure, by a handful of courageous and decent men, but lacking followers.
The very maintenance of its bare existence was, admittedly, difficult in a police state dominated by terror and spying. Moreover, how could a tiny group—or even a large group, had there been one—rise up in revolt against the machine guns, the tanks, the flame throwers of the S.S.?
In the beginning, what opposition there was to Hitler sprang from among the civilians; the generals, as we have seen, were only too pleased with a system which had shattered the restrictions of the Versailles Treaty and given them the heady and traditional task of building up a great army once again. Ironically, the principal civilians who emerged to lead the opposition had served the Fuehrer in important posts, most of them with an initial enthusiasm for Nazism which dampened only when it began to dawn on them in 1937 that Hitler was leading Germany toward a war which it was almost sure to lose.
One of the earliest of these to see the light was Carl Goerdeler, the mayor of Leipzig, who, first appointed Price Controller by Bruening, had continued in that job for three years under Hitler. A conservative and a monarchist at heart, a devout Protestant, able, energetic and intelligent, but also indiscreet and headstrong, he broke with the Nazis in 1936 over their anti-Semitism and their frenzied rearmament and, resigning both his posts, went to work with heart and soul in opposition to Hitler. One of his first acts was to journey to France, England and the United States in 1937 to discreetly warn of the peril of Nazi Germany.
The light came a little later to two other eventual conspirators, Johannes Popitz, Prussian Minister of Finance, and Dr. Schacht. Both had received the Nazi Party’s highest decoration, the Golden Badge of Honor, for their services in shaping Germany’s economy for war purposes. Both had begun to wake up to what Hitler’s real goal was in 1938. Neither of them seems to have been fully trusted by the inner circle of the opposition because of their past and their character. Schacht was too opportunist, and Hassell remarked in his diary that the Reichsbank president had a capacity “for talking one way and acting another,” an opinion, he says, that was shared by Generals Beck and von Fritsch. Popitz was brilliant but unstable. A fine Greek scholar as well as eminent economist, he, along with General Beck and Hassell, was a member of the Wednesday Club, a group of sixteen intellectuals who gathered once a week to discuss philosophy, history, art, science and literature and who as time went on—or ran out—formed one of the centers of the opposition.
Ulrich von Hassell became a sort of foreign-affairs adviser to the resistance leaders. His dispatches as ambassador in Rome during the Abyssinian War and the Spanish Civil War, as we have seen, had been full of advice to Berlin on how to keep Italy embroiled with France and Britain and therefore on the side of Germany. Later he came to fear that war with France and Britain would be fatal to Germany and that even a German alliance with Italy would be too. Far too cultivated to have anything but contempt for the vulgarism of National Socialism, he did not, however, voluntarily give up serving the regime. He was kicked out of the diplomatic service in the big military, political and Foreign Office shake-up which Hitler engineered on February 4, 1938. A member of an old Hanover noble family, married to the daughter of Grand Admiral von Tirpitz, the founder of the German Navy, and a gentleman of the old school to his finger tips, Hassell, like so many others of his class, seems to have needed the shock of being cast out by the Nazis before he became much interested in doing anything to bring them down. Once this had happened, this sensitive, intelligent, uneasy man devoted himself to that task and in the end, as we shall see, sacrificed his life to it, meeting a barbarous end.
There were others, lesser known and mostly younger, who had opposed the Nazis from the beginning and who gradually came together to form various resistance circles. One of the leading intellects of one group was Ewald von Kleist, a gentleman farmer and a descendant of the great poet. He worked closely with Ernst Niekisch, a former Social Democrat and editor of Widerstand (Resistance), and with Fabian von Schlabrendorff, a young lawyer, who was the great-grandson of Queen Victoria’s private physician and confidential adviser, Baron von Stockmar. There were former trade-union leaders such as Julius Leber, Jakob Kaiser and Wilhelm Leuschner. Two Gestapo officials, Artur Nebe, the head of the criminal police, and Bernd Gisevius, a young career police officer, became valuable aides as the conspiracies developed. The latter became the darling of the American prosecution at Nuremberg and wrote a book which sheds much light on the anti-Hitler plots, though most historians take the book and the author with more than a grain of salt.
There were a number of sons of venerable families in Germany: Count Helmuth von Moltke, great-grandnephew of the famous Field Marshal, who later formed a resistance group of young idealists known as the Kreisau Circle; Count Albrecht Bernstorff, nephew of the German ambassador in Washington during the First World War; Freiherr Karl Ludwig von Guttenberg, editor of a fearless Catholic monthly; and Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a descendant of eminent Protestant clergymen on both sides of his family, who regarded Hitler as Antichrist and who believed it a Christian duty to “eliminate him.”
Nearly all of these brave men would persevere until, after being caught and tortured, they were executed by rope or by ax or merely murdered by the S.S.
For a good long time this tiny nucleus of civilian resistance had little success in interesting the Army in its work. As Field Marshal von Blomberg testified at Nuremberg, “Before 1938–39 German generals did not oppose Hitler. There was no reason to oppose him, since he produced the results they desired.” There was some contact between Goerdeler and General von Hammerstein, but the former Commander in Chief of the German Army had been in retirement since 1934 and had little influence among the active generals. Early in the regime Schlabrendorff had got in touch with Colonel Hans Oster, chief assistant to Admiral Canaris in the Abwehr, the Intelligence Bureau of OKW, and found him to be not only a staunch anti-Nazi but willing to try to bridge the gulf between the military and civilians. However, it was not until the winter of 1937–38, when the generals were subjected to the successive shocks engendered by Hitler’s decision to go to war, his shake-up of the military command, which he himself took over, and his shabby treatment of General von Fritsch, that some of them became aware of the danger to Germany of the Nazi dictator. The resignation of General Beck toward the end of August 1938, as the Czech crisis grew more menacing, provided a further awakening, and though none of his fellow officers followed him into retirement as he had hoped, it immediately became evident that the fallen Chief of the General Staff was the one person around whom both the recalcitrant generals and the civilian resistance leaders could rally. Both groups respected and trusted him.
Another consideration became evident to both of them. To stop Hitler, force would now be necessary, and only the Army possessed it. But who in the Army could muster it? Not Hammerstein and not even Beck, since they were in retirement. What was needed, it was realized, was to bring in generals who at the moment had actual command of troops in and around Berlin and who thus could act effectively on short notice. General Halder, the new Chief of the Army General Staff, had no actual forces under his command. General von Brauchitsch had the whole Army, but he was not fully trusted. His authority would be useful but he could be brought in only, the conspirators felt, at the last minute.
As it happened, certain key generals who were willing to help were quickly discovered and initiated into the budding conspiracy. Three of them held commands which were vital to the success of the venture: General Erwin von Witzleben, commander of the all-important Wehrkreis III, which comprised Berlin and the surrounding areas; General Count Erich von Brockdorff-Ahlefeld, commander of the Potsdam garrison, which was made up of the 23rd Infantry Division; and General Erich Hoepner, who commanded an armored division in Thuringia which could, if necessary, repulse any S.S. troops attempting to relieve Berlin from Munich.
The plan of the conspirators, as it developed toward the end of August, was to seize Hitler as soon as he had issued the final order to attack Czechoslovakia and hale him before one of his own People’s Courts on the charge that he had tried recklessly to hurl Germany into a European war and was therefore no longer competent to govern. In the meantime, for a short interim, there would be a military dictatorship followed by a provisional government presided over by some eminent civilian. In due course a conservative democratic government would be formed.
There were two considerations on which the success of the coup depended and which involved the two key conspirators, General Halder and General Beck. The first was timing. Halder had arranged with OKW that he personally be given forty-eight hours’ notice of Hitler’s final order to attack Czechoslovakia. This would give him the time to put the plot into execution before the troops could cross the Czech frontier. Thus he would be able not only to arrest Hitler but to prevent the fatal step that would lead to war.
The second factor was that Beck must be able to convince the generals beforehand and the German people later (during the proposed trial of Hitler) that an attack on Czechoslovakia would bring in Britain and France and thus precipitate a European war, for which Germany was not prepared and which it would certainly lose. This had been the burden of his memoranda all summer and it was the basis of all that he was now prepared to do: to preserve Germany from a European conflict which he believed would destroy her—by overthrowing Hitler.
Alas for Beck, and for the future of most of the world, it was Hitler and not the recently resigned Chief of the General Staff who proved to have the shrewder view of the possibilities of a big war. Beck, a cultivated European with a sense of history, could not conceive that Britain and France would willfully sacrifice their self-interest by not intervening in case of a German attack on Czechoslovakia. He had a sense of history but not of contemporary politics. Hitler had. For some time now he had felt himself reinforced in his judgment that Prime Minister Chamberlain would sacrifice the Czechs rather than go to war and that, in such a case, France would not fulfill her treaty obligations to Prague.
The Wilhelmstrasse had not failed to notice dispatches published in the New York newspapers as far back as May 14 in which their London correspondents had reported an “off-the-record” luncheon talk with Chamberlain at Lady Astor’s. The British Prime Minister, the journalists reported, had said that neither Britain nor France nor probably Russia would come to the aid of Czechoslovakia in the case of a German attack, that the Czech state could not exist in its present form and that Britain favored, in the interest of peace, turning over the Sudetenland to Germany. Despite angry questions in the House of Commons, the Germans noted, Chamberlain had not denied the veracity of the American dispatches.
On June 1, the Prime Minister had spoken, partly off the record, to British correspondents, and two days later the Times had published the first of its leaders which were to help undermine the Czech position; it had urged the Czech government to grant “self-determination” to the country’s minorities “even if it should mean their secession from Czechoslovakia” and for the first time it had suggested plebiscites as a means of determining what the Sudetens and the others desired. A few days later the German Embassy in London informed Berlin that the Times editorial was based on Chamberlain’s off-the-record remarks and that it reflected his views. On June 8 Ambassador von Dirksen told the Wilhelmstrasse that the Chamberlain government would be willing to see the Sudeten areas separated from Czechoslovakia providing it was done after a plebiscite and “not interrupted by forcible measures on the part of Germany.”24
All this must have been pleasing for Hitler to hear. The news from Moscow also was not bad. By the end of June Friedrich Werner Count von der Schulenburg, the German ambassador to Russia, was advising Berlin that the Soviet Union was “hardly likely to march in defense of a bourgeois state,” i.e., Czechoslovakia.25 By August 3, Ribbentrop was informing the major German diplomatic missions abroad that there was little fear of intervention over Czechoslovakia by Britain, France or Russia.26
It was on that day, August 3, that Chamberlain had packed off Lord Runciman to Czechoslovakia on a curious mission to act as a “mediator” in the Sudeten crisis. I happened to be in Prague the day of his arrival and after attending his press conference and talking with members of his party remarked in my diary that “Runciman’s whole mission smells.” Its very announcement in the House of Commons on July 26 had been accompanied by a piece of prevaricating by Chamberlain himself which must have been unique in the experience of the British Parliament. The Prime Minister had said that he was sending Runciman “in response to a request from the government of Czechoslovakia.” The truth was that Runciman had been forced down the throat of the Czech government by Chamberlain. But there was an underlying and bigger falsehood. Everyone, including Chamberlain, knew that Runciman’s mission to “mediate” between the Czech government and the Sudeten leaders was impossible and absurd. They knew that Henlein, the Sudeten leader, was not a free agent and could not negotiate, and that the dispute now was between Prague and Berlin. My diary notes for the first evening and subsequent days make it clear that the Czechs knew perfectly well that Runciman had been sent by Chamberlain to pave the way for the handing over of the Sudetenland to Hitler. It was a shabby diplomatic trick.
And now the summer of 1938 was almost over. Runciman puttered about in the Sudetenland and in Prague, making ever more friendly gestures to the Sudeten Germans and increasing demands on the Czech government to grant them what they wanted. Hitler, his generals and his Foreign Minister were frantically busy. On August 23, the Fuehrer entertained aboard the liner Patria in Kiel Bay during naval maneuvers the Regent of Hungary, Admiral Horthy, and the members of the Hungarian government. If they wanted to get in on the Czech feast, Hitler told them, they must hurry. “He who wants to sit at the table,” he put it, “must at least help in the kitchen.”27 The Italian ambassador, Bernardo Attolico, was also a guest on the ship. But when he pressed Ribbentrop for the date of “the German move against Czechoslovakia” so that Mussolini could be prepared, the German Foreign Minister gave an evasive answer. The Germans, it was plain, did not quite trust the discretion of their Fascist ally. Of Poland they were now sure. All through the summer Ambassador von Moltke in Warsaw was reporting to Berlin that not only would Poland decline to help Czechoslovakia by allowing Russia to send troops and planes through or over her territory but Colonel Józef Beck, the Polish Foreign Minister, was casting covetous eyes on a slice of Czech territory, the Teschen area. Beck already was exhibiting that fatal shortsightedness, so widely shared in Europe that summer, which in the end would prove more disastrous than he could possibly imagine.
At OKW (the High Command of the Armed Forces) and at OKH (the High Command of the Army) there was incessant activity. Final plans were being drawn up to have the armed forces ready for the push-off into Czechoslovakia by October 1. On August 24, Colonel Jodl at OKW wrote an urgent memorandum for Hitler stressing that “the fixing of the exact time for the ‘incident’ which will give Germany provocation for military intervention is most important.” The timing of X Day, he explained, depended on it.
No advance measures [he went on] may be taken before X minus 1 for which there is not an innocent explanation, as otherwise we shall appear to have manufactured the incident…. If for technical reasons the evening hours should be considered desirable for the incident, then the following day cannot be X Day, but it must be the day after that … It is the purpose of these notes to point out what a great interest the Wehrmacht has in the incident and that it must be informed of the Fuehrer’s intention in good time—insofar as the Abwehr Section is not also charged with organizing the incident.28
The expert preparations for the onslaught on Czechoslovakia were obviously in fine shape by the summer’s end. But what about the defense of the west, should the French honor their word to the Czechs and attack? On August 26 Hitler set off for a tour of the western fortifications accompanied by Jodl, Dr. Todt, the engineer in charge of building the West Wall, Himmler and various party officials. On August 27 General Wilhelm Adam, a blunt and able Bavarian who was in command of the west, joined the party and in the next couple of days witnessed how intoxicated the Fuehrer became at the triumphal reception he was given by the Rhinelanders. Adam himself was not impressed; in fact, he was alarmed, and on the twenty-ninth in a surprising scene in Hitler’s private car he abruptly demanded to speak with the Fuehrer alone. Not without sneers, according to the General’s later report, Hitler dismissed Himmler and his other party cronies. Adam did not waste words. He declared that despite all the fanfare about the West Wall he could not possibly hold it with the troops at his disposal. Hitler became hysterical and launched into a long harangue about how he had made Germany stronger than Britain and France together.
“The man who doesn’t hold these fortifications,” Hitler shouted, “is a scoundrel!”*
Nevertheless doubts on this score were rising in the minds of generals other than Adam. On September 3, Hitler convoked the chiefs of OKW and OKH, Keitel and Brauchitsch, to the Berghof. Field units, it was agreed, were to be moved into position along the Czech border on September 28. But OKW must know when X Day was by noon on September 27. Hitler was not satisfied with the operational plan for “Green” and ordered that it be changed in several respects. From the notes of this meeting kept by Major Schmundt it is clear that Brauchitsch at least—for Keitel was too much the toady to speak up—again raised the question of how they were going to hold out in the west. Hitler fobbed him off with the assurance that he had given orders for speeding up the western fortifications.30
On September 8 General Heinrich von Stuelpnagel saw Jodl and the latter noted in his diary the General’s pessimism regarding the military position in the west. It was becoming clear to both of them that Hitler, his spirits whipped up by the fanaticism of the Nuremberg Party Rally, which had just opened, was going ahead with the invasion of Czechoslovakia whether France intervened or not. “I must admit,” wrote the usually optimistic Jodl, “that I am worried too.”
The next day, September 9, Hitler convoked Keitel, Brauchitsch and Halder to Nuremberg for a conference which began at 10 P.M., lasted until 4 o’clock the next morning and, as Keitel later confided to Jodl, who in turn confided it to his diary, was exceedingly stormy. Halder found himself in the ticklish position—for the key man in the plot to overthrow Hitler the moment he gave the word to attack—of having to explain in great detail the General Staff’s plan for the campaign in Czechoslovakia, and in the uncomfortable position, as it developed, of seeing Hitler tear it to shreds and dress down not only him but Brauchitsch for their timidity and their military incapabilities.31 Keitel, Jodl noted on the thirteenth, was “terribly shaken” by his experience at Nuremberg and by the evidence of “defeatism” at the top of the German Army.
Accusations are made to the Fuehrer about the defeatism in the High Command of the Army … Keitel declares that he will not tolerate any officer in OKW indulging in criticism, unsteady thoughts and defeatism … The Fuehrer knows that the Commander of the Army [Brauchitsch] has asked his commanding generals to support him in order to open the Fuehrer’s eyes about the adventure which he has resolved to risk. He himself [Brauchitsch] has no more influence with the Fuehrer.
Thus a cold and frosty atmosphere prevailed in Nuremberg and it is highly unfortunate that the Fuehrer has the whole nation behind him with the exception of the leading generals of the Army.
All of this greatly saddened the aspiring young Jodl, who had hitched his star to Hitler.
Only by actions can [these generals] honorably repair the damage which they have caused through lack of strength of mind and lack of obedience. It is the same problem as in 1914. There is only one example of disobedience in the Army and that is of the generals and in the end it springs from their arrogance. They can no longer believe and no longer obey because they do not recognize the Fuehrer’s genius. Many of them still see in him the corporal of the World War but not the greatest statesman since Bismarck.32
In his talk with Jodl on September 8, General von Stuelpnagel, who held the post of Oberquartiermeister I in the Army High Command, and who was in on the Halder conspiracy, had asked for written assurances from OKW that the Army High Command would receive notice of Hitler’s order for the attack on Czechoslovakia five days in advance. Jodl had answered that because of the uncertainties of the weather two days’ notice was all that could be guaranteed. This, however, was enough for the conspirators.
But they needed assurances of another kind—whether, after all, they had been right in their assumption that Britain and France would go to war against Germany if Hitler carried out his resolve to attack Czechoslovakia. For this purpose they had decided to send trustworthy agents to London not only to find out what the British government intended to do but, if necessary, to try to influence its decision by informing it that Hitler had decided to attack the Czechs on a certain date in the fall, and that the General Staff, which knew the date, opposed it and was prepared to take the most decisive action to prevent it if Britain stood firm against Hitler to the last.
The first such emissary of the plotters, selected by Colonel Oster of the Abwehr, was Ewald von Kleist, who arrived in London on August 18. Ambassador Henderson in Berlin, who was already anxious to give Hitler whatever he wanted in Czechoslovakia, advised the British Foreign Office that “it would be unwise for him [Kleist] to be received in official quarters.”* Nevertheless Sir Robert Vansittart, chief diplomatic adviser to the Foreign Secretary and one of the leading opponents in London of the appeasement of Hitler, saw Kleist on the afternoon of his arrival, and Winston Churchill, still in the political wilderness in Britain, received him the next day. To both men, who were impressed by their visitor’s sobriety and sincerity, Kleist repeated what he had been instructed to tell, stressing that Hitler had set a date for aggression against the Czechs and that the generals, most of whom opposed him, would act, but that further British appeasement of Hitler would cut the ground from under their feet. If Britain and France would declare publicly that they would not stand idly by while Hitler threw his armies into Czechoslovakia and if some prominent British statesmen would issue a solemn warning to Germany of the consequences of Nazi aggression, then the German generals, for their part, would act to stop Hitler.34
Churchill gave Kleist a ringing letter to take back to Germany to bolster his colleagues:
I am sure that the crossing of the frontier of Czechoslovakia by German armies or aviation in force will bring about renewal of the World War. I am as certain as I was at the end of July, 1914, that England will march with France … Do not, I pray you, be misled upon this point … †
Vansittart took Kleist’s warning seriously enough to submit immediately a report on it to both the British Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary, and though Chamberlain, writing to Lord Halifax, said he was inclined “to discount a good deal of what he [Kleist] says,” he added: “I don’t feel sure that we ought not to do something.”36 What he did was to summon Ambassador Henderson, in the wake of some publicity, to London on August 28 “for consultations.”
He instructed his ambassador in Berlin to do two things: convey a sober warning to Hitler and, secondly, prepare secretly a “personal contact” between himself and the Fuehrer. According to his own story, Henderson persuaded the Prime Minister to drop the first request.37 As for the second, Henderson was only too glad to try to carry it out.*
This was the first step toward Munich and Hitler’s greatest bloodless victory.
Ignorant of this turning in Chamberlain’s course, the conspirators in Berlin made further attempts to warn the British government. On August 21, Colonel Oster sent an agent to inform the British military attaché in Berlin of Hitler’s intention to invade Czechoslovakia at the end of September. “If by firm action abroad Hitler can be forced at the eleventh hour to renounce his present intentions, he will be unable to survive the blow,” he told the British. “Similarly, if it comes to war the immediate intervention by France and England will bring about the downfall of the regime.” Sir Nevile Henderson dutifully forwarded this warning to London, but described it “as clearly biased and largely propaganda.” The blinkers on the eyes of the debonair British ambassador seemed to grow larger and thicker as the crisis mounted.
General Halder had a feeling that the conspirators were not getting their message through effectively enough to the British, and on September 2 he sent his own emissary, a retired Army officer, Lieutenant Colonel Hans Boehm-Tettelbach, to London to make contact with the British War Office and Military Intelligence. Though, according to his own story, the colonel saw several important personages in London, he does not seem to have made much of an impression on them.
Finally, the plotters resorted to using the German Foreign Office and the embassy in London in a last desperate effort to induce the British to remain firm. Counselor of the embassy and chargé d’affaires was Theodor Kordt, whose younger brother, Erich, was chief of Ribbentrop’s secretariat in the German Foreign Office. The brothers were protégés of Baron von Weizsaecker, the principal State Secretary and undoubtedly the brains of the Foreign Office, a man who after the war made a great fuss of his alleged anti-Nazism but who served Hitler and Ribbentrop well almost to the end. It is clear, however, from captured Foreign Office documents, that at this time he opposed aggression against Czechoslovakia on the same grounds as those of the generals: that it would lead to a lost war. With Weizsaecker’s connivance, and after consultations with Beck, Halder and Goerdeler, it was agreed that Theodor Kordt should sound a last warning to Downing Street. As counselor of the embassy his visits to the British authorities would not be suspect.
The information he brought on the evening of September 5 to Sir Horace Wilson, Chamberlain’s confidential adviser, seemed so important and urgent that this official spirited him by a back way to Downing Street and the chambers of the British Foreign Secretary. There he bluntly informed Lord Halifax that Hitler was planning to order a general mobilization on September 16, that the attack on Czechoslovakia had been fixed for October 1 at the latest, that the German Army was preparing to strike against Hitler the moment the final order for attack was given and that it would succeed if Britain and France held firm. Halifax was also warned that Hitler’s speech closing the Nuremberg Party Rally on September 12 would be explosive and might precipitate a showdown over Czechoslovakia and that that would be the moment for Britain to stand up against the dictator.39
Kordt, too, despite his continuous personal contact with Downing Street and his frankness on this occasion with the Foreign Secretary, did not know what was in the London wind. But he got a good idea, as did everyone else, two days later, on September 7, when the Times of London published a famous leader:
It might be worth while for the Czechoslovak Government to consider whether they should exclude altogether the project, which has found favor in some quarters, of making Czechoslovakia a more homogeneous State by the secession of that fringe of alien populations who are contiguous to the nation with which they are united by race … The advantages to Czechoslovakia of becoming a homogeneous State might conceivably outweigh the obvious disadvantages of losing the Sudeten German district of the borderland.
There was no mention in the editorial of the obvious fact that by ceding the Sudetenland to Germany the Czechs would lose both the natural mountain defenses of Bohemia and their “Maginot Line” of fortifications and be henceforth defenseless against Nazi Germany.
Though the British Foreign Office was quick to deny that the Times leader represented the views of the government, Kordt telegraphed Berlin the next day that it was possible that “it derived from a suggestion which reached the Times editorial staff from the Prime Minister’s entourage.” Possible indeed!
In these crisis-ridden years that have followed World War II it is difficult to recall the dark and almost unbearable tension that gripped the capitals of Europe as the Nuremberg Party Rally, which had begun on September 6, approached its climax on September 12, when Hitler was scheduled to make his closing speech and expected to proclaim to the world his final decision for peace or war with Czechoslovakia. I was in Prague, the focus of the crisis, that week, and it seemed strange that the Czech capital, despite the violence unleashed by the Germans in the Sudetenland, the threats from Berlin, the pressure of the British and French governments to yield, and the fear that they might leave Czechoslovakia in the lurch, was the calmest of all—at least outwardly.
On September 5, President Beneš, realizing that a decisive step on his part was necessary to save the peace, convoked the Sudeten leaders Kundt and Sebekovsky to Hradschin Palace and told them to write out their full demands. Whatever they were he would accept them. “My God,” exclaimed the deputy Sudeten leader, Karl Hermann Frank, the next day, “they have given us everything.” But that was the last thing the Sudeten politicians and their bosses in Berlin wanted. On September 7 Henlein, on instructions from Germany, broke off all negotiations with the Czech government. A shabby excuse about alleged Czech police excesses at Moravská-Ostrava was given.
On September 10, Goering made a bellicose speech at the Nuremberg Party Rally. “A petty segment of Europe is harassing the human race … This miserable pygmy race [the Czechs] is oppressing a cultured people, and behind it is Moscow and the eternal mask of the Jew devil.” But Beneš’ broadcast of the same day took no notice of Goering’s diatribe; it was a quiet and dignified appeal for calm, good will and mutual trust.
Underneath the surface, though, the Czechs were tense. I ran into Dr. Beneš in the hall of the Czech Broadcasting House after his broadcast and noted that his face was grave and that he seemed to be fully aware of the terrible position he was in. The Wilson railroad station and the airport were full of Jews scrambling desperately to find transportation to safer parts. That weekend gas masks were distributed to the populace. The word from Paris was that the French government was beginning to panic at the prospect of war, and the London dispatches indicated that Chamberlain was contemplating desperate measures to meet Hitler’s demands—at the expense of the Czechs, of course.
And so all Europe waited for Hitler’s word on September 12 from Nuremberg. Though brutal and bombastic, and dripping with venom against the Czech state and especially against the Czech President, the Fuehrer’s speech, made to a delirious mass of Nazi fanatics gathered in the huge stadium on the last night of the party rally, was not a declaration of war. He reserved his decision—publicly at least, for, as we know from the captured German documents, he had already set October 1 for the attack across the Czech frontier. He simply demanded that the Czech government give “justice” to the Sudeten Germans. If it didn’t, Germany would have to see to it that it did.
The repercussions to Hitler’s outburst were considerable. In the Sudetenland it inspired a revolt which after two days of savage fighting the Czech government put down by rushing in troops and declaring martial law. Henlein slipped over the border to Germany proclaiming that the only solution now was the ceding of the Sudeten areas to Germany.
This was the solution which, as we have seen, was gaining favor in London, but before it could be furthered the agreement of France had to be obtained. The day following Hitler’s speech, September 13, the French cabinet sat all day, remaining hopelessly divided on whether it should honor its obligations to Czechoslovakia in case of a German attack, which it believed imminent. That evening the British ambassador in Paris, Sir Eric Phipps, was fetched from the Opéra Comique for an urgent conference with Prime Minister Daladier. The latter appealed to Chamberlain to try at once to make the best bargain he could with the German dictator.
Mr. Chamberlain, it may be surmised, needed little urging. At eleven o’clock that same night the British Prime Minister got off an urgent message to Hitler:
In view of the increasingly critical situation I propose to come over at once to see you with a view to trying to find a peaceful solution. I propose to come across by air and am ready to start tomorrow.
Please indicate earliest time at which you can see me and suggest place of meeting. I should be grateful for a very early reply.40
Two hours before, the German chargé d’affaires in London, Theodor Kordt, had wired Berlin that Chamberlain’s press secretary had informed him that the Prime Minister “was prepared to examine far-reaching German proposals, including plebiscite, to take part in carrying them out, and to advocate them in public.”41
The surrender that was to culminate in Munich had begun.