Military history


Before leaving the Wilhelmstrasse, Lipski had asked Ribbentrop whether he could tell him anything about his conversation with the Foreign Minister of Lithuania. The German replied that they had discussed the Memel question, “which called for a solution.”

As a matter of fact, Ribbentrop had received the Lithuanian Foreign Minister, Juozas Urbays, who was passing through Berlin after a trip to Rome, on the previous day and demanded that Lithuania hand back the Memel district to Germany forthwith. Otherwise “the Fuehrer would act with lightning speed.” The Lithuanians, he warned, must not deceive themselves by expecting “some kind of help from abroad.”9

Actually, some months before, on December 12, 1938, the French ambassador and the British chargé d’affaires had called the attention of the German government to reports that the German population of Memel was planning a revolt and had asked it to use its influence to see that the Memel Statute, guaranteed by both Britain and France, was respected. The Foreign Office reply had expressed “surprise and astonishment” at the Anglo–French démarche, and Ribbentrop had ordered that if there were any further such steps the two embassies should be told “that we had really expected that the French and British would finally become tired of meddling in Germany’s affairs.”10

For some time the German government and particularly the party and S.S. leaders had been organizing the Germans of Memel along lines with which we are now familiar from the Austrian and Sudeten affairs. The German armed forces had also been called in to co-operate and, as we have seen,* three weeks after Munich Hitler had ordered his military chiefs to prepare, along with the liquidation of the remainder of Czechoslovakia, the occupation of Memel. Since the Navy had had no opportunity for glory in the march-in to landlocked Austria and Sudetenland, Hitler decided that Memel should be taken from the sea. In November, naval plans for the venture were drawn up under the code name “Transport Exercise Stettin.” Hitler and Admiral Raeder were so keen on this little display of naval might that they actually put to sea from Swinemuende aboard the pocket battleship Deutschland for Memel on March 22, exactly a week after the Fuehrer’s triumphant entry into Prague, before defenseless Lithuania had time to capitulate to a German ultimatum.

On March 21, Weizsaecker, who much later would proclaim his distaste for the brutality of Nazi methods, notified the Lithuanian government that “there was no time to lose” and that its plenipotentiaries must come to Berlin “by special plane tomorrow” to sign away to Germany the district of Memel. The Lithuanians had obediently arrived late in the afternoon of March 22, but despite German pressure administered in person by Ribbentrop, egged on by a seasick Hitler aboard his battleship at sea, they took their time about capitulating. Twice during the night, the captured German documents reveal, the Fuehrer got off urgent radiograms from the Deutschland to Ribbentrop asking whether the Lithuanians had surrendered, as requested. The dictator and his Admiral had to know whether they must shoot their way into the port of Memel. Finally, at 1:30 A.M. on March 23, Ribbentrop was able to transmit by radio to his master the news that the Lithuanians had signed.11

At 2:30 in the afternoon of the twenty-third, Hitler made another of his triumphant entries into a newly occupied city and at the Stadttheater in Memel again addressed a delirious “liberated” German throng. Another provision of the Versailles Treaty had been torn up. Another bloodless conquest had been made. Although the Fuehrer could not know it, it was to be the last.

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