Military history

HITLER BURNS HIS BOATS: MAY 23, 1939

The day after the signing of the Pact of Steel, on May 23, Hitler summoned his military chiefs to the study in the Chancellery in Berlin and told them bluntly that further successes could not be won without the shedding of blood and that war therefore was inevitable.

This was a somewhat larger gathering than a similar one on November 5, 1937, when the Fuehrer had first imparted his decision to go to war to the commanders in chief of the three armed services.* Altogether fourteen officers were present, including Field Marshal Goering, Grand Admiral Raeder (as he now was), General von Brauchitsch, General Halder, General Keitel, General Erhard Milch, Inspector General of the Luftwaffe, and Rear Admiral Otto Schniewind, naval Chief of Staff. The Fuehrer’s adjutant, Lieutenant Colonel Rudolf Schmundt, was also present and, luckily for history, took notes. His minutes of the meeting are among the captured German documents. Apparently Hitler’s words on this occasion were regarded as such a top secret that no copies of the minutes were made; the one we have is in Schmundt’s own handwriting.47

It is one of the most revealing and important of the secret papers which depict Hitler’s road to war. Here, before the handful of men who will have to direct the military forces in an armed conflict, Hitler cuts through his own propaganda and diplomatic deceit and utters the truth about why he must attack Poland and, if necessary, take on Great Britain and France as well. He predicts with uncanny accuracy the course the war will take—at least in its first year. And yet for all its bluntness his discourse—for the dictator did all the talking—discloses more uncertainty and confusion of mind than he has shown up to this point. Above all, Britain and the British continue to baffle him, as they did to the end of his life.

But about the coming of war and his aims in launching it he is clear and precise, and no general or admiral could have left the Chancellery on May 23 without knowing exactly what was coming at the summer’s end. Germany’s economic problems, he began, could only be solved by obtaining more Lebensraum in Europe, and “this is impossible without invading other countries or attacking other people’s possessions.”

Further successes can no longer be attained without the shedding of blood …

Danzig is not the subject of the dispute at all. It is a question of expanding our living space in the East, of securing our food supplies and also of solving the problem of the Baltic States…. There is no other possibility in Europe…. If fate forces us into a showdown with the West it is invaluable to possess a large area in the East. In wartime we shall be even less able to rely on record harvests than in peacetime.

Besides, Hitler adds, the population of non-German territories in the East will be available as a source of labor—an early hint of the slave labor program he was later to put into effect. The choice of the first victim was obvious.

   There is no question of sparing Poland and we are left with the decision:
To attack Poland at the first suitable opportunity.*
We cannot expect a repetition of the Czech affair. There will be war. Our task is to isolate Poland. Success in isolating her will be decisive.

   So there will be war. With an “isolated” Poland alone? Here the Fuehrer is not so clear. In fact, he becomes confused and contradictory. He must reserve to himself, he says, the final order to strike.

   It must not come to a simultaneous showdown with the West—France and England.

If it is not certain that a German–Polish conflict will not lead to war with the West, then the fight must be primarily against England and France.

Fundamentally therefore: Conflict with Poland—beginning with an attack on Poland—will only be successful if the West keeps out of it.

If that is not possible it is better to fall upon the West and to finish off Poland at the same time.

   In the face of such rapid-fire contradictions the generals must have winced, perhaps prying their monocles loose, though there is no evidence in the Schmundt minutes that this happened or that anyone in the select audience even dared to ask a question to straighten matters out.

Hitler next turned to Russia. “It is not ruled out,” he said, “that Russia might disinterest herself in the destruction of Poland.” On the other hand, if the Soviet Union allied herself to Britain and France, that “would lead me to attack England and France with a few devastating blows.” That would mean committing the same mistake Wilhelm II made in 1914, but though in this lecture Hitler drew several lessons from the World War he did not draw this one. His thoughts now turned toward Great Britain.

   The Fuehrer doubts the possibility of a peaceful settlement with England. It is necessary to be prepared for the showdown. England sees in our development the establishment of a hegemony which would weaken England. Therefore England is our enemy, and the conflict with England is a matter of life and death.

What will this conflict be like?

England cannot finish off Germany with a few powerful blows and force us down. It is of decisive importance for England to carry the war as near as possible to the Ruhr. French blood will not be spared. (West Wall!) The duration of our existence is dependent on possession of the Ruhr.

Having decided to follow the Kaiser in one mistake—attacking France and England if they lined up with Russia—Hitler now announced that he would follow the Emperor in another matter which eventually had proved disastrous to Germany.

The Dutch and Belgian air bases must be militarily occupied. Declarations of neutrality can be ignored. If England wants to intervene in the Polish war, we must make a lightning attack on Holland. We must aim at establishing a new line of defense on Dutch territory as far as the Zuyder Zee. The war with England and France will be a war of life and death.

The idea that we can get off cheaply is dangerous; there is no such possibility. We must then burn our boats and it will no longer be a question of right or wrong but of to be or not to be for eighty million people.

Though he had just announced that Germany would attack Poland “at the first suitable opportunity” and though his listeners knew that almost all of Germany’s military strength was being concentrated on that objective, Hitler, as he rambled on, could not keep his thoughts off Great Britain.

“England,” he emphasized, “is the driving force against Germany.” Whereupon he discussed her strengths and weaknesses.

The Britisher himself is proud, brave, tough, dogged and a gifted organizer. He knows how to exploit every new development. He has the love of adventure and the courage of the Nordic race …

England is a world power in herself. Constant for three hundred years. Increased by alliances. This power is not only something concrete but must also be considered as psychological force, embracing the entire world.

Add to this immeasurable wealth and the solvency that goes with it.

Geopolitical security and protection by a strong sea power and courageous air force.

But Britain, Hitler reminded his hearers, also had her weaknesses, and he proceeded to enumerate them.

   If in the last war we had had two more battleships and two more cruisers and had begun the Battle of Jutland in the morning, the British fleet would have been defeated and England brought to her knees.* It would have meant the end of the World War. In former times … to conquer England it was necessary to invade her. England could feed herself. Today she no longer can.

The moment England is cut off from her supplies she is forced to capitulate. Imports of food and fuel oil are dependent on naval protection.

Luftwaffe attacks on England will not force her to capitulate. But if the fleet is annihilated instant capitulation results. There is no doubt that a surprise attack might lead to a quick decision.

A surprise attack with what? Surely Admiral Raeder must have thought that Hitler was talking through his hat. Under the so-called Z Plan, promulgated at the end of 1938, German naval strength would only begin to approach that of the British by 1945. At the moment, in the spring of 1939, Germany did not have the heavy ships to sink the British Navy, even by a surprise attack.

Perhaps Britain could be brought down by other means. Here Hitler came down to earth again and outlined a strategic plan which a year later, in fact, would be carried out with amazing success.

   The aim must be to deal the enemy a smashing or a finally decisive blow right at the start. Considerations of right or wrong, or of treaties, do not enter into the matter. This will be possible only when we do not “slide” into a war with England on account of Poland.

Preparations must be made for a long war as well as for a surprise attack, and every possible intervention by England on the Continent must be smashed.

The Army must occupy the positions important for the fleet and the Luftwaffe. If we succeed in occupying and securing Holland and Belgium, as well as defeating France, the basis for a successful war against England has been created.

The Luftwaffe can then closely blockade England from western France and the fleet undertake the wider blockade with submarines.

   That is precisely what would be done a little more than a year later. Another decisive strategic plan, which the Fuehrer emphasized on May 23, would also be carried out. At the beginning of the last war, had the German Army executed a wheeling movement toward the Channel ports instead of toward Paris, the end, he said, would have been different. Perhaps it would have been. At any rate he would try it in 1940.

“The aim,” Hitler concluded, apparently forgetting all about Poland for the moment, “will always be to force England to her knees.”

There was one final consideration.

   Secrecy is the decisive prerequisite for success. Our objectives must be kept secret from both Italy and Japan.

   Even Hitler’s own Army General Staff, whose Chief, General Halder, sat there listening, was not to be trusted entirely. “Our studies,” the Fuehrer laid down, “must not be left to the General Staff. Secrecy would then no longer be assured.” He ordered that a small planning staff in OKW be set up to work out the military plans.

On May 23, 1939, then, Hitler, as he himself said, burned his boats. There would be war. Germany needed Lebensraum in the East. To get it Poland would be attacked at the first opportunity. Danzig had nothing to do with it. That was merely an excuse. Britain stood in the way; she was the real driving force against Germany. Very well, she would be taken on too, and France. It would be a life-and-death struggle.

When the Fuehrer had first outlined his plans for aggression to the military chiefs, on November 5, 1937, Field Marshal von Blomberg and General von Fritsch had protested—at least on the grounds that Germany was too weak to fight a European war.* During the following summer General Beck had resigned as Chief of the Army General Staff for the same reason. But on May 23, 1939, not a single general or admiral, so far as the record shows, raised his voice to question the wisdom of Hitler’s course.

Their job, as they saw it, was not to question but to blindly obey. Already they had been applying their considerable talents to working out plans for military aggression. On May 7, Colonel Guenther Blumentritt of the Army General Staff, who with Generals von Rundstedt and von Manstein formed a small “Working Staff,” submitted an estimate of the situation for Case White. Actually it was a plan for the conquest of Poland. It was an imaginative and daring plan, and it would be followed with very few changes.48

Admiral Raeder came through with naval plans for Case White in a top-secret directive signed May 16.49 Since Poland had only a few miles of coast on the Baltic west of Danzig and possessed only a small navy, no difficulties were expected. France and Britain were the Admiral’s chief concern. The entrance to the Baltic was to be protected by submarines, and the two pocket battleships and the two battleships, with the “remaining” submarines, were to prepare for “war in the Atlantic.” According to the instructions of the Fuehrer, the Navy had to be prepared to carry out its part of “White” by September 1 but Raeder urged his commanders to hasten plans because “due to the latest political developments” action might come sooner.50

As May 1939 came to an end German preparations for going to war by the end of the summer were well along. The great armament works were humming, turning out guns, tanks, planes and warships. The able staffs of the Army, Navy and Air Force had reached the final stage of planning. The ranks were being swelled by new men called up for “summer training.” Hitler could be pleased with what he had accomplished.

The day after the Fuehrer’s lecture to the military chiefs, on May 24, General Georg Thomas, head of the Economic and Armaments Branch of OKW, summed up that accomplishment in a confidential lecture to the staff of the Foreign Office. Whereas it had taken the Imperial Army,Thomas reminded his listeners, sixteen years—from 1898 to 1914—to increase its strength from forty-three to fifty divisions, the Army of the Third Reich had jumped from seven to fifty-one divisions in just four years. Among them were five heavy armored divisions and four light ones, a “modern battle cavalry” such as no other nation possessed. The Navy had built up from practically nothing a fleet of two battleships of 26,000 tons,* two heavy cruisers, seventeen destroyers and forty-seven submarines. It had already launched two battleships of 35,000 tons, one aircraft carrier, four heavy cruisers, five destroyers and seven submarines, and was planning to launch a great many more ships. From absolutely nothing, the Luftwaffe had built up a force of twenty-one squadrons with a personnel of 260,000 men. The armament industry, General Thomas said, was already producing more than it had during the peak of the last war and its output in most fields far exceeded that of any other country. In fact, total German rearmament, the General declared, was “probably unique in the world.”

Formidable as German military power was becoming at the beginning of the summer of 1939, the prospect of success in the war which Hitler was planning for the early fall depended on what kind of a war it was. Germany was still not strong enough, and probably would never be, to take on France, Britain and Russia in addition to Poland. As the fateful summer commenced, all depended on the Fuehrer’s ability to limit the war—above all, to keep Russia from forming the military alliance with the West which Litvinov, just before his fall, had proposed and which Chamberlain, though he had at first seemed to reject it, was, by May’s end, again mulling over.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!