Military history

THE HESITATION OF GERMANY’S ALLIES

It was different with Germany’s allies, Italy and Hungary. As the summer progressed, the governments in Budapest and Rome became increasingly fearful that their countries would be drawn into Hitler’s war on Germany’s side.

On July 24 Count Teleki, Premier of Hungary, addressed identical letters to Hitler and Mussolini informing them that “in the event of a general conflict Hungary will make her policy conform to the policy of the Axis.” Having gone so far, he then pulled back. On the same day he wrote the two dictators a second letter stating that “in order to prevent any possible misinterpretation of my letter of July 24, I … repeat that Hungary could not, on moral grounds, be in a position to take armed action against Poland.”95

The second letter from Budapest threw Hitler into one of his accustomed rages. When he received Count Csáky, the Hungarian Foreign Minister, at Obersalzberg on August 8, in the presence of Ribbentrop, he opened the conversation by stating that he had been “shocked” at the Hungarian Prime Minister’s letter. He emphasized, according to the confidential memorandum drawn up for the Foreign Office, that he had never expected help from Hungary—or from any other state—“in the event of a German–Polish conflict.” Count Teleki’s letter, he added, “was impossible.” And he reminded his Hungarian guest that it was due to Germany’s generosity that Hungary had been able to regain so much territory at the expense of Czechoslovakia. Were Germany to be defeated in war, he said, “Hungary would be automatically smashed too.”

The German memorandum of this conversation, which is among the captured Foreign Office documents, reveals Hitler’s state of mind as the fateful month of August got under way. Poland, he said, presented no military problem at all for Germany. Nevertheless, he was reckoning from the start with a war on two fronts. “No power in the world,” he boasted, “could penetrate Germany’s western fortifications. Nobody in all my life has been able to frighten me, and that goes for Britain. Nor will I succumb to the oft-predicted nervous breakdown.” As for Russia:

The Soviet Government would not fight against us … The Soviets would not repeat the Czar’s mistake and bleed to death for Britain. They would, however, try to enrich themselves, possibly at the expense of the Baltic States or Poland, without engaging in military action themselves.

So effective was Hitler’s harangue that at the end of a second talk held the same day Count Csáky requested him “to regard the two letters written by Teleki as not having been written.” He said he would also make the same request of Mussolini.

For some weeks the Duce had been worrying and fretting about the danger of the Fuehrer dragging Italy into war. Attolico, his ambassador in Berlin, had been sending increasingly alarming reports about Hitler’s determination to attack Poland.* Since early June Mussolini had been pressing for another meeting with Hitler and in July it was fixed for August 4 at the Brenner. On July 24 he presented to Hitler through Attolico “certain basic principles” for their discussion. If the Fuehrer considered war “inevitable,” then Italy would stand by her side. But the Duce reminded him that a war with Poland could not be localized; it would become a European conflict. Mussolini did not think that this was the time for the Axis to start such a war. He proposed instead “a constructive peaceful policy over several years,” with Germany settling her differences with Poland and Italy hers with France by diplomatic negotiation. He went further. He suggested another international conference of the Big Powers.97

The Fuehrer’s reaction, as Ciano noted in his diary on July 26, was unfavorable, and Mussolini decided it might be best to postpone his meeting with Hitler.98 He proposed instead, on August 7, that the foreign ministers of the two countries meet immediately. Ciano’s diary notes during these days indicate the growing uneasiness in Rome. On August 6 he wrote:

We must find some way out. By following the Germans we shall go to war and enter it under the least favorable conditions for the Axis, and especially for Italy. Our gold reserves are reduced to almost nothing, as well as our stocks of metals… We must avoid war. I propose to the Duce the idea of my meeting with Ribbentrop … during which I would attempt to continue discussion of Mussolini’s project for a world conference.

August 9.—Ribbentrop has approved the idea of our meeting. I decided to leave tomorrow night in order to meet him at Salzburg. The Duce is anxious that I prove to the Germans, by documentary evidence, that the outbreak of war at this time would be folly.

August 10.—The Duce is more than ever convinced of the necessity of delaying the conflict. He himself has worked out the outline of a report concerning the meeting at Salzburg which ends with an allusion to international negotiations to settle the problems that so dangerously disturb European life.

Before letting me go he recommends that I shall frankly inform the Germans that we must avoid a conflict with Poland since it will be impossible to localize it, and a general war would be disastrous for everybody.99

   Armed with such commendable but, in the circumstances, naïve thoughts and recommendations, the youthful Fascist Foreign Minister set out for Germany, where during the next three days—August 11, 12 and 13—he received from Ribbentrop and especially from Hitler the shock of his life.

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