Military history


For some ten hours on August 11, Ciano conferred with Ribbentrop at the latter’s estate at Fuschl, outside Salzburg, which the Nazi Foreign Minister had taken from an Austrian monarchist who, conveniently, had been put away in a concentration camp. The hot-blooded Italian found the atmosphere, as he later reported, cold and gloomy. During dinner at the White Horse Inn at St. Wolfgang not a word was exchanged between the two. It was scarcely necessary. Ribbentrop had informed his visitor earlier in the day that the decision to attack Poland was implacable.

“Well, Ribbentrop,” Ciano says he asked, “what do you want? The Corridor or Danzig?”

“Not that any more,” Ribbentrop replied, gazing at him with his cold, metallic eyes. “We want war!”

Ciano’s arguments that a Polish conflict could not be localized, that if Poland were attacked the Western democracies would fight, were bluntly rejected. The day before Christmas Eve four years later—1943—when Ciano lay in Cell 27 of the Verona jail waiting execution at the instigation of the Germans, he still remembered that chilling day of August 11 at Fuschl and Salzburg. Ribbentrop, he wrote in his very last diary entry on December 23, 1943, had bet him “during one of those gloomy meals at the Oesterreichischer Hof in Salzburg” a collection of old German armor against an Italian painting that France and Britain would remain neutral—a bet, he remarks ruefully, which was never paid.100

Ciano moved on to Obersalzberg, where Hitler during two meetings on August 12 and 13 reiterated that France and Britain would not fight. In contrast to the Nazi Foreign Minister, the Fuehrer was cordial, but he was equally implacable in his determination to go to war. This is evident not only from Ciano’s reports but from the confidential German minutes of the meeting, which are among the captured documents.101 The Italian Minister found Hitler standing before a large table covered with military staff maps. He began by explaining the strength of Germany’s West Wall. It was, he said, impenetrable. Besides, he added scornfully, Britain could put only three divisions into France. France would have considerably more, but since Poland would be defeated “in a very short time,” Germany could then concentrate 100 divisions in the west “for the life-and-death struggle which would then commence.”

But would it? A few moments later, annoyed by Ciano’s initial response, the Fuehrer was contradicting himself. The Italian Minister, as he had promised himself, spoke up to Hitler. According to the German minutes, he expressed “Italy’s great surprise at the entirely unexpected gravity of the situation.” Germany, he complained, had not kept her ally informed. “On the contrary,” he said, “the Reich Foreign Minister had stated [at Milan and Berlin in May] that the Danzig question would be settled in due course.” When Ciano went on to declare that a conflict with Poland would spread into a European war his host interrupted to say that he differed.

“I personally,” said Hitler, “am absolutely convinced that the Western democracies will, in the last resort, recoil from unleashing a general war.” To which Ciano replied (the German minutes add) “that he hoped the Fuehrer would prove right but he did not believe it.” The Italian Foreign Minister then outlined in great detail Italy’s weaknesses, and from his tale of woe, as the Germans recorded it, Hitler must have been finally convinced that Italy would be of little help to him in the coming war.* One of Mussolini’s reasons, Ciano said, for wanting to postpone the war was that he “attached great importance to holding, according to plan, the World Exhibition of 1942”—a remark that must have astounded the Fuehrer, lost as he was in his military maps and calculations. He must have been equally astounded when Ciano naively produced the text of a communiqué, which he urged to be published, stating that the meeting of the Axis ministers had “reaffirmed the peaceful intentions of their governments” and their belief that peace could be maintained “through normal diplomatic negotiations.” Ciano explained that the Duce had in mind a peace conference of the chief European nations but that out of deference to “the Fuehrer’s misgivings” he would settle for ordinary diplomatic negotiations.

Hitler did not, the first day, turn down completely the idea of a conference but reminded Ciano that “Russia could no longer be excluded from future meetings of the powers.” This was the first mention of the Soviet Union but it was not the last.

Finally when Ciano tried to pin his host down as to the date of the attack on Poland Hitler replied that because of the autumn rains, which would render useless his armored and motorized divisions in a country with few paved roads, the “settlement with Poland would have to be made one way or the other by the end of August.”

At last Ciano had the date. Or the last possible date, for a moment later Hitler was storming that if the Poles offered any fresh provocation he was determined “to attack Poland within forty-eight hours.” Therefore, he added, “a move against Poland must be expected any moment.” That outburst ended the first day’s talks except for Hitler’s promise to think over the Italian proposals.

Having given them twenty-four hours’ thought, he told Ciano the next day that it would be better if no communiqué of any kind were issued about their talks.* Because of the expected bad weather in the fall

it was of decisive importance, firstly [he said], that within the shortest possible time Poland should make her intentions plain, and secondly, that no further acts of provocation of any sort should be tolerated by Germany.

When Ciano inquired as to “what the shortest possible time” was, Hitler replied, “By the end of August at the latest.” While it would take only a fortnight, he explained, to defeat Poland, the “final liquidation” would require a further two to four weeks—a remarkable forecast of timing, as it turned out.

Finally, at the end, Hitler uttered his customary flattery of Mussolini, whom Ciano must have convinced him he could no longer count on. He personally felt fortunate, he declared, “to live at a time when, apart from himself, there was another statesman living who would stand out in history as a great and unique figure. It was a source of great personal happiness that he could be a friend of this man. When the hour struck for the common fight he would always be found at the side of the Duce, come what may.”

However much the strutting Mussolini might be impressed by such words, his son-in-law was not. “I return to Rome,” he wrote in his diary on August 13, after the second meeting with Hitler, “completely disgusted with the Germans, with their leader, with their way of doing things. They have betrayed us and lied to us. Now they are dragging us into an adventure which we have not wanted and which might compromise the regime and the country as a whole.”

   But Italy at the moment was the least of Hitler’s concerns. His thoughts were concentrating on Russia. Toward the end of the meeting with Ciano, on August 12, a “telegram from Moscow,” as the German minutes put it, was handed to the Fuehrer. The conversation was interrupted for a few moments while Hitler and Ribbentrop perused it. They then informed Ciano of its contents.

“The Russians,” Hitler said, “have agreed to a German political negotiator being sent to Moscow.”

* The three “contingencies” were the liquidation of the rest of Czechoslovakia, occupation of Memel and protection of the Reich’s frontiers.

 Italics in the original.

* As a result of that war, Poland pushed its eastern boundary 150 miles east of the ethnographic Curzon Line, at the expense of the Soviet Union—a frontier which transferred four and a half million Ukrainians and one and a half million White Russians to Polish rule. Thus Poland’s western and eastern borders were unacceptable to Germany and Russia respectively—a fact which seems to have been lost sight of in the Western democracies when Berlin and Moscow began to draw together in the summer of 1939.

* “I must confess,” Chamberlain wrote in a private letter on March 26, “to the most profound distrust of Russia. I have no belief whatever in her ability to maintain an effective offensive, even if she wanted to. And I distrust her motives … Moreover, she is both hated and suspected by many of the smaller states, notably by Poland, Rumania and Finland.” (Feiling The Life of Neville Chamberlain, p. 603.)

* In the telegram of instructions to Kennard18 it was made clear that Russia was to be left out in the cold. “It is becoming clear,” it said, “that our attempts to consolidate the situation will be frustrated if the Soviet Union is openly associated with the initiation of the scheme. Recent telegrams from a number of His Majesty’s Missions abroad have warned us that the inclusion of Russia would not only jeopardise the success of our constructive effort but also tend to consolidate the relations of the parties to the Anti-Comintern Pact, as well as excite anxiety among a number of friendly governments.”

* Chamberlain could not have been ignorant of Poland’s military weakness. Colonel Sword, the British military attaché in Warsaw, had sent to London a week before, on March 22, a long report on the disastrous strategic position of Poland, “bounded on. three sides by Germany,” and on the deficiencies of the Polish armed forces, especially in modern arms and equipment.20

On April 6, while Colonel Beck was in London discussing a mutual-assistance pact, Colonel Sword and also the British air attaché in Warsaw, Group Captain Vachell, sent fresh reports which were even less hopeful. Vachell emphasized that during the next twelve months the Polish Air Force would have “no more than about 600 aircraft, many of which are no match for German aircraft.” Sword reported that the Polish Army and Air Force were both so lacking in modern equipment that they could put up only a limited resistance to an all-out German attack. Ambassador Kennard, summing up his attachés’ reports, informed London that the Poles would be unable to defend the Corridor or the western frontier against Germany and would have to fall back on the Vistula in the heart of Poland. “A friendly Russia,” he added, was “thus of paramount importance” for Poland.21

* Actually, the relay of the broadcast to the American radio networks was cut off after Hitler had begun to speak. This led to reports in New York that he had been assassinated. I was in the control room of the short-wave section of the German Broadcasting Company in Berlin, looking after the relay to the Columbia Broadcasting System in New York, when the broadcast was suddenly shut off. To my protests, German officials answered that the order had come from Hitler himself. Within fifteen minutes CBS was telephoning me from New York to check on the assassination report. I could easily deny it because through an open telephone circuit to Wilhelmshaven I could hear Hitler shouting his speech. It would have been difficult to shoot the Fuehrer that day because he spoke behind a bulletproof glass enclosure.

* On the day of the speech Weizsaecker wired Hans Thomsen, German chargé in Washington, instructing him to give the Fuehrer’s address the widest possible publicity in the United States and assuring him that extra funds would be provided for the purpose. On May 1 Thomsen replied, “Interest in speech surpasses anything so far known. I have therefore directed that the English text printed here is to be sent … to tens of thousands of addressees of all classes and callings, in accordance with the agreed plan. Claim for costs to follow.”26

* Hitler was careful to use the Gaelic word for Prime Minister.

* Though an Associated Press dispatch from Moscow (published in the New York Times March 12) reported that Stalin’s condemnation of efforts to embroil Russia in a war with Germany had led to talk in diplomatic circles in Moscow of the possibility of a rapprochement between the Soviet Union and Germany, Sir William Seeds, the British ambassador, apparently did not participate in any such talk. In his dispatch reporting Stalin’s speech Seeds made no mention of such a possibility. One Western diplomat, Joseph E. Davies, former American ambassador in Moscow, who was now stationed in Brussels, did draw the proper conclusions from Stalin’s speech. “It is a most significant statement,” he noted in his diary on March 11. “It bears the earmarks of a definite warning to the British and French governments that the Soviets are getting tired of ‘nonrealistic’ opposition to the aggressors. This … is really ominous for the negotiations … between the British Foreign Office and the Soviet Union. It certainly is the most significant danger signal that I have yet seen.” On March 21 he wrote to Senator Key Pittman: “… Hitler is making a desperate effort to alienate Stalin from France and Britain. Unless the British and French wake up, I am afraid he will succeed.”32

 In explaining to the Soviet ambassador in London, Ivan Maisky, on March 19 why the Russian proposal for a conference, preferably at Bucharest, was “not acceptable,” Lord Halifax said that no Minister of the Crown could be spared for the moment to go to Bucharest. It is obvious that this rebuff soured the Russians in the subsequent negotiations with the British and French. Maisky later told Robert Booth by, a Conservative M.P., that the rejection of the Russian proposal had been “another smashing blow at the policy of effective collective security” and that it had decided the fate of Litvinov.33

* If some credence can be cautiously given to the published journal of Litvinov (Notes for a Journal), Stalin had been contemplating such a change since Munich, from which the Soviet Union had been excluded. Toward the end of 1938, according to an entry in this journal, Stalin told Litvinov that “we are prepared to come to an agreement with the Germans … and also to render Poland harmless.” In January 1939 the Foreign Commissar noted: “It would appear they have decided to remove me.” In the same entry he reveals that all his communications with the Soviet Embassy in Berlin must now go through Stalin and that Ambassador Merekalov, on Stalin’s instructions, is about to begin negotiations with Weizsaecker in order to let Hitler know “in effect: ‘We couldn’t come to an agreement until now, but now we can.’” The Journal is a somewhat dubious book. Professor Edward Hallen Carr, a British authority on the Soviet Union, investigated it and found that though undoubtedly it had been touched up to a point where some of it was “pure fiction,” a large part of it fairly represents Litvinov’s outlook.

* Ciano’s diary for May 22 is full of titbits about Hitler and his weird entourage. Frau Goebbels complained that the Fuehrer kept his friends up all night and exclaimed, “It is always Hitler who talks! He repeats himself and bores his guests.” Ciano also heard hints “of the Fuehrer’s tender feelings for a beautiful girl. She is twenty years old, with beautiful quiet eyes, regular features and a magnificent body. Her name is Sigrid von Lappus. They see each other frequently and intimately.” (The Ciano Diaries, p. 85.) Ciano, a great man with the ladies himself, was obviously intrigued. Apparently he had not yet heard of Eva Braun, Hitler’s mistress, who was rarely permitted at this time to come to Berlin.

* Emphasis in the original.

 Emphasis in the original.

* Hitler’s understanding of the Battle of Jutland was obviously faulty.

* In giving these tonnages for German battleships, General Thomas was deceiving even the Foreign Office. An interesting German naval document51 dated more than a year before, February 18, 1938, notes that false figures on battleship tonnage had been furnished the British government under the Anglo–German naval agreement. It states that the actual tonnage of the 26,000-ton ships was 31,300 tons; that of the 35,000-ton battleships (the top level in the British and American navies) was actually 41,700 tons. It is a curious example of Nazi deceit.

* On May 27, the British ambassador and the French chargé d’affaires in Moscow presented Molotov with an Anglo–French draft of the proposed pact. To the surprise of the Western envoys, Molotov took a very cool view of it.52

 The affidavit was rejected as evidence by the tribunal and is not published in the Nazi Conspiracy and Aggression or Trial of the Major War Criminals volumes of the Nuremberg evidence. This does not detract from its authenticity. All material dealing with Nazi–Soviet collaboration during this period was handled gingerly by the tribunal, one of whose four judges was a Russian.

* In Nazi–Soviet Relations, a volume of German Foreign Office documents on that subject published by the U.S. State Department in 1949, the English translation of the telegram came out much stronger. The key sentence was given as: “We have now decided to undertake definite negotiations with the Soviet Union.” This has led many historians, including Churchill, to conclude that this telegram of May 30 marked the decisive turning point in Hitler’s efforts to make a deal with Moscow. That turning point came later. As Weizsaecker pointed out in the May 30 postscript to his letter to Schulenburg, the German approach, which Hitler had approved, was to be “a very much modified one.”

* To try to forestall an Anglo–French-Russian guarantee of Latvia and Estonia, which bordered on the Soviet Union, Germany had hastily signed nonaggression pacts with these two Baltic States on June 7. Even before this, on May 31, Germany had pushed through a similar pact with Denmark, which, considering recent events, appears to have given the Danes an astonishing sense of security.

* According to the British Foreign Office papers, Halifax told Maisky on June 8 that he had thought of suggesting to the Prime Minister that he should go to Moscow, “but it was really impossible to get away.” Maisky, on June 12, after Strang had left, suggested to Halifax that it would be a good idea for the Foreign Secretary to go to Moscow “when things were quieter,” but Halifax again stressed the impossibility of his being absent from London “for the present.”65

* On June 19 the High Command of the Army had informed the Foreign Office that 168 German Army officers “have been granted permission to travel through the Free State of Danzig in civilian clothes on a tour for study purposes.” Early in July General Keitel inquired of the Foreign Office “whether it is politically advisable to show in public the twelve light and four heavy guns which are in Danzig and to let exercises be carried out with them, or whether it is better to conceal the presence of these guns.”72 How the Germans succeeded in smuggling in heavy artillery past the Polish inspectors is not revealed in the German papers.

* The British High Command, like the German later, grossly underestimated the potential strength of the Red Army. This may have been due in large part to the reports it received from its military attachés in Moscow. On March 6, for instance, Colonel Firebrace, the military attaché, and Wing Commander Hallawell, the air attaché, had filed long reports to London to the effect that while the defensive capabilities of the Red Army and Air Force were considerable they were incapable of mounting a serious offensive. Hallawell thought that the Russian Air Force, “like the Army, is likely to be brought to a standstill as much by the collapse of essential services as by enemy action.” Firebrace found that the purge of higher officers had severely weakened the Red Army. But he did point out to London that “the Red Army considers war inevitable and is undoubtedly being strenuously prepared for it.”83

* Strang, negotiating with Molotov in Moscow, was even cooler. “It is, indeed, extraordinary,” he wrote the Foreign Office on July 20, “that we should be expected to talk military secrets with the Soviet Government before we are sure that they will be our allies.”

The Russian view was just the opposite and was put by Molotov to the Anglo–French negotiators on July 27: “The important point was to see how many divisions each party would contribute to the common cause and where they would be located.”85 Before the Russians committed themselves politically they wanted to know how much military help they could expect from the West.

 The British mission consisted of Admiral Sir Reginald Plunkett-Ernle-Erle-Drax, who had been Commander in Chief, Plymouth, 1935–1938, Air Marshal Sir Charles Burnett and Major General Heywood.

* A conclusion reached by Arnold Toynbee and his collaborators in their book, The Eve of War, 1939, based largely on the British Foreign Office documents.

 On August 16, Air Marshal Sir Charles Burnett wrote to London from Moscow: “I understand it is me Government’s policy to prolong negotiations as long as possible if we cannot get acceptance of a treaty.” Seeds, the British ambassador in Moscow, had wired London on July 24, the day after his government agreed to staff talks: “I am not optimistic as to the success of military conversations, nor do I think they can in any case be rapidly concluded, but to begin with them now would give a healthy shock to the Axis Powers and a fillip to our friends, while they might be prolonged sufficiently to tide over the next dangerous few months.”88 In view of what Anglo–French intelligence knew of the meetings of Molotov with the German ambassador, of German efforts to interest Russia in a new partition of Poland—which Coulondre had warned Paris of as early as May 7, of massive German troop concentrations on the Polish border, and of Hitler’s intentions, this British trust in stalling in Moscow is somewhat startling.

*Emphasis in the original document.

* Typical was a vivid report Attolico sent of a talk he had with Ribbentrop on July 6. If Poland dared to attack Danzig, the Nazi Foreign Minister told him, Germany would settle the Danzig question in forty-eight hours—at Warsaw! If France were to intervene over Danzig, and so precipitate a general war, let her; Germany would like nothing better. France would be “annihilated”; Britain, if she stirred, would be bringing destruction on the British Empire. Russia? There was going to be a Russian-German treaty, and Russia was not going to march. America? One speech of the Fuehrer’s had been enough to rout Roosevelt; and Americans would not stir anyway. Fear of Japan would keep America quiet.

I listened [Attolico reported] in wondering silence, while Ribbentrop drew this picture of the war ad usum Germaniae which his imagination has now established indelibly in his head … He can see nothing but his version—which is a really amazing one—of an assured German victory in every field and against all comers … At the end, I observed that, according to my understanding, there was complete agreement between the Duce and the Fuehrer that Italy and Germany were preparing for a war that was not to be immediate.96

But the astute Attolico did not believe that at all. All through July his dispatches warned of imminent German action in Poland.

* At one point, Ribbentrop, with obvious exasperation, told Ciano, “We don’t need you!”; to which Ciano replied, “The future will show.” (From General Halder’s unpublished diary, entry of August 14.102 Halder says he got it through Weizsaecker.)

* Though the German minutes explicitly state that Ciano agreed with Hitler “that no communiqué should be issued at the conclusion of the conversation,” the Germans immediately double-crossed their Italian ally. D.N.B., the official German news agency, issued a communiqué two hours after Ciano’s departure and without any consultation whatever with the Italians, that the talks had covered all the problems of the day—with particular attention to Danzig—and had resulted in a “hundred per cent” agreement. So much so, the communiqué added, that not a single problem had been left in suspense, and therefore there would be no further meetings, because there was no occasion for them. Attolico was furious. He protested to the Germans, accusing them of bad faith. He tipped off Henderson that war was imminent. And in an angry dispatch to Rome he described the German communique as “Machiavellian,” pointed out that it was deliberately done to bind Italy to Germany after the latter’s attack on Poland and pleaded that Mussolini should be firm with Hitler in demanding German fulfillment of the “consultation” provisions of the Pact of Steel and under these provisions insist on a month’s grace to settle the Danzig question through diplomatic channels.103

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