Military history


“The great drama,” Hitler told his select listeners, “is now approaching its climax.” While political and military successes could not be had without taking risks, he was certain that Great Britain and France would not fight. For one thing, Britain “has no leaders of real caliber. The men I got to know at Munich are not the kind that start a new world war.” As at previous meetings with his military chiefs, the Fuehrer could not keep his mind off England and he spoke in considerable detail of her strengths and weaknesses, especially the latter.

England [Halder noted down the words], unlike in 1914, will not allow herself to blunder into a war lasting for years … Such is the fate of rich countries … Not even England has the money nowadays to fight a world war. What should England fight for? You don’t get yourself killed for an ally.

   What military measures, Hitler asked, could Britain and France undertake?

Drive against the West Wall unlikely [he answered]. A northward swing through Belgium and Holland will not bring speedy victory. None of this would help the Poles.

All these factors argue against England and France entering the war … There is nothing to force them into it. The men of Munich will not take the risk … English and French general staffs take a very sober view of the prospects of an armed conflict and advise against it….

All this supports the conviction that while England may talk big, even recall her Ambassador, perhaps put a complete embargo on trade, she is sure not to resort to armed intervention in the conflict.

   So Poland, probably, could be taken on alone, but she would have to be defeated “within a week or two,” Hitler explained, so that the world could be convinced of her collapse and not try to save her.

Hitler was not quite ready to tell his generals just how far he was going that very day to make a deal with Russia, though it would have immensely pleased them, convinced as they were that Germany could not fight a major war on two fronts. But he told them enough to whet their appetite for more.

“Russia,” he said, “is not in the least disposed to pull chestnuts out of the fire.” He explained the “loose contacts” with Moscow which had started with the trade negotiations. He was now considering whether “a negotiator should go to Moscow and whether this should be a prominent figure.” The Soviet Union, he declared, felt under no obligation to the West. The Russians understood the destruction of Poland. They were interested in a “delimitation of spheres of interest.” The Fuehrer was “inclined to meet them halfway.”

In all of Halder’s voluminous shorthand notes on the meeting there is no mention that he, the Chief of the Army’s General Staff, or General von Brauchitsch, its Commander in Chief, or Goering questioned the Fuehrer’s course in leading Germany into a European conflict—for despite Hitler’s confidence it was by no means certain that France and Britain would not fight nor that Russia would stay out. In fact, exactly a week before, Goering had received a direct warning that the British would certainly fight if Germany attacked Poland.

Early in July a Swedish friend of his, Birger Dahlerus, had tried to convince him that British public opinion would not stand for further Nazi aggression and when the Luftwaffe chief expressed his doubts had arranged for him to meet privately with a group of seven British businessmen on August 7 in Schleswig-Holstein, near the Danish border, where Dahlerus had a house. The British businessmen, both orally and in a written memorandum, did their best to persuade Goering that Great Britain would stand by its treaty obligations with Poland should Germany attack. Whether they succeeded is doubtful, though Dahlerus, a businessman himself, thought so.* This curious Swede, who was to play a certain role as a peacemaker between Germany and Britain in the next hectic weeks, certainly had high connections in Berlin and London. He had access to Downing Street, where on July 20 he had been received by Lord Halifax, with whom he discussed the coming meeting of British businessmen with Goering; and soon he would be called in by Hitler and Chamberlain themselves. But, though well-meaning in his quest to save the peace, he was naïve and, as a diplomat, dreadfully amateurish. Years later at Nuremberg, Sir David Maxwell-Fyfe, in a devastating cross-examination, led the Swedish diplomatic interloper to admit sadly that he had been badly misled by Goering and Hitler.4

And why did not General Halder, who had been the ringleader in the plot eleven months before to remove Hitler, speak up on August 14 to oppose the Fuehrer’s determination to go to war? Or, if he thought that useless, why did he not renew plans to get rid of the dictator on the same grounds as just before Munich: that a war now would be disastrous for Germany? Much later, in his interrogation at Nuremberg, Halder would explain that even at mid-August 1939 he simply did not believe that Hitler would, in the end, risk war, regardless of what he said.5 Also, a diary entry of August 15, the day after the meeting with Hitler at the Berghof, shows that Halder did not believe that France and Britain would risk war either.

As for Brauchitsch, he was not the man to question what the Fuehrer planned to do. Hassell, who on August 15 learned of the military conference at the Obersalzberg from Gisevius, got word through to the Army chief that he was “absolutely convinced” that Britain and France would intervene if Germany invaded Poland. “Nothing can be done with him,” Hassell noted sadly in his diary. “Either he is afraid or he doesn’t understand what it is all about…. Nothing is to be hoped for from the generals … Only a few have kept clear heads: Halder, Canaris, Thomas.”6

Only General Thomas, the brilliant head of the Economic and Armaments Branch of OKW, dared to openly challenge the Fuehrer. A few days after the August 14 military conference, following a discussion with the now largely inactive conspirators Goerdeler, Beck and Schacht, General Thomas drew up a memorandum and personally read it to General Keitel, the Chief of OKW. A quick war and a quick peace were a complete illusion, he argued. An attack on Poland would unleash a world war and Germany lacked the raw materials and the food supplies to fight it. But Keitel, whose only ideas were those he absorbed from Hitler, scoffed at the very idea of a big war. Britain was too decadent, France too degenerate, America too uninterested, to fight for Poland, he said.7

   And so as the second half of August 1939 began, the German military chiefs pushed forward with their plans to annihilate Poland and to protect the western Reich just in case the democracies, contrary to all evidence, did intervene. On August 15 the annual Nuremberg Party Rally, which Hitler on April 1 had proclaimed as the “Party Rally of Peace” and which was scheduled to begin the first week in September, was secretly canceled. A quarter of a million men were called up for the armies of the west. Advance mobilization orders to the railways were given. Plans were made to move Army headquarters to Zossen, east of Berlin. And on the same day, August 15, the Navy reported that the pocket battleships Graf Spee and Deutschland and twenty-one submarines were ready to sail for their stations in the Atlantic.

On August 17 General Halder made a strange entry in his diary: “Canaris checked with Section I [Operations]. HimmlerHeydrich, Obersalzberg: 150 Polish uniforms with accessories for Upper Silesia.”

What did it mean? It was only after the war that it became clear. It concerned one of the most bizarre incidents ever arranged by the Nazis. Just as Hitler and his Army chiefs, it will be remembered, had considered cooking up an “incident,” such as the assassination of the German minister, in order to justify their invading Austria and Czechoslovakia, so now they concerned themselves, as time began to run out, with concocting an incident which would, at least in their opinion, justify before the world the planned aggression against Poland.

The code name was “Operation Himmler” and the idea was quite simple—and crude. The S.S.-Gestapo would stage a faked attack on the German radio station at Gleiwitz, near the Polish border, using condemned concentration camp inmates outfitted in Polish Army uniforms. Thus Poland could be blamed for attacking Germany. Early in August Admiral Canaris, chief of the Abwehr Section of OKW, had received an order from Hitler himself to deliver to Himmler and Heydrich 150 Polish uniforms and some Polish small arms. This struck him as a strange business and on August 17 he asked General Keitel about it. While the spineless OKW Chief declared he did not think much of “actions of this kind,” he nevertheless told the Admiral that “nothing could be done,” since the order had come from the Fuehrer.8 Repelled though he was, Canaris obeyed his instructions and turned the uniforms over to Heydrich.

The chief of the S.D. chose as the man to carry out the operation a young S.S. secret-service veteran by the name of Alfred Helmut Naujocks. This was not the first of such assignments given this weird individual nor would it be the last. Early in March of 1939, shortly before the German occupation of Czechoslovakia, Naujocks, at Heydrich’s instigation, had busied himself running explosives into Slovakia, where they were used, as he later testified, to “create incidents.”

Alfred Naujocks was a typical product of the S.S.-Gestapo, a sort of intellectual gangster. He had studied engineering at Kiel University, where he got his first taste of brawling with anti-Nazis; on one occasion he had his nose bashed in by Communists. He had joined the S.S. in 1931 and was attached to the S.D. from its inception in 1934. Like so many other young men around Heydrich he dabbled in what passed as intellectual pursuits in the S.S.—“history” and “philosophy” especially—while rapidly emerging as a tough young man (Skorzeny was another) who could be entrusted with the carrying out of the less savory projects dreamed up by Himmler and Heydrich.* On October 19, 1944, Naujocks deserted to the Americans and at Nuremberg a year later made a number of sworn affidavits, in one of which he preserved for history the account of the “incident” which Hitler used to justify his attack on Poland.

On or about August 10, 1939, the chief of the S.D., Heydrich, personally ordered me to simulate an attack on the radio station near Gleiwitz near the Polish border [Naujocks related in an affidavit signed in Nuremberg November 20, 1945] and to make it appear that the attacking force consisted of Poles. Heydrich said: “Practical proof is needed for these attacks of the Poles for the foreign press as well as for German propaganda.” …

My instructions were to seize the radio station and to hold it long enough to permit a Polish-speaking German who would be put at my disposal to broadcast a speech in Polish. Heydrich told me that this speech should state that the time had come for conflict between Germans and Poles … Heydrich also told me that he expected an attack on Poland by Germany in a few days.

I went to Gleiwitz and waited there fourteen days … Between the 25th and 31st of August, I went to see Heinrich Mueller, head of the Gestapo, who was then nearby at Oppeln. In my presence, Mueller discussed with a man named Mehlhorn* plans for another border incident, in which it should be made to appear that Polish soldiers were attacking German troops … Mueller stated that he had 12 to 13 condemned criminals who were to be dressed in Polish uniforms and left dead on the ground of the scene of the incident to show they had been killed while attacking. For this purpose they were to be given fatal injections by a doctor employed by Heydrich. Then they were also to be given gunshot wounds. After the incident members of the press and other persons were to be taken to the spot of the incident …

Mueller told me he had an order from Heydrich to make one of those criminals available to me for the action at Gleiwitz. The code name by which he referred to these criminals was “Canned Goods.”9

While Himmler, Heydrich and Mueller, at Hitler’s command, were arranging for the use of “Canned Goods” to fake an excuse for Germany’s aggression against Poland, the Fuehrer made his first decisive move to deploy his armed forces for a possibly bigger war. On August 19—another fateful day—orders to sail were issued to the German Navy. Twenty-one submarines were directed to put out for positions north and northwest of the British Isles, the pocket battleship Graf Spee to depart for waters off the Brazilian coast and her sister ship, the Deutschland, to take a position athwart the British sea lanes in the North Atlantic.

The date of the order to dispatch the warships for possible action against Britain is significant. For on August 19, after a hectic week of frantic appeals from Berlin, the Soviet government finally gave Hitler the answer he wanted.

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