Military history

THE MILITARY CONFERENCE OF AUGUST 22, 1939

The generals found Hitler in one of his most arrogant and uncompromising moods.* “I have called you together,” he told them, “to give you a picture of the political situation in order that you may have some insight into the individual factors on which I have based my irrevocable decision to act and in order to strengthen your confidence. After that we shall discuss military details.” First of all, he said, there were two personal considerations.

My own personality and that of Mussolini.

Essentially, all depends on me, on my existence, because of my political talents. Furthermore, the fact that probably no one will ever again have the confidence of the whole German people as 1 have. There will probably never again in the future be a man with more authority than I have. My existence is therefore a factor of great value. But I can be eliminated at any time by a criminal or a lunatic.

   The second personal factor is the Duce. His existence is also decisive. If something happens to him, Italy’s loyalty to the alliance will no longer be certain. The Italian Court is fundamentally opposed to the Duce.

Franco too was a help. He would assure Spain’s “benevolent neutrality.” As for “the other side,” he assured his listeners, “there is no outstanding personality in England or France.”

For what must have been a period of several hours, broken only by a late lunch, the demonic dictator rambled on, and there is no evidence from the records that a single general, admiral or Air Force commander dared to interrupt him to question his judgment or even to challenge his lies. He had made his decision in the spring, he said, that a conflict with Poland was inevitable, but he had thought that first he would turn against the West. In that case, however, it became “clear” to him that Poland would attack Germany. Therefore she must be liquidated now.

The time to fight a war, anyway, had come.

For us it is easy to make the decision. We have nothing to lose; we can only gain. Our economic situation is such that we cannot hold out more than a few years. Goering can confirm this. We have no other choice, we must act …

Besides the personal factor, the political situation is favorable to us; in the Mediterranean, rivalry among Italy, France and England; in the Orient, tension …

England is in great danger. France’s position has also deteriorated. Decline in birth rate … Yugoslavia carries the germ of collapse … Rumania is weaker than before … Since Kemal’s death, Turkey has been ruled by small minds, unsteady, weak men.

All these fortunate circumstances will not prevail in two to three years. No one knows how long I shall live. Therefore a showdown, which it would not be safe to put off for four to five years, had better take place now.

Such was the Nazi Leader’s fervid reasoning.

He thought it “highly probable” that the West would not fight, but the risk nevertheless had to be accepted. Had he not taken risks—in occupying the Rhineland when the generals wanted to pull back, in taking Austria, the Sudetenland and the rest of Czechoslovakia? “Hannibal at Cannae, Frederick the Great at Leuthen, and Hindenburg and Ludendorff at Tannenberg,” he said, “took chances. So now we also must take risks which can only be mastered by iron determination.” There must be no weakening.

It has done much damage that many reluctant Germans in high places spoke and wrote to Englishmen after the solution of the Czech question. The Fuehrer carried his point when you lost your nerve and capitulated too soon.

Halder, Witzleben and Thomas and perhaps other generals who had been in on the Munich conspiracy must have winced at this. Hitler obviously knew more than they had realized.

At any rate, it was now time for them all to show their fighting qualities. Hitler had created Greater Germany, he reminded them, “by political bluff.” It had now become necessary to “test the military machine. The Army must experience actual battle before the big final showdown in the West.” Poland offered such an opportunity.

Coming back to England and France:

The West has only two possibilities to fight against us:

1. Blockade: It will not be effective because of our self-sufficiency and our sources of aid in the East.

2. Attack from the West from the Maginot Line. I consider this impossible.

Another possibility is the violation of Dutch, Belgium and Swiss neutrality.

England and France will not violate the neutrality of these countries. Actually they cannot help Poland.

   Would it be a long war?

No one is counting on a long war. If Herr von Brauchitsch had told me that I would need four years to conquer Poland I would have replied, It cannot be done. It is nonsense to say that England wants to wage a long war.

Having disposed, to his own satisfaction, at least, of Poland, Britain and France, Hitler pulled out his ace card. He turned to Russia.

The enemy had another hope, that Russia would become our enemy after the conquest of Poland. The enemy did not count on my great power of resolution. Our enemies are little worms. I saw them at Munich.

I was convinced that Stalin would never accept the English offer. Only a blind optimist could believe that Stalin would be so crazy as not to see through England’s intentions. Russia has no interest in maintaining Poland … Litvinov’s dismissal was decisive. It came to me like a cannon shot as a sign of a change in Moscow toward the Western Powers.

I brought about the change toward Russia gradually. In connection with the commercial treaty we got into political conversations. Finally a proposition came from the Russians for a nonaggression treaty. Four days ago I took a special step which brought it about that Russia announced yesterday that she is ready to sign. The personal contact with Stalin is established. The day after tomorrow Ribbentrop will conclude the treaty. Now Poland is in the position in which I wanted her … A beginning has been made for the destruction of England’s hegemony. The way is open for the soldier, now that I have made the political preparations.

The way would be open for the soldiers, that is, if Chamberlain didn’t pull another Munich. “I am only afraid,” Hitler told his warriors, “that some Schweinehund* will make a proposal for mediation.”

At this point the meeting broke up for lunch, but not until Goering had expressed thanks to the Fuehrer for pointing the way and had assured him that the armed services would do their duty.

The afternoon lecture was devoted by Hitler mainly to bucking up his military chiefs and trying to steel them for the task ahead. The rough jottings of all three records of the talk indicate its nature.

The most iron determination on our part. No shrinking back from anything. Everyone must hold the view that we have been determined to fight the Western powers right from the start. A life-and-death struggle…. A long period of peace would not do us any good … A manly bearing … We have the better men … On the opposite side they are weaker … In 1918 the nation collapsed because the spiritual prerequisites were insufficient. Frederick the Great endured only because of his fortitude.

The destruction of Poland has priority. The aim is to eliminate active forces, not to reach a definite line. Even if war breaks out in the West, the destruction of Poland remains the primary objective. A quick decision, in view of the season.

I shall give a propagandist reason for starting the war—never mind whether it is plausible or not. The victor will not be asked afterward whether he told the truth or not. In starting and waging a war it is not right that matters, but victory.

Close your hearts to pity! Act brutally! Eighty million people must obtain what is their right … The stronger man is right … Be harsh and remorseless! Be steeled against all signs of compassion! … Whoever has pondered over this world order knows that its meaning lies in the success of the best by means of force…

Having thundered such Nietzschean exhortations, the Fuehrer, who had worked himself up to a fine fit of Teutonic fury, calmed down and delivered a few directives for the campaign ahead. Speed was essential. He had “unshakable faith” in the German soldier. If any crises developed they would be due solely to the commanders’ losing their nerve. The first aim was to drive wedges from the southeast to the Vistula, and from the north to the Narew and the Vistula. Military operations, he insisted, must not be influenced by what he might do with Poland after her defeat. As to that he was vague. The new German frontier, he said, would be based on “sound principles.” Possibly he would set up a small Polish buffer state between Germany and Russia.

The order for the start of hostilities, Hitler concluded, would be given later, probably for Saturday morning, August 26.

The next day, the twenty-third, after a meeting of the OKW section chiefs, General Halder noted in his diary: “Y Day definitely set for the 26th (Saturday).”

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