Military history

16. THE LAST DAYS OF PEACE

THE BRITISH GOVERNMENT had not waited idly for the formal signing of the Nazi–Soviet Pact in Moscow. The announcement in Berlin on the late evening of August 21 that Ribbentrop was flying to Moscow to conclude a German–Russian agreement stirred the British cabinet to action. It met at 3P.M. on the twenty-second and issued a communiqué stating categorically that a Soviet–Nazi nonaggression pact “would in no way affect their obligation to Poland, which they have repeatedly stated in public and which they are determined to fulfill.” At the same time Parliament was summoned to meet on August 24 to pass the Emergency Powers (Defense) Bill, and certain precautionary mobilization measures were taken.

Though the cabinet statement was as clear as words could make it, Chamberlain wanted Hitler to have no doubts about it. Immediately after the cabinet meeting broke up he wrote a personal letter to the Fuehrer.

… Apparently the announcement of a German–Soviet Agreement is taken in some quarters in Berlin to indicate that intervention by Great Britain on behalf of Poland is no longer a contingency that need be reckoned with. No greater mistake could be made. Whatever may prove to be the nature of the German–Soviet Agreement, it cannot alter Great Britain’s obligation to Poland …

It has been alleged that, if His Majesty’s Government had made their position more clear in 1914, the great catastrophe would have been avoided. Whether or not there is any force in that allegation, His Majesty’s Government are resolved that on this occasion there shall be no such tragic misunderstanding.

If the case should arise, they are resolved, and prepared, to employ without delay all the forces at their command, and it is impossible to foresee the end of hostilities once engaged …1

Having, as he added, “thus made our position perfectly clear,” the Prime Minister again appealed to Hitler to seek a peaceful solution of his differences with Poland and once more offered the British government’s co-operation in helping to obtain it.

The letter, which Ambassador Henderson, flying down from Berlin, delivered to Hitler shortly after 1 P.M. on August 23 at Berchtesgaden, threw the Nazi dictator into a violent rage. “Hitler was excitable and uncompromising,” Henderson wired Lord Halifax. “His language was violent and exaggerated both as regards England and Poland.”2 Henderson’s report of the meeting and the German Foreign Office memorandum on it—the latter among the captured Nazi papers—agree on the nature of Hitler’s tirade. England, he stormed, was responsible for Poland’s intransigence just as it had been responsible for Czechoslovakia’s unreasonable attitude the year before. Tens of thousands of Volksdeutsche in Poland were being persecuted. There were even, he claimed, six cases of castration—a subject that obsessed him. He could stand it no more. Any further persecution of Germans by the Poles would bring immediate action.

I contested every point [Henderson wired Halifax] and kept calling his statements inaccurate but the only effect was to launch him on some fresh tirade.

   Finally Hitler agreed to give a written answer to the Prime Minister’s letter in two hours’ time, and Henderson withdrew to Salzburg for a little respite.* Later in the afternoon Hitler sent for him and handed him his reply. In contrast to the first meeting, the Fuehrer, Henderson reported to London, “was quite calm and never raised his voice.”

He was, he said [Henderson reported], fifty years old; he preferred war now to when he would be fifty-five or sixty.

The megalomania of the German dictator, declaiming on his mountain-top, comes out even more forcibly in the German minutes of the meeting. After quoting him as preferring to make war at fifty rather than later, they add:

England [Hitler said] would do well to realize that as a front-line soldier he knew what war was and would utilize every means available. It was surely quite clear to everyone that the World War [i.e., 1914–1918] would not have been lost if he had been Chancellor at the time.

Hitler’s reply to Chamberlain was a mixture of all the stale lies and exaggerations which he had been bellowing to foreigners and his own people since the Poles dared to stand up to him. Germany, he said, did not seek a conflict with Great Britain. It had been prepared all along to discuss the questions of Danzig and the Corridor with the Poles “on the basis of a proposal of truly unparalleled magnanimity.” But the unconditional guarantee of Poland by Britain had only encouraged the Poles “to unloosen a wave of appalling terrorism against the one and a half million German inhabitants living in Poland.” Such “atrocities” he declared, “are terrible for the victims but intolerable for a Great Power such as the German Reich.” Germany would no longer tolerate them.

Finally he took note of the Prime Minister’s assurance that Great Britain would honor its commitments to Poland and assured him “that it can make no change in the determination of the Reich Government to safeguard the interests of the Reich … Germany, if attacked by England, will be found prepared and determined.”3

What had this exchange of letters accomplished? Hitler now had a solemn assurance from Chamberlain that Britain would go to war if Germany attacked Poland. The Prime Minister had the Fuehrer’s word that it would make no difference. But, as the events of the next hectic eight days would show, neither man believed on August 23 that he had heard the last word from the other.

This was especially true of Hitler. Buoyed up by the good news from Moscow and confident that, despite what Chamberlain had just written him, Great Britain and, in its wake, France would have second thoughts about honoring their obligations to Poland after the defection of Russia, the Fuehrer on the evening of August 23, as Henderson was flying back to Berlin, set the date for the onslaught on Poland: Saturday, August 26, at 4:30 A.M.

“There will be no more orders regarding Y Day and X Hour,” General Halder noted in his diary. “Everything is to roll automatically.

But the Chief of the Army General Staff was wrong. On August 25 two events occurred which made Adolf Hitler shrink back from the abyss less than twenty-four hours before his troops were scheduled to break across the Polish frontier. One originated in London, the other in Rome.

On the morning of August 25, Hitler, who on the previous day had returned to Berlin to welcome Ribbentrop back from Moscow and receive a firsthand report on the Russians, got off a letter to Mussolini. It contained a belated explanation as to why he had not been able to keep his Axis partner informed of his negotiations with the Soviet Union. (He had “no idea,” he said, that they would go so far so fast.) And he declared that the Russo–German pact “must be regarded as the greatest possible gain for the Axis.”

But the real purpose of the letter, whose text is among the captured documents, was to warn the Duce that a German attack on Poland was liable to take place at any moment, though Hitler refrained from giving his friend and ally the exact date which he had set. “In case of intolerable events in Poland,” he said, “I shall act immediately … In these circumstances no one can say what the next hour may bring.” Hitler did not specifically ask for Italy’s help. That was, by the terms of the Italo–German alliance, supposed to be automatic. He contented himself with expressing the hope for Italy’s understanding.4 Nevertheless, he was anxious for an immediate answer. The letter was telephoned by Ribbentrop personally to the German ambassador in Rome and reached the Duce at 3:20 P.M.

In the meantime, at 1:30 P.M., the Fuehrer had received Ambassador Henderson at the Chancellery. His resolve to destroy Poland had in no way lessened but he was more anxious than he had been two days before, when he had talked with Henderson at Berchtesgaden, to make one last attempt to keep Britain out of the war.* The ambassador found the Fuehrer, as he reported to London, “absolutely calm and normal and [he] spoke with great earnestness and apparent sincerity.” Despite all his experience of the past year Henderson could not, even at this late date, see through the “sincerity” of the German Leader. For what Hitler had to say was quite preposterous. He “accepted” the British Empire, he told the ambassador, and was ready “to pledge himself personally to its continued existence and to commit the power of the German Reich for this.”

He desired [Hitler explained] to make a move toward England which should be as decisive as the move towards Russia … The Fuehrer is ready to conclude agreements with England which would not only guarantee the existence of the British Empire in all circumstances so far as Germany is concerned, but would also if necessary assure the British Empire of German assistance regardless of where such assistance should be necessary.

He would also be ready, he added, “to accept a reasonable limitation of armaments” and to regard the Reich’s western frontiers as final. At one point, according to Henderson, Hitler lapsed into a typical display of sentimental hogwash, though the ambassador did not describe it as that when he recounted it in his dispatch to London. The Fuehrer stated

that he was by nature an artist, not a politician, and that once the Polish question was settled he would end his life as an artist and not as a warmonger.

But the dictator ended on another note.

The Fuehrer repeated [says the verbal statement drawn up by the Germans for Henderson] that he is a man of great decisions … and that this is his last offer. If they [the British government] reject these ideas, there will be war.

In the course of the interview Hitler repeatedly pointed out that his “large comprehensive offer” to Britain, as he described it, was subject to one condition: that it would take effect only “after the solution of the German–Polish problem.” When Henderson kept insisting that Britain could not consider his offer unless it meant at the same time a peaceful settlement with Poland, Hitler replied, “If you think it useless then do not send my offer at all.”

However, the ambassador had scarcely returned to the embassy a few steps up the Wilhelmstrasse from the Chancellery before Dr. Schmidt was knocking at the door with a written copy of Hitler’s remarks—with considerable deletions—coupled with a message from the Fuehrer begging Henderson to urge the British government “to take the offer very seriously” and suggesting that he himself fly to London with it, for which purpose a German plane would be at his disposal.5

It was rarely easy, as readers who have got this far in this book are aware, to penetrate the strange and fantastic workings of Hitler’s fevered mind. His ridiculous “offer” of August 25 to guarantee the British Empire was obviously a brain storm of the moment, for he had not mentioned it two days before when he discussed Chamberlain’s letter with Henderson and composed a reply to it. Even making allowances for the dictator’s aberrations, it is difficult to believe that he himself took it as seriously as he made out to the British ambassador. Besides, how could the British government, as he requested, be asked to take it “very seriously” when Chamberlain would scarcely have time to read it before the Nazi armies hurtled into Poland at dawn on the morrow—the X Day which still held?

But behind the “offer,” no doubt, was a serious purpose. Hitler apparently believed that Chamberlain, like Stalin, wanted an out by which he could keep his country out of war.* He had purchased Stalin’s benevolent neutrality two days before by offering Russia a free hand in Eastern Europe “from the Baltic to the Black Sea.” Could he not buy Britain’s nonintervention by assuring the Prime Minister that the Third Reich would never, like the Hohenzollern Germany, become a threat to the British Empire? What Hitler did not realize, nor Stalin—to the latter’s awful cost—was that to Chamberlain, his eyes open at long last, Germany’s domination of the European continent would be the greatest of all threats to the British Empire—as indeed it would be to the Soviet Russian Empire. For centuries, as Hitler had noted in Mein Kampf, the first imperative of British foreign policy had been to prevent any single nation from dominating the Continent.

At 5:30 P.M. Hitler received the French ambassador but had little of importance to say to him beyond repeating that “Polish provocation of the Reich” could no longer be endured, that he would not attack France but that if France entered the conflict he would fight her to the end. Whereupon he started to dismiss the French envoy by rising from his chair. But Coulondre had something to say to the Fuehrer of the Third Reich and he insisted on saying it. He told him on his word of honor as a soldier that he had not the least doubt “that if Poland is attacked France will be at the side of Poland with all its forces.”

“It is painful to me,” Hitler replied, “to think of having to fight your country, but that does not depend on me. Please say that to Monsieur Daladier.”6

It was now 6 P.M. of August 25 in Berlin. Tension in the capital had been building up all day. Since early afternoon all radio, telegraph and telephone communication with the outside world had been cut off on orders from the Wilhelmstrasse. The night before, the last of the British and French correspondents and nonofficial civilians had hurriedly left for the nearest frontier. During the day of the twenty-fifth, a Friday, it became known that the German Foreign Office had wired the embassies and consulates in Poland, France and Britain requesting that German citizens be asked to leave by the quickest route. My own diary notes for August 24–25 recall the feverish atmosphere in Berlin. The weather was warm and sultry and everyone seemed to be on edge. All through the sprawling city antiaircraft guns were being set up, and bombers flew continually overhead in the direction of Poland. “It looks like war,” I scribbled on the evening of the twenty-fourth; “War is imminent,” I repeated the next day, and on both nights, I remember, the Germans we saw in the Wilhelmstrasse whispered that Hitler had ordered the soldiers to march into Poland at dawn.

Their orders, we now know, were to attack at 4:30 on Saturday morning, August 26.* And up until 6 P.M. on the twenty-fifth nothing that had happened during the day, certainly not the personal assurances of Ambassadors Henderson and Coulondre that Britain and France would surely honor their commitments to Poland, had budged Adolf Hitler from his resolve to go ahead with his aggression on schedule. But about 6 P.M., or shortly afterward, there arrived news from London and Rome that made this man of apparently unshakable will hesitate.

It is not quite clear from the confidential German records and the postwar testimony of the Wilhelmstrasse officials at just what time Hitler learned of the signing in London of the formal Anglo–Polish treaty which transformed Britain’s unilateral guarantee of Poland into a pact of mutual assistance. There is some evidence in Halder’s diary and in the German Naval Register that the Wilhelmstrasse got wind at noon on August 25 that the pact would be signed during the day. The General Staff Chief notes that at 12 noon he got a call from OKW asking what was the latest deadline for postponement of the decision to attack and that he replied: 3 P.M. The Naval Register also mentions that news of the Anglo–Polish pact and of “information from the Duce” was received at noon.7 But this is impossible. Word from Mussolini did not arrive, according to a German notation on the document, until “about 6 P.M.” And Hitler could not have learned of the signing of the Anglo–Polish treaty in London until about that time, since this event only took place at 5:35 P.M.—and, at that, barely fifteen minutes after the Polish ambassador in London, Count Edward Raczyński, had received permission from his Foreign Minister in Warsaw over the telephone to affix his signature.*

Whatever time he received it—and around 6 P.M. is an accurate guess—Hitler was moved by the news from London. This could well be Britain’s answer to his “offer,” the terms of which must have reached London by now. It meant that he had failed in his bid to buy off the British as he had bought off the Russians. Dr. Schmidt, who was in Hitler’s office when the report arrived, remembered later that the Fuehrer, after reading it, sat brooding at his desk.8

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