His brooding was interrupted very shortly by equally bad news from Rome. Throughout the afternoon the German dictator had waited with “unconcealed impatience,” as Dr. Schmidt describes it, for the Duce’s reply to his letter. The Italian ambassador, Attolico, was summoned to the Chancellery at 3 P.M., shortly after Henderson had departed, but he could only inform the Fuehrer that no answer had been received as yet. By this time Hitler’s nerves were so strained that he sent Ribbentrop out to get Ciano on the long-distance telephone, but the Foreign Minister was unable to get through to him. Attolico, Schmidt says, was dismissed “with scant courtesy.”9
For some days Hitler had been receiving warnings from Rome that his Axis partner might go back on him at the crucial moment of the attack on Poland, and this intelligence was not without foundation. No sooner had Ciano returned from his disillusioning meetings with Hitler and Ribbentrop on August 11 to 13, than he set to work to turn Mussolini against the Germans—an action which did not escape the watchful eyes of the German Embassy in Rome. The Fascist Foreign Minister’s diary traces the ups and downs of his efforts to make the Italian dictator see the light and disassociate himself, in time, from Hitler’s war.10 On the evening of his return from Berchtesgaden on August 13, Ciano saw the Duce and after describing his talks with Hitler and Ribbentrop tried to convince his chief that the Germans “have betrayed us and lied to us” and “are dragging us into an adventure.”
The Duce’s reactions are varied [Ciano noted in his diary that night]. At first he agrees with me. Then he says that honor compels him to march with Germany. Finally, he states that he wants his part of the booty in Croatia and Dalmatia.
August 14.—I find Mussolini worried. I do not hesitate to arouse in him every possible anti-German reaction by every means in my power. I speak to him of his diminished prestige and his playing the role of second fiddle. And, finally, I turn over to him documents which prove the bad faith of the Germans on the Polish question. The alliance was based on premises which they now deny; they are traitors and we must not have any scruples in ditching them. But Mussolini still has many scruples.
On the next day, Ciano talked it out with Mussolini for six hours.
August 15.—The Duce … is convinced that we must not march blindly with the Germans. However … he wants time to prepare the break with Germany … He is more and more convinced that the democracies will fight … This time it means war. And we cannot engage in war because our plight does not permit us to do so.
August 18.—A conversation with the Duce in the morning; his usual shifting feelings. He still thinks it possible that the democracies will not march and that Germany might do good business cheaply, from which business he does not want to be excluded. Then, too, he fears Hitler’s rage. He believes that a denunciation of the pact or something like it might induce Hitler to abandon the Polish question in order to square accounts with Italy. All this makes him nervous and disturbed.
August 20.—The Duce made an about-face. He wants to support Germany at any cost in the conflict which is now close at hand … Conference between Mussolini, myself, and Attolico. [The ambassador had returned from Berlin to Rome for consultations.] This is the substance: It is already too late to go back on the Germans … The press of the whole world would say that Italy is cowardly … I try to debate the matter but it is useless now. Mussolini holds very stubbornly to his idea …
August 21.—Today I have spoken very clearly … When I entered the room Mussolini confirmed his decision to go along with the Germans. “You, Duce, cannot and must not do it … I went to Salzburg in order to adopt a common line of action. I found myself face to face with aDiktat. The Germans, not ourselves, have betrayed the alliance … Tear up the pact. Throw it in Hitler’s face! …”
The upshot of this conference was that Ciano should seek a meeting with Ribbentrop for the next day at the Brenner and inform him that Italy would stay out of a conflict provoked by a German attack on Poland. Ribbentrop was not available for several hours when Ciano put in a call for him at noon, but at 5:30 he finally came on the line. The Nazi Foreign Minister could not give Ciano an immediate answer about meeting on the Brenner on such quick notice, because he was “waiting for an important message from Moscow” and would call back later. This he did at 10:30 P.M.
August 22.—Last evening at 10:30 a new act opened [Ciano recorded in his diary]. Ribbentrop telephoned that he would prefer to see me in Innsbruck rather than at the frontier, because he was to leave later for Moscow to sign a political pact with the Soviet Government.
This was news, and of the most startling kind, to Ciano and Mussolini. They decided that a meeting of the two foreign ministers “would no longer be timely.” Once more their German ally had shown its contempt for them by not letting them know about the deal with Moscow.
The hesitations of the Duce, the anti-German feelings of Ciano and the possibility that Italy might, crawl out of its obligations under Article III of the Pact of Steel, which called for the automatic participation in war of one party if the other party “became involved in hostilities with another Power,” became known in Berlin before Ribbentrop set off for Moscow on August 22.
On August 20, Count Massimo Magistrati, the Italian chargé d’affaires in Berlin, called on Weizsaecker at the Foreign Office and revealed “an Italian state of mind which, although it does not surprise me,” the State Secretary informed Ribbentrop in a confidential memorandum,11 “must in my opinion definitely be considered.” What Magistrati brought to the attention of Weizsaecker was that since Germany had not adhered to the terms of the alliance, which called for close contact and consultation on major questions, and had treated its conflict with Poland as an exclusively German problem, “Germany was thus forgoing Italy’s armed assistance.” And if contrary to the German view the Polish conflict developed into a big war, Italy did not consider that the “prerequisites” of the alliance existed. In brief, Italy was seeking an out.
Two days later, on August 23, a further warning was received in Berlin from Ambassador Hans Georg von Mackensen in Rome. He wrote to Weizsaecker on what had been happening “behind the scenes.” The letter, according to a marginal note in Weizsaecker’s handwriting on the captured document, was “submitted to the Fuehrer.” It must have opened his eyes. The Italian position, following a series of meetings between Mussolini, Ciano and Attolico, was, Mackensen reported, that if Germany invaded Poland she would violate the Pact of Steel, which was based on an agreement to refrain from war until 1942. Furthermore, contrary to the German view, Mussolini was sure that if Germany attacked Poland both Britain and France would intervene—“and the United States too after a few months.” While Germany remained on the defensive in the west the French and British,
in the Duce’s opinion, would descend on Italy with all the forces at their disposal. In this, situation Italy would have to bear the whole brunt of the war in order to give the Reich the opportunity of liquidating the affair in the East …12
It was with these warnings in mind that Hitler got off his letter to Mussolini on the morning of August 25 and waited all day, with mounting impatience, for an answer. Shortly after midnight of the day before, Ribbentrop, after an evening recounting to the Fuehrer the details of his triumph in Moscow, rang up Ciano to warn him, “at the instigation of the Fuehrer,” of the “extreme gravity of the situation due to Polish provocations.”* A note by Weizsaecker reveals that the call was made to “prevent the Italians from being able to speak of unexpected developments.”
By the time Ambassador Mackensen handed Mussolini Hitler’s letter at the Palazzo Venezia in Rome at 3:20 P.M. on August 25, the Duce, then, knew that the German attack on Poland was about to take place. Unlike Hitler, he was certain that Great Britain and France would immediately enter the war, with catastrophic consequences for Italy, whose Navy was no match for the British Mediterranean Fleet and whose Army would be overwhelmed by the French.† According to a dispatch which Mackensen got off to Berlin at 10:25 P.M. describing the meeting, Mussolini, after carefully reading the letter twice in his presence, declared that he was “in complete agreement” about the Nazi–Soviet Pact and that he realized that an “armed conflict with Poland could no longer be avoided.” Finally—“and this he emphasized expressly,” Mackensen reported—“he stood beside us unconditionally and with all his resources.”13
But this was not what the Duce wrote the Fuehrer, unbeknownst to the German ambassador, the text of which was hurriedly telephoned by Ciano to Attolico, who had returned to his post in Berlin and who “about 6 P.M.” arrived at the Chancellery to deliver it in person to Adolf Hitler. It struck the Fuehrer, according to Schmidt, who was present, like a bombshell. After expressing his “complete approval” of the Nazi–Soviet Pact and his “understanding concerning Poland,” Mussolini came to the main point.
As for the practical attitude of Italy in case of military action [Mussolini wrote, and the emphasis is his], my point of view is as follows:
If Germany attacks Poland and the conflict remains localized, Italy will afford Germany every form of political and economic assistance which is requested of her.
If Germany attacks Poland* and the latter’s allies open a counterattack against Germany, I inform you in advance that it will be opportune for me not to take the initiative in military operations in view of the present state of Italian war preparations, of which we have repeatedly and in good time informed you, Fuehrer, and Herr von Ribbentrop.
Our intervention can, nevertheless, take place at once if Germany delivers to us immediately the military supplies and the raw materials to resist the attack which the French and English would predominantly direct against us.
At our meetings the war was envisaged for 1942, and by that time I would have been ready on land, on sea and in the air, according to the plans which had been concerted.
I am furthermore of the opinion that the purely military measures which have already been taken, and other measures to be taken later, will immobilize, in Europe and Africa, considerable French and British forces.
I consider it my bounden duty as a loyal friend to tell you the whole truth and inform you beforehand about the real situation. Not to do so might have unpleasant consequences for us all. This is my view, and since within a short time I must summon the highest governmental bodies, I beg you to let me know yours.
So though Russia was in the bag as a friendly neutral instead of a belligerent, Germany’s ally of the Pact of Steel was out of it—and this on the very day that Britain had seemed to commit herself irrevocably by signing a mutual-assistance pact with Poland against German aggression. Hitler read the Duce’s letter, told Attolico he would answer it immediately and icily dismissed the Italian envoy.
“The Italians are behaving just as they did in 1914,” Dr. Schmidt overheard Hitler remark bitterly after Attolico had left, and that evening the Chancellery echoed with unkind words about the “disloyal Axis partner.” But words were not enough. The German Army was scheduled to hop off against Poland in nine hours, for it was now 6:30 P.M. of August 25 and the invasion was set to begin at 4:30 A.M. on August 26. The Nazi dictator had to decide at once whether, in view of the news from London and Rome, to go ahead with it or postpone or cancel it.
Schmidt, accompanying Attolico out of Hitler’s study, bumped into General Keitel rushing to the presence of the Fuehrer. A few minutes later the General hurried out, crying excitedly to his adjutant, “The order to advance must be delayed again!”
Hitler, pushed into a corner by Mussolini and Chamberlain, had swiftly made his decision. “Fuehrer considerably shaken,” Halder noted in his diary, and then continued:
7:30 P.M.—Treaty between Poland and England ratified. No opening of hostilities. All troop movements to be stopped, even near the frontier if not otherwise possible.
8:35 P.M.—Keitel confirms. Canaris: Telephone restrictions lifted on England and France. Confirms development of events.
The German Naval Register gives a more concise account of the postponement, along with the reasons:
August 25:—Case White already started will be stopped at 20:30 (8:30 P.M.) because of changed political conditions. (Mutual-Assistance Pact England-Poland of August 25, noon, and information from Duce that he would be true to his word but has to ask for large supply of raw materials.)16
Three of the chief defendants at Nuremberg submitted, under interrogation, their version of the postponement of the attack.17 Ribbentrop claimed that when he heard about the Anglo–Polish pact and “heard” that “military steps were being taken against Poland” (as if he didn’t know all along about the attack) he went “at once” to the Fuehrer and urged him to call off the invasion of Poland, to which “the Fuehrer at once agreed.” This is surely entirely untrue.
But the testimony of Keitel and Goering at least seemed more honest. “I was suddenly called to Hitler at the Chancellery,” Keitel recounted on the stand at Nuremberg, “and he said to me, ‘Stop everything at once. Get Brauchitsch immediately. I need time for negotiations.’”
That Hitler still believed at this late hour that he could negotiate his way out of his impasse was confirmed by Goering during a pretrial interrogation at Nuremberg.
On the day that England gave her official guarantee to Poland the Fuehrer called me on the telephone and told me that he had stopped the planned invasion of Poland. I asked him whether this was just temporary or for good. He said, “No, I will have to see whether we can eliminate British intervention.”
Though Mussolini’s last-minute defection was a heavy blow to Hitler, it is obvious from the above testimony that Britain’s action in signing a mutual-assistance treaty with Poland was the stronger influence in inducing the German leader to postpone the attack. Yet it is strange that after Ambassador Henderson on this very day had again warned him that Britain would fight if Poland were attacked and that after the British government had now solemnly given its word to that effect in a formal treaty, he still believed he could, as he told Goering, “eliminate British intervention.” It is likely that his experience with Chamberlain at Munich led him to believe that the Prime Minister again would capitulate if a way out could be concocted. But again it is strange that a man who had previously shown such insight into foreign politics did not know of the changes in Chamberlain and in the British position. After all, Hitler himself had provoked them.
It took some doing to halt the German Army on the evening of August 25, for many units were already on the move. In East Prussia the order calling off the attack reached General Petzel’s I Corps at 9:37 P.M. and only the frantic efforts of several officers who were rushed out to the forward detachments succeeded in stopping the troops. The motorized columns of General von Kleist’s corps to the south had begun to move at dusk up to the Polish frontier. They were halted on the border by a staff officer who made a quick landing in a small scouting plane on the frontier. In a few sectors the orders did not arrive until after the shooting began, but since the Germans had been provoking incidents all along the border for several days the Polish General Staff apparently did not suspect what had really happened. It did report on August 26 that numerous “German bands” had crossed the border and attacked blockhouses and customs posts with machine guns and hand grenades and that “in one case it was a Regular Army detachment.”