Military history

THE LAST SIX DAYS OF PEACE

After recovering from the cold douche of Mussolini’s letter which had arrived early in the evening of August 25 and which, along with the news of the signing of the Anglo–Polish alliance, had caused him to postpone the attack on Poland scheduled for the next day, Hitler got off a curt note to the Duce asking him “what implements of war and raw materials you require and within what time” in order that Italy could “enter a major European conflict.” The letter was telephoned by Ribbentrop personally to the German ambassador in Rome at 7:40 P.M. and handed to the Italian dictator at 9:30 P.M.25

The next morning, in Rome, Mussolini had a meeting with the chiefs of the Italian armed services to draw up a list of his minimum requirements for a war lasting twelve months. In the words of Ciano, who helped draw it up, it was “enough to kill a bull—if a bull could read it.”26 It included seven million tons of petroleum, six million tons of coal, two million tons of steel, one million tons of timber and a long list of other items down to 600 tons of molybdenum, 400 tons of titanium, and twenty tons of zirconium. In addition Mussolini demanded 150 antiaircraft batteries to protect the Italian industrial area in the north, which was but a few minutes’ flying time from French air bases, a circumstance which he reminded Hitler of in a letter which he now composed. This message was telephoned by Ciano to Attolico in Berlin shortly after noon on August 26 and immediately delivered to Hitler.27

It contained more than a swollen list of materials needed. By now the deflated Fascist leader was obviously determined to wriggle out of his obligations to the Third Reich, and the Fuehrer, after reading this second letter, could no longer have the slightest doubt of it.

FUEHRER [Mussolini wrote his comrade], I would not have sent you this list, or else it would have contained a smaller number of items and much lower figures, if I had had the time agreed upon beforehand to accumulate stocks and to speed up the tempo of autarchy.

It is my duty to tell you that unless I am certain of receiving these supplies, the sacrifices I should call on the Italian people to make … could well be in vain and could compromise your cause along with my own.

On his own hook, Ambassador Attolico, who was opposed to war, and especially to Italy’s joining Germany in it if it came, emphasized to Hitler, when he delivered the message, “that all material must be in Italy before the beginning of hostilities” and that this demand was “decisive.”*

Mussolini was still hoping for another Munich. He added a paragraph to his note, declaring that if the Fuehrer thought there was still “any possibility whatsoever of a solution in the political field” he was ready, as before, to give his German colleague his full support. Despite their close personal relations and their Pact of Steel and all the noisy demonstrations of solidarity they had given in the past years, the fact remains that even at this eleventh hour Hitler had not confided to Mussolini his true aim, the destruction of Poland, and that the Italian partner remained quite ignorant of it. Only at the end of this day, the twenty-sixth, was this gulf between them finally bridged.

Within three hours on August 26, Hitler sent a long reply to the Duce’s message. Ribbentrop again telephoned it, at 3:08 P.M., to Ambassador von Mackensen in Rome, who rushed it to Mussolini shortly after 5 P.M. While some of Italy’s requirements such as coal and steel, Hitler said, could be met in full, many others could not. In any case, Attolico’s insistence that the materials must be supplied before the outbreak of hostilities was “impossible.”

And now, finally, Hitler took his friend and ally into his confidence as to his real and immediate aims.

As neither France nor Britain can achieve any decisive successes in the West, and as Germany, as a result of the Agreement with Russia, will have all her forces free in the East after the defeat of Poland … I do not shrink from solving the Eastern question even at the risk of complications in the West.

Duce, I understand your position, and would only ask you to try to achieve the pinning down of Anglo–French forces by active propaganda and suitable military demonstrations such as you have already proposed to me.29

This is the first evidence in the German documents that, twenty-four hours after he had canceled the onslaught on Poland, Hitler had recovered his confidence and was going ahead with his plans, “even at the risk” of war with the West.

The same evening, August 26, Mussolini made somewhat of an effort to still dissuade him. He wrote again to the Fuehrer, Ciano again telephoned it to Attolico and it reached the Reich Chancellery just before 7 P.M.

FUEHRER:

I believe that the misunderstanding into which Attolico involuntarily fell was cleared up immediately … That which I asked of you, except for the antiaircraft batteries, was to be delivered in the course of twelve months. But even though the misunderstanding has been cleared up, it is evident that it is impossible for you to assist me materially in filling the large gaps which the wars in Ethiopia and Spain have made in Italian armaments.

I will therefore adopt the attitude which you advise, at least during the initial phase of the conflict, thereby immobilizing the maximum Franco–British forces, as is already happening, while I shall speed up military preparations to the utmost possible extent.

But the anguished Duce—anguished at cutting such a sorry figure at such a crucial moment—still thought that the possibilities of another Munich should be looked into.

… I venture to insist anew [he continued] and not at all from considerations of a pacifist character foreign to my nature, but by reason of the interests of our two peoples and our two regimes, on the opportunity for a political solution which I regard as still possible and such a one as will give full moral and material satisfaction to Germany.30

The Italian dictator was, as the records now make clear, striving for peace because he was not ready for war. But his role greatly disturbed him. “I leave you to imagine,” he declared to Hitler in this last of the exchange of messages on August 26, “my state of mind in finding myself compelled by forces beyond my control not to afford you real solidarity at the moment of action.” Ciano noted in his diary after this busy day that “the Duce is really out of his wits. His military instinct and his sense of honor were leading him to war. Reason has now stopped him. But this hurts him very much … Now he has had to confront the hard truth. And this, for the Duce, is a great blow.”

After such a plentiful exchange of letters, Hitler was now resigned to Mussolini’s leaving him in the lurch. Late on the night of August 26 he got off one more note to his Axis partner. It was dispatched by telegram from Berlin at 12:10 A.M. on August 27 and reached Mussolini that morning at 9 o’clock.

DUCE:

I have received your communication on your final attitude. I respect the reasons and motives which led you to take this decision. In certain circumstances it can nevertheless work out well.

In my opinion, however, the prerequisite is that, at least until the outbreak of the struggle, the world should have no idea of the attitude Italy intends to adopt. I therefore cordially request you to support my struggle psychologically with your press or by other means. I would also ask you, Duce, if you possibly can, by demonstrative military measures, at least to compel Britain and France to tie down certain of their forces, or at all events to leave them in uncertainty.

But, Duce, the most important thing is this: If, as I have said, it should come to a major war, the issue in the East will be decided before the two Western Powers can score a success. Then, this winter, at latest in the spring, I shall attack in the West with forces which will be at least equal to those of France and Britain …

I must now ask a great favor of you, Duce. In this difficult struggle you and your people can best help me by sending me Italian workers, for both industrial and agricultural purposes … In specially commending this request of mine to your generosity, I thank you for all the efforts you have made for our common cause.

ADOLF HITLER31

The Duce replied meekly late in the afternoon that the world would “not know before the outbreak of hostilities what the attitude of Italy is”—he would keep the secret well. He would also tie down as many Anglo–French military and naval forces as possible and he would send Hitler the Italian workers he requested.32 Earlier in the day he had repeated to Ambassador von Mackensen “in forceful terms,” as the latter reported to Berlin, “that he still believed it possible to attain all our objectives without resort to war” and had added that he would again bring this aspect up in his letter to the Fuehrer.33 But he did not. For the moment he seemed too discouraged to even mention it again.

Although France would provide almost the entire Allied army on Germany’s western border if war were suddenly to come, and although, in the initial weeks, it would far outnumber the German forces there, Hitler seemed unconcerned as August began to run out about what the French would do. On August 26, Premier Daladier dispatched to him a moving and eloquent letter reminding him of what France would do; it would fight if Poland were attacked.

Unless you attribute to the French people [Daladier wrote] a conception of national honor less high than that which I myself recognize in the German people, you cannot doubt that France will be true to her solemn promises to other nations, such as Poland …

After appealing to Hitler to seek a pacific solution of his dispute with Poland, Daladier added:

If the blood of France and of Germany flows again, as it did twenty-five years ago, in a longer and even more murderous war, each of the two peoples will fight with confidence in its own victory, but the most certain victors will be the forces of destruction and barbarism.34

Ambassador Coulondre, in presenting the Premier’s letter, added a passionate verbal and personal appeal of his own, adjuring Hitler “in the name of humanity and for the repose of his own conscience not to let pass this last chance of a peaceful solution.” But the ambassador had the “sadness” to report to Paris that Daladier’s letter had not moved the Fuehrer—“he stands pat.”

Hitler’s reply to the French Premier the next day was cleverly calculated to play on the reluctance of Frenchmen to “die for Danzig,” though he did not use the phrase—that was left for the French appeasers. Germany had renounced all territorial claims on France after the return of the Saar, Hitler declared; there was therefore no reason why they should go to war. If they did, it was not his fault and it would be “very painful” to him.

That was the extent of the diplomatic contact between Germany and France during the last week of peace. Coulondre did not see Hitler after the meeting on August 26 until all was over. The country that concerned the German Chancellor the most at this juncture was Great Britain. As Hitler had told Goering on the evening of August 25, when he postponed the move into Poland, he wanted to see whether he could “eliminate British intervention.”

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