Military history

17. THE LAUNCHING OF WORLD WAR II

AT DAYBREAK on September 1, 1939, the very date which Hitler had set in his first directive for “Case White” back on April 3, the German armies poured across the Polish frontier and converged on Warsaw from the north, south and west.

Overhead German warplanes roared toward their targets: Polish troop columns and ammunition dumps, bridges, railroads and open cities. Within a few minutes they were giving the Poles, soldiers and civilians alike, the first taste of sudden death and destruction from the skies ever experienced on any great scale on the earth and thereby inaugurating a terror which would become dreadfully familiar to hundreds of millions of men, women and children in Europe and Asia during the next six years, and whose shadow, after the nuclear bombs came, would haunt all mankind with the threat of utter extinction.

It was a gray, somewhat sultry morning in Berlin, with clouds hanging low over the city, giving it some protection from hostile bombers, which were feared but never came.

The people in the streets, I noticed, were apathetic despite the immensity of the news which had greeted them from their radios and from the extra editions of the morning newspapers.* Across the street from the Adlon Hotel the morning shift of laborers had gone to work on the new I. G. Farben building just as if nothing had happened, and when newsboys came by shouting their extras no one laid down his tools to buy one. Perhaps, it occurred to me, the German people were simply dazed at waking up on this first morning of September to find themselves in a war which they had been sure the Fuehrer somehow would avoid. They could not quite believe it, now that it had come.

What a contrast, one could not help thinking, between this gray apathy and the way the Germans had gone to war in 1914. Then there had been a wild enthusiasm. The crowds in the streets had staged delirious demonstrations, tossed flowers at the marching troops and frantically cheered the Kaiser and Supreme Warlord, Wilhelm II.

There were no such demonstrations this time for the troops or for the Nazi warlord, who shortly before 10 A.M. drove from the Chancellery to the Reichstag through empty streets to address the nation on the momentous happenings which he himself, deliberately and cold-bloodedly, had just provoked. Even the robot members of the Reichstag, party hacks, for the most part, whom Hitler had appointed, failed to respond with much enthusiasm as the dictator launched into his explanation of why Germany found itself on this morning engaged in war. There was far less cheering than on previous and less important occasions when the Leader had declaimed from this tribune in the ornate hall of the Kroll Opera House.

Though truculent at times he seemed strangely on the defensive, and throughout the speech, I thought as I listened, ran a curious strain, as though he himself were dazed at the fix he had got himself into and felt a little desperate about it. His explanation of why his Italian ally had reneged on its automatic obligations to come to his aid did not seem to go over even with this hand-picked audience.

I should like [he said] here above all to thank Italy, which throughout has supported us, but you will understand that for the carrying out of this struggle we do not intend to appeal for foreign help. We will carry out this task ourselves.

Having lied so often on his way to power and in his consolidation of power, Hitler could not refrain at this serious moment in history from thundering a few more lies to the gullible German people in justification of his wanton act.

You know the endless attempts I made for a peaceful clarification and understanding of the problem of Austria, and later of the problem of the SudetenlandBohemia and Moravia. It was all in vain …

In my talks with Polish statesmen … I formulated at last the German proposals and … there is nothing more modest or loyal than these proposals. I should like to say this to the world. I alone was in the position to make such proposals, for I know very well that in doing so I brought myself into opposition to millions of Germans. These proposals have been refused….

For two whole days I sat with my Government and waited to see whether it was convenient for the Polish Government to send a plenipotentiary or not … But I am wrongly judged if my love of peace and my patience are mistaken for weakness or even cowardice … I can no longer find any willingness on the part of the Polish Government to conduct serious negotiations with us … I have therefore resolved to speak to Poland in the same language that Poland for months past has used toward us …

This night for the first time Polish regular soldiers fired on our own territory. Since 5:45 A.M. we have been returning the fire, and from now on bombs will be met with bombs.

Thus was the faked German attack on the German radio station at Gleiwitz, which, as we have seen, was carried out by S.S. men in Polish uniforms under the direction of Naujocks, used by the Chancellor of Germany as justification of his cold-blooded aggression against Poland. And indeed in its first communiqués the German High Command referred to its military operations as a “counterattack.” Even Weizsaecker did his best to perpetrate this shabby swindle. During the day he got off a circular telegram from the Foreign Office to all German diplomatic missions abroad advising them on the line they were to take.

In defense against Polish attacks, German troops moved into action against Poland at dawn today. This action is for the present not to be described as war, but merely as engagements which have been brought about by Polish attacks.1

Even the German soldiers, who could see for themselves who had done the attacking on the Polish border, were bombarded with Hitler’s lie. In a grandiose proclamation to the German Army on September 1, the Fuehrer said:

The Polish State has refused the peaceful settlement of relations which I desired, and has appealed to arms … A series of violations of the frontier, intolerable to a great Power, prove that Poland is no longer willing to respect the frontier of the Reich.

In order to put an end to this lunacy, I have no other choice than to meet force with force from now on.

Only once that day did Hitler utter the truth.

I am asking of no German man [he told the Reichstag] more than I myself was ready throughout four years to do … I am from now on just the first soldier of the German Reich. I have once more put on that coat that was most sacred and dear to me. I will not take it off again until victory is secured, or I will not survive the outcome.

In the end, this once, he would prove as good as his word. But no German I met in Berlin that day noticed that what the Leader was saying quite bluntly was that he could not face, not take, defeat should it come.

In his speech Hitler named Goering as his successor should anything happen to him. Hess, he added, would be next in line. “Should anything happen to Hess,” Hitler advised, “then by law the Senate will be called and will choose from its midst the most worthy—that is to say, the bravest—successor.” What law? What Senate? Neither existed!

Hitler’s relatively subdued manner at the Reichstag gave way to another and uglier mood as soon as he had returned to the Chancellery. The ubiquitous Dahlerus, in tow of Goering, found him there in an “exceedingly nervous and very agitated” state.

He told me [the Swedish mediator later testified] he had all along suspected that England wanted the war. He told me further that he would crush Poland and annex the whole country …

He grew more and more excited, and began to wave his arms as he shouted in my face: “If England wants to fight for a year, I shall fight for a year; if England wants to fight two years, I shall fight two years …” He paused and then yelled, his voice rising to a shrill scream and his arms milling wildly: “If England wants to fight for three years, I shall fight for three years …”

The movements of his body now began to follow those of his arms, and when he finally bellowed: “Und wenn es erforderlich ist, will ich zehn Jahre kaempfen” (“And if necessary, I will fight for ten years”) he brandished his fist and bent down so that it nearly touched the floor.2

Yet for all his hysteria Hitler was by no means convinced that he would have to fight Great Britain at all. It was now past noon, German armored columns were already several miles inside Poland and advancing rapidly and most of Poland’s cities, including Warsaw, had been bombed with considerable civilian casualties. But there was not a word from London or Paris that Britain and France were in any hurry to honor their word to Poland.

Their course seemed clear, but Dahlerus and Henderson appeared to be doing their best to confuse it.

At 10:30 A.M. the British ambassador telephoned a message to Halifax.

I understand [he said] that the Poles blew up the Dirschau bridge during the night.* And that fighting took place with the Danzigers. On receipt of this news, Hitler gave orders for the Poles to be driven back from the border line and to Goering for destruction of the Polish Air Force along the frontier.

Only at the end of his dispatch did Henderson add:

This information comes from Goering himself.

Hitler may ask to see me after Reichstag as a last effort to save the peace.3

What peace? Peace for Britain? For six hours Germany had been waging war—with all its military might—against Britain’s ally.

Hitler did not send for Henderson after his Reichstag speech, and the ambassador, who had accommodatingly passed along to London Goering’s lies about the Poles beginning the attack, became discouraged—but not completely discouraged. At 10:50 A.M. he telephoned a further message to Halifax. A new idea had sprung up in his fertile but confused mind.

I feel it my duty [he reported], however little prospect there may be of its realization, to express the belief that the only possible hope now for peace would be for Marshal Smigly-Rydz to announce his readiness to come immediately to Germany to discuss as soldier and plenipotentiary the whole question with Field Marshal Goering.4

It does not seem to have occurred to this singular British ambassador that Marshal Smigly-Rydz might have his hands full trying to repel the massive and unprovoked German attack, or that if he could break off and did come to Berlin as a “plenipotentiary” it would be equivalent, under the circumstances, to surrender. The Poles might be quickly beaten but they would not surrender.

Dahlerus was even more active than Henderson during this first day of the German attack on Poland. At 8 A.M. he had gone to see Goering, who told him that “war had broken out because the Poles had attacked the radio station at Gleiwitz and blown up a bridge near Dirschau.” The Swede immediately rang up the Foreign Office in London with the news.

“I informed somebody,” he later testified in cross-examination at Nuremberg, “that according to the information I had received the Poles had attacked, and they naturally wondered what was happening to me when I gave that information.”5 But after all, it was only what H. M. Ambassador in Berlin would be telephoning a couple of hours later.

A confidential British Foreign Office memorandum records the Swede’s call at 9:05 A.M. Aping Goering, Dahlerus insisted to London that “the Poles are sabotaging everything,” and that he had “evidence they never meant to attempt to negotiate.”6

At half after noon Dahlerus was on the long-distance phone again to the Foreign Office in London, and this time got Cadogan. He again blamed the Poles for sabotaging the peace by blowing the Dirschau bridge and suggested that he once again fly to London with Forbes. But the stern and unappeasing Cadogan had had about enough of Dahlerus now that the war which he had tried to prevent had come. He told the Swede that “nothing could now be done.”

But Cadogan was merely the permanent Undersecretary for Foreign Affairs, not even a member of the cabinet. Dahlerus insisted that his request be submitted to the cabinet itself, informing Cadogan haughtily that he would ring back in an hour. This he did, and got his answer.

Any idea of mediation [Cadogan said] while German troops are invading Poland is quite out of the question. The only way in which a world war can be stopped is (one) that hostilities be suspended, and (two) that German troops be immediately withdrawn from Polish territory.7

At 10 A.M. the Polish ambassador in London, Count Raczyński, had called on Lord Halifax and officially communicated to him the news of the German aggression, adding that “it was a plain case as provided for by the treaty.” The Foreign Secretary answered that he had no doubt of the facts. At 10:50 he summoned the German chargé d’affaires, Theodor Kordt, to the Foreign Office and asked him if he had any information. Kordt replied that he had neither information about a German attack on Poland nor any instructions. Halifax then declared that the reports which he had received “create a very serious situation.” But further than that he did not go. Kordt telephoned this information to Berlin at 11:45 A.M.

By noon, then, Hitler had reason to hope that Britain, though it considered the situation serious, might not go to war after all. But the hope was soon to be dashed.

At 7:15 P.M. a member of the British Embassy in Berlin telephoned the German Foreign Office and requested Ribbentrop to receive Henderson and Coulondre “on a matter of urgency as soon as possible.” The French Embassy made a similar request a few minutes later. Ribbentrop, having declined to meet the two ambassadors together, received Henderson at 9 P.M. and Coulondre an hour later. From the British ambassador he was handed a formal note from the British government.

… Unless the German Government are prepared [it said] to give His Majesty’s Government satisfactory assurances that the German Government have suspended all aggressive action against Poland and are prepared promptly to withdraw their forces from Polish territory, His Majesty’s Government will without hesitation fulfill their obligation to Poland.8

The French communication was in identical words.

To both ambassadors Ribbentrop replied that he would transmit their notes to Hitler, whereupon he launched into a lengthy dissertation declaring that “there was no question of German aggression” but of Polish aggression and repeating the by now somewhat stale he that “regular” Polish troops had attacked German soil on the previous day. Still, the diplomatic niceties were maintained. Sir Nevile Henderson did not fail to note in his dispatch that night describing the meeting that Ribbentrop had been “courteous and polite.” As the ambassador prepared to take his leave an argument arose as to whether the German Foreign Minister had gabbled the text of the German “proposals” to Poland at their stormy meeting two evenings before. Henderson said he had; Ribbentrop said he had read them “slowly and clearly and even given oral explanations of the main points so that he could suppose Henderson had understood everything.” It was an argument that would never be settled—but what difference did it make now?9

On the night of September 1, as the German armies penetrated further into Poland and the Luftwaffe bombed and bombed, Hitler knew from the Anglo–French notes that unless he stopped his armies and quickly withdrew them—which was unthinkable—he had a world war on his hands. Or did he still hope that night that his luck—his Munich luck—might hold? For his friend Mussolini, frightened by the advent of war and fearing that an overwhelming Anglo–French naval and military force might strike against Italy, was desperately trying to arrange another Munich.

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