5. The Prewar Series of Crises

BY EARLY 1938, Adolf Hitler had put the German house in order. He had assessed the opposition, internal and external, and found it weak and vacillating. He had retaken the Rhineland, and elicited no real response. He was now ready for greater things.

It is customary to look at the series of crises that preceded World War II, and blame them almost exclusively on Hitler and his ambitions. For nearly a generation after the war, the simplest explanation of why World War II happened was that Hitler caused it. It is only fair to point out that since the sixties there has been considerable challenge, and some revision, to this thesis. The challenge came with an intriguing book by the eminent British historian A. J. P. Taylor called The Origins of the Second World War. Taylor’s argument, somewhat oversimplified, was that Hitler was doing what politicians are supposed to do, i.e., he was asserting the interests of his state. It was therefore the duty of the other European politicians, especially Prime Minister Chamberlain in Britain and Premier Daladier in France, to assert the claims of their states equally forcefully. Taking the view that politics is basically amoral, there was little difference between Hitler and the others, and the basic fault—and therefore the blame for causing World War II—lay not in Hitler’s overassertion of Germany’s status but in Daladier and Chamberlain’s underassertion of France and Britain’s status. Needless to say, this view was widely attacked in Britain, France, and the United States. It was rather more welcome in Germany. Its importance lay in the fact that it did spur a great deal of argument, ranging from table-thumping to the more philosophical proposition that there are moral ends to politics after all, and out of this argument came a perhaps more balanced view of the causes, and especially their complexity, of World War II. One can still assert that Hitler did cause the war, but no longer so dogmatically or so unqualifiedly. He has become a cause rather than the cause.

The first overt external act on the road to war was the takeover of Austria, the Anschluss of early 1938. The nation of Austria was a strange creation, with a rather bizarre history. In 1272, at the end of the Great Interregnum in German history, the crown of the German empire was given to an obscure Austrian nobleman, Rudolf of Hapsburg. He and his descendants built up a great medieval empire, a conglomeration of peoples and territories that lasted until 1806 when Napoleon tore it apart. At its greatest extent, under Emperor Charles V in the early sixteenth century, the Hapsburg Empire ruled all of the German states, Hungary and part of the Danube Valley, the Low Countries, Spain, Spain’s territories in southern Italy, and the Spanish empire in the New World. By Napoleon’s day it had considerably shrunk, and the ruling Hapsburg at the time ended up as emperor of Austria-Hungary, an ethnic hodgepodge in the Danube Basin and the Balkans. During the 1848 revolutions and after, even this was transformed, becoming the Dual Monarchy, Empire of Austria and Kingdom of Hungary, with the intriguing title prefix, Kaiserlich und Koniglich—Imperial and Royal. The Austrian part of it was German, and the Hungarian part was essentially Slavic, though the Hungarians were Magyars.

Through the mid-nineteenth century, Austria was too weak to unify Germany under her leadership, but too strong to let anyone else do it in spite of her. This dilemma was resolved by Bismarck, who defeated Austria in 1866 and went on to pull Germany together under Prussian domination. At the end of World War I the Dual Monarchy collapsed; all the ethnic minorities seceded, then Hungary broke away, and finally, in a sort of ultimate revulsion, the Austrians seceded from their own empire. Thus there was a small German state to the south of Germany proper. The peace treaties after World War I saddled Austria with all the sins of the old empire before the war and further declared that Austria and Germany should never be united.

Adolf Hitler had been born an Austrian, and it was part of his policy right from the beginning to incorporate Austria in the Greater Reich. Through the Depression the same currents ran in Austria as elsewhere—the crash that set off the Depression actually occurred there—and there was an Austrian branch of the Nazi party, just as there were branches in other neighbors with German-speaking portions in their populations. In 1932, the League of Nations gave Austria a loan of several million dollars in return for an agreement that the country would not enter any political or economic union with Germany until 1952. The government, led by Chancellor Englebert Dollfuss, was faced with riots and violence caused chiefly by the Austrian Nazis, but by other extremist groups as well. By early 1934, Dollfuss was ruling by decree, and had dissolved all the political parties except his own, permanently alienating especially the Socialists, the last, because the strongest, group that might have withstood a Nazi takeover.

In July, there was an attempted Nazi coup, badly bungled, in which a group of Nazis seized the radio station in Vienna. Before being rounded up all they really managed to do was assassinate Chancellor Dollfuss. His place was taken by a supporter, Kurt von Schuschnigg, who continued the same policies and may well have been working toward a restoration of the exiled Hapsburgs. For a couple of years, largely under the tutelage of Mussolini, who did not want the European boat rocked while he was busy in Ethiopia, Austria and Germany got along, but by 1937, as Schuschnigg became more overtly pro-Hapsburg, Hitler reapplied the pressure, and affairs heated up again.

In February of 1938, Hitler summoned Schuschnigg to his private retreat at Berchtesgaden in the Bavarian Alps. Under pressure the Austrian succumbed to Hitler’s demands for better treatment for the Austrian Nazis and agreed to take one of their leaders, Arthur Seyss-Inquart, into the cabinet. Through the rest of the month Hitler kept up an intense form of psychological warfare, and the situation inside Austria became increasingly tense. The Nazis demanded union with Germany. In desperation, Schuschnigg called for a plebiscite on the question of Austrian independence, whereupon Hitler lost what little patience he possessed, delivered an ultimatum, and began concentrating his troops on the frontier. Austria was in chaos, with riots everywhere and the government completely unable to preserve order. On March 11, Schuschnigg resigned, Seyss-Inquart replaced him as Chancellor, and the next day German troops crossed the frontier. The day after that, Seyss-Inquart proclaimed union with Germany and on the 14th, Adolf Hitler rode in triumph through the streets where he had once lived in flophouses. The local boy had made good.

After a month of unrestrained violence against Jews and anyone else who dared speak against the Nazis or union with Germany, there was a plebiscite; 99.75 percent of the voters announced themselves in favor of union.

Britain and France lodged the obligatory formal protests, but they did no more. They were busy with the neutrality patrols around Spain and the complications arising therefrom, and the problems of what Japan was doing in Asia, and they were again unwilling to act. It was almost, if not quite, the height of the movement to “appease” the dictators, the theory being that if they were given everything they asked for, eventually they would run out of things for which to ask.

The big loser was Italy. Mussolini had several times taken Austria under his protection; it was no part of his plan to have a major power at the northern end of the Alpine passes. But he too was busy in Spain, and there was little he could do about affairs except put the best face he could muster on them. Il Duce sent his warmest congratulations to der Fuehrer.

The slightest look at the map would show that the next target had to be Czechoslovakia. With Austria now an integral part of Germany, the western part of Czechoslovakia was surrounded by German territory. The question was, would there be another target, or was Hitler satisfied? and if there was to be another one, could he take on the Czechs anyway? because Czechoslovakia was a different prospect from Austria.

The Czechs were one of the successor states of the Hapsburg Empire. The state had been formed out of the most valuable parts of the old empire and included basically, from west to east, the Sudetenland, which was the mountainous rim around the western end of the Bohemian basin; then there was Bohemia itself; then Moravia; and then Slovakia. Essentially, when the empire broke up, the South Slavs had taken the southern Slavic areas and formed Yugoslavia, and the Czechs had taken the rest of the Slavic areas to form Czechoslovakia. The population was about 15,000,000 including substantial numbers of non-Czech minorities, especially Germans in the Sudetenland, and some Poles and Magyars as well here and there.

In spite of its ethnic complexity, Czechoslovakia, led by its founder T. G. Masaryk until his death in 1937, was viewed as the most viable democratic state in central Europe. It was certainly the most prosperous and the most industrialized. There was substantial heavy industry, the most famous being the Skoda works which were the major military suppliers to the old empire, and in the interwar years produced some of the best weaponry in Europe.

The Czechs had fortified the Sudetenland, the mountainous western boundary. They had a good army, bigger than the German; they were well supplied with tanks and artillery, and they had a useful little air force. They were allied with Rumania, Yugoslavia, and most important, France, and through France with Poland as well. They had an arbitration agreement with Germany, and in 1935 they signed a mutual-assistance pact with Russia, which obligated Russia to come to Czechoslovakia’s aid if France did so. This agreement resulted from a pact France signed with Russia earlier in 1935, when she began to be even more worried than usual about Germany; the flaw in the treaty lay in the fact that Russia and Czechoslovakia had no contiguous territory, and to come to her aid, the Russians would need transit rights from her neighbors.

The Czechs nonetheless were buttressed by their own resources, as well as their allies. They were committed to western-style democracy and to their own independence.

Most of them.

The minorities presented a problem, and the biggest minority, and therefore the biggest problem, was the Sudeten Germans. For centuries German had dominated Slav, and the Sudetenlanders did not like being a minority among people they had customarily looked down on. There was, of course, a Sudeten Nazi Party, led by Konrad Henlein. The Czechs had tried to bolster Austrian independence, and this, and their deal with Russia, drew blasts from Hitler’s minister of propaganda, Josef Goebbels, even before the Anschluss. Henlein’s locals responded with riots and tales of outrage. The Sudetenland Germans rapidly became an “oppressed suffering minority,” intolerable to German sensibilities.

The Czechs took a jaundiced view of all this nonsense, but the Anschluss changed the strategic situation immeasurably to their disadvantage. On the day Hitler paraded through Vienna, France and Russia both categorically restated their intention to stand behind Czechoslovakia. Whether they would do so or not remained to be seen; what was already certain was that geographically Czechoslovakia was caught between the upper and nether millstones.

In April, Henlein produced a series of demands known as the Carlsbad program; these would practically have turned the state over to the Nazis. France, and Britain as well, urged that they be accepted. The Czech government in Prague turned them down. Hitler fulminated, and there were riots in the Sudetenland. The Czechs replied by mobilizing 400,000 men. France and Britain therefore announced they would support her, and Hitler was constrained to back down. He was furious, but the “May crisis” was over.

This was in the spring. The summer was tortuous, with tension increasing daily, and negotiations seeming to get nowhere. Gradually through these negotiations the British moved to center stage.

British involvement happened in a curious way. Britain was not allied with the central European powers and she had hitherto played a somewhat detached role, generally seconding but not fully associating herself with France. However, the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, was anxious to assume a major role in foreign policy. He was a man about whom opinions still differ radically; some authorities see him as a great figure who deliberately sacrificed himself to gain precious time for Britain’s rearmament; others see him as a meddling amateur who lied to his own Foreign Office, and who sacrificed not himself to his country but Czechoslovakia to his vanity. In either case, he was heaven-sent for France.

The dominant wish in France was that this cup might pass from them. They were re-equipping their army, slowly, and they were obsessed by their fears of Germany, whose propaganda claims they tended to accept uncritically. Though they were at this time far stronger than Germany, they believed—and that is what counts—that they were far weaker. What the French government of Premier Daladier really wanted was someone to get it off the hook. Chamberlain volunteered.

By the end of August tempers were short, and the crisis was reaching a flash point. For summer maneuvers the Germans called up 750,000 men. Hitler toured the new fortifications in the west of Germany. The Royal Navy for its summer tour did a practice mobilization, and then kept the fleet at war readiness. Henlein rejected proposed concessions by the Czech government; early in September, France called a million reservists to the colors. In a speech at Nuremberg, Hitler declared he would not tolerate the Czech oppression of the Sudetenland much longer. Europe teetered on the edge.

The result was not war, but a personal meeting between Chamberlain and Hitler. With the relieved concurrence of the French government the British Prime Minister suggested that he fly to Germany and talk to Hitler face to face. This was unprecedented “summit” diplomacy for those days. The Prime Minister had never even flown before. He believed the effort would demonstrate his willingness to go to any lengths to be reasonable, and the whole exercise was given that air in the western press. Hitler took it all as a sign of cowardliness and weakness.

The two met at Berchtesgaden on September 15. Hitler demanded annexation of the Sudetenland and said he was ready to fight. Chamberlain went home, met with the French in London on the 18th, and the two governments jointly advised the Czechs to accept. The Czechs suggested arbitration according to the Locarno treaty. Britain and France refused it; they had now put themselves in a position of doing Hitler’s dirty work for him. Finally, on the 21st, the Czech government gave in. Poland and Hungary both sent in their demands for territory too.

On a winning streak, Hitler then upped his bid. He now demanded immediate cession of all the territory he claimed, no destruction or removal of military property, and the possibility of more territory to come. Chamberlain flew back to Germany, met him again at Bad Godesberg on September 22 and 23, and came home thinking that war was imminent.

Since everyone else thought the same thing, it is appropriate to examine the relative military strengths at this time. The British Army was virtually negligible, able to muster no more than four divisions. There was the navy, however, and there was for the period a respectable air force; rearmament was proceeding apace, if not fast enough to satisfy the service chiefs. The French Army consisted of more than a million men, with about sixty-odd divisions regularly formed. Statistics vary so much that it is difficult to be more precise. In tanks and aircraft France was stronger than Germany. The Czechoslovakian Army was 800,000 strong, organized in forty-some divisions. Its tanks and aircraft were good, and so was its morale. The Russians were an unknown quantity, and remained that way, partly because the other central European states announced they would not allow transit rights, and partly because the Western Powers seemed to have a major disinclination to consult with them.

The German Army consisted of forty-eight divisions, in various stages of training. Three were armored, four more motorized. Three would have to be left in East Prussia; that left forty-five to guard the western frontier and to overrun Czechoslovakia. Hitler proposed to keep only five regular divisions on the Western Front. His armored and motorized formations, the spearhead of his operation, had been rendered virtually helpless by breakdowns in their occupation of Austria, which had been absolutely unopposed. Even with the minimal forces he was going to leave in the west, he would be outnumbered by the Czechs alone.

As if this were not enough, his senior generals were plotting to overthrow him. Leading figures in the high command, such as General Ludwig Beck and General Wilhelm Adam, the commander-designate of the Western Front, tried desperately through August to convince him that he could not survive an attack on Czechoslovakia. When he refused to listen, other generals began plotting a coup. Led by Halder, Chief of the General Staff, they planned to seize Berlin and displace Hitler the moment conflict actually broke out. Not only did they plan to do it, they told the British they planned to do it. They sent General Ewald von Kleist-Schmenzin to London. He saw Winston Churchill, then no more than a leading anti-appeaser in the Commons, and officials at the Foreign Office. Later they sent Dr. Erich Kordt, chef de cabinet to the Foreign Minister, von Ribbentrop. He saw the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax. All the generals asked was that Britain stand firm, and at the right moment, they would do the rest.

Instead, Chamberlain caved in. He and Daladier appealed to Hitler for a conference, so that the already-agreed-to cession might be done without force. Mussolini added his pleas, and even President Roosevelt sent a message. Hitler let himself be persuaded, and agreed to a meeting at Munich on September 29.

There Chamberlain and Daladier met with Hitler, Mussolini, and their two Foreign Ministers, von Ribbentrop and Count Ciano, Mussolini’s son-in-law. While the Czech ministers, unconsulted, waited nervously in an anteroom, the Western Powers signed away everything Hitler wanted. The agreement was completed just after midnight of the 29th-30th, and during the course of that next long day the Czech government acceded to it.

In a physical sense, the agreement was carried through during the next few weeks. Germany got the Sudetenland and about three and a half million Czechoslovaks, most of whom were ethnic German. Subsequently, Poland took several hundred square miles and about a quarter of a million people, and Hungary got another million and about 5,000 square miles. Czechoslovakia became a truncated, indefensible piece of territory in the midst of a German-dominated central Europe.

The initial reception to the agreement was interesting. Chamberlain had been told by his military chiefs that he had to buy time; Britain simply could not fight. He came home convinced that he had won a great diplomatic victory; he stepped off the airplane, waving his umbrella and his little slip of paper, and assured the cheering crowds that he had achieved “peace in our time.” Daladier had fewer illusions. He knew his country had suffered a crushing setback, and when he flew home to Paris, seeing masses awaiting him at the airport, he feared for his own safety. Instead of a lynch mob, he found a wildly jubilant and profoundly grateful crowd. So did Mussolini; he went home by train, and when he pulled into the first station on the Italian side of the frontier he too was met by cheering throngs. Disgusted with this lack of martial Fascist ardor, he turned to Ciano and said, “Look at that! The Italians need a good kick in the gut!”

Hitler was equally annoyed. From some deep welling need in his soul, he had wanted a war. Not knowing that his generals might have tried to overthrow him had he got it, he was disappointed. He returned to Berlin, got out the maps, and started looking at the next target.

Popular opinion on Munich soon began to veer, however. The Little Entente was now ruined, and France’s carefully constructed diplomatic web in central Europe was torn to shreds. The Franco-Russian alliance of 1935 was also a dead letter; unconsulted and unconsidered, the Russians were left to draw their own conclusions about the value of alliances with the West. Within a couple of months the triumph of appeasement at Munich had turned to gall, and the names “Munich” and “appeasement” ever since have been synonymous with weakness and disaster.

As soon as the euphoria wore off, it became obvious that war was not far away. In the last frantic months of peace, there was a general scurrying about to tidy up affairs before the storm would come. Munich was like the gust before the hurricane; people ran around to get the garage doors and windows closed and to fasten down the shutters. For the next several months the gusts came more quickly, with varying intensity, until the storm broke.

Poland and Russia renewed their nonaggression pact. Italy turned on anti-French demonstrations and moved more overtly into the German orbit. In the Western Hemisphere the American republics passed the Lima Declaration, declaring their solidarity and opposition to foreign intervention. The United States pressed for stronger wording against totalitarianism but lost the argument. Britain and France did their best to re-equip their forces.

The initiative still lay with Hitler, and he did not wait long to use it. In March of 1939, he moved in and took over the rump of Czechoslovakia. There had been a Fascist-orientated separatist movement in Slovakia, led by the premier, Msgr. Tiso. When the Prague government deposed Tiso, he appealed to Hitler. Hitler summoned the Czech President, Hacha, to Berlin. The result was that he turned “the fate of the Czech people…trustingly” over to Hitler. On March 15, Bohemia and Moravia became German protectorates, and were occupied by German troops. The next day Slovakia also came under German protection, and Czechoslovakia was gone. Germany now surrounded Poland on three sides, as she had previously done with Czechoslovakia, and the southeastern-most point of her territory was within a hundred miles of the Rumanian oil fields—and within a hundred miles of Russia.

There was panic in central Europe, among governments and peoples both. Many Czechs fled for the frontiers, and there would be Czech units later in the French Army and the Royal Air Force. They were the lucky ones who got away. In the conquered country itself, the Germans immediately took measures against the Jews and prominent supporters of the former regime. Tortures, imprisonments, and executions became the order of the day. This was the first time the Germans had brought large numbers of “non-Aryans” under their control; if the savagery did not reach the systematic depths it would later achieve, that could be no consolation to the early victims of it.

At the same time that Czechoslovakia was taken over, Hitler put pressure on the Poles. They were next. Poland has no really defensible frontiers, which has given rise to the aphorism, “Poland has no history, only neighbors.” In the Middle Ages, the Baltic shore of Poland was settled and taken over by a German crusading organization, the Teutonic Knights. This area became the state of Prussia, later dynastically united with Germany by the Hohenzollern rulers of Brandenburg, the last reigning incumbent of which was Kaiser Wilhelm II. It was an aim of German policy to unite Prussia with the main part of Germany, and in the late eighteenth century, Germany, Russia, and Austria between them partitioned Poland out of existence. At the end of World War I Poland reemerged phoenix-like from the ashes, and was set up once again as an independent state. So that she might have access to the sea, her boundaries were extended to include the mouth of her main river, the Vistula. This “Polish Corridor” cut Prussia off from Germany once again. All of this was recognized at Versailles, and indeed, historically, it was perfectly just. As a concession to the Germans, the city of Danzig at the mouth of the Vistula was set up as a free city under League supervision.

Even before Czechoslovakia was digested, Hitler was demanding adjustment of the corridor and of the status of Danzig. He also annexed the city of Memel, at the eastern end of Prussia, between it and Lithuania. With the horrible example of Czechoslovakia before them as the fate of those who negotiated with Hitler, the Poles rejected his demands. Poland always had illusions about her own power and weight, and she was determined to stand firm. She also had an unconditional guarantee from Britain and France.

The scales had at last fallen from Chamberlain’s eyes. Whatever else he was or was not, Chamberlain was an English gentleman. He had believed Hitler’s protestations that all he was interested in was reclaiming those Germans unfortunate enough to live under the domination of foreigners. But when Hitler took over Slavic Bohemia, Moravia, and Slovakia, Chamberlain woke up with a start; Hitler, whatever else he was or was not, was not a gentleman. At the end of March, Britain and France gave Poland their guarantee that they would come to her aid if she were attacked.

This could hardly be expected to deter Hitler, since they had also said they would support Czechoslovakia; he could not know that this time they meant it. He continued his agitation and his demands, and through the summer of 1939 the situation became increasingly tense.

The big prize for the summer was not really Poland. To most people, war was now a foregone conclusion; the only remaining question was who would fight it and how. Once again it was a matter of geography. Poland had an army of about a million men, not too well equipped by the standards of the time, and a much less formidable force than the Czechs had been. If war broke out, they could hope only to hold on long enough and keep the Germans busy enough so that France and Britain could invade Germany and topple her from the west.

Unfortunately, France and Britain did not plan to invade Germany from the west. The British had no army that could do it, the French, who did have the army, planned to fight their next war in comfort behind the shelter of their fortified lines and their neighbors’ frontiers. Who then, was going to bail out Poland? The answer could only be Russia, and that answer was, like the certainty of war, obvious to everyone but the Poles. They hated the Russians more than they feared the Germans.

Both sides angled for the support of Russia. On the surface, France and Britain should have gotten it. The whole tenor of nazism, and its main stalking horse throughout its existence, had been hatred and fear of bolshevism. The two were avowed and inveterate enemies. Yet the skill with which Hitler courted Stalin was matched only by the ineptitude of the western nations. France sent a general and Britain sent an admiral, neither of them leading figures, by slow boat to Russia. Through the summer, negotiations dragged on; Russia wanted major commitments, a solid military alliance, a free hand in the Baltic states, and she also had to have the acquiescence of the Poles before she could come to their help. The Poles were extremely reluctant to give in, and neither France nor Britain pressed with any real sense of urgency. They too were gulled by the fact that an alternative arrangement seemed unthinkable.

But Hitler was not. Why not a temporary alliance with Russia? Even though he officially hated bolshevism, there was nothing to say he could not use Russia if that appeared desirable. Unlike the Allies, he pulled out all the stops. Instead of minor military figures, Russia got a full-scale visit from the German Foreign Minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop.

Agitation in Danzig and along the Corridor reached a crescendo in late August. With the world expecting war at any moment, Hitler and Stalin dropped their joint bomb. On August 21, it was announced that Germany and Russia were concluding a nonaggression pact; it was signed in Moscow two days later.

In the West this was regarded with horror as a typical example of Communist duplicity. From Stalin’s point of view it was far different; he was faced with a simple either-or proposition: either he could ally with Britain and France, in which case there would be a war, a war that Russia was expected to fight while Britain and France sat and waited it out, after which, when Germany and Russia had destroyed each other, France and Britain would move in and pick up the pieces; or, he could make a deal with Hitler, they could divide Poland between them, Hitler would (probably) turn west, and Germany, France, and Britain would fight it out, after which Stalin would move in and pick up the pieces. However distressing the course of European history since 1939, Stalin can hardly be blamed for making the choice he did. Britain and France wanted to use him to gain time and to fight their war; he wanted to use Britain and France to gain time and to fight his war—and he did.

Not only that, but it is possible his deal enabled Russia to survive the ordeal that lay ahead. Part of the pact was a secret agreement that Poland would be partitioned between Russia and Germany. This was carried out, and it had the effect of moving the Russian frontier more than a hundred miles west into Poland. Some writers claim that without that extra hundred-mile cushion, the German offensive against Russia in 1941 would have succeeded, and Russia would have been destroyed. It may be, then, paradoxically, that the deal that enabled Hitler to defeat Poland cost him the war.

The diplomats were practically done now. Men in Feldgrau and khaki were moving to the forefront. Roosevelt made a general appeal to European leaders to negotiate, to conciliate, to wait, but it fell on deaf ears. In London, Parliament met and voted all but dictatorial powers to the government; the fleet put to sea. Poland called up her reserves; France manned the Maginot Line. The Wehrmacht massed troops in the borders of East Prussia and down in newly won Slovakia. On the 29th, Hitler delivered an ultimatum to the Polish government, with a twenty-four-hour time limit. It was a sham, and the movement orders had already been issued; the troops were ready to go, the Luftwaffe bombed up and waiting to pounce. The Polish government issued mobilization orders on August 30. Hitler sent a last demand and the telegraph wires were shut down before he could receive an answer. The German attack began at daylight on the first of September.

There was still a last-minute attempt to avoid the unavoidable. Britain and France, having guaranteed Poland their support if she were attacked, still tried to escape the snare. They mobilized but said they would negotiate if the Germans pulled back. There was a final flurry of notes, but while the Panzers raced across the Polish plains and the Luftwaffe swooped out of the skies, the hours, then minutes, ran out. At 11:15 on the morning of the 3rd, a tired Chamberlain announced to Great Britain that she was now at war. As he finished his short speech the air raid sirens began to wail. At 10:20, the French ambassador delivered France’s ultimatum to von Ribbentrop. It expired at five that afternoon, and Daladier told the Chamber and the nation that France too was at war with Germany.

When the news of Britain and France’s action was finally given to Hitler, he listened to his interpreter translate the phrases of diplomacy. He sat slumped down in his chair, silent for a few moments. He looked up, and said, “Well…what do we do now?” Europe slid over the edge of the cliff.

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