Military history


The Darkening Scene, 1934

Spring Warnings — The German Blood Purge of June 30 — The End of Disarmament — The Murder of Doctor Dollfuss, July 25 — The Death of Hindenburg — Hitler Head of the German State, August 1 — The Italian Dilemma — The Murder of King Alexander and M. Barthou at Marseilles, October 9 — MLaval, French Foreign Minister, November — Italian Abyssinian Clash at Wal-Wal, December — Franco-Italian Agreement, January 61935 — The Saar Plebiscite, January 13, 1935.

HITLER’S ACCESSION to the Chancellorship in 1933 had not been regarded with enthusiasm in Rome. Nazism was viewed as a crude and brutalised version of the Fascist theme. The ambitions of a Greater Germany towards Austria and in Southeastern Europe were well known. Mussolini foresaw that in neither of these regions would Italian interests coincide with those of the new Germany. Nor had he long to wait for confirmation.

* * * * *

The acquisition of Austria by Germany was one of Hitler’s most cherished ambitions. The first page of Mein Kampf contains the sentence, “German Austria must return to the great German Motherland.” From the moment, therefore, of the acquisition of power in January, 1933, the Nazi German Government cast its eyes upon Vienna. Hitler could not afford as yet to clash with Mussolini, whose interest in Austria had been loudly proclaimed. Even infiltration and underground activities had to be applied with caution by a Germany as yet militarily weak. Pressure on Austria, however, began in the first few months. Unceasing demands were made on the Austrian Government to force members of the satellite Austrian Nazi Party both into the Cabinet and into key posts in the Administration. Austrian Nazis were trained in an Austrian legion organised in Bavaria. Bomb outrages on the railways and at tourist centres, German airplanes showering leaflets over Salzburg and Innsbruck, disturbed the daily life of the Republic. The Austrian Chancellor Dollfuss was equally opposed both by Socialist pressure within and external German designs against Austrian independence. Nor was this the only menace to the Austrian State. Following the evil example of their German neighbours, the Austrian Socialists had built up a private army, with which to override the decision of the ballot box. Both dangers loomed upon Dollfuss during 1933. The only quarter to which he could turn for protection and whence he had already received assurance of support was Fascist Italy. In August, 1933, Dollfuss met Mussolini at Riccione. A close personal and political understanding was reached between them. Dollfuss, who believed that Italy would hold the ring, felt strong enough to move against one set of his opponents – the Austrian Socialists.

In January, 1934, Suvich, Mussolini’s principal adviser on foreign affairs, visited Vienna as a gesture of warning to Germany. On January 21, he made the following public statement:

The importance of Austria, due to her position in the heart of Central Europe and in the Danube Basin, far exceeds, as is well known, her territorial and numerical size. If she is to fulfil in the interests of all the mission accorded her by centuries-old tradition and geographical situation, the normal conditions of independence and peaceful life must first of all be secured. That is the standpoint which Italy has long maintained in regard to both political and economic conditions on the basis of unchangeable principles.

Three weeks later, the Dollfuss Government took action against the Socialist organisations of Vienna. The Heimwehr under Major Fey, belonging to Dollfuss’s own party, received orders to disarm the equivalent and equally illegal body controlled by the Austrian Socialists. The latter resisted forcibly, and on February 12 street fighting broke out in the capital. Within a few hours the Socialist forces were broken. This event not only brought Dollfuss closer to Italy, but strengthened him in the next stage of his task against the Nazi penetration and conspiracy. On the other hand, many of the defeated Socialists or Communists swung over to the Nazi camp in their bitterness. In Austria as in Germany the Catholic-Socialist feud helped the Nazis.

* * * * *

Until the middle of 1934, the control of events was still largely in the hands of His Majesty’s Government without the risk of war. They could at any time, in concert with France and through the agency of the League of Nations, have brought an overwhelming power to bear upon the Hitler Movement, about which Germany was profoundly divided. This would have involved no bloodshed. But this phase was passing. An armed Germany under Nazi control was approaching the threshold. And yet, incredible though it may seem, far into this cardinal year Mr. MacDonald, armed with Mr. Baldwin’s political power, continued to work for the disarmament of France. I cannot but quote the unavailing protest which I made in Parliament on February 7:

What happens, for instance, if, after we have equalised and reduced the army of France to the level of that of Germany, and got an equality for Germany, and with all the reactions which will have followed in the sentiment of Europe upon such a change, Germany then proceeds to say, “How can you keep a great nation of seventy millions in a position in which it is not entitled to have a navy equal to the greatest of the fleets upon the seas?” You will say, “No; we do not agree. Armies – they belong to other people. Navies – that question affects Britain’s interests and we are bound to say, ‘No.’” But what position shall we be in to say that “No”?

Wars come very suddenly. I have lived through a period when one looked forward, as we do now, with great anxiety and uncertainty to what would happen in the future. Suddenly something did happen – tremendous, swift, overpowering, irresistible. Let me remind the House of the sort of thing that happened in 1914. There was absolutely no quarrel between Germany and France. One July afternoon the German Ambassador drove down to the Quai d’Orsay and said to the French Prime Minister: “We have been forced to mobilise against Russia, and war will be declared. What is to be the position of France?” The French Premier made the answer which his Cabinet had agreed upon, that France would act in accordance with what she considered to be her own interests. The Ambassador said, “You have an alliance with Russia, have you not?” “Quite so,” said the French Premier. And that was the process by which, in a few minutes, the area of the struggle, already serious in the East, was enormously widened and multiplied by the throwing-in of the two great nations of the West on either side. But sometimes even a declaration of neutrality does not suffice. On this very occasion, as we now know, the German Ambassador was authorised by his Government, in case the French did not do their duty by their Russian ally, in case they showed any disposition to back out of the conflict which had been resolved on by Germany, to demand that the fortresses of Toul and Verdun should be handed over to German troops as a guarantee that the French, having declared neutrality, would not change their mind at a subsequent moment….

We may ourselves, in the lifetime of those who are here, if we are not in a proper state of security, be confronted on some occasion with a visit from an Ambassador, and may have to give an answer, and if that answer is not satisfactory, within the next few hours the crash of bombs exploding in London and the cataracts of masonry and fire and smoke will warn us of any inadequacy which has been permitted in our aerial defences. We are vulnerable as we have never been before. I have often heard criticisms of the Liberal Government before the war…. A far graver case rests upon those who now hold power if, by any chance, against our wishes and against our hopes, trouble should come.

Not one of the lessons of the past has been learned, not one of them has been applied, and the situation is incomparably more dangerous. Then we had the Navy and no air menace. Then the Navy was the “sure shield” of Britain…. We cannot say that now. This cursed, hellish invention and development of war from the air has revolutionised our position. We are not the same kind of country we used to be when we were an island, only twenty years ago.

I then asked for three definite decisions to be taken without delay. For the Army: the reorganisation of our civil factories, so that they could be turned over rapidly to war purposes, should be begun in Britain, as all over Europe. For the Navy we should regain freedom of design. We should get rid of this London Treaty which had crippled us in building the kind of ships we wanted, and had stopped the United States from building a great battleship which she probably needed, and to which we should not have had the slightest reason to object. We should be helped in doing this by the fact that another of the parties to the Treaty 1 was resolved to regain her freedom too. Thirdly, the air. We ought to have an air force as strong as the air force of France or Germany, whichever was the stronger. The Government commanded overwhelming majorities in both branches of the Legislature, and nothing would be denied to them. They had only to make their proposals with confidence and conviction for the safety of the country, and their countrymen would sustain them.

* * * * *

There was at this moment a flicker of European unity against the German menace. On February 17, 1934, the British, French, and Italian Governments made a common declaration upon the maintenance of Austrian independence. On March 14, I spoke again in Parliament:

The awful danger of our present foreign policy is that we go on perpetually asking the French to weaken themselves. And what do we say is the inducement? We say, “Weaken yourselves,” and we always hold out the hope that if they do it and get into trouble, we will then in some way or other go to their aid, although we have nothing with which to go to their aid. I cannot imagine a more dangerous policy. There is something to be said for isolation; there is something to be said for alliances. But there is nothing to be said for weakening the Power on the Continent with whom you would be in alliance, and then involving yourself more [deeply] in Continental tangles in order to make it up to them. In that way you have neither the one thing nor the other; you have the worst of both worlds.

The Romans had a maxim, “Shorten your weapons and lengthen your frontiers.” But our maxim seems to be, “Diminish your weapons and increase your obligations.” Aye, and diminish the weapons of your friends.

* * * * *

Italy now made a final attempt to carry out the aforesaid Roman maxim. On March 17, Italy, Hungary, and Austria signed the so-called Rome Protocols, providing for mutual consultation in the event of a threat to any of the three parties. But Hitler was growing steadily stronger, and in May and June subversive activities increased throughout Austria. Dollfuss immediately sent reports on these terrorist acts to Suvich with a note deploring their depressive effect upon Austrian trade and tourists.

It was with this dossier in his hand that Mussolini went to Venice on June 14 to meet Hitler for the first time. The German Chancellor stepped from his airplane in a brown mackintosh and Homburg hat into an array of sparkling Fascist uniforms, with a resplendent and portly Duce at their head. As Mussolini caught sight of his guest, he murmured to his aide, “Non mi piace.” (“I don’t like the look of him.”) At this strange meeting, only a general exchange of ideas took place, with mutual lectures upon the virtues of dictatorship on the German and Italian models. Mussolini was clearly perplexed both by the personality and language of his guest. He summed up his final impression in these words, “A garrulous monk.” He did, however, extract some assurances of relaxation of German pressure upon Dollfuss. Ciano told the journalists after the meeting, “You’ll see. Nothing more will happen.”

But the pause in German activities which followed was due not to Mussolini’s appeal, but to Hitler’s own internal pre-occupations.

* * * * *

The acquisition of power had opened a deep divergence between the Fuehrer and many of those who had borne him forward. Under Roehm’s leadership the S.A. increasingly represented the more revolutionary elements of the party. There were senior members of the party, such as Gregor Strasser, ardent for social revolution, who feared that Hitler in arriving at the first place would simply be taken over by the existing hierarchy, the Reichswehr, the bankers, and the industrialists. He would not have been the first revolutionary leader to kick down the ladder by which he had risen to exalted heights. To the rank and file of the S.A. (Brown Shirts) the triumph of January, 1933, was meant to carry with it the freedom to pillage, not only the Jews and profiteers, but also the well-to-do, established classes of society. Rumours of a great betrayal by their Leader soon began to spread in certain circles of the party. Chief-of-Staff Roehm acted on this impulse with energy. In January, 1933, the S.A. had been four hundred thousand strong. By the spring of 1934, he had recruited and organised nearly three million men. Hitler in his new situation was uneasy at the growth of this mammoth machine, which, while professing fervent loyalty to his name, and being for the most part deeply attached to him, was beginning to slip from his own personal control. Hitherto he had possessed a private army. Now he had the national army. He did not intend to exchange the one for the other. He wanted both, and to use each, as events required, to control the other. He had now, therefore, to deal with Roehm. “I am resolved,” he declared to the leaders of the S.A. in these days, “to repress severely any attempt to overturn the existing order. I will oppose with the sternest energy a second revolutionary wave, for it would bring with it inevitable chaos. Whoever raises his head against the established authority of the State will be severely treated, whatever his position.”

In spite of his misgivings Hitler was not easily convinced of the disloyalty of his comrade of the Munich Putsch, who, for the last seven years, had been the Chief of Staff of his Brown Shirt Army. When, in December, 1933, the unity of the party with the State had been proclaimed, Roehm became a member of the German Cabinet. One of the consequences of the union of the party with the State was to be the merging of the Brown Shirts with the Reichswehr. The rapid progress of national rearmament forced the issue of the status and control of all the German armed forces into the forefront of politics. In February, 1934, Mr. Eden arrived in Berlin, and in the course of conversation, Hitler agreed provisionally to give certain assurances about the non-military character of the S.A. Roehm was already in constant friction with General von Blomberg, the Chief of the General Staff. He now feared the sacrifice of the party army he had taken so many years to build, and in spite of warnings of the gravity of his conduct, he published on April 18 an unmistakable challenge:

The Revolution we have made is not a national revolution, but a National-Socialist Revolution. We would even underline this last word, “Socialist.” The only rampart which exists against reaction is represented by our assault groups, for they are the absolute incarnation of the revolutionary idea. The militant in the Brown Shirt from the first day pledged himself to the path of revolution, and he will not deviate by a hairbreadth until our ultimate goal has been achieved.

He omitted, on this occasion, the “Heil Hitler!” which had been the invariable conclusion of Brown Shirt harangues.

During the course of April and May, Blomberg continually complained to Hitler about the insolence and activities of the S.A. The Fuehrer had to choose between the generals who hated him and the Brown Shirt thugs to whom he owed so much. He chose the generals. At the beginning of June, Hitler, in a five-hour conversation, made a last effort to conciliate and come to terms with Roehm. But with this abnormal fanatic, devoured by ambition, no compromise was possible. The mystic hierarchic Greater Germany, of which Hitler dreamed, and the Proletarian Republic of the People’s Army, desired by Roehm, were separated by an impassable gulf.

Within the framework of the Brown Shirts, there had been formed a small and highly trained élite, wearing black uniforms and known as the S.S., or later as Black Shirts. These units were intended for the personal protection of the Fuehrer and for special and confidential tasks. They were commanded by an ex-unsuccessful poultry farmer, Heinrich Himmler. Foreseeing the impending clash between Hitler and the Army on the one hand, and Roehm and the Brown Shirts on the other, Himmler took care to carry the S.S. into Hitler’s camp. On the other hand, Roehm had supporters of great influence within the party, who, like Gregor Strasser, saw their ferocious plans for social revolution being cast aside. The Reichswehr also had its rebels. Ex-Chancellor von Schleicher had never forgiven his disgrace in January, 1933, and the failure of the Army Chiefs to choose him as successor to Hindenburg. In a clash between Roehm and Hitler, Schleicher saw an opportunity. He was imprudent enough to drop hints to the French Ambassador in Berlin that the fall of Hitler was not far off. This repeated the action he had taken in the case of Bruening. But the times had become more dangerous.

It will long be disputed in Germany whether Hitler was forced to strike by the imminence of the Roehm plot, or whether he and the generals, fearing what might be coming, resolved on a clean-cut liquidation while they had the power. Hitler’s interest and that of the victorious faction was plainly to establish the case for a plot. It is improbable that Roehm and the Brown Shirts had actually got as far as this. They were a menacing movement rather than a plot, but at any moment this line might have been crossed. It is certain they were drawing up their forces. It is also certain they were forestalled.

Events now moved rapidly. On June 25, the Reichswehr was confined to barracks, and ammunition was issued to the Black Shirts. On the opposite side the Brown Shirts were ordered to stand in readiness, and Roehm with Hitler’s consent called a meeting for June 30 of all their senior leaders to meet at Wiessee in the Bavarian Lakes. Hitler received warning of grave danger on the twenty-ninth. He flew to Godesberg, where he was joined by Goebbels who brought alarming news of impending mutiny in Berlin. According to Goebbels, Roehm’s adjutant, Karl Ernst, had been given orders to attempt a rising. This seems unlikely. Ernst was actually at Bremen, about to embark from that port on his honeymoon.

On this information, true or false, Hitler took instant decisions. He ordered Goering to take control in Berlin. He boarded his airplane for Munich, resolved to arrest his main opponents personally. In this life-or-death climax, as it had now become, he showed himself a terrible personality. Plunged in dark thought, he sat in the co-pilot’s seat throughout the journey. The plane landed at an airfield near Munich at four o’clock in the morning of June 30. Hitler had with him, besides Goebbels, about a dozen of his personal bodyguard. He drove to the Brown House in Munich, summoned the leaders of the local S.A. to his presence, and placed them under arrest. At six o’clock, with Goebbels and his small escort only, he motored to Wiessee.

Roehm was ill in the summer of 1934 and had gone to Wiessee to take a cure. The establishment he had selected was a small chalet belonging to the doctor in charge of his case. No worse headquarters could have been chosen from which to organise an immediate revolt. The chalet stands at the end of a narrow cul-de-sac lane. All arrivals and departures could be easily noted. There was no room large enough to hold the alleged impending meeting of Brown Shirt leaders. There was only one telephone. This ill accords with the theory of an imminent uprising. If Roehm and his followers were about to revolt, they were certainly careless.

At seven o’clock the Fuehrer’s procession of cars arrived in front of Roehm’s chalet. Alone and unarmed Hitler mounted the stairs and entered Roehm’s bedroom. What passed between the two men will never be known. Roehm was taken completely by surprise, and he and his personal staff were arrested without incident. The small party, with its prisoners, now left by road for Munich. It happened that they soon met a column of lorries of armed Brown Shirts on their way to acclaim Roehm at the conference convened at Wiessee for noon. Hitler stepped out of his car, called for the commanding officer, and, with confident authority, ordered him to take his men home. He was instantly obeyed. If he had been an hour later, or they had been an hour earlier, great events would have taken a different course.

On arrival at Munich, Roehm and his entourage were imprisoned in the same gaol where he and Hitler had been confined together ten years before. That afternoon the executions began. A revolver was placed in Roehm’s cell, but, as he disdained the invitation, the cell door was opened within a few minutes, and he was riddled with bullets. All the afternoon the executions proceeded in Munich at brief intervals. The firing parties of eight had to be relieved from time to time on account of the mental stress of the soldiers. But for several hours the recurrent volleys were heard every ten minutes or so.

Meanwhile, in Berlin, Goering, having heard from Hitler, followed a similar procedure. But here, in the capital, the killings spread beyond the hierarchy of the S.A. Schleicher and his wife, who threw herself in front of him, were shot in their house. Gregor Strasser was arrested and put to death. Papen’s private secretary and immediate circle were also shot; but for some unknown reason he himself was spared. In the Lichtefelde Barracks in Berlin, Karl Ernst, clawed back from Bremen, met his fate; and here, as in Munich, the volleys of the executioners were heard all day. Throughout Germany, during these twenty-four hours, many men unconnected with the Roehm plot disappeared as the victims of private vengeance, sometimes for very old scores. Otto von Kahr, for instance, who as head of the Bavarian Government had broken the 1923 Putsch, was found dead in the woods near Munich. The total number of persons “liquidated” is variously estimated as between five and seven thousand.

Late in the afternoon of this bloody day, Hitler returned by air to Berlin. It was time to put an end to the slaughter, which was spreading every moment. That evening a certain number of the S.S., who through excess of zeal had gone a little far in shooting prisoners, were themselves led out to execution. About one o’clock in the morning of July 1, the sounds of firing ceased. Later in the day the Fuehrer appeared on the balcony of the Chancellery to receive the acclamations of the Berlin crowds, many of whom thought that he had himself been the victim. Some say he looked haggard, others triumphant. He may well have been both. His promptitude and ruthlessness had saved his purpose and no doubt his life. In that “Night of the Long Knives,” as it was called, the unity of National-Socialist Germany had been preserved to carry its curse throughout the world.

A fortnight later the Fuehrer addressed the Reichstag, who sat in loyalty or awe before him. In the course of two hours he delivered a reasoned defence of his action. The speech reveals his knowledge of the German mind and his own undoubted powers of argument. Its climax was:

The necessity for acting with lightning speed meant that in this decisive hour I had very few men with me…. Although only a few days before I had been prepared to exercise clemency, at this hour there was no place for any such consideration. Mutinies are suppressed in accordance with laws of iron which are eternally the same. If anyone reproaches me and asks why I did not resort to the regular courts of justice for conviction of the offenders, then all that I can say to him is this: In this hour I was responsible for the fate of the German people, and thereby I became the Supreme Justiciar of the German people…. I did not wish to deliver up the Young Reich to the fate of the Old Reich. I gave the order to shoot those who were the ringleaders in this treason….

Then followed this mixed but expressive metaphor:

And I further gave the order to burn out down to the raw flesh the ulcers of this poisoning of the wells in our domestic life, and of the poisoning of the outside world.

This massacre, however explicable by the hideous forces at work, showed that the new Master of Germany would stop at nothing, and that conditions in Germany bore no resemblance to those of a civilised state. A dictatorship based upon terror and reeking with blood had confronted the world. Anti-Semitism was ferocious and brazen, and the concentration-camp system was already in full operation for all obnoxious or politically dissident classes. I was deeply affected by the episode, and the whole process of German rearmament, of which there was now overwhelming evidence, seemed to me invested with a ruthless, lurid tinge. It glittered and it glared.

* * * * *

We may now return for a moment to the House of Commons. In the course of June, 1934, the Standing Committee of the Disarmament Conference at Geneva was adjourned indefinitely. On July 13, I said:

I am very glad that the Disarmament Conference is passing out of life into history. It is the greatest mistake to mix up disarmament with peace. When you have peace you will have disarmament. But there has been during these recent years a steady deterioration in the relations between different countries, a steady growth of ill-will, and a steady, indeed a rapid increase in armaments that has gone on through all these years in spite of the endless flow of oratory, of perorations, of well-meaning sentiments, of banquets, which have marked this epoch.

Europe will be secure when nations no longer feel themselves in great danger, as many of them do now. Then the pressure and the burden of armaments will fall away automatically, as they ought to have done in a long peace; and it might be quite easy to seal a movement of that character by some general agreement. I hope, indeed, that we have now also reached the end of the period of the Government pressing France – this peaceful France with no militarism – to weaken her armed forces. I rejoice that the French have not taken the advice which has been offered to them so freely from various quarters, and which the leader of the Opposition [Mr. Lansbury] no doubt would strongly endorse.

This is not the only Germany which we shall live to see, but we have to consider that at present two or three men, in what may well be a desperate position, have the whole of that mighty country in their grip, have that wonderful scientific, intelligent, docile, valiant people in their grip, a population of seventy millions; that there is no dynastic interest such as the monarchy bring as a restraint upon policy, because it looks long ahead and has much to lose; and that there is no public opinion except what is manufactured by those new and terrible engines – broadcasting and a controlled press. Politics in Germany are not as they are over here. There, you do not leave office to go into Opposition. You do not leave the Front Bench to sit below the Gangway. You may well leave your high office at a quarter of an hour’s notice to drive to the police station, and you may be conducted thereafter very rapidly to an even graver ordeal.

It seems to me that men in that position might very easily be tempted to do what even a military dictatorship would not do, because a military dictatorship, with all its many faults, at any rate is one that is based on a very accurate study of the real facts; and there is more danger in this kind of dictatorship than there would be in a military dictatorship, because you have men who, to relieve themselves from the great peril which confronts them at home, might easily plunge into a foreign adventure of the most dangerous and catastrophic character to the whole world.

* * * * *

The first temptation to such an adventure was soon to be revealed.

During the early part of July, 1934, there was much coming and going over the mountain paths leading from Bavaria into Austrian territory. At the end of July, a German courier fell into the hands of the Austrian frontier police. He carried documents, including cipher keys, which showed that a complete plan of revolt was reaching fruition. The organiser of the coup d’état was to be Anton von Rintelen, at that time Austrian Minister to Italy. Dollfuss and his Ministers were slow to respond to the warnings of an impending crisis and to the signs of imminent revolt which became apparent in the early hours of July 25. The Nazi adherents in Vienna mobilised during the morning. Just before one o’clock in the afternoon, a party of armed rebels entered the Chancellery, and Dollfuss, hit by two revolver bullets, was left to bleed slowly to death. Another detachment of Nazis seized the broadcasting station and announced the resignation of the Dollfuss Government and the assumption of office by Rintelen.

But the other members of the Dollfuss Cabinet reacted with firmness and energy. President Doctor Miklas issued a formal command to restore order at all costs. The Minister of Justice, Doctor Schuschnigg, assumed the Administration. The majority of the Austrian Army and police rallied to his Government, and besieged the Chancellery building where, surrounded by a small party of rebels, Dollfuss was dying. The revolt had also broken out in the provinces, and parties from the Austrian legion in Bavaria crossed the frontier. Mussolini had by now heard the news. He telegraphed at once to Prince Starhemberg, the head of the Austrian Heimwehr, promising Italian support for Austrian independence. Flying specially to Venice, the Duce received the widow of Doctor Dollfuss with every circumstance of sympathy. At the same time three Italian divisions were dispatched to the Brenner Pass. On this Hitler, who knew the limits of his strength, recoiled. The German Minister in Vienna, Rieth, and other German officials implicated in the rising, were recalled or dismissed. The attempt had failed. A longer process was needed. Papen, newly spared from the blood-bath, was appointed as German Minister to Vienna, with instructions to work by more subtle means.

Papen had been appointed German Minister to Vienna for the explicit purpose of organising the overthrow of the Austrian Republic. He had a double task: the encouragement of the underground Austrian Nazi Party, which received henceforth a monthly subsidy of two hundred thousand marks, and the undermining or winning over of leading personalities in Austrian politics. In the early days of his appointment, he expressed himself with frankness verging upon indiscretion to his American colleague in Vienna.

In the boldest and most cynical manner [says the American Minister] Papen proceeded to tell me that all Southeastern Europe to the borders of Turkey was Germany’s natural hinterland, and that he had been charged with the mission of effecting German economic and political control over the whole of this region. He blandly and directly said that getting control of Austria was to be the first step. He intended to use his reputation as a good Catholic to gain influence with Austrians like Cardinal Innitzer. The German Government was determined to gain control of Southeastern Europe. There was nothing to stop them. The policy of the United States, like that of France and England, was not “realistic.”

Amid these tragedies and alarms, the aged Marshal Hindenburg, who had, for some months, been almost completely senile and so more than ever a tool of the Reichswehr, expired. Hitler became the head of the German State while retaining the office of Chancellor. He was now the Sovereign of Germany. His bargain with the Reichswehr had been sealed and kept by the blood-purge. The Brown Shirts had been reduced to obedience and reaffirmed their loyalty to the Fuehrer. All foes and potential rivals had been extirpated from their ranks. Henceforward they lost their influence and became a kind of special constabulary for ceremonial occasions. The Black Shirts, on the other hand, increased in numbers and strengthened by privileges and discipline, became under Himmler a Praetorian Guard for the person of the Fuehrer, a counterpoise to the Army leaders and military caste, and also political troops to arm with considerable military force the activities of the expanding secret police or Gestapo. It was only necessary to invest these powers with the formal sanction of a managed plebiscite to make Hitler’s dictatorship absolute and perfect.

* * * * *

Events in Austria drew France and Italy together, and the shock of the Dolfuss assassination led to General Staff contacts. The menace to Austrian independence promoted a revision of Franco-Italian relations, and this had to comprise not only the balance of power in the Mediterranean and North Africa, but the relative positions of France and Italy in Southeastern Europe. But Mussolini was anxious, not only to safeguard Italy’s position in Europe against the potential German threat, but also to secure her imperial future in Africa. Against Germany, close relations with France and Great Britain would be useful; but in the Mediterranean and Africa, disagreements with both these Powers might be inevitable. The Duce wondered whether the common need for security felt by Italy, France, and Great Britain might not induce the two former allies of Italy to accept the Italian imperialist programme in Africa. At any rate, this seemed a hopeful course for Italian policy.

* * * * *

In France, after the Stavisky scandal and the riots of February, M. Daladier had been succeeded as Premier by a Government of the Right Centre under M. Doumergue with M. Barthou as Foreign Minister. Ever since the signature of the Locarno Treaties, France had been anxious to reach formal agreement on security measures in the East. British reluctance to undertake commitments beyond the Rhine, the German refusal to make binding agreements with Poland and Czechoslovakia, the fears of the Little Entente as to Russian intentions, Russian suspicion of the capitalist West, all united to thwart such a programme. In September, 1934, however, Louis Barthou determined to go forward. His original plan was to propose an Eastern Pact, grouping together Germany, Russia, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and the Baltic States on the basis of a guarantee by France of the European frontiers of Russia, and by Russia of the eastern borders of Germany. Both Germany and Poland were opposed to an Eastern Pact; but Barthou succeeded in obtaining the entry of Russia into the League of Nations on September 18, 1934. This was an important step. Litvinov, who represented the Soviet Government, was versed in every aspect of foreign affairs. He adapted himself to the atmosphere of the League of Nations and spoke its moral language with so much success that he soon became an outstanding figure.

In her search for allies against the new Germany that had been allowed to grow up, it was natural that France should turn her eyes to Russia and try to re-create the balance of power which had existed before the war. But in October a tragedy occurred. In pursuance of French policy in the Balkans, King Alexander of Yugoslavia had been invited to pay an official visit to Paris. He landed at Marseilles, was met by M. Barthou, and drove with him and General Georges through the welcoming crowds who thronged the streets gay with flags and flowers. Once again from the dark recesses of the Serbian and Croat underworld a hideous murder plot sprang upon the European stage, and, as at Sarajevo in 1914, a band of assassins, ready to give their lives, were at hand. The French police arrangements were loose and casual. A figure darted from the cheering crowds, mounted the running-board of the car, and discharged his automatic pistol into the King and its other occupants, all of whom were stricken. The murderer was immediately cut down and killed by the mounted Republican guardsman behind whom he had slipped. A scene of wild confusion occurred. King Alexander expired almost immediately. General Georges and M. Barthou stepped out of the car streaming with blood. The General was too weak to move, but soon received medical aid. The Minister wandered off in the crowd. It was twenty minutes before he received attention. He was made to walk upstairs to the Prefect’s office before he could receive medical attention; the doctor then applied the tourniquet below the wound. He had already lost much blood: he was seventy-two, and he died in a few hours. This was a heavy blow to French foreign policy, which under him was beginning to take a coherent form. He was succeeded as Foreign Secretary by Pierre Laval.

Laval’s later shameful record and fate must not obscure the fact of his personal force and capacity. He had a clear and intense view. He believed that France must at all costs avoid war, and he hoped to secure this by arrangements with the dictators of Italy and Germany, against whose systems he entertained no prejudice. He distrusted Soviet Russia. Despite his occasional protestations of friendship, he disliked England and thought her a worthless ally. At that time, indeed, British repute did not stand very high in France. Laval’s first object was to reach a definite understanding with Italy, and he deemed the moment ripe. The French Government was obsessed by the German danger, and was prepared to make solid concessions to gain Italy. In January, 1935, M. Laval went to Rome and signed a series of agreements with the object of removing the main obstacles between the two countries. Both Governments were united upon the illegality of German rearmament. They agreed to consult each other in the event of future threats to the independence of Austria. In the colonial sphere France undertook to make administrative concessions about the status of Italians in Tunisia, and handed over to Italy certain tracts of territory on the borders both of Libya and of Somaliland, together with a twenty per cent share in the Jibuti-Addis-Ababa Railway. These conversations were designed to lay the foundations for more formal discussions between France, Italy, and Great Britain about a common front against the growing German menace. Across them all there cut in the ensuing months the fact of Italian aggression in Abyssinia.

* * * * *

In December, 1934, a clash took place between Italian and Abyssinian soldiers at the wells of Wal-Wal on the borders of Abyssinia and Italian Somaliland. This was to be the pretext for the ultimate presentation before the world of Italian claims upon the Ethiopian Kingdom. Thus the problem of containing Germany in Europe was henceforth confused and distorted by the fate of Abyssinia.

* * * * *

There is one more incident at this juncture which should be mentioned. Under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, the Saar Valley, a small strip of German territory, possessing rich coal mines and important iron works, was to decide at the end of fifteen years by a plebiscite whether the population wished to return to Germany or not. The date fixed for this event was in January, 1935. There could be no doubt of the outcome. The majority would certainly vote for reincorporation into the German Fatherland; and to make assurance doubly sure, the Valley, though nominally governed by a League of Nations Commission, was in fact under the control of the local Nazi Party centre. Barthou realised that ultimately the Saar was bound to return to Germany, but was inclined to insist upon some guarantees to those who might vote against immediate incorporation with Germany. His assassination changed the tone of the French policy. On December 3, 1934, Laval made a direct bargain with the Germans over the coal mines, and three days later announced publicly before the League Council that France would not oppose the return of the Saar to Germany. The actual plebiscite was held on January 13, 1935, under international supervision, in which a British brigade took part; and this little enclave, except Danzig, the only territorial embodiment of League sovereignty, voted by 90.3 per cent for return to Germany. This moral triumph for National Socialism, although the result of a normal and inevitable procedure, added to Hitler’s prestige, and seemed to crown his authority with an honest sample of the will of the German people. He was not at all conciliated, still less impressed, by the proof of the League’s impartiality or fair play. No doubt it confirmed his view that the Allies were decadent fools. For his own part he proceeded to concentrate on his main objective, the expansion of the German forces.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!