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Hitler and War to October 1939

The port city of Danzig (today Gdansk) had been German (Prussian) since the fall of a Napoleon in the early 1800s. The Treaty of Versailles in 1919 had made it a "free city" under a commissioner appointed by the League of Nations. In 1923, 3.7 percent of Danzig's population was Polish. By the 1930s, Poland claimed that 13 percent of the city was Polish. There was the corridor just west of Danzig that ran from Poland to the Baltic Sea and cut East Prussia from the rest of Germany. In May 1933, elections in Danzig gave local power to National Socialists.

Hitler, in January 1939, told the Poles that eventually Danzig would again become a part of Germany. The Poles saw themselves as stronger and harder than the Czechs and were determined not to give the Germans an inch of territory.

In a speech at the Reichstag on the 30th of January, Hitler postured as a man of peace and announced that if "international Jewish financiers" succeeded in plunging the world again into war the result will be the "annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe." Reichstag delegates applauded enthusiastically.

Also in January, Hitler's Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop told him of the meeting he had with France's Foreign Minister, Georges Bonnet. (Churchill, still out of office, called Bonnet "the quintessence of appeasement.") Bonnet, according to Ribbentrop, recognized Eastern Europe as Germany's exclusive sphere of influence in exchange for German benevolence toward France. It was the kind of deal that diplomats like Bonnet preferred be kept secret, but Ribbentrop stuck by his story, adding perhaps to Hitler's belief that France and Britain would not be going to war against Germany.

On February 14, Germany launched its great battleship the Bismarck — a move sure to be viewed with displeasure by the British. That month the British were preparing for the possibility of war. Tunnel-shaped bomb shelters, six by four feet plus a few inches, were being manufactured for people's homes, and the British were familiarizing themselves with gas masks.

In March a development in Czechoslovakia was helpful for Hitler. The government in Prague dismissed the troublesome Slovak leader, Josef Tizo. Hitler sided with Tizo and backed him in declaring Slovakia's independence — the end of Czechoslovakia. Edvard Benes had resigned as President back in October and had been replaced by Emil Hacha. The Hacha government was authoritarian, he was considered weak, especially by Hitler. Hitler summoned Hacha to Berlin. Hitler deliberately kept him waiting for hours, while Hitler watched a film. Finally, at 1:30 in the morning Hitler told him the German army was about to invade his country and that if he ordered resistance that resistance would be broken "using all means." Hácha didn't resist, and, that same day, German troops motored into the Czech provinces of Bohemia (capital Prague) and Moravia (largest city, Brno).

Hitler was ecstatic. He told his two female secretaries that it was the happiest day in his life and that he would go down in history as "the greatest German in history." He spoke about Bohemia and Moravia having been living space for Germans for a millennium and having been "torn from them arbitrarily."

The British were amazed. Hitler had promised at Munich to respect what remained of Czechoslovakia, and now they believed that Hitler's word was worthless, and they wondered how far Hitler wanted to go.

Memel, Danzig and an alliance with Poland

Memel was an area predominately German that had been given to Lithuania by the 1919 treaty signed at Versailles. Germans there were encouraged by Hitler's recent successes and they were agitating for inclusion into the German fatherland. Hitler threatened to take Memel by force. Lithuania capitulated. On March 23, Hitler entered Memel and was greeted by joyous German crowds.

On the 21st, Germany's Foreign Minister had told the Poles that if Poland refused Germany's demands regarding Danzig, German-Polish friendship would suffer. Poland requested consultations with Britain and France, and this was followed by Britain, France, and Poland agreeing to a guarantee of each others' borders. Immediately, Chamberlain announced the news in the House of Commons. And hearing of this, Hitler raged to his staff that he would "brew them a devil's stew that they would choke on."

At this point in his career as Germany's Fuhrer, Hitler had won back from the Versailles Treaty Germany's significant losses of territory except for Danzig and the corridor that separated East Prussia from the rest of Germany. He saw himself winning these for Germany in a war against Poland, and he believed that Chamberlain was bluffing about going to war, seeing no British government's introduction of conscription and knowing that Chamberlain dreaded another big war. And he saw Britain and France linked regarding the likelihood of their going to war. So he went ahead with his own plan for war. On April 3rd he was presented with his army's operational plans for invading Poland, and he directed his military chiefs to be ready to carry out the operation any time after September 1.

Hitler-Stalin Pact

Mussolini disliked being outside Europe's unfolding drama, and perhaps he envied Hitler's recent triumphs. On April 7 he invaded Albania (across the Adriatic Sea from Italy). Concerned, Britain and France guaranteed the independence of Greece and Romania on April 13th. On the 14th the French offered Moscow an agreement with defined military arrangements. The Soviet Union wanted Britain to be a part of the agreement, but Chamberlain remained opposed to any alliance with the Russians. He spoke of the Soviet Union's fighting forces being "of little military value for offensive purposes," and he remained suspicious of Soviet motives.

The conscription by Britain that Hitler did not see in late March came on April 26. In late April, Hitler renounced the non-aggression pact that Germany had with Poland, and he renounced Germany's naval agreement with the British. But he continued to speak of himself as a man of peace, and he denounced those in Britain and France who were questioning the settlement at Munich as "warmongers."

Britain's military chiefs of staff bothered Chamberlain with recommendations for an alliance with the Soviet Union, and Chamberlain sent a mission to Moscow to discuss the matter, but by slow ship rather than by airplane. Talks between Chamberlain's delegation to Moscow and the Russians began on August 2, but the Russians had decided that the British were not serious about an alliance with them. Stalin felt more of a sense of urgency than did Chamberlain. His regime had been exploring an alternative: better relations with Germany, with hope that Hitler's armies would be directed toward the French and British.

Hitler's wanted peace with the Soviet Union while it invaded Poland. It offered the Soviet Union a free hand in the direction of India. But Stalin was not interested in a conflict with Indian nationalism. He still saw himself as anti-imperialist, and he had enough to worry about with the Soviet Union's nationalities – and with the Japanese (who really did believe in empire).

Germany offered the Soviet Union territory that had been a part of tsarist Russia's empire: Finland and Bessarabia. And Germany offered the Soviet Union territory that Poland had taken during Russia's civil war – territory east of the Curzon Line that the Bolsheviks had considered Soviet territory. In exchange, Stalin offered Germany a free hand in Poland west of the Curzon Line.

On 24 August Germany and the Soviet Union signed their pact. It was announced and surprised many around the world. Communists in Europe had seen themselves as fighting fascism. Communists as far away as the United States were leaving the Party.

Invasion of Poland

On September 1st, Hitler sent his military into Poland. He said to those around him, "the enemy did not expect my determination." Still believing that Britain and France would not respond with war, he added: "Our enemies are little worms, I saw them at Munich." To his troops he broadcast his reason for sending them into battle.
The Polish state has refused the peaceful settlement of relations which I desired and appealed to arms... In order to put an end to this lunacy I have no other choice than to meet force with force from now on. The German Army will fight the battle for the honor and the vital rights of a newborn Germany with hard determination.

That day he dressed in a field-gray uniform and spoke to the Reichstag:

From now on I am just the first soldier of the German Reich. I have once more put on that coat that was the most sacred and dear to me. I will not take it off again until victory is assured, or I will not survive the outcome.

During the morning on September 3rd, Neville Chamberlain announced on BBC Radio that Britain and Germany were at war. "You can imagine what a bitter blow it is to me that all my long struggle to win peace has failed."

That day, a German submarine sank a British passenger liner, the SS Athenia, carrying 1,103 passengers, the submarine captain thinking it was behaving in manner suggesting wartime activity.

At night, ten British bombers flew over Germany's Ruhr region and dropped millions of leaflets telling Germans of Britain's regret that it could not settle its differences with Germany peacefully and that Germany's government has "condemned you to mass murder, starvation and the hardships of war which you can never hope to win. Hitler has cheated not us but you." Breezes scattered the leaflets widely and some were found in the Netherlands.

On the 4th the Allies (France and Britain) announced a blockade against Germany's importation of food and raw materials, and Germany declared a counter-blockade. On the 6th, the French government began rounding up German citizens. On the 7th and 8th, 30 French divisions moved unopposed into Germany's Saarland (neighboring Luxembourg) and captured 12 towns and villages within eight kilometers of the border. By the 12th, a German military force arrived, and the Anglo-French Supreme War Council in France declared that all offensive actions were to be halted immediately. What was to be called the "Phoney War" (or Sitzkrieg) regarding French and British military operations had begun.

Stalin on the 7th had explained to a colleague that the war taking place was "between two groups of capitalist countries" to divide and dominate the world. He said:

We see nothing wrong in their having a good hard fight and weakening each other... Hitler, without understanding it or desiring it, is shaking and undermining the capitalist system ... The annihilation of Poland would mean one fewer bourgeois fascist state to contend with! What would be the harm if as a result of the rout of Poland we were to extend the socialist system onto new territories and populations?

On the 17th, in accord with its agreement with Germany, the Soviet Union's invasion of Poland began, ending nineteen days later (October 6) with Soviet troops meeting German troops. In Poland a Stalinist campaign had begun against "enemies of the people" including Polish military officers, clergy and educators.

The Poles had fought hard, having suffered nearly 66,000 dead and 133,700 wounded — their population around 35 million. (The Germans (good record keepers) suffered 16,343 killed, and the Soviets 1,475. Much of Poland's army and navy was able to escape to British or French territory. The Poles managed to move their country's supply of gold to England and Canada, and Poland's government became a government-in-exile.

The war in Europe had just begun.

CONTINUE READING: Hitler's Victory and Offer of Peace, 1940

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