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Hitler's Victory and Offer of Peace, 1940

By 1940, pacifists in Britain had given up on anti-war propaganda. Instead, a movement had begun to establish communities as examples of harmonious and egalitarian living for a world emerging from war. The famous intellectual Aldous Huxley advocated a study that answered the question why barbarism and sadism were still strong within humanity.

Recently at the conclusion of his successful invasion of Poland (October 6), Hitler another of his speeches to the Reichstag, saying the treaty that Germany had signed with the Soviet Union "will ensure not only peace but a constant satisfactory co-operation for both States." He continued:

... As Fuehrer of the German people and Chancellor of the Reich, I can thank God at this moment that he has so wonderfully blessed us in our hard struggle for what is our right, and beg Him that we and all other nations may find the right way, so that not only the German people but all Europe may once more be granted the blessing of peace.

Between the Soviet Union and Finland a border had started in November 1939 (the Winter War), and it ended in March in a treaty that gave the Soviet Union 11 percent of Finland's territory and 30 percent of its economy. The Soviet Union gained what it thought was a more secure border, and it lost somewhere around 150,000 soldiers dead or missing — in three months of warfare. The Soviet military poor showing is said to have impressed Hitler. Stalin, in April 1940, would describe his decision to go to war back in November with the claim that "we had to take care of security of Leningrad for sure, since security of Leningrad is the security of our Fatherland."

There was fear in the Kremlin, meanwhile, that Polish military officers that its army had taken prisoner were as a potential danger. On March 5, NKVD chief Lavrentiy Beria had proposed executing the officers. The proposal was approved and signed by members of the Politburo, including Stalin. In April and May, 22,000 Polish officers, policemen, and others were massacred by the Soviet NKVD at several places, the massacre to be named after the Katyn Forest in what today is eastern Poland, where some of the mass graves would be discovered in April 1943.

The War Expands to Norway

Since early September (1939), Churchill was eager for military action against Germany and for laying mines in the shipping channel that the Germans were using to bring iron ore from Sweden. The French went along with the decision on March 28 to lay mines. On April 5th, Britain and France, officially at war with Germany, notified Norway of what they thought was their right to deny Germany access to Norwegian resources. Their war, begun seven months earlier in response to Germany's invasion of Poland, was about to expand big time. It was to be described as the end of their "phoney war."

Hitler's admirals had wanted to let Norway remain a neutral power, but now they held that Germany should occupy Norway before Britain did. The laying of mines began on the April 8. In the early hours of the 9th, German naval and air forces, including paratroops, landed at six of Norway's ports. That same day, the Germans moved through Denmark. There, Germans bombers dropped leaflets, and there was a parachute drop and naval landings. Denmark's King Christian the Tenth saved lives by ordering his troops to cease fire. In six hours the conflict was over. Danish soldiers that had been captured were allowed to return to their units. The German plan was to leave the Danes to manage their own affairs while the German military went on to bigger occupations.

Also on April 9th, German ships and air force invaded the fjord (waterway) just south of Norway's capital, Oslo — the Battle of Drøbak Sound. One of Germany's two heavy cruisers sunk. Between 650 and 800 Germans died. Three Norwegian homes were destroyed and two women were killed by stray German shells. German plans to take Oslo were delayed.

On the 9th, Norway's government fled Oslo. A fundamentalist Christian anti-Communist, Vidkun Quisling, leader of Norway's National Union party and former Minister of Defense, proclaimed by radio that he was Prime Minister, and he ordered all resistance to the Germans to stop. Quisling had sent a fiftieth-birthday greeting (April 20, 1939) thanking Hitler for "saving Europe from Bolshevism and Jewish domination." On December 11th Quisling had met with German intelligence agents, and now he wanted Norway's king, Haakon VII, to declare him Prime Minister. But Haakon refused.

In Britain's House of Commons, Chamberlain struggled to explain Britain's lack of success in Norway. There was too little confidence in his government, and on May 10th his government fell. On that day, Winston Churchill was elevated to Prime Minister, and German troops were moving into the Netherlands and Belgium on their way to France, the German strategy to end France as a military threat and to deny Britain a foothold on the continent.

On May 10, Britain invaded Iceland, the British Government fearing the island would be used by Germany. It was a Churchill initiative from a few days before when he was still First Lord of the Admiralty. Iceland issued a protest, charging that its neutrality had been "flagrantly violated" and "its independence infringed." Canadian troops were to join Britain's occupation forces in July. (The occupation was to last through the war.)

Norway's king and government were in the town of Nybergsund on the 11th, when Germany's air force attacked them, destroying the town. Neutral Sweden was 16 miles away, but the Swedish government sent a message that it would "detain and incarcerate" King Haakon if he crossed their border. Haakon and government ministers instead found refuge in Norway's woods farther north.

On May 13 (three days after becoming Prime Minister), as German troops were moving swiftly through the Netherlands on their way to Belgium, Churchill made what was to become a famous speech:

We shall not flag nor fail. We shall go on to the end. … We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets. … We shall never surrender.

Churchill had many who disliked him, in India and in Britain, and one of them, a British diplomatic historian John Charmley, born 1955, was to describe Churchill's phrases as "sublime nonsense." But the British public was high on having a leader who was resolute in fighting their nation's enemy. Churchill's speech was described as electrifying. People are reported as admiring Churchill's energy and singleness of purpose.

On the 14th the British landed forces at various points in Norway, and on the 20th a German force moved north from Oslo and capture Lillehammer. There the British and Germans clashed on the 22nd. The Germans pushed the British back. And, on April 28, French mountain troops arrived in Norway's north, at Harstad.

The Fall of Norway, the Netherlands and Belgium

In Norway the British were failing, by May 24 they decided to pull out, the evacuations beginning at Harstad on June 4. On the 7th, On June 7th, Norway's King Haakon and his family and what had been Norway's government left Norway aboard the British cruiser, and Norway's military resistance to the Germans ended by the 10th. Quisling's political party was the only party the Germans permitted, and Quisling would become the head of a German-appointed government.

The Netherlands, on June 17 fell to the Germans — 22 German army divisions against 9 Dutch divisions, 759 tanks against 1 tank, 830 aircraft against 145 aircraft, both sides having lost more than 2,000 killed in action. Queen Wilhelmina wanted no negotiation with the Germans and fled to Britain on the 13th, establishing a government-in-exile and becoming a figure of resistance.

IMAGE of
GERMAN TANKS and
BELGIAN CIVILIANS

Next up was the Belgian port city of Dunkirk and Hitler's intentions regarding Britain. Belgium had the support of French and fewer British forces, the three having 144 divisions against 141 German divisions, 3338 tanks against 2445 German tanks. It was more "lightning" warfare — blitzkrieg — and it worked well for the Germans. Hitler, writes Max Boot, was supremely confident of victory "because he had smelled out the inability of 'the systematic French or the ponderous English ... to operate and to act quickly.'" The French had the best tanks but, according to Max Boot, Germany had a "decisive edge in doctrine, training, planning, coordination, and leadership."

As the German forces moved toward Dunkirk, on the English channel just a few miles inside France, the German commander, von Rundstedt, ordered a halt in the advance. Hitler validated the order several hours later. German and British planes clashed in the skies over Dunkirk, the British planes trying to defend the beachhead where Brtish, and some French, were gathering. The Allied Forces were surrounded at Dunkirk, and German ground forces were being held back.

Churchill ordered any ship or boat available to rescue the troops at Dunkirk. The German army was not pressing against them, and in three days, between May 26 and June 4th most of them were evacuated.

Meanwhile, around 25 miles to the southwest on the channel coast, Calais fell to the Germans. On the 27, King Leopold thought resistance useless and requested an armistice. He surrendered Belgium to the Germans, and the Germans put him under house arrest.

After the last of Britain's rescue boats left Dunkirk harbor on June 4, the Germans captured some 40,000 French troops as well as at least 40,000 British soldiers who had been left behind in the Dunkirk vicinity.

The Fall of France

The Germans move into France was north of its defensive Maginot Line. Hitler's generals had thought invading France risky, but Hitler was proud of his daring. On June 10, Germany tanks reached the English channel near France's the port city Dieppe. That early evening Mussolini appeared on his balcony and announced that within six hours Italy would be at war with France. He blustered: "

People of Italy: take up your weapons and show your tenacity, your courage and your valor.

On June 11 there were anti-Italian riots in major cities across Britain. Bricks, stones and bottles were thrown through the windows of Italian-owned shops. Canada declared war on Italy. Churchill retaliated against Mussolini (whom we had once spoken of with admiration) by sending bombers against the cities of Genoa and Turin.

On June 14 the Germans entered Paris unopposed. And on the 16th the French government, now in Bordeaux, voted thirteen to eleven for an armistice. France's premier, Paul Reynaud, refused to support an armistice and resigned. He was replaced that same day by a former top World War One general, Philippe Pétain, who asked Hitler for an armistice.

On June 17th, Pétain told his fellow French by radio that it was "with a heavy heart that I say to you that fighting must cease." On the 18th, the British began bombing military-industrial targets in the northern German port cities of Hamburg and Bremen. With no electronic navigation aids, finding and hitting targets with accuracy was difficult if not impossible and through June to October little damage would be done.

On June 18th, Charles de Gaulle, in London, announced the creation of the French resistance to Germany's occupation of France. Also on the 18th, Hitler and Mussolini met in Munich and discussed France's armistice request. Hitler showed no interest in discussing spoils of war and denied Mussolini's request to be present at the armistice signing. Hitler was interested in a friendly Petain regime. In France he wanted an ally he could trust, unaligned with Britain and of no military threat to Germany.

On the early morning hours of the 21st, Mussolini Italy began an offensive against the French in the Alps, and the offensive bogged down. That afternoon, peace negotiations began between France and Germany in the same railway car used by the Allies in Germany's humiliating signing of the World War One armistice. There, the following day, Pétain signed for France. France was left with at least the appearance of sovereignty except along the English channel, including Paris, to be occupied by the Germans in order to seal the continent from British intrusions.

On the 23rd, Hitler was in Paris, prancing joyfully in the company of his military commanders and visiting the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe and Napoleon's tomb at Les Invalides. Hitler had Italy reduce its demand for French territory. And on the 24th, Italy signed its own armistice with France. On the 27th, German forces reached France's border with Spain.

The Pétain Regime

Pétain was conservative by temperament and education. France was no longer a republic. The Republican motto of "Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité was replaced with "Work, Family, Fatherland." He blamed France's poor showing in the war just lost on the Third Republic and its liberal democracy.

As a retired Generalissimo, Pétain ran the country along military lines. Fascistic-minded people within the Pétain government launched a program known as the "National Revolution" in which much of the republic's secular and liberal traditions were rejected in favor of the promotion of an authoritarian and paternalist Catholic society. Pétain championed a rural, Catholic France that spurned internationalism. Pétain and some others took exception to use of the word "revolution" to describe what he considered an essentially conservative movement, but he was a willing participant in the transformation of French society. He described his new conservative France "a social hierarchy" and rejected "the false idea of the natural equality of men."

Pétain proclaimed anti-Semitic laws. The imprisonment of his opponents and foreign refugees had begun. So too had the persecutions of Jews and Marxists, in tune with Hitler's hostility to both. France was soon to have camps filled with Jews and other undesirables and there would be deportations eastward to German extermination camps. Leon Blum, a moderate socialist and France's premier in the mid-thirties, was among the Jews persecuted by the Pétain regime. Blum would be arrested in September 1940. He would be put on trial in 1942 and charged with treason for having "weakened France's defenses," and he would be turned over to the Germans and put in Germany's Buchenwald and Dachau concentration camps. The former premier, Paul Reynaud, fell to the spirit of "lock 'em up." Pétain had him arrested, and rather than putting him on trial turned him over the Germans. More or less as centrist, Reynaud very much regretted becoming an opposition figure like de Gaulle.

Meanwhile, many Frenchmen believed that it was de Gaulle and his Free French who were the agents of a foreign power – the British. Some among France's middle-class continued to see socialists and communists as their enemy. The French were divided. Some saw a different enemy from within: Hitler's admirers. Some were blaming spies for their country's defeat — although, as Max Boot writes, "... there were few German spies operating behind enemy lines, and their meager efforts can hardly explain the magnitude of the disaster that befell the French."

Joy and Triumph for Germany

Hitler was at the height of his success and popularity. With his military victories, his support among his fellow Germans had spread and become more enthusiastic. World War One had been reversed and people were judging him on that astounding accomplishment. Here youtube shows Berliners greeting Germany's military returning from its victory over France.

He had been in an expansive mood as he watched his military moving toward victory, and his speech to the Reichstag on July 19th he appeared to be interested in peace rather than bitterness and revenge. (transcript | (youtube).

First he gave thanks to the country's deserving soldiers. Then he described events from 1939, including Germany's motives and British motives. He said that Germany's relations with the surrounding world had been "an attempt to obtain a revision of the Treaty of Versailles under all circumstances and as far as this was possible-by peaceful means," that revision of the Treaty "was by nature a necessity" and done unavoidably by military force."

He gave lavish praise on all Germans on the homefront, and he lavishly praised Mussolini. He spoke of his desire for an end of the war and ending the suffering caused by war, especially the suffering of soldiers, adding:

It still saddens me today that, in spite of all my endeavors, I have not succeeded in obtaining this friendship with England which, I believe, should have been a blessing for both peoples; and especially because I was not able to do so despite my persistent, sincere efforts.

He said he was "too much a soldier not to comprehend the tragedy" of warfare. He added:

In this hour I feel compelled, standing before my conscience, to direct yet another appeal to reason in England. I believe I can do this as I am not asking for something as the vanquished, but rather, as the victor, I am speaking in the name of reason. I see no compelling reason which could force the continuation of this war.

Hitler, it is said, never wanted war with Britain. He saw Britain as a natural ally. And now Hitler was saying that all he wanted from Britain was that it give Germany back "one or two of our old colonies. That is the only thing we want."

So why did the British refuse Hitler's offer? It has been a big controversy. (Google "Rethinking Negotiation With Hitler," or "Churchill, Hitler and the Unnecessary War," or words of your own choosing.) There are those who blame Churchill, accusing him, by his own admission, of loving war. The American conservative Pat Buchanan was to write of Churchill having a "lust for war." Someone at vnnforum.com in an article titled "Rethinking Churchill" writes:

...from the moment that Churchill left Sandhurst ... "he did his utmost to get into a fight, wherever a war was going on." All his life he was ... only really excited by war. He loved war as few modern men ever have ... he even "loved the bangs," as he called them ...

(Churchill was a member of the New Commonwealth Society, a peace organization founded in 1932 that advocated a League of Nations air force to support international law — the peace by a willingness to make war that was common diplomacy but opposed by pacifists.)

In my opinion, it is reasonable to look for rival explanations. Churchill saw Hitler and his National Socialists as crude enemies of Western Civilization. (Churchill was a fervent opponent of anti-Semitism.) A sense of righteousness in combating Hitler's Germany had developed to a point that negotiating peace with Hitler seemed too shameful: Churchill said, "We shall prosecute the war with the utmost vigor by all means that are given to us, until the righteous purposes for which we entered upon it have been fulfilled." The British could not let go of the idea that Germany was a military threat – despite Hitler's willingness to withdraw from French territory and Germany's move into Norway, Belgium et cetera had been basically defensive. Perhaps an additional consideration was Churchill and others in Britain not wanting to leave a powerful, influential, economically strong Nazi Germany in the center of Europe, a Nazi Germany with allies east, south and west to Pétain's France and Franco's Spain.

Hitler had offered to step down if that would please the British — and judging by what would come later, it was a good time for Hitler to retire. (Rome's dictator Sulla retired in 81 BCE at the age of 57. Hitler was 51.) But men, especially poor gamblers, are not inclined to quit when ahead. In addition to offering Poland self-determination (a plebiscite), in June he mentioned to subordinates his desire to knock out Poland's enemy, the Soviet Union. He believed that his tanks and mechanized transport would allow him the speed that Napoleon had lacked, that all he had to do was to kick in the Soviet Union's door and the whole rotten Soviet structure would fall down.

In Europe a most destructive war and its attendant brutalities was still on-going. There would be the Battle of Britain from July to October 1940. There would be war in North Africa, war across Eastern Europe, war with Italy. And for Hitler, war would be convenient in expressing himself as Germany's soldier-Fuhrer and to destroy what he thought was Germany's historic enemy: the Jews and their conspiracy.

CONTINUE READING: The Battle of Britain

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