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Hitler. 1936-1945: Nemesis
The climax and conclusion of one of the best-selling biographies of our time.
The New Yorker declared the first volume of Ian Kershaw’s two-volume masterpiece “as close to definitive as anything we are likely to see,” and that promise is fulfilled in this stunning second volume. As Nemesis opens, Adolf Hitler has achieved absolute power within Germany and triumphed in his first challenge to the European powers. Idolized by large segments of the population and firmly supported by the Nazi regime, Hitler is poised to subjugate Europe. Nine years later, his vaunted war machine destroyed, Allied forces sweeping across Germany, Hitler will end his life with a pistol shot to his head.
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Following the enormous success of HITLER: HUBRIS this book triumphantly completes one of the great modern biographies. No figure in twentieth century history more clearly demands a close biographical understanding than Adolf Hitler; and no period is more important than the Second World War. Beginning with Hitler’s startling European successes in the aftermath of the Rhinelland occupation and ending nine years later with the suicide in the Berlin bunker, Kershaw allows us as never before to understand the motivation and the impact of this bizarre misfit. He addresses the crucial questions about the unique nature of Nazi radicalism, about the Holocaust and about the poisoned European world that allowed Hitler to operate so effectively.
George VI thought him a “damnable villain,” and Neville Chamberlain found him not quite a gentleman; but, to the rest of the world, Adolf Hitler has come to personify modern evil to such an extent that his biographers always have faced an unenviable task. The two more renowned biographies of Hitler—by Joachim C. Fest (Hitler) and by Alan Bullock (Hitler: A Study in Tyranny)—painted a picture of individual tyranny which, in the words of A. J. P. Taylor, left Hitler guilty and every other German innocent. Decades of scholarship on German society under the Nazis have made that verdict look dubious; so, the modern biographer of Hitler must account both for his terrible mindset and his charismatic appeal. In the second and final volume of his mammoth biography of Hitler—which covers the climax of Nazi power, the reclamation of German-speaking Europe, and the horrific unfolding of the final solution in Poland and Russia—Ian Kershaw manages to achieve both of these tasks. Continuing where Hitler: Hubris 1889–1936 left off, the epic Hitler: Nemesis 1937–1945 takes the reader from the adulation and hysteria of Hitler's electoral victory in 1936 to the obsessive and remote “bunker” mentality that enveloped the Führer as Operation Barbarossa (the attack on Russia in 1942) proved the beginning of the end. Chilling, yet objective. A definitive work.
At the conclusion of Kershaw’s Hitler, 1889–1936: Hubris (1999), the Rhineland had been remilitarized, domestic opposition crushed, and Jews virtually outlawed. What the genuinely popular leader of Germany would do with his unchallenged power, the world knows and recoils from. The historian's duty, superbly discharged by Kershaw, is to analyze how and why Hitler was able to ignite a world war, commit the most heinous crime in history, and throw his country into the abyss of total destruction. He didn't do it alone. Although Hitler's twin goals of expelling Jews and acquiring “living space" for other Germans were hardly secret, “achieving” them did not proceed according to a blueprint, as near as Kershaw can ascertain. However long Hitler had cherished launching an all-out war against the Jews and against Soviet Russia, as he did in 1941, it was only conceivable as reality following a tortuous series of events of increasing radicality, in both foreign and domestic politics. At each point, whether haranguing a mass audience or a small meeting of military officers, the demagogue had to and did persuade his listeners that his course of action was the only one possible. Acquiescence to aggression and genocide was further abetted by the narcotic effect of the “Hitler myth,” the propagandized image of the infallible leader as national savior, which produced a force for radicalization parallel to Hitler’s personal murderous fanaticism; the motto of the time called it “working towards the Fuhrer.” Underlings in competition with each other would do what they thought Hitler wanted, as occurred with aspects of organizing the Final Solution. Kershaw’s narrative connecting this analysis gives outstanding evidence that he commands and understands the source material, producing this magisterial scholarship that will endure for decades.
Ian Kershaw HITLER 1936–1945: Nemesis
Every effort has been made to contact all copyright holders. The publishers will be glad to make good in future editions any errors or omissions brought to their attention. (Photographic acknowledgements are given in brackets.)
1. Adolf Hitler, September 1936 (Ullstein Bilderdienst, Berlin)
2. Hitler discussing plans for Weimar, 1936 (Corbis/Hulton-Deutsch Collection)
3. The Berlin Olympics, 1936 (Ullstein Bilderdienst, Berlin)
4. Hitler meets the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, 1937 (Corbis/Hulton-Deutsch Collection)
5. Werner von Blomberg (Corbis/Hulton-Deutsch Collection)
6. Werner von Fritsch (Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte, Stuttgart)
7. Hitler addresses crowds in the Heldenplatz, Vienna, 1938 (AKG London)
8. Hitler, Mussolini and Victor-Emmanuel III, 1938 (Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte, Stuttgart)
9. Hitler in Florence, 1938 (Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte, Stuttgart)
10. ‘The Eternal Jew’ exhibition, Munich, 1937 (AKG London)
11. ‘Jews in Berlin’ poster, Berlin, 1938 (Corbis/Bettmann)
12. Synagogue on fire, Berlin, 1938 (Corbis/Hulton-Deutsch Collection)
13. Jewish Community building, Kassel, 1938 (Ullstein Bilderdienst, Berlin)
14. Looted Jewish shop, Berlin, 1938 (AKG London)
15. Joseph Goebbels and his family, 1936 (Corbis/Hulton-Deutsch Collection)
16. Goebbels broadcasting to the people, 1939 (Hulton Getty)
17. Eva Braun, c.1938 (Hulton Getty)
18. Wilhelm Keitel greets Neville Chamberlain (Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte, Stuttgart)
19. German troops, Prague, 1939 (Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte, Stuttgart)
20. Hitler’s study in the Reich Chancellery (Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte, Stuttgart)
21. Göring addresses Hitler in the New Reich Chancellery, 1939 (Bayerisches Hauptstaatsarchiv, Munich)
22. Hitler presented with a model by Ferdinand Porsche, 1938 (Hulton Getty)
23. Heinrich Himmler presents Hitler with a painting by Menzel, 1939 (Bundesarchiv, Koblenz)
24. Hitler with Winifred Wagner, Bayreuth, 1939 (Bayerisches Hauptstaatsarchiv, Munich)
25. Molotov signs the Non-Aggression Pact between Soviet Union and Germany, 1939 (Corbis)
26. Hitler in Poland with his Wehrmacht adjutants (Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte, Stuttgart)
27. Hitler reviewing troops in Warsaw, 1939 (Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte, Stuttgart)
28. Hitler addresses the Party’s ‘Old Guard’ at the Bürgerbräukeller, Munich, 1939 (Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte, Stuttgart)
29. Arthur Greiser (Bundesarchiv, Koblenz)
30. Albert Forster (Süddeutscher Verlag, Munich)
31. Hitler reacting to news of France’s request for an armistice, 1940 (Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte, Stuttgart)
32. Hitler visiting the Maginot Line in Alsace, 1940 (Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte, Stuttgart)
33. Hitler in Freudenstadt, 1940 (Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte, Stuttgart)
34. Crowds in the Wilhelmplatz, Berlin, 1940 (Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte, Stuttgart)
35. Hitler bids farewell to Franco, Hendaye, 1940 (Ullstein Bilderdienst, Berlin)
36. Hitler meets Marshall Petain, 1940 (Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte, Stuttgart)
37. Ribbentrop talking to Molotov, Berlin, 1940 (Bildarchiv Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Berlin)
38. Hitler meets Matsuoka of Japan, 1941 (Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte, Stuttgart)
39. Hitler talks to Alfred Jodl, 1941 (Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte, Stuttgart)
40. Hitler and Keitel, en route to Angerburg, 1941 (Ullstein Bilderdienst, Berlin/Walter Frentz)
41. ‘Europe’s Victory is Your Prosperity’, anti-Bolshevik poster (Imperial War Museum, London)
42. Walther von Brauchitsch and Franz Halder (AKG London)
43. Keitel with Hitler at the Wolf’s Lair (Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte, Stuttgart)
44. Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich (Süddeutscher Verlag, Munich)
45. Nazi propaganda poster featuring Hitler’s ‘prophecy’ of 30 January 1939 (The Wiener Library, London)
46. Hitler salutes the coffin of Heydrich, 1942 (Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte, Stuttgart)
47. Hitler comforts Heydrich’s sons (Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte, Stuttgart)
48. Hitler addresses 12,000 officers at the Sportpalast, Berlin, 1942 (Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte, Stuttgart)
49. The crowd reacting (Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte, Stuttgart)
50. Fedor von Bock (Ullstein Bilderdienst, Berlin/Walter Frentz)
51. Erich von Manstein (Ullstein Bilderdienst, Berlin/Walter Frentz)
52. Hitler speaks at ‘Heroes’ Memorial Day’ at the Arsenal on Unter den Linden, Berlin, 1942 (Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte, Stuttgart)
53. Motorized troops pass a burning Russian village on the Eastern Front, 1942 (Hulton Getty)
54. Hitler greets Dr Ante Pavelic, 1943 (Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte, Stuttgart)
55. Hitler with Marshal Antonescu, 1942 (Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte, Stuttgart)
56. Hitler greets King Boris III, 1942 (Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte, Stuttgart)
57. Hitler greets Monsignor Dr Josef Tiso, 1943 (Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte, Stuttgart)
58. Hitler greets Marshal Mannerheim, 1942 (Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte, Stuttgart)
59. Admiral Horthy speaks with Ribbentrop, Keitel and Martin Bormann (Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte, Stuttgart)
60. A ‘Do 24’ seaplane, Norway (Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte, Stuttgart)
61. Train-mounted cannon, Leningrad (Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte, Stuttgart)
62. German tanks, Cyrenaica, Libya (Hulton Getty)
63. Hunting partisans, Bosnia (Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte, Stuttgart)
64. Exhausted German soldier, the Eastern Front (Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte, Stuttgart)
65. Hitler reviewing the Wehrmacht parade, Berlin, 1943 (Ullstein Bilderdienst, Berlin/Walter Frentz)
66. The Party’s ‘Old Guard’ salute Hitler, Munich, 1943 (Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte, Stuttgart)
67. Martin Bormann (Hulton Getty)
68. Hitler and Goebbels on the Obsersalzberg, 1943 (Ullstein Bilderdienst, Berlin/Walter Frentz)
69. German soldiers pushing vehicle through mud, the Eastern Front (Corbis)
70. Armoured vehicles lodged in snow, the Eastern Front (Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte, Stuttgart)
71. Waffen-SS troops, the Eastern Front (Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte, Stuttgart)
72. French Jews being deported, 1942 (Bildarchiv Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Berlin)
73. Polish Jews dig their own grave, 1942 (Bildarchiv Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Berlin)
74. Incinerators at Majdanek, 1944 (Ullstein Bilderdienst, Berlin)
75. Hitler and Himmler walking on the Obersalzberg, 1944 (Ullstein Bilderdienst, Berlin/Walter Frentz)
76. The ‘White Rose’, 1942 (Gedenkstätte Deutscher Widerstand, Berlin)
77. Heinz Guderian (Hulton Getty)
78. Ludwig Beck (AKG London)
79. Claus Graf Schenk von Stauffenberg (AKG London)
80. Henning von Tresckow (Süddeutscher Verlag, Munich)
81. Hitler just after the assassination attempt, 1944 (Süddeutscher Verlag, Munich)
82. Hitler’s trousers (Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte, Stuttgart)
83. Last meeting of Hitler and Mussolini, 1944 (Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte, Stuttgart)
84. Karl Dönitz professes the loyalty of the Navy, 1944 (Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte, Stuttgart)
85. An ageing Hitler at the Berghof, 1944 (Ullstein Bilderdienst, Berlin/Walter Frentz)
86. V1 flying-bomb (Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte, Stuttgart)
87. V2 rocket (Corbis/Hulton-Deutsch Collection)
88. Messerschmidt Me 262 (HultonGetty)
89. The ‘Volkssturm’, 1944 (Hulton Getty)
90. The last ‘Heroes’ Memorial Day’, Berlin, 1945 (Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte, Stuttgart)
91. Women and children fleeing Danzig, 1945 (AKG London)
92. Hitler views a model of Linz (National Archives and Records Administration, Washington)
93. Hitler in the ruins of the Reich Chancellery, 1945 (Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte, Stuttgart)
1. The legacy of the First World War
2. Poland under Nazi occupation
3. The Western offensive, 1940: the Sichelschnitt attack
4. The German Reich of 1942: the Nazi Party Gaue
5. Nazi occupied Europe
6. Limits of the German occupation of the USSR
7. The Western and Eastern fronts, 1944“5
8. The Soviet drive to Berlin
The first part of this study, Hitler, 1889–1936: Hubris, tried to show how the people of a highly cultured, economically advanced, modern state could allow into power and entrust their fate to a political outsider with few, if any, special talents beyond undoubted skills as a demagogue and propagandist.
By the time his Chancellorship was devised through the intrigues of influential individuals close to Reich President von Hindenburg, Hitler had been able in free elections to garner the votes of no more than a good third of the German electorate. Another third — on the Left — stood implacably opposed, though internally in disarray. The remainder were often sceptical, expectant, hesitant, and uncertain. By the end of the first volume we had traced the consolidation of Hitler’s power to the point where it had become well-nigh absolute. Internal opposition had been crushed. The doubters had been largely won over by the scale of an internal rebuilding and external reassertion of strength which, almost beyond imagination, had restored much of the lost national pride and sense of humiliation left behind after the First World War. Authoritarianism was seen by most as a blessing; repression of those politically out of step, disliked ethnic minorities, or social misfits approved of as a small price for what appeared to be a national rebirth. While the adulation of Hitler among the masses had grown ever stronger, and opposition had been crushed and rendered inconsequential, powerful forces in the army, the landed aristocracy, industry, and high ranks of the civil service had thrown their weight behind the regime. Whatever its negative aspects, it was seen to offer them much in advancing their own interests.
Hitler, by the time the first volume drew to a close with the remilitarization of the Rhineland in 1936, enjoyed the support of the overwhelming mass of the German people — even most of those who had not voted for him before he became Chancellor. From the depths of national degradation, most Germans were more than content to share the new-found national pride. The sense that Germany was well on its way to becoming the dominant power in Europe was widespread. Hitler’s own profound sense of personal degradation, felt in his Vienna years, had long since been supplanted by a gathering sense of political mission — that of Germany’s redeemer from chaos and champion against the dark and menacing forces challenging the nation’s very existence. By 1936, his narcissistic self-glorification had swollen immeasurably under the impact of the near-deification projected upon him by his followers. By this time, he thought himself infallible; his self-image had reached the stage of outright hubris.
The German people had shaped this personal hubris of the leader. They were about to enter into its full expression: the greatest gamble in the nation’s history — to acquire complete dominance of the European continent. They would have to live with the consequences. The size of the gamble itself implied an implicit willingness to court self-destruction, to invite the nemesis which was seen by a prescient few as likely to follow hubris on such a scale.
In Greek mythology, Nemesis is the goddess of retribution, who exacts the punishment of the gods for the human folly of overweening arrogance, or hubris. The English saying ‘pride comes before a fall’ reflects the commonplace occurrence. History has no shortage of examples among the high and mighty, though ‘nemesis’ tends to be a more political than moral judgement. The meteoric rise of rulers, politicians, or domineering court favourites has so often been followed by an arrogance of power leading to an equally swift fall from grace. Usually, it afflicts an individual who, like a shooting star, flashes into prominence then fades rapidly into insignificance leaving the firmament essentially unchanged.
Very occasionally in history, the hubris of the individual reflects more profound forces in society and invites more far-reaching retribution. Napoleon, arising from humble origins amid revolutionary upheavals, taking power over the French state, placing the imperial crown upon his own head, conquering much of Europe, and ending in defeat and exile with his empire displaced, dismantled, and discredited, provides a telling example. But Napoleon did not destroy France. And important strands of his legacy remained intact. A national administrative structure, educational system, and legal code form three significant positive remnants. Not least, no moral opprobrium is attached to Napoleon. He can be, and often is, looked upon with pride and admiration by modern-day Frenchmen.
Hitler’s legacy was of a totally different order. Uniquely in modern times — perhaps Attila the Hun and Ghengis Khan offer faint parallels in the distant past — this legacy was one of utter destruction. Not in architectural remains, in artistic creation, in political structures, or economic models, least of all in moral stature was there anything from Hitler’s Reich to commend to future generations. Big improvements in motorization, aviation, and technology generally did, of course, take place — in part forced through the war. But these were occurring in all capitalist countries, most evidently in the USA, and would undoubtedly have taken place in Germany, too, without a Hitler. Most significantly, unlike Napoleon, Hitler left behind him an immense moral trauma, such that it is impossible even decades after his death (other than for a residue of fringe support) to look back upon the German dictator and his regime with approval or admiration — in fact with anything other than detestation and condemnation.
Even in the cases of Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Mussolini, or Franco the level of condemnation is not so unanimous or so morally freighted. Hitler, when he realized the war was irrevocably lost, looked to his place in history, at the highest seat in the pantheon of Germanic heroes. Instead, he stands uniquely as the quintessential hate-figure of the twentieth century. His place in history has certainly been secured — though in a way he had not anticipated: as the embodiment of modern political evil. However, evil is a theological or philosophical, rather than a historical, concept. To call Hitler evil may well be both true and morally satisfying. But it explains nothing. And unanimity in condemnation is even potentially an outright barrier to understanding and explanation. As I hope the following chapters make abundantly plain, I personally find Hitler a detestable figure and despise all that his regime stood for. But that condemnation scarcely helps me to understand why millions of German citizens who were mostly ordinary human beings, hardly innately evil, in general interested in the welfare and daily cares of themselves and their families, like ordinary people everywhere, and by no means wholly brainwashed or hypnotized by spellbinding propaganda or terrorized into submission by ruthless repression, would find so much of what Hitler stood for attractive — or would be prepared to fight to the bitter end in a terrible war against the mighty coalition of the world’s most powerful nations arrayed against them. My task in this volume, as in the first part of this study, has been, therefore, not to engage in moral disquisitions on the problem of evil in a historical personality, but to try to explain the grip Hitler had on the society which eventually paid such a high price for its support.
For, ultimately, Hitler’s nemesis as retribution for unparalleled hubris would prove to be not just a personal retribution, but the nemesis of the Germany which had created him. His own country would be left in ruins — much of Europe with it — and divided. What was formerly central Germany — ‘Mitteldeutschland’ — would experience for forty years the imposed values of the Soviet victor, while the western parts would eventually revive and thrive under a ‘pax americana’. A new Austria, having experienced Anschluß under Hitler, would prove in its reconstituted independence to have lost once and for all any ambitions to be a part of Germany. The eastern provinces of the Reich would have gone forever — and along with them dreams of eastern conquest. The expulsion of the German ethnic minorities from those provinces would remove — if at a predictably harsh price — the irredentism which had plagued the inter-war years. The big landed estates in those provinces, basis of the influence of the Junker aristocracy, would also be swept away. The Wehrmacht, the final representation of German military might, would be discredited and disbanded. With it would go the state of Prussia, bulwark of the economic and political power of the Reich since Bismarck’s day. Big industry, it is true, would survive sufficiently intact to rebuild with renewed strength and vigour — though it would now be increasingly integrated into a west-European and Americanized set of economic structures.
All this was to be the outcome of what the second part of this study attempts to grasp: how Hitler could exercise the absolute power which he had been permitted to acquire; how the most mighty in the land became bound still further to a highly personalized form of rule acclaimed by millions and exceptional in a modern state, until they were unable to extricate themselves from the will of one man who was taking them unerringly down the road to destruction; and how the citizens of this modern state became complicitous in genocidal war of a character hitherto unknown to mankind, resulting in state-sponsored mass murder on a scale never previously witnessed, continent-wide devastation, and the final ruination of their own country.
It is an awesome story of national as well as individual self-destruction, of the way a people and their representatives engineered their own catastrophe — as part of a calamitous destruction of European civilization. Though the outcome is known, how it came about perhaps deserves consideration once more. If this book contributes a little to deepen understanding, I will be well satisfied.
Manchester/Sheffield, April 2000
It is with the greatest of pleasure that I use this opportunity to add to the expressions of thanks which I made on concluding the first volume of this study. All the debts of gratitude — institutional, intellectual, and personal — owed two years ago apply now in equal, or even greater, measure. I hope those mentioned there will accept on this occasion my renewed, most sincere thanks even if I do not list them all once more by name. In some cases, however, my gratitude has to be explicitly reinforced. And in other instances new debts have been incurred.
For help with archival material specifically related to this volume, I am most grateful to the Directors, archivists, and staff of: the Bayerisches Hauptstaatsarchiv; the Berlin Document Center; the Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte (Stuttgart); Birmingham University Library; the Borthwick Institute (York); the Bundesarchiv, Berlin (formerly Koblenz); the Bundesarchiv/Militärarchiv, Potsdam (formerly Freiburg i.B.); the Gumberg Library, Duquesne University, Pittsburgh; the former Institut für Marxismus-Leninismus, Zentrales Parteiarchiv, East Berlin (GDR); the Library of Congress, Washington DC; the National Archives, Washington DC; Princeton University Library; the Public Record Office, London; the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, Hyde Park, New York; the ‘Special Archiv’, Moscow; the Wiener Library, London; the former Zentrales Staatsarchiv, Potsdam (GDR); and, not least, to Frau Regnauer, Director of the Amtsgericht Laufen, who went beyond the call of duty in giving me access to post-war testimony of some of the key witnesses to the events in the bunker in 1945.
Above all, as with the previous volume, I have been able to depend upon the indispensable expert assistance from the renowned Institut für Zeitgeschichte in Munich. I would like once more to voice my warmest thanks to the Director, Professor Dr Horst Möller, to all colleagues and friends at the Institut, and, quite especially, to the library and archive staff who performed wonders in attending to my frequent and extensive requests. Singling out individuals is invidious, but I must nevertheless mention that Hermann Weiß, as with the first volume, gave most generously of his time and archival expertise. And with her unrivalled knowledge of the Goebbels diaries, Elke Fröhlich was of great help, not least in dealing with a query regarding one important but difficult point of transcription of Goebbels’s awful handwriting.
Numerous friends and colleagues have supplied me at one time or another with valuable archival material or allowed me to see so far unpublished work they had written, as well as sharing views on evidence, scholarly literature, and points of interpretation. For their kindness and assistance in this regard, I am extremely grateful to: David Bankier, Omer Bartov, Yehuda Bauer, Richard Bessel, John Breuilly, Christopher Browning, Michael Burleigh, Chris Clarke, François Delpla, Richard Evans, Kent Fedorowich, Iring Fetscher, Conan Fischer, Gerald Fleming, Norbert Frei, Mary Fulbrook, Dick Geary, Hermann Graml, Otto Gritschneder, Lothar Gruchmann, Ulrich Herbert, Edouard Husson, Anton Joachimsthaler, Michael Kater, Otto Dov Kulka, Moshe Lewin, Peter Longerich, Dan Michmann, Stig Hornsriøh-Møller, Martin Moll, Bob Moore, Stanislaw Nawrocki, Richard Overy, Alastair Parker, Karol Marian Pospieszalski, Fritz Redlich, Steven Sage, Stephen Salter, Karl Schleunes, Robert Service, Peter Stachura, Paul Stauffer, Jill Stephenson, Bernd Wegner, David Welch, Michael Wildt, Peter Witte, Hans Woller, and Jonathan Wright.
A special word of thanks is owing to Meir Michaelis for his repeated generosity in providing me with archival material drawn from his own researches. Gitta Sereny, likewise, not only offered friendly support, but also gave me access to valuable papers in her possession, related to her fine study of Albert Speer. A good friend, Laurence Rees, an exceptionally gifted producer from the BBC with whom I have had the pleasure and privilege of cooperating on the making of two television series connected with Nazism, and also Detlef Siebert and Tilman Remme, the able and knowledgeable heads of the research teams on the programmes, have helped greatly, both with probing inquiries and with material derived from the films they helped create. Two outstanding German historians of the Third Reich, whose own interpretations of Hitler differ sharply, have been of singular importance to this study. Eberhard Jäckel has given great support as well as expert advice throughout, and Hans Mommsen, friend of many years, has been unstinting in his help, generosity, and encouragement. Both have also made unpublished work available to me. Finally, I am most grateful to two British experts on Nazi Germany, Ted Harrison and Jeremy Noakes, for reading and commenting on the completed typescript (though, naturally, any errors remaining are my own responsibility). The particular inspiration I derived from Jeremy’s work I was keen to acknowledge in the first volume, and am equally keen to underline on this occasion.
In a different way, I would like to express my thanks to David Smith, Director of the Borthwick Institute in York (where papers on Lord Halifax’s meeting with Hitler sitting alongside archival deposits from medieval Yorkshire correspond to my intellectual schizophrenia as a historian of Nazi Germany who still dabbles in the history of monasticism in Yorkshire during the Middle Ages). Through the generous offer of his time and expertise, it has proved possible to see through the press our edition of the thirteenth-and fourteenth-century account-book of Bolton Priory without interrupting the work needed to complete this volume. Without David’s help and input, this would not have been feasible.
Given the need to accommodate the writing of this book to my normal duties at the University of Sheffield, I have had to make notable demands on the patience of my editors, both at Penguin and abroad. I have been most fortunate in my editor at Penguin, Simon Winder, who has been an unfailing source of cheerful encouragement and optimism, as well as a perceptive reader and critic. I am extremely grateful to Simon, also for his advice on the photographic material and maps for the book, and to Cecilia Mackay for searching out and assembling the photographs. In this connection, I would also like to thank Joanne King of the BBC, and, for the notable assistance provided by the Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte in Stuttgart, its Director, Dr Gerhard Hirschfeld (excellent scholar and long-standing friend), and Irina Renz, who supervises its extensive photographic collection. In preparing the lengthy text for the printers, I owe a large debt of gratitude, as with the first volume, to the expert copy-editing of Annie Lee, the superb indexing skills of Diana LeCore, and the great help and support of all the excellent publishing team at Penguin.
Outside Britain, I am hugely indebted to Don Lamm, my editor at Norton in the USA, who never ceased to keep me on my toes with his extensive knowledge, his many insights, and his inexhaustible queries. To Ulrich Volz and Michael Neher at Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, and to my editors at Flammarion, Spektrum, and Ediciones Peninsula, who either did not panic or concealed their panic from me when delivery of a lengthy typescript still needing translation became delayed, I offer my gratitude for their patience and forbearance. And to the translators of the German, French, Dutch, and Spanish editions who worked miracles to enable the simultaneous appearance of the book in those languages, my warm thanks for their efforts are combined with my utmost admiration for their skills.
As with the previous volume, much of the checking of the extensive references provided in the notes had to be undertaken in a highly concentrated spell at the Institut für Zeitgeschichte in Munich. This time, thanks to Penguin and DVA, I could make use of invaluable assistance from Wenke Meteling (during a break in her own promising historical studies at the University of Tübingen); from my niece Charlotte Woodford (who took time out from her own doctoral research on early-modern German literature at Oxford University, was of great help also in subsequently locating a number of arcane works which I needed, and, not least, compiled so thoroughly and meticulously the List of Works Cited); and from my elder son, David, who, as two years earlier, generously took a week’s holiday from his work in the airline business — somewhat to the amazement of his colleagues — to come to Munich to check references for me. I am deeply grateful to all three of them. Without them, I would have been quite unable to complete the work in time.
As with the preparation of the first volume, the incomparable Alexander von Humboldt-Stiftung in Bonn-Bad Godesberg offered to support the month’s stay in Munich while the references were checked. I would like to express my sincere gratitude for this support, and for all the generosity from which I have been privileged to benefit since I first became a Fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt-Stiftung in the mid-1970s.
I would also like to thank most warmly a long-standing friend, Traude Spät, whose great skills as a language-teacher set me on the path many years ago to research on the darkest chapter in the history of her country, and who provided not only hospitality but also continuing encouragement of my work when, during my time in Munich, I was able to stay at her home.
In the flourishing Department of History at the University of Sheffield, I have at times had to rely more than I would have wished on the tolerance as well as good services of my colleagues and the patience of my students. I would like to thank them all most sincerely for their support, encouragement, and forbearance, and some colleagues quite especially for easing my path through taking on and efficiently carrying out sometimes quite onerous Departmental duties.
Most of all I have to thank Beverley Eaton, whose efficient help and encouragement in ten years of working as my secretary and personal assistant have been of immeasurable value in enabling the completion of this book in the face of many other pressing duties. More than anyone she has borne the brunt of the work — in the day-to-day running of a busy Department, in handling an extensive and mounting correspondence, and in coping with a variety of other tasks — which spilled over from my attempts to combine writing a biography of Hitler with being a professor at a university in a British system currently choking under the weight of its own bureaucracy. She has also been a constant source of support during the entire period of the writing of this work.
Finally, on home ground in Manchester, the Convenor and Fellows of SOFPIK, the club of which I am most proud to be a member, have shown their friendship and support for even longer than it has taken to write these two volumes on Hitler. I can never forget, though it is now many years ago, the sacrifices made by my mother and late father, who lived through Hitler’s war, to give me and my sister, Anne, the priceless opportunity to study at university. And, meanwhile, not just Betty, David, and Stephen, but now also as the years roll on Katie, Becky, and — though she is not yet aware of it — Sophie have lived in the shadow of a biography of Hitler for too long. I hope we can soon move out of this shadow and into the sunlight again. But I would like to thank them all as much as words can express for the different ways in which they have contributed to the making of this work.
1. The legacy of the First World War.
2. Poland under Nazi occupation.
3. The Western offensive, 1940: the Sichelschnitt attack.
4. The German Reich of 1942: the Nazi Party Gaue.
5. Nazi occupied Europe.
6. Limits of the German occupation of the USSR.
7. The Western and Eastern fronts, 1944–5.
8. The Soviet drive to Berlin.
‘After three years, I believe that, with the present day, the struggle for German equal rights can be regarded as closed.’ The day was 7 March 1936. The words were those of Hitler addressing the Reichstag as German troops, defying the western democracies, crossed into the demilitarized Rhineland. ‘Great are the successes which Providence has let me attain for our Fatherland in these three years,’ Hitler continued. ‘In all areas of our national, political, and economic life, our position has been improved… In these three years, Germany has regained its honour, found belief again, overcome its greatest economic distress and finally ushered in a new cultural ascent.’ In this paean to his own ‘achievements’, Hitler also explicitly stated that ‘we have no territorial claims to make in Europe’. He ended with an appeal — received to rapturous acclaim — to support him in new ‘elections’ (though only one party, the Nazi Party, was standing), set for 29 March.1 The outcome of these ‘elections’ was a vote of 98.9 per cent backing Hitler. But however ‘massaged’ the figures had been, whatever the combined weight of propaganda and coercion behind them, there can be no doubt that the overwhelming mass of the German people in March 1936 applauded Hitler’s recovery of German sovereignty in the Rhineland (as they had his earlier steps in throwing off the shackles of Versailles). It was a major triumph for Hitler, both externally and internally. It was the culminating point of the first phase of his dictatorship.
Hitler’s triumph also marked the plainest demonstration of the weakness of France and Great Britain, the dominant powers in Europe since the First World War. Hitler had broken with impunity the treaties of Versailles and Locarno, the main props of the post-war peace-settlement. And he had signalled Germany’s reassertiveness and new importance in international affairs.
Within Germany, by this point, Hitler’s power was absolute. The largest, most modern, and most thrusting nation-state in central Europe lay at his feet, bound to the ‘charismatic’ politics of ‘national salvation’. His position as Dictator was unchallenged. No serious threat of opposition faced him.
The mood of national exhilaration whipped up by the Rhineland spectacular was, it is true, of its nature short-lived. The worries and complaints of daily life returned soon enough. Worker discontent about low wages and poor work conditions, farmer resentment at the ‘coercive economy’ of the Food Estate, the grumbling of small tradesmen about economic difficulties, and ubiquitous consumer dissatisfaction over prices continued unabated. The behaviour and corruption of party functionaries was as much a source of grievance as ever. And in Catholic areas, where the ‘Church struggle’ had intensified, the party’s attacks on the Church’s practices and institutions, the assault on denominational schooling, and the harassing of clergy (including highly publicized trials of members of religious orders for alleged foreign-currency smuggling and sexual impropriety) left the mood extraordinarily sour. But it would be as well not to overestimate the significance of the discontent. None of it was translated into political opposition likely to cause serious trouble to the regime.
Oppositional forces on the Left, the Communists and Socialists, were crushed, cowed, and powerless — dismayed at the supine acquiescence of the western democracies as Hitler continued to upturn the post-war international order. The propaganda image of a statesman of extraordinary boldness and political genius seemed as a consequence of weakness of the western powers to match reality in the eyes of millions. Under threat of draconian recrimination, the perilous illegal work of undercover resistance had continued, even revived, for a brief period in late 1935 and early 1936 as foodstuff shortages led to rising unrest in industrial areas, and was never halted. But following a huge onslaught by the Gestapo to crush all indications of a short-lived Communist revival, any threat of resistance from below by illegal organizations was effectively ruled out.2 Resistance cells, especially those of the Communists, were constant prey to Gestapo informers, and were as a result frequently penetrated, the members arrested and interned in prisons or concentration camps. It has been estimated that around one in two of the 300,000 Communist Party members of 1932 was imprisoned at some stage during the Third Reich — a statistic of unrelenting attritional repression.3 Even so, new cells invariably sprang up. Those risking liberty, even life, showed great courage. But they lacked any semblance of power or influence, had no contacts in high places, and consequently lacked all opportunity to overthrow the regime. By this time, they could pose no real threat to Hitler. Opposition endangering his dictatorship — leaving aside the unpredictable actions of an outsider acting alone, as would occur in 1939 — could now in practice only come from within the regime itself.4
Meanwhile, the pillars of the regime — armed forces, Party, industry, civil service — were loyal in their support.
The national-conservative élites who had helped Hitler into power in imagining that they would be able to control and manipulate him, had largely swallowed their differences. Disquiet in such circles had been marked especially during the gathering internal crisis of spring and summer which had been ended by the massacre of the stormtroopers’ leadership (and the liquidation of numerous other genuine or presumed opponents) in the ‘Night of the Long Knives’ on 30 June 1934. But whatever their continuing misgivings about anti-capitalistic tendencies in the Party, the highhanded behaviour of Party bosses, attacks on the Christian Churches, the lawlessness of Party formations, and other disquieting aspects of the regime, the conservative élites had by early 1936 not distanced themselves from Hitler in any serious fashion.
The armed forces, though the officer corps often turned up their noses at the vulgar upstarts now running the country, had fewer grounds than most for dissatisfaction. The tensions with the SA which had preoccupied the military leaders in the early months of the regime were now long past. The political murder of two generals, the former Reich Chancellor Kurt von Schleicher and Major-General Ferdinand von Bredow, in the ‘Night of the Long Knives’ had seemed a small price to pay for removing the scourge of SA leader Ernst Röhm and his associates. Meanwhile, military leaders had seen their aim of rebuilding a powerful Wehrmacht, cherished even in the dark days of the 1920s, fully backed.5 The army had been delighted when general conscription, despite the prohibition under the Versailles Treaty, had been reintroduced (as the basis of a greatly expanded thirty-six-division peacetime army) in March 1935. In line with Hitler’s promise in February 1933 ‘that for the next 4–5 years the main principle must be: everything for the armed forces’,6 rearmament was now rapidly gathering pace. The existence of the Luftwaffe — a further flouting of Versailles — had been announced, without recrimination, in March 1935. And, remarkably, Great Britain had proved a willing accomplice in the undermining of Versailles in its willingness in June 1935 to conclude a naval treaty with the Reich allowing Germany to attain 35 per cent of the strength of the British Navy. With the remilitarization of the Rhineland Hitler had then accomplished a cherished desire of the military leadership long before they had contemplated such a move being possible. He was doing all that the leaders of the armed forces wanted him to do — and more. There could be few grounds for complaint.
Leaders of big business, though often harbouring private concerns about current difficulties and looming future problems for the economy, were, for their part, grateful to Hitler for the destruction of the left-wing parties and trade unions. They were again ‘masters in their house’ in their dealings with their work-force. And the road to massively increased profits and dividends was wide open. Even where Party interference was criticized, problems of export trade or shortage of raw materials were raised, or worries about the direction of the economy voiced, no industrialist advocated, even in private, a return to the ‘bad’ old democratic days of the Weimar Republic.
Some individuals from within the national-conservative élite groups — mainly in the leadership of the army and the upper echelons of the state bureaucracy — would some two years later at first gradually and falteringly begin to feel their way towards fundamental opposition to the Nazi regime. But at this time, they still saw their own interests, and what they took to be the national interest, served by the apparently successful policies of national assertiveness and reconstruction embodied in the figure of Hitler.
Only the intensified ‘Church Struggle’, causing heightened friction between clergy and churchgoers on the one side and Party activists on the other, cast a substantial shadow, notably in Catholic rural districts where the influence of the clergy remained unbroken, over what amounted otherwise to an extensive prevailing consensus (in part, of course, manufactured through a mixture of repression and propaganda). But the stance of both major Christian denominations was riddled with ambivalence. Though still wielding considerable influence over the churchgoing population, the clergy felt they had to tread warily in public pronouncements, particularly where religious matters were not directly concerned. In some ways, they were led by public opinion more than they were willing or able to lead it. They had to take account of the fact that Hitler’s national ‘successes’, most of all his triumph in remilitarizing the Rhineland, were massively popular even among the same members of their flocks who harshly criticized the Nazi attacks on the Churches.
The unrest stirred up by the ‘Church Struggle’ was extensive. But it was largely compartmentalized. It seldom equated with fundamental rejection of the regime, or with any commitment to active and outright political opposition. Fierce defence of traditional observances, customs, and practices against Nazi chicanery was compatible with support for Hitler personally, with approval for his assault on the Left, with applause for his national ‘triumphs’, with readiness to accept his discriminatory measures against Jews, with most measures, in fact, which did not directly impinge on Church affairs. Catholic bishops had, in the very first weeks of Hitler’s chancellorship, exhorted their charges to obedience to the new regime.7 And even at the height of the ‘Church Struggle’, they publicly endorsed its stance against ‘atheistic’ Bolshevism and affirmed their loyalty to Hitler.8 The brutality of the concentration camps, the murder in 1934 of the SA leaders, and the mounting discrimination against the Jews had brought no official protests or opposition. Similarly in a Protestant Church divided within itself, unease, criticism, or dissent over Nazi high-handedness towards the Church and interference in its affairs, practices, structures, and doctrine coexisted — apart from the examples of a few exceptional individuals — with official avowals of loyalty and a great deal of genuine approval for what Hitler was doing.
Underpinning Hitler’s unchallenged authority in spring 1936 was the adulation of the masses. Large sections of the population simply idolized him. Even his opponents acknowledged this. ‘What a fellow, Hitler. He had the courage to risk something,’ was a sentiment frequently recorded at the time by the underground socialist opposition. ‘The spirit of Versailles is hated by all Germans. Hitler has now torn up this accursed treaty and thrown it at the feet of the French,’ was the reason given for the upsurge of support for the Dictator even among those who up to then had been less than enthusiastic about him.9 In 1936, the German people — at any rate the vast majority of them — revelled in the national pride that Hitler (almost single-handedly, it often seemed, in the relentless trumpetings of effusive propaganda) had restored to the country.
The backing of a huge mass movement, the mainstay of his plebiscitary support, guaranteed that the flow of adulation was never stemmed. But the support for Hitler was genuine enough, and massive in extent. Most Germans, whatever their grumbles, were at least in some respects Hitler supporters by summer 1936. Unquestionably, the foreign-policy triumphs had united the overwhelming majority of the population behind his leadership. Admiration for the Führer was widespread. Indeed, at the level of humdrum daily life, too, many were prepared to credit Hitler with bringing about a change in Germany that seemed to them little short of miraculous. For most of those who did not belong to a persecuted minority, remain firm adherents of the suppressed Social Democrats or Communists, or feel wholly alienated by the attacks on the Churches, things seemed incomparably better than they had been when Hitler took over. Unemployment, far from increasing again (as the Jeremiahs had predicted), had practically been wiped out. Modestly, but noticeably, living standards were beginning to improve. More consumer goods were becoming available. The ‘people’s radio’ (Volksempfänger) was spreading to more and more households.10 Leisure pursuits, entertainment, and minor forms of tourism were expanding. The cinemas and dance-halls were full. And even if the much-trumpeted ‘glamour’ trips to Madeira or Norway on cruise-ships run by ‘Strength Through Joy’ (the leisure organization of the German Labour Front) remained the preserve of the privileged and made little real dent on class divisions, far more people were able to take advantage of days out in the country or visits to theatres and concerts.11 For many, even looking back long after the war, these were the ‘good times’.12
In a mere three years, Hitler appeared to have rescued Germany from the miseries and divisions of Weimar democracy, and to have paved the way for a grandiose future for the German people. The demagogue and political firebrand had apparently been transformed into a statesman and national leader of a stature to match that of Bismarck. That the the national revival had been accompanied by rigid authoritarianism, loss of civil rights, brutal repression of the Left, and intensifying discrimination against Jews and others thought unfit to belong to the ‘national community’ was seen by most as at least a price worth paying — by many as positively welcome.
Few at this stage had the foresight to imagine what would come — that Germany’s new international standing in spring 1936 would prove the prelude to boundless expansion, world war bringing slaughter on an immeasurable scale, unparalleled genocide, and the eventual destruction of the Reich itself. ‘That this new deed of Hitler is another milestone on the way to the hell’s jaws of destruction,’ the same perceptive report of the exiled Social Democratic movement added, ‘seems hardly to have entered the consciousness of anyone.’13
For most dictators, the acquisition of unrivalled power over the state would have been enough. For Hitler, this was no end in itself. In his thinking, power served a twin ideological purpose: destroying the Jews — for him, Germany’s mortal enemy; and, through their destruction, acquiring mastery over the entire continent of Europe — a platform for subsequent world dominance. Both interlocking aims, resting on a ‘world-view’ that saw racial struggle and survival of the fittest as the key determinants in human history, had been central to his thinking since the 1920s. However uncharted the route to attaining them, these basic ideas, once formed, never left him.
The obsessiveness and tenacity with which he held to these fixed ideas were part of Hitler’s unique role in steering Germany, Europe, and the world to disaster. However, relatively few of the millions of followers attracted to Nazism on its road to power saw matters precisely as Hitler did, or were drawn by fanatical adherence to the fixed points of the personal ‘world-view’ that constituted his own prime ideological driving-force.14 The growing appeal of Hitler as an alternative to Weimar democracy rested to a far greater extent on the forcefulness of his uncompromising, frontal assault on a visibly failing political system undermined in high places and increasingly haemorrhaging mass support. During his rise to power, his central ideological tenets had been embedded within the general, all-embracing armoury of hate-filled tirades against the Weimar ‘system’ and within the appealing counter-image he conjured up of national rebirth once the ‘criminals’ who had instigated defeat and revolution, with catastophic consequences, had been destroyed. His success as a demagogue lay in his ability to say what the disaffected masses wanted to hear, to speak their language — to capture and exploit a psychology of despair and invest it with new hope for a phoenix-like resurgence of the nation. He was able as no one else to give voice to popular hatreds, resentments, hopes, and expectations. He spoke more stridently, more vehemently, more expressively and appealingly than any of those with a similar ideological message. He was the mouthpiece of the nationalist masses at a decisive time of all-embracing national crisis.
And in showing that he could galvanize the nationalist masses as no one else could, he made himself an increasingly attractive proposition to those with power and influence, who saw him and his rapidly expanding Movement as an indispensable weapon in the fight against ‘Marxism’ (code not just for attacks on the Communists, but on the Social Democrats, the trade unions, and the democratic system itself), which the conservative élites had done everything possible to undermine. Through their help, in the final stage of the collapse of the Weimar Republic, Hitler was at last given what he had long striven for: control over the German state. Their fatal error had been to think that they could control Hitler. Too late, they discovered how disastrously they had underestimated him.
By the time he was levered into power, the ‘redemptive’ politics which Hitler preached — the overturning of the defeat and revolution of 1918 at their heart — had won the support of over 13 million Germans, among them an activist base of well over a million members of the various branches of the Nazi Movement. Hitler embodied their expectations of national salvation. The pseudo-religious strains of the cult built up around him — in an era when popular piety was still strong — had been able to portray him as a secular ‘redeemer’. A lost war, national humiliation, profound economic and social misery, lack of faith in democratic institutions and politicians, and readiness to look to a ‘strong man’ able to overcome through force the apparently insurmountable acute political chasms prevailing in a comprehensive state crisis, had all contributed to drawing large sections of the masses towards seductive slogans of national salvation.
But not only the politically naïve had been attracted. The deep cultural pessimism widespread in neo-conservative and intellectual circles could also find appeal in the idea of ‘national rebirth’, however much the vulgarity of Hitler and his followers might be disparaged. Already before the First World War, the sense of unstoppable cultural decline — often directly coupled with increasingly fashionable views on the allegedly inexorable growth of racial impurity — was gathering pace.15 In the aftermath of the war, the mood of cultural despair gripped ever more tightly among conservative intellectuals. Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West, with its melancholy prognosis of unstoppable cultural decay, was highly influential.16 Abstract art and modern theatre could be vilified as ‘Jewish’ and not truly German. Syncopated hot jazz — labelled ‘nigger music’ — seemed to epitomize the inevitable coming Americanization of not only music, but all walks of life, in the land of Bach and Beethoven.17
Germany’s cultural descent seemed mirrored in politics. Where only decades earlier Bismarck had bestridden the political stage as a giant, the country’s representatives now appeared reduced to squabbling pygmies, the irredeemably divided Reichstag a reflection of an irredeemably divided Germany — irredeemable, that is, unless a new national hero creating (if need be by force) new unity should emerge. Hopes could be invested only in the vision of such a hero — warrior, statesman, and high priest rolled into one — who would arise from the ashes of national humiliation and post-war misery to restore national pride and greatness.18 The seeds of subsequent intellectual backing for Hitler and his Movement were fertilized in such soil — however distant reality proved to be from the ideal.
The shrill antisemitism of the Nazis was no barrier to such support. The Jews — less than 1 per cent of the population, the vast majority more than anxious to be seen as good, patriotic German citizens — had few friends. Even those who might criticize overt Nazi violence and the frequent outrages which the Jewish community had to suffer during the Weimar Republic were often infected by some form of resentment, envy, or suspicion of the Jews. Though relatively few were drawn to the outright violence against Jews (which was nonetheless commonplace in Weimar Germany), latent or passive antisemitism was widespread.19 As incessant Nazi agitation shored up layers of animosity already intensified by the search for scapegoats for a lost war, revolution, mounting political crisis, and deep social misery, prejudice intensified. Allegations that Jews were disproportionately wealthy, harmfully dominant in the economy, and unhealthily influential in the cultural sphere proliferated. The sense, in other words, that Jews were different (however much they strove to prove the opposite) and were responsible for Germany’s ills was spreading fast even before Hitler took power.
Once he had done so, the anti-Jewish premisses of Nazism were able to build on such negative feelings, permeate the entire regime and, magnified by incessant propaganda, touch all levels of society. The intention of ‘removing’ the Jews from Germany, as a basis of national renewal resting upon racial ‘purification’, was therefore guaranteed to prompt initiatives from every corner of the regime. And among the many who felt unease or disquiet at the ferocity of antisemitism in the new state, widespread latent dislike of Jews and moral indifference to discrimination offered no barriers to spiralling persecution.
The restraining of open aggression towards the Jews in the Olympic year of 1936 was regarded by activists as a mere temporary device, and simply kept the pressure for further discriminatory measures simmering below the surface. Social resentment, malice, and greed, as well as outright hatred and ideological correctness made sure the screw of persecution did not loosen. By late 1937 the ‘aryanization’ of the economy was starting to advance rapidly. By 1938, open assaults on the Jewish community were again commonplace. The internal dynamics of an ideologically driven police force with its own agenda, on the look-out for new racial target-groups, searching for fresh possibilities of ‘solving the Jewish Question’, additionally meant that radicalism in the fight against the ‘racial enemy’ mounted, rather than subsided, in the ‘quiet years’ of 1936 and 1937.
Gradually, then, the ‘removal of the Jews’, which Hitler as early as 1919 had advanced as the necessary aim of a national government, began to seem like a realizable aim.20
In the other sphere most closely linked with Hitler’s own ideological obsessions, the expansion of Germany’s borders, radicalizing forces were also at work. If Hitler was the chief, most single-minded, and most unscrupulous exponent of the German expansionist drive, the dream of mastery in Europe was far from his dream alone. Rooted in certain strains of German imperialist ideology,21 it had been embedded as a key component in Hitler’s thinking by the mid-1920s at the latest. It had then gained momentum as the Nazi Movement itself had gained momentum and swollen massively in size in the early 1930s. It had formed part of the great ‘mission’ of ‘national redemption’ embodied in Hitler’s Utopian ‘vision’ of a glorious German future. However unreal acquisition of ‘living space’ in eastern Europe at the expense of the Soviet Union ‘by the sword’ (as Hitler had repeatedly stated in the later 1920s) might have seemed in conditions of unprecedented impoverishment and enfeeblement of the German state in the early 1930s, the vaguely expressed Hitlerian ‘vision’ of mastery in Europe had the great advantage that it could encompass (while not being identical with) long-held and differing conceptions of the revival of German dominance close to the hearts of powerful groups within the leadership of the army, in the upper echelons of the Foreign Ministry, in some prominent business circles, and among many intellectuals. As self-confidence returned during the first years of the Hitler dictatorship, as the economy recovered, as rearmament began to gather pace, and as the regime swept from one diplomatic triumph to another, the varying ideas of German expansion and dominance began gradually to congeal and to seem increasingly realistic.
Expansion, moreover, began to appear not just ideologically desirable as the fulfilment of the reborn nation, the culmination of the ‘national salvation’ which Hitler had preached; it was more and more seen to be desirable — even necessary — on economic and military grounds.
For businessmen, Hitler’s idea of ‘living space’ blended easily into their notions of a ‘greater economic sphere’ (Großraumwirtschaft), even if they favoured expansion to recover traditional German dominance in southeastern Europe rather than looking to the brutal colonization of Russia. As thoughts of economic recovery turned to thoughts of economic domination, and as the pressures of an increasingly armaments-orientated economy laid bare the mounting shortages of labour and raw materials, the attractiveness of expansion became all the more evident. The economic balancing-act of accommodating the demands of both consumer and armaments spending urgently needed a solution. The eventual setting of priorities in favour of an armaments economy effectively set the points for expansion. Indeed, for those sections of the economy aligned to armaments production, fervent backing for the regime’s expansionist programme was the certain route to soaring profits.
For the military, forced to bide its time as long as Germany had been shackled by the terms of the Versailles Treaty and the burden of reparations imposed on the country after the First World War (and effectively written off in 1932), the aim of restoring the army to its former stature in order to regain the lost territories and to establish dominance in central Europe was long-standing.22 The speed of the rebuilding of the armed forces after 1933 and the evident reluctance and inability of the western democracies to counter it now produced their own momentum. Not just to Hitler, but to some military leaders, too, it seemed opportune to take advantage of circumstances which could rapidly become less favourable once Britain and France entered an arms race to counter Germany’s rearmament. The international instability following the break-up of the post-Versailles order, the weakness of the western democracies, and the incipient arms-race all suggested that the time was more propitious than it might ever be again to establish Germany’s dominant role on the European continent. It was an argument that Hitler could often deploy with effect when addressing his generals. The proximity of potentially hostile neighbours in Poland and Czechoslovakia, prospects of conflict at some future point with France and Britain, and, above all, the fears — whatever the perception of current weakness — of Bolshevism to the east all added to the allure of expansionism and, in so doing, helped to tie the military to Hitler and to his own dreams of domination in Europe.
In such ways, Hitler’s fixed points of ideology — ‘removal of the Jews’ and preparations for a future titanic struggle to attain ‘living-space’ — acted as such broad and compelling long-term goals that they could easily embrace the differing interests of those agencies which formed the vital pillars of the Nazi regime. As a result, the instruments of a highly modern state — bureaucracy, economy, and, not least, army — in the heart of Europe increasingly bound themselves to Hitler’s ‘charismatic’ authority, to the politics of national salvation and the dream of European mastery embodied in the personalized ‘vision’ and power of one man. Hitler’s essential, unchanging, distant goals had inexorably become the driving-force of the entire Nazi regime, constituting the framework for the extraordinary energy and dynamism that permeated the entire system of rule. It was a dynamism which knew no terminal point of domination, no moment where power-lust could be satiated, where untrammelled aggression could lapse into mere oppressive authoritarianism.
The ‘good times’ which the first three years of Hitler’s dictatorship had seemingly brought to Germany — economic revitalization, order, prospects of prosperity, restored national pride — could not last indefinitely. They were built on sand. They rested on an illusion that stability and ‘normality’ were within reach. In reality, the Third Reich was incapable of settling into ‘normality’. This was not simply a matter of Hitler’s personality and ideological drive — though these should not be underestimated. His temperament, restless energy, gambler’s instinctive readiness to take risks to retain the initiative, were all enhanced through the gain in confidence that his triumphs in 1935 and 1936 had brought him. His expanding messianism fed itself on the drug of mass adulation and the sycophancy of almost all in this company. His sense that time was against him, the impatience to act, were heightened by the growing belief that he might not have much longer to live. But beyond these facets of Hitler’s personality, more impersonal forces were at work — pressures unleashed and driven on by the chiliastic goals represented by Hitler. A combination of both personal and impersonal driving-forces ensured that in the ‘quiet’ two years between the march into the Rhineland and the march into Austria the ideological dynamism of the regime not only did not subside but intensified, that the spiral of radicalization kept turning upwards.
The triumph of 1936, which had given Hitler’s own self-confidence such a huge boost, proved in this way not an end but a beginning. Most dictators would have been content to relish such a momentous triumph — and to draw the line. For Hitler, the remilitarization of the Rhineland was merely an important stepping-stone in the quest for mastery in Europe. The months that followed paved the way for the sharp radicalization of all aspects of the regime that became noticeable from late 1937 onwards, and which would take Germany and Europe two years later into a second cataclysmic conflagration.
Hitler was more convinced than ever, following the Rhineland triumph, that he was walking with destiny, guided by the hand of Providence. The plebiscite of 29 March 1936 was both at home and outside Germany a demonstration of Hitler’s enhanced strength. He could act with new confidence. During the summer, the international alignments that would crystallize over the next three years began to form. The balance of power in Europe had unmistakably shifted.1
Characteristically, Hitler’s first step after his ‘election’ success was to present a ‘peace plan’ — generous in his own eyes — to his coveted allies, the British. On 1 April, his special envoy in London, Joachim von Ribbentrop, the former champagne salesman who had become his most trusted adviser in foreign affairs, passed on the offer Hitler had drafted the previous day to the British government. It included a four-month moratorium on any troop reinforcements in the Rhineland, together with an expression of willingness to participate in international talks aimed at a twenty-five-year peace pact, restricting production of the heaviest forms of artillery alongside bans on the bombing of civilian targets and usage of poison-gas, chemical, or incendiary bombs.2 The seemingly reasonable ‘offer’ had arisen from the serious diplomatic upheaval following the German march into the Rhine-land, when belated French pressure for action against Germany had prompted British attempts to gain a commitment from Hitler to refrain from any increase in troop numbers on the Rhine and from fortifying the region.3 Naturally, on these concrete points Hitler had made no concessions. The reply of 6 May 1936 from the British Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, left the door open for improved relations through new international agreements to replace the now defunct Locarno settlement of 1925. But for all its diplomatic language, the reply was essentially negative. Eden informed the German Foreign Minister, Konstantin Freiherr von Neurath, that ‘His Majesty’s Government regret that the German Government have not been able to make a more substantial contribution towards the re-establishment of the confidence which is such an essential preliminary to the wide negotiations which they both have in view.’4 With this, the British government’s distrust of Hitler was plain. It would sit ever more uneasily alongside the determination, at practically any cost, to prevent Britain once more being embroiled in war.5 As Stanley Baldwin, the British Prime Minister, had put it at the end of April: ‘With two lunatics like Mussolini and Hitler you can never be sure of anything. But I am determined to keep the country out of war.’6
If Hitler was to encounter increased difficulties in attaining his desired alliance with Great Britain, his Rhineland triumph opened up new opportunities elsewhere. Italy, taken up since the previous autumn with the repercussions of the invasion of Abyssinia, now heading to a belatedly victorious conclusion for Mussolini, was more than content to see the attention of the western powers diverted by the remilitarization of the Rhineland. More than that: the diplomatic fall-out from the invasion of Abyssinia had forged better relations between Italy and Germany. As Mussolini had signalled earlier in the year, Italy’s interest in protecting Austria from German inroads had sharply diminished in return for Germany’s support in the Abyssinian conflict. The way was opening for the eventual emergence of the Berlin-Rome ‘axis’ towards the end of the year. Meanwhile, the inevitable consequence of the removal of any protection from Italy was that Austria was forced to acknowledge — as would be the case in a one-sided agreement in July — that the country had now fallen within Germany’s orbit.
Within a fortnight of the Austrian agreement, the diplomatic fault-lines in Europe would widen still further with Hitler’s decision to commit Germany to intervention in what would rapidly emerge as the Spanish Civil War — a baleful prelude to the catastrophe soon to engulf the whole of Europe. To shrewd observers, it was becoming clear: Hitler’s Rhineland coup had been the catalyst to a major power-shift in Europe; Germany’s ascendancy was an unpredictable and highly destabilizing element in the international order; the odds against a new European war in the foreseeable future had markedly shortened.
To the German public, Hitler once more professed himself a man of peace, cleverly insinuating who was to blame for the gathering storm-clouds of war. Speaking to a vast audience in the Berlin Lustgarten (a huge square in the city centre) on 1 May — once an international day of celebration of labouring people, now redubbed ‘National Labour Day’ — he posed the rhetorical question: ‘I ask myself,’ he declared, ‘who are then these elements who wish to have no rest, no peace, and no understanding, who must continually agitate and sow mistrust? Who are they actually?’ Immediately picking up the implication, the crowd bayed: ‘The Jews.’ Hitler began again: ‘I know…,’ and was interrupted by cheering that lasted for several minutes. When at last he was able to continue, he picked up his sentence, though — the desired effect achieved — now in quite different vein: ‘I know it is not the millions who would have to take up weapons if the intentions of these agitators were to succeed. Those are not the ones… ‘7
The summer of 1936 was, however, as Hitler knew only too well, no time to stir up a new antisemitic campaign. In August, the Olympic Games were due to be staged in Berlin. Sport would be turned into a vehicle of nationalist politics and propaganda as never before. Nazi aesthetics of power would never have a wider audience. With the eyes of the world on Berlin, it was an opportunity not to be missed to present the new Germany’s best face to its hundreds of thousands of visitors from across the globe. No expense or effort had been spared in this cause. The positive image could not be endangered by putting the ‘dark’ side of the regime on view. Open anti-Jewish violence, such as had punctuated the previous summer, could not be permitted. With some difficulties, antisemitism was kept under wraps. Manifestations thought distasteful for foreign visitors, such as anti-Jewish notices — ‘Jews not wanted here’, and other vicious formulations — at the roadside at the entry to towns and villages, had already been removed on Hitler’s orders at the insistence of Count Henri Baillet-Latour, the Belgian President of the International Olympic Committee, before the commencement the previous February of the Winter Olympics in the Bavarian alpine resort of Garmisch-Partenkirchen.8 The antisemitic zealots in the Party had temporarily to be reined in. Other objectives were for the time being more important. Hitler could afford to bide his time in dealing with the Jews.
Frenetic building work, painting, renovation, and refurbishment aimed at offering the most attractive appearance possible to Berlin, the city of the Games.9 The centre-point was the new Olympic Stadium. Hitler had angrily denounced the original plans of the architect Werner March as a ‘modern glass box’, and, in one of his usual childlike temper tantrums, had threatened to call off the Olympics altogether. It was probably a device to make sure he got his own way. And like pandering to a spoilt child, those around him made sure he was not disappointed. Speer’s rapidly sketched more classically imposing design immediately won his favour.10 Hitler was more than assuaged. Now fired with enthusiasm, he demanded at once that it should be the biggest stadium in the world — though even when under construction, and outstripping the size of the previous largest stadium at Los Angeles, built for the 1932 Games, he complained that everything was too small.11
The whole of Berlin was wreathed in swastika banners on 1 August as the arrival of the Olympic torch signalled, amid spectacular ceremonial, the commencement of the XIth modern Olympiad — Hitler’s Olympics. Overhead, the massive airship Hindenburg trailed the Olympic flag. In the stadium, a crowd of 110,000 people had assembled in great expectation. Over a million others, it was estimated, unable to get tickets, lined the Berlin streets for a glimpse of their Leader as a cavalcade of black limousines conveyed Hitler with other dignitaries and honoured guests to the newly designed high temple of sport. As he entered the great arena that afternoon, a fanfare of thirty trumpets sounded. The world-famous composer Richard Strauss, clad in white, conducted a choir of 3,000 in the singing of the national anthem, ‘Deutschland, Deutschland über alles’, and the Nazi Party’s own anthem, the ‘Horst-Wessel-Lied’, before conducting the new ‘Olympic Hymn’ which he had composed specially for the occasion. As the music faded, the giant Olympic bell began to toll, announcing the parade of the competing athletes that then followed. Many national delegations offered the Nazi salute as they passed Hitler’s dais; the British and Americans demonstrably refrained from doing so.12 All around the stadium, cameras whirred. The camera teams of Leni Riefenstahl, the talented director who, after her success in filming the 1934 Party Rally, had been commissioned to produce a film on the Olympics, had been installed in numerous strategic positions, accumulating their material for a celluloid record of the stirring events.13
At last, the opening ceremonials out of the way, the Games were under way. During the following two weeks, a glittering display of sporting prowess unfolded. Amid the notable achievements in the intense competition, none compared with the towering performance of the black American athlete Jesse Owens, winner of four gold medals. Hitler, famously, did not shake Owens’s hand in congratulation. It had not, in fact, been intended that he should congratulate Owens or any other winners. He had indeed, though this had apparently not been foreseen by the organizers, shaken the hands of the medal winners on the first day — Finnish and German. Once the last German competitors in the high jump had been eliminated that evening, he had left the stadium in the gathering dusk before completion of the event, which had been delayed and was running late. Whether a deliberate snub or not, this prevented him having to decide whether to shake the hands of Cornelius Johnson and David Albritton, two black Americans who came first and second in the high jump. But Jesse Owens did not compete in a final that day. And before he won any of his medals, Count Baillet-Latour had politely informed Hitler that as a guest of honour of the Committee, if the most important one, it was not in line with protocol for him to congratulate the winners. Thereafter, he congratulated none.14 He was, therefore, in no position to offer a direct affront to Owens when the American sprinter won the first of his gold medals next day for the 100 metres dash. That he would nevertheless have been prepared to snub Owens can be inferred from what he apparently said to Baldur von Schirach, the Hitler Youth leader: that the Americans should be ashamed at letting their medals be won by negroes, and that he would never have shaken hands with one of them. At Schirach’s suggestion that he be photographed alongside Jesse Owens, Hitler was said to have exploded in rage at what he saw as a gross insult.15
Alongside the sporting events, the Nazi leadership lost no opportunity to impress prominent visiting dignitaries with extravagant shows of hospitality. Joachim von Ribbentrop, just appointed by Hitler to be the new Ambassador in London, entertained hundreds of important foreign guests in lavish style at his elegant villa in Dahlem. Reich Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels threw a huge reception with an Italian theme and spectacular fireworks display for over 1,000 notable visitors — more than half of them from abroad — on the lovely Pfaueninsel (Peacock Island) in the Havel (the wide expanse of water to the west of Berlin), linked for the occasion to the mainland by specially built pontoon bridges. Hermann Göring, head of the Luftwaffe and recognized as the second man in the state, outdid all others in his festive extravaganza. The well-heeled and highly impressionable British Conservative Member of Parliament Sir Henry ‘Chips’ Channon, then in his late thirties, attended an unforgettable party: ‘I don’t know how to describe this dazzling crowded function,’ he confided to his diary. ‘We drove to the Ministerium’ — the Air Ministry in Berlin, where Göring’s own palatial residence was housed — ‘and found its great gardens lit up and 700 or 800 guests gaping at the display and the splendour. Goering, wreathed in smiles and orders and decorations received us gaily, his wife at his side… Towards the end of dinner a corps de ballet danced in the moonlight: it was the loveliest coup-d’œil imaginable, and there were murmurs of delighted surprise from all the guests… The end of the garden was in darkness, and suddenly, with no warning, it was floodlit and a procession of white horses, donkeys and peasants, appeared from nowhere, and we were led into an especially built Luna Park. It was fantastic, roundabouts, cafés with beer and champagne, peasants dancing and “schuhplattling” vast women carrying bretzels and beer, a ship, a beerhouse, crowds of gay, laughing people, animals… The music roared, the astonished guest[s] wandered about. “There has never been anything like this since the days of Louis Quatorze,” somebody remarked. “Not since Nero,” I retorted… ‘16
However magnificent the stadium, however spectacular the ceremonials, however lavish the hospitality, it would have been embarrassing for Hitler, and for national pride, had the German performance at the Games been a poor one. There was no need for concern. The German athletes — much to Hitler’s delight — turned the Games into a national triumph. They won more medals than the athletes of any other country.17 This did nothing to harm the nation’s belief in its own superiority.18
Above all, the Olympics were an enormous propaganda success for the Nazi regime. Hitler attended almost every day — underlining the significance of the Games — the crowd rising in salute each time he entered the stadium.19 The German media coverage was massive. Over 3,000 programmes were transmitted worldwide in around fifty languages; over 100 radio stations in the USA alone took transmission; they were even the first Games to be shown on television — though the coverage, confined to Berlin, gave out only fuzzy pictures.20 Almost 4 million spectators had watched the games (spending millions of Reich Marks for the privilege).21 Many more millions had read reports of them, or seen newsreel coverage. And of paramount importance: Hitler’s Germany had been open to viewing for visitors from all over the world. Most of them went away mightily impressed.22 ‘I’m afraid the Nazis have succeeded with their propaganda,’ noted the American journalist William Shirer. ‘First, they have run the games on a lavish scale never before experienced, and this has appealed to the athletes. Second, they have put up a very good front for the general visitors, especially the big businessmen.’23 An outsider within Germany, the Jewish philologist Victor Klemperer, living in Dresden, took a similarly pessimistic view. He saw the Olympics as ‘wholly and entirely a political affair… It’s incessantly drummed into the people and foreigners that here you can see the revival (Aufschwung), the blossoming, the new spirit, the unity, the steadfastness, the glory, naturally too the peaceful spirit of the Third Reich lovingly embracing the whole world.’ The anti-Jewish agitation and warlike tones had disappeared from the newspapers, he noted, at least until 16 August — the end of the Games. Guests were repeatedly reminded of the ‘peaceful and joyful’ Germany in stark contrast to the pillage and murder carried out (it was claimed) by ‘Communist hordes’ in Spain.24 The enthusiastic Hitler Youth activist Melita Maschmann later recalled young people returning to their own countries with a similar positive and peaceful image of Germany. ‘In all of us,’ she remembered, ‘there was the hope in a future of peace and friendship.’25 In her eyes and those of the many sharing her enthusiasm, it was a future which had no place for the Victor Klemperers and others regarded as racial misfits. In any case, the expectations of peaceful coexistence would reveal themselves only too soon as no more than pipe-dreams.
Away from the glamour of the Olympic Games and out of the public eye, the contrast with the external image of peaceful goodwill was sharp. By this time, the self-induced crisis in the German economy arising from the inability to provide for both guns and butter — to sustain supplies of raw materials both for armaments and for consumption — was reaching its watershed. A decision on the economic direction the country would take could not be deferred much longer. The outcome in the summer of 1936 was an economic policy geared inexorably to expansion, making international conflict all the more certain. By then, the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War had already started to move Europe closer towards explosion.
By the spring, it had become clear that it was no longer possible to reconcile the demands of rapid rearmament and growing domestic consumption. Supplies of raw materials for the armaments industry were by then sufficient for only two months.26 Fuel supplies for the armed forces were in a particularly critical state.27 Economics Minister Hjalmar Schacht was by now thoroughly alarmed at the accelerating tempo of rearmament and its inevitably damaging consequences for the economy. Only a sharp reduction in living standards (impossible without endangering the regime’s stability) or a big increase in exports (equally impossible given the regime’s priorities, exchange rate difficulties, and the condition of external markets) could in his view provide for an expanding armaments industry. He was adamant, therefore, that it was time to put the brakes on rearmament.28
The military had other ideas. The leaders of the armed forces, uninterested in the niceties of economics but fully taken up by the potential of modern advanced weaponry, pressed unabatedly for rapid and massive acceleration of the armaments programme. Within weeks of the reoccupation of the Rhineland, General Ludwig Beck, Chief of the General Staff of the army, had come up with plans to expand the thirty-six divisions envisaged in March 1935, when military service was reintroduced, into forty-one divisions. By the summer, the projections had been worked out for an army to be bigger in 1940 than the Kaiser’s war army had been in 1914.29
The army leaders were not acting in response to pressure from Hitler. They had their own agenda. They were at the same time ‘working towards the Führer’, consciously or unconsciously acting ‘along his lines and towards his aim’ (in phrases tellingly used by one Nazi official in a speech two years earlier, hinting at how the dynamic of Nazi rule operated)30 in the full knowledge that their rearmament ambitions wholly coincided with Hitler’s political aims, and that they could depend upon his backing against attempts to throttle back on armament expenditure. Reich War Minister Werner von Blomberg, Colonel-General Werner Freiherr von Fritsch, Commander-in-Chief of the Army, and his Chief of Staff, Beck, were thereby paving the way, in providing the necessary armed might, for the later expansionism which would leave them all trailing in Hitler’s wake.31
Even so, the economic impasse seemed complete. Huge increases in allocation of scarce foreign currency were demanded by both the Ministry of Food and the Ministry of Armaments.32 The position could not be sustained. Fundamental economic priorities had to be established as a matter of urgency. Autarky and export lobbies could not both be satisfied. Hitler remained for months inactive. He had no patent solution to the problem. The key figure at this point was Göring.
Several factors contributed to Göring’s arrival centre-stage in the arena of economic policy: his own insatiable drive to aggrandizement of power; his involvement the previous autumn when acting as Hitler’s troubleshooter in a dispute between Schacht and Richard Walther Darre, Reich Minister for Food and Agriculture, over the allocation of scarce foreign currency to import food products in short supply instead of for raw materials needed by the expanding armaments industries; Schacht’s attempt to use him as a barrier against Party intrusions into the economic sphere; the increasing desperation of Blomberg about the raw-materials crisis in armaments production which eventually forced him to back the power pretensions of the Luftwaffe chief; and not least Hitler’s patent reluctance to become involved, especially if it meant taking decisions in opposition to Party demands.33 Blomberg had been pressing for months for a ‘Fuel Commissar’. Schacht’s repeated rejection of the proposition, realizing the threat to his own sphere of competence, opened the door for Göring, as Air Minister and head of the Luftwaffe, to demand that the Fuel Commissar be answerable to him. Then in March 1936, as the fuel shortage reached crisis-point, Göring decided to put himself forward as ‘Fuel Dictator’.34 Keen for different reasons to block Göring’s ambitions, Schacht and Blomberg tried to tie him down within the framework of a four-man commission involving the three of them and Reich Minister Hanns Kerrl (a close ally of Göring to whom Hitler had assigned a role in economic affairs in spring 1936) to tackle the foreign-exchange crisis.35 Hoping to keep the party off his back, Schacht helped persuade Hitler to install Göring at the beginning of April as Plenipotentiary for the Securing of the Raw Materials and Foreign Exchange Demands of the Reich. Göring’s brief was to overcome the crisis, get rearmament moving again, and force through a policy of autarky in fuel production.36 But by now Göring was in the driving-seat. Schacht was rapidly becoming yesterday’s man. In May, shocked at the new power-base that his own Machiavellian manoeuvrings had unwittingly helped to create for Göring, the Economics Minister protested to Hitler. Hitler waved him away. He did not want anything more to do with the matter, he was reported as telling Schacht, and the Economics Minister was advised to take it up with Göring himself.37 ‘It won’t go well with Schacht for much longer,’ commented Goebbels. ‘He doesn’t belong in his heart to us.’ But Göring, too, he thought would have difficulties with the foreign-exchange and raw-materials issue, pointing out: ‘He doesn’t understand too much about it.’38
It was not necessary that he did. His role was to throw around his considerable weight, force the pace, bring a sense of urgency into play, make things happen. ‘He brings the energy. Whether he has the economic know-how and experience as well? Who knows? Anyway, he’ll do plenty of bragging,’ was Goebbels’s assessment.39
Göring soon had a team of technical experts assembled under Lieutenant-Colonel Fritz Löb of the Luftwaffe. In the research department of Löb’s planning team, run by the chemical firm IG Farben’s director Karl Krauch, solutions were rapidly advanced for maximizing production of synthetic fuels and rapidly attaining self-sufficiency in mineral-oil extraction.40 By midsummer, Löb’s planners had come up with a detailed programme for overcoming the unabated crisis. It envisaged a sharp tilt to a more directed economy with distinct priorities built on an all-out drive both to secure the armaments programme and to improve food provisioning through maximum attainable autarky in specific fields and production of substitute raw materials such as synthetic fuels, rubber, and industrial fats.41 It was not a war economy; but it was on the road to becoming the nearest thing to a war economy in peacetime.
At the end of July, while Hitler was in Bayreuth and Berchtesgaden, Göring had a number of opportunities to discuss with him his plans for the economy. On 30 July he obtained Hitler’s agreement to present them with a splash at the coming Reich Party Rally in September. ‘A big speech of the Colonel-General at the Party Congress’ was envisaged, according to a note in Göring’s desk-diary.42 Göring intended to reap the glory. The new economic programme would dominate the Rally. That was what the Luftwaffe chief had in mind. But when it came to propaganda, Hitler, sniffing another chance to enhance his image through the major announcement of a ‘Four-Year Plan’, was unwilling as ever to concede the star-role. He decided to deliver the key speech himself.43
Hitler had meanwhile become increasingly preoccupied with the looming threat, as he saw it, from Bolshevism, and with the prospect that the mounting international turmoil could lead to war in the nearer rather than more distant future.44 Whatever tactical opportunism he deployed, and however much he played on the theme for propaganda purposes, there is no doubt that the coming showdown with Bolshevism remained — as it had been since the mid-1920s at the latest — the lodestar of Hitler’s thinking on foreign policy. In 1936, this future titanic struggle started to come into sharper focus.
At his private meeting with the former British Air Minister Lord Londonderry in February 1936, Hitler had concentrated on what he described as ‘the growing menace to the world of Bolshevism’. He was, he said, destined to play the part of the prophet internationally, as he had done within Germany some fifteen years earlier. He understood the dangers of Bolshevism better than other European statesmen, he went on, since ‘his political career had grown out of a struggle against Bolshevist tendencies’. Continental Europe was unbalanced and unstable, he claimed. Most governments were weak and short-lived. The continent was living ‘from hand to mouth’. The ‘extraordinary development of Soviet power’ had to be seen against this background of ‘decay’. Moreover, he added, playing up the bogey of Bolshevism to his British guest, the Soviet Union was not merely the greatest military power on the continent, but also ‘the embodiment of an idea’. He went on to provide Lord Londonderry with facts and figures on Soviet military and economic might. The admission of Russia to the League of Nations reminded him of the fable of Reynard the Fox — overcoming the suspicion of the other animals, then devouring them one after another. ‘Just in the same way as one does not allow germ-carriers in ordinary life to frequent the society of healthy people, so we must keep Russia at a distance,’ he maintained. But if the decomposition of Europe and the strengthening of the Soviet Union continued, he asked, ‘what will the position be in ten, twenty, or thirty years?’45
Hitler had visualized for Lord Londonderry the prospect of war between the Soviet Union and Japan, with defeat for the Japanese opening the path for Soviet domination also of the Far East. After meeting the Japanese ambassador in Berlin early in June, Hitler repeated his view that deepening conflict was on the way in the Far East, though he now thought that Japan would ‘thrash’ Russia. At that point, ‘this colossus will start to totter (ins Wanken kommen). And then our great hour will have arrived. Then we must supply ourselves with land for 100 years,’ he told Goebbels. ‘Let’s hope we’re ready then,’ the Propaganda Minister added in his diary notes, ‘and that the Führer is still alive. So that action will be taken.’46
Holidaying in Berchtesgaden in mid-July, Hitler told Goebbels that ‘the next Party Rally will again be against the Bolsheviks’.47 A few days later in Bayreuth, where as usual he was attending the Wagner Festival, he warned two of his most ardent English devotees, the good-looking daughters of the British aristocrat Lord Redesdale, Unity Valkyrie Mitford (who said that sitting next to Hitler was ‘like sitting beside the sun’)48 and her sister Diana (divorced from a member of the wealthy Guinness family and on the verge of marrying — in a ceremony attended by Hitler and Goebbels — the leader of the British Union of Fascists, Oswald Mosley), of the ‘Jewish and Bolshevik danger’.49 By this time, events in Spain were also focusing Hitler’s attention on the threat of Bolshevism. Until then, he had scarcely given a thought to Spain. But on the evening of 25 July, following a performance of Siegfried conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler, his decision — against the advice of the Foreign Office — to send aid to General Franco committed Germany to involvement in what was rapidly to turn into the Spanish Civil War.50
The refusal of the Spanish Right to accept the narrow victory of the left-wing Popular Front in the elections of February 1936 had left Spain teetering on the brink of civil war. During late spring and early summer, horror stories of terroristic outrages, political murders, violent attacks on clergy, and burning churches had started to pour out of a country rapidly descending into political chaos. Europe was alarmed. For the Spanish Right, there was little difficulty in portraying it as the work of Marxist revolutionaries and evoking the image of a country on the verge of Communist takeover.51 Between May and July, army plans for a coup took shape.52 On 17 July army garrisons in Spanish Morocco rose against the elected government. The Commander-in-Chief of the army in Morocco, General Francisco Franco, put himself next morning at the head of the rebellion. But a mutiny of sailors loyal to the Republic denied him the transport facilities he needed to get his army to the mainland, most of which remained in Republican hands. The few planes he was able to lay hands upon did not amount to much in terms of an airlift.53 In these unpropitious circumstances, Franco turned to Mussolini and Hitler. It took over a week to overcome Mussolini’s initial refusal to help the Spanish rebels. Hitler was persuaded within a matter of hours. Ideological and strategic considerations — the likelihood of Bolshevism triumphing on the Iberian peninsula — were uppermost in his mind. But the potential for gaining access to urgently needed raw materials for the rearmament programme — an aspect emphasized by Göring — also appears to have played its part in the decision.54
Good luck was on Franco’s side in his approach to Germany to send transport planes. His initial request for German aid had been coolly received by the Foreign Office. He decided to make a direct appeal to Hitler. A German businessman, Johannes Bernhardt, the head of an export firm which had close dealings with the Spanish army in Morocco and a member of the Nazi Party Foreign Organization (the Auslandsorganisation, or AO), had offered his help in mediation to Franco. As late as 22 July, Franco had not had a plane at his disposal capable of reaching Germany. But the following day a Lufthansa Junkers Ju-52/3m mail plane, sequestered by the rebels in Las Palmas amid German protests, arrived in Morocco, carrying the rebel General Orgaz. Franco now took up Bernhardt’s offer of help. Carrying a written request from Franco to Hitler — and in all probability a similar one to Göring55 — Bernhardt flew to Berlin, accompanied by the sixty-year-old branch leader of the AO in Tetuán, Adolf Langenheim, arriving on the evening of 24 July at Tempelhof aerodrome.56
Meanwhile, the German Foreign Office had been increasingly worried about the deteriorating situation in Spain. A number of attacks on German citizens by Communists and anarchists led to two warships being dispatched into Spanish coastal waters. Concern grew that a victory of the government forces would pave the way for a Communist takeover. The prospect of Bolshevik dominance also in the south-west of Europe — compounding the victory of the left-wing Popular Front in France earlier in the year — seemed a real one.57 Even so, the Foreign Office thought direct involvement in Spain too risky. Gauleiter Ernst Wilhelm Bohle, the head of the AO, who had advanced the case of Franco’s emissaries, was told in no uncertain terms to take the matter no further.58 Ignoring the warning, however, Bohle telephoned Rudolf Heß, Deputy Head of the Party, who immediately arranged for the emissaries to fly in his personal plane to meet him in Thuringia. After a two-hour discussion, Heß rang Hitler. A meeting with the Führer was fixed for the evening of the following day, 25 July, in Bayreuth.59
It was close to ten o’clock in the evening when Bernhardt and Langenheim were ushered into Hitler’s presence in the Wagner residence, ‘Haus Wahnfried’. Hitler had by then been well briefed on the situation in Spain. He knew the rebels’ position had worsened. The last report from the German Embassy in Madrid that morning had warned that a long civil war was in prospect, and that a Republican victory would have damaging consequences for German interests. The report raised the spectre of a Spanish soviet regime closely bound into the French-Soviet alliance.60 Göring had by this time also had the opportunity to brief Hitler on the economic advantages to be gained from supporting Franco, were the rebel cause to succeed.61
That, however, was far from a foregone conclusion. Bernhardt reinforced the message that Franco’s struggle against Communism was lost without German aid.62 The talk moved on to the question of payment for the aid. Noticing that Hitler looked ‘somewhat shocked’ when he mentioned purely nominal sums, Bernhardt stressed the ‘rich sources’ to be gained from Andalusia, almost certainly going on to indicate benefits to Germany from increased raw material imports in exchange for armaments.63 Hitler was still hesitant. But once he had turned the audience into another lengthy monologue, in which he praised the idealism of Spanish nationalists and ranted endlessly about the dangers of Bolshevism, the outcome was little in doubt. In contrast to the position of the Foreign Ministry, he had convinced himself that the dangers of being sandwiched between two Bolshevik blocs outweighed the risks of German involvement in the Spanish crisis — even if, as seemed likely, it should turn into full-blown and protracted civil war. War against the Soviet Union — the struggle for Germany’s ‘living space’ — was, in his view, at some point inevitable. The prospect of a Bolshevik Spain was a dangerous complication.64 He decided to provide Franco with the aid requested. It was an indication both of Hitler’s own greatly increased self-confidence and of the weakened position of those who had advised him on international affairs that he took the decision alone. Possibly, knowing the reluctance of the Foreign Office to become involved, and aware that Göring, for all his interest in possible economic gains, shared some of its reservations, Hitler was keen to present doubters with a fait accompli?65 Possibly, too, Hitler was also still under the influence of Wagner’s Siegfried, which he had come from earlier in the evening. At any rate, the operation to assist Franco came to be dubbed ‘Unternehmen Feuerzauber’ (‘Operation Magic Fire’), recalling the heroic music accompanying Siegfried’s passage through the ring of fire to free Brünnhilde.66
Only after Hitler had taken the decision were Göring and Blomberg summoned. Göring, despite his hopes of economic gains from intervention, was initially ‘horrified’ about the risk of international complications through intervention in Spain. But faced with Hitler’s usual intransigence, once he had arrived at a decision, Göring was soon won over.67 Blomberg, his influence — not least after his nervousness over the Rhineland affair — now waning compared with the powerful position he had once held, went along without objection.68 Ribbentrop, too, when he was told on arrival in Bayreuth that Hitler intended to support Franco, initially warned against involvement in Spain. But Hitler was adamant. He had already ordered aircraft to be put at Franco’s disposal. The crucial consideration was ideological: ‘If Spain really goes communist, France in her present situation will also be bolshevised in due course, and then Germany is finished. Wedged between the powerful Soviet bloc in the East and a strong communist Franco-Spanish bloc in the West, we could do hardly anything if Moscow chose to attack us.’69 Hitler brushed aside Ribbentrop’s weak objections — fresh complications with Britain, and the strength of the French bourgeoisie in holding out against Bolshevism — and simply ended the conversation by stating that he had already made his decision.70
Twenty Junkers Ju-52 transport planes — ten more than Franco had asked for — supported by six Heinkel He 51 fighters were to be provided and were soon en route to Spanish Morocco and to Cádiz, in southern Spain, which had rapidly fallen to the insurgents. Subsequent aid was to follow through a barter system of German equipment for Spanish raw materials under cover of two export companies, one German and one Spanish.71 Despite the warnings he had received that Germany could be sucked into a military quagmire, and however strongly ideological considerations weighed with him, Hitler probably intervened only on the assumption that German aid would tip the balance quickly and decisively in Franco’s favour. ‘We’re taking part a bit in Spain. Not clear. Who knows what it’s good for,’ commented Goebbels laconically the day after the decision to help Franco had been taken.72 Short-term gains, not long-term involvement, were the premiss of Hitler’s impulsive decision. Significant military and economic involvement in Spain began only in October.73 By then, Göring — spurred by his role as head of the new Four-Year Plan as well as chief of the Luftwaffe — was the driving-force. Hitler agreed to substantial increases in German military assistance to Spain. Fighters, bombers, and 6,500 military personnel — the future Legion Condor (a mixed Luftwaffe unit assigned to support for the Spanish nationalists) — were dispatched to take part in what was rapidly developing into a rehearsal for a general showdown between the forces of Fascism and Communism.74
The ideological impetus behind Hitler’s readiness to involve Germany in the Spanish maelstrom — his intensified preoccupation with the threat of Bolshevism — was not a cover for the economic considerations that weighed so heavily with Göring.75 This is borne out by his private as well as his public utterances. Publicly, as he had told Goebbels the previous day would be the case, in his opening proclamation to the Reich Party Rally in Nuremberg on 9 September, he announced that the ‘greatest world danger’ of which he warned for so long — the ‘revolutionizing of the continent’ through the work of ‘Bolshevik wire-pullers’ run by ‘an international Jewish revolutionary headquarters in Moscow’ — was becoming reality. Germany’s military rebuilding had been undertaken precisely to prevent what was turning Spain into ruins from taking place in Germany.76 Out of the public eye, his sentiments were hardly different when he addressed the cabinet for three hours on the foreign-policy situation at the beginning of December. He concentrated on the danger of Bolshevism. Europe was divided into two camps. There was no more going back. He described the tactics of the ‘Reds’. Spain had become the decisive issue. France, ruled by Prime Minister Léon Blum — seen as an ‘agent of the Soviets’, a ‘Zionist and world-destroyer’ — would be the next victim. The victor in Spain would gain great prestige. The consequences for the rest of Europe, and in particular for Germany and for the remnants of Communism in the country, were major ones. This was the reason, he went on, for German aid in armaments to Spain. ‘Germany can only wish that the crisis is deferred until we are ready,’ he declared. ‘When it comes, seize the opportunity (zugreifen). Get into the paternoster lift at the right time. But also get out again at the right time. Rearm. Money can play no role.’77 Only two weeks or so earlier, Goebbels had recorded in his diary: ‘After dinner I talked thoroughly with the Führer alone. He is very content with the situation. Rearmament is proceeding. We’re sticking in fabulous sums. In 1938 we’ll be completely ready. The showdown with Bolshevism is coming. Then we want to be prepared. The army is now completely won over by us. Führer untouchable… Dominance in Europe for us is as good as certain. Just let no chance pass by. Therefore rearm.’78
The announcement of the Four-Year Plan at the Nuremberg Party Rally in September had by then pushed rearmament policy on to a new plane. Priorities had been established. They meant in practice that balancing consumer and rearmament spending could only be sustained for a limited period of time through a crash programme which maximized autarkic potential to prepare Germany as rapidly as possible for the confrontation which Hitler deemed inevitable and other leading figures in the regime thought probable, if not highly likely, within the following few years. Through the introduction of the Four-Year Plan, Germany was economically pushed in the direction of expansion and war. Economics and ideology were by now thoroughly interwoven. Even so, the decision to move to the Four-Year Plan was ultimately an ideological one. Economic options were still open — even if the policies of the previous three years meant they had already narrowed sharply. Schacht, Goerdeler, and others, backed by important sectors of industry, favoured a retreat from an armaments-led economy to a re-entry into international markets. Against this, the powerful IG-Farben lobby, linked to the Luftwaffe, pushed for maximizing production of synthetic fuels. The stalemate persisted throughout the summer. The economic crisis which had dogged Germany during the previous winter and spring was unresolved. With no end to the dispute in sight, Hitler was pressed in late August to take sides. The preoccupation with Bolshevism, which had weighed heavily with him throughout the summer, was decisive in his own inimitable approach to Germany’s economic problems.
The driving-force behind the creation of what came to be known as the Four-Year Plan was not, however, Hitler but Göring. Following their discussions in Berchtesgaden and Bayreuth in July, Hitler had requested reports from Göring on the economic situation, and how the problems were to be overcome. At the beginning of August Göring had in turn demanded memoranda from different branches of the economy to be sent to him as rapidly as possible. The timing was determined by propaganda considerations, not economic criteria: the proximity of the Reich Party Rally in early September was what counted. The complex reports could not be put together as swiftly as Göring had wanted. By the time he travelled to Berchtesgaden at the beginning of the last week in August, he only had a survey from his Raw Materials and Currency staff about the possibilities of synthetic raw-material production within Germany to hand.79 He had meanwhile been encountering powerful opposition to his economic plans from Schacht, who was voicing feelings in some important sectors of business and industry, such as those of one of the most important Ruhr industrialists, Albert Vögler, head of the biggest steel concern in Europe, the Vereinigte Stahlwerke, who had strongly backed a Hitler Chancellorship in the final phase of the Weimar Republic. Carl Goerdeler, too, Lord Mayor of Leipzig, who had served Hitler as Reich Price Commissioner and would eventually become a leading opponent of the regime, joined in the criticism towards the end of the month.80 It was in these circumstances that Hitler was persuaded during the last week of August to dictate a lengthy memorandum on the future direction of the economy — one of the extremely rare occasions in the Third Reich (leaving aside formal laws, decrees, and directives) that he put forward his views in writing.
Most likely, the memorandum, containing neither title nor signature and possibly completed only on 2 September, two days before it was presented to government ministers, was compiled at Göring’s suggestion.81 The Luftwaffe chief stood to gain most directly from it in the power-struggle with Schacht for dominance over the economy. ‘The lack of understanding of the Reich Economics Ministry and the resistance of German business to all large-scale (großzügigen) plans prompted him to compose this memorandum on the Obersalzberg,’ Hitler told his Armaments Minister Albert Speer, when handing him a copy eight years later.82 The only two copies of the memorandum originally distributed went to Göring himself, and to his ally against Schacht, War Minister Blomberg. The Economics Minister himself was not shown a copy of the memorandum, and in fact only heard as late as 2 September of Hitler’s intention to proclaim a new economic policy at the Reich Party Rally.83
The memorandum fell into two parts. The first, on ‘the political situation’, was pure Hitler. It was couched exclusively in ideological terms. The ‘reasoning’ was, as it had been in Mein Kampf and the Second Book, social-Darwinist and racially determinist. ‘Politics are the conduct and course of the historical struggle for life of peoples,’ he began. ‘The aim of these struggles is the assertion of existence.’ The world was moving towards a new conflict, centred upon Bolshevism, ‘whose essence and aim… is solely the elimination of those strata of mankind which have hitherto provided the leadership and their replacement by world-wide Jewry’. Germany would be the focus of the inevitable showdown with Bolshevism. ‘It is not the aim of this memorandum to prophesy the time when the untenable situation in Europe will become an open crisis. I only want, in these lines, to set down my conviction that this crisis cannot and will not fail to arrive,’ he asserted. A victory of Bolshevism over Germany would lead not to a Versailles Treaty but to the final destruction, indeed to the annihilation, of the German people… In face of the necessity of defence against this danger, all other considerations must recede into the background as being completely irrelevant.’ The defensive capacity of the German people had been greatly strengthened under National Socialism. The level of ideological solidarity was unprecedented. But making the German Army ‘into the first army in the world, in training, in the raising of units, in armaments, and, above all, in spiritual education (in der geistigen Erziehung)’ was vital. If this did not happen, then ‘Germany will be lost,’ he declared.84
The second part of the memorandum, dealing with ‘Germany’s economic situation’, and offering a ‘programme for a final solution of our vital need’, bore unmistakable signs of Göring’s influence, resting in turn on the raw material programmes drawn up by his planning staff, with significant input by IG Farben.85 The resemblance to statements on the economy put forward by Göring earlier in the summer suggests that Hitler either had such statements before him when compiling his memorandum, or that his Raw Materials Commissar worked alongside him in preparing the memorandum.86 The tone was nonetheless classically Hitlerian — down to the threat of a law ‘making the whole of Jewry liable for all damage inflicted by individual specimens of this community of criminals upon the German economy’, a threat put into practice some two years later.
A temporary solution to the economic problems was to be found in partial autarky. Maximizing domestic production wherever possible would allow for the necessary food imports, which could not be at the cost of rearmament. Fuel, iron, and synthetic-rubber production had to be stepped up. Cost was irrelevant. Objections — and the opposition voiced in the previous weeks — were taken on board and brushed aside. The nation did not live for the economy; rather, ‘finance and the economy, economic leaders and theories must all exclusively serve this struggle for self-assertion in which our people are engaged’. The Ministry of Economics had simply to set the national economic tasks; private industry had to fulfil them. If it could not do so, the National Socialist state, Hitler threatened, would ‘succeed in carrying out this task on its own’. In typical fashion, he couched his threat in stark alternatives: ‘The German economy will either grasp the new economic tasks or else it will prove itself quite incompetent to survive in this modern age when a Soviet State is setting up a gigantic plan. But in that case it will not be Germany that will go under, but, at most, a few industrialists.’ Though Germany’s economic problems, the memorandum asserted, could be temporarily eased through the measures laid down, they could only finally be solved through the extension of ‘living space’. It was ‘the task of the political leadership one day to solve this problem’. Again this was redolent of Mein Kampf and the Second Book. But it also matched Göring’s aggressive tone in his economic statements earlier in the summer. Only nuances separated Göring’s more pragmatic nationalist-imperialism from Hitler’s race-determined version. Both variants implied war at some point in the future — when economic mobilization, wrote Hitler, would become ‘solely a question of will’. The memorandum closed by advocating a ‘Several Years Plan’ — the term ‘Four-Year Plan’ was not mentioned in the document — to maximize self-sufficiency in existing conditions and make it possible to demand economic sacrifices of the German people. Opportunities had been missed during the previous four years; in the next four years, the German army had to be made operational, the economy made ready for war.87
Even in the economic sections, few concrete details were offered. No organizational structure was laid down. The economic ideas mooted in the second part were in themselves not new. But the drive for maximum autarky in the interests of a forced rearmament drive was now taken on to a new plane, and established as the outright priority.88 Hitler’s economic notions were confined, as always, to an ideological imperative. The memorandum was wholly programmatic. The more pragmatic expansionist notions of Göring and Blomberg both in the military and in the economic sphere were accommodated within the Hitlerian ideological vision. Moreover, Hitler’s way of argumentation was characteristic. The inflexibility of its ideological premisses coupled with the very broadness of its dogmatic generalities made it impossible for critics to contest it outright without rejection of Hitler himself and his ‘world-view’. This ‘world-view’, whatever tactical adjustments had proved necessary, showed again its inner consistency in the central place assigned to the coming showdown with Bolshevism — an issue which, as we have seen, preoccupied Hitler throughout 1936.
Göring got what he wanted out of Hitler’s memorandum. Armed with Hitler’s backing he was able to determine his supremacy in the central arena of the armaments economy.89 Schacht recognized the scale of the defeat he had suffered.90 Hitler was reluctant to drop him because of the standing he enjoyed abroad.91 But his star was now waning fast. Alternative policies to that advanced in Hitler’s memorandum could now be condemned out of hand. Goerdeler’s memorandum rejecting the autarkic programme and arguing for curtailment of rearmament in favour of re-entry into the international market economy was peremptorily dismissed by the new armaments supremo. The dictatorial style in which he conducted the meeting of the Prussian Ministerial Council on 4 September was that of the victor in the power-struggle, basking in the certainty of control over the massive economics empire now opening up before him.92
The growth of this huge domain did not derive from a clearly conceived notion of economic planning. Hitler — in so far as he had given any consideration at all to organizational matters — had, it appears, simply imagined that Göring would work through only a small bureaucracy and function as an overlord in coordinating economic policy with the relevant ministries, which would retain their specific responsibilities.93 Instead, Göring rapidly improvised a panoply of ‘special commissioners’ (Sonderbeauftragte), each backed by their own bureaucratic apparatus, for different facets of the Four-Year Plan, often without clear lines of control, not infrequently overlapping or interfering with the duties of the Ministry of Economics, and all of course answerable to Göring himself. It was a recipe for administrative and economic anarchy.
But the momentum created by the Four-Year Plan was immense. All areas of the economy were affected in the following peacetime years. The resulting pressures on the economy as a whole were not sustainable indefinitely. The economic drive created its own dynamic which fed directly into Hitler’s ideological imperative. The ambitious technocrats in the offices and sub-organizations of the Four-Year Plan, not least the leaders of the rapidly expanding chemicals giant IG Farben, were in their own way — whatever their direct motivation — also ‘working towards the Führer’. Territorial expansion became necessary for economic as well as for ideological reasons. And racial policy, too, was pushed on to a new plane as the spoils to be gained from a programme of ‘aryanization’ were eagerly seized upon as easy pickings in an economy starting to overheat under its own, self-manufactured pressures.
When Hitler drew up his memorandum in late August 1936 all this was in the future. Hitler had no clear notion himself of how it would all unfold. Nor was he specially interested in such questions. Propaganda concerned him more immediately than economics in drawing up the memorandum. He needed the new economic programme as the cornerstone of the Party Rally. His big speech there on the economy — which, as we have seen, Göring had initially wanted to deliver — was closely based, occasionally word for word, on his August memorandum.94 He now spoke publicly for the first time of a ‘new Four-Year Programme’ (recalling his initial ‘four-year plan’ put forward immediately after his appointment as Chancellor in 1933).95 A planned economy sounded modern. A ‘Five-Year Plan’ had already been taken up in the Bolshevik state at which German preparations were ultimately targeted.96 The designation ‘Four-Year Plan’ rapidly caught on in the German press. It became officially so called some weeks later, on 18 October, with Hitler’s ‘Decree for the Implementation of the Four-Year Plan’.97
In the foreign-policy arena, the shifts which had begun during the Abyssinian crisis were hardening across the summer and autumn of 1936. Clearer contours were beginning to emerge. Diplomatic, strategic, economic, and ideological considerations — separable but often closely interwoven — were starting to take Germany into more dangerous, uncharted waters. The possibility of a new European conflagration — however unimaginable and horrifying the prospect seemed to most of the generation that had lived through the last one — was starting to appear a real one.
The long-desired alliance with Britain, which had seemed a real possibility in June 1935 at the signing of the Naval Pact, had remained elusive. It was still a distant dream. The Abyssinian crisis and the reoccupation of the Rhineland, now the Spanish Civil War, had all provided hurdles to a closer relationship despite German efforts to court those they imagined had power and influence in Britain and some British sympathizers in high places.98 Ribbentrop, appointed in the summer an unwilling Ambassador to London with a mandate from Hitler to bring Britain into an anti-Comintern pact, had since his triumph with the Naval Treaty become increasingly disillusioned about the prospects of a British alliance.99 Hitler pointed out to Mussolini in September that Ribbentrop’s appointment marked the last attempt to win over Great Britain.100 But the new ‘Ambassador Brickendrop’, as he was lampooned on account of the innumerable faux pas (such as saluting the King with the ‘Hitler Greeting’) for which he became renowned in London diplomatic circles, or ‘Half-Time Ambassador’ because of his frequent absences, in any case made his own personal contribution to the growing alienation felt in Britain towards the Third Reich.101 Hitler saw the abdication on 11 December 1936 of King Edward VIII, in the face of opposition in Britain to his proposed marriage to a twice-divorced American, Mrs Wallis Simpson, as a victory for those forces hostile to Germany.102 Ribbentrop had encouraged him in the view that the King was pro-German and anti-Jewish, and that he had been deposed by an anti-German conspiracy linked to Jews, freemasons, and powerful political lobbies.103
By the end of the year (according to a reported indication of his view), Hitler had become more lukewarm about a British alliance, claiming — whether with total conviction may be doubted — that it would at best bring some minor colonial gains but would, on the other hand, hinder Germany’s plans for expansion in central and south-eastern Europe. The reason he gave was that Italy would, through an Anglo-German alliance which undermined its policy in the Mediterranean, be forced on to the side of France, leading to a block by the two countries on any attempt at a new order in south-eastern Europe. Germany, he concluded, had its interests better served by close ties with Italy.104
The rapprochement with Italy — slow and tenuous in the first half of 1936 — had by then come to harden into a new alliance of the two fascist-style militaristic dictatorships dominating central and southern Europe. The Abyssinian crisis, as we have noted, had turned Italy towards Germany. The repercussions on Austria were not long in the waiting. Deprived de facto of its Italian protector, Austria was swept inevitably further into the German slipstream.105 Encouraged by the Italians as well as put under pressure by the Germans, Austria was ready by 11 July 1936 to sign a wide-ranging agreement with Germany, improving relations, ending restrictions placed upon the German press, and upon economic and cultural activities within Austria.106 Though recognizing Austrian independence, the agreement in reality turned the Reich’s eastern neighbour into an economic and foreign-policy dependency.107 It was a development which by this time suited both Germany and Italy.108 And within weeks, the aid provided by the two dictatorships to the nationalist rebels in Spain, and the rapidly deepening commitment to the Spanish Civil War, brought Italy and Germany still closer together. German and Italian pilots in Spain were soon operating in unison.109 The annihilation of the small Basque market town of Guernica, leaving over 2,500 citizens dead or injured, in a devastating three-hour bombing raid on the afternoon of 26 April 1937 by combined German and Italian forces, immortalized in Picasso’s famous painting, would become an emblem of the horror of the Spanish Civil War, and of innocent civilians defenceless against the new menace of terror from the skies.110
The diplomatic benefits from closer ties with Italy were reinforced in Hitler’s own eyes by the anti-Bolshevik credentials of Mussolini’s regime. In his August memorandum on the economy, Hitler had highlighted Italy as the only European country outside Germany capable of standing firm against Bolshevism.111 In September, he made overtures to Mussolini through his envoy Hans Frank, inviting the Duce to visit Berlin the following year — an invitation readily accepted.112 Mussolini’s son-in-law, the vain Count Ciano — the ‘Ducellino’ — arranged matters with Neurath in mid-October. There was agreement on a common struggle against Communism, rapid recognition of a Franco government in Spain, German recognition of the annexation of Abyssinia, and Italian ‘satisfaction’ at the Austro-German agreement.113
Hitler was in effusive mood when he welcomed Ciano to Berchtesgaden on 24 October. He described Mussolini as ‘the leading statesman in the world, to whom none may even remotely compare himself’.114 In a conversation of two and a quarter hours, Hitler, noted Ciano, ‘talked slowly and in a low voice’, with ‘violent outbursts when he spoke of Russia and Bolshevism. His way of expressing himself was slow and somewhat verbose. Each question was the subject of a long exposition and each concept was repeated by him several times in different words… The principal topics of his conversation were Bolshevism and English encirclement.’115 Ciano had drawn Hitler’s attention to a telegram, which had fallen into Italian hands, to the Foreign Office in London from the British Ambassador in Berlin, Sir Eric Phipps, stating that the Reich government was in the hands of dangerous adventurers. Hitler’s furious response was that ‘England, too, was led by adventurers when she built the Empire. Today it is governed merely by incompetents.’ Germany and Italy should ‘go over to the attack’, using the tactic of anti-Bolshevism to win support from countries suspicious of an Italo-German alliance. There was no clash of interests between Italy and Germany, he declared. The Mediterranean was ‘an Italian sea’. Germany had to have freedom of action towards the East and the Baltic.116 He was convinced, he said, that England would attack Italy, Germany, or both, given the opportunity and likely chances of success. A common anti-Bolshevik front, including powers in the East, the Far East, and South America, would however act as a deterrent, and probably even prompt Britain to seek an agreement. If Britain continued its offensive policy, seeking time to rearm, Germany and Italy had the advantage both in material and psychological rearmament, he enthused. In three years, Germany would be ready, in four years more than ready; five years would be better still.117
In a speech in the cathedral square in Milan a week later, Mussolini spoke of the line between Berlin and Rome as ‘an axis round which all those European States which are animated by a desire for collaboration and peace can revolve’.118 A new term was coined: ‘Axis’ — whether in a positive or negative sense — caught the imagination. In Italian and German propaganda, it evoked the might and strength of two countries with kindred philosophies joining forces against common enemies. For the western democracies, it raised the spectre of the combined threat to European peace by two expansionist powers under the leadership of dangerous dictators.
The menacing image became global when, within weeks of the formation of the Axis, Hitler entered a further pact with the one power outside Italy he had singled out in his August memorandum as standing firm against Bolshevism: Japan.119 Hitler had told Ciano in September that Germany had already made considerable progress towards an agreement with Japan within the framework of an anti-Bolshevik front. The anti-British thrust had been explicit.120 The driving force behind the pact, from the German side, had from the beginning been Ribbentrop, operating with Hitler’s encouragement.121 The professionals from the German Foreign Office, far more interested in relations with China, found themselves largely excluded as a new body of ‘amateurs’ from the Dienststelle Ribbentrop (Ribbentrop Bureau) — the agency for foreign affairs founded in 1934, by now with around 160 persons working for it, upon which Hitler was placing increasing reliance — made the running.122 Neurath was not alone in disapproving of the overtures to Tokyo (once he had belatedly come to learn of them).123 Schacht, Göring, and Blomberg, along with leading industrialists (including the Ruhr armaments magnate Krupp von Bohlen), were also among those keen not to damage relations with China — a source of extensive deliveries of indispensable raw materials for the armaments industry, notably manganese ore and tungsten.124 In ‘Official’ German foreign policy, Japan was still little more than a sideshow. But in the ‘alternative’ foreign policy being conducted by Ribbentrop, keen to establish his credentials as Hitler’s spokesman in international affairs and attuned to Hitler’s ideological interest in a symbolic anti-Bolshevik agreement, Japanese relations had a far higher profile.
Ribbentrop used his intermediary, Dr Friedrich Wilhelm Hack, who had good connections to the Japanese military and important industrial circles, to put out feelers in January 1935. The Japanese military leaders saw in a rapprochement with Berlin the chance to weaken German links with China and to gain a potential ally against the Soviet Union.125 The prime initiative during the second half of 1935 appears, in fact, to have been taken by the Japanese military authorities, through Hack, in close collaboration with Ribbentrop.126 Proposals for an anti-Soviet neutrality pact were put forward in October by the Japanese Military Attaché in Berlin, Hiroshi Oshima. Ribbentrop took the proposals — couched as a pact against the Comintern, not directly against the Soviet Union — to Hitler in late November, and gained his approval. Internal upheaval in Japan in the wake of a military revolt of February 1936, and the rapidly changing international situation, led to almost a year’s delay before the pact finally came to fruition.127 On 27 November 1936 Hitler approved what became known as the Anti-Comintern Pact (which Italy joined a year later), under whose main provision — in a secret protocol — neither party would assist the Soviet Union in any way in the event of it attacking either Germany or Japan.128 The pact was more important for its symbolism than for its actual provisions: the two most militaristic, expansionist powers in the world had found their way to each other. Though the pact was ostensibly defensive, it had hardly enhanced the prospects for peace on either side of the globe.129
In his Reichstag speech on 30 January 1937, celebrating the fourth anniversary of his takeover of power, Hitler announced that ‘the time of the so-called surprises’ was over. Germany wished ‘from now on in loyal fashion’ as an equal partner to work with other nations to overcome the problems besetting Europe.130 This pronouncement was soon to prove even more cynical than it had appeared at the time. That further ‘surprises’ were inevitable — and not long postponed — was not solely owing to Hitler’s temperament and psychology. The forces unleashed in four years of Nazi rule — internal and external — were producing their own dynamic. Those in so many different ways who were ‘working towards the Führer’ were ensuring, directly or indirectly, that Hitler’s own ideological obsessions served as the broad guidelines of policy initiatives. The restlessness — and recklessness — ingrained in Hitler’s personality reflected the pressures for action emanating in different ways from the varied components of the regime, loosely held together by aims of national assertiveness and racial purity embodied in the figure of the Leader. Internationally, the fragility and chronic instability of the post-war order had been brutally exposed. Within Germany, the chimeric quest for racial purity, backed by a leadership for which this was a central tenet of belief, could, if circumstances demanded, be contained temporarily, but would inevitably soon reassert itself to turn the screw of discrimination ever tighter. The Nazi regime could not stand still. As Hitler himself was to comment before the end of the year, the alternative to expansion — and to the restless energy which was the regime’s lifeblood — was what he called ‘sterility’, bringing in its wake, after a while, ‘tensions of a social kind’, while failure to act in the near future could bring internal crisis and a ‘weakening point of the regime’.131 The bold forward move (Flucht nach vorne), Hitler’s trademark, was, therefore, intrinsic to Nazism itself.
To most observers, both internal and external, after four years in power the Hitler regime looked stable, strong, and successful. Hitler’s own position was untouchable. The image of the great statesman and national leader of genius manufactured by propaganda matched the sentiments and expectations of much of the population. The internal rebuilding of the country and the national triumphs in foreign policy, all attributed to his ‘genius’, had made him the most popular political leader of any nation in Europe. Most ordinary Germans — like most ordinary people anywhere and at most times — looked forward to peace and prosperity. Hitler appeared to have established the basis for these. He had restored authority to government. Law and order had been re-established. Few were concerned if civil liberties had been destroyed in the process. There was work again. The economy was booming. What a contrast this was to the mass unemployment and economic failure of Weimar democracy. Of course, there was still much to do. And many grievances remained. Not least, the conflict with the Churches was the source of great bitterness. But Hitler was largely exempted from blame. Despite four years of fierce ‘Church struggle’, the head of the Protestant Church in Bavaria, Bishop Meiser, publicly offered prayers for Hitler, thanking God ‘for every success which, through your grace, you have so far granted him for the good of our people’.132 The negative features of daily life, most imagined, were not of the Führer’s making. They were the fault of his underlings, who frequently kept him in the dark about what was happening.
Above all, even critics had to admit, Hitler had restored German national pride. From its post-war humiliation, Germany had risen to become once more a major power. Defence through strength had proved a successful strategy. He had taken risks. There had been great fear that these would lead to renewed war. But each time he had been proved right. And Germany’s position had been inordinately strengthened as a consequence. Even so, there was widespread relief at the indication, in Hitler’s speech of 30 January 1937, that the period of ‘surprises’ was over. Hitler’s comment was seized upon throughout the land as a sign that consolidation and stability would now be the priorities.133 The illusion would not last long. The year 1937 was to prove the calm before the storm.134
Not only ordinary people were taken in by Hitler. And not only through the imagery of the mass media was the impression created that the leader of the Third Reich was a man of unusual talent and vision. No less a figure than David Lloyd George — product of Welsh radical traditions, former Liberal Party leader, and British Prime Minister at the time of the Versailles Treaty — came away from a three-hour meeting with Hitler at the Berghof at the beginning of September 1936 (at which the old adversaries had exchanged memories of the First World War) enormously impressed, convinced that the German leader was ‘a great man’.133 Even more remarkably, the British Labour Leader and famed pacifist George Lansbury — whose crumpled suit and woolly sweater prompted the introduction of a new dress-code for audiences with the Führer — went away from his meeting with Hitler in mid-April 1937 firmly convinced that the latter was prepared to do what was necessary to avoid war.136 He had been so enthused at the meeting that he had not noticed how bored Hitler had been, and how vague and non-committal were his unusually monosyllabic responses to Lansbury’s own idealistic plans for peace.137 Other eminent foreign visitors who met Hitler also took away positive impressions. ‘He did not only spread fear or aversion,’ recalled the French Ambassador François-Poncet. ‘He excited curiosity; he awakened sympathy; his prestige grew; the force of attraction emanating from him had an impact beyond the borders of his country.’138
Even for those within Germany known to be critical of the regime, Hitler could in a face-to-face meeting create a positive impression. He was good at attuning to the sensitivities of his conversation-partner, could be charming, and often appeared reasonable and accommodating. As always, he was a skilled dissembler. On a one-to-one basis, he could pull the wool over the eyes even of hardened critics. After a three-hour meeting with him at the Berghof in early November 1936, the influential Catholic Archbishop of Munich-Freising, Cardinal Faulhaber — a man of sharp acumen, who had often courageously criticized the Nazi attacks on the Catholic Church — went away convinced that Hitler was deeply religious. ‘The Reich Chancellor undoubtedly lives in belief in God,’ he noted in a confidential report. ‘He recognizes Christianity as the builder of western culture.’139
Few, even of those who were daily in his company — the regular entourage of adjutants and secretaries — and those with frequent, privileged access, could claim to ‘know’ Hitler, to get close to the human being inside the shell of the Führer figure. Hitler himself was keen to maintain the distance. ‘The masses need an idol,’ he was later to say.140 He played the role not just to the masses, but even to his closest entourage. Despite the torrents of words he poured out in public, and the lengthy monologues he inflicted upon those in his circle, he was by temperament a very private, even secretive, individual. A deeply ingrained sense of distrust and cynicism meant he was unwilling and unable to confide in others. Behind the public figure known to millions, the personality was a closed one. Genuine personal relations were few. Most even of those who had been in his immediate company for years were kept at arm’s length. He used the familiar ‘Du’ form with a mere handful of people. Even when his boyhood friend August Kubizek met him again the following year, following the Anschluß, Hitler used the formal ‘Sie’ mode of address.141 The conventional mode of addressing Hitler, which had set in after 1933, ‘Mein Führer’, emphasized the formality of relations. The authority of his position depended upon the preservation of the nimbus attached to him, as he well realized. This in turn demanded the distance of the individual even from those in his immediate familia. The ‘mystery’ of Hitler’s personality had important functional, as well as temperamental, causes. Respect for his authority was more important to him than personal warmth.
Hitler’s dealings with his personal staff were formal, correct, polite, and courteous. He usually passed a pleasant word or two with his secretaries when any engagements in the late morning were over, and often took tea with them in the afternoons and at night.142 He enjoyed the joking and songs (accompanied on the accordion) of his chef and Hausintendant or major-domo Arthur Kannenberg.143 He could show sympathy and understanding, as when his new Luftwaffe adjutant, Nicolaus von Below, had — to his embarrassment — to ask to leave for his honeymoon immediately on joining Hitler’s service.144 He sent Christa Schroeder, one of his secretaries, presents when she was ill and visited her in hospital.145 He enjoyed giving presents to his staff on their birthdays and at Christmas, and paid personal attention to selecting appropriate gifts.146
But genuine warmth and affection were missing. The shows of kindness and attentiveness were superficial. Hitler’s staff, like most other human beings, were of interest to him only as long as they were useful.147 However lengthy and loyal their service, if their usefulness was at an end they would be dispensed with. His staff, for their part, admired ‘the Boss’ (der Chef) as they called him. They respected, at times feared, him. His authority was unquestioned and absolute. Their loyalty to him was equally beyond question. But whether they genuinely liked him as a person is doubtful. There was a certain stiffness about the atmosphere whenever Hitler was present. It was difficult to relax in his company. He was demanding of his staff, who had to work long hours and fit into his eccentric work habits.148 His secretaries were often on duty in the mornings, but had to be prepared to take dictation of lengthy speeches late at night or into the early hours.149 Patronizingly complimentary to them on some occasions, on others he would scarcely notice their existence.150 In his own eyes, more even than in the eyes of those around him, he was the only person that mattered. His wishes, his feelings, his interests alone counted. He could be lenient of misdemeanours when he was unaffected. But where he felt a sense of affront, or that he had been let down, he could be harsh in his treatment of those around him. He was brusque and insulting to the lady-friend, of whom he disapproved, of his Chief Adjutant Wilhelm Brückner, a massive figure, veteran of the SA in the party’s early days, and participant in the Beerhall Putsch of 1923. A few years later he was peremptorily to dismiss Brückner, despite his lengthy and dutiful service, following a minor dispute.151 On another occasion he dismissed his valet Karl Krause, who had served him for several years, again for a trivial matter.152 Even his jovial hospitality manager, Arthur Kannenberg, who generally enjoyed something of the freedom of a court jester, had to tread carefully. Always anxious at the prospect of any embarrassment that would make him look foolish and damage his standing, Hitler threatened him with punishment if his staff committed any mistakes at receptions.153
Hitler strongly disliked any change in the personnel of his immediate entourage. He liked to see the same faces around him. He wanted those about him whom he was used to, and who were used to him. For one whose lifestyle had always been in many respects so ‘bohemian’, he was remarkably fixed in his routines, inflexible in his habits, and highly reluctant to make alterations to his personal staff.154
In 1937 he had four personal adjutants: SA-Gruppenführer Wilhelm Brückner (the chief adjutant); Julius Schaub (formerly the head of his bodyguard, a Putsch veteran who had been in prison in Landsberg with Hitler and in his close attendance ever since, looking after his confidential papers, carrying money for the ‘Chief’s’ use, acting as his personal secretary, general factotum, and ‘notebook’); Fritz Wiedemann (who had been Hitler’s direct superior in the war); and Albert Bormann (the brother of Martin, with whom, however, he was not on speaking terms).155 Three military adjutants — Colonel Friedrich Hoßbach for the army, Captain Karl-Jesko Otto von Puttkamer for the navy, and Captain Nicolaus von Below for the Luftwaffe — were responsible for Hitler’s links with the leaders of the armed forces. Secretaries, valets (one of whom had to be on call at all moments of the day), his pilot Hans Baur, his chauffeur Erich Kempka, the head of the Leibstandarte-SS Adolf Hitler and long-standing Hitler trustee Sepp Dietrich, the leaders of the bodyguard and criminal police attachments, and the doctors who, at different times, attended upon him all formed part of the additional personal staff.156
By 1937, Hitler’s day followed a fairly regular pattern, at least when he was in Berlin. Late in the morning, he received a knock from his valet, Karl Krause, who would leave newspapers and any important messages outside his room. While Hitler took them in to read, Krause ran his bath and laid out his clothes. Always concerned to avoid being seen naked, Hitler insisted upon dressing himself, without help from his valet.157 Only towards midday did he emerge from his private suite of rooms (or ‘Führer apartment’) — a lounge, library, bedroom, and bathroom, together with a small room reserved for Eva Braun — in the renovated Reich Chancellery.158 He gave any necessary instructions to, or received information from, his military adjutants, was given a press summary by Otto Dietrich, and was told by Hans Heinrich Lammers, head of the Reich Chancellery, of his various engagements. Meetings and discussions, usually carried out while Hitler walked backwards and forwards with his discussion partner in the ‘Wintergarten’ (or conservatory) looking out on the garden, generally filled the next couple of hours — sometimes longer — so that lunch was frequently delayed.159
The spacious and light dining-room had a large round table with a dozen chairs in the centre and four smaller tables, each with six chairs, around it. Hitler sat at the large table with his back to the window, facing a picture by Kaulbach, Entry of the Sun Goddess.160 Some of the guests — among them Goebbels, Göring, and Speer — were regulars. Others were newcomers or were seldom invited. The talk was often of world affairs. But Hitler would tailor the discussion to those present. He was careful in what he said. He consciously set out to impress his opinion on his guests, perhaps at times to gauge their reaction. Sometimes he dominated the ‘conversation’ with a monologue. At other times, he was content to listen while Goebbels sparred with another guest, or a more general discussion unfolded. Sometimes the table talk was interesting. New guests could find the occasion exciting and Hitler’s comments a ‘revelation’. Frau Below, the wife of the new Luftwaffe-Adjutant, found the atmosphere, and Hitler’s company, at first exhilarating and was greatly impressed by his knowledge of history and art.161 But for the household staff who had heard it all many times, the midday meal was often a tedious affair.162
After lunch there were usually further meetings in the Music Salon with ambassadors, generals, Reich Ministers, foreign dignitaries, or personal acquaintances such as the Wagners or Bruckmanns. Such meetings seldom lasted longer than an hour, and were arranged around tea. Thereafter, Hitler withdrew to his own rooms for a rest, or went for a stroll round the park attached to the Reich Chancellery.163 He spent no time at all during the day at his massive desk, other than hurriedly to attach his signature to laws, letters of appointment, or other formal documents placed before him. Beyond his major speeches, letters to foreign heads of state, and the occasional formal note of thanks or condolence, he dictated little or nothing to his secretaries.164 Apart from his temperamental aversion to bureaucracy, he was anxious to avoid committing himself on paper. The consequence was that his adjutants and personal staff often had the task of passing on in written form directives which were unclear, ill-thought-out, or spontaneous reactions. The scope for confusion, distortion, and misunderstanding was enormous. What Hitler had originally intended or stated was, by the time it had passed through various hands, often open to different interpretation and impossible to reconstruct with certainty.165
The evening meal, around 8p.m., followed the same pattern as lunch, but there were usually fewer present and talk focused more on Hitler’s favourite topics, such as art and history. During the meal, Hitler would be presented by one of the servants (most of whom were drawn from his bodyguard, the Leibstandarte) with a list of films, including those from abroad and German films still unreleased, which Goebbels had provided. (Hitler was delighted at his Christmas present from Goebbels in 1937: thirty feature films of the previous four years, and eighteen Mickey Mouse cartoons.)166 After the meal, the film chosen for the evening would be shown in the Music Salon. Any members of the household staff and the chauffeurs of any guests present could watch. Hitler’s secretaries were, however, not present at the meals in the Reich Chancellery, though they were included in the more relaxed atmosphere at the Berghof. The evening ended with conversation stretching usually to about 2 a.m. before Hitler retired.167
In this world within the Reich Chancellery, with its fixed routines and formalities, where he was surrounded by his regular staff and otherwise met for the most part official visitors or guests who were mainly in awe of him, Hitler was cocooned within the role and image of the Führer which had elevated him to demi-god status. Few could behave naturally in his presence. The rough ‘old fighters’ of the Party’s early days now came less frequently. Those attending the meals in the Reich Chancellery had for the most part only known him since the nimbus of the ‘great leader’ had become attached to him.168 The result only reinforced Hitler’s self-belief that he was a ‘man of destiny’, treading his path ‘with the certainty of a sleepwalker’.169 At the same time, he was ever more cut off from real human contact, isolated in his realm of increasing megalomania. A ways glad to get away from Berlin, it was only while staying with the Wagners during the annual Bayreuth Festival and at his alpine retreat ‘On the mountain’ above Berchtesgaden that Hitler relaxed somewhat.170 But even at the Berghof, rituals were preserved. Hitler dominated the entire existence of his guests there too. Real informality was as good as impossible in his presence. And Hitler, for all the large numbers of people in attendance on him and paying court to him, remained impoverished when it came to real contact, cut off from any meaningful personal relationship through the shallowness of his emotions and his profoundly egocentric, exploitative attitude towards all other human beings.
It is impossible to be sure of what, if any, emotional satisfaction Hitler gained from his relationship with Eva Braun (whom he had first met in 1929 when, then aged seventeen, she worked in the office of his photographer, Heinrich Hoffmann). It could not have been much. For prestige reasons, he kept her away from the public eye. On the rare occasions she was in Berlin, she was closeted in her little room in the ‘Führer Apartment’ while Hitler attended official functions or was otherwise engaged.171 Even in his close circle she was not permitted to be present for meals if any important guests were there. She did not accompany Hitler on his numerous journeys, and had to stay for the most part either in his flat in Munich or at the Berghof, the only place where she could emerge as one of the extended ‘family’.172 Even there, however, she was hidden away during receptions for important guests.173 Hitler often treated her abysmally when she was present, frequently humiliating her in front of others.174 The contrast with the olde-worlde charm — kissing hands, linking arms, cupping elbows — that he habitually showed towards pretty women in his presence merely rubbed salt in the wounds.175 That Eva had long suffered from Hitler’s neglect of her is evident from her plaintive diary entries two years earlier, in 1935.176 Her deep unhappiness had culminated in her second suicide attempt in the May of that year — an overdose of sleeping tablets that amounted, like her first attempt (with a revolver) in 1932, to a cri de cœur rather than a serious effort to kill herself.177
Probably the closest that Hitler came to friendship was in his relations with Joseph Goebbels and, increasingly, with his court architect and new favourite, Albert Speer, whom in January 1937 he made responsible for the rebuilding of Berlin.178 Hitler frequently sought out their company, liked their presence, was fond of their wives and families, and could feel at ease with them. The Goebbels home was a frequent refuge in Berlin. Lengthy talks with Speer about the rebuilding of the capital city amounted to the nearest thing Hitler had to a hobby, a welcome respite from his otherwise total involvement in politics. At least in Goebbels’s case there were elements of a father-son relationship.179 A rare flicker of human concern could be glimpsed when Hitler asked Goebbels to stay for an extra day in Nuremberg after the Rally in September 1937, since (according to the Propaganda Minister) he did not like him flying at night.180 Hitler was the dominant figure — the father figure. But he may have seen something of himself in each of his two protégés — the brilliant propagandist in Goebbels, the gifted architect in Speer.
In the case of Speer, the fascination for architecture provided an obvious bond. Both had a liking for neo-classical buildings on a monumental scale. Hitler was impressed by Speer’s taste in architecture, his energy, and his organizational skill. He had rapidly come to see him as the architect who could put his own grandiose building schemes, envisaged as the representation of Teutonic might and glory that would last for centuries, into practice. But other architects, some better than Speer, were available. The attractiveness of Speer to Hitler went beyond the building mania that linked them closely to each other. Nothing homoerotic was involved — at least not consciously. But Hitler perhaps found in the handsome, burningly ambitious, talented, and successful architect an unconsciously idealized self-image.181 What is plain is that both Goebbels and Speer worshipped Hitler. Goebbels’s adoration of the father-figure Hitler was undiminished since the mid-1920s. ‘He is a fabulous man’ was merely one of his effusions of sentiment in 1937 about the figure who was the centre-point of his universe.182 For Speer, as he himself later recognized, his love of Hitler transcended the power-ambitions that his protector and role-model was able to satisfy — even if it originally arose out of them and could never be completely separated from them.183
In earlier years, Hitler had invariably spoken of his own ‘mission’ as the mere beginning of Germany’s passage to world domination. The whole process would take generations to complete.184 But, flushed with scarcely imaginable triumphs since 1933 and falling ever more victim to the myth of his own greatness, he became increasingly impatient to see his ‘mission’ fulfilled in his lifetime.
Partly, this was incipient megalomania. He spoke on numerous occasions in 1937 about building plans of staggering monumentality.185 At midnight on his birthday, he, Goebbels, and Speer stood in front of plans for rebuilding Berlin, fantasizing about a glorious future.186 Hitler even thought for a while of creating a new capital city on the Müritzsee in Mecklenburg, eighty miles or so north-west of Berlin, but eventually dropped an idea which was patently absurd.187 ‘The Führer won’t speak of money. Build, build! It will somehow be paid for!’ Goebbels has him saying. ‘Frederick the Great didn’t ask about money when he built Sanssouci.’188
In part, too, it was prompted by Hitler’s growing preoccupation with his own mortality and impatience to achieve what he could in his lifetime. Before the mid-1930s, his health had generally been good — astonishingly so given his lack of exercise, poor diet (even before his cranky vegetarianism following the death in 1931 of his niece, Geli Raubal), and high expenditure of nervous energy. However, he already suffered from chronic stomach pains which, at times of stress, became acute spasms.189 A patent medicine he took — an old trench remedy with a base in gun-cleaning oil — turned out to be mildly poisonous, causing headaches, double vision, dizziness, and ringing in the ears.190 He had been worried in 1935 that a polyp in his throat (eventually removed in the May of that year) was cancerous.191 It turned out to be harmless. During 1936, a year of almost continual tension, the stomach cramps were frequently severe, and Hitler also developed eczema on both legs, which had to be covered in bandages.192 At Christmas 1936, Hitler asked Dr Theodor Morell, a physician who had successfully treated his photographer Heinrich Hoffmann, to try to cure him. Morell gave him vitamins and a new patent remedy for intestinal problems.193 Goebbels mentioned in June, and again in August 1937, that Hitler was unwell.194 But by September, Morell’s treatment had apparently made a difference. At any rate, Hitler was impressed. He felt fit again, his weight was back to normal, and his eczema had vanished.195 His belief in Morell would last down to the bunker in 1945. From late 1937 onwards, his increasing hypochondria made him ever more reliant on Morell’s pills, drugs, and injections.196 And the fear of cancer (which had caused his mother’s death) never left him. At the end of October, he told a meeting of propaganda leaders that both his parents had died young, and that he probably did not have long to live. ‘It was necessary, therefore, to solve the problems that had to be solved (living-space) as soon as possible, so that this could still take place in his lifetime. Later generations would no longer be able to accomplish it. Only his person was in the position to bring it about.’197
Hitler was seldom out of the public eye in 1937. No opportunity was missed to drive home to the German public an apparently endless array of scarcely credible ‘achievements’ at home and the glories of his major ‘triumphs’ in foreign policy. Flushed with success and certain of the adulation of the masses, he wanted to be seen. The bonds between the Führer and the people — the cement of the regime, and dependent upon recurring success and achievement — were thereby reinforced. And for Hitler the ecstasy of his mass audiences provided each time a new injection of the drug to feed his egomania.
A constant round of engagements ensured that he was ever visible. By 1937 the Nazi calendar, revolving around Hitler’s major speeches and appearance at parades and rallies, was well established, the rituals firmly in place. A speech to the Reichstag on 30 January (the anniversary of his appointment as Chancellor), speeches to the Party’s ‘Old Fighters’ on 24 February (the anniversary of the promulgation of the 1920 Party Programme) and 8 November (the anniversary of the 1923 putsch), taking the salute at big military parades on his birthday on 20 April, a speech at the huge gathering (estimated at 1,200,000 in 1937) in Berlin’s Lustgarten on the ‘National Day of Celebration of the German People’ (1 May), and, of course, the week of the Reich Party Rally at Nuremberg in the first half of September all formed fixed points of the year. Other public appearances in 1937 included: the opening of the International Car Exhibition in Berlin on 20 February, next day laying a wreath at the Berlin cenotaph and reviewing troops on ‘Heroes’ Memorial Day’, the launch of the ‘Strength Through Joy’ ship Wilhelm Gustloff (intended as a cruise-ship for German workers) on 5 May, the opening of the Reich Food Estate’s Agricultural Exhibition in Munich on 30 May, a speech to 200,000 people at the Gau Party Rally of the Bayerische Ostmark (Bavarian Eastern Marches) in Regensburg on 6 June, and to a further mass rally of the Gau Unterfranken (Lower Franconia) on 27 June, a speech at the festive opening of the ‘House of German Art’ (the imposing new art gallery designed by one of Hitler’s early favourite architects, Paul Ludwig Troost) in Munich on 19 July, an address to half a million attending the Festival of the League of German Singers in Breslau on 1 August, five days of Mussolini’s state visit to Germany between 25 and 29 September, speeches in early October at the harvest festival on the Bückeberg, near Hanover, and in Berlin at the opening of the ‘Winter Aid’ campaign (the annual collection, initially established in 1933 to help the unemployed over the winter months), a speech to the Party faithful in Augsburg on 21 November, and a speech at the laying of the foundation stone of the Military Technical Faculty of Berlin’s Technical University on 27 November. In all, Hitler held some twenty-six major speeches during the course of the year (thirteen alone at the Nuremberg Rally), apart from lesser addresses, and appearances at parades and other meetings where he did not speak.198
As always, the effect of his speeches depended heavily upon the atmosphere in which they were held. The content was repetitive and monotonous. The themes were the familiar ones. Past achievements were lauded, grandiose future plans proclaimed, the horrors and menace of Bolshevism emphasized. But there was no conflict between propaganda and ideology. Hitler believed what he was saying.
The ‘nationalization of the masses’ — the prerequisite for German power and expansion, which he had posited since the early 1920s — he thought well on the way to being accomplished. At his three-hour speech to the Reichstag on 30 January 1937, the anniversary of the takeover of power, giving account of his first four years in office, he claimed he had restored German honour through the reintroduction of conscription, the creation of the Luftwaffe, the rebuilding of the navy, and the reoccupation of the Rhineland, and announced that he was solemnly withdrawing the German signature from the admission of war-guilt in the Versailles Treaty, ‘wrung out of a then weak government’.199 On 1 May, he lauded Germany as a classless society where individuals from all backgrounds had a chance to rise to the top through their own achievements — as long as they were in the collective interest of the nation, and as long as the total subservience such as he had himself practised for almost six years as a soldier was forthcoming.200 Wholly detached from the practical considerations of day-to-day politics, he held out a breathtaking vision of German grandeur, power, and dominance enshrined in heroic art and architecture which would monumentalize Teutonic cultural achievements for 1,000 years. ‘The building of a temple’ for ‘a true and eternal German art’ was how he described the ‘House of German Art’ at its opening in July.201 Presenting ‘a thousand-year people with a thousand-year historical and cultural past’ with a fitting ‘thousand-year city’ was what he foresaw in November as the task of turning Berlin into the world-capital ‘Germania’.202 At the Reich Party Rally at Nuremberg in early September, the themes of great national and social achievements in the past years were coupled with the aims of a racial revolution whose profound consequences would ‘create the new man’ (Menschen).203 His lengthy concluding speech to the Party Congress was an onslaught on ‘Jewish Bolshevism’.204 In passages at times reminiscent of Mein Kampf, and in his fiercest public attack on the Jews for many months, he portrayed them as the force behind Bolshevism and its ‘general attack on the present-day social order’, and spoke of ‘the claim of an uncivilized Jewish-Bolshevik international guild of criminals to rule Germany, as an old cultural land of Europe, from Moscow’.205 This is what the Party faithful wanted to hear. But it was far more than window-dressing. Even in private, dictating the speeches to his secretary, when it came to passages on Bolshevism Hitler, red-faced and eyes blazing, would work himself to a frenzy, bellowing at full volume his thunderous denunciations.206
Away from the continual propaganda activity revolving around speeches and public appearances, Hitler was largely preoccupied in 1937 with keeping a watchful eye on the changing situation in world affairs and with his gigantic building plans. The continuing conflict with both the Catholic and Protestant Churches, radical though his own instincts were, amounted to a recurrent irritation, especially in the first months of the year, rather than a priority concern (as it was with Goebbels, Rosenberg, and many of the Party rank-and-file). With regard to the ‘Jewish Question’ — to go from the many private discussions with Goebbels which the Propaganda Minister reported in his diary notes — Hitler, unchanged though his views were, showed little active interest and seldom spoke directly on the subject. But however uninvolved Hitler was, the radicalization of the regime continued unabated, forced on in a variety of ways by Party activists, ministerial bureaucracy, economic opportunists, and, not least, by an ideologically driven police.
In February 1937 Hitler made it plain to his inner circle that he did not want a ‘Church struggle’ at this juncture. The time was not ripe for it. He expected ‘the great world struggle in a few years’ time’. If Germany lost one more war, it would mean the end.207 The implication was clear: calm should be restored for the time being in relations with the Churches. Instead, the conflict with the Christian Churches intensified. The anti-clericalism and anti-Church sentiments of the grass-roots Party activists simply could not be eradicated. Provincial Nazi leaders such as the Gauleiter of Upper Bavaria (and Bavarian Education and Interior Minister) Adolf Wagner were often only too keen to keep the conflict on the boil.208 The eagerness of Party activists and local leaders (a disproportionate number of whom were teachers) to break the Christian influence reinforced through denominational schools sustained the momentum at grass-roots level. It was met by determined (if ultimately unsuccessful) rearguard action of the clergy and churchgoing population.209 The stranglehold that the Churches maintained over the values and mentalities of large sections of the population was an obvious thorn in the side of a Movement with its own highly intolerant ‘world-view’, which saw itself as making a total claim on soul as well as body. The assault on the practices and institutions of the Christian Churches was deeply embedded in the psyche of National Socialism. Where the hold of the Church was strong, as in the backwaters of rural Bavaria, the conflict raged in villages and small towns with little prompting from on high.210
At the same time, the activists could draw on the verbal violence of Party leaders towards the Churches for their encouragement. Goebbels’s orchestrated attacks on the clergy through the staged ‘immorality trials’ of Franciscans in 1937 — following usually trumped-up or grossly exaggerated allegations of sexual impropriety in the religious orders — provided further ammunition.211 And, in turn, however much Hitler on some occasions claimed to want a respite in the conflict, his own inflammatory comments gave his immediate underlings all the licence they needed to turn up the heat in the ‘Church struggle’, confident that they were ‘working towards the Führer’.
Hitler’s impatience with the Churches prompted frequent outbursts of hostility. In early 1937, he was declaring that ‘Christianity was ripe for destruction’ (Untergang), and that the Churches must yield to the ‘primacy of the state’, railing against any compromise with ‘the most horrible institution imaginable’.212 In two conferences he summoned in February to try to end the damaging consequences of the conflict which Church Minister Kerrl had done nothing to solve, he eagerly seized upon Goebbels’s suggestion for new elections — to be publicized as ‘the peace move of the Führer in the Church Question’.213 However, he indicated that at some point in the future Church and state would be separated, the Concordat of 1933 between the Reich and the Vatican dissolved (to provide the regime with a free hand), and the entire force of the Party turned to ‘the destruction of the clerics (Pfaffen)’ For the time being it was necessary to wait, see what the opponents did, and be tactically clever. Everything was a means to an end — ‘the life of the people’. He expected in five or six years’ time ‘a great world showdown (Auseinandersetzung)’. In fifteen years, he would have liquidated the Peace of Westphalia — the treaty of 1648 which had brought religious accord in the German states, ending the Thirty Years War. ‘A grandiose outlook for the future,’ Goebbels called it.214
Addressing the Gauleiter in mid-March, Hitler announced that he wanted ‘no ordinary victory’ over the Churches. Either one should keep quiet about an opponent (totschweigen), or slay him (totschlagen), was how he put it.215 In April, Goebbels reported with satisfaction that the Führer was becoming more radical in the ‘Church Question’, and had approved the start of the ‘immorality trials’ against clergy.216 Goebbels noted Hitler’s verbal attacks on the clergy and his satisfaction with the propaganda campaign on several subsequent occasions over the following few weeks.217 Much of the ranting was probably at Goebbels’s prompting. But Hitler was happy to leave the Propaganda Minister and others to make the running. In as divisive an issue as this, Goebbels himself fully recognized that what must be avoided at all costs was ‘to send the Führer into the field’.218 Hitler was nevertheless again in the glare of world publicity about the persecution of the clergy when, in early July, Pastor Martin Niemöller, the leading voice of the ‘Confessing Church’, was arrested as part of an assault on ‘disloyal’ Protestant churchmen.219 But, if Goebbels’s diary entries are a guide, Hitler’s interest and direct involvement in the ‘Church struggle’ declined during the second half of the year. Other matters were by now occupying his attention.
The ‘Jewish Question’ does not appear to have figured prominently among them. Goebbels, who saw Hitler almost on a daily basis at this time and who noted the topics of many private conversations they had together, recorded no more than a couple of instances where the ‘Jewish Question’ was discussed. On the first day of the Party Rally in Nuremberg, Hitler talked in his hotel to Goebbels about ‘race questions’. ‘There too there’s a lot still to be clarified,’ commented the Propaganda Minister.220 At the end of November, among ‘a thousand things talked about’ over lunch was the ‘Jewish Question’. The discussion appears to have been prompted by Goebbels’s preparations for legislation to ban Jews from attending theatres and cultural events. ‘My new law will soon be ready,’ he wrote.221 ‘But that is not the goal. The Jews must get out of Germany, yes out of the whole of Europe. That will still take some time. But it will and must happen. The Führer is firmly decided on it.’222 It was a statement of belief, not a political decision resting on clearly thought-out strategy. Anti-Jewish policy, as we have seen, had gathered pace since 1933 without frequent or coherent central direction. It was no different in 1937. Hitler’s views, as his comment to Goebbels makes clear, remained unchanged since his first statement on the ‘Jewish Question’ back in September 1919. He gave a clear indication to a gathering of some 800 district leaders (Kreisleiter) in April 1937 of his tactical caution but ideological consistency in the ‘Jewish Question’. Though he made plain to his enemies that he wanted to destroy them, the struggle had to be conducted cleverly, and over a period of time, he told his avid listeners. Skill would help him manoeuvre them into a corner. Then would come the blow to the heart.223 It was in line with these precepts that he now sanctioned, following the prompting in June 1937 of the Reich Doctors’ Leader Gerhard Wagner, measures (eventually coming into effect in 1938) to ban all Jewish doctors from medical practice — a step he had regarded as inopportune when the issue had been raised in late 1933.224
But this was a rare instance of direct involvement around this time. For the most part, he was content to remain for the time being inactive in the ‘Jewish Question’. His tacit approval was all that was required. And no more was needed than his tirade against ‘Jewish Bolshevism’ at the Party Rally in September to act as a green light inviting the new antisemitic wave — even fiercer than that of 1935 — that was to unfold throughout 1938.225
After two relatively quiet years, discrimination against the Jews again intensified. Increasingly radical steps were initiated to eliminate them from the economy, and from more and more spheres of social activity. The Security Service (Sicherheitsdienst, SD), whose ‘Jewish Section’ (Judenreferat) was run by the ambitious Adolf Eichmann, had in fact since the start of the year been advocating renewed pressure on the Jews to force them out of the economy and speed up their emigration from Germany.226 The manufacture of a ‘popular mood hostile to Jews’ and the deployment of illegal ‘excesses’ — mob violence, which was seen as particularly effective — were recommended.227 By autumn, the climate was becoming more hostile than ever for the Jewish population.228 Schacht’s loss of influence, and finally his departure from the Economics Ministry on 27 November, now removed an obstacle to the ‘aryanization’ of the economy. Pressure to fulfil this aspect of the Party’s Programme mounted.229 Göring, by this time in effect in charge of the economy, was more than ready to push forward the ‘aryanization’. The upswing of the economy made big business, losing the uncertainties of the first years of Nazi rule, willing partners, eager to profit from the takeover of Jewish firms at knock-down prices.230 By April 1938 more than 60 percent of Jewish firms had been liquidated or ‘aryanized’.231 From late 1937 onwards, individual Jews also faced an expanding array of discriminatory measures, initiated without central coordination by a variety of ministries and offices — all in their way ‘working towards the Führer’ — which tightened immeasurably the screw of persecution.232 Hitler’s own contribution, as usual, had largely consisted of setting the tone and providing the sanction and legitimation for the actions of others.
In world affairs, events beyond Hitler’s control were causing him to speculate on the timing and circumstances in which the great showdown would occur. By the end of 1937, the signs were that radicalization was gathering pace not just in anti-Jewish policy (and, largely instigated by the Gestapo, in the persecution and repression of other ethnic and social minorities), but also in foreign policy.233
Hitler began the year by expressing his hope to those at his lunch table that he still had six years to prepare for the coming showdown. ‘But, if a very favourable chance comes along,’ commented Goebbels, ‘he also doesn’t want to miss it.’ Hitler stressed Russian strength and warned against underestimating the British because of their weak political leadership. He saw opportunities of winning allies in eastern Europe (particularly Poland) and the Balkans as a consequence of Russia’s drive for world revolution.234 Hitler’s remarks followed a long briefing by Blomberg earlier that morning in the War Ministry about the rapid expansion of rearmament and the Wehrmacht’s preparations for ‘Case X’ — taken to be Germany, together with its fascist allies against Russia, Czechoslovakia, and Lithuania. The question of German occupation was evidently raised. Hitler, Goebbels, and Blomberg discussed the installation of senior Gauleiter as Civilian Commissars. Hitler was satisfied with what he had heard.235
A foretaste of what might be expected from the German leadership in war followed the dropping of two ‘red bombs’ on the battleship Deutschland, stationed off Ibiza, by a Spanish Republican plane on the evening of 29 May, killing twenty-three and injuring over seventy sailors. Admiral Raeder, Commander-in-Chief of the Navy, was dispatched by Blomberg to Munich to bear the brunt of Hitler’s fury. Hitler’s immediate reaction, ‘fuming with rage’, as Goebbels put it, was to bomb Valencia in reprisal. But after a hastily arranged conference with Blomberg, Raeder, Göring, and von Neurath, he ordered instead the cruiser Admiral Scheer to fire on the southern Spanish harbour town of Almería. Hitler, seething but nervous at the outcome, paced up and down his room in the Reich Chancellery until three o’clock in the morning. The shelling of Almería for an hour left twenty-one civilians dead, fifty-three injured, and destroyed thirty-nine houses. Hitler was satisfied. He had seen it as a prestige question. Prestige had now been restored.236
He had by this time lost faith in Spain becoming a genuinely fascist country. He saw Franco as a Spanish variant of General Seeckt (the former ‘strong man’ in the German army in the 1920s) — a military man without any mass movement behind him.237 Despite his worries about Spain, however, he had no regrets about ordering German intervention, and pointed to the many advantages which Germany had drawn from its involvement.238 Goebbels’s diary notes reflect Hitler’s wider perceptions of world affairs during the latter half of 1937, and his watchful eye on opportunities for German expansion. The radicalization in foreign policy which brought the Anschluß with Austria and then the Sudeten crisis in Czechoslovakia in 1938 were foreshadowed in Hitler’s musings on future developments during these months.
The arch-enemy, the Soviet Union, was in Hitler’s eyes weakened both by its internal turmoils and by Japanese triumphs in the war against China.239 He was puzzled by the Stalinist purges. ‘Stalin is probably sick in the brain (gehirnkrank),’ Goebbels reported him as saying. ‘His bloody regime can otherwise not be explained. But Russia knows nothing other than Bolshevism. That’s the danger we have to smash down some day.’240 A few months later, he was repeating the view that Stalin and his followers were mad. ‘Must be exterminated (Muß ausgerottet werden)’ was his sinister conclusion.241 He was anticipating that the opportunity might arise following a Japanese victory over China. Once China was smashed, he guessed, Tokyo would turn its attention to Moscow. ‘That is then our great hour,’ he predicted.242
Hitler’s belief in an alliance with Britain had by now almost evaporated. His attitude towards Britain had come to resemble that of a lover spurned.243 Contemptuous of the British government, he also saw Britain greatly weakened as a world power.244 Egged on by Ribbentrop, by now aggressively anti-British, and diverging sharply from the more cautious Foreign Office line that looked to a negotiated settlement in time with Britain (involving territorial revision and concession of colonies), his hopes now rested — too strongly for Goebbels’s liking — on his new friend Mussolini.245
Nothing was spared in the preparations for a huge extravaganza with all conceivable pomp and circumstance to make the maximum impact on the Duce during his state visit to Germany between 25 and 29 September. Hitler even had an aeroplane dispatched to fetch ripe pears for the Duce, concerned that there was not a sufficiently wide choice of fruit to offer his guest from southern Europe.246 Not even the torrential rain that drenched the hundreds of thousands assembled at Tempelhof on 28 September to hear speeches from the two dictators, and made it difficult for Mussolini to read his prepared German text, could damage the impression that the visit made on the Duce.247 He took home with him an image of German power and might — together with a growing sense that Italy’s role in the Axis was destined to be that of junior partner. Hitler was also overjoyed at the outcome. There had been agreement on cooperation in Spain, and on attitudes towards the war in the Far East. Hitler was certain that Italian friendship was assured, since Italy had in any case little alternative. Only the ‘Austrian Question’, on which Mussolini would not be drawn, remained open. ‘Well, wait and see,’ commented Goebbels.248
From remarks recorded by Goebbels, it is clear that Hitler was already by summer 1937 beginning to turn his eyes towards Austria and Czechoslovakia, though as yet there was no indication of when and how Germany might move against either state. Nor were ideological or military-strategic motives, however important for Hitler himself, the only ones influencing notions of expansion in central Europe. Continuing economic difficulties, especially in fulfilling the Wehrmacht’s demands for raw materials, had been the main stimulus to increased German pressure on Austria since the successful visit by Göring to Italy in January.249 Gold and foreign-currency reserves, labour supplies, and important raw materials were among the lure of a German takeover of the alpine Republic.250 Not surprisingly, therefore, the office of the Four Year Plan was at the forefront of demands for an Anschluß as soon as possible. The economic significance of the ‘Austrian Question’ was further underlined by Hitler’s appointment in July 1937 of Wilhelm Keppler, who had served before 1933 as an important link with business leaders, to coordinate Party affairs regarding Vienna.251 Further concessions to follow on those of the 1936 agreement — including the ending of censorship on Mein Kampf — were forced on the Austrian government in July. ‘Perhaps we’re again coming a step further,’ mused Goebbels.252 ‘In Austria, the Führer will some time make a tabula rasa,’ the Propaganda Minister noted, after a conversation with Hitler at the beginning of August. ‘Let’s hope we can all still experience it,’ he went on. ‘He’ll go for it then. (Er geht dann aufs Ganze.) This state is not a state at all. Its people belong to us and will come to us. The Führer’s entry into Vienna will one day be his proudest triumph.’253 At the end of the Nuremberg Rally, a few weeks later, Hitler told Goebbels that the issue of Austria would some time be resolved ‘with force’.254 Before the end of the year, Papen was unfolding to Hitler plans to topple the Austrian Chancellor Schuschnigg.255 Göring and Keppler were by then both convinced that Hitler would tackle the question of Austria during the spring or summer of 1938.256
In the case of Czechoslovakia, too, Hitler’s intentions were unmistakable to Goebbels. ‘Czechia (die Tschechei) is also no state,’ he noted in his diary in August. ‘It will one day be overrun.’257 The refusal by Czech authorities to allow children from the Sudeten area to go for holidays to Germany was used by Goebbels as the pretext to launch the beginning of a vitriolic press campaign against the Czechs.258 Göring had by this time been stressing to the British Ambassador, Nevile Henderson — who gave the air of being more accommodating to German claims than his predecessor Sir Eric Phipps, whom he had replaced in April, had been — Germany’s rights to Austria and the Sudetenland (in due course also to revision of the Polish border). To a long-standing British acquaintance, the former air attaché in Berlin, Group Captain Christie, he went further: Germany must have not simply the Sudetenland, but the whole of Bohemia and Moravia, Göring asserted.259 By mid-October, following the demands of Konrad Henlein, the Sudeten German leader, for autonomy, Goebbels was predicting that Czechoslovakia would in the future ‘have nothing to laugh about’.260
On 5 November 1937 the Propaganda Minister lunched, as usual, with Hitler. The general situation was discussed. The Czech question was to be toned down for the time being because Germany was still not in a position to take any action. The issue of colonies was also to be taken more slowly, so as not to awaken false expectations among the population. In the run-up to Christmas, the heat had, too, to be turned down on the ‘Church struggle’. The long-running saga of Schacht was nearing its dénouement. Schacht had to go, it was agreed. But the Führer wanted to wait until after the Party’s ritual Putsch commemoration on 9 November before taking any action. In the afternoon, Goebbels went home to continue work. The Führer, he noted, had ‘General Staff talks’.261
In the gloom of late afternoon, the chiefs of the army, Luftwaffe, and navy, together with War Minister Blomberg, made their way to the Reich Chancellery for a meeting, as they thought, to establish the allocation of steel supplies to the armed forces. The reason for the meeting dated back to late October, when Admiral Raeder, increasingly concerned about Göring’s allocation of steel and the preferential treatment of the Luftwaffe, had posed an ultimatum to Blomberg indicating that no expansion of the navy was possible without additional steel supplies. Raeder was unwilling to make concessions. He thought an immediate decision by the Führer was necessary.262 With the dispute among the branches of the armed forces simmering and the prospect of the arms drive stagnating, Blomberg pressed Hitler for clarification. Eventually, Hitler agreed to the meeting. Blomberg, not Hitler, sent out the invitations to discuss ‘the armaments situation and raw materials demands’ to the chiefs of the three armed forces’ branches.263 The military leaders had a surprise when they reached the Reich Chancellery at 4p.m. to find present, alongside Hitler and his military adjutant, Colonel Hoßbach, also the Foreign Minister von Neurath. Another surprise was waiting for them when, instead of dealing with the issue of raw materials allocation (which was discussed relatively briefly only towards the end of the lengthy meeting), Hitler, speaking from prepared notes, launched into a monologue lasting over two hours on Germany’s need to expand by use of force within the following few years.264
He began by emphasizing the importance of what he had to say. He wanted, he said, to explain his thinking on foreign policy. In the event of his death, what he had to say ought to be viewed as his ‘testamentary legacy’. No arrangements had been made for minutes to be taken, but Hoßbach, sitting opposite Hitler at the table, decided that what he was about to hear might be of some moment and started to scribble notes in his diary. He was sure his mentor, the increasingly critical General Beck, would be interested.265
Hitler launched into a familiar theme: the need to expand German ‘living space’. Without this expansion, ‘sterility’, leading to social disorder, would set in — an argument reflecting Hitler’s premiss that permanent mobilization and ever new goals, foreign and domestic, were necessary to ensure the popular support of the regime. In characteristic vein, he raised alternatives to expansion of ‘living space’, only to dismiss them. Only limited autarky could be achieved. Food supplies could not be ensured by this route. Dependence on the world economy could never bring economic security, and would leave Germany weak and exposed. Here, Hitler was attacking the views associated with Schacht, whose departure as Economics Minister had already been decided. Schacht had also been a strong proponent of a colonial policy. Hitler dismissed the ‘liberal capitalist notions in the exploitation of colonies’. The return of colonies would only come about, argued Hitler, once Britain was seriously weakened and Germany more powerful. ‘Living space’, he asserted, meant territory for agricultural production in Europe, not acquisition of overseas colonies. Britain and France, both implacably hostile, stood in Germany’s way. But Britain and its Empire were weakened. And France faced internal difficulties. His conclusion to the first part of his address was that Germany’s problem could only be solved by the use of force, which was always accompanied by risks. Only the questions ‘when?’ and ‘how?’ remained to be answered.
He went on to outline three scenarios. Typically, he first argued that time was not on Germany’s side, that it would be imperative to act by 1943–5 at the latest. The relative strength in armaments would decrease. Other powers would be prepared for a German offensive. Alluding to the problems of 1935–6, he raised the prospect of economic difficulties producing a new food crisis without the foreign exchange to master it — a potential ‘weakening-point (Schwächungsmoment) of the regime’. Declining birthrates, falling living standards, and the ageing of the Movement and its leaders were added points to underline what he declared was his ‘unalterable determination to solve the German problem of space by 1943–5 at the latest’.
In the other two scenarios, Hitler outlined circumstances in which it would be necessary to strike before 1943–5: if France became so enveloped by internal strife, or embroiled in war with another power, that it was incapable of military action against Germany. In either case the moment would have arrived to attack Czechoslovakia. A war of France and Britain against Italy he saw as a distinct possibility arising from the protracted conflict in Spain (whose prolongation was in Germany’s interest). In such an eventuality, Germany must be prepared to take advantage of the circumstances to attack the Czechs and Austria without delay — even as early as 1938. The first objective in any war involving Germany would be to overthrow Czechoslovakia and Austria simultaneously to protect the eastern flank for any possible military operation in the west. Hitler conjectured that Britain, and probably France as well, had already written off Czechoslovakia. Problems within the Empire — Hitler had in mind here primarily the growing pressure for independence in India — and reluctance to become embroiled in a long European war would, he thought, prove decisive in deterring Britain from involvement in a war against Germany. France was unlikely to act without British support. Italy would not object to the elimination of Czechoslovakia. Its attitude towards Austria could not at the moment be determined. It would depend on whether Mussolini were still alive — another implied argument for avoiding delay. Poland would be too concerned about Russia to attack Germany. Russia would be preoccupied with the threat from Japan. The incorporation of Austria and Czechoslovakia would improve the security of Germany’s borders, freeing up forces for other uses, and would allow the creation of a further twelve divisions. Assuming the expulsion of 3 million from the two countries, their annexation would mean the acquisition of foodstuffs for 5 to 6 million people. Hitler ended by stating that when the moment arrived the attack upon the Czechs would have to be carried out ‘lightning fast’ (‘blitzartig schnell’).266
Hitler’s comments to his armed forces’ commanders were in line with what he had been saying for weeks to Goebbels and other Party leaders. He wanted to use the occasion of the meeting about raw materials allocation to impress similar arguments upon his military leaders. His disdain for the caution of the military leadership had grown alongside his own self-confidence. The Deutschland affair had increased his contempt. He wanted to see how the chiefs of staff would react to the bold ideas for expansion that he put forward.267 It would have been surprising had the military high command not got wind of Hitler’s heavy hints of expansion directed at Austria and Czechoslovakia, been aware of his disillusionment with Britain and his views that the weakness of the Empire made Italy a preferable ally, known of his opinion that the threat from Russia (mentioned only in passing at the meeting on 5 November) had receded, and that sustained conflict in the Mediterranean involving the major powers was in Germany’s interest.268 But the meeting on 5 November was the first time that the Commanders-in-Chief of the Wehrmacht had been explicitly told of Hitler’s thoughts on the likely timing and circumstances of German expansion into Austria and Czechoslovakia.269
Hitler’s arguments did not convince most of his small audience. He was under no illusion at the negative response to his comments.270 It was perhaps out of pique that he more than once refused to read the memorandum of the meeting that Hoßbach had constructed five days later out of the notes he had jotted down at the time.271 Blomberg, Fritsch, and Neurath in particular were alarmed at what they heard. It was not the aim of expansion that concerned them. There was no disagreement here with Hitler. His familiar racial interpretation of Lebensraum had a different emphasis, but accorded well enough with military-strategic interests in German supremacy in central Europe, and with Göring’s aims of economic dominance in south-eastern Europe. Nor did talk of the annexation of Austria and destruction of Czechoslovakia worry them. That both would happen at some point was by late 1937 largely taken for granted.272 Even General Beck’s sharp criticism of Hitler’s statement, when he read an account some days later, did not dispute ‘the expediency of clearing up (bereinigen) the case of Czechia (Tschechei) (perhaps also Austria) if the opportunity presents itself’.273
What did shock them was the prospect of the early use of force, and with that the grave danger that Germany would be plunged into war with Britain and France. Hitler, they thought, was taking foolhardy risks. They raised objections. Neurath saw an expansion of the Mediterranean conflict, in the way Hitler had conceived it, as highly unlikely. The generals pointed to deficiencies in Hitler’s military analysis.274 On no account must Germany find itself at war with Britain and France was the essence of their remarks.275 Even Göring, though he kept quiet until the discussion moved on to armaments matters, still favoured trying to reach agreement with Britain.276 Only Raeder, who had wanted the meeting in the first place, seemed unperturbed. If his later testimony is to be believed, he did not take Hitler’s remarks seriously, other than as a vehicle to spur on the army to speed up its armaments. Possible future conflict with Britain was, for Raeder, an inevitable component of planning for naval expansion. But an imminent conflict in the present state of Germany’s armaments was, in his view, such ‘complete madness’ that it could not be envisaged as a serious proposition.277
Others were less relaxed. Fritsch had to be reassured by Hitler at the end of the meeting that there was no immediate danger of war, and no need to cancel his planned leave.278 General Beck, shown a copy of Hoßbach’s record of the meeting, found Hitler’s remarks ‘crushing’ (niederschmetternd).279 It was not the prospect of expansion into Austria and Czechoslovakia and attainment of German dominance in central Europe, once military strength had been consolidated, that appalled him, but the irresponsibility and dilettantism with which Hitler was prepared to run the risk of involving Germany in a catastrophic war with the western powers. His own, detailed and devastating ten-point critique of Hitler’s statement, probably drawn up as the basis of comments to be made to Blomberg, indicated how seriously he viewed the danger and how far he was estranged from the high-risk policy of the head of state and supreme commander of the armed forces.280 Neurath, who had arranged with Beck and Fritsch that he would speak to Hitler, had the opportunity to do so in mid-January 1938. Hitler’s policies, he warned, meant war. Many of his plans could be attained by more peaceful methods, if somewhat more slowly. Hitler replied that he had no more time.281
Blomberg’s own doubts expressed at the November meeting were, as usual, short-lived. The pliant War Minister was soon conveying Hitler’s wishes to the upper echelons of the Wehrmacht. Within weeks, without Hitler having to give any express order, Chief of Defence Staff Colonel Alfred Jodl, recognizing what was needed, had devised a significant alteration to the previous mobilization plans against Czechoslovakia, aimed at preventing Czech intervention in the event of a war against France. The new directive included the sentence: ‘Once Germany has attained its full war preparedness in all spheres, the military basis will have been created to conduct an offensive war (Angriffskrieg) against Czechoslovakia and thereby also to carry the German space problem to a triumphant conclusion, even if one or other great power intervenes against us.’282
Externally as well as internally, the Third Reich was entering a new, more radical phase. The drift of Hitler’s thinking was plain from the November meeting, and from his comments earlier in the autumn. Nothing had been decided, no plans laid, no programme established. It was still ‘wait and see’. But Hitler’s hand became further strengthened at the end of January and beginning of February 1938 by a chance set of events — a personal scandal involving the War Minister Werner von Blomberg.
Blomberg was not popular in the top leadership of the army. He was seen as too much Hitler’s man and too little the army’s. A friendly word from Hitler or touch of pathos in a speech could move him to tears.283 Behind his back, some generals called him ‘Hitlerjunge Quex’ after the Hitler Youth hero of a propaganda film, prepared to sacrifice his life for his belief in the Führer.284 They thought his admiration of Hitler clouded his professional judgement. For Fritsch, his immediate superior was too impulsive, too open to influence, too weak in his own judgement.285 The snobbish and conservative officer corps also thought him too close to the Party bigwigs whom they commonly held in contempt. That Blomberg wore the Golden Party Badge on his uniform and marched each year at the celebration of the Putsch was scarcely held to his credit.286 When his personal life led to professional trouble in late January 1938, he had no friends to count upon. But until then, until he was struck down by the scandal he had brought upon himself, his position as Hitler’s right hand in all matters to do with the Wehrmacht was secure. As he later acknowledged, he remained firmly behind Hitler, ‘would have gone the Führer’s way to Austria’, and was expecting a period of ten years in order to build up the armed forces for the war he recognized as inevitable.287 For Hitler’s part, as he had done since 1933, he continued to look to Blomberg to prepare for him the war machine he intended to use, as he had indicated in November, well before the decade envisaged by Blomberg had passed. To be rid of his War Minister at this juncture was not remotely on his agenda.
On a September morning in 1937, walking in the Tiergarten, the Field-Marshal, widowed with five grown-up children, met the woman who would change his life and, unwittingly, usher in the biggest internal crisis in the Third Reich since the Röhm affair in the summer of 1934. Blomberg, a lonely and empty individual, rapidly became totally besotted with his new lady-friend, Fräulein Margarethe Gruhn, thirty-five years younger than he was, and from a crassly different social background. Within weeks he had asked her to marry him. He needed the consent of Hitler, as supreme commander of the Wehrmacht. He hinted that his fiancée was a typist, a simple ‘girl from the people’, and that he was concerned about the response of the officer class to his marriage to someone below his status. Hitler immediately offered to be a witness to the marriage to emphasize his rejection of such outmoded class snobbery, and recommended Göring as the second witness.288 The wedding was prepared in great secrecy. Even Blomberg’s adjutant knew nothing of it until the previous afternoon. The ceremony, attended only by Blomberg’s five children and the bride’s mother, apart from the wedding couple and the witnesses, Hitler and Göring, took place in the War Ministry on 12 January. There were no celebrations. The simplest note of the wedding was published in the newspapers.289
Blomberg had good reason for wanting to keep his bride out of the public eye. She had a past. Around Christmas 1931, then aged eighteen, she had posed for a number of pornographic photos which had come into the hands of the police. The following year the police officially registered her as a prostitute. In 1934 she Hadagain come to the attention of the police, accused of stealing from a client.290 Now, within days of the wedding, Berlin prostitutes started talking about ‘One of them’ rising so far up the social ladder that she had married the War Minister. An anonymous phone-call tipped off the head of the army, Colonel-General Fritsch.291 The Gestapo had by this time also picked up the rumours. The Berlin Police Chief, Wolf Heinrich Graf von Helldorff, was put in the picture and, aware of the political sensitivity of what he saw on the card registering her as a prostitute, immediately took the matter to Blomberg’s closest colleague, Head of the Wehrmacht Office, General Wilhelm Keitel, to ascertain that the woman with the police record was indeed identical with the wife of the War Minister. Keitel, who had seen Fräulein Gruhn on only one occasion, heavily veiled at the funeral of Blomberg’s mother, could not help Helldorf, but referred him to Göring, who had been a witness at the wedding. Göring established the identity on 21 January. Three days later, Göring stood nervously in the foyer of the Reich Chancellery, a brown file in his hand, awaiting the return of Hitler from a stay in Bavaria.292
Hitler was stunned at the news that awaited him. Prudery and racial prejudice went hand in hand when he heard that the indecent photos of Blomberg’s bride had been taken by a Jew of Czech origin, with whom she was cohabiting at the time. Scurrilous rumours had it that Hitler took a bath seven times the next day to rid himself of the taint of having kissed the hand of Frau Blomberg. What concerned him above all, however, was the blow to prestige which would follow; that, as a witness at the wedding, he would appear a laughing-stock in the eyes of the world. All night long, as he later recounted, he lay awake, worrying how to avoid a loss of face.293 The next day, as his adjutant Fritz Wiedemann recalled, he paced up and down his room, his hands behind his back, shaking his head and muttering, ’ “If a German Field-Marshal marries a whore, anything in the world is possible.” ‘294 Goebbels and Göring tried to cheer him up over lunch.295 That morning, Hitler had spoken for the first time to his military adjutant Colonel Hoßbach about the matter. He praised Blomberg’s achievements. But the Field-Marshal had caused him great embarrassment through not telling him the truth about his bride and involving him as a witness at the wedding. He expressed his sadness at having to lose such a loyal colleague. But because of his wife’s past, Blomberg had to go as War Minister.296 ‘Blomberg can’t be saved,’ noted Goebbels. ‘Only the pistol remains for a man of honour… The Führer as marriage witness. It’s unthinkable. The worst crisis of the regime since the Röhm affair… The Führer looks like a corpse.’297
Presuming that Blomberg was ignorant of his wife’s shady past, and hoping to hush the matter up and prevent a public scandal, Göring hurried to persuade the Field-Marshal to have his marriage immediately annulled. To the astonishment and disgust of Göring and of Hitler, Blomberg refused. On the morning of 27 January, Hitler had his last audience with Blomberg. It began in heated fashion, but became calmer, and ended with Hitler offering Blomberg the prospect of rejoining him, all forgotten, if Germany should be involved in war. A day later, Blomberg was gone — over the border to Italy to begin a year’s exile, sweetened by a 50,000 Mark ‘golden handshake’ and his full pension as a Field-Marshal.298
The crisis for Hitler had meanwhile deepened. On the very evening, 24 January, that he was recoiling from the shock of the news about his War Minister, and in a bleak mood, he remembered the whiff of a potential scandal two years earlier concerning the head of the army, Colonel-General von Fritsch. Himmler had presented him at the time, in the summer of 1936, with a file raising suspicions that Fritsch had been blackmailed by a Berlin rent-boy by the name of Otto Schmidt on account of alleged homosexual practices in late 1933. Hitler had refused to believe the allegations, had rejected out of hand any investigation, said he never wanted to hear any more of the matter, and ordered the file destroyed. Now, he told Himmler that he wanted the file reconstructed as a matter of urgency. The reconstruction posed no difficulties since, counter to Hitler’s express orders to destroy it, Reinhard Heydrich, head of the Security Police, had had the file put in a safe. Within hours, by 2.15a.m. in the early morning of 25 January, the file was on Hitler’s desk.299
Hitler had not summoned the file as part of a well-thought-out strategy to be rid of Fritsch as well as Blomberg. In fact, he was apparently still thinking of Fritsch on the morning of 26 January, a day after he had seen the ‘reconstructed’ file, as Blomberg’s possible successor as War Minister.300 Fritsch had presumably been thought of by Hitler in this capacity immediately on realization that Blomberg had to go. In the light of the shock he had just received, and his immediate loss of confidence in his leading officers, Hitler now wanted assurance that no further scandals were likely to be forthcoming.301 But just as the Blomberg case was unexpected, so were developments in the Fritsch case to unfold in an unpredictable fashion. Without the Blomberg affair, Hitler is said subsequently to have told his army adjutant Major Gerhard Engel, the Fritsch case would never have come up again.302 The second crisis arose from the first.
On the morning of 25 January, in his state of depression over Blomberg, Hitler gave the thin file on Fritsch to Hoßbach with instructions for absolute secrecy. Hoßbach was horrified at the implications for the Wehrmacht of a second scandal. He thought Fritsch, whom he greatly admired, would easily clear up the matter — or would know what to do.303 Either way, the honour of the army would be preserved. In this frame of mind, he disobeyed Hitler’s express order and informed Fritsch about the file.304 It was a fateful step.
Fritsch, when Hoßbach broke the news of the file on the evening of 25 January, reacted with anger and disgust at the allegations, declaring them a pack of lies. Hoßbach reported back to Hitler. The Dictator showed no sign of anger at the act of disobedience. In fact, he seemed relieved, commenting that since everything was in order, Fritsch could become War Minister.305 However, Hitler added that Hoßbach had done him a great disservice in destroying the element of secrecy.306 In fact, Hoßbach had unwittingly done Fritsch an even greater disservice.
When he heard from Hoßbach what was afoot, Fritsch not unnaturally brooded for hours about the allegations. They must have something to do, he thought, with the member of the Hitler Youth with whom he had lunched, usually alone, in 1933–4, in a willingness to comply with the request of the Winter Aid Campaign to provide free meals for the needy. He presumed that malicious tongues had manufactured an illicit relationship out of harmless acts of charity. Thinking he could clear up a misunderstanding, he sought out Hoßbach the following day, 26 January. All he did, however, was to raise the private doubts of Hitler’s military adjutant. Hoßbach did not think to indicate to Fritsch that to mention the Hitler Youth story might not be tactically the best way to convince Hitler of his innocence.307
During the afternoon, Hitler conferred with Himmler, Reich Justice Minister Gürtner, and Göring (who saw Fritsch as his rival for Blomberg’s post as War Minister).308 There was a general air of mistrust. By early evening, Hitler was still wavering. Göring pressed him to come to a decision. Hoßbach chose the moment to suggest that Hitler speak directly about the matter to Fritsch. After some hesitation, Hitler agreed.309 In the meantime, four Gestapo officers had been sent to the Börgermoor internment camp in the Emsland to fetch Otto Schmidt to Berlin.310 In Hitler’s private library in the Reich Chancellery that evening a remarkable scene ensued: the head of the army, in civilian clothing, was confronted by his accuser, an internee of proven ill-repute, in the presence of his Supreme Commander and head of state, and the Prussian Minister President Göring.
Hitler looked despondent to Fritsch. But he came straight to the point. He wanted, he said, simply the truth. If Fritsch acknowledged his guilt, he was prepared to have the matter hushed up and send him well away from Germany. He had contemplated the possibility of Fritsch perhaps serving as military adviser to Chiang Kai-shek.311 Fritsch vehemently professed his innocence. He then made the mistake of telling Hitler about the harmless episode of the Hitler Youth boy. It had precisely the opposite effect to that hoped for by Fritsch. Hitler’s suspicions rose immediately. He now gave Fritsch the file. While he was reading it, Fritsch’s alleged blackmailer was brought in. Otto Schmidt, who had proved a reliable witness in a number of other cases where he had blackmailed individuals, insisted that he recognized Fritsch as the man in question. Fritsch repeated several times, in a cool and collected manner, that he had never seen the man in his life before and gave Hitler his word of honour that he had nothing to do with the entire affair. Hitler had expected, so he told his generals a few days later, that Fritsch would have thrown the file at his feet. His subdued behaviour did not impress Hitler as an impassioned display of injured innocence.312 Fritsch for his part found it difficult to believe that Hitler and Göring retained their suspicions and simply ignored the word of honour of a high-ranking German officer.313 The reality, as Goebbels recognized, was that Hitler had by now lost faith in Fritsch.314
The Gestapo’s interrogation of Fritsch on the morning of 27 January, when he again faced his tormentor Schmidt, was inconclusive. Schmidt remained adamant in his accusations, Fritsch indignantly vehement in his denial of any involvement. The level of detail in the accuser’s story seemed telling. But as Fritsch pointed out, though to no avail, the detail was erroneous. The alleged meeting with Fritsch was said to have taken place in November 1933. Schmidt claimed to have remembered it as if it had been the previous day. Yet he had Fritsch smoking (which he had not done since 1925), wearing a fur coat (such as he had never possessed), and — Schmidt was repeatedly pressed on this point — announcing himself as ‘General of the Artillery von Fritsch’, a rank he had attained only on 1 February 1934.315 The inconsistency in evidence was not picked up or acted upon. It remained a matter of word against word.
Meanwhile, Hitler had given the Fritsch file to Justice Minister Franz Gürtner, and asked for his views. Goebbels had little confidence in the outcome. ‘Gürtner has now still to write a legal report,’ he wrote. ‘But what use is all that. The porcelain is smashed.’316 Gürtner’s report, delivered before the end of the month, was damning. Upturning conventional legal notions, Gürtner stated that Fritsch had not proved his innocence and regarded the issue of the Hitler Youth boy as damaging to his case.317 But Gürtner insisted upon a legal trial for Fritsch in front of a military court. The military leadership backed the demand. Even if reluctantly, in the case of so prominent a person as the head of the army Hitler had little choice but to concede.318
The double scandal of Blomberg and Fritsch had left the Nazi leadership with a major public relations problem. How was it all to be explained to the people? How was a serious blow to prestige and standing to be avoided? On Thursday 27 January, Hitler, looking pale and grey, decided to cancel his big speech to the Reichstag on the anniversary of the ‘seizure of power’. The meeting of the Reich cabinet was also cancelled. Goebbels suggested that a way out of the political crisis would be for Hitler himself to take over the whole of the Wehrmacht, with the different sections of the armed forces turned into separate ministries. ‘And then comes the most difficult question,’ he added: ‘how to put it to the people (wie dem Volke sagen). The wildest rumours are circulating. The Führer is at the end of his tether (ganz erledigt). None of us has slept since Monday.’319
Goebbels’s suggestion — if indeed it originally came from him — for restructuring the Wehrmacht leadership entirely was at least in part taken up.320 It offered a neat way out of a choice of successor for Blomberg. Göring’s self-evident ambitions for this post were never seriously entertained by Hitler. Blomberg, Keitel, and Wiedemann all spoke out in Göring’s favour. Göring himself would have been prepared to give up his control of the Four Year Plan in return for the War Ministry. Hitler was, however, dismissive of his military abilities. He was not even competent, Hitler scoffed, in running the Luftwaffe, let alone the whole of the armed forces. For the army and the navy, the appointment of Göring (who had in his regular military career never had a rank higher than that of captain) would have been insulting. More than that, it would have amounted for Hitler to a heavy concentration of military command in the hands of one man.321 Heinrich Himmler also cherished ambitions — though always wholly unrealistic ones for a police chief who headed a small rival military force to that of the army in what would develop into the Waffen-SS, who had not served in the First World War, and who, in the later disparaging comment of one general, scarcely knew how to drive a fire-engine. Hitler told his generals on 5 February that rumours of Himmler taking over had been ‘insane twaddle’ (wahnsinniges Geschwätz). A third ambitious hopeful, General Walter von Reichenau, was seen as far too close to the Party and too untraditionalist to be acceptable to the army.322
In fact, already on 27 January, picking up a suggestion made by Blomberg at his farewell audience, Hitler had decided to take over the Wehrmacht leadership himself, appointing no successor to the War Ministry.323 Within hours, he was initiating General Keitel (scarcely known to him to this point, but recommended by Blomberg) in his — that is to say, initially Blomberg’s — ideas for a new organizational structure for the Wehrmacht. Keitel, he said, would be his sole adviser in questions relating to the Wehrmacht.324 With one move, this shifted the internal balance of power within the armed forces from the traditionalist leadership and general staff of the army (as the largest sector) to the office of the Wehrmacht, representing the combined forces, and directly dependent upon and pliant towards Hitler.325 In a statement for army leaders on 7 February, explaining the changes that had taken place, it was claimed that Hitler’s takeover of the Wehrmacht command ‘was already intended in his programme, but for a later date’.326 In reality, it was a rapidly taken decision providing a way out of an embarrassing crisis.
His removal for days a matter of little more than timing, Fritsch was asked by Hitler on 3 February for his resignation.327 By then, an increasingly urgent answer — given the rumours now circulating — to the presentational problem of how to explain the departure of the two most senior military leaders had been found: ‘In order to put a smoke-screen round the whole business, a big reshuffle will take place,’ noted Goebbels.328 In a two-hour discussion, alone with Goebbels in his private rooms, Hitler went over the whole affair — how disillusioned he had been by Blomberg, whom he had trusted blindly; how he disbelieved Fritsch despite his denials — ‘these sort of people always do that’; how he would take over the Wehrmacht himself with the branches of the armed forces as ministries; and the personnel changes he intended to make, particularly the replacement of Neurath by Ribbentrop at the Foreign Office.329 ‘Führer wants to deflect the spotlight from the Wehrmacht, make Europe hold its breath,’ recorded Colonel Jodl in his diary. The Austrian Chancellor Schuschnigg, he added ominously, should be ‘trembling’.330
Within four days the reshuffle was in place. Twelve generals (apart from Blomberg and Fritsch) were removed, six from the Luftwaffe; fifty-one other posts (a third in the Luftwaffe) were also refilled.331 Fritsch’s post was given to Walther von Brauchitsch — a compromise candidate suggested by Blomberg and Keitel to keep out Reichenau.332 The navy was left alone. Raeder had, according to Goebbels’s report of Hitler’s views, ‘behaved splendidly during the entire crisis and everything is in order in the navy’. Göring was given a Field-Marshal’s baton as consolation prize for missing the War Ministry.333 Major changes were also undertaken in the diplomatic service. Neurath, having to make way for his arch-rival Ribbentrop, was ‘elevated’ to a pseudo-position as head of a ‘privy council’ (Geheimer Kabinettsrat) of ministers which was never to meet.334 The key ambassadorial posts in Rome, Tokyo, London, and Vienna were given new occupants. Schacht’s replacement by Funk at the Ministry of Economics was also announced as part of the general reshuffle.335
Blomberg and Fritsch were said to have retired ‘on health grounds’.336 Blomberg would survive the war, still praising the ‘genius’ of the Führer but dismayed that Hitler had not called upon his services once more, and would die, shunned to the last by his former army comrades, in prison in Nuremberg in March 1946.337 Fritsch’s innocence — the victim of mistaken identity — would be established by a military court in Berlin on 18 March 1938.338 Though his name had been cleared, he did not gain the rehabilitation he hoped for. Deeply depressed and embittered, but still claiming to be ‘a good National Socialist’,339 he volunteered for his old artillery regiment in the Polish campaign and would fall fatally wounded on the outskirts of Warsaw on 22 September 1939.340
A communiqué on the sweeping changes — said to be in the interest of the ‘strongest concentration of all political, military, and economic forces in the hand of the supreme leader’ — was broadcast on the evening of 4 February.341 The sensational news covered page after page of the following day’s newspapers. Great surprise, worries about the likelihood of war, and a flurry of the wildest rumours — including an attack on Hitler’s life, mass shootings and arrests, attempts to depose Hitler and Göring and proclaim a military dictatorship, war-plans opposed by the dismissed generals — were common reactions over the next days.342 The real reasons were kept dark. ‘Praise God the people know nothing of it all and would not believe it,’ Goebbels reported Hitler as saying. ‘Therefore greatest discretion.’ Hitler’s way to handle it was to emphasize the concentration of forces under his leadership and ‘let nothing be noticed’.343
The following afternoon, 5 February, a pallid and drawn-looking Hitler addressed his generals. He described what had happened, cited from the police reports, and read out sections of Gürtner’s damning assessment on Fritsch. The assembled officers were benumbed. No objections were raised. Hitler’s explanations appeared convincing. No one believed that he could have acted differently.344 As one of those present, General Curt Liebmann, acknowledged, ‘the impression of these disclosures, both over Blomberg and over Fritsch, was downright crushing, especially because Hitler had described both matters so clearly that there could be scarcely any remaining doubt about the actual guilt. We all had the feeling that the army — in contrast to the navy, Luftwaffe, and Party — had suffered a devastating (vernichtenden) blow… ‘345 At a crucial moment, the undermining of the moral codex of the officer corps by its leading representatives had weakened the authority of the military leadership and in so doing had considerably strengthened Hitler’s position. That evening, Hitler spoke in an emotional tone for an hour to the cabinet, unfolding the drama once more, finding words of praise for Blomberg, Fritsch, and especially Neurath, explaining the need to stick to the official version of events, and recalling with much pathos his own feelings of despair during the crisis.346 It proved to be the last cabinet meeting in the Third Reich. Afterwards, Hitler told Goebbels he felt in the same position with regard to the Wehrmacht that he had been in regarding the German people in 1933. ‘He would first have to fight for his position. But he would soon succeed.’347
Two weeks later, on 20 February, Hitler addressed the Reichstag. His extraordinarily lengthy speech — replacing the one he ought to have given on 30 January — predictably had nothing new to offer on the Blomberg-Fritsch crisis.348 In countering rumours of rifts between Party and Wehrmacht, he returned to the ‘two pillars’ notion of political and military props of the state. To the careful listener, it was, however, plain. Any semblance that the Wehrmacht was a power in its own right, standing above politics, had now vanished. ‘In this Reich, everyone in any responsible position is a National Socialist,’ Hitler intoned. Party and Wehrmacht simply had separate functions, both of which were united in his undisputed leadership.349
Though the crisis was unforeseen, not manufactured, the Blomberg– Fritsch affair engendered a key shift in the relations between Hitler and the most powerful non-Nazi élite, the army. At precisely the moment when Hitler’s adventurism was starting to cause shivers of alarm, the army had demonstrated its weakness and without a murmur of protest swallowed his outright dominance even in the immediate domain of the Wehrmacht. Hitler recognized the weakness, was increasingly contemptuous of the officer corps, and saw himself more and more in the role not only of Head of State, but of great military leader.
The outcome of the Blomberg-Fritsch affair amounted to the third stepping-stone — after the Reichstag Fire and the ‘Röhm-Putsch’ — cementing Hitler’s absolute power and, quite especially, his dominance over the army. With the military emasculated and the hawkish Ribbentrop at the Foreign Office, Hitler’s personal drive for the most rapid expansion possible — blending with the expansionist dynamic coming from the economy and the arms race — was unshackled from the forces which could have counselled caution. In the months that followed, the radical dynamic that had been building up through 1937 would take foreign and domestic developments into new terrain. The threat of war would loom ever closer. Racial persecution would again intensify. Hitler’s ideological ‘vision’ was starting to become reality. The momentum which Hitler had done so much to force along, but which was driven too by forces beyond his personality, was carrying him along with it. ‘Vision’ was beginning to overcome cold, political calculation. The danger-zone was being entered.
Hitler’s ‘mission’ since he entered politics had been to undo the stain of defeat and humiliation in 1918 by destroying Germany’s enemies — internal and external — and restoring national greatness. This ‘mission’, he had plainly stated on many occasions during the 1920s, could only be accomplished through ‘the sword’.1 It meant war for supremacy. The risk could not be avoided. ‘Germany will either be a world power, or there will be no Germany,’ he had written in Mein Kampf.2 Nothing had changed over the years in his fanatical belief in this ‘mission’. He had made necessary dove-like noises for international consumption. And his early speeches and writings had often been dismissed as no more than wild rantings which had little to do with the practical realities of international diplomacy and were not to be taken over-seriously as true expressions of intent.3 But, whatever the public rhetoric, the first five years since he became Chancellor had in fact over and again confirmed the belief of a Leader becoming ever more convinced of his own messianism, certain that his ‘mission’ was on course to fulfilment. His own actions — decisions such as those in 1936 to remilitarize the Rhineland and to introduce the Four-Year Plan — had been instrumental in making the ‘mission’ seem more realizable.
Powerful forces beyond ‘triumph of the will’ had made those actions possible. The final decision had invariably been Hitler’s. He had determined the timing of the critical moves in foreign policy. But the significant steps taken since 1933 had in every case been consonant with the interests of the key agencies of power in the regime, above all with those of the Wehrmacht.4 Hitler’s own obsessively held convictions had served as a spur to, and blended in with, the ambitious armaments plans of the armed forces, varying notions of restoration of hegemony in Europe entertained by the Foreign Office (along with the ‘amateur’ agencies involved in international affairs), and autarkic aims of big industrial firms. His vision of Germany’s greatness through racial purity, strength of arms, and national rebirth had proved an inspiration for hundreds of thousands of fervent activist followers, anxious to put his maxims into practice and forcing along the pace of radicalization by ‘working towards the Führer’. Not least, the ideological fanaticism which Hitler embodied had been institutionalized in the massive Party and its affiliate organizations, above all in the growing power of the SS. Controlling the German police and entertaining unconcealed military ambitions, the SS had become the key organization behind the regime’s ideological dynamism.
By the end of 1937, as his remarks at the ‘Hoßbach meeting’ showed, Hitler acutely sensed that time was not on Germany’s side. The Reich, he had concluded, could not simply wait passively on international developments; by 1943–5 at the latest it had to be prepared to take military action, sooner if circumstances presented themselves. His keenness to accelerate the momentum of expansionism was partly sharpened by his growing feeling that he might not have long to live in order to accomplish his aims.5 But beyond that it reflected an awareness that the pressures accumulating could not be contained without the expansion which he in any case strove after, and a recognition that Germany’s current advantage in armaments build-up would be lost as other countries undertook their own armaments programmes. At precisely this juncture, with Hitler already in such a frame of mind, the Blomberg–Fritsch affair served to underline his absolute supremacy, to highlight the compliance of the army, and further to weaken the lingering influence of the diminishing number of voices advising caution.
Before the reverberations of the crisis had subsided, a fatal miscalculation by the Austrian Chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg over a plebiscite to back Austrian independence gave Hitler a welcome opportunity to turn the spotlight away from his domestic troubles — as Jodl had hinted he would like to do — through the drama of the Anschluß.6 It amounted to a defining moment in the Third Reich. Even more than following the Rhineland triumph two years earlier, Hitler felt after the Anschluß that he could take on the world — and win. And both internally and externally, the impetus to radicalization provided by the Anschluß formed a crucial link in the chain of events that eventually plunged Europe into a new war in September 1939.
Since his boyhood days in Linz, Hitler had seen the future of Austria’s German-speaking population lying in its incorporation in the German Reich. Like many in his part of Austria, he had favoured the ideas of Georg Schönerer, the Pan-Germanist leader, rejecting the Habsburg monarchy and looking to union with the Wilhelmine Reich in Germany. Defeat in the First World War had then brought the dismembering of the sprawling, multi-ethnic empire of the Habsburgs. The new Austria, the creation of the victorious powers at the Treaty of St Germain in September 1919, was no more than a mere remnant of the former empire. The small alpine republic now had only 7 million citizens (compared with 54 million in the empire), 2 million of them in Vienna itself. It was wracked by daunting social and economic problems, and deep political fissures, accompanied by smouldering resentment about its loss of territory and revised borders. The new Austria was, however, almost entirely German-speaking. The idea of union (or Anschluß) with Germany now became far more appealing and was overwhelmingly supported in plebiscites in the early 1920s. Hitler’s rise to power in Germany changed this. It accentuated the already acute divisions between socialists, pan-Germans, and Catholic-conservatives (with their own Austrian-nationalist brand of fascism). Only for the pan-Germans, by now entirely sucked into the Austrian Nazi Movement, was an Anschluß with Hitler’s Germany an attractive proposition.7 But, despite the ban on the Nazi Party in Austria following the German-inspired assassination of the Austrian Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuß in July 1934, the increasing might of the Third Reich and the growing exposure of Austria to German dominance as Italy’s protection waned in the wake of the Abyssinian conflict kept the Anschluß hopes alive among one sizeable part of the Austrian population.
For Hitler’s regime in Germany, meanwhile, the prospects of attaining the union with Austria implicit in the first point of the Nazi Party Programme of 1920, demanding ‘the merger of all Germans… in a Greater Germany’,8 had become much rosier in the changed diplomatic circumstances following Italy’s embroilment in Abyssinia and then the triumphant remilitarization of the Rhineland. Hitler had written on the very first page of Mein Kampf: ‘German-Austria must return to the great German mother-country, and not because of any economic considerations. No, and again no: even if such a union were unimportant from an economic point of view; yes, even if it were harmful, it must nevertheless take place. One blood demands one Reich.’9 Ideological impulses were, however, far from alone in driving on the quest to bring Austria under German sway. Whatever his emphasis in Mein Kampf, by the late 1930s Austria’s geographical position, straddling strategically vital stretches of central Europe, and the significant material resources that would accrue to Germany’s economy, hard-pressed in the push to rearm as swiftly as possible under the Four-Year Plan, were the key determinants in forcing the pace of policy towards the Reich’s eastern neighbour.
On a number of occasions during the second half of 1937, as we have noted, Hitler had spoken in imprecise but menacing terms about moving against Austria. During the summer he had bound the Austrian Nazi Party closer to Berlin through the appointment of his economic adviser Wilhelm Keppler to run party affairs in Vienna.10 Alongside the direct reporting to Hitler of Franz von Papen — the former Vice-Chancellor in the Reich Cabinet who had been sent as a special envoy to Vienna to pour oil on troubled waters following Dollfuß’s assassination, and had been appointed Ambassador after the signing of the Agreement of July 1936 — this provided a further channel of information on developments inside Austria. The effect was to lessen even more the influence of the German Foreign Ministry.11 In September Hitler had sounded out Mussolini about a likely Italian reaction, but received inconsequential, if not discouraging, replies. At the beginning of November, at the ‘Hoßbach meeting’, he had strongly intimated early action to destroy Austria. The visit to Germany in mid-November by Lord Halifax, Lord Privy Seal and President of the Council in the British Government, close to the recently appointed British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and soon to become his Foreign Secretary, had confirmed in Hitler’s mind that Britain would do nothing in the event of German action against Austria.12
The questions of Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Danzig, Lord Halifax had told Hitler, ‘fell into the category of possible alterations in the European order which might be destined to come about with the passage of time’. (In his diary entry on the discussion, Halifax had noted telling Hitler that ‘On all these matters we were not necessarily concerned to stand for the status quo as today, but we were concerned to avoid such treatment of them as would be likely to cause trouble’.) Hitler had responded by stating that ‘the Agreement of July 11th  had been made with Austria and it was to be hoped that it would lead to the removal of all difficulties’. Halifax’s subsequent confidential memorandum on the meeting noted Hitler as saying: ‘Germany did not want to annex Austria or to reduce her to political dependence — her desire was to bring about by peaceful means full economic, cultural, commercial, and possibly monetary and currency union with Austria and to see in Austria a Government really friendly to Germany and ready to work hand in hand for the common welfare of both branches of the Teutonic race.’13
A few days earlier, Hitler had told the Danzig Gauleiter Albert Forster that he wanted Danzig kept quiet from January onwards to allow for concentration on Austria.14 In December, he informed von Papen, who had talked of ways of toppling Schuschnigg, that he wanted to avoid force in the Austrian matter as long as this were desirable to prevent international repercussions.15 Göring and Keppler both had the impression that Hitler would act on Austria in spring or summer 1938.16
Plainly, Hitler had moved during the second half of 1937, despite his express disavowal to Lord Halifax, to a readiness to end Austria’s independence within the foreseeable future. He was, however, in this fully in line with other forces in the Third Reich. The Austro-German treaty of 11 July 1936 together with improved relations with Italy had inevitably brought greater German pressure on Austria. Only increasingly fragile reliance on Italy and recognizably unrealistic hopes placed in the western powers could hinder the relentless squeeze on Austria’s exposed position in central Europe. Papen and Foreign Minister Neurath exerted their own influence where possible, the former largely through direct links with Hitler, the latter through official Foreign Office channels; the growing numbers of Austrian Nazis unfolded a ceaseless clamour of agitation; the bosses of the Four-Year Plan and leaders of the ferrous industries cast envious eyes on Austria’s iron-ore deposits and other sources of scarce raw materials; above all, it was Hermann Göring, at this time close to the pinnacle of his power, who, far more than Hitler, throughout 1937 made the running and pushed hardest for an early and radical solution to the ‘Austrian Question’.
Göring was not simply operating as Hitler’s agent in matters relating to the ‘Austrian Question’. His approach differed in emphasis in significant respects.17 As with Hitler, anti-Bolshevism was central to his thinking. But Göring’s broad notions of foreign policy, which he pushed to a great extent on his own initiative in the mid-1930s, drew more on traditional pan-German concepts of nationalist power-politics to attain hegemony in Europe than on the racial dogmatism central to Hitler’s ideology. Return of colonies (never a crucial issue for Hitler), the alliance with Britain (which he continued to strive for long after Hitler’s ardour had cooled), and an emphasis on domination in south-eastern Europe to ensure German raw material supplies from a huge economic sphere of exploitation (Großraumwirtschaft, a notion that differed from Hitler’s racially determined emphasis on Lebensraum), were the basic props of his programme to ensure Germany’s hegemony.18 Within this framework, Austria’s geography and raw materials gave it both strategically and economically a pivotal position.19
Göring was increasingly determined, now as supremo of the Four-Year Plan, in the face of Germany’s mounting problems of securing raw material supplies, to press for what he called the ‘union’ or ‘merger’ (Zusammenschluß) of Austria and Germany — even, if necessary, at the expense of the alliance with Italy on which Hitler placed such store.20 Göring had come close to offending Mussolini on his visit to Rome in January 1937 with his brusque demands for Italy’s need to come to terms with the fact that Austria would eventually have to fall to Germany. But by the time he had next broached the topic to the Duce four months later, Mussolini had appeared tacitly to recognize that the Anschluß was purely a matter of time. A month before his second (nominally private) visit to Italy that year, in April, amid severe blockages in Germany’s raw material supplies, Göring had told leaders of the iron industry in confidence that the rich iron ores of Austria must come to Germany.21 No time-scale was envisaged. But in view of the pressing economic difficulties, it was plain that Göring did not have the distant future in mind.
As diplomatic feelers, also put out by Neurath and Papen, appeared to be fruitless, Göring’s impatience for a more radical solution to the ‘Austrian Question’ grew. Before Mussolini’s visit to Germany in September, Hitler gave Göring instructions to tread delicately with his important guest on matters relating to Austria. He wanted Mussolini to understand that Germany had no intention in the foreseeable future of bringing the Austrian problem to a head, but that German intervention would be possible should a crisis be otherwise provoked in Austria. By whom or in what circumstances was left to the imagination. How much notice Göring took of Hitler’s instructions was plain when, on the Duce’s visit to Carinhall, he showed him a map of Europe which had Austria already incorporated within Germany. The lack of any negative reaction from Mussolini was taken by his host as a sign that Italy would not object to an Anschluß.22 Göring showed the same map in November to Guido Schmidt, state secretary in the Austrian Foreign Ministry, and his guest at an international hunting exhibition. Good huntsmen knew no boundaries, a grinning Göring told him.23 It was an attempt to bully Schmidt into accepting the inevitability of a currency union between Germany and Austria which, it was plain, was meant to evolve over time into a full merger of the two countries.24 Göring assured Lord Halifax (whose visit to Germany he had instigated) later the same month that German intentions towards Austria were not aggressive, and that relations between the two countries could be settled by diplomatic means.25 At the same time, he took additional steps to isolate Austria still further in south-east Europe.26
By the beginning of 1938, the noose had tightened around Austria’s neck. Göring was pushing hard for currency union. But with Austria stalling for time, and Italy’s reactions uncertain, immediate results through diplomatic channels seemed unlikely. An Anschluß resulting from German intervention through force in the imminent future appeared improbable.
At this unpromising juncture, the idea emerged of a meeting between Hitler and the Austrian Chancellor, Schuschnigg. Such a meeting may well have formed part of Papen’s scheme for bringing down the Austrian Chancellor, noted by Goebbels in mid-December 1937.27 According to Papen’s own later account, he had suggested such a meeting to the Austrian Chancellor in December — in accordance with Schuschnigg’s own expressed wish that month for personal discussions with Hitler (which the Austrian Chancellor naively saw as the only hope of stabilizing his country’s deteriorating situation by reaffirming its independence and the terms of the agreement of July 1936). He had then put the same suggestion to Neurath and Hitler.28 He repeated the suggestion to Guido Schmidt on 7 January, indicating Hitler’s readiness to have a meeting towards the end of the month. Schuschnigg agreed the date.29 Hitler had then had the meeting postponed because of the Blomberg–Fritsch crisis. It was eventually rearranged for 12 February.30 For Hitler, looking, as Jodl had intimated, for a foreign-policy deflection from the internal problems which had dominated the previous weeks, the meeting with the Austrian Chancellor offered the prospect of winning Austrian concessions, giving him something tangible to include in his speech to the Reichstag, rescheduled from 30 January to 20 February.
The Austrians had meanwhile uncovered documents embarrassing to the German government, revealing the plans of the Austrian NSDAP for serious disturbances (including, as a provocation, the murder of Papen by Austrian Nazis disguised as members of the Fatherland Front) aimed at bringing down Schuschnigg.31 At the same time, Schuschnigg was trying to win over Arthur Seyß-Inquart — an Austrian lawyer and Nazi sympathizer who had kept his distance from the rowdier elements within the NSDAP — to incorporate the Nazis in a united patriotic Right in Austria which would appease Berlin but preserve Austrian independence.32 Seyß was, however, in Hitler’s pocket, betraying to Berlin exactly what Schuschnigg was prepared to concede.33 The terms forced upon Schuschnigg by Hitler at the meeting on 12 February were in essence an expanded version of those which the Austrian Chancellor himself had put to Seyß — and were already fully known in Berlin prior to the meeting.34 The main difference was nevertheless a significant one: that Seyß be made Minister of the Interior, and that his powers should be extended to include control of the police.35
At 11a.m. on 12 February, Papen met the Austrian Chancellor, in the company of Guido Schmidt and an adjutant, on the German-Austrian border at Salzburg, where they had spent the night. The Austrian visitors were not enamoured at hearing that three German generals would be among the party awaiting them at the Berghof.36 Nicolaus von Below, Hitler’s Luftwaffe adjutant, had been told to make sure Keitel was present, and in addition one or two generals of particularly ‘martial’ demeanour. Below’s recommendation of the commanding generals of army and Luftwaffe in Munich, Walter von Reichenau (one of the most thoroughly nazified generals) and Hugo Sperrle (who the previous year had commanded the Legion Condor, the squadrons sent to aid the nationalists in Spain), had met with Hitler’s enthusiastic approval. Keitel had arrived that morning from Berlin, along with Ribbentrop. The two generals had travelled from Munich. They were told by Hitler that their presence was purely intended to intimidate Schuschnigg by the implied threat of military force.37
Hitler, tense and keyed up, received Schuschnigg on the steps of his alpine retreat with due politeness.38 However, as soon as they entered the great hall, with its breathtaking view over the mountains, Hitler’s mood abruptly changed. When Schuschnigg remarked on the beauty of the panorama, Hitler snapped: ‘Yes, here my ideas mature. But we haven’t come together to talk about the beautiful view and the weather.’39
Hitler took Schuschnigg into his study while Papen, Schmidt, Ribbentrop, and the others remained outside. Once inside he launched into a ferocious attack, lasting till lunchtime, on Austria’s long history of ‘treason’ against the German people. ‘And this I tell you, Herr Schuschnigg,’ he reportedly threatened. ‘I am firmly determined to make an end of all this… I have a historic mission (Auftrag), and this I will fulfil because Providence has destined me to do so… You don’t believe you can hold me up for half an hour, do you? Who knows? Perhaps I’ll appear some time overnight in Vienna; like a spring storm. Then you’ll see something.’40
Meanwhile, Ribbentrop had presented Guido Schmidt with Hitler’s ultimatum: an end to all restrictions on National Socialist activity in Austria, an amnesty for those Nazis arrested, the appointment of Seyß-Inquart to the Ministry of the Interior with control over the security forces, another Nazi sympathizer, Edmund Glaise-Horstenau (a former military archivist and historian), to be made War Minister, and steps to begin the integration of the Austrian economic system with that of Germany.41 The demands were to be implemented by 15 February — timing determined by Hitler’s major speech on foreign policy, set for 20 February.42
The negotiations were initially intended to last only until lunchtime. But the first session had been taken up almost solely with Hitler’s rantings. It would be evening before the Austrian visitors could depart. At lunch, however, Hitler was as if transformed — once more the genial host. The generals were brought in. They told Schmidt they had no idea why they had been invited. Conversation avoided the Austrian question. It was mostly small-talk, apart from Sperrle speaking of his experiences in the Spanish Civil War, which gave Hitler the opportunity to turn to a pet theme: the dangers of Bolshevism.43 It was late afternoon when Schuschnigg, now apprised by Schmidt of the text of the German demands, returned to Hitler’s study. Hitler threatened to march into Austria if his demands were not met in full. Schuschnigg refused to buckle to the threats. Only the Austrian President, he declared, could make cabinet appointments and grant an amnesty. He could not guarantee that such action would be taken. As Schuschnigg was retreating for further discussions with Schmidt, Hitler’s bellow for Keitel to come immediately could be heard throughout the house. When the general, arriving at the double in Hitler’s study, asked what was required of him, he was told: ‘Nothing. Sit down.’ After ten minutes of inconsequential chat, he was told to go.
But the impact of the charade on Schuschnigg was not lost.44 The threat of military invasion seemed very real. Eventually, Papen brokered a number of alterations in the German demands and, under pressure, the Austrians finally accepted the chief difficulty, the appointment of Seyß-Inquart. Hitler told Schuschnigg: ‘For the first time in my life I have made up my mind to reconsider a final decision.’45 With a heavy heart, Schuschnigg signed.
It was by now late evening. The Austrians, browbeaten and depressed after subjection to such merciless bullying, preferred to travel back hungry than accept Hitler’s invitation to dinner. They returned to Salzburg in complete silence. Only Papen spoke. ‘Now you have some idea, Herr Bundeskanzler, how difficult it is to deal with such an unstable person,’ he remarked, adding that next time it would be different and that the Führer could be ‘distinctly charming.’46
Keitel returned to Berlin early next morning to organize fake military manoeuvres near the Austrian border to exert further pressure on the Reich’s eastern neighbours.47 There was no question of genuine military preparations for an invasion. Keitel had to report to the newly appointed supreme commander of the army, von Brauchitsch, that Hitler was not thinking of a military conflict.48
Hitler was dissatisfied at the outcome of the meeting with Schuschnigg.49 But he told Goebbels that his threats of force had had their effect: ‘cannons always speak a good language’.50 Only when Schuschnigg had complied with his demands, on 15 February, did Hitler’s mood improve.51 ‘The world press rages. Speaks of rape. Not entirely without justification,’ wrote Goebbels.52 Hitler spent the next days largely withdrawn in his private quarters in the Berghof, preparing drafts of his big speech on the 20th, and dictating it to the two secretaries working in rotation on the typewriter.53 In his speech, he thanked the Austrian Chancellor ‘for the great understanding and warmhearted readiness’ in accepting his invitation to talks and his efforts to find a way of serving ‘the interest of both countries’.54
Two weeks after the notorious meeting at the Berghof, when laying down directives for the restless Austrian NSDAP, which had threatened to upset developments through its own wild schemes for disturbances, Hitler emphasized, according to Keppler’s notes of the meeting, that he wanted to proceed along ‘the evolutionary way whether or not the possibility of success could be envisaged at present. The protocol signed by Schuschnigg,’ he went on, ‘was so far-reaching that if implemented in full the Austrian Question would automatically be solved. A solution through force was something he did not now want if it could in any way be avoided, since for us the foreign-policy danger is diminishing from year to year and the military strength becoming year by year greater.’55 Hitler’s approach was at this time still in line with Göring’s evolutionary policy. He plainly reckoned that the tightening of the thumbscrews on Schuschnigg at the February meeting had done the trick. Austria was no more than a German satellite. Extinction of the last remnants of independence would follow as a matter of course. Force was not necessary.
In line with the ‘Trojan horse’ policy of eroding Austrian independence from the inside, following the Berchtesgaden meeting Hitler had complied with demands from Seyß-Inquart — matching earlier representations by Schuschnigg himself — to depose Captain Josef Leopold, the leader of the unruly Austrian National Socialists, and his associates.56 Even so, the meeting at the Berghof and Hitler’s speech on 20 February, his first broadcast in full on Austrian radio — stating that ‘in the long run’ it was ‘unbearable’ for Germans to look on the separation of 10 million fellow Germans by borders imposed through peace treaties — had given the Austrian Nazis a new wind.57 Disturbances mounted, especially in the province of Styria, in the south-east of the country, where resentment at the loss of territory to the new state of Yugoslavia after the First World War had helped fuel the radicalism that had turned the region into a hotbed of Austrian Nazism.58 The situation was by now highly volatile, the Nazis barely controllable by Austrian state forces. Schuschnigg’s own emotional appeals to Austrian patriotism and independence had merely exacerbated the tension within the country and further irritated Hitler.59 At the same time, Schuschnigg, evidently impressed by Hitler’s threats to use force and anxious to avoid anything that might occasion this, was reassuring Britain, France, and Italy that he had the situation in hand rather than rousing foreign sympathy at German strong-arm tactics.60 The resignation as Foreign Secretary on 21 February of Anthony Eden, despised by the German leadership, and his replacement by Lord Halifax — known particularly since his visit to Germany the previous November to favour a conciliatory approach to revisionist demands in the interests of preserving peace in Europe and preventing a conflict which could threaten Great Britain’s position as a world power — was meanwhile seen in Berlin as a further indication of British appeasement.61
The same tone came across in comments of Sir Nevile Henderson, the British Ambassador in Berlin, when he met Hitler on 3 March. Hitler, in a vile mood, was unyielding. If Britain opposed a just settlement in Austria, where Schuschnigg had the support of only 15 per cent of the population, Germany would have to fight, he declared. And if he intervened, he would do so like lightning (blitzschnell). His aim was nevertheless ‘that the just interests of the German Austrians should be secured and an end made to oppression by a process of peaceful evolution’.62 However inadequately the undermining of the Austrian state from within through a combination of infiltration and agitation, backed by German bullying, could be described as ‘peaceful evolution’, pressure-tactics, not armed takeover, still formed the preferred solution to the Austrian Question.
Such notions were thrown overboard by Schuschnigg’s wholly unexpected decision, announced on the morning of 9 March, to hold a referendum on Austrian autonomy four days later. The Nazis themselves had been pressing for years for a plebiscite on Anschluß, confident that they would gain massive support for an issue backed by large numbers of Austrians since 1919.63 But Schuschnigg’s referendum, asking voters to back ‘a free and German, independent and social, Christian and united Austria; for peace and work, and for the equal rights of all who declare themselves for people and fatherland’, was couched in a way that could scarcely fail to bring the desired result. It would be a direct rebuff to union with Germany.64 German plans were immediately thrown into disarray. Hitler’s own prestige was at stake. The moves that followed, culminating in the German march into Austria and the Anschluß, were all now improvised at breakneck speed.
The German government was completely taken aback by Schuschnigg’s gamble. For hours, there was no response from Berlin. Hitler had not been informed in advance of Schuschnigg’s intentions, and was at first incredulous. But his astonishment rapidly gave way to mounting fury at what he saw as a betrayal of the Berchtesgaden agreement.65 Goebbels recorded the decision to hold an Austrian plebiscite in his diary, though initially without further commentary.66 In the evening, when he was addressing a gathering of newspaper editors at a reception in the Propaganda Ministry, he was suddenly summoned to Hitler’s presence. Göring was already there. He was told of Schuschnigg’s move — ‘an extremely dirty trick’ (ganz gemeinen Bubenstreich) to ‘dupe’ (übertölpeln) the Reich through ‘a stupid and idiotic plebiscite’. The trio were still unsure how to act. They considered replying either by Nazi abstention from the plebiscite (which would have undermined its legitimacy), or by sending 1,000 aeroplanes to drop leaflets over Austria ‘and then actively intervening’.67 For the time being, the German press was instructed to publish nothing at all about Austria.68
By late at night, perhaps egged on by Göring, Hitler was warming up. Goebbels was again called in. Glaise-Horstenau (along with Seyß-Inquart a Nazi sympathizer in the Austrian cabinet), on a visit in southern Germany when suddenly summoned to Berlin by Göring, was also present. ‘The Führer drastically outlines for him his plans,’ Goebbels recorded. ‘Glaise recoils from the consequences.’ But Hitler, who went on to discuss the situation alone with Goebbels until 5a.m., was now ‘in full swing’ and showing ‘a wonderful fighting mood’. ‘He believes the hour has arrived,’ noted Goebbels. He wanted to sleep on it. But he was sure that Italy and England would do nothing. Action from France was possible, but not likely. ‘Risk not so great as at the time of the occupation of the Rhineland,’ was the conclusion.69
Just how unprepared the German leadership had been was shown by the fact that the Foreign Minister, Ribbentrop, was in London, Reichenau had to be recalled from Cairo, and General Erhard Milch (Göring’s right-hand man in the Luftwaffe) was summoned from holiday in Switzerland.70 Göring himself was scheduled to preside over the military court to hear the Fritsch case, meeting for the first time on 10 March. The hearing was abruptly adjourned when a courier brought a message demanding Göring’s presence in the Reich Chancellery.71 Goebbels had also been called there, arriving to find Hitler deep in thought, bent over maps. Plans were discussed for transporting 4,000 Austrian Nazis who had been exiled to Bavaria, together with a further 7,000 paramilitary reservists.72
The Wehrmacht leadership was taken completely by surprise through Hitler’s demand for plans for military intervention. Keitel, abruptly ordered to the Reich Chancellery on the morning of 10 March, spinelessly suggested calling in Brauchitsch and Beck, knowing full well that no plans existed, but wishing to avoid having to tell this to Hitler. Brauchitsch was not in Berlin. Beck despairingly told Keitel: ‘We have prepared nothing, nothing has happened, nothing.’ But his objections were dismissed out of hand by Hitler. He was sent away to report within hours on which army units would be ready to march on the morning of the 12th.73
By this time, Goebbels had again had intensive discussions alone with Hitler. It seems to have been Goebbels who came up with the idea of having the two Nazi supporters in the Austrian cabinet, Seyß-Inquart and Gleise-Horstenau, demand the referendum should follow the procedures laid down for the Saar plebiscite in 1935. Should Schuschnigg refuse, as was to be expected, the two ministers would resign and 600–800 German planes would shower Austria with leaflets on the Saturday, exhorting the people to resistance against their government. The people — meaning the Nazi activists — would rise in revolt. And on the Sunday, 13 March, the day of the referendum, the Wehrmacht followed by the Austrian ‘Legionaries’ — exiled paramilitaries based in Bavaria — would march in. The SA-Obergruppenführer Hermann Reschny, leader of the Austrian stormtroopers, thought that the Austrian army would open fire. This, too, had to be reckoned with. But Mussolini was unable and London unwilling to act, while Paris was handicapped by a government crisis. ‘So it must be risked. In any case, prepare everything. The Führer works out the military plans… March was always the Führer’s lucky month.’74
Around midnight Goebbels had once more been called to see Hitler. ‘The die is cast,’ he noted. ‘On Saturday march in. Push straight to Vienna. Big aeroplane action. The Führer is going himself to Austria. Göring and I are to stay in Berlin. In 8 days Austria will be ours.’ He discussed the propaganda arrangements with Hitler, then returned to his Ministry to work on them until 4a.m. No one was now allowed to leave the Ministry till the ‘action’ began. The activity was feverish. ‘Again a great time. With a great historical task… It’s wonderful,’ he wrote.75
After three hours’ sleep, Goebbels was back with Hitler by 8a.m. dictating leaflets for distribution in Austria.76 An hour later, when Papen arrived post-haste from Vienna, he found the Reich Chancellery in a frenzy of activity. Apart from Goebbels and his propaganda team, Neurath, Frick (with several officials from the Ministry of the Interior), Himmler (‘surrounded by a dozen giant SS officers’), Brauchitsch, Keitel, and their adjutants were all in attendance. Ribbentrop was missing — sidelined in London, where he was making his official farewells as former ambassador, his recall to Berlin now hindered by Göring.77
Prominent in Hitler’s mind that morning was Mussolini’s likely reaction. Around midday, he sent a handwritten letter, via his emissary Prince Philipp of Hessen, telling the Duce that as a ‘son of this [Austrian] soil’ he could no longer stand back but felt compelled to intervene to restore order in his homeland, assuring Mussolini of his undiminished sympathy, and stressed that nothing would alter his agreement to uphold the Brenner border.78 But whatever the Duce’s reaction, Hitler had by then already put out his directive for ‘Case Otto’, expressing his intention, should other measures — the demands put by Seyß-Inquart to Schuschnigg — fail, of marching into Austria. The action, under his command, was to take place ‘without use of force in the form of a peaceful entry welcomed by the people’.79
Hitler, when Papen was ushered in to see him that morning, was ‘in a state bordering on hysteria’.80 During the course of the day, Göring (so he claimed), rather than Hitler, made most of the running. ‘It was not the Führer so much as I, myself, who set the pace and, even overruling the Führer’s misgivings, brought everything to its final development,’ he proudly insisted at his Nuremberg trial, anxious to establish his own ‘Göring myth’ for posterity.81 ‘Without actually discussing it with the Führer,’ he recalled, ‘I demanded spontaneously the immediate resignation of Chancellor Schuschnigg. When this was approved, I put the next demand, so that now the entire business was ready for the Anschluß.’82 This was something of an over-simplification.
Hitler had put the first ultimatum around 10a.m., demanding Schuschnigg call off the referendum for two weeks to allow a plebiscite similar to that in the Saarland in 1935 to be arranged — the idea that Goebbels had raised the previous day. Schuschnigg was to resign as Chancellor to make way for Seyß-Inquart. All restrictions on the National Socialists were to be lifted.83 It was when Schuschnigg, around 2.45p.m., accepted the postponement of the plebiscite but rejected the demand to resign that Göring acted on his own initiative in repeating the ultimatum for the Chancellor’s resignation and replacement by Seyß. Göring reported back to the Reich Chancellery: Seyß had to be named Chancellor by 5.30p.m., the other conditions of the original ultimatum accepted by 7.30p.m.84 He had simply overridden the objections of Seyß himself, who was still hoping to avoid a German invasion and preserve some shreds of Austrian independence.85 Looking harassed and tense, Seyß put the ultimatum to the Austrian cabinet, remarking that he was no more than ‘a girl telephone switchboard operator’.86 At this point, the military preparations in Germany were continuing, ‘but march in still uncertain’, recorded Goebbels. Plans were discussed for making Hitler Federal President, to be acclaimed by popular vote, ‘and then eventually (dann so nach und nach) to complete the Anschluß’.87 In the immediate future, the ‘coordination’ (Gleichschaltung) of Austria, not the complete Anschluß, was what was envisaged.88
Then news came through that only part of the second ultimatum had been accepted. Schuschnigg’s desperate plea for British help had solicited a telegram from Lord Halifax, baldly stating: ‘His Majesty’s Government are unable to guarantee protection.’89 About 3.30p.m. Schuschnigg resigned.90 But President Wilhelm Miklas was refusing to appoint Seyß-Inquart as Chancellor.91 A further ultimatum was sent to Vienna, expiring at 7.30p.m.92 By now Göring was in full swing. Returning to the Reich Chancellery in the early evening, Nicolaus von Below found him ‘in his element’, constantly on the phone to Vienna, the complete ‘master of the situation’.93 Just before 8.00 that evening, Schuschnigg made an emotional speech on the radio, describing the ultimatum. Austria, he said, had yielded to force. To spare bloodshed, the troops would offer no resistance.94
By now, Nazi mobs were rampaging through Austrian cities, occupying provincial government buildings. Local Nazi leaders were hoping for Gleichschaltung through a seizure of power from within to forestall an invasion from Germany.95 Göring pressed Seyß-Inquart to send a prearranged telegram, dictated from Berlin, asking the German government for help to ‘restore order’ in the Austrian cities, ‘so that we have legitimation’, as Goebbels frankly admitted.96 Keppler rang at 8.48p.m. to inform Göring that Seyß was refusing to send the telegram. Göring replied that the telegram need not be sent; all Seyß needed do was to say ‘agreed’.97 Eventually, Keppler sent the telegram, at 9.10p.m. It was irrelevant. Twenty-five minutes earlier, persuaded by Göring that he would lose face by not acting after putting the ultimatum, Hitler had already given the Wehrmacht the order to march.98 Brauchitsch had left the Reich Chancellery, the invasion order in his pocket, depressed and worried about the response abroad.99 Just before 10.30p.m. Hitler heard the news he had been impatiently awaiting: Mussolini was prepared to accept German intervention. ‘Please tell Mussolini I will never forget him for it, never, never, never, come what may,’ a hugely relieved Hitler gushed over the telephone to Philipp of Hesse. ‘If he should ever need any help or be in any danger, he can be sure that do or die I shall stick by him, come what may, even if the whole world rises against him,’ he added, carried away by his elation.100
At midnight, President Miklas gave in. Seyß-Inquart was appointed Federal Chancellor.101 All German demands had now been met. But the invasion went ahead. As the American journalist William Shirer, observing the scenes in Vienna, cynically commented: with the invasion Hitler broke the terms of his own ultimatum.102 A last attempt by Seyß-Inquart, at 2.30a.m., to have the invasion stopped was brusquely rejected by Hitler: the military intervention could no longer be halted.103 Keitel did not dare pass on a plea he received at 4a.m. from General Max von Viebahn, in the Wehrmacht Head Office, imploring him to intervene with the Führer to desist from the invasion. Had Hitler known of the request, Keitel claimed, he would have been utterly contemptuous of the army leadership.104 That, in Keitel’s eyes, had to be avoided at all costs in the light of the events of the previous weeks. The ‘friendly visit’ of German troops began at 5.30a.m.105
Later that morning, Hitler, accompanied by Keitel, landed in Munich, en route for his triumphal entry into Austria, leaving Göring to serve as his deputy in the Reich.106 By midday, the cavalcade of grey Mercedes, with open tops despite the freezing weather, had reached Mühldorf am Inn, close to the Austrian border. General Fedor von Bock, Commander-in-Chief of the newly formed 8th Army, hastily put together in two days out of troop units in Bavaria, reported to Hitler. The motorized Leibstandarte-SS Adolf Hitler had joined them from Berlin. Bock could tell Hitler that the German troops had been received with flowers and jubilation since crossing the border two hours earlier. Hitler listened to the report of reactions abroad by Reich Press Chief Otto Dietrich. He did not expect either military or political complications, and gave the order to drive on to Linz.107
Back in Berlin, Frick was drafting a set of laws to accommodate the German takeover in Austria. A full Anschluß — the complete incorporation of Austria, marking its disappearance as a country — was still not envisaged; at any rate, not in the immediate future. Elections were prescribed for 10 April, with Austria ‘under Germany’s protection’. Hitler was to be Federal President, determining the constitution. ‘We can then push along the development as we want,’ commented Goebbels.108 Hitler himself had not hinted at an Anschluß in his proclamation, read out at midday by Goebbels on German and Austrian radio, stating only that there would be a ‘true plebiscite’ on Austria’s future and fate within a short time.109
Shortly before 4p.m. that afternoon, Hitler crossed the Austrian border over the narrow bridge at his birthplace, Braunau am Inn. The church-bells were ringing. Tens of thousands of people (most of them from outside Braunau), in ecstasies of joy, lined the streets of the small town. But Hitler did not linger. Propaganda value, not sentiment, had dictated his visit. Braunau played its brief symbolic part. That sufficed. The cavalcade passed on its triumphal progression to Linz.
Progress was much slower than expected because of the jubilant crowds packing the roadsides. It was in darkness, four hours later, that Hitler eventually reached the Upper Austrian capital. Seyß-Inquart and Glaise-Horstenau, along with Himmler and other leading Nazis, had long been waiting for him.110 So had an enormous crowd, gathered on the marketplace. The cars could go no further. Hitler’s bodyguards pushed a way through the crowd so that he could go the last few yards to the town hall on foot.111 Peals of bells rang out; the ecstatic crowd was screaming ‘Heil’; Seyß-Inquart could hardly make himself heard in his introductory remarks. Hitler looked deeply moved.112 Tears ran down his cheeks.113 In his speech on the balcony of the Linz town hall, he told the masses, constantly interrupting him with their wild cheering, that Providence must have singled him out to return his homeland to the German Reich. They were witnesses that he had now fulfilled his mission. ‘I don’t know on which day you will be called,’ he added. ‘I hope it is not far off.’ This somewhat mystical remark seemed to indicate that even up to this point, he was not intending within hours to end Austria’s identity by incorporating the country into Germany.114
Once more, plans were rapidly altered. He had meant to go straight on to Vienna. But he decided to stay in Linz throughout the next day, Sunday the 13th, and enter Vienna on the Monday.115 To the accompaniment of unending cries of ‘One people, one Reich, one Leader’ (‘ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer’), his party took up rooms in the Hotel Weinzinger on the banks of the Danube. Beds were hastily allocated. The restaurant could not cope with the food requirements. The single telephone in the hotel had to be reserved solely for Hitler’s use.116 The extraordinary reception had made a huge impact on him. He was told that foreign newspapers were already speaking of the ‘Anschluß’ of Austria to Germany as a fait accompli. It was in this atmosphere that the idea rapidly took shape of annexing Austria immediately.
In an excited mood, Hitler was heard to say that he wanted no half-measures. Stuckart, from the Reich Ministry of the Interior, was hurriedly summoned to Linz to draft legislation.117 In an interview he gave to the British journalist Ward Price in the Hotel Weinzinger, Hitler hinted that Austria would become a German province ‘like Bavaria or Saxony’.118 He evidently pondered the matter further during the night.119 The next day, 13 March — the day originally scheduled for Schuschnigg’s referendum on Austrian independence — the Anschluß, not intended before the previous evening, was completed.120 Hitler’s visit to Leonding, where he laid flowers on his parents’ grave and returned to the house where the family had lived, meeting some acquaintances he had not seen for thirty years, perhaps reinforced the belief, stimulated the previous evening by his reception in Linz, that Providence had predestined him to reunite his homeland (Heimat) with the Reich.121
At some point during the day Hitler contacted Mussolini to assure himself of the Duce’s acceptance of the final move to full Anschluß. On hearing the news he wanted, he dispatched an effusive telegram, in the same vein as his telephone message two days earlier: ‘Mussolini, I will never forget you for this!’122 The Duce’s reply the following day, addressed simply to ‘Hitler. Vienna’, was less emotional: ‘My stance is determined by the friendship between our two countries sealed in the axis,’ he wrote.123
Stuckart had meanwhile arrived overnight and sat in the Hotel Weinzinger on the morning of the 13th drafting the ‘Law for the Reunion of Austria with the German Reich’.124 This was put together in all haste through much toing and froing between Stuckart in Linz and Keppler in Vienna.125 Hitler told a group of surprised and jubilant Austrian Nazi leaders, invited to lunch in the Hotel Weinzinger, around 3p.m. that ‘an important law’ announcing Austria’s incorporation within the German Reich was about to appear.126 Around 5p.m. the Austrian Ministerial Council — a body by now bearing scant resemblance to the cabinet under Schuschnigg — unanimously accepted Stuckart’s draft with one or two minor reformulations. The meeting lasted a mere five minutes and ended with the members of the Council rising to their feet to give the ‘German Greeting’. The Austrian President, Wilhelm Miklas, laid down his office at about the same time, refusing to sign the reunion law and handing his powers over to Seyß-Inquart. That evening, Seyß-Inquart and Keppler drove to Linz to confirm that the law had been accepted. Hitler signed the law before the evening was out.127 Austria had become a German province.128 Göring, who before the events triggered by the Berchtesgaden meeting had, as we have seen, been the one most strongly pressing for the union of the two countries, was taken by surprise — astonished at the manner in which the actual Anschluß had come about.129
Immediately, the Austrian army was sworn in to Hitler. In a surprise move, Gauleiter Josef Bürckel, a trusted ‘old fighter’ of the Movement but with no connections with Austria, was brought in from the Saar to reorganize the NSDAP.130 Hitler was well aware of the need to bring the Party in Austria fully into line as quickly as possible, and not to leave it in the hands of the turbulent, ill-disciplined, and unpredictable Austrian leadership.
In mid-morning on 14 March, Hitler left Linz for Vienna. Cheering crowds greeted the cavalcade of limousines — thirteen police cars accompanied Hitler’s Mercedes — all the way to the capital, where he arrived, again delayed, in the late afternoon.131 On the orders of Cardinal Innitzer, Archbishop of Vienna, all the Catholic churches in the city pealed their bells in Hitler’s honour and flew swastika banners from their steeples — an extraordinary gesture given the ‘Church struggle’ which had raged in the Reich itself over the previous years.132 The scenes of enthusiasm, according to a Swiss reporter who witnessed them, ‘defied all description’.133 An English observer of the scene commented: ‘To say that the crowds which greeted [Hitler] along the Ringstraße were delirious with joy is an understatement.’134 Hitler had to appear repeatedly on the balcony of the Hotel Imperial in response to the crowd’s continual shouts of ‘We want to see our Führer.’135 Keitel, whose room faced the front of the hotel, found it impossible to sleep for the clamour.136
The next day, 15 March, in beautiful spring weather, Hitler addressed a vast, delirious crowd, estimated at a quarter of a million people, in Vienna’s Heldenplatz. The Viennese Nazi Party had been impatiently expecting him to come to the capital for three days.137 They had had time to ensure the preparations were complete. Work-places were ordered to be closed (though employees were still to be paid — some compensation for the hours spent standing and waiting for Hitler’s speech); many factories and offices had marched their employees as a group to hear the historic speech; schools had not been open since the Saturday; Hitler Youth and girls from the Bund Deutscher Mädel were bussed in from all parts of Austria; party formations had turned out in force.138 But for all the organization, the wild enthusiasm of the immense crowd was undeniable — and infectious. Those less enthusiastic had already been cowed into submission by the open brutality of the Nazi hordes, exploiting their triumph since the weekend to inflict fearful beatings or to rob and plunder at will, and by the first waves of mass arrests (already numbering between 10,000 and 20,000 in the early days) orchestrated by Himmler and Heydrich, who had arrived in Vienna on 12 March.139
Ominous in Hitler’s speech was his reference to the ‘new mission’ of the ‘Eastern Marches (Ostmark) of the German People’ (as the once independent country of Austria was now to be known) as the ‘bulwark’ against the ‘storms of the east’.140 He ended, to tumultuous cheering lasting for minutes, by declaring ‘before history the entry of my homeland into the German Reich’.141
After attending a military parade in the afternoon, Hitler had a short but important audience, arranged by Papen, with the Austrian primate, Cardinal Innitzer.142 The Cardinal assured Hitler of the loyalty of Austria’s Catholics, the overwhelming body of the population.143 Three days later, along with six other Austrian bishops and archbishops, he put his signature to a declaration of their full support and blessing for the new regime in Austria and their conviction ‘that through the actions of the National Socialist Movement the danger of godless Bolshevism, which would destroy everything, would be fended off’.144 Cardinal Innitzer added in his own hand: ‘Heil Hitler.’145
In the early evening, Hitler left Vienna and flew to Munich, before returning next day to Berlin to another ‘hero’s welcome’.146 Two days later, on 18 March, a hastily summoned Reichstag heard his account of the events leading up to what he described as the ‘fulfilment of the supreme historical commission’.147 He then dissolved the Reichstag and set new elections for 10 April. On 25 March, in Königsberg, he began what was to prove his last ‘election’ campaign, holding six out of fourteen major speeches in the former Austria.148 In both parts of the extended Reich, the propaganda machine once more went into overdrive. Newspapers were prohibited from using the word ‘ja’ in any context other than in connection with the plebiscite.149 When the results were announced on 10 April, 99.08 per cent in the ‘Old Reich’, and 99.75 per cent in ‘Austria’ voted ‘yes’ to the Anschluß and to the ‘list of the Führer’.150 Goebbels’s Propaganda Ministry congratulated itself. ‘Such an almost 100 per cent election result is at the same time a badge of honour for all election propagandists,’ it concluded.151
From Hitler’s perspective, it was a near-perfect result. Whatever the undoubted manipulative methods, ballot-rigging, and pressure to conform which helped produce it, genuine support for Hitler’s action had unquestionably been massive.152 Once again, a foreign-policy triumph had strengthened his hand at home and abroad. For the mass of the German people, Hitler once more seemed a statesman of extraordinary virtuoso talents. For the leaders of the western democracies, anxieties about the mounting instability of central Europe were further magnified.
The Austrian adventure was over. Hitler’s attentions were already moving elsewhere. Within days of returning from Vienna, he was poring over maps together with Goebbels. ‘First comes now Czechia (Tschechei),’ the Propaganda Minister recorded. ‘… And drastically (rigoros), at the next opportunity… The Führer is wonderful… A true genius. Now he sits for hours over the map and broods. Moving, when he says he wants to experience the great German Reich of the Teutons (Germanen) himself.’153
The Anschluß was a watershed for Hitler, and for the Third Reich. The backcloth to it had been one of domestic crisis. Yet almost overnight any lingering threat in the Blomberg–Fritsch affair had been defused by a triumph greater than any that Hitler had enjoyed before. The overwhelming reception he had encountered on his grandiose procession to Vienna, above all his return to Linz, had made a strong impression on the German Dictator. The intoxication of the crowds made him feel like a god. The rapid improvisation of the Anschluß there and then, fulfilling a dream he had entertained as a young Schönerer supporter all those years earlier, proved once more — so it seemed to him — that he could do anything he wanted. His instincts were, it seemed, always right. The western ‘powers’ were powerless. The doubters and sceptics at home were, as always, revealed as weak and wrong. There was no one to stand in his way. As Papen later put it: ‘Hitler had brought about the Anschluß by force; in spite of all warnings and prophecies, his own methods had proved the most direct and successful. Not only had there been no armed conflict between the two countries, but no foreign power had seen fit to intervene. They adopted the same passive attitude as they had shown towards the reintroduction of conscription in Germany and the reoccupation of the Rhineland. The result was that Hitler became impervious to the advice of all those who wished him to exercise moderation in his foreign policy.’154
Hitler had, with the Anschluß, created ‘Greater Germany’ (‘Großdeutschland’), now incorporating his homeland. As Goebbels’s diary entry, just noted, indicates, he was impatient for more. He had once seen himself as the ‘drummer’, paving the way for the ‘great leader’ to follow. He had then come to see himself as that ‘great leader’, rebuilding Germany, ‘nationalizing’ the masses for the great future conflict. Would he live to see the creation of the Great Germanic Reich, embracing all Germans and dominating the continent of Europe, himself? He had doubted it. Perhaps a later ‘great leader’ would be needed to complete the task. But from 1936 onwards, he was sure, Europe was ‘on the move’; the conflict would not be long delayed. By late 1937 he was envisaging expansion in the foreseeable future. The Anschluß now suggested to him that the Great Germanic Reich did not have to be a long-term project. He could create it himself. But it had to be soon. The incorporation of Austria had seriously weakened the defences of Czechoslovakia — the Slav state he had detested since its foundation, and one allied with the Bolshevik arch-enemy and with France. The next step to German dominance on the European continent beckoned.
The Anschluß did not just set the roller-coaster of foreign expansion moving. It gave massive impetus to the assault on ‘internal enemies’. Early arrivals in Vienna had been Himmler and Heydrich. The repression was ferocious — worse even than it had been in Germany following the Nazi takeover in 1933. The Austrian police records fell immediately into the Gestapo’s hands. Supporters of the fallen regime, but especially Socialists, Communists, and Jews — rounded up under the aegis of the rising star in the SD’s ‘Jewish Department’, Adolf Eichmann — were taken in their thousands into ‘protective custody’.155
Many other Jews were manhandled, beaten, and tortured in horrific ordeals by Nazi thugs, looting and rampaging. Jewish shops were plundered at will. Individual Jews were robbed on the open streets of their money, jewellery, and fur coats. Groups of Jews, men and women, young and old, were dragged from offices, shops, or homes and forced to scrub the pavements in ‘cleaning squads’, their tormentors standing over them and, watched by crowds of onlookers screaming ‘Work for the Jews at last,’ kicking them, drenching them with cold, dirty water, and subjecting them to every conceivable form of merciless humiliation.156
The pent-up fury of the Nazi mobs threatened to explode into a full-scale pogrom. The Daily Telegraph’s long-standing correspondent in Vienna, G.E.R. Gedye, described the menacing atmosphere: ‘As I crossed the Graben [one of the main streets in the centre of Vienna] to my office, the Brown flood was sweeping through the streets. It was an indescribable witches’ sabbath — stormtroopers, lots of them barely out of the schoolroom, with cartridge belts and carbines, the only other evidence of authority being swastika brassards, were marching side by side with police turncoats, men and women shrieking or crying hysterically the name of their leader, embracing the police and dragging them along in the swirling stream of humanity, motor-lorries filled with stormtroopers clutching their long-concealed weapons, hooting furiously, trying to make themselves heard above the din, men and women leaping, shouting, and dancing in the light of the smoking torches which soon began to make their appearance, the air filled with a pandemonium of sound in which intermingled screams of: “Down with the Jews! Heil Hitler! Heil Hitler! Sieg Heil! Perish the Jews!…”’157
‘Hades had opened its gates and released its basest, most despicable, most unpure spirits,’ was how the esteemed playwright and writer Carl Zuckmayer, his own works banned in Germany since 1933, described the scene. Vienna had transformed itself, in his eyes, ‘into a nightmare painting of Hieronymus Bosch’.158
One seventeen-year-old Jew later recalled his own experience, only a short few weeks after being part of a fun-loving crowd enjoying the dancing, drinking, and merriment of the Viennese carnival: ‘I rushed to the window and looked out into Nußdorferstraße… Then the first lorry came into sight. It was packed with shouting, screaming men. A huge swastika flag fluttered over their heads… Now we could hear clearly what they were shouting: “Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer!” they were chanting in chorus, followed by “Ju-da verr-rrecke! Ju-da verr-rrecke!” (“Per-rish Judah!”)… I was still looking out into Nußdorferstraße when I suddenly heard a muffled shout from right below our window. I craned my neck and saw an Austrian policeman, a swastika brassard already over his dark green uniform sleeve, his truncheon in his fist, lashing out with berserk fury at a man writhing at his feet. I immediately recognized that policeman. I had known him all my life…’159
Thousands tried to flee. Masses packed the railway stations, trying to get out to Prague. They had the few possessions they could carry with them ransacked by the squads of men with swastika armbands who had assembled at the stations, ‘confiscating’ property at will, entering compartments on the trains and dragging out arbitrarily selected victims for further mishandling and internment. Those who left on the 11.15p.m. night express thought they had escaped. But they were turned back at the Czech border. Their ordeal was only just beginning. Others tried to flee by road. Soon, the roads to the Czech border were jammed. They became littered with abandoned cars as their occupants, realizing that the Czech authorities were turning back refugees at the borders, headed into the woods to try to cross the frontier illegally on foot.160
For many, there was only one way out. Suicide among the Viennese Jewish community became commonplace in these terrible days.161
The quest to root out ‘enemies of the people’, which in Germany had subsided in the mid-1930s and had begun to gather new pace in 1937, was revitalized through the new ‘opportunities’ that had opened up in Austria. The radicalized campaign would very quickly be reimported to the ‘Old Reich’, both in the new and horrifying wave of antisemitism in the summer of 1938, and — behind the scenes but ultimately even more sinister — in the rapid expansion of the SS’s involvement in looking for solutions to the ‘Jewish Question’.162
After the tremors of the Blomberg–Fritsch affair, Hitler’s internal position was now stronger than ever. His leadership was absolute. The officer corps of the army, deeply angered at the treatment of Fritsch, had had the wind taken out of their sails by the Anschluß triumph. For a small number of officers, the seeds of resistance had been sown which would eventually germinate into a conspiracy that would nearly take Hitler’s life on 20 July 1944. But at this stage the bitter animosity was directed largely against Himmler, Heydrich, and Göring, not Hitler. And they recognized that there were no forces capable of carrying through a putsch since, as Major-General Friedrich Olbricht put it, ‘the people are behind Hitler’.163 Nor was the reception accorded to the German troops on the Austrian roads lost on them. The vast majority of officers were, as regards the Anschluß, of one mind with the people: they could only approve and — if sometimes begrudgingly — admire Hitler’s latest triumph.
Among the mass of the population, ‘the German miracle’ brought about by Hitler released what was described as ‘an elemental frenzy of enthusiasm’ — once it was clear that the western powers would again stand by and do nothing, and that ‘our Führer has pulled it off without bloodshed’.164 It would be the last time that the German people — now with the addition of their cousins to the east whose rapid disillusionment soon dissipated the wild euphoria with which many of them had greeted Hitler165 — would feel the threat of war lifted so rapidly from them through a foreign-policy coup completed within days and presented as a fait accompli. The next crisis, over the Sudetenland, would drag over months and have them in near-panic over the likelihood of war. And if Hitler had had his way, there would have been war.
The crisis over Czechoslovakia in the summer of 1938 took Germany’s expansionist drive on to a new plane. This crisis was different from those which had preceded it in a number of significant ways. Down to the Anschluß, the major triumphs in foreign policy had been in line with the revisionist and nationalist expectations of all powerful interests in the Reich, and quite especially those of the army. The withdrawal from the League of Nations in 1933, the reintroduction of general military service in 1935, the reoccupation of the Rhineland in 1936, and probably the Anschluß, too, would have been sought by any nationalist government in Germany at the time. The methods — on which the army, the Foreign Office, and others often looked askance — were Hitlerian. The timing had been determined by Hitler. The decisions to act were his alone. But in each case there had been powerful backing, as well as some hesitancy, among his advisers. And in each case, he was reflecting diverse currents of revisionist expression. The immense popularity of his triumphs in all sections of the political élite and among the masses of the population testified to the underlying consensus behind the revisionism. The earlier crises had also all been of brief duration. The tension had in each case been short-lived, the success rapidly attained. And in each case, the popular jubilation was in part an expression of relief that the western powers had not intervened, that the threat of another war — something which sent shivers of horror down the spines of most ordinary people — had been averted. The resulting popularity and prestige that accrued to Hitler drew heavily upon his ‘triumphs without bloodshed’.166 In reality, as we have seen, there had in every instance been little chance of allied intervention, even to counter the reoccupation of the Rhineland. The weakness and divisions of the western powers had in each case been the platform for Hitler’s bloodless coups.
For the first time, in the summer of 1938, Hitler’s foreign policy went beyond revisionism and national integration, even if the western powers did not grasp this. Whatever his public veneer of concern about the treatment of the Sudeten Germans,167 there was no doubt at all to the ruling groups in Germany aware of Hitler’s thinking — his comments at the ‘Hoßbach meeting’ had already made it plain — that he was aiming not just at the incorporation of the Sudetenland in the German Reich, but at destroying the state of Czechoslovakia itself. By the end of May this aim, and the timing envisaged to accomplish it, had been outlined to the army leadership. It meant war — certainly against Czechoslovakia, and probably (so it seemed to others), despite Hitler’s presumption of the contrary, against the western powers. Hitler, it became unmistakably plain, actually wanted war. ‘Long live war — even if it lasts from two to eight years,’ he would proclaim to the Sudeten leader Konrad Henlein in September, at the height of the crisis.168 ‘Every generation must at one time have experienced war,’ his adjutant Fritz Wiedemann recalled him commenting around the same time.169 Whatever the warnings, he was even prepared for war (though he did not think it likely at this juncture) against Britain and France.
The sheer recklessness of courting disaster by the wholly unnecessary (in their view) risk of war at this time against the western powers — which they thought Germany in its current state of preparation could not win — appalled and horrified a number of those who knew what Hitler had in mind.
It was not the prospect of destroying Czechoslovakia that alienated them. The state that had been founded in 1918 out of the ruins of the Habsburg empire had sustained its democracy despite German, Hungarian, Polish, and Ruthenian minorities alongside Czechs and Slovaks (though since Hitler’s assumption of power in Germany the German ethnic minority, over 3 million strong, had proved increasingly restless). The country had a strong industrial base, and had expanded its defence capabilities until its army had to be regarded as a force to be reckoned with. Given that its long north and south borders abutted Germany, Austria, Hungary, Romania, the Ukraine, and Poland, the emphasis on defence was scarcely surprising. Czechoslovakia looked to Germany’s arch-enemies — not just to France, but also to the Soviet Union — for support, and Communism had a sizeable following in the country. To German nationalist eyes, therefore, Czechoslovakia could only be seen as a major irritant occupying a strategically crucial area. Coloured in addition by anti-Slav prejudice, there was little love lost for a democracy, hostile to the Reich, whose destruction would bring major advantages for Germany’s military and economic dominance of central Europe. The army had already planned in 1937 for the possibility of a pre-emptive strike against Czechoslovakia — ‘Case Green’ — to counter the possibility of the Czechs joining in from the east if their allies, the French, attacked the Reich from the west.170 As the prospect of a war with the French, something taken extremely seriously in the mid-1930s, had receded, ‘Case Green’ had been amended a month after the ‘Hoßbach meeting’ to take account of likely circumstances in which the Wehrmacht could invade Czechoslovakia to solve the problem of ‘living space’.171
In economic terms, too, the fall of Czechoslovakia offered an enticing prospect. Göring, his staff directing the Four-Year Plan, and the leaders of the arms industry, were for their part casting greedy eyes on the raw materials and armaments plants of Czechoslovakia. The problems built into an economy so heavily tilted towards armaments production but still heavily dependent upon costly imports of food and raw materials, facing too an increasingly acute labour shortage, and with an agricultural sector strained to the limit, were — as countless reports indicated — mounting alarmingly.172 The economic pressures for expansion accorded fully with the power-political aims of the regime’s leadership. Those who had argued for an alternative economic strategy, most of all of course Schacht, had by now lost their influence. Göring was the dominant figure. And in Göring’s dreams of German dominion in south-eastern Europe, the acquisition of Czechoslovakia was plainly pivotal.
But neither military strategy nor economic necessity compelled a Czech crisis in 1938. It is true that Beck, the Chief of Staff, could state in late May 1938 that ‘Czechia (die Tschechei) in the form that the Versailles Diktat compelled it to take is intolerable for Germany’, so that ‘a way must be found to eliminate it as a danger-spot for Germany, if necessary through a military solution’. He nevertheless took the lead in the army in opposing what he saw as a catastrophic step in involving the Reich in conflict with the west.173 Göring, the arch-bully of the Austrian government during the Anschluß crisis, whose rapaciousness was second to no one’s, shared Beck’s forebodings, and pressed for territorial concessions from the western powers in Czechoslovakia in order to avoid what he saw as the disaster of war with Britain. There were few keener than he was to see the end of the Czech state. But his views on how that end should come about — gradual liquidation over time through relentless pressure — were closer to those of the national-conservatives than to Hitler’s intention to achieve it through military might in the near future. As war with Britain seemed increasingly likely, Göring’s feet became ever colder. At the peak of the crisis, he would push for peace at Munich rather than Hitler’s preferred military aggression against the Czechs. It did not enhance his standing as a foreign-policy adviser with a disappointed Hitler. His political influence would never again be as high after Munich.174
It was the vision of national disaster that led for the first time to the tentative emergence of significant strands of opposition to what was regarded as Hitler’s madness. In the army leadership (still smarting from the Fritsch scandal), in the Foreign Office, and in other high places, the germs of resistance were planted among those certain that Germany was being driven headlong into catastrophe.175 In the military, the leading opponents of Hitler’s high-risk policy emerged as Colonel-General Beck, who resigned as Chief of Staff in the summer, and Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, head of the Abwehr (military intelligence).176 In the Foreign Office, the State Secretary Ernst von Weizsäcker was at the forefront of those in opposition to the policy supported avidly by his immediate superior, Foreign Minister von Ribbentrop.177 Among civilians with inside knowledge of what was going on, Carl Goerdeler, the former Reich Price Commissar, used his extensive foreign contacts to warn about Hitler’s aims.178
Nor was there any popular pressure for a foreign adventure, let alone one which was thought likely to bring war with the western powers. Among ordinary people, excluded from the deliberations in high places which kept Europe on the thinnest of tightropes between war and peace in September, the long-drawn-out crisis over Czechoslovakia, lasting throughout the late spring and summer, unlike earlier crises allowed time for the anxieties about war to gather momentum. The acute tension produced what was described as a ‘real war psychosis’.179 No love was lost on the Czechs. And the relentless propaganda about their alleged persecution of the German minority was not without impact. There were indeed some feelings of real gung-ho aggression, though these were largely confined to gullible younger Germans, who had not lived through the World War. The overwhelming sentiment was a fervent desire that war should be avoided and peace preserved. For the first time there was a hint of lack of confidence in Hitler’s policy. Most looked to him to preserve peace, not take Germany into a new war.180 But this time, both to the leading actors in the drama and to the millions looking on anxiously, war looked a more likely outcome than peace.
Among those with power and influence, the most forthright supporter of war to destroy Czechoslovakia was the new Foreign Minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, an entirely different entity to the displaced conservative, von Neurath. Ribbentrop was more than keen to stamp his imprint on the Foreign Office — and to make up for the embarrassment he had sustained when, largely at Göring’s doing, he had been sidelined in London and allowed to play no part in the Austrian triumph that his arch-rival in foreign policy had been instrumental in orchestrating.181 He provided Hitler with his main backing in these months. His hatred of Britain — the country which had spurned and ridiculed him — as well as his fawning devotion to the Führer made him the most hawkish of the hawks, a warmonger second only to Hitler himself. When he was not directly spurring on Hitler, he was doing his utmost to shore up the conviction that, when it came to it, Britain would not fight, that any war would be a localized one. State Secretary von Weizsäcker was sure of Ribbentrop’s baleful influence on Hitler in this respect. When, in the middle of August, Weizsäcker contradicted Ribbentrop’s assertion that the western powers would not act, the Foreign Minister retorted that ‘the Führer had so far never made a mistake; his most difficult decisions and actions (Rhineland occupation) were already behind him. One had to believe in his genius, just as he, Ribbentrop, did from long years of experience.’ He hoped that Weizsäcker could also come to have ‘such blind faith’. The State Secretary would later regret it if that were not the case, and the facts then spoke against him.182
For all Ribbentrop’s influence, however, there could be no doubt that the crisis that brought Europe to the very brink of war in the summer of 1938 was instigated and directed by Hitler himself. And unlike the rapid improvisation and breakneck speed which had characterized previous crises, this one was consciously devised to escalate over a period of months.
Until 1938, Hitler’s moves in foreign policy had been bold, but not reckless. He had shown shrewd awareness of the weakness of his opponents, a sure instinct for exploiting divisions and uncertainty. His sense of timing had been excellent, his combination of bluff and blackmail effective, his manipulation of propaganda to back his coups masterly. He had gone further and faster than anyone could have expected in revising the terms of Versailles and upturning the post-war diplomatic settlement. From the point of view of the western powers, his methods were, to say the least, unconventional diplomacy — raw, brutal, unpalatable; but his aims were recognizably in accord with traditional German nationalist clamour. Down to and including the Anschluß, Hitler had proved a consummate nationalist politician. During the Sudeten crisis, some sympathy for demands to incorporate the German-speaking areas in the Reich — for another Anschluß of sorts — still existed among those ready to swallow Goebbels’s propaganda about the maltreatment of the Sudeten Germans by the Czechs, or at any rate prepared to accept that a further nationality problem was in need of resolution. It took the crisis and its outcome to expose the realization that Hitler would stop at nothing. Some of the shame felt at the Munich settlement in the western democracies as soon as the elation at the salvation of peace had evaporated was that they had merely bought off Hitler for a time through sacrificing Czechoslovakia. Before that point was reached, there had been increasing incomprehension among western statesmen during the course of the summer about Hitler and his aims. Some of the comments doubting his sanity reflect the sense of British statesmen at the time that they were dealing with someone who had crossed the bounds of rational behaviour in international politics. In the view of the British Ambassador, Nevile Henderson, Hitler had ‘become quite mad’ and, bent on war at all costs, had ‘crossed the borderline of insanity’.183
They were not far wrong. The spring of 1938 marked the phase in which Hitler’s obsession with accomplishing his ‘mission’ in his own lifetime started to overtake cold political calculation. As Goebbels had put it in the passage already cited, Hitler wanted to experience the ‘Great Germanic Reich’ himself.184 Probably, as we have already noted, his increased health worries and preoccupation with his own mortality played their part in heightening his sense of urgency. A deep-seated hatred of the Czechs — a legacy of his Austrian upbringing (when rabid hostility towards the Czechs had been endemic in the German-speaking part of the Habsburg Empire) — added a further personal dimension to the drive to destroy a Czechoslo-vakian state allied with the arch-enemies of the USSR in the east and France in the west. Prestige — as always — also came into it. He was to feel slighted and embarrassed at the diplomatic outfall from sudden Czech military mobilization in May (generally, though mistakenly, believed to have been in response to initial threatening moves by Germany).185 This at the very least reinforced his decision to act with speed to crush Czechoslovakia by the autumn.186 Finally, the sense of his own infallibility, massively boosted by the triumph of the Anschluß, underscored his increased reliance on his own will, matched by his diminished readiness to listen to countervailing counsel. That he had invariably been proved right in his assessment of the weakness of the western powers in the past, usually in the teeth of the caution of his advisers in the army and Foreign Office, convinced him that his current evaluation was unerringly correct. He had come during 1937 to be dismissive about the strength and will to fight both of Britain, which had spurned his advances, and of France, wracked by internal divisions. Partly prompted, and at any rate greatly amplified, by Ribbentrop, his views had hardened to the point where he felt the western powers would do nothing to defend Czechoslovakia. At the same time, this strengthened his conviction that the Reich’s position relative to the western powers could only worsen as their inevitable build-up of arms began to catch up with that of Germany. To remain inactive — a recurring element in the way he thought — was, he asserted, not an option: it would merely play into the hands of his enemies. Therefore, he characteristically reasoned: act without delay to retain the initiative.
These various strands of his thinking came together in the conclusion that the time was ripe to strike against Czechoslovakia. Until Czechoslovakia was eliminated — this was the key strategic element in Hitler’s idea — Germany would be incapable of taking action either in the east or in the west. He had moved from a position of a foreign policy supported by Great Britain to one where he was prepared to act without Britain, and, if need be, against Britain. Despite the forebodings of others, war against Czechoslovakia in his view carried few risks. And if the western powers, contrary to expectation, were foolish enough to become involved, Germany would defeat them.
More important even than why Hitler was in such a hurry to destroy Czechoslovakia is why he was by this time in a position to override or ignore weighty objections and to determine that Germany should be taken to the very brink of general European war. Decisive in this was the process, which we have followed, of the expansion of his power, relative to other agencies of power in the regime, to the point where, by spring 1938, it had freed itself from all institutional constraints and had established unchallenged supremacy over all sections of the ‘power cartel’.187 The five years of Hitler’s highly personalized form of rule had eroded all semblance of collective involvement in policy-making. This fragmentation at one and the same time rendered the organization of any opposition within the power-élite almost impossible — not to speak of any attached dangers to life and liberty — and inordinately strengthened Hitler’s own power. The scope for more cautious counsel to apply the brakes had sharply diminished. The constant Hobbesian ‘war of all against all’, the competing power fiefdoms that characterized the National Socialist regime, took place at the level below Hitler, enhancing his extraordinary position as the fount of all authority and dividing both individual and sectional interests of the different power entities (the Movement, the state bureaucracy, the army, big business, the police, and the sub-branches of each). Hitler was, therefore, as the sole linchpin, able internally to deal, as in foreign policy, through bilateral relations — offering his support here, denying it there, remaining the sole arbiter, even when he preferred (or felt compelled) to let matters ride and let his subordinates battle it out among themselves. It was less a planned strategy of ‘divide and rule’ than an inevitable consequence of Führer authority. Without any coordinating bodies to unify policy, each sectional interest in the Third Reich could thrive only with the legitimacy of the Führer’s backing. Each one inevitably, therefore, ‘worked towards the Führer’ in order to gain or sustain that backing, ensuring thereby that his power grew still further and that his own ideological obsessions were promoted.
The inexorable disintegration of coherent structures of rule was therefore not only a product of the all-pervasive Führer cult reflecting and embellishing Hitler’s absolute supremacy, but at the same time underpinned the myth of the all-seeing, all-knowing infallible Leader, elevating it to the very principle of government itself. Moreover, as we have witnessed throughout, Hitler had in the process swallowed the Führer cult himself, hook, line, and sinker. He was the most ardent believer in his own infallibility and destiny. It was not a good premiss for rational decision-making.
The compliance of all sections of the regime in the growth of the Führer cult, the exemption made for Hitler himself even by vehement internal critics of the Party or Gestapo, and the full awareness of the immense popularity of the ‘great Leader’, all contributed to making it extraordinarily difficult by summer 1938 — the first time that deep anxieties about the course of his leadership surfaced — now to contemplate withdrawing support, let alone take oppositional action of any kind.
In any case, the extent of opposition to plans for an assault on Czechoslovakia should not be exaggerated. From within the regime, only the army had the potential to block Hitler. The Blomberg — Fritsch affair had certainly left a legacy of anger, distaste, and distrust among the army leadership. But this was directed less at Hitler personally, than at the leadership of the SS and police. Even Beck, by far the most vehement critic of the regime among the top military leadership, went out of his way — and not for tactical reasons — to emphasize that the resistance needed towards the methods of the SS and the corrupt Party ‘bigwigs’ was a ‘fight for the Führer’ and that there should not be even the ‘slightest presumption of anything like a plot’ against him.188
Following the changes of February 1938, the army’s own position, in relation to Hitler, had weakened. In the process, the army leadership had, as has been claimed, been transformed from a ‘power-élite’ into a ‘functional élite’ — an adjunct of Hitler’s power rather than the ‘state within the state’ which it had effectively been since Bismarck’s era.189 The Anschluß had then further bolstered Hitler’s supremacy. By the summer of 1938, whatever the anxieties about the risk of war with the western powers, the leadership of the armed forces was divided within itself. Hitler could depend upon unquestioning support from Keitel and Jodl in the Supreme Command of the Wehrmacht. Brauchitsch could be relied upon to keep the army in line, whatever the reservations of some of the generals. Raeder was, as always, fully behind Hitler and already preparing the navy for eventual war with Britain. The head of the Luftwaffe, Göring, fearful of such a war and seeing it as the negation of his own conception of German expansionist policy, nevertheless bowed axiomatically to the Führer’s superior authority at all points where his approach started to diverge from Hitler’s own. When Beck felt compelled to resign as Chief of Staff, therefore, he stirred no broad protest within the army, let alone in the other branches of the Wehrmacht. Instead, he isolated himself and henceforth formed his links with equally isolated and disaffected individuals within the armed forces, the Foreign Office, and other state ministries who began to contemplate ways of removing Hitler. They were well aware that they were swimming against a strong tide. Whatever doubts and worries there might be, they knew that the consensus behind Hitler within the power-elites was unbroken. They were conscious, too, that from the masses, despite mounting anxieties about war, Hitler could still summon immense reserves of fanatical support.190 The prospects of successful resistance were, therefore, not good.
It was scarcely surprising, then, that there would be overwhelming compliance and no challenge to Hitler’s leadership, or to his dangerous policy, as the crisis unfolded throughout the summer. Despite reservations, all sections of the regime’s power-elite had by this point come to bind themselves to Hitler — whether to flourish or to perish.
The international constellation also played completely into Hitler’s hands. Czechoslovakia, despite its formal treaties with France and the Soviet Union, was exposed and friendless. France’s vacillation during the summer reflected a desperation to avoid having to fulfil its treaty obligations to Czechoslovakia through military involvement for which there was neither the will nor the preparation. The French were fearful of Czechoslovakia coming under German control. But they were even more fearful of becoming embroiled in a war to defend the Czechs.191 The Soviet Union, in any case preoccupied with its internal upheavals, could only help the defence of Czechoslovakia if its troops were permitted to cross Polish or Romanian soil — a prospect which could be ruled out.192 Poland and Hungary both looked greedily to the possibility of their own revisionist gains at the expense of a dismembered Czechoslovakia. Italy, having conceded to the rapidly emerging senior partner in the Axis over the key issue of Austria, had no obvious interest in propping up Czechoslovakia.193 Great Britain, preoccupied with global commitments and problems in different parts of its Empire, and aware of its military unreadiness for an increasingly likely conflict with Germany, was anxious at all costs to avoid prematurely being drawn into a war over a nationality problem in a central European country to which it was bound by no treaty obligations. The British knew the French were not prepared to help the Czechs.194 The government were still giving Hitler the benefit of the doubt, ready to believe that designs on Sudeten territory did not amount to ‘international power lust’ or mean that he was envisaging a future attack on France and Britain.195 Beyond this, it was accepted in London that the Czechs were indeed oppressing the Sudeten German minority.196 Pressure on the Czechs to comply with Hitler’s demands was an inevitable response — and one backed by the French.
On top of its increasingly hopeless international position, Czechoslovakia’s internal fragility also greatly assisted Hitler. Not just the clamour of the Sudeten Germans, but the designs of the Slovaks for their own autonomy placed the Czech government in an impossible situation. Undermined from without and within, the only new democracy surviving from the post-war settlement was about to be deserted by its ‘friends’ and devoured by its enemies.
In the very days before Schuschnigg had prompted the Anschluß crisis, Goebbels had noted, after discussions with Hitler, that Czechoslovakia would ‘be torn to pieces (zerfetzt) one day’.197 Even as Göring was reassuring the Czechs that there was no contemplation of military action against them, he was telling the Hungarians that the turn of Czechoslovakia would certainly come once the Austrian question was settled.198 Hitler himself, according to Jodl, also made similar comments around the same time: ‘Austria would have to be digested first.’199 Within two weeks of the Anschluß, in discussions in Berlin with the Sudeten German leader Konrad Henlein, Hitler was indicating that the Czech question would be solved ‘before long’. He also prescribed the general strategy of stipulating demands which the Prague government could not meet — vital to prevent the Czecho-slovakian government at any stage falling in line with British pressure to accommodate the Sudeten Germans.200 Henlein wasted no time in putting forward his demands, amounting to autonomy for Sudeten Germans, on 24 April at the Congress of the Sudeten German Party at Carlsbad (Karlovy Vary).201 One demand to be kept up Henlein’s sleeve, which Hitler was certain from his knowledge of the Austria-Hungarian multinational state could never be accepted, was for German regiments within the Czechoslo-vakian army.202 In Germany itself, the strategy was to turn up the volume of propaganda at the alleged oppression of the Sudeten Germans by the Czechs. If necessary, incidents to fuel the agitation could be manufactured.203 Militarily, Hitler was hoping to prevent British intervention, and was certain the French would not act alone.204 A key deterrent, in his view, was the building of a 400-mile concrete fortification (planned to include ‘dragon’s teeth’ anti-tank devices and gun emplacements, with over 11,000 bunkers and reinforced dug-outs) along Germany’s western border — the ‘Westwall’ — to provide a significant obstruction to any French invasion. The direct interest which Hitler took in the Westwall and the urgency in completing the fortifications were directly related to the question of timing in any blow aimed at the Czechs.205 At this stage, in late March and April 1938, Hitler evidently had no precise time-scale in mind for the destruction of Czechoslovakia.206
This was still the case when Hitler instructed Keitel, on 21 April, to draw up plans for military action against Czechoslovakia. According to Keitel’s account of the meeting, Hitler mentioned that the problem would have to be solved some time on account of the oppression of the German minority, but especially because of Czechoslovakia’s strategic position, which was of immense danger to the Reich in the event of ‘the great showdown in the east, not only with the Poles but above all with Bolshevism’.207 However, Hitler had indicated that he did not intend to attack Czechoslovakia in the near future unless circumstances within the country or fortuitous international developments offered an opportunity. This would then have to be seized so rapidly — military action would have to prove decisive within four days — that the western powers would realize the pointlessness of intervention.208 Keitel and Jodl were in no hurry to work out the operational plan which, when eventually presented to Hitler in draft on 20 May, still represented what Keitel had taken to be Hitler’s intentions a month earlier. ‘It is not my intention to smash Czechoslovakia by military action within the immediate future,’ the draft began.209
In the interim, Hitler had reacted angrily to a memorandum composed on 5 May by army Chief of Staff General Beck, emphasizing Germany’s military incapacity to win a long war, and warning of the dangers of British intervention in the event of military action against Czechoslovakia that year.210 An indication of the divisions within the leadership of the army itself, let alone of the Wehrmacht as a whole, and its enfeebled relations with the Führer, was the decision by Keitel and Brauchitsch, without consulting Beck, not to place the first parts of the memorandum before Hitler since they knew he would dismiss them out of hand and not even read the third part.211 Hitler was even more scathing when Göring reported to him how little progress had been made on the Westwall (where construction work had been under the direction of Army Group Command 2, headed by General Wilhelm Adam). He accused the General Staff of sabotaging his plans, removed the army’s construction chiefs, and put Fritz Todt — his civil engineering expert who, since 1933, had masterminded the building of the motorways — in charge.212 It was an example of Hitler’s increasingly high-handed way of dealing with the army leadership.213 Hitler still recalled what he saw as the army’s obstructionism as late as 1942.214
The question of Mussolini’s attitude towards German action over Czechoslovakia had been high on Hitler’s agenda during his state visit to Italy at the beginning of May. Three special trains, carrying around 500 diplomats, officials, party leaders, security men, and journalists had set off for Rome on 2 May.215 The return visit, lavish in the extreme in its arrangements, ran less smoothly than Mussolini’s state visit to Germany had done the previous September. Hitler was irritated by the fact that King Victor Emmanuel III, not Mussolini, was his host. He felt ill at ease and out of place at the court ceremonials. He sensed, too, not without reason, that he was treated with some disdain by the King and Queen and their court circle.216 The low-point for Hitler came when, following a gala performance of Aida in Naples, he found himself, without prior warning, alongside the King (who was dressed in full uniform), still in his evening dress, right arm outstretched, his left pressed against his waistcoat, coat-tails flapping behind him, inspecting a guard of honour while resembling, in the eyes of his adjutant Fritz Wiedemann, a flustered head-waiter in a restaurant.217 A furious Hitler vented his wrath on Ribbentrop, who in turn sought a scapegoat and sacked the head of protocol.218
Diplomatically, too, there were hiccups. Ribbentrop, clumsy as ever, chose a wholly inopportune moment to press upon the Italians a mutual assistance pact, directed against France and Britain, formalizing the Axis agreement. Ciano was contemptuous about Ribbentrop. Mussolini, interested in the long run in such a pact, told his son-in-law that Ribbentrop ‘belongs to the category of Germans who bring misfortune to Germany. He talks left and right all the time about making war, without having a particular enemy or clear objective in view.’ He was not to be taken seriously.219
Hitler, on the other hand, had done much to dispel any initial coolness towards the visit with his speech in Rome on the evening of 7 May in which he enthused over the natural ‘alpine border’ providing a ‘clear separation of the living spaces of the two nations’.220 This public renunciation of any claim on the South Tyrol was no more than Hitler had been stating since the mid-1920S. But, coming so soon after the Anschluß, it was important in assuaging the Italians, not least since Hitler was anxious to sound them out over Czechoslovakia. The soundings were, from Hitler’s point of view, the most successful part of the visit. He took Mussolini’s remarks as encouragement to proceed against the Czechs.221 State Secretary von Weizsäcker noted that Italy intended to stay neutral in any war between Germany and Czechoslovakia.222 Reporting on Hitler’s visit in a circular to German diplomatic missions, Ribbentrop stated: ‘As far as the Sudeten Question is concerned, discussions indicated without further ado that the Italians have understanding for our involvement in the fate of the Sudeten Germans.’223 Diplomatically, Hitler had achieved what he wanted from the visit.
Before the ‘Weekend Crisis’ of 20–22 May, no timetable had been established for an attack on Czechoslovakia. Nevertheless, Hitler had plainly become increasingly interested in acting within the foreseeable future. Already in mid-May, he had spoken of solving the ‘Sudeten question’ by the end of the year, since the international situation might well deteriorate thereafter.224 At this point the ‘Weekend Crisis’ intervened.225
Reports reaching the French and British embassies and the Prague government on 19–20 May of German troop movements near the Czech border were treated seriously, given the shrill German anti-Czech propaganda and the tension in the Sudetenland on account of the imminent local elections there. The Czechoslovakian government responded to what they took to be a threat of imminent invasion by partially mobilizing their military reserves — close on 180,000 men.226 Tension rose still further when two Sudeten Germans were killed in an incident involving the Czech police. Meanwhile, Keitel’s explicit reassurance to the British Ambassador Henderson, which had been given to the press, that the movements were no more than routine spring manoeuvres, had led to a furious tirade by Ribbentrop, incensed that Henderson had not gone through proper diplomatic channels in publishing the information, and threatening that Germany would fight as it had done in 1914 should war break out.227
This had the effect of stirring genuine alarm in the British Ambassador, worried that he had been misled by Keitel, and that a German invasion of Czechoslovakia was imminent. On the afternoon of Saturday, 21 May, Henderson was instructed by the British Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax to inform Ribbentrop that the French were bound to intervene in the event of an attack on Czechoslovakia, and that the Germans should not depend upon the British standing by.228 Ribbentrop’s hysterical reply was scarcely reassuring: ‘If France were really so crazy as to attack us, it would lead to perhaps the greatest defeat in French history, and if Britain were to join her, then once again we should have to fight to the death.’229 By the Sunday, 22 May, however, British reconnaissance on the borders had revealed nothing untoward.230 It had been a false alarm.
The crisis blew over as quickly as it had started. But reactions abroad, not least in Brit