The Downside of Imperial Collapse
When Empires or Great Powers Fall, Chaos and War Rise
ONLY one who has had the oppressive feeling of being buried under the sheer mass of the captured German Foreign Ministry archives can appreciate the achievement of the editors of the papers relating to the last months of peace in 1939.[i] Despite their bulk, the captured archives are not complete. Much was lost by destruction, deliberate or accidental. Parts of the archives remained in Berlin or Eastern Germany, and the fate of these parts is still uncertain. Above all, few in the German Government knew with certainty what was in Hitler's mind, and Hitler's own words were often designed to obscure, not clarify, his intentions. In these circumstances, the pencilled notes for a private conference within the Foreign Ministry may tell more than a score of formal diplomatic papers, and a private letter in the files of an ambassador may be needed to correct the impression left by the instructions he received through official channels. The editors of the "Documents on German Foreign Policy" have not only tracked down every shred of evidence in the captured archives; they have also related this evidence to the enormous body of published evidence from other archives, to the testimony offered at the war crimes trials, and to the memoirs and biographies of participants in the events of these months.
From the tangle of evidence, one theme emerges, a theme which has relevance to our own day. It is the way in which a succession of diplomatic moves, intended only as preparatory to a still distant trial of strength, developed into a diplomatic crisis involving all of Europe, and eventually precipitated a world war which at the outset Hitler had no thought of starting and which to the end he hoped to avoid.
To see that story in proper perspective, and to appreciate its present relevance, it is necessary to push aside the legend that Hitler was either a fool or a reckless gambler. Leaving moral values to one side, Hitler's achievements during his first six years as chancellor compel reluctant acknowledgment. He had come to power in a distracted, impoverished, disarmed country. He had enforced unity at home. He had revived and increased German industrial power. He had built armed forces before which all Europe trembled. He had reoccupied the Rhineland and constructed formidable defenses in the west. He had annexed Austria and the strategically decisive Sudeten districts. What was left of Czechoslovakia lay helpless under the shadow of German power. As German industrial and military strength expanded, and as he moved from success to success, his favor was courted by those who had treated the Weimar Republic with scant respect. With Japan and Italy his relations were intimate. Poland, while retaining the alliance with France, was in practice closer to Germany. The Baltic States and the states of southeastern Europe were tacitly acknowledged to be within the German sphere of influence. The Governments of Britain and France were desperately eager to appease their formidable neighbor. Even the U.S.S.R. was showing a desire not to provoke the sworn enemy of Communism. In the light of his amazing successes, the warning voices of those of his advisers who feared he was carrying Germany headlong to destruction were silenced by dismissal, by fear or by conversion to the belief that his judgment was, in fact, infallible.
Hitler freely admitted that his successes in the foreign field had been won by bluff. The conviction was general in Europe that the First World War had dangerously undermined European society and that another war would bring the structure to ruin, with Communism as the only gainer. The Soviet Union, sharing this conviction, was eager to stand clear so that it would not be involved in the general ruin. By exploiting fear of war Hitler had won much. He was confident that still more must be won by diplomacy before he could safely embark on war with the West.
Some day, Hitler recognized, Britain and France would be tempted to set limits to German power, even by war. In preparation for that day, he argued, Germany must not only strain her resources in military preparations; she must also win territory sufficient to feed her people during a long war--for war with the Western democracies would be both long and hard. Colonies would be of no value; their resources would be lost by blockade just when they were needed. The territory must be won in Eastern Europe. There, German skill could increase agricultural production, and the non-German population would provide a labor pool for farm and factory. The moment was, he believed, auspicious. Russia could not interfere: the purges had shaken the country and deprived the Red Army of its leaders; Stalin must fear a victorious army no less than military defeat. Fear of Russia would hold Poland on the side of Germany so long as exactions from Poland were counterbalanced by concessions to Polish territorial greed. Italy and Japan were so completely estranged from the Western democracies that they must follow the German lead. British and especially French rearmament was only beginning, and was encountering opposition unavoidable where the press was unmuzzled. Above all, Britain and France were ruled by men who had already retreated before the threat of war. Hitler was convinced that they lacked the resolution to precipitate a war or conduct it to the death.
The moves of March 1939 were, like the annexation of Austria and the Sudeten districts of Czechoslovakia, merely preliminary to the task of winning "living space." They would provide better frontiers and advanced military bases in the east, jumping-off places for future action. They would not bring the enlarged agricultural base needed for the future long war of annihilation with the Western democracies. Hitler made no diplomatic or military preparations which would suggest that even local opposition of any importance was anticipated. In one sense he envisioned the moves of March 1939 as the logical completion of the campaign against Czechoslovakia; in another sense, they were moves preparatory to the winning of the desired agricultural base.
In the early morning hours of March 15, 1939, after a stormy interview with Hitler, President Hácha wearily signed away the independence of what was left of Czechoslovakia. German troops had already crossed the frontier, and by afternoon Hitler was in Prague. The following Monday, March 20, the Lithuanian Foreign Minister was received by Ribbentrop and told that Memel must be surrendered to Germany. Even before this demand was accepted on Thursday, the next move was made.
On Tuesday, March 21, Ribbentrop asked the Polish Ambassador, Lipski, to call on him. The Ambassador said that the German protectorate over Slovakia had hit Poland hard. Ribbentrop hinted that the status of Slovakia was not necessarily final and might be subject to discussion if German-Polish relations developed satisfactorily. It was Hitler's hope, Ribbentrop continued, that such would be the case; but the Führer was troubled by anti-German feeling in Poland. The Poles must surely recognize that unless they coöperated with Germany they would be absorbed by Communist Russia. It was necessary to put German-Polish relations on a sound and lasting basis. To this end, Danzig must return to Germany, and Germany must be granted extraterritorial rail and road connections between the Reich and East Prussia. Then Hitler would be prepared to guarantee the Polish Corridor, and then it would be possible to deal with the Slovak question to the satisfaction of all. Ribbentrop suggested that Lipski take these proposals to Warsaw. Possibly the Polish Foreign Minister, Beck, would come to Berlin to discuss them; Hitler would warmly welcome such a discussion.
Lipski did go to Warsaw, and while he was away Hitler informed his army commander that a military solution of the probblem of Danzig was not desired, because this would drive Poland into the arms of Britain; the use of Slovakia as a bargaining counter to win Polish agreement was contemplated. While he did not wish to solve the Polish question militarily unless especially favorable political conditions arose, Hitler continued, plans should be made, with the objective of beating the Poles so thoroughly that they would not be a political factor for some decades. He would absent himself from Berlin, leaving the conduct of negotiations with Lipski to Ribbentrop.
The Polish reply was presented by Lipski on Sunday, March 26. In form it was most conciliatory, but it did not meet the German demands. Ribbentrop, from his discussion with Lipski, drew the conclusion that this was not the Polish Government's last word and that Poland merely wished to escape as cheaply as possible. The next day, he applied pressure. The Polish reply, he said, could not be regarded as a basis for a settlement; German-Polish relations were, therefore, deteriorating rapidly. Lipski promised to do what he could to overcome the difficulties. Two days later, the German representative in Danzig was told that Poland was not to be provoked. Polish reluctance would be worn down by attrition tactics, and Danzig should adopt a sphinx-like attitude. Ribbentrop was of the opinion that the climax of the crisis had been reached.
Already signs were multiplying that the crisis was not, in fact, at its climax, and that Prague, Memel and Danzig had violently shaken world diplomatic alignments. In Britain and France the annihilation of Czechoslovakia produced a strong popular reaction against the policy of appeasement. Chamberlain and Daladier had wavered and then fallen in with the popular mood. Recognition of the German action in Czechoslovakia was refused, and the British and French Ambassadors in Berlin were ordered home for consultation. When there were rumors of new German moves in Central Europe, there was a flurry of diplomatic activity from which emerged, on March 31, a declaration by Chamberlain in the House of Commons that Britain and France would aid Poland in resisting any action clearly threatening Polish independence. Hard on this declaration, the Polish Foreign Minister arrived in London, and at the conclusion of his visit Chamberlain stated on April 6 that a permanent alliance would be negotiated between Britain and Poland. Moreover, Chamberlain offered similar guarantees to states of southeastern Europe, and these offers met with a sympathetic reception despite German reminders that "the shelter of the umbrella" had been no protection for Abyssinia, Austria, Czechoslovakia or the Spanish Republicans.
More ominous, negotiations began in mid-April for drawing the Soviet Union into what the Germans called the British encirclement program; someone kept the German Embassy in London fully and promptly informed of these negotiations. Finally, even the United States Government assumed a more active rôle. At the onset of the March crisis, the German chargé in Washington warned that the Roosevelt Administration was determined to support Britain and France in any war with Germany and that, while American opinion was opposed to war, this opposition would collapse on the first news of air attacks on British or French cities. On April 15, President Roosevelt appealed directly to Hitler and Mussolini, asking for assurance against armed attack on a long list of states.
Even within the Axis, the occupation of Prague produced a violent reaction. As usual, the Italian Government had received no advance notice of the German action, and repetition intensified Italian resentment against such cavalier treatment. Now, however, the Italians were not only humiliated; they were frightened. Austria and Czechoslovakia were completely under German control, and Hungary was a dependent of the Reich. As a reliable informant told the Germans, "people are saying that in the end the old Hapsburg Empire, this time under the swastika flag, will reappear on the Adriatic." German assurances that the Mediterranean, including the Adriatic, was an Italian sphere of influence, did not disarm Italian fears. On Good Friday, Mussolini moved to solidify the Italian position by seizing Albania, and he did not forewarn Germany. Meanwhile, more and more clearly the Italian suggestion that Germans in the South Tyrol be resettled in Germany was changing to a firm demand. Italian policy was assuming an unaccustomed and potentially dangerous independence of German leadership.
There is no evidence that all this activity caused Hitler any alarm, and much evidence that he continued confident of success. As the weeks passed, German policy towards Poland changed, and by May 23 Hitler was resolved to attack her at the first suitable opportunity; but this was to be an isolated operation, from which other Powers would remain aloof.
By April 3, when Beck arrived in London, it was already obvious that the German plan to hold Poland away from Britain had failed. On the same day, the high command of the Wehrmacht was instructed to prepare plans for an attack on Poland in such a way that the operation could begin at any time from September 1. In the amplification of these instructions issued on April 11, the war with Poland was still described as a possibility to be avoided if possible; in any case, every precaution must be taken to limit the war to Poland only. The proposal made by Ribbentrop to Lipski was withdrawn on April 6; German missions abroad were instructed not to discuss the proposal or the Polish counteroffer.
The war of nerves was begun, with full confidence of victory. Ribbentrop was convinced that "not one British soldier would be mobilized in the event of a German-Polish conflict." Göring and Hitler expressed the same conviction. Public excitement, the Nazis argued, had pushed Beck, Chamberlain and Daladier into foolish threats and promises, but, as Hitler said, "one could only yell for a certain time." When passions cooled, and reason reasserted itself, it would become obvious that the German position was overwhelmingly strong. In the German view, British and French rearmament had only begun, and the German West Wall was impregnable; therefore no effective help could come to Poland from the west. Russia would not fight, and in any case the Poles knew that the Russians, if they ever entered their country, would never leave. There were even signs that reason, as the Nazis understood reason, was returning. The French and British Ambassadors returned to their posts in Berlin; and the latter, Nevile Henderson, promised that he would not cease to work for a favorable solution. The German chargé in Warsaw reported that responsible Poles wished to keep the way open for a rapprochement, although they could do nothing because of the excited state of public opinion. The German chargé in Moscow stressed Soviet "mistrust and reserve" in relations with the West, and on April 17 the Soviet Ambassador in Berlin suggested that so far as the U.S.S.R. was concerned, Nazi-Soviet relations could easily be improved. And so Hitler was probably quite honest when he said that he "had a great deal of time for theatres and concerts" and that he "regarded the whole course of events calmly."
Through four weeks after Chamberlain's promise of assistance to the Poles, the Germans kept their own counsel. Then, on Friday, April 28, Hitler spoke. The British encirclement policy and the Polish military agreement had, he said, destroyed the Anglo-German naval agreement of 1935 and the German-Polish political understanding of 1934. With irony verging on ridicule, he dismissed Roosevelt's peace appeal as meaningless. About Russia he said nothing. The reaction abroad to the speech, as reported by German representatives, was heartening. The comment of the chargé in Paris (the German Ambassadors to Britain and France had not yet returned to their posts) was typical: "It is fairly generally recognized that the tone of the speech was moderate, serious and dignified, and that the German demands are by no means incapable of being met."
A week after Hitler's speech the strength of the German position was dramatized by a meeting in Milan between Ribbentrop and the Italian Foreign Minister, Ciano. In the communiqué issued at the conclusion of the meeting, on May 7, emphasis was placed on the "perfect identity of views" between Germany and Italy, and on the intention of the two Governments to conclude a political and military pact--the pact which was grandiloquently to be called "The Pact of Steel."
Actually, the pact which was announced on May 7 and concluded on May 22 was thought a poor and temporary substitute for the alliance of Germany, Italy and Japan for which the Germans had been pressing. The Japanese were willing to conclude an alliance against Russia; they were as yet unwilling to promise military assistance against Britain and the United States. Since the alliance was wanted by Hitler as a means of bringing the British to a more "reasonable" attitude, the proposal of an alliance against Russia was rejected. As an alternative, Ribbentrop touched lightly in his discussion with Ciano on the possibility of improving relations with the Soviet Union. Ciano thought such a move desirable; but felt that for domestic political reasons Mussolini would not wish too great an improvement.
At this stage in the developing crisis, the Germans also showed no great eagerness to strengthen their position by bidding for the support of the Soviet Union, despite clear indications of the importance which the British and French attached to a political agreement with the U.S.S.R. When Dirksen returned to his post in London he reported that failure to achieve agreement with Russia would shake the position of the British. Similarly, on his return to Paris, Welczeck reported that "even right-wing circles are convinced that without Russia there would be no possibility of effectively stemming the German advance in the East."
The Russians did their best to elicit a German offer. On May 3 Molotov replaced Litvinov as Foreign Secretary and the Soviet chargé in Berlin intimated that the change could facilitate improvement in Nazi-Soviet relations. Two weeks later he again suggested that an improvement in relations would not be difficult to achieve. The German Government did bring Schulenburg, the Ambassador in Moscow, home for consultation; but he returned to Russia with instructions only to suggest the reopening of economic negotiations which had been interrupted earlier in the year. Schulenburg talked with Molotov for over an hour on May 20, but found him unwilling to reopen the economic discussions until a "political basis" had been found. After some wavering, the German Government decided to make no definite political proposals.
On May 23, Hitler reviewed the international situation with his military advisers. Now, two months after his first demands on Poland, he had enlarged his objective. Poland was to be attacked at the first suitable opportunity, and destroyed. "It is not Danzig that is at stake. For us it is a matter of expanding our living space in the East and making food supplies secure and also solving the problem of the Baltic States." The campaign against Poland could be a success only if Britain and France stood aside. There were indications that "Russia might disinterest herself in the destruction of Poland," but to restrain Russia it might be necessary to have closer ties with Japan. In any case, the task was to isolate Poland, and there must not be a simultaneous showdown with France and Britain. That showdown would come, but later. It would be a hard, and probably a long fight, involving the very existence of Germany; it was time to begin preparations for that fight. He was, therefore, setting up a small planning staff, which would work in complete secrecy, and which would study all aspects of the problem of preparing for the life and death battle with Britain. He gave no date for the war with the West, but in response to a question from Göring he stated that the armaments program would be completed by 1943 or 1944.
For two months the Polish, British and French Governments had been trying to convince Hitler that further advances to the east by the threat or use of force would precipitate a general war which Germany was bound to lose. The only effect of these warnings had been to convince Hitler that Poland would not give up without a fight, as Austria and Czechoslovakia had done, and that Poland must therefore be destroyed. He refused to believe that the rulers of Britain and France would, after preaching the blessings of peace for so long, accept the terrors of general war, which they themselves described in such despairing language. Yet, while the British and French continued to proclaim their dread of war and their eagerness for a reconciliation with Germany, they also continued to affirm their determination to preserve Polish independence. In the German view, these contradictory positions could be reconciled only by the assumption that the Soviet Union would shoulder the burden of defending Poland.
The Germans were convinced that Russia neither could nor would defend Poland. At the same time it was thought probable in Berlin during the last days of May that some sort of agreement would be made between Russia, Britain and France. If agreement was achieved, the illusory conviction of the British and French that they could support Poland without peril to themselves would be strengthened. Therefore, as the State Secretary in the Foreign Ministry, Weizsäcker, wrote privately, "in the days before Whitsun [May 28] and during the holidays, deliberations on whether and by what means one could still try to put a spoke into the Anglo-Russian conversations have been going to and fro."
One suggestion was that Russia be confronted bluntly with the choice between German enmity, which an Anglo-Russian agreement would insure, and the assurance that, in settling the Polish question, "we would take Russian interests into account as far as possible." This suggestion was discarded, but the contrast between the meager compensation then proposed for Russia and the concessions made in the Nazi-Soviet pact a few months later is a measure of Nazi confidence at the end of May.
The course of action finally adopted on May 30 was a "private" conversation between the State Secretary and the Russian chargé in which Weizsäcker made clear the German desire for improved political as well as economic relations with the U.S.S.R., and hinted that an Anglo-Russian agreement would prevent this improvement. On the following day, Molotov publicly denied that an Anglo-Russian agreement impended and intimated that trade negotiations between Russia and Germany would soon begin. From London, Dirksen reported a few days later that even in Labor circles alarm was spreading over the price Russia was now asking for an agreement with Britain.
A spoke had indeed been put in the Anglo-Russian negotiations, and again the German Government settled back, waiting for the long, unremitting strain to have its effect. From a conversation with Henderson on June 13, Weizsäcker drew the conclusion that the Ambassador "is not happy about British relations with the Poles, that he thinks nothing of the Russian pact, and that, for the rest, he is deeply concerned about a possible conflict this summer." On June 24, Dirksen reported the growth of a "disillusioned, critical, and perturbed attitude" in Britain towards both Poland and Russia: "It has been possible to observe for some weeks now in conversations with leading British personalities that they are tending towards a discussion with Germany on burning problems, and that this is spreading to the press." On June 27, when he handed over to Weizsäcker a British memorandum suggesting an exchange of views on a new naval agreement, Henderson stated his belief that "a constructive exchange of views" would not be difficult to bring about. He offered to do anything he could to bring about a resumption of talks between London and Berlin, and "he said it was absolutely wrong to believe that Chamberlain had left the path of peace." As he had before, Weizsäcker merely commented that British foreign policy was incomprehensible to the German Government.
Meanwhile, through June the Anglo-Russian negotiations limped along. In the middle of the month a special British envoy, William Strang, arrived in Moscow, but the Russian press reported that the results of the first discussions with him were "not entirely favorable." At the end of the month, Weizsäcker was unable to guess what the outcome of the talks would be, although the British seemed disposed to make every concession to the Russians. He was equally uncertain whether anything would come of German offers to resume trade discussions with Russia. With an irony which was certainly deliberate, the German suggestions were also characterized by the Russians as "not entirely favorable." The Russians continued to drop hints that they would welcome political discussions. Schulenburg, during a two weeks' stay in Berlin, attempted to move the discussions in this direction, but he found Ribbentrop not greatly concerned about the problem of Russia. On his return to Moscow, Schulenburg ventured to raise the possibility of discussing political issues in a conversation with Molotov on June 28, but while Molotov was friendly and obviously "greatly interested in learning our political views and in maintaining contact with us," he was also noncommittal. Even before Schulenburg's report was before him, Hitler had impatiently ordered even the trade discussions with Russia stopped.
From this point it is necessary to grope one's way through the maze of Nazi diplomacy, without certain documentary guidance. So far, through 15 tense weeks, if German diplomatists at home or abroad did not believe Britain and France would stand aside while Poland was crushed, they kept their heretical views to themselves. By July, however, it was becoming difficult to believe German pressure on Poland would not, in the end, lead to a general war. During the last days of June the attitude of the Germans in Danzig had become increasingly provocative, and the German press had ever more stridently called for "justice," that is, the right of Danzig to become a part of Germany. As the clamor grew, the attitude of Britain and France perceptibly stiffened. On July 1 the French Foreign Minister, Georges Bonnet, formally declared that "any action, whatever its form, which would tend to modify the status quo in Danzig, and so provoke armed resistance by Poland, would bring the Franco-Polish Agreement into play and oblige France to give immediate assistance to Poland." The British position, Dirksen reported on July 3, was equally firm. If war with the West did come, it was problematical how much support Germany would receive from Italy: with suspicious frequency, the Italians pointed out that they would not be ready for a general war for at least three years. As for Japan, the German Ambassador in Tokyo warned that continued pressure for alliance against Britain was likely to weaken Japanese willingness to make an alliance even against Russia.
While Hitler and Ribbentrop continued to assert that the courage of Britain and France would, in the end, collapse and while there is no evidence of open dissent from this view among the officials of the German Foreign Ministry, there is evidence that in Berlin, and in the Moscow embassy, there was recognition that Russia was becoming of central importance in the war of nerves. No sooner had Hitler ordered negotiations with Russia ended than arguments were presented not only for the continuance of the negotiations but also for greater concessions to Russian views. By July 7, Weizsäcker was able to sanction a renewed effort to begin the economic negotiations, although he cautioned that "we should on no account place ourselves in the position of suppliants." Suppliants the Germans might not wish to be, but the negotiations began, not only on Russian economic terms, but in Berlin. The Germans would have preferred Moscow, because the sending of a German economic envoy there would have attracted the attention of the British and Poles, with important political effects; but the Russians said they preferred Berlin, so Berlin it was.
The Germans need not have worried about the danger that negotiations in Berlin would be unobserved. No sooner were they begun than the entire Soviet press announced, on July 22, that they were taking place. The announcement was made at the very time the British press was discussing rumors that during the visit of a German official, Wohlthat, the British Government had offered a huge loan as compensation for the relaxation of German pressure on Poland. So great was the outcry against a return to the policy of appeasement that Chamberlain was forced to deny on July 24 that a loan was contemplated. As Dirksen sadly reported, in the atmosphere prevailing in Britain any plans for negotiations with Germany "would immediately be torpedoed by Churchill and other agitators with cries of 'No second Munich!' or 'No return to the policy of appeasement!'" Dirksen was convinced that "the few really decisive statesmen in Britain" had a clear view of the situation. They knew the extreme tension of the past three months could not go on. They were worried by the advance of Japan in the Far East; they were doubtful of the value of Poland as an ally; they knew the negotiations with Russia were stagnating. They would like to end the ominous drift by a "constructive" policy towards Germany. But they were, for the moment, prisoners of a bellicose public opinion.
The Italians took a similar view of the situation. Mussolini believed the tension had become so intolerable that the world would prefer war to continued uncertainty. He was convinced that this was the moment for an international conference; such a conference would, he believed, disrupt the unity of the front opposing Germany and Italy. Ribbentrop rebuffed this suggestion with vigor: any peace initiative by the Axis would be interpreted as a sign of weakness. The Axis was bound to win the war of nerves, he argued, because the Axis had steadier nerves than its opponents. Britain was not militarily prepared for war, and Britain had not been able to conclude the alliances necessary for war. Therefore the Axis must hold firm. "Time was on our side."
The difficulty was that time was running out. When Hitler had ordered the Wehrmacht to be ready for war with Poland by September 1, that date had been five months away. When, on May 23, he had announced his determination to crush Poland, there had seemed ample time to insure the isolation of Poland which he said was essential for the success of that operation. Now, however, less than six weeks remained before September 1, and by now the German Government had decided that September 1 was not the earliest, but almost the last day upon which operations could begin. By late September heavy rains were likely to make mechanized warfare in Poland impossible. To be on the safe side, the timetable had been advanced so that operations could begin by August 20, less than a month away. If the British and French Governments were not to be forced into war by the pressure of public opinion when the German armies struck, then the futility of war must be brought home to the peoples of Britain and France.
One cannot say with certainty that Hitler was forced to revise his policy towards Russia by recognition that time was running out. What is certain is that while Hitler had ordered efforts to secure even a trade agreement stopped on June 29, and while opinion within the German Government was still fluctuating two weeks later, the pace was rapidly accelerated in the days following the uproar in Britain over the supposed offer of a huge loan to Germany by the Chamberlain government. The official in charge of the economic negotiations, Schnurre, wrote privately on August 2 that, from about July 23, he had at least one conversation daily about Russia with Ribbentrop who was also constantly exchanging views with Hitler. "The Foreign Minister is concerned to obtain some result in the Russian question as soon as possible, not only on the negative side (disturbing the British negotiations) but also on the positive side (an understanding with us)."
During the weeks which followed, the Nazis were driven, step by step, to meet every Soviet demand. The first step, on July 26, was a long dinner conversation, extending past midnight, between Schnurre, the Soviet chargé and the Soviet trade representative. Emphasizing that he was speaking on Ribbentrop's instructions, Schnurre declared that there was no real conflict of interest between Germany and the U.S.S.R. at any point from the Baltic to the Black Sea and on to the Far East, and said he "could imagine a far-reaching arrangement of mutual interests" in all these areas. However, he warned, the opportunity to effect such an arrangement would be lost if the U.S.S.R. allied itself with Britain. The Russians expressed surprise and pleasure at these remarks; they reciprocated Schnurre's desire for improved relations, but emphasized that improvement could come only slowly.
A week later, on August 2, Ribbentrop intervened directly. In conversation with the Soviet chargé, he reiterated the German conviction that a far-reaching political agreement was possible and "dropped a gentle hint at our coming to an understanding with Russia on the fate of Poland." The chargé tried to elicit information on the concrete terms Ribbentrop had in mind; the latter said he was quite ready to be explicit when the Soviet Government stated that it also wished to put relations on a new basis.
During the days which followed, the German representatives repeatedly sought to draw from the Russians a definite statement of willingness to enter negotiations on political problems, but without success. At last, on August 10, Schnurre came to the point. He stressed the impossibility of any agreement if the U.S.S.R. concluded a military pact with Britain. Beyond that, however, he made it plain that war against Poland impended, and that a demarcation of spheres of interest in Poland was desirable before war came. This produced results. Two days later, the chargé reported that his government was interested in a discussion of political problems, including Poland, and wished the negotiations to take place in Moscow.
To Hitler it seemed that the road ahead was now clear. In a conference at Obersalzberg on August 14 he stated categorically that Russia would keep out of the war. Britain would, in the end, draw back: "the men I got to know in Munich are not the kind that start a new World War." Without Britain, France would not move.
That evening, Ribbentrop telegraphed new proposals to Schulenburg, proposals which he wished Stalin to receive in as exact a form as was possible without putting an incriminating document into Soviet hands. He proposed a linking of the Soviet and German economies, "which are complementary in every sphere." He proposed political coöperation. He affirmed "that there is no question between the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea which cannot be settled to the complete satisfaction of both countries." To secure speedy agreement, he was prepared to come to Moscow himself "to lay the foundations for a final settlement of German-Russian relations."
By then, the September 1 deadline was less than three weeks away and the propaganda campaign preparatory to war with Poland was already approaching its strident climax. Foreign observers in Berlin were freely predicting that the question of Danzig if not the fate of Poland would be settled before the month was over. Hitler encouraged these prophets. In the past he had carefully concealed his plan of action from the indiscreet Italians. This time, he was very explicit. War against Poland might come any day, he told Ciano, and would come by the end of August unless Poland not only surrendered Danzig but altered "her general attitude."
German need was Russian opportunity. Even while they had suggested ever more plainly their desire for a political agreement with Germany, the Russians had continued their negotiations with the British and French. At the time that he had announced the opening of trade negotiations with Germany, Molotov had also suggested the sending of an Anglo-French military mission to Moscow as a means of speeding agreement with the Western democracies. The discussions of this mission with the Soviet military leaders were begun on the very day, August 12, that the Germans were told of Soviet willingness to begin political discussions. Now, on August 15, when Schulenburg presented Ribbentrop's proposal that he come to Moscow, Molotov stressed the need for "adequate preparation" before the arrival of so distinguished a visitor and asked whether Germany was prepared to conclude a nonaggression pact and to influence Japanese policy in the direction of better relations with the Soviet Union.
Two days later--and even this short interval seemed long to Ribbentrop--Schulenburg was back with fresh instructions. Germany would conclude a nonaggression pact. Germany was willing to influence Japanese policy in the desired direction. But speed was essential because "of the possibility of the occurrence, any day, of serious events." Ribbentrop was prepared to come to Moscow by airplane at any time after August 18. Molotov refused to be hurried, and laid out a timetable: first the economic agreement must be concluded; then "after a short interval" a political agreement could be made; however, there might now be an exchange of drafts of the proposed political agreement, and the Soviet Government would await with interest the German draft.
Promptly, Schulenburg received new instructions, which he executed in two interviews with Molotov on August 19. With only the thinnest covering of diplomatic verbiage, the Russians were told that war was imminent and that a delineation of spheres of influence was essential before the fighting started. In the first interview Molotov refused to set a date for Ribbentrop's visit. In the second, Molotov (apparently on new instructions from Stalin) agreed that Ribbentrop might come on August 26 or 27. Meanwhile, in Berlin, the trade agreement was finally signed.
Hitler now intervened with a letter to Stalin. Polish presumption, said Hitler, had produced intolerable tension which might lead to war any day. There was no time to lose. He asked that Ribbentrop be received on August 22, or at the latest on August 23; Ribbentrop would have full powers to draw up and sign the nonaggression pact and the political agreement. The letter was delivered on August 21. On the same day Stalin replied, agreeing to the arrival of Ribbentrop on August 23. That night, the German Government issued a communiqué telling of the impending conference for the purpose of concluding a nonaggression pact.
The final card had been played. It was a costly move. At the end of May, consideration for Soviet interests in Poland had been the highest price mentioned for a pact with the U.S.S.R. As late as August 16 Ribbentrop offered, so far as the Baltic States were concerned, only a joint guarantee of their independence. Now, in the pact of August 23, Finland, Estonia and Latvia were to be an exclusively Soviet sphere of influence. Russia was also to receive a large share of Poland. As for southeastern Europe, the Soviet claim to Bessarabia was acknowledged, while "the German side declares complete political désintéressement in these territories." In the search for "living space," a search which had seemed so easy in the spring, Hitler had been forced to surrender his claim to hegemony in the Baltic and in southeastern Europe.
The cost was high, but again Hitler was confident that he could now crush Poland without provoking general war. On August 22, before Ribbentrop reached Moscow, Hitler called his military leaders together once more. Most of what he said was an elaborate demonstration of the necessity for war with Poland, together with instructions for the ruthless conduct of the war. So far as Britain and France were concerned, his arguments were those he had used so often before: neither had really rearmed, both were obsessed by the frightful risks entailed by war, neither had strong leaders. He said the German attack would probably be launched on Saturday, August 26.
Momentarily, Hitler's optimism seemed justified by reports of the confusion caused in Britain and France by the Nazi-Soviet pact. On Wednesday, August 23, the attack on Poland was definitely set for Saturday, and on August 24 the first of the moves by which war was to be provoked was made by the Germans in Danzig. On August 25, however, there came two heavy blows: the Anglo-Polish Mutual Assistance Agreement was signed, and Mussolini made it plain that he would not intervene if Germany became involved in war with France and Britain. In the evening, the order to attack was cancelled.
There followed a week of desperate manœuvring. Much has been written of the "offers" made by Hitler in those last days of peace, but it is now clear that the offers were intended only to shake the determination of the British Government. Hitler had gone too far to retreat, and time had run out. On September 1, the German invasion began, with Hitler still vainly hoping that the political leaders of Britain and France would, at the last moment, lose their nerve.
Over and over, through the spring and summer of 1939 the British and French Governments had said they would fight if Germany attacked Poland. These warnings went unheeded. In justification for his refusal to heed the warnings from London and Paris, Hitler invariably came back to the same arguments: Britain and France were militarily unprepared for war, and certainly for a war to protect Poland; they had threatened before, and had drawn back at the end; the men in power in 1939 were the same men whose will had collapsed in face of firm resistance. As he repeatedly boasted, he had bluffed and won before; what he had done when Germany was weak he could do again with confidence now that Germany was strong.
These boasts had an increasingly hollow sound from the last week of July. But by then the whole world had come to regard the question of Danzig as a decisive test of strength. Through the years since 1933 he had advanced from one victory to another by convincing his opponents that if they did not surrender he would annihilate them and, if necessary, bring what Bonnet called the house of Europe crashing in ruins. Now Hitler was confronted by the despised Poles; they not only remained steady through the war of nerves, but, despite all provocation, they avoided rash action which would place the onus of aggression on them. If they were able to defy him with impunity, the tide which had carried him from success to success would turn. In a last desperate effort to break the will of his opponents, he promised the hated Communists more for neutrality than he could win from war against Poland. Even under this pressure the courage of the Poles did not collapse. Retreat was now more impossible than ever. And so the diplomatic moves of March, intended at the outset only to advance Germany another stage along the road to supremacy in Europe, led inexorably, step by step, to war against the West in which the very existence of Germany was at stake.
[i] "Documents on German Foreign Policy, 1918-1945." Series D (1937-1945). v. 6, "The Last Months of Peace, March-August 1939;" v. 7, "The Last Days of Peace, August 9-September 3, 1939." (London: H.M. Stationery Office, 1956.)
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