History

Hitler's High-Stakes Gamble: The Road to Conflict and Unintended Alliances

Hitler's policy of fostering amicable relations with Poland was met with widespread unpopularity within the Reich. Such a policy was only sustainable under a dictatorship. The sentiments of the German public largely favoured the idea of the Führer finally delivering a stern lesson to the "Poles," a people who were often disliked, despised, and, at times, even hated.

While disputing the origins of the Second World War, a frequently cited phrase is attributed to Marshal Ferdinand Foch. According to legend, when the renowned French commander reviewed the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, he remarked that it would not usher in true peace but rather a mere twenty-year truce.

Indeed, it appeared that Marshal Foch's assessment had striking foresight. Almost precisely two decades after Germany's signing of the Versailles peace treaty, the world found itself plunged into the cataclysmic Second World War. To this day, some historians continue to contend that the Second World War represented a continuation of the first, albeit on a much larger and infinitely more brutal scale.

These connections are reinforced by the enduring imagery of the Schleswig-Holstein battleship bombarding Westerplatte. Undoubtedly, Danzig and the Pomeranian “corridor” occupied a prominent place among Germany's revisionist demands, endorsed by various political and ideological factions within Weimar Germany. By 1939, Berlin's insistence on acquiring Danzig and the “corridor” directly provided the pretext for Germany's aggression against Poland.

However, it's crucial to acknowledge that the underlying causes of these two wars fundamentally differ. The Great War of 1914-1918 erupted spontaneously, while the Second World War was meticulously planned, prepared for, and intentionally unleashed by Nazi Germany.

A Tragedy, Not a Crime

The term “outbreak” is fitting for the First World War. The debate among historians regarding its origins has persisted since the Paris Peace Conference of 1918-1919, during which the victors pinned the blame solely on Germany and its allies for instigating the conflict (as articulated in Article 231 of the Treaty of Versailles).

This dispute endures to this day, as evidenced by the enduring popularity of the well-crafted and meticulously researched book, “Sleepwalkers: How Europe Stumbled into War in 1914” by Australian scholar Christopher Clark. Like other historians, Clark argued that, although belligerent and imperialistic, Germany was not the sole culprit in 1914. Other nations also bore significant responsibility for Europe's descent into the Great War.

Clark notably engaged in a debate with a renowned left-leaning historian from the Federal Republic of Germany, Professor Fritz Fischer. In the early 1960s, Fischer controversially claimed that Wilhelmine Germany deliberately pursued war to secure global superpower status. However, Clark contended that the outbreak of that war was a tragedy rather than a crime, asserting, “Germany was not the sole imperialist in 1914, and they were not the only ones succumbing to paranoia.” The crisis that birthed the Great War resulted from a shared political culture and was genuinely interactive, rendering it the most complex event of modern times. However, it is essential to note that Clark's position, echoing pre-war interpretations of a gradual slide into war in 1914, also faced criticism within Germany.

In contrast, regarding the origins of the Second World War, historians generally align on one point: Nazi Germany bears the responsibility for instigating this war. The only subject of debate centres on the extent of the Soviet Union's role in bringing about this global conflict.

Weimar Sabre-Rattling

Following disarmament by the Treaty of Versailles, Germany pursued a revisionist policy, and the slogan “righting the wrongs of Versailles” became a common refrain in the country. However, the memory of the 1918 defeat continued to haunt Germany, even after Hitler abandoned the military restrictions of the treaty in the mid-1930s. While a conflict with Poland – a nation they viewed as temporary – over the former “eastern territories,” remained within the realm of acceptability for Germans, the spectre of a two-front war, particularly in light of the horrors of 1914-1918, became a nightmarish scenario.
In 1931, the Germans made it clear that when they rebuilt their army, they would revise the Polish-German border. Pictured: Reichswehr soldiers during manoeuvres in 1930. Photo: Bundesarchiv Bild/Wikimedia
The policy of rapprochement with Paris and London, championed by the veteran German foreign minister, Gustav Stresemann, from 1925 onward, was conducted under the auspices of the Locarno Conference and in alignment with the ideals of the League of Nations. For this diplomatic endeavour, Stresemann was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Concurrently, the Weimar Republic engaged in what is sometimes inaccurately termed an “economic war” against Poland, although it more closely resembled a customs or trade dispute. Nonetheless, it's worth noting that military action against Poland remained a potential option in Berlin's strategic considerations.

In a confidential memorandum dated November 11, 1925, Herbert von Dirksen, a senior official in the German Foreign Ministry who would later serve as ambassador to Moscow, Tokyo, and London, underscored the potential for the Gdańsk “corridor” issue to escalate under certain favourable circumstances. He suggested that Reichswehr troops might enter the region under the pretext of safeguarding the German minority. A few weeks later, during a conversation with the British ambassador, Lord d'Abernon, the same diplomat expressed Germany's desire to regain control of Danzig, the “corridor” up to the Piła-Toruń line, a portion of Greater Poland (excluding Poznań), and Upper Silesia. He proposed that these areas could enjoy a 10- to 15-year transitional period of autonomy under the supervision of the League of Nations, with eventual incorporation into the Reich.

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  It's crucial to highlight that these considerations remained theoretical while Poland maintained a significant military advantage over Germany. However, these ideas found a receptive audience in Western diplomatic circles.

Meanwhile, the Weimar Republic entered a period of decline following the onset of the Great Economic Crisis in 1929, which coincided with Gustav Stresemann's death that same year. His successors began issuing public threats of war against Poland, including Foreign Minister Julius Curtius's declaration at the League of Nations on January 21, 1931, suggesting that once the Reich had rebuilt its armed forces, it would independently seek to revise the Polish-German border.

Nonetheless, the sabre-rattling by Germany did not pose an immediate threat of a new world war, and the prevailing authorities at the time did not contemplate such a possibility.

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In his seminal work, Mein Kampf, the leader of the most prominent party in the Reichstag openly articulated his vision for a future National Socialist Germany, one that would expand its dominion into Eastern Europe, leveraging the collapse of the Soviet Union as a catalyst for this expansion through war.

The blueprint for the expansion of a prospective National Socialist Germany had already taken shape in the early 1920s. Even before the Munich putsch in November 1923, Hitler advocated for Germany to ally itself with Italy and Britain in a future war, viewing France and Bolshevik Russia as threats to the Reich. Hitler envisioned a German expedition to acquire "Lebensraum" in Russia, providing fertile land for German settlers and opportunities for German industry.

During his imprisonment in Landsberg, Hitler organised his ideological framework, resulting in the publication of the first volume of Mein Kampf in mid-1925, with the second volume following at the end of 1926. In his writings, Hitler articulated that the Nazi Reich's ultimate goal was to dismantle the USSR, collaborate with Britain and Italy, and establish a German land empire in the wake of the Soviet Union's collapse. He explicitly distanced his vision from traditional German anti-Western revisionism, considering the restoration of the 1914 borders to be a political absurdity with severe consequences. He deemed it a crime to sacrifice German lives for such a limited objective.

From Hitler's perspective, Germany had two paths: to become a global power or cease to exist altogether. He emphasised in his speeches that the destiny of Germany would be determined by war, underscoring the National Socialist belief that "every nation has the right to acquire the land it needs and is able to cultivate" (speech of June 19, 1930).

In 1928, Hitler authored another book, this time a relatively short one. However, for various reasons, it did not see the light of day during his lifetime, and its contents were not officially published in a scholarly edition until 1961 (with the Polish edition arriving in 2017). In this work, Hitler delved into his vision for the future foreign policy of the Nazi Reich.

Within its pages, Hitler posited that once Germany had ascended to the status of a world power, with the acceptance of Britain, it would eventually find itself engaged in a climactic struggle for global hegemony, a distant showdown with the United States. In this ultimate confrontation, Britain would stand alongside the Reich.

During the years immediately preceding his ascent to power in the Reich, Hitler notably tempered the rhetoric of his public speeches on matters of foreign policy. In a radio broadcast for the American radio station CBS on December 11, 1931, he asserted that his party "desired peace in Germany and Europe" (remarkably, exactly ten years later, Hitler's Germany would declare war on the United States).

The following day, in the NSDAP publication Völkischer Beobachter, Hitler said that the Nazis did not seek war but rather equality for the German people. Even statements like “the struggle for sufficient living space is a necessity” and the imperative “to acquire new land and settle it (e.g., in the East)” and “the expansion of living space is the natural right of every nation” (quoted from a speech on November 11, 1931) gradually began to lose prominence in his rhetoric.
1933: Reich Chancellor Adolf Hitler and President Paul von Hindenburg. Photo: NAC/IKC
Thus, when the Reich President appointed Hitler as Chancellor of the coalition government on January 30, 1933, foreign commentaries were largely devoid of alarm. Some even held the opinion that Chancellor Hitler had evolved into a different kind of politician compared to the young radical he represented in the 1920s, and that he had become more of a liability than a menace.

When the UK fails

In the weeks, months, and years that followed, the new Chancellor repeatedly emphasised the word “peace” in various contexts. In international affairs, his discourse primarily revolved around advocating for German equality, particularly concerning armaments, while cautioning against the communist threat. Simultaneously, in confidential speeches, he didn't hide his ambitious aspirations.

During a meeting with high-ranking officers of the Reichswehr and Reichsmarine on February 3, 1933, he disclosed his intention to “conquer new living space in the East and ruthlessly Germanize it.” Achieving this goal would necessitate an expansion of the armed forces and the cultivation of future allies.

It took Hitler three years to recognise that although Britain was willing to make substantial concessions to Germany, it wouldn't grant the Reich unchecked dominance on the continent. The policy of appeasement had its limits. By early 1934, the Chancellor was already confiding in his generals that if attempts to secure Britain's support failed, war would become unavoidable, first against both Western European powers – France and Britain, employing “short, decisive strikes in a western direction and then in an eastern direction.” These were still theoretical musings, but in March of the following year, Hitler declared Germany's withdrawal from the military provisions of the Treaty of Versailles, signifying the official commencement of Germany's forceful rearmament.

One year later, in March 1936, the Wehrmacht crossed the Rhine, marking the remilitarisation of the Rhineland. This act not only violated the Treaty of Versailles imposed on Germany in 1919 but also contravened the Rhine Pact voluntarily signed by the Reich in 1925. The latter was the most significant treaty negotiated at the Locarno Conference.

International reactions were sharp, yet confined mainly to verbal expressions of concern. At the same time, Hitler extended an offer to negotiate a new treaty. However, the talks eventually stalled after many months.

Meanwhile, the Reich was shaping a new alliance system. Hitler abandoned the idea of winning over London but forged alliances with Tokyo and Rome, notably the Anti-Comintern Pact of 1936/37. Additionally, following the signing of a non-aggression treaty with Poland in January 1934, he sought to include Poland in this system. For Hitler, subjugating the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (preferably through political means but resorting to military action if necessary) was indispensable to his war efforts.

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Towards the end of the summer of 1936, Hitler penned a memorandum concerning the Four-Year Plan, stating that there must be an "expansion of living space," encompassing the raw material base and the capacity to sustain the German populace. He considered it the responsibility of the political leadership to address this issue in the future. Thus, he outlined two key objectives: “1. The German army must achieve full operational readiness within four years. 2. The German economy must be prepared to bear the burdens of war within the same timeframe.”

During a meeting of the Reich Cabinet on September 4, 1936, Hermann Göring insisted that a “crackdown on Russia” was inevitable. He believed that "Communism [...] must be crushed, like a spider on the wall! There is nothing else left, nothing. This is our European mission.” In June 1936, Joseph Goebbels summarised Hitler's deductions from a one-on-one conversation, noting, "Armaments are progressing. We are investing enormous sums of money in it. By 1941, we will be fully prepared. The clash with Bolshevism is imminent. [...] Our dominance in Europe is assured. We must not miss any opportunity. That's what we are arming ourselves for. The Führer is determined to do everything.”

During a secret conference on November 5, 1937, known as the Hossbach conference (named after the colonel who documented it), Hitler already regarded France and Britain as avowed adversaries (a word difficult to translate but conveying a deep sense of opposition). He believed they considered a powerful German presence in the heart of Europe to be a major irritation.

Simultaneously, the issue of Lebensraum for the German people could only be resolved through war, and this needed to happen no later than 1943-1945. The initial stage involved the annexation of Austria and a rapid campaign to dismantle Czechoslovakia. Hitler argued that intervention by France and the United Kingdom would be unlikely. Moreover, in the event of a German-French conflict, he believed that Poland – provided there were no German setbacks – would remain neutral.

Even at the cost of war

The Anschluss, the annexation of Austria into the Reich, proceeded smoothly and with the enthusiastic support of the majority involved. However, the Czechoslovak crisis became a protracted issue, even though Western powers increasingly acknowledged that the predominantly German-populated Czech border region (often referred to inaccurately as the Sudetenland) should, at the very least, be granted autonomy.

By 1938, Hitler's desire was to dismantle the Czechoslovak state, even if it risked war. This stance caused significant concern among a substantial portion of the German leadership, and fear began to permeate German society. The Chief of the General Staff, General Ludwig Beck, issued a dire warning that, in the event of a conflict with Western powers, the Reich would face certain defeat. In protest, General Beck resigned.

Substantial opposition also existed within the Foreign Ministry, where Secretary of State Ernst von Weizsäcker worked to influence his superior, Joachim von Ribbentrop, towards a more moderate approach, explaining that war would spell the end of Germany.

It appeared that in the closing days of September, the spectre of war hung in the balance. Hitler, escalating his demands on Prague, leaned towards a military solution. However, he encountered an unexpected reception in Bad Godesberg (now a district of Bonn), where the locals enthusiastically welcomed British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain during his talks there, hailing him as a harbinger of peace. A few days later, in Berlin, he was disappointed by the icy reception from the city's residents when he ordered a motorised Wehrmacht division to pass through the capital.
Hitler wanted to destroy the Czechoslovak state as early as 1938, even at the risk of war. In 1940, he celebrated the first anniversary of the occupation of Czechoslovakia at Hradčany. Photo: NAC
He eventually relented and consented to the Munich Conference of the four major powers on September 29, 1938. This event held dire consequences for the Czechs and dealt a substantial blow not only to their sense of pride but also to the geopolitical standing of the Western powers. While Germany achieved an undisputed victory, Hitler, interestingly, viewed the Munich Agreement as a near defeat, thwarting his expansive ambitions. The policy of appeasement failed to appease him.

The Führer astutely recognised that the Western nations aimed to constrain his actions, using Czechoslovakia's sacrifice to impede the further expansion of the Reich. The jubilation in Munich and Berlin, where cheers for Chamberlain reverberated, alarmed him. The fact that he had transformed Germany into the most formidable state on the continent without resorting to war, merely brandishing the threat of conflict and that his prestige among Germans had soared significantly, did not suffice.

Just six months later, in mid-March 1939, the Chancellor executed the complete dismantling of Czechoslovakia. This marked the commencement of the next phase of the Reich's expansion. Hitler was unequivocally pushing for war, but before embarking on the expedition against the USSR, a concept he had previously detailed in the pages of Mein Kampf, he aimed to "pacify" the rear by launching an attack in the West. Thus, he needed to clarify Poland's role in his grand designs.

Hitler envisioned Warsaw acquiescing to its status as a vassal of the Reich, ensuring protection against potential aggression from the USSR, while the Wehrmacht grappled with France and the British expeditionary corps in the west.
Poland accepted without hesitation the British offer of guarantees which Prime Minister Chamberlain announced on March 31 1939. This is not the place to polemicize with the myth that London, with its guarantees, provoked Hitler to attack Poland. Hitler attacked Poland not because of British guarantees, but because Warsaw refused to submit to Berlin. Poland, on the other hand, in the realities of 1939, was blocking further German expansion – both in the west and in the east. It therefore had to be eliminated. And in the British documentation available for decades, including the minutes of His Majesty's Government, there is no trace of any desire to bring about an attack on Poland by the Reich. Yes, it was a bluff, but one calculated to stop the accelerating German locomotive.

When there was an open confrontation between Berlin and Warsaw in the spring of 1939, the German public took it with great satisfaction. The policy of good-neighbourly relations with Poland, initiated by Hitler, was extremely unpopular in the Reich and only feasible under a dictatorship. German public opinion had no objection to the Führer finally teaching a lesson to the disliked, despised and sometimes even hated 'Poles'. On the other hand, however, as had been the case a few months earlier, in the days leading up to the Munich Conference, there was fear among Germans of a two-front war, a war that the Reich could not win.

Polish campaign at the start

In the ensuing months, a high-stakes game of geopolitics unfolded, characterised by clandestine discussions among the superpowers. Germany engaged in secretive dialogues with Britain and the Soviets, while the British held talks with the French, Soviets, and the Reich, and the Soviet Union communicated with Western powers and the Reich.

A pivotal moment and a shockwave, though not so much in Warsaw, was triggered by the news of Joachim von Ribbentrop's departure for Moscow to finalise a non-aggression pact. Hitler appeared triumphant, describing the pact with Stalin a few days later as "a pact with the devil to chase the devil away." However, he still struggled to quell the doubts of his military advisors and associates regarding the feasibility of risking a global conflict and confronting two fronts simultaneously. Major Gerhard Engel, one of Hitler's adjutants, recorded their extreme concerns on August 24, primarily arising from fear about the potential outcomes of these developments.

Even Ribbentrop lacked unwavering confidence. He refrained from openly opposing Hitler but selectively chose reports sent to him for the Chancellor's desk. These reports highlighted the high probability of France and Britain declaring war on Germany. Ribbentrop's choice of reports was evident as he typed them and then adding a capital letter F (Führer) in green pencil.

When Hermann Göring pointed out to Hitler on August 29 that he was embarking on a high-stakes gamble, the dictator responded, "All my life I have played va banque [All in - ed]." For the time being, his primary objective was a forceful suppression of Poland. He aspired to initiate what he referred to as his "first Silesian War," drawing parallels with Frederick the Great's actions two centuries earlier. Following the campaign in Poland, Hitler planned additional campaigns, including the expedition against the Soviet Union outlined in Mein Kampf, although this was now postponed.

As early as October 18, 1939, he had already conveyed to the military that the conquered Polish territories would serve as a "German military concentration area" in the future. Moreover, during a general staff meeting on November 23, he stated, "We can only move against Russia if we are unburdened in the West."

Remarkably, during the autumn of 1939, when Berlin and Moscow's friendship was beginning to blossom, ordinary Germans remained oblivious to these intricate geopolitical developments.

– Stanisław Żerko

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

– Translated by Roberto Galea

Title and subheadings from the editors
Main photo: The German Schleswig-Holstein battleship shells Westerplatte in September 1939. Photo: IPN/Wikimedia
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