By Eric Vandenbroeck and co-workers
Russia, Germany, and Poland 1917-1945 Part Ten
Although Britain’s appeasement toward Germany began before Chamberlain became prime minister in 1937, he was its high priest throughout. As chancellor of the Exchequer for most of the 1930s, he oversaw the government’s strict budgetary limits on rearmament. According to one associate, Chamberlain, a former businessman who had spent two years as mayor of Birmingham, thought of Europe as simply “a bigger Birmingham.” He convinced himself that if he dealt with Hitler in a “practical and businesslike” way, he could convince the Führer of the efficacy of peace and bring him to heel.
Chamberlain clung to that delusion even as Hitler annexed Austria in March 1938 and, two months later, demanded that Czechoslovakia, Eastern Europe’s only democracy, surrender the Sudetenland, a vital area containing most of the country’s formidable defense fortifications and major centers of industry. Czechoslovakia refused and mobilized its highly trained, well-equipped army to counter a German invasion; France, which had a military treaty with the Czechs, did the same.
But when Chamberlain refused to join the French premier, Édouard Daladier, in confronting Hitler, Daladier fell into line. At the Munich conference in September 1938, the British and French leaders strong-armed the Czechs to German demands. In defense of his betrayal of a fellow democracy, Chamberlain, like later defenders of appeasement, argued that Britain was not ready to fight a major war at the time. True enough, but as Bouverie points out, neither was Germany. When asked at his postwar trial whether German forces could have defeated a united front of Britain, France, and Czechoslovakia in 1938, Gen. Alfred Jodl, chief of the German Army, replied, “It was out of the question.”
In his handling of the Sudetenland crisis, Chamberlain steamrollered his own government just as he had the Czechs. The prime minister did not inform his cabinet or seek its approval before making plans to negotiate personally with Hitler - an action that flouted the conventions of the British governmental system. Nor did he ever consult Parliament.
For his part, Hitler took advantage of the year after Munich to accelerate his country’s rearmament. Urged by members of his government to do the same, Chamberlain retorted, “But don’t you see, I have brought back peace.”
Underneath British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain after landing at Heston Aerodrome following his Munich meeting with Adolf Hitler:
In late 1937, Blomberg, now a field marshal, approached Göring to discuss a personal matter. The fifty-nine-year-old widower had fallen hard for one of the secretaries in the War Ministry. Pursuing the relationship would fall somewhat outside of the social expectations for the most powerful military man in the Reich. He, therefore, asked Göring as a friend and an officer whether he thought the potential marriage would be acceptable.1 Göring replied that he had no objections - in fact, the marriage seemed politically advantageous, highlighting the new, classless social order. Göring proceeded to assist the field marshal “in the disposal of a rival admirer, whom the Minister-President [Göring] obligingly shipped off to South America.”2 No doubt anxious about the precedent of his predecessor Wilhelm Gröner, Blomberg went so far as to ask Hitler for his personal blessing. The Führer endorsed the marriage and promised to attend himself. A small ceremony was duly held in Berlin on January 12, 1938, with Hitler and Göring standing in as witnesses.
There was only one problem. According to police records, Blomberg’s bride, Erna Gruhn, had been a prostitute and posed for pornographic magazines. The incriminating documents turned up by chance on the desk of Count Wolf-Heinrich von Helldorf, who was then serving as the police-president of Berlin. A former army officer, he decided to discreetly deliver the documents to General Wilhelm Keitel, Blomberg’s son-in-law, in the hopes of avoiding a scandal. Keitel, not wanting to confront his father-in-law, instead allowed them to be turned over to Göring, who “felt in duty bound to pass them to Hitler.”3 It may not have been such a happenstance. Some have argued that Göring had masterminded the conspiracy, though Hitler was in all likelihood not involved.4
Field Marshal Blomberg had no choice but to resign. The entire officer corps felt shamed; his close subordinate Ludwig Beck told Blomberg to his face that “he was not even fit to command a regiment.”5 So incensed was one former adjutant of Blomberg’s that he followed the retired marshal and his new wife on their honeymoon to Italy. In Rome, he confronted Blomberg with a pistol, demanding Blomberg either kill himself or file for divorce to redeem the honor of the military. Blomberg declined, writing that the young officer “had quite different views and standards of life from my own.”6
Hitler had been genuinely surprised by the Blomberg revelations - one subordinate said he was so shocked he had a “nervous breakdown.”7 Regardless, the political opportunities created by the scandal were already becoming clear in his mind. Fritsch, then commanding the Wehrmacht, was Blomberg’s logical successor. Unlike Blomberg, he lacked any personal rapport with the top Nazi brass. Göring wanted the job of minister of war himself. The head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, wanted a different Nazi in the position.8 A cabal against Fritsch soon formed, predicated on another scandal. In this case, the false claim that the elderly, monastic Fritsch - who was unmarried - was a closeted homosexual.9 Himmler and Heydrich produced a witness who would testify against the general. Fritsch demanded a court-martial to clear his name.10 Hitler refused him the opportunity.
While the Army High Command had lost respect for Blomberg, they rallied around General Fritsch. General Beck, now one of the most ardent anti-Nazis among the senior officers (he would be shot for trying to kill Hitler in 1944), proposed that Fritsch use the opportunity to remove Hitler from power and “to cleanse once again not only the Government of the Reich but also the honor of the Army.”11 Groener or Schleicher might have considered the attempt. But Fritsch proved to lack the necessary willpower. He resigned his commission and retired in disgrace.
Hitler took full advantage of the crisis. Rather than replace Fritsch and Blomberg, he reorganized the military entirely, assuming the role of commander in chief himself.12 He eliminated the Ministry of War. He replaced it with the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (the High Command of the Armed Forces, or OKW) to oversee all three branches - Army, Navy, and Air Force. Hitler then placed the OKH under the OKW. Hitler rewarded General Keitel for his betrayal of his father-in-law Blomberg by appointing him chief of staff of the OKW. The Army was now firmly subordinated to Hitler and the Nazi Party, and its few leaders capable of resistance were stripped of real power. A minor purge of potentially disloyal officers followed.
Though nowhere on the scale of violence of Stalin’s purges, the intention was similar, as was stated in the list of indictments at the Nuremberg trials after the war: “to get rid of the men who might stand in the way of aggressive warfare.”13 In a final blow to the Wehrmacht’s prestige, in August 1938, Hitler authorized the SS to use their forces in combat. Within eighteen months, the SS would develop a military wing with more than 100,000 men and support personnel.14 The Army had lost its monopoly on force.
Like Stalin, Hitler also “cleaned house” at the Foreign Ministry. Foreign Minister Konstantin von Neurath - one of the few senior Weimar-era holdovers - was pushed out of office, and the entire Foreign Ministry was brought directly under Nazi Party control.15 The three men who had spoken up against Hitler’s plan for war at the November 1937 meeting - Neurath, Blomberg, and Fritsch - had all been removed from office by February 1938. Hitler now completely dominated the security and foreign policy apparatus of the state. Now in firmer control of the military, Hitler would begin moving quickly. Within a week, Hitler began demanding German self-determination in Czechoslovakia.16 He also moved against Austria. These were the two states he had marked for annexation in the Hossbach Conference.
In Austria, the right-wing authoritarian government of Kurt von Schuschnigg faced great danger. Hitler met with Schuschnigg on February 12, 1938, and demanded greater Austrian Nazi participation in the government, including its total control over the country’s police forces. Schnuschnigg agreed, hoping to stave off invasion. As riots grew and in the face of increasing German demands, Schuschnigg declared that a national plebiscite would be held on the question of Austrian independence on March 8. Hitler hoped to absorb Austria on the grounds of self-determination. Still, a major victory for Austrian independence at the ballot box might spell disaster for his plan, rendering annexation of Austria much more difficult. On March 11, he gathered the new military leadership of the Reich and told them to prepare for an invasion of Austria by noon of the following day. Schuschnigg became aware of the danger and tried to cancel the plebiscite. But German forces invaded on March 12, resulting in the long-promised Anschluss (union) of Austria with the German Reich. Even as German troops prepared to cross the border, Hitler solicited Mussolini’s approval for the invasion, which, to his great satisfaction, was forthcoming. Mussolini’s Ethiopian and Spanish adventures had permanently severed his ties with the Western powers.17 There was little succor for Austria from London or Paris, either. In Great Britain, Chamberlain continued to preach appeasement. In France, there was near-complete political chaos: there would be three different national governments in power between February and April, with a new one, led by Leon Blum, forming only on March 13, in the midst of the crisis. While there was alarm across Europe, no concrete measures were taken to deter Hitler. Nothing emerged from Paris other than a pledge of support to Czechoslovakia on March 14, followed by a similar one from Moscow.18
Hitler was fortunate in that the occupation of Austria had not actually required any military force. Because of lack of experience and partly because of limited preparation time, the entire “invasion” had been haphazard and badly organized. The Wehrmacht had only been able to move across Austria by fueling up at local gas stations.19 Hitler immediately turned his attention from Austria to Czechoslovakia, where Sudeten German demands for annexation had grown ever louder. On May 28, in a meeting with military leaders, Hitler told them that a war with Czechoslovakia was necessary for the event of a conflict with the Western powers - now his main preoccupation - but that it would have to wait until German defenses in the West had been built up further, and until the Wehrmacht possessed greater “striking power” for overcoming Czech fortifications (see map 3).20 That being said, he believed that no one would come to Czechoslovakia’s aid should he strike: the British were not yet rearmed, and the French and Soviets were incapable of offensive action.21 On May 30, he ordered the military to begin making preparations for the invasion of Czechoslovakia, to take place no later than October 1, 1938.22
Five thousand miles to the East, the possibility of a very different war was starting to grow and under bizarre circumstances. Early in the morning of June 13, 1938, two Chinese policemen working for the Japanese occupation authorities in Manchuria stumbled upon a strange sight. Wandering through the undergrowth in the morning fog was a short, overweight, and bedraggled Russian man with a Hitler-like mustache.23 When the policemen challenged him, the man threw two pistols on the ground and raised his hands high. When they approached, they discovered that he wore the uniform of a Soviet general. As they went through his things, they found a card that identified him as Genrikh Lyushkov, the senior NKVD official for all of Siberia and the Far East. And he wanted to defect.24
Lyushkov carried with his immense knowledge about the Soviet state, having spent time with Stalin and the senior leadership of the Red Army.25 A close affiliate of NKVD boss Nikolai Yezhov, the Kirov assassination and subsequent roundups and purges had meant a promotion for Lyushkov. He fit right in; a junior officer who later defected to the West described him as “arrogant, arbitrary and [a] sadistic bully.” Among his particular accolades, he had received a medal from Moscow for supervising the ethnic cleansing of Koreans and Chinese from the Soviet Far East.26
Perhaps Lyushkov’s enthusiasm for executing his fellow NKVD officers most earned him Stalin’s approbation. In July 1937, Stalin had met with him privately, ordering him to root out traitors in the government, party, and military in the Far East, near the tense Japanese border. Stalin gave Lyushkov a clear rationale: “War with Japan is inevitable; the Far East is undoubtedly a theater of war. It is necessary to clean up the army and its rear in the most determined manner from hostile spy and pro-Japanese elements.”27 Among those to be watched was Marshal Vasily Blyukher, the independent-minded and capable commander in the Far East. After Blyukher had served on the tribunal that sentenced Tukhachevsky and other friends to death, he had developed a serious drinking problem. In his cups, he had become somewhat indiscreet, sharing his thoughts on Voroshilov and the purges.28
When he was invited to Moscow in June 1938 - the usual precursor to arrest for senior officers - Lyushkov decided his odds were better in militarist Japan than in the murderous Soviet Union. He shared with his captors his stories about the decimation of the Red Army and the much larger than expected strength of Soviet forces in Siberia. Not long after, Japanese intelligence in Manchuria learned that the Soviets were moving forces into a disputed territory near their border. Stalin responded to Lyushkov’s defection with a show of force, increasing security in the Far East and moving additional border guards to the disputed area between the Soviet Union and Japanese-occupied Manchuria. This, naturally, heightened tensions. Stalin refused Japanese demands to withdraw his forces in mid-July. Local Japanese commanders in Manchuria, now well informed about the magnitude of the purges and dispositions of Soviet forces, decided to risk escalation without the consent of their senior officers in Tokyo.29
On July 30–31, the Japanese struck, launching attacks on fortified positions in territory that the Soviets had occupied earlier that month. Although the Soviets possessed a sizeable advantage in vehicles, aircraft, artillery, and infantry, the deadly work of the purges had drastically reduced morale and removed many effective officers. As a result, Soviet forces blundered into Japanese defenses, suffering enormous casualties. Gradually, though, the Japanese were pushed back. On August 10, Japanese diplomats reached out for a return to the status quo ante, which the Soviets accepted the following day.30
The border “skirmish,” in which the Soviets had suffered more than 4,000 casualties, confirmed the danger of a war in the East, though it left the border unresolved. While the Japanese had technically conceded the seized ground, the attack highlighted weaknesses in the Red Army that convinced some Japanese Army planners that defeating the Soviets and seizing the Far East was possible. Stalin’s reaction indicated his thoughts on the matter. He had Marshal Blyukher tortured to death not long after the battle’s conclusion.31
With Stalin distracted by the threat of war in the East, Hitler continued his game of brinksmanship in Europe, convinced of the unwillingness of Great Britain and France to confront his increasingly powerful Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe. Planning had already begun for the invasion of Czechoslovakia. Hitler told General Keitel that he wanted a war either after an incident provided justification or “action after a period of diplomatic discussions which gradually lead to a crisis and war.” He ruled out a surprise attack, which must be saved for the “last enemy on the continent because of world opinion.”32 Whether he chose to strike west or east, eliminating Czechoslovakia would weaken France’s hand and provide the Wehrmacht with critical resources.33 And in Czechoslovakia, the case of the 3 million Sudeten Germans allowed him to use the language of self-determination to justify his seizure of territory. Who is Great Britain would go to war to stop a national minority from expressing its own political preferences?34 The conflict would split the British and French. And while the Soviets had a military agreement with Czechoslovakia, it seemed unlikely that they would intervene, especially given Stalin’s ongoing purges and the crisis in the Far East. Here, it seemed, Hitler had the war he wanted.
His own military leadership disagreed, however. As his planned date at the end of September drew nearer, the senior ranks of the Wehrmacht resisted his plans. In particular, OKH head General Beck told Hitler repeatedly that German rearmament was not far enough advanced to defeat France and Great Britain should they intervene. On August 10, Hitler tried to bypass Beck by meeting with his subordinates, endeavoring to convince them that a rapid attack on Czechoslovakia could lead to victory in four or five days, obviating the political risks of a war in the West.35 They, too, were skeptical. A circle of conspirators began to plot to remove Hitler in the event of war. Beck - who was one of them - resigned on August 18 to protest Hitler’s determination to go to war.36 His successor, General Franz Halder, was even more resistant to Hitler’s plans but lacked his predecessor's political capital and will.
In Prague, Czech president Eduard Beneš was theoretically willing to go to war should the British and French commitment prove trustworthy.37 Beneš refused to meet with Hitler directly, placing Czechoslovakia’s fate in the hands of its allies, who would negotiate on its behalf. They were unprepared to do so effectively. The French, led from March 1938 by Prime Minister Edouard Daladier - now in his third stint as prime minister - were largely focused on social reforms at home. In August, following a Nazi-orchestrated visit to a Luftwaffe base, Chief of the French Air Force Staff General Joseph Vuillemin told Daladier, “If war breaks out at the end of September as you think it will, there won’t be a single French aircraft left after 14 days.”38 Daladier used this excuse of supposed German air supremacy to argue France could do little, ceding the initiative to British prime minister Neville Chamberlain.39 Chamberlain, too, felt unready to take on Germany, in part due to Germany’s perceived armaments advantage.40 The British Foreign Office and the British Chiefs of Staff were convinced that Germany could not be stopped by military means in the short term and that to attempt to do so would bring Italy and Japan into a conflict that would be prolonged and global in scope.41
Nevertheless, war threatened. On September 23, the Czechoslovak Army mobilized. On September 24, the French government ordered their own partial mobilization. Desperate to avoid war, Chamberlain initiated shuttle diplomacy to reach an “acceptable” compromise short of war.42 This led to the infamous summit in Munich on September 29 and 30, hosted by Hitler and attended by Daladier, Chamberlain, and Mussolini. There, Hitler reiterated demands for the ethnically German regions of Czechoslovakia. Mussolini presented a “compromise plan” - one that the German Foreign Ministry, in fact, drew up.43 When asked for a delay to ascertain Czech willingness to accept some of the terms (given that they had refused to negotiate directly with Hitler), the Führer flew into a fury.44 The final product was the Munich Agreement, where Hitler received all of his territorial demands without the need to go to war. Germany’s armaments lead had produced another bloodless victory: American ambassador in Paris William Bullitt reported home that it was the perceived strength of German air power that had convinced the French and their British partners to surrender yet again to German demands.45
Hitler was far from happy in the aftermath of his latest bloodless victory. He had wanted a war on the right terms, and he had not gotten it. And his military officers had proven truculent. Almost immediately after Munich, he abandoned the pacific rhetoric in which he had cloaked his aggression and rearmament to date. Now, he declared Germany’s need to break “the spirit of Versailles” in a more systemic way.46 Hitler had achieved the two swift victories he had planned at the Hossbach Conference. Now the question was where he would turn next.
Part Three: Russia, Germany, and Poland Part Three
Part Four: Russia, Germany, and Poland Part Four
Part Five: Russia, Germany, and Poland Part Five
Part Six: Russia, Germany, and Poland Part Six
Part Seven: Russia, Germany, and Poland Part Seven
Part Eight: Russia, Germany, and Poland Part Eight
Part Nine: Russia, Germany, and Poland Part Nine
Part Eleven: Russia, Germany, and Poland Part Eleven
Part Twelve: Russia, Germany, and Poland Part Twelve
Part Thirteen: Russia, Germany, and Poland Part Thirteen
Part Fourteen: Russia, Germany, and Poland Part Fourteen
Part Fifteen: Russia, Germany, and Poland Part Fifteen
1. Nuremberg Trial Proceedings Volume 12, 195–197.
2. Wheeler-Bennett, The Nemesis of Power, 365.
4. Harold Deutsch, Hitler and His Generals: The Hidden Crisis, January–June 1938 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1974), 105–111.
5. Wheeler-Bennett, The Nemesis of Power, 366.
7. Nuremberg Trial Proceedings, Volume 12, 197–198.
8. Wheeler-Bennett, The Nemesis of Power, 366.
9. Nuremberg Trial Proceedings Volume 12, 198–199. According to witnesses at the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal, a Gestapo record of a captain named “Frisch” had indeed hired male prostitutes. It was a relatively easy matter to doctor the records.
10. Nuremberg Trial Proceedings, Volume 12, 198–199.
11. Wheeler-Bennett, The Nemesis of Power, 369.
12. Gerhard Weinberg, Starting World War Two, 1937–1939, 43; Deist, “The Rearmament of the Wehrmacht,” 517.
13. Nuremberg Trial Proceedings, Volume 12, 197. Several alumni of Soviet cooperation were on the list, including General Oswald Lutz, one of Germany’s Panzer pioneers.
14. Nuremberg Trial Proceedings, Volume 12, 197.
15. Richard Overy and Andrew Wheatcroft, The Road to War (London: Macmillan, 1989), 46.
16. Weinberg, Starting World War Two, 1937–1939, 378–464.
17. Robertson, Hitler’s Pre-war Policy and Military Plans, 114–116.
18. No. 78, DGFP, D: II, 161; No. 87, DGFP, D: II, 170–171.
19. Guderian, Panzer Leader, 51.
20. Robertson, Hitler’s Pre-war Policy and Military Plans, 33–34, 125. See DGFP (D), Vol. II.
21. Robertson, Hitler’s Pre-war Policy and Military Plans, 126.
22. No. 221, DGFP, D: II, 357–362.
23. In Coox’s telling, Lyushkov had gotten lost in a storm, trying to sneak away from his own staff while he “scouted the border.”
24. Coox, “The Lesser of Two Hells,” 145.
25. Ibid., 148. He was also, incidentally, connected to Germany, once his area of responsibility. Lyushkov had served with Soviet intelligence in Germany, where his task had been to infiltrate Junkers to investigate its aircraft production.
26. Coox, “The Lesser of Two Hells,” 150.
27. Ibid., 151.
28. Ibid., 158.
29. See Alvin Coox, The Anatomy of a Small War: The Soviet-Japanese Struggle for Changkufeng/Khasan, 1938 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1977).
30. Kotkin, Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 538.
31. Erickson, The Soviet High Command, 499.
32. “Major Schmundt: Summary of Hitler-Keitel Conversation of 21 April 1938,” No. 133, DGFP, D: II, 2, cited in Messerschmidt, “Foreign Policy and Preparation for War,” 655.
33. Messerschmidt, “Foreign Policy and Preparation for War,” 654.
34. No. 15, DGFP, D: II.
35. Messerschmidt, “Foreign Policy and Preparation for War,” 660.
36. Watt, How War Came, 105.
37. On Beneš’s orders, the Czech military began a partial mobilization in May 1938 on rumors of a potential German attack. The source of information about a potential German attack very well might have been Soviet intelligence, aiming either to embroil Germany in war with the Western Allies or to deter Hitler’s aggression. See Igor Lukes, “The Czechoslovak Partial Mobilization in May 1938: A Mystery (Almost) Solved,” Journal of Contemporary History, 31:4 (Oct., 1996), 699–720.
38. Muller, “Hitler, Airpower, and Statecraft,” 101.
39. William Keylor, “France and the Illusion of American Support,” in French Defeat, 1940: Reassessments, ed. Joel Blatt (New York: Berghahn Books, 1998), 233–234.
40. Milan Hauner, “The Sudeten Crisis of 1938: Beneš and Munich,” in The Origins of the Second World War: An International Perspective, ed. Frank McDonough (London: Continuum, 2011), 364–365.
41. Ibid., 362.
42. No. 487, DGFP, D: II, 786–798. Chamberlain’s second visit to meet with Hitler ended with Chamberlain’s rather pathetic plea to Hitler that he [Chamberlain] “had risked his whole career” for a deal over Czechoslovakia, and now, rather than a success, “was being accused in certain circles in Great Britain of having sold and betrayed Czechoslovakia, of having yielded to the dictators and so on, and on leaving England that morning he had actually been booed. All this would show the Führer the difficulties he had to make to obtain agreement in principle to the cession of [Czechoslovak] territory. He therefore could not quite understand why his proposals could not be accepted.” No. 562, DGFP, D: II, 875.
43. No. 669, DGFP, D: II, 1005.
44. No. 1227, DBFP, 3:2, 630–635.
45. Watt, How War Came, 129.
46. Messerschmidt, “Foreign Policy and Preparation for War,” 672–673. Shortly thereafter, he also unleashed Kristallnacht, a savage anti-Jewish pogrom that resulted in the deaths of at least ninety German Jews and the incarceration of tens of thousands more.