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Endorsements • 300 Words

“No praise can be too high for [Mr. Irving’s] indefatigable scholarly industry. He has sought and found scores of new sources, including many private diaries. He has also tested hitherto accepted documents and discarded many of them as forgeries. His portrait of Hitler is thus, he claims, firmly based on solid primary evidence…An exact and scrupulous historian.”—Prof. Hugh Trevor-Roper, Lord Dacre.

“The reader is gripped at once, because the writer is so obviously in his element; he is there…For he is presenting the events of 1939-45 ‘as far as possible through Hitler’s eyes, from behind his desk.’ In this it seems to me he is brilliantly successful—I have read nothing except the Table Talk which gives so immediate a feeling of Hitler’s thinking”—The Times of London

“Two books in English stand out from the vast literature of the Second World War. Chester Wilmot’s The Struggle for Europe, published in 1952, and David Irving’s Hitler’s War,which appeared three years ago…They do so because, from exactly opposing angles of vision, each tackles the strategy of the whole war and makes impressive if doctrinaire sense of it…The second book has not yet worked its way into our general understanding of the conflict, though it undoubtedly will do so when controversy over its sensationalist elements is exhausted.”—Sir John Keegan, Defence Editor of The Daily Telegraph in The Times Literary Supplement.

“The best study we have of the German side of the Second World War”—Prof. Gordon Craig, Stanford University.

“This massive volume is a model of careful scholarship, historical objectivity and readability…Irving could scarcely be described as a Hitler fan, but he does enable us to understand why the German leader held such absolute power for so long.”—Publishers Weekly.

Quotation • 200 Words

A Doctor quotes Hitler on Biographers, in August 1944

A foreigner, said Hitler, ‘probably finds it easier to pass judgment on a statesman, provided he is familiar with the country, its people, its language, and its archives.

‘“Presumably,” I said, “Chamier didn’t know the Kaiser personally, as he was still relatively young. But his book not only shows a precise knowledge of the archives and papers, but relies on what are after all many personal items, like the Kaiser’s letters and written memoranda of conversations with friends and enemies.”

‘“Hitler then said that for some time now he has gone over to having all important discussions and military conferences recorded for posterity by shorthand writers. And perhaps one day after he is dead and buried an objective Englishman will come and give him the same kind of impartial treatment. The present generation neither can nor will.”’ – The Diary of Dr Erwin Giesing, on a discussion with Hitler about the Kaiser’s English biographer J. D. Chamier (author’s collection)

About the Author and Dedication • 200 Words

David Irving is the son of a Royal Navy commander. Imperfectly educated at London’s Imperial College of Science & Technology and at University College, he subsequently spent a year in Germany working in a steel mill and perfecting his fluency in the language. Among his thirty books (including three in German), the best-known include Hitler’s War; The Trail of the Fox: The Life of Field Marshal Rommel; Accident, the Death of General Sikorski; The Rise and Fall of the Luftwaffe; Göring: a Biography, and Nuremberg, the Last Battle. He has translated several works by other authors including the autobiographies by Field-Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, General Reinhard Gehlen, and Nikki Lauda. He lives near Grosvenor Square, London, and has raised five daughters.

In 1963 he published The Destruction of Dresden. This became a best-seller in many countries. In 1996 he issued a revised edition, Apocalypse 1945, as well as his important biography, Goebbels. Mastermind of the Third Reich. A second volume of Churchill’s War appeared in 2001 and he is now completing the third. His works are available as free downloads on our Internet website at .


For Josephine Irving in Memoriam 1963-1999

Introduction • 10,900 Words

To historians is granted a talent that even the gods are denied – to alter what has already happened!’

I bore this scornful saying in mind when I embarked on this study of Adolf Hitler’s twelve years of absolute power. I saw myself as a stone cleaner – less concerned with architectural appraisal than with scrubbing years of grime and discoloration from the facade of a silent and forbidding monument. I set out to describe events from behind the Führer’s desk, seeing each episode through his eyes. The technique necessarily narrows the field of view, but it does help to explain decisions that are otherwise inexplicable. Nobody that I knew of had attempted this before, but it seemed worth the effort: after all, Hitler’s war left forty million dead and caused all of Europe and half of Asia to be wasted by fire and explosives; it destroyed Hitler’s ‘Third Reich,’ bankrupted Britain and lost her the Empire, and it brought lasting disorder to the world’s affairs; it saw the entrenchment of communism in one continent, and its emergence in another.

In earlier books I had relied on the primary records of the period rather than published literature, which contained too many pitfalls for the historian. I naïvely supposed that the same primary sources technique could within five years be applied to a study of Hitler. In fact it would be thirteen years before the first volume, Hitler’s War, was published in 1977 and twenty years later I was still indexing and adding to my documentary files. I remember, in 1965, driving down to Tilbury Docks to collect a crate of microfilms ordered from the U.S. government for this study; the liner that brought the crate has long been scrapped, the dockyard itself levelled to the ground. I suppose I took it all at a far too leisurely pace. I hope however that this biography, now updated and revised, will outlive its rivals, and that more and more future writers find themselves compelled to consult it for materials that are contained in none of the others. Travelling around the world I have found that it has split the community of academic historians from top to bottom, particularly in the controversy around ‘the Holocaust.’ In Australia alone, students from the universities of New South Wales and Western Australia have told me that there they are penalised for citing Hitler’s War; at the universities of Wollongong and Canberra students are disciplined if they don’t. The biography was required reading for officers at military academies from Sandhurst to West Point, New York, and Carlisle, Pennsylvania, until special-interest groups applied pressure to the commanding officers of those seats of learning; in its time it attracted critical praise from the experts behind the Iron Curtain and from the denizens of the Far Right.

Not everybody was content. As the author of this work I have had my home smashed into by thugs, my family terrorised, my name smeared, my printers firebombed, and myself arrested and deported by tiny, democratic Austria – an illegal act, their courts decided, for which the ministerial culprits were punished; at the behest of disaffected academics and influential citizens, in subsequent years, I was deported from Canada (in 1992), and refused entry to Australia, New Zealand, Italy, South Africa, and other civilised countries around the world (in 1993).

In my absence, internationally affiliated groups circulated letters to librarians, pleading for this book to be taken off their shelves. From time to time copies of these letters were shown to me. A journalist for Time magazine dining with me in New York in 1988 remarked, ‘Before coming over I read the clippings files on you. Until Hitler’s War you couldn’t put a foot wrong, you were the darling of the media; but after it…’

I offer no apology for having revised the existing picture of the man. I have tried to accord to him the kind of hearing that he would have got in an English court of law – where the normal rules of evidence apply, but also where a measure of insight is appropriate.

There have been sceptics who questioned whether the heavy reliance on – inevitably angled – private sources is any better as a method of investigation than the more traditional quarries of information. My reply is that we certainly cannot deny the value of private sources altogether. As the Washington Post noted in its review of the first edition in 1977, ‘British historians have always been more objective toward Hitler than either German or American writers.’

• • •

My conclusions on completing the manuscript startled even me. Hitler was a far less omnipotent Führer than had been believed, and his grip on his subordinates had weakened with each passing year. Three episodes – the aftermath of the Ernst Röhm affair of June 30, 1934, the Dollfuss assassination a month later, and the anti-Jewish outrages of November 1938 – show how his powers had been pre-empted by men to whom he felt himself in one way or another indebted. While my Hitler’s central and guiding prewar ambition always remains constant, his methods and tactics were profoundly opportunistic. Hitler firmly believed in grasping at fleeting opportunities. ‘There is but one moment when the Goddess of Fortune wafts by,’ he lectured his adjutants in 1938, ‘and if you don’t grab her then by the hem you won’t get a second chance!’ The manner in which he seized upon the double scandal in January 1938 to divest himself of the over conservative army Commander in Chief, Werner von Fritsch, and to become his own Supreme Commander too, is a good example.

His geographical ambitions remained unchanged. He had no ambitions against Britain or her Empire at all, and all the captured records solidly bear this out. He had certainly built the wrong air force and the wrong navy for a sustained campaign against the British Isles; and subtle indications, like his instructions to Fritz Todt (page 21) to erect huge monuments on the Reich’s western frontiers, suggest that for Hitler these frontiers were of a lasting nature. There is equally solid proof of his plans to invade the east – his secret speech of February 1933 (page 25), his memorandum of August 1936 (pages 40–41), his June 1937 instructions for the expansion of Pillau as a Baltic naval base (page 50), and his remarks to Mussolini in May 1938 (page 88), that ‘Germany will step out along the ancient Teutonic path, toward the east.’ Not until later that month, it turns out (page 92), did Hitler finally resign himself to the likelihood that Britain and France would probably not stand aside.

These last pre-war years saw Hitler’s intensive reliance on psychological warfare techniques. The principle was not new: Napoleon himself had defined it thus: ‘The reputation of one’s arms in war is everything, and equivalent to real forces.’ By using the records of the propaganda ministry and various editorial offices I have tried to illustrate how advanced the Nazis were in these ‘cold war’ techniques. Related to this theme is my emphasis on Hitler’s foreign Intelligence sources. The Nazis’ wiretapping and code breaking agency, the Forschungsamt, which destroyed all its records in 1945, holds the key to many of his successes. The agency eavesdropped on foreign diplomats in Berlin and – even more significantly – it fed to Hitler hour by hour transcripts of the lurid and incautious telephone conversations conducted between an embattled Prague and the Czech diplomats in London and Paris during September 1938 (pages 118–126). From the time of Munich until the outbreak of war with Britain Hitler could follow virtually hourly how his enemies were reacting to each Nazi ploy, and he rightly deduced by August 22, 1939, that while the western powers might well formally declare war they would not actually fight – not at first, that is.

The war years saw Hitler as a powerful and relentless military commander, the inspiration behind great victories like the Battle of France in May 1940 and the Battle of Kharkov in May 1942; even Marshal Zhukov later privately admitted that Hitler’s summer 1941 strategy – rather than the general staff’s frontal assault on Moscow – was unquestionably right. At the same time however Hitler became a lax and indecisive political leader, who allowed affairs of state to stagnate. Though often brutal and insensitive, he lacked the ability to be ruthless where it mattered most. He refused to bomb London itself until Mr. Churchill forced the decision on him in late August 1940. He was reluctant to impose the test of total mobilisation on the German ‘master race’ until it was too late to matter, so that with munitions factories crying out for manpower, idle German housewives were still employing half a million domestic servants to dust their homes and polish their furniture. Hitler’s military irresolution sometimes showed through, for example in his panicky vacillation at times of crisis like the battle for Narvik in 1940. He took ineffectual measures against his enemies inside Germany for too long, and seems to have been unable to act effectively against strong opposition at the very heart of his High Command. In fact he suffered incompetent ministers and generals far longer than the Allied leaders did. He failed to unite the feuding factions of Party and Wehrmacht for the common cause, and he proved incapable of stifling the corrosive hatred of the War Department (OKH) for the Wehrmacht High Command (OKW).

I believe that I show in this book that the more hermetically Hitler locked himself away behind the barbed wire and minefields of his remote military headquarters, the more his Germany became a Führer Staat without a Führer. Domestic policy was controlled by whoever was most powerful in each sector – by Hermann Göring as head of the powerful economics agency, the Four Year Plan; by Hans Lammers as chief of the Reich chancellery; or by Martin Bormann, the Nazi Party boss; or by Heinrich Himmler, minister of the interior and Reichsführer of the evil famed SS.

Hitler was a problem, a puzzle to even his most intimate advisers. Joachim von Ribbentrop, his foreign minister, wrote in his Nuremberg prison cell in 1945:

I got to know Adolf Hitler more closely in 1933. If I am asked to day however whether I knew him well – how he thought as a politician and statesman, what kind of man he was – then I’m bound to confess that I know only very little about him; really, nothing at all. The fact is that although I went through so much together with him, in all the years of working with him I never came closer to him than on the first day we met, either personally or otherwise.

The sheer complexity of that character is evident from a comparison of his brutality in some respects with his almost maudlin sentimentality and stubborn adherence to military conventions that others had long abandoned. We find him cold bloodedly ordering a hundred hostages executed for every German occupation soldier killed; dictating the massacre of Italian officers who had turned their weapons against German troops in 1943; ordering the liquidation of Red Army commissars, Allied commando troops, and captured Allied aircrews; in 1942 he announced that the male populations of Stalingrad and Leningrad were to be exterminated. He justified all these orders by the expediencies of war. Yet the same Hitler indignantly exclaimed, in the last week of his life, that Soviet tanks were flying the Nazi swastika as a ruse during street fighting in Berlin, and he flatly forbade his Wehrmacht to violate flag rules. He had opposed every suggestion for the use of poison gases, as that would violate the Geneva Protocol; at that time Germany alone had manufactured the potentially war winning lethal nerve gases Sarin and Tabun. In an age in which the governments of the democracies attempted, engineered, or condoned the assassinations, successfully or otherwise, of the inconvenient[1]The CIA documents on planned assassinations and assassination techniques can now be viewed on the George Washington University website, at – from General Sikorski, Admiral Darlan, Field Marshal Rommel, and King Boris of Bulgaria to Fidel Castro, Patrice Lumumba, and Salvador Allende – we learn that Hitler, the world’s most unscrupulous dictator, not only never resorted to the assassination of foreign opponents but flatly forbade his Abwehr to attempt it. In particular he rejected Admiral Canaris’s plans to assassinate the Red Army General Staff.

The biggest problem in dealing analytically with Hitler is the aversion to him deliberately created by years of intense wartime propaganda and emotive post-war historiography. I came to the subject with almost neutral feelings. My own impression of the war was limited to snapshot memories – 1940 summer picnics around the wreckage of a Heinkel bomber in the local Bluebell Woods; the infernal organ note of the V 1 flying bombs passing overhead; convoys of drab army trucks rumbling past our country gate; counting the gaps in the American bomber squadrons straggling back each day from Germany; waving to the troopships sailing in June 1944 from Southsea beach to Normandy; and of course, VE day itself, with the bonfires and beating of the family gong. Our knowledge of the Germans ‘responsible’ for all this was not profound. In Everybody’s magazine, long defunct, I recall ‘Ferrier’s World Searchlight’ with its weekly caricatures of a clubfooted dwarf called Goebbels and the other comic Nazi heroes.

The caricatures have bedevilled the writing of modern history ever since. Confronted by the phenomenon of Hitler himself, historians cannot grasp that he was a walking, talking human weighing some 155 pounds with greying hair, largely false teeth, and chronic digestive ailments. He is to them the Devil incarnate: he has to be, because of the sacrifices that we made in destroying him.

The caricaturing process became respectable at the Nuremberg war crimes trials. History has been plagued since then by the prosecution teams’ methods of selecting exhibits and by the subsequent publication of them in neatly printed and indexed volumes and the incineration of any document that might have hindered the prosecution effort. At Nuremberg the blame for what happened was shifted from general to minister, from minister to Party official, and from all of them invariably to Hitler. Under the system of ‘licensed’ publishers and newspapers established by the victors in post-war Germany the legends prospered. No story was too absurd to gain credence in the history books and memoirs.

Among these creative writers the German General Staff take pride of place. Without Hitler few of them would have risen above colonel. They owed him their jobs, their medals, their estates and endowments, and not infrequently their victories too. After the war those who survived – which was sometimes because they had been dismissed and thus removed from the hazards of the battlefield – contrived to divert the blame for final defeat. In the files of Nuremberg prosecutor Justice Robert H. Jackson I found a note warning about the tactics that General Franz Halder, the former chief of General Staff, proposed to adopt: ‘I just wanted to call your attention to the CSDIC intercepts of Halder’s conversations with other generals. He is extremely frank on what he thinks should be suppressed or distorted and in particular is very sensitive to the suggestion that the German General Staff was involved in anything, especially planning for war.’

Fortunately this embarrassed offsetting between conscience and memory was more than once recorded for posterity by the hidden microphones of the CSDIC (Combined Services Detailed Interrogation Centre). Thus the cavalry general Rothkirch, the III Corps commander, captured at Bitburg on March 6, 1945, was overheard three days later describing how he had personally liquidated Jews in a small town near Vitebsk, Russia, and how he had been warned not to disturb mass graves near Minsk as these were about to be exhumed and incinerated so as to destroy all traces. ‘I have decided,’ he told fellow prisoners, ‘to twist every statement I make so that the officer corps is white washed – relentlessly, relentlessly![2]CSDIC (UK) report SRGG.1133, March 9, 1945, in Public Record Office, London, file WO.208/4169. And when General Heinz Guderian and the arrogant, supercilious General Leo Geyr von Schweppenburg were asked by their American captors to write their own history of the war, they first sought Field Marshal Wilhelm Leeb’s permission as senior officer at the Seventh Army’s CSDIC. Again hidden microphones recorded their talk:

Leeb: Well, I can only give you my personal opinion…. You will have to weigh your answers carefully when they pertain to objectives, causes, and the progress of operations, in order to see where they may impinge on the interests of our Fatherland. On the one hand we have to admit that the Americans know the course of operations quite accurately; they even know which units were employed on our side. However they are not quite so familiar with our motives. And there is one point where it would be advisable to proceed with caution, so that we do not become the laughingstock of the world. I do not know what your relations were with Hitler, but I do know his military capacity…. You will have to consider your answers a bit carefully when approached on this subject so that you say nothing that might embarrass our Fatherland….

Geyr von Schweppenburg: The types of madness known to psychologists cannot be compared with the one the Führer suffered from. He was a madman surrounded by serfs. I do not think we should express ourselves quite as strongly as that in our statements. Mention of this fact will have to be made, however, in order to exonerate a few persons.

After agonising over which German generals, if any, advocated war in 1939, Leeb suggested: ‘The question is now whether we should not just admit openly everything we know.’

Geyr: Any objective observer will admit that National Socialism did raise the social status of the worker, and in some respects even his standard of living.

Leeb: This is one of the great achievements of National Socialism. The excesses of National Socialism were in the first and final analysis due to the Führer’s personality.

Guderian: The fundamental principles were fine.

Leeb: That is true.

In writing this biography I therefore adopted strict criteria in selecting my source material. I have used not only the military records and archives; I have burrowed deep into the contemporary writings of his closest personal staff, seeking clues to the real truth in diaries and private letters written to wives and friends. For the few autobiographical works I have used I preferred to rely on their original manuscripts rather than the printed texts, as in the early post-war years apprehensive publishers (especially the ‘licensed’ ones in Germany) made drastic changes in them – for example in the memoirs of Karl Wilhelm Krause, Hitler’s manservant. Thus I relied on the original handwritten memoirs of Walter Schellenberg, Himmler’s Intelligence chief, rather than on the mutilated and ghost-written version subsequently published by André Deutsch.

I would go so far as to warn against several works hitherto accepted as ‘standard’ sources on Hitler – particularly those by Konrad Heiden, the Abwehr/OSS double agent Hans Bernd Gisevius, Erich Kordt, and Hitler’s dismissed adjutant Fritz Wiedemann. (The latter unashamedly explained in a private 1940 letter to a friend, ‘It makes no difference if exaggerations and even falsehoods do creep in.’) Professor Carl Jakob Burckhardt’s ‘diary’ quoted in his memoir, Meine Danziger Mission 1937–1939, is impossible to reconcile with Hitler’s actual movements; while Hermann Rauschning’s Conversations with Hitler (Zürich, 1940) has bedevilled analysis of Hitler’s policies ever since it was published by the evil propagandist Emery Reves (Imre Revész) along with a host of other fables. Rauschning, a former Nazi Danzig politician, met Hitler on only a couple of formal occasions. It was being republished in Vienna as recently as 1973, although even the otherwise uncritical West German historian Professor Eberhard Jäckel – who carelessly included 78 forgeries in a serious volume of Hitler’s manuscripts, and then dismissed this poisonous injection as making up less than 5 percent of the total volume! – emphasised in a learned article in Geschichte in Wissenschaft und Unterricht (No. 11, 1977) that Rauschning’s volume has no claim to credibility at all. Reves was also publisher of that other famous ‘source’ on early Nazi history, Fritz Thyssen’s ‘memoirs,’ I Paid Hitler (London, 1943). Henry Ashby Turner, Jr., has pointed out in a paper in Vierteljahrsheft für Zeitgeschichte (No. 3, 1971) that the luckless Thyssen never even saw eight of the book’s nineteen chapters, while the rest were drafted in French! The list of such spurious volumes is endless. The anonymous ‘memoirs’ of the late Christa Schroeder, Hitler Privat (Düsseldorf, 1949), were penned by Albert Zoller, a French army liaison officer to the U.S. Seventh Army. Martin Bormann’s alleged notes on Hitler’s final bunker conversations, published with an introduction by Professor Hugh Trevor-Roper in 1961 as The Testament of Adolf Hitler and – regrettably – published by Albrecht Knaus Verlag in German as Hitlers Politisches Testament: Die Bormann-Diktate (Hamburg, 1981), are in my view quite spurious: a copy of the partly typed, partly handwritten original is in my possession, and this leaves no doubt.

Historians are however quite incorrigible, and will quote any apparently primary source no matter how convincingly its false pedigree is exposed. Albert Speer’s memoirs Inside the Third Reich made him a personal fortune after the West Berlin firm of Propyläen published the book in 1969. The volume earned him wide respect for his disavowal of Hitler. Some critics were however puzzled that the American edition differed substantially from the German original Erinnerungen and the British edition. I learned the truth from the horse’s mouth, being one of the first writers to interview Speer after his release from Spandau prison in 1966. The former Reichsminister spent an afternoon reading out loud to me from his draft memoirs. The book subsequently published was very different, having been written, he explained, by my own in house editor at the Ullstein publishing house (Annette Engel née Etienne), by their chief editor Wolf Jobst Siedler, and by historian Joachim Fest, editor of the prestigious Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Miss Etienne confirmed this. When I challenged Speer in private at a Frankfurt publishing dinner in October 1979 to publish his original memoirs, he replied rather wistfully that he wished he could: ‘That would be impossible. That manuscript was quite out of keeping with the modern nuances. Even the captions to the chapters would have caused difficulties.’ A courageous Berlin author, Matthias Schmidt, later published a book[3]Matthias Schmidt, Albert Speer: The End of a Myth (New York, 1984). exposing the Speer legend and the ‘memoirs’; but it is the latter volume which the lazy gentlemen of my profession have in their libraries, not Schmidt’s, thus proving the opening words of this introduction to be true.

It was symptomatic of Speer’s truthfulness to history that while he was in Spandau he paid for the entire wartime diaries of his office (Dienststelle) to be retyped omitting the more unfortunate passages, and donated these faked documents to the Bundesarchiv in Koblenz. My comparison of the 1943 volume, housed in the original in British Cabinet Office archives, with the Bundesarchiv copy made this plain, and Matthias Schmidt also reveals the forgery. In fact I have been startled by the number of such ‘diaries’ which close scrutiny proves to have been faked or tampered with – invariably to Hitler’s disadvantage.

Two different men claimed to possess the entire diaries of Vice Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, the legendary Abwehr chief hanged by Hitler in April 1945. The first, Klaus Benzing, produced ‘documents of the post-war German Intelligence Service (BND)’ and original papers ‘signed by Canaris’ in his support; the second, the German High Court judge Fabian von Schlabrendorff, announced that his set of the diaries had recently been returned by Generalísimo Francisco Franco to the West German government. Forensic tests on the paper and ink of a ‘Canaris document’ supplied by the first man, conducted for me by the London laboratory of Hehner & Cox Ltd., proved them to be forgeries. An interview with Franco’s chef de bureau – his brother in law Don Felipe Polo Valdes – in Madrid disposed of the German judge’s equally improbable claim.

Similarly the Eva Braun diaries published by the film actor Luis Trenker were largely forged from the memoirs written decades earlier by Countess Irma Larisch-Wallersee; the forgery was established by the Munich courts in October 1948. Eva Braun’s genuine diaries and voluminous intimate correspondence with Hitler were acquired by the CIC team of Colonel Robert A. Gutierrez, based in Stuttgart Backnang in the summer of 1945; after a brief sifting by Frau Ursula Göhler on their behalf, these papers have not been seen since.

I visited Gutierrez twice in New Mexico – he subsequently released Eva Braun’s wedding dress and silver flatware (which he admitted having retained) to my researcher colleague Willi Korte, but he has not conceded an inch over the missing papers and diaries.

The oft quoted diaries of Himmler’s and Ribbentrop’s Berlin masseur Felix Kersten are equally fictitious – as for example the ‘twenty six page medical dossier on Hitler’ described in chapter xxiii (pp. 165–171 of the English edition) shows when compared with the genuine diaries of Hitler’s doctor, Theo Morell, which I found and published in 1983. The genuine Kersten diaries which Professor Hugh Trevor Roper saw in Sweden were never published, perhaps because of the political dynamite they contained on Sweden’s elite including publisher Albert Bonnier, alleged to have offered Himmler the addresses of every Jew in Sweden in return for concessions in the event of a Nazi invasion. Similarly the ‘diaries’ published by Rudolf Semler in Goebbels – the Man Next to Hitler (London, 1947) are phoney too, as the entry for January 12, 1945, proves; it has Hitler as Goebbels’s guest in Berlin, when the Führer was in fact still fighting the Battle of the Bulge from his headquarters in western Germany.

There are too obvious anachronisms in Count Galeazzo Ciano’s extensively quoted ‘diaries’: for example Marshal Rodolfo Graziani’s ‘complaints about Rommel’ on December 12, 1940 – two full months before Rommel was appointed to Italy’s North Africa theatre! In fact Ciano spent the months after his dismissal in February 1943 rewriting and ‘improving’ the diaries himself, which makes them readable but useless for the purposes of history. Ribbentrop warned about the forgery in his prison memoirs – he claimed to have seen Ciano’s real diaries in September 1943 – and the Nazi interpreter Eugen Dollmann described in his memoirs how the fraud was actually admitted to him by a British officer at a prison camp. The OSS files on this are in the Allen W. Dulles papers (unfortunately still closed) at the Mudd Library, Princeton University; but even the most superficial examination of the handwritten original volumes reveals the extent to which Ciano (or others) doctored them and interpolated material – yet historians of the highest repute have quoted them without question as they have Ciano’s so called ‘Lisbon Papers,’ although the latter too bear all the hallmarks of subsequent editing. (They have all been retyped on the same typewriter although ostensibly originating over the six years 1936–42.)

Some diaries have been amended in relatively harmless ways: the Luftwaffe Chief of Staff Karl Koller’s real shorthand diary often bears no resemblance to the version he published as Der letzte Monat (Mannheim, 1949). And Helmuth Greiner, keeper of the official OKW operations staff war diary until 1943, seized the opportunity in 1945, when asked by the Americans to retranscribe his original notes for the lost volumes from August 1942 to March 1943, to excise passages which reflected unfavourably on fellow prisoners like General Adolf Heusinger – or too favourably on Hitler; and no doubt to curry favour with the Americans, he added lengthy paragraphs charged with pungent criticism of Hitler’s conduct of the war which I found to be missing from his original handwritten notes. This tendency – to pillory Hitler after the war – was also strongly evident in the ‘diaries’ of the late General Gerhard Engel, who served as his army adjutant from March 1938 to October 1943. Historiographical evidence alone – e.g., comparison with the 1940 private diaries of Reichsminister Fritz Todt or the wife of General Rudolf Schmundt, or with the records of Field Marshal von Manstein’s Army Group Don at the time of Stalingrad – indicates that whatever they are, they are not contemporaneous diaries; tests on the age of the paper confirmed it. Regrettably, the well known Institut für Zeitgeschichte in Munich nonetheless published them in a volume, Heeresadjutant bei Hitler 1938–1943 (Stuttgart, 1974), rather feebly drawing attention to inconsistencies in the ‘diaries’ in a short introduction.

With the brilliant exception of Hugh Trevor Roper (now Lord Dacre), whose book The Last Days of Hitler was based on the records of the era and is therefore virtually unassailable even today, each successive biographer repeated or embraced the legends created by his predecessors, or at best consulted only the most readily available works of reference themselves. In the 1960s and 1970s a wave of weak, repetitive, and unrevealing Hitler biographies had washed through the bookstores. The most widely publicised was that written by a German television personality and historian, Joachim Fest; but he later told a questioner that he had not even visited the magnificent National Archives in Washington, which houses by far the largest collection of records relating to recent European history. Stylistically, Fest’s German was good; but the old legends were trotted out afresh, polished to an impressive gleam of authority.

The same Berlin company also published my Hitler biography shortly after, under the title Hitler und seine Feldherren; their chief editor, Siedler, found many of my arguments distasteful, even dangerous, and without informing me suppressed or even reversed them. In their printed text Hitler had not told Himmler (on November 30, 1941) that there was to be ‘no liquidation’ of a consignment of Jews from Berlin; he had told him not to use the word ‘liquidate’ publicly in connection with their extermination programme. Thus history is falsified! For this and similar reasons I prohibited further printing of the book, two days after its appearance in Germany, and litigated for ten years to regain the right to publish it in its original form. To explain their actions, the Berlin publishers argued that my manuscript expressed some views that were ‘an affront to established historical opinion’ in their country.

My idle predecessors had gratefully lamented that most of the documents had been destroyed. They had not – they survived in embarrassing superabundance. The official papers of Luftwaffe Field Marshal Erhard Milch, Göring’s deputy, were captured by the British and total over 60,000 pages; the entire war diary of the German naval staff, of immense value far beyond purely naval matters, survived; it took many months to read the 69 volumes of main text, some over 900 pages long, in Washington and to examine the most promising of the 3,800 microfilm records of German naval records held in Washington. After the first edition of this book appeared in Berlin in 1975 further volumes of the diaries of Joseph Goebbels were released in the West; I had some qualms that they might reveal some of my more dangerous hypotheses to have been hollow. (Neither those first volumes, nor the missing Goebbels diaries first exploited by me in the Moscow archives in 1992, nor the rest of them, have yielded any evidence that I was wrong.)

Many sources of prime importance are still missing. That diplomatic historians never once bothered in thirty years to visit the widow of Joachim von Ribbentrop’s state-secretary Ernst von Weizsäcker, father of the subsequent West German president, was a baffling mystery to me. Had they looked for the widow of Walther Hewel, Ribbentrop’s liaison officer to Hitler, they would have learned about his diaries too. And who are these over-emotional historians of the Jewish tragedy who, until I did so, never troubled themselves even to open a readily available file of the SS chief Heinrich Himmler’s own handwritten telephone notes, or to read his memoranda for his secret meetings with Adolf Hitler? Alas, apart from pocket diaries for 1935 and 1939, of which I have donated copies to the Bundesarchiv, the diaries of Himmler have largely vanished – partly carried off as trophies to Moscow, from where most of the pages for 1941–42 have only recently been retrieved,[4]Der Dienstkalender Heinrich Himmlers 1941/42, ed. Peter Witte, with foreword by Uwe Lohalm and Wolfgang Scheffler (Hamburg, 1999). No praise is too high for this edition. and partly removed to Tel Aviv, Israel; Chaim Rosenthal, a former attaché at the Israeli Consulate in New York, obtained some Himmler diaries by the most questionable means and donated them to the University of Tel Aviv in 1982, but following extensive litigation against Rosenthal – now non grata in the U.S.A. – the university returned the volumes to him.

Other diaries are also sorely missed. Those of former Gestapo executive Werner Best were last seen in the Royal Danish Archives in Copenhagen in 1945; those of Karl Wolff were last seen at Nuremberg. The diaries of Hans Lammers, Wilhelm Brückner, and Karl Bodenschatz vanished into American or French hands; those of Professor Theo Morell vanished too, to turn up miraculously in my presence in Washington in 1981 (I published a full edited transcript two years later).

Nicolaus von Below’s are probably in Moscow. Alfred Rosenberg’s remaining unpublished diaries were illicitly held by the late Dr. Robert M. W. Kempner, an American lawyer based in Frankfurt; his papers, salvaged in Lansdowne, Pennsylvania, are now the object of an unseemly dispute between Jewish archives and his family. The rest of Milch’s diaries, of which I obtained and placed on microfilm some five thousand pages in 1967, have vanished, as have General Alfred Jodl’s diaries covering the years 1940 to 1943; they were looted along with his private property by the British 11th Armoured Division at Flensburg in May 1945. Only a brief fragment of Benito Mussolini’s diary survives: the SS copied the originals and returned them to him in January 1945, but both the originals and the copy placed in Ribbentrop’s files are missing now. The important diaries of Rudolf Schmundt were, unhappily, burned at his request by his fellow adjutant Admiral Karl Jesco von Puttkamer in April 1945, along with Puttkamer’s own diaries. The Hoover Institution, Stanford, California, holds the diary of SS Obergruppenführer Friedrich Wilhelm Krüger – another item wilfully overlooked by West Germany’s historians.

My search for sources that might throw light on Hitler’s character was sometimes successful, sometimes not. Weeks of searching with a proton magnetometer – a kind of supersensitive mine detector – in a forest in East Germany failed to unearth a glass jar containing stenograms of Goebbels’s very last diaries, although at times, according to the map in my possession, we must have stood right over it. In writing this biography however I did obtain a significant number of authentic, little known diaries of the people around Hitler, including an unpublished segment of Jodl’s diary; the official diary kept for OKW chief Wilhelm Keitel by his adjutant Wolf Eberhard, and Eberhard’s own diary for the years 1936 through 1939; the diary of Nikolaus von Vormann, army liaison officer to Hitler during August and September 1939; and the diaries kept by Martin Bormann and by Hitler’s personal adjutant Max Wünsche relating to Hitler’s movements.

In addition I have used the unpublished diaries of Fedor von Bock, Erhard Milch, Erich von Manstein, Wilhelm Leeb, Erwin Lahousen, and Eduard Wagner – whose widow allowed me to copy some two thousand pages of his private letters. Christa Schroeder, one of Hitler’s private secretaries, made available exclusively to me her important contemporary papers. Julius Schaub’s family let me copy all his manuscripts about his twenty years as Hitler’s senior aide, as did Wilhelm Brückner’s son.

I am the first biographer to have used the private papers of Staatssekretär Herbert Backe and his minister, Richard Walter Darré, and the diaries, notebooks, and papers of Fritz Todt. The British government kindly made available to me precious fragments of the diary of Admiral Canaris. Scattered across Germany and America I found the shorthand and typed pages of Erwin Rommel’s diaries, and the elusive diaries and notebooks that Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring had kept from his childhood on.

Among the most revealing documents used in this biography are the manuscripts written by Generaloberst (Colonel-General) Werner Freiherr von Fritsch in 1938 and 1939; these I obtained from a Soviet source. Jutta Freifrau von Richthofen allowed me access to the voluminous unpublished diaries of her husband, the late field marshal.

In short, every member of Hitler’s staff or High Command whom I located seemed to have carefully hoarded diaries or papers which were eventually produced for my exploitation here. They were mostly in German, but the research papers on the fringe of my work came in a Babel of other languages: Italian, Russian, French, Spanish, Hungarian, Romanian, and Czech. Some cryptic references to Hitler and Ribbentrop in the Hewel diaries defied all my puny code breaking efforts, and then proved to have been written in Indonesian!

All of these records I have now donated to the Institute of Contemporary History in Munich, where they are available as the Author’s collection to other writers. Second World War researchers will find microfilms of all the materials that I collected while researching this and other books available from Microform Academic Publishers Ltd., Main Street, East Ardsley, Wakefield, Yorkshire, WF3 2AT, England (e-mail: [email protected]; phone +44 1924–825 700, fax 1924–871 005).


Of the now available collections of records four are worthy of note – the formerly Top Secret CSDIC-series interrogation reports in Class WO208 at the Public Records Office, Kew, London; the coded radio messages of the SS and German police units, intercepted and decoded by the British at Bletchley Park, and now archived in the same place as Classes HW1, HW3, and HW16; the ‘Adolf Hitler Collection,’ housed in three file boxes at the Seeley G. Mudd Library, Princeton University, New Jersey; and some five hundred pages of Joachim von Ribbentrop’s pre ministerial letters and memoranda to Hitler, 1933‒36, found in the ruins of the Reich chancellery and now in the Louis Lochner papers at the Hoover Institution’s archives, Stanford, California.

The ‘Hitler Collection’ was purloined by Private Eric Hamm of the U.S. Army’s war crimes branch from Hitler’s residence in Munich, and eventually sold by a Chicago auction house. It reflects Hitler’s career well – archive photographs of his sketches and paintings, ambassadors’ dispatches, reports on the shooting of ‘professional criminals’ while ‘resisting arrest,’ a 1925 hotel registration filled out by Hitler (who entered himself as ‘stateless’), documents on the Spanish civil war, Röhm’s preparations for the 1923 beer hall putsch, an instruction by Martin Bormann that Hitler had agreed to cover bills run up by the peripatetic Princess Hohenlohe but would pay no more, extensive documentation on the Party’s relations with the Church; on December 20, 1940, Pierre Laval wrote to Hitler ‘desiring from the bottom of my heart that my country shall not suffer,’ and assuring him: ‘The policy of collaboration with Germany is supported by the vast majority of the French.’ Hjalmar Schacht several times protested to Hitler about the economic damage caused by anti-Jewish strictures; on August 24, 1935, he wrote that Robert Ley’s instruction that Woolworth & Co. was not to buy from Jewish suppliers would result in the company’s head office cancelling ten million marks of orders from Germany annually: ‘It is not clear to me, and never has been, how I am supposed to bring in foreign currency in the face of such policies.’ On March 30, 1936, Schacht asked Hitler to receive a certain American silk manufacturer who had been requested by President Roosevelt to ‘convey personal greetings to the Führer.’

On June 20, 1938, Count Helldorff, police chief of Berlin, sent to Hitler a report on organised anti Jewish razzias in Berlin. Later that year the police sent to Hitler a file on the Jewish assassin Herschel Grynszpan, confirming that his parents had been dumped back over the Polish border at Neu Bentschen on October 29 – a few days before he gunned down a German diplomat in Paris – pursuant to the Reich’s drive against Polish Jews who had settled in Germany. In February 1939 Hitler endorsed the refusal of his embassy in Washington to pay Danegeld to Kurt Lüdecke, a former Nazi who had invited the Party publishing house or some other Reich agency to buy up all rights in his scurrilous memoirs to prevent their publication. The same file shows Hitler acting to stop the Nazi heavyweight Max Schmeling staging a return fight against the Negro Joe Louis. (‘As you know,’ Julius Schaub wrote to the sports minister on March 2, 1939, ‘the Führer was against the fight in the first place.’)

Most enigmatic of these documents is one evidently originated by the Gestapo after 1940, typed on the special ‘Führer typewriter,’ reporting ugly rumours about Hitler’s ancestry – ‘that the Führer was an illegitimate child, adoptive son of Alois, that the Führer’s mother’s name was Schicklgruber[5]In fact Hitler’s father was the illegitimate son of Maria Anna Schicklgruber. Nazi newspapers were repeatedly, e.g., on December 16, 1939, forbidden to speculate on his ancestry. Werner Maser states in Die Frühgeschichte der NSDAP (Bonn, 1965) that on August 4, 1942, Heinrich Himmler instructed the Gestapo to investigate the Führer’s parentage; their bland findings were graded merely geheim (secret). The document quoted above is, however, stamped with the highest classification, Geheime Reichssache. before the adoption and that the Schicklgruber line has produced a string of idiots.’

Among the latter was a tax official, Joseph Veit, deceased in 1904 in Klagenfurt, Austria. One of his sons had committed suicide, a daughter had died in an asylum, a surviving daughter was half mad, and a third daughter was feebleminded. The Gestapo established that the family of Konrad Pracher of Graz had a dossier of photographs and certificates on all this. Himmler had them seized ‘to prevent their misuse.’

The Ribbentrop files reflect his tortuous relations as ‘ambassador extraordinary’ with Hitler and his rivals. He had established his influence by making good contacts with Englishmen of influence – among them not only industrialists like E. W. D. Tennant and newspaper barons like Lord Rothermere, Lord Astor, and Lord Camrose, but also the Cabinet ministers of the day, including Lord Hailsham, Lord Lloyd, Lord Londonderry, and young Anthony Eden, in whom Ribbentrop saw the rising star of the Conservative party. The files contain records of Ribbentrop’s meetings with Stanley Baldwin and Ramsay MacDonald in 1933 and 1934. They also reflect the tenuous links established between Sir Oswald Mosley and his lieutenants with the Nazi Party leadership in Berlin.

Typical of the many handwritten letters from Ribbentrop to Hitler was one dated January 6, 1935, thanking him for the show of confidence betokened by his new appointment to Reichsleiter – ‘Not only does this clearly define my status in the Party, removing any doubts as to your views on me and my activities, but the appointment also gives me a different position vis à vis the foreign ministry both externally and internally.’ He signed it ‘your trusty Ribbentrop.’


Nothing created such agony when this biography was first published as my analysis of Hitler’s role in the Jewish tragedy. Pure vitriol spilled from the pens of my critics, but I see no reason to revise my central hypothesis, which is based on the records of the day: that Hitler grasped quite early on that antisemitism would be a powerful vote catching force in Germany; that he had no compunction against riding that evil steed right up to the portals of the chancellery in 1933; but that once inside and in power, he dismounted and paid only lip service to that part of his Party creed.

The Nazi gangsters under him continued to ride to hounds, however, even when Hitler dictated differently, e.g., in November 1938.

As for the concentration camps he comfortably left that dark side of the Nazi rule to Himmler. He never visited one; those senior officials and foreigners who did obtain privileged access to Dachau, like Ernst Udet or General Erhard Milch or British Members of Parliament in 1933 and 1934 were favourably impressed (but those were early days). Himmler is known to have visited Auschwitz in 1941 and 1942. Hitler never did.

The scale of Germany’s Jewish problem is revealed by an unpublished manuscript by Hitler’s predecessor as chancellor, Dr. Heinrich Brüning. Writing in American exile in 1943 he stated that after the inflation there was only one major German bank not controlled by Jews, some of them ‘utterly corrupt.’ In 1931 he had brought the banks under government supervision, and had had to keep the government’s findings of dishonesty in the banks secret ‘for fear of provoking antisemitic riots.’ Brüning blamed foreign correspondents for exaggerating the ‘occasional ill treatment of Jews’ at the beginning of the Nazi regime:

In the spring of 1933 foreign correspondents reported that the River Spree [in Berlin] was covered with the corpses of murdered Jews. At that time hardly any Jews except for leaders of the Communist party… had been attacked…. If,’ he pointedly added, ‘the Jews had been treated so badly from the beginning of the regime, it could not be explained that so very few of them left the country before 1938.’

In 1948 Brüning would write to the editors of Life forbidding them to publish an August 1937 letter he had written to Winston Churchill revealing that ‘from October 1928 the two largest regular contributors to the Nazi Party were the general managers of two of the largest Berlin banks, both of Jewish faith, and one of them the leader of Zionism in Germany.’[6]Brüning’s 1943 manuscript is in the Dorothy Thompson collection of the George Arents Research Library, Syracuse University, New York. His letter to Daniel Longwell, editor of Life, dated February 7, 1948, is in Longwell’s papers in the Butler Library, Columbia University, New York.


I had approached the Nazi maltreatment of the Jews from the traditional viewpoint prevailing in the 1960s. Supposing Hitler was a capable statesman and a gifted commander, the argument ran, how does one explain his ‘murder of six million Jews’? If this book were simply a history of the rise and fall of Hitler’s Reich it would be legitimate to conclude: ‘Hitler killed the Jews.’ He after all had created the atmosphere of hatred with his speeches in the 1930s; he and Himmler had created the SS; his speeches, though never explicit, left the clear impression that ‘liquidate’ was what he meant.

For a full length war biography of Hitler, I felt that a more analytical approach to the key questions was necessary. Remarkably, I found that Hitler’s own role in the ‘Final Solution’ had never been examined. German historians, otherwise the epitome of painstaking essaying, had developed monumental blind spots when Hitler himself cropped up: bald statements were made without a shadow of evidence in support. British and American historians willingly conformed. Others quoted them. For thirty years our knowledge of Hitler’s part in the atrocity had rested on inter historian incest.

Many people, particularly in Germany and Austria, had an interest in propagating the version that the order of one madman originated the entire tragedy. Precisely when this order was given was, admittedly, left vague.

Every document actually linking Hitler with the treatment of German Jews takes the form of an embargo, from the 1923 beer hall putsch (when he purportedly disciplined a Nazi squad lieutenant for having looted a Jewish delicatessen) right through to 1943 and 1944. In the newly discovered Goebbels diaries we find that Hitler lectured the gauleiters in September 1935 that ‘above all’ there were to be no excesses against the Jews and no persecution of ‘non-Aryans.’ Goebbels tried to talk him out of this soft line, but noted: ‘Jewish problem not resolved even now. We debated it for a long time but the Führer still can’t make his mind up.’ And what are we to make of the edict issued ‘to all Gau directorates for immediate action’ by Hitler’s deputy, Rudolf Hess, during the Night of Broken Glass in November 1938, ordering an immediate stop to arson attacks on Jewish premises ‘on orders from the very highest level’? Every other historian has shut his eyes and hoped that this horrid, inconvenient document would somehow go away.

It has been joined by others, like the extraordinary note dictated by Staatssekretär Franz Schlegelberger in the Reich Ministry of Justice in the spring of 1942: ‘Reich Minister Lammers,’ this states, ‘informed me that the Führer has repeatedly pronounced that he wants the solution of the Jewish Question put off until after the war is over.’ Whatever way one reads this document, it is incompatible with the notion that Hitler had ordered an urgent liquidation programme. (The document’s original is in justice ministry file R22/52 in the archives at Koblenz.) Göring himself is on record as stressing at a Berlin conference on July 6, 1942, how much Hitler deprecated the harassment of Jewish scientists, for example:

I have discussed this with the Führer himself now; we have been able to use one Jew two years longer in Vienna, and another in photographic research, because they have certain things that we need and that can be of the utmost benefit to us at the present.

It would be utter madness for us to say now: ‘He’ll have to go. He was a magnificent researcher, a fantastic brain, but his wife is Jewish, and he can’t be allowed to stay at the University,’ etc.

The Führer has made similar exceptions in the arts all the way down to operetta level; he is all the more likely to make exceptions where really great projects or researchers are concerned.[7]First session of the newly formed Reich Research Council, July 6, 1942; a stenographic record is in the Milch documents, vol. 58, pp. 3640 ff.

Of course from 1939 on Hitler uttered several harsh statements in public; but on many occasions in 1942 and 1943 he made – in private – statements which are incompatible with the notion that he knew that an all-out liquidation programme had begun. In October 1943, even as Himmler was disclosing to privileged audiences of SS generals and gauleiters that Europe’s Jews had been systematically murdered, Hitler was still forbidding liquidations – e.g., of the Italian Jews in Rome – and ordering their internment instead. (This order his SS also disobeyed.) In July 1944, overriding Himmler’s objections, he ordered that Jews be bartered for foreign currency or supplies; there is some evidence that like contemporary terrorists he saw these captives as a potential asset, a means whereby he could blackmail his enemies. Wholly in keeping with his character, when Hitler was confronted with the facts he took no action to rebuke the guilty; he would not dismiss Himmler as Reichsführer SS until the last day of his life. It is plausible to impute to him that not uncommon characteristic of heads of state who are over-reliant on powerful advisers: a conscious desire ‘not to know.’ The proof of this is however beyond the powers of an historian.

For the want of hard evidence – and in 1977 I offered a thousand pounds to any person who could produce even one wartime document showing explicitly that Hitler knew, for example, of Auschwitz – my critics resorted to arguments ranging from the subtle to the sledgehammer (in one instance, literally). They postulated the existence of Führer orders without the slightest written evidence of their existence. John Toland, Pulitzer prize winning author of a Hitler biography published in the United States, appealed emotionally in Der Spiegel for historians to refute my hypothesis, and they tried by fair means and foul. Perplexed by Himmler’s handwritten note about a phone conversation with Heydrich from Hitler’s bunker on November 30, 1941 – ‘Arrest [of] Dr. Jekelius. Alleged son Molotov. Consignment [Transport] of Jews from Berlin. No liquidation.’ – these wizards of modern history scoffed that probably Molotov’s son was believed to be aboard a trainload of Jews from Berlin concealed as ‘Dr. Jekelius’ and was on no account to be liquidated. In fact Molotov had no son; Dr. Jekelius was probably Erwin Jekelius, the Viennese neurologist involved in the Euthanasia programme;[8]Cf. Benno Müller Hill, Tödliche Wissenschaft. Die Aussonderung von Juden, Zigeunern und Geisteskranken 1933‒45 (Rowohlt, Hamburg), p. 107. The editors of Der Dienstkalender Heinrich Himmlers, 1941/42 (Christians Verlag, Hamburg, 1999), p.207, have belatedly come to the same conclusion. – We reproduce relevant documents on page 455. and the trainload of Jews from Berlin had that morning arrived at Riga and had already been liquidated by the local SS commander by the time that Himmler scribbled down what seems clearly to have been Hitler’s injunction.[9]See page 455. The most spine chilling account of the plundering and methodical mass murder of these Jews at Riga in November 1941 is in CSDIC (UK) report srgg.1158 (in file wo.208/4169 of the Public Record Office): the 54-year-old Major General Walther Bruns, an eye-witness, describes it to fellow generals in British captivity in a German prison camp on April 25, 1945, unaware that hidden microphones are recording every word. Of particular significance: his qualms about bringing what he had seen to the Führer’s attention, and the latter’s orders that such public massacres were to stop forthwith. With HM Stationery Office permission, I shall shortly publish a volume of these extraordinarily revealing CSDIC transcripts. Why else communicate by telephone with Heydrich ‘from the bunker’ at the Wolf’s Lair unless Hitler himself was behind it?

So far the conformist historians have been unable to help Mr. Toland, apart from suggesting that the project was so secret that only oral orders were issued. Why however should Hitler have become so squeamish in this instance, while he had shown no compunction about signing a blanket order for the liquidation of tens of thousands of fellow Germans (Philipp Bouhler’s T-4 euthanasia programme); his insistence on the execution of hostages on a one hundred to one basis, his orders for the liquidation of enemy prisoners (the Commando Order), of Allied airmen (the Lynch Order), and Russian functionaries (the Commissar Order) are documented all the way from the Führer’s headquarters right down the line to the executioners.

Most of my critics relied on weak and unprofessional evidence. For example, they offered alternative and often specious translations of words in Hitler’s speeches (apparently the Final Solution was too secret for him to sign an order, but simultaneously not so secret that he could not brag about it in public speeches); and quotations from isolated documents that have however long been discarded by serious historians as worthless or fakes, like the Gerstein Report[10]On which see the dissertation by Henri Roques: ‘Les “confessions” de Kurt Gerstein. Etude comparative des différentes versions,’ submitted at the University of Nantes, France, in June 1985. This reveals the extent to which conformist historians had been deceived by the various versions of the ‘report.’ Such was the outcry aroused that Roques was stripped of his doctoral degree. I have ensured that his 372 page thesis is freely available in the Author’s collection at the Institute of Contemporary History, Munich. or the ‘Bunker conversations’ mentioned earlier.

Of explicit, written, wartime evidence, the kind of evidence that could hang a man, they have produced not one line. Thus, in his otherwise fastidious analysis of Hitler and the Final Solution (London, 1983) Professor Gerald Fleming relied on war crimes trial testimonies, which are anything but safe; reviewing that book, Professor Gordon Craig concluded that even Fleming had failed to refute my hypothesis. Professor Martin Broszat, director of the Institute of Contemporary History in Munich, crudely assailed my biography in a 37 page review in the institute’s journal, then refused space for a reply. Unfamiliar with my sources, and unaware that I had in several cases used original files which he and other historians had read only in English translation, he accused me of distorting and even inventing quotations.[11]‘Hitler and the Genesis of the Final Solution, an Assessment of David Irving’s Thesis,’ Vierteljahrshefte für Zeitgeschichte, No. 25, 1977, pp. 739–75; republished without correction in Aspects of the Third Reich (ed. H. W. Koch, Macmillan, New York, 1985) pp. 390–429, and in Yad Vashem Studies, No. 13, 1979, pp. 73–125, and yet again, still uncorrected, in Nach Hitler: der schwierige Umgang mit unserer Geschichte (Oldenburg, 1988); and extensively quoted by Charles W. Sydnor in ‘The Selling of Adolf Hitler,’ in Central European History, No. 12, 1979, pp. 169–99, 402–5. Amidst such libels and calumnies, which are easily uttered, Broszat was, however, forced to concede: ‘David Irving has perceived one thing correctly when he writes that in his view the killing of the Jews was partly a Verlegenheitslösung, “the way out of an awkward dilemma.”’

Broszat’s corollary, that there was no central Hitler Order for what happened, caused an uproar among the world’s historians, a Historikerstreit which is not politically limited to Left versus Right. My own conclusion went one logical stage further: that in wartime, dictatorships are fundamentally weak – the dictator himself, however alert, is unable to oversee all the functions of his executives acting within the confines of his far flung empire; and in this particular case, I concluded, the burden of guilt for the bloody and mindless massacres of the Jews rests on a large number of Germans (and non Germans), many of them alive today, and not just on one ‘mad dictator,’ whose order had to be obeyed without question.


I also found it necessary to set very different historical accents on the doctrinaire foreign policies which Hitler enforced – from his apparent unwillingness to humiliate Britain when she lay prostrate in 1940, to his damaging and emotional hatred of the Serbs, his illogical and over loyal admiration of Benito Mussolini, and his irrational mixtures of emotions toward Joseph Stalin.

Being a modern English historian there was a certain morbid fascination for me in inquiring how far Adolf Hitler really was bent on the destruction of Britain and her Empire – a major raison d’être for our ruinous fight, which in 1940 imperceptibly replaced the more implausible reason proffered in August 1939, the rescue of Poland from outside oppression. Since in the chapters that follow evidence extracted again and again from the most intimate sources – like Hitler’s private conversations with his women secretaries in June 1940 – indicates that he originally had neither the intention nor the desire to harm Britain or destroy the Empire, surely British readers at least must ask themselves: what, then, were we really fighting for? Given that the British people bankrupted themselves (by December 1940) and lost their Empire in defeating Hitler, was the Führer right after all when he noted that Britain’s attitude was essentially one of ‘Après moi le déluge – if only we can get rid of the hated National Socialist Germany’?

Unburdened by ideological idealism, the Duke of Windsor suspected in July 1940 that the war was continuing solely in order to allow certain British statesmen (he meant Mr. Churchill and his friends) to save face, even if it meant dragging their country and Empire into financial ruin. Others pragmatically argued that there could be no compromise with Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. Did Britain’s leaders in fact believe this, however? Dr. Bernd Martin of Freiburg University has revealed the extent to which secret negotiations on peace continued between Britain and Germany in October 1939 and long after – negotiations on which, curiously, Mr. Churchill’s files have officially been sealed until the twenty first century, and the Cabinet records blanked out. Similar negotiations were carried on in June 1940, when even Mr. Churchill showed himself momentarily willing in Cabinet meetings to deal with Hitler if the price was right.

Of course, in assessing the real value of such negotiations and of Hitler’s publicly stated intentions it is salutary to know that on June 2, 1941, he admitted to Walther Hewel: ‘For myself personally I would never tell a lie; but there is no falsehood I would not perpetrate for Germany’s sake!’ Nevertheless one wonders how much suffering might have been spared if both sides had pursued the negotiations – might all that happened after 1940, the saturation bombing, the population movements, the epidemics, even the Holocaust itself, have been avoided? Great are the questions, yet modern historiography has chosen to ignore the possibility, calling it heresy.

The facts revealed here concerning Hitler’s recorded actions, motivations, and opinions should provide a basis for fresh debate. Americans will find much that is new about the months leading up to Pearl Harbor. The French will find additional evidence that Hitler’s treatment of their defeated nation was more influenced by memories of France’s treatment of Germany after World War I than by his respect for Mussolini’s desires. Russians can try to visualise the prospect that could conceivably have unfolded if Stalin had accepted Hitler’s offer in November 1940 of inclusion in the Axis Pact; or if, having achieved his ‘second Brest Litovsk’ peace treaty (as momentarily proposed on June 28, 1941), Stalin had accepted Hitler’s condition that he rebuild Soviet military power only beyond the Urals; or if Hitler had taken seriously Stalin’s alleged peace offer of September 1944.

What is the result of these twenty years’ toiling in the archives? Hitler will remain an enigma, however hard we burrow. Even his intimates realised that they hardly knew him. I have already quoted Ribbentrop’s puzzlement; but General Alfred Jodl, his closest strategic adviser, also wrote in his Nuremberg cell on March 10, 1946:

Then however I ask myself, did you ever really know this man at whose side you led such a thorny and ascetic existence? Did he perhaps just trifle with your idealism too, abusing it for dark purposes which he kept hidden deep within himself? Dare you claim to know a man, if he has not opened up the deepest recesses of his heart to you – in sorrow as well as in ecstasy? To this very day I do not know what he thought or knew or really wanted. I only knew my own thoughts and suspicions. And if, now that the shrouds fall away from a sculpture we fondly hoped would be a work of art, only to reveal nothing but a degenerate gargoyle – then let future historians argue among themselves whether it was like that from the start, or changed with circumstances.

I keep making the same mistake: I blame his humble origins. Then however I remember how many peasants’ sons have been blessed by History with the name, The Great.

‘Hitler the Great’? No, contemporary History is unlikely to swallow such an epithet. From the first day that he ‘seized power,’ January 30, 1933, Hitler knew that only sudden death awaited him if he failed to restore pride and empire to post Versailles Germany. His close friend and adjutant Julius Schaub recorded Hitler’s jubilant boast to his staff on that evening, as the last celebrating guests left the Berlin chancellery building: ‘No power on earth will get me out of this building alive!’

History saw this prophecy fulfilled, as the handful of remaining Nazi Party faithfuls trooped uneasily into his underground study on April 30, 1945, surveyed his still warm remains – slouched on a couch, with blood trickling from the sagging lower jaw, and a gunshot wound in the right temple – and sniffed the bitter almonds smell hanging in the air.

Wrapped in a grey army blanket, he was carried up to the shell blasted chancellery garden. Gasoline was slopped over him in a reeking crater and ignited while his staff hurriedly saluted and backed down into the shelter. Thus ended the six years of Hitler’s War.

We shall now see how they began.

David Irving
London, January 1976 and January 1989

A Note on the Millennium Edition

The millennium edition of Hitler’s War brings the narrative up to date with the latest documents discovered, primarily in American and former Soviet archives, since the 1991 edition was published. I was in 1992 the first author permitted by the Moscow authorities to exploit the microfiched diaries of Dr. Joseph Goebbels, which contain further vital information about Hitler’s role in the Röhm Purge, the Kristallnacht of 1938, the Final Solution, and other matters of high historical importance. From a Californian source I obtained the original Gestapo interrogations of Rudolf Hess’s staff, conducted in the first few days after his flight to Scotland. The British secret service has now released to the public domain the intercepts of top secret messages sent in code by Himmler and other SS commanders.

These are just a few examples of the new materials woven into the fabric of this story. I am glad to say I have not had to revise my views as originally expressed: I was always confident that if one adheres to original documents, one will not stray far from Real History. The new archival material has however made it possible to refine the narrative, and to upgrade the documentary basis of my former assertions.

David Irving
London, January 12, 2002


[1] The CIA documents on planned assassinations and assassination techniques can now be viewed on the George Washington University website, at

[2] CSDIC (UK) report SRGG.1133, March 9, 1945, in Public Record Office, London, file WO.208/4169.

[3] Matthias Schmidt, Albert Speer: The End of a Myth (New York, 1984).

[4] Der Dienstkalender Heinrich Himmlers 1941/42, ed. Peter Witte, with foreword by Uwe Lohalm and Wolfgang Scheffler (Hamburg, 1999). No praise is too high for this edition.

[5] In fact Hitler’s father was the illegitimate son of Maria Anna Schicklgruber. Nazi newspapers were repeatedly, e.g., on December 16, 1939, forbidden to speculate on his ancestry. Werner Maser states in Die Frühgeschichte der NSDAP (Bonn, 1965) that on August 4, 1942, Heinrich Himmler instructed the Gestapo to investigate the Führer’s parentage; their bland findings were graded merely geheim (secret). The document quoted above is, however, stamped with the highest classification, Geheime Reichssache.

[6] Brüning’s 1943 manuscript is in the Dorothy Thompson collection of the George Arents Research Library, Syracuse University, New York. His letter to Daniel Longwell, editor of Life, dated February 7, 1948, is in Longwell’s papers in the Butler Library, Columbia University, New York.

[7] First session of the newly formed Reich Research Council, July 6, 1942; a stenographic record is in the Milch documents, vol. 58, pp. 3640 ff.

[8] Cf. Benno Müller Hill, Tödliche Wissenschaft. Die Aussonderung von Juden, Zigeunern und Geisteskranken 1933‒45 (Rowohlt, Hamburg), p. 107. The editors of Der Dienstkalender Heinrich Himmlers, 1941/42 (Christians Verlag, Hamburg, 1999), p.207, have belatedly come to the same conclusion. – We reproduce relevant documents on page 455.

[9] See page 455. The most spine chilling account of the plundering and methodical mass murder of these Jews at Riga in November 1941 is in CSDIC (UK) report srgg.1158 (in file wo.208/4169 of the Public Record Office): the 54-year-old Major General Walther Bruns, an eye-witness, describes it to fellow generals in British captivity in a German prison camp on April 25, 1945, unaware that hidden microphones are recording every word. Of particular significance: his qualms about bringing what he had seen to the Führer’s attention, and the latter’s orders that such public massacres were to stop forthwith. With HM Stationery Office permission, I shall shortly publish a volume of these extraordinarily revealing CSDIC transcripts.

[10] On which see the dissertation by Henri Roques: ‘Les “confessions” de Kurt Gerstein. Etude comparative des différentes versions,’ submitted at the University of Nantes, France, in June 1985. This reveals the extent to which conformist historians had been deceived by the various versions of the ‘report.’ Such was the outcry aroused that Roques was stripped of his doctoral degree. I have ensured that his 372 page thesis is freely available in the Author’s collection at the Institute of Contemporary History, Munich.

[11] ‘Hitler and the Genesis of the Final Solution, an Assessment of David Irving’s Thesis,’ Vierteljahrshefte für Zeitgeschichte, No. 25, 1977, pp. 739–75; republished without correction in Aspects of the Third Reich (ed. H. W. Koch, Macmillan, New York, 1985) pp. 390–429, and in Yad Vashem Studies, No. 13, 1979, pp. 73–125, and yet again, still uncorrected, in Nach Hitler: der schwierige Umgang mit unserer Geschichte (Oldenburg, 1988); and extensively quoted by Charles W. Sydnor in ‘The Selling of Adolf Hitler,’ in Central European History, No. 12, 1979, pp. 169–99, 402–5.

Prologue: The Nugget • 3,600 Words

How can we ever learn what Hitler’s real ambitions were? One of the men closest to him, who served him as air force adjutant from 1937 to the very end, has emphasised that even when we read of some startling outburst from Hitler to his henchmen, and we feel we are getting closer to the truth, we must always ask ourselves: was that the real Hitler, or was even that just an image that he wished to impose on that particular audience of the moment? Was he just seeking to jolt his complacent satraps out of a dangerous lethargy? So we must go prospecting deep down into the bedrock of history before we can locate the black nugget of ambition of which the last six years of his life were just the violent expression.

Excellent sources survive, even before Mein Kampf. The confidential police reports on twenty of Hitler’s early speeches, delivered in smoky, crowded halls in the revolutionary Soviet Munich of 1919 and 1920, provide a series of glimpses at the outer shell of his beliefs. Here Adolf Hitler, just turned thirty years of age, expressed no grand geopolitical ideas. His agitation pivoted on the terms dictated to Berlin’s ‘craven and corrupt’ representatives at Versailles; he tried to convince his audience that defeat in the World War had been inflicted on them not by their enemies abroad, but by the revolutionaries within – the Jew-ridden politicians in Berlin. Stripped of their demagogic element, the speeches are significant only for Hitler’s ceaseless reiteration that a Germany disarmed was prey to the lawless demands of her predatory neighbours. He demanded that Germany become a nation without class differences, in which manual labourer and intellectual each respected the contribution of the other. On one occasion, in April 1920, he even proclaimed, ‘We need a dictator who is a genius, if we are to arise again.’

His targets were not modest even then: he was going to restore the German Reich, extending from Memel in the east to Strasbourg in the west, and from Königsberg to Bratislava. In another secret speech, delivered to an audience in Salzburg – evidently on August 7 or 8, 1920 – Hitler roused his Austrian compatriots with the same two ideals: ‘Firstly, Deutschland über alles in der Welt. And secondly, our German domain extends as far as the German tongue is spoken.’

This Salzburg speech, of which only one faded, fragile, and hitherto unpublished shorthand transcript has survived, comes closest to revealing his early mind and attitudes:

This is the first demand that we must raise and do raise: that our people be set free, that these chains be burst asunder, and that Germany be once again captain of her soul and master of her destinies, together with all those who want to join Germany. (Applause).

The fulfilment of this first demand will then open up the way for all the other reforms.

And here is one thing that perhaps distinguishes us from you as far as our program is concerned, although it is very much in the spirit of things: our attitude to the Jewish problem.

For us, this is not a problem we can turn a blind eye to – one to be solved by small concessions. For us, it is a problem of whether our nation can ever recover its health, whether the Jewish spirit can ever really be eradicated. Don’t be misled into thinking you can fight a disease without killing the carrier, without destroying the bacillus. Don’t think you can fight racial tuberculosis without taking care to rid the nation of the carrier of that racial tuberculosis. This Jewish contamination will not subside, this poisoning of the nation will not end, until the carrier himself, the Jew, has been banished from our midst. (Applause).

Oratory like that went down well. Hitler however soon found that it was not the language that the mobs wanted to hear. He called for the hanging of war profiteers, and he identified them as Jews. On August 13, 1920, the police reports show, he devoted a speech for the first time solely to the Jews. He accused them of responsibility for the war and of profiteering. The Nazi Party, he declared, must open a crusade against the Jews. ‘We do not want to whip up a pogrom atmosphere,’ he warned. ‘We must however be fired with a remorseless determination to grasp this evil at its roots and to exterminate it, root and branch.’ A few weeks later he stated explicitly, ‘We cannot skirt around the Jewish problem. It has got to be solved.’


Between 1920 and his seizure of power in 1933, the events need only be sketched in. It will be useful to reproduce here, however, part of a hitherto unpublished record of a secret meeting between Hitler and two of his Party’s financial backers, Prince Wrede and Consul General Scharrer, in the plush Regina Palace hotel in Munich, on December 21, 1922. The latter brought a stenographer with him, who took a note of Hitler’s remarks as he mapped out his political views and intentions, which were often expressed with a startling frankness.

‘I know for a fact that if Bolshevism got the upper hand in Germany,’ he said, ‘I should either be hanging from the nearest lamppost or locked up in some cellar or other. So the question for me is not whether or not I want to undertake this or that, but whether or not we succeed in preventing a Bolshevik take-over. I myself have the blind faith that our movement will win through. We began three and a half years ago with six men,’ he said. ‘Today I can say with confidence that our cause will prevail.’

By their recent prohibitions against the Nazi Party, he continued, the different provincial governments had only helped further the spread of his movement, far beyond the borders of Bavaria.

The Communists were, however, digging in around Hamburg, in northern Germany. ‘I do not believe,’ he admitted, ‘that we shall be able to put together anything significant in the north in time, before the catastrophe occurs. If some incident should now trigger the major conflict, then we shall lose the north, it will be beyond salvation. The most we shall be able to do from down here is to organise a counterstroke. All talk about nationalist organisations in the north is pure bluff…They have no suitably forceful personality. The cities which ought to be the centres of organisation are in the hands of our political enemies.’

After examining the feebleness of the Soldiers’ Councils (‘I am convinced that Bolshevism in Munich is an Utopia,’ he said), Hitler continued: ‘There is no reason for us to resort to force in Bavaria, as our strength is growing from day to day anyway. Every week sees an increment of one or two Hundertschaften [brigades of Nazi stormtroopers], and an increase of several thousand members. So long as our strength is growing we shall have no cause to opt for the path of violence.’ He would resort to force, he said confidentially, only if he felt that the Party could expand no further and that ‘we shall have nothing further to gain by holding back.’ He hoped that when that time came the Bavarian army would supply him with the weapons. ‘I have seventeen Hundertschaften,’ he bragged. ‘With the help of these I can sweep anything off the streets that I don’t like the look of.’ He reminded his two wealthy listeners of how, with only 1,800 Fascists, Mussolini had smashed the Italian general strike. ‘If I throw in these men of mine, as a dynamic and coherent force, at the critical moment, there is nothing I won’t be able to suppress.’

Hitler then set out how he envisaged the new German state developing: ‘First there will be civil war, with a lengthy struggle for power. The European countries that have an interest in Germany’s rebirth will back us – above all Britain. France, on the other hand, will be on the side of the Bolsheviks, as she has the greatest interest in keeping Germany destabilised as long as possible so as to have a free hand for herself in the Rhineland and the Ruhr.’

Hitler expected Britain to back a future German government – provided it generated the requisite impression of reliability – because Germany’s destruction would lead to a French hegemony in Europe, and Britain would find herself relegated to the position of a ‘third-rate world power.’

He expected Italy to share the British – and American – interest in stopping the spread of Bolshevism. ‘We have to keep Italy’s interest in this alive, and we must not put her nose out of joint by making propaganda for our union [Zusammenschluß] with German-speaking Austria, or the regaining of the [Italian] South Tyrol. I have not,’ Hitler emphasised, developing this theme, ‘the slightest time for those who want our foreign policy shackled to the liberation of the South Tyrol…We should find ourselves on bad terms with Italy; and remember, if fighting began [with France] we should not get any coal and raw materials by any other route than via Italy. I have not the slightest intention of shedding German blood for the South Tyrol. We shall have no trouble persuading Germans to fight on the Rhine, but never for Merano or Bolzano…For the time being,’ he stressed, ‘there must be no collision with the Latin peoples.’

And then he said: ‘I believe that we shall be on the march against France before two or three decades are out.’

His remarks about Britain were characterised by benevolence, but he did not expect her to permit Germany to rise above second place.

‘However well inclined Britain may be toward us she will never again allow us to become a great power – not now that she has had a taste of our talents, that is of our scientific prowess before the World War [1914–18] and of our military prowess during it.

…As soon as stability has returned to Germany, more or less, we shall have to undo all the damage that has been done. We can pursue either a global strategy [Weltpolitik] or a Continental strategy. A prerequisite for a global strategy is a broad base here on the Continent. If we go for a global strategy, then we shall always collide with Britain.

We could have pursued a global strategy before the World War but then we should have struck an alliance with Russia. If however Britain had ended up in ruins Germany would not have profited thereby: Russia would have gained India…’ Therefore, Hitler concluded, ‘It will probably be better to adopt a Continental strategy. We should have allied ourselves in ’99 with Britain. Then we could have defeated Russia and had a free hand against France. With Germany master in her own house on the Continent, things would never have come to a war with Britain.’

Turning to the Soviet Union, he addressed these remarkable words to his privileged little audience: ‘The present national [Bolshevik] government in Russia is a danger to us. As soon as the Russians can, they slit the throats of those who have helped them to attain power. That’s why it will be vital to splinter the Russian empire and to divide up her territories and soil, to be settled by German settlers and tilled by the German plough. Then … if we were on good terms with Britain we could solve the French problem without interference from Britain.’

Without using the word itself as yet, he addressed the question of Germany’s Lebensraum: ‘First,’ he said, ‘we must see to it that we get elbow room – that is our top priority…Only then can our government again begin working in the national interest toward a nationalist war. This would certainly be brought to a victorious conclusion. We can take steps to see that the necessary secrets are kept. Before the World War the secrets of things like the 42-centimetre mortar and the flame-thrower were rigorously kept.’ While he believed the British to be too ‘canny’ to guarantee Germany outright, he expected their support in the long run against France, provided each country defined its mutual interests.

Addressing the growing financial crisis in Germany, Hitler told the prince and the consul general: ‘I believe that the Reichsmark’s decline in value will be halted on the day they stop printing money. The government however just keeps printing masses of fresh paper money to camouflage its own bankruptcy…Everywhere in government agencies where there used to be just one man there are now three or four. That’s got to stop. Only a brutal government can make any headway against this paradise for parasites and hangers-on – a dictator to whom personal popularity means nothing.’ Germany needed a new Bismarck, said Hitler.

He himself would make short shrift of his enemies if he came to power: ‘The dictator can reckon with a general strike the moment he makes his appearance,’ he explained. ‘This general strike will give him the ideal opportunity to purge the government agencies. Anybody who refuses to work on the terms that the dictator lays down finds himself fired. Only the best men get hired. The men who got into the government agencies because of the party they belonged to will be out on their ears.’ He repeated that he believed that the German people needed ‘a monarch-like idol’ – but not some mild-mannered king, so much as a ‘full-blooded and ruthless ruler,’ a dictator who would rule with an iron hand, like Oliver Cromwell. There was no such man among their present Royal pretenders. ‘When, after years of this iron rule, the people yearn for moderate leadership – then is the time for a mild and benevolent monarch whom they can idolise. It is something like training a dog: first it is given to a tough handler, and then, when it has been put through the hoops, it is turned over to a friendly owner whom it will serve with all the greater loyalty and devotion.’

Thus spoke Adolf Hitler, aged thirty-three, in December 1922. Touching upon religion, he said simply that Christianity was the only possible ethical foundation for Germany, and that religious strife was the worst misfortune that could befall her. On the law, he said: ‘I consider the properly sworn professional judge to be the only acceptable arbiter for a legal system’ – he opposed lay courts and judges of any hue.

The Jewish Question obviously preoccupied him, as he dwelt on this lastly and at length in this remarkable discourse. He admired Frederick the Great’s solution: ‘He eliminated [ausgeschaltet] the Jews from anywhere they were bound to have a noxious effect, but continued to employ them where use could be made of them. In our political life,’ Hitler continued, ‘the Jews are unquestionably noxious. They are methodically poisoning our people. I always used to regard antisemitism as inhumane, but now my own experiences have converted me into the most fanatical enemy of Judaism: apropos of which, I combat Jewry not as a religion, but as a race.’ He described the Jews as born destroyers, not rulers at all; they had neither culture, nor art, nor architecture of their own, ‘the surest expression of a people’s culture.’ ‘Peoples have a soul,’ said Hitler, ‘while the Jews have none. They are just calculators. That explains why only Jews could have founded Marxism, which negates and destroys the very basis of all culture. With their Marxism, the Jews hoped to create a broad mindless mass of plebs without any real intelligence, a gormless instrument in their hands.’

Was Germany, he asked, obliged to bear the Jewish yoke any longer? ‘The lion is a predatory animal,’ he said by way of answer. ‘It can’t help it – it’s in its nature. Man is not bound however to let himself be mauled by the lion. He must save his skin as best he can, even if the lion comes to harm. A solution of the Jewish problem must be arrived at. If the problem can be solved by common sense, then so much the better all around. If not, then there are two possibilities – either a bloody conflict, or an Armenianization.’ (Was Hitler referring to the secret liquidation of 1,500,000 Armenians by the Turks at the beginning of the century? He was maddeningly vague.) ‘Tactically and politically,’ he explained, ‘I adopt the standpoint that I have to instil in my people the conviction that those who are against us are our mortal enemies.’ A few weeks later, on February 23, 1923, the Munich branch of the Nazi Party received a one-million-Reichsmark donation from Consul General Scharrer.


A few months after that, in November 1923, Hitler launched an abortive revolution in Munich; he was tried, imprisoned in Landsberg fortress, and eventually released. He published Mein Kampf and rebuilt the Party over the next years into a disciplined and authoritarian force with its own Party courts, its brownshirt SA guards and its black-uniformed ‘Praetorian Guard,’ the SS, until at the head of a swollen army of a million Party members he arrived at the chancellery in Berlin in January 1933. It was no mean feat for an unknown, penniless, gas-blinded acting corporal to achieve by no other means than his power of oratory and a driving, dark ambition.

During those years before 1933, Hitler had fashioned his plans into their final form. He had repeated them more coherently in a 1928 manuscript which he never published. Of brutal simplicity, his foreign policies involved enlarging Germany’s dominion from her present 216,000 square miles to over half a million, at Russia and Poland’s expense. His contemporaries were more modest, desiring only to restore Germany’s 1914 frontiers. For Hitler this was the ‘dumbest foreign aim imaginable,’ it was ‘inadequate from the patriotic, and unsatisfactory from the military point of view.’ No, Germany must renounce her obsolete aspirations to overseas colonial markets, and revert instead to ‘a clear, unambiguous Raumpolitik.’ First Germany must ‘create a powerful land force,’ so that foreigners would take her seriously. Then, he wrote in 1928, there must be an alliance with Britain and her empire, so that ‘together we may dictate the rest of world history.’

His oratory during these years had developed most powerfully. His speeches were long and ex tempore, but logical. The suggestive force gripped each man in his audience. As Robespierre once said of Marat, ‘The man was dangerous: he believed in what he said.’

Hitler’s power after 1933 would be founded, as David Lloyd George wrote in 1936, on having kept his promises. In office, he would abolish the class war of the nineteenth century, and create a Germany of equal opportunity for manual and intellectual workers, for rich and poor. ‘He doesn’t care a straw for the intelligentsia,’ Walther Hewel, his Landsberg prison companion, had written on December 14, 1924. ‘They always raise a thousand objections to every decision. The intellectuals he needs will come to him of their own accord, and they will become his leaders.’ Twenty years later, in a secret speech to his generals on January 27, 1944, Hitler himself outlined the pseudo-Darwinian process he had hit upon to select Germany’s new ruling class: he had used the Party itself as a deliberate vehicle for singling out the future leadership material – men of the requisite ruthlessness, whose knees would not fold when the real struggle began.

I set up my fighting manifesto and tailored it deliberately to attract only the toughest and most determined minority of the German people at first.

When we were quite small and unimportant I often told my followers that if this manifesto is preached year after year, in thousands of speeches across the nation, it is bound to act like a magnet: gradually one steel filing after another will detach itself from the public and cling to this magnet, and then the moment will come where there’ll be this minority on the one side and the majority on the other – but this minority will be the one that makes history, because the majority will always follow where there’s a tough minority to lead the way.

In power after 1933, Hitler would adopt the same basic methods to restructure the German nation and toughen his eighty million subjects for the coming ordeal. His confidence in them was well-placed: the Germans were industrious, inventive, and artistic; they had produced great craftsmen, composers, philosophers, and scientists. Hitler once said that their national character had not changed since the Roman historian Tacitus had described the German tribes who had roamed north-west Europe nearly two thousand years before – a ‘wild, brave, and generous blue-eyed people.’ Hitler asserted that if, nonetheless, history had witnessed the Germans repeatedly engulfed by the tide of human affairs, then it was because their feckless leaders had failed them.

It is hard to define in advance the origins of Hitler’s success in strengthening the character of his people. Mussolini never thus succeeded with the Italian people, even in twenty years of Fascist rule. In 1943, the flabby structure of Italian Fascism evaporated after a few air raids and the overthrow of Mussolini. In Germany, however, after ten years of Nazi indoctrination, Hitler’s subjects were able to withstand enemy air attacks – in which fifty or a hundred thousand people were killed overnight – with a stoicism that exasperated their enemies. At the end, when Germany was once again defeated, those enemies had to resort to the most draconian punitive methods, of mass trials, confiscation and expropriation, internment and re-education, before the seeds that Hitler had sown could be eradicated.

Adolf Hitler had built the National Socialist movement in Germany not on capricious electoral votes, but on people, and they gave him – in the vast majority – their unconditional support to the end.

Part I: Approach to Absolute Power

Triumph of the Will • 3,600 Words

Before July 1934 was over, there was further damage to Hitler’s image abroad. In an impatient attempt at overthrowing the dictatorial regime in Vienna, panicky Austrian SS gunmen shot dead the chancellor, Engelbert Dollfuss, in his Viennese office on July 25. Mussolini was deeply shocked at the murder, and this set back German-Italian relations.

In later years Hitler protested his complete ignorance of the plot. The Goebbels diaries, preserved on microfiches in Moscow, and the private papers of the military commander of Bavaria’s Military District VII give the lie to this however. After returning from Venice in June, Hitler had confided to Dr. Goebbels his belief that Mussolini had agreed to give him carte blanche in Austria: ‘Out with Dollfuss!’ was Goebbels note on that. ‘New elections under a neutral man of confidence. Influence of Nazis depending on number of votes. Economic issues to be resolved jointly by Rome and Berlin. Both are agreed. Dollfuss will be notified!’ (The two dictators had also discussed other matters. On disarmament, Mussolini fully endorsed Hitler’s position: ‘France has gone mad,’ he had said. They had also discussed ‘the East’ – they would try to build on a closer friendship with Poland ‘and seek a modus vivendi with Russia.’) Hitler mentioned the coming coup in Vienna to Goebbels over lunch on July 10, and the minister found him conferring secretly with the Austrian Nazi leader Theo Habicht at the annual Richard Wagner festival in Bayreuth on July 22. Goebbels was sceptical as to whether it would come off, but Hitler that morning ordered General Wilhelm Adam to report to him in Bayreuth. To the perplexed general Hitler revealed,

‘Today the Austrian army is going to overthrow the government!’ He revealed that Dr. Anton Rintelen, a prominent Austrian politician, was going to take Dollfuss’s place, and that Rintelen would authorise the return of all Austrian refugees, i.e. the Austrian Nazis who had fled into Germany. Adam’s job would be to equip these Austrian ‘legionaries’ with weapons from German army stocks.

Hitler assured him, ‘The moment I get word from Vienna I’ll inform you, then you will believe me.’ Soon the first reports came in, and they were not good. ‘Big rumpus,’ noted Goebbels. ‘Colossal tension. Awful wait. I’m still sceptical.’ At three p.m. Hitler telephoned. ‘Everything is going according to plan in Vienna. The government building is in our hands. Dollfuss has been injured – the rest of the news is confused as yet. I’ll phone again.’ He never did however, because Dollfuss was dead; and Europe’s capitals were in uproar.

The Habicht plot had failed for three reasons. First, he had exaggerated the size of his following in Austria – particularly the support from the Austrian army. Second, the plot had been leaked to Dollfuss’s cabinet, and some ministers had betaken themselves to safety. And third, the illegal Austrian SA movement, disgruntled by the events of June 30 in Germany, wilfully withheld the support they had promised. The SS gang involved made matters worse for Hitler by appealing in a panic to the German legation for assistance. Hitler disowned them. He closed the frontier, sent a telegram of sympathy to Dollfuss’s widow, and at Goebbels’s suggestion he dismissed Habicht. The assassins were publicly hanged in Vienna.

Two days after Dollfuss’s murder, Hitler spoke frankly to Goebbels about the future. ‘He has a prophetic vision,’ noted the minister. ‘Germany as master of the world. Job for a century.’

Hitler sent Franz von Papen, his vice-chancellor, to Vienna as ‘special ambassador,’ and rushed Dr. Hans Lammers up to Neudeck in East Prussia to notify President Hindenburg. Lammers returned with word that the aged president was dying. On August 1 Hitler himself flew to Neudeck to take leave of the field marshal. It was difficult for the dying and delirious old man to speak, and he kept addressing Hitler as ‘your Majesty.’ That evening Hitler told his Cabinet that the doctors gave Hindenburg less than twenty-four hours to live. The Cabinet enacted the following law:

The office of Reich President is combined with that of Reich Chancellor. In consequence, the previous powers of the Reich President will devolve on the Führer and Reich Chancellor, Adolf Hitler. He will nominate his own deputy.

Hindenburg died next day, his last words being to convey his best wishes to Herr Hitler. In a plebiscite on August 19, 90 percent of the German people voted in favour of the new law. ‘Thus,’ Hitler said triumphantly to Blomberg, ‘I have conquered Germany.’


The oath of allegiance of the Wehrmacht was now transferred to the Führer. Only Blomberg as war minister could actually issue orders however, a formal obstacle which would not be removed until 1938.

Meantime, Himmler’s own SS regiments began to appear, the spectacular parades of his tall and muscular troops being the highlight of the Party Rally in 1934. The SS uniform was black and elegant, and there was no shortage of candidates for this immaculate elite that Himmler had created. The SS had an enforced mysticism which even Hitler found slightly ludicrous: in 1940, witnessing the pagan Yule celebration of the SS Leibstandarte at Christmas, he quietly mocked to an adjutant that this would never take the place of ‘Silent Night.’ He announced to Blomberg that he would allow the SS to raise only one armed division, the Verfügungstruppe – the forerunner of the Waffen SS.

To Hitler the Waffen SS was a fourth armed service, an elite. As late as 1942 he ruled that the peacetime ratio of Waffen SS to regular army should be pegged at one to ten. The army, however, envied and mistrusted the SS. Now that the SA had been emasculated General von Fritsch suspected that Himmler was intriguing against him. Generals claimed that the SS was assembling dossiers on them. Hidden microphones were actually discovered in the military district HQ in Munich. In 1938, when the safe in Blomberg’s office would not shut properly, it was found to be jammed by a wire which was traced to an amplifier beneath the floorboards; the Abwehr traced the wiring to the Gestapo HQ. The second half of 1934 was marked by this open hostility between the Party and the Wehrmacht. The Party suspected that Fritsch was plotting an army coup against Hitler. Colonel Karl Bodenschatz heard his boss Göring discuss this with Hitler. Milch also confirmed these rumours. Hitler may have anticipated an assassination attempt. Believing himself even to be dying, in December 1934 he bent his mind to Germany’s future without him, and on the thirteenth he persuaded the Cabinet to pass a law allowing him to name his own successor. A noisy campaign began, fed by foreign newspapers and émigré organisations abroad, with talk of an impending bloodbath.

Hitler’s nerves were so frayed that he summoned Party and Wehrmacht leaders to the Prussian State Opera house at short notice on January 3, 1935, and in a dramatic two-hour speech again stated his unswerving loyalty to the Wehrmacht, which he described as a pillar of state as vital for Germany’s future as the Nazi Party – ‘both of equal importance and invincible as long as they remain united.’ Werner Best later recalled that the speech was a mixture of threats and exhortations: ‘Its climax was his despairing pronouncement that he would put a bullet through his brains if the various Reich agencies refused to work in harmony.’ Admiral Hermann Boehm recalled Hitler as saying, ‘Suppose some Party official comes up to me and says, “That’s all well and good, mein Führer, but General So-and-so is talking and working against you.” Then I reply, “I won’t believe it.” And if he then says, “Here is the written proof, mein Führer,” I tear the rubbish up, because my faith in the Wehrmacht is unshakeable.’ Goebbels and Göring drafted a declaration of loyalty for the latter to read out to the Führer.

‘After the Führer’s speech,’ Fritsch himself recorded, ‘the witch-hunt by the SS died down for a time.’


Hitler attended to the Wehrmacht body and soul. He documented a genuine interest in military technology, his unusually receptive brain soaking up the data and dimensions shown to him so well that he could regurgitate them years later without an error. On February 6, 1935, he toured the army’s research station at Kummersdorf – the first chancellor to do so since 1890. Blomberg and Reichenau actively supported the modern tank and armoured car prototypes displayed there by Guderian – but neither Fritsch nor his chief of staff, Ludwig Beck, looked favourably on this modern war technology. Beck was a calm, dedicated staff officer appointed in October 1933 for his right-wing views. He had connived in the events of June 30, 1934. He profoundly mistrusted radio however and all other newfangled gadgets.

After this display, Hitler decided he could flex the new Wehrmacht muscles. On March 9, 1935 – a Saturday – he formally announced that Germany had created a secret air force. A week later he reintroduced conscription in violation of Versailles. Goebbels recorded how that decision was reached: ‘Discussions all Saturday morning [March 16]. Führer argues with Blomberg over the number of divisions. Gets his own way: thirty-six. Grand proclamation to the people: Law on rebuilding the armed forces; conscription. To put an end to the haggling, you’ve got to create faits accomplis. The other side aren’t going to war over it. As for their curses: stuff cotton wool in our ears. Cabinet 1:30 p.m.: Führer sets out situation. Very grim. Then reads out the proclamation and law. Powerful emotions seize us all. Blomberg rises to his feet and thanks the Führer. Heil Hitler, for the first time in these rooms. With one law, Versailles is expunged. Historic hour. Tremor of eternity! Gratitude that we are able to witness and take part in this.’ Mussolini protested uneasily, and joined with France to repeat, at a mid-April 1935 meeting at Stresa, that any German violation of the demilitarised zone along the Rhine would call forth Italian intervention as well as British and French, under the terms of the Locarno treaty. General von Fritsch informed his army generals that any German violation of the Rhineland’s status that year would certainly be ‘the drop that overflows the barrel.’

That same month, however, Hitler learned that France was preparing an alliance with the Soviet Union, and that it was to be extended to include Czechoslovakia. Twenty-five big airfields were already under construction – far in excess of any legitimate Czech needs. On April 24 Fritsch assured his generals, ‘The Führer is determined to avoid war, and will leave no stone unturned to that end. Whether he succeeds in this depends on us alone.’ On May 2 Blomberg therefore circulated a secret provisional directive for Operation Training (Schulung), a possible surprise attack on Czechoslovakia designed to eliminate that risk in the event of war in the west. On July 10 Blomberg issued a further important directive. It provided that any French invasion of the Rhineland would be used as a casus belli by Hitler: he would stage a holding action there until the Rhine bridges could be blown. The Wehrmacht would then defend Germany on the Rhine.

In the meantime Hitler had resumed his overtures to Britain, again choosing Joachim von Ribbentrop as his negotiator. As he elucidated to his appreciative generals, speaking in Munich on March 17, ‘My foreign ministry doesn’t influence foreign policy – it just registers political occurrences.’ His own view was: ‘The British will come running to us sooner or later.’

Later that month Sir John Simon, the British foreign secretary, and Anthony Eden appeared in Berlin to try to secure some limitations on German rearmament. Hitler received them in the Congress Room of the chancellery and bragged that his army was expanding to thirty-six divisions, which was true, and that his Luftwaffe was already as big as the RAF, which was not. Ribbentrop delivered this advice to Hitler on April 3: ‘I definitely do not believe in a serious development this summer.’ If Germany reached the spring of 1936 without trouble, then the danger of a crisis was past. Simon’s visit had gone well, he said; he had returned to London convinced of the Führer’s desire for peace. In fact Sir John had talked of a new German colonial empire, drawing his hand across the map of Africa from the French Congo to Italian Somaliland, but Hitler had interrupted him: ‘I am not interested in colonies at present.’ He had proposed that the British government agree to an expansion of the German navy to a mere thirty-five percent of the British tonnage. It was Ribbentrop’s undoubted achievement that Britain eventually agreed. The Anglo-German naval agreement that was now signed inspired Hitler to believe that a far-reaching alliance would be possible with Britain later on.

In May 1935 he had had another, more personal preoccupation, a polyp that had begun to obstruct his vocal cords. He had always had a morbid terror of cancer, having seen his mother die of it, and he secretly feared that this polyp might prove to be a cancerous growth, doomed to cut short his global career before it had really begun. On May 5 the polyp was removed by Berlin’s leading throat surgeon, Professor Carl von Eicken. Hitler was forbidden to speak for three days – he had to write down his instructions, even to Göring, who was bound for a conference with Mussolini in Rome. On May 25, as news reached him that the Anglo-German naval agreement was about to be signed, he was in Hamburg. Here too he was given the results of the pathological tests on the polyp – it was a non-malignant growth. ‘Today,’ he rejoiced to Admiral Raeder, ‘is the happiest day of my life. This morning I was informed by my doctor that my throat infection is not serious; and this afternoon I receive this tremendous political news,’ meaning the naval agreement.


At their last meeting in August 1934, the dying Field Marshal Hindenburg had whispered, ‘Now, Herr Hitler, don’t trust the Italians!’ Hitler had reported this warning to his Cabinet, and added – according to Schwerin von Krosigk – that if ever he had to choose between Britain and Italy, Hindenburg’s words would form the basis of his choice. His personal adjutant Fritz Wiedemann also quoted him as having said, ‘If I have to choose between Britain and Mussolini, the choice is clear: Italy is obviously closer ideologically, but politically I see a future only in alliance with the British.’ Not surprisingly, Hitler considered Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia on October 3, 1935, inopportune: ‘The time for struggle between the static and the dynamic nations is still some way off,’ he declared. Britain and France announced sanctions against Italy. Hitler had to choose, and he chose Italy after all. He could not afford to see Fascist Italy destroyed. To his leading generals and ministers – as Keitel recalled – Hitler explained, ‘The day may come,’ he said, ‘when Germany too has to stand up against outside intervention – the day when we also begin to stake our rightful claims.’

Wiedemann recalls, ‘When Hitler was preoccupied with some plans or other, he often shut himself up alone in his room. You could hear him pacing restlessly up and down. The really big decisions like rearmament, occupation of the Rhineland, etc., he always took alone – mostly against the counsels of his staff and advisers. He knew full well that he alone had to bear the responsibility.’


Powerfully influenced by Dr. Goebbels, Hitler now abandoned the path of statesmanlike and responsible policies and embarked upon the slippery ascent toward European hegemony. By mid-January 1936 he had resolved to bolster up his none-too-robust regime by a fresh coup: he would remilitarise Germany’s Rhineland – again in violation of Versailles. As a pretext he would take France’s imminent ratification of her pact with Russia. Hitler could argue that the pact would be irreconcilable with Locarno. He revealed his intention to Dr. Goebbels on January 20. On February 27, over lunch with Göring and Dr. Goebbels, he still felt it premature to march into the Rhineland. The next day however France confirmed her treaty with the Russians. Goebbels, remarkably, urged caution, but Hitler had made up his mind. On March 2 Blomberg issued a preliminary directive. The next day Fritsch sent instructions for three infantry battalions to cross the Rhine to Aachen, Trier, and Saarbrücken on a given date; but Fritsch, referring to the July 10, 1935, directive, made clear that should the French counterattack, the German forces might have to withdraw to the Rhine.

On March 4 the French ratified the Russian pact. On the fifth Blomberg ordered the occupation of the Rhineland to begin two days later. The Cabinet approved. The infantry marched in. Hitler’s step was greeted by a chorus of protest from the West, and by noisy sabre-rattling from the French. Blomberg lost his nerve and begged Hitler to withdraw before shooting broke out. The three German attachés in London sent a joint telegram of warning to Blomberg. Hitler’s nerves stood the test better however, and neither Britain nor France moved a muscle against him; he attributed this in part to the intervention of Britain’s new monarch, Edward VIII. ‘If we keep our nerve now,’ felt Goebbels, reviewing the two week crisis in his diary, ‘we’ve won.’

The German public was demonstrably impressed by Hitler’s methods. At the end of March 1936 he received another overwhelming vote of popular support – this time the vote was over ninety to one in his favour.


Contemplating Germany’s economic position in 1936, Hitler chafed that so little had been accomplished to make the country self-sufficient – a basic prerequisite for war. In April he put Hermann Göring in charge of raw materials and foreign currency questions. Aboard his yacht Grille at Kiel he told Goebbels in May of his vision of a United States of Europe under German leadership. ‘Years, perhaps even decades of work toward that end,’ commented the minister in his diary. ‘But what an end!’ ‘The Führer,’ wrote Goebbels after a secret conference with Hitler, Papen, and Ribbentrop in June, ‘sees a conflict coming in the Far East. Japan will thrash Russia. And then our great hour will come. Then we shall have to carve off enough territory to last us a hundred years. Let’s hope that we’re ready, and that the Führer is still alive.’ Impatient at industry’s slow progress, in August Hitler dictated to his secretary a rambling memorandum on the economy. ‘Four precious years have passed,’ he complained:

Without doubt, we could by today already have been wholly independent of fuel, rubber, and even (in part) iron-ore imports from abroad.

Germany, he ordered, must be ‘capable of waging a worthwhile war against the Soviet Union,’ because ‘a victory over Germany by Bolshevism would lead not to a new Versailles treaty but to the final annihilation, indeed the extermination [Ausrottung] of the German nation.’ Hitler announced that he had to resolve once and for all Germany’s economic problems by enlarging her Lebensraum and thus her sources of raw materials and food. In detail, Hitler stated these two demands: ‘First: in four years the German army must be ready for action; and second, in four years the German economy must be ready for war.’

Hermann Göring himself, summoned to the Obersalzberg, was appointed head of this new ‘Four-Year Plan.’ Wiedemann would recall Göring remarking to Hitler: ‘Mein Führer, if I am not mistaken in my views, a major war is inevitable within the next five years.’ He read Hitler’s memorandum to the other Cabinet members on September 4, making one thing clear: ‘It is based on the assumption that war with Russia is inevitable. What the Russians have accomplished, so can we.’ Göring’s state secretary, Paul Körner, wrote on September 7 to a colleague: ‘Göring came back from the Obersalzberg bringing us the new guidelines for our work over the next years. Unfortunately I can’t tell you more… but when you get back to Berlin, you’ll find a clear path mapped out ahead.’


By the autumn of 1936 Hitler was already deeply involved in the Spanish Civil War. On July 25, in the interval of an opera at Bayreuth, emissaries from an obscure Spanish general, Francisco Franco, had been introduced to him by Canaris. They brought an appeal from Franco for aid in overthrowing the Republican government in Madrid. Franco wanted German transport planes to ferry Moroccan troops from Tetuan in North Africa to the Spanish mainland. By October a full-scale civil war was raging. Britain and France were committed with volunteers on the Republican side, and the first Russian tanks and bombs were detected. After discussing it with Göring, Milch, and Albert Kesselring – the Luftwaffe’s new chief of staff – Hitler authorised full-scale Luftwaffe intervention. Göring sent a bomber squadron under the command of Colonel Wolfram von Richthofen to Spain on November 6.

Hitler welcomed this war for various reasons. He could test the new German equipment under combat conditions, and train successive waves of officers and men. Göring also welcomed it as a means of obtaining from Spain raw materials like tungsten, copper, and tannin for the Four-Year Plan. A day or two after Hitler delivered a ‘major political speech’ to his Cabinet on December 1 – of which no note survives – Göring commented to his department heads that the Luftwaffe was to be ready ‘for instant action, regardless of the cost.’ Germany wanted peace until 1941, Göring told them: ‘We can never be sure however that there won’t be complications before then. We are in a sense already at war, even if not yet a shooting war.’

‘One Day, The World’ • 3,800 Words

By early 1937 the Nazi state could be likened to an atomic structure: the nucleus was Adolf Hitler, surrounded by successive rings of henchmen. In the innermost ring were Göring, Himmler, and Goebbels – privy to his most secret ambitions and to the means that he was proposing to employ to realise them. In the outer rings were the ministers, commanders in chief, and diplomats, each aware of only a small sector of the plans radiating from the nucleus. Beyond them was the German people. The whole structure was bound by the atomic forces of the police state – by the fear of the Gestapo and of Himmler’s renowned establishments at Dachau and elsewhere.

There were advantages to being Führer. He had paid no income tax since 1933 – neither on the royalties for Mein Kampf, nor on the licence income for using his likeness on postage stamps. The facts were kept carefully secret, but he cared little for his image. He resisted every attempt made by well-meaning people to change his ‘postman’s cap,’ his crinkly boots, and his outmoded moustache for styles more suited to the thirties. He desired neither present publicity nor the acclaim of posterity. He wrote to Hans Lammers directing that if the British Who’s Who really insisted on having details of his life, they were to be given only the barest outline. As he explained years later, in a secret speech to his generals in 1944, when they protested at his harsh decisions on the Russian front: ‘It is a matter of supreme indifference to me what posterity may think.’


Early in November 1937 Hitler told his staff that an outright Franco victory in Spain was not desirable: ‘Our interest is in maintaining existing tensions in the Mediterranean.’ That Franco was fighting the Communist backed Republicans was of only secondary importance. In April 1938 Hitler would muse out loud to Reinhard Spitzy, Ribbentrop’s private secretary: ‘We have backed the wrong horse in Spain. We would have done better to back the Republicans. They represent the people. We could always have converted these socialists into good National Socialists later. The people around Franco are all reactionary clerics, aristocrats, and moneybags – they’ve nothing in common with us Nazis at all!’

His relations with Mussolini were equally illogical, springing from nothing more substantial than what he termed in Mein Kampf his ‘intense admiration for this great man south of the Alps.’ He lavished gifts on the Italian dictator. Henriette Hoffmann has described how Hitler was to be seen in his favourite Munich cafe with a bookbinder, inspecting leather samples for a presentation set of the philosopher Nietzsche’s works for Mussolini: Hitler rubbed the leather skins, sniffed them, and finally rejected them all with the pronouncement, ‘The leather must be glacier-green’ – meaning the bleak blue-green of the glaciers from which Nietzsche’s Zarathustra contemplated the world.

Despite Hitler’s official visit to Venice in June 1934, Mussolini had gone his own way. Austria remained a bone of contention between them. Now that they were allies in Spain however the Duce began to refer to an ‘Axis’ between Rome and Berlin. In September 1937 the Duce was Hitler’s guest for a week of the biggest military manoeuvres in Germany since 1918. Hitler showed off Germany’s new weapons and machinery – like the high-pressure steam turbines being built for the new battle cruiser Scharnhorst. In Berlin the Duce addressed a crowd of 750,000. Afterward, a cloudburst brought Berlin’s traffic to a standstill. At the President’s Palace the Duce, soaked to the skin, encountered German officialdom at its most mulish, for a house rule dating back to the mists of Prussian history prohibited residents from drawing hot water for baths after seven p.m.


The German public found Hitler’s interest in Mussolini as incomprehensible as his shift to a pro-Japanese policy in the Far East. Until 1937 Blomberg, the army, and the foreign ministry had persuaded him to maintain an influential mission in China. The expectation was that the Chinese leader, Chiang Kai-shek, would exchange raw materials for German guns, ammunition, and arms factories. Hitler saw Chiang as corrupt and wife-dominated however, and predicted that his lack of contact with the people would drive the Chinese into the arms of the Bolsheviks. In 1936 he had authorised German-Japanese staff talks in Berlin, initiated by the Japanese military attaché, General Hiroshi Oshima, and Ribbentrop’s bureau. Again the foreign minister Neurath was left in the dark. After the Japanese declaration of war on China in June 1937, Hitler cancelled German aid to China. Ribbentrop demanded a military Tripartite Pact between Germany, Japan, and Italy, ‘in anticipation of the inevitable conflict with the western powers.’ The pact was signed in Rome on November 6, 1937.

It was concrete evidence of Hitler’s smouldering disenchantment with the British. Ever since 1922 Hitler had looked on Britain as a future partner. He frankly admired the ruthlessness with which the British had grasped their empire. He had devoured volumes of English folklore. He knew that the three white rings on sailors’ collars denoted Admiral Horatio Nelson’s victories. He had repeatedly affirmed, ‘The collapse of the British Empire would be a great misfortune for Germany.’ Now he began sketching vague plans for assisting Britain if ever her colonies in the Far East should be attacked.

Ribbentrop shared his sentiments. He had already introduced numerous influential Englishmen to the Führer. In 1945 the Americans captured the transcripts of some of these audiences – with Lord Beaverbrook, proprietor of the Daily Express, on November 22, 1935; with Stanley Baldwin’s private secretary Tom Jones on May 17, 1936; with the conductor Sir Thomas Beecham on November 13, 1936, and with many others. While these records have since vanished, Ribbentrop’s own notes have now surfaced. He reported to Hitler that he had assured Tom Jones again and again that ever since Hitler had begun with seven men in Munich ‘absolute co-operation and friendship between Britain and Germany had been a cornerstone of his foreign policy.’ Ribbentrop would explain to the Turkish diplomat Acikalin in 1941 that far from being the Führer’s ‘evil genius,’ the fact was that he had always advised Hitler to bend over backward to secure Britain’s friendship. As ambassador in London, Ribbentrop would now secretly offer Baldwin an ‘offensive and defensive alliance.’

It was a tragedy that Hitler knew so few Englishmen. He had met the Mitfords, Sir Oswald Mosley, Lords Londonderry and Rothermere, and the journalist Ward Price; and Major General J. F. C. Fuller, the acknowledged British tank expert, had also confidentially seen him. In September 1936, the wartime prime minister David Lloyd George spent two weeks in Germany as his guest, and admiringly wrote in the Daily Express how Hitler had united Catholic and Protestant, employer and artisan, rich and poor into one people – Ein Volk, in fact. (The British press magnate Cecil King would write in his diary four years later. ‘Lloyd George spoke of Hitler as the greatest figure in Europe since Napoleon and possibly greater than him.’) Lloyd George revealed that in 1918 the British were on the point of throwing in the sponge, since Field Marshal Earl Haig had indicated that the Allied offensive could not continue much longer. Hitler would not tire of repeating the point to his weary generals when their own war entered its bleaker years.

In June, there was another contact with the Anglo-Saxon world when William Mackenzie King, the Canadian premier, had a two-hour talk with Hitler (he wrote in his diary his favourable impressions of the Nazis’ ‘constructive’ work). To Hitler however the flavour of all the reports from London was that despite his secret assurances Britain had resumed a barely concealed rearmament effort, particularly of the RAF; and there was therefore a real time limit on achieving his secret strategic ambitions in the east. His military attaché reported from London on February 19, 1937: ‘In any war, time will work for Britain, but only if she can survive initial defeats which would make it impossible for her to fight on.’

Hitler had explained to Ribbentrop back in 1935 that he was not proposing to repeat Admiral von Tirpitz’s earlier error in getting involved in an arms race; he was going to concede naval supremacy to the British, and hope that they would make him a similar concession with regard to Germany’s future land armies. In September 1938, however, the German naval staff would sadly summarise: ‘The realisation has dawned on the navy and the Führer over the last one and a half years that, in contrast to what the Führer had hoped for at the time of the signing of the naval agreement, Britain cannot be excluded as a possible future enemy.’

Hitler had certainly not anticipated this ‘estrangement’; he privately told Julius Schaub and others on his staff that it would not have occurred had Edward VIII not been forced to abdicate (in December 1936). His successor, the weak and ill-prepared King George VI, was wholly in the grip of his ‘evil and anti-German advisers.’ When Edward, now Duke of Windsor, visited Berchtesgaden in October 1937 he told Hitler much that confirmed this view. Unfortunately, the record of their meeting would also vanish from the files captured in 1945.


A less tangible reason for Hitler’s restlessness was the realisation that the years were slipping by, while his grand design was remaining unfulfilled. The same uninspiring faces assembled in the Cabinet room. A civil servant, the Gestapo official Werner Best, who sat in on one such meeting in 1937, found that the Führer had become ‘increasingly nervous, bad-tempered, impatient, gloomy, abrupt, distrustful, unjust, dogmatic, and intractable. Glowering,’ wrote Best, ‘he listened to the submissions of the Reich ministers and retorted in a surly voice. His aversion to topics, to the wrangling, and even to the people present was obvious.’ Hitler felt himself succumbing to the inertia of government bureaucracy. He took to appointing special plenipotentiaries to perform specific tasks. Cabinet meetings as such virtually ceased late in 1937. Instead Hitler dealt directly – through Lammers – with affairs of state, and he began to communicate his will directly to the ministers and generals without discussion.

With the end of Cabinet government in Germany things moved faster. Many times in 1937 and 1938 he spoke in private to Goebbels of his burning ambition to undo for ever the humiliation inflicted upon Germany by the Peace of Westphalia, which had brought the Thirty Years War to an end in 1648. A psychological requisite was the proper processing of public opinion. He was to explain in November 1938, with remarkable frankness:

It was only by harping on Germany’s desire and search for peace that I managed, little by little, to secure the freedom of action and the armaments that we needed to take each successive step.

The first target would be Austria. He proposed to win her by peaceful means if possible. Earlier in July 1937 he had appointed an SS Gruppenführer, Dr. Wilhelm Keppler, to act as the Nazi Party’s special agent for Austrian affairs; but he warned Keppler that he would not contemplate a revolutionary solution. That same month Hitler was deeply moved by the participation at the big Breslau song festival of contingents from the German-speaking areas outside the Reich’s frontiers – in Austria and Czechoslovakia. He made passing reference in his speech to ‘95 million Germans,’ of whom only 68 million were at present part of his Reich. The Austrian contingent, in bright national costumes, stormed his tribune; the women wept uncontrollably. When Goebbels showed him the newsreels, Hitler ordered them suppressed to avoid reprisals against the Austrians seen cheering him; but it was a scene to which he frequently referred in private during the coming months. Visiting Goebbels’s villa at Schwanenwerder on the day after the festival, he confirmed that he was planning to make a ‘clean sweep’ in Austria, and that Czechoslovakia’s turn would follow. There too there was a large German minority. Quite apart from the 150,000 counted in 1930 in the more remote Slovakia, there were three and a half million ethnic Germans ‘trapped’ in Bohemia and Moravia by the artificial frontiers which had created Czechoslovakia in 1919.

Hitler denied the Czechs any right to be in Bohemia and Moravia at all: they had not filtered in until the sixth or seventh centuries. ‘The Czechs are past masters at infiltration,’ he was to state in October 1941. ‘Take Vienna: before the World War, only about 170 of the 1,800 Imperial court officials were of German origin – all the rest, right up to the top, were Czechs.’ Most of the ethnic Germans lived in the border ‘Sudeten territories’ where Czech and French engineers had laboured for years to erect fortifications. The Czech president, Dr. Eduard Bene, had ruthlessly enforced the ‘Czechification’ of the local administration of these territories; Hitler described him inelegantly to Goebbels as ‘a crafty, squinty-eyed little rat.’ Baron von Neurath had tried to induce him to mollify these policies, without success.

The question was: when should Hitler strike? Spitzy recalls one scene at this time, of Hitler scanning the latest agency reports through gold-rimmed spectacles, while Ribbentrop peered over his shoulder. ‘Mein Führer,’ said Ribbentrop, ‘I think we shall soon have to draw our sword from its scabbard!’ ‘No, Ribbentrop,’ responded Hitler. ‘Not yet.’

Blomberg’s last directive to the Wehrmacht, in June 1937, had been primarily defensive. It had dwelt upon only two minor contingencies: ‘Otto,’ a German attack on Austria should she restore the hated Habsburg monarchy; and ‘Green,’ a surprise attack on Czechoslovakia if France or Russia invaded Germany (because the Russian air force must first be prevented from using the now-completed airfields in Czechoslovakia). General von Fritsch, the army’s Commander in Chief, had dutifully ordered the army to study ways of breaching the Czech fortifications. Lunching with Goebbels on November 5, 1937 Hitler asked the propaganda minister to go easy on the Czechs for the time being, as they could not do anything about them yet. ‘The Czechs are crazy,’ reflected Goebbels, describing this conversation in his diary. ‘They are surrounded by a hundred million enemies whose land and people they have usurped. Na, prost!’ Hitler also instructed him to downplay both their future colonial demands and the church problem: they had to keep their propaganda powder dry.

To Hitler it seemed that his army lacked enthusiasm. It certainly lacked ammunition and arms for a long conflict. Germany was gripped by a severe steel shortage. Early in 1937 the three services had been ordered to cut back their arms budgets. The navy argued emphatically against any reduction of warship construction now that Britain was emerging as a possible enemy too. The gap could not however be bridged. In consequence of the launchings planned in 1938, of the two battleships Bismarck and Tirpitz, all construction would have to be postponed except for one cruiser and one carrier. The Luftwaffe pointed out that it was getting 70,000 tons of steel a month. At Blomberg’s suggestion Hitler called the Commander in Chief to the chancellery to settle the dispute.

Such was the background of one of Hitler’s most portentous secret conferences – the so-called ‘Hossbach Conference’ of November 5, 1937 (the afternoon of his admonitory talk with Goebbels). Hitler decided to use this opportunity to reveal to them some of his secret goals (or, as he put it to Göring, ‘to put some steam up Fritsch’s pants’). Colonel Friedrich Hossbach, his Wehrmacht adjutant, wrote a summary five days later of the proceedings. Part of this has survived; so has a telegram sent by the French ambassador reporting what he had learned of Hitler’s long meeting, and of the large number of generals and admirals summoned to the chancellery.

It was not a formal Cabinet meeting. The subject was far too important for such an audience, Hitler explained; but to lend solemnity to the proceedings (as he told Göring) he did invite foreign minister von Neurath, along with Blomberg, Göring, Raeder, and Fritsch to join him in the glass-walled conservatory of his ‘official residence,’ a wing of the chancellery. The glass doors were closed and a thick curtain drawn across. The dozen or so munitions and economics experts whom Blomberg had also rounded up, fruitlessly as it turned out, had to kick their heels for the next four hours in the smoking room next door. When the rest of the conference ended at 8:30 p.m., the word passed around:

‘The navy has won!’ and ‘Only the navy gets twenty thousand tons.’

In that part of the speech of which Hossbach’s record has survived, Hitler reiterated his determination to launch a war to solve Germany’s Lebensraum problems within the next five or six years. As a first stage he might, under certain circumstances, order a ‘lightning attack’ on neighbouring Czechoslovakia during 1938. Hitler’s view was that Britain had already tacitly written off Czechoslovakia, and that France would follow suit. He was so emphatic that Fritsch proposed cancelling his projected leave in Egypt, due to start in ten days’ time. No objections were raised, either then or later. A directive relating to ‘Green’ was issued by Blomberg’s ministry on December 21: the western frontier defences would have to be improved, but Hitler would try to avoid war on two fronts and taking any other military or economic risks; should the political situation not develop as desired, ‘Green’ might have to be postponed for some years. On the other hand, the directive said, a situation might arise depriving Czechoslovakia of all her potential allies except Russia: ‘Then “Green” will take effect even before Germany is fully prepared for war.’

Blomberg’s directive shows how little he appreciated the full scope of Hitler’s ambitions. As anyone who had read Chapter 14 of Mein Kampf knew, Hitler had set his sights much further afield. From his very first speeches he had drawn attention to Russia’s open spaces; and if we apply the only proper yardstick, if we examine his long-term material preparations, only one conclusion remains – that his ‘dream land,’ his new empire, awaited him in the east. One such clue is in German admiralty files, a letter from the naval commandant at Pillau in East Prussia reporting a conversation between Hitler and the local Party gauleiter, Erich Koch, in June 1937: Hitler had, he said, warned of Pillau’s coming importance as a naval base ‘even more powerful than Kiel or Wilhelmshaven,’ to accommodate a bigger fleet in future years. ‘In the Führer’s view the time will come – in say six or seven years – when Germany can progress from her present defensive posture to an offensive policy. Within Europe, this kind of development will only be possible toward the east.’

It is regrettable that no records have been found of most of Hitler’s important speeches to his gauleiters, like that on June 2, 1937, to which Kochwas probably referring. One speech to Party leaders survives on discs. In this harangue, delivered on November 23, 1937, he proclaimed: ‘The British purchased their entire empire with less blood than we Germans lost in the World War alone…World empires are won only by revolutionary movements.’ He is heard adding later, ‘Today the German nation has at last acquired what it lacked for centuries – an organised leadership of the people.’

Hitler was not interested in overseas conquests. Therefore, when Lord Halifax, the British statesman, visited him in Bavaria on November 19 to discuss colonies for Germany in Africa he failed to excite the Führer’s interest.


By the end of 1937 it was clear that the coming year would be dominated by two factors – by Hitler’s ardent resolve to begin his fight for Lebensraum and by the growing certainty that Britain would do all she could to thwart him. On December 27 Ribbentrop, now Hitler’s ambassador in London, submitted to him an analysis of Britain’s attitude.[18]This document, which the author obtained, clearly proves that Ribbentrop did warn Hitler that Britain would fight. The document was ‘not found’ by the editors of the Allied official publication, Documents on German Foreign Policy. She now regarded Germany as her most deadly potential enemy, he said. Chamberlain was currently formulating a new initiative with the hope of purchasing peace in Europe, in return for which the British would offer colonies, and certain concessions on Austria and Czechoslovakia. But, he warned, while the British were largely in favour of a lasting agreement with Germany, there was a hostile ruling class that could always swing the British public around to support war, for example by atrocity-mongering against the Nazis. There was, wrote Ribbentrop, a ‘heroic’ ruling class that would not shrink from war to protect their material interests as a world power. ‘When Britain sees the odds improve, she will fight.’

If Britain continues in future to block Germany at every turn, then there can be no doubt but that the two nations will ultimately drift apart. Nonetheless, it seems proper to me that our future policies should remain anchored to striving for agreement with Britain. The embassy will therefore work consistently toward an Anglo-German entente.

On January 2, 1938, Ribbentrop significantly amended this view. ‘Today,’ he wrote to the Führer, ‘I no longer believe in a rapprochement. Britain does not want a Germany of superior strength in the offing as a permanent threat to her islands. That is why she will fight.’

The upshot was a demand by Hitler later in January for a strengthening of the German fleet. By the end of 1944 there were to be four battleships, although not the six the navy had previously planned.

On January 21 he delivered the first of many secret speeches to his generals. An anonymous three-page summary exists, showing that Hitler began with a description of the Roman Empire, and how thereafter Christianity had given western civilisation the inner unity it needed to stave off eastern invasions. ‘Only one man can lead, but that man shoulders the entire burden of responsibility. It is a grave burden. Believe me, generals,… my nerves have gone to pieces and I just cannot sleep any longer for worry about Germany.’ Germany’s food situation was particularly grim.

Germany’s position is really bleak. Day and night I battle with the problem. One fact leads me to believe however that there may be hope for the German nation yet: if we look closely at the ruling nations of this earth – the British, French, and Americans – the statistics show that only a vanishingly small component of them, perhaps 40 or 50 million pure-blooded citizens of the ruling country, are controlling millions of other human beings and gigantic areas of the world.

There is only one nation on earth, living in the heart of Europe in great compactness, of uniform race and language, tightly concentrated: and that is the German nation, with 110 million Germans in Central Europe. This comparison gives us cause to hope. One day the entire world must and shall belong to this united block of Central Europe.


[18] This document, which the author obtained, clearly proves that Ribbentrop did warn Hitler that Britain would fight. The document was ‘not found’ by the editors of the Allied official publication, Documents on German Foreign Policy.

First Lady • 5,300 Words

At one end of that broad Munich boulevard, the Ludwig Strasse, is the Victory Arch; at the other, the grimy stone Feldherrnhalle mausoleum.

Here, unsuspected by the silent crowds lining the icy sidewalks as dawn rose on December 22, 1937, Nazi Germany had jolted imperceptibly onto the course that was to lead it to ultimate ruination. It happened like this: General Erich Ludendorff, Hindenburg’s old chief of staff in the Great War, had died, and his simple oak coffin was lying in the shadow of the Victory Arch draped with the Kaiser’s colours and flanked by tall, black-shrouded pylons topped with bowls of lingering fire. High-ranking officers of the new Wehrmacht – the armed services – had stood, stiffly frozen, all night at each corner of the bier, carrying on silken cushions the eighty medals that the departed warrior had earned.

Hitler had arrived just before ten a.m., Werner von Blomberg – newly promoted to field marshal – had thrown his arm up in salute; General Hermann Göring, the Luftwaffe’s commander and most powerful man after Hitler and Blomberg, had followed suit. (The army’s commander, Baron Werner von Fritsch, was still in Egypt on holiday.) To the thud of muffled drums, six officers had hoisted the coffin onto a gun carriage.

The photographs show Hitler walking alone and ahead of his commanders and ministers, bareheaded, his face a mask, conscious that one hundred thousand eyes were trained on him. This, he knew, was what his people wanted to see: their Führer, followed by his faithful henchmen, surrounded by his subjects, united in a common act of spectacle and grandeur. As the last melancholy strains of ‘The Faithful Comrade’ died away, a nineteen-gun salute began from the battery in the Hofgarten, scattering indignant pigeons into the misty air.

Hitler left with his adjutants for the courtyard where the cars were waiting. Here Blomberg approached him: ‘Mein Führer, can I speak somewhere with you in private?’ Suspecting nothing, Hitler invited him to his private apartment. Within five minutes he was in the elevator at No. 16, Prinzregenten Platz. Here Blomberg asked Hitler’s permission to marry again. His fiancée was of modest background – a secretary working for a government agency – but was this not what National Socialism was all about? Hitler gave his consent immediately.

With Blomberg, Hitler had established close rapport. Both he and Göring agreed without hesitation to act as witnesses at the wedding. The ceremony took place in private at the war ministry on January 12, 1938. The bride was twenty-four, while Blomberg was nearly sixty. She was undoubtedly attractive: she was slim, with fair hair, a broad forehead, grey-blue eyes, a petite nose, and a generous mouth. The couple departed immediately on their honeymoon, not knowing that their lopsided marriage would later be construed as having set Adolf Hitler on the final approach to absolute power.

Their honeymoon was soon interrupted by the unexpected death of Blomberg’s mother. Blomberg’s chief of staff General Wilhelm Keitel accompanied him to her funeral on January 20 at Eberswalde, thirty miles from Berlin. When the field marshal returned on the twenty-fourth, some disturbing news must have awaited him because he immediately applied for an urgent audience with Hitler.

Hitler had returned to Munich briefly to open the great arts and crafts exhibition there. When his car drew up outside the Berlin chancellery late on January 24 he found Göring waiting with a buff folder in his hands. ‘Blomberg has married a whore!’ Göring announced. ‘Our new first lady has a police record. He tricked us into acting as witnesses.’

What had happened in Blomberg’s absence was this: three days earlier, on January 21, the police president of Berlin, Count Wolf von Helldorff, had shown to Keitel an innocuous change-of-address record card and asked if Keitel could confirm that the lady in the photograph was the new Frau von Blomberg. Keitel, however, had only seen her at the funeral, heavily veiled; he had suggested that Göring be asked, as he had been at the wedding. Helldorff had explained that something of the woman’s past had come to light now that she had routinely registered her change of address to Blomberg’s apartment in the war ministry building. He had visited Göring the next morning and given him the complete police dossier on Fräulein Eva Gruhn – as she had been before her marriage.

As Hitler opened this buff-coloured dossier now, on January 24, a collection of file cards, photographs, and printed forms met his eyes. There were fingerprint records, Wanted posters, and half a dozen photographs showing a woman in various sexual poses with a wax candle. The police background statements yielded a stark mirror image of a Berlin society in the grips of economic crisis. Fräulein Gruhn’s father had been killed in the war when she was five. Her mother was a registered masseuse. In 1932 Eva had left home at eighteen, and moved in with her lover, a Czech Jew of forty-one, one Heinrich Löwinger. Later that year he had been offered pornographic photographs, and it had struck him that this was easy money. He had hired a Polish photographer and the pictures were taken one Christmas afternoon. Löwinger had sold only eight when he was pulled in. The only other items in the dossier were search notices relating to her having left home while underage, and a 1934 police data card which clearly states that she had ‘no criminal record.’ According to the dossier, she had last visited her mother on January 9 with her future husband: ‘And we all know who that is,’ somebody had scribbled in the margin.

As he turned page after page, Hitler became visibly angry. Hurling it back at Göring, he exclaimed: ‘Is there nothing I am to be spared?’

Hitler was stunned that Blomberg could have done this to him. Clearly, as Göring now said, the field marshal would have to resign; but who could succeed him? Heinrich Himmler, the all-powerful Reichsführer of the black-uniformed SS, was one candidate. So, of course, was Göring.

First in line, however, was General von Fritsch. In his confidential handwritten notes of these dramatic weeks, which were removed from Potsdam to Moscow in 1945, Fritsch denied any ambition to succeed Blomberg: ‘I would have refused such an appointment since, in view of the Party’s attitude toward me, the obstacles would have been insuperable.’ Hitler had a deep regard for Fritsch – but there was one worrisome skeleton in the cupboard, and it could be ignored no longer. Two years earlier, during the 1936 crisis of Hitler’s remilitarisation of the Rhineland, Himmler had shown to him a police dossier linking Fritsch with a homosexual blackmailer. At that time Hitler had refused to look into it, but the allegation obviously festered in his brain. ‘At the end of March or early in April [1936],’ General von Fritsch was to write three years later, ‘I invited the Führer to do the army the honour of becoming Honorary Colonel of the 9th Infantry Regiment at Potsdam. The Führer accepted, and the regiment was to march to Berlin for the purpose on April 20. On April 19 Hossbach [Hitler’s adjutant] phoned me that the Führer had withdrawn his agreement to become Colonel of the 9th Infantry Regt.’ At the time this was a baffling mystery to Fritsch. On Hitler’s birthday the next day, he had sent him a telegram from his sickbed at Achterberg: ‘The army and I follow you in proud confidence and willing faith along the path you are marking out ahead into the future of Germany.’ (On January 18, 1939, Fritsch commented: ‘That was absolutely true at that time. Today I haven’t any faith at all in the man. How far the army’s officer corps has faith in him, I cannot surmise.’)

By 1939, of course, he knew why Hitler had withdrawn his acceptance: ‘It was in the spring of 1936,’ he wrote,

… that Himmler [first] furnished to the Führer the dossier claiming I had been blackmailed. Perhaps that’s why the Führer withdrew his agreement to become Colonel. His later explanation that the Party would never understand his becoming Colonel of a regiment wasn’t very likely, or at least not acceptable. The following is also possible: Himmler finds out that the Führer wants to become Colonel of 9th Infantry Regt.; he fears this may strengthen the army’s influence even more. This he wants to thwart. That rascal Himmler is absolutely capable of such a deed.

As recently as December 1937, while Fritsch was still in Egypt, Himmler had again brought up that dossier, and stressed the security risk involved if Fritsch was a homosexual. Hitler had suspected that the Party was just settling scores against Fritsch however, and had demanded its destruction.

Since Fritsch’s return Hitler had not seen him except once, on January 15, 1938, when they had a two-hour argument. Fritsch described it thus:

The Führer angrily began talking about his worries at the spread of anarchist propaganda in the army. I tried in vain to calm him down. I asked for concrete evidence. The Führer said that he did have such material, but he could not give it to me, only to Blomberg. In other words, an open vote of No Confidence in me. I had no intention of leaving it at that. I planned to ask the Führer for his open confidence in me, failing which I would resign. But it never came to that…

Now, on January 24, the shoe was on the other foot. Hitler decided to have it out with Fritsch. He told an aide to summon the Wehrmacht adjutant Hossbach by telephone. The colonel was in bed however, and stubbornly declined to come before next morning. Hitler lay awake until dawn, staring at the ceiling and worrying how to avoid tarnishing his own prestige if this double scandal ever became public.


The next day, January 25, Göring reported at eleven a.m. that he had seen Keitel and instructed him to have a talk with the unfortunate war minister about his bride. By early afternoon, he had been to see Blomberg himself – he reported – and told him he must resign. Göring related to Hitler that the minister was a broken man.

In Hossbach’s presence, Göring now furnished to Hitler the Gestapo dossier on the homosexual link to Fritsch’s name in 1936. The folder was evidently a recent reconstruction, containing several carbon copies of interrogations, affidavits, and photostats. A certain blackmailer, Otto Schmidt, had been arrested in 1936 and had then recounted the homosexual exploits of one ‘General von Fritsch’ as witnessed by himself in November 1933. He had introduced himself as ‘Detective Inspector Kröger’ and threatened to arrest him. The general had produced an army ID card and blustered, ‘I am General von Fritsch.’ He had bribed Schmidt with 2,500 marks collected from his bank in the Berlin suburb of Lichterfelde. As Göring contentedly pointed out to Hitler, Schmidt’s evidence had proved true in sixty other cases. The dossier, in short, was damning.

Even so, Hitler was uncertain. He ordered Göring to question Otto Schmidt in detail, and he forbade Hossbach to mention the matter to Fritsch. Unfortunately Hossbach that same evening confided, rather incoherently, to Fritsch that allegations had been made about improper behaviour with a young man in November 1933; and this incomplete prior knowledge was to have fateful consequences for Fritsch. He concluded that a certain member of the Hitler Youth was behind the complaint: in 1933 he had arranged for one young Berliner – Fritz Wermelskirch – an apprenticeship at Mercedes-Benz’s factory at Marienfelde. The youth had then turned to crime however, and when he bragged to underworld friends that he had a high-ranking benefactor Fritsch had severed all connections with him. That had been three years ago.

The next morning Hossbach admitted to Hitler that he had warned Fritsch: the general had hotly rejected the allegation as ‘a stinking lie,’ and had added: ‘If the Führer wants to get rid of me, one word will suffice and I will resign.’ At this, Hitler announced with evident relief, ‘Then everything is all right. General von Fritsch can become minister after all.’

During the day, however, rival counsels prevailed. Blomberg was ushered into Hitler’s library in plain clothes. He angrily criticised the manner in which he had been dismissed. Then ire gave way to sorrow and Hitler – who genuinely feared that Blomberg might take his own life – tried to console him. He hinted that when Germany’s hour came he would like to see Blomberg at his side again. The discussion turned to a successor. Hitler commented, ‘Göring has neither the necessary perseverance nor the application.’ As for Fritsch, said Hitler, there was some belief that he was a closet homosexual. To this Blomberg evenly replied that he could quite believe it.

Thus the word of the Commander in Chief of the German army came to be tested against the utterances of a convict, his accuser Otto Schmidt, by now aged thirty-one, pale and puffy from years of incarceration. Late on January 26 Fritsch was summoned to the library. He himself wrote this hitherto unpublished account of the famous scene:

I was eventually called in at about 8:30 p.m. The Führer immediately announced to me that I had been accused of homosexual activities. He said he could understand everything, but he wanted to hear the truth. If I admitted the charges against me, I was to go on a long journey and nothing further would happen to me. Göring also addressed me in similar vein.

I emphatically denied any kind of homosexual activities and asked who had accused me of them. The Führer replied that it made no difference who the accuser was. He wished to know whether there was the slightest basis for these allegations.

Fritsch remembered Wermelskirch. ‘Mein Führer,’ he replied, ‘this can only be a reference to that affair with a Hitler Youth!’

Hitler was dumbfounded by Fritsch’s answer. Otto Schmidt, the man in the Gestapo dossier, was no Hitler Youth. Hitler thrust the folder into Fritsch’s hands.

The general rapidly scanned it, purpled, and dismissed it all as a complete fabrication. At a signal from Hitler the blackmailer was led in to the library. Schmidt pointed unerringly at the general and exclaimed, ‘That’s the one.’ Fritsch was speechless. He blanched and was led out.

Hossbach urged Hitler to give a hearing to General Ludwig Beck, the Chief of General Staff; but the very telephone call to Beck’s home at Lichterfelde stirred fresh suspicions in Hitler’s tortured mind: had not the blackmail money been collected from a bank at Lichterfelde? (He later interrogated Beck about when he had last lent money to his Commander in Chief. The puzzled general could only reply that he had never done so.) Fritsch’s own pathetic story continues:

I gave the Führer my word of honour. Confronted with the allegations of a habitual crook, my word was brushed aside as of no consequence. I was ordered to report to the Gestapo next morning. Deeply shaken at the abruptness displayed by the Führer and Göring toward me, I went home and informed Major [Curt] Siewert [personal chief of staff] in brief about the allegations. Soon afterward I also informed General Beck. I mentioned to both that it might be best for me to shoot myself in view of the unheard-of insult from the Führer.

Fritsch demanded a full court-martial to clear his name.

Who should succeed Blomberg now? Goebbels suggested that Hitler himself should do so. Sent for again the next morning, January 27, Blomberg pointed out that since President Hindenburg’s death the Führer was constitutionally Supreme Commander of the Wehrmacht already. If he appointed no new war minister, then he would have direct control of the armed forces.

‘I’ll think that over,’ replied Hitler. ‘If I do that however, then I’ll be needing a good Wehrmacht chief of staff.’

‘General Keitel,’ suggested Blomberg. ‘He’s done that job for me. He’s a hard worker and he knows his stuff.’

As Blomberg, now in plain clothes, left the chancellery for the last time, he noticed that the sentries did not present arms to him.

At one p.m. Hitler received Keitel – a tall, handsome general of unmistakably soldierly bearing although he had been told to come in plain clothes. He had headed the army’s organisation branch during the recent expansion. He was a champion of a unified Wehrmacht command. Hitler asked him who ought to succeed Blomberg, and Keitel too offered Göring’s name.

‘No, that is out of the question,’ replied Hitler coolly. ‘I don’t think Göring has the ability. I shall probably take over Blomberg’s job myself.’ He asked Keitel to find him a new Wehrmacht adjutant to replace the disobedient Hossbach. Keitel picked Major Rudolf Schmundt. Hitler – Keitel – Schmundt: the links of the historic Wehrmacht chain of command were coming together. Over the next link, Fritsch’s position, that question mark still hung.


As Hitler had ordered, General von Fritsch submitted to Gestapo interrogation that morning, January 27, 1938. Concealed microphones recorded every word, and the 83-page transcript has survived, revealing the drama as the monocled baron was again confronted with the sleazy blackmailer. Schmidt stuck to his filthy story, despite the sternest warnings from Werner Best on the consequences of lying. The general he had seen in 1933 had smoked at least one cigar during the blackmail bargaining. He again described the alleged homosexual act: ‘This Bavarian twerp,’ referring to the male prostitute Weingärtner, ‘was standing up and the man knelt down in front of him and was sucking at it…’ to which Fritsch could only expostulate, ‘How dare he suggest such a thing! That is supposed to have been me?’ He conducted part of the questioning himself. None of Schmidt’s details fitted him – he had not even smoked a cigarette since 1925. He frankly admitted that the evidence seemed damning. ‘I must confess that if pressure has been brought to bear on him from some quarter or other to tell a lie, then he’s doing it damnably cleverly.’

Two other ‘witnesses’ had been posted unobtrusively in the Gestapo headquarters where they could see him. Weingärtner, the male prostitute, was emphatic that this was not his client of 1933. Bücker, Schmidt’s accomplice, detected a certain resemblance, but would not swear to it. Hitler was not informed of this ambivalent outcome. ‘If the Führer had only been told of these two facts,’ Fritsch later wrote, ‘then his decision would surely have been very different, in view of the word of honour I had given him.’ ‘It’s one man’s word against another,’ observed Goebbels in his diary. ‘That of a homosexual blackmailer against the army’s commander in chief.’ The next day he recorded that although Heydrich had conducted several ‘all-night’ interrogations, Fritsch was standing up to him.

Hitler, however, had already written off Fritsch. On January 28 he was already discussing a shortlist of possible successors as Commander in Chief, army. His first choice was General Walter von Reichenau – Keitel’s predecessor at the war ministry. Keitel advised against him; his own candidate was General Walther von Brauchitsch, a stolid, widely respected officer whose reputation was founded on his period as army commander in East Prussia. In fact Keitel had already telephoned him urgently to take the next train from Dresden; he arrived at a quarter to nine that evening. Next morning Keitel repeated to Hitler the answers given by the general under close questioning; in particular Brauchitsch was willing to tie the army closer to the Nazi state.

Hitler sent for Brauchitsch. Now the general mentioned however that he too had delicate personal difficulties: he wanted a divorce to marry a Frau Charlotte Rüffer, herself a divorcée; his first wife must be settled financially, which he could not afford. Brauchitsch’s nomination thus appeared to have foundered.

The jostling for Fritsch’s office resumed.

Reichenau was seen haunting the war ministry building. Göring sent his loyal aide Colonel Karl Bodenschatz to drop hints amongst Hitler’s adjutants that Göring ought to take over the army too. Admiral Erich Raeder, the navy’s Commander in Chief, sent an adjutant to propose the revered but cantankerous General Gerd von Rundstedt as an interim tenant for the job. Hitler rejected all of these contenders. He heaved the weighty Army List volume across the desk to the navy captain and challenged him: ‘You suggest one!’

On February 3 Hitler reluctantly declared himself satisfied with Brauchitsch’s attitude on the Church, the Party, and military problems, and formally shook hands with him as Fritsch’s successor. The unfortunate General von Fritsch was asked that same afternoon by Hitler to submit his resignation. Fritsch wrote later, ‘ I accepted this demand, as I could never have worked with this man again.’

On February 4 Hitler accordingly signed an icy letter to Fritsch, formally accepting his resignation ‘in view of your depleted health.’ The letter was published, thus driving the last nail into Fritsch’s coffin, as it turned out.

Meanwhile, Hitler had charged Dr. Hans Lammers to negotiate the terms of a financial settlement for the first Frau von Brauchitsch to agree to a noiseless divorce. Eventually the Reich settled an allowance of about 1,300 marks a month on her. Hitler thereby purchased complete moral sway over the army’s new Commander in Chief, and for a relatively paltry sum.

Hitler – Keitel – Schmundt – Brauchitsch: the chain of command had gained another link. Hitler decided that Brauchitsch, Göring, and Raeder as the three service Commanders in Chief would take their orders from a new supreme command authority, the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW), with Wilhelm Keitel as its chief of staff. Hitler himself would be Supreme Commander, with the new OKW as his military secretariat.

This OKW would also exercise Blomberg’s former ministerial functions. His old National Defence division, the Abteilung Landesverteidigung, would transfer to the OKW as an operations staff, commanded by Colonel Max von Viebahn, a staff officer of the older generation.

Thus Keitel himself became Hitler’s principal military secretary. Hitler never regretted the choice; the general’s métier was a willingness to obey. At most Hitler needed an industrious and efficient machine to put his own military policies into effect.

He confided to Keitel that he was planning to do something that would make Europe ‘catch its breath.’ It would also serve to distract attention from the Wehrmacht’s problems. He would carry out a general top-level reshuffle, to give the impression not of a momentary weakness but of a gathering of strength.


It was indeed a minor landslide. Hitler changed his foreign minister and minister of economics; inconvenient diplomats like Ambassador Ulrich von Hassell in Rome were forcibly retired; Göring was promoted to a field marshal, while three score army and Luftwaffe generals who were too old, conservative, or obstinate were axed or transferred; Keitel’s younger brother became chief of army personnel.

Most of the dumbfounded victims first learned of these changes when they opened their newspapers the next morning. By February 5, 1938, Hitler knew that his tactics had largely succeeded. The British press lord, Rothermere, telegraphed him, ‘May I add, my dear Führer, my congratulations on the salutary changes you have made. Your star rises higher and higher.’

The German army, however, could not be so easily fobbed off. Fritsch’s disposal was seen as evidence of the hold that the Party was gaining. At four p.m. on February 5 Hitler delivered to his leading army and Luftwaffe generals, standing around him in a semicircle in the war ministry, a two-hour speech in which he mercilessly recited the allegations that had resulted in the resignations of both Blomberg and Fritsch. He read out the formal legal opinion of the minister of justice, and quoted choice extracts from the Otto Schmidt dossier.

At eight o’clock that evening, Hitler presided over what was, as things turned out, the last Cabinet meeting ever called. He briefly introduced Keitel and Brauchitsch – the former would faithfully administer the Wehrmacht High Command until the end of the coming war in 1945, while the latter proved a complaisant army Commander in Chief only until December 1941, when he and Hitler parted. After the Cabinet meeting, Hitler set out for his mountainside home in Bavaria – as Führer, Reich Chancellor, and now Supreme Commander of the armed forces in fact as well as name.

‘The damage that one woman can do,’ exclaimed Goebbels in his diary on February 6. ‘And that kind of woman too!’ Yet if these scandals had proven anything, it was that Adolf Hitler was more deeply in the thrall of his devious henchmen than even he suspected. By early March, when he was back in Berlin, the first whispers were reaching him that he had been misled – the SS had wilfully deceived him, and even Göring might not have been entirely above blame. Hitler evidently ignored the rumours. Fritsch was now lost beyond retrieval; while Himmler, the SS, and Göring were indispensable.

The army investigators began their inquiries in February. Fritsch engaged a gifted barrister, Count Rüdiger von der Goltz. On March 1 Goltz succeeded in establishing that the blackmailer Schmidt had witnessed not Fritsch, but only a cavalry captain of similar name, Achim von Frisch. The latter very commendably admitted the felony; to clinch it, he even produced Schmidt’s signed receipt for the 2,500 marks that he had been paid. Disturbingly, he also revealed that the Gestapo had investigated his bank account at Lichterfelde as early as January 15. Was it pure coincidence that this was only three days after the Blomberg wedding?

General Walter Heitz, representing the army tribunal, took this startling evidence to Hitler on March 3. Hitler’s first impulse was to call off the impending hearing. Heinrich Himmler was present however, and he interjected: ‘The Fritsch and the Frisch cases are two entirely different matters. The blackmailer Schmidt has himself identified the general!’ To underline this particular point, Achim von Frisch was now also arrested, since he had confessed to homosexual offences.

Hitler ordered the Fritsch trial to begin in secret on March 10. A few days later, Fritsch himself wrote,

Initially my impression was that Göring [who presided] was working toward an open verdict – in other words that my guilt had not been established, but that it was still possible.

The weight of evidence was so great that even Göring had to announce that no reasonable person could fail to be convinced of my innocence. Finally the key witness, the blackmailer, confessed that everything he had said about me was a lie.

During the hearings it came out that on the very eve of the trial the head of the Gestapo’s homosexual investigations branch, Kriminalrat Joseph Meisinger, had threatened Schmidt with a sticky end should he recant on his sworn testimony. Fritsch was acquitted.

There is no evidence that Hitler concerned himself in the least with the unbecoming background of this Gestapo intrigue. It was one of Meisinger’s officials who had checked the Lichterfelde bank account in January, so Meisinger at least realised the error he had made. Shortly after the trial began, Himmler sent him out of harm’s way to Vienna; his career was unimpaired by the blunder.

Not so the career of General von Fritsch. On the day after his acquittal, he wrote to his lawyer: ‘Whether and to what extent the Führer will allow me to be rehabilitated still remains to be seen. I fear he will resist it with all his might. Göring’s closing remarks would seem to indicate this in part.’

In his private notes, Fritsch recollected:

Both before the end of the examination of the witnesses and while reading the tribunal’s verdict, Göring took pains to justify the Gestapo’s actions…He admittedly spoke of the tragedy of my plight, but said that under the circumstances it could not be helped. Throughout it all you could hear the leitmotif, ‘Thank God we’ve got rid of him and he can’t come back.’ Göring kept referring to me with emphasis as ‘Colonel General von Fritsch (retired).’

Not until Sunday, March 20, could General von Brauchitsch obtain an interview with Hitler to demand Fritsch’s rehabilitation. ‘The Führer was apparently not entirely opposed to rehabilitating me,’ wrote Fritsch later. He drafted a twelve-point list of the facts pointing to a Gestapo intrigue. At the end of March he incorporated them in a letter to Himmler. It ended with the extraordinary words, ‘The entire attitude of the Gestapo throughout this affair has proven that its sole concern was to brand me as the guilty party,’ and ‘I therefore challenge you to a duel with pistols.’ He asked first Beck and then Rundstedt to convey the letter to Himmler as his seconds. Both of these stalwarts politely declined.

Under pressure from Brauchitsch, Hitler did take a sheet of his private gold-embossed notepaper and write sympathetically to Fritsch.[19]See picture section for this document.

The general replied with a pathetic homily about the bond of confidence he had believed to exist between them. Hitler let him know that at the next Reichstag session he would personally speak words of praise for him.

This did not happen, and by June Fritsch had gone so far as to draft an open letter to every senior general revealing the facts of his acquittal; this may have come to Hitler’s ears, because all the army and Luftwaffe generals who had heard Hitler’s secret Berlin speech on February 5 were ordered to a remote Pomeranian airfield on June 13, ostensibly to witness a Luftwaffe equipment display. At noon Hitler arrived, and then the three-hour judgement and findings in the Fritsch trial were read out to them by the tribunal’s president.

After that, with visible embarrassment, Hitler began to speak: ‘Gentlemen,’ he said, ‘I was the victim of a very regrettable error over General von Fritsch.’ He asked them to picture his ‘mental torment,’ caused by the Blomberg affair. In 1936, he said, he had not taken the Schmidt dossier seriously; but after the Blomberg scandal he had believed anything possible. ‘The allegations against General von Fritsch were not malicious fabrications,’ he insisted. ‘A minor official blundered – that’s all.’ He had ordered the blackmailer to be shot.

More than one general left that airfield with the momentary conviction that Hitler had spoken honestly. Brauchitsch reported the day’s events to Fritsch two days later. Hitler appointed him to be Colonel of his old regiment, but this ancient honour did little to heal the injury. ‘Either the Führer sees to it that law and order prevail again in Germany,’ wrote Fritsch,

…and that people like Himmler and Heydrich get their deserts, or he will continue to cover for the misdeeds of these people – in which case I fear for the future. Since the Führer has sanctioned and condoned the way the Gestapo acted in my case, I must regretfully abandon my plan to challenge Himmler to a duel. Besides, after so much time has elapsed it would probably look somewhat affected.

What I cannot, and never will, understand is the Führer’s attitude toward me. Perhaps he personally begrudges me that I dented his aura of infallibility by being acquitted.


[19] See picture section for this document.

Goddess of Fortune • 6,500 Words

Hitler had returned to the Berghof, high above the little Alpine town of Berchtesgaden, early on February 6, 1938. It was here that he always came when he had to ponder the path ahead.

Ever since he had first been driven up the rough mountain paths on the pillion seat of a motorbike, he had been in love with this Obersalzberg mountainside – a green ridge straddling lakes and pine forests, velvet pastures and dairy herds. Here in the late 1920s he had purchased a cottage with the royalties earned by Mein Kampf and articles published under a pseudonym by the Hearst Press and the New York Times in America. Around this cottage he had built his Berghof. The air up here was clean and pure. ‘Fresh air is the finest form of nourishment,’ he would say.

Rudolf Hess, his deputy, described Hitler’s everyday routine at the Berghof in a long letter to his mother dated January 15, 1938:

On his rest days up here the Führer likes to stay up far into the night: he watches a film, then chats – mostly about naval things if I’m there as they interest us both – then reads a while. It’s morning before he goes to sleep. At least he doesn’t ask to be woken up until 1 or two p.m., in contrast to Berlin where he doesn’t get to bed any earlier but is up again after only four or five hours. After a communal lunch he and his guests usually take a stroll of half an hour or more to a tea pavilion built a year ago with a magnificent view over Salzburg…It’s really cosy sitting at the big open fire ata large circular table which just about fills the equally round building. The illumination is provided by candles on holders around the walls. [Heinrich] Hoffmann [Hitler’s photographer] and his missus are usually there – he plays the part of the court jester; there’s always one of the Führer’s doctors, Dr. [Karl] Brandt or Dr. [Werner] Haase, as well as the press chief Dr. [Otto] Dietrich, [adjutants Wilhelm] Brückner, [Julius] Schaub, or [Fritz] Wiedemann; often [Sophie] Stork, whom you know, is up there with Evi Braun and her sister [Gretl]; and sometimes Dr. [Theo] Morell with his wife [Johanna] and Professor [Albert] Speer – Speer is usually up there when new buildings are being planned. After one or two hours up there we walk down for about ten minutes to a group of cross-country vehicles waiting to drive us back down.’

Hitler appointed Martin Bormann, Hess’s chief of staff, to manage the Berghof. It was a position that gradually gave Bormann control over Hitler’s household too. A former estate manager from Mecklenburg, Bormann was a hard worker and took care that Hitler knew it: he would telephone for a routine invitation to Hitler’s luncheon table, then cancel it ‘because of the pressure of work.’ To the slothful and pleasure-loving soldiers and bureaucrats his love of hard work made Bormann a thoroughly loathsome creature. ‘Since 1933 I’ve worked like a horse,’ he wrote to Party officials after Hess’s strange defection in 1941. ‘Nay, more than a horse – because a horse gets its Sunday and rests at night.’

Hitler’s word was Bormann’s command. Bormann bought up the adjacent plots of land to preserve the Berghof’s privacy. Once Hitler mentioned that a farmstead spoiled his view: when he next looked, it had vanished and the site was levelled and freshly turfed. On June 13, 1937 – a Sunday – Bormann noted in his diary, ‘Because of the heat of high summer, the Führer wished there were a tree where the daily “march-past” occurs. I have ordered a tree from Munich.’ The lime tree was erected four days later.

Thousands flocked daily to the Berghof to see Hitler in the flesh. ‘The Führer is up here at the Obersalzberg now,’ wrote his autobahn architect Fritz Todt to a friend. ‘On days when he has nothing particular to do he permits anybody who wants to, to come past his garden after lunch at about 2 or three p.m., and he waves to them. It’s always a very gay procession up here on the Obersalzberg…The folks walk past quietly saluting, and they mustn’t shout or anything. Only the children are allowed to hop over to the Führer.’

The main feature of the rebuilt Berghof was the Great Hall, a room over sixty feet long. One entire wall was a panorama window; unprepared visitors walking into the Great Hall gained the momentary, eerie notion that they were looking at an unusually vivid green drapery, until their eyes refocused to infinity and the distant shapes of the trees of the Untersberg mountain were seen.

From the quarries of the Untersberg would later be hewn the red marble slabs with which Hitler would rebuild his Berlin chancellery. Legend had it that in that mountain lay the mediæval emperor Barbarossa – that he would lie there for a thousand years, and that one day he would return when Germany most needed him. In the Great Hall there was an overlong table, surfaced with a red marble slab from across the valley.

On it each morning the adjutants spread out the mail, the newspapers, and the latest dispatches from Berlin. On this same marble slab were later unfolded the maps of Europe and charts of the world’s oceans. One 1940 photograph shows the Führer leaning on the maps, surrounded by generals and adjutants. The potted plants have been pushed to the far end of the table, and Schmundt has casually laid his leather document pouch amongst them. Alfred Jodl, Wehrmacht chief of operations, is standing expressionlessly with folded arms in front of a rich tapestry. On the back of the snapshot Jodl himself has pencilled, ‘July 31, 1940: Up at the Berghof. The Führer is enlarging on a decision taken shortly before – and it’s a good thing that the maps can’t be recognised.’ The maps are of the Soviet Union.

Days in the Berghof passed with a monotonous sameness, the thick-walled building shrouded in a cathedral-like silence punctuated by the yapping of two Scottish terriers owned by a young woman living anonymously upstairs, or by the laughter of an adjutant’s children. Hitler himself slept all morning, while the servants silently cleaned the panelling, or dusted the works of art – here a Tintoretto or Tiepolo, there a small Schwindt. Lunch was presided over by Hitler, with the young woman on his left: the talk revolved around film, theatre, or fashion. The meals were however of puritan simplicity. Earlier in his life, Hitler had eaten meat, but he had suddenly pronounced himself a vegetarian after a suicide tragedy in his town apartment in Munich in 1931 – a fad for which he later offered various excuses: that he had noticed body odours when he ate meat; or that the human jaw was designed for vegetarian meals.

Hitler regaled his Berghof diners with unappetising detail of the various processes he had observed in a slaughter-house, and all the distracting endeavours of the young woman at his side failed to stop him from inflicting this on each new unsuspecting visitor to the Berghof.

After supper, the tapestries in the Great Hall were drawn back and a movie film was shown. Hitler followed this practice nightly until Europe dissolved into war at his command. His appetite for movies was prodigious, but Bormann efficiently submitted weekly lists to the propaganda ministry and asked for certain regular favourites like The Hound of the Baskervilles and Mutiny on the Bounty to be permanently available at the Berghof for the Führer’s entertainment.


it was here at the Berghof that Hitler proposed to stage his next coup – a conference with the Austrian chancellor, Kurt Schuschnigg. Relations with Austria were formally governed by a treaty of July 1936. Schuschnigg was autocratic and wilful, and refused to accept the harsh realities of Central European politics. To his friend the police president of Vienna he once admitted that Austria’s future was ‘of course’ inseparable from Germany’s – but he was damned if he was going to put up with Berlin dictating his own foreign policy to him.

Such a meeting with Hitler had long been Schuschnigg’s dream: he would talk to the Reich Chancellor ‘man to man,’ he said. Hitler was initially only lukewarm, but he had told his special ambassador in Vienna, Franz von Papen, in the first week in January that the meeting might take place at the end of the month. On the eleventh, at Hitler’s New Year diplomatic reception, François-Poncet happened to express a hope that 1938 would not be seeing any of Hitler’s ‘Saturday surprises’ – to which the Nazi foreign minister, Neurath, replied that the internal situation in Austria did give cause for concern.

Over dinner with the Austrian envoy, Stefan Tauschitz, on January 21, Neurath amplified this: ‘If a boiler is kept heating, and there’s no safety valve, it’s bound to explode.’ This was a reference to the continued internment of Austrian Nazis, against the spirit of the July 1936 treaty.

On the twenty-second, Vienna learned from Berlin that Göring was secretly boasting that the Reich’s difficulties in paying cash for Austrian raw materials would disappear in the spring. On January 26, the very day of the confrontation staged in Hitler’s library between General von Fritsch and the blackmailer, Neurath telegraphed from Berlin to Vienna the Führer’s proposal that the Berghof meeting should take place on about February 15. Five days later Alfred Jodl’s diary quoted Keitel: ‘[The] Führer wants to switch the spotlight away from the Wehrmacht, make Europe catch its breath…Schuschnigg had better not take heart, but tremble.’


Two days later, on February 2, 1938, Hitler walked across the chancellery garden to the foreign ministry and appointed Joachim von Ribbentrop as the new foreign minister in place of Neurath. He had already told Goebbels of his intention two weeks before; Goebbels warned him that Ribbentrop was a ‘zero,’ but Hitler saw in him the ideal diplomatic secretary – a loyal henchman who would channel his political directives to the missions abroad. Ribbentrop had few other admirers. One voice, that of an army general (Karl Heinrich von Stülpnagel), summarised the main objections to him:

Indescribably vain… His idea of foreign policy is this: Hitler gives him a drum and tells him to bang it, so he bangs the drum loud and strong. After a while Hitler takes the drum away and hands him a trumpet; and he blows that trumpet until he’s told to stop and play a flute instead. Just why he’s been banging and tooting and fluting, he never knows and never finds out.

Ribbentrop was four years younger than Hitler. He had served as an officer in a good Prussian regiment. In post-war years he had built up a thriving export-import business in wines and spirits; with his increasing affluence he had bought a villa in Berlin’s fashionable Dahlem suburb, and married into the Henkell champagne family.

Hitler regarded this rich newcomer as somebody with influential connections abroad. There is no doubt that he had selected Ribbentrop, until now his London ambassador, to replace Neurath in the forlorn hope that this would flatter opinion in the British capital. He apparently disclosed to him only his more immediate geographical ambitions – Austria, Czechoslovakia, the former German province of Memel seized by Lithuania in 1923, Danzig, and the ‘Polish Corridor’ (the strip of land linking Poland to the Baltic but separating East Prussia from the rest of Germany). Ribbentrop, for his part, respected Hitler’s confidences. He was a gentleman, with a sense of the korrekt that sometimes inflated to almost ludicrous proportions. He would decline to discuss with post-war American investigators the details of his August 1939 secret pact with Stalin, since it was still secret, ‘as a matter of international courtesy!’


Franz von Papen, Hitler’s special envoy to Vienna since 1934, arrived at the Berghof late on February 6, 1938, shortly after Hitler himself. Hitler had recalled him, but now promptly sent him back to Vienna with instructions to invite the Austrian chancellor to the Berghof on the twelfth. Papen pocketed his pride and did so; over the next few days, he and Schuschnigg discussed what demands each side had to make of the other. Schuschnigg agreed in principle to appoint pro-German ministers of finance and security. Hitler agreed to close down the Nazis’ headquarters in Vienna.

For this summit meeting, Hitler set his stage with the care of a Bayreuth producer. The guard barracks on the approach road to the Berghof were filled with ‘Austrian Legion’ units: there were 120,000 men in the legion, outnumbering Austria’s legal army two to one. The SS sentry manning the gate on the final approach growled in unmistakable Carinthian dialect. And as Hitler marched down the steps to meet the half-tracked vehicle bringing Schuschnigg’s little group up the icebound lanes, he was accompanied by Reichenau and Luftwaffe general Hugo Sperrle – ‘my two most brutal-looking generals,’ he later chuckled to his adjutants. He boasted to Goebbels afterwards that he had used ‘pretty tough’ language to the Austrian chancellor, and had threatened to use force to get his way, saying, ‘Guns speak louder than words.’

The Austrian made a bad impression on the prudish Führer. He remarked to his staff that Schuschnigg had not shaved and his fingernails were dirty. The atmosphere of their talks was well-illustrated by Hitler’s own May 1942 recollection: ‘I won’t ever forget how Schuschnigg shrivelled up when I told him to get rid of those silly little barricades facing our frontier, as otherwise I was going to send in a couple of engineer battalions to clear them up for him.’ Hitler said he had decided to solve the Austrian problem so oder so. His advisers had submitted an alternative, less martial, plan to him. Schuschnigg must sign it too. ‘This is the first time in my life I have ever changed my mind,’ Hitler said. Schuschnigg put up a stout fight despite the blatant intimidation tactics.

Over lunch, Hitler’s generals loudly discoursed on the Luftwaffe and its new bombs, and Hitler talked about his panzer armies of the future. Schuschnigg poked at his food without appetite. Then Hitler subtly changed his tone, and turned with enthusiasm to his plans to rebuild Hamburg with giant skyscrapers bigger than New York’s; he sketched the giant bridge that he and Todt were going to throw across the River Elbe – the longest bridge in the world. ‘A tunnel would have been cheaper,’ he admitted. ‘I want Americans arriving in Europe to see for themselves however that anything they can do, we Germans can do better.’ He also announced that later in 1938 a new warship was to be launched with the name of Admiral Tegethoff – after the Austrian hero who had sunk the Italian fleet in the Battle of Lissa in 1866. ‘I’m going to invite both you as Austrian chancellor and Admiral Horthy to the ceremony,’ Hitler promised Schuschnigg. This generated such enthusiasm that when Hitler withdrew after lunch with Ribbentrop – to draw up the document that Schuschnigg must sign – some of the Austrian visitors loudly proclaimed ‘Heil Hitler,’ to everybody’s embarrassment.

This mood changed sharply when Schuschnigg saw the proposed agreement. It required him to appoint Dr. Arthur Seyss-Inquart as minister of security and Dr. Hans Fischböck as minister of finance, to prepare an economic union between Austria and Germany. All imprisoned Nazis were to be amnestied and reinstated. Ribbentrop bluntly told Schuschnigg that these terms were not open to negotiation. A new battle began. It was not a gentle process obtaining Schuschnigg’s signature.

At one point Ribbentrop came in and complained: ‘Mein Führer, I’ve reached agreement with him on every point except one: he won’t appoint Seyss-Inquart as minister of security.’ Hitler retorted, ‘Tell him that if he doesn’t agree, I’ll invade this very hour!’ (This was bluff.)

Schuschnigg was insisting on six days’ grace, as only President Wilhelm Miklas could appoint new ministers. Hitler called him back into his study and resumed his bluster.

Once he threatened, ‘Do you want Austria to become another Spain?’ Then he asked Schuschnigg to step outside, and as the door opened he called out into the Great Hall: ‘General Keitel!’ When Keitel hurried in Hitler motioned him to a chair: ‘Just sit there.’ This dumb charade lasted for ten minutes before Schuschnigg was called back in. Schuschnigg initialled the final draft of the agreement without further objection. He had withstood Hitler’s hypnotic influence for longer than many of the Wehrmacht’s most seasoned generals later did. ‘I have to admit,’ Schuschnigg told a Viennese intimate two days later, ‘that there’s something of the prophet about Hitler.’

For all Hitler’s tough talk, he had no intention of starting a forcible invasion of Austria, provided that Schuschnigg kept his part of the bargain. Hitler told his Luftwaffe adjutant that Austria would draw closer to the Reich of her own accord – perhaps that very autumn of 1938 – unless Schuschnigg committed some Dummheit meantime. To deter Schuschnigg from second thoughts, however, he ordered the OKW to fake preparations for an ‘invasion’; Vice Admiral Wilhelm Canaris personally arranged this from his Abwehr’s regional headquarters in Munich.


At first these fears seemed groundless. Shortly after Hitler’s return to Berlin, he learned on February 15 that President Miklas had fully ratified the Berghof agreement. Hitler was host to the diplomatic corps that evening: the Austrian envoy Stefan Tauschitz reported to Vienna afterward that congratulations were showered on him by Göring, Goebbels, and Hitler himself. Hitler told the diplomats that the ‘age of misunderstandings’ was over.

It was not long before this tone changed, however. As though on a given signal, the British and French newspapers began printing lurid stories of Hitler’s Berghof ‘blackmail.’ ‘The world’s press rages,’ noted Goebbels, ‘and speaks – not entirely unjustly – of rape.’ The upshot was that on February 18, 1938, the German air force received its first ever provisional order from Göring to investigate possible operations against London and southern England, in case war with Britain broke out. Ribbentrop’s personal Intelligence office, run by Rudolf Likus, learned that once back in Vienna, Schuschnigg and Guido Schmidt had ‘recovered their balance’ and that they were working to sabotage the Berghof agreement.

Hitler adhered to it – sedulously, one might think. In his next Reichstag speech, on February 20, he praised Schuschnigg. Next day he summoned the radical Austrian Nazi, Joseph Leopold, to Berlin and dismissed him. Hitler informed Leopold’s successor that from now on there was to be a different approach toward Austria. To Ribbentrop and five Austrian Nazis on February 1938, he repeated that he had abandoned forever all thought of using force against Austria. Time, he said, was in his favour.


On March 3 Hitler had received the new American chargé d’affaires, Hugh R. Wilson. In a private letter to President Roosevelt, Wilson remarked upon the ‘lack of drama in this exceedingly dramatic figure,’ and upon the formality of the occasion. When Wilson had met the ex-saddlemaker President Friedrich Ebert they had munched black bread and quaffed beer together; but Hitler now received him in a stiff dress suit. The Führer was healthier than Wilson had expected – more solid and erect, though pale. The character in the Führer’s face, his fine artistic hands, his simplicity, directness, and modesty were the first impressions that Wilson conveyed to Roosevelt.

The same day, March 3, saw the long-announced new British initiative. The offer was brought from London by the ambassador Sir Nevile Henderson. Chamberlain himself had explained it to the Cabinet’s foreign policy committee on January 24, as a deal whereby Nazi Germany ‘would be brought into the arrangement by becoming one of the African Colonial Powers.’ In return, Germany would be expected to limit her armaments and to recognise the status quo in Europe.

Hitler listened to the ambassador’s ten-minute speech with a scowl, then launched into a ferocious thirty-minute reply: nothing could be done until the current press campaign against him in England ceased. Nor was he going to tolerate the interference of third parties in Central Europe. He refused to consider unilaterally limiting armaments, so long as the Soviet Union’s rearmament continued unchecked. Henderson patiently outlined the colonies offered, on the globe in Hitler’s study. Hitler asked what was so difficult about simply giving back the African colonies ‘robbed’ from Germany after the World War.

Hitler asked Ribbentrop to return to London to take formal leave as ambassador – an act of calculated blandishment – and instructed him to find out whether Chamberlain seriously desired entente. Hitler’s more general instructions to him were reflected by Ribbentrop’s remarks to Baron Ernst von Weizsäcker on March 5, when he invited him to become his new state secretary. Ribbentrop talked of

a ‘grand program’ that cannot be accomplished without the Sword. It will therefore take three or four more years before we are ready…Where exactly the fighting will be, and wherefore, is open to later discussion.

If at all possible, Austria is to be finished off [liquidiert] before 1938 is out.

In Berlin, Hitler found army opinion still unsettled by the creation of the OKW. There were sounds of distant thunder.

The General Staff submitted its opinion on March 7, 1938. General Walther von Brauchitsch, Commander in Chief, signed the memorandum, which had been drafted by General Ludwig Beck, together with his deputy Erich von Manstein. Their proposal was that the army should have predominance in any Wehrmacht command. Viewed in the subsequent light of a world war waged largely by the strategic bomber and the submarine, Beck’s memorandum was a dismal disappointment. In part it gratuitously insulted Hitler. In bygone times, the document conceded, any monarch could be a warlord if he chose – Frederick the Great and Napoleon were examples; but now ‘even a genius’ could not manage both political and military leadership. Beck rightly argued that there were two quite distinct functions in a war – the organisation of the domestic war economy by a ‘Reich Secretary for War,’ and the conduct of strategic operations by a ‘Reich Chief of General Staff.’ Inasmuch as the balance of future wars would lie in the army’s hands, clearly the army should provide that strategic leadership.

The more there comes to the fore a war in the east, which will be a matter of the conquest of territory… the more it becomes obvious that ultimately the success of the army will decide between the victory or defeat of the nation in that war.

A further factor is that, of our eastern enemies, Russia and Poland cannot be mortally injured at sea or in the air; and even if Czechoslovakia’s cities and industrial centres are destroyed, she can only be forced at most to surrender certain territories, but not to surrender her sovereignty completely.

The document argued that the navy and Luftwaffe would be confined to primarily defensive roles – to ‘keeping the sea-lanes open’ and ‘defence of the homeland.’ The possibilities of extended cruiser warfare, of the submarine campaign, of operations like the seaborne invasion of Holland, of the bombardment of Belgrade and the destruction of the Polish, French, and Russian air forces were not even contemplated by Beck.

Hitler told his adjutants that the document was calling for the precise opposite of what he had ordered on February 4. ‘If the army had had any say in it,’ he later reminded Major Rudolf Schmundt, ‘the Rhineland would still not be free today; nor would we have reintroduced conscription; nor concluded the naval agreement; nor entered Austria.’


‘Nor entered Austria’: toward midday on March 9, 1938, Hitler heard rumours that Schuschnigg was to spring a snap plebiscite on Austria’s future. This was the Dummheit that Hitler had been waiting for. The plebiscite’s one question had been so formulated that any Austrian voting ‘No’ to it could be charged with high treason (since voters had to state their names and addresses on the ballot papers). Some of his ministers felt the voting age should be eighteen, with only his Party members allowed to vote; others recalled that the constitution defined the voting age as twenty-one, but Schuschnigg arbitrarily raised it for the plebiscite to twenty-four – the Nazis being primarily a Party of youth – and stipulated that votes were to be handed to his own Party officials, not the usual polling stations. Even if one of the printed ‘Yes’ ballot papers were to be crossed out and marked with a large ‘No’ it would still count as a ‘Yes.’ There were no ‘No’ ballot papers.

Hitler flew his agent Keppler to Vienna with instructions to prevent the plebiscite, or failing that to insist on a supplementary question sounding the Austrian public on its attitude toward union with the Reich. That evening Schuschnigg formally announced the plebiscite. Hitler listened to the broadcast from Innsbruck, then pounded the table with his fist and exclaimed, ‘It’s got to be done – and done now!’ A month later he announced, ‘When Herr Schuschnigg breached the Agreement on March 9, at that moment I felt that the call of Providence had come.’

Toward midnight Hitler mustered his principal henchmen Göring, Goebbels, and Bormann at the chancellery and told them that by calling his ‘stupid and crass plebiscite’ Schuschnigg was trying to outsmart them. He proposed therefore to force his own solution on Austria now. Goebbels suggested they send a thousand planes to drop leaflets over Austria, and then ‘actively intervene.’ Ribbentrop’s private secretary Reinhard Spitzy was rushed to London with a letter asking the new Nazi foreign minister to assess immediately what Britain’s probable reaction would be.

Hitler sat up with Goebbels and the others until five a.m. plotting. ‘He believes the hour has come,’ recorded Goebbels. ‘Just wants to sleep on it. Says that Italy and Britain won’t do anything.’ The main worry was Austria’s powerful neighbours and friends. Hitler took great pains drafting a letter the next day to Mussolini, begging his approval. (The complete text, found seven years later in Göring’s desk, shows Hitler not only justifying his entry into Austria but also making plain that his next move would be against Czechoslovakia.) In his diary Alfred Jodl was to note, ‘Italy is the most ticklish problem: if she doesn’t act against us, then the others won’t either.’

By ten a.m. on March 10, when Keitel was summoned to the chancellery, Hitler had provisionally decided to invade Austria two days later. ‘There’s always been something about March,’ wrote a jubilant Goebbels. ‘It has been the Führer’s lucky month so far.’ Neurath, well pleased to have Hitler’s ear again in Ribbentrop’s absence, also advised a rapid grab at Austria. Keitel sent back a messenger to the Wehrmacht headquarters to fetch their operation plans. Despite Blomberg’s explicit directive of June 1937 however there were none, except for ‘Otto.’ Keitel meanwhile went to fetch General Beck, and asked him what plans the General Staff had made for invading Austria. Beck gasped, ‘None at all!’ He repeated this to Hitler when they got back to the chancellery. The most he could mobilise would be two corps. Beck primly declaimed: ‘I cannot take any responsibility for an invasion of Austria.’

Hitler retorted, ‘You don’t have to. If you stall over this, I’ll have the invasion carried out by my SS. They will march in with bands playing. Is that what the army wants?’ Beck bitterly reflected, in a letter to Hossbach in October, that this was his first and last military conference with Hitler, and it had lasted just five minutes.

The Luftwaffe raised none of these obstacles. Göring immediately made 300 aircraft available for propaganda flights. Diplomatic officials also moved fast, as Weizsäcker’s diary shows:

6:30 p.m., hear from Neurath that we’re to invade on March 12 … Above all I insist that we rig internal events in Austria in such a way that we are requested from there to come in, to get off on the right foot historically. It seems a new idea to Neurath, but he’ll implant it in the Reich chancellery.

At about eight p.m. the Austrian Nazi Odilo Globocnik – of whom, more later – arrived at the chancellery. He convinced Neurath to suggest to Hitler that Seyss-Inquart should telegraph an ‘appeal’ for German intervention to Berlin. Hitler, Göring, and Goebbels drafted a suitable text. The telegram (which Seyss-Inquart never even saw) appealed to Hitler to send in troops to restore order because of unrest, murder, and bloodshed in Vienna.

Over dinner in his villa, Göring handed the draft telegram to the Austrian general Glaise-Horstenau to take back to Vienna. Hitler had already given the general a veiled ultimatum for Seyss-Inquart to hand to Schuschnigg himself. At two a.m. he issued the directive for the Wehrmacht operation, ‘to restore constitutional conditions’ in Austria. ‘I myself will take charge of the whole operation…’

Evidently Hitler did not sleep much that night. When Reinhard Spitzy flewback from London, arriving at four a.m.(Hitler had himself telephoned him, using a code name, the evening before), Hitler offered him breakfast and read Ribbentrop’s verdict on Britain’s likely response to the invasion – ‘I am basically convinced,’ the minister had written, ‘that for the present Britain won’t start anything against us, but will act to reassure the other powers.’

That morning, March 11, Goebbels’s chief propagandist Alfred-Ingemar Berndt confidentially briefed Berlin press representatives: ‘Rather more emphasis is to be put on the events in Austria today – the tabloid newspapers are to make headlines of them, the political journals are to run about two columns. You are to avoid too much uniformity.’

Brauchitsch conferred at the chancellery for most of the day. When General Heinz Guderian asked if he could deck out his tanks with flags and flowers to emphasise the ‘peaceful’ nature of their operation, Hitler agreed wholeheartedly. The telephone lines between Berlin and Vienna buzzed with all the plotting. A failure at the chancellery telephone exchange even obliged Hitler and Göring to conduct their conversations from a phone booth in the conservatory.

Hitler’s special agent, Wilhelm Keppler, was keeping a weather eye on Seyss-Inquart in Vienna now, to ensure that this vacillating and over-legalistic Nazi minister did just as the Führer told him. For several hours beyond the deadline set by Hitler in his ultimatum, Schuschnigg procrastinated. From the phone booth Göring’s voice could be heard shouting orders to his agents in Vienna. Göring’s task was to ensure that Schuschnigg resigned before nightfall. Schuschnigg did at last postpone the plebiscite, but – after discussing this with Hitler – Göring phoned Seyss-Inquart to say that the Führer wanted clear information by 5:30 to whether or not President Miklas had invited Seyss-Inquart to form the new Cabinet. Seyss-Inquart expressed the pious hope that Austria would remain independent even if National Socialist in character. Göring gave him a noncommittal reply.

Five-thirty came and went. Göring ordered Seyss-Inquart and the military attaché, General Wolfgang Muff, to visit the president: ‘Tell him we are not joking…If Miklas hasn’t grasped that in four hours, then tell him he’s got four minutes to grasp it now.’ To this Seyss-Inquart weakly replied, ‘Oh, well.’ At eight p.m. he again came on the phone from Vienna: nobody had resigned, and the Schuschnigg government had merely ‘withdrawn,’ leaving events in limbo.

For half an hour there was agitated discussion in the chancellery of this irregular position, with Göring in favour now of military intervention, and Hitler a passive, pensive listener. Then, as they slouched back from the phone booth to the conference room, Hitler slapped his thigh, looked up, and announced: ‘Jetzt geht’s los – voran!’(‘Okay, let’s roll – move!’)

At about 8:30 p.m. Hitler signed the executive order. The invasion would commence the next morning.

Soon afterward, at 8:48 p.m., Keppler telephoned from Vienna that Miklas had dissolved the government and ordered the Austrian army not to resist. By ten p.m. the all-important telegram – signed ‘Seyss-Inquart’ – had also arrived, appealing on behalf of the provisional Austrian government for German troops to restore order. By 10:30 p.m. Hitler also knew that even Mussolini would look benignly on a German occupation of Austria. Hitler hysterically besought his special emissary in Rome over the phone: ‘Tell Mussolini I shall never forget him for this!… Never, never, never! Come what may!’ And, ‘Once this Austrian affair is over and done with, I am willing to go through thick and thin with him.’

As he replaced the telephone, Hitler confessed to Göring that this was the happiest day of his life. For the first time in over a decade he could return to his native Austria and visit the grave of his parents at Leonding.


Hitler told his adjutant Brückner to ensure that Ribbentrop stayed on in London as a ‘lightning rod’ for at least two or three more days. He himself would be in Vienna, if all went well, when he next saw Ribbentrop. Neurath blanched when he heard this, and begged Hitler not to risk Vienna yet – Braunau, his birthplace, perhaps, but not Vienna. Hitler insisted, and ordered absolute secrecy.

For the first time in two days he retired. Neither he nor Keitel however was allowed much slumber, as apprehensive generals and diplomats telephoned frantic appeals to him to call off the operation ‘before blood flowed.’ Brauchitsch and Beck repeatedly phoned Keitel and Weizsäcker that night, begging them to intervene. The OKW chief of operations, General Max von Viebahn, bombarded Keitel with phone calls, and at two a.m.Viebahn willingly connected General Muff, the military attaché, to Hitler’s bedside phone. Viebahn suffered a nervous breakdown the next morning and barricaded himself into an office at the war ministry, where he hurled ink bottles at the door, like some military Martin Luther. (Jodl succeeded him.)

Once again, it was a Saturday. At six a.m. that day, March 12, Hitler departed from Berlin by plane. At the Munich operations post of General Fedor von Bock he was briefed on the operation so far. Wildly cheering crowds had greeted the German ‘invaders’; Austrian troops and the veterans of the World War were lining the highways, saluting and proudly displaying the long-forgotten medals on their breasts. Czechoslovakia did not bestir herself. Indeed, as Hitler sardonically commented to the profusely weeping general seated beside him – Franz Halder – Czechoslovakia seemed suddenly very anxious to oblige him. He crossed the frontier near Braunau at about four o’clock and drove on, standing erect in the front of his open Mercedes, saluting or waving as his driver Erich Kempka changed down through the gears to avoid running down the hysterical crowds pressing into their path. It was dusk by the time they reached Linz, packed with a million clamouring Austrians. From the city hall’s balcony he spoke to the crowds: ‘If Providence once sent me out from this fine city, and called upon me to lead the Reich, then surely it must have had some mission in mind for me. And that can only have been one mission – to return my beloved native country to the German Reich!’

On the following afternoon he drove out to Leonding where his parents lay – and still lie – buried. By the time he returned to his hotel an idea which had occurred to him during the night had taken more definite shape: originally he had envisaged an autonomous Austria under his own elected presidency; but could he not now afford to proclaim Austria’s outright union with the Reich, i.e., the Anschluss? The Austrian public obviously supported him overwhelmingly. He sent a messenger by air to Göring, asking his opinion, and he telephoned Keppler in Vienna to ask Seyss-Inquart to put the idea to his Cabinet at once. When these latter two arrived that evening they confirmed that the Austrian Cabinet agreed to the Anschluss with the Reich. Thus was Hitler’s decision taken. ‘There is but one moment when the Goddess of Fortune wafts by,’ he reminded his adjutants. ‘And if you don’t grab her by the hem, you won’t get a second chance.’

We need not follow Hitler’s triumphal progress the next day onward to Vienna. Cardinal Theodor Innitzer, Archbishop of that city, had telephoned him seeking permission to ring all the church bells in Austria to welcome him, and he asked for swastika banners to decorate the steeples as Hitler drove into the capital. At two p.m. on March 15 he took the salute at a great military parade at the Maria-Theresa monument. Wehrmacht troops marched past together with Austrian regiments, garlanded alike with flowers and flags. A thousand bombers and fighters of the two air forces – led by one German and one Austrian officer – thundered over the capital’s rooftops. Baron von Weizsäcker, who had arrived with Ribbentrop, wrote that day: ‘Which of us does not recall that oft-repeated question of earlier years: What did our World War sacrifices avail us?’

Here was the answer. The whole city was wild with frenetic acclaim. They were seeing the rebirth of German greatness, of a nation defeated despite bloody self-sacrifice, dismembered in armistice, humiliated, crippled by international debt and yet once again arising in the heart of Europe – a nation united by one of their humblest children, a leader promising them an era of greatness and prosperity.

As darkness fell upon Vienna, now a mere provincial capital, Hitler fastened himself into the seat of his Junkers plane – sitting left of the aisle. They flew toward the sunset, the craggy Alpine skyline tinged with ever-changing hues of scarlet and gold. General Keitel was looking out over Bohemia and Moravia, to his right. With tears in his eyes, Hitler called his attention to Austria, on his side of the plane. ‘All that is now German again!’

After a while he leaned across the gangway again. Keitel’s adjutant, sitting behind them, saw Hitler show a crumpled newspaper clipping that he had been clutching ever since leaving Vienna. It was a sketch map of the Reich’s new frontiers. Czechoslovakia was now enclosed on three sides. Hitler superimposed his left hand on the map, so that his forefinger and thumb encompassed Czechoslovakia’s frontiers. He winked broadly at the OKW general, and slowly pinched finger and thumb together.

‘Green’ • 4,800 Words

This was the beginning of Hitler’s new-style diplomacy. On each occasion from now on he satisfied himself that the western powers would not fight provided he made each territorial claim sound reasonable enough. When General Walther von Brauchitsch had proposed to him on March 9, 1938, the strengthening of their defences along the Moselle and Rhine rivers by early 1939, Hitler had seen no need for any urgency. He was to explain, in a secret speech to Nazi editors on November 10, ‘The general world situation seemed more favourable than ever before for us to stake our claims.’

March 17 saw Hitler with his chief engineer Fritz Todt unrolling maps and sketching in the new autobahns for Austria. ‘Astounding, the fresh plans he is already hatching,’ recorded Goebbels afterwards. Hitler’s next victim, as he had indicated to Mussolini, would be Czechoslovakia. Through Intelligence channels Prague indicated a willingness to seek a solution to the problem of the Germans living in the Sudeten territories just inside her frontiers. Hitler had however no desire to adopt any solution that the Czechs might propose. On March 19 he conferred with Nazi party leaders, including Dr. Goebbels, whom he invited upstairs to his little study in the chancellery. Over an unfurled map of Europe they plotted their next moves. The Führer confirmed that Czechoslovakia would be next: ‘We’ll share that with the Poles and Hungarians,’ recorded Goebbels in his extraordinary diary afterwards: ‘And without further ado.’

That same day the propaganda minister issued a secret circular to Nazi editors to use the word Grossdeutsch – Greater German – only sparingly as yet. ‘Obviously other territories belong to the actual Grossdeutsches Reich and claim will be laid to them in due course.’ How stirring it was, reflected Goebbels in the privacy of his diary, to hear the Führer say that his one desire was to live to see with his own eyes ‘this great German, Teutonic Reich.’

Hitler announced his plan to allow Germany and Austria to vote on April 10 to confirm the Anschluss. The election campaign took him the length and breadth of both countries. On the seventh he had turned the first spade’s depth of a new autobahn system in Austria. His surgeon Hanskarl von Hasselbach later wrote: ‘The people lined both sides of the roads for mile after mile, wild with indescribable rejoicing. Many of the public wept openly at the sight of Hitler.’ After speaking from the balcony of Vienna’s city hall on April 9, he took the overnight train to Berlin. As they passed through Leipzig he remarked to Goebbels that he was working on a plan to ship all of Europe’s Jews off to the Indian Ocean island of Madagascar. True, the island concerned was a French dominion, but an hour later he explained that one day he was going to settle France’s hash too – ‘His life’s burning ambition,’ Goebbels perceived. Both men voted at a booth on the Berlin railroad station concourse. The question on the ballot paper was: ‘Do you accept Adolf Hitler as our Führer, and do you thus accept the reunification of Austria with the German Reich as effected on March 13, 1938?’ The result staggered even Hitler. Of 49, 493,028 entitled to vote, 49,279,104 had done so; and of these 48,751,857 adults (99.08 percent) had stated their support of Hitler’s action. This was an unanimity of almost embarrassing dimensions.

Hitler had told Goebbels that he would put the former Chancellor Schuschnigg on trial, but that he would of course commute any resulting death sentence. There was however no trial; instead he instructed Ribbentrop that Schuschnigg was to be well-treated and housed in a quiet villa somewhere. In later years – like so many other Hitler directives – this came to be overlooked, and Schuschnigg went into a concentration camp from which he was liberated only in 1945.


On March 24, 1938 Hitler again discussed the next moves with Ribbentrop and Goebbels. He would one day adjust Germany’s frontier with France, but he proposed to leave their frontier with Italy unchanged. ‘He particularly does not want to reach the Adriatic,’ observed Goebbels. ‘Our ocean lies to the North and East. A country cannot throw its weight in two directions at once.’

Almost immediately Hitler started subversive activities in the Sudeten territories. On the afternoon of March 28 he discussed tactics with Konrad Henlein, the leader of the Sudeten German Party. Henlein had been ‘discovered’ by Canaris in 1935 and schooled by the Abwehr in subversive operations. Since then he had built up a powerful political organisation amongst the 3,200,000 Sudeten Germans. Conferring with him in top secret together with Ribbentrop and SS-Gruppenführer Werner Lorenz, Hitler gave him two missions: the first was to formulate a series of demands on the Czechs of such a character that, though ostensibly quite reasonable, there was no danger that the Czech leader, Dr. Eduard Bene, would actually entertain them; the second was to use the influence that Henlein had evidently built up in London to prevail upon the British not to interfere.

Military preparations began simultaneously. On the same day, March 28, Keitel signed an important instruction to the army and air force to modernise the main bridges across the Danube and the highways in Austria leading toward Czechoslovakia. On April 1 the General Staff telephoned General Wilhelm von Leeb orders to report to Beck: Leeb would command the Seventh Army which would operate from Austrian soil against Czechoslovakia.

General Beck’s own hostility to the Czechs was well-known. Manstein, in a letter of July 21, had written of Beck’s ‘fierce yearning’ for the destruction of Czechoslovakia. In December 1937 Beck had referred to her, in conversation with Jenö Rátz, the Hungarian chief of general staff, as an appendix on German soil: ‘As long as she exists, Germany can’t fight any war.’ He felt however that Czechoslovakia was impregnable to military assault.

Beck seemed unaware that modern states were vulnerable to attack by other means, that the army was only one weapon in Hitler’s arsenal. Hitler and the OKW, however, saw their future campaigns not just in terms of cannon and gunpowder. Unlike his generals, Hitler knew many of the cards that his opponents held. Göring’s Forschungsamt and Ribbentrop’s Pers-Z code-breakers were regularly reading the telegrams between London, Paris, and their missions abroad as well as the cypher dispatches from the Italian and Hungarian diplomats in Berlin. Many a Hitler decision that infuriated his generals by its seeming lack of logic at the time can be explained by his illicit knowledge of his opponents’ plans.


Germany’s ties with Fascist Italy were now a fact, and Hitler hoped to sign a formal treaty with Mussolini during his forthcoming state visit to Italy. On April 2, seeing off Hans-George von Mackensen as his new ambassador to Rome, he once more said that he had decided to write off the disputed South Tyrol frontier region in Italy’s favour – Germany’s frontiers with Italy, Yugoslavia, and Hungary were permanent. ‘Our aspirations,’ said Hitler, echoing what he had told Ribbentrop and Goebbels, ‘are to the north. After the Sudeten Germans our sights will be set on the Baltic. We must turn our interest to the Polish Corridor and, perhaps, the other Baltic states. Not that we want any non-Germans in our domain – but if rule any we must, then the Baltic countries.’

Weizsäcker recorded these words. He also noted that Hitler had told Neurath on April 20, his birthday, that foreign triumphs were now coming in thick and fast. He would bide his time, prepare, then strike like lightning.

Hitler dared not risk settling the Czech affair until he was sure of Mussolini’s support. If, in Rome, Mussolini told him in confidence that he was planning to extend his African empire, then Hitler could demand Italian support over Czechoslovakia as the price for German support in Africa. And then, as he once ruminated to Schmundt during April, ‘I’ll return from Rome with Czechoslovakia in the bag.’

On April 21 he instructed Keitel to draft a suitable OKW directive. The tactical ideal would be a surprise invasion, but world opinion would rule that out unless, for instance, some anti-German outrage occurred there like the murder of their envoy in Prague. The German army and air force must strike simultaneously, leaving Czechoslovakia isolated and demoralised, while German armour poured ruthlessly through Pilsen toward Prague. In four days this main battle must be over.

The next day Hitler sent for the Hungarian envoy Döme Sztójay, and confided to him that in the coming carving up of Czechoslovakia it would be up to Hungary to recover the territory she had lost there after the World War,including ‘Hungary’s old coronation city,’ Bratislava (Pressburg). Sztójay reported this splendid news to his foreign minister Kolomán von Kánya in a secret handwritten letter.


The big military parade marking Hitler’s forty-ninth birthday had reminded him that his years were drawing on. An adjutant heard him remark for the first time that his acuity of decision was now at its peak. Moreover an assassin’s bullet might always cut him down. On April 23, 1938, he signed a secret decree confirming Göring as his successor. On May 2 Hitler wrote out in longhand a private testament, a rare documentary glimpse of him as a human being, putting his affairs in order, arranging his own funeral and disposing of his personal effects to his family and private staff.

The entire Reich government assembled at the Anhalt station in Berlin to bid him farewell for Rome that day. The last time he had seen Italy, in 1934, the Italians had consigned him to a hot palazzo in Venice with windows that could not be opened and myriads of mosquitoes. In his bedchamber he had clambered onto a chair to unscrew each scalding light bulb in the chandelier. This time however, in May 1938, Mussolini had provided a lavish reception.

For a week in Italy, Hitler could survey the Roman scene and weigh the powers of the Duce against the prerogatives of the King. As his special train hauled into Rome’s suburbs on May 3, he marshalled his private staff and warned them not to burst out laughing at the sight of a diminutive figure kneeling on the platform, weighed down with gold braid: for that was the king of Italy, and he was not kneeling – that was his full height. Yet there was no escaping the tiny King Victor Emanuel III, for technically he was Hitler’s host. The royal camarilla could not have angered him more had they actually conspired to humiliate Hitler, this humble son of a Braunau customs official. The gates of the king’s villa were accidentally locked in his face, and at the palace Hitler encountered suffocating royal etiquette for the first time. The noble Italian chief of protocol led the German guests up the long, shallow flight of stairs, striking every tread solemnly with a gold-encrusted staff. Hitler, the nervous foreign visitor, fell out of step, found himself gaining on the uniformed nobleman ahead, and stopped abruptly, causing confusion and clatter on the steps behind, then started again, walking more quickly until he was soon alongside the Italian again. The latter affected not to notice him, but perceptibly quickened his own pace, until the whole throng was trotting up the last few stairs in an undignified gallop.

There were other flaws. Hitler had proposed giving Italy a planetarium. Ribbentrop pointed out that Italy already had two, both robbed from Germany as post-war reparations. ‘It would seem to me, therefore,’ Ribbentrop observed in a note, ‘that the gift of a planetarium to Mussolini might be somewhat out of place.’ At a Dopolavoro display only three gilded chairs were provided for the royal couple, Hitler, and Mussolini; inevitably the two dictators had to stand, leaving the third chair empty, while a hundred thousand chuckling Italians looked on. At a concert at the Villa Borghese, the nobility occupied the front rows while the soldiers Rodolfo Graziani, Italo Balbo, and Pietro Badoglio were crowded back into insignificance. This was repeated at the military parade at Naples. Hitler boorishly remarked out loud that these were the generals who had brought the king his Abyssinian empire; at which the row behind him melted away until the generals were in front. Later, Wiedemann subsequently testified, Hitler petulantly announced to Mussolini: ‘I’m going home, I didn’t come to see the King, but you, my friend!’

He returned to Berlin on May 10 with mixed impressions. His worst fears of Italy’s military worth were confirmed. In German eyes the Duce’s most modern weaponry, proudly paraded in Rome, was already obsolete. Hitler was aghast at Mussolini’s ignorance of military technology – he would be at the mercy of his generals, he said, and they had sworn their allegiance to the king.

The Italians ducked out of signing the draft alliance that Ribbentrop had taken with him, and in Weizsäcker’s words, ‘dealt us a slap in the face with an improvised draft treaty of their own, more akin to an armistice with an enemy than a bond of loyalty signed between friends.’ Hitler had two long secret talks with the Duce on May 4, and had told him of his ambitions in the east. ‘Over Czechoslovakia,’ Goebbels noted later that day, quoting Hitler, ‘Mussolini has given us a totally free hand.’ Mussolini affirmed that in any conflict between Germany and Czechoslovakia he would stand aside, ‘his sword in its scabbard.’ The phrase seemed ambiguous, but Keitel’s adjutant recorded Hitler’s words at a secret speech to generals on August 15, 1938: ‘What will Italy’s position be? I have received reassurances [visit to Italy]. Nobody’s going to attack us!’ Unhappily, no full record exists of the pregnant remarks that Hitler evidently uttered to Benito Mussolini aboard the battleship Conte Cavour. Mussolini recalled him as saying that ‘Germany will step out along the ancient Teutonic path, toward the east.’


The upshot of Hitler’s visit to Rome had been to discredit monarchies in his eyes for all time. To his intimates, he had in earlier years hinted that he would one day retire and pass supreme command to a contender of royal blood. He would then live his last years as a pensioner in Munich, Regensburg, or Linz, dictating the third volume of his memoirs to Fräulein Johanna Wolf, the more elderly of his secretaries. He had in fact discussed with the late President Hindenburg his plan to restore a Hohenzollern to the throne – not so much the Crown Prince, Friedrich Wilhelm, as one of the prince’s sons instead.

What Hitler had seen in Rome however put all thought of that out of his head. On his return to Berlin, he had Göring contact the former Social Democrat leaders like Carl Severing, Gustav Noske, Otto Braun, and Paul Löbe and increase their pensions – in recognition of their having dispensed with the monarchy. Nonetheless, he sent routine birthday greetings on May 6 to Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm. The prince replied with congratulations for Hitler’s contribution to peace in Europe. Hitler dourly remarked to Wiedemann, ‘I’m not here to ensure peace in Europe; I’m here to make Germany great again. If that can be done peacefully, well and good. If not, we’ll have to do it differently.’


Hitler had evidently decided not to wait over Czechoslovakia. Weizsäcker recorded on May 13, ‘He’s thinking of dealing with the Sudeten German problem before the year is out, as the present balance of power [Konstellation] might otherwise shift against us.’ A cunning propaganda campaign was worked out, beginning with deliberate silence on the dispute. Goebbels briefed the Nazi editors on the thirteenth: ‘You are again reminded that you are not allowed to report minor incidents in Czechoslovakia.’ There was a psychological battle to be won.

Meanwhile, Hitler applied his mind to the supposedly impregnable Czech frontier defences. The OKW advised him that the fortifications were formidable – there were big gun-sites, proof against all known calibres of artillery, at hundred-yard intervals, and machine-gun bunkers in between. Hitler decided that the attack would have to come from within the fortifications simultaneously with the main invasion from without. This would be followed by a rapid armoured penetration into Czechoslovakia, while the Luftwaffe bombers struck at Prague.

The foreign line-up against him was now much clearer. Britain was the biggest worry. His agents in Vienna had captured papers revealing the extent to which the British envoy there had egged Schuschnigg on against Hitler. Britain’s links with France and the United States were growing stronger: from diplomatic sources Hitler was aware of the Anglo-French staff talks in London – a decoded telegram of the U.S. ambassador in London, Joseph Kennedy, reached Hitler early in May indicating that while Britain was prepared to force the Czechs to accept some of Hitler’s terms, he would not be given a free hand in Central Europe. After a joint conference with the navy on May 4, the Luftwaffe’s deputy chief of operations, Colonel Hans Jeschonnek, wrote: ‘The general political situation has radically changed recently, with Britain emerging increasingly as Germany’s principal enemy.’ The Führer had already stated quite plainly to Raeder in January 1938, for instance, ‘The Führer’s impression is that the naval construction program is not progressing fast enough. He compares the naval construction effort with the Luftwaffe’s dynamic advance and with the energy with which Field Marshal Göring intervenes and spurs all his factories on.’ The yards lacked skilled labour, welders, and materials however, and Raeder pointed to the reckless increase in public construction projects competing with the rearmament program – the Volkswagen works, the Munich subway, the reconstruction of Berlin, Nuremberg, Hamburg, and much else.

Hitler turned a deaf ear on his protests. His studied recklessness with public funds was sweeping German architecture out of the pre-1933 doldrums. Pretentious new public buildings were springing up – their style frequently dictated by Hitler himself, as he was prone to issue thumbnail sketches of the grand boulevards and buildings. Hitler disliked the formless products of Germany’s older school of architects, and appointed the youthful Albert Speer as chief architect to Berlin, and the self-taught Hermann Giesler in Munich. To Speer – commissioned immediately to build a new Reich chancellery – Hitler commented that it would be useful for receiving and impressing the ‘little nations.’ His designs went further than that however: one evening in October 1941 Hitler explained in private:

When one enters the Reich chancellery one must have the feeling that one is visiting the Master of the World. One will arrive there along wide avenues containing the Triumphal Arch, the Pantheon of the Army, the Square of the People – things to take your breath away!… For material we shall use granite. Granite will ensure that our monuments last forever. In ten thousand years they’ll still be standing. One day, Berlin will be the capital of the world.

Hitler also handed to Speer a project for a vast stadium at Nuremberg capable of seating over 350,000 spectators: ‘In future,’ he said, ‘all the Olympic Games will be held there.’


On May 17, 1938, the Führer flew with Major Schmundt to Munich, where Martin Bormann was waiting for him with a column of automobiles. At a stately speed the convoy swept south toward Berchtesgaden, with Hitler’s open supercharged Mercedes in front and his escort and luggage bringing up the rear. From time to time Hitler glanced at the speedometer to check they were not exceeding his personal speed limit of fifty miles per hour. His housekeeper and domestic staff were marshalled on the Berghof’s terrace. Orderlies stepped forward and opened his car door, and he vanished into the villa. He could hear the Scottish terriers yapping in the distance, he scented the familiar odours of wood and wax polish, and thrilled to the Great Hall’s spectacle of the world spread out at his feet below.

Picking his way along the narrow paths laid out on the Obersalzberg mountainside, Hitler began to think aloud to his trusted adjutants. He still felt uneasy about his army generals. Fritsch was gone but there was still Ludwig Beck, the Chief of General Staff; and Beck was an officer ‘more at home in his swivel chair than a slit trench,’ as Hitler sniffed. And there was Gerd von Rundstedt, the army’s senior-ranking general; Rundstedt had deeply offended Hitler recently by advising him coarsely to have nothing to do with that ‘Negroid arsehole’ Mussolini. In Austria, however, Hitler had renewed his acquaintance with General Franz Halder, Beck’s deputy; he had already formed a fine impression of Halder during the big September 1937 manoeuvres. He decided to replace Beck by Halder soon.

While in Berlin, Hitler had asked the OKW to draw up an interim directive for ‘Green.’ It reached the Berghof on May 21. It opened with a reassuring definition of aims by Hitler: ‘It is not my intention to destroy Czechoslovakia in the immediate future by military action unless provoked… or unless political events in Europe create a particularly favourable and perhaps unrepeatable climate for doing so.’ That same day news reached him that Czech policemen had shot dead two Sudeten German farmers near Eger, and that the Czech government was mobilising nearly 200,000 troops on the – wholly false – pretext that Germany was already concentrating troops against her. Hitler angrily ordered Keitel and foreign minister Ribbentrop to meet him in Munich. In a secret speech six months later he was to relate: ‘After May 21 it was quite plain that this problem would have to be tackled – so oder so! Any further postponement would only make it tougher, and its solution even bloodier.’

Claiming the backing of Hitler, Goebbels unleashed a press campaign against Prague: ‘Ribbentrop is on the verge of tears,’ he noted gleefully. Ribbentrop arrived in Munich, warned by General von Brauchitsch before he left that the army was not ready for an attack on Czechoslovakia. He persuaded Hitler that the press must hold its fire. Schmundt forwarded to Keitel lists of questions asked by the Führer. Could enough troops be mobilised without putting the western powers on guard? How strong would a German armoured force have to be to carry out the invasion by itself? Could the western frontier be strengthened by the construction gangs?

The OKW’s replies, cabled to the Berghof, put a damper on any idea of immediate action except in an emergency. The new heavy howitzers (15-centimetre trench mortars) could not enter service before the fall, because no live ammunition would be available before then.

To attack the enemy fortifications Hitler would have only twenty-three 21-centimetre howitzers and eight of these were in East Prussia. All week Hitler grappled with the decision – to attack now or later? He was mortified by the unbridled anti-German outburst in the foreign press. Lord Halifax, the British foreign secretary, was tactless enough to write urging him not to make the situation worse – as though it was Hitler who had mobilised. The Czechs and the British even gloated that only Benes’s mobilisation order had forced Hitler to back down.

By Wednesday, May 25, his mind was made up.

The intellectual process involved by this was evident to his private staff. They could hear him pacing up and down hour after hour at night. War with the western powers now seemed a certainty. From here on the Berghof, his naval adjutant – the cigar-smoking captain Karl-Jesco von Puttkamer – cabled to Admiral Raeder a warning to stand by to meet the Führer in Berlin on Friday, May 27; Puttkamer tipped him off that there was to be a further acceleration of warship construction, since ‘the Führer now has to assume that France and Britain will rank amongst our enemies.’

Back in Berlin that Friday, Hitler informed Raeder that he wanted the new battleships Bismarck and Tirpitz completed by early 1940; he also demanded an upgrading of the armament of the new battle cruisers, the expansion of naval shipyard capacity, and the completion of the total percentage of submarines permitted under the 1935 Anglo-German Agreement. Nonetheless Hitler contrived to give the admiral the impression that the naval part of any war would not begin before 1944 or 1945; such was the contingency plan subsequently analysed by Raeder’s chief of naval operations, and it was on this time assumption that the naval staff began to formulate its new ship-construction program, the Z-Plan.

Hitler had also decided to begin laying down an impregnable West Wall along the western frontiers – two parallel defence zones, the forward one to be built and manned by the army, the rearward by the Luftwaffe.

On Friday, May 27, he issued corresponding new targets to the army: it was to speed up work on the existing 1,360 concrete pillboxes, and build in addition 1,800 more pillboxes and ten thousand bunkers by October 1, 1938. On the following day, Saturday, May 28, he called a top-level conference of selected ministers and generals in the chancellery. Göring, who guessed what was afoot, whispered apprehensively to Wiedemann: ‘Does the Führer really imagine that the French won’t do anything if we weigh into the Czechs? Doesn’t he read the Forschungsamt intercepts?’

Hitler had invited Brauchitsch, Beck, and Neurath; Ribbentrop was not in evidence, but his liaison officer Hewel came with Baron von Weizsäcker. Goebbels noted in his diary a word picture of Hitler pacing up and down, pondering his decision. ‘We have to leave him alone. He is brooding on a decision. That often takes some time.’ Hitler stressed that he would take sole responsibility for his decision – ‘Far-reaching decisions can only be taken alone,’ Beck noted him as saying – and that decision he now announced, according to Wiedemann’s recollection, as follows: ‘It is my unshakeable resolve that Czechoslovakia shall vanish from the map of Europe.’

He explained to them why he had not reacted immediately to the provocation offered by Prague’s unwarranted mobilisation: firstly, his army was not yet ready to penetrate the Czech frontier fortifications; and secondly, Germany’s rear cover, in the west, was at present inadequate to deter France. However, he said, with British rearmament still three years short of completion, and with the French forces similarly unprepared, this opportunity must be grasped soon: ‘In two or three years,’ he said, ‘their temporary weakness will have passed.’ He spoke for three hours, but when he finished he had still not indicated to them precisely when ‘Green,’ the attack on Czechoslovakia, would begin. Opinions differed. Neurath told Wiedemann as they left the chancellery, ‘So, we have at least another year. A lot of things can happen before then.’

Later that Saturday Göring instructed his senior Luftwaffe generals to come and confer with him the next day. On May 30 and again on June 1 Fritz Todt’s diary shows him lunching with Hitler: Hitler formally asked him to oversee the army’s construction of the West Wall. On June 1 the air ministry issued its orders for the erection of Air Defence Zone West. The navy had shown no lesser alacrity. Raeder had evidently stipulated to Hitler, at their Thursday meeting, that in any war in the west the Nazis’ first strategic objective must be to extend their coastal base by the occupation of neutral Belgium and Holland, because Hitler mentioned this requirement in his secret conference with the ministers and generals on the next day, May 28.

The army’s general staff complied only most reluctantly. Beck suggested to Brauchitsch that they humour Hitler ‘for the time being.’ Hitler in turn commented cynically to Göring, ‘These old generals will just about manage Czechoslovakia – after that we’ll have four or five years’ grace anyway.’


Hitler’s policies now turned, therefore, on destroying Czechoslovakia in a lightning four-day campaign. (It would take France at least four days to mobilise.) To Schmundt he outlined the campaign as he envisaged it: on Day One his Fifth Columnists could sabotage the Czech ‘nerve centres’ while the fortifications were seized by Trojan-horse tactics or bombed by the Luftwaffe. On Day Two camouflaged units would secure key bridges and targets between the German frontier and the enemy fortifications. Across these bridges on Day Three would pour the army’s mechanised units to relieve the troops that had dug in among the fortifications; and on Day Four the divisions waiting on the frontier would follow, while a motorised formation and the 2nd Panzer Division lunged into the heart of Czechoslovakia.

The final OKW directive that Hitler signed on May 30 suggested no date for the attack. The document now began however, ‘It is my unshakeable resolve to smash Czechoslovakia by means of a military operation.’

The Other Side of Hitler • 3,000 Words

While the Nazi screw was slowly turned on Czechoslovakia during the summer of 1938 Hitler stayed at the Berghof and followed the lazy routine of a country gentleman, surrounded by his personal friends and their womenfolk. He rose at ten, read the papers, strolled, watched a movie of his choice, and retired between ten and midnight. Once he stayed up until 3:15 a.m. to hear the result of the boxing match in the U.S.A. between Max Schmeling and the Negro Joe Louis; but his champion was defeated, and for days afterward his adjutants grinned as they handed him the dutifully translated telegrams sent by U.S. citizens to the Führer. ‘Herr Adolph Hitler, Berlin, Germany,’ cabled one correspondent from Colorado. ‘How do you feel after tonight’s defeat of Nazi number one pugilist, defeated by Afro-American?’ And another, ‘Our sympathies on the disgraceful showing Herr Max made tonight. Just about as long as you would last if we tied in to Germany.’

Hitler’s military advisers went on routine summer furloughs. Jodl and Schmundt took five weeks until the end of July, Keitel then went off until mid-August. Late in June 1938 a new naval adjutant arrived, a dour Frisian, Commander Alwin-Broder Albrecht; Puttkamer returned to the destroyers. The elegant Luftwaffe adjutant Nicolaus von Below was still there, as was the new army adjutant, the brash and jocular Gerhard Engel. Himmler had also provided Hitler with a young, good-looking SS Obersturmführer as an aide-de-camp, Max Wünsche; Wünsche’s diary affords us a vivid impression of the dictator’s life and daily ordinances as well as proving the almost complete absence from the Berghof of gauleiters and other Nazi Party dignitaries. Once, the SA chief of staffViktor Lutze gate-crashed the Berghof. Hitler afterward ordered his sentries to refuse access to anybody who tried to see him without appointment. The Berghof was his private residence, and several times during the coming crises Bormann or Lammers would issue notices to that effect. Here their Führer could hobnob in peace with his court photographer Heinrich Hoffmann or with the various ladies who currently found his favour. The Wünsche diary records young architect Albert Speer as a frequent visitor, and telephoning ingratiatingly to report the birth of a daughter. And once it shows Hitler commanding Bormann to purchase a private car, as he desired to undertake a special motor journey somewhere ‘incognito.’

Hitler’s contempt for lawyers was notorious. In 1935 he had learned that the Supreme Court had nullified one old lady’s testament because she had written it on headed notepaper; Hitler sent for Franz Gürtner and drafted a special law reversing the absurd ruling, but when he had come to write his own testament in May 1938 he wrote it out in full, in longhand, nonetheless. (This did not prevent post-war lawyers from voiding it all the same, on government instructions.) He showed what he thought of lawyers in one August 1942 directive, reported by Lammers to Gürtner: ‘In many cases,’ Hitler had ruled, ‘it will undoubtedly be necessary to determine whether there were sexual relations between two people or not. If this much is known however, it is wholly superfluous to probe for closer particulars as to how and where such sexual intercourse took place. The cross-examination of women in particular should cease!’ Lammers continued. ‘Every time that cross-examining police officials or judges keep probing for details as to the how and where of the sexual intercourse, the Führer has gained the very clear impression that this is done for the same reasons that the same intimate questions are asked in the Confessional box.’

Max Wünsche’s diary shows some of the other matters exercising Hitler’s mind in the summer of 1938. On June 17, ‘Führer orders the pedestal of the Strauss bust changed.’ On July 7, ‘The Führer commands that the sockets of flagpoles required more than once are to be made permanent.’ Five days later, ‘On the drive up to the Berghof a letter was passed to the Führer. In this, a man complains that he has still received no reply to a letter sent two years ago (Bouhler’s chancellery). The Führer is very annoyed and orders that every matter addressed to him is to be seen to as a matter of urgency.’ On the fourteenth Hitler is found ‘deliberating whether it might not be possible to manufacture all cigarettes without nicotine content’; a few days later he ‘commands that no more smoking is to be permitted at the Berghof.’ This nit-picking extended to road safety: ‘4:45 p.m., the Führer confiscates the driving license of SS Gruppenführer [Fritz] Weitzel’s chauffeur for six months and details the Reichsführer to proceed strictly against traffic offenders.’ The Wünsche diary also records small, unpublicised acts of humanity: ‘The Führer will act as godfather to the triplets of Frau Feil of Kirchanschörung. A perambulator is on order in Munich and 300 marks have been sent to the mother. Doctors’ bills will be taken care of.’ On July 21Wünsche recorded: ‘Lunch at the Osteria. The Führer commands that the woman who passed the letter to him during the journey from the Obersalzberg is to be given help. SS Colonel [Hans] Rattenhuber is given 300 marks for this purpose.’

This was the ‘popular dictator’ – friend of the arts, benefactor of the impoverished, defender of the innocent, persecutor of the delinquent. In an early Cabinet meeting, on June 8, 1933, he had come out against the death penalty for economic sabotage, arguing: ‘I am against using the death sentence because it is irreversible. The death sentence should be reserved for only the gravest crimes, particularly those of a political nature.’

By June 1938, however, his compunctions were fewer. ‘The Führer signs the new law providing the death sentence for highway robbery’; and precisely one week later, ‘The Führer countersigns the death sentence passed on the highway robber Götze.’ He also interfered blatantly in the judicial process. ‘The Führer,’ noted Wünsche, ‘commands that Salzberger, the woman-killer, is to be sentenced as rapidly as possible. Justice Minister Gürtner is informed of this.’

Every member of Hitler’s staff wishing to marry had to secure his permission first, from the most august field marshal to the humblest corporal. He took a personal interest in the prospective wives, requiring to see their photographs and frequently guffawing over the oddities of the match proposed. When in August 1936 Hitler’s chauffeur Kempka proposed to marry one Rosel Bubestinger, Schaub at first wrote to the SS authorities asking for rapid clearance – until her ancestry was found to be askew; then Schaub telephoned them instructions not to hurry the clearance, ‘but on the contrary to protract it to stop them marrying. This is the explicit instruction of a Senior Person,’ he added, in a clear reference to Hitler.

Hitler himself declined to marry. He had proclaimed it the duty of every German family to produce four children, but he had cynical reasons for remaining single. He had the female vote to consider. He was wedded to Germany, he liked to say. In the twenties he had picked up women casually for an evening’s amusement – Emil Maurice, his driver, once told Hitler’s secretaries that he used to drive him to Berlin and ‘organised’ girls for him.

The first romance to have a permanently disturbing effect on him was with his step-niece Geli Raubal, the daughter of his half-sister Angela. Geli’s tragic death in a locked room of Hitler’s Munich flat would mark the turning point in his career – a moment when he would brace himself for the future, casting off all fleshly pleasures in the most literal sense. His physician Karl Brandt would write warmly of the moral comfort and support that this young girl gave to Hitler in his years of struggle. ‘I remember the emotion with which Hitler spoke of her in earlier years – it was akin to the worship of a Madonna.’

Geli had the cheerful resolution that Hitler valued in a woman, but she was jealous of other girls. In 1930 she cajoled him to take her to the Oktoberfest in Munich; while Hitler tucked into roast chicken and beer she saw Heinrich Hoffmann arrive with a comely fair-haired girl in tow whom he laughingly introduced to all and sundry as ‘my niece.’ Geli saw this as a jibe at her. She next saw the girl in a photograph beaming at her from Hoffmann’s studio window in Munich’s Amalien Strasse, when the Schaubs went there in May 1931 to have their wedding photos taken. The girl was Eva Braun, aged twenty-one, one of Hoffmann’s more decorative assistants. In later months Eva took to slipping billets-doux into the unsuspecting Hitler’s pockets. On one occasion Geli found the message first.

In September 1931 Geli’s tortured affair with Hitler ended with her suicide. She shot herself through the heart with Hitler’s own 6.35-millimetre Walther pistol. The emotional damage that he suffered was never repaired. He ordered her room locked and left as it was, with her carnival costume, her books, her white furniture and other property scattered about it as on the day she died. In his May 1938 testament he ordained, ‘The contents of the room in my Munich home where my niece Geli Raubal used to live are to be handed to my sister Angela’ – Geli’s mother.


A few days after Geli’s death Hitler found another note from Eva in his pocket, expressing her sympathy. Eva Braun had little of Geli’s character. ‘The greater the man,’ Hitler had defined in 1934, ‘the more insignificant should be his woman.’ The simple Eva fitted the bill exactly. She was a former convent schoolgirl, but gained in self-assurance and charm as she grew older. At first Hitler had taken only to inviting her to tea in his Munich apartment, and she had to resort to great feminine cunning to win him. She faked her own May 1935 diary, threatening suicide, and left it lying around for him to find. (She was infuriated by rumours that one of German society’s most notable beauties, Baroness Sigrid Laffert, was a regular houseguest at the Berghof.) Eva swallowed a dose – but not an overdose – of sleeping tablets and was ‘rushed to the hospital.’ Hitler hurried to Munich, aghast at the mere threat of a second suicide scandal around his name. Her ‘diary’ was shown to him. Upon her discharge from the hospital, the artful girl was powdered a sickly hue and displayed to him while her women friends cackled upstairs.

Thus she won her Adolf. In 1936 she attended the Nuremberg Rally. At the Kaiserhof hotel Frau Angela Raubal, Geli’s sorrowing mother, met her face to face. The indignant mother marshalled half the ladies in the hotel in her support while the rest sided with Eva. It was open war until Hitler intervened and told his half-sister to leave Nuremberg and vacate the Berghof where she had kept house for him forthwith. Eva Braun moved into her own permanent apartment at the Berghof, but the villa now became her gilded cage too. When official guests came she withdrew to her attic rooms and immersed herself in old movie magazines. She knew that Hitler would never present her in public as his wife.

Over the years Eva and Adolf exchanged many hundreds of handwritten letters. They filled a trunk, which was looted in August 1945 by an officer of the American CIC.[20]See page xvi. The Dana press agency announced on November 22, 1945: ‘A torn field-grey tunic and tattered pair of black pants – the uniform that Hitler was wearing at the moment of the assassination attempt of July 20, 1944 were among Eva Braun’s private effects. Several boxes, photo albums, extracts of letters she had written to Hitler, are now in military custody.’ The information came from Eisenhower’s G-2, Major General Edwin L. Sibert. The uniform was ceremonially burned by the Americans in 1948. And over the years Hitler remained faithful to her. Over the last decade of his life his natural libido was somewhat diminished anyway – his medical records display only half the usual secretion of testis hormone in his blood serum, comparable to that of a busy executive – or of a man serving a long prison sentence. His staff was aware of Eva’s existence, but kept the secret well. Emmy Göring was never introduced to her. The staff referred to her as ‘E.B.,’ addressed her as ‘madam,’ and kissed her hand. Hitler would call her ‘Patscherl’; she referred to him as ‘Chief.’ He continued to pay her monthly wages to the Hoffmann studios until the end of their lives. There was clearly an empathy between them, of an intensity not really documented except by their chosen manner of departure from it – the suicide pact in 1945. She remained his anonymous shadow to the end.


The only other woman whose company he valued was Gerti Troost, the young widow of the architect Professor Ludwig Troost. He took her under his wing, appointed her a professor, and consulted her on colour schemes for the fine new buildings rising in Germany. He had first met her husband at Frau Bruckmann’s salon in 1928, and that same day he told the architect, ‘When I come to power, you will be my architect. I have great plans in mind and I believe you are the only one who can carry them out for me.’ Troost did not however live long. As Hitler gave the obligatory three taps to the foundation stone for the House of Art (which still stands in modern Munich), the shaft of the silver-headed hammer broke, an omen of ill fortune of the highest degree, as the local architect Schiedermayer tactlessly whispered to the Führer in his dialect: ‘Dös bedeudt a Unglück.’

Hitler himself had sketched the rough outlines for the House of Art, using the back of an Osteria menu, one day in 1931 – a gallery of stern Grecian lines which even today is mocked as Munich’s ‘Athens Station.’ The gallery opened in 1936, and by 1938 was recognised by the Party as a stable,Nazi-conservative breakwater in the running tide of decadent and Jewish art. Hitler treasured in his flata picture book of the Palace of Knossos in Crete, and this influenced his architectural tastes. He sketched in pen-and-ink hundreds of monuments, memorials, arches, bridges and temple-like structures, with a remarkably good eye for proportion and perspective, though showing a propensity for over-rich designs like those of Gottfried Semper, who had erected many of Vienna’s nineteenth-century buildings. It was Troost who influenced Hitler more toward neo-classical designs – the soaring shafts of granite and marble, and the squat, oblong buildings that were to characterise the twelve years of Nazi rule.

Troost’s place as Hitler’s chief architect was filled by Albert Speer, who had providentially built himself a studio villa higher up the Obersalzberg. Speer wrote in a memorandum on August 31, 1938:

Only a few people know the scale of the Führer’s plans for the reshaping of Berlin, Nuremberg, Munich, and Hamburg. These four cities are to get over the next ten years buildings quite capable of swallowing a major part of the building trade’s capacity, whereas our present stone-quarrying capacity already falls far short of these buildings’ requirements.

Speer pointed out that there were not enough architects familiar with Hitler’s style to go around:

By imparting basic design ideas and by frequent personal intervention and by innumerable personal improvements the Führer has created a new artistic school that has without doubt the elements of a viable and general architectural line. At present only a few architects are spreading the Führer’s design ideas – architects who know what matters to him through their close contacts with the Führer….

From 1937 on, the Elbe bridge at Hamburg particularly interested Hitler. On March 29, 1938, Todt recorded in his diary, ‘Discussion with the Führer on the Hamburg suspension bridge.’ Hitler also planned a huge Congress Hall, a building so vast that a giant image of the speaker would have to be thrown by television techniques onto a screen above his podium. Until the last days of his life this would-be architect would sketch buildings and facades, while his faithful Speer made scale models from the sketches, and finally the buildings themselves. Hitler wanted the monuments of the Nazi renaissance to last millennia. On December 17, 1938, when Todt put to him Professor Wilhelm Thorak’s plans for a gigantic Monument to Labour, this became very clear. ‘The Führer,’ Todt recorded, ‘expressed reservations about using Untersberg stone…. The Führer recommended us to consider whether a reddish granite or something similar of absolute permanence should not be used, so that this gigantic monument will still be standing in a thousand years in all its nobility despite atmospheric erosion.’


Driving up and down Germany, Hitler saw his dreams come true. He liked to see the faces and hands of the German construction workers. Once Wiedemann murmured to him in 1935, ‘You still have the people with you; the question is: how much longer?’ Hitler indignantly replied, ‘They’re behind me more than ever – not “still.” Come for a drive with me – Munich, Stuttgart, Wiesbaden – then you’ll see just how enthusiastic the people are!’

He could not, however, take criticism. In early 1939, Wiedemann wrote a short sketch of the small talk at Hitler’s table:

All argument, however reasoned, was virtually impossible…. The Führer used to tell anecdotes of the World War… and of his own childhood and youth experiences, and he revealed a lot of whatever he happened to be mulling over at the time, so those lunching with him before a big speech had a pretty fair idea of what he was going to say. In earlier years I was often shocked at his unbridled remarks about the Jews, the Church, the bourgeoisie, the civil service, and monarchists. Later on it left me stone cold, as it was always the same thing.


[20] See page xvi. The Dana press agency announced on November 22, 1945: ‘A torn field-grey tunic and tattered pair of black pants – the uniform that Hitler was wearing at the moment of the assassination attempt of July 20, 1944 were among Eva Braun’s private effects. Several boxes, photo albums, extracts of letters she had written to Hitler, are now in military custody.’ The information came from Eisenhower’s G-2, Major General Edwin L. Sibert. The uniform was ceremonially burned by the Americans in 1948.

Whetting the Blade • 3,600 Words

Less regular visitors that summer of 1938 were the military. Occasionally they gathered in the Berghof’s Great Hall – army and air force generals, or experts on fortifications, standing uncomfortably on the terra-cotta-red carpet or staring uneasily at the oak-panelled ceiling until the Führer came downstairs to hear them out. He could not fathom his generals. To Hitler, a new nation’s first war was as essential as cutting teeth to a growing child. Six years from now, on June 22, 1944, he would put this blunt philosophy to a secret audience of newly promoted generals: ‘Whatever is born into this world must suffer pain on its arrival. The first sign of life that a child gives as it leaves its mother’s womb is not a cry of joy but a cry of pain. The mother too feels only pain. And every nation emerging in this world is also accompanied by trials and suffering; that’s the way things are…The birth certificate of nations must always be written out in blood.’

The Luftwaffe worked hard all summer planning bombing attacks on Czech cities and airborne operations. All this was however anathema to the effete and elderly Reichswehr generals – especially Ludwig Beck, the Chief of General Staff. He fired off wordy memoranda all summer, marshalling spurious arguments against ‘Green.’ Even if Hungary attacked simultaneously the campaign would still last at least three weeks; but the new West Wall could not hold out more than two weeks against the French. Hitler’s emergency plan to arm Labour Service battalions to man the West Wall was ‘a military impossibility.’

General Beck thoroughly endorsed the idea of destroying Czechoslovakia. But, procrastinator that he was, he preferred it all to come ‘in the future’ – not now, when he was Chief of General Staff. His memoranda grew both shriller and gloomier, until by mid-July 1938 he was threatening Brauchitsch that he would call on the leading generals to resign with him if the Führer would not abandon his intentions. Brauchitsch showed the document to Hitler.

Beck’s arguments were riddled with fallacies – among them being that German arms production could never be increased, or that all Germany’s allies were weak and unreliable, while her enemies were resolute and powerful. To appreciative audiences like Todt, Schmundt, and Engel, Hitler tore the arguments to shreds: for example, Beck had included France’s garde mobile, police, and gendarmerie as well as her regular army, but he had not added to the German army strength the equivalent SA, SS, or police battalions. ‘Beck should not think me stupid,’ he complained. When it was all over he recounted in secret to hand-picked Nazi editors what this internal struggle was like:

You can take it from me, gentlemen, it was not always easy either to take such decisions or to stand by them, because obviously the whole nation does not throw its weight behind them, far less the intellectuals: there are, of course, lots of gifted characters – at least they regard themselves as gifted – and they conjured up more obstacles than enthusiasm about such decisions. That’s why it was all the more important that I stood by the decisions I took back in May and carried them out with iron determination in face of every opposition.

Hitler also had a low opinion of the army’s engineers. He found the army’s Inspector of Engineers and Fortifications, General Otto Förster, quite ignorant of bunker design and modern weapons technology. Mistrustfully, he sent Göring and Luftwaffe experts to inspect the army’s progress with the West Wall early in June. By early 1938 only 640 blockhouses had been completed here and – until Hitler’s recent demand for twelve thousand more – the army had only been planning to add another 1,360 during 1938. Göring called at the Berghof on June 14 and together with Todt delivered a devastating report on the progress made by the army so far. Virtually nothing had been done, he claimed: for instance, the entire Istein Block boasted only two puny machine guns.

The comparisons were not fair to the sixty-year-old Generaloberst Adam, because he had had first to solve all the problems of accommodating, feeding, and supplying the huge construction force. And while Todt’s mass production of the earlier pillbox designs would not begin until early August, the army was struggling with much more complex sites. Hitler was very angry; Brauchitsch in turn required Adam to visit the Berghof on June 30. Adam did not mince his language; he described Hitler’s order to erect 12,000 bunkers by October 1 as impossible. ‘It’s written in the stars,’ he put it, ‘how much we’ll have done by autumn.’ Hitler retorted that ‘The word “impossible” is unknown to [Todt]!’ Todt himself was puzzled by all this army rancour, and wrote that day to the adjutant of Rudolf Hess, Alfred Leitgen: ‘You put up with a lot of things that frankly you don’t expect after five years of National Socialism.’

The outcome of all this was a remarkable document, dictated by Hitler to his secretary Christa Schroeder – a wordy essay on fortifications design and infantry psychology. It turned on his insistence that the West Wall must conserve the fighting power of its defenders, not just their bare skins.

He ridiculed the monstrous Infanteriewerk designed by the army engineers. Hitler’s ideal was a small gastight pillbox that could be easily mass-produced and scattered in depth along the line, to shelter his infantry from the enemy’s softening-up bombardment.

Once the bombardment was over, these pillboxes would disgorge their troops, their weapons unscathed, into the open to engage the subsequent French infantry attack. ‘To be killed then is honourable,’ Hitler explained, ‘but to get smoked out of a blockhouse is not only cowardly but stupid.’ He knew that the infantryman was a human being with mortal fears and the need for sleep, food, fresh water, and shelter.

How many of his comrades of the World War had died needlessly while going to the latrines, just because of the short-sightedness of the Otto Försters who had forgotten to provide them in the bunkers? ‘Particularly the younger soldiers in combat for the first time will need to relieve themselves more frequently,’ Hitler dictated. Elsewhere his document observed, ‘Only somebody who has fought a defensive battle for weeks or months on end will know the true value of a flask of drinking water, and how happy the troops are when they can just brew up some tea or coffee.’

On July 4 he dictated to Fritz Todt that building projects that could not be ready that year must take second place to this Wall, ‘which is a project that will make any further work in peacetime possible,’ as Todt admonished State Secretary Werner Willikens next day.

All that summer Hitler’s adjutants saw him sketching new bunker designs. He laid down how thick the concrete should be, the amount of steel reinforcing, the position of each girder. The sketches became blueprints, the blueprints became wooden forms and webs of reinforcing, the millions of tons of concrete were added, and at the rate of seventy sites a day the West Wall took shape.

By late August 148,000 construction workers were employed; the army engineers provided 50,000 more. A hundred trains a day transported the construction materials to the west. Six batteries of former naval 170-millimetre guns were to be sited so that they could bombard the French towns of Strasbourg, Colmar, and Mulhouse in retaliation for any French attack on German towns. On August 12, Todt was again summoned to the Berghof and ordered by Hitler to build an intermediate position, consisting of hundreds of the heavy strongpoints he had himself sketched. Todt decided to shut down work on several autobahn sections to find the workers and foremen necessary.


How much of all this was pure bluff, we shall never know. Spitzy himself witnessed one act after an excellent luncheon with him and his private staff: a manservant announced the arrival of a noble British emissary. Hitler started up in agitation. ‘Gott im Himmel! Don’t let him in yet – I’m still in a good humour!’ Before his staff’s eyes, he then worked himself up, solo, into an artificial rage – his face darkened, he breathed heavily, and his eyes glared. Then he went next door and acted out for the unfortunate Lord a scene so loud that every word was audible from the lunch table. Ten minutes later he returned with sweat beading his brow. He carefully closed the door behind him and said with a chuckle, ‘Gentlemen, I need tea. He thinks I’m furious!’

Hitler was one of the masters of psychological warfare too. ‘Thank God they all read German and take our newspapers,’ he would remark about his opponents with a snigger in November. (In August, he explained his method to his generals: ‘Put the wind up them – show them your teeth!’) Each day he scanned the Forschungsamt’s latest wiretaps on the phone conversations between Prague and Czech diplomats abroad, to keep track of his own success. He deliberately spread misinformation about the actual date of any planned invasion.

On May 22 he had received Henlein in secret; two days later Henlein confided to the Hungarian military attaché in Prague, Eszterházy, ‘The Führer has assured me that the present gap in the West Wall will be sealed in eight or ten weeks, and then he’ll tackle the Czech problem.’ On July 15 he briefed Wiedemann, whom he knew from the wiretaps to be a chatterbox, to tell Lord Halifax on his coming trip to London that the deadline was March 1939. On August 9 he stressed to Fritz Todt that work on the West Wall would continue to October 1 at least, ‘probably even until October 15 – in short, until the first shots ring out.’ Two days later he ordered Halder to have the six 170-millimetre gun batteries ready to open fire by the last day in September.

As Hitler explained somewhat superfluously to Wiedemann before his departure, he was a revolutionary and as such unapproachable by the techniques of old-style diplomacy. On July 12 Hitler instructed Ribbentrop to ‘talk tough’ on Czechoslovakia. Göring’s Luftwaffe, Ribbentrop must say, was invincible. He himself, he told Ribbentrop on a later occasion, would be in one of the first tanks invading Czechoslovakia! On July 14 the Danzig gauleiter, Albert Forster, met Mr. Winston Churchill, and told him that ‘if Britain and Germany could only come to terms they could share the world between them.’

Four days later, on July 18, Wiedemann flew back from London to Berchtesgaden. Lord Halifax, he said, had revealed to him that his one ambition in life before he died was to see the Führer ‘at the side of the king of England, driving to Buckingham Palace to the cheers of the crowds.’


Hitler realised that his army generals viewed the immediate future less festively.

Early in August 1938 he learned from General von Reichenau that there had been a gathering on August 4 of the most senior generals. Beck had read out his latest memorandum, and called for concerted opposition by the army. (As Hitler quipped to his staff, Beck was only ever able to make up his mind when his decision was against doing something!)

Hitler called to the Berghof’s Great Hall the generals’ chiefs of staff, and spoke to them for three hours. When however he spoke at one point of the West Wall, Major General Gustav von Wietersheim quoted his superior, General Adam, as predicting that the Wall could be defended for three weeks at most.

Hitler began to leaf through his notes and suddenly interrupted him with a torrent of facts and figures on the quantities of concrete, iron, and steel invested in the fortifications. Hitler declaimed, ‘I’m telling you, General, the position there will be held not for three weeks but for three years!’ On the day after the meeting, General von Leeb learned of it from his Chief of Staff, Manstein. ‘He’s just come from the Führer,’ Leeb put in his diary of August 11. ‘Thinks the chips are already down.’

‘What manner of generals are these – that one has to whip to war instead of holding them back?’ Hitler asked in exasperation. An immediate antidote had to be found. He invited all the army’s senior generals to attend a demonstration at the Jüterbog artillery school on August 15. He had in fact planned several such artillery demonstrations. On November 10 he was to explain to his appreciative Nazi editors: ‘I was convinced that these months of activity would slowly but surely get on the nerves of the gentlemen in Prague.’ At Jüterbog, construction workers had erected exact replicas of the Czech frontier fortifications. Now Colonel Walter Model, head of the General Staff’s experimental branch, staged an infantry assault on them. According to Curt Liebmann, it was ‘pure theatre, with much donner und blitzen and shouts of Hurrah!’

General Beck was furious but could say nothing. Now Hitler ordered the 150-millimetre howitzers to open fire on the ‘Czech bunkers,’ followed by other guns – including the high-velocity 88-millimetre anti-aircraft guns, of which he had ordered one hundred placed at the army’s disposal for the assault. After the deafening barrage stilled, he clambered through the smoking and battered concrete hulks while Keitel’s adjutant struck matches to illuminate the gloom. Only direct hits on the embrasures had had any real effect. Hitler emerged grinning however, knocked the dust off his brown Party tunic, and loudly professed himself astonished at the devastation.

In the canteen he spoke to the generals. Erhard Milch made a brief diary note: ‘August 15, 1938, Führer’s speech to the generals, 2:45–4:15 p.m. A glimpse into his thinking, his mind is made up!!’ Keitel’s adjutant Eberhard wrote a more complete record. This shows that Hitler once again rehearsed the problem of Lebensraum. ‘It is my one great fear that something may befall me personally, before I can put the necessary decisions into effect,’ he explained.

He had already taken the first seven steps: he had founded the Party to ‘clean up’ Germany; established political unity in 1933; taken Germany out of the League of Nations and thus restored her freedom of action; rearmed; reintroduced conscription; remilitarised the German Rhineland, and reunited Austria with the Reich.

The eighth step now lay ahead: ‘However the situation may develop, Czechoslovakia has got to be eliminated before anything else.’ ‘In political life, there is but one moment when the Goddess of Fortune wafts by,’ he declaimed. ‘And if you don’t grab her by the hem you won’t get a second chance!’ He had used that argument before, of course.

Britain’s rearmament was barely one year old, he pointed out. ‘They’ll recoil as long as we show no signs of weakening.’ The quality of France’s artillery and aircraft was dubious. Of Russia, Hitler had no fears whatever. As for Czechoslovakia herself, a war of nerves would do as much as anything. ‘If somebody is forced to watch for three long months while his neighbour whets the blade…’ (Hitler left the sentence unfinished.) In his view, after a brief spell of fanatical (‘Hussite’)[21]The reference is to Jan Hus, the Czech patriot and revolutionary. resistance, Czechoslovakia would be finished. Hitler concluded his speech, ‘I am firmly convinced that Germany will win and that our National Socialist upbringing will see us through.’ And he added, ‘I believe that by the time this year is out we shall all be looking back on a great victory.’

Beck was horrified by all of this. In Berlin the next day, August 16, General Leeb entered in his private diary: ‘Chips down. Führer convinced Britain and France won’t intervene. Beck opposite opinion, gloomy mood.’ At Jüterbog Beck had exclaimed to General Adam, ‘After a graphic display like that the man [Hitler] will only go more berserk than ever.’ He said he was going to wait until Hitler ‘threw him out,’ but submitted his resignation offer to Brauchitsch on the eighteenth nonetheless. Hitler asked Beck to stay on for the time being, for ‘reasons of foreign policy,’ and Beck meekly agreed. He probably hoped for command of an Army Group, but nothing was further from Hitler’s mind.

By the end of August 1938 General Franz Halder, fifty-four, a Bavarian of slight physique and a mild, pedantic temperament, had taken over the General Staff. Beck was out – right out.


Throughout that month, August 1938, the ‘whetting the blade’ continued. When the chief of the French air force, General Joseph Vuillemin, was shown around the Luftwaffe’s installations, Göring arranged a spectacular but deceitful display from one end of Germany to the other. The French delegation secretly advised Paris that the French air force would not last many days against Hitler’s Luftwaffe. When Hitler tried to bribe the Hungarians into promising outright support of his invasion of Czechoslovakia however he was disappointed. Hungary had been dismembered after the World War, losing slabs of territory to Czechoslovakia. A flamboyant week-long state visit by the Hungarians, coupled with the launching of a battle cruiser named Prinz Eugen in their honour[22]Italy had objected to the original choice of name, Admiral Tegethoff, offered by Hitler to Schuschnigg., failed to extract more than conditional undertakings from their Regent, Admiral Miklos von Horthy. They were not ready for war. In 1937 Beck had indicated that the target year was 1940 and – as the Hungarian defence minister Jenö Rátz confided to Keitel on August 22, 1938 – Hungary had laid plans accordingly.

Hitler had used all his gangster charms to impress the visitors. Knowing that Madame Horthy was a devout Catholic, he had placed a prayer stool and crucifix in her rooms, as well as a large bouquet of her favourite flower, lily of the valley. Then he took Horthy and his staff aboard the German state yacht Grille so that the old admiral could feel the throb of engines and the pull of waves beneath his feet again.

The secret meetings which began on August 23, during a sea trip to Heligoland, were stormy. In the morning Hitler conferred privately with Horthy. The Regent declared his willingness on principle to participate in ‘Green,’ but said that 1938was far too early. Horthy picturesquely reminded the Führer that Hungary had ‘150Yugoslav camps’ along her other borders. When he then enlarged on the risk that ‘Green’ would unleash a world war, resulting in Germany’s defeat by the British navy, Hitler impatiently interrupted him: ‘Rubbish! Hold your tongue!’

It was inconceivable to him that Hungary was so reluctant to fight to regain her part of Slovakia. As he sourly pointed out to Imrédy that afternoon, ‘This is going to be a cold buffet. There’ll be no waiter service – everybody will have to help himself.’

They returned by separate trains to Berlin on August 24. On the train, Admiral Raeder sought a private interview with Hitler and asked him about the likelihood of naval warfare with Britain. He set out the formidable strategic problems that Germany would face. Hitler listened politely and ended their interview after an hour with the remark, ‘Herr Admiral, what you and I have been discussing is pure theory. Britain will not fight.’

He maintained the pressure on their Hungarian visitors. Keitel visited Rátz in his hotel on August 25, according to the Hungarian record, and again emphasised Hitler’s firm resolve to occupy Czechoslovakia; he added that only the date was uncertain.

When Rátz asked the Führer next day what act would be considered a sufficient Czech provocation, Hitler replied, ‘The murder of German citizens.’


Protected by two thousand security agents, Hitler set out on August 26, 1938, from Berlin for a much-publicised inspection of the West Wall. At Aachen near the Belgian frontier General Adam met him, and indicated that what he had to say was secret; he asked for Himmler, the labour-service chief Konstantin Hierl, and Fritz Todt to withdraw from the dining car, leaving generals Brauchitsch, Keitel, and Jodl. Adam stoutly began, ‘As general commanding the western front I obviously have a far better insight into the situation here than anybody else, and my worries are consequently bigger.’

Hitler interrupted menacingly, ‘Get to the point!’ Adam embarked on a long-winded warning that by the time the winter frosts set in they would not have completed more than one-third of the West Wall at most; and that he, as the military commander, must always take the worst possible case into account, namely that the western powers would march.

He got no further. Hitler interrupted again, this time finally, to end the conference.

In a convoy of three-axle cross-country vehicles, he toured the construction sites with Adam’s sector commanders. The narrow country lanes were choked with thousands of heavy trucks carrying sand, gravel, steel, cement, and tarpaulin-sheeted objects that were obviously guns and ammunition, westward to the Wall. Afterwards, he returned to the train for further conferences and to sleep. The General Staff’s records show that he tried to convince the generals that France would not risk serious intervention so long as she felt menaced by Italy in North Africa and along her Alpine frontier. General Adam remained pessimistic. Hitler stubbornly maintained, ‘I will not call off the attack on Czechoslovakia.’

On the twenty-ninth, the last day of this tour, he proclaimed to the generals, ‘Only a scoundrel would not be able to hold this front!’ General Adam stood there with his tail between his legs, according to Keitel’s adjutant Eberhard.

Hitler rebuked the unfortunate western front commander, ‘I only regret that I am Führer and Chancellor, and not Commander in Chief of the Western Front!’

It was obvious to Keitel that Adam’s days in command were numbered.


[21] The reference is to Jan Hus, the Czech patriot and revolutionary.

[22] Italy had objected to the original choice of name, Admiral Tegethoff, offered by Hitler to Schuschnigg.

Munich • 7,300 Words

When General Franz Halder first reported to the Führer as the new Chief of General Staff on board the Grille on August 22, 1938, Hitler had teased him: ‘You will never learn my real intentions. Not even my closest colleagues, who are convinced that they know them, will ever find them out.’

One thing was certain: that summer Hitler really wanted a war – whether to write out the ‘birth certificate’ of his new Reich in blood or to ‘forge the Austrians into a worthwhile component of the German Wehrmacht,’ as he had explained to the generals on August 15.

‘Clausewitz was right,’ he exulted to his adjutants upon leaving another military display in East Prussia some days later: ‘War is the father of all things.’ This was Hitler’s favourite quotation. He repeated it in his secret speeches on May 20, 1942, on January 27, 1944, again on June 22, 1944, and in his war conference of January 9, 1945 – when even his most ardent followers had long grown tired of Hitler’s war. In 1938 he also told his generals that he wanted Germany’s older troops, the thirty- to thirty-five-year-olds, to see some combat action in this Czech campaign; the younger soldiers could taste blood in the next.

Opinion at the top level was – and remained – divided as to whether Hitler was bluffing or not. Weizsäcker wrote privately on September 1, ‘None of this would prevent me from laying a (small) wager even now that we shall preserve the peace in 1938.’Three days later however Ribbentrop again informed him that ‘Green’ would begin ‘within six weeks.’ For technical reasons, ‘Green’ could not begin before October 1 anyway; but equally, for the best flying weather, it ought not to be delayed after the fourteenth.

The leader of the Sudeten German party, Konrad Henlein, was Hitler’s ‘secret weapon’ for breaching the Czech fortifications.

Hitler had secretly counselled, several times during July and August 1938, with Henlein and his chief lieutenants. Henlein was by no means enthusiastic about ‘Green.’ At Bayreuth on July 23 he vainly tried to dissuade Hitler from using force; Hitler replied that his young Wehrmacht needed a taste of fire. At the Breslau gymnastics festival a week later they again met: Hitler invited him up to his hotel room. He told Henlein he had nothing to add to the instructions he had long since given him. Evidently this was an act for the benefit of the journalists ringing the hotel. In mid-August, Henlein’s coarse deputy, Karl-Hermann Frank, came to the chancellery and tried to convince Hitler that maps showed that the distribution of Czech and German population groups was such that ‘self-determination’ alone would eventually bring Czechoslovakia into Hitler’s grasp. He found he was talking to deaf ears. Hitler was out for blood.

By this time the Führer had begun examining with his OKW staff ways of controlling the crisis that would unleash ‘Green.’ Goebbels recorded that the problem now was, how could the Führer create ‘a suitable situation to strike.’ On August 26 Hitler ordered Frank to prepare to manufacture incidents in the Sudeten territories. The snag was the British negotiating team now lodged in Prague under a venerable Liberal peer, Lord Runciman. Outwardly Hitler had to appear to be heeding the British proposals. He, of course, wanted all Czechoslovakia, not just control of the Sudeten regions. This explains Hitler’s irritation when Henlein’s Berlin agent, Fritz Bürger, brought the Runciman proposals to Munich on August 29. ‘What business do the British have, poking their noses in?’ exclaimed Hitler. ‘They ought to be looking after their Jews in Palestine!’

An apprehensive Konrad Henlein appeared at the Berghof on September 1. Goebbels had also come, and Hitler told them that the gap in their country’s western defences was virtually closed. ‘Britain,’ he prophesied, ‘will hold back because she does not have the armed might. Paris will do what London does. The whole affair must unroll at top speed. For high stakes you’ve got to run big risks.’ Goebbels noted these words with illconcealed apprehension. Hitler showed Henlein over Bormann’s model dairy – built at great expense to supply the SS barracks. (‘God knows the price of a pint of your milk,’ Hitler used to bully him.) He wisecracked to Henlein: ‘Here are the representatives of the National Socialist Cow Club!’ He was evidently in high spirits – but Henlein was not. Hitler repeated that he was still planning a military solution: Czechoslovakia was to be eliminated ‘this September.’ Henlein was to keep on negotiating with Prague, and start manufacturing ‘incidents’ from September 4. On the second, Hitler delivered another little homily to his cronies – Goebbels, Henlein, Ribbentrop, Bormann, Speer, and Hoffmann – on ‘keeping one’s nerve.’ Seeing Henlein off at 3:30 p.m., Hitler is alleged to have laughed: ‘Long live the war – even if it lasts eight years.’

Perhaps it was all bluff. (There are clues that Hitler was using Henlein as a powerful psychological weapon – for instance, a secret directive to the Nazi press a few days later: ‘There’s to be a reception at Nuremberg…Henlein is not being mentioned in the official report on this, but there is no objection to the publication of photographs that may show him attending this reception.’)


Henlein was not alone in his anxiety. The conservative minister of finance, Count Schwerin von Krosigk, sent to Hitler a memorandum formulated in quite clever terms: the German public lacked the inner resolution to fight a new war. ‘It will not be able to bear for long the hardships of war, large and small – the ration cards, the air raids, the loss of husbands and sons.’ So wrote Krosigk on September 1 in his memorandum. In his speech to Nazi editors two months later Hitler would refer to ‘the hysteria of our top ten thousand.’

He turned an equally deaf ear on his diplomats. The moderate Konstantin von Neurath tried to see him and was refused. When his ambassador in London tried to bring him a private message written by Neville Chamberlain, Hitler refused to receive him too. When his ambassador in Paris quoted to Berlin the French foreign minister’s clear warning that France would stand by Czechoslovakia, Hitler pushed the telegram aside and said it did not interest him. Hans Dieckhoff, his ambassador in Washington, was given equally cavalier treatment. All three ambassadors demanded to see Hitler. It was not until the Party rally however that he condescended – turning to Wiedemann and instructing: ‘Well, show the Arschlöcher [arseholes] in!’ On Ribbentrop’s advice he instructed all three ambassadors not to return to their posts for the time being. Weizsäcker indignantly wrote for the record, ‘After hearing out Messrs. Dieckhoff, von Dirksen, Count Welczek, [Hans Adolf] von Moltke [ambassador in Warsaw] and [Hans Georg] von Mackensen [Rome] on September 7, I reported as follows to Herr von Ribbentrop on the eighth: “The opinion of all these gentlemen is, with certain shades of difference, in flatcontradiction to that of Herr von Ribbentrop inasmuch as they do not believe that the western democracies will abstain in the event of a German-Czech conflict.” I added that my own opinion is well enough known to Herr von Ribbentrop as it is.’


Hitler’s own routine was hardly that of a dictator preparing for war. He was to be seen spending the day visiting galleries in Munich: he inspected the models of Speer’s new chancellery building and paintings for the ‘Führer Building’ (Führerbau), the Party HQ. The evening was passed idly at the Berghof, watching two unsatisfying Hollywood movies – both of which Hitler peremptorily halted in mid-reel.

After midnight of August 30–31, Major Schmundt brought planning papers relating to the phoney ‘incident’ that was to be staged to justify ‘Green.’ The OKW argued for the main ‘incident’ to be staged when the weather was favourable for the Luftwaffe; and it must be early enough in the day for authentic word to reach OKW headquarters in Berlin by noon of the day before the Nazi invasion. It would put the Germans in enemy territory at the mercy of the Czechs and prevent the issue of any warning to diplomatic missions in Prague before the first air raid. It would however satisfy for Hitler his vital condition for success: surprise.

Halder had outlined the General Staff plan to Hitler and Keitel aboard the Grille at Kiel, using a map of Czechoslovakia. The country would be bisected at its narrow waist. To Hitler this seemed wrong: this was precisely what the enemy would expect. He asked Halder to leave the map, and after returning to Berlin he instructed Brauchitsch that the tanks were to be employed quite differently, concentrated into one force which would drive north-eastward from Nuremberg, through the Czech fortifications and Pilsen and straight on to Prague. The political objective was to capture Prague, the Czech capital, in the very first few days.

The General Staff disagreed with Hitler’s plan. He summoned Brauchitsch to the Berghof on September 3, and dinned into him why he insisted on his own plan. Originally, he said, the Czechs had not prepared their defences in anticipation of attack from Austria; so their fortifications facing Rundstedt in Silesia were far stronger. ‘The Second Army might run slap into a second Verdun. If we attack there we shall bleed to death attempting the impossible.’ What the Czechs would not expect would be the attack Hitler planned to deliver with Reichenau and a massed force of tanks. ‘An army plunged into the heart of Bohemia will settle the issue.’ The General Staff simply ignored Hitler’s plan. Halder told Keitel that the orders had already gone out, and it was too late to alter them. Keitel flew to Berlin early on September 8 and urged Brauchitsch to comply. When however the OKW chief returned to Hitler in Nuremberg – where the Party rally was approaching its spectacular climax – the next morning, all he could report was that both Brauchitsch and Halder flatly refused to alter their plans. The two reluctant generals were summarily ordered down from Berlin and presented themselves that night at Hitler’s Nuremberg hotel, the Deutscher Hof.

The row lasted five hours. Halder stated the General Staff case. Hitler replied that they should plan with regard to the enemy’s most probable line of action. ‘No doubt,’ he conceded, ‘your planned pincer-operation is the ideal solution. Its outcome is however too uncertain for us to rely on it, particularly since for political reasons we must obtain a rapid victory.’ He reminded them that history alone showed how hard it was to call off an operation that had only half-succeeded – that was the familiar road to horrors like Verdun. The tanks would be frittered away piecemeal, and when they were needed for the subsequent operations in depth they would not be there.

All this now seems self-evident, but at the time, in September 1938, it was by no means so obvious that Hitler was right. The two generals still refused to give way. In the small hours of the morning Hitler finally ceased reasoning with them and ordered them to redeploy the tanks as he had said – they had until the end of the month to do it. Halder shrugged; but Brauchitsch startled everybody with an effusive declaration of loyalty. After they had gone, Hitler ventilated to Keitel his anger about these cowardly and hesitant army generals: ‘It’s a pity I can’t give my gauleiters each an army – they’ve got guts and they’ve got faith in me.’

To shame these defeatist generals, Hitler alluded to them in withering terms at the Nuremberg rally, while they listened stonily from the front rows. He announced the award of the National Prize to Fritz Todt for building the West Wall – a gratuitous slight to the army engineers.

Only about forty thousand Labour Service conscripts could be spared for the rally – the rest were working on the Wall. For five hours on the eleventh Hitler stood in his car at Adolf-Hitler Platz, hatless under the broiling September sun, taking the salute as 120,000 SA and SS men marched past, breaking into the spectacular high-kicking ‘parade step’ as they came within sight of their Führer. He joked weakly with the diplomats at their formal reception, and even allowed the French ambassador to press a lily into his hands – the symbol of France. ‘It is a sign of peace as well,’ explained François-Poncet eloquently, ‘and should be worn by those who desire to work for peace.’ Hitler divested himself of the lily as soon as he decently could. The newspaper headlines read: ‘SELF-DETERMINATION FOR THE SUDETENLAND–THE FUHRER DEMANDS AN END TO SLAVERY.’

On September 13, Prague proclaimed martial law around the city of Eger. Things were going just as Hitler planned. The Nazi press proclaimed next day: ‘czech murder terror nears anarchy. germans slain by czech guns.’ From the Sudeten town of Asch on the evening of the fourteenth Karl Frank telephoned Hitler to appeal for German troops and tanks to intervene right now. Hitler responded: ‘Frank – bide your time. The time isn’t right yet.’


Indeed, it was not. Late the previous night, September 13, the British ambassador had handed to Baron von Weizsäcker a letter in which Neville Chamberlain, aged nearly seventy, offered to fly at once to Hitler to find a peaceful solution. Hitler could hardly have refused Chamberlain’s offer, and he was nettled to have lost the initiative like this, however briefly.

The ‘brown pages’ – top secret wiretaps by Göring’s Forschungsamt – were pouring into the Berghof on the fourteenth by courier. Only that morning, Jan Masaryk, the volatile Czech envoy in London, had talked to his foreign ministry in Prague. ‘But if he [Hitler] marches,’ Prague had asked him, ‘then everybody else will march, won’t they?’ Masaryk was not so hopeful: ‘I think after a while they will. People here won’t look me in the eye.They’re just an uncouth rabble!’ The voice in Prague exclaimed, ‘No, impossible!’ ‘They’re just stupid people who have got fifteen cruisers,’ explained Masaryk, ‘and they’re frightened of losing them.’ He said that as for France, ‘There are quite a few ragamuffins there too.’

The tone of these remarks told Hitler volumes about morale in London and Prague. Hitler’s illicit knowledge of these conversations explains much of his confidence. The wiretaps showed, significantly, that Chamberlain was delaying Masaryk’s incoming telegrams from Prague for days on end. Thus, ironically, Masaryk was obliged to rely even more heavily on the telephone lines to Prague. The daily FA wiretaps showed the Czech envoy mouthing obscene insults about the western statesmen, appealing to Prague for still more cash – urgently – and plotting with Churchill and his Paris colleague the early overthrow of the Chamberlain and Daladier regimes.

At 9:50 p.m. on September 14, 1938, Masaryk put through an urgent call to Dr. Bene himself. ‘Have you heard about Chamberlain?’ ‘No.’ ‘He’s flying to Berchtesgaden at 8:30 a.m. tomorrow!’ The wiretap analysis continued, ‘…After a lengthy pause Bene exclaimed, obviously horrified, “It’s not possible!”’ Masaryk replied that Chamberlain would be accompanied by ‘that swine’ Sir Horace Wilson.

The next day a thirty-man SS guard of honour formed on the terraces outside the Berghof. At six the English party arrived. Chamberlain was in the familiar dark suit and stiff wing-collar, with a light-coloured necktie and a watch chain across his waistcoat.

Upstairs in his study Hitler launched into his usual tirade about the mounting Czech terror campaign. He claimed that 300 Sudeten Germans had been killed already. Chamberlain had not however come to talk of war. ‘If Herr Hitler really wants nothing more than the Sudeten German regions,’ he said in effect, ‘then he can have them!’ Hitler, taken aback, assured him he had no interest whatever in non-Germans. In fact Chamberlain had thrown something of a spanner in the works of ‘Green.’ The Führer however was buoyant as he discussed the conversation that evening with Ribbentrop and Weizsäcker. The latter wrote this personal record:

By making no bones about his brutal intention of settling the Czech problem now – even at the risk of a general European war – and by indicating that he would then be content in Europe he [Hitler] had prodded Ch[amberlain] into undertaking to work toward the ceding of the Sudeten regions to Germany. He, the Führer, had not been able to refuse a plebiscite.

If the Czechs reject this, the way will be clear for a German invasion; if the Czechs yield, then Czechoslovakia’s own turn will not come until later, for instance next spring. There are in fact distinct advantages in disposing of the first – Sudeten German – stage amicably.

In this confidential discussion the Führer did not conceal that he has taken a future war into account, and is fostering much further-reaching plans. For this he volunteered not only nationalist motives, but what might be termed educational ones as well, or ones of latent dynamism. He radiated self-confidence and fearlessness in war and foreign policy, and spoke quite unambiguously of his own personal responsibility for steering Germany through the inevitable passage of arms with her enemies in his own lifetime.

The Führer then related a number of details of his talk with Chamberlain itself – the little tricks of bluff and bluster with which he had fenced his conversation partner back into his corner.

A year later Weizsäcker recalled, ‘From the Reich chancellery emanated the slogan that Germany’s youth needed a war to steel itself. The war against Czechoslovakia took on the character of l’art pour l’art [art for art’s sake].’

In fact Chamberlain and the French proposed to give Hitler all areas with over 50 percent German population. Not surprisingly, Jan Masaryk was heard frantically telephoning Dr. Bene after Chamberlain’s return to London, complaining that ‘Uncle’ had not yet told anybody anything about his Berghof talk with Hitler. The Czech envoy added delicately, ‘May I ask for money to be sent if I am to do anything?… I need just enough, you understand?’ Bene did: ‘I will put it in hand at once.’

Weizsäcker’s record leaves no doubt that Hitler had no intention of letting Chamberlain fob him off with just the Sudeten regions. He had to tread very cautiously for a while however. When Canaris telephoned the Berghof to ask whether his guerrilla and sabotage units there should start their dirty work, Keitel instructed: ‘No, not for the time being.’ Hitler had developed a surer method – a Free Corps, ostensibly raised spontaneously by the aggrieved Sudeten Germans inside the Czech frontier.

In fact about ten thousand of Henlein’s supporters had fled into Germany over the last week: Hitler ordered the Wehrmacht to equip them with suitable weapons – Austrian-made Mannlicher rifles – and to return the men to Czechoslovakia under cover of darkness. These irregulars would be aided by regular German army and SA officers as advisers, and provided with motor transport by the Party. Hitler disclosed this plan to Karl-Hermann Frank on September 16 in a two-hour conference. The Henlein Free Corps would carry out commando-type sorties into the Czech frontier positions each night. Their aim would be – as Schmundt explicitly telegraphed to the OKW next day – ‘to keep up the level of disturbances and clashes.’


In the summer of 1937, Martin Bormann had observed how his Chief liked strolling down to the tea pavilion; he decided to construct for the Führer a new teahouse to rival any other in the world. That August Bormann had selected the craggy peak of the 5,500-foot Kehlstein, not far from the Berghof, and personally hammered in the marking pegs together with Fritz Todt. By September 16, 1938, this ‘Eagle’s Nest’ was finished.

At four p.m. Hitler, Todt, and Bormann drove up to the new eyrie – Bormann proud, but Hitler sceptical. He had known nothing of Bormann’s surprise plan until it was too late to revoke; according to Julius Schaub, Hitler blamed it on Bormann’s folie des grandeurs, smiled indulgently, and let himself be persuaded that it would serve to impress foreign visitors.

The new road ended some way below the Kehlstein’s peak. A parking area had been blasted out of the rockface, into which were set massive bronze doors, topped with a granite slab reading ‘Built 1938.’The doors swung open and the car drove on into the mountain along a 170-yard tunnel wide enough for two cars to pass. At the tunnel’s end was a circular vault not unlike a church choir: facing them were bronze sliding doors. Bormann invited Hitler into the windowless room beyond the doors – an elevator with walls of polished brass, mirrors, and upholstered chairs. They were lifted to the very crest of the Kehlstein.

As Hitler stepped out, he found himself looking over a view even more majestic than from the Berghof. Hitler spent an hour up here. He was in fact silently alarmed by the thumping of his heart at this altitude, and he was short of breath (this he told his doctors). On the next day, the seventeenth, he took Dr. Goebbels and his senior henchmen up to this mountaintop retreat and briefed them about the talks with Chamberlain – this ‘ice-cool,’ calculating Englishman. He expressed high praise for their propaganda effort, saying: ‘We’ve half won the war already.’ Goebbels was optimistic that Prague would buckle under the war of nerves, but Hitler disagreed. ‘In 1948,’ he explained, ‘it will be just three hundred years since the Peace of Münster. We’ve got to liquidate that peace treaty by then.’ He visited this lofty eyrie only once more over the next few days, and only seldom afterward.


There were now two weeks to go before ‘Green.’ At training grounds on the periphery of Czechoslovakia, carefully phased manoeuvres were beginning.

Chamberlain had promised to return with his Cabinet’s agreement. Hitler was well-informed on developments in London. He knew that French premier Edouard Daladier and foreign minister Georges Bonnet had arrived in London on the eighteenth. At 1:20 p.m. on the nineteenth Masaryk was heard plaintively telephoning Bene, ‘The uncles here are in session and haven’t breathed a word to anybody yet.’ Bene referred to the rumours that he had heard involving Hungary and the Carpatho-Ukraine. In his view all such plans were quite out of the question, but Masaryk confirmed, ‘They are talking about ceding territories and suchlike, you know.’ After more discussion Masaryk added vehemently, ‘I haven’t the slightest intention of going over there [to Downing Street]. They haven’t sent for me, so what I say is, f–ck them, Mr. President!’ During the afternoon the Anglo-French plan was finally communicated to Benes but not to Masaryk. It virtually instructed Bene to surrender: he was to cede to Hitler all areas with more than fifty percent German population. Benes told Masaryk the gist of it on the phone at seven p.m. and asked what people like Churchill thought. Masaryk responded, ‘When I asked them, they… hoped we won’t take it lying down.’ He added, ‘Seventy-five percent would be one thing, but fifty percent – that’s impossible.’ Bene sighed, ‘Frightful!’

For the next two days Prague officially remained silent. Bene was heard explaining to Masaryk that he was searching for some formula, neither Yes nor No, to enable him to keep honourably negotiating. Masaryk referred contemptuously to Chamberlain’s approaching return to Germany: ‘The old man’s packing his bags again, he’s in quite a dither.’ Again he asked for funds to be urgently rushed to him in London: ‘The balloon will soon go up and I’ll find myself without a penny.’

By early September 19, Henlein’s Free Corps terror squads had begun operations. The Czech army was moved closer to the border. Hitler’s own generals persuaded him to limit the Free Corps operations, therefore, to twelve-man commandos or smaller. That day he resumed his wooing of the Hungarians. Horthy – by now again in Germany as Göring’s guest on a shoot – had written privately to Hitler expressing alarm over newspaper reports that Bene was about to cede the German-speaking regions to the Reich, ‘leaving everything else as it was.’ (The letter is amongst Horthy’s papers in Budapest.) Hitler discussed this with Imrédy and Kánya at the Berghof on September 20.

At four p.m. the same day, Hitler received Joseph Lipski, Warsaw’s ambassador to Berlin. Hitler had wooed Poland, Czechoslovakia’s other neighbour, since mid-July; Goebbels had briefed Nazi editors not to report anti-German incidents in Poland ‘for the time being.’ On September 6 Hans Fritzsche had repeated Goebbels’s directive: ‘There are to be no reports published on incidents in Poland… however much we may regret it.’ And three days later there had followed this telling explanation: ‘It is a basic principle of Third Reich foreign policy only to tackle one thing at a time.’

Now Hitler had the reward for his forbearance: the Polish ambassador coyly confirmed the Warsaw government’s predatory interest in Tein, and assured Hitler that the Poles ‘would not shrink at all from using force.’ A day or two later, as Hitler, Ribbentrop and Goebbels set off together for Bad Godesberg, Hitler repeated to them that Ambassador Lipski had ‘promised’ that Poland would use force against Czechoslovakia.

It was all very satisfactory. Hitler and Ribbentrop drove complacently to Pullach and spent the evening at Bormann’s home. By midnight, Hitler knew that Chamberlain would be coming to Bad Godesberg to meet with him on the twenty-second.

At two a.m. on September 21 the British and French envoys in Prague jointly called on Bene to accept their Anglo-French plan ‘before creating a situation for which France and Britain could take no responsibility.’

Six hours later, Göring’s wiretappers found a cryptic telephone conversation going on between Prague and Paris. The Prague end announced that they had been forced to accept the plan since both Britain and France had threatened to leave Czechoslovakia in the lurch completely otherwise.

The wiretaps indicated that Churchill was promising Masaryk that Chamberlain would be overthrown by that afternoon, that three ministers in Paris had cabled written protests to Daladier, and that ‘that oaf’ Bonnet was on his way out too.

Masaryk’s British friends were urging Prague to delay any formal decision on the plan until the twenty-sixth at least. Masaryk’s voice was heard adjuring Bene:

Mr. President, one thing is most important…Public support here is growing like wildfire… That is what Churchill, Eden, and the archbishop want you to know.

Now Hitler knew too, and forewarned was forearmed. On first hearing that Prague was minded to accept, he had instructed his OKW to consider the administrative problem of an unopposed occupation of the German speaking areas. Now however the FA wiretaps decided Hitler differently. It seemed that Bene was going to play for time.

Chamberlain arrived at the Cologne airport on September 22. He brought Sir Horace Wilson (‘that swine’) with him, as before. At the Rhine Hotel Dreesen in Godesberg Chamberlain reminded Hitler of their Berghof agreement.

Hitler solemnly pronounced: ‘Es tut mir furchtbar leid, aber das geht nicht mehr [I’m frightfully sorry but that won’t do any longer].’ He now insisted on the Wehrmacht being permitted to occupy the German-speaking areas of Czechoslovakia immediately. Chamberlain protested that Hitler had broken his word. After three hours of listening to Hitler’s verbose arguments he reclined on a sofa and announced he had done what he could – his conscience was clear. As neither side would yield, the talks were broken off; and the British delegation returned by ferry to their splendid Hotel Petersberg. In May 1942 Hitler referred to the ‘two-faced’ British behaviour here – from the FA wiretaps he knew of their private willingness to make the concessions he needed, but publicly they still dug their heels in. His annoyance was increased by the studied insolence of the British delegation and their sloppy attire. He later rebuked Henderson, ‘If any more people in tired suits call on me, I’ll send my ambassador in London to see your King in a pullover: tell that to your government.’

For several hours Hitler delayed the next meeting while his code-breakers deciphered Chamberlain’s secret report to his Cabinet. The prime minister’s next step was thus not unexpected: on September 23 he sent a note to Hitler explaining that British public opinion would not tolerate the new German demands. Hitler replied that he mistrusted the Czechs: they were playing for time. Chamberlain replied tersely, asking the Führer to set down his proposals in a memorandum. The document was handed to Chamberlain on his return to Hitler’s hotel that evening at ten. Almost at once, at 10:30 p.m., a messenger brought a note to Hitler: ‘Bene has just announced general mobilisation over Czech radio.’ That galvanised the meeting. Hitler stood up and declared that that was that. Chamberlain also stood up and calmly prepared to leave.

This was not what Hitler wanted at all; he was saved by Ribbentrop, who suggested that as the British had asked for the memorandum they should at least read it. They sat down. The document laid down a deadline – the Czechs were to begin evacuating the German areas on the twenty-sixth and complete it by the twenty-eighth. Chamberlain rightly objected that this was just a Diktat. Hitler smugly replied, ‘It isn’t. Look – it’s headed “memorandum.”’ Under pressure, he did, however, agree to relax the deadline to October 1 (his secret X-day for ‘Green’). ‘You know,’ he flattered Chamberlain, ‘you’re the only man I’ve ever made a concession to.’ (He had used the same words to Schuschnigg at the Berghof in February.) At 1:15 a.m. the Führer bade him farewell. This was his last territorial claim in Europe, he assured him. Chamberlain replied, ‘Auf Wiedersehen.’

Hitler sat in the hotel garden for some time, watching the Rhine swirl past. After a while he turned and thanked Ribbentrop for having intervened earlier: ‘You saved the day for us.’

Chamberlain reported the next afternoon to his Cabinet.[23]At 3:30 p.m. Chamberlain told his Inner Cabinet he thought he had ‘established some degree of personal influence over Herr Hitler’; he felt Hitler would not go back on his word. At five p.m. he told the full Cabinet that Hitler was ‘extremely anxious to secure the friendship of Great Britain… it would be a great tragedy if we lost an opportunity of reaching an understanding with Germany.’ He believed that Hitler now trusted him. Masaryk, in London, was heard sneering on the phone to Bene, ‘The Germans made such mincemeat of him that this morning he could barely manage a stutter.’ When Masaryk mentioned the rumour that Hitler was demanding that the Czechs should allow the Wehrmacht in at once, Bene exploded: ‘Out of the question… we can’t give up our positions!’

Hitler’s lunch table was dominated by the question whether Bene would give way. He himself was sure that the Czech president would not, while Goebbels argued that he would. Hitler repeated that his army would attack on or after the twenty-eighth. ‘That gives the Führer five days,’ Goebbels realised. ‘He fixed these dates way back on May 28,’ he added. That Prague was standing firm was quite pleasing to Hitler. France had also begun partial mobilisation however, and Hitler had not bargained for that to happen until X-day itself. Moreover, elements of the British fleet had put to sea. On September 25 France, Britain, and Czechoslovakia all rejected Hitler’s Godesberg ‘memorandum.’

As Bene told Masaryk to make clear, in announcing this to London, the map forwarded by Chamberlain with the memorandum ‘would mean nothing more nor less than the immediate surrender of our whole nation into Hitler’s hands.’ He added, ‘Show them all, on the map, how our nation is to be destroyed!’ Masaryk replied, ‘So far they haven’t given me the map. It’s a shabby trick.’


On september 26, 1938 Hitler summoned Keitel and told him that ‘Green’ would start on the thirtieth. Turning the FA wiretaps on Masaryk over in his hands, with their almost untranslatable obscenities about Chamberlain and Sir Horace Wilson, he saw a possibility of driving a wedge into the enemy camp. He instructed Göring to disclose the intercepts to Ambassador Henderson. When Wilson personally came to Berlin to put to him Chamberlain’s latest proposal Hitler – who already knew of it thanks to Masaryk’s loquacity on the phone – dismissed it as valueless so long as Prague would not accept the Godesberg terms. He bragged to Goebbels that he had yelled at the Englishman, and accused him of evasions. ‘The Führer,’ wrote Goebbels, ‘believes in his mission with the sureness of a sleepwalker. Not for one moment does his hand tremble. A great genius in our midst.’ Hitler now dictated to Henderson that he would give Bene until Wednesday the twenty-eighth to accept. ‘Midnight Wednesday?’ the British ambassador somewhat ambiguously asked. ‘No, by two p.m.,’ said Hitler. Thus the formal ultimatum was spoken.

The pressure on the Führer was steadily increasing however. Lord Rothermere privately cabled him to think twice before making his scheduled speech at the Berlin Sportpalast that evening. The speech was rowdy and provocative. Hitler declared that his troops would march into the Sudeten German areas in five days’ time, on October 1. ‘Our mind is made up. It is up to Herr Bene now!’

Shortly after Sir Horace Wilson left the next morning, Hitler sent Schmundt to Keitel with written instructions that the initial shock troops were to move up to a line from which they could attack on the thirtieth. He ordered the Free Corps to step up its terrorist activities. He also directed that a mechanised division rumble through the streets of central Berlin. Goebbels mingled with crowds in the streets, and found them baffled and anxious at the martial display. ‘The public is filled with a profound worry,’ he recorded. ‘They know we’re coming in to the last lap now.’


Did he still want war? Weizsäcker, who appeared after midnight, found the Führer sitting alone with Ribbentrop. Hitler curtly announced that he would now wipe out Czechoslovakia. Weizsäcker noted some days later, ‘This was said only in the presence of Ribbentrop and myself…So it would be incorrect to assume that the Führer was just putting up a huge and monstrous bluff. It was his resentment over May 22 – when the British jeered at him for “backing down” – that was propelling him along the path to war.’ It is possible that Hitler knew from the FA wiretaps that Weizsäcker was conniving with the British diplomats.

In the coming hostilities, Hitler wanted the SS to play an important part. He arranged for two Death’s Head battalions to be equipped with antitank and field guns to protect an ‘autonomous Sudeten German government’ being set up at Asch, now wholly occupied by Henlein’s troops. In the Jauernig enclave south of Breslau, Henlein had already seized power. Control over Henlein’s Free Corps would pass to Himmler on the day that ‘Green’ began.

Hitler’s ultimatum would expire at two p.m. the next day, the twenty-eighth. His military attaché in Paris estimated that France could assemble her first sixty-five divisions on the West Wall by the sixth day of mobilisation. In an internal conference, Göring grimly conceded that war seemed inevitable and might well last seven years. Early on the twenty-eighth, the naval attaché telephoned from London that a reliable source had just informed him that King George VI, upon whose ‘vacillation’ Hitler had been relying, had signed the order for mobilisation. Only the date needed to be inserted.

At ten a.m. Brauchitsch saw Keitel and begged him to prevail on the Führer not to invade more than just the Sudeten areas. Canaris’s estimation was that war with the west was certain. General Halder, the new Chief of General Staff, was seen in a state of nervous collapse, sobbing helplessly. Worse, by midday Berlin knew that the British fleet had mobilised. Hitler undoubtedly realised now that his blackmail would profit him no more; it was this news of the Royal Navy’s mobilisation, he is said to have frankly admitted to Göring later, that tilted the balance for him.

Early on the twenty-eighth, the French ambassador François-Poncet asked to see Hitler to bring secret new proposals from Bonnet of which even the Czechs were still unaware. An interview was arranged for noon. Shortly before noon Hitler was in conference with Ribbentrop when Göring arrived with word – which his Forschungsamt may have obtained – that Mussolini had telephoned the Italian ambassador in Berlin a few minutes before eleven to say that Chamberlain had just contacted him; Mussolini wanted the Führer to know that he backed him to the hilt, but would Hitler be willing to postpone mobilisation by twenty-four hours?

A heated discussion broke out in Hitler’s Cabinet room. Göring accused Ribbentrop of actually wanting a war. Hitler tersely silenced them both. ‘Ribbentrop,’ noted Goebbels, who had arrived for lunch, ‘nurtures a blind hatred of Britain. Göring, Neurath and I urge Hitler to accept [the ambassadors’ proposals.] Göring… totally shares my viewpoint and gives Ribbentrop a piece of his mind.’ Over lunch Goebbels could contain himself no longer and stated bluntly: ‘Mein Führer, if you think that the German public is thirsting for war, you are wrong. They watch its approach with a leaden sense of apathy.’

At noon François-Poncet was shown in. The new Bonnet plan which he brought was an improvement, but not enough. Almost at once an adjutant handed to Hitler a folded note – the Italian ambassador was outside. Hitler excused himself, saying: ‘I’m wanted on the phone,’ and went out to receive the Mussolini message. He agreed to postpone the deadline by one day. The British were also stirring: the FA is certain to have intercepted Chamberlain’s sensational telephone message to his Berlin embassy at 11:30, announcing that he was ready to come to Germany yet again.

Hitler returned to François-Poncet, but almost immediately the Italian ambassador was back: Mussolini had telephoned that Chamberlain had a proposal to make that would be a ‘grandiose victory.’

At 12:30 p.m., as François-Poncet was leaving, Henderson arrived with Chamberlain’s formal proposal for a Five-Power conference: ‘I am ready,’ wrote the elderly British prime minister, ‘to come to Berlin myself.’

Hitler dictated a brief summary of his minimum demands, for the Italian ambassador to forward to Mussolini. Thus peace seemed assured.

Hitler was still eating when Ambassador Attolico returned at 2:40 p.m. He welcomed the Italian with his mouth still full. Attolico made a brave effort to speak German: ‘Morgen 11 Uhr München!’ (11 a.m. in Munich.) Hitler laughed out loud.

During the afternoon formal invitations were issued to the other two powers, Britain and France. Neither declined. Czechoslovakia was not invited.

At 8:50 p.m. that September 28, Hitler’s special train hauled out of Berlin’s Anhalt station en route to Munich for the historic conference.


By 9:30 a.m. he was awaiting Mussolini’s train at the small German frontier station. The Duce entered the Führer’s saloon car with Count Ciano. As the train started back toward Munich Hitler chortled out loud at the way ‘we two revolutionaries’ were managing to set Europe alternately by the ears. Keitel sketched in the military situation confidentially to the Duce.

Hitler reassured him – the western powers would not intervene. Mussolini asked for and was given a coloured map showing the present Czechoslovakia. Hitler explained he was not inclined to accept time-consuming plebiscites in the disputed areas. On the other hand, he said, he did not want one Czech village.

The events at the ‘Führer Building’ in Munich, bedecked with the flags of the four powers, were inevitably an anticlimax.

Chamberlain’s plane arrived during the morning. Hitler waited for him with Mussolini and the French prime minister Edouard Daladier in the smoking room. His major-domo had prepared sandwiches and beer there. Since he was asking only for the German-speaking areas, and the other three powers were agreeing to this, all that remained was to discuss the modes of transfer; and since the draft agreement that he had handed to Attolico yesterday was now being dished up by Mussolini in Italian as though it were his own, the result was a foregone conclusion.

The only snag was Hitler’s stubborn demand that the Czechs must evacuate the territories immediately, and Chamberlain’s equally obstinate defence of the Czech position. Hitler toyed with a watch throughout the morning – he must have borrowed it for the purpose, as he never wore one – as though to hint that he might even now order mobilisation at two p.m. Between sessions of this languid and untidy conference the ministers sprawled about on the sofas, or telephoned their capitals; at one time Daladier and Hitler were swapping anecdotes from the World War trenches, at another, Chamberlain was regaling him with weekend fishing tales.

At three p.m. Hitler retired to his apartment for lunch with Himmler and the Italians.

He fumed at Chamberlain’s obstinacy: ‘Daladier – now there’s a lawyer who sees things as they are and draws the proper consequences. That Chamberlain however – he has haggled over every village and petty interest like a market stall-holder, far worse than the Czechs would have been! What has he got to lose in Bohemia? What’s it to do with him!’ Hitler burst out, ‘I never have weekends – and I hate fishing!’

The taste of victory was turning bitter in his mouth. ‘It’s time Britain stopped playing governess to Europe,’ he complained. ‘If she can’t drop her guardian act, in the long run war can’t be avoided. And I’ll fight that war as long as you and I are still young, Duce, because this war will be a gigantic test of strength for our two countries.’

The conference resumed later that afternoon. In the small hours of the morning, the Munich Agreement was signed.


Before he left, Chamberlain asked if he could see Hitler. Hitler waited at his apartment in Prinzregenten Platz with some curiosity – not to say impatience, because the elevator bringing up the Englishman wheezed to a halt between floors. Chamberlain asked Hitler for an assurance that – if the Czechs were so vainglorious as to reject the Munich Agreement – the German air force would not bomb civilian targets. Hitler gave it. Then Chamberlain produced a sheet of paper containing a typed declaration, and asked if Hitler would sign it, saying that this would considerably ease his position in London. Hitler signed it without noticeable enthusiasm. It concluded with the words,

We regard the agreement signed last night and the Anglo-German Naval Agreement as symbolic of the desire of our two peoples never to go to war with one another again.

After the Englishman had left, Ribbentrop came over to the Führer Building. Walking down the long flight of steps with him afterward, Ribbentrop mentioned that he was not sure Hitler had been wise to sign such a document. Reinhard Spitzy overheard Hitler’s muttered response: ‘Ach, that piece of paper is of no further significance whatever.’


[23] At 3:30 p.m. Chamberlain told his Inner Cabinet he thought he had ‘established some degree of personal influence over Herr Hitler’; he felt Hitler would not go back on his word. At five p.m. he told the full Cabinet that Hitler was ‘extremely anxious to secure the friendship of Great Britain… it would be a great tragedy if we lost an opportunity of reaching an understanding with Germany.’ He believed that Hitler now trusted him.

One Step Along a Long Path • 7,900 Words

Hitler left Berlin on October 2, 1938, with Brauchitsch, Milch, and Todt, for a flying tour of the newly regained Sudeten lands. Tumultuous crowds in the ancient marketplaces of Asch and Eger cheered his victory. ‘Its scale was brought home to me,’ he would crow, five weeks later, ‘only at the moment I stood for the first time in the midst of the Czech fortress line: it was only then that I realised what it means to have captured a front line of almost two thousand kilometres of fortifications without having fired a single shot in anger.’ ‘We would have shed a lot of blood,’ he conceded privately to Goebbels.

In fact it had not been a bloodless victory for Hitler. Henlein’s Free Corps had lost a hundred men in their two hundred commando raids. As Hitler drove on from Asch and Eger some towns looked as though a full-scale war had hit them: buildings were wrecked, telephone lines were down, there was broken glass everywhere, and there were food lines and mobile kitchens. The armed Free Corps irregulars that they met looked tough, to say the least – ‘not the kind of people to run into on a dark night,’ one German officer noted.

Hitler’s thoughts were never far from the unconquered rump of Czechoslovakia, out of which Chamberlain and Munich had, he considered, temporarily cheated him. Prague had been the seat of the first German university; Bohemia and Moravia were in the First Reich. The ill-fitting frontiers of Central Europe gave Hitler headaches for some weeks. The Poles not only occupied Tesin but claimed Moravian Ostrau and the important and largely German-speaking towns of Witkowitz and Oderberg as well.

Hungary had hedged her bets until too late. When she now bestirred herself and raised demands on Slovakia and the whole of the Carpatho-Ukraine, Hitler refused to listen. His governing ambition that winter was to occupy Bohemia and Moravia. Promoting Slovak independence was one cheap way of bringing about the disintegration of Czechoslovakia. Having decided upon this, Hitler was able to use robust language in rebuffing Hungary’s demands on Slovakia. When Kolomán Darányi, the former Hungarian premier, brought a private letter from Horthy appealing for support on October 14, Hitler would only say, in effect, ‘I told you so.’ Hewel’s note of the meeting reads:

The Führer recalled how strongly he had warned the Hungarians, both on board ship [in August] and when Imrédy and Kánya had visited him at the Obersalzberg [in September]: he had told them specifically that he was planning to settle the Czech problem so oder so in October. Poland had seen her chance, struck out, and got what she wanted. You can solve such problems by negotiation only if you’re determined to fight otherwise. It was only this that gained for him, the Führer, everything that he wanted. Mr. Kánya was plagued by misgivings however, even though the Führer had told him that Britain and France weren’t going to fight.

By mid-October Hitler was telling Darányi, ‘The Slovak leaders of every political hue have been besieging us for days, clamouring that they don’t want to join Hungary.’ This was very true. On September 25 the Slovak engineer Franz Karmasin, leader of the Carpathian German Party, was to be seen at Göring’s forest mansion Carinhall. Karmasin arranged for the Slovak deputy prime minister, Dr. Ferdinand Durcansky, to see Göring on October 12; the prime minister assured the German field marshal that his people never wanted to join Hungary – that only the Slovak Jews opted for Hungary. ‘Slovaks want complete autonomy with strong political, economic, and military dependence on Germany,’ he said. He assured Göring that Slovakia would deal with the Jewish problem on similar lines to Germany. Göring afterward noted for the record, ‘Slovak aspirations to autonomy are to be suitably supported. A Czecho- without the Slovakia will be thrown even more cruelly onto our mercy. Slovakia will be very important to us as an airfield base for operations to the east,’ meaning into Russia.

The Czechs too now turned to Hitler for protection. Bene fled to the United States and moderates replaced his ministers, anxious to curry favour with Hitler. Even so, Hitler dismantled ‘Green’ only most reluctantly. Keitel’s adjutant recorded one telephone call from the Führer’s staff thus: ‘Schmundt inquires how soon “Green” could be ready for launching again, and how long for “Red”?’ (‘Red’ was the build-up against France.) the nowhyphenated Czecho-Slovakia was still a matter of military concern. She could still engage up to twenty-five German divisions. Politically she was not the threat she had once been however. On October 12 the Czech envoy Voytech Mastny assured Göring privately that his country had done a ‘complete about-turn’ – Czecho-Slovakia would realign her foreign policy with Germany, follow the Reich’s lead on dealing with Jews and Communists, and provide industrial support to Germany. ‘Fate and life of Tschechei are in Germany’s hands,’ Göring wrote afterward in a contented diary entry. ‘[Mastny] pleads that the country not be reduced to penury.’

Nonetheless, when the new Czech foreign minister Frantiek Chvalkovsky visited Hitler two days later the Führer put on one of his famous acts. The Czech’s own notes read: ‘He [Hitler] did not conceal that he was not one to be trifled with, and that the final catastrophe would crash down on our state like a clap of thunder if we ever stepped out of line and returned to our old bad ways. Twenty-four – eight; snapped his fingers.’ (Hitler threatened to destroy Czechoslovakia in twenty-four or even eight hours, and snapped his fingers to illustrate his point.) ‘As for a guarantee, he said, the only guarantee worth anything was a guarantee from him: and he was not going to give one [to Czechoslovakia] so long as he saw no point in it.’


Hitler had returned that morning, October 14, 1938, from a second heavily publicised tour of the West Wall which had begun on the ninth at Saarbrücken. It was there that he had struck his first blow at the spirit of Munich, in a speech to West Wall workers. He had announced that he did not intend to drop his guard since, in democracies, statesmen who worked sincerely for peace could always be replaced overnight by warmongers: ‘It only needs Mr. Duff Cooper or Mr. Eden or Mr. Churchill to come to power in place of Chamberlain, and you can be quite sure that their aim would be to start a new world war. They make no bones about it, they admit it quite openly.’

Coming so soon after Munich the tone of this speech was a setback for the Chamberlain government in London. Hitler expressed regret to François-Poncet a week later however that he had ever signed Chamberlain’s ‘piece of paper.’ Dealing with the French, he flattered the ambassador, you could always expect an honest yes or no. ‘With the English, however, it’s different. You give them a paper. There’s a storm of debate, then billions for rearmament and you’re no better off than before.’

For some time he could undertake no further grand adventures anyway. He could not afford to. Despite the economic difficulties however he continued the immense new arms effort, suspecting that Britain was merely playing for time. The Forschungsamt wiretaps suggested that both Paris and London were trying to sabotage the Munich Agreement. At Munich, Hitler had deduced that Germany would be at war with Britain by 1942. Even before leaving Munich, on September 30, Keitel had telephoned instructions to his chief of arms procurement, Colonel Georg Thomas, to act on this assumption. Ammunition enough could be manufactured when the time came: what Hitler needed to stockpile now were new tanks, guns, and aircraft. He ordered Göring to launch a ‘gigantic Wehrmacht rearmament program,’ one that would put all its predecessors into the shade. Göring, of course, put his air force first: the Luftwaffe was to be increased five-fold. The Luftwaffe’s plan was approved by Göring later that month. It emphasised the role of the four-engined Heinkel 177 heavy bomber; the goal was to provide four wings – Geschwader – of these by 1942, a total of some five hundred planes.

The navy submitted a more cautious plan, for completing two more battleships, more submarines, and various lesser warships by the end of 1943. Admiral Raeder showed the plan to Hitler on November 1. Hitler tore it to pieces, scathingly criticising the puny armament and armour of the two new battleships Bismarck and Tirpitz, and he lost his temper altogether when Raeder calmly advised him that most of Germany’s other warships were wholly unsuited to naval war with Britain. No longer did Hitler fob him off with glib assurances that Britain would not fight. He insisted on the strictest adherence to the naval expansion program laid down, ‘as a matter of extreme urgency,’ and warned that he wanted ‘certain additional ship-types of special value and importance for future war operations’ incorporated in the program. The outcome of their meeting was the startling Z-Plan, under which the navy would build by the end of 1943 six battleships of 35,000 tons, armed with 420-millimetre guns. The Z-Plan would inevitably violate the Anglo-German naval agreement: but by the end of 1939 Hitler would long have revoked that ‘piece of paper,’ arguing that it had turned out to be a very one-sided concession indeed.


In the solitude of the Obersalzberg that fall of 1938 Hitler collected his thoughts. By October 17 he had mentally drafted his next steps. That evening, according to Fritz Todt’s papers, he telephoned Todt in the Sudetenland and ‘clearly specified how much work was to have been done [on the West Wall] by three target dates: the end of October, December 15, and March 20.’

François-Poncet flew to Berchtesgaden the next day, October 18, and reached the Berghof at three p.m. From there he was driven up to meet Hitler and Ribbentrop in a small side room of the spectacular mountain-top Kehlstein pavilion. The Führer now startled him by proposing an immediate pact with France. On this occasion, François-Poncet felt, it all rang true. ‘He spoke of our “white culture” as a common and precious asset that had to be defended,’ reported the Frenchman. ‘He seemed genuinely hurt by the antagonism that persists even after Munich, and in his view Britain’s attitude has made this abundantly clear. It is obvious that he is preoccupied with the possibility of a coming crisis and general war.’

The French ambassador probably deduced Hitler’s intentions correctly, however, when he reported:

We can be sure that despite all this the Führer is sticking to his intention of driving a wedge between the British and French and stabilising peace in the west only so as to have a free hand in the east. What plan is he already hatching in his soul? Is it to be Poland, or Russia? Or is it the Baltic states at whose cost these plans are to be realised? Does he even know himself?

Hitler resumed his playacting. Two days later he set off into the Sudeten territories again. He was to be seen leaving the hotel at Linz with Colonel Schmundt, the latter loudly lamenting that Munich had spoiled their plans for a fight. The whole party descended on a village inn for luncheon – Hitler surrounded by twenty people, elbow-to-elbow at the horseshoe table, while the villagers and kitchen staff gaped through the doors and windows. General Leeb jotted in his diary, ‘Huge excitement amongst the population. Führer ill-disposed toward the British.’ A lieutenant colonel, Helmuth Groscurth, noted in his report, ‘There was a hail of attacks on the British, the French, and above all the Hungarians – who were dismissed as being cowards and skunks.’ Hitler cruelly mimicked the gesticulations of the Hungarian ministers, while loudly praising the Poles. Poland, he said, was a great nation, and Joseph Lipski a fine ambassador.

At Krumau that day the roads were lined with delegations from the brewery town of Budweis. It had a large German population, but would be left stranded on the wrong side of the new Czech frontiers. They were waving placards: ‘budweis wants its führer!’ Hitler however had not forgotten them.


On October 21, 1938 the Kehlstein tea pavilion witnessed a second remarkable scene. Magda Goebbels, the beautiful platinum-blonde wife of the propaganda minister, had come to pour her heart out to Hitler about her faithless husband.

Joseph Goebbels had captured Berlin from the Communists in the twenties; it was he who had created the ‘Führer’ image and converted the newspaper and film industries into potent instruments of Nazi policy. Hitler had admitted to Otto Wagener and his own secretaries that he was attracted to Magda; according to Otto Meissner’s wife, Magda had once told her that her son Hellmut was in fact sired by Hitler during a 1934 Baltic vacation. (Judging by the pictures, this is improbable). By 1938, however, Goebbels was in disgrace. Himmler had furnished to the Führer a Gestapo dossier of statements by women who claimed to have been sexually coerced by Goebbels. ‘We used to sound off against Jewish bosses who molested their female employees,’ protested Himmler. ‘Today it is Dr. Goebbels.’

For two years Goebbels had been conducting a secret liaison with a Czech actress, Lida Baarova, a female of great bearing and physical allure. All Germany relished the titbits of the affair. In August, Magda had told Hitler that she wanted a divorce, but he refused to hear of such a thing in Nazi Germany’s‘happiest family.’ He had lectured the unhappy Dr. Goebbels on August 15, and told him never to see the actress again. (‘It shakes me to the core,’ the little doctor had entered in his diary. ‘I am deeply moved by it. The Führer is like a father to me. I am so grateful to him. I take grim decisions. But they are final.’) Now, on October 21, Magda brought her complaints to Hitler again, alone, and demanded permission for a divorce.

Up at the Kehlstein pavilion Hitler persuaded her to refrain from taking action. Two days later he invited the Goebbels couple to the same teahouse (Martin Bormann embellished the conciliatory visit in his diary with an exclamation mark) and persuaded them to persevere for three more months, if only for their children’s sake: he would agree to their divorce after that, if they still insisted. ‘The Führer,’ the propaganda minister now penned in his diary, ‘detains me for a long time alone. He confides to me his most profound and innermost secrets…. He sees a really serious conflict brewing in the none-too-distant future. Probably with Britain, which is steadily preparing for it. We shall have to fight back, and thus will be decided the hegemony over Europe. Everything must be geared to that moment. And this must take precedence over all personal hopes and desires. What are we individuals compared with the fate of great states and nations?’

Smarting under Hitler’s reproaches, Goebbels privately resolved to do something spectacular to regain the Führer’s favour.


The German army’s reactionary behaviour before Munich was still a source of bitterness to Hitler. (Blomberg had once told him, ‘In the army, obedience stops from generals upward.’) That the military hostility should continue even after his bloodless triumph at Munich infuriated Hitler, and he decided to act. In mid-October Keitel’s staff drafted a remarkable document designed to bring the Führer’s views to the attention of all officers:

The prerequisite for a state’s political and military victory is obedience, loyalty, and trust in its leadership. As every officer knows, any body of soldiers without these qualities is useless. Indifference or half-hearted obedience are not good enough. They will not fire enthusiasm or inspire sacrifice and the dedication needed to master each successive task. It has always been Germany’s lot to fight against unequal odds. Where we have been successful, then abstract forces were at work, acting far more powerfully than any numerical or material superiority over the enemy.

It would be a remarkable thing if an officer’s only duty were to weigh his own numerical strength against that of the enemy, while ignoring or underrating all those other factors that have always decided between defeat and victory in the past.

In an obvious reference to General Beck’s arguments, the document continued:

It is unsoldierly and a symptom of poor military upbringing not to credit one’s own side with what one expects from the enemy as a matter of course, or to minimise one’s own strength while inflating that of the enemy. To put the military factors in their proper perspective when deciding the political objective is a task for the statesman alone. Were he to wait until his armed forces were completely ready for war, then he would never act because armed forces are never ready – nor are they ever to be considered ready. I well know that in the past months the broad mass of officers has done its duty in a spirit of defiant belief and determination.

But I expect this fact and its confirmation by our triumph [i.e., at Munich] to be accepted once and for all by my officers, and it is to be adequately emphasised in the training and preparation of new officers.

It was in this prickly mood that Hitler summoned Brauchitsch, as Commander in Chief of the army, to Berchtesgaden on October 24. The frosty interview began at 12:30 p.m. in the Great Hall of the Berghof, and continued after lunch until six up at the Kehlstein tea pavilion. It culminated in Hitler’s demand for the retirement of scores of unreliable senior army officers. The tenor of the interview can be judged from the following entry in the diary of Keitel’s adjutant, Wolf Eberhard: ‘Führer was brutally frank about his contempt for the military commanders: they need rapid and urgent reorganisation, show complete lack of confidence in the political leadership, and apprehensions about their own weakness. Enemy’s strength is exaggerated. A last appeal to the Commander in Chief, Army, to get to grips with his job and act without delay. His “historic mission”!’ Eberhard privately commented, ‘Let’s hope that this is the last time that the Führer has to use such language to his soldiers.’

The final list of names was thrashed out between Brauchitsch and Göring on October 28 and taken by the latter to Hitler two days later. Among those blacklisted were these generals: Curt Liebmann and Wilhelm Adam, Hermann Geyer and Wilhelm Ulex – and, of course, Rundstedt and Beck. On November 1, 1938, Hitler announced this upheaval in the army. He coupled it, perhaps tactlessly, with a wave of promotions in the Luftwaffe.


Early in November 1938 Hitler’s uncritical loyalty to his Party henchmen was put to its most severe test – by an incident symptomatic of racial troubles that had been festering in Central Europe for many decades. The Jewish problem was at its root. In Czechoslovakia, for instance, there were 259,000 Jews; they were not popular, and the new regime steered a delicate course, pandering to its powerful neighbour. President Emil Hácha, the venerable lawyer who had succeeded Bene, initiated a series of anti-Jewish measures, obliging Jewish industrialists to resign. The influx of Jewish refugees from the Sudeten territories led to fresh antisemitism, particularly among the Czech academics who publicly demanded the removal of these ‘immigrants.’ In Bohemia and Moravia there were about 99,000 Jews; in Slovakia 87,000, and in the tiny Carpatho-Ukraine no fewer than 66,000 (or 12 percent of the population.) Slovakia eagerly enacted the anti-Jewish decrees that the Reich demanded. A wave of deportations began.

Nobody, however, wanted to house these homeless Jews. When Ribbentrop journeyed to Paris with much pomp in December to sign the joint declaration that Hitler had first suggested to François-Poncet, foreign minister Georges Bonnet begged him not to flood France with German Jews, as they already had enough Jews of their own. (‘In fact,’ Ribbentrop informed Hitler, ‘they are considering Madagascar for this purpose.’)

Poland’s attitude was no more sympathetic. Ambassador Joseph Lipski had assured Hitler as recently as October 21 that if he ever succeeded in solving Europe’s Jewish problem, Warsaw would happily erect a statue in honour of his achievement. The Polish government had followed developments throughout 1938 most closely. Fearing, after Hitler’s occupation of Austria, that he would repatriate the thousands of Polish Jews from Vienna, in March they had speedily enacted a Law of Expatriation designed to deprive such Jews of their native Polish citizenship. The Munich agreement panicked Warsaw into the further ruling that after October 31 no expatriate Poles would be allowed back into their country without a special entry visa. The last days of October thus saw frenzied scenes on the frontier. While Polish frontier officials slept, the Nazis quietly shunted unscheduled trains loaded with Jews across the line into Poland.

From Hanover alone, 484 Polish Jews were ‘repatriated’ in this demeaning manner. Among them were the parents and sisters of a Jewish youth of seventeen then living in Paris, Herschel Grynszpan. On November 3, as Hitler was subsequently told, Grynszpan received a postcard from his sister briefly describing the family’s ‘repatriation’ to Poland. He swore revenge – and decided to murder the German ambassador in Paris, Count von Welczek. Welczek being not available, on November 7 Grynszpan shot at Counsellor Ernst vom Rath instead.

At first the incident had not unduly aroused Hitler’s temper. He made no mention at all of it in his speeches of the next few days. On the ninth, the March on the Feldherrnhalle was solemnly re-enacted in the annual ceremony at noon. Wreaths were laid in the temples of honour, where Hitler had decreed that his own body was one day to rest.

That evening he was in his modestly furnished Munich apartment in Prinzregenten Strasse when word arrived that Counsellor vom Rath had now died of his gunshot injury. According to Goebbels, he told Hitler that there had been anti-Jewish demonstrations in two provinces. His diary records: ‘The condition of the diplomat Rath shot by the Jew in Paris is still very grave,’ and ‘The German press opens up with a will.’ Then he added that the Jews ‘have a few things coming their way.’ He received word of demonstrations in Kassel and Dessau, and of synagogues being set on fire. At five p.m. the official press agency announced that the diplomat Rath had died of his injuries. As Goebbels and Hitler left to attend the Nazi festivities in the old city hall, news arrived that the Munich police were cracking down on anti-Jewish demonstrations. Hitler ruled, said Goebbels later, that the Party was not to organise any such demonstrations – but under the circumstances it was not to quell them if they should occur spontaneously.

We have only Goebbels’s word for this, quoted at a subsequent internal Party inquiry; in his diary he wrote, ‘Colossal activity. I brief the Führer on the affair. He decides: Allow the demonstrations to continue. Hold back the police. The Jews must be given a taste of the public anger for a change.’

Goebbels then left Hitler as he had to speak to an assembly of Party notables in Munich’s old city hall. The minister instructed his listeners, according to one version, that further such demonstrations were to be organised although the Nazi party must not appear responsible. In his diary, he proudly recorded his own leading role in what was to prove one of the most shameful episodes of Hitler’s rule: ‘A few gau officials get cold feet. But I keep pulling everybody together. We must not allow this cowardly murder to go unpunished. Let things run their course. The Stosstrupp [shocktroop] “Hitler” sallies forth at once to deal with Munich. And things happen right away. A synagogue is smashed to smithereens. I try to save it from the flames, but fail.’ He continued: ‘Over to gau HQ with [Gauleiter Adolf] Wagner. I now issue a detailed circular setting out what may be done and what not. Wagner gets cold feet and trembles for his [Munich’s] Jewish shops. But I won’t be deterred. Meanwhile the Stosstrupp goes about its business. And with no half measures. I direct [Werner ] Wächter [director of the propaganda bureau] in Berlin to see that the synagogue in Fasanen Strasse is smashed.’

The responsibilities thus seem clearly defined. A subsequent action report by the leader of the SA Group Nordmark would state:

At about ten p.m. on November 9 the need for the operation was put to a number of gauleiters assembled in the Munich Hotel Schottenhammel by an anonymous member of the Nazi Party’s Reichsleitung (Reich directorate). I thereupon volunteered the services of my SA Group Nordmark to the gauleiter [of Schleswig-Holstein], Hinrich Lohse. At about 10:30 p.m. he telephoned his chief of staff in Kiel: ‘A Jew has fired a shot. A German diplomat is dead. There are wholly superfluous places of congregation in Friedrichstadt, Kiel, and Lübeck; and these people are still trading in shops in our midst. We don’t need either the one or the other. There’s to be no plundering, nor any manhandling. Foreign Jews are not to be molested. If there’s any resistance, use your firearms. The whole operation is to be in plain clothes, and is to be over by five a.m.’

Toward midnight Hitler prepared to leave his apartment for the spectacular SS swearing-in ceremony. Himmler of course was with him. Himmler’s chief of staff Karl Wolff arrived with an indignant message from Heydrich at the Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten: the local Gestapo HQ had just phoned, reporting that Goebbels’s district propaganda offices everywhere were whipping up anti-Jewish demonstrations and ordering the police – Himmler’s police – not to intervene. Himmler turned to Hitler for guidance. Hitler replied that the Gestapo were to protect Jewish property and lives. It was clear to Himmler that the whole affair had come out of the blue to the Führer. After the midnight ceremony, back at his apartment, Hitler was informed at one a.m. by one of his Wehrmacht adjutants that the Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten had now telephoned to ask them to come and retrieve their baggage as the synagogue next door was on fire.

Julius Schaub, Hitler’s personal aide-de-camp, wrote after the war a graphic account of the ensuing night of horror, but Goebbels’s diary describes Schaub as being in top form, ‘his old Stosstrupp past comes flooding back.’ ‘As I drive back to the hotel,’ continues this entry, ‘there is the sound of breaking glass. Bravo! Bravo! Like gigantic old kilns, the synagogues are blazing.’

Telephone calls began coming from private citizens reporting fresh outbreaks of arson and Jewish businesses being looted all over Munich. Perplexed, Hitler sent for SS Gruppenführer Friedrich Karl von Eberstein, the city’s police chief, and ordered him to restore order at once. He telephoned Goebbels and demanded: ‘What’s going on?’ He sent out Schaub and other members of his staff to stop the looting and arson. He ordered special protection for the famous antique dealers, Bernheimer’s. At 2:56 a.m. a telex was issued by Rudolf Hess’s staff as Deputy of the Führer – and was repeated to all gauleiters as Party Ordinance No. 174 – forbidding the arson: ‘On express orders issued at the highest level of all there is to be no arson or the like, whatever, under any circumstances, against Jewish businesses.’[24]Some writers now argue that the Nazis had fallen into a Zionist trap. The Haganah officials with whom Adolf Eichmann negotiated on his trip to Palestine in November 1937 had hinted that it would serve their interests if things were made hot for Germany’s Jews, to accelerate Jewish emigration to Palestine. It deserves comment that Grynszpan, although a destitute youth, was able to reside in a hotel in 1938 and purchase a handgun for 250 francs, and that his defence counsel Moro Giafferi was the best that the money of the International League against Anti-Semitism (‘LICA’) could buy; LICA’s Paris office was around the corner from Grynszpan’s hotel. At 3:45 a.m. the Berlin Gestapo repeated this prohibition. Goebbels, now in no doubt where Hitler’s real favour lay, also spent the night on the telephone trying to extinguish the conflagration that his mischievous tongue had ignited.

The damage had, however, been done, and Ribbentrop left Hitler in no doubt of this. Hitler responded that he could not get rid of Goebbels now – not when he was about to need him more than ever. He did send for Goebbels the next morning, November 10, to discuss ‘what to do next’ – the minister used the word nunmehr, which implied an element of apprehension. Göring protested to Hitler that German insurance firms would have to pay the Jews compensation; the cost in foreign currency would be huge, as the broken plate-glass would have to be replaced with imports from Belgium. Hitler refused to discipline Goebbels as the Reichsführer SS demanded. Nor, except in the most savage instances, were the humble Party members who had actually committed the outrages brought to book, although ninetyone Jews had been murdered that night. Goebbels successfully argued, over lunch with Hitler, that the pogrom had shown international Jewry that Germans abroad were not fair game for Jewish assassins. ‘This is one dead man who is costing the Jews dear,’ Goebbels gloated in his private diary. ‘Our darling Jews will think twice in future before simply gunning down German diplomats.’

There was trenchant criticism of this Goebbels extravaganza from every other leading Nazi (except Hitler himself). ‘The order was given by the Reich Propagandaleitung [Goebbels],’ recorded Himmler, ‘and I suspect that Goebbels, in his craving for power, which I noticed long ago, and also in his empty-headedness, started this action just at a time when the foreignpolitical situation is very grave…. When I asked the Führer about it, I had the impression that he did not know anything about these events.’ Hitler post facto endorsed the excesses of his henchman. When Göring sent him a sharp letter of protest Hitler replied that he should drop the matter; but as a sop to him he appointed the field marshal to co-ordinate all further moves in the Jewish problem. A collective fine of one billion marks was imposed on the Jewish community for the murder. After Hitler returned to Berlin on November 15, Goebbels smugly entered in his diary: ‘He’s in fine fettle. Sharply against the Jews. Thoroughly endorses my,’ a Freudian slip which at once expanded to, ‘and our, policies.’


Over the next days, Hitler was frequently seen and photographed with Goebbels. In his eyes Goebbels was one of the unsung heroes of the Munich Agreement. In a long and astoundingly frank secret speech to four hundred Nazi editors in Munich on November 10, he had cynically explained to them just how much he owed to psychological warfare. He spoke of his admiration for Ribbentrop too. ‘Even Bismarck had to battle against bureaucracy,’ he said. ‘Today’s National Socialist government is still stifled by red tape. It is at its worst in the foreign ministry. Diplomats do not represent their own countries, but an international Society clique. This malady in our foreign ministry cannot be rooted out overnight. It will take ten or fifteen years until a new generation of National Socialist-trained diplomats is ready. So far, the first and indeed the only diplomat to do the Third Reich proud overseas has been Ribbentrop. He is the ideal image of what I, as Führer, think a diplomat should be. In these last few months he has shown that he has energy, toughness, courage, and nerve.’

Hitler’s innermost thoughts still revolved around Bohemia and Moravia. Occasionally, these thoughts bubbled like marsh gas to the surface. Over dinner in Nuremberg on November 14 with a dozen local Party officers, the talk turned to the immense Congress Hall being erected nearby; Hitler said that he needed large slabs of granite, and when somebody remarked that the richest quarries were in rump Czecho-Slovakia, Hitler chuckled and commented knowingly, ‘One more reason!’

But over their next move he differed from Ribbentrop’s advisers. Weizsäcker counselled the foreign minister early in December 1938 to divert Hitler’s attention from the south-east to the north-east: let the Reich first acquire Memel and Danzig on the Baltic coast, and a broad strip of land across the ‘Polish Corridor’ to East Prussia. Poland, argued Weizsäcker, enjoyed little or no international sympathy at present. Hitler could shrink Poland to a manageable size and no other country would lift a finger to assist her. Ribbentrop’s reply was noncommittal, as even he did not know Hitler’s inner intentions.

Not that Hitler was planning to seize rump Czecho-Slovakia by war, as he made plain during yet another tour of the Czech frontier fortifications early in December 1938. After once again lunching in a village inn, with forty Luftwaffe and army generals listening, he loudly discoursed on his intention of bringing Bohemia and Moravia into the Reich – but by political processes short of war. Ten days later, on December 17, Keitel confirmed Hitler’s instructions to the Wehrmacht to prepare unobtrusively for a virtually unopposed occupation of rump Czecho-Slovakia.


Hitler was manifestly undecided over what step to take after that. Would he have to deal with the western powers before marching east? To Goebbels on October 23 at the Kehlstein tea pavilion, and again up there on October 24 to Ribbentrop, Hitler had intimated that war in the west seemed inevitable within four or five years. Meeting Keitel and Brauchitsch for secret talks at Goebbels’s island villa on Schwanenwerder on November 16 – the chancellery was in the hands of Speer’s builders – Hitler conjured further with this probability.

His western plans would depend on signing an alliance with Mussolini. Germany and Italy would then each tackle the western democracies in a different theatre of war – Italy’s being the Mediterranean and North Africa. Hitler would tackle France first, he mused: her defeat would deny to Britain a strategic foothold on the European mainland. Swiss, Belgian, and Dutch neutrality would, he said, be respected. He was unimpressed by France’s frontier fortifications. ‘It is quite possible to penetrate her Maginot Line,’ he declared. ‘We have demonstrated this with our firing trials against the Czech fortifications, which were built in the same way as the Maginot Line.’


Hitler talked vaguely of plans for a Cabinet meeting in December, only to abandon the idea. He ordered Göring to convene and speak to the ‘Reich Defence Council’ instead. Göring did so, for three hours, on November 18, 1938: every Reich minister and state secretary was present, as were Brauchitsch, Raeder, Bormann, and Heydrich too. He announced that Hitler had decided to triple the Reich’s armaments, but warned them that due to the events of that summer the Reich’s economy was almost bankrupt. He added, ‘The Führer’s great architectural projects will still be worked on, as they are of moral and psychological value.’ The only thing that would tide the Reich budget over this immediate crisis was, ironically, the billion-Reichsmark fine levied on the Jewish community, explained Göring.

The clock was now ticking ever louder for the Jews. On January 5, talking with Colonel Jósef Beck, the Polish foreign minister, Hitler rather speciously regretted that the western powers had not entertained Germany’s colonial demands: ‘If they had,’ he said, ‘I might have helped solve the Jewish problem by making a territory available in Africa for resettlement of not only the German but the Polish Jews as well.’ On the twenty-first, he uttered to the Czech foreign minister Chvalkovsky these ominous words: ‘The Jews here are being destroyed [werden vernichtet].’ The Czech replied sympathetically; and Hitler continued: ‘Help can only come from the other countries, like Britain and the United States, who have unlimited areas which they could make available for the Jews.’ In a major speech to the Reichstag on January 30, 1939, Hitler uttered an unmistakable threat:

During my struggle for power, it was primarily the Jewish people who just laughed when they heard me prophesy that one day I would become head of state and thereby assume the leadership of the entire people, and that I would then among other things enforce a solution on the Jewish problem. I expect that the howls of laughter that rose then from the throats of German Jewry have by now died to a croak.

Today I’m going to turn prophet yet again: if international finance Jewry inside and outside Europe should succeed once more in plunging our peoples into a world war, then the outcome will not be a Bolshevisation of the world and thereby the victory of Jewry, but the destruction of the Jewish race in Europe!

Accelerated by these ugly stimuli, the exodus of Jews from the Reich continued throughout 1939, to stop only in October 1940, by which time Heydrich had successfully evicted about two-thirds of them – about 300,000 from Germany, 130,000 from Austria, and 30,000 from Bohemia/Moravia; some 70,000 of them reached Palestine, through the unholy community of aims that had briefly existed between Heydrich’s SD and the Zionists.


Hitler avoided the chancellery area in Berlin for many weeks, because it was teeming with Speer’s construction workers. He dealt with affairs of state by telephone, usually from the Berghof. He had a constitutional duty to consider appeals for clemency in death sentences and to sign the execution warrants. In bygone times the condemned criminal had had the traditional right to see the Kaiser’s signature on the warrant before being led to the scaffold. In Hitler’s era the usages were less picturesque. A telephone call went from Schaub to Lammers in Berlin – ‘The Führer has turned down the appeal for clemency’ – and this sufficed to rubber-stamp a facsimile of the Führer’s signature on the execution warrant. On one occasion the file laid before Hitler stated simply that the Berlin chancellery would ‘take the necessary steps’ if they had heard no decision from him by ten p.m. that night. Human life was becoming cheaper in Hitler’s Germany.

The broader economic problems faced Hitler all that winter. A serious inflation had begun in May 1938. Blomberg later stated under interrogation that when he returned from his year’s enforced exile in January 1939 he detected a great deterioration in living standards. By the end of 1938, 8,223 million Reichsmarks were in circulation compared with 5,278 million in March 1938 and 3,560 million in 1933. On January 7, 1939, Dr. Hjalmar Schacht, president of the Reichsbank, and seven fellow directors signed a stern warning to Hitler about the inflationary pressure resulting from recent ‘foreign operations.’ Hitler was shocked by this semi-mutiny. In a secret speech to his colonels in February he warned:

‘There must be no possibility whatever for anybody even to think that there is some institution or other in Germany that has a different opinion from the one expressed by the Führer.’ He already – correctly – suspected Schacht of maintaining clandestine contacts with foreign governments.[25]Montagu Norman, Governor of the Bank of England, 1920–44, told the U.S. ambassador in London that Schacht was his constant informant over sixteen years about Germany’s precarious financial position (U.S. ambassador Joseph Kennedy reported this to Washington on February 27, 1939). He summoned Schacht to the chancellery on January 19 and handed him a document announcing his dismissal. The economics minister, Walther Funk, a flabby homosexual, was appointed Schacht’s successor. On the same day Hitler also disposed of his personal adjutant, Fritz Wiedemann, whom he suspected of leaking state secrets. Their final interview was brief and cruelly to the point. ‘You always wanted to be consul general in San Francisco,’ Hitler reminded Wiedemann. ‘You’ve got your wish.’

It was at about this time that Keitel sent to Franz Halder, chief of the General Staff, a note that the army would have until 1943 to complete its expansion, and that there would be no mobilisations before then. On OKW advice, Hitler decided to halt all army weapons production during 1939, to enable the Luftwaffe and naval construction programmes to go ahead. This would bring all three services to the same level by about 1944.

On January 17, 1939, Admiral Raeder brought the final draft of the navy’s Z-Plan to Hitler at the chancellery. Ten days later Hitler issued an order assigning to this naval expansion program absolute priority over both other services. He again assured Raeder that he would not be needing the German navy for several years.


What would even the finest weapons avail Germany however if the generals were loath to use them? ‘The brave will fight whatever the odds,’ Hitler said on January 18. ‘But give the craven whatever weapons you will, they will always find reason enough to lay them down!’ This was the damage, Hitler felt, that Beck and his General Staff had inflicted on the officer corps. Early in 1939, he decided to repair it himself using his greatest gift – his power of oratory.

All his generals and advisers admitted that he had this power. He cast the same spell over mass audiences, whether he spoke from a carefully prepared script, which he had polished and trimmed far into the night, or ex tempore, timing every gesture and comic pause to ride the mood of his listeners. Nobody who attended Hitler’s speech to newly commissioned officers in Berlin in February 1942, at the climax of the German army’s desperate travails on the frozen Russian front, and witnessed the affection that he commanded – a grim-faced Hitler, checked in mid-exit by a sudden storm of cheering from the ten thousand army officers, which itself gave way to the spontaneous singing of the national anthem – nobody could doubt that Germany’s leader cast a spell like few others in the past and certainly none since.

By rare fortune, the three secret speeches of January and February 1939 by which Hitler prepared his officer corps for war have survived. No brief extract can reproduce their flavour. They were of brutal frankness. Hitler set out the blood-racial basis of the Nazi Weltanschauung, the economic reasons obliging Germany to push further into Central Europe, and the inevitability of war. In this war he would expect his officers to serve him unswervingly, to die honourably, and to show true leadership to their men. His contempt for the old Reichswehr spirit was openly expressed, even in the first speech – to 3,600 army lieutenants packed into the Mosaic Hall of Speer’s new chancellery on January 18, 1939, with the three Commanders in Chief and Keitel in attendance. He demanded of them that they cultivate optimism, because pessimism was their worst enemy – it bred defeatism and surrender. ‘What belief do I demand of you?’ he challenged them. ‘I demand of you, my young officers, an unconditional belief that one day our Germany, our German Reich, will be the dominant power in Europe, that no other power will be in a position to stop us, let alone to break us!’ Ten minutes later he went even further: ‘It is my unshakeable will that the German Wehrmacht become the most powerful force on earth.’ Finally, he told them: ‘Above all, my officers, you must be capable and inflexible even in adversity. True soldiers are not recognized by their victories, but after their defeats.’

His second speech was more of a lecture, delivered to 217 officers including all of Germany’s senior generals and admirals on January 25. He held out the British Empire as an example to them, and the human qualities in the British that had won it.

All of the world’s empires have been won by deeds of daring, and lost through pacifism. If, in all the centuries of its existence, the British Empire had been governed by the forces and trends that it is now claiming to preserve, the Empire would never have been won in the first place.

Hitler held out to this audience the same fixed and final target – the new Reich as it would be someday. His legions would have one advantage over all the preceding German generations of warriors: ‘They marched off toward a Dream Land which probably few could visualise and none was ever to see; while we have that target already in sight.’

The third speech was one that his chief adjutant Colonel Schmundt had urged upon him. Hitler spoke at six p.m. on February 10, 1939, to all the army colonels with active commands, behind closed doors at the Kroll Opera-house in Berlin. This time even his staff was astounded by his openness in revealing his future intentions. The Führer described his disappointment at some officers’ lack of understanding for his actions in 1938, and he tried to show that Munich was just one of a carefully planned sequence of events. ‘Even though 1938 has ended with perhaps the biggest triumph of our recent history, gentlemen, it is of course only one step along a long path that stretches out ahead of us.’

Some of his arguments were familiar – the need to prevent future German generations from starving, the fact that no future leader would possess even a semblance of his authority and that, numerically superior though Germany’s opponents might be, they were not racial entities. Their task now, he said, was no less than to repair three centuries of decay. Since the Peace of Westphalia, Hitler argued, Germany had declined to political impotence. Now, in 1939, he had brought Germany once more to the very threshold of a new age. ‘Take my word for it, gentlemen, my triumphs these last few years have only resulted from grasping sudden opportunities…. I have taken it upon myself to solve the German problem.’ He continued, ‘That is, the German space problem. Take good note of that: as long as I live, this ideal will govern my every action. Take heed too: the moment I believe that I can make a killing I shall always strike immediately, and I shall not hesitate to go to the very brink. I am convinced this problem has to be solved so oder so, and I shall never shrug my shoulders and say, “Oh dear, I’ll leave that for whoever comes after me”.’

He told these Wehrmacht colonels that he wanted his officers to go into battle with sword and Weltanschauung as once they would have brandished sword and Bible:

So don’t be surprised if over the coming years I seize every opportunity to attain these German objectives, and please give me your blindest support. Above all, take it from me that I shall always have scrutinised these matters from every possible angle first – and that once I announce my decision to take this or that course of action, that decision is irrevocable and I shall force it through whatever the odds against us.

Thus spake Adolf Hitler to his Wehrmacht in February 1939.


[24] Some writers now argue that the Nazis had fallen into a Zionist trap. The Haganah officials with whom Adolf Eichmann negotiated on his trip to Palestine in November 1937 had hinted that it would serve their interests if things were made hot for Germany’s Jews, to accelerate Jewish emigration to Palestine. It deserves comment that Grynszpan, although a destitute youth, was able to reside in a hotel in 1938 and purchase a handgun for 250 francs, and that his defence counsel Moro Giafferi was the best that the money of the International League against Anti-Semitism (‘LICA’) could buy; LICA’s Paris office was around the corner from Grynszpan’s hotel.

[25] Montagu Norman, Governor of the Bank of England, 1920–44, told the U.S. ambassador in London that Schacht was his constant informant over sixteen years about Germany’s precarious financial position (U.S. ambassador Joseph Kennedy reported this to Washington on February 27, 1939).

Part II: Toward the Promised Land

In Hitler’s Chancellery • 6,100 Words

Colonna (heimlich):
Er ist der Götze dieses Volks,
das er durch Trug verzaubert hält.

Richard Wagner’s opera Rienzi

When Hitler had returned to Berlin on January 8, 1939, Speer’s new Reich chancellery was complete. The long frontage of yellow stucco and grey stone dominated a quarter-mile stretch of Voss Strasse. Dwarfed by its tall square columns, the motionless grey-uniformed sentries melted into the buildings, invisible until they presented arms to passing officers. The four hundred rooms housed the Civil Service and the Party’s organisation. To the left were the offices of Hans Lammers, to the right Otto Meissner’s Presidential chancellery. On the top floor was Philipp Bouhler’s ‘chancellery of the Führer of the Nazi party.’ Everywhere yellow signs pointed to air raid shelters. Little trace of Hitler’s chancellery now remains – except the occasional red-marble planter or tabletop anonymously gracing the home of a former general or member of his staff.

The State Rooms were on the ground floor. Visitors arrived by limousine at the reception area, and were conducted through a flight of halls of ascending grandeur until the Führer’s Study itself was reached, a large room with ponderous chandeliers and an immense pastel-coloured carpet. Three heads adorned the front panels of his great desk: one of them was Medusa, complete with writhing snakes emerging from her hair.

Yet Hitler himself was rarely seen in the new chancellery. He continued to live and work in the old building, which survived at right angles to Speer’s new structure. Here, in the first floor of the old chancellery, he had his Residence. An entrance hall and ‘garden room’ with four more rooms opened onto an old garden of almost monastic solitude. Here was his equestrian statue of Frederick the Great – given to him by François-Poncet – and the Lenbach portrait of Bismarck. In this building too was Hitler’s real study. Its walls were hung with wallpaper of a heavy red velour. A sturdy suite of chairs by Troost had replaced the fragile Louis XIV furniture after a misfortune with a bulky Indian maharaja four years before.

On January 12, 1939, an episode of some significance occurred in Speer’s new building during the New Year diplomatic reception which – with Göring’s birthday celebration – opened the year for Berlin officialdom. Wearing his brown Party tunic Hitler waited in his Cabinet room. He could hear the diplomats arriving – the drill of the guard of honour and the familiar sounds of protocol. He had begun to relish this foppery; in July 1938 he had instructed that the Egyptian minister was to be received with a full guard of honour, while the Soviet ambassador was to be accorded no honours at all, as befitted the pariah that he was.

At noon Hitler now walked through to the great reception hall, where the diplomats had drawn up in a self-conscious semicircle, and stationed himself beneath the two crystal chandeliers so that he could read his speech without spectacles. He briefly shook hands with each diplomat in turn, but when he reached the Russian, Alexei Merekalov, he paused and began a conversation. In the jealous diplomatic world the content was unimportant – it was time elapsed that mattered. Hitler talked to Merekalov for several minutes. In this way he hinted to Moscow that he could easily let bygones be bygones. (Hitler would brag to his generals on August 22, on the eve of his historic deal with Stalin, that he had begun working for it at this very reception.)

For two decades Russo-German relations had been marked by mutual distrust. The cautious co-operation launched in 1922 at Rapallo had survived until 1933: Germany had furnished special equipment and know-how; Russia, raw materials and space for the clandestine training of the Reichswehr. The Reichswehr had supplied the Russians with German training manuals, weapons prototypes, and staff college training in Germany. The Nazi revolution of 1933 had momentarily thwarted Moscow’s aspirations in Germany – Adolf Hitler was, after all, the author of Mein Kampf and Chapter 14 continued to appear unamended, laying bare his undimmed hatred of the Soviet Union and his aims for conquest there. Hitler quietly admired Stalin – how Bolshevism had subjected the Slav sub-humans, as he called them, to ‘the tyranny of a Jewish ruling clique,’ and established precisely the kind of elite leadership with which he was struggling to invest Germany.

Each side continued however to prepare for war with the other. In March 1936 Hitler openly told the Reichstag about the unending fertile plains of the Ukraine in which the Germans would one day ‘wallow in plenty.’ In his 1938 secret speeches, he always referred to the Soviet Union’s military power as a quantité négligeable. But with the realisation that Poland was unwilling to become an accessory, it dawned on Hitler that Stalin’s aid might become useful.

Since Munich, Hitler had cautiously stated his first demand on Poland – for the return of Danzig and overland access to East Prussia. But Poland had rebuffed him. Hitler could not shelve the Polish problem permanently. East Prussia was vital to his Ostpolitik – his future crusade into the east. Its capital, Königsberg, was German through and through: in its fourteenth-century cathedral rested the bones of philosopher Immanuel Kant and many a Hohenzollern prince. But the province had an impoverished and declining population (a consequence, he reflected on May 12, 1942, of earlier Prussian governments’ folly in regarding it as a penal colony for teachers, civil servants, and officers who had failed to make the grade at home). It is significant that Hitler tackled this deficit on February 1, 1939, with a secret decree on the ‘Reinforcement of the Eastern Borderlands,’ and with economic measures calculated to reverse the drain of manpower and capital from East Prussia.

Meanwhile he had long since sworn to recover Danzig, a ‘northern Nuremberg,’ for Germany. He wore the Danzig emblem – a silver ship sailing on blue waves – engraved on his cuff links. He had nurtured the hope since September 1938 that he could do a deal with Poland for the bloodless return of Danzig in exchange for the Carpatho-Ukraine coveted by Poland. Ribbentrop had aired this idea to the Polish ambassador, Joseph Lipski, on October 24. Lipski had replied evasively. Undismayed, Hitler had invited the Polish foreign minister, Colonel Jósef Beck, to come in the New Year. Their secret meeting took place at the Berghof on January 5, 1939: Beck refused to rise to his bait. This was why Hitler left for Berlin two days later resolved to play for Stalin’s hand instead. His protracted dalliance with Merekalov was the first move; a conspicuous abstinence from attacking the USSR in his anniversary speech on January 30 was the second.


In Berlin Hitler kept relatively regular hours, receiving individual Cabinet ministers during the morning, then lunching as late as three or four. He joked that his dining room ought to be called ‘The Cheerful Chancellor’s.’ Women were excluded. This lunch-table assembly was in fact the closest that he came to holding a Cabinet meeting after 1938 (though once, in February 1939, he did agree to Lammers’s suggestion that one should be called: but Göring was away in Italy, recovering from a slimming cure, and the project was abandoned). Todt’s diary shows he came nine times (including once, on January 27, 1939, to show Hitler the planning for the immense Hamburg suspension bridge).

After lunch Hitler read newspapers, bought by an aide each day from a kiosk at the nearby Kaiserhof Hotel. In earlier years he had taken tea in the Kaiserhof: as he entered, the little orchestra would strike up the ‘Donkey Serenade,’ his favourite Hollywood movie tune. He was, he confessed, a fan of Shirley Temple and Jeannette Macdonald. He saw whatever films he liked, but he kept up a running commentary of invective unless the movie found his favour right from the first reel: ‘What filth this is! It should be suppressed.’ ‘How can the Doctor permit a film like this! Who directed it?’

The Führer’s SS adjutants dutifully compiled a list of his pithy one-line reviews and sent them to the propaganda ministry. His edicts had the weight of law – and woe betide a film that attracted the Führer’s ultimate reproof ‘broken off in mid-film.’ Prairie Hyenas, Tip-Off Girls, King of Arizona, Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife, The Great Gambini, Shanghai – all these movies came to an unscripted end in Hitler’s chancellery. When Marie Antoinette was shown, he got up and stalked out.

He was uncertain over his next move. ‘Perhaps,’ wrote Goebbels on February 1, 1939, ‘it’s the Czechs’ turn again.’ Over lunch the next day the minister observed Hitler thinking out loud: ‘He is hatching new plans again,’ he recorded. ‘A real Napoleon!’

On the thirteenth Hitler’s special train bore him toward Hamburg. Here the largest Nazi battleship, 35,000 armour-plated tons, was waiting to be launched. First, in quiet homage, he visited in nearby Friedrichsruh the tomb of Bismarck, the statesman whose name he had selected for the Reich’s first super-warship. Next morning, as bands serenaded the fifty thousand spectators, a green ferry carried the Führer across the Elbe from the Saint-Pauli pier to the Blohm & Voss shipyard. In Hamburg a public holiday had been declared. The bands fell silent as Hitler marched to the tall scaffold and delivered his set speech, praising his great predecessor’s works in founding the Second Reich.

Hitler had himself positioned every newsreel camera, and forbidden foreign newspaper reporters to attend. After ten minutes of his speech, a small red lamp glowed in his rostrum, warning that the last props were being hammered away and that the colossus was about to move. The new battleship Bismarck rumbled down into the Elbe, to the strains of the German national anthem.


How revealing is Baron von Weizsäcker’s private note on the Führer’s fireside remarks after an intimate meal at the Bismarck shrine at Friedrichsruh on that day, February 13:

For those of us who know that the rest of Czecho-Slovakia will be dealt its death blow in approximately four weeks’ time, it was interesting to hear the Führer declare that he himself used to prefer surprise tactics but has now gone off them as he has exhausted their possibilities.

The Führer sketched out the September crisis of last year thus: ‘I owe my triumph to my unflinching stand, which left the other side with a whiff of war if I felt it necessary.’

The sequence for the likely invasion of Czecho-Slovakia had now evolved, and along with it a formula to make it palatable to the western powers. Weizsäcker himself, in an undated note, described the likely scenario: an artificially induced squabble splits Slovakia from the Prague government; Germany advises Hungary ‘to restore order’ in the Carpatho-Ukraine; Slovak government asks Hitler to guarantee its frontiers; Germans in Bohemia appeal for protection; ultimatum to Prague to sign treaty with the Reich, failing which the Wehrmacht will invade. Goebbels’s propaganda machine puts the blame on the Czechs – stressing the moderation of the German action and listing similar episodes in history.

Since Munich Hitler’s agents had burrowed deep into Slovakia’s structure. Nameless agents of Himmler’s SS, Goebbels’s ministry, Göring’s Four-Year Plan office, and the Nazi Foreign Organisation (AO) had fanned out across Slovakia. By January 21, 1939, when Hitler had a tough interview with the Czech foreign minister Chvalkovsky, it was obvious that his decision had been taken. He demanded absolute Czech neutrality, and a considerable reduction in Czech forces. Chvalkovsky promised compliance.

Voytech Tuka, a Slovak agitator who had suffered long years of Czech imprisonment and had only recently been amnestied after the flight of Bene, telegraphed to Hitler a fulsome appeal to protect the Slovaks, and accept them as the economic and cultural colleagues of the ‘illustrious German nation.’ On about February 10, Karmasin’s men in Bratislava were confidentially tipped off that Hitler would topple the Prague regime in a month’s time. Tuka visited Hitler on the twelfth, and formally placed the destiny of Slovakia in his hands. ‘My people,’ he said, ‘await their total liberation by you.’

Hitler dropped a series of powerful hints that Slovakia should declare her independence of Prague – the first stage in the scenario outlined (if not actually proposed) by Weizsäcker. Wilhelm Keppler sent his close associate Dr. Edmund Veesenmayer to Bratislava to tell the Slovaks to hurry, as ‘otherwise Hungary will get our permission to occupy Slovakia at any time after March 15.’When Durcansky and his economics minister visited Göring on February 28, the field marshal greeted them with: ‘Now what’s it to be? When are you going to declare independence, so we don’t have to turn you over to the Hungarians!’

What happened on March 10, 1939, found Hitler by no means unprepared. At 5:20 a.m.Walther Hewel was telephoned from Vienna with word that Czech troops had marched into Bratislava. Father Tiso, the Slovak prime minister, had taken refuge in a Jesuit college. Goebbels appreciated that this was the opportunity Hitler had been waiting for to ‘solve the problem we left half-solved in October.’ Hitler sent for him at mid-day, then for other ministers – Hewel’s notes list conversations all morning between Ribbentrop, Heydrich, Schmundt, and Keppler. At 11:50 a.m.: ‘Keppler telephones: Tuka arrested. Telephones cut off. Martial law. Troops marching in. Karmasin may have been arrested too.’ At 11:55: ‘I go to the Führer, inform Schaub.’ At twelve noon: ‘Phoned Chief [Ribbentrop]: is to come to Führer at once.’ Keitel was also sent for, at one p.m. Hitler revealed that he had decided to march in to the rest of Czecho-Slovakia on the fifteenth and seize Prague. ‘Our frontier must extend to the Carpathians,’ recorded Goebbels, and he remarked: ‘The Ides of March.’

We’re all very pleased [Goebbels continued in his previously unpublished diary], even Ribbentrop. The Führer shouts with joy. This is going to be a pushover…

Late in the afternoon over to the Führer again. We infer from one report that before its arrest the Tiso regime appealed in despair to the German government. The actual text can always be obtained later. The Führer says, and rightly so, that you can’t make history with lawyers. You’ve got to have heart, head, and courage – just what lawyers lack. In the evening, at my suggestion, the Führer visits the People’s Theatre, to put up a façade.

To dampen foreign press alarm, Nazi editors were secretly briefed that morning to devote no more than two columns to the Czech crisis. During the coming night, Hitler’s SS Lifeguards regiment (Leibstandarte) was alerted and issued with field-grey uniforms. In a secret speech to staff college graduates late on the eleventh Hitler explained, ‘The structure of a state demands that the Herrenvolk does the organising, while a somewhat inferior mass of people – or let’s call them an undominating kind of people – prostrate themselves to that leadership.’ History, ventured Hitler, afforded more than one example of a relatively thin stratum of dominators organising a broad mass of slaves.

For some days there was confusion in Czecho-Slovakia. ‘The attempt to whip things up with our SS has only partly succeeded,’ wrote Goebbels. ‘It looks as if Slovakia’s not playing along.’ He talked over tactics with Hitler on the twelfth. They agreed to keep the crisis off the newspaper front pages until Wednesday, the day chosen for the invasion. ‘If only we had… an appeal for aid or military intervention,’ sighed Goebbels. ‘That would make it all so simple.’

They stayed up far into the night talking over their next steps. Ribbentrop warned Hitler that there was bound to be a conflict with Britain eventually. ‘The Führer,’ noted Goebbels, who played no part in the sometimes heated argument, ‘is preparing for it, but does not consider it inevitable.’

The Czech president, Emil Hácha, appointed Dr. Karol Sidor to replace Tiso in Slovakia. Hitler sent his agent Keppler to its capital Bratislava. Keppler salvaged Tiso and brought him back to Berlin on March 13. Without beating around the bush, Hitler told Tiso to proclaim Slovakia’s independence of Prague, and to do it now.

Over to the Führer in the evening [wrote Goebbels]. He has received Tiso. Explained to him that Slovakia’s historic hour has come. If they don’t act they’ll be swallowed up by Hungary. He is to think it over and go back to Bratislava. No revolution, it must all be constitutional and above board. Not that we expect very much from him. But that doesn’t matter now. The Führer goes over his plan once more. Within five days the whole operation will be over. On the first day we’ll already be in Prague. Our planes within two hours in fact. I think we’ll pull it off without significant bloodshed. And then the Führer intends to take a lengthy political breather. Amen! I can’t believe it, it’s too good to be true.

Hitler ordered the Wehrmacht to stand by to invade at six a.m. on the fifteenth. The OKW drafted an ultimatum to present to the Czechs. At noon on March 14 Keitel reported to Hitler that the Wehrmacht was poised on the Czech frontier. Hitler debated with Goebbels the new statute establishing ‘Bohemia and Moravia,’ the old name Czechoslovakia was to vanish forthwith. Goebbels in turn instructed his staff to bone up on Germany’s historic claim to these provinces, noting: ‘We shall speak of Bohemia and Moravia as ancient German territories.’ To stifle foreign criticism Hitler informed Prague that it would be to their ‘great advantage’ if Dr. Hácha, despite his age and infirmity, would travel to Berlin. At 2:15 p.m. the German legation in Prague confirmed that Hácha would come to Berlin that evening, but by train – his heart would not stand the strain of flying. Hitler confidently ordered the army to invade at six a.m., and instructed Keitel to return to the chancellery at nine p.m. Colonel Eduard Wagner voiced the relish of all the General Staff in a private letter that evening: ‘I don’t think that much will happen, and the foreign powers have expressed themselves disinterested. End of Czecho-Slovakia! – And they have been asking for it!’

Hitler ordered full military honours for the Czech president’s arrival. Hácha’s daughter was accompanying him as a nurse; Hitler sent an adjutant to fill her room at the Adlon Hotel with yellow roses, and placed a note there in his own handwriting.

Under cover of darkness, the first German armed units crossed quietly into Czecho-Slovakia. The SS Leibstandarte had instructions to infiltrate Moravian Ostrau before the rapacious Poles could lay hands on the modern steel mills at Witkowitz.


After dinner that evening, March 14, 1939, Hitler retired to the music room to watch the latest movie, Ein hoffnungloser Fall (A Hopeless Case). Shortly, Ribbentrop reported that Hácha’s train had arrived. Hitler examined his fingernails and remarked that the old fellow should be allowed to rest an hour or two. It was not until about eleven p.m. that Meissner ushered in the diminutive Czech president. ‘The Führer has them wait until midnight,’ observed Goebbels. ‘Slowly and surely wearing them out. That’s what they did with us at Versailles. The tried and tested methods of political tactics.’ Hitler ordered everybody out except Ribbentrop and Hewel, who took a written note of their discussion.

In a voice trembling with emotion Hácha delivered a long-winded speech on his career as a lawyer in the Viennese civil service; he had read of and admired Hitler’s ideas, he said, and he was sure that Czecho-Slovakia would be safe in the Führer’s hands.

As the monologue continued, Hitler grew uneasy: ‘The more Hácha rambled on about how hardworking and conscientious the Czechs were,’ he would recall in May 1942, ‘the more I felt I was sitting on red-hot coals – knowing that the invasion order had already been issued.’ Hitler told him that at six a.m. the Wehrmacht would invade Bohemia and Moravia; but the country’s autonomy was assured. If Hácha would sign on the dotted line, there would be no bloodshed. ‘I’m almost ashamed to admit that we have one division standing by for each Czech battalion.’

Twice Keitel came in to interrupt him; twice Hitler nodded curtly. The playacting had effect. Hácha and his foreign minister retired to another room to consult Prague by telephone. The line was poor, the old man had to shout, and toward three a.m. he suffered a heart failure; it took an injection from Hitler’s personal physician Professor Morell to revive him. The minutes were ticking past. Hitler reminded Hácha of the military situation; the Wehrmacht was already moving up. Göring, who had arrived hurriedly that evening from his vacation in San Remo, interjected that at daybreak his Luftwaffe would appear over the streets of Prague. Finally Hácha caved in.

The main agreement was signed shortly before four a.m. In a second document Hácha agreed to surrender all Czech aircraft and weapons immediately to the Germans. But there were still problems. Hitler demanded that Chvalkovsky must countersign; Hácha obstinately refused.

The Führer would later recall having thought to himself, ‘Look out, this is a lawyer you have facing you. Perhaps there’s some law in Czechoslovakia that makes an agreement like this valid only if it is countersigned by the minister concerned!’

Hitler’s guests left his study by one route, while Father Tiso, the Slovak prime minister, was ushered in by another and informed of the result.

After that Hitler must have sent for Wilhelm Keppler. Keppler wrote a few hours later to Himmler: ‘When we were together with the Führer last night after the agreement had been signed, the Führer paid his particular respects to the men who risked their lives in highly dangerous missions at the front. Whereupon Ribbentrop declared that the whole job had been magnificently performed by the SS alone….’ For a few moments Hitler was alone. He turned, opened the invisible door behind his monolithic desk, and walked into the tiny office where his secretaries, Christa Schroeder and Gerda Daranowski, had been waiting for the all-night conference to end. His eyes sparkled, and he laughed out loud. ‘Well, children! Now put one here and one here,’ he said, and shyly tapped his cheeks: ‘One peck each!’ The startled secretaries complied. ‘This is the most wonderful day of my life,’ Hitler explained. ‘I have now accomplished what others strove in vain for centuries to achieve. Bohemia and Moravia are back in the Reich. I will go down in history as the greatest German of all time.’

As his invasion of Czecho-Slovakia began, at 8:02 a.m. Hitler’s special train pulled out of Anhalt station. Hácha and his party were still sound asleep at the Adlon. Lieutenant Colonel Kurt Zeitzler of Keitel’s staff kept Hitler briefed on the army’s progress. By nine a.m. the German army was in the streets of Prague. There was no bloodshed. One road-bridge was barred by Czech patriots singing the national anthem; the German company commander tactfully halted his column until the anthem ended, and ordered the Present Arms.

At 2:03 p.m.Hitler’s train reached the little Bohemian frontier station of Leipa, where Panzer Corps Commander General Erich Hoepner awaited him with Colonel Erwin Rommel (who was to command the ‘Führer HQ’). To the consternation of Himmler and the security staff, Hitler decided to drive right on to Prague. At four p.m. the frontier barrier was raised for him to cross into Czecho-Slovakia, and in a snowstorm his convoy headed on to the capital. He stood in his open car, saluting as he passed his regiments. It was dusk when he arrived in Prague. At first nobody knew where Hácha’s official residence, the Hradcany Castle, was. Hitler’s drivers finally entered it through a gate in the rear. A palace flunky was found to guide them to a wing where these unexpected visitors might sleep, but Hitler did not rest yet. He began dictating a law establishing a German ‘Protectorate’ over Bohemia and Moravia. At two in the morning a cold buffet arrived, provided by the local German Centre. There was Pilsen beer: Hitler was prevailed upon to sample a small glass but he grimaced, did not finish it, and went to bed. The first that the citizens of Prague knew of his presence in their midst was next morning, when they espied his personal swastika standard beating from a flagpole atop the snow-bedecked palace roofs.

The initial reaction from London was that this was an affair that need not concern them. The British public however refused to swallow Hitler’s ‘annexation’ of Bohemia and Moravia, and Chamberlain was obliged to deliver a strongly worded speech in Birmingham, demanding: ‘Is this in fact a step in the direction of an attempt to dominate the world by force?’ About a week later, however, Chamberlain reassured Hitler through a third party that he quite sympathised with Germany’s move, even though he was unable to say so in public, as he was being exposed to intemperate attacks by the Churchill clique.

The benefits of this new conquest well outweighed the western powers’ opprobrium: control of Prague brought to Hitler the gold reserves needed to overcome the Reich’s huge budget deficit, airfields to threaten Poland and Russia, and a front line shorter by one thousand miles to defend. It furnished to him Czech tanks, artillery, and aircraft; moreover it put Romania and Yugoslavia in his thrall, because their armed forces were largely equipped by the Skoda arms factory at Pilsen. Hitler’s officers marvelled at his fresh accomplishment, and many of the weaker fry, who in harder times would sidle over to the ‘resistance movement,’ in March 1939 wrote admiring words in their private diaries and letters to their friends.

Surprisingly, the ‘protectorate’ brought blessings for the Czechs as well. Their economy was stabilised and unemployment vanished. Their menfolk were not called upon to bear arms in Hitler’s coalition. Their armed forces were dissolved, and their officers were given state pensions on Hitler’s orders, to purchase their dependence and complicity. The industrious Czechs accepted rich contracts from the Reich and learned eventually to cherish the pax teutonica enforced by Reinhard Heydrich in 1941. It was the peace of the graveyard, but Heydrich won the affection of the Czech workers to such an extent – for instance, by introducing the first ever Bismarckian social security and pension schemes – that 30,000 Czechs thronged into Wenceslas Square in Prague to demonstrate against his murder in 1942. The Czechs had not been required to sell their souls, and this was what Hitler had promised Hácha in Berlin. Hácha himself never felt any grievance. He inquired of Morell about the prescription he had been injected with and thereafter obtained a regular supply from Morell’s pharmacy. He would die, forgotten, in an Allied prison in 1945; Tiso and Tuka were both hanged.


On March 16, 1939, Hitler’s propaganda minister issued another confidential edict to Nazi editors: ‘The use of the term Grossdeutsches Reich is not desired. This term is reserved for later eventualities.’

The next objects on Hitler’s list of acquisitions were, of course, Memel, Danzig, and the Polish Corridor. Late on March 21, while Dr. Goebbels escorted Hitler to the theatre to camouflage what was going on, Ribbentrop issued a crude ultimatum to Lithuania to hand back Memel; the Lithuanian foreign minister, Juozas Urbsys, was hurriedly summoned to Berlin and he signed the necessary papers after Ribbentrop and Weizsäcker had tightened the screw. Ribbentrop simultaneously summoned the Polish ambassador, Lipski, and restated the offer of October concerning Danzig. He even hinted that Slovakia might be the subject of later discussions with Poland – after the Danzig issue had been settled. While still awaiting Lithuania’s response, Hitler meanwhile discussed with Goebbels the moves that would follow the return of Danzig: first he would seek a respite, to restore public confidence; and then he would raise the question of Germany’s erstwhile colonies. ‘Always the old one-two,’ noted Goebbels admiringly.

Lipski betook himself to Warsaw to obtain a reply. ‘He’s going to try out a little pressure on the Poles,’ wrote Goebbels, after talking with Hitler on March 24. ‘And he hopes they’ll respond to that. But we’re going to have to swallow the bitter pill and guarantee Poland’s other frontiers. It will all be decided very soon.’ On the twenty-fifth Hitler privately reassured General von Brauchitsch that he did not want to resort to force against Poland. Brauchitsch’s aide-de-camp noted Hitler as saying, ‘The possibility of taking Danzig by military action will only be examined if L[ipski] gives us to understand that the Polish government will be unable to explain to its own public any voluntary surrender of Danzig, but that a fait accompli by us would help them to a solution.’ It is evident that Hitler really did expect such an under-the-counter deal. On March 27, Admiral Raeder initialled a draft plan for Hitler to embark in the cruiser Deutschland and appear off Danzig with virtually the entire battle fleet: Hitler would go ashore by torpedo boat and proceed in triumph to the city centre. So much for planning – his actual entry into Danzig six months later looked very different.

Lithuania proved more accommodating over Memel. The ancient Teutonic city had been annexed by Lithuania after the Great War. Hitler anchored off Memel aboard Deutschland early on March 23, symbolically toured the city – with Rommel as HQ commandant, and Milch in lieu of Göring, who had returned to San Remo – and then went back to Berlin.

‘What a week that was,’ recorded Goebbels.

The Poles reacted to this new Hitler triumph truculently, by partially mobilising, as Canaris reported on March 25. When Hitler left Berlin that evening he explained, according to Brauchitsch, ‘I don’t want to be around when L[ipski] gets back. R[ibbentrop] is to deal with them initially.’ Lipski duly returned from Warsaw on the twenty-sixth with a brusque rejection of the German demand for Danzig, to which he added the verbal warning that if Hitler persisted it would mean war. ‘The Polacks,’ recorded an angry Dr. Goebbels, ‘will always be our natural enemies, however keen in the past they have been, out of pure self-interest, to do us the odd favour.’ On March 27 Weizsäcker summarised in his diary:

It will no longer be possible to solve the Danzig problem, now that we have used up foreign political goodwill over Prague and Memel. A German-Polish conflict now would trigger an avalanche against us. For the time being the only way we can deal with the Poles’ insolent attitude and their high-handed rebuff to the offer we have made to them is by breaking the Polish spirit.

Strolling on the Obersalzberg mountainside, Hitler pondered his next move, just as here in 1938 he had wrestled with ‘Green.’ On March 25 he had assured Brauchitsch that he would not tackle the Polish – as distinct from the Danzig – problem yet. There would first have to be particularly favourable political conditions: ‘I would then knock Poland so flat that politically speaking we wouldn’t have to take any account of her for many decades to come.’ The Reich would thereby regain its 1914 eastern frontier, from East Prussia to eastern Silesia.

Meanwhile Stalin had delivered a stinging rebuke to the western democracies at a Moscow congress. Hitler studied the newsreel films and pronounced that Stalin looked quite ‘congenial.’ Late on March 30 he returned to Berlin.


In Berlin a rude shock awaited him: the next morning news arrived from London that Neville Chamberlain was about to announce in Parliament that ‘in the event of any action which clearly threatened Polish independence and which the Polish government accordingly considered it vital to resist… His Majesty’s Government would feel themselves bound at once to lend the Polish government all support in their power.’

This was the first of a sheaf of ill-considered guarantees to be uttered by the British. Its effect was not what Chamberlain had hoped for. At 12:45 p.m. Hitler sent for Keitel. Whatever the origins of England’s guarantee, by the time Hitler left Berlin – that is, by 8:47 p.m. on March 31 – he had given the OKW orders to make all due preparations for war with Poland, under the code name ‘White.’ At Wilhelmshaven the next morning he launched a second 35,000-ton battleship: the Tirpitz.

It is to be emphasised that he had still not issued any actual instruction for war. This new OKW directive on ‘White’, issued on April 3, merely outlined a political situation which might make an attack on Poland necessary on or after September 1. Meanwhile, the OKW ruled, friction with Poland was to be avoided, a difficult injunction since the Poles had certainly not behaved kindly toward their own ethnic German minority. During April – and again in May – 1939 explicit directives went out to every Nazi editor not to draw comparisons between what was happening in Poland and what had happened in 1938 in Czechoslovakia.

Hitler probably hoped that ‘whetting the blade’ alone would force the Poles to think again. As General Walter von Reichenau had admiringly commented on October 3, 1938: ‘If the Führer was a poker player, he’d win thousands of Reichsmarks every night!’ In April 1939 this poker image also came to Baron von Weizsäcker’s mind – the diplomat believed that Hitler was playing a game for high stakes, but would know how to pick up the winnings at just the right moment and quit. In mid-April he forecast privately, ‘A creeping crisis, but short of war. Every man must do his duty.’

Curiously, Hitler had not consulted Göring over ‘White.’ The field marshal did not return from his Italian Riviera leave until six p.m. on April 18. He then appeared at Hitler’s dinner table looking bronzed and fit. Hitler told him of his determination to force a settlement over Danzig. Göring was taken aback: ‘What am I supposed to understand by that?’ The Führer replied that if all else failed to regain Danzig, he was going to use force. Göring warned that world opinion would not stand for it. Hitler calmed him down, saying he had handled other situations skilfully in the past and Poland would be no exception.

At about the same time, Göring’s aide, the Luftwaffe general Karl Bodenschatz, dropped a broad hint to the Polish military attaché that if Hitler believed that Germany was being encircled, then he would make an alliance with the Devil himself. ‘And you and I are well aware of who that devil is,’ threatened Bodenschatz, in a scarcely veiled reference to the Soviet Union. Initially, Hitler used his approach to the Kremlin only as diplomatic leverage against Poland, but there was no doubting Stalin’s interest. One of Ribbentrop’s Berlin officials, Rudolf Likus, reported on April 1 that the Soviet war minister, General K. E. Voroshilov, had suggested in a conversation with the wife of the German ambassador that Hitler and Stalin revise their attitudes toward each other. Shortly, Ribbentrop learned from the same official that a high Soviet embassy official had remarked that Germany and the Soviet Union could pursue a great policy ‘side by side.’ Hitler still hesitated to inch out further onto this thin ice, and Ribbentrop instructed his man not to pursue this dialogue.

At the end of April however Hitler omitted from yet another major speech the usual hostile references to the Soviet regime. Stalin responded on May 3 by dismissing Maxim Litvinov, the Jewish foreign minister who would have been an obvious obstacle to any settlement with Nazi Germany. At this, Hitler really sat up and took notice. He ordered key Moscow embassy officials back to Germany to report to him. The outcome of these consultations was an instruction to the German ambassador, Count Werner von der Schulenburg, to throw out cautious feelers to Vyacheslav Molotov, the new foreign minister, as to a possible rapprochement and the resumption of trade negotiations. On the fifth Goebbels confidentially instructed all Nazi editors that there were to be no diatribes against Bolshevism or the Soviet Union ‘until further notice.’

On the following day Karl Bodenschatz again dropped a curious hint – this time to the French air attaché, Paul Stehlin. ‘You’ll soon find out,’ the Luftwaffe general said, ‘that something is afoot in the east.’

Fifty • 5,000 Words

Most people measure their ages in years expired. Hitler mentally measured his in terms of the years still remaining to him. As he watched the weekly ‘rushes’ of the movie newsreels, he noticed that he was ageing. On April 20, 1939, he reached that plateau in life: fifty. Seldom had the world seen such a vulgar display of muscle as Nazi Germany staged to celebrate the Führer’s birthday, with 1,600 Party notables crowding into the Mosaic Hall at one moment, and the Wearers of the Blood Insignia – veterans of the 1923 putsch attempt – milling around in the Marble Gallery at another.

While bands played the Badenweiler March that evening, in the mistaken belief that it was his favourite tune, Hitler drove with Speer along the fine new East-West boulevard and opened it as fireworks embroidered a huge image of the swastika flag in the sky. At one vantage point were mustered the surviving ex-soldiers of Germany’s nineteenth-century wars – survivors of generations who had marched vainly toward that dreamland that was ‘now in sight.’

When Hitler returned to his chancellery, hundreds of gifts were on display, including a model of the triumphal arch that he planned to erect on the new North-South axis. The names of all the German and Austrian dead of the Great War would be carved into its stone. His secretary Christa Schroeder wrote the next day:

The number and value of this year’s presents is quite staggering. Paintings by Defregger, Waldmüller, Lenbach, and even a magnificent Titian, wonderful Meissen porcelain figurines, silver table services, precious books, vases, drawings, carpets, craftwork, globes, radios, clocks, etc., etc., etc…. Of course there are model ships and aircraft and other military paraphernalia too – those are the things he’s happiest about. He’s just like a boy with them.

From all over Germany units converged on Berlin for the birthday parade. Six army divisions, some 40,000 men with 600 tanks, were to parade past him. At eight a.m. he was awakened by the Lifeguards band playing a serenade outside his window. The children of the doctors and adjutants shyly came forward to wish him well, to give him posies of flowers that they had confected with Frau Anneliese Schmundt, his chief adjutant’s wife, and to recite poems to him. Hitler wanted these children to have a day that they could remember to their grandchildren.

Before the military parade began, Hitler briefly received his three Commanders in Chief – Göring, Raeder, and Brauchitsch – with Keitel in his lofty panelled study. He stood with his back to his big desk as the officers were ushered in. Keitel stumbled slightly on the thick ochre-coloured carpet as they stationed themselves in line. Hitler’s speech cannot have lasted more than ten minutes but, when he ended, all of this select audience recognised that Germany was heading inevitably toward war, not necessarily in 1939 – but soon.

The birthday parade itself gave vivid proof of Hitler’s powers of physical endurance. For four hours the troops, personnel carriers, artillery, and tanks stomped, rumbled, and rattled past his saluting base. Secretary Christa Schroeder wrote afterward, ‘Yesterday’s parade was enormous and dragged on endlessly…. I keep wondering where on earth he finds the strength for it all, because to be on your feet for four hours on end, saluting, must be damned exhausting. We got dog-tired just from watching – at least I did.’


There is no doubt that in 1939 Hitler had the physical constitution of a horse. His medical files show that his veins were filled with type A blood. His skin was pale and fine in texture; on his chest and back it was quite white and hairless. His skull was of the kind that doctors classify as ‘slightly dolichocephalic.’ His face was pale and symmetrical, and his expression was regarded by his doctors as having ‘an intense quality that subdued and captivated.’ The left eye was slightly larger than the right, his eyes were blue, faintly tinged with grey. A minimal degree of exophthalmia, a protrusion of the eyeballs, was always present.

When questioned in 1945, the doctors who had treated Hitler were unanimous that he had been sane until the very end. One of them, Professor Hanskarl von Hasselbach, would subsequently observe, ‘The German public would have been lunatic to have given their virtually unanimous support to any man such as Hitler is portrayed today.’ There were virtually no clinical symptoms of abnormality. He showed no mental faults like inappropriate euphoria, incontinence, anosmia (loss of smell), or personality changes. Brain examinations disclosed no ‘sensory aphasia’ and no ‘dream states.’ Tests on his reflex centres and spinal root functions revealed no abnormalities. The doctors would put on record that his orientation as to time, place, and persons was excellent. Their report adds: ‘He was changeable, at times restless and sometimes peculiar but otherwise co-operative and not easily distracted. Emotionally he was very labile – his likes and dislikes were very pronounced. His flow of thought showed continuity. His speech was neither slow nor fast, and was always relevant.’ Common symptoms of insanity were absent. The doctors concluded that in Hitler ‘no hallucinations, illusions, or paranoid trends were present.’

Who were these doctors? Dr. Karl Brandt had attended him since 1934. A handsome, dark-haired young surgeon with well-proportioned features, Brandt was born in the German Alsace but had been deported by the French as a boy of fifteen when they occupied the province in 1919. Brandt had a strict sense of propriety, refusing to discuss Hitler’s sex life with his later American interrogators. He had studied surgery at a Ruhr hospital. His fiancée was the champion swimmer Anni Rehborn, one of the stars in the feminine firmament around Hitler in the twenties; she introduced him to Hitler in 1932. Hitler realised that a travelling surgeon might prove useful, and Brandt accompanied him to Venice in 1934. Brandt in turn introduced his Ruhr colleague, Professor Werner Haase, as his stand-in, and appointed Hanskarl von Hasselbach as his deputy on Hitler’s staff in 1936.

Later that year another physician entered Hitler’s circle, one who was to become the most controversial of Hitler’s medical men. Three years older than Hitler, Dr. Theodore Morell was corpulent, with a bald head and swarthy complexion. His dark-brown eyes blinked myopically through thick-lensed spectacles; his hands were large and hairy. He had established himself as a leading doctor in the Kurfürstendamm world of stage and film stars. The film world introduced him to Hitler’s photographer Heinrich Hoffmann, and it was in Hoffmann’s home that Morell first met Hitler in May 1936. He found Hitler upset over the death from meningitis of his chauffeur, Julius Schreck, a few days before. Morell gave him the distinct impression that he, Morell, might have saved Schreck’s life.

Hitler suffered from acute stomach cramps almost to the end of his life. On December 1, 1944, Morell would summarise this difficult patient’s medical history thus: ‘He has had really major spasms after violent emotional upsets – e.g., the 1924 [treason] trial, a matter of life and death; the 1929 due date on the loan to the Völkischer Beobachter and the Eher Publishing House; the 1935/36 crisis of military unreliability.’[26]A reference to the rivalry between the SS and the Wehrmacht in 1935 and the remilitarisation of the Rhineland in 1936. Morell’s 1944 diary continued the summary: ‘Added to this were the dysbacteria that the spasms probably generated. Further spasms in 1943 before his meeting with the Duce at Feltre [on July 18] at which time he already had a foreboding, or even foreknowledge, of the forthcoming betrayal by the Italian army; and more spasms in 1944 after the Bomb Plot.’ In May 1936 Professor von Eicken examined him, and his consultation notes survive.

May 20. Consultation at the Reich chancellery in conjunction with Dr. Brandt. [Führer suffering from] a roaring pain in the ears for several days, with high-pitched metallic sound in the left ear at night. Obviously overworked. Preoccupied (chauffeur Schreck!).

Sleeps very little – can’t get to sleep. [I recommend:] evening strolls before retiring to bed, hot and cold foot baths, mild sedatives! Time off. Always feels better at Wachenfeld [i.e., the Berghof].

At Christmas 1934, Dr. Ernst-Robert Grawitz treated M.F. [mein Führer] for acute food poisoning with Neo-Balestol, which contains fusel oil. Headaches, giddiness, roaring in the ears.

That Christmas, Hitler invited the Morells to stay on the Obersalzberg with him. While the house party was distracted by a noisy contest at the Berghof’s bowling alley, Hitler took Morell aside and recounted his sorry tale – how nobody could cure his terrible stomach cramps. ‘You are my last hope,’ he told Morell. ‘If you can get rid of my stomach pains I’ll give you a fine house.’ Morell promised, ‘I’ll have you fit and well again inside a year.’ The cure worked. Morell got the house, a fine villa on Schwanenwerder Island. And to Morell’s subsequent detractors – who were legion – the Führer loyally pointed out: ‘Morell made me a promise: one year…’

Morell’s first clinical examination of Hitler on January 3, 1937, suggested that the stomach cramps were not of hysteric origin. There was severe eczema on the left leg, probably in consequence of Hitler’s dietary problems. ‘Morell,’ recalled Hitler in 1944, ‘drew up a healthy daily routine for me, he controlled my diet, and above all he permitted me to start eating again. He went right back to first principles. First he examined my intestinal bacteria, then he told me my coli-bacilli would have to be replaced.’ Professor A. Nissle, director of a bacteriological research institute at Freiburg, prepared a commercial medicine for treating this condition, called ‘Mutaflor,’ an emulsion of a certain strain of coli communis bacillus which had the property of colonising the intestinal tract. ‘I was given these coli capsules and large quantities of vitamins and extracts of heart and liver,’ Hitler recounted. He began to feel better. Morell moved in to the Berghof. ‘After about six months,’ said Hitler, ‘the eczema had gone and after nine months I was completely well again.’ In September 1937, Morell was an honoured guest at the Party rally: Hitler could wear boots again.

Morell began treating Hitler with medicines that he had devised himself and was manufacturing in one of his pharmaceutical companies.[27]In September 1981 this author found the long-missing diaries of Dr. Morell in the US National Archives; he published an annotated edition as The Secret Diaries of Hitler’s Doctor (Munich, London, and New York, 1983). Hitler paid him an annual retainer of 36,000 Reichmarks. Hitler’s coterie rushed to become Morell’s patients – Funk, Ley, Speer, Goebbels, the Ribbentrops, all Hitler’s older adjutants, generals like Kleist, Jodl, and Heusinger, and famous theatre names like Richard Tauber (a Jew) and O. E. Hasse too.

The hostility that this situation aroused is easily conceived. The younger adjutants made life uncomfortable for him, and Morell found himself left out of their birthday greeting lists and other invitations. It is true that Morell’s personal habits were unbecoming. He rarely washed, and was in that sense not very approachable. Hitler defended him: ‘I don’t retain Morell to sniff at,’ he once said, ‘but to keep me fit.’ In July 1939 the doctor was among the guests at Frau Winifred Wagner’s house at Bayreuth. When Hitler inquired of one daughter why she was not eating she pointed to the disturbing spectacle of the fat doctor noisily devouring a whole orange with both hands, sucking its contents through a small window that he had scooped out of its peel.

As Morell described it, the Führer’s medical history was not unusual. As a child he had displayed a pulmonary apical pathology that had disappeared in later years. Morell noticed a scar on Hitler’s left thigh, caused by wartime shrapnel. During the 1923 Munich putsch, the dying Scheubner-Richter had pulled Hitler down, resulting in a fracture of the left shoulder blade.

In 1938 and 1939, Hitler was unquestionably at the peak of his health. From Morell’s own records, it is clear that most of his medicines were administered by hypodermic syringe. Morell was usually just giving shots of harmless dextrose, hormones, or vitamins. He also administered liberal quantities of sulphonamide drugs to treat even the common cold. Hitler certainly was impressed. ‘Without Morell,’ he once said, ‘I would not be able to achieve half so much. I would never be able to endure the mental and physical burden.’ Morell’s controversial daily injections of glucose and of his own proprietary compound, Vitamultin – it consisted of ascorbic acid, calcium, and nicotinamide, with either caffeine or cocoa as a sweetener – left Hitler with a short-lived euphoria. In this way the body’s normal built-in powers of resistance were replaced by injected substances – not narcotics, but just as habit-forming. In a prison camp in 1945, Brandt would rebuke Morell: ‘Your behaviour has brought disgrace upon the entire medical profession!’ Yet Morell’s patient, Hitler, would outlive both Neville Chamberlain and Franklin D. Roosevelt.


It is to the actions of Chamberlain and Roosevelt in April 1939 that we now return, as – late that month – Europe took another lurch toward war. On April 23 Hitler informed Goebbels over lunch that Britain was trying to mend her fences with Nazi Germany, and that Prime Minister Chamberlain had again put out secret feelers to Berlin. For reasons of domestic politics however Chamberlain reintroduced National Service in Britain three days later. In London a strident press campaign against Hitler began. Ambassador Henderson informed the Foreign Office on April 25 in a telegram, intercepted by the Forschungsamt: ‘The British press is making my life very difficult.’ The next day’s FA wiretaps showed that the Foreign Office told him to give Hitler advance warning of Chamberlain’s conscription announcement and to reassure him that National Service was not to be construed as directed against Germany.

Hitler hitherto had felt able to ignore President Roosevelt’s forays into European politics. He blamed Roosevelt’s posturing on Jewish influences, and believed that isolationism was still a powerful force in the United States. In April 1939 Hitler was the recipient of an open letter from Roosevelt, appealing to him to give public assurances that he would not attack any of thirty-one specified countries. Wiretaps on the U.S. embassy in Berlin revealed that staff there regarded this appeal as a gaffe. Hitler gave these assurances in a sarcastic Reichstag speech on the twenty-eighth. The Kroll Opera-house rocked with laughter as he added sardonically his own personal promise that the Reich was not planning to invade the U.S.A. either. The FA wiretaps noted that U.S. embassy staff conceded that the Führer had won ‘the match.’ In the same Reichstag speech he revoked the 1934 non-aggression pact with Poland and the 1935 naval agreement with Britain too. In private, he justified his stiffer attitude toward Britain by the secret documents now found in Prague archives. ‘One day we’ll publish them to all the world, to prove Britain’s dishonesty,’ Bodenschatz told a French diplomat.

Informed Germans still doubted that there would be war. Baron von Weizsäcker commented in one letter on April 29, ‘Evidently we are not going to escape a degree of drama. But I don’t believe that the Axis powers have any aggressive intentions, any more than that the other side will launch a deliberate preventive war. There is only one danger – and that is the unbridled Polish lesser minions, who are banging and crashing up and down the European keyboard with true Slav megalomania.’

On Goebbels’s express orders, the newspaper editors continued to soft-pedal their reports on these ‘incidents’ in Poland. ‘The Poles,’ wrote Goebbels privately on May 1, ‘are agitating violently against us. The Führer welcomes it. We are not to hit back for the time being, but to take note. Warsaw will end up one day the same way as Prague.’ A couple of days after that diary entry, Goebbels ordered all his editors to go easy on Moscow until further notice. The German army continued its preparations for ‘White.’ Late in April Halder showed to Hitler a first rough timetable for invasion. The General Staff suggested that troops should be moved up to the Polish frontier under the camouflage of working on the East Wall project and conducting autumn manoeuvres. Further forces could be transferred into the East Prussian enclave, ostensibly for a big military parade to mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Battle of Tannenberg – August 27, 1939.

Goebbels’s radio engineers had now begun building some of the biggest propaganda transmitters in the world; he ordered editors however to keep Poland on page two of their newspapers. In the third week of May, Hitler set out on a further inspection of the army’s West Wall and the Luftwaffe’s flak zone from the Belgian frontier right down to Switzerland. Again hordes of Party notables and newsreel cameramen followed. The fortifications had made significant progress, and General Erwin von Witzleben, Adam’s successor as western commander, spoke loudly to this effect. Hitler’s contacts with the labourers and the local Rhinelanders had a restorative effect on him.

He lunched in the village inns, while his adjutant Brückner went out and calmed the milling crowds and assured them that their Führer would shortly reappear. The women held out their children to him – a simple act that was the greatest mark of respect a leader could be shown, as Hitler remarked to his adjutants.

This was the shield that protected Hitler in 1939: he was dictator by consent; an assassin would neither be forgiven nor understood. This monolithic solidarity of Führer and Volk persisted right to the end, despite what subsequent generations have assumed.


A month earlier the USSR had opened talks with Britain and France, but Stalin knew that Hitler had more to offer. On May 25 the FA wiretaps on The Times correspondent in Berlin, Mr. James Holburn, showed that he had learned while in London that Chamberlain did not have his heart in an alliance with Stalin – he still hoped one day to resume his direct contacts with Hitler. On May 17 the Soviet chargé in Berlin, Astakhov, had hinted that ‘on present form’ the talks were going against the British. Three days later Molotov himself declared to Hitler’s ambassador that trade talks with Germany could be resumed just as soon as the necessary ‘political basis’ had been established: Ribbentrop discussed at length with Hitler how this vague remark might be interpreted. The outcome was that Weizsäcker was instructed by Hitler to put this carefully worded message to Astakhov: ‘You can be our friends or our enemies. The choice is yours!’

A few days later, on May 23, Hitler delivered a four-hour speech to his Commanders in Chief in his cavernous study. He stood at a lectern and addressed altogether a dozen officers seated in three rows: Raeder, Milch, Brauchitsch, and Keitel formed the front row (Göring was away), and their chiefs of staff and adjutants the two other rows.

Hitler stated once again that Danzig was not his ultimate objective – that would be to secure Lebensraum in the east to feed Germany’s eighty million inhabitants. ‘If fate forces us to fight in the west,’ Hitler told them, ‘it will be just as well if first we possess more in the east.’ This was why he had decided to ‘take on Poland at the first suitable opportunity.’

His immediate purpose now, he explained, would be to isolate Poland. ‘It is of crucial importance that we succeed in isolating her.’

The only surviving note is one by Colonel Schmundt, but it lists as present officers – including Göring and Warlimont – who were not there and it contains various anachronisms. Halder, questioned in mid-1945, well remembered Hitler’s assurances that he would keep the western powers out of ‘White’: ‘I would have to be a complete idiot to slither into a world war – like the nincompoops of 1914 – over the wretched Polish Corridor.’

Since Hitler had left Mussolini in the dark about ‘White’ the Italians were not unwilling to sign a formal alliance with him. On May 6 Ribbentrop assured the Italian foreign minister Ciano that Italy could assume there would be peace for three more years at least. Ciano came to Berlin to sign the ‘Pact of Steel’ on the twenty-second, and General Milch signed a separate air-force pact in Rome two days later. Milch, however, returned to Hitler with a warning that Mussolini had emphasised that Italy would not be ready for war until 1942; in a memorandum to the Führer, the Duce even talked of 1943.

Hitler also briefly courted the Reich’s other southern neighbour, Yugoslavia. On June 1 the Prince Regent Paul and his English-born wife were welcomed in Berlin with a military parade. A banquet was thrown in their honour, followed by a gala performance of Wagner at the Prussian State Opera-house. Later, Hitler showed them the models of Germany’s new official buildings and monuments.

To his displeasure, Paul travelled on to London afterward without having even hinted at this in Berlin; Hitler did not like being tricked, and harrumphed about it for some days afterward – Prince Paul was barely suited for a curator’s job in the House of Art, he said, and had proven slippery as an eel: each time Hitler thought he could extract a firm agreement from him, the prince had claimed sanctuary behind his Parliament. His English-born wife Olga for her part had totally succumbed to Hitler’s wiles. The U.S. envoy in Belgrade reported:

Princess Olga quoted Herr Hitler as saying he could not understand why he was so misunderstood in England and that he wished that relations between Great Britain and Germany might be restored…. When the conversation turns to children, she said, tears come to his eyes. She described his eyes as being remarkable, clear blue and honest-looking. He told her that he had a dual personality, that his real personality is that of an artist and architect, but that fate had decreed that he should also be a politician, a military man, and the builder of a new Germany.

In May 1939, a study group under General Gerd von Rundstedt had predicted that the Poles would have to design their defence campaign so as to hold the Germans long enough until Russian or western aid could come. The Wehrmacht’s main strategic problem was to prevent a withdrawal of the Polish army, but it was felt that the Poles would not adopt such a strategy for political reasons. Rundstedt’s final plan, dated June 15, accepted Hitler’s demand for surprise attacks to open ‘White.’ The Polish armies west of the Vistula and Narev rivers would be destroyed by attacks from Silesia in the south and from Pomerania and East Prussia in the north; the East Prussian element, a thrust toward Warsaw, was included on Hitler’s insistence against General Staff advice. Reinforcements began moving across to East Prussia by sea.

On June 7 Hitler left Berlin for the summer and settled on the Obersalzberg. Once he drove to Vienna, and on June 12 he paid a melancholy private visit to Geli Raubal’s grave (her remains have since been placed in an unmarked grave). A week later a circular went to all the ministers and gauleiters with the request that ‘you should refrain from any manner of visit (to the Berghof) unless a firm invitation has been issued.’ One such invitation did go however to Dr. Goebbels, and another to generals von Brauchitsch and Ernst August Köstring; Köstring was the military attaché in Moscow. Goebbels gleaned the latest information from the Führer at the teahouse on June 20: ‘Poland,’ Hitler predicted, ‘will offer resistance at first, but upon the first reverse she will pitifully collapse. The Czechs are more realistic. The Poles are quite hysterical and unpredictable. London,’ added Hitler, ‘will leave Warsaw in the lurch. They’re just bluffing. Got too many other worries…. The Führer says, and he’s quite right, that Britain now has the most rotten government imaginable. There’s no question of their helping Warsaw. They led Prague up the garden path as well. This is provided by the files we have captured in the Czech foreign ministry.’

The two generals, Brauchitsch and Köstring, came on June 21 to discuss planning progress on ‘White’ and the Anglo-Soviet stalemate. After the two generals had left, Hitler relaxed with a sketching pad, deftly drawing a Party Forum that should grace Munich after his death – a parade square, Nazi Party office buildings, a bridge across Gabelsberger Strasse, and his own mausoleum, dwarfing the city’s famous Frauenkirche and built to ‘last until the end of time.’ It was a concrete sign of his optimism about the future.

Hitler liked familiar faces. He tolerated the blue-blooded officers like Below and Puttkamer the longest. His chief adjutant, Wilhelm Brückner, aged fifty-four, was a burly ex-machine-gunner who had marched with him in 1923. Another senior personal adjutant was ex-druggist Julius Schaub, aged forty, an undistinguished cripple whom Hitler had noticed years earlier hobbling into the Party meetings on his crutches; he had given him a job and had later grown to esteem him.

Head of Hitler’s private chancellery was Albert Bormann, a quiet, open-faced man of thirty-six. His older brother Martin thought Albert had married beneath the family station, and had not spoken to him since. If Martin wanted to tell Albert something an orderly was summoned and a written note was passed. If Albert told a joke, only Martin refused to laugh. Hitler’s favourite secretary was Johanna Wolf, aged thirty-nine; she had worked for him since 1930, but she was often ill. She alternated with Christa Schroeder, thirty-one, who was stolid and sharp-tongued – her feline comments on the progress of Hitler’s war often made her colleagues gasp. Since 1938 the Führer had also employed a third secretary, Gerda Daranowski, aged twenty-five: she was beautiful and bright, and Hitler appreciated both qualities. All the girls stayed with him until the end, proving more steadfast than many of Hitler’s ministers and generals.

The only other private staff member of consequence was Walther Hewel, a handsome Rhineland bachelor of thirty-five. He was a fellow Landsberg prisoner, like Brückner and Schaub. He had emigrated in 1926 for ten years, working first in Britain and then as a quinine, tea, and rubber planter in the Dutch East Indies. He had returned at Hitler’s personal request in 1936 – voyaging back via China, Japan, Hawaii and the west and east coasts of the U.S.A., and had become Ribbentrop’s liaison officer to Hitler in 1938. In that capacity he wrote private diaries, which we have been fortunate enough to obtain. For twenty years Hewel never lost faith in Hitler, and at his chief’s dictate he would die as he did.


Hitler’s military staff had been controlled since February 1938 by Rudolf Schmundt. Aged forty-two, a jug-eared army colonel born in Metz, which was now part of France, Schmundt had had an impeccable upbringing in a famous Potsdam regiment, and showed a pronounced sympathy toward National Socialism. He had revered Ludwig Beck until the general’s vendetta against the OKW command concept made reverence no longer possible. Since June 1937 Hitler’s Luftwaffe adjutant had been Captain Nicolaus von Below, aged thirty-one, a quiet Pomeranian who had undergone secret flying training at Lipetsk, USSR, and became the Richthofen squadron’s adjutant in 1935. Since March 1938Hitler’s army adjutant had been Captain Gerhard Engel, aged thirty-three; his good humour ingratiated him to lower ranks but not always to Hitler (who would send him to the front in 1943).

Fourth man in this team was the naval adjutant. In June 1938 Hitler’s naval adjutant had been replaced by Lieutenant Commander Alwin-Broder Albrecht, aged thirty-five. In 1939 he had married a young schoolmistress of Kiel who was ‘well-known’ to the local naval garrison; when the navy’s other wives raised an outcry Grand Admiral Raeder sent him on ‘married leave,’ then insisted on his dismissal. To Raeder’s chagrin, Hitler refused. The ensuing argument at the Berghof raged for two hours. Raeder indignantly described the case as a new Blomberg affair. Hitler, however, had been caught before, and demanded proof. He sneered, ‘How many of the navy wives now flaunting their virtue have had affairs of their own in the past!… The Blomberg case was quite different.’ Admiral Raeder announced that he would resign unless Albrecht went. The Führer replied that Raeder might do as he pleased. He invited Frau Grete Albrecht to present herself on the Obersalzberg for his personal inspection. Captain Engel escorted her from the Berchtesgadener Hof hotel the next day. Hitler could not fail to notice that the tall, blonde schoolmistress had considerable female charm, and he decided that Albrecht had done well to marry her.

All this had an extraordinary consequence. Raeder still protested, and dismissed Albrecht as Hitler’s naval adjutant. Hitler retaliated by making Albrecht his personal adjutant (the officer’s records show that he left the navy on June 30, 1939, becoming an Oberführer or brigadier in the Nazi Motor Korps the next day). Raeder responded by refusing to appoint a new naval adjutant in his place. Hitler in turn retaliated by petulantly declining to attend the navy’s next launching ceremony at Bremen on July 1. The navy rallied around their commander in chief: social invitations went to Albrecht, but not to his new wife Grete. (She completed the farce by returning to a previous lover, and in 1940 the unfortunate adjutant had to divorce her.) Albrecht never forgot Hitler’s loyalty to him; he became a convinced National Socialist and put duty above all else, as his last moving letters from Berlin in 1945 would show. He would die with a machine gun in his hands when the Russians stormed the Reich chancellery in 1945.

Raeder refused to swallow Hitler’s June 1939 ‘insult.’ He ensconced himself for two months in the admiralty in Berlin, and refused to confer with the Führer any more. It would take the outbreak of war in September to persuade him to resume personal contact again.


[26] A reference to the rivalry between the SS and the Wehrmacht in 1935 and the remilitarisation of the Rhineland in 1936. Morell’s 1944 diary continued the summary: ‘Added to this were the dysbacteria that the spasms probably generated. Further spasms in 1943 before his meeting with the Duce at Feltre [on July 18] at which time he already had a foreboding, or even foreknowledge, of the forthcoming betrayal by the Italian army; and more spasms in 1944 after the Bomb Plot.’

[27] In September 1981 this author found the long-missing diaries of Dr. Morell in the US National Archives; he published an annotated edition as The Secret Diaries of Hitler’s Doctor (Munich, London, and New York, 1983).

Extreme Unction • 2,500 Words

Adolf Hitler’s attitude toward the Church was ambivalent. Even though now absolute dictator he still hesitated to launch a terminal crusade against it. He had expressly forbidden newspapers to print any reference to schisms between the various religions, and transgressors were heavily punished. In April 1938 all editors had been circularised by the propaganda ministry, ‘The embargo on polemics against Christianity and the Church is still in force.’ When in 1939 a squabble broke out over the desire of the churches to mark the Führer’s fiftieth birthday by peals of bells, Hitler ruled, ‘The churches are not to be prevented from celebrating the event. But nor are they to be compelled to.’

For twenty years, he had tried to keep the Party aloof from all matters of interdenominational conflict. ‘We must learn to strive for that which unites us, and discard every argument that divides,’ he had said as a thirty-one-year-old speaker in 1920.

Admittedly, an element of mischievous cynicism did creep in over the years. In his speech to Party officials on November 23, 1937, he had ruled that the churches were free to portray the Lord in whatever image they wished, since neither they nor the Nazi party could be certain who was right or wrong: ‘But let me make one thing quite plain. The churches may decide what happens to Germans in the Hereafter – but it is the German nation and its Führer who decide about them now. Our nation,’ he thundered, ‘has not been created by God to be torn asunder by the priesthood.’

Hitler’s views on life after death were regularly aired in his private conversation. He believed in what he usually referred to as ‘Providence,’ to which he attributed the same mystic powers of explaining the inexplicable as Christians do to God. Hitler’s profound loathing for the clergy can probably be traced back to the religious teacher at his school, about whom he had a fund of distasteful anecdotes. His alert mind thrived on the anomalies of religion. His religious teachers had been unable to explain why at ten a.m. the story of the Creation should be taught from the Old Testament, and at eleven a.m. a wholly different version should be tendered by their science teacher. Admittedly, since the teachings of Charles Darwin the nuances were different, and religious teachers were now permitted to tender explanations for which – Hitler would remark with a chuckle – they would four hundred years earlier have been roasted ‘to the chant of pious hymns.’

In 1939, Hitler regarded the Church as a vast and impersonal corporation surviving by unscrupulous methods and drawing colossal state subsidies. He privately pilloried its cunning amalgam of hypocrisy and big business. ‘God made man,’ he once said, ‘and man was made to sin. God gave man the liberty to do so. For half a million years God looks on while men tear each other’s eyes out, and only then does it occur to him to send his only begotten Son. Now, that’s a devil of a long way around. The whole thing seems colossally ham-handed.’ And, a few days later:

How absurd it is to make Heaven seem a temptation, if the Church itself tells us that only those who haven’t done so well in life are going to get in – for instance, the mentally retarded and the like. It’s not going to be very nice if when we get there we find all those people who – despite the Beatitude: ‘Blessed are they that are poor of spirit’ – have already been a blessed nuisance when they were alive! And what kind of temptation is it supposed to be, if all we’re going to find up there are the plain and mentally insipid women!

As for the Bible, ‘that Jewish artefact,’ Hitler regretted that it had ever been translated into German. ‘Any sane German can only clutch his head in dismay at how this Jewish outpouring, this priestly babble, has persuaded his fellow Germans to cavort in a manner that we used to ridicule in the whirling dervishes of Turkey and the Negro races.’ Hitler would comment in 1942, ‘We merely enforce the Commandment “Thou shalt not kill” by executing the murderer. But the Church – so long as it held the reins of government – always put him to death by hideous tortures, by quartering him and the like.’


Now that he was in power, the whole problem left Hitler no peace. Christa Schroeder wrote in a private letter on April 21, 1939:

One evening recently the Chief was very interesting on the Church problem…. Christianity is founded on knowledge two thousand years old – knowledge blurred and confused by mysticism and the occult (like the Bible parables). The question is, why can’t Christian ideas be updated using the knowledge of the present day? Luther strove for a Reformation but this has been misunderstood, because reformation is not a once-only affair but a process of constant renovation – not just marking time but keeping up with the developments of the age.

The Chief knows full well that the Church problem is very tricky and if war breaks out it could well rebound on him domestically. My own feeling is he’d be happy if some decent way of solving it could be found.

In earlier years the only way of solving it that occurred to Hitler involved the use of dynamite. But with maturity came a recognition that he might equally let the churches ‘rot away like a gangrenous arm,’ until there were only simpletons standing in the pulpits and old maidens sitting in the pews before them: ‘The healthier youth will be with us,’ Hitler confidently predicted. Providence, he said, had given man a judgement of his own: ‘That judgement teaches me that this tyranny of the lie is bound to be smashed. But it also teaches me that that can’t be done yet.’

On June 29, 1941, Hewel noted yet another conversation with Hitler about religion. ‘One ought not to combat religion but to let it die of its own accord.’ In August of that year he assured Goebbels that he had only postponed the settling of the score; and in February 1942, referring to the ‘seditious parsons,’ he commented to his circle: ‘I can’t make my reply to these people yet. But it’s all going down in my little black book.’

Hitler often talked about religion. Anneliese Schmundt would write in her diary on June 8, 1941, ‘Long conversations in the evening on religion and Christianity: cultural retrogression since Greek and Roman art.’ Hewel wrote a much lengthier note that evening:

Over dinner this evening, a wonderful talk on the Roman Empire and its displacement by Christianity…. Christianity has been one long act of deceit and self-contradiction. It preaches goodness, humility, and love-thy-neighbour, but under this slogan it has burned and butchered millions to the accompaniment of pious proverbs. The ancients openly admitted that they killed for self-protection, in revenge, or as a punishment. The Christians do so only out of love!… Only Christianity has created a vengeful God, one who commits man to Hell the moment he starts using the brains that God gave him.

The Classical was an age of enlightenment. With the onset of Christianity scientific research was halted and there began instead a research into the visions of saints, instead of the things that God gave us. Research into nature became a sin.

The tragedy is that to this very day there are thousands of ‘educated’ people running around believing in all this claptrap – they deny that Nature is all-powerful, they glorify the weak, the sick, the crippled, and the simpleminded. In the ideal world of [Pastor Friedrich von] Bodelschwingh the healthy find everlasting life only if they have devoted their lives to the weak, to the idiot and suchlike; the sick are there so that we can do Good Deeds. If this goes on much longer, there will soon be more sick than sound. Today there are already a thousand million of them.

As for cruelty, Christianity holds all world records. Christianity is the revenge of the wandering Jew. Where would we be today if only we had not had Christianity – we would have the same brains, but we would have avoided a hiatus of one-and-a-half thousand years…. The terrible thing is that millions of people believe, or act as though they believe, all this: they feign belief in it all. If we had all been Mohammedans, today the world would have been ours.

Excerpts from unpublished records like these show that Hitler was inspired by purely Darwinian beliefs – the survival of the fittest, with no use for the moral comfort that sound religious teaching can purvey. ‘Liberty, equality, and fraternity are the grandest nonsense,’ he had said that evening. ‘Liberty automatically precludes Equality – because liberty leads automatically to the advancement of the healthier, the better, and the more proficient, and thus there is less equality.’

Yet Hitler still prevented the Party from taking its persecution of the Church too far. Not even he had contracted out of the Catholic church.

Once Bormann had the misfortune to order the closure of a convent in which an aunt of Eva Braun was a nun. Hitler cancelled the order, and commented to Schaub afterward that Bormann was ‘a bit pigheaded.’


On Papen’s advice he had normalised Nazi relations with the Vatican in July 1933 by means of a Concordat. This, the first international agreement he signed, brought the Nazi regime great prestige. Over the years however the convents and monasteries were dissolved and expropriated. Only the Benedictines enjoyed a certain immunity at first, deriving from Hitler’s private affection for the Abbot Albanus Schachleitner: they had met at a demonstration against the French occupation of the Ruhr, on Königsplatz in Munich, and Schachleitner became a supporter of the Party. His church cast him out and Schachleitner died in penury: Hitler ordered a state funeral in Munich (which ensured that the Church reburied the bones in less hallowed ground when Hitler was no longer able to intercede).

Individual Catholic leaders impressed Hitler by their diplomacy or the courage of their convictions. There was Michael, Cardinal von Faulhaber, Archbishop of Munich, whom he received privately at the Berghof to hear his manly appeal against the series of trials of clergy on homosexual charges. And there was Theodore, Cardinal Innitzer, of Vienna, whom Hitler had received on his triumphal entry in 1938: the Cardinal had swept into the foyer of Vienna’s Imperial Hotel, and when Hitler dutifully kissed his ring he responded with the sign of the cross, struck above the Führer’s head with a crucifix. He could not help admiring the panache of these Cardinals.


It was the Lutheran and reformed Churches in Germany that gave Hitler his biggest headaches. His early years of power were marked by futile attempts to reconcile the thirty warring Protestant factions and bring them under one overriding authority. A hostile faction had formed on one wing of the Church, the ‘Confessional Church’ led by Pastor Martin Niemöller.

Niemöller was a former U-boat commander, who had preached since 1931 at Dahlem in Berlin. He was ‘the first Nazi priest.’ His was among the first telegrams of congratulation to the Führer after Germany walked out of the League of Nations in 1933. His ambition was to become Reich Bishop, appointed by the Nazis for the Protestant Church in Germany. Throughout the summer of 1933 the various Protestant factions had bickered over a suitable Reich Bishop; none of the names they put forward – including that of Bodelschwingh – was acceptable to the ruling Party. Eventually, in September 1933, a synod at Wittenberg had elected Ludwig Müller to the position. Müller had been garrison chaplain at Königsberg and was recommended by General von Blomberg from personal acquaintance. Schwerin von Krosigk heard Niemöller propose to Bodelschwingh and others one evening that winter that their only solution was to visit Müller one dark night with a few strong-arm boys from his Dahlem congregation and ‘beat up the Reich Bishop so his own mother wouldn’t recognize him.’

Tired of the sniping against Müller, Hitler invited a dozen of the Protestant leaders to his chancellery on January 25, 1934. Göring had by then begun furnishing Hitler with wiretaps on Niemöller. One recorded a very recent conversation between Niemöller and a brother clergyman, discussing an audience they had just had with Hindenburg to campaign for Müller’s replacement. ‘We sure gave the old fellow the extreme unction this time,’ Niemöller had guffawed. ‘We ladled so much holy oil over him that he’s going to kick that bastard [Müller] out.’ Listening to the dozen bickering Protestant clergy in his chancellery study, Hitler’s patience left him. He allowed them to make their demand for Müller’s resignation – ‘with mealy mouths and many quotations from the Scriptures,’ as he described on one occasion, or ‘with unctuous language’ as he put it on another – and then he motioned to Göring to recite out loud from the FA wiretap transcripts. Niemöller denied that he had spoken the words concerned. According to Lammers, Hitler expressed indignation that a man of the cloth should lie. After that, there was open war between Niemöller and the Nazi regime.

In July 1935, Hitler made one last attempt to calm these troubled waters, setting up a Reich Church Ministry under Hans Kerrl. Kerrl in turn established a Reich Church Council that October, but again these efforts were frustrated by the squabbling between the German Christians and Niemöller’s Confessional Church. Over the months that followed, a wave of police raids and arrests befell the latter. Niemöller himself was spared at first, but from his pulpit he launched such verbal torpedoes at Kerrl that Franz Gürtner, Minister of Justice, warned him to cease fire. Hitler was loath to make a martyr of the man, but on July 1, 1937, Niemöller was arrested for sedition.

The trial, in February 1938, was a noisy affair. Brilliantly defended by three lawyers, Niemöller used the witness box to denounce Hitler and his regime. ‘In future,’ Hitler groaned, years later, ‘I shall allow duelling only between the gentlemen of the clergy and the legal profession!’ In a snub to the regime, the court sentenced Niemöller to the seven months already served; to Hitler’s pleasure, however, he refused to give the court the customary assurances of good behaviour and he was re-arrested and interned in a concentration camp. Here this turbulent priest would languish, though comfortably housed and fed, until 1945. At Munich in September 1938, Mussolini interceded for him; Hitler replied with a steely refusal: ‘Within the concentration camp Niemöller has the maximum of liberty and he is well looked after,’ he said. ‘But never will he see the outside of it again.’

The Major Solution • 4,700 Words

Overwhelmingly German in history and inclination, the port of Danzig was put under League of Nations mandate by the victors at Versailles. The Poles as protecting power had certain rights, including diplomatic, passport, and military offices. The railway system, about 120 customs officials, and a large post office building were Polish too. If Hitler did launch ‘White,’ Danzig would be vulnerable for several days, as General Fedor von Bock – commanding Army Group North – warned. He recommended on May 27, 1939, to the General Staff that a secret brigade should be illicitly raised from the 12,000 Germans with military experience in Danzig and from the city police; he also suggested that on the actual day of ‘White’ a German naval force might ‘happen to’ be visiting Danzig – it could disembark a battalion of troops to secure the city.

Hitler approved Bock’s outline on June 11. A major general, Friedrich Georg Eberhardt, was sent in plain clothes to organise a ‘Free Corps’ there. Shiploads of guns and ammunition, ostensibly bound for Königsberg, suffered ‘engine problems’ en route and docked for repairs at Danzig – where Eberhardt’s gear, everything from a shoe-nail to a 150-millimetre gun, was unloaded under cover of darkness. The SS came for a sports display in Danzig, but the SS troops stayed on afterward. By the time of ‘White,’ Eberhardt would command two infantry regiments, an artillery battalion, and SS irregulars too. Bridges were strengthened, barracks built, pontoon sections stockpiled.

Hitler boasted in private, ‘I was owed 100 Reichsmarks; I’ve already collected 99 and I’m going to get the last coin too!’ He authorised Goebbels to deliver a powerful and provocative speech in Danzig on June 17. Goebbels confidently briefed Nazi editors: ‘This is to be a trial balloon, to test the international atmosphere on the settlement of the Danzig question.’

Berlin began to swelter. On July 3 Hitler and Göring visited a secret display of new Luftwaffe equipment at Rechlin air station. They showed Hitler an experimental Heinkel rocket-propelled fighter. A Heinkel 111 bomber, heavily overloaded, was lifted seemingly effortlessly into the air by rocket-assisted takeoff units. He saw the latest early-warning radar and pressurised cabins for high-altitude planes; in the laboratory they demonstrated to him simple methods of starting motor engines in subzero temperatures, and the new 30-millimetre cannon installed in a Messerschmitt 110 fighter in the firing-butts. It was all just a grandiose self-deception and it had fatal consequences. Hitler decided to grab a much bigger bite of Poland, apart from just Danzig and the Corridor. In May 1942, Göring would exclaim: ‘The Führer took the most serious decisions on the basis of that display. It was a miracle that things worked out as well as they did, and that the consequences were not far worse.’


As the sun climbed higher that summer Hitler’s ministers fled Berlin. Over dinner on July 4 he agreed with his propaganda minister that they should now nurture hatred towards Britain, and that the German people must learn to recognise the British as their principal obstacle. On the ninth Ribbentrop left to vacation at Lake Fuschl, near the Berghof. Brauchitsch attended Army Day celebrations at Karlshorst that day, then left for several weeks’ furlough. Göring was cruising down the canals in his yacht.

Hitler could afford to wait. He knew that the Reich had most to offer Stalin in return for a pact. In mid-June 1939 the Soviets had again obliquely hinted – this time through the Bulgarian envoy in Berlin – that they would prefer dealing with the Reich, provided that Hitler would sign a non-aggression pact. He told Goebbels on July 8 that it was unlikely that London and Moscow would ever reach agreement. ‘That leaves the way open for us,’ concluded the propaganda minister.

Meanwhile, Hitler took direct control of every phase of the strategic preparations, dealing with Heydrich, Goebbels, and – as he lacked a naval adjutant – the admiralty in person. Albert Forster, gauleiter of Danzig, appeared several times at the Berghof. On July 13 he had what his newspaper Danziger Vorposten called ‘a lengthy discussion’ with Hitler; after another meeting a week later Forster told his own staff,

The Führer says that… he was inclined just to tackle Danzig this summer. But common sense has now dictated that the settlement of this matter should be linked to a solution of the German-Polish problem as a whole, at a suitable time.

Forster described the solution now desired as being to regain the Reich’s eastern frontiers as they had been in 1914. On July 22 Hitler telephoned the admiralty and ordered it to be ready to send the elderly cruiser Nürnberg to Danzig at short notice.


Two days later, on July 24, 1939, he drove to Bayreuth for his annual Wagner pilgrimage. Here he wallowed in a Wagner orgy – The Flying Dutchman, Parsifal, and the whole of the Ring. In his youth Hitler had been a chorister at Lambach in Upper Austria. As a romantic, rootless youth of seventeen he had scraped and saved to visit the opera at Linz, and it was seeing Wagner’s early opera Rienzi in 1906 that had first stirred Hitler’s alter ego, the demagogue slumbering within the artist.

In a way Rienzi was almost destined to become Hitler’s own story. He recognized this in 1945, and he recited to Schaub the lines from the opera which he desired to be inscribed on his mausoleum. Rienzi is a true story of the Roman plebes, who are suppressed by the unscrupulous nobili until the young notary Rienzi (1313‒1354) rises from their midst, an unknown citizen who rallies and liberates and leads them, until the very nobili themselves proclaim him their master. ‘Rienzi, hail! Hail to you, the people’s tribune!’ Later the nobili conspire, even the faithful desert Rienzi, and the hand that strikes him down comes from his own ranks.

Hitler had been electrified on first hearing the Rienzi drama in 1906: he left the theatre long after midnight with his school friend, August Kubizek, and scaled a hill outside Linz. Here Hitler suddenly spoke of a pact that the people would one day make with him – to lead them out of their subjugation, to the pinnacles of freedom. He spent the night in the open air. His friend Kubizek might well have challenged him: ‘Rienzi, hey! What do you plan? / I see you mightily before me – tell / Wherefore needst thou this new might?’ He did not, but he met Hitler again thirty-three years later, in Bayreuth in July 1939, when they dined together at Frau Winifred Wagner’s home ‘Wahnfried’ and here he reminded Hitler of that night on the Austrian hillside. Hitler interrupted, turned to Frau Wagner, and poured out the whole story. ‘That was when it all began,’ he told them.

Hitler patronised the arts as had few of his more recent predecessors. He had heard Die Meistersinger forty times – Schaub believed it was Hitler’s favourite because it was a pæan to German craftsmanship. ‘Wahnfried’ in Bayreuth was like a home away from home to Hitler: Frau Wagner, a matronly Englishwoman, widow of the great composer’s son, was like a second mother to him. From 1925 to 1933 Hitler had kept away from Bayreuth to spare her any embarrassment; then he had re-established the friendship, frequently telephoning her under his private nickname of ‘Bandleader Wolf.’

This remarkable dowager’s admiration for Hitler would not diminish until her death. Sometimes she used their friendship to intercede on behalf of Jews or persecuted musicians. Hitler explained that she would have to write to him through Dr. Karl Brandt. ‘If your letters fall into the hands of Reichsleiter Bormann,’ he said, ‘there’s no guarantee that they’ll reach me.’


While Hitler stayed at Bayreuth in July 1939 the foreign clamour mounted. Ambassador Herbert von Dirksen reported from London that the British press had been crying rape ever since the annexation of Austria. What interested Hitler more was that authoritative voices could now be heard from London indicating that Chamberlain was casting around for ways of divesting himself of the awkward guarantee given to Poland.

Hitler had mentioned to Walther Hewel as recently as June – after King George VI had replied warmly to Hitler’s condolences on the loss of the submarine Thetis – that if only he could meet some Englishman of standing with whom he could talk in German, he could soon settle their countries’ remaining differences. By late July the signs were that Chamberlain and his advisers were preparing for a second Munich. On a British initiative, there had been talks between Sir Horace Wilson, one of the main appeasers among Chamberlain’s advisers, and one of Göring’s economics staff, Dr. Helmuth Wohlthat. Wilson had proposed a sweeping political, economic, and military agreement with Hitler, in return for certain assurances. ‘Perhaps I’m too much of an optimist,’ the Englishman said, ‘and perhaps the solution does seem unrealistic to many observers in the present situation. But I have had the opportunity of studying the Führer and I believe that the Führer, acting as a statesman for peace, can manage even greater achievements than he has already in his construction of Grossdeutschland.’

The OKW timetable for ‘White’ would soon come into force: admittedly, no military decisions of significance were required until August 12, but the General Staff had determined that the optimum date for attacking Poland would be August 25, and Hitler was required to decide for or against ‘White’ on the fifteenth. This left barely two weeks for him to obtain Stalin’s signature on a pact, and nobody believed that Ribbentrop would manage such a feat in time. ‘I don’t believe the Moscow talks will prove a flop,’ wrote Weizsäcker in his diary on July 30. ‘But nor do I believe they can be concluded in the next fourteen days, as we are now attempting. My advice is that we should resort to blunter language in Moscow about the partition of Poland; Ribbentrop suggests talking to Moscow about sharing the Baltic states so that north of the latitude of Riga should be Russia’s Lebensraum and south of it ours, but I advise against this!’

Hitler stayed at Bayreuth, troubled only by the affairs of his Party henchmen. He predicted to Goebbels on July 25 that the democracies would shrink back from war, step by step; and that Warsaw too would crumble, when push came to shove. Goebbels was in a state of high nerves, but for family reasons – his wife Magda had thrown herself into a sorrowing liaison with his young and handsome state secretary at the propaganda ministry, Karl Hanke. Hitler again angrily forced a reconciliation between the couple, and required them to attend the next day’s opera together; but of all operas that night’s offering was the romantic tragedy Tristan und Isolde, and Frau Goebbels openly blubbered while Hitler and his white-faced propaganda minister affected not to notice.

Robert Ley, the Labour Front leader, tormented Hitler in a different way. In Winifred Wagner’s exquisite drawing room he proposed that at the coming Nuremberg Rally they should dispense with the customary fanfare from Verdi’s Aïda and play instead a little piece which he, Ley, had composed for the occasion. He modestly played a gramophone record of the fanfare. After the last fearsome strains died away, Hitler tersely announced: ‘We’ll stick to Aïda!


It was here at Bayreuth that Hitler jovially buttonholed Neurath with the words ‘You’re going to be astonished by what I am going to tell you: what do you say we come to an agreement with Russia?’ Neurath was indeed stunned, but responded favourably. Hitler ventured, ‘It will probably be hard to reconcile my Party stalwarts to the move.’ Neurath flattered him: ‘The Party is like putty in your hands, mein Führer.’

Hitler still feared a snub from the Soviet dictator however, and time was running out. Acting on his instructions, on August 2 Ribbentrop hinted to the Soviet chargé d’affaires that Moscow and Berlin ought to decide Poland’s fate between them – and he added the tempting bait that there was ‘no problem between the Baltic and the Black Sea’ that could not be solved between them. Ribbentrop emphasised that Germany was in no hurry yet – a poker-faced assurance that must have been torture to utter, given the rigid timetable already imposed by the OKW’s planning. The clock was already ticking, but Moscow must not hear it.

Hitler left Bayreuth on August 3, toured the Nuremberg arena – as though nothing would prevent the Party rally from opening here in one month’s time – and drove down the autobahn to Munich on the fourth. At his Munich apartment he changed into a dark-blue suit and received General Keitel in the drawing room. The OKW chief had brought with him the final timetable for ‘White.’ The army still wanted X-day to be on August 25, as mid-September rains might bog down panzer operations in Poland and set the German air force at a disadvantage.

Hitler motioned Keitel and his staff officer Major Bernd von Lossberg into easy chairs, and explained to them once more, in an affable Austrian dialect which rather surprised Lossberg, just why the Polish problem had to be settled now. He blamed Chamberlain’s thoughtless guarantee to Poland for stiffening Warsaw’s opposition. ‘The gentlemen in London and Paris won’t undertake anything against us this time either,’ he assured the officers. Then his Austrian dialect vanished, submerged in a sudden cresting wave of familiar guttural Hitler-German: ‘I will see to that. This Polish conflict will never, never, never result in a European war.’

He drove on that evening to the Berghof, and this was to be the scene of the next three weeks’ momentous events.


From London the signs were again conciliatory. Neville Chamberlain had adjourned Parliament on August 4 for two months. Simultaneously, he risked a strange move that further convinced Hitler that Britain was not yet ready to fight: Sir Horace Wilson invited Ambassador Herbert von Dirksen to call at his private flat in Chelsea – specifying that he should come on foot so as not to attract attention – and outlined an offer for a ‘full-bodied political world partnership’ between Britain and Germany. If Hitler would accept the terms, Wilson indicated, then Britain would put pressure on Poland to agree to Germany’s demands. Thus the awkward British guarantee to Poland would become inoperative. Ribbentrop received Dirksen’s astounding telegram on this talk soon after. Weizsäcker noted on the sixth, ‘Underground feelers from Chamberlain toward a compromise (via Horace Wilson) prove that a dialogue with Britain could be got going if we so desired.’

Hitler was not inclined to bend, however. Secret directives went to the Nazi press on the twelfth and thirteenth, forbidding them even to mention Britain’s apparent change of heart. ‘Britain incited the Poles, now she must pay the price,’ was the official line to be taken. Editors were commanded to observe ‘absolute discipline’ on this posture.

Britain’s talks with Stalin must have reached a deadlock, of this Hitler was convinced. He detailed a Nazi agent to stand by at Croydon airfield, London, as the British chief negotiator, William Strang, flew back from Moscow on August 7. Strang’s dejected look betrayed that Hitler’s surmise was probably correct.

On the ninth, Halifax himself spoke to Dirksen. This time he promised that Britain was willing to go ‘a long way’ toward meeting Germany’s desires. But Hitler’s central desire now was to have what he called his little war with Poland. After his Intelligence chief Canaris conferred on August 10 with Keitel and Schmundt at Salzburg, and then with Ribbentrop at Fuschl, Lieutenant Colonel Erwin Lahousen wrote in his diary: ‘Intimations of a Non-Aggression Pact with R.,’ meaning Russia.


On August 11, Hitler ordered the anti-Polish propaganda volume turned up to ‘eighty percent’ of its full volume. After months of maintaining a studied silence in the Nazi press about the Polish ‘atrocities,’ on the sixteenth editors were secretly circularised: ‘The time has come for the German press to abandon its reserve.’ Goebbels ordered Polish ‘terrorist incidents’ moved from page two to page one – though still only modestly displayed, and there was to be no mention yet of Germany’s territorial claims.

Hitler needed reliable staged ‘incidents’ at a closely defined place, time, and date – he had a tight OKW schedule to meet. Two diabolical schemes had been drafted by SS Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich, ‘following long-standing patterns set by our western neighbours,’ as he explained to SS commanders on about the eleventh. In one, his agents would masquerade as Polish insurgents, seize the German transmitter station at Gleiwitz, broadcast a proclamation, and then escape. In the other, more complex, incident a company of Polish-speaking idealists would be recruited from the Upper Silesian work-force, dressed in Polish uniforms on the eve of ‘White,’ and ordered to ‘seize’ a German customs post near Hochlinden; a mock battle would be staged with SS troops, while real Polish troops would be lured into the fray from their garrison at nearby Rybnik by a Polish officer who had recently defected to Germany. The Gestapo chief, Heinrich 194 i i : Towa r d t h e P rom i s e d L a n d Müller, also hit on the macabre idea of strewing fresh corpses – condemned convicts from Dachau – on the ‘battlefield,’ equipped with genuine Polish soldiers’ passbooks.

When Hitler talked with Professor Carl Burckhardt, the League of Nations high commissioner in Danzig, on the eleventh he had prepared the way by underlining the point: ‘If there’s the slightest provocation I shall shatter Poland without warning into so many pieces that there will be nothing left to pick up.’ He boasted that whereas in 1938 he had had to whip his generals on, this year he was having to hold them back. Hitler continued (recalled Burckhardt years later): ‘Everything I’m doing is directed against Russia. If the West is too obtuse to grasp this, then I’ll be forced to come to terms with the Russians and turn against the West first, after which I’ll direct my entire strength against the USSR.’ The next day, Hitler made much the same point to Count Galeazzo Ciano, Mussolini’s foreign minister – that he proposed one day to tread the old Teutonic road toward the east, as he had told the Duce himself aboard the Conte Cavour in May 1938.

The Italians were still unaware of ‘White,’ the plan to invade Poland.

For the first time [wrote Weizsäcker in his diary] we’re finding the Italian alliance a nuisance. Because over the last week our [i.e., Hitler’s] will to war has become much stronger. Himmler, Ribbentrop, and Gauleiter Forster have each been promoting the idea of war in their own spheres. Ribbentrop is guaranteeing that the British and French will remain neutral provided we can deal annihilating blows to Poland in the first three days. This he thinks is certain.

Count Ciano was received at the Berghof on August 12. Eva Braun, confined upstairs, later pasted a sequence of snapshots into her album showing the swirl and flourish of arriving limousines, black-shirted Fascist leaders greeting Hitler, and some of them even glancing up to her window (she girlishly captioned the photos: ‘Up there, there’s something forbidden to behold – me!’).

Hitler had little time or liking for Ciano; he told Schaub that the Italian was ‘too brilliantined and dandified’ to inspire trust. Hitler spoke about Germany’s strength and Britain’s overwhelming vulnerability to air attack. (This was all probably meant for English ears. He would say at a conference on May 20, 1943, ‘Every memorandum I wrote to the Duce reached Britain immediately after: so I only wrote him what I wanted the British to know without fail.’) It seems clear that Hitler ‘confidentially’ informed Ciano that ‘White’ would start in two weeks’ time, because the British foreign office learned of this a few days later. Ciano was astounded. Hitler assured Ciano that the West would not intervene, but he did not explain why: the Nazi-Soviet pact.

Even as Ciano was uncomfortably remonstrating with Hitler in the Great Hall, a door was flung open and Walther Hewel hurried in. He whispered to Ribbentrop; Ribbentrop took Hitler aside and whispered to him: Molotov had just agreed in principle to receive a German negotiator in Moscow. Hitler’s mood changed. With a broad grin he invited the Fascist guests to accompany him up to his teahouse eyrie, the Eagle’s Nest.

Curiously, Baron von Weizsäcker also appears to have been left in the dark at first about the news from Moscow. The likely reason was that Weizsäcker was communing treacherously closely with the ambassadors of Britain, France, and Italy. On the thirteenth he wrote, ‘My own formula remains unchanged: if Poland commits a provocation of such effrontery that Paris and London will also recognize it as such, then we can set about her. Otherwise we should keep our hands off…. I am still not quite clear,’ continued Weizsäcker in some puzzlement on the fourteenth, ‘just what has brought about this somersault at Fuschl [Ribbentrop’s summer home] and the Berghof. A week ago they still inclined to the view that the western powers would not drop Poland, so we could not tackle her.’

Hitler hesitated for several days before responding to Moscow. But the OKW timetable had him in its vice; important decisions were due on the fifteenth. The latest Intelligence reports showed that Britain had offered Poland an eight-million-pound loan, and that Polish mobilisation preparations were far in advance of his own.

On August 14 Hitler called his three commanders in chief to the Berghof and explained why ‘White’ was still on, and why he was sure that the western powers would not declare war. General Sir Edmund Ironside had submitted a scathing report on Polish combat readiness – Hitler guessed that Chamberlain would use it as an alibi to ditch the Poles. Were Britain really in earnest, she would have offered Poland more than a measly eight-million-pound loan (‘The British don’t sink money in an unsound business’) and the Poles in turn would be more insolent than FA intercepts of late revealed. Hitler said that his only worry was that the British might yet cheat him of ‘White’ by making some last-minute offer; he told Göring, Brauchitsch, and Raeder on this day that he had hinted to the British that he would approach them again with an offer of his own later – after he had dealt with Poland. Raeder – still in a huff over the Albrecht affair – did not speak, nor did Brauchitsch: Canaris wrote in his diary, ‘Commander in Chief army didn’t get a word in edgeways.’

Hitler now took a further fateful step. At 10:53 p.m. that evening, August 14, Ribbentrop cabled these dramatic instructions to the embassy in Moscow: Molotov was to be informed that he, Ribbentrop, was willing to come to Moscow in person. His State Secretary Weizsäcker correctly reflected, ‘If Ribbentrop manages to conclude a pact… they [the Russians] will thereby be inviting us to attack Poland.’

On the fifteenth Hitler authorised all the timetable steps consistent with an attack on Poland on the twenty-fifth. The armed forces were ordered to assume that ‘“White” will be on.’ The navy ordered the pocket battleships Graf Spee and Deutschland and fourteen submarines to stand by for operations into the Atlantic. The Nuremberg Rally was secretly cancelled, to release railroad capacity for the Wehrmacht; but foreign diplomats were still fed with the impression that the rally was on.

Less well documented are the murkier operations planned by the Abwehr and SS. They had prepared commando-style operations to secure vital bridges, tunnels, and industrial plants behind the Polish lines on the very eve of ‘White.’ The Abwehr had trained a task force to seize the 300-yard-long railroad tunnel at Jablunka, on the main line from Vienna to Warsaw. If the Poles could detonate the demolition charges in the twin tunnel it would bar the entry into southern Poland of Wilhelm List’s Fourteenth Army, now massing in Slovakia. Hitler piously insisted on a clear distinction between these ‘illegals’ and regular German army units: when Manstein asked permission to operate three assault groups in Polish uniforms during Army Group South’s attack, Hitler turned him down; Himmler then asked permission for the SS to use Polish uniforms in precisely the same area, and on August 17 Hitler gave him his blessing and ordered the Abwehr to release 150 Polish uniforms from its stocks to Heydrich for the purpose.

At the northern end of the Polish front Hitler personally conceived an adventurous operation to secure the two strategic bridges across the river Vistula at Dirschau. Each bridge had its eastern end on Danzig soil and its western end footed on Polish ground, Pomerania. Obsessed with the Dirschau bridges, Hitler studied air photographs and models, and devised plan after plan. Eventually he agreed with Göring, Himmler, and Brauchitsch on a heavy dive-bomber attack on the Polish bridge garrison, the local power station, and the demolition fuses themselves, followed up immediately by a ground assault: a goods train would arrive from East Prussia in the last minutes before ‘White’ began, laden with concealed sappers and storm troops under Lieutenant Colonel Gerhardt Medem. Hitler briefed him personally. Timing was crucial, since the attack had to coincide exactly with the Luftwaffe strike against the Polish naval base at Gdynia – the first overt act of ‘White.’

The elderly warship Schleswig-Holstein was moved to Danzig. When ‘White’ began, she would immediately bombard the Polish stronghold emplaced (illegally) on the Westerplatte – the sliver of land commanding the entrance to the harbour.

Inevitably, the Russians began to dither. After Molotov formally proposed – on August 16 – a non-aggression pact, Ribbentrop promptly replied with the suggestion that he visit Moscow in two or three days’ time to sign it. The Russians dragged their feet. On August 18 Ribbentrop telegraphed his ambassador urging speed, and mentioned alluringly that he would be authorised to sign a secret additional protocol codifying aspects too delicate for public consumption.

Even so, Molotov seemed unwilling to receive him in Moscow before August 26 or 27.

As Ribbentrop well knew, the OKW timetable was geared to launching ‘White’ on or soon after the twenty-fifth. The political effect of the pact would be nil if it were not signed well before then. In fact the A-movement, the initial transfer of 220 train-loads to assemble military equipment and troops in the east, was already beginning.


To Hitler it seemed a proper occasion for taking a personal risk. ‘Our opponents still hoped,’ he bragged two days later, ‘that Russia would emerge as our enemy after we had defeated Poland. But our opponents had not taken my power of decision into account. Our opponents are little worms – I saw them all at Munich!’ On August 20 he took the unprecedented and flattering step of writing a personal note to Stalin, asking him to accept Ribbentrop’s presence in Moscow not later than three days from now.

Frightened by his own boldness, Hitler could not contain his nervousness after that. He telephoned Göring in the small hours; he snarled uneasily at Ribbentrop for having tempted him out onto this trembling limb of high diplomacy. But during the afternoon of August 21 word came from Moscow: his ambassador had been summoned to see Molotov at three p.m. More anguished hours passed.

At last Ribbentrop brought the ambassador’s report. A smile lit up Hitler’s face. A photographer was summoned to capture the moment as he read the telegram: the Kremlin would be happy to receive Herr Ribbentrop in two days’ time, as Hitler had requested.

An air of celebration gripped the Berghof, as though a great victory had been won. And in a sense it had, for when German radio interrupted its programmes at 11:15 p.m. to broadcast this chilling news to the world, nobody could doubt that it spelled the end for Poland.

‘Now,’ Hitler said triumphantly to his commanders the next morning, ‘now I have Poland just where I want her!’

Pact with the Devil • 6,800 Words

To his adjutants Hitler truculently claimed that he wanted only to be allowed his ‘First Silesian War’ and nothing more. He would explain to his commanders that from now on the German public would just have to get used to fighting. The Polish campaign would be a good introduction. On August 18 he had word telephoned to Dr. Goebbels in Berlin to turn up the propaganda volume to full blast by Tuesday the twenty-second. With Poland totally isolated by the Nazi-Soviet Pact, Hitler was jubilant. He phoned Goebbels on the twenty-second, and the minister congratulated him on his masterstroke.

He still had no clear idea of the sequence of events after ‘White’ – no doubt the Goddess of Fortune would see to that. All that was constant was his long-term goal – the goal that he had set out in Mein Kampf in 1924, in secret to his Commanders in Chief on February 2, 1933, again on November 5, 1937, May 28, 1938, and more recently in his secret speeches of January and February 1939. ‘White’ was just one more step toward Germany’s 300-year-old dream of a Reich ruling Central and Eastern Europe, and thereby dominating the world.

What means were not justified to that end? Britain, he would cajole and win with blandishments: he would offer his Wehrmacht to defend her far-flung Empire against the Asiatic hordes and other predators. Germany’s other neighbours, Hitler would cheat, threaten, bribe, or deceive. ‘As a private person I would never break my word,’ he would confide to Hewel in June 1941. ‘But if it is necessary for Germany – then a thousand times!’


Without waiting for Stalin’s reply he had already ordained on the nineteenth that all his senior commanders were to meet him three days later at the Berghof. The invitation issued by the OKW emphasised: ‘He particularly wants the conference to remain absolutely secret and no word whatsoever to leak to the foreign press.’ It would be disguised as a harmless tea party, with half the guests fetched by Hitler’s motor pool from Salzburg and half from Munich. All were to come in plain clothes.

When he appeared in the Great Hall at noon on August 22 Hitler found about fifty officers arrayed in four or five rows of chairs – army-group and army commanders, their chiefs of staff and their navy and air force equivalents. Prominently to the fore was Field Marshal Hermann Göring, who had interpreted the words ‘plain clothes’ less literally than the others. He was wearing a sleeveless green leather jerkin with thick yellow buttons over a white silk blouse, while his ample lower extremities were sheathed in grey knickerbockers and long grey stockings. A gold dagger dangled nonchalantly from an exotic sword belt.

Hitler spread out his outline notes on the grand piano, and launched into his first speech. His argument was simple but persuasive: the Wehrmacht was about to embark on ‘White,’ a campaign they could not lose. There was no time like the present. Neither he nor Mussolini would live for ever: ‘At any moment I might be struck down by a criminal or lunatic!’ He had no fears of any second front. Britain and France might posture menacingly, but they would not really fight. Hitler then described how he had set the ball rolling toward rapprochement with Stalin by his ‘particularly cordial’ welcome for the Soviet ambassador at the New Year’s reception. ‘That same evening,’ he said, ‘the ambassador expressed his thanks to me for this and for not having given him second-class treatment at the reception.’ With a gesture toward Ribbentrop he announced triumphantly that the foreign minister was flying to Moscow immediately to sign the pact. ‘Now I have Poland just where I want her!’ Now Germany could not be blockaded, because the USSR would supply all the cereals, cattle, coal, wood, lead, and zinc that Germany needed. ‘I am only afraid that at the last moment some Schweinehund might put to me a plan for mediation!’

A buffet lunch was served on the terraces. Afterward Hitler spoke for another hour as a storm gathered outside the big picture window. He adjured the commanders to display an iron nerve, even if Britain and France prepared for war. ‘Each and every one of you must act as though we have, all along, been spoiling for a fight with the western powers as well.’ It was vital to crush every living spark out of Poland rapidly and, if needed, brutally. ‘I shall provide a propaganda motive for launching this war, whether plausible or not: the victor is not challenged afterward as to whether he has told the truth.’ Hitler concluded with the appeal, ‘I have done my duty. Now go out and do yours!’

Göring rose, importantly mounted three shallow steps, and assured the Führer that the Wehrmacht would do its duty. Brauchitsch confidently dismissed his generals with these words: ‘Gentlemen: to your stations!’ The Luftwaffe generals Milch and Kesselring were seen in a broad good humour. Only Grand Admiral Raeder came briefly to remind Hitler of the vulnerability of a sea-cadet ship permanently berthed in the Gulf of Danzig. The Führer was overheard to reply: ‘What if the old tub does go down!’ The Grand Admiral coldly reminded him that there were several hundred sea cadets on board. It was the only time he saw the Führer in these last remaining days of peace.

Ribbentrop set out that afternoon for Moscow, armed with Hitler’s private instructions to yield to every Soviet demand: if necessary to secure Molotov’s signature, Ribbentrop was to deny any German interest in southeastern Europe, ‘right down to Constantinople and the Dardanelles Straits.’ That evening, August 22, he repeated that his only real fear was that some imbecile might oblige him, by ‘subtle proposals,’ to give way again. This was no idle fear: since about August 16 the FA had been monitoring furtive phone conversations between the British ambassador in Berlin and Sir Horace Wilson in London. Wilson was searching desperately for a formula that would give Danzig back to the Reich. On August 20 he had secretly told the German press attaché in London that he was willing to ‘come secretly to Germany’ if need be.

Late on August 22, the British ambassador phoned, asking to see the Führer the next day. He had a personal letter from the British prime minister to Hitler: ‘It defines our position exactly,’ the FA wiretap quoted Henderson as saying. ‘How we are bound by our obligations to the Poles and how we shall live up to these obligations should Poland be attacked.’ According to the wiretap, the Chamberlain letter would propose a cooling-off period while the questions of Danzig and the German minority in Poland were settled.

By the time Henderson reached the Berghof with this letter at noon on the twenty-third, Hitler had already drafted a reply. Weizsäcker wrote in his diary, ‘The Führer’s purpose is to bully the British government into dropping its guarantee obligations to Poland.’ When Henderson tried to explain that Britain was bound to honour her obligations, Hitler coarsely replied: ‘Then honour them! If you hand out blank cheques you must expect to have to pay out on them.’ He asked Henderson to come back later that afternoon to collect his reply to Chamberlain.


Before returning, at three p.m. Henderson telephoned his Berlin embassy from Salzburg. ‘I hope to be back in Berlin about eight p.m.,’ the FA wiretappers heard him report.

He [Hitler] is entirely uncompromising and unsatisfactory but I can’t say anything further until I’ve received his written reply. Roughly, the points made by him were: Poland has been warned that any further action against German nationals and any move against Danzig, including economic strangulation, will be met by immediate German action. If Britain takes further mobilisation measures, general mobilisation will take place in Germany…I asked whether this was a threat. His reply was, ‘No, a measure of protection.’

Hitler’s written answer was intransigent. In their second conversation, that afternoon, Henderson argued that it was proof of Chamberlain’s good intentions that he was still refusing to take Churchill into his Cabinet; the anti-German faction in Britain mainly consisted of Jews and anti-Nazis, he said. After he left the Berghof, Weizsäcker caught Hitler briefly alone and warned that Italy was only lukewarm about war, while the British were the captives of their own foreign policy. ‘Britain and France are bound to declare war. They aren’t people you can deal with logically or systematically – they’re labouring under a psychosis, a kind of whisky intoxication…Tomorrow Chamberlain will rally the whole Parliament behind him the moment he talks of war.’ Hitler disagreed, though evidently without conviction because Weizsäcker noted that day: ‘He still thinks he can localise the war, but he’s also talking – today at any rate – of being able to fight a general war as well. Until recently, his view on this was very different.’


Alone or in the company of his adjutants, Hitler paced the Berghof terraces. Goebbels flew down from Berlin. ‘The Führer,’ he recorded ‘greets me very cordially. He wants me to be with him over the next few days. In the afternoon he gives me a broad overview of the situation: Poland’s plight is desperate. We shall attack her at the first possible opportunity. The Polish state must be smashed just like the Czech. It won’t take much effort. More difficult is the question whether the West will intervene. At present one can’t say. It depends. London is talking tougher than in September 1938. So we’re going to have to box cunning. At present Britain probably doesn’t want war. But she can’t lose face…Italy isn’t keen but she’ll probably go along with us. She’s hardly got any choice.’

Late that evening Ribbentrop came faintly on the telephone from Moscow: Stalin was demanding that the tiny but ice-free ports of Libau and Windau in Latvia should be assigned to his sphere of interest. Hitler sent an orderly for an atlas, and replied that the USSR was welcome to the ports concerned. Later still, at dinner, a paper was handed to him. Hitler excitedly rapped the table for silence and announced that the pact with Stalin had been signed.

After dinner, the whole party strolled out onto the darkened terraces. Across the valley the night sky was lightened by a phenomenon not normally seen in these southern latitudes – an aurora borealis, of bloody red. He sat up with Goebbels and several others until four a.m. talking things over. He had now decided that ‘White’ should begin at 4:30 a.m. on the twenty-sixth. The second phase, the Y-movement, had just begun (at eight p.m.): 1,300 trainloads of matériel and troops were moving eastward, and 1,700 toward the west. Raeder’s warships were already at sea. Across the Atlantic a German supply ship, the Altmark, was just weighing anchor to rendezvous with the German raider Graf Spee. What could still go wrong? Weizsäcker wrote in his diary that evening, August 24: ‘Italy is acting as though the whole affair does not concern her…The thought that [Hitler] may have to fight the West as well is causing him more concern than I suspected.’

At 3:30 p.m. Hitler and Goebbels had flown back to Berlin, to meet Ribbentrop, who would arrive back at Tempelhof airport from Moscow at 6:45. In Berlin sobering news awaited him: Chamberlain had just publicly reaffirmed in the reconvened House of Commons that Britain planned to stand by her guarantee to Poland, despite the Moscow pact. Hitler analysed the position with Ribbentrop, Göring, and Weizsäcker. Ribbentrop was full of his impressions of the Kremlin. Stalin, he said, had toasted each member of the German delegation in turn. ‘Stalin is just like you, mein Führer,’ Ribbentrop gushed. ‘He’s extraordinarily mild – not like a dictator at all.’

More cursorily they discussed Italy. Hitler still ignored every sign that his Axis partner was ill-disposed toward war. The only risk that Hitler would admit was that the Italians might bluster that events had taken an ‘unexpected turn.’ So, after midnight, he had Ribbentrop telephone Count Ciano to advise him that ‘White’ was now imminent. To Ribbentrop and Hitler it seemed a pure formality: they assured Ciano that the Moscow pact would rule out any western intervention.


When Hitler rose the next morning, August 25, 1939, his official residence was already crowded. ‘White’ was now less than twenty-four hours away. The brown Nazi Party uniform was everywhere. Everyone knew that at two p.m. Hitler was due to give the code word, and none of his followers wanted to miss the historic moment. The photographs show Bormann, Goebbels, Ribbentrop, and Himmler all hanging around. Telephone wires snaked across the priceless carpets in tangled profusion. Ribbentrop dictated by telephone a formal letter from the Führer to Mussolini hinting that war might come at any hour; Hitler asked for an early response. By noon there was still no reply, so he inquired of the OKW how long he could postpone the attack decision: the General Staff agreed to a one-hour extension, until three. Hitler invited Ambassador Henderson to come over at 1:30. (Weizsäcker observed in his diary, ‘Most of the day in the Reich chancellery. Efforts are still being made to split the British from the Poles.’)

At 12:30 p.m. Lieutenant Colonel Nikolaus von Vormann reported to Hitler as liaison officer. Colonel Erwin Rommel reported as commandant of the Führer HQ: Hitler sent him on ahead with the HQ unit to Bad Polzin – a railroad station in Pomerania, where Bock’s Army Group North had established its HQ. Captain von Puttkamer also arrived back at the chancellery. The admiralty had apprehensively recalled him from the destroyer force to act as naval adjutant. Hitler took him aside to talk about his destroyer experiences until 1:15 when Bormann announced that lunch was served.

Barely had Hitler settled with his nine-man staff at the round lunch table when a roll of drums from the courtyard heralded the arrival of Sir Nevile Henderson. For over an hour, speaking with apparent sincerity, Hitler put to the ambassador the folly of Britain’s throwing away her Empire for Poland’s sake. He followed with his now-familiar offer: after he had settled the Polish problem, he was willing to conclude agreements with Britain which ‘would… if necessary assure the British Empire of German assistance, regardless of where such assistance should be necessary.’ He offered partial disarmament and even hinted that if Britain waged a ‘sham war’ to preserve face he would not begrudge it. Once the war was over he would return to his beloved architecture. ‘I’m not really a politician at all,’ he said.

The FA intercepts show that Henderson was not taken in. He reported in cypher to London that it was plain to him that Hitler was trying to drive a wedge between Britain and Poland.


There was still no formal reply from Mussolini, but the FA had now intercepted Count Ciano’s instructions to the Italian ambassador to see Ribbentrop at once and inform him of the Duce’s statement in the event of war: ‘If Germany attacks Poland and the conflict remains localised, Italy will afford Germany any kind of political and economic aid requested of her.’ To Hitler, this seemed satisfactory. When Attolico thereupon asked urgently for an audience, he was asked to come at two p.m.Attolico had to wait while Hitler talked with Henderson – and even as he waited he was urgently informed by Rome that his instructions had been cancelled. Hitler sent Ribbentrop out impatiently to telephone Ciano. The word from Rome was that Ciano and Mussolini had both left for the beach.

It was now 2:45 p.m.There were only fifteen minutes to go to the General Staff’s deadline. Hitler crossed to the music room with Ribbentrop and closed the door behind them. After fifteen minutes, Hitler decided he could not wait for the Duce’s reply any longer. At 3:02 p.m., pale but otherwise composed, he opened the door and announced to the throng: ‘Case White!’

So the attack would begin next morning. Hitler’s special train, Amerika, was shunted into Anhalt station to await him. Telegrams went out to every Reichstag deputy ordering an emergency session at five the next morning. The public telephones to London and Paris were cut off. From Brauchitsch’s headquarters the 3:02 p.m. code word was cabled, teletyped, telephoned, and duplicated; camouflage was stripped, engines tested, ammunition cases broken open – for at 8:30 that evening the advance toward the Polish frontier would begin.


One, two hours passed. Suddenly one of the many telephones rang: a voice said that the British government was going to ratify its pact with Poland that evening – the news had come from the press office. Ribbentrop urged Hitler to halt the attack, but Hitler was no dilettante. He knew that an army is an amorphous and fluid animal, with many brains and many claws. He summoned Colonel Schmundt; Schmundt called for General Keitel; Keitel sent for General von Brauchitsch – but he was nowhere to be found. Schmundt fetched the OKW timetable, the long pages were unfurled and calculations made. It seemed there was still time.

Even as they were talking, at about six p.m. the Italian ambassador hurried in. He brought a further bombshell – the reply from Rome. Mussolini attached such fearful conditions to any Italian aid – for instance, ‘immediate war material and raw material deliveries from Germany’ – and it was couched in such language (‘I consider it my absolute duty as a loyal friend to tell you the whole truth…’) that Hitler could only treat it as a stinging rebuff. To Colonel von Vormann he hissed, ‘Cunning! That’s what we’ve got to be now. As cunning as foxes!’ He was stunned. Goebbels saw him brooding and thinking things over – ‘It’s a hard blow for him. But he’ll find a way out, even from this devilish situation. He’s always found one before, and he’ll do so this time too.’

Hitler ordered the army colonel to summon his chiefs, Brauchitsch and Halder, Chief of General Staff, to the building. But Halder was on the road somewhere with his entire operational staff, transferring from the war department in Bendler Strasse to General Staff HQ at Zossen, outside Berlin. Brauchitsch arrived at Hitler’s residence at seven p.m. Sober and unexcitable, he agreed that ‘White’ could be postponed. In fact he welcomed the delay, as it would shift the emphasis to a properly planned mobilisation. He now told Hitler, ‘Give me a week to complete mobilisation as planned, and you’ll have over a hundred divisions available. Besides, this way you gain time for your political manoeuvring.’ He promised: ‘I can halt the army before it hits the frontier at 4:30 a.m.’

At 7:45 p.m. Vormann was dispatched by car to rush the written Halt order personally to Halder. When Hitler telephoned Göring, the field marshal asked him how long he intended to postpone ‘White.’ Hitler replied, very significantly, ‘I’ll have to see whether we can eliminate this British intervention.’ Göring was sceptical: ‘Do you really think four or five days will change things much?’


Hitler appeared downstairs looking more relaxed on August 26. The news was that the army had managed to halt its attack on Poland virtually in mid-leap. The Halt order had reached all but one army patrol: it had attacked Poland by itself and suffered accordingly. A small task force of Abwehr agents under Lieutenant Herzner, sent into Poland ahead of zero hour to hold open the Jablunka railroad tunnels, could not be recalled. A pathetic message came that they were now being encircled by regular Polish troops. Hitler ordered the little band of desperadoes to hold out as long as possible. To the Polish authorities, meanwhile, the Germans coolly disowned Herzner’s force as an irresponsible Slovakian gang. Heydrich’s planned provocations in Upper Silesia were called off at the last moment: the ‘Polish corpses’ supplied by Dachau were given a reprieve.

A telegram had arrived during the night from the German ambassador in Rome. It described vividly Mussolini’s response at 3:20 p.m. the previous day, on reading Hitler’s first letter: the Duce had ‘emphatically stressed’ that he would stand unconditionally at Hitler’s side. That tallied with the first version of his reply as intercepted by the FA.

Italy’s attitude had however dramatically changed. At 11:52 a.m., the Forschungsamt intercepted Count Ciano’s telephone call from Rome to Attolico in Berlin, dictating what he described as Mussolini’s demands from Germany: 150 flak batteries, millions of tons of coal, steel, and oil and impossible quantities of molybdenum (600 tons!), tungsten, zirconium, and titanium. At noon Keitel, Brauchitsch, and Göring came.

Keitel confirmed that the OKW saw no prospect whatever of meeting the Italian demands.

At about 1:30 p.m.Attolico brought the list. New was Attolico’s demand that all the material must reach Italy ‘before the beginning of hostilities.’ Attolico complacently assured Hitler that all the figures were correct. At 2:30 p.m. Hewel phoned Ambassador von Mackensen in Rome to ‘verify’ the figures with Ciano; Ciano also insisted that there was no possibility of error. Mackensen was then instructed to see Mussolini and show him the figures – an instruction he found ‘puzzling,’ since the figures were supposed to have emanated from the Duce in the first place.

Controlling his anger, Hitler began drafting yet another letter to Mussolini. He said he would do what he could to meet the demands. Where the Italians had asked only for flak batteries, Hitler proposed in his early draft to promise them flak battalions (Abteilungen). Göring was shocked and objected that that was quite out of the question. Hitler cynically replied, ‘I’m not concerned with actually making the deliveries but with depriving Italy of any excuse to wriggle out of her obligations.’

Shortly before lunch General Milch arrived from Carinhall. It was he who candidly suggested that Italy’s benevolent neutrality would be far better during ‘White.’ Hitler slapped his thigh and brightened. The letter that was finally telephoned to Rome at three p.m. reflected this change of emphasis: Hitler asked only that Italy should make sufficient military clatter to contain some of the West’s forces. Who needed Italian military assistance anyway?

Mussolini confirmed that evening that since Germany could not supply the materials he had requested, Italy herself could not actively participate. Hitler replied with two lame requests: he asked his friend not to give the world any clue to Italy’s disappointing attitude; and he asked for Italian industrial and agricultural workers for the Reich. Mussolini readily agreed.

That day the FA intercepted a report by the Italian embassy in Berlin. Canaris had gleefully described to his crony, the military attaché, how Hitler had revoked ‘White’ on the previous evening. Hitler angrily sent for his devious Intelligence chief and reprimanded him for his inexplicable talkativeness.


France’s faintheartedness was apparent in a letter from the prime minister, Edouard Daladier, which the ambassador brought to Hitler at seven p.m. that evening, August 26: ‘You were like me a soldier in the front lines in the last war. You will know as I do what contempt and condemnation the devastations of war aroused in the consciences of nations, regardless of how the war ended…’ Coulondre followed the letter with an emotional speech, begging the Führer who had built a whole empire without bloodshed to hesitate before shedding the blood of women and children now. Hitler remained silent, and kicked himself later for not having advised Coulondre that, since he would never start the bombing of civilians, he would not be to blame if the blood of ‘women and children’ flowed. Coulondre telephoned to Daladier in Paris that the message had fallen on deaf ears. Daladier responded, ‘Then I put my trust in God and the strength of the French nation.’ (The FA recorded the exchange.)

Unlike September 1938, this time the voices against war were in the minority. The army General Staff anticipated ‘White’ with barely disguised relish. The only influential voice of warning, that of Göring, was not heeded.

Göring was maintaining contacts with high British officials through intermediaries and a Swedish businessman, Birger Dahlerus. That morning, August 26, Lord Halifax had given Dahlerus a letter for Göring; it confirmed the British desire for a peaceful settlement, but stressed the need for a few days to reach it. Was this again the spirit of appeasement? It required the most cunning cultivation; Hitler asked Dahlerus to join them, gave him several proposals to convey to London, and sent him back.


Afterwards, he lay awake in the darkness of his chancellery bedroom, and brooded on whether to take the plunge now or postpone this war for two years more. All his instincts told him that he must attack now. Admittedly, the FA intercepts showed little sign of the western powers ditching Poland yet; but perhaps they were counting on Hitler backing down again, as he had on the twenty-fifth.

It was now Sunday August 27. A flak battery mounted guard on the Adlon Hotel where most of the Reichstag deputies were staying. During the day, the Nazi wiretappers heard Holman, the secretary of the absent British ambassador, reassuring an American colleague that Henderson was urging London to avoid a war; but Holman predicted that Polish truculence might still be a big obstacle. Goebbels brought his State secretary Leopold Gutterer, wearing the black uniform of an SS Brigadeführer, and bearing a one-page propaganda ministry report on German public opinion: the public was unanimously against war. Hitler was furious, but Himmler backed Gutterer, saying that the Gestapo reports were painting the same grim picture. ‘It is very grave,’ recorded Goebbels. ‘But the Führer will pull us through. On Poland our minimum demand is Danzig and a corridor across their corridor. Maximum – that’s a matter of record. The Führer can’t abandon our minimum demand. And he’ll get his way. It’s become a matter of honour. Nobody can say what will transpire. The Führer is glad we don’t have a monarchy any more. The Italy business has been declared top state secret. Death penalty for treason.’

Hitler finally met the disgruntled Reichstag deputies in the ambassadors’ suite of the chancellery at 5:30 p.m.They recognised that he had spent a sleepless night. His voice was hoarse and his movements and expressions were loose and disjointed. Bormann noted in his diary, ‘For the time being the Reichstag will not sit. After a brief speech the Reichstag deputies were sent home by the Führer.’ Hitler told them that things looked grave, but he had resolved to settle the eastern problem so oder so. His minimum demand was for the return of Danzig and a solution of the Corridor problem; his maximum demand was for whatever a war would bring him – and he would fight that war ‘with the most brutal and inhuman methods.’ Like Frederick the Great he was willing to stake everything on one gamble. Mussolini’s attitude was, he suggested, in their best interests. War would be hard, perhaps even hopeless: ‘But as long as I live there will be no talk of capitulation.’ He regretted that his pact with Stalin had been so widely misinterpreted. The USSR was no longer a Bolshevik state, he argued, but an authoritarian military dictatorship like their own. He had made a pact with the Devil to drive out Beelzebub. ‘If any one of you believes that my actions have not been inspired by my devotion to Germany, I give him the right to shoot me down.’ The deputies applauded, but only thinly.


Food rationing was introduced on August 28, 1939, without warning. The rationing was evident at Hitler’s own breakfast table that morning. But he came downstairs in brilliant mood, because he had learned during the night that the Swedish businessman Dahlerus had returned from London with news that the British were seriously considering his offer. Hitler boasted to his staff that he had managed to knock Britain out of the game.

When Brauchitsch reported to him, Hitler made no bones about his strategy: he would demand Danzig, right of transit across the Polish Corridor, and a Saar-type plebiscite there. Britain would probably accept these proposals, Poland would reject them, and the split would then be wide open. Hitler instructed the foreign ministry to draft a set of formal proposals along these lines, for the British government to study. The proposals – sixteen in all – were so moderate that one of his diplomats termed it ‘a real League of Nations document.’ He read them out to Keitel in the conservatory. The general naively replied, ‘I find them astoundingly moderate.’

At 3:22 p.m. Brauchitsch telephoned the General Staff from the chancellery to the effect that the provisional new date was September 1. Colonel von Vormann wrote that afternoon: ‘Hitler is in a brilliant mood. He’s confident that we can position Britain so that we only have Poland to deal with. Everybody’s guessing at what Henderson is bringing back with him. He took off from London at 4:30 p.m. Not a hint has reached us so far.’

Henderson arrived at 10:30 p.m. Meissner and Brückner conducted him to the Führer’s study. He handed over the British reply to Hitler’s ‘offer’ of the twenty-fifth. It was not what Hitler expected at all: the British announced that they had received a ‘definite assurance’ from the Poles that they were prepared to negotiate. Hitler replied that he was still minded to deal with Poland on a ‘very reasonable basis’ – no doubt thinking of the still-unrevealed sixteen-point proposals. He told Henderson that he would examine the British reply the next day. Henderson assured him, ‘We took two days to formulate our answer. I’m in no hurry.’ ‘But I am,’ said Hitler.[28]‘Henderson,’ wrote Colonel von Vormann the next day, ‘did not bring what we expected, at least so they say. What follows now lies darkly in the future’s womb.’

A fragment of Heinrich Himmler’s typescript diary casts an unsavoury shaft of light on the tenebrous inner workings of Hitler’s mind that evening:

Ambassador Henderson came to see the Führer at 10:30 p.m. and left the Reich chancellery at 11:45 p.m.Afterward Göring, Hess, Bodenschatz, and I joined the Führer in the conservatory. The Führer was accompanied by Ribbentrop.

He told us what the British offer contained. It was very courteously phrased, but contained nothing of real substance. Altogether he was in a very good mood and mimicked in his inimitable way what Henderson had put forward – speaking German with a thick English accent.

The Führer then indicated that we now have to aim a document at the British (or Poles) that is little less than a masterpiece of diplomacy. He wants to spend tonight thinking it over; because he always gets most of his best ideas in the small hours between five and six a.m.

At this Göring inquired, ‘Mein Gott, don’t you get any sleep even now? Or have you got insomnia again?’ The Führer replied that he often dozes from three to four o’clock in the morning and then suddenly wakes up to find the problems arrayed in pristine clarity before his eyes. Then he jumps up and jots down a few key words in pencil. He himself doesn’t know how it happens – all he does know is that in the wee hours of the morning everything that might confuse or distract disappears.

Sure enough, by the time Hitler awoke the next morning, August 29, his stratagem was clear. He would ‘accept’ the British proposals for negotiations with Poland – but he would give Warsaw just one day to send a plenipotentiary to Berlin. They would, of course, refuse. Alternatively, if they agreed, on the thirtieth the Pole would have to arrive; the next day the talks would break down, and on September 1 ‘White’ could begin, as planned. As an Abwehr colonel noted in his diary: ‘The Führer has told Ribbentrop, Himmler, Bodenschatz, etc., “Tonight I’m going to hatch something diabolical for the Poles – something they’ll choke on.”’ Weizsäcker, equally well informed, wrote soon after three a.m. in his diary: ‘Göring has told the Führer, “Let’s stop trying to break the bank!” to which the Führer retorted, “It’s the only game I’ve ever played – breaking banks.”’

The reply that Hitler handed to the British ambassador at seven p.m. reflected his new stratagem. It said that he would approve of direct negotiations with Warsaw – and ‘counted on the arrival’ of a Polish plenipotentiary the next day. He would also agree to guarantee Poland’s new frontiers – but only in association with the Soviet government. Henderson objected, ‘This sounds very much like an ultimatum.’ Hitler replied that it would only take ninety minutes for a Pole to fly to Berlin from Warsaw. ‘My soldiers are asking me: Yes or No?’ To underline the point, Henderson found Keitel outside the study as he left. He ironically asked, ‘Busy today, Herr Generaloberst?’

On August 30, Hitler conferred all afternoon with his commanders in chief (except of course Raeder, who was still sulking over the Albrecht affair). His timetable now allowed little leeway. He was sure that no Polish plenipotentiary would arrive, and the FA wiretaps on the British embassy revealed that London shared that view. Henderson was heard at eleven a.m. complaining, ‘You can’t just conjure a Polish representative from out of a hat.’

Soon after five p.m.a strange FA wiretap report reached Hitler. The British foreign office had telephoned Henderson that Neville Chamberlain was less impressed than his ambassador by the clamour arising from the Reich chancellery, ‘as he’s been over there himself’ and, by implication, knew these people.

The Voice [speaking from the London end] continued that they are really on the right track now: They [the Germans] really mustn’t expect to get away with it again by summoning people to them, handing over documents to them, and forcing them to sign on the dotted line. All that’s a thing of the past now.

That did it: Hitler instructed Ribbentrop to read out the sixteen-point proposals to Henderson when the ambassador came that evening, but on no account to hand over the document. At 10:30 p.m. the FA monitored a British embassy official, Sir George Ogilvie-Forbes, telling Attolico that they were all still ‘twiddling their thumbs’ waiting for the telegram of reply from London.

Precisely at midnight, Henderson arrived at the chancellery. When he inquired whether the German proposals had now been drafted, Ribbentrop airily replied that they had: but they were now superseded as Poland had sent no plenipotentiary. Ribbentrop read them out to show how ‘reasonable’ they were. At midnight Hitler related all this to Dr. Goebbels: ‘The British,’ recorded the diarist, ‘are still hanging tough. Not a peep out of Poland yet. The Führer thinks there will be war. Italy’s defection is not all that bad for us, as Italy is the most vulnerable to attack by the Entente powers. The Führer has drafted a memorandum: Danzig to be German, a plebiscite in the Corridor in twelve months’ time on the basis of 1918; fifty-one percent of the vote to be decisive. Loser to get a one-kilometrewide corridor across the corridor. Minorities problems to be examined by an international commission. When the time is ripe the Führer will toss this document to the world community.’

A few minutes after Ambassador Henderson left, the Führer sent for Colonel Schmundt. At 12:30 a.m. he issued the code word once again: ‘Case White.’ Immediately after that he retired to bed.


Throughout the next day, August 31, Hitler was calm and self-assured. He had made up his mind and nothing would now induce him to change it.

The FA knew that Henderson had advised the Polish embassy to telephone Warsaw for urgent instructions. At 8:30 a.m. Henderson had urgently telephoned the embassy again, warning that an unquestionably reliable source had informed him that there would be war if Poland did not undertake some move over the next two or three hours. The Polish ambassador Lipski, however, refused even to come to the telephone.

Soon after midday the FA’s intercept of Warsaw’s explicit instructions to him was in Hitler’s hands: Lipski was ‘not to enter into any concrete negotiations,’ he was merely to hand a Polish government communication to the Reich government. Thus the Nazis knew that the Poles were merely stalling for time. Lipski went to ground – ‘He can’t be found,’ recorded Goebbels, ‘for hours at a time. Poland is obviously playing for time.’ It worried the minister that Field Marshal Göring, the Luftwaffe’s commander in chief, was ‘still sceptical,’ but he consoled himself in his diary: ‘The Führer still does not believe Britain will intervene. Nobody can say as yet. The SS is given special orders for the coming night.’

Göring called a ministerial conference at his operational HQ outside Potsdam that day. State secretary Herbert Backe recorded:

Today again at Göring’s operations HQ…Bormann optimistic. G[öring] said things look good. Poles wanted to prevaricate, we are determined. Decision in 24 to 48 hours. Instead of Mussolini-Stalin. [Göring] mentioned publication of something or other that may just keep Britain out…Unfortunately we forfeited surprise element, will cost a few hundred thousand more [lives]. But then we have the upper hand. [Need only defend] frontier in west and air approaches to coast from Holland to Denmark (in addition to those to the west!). Big danger is to the Ruhr. As the new frontier is short, massive demobilisation of troops probable after Poland’s defeat. And then relentless rearmament against Britain.

There is other evidence of Hitler’s beliefs in Colonel von Vormann’s notes that day: ‘The Führer,’ he wrote, ‘is firmly convinced that France and Britain will just put on an act of waging war.’

Then, shortly before one p.m. on August 31, the OKW issued Hitler’s official executive order for war. When Ribbentrop came around soon afterward, Hitler disclosed to him: ‘I’ve given the order. I’ve set the ball rolling.’ To this the foreign minister replied, ‘And the best of luck to you!’

Hitler instructed Ribbentrop to ‘fob off’ the Polish ambassador should he try for an interview. During the afternoon Lipski did indeed ask to see either Hitler or Ribbentrop. Brauchitsch heard through Canaris of Lipski’s request, and told Hitler; the Führer replied at four p.m. that he did not intend to receive the Pole, and confirmed that ‘White’ was still on.

When Ribbentrop finally deigned to see Lipski at six p.m., he merely asked the ambassador whether he was authorised to negotiate. The interview, the first between diplomatic representatives of Poland and Germany since March 1939, was concluded in a matter of minutes. As the ambassador left, all telephone lines to the Polish embassy were cut.

Everything had gone just as Hitler planned. Three hours later, German radio was interrupted with a broadcast of the ‘ultra-reasonable’ sixteen-point offer that Warsaw had refused even to look at. At 10:30 p.m. there were the first radio mentions of serious border incidents, including an armed ‘Polish’ raid on the transmitter at Gleiwitz. Other ‘provocations by the Poles’ were reported near Kreuzburg and Hochlinden. Over two million Germans were now under arms, and the dedicated and incorruptible civil servants of the Forschungsamt could see signs that the western alliance was crumbling. Monsieur Coulondre phoned Henderson about Lipski’s visit to Ribbentrop and said that the Pole had merely handed over a Note, without receiving the German proposals (which Henderson had unofficially obtained from Göring during the day). Henderson exploded, ‘But what’s the point of that! It’s ludicrous, the whole thing!’ In a later conversation a heated argument broke out, which ended with both ambassadors slamming down their telephones.

On the eve of war, the West was in disarray.


[28] ‘Henderson,’ wrote Colonel von Vormann the next day, ‘did not bring what we expected, at least so they say. What follows now lies darkly in the future’s womb.’

Entr’acte: His First Silesian War • 1,600 Words

By the time that Hitler awoke, his armies had already advanced many miles into Poland. They had stormed the frontier at 4:45 a.m. that morning, September 1, 1939, while the Luftwaffe had bombed the enemy airfields and supply dumps.

In many places Hitler’s undercover operations had run into stiff resistance. Polish railway officials on Danzig’s neutral soil had managed to hold up the ‘goods train,’ bound from East Prussia for the Dirschau bridge, at nearby Simonsdorf station.

The SA massacred these interfering Polish railwaymen in reprisal during the day. By the time the train with its hidden cargo of German sappers and infantry reached the Dirschau bridge the gates were closed and the lines blocked. The Luftwaffe had attacked the demolition fuses on time, but brave Poles had repaired them and thus the mile-long bridge across the Vistula was blown.

A second bridge at Graudenz had been assigned to a long-range Abwehr holding squad, operating in plain clothes. These men penetrated into Polish territory, only to be arrested by an officious and trigger-happy German army lieutenant; in the distance they heard that bridge, too, destroyed.

In Danzig itself the Polish post office building held out all day while Polish army officers disguised as postmen directed the defence. Thirty-eight Polish ‘postmen’ survived the siege: those found to be wearing Polish army underwear were executed. It was a rough war for ‘illegals’ on both sides. An Abwehr ‘army,’ pulled together by two captains – Ebbinghaus and Fleck – from volunteers, SA guerrillas, the Sudeten German Free Corps, and Polish and German agents, had infiltrated Poland at about three a.m. to seize railway junctions, coal-mines, and factories. On this first day alone Ebbinghaus and Fleck lost 174 dead and 133 injured of the five hundred cut-throats they had set out with. As for Jablunka, the Poles now had time to blow up both the railroad tunnels.


Hitler dressed that morning in a baggy field-grey army uniform, having discarded his Party tunic for the last time the night before. At ten, he drove with his staff through Berlin’s almost deserted streets to the Kroll Opera-house to address the Reichstag. The same nervous tension gripped him as his little convoy of cars negotiated the fifteen-foot-wide approach passage to the Kroll Opera-house – one of Berlin’s best vantage points for an assassin. A hundred of the seats in front of him were empty, these deputies having been drafted with millions of others into the Wehrmacht ranks.

In his speech he formally gave notice that they were at war with Poland. He publicly thanked his comrade Mussolini for his understanding attitude and ‘offer of support’ – but, he added, the Italians must understand that he needed no outside aid to fight this war. The speech rang with hollow promises: the West Wall would always remain Germany’s frontier in the west; his pact with Russia eliminated every prospect that there might be a conflict between them. With a gesture to his uniform, he proclaimed: ‘I shall never wear another, until victory is ours; not as long as I live!’

The deputies applauded frequently; but they applauded with feeling only when Hitler announced that he would fight a chivalrous war. ‘I shall undertake each operation in such a manner that women and children are neither the target nor the victims.’

He stayed on in Berlin, as he believed that the time for diplomacy was not over. In London, Lord Halifax had summoned the German chargé d’affaires, Theo Kordt, but merely complained that the German action against Poland ‘created a very serious situation.’ Hitler took heart. At 5:36 p.m. the FA did intercept London’s instructions to notify Berlin that Britain would stand by Poland if the Nazi troops were not withdrawn: but no deadline was given. Colonel von Vormann, writing at six p.m., observed: ‘The big question – will Britain really stand by Poland? – is wide open.’ Almost at once the Forschungsamt intercepted an incautious remark by a British embassy official, that the Note was not an ultimatum – just a warning.


Early on September 2, Mussolini made an attempt to halt the avalanche. He proposed a cease-fire and an immediate Five-Power peace conference; France was said to be in agreement. For some hours Hitler appears to have taken seriously the possibility of cease-fire. In conference this same day he urged the Wehrmacht to seize as much Polish territory as possible over the next few days, particularly the whole Polish Corridor. At 9:20 a.m. his army adjutant phoned Rommel not to expect the Führer to transfer to his HQ that day either.

Meanwhile the Führer’s residence teemed with officials; Brückner moved regularly through the rooms, inquiring each person’s business and tactfully easing the idle out into the Wilhelm Strasse. Colonel von Vormann jotted in his diary: ‘Mood is very confident.’

In a noisy House of Commons, Neville Chamberlain had insisted that Germany’s forces totally withdraw from Poland. The FA monitored this statement being telegraphed to the British embassy at 7:50 p.m., and there was a postscript: ‘See my immediately following telegram.’ Henderson was heard telephoning Coulondre: ‘I don’t know what the next telegram will be, but I can guess.’

Half an hour after midnight – it was now Sunday, September 3 – Henderson received the ‘immediately following telegram.’ Its text was as he had feared. ‘You should ask for an appointment with Minister for Foreign Affairs at nine a.m., Sunday morning. Instructions will follow.’

There was no doubt in Hitler’s mind, reading the FA intercept of this, as to what the instructions would be. Britain was about to tender a war ultimatum to the Reich. At two a.m. Hitler ordered an adjutant to telephone to Rommel that the Führer’s HQ was to expect him to arrive in twenty-four hours’ time.


At the foreign ministry, an interpreter was given the thankless task of receiving the formal British ultimatum from Henderson. At eleven a.m. this ultimatum expired. At 11:30 a.m. Henderson saw Ribbentrop and informed him that Britain was now at war with the Reich. Ten minutes later, the FA heard the British embassy report to London that Ribbentrop had handed over an eleven-page reply, refusing to give any assurance as to the withdrawal of German troops and putting the blame squarely on Britain: ‘The Germans,’ said the intercept report, ‘were very polite.’

Colonel von Vormann’s contemporary account that day deserves quoting here:

Now the worst has happened, after all!… I’m not a belly-acher or defeatist, but the future looks very grim to me. This is just what we didn’t want. Until this morning the idea was to play for time somehow and to postpone the decision. Even today the Führer still believes that the western powers are only going to stage a phoney war, so to speak. That’s why I’ve had to transmit an order to the Army at 1:50 p.m. not to commence hostilities [in the west] ourselves.

I can’t share his belief. He’s got the wrong idea of the British and French psyche.

From the contortions that Britain had gone through to produce even this ultimatum Hitler was certain of her unwillingness to fight; he said as much to Grand Admiral Raeder that afternoon. Raeder penned a sour survey that day, beginning: ‘Today there began a war with Britain and France with which – to judge from all the Führer’s utterances hitherto – we should not have had to reckon before about 1944 …’ Goebbels too was beset by misgivings, warning Hitler in a twenty-five page memorandum entitled ‘Thoughts on the Outbreak of War, 1939’ that there was little enthusiasm for this new conflict and that Britain, poisoned by ‘Jewish capital,’ would fight to the last man: ‘Britain,’ he pointed out, ‘is governed by the old men of 1914 who are incapable of thinking straight or logically because of their hate complexes.’

In the event however Hitler proved right again. Field Marshal Göring – no admirer of Ribbentrop’s – volunteered to fly at once to London. Hitler forbade him to undertake any such venture. Oblivious of the audience of officials, Hitler dictated in rapid succession the proclamations to the German people, to the Nazi party, and to the Wehrmacht in east and west. In them, he branded Britain as the eternal warmonger, whose aim over two hundred years had been to defeat whichever Continental power was strongest, spurning no lies, libels, or deceits to that end. He wasted no words on France. He scanned the drafts and released them to the press. Secretary Christa Schroeder wrote that evening to a woman friend: ‘We’re planning to leave Berlin in a few hours’ time…. As for me, I’m ready to go through thick and thin with the Chief. If our luck runs out – I’d rather not think about that, but if – then my own life doesn’t matter to me any more.’


A quarter-century before, Kaiser Wilhelm’s armies had marched off to battle through cheering crowds, garlanded with flowers, while bands played. How different was Adolf Hitler’s departure for the Polish front that night! At the Anhalt railroad station, a solitary stationmaster waited at the barrier to greet him and his staff. The special train Amerika waited on the cordonedoff platform, its locomotive panting steam, while the station’s coloured signal lamps reflected from the metal of the light flak batteries mounted on flat-top wagons at each end.

At nine p.m. the long train hauled out of the station, toward the battlefield in Poland.

‘Almighty God,’ Hitler had written in Mein Kampf, ‘bless our arms when the time comes, be righteous just as Thou hast always been, judge for Thyself whether we have now merited our freedom. Lord, bless our fight!’

Part III: Hitler’s War Begins

‘White’ • 5,600 Words

Rienzi: ‘Der Tag ist da, die Stunde naht
Zur Sühne tausendjähr’ger Schmach!’

Richard Wagner’s opera Rienzi

The special train Amerika was parked in a dusty Pomeranian railroad station surrounded by parched and scented pine trees and wooden barrack huts baked dry by the central European sun. It was a cumbersome assemblage of twelve or fifteen coaches hauled by two locomotives, immediately followed by armoured wagons bristling with 20millimetre anti-aircraft guns. Hitler’s personal coach came first. In the drawing room, there was an oblong table with eight chairs grouped around it. The four remaining compartments in Hitler’s coach were occupied by his adjutants and man-servants.

The nerve centre was the ‘command coach’ attached to his own quarters. One half was taken up by a long conference room dominated by a map table, and the other by Hitler’s communications centre, equipped with teleprinter and radio-telephone. He was to spend most of his waking hours in this hot, confined space for the next two weeks. Here Keitel introduced to the Führer for the first time his chief of operations, Major General Alfred Jodl. A year younger than Hitler, Jodl was to be his principal strategic adviser until the last days of war.

In the train, as at the chancellery, the brown Nazi party uniform dominated the scene. Hitler hardly intervened in the conduct of the Polish campaign. He would appear in the command coach at nine a.m. to hear Jodl’s personal report on the morning situation. His first inquiry of Colonel von Vormann was always about the dangerous western front situation, for of thirty German divisions left to hold the three-hundred-mile line, only twelve were up to scratch; and against them France might at any time unleash her army of 110 divisions. On September 4, an awed Colonel von Vormann wrote: ‘Meanwhile, a propaganda war has broken out in the west. Will the Führer prove right after all? They say that the French have hung out a banner at Saarbrücken reading We won’t fire the first shot.’

Poland was overrun in three weeks. Neither the bravery of her soldiers nor the promises of her allies prevented this overwhelming defeat. The gasoline engine, the tank, and the dive-bomber should not have taken the Poles by surprise, but they did. Hitler’s armoured and mechanised units encircled the enemy armies while they were still massed to the west of the Vistula, where they were deployed in preparation for the drive to Berlin – the thrust which would bring about an anti-Nazi revolution in Germany. What had been planned on the maps of the German General Staff throughout the summer now took precise shape in the marshlands and fields of Poland in September 1939.

Hitler listened unobtrusively to all that went on about him in the command coach. His being there did not distract his staff, as one member wrote, except that they were forbidden to smoke in his presence – a prohibition that fell heavily on his cigar-smoking naval adjutant. Hitler’s only strategic influence had been on the ‘grand pincer’ plan, with its powerful southward thrust with mechanised forces from East Prussia behind the Vistula. He had also attempted to veto the appointments of generals Johannes Blaskowitz to command the Eighth Army and Günther von Kluge the Fourth Army – the former because he recalled that in manoeuvres three years before, the general had not committed his tanks as he himself would have considered best. Hitler did later find fault with the conduct of the Eighth Army’s operations. This produced the only real crisis of the campaign; but the crisis occurred precisely where Hitler had expected, and he had ordered countermeasures in anticipation.

At eight o’clock on the morning of September 4, General von Bock, the commander of Army Group North, joined Rommel in reporting to Hitler, and the three men set out on an extended tour of the battle areas.

Hitler rode in a heavy six-wheeled Mercedes, and the rest of his staff and escort followed in six identical vehicles. Seventy or more cars packed with Party and ministerial personages jostled for position behind the Führer’s convoy.

At each brief halt Hitler’s generals and Party leaders elbowed their way into the foreground of the photographs being taken and then galloped back to their cars to urge their chauffeurs into even closer proximity to the Führer’s Mercedes. Once when Bormann angrily rebuked Rommel for these scenes of disorder, the general coolly snapped back: ‘I’m not a kindergarten teacher. You sort them out, if you want!’

The Wehrmacht was already steamrollering northward toward Thorn. These were fields long steeped in German blood. On the sixth Hitler toured the battlefield of Tucheler Heide, where a powerful Polish corps had been encircled. (Apparently convinced that the German tanks were only tinplate dummies, the Polish cavalry had attacked with lances couched.) A radio message told Hitler that Kraków was now in German hands. At ten p.m. that evening, Colonel von Vormann briefed him on the western front. (‘The phoney war continues,’ he wrote later that day. ‘So far not a shot has been fired on the western front. On both sides there are just huge loudspeakers barking at each other, with each side trying to make it clear to the other how impossible their behaviour is and how stupid their governments are.’) Vormann talked of the dissolution of the Polish army: ‘All that remains now is a rabbit hunt. Militarily, the war is over.’ Beaming with pleasure Hitler took the colonel’s hand in both of his and pumped it up and down.

The situation in the west had a comic-opera quality. There were secret exchanges of food and drink between the French and German lines. Hitler went out of his way to avoid provoking British public opinion: when Göring begged for permission to bomb the British fleet, Hitler rejected the request. He was furious when Britain announced on September 4 that one of her transatlantic liners, the Athenia, had been torpedoed by a German submarine. Admiral Raeder assured him that none of their handful of U-boats could have been near the alleged incident. Hitler suspected that Churchill had himself ordered the liner sunk to arouse American public opinion. Shortly afterward, however, Raeder advised him confidentially that a Uboat commander had now admitted the sinking. The liner, he contended, had been blacked-out and zigzagging. Raeder and Hitler agreed to keep the truth to themselves.


Hitler’s territorial plans for Poland were still indeterminate. In a secret speech to his generals on August 22 he had set as his goal ‘the annihilation of the Polish forces’ rather than any particular line on the map. But on September 7 he also mentioned to his army Commander in Chief, General von Brauchitsch, the possibility of founding an independent Ukraine. Hitler’s notion was to mark the ultimate frontier between Asia and the West by gathering together the racial German remnants scattered about the Balkans, Russia, and the Baltic states to populate an eastern frontier strip along either the River Bug or the Vistula. Warsaw would become a centre of German culture; or alternatively it would be razed and replaced by green fields on either side of the Vistula. Between the Reich and the ‘Asian’ frontier, some form of Polish national state would exist, to house the ethnic Poles – a lesser species of some ten million in all. To stifle the growth of new chauvinistic centres, the Polish intelligentsia would be ‘extracted and accommodated elsewhere.’ With this independent rump Poland, Hitler planned to negotiate a peace settlement that had some semblance of legality and thereby spike the guns of Britain and France. If however this rump Poland fell apart, the Vilna area could be offered to Lithuania, and the Galician and Polish Ukraine could be granted independence – in which case, as Canaris noted, Keitel’s instructions were that his Abwehr-controlled Ukrainians ‘are to provoke an uprising in the Galician Ukraine with the destruction of the Polish and Jewish element as its aim.’

Hitler’s army had fallen upon the hated Poles with well-documented relish. Colonel Eduard Wagner, as Quartermaster General initially responsible for occupation policy, wrote privately on September 4: ‘Brutal guerrilla war has broken out everywhere, and we are ruthlessly stamping it out. We won’t be reasoned with. We have already sent out emergency courts, and they are in continual session. The harder we strike, the quicker there will be peace again.’ And a week later: ‘We are now issuing fierce orders which I have drafted today myself. Nothing like the death sentence! There’s no other way in occupied territories.’ Hitler and his generals were confronted by what they saw as evidence that Asia did indeed begin just beyond the old Reich frontier. In the western Polish town of Bydgoszcz (Bromberg) the local Polish commander had ordered the massacre of several thousand German residents on the charge that some of them had taken part in the hostilities. Göring’s paratroopers were being shot on the spot when captured by the Poles. The population was instructed, for example, to pour gasoline over disabled German tanks and set them on fire. ‘Against Germany the Polish people fight side by side with the Polish soldiers, building barricades and combating the German operations and positions by every means they can.’


Hitler’s special train, Amerika, had left for Upper Silesia on the ninth. It finally halted in a railway siding at Illnau. The air outside was thick with the hot dust-particles of mid-September. His secretary Christa Schroeder wrote this plaintive description in a private letter:

All day long the sun beats down on the compartments, and we just wilt in the tropical heat…. The Chief drives off in the morning leaving us condemned to wait for his return…. Recently we were parked one night near a field hospital through which a big shipment of casualties was just passing…. Those who tour Poland with the Chief see a lot, but it’s not easy for them because the enemy are such cowards – shooting in the back and ambushing – and because it is difficult to protect the Chief, who has taken to driving around as though he were in Germany, standing up in his open car even in the most hazardous areas…. On the very first day he drove through a copse still swarming with Polacks – just half an hour earlier they had wiped out an unarmed German medical unit. One of the medics escaped and gave him an eye-witness account…. Once again, the Führer was standing in full view of everybody on a hummock, with soldiers streaming toward him from all sides. Obviously it gives the soldiers’ morale a colossal boost to see the F. in the thick of the danger with them, but I still think it’s too risky. We can only trust in God to protect him.

‘The Führer is in the best of moods; I often get into conversation with him,’ wrote General Rommel. ‘He says that in eight or ten days it’ll all be over in the east and then our entire battle-hardened Wehrmacht will move west. But I think the French are giving up the struggle. Their soldiers are bathing in the Rhine, unmolested by us. This time,’ he concluded, ‘we are definitely going to win through!’

That day, September 12, Hitler summoned Göring, Brauchitsch, and Keitel and flatly forbade them to provoke the French in any way. Hitler had walked into the command coach just as Canaris was outlining to Keitel the unfavourable effect a German bombardment of Warsaw would have on foreign opinion. When asked for news from the western front, Canaris craftily replied that the French were systematically marshalling troops and artillery opposite Saarbrücken for a major offensive.[29]Canaris had deliberately exaggerated reports of a planned minor French attack in the hope of disrupting Hitler’s Polish campaign strategy, according to Colonel Lahousen, who accompanied him. Hitler remained politely incredulous. ‘I can hardly believe that the French will attack at Saarbrücken, the very point at which our fortifications are strongest.’ Jodl added that the artillery preparation for a major offensive would take at least three weeks, so the French offensive could not begin before October. ‘Yes,’ responded Hitler, ‘and in October it is already quite chilly, and our men will be sitting in their protective bunkers while the French have to wait in the open air to attack. And even if the French should manage to penetrate one of the weaker points of the West Wall, we will in the meantime have brought our divisions across from the east and given them a thrashing they’ll never forget.’

Hitler’s tours of these Polish battlefields were his first real contact with ‘the east.’ They reinforced his unhealthy fantasies about the ‘sub-humans’ and the Jews. Was this still Europe? Indiscriminately scattered about the untended acres were wretched wooden hutlike dwellings with thatched roofs. At the roadsides, knots of submissive Polish civilians stood in the swirling dust of Hitler’s motorcade. Among them he glimpsed Jews in highcrowned hats and caftans, their hair in ritual ringlets; they looked for all the world like figures out of mediæval antisemitic drawings. Time had stood still here for centuries. The Jews were the enemy.

Dr. Chaim Weizmann, the president of the Jewish Agency, had written to Neville Chamberlain promising explicitly that all Jews everywhere would fight on the side of the democracies against Nazi Germany. The Times published Weizmann’s letter on September 6, and Hitler no doubt considered it a Jewish declaration of war. He often referred to it in later years – by which time his grim prophecy was being cruelly fulfilled. ‘For the first time we are now implementing genuine ancient Jewish law,’ he boasted on January 30, 1942. ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’

For the pogroms that now began, Himmler and Heydrich provided the initiative and drive themselves. Hitler’s only order to the Reichsführer SS, Himmler, in this context was one for the general consolidation of the German racial position. The army generals became restless about deeds being enacted by the SS in Poland, but Himmler reassured them in a secret speech at Koblenz in March 1940, of which his handwritten notes survive. He explained that now for the first time, under Adolf Hitler, the solution of the thousand-year-old problem of Poland was possible: only the infusion into Poland of Germanic blood had made some Poles great and dangerous; now that Germany was strong she must see to the ‘final annexation of the area, its purification and Germanisation.’ But a ‘Bolshevik method’ – which Himmler defined in a memorandum two months later as downright extermination of the minority races – was ‘impossible.’ He conceded that the ‘leading brains of the resistance’ were being executed but this was not, stressed Himmler, ‘a wild excess by subordinate commanders – still less by me.’ Here Himmler’s jottings show a German phrase – Weiss sehr genau, was vorgeht – which might be translated as either ‘[I] know precisely what is happening’ or ‘[He] knows precisely what is happening.’[30]General Ulex, who was present, recalled this after the war as ‘I am doing nothing of which the Führer does not know.’ (Cf. Professor Helmut Krausnick, ‘Hitler and the Murders in Poland,’ VfZ, 1963, 196ff.) However, nobody else recalled this. And General von Leeb, whose diary has been available to me, would certainly have mentioned such a candid statement in it, given his pronounced Christian convictions. Ulex had been humiliated by Hitler late in 1938. Let it be noted however that Colonel Eduard Wagner wrote his wife on the following day: ‘In the evening Himmler spoke to the Commander in Chiefs at Koblenz. More about that verbally…’ Two weeks later Himmler spoke in a Ruhr city. Here his notes read: ‘The Führer’s mission to the Reichsführer SS: the quality of the German species. Blood our most supreme value. New territories not a political, but an ethnological problem.’

As in Austria and Czechoslovakia, the advancing tide of German army units had been followed by Heydrich’s police net. Each army had its task force (Einsatzgruppe), and each corps had an Einsatzkommando of a hundred officials in Waffen SS uniform with SD (Sicherheitsdienst, security service) emblems on their sleeves. Their primary role was Intelligence – seizing enemy documents – and what the army orders more formally described as ‘combating any anti-Reich or anti-German elements in rear areas.’ According to Heydrich, writing ten months later, the special order directing the task forces to conduct ‘security operations of a political and ideological nature in these new territories’ was issued by Hitler himself.

Parallel to the SS task forces attached to the armies, there was an independent ‘special duties’ task force under the command of the arrogant and brutal SS General Udo von Woyrsch. When he was eventually kicked out of Poland on German army orders, he loudly protested that he had received direct instructions from the Führer via Himmler to spread ‘fear and terror’ to dissuade the Poles from committing acts of violence. (Himmler’s orders to Woyrsch survive, dated September 3: he was charged with the ‘radical suppression of the incipient Polish insurrection in the newly occupied parts of Upper Silesia’; Hitler is not mentioned.)

There is no surviving record of when – or if – Heydrich conferred with Hitler during the Polish campaign. But many of Hitler’s generals learned from him that he planned to eliminate the Polish intelligentsia one way or another; they joined a conspiracy of silence.

Hitler’s blood was already boiling at the ponderous court-martial procedures being implemented against Polish guerrillas – he wanted their swift and summary execution. On September 7 he had met with Brauchitsch in his private coach and for two hours discussed the political future of Poland. He instructed the army to abstain from interfering in the SS operations, and the next day he issued a set of guidelines in which the emphasis was on the appointment of Party functionaries as civil commissars to do the dirty work in Poland.

Little is known in detail of what Hitler told Brauchitsch. After talking to Halder on the ninth, Eduard Wagner noted in his diary: ‘It is the Führer’s and Göring’s intention to destroy and exterminate the Polish nation. More than that cannot even be hinted at in writing.’ The same day, Colonel von Vormann wrote: ‘The war in Poland is over…. The Führer keeps discussing plans for the future of Poland – interesting but scarcely suited for committing to writing.’ Only General Walther Heitz, the new military governor of West Prussia, lifted a corner of this veil of secrecy in writing up a conference with Brauchitsch on September 10: ‘Other business: I am to rule the area with the mailed fist. Combat troops are over-inclined toward a false sense of chivalry.’

That the nature of the SS task force operations had been explained to Brauchitsch was established when Admiral Canaris reminded Keitel of the damage the planned ‘widespread executions’ of Polish clergy and nobility would inflict on the Wehrmacht’s reputation. Keitel retorted that this had long been decided on by the Führer, who had made it plain to Brauchitsch ‘that if the Wehrmacht wants nothing to do with it, they will merely have to put up with the SS and Gestapo appearing side by side with them.’ Hence the creation of parallel civil authorities in Poland. On them would fall the job of ‘demographic extermination,’ as Canaris recorded Keitel’s phrase. When Heydrich informed Colonel Wagner that the planned ‘mopping up’ of Poland would embrace ‘the Jewry, intelligentsia, clergy, and nobility,’ the army officer asked only that the murderous orders flow directly from Heydrich to his task forces in the field.

But Heydrich had not in fact secured Hitler’s approval for liquidating the Jews. On September 14 he reported to his staff on his tour of the task forces. The discreet conference record states: ‘The Chief [Heydrich] enlarged on the Jewish problem in Poland and set out his views on this. The Reichsführer [Himmler] will put certain suggestions to the Führer, on which only the Führer can decide, as they will also have considerable repercussions abroad.’ Hitler, however, favoured only a deportation of the Jews, as became clear to both Brauchitsch and Himmler when they conferred separately with Hitler at Zoppot on September 20. To Brauchitsch he talked only of a ghetto plan for the Jews.

Hitler’s somewhat more moderate instructions to Himmler were presumably those echoed by Heydrich to his task force commanders in Berlin next day: the formerly German provinces of Poland would be reannexed to the Reich; an adjacent Gau, or district, made up of a Polishspeaking population, would have Kraków as its capital and probably be governed by the Austrian Dr. Arthur Seyss-Inquart. This Gau – the later Generalgouvernement – would be a ‘kind of no-man’s-land’ outside the planned East Wall: it would accommodate the Polish Jews. Hitler also authorised Heydrich to unload as many Jews as possible into the Russian zone. To facilitate this expulsion the Jews were to be concentrated in the big Polish cities. They would be joined by the Jews and the remaining thirty thousand gypsies from Germany. Hitler asked Himmler to act as overlord of this resettlement operation – what would in later years be called ethnic cleansing. For his part, General von Brauchitsch circularised his field commanders thus: ‘The police task-forces have been commanded and directed by the Führer to perform certain ethnographical (volkspolitische) tasks in the occupied territory.’ The only stipulation Brauchitsch made when he met Heydrich on September 22 was that the expulsion operations must not interfere with the army’s movements or Germany’s economic needs. Heydrich readily agreed.

Hitler’s positive enjoyment of the battle scenes was undeniable. He visited the front whenever he could. At a divisional headquarters set up in a school within range of the Polish artillery, he made the acquaintance of General von Briesen. Briesen had just lost an arm leading his division into an action which warded off a desperate Polish counterattack by four divisions and cavalry on the flank of the Eighth Army; he had lost eighty officers and fifteen hundred men in the fight, and now he was reporting to his Führer not far from the spot where his father, a Prussian infantry general, had been killed in the Great War. On the fifteenth we find Hitler at Jaroslav, watching his soldiers bridging the river San. On the next day the greatest strategic triumph of the campaign was complete: the Polish army optimistically assembled at Posen (Poznan) for the attack on Berlin had been encircled, and Kutno had been captured by the Fourth and Eighth armies. Now it was only a matter of days before Warsaw itself fell.

Hitler had begun to debate the fate of that city with Jodl on the fifteenth. He was particularly eager to have the capital in his hands by the time the U.S. Congress reconvened. He hoped that the mere threat of concerted ground and air attack would suffice. He plagued his officers for estimates on how long it would take to starve the city into submission. Early on the sixteenth a German officer carried to the Polish lines an ultimatum giving the commandant six hours in which to surrender. The commandant refused even to receive the ultimatum. He had spent every waking hour preparing the capital for the German assault. All fortifications and defences had been strengthened; every suburban building had been reinforced by sandbags, concrete, and barbed wire, its basement linked by a honeycomb of tunnels to a network of resistance strongpoints; deep antitank trenches cut across Warsaw’s main thoroughfares, and there were barricades formed of heapedup streetcars, cobblestones, and rubble.

As Blaskowitz was later to report: ‘What shocked even the most hardened soldier was how at the instigation of their military leaders a misguided population, completely ignorant of the effect of modern weapons, could contribute to the destruction of their own capital.’

At three o’clock on the afternoon of the sixteenth, Luftwaffe aircraft released over Warsaw several tons of leaflets giving the civilian population twelve hours to leave by two specified roads. At six p.m. the next day, the Deutschland Sender broadcast an invitation to the Polish forces to send officers to the German lines for negotiations to begin at ten p.m.Any officers who turned up for negotiations were to be instructed to hand to their commandant an ultimatum calling for the unconditional surrender of the capital by eight a.m. the next day. Arrangements for the evacuation of the diplomatic corps would be made on request. By 11:45 a.m. on the eighteenth no Polish officer had appeared at the German lines. Hitler’s attempts to obtain the city’s bloodless capitulation were sufficient to give him a clear conscience about destroying Warsaw when the time came.

The Polish government had already escaped to neutral Romania. ‘To protect the interests of the Ukrainian and White Russian minorities,’ two Soviet army groups invaded eastern Poland in the small hours of September 17. The news reached Hitler’s train soon after. At about four a.m. he entered the command coach, where he found Schmundt waiting with Keitel and Jodl. All of them were grouped around the maps of Poland, guessing at the Soviet army’s movements, until the arrival of Ribbentrop, who on Hitler’s instructions now revealed to the astonished generals the details of secret arrangements made with Moscow for Poland. ‘We decided with Stalin on a demarcation line between the two spheres of interest running along the four rivers – Pissa, Narev, Vistula, and San,’ the foreign minister explained as he somewhat crudely drew the line on the map.


By September 19, when Hitler and his staff drove into Danzig, the Polish campaign was all but over. How he now privately mocked the foreign ministry Cassandras who had predicted military disaster![31]Cf. Hewel’s unpublished diary, October 10, 1941: ‘Triumphant conversation [with the Führer] about the foreign ministry. Who in 1939 believed in victory? The state secretary at the foreign ministry [Weizsäcker]?’ Only the garrisons of Warsaw, Modlin, and Hela were still holding out. As the victorious Führer drove through the streets of Danzig, flowers rained down from the windows. When the convoy of cars stopped outside the ancient Artus Hof, Schmundt was heard to comment, ‘It was like this everywhere – in the Rhineland, in Vienna, in the Sudeten territories, and in Memel. Do you still doubt the mission of the Führer?’ Here, in a long, columned fourteenthcentury hall built in the heyday of the Germanic knightly orders, Hitler delivered a lengthy speech. He compared the humanity with which he was fighting this war with the treatment the Poles had meted out to the German minorities after Pilsudski’s death. ‘Tens of thousands were deported, maltreated, killed in the most bestial fashion. These sadistic beasts let their perverse instincts run riot and – this pious democratic world looks on without batting one eyelash.’ In his peroration he spoke of ‘Almighty God, who has now given our arms His blessing.’

Afterward his staff cleared a path for him through the heaving Danzig population packed into the Long Market outside. A bath was provided for the sweat-soaked Führer in one of the patrician houses. He took up quarters for the next week in the roomy sea-front Kasino Hotel at Zoppot, near Danzig. His mood was irrepressible. At midnight two days after his arrival, followed by one of his manservants with a silver tray of champagne glasses, he burst into Jodl’s room, where a number of generals were celebrating Keitel’s birthday. But his ultimate intentions remained the same. Here at Zoppot Hitler began weighing a course of action as hideous as any that Heydrich was tackling in Poland. About a quarter of a million hospital beds were required for Germany’s disproportionately large insane population: of some seven or eight hundred thousand victims of insanity all told, about ten percent were permanently institutionalised. They occupied bed space and the attention of skilled medical personnel which Hitler now urgently needed for the treatment of the casualties of his coming campaigns. According to the later testimony of Dr. Karl Brandt, his personal surgeon, Hitler wanted between forty and sixty percent of the permanently hospitalised insane to be quietly put away.

To his suite at the Kasino Hotel the Führer now summoned his constitutional and medical advisers, and in particular Hans Lammers, chief of the Reich chancellery, and Dr. Leonardo Conti, chief medical officer of the Reich, together with the ubiquitous Martin Bormann and Reichsleiter Philipp Bouhler, chief of the ‘Führer’s chancellery.’ (Conti’s widow still recalls her husband reaching for the encyclopaedia to look up ‘Euthanasia’ after the Führer’s call.) Hitler instructed Dr. Conti that, to meet the requirements of wartime, a program for the painless killing of the incurably insane should be initiated. Dr. Conti questioned whether there was any scientific basis for assuming it would produce eugenic advantages. There was some discussion of the actual mechanics of the program. Dr. Conti proposed the use of narcotics, but in separate discussions with Dr. Brandt, Hitler learned that barbiturates would be too slow to be ‘humane’ and that most physicians considered carbon monoxide gas the fastest and most peaceful lethal dose. Hitler asked Brandt shortly to investigate which was the fastest way consistent with the least amount of pain.

He had been an enthusiastic advocate of the racial rejuvenation of the German people ever since the Twenties. On the pretext that 20 percent of the German population had hereditary biological defects, the National Socialists had instituted a program of ‘racial hygiene’ immediately after they came to power; Minister of the Interior Wilhelm Frick was a fervent advocate. In July 1933 the Cabinet had passed the first related law; it was henceforth obligatory for doctors to report on patients with hereditary diseases so that they could be sterilised. An elderly Darwinian (Alfred Ploetz) whom the Reich had made a professor after 1933 was to point out in 1935 that ‘the contra-selective effects of war must be offset by an increase in the extermination quotas.’ Frick had drafted the necessary laws governing the operations of the local health offices in 1934, parallel to the racial-politics agencies of the Party which functioned in each Party district. Over the next ten years, tens of thousands of senior medical officials were to pass through special courses in racial hygiene. The economic burden represented by these specimens was explained, and particularly repulsive samples were housed at the institutions as walking laboratory exhibits. In 1935 Hitler openly told Dr. Conti’s predecessor that should war come he would ‘tackle the euthanasia problem,’ since a wartime psychology would reduce the risk of opposition from the church.

But it was not until the end of 1938 that Hitler was directly involved in any euthanasia decisions, and then it was in ‘mercy killing.’ Bouhler’s chancellery had repeatedly submitted to him appeals from patients in intolerable pain, or from their doctors, asking Hitler to exercise the Head of State’s prerogative of mercy and permit the doctor to terminate the patient’s life without fear of criminal proceedings. When Hitler received such an appeal from the parents of a malformed, blind, and imbecile boy born in Leipzig, he sent Dr. Brandt early in 1939 to examine the child, and he authorised the doctors to put him to sleep. A ministerial decree was eventually passed in August 1939 requiring all midwives to report the details of such deformed new-born babies; a panel of three assessors judged each case, and if all three agreed, the infant was procured from the parents either by deception or by compulsion and quietly put away.

After the Zoppot meeting in September 1939, some time passed without any results. In fact Dr. Conti had become involved in lengthy discussions in which the legal and ethical bases of Hitler’s proposals were explored. The consequence of this delay was that Hitler bypassed both Lammers and Conti, and peremptorily dictated onto a sheet of his private stationery an order that considerably enlarged the scope of the euthanasia project:

Reichsleiter Bouhler and Dr. Brandt, M.D., are herewith given full responsibility to enlarge the powers of certain specified doctors so that they can grant those who are by all human standards incurably ill a merciful death, after the most critical assessment possible of their medical condition. (Signed) Adolf Hitler

This Führer Order was symbolically backdated to September 1, the start of what he had envisaged as his ‘first Silesian war.’ Now it was no longer a local campaign but a bloody crusade in the course of which the German people were to become ennobled by conflict and purged of the impure elements in their blood and seed. Census forms, ostensibly for statistical survey purposes, were circulated to doctors and hospitals from October 9, 1939. Panels of three assessors then decided the life or death of each patient on the basis of these forms alone. Hitler told Bouhler he wanted a process untrammelled by red tape.

What had begun as the ‘mercy killing’ of the few was now followed by the programmed elimination of the burdensome tens of thousands of insane; and all this was but a platform for far wider campaigns on which the Reich was to embark now that it was at war.


[29] Canaris had deliberately exaggerated reports of a planned minor French attack in the hope of disrupting Hitler’s Polish campaign strategy, according to Colonel Lahousen, who accompanied him.

[30] General Ulex, who was present, recalled this after the war as ‘I am doing nothing of which the Führer does not know.’ (Cf. Professor Helmut Krausnick, ‘Hitler and the Murders in Poland,’ VfZ, 1963, 196ff.) However, nobody else recalled this. And General von Leeb, whose diary has been available to me, would certainly have mentioned such a candid statement in it, given his pronounced Christian convictions. Ulex had been humiliated by Hitler late in 1938. Let it be noted however that Colonel Eduard Wagner wrote his wife on the following day: ‘In the evening Himmler spoke to the Commander in Chiefs at Koblenz. More about that verbally…’

[31] Cf. Hewel’s unpublished diary, October 10, 1941: ‘Triumphant conversation [with the Führer] about the foreign ministry. Who in 1939 believed in victory? The state secretary at the foreign ministry [Weizsäcker]?’

Overtures • 4,900 Words

Hitler’s train idled on a siding in outer Pomerania until 9:30 a.m. on September 26, 1939, and then began the eight-hour haul back to Berlin. The journey passed in heavy silence. Jodl must have been in his private compartment, for only Colonel von Vormann was there. For the next few hours Hitler spoke no word but restlessly paced the length of the swaying carriage while the train drew closer to Berlin. Just after five p.m. the train reached Berlin’s Stettin station. Hitler and his entourage drove almost stealthily to the Reich chancellery. The atmosphere was funereal.

Without doubt his thoughts now revolved around the next step. In January 1944 he was secretly to address his sceptical generals with words that he might well have been thinking now. ‘If I am now taken to task about what concrete prospects there are of ending the war, then I should just like to ask you to look at the history of wars and tell me when in the major campaigns any concrete idea emerged as to how each would end…. Moltke himself wrote that it is erroneous to expect that any plan of war can be drawn up that will hold good after the first battles.’ In the same speech he was to explain: ‘In my position one can have no other master than one’s own judgement, one’s conscience, and one’s sense of duty.’

The army had issued an order for the withdrawal of most of the combat divisions from Poland and their partial demobilisation. When Hitler heard of it he declared, ‘We are going to attack the West, and we are going to do it this October!’

There are small indications that Hitler had known all along that he was on the threshold of a long and bitter war with Britain. As early as September 5 the Führer instructed Walther Hewel to use every possible diplomatic channel to rescue his disconsolate friend ‘Putzi’ Hanfstaengl from the consequences of his own self-imposed exile in London and arrange his escape to Germany. Britain was clearly going to play for time. On the evening of September 12, Hitler confidentially disclosed to Colonel Schmundt that as soon as Poland had been defeated he would swing around and attack in the west; he must exploit the western weakness while he could. He said the same to Goebbels – ‘Once we’ve dealt with the east,’ the minister recorded, ‘he wants to take on the West. He has no use for a long war. If there’s got to be war, then short and sharp.’ On the fourteenth he discussed with his chief engineer, Fritz Todt, the need for a permanent headquarters site in the west. To his adjutants, Hitler explained that his Great War experience in Flanders had taught him that until January the weather would hold good for an offensive, after which it would be imprudent to launch a large-scale campaign before May. He proposed to make one more peace offer to Britain, but he did not seriously expect Britain to come to terms until the Wehrmacht was arrayed on the English Channel, he said.

Hitler revealed this intention to his startled supreme commanders on September 27. What disturbed the army was Hitler’s insistence that since German superiority of arms and men was only temporary, the offensive against France must begin before the end of 1939, and, as in 1914, it would have to be carried through Belgium. Hitler explained that he was unconvinced of Belgium’s honest neutrality; there were indications that she would permit a rapid invasion by the French and British forces massing on her western frontier. Aware that Brauchitsch inwardly rebelled against this new campaign, Hitler tolerated no discussion of his decision or of the prospects. He terminated the conference by tossing his brief notes into the fire burning in the study grate.

Baron Ernst von Weizsäcker recorded Hitler as saying in his presence two days later that the new offensive might cost Germany a million men – but it would cost the enemy the same number, and the enemy could ill afford the loss. Hitler repeated his arguments to his army and army group commanders when he assembled them in the chancellery the next day.


Warsaw had just fallen. Elsewhere in Poland the towns had largely escaped damage. In Kraków, little had been bombed. But this was not the fate of Warsaw. By the twenty-first it was clear that the city would have to be taken by storm. The two hundred foreign diplomats were allowed to escape, and the artillery bombardment of the city was stepped up. On the twenty-fifth Hitler had visited the Tenth and Eighth armies; the latter had a hundred and fifty batteries of artillery drawn up for the final bombardment due to begin next day. From the roof of a sports stadium Hitler watched with binoculars as the artillery pounded Warsaw. Blaskowitz’s report states:

Hitler was briefed on the Eighth Army’s plan of attack: according to this the main artillery assault on the fortress will commence early on September 26. Until then only identified military objectives, enemy batteries, and vital installations such as gas, water, and power stations are being bombarded by ground and air forces….

After the plan of attack has been outlined broadly to him, the Führer, who is deeply troubled by the suffering that lies in store for the population of the fortress [Warsaw], suggests that one more last attempt should be made to persuade the military command of Warsaw to abandon its lunatic course. He guarantees that the officers of the fortress will be granted honourable captivity and may retain their daggers if they surrender forthwith, and orders that the NCOs and troops are to be assured of their early release after the necessary formalities.

Millions of new leaflets publishing these terms were dropped over Warsaw that evening. The Polish commandant made no response. Early on the twenty-sixth, therefore, the target of the artillery bombardment was changed to the city itself, and the infantry assault began. The next day it was all over; the Poles had capitulated with virtually no further military resistance. On October 2, General Rommel visited Warsaw and afterward reported to Hitler on the terrible scenes of destruction. Rommel wrote to his wife the next day: ‘Report in the Reich chancellery, and dinner at the Führer’s table. Warsaw is in bad shape. There is hardly a building not in some way damaged or with its windows intact…. The people must have suffered terribly. For seven days there has been no water, no power, no gas, and no food…. The mayor estimates there are forty thousand dead and injured….’

A pall of death still hung over Warsaw as Hitler flew in for his big victory parade there on October 5. The stench of rotting bodies soured the Polish air. According to his closest staff, the Führer was unnerved by the spectacle of the death all about. Outwardly he remained hard and callous. To the foreign journalists swarming around him he said menacingly, ‘Take a good look around Warsaw. That is how I can deal with any European city.’ But when he saw the banquet that the army had prepared at the airfield, either his stomach rebelled or his instinct for bad publicity warned him not to sit at a vast, horseshoe-shaped table with spotless white linen and sumptuous food at a time when hundreds of thousands of Warsaw’s inhabitants were starving.

The frontiers of eastern Europe had now been agreed upon between Germany and the Soviet Union. Hitler had insisted that his foreign minister personally fly to Moscow to settle the details: ‘Laying down the definitive frontiers between Asia and Europe for the next thousand years is after all a task worthy of the foreign minister of the Grossdeutsches Reich!’ Whereas the line provisionally agreed upon in mid-September had run along the Vistula River, it now followed the Bug River far to the east, since Stalin had also assigned to Germany the districts of Warsaw and Lublin in exchange for the Baltic state of Lithuania, which the August pact had placed within Germany’s sphere of influence. So now the German troops who had advanced to the Bug, only to be ordered to withdraw to the Vistula, had to march eastward once again, spanning the difficult terrain for the third time in as many weeks.


For the first two weeks of October 1939, Hitler unquestionably wavered between continuing the fight and making peace with the remaining belligerents on the best terms he could get. The fact that he had ordered the Wehrmacht to get ready for ‘Operation Yellow’ (Fall Gelb, the attack on France and the Low Countries) in no way detracts from the reality of his peace offensive. Germany would have needed at least fifty years to digest the new territories and carry out the enforced settlement programmes planned by Heinrich Himmler to fortify the German blood in the east.

Thus Hitler’s peace feelers toward London were sincere – not just a ploy to drive a wedge between Britain and France. Weizsäcker wrote early in October: ‘The attempt to wind up the war now is for real. I myself put the chances at twenty percent, [Hitler] at fifty percent; his desire is 100 percent. If he obtained peace… it would eliminate the awkward decision as to how to reduce Britain by military means.’ Early in September Göring had hinted to the British through Birger Dahlerus that Germany would be willing to restore sovereignty to a Poland shorn of the old German provinces excised from the Fatherland at the end of the Great War; there would also be a reduction in German armaments. The British response had been a cautious readiness to listen to the detailed German proposals. Hitler told Dahlerus in Berlin late on September 26 that if the British still wanted to salvage anything of Poland, they would have to make haste, and now he could do nothing without consulting his Russian friends. Dahlerus left for London at once.

The German army had good reason to keep anxious track of Hitler’s peace offensive. Late in September, Halder’s deputy had gloomily – and wholly inaccurately – warned that the German army could not launch a frontal assault on the French before 1942. The tactics which had proved so successful in Poland would not suffice against the well-organised French army; the foggy weather and short hours of autumn daylight would set the Luftwaffe at a disadvantage.

Brauchitsch enumerated these arguments to Hitler on October 7, and Hitler asked the Commander in Chief to leave his notes behind. Over the next two days he dictated a fifty-eight-page memorandum for Keitel and the three commanders in chief alone; in it he explained just why they must launch ‘Yellow’ at the very earliest opportunity and just why time was working against Germany. The Führer read this formidable document to his uncomfortable generals on the tenth. In it, he insisted that Britain’s longrange goal remained unchanged. The long-range German war aim must therefore be the absolute military defeat of the West. This was the struggle which the German people must now assume. Despite all this, he added, a rapidly achieved peace agreement would still serve German interests – provided that Germany was required to relinquish nothing of her gains.


On September 29, Alfred Rosenberg secured Hitler’s permission to take up feelers put out through an intermediary in Switzerland by officials of the British air ministry; but this glimmer of hope was shortly extinguished when the intermediary reported that the forces for peace in that ministry had been pushed to the wall by the more militant forces at Churchill’s beck and call. Little more was heard of these diffident approaches from London.

At this stage in Hitler’s thought processes there came an ostensible intervention by President Roosevelt that was as abrupt in its approach as it was enigmatic in denouement. At the beginning of October an influential American oil tycoon, William Rhodes Davis, arrived in Berlin on a peace mission for which he had apparently received a ninety-minute personal briefing from Roosevelt. In Berlin the oilman met Göring, and a sevenpage summary of the discussion of the alleged Roosevelt proposals survives. It was evidently given wide confidential circulation in Berlin, for sardonic references to Roosevelt’s sudden emergence as an ‘angel of peace’ bent on securing a third term figure in several diaries of the day.

President Roosevelt is prepared to put pressure on the western powers to start peace talks…. [He] asks to be advised of the various points Germany wants to settle, for example, Poland and the colonies. In this connection President Roosevelt also mentioned the question of the purely Czech areas, on which however a settlement need not come into effect until later. This point was touched on by President Roosevelt with regard to public opinion in the United States, as he must placate the Czech voters and the circles sympathising with them if he is to exercise pressure on Britain to end the war.

Roosevelt suspected that Britain’s motives were far more dangerous and that they had nothing to do with Poland; he himself recognised that the real reason for the war lay in the one-sided Diktat of Versailles which made it impossible for the German people to acquire a living standard comparable with that of their neighbours in Europe. Roosevelt’s proposal, according to the unpublished summary, was that Hitler be allowed to keep Danzig and all the formerly German Polish provinces, and that all Germany’s former African colonies be restored to her forthwith. This was not all. If Daladier and Chamberlain refused to comply, then President Roosevelt would support Germany – Davis reported – in her search for a lasting peace: he would supply Germany with goods and war supplies ‘convoyed to Germany under the protection of the American armed forces’ if need be. John L. Lewis had privately promised Davis that if some such agreement could be reached between Germany and the United States his unions would prevent the manufacture of war supplies for Britain and France.

On October 3 Göring announced to the American emissary that in his important speech to the Reichstag on the sixth Hitler would make a number of peace proposals closely embodying the points Davis had brought from Washington. Göring told Davis: ‘If in his [Roosevelt’s] opinion the suggestions afford a reasonable basis for a peace conference, he will then have the opportunity to bring about this settlement…. You may assure Mr. Roosevelt that if he will undertake this mediation, Germany will agree to an adjustment whereby a new Polish state and an independent Czechoslovak government would come into being.’ Göring was willing to attend such a conference in Washington.

Hitler hoped for an interim reply from Roosevelt by the fifth. (As Rosenberg wrote: ‘It would be a cruel blow for London to be urgently “advised” by Washington to sue for peace!’) But something had gone wrong: when Davis reached Washington he was not readmitted to the President, and they did not meet again.

A different aspect of Roosevelt’s policy was revealed by the Polish documents ransacked by the Nazis from the archives in Warsaw. The dispatches of the Polish ambassadors in Washington and Paris laid bare Roosevelt’s efforts to goad France and Britain into war. In November 1938, William C. Bullitt, his personal friend and ambassador in Paris, had indicated to the Poles that the President’s desire was that ‘Germany and Russia should come to blows,’ whereupon the democratic nations would attack Germany and force her into submission; in the spring of 1939, Bullitt quoted Roosevelt as being determined ‘not to participate in the war from the start, but to be in at the finish.’ Washington, Bullitt had told the Polish diplomats, was being guided solely by the material interests of the United States.

Events now took their course. On Friday, October 6, Hitler spoke to the Reichstag. He singled out Churchill as a representative of the Jewish capitalist and journalistic circles whose sole interest in life lay in the furtherance of arson on an international scale.

Optimistically General Rommel wrote from Berlin on the seventh: ‘If the war ends soon, I hope I will soon be able to go home….’

Late on October 9 Dahlerus reported to Hitler the conditions Britain was attaching to peace negotiations: in addition to insisting on a new Polish state, Britain wanted all weapons of aggression destroyed forthwith. These were hard terms to swallow, for Britain was blithely ignoring the growing armed strength of the Soviet Union and her expansionist policies. Nevertheless, on the tenth, Dahlerus was instructed to advise London that Hitler would accept these terms on principle. The Swedish negotiator saw Hitler twice that day before he departed for The Hague.

He took with him a formal letter from Göring and a list of Hitler’s proposals. Dahlerus noted to one German officer after meeting Hitler that ‘Germany for her part was able to swallow even tough conditions, provided they were put in a palatable form.’ He said he was taking with him to Holland more than enough to dispel Britain’s smouldering mistrust of Hitler. ‘It depends on London,’ Hitler explained at lunch on October 10 to Dr. Goebbels, ‘whether the war goes on.’

In Holland, however, Dahlerus waited in vain for the promised British emissary. Chamberlain’s eagerly awaited speech to the House of Commons on October 12 exploded Hitler’s confident expectation that peace was about to descend on Europe after five weeks of war. Chamberlain dismissed Hitler’s public offer as ‘vague and uncertain’ – he had made no suggestion for righting the wrongs done to Czechoslovakia and Poland. If Hitler wanted peace, said Chamberlain, ‘acts – not words alone – must be forthcoming.’ That same evening Hitler sent for Göring, Milch, and Udet of the Luftwaffe and instructed them to resume bomb production at the earliest possible moment: ‘The war will go on!’

‘Before these answers came,’ Weizsäcker wrote two days later, ‘the Führer himself had indulged in great hopes of seeing his dream of working with Britain fulfilled. He had set his heart on peace. Herr von Ribbentrop seemed less predisposed toward it. He sent the Führer his own word picture of a future Europe like the empire of Charlemagne.’ To the Swedish explorer Sven Hedin Hitler voiced his puzzlement at Britain’s intransigence. He felt he had repeatedly extended the hand of peace and friendship to the British and each time they had blacked his eye in reply. ‘The survival of the British Empire is in Germany’s interests too,’ Hitler noted, ‘because if Britain loses India, we gain nothing thereby.’

Of course he was going to restore a Polish state – he did not want to gorge himself with Poles; as for the rest of Chamberlain’s outbursts, he, Hitler, might as well demand that Britain ‘right the wrongs’ done to India, Egypt, and Palestine. Britain could have peace any time she wanted, but they – and that included that ‘brilliantined moron’ Eden and the equally incompetent Churchill – must learn to keep their noses out of Europe.


The urgency of resuming the offensive was what Hitler had most emphasised in his memorandum of October 9. German military advantage was now at its very zenith. In Italy Mussolini was not getting any younger. Russia’s attitude could easily change. And there were other reasons why Germany must strike swiftly and avoid a protracted war: as Britain injected fresh units into France, the psychological boost this gave to the French could not be ignored; conversely it would become progressively more difficult to sustain the German public’s enthusiasm for war as each month passed. Germany’s air superiority was only temporary – the moment the enemy believed he had achieved air superiority he would exploit it. Above all, the British and French knew of the vulnerability of the Ruhr industries, and the moment the enemy could base aircraft or even long-range artillery on Belgian and Dutch territory, Germany would have to write off the Ruhr from the war effort. This was why Hitler was convinced that the occupation of Belgium and Holland must be on the western powers’ agenda already, and this was how he justified ordering his army to prepare to attack France through Belgium.

If the coast of western Europe were in Hitler’s hands, the advantages to Germany would be decisive: for sound strategic reasons the German navy needed submarine bases west of the English Channel. Similarly the Luftwaffe would have a disproportionate advantage in striking power if its flying distance to British targets involved only the short shuttle route from Holland, Belgium, or even the Pas de Calais in France.

These were the reasons Hitler gave for asking the Wehrmacht to put the offensive first, attacking in the west ‘this very autumn,’ and en masse. The German army would attack the French along a front from south of Luxembourg to north of Nijmegen, in Holland. Splitting into two assault groups on either side of the Belgian fortress of Liège, it would destroy the French and British armies which would have come to meet it.

The German armoured formations would be used with such speed and dexterity that no cohesive front could be stabilised by the enemy. The Luftwaffe was to concentrate on shattering enemy railroad and road networks, rather than squander effort on hunting down individual aircraft. ‘Extreme restrictions are to be imposed on air attacks on cities themselves’; they were to be bombed only if necessary as reprisals for raids on the Reich cities.

The German navy and air force accepted Hitler’s arguments without demur. The army leadership did not. Perhaps this was because for the first time the generals clearly saw that Hitler took his position as Supreme Commander of the Wehrmacht seriously. Admiral Raeder added an urgency of his own when he saw Hitler on the evening of the tenth of October: if Britain was to be defeated, she must be beleaguered and besieged regardless of army objections. ‘The earlier we begin, and the more brutally, the earlier we shall see results; the shorter will be the war.’

Hitler thought the same way and stressed the importance of maintaining the submarine construction programme right through 1940. The OKH (War Department) considered the army unready; army group commanders Bock and Leeb echoed this scepticism with different degrees of vehemence, and army commanders like Reichenau and Kluge were equally unenthusiastic about the campaign.

An indirect result of the British snub of his peace overture was a further hardening in Hitler’s attitude to the future of Poland. He did not renew his offer to set up a rump Polish state. The Poland of 1939 would be subdivided, dismembered, and repopulated in such a way that it would never again rise to embarrass Germany or the Soviet Union.

A series of radical decrees heralded this new order. On October 4 Hitler amnestied all deeds committed by Germans ‘enraged by the atrocities perpetrated by the Poles.’ The Hitler decree appointing Himmler gave him the job of ‘eliminating the injurious influence of such non-German segments of the population there as are a danger to the Reich’; it was signed on the seventh. On the eighth Hitler signed a decree setting up new Reich Gaue (districts) – ‘West Prussia’ and ‘Posen.’ As for the remaining German-occupied area, the Polish reservation, on the twelfth Hitler drafted a decree ‘for the restoration… of public order’ there, subjugating these remaining regions to a German Governor General, a viceroy responsible only to himself.

At a conference at the chancellery on October 17, Hitler announced to Keitel, Frank, and Himmler that the army was to hand over control to the civilian administrations set up under Hans Frank and Gauleiters Albert Forster and Artur Greiser. The army ought to be glad to be rid of this unwholesome task, Hitler noted, and warming to his theme he ordered that in the Generalgouvernement it was no part of the administrators’ duty to establish a model province along German lines or to put the country economically back on its feet. Significantly Frank’s task in Poland would be to ‘lay the foundations for a military build-up in the future’ and to prevent the Polish intelligentsia from creating a hard-core opposition leadership. Poland must become so poor that the people would want to work in Germany; the Jews and other vermin must be given speedy passage eastward. To an army colonel Keitel frankly admitted: ‘The methods to be employed will be irreconcilable with all our existing principles.’ According to yet another version, Hitler ended by announcing that he wanted Gauleiters Greiser[32]On March 7, 1944 Gauleiter Artur Greiser cabled the Führer that 1,000,000 Germans had been officially transplanted to his Reich gau ‘Wartheland’ from the old Reich, from the rest of Europe, and most recently from the Black Sea regions; the Jews had all but vanished from the area, and the number of Poles had been reduced from 4,200,000 to 3,500,000 by forced migration. and Forster to be able to report to him ten years from now that Posen and West Prussia were pure and Germanic provinces in full bloom, and Hans Frank to be able to report that in the Generalgouvernement – the Polish reservation – the ‘Devil’s deed’ had been done.

The population surgery prescribed by the redrawn map of eastern Europe inflicted hardship on Germans too, and German refugees crowded the roads of the territories of south-eastern Poland beyond the San River, an area which had been assigned to Russia. Here there were scores of villages and hamlets where the language and the culture was German, where Germans had tended land given to their ancestors by Maria Theresia and Joseph II – villages with names like Burgthal and Wiesenberg, or Neudorf and Steinfels, where the farms were laid out and worked in an orderly and scientific manner that set them apart from the farms of Polish and Ukrainian neighbours. In the last days of October 1939, Hitler’s army adjutant handed to him a Fourteenth Army report on the evacuation of these thousands of ethnic Germans. No orders had been given; none were necessary. ‘In the majority of cases the villagers had experienced enough during the Great War (when the Germans were transported to Siberia) and during the years of Bolshevik rule, 1919 and 1920, for them to abandon their property without further ado and take to their heels.’ As this westward movement was in progress, a more ominous eastward flow began: from their half of Poland, the Russians began deporting dangerous intellectuals and the officer classes; and in the German half the Jews were being rounded up, confined, and spilled over the demarcation line into the Russian zone where possible.

Hitler’s attitude toward the Kremlin at this time revealed a fascinating conflict between his short-term desire for a stable eastern front and an assured supply of raw materials, and his long-term, immutable hatred and mistrust of communism. In private conferences both the Führer and Ribbentrop spoke reverently of the treaties signed with Moscow. But contacts between the German and Soviet armies along the demarcation line were prohibited by Berlin. In his long October memorandum to his supreme commanders Hitler had warned: ‘Through no agreement can the lasting neutrality of Russia be guaranteed with certainty.’ This latent mistrust was voiced by Hitler to Keitel on the seventeenth: Poland was to be left in decay except insofar as was needed to work up the roads, the rail systems, and the signals networks to turn the area into an important military springboard.

In a long speech behind closed doors to senior Party officials and gauleiters four days later, he promised that once he had forced Britain and France to their knees he would revert his attention to the east. ‘Once he had [dealt with the east] as well,’ recorded one listener, ‘he would set about restoring Germany to how she used to be….’ He wanted Belgium; and as for France, Hitler was now thinking in terms of the ancient frontier of 1540 – when the Habsburg empire of Charles V had embraced Switzerland and a multitude of duchies like Burgundy and Lorraine, extending as far to the west as the Meuse River.

Reich minister Darré also noted Hitler’s remarks to the gauleiters in his private diary: ‘In history,’ Hitler had declaimed, ‘the Victor is always right! Thus, in this war, I shall have only the dictates of my own conscience to follow – that is, of my own God-given people. Ice-cool, I shall resort to actions that will probably violate every valid law of nations. What we need,’ he continued, ‘is space. And I hope to acquire the space we need in the East.’

A week after this speech to the gauleiters, he assembled two dozen generals and admirals for an investiture at the chancellery. During the banquet that followed he suddenly asked the panzer general, Heinz Guderian, what the army reaction to his Moscow Pact had been. Guderian replied that the army had breathed a sigh of relief. This was evidently not the answer that Hitler wanted. He lapsed into a brooding silence, then changed the subject.


[32] On March 7, 1944 Gauleiter Artur Greiser cabled the Führer that 1,000,000 Germans had been officially transplanted to his Reich gau ‘Wartheland’ from the old Reich, from the rest of Europe, and most recently from the Black Sea regions; the Jews had all but vanished from the area, and the number of Poles had been reduced from 4,200,000 to 3,500,000 by forced migration.

Incidents • 4,300 Words

By November 1939 Adolf Hitler had faced up to the fact that the war would go on. When Alfred Rosenberg came to him with nebulous reports of fresh peace moves within the British air ministry, the Führer belittled the prospects: while he himself would still favour a German-British rapprochement, he said, London was in the grip of a Jewish-controlled, lunatic minority. Hitler said he failed to see what the British really wanted. ‘Even if the British won, the real victors would be the United States, Japan, and Russia.’ German propaganda now portrayed the British whom Hitler had unsuccessfully wooed as murderers, liars, and hypocrites. That Britain was continuing the fight was an unpalatable truth Hitler could no longer ignore.

Upon his return from Poland, Hitler had equipped the big Congress Room in his official Berlin residence as a war conference room. In its centre was a large map table. The OKW (Wehrmacht High Command) generals Keitel and Jodl moved into neighbouring rooms vacated by Hitler’s adjutants. Jodl’s status was still relatively weak. When he ventured an appreciation of the overall strategic situation, Hitler cut him short after the first few sentences. But Hitler’s regard for Jodl grew as his contempt for the army’s representatives became more explicit. He told Jodl in the middle of October, ‘We are going to win this war even if it contradicts a hundred General Staff doctrines – because we’ve got the better troops, the better equipment, the stronger nerves, and a united, resolute leadership!’

On October 19 the reluctant War Department had at Hitler’s behest issued its first hasty directive on ‘Yellow.’ It envisaged a massive main attack being carried through Belgium by seventy-five divisions. Army Group C, commanded by General von Leeb, would remain on the defensive with sixteen divisions behind the West Wall. Meanwhile, to justify invading neutral Belgium the Intelligence agencies were instructed to compile detailed summaries of instances of Franco-Belgian collusion and to allow their imaginations free rein in doing so.

The military prospects of this OKH plan did not encourage Bock and Rundstedt, who expressed their pessimism in memoranda to the War Department in October. Leeb added a similar study, questioning the propriety of violating Belgian and Dutch neutrality. When Hitler voiced his own fear that if ‘Yellow’ was not executed forthwith, ‘one fine winter’s night Britain and France may arrive at the Meuse without a shot being fired,’ General von Reichenau stubbornly retorted, ‘That would be preferable in my view.’

When Keitel returned from Zossen, Hitler bitterly accused his OKW chief of ‘conspiring with the generals’ against him. He insisted that in the future Keitel loyally transmit the Führer’s will to the War Department. The army put the strength of the French army far too high, in Hitler’s view; what perturbed him was the growing British force in France, for he considered each British division was worth three or four French. Other generals pointed out that the winter nights were long and that the combination of long nights and rainy, foggy days would make a war of movement difficult. But Hitler wanted a war in which his armoured and mechanised formations could sweep forward, exploiting the ‘inflexibility’ of the French and the ‘inertia’ of the British armies.

The more he pored over the maps the less he liked the War Department’s proposed operational plan. In the third week of October he commented acidly to Keitel and Jodl that Halder’s plan, with its strong right wing along the coast, was no different from the Schlieffen Plan drafted before World War 1: ‘You cannot get away with an operation like that twice. I have something very different in mind. I will tell you two about it in the next few days.’

This was the alternative possibility – a vast encirclement of the enemy, spearheaded by the armoured units thrusting eventually up to the coast between the Meuse River and Arras and Amiens. Farther to the north, in Flanders, the tanks would get into terrain difficulties. The idea obsessed him, and at the end of a discussion with the senior ‘Yellow’ generals at the Reich chancellery on October 25 he put it to the Commander in Chief. Bock, who was also present, wrote in his diary that the Führer

said in reply to a question from Brauchitsch that from the very outset he has had the following wish and idea: to deliver the main offensive only south of the Meuse… so that by our advancing in a roughly westerly and then north-westerly direction the enemy forces already in or pouring into Belgium will be cut off and destroyed.

Brauchitsch and Halder are obviously taken completely by surprise, and a ‘lively’ debate rages to and fro over this idea.

This was the germ of the campaign plan that was to bring about France’s defeat.

It staked everything on one card – namely that the German armies would succeed in breaking through to the Channel coast. But he asked the army to look into his idea, and from a side remark it was clear that he was not averse to postponing ‘Yellow’ until spring if need be.


If Hitler invaded Belgium, then the Albert Canal and the nearby fortress of Eben Emael would present serious obstacles to the advance of Reichenau’s Sixth Army. The canal had been designed from the outset as a moat, an integral part of the Belgian eastern defences, and it was fortified with bunkers, blockhouses, and walls ramped to steep slopes. Only three bridges crossed the canal, and these had been built with pillboxes and demolition chambers. The Eben Emael fortress had eighteen heavy guns emplaced in casemates and armoured turrets and manned by a thousand Belgian troops living underground in the tunnels and bunkers. Since the whole system was some twenty miles from the Reich frontier, the bridges could be demolished long before German army advance parties could reach them; the Germans would then have to cross the wide Meuse by the two available bridges on the Dutch side at Maastricht, and these had also been prepared for demolition.

This complex problem occupied Hitler as much as the rest of ‘Yellow’s’ problems put together.

In the last week of October he proposed setting up a camouflaged Abwehr battalion under Reichenau’s control. Commanded by a Lieutenant Hokke, this battalion would be rigged out in uniforms used by the Dutch frontier police in the Maastricht enclave. As Hitler was to say, ‘In wartime, a uniform is always the best camouflage. But one thing is vital – that the leaders of Hokke’s shock troops be the spitting image of Dutch police officers as far as language, dress, and behaviour go.’ Their job would be to put the detonating cables and charges out of action. Hitler lamented his army generals’ inability to come up with ideas like these. ‘These generals are too prim and proper,’ he scoffed after one such conference. ‘They ought to have read more Karl May!’[33]German author of popular and ingenious American Indian stories.

He had a solution for the fortress of Eben Emael as well: some three hundred airborne troops would land within the fortress walls in the darkness before dawn; they were to be equipped with deadly fifty-kilo ‘hollow-charge’ explosives capable of knocking out the big guns there. At the beginning of November, the Seventh Air Division ordered the immediate activation of an airborne assault unit for the glider operation. The unit was to be ready for action by the twelfth, the provisional D-day.

There was much that could, and did, go wrong. An official of the Munster Abwehr office was detected purchasing large quantities of Dutch police uniforms in the province of Groningen. For several days Dutch newspapers featured cartoons speculating on the manner in which the Nazi invaders would be dressed when they came. One cartoon showed Göring skulking in the uniform of a Dutch streetcar conductor.


With the attack ostensibly just one week away, the German army command was in a high state of nervousness. At noon on November 5, General von Brauchitsch himself secured an audience with the Führer, having himself written out in longhand an answer to Hitler’s memorandum of October 9. His main concern was the state of the army in the west.

In the Polish campaign the infantry had shown little verve in attack; Brauchitsch even spoke of ‘mutinies’ in some units, and he recounted acts of drunken indiscipline at the front and on the railways during the transfer west. On hearing this, Hitler lost his temper and demanded the identities of the units involved. Snatching Brauchitsch’s memorandum from his hands, he thundered at the general: ‘Not one front-line commander mentioned any lack of attacking spirit to me. But now I have to listen to this, after the army has achieved a magnificent victory in Poland!’

He insisted that Brauchitsch furnish him with the reports he had mentioned. Sweeping out of the room, Hitler slammed the door behind him and left Brauchitsch trembling. To Fräulein Schroeder he dictated an aidemémoire on the ugly scene. He also dictated a document dismissing Brauchitsch, but Keitel talked him out of this. There was no suitable successor for the courtly and pliable Commander in Chief of the German army.

Two days later Hitler provisionally postponed ‘Yellow’ by three days, giving the weather as the reason.

That evening, November 7, 1939, his special train left for Munich. He had to speak to the ‘Old Guard’ at the Bürgerbräukeller. This Bürgerbräu assembly and the long march through Munich’s narrow streets were annual opportunities to an assassin. On November 9, 1938, a Swiss waiter named Maurice Bavaud – a nephew of Hjalmar Schacht, as it turned out – had trained a gun on him during this very march through Munich. Hitler learned of the attempt only when Bavaud was stopped by railway police at Augsburg – as he was attempting to leave Germany – for not having a valid ticket. He confessed to having also stalked Hitler with a gun during his daily walks on the Obersalzberg mountain in October. Bavaud was due to come up for secret trial by the People’s Court in December 1, 1939.[34]He was beheaded.

Hitler was supposed to remain in Munich until the ninth; however, on the morning of the eighth his residence was telephoned from Berlin that the army was demanding a fresh decision on the deadline for ‘Yellow’ in view of the weather, and he sent an adjutant to arrange for his private coaches to be attached to the regular express train that same evening. His adjutant returned with word that it would be cutting things fine if he was to catch this train after his speech. Hitler, therefore, brought forward the beginning of his speech by five minutes, to 8:10 p.m., and ordered Hess to stand in for him during ceremonies scheduled for the next day.

At eight o’clock sharp, the Führer entered the cavernous beer hall, the band stopped playing, and Christian Weber (one of the Party’s leading figures in Bavaria) spoke a few brief words of welcome. Hitler stood at a lectern in front of one of the big, wood-panelled pillars. His speech was a tirade against Britain, whose ‘true motives’ for this new crusade he identified as jealousy and hatred of the new Germany, which had achieved in six years more than Britain had in centuries. Julius Schaub nervously passed him cards on which he had scrawled increasingly urgent admonitions: ‘Ten minutes!’ then ‘Five!’ and finally a peremptory ‘Stop!’ ‘Party members, comrades of our National Socialist movement, our German people, and above all our victorious Wehrmacht: Siegheil!’ Hitler concluded, and stepped into the midst of the Party officials who thronged forward. A harassed Julius Schaub managed to shepherd the Führer out of the hall at twelve minutes past nine.

At the Augsburg station, the first stop after Munich, confused word was passed to Hitler’s coach that something had occurred at the Bürgerbräu. At the Nuremberg station, the local police chief, a Dr. Martin, was waiting with more detailed news: just eight minutes after Hitler had left the beer hall a powerful bomb had exploded in the panelled pillar right behind where he had been speaking. There were many dead and injured. Hitler’s Luftwaffe aide, Colonel Nicolaus von Below, later wrote: ‘The news made a vivid impression on Hitler. He fell very silent, and then described it as a miracle that the bomb had missed him.’[35]Below’s account goes on to say that Hitler often excitedly repeated the circumstances that had led to his leaving the Bürgerbräu early (see also Rosenberg’s diary, November 11). ‘He joked that this time the weather expert had saved his life. Otherwise, commented the Führer, the expert was pushing him into an early grave with his weather forecasts, for the weather outlook was black and likely to continue so.’ For several days afterward his adjutants Brückner and Wünsche brought to the ruffled Führer telegrams of congratulation from people like Admiral von Horthy, the king and queen of Italy, Benito Mussolini, the still-exiled Kaiser Wilhelm, and Field Marshal von Blomberg. Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands cabled:

Herr Reich Chancellor, may I send to you my most heartfelt congratulations on your escape from the abominable attempt on your life.

Even as Hitler had been speaking at the Bürgerbräu, a man had been apprehended at Konstanz; George Elser, a thirty-six-year-old Swabian watchmaker, confessed that he had single-handedly designed, built, and installed a time bomb in the pillar. Under Gestapo interrogation a week later the whole story came out – how he had joined the Red Front ten years before but had lost interest in politics, and how he had been angered by the regimentation of labour and religion. The year before, he had resolved to dispose of Adolf Hitler and had begun work on a time bomb controlled by two clock mechanisms. After thirty nights of arduous chiselling at the pillar behind the panelling, he had installed the preset clocks, soundproofed in cork to prevent the ticking from being heard. Elser’s simple pride in his craftsmanship was evident from the records of his interrogations. He probably was telling the truth, and there is no doubt that one watchmaker acting alone had nearly accomplished what after years of debate, planning, and self-indulgent conspiracy a battalion of officers and intellectuals were to fail to do five years later.

In private Hitler assured his staff that one day he would publish the whole story but not yet, as he also wanted to round up those who had pulled the strings. General Rommel wrote on November 9: ‘My only hope is that now in the Führer’s headquarters too the security precautions will be better organised with everything in one person’s hands (mine). Because if anybody is going to take this responsibility, he cannot share it with anybody else.’ And on the fifteenth, referring to ‘Operation Yellow,’ Rommel wrote: ‘The assassination attempt in Munich has only made [the Führer’s] resolution stronger. It is a marvel to witness all this.’


On the day after the Munich explosion Hitler again postponed ‘Yellow’; on November 13 he further instructed that the offensive would not begin before the twenty-second. There is some reason to believe that Hitler himself did not intend these deadlines to be serious – that they were designed to keep the army at maximum readiness in case the western powers should themselves suddenly invade the Low Countries. Hitler did not doubt that the West had economic means enough to pressure the Low Countries into ‘appealing for help’ at a propitious moment. ‘Let us not credit the enemy with a lack of logic,’ Hitler said later in November. ‘If we respect their [the Low Countries’] neutrality, the western powers will just march in during the spring.’

Hitler was also under pressure from Göring and the Luftwaffe’s Chief of Staff, Hans Jeschonnek, to occupy the whole of Holland: possession of Holland would be vital for the future air war between Britain and Germany. So the time had come to compromise the Dutch: German ‘army officers’ supplied by Heydrich appeared on the ninth at Venlo, just inside the Dutch frontier. British agents drove up for a prearranged meeting with them, there was a rapid exchange of gunfire, and they were dragged across the border into Germany together with the driver and another officer, mortally wounded; this latter turned out to be a Dutch Intelligence officer accompanying them. Hitler said this was proof that the ostensibly neutral Dutch were working hand in glove with the British. ‘When the time comes I shall use all this to justify my attack,’ he told his generals. ‘The violation of Belgian and Dutch neutrality is unimportant. Nobody asks about such things after we have won.’

On November 13, General Jodl instructed the War Department that a new Führer Directive was on its way: the army must be prepared to occupy as much of Holland as possible to improve Germany’s air defence position. On November 20 Hitler issued a directive which finally ranked the attack on Holland equal to those on Belgium and France:

In variation of the earlier directive, all measures planned against Holland are authorised to commence simultaneously with the beginning of the general offensive, without special orders to that effect…Where no opposition is encountered, the invasion is to be given the character of a peaceful occupation.

In the east, meanwhile, the ‘Devil’s work’ was well in hand. Gruesome reports of massacres began to filter up through army channels. Consciences had to be salved, and the reports were dutifully shuttled about between the adjutants. Thus, soon after the Munich plot, Captain Engel received from Brauchitsch’s adjutant a grisly set of eye-witness accounts of executions by the SS at Schwetz. An outspoken medical officer addressed to Hitler in person a report summarising the eye-witness evidence of three of his men:

Together with about 150 fellow soldiers they witnessed the summary execution of about 20 or 30 Poles at the Jewish cemetery at Schwetz at about 9:30 a.m. on Sunday, October 8. The execution was carried out by a detachment consisting of an SS man, two men in old blue police uniforms, and a man in plain clothes. An SS major was in command. Among those executed were also 5 or 6 children aged from two to eight years old.

Whether Engel showed this document and its attached eye-witness accounts to Hitler is uncertain. He returned it to Brauchitsch’s adjutant almost immediately with a note: ‘The appropriate action to be taken at this end will be discussed orally.’


In the Reich chancellery, the large table in the old Cabinet Room was now dominated by a relief map of the Ardennes – the mountainous, difficult region of Belgium and Luxembourg that was twice to be the scene of Hitler’s unorthodox military strategy. Many an hour he stood alone in the evenings, tracing the narrow mountain roads and asking himself whether his tanks and mechanised divisions would be able to get through them.

By now he had been provided with the original construction plans of the bridges across the Albert Canal; previously he had only aerial photographs and picture postcards of these important targets. From other sources he had similar details on the fortress at Eben Emael. A scale model of the fortress had been built, and intensive training of the glider crews had begun under top security conditions. The bridges presented the most intractable problem, the more so since the Dutch had evidently been warned by antiNazi agents in Berlin; on November 12 extensive security precautions had suddenly been introduced at the Maastricht bridges.[36]Colonel Hans Oster, Canaris’s Chief of Staff in the Abwehr, had himself warned the Belgian and Dutch legations that Hitler planned to attack on November 12. The fakeuniforms scheme was not mentioned. Oster had been cashiered from the Reichswehr over a morals scandal in 1934 and immediately conscripted into the Abwehr by Canaris. Both men were hanged as traitors in April 1945. Hitler discussed the operations with Canaris and Colonel Erwin Lahousen on November 16; he did not believe they would capture the bridges over the Albert Canal by surprise alone, and he began casting around for other means of preventing the bridges’ destruction. He ordered a full-scale secret conference on the bridges plan on November 20.

General von Reichenau made it clear that since the invasion of Holland had already been compromised once, he had no faith in the Abwehr’s ‘Trojan horse’ plan. Since the Dutch authorities were now expecting police uniforms to be used, as was shown by the fact that they had issued special armbands to their police, there was little prospect of the Abwehr getting awaywith it. Hitler replied, ‘Then the entire operation as at present planned is pointless!’ Canaris did what he could to salvage the plan. Hitler was unconvinced: ‘None of the plans is bound to succeed.’ But after all the other possibilities had been scrutinised – including attacking the bridges with light bombs to destroy the demolition cables, and rushing them with tanks and 88-millimetre guns[37]‘If it can’t be accomplished by trickery,’ Hitler said, ‘then brute force must do.’ – he had to fall back on the Trojan horse. ‘There must be some means of getting these bridges into our hands,’ he complained. ‘We have managed to solve even bigger problems before.’

When the conference ended four hours later, Hitler had provisionally adopted the sequence proposed by Göring: at X-hour proper, fifteen minutes before dawn, the gliders would land silently on the fortress at Eben Emael and the bridge at Canne; five minutes later dive-bombers would attack the other Albert Canal bridges to disrupt the demolition charges; the bombers would be followed five minutes later by the arrival of more glider-borne troops just east of the bridges themselves. At the same time the Abwehr’s disguised advanced party would seize the Maastricht bridges; for this they would have to cross the frontier in Dutch uniforms forty-five minutes before X-hour.

The weather was still against ‘Yellow.’ Every morning, Berlin was in the grip of icy frost and fog, which lifted in the afternoons to let a weak sun filter through.

On November 21 the Führer issued orders for his leading generals and admirals to hear an exposure of his views two days later. To the large audience that packed the Great Hall of the chancellery, Hitler depicted the coming battle as the operation that would finally bring down the curtain on the world war that Germany had been fighting ever since 1914. He recited the many occasions when, aided only by Providence, he had ignored the grim prophecies of others to exploit the brief opportunities that opened to him. He, Adolf Hitler, had now provided the generals with a strategic situation unparalleled since 1871. ‘For the first time in history we have only to fight on one front. The other is at present open.’ His own indispensability had been forcefully impressed on him by the recent assassination attempt; that there would be other attempts was probable. Thus there was no time to be lost. The defensive strategy his cowardly army generals were calling for was short-sighted; Moltke had clearly shown that only through offensives could wars be decided. Germany’s present enemies were weak and unready: here, he illustrated his point by listing in turn the number of French tanks and guns, and British ships.

His speech bristled with concealed barbs against the army generals. (Rommel wrote the next day: ‘…But that seems quite necessary, too, because the more I speak with my comrades the fewer I find with their heart and conviction in what they are doing. It is all very depressing.’) While Hitler praised the ‘aggressive spirit’ of the navy and Luftwaffe, he sneered: ‘If our commanders in chief are going to have nervous breakdowns as in 1914, what can we ask of our simple riflemen?’ He had been ‘deeply wounded’ by suggestions that the officers had had to precede their men into battle, with consequently disproportionately high officer losses: ‘That is what the officers are there for.’ He recalled how in 1914 after months of training the infantry attack on Liège had broken up in panic and disaster. ‘I will not hear of complaints that the army is not in shape…Give the German soldier proper leadership and I can do anything with him.’

It was not as though Germany had a real choice between armistice and war.‘People will accuse me: war and yet more war! But I regard fighting as the fate of all the species. Nobody can opt out of the struggle, unless he wants to succumb.’

A few minutes later he said, ‘Victory or defeat! And it is not a matter of the future of National Socialist Germany, but of who will dominate Europe in years to come. For this it is worth making a supreme effort.’

He believed the present favourable strategic situation would last perhaps six more months, but then the British troops, ‘a tenacious enemy,’ would vastly strengthen their foothold in France, and ‘Yellow’ would be a different proposition altogether.

The speech lasted two hours. General von Brauchitsch reappeared in the evening and stiffly informed the Führer that if he had no confidence in him he ought to replace him. Hitler retorted that the general must do his duty like every other soldier; he was not oblivious to ‘the spirit of Zossen’ prevailing in the army, and he would stamp it out. Zossen was the headquarters of the General Staff and seat of the conservative and conspiratorial elements of the German army.


[33] German author of popular and ingenious American Indian stories.

[34] He was beheaded.

[35] Below’s account goes on to say that Hitler often excitedly repeated the circumstances that had led to his leaving the Bürgerbräu early (see also Rosenberg’s diary, November 11). ‘He joked that this time the weather expert had saved his life. Otherwise, commented the Führer, the expert was pushing him into an early grave with his weather forecasts, for the weather outlook was black and likely to continue so.’

[36] Colonel Hans Oster, Canaris’s Chief of Staff in the Abwehr, had himself warned the Belgian and Dutch legations that Hitler planned to attack on November 12. The fakeuniforms scheme was not mentioned. Oster had been cashiered from the Reichswehr over a morals scandal in 1934 and immediately conscripted into the Abwehr by Canaris. Both men were hanged as traitors in April 1945.

[37] ‘If it can’t be accomplished by trickery,’ Hitler said, ‘then brute force must do.’

Clearing the Decks • 3,700 Words

Hitler knew that his pact with Stalin was misunderstood. In his speech to the generals he had laid bare his own suspicions. ‘Russia is atpresent harmless,’ he assured them. Pacts were respected only until they no longer served a purpose. ‘Russia,’ he added, ‘will abide by the pact only as long as she considers it to her advantage.’ Stalin had farreaching goals, and among them were the strengthening of Russia’s position in the Baltic – which Germany could only oppose once she was unencumbered in the west – the expansion of Russian influence in the Balkans, and a drive toward the Persian Gulf.

It was the aim of German foreign policy that Russia should be deflected toward the Persian Gulf, as this would bring her into conflict with Britain; but she must be kept out of the Balkans.

Hitler hoped that the present situation between Germany and Russia would prevail for two or three more years, but if Stalin were to die, there might be a rapid and ugly volte-face in the Kremlin.

There was clear evidence of a Russian military build-up. Blaskowitz reported from Poland that four military airfields were being built, and two to three hundred Russian bombers had been counted, around Bialystok.

In addition, wrote Blaskowitz, Russian propaganda was making plain that this was nothing less than a war against fascism: ‘Germany is said [in the USSR] to be planning an attack on Russia as soon as she is victorious in the west. Therefore Russia must be on guard and exploit Germany’s weakness at the right moment.’ The general’s command had clearly identified Russian espionage and Communist subversive activity behind German lines in Poland.

In short, Hitler must conclude that war with Russia was inevitable – and that victory would go to the side which was ready first.

To strengthen her position in the Baltic, Russia now made demands of Finland. When Finland snubbed the Russians, the Red Army attacked on the last day of November 1939. Hitler had abandoned Finland to Soviet influence in the secret codicil to the August pact with Stalin, and he instructed his foreign missions to adhere to an anti-Finnish line, for the integrity of his brittle pact with Stalin was to be his most powerful weapon in the attack on France. The Führer even agreed to a Russian request for the transfer of fuel and provisions from German steamships to Soviet submarines blockading Finland.

Under the economic treaty signed between the two powers on August 19, Russia was to supply Germany with raw materials; it was also to act as a safe channel to Germany for goods exported by Japan, Manchuria, Afghanistan, Iran, and Romania but subject to British naval blockade. Hitler also needed the oil produced in Russia and Soviet-occupied Poland, and he knew that Stalin could exert pressure to control the supply of Romanian oil to Germany. It thus behoved him to behave like a proverbial friend in need; and throughout the winter he was a friend indeed as he instructed his military and economic authorities to do their utmost to meet the Russian demands.

Russia’s list of requirements was not easy to fulfil. The Russians wanted the half-built cruiser Lützow and the aircraft carrier Graf Zeppelin; they also wanted the blueprints of these and even more up-to-date German warships including the Bismarck and the Tirpitz. They asked for sets of the heaviest ship’s armament, and for the 57,000 blueprints prepared for the new Krupp 406-millimetre triple-turret guns, the fire-control sets, and the ammunition that went with them. The Soviet navy wanted samples of accumulators and periscopes for submarines, they wanted a supply of top-grade German armour-plate for a cruiser to be built in Russia, and they wanted hydroacoustical gear, torpedoes, and mines as well. Hitler told Raeder that his only anxiety in handing over the blueprints of the battleship Bismarck to the Russians was that these revealed that the vessel had been planned on a far larger scale than was permitted by the international agreements binding on Germany at the time. Raeder assured him it would take the Russians six years to copy the Bismarck; however, he conceded that it would be unfortunate if the blueprints fell into British hands.


Hitler had assigned to his navy a largely passive role in the war. He initially forbade his submarines to attack even Anglo-French naval forces. During the first year of the war, the German navy had on average only a dozen submarines with which to blockade the British Isles. Since the Luftwaffe was given priority in raw materials, the navy’s steadily reduced steel allocation further limited its expansion. In one respect, however, Raeder had an advantage over Brauchitsch and Göring: to Hitler the sea was an unwholesome element, an area of uncertainty he did not understand, and he was relieved to trust Grand Admiral Raeder to act as he saw fit. Thus, German destroyers executed bold sorties into the very jaws of the enemy, laying magnetic minefields in the estuaries of the principal British rivers. A U-boat sank the aircraft carrier Courageous; another U-boat penetrated Scapa Flow and torpedoed the battleship Royal Oak.

In the South Atlantic the Graf Spee had now begun raiding enemy convoys, but the Luftwaffe – and Göring particularly – wanted to bring the war closer to Britain’s shores: when on November 28, in reprisal for the German mining of the coastal waters, Britain issued an Order-in-Council blockading Germany’s export shipments, Göring and Milch hurried to Hitler with proposals for a crushing Luftwaffe offensive against British shipyards, docks, and ports. Hitler turned down the Luftwaffe’s idea, but he did issue a new directive specifying that the best way to defeat Britain would be to paralyse her trade. The German navy and the Luftwaffe were to turn to this task as soon as ‘Yellow’ had been successfully completed. Since Hitler would then control the Channel coast, the Luftwaffe really could attack on the lines Göring had proposed.


in october 1939, Raeder had left Hitler in no doubt as to Germany’s grim strategic position should the British occupy Norway: in winter all Germany’s iron-ore requirements passed through the ice-free port at Narvik; German merchant ships and warships would no longer be able to traverse the neutral Norwegian waters; the British air force could dominate northern Germany and the Royal Navy would command the Baltic. Though he had realistically advised Hitler that a Norwegian campaign might end in a massacre of the German fleet, Raeder saw no alternative to such a campaign if the strategic dangers inherent in a British occupation of Norway were to be obviated.

Raeder’s view took Hitler by surprise. Neither his political nor his naval advisers gave him respite once the Russo-Finnish war broke out. At noon on December 11, Alfred Rosenberg briefed Hitler on a similar idea that had originated with one of his Norwegian contacts, Major Vidkun Quisling. Rosenberg told Hitler that Quisling’s idea was that Germany should invade Norway at the request of a government he would himself set up. Ribbentrop and Weizsäcker warned Hitler against even agreeing to see this Norwegian. Hitler told Rosenberg he was willing to meet Quisling. ‘In this conversation,’ Rosenberg’s office recorded, ‘the Führer repeatedly emphasised that what he most preferred politically would be for Norway and, for that matter, all Scandinavia to remain absolutely neutral. He had no intention of enlarging the theatres of war by dragging still more countries into the conflict. If however the other side was planning such an enlargement of the war… then he must obviously feel compelled to take steps against the move. In an effort to offset the increasing enemy propaganda activity, the Führer then promised Quisling financial aid for his Pan-Germanic movement.’ Quisling said he had two hundred thousand followers, many in key positions in Norway.

Hitler asked the OKW to draft two alternative operations, one following Quisling’s suggestions, the other projecting an occupation of Norway by force. Hitler initiated inquiries into Quisling’s background and decided not to rely on him for any assistance beyond subversive operations: a number of hand-picked Norwegians would undergo secret guerrilla-warfare training in Germany; when Norway was invaded, they were to seize key buildings in Oslo and elsewhere, and thus present the king with a fait accompli. No date for the operation was set.


The General Staff continued their open hostility to Hitler. After his unequivocal speech on November 23, General Guderian privately taxed Hitler with his astonishing attitude toward the leaders of an army that had just won such a victory for him in Poland. Hitler retorted that it was the army’s Commander in Chief himself who displeased him, adding that there was unfortunately no suitable replacement.

Brauchitsch’s chief of Intelligence noted: ‘There is as little contact between Br. and the Führer as ever. A changeover is planned.’ Hitler suspected the hand of the General Staff against him everywhere. When the Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung published a sensational and sloppy article on the ‘Great Headquarters,’ Hitler was furious at an implicit suggestion that history was being made by the General Staff and not himself.

The Führer was however hard to please, for when at Christmas the Essener National-Zeitung ventured a seasonal comparison between Adolf Hitler and the Messiah, Goebbels confidentially informed the entire German press that the Führer would prefer them to abstain from such comparisons in the future.


In moments of military crisis, Hitler was to display an indecisiveness and lack of precision that was otherwise wholly out of character.

On December 13 the pocket battleship, Graf Spee, fell foul of three British cruisers off the coast of neutral Uruguay. It was not until the small hours of the fourteenth that the first details reached the Berlin admiralty. ‘I have taken fifteen hits, food stores and galleys destroyed, I am making for Montevideo.’ To those familiar with the political stance of Uruguay it was clear the battleship’s fighting days were probably over. It would take many days for the damage to be repaired. The government at Montevideo granted only three days. Meanwhile British naval forces began to mass in uncertain strength at the mouth of the Plate River. On the sixteenth, Raeder arrived at the chancellery with the latest cable from the battleship. Captain Hans Langsdorff had signalled:

1. Military situation off Montevideo: apart from cruisers and destroyers [there are also] Ark Royal and Renown. Tightly blocked at night. No prospect of breakout into open sea or reaching home.

2. Propose emerging as far as neutral waters limit. Should it be possible to fight through to Buenos Aires using remaining ammunition, this will be attempted.

3. In event that breakout would result in certain destruction of Spee with no chance of damaging enemy, I request decision whether to scuttle despite inadequate depth of water? Estuary of the Plate? Or internment?

Hitler met Admiral Raeder at the door of his study with a demand that Graf Spee must attempt to break through to the open sea; if she must go down, at least she could take some of the enemy with her. He put a hand on the admiral’s shoulder. ‘Believe me, the fate of this ship and her crew is as painful to me as to you. But this is war, and when the need is there, one must know how to be harsh.’ But he followed this firm speech with an inexplicable act. Raeder showed him the admiralty’s draft reply to Captain Langsdorff: Graf Spee was to stay at Montevideo as long as the authorities would allow; a ‘breakout’ to Buenos Aires would be ‘approved.’ ‘If scuttling, thoroughly destroy everything first.’ This reply was wholly out of keeping with Hitler’s heroic demand; but he said nothing. Hitler eagerly awaited the news of Graf Spee’s last battle.

During the seventeenth, the stunning news arrived that the battleship had sailed out of Montevideo, discharged her crew onto a waiting steamer, and then gently settled down onto the shallow bed of the river’s estuary. In a savage mood, that evening Hitler pondered the damage Langsdorff had done to Germany’s fighting image. At three in the morning he ordered the official announcement altered to read: ‘Under these circumstances the Führer ordered Captain Langsdorff to destroy the ship by blowing her up.’ Langsdorff had been an officer on Jodl’s staff; he had been given the Graf Spee, it transpired, as a cure for his chairbound attitudes. But the cure had apparently not worked. He shot himself on reaching Buenos Aires. His supply ship Altmark, laden with prisoners plucked from the decks of the battleship’s victims, was ordered to return home to Germany.

Hitler left Berlin for a brief respite at the Berghof. Passing through Munich, he paid his annual Christmas visit to his friends and patrons, the Bruckmanns. He chatted about his plans to conquer Britain by using magnetic mines and other fabulous weaponry. In his entry in the Bruckmanns’ guest book he wrote: ‘In the year of the fight for the creation of the great German-Teutonic Reich!’ For three days he toured the western front, joining the Christmas celebrations of Luftwaffe squadrons, anti-aircraft batteries, infantry, and SS regiments. On his return to Berlin, Hitler again postponed ‘Yellow,’ this time to mid-January; failing a period of cold, clear wintry weather then, the Führer resolved, he would call off‘Yellow’ until the spring.

He retreated to the Berghof to await the New Year. The photographs in Eva Braun’s albums show that even when the Führer sat faintly smiling at the delight of the offspring of Speer, Goebbels, and Martin Bormann at a Berghof children’s party, he still wore the field-grey army tunic, with its solitary Iron Cross, that he had emotionally donned on the day his troops attacked Poland. In one photograph, however, Hitler is shown in sombre evening dress, spooning molten lead into a bowl of water – a New Year’s Eve tradition. Some believe that a man’s future can be predicted from the contorted shapes the solidifying metal assumes. Hitler’s face betrayed a certain lack of confidence in this procedure.

At the Berghof he received a long, angry, and indeed frightened letter from Benito Mussolini. It broke months of silence, and marked the lowest point in Axis relations, which had been soured by Hitler’s continued flirting with Moscow. As recently as December 21, Hitler had on the eve of Stalin’s sixtieth birthday cabled him greetings coupled with his best wishes for the Soviet peoples; Stalin had cordially replied. In Mussolini’s eyes Hitler was a traitor to the Fascist revolution; he had sacrificed the principles of that revolution to the tactical requirements of one given moment:

You cannot abandon the antisemitic and anti-Bolshevist banners which you have flown for twenty years [Mussolini admonished him] and for which so many of your comrades died…The solution for your Lebensraum is in Russia and nowhere else.

In this letter – which Hitler deliberately left unanswered for two more months – Mussolini also proposed that Hitler should take steps to restore some kind of Polish state.

Hitler’s policy in Poland had undergone a radical change in the autumn of 1939. Early in October he had indicated to Governor General Frank that the Generalgouvernement was to be a kind of Polish reservation, but in November he bluntly told Frank: ‘We are going to keep the Generalgouvernement. We will never give it back.’

Hitler saw no great urgency about the matter and had himself told Himmler in the autumn of 1939: ‘I don’t want these eastern gauleiters in a frantic race to be the first to report to me after two or three years, “Mein Führer, my gau is fully Germanised.” I want the population to be racially flawless, and I’ll be quite satisfied if a gauleiter can report that in ten years.’ Himmler, however, wanted greater urgency. Acting on a cruel directive which he had issued at the end of October, the two gauleiters concerned – Forster and Greiser – and SS generals Krüger and Odilo Globocnik, police commanders based in Kraków and Lublin, respectively, began the ruthless midwinter expulsion from their domains of the 550,000 Jews and the principal anti-German and intellectual elements; they used Frank’s Generalgouvernement as a dumping ground.

In some respects Hitler did act as a brake. From Himmler’s scrawled notes we know that he was obliged to report to Hitler in person on the ‘shooting of 380 Jews at Ostro’ on November 19; and that when at the end of November the archbishop and suffragan bishop of Lublin were condemned to death along with thirteen priests for the possession of firearms and subversive literature, Hitler ordered their reprieve and deportation to Germany instead. Events in Poland still disturbed the army. A ripple of protest disturbed the German armies poised in the west to unleash ‘Yellow.’ Hitler learned that on January 22 Major General Friedrich Mieth, Chief of Staff of the First Army, had told his assembled officers about atrocities in Poland: ‘The SS has carried out mass executions without proper trials. There have been disturbances.’ Mieth was dismissed. Soon after, the army’s Commander in Chief East, General Johannes Blaskowitz, sent to Berlin a formal list of specific SS atrocities in Poland – including murder and looting: ‘The view that the Polish people can be intimidated and kept down by terrorism will definitely be proven wrong,’ he warned, and added: ‘ They are far too resilient a people for that.’ Blaskowitz added that the atrocities would provide the enemy with powerful ammunition throughout the world.

Hitler does appear to have issued orders to Hans Frank for regular prophylactic massacres of the Polish intelligentsia. How else can Frank’s confidential remarks at the end of May 1940 to his police authorities in Poland be interpreted? ‘The Führer has said to me, “The problem of dealing with and safeguarding German interests in the Generalgouvernement is a matter for the men in charge of the Generalgouvernement and for them alone.” And he used these words: “The ruling class that we have already unearthed in Poland is to be exterminated. We must keep close watch on whatever grows up in its place, and dispose of that too after a suitable time has elapsed.”’ And Frank hastened to recommend to his minions: ‘There’s no need for us to cart off all these elements to concentration camps in the Reich first. That’ll just result in a lot of bother and unnecessary correspondence with next-of-kin. No – we’ll liquidate this business here, on the spot.’

The directive issued by the Eighteenth Army, on its transfer to Poland in August 1940, is an eloquent statement of the army’s surrender to the Party: ‘For centuries an ethnological struggle has raged along our eastern frontier. To put an end to it once and for all has called for a short, sharp solution. Specific Party and government agencies have been put in charge of waging this ethnological war in the east. This is why our soldiers must keep their noses out of what these units are doing.’

In the east, Hitler too turned a blind eye on the excesses. An army major procured the arrest of eight Polish whores and put four of them clumsily to death in prison that evening. Hitler commuted the major’s death sentence to a prison term. In another case, one of the innumerable young SA officers appointed magistrate in Poland shot fifty-five Polish prisoners in a drunken orgy. Here too the local gauleiter, Greiser, begged the ministry of justice not to blight the young officer’s promising career, and Hitler granted him a reprieve.

Within Germany itself, Himmler’s police agencies were now acting as a law unto themselves. At the end of September 1939, the minister of justice submitted to Hitler a file on summary executions of Germans; Hitler replied that he had not given Himmler any general instruction but that he had ordered certain executions himself. ‘This is why he has now ordered the Teltow bank robbers to be put before a firing squad,’ his staff explained. But the files also show that Hitler drew much of his information on civilian crime from casual references in the newspapers. A thoughtless editor had only to headline a story ‘MAN SWINDLED SOLDIERS’ WIVES’ for the Führer to send Schaub scurrying to a telephone with instructions that the Führer had ordered the man shot.


Hitler’s attitude to the Party’s own courts was even more ambivalent, as his reaction to the trial of Julius Streicher showed. Streicher’s enemies were legion, but Hitler still saw in him an idealist and true revolutionary. Four days after Hitler’s secret speech to the gauleiters in October, Streicher had revealed Hitler’s military plans to local Party members in a speech, and he had repeated this imprudent step in a larger assembly a few days later. Speaking of Hitler’s decision to invade neutral Belgium, Streicher had explained, ‘We need the coast for our attack on Britain.’ His recent speeches had included blasphemous attacks on the clergy, libellous references to the generals of the Great War, and an address to a young female audience in November in which he exhorted them to find nothing improper in the desire to seduce married men. ‘Any woman or lady who gets worked up about this is in my eyes just a pig.’

The Party’s Supreme Court – six gauleiters and three Party judges – met in February 1940, and on the sixteenth they ruled against Streicher. Hitler suspended him from office and forbade him to make further public speeches; but he was not ejected from the Party, as Hess had demanded, and he was allowed to continue publishing his newspapers – including the despicable Stürmer. Characteristically, Hitler was unhappy with even this mild verdict; he told other Party leaders like Ley that he felt an injustice had been done to Streicher: the legalists, he said, had paid too little attention to Streicher’s Party record.

‘We Must Destroy Them Too!’ • 4,300 Words

An icy winter descended on Germany. The canals froze, the railways were clogged with military movements, population and industry alike were starved for coal and the most elementary daily requisites. Day and night Hitler talked and dreamed of ‘Yellow.’ By Christmas 1939 he had already decided where the big hole was to be punched through the French defences: at Sedan; and it was indeed at Sedan that the foundations of the Nazi triumph over France were laid.

It was now January 1940, and the Führer was back at his chancellery in Berlin. The frightened letter Mussolini had written proved how little Hitler could rely on Italy. It was indeed a curious alliance, for the Forschungsamt now intercepted a coded telegram in which the Belgian ambassador in Rome reported to his foreign ministry in Brussels that Count Ciano had betrayed to him Germany’s firm intention of attacking Belgium and had revealed the date currently set for that adventure. ‘The Italians are strange people,’ wrote Weizsäcker. ‘Loyal glances toward us, so as to share in any success we may achieve. And gifts and minor acts of treachery for the West, so as to keep in their good books too.’

Not surprisingly, Belgium had shifted her main defensive effort to her frontier with Germany. A secret report submitted by German army Intelligence in January 1940 revealed that since mid-October, over two-thirds of all Belgium’s forces were massed in the east. ‘With the exception of one division, every single mechanised infantry, armoured, and cavalry division is standing on the Belgian frontier.’ The Belgian gendarmerie had received instructions to speed any French invasion of the country; and while signposts in western Belgium had been replenished and improved to that end, those in the east had been wholly removed to hamper a German invasion. Mayors of Ardennes villages were ordered to prepare billets for French troops. Mufti-dressed French soldiers were observed on the Belgian transport systems. The fortifications at Liège and on the Albert Canal were far beyond the Belgian military capacity to defend – they had clearly been designed to accommodate French and British troops as well. British bombers regularly trampled through Belgian air space. In short, Hitler saw no reason to have compunctions about attacking this ‘little neutral.’

He still frowned on the notion that he had unleashed a World War. For more general consumption, he decided that the best overall title was the ‘Great German War of Liberation.’ On January 10 he discussed ‘Operation Yellow’ with his Commanders in Chief. The weather report was excellent: he decided ‘Yellow’ would begin on the seventeenth. As January 10 ended, Germany was closer to launching ‘Yellow’ than ever before. Two million men waited, confronting the armies of France, Belgium, and Holland.

Shortly before noon the next day, however, infuriating news reached the chancellery. A Luftwaffe major had strayed in a light aircraft across the Belgian frontier. Hitler stormed into Jodl’s room and demanded a complete list of all the documents the major had been carrying. ‘It is things like this that can lose us the war!’ he exclaimed – an outburst of startling frankness when spoken by the Führer. Even now Hitler did not waver on his decision to launch ‘Yellow’ on the seventeenth; at 3:15 p.m. he confirmed this. One Belgian newspaper reported that the German major had hurled the documents into a stove in the room where he was being interrogated; but a Belgian officer had thrust his hand into the stove and retrieved the smouldering fragments. On January 12, the attaché in Brussels cabled that the major and his pilot had assured him they had burned all the papers apart from an unimportant residue, and he repeated this in person to Hitler at the chancellery at eleven a.m. on the thirteenth. The incident was not enough to deter Hitler from launching ‘Yellow.’ But shortly afterward a bad weather report unsettled him, and at about one o’clock that afternoon he ordered all movements stopped. ‘Yellow’ was provisionally postponed by three days.

The weather picture worsened. Hitler told his staff, ‘If we cannot count on at least eight days of fine and clear weather, then we will call it off until the spring.’ And on the afternoon of the sixteenth he directed that the whole offensive was to be dismantled until then; Hitler left Göring in no uncertainty about his anger at the Luftwaffe’s loose security regulations, for two more incidents had occurred. Göring reacted characteristically: he dismissed both General Helmuth Felmy, the major’s superior, and Felmy’s Chief of Staff; and he then calmly informed Hitler that he had consulted a clairvoyant, who had also reassured him that the most important papers had been destroyed. The Intelligence reports from Belgium gave this the lie. The Belgian General Staff ordered military units in southern Belgium to offer no resistance whatsoever to any French and British troops that might march in. Thanks to the Forschungsamt, Hitler had by now also read the telegram sent by the Belgian military attaché in Berlin, Colonel Goethals, on the evening of January 13, warning that the German invasion was due next day, according to what an ‘informateur sincère’ had told him. (Goethals’s source was his Dutch colleague, Major G. J. Sas; Sas’s source was the German traitor Colonel Hans Oster.) By the morning of the seventeenth, it was clear from the official démarches of the Belgian government that the documents had in fact betrayed most of ‘Yellow’ in its original form.

In a sense Hitler must have been relieved that this bêtise had forced a major decision on him. Besides, the enemy would now surely concentrate his best forces in the north. The prospects of an encirclement operation beginning at Sedan and ending at the Channel coast were much enhanced. Everything depended on keeping this, his real intent, concealed from the enemy, and in a series of conferences at the end of January 1940 Hitler impressed this on his army commanders. As he said on the twentieth, he was convinced that Germany would win the war, ‘But we are bound to lose it if we cannot learn how to keep our mouths shut.’ When ‘Yellow’ began, a foreign ministry official would be sent secretly to The Hague to invite the Dutch monarchy to accept the Wehrmacht’s ‘armed defence of Dutch neutrality.’[38]Major Werner Kiewitz, who had carried Hitler’s first surrender ultimatum to Warsaw on September 16 (see page 232), was selected for this mission. In the event, the Dutch refused to issue an entry visa to him; a desperate plan to parachute him into The Hague was abandoned, as by that time the queen had escaped to England. Meanwhile, a constant state of alert was to be maintained in the west on the assumption that ‘Yellow’ might start at any moment.


At the end of January 1940, the Führer had sent his chief military adjutant on a flying tour of the western front. On his return to Berlin on February 1, Colonel Schmundt returned, bursting to report what he had found at General von Rundstedt’s army group headquarters at Koblenz. Rundstedt’s former Chief of Staff, General Erich von Manstein, was as adamantly opposed to the current War Department (OKH) offensive plan in the west as was Hitler; moreover, he was advocating a radical alternative almost identical to what Hitler had been debating with his closest staff ever since October. This convinced Hitler of its soundness; and that the OKH bureaucrats had removed Manstein from his post with Rundstedt and given him command of a corps in the rear impressed him even more.

On February 13, Hitler told Jodl of his decision to commit the mass of his armour to the breakthrough at Sedan, where the enemy would now least expect it. Jodl urged caution: The Gods of War might yet catch them napping there, for the French might launch a powerful flank attack. But now Hitler was deaf to criticism. On the seventeenth he buttonholed Manstein in person when the general attended a chancellery dinner party for the new corps commanders. Manstein assured him that the new plan was the only means by which to obtain a total victory on land.

The next day Hitler sent for General von Brauchitsch and his Chief of Staff and dictated the new operational plan to them. On February 24, the War Department issued the new directive for ‘Yellow.’ The subsequent outstanding success of the new strategy convinced Hitler of his own military genius. Henceforth he readily mistook his astounding intuitive grasp for the sound, logical planning ability of a real warlord. His reluctance to heed his professional advisers was ever after magnified.

To undermine the French soldiers’ morale Hitler ordered German propaganda to hint that the real quarrel was with the British. But Hitler’s true attitude toward Britain was a maudlin, unrequited affection that caused him to pull his punches throughout 1940. As Halder explained Hitler’s programme to the chief of army Intelligence late in January: ‘The Führer wants to… defeat France, then a grand gesture to Britain. He recognises the need for the empire.’

During lunch at the chancellery in these weeks of early 1940, Rudolf Hess once inquired, ‘Mein Führer, are your views about the British still the same?’ Hitler gloomily sighed, ‘If only the British knew how little I ask of them!’ How he liked to leaf through the Society pages of The Tatler, studying the British aristocracy in their natural habitat! Once he was overheard to say, ‘Those are valuable specimens – those are the ones I am going to make peace with.’ The chancellery dinner attended by Manstein and the other corps commanders fell on the day after the Altmark incident, in which the Royal Navy had violated Norwegian neutral waters under circumstances to be explained below. Hitler expounded loudly on the inherent properness of such actions – whatever the international lawyers might subsequently proclaim. History, he once more explained, judged only between success and failure; that was all that really counted – nobody asked the victor whether he was in the right or wrong.

Since the action off the Uruguayan coast, the supply ship Altmark had lain low, her holds packed with three hundred British seamen captured from Graf Spee’s victims. Until mid-February 1940, the worried German admiralty had heard no sound from her, but on the fourteenth she signalled that she was about to enter northern Norwegian waters. Under the Hague Rules she was entitled to passage through them, for she was not a man-of-war but a naval auxiliary flying the flag of the German merchant marine. The Norwegian picket boats interrogated her and undertook to escort her, but in Berlin late on the sixteenth the admiralty began intercepting British naval signals which left no doubt but that an attempt was afoot to capture the Altmark even if it meant violating Norwegian neutral waters.

By six a.m. next morning a radio signal of the British commander to the admiralty in London had been decoded in Berlin: the British destroyer Cossack had been alongside the Altmark, and he and his group were returning to Rosyth. At midday a full report was in Hitler’s hands, telephoned through by the legation in Oslo. Seeing the British force – a cruiser and six destroyers – closing in, the Altmark’s captain had sought refuge in Jøssing Fjord. Two Norwegian vessels had held the British ships at bay until dusk, when the Cossack had forced her way past them and ordered the German ship to heave to. The Altmark’s report described how a boarding party had seized the ship’s bridge ‘and began firing blindly like maniacs into the German crew, who of course did not have a gun between them.’

The three hundred prisoners were liberated, the ship and its crew were looted. London had signalled the captain that the destroyers were to open fire on the Norwegian patrol boats if the latter resisted the British approach. The German naval staff war diary concluded: ‘From the orders of the admiralty… it is clear beyond peradventure that the operation against the supply vessel Altmark was… planned with the deliberate object of capturing the Altmark by whatever means available, or of releasing the prisoners, if necessary by violating Norway’s territorial waters.’ Hitler thoughtfully ordered that, in the ensuing operation to recover the damaged Altmark, Norway’s neutrality was to be respected to the utmost.

More than the strategic need to occupy the Norwegian coast before the Allies could do so, there began to weigh with Hitler the belated consideration that since the Scandinavian peoples were also of Germanic stock they naturally belonged within the German fold. It is important to recall that in none of his secret speeches to his generals had Hitler adumbrated the occupation of Scandinavia. Only after Quisling’s visits had the Führer ordered Jodl’s staff to study such a possibility. The OKW study recommended that a special working staff under a Luftwaffe general should devise a suitable operational plan; under the code name ‘Oyster,’ this staff began work under General Erhard Milch a week later.

Almost immediately however Hitler ordered the unit dissolved. He was not convinced that the Luftwaffe knew how to safeguard the secrecy of such planning. Instead, a top-secret unit was established under Hitler’s personal supervision; its senior officer was a navy captain, Theodor Krancke. He proposed simultaneous amphibious landings at seven Norwegian ports – Oslo, Kristiansand, Arendal, Stavanger, Bergen, Trondheim, and Narvik – the troops being carried northward by a fleet of fast warships; paratroops of the Seventh Air Division would support the invasion. Diplomatic pressure on the Oslo government would do the rest.


Characteristically, hitler consulted neither Brauchitsch nor Göring at this stage. Piqued by this, Göring refused to attach a Luftwaffe officer to Krancke’s staff. Hitler meanwhile put the campaign preparations in the hands of an infantry general, Nikolaus von Falkenhorst. Falkenhorst accepted the mission with alacrity and returned to the chancellery on the twenty-ninth with a complete operational plan which now embraced Denmark as well.

On March 1, Hitler signed the directive, ‘Weserübung’. The army at once protested at this introduction of a new theatre. Göring stormed into the chancellery and refused to subordinate his squadrons to Falkenhorst’s command. Only the navy committed itself body and soul to the campaign.

Hitler wanted the campaign launched soon, before the British and French could beat him to it. Hewel brought him telegram after telegram from Helsinki, Trondheim, and Oslo hinting at the Allied preparations to land in Scandinavia on the pretext of helping Finland, which had in the meantime been attacked by the Soviet Union. Hitler orally ordered the service commands to speed up their planning. Göring was still discontented, and when Falkenhorst reported progress on March 5, he expressed loud contempt for all the army’s joint planning work so far. The risk of an Allied intervention in Scandinavia was too great. Through Rosenberg, Hitler received from Quisling’s men in Oslo urgent proof that the British and French invasion plans were far advanced. At lunch on the sixth, Hitler leaned over to Rosenberg and said, ‘I read your note. Things are looking bad.’

The crisis reached its blackest point on March 12. A torrent of dispatches from Moscow and Helsinki revealed that armistice talks had begun. London began frantic attempts to keep the Finnish war alive a few more days.

Winston Churchill flew in person to Paris on the eleventh to inform the French government that his expeditionary force was to sail for Narvik on March 15. At 3:30 p.m. on the twelfth Hitler’s Forschungsamt intercepted an urgent telephone call from the Finnish envoy in Paris to his foreign ministry in Helsinki, reporting that Churchill and Daladier had promised him that if the Finns would appeal for help at once, British and French troops would land in Norway. That really put the fat in the fire. Hitler ordered all German invasion plans accelerated, and the forces to stand by for the socalled Immediate Op. emergency. By next morning, however, the Russians had signed an armistice with Finland, and this immediate crisis was over.

The German admiralty’s intercepts of coded British radio messages clearly indicated to Hitler that the British and French had been on the brink of landing in Norway. The fact that their troop transports were still on extended sailing-alert proved however that the Allies had only postponed their invasion. German invasion preparations returned to a more leisurely pace; for the time being, Hitler withheld the executive order for the operation. ‘He is still searching for a sufficient reason,’ Jodl wrote in his diary.


We have seen how Hitler concerned himself however not only with grand strategy but with the most minute interlocking elements of each operation: the position of the demolition charges on canal bridges, the thickness of the concrete in his fortifications, the calibre of the guns commanding the Norwegian fjords. In this he was aided by a phenomenal memory and technical insight into weapons design. On his bedside table lay the latest edition of Weyer’s Taschenbuch der Kriegsflotten, a naval handbook like Jane’s Fighting Ships, for the Führer to commit to memory as though he were preparing for some astounding music-hall act.

It was he who first demanded that 75-millimetre long-barrel guns be installed in German tanks, and it was he who pinpointed one common error in German warship design – building the forecastle so low that in heavy seas it tended to cut beneath the waves. On his birthday in 1937, the proud navy had presented him with a model of the Scharnhorst; late that evening he had sent for his adjutant Puttkamer, and invited him to crouch and squint along the model’s decks with him. He was right, of course, and even at that late stage the forecastle had to be redesigned.

When the Red Book of arms production reached him each month, he would take a scrap of paper and, using a coloured pencil, scribble down a few random figures as he ran his eyes over the columns. He would throw away the paper, but the figures remained indelibly in his memory – column by column, year after year – to confound his more fallible aides with the proof of their own shortcomings. Once, late in 1940, Keitel presented the figures on the total ammunition expended in the recent French campaign; but Hitler responded that in 1916 the German armies had consumed far more 210-millimetre and 150-millimetre ammunition each month, and he stated the precise quantities from memory. Afterward Keitel wearily instructed his adjutant to forward those new figures to the OKW’s munitions procurement office. ‘That is the new programme. If the Führer says it, you can take it that it’s right.’

Although the OKW maintained its own munitions procurement office under General Georg Thomas, Keitel readily echoed Hitler’s mounting criticism of the arms production effort during the winter. In vain Keitel warned that huge production figures could not be attained if the high quality of modern ammunition was not to be jeopardised. Hitler himself drew up a new production programme in which priority was given to mine production for the naval and Luftwaffe blockade of Britain and to huge monthly outputs of artillery ammunition. Keitel issued the programme to the army ordnance office – headed by a sixty-year-old professor, General Karl Becker.

By mid-January 1940, the latter had objected that Hitler’s programme could not be met ‘to the remotest extent.’ Hitler was already toying with the idea – first put to him by Göring, who lost no opportunity to criticise the army’s feeble ordnance office – of appointing a civilian munitions minister to take arms and munitions production out of the hands of the bureaucratic army staff officers. When in February the army ordnance office reported the previous month’s production figures, Hitler found this the last straw. Production of the most important weapons had actually declined. In the two main calibres of shell the Führer’s programme figures would not be reached even by April.

At the end of February, Göring appointed Dr. Fritz Todt as a special trouble-shooter to locate the bottlenecks in the munitions industry and recommend ways of stepping up production. Todt convinced Hitler that if the industry was given the system of self-responsibility that had functioned so well in the construction of the autobahns and of the West Wall, Hitler’s ‘impossible’ production figures could be achieved. In March, Hitler appointed Todt his munitions minister. It was as much a rebuff to Keitel as to General Becker, who sensed his disgrace keenly and committed suicide not long after – the first of a sorry band of such German generals whose only common denominator was a failure to come up to Hitler’s expectations.


On March 1, 1940 Hitler had secretly summoned the Party’s gauleiters to the chancellery and blamed the weather for their lack of action in the west. He assured them the war would be over in six months – his new weapons would force the enemy to their knees; without doubt he was alluding to the mass minelaying operations the Luftwaffe was shortly to begin, using the magnetic mine against which he believed the Allies had no defence. ‘The Führer is a genius,’ recorded Goebbels afterwards. ‘He’s going to build the first Germanic people’s empire.’

Italy’s uncertain stance continued to trouble Hitler. Roosevelt had sent his under-secretary of state, Sumner Welles, to sound the engaged European capitals on the prospects of peace. Hitler studied the Italian communiqués on Welles’s Rome talks and compared them with the Forschungsamt intercepts of the secret Italian dispatches. In his own talks with the American he adhered rigidly to his argument that since this was Britain’s war, it was up to Britain to end it. On March 4, Hitler repeated that to a General Motors vice president, James D. Mooney: ‘The current war can only be brought to an end by the other countries giving up their war aims,’ meaning the annihilation of Germany; Germany, he said, had no war aims.

Britain’s heavy-handed dealings with Mussolini reinforced Hitler’s Axis position. To force Mussolini to take his trade negotiations with Britain seriously, the British imposed a naval blockade on Italy’s coal supplies at the beginning of March. Hitler stepped in with an immediate offer of a million tons of coal a month. He instructed Jodl’s staff to provide him with a folder of charts, including one grossly faking Germany’s actual military strength (crediting her with 207 divisions instead of her actual 157), and met Mussolini at the Brenner Pass on March 18.

It was their first encounter since Munich. Mussolini arrived with the air of a schoolboy who had not done his homework, as Hitler later put it. The Führer impressed upon him that the Duce could decide the best moment to declare war, but that he, Hitler, would recommend doing so only after the first big German offensive. The Duce promised to lose no time, but admitted that he would prefer ‘Yellow’ to be delayed for three or four months until Italy was properly prepared. Hitler hugely exaggerated Germany’s prospects: her armies were more powerful than in 1914, she had more ammunition than she could use, production of Junkers 88 aircraft and submarines was surging forward. As for the British, once France had been subdued, Britain would come to terms with Hitler. ‘The British are extraordinarily determined in defence,’ he said, ‘but quite hopeless at attacking, and their leadership is poor.’

Despite all his protestations however Hitler still mistrusted the Italians, for he imparted to Mussolini neither the impressive operational plan that he and Manstein had evolved for victory in the west, nor even the barest hint at his intentions in Scandinavia. In the directive he soon after issued to Keitel, instructing the Wehrmacht to resume staff talks with Italy, he stated explicitly that any Italian forces must be assigned a task as independent from the main German operations as possible, to minimise ‘the problems inevitable in a coalition war.’

Hitler attempted in his private talk with Mussolini to convince him that Russia was changed – though how far these words were intended for Soviet consumption is a matter of speculation. He reminded Mussolini that he had always wanted to march side by side with the British. ‘But Britain,’ he said, ‘prefers war.’


There were less abstract reasons for his insistence that German industry deliver the goods to Stalin. So long as their pact was in force, it released sixty high-grade divisions for Hitler to employ in the attack on France.

His innermost intentions, the ‘black nugget’, lay never far beneath the surface. Perhaps the Russians could have guessed at them, for in 1940 a new reprint of Mein Kampf went on sale, in which Chapter 14, with its clear statement of his plan to invade the east, remained unexpunged. In conversation with Mussolini Hitler touched on the enforced evacuation of the German-speaking population from the South Tyrol; he cryptically explained that he planned to resettle these people in a beautiful region ‘that I do not yet have but will certainly be procuring’; he must have already been looking ahead to the day when his armies would be standing astride the Crimea.

On March 22, 1940, Adolf Hitler again headed south, flying to the Berghof for the Easter weekend. Captain Engel took the opportunity of this long flight to hand him a report General Guderian had compiled on the training standards of the Soviet troops in Finland.

Hitler returned it with the laconic commentary: ‘Auch die müssen wir vernichten!’ – ‘We must destroy them too!’


[38] Major Werner Kiewitz, who had carried Hitler’s first surrender ultimatum to Warsaw on September 16 (see page 232), was selected for this mission. In the event, the Dutch refused to issue an entry visa to him; a desperate plan to parachute him into The Hague was abandoned, as by that time the queen had escaped to England.

Hors d’Œuvre • 4,900 Words

On Easter Monday, March 25, 1940, Hitler returned to the chancellery in Berlin. The next time he was to see the Obersalzberg mountain it would be high summer, and he would be master of all northern Europe from North Cape in Norway to the Spanish Pyrenees.

At noon on the day after Hitler’s return to Berlin, Admiral Raeder put it to him that although a British invasion of Norway now seemed less imminent than it had two weeks earlier, the Germans would do well to seize the initiative there now. It would be best to occupy Norway on April 7; by the fifteenth the nights would already be too short. Hitler agreed. Raeder also asked Hitler to authorise an immediate resumption of Luftwaffe mine-laying operations, as it seemed that the secret of the magnetic mine was now out; although both Keitel and Göring wanted the minelaying campaign delayed until ‘Yellow’ began, the Führer directed that it must begin immediately. Against Göring’s advice, Hitler also allowed himself to be persuaded by Raeder on another issue: the Führer had originally wanted the dozen destroyers that were to carry troops to Narvik and Trondheim to remain as a source of artillery support and to boost the morale of the troops they had landed; as he put it to Jodl one evening in his map room, he could not tolerate ‘the navy promptly scuttling out.’ What would the landing troops make of that? But Raeder dug his heels in. The most perilous phase of the whole invasion campaign, he insisted, would be the withdrawal of the warships from northern Norway to the safety of German waters under the nose of the most powerful navy in the world. Raeder was prepared to risk his fleet for Norway, but he would not stand by and see it frittered away.

Intelligence on Britain’s intentions in Scandinavia hardened. Far more important was that Hitler now learned of an Allied Supreme War Council decision in London on March 28 to develop a two-stage Scandinavian operation early in April: the cynical Allied master plan was to provoke Hitler into an over-hasty occupation of southern Norway by laying mines in Norway’s neutral waters; Hitler’s move would then ‘justify’ a full-scale Allied landing at Narvik in the north to seize the railroad to the Swedish ore fields. This first stage would later be coupled with several operations farther south. On March 30 German Intelligence intercepted a Paris diplomat’s report on a conversation with Paul Reynaud, France’s new premier. Reynaud had assured this unidentified diplomat that in the next few days the Allies would be launching all-important operations in northern Europe. On the same day, Churchill broadcast on the BBC a warning to Norway that the Allies would continue the fight ‘wherever it might lead them.’ (Churchill’s designs on Norway were known to German Intelligence from a series of incautious hints he dropped in a secret press conference with neutral press attachés in London on February 2.) Small wonder that Hitler later referred more than once to the indiscretions committed by Reynaud and Churchill as providing the final urgent stimulus for his own adventure.[39]Ambassador Hewel recorded Hitler’s dinner-table reminiscences on July 5, 1941, thus in his diary: ‘…if Churchill and Reynaud had kept a still tongue in their heads, I might well not have tackled Norway.’

An intercepted Swiss legation report from Stockholm claimed that British and German invasions of the Norwegian coast were imminent. After spending two days investigating every detail of the operation with all the commanders involved, Hitler decided that the first assault on Norway’s coastline was to take place at 5:15 a.m. on the ninth.

The nervous strain on Hitler would have overwhelmed most men. Perhaps the very idea was too audacious to succeed? When on April 1 he personally addressed the hand-picked commanders, one report noted: ‘The Führer describes the operation… as one of the “cheekiest operations” in recent military history. But in this he sees the basis for its success.’ At two a.m. on April 3, the operation passed the point of no return. The first three transports camouflaged as coal vessels sailed from Germany, bound with the tanker Kattegat for Narvik, a thousand miles to the north. Four more ‘coal ships’ – three for Trondheim and one for Stavanger – were ready in German ports. All carried heavy equipment, artillery, ammunition, and provisions concealed beneath the coal. The initial assault troops would be carried on fast warships, some entering the Norwegian ports under cover of the British flag: ten destroyers would carry two thousand troops to Narvik, escorted by the battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau; another seventeen hundred troops would be landed at Trondheim by the cruiser Hipper and four destroyers. Thousands of assault troops would be landed at five other ports by virtually the rest of the German navy – a fleet of cruisers, torpedo boats, whalers, minesweepers, submarine chasers, tugs, and picket boats. Troop reinforcements would arrive during the day in fifteen merchant ships bound for Oslo, Kristiansand, Bergen, and Stavanger. If anything prematurely befell even one of these ships laden with troops in field-grey, the whole operation would be betrayed.

That afternoon the War Department notified him that the railroad movement of invasion troops from their assembly areas in the heart of Germany to the Baltic dockyards had begun on schedule. From Helsinki came fresh word of an imminent British operation against Narvik; Swedish and Norwegian officers tried to assure Berlin that the Allies were just trying to provoke Germany into an ill-considered preventive campaign, but Hitler remained unconvinced. He already felt that the Swedes knew more than was good for them. Equally ominous were the telephone conversations the Forschungsamt now intercepted between the Danish military attaché and the Danish and Norwegian ministers in Berlin, in which the attaché urgently asked for immediate interviews with them as he had something of ‘the utmost political significance’ to tell them.[40]Admiral Canaris’s Chief of Staff, Colonel Hans Oster, warned the Dutch military attaché Major Sas of this – presumably to restore his own credibility after the many false alarms he had given in the winter. Sas passed the information on to the Danish and Norwegian legations, though neither was greatly impressed by it.

During the night of April 7, the German fleet operation began. The warships sailed. A further stiffening in the Norwegian attitude to Germany was detected. Norwegian coastal defences were on the alert, lighthouses were extinguished. Norwegian pilots for the ‘coal ships’ waiting to pass northward through the Leads to Narvik and Trondheim were only slowly forthcoming – was this deliberate Norwegian obstructionism? Soon the entire German invasion fleet was at sea. Hitler was committed to either a catastrophic defeat, with the certain annihilation of his navy, or to a spectacular victory.

Early on April 8, the German legation in Oslo telephoned Berlin with the news that British warships had just begun laying minefields in Norwegian waters. This violation of Norway’s neutrality could hardly have been more opportune for Hitler’s cause. In Oslo, there was uproar and anger; the redoubled Norwegian determination to defend their neutrality caused Raeder to order his warships to abandon their original intention of entering the Norwegian ports under the British flag.

The elation in Berlin was shattered by a second telephone call from the Oslo legation in the early evening. The Rio de Janeiro, a slow-moving merchant ship headed for Bergen with horses and a hundred troops, had been torpedoed a few hours earlier off the Norwegian coast. But Hitler’s luck still held. In Berlin the naval staff was confident that the British would wrongly conclude that these warship movements were an attempted breakout into the Atlantic. Raeder had insisted on attaching battleships to the first group, and this was now vindicated, for the British were indeed deceived, and deployed their forces far to the north of the true seat of operations.

Only now did Hitler send for Dr. Goebbels and inform him, during a stroll in the chancellery garden, of what was afoot. The minister ventured to inquire what reaction he anticipated from Washington. ‘Material aid from them can’t come into play for about eight months,’ responded Hitler, ‘and manpower not for about a year and a half.’

In the small hours of April 9, Berlin picked up a Norwegian radio signal reporting strange warships entering the Oslo Fjord. Hitler knew that the toughest part of the operation had begun. But shortly before six a.m. German signals from the forces were monitored; they called for U-boats to stand guard over the port entrances. Access to Norway had now been forced. General von Falkenhorst reported at five-thirty: ‘Norway and Denmark occupied… as instructed.’

Hitler himself drafted the German news-agency report announcing that the Danish government had submitted, grumbling, and almost without a shot having been fired, to German force majeure. Grinning from ear to ear, he congratulated Rosenberg: ‘Now Quisling can set up his government in Oslo.’ In southern Norway the strategically well-placed airfield at Stavanger had been captured by German paratroops, assuring Hitler of immediate air superiority; at Oslo itself five companies of paratroops and airborne infantry landed on Fornebu airfield. A small party of infantry marched with band playing into the Norwegian capital and Oslo fell.

When the gold-embossed supper menu was laid before Hitler that evening, the main course of macaroni, ham, and green salad was appropriately prefaced by smörrebröd, a Scandinavian hors d’œuvre (smørebrød).

Hitler confided to his adjutants that if his navy were to do naught else in this war, it had justified its existence by winning Norway for Germany. Its losses had been heavy. In the final approach to Oslo along the fifty-milelong Oslo Fjord, Germany’s newest heavy cruiser, the Blücher, was disabled by the ancient Krupp guns of a Norwegian coastal battery and finished off by torpedoes with heavy loss of life. Off Bergen the cruiser Königsberg was also hit by a coastal battery, and was sunk the next day by British aircraft. South of Kristiansand, the cruiser Karlsruhe was sunk by a British submarine. Three more cruisers were damaged and many of the supply vessels sunk. In one incident, however, the cruiser Hipper and four destroyers bearing seventeen hundred troops to Trondheim were challenged by the coastal batteries guarding the fjord; the Hipper’s commander, Captain Heye, signalled ambiguously in English: ‘I come on government instructions.’ By the time the puzzled gunners opened fire, the ships were already past.

Over lunch that day, April 9, Hitler again began boasting to Dr. Goebbels of a coming new Germanic empire. At Narvik however a real crisis was beginning. Ten destroyers had landed General Eduard Dietl’s two thousand German and Austrian mountain troops virtually unopposed, for the local Norwegian commander was a Quisling sympathiser.

Only the tanker Jan Wellem arrived punctually from the naval base provided by Stalin at Murmansk; the ten destroyers could refuel only slowly from this one tanker, they could not be ready to return before late on the tenth. Earlier that day however five British destroyers penetrated the fjord; in the ensuing gunplay and the battle fought there three days later, the ageing British battleship Warspite and a whole flotilla of destroyers sank all ten German destroyers – though not before they had taken a toll from the British. Thus half of Raeder’s total destroyer force had been wiped out. When over the next two days news arrived of British troops landing at Harstad, not far north of Narvik, and at Namsos, to the north of Trondheim, the military crisis brought Hitler to the verge of a nervous breakdown.


Had the diplomatic offensive in Oslo been prepared with the same thoroughness as the military invasion, the Norwegian government could have been effectively neutralised. When the Blücher sank in Oslo Fjord, the assault party detailed to arrest the Norwegian government had foundered with her. As a result, the king and government had had time to escape the capital, and the local German envoy, Kurt Bräuer, was not equal to the situation. On April 10, both king and government had been amenable to negotiation, but Bräuer wanted them to recognise Major Quisling’s new government and left the talks without awaiting the outcome of his proposals. The king refused, and a confused but still undeclared war between Norway and Germany began. Had Bräuer not insisted on Quisling but dealt with the existing government instead, this situation would not have arisen. On April 14, the foreign ministry flewTheo Habicht to Oslo to make a last attempt to secure agreement with the king. But the British operations in Narvik stiffened the Norwegian resolve. Ribbentrop’s representatives scraped together an ‘Administrative Council’ of leading Oslo citizens but progress was slow and quite the opposite of what Hitler had wanted. He was apoplectic with rage at Bräuer and Habicht for allowing these ‘Norwegian lawyers’ to dupe them; he had wanted to see Quisling at the head of an ostensibly legal Norwegian government – not some lawyers’ junta.


The military crisis paralleled the diplomatic one. Neither Luftwaffe nor submarines could carry munitions, or reinforcements to General Dietl in any quantity. With his own two thousand troops now augmented by the two thousand shipless sailors of the destroyer force, he could not hold Narvik once the main British assault on the port began. It worried Hitler that they were mostly Austrians, for he had not yet wanted to place such a burden on the Anschluss. By April 14, he was already talking to Brauchitsch of abandoning Narvik and concentrating all effort on the defence of Trondheim, threatened by the British beachhead at Namsos and Aandalsnes. He planned to expand Trondheim into a strategic German naval base that would make Britain’s Singapore seem ‘child’s play.’ Over the next few days, after repeated conferences with Göring, Milch, and Jeschonnek, he ordered the total destruction of Namsos and Aandalsnes, and of any other town or village in which British troops set foot, without regard for the civilian population. He frowned at his adjutants and said, ‘I know the British. I came up against them in the Great War. Where they once get a toehold there is no throwing them out again.’

On the fourteenth, he had somehow gained the impression that the British had already landed at Narvik. He knew of no other solution than that Dietl should fight his way southward to Trondheim. Hitler announced Dietl’s promotion to lieutenant general and at the same time dictated to Keitel a message ordering Dietl to evacuate Narvik forthwith. The British would now take Narvik unopposed. Jodl wrote in his diary: ‘The hysteria is frightful.’ Jodl’s staff was scandalised by the Führer’s lack of comportment in these days. Hitler’s message to Dietl was never issued, however.

Jodl’s army staff officer, Colonel Bernhard von Lossberg, refused to send out such a message – it was the product of a nervous crisis ‘unparalleled since the darkest days of the Battle of the Marne in 1914.’The whole point of the Norwegian campaign had been to safeguard Germany’s iron-ore supplies. Was Narvik now to be relinquished to the British without a fight? Jodl quietly advised him that this was the personal desire of the Führer. The colonel craftily persuaded Brauchitsch to sign another message to Dietl, one congratulating him on his promotion and ending: ‘I am sure you will defend your position, which is so vital to Germany, to the last man.’ Lossberg handed this text to Jodl and tore up Keitel’s handwritten Führer Order before their eyes. Thus ended one day of the Narvik crisis.

As each day passed, Jodl’s voice was raised with more assurance. Eventually the Allies had landed some twelve thousand British, French, and Polish troops to confront Dietl’s lesser force. Jodl remained unimpressed; and when Hitler again began talking of abandoning Narvik, he lost his temper and stalked out of the Cabinet Room, slamming the door behind him with a noise that echoed around the chancellery building. Throughout the seventeenth the argument raged back and forth between them. Hitler had again drafted a radio message ordering Dietl to withdraw.

‘We cannot just abandon those troops,’ he exclaimed. Jodl retorted in his earthy Bavarian accent, ‘Mein Führer, in every war there are times when the Supreme Commander must keep his nerve!’ Between each word, he rapped his knuckles on the chart table so loudly that they were white afterward.

Hitler composed himself and replied, ‘What would you advise?’ That evening Hitler signed a stand-fast order submitted by Jodl; but he made it abundantly clear in a preamble that he thought the whole northern position was bound to be overwhelmed by the Allies eventually. It was not one of his more felicitously worded messages.

His fifty-first birthday passed without noticeable public enthusiasm. When Alfred Rosenberg presented him with a large porcelain bust of Frederick the Great, tears welled up in the Führer’s eyes. ‘When you see him,’ he said, ‘you realise how puny are the decisions we have to make compared with those confronting him.’

Göring mentioned during an audience with Hitler that a mass resistance movement in Norway was growing. At the next conference Hitler announced his intention of transferring executive authority to Falkenhorst; the tough young gauleiter of Essen, Joseph Terboven, would be appointed Reich Commissioner, answerable only to the Führer himself. Keitel – rightly fearing that Norway was now to suffer as Poland was already suffering – raised immediate objections. When Hitler’s only reply was to snub the OKW chief, Keitel took a leaf from Jodl’s book and stormed out of the conference chamber. On April 21, Terboven and his staff were en route for Oslo, ready to introduce a reign of terror to the Norwegian people.

Again Hitler was plagued by sleepless nights. If the Luftwaffe generals were to be believed, Falkenhorst was in despair and already giving up Trondheim as lost. Hitler sent one officer after another to Norway to report to him on the progress of his two divisions of infantry struggling to bridge the three hundred miles between Oslo and Trondheim.

On April 22, he sent Schmundt by plane to Oslo with Colonel von Lossberg. Lossberg reported back to Hitler the next evening after a hazardous flight. So struck was he by the air of dejection in the chancellery that he apparently forgot himself; when the Führer asked in what strength the British had now landed at Namsos and Aandalsnes, he exclaimed. ‘Five thousand men, mein Führer!’

This, to Hitler, was a disaster, but the colonel briskly interrupted him: ‘Jawohl, mein Führer, only five thousand men. Falkenhorst controls all the key points, so he could finish off the enemy even if they were far stronger. We must rejoice over every Englishman sent to Norway rather than to meet us in the west on the Meuse.’ Lossberg was curtly dismissed from the conference chamber, and for weeks afterward he was not allowed into the Führer’s presence.

On the chart table, Lossberg had left behind him a small sheaf of recently captured British military documents which he had brought with him from Oslo. A British infantry brigade fighting south of Aandalsnes had been put to flight and important files captured.

The immense political importance of the find sank in overnight: the British brigade commander had previously been briefed on the plan to capture Stavanger – long before the German invasion of Norway. The British orders were dated April 2, 6, and 7. Other British landing operations had been planned at Bergen, Trondheim, and Narvik. The German operation had cut right across the British scheme. ‘That is a gift from the gods,’ wrote a gleeful Dr. Goebbels. ‘We missed disaster by hours. Churchill was waiting for reports of the English invasion – and the accursed Germans had got there first.’

Hitler was overjoyed. He personally mapped out the propaganda campaign to exploit them; until the small hours of the morning, he, Schmundt, and Jodl checked over the White Book the foreign ministry was preparing. The hasty publication contained document facsimiles, translations, and statements of British officers as to the documents’ authenticity.

Hitler himself met and talked to the British prisoners brought to Berlin from Norway. One of Halder’s staff wrote at this time: ‘The first British prisoners were flown to Berlin, shown to the Führer, wined and dined, and driven around Berlin for four hours. They just could not understand how things can look so normal here. Above all they were in perpetual fear of being shot: that’s what they had been tricked into believing.’ Hearing a few days later that Polish prisoners had attacked the new British arrivals, Hitler asked that the next time photographers should be present to capture the scene of supposed allies at one another’s throats.

There was no denying the impact that Ribbentrop’s White Book had on world opinion. Well might Hitler ask, Who now dares condemn me if the Allies care so little for small states’ neutrality themselves? At all events, on the very day the captured documents were released to the world, April 27, 1940, Hitler secretly announced to his staff the decision to launch ‘Yellow’ in the first week of May.


In the west, Hitler had marshalled 137 divisions; yet even so he was facing a numerically superior enemy. His Intelligence agencies had pinpointed the position of 100 French divisions and 11 more divisions from the British Expeditionary Force; the Belgians had raised 23 divisions, and the Dutch 13. Added to this total of 147 divisions were 20 more holding the frontier fortifications.

Hitler did not doubt the outcome of the forthcoming passage of arms. Jodl was years later to write: ‘Only the Führer could sweep aside the hackneyed military notions of the General Staff and conceive a grand plan in all its elements – a people’s inner willingness to fight, the uses of propaganda, and the like. It was this that revealed not the analytic mind of the staff officer or military expert in Hitler, but the grand strategist.’ On the eve of the assault on France and the Low Countries, Hitler was to proclaim to his assembled staff, ‘Gentlemen: you are about to witness the most famous victory in history!’ Few viewed the immediate future as sanguinely as he.

Now the real pressure was on. On April 30, Hitler ordered the entire Wehrmacht to be ready to launch ‘Yellow’ at twenty-four hours’ notice from the fifth. That day, General Jodl had confirmed to him that in Norway the German forces that had set out weeks before from Trondheim and Oslo had now linked; the Führer was delirious with joy. ‘That is more than a battle won, it is an entire campaign!’ he exclaimed. Before his eyes he could already see the autobahn he would build to Trondheim. The Norwegian people deserved it. How utterly they differed from the Poles! Norwegian doctors and nurses had tended the injured until they dropped with exhaustion; the Polish ‘sub-humans’ had jabbed their eyes out. Moved by this comparison, on May 9, Hitler was to give his military commander in Norway an order which began as follows:

The Norwegian soldier spurned all the cowardly and deceitful methods common to the Poles. He fought with open visor and honourably, and he tended our prisoners and injured properly and to the best of his ability. The civilian population acted similarly. Nowhere did they join in the fighting, and they did all they could for the welfare of our casualties.

I have therefore decided in appreciation for this to authorise the liberation of the Norwegian soldiers we took prisoner.

Hitler assembled his staff for a last run of secret conferences on the details of ‘Yellow’: everybody was now standing by – the glider and parachute troops; the disguised ‘Dutch policemen’; the emissary; and two million men.

The Luftwaffe’s chief meteorologist sweated blood under the burden of responsibility that he alone now bore. On May 3, Hitler postponed ‘Yellow’ on his advice by one day, to Monday. On the fourth he again postponed it. On Sunday the fifth the forecast was still uncertain, so ‘Yellow’ was set down for Wednesday the eighth.

On this deadline Hitler was determined: he ordered a special timetable printed for his headquarters staff as part of the elaborate camouflage of his real intentions. The timetable showed his train departing from a little station near Berlin late on May 7 and arriving next day in Hamburg en route for ‘an official visit to Oslo.’ On May 7 however the Luftwaffe’s meteorologist was adamant that there was still a strong risk of morning fog; so Hitler again postponed ‘Yellow’ by one day.

On that day too the Forschungsamt showed him two coded telegrams which the Belgian ambassador to the Vatican had just sent to his government: a German citizen who had arrived in Rome on April 29 had warned that Hitler was about to attack Belgium and Holland. The Abwehr was ordered to search out the informant – a supreme irony as the SS was to realise four years later, for the culprit was a minor member of Canaris’s Abwehr network.[41]This was Dr. Joseph Müller, a Catholic lawyer, who became a post-war Bavarian minister of justice. Colonel Oster also repeated his earlier acts of treachery by giving the Dutch military attaché a running commentary on each postponement of ‘Yellow’ and the final definitive warning at nine p.m. on the very eve of the offensive. His complicated motives can be summarised thus: recognising Hitler’s immense popular support by 1940, Oster desired to inflict on him such a military defeat that a coup against him would stand a better chance; the colonel also desired the Allies to take him seriously as a negotiating partner. Under current German law it is an offence to describe Oster as a traitor; suffice it to say that the Dutch military commander considered him ‘a pitiful specimen.’ In any case, the cat had been let out of the bag. Early on the eighth Holland was in a state of siege. Telephone links with foreign countries were cut, the government district of The Hague was cordoned off; and the guard on important bridges was increased. Hitler wanted to wait no longer, but Göring kept his nerve: The weather was improving daily: May 10 would be ideal. Hitler was torn between the counsels of his experts and the whispering voice of his intuition. Against all his instincts he reluctantly agreed to postpone ‘Yellow’ to May 10, ‘but not one day after that.’

Early on the ninth Puttkamer, the duty adjutant, telephoned one of the westernmost corps headquarters, at Aachen; the Chief of Staff there told him there was some mist, but the sun was already breaking through. When the naval adjutant repeated this to Hitler, he announced, ‘Good. Then we can begin.’ The service commands were informed that the final orders to attack or postpone (code words ‘Danzig’ and ‘Augsburg,’ respectively) would be issued by 9:30 p.m. at the latest.

Extraordinary security precautions were taken, even within Hitler’s own staff. Martin Bormann was left in the belief that they were to visit Oslo; even Julius Schaub, Hitler’s long-time intimate, did not know the truth. During the afternoon Hitler and his staff drove out of Berlin to the railroad station at Finkenkrug, a popular excursion spot. Here Hitler’s special train was waiting for them. It left at 4:38 p.m., heading north toward Hamburg; but after dusk fell, it pulled into the little country station of Hagenow. When it set off again, even the uninitiated could tell it was no longer heading north, but south and west.

Hitler retired early to his sleeping quarters; but the movement of the train and his apprehensions kept him from sleeping. Hour after hour he gazed out of the carriage window, watching for the first telltale signs of fog shrouds forming. An hour before dawn the train glided into a small station from which all the name indications had been removed.

A column of three-axle off-road limousines was awaiting him in the semi-darkness. For half an hour he and his entourage were driven through the little Eiffel villages. He broke the silence only once. Turning to the Luftwaffe adjutant sitting next to Schaub on the jump seats of his car, he asked, ‘Has the Luftwaffe taken into account that here in the west the sun rises several minutes later than in Berlin?’ Von Below set his mind at rest.


When his limousine stopped, Hitler clambered stiffly out. A former antiaircraft position on the side of a hill had been converted to serve as his field headquarters. The nearest village had been completely evacuated and would serve for his lesser staff. It was already daylight. The air was filled with the sound of birds heralding the arrival of another dawn. From the two main roads on each side of this hill they could hear the heavy rumble of convoys of trucks heading westward. An adjutant pointed wordlessly to his watch: it was 5:35 a.m. Far away they could hear the growing clamour of heavy artillery begin, and from behind them swelled a thunder of aircraft engines as the Luftwaffe fighter and bomber squadrons approached.


[39] Ambassador Hewel recorded Hitler’s dinner-table reminiscences on July 5, 1941, thus in his diary: ‘…if Churchill and Reynaud had kept a still tongue in their heads, I might well not have tackled Norway.’

[40] Admiral Canaris’s Chief of Staff, Colonel Hans Oster, warned the Dutch military attaché Major Sas of this – presumably to restore his own credibility after the many false alarms he had given in the winter. Sas passed the information on to the Danish and Norwegian legations, though neither was greatly impressed by it.

[41] This was Dr. Joseph Müller, a Catholic lawyer, who became a post-war Bavarian minister of justice. Colonel Oster also repeated his earlier acts of treachery by giving the Dutch military attaché a running commentary on each postponement of ‘Yellow’ and the final definitive warning at nine p.m. on the very eve of the offensive. His complicated motives can be summarised thus: recognising Hitler’s immense popular support by 1940, Oster desired to inflict on him such a military defeat that a coup against him would stand a better chance; the colonel also desired the Allies to take him seriously as a negotiating partner. Under current German law it is an offence to describe Oster as a traitor; suffice it to say that the Dutch military commander considered him ‘a pitiful specimen.’

Part IV: ‘War of Liberation’

The Warlord at the Western Front • 6,200 Words

Rienzi: Doch hört ihr der Trompete Ruf
in langgehaltnem Klang ertönen,
dann wachet auf, eilet all herbei,
Freiheit verkünd’ ich Romas Söhnen!
Doch würdig, ohne Raserei,
zeig’jeder, daß er Römer sei!
Willkommen nennet so den Tag,
er räche euch und eure Schmach!

Richard Wagner’s opera Rienzi

On may 10, 1940, the Völkischer Beobachter – chief organ of the Nazi Party – rolled off the presses in Berlin, Munich, and Vienna with red banner headlines: ‘GERMANY’S DECISIVE STRUGGLE HAS BEGUN!’ and ‘THE FUHRER AT THE WESTERN FRONT’. After half an hour’s tough arguing, Keitel had persuaded Hitler to allow the OKW communiqué to end with the announcement that he himself had gone to the western front to take command. Hitler was loath to steal his generals’ thunder. His prestige was high. General Erwin Rommel – now commanding a panzer division in the west – had written in a letter on April 21: ‘Ja, if we didn’t have the Führer! Who knows whether any other German exists with such a genius for military leadership and such a commensurate mastery of political leadership too!’

As a military commander, Adolf Hitler remained an enigma even to his closest associates. Alfred Jodl, perhaps his most able strategic adviser, was to write from a prison cell that he still asked himself whether he had really known the man at whose side he had led such a thorny and self-denying existence. ‘I keep making the same mistake: I blame his humble origins. But then I remember how many peasants’ sons were blessed by History with the name The Great.’ General Zeitzler also grappled with this phenomenon, though more analytically. ‘I witnessed Hitler in every conceivable circumstance – in times of fortune and misfortune, of victory and defeat, in good cheer and in angry outburst, during speeches and conferences, surrounded by thousands, by a mere handful, or quite alone, speaking on the telephone, sitting in his bunker, in his car, in his plane; in brief on every conceivable occasion. Even so, I can’t claim to have seen into his soul or perceived what he was after.’ Zeitzler saw him as an actor, with every word, gesture, and grimace under control, his penetrating stare practised for hours before some private mirror. He won over newcomers from the first handshake and piercing look, and paradoxically appeared the very embodiment of the strong and fearless leader, of honesty and open heart. He cultivated the impression that he cared deeply for his subordinates’ well-being. He would telephone a departing general at midnight: ‘Please don’t fly. It’s such foul weather and I’m worried about your safety.’ Or he would look a minor official in the eye and explain, ‘Now I’m telling you this privately, and you must keep it strictly under your hat.’

The surviving records are full of examples of the congenial impression Hitler made on others. Rommel proudly wrote on June 3: ‘The Führer’s visit was fabulous. He greeted me with the words, “Rommel! We were all so worried about you during the attack!”’ Milch wrote down Hitler’s words to him on April 21, 1941, after a particularly hazardous return flight from North Africa: ‘Thank goodness you got back!’ In June 1941Albert Speer’s office chronicle noted: ‘The Führer sent a telephone message from the Obersalzberg begging Herr Speer to drop the proposed visit to Norway, as things are too uncertain up there and Herr Speer is indispensable to him.’ In February 1943 Field Marshal Wolfram von Richthofen wrote in his diary: ‘Finally the Führer inquired very anxiously about my health.’ In mid-war Hitler would halt urgent conferences with hungry generals for half an hour to allow his stenographers to eat. One wrote in his diary on February 20, 1943: ‘At the noon conference the heater promised by the Führer is indeed there – a small china stove…In the afternoon, before a brief reception of seven officers hand-picked for special missions for which the Führer briefs them in a short speech, he inquired in General Schmundt’s presence whether the stove was warm enough for us. When we said it was, he was hugely pleased and laughed out loud.’

His assessment of character was instant and deadly. A member of Jodl’s staff, Captain Ivo-Thilo von Trotha, wrote in 1946: ‘My impression was that the Führer clearly recognised the human weaknesses of his colleagues and stood aloof from them.’ Once he snatched a document from Keitel’s hands and threw it on the floor. Keitel meekly gathered it up. Hitler judged newcomers after only a glance. Of one army commander he sourly commented, ‘He looks like a schoolteacher!’ – and since for him every teacher was a ‘Steisstrommler,’ or buttock-thrasher, that general’s career was clearly at an end. Halder was to refer to his unusual intellect and grasp, his imaginativeness and willpower. Jodl wrote that in the French campaign Hitler’s leadership was clear, consistent, and capable. Jodl considered that in drafting the terms of the armistice with fallen France, Hitler showed a generosity that gave cause to hope that of the two warring impulses within him it was the better that was gaining ground.

In later campaigns he asserted himself to the other extreme. The classical early Führer Directive, in which his commanders were given a broad mission and left to their own discretion in carrying it out, was increasingly supplemented and supplanted by Führer Orders, in which Hitler intervened in the tactical operations at every level.


Hitler’s headquarters for ‘Yellow’ were at Münstereifel. He found the underground command post here very cramped. Alone in his room, with its folding bed, table, and chair, he could hear every sound made by Keitel and Jodl next door. He preferred to hold his war conferences in the open air. He privately suggested to his staff that when the war was over they should all return each year to Münstereifel, ‘my bird paradise.’ The site remained unchanged until 1944; it had been intended as a permanent memorial to Hitler’s ‘War of Liberation.’

As the Luftwaffe had predicted, May 10, 1940, dawned fine. Soon messengers brought him the exhilarating news that the British and French armies had begun pouring into Belgium. In October 1941, his armies now before Moscow, Hitler still remembered the thrill of that moment. ‘I could have wept for joy! They’d fallen right into my trap! It was a crafty move on our part to strike toward Liège – we had to make them believe we were remaining faithful to the old Schlieffen Plan…How exciting it will be later to go over all those operations once again. Several times during the night I used to go to the operations room to pore over those relief maps.’

The Belgians and Dutch were not unprepared. As one of Jodl’s staff noted: ‘Our troops were storming an enemy who was ready and waiting for our attack to begin early on May 10.’ Ironically it was Canaris’s Abwehr that was appointed to find out how the enemy suspicions had been aroused; the Abwehr adroitly diverted suspicion to a senior foreign ministry official.

Extreme anxiety reigned at Hitler’s headquarters. One of Jodl’s officers was accompanying the first wave of tanks invading Holland and Belgium with a radio truck, instructed to report direct to Hitler on the state of the bridges over the Meuse and the Albert Canal. The Dutch had evidently managed to blow up both bridges across the Meuse north and south of Maastricht. The Abwehr’s Special Battalion 100, the ‘Trojan horse,’ had suffered fearful casualties. But the Belgian bridges across the Albert Canal – where a hundred troops had silently landed in gliders as dawn broke – were intact, except for one at Canne. By 4:30 p.m., Hitler learned that the 4th Panzer Division had actually forded the Meuse. At Eben Emael a band of intrepid German engineer troops armed with hollow-charge explosives had landed by glider and immobilised the entire fortress: the underground gun crews were sealed in, their artillery was knocked out. By early next morning, May 11, a temporary bridge had been thrown across the Meuse at Maastricht, and an armoured brigade had crossed. Eben Emael capitulated at midday, and with this, Belgium’s fate was effectively sealed.

In the north a four-day battle raged as the Dutch tried to wipe out the paratroops and glider-borne infantry landed at Rotterdam and The Hague; bomber squadrons had already taken off to relieve the pressure on the paratroops at Rotterdam on May 14 when word arrived that the Dutch were capitulating. Only half the bombers could be recalled – the rest dropped nearly a hundred tons of bombs on the town; nine hundred people died in the subsequent inferno. The next day Holland formally surrendered.

It was now time for Hitler’s masterstroke. His main offensive was to start far to the south, at Sedan, where General von Kleist’s armour had just crossed the Meuse. On May 14, Hitler directed that all available panzer and mechanised divisions were to assemble for a rapid push from this bridgehead westward and then north-westward to the English Channel:

The course of the operations so far shows that the enemy has not perceived the basic idea of our own operation, the eventual breakthrough by Army Group A [Rundstedt]. They are still moving up powerful forces to a line extending from Antwerp to Namur and apparently neglecting the sector confronting Army Group A.

From this moment on, only a resolute commander supported by outstanding military Intelligence could have saved France. General Gerd von Rundstedt is said to have remarked that he would have found it much more interesting to fight the rest of the campaign in the shoes of France’s Army Chief of Staff, General Maurice Gamelin.

Again, as in the Norwegian campaign, Hitler’s nerve briefly left him. When Brauchitsch made his regular twice-daily telephone call, Hitler bombarded him about minutiae of which the army’s thorough preparations had long taken care. As Kleist’s armour swept onward toward the Channel coast, on May 17 Hitler intervened to order that they halt to allow the slower infantry divisions time to catch up. Halder’s Intelligence branch, ‘Foreign Armies West,’ had consistently estimated that half the Anglo-French forces were in the north, waiting to be cut off. Victory euphoria gripped Berlin. Goebbels wrote privately on the nineteenth, ‘Since 1938we have conquered seven European countries.’ Hitler however was fearful of overreaching himself; he drove to Rundstedt’s headquarters, nervously studied the tactical maps, and on his return to his own headquarters spread a wholly unnecessary gloom about the danger from the south. When Halder and Brauchitsch saw him the next day, he was raging that the army was needlessly running the risk of defeat.

Not until May 20 was this crisis over. The army reported that there were at least twenty enemy divisions trapped north of the Somme; in the evening, when Brauchitsch telephoned Hitler with the news that the tanks had reached the Channel coast, Hitler was ecstatic with praise for the army and its commanders. His health mirrored these euphoric victories. Personal physician Morell wrote on May 26, ‘Asked the Führer a few days back if he’s got any complaints. He said he feels fine apart from one thing, he still has an appetite that’s far too large. He really is getting along famously.’ According to Jodl, the Führer spoke of the peace treaty he would now make with France – he would demand the return of all the territories and properties robbed from the German people these last four hundred years, and he would repay the French for the ignominious terms inflicted on Germany in 1918 by conducting the first peace negotiations at the same spot in the forest of Compiègne. Hitler jubilantly predicted that this victory would right the wrongs done by the Peace of Westphalia which had concluded the Thirty Years’ War and established France as the dominant power in Europe. It was this victory psychosis, prematurely sprung upon his military staff, that was to prove his undoing at Dunkirk.


For a while Hitler turned his attention to long-range planning. He was not keen to fight the British empire – not because he feared the outcome, but because he liked the English. While freely defaming Churchill and his ministers as war criminals, he often spoke to his private staff and to Dr. Goebbels, certainly no anglophile himself, of this fondness for the British. ‘The Führer’s intention,’ Goebbels had recorded on April 21, ‘is to administer one knockout punch. Even so, he would be ready to make peace today, on condition that Britain stay out of Europe and give us back our colonies…He does not want at all to crush Britain or to destroy her empire.’ ‘They [the British] could have had peace on the most agreeable of terms,’ the Führer sighed a few days later to Goebbels. ‘Instead they are fighting a war and shattering their empire to the core.’ And he added some days after that, on May 7: ‘We are neither able nor willing to take over their empire. There are some people whom you can talk sense into only after you’ve knocked out their front teeth.’

The second phase of the campaign faced him therefore with something of a dilemma. On May 20 he already conferred about this with Brauchitsch and Halder. His earlier eagerness for Italian divisions to join in an offensive on the Upper Rhine front had evaporated. He wrote to Mussolini with word of his latest victories, but Mussolini’s replies were an uninspiring amalgam of polite applause and qualified promises of later belligerency. Indeed, an awkward disparity of aims was now emerging: for Italy the main enemy was now Britain, while Hitler hoped and believed that he could oblige Britain to come to terms with him. When Jodl a few days later suggested that an immediate invasion of England be prepared, the Führer roundly rejected the idea without explaining why. We must conclude that he believed that the blockade by submarine and bomber operations would force Britain to submit, for he indicated that after France’s defeat he would concentrate on the production of submarines and Junkers 88 bombers.


The ever present Russian threat to Germany was still a distant one. From the slow rate at which airfield construction was progressing in the Russianoccupied border regions, it seemed clear that Germany still had a breathing space during which the Kremlin would continue to appease Hitler. Molotov had expressed Russia’s genuine relief that Germany had managed to invade Norway before the Allies had, and he had received word of ‘Yellow’ with equal sympathy; but this honeymoon would not last any longer than served the Russian purpose. How else is one to interpret the Führer’s cryptic remark to Halder on April 24, 1940: ‘We have an interest in seeing to it that the [Romanian] oil fields keep supplying us until next spring at the least; after that we shall be freer.’ Romania was now exporting over 130,000 tons of oil a month to Germany – nothing must endanger these oil fields.

A Balkan quagmire, Hitler’s nightmare! At the end of May the risk became acute as rumours multiplied of Italian plans to attack Yugoslavia; this would free Hungary to attack Romania and Russia would use this as a pretext to invade Romania as well. On May 20 the German military attaché in Moscow quoted to Berlin reliable details of Soviet troop concentrations on the Romanian frontier. Molotov denied them, but the facts spoke for themselves. Brauchitsch urged Hitler on the twenty-second to do something to curb these Russian ambitions; Hitler responded that he ‘hoped’ to limit the Russian expansion to Bessarabia. Weizsäcker wrote a curious passage in his private diary on May 23: ‘Assuming there is a crushing victory in the west, the obvious next move would be to create order in the east as well, that will give breathing space and river frontiers – an order that will endure. Whether Britain submits at once or has to be bombed into her senses, the fact is there will probably have to be one more squaring of accounts in the east…’


Nothing yet indicated that London might already have decided to evacuate northern France. On the contrary, Hitler was convinced that the British would fight to the last round. On May 21 there was a minor crisis when British and French tanks sprang an unexpected attack on the inner flank of the German Fourth Army at Arras. Both Hitler and Rundstedt took this as a warning that the armoured spearhead of Army Group A had advanced too fast, and Rundstedt ordered the Fourth Army and Kleist’s armoured group to delay their advance on the Channel ports until the crisis was resolved. Brauchitsch and Halder regretted Rundstedt’s overcautious conduct of the operations of Army Group A – bearing up on the Channel ports from the south-west – and without informing Hitler they ordered control of the Fourth Army transferred to General von Bock’s Army Group B, which was advancing on the ports from the east. Bock was to command the last act of the encirclement. Hitler learned of this when he visited Rundstedt’s headquarters at Charleville the next morning, May 24.

The Fourth Army was ordered for the time being to stay where it was. It was tactically foolhardy, claimed Hitler, to commit tanks in the swampy Flanders lowlands to which the War Department would have sent them.

The previous day the Fourth Army’s General Günter Hans von Kluge had himself persuaded Rundstedt it would be better to allow Kleist’s armour time to regroup for a more methodical assault on the twenty-fifth. Rundstedt’s proposal, stated to Hitler on May 24, went one stage further: his armour should remain where it was and give an appropriate welcome to the enemy forces swept westward by Bock’s Army Group B; this pause would give the tanks a valuable respite.

There was a political element too in this controversial decision. Hitler desired to spare Belgium’s relatively friendly Flemish population the destruction of property this closing act of ‘Yellow’ would entail.

At all events, Hitler did not hesitate to lend his authority to Rundstedt’s decision to rein in the tanks. At twelve-thirty the Führer’s headquarters telephoned the ‘halt order’: the tanks were to stand fast west of the canal line; there could be no talk of his going soft on the British, because that same day, in a directive giving guidelines for the further campaign against Britain, Hitler merely indicated in passing that the Luftwaffe’s present job in the north was to break all resistance of the ‘encircled enemy’ and prevent any British forces from escaping across the Channel.

Thus the tanks remained ‘rooted to the spot,’ as Halder bitterly commented in his diary. Hitler refused to set the tanks in motion. One more factor had arisen. On the evening of the twenty-fifth he explained to his adjutants that he particularly wanted the SS elite brigade under Sepp Dietrich to join in this crucial action at Dunkirk. His intention was to show the world that he had troops equal to the best that even such a racially advanced nation as Britain could field against him.

By May 26, Sepp Dietrich’s Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler was in position. On that morning, too, Rundstedt’s staff changed their attitude, since radio monitoring suggested that their appreciation of enemy intentions was wrong. The British seemed to be pulling out. Halder’s Foreign Armies West branch had certainly reported as early as May 21 that the unusual number of troops transports seen in Dunkirk and Boulogne might indicate that British troops were about to be evacuated; and the permanent radio link between the war office in London and the BEF in France, first monitored the next day, also suggested that events were being removed from French control. On May 26 at 1:30 p.m. Hitler told Brauchitsch that the tanks might resume their eastward drive at once. They were to get within artillery range of Dunkirk, and the army’s heavy artillery and the Luftwaffe would do the rest.

From the air, the Luftwaffe could see that the British were embarking only their troops, abandoning all their equipment as they fled. The beaches were thick with waiting Englishmen, the roads were choked with truck columns fifteen miles long. Göring boasted of the carnage his bombers were wreaking in Dunkirk harbour. ‘Only fishing boats are getting through. Let’s hope the Tommies can swim!’ The reality, however, was different: the Luftwaffe bombers were largely based on airfields back in Germany, and either their bombs were ineffective against small ships or they exploded harmlessly in the sand dunes; more ominously, the German bombers proved no match for the short-range British fighters. The Germans found that for the first time the enemy had local air superiority, and their troubles were added to by the fact that at the end of May the Luftwaffe’s Eighth Air Corps was grounded by fog for three days.


While these momentous events were transpiring in the west, in Germany’s new eastern domains a ruthless programme of subjugation and pacification had begun.

On Sunday, May 25, the Reichsführer SS outlined to Hitler and the head of his chancellery, Hans Lammers, proposals for dealing with the various racial strains in Poland. Himmler handed the Führer his six-page plan for screening the population of these new dominions for adults and children of sufficiently pure blood to allow their assimilation into Germany. He proposed that all other children should be taught only the necessary rudiments: ‘Simple counting up to five hundred, how to write their names, and lessons on the divine commandment to obey the Germans and be honest, industrious, and well-behaved.’ Racially acceptable children could be evacuated to the Reich to receive a proper education. As Himmler pointed out: ‘However cruel and tragic each individual case may be, this method is still the mildest and best if we are to reject as ungermanic, impossible, and incompatible with our convictions the Bolshevik method of physically exterminating a race.’ After a few years of this racial sifting, he said, a lowgrade potpourri of races would remain in the east. ‘This population will be available to Germany as a leaderless labour force…They themselves will eat and live better than under Polish rule. And, given their own lack of culture, they will be well appointed to work under the strict, forthright, and just leadership of the German nation on its eternal cultural mission.’ As for the Jews, Himmler’s plan disclosed, ‘I hope to effect the complete disappearance of the Jew [from Europe] by means of a mass emigration of all Jews to Africa or some other such colony.’ Afterward, Himmler scribbled in his notebook: ‘Memorandum on Poland. Führer warmly approves.’

A month later, Himmler took the opportunity of a train journey with Hitler to show him an eight-page plan for settling these eastern provinces with strong German stock. Himmler proposed that young unmarried German soldiers be induced to settle and work the land in the eastern provinces for up to eight years before marrying and taking over a farmstead or estate. The foreign labourers were to be kept in serfdom; attempts at sexual relations with their German overlords would be punishable by death. He afterward noted on the document: ‘The Führer said that every point I made was right.’


By June 2, 1940 the British evacuation of Dunkirk was over. German army Intelligence estimated that half the enemy forces had been swept from the battlefield; Brauchitsch telephoned this information to Hitler that evening. The German army, with 136 divisions, was virtually intact. It would embark on the final defeat of France with a two-to-one superiority. Hitler’s blueprint for this operation was largely determined by short-term political factors: Verdun must be captured as rapidly as possible. Overland contact must be made with Spain. Paris itself would be bypassed to the east and west, for Hitler feared nothing more than that an 1871-style Communist uprising in the capital might bring his forces into armed conflict with Soviet-backed Communists. The Maginot line would be taken from the rear. This second phase would begin at five a.m. on June 5.

Meanwhile, surrounded by Party officials and personal bodyguards, Hitler toured the battlefields in northern France and Flanders. Morell, who accompanied him, reported: ‘We were on the road for two days. Brussels, the Flanders battlefields (Ypres, Loretto, Vimy Ridge, Bensheim, Courtray, and Lille). As these areas were about the most densely populated on earth you can just imagine the devastation. A big square in Lille, piled high with charred tree trunks and automobiles, was littered with dead horses, burned out tanks, and buildings. On the roads along which the British and French retreated there was a higgledy-piggledy tangle of cast-off clothing, abandoned guns, and broken down tanks, with stragglers streaming back home on both sides of the road, mostly on bicycles, laden with whatever they can carry.’

At Brussels, where Bock had assembled his senior generals, Hitler explained: ‘Gentlemen, you will have wondered why I stopped the armoured divisions outside Dunkirk. The fact was I could not afford to waste military effort. I was anxious lest the enemy launch an offensive from the Somme and wipe out the Fourth Army’s weak armoured force, perhaps even going so far as Dunkirk. Such a military rebuff,’as he put it, ‘might have had intolerable effects in foreign policy…’

At Charleville the next day, June 2, he addressed Rundstedt and his generals. He outlined the new operation to them and informed them that Italy would shortly join in. He spoke of the reparations he proposed to exact from France. Once again he extolled Britain and her mission for the White race. It was not, he said, a matter of inconsequence to him which power ruled India. One general wrote in his diary: ‘He points out that without a navy the equal of Britain’s we could not hold on to her colonies for long. Thus we can easily find a basis for peace agreement with Britain. France on the other hand must be stamped into the ground; she must pay the bill.’ As he left the villa, crowds of cheering soldiers thronged his car. Hitler, every inch the warlord, acknowledged their acclaim. To Hitler the war seemed already won. He said as much to Admiral Canaris on June 3 when the Intelligence chief came to report on the Abwehr agents who had been killed in the campaign so far, and he repeated it to Admiral Raeder the next day.

Hitler’s occupation policy in Holland and Belgium was to establish these Germanic states as border dependencies around a mighty German core. As early as November he had drafted a decree on the administration of the countries which were to be occupied in ‘Yellow.’ In the version he had signed on May 9 he had deleted the words ‘There is to be no exploitation of the occupied regions in a selfish German interest.’ In Holland as in Norway he appointed a Reich Commissar to fill the vacuum left by the fleeing monarchy; he chose an Austrian, Arthur Seyss-Inquart, evidently on Himmler’s recommendation.

Since Belgium had fought honourably and capitulated unconditionally, Hitler was inclined to leniency. He agreed to Göring’s heartfelt request that King Leopold be chivalrously treated. A senior statesman, Otto Meissner, was sent to tell the king that if Belgium now acted sensibly his kingdom might yet survive – otherwise Hitler would create a new gau, ‘Flanders.’ A telegram in German army files indicates that King Leopold was furious at the looting and wilful destruction of his country by the withdrawing French and British troops, so Hitler’s political wisdom in ordering his armies to spare the cities of Flanders from unnecessary visitations undoubtedly paid dividends. Here too Hitler appointed a German military governor: General Alexander von Falkenhausen was a liberal commander and maintained liaison with the king. There was in consequence little resistance to the Nazi presence in Belgium. Hitler retrieved for Germany the former German areas of Eupen, Malmédy, and Moresnet which had been annexed by Belgium in 1918; he ordered Brauchitsch to separate the Belgian prisoners of war into Flemings and Walloons – the former, 200,000 men of trusty Germanic stock, were to be released forthwith, while the latter, 150,000 less friendly prisoners, were to be held in continued pawn.


For the second half of the French campaign, Hitler’s staff had found a new headquarters site in southern Belgium – in the deserted village of Brûlyde-Pêche in a forest clearing. The whole headquarters, code-named ‘Forest Meadow,’ was ready with its anti-aircraft batteries and barbed-wire entanglements by the time Hitler arrived on June 6. He never felt as secure here as he did at Münstereifel. Perhaps it was the swarms of mosquitoes that rose from the dense undergrowth to plague him; or perhaps it was a general impatience to end the war. Brauchitsch often visited in person. Hitler had mellowed toward him, and seems to have taken him more into his confidence about his future military plans. For a while Hitler abandoned his idea of discarding Brauchitsch – he could hardly do this to the Commander in Chief of a victorious army, as he mentioned to one adjutant.

A member of the headquarters staff wrote of these weeks of waiting for the French collapse: ‘Every evening the Führer ate privately with ten or twelve others…I remember we all debated the reason why the cuckoo makes a point of laying its eggs in other birds’ nests.’

One of Hitler’s secretaries wrote on June 13: ‘For a week now we have been out front again, in a deserted village…Every night we get the same performance: at precisely twenty past twelve, enemy aircraft come and circle over the village…If they don’t come then, the Chief’ – meaning Hitler – ‘inquires, “Where’s our airman on duty today then!” At any rate every night finds us standing until half past three or four in the morning with the Chief and other members of his staff in the open air watching the nocturnal aerial manoeuvres until the reconnaissance planes vanish with the onset of dawn. The landscape at that hour of the morning reminds me of a painting by Caspar David Friedrich…’

On June 10, 1940, Italy formally declared war on Britain and France. Hitler made no attempt to disguise his contempt and forbade staff talks with the Italian forces. A member of Keitel’s staff noted: ‘The Führer’s view is that since Italy left us in the lurch last autumn we are under no obligation to her now.’ In the foreign ministry sardonic comparisons were drawn between Mussolini and the traditional circus clown who rolled up the mats after the acrobats completed their performance and demanded that the audience applaud him; or again, the Italians were dubbed the ‘harvest hands.’

There survives among the papers of Walther Hewel the German government’s communiqué announcing Italy’s inauspicious action, with eloquent amendments written in Hitler’s own hand. Where the original text proclaimed: ‘German and Italian soldiers will now march shoulder to shoulder and not rest until Britain and France have been beaten,’ Hitler irritably crossed out ‘Britain’ and then redrafted the latter part to read ‘… and will fight on until those in power in Britain and France are prepared to respect the rights of our two peoples to exist.


At the last meeting of the Supreme War Council held in France, Winston Churchill, the new British prime minister, begged the French to tie down the German forces by defending Paris. His appeal for yet more French blood to be spilled in Britain’s cause may have rung cynically in his allies’ ears; the French commanders left him in no doubt that for them the war was lost. The next day, June 13, one of Hitler’s secretaries wrote: ‘I personally cannot believe the war will go on after June. Yesterday there was a War Council in Paris: Weygand declared the battle for Paris lost and suggested a separate peace, in which Pétain supported him; but Reynaud and some other members thundered their protests against him…’

The French Cabinet resigned and the aged Marshal Henri Philippe Pétain, veteran and hero of World War I, took over; Pétain desired an armistice and wanted to know the German terms. One of Jodl’s staff later wrote: ‘When he heard this news Hitler was so delighted that he made a little hop. I had never seen him unbend like that before.’ He decided to meet Mussolini to discuss the terms at once. Meanwhile, the Wehrmacht was ordered to take Cherbourg and Brest as a matter of honour, and to occupy the Alsace and particularly Strasbourg as a matter of political geography.

For many days Hitler deliberated on the nature of the armistice itself: he would invite the French to undergo the same indignities as they had visited on the defeated German generals in 1918 at Compiègne; it had been raining in 1918, and the Germans had been kept waiting in the downpour to humiliate them. Then however he softened. Hitler wanted to show the British how magnanimous he could be in victory. At Munich, he persuaded Mussolini to shelve Italian territorial claims until a final peace treaty. Only northern France and the Atlantic coast down to the Spanish frontier would be occupied by the Germans. The rest would remain under Pétain’s control. When Admiral Raeder asked him on the twentieth if Germany could claim the fleet, Hitler replied that the German navy had no entitlement to the ships as the French fleet was unbeaten. The armistice therefore formally renounced all claim to the French fleet: the French might retain part to preserve their colonial interests; the rest was to be taken out of commission. Otherwise the ships would be left unmolested – in fact Hitler wished for nothing better than that they might be scuttled by their crews.

At noon on June 21, Hitler drove through the fog-shrouded roads of northern France to the forest of Compiègne. The old wooden dining car in which Marshal Foch had dictated his terms to the Germans on November 11, 1918, had been retrieved from its permanent display at Rethondes and set up in the same spot in the forest. Forty minutes later the French arrived. Hitler sat at the long table in the dining car, while General Keitel read out the preamble. Hitler himself had composed these words: ‘After a heroic resistance, France has been vanquished. Therefore Germany does not intend to give the armistice terms or negotiations the character of an abuse of such a gallant enemy.’ After this twelve-minute introduction Hitler left while Keitel continued to dictate the terms. The railway coach would afterward be shipped to Berlin as an exhibit; the French memorial at Compiègne was demolished with explosives – only the statue of Marshal Foch himself remained untouched, on Hitler’s instructions.

He could now fulfil a lifelong dream to visit Paris and see its architecture. He sent for his three favourite intellectuals – the architects Speer and Giesler and the sculptor Arno Breker – and they arrived at Brûly-de-Pêche that evening, June 22. At four a.m. the next morning they flew secretly to Le Bourget airport. Here at last were the monuments so familiar to him from his encyclopaedias. He was actually inside the baroque Opéra, asking the grey-haired usher to show him long-forgotten chambers of whose existence he was aware from the architectural plans. For three hours shortly after dawn he wandered around the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, and Les Invalides, where he doffed his cap in awe of Napoleon’s sarcophagus. When it was light enough he gazed out across the city from the forecourt of Sacré-Cœur and Montmartre. At ten that morning he flew back to Belgium. That evening he commanded Speer to draft a decree for the reconstruction of Berlin – it must outshine everything he had seen in Paris.

An hour after midnight on June 25, 1940, a bugler of the 1st Guards Company took up station at each corner of the Führer’s village headquarters. Seated at the bare wooden table in his requisitioned cottage, Hitler waited with Speer, his adjutants, and his secretaries. Throughout Europe millions of radios were tuned in to this quiet forest acre. He ordered the lights in the dining room switched off; and the window opened. A radio turned low whispered a commentary. At 1:35 a.m., the moment prescribed for the armistice to take effect, the buglers sounded the cease-fire.

It was the most moving moment of his life. For four years he had once fought as an anonymous infantryman, and now as Supreme Commander it had been granted to him to lead his people to a unique victory. After a while he broke the silence. ‘The burden of responsibility . . ,’ he began, but he could not go on, and asked for the lights to be turned on again.

The Big Decision • 5,800 Words

While a never-ending stream of congratulations reached the chancellery in Berlin – from the exiled Kaiser in Holland, from the crown prince, from Hindenburg’s daughter, and even from Hitler’s old schoolmaster in Austria – the Führer contentedly toured the Flanders battlefield of the First World War with his old comrades Amann and Schmidt. At one point he darted off and clambered up an overgrown slope, looking for a concrete slab behind which he had once taken cover. His memory had not deceived him, for the same nondescript slab was still there, and for all we know it lies there to this day.

Colonel Schmundt had prepared an interim headquarters, ‘Tannenberg,’ high up in the Black Forest. Hitler did not want to return to Berlin until he had some unofficial response to the peace feelers he had extended to the British through Sweden. He would then stage a triumphal return to the capital on July 6 and make his formal offer in a Reichstag speech two days later. After that he would be free to attend to Russia in 1941.

Stalin was a national leader of whose strategic capability Hitler was in no doubt; he knew how to think in terms of centuries – he set himself distant goals which he then pursued with a single-mindedness and ruthlessness that the Führer could only admire. As early as June 2, 1940 Hitler had mentioned to Rundstedt at Charleville, ‘Now that Britain will presumably be willing to make peace, I shall begin the final settlement of scores with Bolshevism.’ He obviously regarded the August 1939 pact with Stalin with increasing cynicism. It was a life insurance policy to which he had steadfastly contributed but which he now felt had served its purpose; his victory in France had given him a feeling of immortality.

There is an abundance of contemporary evidence that Hitler was still well disposed toward the British Empire. The archives of the High Command and the navy provide ample examples. This was why Keitel rejected a proposal that Britain’s food supplies be sabotaged, and on June 3 Hitler explicitly forbade Canaris to introduce bacterial warfare against Britain. On June 17, Jodl’s principal assistant confirmed to the naval staff that

the Führer has anything but the intention of completely destroying the British Empire, as England’s downfall would be to the detriment of the White race. Hence the possibility of making peace with Britain after France’s defeat and at the latter’s expense, on condition that our colonies are returned and Britain renounces her influence in Europe. With regard to an invasion… the Führer has not so far uttered any such intention, as he is fully aware of the extreme difficulties inherent in such an operation. That is also why the High Command has as yet undertaken no studies or preparations. (The Commander in Chief, Luftwaffe, has put certain things in hand, e.g., the activation of a parachute division.)

Together with Göring, Hitler hatched a plan to offer Britain twelve divisions for ‘overseas purposes’ – the defence of her Empire against aggression. More realistically, Admiral Raeder urged him to launch immediate air raids on the main British naval bases and to prepare a seaborne invasion; Hitler however believed an invasion quite superfluous. ‘One way or another,’ he said, ‘the British will give in.’

On June 25 Christa Schroeder, one of his private secretaries, wrote: ‘The Chief plans to speak to the Reichstag shortly. It will probably be his last appeal to Britain. If they don’t come around even then, he will proceed without pity. I believe it still hurts him even now to have to tackle the British. It would obviously be far easier for him if they would see reason themselves. If only they knew that the Chief wants nothing more from them than the return of our own former colonies, perhaps they might be more approachable…’

On the same day General Hans Jeschonnek, the Chief of Air Staff, refused to participate in the invasion planning by the High Command (OKW) since ‘in his [Jeschonnek’s] view the Führer has no intention of mounting an invasion.’ When the air member of Jodl’s staff nonetheless pressed Jeschonnek to help, the general bitingly replied, ‘That’s the OKW’s affair. There won’t be any invasion, and I have no time to waste on planning one.’

Hitler felt that the British public was being deliberately misled as to his war aims. ‘Naturally, it matters a lot what the Britons expect the Führer’s purpose to be in fighting their country,’ wrote Walther Hewel to a contact in Switzerland on June 30. ‘They were cajoled into this catastrophe by émigrés and liberal-thinking people… now it is up to them to find some way out of this mess. The point is, can the British grasp the genius and greatness of the Führer, not only as a benefit to Germany but to the whole of Europe too? Can they swallow their envy and pride enough to see in him not the conqueror but the creator of the new Europe? If they can they will automatically come to the conclusion that the Führer does not want to destroy the Empire, as claimed by the émigrés who are duping them.’

A few days later Baron Ernst von Weizsäcker summed up the situation thus in his diary: ‘Perhaps we automatically shy from taking over the immense task of inheriting both Europe and the British Empire. “Conquer Britain – but what then, and what for?” – This question of the Führer’s is countered by others, like Herr von Ribbentrop, with a comparison to two great trees that cannot prosper if they grow up close together.’

In Weizsäcker’s view Britain would not give in unless clubbed to the ground – and only after Winston Churchill had been disposed of.


Deep in the Black Forest, the Führer planned the Reich’s new frontiers. Now that victory was his, he saw no reason not to gather the spoils of war. He would throw France back to the frontiers of 1540. He personally instructed the two western gauleiters, Joseph Bürckel and Robert Wagner, to re-annex Alsace and Lorraine by stealth; any formal German announcement that they were doing so might prompt Mussolini to enforce Italy’s territorial claims against France, or even provoke Marshal Pétain to transfer his fleet and African colonies to the enemy. Hitler warned his legal experts to ‘put as little down on paper as possible,’ for the new Germany would have a western frontier not enjoyed since the late Middle Ages. The line he envisaged ran from the Somme estuary southward; it gave Germany the Channel ports of Boulogne, Calais, and Dunkirk, much of Flanders, all of Lorraine, the Franche-Comté and part of Burgundy, as far as Lake Geneva.

Under the peace settlement Hitler also intended to oblige his former enemies, as well as the pro-Axis countries, to agree on a uniform solution of the Jewish problem. France would be required to make available Madagascar to accommodate Europe’s Jews. Hitler revealed this decision to Admiral Raeder on June 20 and evidently to Ribbentrop and Himmler soon after, for experts in the foreign ministry worked eagerly on the Madagascar plan throughout the summer. Himmler told a relieved Governor-General Hans Frank that the Führer had ordered an end to the dumping of Jews in the Generalgouvernement of Poland after all, as they were all going to be deported overseas, including those now in Poland. At a Kraków conference the city’s police chief SS General Bruno Streckenbach quoted Himmler: ‘When and how the deportation begins, depends on the peace settlement.’


It is difficult to relate the political and military developments of the summer of 1940 to the industrial – and hence longer-range – decisions that Hitler took. In the second week of June he ordered the arms industry to convert to the special needs of the war against Britain: all effort must be applied to the mass production of Junkers 88 bombers and of submarines. But though the ammunition dumps were to be replenished, the peacetime consumer-goods industry was restarted. The field army was to be reduced in strength immediately by thirty-five divisions, which would provide industry with the manpower it now lacked.

The Soviet Union loomed ever larger on Hitler’s horizon. As envisaged under the Nazi-Soviet pact, on June 12, Moscow issued an ultimatum to the Baltic state of Lithuania, followed by similar demands on Estonia and Latvia. Soviet army and NKVD police troops invaded these countries, and from the concentrations on Romania’s frontier it was clear that further moves were intended there too. Army Intelligence even recorded a flood of reports that the Russians were going to invade Germany. The rapidity with which Hitler defeated France must have taken Stalin by surprise, for on the twenty-third Molotov informed Germany that despite an earlier promise to avoid war with Romania over the Bessarabian region, the Soviet Union would brook no further delay and was resolved to ‘use force if the Romanian government refuses a peaceful settlement.’

ToHitler’s evident consternation, the Russians also laid claim to Bukovina, a region formerly owned by the Austrian crown and never by Imperial Russia; Bukovina was densely populated by ethnic Germans. Hitler was determined to avoid a Balkan quagmire at all costs, and under German pressure the Romanian government bowed to force majeure on the twentyeighth. To his adjutants Hitler expressed all the private anger about these two Russian moves – into the Baltic states and eastern Romania – that he was unable to vent in public. He termed them the ‘first Russian attacks on western Europe’.

Since the autumn of 1939 Stalin had now annexed over 286,000 square miles, with populations of over twenty million people.

During the last days of June, Hitler had a number of private talks with Brauchitsch, some of which General Halder also attended. Halder was concerned by Russia’s steady military build-up along the September 1939 demarcation line in Poland, and by her colossal armaments programme.

On June 23, Hitler ruled that the army was to be reduced from 155 to 120 divisions (although 20 of the 35 divisions to be disbanded could be reactivated on short notice if necessary); but he directed that the armoured and mechanised divisions were to be doubled, and that no fewer than seventeen divisions were to be stationed in the east, together with the headquarters of General Georg von Küchler’s Eighteenth Army.

Two days later, Halder was to be found briefing his staff on the new element in all this, which was ‘Germany’s striking power in the east.’ In an order to the three army group commanders on June 25, General von Brauchitsch mentioned that the various organisational changes would be effected ‘partly in occupied areas, partly in Germany, and partly in the east.’ On the last day of June, Halder explained to Baron von Weizsäcker that Germany must keep a weather eye on the east. ‘Britain will probably need a display of military force before she gives in and allows us a free hand for the east.’ On July 3 General Halder was even more explicit: ‘It has to be examined from the angle of how best to deliver a military blow to Russia, to extort from her a recognition of Germany’s dominant role in Europe.’


‘Today, Saturday morning,’ Morell had written on June 29, 1940, ‘I spent about half an hour alone with the Führer. He’s in magnificent health. This aromatic air does wonders for him too. He says he slept longer and better last night than almost ever before.’

Tannenberg was not one of his most attractively sited headquarters. The tall pine trees sighed in the wind, and it rained heavily. There were only a few days of sunshine in the week that he stayed here, beginning on June 28. The Italian ambassador called on him here; Hitler hinted that Germany was on the threshold of ‘great new tasks,’ without being more specific.In truth, he had not yet made up his own mind which way to turn. He mentioned to Schmundt that he was turning over in his mind whether or not to fight Russia. The jug-eared Wehrmacht adjutant told Below of this portentous remark afterward, as they walked gloomily through the dripping forest. (The scene of this exchange remained indelibly in the Luftwaffe adjutant’s memory and helps to fix the timing of Hitler’s decisions in the rush of history that summer.) Hitler also seems to have discussed this possibility with his foreign minister; and one of Jodl’s staff – whether on Hitler’s direct command cannot now be discerned – privately began drafting an OKW operational plan for an attack on Russia.[42]This was Colonel Bernhard von Lossberg; see page 316 for his plan (‘Operation Fritz’).


By late June of 1940, Hitler suspected that the British had no intention of submitting; by the end of the first week in July, this suspicion had hardened to a certainty.

That the British planned to fight on – relying on their air force for the defence of their isles and a strategic attack on Germany’s rear – was an unwelcome revelation for Hitler and the OKW operations staff. Hitler ordered his service commanders to start invasion preparations since ‘under certain circumstances’ the need might arise; but the mere thought of committing upward of thirty good divisions to an opposed operation ‘overseas’ must have smitten the Führer with grave apprehension.

His heart was not in it. ‘The Führer does not really want to press on [against Britain],’ Dr. Goebbels had noted as early as June 27. ‘But he may well have to. If Churchill stays on, assuredly.’

Hitler kept putting off Göring’s plans for a mass air attack on Britain, even though the British bombers continued with their forays into Germany. ‘Churchill,’ wrote Goebbels on the twenty-ninth, ‘is just trying to provoke us. But the Führer doesn’t intend to respond, yet.’

This did not mean that Hitler would not continue to threaten an invasion for the purposes of strategic deception. An OKW directive signed on June 28 by Lossberg – who certainly knew that a Russian campaign was now on the cards – ordered the Intelligence services to use all available channels to dupe the British into believing that ‘Germany is preparing war against the British mainland and overseas possessions with all dispatch in the event that Britain desires to continue the fight.’ A German air offensive would start once the Luftwaffe had recovered its breath; moreover, so the deception plan was to suggest, Germany, Italy, and Russia would soon open a campaign against the British position in the Middle East – this was the ‘real’ explanation for the five panzer divisions and the infantry divisions being withdrawn from France to the Reich. (These were the divisions being moved up against Russia.)

Hitler however had drawn up no plans whatever to attack Britain. Sending for Dr. Goebbels on July 2, he made this quite plain: he would instead offer them one last chance, in a speech to the Reichstag. If they did not accept, he would defeat them in four weeks: ‘The Führer does not want to destroy the Empire,’ recorded Goebbels after their private meeting, ‘because everything it loses will accrue to foreign powers and not to us.’

The very next day Mr. Churchill displayed the extent of his determination to fight on: on July 3 he ordered his navy to open fire on the remnants of the French fleet anchored at Mers-el-Kébir, North Africa, an act of brigandry which killed 1,297 French sailors who had until few days previously been his allies, and wounding 351 more. This was Hitler’s own language, and the message reached him loud and clear. Moreover, documents captured in France demonstrated unmistakably the kind of war that Britain was preparing: among the records of the Supreme War Council was one of a November 1939 meeting at which Chamberlain had disclosed that the British air staff had developed a plan to use its new long-range bombers for the destruction of the Ruhr, site of an estimated 60 percent of German industry. Hitler’s agents had also discovered notes written by Daladier during a visit to Paris by Churchill and British air marshals on May 16. The French prime minister wrote of ‘a long technical argument with his generals, who declare to me that the German advance into France can be slowed down by bombing the Ruhr. I retort it is absurd to believe that.’

Shocked by Mers-el-Kébir, Hitler scrapped the conciliatory speech he had drafted for delivery to the Reichstag on July 6, 1940, and postponed the session altogether.


That day he returned to Berlin, two months after he had sallied forth to fight the French. A public holiday had been declared in the capital, a million swastika flags had been distributed free to the people lining the streets to the chancellery, and roses were scattered in the streets for Hitler’s motor cavalcade to crush. Dr. Goebbels himself broadcast the running commentary over the radio network as at three p.m. Hitler’s special train pulled into Anhalt station.

The choice between attacking Britain or Russia was one that would now occupy him continuously until the end of July and to a lesser degree until autumn. Unexpectedly he was now confronted by two enemies, an ugly prospect at any time; but he had only one bullet left in the breech, as he himself later graphically put it. That the RAF might bomb his industry concerned Hitler less than the mischief Britain might create in the Balkans – the source of his oil. The planning documents recently captured in France had been an eye-opener, betraying, as they did, the sympathetic attitude shown by Turkey, Greece, and particularly Yugoslavia toward the various moves contemplated by the Allies. In short, the Balkans could prove Hitler’s undoing, and he told Italy’s foreign minister as much on the day after his return to Berlin. The Italians wished to invade Yugoslavia now, but Hitler urged them not to; because if they did, Hungary could invade Romania and the entire Balkans would go up in flames. ‘The Russians would therefore certainly advance toward their ancient Byzantine goal, the Dardanelles and Constantinople,’ said Hitler. ‘Things might go so far that Britain and Russia, under the pressure of events, could discover a community of interest.’


By now both General von Brauchitsch and Colonel von Lossberg, a member of Jodl’s staff, had already realised that Hitler proposed a Russian campaign. On July 1, 1940 Brauchitsch had asked the War Department (OKH) to ‘do some operational thinking’ about this, and Halder had asked General Hans von Greiffenberg to start planning accordingly in the operations branch of the General Staff.

Simultaneously, Lossberg completed an OKW study of a Russian campaign, code-named ‘Fritz’ after his son; it was some thirty pages long. Early in July, during the sojourn of the OKW command train Atlas on a siding at Grunewald station in Berlin, he directed Captain von Trotha to obtain maps of Russia. He was undoubtedly right when he later suggested that there was a psychological factor in Hitler’s decision to deal with Russia first. The Führer realised that victory in France had produced both in his command staffs and in the German people a smugness and a self-satisfaction and a savouring of the peace to come that threatened to undermine all hope of launching a superhuman crusade against the Bolsheviks. In April 1941 he was to say: ‘The people must always be led by the nose to paradise. Today we are more powerfully armed than ever before…That is why we have to use the arms we have now for the real battle – the one that counts, because one day the Russians, the countless millions of Slavs, are going to come.’

In spite of all this, Hitler allowed the phoney invasion preparations against Britain to continue in the hope that this threat would bring the British people to their senses. Admiral Raeder argued that the British would not make peace without, figuratively speaking, a taste of the whip first: he urged Hitler to order heavy air raids on some big city like Liverpool; an invasion must be regarded only as a last resort. Hitler refused to unleash the Luftwaffe against Britain. The signs were in fact conflicting. He learned that the expatriate Duke of Windsor – who had served with the French military mission near Paris but had now escaped through Spain to Portugal – was bitterly attacking Churchill’s needless prolongation of the war and predicting that ‘protracted heavy bombardment would make Britain ready for peace.’

Hitler was perplexed by England’s continued intransigence. He told Goebbels on July 6 that he had had his Reichstag speech, with the peace offer, ready to deliver when Churchill’s bombardment of the French fleet at Mers-el-Kébir had upset the applecart. He assumed that Churchill had deliberately misinformed his colleagues about Germany’s armistice demands on France, for Ambassador Stafford Cripps was heard to explain in Moscow that Britain could not make peace ‘because Germany would without doubt demand the entire British fleet to be handed over to her.’

Repeating the now familiar arguments he had heard, Halder wrote on the thirteenth: ‘The Führer… accepts that he may have to force Britain to make peace; but he is reluctant to do so, because if we do defeat the British in the field, the British Empire will fall apart. Germany will not profit therefrom. We should be paying with German blood for something from which only Japan, America, and others would draw benefit.’


Having formally postponed the planned Reichstag session Hitler left Berlin on July 8, announcing to his private staff that he wanted to think things over. For the next ten days he drifted purposelessly about Bavaria and Austria, and then retired to the Obersalzberg for a week of quiet reflection. The Hungarian premier, Count Paul Teleki, brought him a letter from his regent, Admiral Nicholas Horthy, on July 10; the letter is lost, but Horthy’s handwritten draft hinted that Germany was the only power that could prevent Stalin and the Red Army from ‘devouring the whole world like an artichoke, leaf by leaf.’

With Hitler’s acquiescence, Joachim von Ribbentrop began an extended manoeuvre to win the support of the Duke of Windsor, who was now staying at the Lisbon mansion of one of Portugal’s leading bankers prior to taking up a new post at Bermuda. Hitler’s respect for the duke (whom he had met in 1937) was increased by fresh reports of the latter’s unconcealed loathing of Churchill and the war, and by word of his willingness to accept high office in a Britain humbled by armistice. For the moment, German policy was limited to trying to procure the duke’s arrival in an area within Germany’s sphere of influence, for example southern Spain. Ribbentrop genuinely feared the British secret service had evil designs on the duke, for he sent Walter Schellenberg to Lisbon with instructions to ensure that no harm came to him. Schellenberg was also to arrange for the duke and his duchess to cross back into Spain if they wished.

On July 11 Ribbentrop confidentially cabled his ambassador in Madrid that if the duke so desired Germany was willing to smooth the path for ‘the duke and duchess to occupy the British throne.’ By the last week of July it seemed that Ribbentrop might succeed: the Spanish emissary quoted the duke as saying that he would break with his brother King George and with Britain’s present policies and retire to a life of peace in southern Spain – but the Lisbon embassy had impounded his passports.

When the duke had been told the time might come when he would again play an important part in English public life, and perhaps even return to the throne, he had replied in astonishment that the British Constitution made this impossible for a king who had once abdicated. Ribbentrop’s ambassador reported, ‘When the emissary then suggested that the course of the war might bring about changes even in the British Constitution, the duchess in particular became very thoughtful.’ Small wonder that Mr. Churchill’s government would make strenuous attempts, after the war, to locate and destroy these compromising secret telegrams.


Hitler’s suspicion of collusion between Russia and Britain was powerfully reinforced by reports of conversations of Russian diplomats in Moscow; these reports were intercepted by the German Intelligence service.

Thus on July 5 the Turkish ambassador reported to Ankara on a Moscow conversation with British ambassador Sir Stafford Cripps: Mikhail Ivanovich Kalinin, the President of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, had assured the Briton that Britain and Russia had many interests in common; it was necessary for them to arrive at an understanding. Similarly, a decoded Greek telegram, sent to Athens by the Greek legation in Moscow, reported on a two-hour interview with Cripps on July 6.

The Englishman had emphasised that the Russians were feverishly making war preparations (‘which is quite correct,’ noted the Greek telegram). Significantly the Greek envoy had retorted that ‘it appears dubious to me that if Germany believes the Kremlin definitely intends to attack she will not take action immediately.’ Cripps had claimed in his reply that because Germany could not be ready to attack Russia before autumn, and even then could not endure a winter campaign, ‘she will be forced to postpone the war against Russia until next spring – by which time the Russians will be ready too.’ Until then both parties would avoid any disruption of their mutual relations. Speaking to the Turkish ambassador on July 16 Cripps admitted: ‘I fully understand how delicate this matter is, but faced by imminent German attack… we are forced to come to some arrangement with the Russians whatever the cost.’ These intercepted dispatches were placed in Hitler’s hands on his return to Berlin.

Defeating Russia was therefore vital; defeating Britain was not. On July 16 Hitler, without noticeable enthusiasm, accepted Jodl’s draft order to the Wehrmacht to prepare an invasion of Britain ‘and if need be carry it out.’ But the navy was more circumspect. The consequent withdrawal of a thousand heavy barges from the German inland waterways would paralyse large sections of industry; in addition, adequate local air superiority was a sine qua non for any invasion operation. On the fifteenth the OKW had orally asked the commanders in chief whether everything could theoretically be ready by August 15; on his arrival now in Berlin Hitler learned from Raeder that this would be quite impossible. Nonetheless the Führer ordered the stage to be set – the transport ships and crews were to be marshalled along the Channel coast in full view of the British. His aim was transparent, for the Luftwaffe meanwhile operated with a decorum and restraint hardly compatible with the strategic objective of fighting for air supremacy.

He returned to Berlin on July 19, 1940, and outlined to Dr. Goebbels and the others around his lunch table the long-delayed speech that he now proposed to make to the Reichstag. It would contain a short, truncated peace offer to the British people with the clear connotation that this was his last word on the matter.

The flower-bedecked Kroll Opera-house, the chosen setting for the speech, was that afternoon packed to overflowing. His delivery was as effective as ever, now narrating, now mocking, now ranting, now appealing. Its burden was an ‘appeal to Britain’s common sense.’ What was unorthodox was that he announced an avalanche of promotions for all his principal commanders on the western front. Hermann Göring must have learned that he was to be created a Reichsmarschall – one rung higher even than field marshal – for he had already ordered a gaudy new uniform.

The peace offer fell on deaf ears. That same evening the British journalist Sefton Delmer broadcast over the BBC a coarsely phrased rebuff, and Churchill even ordered a fresh air raid that night.

Hitler still hoped reason would prevail. ‘For the moment,’ Goebbels advised his diary, ‘the Führer does not want to accept that it is indeed Britain’s response. He is still minded to wait awhile. After all, he appealed to the British people and not to Churchill.’


Before the day was over Hitler confidentially assured the sixty-five-yearold von Rundstedt, now a field marshal, that he had not the slightest real intention of launching a cross-Channel invasion. He also evidently repeated to Brauchitsch his demand that the general staff properly explore a Russian campaign. The strategic objective that Hitler outlined echoed Lossberg’s draft, code-named ‘Fritz’: ‘To defeat the Russian army or at least to take over as much Russian territory as is necessary to protect Berlin and the Silesian industrial region from enemy air raids. It would be desirable to advance so far into Russia that we could devastate the most important areas there with our own Luftwaffe.’ Before leaving Berlin on July 21, Hitler collected Raeder, Brauchitsch, and Göring’s Chief of Staff, Jeschonnek, in the chancellery and explained to them the need to take the necessary political and military steps to safeguard the crucial oil imports should – as was ‘highly unlikely’ – the Romanian and Russian supplies threaten to dry up.

On the question of an invasion of England Hitler concluded: ‘If the preparations cannot definitely be completed by the beginning of September, it will prove necessary to ponder other plans.’

By this he meant that he would postpone the decision on England until May of 1941, and attack Russia this very autumn. While awaiting Raeder’s report on the prospects for an invasion of Britain, Hitler toured Weimar and Bayreuth. There were now air raid wardens in the famous theatre and the printed programme in his hands included a full-page announcement on what to do if the sirens sounded.

On the twenty-fifth Hitler was back in the capital. Raeder again tried to dissuade him from an invasion of Britain. Hitler asked him to report again on the position in a few days’ time. His final decision may however have been triggered by a fresh intercepted telegram that was shown him before he left Berlin for the Berghof in Bavaria late that evening.

In it, the Yugoslav ambassador in Moscow, Milan Gavrilovic, quoted Sir Stafford Cripps’s view that France’s collapse had put the Soviet government in great fear of Germany. ‘The Soviet government is afraid that the Germans will launch a sudden and unexpected attack. They are trying to gain time.’ Gavrilovic had also discussed the growing Russian military strength with his Turkish colleague. The Turkish ambassador considered war between Germany and Russia a foregone conclusion.

Hitler arrived at the Berghof in time for lunch on July 26. Here over the next few days he held a series of meetings with Balkan potentates.

One morning after the regular war conference in the Berghof’s Great Hall, Hitler asked General Jodl to stay behind and questioned him on the possibility of launching a lightning attack on Russia before winter set in. This question was unquestionably an echo of the mocking tone adopted by Soviet leaders in their conversations with Balkan diplomats. Hitler himself referred to ‘intercepted conversations’ in this connection on July 31. He explained that he was perfectly aware that Stalin had only signed his 1939 pact with Germany to open the floodgates of war in Europe; what Stalin had not bargained for was that Hitler would finish off France so soon – this explained Russia’s headlong occupation of the Baltic states and the Romanian provinces in the latter part of June. It was clear from the increasing Soviet military strength along the eastern frontier, on which Germany still had only five divisions stationed, that Russia had further acquisitions in mind. Hitler feared that Stalin planned to bomb or invade the Romanian oil fields that autumn. Russia’s aims, he said, had not changed since Peter the Great: she wanted the whole of Poland and the political absorption of Bulgaria, then Finland, and finally the Dardanelles. War with Russia was inevitable, argued Hitler; such being the case, it was better to attack now – this autumn. He would make one last political attempt to explore Stalin’s intentions before finally making up his mind.


When the Führer called his OKW, army, and navy chiefs to the Berghof on July 31, 1940, his reluctance to reach a firm decision on an invasion of Britain contrasted strongly with his powerful arguments in favour of attacking Russia.

Admiral Raeder sedulously gave the impression that the navy would be ready for the invasion of England by mid-September 1940; but having done so he also advanced formidable technical reasons why they should wait until May 1941. In the coming autumn only two moon and tide periods were attractive – from August 20 to 26, and from September 19 to 26; the first was too early, the second fell in a traditional foul-weather period. If Hitler waited until May 1941, on the other hand, the navy’s fleet of battleships would be brought up to four by the new Tirpitz and Bismarck; that said, the admiral returned to Berlin.

After he had gone, Hitler commented to Brauchitsch and Halder that he doubted the technical practicability of an invasion. He was impressed by Britain’s naval supremacy and saw no real reason to take ‘such a risk for so little.’ The war was already all but won.

With more marked enthusiasm the Führer turned to the other means of dashing Britain’s hopes. Submarine and air war would take up to two years to defeat Britain. Britain still had high hopes of the United States, and she was clutching at Russia like a drowning man: if Russia were to drop out of the picture, then the United States must too, because with the USSR eliminated Japan would be released as a threatening force in the Far East. That was the beauty of attacking Russia. ‘If Russia is laid low, then Britain’s last hope is wiped out, and Germany will be master of Europe and the Balkans.’ There was, alas, no time after all to commence a Russian campaign that autumn, as winter would set in before the operation could be concluded; but if it were started in the spring – May 1941 – the army would have five clear months in which to defeat the Soviet Union. The army he had so recently ordered cut back to 120 divisions would now be expanded to a record 180 divisions; whereas on June 23 he and Brauchitsch had agreed to allocate 17 infantry divisions to the east, he now proposed that by spring his strength there be built up to 120 divisions.

Neither Field Marshal von Brauchitsch nor General Halder, chief of the General Staff, offered any objections.


[42] This was Colonel Bernhard von Lossberg; see page 316 for his plan (‘Operation Fritz’).

The Dilemma • 4,700 Words

For twenty years Adolf Hitler had dreamed of an alliance with Britain. Until far into the war he clung to the dream with all the vain, slightly ridiculous tenacity of a lover unwilling to admit that his feelings are unrequited. Goebbels watched this undignified scene with disquiet, revealing to his diary on the first day of August 1940: ‘Feelers from here to Britain without result. Via Spain as well. London is looking for a catastrophe.’ As Hitler told Major Quisling on the eighteenth: ‘After making one proposal after another to the British on the reorganisation of Europe, I now find myself forced against my will to fight this war against Britain. I find myself in the same position as Martin Luther, who had just as little desire to fight Rome but was left with no alternative.’

This was the dilemma confronting Hitler that summer. He hesitated to crush the British. Accordingly, he could not put his heart into the invasion planning. More fatefully, Hitler stayed the hand of the Luftwaffe and forbade any attack on London under pain of court-martial; the all-out saturation bombing of London, which his strategic advisers Raeder, Jodl, and Jeschonnek all urged upon him, was vetoed for one implausible reason after another. Though his staffs were instructed to examine every peripheral British position – Gibraltar, Egypt, the Suez Canal – for its vulnerability to attack, the heart of the British Empire was allowed to beat on, unmolested until it was too late. In these months an adjutant overheard Hitler heatedly shouting into a chancellery telephone, ‘We have no business to be destroying Britain. We are quite incapable of taking up her legacy,’ meaning the empire; and he spoke of the ‘devastating consequences’ of the collapse of that empire.

The views of the Duke of Windsor may have coloured Hitler’s view of the British mentality. It was reported from Lisbon that the duke had described the war as a crime, Lord Halifax’s speech repudiating Hitler’s ‘peace offer’ as shocking, and the British hope for a revolution in Germany as childish. The duke delayed his departure for the Bahamas as long as he could. ‘Undiminished though his support for the Führer’s policies are,’ reported the Lisbon ambassador, ‘he thinks it would be premature for him to come right out into the open at present.’

Ribbentrop cabled his Madrid ambassador to send confidential word to the duke’s Portuguese host, a banker, that Germany was determined to use as much force as was necessary to bring Britain to the peace table. ‘It would be good if the duke could stand by to await further developments.’ Firmly escorted by armed Scotland Yard detectives, the duke left however for the Bahamas on August 1. In his last conversation with his host he replied to Ribbentrop’s message: he praised Hitler’s desire for peace and reiterated that had he still been king there would have been no war, but he explained that given an official instruction by his government to leave Europe for the Bahamas he had no choice but to obey. To disobey would be to show his hand too soon. He prearranged a codeword with the banker for his immediate return to Lisbon.

From an agent in the State Department in Washington, Hitler obtained copies of the current despatches of the American ambassador in London, Joseph P. Kennedy; Kennedy was predicting in these that the Germans had only to continue the blockade – Britain’s east coast harbours were already paralysed, the rest badly damaged. This was Hitler’s view too. To Göring it was one more reason not to sacrifice his Luftwaffe in preparations for an invasion which he believed would never take place. ‘If the losses we sustain are within reason,’ recorded Goebbels after conferring with Hitler on the sixth, ‘then the [bombing] operation will proceed. If they are not, then we shall try new ways. Invasion not planned, but we shall hint at it subliminally in our propaganda to confuse the enemy.’

Hitler, it seems was transfixed by his own foolish amour for England. On August 6 the army’s Chief of Staff complained in his diary: ‘We now have a peculiar situation in which the navy is tongue-tied with inhibitions, the Luftwaffe is unwilling to tackle the task which they first have to accomplish, and the OKW – which really does have some Wehrmacht commanding to do here – lies lifeless. We are the only people pressing ahead.’

To his Berlin lunch guests on the eighth, Hitler airily explained that the weather was still not good enough for bombing London. He then returned to the Berghof, where he awarded Frau Bormann the Mother’s Cross in gold for her considerable procreative accomplishments, and he inspected the new beehives Bormann had laid out – as though there were no more pressing problems at this hour in Germany’s history.


At the Berghof, the tapestry was drawn aside at one end of the Great Hall and a cinema screen was set up at the other. Every available Russian and Finnish newsreel film of their recent war with one another was run and rerun, while Hitler and his staff studied the Russians’ weapons and the tactics that the films revealed. The Intelligence reports now reaching Hitler were unmistakable and disconcerting: a gigantic rearmament effort had begun in Russia; in addition, according to Reinhard Heydrich’s organisation, the Soviet trade missions were spreading Communist propaganda and organising cells in German factories. One day at the Brown House, the Nazi Party headquarters in Munich, Hitler told Ribbentrop that he did not intend to stand idly by and allow the Soviet Union to steamroller Germany; Ribbentrop begged him not to contemplate war with Russia, and he quoted Bismarck’s dictum about the unwillingness of the gods to allow mere mortals a peek at the cards of Fate.

When Keitel submitted a handwritten memorandum against waging war with Russia if it could possibly be avoided, Hitler summoned him to a private interview and scathingly reduced the field marshal’s arguments one by one: Stalin had as little intention of adhering to their treaty as he did; moreover, he pointed out, Stalin was alarmed by Hitler’s military successes.

Keitel was hurt. Without a word he turned on his heel and left the room. Hitler retained the memorandum. Presumably it vanished into his safe along with his collection of other incriminating documents.

Keitel had already, on August 2, instructed his staff at the OKW that the Führer now recognised that Britain might not collapse that year. In 1941 the United States might intervene and ‘our relationship to Russia might undergo a change.’ The OKW’s Admiral Canaris was also briefed in August on Hitler’s intention of attacking Russia in the spring.

The OKW issued an order camouflaging the build-up of German strength in the east, and transparently, or perhaps super-cunningly, code-named it ‘Eastern Build-up.’

Admiral Raeder however was informed by Hitler during August in the opposite sense – that these growing troop movements to the eastern front were just an outsize camouflage to distract from the imminent invasion of Britain.

In fact, the truth was the reverse. The OKW’s war diary stated explicitly on the eighth:‘“Eastern Build-up” is our camouflage order for preparations against Russia.’

Hitler’s mind was on the shape of the Greater German Reich to come – and above all on how Germany was to police the more turbulent and dissident peoples that would come within the Reich’s frontiers. This, he declared to Colonel Schmundt on August 6, must be the peacetime task of his Waffen SS. There would never be any need to call on the regular forces to take up arms against their fellow countrymen. These police troopers, noted Schmundt, must be unconditional champions of the Nazi ideology – a body of men who would never make common cause with the seditious proletariat; to increase their authority in the eyes of the people, the Waffen SS must prove their value on the coming battlefields; they must be an elite.

The Wehrmacht objected bitterly to this further entrenchment of Himmler’s private army, but Keitel agreed with Hitler’s arguments and ordered them given the widest circulation within the army.


Göring told Hitler he needed three days of good weather to begin the air attack on the British fighter defences. On August 12, he announced that the attack would begin the next day. Hitler left for Berlin. When Raeder warned on the thirteenth that the invasion was a last resort, not to be undertaken lightly, Hitler reassured him that he would first see what results the Luftwaffe obtained. But those who knew him realised the invasion would never take place. ‘Whatever his final decision, the Führer wants the threat of invasion of Britain to persist,’ the naval staff’s war diary noted on August 14. ‘That is why the preparations, whatever the final decision, must continue.’

The newly created field marshals assembled in the chancellery on August 14 to receive their bejewelled batons from Hitler’s hands. There are two surviving records written by field marshals. Hitler referred to Germany’s greatest strength as her national unity. Since Britain had rejected Hitler’s offer, a conflict was inevitable but would be initially restricted to Luftwaffe operations. ‘Whether the army will have to be employed can’t be predicted. In any case it would only be used if we were absolutely forced to.’

Leeb’s account is important enough to quote at length:

Probably two reasons why Britain won’t make peace.

Firstly, she hopes for U.S. aid; but the U.S. can’t start major arms deliveries until 1941.

Secondly, she hopes to play Russia off against Germany. But Germany is militarily far superior to Russia. The film of Russian warfare in Finland contains quite ludicrous scenes. The loss of gasoline [imports from Russia] can easily be made up by Romania.

There are two danger-areas which could set off a clash with Russia: number one, Russia pockets Finland; this would cost Germany her dominance of the Baltic and impede a German attack on Russia. Number two, further encroachment by Russia on Romania. We cannot permit this, because of Romania’s gasoline supplies to Germany.

Therefore Germany must keep fully armed. By the spring there will be 180 divisions.

As for Europe: there is no justification for the existence of small nations, and they particularly have no right to big colonial possessions. In the age of air forces and armoured divisions small nations are lost. What matters today is a unified Europe against America. Japan will have to seek contact with Germany, because Germany’s victory will tilt the situation in the Far East against Britain, in Japan’s favour. But Germany is not striving to smash Britain because the beneficiaries will not be Germany, but Japan in the east, Russia in India, Italy in the Mediterranean, and America in world trade. This is why peace is possible with Britain – but not so long as Churchill is prime minister. Thus we must see what the Luftwaffe can do, and await a possible general election.

The first two days of the Luftwaffe attack on England were a disappointment. The unpredictable English summer foiled every effort to co-ordinate the operations of Göring’s three air forces (Luftflotten). A ‘total blockade’ of the British Isles was declared, but even this was a half-measure, for it was shortly followed by an OKW compendium of practices forbidden to the German forces: Hitler called attention to his strict on-going embargo on air raids on London and he forbade any kind of ‘terror attack’ without his permission. On the evening of the sixteenth, Hitler again left Berlin for the Obersalzberg; such hopes as he may have reposed in the Luftwaffe’s campaign were temp