The Way to War - Hitler: Ascent 1889-1939 - Volker Ullrich

Hitler: Ascent 1889-1939 - Volker Ullrich (2016)

Chapter 21. The Way to War

“The time for surprises is over,” Hitler declared in his Reichstag speech on 30 January 1937, four years after taking power. “As a nation of equal status Germany is conscious of its European responsibility, and will work loyally towards solving the problems that beset us and other nations.”1 The dictator would have had good reason to manoeuvre Germany into quieter water when it came to foreign policy. The triumphs his regime had achieved during its first years were impressive enough. Step by step, Hitler had freed Germany from the constraints of the Treaty of Versailles and re-established its ability to pursue its own foreign-policy aims. By simultaneously posing as a man of peace and presenting them with faits accomplis, he had repeatedly duped and outmanoeuvred the Western powers. Exploiting an international constellation of circumstances that was extraordinarily favourable to the Third Reich, he had pushed through an accelerated rearmament programme without provoking a feared military intervention by the Versailles signatories. After that he was out of the danger zone. Germany once again had the most modern and powerful military on the European continent. “Today we have once again become a global power,” Hitler announced on 20 February 1937 at the annual celebration of the Nazi Party’s founding in the Hofbräuhaus.2

Yet the dictator was by no means content with what he had achieved, although in the spring of 1937 he forwent the sort of spectacular foreign-policy coups he had engineered in the preceding two years. “April has come and no Hitler surprise this spring yet,” a somewhat astonished William Shirer remarked.3 But behind this seeming restraint, a transition had begun from a policy of dismantling the Treaty of Versailles to one of expanding Germany’s territory. From the very beginning, Hitler had left no doubt in private that the evisceration of the Versailles Treaty was only a preliminary goal. The ultimate aim of all his plans remained the conquest of “living space” in eastern Europe. In early June 1936, after a long conversation with Hitler about foreign policy, Goebbels noted:

The Führer sees conflict in the East coming. Japan will batter Russia. And this colossus will begin to wobble. Then our hour will be at hand. Then we will have to gain enough territory for the next one hundred years. Hopefully, we’ll be ready then, and the Führer will still be alive.4

Of course, such thoughts were kept confidential. While remaining on the lookout for opportunities to advance his aggressive aims, Hitler depicted himself in Germany and abroad as a politician of peace. A characteristic manifestation of this was the agreement reached between the Third Reich and Austria on 11 July 1936. In the public part of the treaty, the German government acknowledged “the full sovereignty of the federal state of Austria and the basic principle of non-intervention in its internal affairs.” In return, Vienna promised to orient its foreign policy around the fact that “Austria saw itself as a German state.” In the secret part of the treaty, Austria agreed to declare a generous political amnesty for imprisoned Austrian Nazis and to give “political responsibility to representatives of the so-called ‘national opposition.’ ”5Austrian Chancellor Kurt von Schuschnigg believed that these concessions would ensure his country’s independence. Hitler saw the agreement as a lever to help Austrian National Socialists achieve power from within, since as he told a group of Austrian Nazis around this time, his other foreign-policy initiatives were such that he could not bear the “burden of Austria” at the time. “I need two more years to start pursing my policies,” he instructed them. “Within that time, the party in Austria is to maintain its discipline.”6

Yet only two weeks after the signing of the German-Austrian accord, Hitler made a decision that completely contradicted his rhetoric of peace. In February 1936, Spain’s Frente Popular (Popular Front) had emerged as narrow winners in that country’s national election. On 17 July, military officers in the Spanish protectorate of Morocco, led by General Francisco Franco, revolted against the legitimate democratic government. The putschists lacked the means of transport needed to bring rebel troops to the Spanish mainland, so Franco turned to Hitler and Mussolini for help. Two members of the NSDAP Foreign Organisation in Spanish Morocco, Adolf Langenheim and Johannes Bernhardt, offered their services as go-betweens. On the evening of 24 July they arrived in Berlin, accompanied by a Spanish officer. The Foreign Ministry coolly rejected these emissaries, but Rudolf Hess directed them to Hitler, who as always at this time of year was attending the Wagner Festival in Bayreuth.7

News of the Spanish military revolt had reached Bayreuth on 19 July. “Hopefully they’ll blast the Reds to pieces,” Goebbels commented.8 In the days that followed the Nazi leadership tried to get an overview of the situation. Hitler even asked 16-year-old Wolfgang Wagner to bring him his school atlas so he could look up where Tetúan, the capital of Spanish Morocco, was located.9 The reports gradually drifting in suggested that the military revolt was not doing particularly well and that the republicans controlled the majority of Spain. On 25 July, the German ambassador in Madrid warned that civil war was imminent and laid out the consequences of a republican victory. Domestically, he wrote, a republican triumph “would establish Marxist rule in Spain in the long term, with the danger of a Spanish soviet regime.” In terms of foreign policy, Spain would be “ideologically and materially bound to the Franco-Russian bloc.”10 On the evening of 25 July, after taking in a performance of Siegfried, Hitler received Franco’s emissaries for lengthy discussions, after which he agreed to give them the support they requested. As a first measure, the military rebels received twenty Junkers 52 military transport aircraft, as well as six fighter planes to protect them, and anti-aircraft artillery. This military hardware allowed Franco to fly Spain’s African army of around 13,500 men, which he commanded, from Tetúan to Seville.

Hitler made this decision without consulting the Foreign Ministry and over the initial reservations of Göring and Ribbentrop, who both feared that it would lead to international complications. There has been much speculation about Hitler’s motivations, and it seems as though they combined power politics and ideology. With a Popular Front government under the socialist Léon Blum in power in France since June 1936, Hitler saw his fears of a “global Bolshevik threat” confirmed. “If they truly succeed in creating a Communist Spain, it is only a matter of time, given the current situation in France, that that country too will be Bolshevised, and then Germany can ‘pack it in,’ ” he told Ribbentrop, explaining his decision. “Wedged in between the powerful Soviet bloc in the east and a strong Spanish-French Communist bloc in the west, we could hardly do anything if Moscow decided to move against Germany.”11 By contrast, if he succeeded in helping Franco to victory, the chances were good that the Third Reich would gain Spain as an ally and would be able to squeeze France from both sides. An even more important factor seems to have been Hitler’s desire to use a joint operation in Spain to better relations with Fascist Italy. Two further considerations appealed to Göring. Deployment in Spain was the perfect test run for the new Luftwaffe. And as the man responsible for the Four Year Plan, Göring had a profound interest in gaining access to militarily important raw materials in Spain like iron ore and pyrite.12

To reduce the risk of foreign-policy complications, Hitler sought to maintain the pretence of non-interference throughout the entire conflict. Initially the German regime seems to have assumed that it could limit its engagement in terms of both time and resources. The day after Hitler’s decision, Goebbels noted: “We’re going to involve ourselves a little in Spain. Aeroplanes, etc…Invisibly. Who knows what it’s good for?”13 But over the following weeks, Nazi Germany expanded its military involvement. The Third Reich did not just provide weapons, munitions and other vital war materiel. In late October 1936, a Luftwaffe combat unit that would become the Condor Legion, consisting of 6,500 men under the command of Major General Hugo Sperrle, was deployed to Spain. They were responsible, among other things, for the air raids on the small Basque city of Guernica on 26 April 1937, which killed more than 1,600 people and wounded 900 others. The regime in Berlin denied any involvement, but the evidence left no doubt about German responsibility for the attack. Guernica became a symbol for the horrors of modern aerial warfare and the subject of Pablo Picasso’s famous painting, which was exhibited for the first time in the Spanish pavilion at the 1937 Paris World Fair.14

Only a few weeks after the Guernica massacre, there was a further major incident. On 29 May 1937, Spanish republican aircraft attacked the German warship MS Deutschland, which was lying at anchor in Ibiza. Twenty-three seamen were killed and seventy wounded. The following evening Hitler summoned Werner von Blomberg, Konstantin von Neurath, Erich Raeder, Göring and Goebbels to the Chancellery. “With the Führer until 3 a.m.,” noted Goebbels. “He paced up and down with long strides, gnashing his teeth in anger.”15 In the heat of the moment, Hitler wanted to bomb Valencia, but he changed his mind and ordered the warship MS Admiral Scheer, which was also deployed in the Mediterranean, to bombard the port of Almería. Twenty-one people died and many others were injured in the attack; numerous buildings were also destroyed. “The Führer is quite pleased with the result,” Goebbels wrote on 1 June. Two days later, he noted: “The Führer is still suffused by Almería…The first demonstration of power in the new Reich. A warning signal for all enemies of the Reich.”16 The Hitler regime used the attack on the MS Deutschland to suspend Germany’s participation in the military non-intervention negotiations taking place in London at the time, which had only been for show to begin with. On 17 June, the bodies of the casualties from the MS Deutschland were brought back to Wilhelmshaven and buried at a pompous ceremony with Hitler in attendance.17

The Spanish Civil War lasted longer than the Nazi leadership had anticipated. By the end of 1936, Spanish nationalist troops had conquered almost half of the country, but republican forces, bolstered by volunteers from throughout Europe, the International Brigades, put up fierce resistance and were repeatedly able to halt their enemies’ advances. “In Spain, things aren’t really moving forward,” Goebbels noted in July 1937. “The Führer no longer believes in a fascist Spain. Franco is a general without any movement behind him.”18 But although Hitler also complained about Franco’s military acumen, the protracted fighting in Spain was hardly unwelcome since it diverted the attention of the world’s great powers towards the European periphery and expanded Germany’s room to manoeuvre in the middle of the Continent.

German intervention in Spain further cemented ties with Italy, which had already become closer because of Hitler’s support for Mussolini’s Abyssinian adventure. “The German-Italian barometer is rising quickly,” Germany’s ambassador in Rome, Ulrich von Hassell, reported in late July 1936. “I feel as lucky as Polycrates.”19 At secret conferences, the two countries coordinated their military assistance for Franco. With a contingent of 80,000 men, Italy was far more heavily involved than Germany. “Cooperation between the two secret allies is very close, although hardly simple given the [need for] secrecy,” Hassell wrote.20Italian-German diplomatic contact also increased, and Mussolini approved of the German-Austrian agreement. In September 1936, Reich Minister Hans Frank issued an invitation by Hitler to Il Duce and his son-in-law Count Ciano, the new Italian foreign minister, to visit Germany.

On 21 October, Ciano arrived with a huge delegation in Berlin. There, on the second day of his visit, he signed a protocol, prepared by diplomats, in which Germany and Italy promised to cooperate in their fight against communism, to recognise the Franco government and to coordinate their interests along the Danube.21 Three days later, Hitler received Ciano at the Berghof. The Italian foreign minister told him in Mussolini’s name that Il Duce “had always had the warmest sympathies for him,” whereupon the flattered German dictator replied that Mussolini was for him “the first statesman in the world with whom no one could compare in the slightest.” In a two-hour conversation in his first-floor office, Hitler advanced the idea of a German-Italian alliance that would either make Britain change its course or be capable of subduing it. In three, four or at the latest five years, Hitler explained, Germany would be ready for war. No conflicts of interest, he added, existed between his nation and Ciano’s, since Italy’s future rested on the Mediterranean, while Germany demanded a free hand in eastern Europe and around the Baltic Sea.22 After the meeting, Hitler led his Italian visitors to the gigantic window in the Great Hall with its majestic view of the Austrian Alps. “From here,” he said, “I have to view a part of my German homeland, Austria, through a telescope!”23

This was Hitler’s way of telling the Italians that he had by no means given up his ambitions concerning the country of his birth, but that did nothing to dampen Mussolini’s satisfaction with the first Italian state visit to Germany since the Dollfuss murder. On 1 November 1936, Il Duce celebrated the new German-Italian mutual understanding in a speech at the Piazza del Duomo in Milan. “The line connecting Berlin and Rome is not a partition,” he declared. “On the contrary, it is an axis around which all European nations can rotate, if they possess the will for cooperation and peace.”24 That was the birth of the term “Axis” in the world’s political vocabulary. But the will to peace was the last thing that connected the two new allies: they were united by their desire to unhinge the European status quo. As the two opposing blocs, the Western democracies and the dictatorial Axis powers, became more and more established, Mussolini would grow ever more dependent on Germany, which was economically and militarily far more powerful than Italy.

Hitler had posited an alliance with Italy as a desirable goal in both Mein Kampf and his “Second Book” of 1928. His other coveted ally was Britain, but after the Anglo-German Naval Agreement of 1935, German-British relations had stalled, although Hitler still made a number of overtures. In early February 1936, he granted former British Aviation Minister Lord Londonderry a two-hour audience in the Chancellery, in which he revealed that he wanted to “live in a relationship of close friendship with England.” Hitler wooed: “How often did I say to myself as a common soldier in the world war, when I faced English troops, that it is insane to fight against these men who could be members of our own people.” That should never be allowed to happen again, Hitler insisted, despite the differences between the two countries, for instance over the return of Germany’s former colonies.25 In a gushing letter thanking Hitler for his hospitality, Lady Londonderry wrote: “To say that I was deeply impressed is not adequate. I am amazed. You and Germany remind me of the book of Genesis in the Bible.”26

Nonetheless, such expressions of Hitler admiration in aristocratic circles hardly reflected official British policy, which continued to pursue a balance of power in Europe and preferred to see the Third Reich bound in a system of collective treaties rather than bilateral Anglo-German agreements. In May 1936, the press attaché at the German embassy in London, Fritz Hesse, wrote that it would be incorrect “if people on the Continent assumed that Great Britain were willing to give up the policies of collective security and the League of Nations.”27 Still, Hitler clung to his preferred foreign-policy constellation. After Joachim von Ribbentrop became German ambassador in August 1936 following the death of Leopold von Hoesch, Hitler told him: “Ribbentrop, bring me an alliance with England!”28 The problem was that there was hardly anyone less suitable to achieving this aim than the vain diplomatic amateur, who was soon nicknamed “von Brickendrop.” In October 1936, having barely arrived in London, Ribbentrop made a most undiplomatic speech in which he laid his cards on the table. “How about…just giving Germany a free hand in the east?” he said. “Bolshevism is a global plague that must be eradicated anyway, and Germany’s eye is trained on Russia. In return for a free hand in the east, Hitler would be prepared to conclude every sort of alliance with England.”29 No British government would have been willing to give Hitler a free hand in eastern Europe, which would have essentially meant German hegemony over the entire Continent.

Hitler was already growing frustrated with the British by November 1936. “The Führer complains a lot about England,” Goebbels noted. “It keeps refusing and refusing. Its leadership has no instincts.”30Hitler’s attitudes were fed by reports from Ribbentrop, who could scarcely conceal his growing aversion to the British establishment. The anti-British faction in the Reich leadership was further strengthened by the crisis in the royal family that saw the Germanophile Edward VIII abdicate the throne in December 1936 in order to be able to marry the twice-divorced American Wallis Simpson. Hitler repeatedly stressed that he thought this was a great loss. “I am sure that with him we could have achieved permanent cordial relations with England,” he told Albert Speer. “With him everything would have been different.”31 The hospitality with which Hitler received the Duke of Windsor and his wife on the Obersalzberg in October 1937 expressed his special regard for Edward. But Hitler also clearly did not understand the British political system. He seems to have assumed that the king could have changed the country’s foreign policy by decree.

Although Hitler did not abandon the idea of an alliance with Great Britain, he began looking around for alternatives. Here, Japan came into view. On 25 November 1936 in Berlin, Nazi Germany signed an anti-Communist agreement with the Asian power. Its published section bound the signatories to “keep one another informed about the activities of the Communist International, consult about the necessary measures for defence and carry them out in close cooperation.” Third parties were to be invited “to take defensive measures in the spirit of this treaty and sign on to it.” In a secret addendum, Germany and Japan assured one another of neutrality in the case of an unprovoked attack or threat by the Soviet Union. In addition, the two sides pledged not to conclude political agreements with Moscow “in contradiction of the spirit of this pact without the other’s permission.”32 Ribbentrop, in particular, had pushed for the anti-Communist treaty and had deliberately gone over the heads of the Foreign Ministry, which traditionally favoured good relations with China.33 In late October 1936, he secured Hitler’s agreement for the pact. Goebbels, who was spending time on the Obersalzberg, noted: “He just signed a treaty with Japan. Alliance against Bolshevism. When it’s published in three weeks, it will change the entire situation. The seeds we planted are starting to grow.”34 But Goebbels overestimated the impact of the arrangement. Berlin and Tokyo never cooperated closely with one another. The new connection was, in the words of the historian Theo Sommer, “a hesitant alliance—an international peck on the cheek between two very unequal brothers who felt hardly any need to act in solidarity with one another.”35

There was a deceptive calm over Europe for the whole of 1937. Hitler used the respite to decide upon his next foreign-policy moves. Goebbels’s diaries reveal how, parallel to the intensification of anti-Semitic measures at home, Hitler gradually became more radical in trying to realise his ambitions abroad. In late January 1937, while delivering a broad summary of his foreign policy over lunch in the Chancellery, Hitler expressed his hope that Germany would have “six years yet” before the decisive battle. But he added that he would not fail “to seize an auspicious chance should it happen to arise.”36 One month later, he reiterated that he expected “a major world conflict in five to six years,” but he now spoke more universally of reversing the relations of power that had dominated Europe since the end of the Thirty Years War in 1648. “In fifteen years, he will have destroyed the Peace of Westphalia,” Goebbels noted. “He’s developing fantastic prospects for the future. Germany will either triumph in the coming battle or cease to exist.” Victory or death—that had been the slogan of the Wilhelmine elites in Germany in the First World War, and the former private who had become the most powerful man in Europe still subscribed to this all-or-nothing perspective. For that, Goebbels admired him blindly: “As always, his foresight is enormous and brilliant. He sees history with the prophetic vision of an oracle.”37

As we have seen, Hitler’s foreign ambitions were inseparably connected to the monumental construction projects in Berlin that began to take shape in the spring of 1937 when Speer was made general building inspector of the Reich capital. In mid-March, while fawning with Goebbels over his plans for the future world capital “Germania,” he named the first two objects of his expansionist desires. “He talked of Austria and Czechoslovakia,” the propaganda minister noted. “We need both to round off our territory. And some day we’ll get them.”38 Hitler did not specify when he intended to swallow up these two countries, but neither did he conceal the fact that, given Germany’s accelerated rearmament, the time would come sooner rather than later. “The Führer is once again unfolding the entire miracle of rearmament,” Goebbels wrote on 10 April. “We’re now almost totally secure in the west…He has achieved a miracle thanks to a bold gambit. The military leaders back then did not understand this at all. For that reason the miracle is all the greater.”39 In early August 1937, after Japan declared war on China, Hitler unambiguously came out in favour of his partner in the anti-Communist pact. “China is militarily inadequate,” Goebbels quoted Hitler proclaiming. “They’ll take a beating from Japan. That’s good because Japan will keep our backs free against Moscow.” According to Goebbels’s diaries, Hitler then immediately proceeded to speak of his own ambitions:

Some day, the Führer will make tabula rasa in Austria…He’ll throw everything into it. This state is not a real state at all. Its people belong to us, and it will come to us…And the land of Czechs is no state either. Some day it will be overrun as well.40

Over the course of 1937, while Hitler’s next foreign-policy aims gradually crystallised, he gave up on his idea of an international political deal with Britain. Lord Philip Lothian, Lloyd George’s former private secretary and the future British ambassador to the United States, was under no illusions about the new atmosphere in Berlin when he visited the city in early May. Hitler and Göring, he reported, had complained that Britain was the country that ultimately prevented Germany from achieving its rightful position in the world and asked why Britain was pursuing an “anti-German” rather than a “British” foreign policy.41 In Hitler’s egocentric view such “British” foreign policy obviously had to adjust itself to German ideas about the distribution of global power. In late May, Neville Chamberlain took over the leadership of the government from fellow Conservative Stanley Baldwin, but that did little to raise spirits in Berlin. The new British ambassador, Nevile Henderson, was considered more amenable to Germany than his predecessor, Eric Phipps,42 but that did not seem to promise change in Great Britain’s basic attitude towards Germany. Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement was aimed at gaining time to close the armaments gap with the Third Reich. Chamberlain wanted to keep the peace in Europe for as long as possible by pacifying the German dictator with concessions and keeping his larger expansionist aims in check. Never for a moment did the British prime minister consider giving Hitler a free hand in eastern Europe.43 But he would fool himself about Hitler’s willingness to come to any sensible compromise and to abide by agreements.

By early June 1937, Hitler may still have declared that “everything’s up in the air in London,” but in reality he had given up on his fantasy of an Anglo-German alliance. Over lunch at the Chancellery, he mocked Britain’s global status. “He considers it very weakened,” Goebbels wrote. “The empire is stagnating, if indeed it is not already in decline.” As of the summer of 1937, Hitler increasingly began to put his faith in the Berlin-Rome axis. “He’s now counting on Mussolini,” a sceptical Goebbels noted. “Perhaps too much. We should not completely forget England.”44 The Italian dictator requited German advances in kind. In the early days of June, during a visit by German Minister of War von Blomberg, Il Duce announced that he wanted to pay a state visit to Germany that autumn,45 and on 4 September, the press office of the German Foreign Ministry announced that the trip was officially planned. “The upcoming visit by Mussolini is creating a massive stir throughout the entire world,” wrote Goebbels, who would be occupied by it for the next two weeks. “And rightly so! This is an event of extensive significance.”46

At 10 a.m. on 25 September, Mussolini’s personal train arrived at Munich’s central station. He was received by Hitler personally and a large entourage in uniform, in the midst of whom Goebbels felt “entirely naked.”47 The host warmly shook both of his visitor’s hands and accompanied him to the Prinz Carl Palais, where Il Duce was staying. A little later, Mussolini was invited to Hitler’s private apartment for an hour-long chat. The interpreter Paul Schmidt—rendered superfluous because the Italian leader insisted, as he had previously in Venice, on speaking German—had the opportunity to observe and compare the two dictators. “Hitler sat at the table slightly slumped,” Schmidt recalled:

When he got more animated, the lock of hair so popular among caricaturists would fall down from his rather large forehead in front of his face, which gave him something disorderly and bohemian…Across from him, Mussolini made a totally different impression. Sitting bolt upright, his body stiff and rocking back and forth slightly at the hips whenever he spoke, the man with the head of Caesar seemed the paradigm of Ancient Rome, with a prominent forehead, a broad mouth and a broad square chin protruding in a slightly cramped way…In Munich, too, I found myself impressed by Mussolini’s concise, crystal-clear formulations of his thoughts. He never said a word too many, and everything that came out of his mouth could have been immediately published. The difference in how the two men laughed was also interesting. Hitler’s laughter always had an undertone of mockery and sarcasm, betraying traces of past disappointment and suppressed ambition. By contrast, Mussolini was able to laugh his head off without constraint. It was a liberating laugh demonstrating that the man had a sense of humour.48

Mussolini named Hitler “an honourary corporal in the Fascist militia,” and that afternoon Hitler repaid the favour by awarding Il Duce the Grand Cross of the Order of the German Eagle and the Golden Party Badge. He also insisted on giving Mussolini a personal tour of the exhibition in the House of German Art.49 But Hitler’s primary agenda was to impress upon his Italian visitor the military strength his regime had achieved. That evening the two men boarded their personal trains to travel to a series of Wehrmacht manoeuvres taking place in Mecklenburg in northern Germany. The following day, they visited the Krupp factories. “A triumphal ride without compare through Essen,” Goebbels noted. “Hundreds of thousands turned out, Mussolini completely bowled over. Celebration and enthusiasm like never before.”50

But that was overshadowed by the reception that the people of Berlin gave Mussolini on the afternoon of 27 September. Even the two men’s entry into the Reich capital was specially staged. Shortly before reaching the outlying district of Spandau, Hitler’s train appeared next to Mussolini’s. The two then travelled parallel to one another until just before the station on Heerstrasse, when Hitler’s train abruptly accelerated so that he reached the station first and was able to greet his fellow dictator on the platform. “Just like in the fairy tale of the hedgehog and hare,” commented Schmidt.51 The theatre set designer Benno von Arent had transformed key points in the capital’s city centre—the Brandenburg Gate, Pariser Platz and Wilhelmstrasse—into stage spectacles replete with “pylons, fasces, giant eagles, swastikas, flagpoles, and large numbers of nested or artfully knotted flags in Italian and German colours.”52 That evening Hitler hosted a gala dinner in Mussolini’s honour at the Chancellery. In his toast, he praised Il Duce as “the brilliant creator of Fascist Italy, the founder of a new empire.” Mussolini returned the compliment by calling Hitler “the warrior who restored to the German people the consciousness of their own greatness.”53

On 28 September, Mussolini visited the Zeughaus Military History Museum in Berlin and Friedrich the Great’s grave and the Garrison Church in Potsdam, before dining with Göring at his estate in Schorfheide. But the high point of his visit was an evening rally at the Olympic Stadium and the Maifeld parade grounds, which drew hundreds of thousands of Berliners. After Goebbels’s introduction, Hitler took to the microphone to praise all the permanent qualities that Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany shared. Mussolini gave his response in German, but his heavy accent made him difficult to understand.54 Moreover, during his speech, a serious thunderstorm opened up and deluged the stadium. For André François-Poncet, it was “a harbinger of the torrents of blood that would soon flood Europe.”55 But the French ambassador’s judgement was informed by hindsight. At the time ordinary Berliners saw the situation less dramatically, cracking jokes that played on the similarities between the word Duce and Dusche, the German word for shower.56

On the morning of 29 September, the last day of Mussolini’s visit, Hitler had ordered a parade of all branches of the Wehrmacht. Mussolini was so taken with the soldiers’ goose-stepping that he introduced it to the Italian army as the passo romano.57 In the afternoon, Hitler accompanied his departing guest to the Lehrter Bahnhof train station. “Everything was full of gravity and melancholy,” Goebbels wrote melodramatically. “These two great men belong at one another’s side. Then the train pulled out of the station. Mussolini waved for a long time.”58 That evening, according to Winifred Wagner, Hitler was “very happy about how the entire visit had gone.”59 When Hans Frank, who had accompanied Mussolini through Germany, phoned to say that Il Duce had crossed the border near Kiefersfelden, Hitler acted relieved and, contrary to his usual teetotalling ways, drank a glass of sparkling wine to celebrate “everything having come off so marvellously.”60 Mussolini too was pleased with his visit and told his wife: “The organisation is fantastic, and the German people have an unusually great character. With these trump cards, Hitler can dare to do anything.”61

Nonetheless, the concrete results of the visit were meagre. Hitler and Mussolini hardly had any opportunity for serious talks during their five days together, and the Italian dictator had responded evasively when pressed on the Austria issue.62 The final outcome was little more than a promise to cooperate more closely in the future. On 6 November 1937, Italy joined the anti-Communist pact, and a few weeks later it quit the League of Nations. What was more important was that, in contrast to their meeting in Venice in 1934, Hitler and Mussolini had grown closer. “Thank God, this time they also got along personally,” Goebbels noted.63 And despite numerous disappointments to come, the Führer continued to feel an atypical affection for Il Duce in later years. In his later monologues in his military headquarters, Hitler called Mussolini a “man of outstanding proportions, a historic phenomenon,” and expressed his admiration for “everything he’s achieved in Italy.” On one occasion Hitler, who rarely showed his emotions, confessed: “This mighty figure—I really do like him personally!”64

Even during his rise to power, Hitler had repeatedly articulated his fear that he might die young, and the impatience with which he pursued his goals had its roots in this anxiety. In the autumn of 1937, as he was shifting his foreign policy from undermining the Treaty of Versailles to expansionism, he became obsessed with the idea that he had no time to lose. In late October, in a secret meeting with Nazi Party propaganda directors, Hitler was quoted as saying that “as best as anyone could tell, he did not have long to live since people in his family never reached old age.” It was thus necessary “to take care of the problems (living space!) that need to be resolved as quickly as possible so that it happens within my lifetime.” Hitler combined this statement with a reference to the uniqueness of his charismatic authority. Only he was capable of solving these problems, he said: “Later generations won’t be able to.”65

The anxiety plaguing Hitler now led him to share the foreign-policy ideas he had developed in constant back and forth with Goebbels with the regime’s military and political leadership as well. At 4:15 p.m. on the afternoon of 5 November 1937, he convened a conference in the Chancellery that included Werner von Blomberg, the commanders of the three branches of the armed forces, Werner von Fritsch, Erich Raeder and Hermann Göring, Foreign Minister Konstantin von Neurath and his Wehrmacht assistant Friedrich Hossbach, who drew up the only surviving minutes of the meeting. It would be a key document at the Nuremberg Trials to prove that the primary defendants had conspired to destroy peace in Europe.66 What had prompted the conference was a conflict between the army, the navy and the air force for scarce raw materials. Raeder in particular accused Göring of exploiting his position as the head of the Four Year Plan to promote the expansion of the Luftwaffe at the cost of the German navy. In conjunction with Raeder, Blomberg decided to end the long-simmering conflict by enlisting Hitler to make a decision.67

But as always when there were rivalries between departments and competition for preferment among his paladins, Hitler avoided making decisions. Instead, he used the opportunity to hold a more-than-two-hour monologue “informing the gentlemen in attendance about the developmental possibilities and necessities of our foreign-policy situation.” Hitler explicitly ordered that his statements be regarded as “his will and testament in case he should pass away.”68 He then reiterated what he had told his military leadership all the way back on 3 February 1933 about Germany’s future. The 85 million Germans with their “self-contained racial core,” he said, “had a right to a much larger living space.” Resolving this situation was the central task of German foreign policy. After he had discarded various alternatives for territorial expansion, Hitler had decided on the following to ensure that the German people could feed itself: “The necessary space for this will have to be found in Europe and not, as in liberal, capitalist views, by exploiting colonies…Areas containing lots of raw materials were better located in direct proximity to the Reich and not overseas.” The dictator left his listeners in no doubt that “every territorial gain will entail breaking others’ resistance and incurring risks.”

Hitler’s remarks contained nothing new for his military leaders in terms of the necessity of “gaining a larger living space,” although they probably had not fully realised how serious Hitler was. But the heads of the armed forces certainly pricked up their ears during the second part of Hitler’s monologue when he laid out how he saw the European balance of power in the autumn of 1937. For the first time, Hitler spoke of Germany confronting “its two worst enemies, England and France, which regarded a German colossus in Central Europe as a thorn in their sides.” Here Hitler was drawing the consequences from his failed efforts to reach an understanding with Great Britain. As he had in his private conversations with Goebbels, Hitler spoke less than respectfully about his potential enemies. The British empire, he said, was rotting away and “impossible to maintain in the long run in terms of power politics.” France, too, had been weakened by “domestic political difficulties.” Nonetheless, he acknowledged that the “path of violence” he pondered going down was “never without risk.” Here he invoked the wars of Friedrich the Great and those of Bismarck, which had unified Germany. They, too, Hitler claimed, had been an “unprecedented risk.”

As his choice of historical role models shows, Hitler was prepared to go all out. The final section of his monologue was devoted to the questions of when and how. The dictator sketched out three scenarios. The latest possible time for Germany to launch an attack was between 1943 and 1945 (case 1). After that, Hitler said, “things would have changed to our disadvantage” since the other powers would have closed the gap in military strength with Germany. As an additional argument, Hitler referred to “the fact that the movement and its leader are growing older,” again playing on his fears that he might die young. Should he still be alive, it was “his irrevocable will that the question of German living space be solved by 1943 to 1945 at the latest.” But it might become necessary to act earlier if the social tensions within France “grew into a domestic crisis” (case 2), or if France should become embroiled in a war with another country so that “it could not take on Germany” at the same time (case 3). In all three cases, the initial goal would be to “subjugate the Czechs and Austria and to head off threats of a potential attack against Germany’s flanks.” The dictator had shown his hand, specifying the most immediate targets for German expansion, which he had mulled over all that spring. To forestall possible objections from his military commanders, he told them that Britain and France had “most probably already written off the Czechs and got used to the idea…that Germany would one day settle this issue.” And if Britain did not participate in a war against Germany, France would not either.

Hitler’s views were driven by military politics as much as by strategy. Amalgamating Czechoslovakia and Austria would free up fighting forces “for others purposes” in the event of war and allow the Reich to raise twelve additional divisions. With reference to Germany’s involvement in the Spanish Civil War, Hitler declared that the Reich had no interest in a rapid victory by Franco. For Germany, it would be better if the conflict dragged on and ratcheted up tensions in the Mediterranean, which could potentially lead to war between Italy and France. If this scenario (case 3) materialised, as Hitler thought it might in the course of 1938, Germany would have to seize the chance “to take care of the Czech and Austrian question.” As he had in his previous “weekend coups,” Hitler counted on the element of surprise. A German attack against Czechoslovakia, he said, would have to be “quick as lightning.”

A two-hour discussion followed, which Hossbach only recorded cursorily in his transcript. The military leaders expressed concerns. They had nothing against an Anschluss of Austria and an annexation of Czechoslovakia. In typical Wilhelmine fashion, they saw German hegemony in Central Europe as a worthwhile goal, even if they did not share Hitler’s racist belief in the need for “living space.” But they worried that Hitler’s impatience would spark new European hostilities and inevitably lead to a second world war. Fritsch and Blomberg were of one mind that “England and France must not emerge as our enemies.” Even in the event of a Franco-Italian war, Fritsch pointed out, France would still be capable of concentrating large numbers of forces on Germany’s western front. Blomberg drew attention to the fact that the West Wall, Germany’s series of western fortifications, was far from complete and that Czech fortifications would hinder German advances “in the extreme.” Neurath objected that “a Franco-Italian conflict was by no means as imminent as the Führer seemed to assume.”

Hossbach’s report does not say how Hitler reacted to these objections, but apparently he merely reassured his audience “that he was convinced England would not take part in any war and did not believe that France would commence hostilities.” It was exactly this optimistic prognosis that led to the criticism of the military leaders. Yet despite his scepticism, Blomberg was in no way prepared to oppose Hitler’s wishes. On the contrary, in early December he issued the “First Supplement to the Order on Unified Preparation for War of the Wehrmacht of 24 June 1937,” which reflected the ideas Hitler had put forward the previous month. It read: “If Germany has attained full military readiness in all areas, the military preconditions will have been laid to wage an offensive war against Czechoslovakia and to bring the solution of the German space problem to a successful conclusion, even if one or another of the major powers attacks us.”69 Blomberg was, of course, mistaken if he truly believed that the annexation of Czechoslovakia would resolve “Germany’s space problem” as Hitler saw it. For Hitler, such an annexation was only the first stage in a war for living space encompassing all of eastern Europe.

Despite Blomberg’s compliance, Hitler must have sensed that parts of the Wehrmacht leadership still had serious reservations about his risky strategy. Fritsch’s first reaction to Hitler’s revelation was to cancel a multi-week holiday in Egypt that he had planned for some time, but Hitler succeeded in reassuring him “that the chance of conflict cannot be regarded as that imminent.” The relationship between the Führer and the commander of the army had by no means been irreparably ruptured, as some historians have contended,70 but it had noticeably cooled. Moreover, Hitler seems to have been particularly disappointed by Neurath’s attitude, which reminded him of the reservations German diplomats had expressed ahead of the remilitarisation of the Rhineland in March 1936. Neurath would testify before the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal that in mid-January 1938 he had warned Hitler that “his policies would necessarily lead to a world war” and “that many of his plans could be realised, albeit more slowly, through peaceful means.” But the dictator, Neurath testified, had simply replied that he was “running out of time.”71 Whatever the truth may have been, Hitler must have known that his plans would not attract the sort of unconditional support from military leaders and top diplomats to which he believed himself entitled. What could be more logical, especially after he had got rid of Hjalmar Schacht, than to grind down the last remaining pillars of his conservative coalition partners? And chance now gave Hitler the opportunity for a major clear-out among the upper echelons of both the military and the Foreign Ministry.

The beginning was a marital scandal. In September 1937, while strolling through Berlin’s Tiergarten park, War Minister von Blomberg met a woman thirty-five years his junior named Margarethe Gruhn. The 60-year-old general field marshal, who had been widowed eight years previously, immediately fell in love, but Gruhn came from lowly circumstances, and Blomberg needed Hitler’s permission to marry her. On the occasion of the state funeral for Erich Ludendorff on 22 December 1937 in Munich, the field marshal asked for the Führer’s approval, introducing his fiancée as a “stenographer” and a “girl of the people.” Hitler and Göring agreed to act as witnesses at the wedding—in the interest, they later claimed, of combating class conflicts and social prejudice.72 The civil marriage ceremony took place on 12 January 1938 with only Hitler, Göring, Blomberg’s five children from his first marriage and the mother of the bride in attendance. Not even Fritsch and Raeder were invited. The newly-weds embarked on their honeymoon immediately after the ceremony. The newspapers ran a brief announcement: “On Wednesday 12 January, Reich Minister of War General Field Marshal von Blomberg wed Fräulein Gruhn. The Führer and Colonel General Göring served as witnesses.”73

But soon after the wedding, rumours began to surface about the young spouse’s former life. Prostitutes reportedly told each other: “It’s nice that one of us can rise in the world like this.” In fact, Gruhn had come under the scrutiny of Berlin’s vice squad several years previously. Around Christmas 1931, she had posed for pornographic photos and had been officially registered as a prostitute the following year. In December 1934, one of her customers had reported her to the police for allegedly stealing his gold watch. Berlin Police President Wolf-Heinrich von Helldorff got wind of these extremely embarrassing stories, and on 21 January 1938, he presented General Wilhelm Keitel, the head of the Wehrmacht office in the War Ministry, with the prostitute registration card and a mugshot of Margarethe Gruhn. Because Keitel had not met Blomberg’s wife, he sent Helldorff to Göring, who confirmed the woman’s identity. “This is a catastrophe,” Göring allegedly said.74

On the evening of 24 January, when Hitler returned to Berlin from a three-day visit in Munich, Göring was waiting for him at the entrance to the Chancellery. The two immediately withdrew to Hitler’s private quarters, where Göring showed the Führer Gruhn’s file, including the pornographic photos. Hitler was shocked—not because the obscene images offended his prudishness,75 but because he immediately realised that the scandal would reflect badly on him if it became public. As he had been a witness at the marriage, he now had good reason to fear that he would become the object of mockery inside and outside Germany. For two days, Hitler completely retreated from the public eye, conducting all meetings in his private quarters and not even appearing at mealtimes as usual. “His behaviour gave the Chancellery an uncanny atmosphere,” recalled his assistant Below. “In the general absence of any information, everyone there felt edgy, worried and afraid.”76

All the members of Hitler’s entourage who saw him during this time confirmed that he was not acting: the scandal had shaken him to the core. In addition to worrying about a loss of prestige, he felt disappointed in his minister of war, whom he had trusted deeply. His personal assistant Fritz Wiedemann recalled: “He paced up and down in his room, a broken man, his hands behind his back, shaking his head and muttering: ‘If a German field marshal can marry a whore then anything is possible in this world.’ ”77 Goebbels, who arrived at the Chancellery at noon on 25 January, tried in vain to lift Hitler’s spirits. “A tense mood,” the propaganda minister noted. “Unpleasant situation with Blomberg. Still not cleared up. The Führer is very sombre and sad.”78 That morning, Hitler had held a private discussion with Friedrich Hossbach about the affair. Blomberg had put him in a “most difficult position,” Hitler said, by concealing his wife’s true past. As much as he regretted “having to lose such a loyal colleague,” he concluded, Blomberg’s position had become “untenable.”79

Hitler ordered Göring to confront Blomberg with Gruhn’s file in the War Ministry and to get him to declare the wedding null and void. It was the only way, Hitler said, to avert a scandal. But to Göring’s and Hitler’s astonishment, Blomberg rejected this suggestion. His love for his wife knew no bounds, he told Keitel. His decision was likely made easier by the fact that Göring had already informed him that he could not stay on in his post regardless of whether he separated from his wife or not. On the morning of 27 January, Hitler received the field marshal, who appeared in civilian clothing, for one final audience. He and his wife immediately travelled abroad so that his dismissal would attract as little notice as possible. Hitler gave him 50,000 marks’ worth of foreign currency to underwrite the extended trip.80

But the troubled times were not over. Hot on the heels of the Blomberg affair followed an even more serious incident in which Werner von Fritsch was accused of being a homosexual. Later, on the evening of his forty-ninth birthday in April 1938, Hitler would tell his assistant Gerhard Engel, “The thing with Fritsch would have never got rolling, if the minister of war had not played a dirty trick on him,” adding that his trust in his generals had suffered a “major blow.”81 Historians long thought that Fritsch fell victim to a deliberate intrigue ordered by Hitler, but it appears that Hitler was telling the truth as far as he knew it to Engel.82 Just as the Nazi leader had been surprised by the truth about Blomberg’s wife, he does not seem to have harboured any intention of getting rid of the other main sceptic from the November meeting. However, with characteristic cunning, he did take the bull by the horns and turn an unpleasant surprise to his own advantage. André François-Poncet later remarked that the Blomberg-Fritsch double scandal was a fascinating case study “for anyone interested in the role that imponderables play in history.”83

On the evening of 24 January, Hitler was still in shock at Göring’s information about Blomberg’s wife and pondering how to react when he suddenly recalled an incident from 1936. That summer, Heinrich Himmler had shown him a police file casting suspicion upon Fritsch of having had sex with a rent boy named Otto Schmidt, who had subsequently tried to blackmail him. At the time an outraged Hitler had refused to open an investigation and ordered the file to be destroyed. But now, already made mistrustful by Blomberg’s behaviour, Hitler began to worry that there might have been something to the story. In any case, he wanted to be certain before he promoted Fritsch, the highest-ranking officer in the army, to the post of war minister as Blomberg’s successor, so he ordered the Gestapo to reconstruct the police file. That did not prove very difficult since Reinhard Heydrich, defying Hitler’s original order, had kept the most important parts of the file in a safe. The police report about Fritsch was on Hitler’s desk the following evening.84

On the morning of 25 January, after informing him of the Blomberg affair and swearing him to secrecy, Hitler told Hossbach about the accusations against Fritsch. Hossbach recalled Hitler saying: “The colonel general will have to go since he is compromised by his homosexuality. He [Hitler] had the evidence in his hands and had possessed it for some years.”85 Hossbach was horrified. His only explanation for the situation was that Hitler was sick of the army commander and wanted an excuse to get rid of him. Convinced of Fritsch’s innocence, he asked for permission to question the colonel general himself. Hitler categorically refused. Nonetheless, late the following evening, Hossbach drove to Fritsch’s official apartment at Bendlerstrasse 25 and acquainted him with the accusations. “A filthy, rotten lie” was Fritsch’s response.86 The following morning, Hossbach informed Hitler about his act of disobedience. As far as he could tell, the Führer seemed to take the news “completely calmly.” Indeed, Hossbach described him as being relieved when he heard his account of how the army commander had reacted. “If that’s so, everything would be fine, and Fritsch could become minister,” Hitler apparently said.87

But here Hitler proved to be a master actor yet again. In reality, he was seething at his underling’s disobedience, and it must have taken all of his self-control to conceal his true feelings. The dictator was anything but relieved. On the contrary, the mood in the Chancellery on 26 January was one of impending catastrophe. “The worst crisis of the regime since the Röhm affair,” Goebbels noted. “I’m completely shattered. The Führer looks like a corpse. I feel most sorry for him. I find Blomberg’s behaviour incomprehensible…And now Fritsch is a Paragraph 175 case. He gave me his word of honour that it’s not true. But who can believe it?”88

Both Hossbach and Fritsch believed that the whole affair was a sinister intrigue perpetrated by the Wehrmacht leadership. They doubted that the witness in question even existed and demanded that Fritsch be allowed to confront him. After some hesitation, Hitler agreed. When Fritsch, dressed in civilian clothing to avoid attracting attention, arrived that night at the Chancellery, Hossbach greeted him with the news that the witness was already there. The day before, four Gestapo officials had travelled to the Börgermoor penal camp in north-western Germany to collect the convicted blackmailer Otto Schmidt and take him to Berlin. “I want to see the swine!” Fritsch exclaimed and stormed up to the first-floor library where he was to meet with Hitler and Göring.89

The dictator got straight to the point, saying that he wanted to hear the truth. If Fritsch admitted to having a homosexual relationship, he would be sent on a long holiday like Blomberg, and that would be the end of it. The colonel general once again protested his innocence—but he made a crucial mistake. Ever since Hossbach had told him about the accusations levelled against him, he had racked his brains about where they might have come from. He recalled that in 1933 and 1934, as part of the Winter Relief campaign, he had treated an unemployed Hitler Youth to lunch, which they had regularly taken together in his private apartment. As Fritsch related this story at length to Hitler, it truly awakened the Führer’s mistrust. Fritsch was allowed to read his police file, and while he was doing so, Schmidt was brought into the room, where he exclaimed, “Yes, he’s the one!” Fritsch protested that he had never seen Schmidt in his life, giving Hitler his word of honour. But astonishingly the German head of state chose to believe a small-time criminal over the highest-ranking German military officer. Fritsch was ordered to submit to Gestapo interrogation the following day. He left the Chancellery, outraged at how he had been treated. That very evening he sent Hitler a letter stating: “Until the restoration of my honour, which has been besmirched, it is impossible for me to carry out any of my official duties.”90

Fritsch was interrogated in the Gestapo headquarters in Berlin on the morning of 27 January, and he was forced to confront the witness against him for a second time. Despite intensive cross-examination, Schmidt stuck to his story, while the colonel general asserted his innocence with equal vigour. Ultimately it was one man’s word against the other’s. “Who knows what’s right and what’s wrong here?” noted Goebbels. “In any case, the situation is impossible. The investigations will continue. But it looks as though Fritsch will have to go.”91 Hitler, who, Goebbels found, had grown “haggard and grey,” cancelled both his traditional speech to the Reichstag on 30 January and a planned cabinet meeting. On 28 January, Hossbach was brusquely dismissed. Hitler could not forgive him for disobeying orders.92

Since the Gestapo investigations had failed to establish any clarity, Hitler charged Justice Minister Gürtner with preparing a judicial report on the Fritsch case. “A devilish situation,” Goebbels opined, adding that however it ended, the damage had been done.93 By the end of January, the report, which had been prepared by Gürtner’s personal adviser, Senior Governmental Counsel Hans von Dohnanyi, was ready. It was devastating for Fritsch since it concluded that the accusations raised against him “had not yet been conclusively refuted.” The superficially harmless story involving the Hitler Youth was regarded as an “incriminating moment.” On the other hand, the report also stated that the “decision over guilty or innocent would remain a matter for a judge’s verdict.” Gürtner did succeed in getting a regular trial scheduled in front of the Reich War Court.94 For his part, Hitler was now completely convinced of Fritsch’s guilt. “Fritsch has been unmasked as a 175er,” Goebbels quoted him saying on 31 January. “While the incident may lie three years in the past, the Führer believes that it did happen. Fritsch denies everything, but that’s what these people always do. He too will have to go.”95 On 3 February, Fritsch was ordered to submit his immediate resignation. After everything the army commander had gone through with Hitler in the past few days, Fritsch was glad to comply. “It is impossible for me to work with this man,” he wrote.96

Who would succeed Blomberg and Fritsch? Although he had already seized a plethora of offices and responsibilities, Göring would have liked to get his hands on the War Ministry, but Hitler gruffly rejected the idea. “He does not even know a thing about the Luftwaffe,” Hitler told Fritz Wiedemann. “Even I have a better understanding of it!”97 In his final audience on 27 January, when asked to suggest someone to replace him, Blomberg spontaneously broached the idea of Hitler taking command of the Wehrmacht personally. That afternoon, Goebbels suggested the same, even going a step further than the general field marshal by proposing that the War Ministry should be disbanded in favour of separate army and navy ministries. “That would be the most logical solution,” Goebbels argued.98 Hitler immediately adopted the idea and began discussions with Keitel on 27 January about the Wehrmacht’s future organisational structure.

As Goebbels put it, the most delicate question raised by the Blomberg-Fritsch affair was: “How to tell the people?”99 Aside from a couple of rumours, nothing about what had happened had become public, and not even the nosiest foreign correspondents had got wind of the scandals. In these critical days, Hitler appeared like anything but an energetic, decisive Führer. “From everything I saw and heard, I concluded that Hitler did not know what to do,” Below recalled. “He seemed undecided and summoned one adviser after the next to discuss the situation.”100 This is another indication that there had been no predetermined plan to topple the military leaders. Goebbels was growing impatient with Hitler’s hesitation: “Things can’t go on like this. Something has to happen. The Führer says he’ll resolve the issue this week. It’s high time. It’s wearing us all out.”101

On 31 January, after much deliberation, Hitler finally reached a decision. The departures of Blomberg and Fritsch should be presented as part of a comprehensive change of personnel at the top of the Wehrmacht and the Foreign Ministry so as to prevent any speculation about the real background of their two cases. “In order to make the whole thing opaque, there’s to be a general reshuffle,” Goebbels noted after a two-hour discussion with the dictator in his private office in the Chancellery. This solution had two advantages for Hitler. It allowed him to reshape the leadership of both the Wehrmacht and the Foreign Ministry according to his own wishes, and it gave him a plausible explanation for the departure of Germany’s two highest-ranking military leaders. “I hope the real reasons for the dismissals get completely lost amidst the major personnel reshuffle,” Goebbels commented.102 It took Hitler a few days to think through all of his new appointments and clear up the details in discussions with his advisers. On the evening of 4 February, German radio listeners were advised to keep their ears to their wireless sets: an important announcement was imminent. At 11 p.m., a long communiqué from the Reich government announcing the changes in leadership was read out. Most Germans, however, learned of the news the next day in the papers, many of which published special editions. The central message was: “The most intense concentration of all power in the hands of the Führer.”103

Hitler now personally became commander-in-chief of the Wehrmacht. The War Ministry was dissolved, replaced by the Wehrmacht Supreme Command with Wilhelm Keitel at its head as a Reich minister subordinate only to the Führer. Artillery General Walther von Brauchitsch was named Fritsch’s successor as supreme commander of the army. Göring, whose own ambitions had been disappointed, was compensated with the title of general field marshal. Twelve mostly older generals were sent into retirement, while numerous commanders were transferred. At the Foreign Ministry, Neurath had to give way to Ribbentrop. Hitler promoted the latter against the advice of Goebbels, who considered Ribbentrop a “zero” and claimed to have said as much openly to the Führer.104 In compensation, Neurath was made director of a “privy cabinet council,” a newly created body that was supposed to advise Hitler but that in fact never met. Several of Germany’s major ambassadorships were also reallocated. Ulrich von Hassell, Herbert von Dirksen and Franz von Papen were recalled from Rome, Tokyo and Vienna respectively. Several weeks after being made the director of the political division, Ernst von Weizsäcker succeeded Neurath’s son-in-law Hans Georg von Mackensen, who was made German ambassador to Italy, in the post of state secretary in the Foreign Ministry. Finally, Walther Funk was officially named economics minister, replacing Hjalmar Schacht, who had resigned in November 1937.105

The Nazi leadership’s strategy of obfuscation worked. “The foreign press is full of wild speculations,” Goebbels registered. “But they’re completely in the dark concerning the bigger picture. Hopefully, things will stay that way. In any case, we seem to have hit our mark.”106 In the early afternoon of 5 February, Hitler summoned his generals to explain his decisions. He summarised the two scandals, read significant excerpts from the police files and also cited the devastating report by the Justice Ministry. The military leaders were stunned by the revelations, and none of them raised any objections to the new commander-in-chief.107 Around 8 p.m., the cabinet convened for what would be its final meeting ever. Hitler spoke for an hour, his voice, as Goebbels described it, “sometimes choked with tears.” As was so often the case, it is difficult to tell whether his emotion was genuine. He paid tribute to Blomberg and Fritsch’s achievements in building up the Wehrmacht, lavished words of “highest praise and almost admiration” for Neurath, and asked his ministers to keep quiet about the drama that had played out behind the scenes. “Thank God, the people do not know anything about this and would not believe it if they did,” Hitler said. “For that reason, the strictest discretion. We all need to stick to the words of the communiqué and nip any rumours in the bud.”108 That very evening, Hitler left Berlin for the Obersalzberg to recover from the excitement of the past two weeks.

As he had during the Night of the Long Knives three and a half years earlier, Hitler had succeeded in freeing himself from a critical situation in one fell swoop and emerging all the more powerful from it, although this time no blood had been shed. For that reason, with some justification, 4 February had been called a “dry 30 June.”109 But whereas in 1934 Hitler had subjugated the discontented wing of the SA with the help of the military, in 1937 he placed the military under his control by assuming the role of commander-in-chief. The supreme commander of the Wehrmacht, Keitel, was blindly loyal to Hitler. And with the appointment of Ribbentrop, the top job in the Foreign Ministry was now held by a reliable party member. With that the personnel was in place at all levels for the transition to a foreign policy of aggression.

On 10 March 1938, the main hearing in the Fritsch case began before the Reich War Court. It was chaired by Göring and ended on 18 March with a full acquittal. It turned out that the defendant had been mistaken for a former cavalry captain, also named Fritsch, who immediately confessed that he too had been blackmailed by Schmidt. When pressed by Göring, Schmidt finally admitted that he had lied.110 Hitler took his time in reacting to the verdict. It was not until 30 March that he had a handwritten note delivered to Fritsch. “With a heart full of gratitude,” he wrote disingenuously, he had confirmed the court’s verdict, adding: “As terrible a burden as this horrible accusation must have been to you, all the more did I suffer under the thoughts that it unleashed.”111 But when Fritsch insisted that his honour be publicly restored, Hitler fell silent. It took a further three months for the Führer to admit that he had made mistakes. The admission came at a meeting of military leaders in the northern German town of Barth on 13 June, but Hitler still refused to publicly rehabilitate Fritsch, citing the fact that the Sudeten crisis was coming to a head as an excuse. As a small conciliatory gesture, Fritsch was put in charge of the same artillery regiment he had commanded in the past. He would be killed near Warsaw on 22 September 1939 during Germany’s invasion of Poland.112 Blomberg, on the other hand, was never accepted back into the military. He and his wife survived the war in the southern German spa town of Bad Wiessee. There he was taken prisoner by American soldiers and died in a Nuremberg prison in March 1946, shunned by his fellow officers.113

Even in the midst of resolving the Fritsch-Blomberg crisis, Hitler kept his sights trained on his next foreign-policy coup. “The Führer wants to divert the spotlight from the Wehrmacht and keep Europe guessing,” noted Colonel Alfred Jodl, a close associate of Wilhelm Keitel, on 31 January. “Schuschnigg should not be allowed to gain confidence. He should tremble in fear.”114 The German-Austrian agreement of July 1936 had not, as expected, bound the Alpine republic to the Third Reich, and Austrian Chancellor von Schuschnigg had repeatedly put off fulfilling his pledge to give members of the “nationalist opposition” limited political authority. With that, he gave Austrian Nazis a pretence to agitate with increasing impatience for a share of power and ultimately for the amalgamation of Austria into Germany. These aims attracted vigorous support from Göring, who as the head of the Four Year Plan cast a greedy eye upon Austria’s large iron ore reserves. The Anschluss would relieve the Third Reich’s problems with raw materials and foreign currency, and Austria would serve as a bridgehead for further German expansion in southern Europe.115

During a visit to Rome in January 1937, Göring had broached the amalgamation idea to Mussolini but had, in Ambassador Hassell’s words, “met with considerable coolness.”116 In April he tried again, this time coming straight out and declaring that “the Anschluss must and will come—nothing can stop it.” According to the interpreter present, in response Mussolini “energetically shook his head.”117 Italy was obviously not yet ready to hand Germany a carte blanche where Austria was concerned. Even during his state visit to Berlin in late September, Mussolini still tried to duck the issue. Yet although ordered by Hitler to exercise restraint, Göring insisted on showing Mussolini a map depicting Austria as part of Germany when the latter visited his Carinhall manor on 28 September. Mussolini did not react, and Göring mistakenly interpreted that as a sign of acceptance. Göring showed the state secretary of the Austrian Foreign Ministry, Guido Schmidt, the same map when he visited Carinhall in November:118 the leadership in Vienna was thus under no illusions as to the direction of German foreign policy. All Kurt von Schuschnigg and his government could do was to buy time with tactical manoeuvring.

As we know from his conversations with Goebbels, Hitler decided in the spring of 1937 to resolve the “Austrian question” as soon as the opportunity presented itself. Beginning that July, under the code name “Operation Otto,” the German military drew up plans for an intervention. On 19 November, during a visit of the Lord Privy Seal and soon-to-be British foreign minister, Lord Halifax, Hitler declared that “a closer connection between Austria and the Reich had to be created under all circumstances.” Halifax declared that the British government was prepared to discuss all contentious issues as long as no violence was used. Hitler responded with visible irritation to Great Britain’s adamant refusal to allow him a free hand on the Continent. “How different this agitated, angry Hitler was from the calm, model chancellor who had sat across from Simon and Anthony Eden two years previously,” the interpreter Paul Schmidt noted. “His triumphal tone of voice alone would have signalled to a neutral observer that the times had changed. The Hitler of 1937 no longer carefully felt his way forward like the Hitler of 1935. He was clearly convinced of his own strength and others’ weakness.”119 The following day in Munich, Hitler described Halifax as “a cold fish” and “tough as leather,” adding that their four-hour talk had been an “exercise in futility.”120 Nonetheless, he was given the impression that London would not stand in the way of a non-violent solution to the Austrian issue.

In early 1938, the domestic situation in Austria began to heat up. After searching the apartment of an Austrian Nazi, police found plans to force an amalgamation with Germany that spring. Acts of provocation and sabotage were to increase tensions to the point that the Wehrmacht would have a pretence for intervening militarily.121 On 6 February, having been fired as German ambassador to Austria only two days previously, Franz von Papen travelled to the Berghof for a final audience with Hitler. He found the dictator in a “distracted, almost exhausted” state. Hitler’s countenance only brightened when Papen told him that Schuschnigg had requested a face-to-face meeting with the Führer. Immediately Hitler sensed an opportunity and asked Papen to temporarily continue to perform his ambassadorial duties and to arrange a meeting with Schuschnigg. “I would be delighted to see him here,” Hitler said, “in order to openly discuss everything.”122

The meeting was scheduled for 12 February. From the very beginning, Hitler had no interest in an open exchange of opinions. Indeed, the meeting was a perfidious attempt at strong-arming the less powerful leader. To create a suitably threatening, military atmosphere, he ordered Wilhelm Keitel, General Walther von Reichenau and the first commander of the Condor Legion, General Hugo Sperrle, to the Obersalzberg.123 Schuschnigg, who was accompanied only by State Secretary Guido Schmidt and an assistant, was received at the border near Salzburg by Papen and then taken to Hitler’s mountain residence. The dictator greeted his guests with “great politeness” at the foot of the steps and immediately led the Austrian chancellor up to his first-floor office for a one-to-one chat.124 But hardly had the doors closed behind the two men than Hitler tried to force Schuschnigg into a rhetorical corner. In his memoirs, published in 1946, Schuschnigg could still quote from memory his host’s enraged monologues, during which he could hardly get a word in edgeways.125

Hitler brusquely dismissed Schuschnigg’s assurance that his government still took the July 1936 agreement very seriously and was interested in “clearing up the remaining difficulties and misunderstandings.” Austria, Hitler began, was not pursuing “German policies.” Indeed, he fumed, the story was one of “constant betrayal of the people.” Hitler threatened: “This historical nonsense has to come to a long-overdue end. And I assure you, Herr von Schuschnigg: I am completely committed to putting an end to everything.” Hitler referred to his “historic mission,” which Providence had given him and which suffused his entire being: “My task was preordained. I have taken the most difficult path any German has ever had to take, and I have achieved more in German history than any German was ever destined to achieve.” Hitler then openly spoke of military intervention: “Surely you do not think you could put up even half an hour’s resistance? Who knows? Maybe I’ll be in Vienna tomorrow morning like a spring storm. Then you’ll see!” Hitler claimed that he was in complete agreement with Italy on the issue, and that Britain and France “would not lift a finger for Austria.” After two hours the meeting ended with an ultimatum: “Either we find a solution,” Hitler told Schuschnigg, “or things will have to take their course…I only have time until this afternoon. And when I tell you that, you would be well advised to believe me. I do not bluff.”

Over lunch in the dining room, Hitler abruptly switched roles and played the solicitous host. He told Schuschnigg, who sat directly across from him, about his love for cars and his architectural projects. He bragged that in Hamburg he had commissioned the world’s biggest bridge and skyscrapers full of new offices: “When they set foot on German soil, Americans should see that construction here is bigger and better than in the United States.”126 Around 2 p.m., Hitler withdrew, and his guests were asked to be patient until talks resumed. This was a favourite trick of Hitler for softening up interlocutors. After a few hours, the new Foreign Minister von Ribbentrop and Papen appeared with a typed list of two pages which presented the German demands: freedom of action for Hitler’s supporters in Austria; the post of interior minister for the National Socialist Arthur Seyss-Inquart; a general amnesty or suspended sentences for all imprisoned Austrian Nazis; and close coordination of Austrian foreign, economic and military policies with the Third Reich.127 Schuschnigg and Schmidt were horrified. Contrary to all of Papen’s assurances, the demands called Austrian sovereignty into question. It was particularly difficult for them to accept the idea of Seyss-Inquart as interior minister, which would have put him in charge of the police.

In his second round of talks with Hitler, Schuschnigg pointed out that according to his country’s constitution, only the Austrian president was allowed to name ministers or issue amnesties. Whereupon Hitler flung open the door and yelled for Keitel to come to him. Schuschnigg was sent outside to wait, while Keitel asked what the Führer required of him. “Nothing at all,” answered Hitler, laughing. “I just wanted you up here.”128 This cheap bit of theatre was intended to impress upon the Austrians that Hitler was serious about his threats of military intervention. And the spectacle worked. After Papen made a few insignificant alterations to the text, Schuschnigg signed a pledge to start addressing the demands in three days’ time. He respectfully declined Hitler’s invitation to stay for dinner. The drive back to Salzburg was a sombre one, with Papen only interrupting the silence to say: “That’s the way the Führer is sometimes. You’ve now experienced it for yourselves. But the next time you come, you’ll be able to talk a lot more easily. The Führer can be unusually charming.”129 To amuse his dinner guests that night, Hitler acted out how he had “demolished” the Austrian chancellor.130 And after Schuschnigg implemented the German demands and reconstituted his government on 15 February, within the agreed three days, he recounted what had happened at the Berghof: “He put Schuschnigg under pressure,” Goebbels recorded. “Threatened with cannons. And Paris and London would not come to his rescue. Then Schuschnigg caved in completely. A little man. One-third of a Brüning.”131

Schuschnigg hoped that the concessions would preserve a remnant of Austria’s autonomy. But for Hitler the Berchtesgaden agreement meant that he could push ahead with the final phase of his plan to amalgamate Germany’s southern neighbour. On 16 February, the new Austrian Interior Minister Seyss-Inquart was summoned to Berlin to receive instructions from the Führer. “It’s the moment of truth,” Goebbels observed. “Everything is fair game now.”132 On 20 February, Hitler gave the speech to the Reichstag in the Kroll Opera House that was originally planned for 30 January. For the first time, it was broadcast live on Austrian radio, and listeners were especially curious what he would say about Austria. As was his wont, Hitler pursued a carrot-and-stick strategy. On the one hand, he lamented the destiny of more than 10 million Germans who allegedly suffered from discrimination in Austria and Czechoslovakia: “In the long term it is intolerable for a self-respecting world power to be aware that ethnic comrades are being made to suffer greatly for their affection and loyalty to the people as a whole, its destiny and its view of the world.” On the other hand, he expressed gratitude to Schuschnigg for the “great understanding and warm-hearted willingness” with which he had tried to find a joint way of resolving the problems. Hitler sought to portray his strong-arm tactics of 12 February as an organic extension of the agreement of July 1936, indeed as a “contribution to European peace.” Few radio listeners were likely aware of how shamelessly the Führer was lying.133

In a speech to Austrian National Socialists on 26 February, Hitler was far more frank. The Berchtesgaden agreement went so far, he declared, that “the Austria issue would automatically be resolved if it were fully implemented.” As Hitler’s Austria expert Wilhelm Keppler recorded his words: “If it can at all be avoided, he did not wish there to be a violent solution since the dangers posed from abroad were decreasing year by year, as our military might is increasing more and more.”134 Thus the dictator does not seem to have regarded the amalgamation of Austria as imminent. But then everything happened more quickly than expected. On 9 March, Schuschnigg announced that he was calling a popular referendum in four days, under the slogan of “For a free, German, independent, social, Christian and unified Austria!”135 This surprising move was intended to beat Hitler at his own game, since the German dictator had publicly stated on 12 February that a majority of Austrians would be on his side if a plebiscite were held.136 But Schuschnigg had made a fatal mistake by scheduling the vote at such short notice, which fed suspicions of electoral manipulation. Moreover, the announcement that only voters over the age of 24 would be eligible to cast ballots directly challenged Hitler, since Austrian National Socialism drew its strongest support from younger generations. Schuschnigg’s decision thus unintentionally hastened what he was trying to prevent. “The bomb of a popular referendum was bound to explode in his hand,” Count Ciano quipped.137

The Nazi leadership in Berlin was dumbfounded by the news from Vienna, and Hitler was initially unsure how to respond. He ordered Wilhelm Keppler to travel to the Austrian capital to check out the situation for himself. On the evening of 9 March, Goebbels, who was hosting a reception for the editors-in-chief of German newspapers, was summoned to Hitler’s side at the Chancellery. Göring, who had for months been playing a leading role in the Anschluss question, was already there. “Schuschnigg is trying a dirty trick,” the propaganda minister was told. “He’s trying to make fools of us.” But Hitler and his advisers were uncertain which of two strategies to pursue. Either they could call upon Austrian Nazis to boycott the poll, which would have made it a farce, or they could declare that Schuschnigg had violated the Berchtesgaden agreement, which would be effective propaganda, and intervene militarily. During the night of 9-10 March, those assembled leaned towards military intervention. Goebbels recorded the dramatic process by which a decision was reached:

Consulted with the Führer until 5 a.m. He thinks the hour is at hand. He just wants to sleep on it for a night. Italy and England won’t do anything. France maybe but probably not. The risk is not as great as with the reoccupation of the Rhineland…We’re drawing up detailed plans for the operation. If it comes to pass, it will be short and drastic. The Führer is in full swing. A wonderful battle mood.138

After the remilitarisation of the Rhineland in April 1936, Count Harry Kessler had characterised the secret of Hitler’s success as his “intuitive, lightning-quick understanding of situations from which he equally quickly and suddenly draws conclusions.”139 This was precisely how the Anschluss of Austria now proceeded. After some initial hesitation, Hitler recognised that Schuschnigg had given him a unique opportunity he could not afford to miss. On 10 March he issued the orders for Operation Otto, declaring that “if other means failed to achieve the desired ends, the intention is to move into Austria with armed forces.” It was crucial, however, that “the entire operation proceeds without violence in the form of a peaceful incursion welcomed by the people.”140 That morning Goebbels found Hitler hunched over maps: “He was brooding. March is a heady month. But it’s also always been the Führer’s lucky one.” Around noon, the propaganda minister was once more summoned to the Chancellery: “The die has been cast. We’re going in on Saturday (12 March). Immediately proceed on all the way to Vienna…The Führer himself will travel to Austria. Göring and I are to remain in Berlin. In eight days, Austria will be ours.”141

The Chancellery was a hive of activity on the morning of 11 March as, one after another, the political and military leaders of the Third Reich and their entourages arrived. Unusually early for him, at 8 a.m., Hitler conferred with Goebbels. Together they dictated the text for the flyers that would be dropped by plane over Austria. “Heated, incendiary language,” Goebbels remarked. “But it was fun.”142 After that was done, Hitler tried to make preparations to present the operation diplomatically. Prince Philipp of Hesse, the son-in-law of the Italian king, was dispatched to Rome with a personal message from Hitler to Mussolini justifying intervention in Austria as an “act of national self-defence.” “You, too, Your Excellency, would not act any differently, if the destiny of the Italians were at stake,” Hitler had written.143 Ribbentrop was in London at the time and one of his underlings, Reinhard Spitzy, was flown immediately across the Channel to get the German foreign minister’s assessment of the probable British reaction.144 Around 10 a.m., an ultimatum was issued to the Austrian government. It was given until 5 p.m. to postpone the popular referendum, and Schuschnigg was to resign and name Arthur Seyss-Inquart his successor. In the early afternoon, around 2:45 p.m., Schuschnigg agreed to postpone the plebiscite but refused to resign.145

In this critical phase, Göring seized the initiative. Even in front of the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal, he still boasted, not without reason, that it had been less the Führer than he himself who had “set the tempo.” Indeed, Göring added, he had “even overlooked reservations by the Führer and forced things along.”146 He spent the day constantly on the phone, issuing instructions to Seyss-Inquart, Keppler and the representatives of Germany’s embassy in Vienna. “Most of these telephone calls,” recalled an amazed Nicolaus von Below later, “took place in the presence of a larger audience.”147 At 3:45 p.m. Seyss-Inquart reported that Schuschnigg had set off to submit his resignation to the Austrian president, Wilhelm Miklas, whereupon Berlin issued a new ultimatum: by 7:30 there had to be a new cabinet under Seyss-Inquart. But Miklas still refused to appoint the Austrian Nazi, and he stuck by that refusal even after the military attaché to the German embassy, Lieutenant General Wolfgang Muff, acting on Göring’s orders, threatened that German troops massing on the border would enter Austria if Miklas did not relent.

Around 8 p.m., Schuschnigg addressed the Austrian people over the radio to explain the reasons for his resignation. He was yielding to violence, he said, and the army had been instructed to withdraw without resistance when the Wehrmacht marched in. A short time later, Seyss-Inquart took over the microphone to say that he was still in office as interior minister and would maintain security. Although Austrian National Socialists were preparing to take power all around the country, at 8:45 p.m. Hitler still issued an order to the Wehrmacht to enter Austria the following day. A short time later, Göring dictated to Keppler the text of a telegram that Seyss-Inquart was to send to Berlin. It contained a request by the “provisional Austrian government” to the German government to support it in its attempt to “restore calm and order in Austria” and to send troops “as soon as possible” to this end. But Seyss-Inquart hesitated, so Keppler saw to it himself that the fake cry for help was delivered to Berlin. “With that we have authorisation,” Goebbels commented.148 Late that evening Prince Philipp of Hesse passed on the reassuring news from Rome that Mussolini had “reacted quite calmly to the whole affair.” A visibly relieved Hitler responded: “Please tell Mussolini that I will never forget this…Never, never, never, come what may.”149 Moreover, Ribbentrop’s report, which Spitzy brought with him from London, left little doubt that Britain would remain inactive as well.150 By around midnight, when Miklas relented and named Seyss-Inquart Austrian chancellor, his action no longer had any influence on the course of events.

At 5:30 a.m. on 12 March, German troops marched into Austria. Nowhere did they encounter resistance. On the contrary, the soldiers were welcomed. At noon, Goebbels read out over the radio a proclamation of the Führer that justified the intervention as a response to an alleged violation of the Berchtesgaden agreement: “Summoned by the new National Socialist government in Vienna, [the Wehrmacht] will guarantee that within a short span of time the Austrian people will be given the opportunity in a genuine popular referendum to determine its future and shape its destiny.”151 Hitler had flown to Munich that morning, where a motorcade of Mercedes was already waiting at Oberwiesenfeld Airport. Around 4 p.m., they crossed into Austria near Braunau, Hitler’s birthplace. The 120-kilometre drive to Linz took four hours, since the cars had trouble passing through the crowds of cheering onlookers. It was already dark when Hitler arrived in the city. Among the few people who had mixed feelings on this occasion was the 66-year-old doctor Eduard Bloch. “The weak boy whom I had treated so often and had not seen for thirty years stood in a car,” Bloch said in an interview in 1941, by which time he was in exile in New York. “He smiled, waved and gave the Nazi salute to the people who crowded the street. Then for a moment he glanced up at my window. I doubt that he saw me but he must have had a moment of reflection. Here was the home of the noble Jew who had diagnosed his mother’s fatal cancer…It was a brief moment.”152

From the balcony of the town hall, Hitler made a brief speech that was repeatedly interrupted by applause. In it, he invoked the Providence that had taken him “from this city to the leadership of the Reich” and charged him with “restoring his precious homeland to the German Reich.”153 Following that, he and his entourage decamped to the Weinzinger Hotel by the Danube, where people congregated in front of the building until early in the morning. Hitler repeatedly greeted these admirers until his security guards finally asked him to go to bed and get some rest.154 Originally Hitler had no plans to immediately complete the amalgamation of Austria. But in the night of 12-13 March, overwhelmed by his triumphal journey, he decided that he would not settle for any “half-measures.” State Secretary Wilhelm Stuckart was summoned to Linz to draw up the requisite legal ordinances. While the lawyers ironed out the details, Hitler travelled to Leonding and laid flowers upon his parents’ graves. That evening, he signed the Law on the Reunification of Austria with the German Reich. The first article declared unequivocally: “Austria is a territory of the German Reich.” Its second article set 10 April as the date for a “free and secret referendum open to all Austrian men and women of the age of twenty or older.”155

On the morning of 14 March, Hitler travelled on to Vienna, the city he had left twenty-five years earlier as a completely unknown “art painter” who despaired of his future. In the Austrian capital, too, an ecstatic reception awaited him. The city’s church bells rang when he entered Vienna from the direction of Schönbrunn. During his entire stay in the capital, Hitler “glowed,” to use Fritz Wiedemann’s phrase,156 and it is easy to imagine how satisfied he must have felt. The same scenes of hysterical enthusiasm as had taken place in Linz now played themselves out in front of the Hotel Imperial where he stayed.157 The next morning, hundreds of thousands of people converged on Heldenplatz in front of the Hofburg Palace for a “liberation celebration.” From the palace balcony, Hitler made what he described as the “greatest announcement of triumph” in his life: “As the Führer and chancellor of the German nation and empire, I announce to posterity the entry of my homeland into the German Reich.”158 The euphoria at the unification of Austria with Germany almost obscured the hatred and violence simultaneously being visited upon Vienna’s Jewish citizens. This was the dark side of the Anschluss, and it cast a shadow upon everything to come.

That afternoon, Hitler visited the grave of his niece Geli Raubal in Vienna’s central cemetery. He went alone ahead of his entourage and spent a long time at the grave, Nicolaus von Below reported.159 After the parade, Hitler received the Archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Theodor Innitzer, in the Hotel Imperial. The dictator bowed deeply—a calculated gesture that said nothing about his true religious disposition—and the cardinal offered a Nazi salute and assured the Führer that Austrian Catholics would work vigorously for “the project of German reconstruction.”160 Around 5 p.m., Hitler flew back to Munich, and when he returned to the German capital the following day, the people of Berlin treated him to a triumphant reception that, in the words of Goebbels, who was never at a loss for superlatives, “overshadowed everything previous.” The propaganda minister gushed: “[Hitler passed] through an immeasurable human guard of honour…The cries of celebration nearly burst your eardrums. You had it ringing in your ears for hours afterwards. It was a singing, jubilant city.”161

This new foreign-policy triumph took Hitler to the peak of his popularity. People of all walks of life now admired him. The Wagner family was particularly enthusiastic. “How unique and unparalleled is this deed of our Führer,” gasped Winifred Wagner’s assistant Lieselotte Schmidt, adding: “He is more than a statesman…he is an executor of a higher will, a genius before whom everyone ultimately will have to bow.”162Ernst von Weizsäcker, the state secretary designate in the Foreign Ministry, who travelled to Vienna with Ribbentrop on 14 March, saw that date “as the most significant since 18 January 1871”—the day on which the Wilhelmine Empire had been founded. He was especially impressed by Hitler’s ability “to seize an opportunity by the scruff of the neck.”163 The reaction of the conservative historian Gerhard Ritter was much the same, although he otherwise had a detached relationship to the Nazi regime. “I completely admire the mastery of the actor who knows how to stage everything,” Ritter wrote in a letter to his brother in April 1938. “It is the first time that my admiration is without reservation!”164

For the Hamburg teacher Luise Solmitz, the Anschluss was the fulfilment of “my old German dream,” made possible by “a man who fears nothing, knows no compromises, hindrances or difficulties.” She wrote this in her diary despite the fact that she was stigmatised by the regime for having married a Jewish husband. “One must recall that one is excluded from the people’s community oneself like a criminal or degraded person,” she wrote.165 Willy Cohn in Breslau, who personally suffered the many indignities inflicted upon Jews in Germany, likewise had ambiguous feelings. “It is hard to resist the sense of momentous events,” he wrote on 13 March, adding the next day: “You have to admire the energy with which all this has been carried out…We Jews in Germany are not supposed to share the exuberance of this national uprising, but we do nonetheless.”166 By contrast, Victor Klemperer in Dresden did not get caught up in the jubilations. “The monstrous act of violence represented by the annexation of Austria,” he noted, “the monstrous increase in power both domestically and abroad, the trembling defenceless fear of England and France. We won’t live to see the end of the Third Reich.”167 Thomas Mann, in March 1938 on a reading tour of the United States, also remained deaf to the patriotic hullaballoo. “The monster is speaking today in Vienna,” he wrote. “He won’t do that without ‘adeptness,’ and he will try to calm things.” But Mann was mistaken about the reaction of the Western powers: “At least apathy in Europe is not as hopeless as it seems. The consequences of this disgusting coup are unforeseeable. The shock is deep, and the lesson learned effective.”168 In fact, the British and French governments offered nothing more than verbal protests.

Reports by SPD-in-exile observers initially talked about widespread fears among the German population that a new war might be at hand. On the morning of 12 March, citizens of Munich panicked and began stockpiling goods. “There were queues in front of shops,” one observer wrote. “Bakeries were completely sold out and had to close early.”169 As it became clear that the Western powers were not going to intervene, and special radio reports relayed news of the enthusiastic receptions for Hitler in Linz and Vienna, the mood swung round: “At that point, you suddenly noticed a massive enthusiasm and joy over this triumph,” another observer reported from Saxony. “The jubilations no longer knew any bounds. Even sectors that had been reserved towards Hitler or rejected him got carried away and conceded that he was a fine and clever statesman who would restore Germany’s greatness and reputation after the defeat of 1918.”170 Among old and committed Social Democrats who remained immune to Nazi propaganda there was hopelessness and resignation. “Hitler succeeds at everything,” an observer from the Rhineland Palatinate wrote. “He can do what he wants because everyone gives in to him. His domestic deceptions have also proven effective abroad. Here, too, Hitler has found his Hugenbergs.”171

Hitler remained in a state of euphoria for days after his most impressive coup to date. On the evening of 18 March, he gave a speech in the Kroll Opera House detailing the events that had led up to the Reich swallowing Austria. At the end, he declared the Reichstag dissolved and announced the election on 10 April of “new representatives for Greater Germany” in conjunction with the referendum in Austria.172 A few days later he paid a private visit to Bayreuth. “From two to six I had him all to myself, and everything was calm—it was all too nice since he could touch on very personal things with me that had moved his heart in Braunau and Linz,” Winifred Wagner wrote in a letter to a friend. Hitler gave Wagner a detailed account of how everything had come so “suddenly” and “unexpectedly,” and she happily noted “how fresh and well he looked,” adding “that it makes you glad about this triumph.”173

On 25 March, Hitler hit the campaign trail in Königsberg. He could hardly have suspected that the poll would be his last. Once again, he put himself through a demanding schedule. After Königsberg, he spoke in Leipzig, Berlin, Hamburg, Cologne, Frankfurt am Main, Stuttgart and Munich. From 3 to 9 April, he continued on to Graz, Klagenfurt, Innsbruck, Salzburg, Linz and Vienna in Austria. In the end he was exhausted, and his voice was completely hoarse and required treatment by his personal physician Morell.174 Hitler only anticipated getting 80 per cent of the Austrian vote, so he was surprised when 99.75 per cent voted for amalgamation into Germany—a better result than in the old parts of the Reich (99.08 per cent). “A great celebration for the nation,” Goebbels commented. “Germany has conquered an entire country by the ballot box.”175 Of course not everyone who voted yes was a committed Hitler supporter. Many Austrians cast their ballots opportunistically or out of fear. “No one believes that these were secret elections, and everyone is trembling,” wrote Klemperer.176 At the same time, the dictator’s prestige was bolstered even further. Never was the consensus about Hitler’s regime greater than in the spring of 1938.

The addition of Austria also strengthened the Reich’s economic and military position. Austrian iron reserves could now be exploited for the German rearmament programme, and a huge steel-processing facility, the Hermann Göring Works, was built on the outskirts of Linz. Germany also got its hands on 1.4 billion reichsmarks’ worth of gold and currency reserves, and masses of jobless Austrians, many of whom were highly qualified, relieved the tight German labour market. Incorporating the Austrian army, the Bundesheer, increased the strength of the Wehrmacht by 1,600 officers and 60,000 regular soldiers. Moreover, the Reich’s strategic position had improved since it could now put pressure on Czechoslovakia from two sides.177

Two months previously, Hitler had had difficulty extracting himself from the Blomberg-Fritsch affair. Now he was riding on a wave of popular approval. Once again, he had used a foreign-policy triumph to ease domestic troubles. And once more, his instincts had led him to act at precisely the right moment. For four weeks after German troops entered Austria, he was celebrated like a god by cheering masses. It is no wonder, then, that he became ever more convinced of his own greatness and began losing touch with reality. In his speeches, he increasingly referred to Providence choosing him as its instrument. His sense of self-importance, which had already been greatly bolstered by his successful gamble in remilitarising the Rhineland in 1936, began increasingly to take on a nearly pathological character. Even Nicolaus von Below, who later admitted to being an “unconditional Hitler admirer” in the spring of 1938, was unsettled by the fact that Hitler began to talk incessantly in private about the historic mission he still had to fulfil. “Except for him there was no one now or in the near future…who could perform the tasks facing the German people,” Below quoted him saying.178 And there was no doubt about which task was next on Hitler’s agenda.

“People generally believe that Czechoslovakia will be up next,” observers reported to the SPD leadership in exile in Prague.179 In fact, only a few days after the Anschluss, Hitler set his sights on his next target for expansion. “Now it’s the Czechs’ turn,” he told Goebbels on the evening of 19 March. “Without hesitation at the next opportunity.”180 On 28 March, the dictator received the leader of the Sudeten German Party, Konrad Henlein, in Berlin and informed him of his decision to “resolve” the Czechoslovakian issue in the not-too-distant future. He also instructed Henlein as to tactics to bring about that result, telling him that the Sudeten Germans should “always demand so much that they can never be satisfied.”181

Along with Slovaks, Hungarians and Poles, the 3.5 million Sudeten Germans were one of the largest minorities in Czechoslovakia which, unusually for a state formed after the First World War, had remained a democracy despite post-war political crises and the Great Depression. Although they enjoyed full rights as citizens, many Sudeten Germans felt disadvantaged, and they were particularly hard hit by unemployment. Demanding economic improvements and regional autonomy, a protest movement coalesced around the Sudeten German Homeland Front, which was founded by Henlein in 1933 and renamed the Sudeten German Party two years later. Voices calling for amalgamation into the German Reich quickly became louder and louder. On 19 November 1937, Henlein wrote to Hitler, declaring that “It is practically impossible…for Czechs and Germans to reach agreement and the Sudeten German question can only be resolved by the Reich.”182 After the Anschluss, the slogan “Back home to the Reich” became popular among Sudeten Germans, and Hitler used it as dynamite with which to demolish Czechoslovakia. The hatred for Czechs he had nurtured in his Vienna years re-emerged in full force. In conversation with Goebbels, he dismissed them as “impudent, mendacious, craven and subservient.”183

On 21 April, Hitler and Wilhelm Keitel explored the possibilities for moving militarily against Czechoslovakia. The resulting plan was code-named “The Green Scenario.” Hitler did not want a “sudden, out-of-the blue attack for no reason.” Instead, military action was to be preceded by “a period of diplomatic confrontations that would gradually intensify and lead to war.” But Hitler did not entirely rule out the possible need for “a lightning strike on account of some incident.”184 And the manifesto that the Sudeten German Party agreed on in the spa town of Karlsbad (today’s Karlovy Vary) on 24 April made it clear how such incidents could be staged. The party demanded the recognition of the Sudeten Germans as a “legal entity” with complete autonomy, and called for reparations for all the economic damage they had suffered since 1918 and “complete liberty to declare their allegiance to German ethnic identity and the German world view”—that is, National Socialism.185 Following Hitler’s instructions, Henlein had made the sort of extreme demands that the Czech government could never concede. This tactic instantly ratcheted up tensions and kicked off a war of nerves that would determine the fate of Czechoslovakia.

Before Hitler further escalated the crisis, however, he paid his promised return visit to Mussolini in Italy. On 2 May, three chartered trains stood ready in Berlin’s Anhalter Station to transport the 500-strong travelling party that included half of the Reich government, high-ranking party functionaries, generals, diplomats, journalists and the wives of Nazi VIPs. Eva Braun boarded almost unnoticed in Munich and travelled not with the official delegation, but with the Brandts, the Morells and the wife of the owner of the Rheinhotel Dreesen—all familiar faces at the Berghof. We do not know whether she even saw Hitler on the seven-day state trip.186 The following evening, the trains arrived in Rome, where they were greeted by King Victor Emmanuel III, Mussolini and Count Ciano. The Italians had done everything in their power to outdo the pomp of Mussolini’s visit to Germany the previous autumn. Four-horse carriages were waiting in front of the train station to convey the guests, to the applause of thousands of Romans, through the festively decorated and brightly lit city to their accommodations.187

Hitler entered the eternal city not with Mussolini but with the king, since, as the Italian head of state, Victor Emmanuel was his official host. For that reason, the German dictator and the closest members of his entourage stayed in the Quirinal Palace, the king’s residence in the capital, while most of the remaining visitors had to make do with the Grand Hotel Plaza. Eva Braun stayed in the Hotel Excelsior, away from all the others.188 Hitler had difficulty adapting to the protocol that had the diminutive king and not Il Duce playing the leading role, and the stiff-necked court ceremonies irritated him right from the start. The aristocratic members of the court made it abundantly clear that they considered him a parvenu, treating him with a pompous arrogance that pricked his most sensitive spot, his inferiority complex. “This entire horde of royal flunkies should be taken out and shot. It’s revolting,” wrote Goebbels, no doubt expressing what Hitler felt too. “How they treat us like parvenus! An outrage and a provocation.”189

Hitler reacted increasingly sensitively to what he perceived as his supercilious treatment and Mussolini’s undignified relegation to second-fiddle status. Already at the state banquet hosted by Victor Emmanuel on the evening of 4 May at the palace, Hitler had trouble controlling his temper. He was seated to the left of the queen. “The two of them did not say a word to one another during the entire meal,” Fritz Wiedemann noted.190 Afterwards Hitler could no longer hold his tongue: “It terrible how this great man, Il Duce, is treated by royal society. Did you see that he was seated all the way down at the far end of the table, behind the youngest princesses?”191 Of course, the Italians also hoped to impress their German visitors with the progress they had made on the military front. On 5 May, Hitler, Mussolini, Victor Emmanuel and the crown prince boarded the warship MS Cavour in Naples to watch naval manoeuvres. The highlight was an exercise in which one hundred submarines simultaneously submerged and then, as if obeying some secret command, surfaced with equal precision a short time later.192

But Hitler remained irritable, and that evening he exploded at Ribbentrop and the head of the Foreign Ministry protocol department, Vicco von Bülow-Schwante. The spark that lit the fuse was comparatively harmless. After Hitler had donned his hated tuxedo for a special performance of the opera Aida, he was supposed to inspect a military parade with the king. He wanted to change into his uniform, and twenty minutes had been allocated in the strictly planned programme to that end. But suddenly an assistant to the king appeared and announced that they were behind schedule and that they needed to go outside immediately. Hitler was forced to inspect the troops at the royally attired king’s side with his tuxedo tails flapping in the wind. “An unusually comic sight,” Wiedemann reported. “The German Führer and Reich chancellor looked like an insane head waiter. It was all the more comic as you could see that he realised what a ridiculous figure he was cutting.”193 Hitler was seething with rage, and on the trip back to Rome he levelled bitter accusations at Ribbentrop. The foreign minister, in turn, immediately fired his head of diplomatic protocol.

Hitler had further reason to get upset at a military parade the following morning, when the Italian troops performed the passo romano, modelled on the German goose-step. The grandstand only contained enough chairs for the members of the Italian royal court and their German state guest, so that Mussolini had to stand. “That made me so angry I almost caused a public scandal,” Hitler told his secretary Christa Schroeder.194 In the afternoon, the Governor of Rome, Prince Colonna, held a reception. Several hundred guests attended, and the royal court turned up in its entirety. Hitler had the unpleasant task of opening the polonaise with the queen on his arm through an honour guard of guests, some of whom fell to their knees, while others kissed the hem of the queen’s dress. “When Hitler noticed this, he went red in the face,” his pilot Hans Baur remarked. “He positively dragged the queen forward to get through the long rows of guests as quickly as possible. The way he looked, we thought he was going to have a stroke.”195 That evening, Hitler complained that people had “stared at him as if he were an exotic animal.” He simply could not warm to the “ceremonies of court lackeys.”196

To a degree, Hitler’s intemperate reaction recalled his behaviour in Munich salons in the early 1920s. Bavarian high society had also treated the ambitious beer-cellar rabble-rouser as a curiosity, and he had concealed his insecurities with eccentric poses. He had, of course, acquired many social graces since becoming chancellor, and he was no longer uncomfortable during official receptions or talks with career diplomats. Moreover, his successes had increased his self-confidence. Nonetheless, he felt ill at ease in the royal court in Rome, not just because he sensed the tacit antipathy its members maintained towards him, but also because he did not know how to react. There was nothing in his regular repertoire that allowed him to master unfamiliar situations like being dropped in amongst Italy’s grandezza. Even at a point when his popularity had reached unprecedented heights in his home country and he was deified like no German politician before or since, his visit to Italy revealed that he still lived in fear of looking laughable. His megalomania was the flipside of his deep feelings of inferiority.

Hitler’s mood only improved when Mussolini devoted his full attention to him, away from the disruptive presence of the king and his court. Together they jointly visited a major archaeological exhibition about the Roman emperor Augustus, and on 7 May Il Duce hosted a gala dinner in honour of his guest at the Palazzo Venezia. There, they once again exchanged assurances of their mutual regard and of the eternal friendship of their two peoples. Hitler declared that he saw “the natural border of the Alps between the two countries as inviolable,” signalling that he had no territorial designs on southern Tyrol.197 To conclude Hitler’s visit, the two dictators travelled to Florence on 9 May, where they decamped at the Palazzo Pitti and visited the Uffizi Gallery. Years later in the monologues he held in his wartime headquarters, Hitler still rhapsodised about the magic of Rome, Florence and the Tuscan and Umbrian countryside: “How I wish I could travel around like an unknown painter in Italy!”198 Around midnight on 9 May, Mussolini accompanied Hitler to the train station, taking his leave with the words: “Now no power in the world can divide us!”199

In a memorandum to Germany’s foreign embassies, Ribbentrop deemed Hitler’s visit to Italy a great success. The Berlin-Rome axis, he wrote, had proved a “reliable component in our general policy,” and the friendship between Hitler and Mussolini had been “further deepened.”200 Although the hectic agenda had left hardly any time for serious political discussions, the German side had read into certain statements by their Italian counterparts a willingness not to put any obstacles in Germany’s way should it decide to move against Czechoslovakia. “Mussolini is not interested in our intentions concerning Czechoslovakia,” wrote State Secretary von Weizsäcker. “He is prepared to stand back and watch what we do there.”201

Nonetheless, Hitler retained a deep-seated aversion to Italian high society and the Italian aristocracy. He told a small circle in the Chancellery that he had never seen “so many degenerate fools, mindless parrots and old frumps at the same time in one place.” He characterised the polonaise in the palace as “the worst trial of martyrdom he had ever been through” and described the “thick as a pig” Italian queen as the “mutton thief from Montenegro,” as the army attaché Gerhard Engel recalled: “He said that women had surrounded him and had almost put out his eyes with their wine glasses. Nothing should be left undone to support Mussolini in his battle against this corrupt society.”202 Hitler repeatedly expressed his satisfaction that he had never listened to those who had tried to talk him into a restoration of the monarchy in Germany. He even praised the “old middle-of-the-road Social Democrats” for doing away with the “spectre of the monarchy” in 1918 and suggested that their pensions should be increased.203

Hitler only remained in Berlin for a single day after returning from Italy. On 11 May he flew to Munich and withdrew for the next two weeks to the Obersalzberg.204 During this time, Nazi propaganda whipped up the anti-Czech mood, and tensions increased in the Sudeten German regions of Czechoslovakia. On 20 May, worried about concentrations of German troops on their border, the Czech government ordered a partial mobilisation of the country’s armed forces. France reaffirmed its commitment to come to Czechoslovakia’s aid in case of a German attack, and Britain warned the Third Reich that it also would not stand by and do nothing. Hitler’s government in Berlin saw itself compelled to offer reassurances that it had no intentions of invading Germany’s neighbour.205

But the “weekend crisis” of 20 and 21 May did not bring an end to the tensions. As soon as London and Paris were convinced that Germany did not in fact intend to attack, and that the Czechs had unnecessarily dramatised the situation, the mood turned against Prague. Hitler, on the other hand, was enraged that the foreign press wrote of Germany backing down and suffering a diplomatic defeat. Far from encouraging a more prudent course, therefore, the May crisis made him all the more aggressive. On 26 May he returned to Berlin. Goebbels, who saw him on the morning of 28 May, noted: “He’s brooding about what decision to make. That usually goes on for a while. But once he’s made up his mind, he’ll make sure his will is carried out.”206 By that afternoon, the dictator knew what he wanted to do. In the conservatory of the Chancellery, he told the leaders of the Wehrmacht and the Foreign Ministry: “It is my iron will that Czechoslovakia disappear from the map.” No matter what threatening gestures they made, Hitler asserted, the Western powers were unlikely to intervene. Britain still needed time to build up its military, France would not act independently of Britain, and Italy was indifferent. So the chances of keeping the conflict local, Hitler concluded, were good.207

The revised orders for the Green Scenario on 30 May directly reflected Hitler’s instructions. “It is my irrevocable decision to break up Czechoslovakia through military action,” he said. “The task of waiting for the right time, in military and political terms, to carry this out falls to the political leadership.” He ordered the Wehrmacht to make all the necessary preparations by 1 October.208 After that point, as he made clear in a supplemental order on 18 June, Hitler wanted to be able “to exploit every favourable circumstance for achieving this end.”209

The military leaders present at the meeting on 28 May did not raise any objections. Even Army Chief of the General Staff Ludwig Beck stayed silent: Nicolaus von Below described him maintaining a “face of stone” throughout the meeting.210 However, Beck did express his reservations in a series of memoranda to Army Commander-in-Chief von Brauchitsch in late May and June. Like most of Germany’s military leadership, Beck supported the idea of the Reich expanding its power; he had welcomed the Anschluss and had nothing in principle against the division of Czechoslovakia. But he feared that the way Hitler was proceeding would compel the Western allies to intervene, and he felt that Germany was insufficiently prepared for the protracted war that would inevitably come about.211

When informed by Brauchitsch about Beck’s concerns, Hitler heaped scorn upon the chief of the general staff, calling him “an officer who is still stuck on the idea of an army of 100,000 men and for whom the desk chair is more important than the trenches.” He had nothing against Beck personally, he said, but he had no use for people who did not share his convictions, so Beck’s days were numbered.212 Beck enjoyed little support within the military leadership and even among those who worked under him. A simulation of war which the general staff conducted in the second half of June concluded that an offensive against Czechoslovakia would only last a few days and that German troops could be redeployed to the western front more quickly than Beck thought. Increasingly, Beck found himself pegged as an “unconvincing Cassandra.”213

In a further major memorandum of 15-16 July, Beck made a last-ditch effort to win over Brauchitsch, stating flat-out: “The prospect of destroying Czechoslovakia with military force without alerting England and France does not exist for the foreseeable future.” The conflict, Beck argued, would “automatically expand into a European or world war, which as far as anyone could predict would end in a general catastrophe and not just a military defeat for Germany.” The chief of staff called upon Brauchitsch to dissuade Hitler of the idea of a violent resolution of the Czech question “until the military situation has changed decisively.”214 In a presentation he gave to Brauchitsch, Beck went even further and mooted the idea of a collective resignation among military leaders in an attempt to get Hitler to abandon his risky policies of conflict. “Soldiers’ obedience reaches its limits when their knowledge, their conscience and their sense of responsibility forbids them to carry out an order,” Beck declared. “Extraordinary times demand extraordinary measures.”215 But neither Brauchitsch nor the majority of Germany’s military leaders had the slightest inclination to rebel in a way that was utterly atypical of Prussian officers. That became clear at a meeting of high-ranking military leaders on 4 August. Most of the participants were critical of Hitler’s plans for war, but no one said a single word about coming together to resist them.216

Hitler got wind of the meeting and immediately summoned Walther von Brauchitsch to the Berghof. Hitler was already convinced that there were too many doomsayers among his military leadership. “Our generals in Berlin of course once more have their pants full,” he had scoffed in late July in Bayreuth.217 He read Brauchitsch the Riot Act, raising his voice so much that the guests taking some fresh air on the terrace below Hitler’s office decided they would be best advised to go inside. In his many years of service to Hitler, Nicolaus von Below recalled, this was “the only time he had got that loud during a conversation with a general.”218

On 10 August, Hitler ordered the heads of the general staff of the armies and army groups earmarked for mobilisation to come to the Berghof. Most of them were younger generals, and for many it was the first time that they had met their supreme commander in person. Hitler put on a completely different persona to the one he had presented to Brauchitsch. Before lunch, he talked to them casually, “expressing moderate, sensible views, calm in tone and open to objections—in short, he was playing the role of a man you could talk to, and not that of the wild dictator,” Fritz Wiedemann reported.219 In an afternoon speech that went on for hours, Hitler tried to win the officers’ support for his plans, but in the following discussion he encountered both reservations and approval. In the days that followed, according to Gerhard Engel, his disappointment expressed itself in “a long critical litany about the lukewarm, nerveless leaders of the army.”220

Hitler suspected that Beck was behind the resistance, and he interpreted the latter’s memorandum of 15-16 July, which Brauchitsch brought to his attention, as confirmation of that belief. In his diary, Hitler’s military attaché described the dictator’s reaction:

He said people were trying to sabotage his work. Instead of the general staff being glad that it could work in line with its very own way of thinking, it refused any thought of war…It was high time for the chief of staff to disappear…It was a scandal that he now sat in the chair once occupied by Moltke. Moltke had to be restrained by Bismarck. Now the situation was the exact opposite.221

On 15 August, in a speech in Jüterbog to his commanding generals, Hitler rejected Beck’s ideas in no uncertain terms. Three days later, after Brauchitsch had declined to defend him, Beck submitted his resignation. Hitler accepted it after three further days, but insisted that the resignation initially be kept secret because of the tense foreign-policy situation. On 1 September, Quartermaster General and Artillery General Franz Halder was named Beck’s successor.222

In early August 1938, the British government sent Lord Walter Runciman to Prague to try to get the Czechoslovakian government and the Sudeten German Party to come to an agreement. “Runciman’s whole mission stinks,” wrote William Shirer. “He says he has come here to mediate between the Czech government and the Sudeten Party of Konrad Henlein. But Henlein is not a free agent. He cannot negotiate. He is completely under the orders of Hitler.”223 Although Prague yielded to British pressure and made one concession after another, even going as far as accepting nearly all the demands in the Sudeten Party’s Karlsbad manifesto, the representatives of the German minority always found a pretext to demand more and more. Hitler, of course, was not interested in a peaceful settlement. In early June he had told Goebbels to ramp up anti-Czech propaganda: “We have to keep on stirring up trouble and rebellion. Never let them relax.”224 That entire summer, German newspapers published reports about alleged “atrocities” carried out by Czechs against Sudeten Germans, stoking popular anger.

In mid-July, Fritz Wiedemann made an unofficial trip to London with a message from Hitler to Lord Halifax. Wiedemann was to tell the British foreign secretary that Britain was showing too little regard for Germany’s interests and should learn to accept “German existential necessities.” The Führer was “still quite embittered” about the British government’s behaviour in the “weekend crisis” and dismayed about the British press’s criticism of him. And Hitler formulated his central message in unmistakable terms: “The Sudeten German question must be resolved one way or the other. If the Czechs do not give in, one day it will be solved with violence.” Halifax received Wiedemann on 18 July in his private apartment. When the foreign minister asked for a written statement to confirm that Germany planned no violent measures against Czechoslovakia, Wiedemann answered, as instructed: “You will not be getting this declaration.” The trip did nothing to relax the tension, even though Halifax did articulate the hope that he would some day greet the Führer side by side with the king of England at Buckingham Palace.225

In July, as he did every year, Hitler attended the Wagner Festival in Bayreuth, but this time he was preoccupied by thoughts of the imminent military conflict. He inspected the latest designs of fortifications for the West Wall on Germany’s border and made sketches of how he wanted them built.226 Over lunch he declared: “I want to finally get a good night’s sleep. That’s why I’ve ordered the construction of fortifications that will prevent the enemy from invading from the west. Germans shall be able to sleep peacefully again.” Minister Hanns Kerrl, one of the lunch guests, was craven enough to respond: “My Führer, the German people will always sleep peacefully as long as you’re alive.”227 On 31 July, Hitler interrupted his visit for a day to attend the German Gymnastics and Sports Festival in Breslau. There, Sudeten Germans marched by the VIP stand, shouting “Back home to the Reich!,” Goebbels noted. “The people yelled, cheered and cried. The Führer was deeply moved. When the hour is at hand, there will be a true storm.”228

But Hitler still had not set a date for attacking Czechoslovakia. “The Führer is still brooding over the Prague question,” Goebbels wrote on 10 August. “In his mind’s eye he’s already solved it and divided [the country] up into new Gaue.”229 Apparently at this point Hitler still thought that it would take some time to move against Prague. Eight days later, Goebbels summarised Hitler’s thoughts on the western fortifications as: “By the first frost, they’ll be finished. Then we’ll be unassailable from the west, and France will no longer be able to do anything. With that, the solution of our central European problems can begin to ripen. In any case, we’ll have our back free.”230 From 27 to 29 August, Hitler, Keitel and Jodl went on an inspection tour of Germany’s western border. In Aachen, in the salon carriage of Hitler’s special train, the commander of Army Group 2, Colonel General Wilhelm Adam, reported that only a third of the fortifications would be completed by the end of October. When Adam proceeded to express his opinion that the Western powers would not sit back and do nothing if Germany attacked Czechoslovakia, Hitler went into a rage. “We have no time to listen to this stuff any longer,” he fumed. “The English have no army reserves, and the French are facing massive domestic problems. They’ll be wary of taking us on.” Adam responded coolly that there was no need then for further discussion and suggested they go out into the field. As was so often the case when someone stood up to him, Hitler regained his composure on the spot, and the inspection continued.231

Hitler also radiated optimism among those closest to him. “He does not think London will intervene and he’s determined to act,” wrote Goebbels, who had been invited to spend a couple of days on the Obersalzberg in late August.

He knows what he wants and is taking a direct route towards his goal. At the slightest provocation, he intends to solve the Czech question…The whole thing will have to be rolled out as quickly as possible. You always have to take a large risk, if you want to make a large gain.232

Goebbels no doubt wrote these words in his diary with an eye towards it being published at a later date; at the time Hitler hardly behaved with that sort of directness on the Sudeten German issue. On the contrary, he continually vacillated between cold-hearted determination and indecision. In late August at the Berghof, he declined to receive the German ambassador to Britain, Herbert von Dirksen, who brought a message from British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain.233 On 2 September, when he was visited by Konrad Henlein, Hitler made no bones about the fact that he was considering a military solution, but he was still undecided as to when the attack should be launched. The two men agreed to let the Czechs “stew in their own juices” in the hope that they would gradually “soften up.”234 Nonetheless, his fundamental decision in late May to destroy Czechoslovakia in the foreseeable future put Hitler under pressure to act. The day after Henlein’s visit, Hitler summoned Brauchitsch and Keitel to the Berghof, where 1 October was provisionally set as a date for the attack.235

Meanwhile, fear of a new war was growing within the German population, to a far greater extent than it had during the Anschluss of Austria. In contrast to the spring, when tension had given way to euphoria within the space of a few days, the Sudeten crisis went on for months. The increasingly shrill anti-Czech propaganda rebounded against the regime. Instead of creating sympathy for the allegedly persecuted Sudeten Germans, it stoked fears that this time there would be no way to resolve the issue without violence. Local Nazi reports spoke of a “war psychosis,” and SPD-in-exile observers described much the same. One of them wrote:

People fear that war will come and it will be Germany’s downfall. Nowhere can any enthusiasm for war be felt…No one in the working classes (and very few from other social ranks) thinks that the Sudetenland is so important that Germany must have it at all costs. If war comes, it will be most unpopular in Germany.236

The Nazi Party conference of 1938, with its theme of “Greater Germany,” was also dominated by the Sudeten German issue. Late in the evening of 9 September, after the political directors had turned out for a roll call, there was a discussion in Hitler’s hotel about the operation plan for the Green Scenario. Walther von Brauchitsch and Franz Halder had been specifically summoned to Nuremberg. Hitler had suggested making territorial inroads by sending strong armoured divisions deep into Czechoslovakia and thereby bringing about a speedy outcome, and he was shocked that his generals had not followed this idea. He criticised “the wasting of time” and came straight out and demanded that attack plans be “amended to conform to his wishes.” Brauchitsch and Halder yielded and tried to mollify their commander-in-chief with declarations of loyalty. Nonetheless, afterwards Hitler complained about “fear and cowardice in the army.” In the best of all worlds, he said, he would have turned his armies over to his Gauleiter: “They have faith, while the army commanders do not.”237

Hitler’s concluding speech at the rally on 12 September was highly anticipated. As was his wont, he began by recalling the “days of struggle” before proceeding to his main topic: the “unbearable” fate of Sudeten Germans in Czechoslovakia. The German Reich, he declared, would “no longer accept further oppression against and persecution of three and a half million Germans.” He then issued a threat to the Western democracies: if they were to deny the Sudeten Germans the right of self-determination, it would have “severe consequences.” Hitler also warned Czechoslovakian President Eduard Beneš: “The Germans in Czechoslovakia are neither defenceless nor have they been abandoned.”238 For Goebbels, the Führer was “at the height of his rhetorical powers,” while Shirer remarked: “I have never heard Hitler quite so full of hate, his audience quite so on the borders of bedlam.”239 It did not take long for the speech to have an echo. There was a wave of protests and confrontations in the Sudeten German territories, whereupon the government in Prague imposed martial law there. “Things are developing the way we wished,” noted Goebbels with satisfaction.”240

Then, on 14 September, something no one in the Nazi leadership had anticipated happened. Neville Chamberlain requested a meeting with Hitler, in an attempt to jointly find a peaceful way out of the crisis. Hitler could hardly reject the request without appearing in German and international public opinion like the warmonger he truly was, so he invited Chamberlain to come to the Berghof the following day. On the morning of 15 September, the almost-70-year-old British prime minister got on a plane for the first time in his life. He was accompanied by his close adviser Sir Horace Wilson and the director of the Central Europe division in the Foreign Office, William Strang. The British delegation was received by Joachim von Ribbentrop at Oberwiesenfeld airport in Munich, and they travelled on to Berchtesgaden by chartered train. Not coincidentally, military transports rolled down the tracks next to the train for the entire journey. They provided a martial backdrop to the British government’s struggle to preserve peace.241

Chamberlain arrived at the Berghof shortly after 5 p.m. Hitler welcomed him on the front steps. After greeting one another, they took tea in the Great Hall. To relax the awkward atmosphere, Chamberlain steered the conversation towards the paintings of which the art lover Hitler was so proud.242 At the prime minister’s request, the subsequent talks were held one-to-one in Hitler’s office. As had also been the case with Kurt von Schuschnigg in February, Ribbentrop was made to wait in the anteroom. The interpreter Paul Schmidt was thus the only other witness to Hitler and Chamberlain’s dramatic three-hour discussion. Hitler began calmly but grew increasingly excitable as he levelled more and more severe accusations against the government in Prague. When Chamberlain said that he was willing to discuss all German complaints as long as Hitler ruled out the use of force, Hitler responded: “Violence? Who’s talking about violence here? Herr Beneš uses violence against my countrymen in the Sudetenland…I’m not willing to accept it any longer…In the short term, I’m going to solve this problem myself, one way or the other.” The composed Chamberlain responded that if Hitler had irrevocably decided to move against Czechoslovakia, he need not have let him come to Berchtesgaden and that it would perhaps be better if he left since there seemed to be no point to his visit.

Schmidt had the impression that a critical point had been reached and that the question of war or peace was on a knife-edge. But to his amazement, Hitler changed roles. From one moment to the next, he transformed himself from a hot-headed, unpredictable megalomaniac into a rational, reasonably arguing negotiation partner. “If you agree that the principle of self-determination is the basis of the Sudeten question,” Hitler proposed, “we can then talk about how this principle can be put into practice.” Chamberlain responded that he would first have to consult his cabinet and suggested another meeting. The two men parted with Hitler assuring Chamberlain that he would not use force against Czechoslovakia in the meantime.243

Hardly had Chamberlain departed than Hitler informed Ribbentrop and Weizsäcker about how the talks had gone. “He clapped his hands like someone celebrating a particularly pleasurable success,” Weizsäcker recalled. “He felt he had manoeuvred this dried-up civilian into a corner.”244 If he recognised the principle of self-determination, Chamberlain would have to be willing to support the cession of Sudeten territories to Germany. If the Czechs refused, Hitler believed, there were no further obstacles to a German military attack. If, contrary to expectations, the Czechs accepted this loss of territory, he could claim it as a victory and proceed with the ultimate destruction of Czechoslovakia at a later point, possibly the following spring.245

In the meantime, the situation in the Sudetenland became more and more tense. On the day of Chamberlain’s visit Konrad Henlein issued a statement declaring that it was “ultimately impossible” for Sudeten Germans to remain in Czechoslovakia due to the “irreconcilable will for destruction” of the government in Prague. The declaration ended with the slogan: “We want to return home to the Reich.”246 Two days later, on orders from Berlin, a Sudeten German paramilitary unit was established, whose main task was to foment further unrest and stage acts of provocation. At the same time Goebbels stepped up his propaganda campaign against what he called “Czech terror,” writing that “The mood must be brought to a boil.”247 The military planning of an attack against Czechoslovakia also continued. The main thing, Hitler told Goebbels, who had hurried to the Obersalzberg, was to keep their nerve: “We’re already halfway to winning the war.”248

Chamberlain was anything but impressed by Hitler’s appearance. “He looks entirely undistinguished,” the British prime minister wrote to his sister on 19 September. “You would never notice him in a crowd and would take him for the house painter he once was.” But he also wrote in that same letter that he believed Hitler was a man of his word—a grievous error, as he would soon discover.249 After his cabinet agreed to back him, Chamberlain agreed a joint line with France towards Prague. On 19 September, the British and French governments sent Beneš identical letters demanding that Czechoslovakia cede all territories with a German population of more than 50 per cent in return for guarantees of its new borders. Initially the government in Prague refused, but on 21 September it yielded to Western pressure.

Ahead of his second meeting with Chamberlain in Bad Godesberg, Hitler settled on a negotiating position that was as extreme as possible. “The Führer intends to present Chamberlain with clear demands,” noted Goebbels on 22 September.

We get to draw the demarcation line as generously as possible. This area will be immediately vacated by the Czechs. The German Wehrmacht will march in. Everything within eight days. It will take that long to march in. If the other side is not happy with our [new] border, then a plebiscite in the entire area. That’s to happen before Christmas…If Chamberlain demands new negotiations at a later date, then the Führer no longer feels bound by any prior agreements and can act as he wishes.250

At noon on 22 September, Chamberlain’s plane landed in Cologne. He was housed with his delegation in the Hotel Petersberg, a short way up from Königswinter, and that afternoon Hitler received him in the Hotel Dreesen on the other side of the Rhine. This time the prime minister had brought along an interpreter of his own, Ivone Kirkpatrick, to avoid any misunderstandings.251 Chamberlain was confident going into the negotiations. He had already secured the agreement of France and the Czechoslovakian government that the Sudeten territories would be ceded to Germany, thereby fulfilling Hitler’s central demand. It was only reasonable to expect that the parties would reach quick agreement on this basis. He was therefore unpleasantly surprised when Hitler revealed that, “after the developments of the past few days,” he could no longer accept this deal. “All at once, Chamberlain sat bolt upright in his chair,” Paul Schmidt reported. “His face flushed in anger at the refusal and the lack of recognition of his effort.” Hitler then presented a map with the new demarcation line and demanded that the occupation of the territories to be ceded “happen immediately.” Chamberlain objected that this was a completely new demand that went beyond what they had agreed in Berchtesgaden, but Hitler remained adamant, declaring that he could no longer tolerate the persecution of Sudeten Germans by the Czechs. He also rejected the proposal for an international guarantee of Czech independence, arguing that Polish and Hungarian demands on Czech territory would also have to be settled soon. As the first round of negotiations concluded, the British contingent was left quite dispirited.252

The following day, Chamberlain did not appear for the scheduled continuation of talks. Instead he sent a letter that declared Hitler’s new demands incompatible with principles previously agreed upon. If German troops immediately advanced into the Sudetenland, the government in Prague would have no choice other than to order their troops to resist. The impact of the letter in the Hotel Dreesen was, in Schmidt’s words, “like a bomb” had been dropped.253 The German delegation grew edgy. William Shirer, who had the chance to observe Hitler up close in the hotel garden, was struck by “ugly black patches under his eyes” and a nervous twitching of his right shoulder, concluding: “I think the man is on the edge of a nervous breakdown.”254 Nonetheless, in the response which his interpreter delivered that afternoon, Hitler stuck to his demands. The negotiations seemed to have reached a complete impasse. “The whole situation is so tense it’s coming apart at the seams,” noted Goebbels.255 But again Chamberlain proved conciliatory, offering to serve as a mediator between Berlin and Prague and asking for the new German demands to be collected in a memorandum. He would travel to Hitler’s hotel on the other side of the Rhine to pick them up and get clarifications from Hitler.256

Around eleven that night, negotiations resumed with a wider circle of participants. On the German side Joachim von Ribbentrop, Ernst von Weizsäcker and the director of the legal department in the Foreign Ministry, Friedrich Gaus, took part. Horace Wilson and Ambassador Henderson represented Britain alongside Chamberlain. Schmidt translated the finished memorandum word for word. Hitler had not yielded an inch on the cardinal question and was still demanding that the withdrawal of Czechoslovakian forces from the Sudeten territory designated on his map begin on the morning of 26 September. It was to be concluded by 28 September, whereupon the area was to be ceded to Germany. The Czech government was being handed a deadline of four days. That was tantamount to an “ultimatum” for Chamberlain, who accused Hitler of failing to support even in the slightest his efforts to preserve peace.257 Once again the negotiations were in danger of collapsing.

At this moment, one of Hitler’s assistants brought the news that Beneš had ordered the general mobilisation of Czechoslovakia’s armed forces. “Dead silence descended upon the room,” Paul Schmidt recalled. “You could hear a pin drop.” As though this bombshell had brought him to his senses, Hitler suddenly became more conciliatory. In a soft voice he reiterated his commitment not to take military action against Czechoslovakia as long as negotiations were ongoing and declared his willingness to extend the deadline for evacuation by two days, until 1 October. He amended the memorandum in his own hand and made some corrections to soften the wording. For his part, Chamberlain stuck to his promise to pass on the document to the Czechoslovakian government. Thus when the two sides took leave of one another on 24 September the atmosphere was not unfriendly. Hitler once again displayed his charm, thanking Chamberlain profusely for his efforts to preserve peace and assuring him that “the Sudeten question would be the last major problem he saw himself compelled to resolve.”258

But during a long walk with Goebbels though the Chancellery garden on the afternoon of 25 September, Hitler made it clear how much such assurances were worth. “He does not think that Beneš will give in,” Goebbels noted. “But terrible justice will be meted out upon him if he does not. On 27 or 28 September, the deployment of troops will be complete…And then we’ll mobilise. That will be so lightning-quick that the world will see it as a miracle.” Hitler therefore had by no means abandoned the plan of destroying Czechoslovakia with a sudden military invasion. “The radical solution is the best one,” Goebbels added. “Otherwise we’ll never get rid of this matter.”259

In fact, in a personal message to Hitler delivered by Horace Wilson on the afternoon of 26 September, Chamberlain reported that the government in Prague had rejected the memo as “fully unacceptable.” Although Hitler could hardly have been surprised by the news and, in light of what he told Goebbels the day before, perhaps even welcomed it, he nonetheless reacted with agitation. He jumped up from his seat, yelling, “There is no point in negotiating any further.” He ran to the door as if he were about to quit the room and had to be coaxed into listening as the message was read out in full. Afterwards, Schmidt recalled, “he had a fit of a magnitude I never heard before or after in a diplomatic discussion.” Wilson repeatedly asked Hitler to calm down, which only encouraged more outbreaks of fury.260

It seems as though Hitler’s rage was not play-acted. As he had done in the attempted putsch of 1923 and the Night of the Long Knives in 1934, he had likely worked himself up into an extraordinary psychological condition as the Sudeten crisis inexorably moved towards a conclusion. In this state, in the evening of 26 September, he gave a speech at Berlin’s Sportpalast, by the end of which he was, in William Shirer’s words, “shouting and shrieking in the worst state of excitement I have ever seen him in.”261 He began with an overview of his efforts for “practical policies of peace” in Europe, mentioning the German-Polish non-aggression pact, the naval agreement with Britain, his renunciation of Alsace-Lorraine, German friendship with Italy and the peaceful Anschluss of Austria. “And now we stand before the final problem that must and will be solved!” he shouted. “It is the last territorial demand I will make on Europe, but it is a demand upon which I will not yield and that I will, God willing, see fulfilled.” He wildly lambasted Beneš, accusing the Czech president of waging a “war of extinction” against Germans in Czechoslovakia and declaring that “the time has come to talk in plain language.” He had made Beneš an offer in his memorandum of 23 September, Hitler claimed, adding: “The decision is now in his hands.” He then levelled a barely veiled threat: “War or peace. Either he can accept this offer and give Germans their freedom, or we will take this freedom ourselves!…We are determined. Herr Beneš now has the choice!”262

Shirer, who was sitting in the gallery directly above Hitler, remarked: “All during his speech he kept cocking his shoulder, and the opposite leg from the knee down would bounce up.” For the first time, the American journalist thought that the Führer had “completely lost control of himself.” After the speech, when Goebbels swore an oath of loyalty to the Führer and declared that “a November 1918” would never be repeated, Hitler could not hold himself back. “He leapt to his feet and with a fanatical fire in his eyes that I shall never forget brought his right hand, after a grand sweep, pounding down on the table and yelled with all the power in his mighty lungs: ‘Ja!,’ ” wrote Shirer. “Then he slumped into his chair exhausted.”263

The following morning Hitler was still in a state of agitation veering between euphoria and hysteria. Around noon, Horace Wilson appeared with another letter from Chamberlain. Britain, the prime minister wrote, would guarantee that Czechoslovakia honoured its commitment to evacuate the Sudetenland, if Germany would forgo using violence. Hitler refused even to consider the offer, insisting categorically that his memorandum had to be accepted by 2 p.m. on 28 September. Otherwise, the Wehrmacht would march into the Sudetenland on 1 October. He repeatedly threatened to “crush the Czechs,” rolling his R’s for dramatic effect. Whereupon Wilson calmly declared that he had also been instructed to communicate a further message from the prime minister. If France’s obligations put it in a position where it had to directly engage in hostilities against Germany, the United Kingdom would consider itself bound to support France. Seemingly untouched by the significance of this statement, an enraged Hitler shot back: “If France and England want to start a fight, they should go ahead. It does not matter to me at all. I’m prepared for all eventualities.”264 With that the discussion was over. Wilson flew back to London that afternoon.

But Hitler was not nearly as indifferent to Chamberlain’s warning as he pretended. In the days following the Bad Godesberg meeting, Hitler had assumed the British were “bluffing.”265 Now there was no longer any doubt that a German attack upon Czechoslovakia would mean war with both Britain and France. Facing this scenario, Hitler was unsure, even if he tried to conceal that fact from his entourage. In a conversation with Goebbels at noon on 27 September, he played the role of the steel-nerved statesman, pursuing his goal with the single-mindedness of a sleepwalker. His leading admirer was swept away—or at least pretended to be in his diary: “His hand did not tremble for a moment. A great genius walks among us…You simply have to serve him with profound faith.”266

However, an incident in the centre of Berlin in the late afternoon of 27 September must have made an impression on Hitler. A motorised army division rolled down Wilhelmstrasse on its way to the Czech border in what was no doubt a demonstration of the Wehrmacht’s military readiness. But pedestrians reacted quite differently than the crowds in the Sportpalast had, hurrying to the next underground station to avoid having to witness the spectacle. The few hundred people who had assembled on Wilhelmplatz stood in complete silence. When Hitler then briefly appeared on his balcony at the Chancellery, there were no cheers, and he quickly went back inside.267 There was an unquestionable lack of enthusiasm among the public at large for another war, and for the first time, major doubts arose about Hitler’s qualities as a statesman. Contemporary observers even talked about a crisis of trust between the people and their Führer.268 This did not escape Goebbels’s notice. Several days later, the propaganda minister admitted that the military division’s passage through the centre of Berlin “had served to establish clarity about the mood of the people, and it was against war.”269

On the evening of 27 September, Hitler seemed to have come to his senses and reconciled himself to the idea of a diplomatic solution that would hand him the risk-free triumph of amalgamating the Sudetenland, while only temporarily postponing his actual goal of destroying Czechoslovakia. He sent a conciliatory letter to Chamberlain, writing that he left it up to the British prime minister whether he thought it was worth continuing his efforts to bring the government in Prague “to reason at the final hour.”270 It was unclear whether Chamberlain would be willing to act as a mediator again, and Hitler kept the military option open for the more likely scenario that the prime minister refused to continue his mission. Around midnight, he repeated to Ernst von Weizsäcker that he wanted to “obliterate” the Czech state. As Weizsäcker wrote in a letter: “It will take a miracle to preserve peace.”271

Ulrich von Hassell called 28 September “a critical day of the highest order.”272 The tension could be felt that morning in all of Europe’s capitals. Only a few hours remained until Hitler’s ultimatum elapsed. Nothing seemed capable of interrupting the momentum towards war. The Chancellery was a hive of activity, just as it had been on 11 March before the Anschluss. Ministers, military officers, high-ranking party functionaries and their staffs were standing and sitting around everywhere. Hitler, who was in an “extremely agitated, nervous mood,” went from one group to the next, lecturing them. “There were many miniature Sportpalast speeches that morning,” recalled Paul Schmidt.273

Shortly after 11 a.m., Hitler received the French ambassador, one of the few foreign diplomats he respected and whose opinion he valued. André François-Poncet urgently warned Hitler against the illusion that the conflict with Czechoslovakia could be localised. “If you attack this country, you will set all of Europe aflame…” Hitler was told. “Why do you want to take this risk, seeing that you can get your fundamental demands fulfilled without war?” Schmidt felt he could see in Hitler’s face “how the scales gradually tipped towards peace.” Unlike the previous day, Hitler did not blow his top, but rather patiently listened to François-Poncet’s arguments.274

It was Mussolini’s intervention, however, which finally tipped the balance. Around 11:40 a.m., the Italian ambassador, Bernardo Attolico, appeared at the Chancellery and announced breathlessly that he had an urgent message to convey from Il Duce. Hitler was summoned from his conversation with François-Poncet. The British government, Attolico announced, had asked via its ambassador if Italy would be willing to mediate. Mussolini had agreed to do so and therefore requested that the German government postpone mobilising its troops for twenty-four hours. Hitler briefly considered the request and then accepted Il Duce’s suggestion. Only two hours before the German ultimatum was set to expire, the immediate threat of war had been removed.275 At 12:15 p.m., when British Ambassador Henderson arrived at the Chancellery, he could sense that the atmosphere had changed. Henderson delivered Chamberlain’s answer to Hitler’s letter of the previous evening. The British prime minister suggested coming to Germany with the leaders of France and Italy for a conference to find a peaceful solution to the crisis. After Attolico had attested to Mussolini’s willingness, Hitler agreed.276 That afternoon, invitations were issued for a conference in Munich the following day.

On the evening of 28 September, Hitler travelled in a chartered train to the Bavarian capital. The following morning he went to Kufstein, where he boarded Mussolini’s train, and the two dictators agreed a joint negotiating strategy. At the same time, French Prime Minister Edouard Daladier and Chamberlain landed at Oberwiesenfeld airport and were given a friendly welcome by Munich crowds on the way to their hotel.277 In the early afternoon, the conference was opened in the “Führerbau” on Königsplatz. Taking part, in addition to the four heads of government, were Joachim von Ribbentrop, Count Ciano, Horace Wilson and the state secretary in the French Foreign Ministry, Alexis Léger. Göring, Weizsäcker, the ambassadors of Britain, France and Italy as well as expert lawyers, assistants and secretaries also joined the proceedings. Hitler was polite and solicitous, but he obviously felt uncomfortable. His face was pale, and his movements were agitated. Unable to speak any foreign languages, he stuck by Mussolini’s side during the conference breaks, talking in German with him. Indeed, Hitler seemed positively fixated on the self-confident Italian leader. “When Il Duce laughed so did he; when Il Duce knitted his brow so did he,” recalled François-Poncet. “I will never forget the scenes of imitation.”278

One after another, the four heads of government stated their views. All of them stressed that they wanted to find a peaceful solution. “The atmosphere was one of general amicability interrupted only by several enraged attacks by Hitler on Beneš and some spirited rebuttals by Daladier,” recalled Schmidt.279 In the end Mussolini presented a written proposal. He was not the author, however: the document had been drawn up by Göring, Neurath and Weizsäcker, who had bypassed the warmongering Ribbentrop and given it directly to the Italian ambassador for transmission to Rome.280 The document, which merged the demands from the German memorandum with British and French suggestions, formed the basis of the Munich Agreement, which the four leaders signed in the early hours of 30 September. It specified that the German army would begin occupying the Sudetenland on 1 October, and that the process would be completed in stages by 10 October. An international committee was to be formed consisting of representatives from Germany, Great Britain, France, Italy and Czechoslovakia. Popular referendums were to be held in disputed areas before the definitive borders of Czechoslovakia were set. Sudeten German political prisoners were to be granted amnesty. Moreover, in a separate declaration, Britain and France guaranteed the integrity of the remaining Czechoslovak state. Germany and Italy pledged to join the agreement as soon as the question of the country’s Polish and Hungarian minorities was settled.281 Before sunrise, Chamberlain and Daladier informed two representatives from Czechoslovakia, who had not been permitted to attend the conference, about its final outcome. William Shirer described Daladier as a “completely beaten and broken man.”282 To keep the peace and buy time, and in response to pressure from Britain, the French government had abandoned its commitment to its ally Czechoslovakia. By contrast, the mood in Berlin was euphoric. “We’ve achieved everything we set out to according to our little plan,” Goebbels commented. “The big plan cannot be realised due to the prevailing circumstances at the moment. We walked a narrow tightrope over a dizzying abyss. Now we have solid ground under our feet again. That’s a nice feeling.”283

Hitler, however, was anything but euphoric. “Pale and ill-tempered” was how Paul Schmidt described him when the Führer received Chamberlain in his private apartment on 30 September. While the British prime minister cheerfully expounded on the new perspectives the Munich Agreement opened up for the Anglo-German relationship, Hitler sat there distracted, uncharacteristically hardly saying a word. In conclusion, Chamberlain took out a communiqué he had written that expressed the wish of both peoples never to “go to war with one another again” and to consult with one another to “remove possible sources of difference.” Hitler silently signed it.284 The next day he told Goebbels that he had not wanted to rebuff Chamberlain but did not believe that the document was “meant seriously by the other side.”285 In reality, Hitler never considered abandoning his war plans for a second. The reason for his bad mood was that he had failed to achieve his “big solution”—the break-up of Czechoslovakia. Hitler may have told his military attachés directly after Chamberlain’s visit that in the short term he was not thinking of “any steps that could be politically dangerous” and that “we first must digest what we’ve won.” But he was already beginning to look towards his next target for expansion after Czechoslovakia, as was revealed in his remark: “When the time is right, we’ll soften up Poland using the tried and tested methods.”286 As time passed, Hitler began increasingly to view the Munich Agreement as a setback that had disrupted his timetable.287

Hitler’s mood would hardly have improved when he learned that the German people had showered Chamberlain with ovations as he travelled in an open car through the streets of Munich. As Schmidt noted, the enthusiasm for Chamberlain carried an “undertone of criticism of Hitler” as the one who had led the world to the brink of a major war.288 Relief that armed conflict had been averted was palpable everywhere, and only hardcore Hitler admirers such as the Wagners ascribed this fact to the Führer’s “genius.”289 Reports by SPD-in-exile observers told a quite different story. They too described an overwhelming public feeling of joy that an international affair had once again ended happily, but they warned that this was not a lasting peace, but a “temporary ceasefire that will only last a few months or one or two years at the most.” One report from south-western Germany read: “Despite the great triumph Hitler has achieved, the enthusiasm even among the most fanatical supporters of the regime is not as great as it was with the annexation of Austria.”290

Hitler was deeply disappointed by the popular longing for peace that manifested itself in the days surrounding the Munich Agreement. “There is no way I can wage war with this people,” he is said to have complained.291 He drew his own conclusions from the pacificist mood of the population in a confidential speech to selected representatives of the press on 10 November 1938. His years of peaceful rhetoric, he said, had led to the false conclusion that the regime wanted to preserve peace “under all circumstances.” It was therefore necessary to “recalibrate the German people psychologically and make it clear that there were things which, should they not be achieved by peaceful means, would have to be pushed through by force.”292

The Munich Agreement was also a major setback for those who opposed Hitler. They had hoped that the Western powers would finally stand up and resist Hitler’s campaign of aggression, and they were commensurately disappointed. The agreement, observers for the SPD in exile concluded, “has shaken to the core the opposition’s faith in the ultimate triumph of what’s right and the restoration of honesty and trust in the world.”293 This was true not only for Social Democrats and Communists but also for those conservative nationalist circles which had formed a conspiratorial group in response to the looming threat of war. Much remains unclear about the “September conspiracy,” as the movement has been termed by historians, since most of what we know rests on individuals’ statements after the Second World War, which may not be reliable. It seems that the movement consisted of a loose-knit network of people and groups with extremely diverse interests and ideas.294 There were high-ranking military and governmental officials like Franz Halder and Ernst von Weizsäcker, whose activities were aimed not at overthrowing Hitler, but rather preventing a major European war, which they were convinced would end catastrophically for Germany.295 Then there was a group around Lieutenant-Colonel Hans Oster in the counter-intelligence department of the Wehrmacht Supreme Command and Interior Ministry official Hans Gisevius who wanted to use the Sudetenland crisis as a springboard for deposing the regime. We can only speculate about how far any plans for a coup d’état may have progressed and whether they would have had any chance of success. In any case, when Hitler followed Mussolini’s suggestion and moderated his demands on 28 September, the rug was pulled from under their feet.296

In private, Hitler left no doubt that he considered Czechoslovakian cession of the Sudetenland only an interim solution. On 2 October, only three days after the Munich Agreement was signed, he discussed the situation with Goebbels, who noted: “His determination to obliterate the Czechs is unbroken.”297 In early October, Hitler travelled twice to the Sudetenland, inspecting the Czech defensive fortifications that had been handed over to the Wehrmacht without a fight. On 9 October, in a prominent speech in the western German city of Saarbrücken, he once again adopted a more aggressive tone towards Britain. While conceding that Chamberlain was prepared to reach an agreement, the situation would change immediately if power fell to politicians like Winston Churchill, whose explicit goal, Hitler claimed, was to “immediately unleash a new world war.” Great Britain, he said, should cast off “certain airs from the Versailles epoch,” adding, “We are no longer going to tolerate such schoolmarmish, patronising behaviour.” This was not the only remark that showed how deeply irked Hitler was by the Munich Agreement. He also criticised indirectly the German people’s predisposition towards peace. There were “weaklings” at home too, he hissed, who had not understood that “a difficult choice must be made.”298 The dictator was thinking, among others, of his military attaché Fritz Wiedemann. In late October he told Goebbels that Wiedemann would have to go since he had “not held up or kept his nerve during the crisis,” adding, “Such people are useless when things come to a crunch.”299 As we have seen, Wiedemann would be sent to San Francisco as a consul general in January 1939. The former Economics Minister Hjalmar Schacht offered him consolation, saying that for him it had been a “great boon…to be able to see things from the outside for a while.” In a letter to Wiedemann, Schacht wrote: “Things are developing with increasing speed thanks to the dynamism of the ‘movement.’ Be careful what you say. People here pay attention to every word.”300

On 14 October, the publisher Hugo Bruckmann celebrated his seventy-fifth birthday, and Hitler personally presented his former patron with a large bouquet of flowers and chatted with him for one and a half hours, reliving old memories. “He was very personable and pleasant,” the Bruckmanns told Ulrich von Hassell. “But everything he said clearly suggested that he had not got over the intervention of the [Western] powers and would have preferred his war. He was particularly angry at England—that was the reason for his incomprehensibly coarse speech in Saarbrücken.”301 This was not the only statement of its kind in Munich around this time, and it shows that Hitler was already plotting his next foreign-policy adventure. “[Hitler will] only remain calm for a little while,” the former Economics Minister Kurt Schmitt opined. “He cannot help but cast his eye upon his next strategic move.”302

Never stop—that was the law by which the National Socialist movement and its charismatic Führer operated and which gave the process of coming to and consolidating power its irresistible dynamic. After the great foreign-policy triumphs of 1938, Hitler never for a moment considered taking an extended break and being satisfied with what he had achieved, as Bismarck had done after 1871. He constantly needed new victories to compensate for nascent popular dissatisfaction and to bolster his own prestige. As a result, he was willing to take ever greater risks, and his fear that he would die young lent further urgency and impatience to his expansive activism. Hitler both drove events and was himself a driven man. Thus on 21 October, he issued instructions to the Wehrmacht concerning the destruction of the “remnants” of Czechoslovakia. German plans were geared even in peacetime towards “a sudden attack…so that the Czechs have no chance to organise any sort of defence.” The goal was “to rapidly occupy the country and seal off Czech from Slovak territory.”303

Foreign policy took a back seat in November and December 1938, as the Nazi leadership concentrated on the Kristallnacht pogrom and its aftermath. In late November, news that Berlin and Paris had come to an agreement created a bit of a stir. The initiative had come from French Foreign Minister Georges Bonnet, who sought some sort of conciliation with France’s increasingly threatening neighbour in the wake of the Munich Agreement. On 6 December, Ribbentrop and Bonnet signed a declaration in which France and Germany promised to maintain “peaceful and neighbourly relations” and recognise their mutual border. But lacking any specific commitments, this agreement was not worth any more than the Anglo-German declaration of 30 September.304

In early February 1939, after his speech to the Reichstag on the anniversary of taking power, Hitler withdrew to the Obersalzberg with the express intent of pondering his next foreign-policy moves. “Perhaps it will be the Czechs’ turn again,” Goebbels speculated. “That problem has only been half solved.”305 On 10 February, Hitler returned to Berlin to speak to army commanders in the Kroll Opera House. The transcript of this speech, which was meant to be confidential, is an enlightening document. Hitler spelled out his plans for the future with rare openness. He began by criticising “certain Wehrmacht circles” for adopting “a wait-and-see, if not sceptical attitude” towards his risky policy on the Sudetenland. For that reason, Hitler said, he felt it necessary to let the officer corps in on the “internal reasons” that motivated his action. All of his foreign-policy moves since 1933, Hitler claimed, had followed a predetermined plan and were anything but spontaneous reactions to various situations. The triumphs of 1938 were by no means the final fulfilment of his ambition, but merely “a step along a long path, to which we have been predestined, gentlemen, and whose necessity I now want to briefly explain.”

At this point Hitler revealed to his officer corps what he had told his top military leaders on 3 February 1933 and 5 November 1937. As the “strongest people not just in Europe but practically the entire word,” Hitler said, the 85 million Germans, all members of a highly civilised race, had a right to greater space in order to preserve their standard of living. “I have taken it upon myself to solve the German question,” Hitler declared, “that is, the German problem of [not having enough] space. You should be aware that as long as I live this thought will dominate my entire existence.” He would never “shrink back even from the most extreme measures,” Hitler added, and he expected his officer corps to stand behind with “trusting faith.” Without explicitly naming the Soviet Union, he told his army commanders: “The next struggle will be a war purely of world views, a war between peoples and races.”306 The response to these revelations was apparently mixed. Hitler’s attaché Gerhard Engel described the reaction as “partly enthusiastic and partly very sceptical.”307

To start with, however, Hitler set about capturing what had escaped his clutches in the autumn of 1938. His preparations for the annexation of the remaining Czech territory were twofold. On the one hand, he came up with a variety of excuses for delaying the acknowledgement of Czech sovereignty guaranteed under the Munich Agreement; on the other, he encouraged separatist Slovaks to break away from what was left of Czechoslovakia. When negotiations between Prague and Bratislava over Slovak autonomy broke down, the new Czechoslovakian president, Emil Hácha, dismissed the local Slovakian government under Father Jozef Tiso, a German ally, and sent troops into Slovakia. “This is a launching pad,” noted Goebbels with glee. “Now we can get a complete solution to the problem we were only half able to solve in October.” At noon on 10 March, Hitler summoned Goebbels, Ribbentrop and Keitel to the Chancellery. “Decision: on Wednesday, 15 March, we’ll invade and destroy the entire monstrous construct that is Czechoslovakia,” Goebbels wrote. “The Führer is crowing with delight. The outcome is dead certain.”308 The Wehrmacht was issued its orders on 12 March. “The people are completely calm,” Goebbels noted. “No one knows or suspects anything.”309

On the afternoon of 13 March, Jozef Tiso arrived in Berlin at the Nazi government’s request. Hitler informed him that Germany was about to occupy Czech territory and told him to proclaim Slovakian independence immediately. Otherwise, Hitler threatened, he would abandon Slovakia to its fate—that is, give Hungarian troops massing on the border carte blanche to invade.310 On 14 March, the parliament in Bratislava declared Slovakia an independent state. At noon that day, as Hitler and Goebbels were discussing the details for what would become the “Reich Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia,” news arrived that Hácha had requested an audience with Hitler. Hitler agreed to meet the Czechoslovakian president but also informed the Wehrmacht leadership that the scheduled invasion would proceed no matter the circumstances.311 That evening, accompanied by Czech Foreign Minister František Chvalkovský, Hácha arrived at Anhalter station in Berlin. The guard of honour on hand to welcome him was nothing but a façade. Hitler had no intention of negotiating in good faith. His goal was complete Czech capitulation, and he employed the same tactics of wearing down his opponent that he had used against Kurt von Schuschnigg. He kept his visitors waiting for hours in the Adlon Hotel, while he watched a movie at the Chancellery.312

It was past midnight when Hácha and Chvalkovský were led through the long hallways and reception rooms of the Reich Chancellery to Hitler’s gigantic office, which was only dimly lit by several standing lamps.313 To put additional pressure on his visitors, Hitler had a large group of underlings in attendance. Alongside Göring, Keitel and Ribbentrop, there were Ernst von Weizsäcker, Otto Meissner, Press Spokesman Otto Dietrich and the interpreter Paul Schmidt; also present was the SS officer and Foreign Ministry State Secretary Walter Hewel, who took the minutes of the meeting.314 What ensued was the political equivalent of a scene from a gangster film without parallel in recent diplomatic history. Hácha had hoped to preserve at least partial Czech independence, but Hitler made it brutally clear right from the outset that there was no room for compromise. He rattled off a litany of supposed Czech affronts, claimed that the new Czech government was still animated by the “spirit of Beneš” and announced his intention to turn the remaining Czech territory into a German protectorate: at 6 a.m., the Wehrmacht would be invading. Hácha could do his people “one final service” by phoning his minister of war with the order not to resist German troops. “Hácha and Chvalkovský sat frozen in their seats,” Schmidt recalled.315 While an underling tried to establish a telephone connection with Prague, Göring threatened an aerial bombardment of that city if German demands were not met. That was apparently too much for the Czech president, who collapsed. Hitler’s personal doctor Theodor Morell was called to give the only-semi-conscious Hácha an injection.316

Hácha recovered sufficiently to confer with his foreign minister in a separate room and issue the orders demanded to Prague via telephone. Around 4 a.m., he and Chvalkovský signed a declaration, presented to them by Hitler, in which the Czech president “entrusted the fate of the Czech people and country to the hands of the Führer of the German Reich.” At this point, the minutes read, “The Führer accepted this declaration and expressed his commitment to take the Czech people under the protection of the German Reich and to guarantee an autonomous development of its ethnic-popular life in keeping with its particular characteristics.”317 None of the Germans present, including Weizsäcker, raised a word of objection to the treatment of the Czech delegation, which violated the basic conventions of diplomacy and common decency. On the contrary, in his 1950 memoirs, Weizsäcker still had the audacity to accuse Hácha of being complicit in the “seemingly legal beginning of Hitler’s march on Prague.”318 This top diplomat also shared the Führer’s racist prejudices against the Czechs. “They were never pleasant: outside the Reich border they were lice in the fur and inside, scabies under the skin,” Weizsäcker remarked one day after the unscrupulous coercion of Hácha, which he euphemistically called a “memorable late-night act of negotiation led by the Führer using the whole range of tactics.”319

Hitler himself was “overjoyed” and self-satisfied by the “greatest stroke of political genius of all time.”320 He demanded that his two secretaries Christa Schroeder and Gerda Daranowski, who had spent the night in a room next to Hitler’s office, each give him a kiss on the cheek, saying: “This is the best day of my life…I will go down in history as the greatest German ever.”321 In the small hours German troops crossed the Czech border, and by 9 a.m. the first units had reached Prague, where they were greeted not with cheers, but with silence and choked-back anger. Around noon, Hitler boarded a train for the Bohemian town of Ceská Lípá, from where he travelled the remaining 100 kilometres to Prague in his three-axle Mercedes limousine. It was snowing heavily, so the city’s inhabitants barely noticed him arriving at the Hradschin Castle, the office of the Czech president. Nothing had been prepared for his arrival, so his adjutants were sent out to procure some ham, sausage and beer.322

That night, assisted by Frick and Stuckart, Hitler issued a decree establishing the Reich Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. It granted Czechs a measure of autonomy.323 Hitler named former Foreign Minister von Neurath as “Reich Protector.” As a member of the old conservative elites, he was considered a moderate, and thus his appointment served to camouflage the fact that the Czechs were being subjected to German occupation.324 At the same time, at Jozef Tiso’s request, Slovakia was also placed under German protection, and German troops advanced to Bratislava. On the afternoon of 16 March, Hitler left Prague, returning to Berlin on 19 March via Brünn, Linz and Vienna. Goebbels had once again succeeded in mobilising thousands of people in the capital to turn out and cheer the Führer as he drove from the Görlitzer station to the Chancellery. “We have a week behind us that out of all the astonishing events we have experienced thus far has probably brought the most astonishing thing of all,” former Reich negotiator and museum director Rudolf Buttmann noted in his diary. Hitler’s “great statesmanship” had once again led to a “massive increase in power” without bloodshed. “He is always lucky,” an acquaintance told Buttmann in the street.325

But such sentiments did not reflect the mood of the entire population. The annexation of the remnants of the Czech state was anything but universally welcomed. Many people remembered Hitler promising in his Sportpalast speech on 26 September that the Sudetenland would be his last territorial demand, asking “Was this really necessary?”326 The executive committee of the SPD in exile, which had been forced to relocate from Prague to Paris, spoke on the basis of reports from within Germany of widespread “concern that with its latest ‘victory’ Germany had taken another step towards a major war and another defeat.”327

The significance of the destruction of Czechoslovakia for Hitler’s war plans was considerable. The German Reich gained not only the largest Czechoslovakian armaments facilities, the Skoda factories in Pilsen and Prague; it also acquired enough weapons and supplies to outfit twenty further divisions. In addition to industrial resources, the German war effort gained access to Czechoslovakian copper, nickel, lead, aluminium, zinc and tin. The door was also wide open for Germany to penetrate the Danube and Balkan region economically. And in terms of military strategy, the Reich was now better positioned to launch campaigns to conquer further “living space in the east.”328

On the evening of 15 March, Hitler was convinced that “in a fortnight, no one will be talking about this any more,”329 but he was fundamentally mistaken. Hitler’s seizure of Prague was a wake-up call to leaders in London, where the British government realised that it had been duped and that Hitler’s promises were not worth the paper they were written on. The policy of appeasement and the idea that Hitler could be restrained by treaties and conciliation were revealed as utterly misguided. Ambassador Henderson was withdrawn from Berlin until further notice,330 and in a speech in Birmingham on 17 March, Chamberlain announced an about-turn in British policy. The prime minister accused Hitler of crassly violating the principle of national self-determination that he himself had always invoked, concluding his address by asking: “Is this in fact a step towards trying to dominate the world by force?”331

The Nazi leadership did not take seriously the protests from London, which the French government seconded. “This is just hysterical, after-the-fact wailing that leaves us entirely cold,” Goebbels scoffed.332Indeed, Hitler thought that he could exploit the situation to stage his next foreign-policy coup. On 20 March, Ribbentrop summoned Lithuanian Foreign Minister Joseph Urbsys, who was visiting Berlin, and demanded the immediate return of the Klaipeda Region, known in Germany as the Memel Territory, a part of East Prussia that had been put under French control after the First World War and was subsequently annexed by Lithuania in 1923. Two days later, the Lithuanian council of ministers approved the handover, and that afternoon Hitler boarded the battleship MS Deutschland in the port of Swinemünde. Around midnight, Ribbentrop announced the signing of a treaty reuniting the Memel Territory with the Reich. Hitler declared a corresponding law the following morning while still on board the ship. “You live in a great age,” he declared to his manservant Heinz Linge. “We now take care of little matters like this on the side.”333 At 2 p.m., Hitler disembarked at the port of Memel and gave a short speech from the balcony of the city’s main theatre, in which he welcomed “our old German racial comrades as the newest citizens of our Greater German Empire.”334 That same evening he departed the city, and by noon on 24 March he was back in Berlin.

The amalgamation of the Memel Territory was the last foreign triumph Hitler would achieve without bloodshed. In the night of 21-22 March, while awaiting the decision of the Lithuanian government, he held a long conversation with Goebbels in the Chancellery about his future foreign policy. “He wants to calm things down a bit so that we regain trust,” Goebbels reported in his diary.335 Should Hitler have said anything of the kind, he was doubly deceiving himself. On the one hand, as we have seen, neither the Nazi system of rule nor Hitler’s own personality allowed for any periods of extended peace and quiet. Less than three days after their conversation, Goebbels once again found him pondering how he could “solve the question of Danzig,” or Gdansk, which had been declared a free city after the First World War. “He intends to apply some pressure on Poland and hopes that Poland responds,” Goebbels noted.336 With that, there was no more doubt about the next target of Hitler’s free-flowing aggression. And Hitler also deceived himself about the possibility of regaining the trust of the Western powers, which he had forfeited once and for all by breaking the Munich Agreement. He had removed the mask of the peace-loving politician who only wanted to revise the status quo, and everyone could now see the brutal nature of his regime, which demanded unlimited expansion. The real problem, as British Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax put it at a cabinet meeting on 18 March, was Germany’s drive for world domination, which it was in the interests of all states to resist.337 On 31 March, Britain and France issued a statement guaranteeing the independence of Poland. The two sides of what in a few months would become the Second World War had been formed.

With the Kristallnacht pogrom the preceding November, Hitler had broken with all norms of civilisation. Now, by marching on Prague, he had crossed a comparable line in foreign policy. Ulrich von Hassell was right when he diagnosed this as “a first case of open hubris, a violation of all boundaries and also of all standards of decency.”338 There was no going back. On 15 March, Hitler believed he was at the zenith of his unprecedented career, but in reality his descent had already begun. He had gone down a path that would lead to his own demise. “That day,” as François-Poncet aptly put it, “his fate was sealed.”339

Of course, contemporary observers had to have a particularly keen eye to see the seeds of future catastrophe within Hitler’s triumphs.340 On 20 April 1939, as Germany’s dictator celebrated his fiftieth birthday, the shadows of nemesis were far off in the future. Goebbels once again did his utmost to encourage cultish worship of the Führer. “The creator of Greater Germany is fifty years old,” wrote Victor Klemperer. “Two days of lavish special editions of the newspapers. People falling over themselves to deify him.”341 Goebbels had begun preparing this event the previous summer. Then, in early December, Hitler had mentioned in passing that he did not wish for any particular festivities on his birthday, which Goebbels interpreted as an order to halt the preparations.342 But the propaganda minister must have realised that Hitler had not wanted to be taken at his word. In terms of sheer volume, the programme that he came up with in January and which Hitler approved went beyond any previous festivities marking the Führer’s birthday. Several days before the big event Goebbels noted drily: “A lot of work with the Führer’s birthday. This time it is truly going to be celebrated.”343

The press was issued detailed instructions about how the man at the top was to be honoured. Journalists were told not to write about “his childhood, his family or his private life” as “unbelievable amounts of nonsense have been published on these three subjects in the past.” By contrast, they were encouraged to spill lots of ink about Germany’s political turnaround and the political career of Adolf Hitler, and newspapers were instructed to publish large-scale, beautifully designed special editions.344 The unusual significance of Hitler’s fiftieth birthday as the ceremonial high point of the year was underscored when, at short notice, Wilhelm Frick declared 20 April 1939 a national holiday. That allowed large numbers of Germans from every corner of the Reich to take part in the festivities.

A radio address by Goebbels broadcast on all stations in Germany at 6:30 p.m. on 19 April kicked off the official programme. In his customary Byzantine style, the propaganda minister lauded Hitler as a “man of historic stature,” whom the German people willingly and obediently followed in everything he undertook. “Like a miracle,” Goebbels declared, Hitler had found a “basic solution to a central European question previously regarded as nearly insoluble.” He called Hitler’s forced break-up of Czechoslovakia an act of “peace based on practical reality.”345 At seven that evening, the entire NSDAP leadership—1,600 people in total—offered their congratulations in the Mosaic Hall of the Chancellery. Hess reassured the Führer of the unconditional loyalty of his vassals, should the “conflict-mongers of the world take things to the extreme,” and presented Hitler with the gift of fifty original letters written by his hero Friedrich the Great.346 These were only one of the many presents that lay stacked upon tables in the same Chancellery hall where Bismarck had convened the Berlin Congress in 1878. Many of them were kitsch, but some gifts—for instance, works by two of Hitler’s favourite painters, Franz von Defregger and Carl Theodor von Piloty—were quite valuable. The economics minister and Reichsbank president, Walther Funk, outdid everyone else with his present for the art lover Hitler: Venus in Front of the Mirror by Titian.347

The main spectacle on the eve of Hitler’s birthday was the dedication of the East-West Axis, the first major stretch of the new traffic system envisioned for the makeover of the capital. Accompanied by Albert Speer, Hitler drove down the broad, 7-mile road in an open car, where hundreds of thousands of Berliners had responded to Goebbels’s call to turn out and form a guard of honour. “A celebration without compare,” a satisfied Goebbels noted. “The street was bathed in a fairy-tale glow. And an unprecedented atmosphere. The Führer beamed with glee.”348 Shortly after 10 p.m. at the Wehrmacht’s Grand Tattoo, fifty members of the “old guard” from each of the Gaue paraded by torchlight down Wilhelmstrasse. The Führer greeted the columns of Brownshirts from the Chancellery balcony.

At midnight, Hitler accepted the congratulations and gifts of his inner entourage. He seemed especially taken by the 4-metre-high model of the gigantic triumphal arch that Speer had had installed in the hall on Pariser Platz. “Visibly moved, he gazed for a long time at the model that physically manifested the dream of his younger years,” Speer recalled. “Completely overcome, he shook my hand without saying a word, before telling the other guests in a euphoric voice about the significance of this structure for the future history of the Reich.”349 Almost compulsively, Hitler returned to stare at the model numerous times that night, abandoning himself to his fantastical vision of the future “world capital Germania.”

The festivities continued the following morning with a concert by the band of the SS Leibstandarte in the Chancellery garden. The doyen of the diplomatic corps, the Papal nuncio Monsignor Cesare Orsenigo, led the ranks of those congratulating Hitler on his birthday. He was followed by the Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia, Konstantin von Neurath, with Emil Hácha in his wake, Jozef Tiso, members of the Reich government and the heads of the Wehrmacht. Symbolically for Hitler’s immediate plans was the fact that he received the Gauleiter of Danzig, Albert Forster, who brought along a document naming Hitler an honorary citizen of the city intended as a “sign of its profound blood relation” to the German people.350

At 11 a.m., the Wehrmacht commenced its parade up and down the East-West Axis. It lasted four hours and aimed at illustrating the military strength the Reich had built up. All Wehrmacht formations took part, and the most modern weaponry, particularly tanks and heavy artillery, was put on display. A grandstand had been erected in front of Berlin’s Technical University, where Hitler inspected the parade from under a canopy with a throne and the Führer’s banner. “I always wonder where he gets his strength,” Christa Schroeder wrote in a letter to a friend. “To stand there and greet people for four hours is damn taxing. We all felt dead tired just watching him.”351

At Hitler’s behest, Ribbentrop had invited 150 prominent foreign guests whom he sought to impress with such a display of military force. Absent from the grandstand, however, were the ambassadors of Britain and France, who had been recalled after Hitler’s violation of the Munich Agreement. The United States had withdrawn its ambassador in November 1938 after the Kristallnacht pogrom. After the parade, Hitler invited his foreign guests to take tea with him, the Reich ministers, the Reich directors of the Nazi Party and the military leadership at the Chancellery.352

The German newsreels covering the week from 16 to 23 April were devoted exclusively to Hitler’s fiftieth birthday. Twelve cameramen had shot more than 10,000 metres of film, which had been edited down to the standard newsreel length of 546 metres. The military parade, praised by the narrator as “the greatest military display of the Third Reich,” was the centrepiece of the reports. No doubt this emphasis was intended to get the populace psychologically used to war, as Hitler had called for in his speech to the officer corps on 10 November 1938. Hitler no longer presented himself in the guise of the infallible statesman, but in the martial pose of a field commander who was displaying the fearsome might of his military machine to the eyes of an astonished world.353

Goebbels was extremely satisfied with how the two-day festivities had gone. “The Führer was celebrated by the people,” he wrote, “as no mortal man before him has ever been celebrated.”354 SPD-in-exile observers had a more nuanced view of the event. If you looked at the amount of effort that went into the birthday, they wrote, you might easily think that Hitler’s popularity was on the rise. “But anyone who really knows the people,” opined one observer, “knows that a lot, if not all of this, is just show.” Even the readers of the Nazified press were under no illusions about the fact that “Hitler’s foreign-policy star is on the wane and the system is heading towards a second world war that seems lost right from the start.” The observers concluded that “the paralysing fear of war hung over all the bannered splendour and celebratory din.” But they hastened to add that this did not mean that the German people’s faith in the Führer was “extinguished.” On the contrary, it was “alive and well in broad swathes of the populace.”355 Ultimately Hitler’s popularity was due to his aura as someone who always managed to maintain peace despite all his risky manoeuvres. When he unleashed world war at the start of September 1939 and when it became apparent in the winter of 1941-42 that, despite Germany’s lightning-quick early triumphs, the conflict was turning into a military catastrophe, the myth surrounding the Führer would begin to decay, at first slowly but then faster and faster.