Richard Overy

The Summer Ends, The War Begins

AUGUST 27-31, 1939
     During the days in which the prospects for a genuine negotiation were fruitlessly explored, the outlook among those beyond the inner circle of negotiators and among the wider public also grew more optimistic. Little of what was actually argued over at the diplomatic level, either officially or unofficially, could be made public, and rumor about German hesitation fueled both optimism and uncertainty. Henry “Chips” Channon reflected the mood in his diary entry on 30 August: “All day we were on a see-saw Peace-War-Peace.” General Ironside told the MP Edward Spears that Chamberlain himself now thought “there would be no war”; Lord Chatfield, British minister for the coordination of defense, looking “very cheerful,” told another MP that Hitler was showing “distinct signs of weakening.” Harold Nicolson was told that the Polish ambassador to London thought “things are going very nicely,” and the general mood of the House of Commons was, Nicolson thought, “more cheerful” than it had been for days. The wider public also displayed a growing optimism. A diary written by a schoolgirl for the Mass Observation survey a few days later recorded the following scene after she had arrived at school: “The general feeling was optimistic. There was a murmur of assent all round when the history mistress affirmed that ‘this evacuation business was a brilliant propaganda stroke of Mr. Chamberlain. He only did it to fool Hitler into submission. No possibility of war now.”’
     The mood in France also swung unsteadily between expectation of war and hope of agreement. Political circles in France were even more remote from the final round of diplomacy, and rumor flourished. There was optimism that Italian leaders had now given clear indications that Italy would remain neutral in any coming conflict, ending the danger of a two-front war, although even this news was far from certain. The French Foreign Office was nevertheless increasingly pessimistic by 30 August, and rumors circulated about a sudden German air attack on London, Paris, and Warsaw. The prevailing view was that at all costs the line must be held against Hitler’s threat. “We have had enough of it,” wrote André Maurois in an article in Le Figaro. “We do not want violence, hatred, and lies to be considered the highest virtues. We have had enough of it.” On 31 August, however, the rumor spread that acceptable terms had been agreed between Poland and Germany. Maurois and his friends “thought the game had been won” and returned home, “mad with joy.” The efforts of Bonnet to use the prospect of negotiations between Poland and Germany as a further bridge to a peaceful solution were nonetheless rejected by most French politicians as preparation for a second Munich. On the evening of 31 August, Daladier summoned a cabinet meeting to thrash out the French position. During the discussion he deliberately turned his back on Bonnet to indicate the gap that now existed between the hardliners and the munichois. At a critical moment in the arguments Daladier chose to read out a letter from Robert Coulondre, the French ambassador in Berlin, which he had actually received six days before. “The trial of strength turns to our advantage,” Daladier read out in a loud voice. “It is only necessary to hold, hold, hold.” The letter proved a turning-point in the discussion and ended Bonnet’s hopes for compromise. In France the view still flourished that Hitler really was bluffing and would be deterred by a show of firmness.
     The ambivalence about the real possibility of war in both states was in marked contrast to the situation in Berlin. Hitler’s purpose in encouraging further talks, both formal and informal, was to create exactly this sense of uncertainty, but he was now more certain than before about waging war. The apparent willingness to accept negotiation was a ploy, designed to show that Germany had right on its side when no Polish negotiator appeared. Even the role of Göring, whatever his private fears about Western intervention, was manipulated to create maximum confusion. When pressed, Göring, just like Hitler, regarded the return of Danzig, the settlement of the Corridor, and the summoning of a Polish representative at short notice as a minimum condition. . . . The interval between the cancellation and the final invasion of Poland on 1 September was used to bombard the German public with inflammatory propaganda against the Poles. Details of Polish “atrocities” were magnified by the German press; publicity was given to alleged reports that Germans living in Poland had been castrated. All of this was designed to ensure that the outside world would understand the German casus belli, and that the German public would wage a Polish war with sufficient enthusiasm after years in which they had become accustomed to the bloodless victories achieved by threats, menaces, and bluff.
     During the last days of peace Hitler also ordered preparations for the start of what was to be a “race war” in the east. The head of the police and SS, Heinrich Himmler, was charged with creating special action groups (Einsatzgruppen) that would follow the soldiers into Poland to round up Poland’s political, cultural, and intellectual elite and murder them. Planning was started in July and a directive drawn up in August. By the end of August five groups had been created, each assigned to a German army, to carry out “Operation Tannenberg.” Two further groups were formed shortly after the start of hostilities. In addition, twenty thousand members of the regular police force were assigned to security duties in Poland to help with the “pacification” process. In the first days of the invasion these security forces murdered ethnic Poles and Polish Jews, burnt down synagogues, and arrested or shot Polish soldiers who had lost contact with their retreating forces. The destruction of the Polish elite was to pave the way for the Germanization of the conquered areas. The conflict that Hitler envisaged, which would destroy the Polish state, had an agenda drawn not from diplomacy or military strategy, but from the racial priorities of the regime in establishing German “living space” and uniting all ethnic Germans in the east with the new Reich.

      . . .

     German forces rolled into position during the evening of 31 August. To give a spurious justification for war, a special operation was mounted by Himmler’s deputy and head of the Security Police, Reinhard Heydrich. Early in August he had called a number of senior SS officers to a meeting in the ballroom of the Hotel Oberschlesien in the small German town of Gleiwitz, near the Polish border. He told them that a way had to be found to show that Poland was the aggressor when war broke out. The plan, approved by Hitler, was to stage a mock Polish attack on Hochlinden customs post, the Pitschen forestry lodge, and the radio transmitter station at Gleiwitz. Heydrich appointed a Security Service (SD) officer, Alfred Naujocks, to lead the raid. Polish uniforms were requested from Admiral Canaris, head of counterintelligence, and six prisoners from Sachsenhausen concentration camp were chosen to be dressed as Polish soldiers and shot. During the afternoon of 31 August, Heydrich telephoned with the code words “Grandmother dead!” to signal the start of the operation. In the evening the German security officers occupied the Gleiwitz radio station and faked a brief Polish broadcast. German troops pretended to return fire. The bodies of the six prisoners were left lying at the Hochlinden customs post. Another corpse was supplied by the Gestapo, a pro-Polish German from Silesia, Franz Honiok, arrested on the previous day. His bullet-riddled body was dropped at the doorway to the radio station, the first act of barbarism in a barbarous war.

     At 4:45 in the morning the German training ship Schleswig Holstein, moored off the port of Danzig, opened fire on the Polish fort at Westerplatte, launching the Second World War. The ship had been sent from Germany on 23 August and arrived at Danzig two days later, allegedly on a goodwill visit but in reality to be in place for the start of war on 26 August. The ship had been forced to stay in place for six more days until the code word “Fishing” was finally sent out and the seizure of Danzig could begin. Fifteen minutes after the firing began, the National Socialist Albert Forster, who had been unconstitutionally declared the chief authority in Danzig on 24 August, announced on the radio the reunification of the city with the German Reich. The church bells began to peal and over the city hall a large swastika banner was unfurled. Gestapo officers, reinforced by SS and SA men, seized Polish officials, teachers, and priests, using lists prepared in advance, and marched them to the Victoria School, which was set up as a temporary camp. Opponents of the party were driven through the streets and beaten or in some cases murdered. Raids were made on the houses of Jews still living in Danzig. The following day work was accelerated on a concentration camp nearby at Stutthof to house the new wave of prisoners.

. . .

     The day the war started was Hitler’s day. He had taken the final irrevocable decision and was now at last Germany’s war leader. At 10 in the morning he arrived at the Kroll Opera House in Berlin to address the German parliament. He wore a field-gray jacket ordered by his valet a few days before, instead of the usual brown party uniform. Because the session was only summoned at 3 A.M., over a hundred deputies from outlying areas had been unable to arrive in time or were already in the armed forces, and their places were allegedly taken by men of Hitler’s bodyguard and other party officials. The Reichstag president, Hermann Göring, announced that the proxy deputies could also vote, to avoid giving the impression of anything other than unanimity. Hitler received a storm of applause from the assembled company. He gave a shorter speech than usual, blaming the Poles for their intransigence and their final act of aggression and elaborating all his efforts for a peaceful solution. “Danzig was and is a German city,” he announced. “The Corridor was and is German.” Without German culture, he claimed, the whole region would have been plunged in “the deepest barbarism.” He said nothing particularly hostile about Britain and France. During the speech he was seen to glance often at the diplomatic box, where British and French representatives also sat. When he had finished, there was a standing ovation. “Strong decisiveness,” observed Goebbels in his diary. Hitler had also announced that if he was to die or be killed in the conflict his place would be taken by Hermann Göring; if Göring perished too, the new leader was to be his party deputy, Rudolf Hess. The interior minister, Wilhelm Frick, then read out the new law uniting Danzig with the Reich, which was approved by unanimous acclamation. . . . During the day a number of decrees and orders came into force for the war effort. The most significant was Hitler’s approval of the “euthanasia” killing of the physically and mentally disabled, which bore the date 1 September when it was found among German records after the war. The order had been held in abeyance during the summer, and was in fact not finally authorized until October. It was designed both to free medical resources and facilities for the war effort and to rid the nation of what was defined as a genetic burden. As a result of the instructions more than seventy thousand disabled or chronically sick Germans were murdered. It was backdated in order to emphasize the close link in Hitler’s mind between the onset of the German war effort and the need to cleanse the race of any internal threat.
     The news of the German action in Poland arrived early in the morning in London and Paris. At 7 A.M. Cadogan was alerted to the incorporation of Danzig into the Reich and a little later was told about the invasion. A Reuters telegram arrived for the prime minister at 7:48 detailing a Berlin wireless announcement made earlier that morning about Hitler’s decision for war with Poland: “Order put an end to this lunacy,” ran the translation, “eye [sic] have no other choice than meet force with force from now on.” The British war minister, Hore-Belisha, was telephoned at home by General Gort at 7:20 to be told “Germans were over.” He rolled over in bed muttering, “damned Germans, to be awakened in this way.” When he got up he found his barber had not appeared and realized he would have to shave himself. It was not yet entirely clear what had happened or how reliable the news was. Very late the previous evening a German wireless report had been brought to Chamberlain announcing that Polish troops had crossed the German frontier in three or four places. When Halifax called the German chargé d’affaires for clarification he was told that the embassy would make enquiries; the Polish ambassador, however, confirmed that war had indeed broken out and that Germany was the aggressor. In Paris news arrived from the French ambassador in Warsaw at 8:30 that the German army was attacking all along the frontier. Shortly afterwards both Chamberlain and Daladier gave the order for general mobilization and evacuation of children and mothers from the main cities, while the two governments prepared to coordinate the delivery in Berlin of a note demanding the immediate withdrawal of German forces from Polish soil. In Washington, hours behind European time, Roosevelt was told the news by telephone at 2:50 in the morning from the American embassy in Paris, which had been alerted to the invasion by the ambassador in Warsaw. Within a few minutes Roosevelt, had ordered that all United States naval vessels and all United States army commands should be warned by radio immediately.
     The instructions sent out to the British services for general mobilization reflected a curious ambivalence. The cabinet military secretary, Hastings Ismay, informed the chiefs of staff that the cabinet had decided to send a telegram to Berlin which was not an ultimatum but amounted to an ultimatum. “It is possible,” he added laconically, “that you will wish to give your commanders both at home and overseas some intimation that this virtual ultimatum has been despatched.” The chief of the air staff, Cyril Newall, duly sent a telegram to all commanders in Britain, the Mediterranean, Palestine, Iraq, Aden and the Far East to say that “virtually an ultimatum” was about to be delivered and to prepare for sudden German attacks.
     During the day the messages to Berlin were carefully drafted. The British note asked for assurances that aggression against Poland had been stopped and that “German troops have been withdrawn.” This last phrase was then altered to “will be promptly withdrawn” to make it easier for the Germans to comply quickly. If no assurances were received, the note concluded, the British government would “without hesitation fulfill their obligation to Poland.” Parliament was then summoned to meet at 6 in the evening so that Chamberlain could announce the “virtual ultimatum.”
     By the time the members of Parliament arrived, the House was already darkened to conform with the blackout regulations imposed by mobilization; sandbags and anti-gas doors installed during the previous week gave the impression that war had already broken out. Chamberlain entered to a loud cheer and began to speak of the grave responsibility that now lay in his hands to accept “the awful arbitrament of war.” When he placed the blame for the crisis squarely on the shoulders of Hitler and his “senseless ambition” he gave a rare sign of emotion, raising his voice and striking the dispatch box with a clenched fist, eliciting a further cheer. . . . He finally read out the document that was to be given to Hitler; as he finished, another member called out “Time limit?” Chamberlain said he did not expect a favorable reply; but he failed to specify how long he would wait for Hitler’s response.
     Meanwhile, in Paris the atmosphere was still affected by the optimism of the previous few days. Some officials and politicians thought that Hitler would continue to prevaricate, others that Poland and Germany would reach a face-saving agreement. “In all cases,” noted Boyer de Sainte-Suzanne, “many do not believe in a war.” A message was prepared based on the British text, and despite the opposition of Bonnet and others it was dispatched to the French ambassador in Berlin. At 9:30 in the evening Beck asked the French ambassador in Warsaw why nothing had yet been done to honor the pledge to come to Poland’s assistance, but at exactly that moment in Berlin Nevile Henderson had arrived to communicate the British note to Ribbentrop at the German Foreign Office. Half an hour later, the French ambassador followed suit. Henderson asked for an immediate answer.
     The response in Berlin was a puzzled one. Hitler’s valet heard him say after news of the British and French notes arrived, “We will now see if they come to Poland’s aid. They’ll chicken out again.” Party functionaries gathered in the chancellery lobbies still thought the West was bluffing. Hitler was unable to decide if the notes were formal ultimatums or not. Henderson had been told by the Foreign Office, according to Halifax’s later recollection, that he was authorized to say that the note “was a warning and not an ultimatum,” though he did not relay this to Ribbentrop. Among the German public there was similar uncertainty about what the result would be of real war. Shirer noticed unusually crowded cafés and bars in Berlin. The German government, unlike the British and French, had not yet ordered evacuation of sections of the population, but at 8:15 in the evening there was a sudden air-raid siren and the streets emptied as people rushed for the cellars and shelters. It was a false alarm, but it created, Shirer thought, a widespread apprehension exacerbated by the experience of the blackout. The German–Jewish linguist Victor Klemperer, living in Dresden, found a confused response among his acquaintances to the news of war with Poland. One boy told him that Britain and France would remain neutral; another that “The English are cowards, they won’t do anything!”; a shop-girl announced that in her view English neutrality was a joke. In his diary he wrote: “still no declaration of war on their side. Is it coming or will they fail to resist and merely demonstrate weakness?”
     In Britain and France there was a sense of unreal expectation, “greyout rather than blackout,” as the journalist Malcolm Muggeridge put it. The blackout that descended all over Britain on the evening of 1 September was nevertheless real enough and made war seem more apparent: “on the very verge of war,” wrote Sir Henry Channon, after watching his servants frantically hanging blackout curtains. “Nothing could be more dramatic or give one more of a shock,” wrote Harold Nicolson, than to find a perfectly black city, “a pall of black velvet.” Among members of Parliament there was also a sense of puzzlement about the failure to give a time limit for the withdrawal of German troops when it was evident that Britain and France would have to honor their commitment to Poland. Rumors began to circulate that the Italians had made an offer to mediate and that the French were hoping to seize the opportunity to abandon the Poles. Harold Macmillan, the future prime minister and a Conservative critic of Chamberlain, later described a mood of “confusion” and “suspicion” surrounding the failure to make a clear statement of Britain’s intention to declare war, and historians have shared in the view that the delay could only be explained by the continued search for an appeasing way out of the sudden crisis.

     . . .

     In neither the British nor the French case is there clear evidence that the Polish commitment was to be abandoned in the two days following the German invasion. Even Bonnet, despite his yearning for a peaceful solution, could not publicly state that he wanted to abandon the guarantee to Poland. Nevertheless he strained every nerve in trying to extract a solution that did not involve France going to war. Daladier, on the other hand, while unable to restrain Bonnet, continued as if war were now inevitable. In the early evening of 2 September he addressed the Chamber of Deputies while his deputy spoke to the Senate, with none of the difficulty suffered by Chamberlain. The stenographic report of his speech indicates lively applause again and again. He revisited the long story of German aggression, the efforts to save peace, and the necessity of honoring the pledge to Poland or else to become “a France despised, a France isolated, a France discredited.” At the end of his address the deputies rose to their feet and applauded “lengthily.” The Chamber and Senate unanimously voted ninety billion francs in war credits, the equivalent in Daladier’s view to a declaration of war. After the vote, one of the senators, Jacques Bardoux, met the British ambassador, who in a sudden moment of emotion seized him by the hand and exclaimed, “Vive la France!?” At the French Foreign Office divisions remained. Fresh reports from French consuls in Germany told of poor German morale, but the reports were capable of being used by both sides, those who wanted to go to war regardless and those who hoped Germany would crack before war came. By the evening, after the parliamentary session, war could no longer be avoided: “everyone is black this evening,” commented one official in his diary. “War and a long war at that.”
     Historians, nevertheless, have generally been unwilling to concede that Chamberlain and Daladier were entirely committed to war at this point rather than to further appeasement. This view flies in the face of reality. It is surely implausible to suggest that Chamberlain and Daladier would ever have been able to halt the process of war preparations already set in train, or to have defied public opinion so openly. Unlike Hitler, who could order or cancel war at will, Western leaders were part of a complex political machine towards which they had both a responsibility and an obligation. No doubt in both cases there existed a strong desire to try to see to the very last moment what chance there was that the earlier illusions of German vulnerability or German political conflict might after all engender a crisis for Hitler if they held firm. It may well be that Chamberlain in the end needed someone else to push him formally to declare war, so difficult was it to reconcile war with his own worldview; but on the central issue of honoring the pledge to wage war when Poland was attacked there are no solid grounds for arguing he would not have done so.

     Sunday 3 September was the day the world war began. It started, recalled the English novelist Storm Jameson, “on a day of unusual beauty, clear hot sun, dazzlingly white clouds beneath a blue zenith, a high soft wind.” The illusions on both sides that the other would give way when faced with reality were finally dispelled. The day is always remembered as Chamberlain’s day, whereas 1 September had been Hitler’s. Against all his better instincts and expectations, Chamberlain found himself compelled to declare a war he had not wanted. Though history has generally found Chamberlain wanting in courage, the final step of making a declaration whose implications were profound and far-reaching was certainly a courageous act. No less courageous, though often overlooked, was the declaration of war made later on the same day by Daladier, whose moral rejection of war had been as powerful as Chamberlain’s but who also came to recognize the futility of avoiding a direct confrontation with Hitler’s Germany. Democratic leaders had none of the simplicity enjoyed by dictators in choosing war.

This text is excerpted from 1939: Countdown to War, to be published in September 2010 by Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Copyright (c) 2009 by Richard Overy.