“Any German officer of the 1930s surreptitiously wanted a military conflict to start”

The series of interviews to the 80th anniversary of the Second World War. Part 3: Germany

“Any German officer of the 1930s surreptitiously wanted a military conflict to start” Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-217-0465-32A / Klintzsch / CC-BY-SA 3.0 / wikipedia.org

Realnoe Vremya continues a series of conversations with Russian historians about the circumstances of the outbreak of the Second World War, the 80th anniversary of which will be celebrated on September 1. Historian Konstantin Sofronov, a researcher at the Institute of Universal History at the Russian Academy of Sciences, tells our newspaper how and in what condition the main initiator of the war, Nazi Germany, approached it.

“Hitler needed the colonization of the USSR and Poland solve the food problem”

Mr Sofronov, when did Adolf Hitler decide to fight for “living space” for Germany, which, as he believed, it lacked earlier? Probably, not directly in 1939?

Back in the 19th century, Germany's foreign policy, as well as the policy of other states, was defined as colonial: Germany saw itself as an advanced European country, and since England gradually gave way to it as the workshop of the world (in particular, for the production of weapons, the Germans was one of the leaders), Germany begins to play one of the first violins in European politics. In 1914, the First World War, unleashed by Germany, becomes to some extent a war for the redistribution of the world, a war for the colonies. The Weimar Republic, as the heir of the Kaiser's Germany, due to the Versailles restrictions and various problems within the country — in particular, the unstable political situation, credit debt and the need to pay reparations — did not focus on any colonial seizures.

But Germany, as a state that was divided in one way or another by the results of the First World War, faced the problem of “the second gathering of the lands”. That is, the problem of the German population, which although lived on the territory of other states, but, nevertheless, retained its identity — linguistic and cultural, so in the centre of the country as well at the local level many believed that this problem needed to be solved somehow. Hitler as a politician and the leader of the national socialist movement of Germany since the ‘20s considered his foreign policy, first, as the elimination of the consequences of the Versailles restrictions, that is, revanchism, and second, as the continuation of the crusade to the East: against Bolshevism and for living space.

The new foreign policy was on the rise — the Munich agreement, the Anschluss of Austria, the war with Poland and so on. Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1987-0922-500 / CC-BY-SA 3.0 / wikipedia.org

According to Hitler, the nation that was developing, the birth rate of which was increasing (and in Germany has such a surge in the ‘20s), needed to expand the living space as a place to feed and to use workers. Besides, the emergence of such views in Hitler was influenced by the famine that occurred in Germany during the First World War, and how poorly the German army was supplied — it also starved by the end of the war. For example, by calories the rations of the German soldier differed from the English ration four times. Therefore, Hitler considered the food problem to be one of the most important along with the problem of supplying the country with steel and oil products. The solution to the food problem Hitler saw primarily in the colonization of the Eastern lands — specifically, the USSR and Poland, the appearance of which he generally considered a mistake. The USSR and Poland, in fact, were to become the base for Hitler to expand the territory of his “Third Reich”.

In 1936, when Hitler occupied the Rhineland, he took the firm course towards a violent resolution of the “issue of the outer territories”. Earlier, an army was created for this purpose, conscription was introduced, an arms programme was adopted, for which expenses were increased (these expenses were several times more than the expenses for the army of the leading countries of the world — the USA, the USSR, France). And then the new foreign policy was on the rise — the Munich agreement, the Anschluss of Austria, the war with Poland and so on.

“After such operations, the Fuhrer had the feeling that the German machinery would not meet resistance”

Did Hitler have doubts with respect to the Rhineland, Sudetenland, Austria or Poland? After all, the armies of same Czechoslovakia and Poland, not to mention France, were considered to be not the weakest in 30's years.

Hitler had doubts only concerning the question “whether Germany will afford such a war financially?”, but by his nature, he was not a pragmatist, not a commander, but an adventurer. He set exactly this adventurous tone for all foreign policy, which his generals and civil authorities had already had to adjust during certain events. Let’s take, for example, the war of 1940 with France — it was a pure adventure of Hitler, but it was also a success. Yes, in this war, all the principles of military art were violated — Germany was advancing without superiority in manpower, but on the front lines it used blitzkrieg tactics — the aircraft strikes the rear, tank corps begin to “tear down” the front, the feeling of local pockets and so on, which led Hitler to good luck. After such operations, Hitler had the feeling that the German machinery would not meet any resistance.

Let’s take, for example, the war of 1940 with France — it was a pure adventure of Hitler, but it was also a success. Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-L05487 / CC-BY-SA 3.0 / wikipedia.org

But it all started in 1936 — it took only a year as soon as the German armed forces began to be recreated, and then Hitler took only the action of bringing of troops in the demilitarized Rhine zone. France had no difficulty to stop these actions of Germany, it had a serious military force, but the obstacle was that France had a difficult economic situation, and the French General Staff felt that it would be quite expensive to start some military actions against Germany.

Therefore, France decided that in the issue of the Rhine zone it was necessary to make concessions. Due to the fact that all states that participated in the formation of the “Versailles policy” understood that in relation to Germany the Triple Entente states in 1919 acted unfairly. Thus, the former Entente countries considered that Germany in 1936 did not violate serious principles of international policy.

Was Hitler the only one in Germany consumed with the desire of military conquest of the notorious living space? Often, in the scientific literature, it is said that only he had adhered to this policy, and the same military just agreed with their Fuhrer?

The main impression on this topic for many people is created by reading the memoirs of the German generals of the Hitler period — Erich von Manstein, Hans Guderian, Franz Halder. Generals on the trial in Nuremberg said that Hitler was an adventurer, and the army was following orders and did not decide anything because the army had always had strict hierarchy and discipline. It turned out that Hitler developed the foreign agenda, and the generals developed military plans for this agenda.

But the situation was much more interesting. Those generals who held leading positions during the Second World War were captains and lieutenants during the First World War, and the main link between Hitler and military organizations was formed in the ‘20s — the same legendary General of the First World War Ludendorff participated in the Beer Hall Putsch.

Generals on the trial in Nuremberg said that Hitler was an adventurer, and the army was following orders and did not decide anything because the army had always had strict hierarchy and discipline. Photo: wikipedia.org

Both the national socialists and militaristic organization was the same front structures of generals, officers and privates of the First World War — the ex-military were Freikorps volunteers (members of paramilitary volunteer forces), then joined the assault troops, and the whole mass was trying to make every effort to be necessary in the political environment, which was formed in Germany in the early ‘30s. So it turned out that any officer of Germany of the beginning of the ‘30s secretly wished that some military conflict in which he could prove himself began. No matter how Hitler's generals tried to whitewash themselves in their post-war memoirs, by saying that they were obedient executors of the will of the Fuhrer, this, of course, is not true.

“The bulk of the military was just permeated with ideas of revenge during the whole ‘20s and ‘30s”

But Minister of Defence Werner von Blomberg, who spoke about the difficult relationship of Hitler with several generals on this issue, objected the aggressive plans of Hitler.

But Blomberg and the same General Fritsch were quickly dismissed. If we take the opposition among the military, which was formed to the conspiracy of 1944, it was people who only after five years of the war realized that Hitler's policy would bring the country to destruction, and it would be the collapse of all German politics and was fraught with loss of territory.

Until 1944, there had been no resistance on the part of the military to the policy of Hitler. Yes, there were some soldiers, who joined either the social-democratic fighting organisation or Communist ones, but in comparison with the number of nationalist organizations such as Stahlhelm, Bund der Frontsoldaten or Ungdeutsche, they were much fewer. The bulk of the military professed either conservative or ultra-conservative views and was just permeated with ideas of revanchism during the whole ‘20s and ‘30s. The ideas that say that they needed to overthrow the burden of Versailles and make Germany great again.

Papen, although he was the leader of the Catholics, acted purely in the wake of Hitler's policy. Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1988-0113-500 / CC-BY-SA 3.0 / wikipedia.org

Were there any cautious opponents on the issues of foreign policy among civilians?

No, there weren’t. Given the total nature of German society, which began to take shape in the early ‘30s, there were few civilians at the head of the politics. Gauleiters were the same part of the party structure, members of the stormtroopers, and the leader of the Stormtroopers, Ernst Röhm, generally considered the stormtroopers the future replacement for the 100-strong Reichswehr. Many diplomats already wore uniforms of the SS, the police had already been militarized.

Civilian politicians of the time, one can only remember Franz von Papen and Johann Hogenberg. But Hitler quickly removed Hugenberg from all posts, and Papen, although he was the leader of the Catholics, acted purely in the wake of Hitler's policies.

“The capture of Poland was also important for Germany to fight in the West”

What was the state of Hitler's army in 1939? We know that Czechoslovakia was taken without a fight, and the resistance of the Polish army to Hitler finally “helped” to break the Soviet Union, entering its territory on September 17 in accordance with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Treaty. Was the German army ready for a serious war?

We cannot say that the Wehrmacht was prepared for war in 1939. In 1933, the programme of construction of the German armed forces was adopted, as the German economy was built on the basis of quadrennial periods, the German army was supposed to be built for two quadrennial periods, that is by 1942. Yes, by 1938, by the results of the first four years, the German air force was recreated, as well as the tank troops of the country, although they had a lot of shortcomings — the T1 and T2 tanks were very weak, a third of them failed during the march in honour of the Anschluss of Austria.

The Polish campaign was also not very smooth. Just the Polish army was poorly armed, but even the reliance of Poland on cavalry and cavalry-mechanized groups in some places pushed the German troops back and created local pockets. Yes, it did not create a military-technical advantage in favour of Poland, but the war with Poland did not go smoothly. But in 1939, Hitler drew conclusions, and by 1940 the Wehrmacht had gained a stronger look.

The issue of the Danzig Corridor could be solved only by military means — Germany could not get it peacefully for its own purposes (protection of the same Eastern border), and in addition, it had always had military plans for Poland. Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1979-056-18A / Sönnke, Hans / CC-BY-SA 3.0 / wikipedia.org

But why did Hitler go so quickly with claims to Poland about providing him with the Danzig Corridor? After all, in fact, the ink had not dried after the Munich partition of Czechoslovakia, and then the goal — Poland? Again adventurism?

It is quite difficult to explain such a rapid dynamics of Hitler's actions, but let's try to understand it. The existence of Poland was negatively treated by both Germany and the Soviet Union, and Hitler knew that his claims to Poland would dissatisfy the UK and France, but, at the same time, he realized that the USSR would not obstruct their claims on Poland, and it soon proved Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Besides, since the spring of 1939, the Soviet Union was engaged in the battles on Khalkhin Gol, and therefore, thus it gives the right of revenge for Poland to the German side.

The issue of the Danzig Corridor could be solved only by military means — Germany could not get it peacefully for its own purposes (protection of the same Eastern border), and in addition, it always had military plans for Poland. In particular, it was important for Germany to capture Poland in order to quietly war in the West. Well, the division of Czechoslovakia showed that Britain and France were not going to stand up for their little allies.

To be continued

By Sergey Kochnev