Seventy-six years ago today, 3rd September 1939, Britain and France declared war on Germany after Hitler’s army invaded Poland. The alarms of approaching conflict had been chiming loudly since 1936, or even before then, but all had been missed. By the time Victory in Japan was declared on 2nd September 1945, 270,139 British servicemen and women and 60,595 civilians would have perished in the Second Great War.
“This is not Peace. It is an Armistice for twenty years.” How right those words, spoken by French Marshal Ferdinand Foch in 1919 on the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, would prove to be. In the most basic terms, the treaty demanded that Germany accept responsibility for the Great War and pay reparations of 132 Billion Marks, severely downsize its army and navy, get rid of all submarines and aeroplanes and give up 25,000 square miles of territory, housing 7 million German citizens. The Rhineland, meanwhile, was adopted as a buffer between treacherous Germany and neighbouring France and Belgium.
As Richard Natkiel explains in his ‘Atlas of World War II’, Germany was left humiliated and crippled, but was not hammered hard enough to be permanently broken. It was a dangerous combination. Resentment bubbled under the very skin of the nation, and all that was needed to fan the flames into a raging inferno was a charismatic leader who promised to make Germany great again. That leader was Adolf Hitler.
The reasons for missing the signs of impending peril were threefold. First, Hitler established a steady momentum to the progress of recovery, making it quite difficult to pinpoint as aggression. First, he implemented a policy of conscription to beef up the army, then started quietly building up an arsenal of tanks and planes, with many being surreptitiously manufactured in Russia. The seed of the idea that Jews and minorities were to blame for Germany’s troubles was planted just as daintily, to fester slowly and mature at a future date. Meanwhile, in 1935, Hitler pulled his country out of the League of Nations to avoid its surveillance.
The first trumpet call to action should have been later the same year, when a triumphant Hitler announced to the world in general, and Germany in particular, that the army was now up to 300,000 men (three times the size allowed by the terms of the treaty). This is when France and Britain could, and should, have protested and demanded that Germany cut back again to the agreed levels of armaments. However, hindsight is a fine thing and, perhaps because they felt guilty about just how harsh the terms of the treaty had been, neither country did.
Next, he occupied the Rhineland in 1936. Again, this crime could be argued away as a mere indiscretion by France and Britain; after all, the bulk of the people in this region were Germans, and wanted to be part of the nation again. It couldn’t do any harm to let them go home, could it?
Warning bells really should have been chiming at Hitler’s next action, though. In March 1938 he walked into Austria. The ‘Anschluss’ (Annexation) was passed off as a merging of friends, since there had been no violence and many an Austrian was a fervent supporter of the Nazi regime; however, if things were as they seemed… why did Hitler march in with a great show of military strength? The clear message, “Leave us be and we’ll leave you be, if you don’t you’ll be sorry”, was once again ignored by the Allied powers. Why? As Karen Farringdon explains in her ‘Witness to World War Two’, Britain and France had been thoroughly sapped of energy and resources by the Great War, and had no burning sense of injustice to make them want to start another round. They were in exactly the right climate to be as slow to anger as they could possibly be; so much so that they closed their eyes to the worrying rumours coming from Germany of concentration camps, political intimidation and anti-Semitism.
The real blow came when Hitler demanded that the Sudetanland, the western part of Czechoslovakia, be turned over to Germany. The country had absolutely no right whatsoever to this region, and he adopted the all too flimsy excuse that the German-speaking residents were being ‘oppressed’. For some, the alarm went off immediately. One who recognised the threat in full force was German-Jewish stockbroker Nicholas Winton, based in Britain, who knew all too well the dangers of the political climate in Germany. Having visited Prague with a friend in 1938, aged 29, and seen the situation of the refugees fleeing the Sudetenland, he decided to do what he could to help. Returning home, he immediately began badgering the Home Office to allow Jewish Czechoslovakian children refuge in the UK. He organised eight trains full of those children over the next nine months, cleared their entry into Britain, and arranged for Foster families to meet and take charge of them when they arrived. Thanks to his quick work, 669 Jewish Czechoslovakian children were saved.
Neville Chamberlain, unfortunately, was less quick off the mark. He too recognised that ominous rumbles were coming from Germany, but as ‘Atlas of World War II’ attests, was reluctant to go to war ‘on behalf of a far-off country of which we know little’. Instead, he met Hitler at the Munich Conference in August 1938 and bargained with him, trading the surrender of the Sudetanland for a promise of safety for the rest of Czechoslovakia from invasion. He arrived home beaming, waving the now famous (and completely meaningless) ‘piece of paper’. It was only around this time that Britain and France began, very slowly and half-heartedly, to boost their Armed Forces.
The penultimate blow fell in March 1939. Hitler’s troops marched into the rest of Czechoslovakia, which, deprived of most of its coal, iron, steel and electricity by the handover of its industrial Sudetanland and intimidated by the promise of heavy bombing of Prague, was unable to resist. Now Britain and France realised how dangerous their policy of turning a blind eye had really been. Hitler was no longer ‘reuniting the German people’, he had far greater ambitions for the domination of Europe, and plainly had his eye focussed on another forbidden land next: Poland. Finally, and far too late, the two countries took an aggressive stance and declared that they would act if Hitler went any further… which, of course, he did on 1st September 1939, blaming Polish soldiers for attacking a German radio station. In fact, they had done nothing of the kind, and concentration camp prisoners had been dressed to look like Polish soldiers and shot to provide an excuse to attack.
Poland was invaded on two fronts with a force and violence that took away the breath of not only her own citizens, but those of the rest of Europe. According to Norman Ferguson’s ‘The Second World War: a Miscellany’, 694,000 Polish soldiers were taken prisoner in the invasion and 200,000 killed or wounded. Five hundred and thirty one towns were burned and ransacked, with atrocity after atrocity being committed in the process, and over 16,000 prominent Polish citizens were shot by death squads. Nazi Germany had finally bared its sharp fangs in all their glory, and was by now strong enough to present a formidable opponent. Reluctantly, on 3rd September 1939, France and Britain finally declared war on Germany.