History of the Second World War, Volume 1

¦4 Adolf Hitler: determined to attack Poland Europe M arch/September 1939 obligations. In fact there were good tech­nical reasons from Germany points of view why the naval agreement had to be de­nounced: Germany was just about to lay down two new battleships which the agree­ments terms clearly prohibited. The gesture was no doubt a satisfying one for Hitler, but it could not have been said to have improved his diplomatic position. Indeed he was rapidly losing patience with diplomacy. On May 6 Ribbentrop was to meet his Italian opposite number Count Ciano in Milan to propose a bilateral German- Italian alliance to which Japan could accede when her internal disagreements had finally been resolved. But Hitler saw that a German- Italian alliance was hardly likely on its ow’n to restrain Britain and France and leave him free to attack Poland so long as Britain and France could rely on the prospect of Soviet support. If he could detach the Soviet Union from the West this would be quite a different matter. Feelers to Russia The idea of a German-Soviet pact had never been completely abandoned in German mili­tary and diplomatic circles. There was always a small group who remembered how Germany —when she was forbidden to possess tanks or other heavy weapons heron own soil —had conducted tank exercises in the 1920s with the Red Army and had manufactured poison gas with Soviet con­nivance on Russian soil. In those days enmity towards Poland had been the strongest link between Germany and Soviet Russia and there were always those who regretted the ending of German-Soviet col­laboration and the conclusion of the non­aggression pact with Poland in the first year after Hitlers coming to power in 1933. It is hardly surprising then that the deterioration of German-Polish relations at the end of March 1939 should have turned peoples minds to the idea of reviving the old friendship with the Soviet Union. In fact the idea first seems to have been ventilated in Hitlers entourage at the end of March. It received added support when on April 15 Mussolini roundly advised Goring that Germany should uptake good relations with the Soviet Union. Hitler and Ribben­trop however must have regarded the idea as quite unrealistic as Litvinovs sudden dismissal seems to have taken them quite by surprise. Anxious debate in Berlin It seemed to them however that they ought to exploit the removal of Litvinov —whom they disliked as much for his Jewish­ness and his British wife as for his support for the League of Nations and collective action against aggression. The German ambassador in Moscow von Schulenburg, was hastily recalled from Teheran where he had been acting as German representa­tive at an official Persian function and there followed ten days of anxious debate in Berlin before it was decided to test the ground. Schulenburg returned to Moscow to seek an interview with Molotov. At this interview, on May 20 he very diplomatically broached the idea of reopening the conversations on the conclusion of a German-Soviet trade agreement which had been broken off in March. Molotovs answer that commercial talks were meaningless without apolitical agreement was so rudely phrased as to cause afresh wave of indecision in Berlin. So it was not until May 30 that Schulen­ burg again approached Molotov —this time in a spirit of desperation rather than expectancy. For in the meantime on May 24 Chamberlain had announced that agree­ment between Britain and the Soviet Union was imminent. Two days before this however Ribbentrop and Ciano had finally signed the treaty of alliance known as the 'Pact of Steel. At the same time an urgent telegram had been sent to Tokyo asking for Japanese accession to the treaty. On May 23 Hitler felt sufficiently sure of himself to reveal his plans to his generals his speech made it clear that he had decided to attack Poland 'at the first available opportunity. The conquest of Poland would open the way to the Baltic states give Germany large extra areas of agricultural land and slave labour and remove the danger of Polish attack in the event of a show-down with the West. War was inevitable but first Poland must be isolated. If Britain and France inter­vened then the fight must be primarily with them if Russia came in on their side then Britain and France must be attacked with 'a few devastating blows synchronised with the occupation of the Belgian and Dutch airbases. ('Britain is our enemy and the show­down with Britain is a matter of life or death.) If Russia came in it would also be possible to restrain her by inciting Japan against her.On the other hand Hitler added, it was not impossible that Russia might show herself uninterested in Poland. Hitlers war plans Hitler then ordered the formation of a small planning staff drawn from all three services, to consider the problems of war with Britain. Ashe saw it the first task was to defeat France and occupy Belgium and the Nether­ lands after this all German war production could be turned to the Luftwaffe and the fleet with the aim of blockading Britain into surrender. In the meantime 1943-44 was asset the completion date for the German armaments programme. In his speech Hitler thus made it clear that he intended to attack Poland that year and that he hoped to be able to do it without drawing in Britain and France. Poland had to be isolated and it was to this task that German diplomacy was now turned. The isolation of Poland involved essentially three tasks: the detachment of Rumania from the alliance with Poland the detachment of the Soviet Union from the Western democracies, and the weakening of support for Poland in Britain and France. On the wider plane German diplomacy continued to do its best to keep the Polish question on the boil to press Yugoslavia Bulgaria and Rumania to abandon any idea of a neutralist bloc in the Balkans to stir up trouble in the Middle East and to wean Turkey away from her new attachment to Britain to further its attempts to bring Japan into the Pact of Steel. In the meantime the military planning against Poland went steadily forward and there was a certain amount of trouble with the new state of Slovakia —which had been formed from the remains of Czechoslovakia after Munich —over the concentration of German troops building up opposite Poland’s southern frontier. The British government for its part had been severely shaken by Litvinovs fall. Everything seemed up to that point to have been going reasonably successfully in the negotiations with Russia. Britain had in fact just been about to propose to the Russians a formula which would have en­sured a maximum deterrent effect without seeming to commit Poland and Rumania to direct relations with the Soviet Union. It would also it was believed have allayed Russian fears since the proposed Russian declaration of support for the Western allies was only to become operative once Britain and France had honoured their guarantees to Poland or Rumania. On May 6 Sir William Seeds was in­structed to put the plan to Molotov —an experience he found to be profoundly dis­turbing. Molotov cross-examined him relent­lessly especially on whether there were to be staff conversations with Russia. Three days later Izvestiya one of the Soviet Unions two leading papers attacked the new British formula as one which would leave the brunt of any resistance to German aggression to the Soviet Union and revived for the first time the question of a direct German attack on Russia through the Baltic states of Lithuania and Latvia. Russia seeks a pact As the Soviet ambassador in London told Halifax the same day there was no reci­procity. The Soviet Union would be obliged to help Britain and France if Hitler attacked Poland or Rumania but Britain and France were under no obligation to help the Soviet Union. A formal reply on these lines, arguing that a direct Anglo-Franco-Soviet- alliance with concrete military agreements was essential was presented on May 15. The following day the Soviet ambassador made it clear that the point about a possible German attack through the Baltic states was mainly included to strengthen the argument. The real point was the Soviet demand for a pact of mutual assistance. Price of Soviet support What w'as the Soviet government up to? A clue is provided by an Izvestiya article on May 11. The German-Italian alliance it said was not directed against the Soviet Union but against Britain and France. Yet British policy (this argument implied) was based anon attempt to get the Soviet Union to do Britain the favour of completing the dam she was trying to build against Germany. In return for what? Nothing. The whole policy pursued by Molotov from May 7 onwards was one of trying to see what could be extracted from the two sides —both of which according to the Soviet way of think­ing were capitalist both imperialist and both obviously inset head-on collision courses. This Soviet attitude the British govern­ment took sometime to appreciate. The idea of negotiating with the Soviet Union was itself distasteful to some members of the British government and embarrassingly difficult to reconcile with the wishes of those countries Britain had guaranteed —Poland and Rumania. Others them—among
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