Archive for the ‘Führer’ Tag

75 Years Ago – The End of World War II in Europe, East & West; March-May 1945: The Battle for Berlin & Eastern Europe.   Leave a comment

The Collapse of the Reich:

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The final year of the war in Germany saw state lawlessness and terror institutionalised within the Reich. The People’s Court set up in Berlin to try cases of political resistance, presided over by Roland Freisler, sat ‘in camera’, while the prosecutors bullied prisoners into confessing political crimes, as in the Stalinist show trials of the 1930s. In February 1945 the courtroom was demolished in a bomb attack and Freisler killed. In the last weeks of the war, the SS and Party extremists took final revenge on prisoners and dissidents. Thousands were murdered as Allied armies approached. Thousands more died in the final bomb attacks against almost undefended cities, crammed with refugees and evacuees. Ordinary Germans became obsessed with sheer survival. There was no ‘stab in the back’ from the home front, which Hitler had always used to explain defeat in 1918. Soldiers and civilians alike became the victims of a final orgy of terror from a Party machine which had traded on intimidation and violence from its inception.

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Above: Berlin, 1945

Crossing the Rhine:

By the beginning of March, Hitler must surely have known, as Göring had intimated to Albert Speer in February, that the Reich he had created was doomed. The German front in the west cracked. For the final assault on Germany, the western Allies had eighty-five divisions, twenty-three of which were armoured, against a defending force of twenty-six divisions. In the east, the Soviet forces fielded over fourteen thousand tanks against  4,800 German and put 15,500 aircraft in the air against just fifteen hundred. A series of carefully organised military punches brought Soviet armies to within thirty-five miles of Berlin. On the 2nd, criticising Rundstedt’s proposal to move men south from the sector occupied by the 21st Army Group, Hitler perceptively pointed out: It just means moving the catastrophe from one place to another. 

Five days later, an armoured unit under Brigadier-General William M. Hoge from the 9th Armored Division of Hodge’s US First Army captured the Ludendorff railway bridge over the Rhine at Remagen intact, and Eisenhower established a bridgehead on the east of the Rhine. Hitler’s response was to sack Rundstedt as commander-in-chief west and replace him with Kesselring. The latter was handed a poisoned chalice in this appointment, with American troops swarming over the bridge into Germany, and Patton crossing on 22 March, telegraphing Bradley to say, For God’s sake tell the world we’re across … I want the world to know the 3rd Army made it before Monty. 

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Montgomery’s crossing of the Rhine, codenamed ‘Operation Plunder’, watched by Churchill and Brooke (above), established a six-mile-deep bridgehead within forty-eight hours.

Poland & The Red Army Marshals:

Also in March, having tricked them into attending a meeting, the Soviets arrested and then imprisoned former members of the Polish underground council. Both the American and the British governments found it hard to reconcile the oppressive Soviet actions with the business-like leader they had seen at Yalta. So they fell back once more on what had by now become their standard excuse. Stalin himself was trustworthy; it was the other powerful but shadowy figures in the Kremlin who were preventing the Yalta agreement being honoured. Charles ‘Chip’ Bohlen, the prominent American diplomat and Soviet expert, recorded that by May 1945 the view of those in the State Department who had been at Yalta was that it was the ‘opposition’ that Stalin had encountered ‘inside the Soviet Government’ on his return from the conference that was responsible for the problems. Even those in Moscow deduced that it was ‘Red Army Marshals’ who were somehow trying to pull the strings in the Kremlin. But there was no-one behind Stalin pulling the strings. His occasional inconsistency of approach, including the tactic of sending a conciliatory telegram simultaneously with an accusatory one, was deliberately designed to keep the West guessing. In reality, his overall strategy was clear enough: He had always wanted the states neighbouring the Soviet Union to be ‘friendly’ according to his definition of the word, which meant eliminating anyone whom the Soviets considered a threat.

But neither Churchill nor Roosevelt would recognise that Stalin was simply being consistent. To begin with, each of them had had too much political capital wrapped up in the idea that they could deal with the Soviet leader. Laurence Rees has pointed out:

Each of the two Western leaders came to believe that they could form a ‘special’ bond with Stalin. Both were wrong. Stalin had no ‘special bond’ with anyone but in their attempts to charm him they had missed the fact that he had, in his individual way, charmed them instead. 

It was Churchill who felt most upset at the perceived Soviet breaches of Yalta, something that bemused Stalin. After all, Churchill had let the Soviets have a free hand in Romania without any problems, just as the Soviets had let the British use force to quash the revolution in Greece. For Stalin, that meant that Churchill supported the concept of ‘spheres of influence’. He thought that Churchill’s protest over Poland, regardless of the precise wording of the Yalta agreement, was a case of double standards on Churchill’s part. For the British PM, however, as he wrote in March, in a lengthy and emotional telegram to Roosevelt, Poland was the…

… test case between us and the Russians of the meaning which is attached to the such terms as Democracy, Sovereignty, Independence, Representative Government and free and unfettered elections. … He (Molotov) clearly wants to make a farce of consultations with the non-Lublin Poles, which means that the new government in Poland would be merely the present one dressed up to look more respectable to the ignorant, and also wants to prevent us from seeing the liquidations and deportations that are going on, and all the restof the game of setting up a totalitarian régime before elections are held, and even before a new government is set up. As to the upshoot of all this, if we do not get things right now it will soon be seen by the world that you and I, by putting our signatures to the Crimean settlement, have underwritten a fraudulent prospectus.

Roosevelt, whose telegrams were now being drafted by his advisers, Byrnes or Leahy, replied to Churchill’s message on 11 March, saying that the ‘only difference’ between the British and Americans on this key issue was ‘one of tactics’; Roosevelt’s ‘tactics’ were not to escalate their protests over the issue before diplomatic channels in Moscow had been exhausted. But this attempt to calm Churchill down failed, as he replied in even more emotional terms on 13 March:

Poland has lost her frontier. Is she now to lose her freedom? That is the question which will undoubtedly have to be fought out in Parliament and in public here. I do not wish to reveal a divergence between the British and the United States governments, but it would certainly be necessary for me to make it clear that we are in the presence of a great failure and an utter breakdown of what was settled at Yalta, but that we British have not the necessary strength to carry the matter further and the limits of our capacity to act have been reached.

Roosevelt, convinced that Churchill was over-reacting, subsequently pointed out that the agreement at Yalta could be read in such a way that Stalin could deflect many complaints. So why was Churchill so upset? Churchill, unlike Roosevelt, re-elected the previous year, had an election coming up, and the British electorate would not take kindly to accusations that Poland, the country over which Britain had gone to war in September 1939, had finally been the victim of wholesale betrayal. Moreover, Churchill’s own expansive rhetoric about Poland and Stalin meant that this was no ordinary issue of foreign policy, but a principle that had come to define the latter part of his war-time premiership. Roosevelt, although gravely ill, was only just starting his new term in office for the Democratic Party, and so was unburdened by such electoral concerns. But Churchill had overplayed the emotional rhetoric, and on 15 March Roosevelt sent him a cold reply:

I cannot but be concerned at the views you expressed… we have been merely discussing the most effective tactics and I cannot agree that we are confronted with a breakdown of the Yalta agreement until we have made the effort to overcome the obstacles incurred in the negotiations at Moscow.

Retreat from the Oder & Roosevelt’s departure:

Hitler visited the Eastern Front on 12th March, at Castle Freienwalde on the River Oder, where he told his commanders that Each day and each hour is precious because he was about to unleash a new secret weapon, without disclosing its nature. This was just another morale-boosting lie, since he had run out of rockets, the last V-2 landing a fortnight later and the new U-boats were also far from seaworthy. By mid-March, he had found a new scapegoat to blame for the coming victory of the ‘Jewish-Bolshevik hordes’; it was all the fault of the German ‘Volk’ who had betrayed him by losing the war. By that stage, he positively invited the retribution that the ‘Aryan race’ was about to undergo at the hands of the Russians, believing that it had been the people’s weakness as human beings that had led to the disaster, rather than his own strategic errors. He even said as much, at least according to Albert Speer’s subsequent testimony:

If the war should be lost, then the ‘Volk’ will also be lost. This fate is unavoidable. It is not necessary to take into consideration the bases the ‘Volk’ needs for the continuation of its most primitive existence. On the contrary, it is better to destroy these things yourself. After all, the ‘Volk’ would then have proved the weaker nation, and the future would exclusively belong to the stronger nation of the east. What would remain after this fight would in any event be inferior subjects, since all the good ones would have fallen. 

He thus repudiated his own people as being unworthy of him. The mere survival of the German people would, for Hitler, have conferred an unacceptable Untermensch status on them, and the utter destruction of them would, he believed, be preferable to this and to domination by Stalin. He had only ever referred to the Soviets as ‘barbarians’ and ‘primitives’ and on 19 March the Führer gave his orders that…

All military transport, communication facilities, industrial establishments, and supply depots, as well as anything else of value within Reich territory that could in any way be used by the enemy immediately or within the forseeable future for the continuance of the war, be destroyed.

These orders included the destruction of all factories and food stores on all fronts. Fortunately, these orders were largely ignored by Speer and the other Nazi officials. If they had been carried out to the letter, the German people could hardly have survived the winter of 1945/6, which was harsh enough for them as it was. Yet, despite his decision not to act on this one particular order, it was Speer who had commanded the vast army of slave labourers that produced German armaments in barbarous conditions.

Meanwhile, Churchill realised that he had gone too far in his ‘quarrel’ with Roosevelt over Poland and tried to charm his way out of the situation. On 17 March, he wrote to the President:

I hope that the rather numerous telegrams I have to send you on on so many of our difficult and intertwined affairs are not becoming a bore to you. Our friendship is the rock on which I build for the future of the world so long as I am one of the builders.

Roosevelt did not reply but later acknowledged in an interchange on the 30th that he had received Churchill’s ‘very pleasing’ private message. But Roosevelt did get angry with Stalin when the latter accused the Americans of deception by holding a meeting with German officers in Berne in Switzerland about a possible surrender in Italy. Stalin saw this as a reason for both the strengthening of German resistance against the Red Army in the East and the swift progress of the Western Allies through Germany. Roosevelt was furious that Stalin had effectively accused him of lying, writing to him on 4 April that I cannot avoid a feeling of bitter resentment towards your informers, whoever they are, for such vile misrepresentations. … In his reply, Stalin immediately moderated his attack. But even though he was prepared to give way on this issue, he would not move an inch over Poland. On 7 April, he wrote to Roosevelt, agreeing that matters on the Polish question have reached a dead end. But Stalin was clear that the reason for this was that the Western Allies had departed from the principles of the Crimea Conference. The whole debate about Poland between the Western Allies and Stalin for the last three years and more were now plain for all to see. Stalin stated not just that the Lublin Poles should make up the bulk of the new government, but also that any other Poles who were invited to take part should be really striving to establish friendly relations between Poland and the Soviet Union. Of course, the Soviets themselves would vet all the applicants for such invitations. Stalin justified this in writing:

The Soviet Government insists on this because of the blood of the Soviet troops abundantly shed for the liberation of Poland and the fact that in the course of the last thirty years the territory of Poland has been used by the enemy twice for attack upon Russia – all this obliges the Soviet Government to strive that the relations between the Soviet Union and Poland be friendly.

Roosevelt recognised that, given the loose language of the Yalta agreement, there was little the Western Allies could do apart from to protest, and there were limits to that given the need for continued co-operation both in Europe and the Far East. Roosevelt left the White House on 30 March 1945 for the health resort of Warm Springs in Georgia, where his office was filled with documents about the forthcoming conference in San Francisco that would initiate the United Nations. Right to the end of his life, Roosevelt never lost his focus on his vision of the UN. Alongside this grand ideal, the detailed question of Soviet infractions in Poland must have seemed to him relatively unimportant. On 12 April he finally fell victim to a cerebral haemorrhage. Churchill paid tribute to the President in the House of Commons but chose not to attend his funeral, perhaps a final statement of disappointment that Roosevelt had not supported him in the last weeks over the protests to be made to Stalin.

The Exodus from the Baltic & the Berne talks:

Meanwhile, on 31 March, Stalin had ordered the assault on the capital. Both the planning and conduct of this final battle in the war in Europe demonstrate further signs of the disintegrating alliance with Stalin. The planning for the operation was conducted at the end of March and the beginning of April against the background of Stalin’s suspicion that the Western Allies were planning some kind of separate peace with Germany via the Berne talks. Stalin met Marshal Zhukov, the most prominent of the Soviet commanders, in the Kremlin late in the evening on 29 March and had handed an intelligence document which suggested that the Western Allies were in discussion with Nazi agents. The Soviet leader remarked that Roosevelt wouldn’t break the Yalta agreement but Churchill was capable of anything. Stalin had just received a telegram from General Eisenhower which, much to Churchill’s subsequent annoyance, confirmed that the Western Allies were not pushing forward immediately to Berlin. For Stalin, this was evidence of Allied deceit: if they had said that they were not moving to take Berlin, then they clearly were. In the spirit of saying the opposite of what one really intended, Stalin sent a telegram to Eisenhower on 1 April that stated that he agreed that the capture of Berlin should not be a priority since the city had lost its former strategic importance.

He may well also have written this because he still had other priorities since there was still fighting taking place across the broader front from the Baltic to the Balkans. It was extraordinary, considering that the war’s outcome had been in doubt since the destruction of Army Group Centre in the summer of 1944, that the Wehrmacht continued to operate as an efficient, disciplined fighting force well into 1945. As many as four hundred thousand Germans were killed in the first five months of 1945. General Schörner’s newly re-created Army Group Centre, for example, was still fighting around the town of Küstrin on the Oder in April 1945. Similarly, the 203,000 men representing the remains of Army Group North, renamed Army Group Kurland, kept fighting into May, showing astonishing resilience in the face of utter hopelessness and retaining military cohesion until the moment that they were marched off into a ten-year captivity spent rebuilding the infrastructure of the Soviet Union that they had destroyed.

Following their seizure of Budapest on 13 February, the Red Army advanced towards Vienna. The Sixth Panzer Army halted the Russian advance down the Hungarian valleys into Austria for as long as its fuel could last out during March 1945, but Vienna finally fell to Malinovsky’s 2nd Ukrainian Front on 13 April. Hitler’s headquarters had by then adopted a policy of lying to the army group commanders, as the commander of Army Group South discovered when he received orders to hold Vienna at all costs. Rendulic was given to telling his troops:

When things look blackest and you don’t know what to do, beat your chest and say: “I’m a National Socialist; that moves mountains!”

Since, on that occasion, this didn’t seem to work, he asked the OKW how the continuation or termination of the war was envisaged, only to receive the answer that the war was to be ended by political measures. This was clearly untrue, and Rendulic surrendered near Vienna in May. In the first five months of 1945, he had commanded Army Group North in East Prussia and Army Group Centre in January, Army Group Kurland in March and Army Group South in Austria in April. After the fall of Vienna, the Soviet troops met up with American and British troops at the River Enns and in Styria. After that, the advance of the Red Army from Pressburg to Prague led to the Czech uprising against the German occupation of Prague on 5 May.

In the north on the Baltic coast, the Germans were in a dire situation because of Hitler’s refusal to countenance Guderian’s pleas to rescue Army Group Centre in East Prussia and Army Group Kurland (formerly Army Group North) in Latvia. Yet with both  Zhukov and Rokossovsky bearing down on more than half a million trapped on the Kurland peninsula, the German Navy – at tremendous cost – pulled off an evacuation that was far larger even than that at Dunkirk. No fewer than four army divisions and 1.5 million civilian refugees were taken from the Baltic ports of Danzig, Gotenhafen, Königsberg, Pillau, and Kolberg by the Kriegsmarine, and brought back to Germany. Under constant air attack, which claimed every major ship except the cruisers Prinz Eugen and Nürnberg, the German Navy had pulled off a tremendous coup. The Soviet Navy was, surprisingly, a grave disappointment throughout the second world war, though one of its submarines, the S-13, had managed to sink the German liner MV Wilhelm Gustloff in the Baltic Sea on 31 January 1945, and around nine thousand people – almost half of them children – perished, representing the greatest loss of life on one ship in maritime history.

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How the West was won (but almost lost to the V-I):

Nevertheless, in the west, when 325,000 men of Army Group B were caught in the Ruhr pocket and forced to surrender, Field Marshal Walther Model dissolved his army group and escaped into a forest. Having recently learnt that he was to be indicted for war crimes involving the deaths of 557,000 people in Latvian concentration camps, and after hearing an insanely optimistic radio broadcast by Goebbels on the Führer’s birthday, he shot himself on 21 April. A few days earlier, Churchill had proposed a triple proclamation from the Big Three, which now included the new US President, Harry S. Truman, …

… giving warning to Germany not to go on resisting. If (the Germans) carry on resistance past sowing time then there will be famine in Germany next winter … we take no responsibility for feeding Germany.

Churchill was advocating the most extreme measures, but like several others, he put forward this was not adopted. Despite encountering some fierce resistance, the Allied victory in the west was not in doubt in the minds of rational Germans. For the most optimistic Germans, however, Goebbels’ propaganda about the so-called ‘wonder weapons’ kept their hopes alive, but on 29 March, six days after Montgomery’s Second Army and the US Ninth Army had crossed the Rhine, anti-aircraft gunners in Suffolk shot down the last of the V-I flying bombs launched against Britain in the Second World War. Called the Vergeltungswaffe-Ein (Vengeance Weapon-I), they were nicknamed ‘doodle-bugs’ or ‘buzz bombs’ by the Britons at whom they were targetted. The V-I was certainly a horrific weapon, powered by a pulse-jet mechanism using petrol and compressed air, it was twenty-five feet four inches long with a sixteen-foot wingspan, and weighed 4,750 pounds. Its warhead was made up of 1,874 pounds of Amatol explosive, a fearsome mixture of TNT and ammonium nitrate. Its sister-rocket, the V-2, was equally fiendish, but with the Luftwaffe unable to escort bombers over England due to British fighter protection, the rockets were a sign of Hitler’s desperation rather than his strength.

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As the V-I’s maximum range was  130 miles, London and south-east England were its main targets, and they suffered heavily. Launched from 125-foot concrete ramps and flown by autopilot from a preset compass, the flying bomb contained in its nose propeller a log which measured the distance flown. Once it reached the correct range, the elevators in the wings were fully deflected and it dived, cutting out the engine as it did so. This created a sinister change in the noise created which signified that they were about to fall on those below, bringing a terrifying certainty of an imminent, devastating explosion. It has been estimated that eighty per cent of V-I’s landed within an eight-mile radius of their targets. Between 13 June 1944 and 29 March 1945, more than 13,000 V-I bombs were launched against Britain. They flew too low for heavy anti-aircraft guns to be able to hit them very often, but too high for the light guns to reach them. It was therefore left to the RAF’s radar-guided fighters to intercept them and bring them down. As the Normandy launch-sites were shut down by the invading British Army, some of the V-I’s were launched from the modified Heinkel bombers. In all, more than twenty-four thousand Britons were casualties of the vicious ‘secret weapon’, with 5,474 deaths. Whereas the Luftwaffe had long-since confined its raids to night-time when its bombers could be cloaked in darkness, the pilotless bombs came all through the day and night.

The V-I bombs could also devastate a huge area over a quarter of a square mile, but as more and more were brought down by a combination of barrage balloons, anti-aircraft fire and the fighters it soon became clear that Hitler, who had hoped that the V-I’s might destroy British morale and force Churchill’s government to sue for peace, was wrong about the weapon’s potential. He then transferred his hopes to the V-2, devised in Pomerania as a supersonic ballistic missile, flying faster than the speed of sound, which meant that the victims heard was the sound of its detonation. It was impossible to intercept as it flew at 3,600 mph, ten times faster than the Spitfire. With production at full capacity in the autumn of 1944, Hitler had hoped that London could be bombed into submission before the Allies could invade Germany. Yet it was largely his own fault that the V-2 came on stream so late, so that the first rocket to land on Britain didn’t do so until September 1944 in Chiswick, west London, having been fired from a converted lorry in the Hague. Over the five months of the campaign, 1,359 rockets were fired at London, killing 2,754 and injuring 6,523. Antwerp was also heavily hit by the weapons, resulting in thirty thousand casualties. It has also been estimated that up to twenty thousand people died in the horrific slave-labour conditions while manufacturing the rockets. Life in the factories, which were scattered all over Germany, was nasty, brutish and short: apart from the horrific accidents, there was mass starvation, disease and mistreatment. The concentration of labour, raw materials and technological research engaged in the production of the V-weapons was in no way justified by their results, and their deployment was too late to change the outcome of the war.

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From mid-March, the military situation slipped completely out of Hitler’s control: The Rhine front had collapsed as soon as the Allies had challenged it, and they then swept forward to the Elbe. At the end of March, Hitler again dismissed perhaps the best of his battlefield commanders, Heinz Guderian, and replaced him with the utterly undistinguished General Hans Krebs. Other fanatical Nazi generals such as Schörner and Rendulic were promoted, not so much for their military competence as for their ideological loyalty.

Planning for Nuremberg:

How would the maniacal genocide of these dedicated Nazis be punished after the war? During the ‘lull’ in the fighting on the Western front, On 12 April, at 3.30 p.m. the British War Cabinet discussed how to deal with German war criminals. Antony Eden set out his policy for a large-scale trial. Preferring the summary execution without trial of the senior Nazis, Stafford Cripps argued that either the Allies would be criticised for not giving Hitler a real trial, or they would ‘give him a chance to harangue’ with the result being ‘neither proper trial nor political act’ but ‘the worst of both worlds’. Churchill suggested a ‘Trial of the Gestapo as a body first followed by proceedings against selected members. The Americans, however, had made it clear that they would not agree to ‘penalties without trial’ and Stalin also insisted on trials. The historian in Churchill was unconvinced, and he advanced a ‘Bill of Attainder, not impeachment’, such as that used to execute Charles I’s advisor the Earl of Strafford in 1640 without the need for a trial.

The Home Secretary, Herbert Morrison, believed that a ‘mock trial’ was objectionable, and it would be better to declare that they would put them all to death. Churchill agreed, saying that the trial would be a farce. Turning to the wording of the indictments and the defendants’ right to be given access to defence barristers, the PM argued:

All sorts of complications ensue as soon as you admit a fair trial. … they should be treated as outlaws. We should however seek agreement of our Allies … I would take no responsibility for a trial, even though the United States wants to do it. Execute the principal criminals as outlaws, if no Ally wants them.

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Above: A scene from the Nuremberg Trials of the major war criminals held between November 1945 and October 1946. Twenty-two principal defendants were tried, and Martin Bormann, Hitler’s secretary, was tried ‘in absentia’. Göring (seated, left) kept up a rigorous defence and admitted his support for Hitler, but not his guilt. He committed suicide on the night of his execution when another nine were hanged. Bormann was condemned to death but never caught.  

But Field Marshal Smuts thought that Hitler’s summary execution might ‘set a dangerous precedent’ and that an ‘Act of State’ was needed to legalise Hitler’s execution. Churchill added that allowing Hitler to right to make judicial arguments against his own execution would ape judicial procedure but also bring it into contempt, and Morrison interjected that it would also ensure that he would become a martyr in Germany. Churchill concluded the discussion by saying that Lord Simon should liaise with the Americans and Russians to establish a list of grand criminals and get them to agree that these may be shot when taken in the field. In the end, this expedient was not adopted, and instead, the long process of putting the Senior Nazis on trial was established by the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg (featured above), which for all its drawbacks did lead to justice being seen to be done.

The Final Assault on Berlin:

On the Eastern front, the Russians didn’t move until mid-April. As he opened the last planning session for the capture of Berlin, Stalin said I have the impression that a very heavy battle lies ahead of us. Yet he had 2.5 million troops, 6,250 tanks and 7,500 aircraft to throw into this enormous final assault, and on Monday 16 April around twenty-two thousand guns and mortars rained 2,450 freight-car loads of shells at the German lines, which were also blinded by a mass of searchlights shone at them. Zhukov’s troops launched a massive attack on the Seelow Heights outside Berlin, and within four days they had broken through this last major defensive position in front of the capital. The Russian artillery gunners had to keep their mouths open when they fire, in order to stop their eardrums bursting. After a massive bombardment of the far bank, they crossed the Oder and advanced from the Neisse River. The leading Soviet columns joined at Nauen and encircled Berlin by 24 April. In a move calculated both to speed the advance and deny Zhukov the glory of overall command, Stalin had announced to his generals that he was splitting the task of capturing Berlin between two Soviet armies. It was to be a race for the capital between Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front and Konyev’s 1st Ukrainian Front. Mahmud Gareev, then a major in the headquarters of Soviet 45 Infantry Corps, recalled:

Stalin encouraged an intrigue … When they were drawing the demarcation line between the two fronts in Berlin, Stalin crossed this demarcation line out and said: “Whoever comes to Berlin first, well, let him take Berlin.” This created friction. … You can only guess Stalin was do that no one gets stuck up and thinks he was the particular general who took Berlin. … At the same time he had already begun to think what would happen after the war if Zhukov’s authority grew too big.

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By Hitler’s birthday, the 20th, the Red Army was shelling the German leader’s subterranean refuge, the Führerbunker. For Vladen Anschishkin, a captain in a mortar unit in Zhukov’s Belorussian Front, this was the culmination of years of fighting:

At last it was the end of the war, it was a triumph, and it was like a race, like a long-distance race, the end of the race. I felt really extreme – well, these words did not exist then – but I felt under psychological and emotional pressure. Naturally, I didn’t want to get killed,. This is natural. I didn’t want to be wounded. I wanted to live to the victory, but it was somewhere in the background, and in the foreground were things I had to do, and this state of stress that was in me.

He was sure that the years of brutal warfare had changed him and his comrades:

In the end, in the war itself, people go mad. They become like beasts. You shouldn’t consider a soldier an intellectual. Even when an intellectual becomes a soldier, and he sees the blood and the intestines and the brains, then the instinct of self-preservation begins to work. … And he loses all the humanitarian features inside himself. A soldier turns into a beast.

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The battle for Berlin was one of the bloodiest and most desperate of the war. Within six days, the Red Army was inside Berlin, but desperate fighting in the streets and rubble there cut down their advantages and increased those of the Germans. The Wehrmacht’s lack of tanks mattered less in the built-up areas, and hundreds of Soviet tanks were destroyed in close fighting by the Panzerfaust, an anti-tank weapon that was very accurate at short range. Vladen Anchishkin recalled:

So many of our people died – a great many, a mass. … It was a real non-stop assault, day and night. The Germans also decided to hold out to the end. The houses were high and with very thick foundations and basements and very well fortified. … And our regiment found itself in terrible confusion and chaos, and in such a chaos it’s very easy to touch somebody else with your bayonet. Ground turns upside-down, shells and bombs explode. 

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Above: The ruins of Berlin with the Brandenburg Gate in the background. The city was hit by twenty-four major bomb attacks which destroyed one-third of all housing and reduced the population from 4.3 to 2.6 million as the bombed-out families moved to safer parts of the country. The Soviet offensive in April reduced large stretches of central Berlin to rubble.

Within the chaos of the battle, the rivalry between Zhukov and Konyev was intense. Anatoly Mereshko, an officer with Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front, was ordered to find out just which Soviet forces had captured a particular suburb of Berlin first:

I got into my car with machine gunners. Rode up there and talked to the people in the tanks. One said: “I am from the Belorussian Front”, another: “I am from the Ukrainian Front.” “Who came here first?” I asked. “I don’t know,” they replied. I asked civilians: “Whose tanks got here fist?” They just said: “Russian tanks.” It was difficult enough for a military enough for a military man to tell the difference between the tanks. So when I came back I reported that Zhukov’s tanks got their first and Konyev’s tanks came later. So the celebration fire-works in Moscow were in his name.

In the heat of the battle, it was also clear that the race between Zhukov and Konyev had not helped the soldiers to know just which forces were friendly and which were not. Vladen Anschishken recalled:

They were rivals… There was rivalry between two fronts. There was nothing criminal about it… But this rivalry in Berlin did not always have the positive effect because sometimes soldiers didn’t know who was where. … This was on the borders between the fronts, and a lot of people died only because of rivalry between two fronts.

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Despite the difficulties, the Red Army fought with immense conviction in Berlin, fuelled by the sense that they were on a mission of retribution. We are proud to have made it to the beast’s lair, one soldier wrote home: We will take revenge, revenge for all our sufferings. Taking overall command of the great final offensive against Berlin itself, Marshal Zhukov gave up his 1st Belorussian Front to Vasily Sokolovsky and took over an army group combining both that and Konev’s front, reaching Berlin on 22 April 1945 and encircling it three days later.

The Capture & Capitulation of the Capital:

On Wednesday 25 April, units from the US First Army, part of Bradley’s 12th Army Group, and from the 1st Ukrainian Front met up at Torgau on the Elbe.

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Although criticised since for his desire to leave the fight to the Soviets, Eisenhower was correct in the assumption that there would be heavy losses in the struggle. It is perfectly possible that Simpson’s US Ninth Army, which was on the Elbe only sixty miles west of Berlin on 11 April, eleven days before the Russians reached it, could have attacked the city first. It had crossed a hundred and twenty miles in the previous ten days, and the Germans were not putting up the level of resistance in the west that they were in the east. But, despite the complaints of Montgomery and Patton that the Western Allies should be taking Berlin ahead of the Russians, the Western Allies did not have to suffer the vast number of casualties in the final desperate struggle, though they would probably have fought it in a less costly manner. Bradley’s assessment, made for Eisenhower, was that a Western attack on Berlin would cost a hundred thousand casualties, which he considered a pretty stiff price for a prestige objective. Konyev later stated that the Red Army lost eight hundred tanks in the battle for Berlin, and Russian casualties amounted to 78,291 killed and 274,184 wounded. These figures could have been smaller had Stalin not insisted on taking Berlin as soon as possible, regardless of the human cost involved. They also include all the casualties incurred in the fighting from the Baltic to the Czech border. It has been estimated that twenty-five thousand died within the capital itself.

Despair, Suicide & Resistance:

Meanwhile, in his bunker beneath the Old Chancellery in the Wilhelmstrasse, Hitler continued to indulge himself in fantasies about the Allies falling out with each other once their armies met. Although he has often been described as moving phantom armies around on maps in the bunker and making hollow declarations of coming victory, this was in part the fault of the sub-standard communications centre. Unlike the well-appointed Wolfschanze, his Berlin bunker had only a one-man switchboard, one radio transmitter and one radio-telephone which depended on a balloon suspended over the Old Chancellery. Officers were reduced to telephoning numbers taken at random from the Berlin telephone directory, the Soviet advance being plotted by how many times the calls were answered in Russian rather than German. Hitler decided to stay where he was. He held his mid-day conferences, as usual, charting the progress of the Russians across the city block by block. He also composed his political testament, denouncing his oldest friends as traitors all and railed against the ‘Jewish conspiracy’ that he believed had brought him down.

The last time Hitler appeared in semi-public was on his fifty-sixth and last birthday on 20 April, when he congratulated a line-up of Hitler Youth who had distinguished themselves as fighters. One of these children, Arnim Lehmann, recalls the Führer’s weak voice and rheumy eyes as he squeezed their ears and told them how brave they were being. The German Ninth Army under General Theodor Busse in the south of Berlin and the Eleventh Army under General Felix Steiner in the north would now try to defend a city with no gas, water, electricity or sanitation. When Steiner, who was outnumbered ten to one, failed to counter-attack to prevent Berlin’s encirclement, he was subjected to a tirade from Hitler. The last direct order to be personally signed by the Führer in the bunker was transmitted to Field Marshal Schörner at 04:50 on 24 April and reads:

I shall remain in Berlin, so as to play a part, in honorouble fashion, in the decisive battle for Germany, and to set a good example to all the rest. I believe that in this way I shall be rendering Germany the best service. Fot the rest, every effort must be made to win the struggle for Berlin. You can therefore help decisively, by pushing northwards as early as possible. With kind regards, Yours, Adolf Hitler.

The signature, in red pencil, looks remarkably normal, considering the circumstances. Schörner, who had large numbers of men shot for cowardice, was named in Hitler’s will as the new head of the Wehrmacht, but nine days later he deserted his army group and flew off in a small aircraft in civilian clothes to surrender to the Americans. He was handed over to the Russians and kept in captivity until 1954. In all about thirty thousand death sentences for cowardice and desertion were handed down by the Germans on the Eastern Front in the last year of the war, two-thirds of which were carried out.

The Red Army had long been shooting anyone captured in SS uniform, and those SS men who had discarded it nonetheless could not escape the fact that their blood group was tattoed on their left arms. It is thought that it was this knowledge of certain death which kept many formations at their post during the dark days of the battles for Berlin, but, just in case, the military police remained vigilant to the last, ready to hang or shoot suspected deserters. Spreading defeatism was also a capital offence; after a short mockery of a trial by the SS or Gestapo, those suspected of it for whatever reason were hanged from the nearest lamp-post, with signs around their necks stating I have hanged because I was too much of a coward to defend the Reich’s capital, or I am a deserter; because of this I will not see the change in destiny or All traitors die like this one. It is thought that at least ten thousand people died in this manner in Berlin – the same as the number of women who died (often by suicide) after having been raped by the Red Army there.

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Above: Two women lie dead after taking cyanide in Leipzig at the end of the war.

Because of this horror, the Germans fought on with an efficiency that was utterly remarkable given the hopelessness of the situation. Yet at Berlin, as at Stalingrad, the indiscriminate artillery and aerial bombardment created fine opportunities for the defenders, of whom the city had eighty-five thousand of all kinds. As well as the Wehrmacht, Waffen-SS and Gestapo contingents, there were several foreign volunteer forces, including French Fascists, and the desperately under-armed ‘Volkssturm’ (home guard) battalions made up of men over forty-five and children under seventeen. Many of the three thousand Hitler Youth who fought were as young as fourteen, and some were unable to see the enemy from under their adult-sized coal-scuttle helmets. The looting, drunkenness, murder and despoilation indulged in by the Red Army in East Prussia, Silesia and elsewhere in the Reich, but especially in Berlin, were responses of soldiers who had marched through devastated Russian towns and cities over the previous twenty months. Max Egremont has written of how…

Red Army troops loathed the neatness they found on the farms and in the towns of East Prussia: the china lined up on the dressers, the spotless housekeeping, the well-fenced fields and sleek cattle.

The Red Army’s ‘Retribution’:

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Above and Below: A Russian photographer captures the smiles of German women at the Brandenburg Gate in defeated Berlin. The Soviet soldiers were ready to claim the spoils of war and seek retribution for Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union. There were widespread acts of looting and rape, and the latest research shows that as many as two million German women were raped. The other half of the photo (below) shows a Soviet tank.

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The women of Germany were also about to pay a high personal price for the Wehrmacht’s four-year ravaging of Mother Russia. Antony Beevor, the historian of Berlin’s downfall, at least two million German women are thought to have been raped, and a substantial minority, if not a majority, appear to have suffered multiple rapes. In Berlin alone, ninety thousand women were raped in the last few days before the city surrendered. As one Red Army veteran joked, he and his comrades raped ‘on a collective basis’. When the Red Army arrived in Dresden, the Soviets committed atrocities in direct view of the house where twenty-two-year-old American, John Noble, lived with his father, who owned a camera factory, and the rest of his family, all of whom were American citizens. Although not imprisoned by the Nazis, they were effectively interned, reporting regularly to the police. Noble recalled how:

In the house next to ours, Soviet troops went in and pulled the women out on the street, had mattresses that they pulled out, and raped the women. The men had to watch, and then the men were shot. Right at the end of our street a woman was tied onto a wagon wheel and was terribly misused. … Of course you had the feeling that you just wanted to stop it, but there was no possibility to do that.

The open abuse of women and the general looting of the city continued for at least three weeks before a semblance of order returned. Even after this period, the Nobles regularly heard reports that women who worked in their camera factory had been assaulted on their journey to and from work. Far from seeking to stop or even discourage rapes and assaults of German women, the Soviet authorities encouraged them as a legitimate and appropriate form of retribution. This was articulated by Ilya Ehrenburg, the Soviet propagandist, who wrote: Soldiers of the Red Army. German women are yours! The rapes in Germany were on a massive scale, even more so than in Hungary. Around two million were assaulted. In one of the worst examples of atrocity, a Berlin lawyer who had protected his Jewish wife through all the years of Nazi persecution tried to stop Red Army soldiers raped her, but was then shot. As he lay dying, he watched as his wife was gang-raped. Potsdam, just outside Berlin, was devastated and much of it lay in ruins. Ingrid Schüler, who lived in an apartment block within a mile of the proposed site of the forthcoming conference, was seventeen years old when the Red Army arrived in April. She recalled:

My parents hid me. … we were extremely lucky because my mother was not raped. … women were of huge importance to them (the Soviets). That was the worst thing: the rapes. … I can tell you about a baker’s family in our street. The Russians had gone into their house intending to rape the baker’s wife. Her husband, who happened to be at home, stood in front of her trying to protect her and was immediately shot dead. With their passage to the woman clear, she was raped.

The scale of the atrocities perpetrated by the Red Army in Germany in the first six months of 1945 was clearly immense. And the motivational factors were obvious as well. Vladen Anchishkin put it this somewhat incomprehensible way:

When you see this German beauty sitting and weeping about the savage Russians who were hurting her, why did she not cry when she was receiving parcels from the Eastern Front?

Only very occasionally, in their letters home, did the soldiers admit what was happening. One Red Army soldier, writing home in February 1945, commented that the fact that the German women did not speak a word of Russian, made the act of rape easier:

You don’t have to persuade them. You just point a Nagan (a type of revolver) and tell them to lie down. Then you do your stuff and go away.

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It was not only German women who suffered in these last few days before the city capitulated and the Reich finally surrendered. Polish women, Jewish concentration-camp survivors, even released Soviet female POWs were raped at gunpoint, often by up to a dozen soldiers. Because Order No. 227 had decreed that Russians who had surrendered to the Germans were traitors, gang-rapes of Russian female POWs were permitted, even actually arranged. Age, desirability or any other criteria made virtually no difference. In Dahlem, for instance, Nuns, young girls, old women, pregnant women and mothers who had just given birth were raped without pity. The documentary and anecdotal evidence is overwhelming and indisputable. The Red Army, having behaved so heroically on the battlefield, raped the women of Germany as part of their reward, with the active collusion of their officers up to and including Beria and even Stalin himself. Indeed, he explicitly excused their conduct on more than one occasion, seeing it as part of the rights of the conqueror. He asked Marshal Tito in April 1945 about these rights of the ordinary Russian soldier:

What is so awful in his having fun with a woman, after such horrors?… You have imagined the Red Army to be ideal. And it is not ideal, nor can it be … The important thing is that it fights Germans.

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Stalin with Churchill at the Yalta Conference in February.

Some historians have argued that these atrocities, like those committed by the Red Army earlier in the year during the siege of Budapest, must be seen in the overall context of violent retribution on all sides of the war. After all, they claim, for years the Red Army had been fighting an enemy who had announced that they were fighting a ‘war of annihilation’. As well as for the sexual gratification of the soldiers, mass rape was intended as a humiliation and revenge on Germany. If the men of the Wehrmacht had sown the wind in Operation Barbarossa, it was their wives, mothers, sisters and daughters who were forced to reap that whirlwind. Yet it is perfectly possible, given events elsewhere the same year, that the Red Army would have brutalised the Germans even if they had not envied their enemies’ prosperity and sought revenge for the terrible acts of war they had exacted during their invasion, occupation and destruction of vast tracts of their ‘motherland’ and its defenders.

It was not the Red Army alone that indulged in the ‘weaponisation’ of rape against civilians. In North Africa and western Europe, the US Army stands indicted of raping an estimated fourteen thousand civilian women between 1942 and 1945. But though these resulted in arrests, convictions and executions (iniquitously of black GIs), nobody was ever executed for raping a German woman. Nor is there any evidence that Russian soldiers were reprimanded for rape, despite the two million cases in one campaign lasting at most three months. It was no doubt in the context of that ‘campaign of retribution’ against both the Wehrmacht and the German civilian population that Vladen Anchiskin later admitted to committing the ultimate act of revenge in Czechoslovakia when he and some of his comrades were fired upon by a group of retreating SS soldiers. All his pent-up hatred burst through into what he himself described as ‘a frenzy’. Once they were captured, he had a number of these soldiers brought in to see him in an apartment block, one by one, for “interrogation”. He stabbed the first man to death, also cutting his throat. He tried to explain his actions:

I was in such a state. … What could I feel? … only one thing, revenge. … I felt, “You wanted to kill me? Now you have it. I waited for this – you were hunting me down for four years. You killed so many of my friends in the rear and on the front, and you were allowed to do that. But here I have the right. … You asked for it.”

Three Suicides, Two Surrenders & a Celebration:

As Soviet forces approached the bunker under the chancellery on 30 April 1945, at about 3.30 p.m, Hitler simultaneously clenched his teeth on a cyanide capsule and shot himself through the temple. When Winston Churchill was told the next day of the German official broadcast stating that Hitler had died fighting with his last breath against Bolshevism, his comment was: Well, I must say he was perfectly right to die like that. Lord Beaverbrook, who was dining with him at the time, observed that the report was obviously untrue. It had taken units as hardened as Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front to force their way into the capital of the Reich, which was defended street-by-street all the way up to the Reichstag and the Reich Chancellery. Vasily Ivanovich Chuikov, the hero of Stalingrad, commander of the Eighth Guards Army and now of Soviet forces in central Berlin, recalled the Germans’ attempted capitulation, which took place at his command post on May Day, with the visit of General Hans Krebs, whom Hitler had appointed Chief of the OKH General Staff in Guderian’s place the previous month:

At last, at 03:50 hours, there was a knock at the door, and in came a German general with the Order of the Iron Cross around his neck, and the Nazi swastika on his sleeve. … A man of middle height, and solid build, with a shaven head, and scars on his face. … With his right hand he makes a gesture of greeting – in his own, Nazi, fashion; with his left he tenders his service book to me.

Speaking through an interpreter, Krebs said:

I shall speak of exceptionally secret matters. You are the first foreigner to whom I will give this information, that on 30 April Hitler passed from us from his own will, ending his life by suicide.

Chuikov recalled that Krebs paused at this point, expecting ardent interest in this sensational news. Instead, Chuikov replied that the Soviets had already heard this news. In fact, this was not true, but he had already determined that he would show no surprise at any unexpected approaches, but remain calm and avoid drawing any hasty conclusions. Since Krebs had brought only an offer of a negotiated surrender with a new government, headed by Dönitz as president and Goebbels as chancellor, Chuikov – under orders from Zhukov and the Stavka – refused and demanded an unconditional surrender. Krebs then left to report to Goebbels, commenting as he left that May Day is a great festival for you, to which Chuikov responded:

And today why should we not celebrate? It is the end of the war, and the Russians are in Berlin.

After Krebs had told Goebbels the news, they both committed suicide, their remains being thrown in with those of Mr and Mrs Hitler. Goebbels’ corpse was identified by the special boot he wore for his clubbed foot. The next day, 2 May, Berlin capitulated and six days later so did all German forces throughout the now-defunct Reich. Soviet attacks in Kurland continued to be repulsed until the day of capitulation, but over the next week, the German armies still in the field surrendered to the Allied forces encircling them. Limited resistance continued until the remaining German forces surrendered on 7 May. In the early morning, General Alfred Jodl, Chief of Staff of the German High Command, signed the document of unconditional surrender. The next day, the war in Europe, which had cost some thirty million lives, was finally over. The capitulation of all German forces became effective on 9 May.

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The famous photograph (above and below) of the red flag being waved over the Reichstag in 1945 was taken by the twenty-eight-year-old Ukrainian Jew Yevgeny Khaldei with a Leica camera. The flag was actually one of three red tablecloths that the photographer had, in his words, got from Grisha, the bloke in charge of the stores at work. He had promised to return them and a tailor friend of his father’s had spent all night cutting out hammers and sickles and sewing them onto the cloths to make Soviet flags. So it was a tablecloth that was flown, somewhat precariously, over the devastated Berlin that day. When Khaldei explained to Gisha what had happened to his tablecloth, the latter reacted ‘angrily’:

What do you mean, you left it on the Reichstag? Now you’re really going to get me into trouble!

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The Tass picture editor spotted that the young soldier propping up his flag-waving comrade had watches on both wrists, a clear indication of Red Army looting, so he made Khaldei airbrush the supporting soldier out of the photograph, also making the flag-wavers act look more hazardous and heroic. Although Zhukov was relegated after the war by a suspicious and jealous Stalin, his eminence and popularity in the West did at least allow him to escape the fate of 135,056 other Red Army soldiers and officers who were condemned by military tribunals for counter-revolutionary crimes. A further 1.5 million Soviet soldiers who had earlier surrendered to the Germans were transported to the ‘Gulag’ or labour battalions in Siberia. The issue as to how many Soviets, military and civilian, died in during what they called their ‘Great Patriotic War’ was an intensely political one, and the true figure was classified as a national secret in the USSR until after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Even then, the figures were disputed. Richard Overy has chosen to believe the 1997 Russian figures of eleven million military losses and civilian losses of around sixteen million, giving an aggregate figure of twenty-seven million. In a conflict that claimed the lives of fifty million people, this means that the USSR lost more than the whole of the rest of the world put together.

The Immediate Aftermath & Routes to Potsdam:

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The fact that it was not until May 1945  that Germany bowed to its conquerors, is testimony to the sheer bloody-minded determination of the German Reich was one reason for the length of time they were able to hold out against the Allies, but the high quality of their troops was the other. The statistics are unequivocal: up to the end of 1944, on a man-for-man basis, the Germans inflicted between twenty and fifty per cent higher casualties on the British and Americans than they suffered, and far higher than that of the Russians, under almost all military conditions. Even in the first five months of 1945, the Red Army’s advance on the Eastern front was very costly because the Germans continued to inflict more losses on their opponents than they suffered themselves. Although they lost because of their Führer’s domination of grand strategy as well as the sheer size of the populations and economies ranged against them, it is indisputable that the Germans were the best fighting men of the Second World War for all but the last few months of the struggle when they suffered a massive dearth of equipment, petrol, reinforcements and air cover. But although throughout the last year of the war the Germans inflicted higher casualties on the Russians than they received, this was never more than the Soviets could absorb. Attacks, especially the final assault on Berlin, were undertaken by the Red Army generals without regard to the cost in lives, an approach which German generals could not adopt because of a lack of adequate reserves. From his Nuremberg cell in June 1946, Kleist reflected:

The Russians were five times superior to us poor but brave Germans, both in numbers and in the superiority of their equipment. My immediate commander was Hitler himself. Unfortunately, Hitler’s advice in those critical periods was invariably lousy.   

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As the Red Army prepared to celebrate victory in eastern Europe, Roosevelt was replaced by his Vice President, Harry Truman, who immediately brought new energy to the presidency, as George Elsey, working in the White House map room, discovered:

Harry Truman was utterly unlike President Roosevelt in terms of a personal relationship. First of all, our impression of him – here’s a guy who can walk. And he was vigorous, physically vigorous. He was only a few years younger than Franklin Roosevelt but in behaviour, attitude, speech and so on would have thought he was twenty-five years younger. When he first came into the map room he walked briskly around, introduced himself to each of us – “I’m Harry Truman” … and he took an intense interest in what we had in the map room, wanted to read our files. … Truman was open and eager to learn, and was very willing to admit that he didn’t know. Roosevelt would never have admitted that he didn’t know everything himself.

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As for the Soviets, they knew little about him and disliked what they did know. Truman was unaware of the intricacies of US foreign policy; so, in those early weeks of his presidency, he relied on old hands like Harriman and Hopkins. On 25 May, six weeks after Roosevelt’s death, Harry Hopkins arrived in Moscow at Truman’s request. He met Stalin on the evening of 26 May. It was an important meeting, not so much in terms of what was decided, but because Stalin’s behaviour demonstrated that there was no doubt that he – rather than, allegedly, the ‘people behind him’ – controlled Soviet policy. Hopkins emphasised that ‘public opinion’ in the USA had been badly affected by the inability to carry into effect the Yalta agreement on Poland. Stalin replied by putting the blame for the failure squarely on the British, who, he claimed, wanted to build up a ‘cordon sanitaire’ on the Soviet borders, presumably in order to keep the Soviets in check. Hopkins denied that the United States wanted any such thing, and added that the Americans were happy to see ‘friendly countries’ along the Soviet borders. The use of the trigger word ‘friendly’ was welcomed by Stalin who said that, if that was the case, then they could ‘easily come to terms’ about Poland.

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But Hopkins’ remarks were turned to his disadvantage by Stalin at their second meeting on 27 May. The Soviet leader said that he would not attempt to use Soviet public opinion as a screen but would, instead, speak about the views of his government. He then stated his position that the Yalta agreement meant that the existing Lublin government could simply be ‘reconstructed’. He went on to warn that:

Despite the fact that they were simple people, the Russians should not be regarded as fools, which was a mistake the West frequently made, nor were they blind and could quite well see what was going on before their eyes. It is true that that the Russians are patient in the interests of a common cause but their patience had its limits.

Stalin also remarked that if the Americans started to use the issue of ‘Lend-Lease’ as a ‘pressure’ on the Russians, this would be a ‘fundamental mistake’. Hopkins was bruised by these remarks and denied the accusations that he was ‘hiding’ behind American public opinion and attempting to use the issue of Lend-Lease as a ‘pressure weapon’. Stalin was using offensive remarks as a means of probing the strength of his opponent, as he had done with Churchill and Roosevelt in April, by correspondence. But Stalin knew that these negotiations had nothing to do with ‘friendship’ or ‘personal relationships’. He did not care whether he was liked or not. What mattered to him was power and credibility Eden, with all his experience of international relations and negotiations wrote that:

If I had to pick a team for going into a conference room, Stalin would be my first choice.

Stalin was toying with the new President’s envoy, telling Hopkins that the ‘Warsaw’ (formerly Lublin) Poles might be persuaded to concede four ministerial posts in the Polish provisional government to the ‘London’ Poles from the list submitted by the British and Americans. The idea that he had to bow to the wishes of his own puppet government in Poland was also a trick he had used before, but no-one had yet dared to say to his face that it was obvious nonsense. Towards the end of the meeting, Hopkins made an impassioned appeal for the Soviets to allow the three ‘freedoms’ so core to the Atlantic Charter – freedom of speech, assembly and religion – to be guaranteed to the citizens of the newly occupied territories. In his response, Stalin once again played with Hopkins, saying that in regard to the specific freedoms… they could only be applied… with certain limitations. Eventually, a ‘compromise’ of sorts was agreed, with five ‘democratic’ Poles joining the new provisional government, far from the ‘ideal’ that Roosevelt and Churchill had hoped for in the immediate aftermath of Yalta.

The harsh reality, of course, was that the Soviet Union was already in possession of Poland and most of the other countries bordering the Soviet Union and that the Western powers could do little about this ‘take-over’, a reality that was brought home at the Potsdam Conference. By the time of the Conference in July, the British had already considered and rejected the possibility of imposing upon Russia the will of the United States and the British Empire. In the wake of the Soviets’ perceived failure to stick to the Yalta agreement, Churchill had ordered British military planners to consider a worst-case, military option against the USSR. Called ‘Operation Unthinkable’, the final report was completed on 22 May. Its conclusion was stark, if somewhat obvious:

If our political object is to be achieved with certainty and with lasting results, the defeat of Russia in a total war will be necessary. The result … is not possible to forecast, but the one thing that is certain is that to win it would take us a very long time.

The Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Sir Alan Brooke, was less bland in his diary, writing on 24 May:

This evening went carefully through the Planners’ report on the possibility of taking on Russia should trouble arise on future discussion with her. We were instructed to carry out this investigation. The idea is, of course, fantastic and the chance of success quite impossible. 

After the experience of Operation Barbarossa, the idea of ‘conquering’ the Soviet Union was something that few would contemplate seriously. In any case, Truman had already recognised that Britain was now very much the minor partner in the triangular relationship with the Soviet Union. The new American President had not even bothered to discuss Hopkins’ mission to Moscow beforehand. He also declined Churchill’s invitation to meet together before the Potsdam Conference, to discuss tactics. Truman had also received a number of impassioned suggestions from Churchill about how the relationship with Stalin should be hardened because of the Soviets’ failure to implement the Yalta agreement. In particular, Churchill suggested that the Western Allies should not withdraw from the area of Germany they currently occupied, which lay within the Yalta-agreed Soviet-controlled sphere. He even sent Truman a telegram warning that an iron curtain is being drawn down on their front. But Truman wanted no dramatic confrontation with Stalin, especially one orchestrated by Churchill. The British PM got the impression that Truman was trying to edge him out of matters still more by asking the British to attend the Potsdam Conference only after the Americans had already spent time alone with Stalin. On that basis, said Churchill, he was simply ‘not prepared to attend’. As a result, the Americans agreed that he should be present from the beginning. So Winston Churchill was there to witness the fall of the Iron Curtain and the beginning of the Cold War in Europe. It took forty-five years for the West to win it, but cost far fewer European lives, though many more American ones.

Appendix:

Article by Max Hastings from The Observer Magazine, 7/7/19:

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Sources:

Andrew Roberts (2009), The Storm of War. London: Penguin Books.

Laurence Rees (2008), World War Two: Behind Closed Doors. London: BBC Books.

Richard Overy (1996), The Penguin Historical Atlas of The Third Reich. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Hermann Kinder & Werner Hilgemann (1988), The Penguin Atlas of World History Volume II. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Colin McEvedy (1982), The Penguin Atlas of Recent History (Europe since 1815). Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

 

Posted February 29, 2020 by TeamBritanniaHu in American History & Politics, anti-Communist, anti-Semitism, asylum seekers, Austria, Austria-Hungary, Axis Powers, Baltic States, Berlin, British history, Britons, Castles, Child Welfare, Christian Faith, Christianity, Church, Churchill, Civil Rights, Civilization, Cold War, Commemoration, Communism, Compromise, Conquest, democracy, Deportation, Domesticity, Economics, Education, Empire, Ethnic cleansing, Europe, Factories, Family, Fertility, France, Genocide, Germany, History, Hungary, Imperialism, Jews, Journalism, Labour Party, liberal democracy, manufacturing, Migration, nationalism, Navy, Patriotism, Poland, Population, Poverty, Refugees, Roosevelt, Russia, Second World War, Siege/ Battle of Budapest, Stalin, Stuart times, Technology, terror, The Law, Transference, tyranny, Uncategorized, United Nations, USA, USSR, War Crimes, Women at War, Women's History, World War Two, Yugoslavia

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‘These Tremendous Years’: A Chronicle of Britain in 1938: Chapter 1   3 comments

Chronology: 

January:

16  Crown Princess Juliana of the Netherlands gave birth to Beatrix Wilhelmina Armgaard.

25  The First Sea Lord and Chief of Naval Staff wrote that the imperial fleet was so weak that the Navy would be unable to deal simultaneously with threats from Japan in the Far East, even in conjunction with the United States, and with aggressor nations in Europe.

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February:

16  Gracie Fields (Mrs Grace Selinger), awarded a CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) in the New Year’s Honours List, was presented to the King at Buckingham Palace.

18  The The Midland Daily Telegraph reported significant overcrowding of the Coventry’s schools, carrying a major report, entitled, ‘Coventry as the Nation’s School’, claiming that in the previous twelve months children of school age from the Special Areas had been moving into the city at the rate of a hundred per month,

20  Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden resigned from the Cabinet over Mussolini’s role in the Spanish Civil War.

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25  Lord Halifax became Foreign Secretary

March:

6   Sinking of the rebel ship Baleares by torpedo off the coast of Cartagena, Spain; five hundred of the crew burnt to death, two hundred were rescued by British vessels & rebel ships.

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11  Resignation of Austria’s Chancellor, Kurt von Schuschnigg, under pressure from Hitler for Nazification of Austria.

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12  German troops crossed the Austrian border without a shot being fired: Hitler annexed Austria.

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14  Hitler arrived in Vienna, Vast crowds lined the streets to welcome him with cries of ‘Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Fuhrer‘: Chamberlain spoke in the House of Commons, regretting what had happened.

16  The minutes of the Oxford Branch of the National Union of Vehicle Builders recorded details of a ‘stormy meeting’ at the Nelson Arms in Cowley about the ‘alleged poaching’ of NUVB members by the TGWU, in the trim shop of the Pressed Steel works.

24  Chamberlain told the Commons that Britain had no vital interests in Czechoslovakia.

28  Hitler gives full instructions to Henlein, the Sudeten German leader, on how to build up tension over their demands.

English: Konrad Henlein in Karlovy Vary Česky:...

April:

20  The Listener publishes a report, ‘Exiled in London’ by Miles Davies into the London Welsh, a transcript  of his radio broadcast.

25  Agreement signed between Britain and Ireland (Eire).

May:

3-9  Hitler & Mussolini met in Rome.

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13  Konrad Henlein attended a tea party as guest of honour of Harold Nicholson MP, and four other Conservative MPs.

30  In another secret directive, Hitler decides ‘to smash Czechoslovakia by military action in the near future’.

July:

20  The Coventry Labour Party was accused of ‘dirty tactics’ in quoting a Conservative candidate in the local elections as claiming that Labour’s rise in the polls was due to ‘the sweepings of Great Britain’ coming to Coventry.

August:

12  German mobilisation.

September:

7  The Times published an article arguing that the Czechoslovak government should cede the Sudetenland to Germany. It is badly received in Prague (see documents below).

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12  Hitler’s speech at Nuremberg demanding self-determination for Sudeten German minority in Czechoslovakia.

15  Chamberlain meets Hitler at Berchtesgaden.

18  Meeting between Chamberlain and the French Foreign Minister in London. The British government expressed its readiness to  participate in a general European guarantee for Czechoslovakia, along with other powers.

19   Anglo-French proposals for the transfer of the Sudetenland presented to the Czechoslovak Government (see documents below).

21  Crowds gathered in Wenceslas Square in Prague. Police estimated 200,000 on the streets, protesting against Anglo-French initiative.  Runciman sends his letter to the PM (see documents below) supporting Sudeten German demands to join the Reich.

22  Chamberlain met Hitler at Godesberg. Hitler demands the immediate transfer of the Sudetenland to Germany and the settlement of Polish and Hungarian claims on Czechoslovak territory.

23  The Godesberg talks broke down. The chiefs of Staff presented the Cabinet with a paper that stated that to take offensive action against Germany before placing their forces on a war footing would be ‘to place ourselves in the position of a man who attacks a tiger before he has loaded his gun.’

25  Czechoslovak government called up all men under 40

27  Chamberlain broadcast to the nation, stressing: 1) The fate of the Empire could not be decided by the plight of a small nation; 2) his deep personal commitment to peace, and 3) his conviction that any nation seeking to dominate through fear of its strength had to be resisted.

28  British fleet mobilised. Chamberlain addressed the House of Commons on the crisis and the negotiations with Germany. Towards the end of his speech, he received a message from Hitler agreeing to Chamberlain’s request for further talks with him and Mussolini.

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29-30   Chamberlain met Hitler at Munich: Four-power Agreement between Britain, France, Germany and Italy, providing for German occupation of the Sudetenland by 10th October 1938.

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30  Chamberlain returned to Heston Airport and reads the bi-lateral agreement between himself and Hitler signed that morning. The news was greeted by cheering crowds as he made his way to Buckingham Palace, where he later appeared on the balcony with the King and Queen.

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The third Report of the Special Commissioner for the Special Areas, for the year ended 30th September 1938, was published.  By September, seventy-two firms had been assisted to settle in the ‘Special Areas’, including fifty-one at Treforest, south Wales.

October:

1  German troops entered the Sudetenland. Harold Nicolson attacked the Munich Agreement in a speech in Manchester.

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2  Poland occupied Teschen, a rich industrial region, which it claimed as part of the Munich Agreement, and Hungary annexed a broad strip of southern Slovakia and Ruthenia.

3-5  House of Commons debated the Munich Agreement. Nicolson spoke on 5th.

18  The management at the Pressed Steel works in Cowley near Oxford, estimated that there were up to 3,000 members of the 5/60 TGWU branch, founded in 1934, at the works, and about 800 members of unions for skilled workers.

November:

3   Oxford Trades Council minutes recorded details of victimisation of the TGWU shop stewards at the Pressed Steel works, leading to a strike,

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15  The International Brigades were formally withdrawn from Spain late in 1938 as part of Prime Minister Juan Negrín’s attempt to win British and French support for his government. The last battle in which they participated was that of the Ebro. A farewell parade was held for the volunteers in Barcelona, Spain, on November 15, 1938.

http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/290718/International..

December:

1  Oxford Trades Council minutes recorded the failure of the strike at Pressed Steel, and further cases of victimisation.

Christmas: Jewish refugee boys from Germany and Austria arrive in London, from their base camp at Dovercourt, to spend the holiday with foster-parents. The continental clothes made them conspicuous among the London crowds.012

Also in the year:

First British National Register introduced.

Queen Elizabeth, the liner, launched

Nylon first produced in Britain

Picture Post first published: These Tremendous Years, 1919-38 published (by the Daily Express?)

400,000 Anderson shelters manufactured for civilian use

Women’s Voluntary Service & Women’s Auxiliary Territorial Force founded

BBC began foreign broadcasts

Empire Exhibition in Glasgow

Holidays with Pay Act passed

England made record cricket score of 903 for 7 v. Australia

Among the plays of the year was Emlyn Williams’ The Corn is Green. Disney released Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Other films included The Prisoner of Zenda with Ronald Colman, The Lady Vanishes directed by Alfred Hitchcock and The Citadel directed by King Vidor and starring Robert Donat (see chapter two). Ironically, both the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and Prague Philharmonic Orchestra visited Britain. Popular songs were ‘Blue Skies are round the Corner’, ‘The Lambeth Walk’ and ‘Whistle While You Work’.

Chapter One: ‘And Now What? – What Will He Grow up to?’

Narrative:

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The picture post style publication, These Tremendous Years, 1919-38, published in 1938, concluded its chronicle with pictures of the panzer divisions that had raced through the night to reach Vienna a week earlier. “The first job of the new Chancellor”, the Nazi leader Arthur Seyss-Inquart, the journal reported, “was to ask the German army to help him keep order”. Hitler “received a tumultuous reception”, it concluded. On the next and final page, it featured a picture of a young British boy, about eight years old, and asked the question “AND NOW, WHAT – WHAT WILL HE GROW UP TO?” This publication clearly did not have the benefit of hindsight, and although uncertain of what the future might hold for the young Briton, there was no tone of ‘inevitability’ that he, like the whole of the European population, was well down the road to war. Indeed, had publication of the journal been delayed until the new year of 1939, the question might have been turned into a more certain and confident statement, following the events of the autumn of 1938.

014Lionel Curtis, one of the leading lights behind ‘Chatham House’, the British Institute of International Affairs in 1920, when Harold Nicolson had first heard him speak, told Nicolson in the Spring of 1938 that the programme he was sponsoring for Germany would bring ‘twenty years of peace’ which ‘were worth any price’. Besides the Anschluss, ‘the package deal’ he proposed contained the provision of ‘cantonal status’ (autonomy) for the Sudetenland by the Czechoslovak government, recognition of Germany’s colonial rights, and of its economic interests in eastern Europe. It also conceded that Germany should be free to develop its armed forces to the extent that it would become the strongest power in central Europe. This was too much for Nicholson, whose ‘anti-German stance’ shocked Curtis.  Harold emphasised his belief that Germany harboured ‘aggressive ambitions’ and would not support its economic designs on eastern Europe. He opposed the attempt of Curtis and others to appease ‘the strong’. However, he accepted that his views and talents as a new MP were not widely respected in the House. “1938 will decide” he concluded. However, as the international crisis deepened, his opportunity presented itself sooner than he had expected. On 15th February news reached London that, at Berchtesgaden, the Austrian Chancellor, Kurt von Schuschnigg had effectively handed over control of Austrian affairs to Germany.

Hitler took the Nazification of the German army and foreign policy a step further, “Adventurism is now in the ascendancy in Germany,” Nicolson declared to the Foreign Affairs Committee, advising his audience “to keep a stiff upper lip, not throw sops or slops around, wait, and, above all, rearm”. Privately, he suggested two days later that if Britain could play for time and “gain two years of peace, then we are almost home”. However, he added the caveat that “there is no doubt that Germany is out for Weltmacht and will carry that through with grim determination”.  Three days after this statement, Anthony Eden resigned as Foreign Secretary.

Though Neville Chamberlain had little experience in foreign policy, he quite quickly established that his policy was not the same as Eden’s. His policy was what came to be known as ‘appeasement’. There was nothing new in it, of course, since every liberal-minded British politician and political commentator believed that the Versailles Treaty had been unjustly harsh on Germany and that more ‘give and take’ was required to to dampen the explosive situation on the continent. Eden was contemptuous of Italy and was pursuing a strong line on non-intervention, insisting that the Germans and Italians should take their promises not to interfere in the Spanish Civil War seriously. Chamberlain thought Eden was being inconsiderate towards Italy and set about conciliating Mussolini, including accepting Il Duce’s conquest of Abyssinia. In a meeting between the two of them and Grandi, the Italian Ambassador,  he even took Grandi’s corner against his own minister. When Eden resigned, Chamberlain appointed Lord Halifax to replace him, since the latter had no objection to Chamberlain’s running the Foreign Office.

Eden’s resignation affected Harold Nicolson deeply, and he told the House that Eden had resigned over a matter of ‘great principle’. He lashed into Italy, “a country which has consistently, deliberately and without apology, violated every engagement into which she has ever entered”. His speech was well-received by Lloyd George and Churchill. Nicolson had little doubt that the PM was blindly leading the country into a diplomatic minefield. When Hitler proclaimed the Anschluss from the balcony of Linz Town Hall, Nicolson commented that it was an act, not of union, but of “complete absorption”. Depressed by the British Cabinet’s response, he emerged from the government benches as its leading critic. Chamberlain seemed less affronted by this deliberate breach of the Treaty of Versailles than by how it was accomplished, without diplomatic activity of any kind, a simple snatch. Harold characterised Chamberlain as an unintelligent “ironmonger” who would “allow Germany to become so powerful that she will begin to dictate to us”.

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However, for the time being, the argument was lost. Chamberlain, as Nicolson himself well knew, had to play for time. The PM’s long years in government had developed his eye for detail, and he knew how unprepared Britain was for war. It had been estimated by expert advisers that, on the outbreak of war, the Luftwaffe would be able to deliver six hundred tons of high explosive over Britain every day, and that each ton was capable of killing sixteen people. That would mean that, in the first month of hostilities, 300,000 civilians would die in air raids. In the event, this estimate proved to be wildly wrong, since even with bases in France, the Germans were never able to approach this weight of bombardment, and the death rate per ton turned out to be one person per ton. However, people feared the unknown effect of bombing and gas attacks. By comparison, they cared little about the Anschluss. Austria was barely viable as a country after its separation from Hungary and their joint Empire, and the Austrians, after all, were German-speakers. If they wanted to join the Reich, that was their right. For diplomats and politicians, Austro-German relations were not a matter for those countries alone, as Chamberlain himself acknowledged to the House of Commons. He deplored the use of force, but what more could be said or done? Reports suggested that, on the whole, German troops had been well received and that Hitler was popular in his homeland. How could Britain come to the aid of a country that did not want to be saved, or to survive as a separate state.  Besides which, he had had no troops to deploy to stop the invasion, although he could not admit this openly. Only a few days before, however, debating the Army Estimates, the Commons itself had come to a general consensus that Britain did not need a large continental army. Some MPs had even been puzzled as to why Hitler thought he needed one, but now they had a very clear answer to their somewhat naive question.

Nevertheless, Spain remained an issue, and Nicolson chose to speak out forcefully against Franco’s renewed offensive, challenging the House to imagine Gibraltar falling to him, and its straits  coming under Mussolini’s control. However, all he could suggest to an exasperated Chamberlain was the occupation of Minorca.  This revived fears of a Mediterranean War between Britain and France on the one hand, and Italy and Nationalist Spain on the other. The Spanish war gave Germany cover for its ambitions in central and eastern Europe and the ideological issues involved divided popular opinion in both Britain and France. Soviet intervention, through the supply of arms to the loyalists, sowed the seeds of mistrust towards Soviet intentions in the east and had a direct bearing on the Sudeten crisis, since President Benes feared the danger of civil war breaking out in Czechoslovakia. In addition, as A J P Taylor wrote later, the Spanish Civil War “did much to prevent national unity in Great Britain and France” and “drove a further wedge between Soviet Russia and the Western Powers”.  Moreover, the psychological effects of the civil war were breaking down the resistance to the idea of another war, creating the feeling that Europe was already on the brink of another general conflict. Soon after his exchange with Chamberlain in the House, Nicholson was forced to resign as vice-chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee.  In the second half of April, he went to the Balkans with the British Council, to assure the people of central Europe that Britain would stand firm against any attempt by Germany to take over Mitteleuropa. He now believed, with sound justification, that should Germany strike again in central or south-east Europe, Britain would not stand by these countries, but would rather stand aside while Hitler took them into his Reich.

We now know that Hitler had confirmed his intention to take control of Czechoslovakia, first in the Hossbach Memorandum of 5th November 1937. There is no need to make exaggerated claims for the importance of this document, but it does confirm Hitler’s long-term intentions, originally set out in Mein Kampf, to take control of both Austria and most of Czechoslovakia, without war if possible, but through force if favourable circumstances arose, as he thought they might in the early Spring of 1938. Throughout the winter of 1937-8, Hitler had not been talking timetables, but had been thinking tactics out loud. However, this did not mean that he had committed himself  to securing Lebensraum by force. This determination did not come until at least a year later, following his directive to his staff to be ready to attack Poland after 1st September 1939, issued on 3rd April of that year.

Neither did the Sudeten crisis suddenly arrive on the agenda of western diplomats following The Anschluss.  If anything, Hitler had intended to try his will, and theirs, over the Sudeten question before his takeover of Austria, which he believed would happen at some point without much effort on his part, perhaps later rather than sooner.  He was prepared to wait for an opportune moment, which, in the event, came sooner rather than later.  The Sudeten question needed more careful nurturing, however. Czechoslovakia was a creature of three of the Paris Peace Treaties of Versailles, St Germain and Trianon, It was very much an experimental, multinational state, as the Austro-Hungarian Empire had been, except that it was also supposedly democratic. It was in border disputes with all its neighbours and was divided internally along ethnic and religious lines. Many British diplomats were concerned about the Prague government’s treatment of minorities, especially the Sudetens, which received a good deal of sympathetic treatment in the British press.

English: Konrad Henlein in Kraslice 1936 Česky...

The Sudetenland, an area of eleven thousand square miles in northern Bohemia, lies to the east of a mountain range which forms not only a natural and strategic barrier between Germany and Czechoslovakia, but also a vital link in the encirclement of Germany after the Paris ‘Settlement’. As such, it was especially important to the French, with a very strong line of fortified defensive positions holding the ring with their western defences along the Maginot line. It had recently been fortified, and Benes was often criticised as being a tool of French foreign policy. It was populated by almost three million ethnic Germans who, before 1919, had been part of the German Confederation. This ‘fringe’ of mountain territory had been given to Czechoslovakia to form a defensive barrier at its western end, in defiance of the principle of self-determination. From the beginning of their incorporation, the Sudetens had complained that the Prague government discriminated against them on religious and cultural grounds. This discrimination worsened during the economic depression of the thirties, so that Nicolson realised that although the independence and integrity of Czechoslovakia was in Britain’s interest, this aim could only be secured if the Czech government could be persuaded to address the Sudeten grievances. This could then be “coupled with assurances that if they do we will protect their future”.

Henlein in Sudetenland with Dr. Wilhelm Frick.

Henlein in Sudetenland with Dr. Wilhelm Frick. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One reason for the acceptance of Sudeten German claims by British diplomats and politicians, such as Nicolson, was the personality of Konrad Henlein, their leader. A few days after the Anschluss Hitler, his financier, had told him to raise his demands to a degree unacceptable to the Czech government, which he did in a speech at Karlsbad on 24th April, demanding full equality of status between Germans and Czechs, full autonomy for the Sudetenland, including the right of Sudeten Germans to to support the domestic and foreign policies of the German Reich,  and the complete revision of Czech foreign policy. However, he claimed  only to want justice and a measure of autonomy when he visited London in May 1938, and even Churchill was taken in by his performance.   At Nicholson’s tea party for Henlein and four other Conservative MPs , the Sudeten leader told his hosts, in German, that he sought no more, but no less, than cantonal autonomy for his people, so that finance, foreign affairs and defence in the hands of the Prague government. The only alternative he could see would be war between Germany and Czechoslovakia. Nicholson made it clear that Henlein should not return home with the impression that “not a single British soldier would fight for the Czechs” , but rather that “on his shoulders rested the grave responsibility for avoiding a second European War”. Little did Nicholson know that the day before this tea party Henlein had been in Berlin, receiving further instructions on how best to dupe the British.

Hitler did not need to prepare for a second general European war because he believed he had already developed an alternative military strategy to the war of attrition which the first had been. This was characterised by Blitzkrieg;  short, limited, intensive wars to bring about a speedy victory, first against Czechoslovakia in 1938, and then against Poland a year later. Finally, he would then be ready to take on Soviet Russia.  The key to understanding Hitler’s policy was that for him, war was not an alternative to diplomacy, but an extension of it. Conversely, if he could gain territory by diplomacy, so much the better for the conversation of military resources for when he would have to fight. From the autumn, if not the spring and summer of 1938, Hitler was waging an undeclared war in which all means – diplomatic, economic and military – were deployed to achieve his stated aims.

By August, the ‘screaming’ for justice of the Sudeten Germans had reached such a fever pitch that Chamberlain sent Walter Runciman to investigate the situation. The Czechs resented this, feeling that it placed a question mark against their entitlement to the Sudetenland, but Chamberlain made it a condition of Britain’s continuing support for them that Runciman be allowed to finish his investigation. He stayed until September, by which time the demands of the Sudeten Germans, prompted by Hitler, had been stepped up to such an extent that only a “transfer of territory” as The Times put it, would satisfy them. So, the stage was set for Chamberlain’s dramatic gesture. He became convinced that if he did not act there would be a rising in the Sudetenland, and Hitler would declare that he could not simply stand aside. So, on 13th September, he wrote a brief personal note to Hitler, soliciting a swift invitation. Both the Cabinet and the country were startled, since, at that time, British PMs did not usually fly off suddenly on diplomatic missions. That, calculated Chamberlain, was why Hitler would be impressed. The journalist René Cutforth painted a contemporary’s retrospective picture of this:

So began the most macabre of all the Thirties spectaculars: the spectacle of Mr Chamberlain, with his umbrella and his winged collar and his thin smile, flying about through the skies of Europe like some great black stork of ill-omen, smoothing Hitler’s path, and all with the best of motives.

Harold Nicolson followed the unfolding drama with mounting concern but also, at times, with sighs of relief. He knew that Chamberlain had “no conception of world politics”, and was quite unsuited to conclude a successful negotiation. Yet such was the general fear of war that when Chamberlain set out on 15th September for Berchtesgaden to confront Hitler, the first of his three flights to Germany, Nicholson felt “enormous relief”, tinged by shades of “disquiet”. “I shall be one of his most fervent admirers if he brings back something which does not constitute a Hitler triumph”, Harold wrote. When he arrived at Berchtesgarden, Chamberlain was met, among others in Hitler’s entourage, by the young German General Keitel, no doubt calculating how many panzer divisions he would need to penetrate the Czech defence system along their equivalent of the Maginot line. Mr Chamberlain was there to give them a safe pass through that line, so that they would no longer need to fight their way through difficult terrain. The gentler hills and plains of Bohemia beyond would then be exposed, and his divisions could be in Prague within days from their new border.

In his first conversation with Hitler, therefore, Chamberlain made no serious attempt to keep the Sudetenland inside Czechoslovakia.  Stressing his opposition to the use of force, the PM confined himself to the question of how the transfer would take place. So Hitler agreed not to act precipitately, allowing Chamberlain to return home and consult his Cabinet as well as the French. He was acclaimed in London and allowed himself to be portrayed as having headed off an invasion. In his report to the Cabinet, he stated that while yielding on the principle of self-determination, he had not gone beyond this point. He made the same point in his meeting with the visiting French minister on 18th. He suggested that Britain would stand ready to guarantee the borders of the rump Czechoslovak state which would survive.

Harold Nicolson’s sense of relief had been short-lived. It was clear to him now that Chamberlain “didn’t care two hoots whether the Sudetens were in the Reich or out of it” and that he had brought back the bones of an agreement which were bare indeed, ceding to Germany the Sudeten German areas, provided the cession be achieved peacefully. Anglo-French pressure mounted on the Czechs to accept the ceding arrangement. The Times concluded that ‘the terms submitted to the Czechoslovak Government could not. in the nature of things, be expected to make a strong primae facie appeal to them’.

The only obstacle to an agreement, Chamberlain now calculated, would be if Hitler advocated the claims of the other minorities, including the Hungarians, for to concede to these would make the survival of Czechoslovakia impossible. When the PM arrived in Bad Godesberg on 22nd September, he was therefore disappointed to find that this was exactly the issue which the Fűhrer now raised. Moreover, Chamberlain could not understand why Hitler seemed so anxious to occupy the Sudetenland immediately. Added to this, Hitler showed him the map he had had drawn up showing the areas to be ceded, which included areas with Czech majorities. Angered by these tactics, Chamberlain broke off the negotiations and returned to London. He knew he would have difficulty in gaining Cabinet support for Hitler’s more intransigent terms, but was even more convinced that not to do so would result in a general European war, given the strident tone with which they had been put forward.

There was also a shift in tone in Britain, at least among the political élites, when Chamberlain returned empty-handed.  The novelty of his flights was beginning to wear off and his stance was increasingly seen as one of ubiquitous obsequiousness. However, both his party and public opinion remained firmly behind his peace efforts. The hard-liners now grouped around Churchill, including Harold Nicholson, knew they had an uphill struggle to persuade the country to change course diplomatically, so they decided that they should “rally behind” Chamberlain  while pressing for the formation of a Coalition Government to prepare the British people, the Admiralty and the Fleet and for war. In Green Park, outside Churchill’s apartment, trenches were, in any case, already being dug. In his radio broadcast later that evening, Chamberlain commented, “How terrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying out gas masks here because of a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing”.

As Chamberlain entered the House of Commons on 28th September to brief it about the negotiations, he met with two very different reactions. Many of his own supporters rose to their feet and waved their order papers. The opposition remained silent and seated, as did Churchill’s group. Hitler had convinced him, said Chamberlain, that he was willing to risk a world war for the sake of the Sudeten Germans. At this, Nicholson reported, “a shudder of horror passed through the House of Commons”. At 4.12 p.m., Sir John Simon tugged at the PM’s coat, passing him a note from the Foreign Office. Chamberlain’s sombre discourse came to an abrupt halt as he read, and then announced triumphantly that Hitler had just agreed to postpone his mobilisation for twenty-four hours and to meet with him, Mussolini and Deladier in Munich. The House erupted in a great roar of cheers, the whole performance reminding Nicholson of “a Welsh Revivalist meeting”. In the Foreign Office itself, there was a ditty circulating, mocking the PM’s servile and senile shuttle diplomacy: “If at first you can’t concede, fly, fly again!”

However, it was Chamberlain’s naivety rather than Foreign Office cynicism which matched more exactly the mood of the country as he flew to Germany for a third time. Britain was suffering from a mild panic in the summer of 1938. The air-raid precautions, the sandbagged buildings, the trenches in the royal parks, soldiers suddenly visibly in uniform and in authority everywhere, officials of new quasi-governmental organisations ordering people about, so that they seemed like ‘little Hitlers’: all these visible and audible signs of war were seen as sinister. The Press and the newsreels showed pictures which exaggerated the effects of air-raids, so that it was widely believed that half a million people would be killed on the first day of the war. The precautions reassured no-one, but rather confirmed their worst fears.

When Chamberlain flew to Munich on the 29th of September, he was given a tremendous sen-off. Sixteen ministers were at the airport to wish him well, together with the High Commissioners of Canada, Australia and Eire. As he climbed into the aircraft, there was a great cheer.  Meanwhile, there was a story going around the Continent that Haile Selassie of Abyssinia had written to the Czechoslovak President, Benes: “I hear you are receiving the support of the British. You have my profound sympathy.”

At Munich that evening, the French and British did not resist any of the German territorial claims, except to ask for plebiscites in doubtful areas. They even agreed that the Germans could take control of some fortified areas immediately, so that the Czechs lost not only their defensive system, but also most of its heavy equipment. They were excluded from the conference and were simply informed of its results afterwards. One of their ‘observers’ was reported as telling a French delegate: “When your time comes, you will ask, ‘where are those two million Czechs who might have been fighting with us?’ They couldn’t even destroy their own military installations along the northern frontier; they simply had to hand these over to the Germans. In its annexe, the agreement called for the settlement of Polish and Hungarian claims, in addition to guaranteeing the new borders of Czechoslovakia.  This ‘guarantee’ was never ratified by any of the powers.

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Hitler and Chamberlain each signed a separate document declaring that their countries would never go to war with each other. Later, Hitler was reported as saying: “Well, Chamberlain seemed such a nice old gentleman, I thought I would give him my autograph as a souvenir”.  Waved by Chamberlain on his return, this document procured so ecstatic a reception that one disenchanted observer said, “I thought they were going to grovel on the ground in front of him”.  He had, as he put it, quoting Shakespeare, plucked the flower safely from the nettle danger. In the euphoria of the moment, it seems that he believed this. The strain on him personally had been immense and he had shown remarkable resilience for a man of his age. Chamberlain’s own account of his rapturous return reads:

Even the descriptions in the papers give no idea of the scenes in the streets as I drove from Heston to the Palace. They were lined from one end to the other with people of every class, shouting themselves hoarse, leaping on the running board, banging on the windows and thrusting their hands into the car to be shaken. The scenes culminated in Downing Street when I spoke to the multitude below from the same window, I believe, as that from which Dizzy (Benjamin Disraeli) announced peace with honour sixty years ago.” 

 

 

 

 

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Whether or not he really believed that he had really achieved a long-term ‘peace with honour’, Chamberlain did not stop, or slow down his government’s rearmament programme.  Despite the apparent euphoria which greeted his ‘triumphant return’,  just a few days after Munich a poll revealed that very few people believed that Hitler would keep his promise. It was no longer a realistic question if war would break out, simply when it would come. For the next few months, Britain was in a kind of dream-like state in which people did what they had always done, mesmerised by fatalism. But, at least, the year was allowed to end without further diplomatic ado. There were signs that he was looking to the future and playing for time. As a Midland industrialist, he knew that the shadow factories being built on the outskirts of Coventry and other cities would need time to attract sufficient labour to swing into full production. Housing had to be found for these workers. As Minister for Health and Local Government a decade previously he had developed a detailed knowledge of every locality in the country, and could now put that to good use in planning the war effort. He had persuaded Hitler to put his name to a document in which he had at least agreed to consult before taking any further action. His word was on trial. He had staked his premiership on achieving the Munich Agreement. He may well have hoped that it would last and bring about lasting peace in Europe, but, if not, at least Britain would be readier in September 1939 or 1940 than it was in 1938.

 

Sir Robert Vansittart advised Harold Nicolson to forget the past and concentrate on bringing people together to meet the next danger. Nevertheless, Nicolson voted against a resolution of the National Labour Executive pledging support for the PM. Unfriendly letters began appearing in the Leicester newspapers attacking him for his disloyalty. Despite this, he remained uncompromising in his criticism of the government’s foreign policy after the Munich Agreement. In the Parliamentary debate which followed, he spoke with great authority, for in 1919 he had served on the committee that had laid down the Sudetenland frontier. Hitler, he stated, had three objectives: to swallow the Sudeten Germans, to destroy Czechoslovakia, and to dominate Europe. “We have given him all these three things”, he asserted. He would have met the first of these demands, though with ‘unutterable sadness’, for the Sudetenland ‘was not worth a war’, but Chamberlain’s total capitulation on this point had set off a chain reaction that would lead to total surrender on the other two. “The essential thing”, he put forward, “the thing which we ought to have resisted, the thing which we still should resist; the thing which I am afraid it is now too late to resist is the domination of Europe by Germany.” He spoke of “this humiliating defeat, this terrible Munich retreat” as “one of the most disastrous episodes that has ever occurred in our history”. He characterised  Chamberlain’s ‘bit of paper’ supposedly bringing ‘peace with honour’ as ‘a little after-dinner extravaganza’.  The so-called ‘guarantee’ of Czechoslovakia’s new borders was ‘the most farcical diplomatic hypocrisy that was ever perpetrated’.  Nicholson’s speech was followed by other powerful speeches by Churchill and Duff Cooper, who had resigned from the Cabinet, but the government was given a huge majority, declaring its confidence in the appeasement policy by  366 to 144. The opposition case was weakened by its lack of new ideas to pose as realistic alternatives. In November, the Nazis instigated their pogrom against the Jews, Kristallnacht.  It was harshly criticised by enlightened British opinion. Harold feared what the New Year might bring and labelled it ‘This Year of Destiny’. His faith in Chamberlain’s judgement was at an all-time low. ‘What would you have done if you had been in Chamberlain’s place at Munich?’ he was asked. He retorted:

I should never have allowed myself to be manoeuvred into so impossible a position. I should not have acclaimed myself as having brought peace with honour. I should have got out of that aeroplane, slowly and sadly, and I should have said, ‘we have avoided war, but at the price of honour. There is no cause for rejoicing’.

001Historian Keith Robbins has written, “Munich has always been seen as the apotheosis of appeasement in action”, pointing out that it was Chamberlain’s behaviour over the whole three weeks of the Sudetenland Crisis which gave the entire strategy of appeasement a bad name. Although he may have had the best of intentions, his zeal was humiliating for Britain. He was outplayed by Hitler on almost every point. That has been the verdict of posterity, with the benefit of considerable hindsight. At the time, however, as Vanttisart had pointed out, the question of the policy’s justification depended on what happened next.

 

 

 

 

 

Primary Sources:

Daily Express (?), (1938), These Tremendous Years, 1919-38: A History in photographs of life and events, big and little, in Britain and the world since the war.

 

Secondary Sources:

013Norman Rose (2005), Harold Nicolson. London: Pimlico.

René Cutforth (1976), Later than we thought. Newton Abbot: David & Charles.

Open University (1973), Between Two Wars: A Third Level Course, War and Society, Block VII Units 19-20 (The Origins of World War II). Bletchley: OUP.

Keith Robbins (1997), Appeasement (second edition). Oxford: Blackwell.

Appendix To Chapter One: Documents & Discussions

Document A:

The Duchess of Atholl, Searchlight on Spain (1938):

British Naval Strength, much greater relatively to Germany’s than in 1914, should be able to prevent the passage of any more arms from Hamburg  or other German ports to Spain. A combined British and French fleet in the Mediterranean should be able to prevent many Italian reinforcements from reaching General Franco…

Unless, indeed, the Fascist Powers wish a European war here and now, a rapid flow of arms to the Republicans plus the possibility of a Franco-British blockade, might induce the aggressors to withdraw at least part of their armed forces. If the Spaniards were at last left to fight it out, a loyalist victory would be assured, and a heavy blow would have been dealt to aggressive dictators.  A new hope of peace would dawn for Europe.

….If Spain be allowed to pass under Fascist control, the dictators will have won the first round of the game, and the succeeding ones will be infinitely hard, and more costly, to wrench from their hands. 

Is it not clear, then, that whatever our next move may be, the first, if we are not to be parties to an appalling tragedy and to a terrible blunder, must be to abandon the so-called Non-Intervention policy and restore to the Spanish Government its right under international law to buy arms?

Document B:

A correspondent for  The Times living in Prague in 1938 gave this account of the reaction in Prague to The Times article of the 7th September:

Everywhere I went in Prague during the next few days I was pounced upon by officials, diplomats and journalists. I could shake very few of them out of their treasured opinion that ‘The Times’ was the direct voice of the British Government….Given the standing and great influence of ‘The Times’ in those years… I knew the damage would be at least as great as if the article had been  inspired directly by the Government…. The article was a signal that Chamberlain had allies…

Geoffrey Dawson (the editor) was of course in sympathy with Chamberlain and Halifax… His deputy editor… was carried forward by a burning mission to save the world from another war… Like Halifax, he told me more than once that Germany was ordained to the exert influence over central and eastern Europe…

(I McDonald, A Man of the Times, Hamish Hamilton, 1976).

Document C:

Newsreel, September 1938:

The Gaumont-British newsreel, transcript, reporting on the scene at Heston Airport, 15th September 1938:

The hour of need has found the man, Mr Neville Chamberlain, the Prime Minister. Since he took office Mr Chamberlain has never wavered in his determination to establish peace in Europe. At the hour when the dark clouds of war hung most menacingly above the world of men, the Prime Minister took a wise and bold decision. Well may we call him Chamberlain the Peacemaker. Lord Halifax, the Foreign Secretary, was at Heston to see the Primier off on this epic-making flight to Germany, the first flight he has ever made. We know that no man could do more than he, but since we also know that it lies not in the power of mortals to command success, we say with all our hearts, ‘May God go with him! Three cheers for Chamberlain!…   

Document D:

The Anglo-French proposals were presented to the Czechoslovak Government on 19th September 1938:

The representatives of the French and British Governments have been in consultation today on the general situation, and have considered the British Prime Minister’s report of his conversation with Herr Hitler. … We are both convinced that, after recent events, the point has been reached where the further maintenance within the boundaries of the Czechoslovak State of the districts mainly inhabited by Sudeten Deutsch cannot, in fact, continue any longer without imperilling the interest of Czechoslovakia herself and of European peace… both Governments have been compelled to the conclusion that the maintenance of peace and the safety of Czechoslovakia’s vital interests cannot effectively be assured unless these areas are now transferred to the Reich… 

(Correspondence Respecting Czechoslovakia, Miscellaneous 7, (1938) pp 8-9).

Document E:

Lord Runciman had been asked to report on the German Sudetenland question for Chanberlain. He did so by letter on 21st September:

My dear Prime Minister,… The problem of political, social and economic relations between Teuton and Slav races in the area which is now called Czechoslovakia is one which has existed for many centuries… I have much sympathy, however, with the Sudeten case. It is a hard thing to be ruled by an alien race; and I have been left with the impression that Czechoslovak rule in the Sudeten area for the last twenty years, while not actively oppressive and certainly not ‘terroristic’, has been marked by tactlessness, lack of understanding, petty intolerance and discrimination, to a point where the resentment of the German population was inevitably moving in the direction of revolt…

Local irritations were added to these major grievances. Czech officials and Czech police, speaking little or no German, were appointed in large numbers to purely German districts; Czech agricultural colonists were encouraged to settle on land transferred under the Land Reform in the middle of German populations; for the children of these… invaders Czech schools were built on a large scale; there is a very general belief that Czech firms were favoured as against German firms in the allocation of State contracts and that the State provided work  and relief for Czechs more regularly than Germans. I believe these complaints to be in the main justified… the feeling of the Sudeten Germans until three or four years ago was one of hopelessness. But the rise of Nazi Germany gave them new hope. I regard their turning for help towards their kinsmen and their eventual desire to join the Reich as a natural development in these circumstances.

(Correspondence Respecting Czechoslovakia, Miscellaneous No. 7 (1938), pp. 3-5)

Document F:

The Times correspondent in Prague described the atmosphere of crisis as it developed around Wenceslas Square on the 21st September:

 … the people of Prague decided… to take a direct hand in events. Very quickly crowds began to gather… At first they stood about in threes and fours, reading the papers and arguing. Some larger groups were mainly young men and girls, shabbily dressed. Soon men and women came in hundreds, then thousands, filling the square. They began by seeming wholly bewildered. Many were weeping. ‘What fools we were to spend such money on frontier defences’, I heard one man say, but few followed that line. ‘We don’t need any more guarantees,’ said another, ‘we want aeroplanes.’ A well-dressed woman stopped, guessing that I was British.  ‘Each night,’ she said in a cultured voice, ‘I pray that Heaven may punish France for her treachery and Britain for her blindness,’…

Still without anyone giving orders the crowds began moving out of the bottom of the square, shouting and singing the national anthem… In front of the Hradcany Palace the people called again for General Syrovy, the highly popularInspector General of the Forces, to take over and for all concessions to be stopped. Then the shouting changed. It took on a deeper meaning that caught one’s breath. ‘Tell us the truth. We want the truth.’ It was a sovereign demand…

(I McDonald, A Man of the Times, Hamish Hamilton, 1976)

Document G:

The second demonstration was on the 25th September, following the announcement of the call-up of all men under forty:

It was announced at 10.20 p.m. … In ten minutes the whole of the broad boulevard, which had been as bright as Piccadilly with moving cars, became dark, as a mass of men, walking shoulder to shoulder the whole width of the thoroughfare, passed on to the station. In place of the noise of trains and cars all one heard was the heavy swish and slur of hundreds of shoes. Some women walked with the men, the older ones tearful, the younger ones proudly holding on to the arms of their fathers and husbands. ‘Well, it had to come. We won’t let those German brutes through.’…

(McDonald)

Document H:

The Terms of the Munich Agreement, 29th September, 1938:

Germany, the United Kingdom, France and Italy… have agreed on the following terms and conditions… governing the said cession:

1. The evacuation will begin on 1st October

2. ….the evacuation… shall be completed by 10th October, without any existing installations having been destroyed…

4. The occupation by stages of the predominantly German territory by German troops will begin on 1st October… The remaining territory of predominantly German character will be ascertained by… international commission forthwith and be occupied by German troops by 10th October.

5. The international commission will… determine the territories in which a plebiscite is to be held…

6. The final determination of the frontiers will be carried out by the international commission…

7. There will be a right of option into and out of the transferred territories… A German-Czechoslovak commission shall… consider ways of facilitating the transfer of population…

(Documents Respecting Czechoslovakia, Miscellaneous No. 8 (1938), pp. 3-4)

Document I: 

Newsreel, October 1938:

The Sudetenland Crisis was the first major crisis covered by the newsreels: British newsreel companies co-operated with the German Ministry of Propaganda to provide massive coverage of Chamberlain’s three visits to Germany, providing the cinema audience with a diet of mounting excitement. The now famous newsreel of Chamberlain’s return from Munich on the 30th September is both the climax of the media campaign and historical evidence of its result. Here is the transcript:

Commentary

(on-screen caption: PEACE INSTEAD OF WAR)

(On-screen caption: ONE MAN SAVED US FROM THE GREATEST WAR OF ALL, fading into film of Chamberlain at Heston Airport) 

… So our Prime Minister has come back from his third and greatest journey and he said that “the settlement of the Czechoslovakian problem which has now been achieved is, in my view, only the prelude to a larger settlement in which all Europe may find peace. (cheers)

“This morning I had another talk with the German Chancellor, Herr Hitler, and here is the paper which bears his name on it as well as mine. Some of you, perhaps, have already heard what it contains, but I would just like to read it to you: (cheers)

” ‘We, the German Führer and Chancellor, and the British Prime Minister, have had a further meeting today and are agreed in recognising that the question of Anglo-German relations is of the first importance for the two countries and for Europe. We regard the agreement signed last night and the Anglo-German Naval agreement as symbolic of the desire of our two peoples never to go to war with each other again.’ ” (cheers)

There was no sign of British reserve as the crowds fought to get near the Premier’s car. As we travelled back with Mr Chamberlain from Heston we drove through serried masses of people, happy in the knowledge that there was no war with Germany. (cheers)

The Premier drove straight to Buckingham Palace; here he was received by the King while London waited. And history was made again when their majesties came out on to that famous balcony with the Prime Minister. (‘Land of Hope and Glory’)

Posterity will thank God, as we do now, that in time of desperate need our safety was guarded by such a man: Neville Chamberlain. 

(Gaumont-British, October 1938)

Document J:

Meanwhile, there was a third demonstration in Prague, as the news from Munich filtered through on the 30th September:

It is something any westerner would wish he had not seen. Munich had happened. Threatened with immediate war with Germany, and told by Britain and France that Czechoslovakia would be left to founder alone unless she submitted, Dr Benes and his ministers surrendered. Long sleeplessness and hours of browbeating from friends and allies had brought them… to a state when they were long past coherent thought. So Czechoslovakia was to be broken up. The people came onto the streets, again in their thousands, but this time weeping with grief, rage, shame and exhaustion.

(McDonald)

Document K:

Spontaneous demonstrations continued over the next days:

One morning I saw a large number of men and women in the Old Square around the statue of Jan Hus, burnt for his faith in 1415: they had been drawn there by a common impulse yet they could say nothing, only sit there, their eyes streaming, and their faces working.

(McDonald)

Document L:

Under the title, Two Incompatible Worlds, Professor Arnold Toynbee, who himself visited Hitler, described the mental gap between the dictators and western statesmen:

An English observer who paid frequent visits to Germany during the span of six and three-quarter years that intervened between Hitler’s advent to power in Germany… and the outbreak of war… had the uncanny impression, as he made the short physical journey … that within these narrow limits of space and time, he was travelling between two worlds which were momentarily both in existence side by side, but which could not go on thus co-existing because they were morally so far apart as to be incompatible in the long run.

(Survey of International Affairs, 1938, Volume II: The Crisis over Czechoslovakia, ed. R G D Laffan, with an introduction by Arnold J Toynbee, Oxford University Press, 1951)

Document M:

On 17th March, 1939, Chamberlain made a speech in his home town of Birmingham, looking back on his decision to negotiate with Hitler:

… When I decided to go to Germany I never expected that I was going to escape criticism. Indeed, I did not go there to get popularity. I went  there first and foremost because, in what appeared to be an almost desperate situation, that seemed to me to offer the only chance of averting a European war… the first and the most immediate object of my visit was achieved. The peace of Europe was saved;… Nothing that we could have done… could possibly have saved Czechoslovakia from invasion and destruction. Even if we had subsequently gone to war and… been victorious in the end, never could we have reconstructed Czechoslovakia as she was formed by the Treaty of Versailles.

But I had another purpose, too, in going to Munich. That was to further the policy which I have been pursuing ever since I had been in my present position – a policy which is sometimes called European appeasement… If that policy were to succeed, it was essential that no Power should seek to obtain a general domination of Europe; but that each one should be contented to obtain reasonable facilities for developing its own resources, securing its own share of international trade, and improving the conditions of its own people… it should be possible to resolve all differences by discussion and without armed conflict. I had hoped in going to Munich to find out by personal contact what was in Herr Hitler’s mind…

When I came back after my second visit I told the House of Commons of a conversation I had had with Herr Hitler, of which I said that… he had repeated what he had already said at Berchtesgaden – namely, that this was the last of his territorial ambitions in Europe, and that he had no wish to include in the Reich people of other races than German…

 … And lastly, in that declaration which he and I signed together at Munich, we declared that any other question which might concern our two countries should be dealt with by the method of consultation…

(Documents Concerning German-Polish Relations, Miscellaneous No. 9, 1939)

Document N:

In 1953, Duff Cooper, a critic at the time of Munich, wrote about Neville Chamberlain in the following terms:

… He had never moved in the great world of politics or finance, and the continent of Europe was a closed book. He had been a successful Lord Mayor of Birmingham, and for him the Dictators of Germany and Italy were like the Lord Mayors of Liverpool and Manchester, who might belong to different political parties and have different interests, but who must desire the welfare of humanity, and be fundamentally reasonable, decent men like himself. This profound misconception lay at the root of his policy and explains his mistakes.

(Duff Cooper, Old Men Forget, 1953)

Questions for Discussion & Debate:

Use the chronicle, narrative, photographs in the text, the documents in the appendix, and the gallery of photographs below to discuss and debate the following:

1.  What impact did the Spanish Civil War have on the course of international relations?

2.  How did the newsreel of the return of Chamberlain from Munich support his peacemaking efforts?

3.  ‘A piece of film is not some unadulterated reflection of historical truth captured by the camera which does not require the interposition of the historian’ (J A S Grenville). Discuss, with direct reference to both of the Gaumont-British newsreels transcribed above.

4.  Why was The Times article (7th Sept 1938) published, and why was its effect so considerable in Prague?

5.  According to McDonald, how did the people of Prague react to the Sudetenland Crisis from 21st  to 25th September?

6.  What does McDonald’s eye-witness account add to the narrative account of the Sudetenland Crisis and the Munich Agreement?

7.  How justifiable was Churchill’s statement (made to the Commons on 5th October) that ‘we have sustained a total and unmitigated defeat’?

8.  With reference to the narrative, and all the sources above, examine the view that appeasement was a noble and virtuous policy unsuited to dealing with a power like Nazi Germany.

9.  Attempt a defence of Chamberlain’s foreign policy in 1938. In your defence, refer to the evidence from those opposed to the policy at the time.

10.  In January 1938, the Chief of Naval Staff had written that the Royal Navy would not be able to deal simultaneously with hostilities from Japan and Germany. To what extent was appeasement a response to Britain’s wider problems of imperial responsibility, in which Europe took second place?

English: Sudeten German women welcome Hitler Č...

English: Sudeten German women welcome Hitler Česky: Sudetoněmecké ženy vítají Adolfa Hitlera (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A woman in the Sudetenland greets incoming Ger...

A woman in the Sudetenland greets incoming German troops with tears and a Nazi salute. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

English: Sudeten German priests health arrival...

English: Sudeten German priests health arrival of German troops Česky: Sudetoněmečtí kněží zdraví příjezd německých vojsk (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

English: Sudeten German Freikorps Česky: Defil...

English: Sudeten German Freikorps Česky: Defilující jednotky sudetoněmeckého Freikorpsu (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

English: Sudeten German women welcome Hitler Č...

English: Sudeten German women welcome Hitler Česky: Sudetoněmecké ženy vítají Adolfa Hitlera (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

English: The Sudeten Germans destroyed Czech n...

English: The Sudeten Germans destroyed Czech name of the city Šumperk Česky: Sudetští Němci zamazávají český název města Šumperka (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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