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WHEN THE WORLD WENT BACK TO WAR : Only One Man Wanted to Ignite World War II

August 27, 1989|John Keegan | Author and historian John Keegan is the defense editor of the Daily Telegraph

LONDON — The war that broke out on Sept. 1, 1939, was a war almost no one wanted. In 1914 cheering crowds had thronged the streets of every European capital as the mobilization posters went up and the reservists marched to the railroad stations garlanded with flowers. There were few flowers in 1939. Too many wreaths had been laid on too many soldiers' graves in the years since the Armistice for Europeans to accept the return of war with anything but dread and foreboding.

Only one European really wanted war: Adolf Hitler. For him World War I had been "the supreme experience," as he wrote in "Mein Kampf," and his political life had been a struggle to win vengeance for the defeat Germany suffered in 1918. He knew exactly who the victims of his vengeance were to be: the Jews, of course, because their "international conspiracy" had been the cause of Germany's defeat. But their ultimate fate was reserved for the future. In 1939 his immediate targets were the people of the East who had profited from Germany's defeat, to found states on territory that had belonged to the German or Austrian emperors--the Poles and Czechs. He had finished the Czechs in March, when half the country had been made a German "protectorate" and the other half turned into a puppet state. By August he was determined to finish the Poles--at the price of war if necessary.

"Our enemies"--he meant Britain and France--"are small fry. I saw them at Munich," he told his service chiefs at Berchtesgaden on Aug. 22. Yet that did not mean he was prepared to risk invading Poland if the British and French could bring Soviet Russia into a war against him. The British and French even then had delegates in Moscow, seeking an anti-German alliance. Fortunately for him, Britain and France could offer Josef Stalin nothing he wanted--no direct military aid, not even assurance that the Poles would let the Red Army into its territory to confront the Wehrmacht.

Hitler, on the other hand, had much to offer the Russians--a nonaggression pact and, as a direct bribe, an agreement to carve up Eastern Europe after Poland had been beaten. By the time he met his generals and admirals at Berchtesgaden he knew the nonaggression pact was in the bag. Even as he spoke in an atmosphere heavy with apprehension--the German admirals were "deep in gloom" at the prospect of confronting the Royal Navy--he was awaiting word from his foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, that the Russians were ready to become active allies.

Von Ribbentrop had flown to Moscow on Aug. 23, was met at the airport by a band playing the German national anthem under a display of swastika flags--borrowed from a film studio where an anti-Nazi film had just been made. He was then driven to a villa next to where British and French delegates were vainly trying to persuade the Russians they were worthwhile allies. Shortly afterward he found himself in Vyacheslav M. Molotov's office in the Kremlin. Stalin entered. Von Ribbentrop was the first minister of a foreign government he had ever met, and their talks were the first diplomatic negotiations he had ever conducted. He nevertheless dominated discussions from the first moment.

Stalin struck out the effusive preamble to the treaty Von Ribbentrop had written. "After six years of shoveling mountains of cow dung over each other," Prof. Donald Watt records (he also records that Stalin's language was "much coarser" in the original), "they could not suddenly go public with this kind of profession of eternal friendship." That settled, Von Ribbentrop laid down the secret terms. Poland was to be cut in half, Germany to have the west, Russia the east. Stalin insisted on having Latvia as well as Estonia, and a free hand toward Finland (which he would invade the coming November). Finally, he announced that he wanted the Bessarabian province of Romania. Hitler, by telephone, agreed to everything. In the early morning, Aug. 24, the pact was signed, to come into effect immediately. Toasts were drunk--by Von Ribbentrop to Stalin, by Stalin to the absent Hitler. The first shots of World War II were as good as fired.

They were actually fired a week later--not in battle but in an act of murder. Hitler had got his preconditions for war in Moscow. What he then needed was a pretext. Since the Poles were unlikely to attack him, he decided to manufacture one. At Gleiwitz in German Silesia, just across the border from Poland, the German post office operated a radio transmitter beaming anti-Polish broadcasts across the frontier. Hitler's SS had decided that a simulated Polish attack on the transmitter would persuade the world press that an act of aggression had taken place.

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