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Hitler’s aggressive intentions

LAURENCE REES: And how did Hitler then imagine the war was going to go, this war that he had started?

SIR IAN KERSHAW: He thought that Poland would rapidly be demolished, militarily, and occupied, as it was. He didn’t have any clear cut, well worked out plans for the occupation of Poland, but those were rapidly devised once Poland was defeated militarily. He then thought that there would have to be a move West to destroy France, which was still regarded as the biggest military land force in Europe, and he thought the Germans were now powerful enough to do that. Many of the Generals disagreed and had very cold feet about attacking France. Hitler was pushing for that already in the autumn of 1939 and the Generals said impossible, the army is simply not ready for it, half the tanks had broken down even attacking Poland and so on.

So eventually that attack on France came about in the spring of 1940, and within six weeks German troops were marching into Paris – an incredible victory. He then presumed, though, that Britain would fall into line and they would sue for peace and there would be some type of rapprochement, a deal done, a negotiated end to the war, Britain would be on side. He didn’t want to invade Britain, what he wanted was a type of puppet government in Britain that would fall in with German demands, and then the way would be clear for the attack in the East which is the war that he’d always wanted. But it would now be an attack in the East with British support, with the West already taken care of. And that would have meant at the same time that the Americans, who were a looming problem that he didn’t want to think about too much but he didn’t have an answer to that, he had to gain this victory in Europe before the Americans were ready to intervene in any sort of way.

But if Britain could be kept out of the war or could be defeated then the Americans would be less likely to enter it and would maybe keep back on their own hemisphere, so the way would be clear for German dominance of the continent of Europe. So with a victory over the Soviet Union now seen with the war in the West won and with British compliance even, or actual support, then Germany would have occupied the bulk of Europe, it would have effectively won the war there, the Soviet Union would be pushed back beyond the Urals and Germany would control the continent of Europe as an immense fortress.

LAURENCE REES: Isn’t there a sense in which it must have been almost the single greatest disappointment of his political career – the fact that Britain didn’t fall into line at this point?

SIR IAN KERSHAW: It was a big disappointment for him because he in certain ways admired the British and had wanted them on side. He’d even, going back to Mein Kampf, he’d spoken about a new sort of set of alliances – now with turning their back upon the position before 1914 – a new set of alliances which would include as a key point of it an alliance with Britain. For a long time in the 1930s he attempted to get that alliance and only gradually then did he come to the realization by the mid-1930s, by ’36-7, that was never going to happen. So it was a sore disappointment and then a disappointment when Britain could not be forced into line, therefore ending the war in the West.