As every schoolboy knows (or at least ought to know) the Germans invaded Poland on September 1, 1939 and then, two days later, the British and French declared war on Germany in fulfillment of the previous guarantees they had made to the Poles.
What’s a good deal less well known is the nature of the invasion. There’s been a tendency over the last twenty years or so to divide Hitler’s war in two – with a ‘conventional’ war fought before the summer of 1941, and an ‘ideological’ war fought from the moment the Germans invaded the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941. This simplistic analysis is, many historians now believe, to grossly misunderstand Hitler’s own attitude to the conflict.
‘This [approach] seems to me fundamentally misguided, because of the significance that I attribute, and I think we ought to attribute, to ideology in the decision making in 1939,’ says Professor Adam Tooze. ‘If you believe that you have to go to war with Britain and France and fight that war to the finish against what you believe at the time to be appalling odds, because Roosevelt is essentially a slave of American Jewry, then the war from the very beginning is an ideological war…. The wider strategic logic of the war is, as far as I could see for Hitler, a single piece. It isn’t as though he fights one war rather reluctantly because it’s a practical war that Chamberlain or somebody has forced on him and then finally gets to face eastwards and fight the ideological war he’s always wanted to fight. It’s precisely because he understands world Jewry to have reorganised its campaign against Germany and to have refocused it via America in the West that the war in the West is already an ideological struggle.’
And it is certainly the case that from the moment the Germans entered Poland, appalling war crimes were committed. ‘If you look at the invasion of Poland in September 1939,’ says Professor Mary Fulbrook, ‘you see in the very first week of the war the first mass atrocities against civilians, against Jewish women and children and old people. An awful lot is written about what happened after the invasion of the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941 in terms of Einsatzgruppen going in and atrocities being committed against civilians, but that was happening already in September 1939. If you take just the first week of the war and you look at Eastern Upper Silesia you get burnings of synagogues with people inside the synagogue dying in the flames. You get atrocities with the killing of men, women, children and old people in all the houses surrounding the synagogue in Będzin; this is a massive atrocity, the killing of civilians and no concept of reprisals in wartime. It’s not a military engagement it’s an atrocious ideological assault on ordinary Jewish people living in these areas.’
A number of German Army officers, like Colonel-General Johannes Blaskowitz, complained about the actions of the SS and other security forces in Poland, only for Hitler to remark, revealingly, that a war could not be won with ‘salvation army methods’. Even before the war with Poland had been won, Hitler told the German Army High Command that they had to be ready within days to launch an attack on France. The Generals were almost dumbstruck. So dismayed was General Franz Halder, chief of staff of the General Army, that he even considered launching a coup against Hitler.
Indeed, so strong was the opposition from the Generals, that one can see the autumn of 1939 as watershed period in Hitler’s career. Hitler was determined to attack France, and his Generals were just as determined that the Army was not ready. The French and the British had more tanks, more planes and were in almost all other respects better equipped. But Hitler forced the matter through, and eventually – in part because they realized that the junior ranks in the German army would almost certainly never countenance a mutiny against the Fuehrer, the Generals reluctantly agreed to go along with the wishes of their Head of State.
Even so, it was happenstance that a plan was finally agreed which had a strong chance of success. In January 1940, the western Allies captured a copy of the German attack plans when a German plane was shot down in Belgium. This meant that Hitler ultimately embraced a more radical plan than the original German notion of a reprise of the attack through Belgium and the Low Countries that had bogged down in the trenches of France in the First World War.
The new plan called for a diversionary attack in the north, whilst a massive armoured force under the command of von Rundstedt attacked towards Sedan through the forest of the Ardennes. ‘The German plan is a plan which is again a spectacular gamble,’ says Professor Adam Tooze, ‘and it succeeds because the forces in the German offensive are concentrated in an extraordinarily tight pack which is going to drive through the Ardennes in a single offensive move all the way across northern France to the Channel. This is an operation of unprecedented logistical risk and gives the opponents of Germany - Britain, France, Belgium and Holland - the chance, if they’re sufficiently well organised, to mount a devastating counterattack on Germany and on the pincer moving across northern France. And for this reason the Germans fully understand that if this plan fails they’ve lost the war. So it’s, rather than simply the result of a series of coincidences, more that the Germans are simply taking a very, very high risk gamble. The gamble bears the possibility of total victory, which is what they ultimately achieve over France, but also a risk of catastrophic defeat which they’re fully conscious of.’
But because we all know the Germans won this swift and spectacular victory, there is a tendency, as Tooze reminds us, to forget the immensity of Hitler’s gamble. If the German tanks had been bombed as they attempted to negotiotiate the Ardennes, for instance, then almost certainly the Second World War would have come to an end in May 1940. But Hitler took this risk, and it paid off. As a result, he was now hailed by his supporters as the greatest war lord in all history.
‘For the Germans it’s just a wonderful experience after such a long fight and long historical battle between France and Germany,’ says Professor Norbert Frei. ‘It seemed that we are in Paris, and we have achieved this victory and we have achieved it on a rather low cost. So this is one aspect of it and it’s an important one. And this gives hope that at a certain point Hitler will be satisfied with what he has achieved and we might end up with a war that in the end will be ended without spilling too much blood.’
But Hitler’s problem now was that the British would not do what he thought ‘sensible’. ‘He [Hitler] then presumed,’ says Professor Sir Ian Kershaw, ‘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.’
The fact that the British decision not to make peace could so upset Hitler’s plans is typical of his ill thought through leadership. For there was a yawning gap between Hitler’s long term strategy – to gain an Empire in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union – and his inability to deal with short term obstacles to that goal – most notably Churchill’s refusal to give up.
And then there were the added stresses within the German leadership structure caused both by Hitler’s inability to accept criticism (a characteristic, in military terms, made even worse in the wake of the victory over France) and the fact that Hitler constantly said that Germany was in a race – a race to resolve the war before the superior resources of her enemies (and potential enemies like America) could be brought to bare.
So now, in the wake of the victory over France, and the immense difficulties of mounting any invasion of Britain, Hitler had a brainwave. An idea that allowed him to do what he had ideologically wanted to do all along, and yet – he convinced himself – also made short term strategic sense.
‘Hitler had this notion,’ says Professor Sir Ian Kershaw, ‘which sounds really odd today, but the idea that he put forward: we defeat London via Moscow, knock out the Soviet Union in a quick blitzkrieg war, take about four or five months, by the end of the year we’ll destroy the Soviet Union, Britain will then be bereft of its only potential ally in Europe and the Americans will now keep back to their own hemisphere. So by another route we will have won the war.’
Hitler was profoundly wrong, of course. Because the British placed their faith in the Americans, not the Soviets. But Hitler had no way of defeating America, so he conveniently omitted that reality from the equation he had constructed. But Hitler’s desire to have an epic confrontation with the Soviets had been hard-wired into his mind for quite some time.
‘The aim was there from the 1920s, the mid-1920s at the latest,’ says Sir Ian, ‘that Germany would have to tackle the Soviet Union to gain territory. That was an idea which seems to have been planted in Hitler’s head no later than about the end of 1922, the first time that it occurs, this idea. By 1926 when he finished the second volume of Mein Kampf that idea is plainly there, and the next three years, two or three years, he speaks repeatedly about this idea, like acquiring space, living space, and so that is an idea that’s there ideologically. And it fits, of course, into the race idea as well, the idea of destroying the Jews who are, in his warped vision, the power behind Bolshevism – so you destroy Bolshevism, you destroy the Jews and you acquire living space all in the same activity. So that’s the ideological aim.’
And in the wake of the decision to invade the Soviet Union, a whole series of new initiatives were taken which would ensure that this would be the bloodiest war in history. To begin with, German soldiers were told that they should not take Soviet Commissars (political officers) prisoner, but instead shoot them immediately after capture. And special killing squads – Einstazgruppen – were to operate behind the lines, murdering the Nazis’ other ideological enemies, including ‘Jews in the service of the party or the state’.
But also, there was a plan – known as the ‘Hunger plan’ - which called on the German Army to live off the land in the Soviet Union and German administrators to organize the snatching of food from the occupied Soviet territory, all in the knowledge that tens of millions of Soviet citizens would thus starve to death. ‘One essential element [ie reason for the ‘Hunger plan’] is no doubt that the Germans are convinced that this kind of war is being waged against them,’ says Professor Adam Tooze. ‘It is common sense amongst Germans of all political dispositions in the 1920s, for instance, that the British blockade imposed on Germany in World War One killed 600,000 to 750,000 people, mainly women and children. So the Germans understand the war in a very comprehensive sense and as one that is bent on indiscriminate annihilation by both sides and without distinction, necessarily, between the West and the East. They experienced themselves as victims of an annihilatory war in World War One and I think that’s essential, especially when we’re thinking about food, because food is seen as this fundamental variable. Without it the home front can’t survive, and if the home front doesn’t survive Germany will become victim to yet another effort by the West to starve it into submission. And so what you see in the rhetoric of 1940-42 is this sort of inverting move where we say somebody’s going to starve, but it isn’t going to be us this time. And that, I think, is an absolutely fundamental rhetorical device.
'Furthermore, we know that this had persuasive power because unlike the Holocaust which, as generations of historians have shown, is euphemised about, it’s not spoken about openly, the Hunger Plan is explicitly documented in instructions issued to the German occupying forces. So commanders of German garrisons in the rear areas have explicit instructions which say should you feel minded to distribute food to starving Russians, remind yourself and your subordinates that what is at stake here is nothing less than the survival of the Reich and the continuation of the war into its second, third, fourth year. These people have no entitlement to rations, the implication then subsequently and clearly, is that these people will starve and you must preside over their starvation as a matter of national priority.’
And this war of annihilation against the Soviet Union was one which Hitler believed could be won very quickly – indeed it had to be won very quickly if the Germans were to win the overall war. But Hitler was not alone in thinking that the Soviets would be defeated easily. ‘At the time Hitler thought five months would do it,’ says Sir Ian Kershaw, ‘Goebbels thought four months, some of the Generals thought less than that. This was a collective German lunacy, if you want to see it in that sense. But the American intelligence forces thought that this would be between three and six weeks, they reckoned that the Red Army was in no position to withstand the Wehrmacht. And British intelligence also thought this was a foregone conclusion and the Germans would win in the Soviet Union.
‘So nobody really at that time, inside or outside Germany, thought that the Soviet Union would withstand this assault from so powerful a force as the Wehrmacht, and so the prognostications were that Russia would be defeated by the autumn and the winter. So the project was madness in a sense, to have this huge war in the East with the war in the West unfinished. But from the contemporary point of view the Red Army had fought a war in Finland in the winter of 1939-40 and suffered grievous losses in this war against a puny military force like the Finnish Army. And then on top of that came the racial sentiments that these were somehow Untermenschen and they were inferiors and they were not capable of putting up very stiff resistance for long. And beyond that then there were notions that Stalin himself had wrecked his own army through the purges of the late 1930s and that many of these people were not really willing to fight for this regime for very long.’