Posts tagged Hitler

The Pact of Steel: Hubris

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On May 22, 1939, Germany and Italy signed the Pact of Steel, or more formally, the Pact of Friendship and Alliance between Germany and Italy, thereby converting the Rome-Berlin Axis into a military alliance.  The Pact was executed by Foreign Ministers Galeazzo Ciano and Joachim von Ribbentrop at the Reich Chancellery in Berlin.

Ciano is on the left; Ribbentrop on the right; Hitler in the middle

Both parties agreed that if either “contrary to the[ir] wishes and hopes,” should find themselves at war, the other party “would immediately come to its assistance as an ally and support it with all its military forces on land, the sea and in the air.”  Furthermore, neither party would conclude an armistice or separate peace without the agreement of the other.

Notwithstanding the expressed “wishes and hopes” to avoid war, the agreement was clearly aggressive in nature.  Hitler insisted that the Preamble declare the two countries “united by the inner affinity of their ideologies . . . are resolved to act side by side and with united forces to secure living space.”  To Winston Churchill, the Pact was “the challenging answer to the flimsy British network of guarantees in Eastern Europe.”

In a single stroke, Hitler secured his southern flank (Italy had fought against Germany in the First World War), gained a bellicose ally who had been consistently courted by the western powers, and signaled his determination to impose his will on Europe. In fact, the very next day, May 23, 1939, Hitler secretly convened his top military brass and informed them that war was inevitable.  “We are left with the decision to attack Poland at the first suitable opportunity.  We cannot expect a repetition of the Czech affair.  There will be war.”  Mussolini in turn gained an ally that was the ascendant military power in Europe.

In the meantime, the western democratic powers, France and Great Britain, remained divided, uncertain, and committed to appeasement. They had capitulated to the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia in the Munich Agreement of September 1938.  They had stood by when the Nazis seized the rest of Czechoslovakia in March 1939 (witnessed first-hand by Odd Nansen). And they would temporize again when Germany invaded Poland in September 1939.

To all appearances, then, the Pact of Steel seemed like yet another brilliant strategic move by Hitler and Mussolini.

Sometimes, however, appearances can be deceiving.  As William L. Shirer noted in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, “This was one of the first signs that the Italian dictator, like the German, was beginning to lose that iron self-control which up to this year of 1939 had enabled them both to pursue their own national interests with ice-cold clarity.”

In hindsight, perhaps a most acute and accurate summary of the consequences that flowed from the Pact of Steel comes from Andre Francois-Poncet, French Ambassador to both Germany (1931—1938) and Italy (1938—1940):

“Their [Hitler and Mussolini’s] friendship proved equally fatal to both.  Without Mussolini, Hitler could never have carried out his plans for conquest and his ambition for hegemony. Without Hitler, Mussolini, contenting himself with making speeches, would never have yielded to his most dangerous temptations.  Separately they might have lived; their union caused their destruction, and in the last analysis each died through the agency of the other.”

And what of the signatories to the Pact of Steel, and their principals, in their gaudy uniforms, surrounded by their staffs and the considerable pomp of the Reich Chancellery?

Von Ribbentrop became the first of the Nazis convicted at Nuremburg to be hanged, on October 16, 1946.  Hitler had committed suicide eighteen months earlier, on April 30, 1945.

Ciano was executed by firing squad on January 11, 1944, on orders from his own father-in-law, Benito Mussolini; Mussolini would be killed by Italian partisans two days before Hitler’s suicide, on May 28, 1945.

Hubris indeed.

VE Day in Europe: May 8, 1945

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VE Day

Seventy-five years ago today World War II ended in Europe.  Hitler was dead, and a devastated Germany surrendered unconditionally.

In his diary for that day William L. Shirer wrote: “All day I have had to rub my eyes to believe it; to realize that this is really the end of the nightmare that began for me . . . five and a half years ago.  It seems a long time—ages—and some twenty-five million human beings who were alive on that day and relatively happy have perished, slaughtered on the battlefield, wiped out by bombs, tortured to death in the Nazi horror camps.”

Although the end of the war in Europe is quite clear, when did it all actually begin?

Most conventional answers focus on September 1, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland. But would Hitler have invaded Poland without securing his southern flank, which he accomplished on March 15, 1939 when he marched into Czechoslovakia? Would he have marched on Czechoslovakia if he hadn’t already seized Austria in March 1938?  Does the date go back even further—to Germany’s occupation of the Rhineland on March 7, 1936, in contravention of the Versailles Treaty?

I would submit that the date may in fact be even earlier than all that: to January 30, 1933, when Adolf Hitler was sworn in as Chancellor of Germany.  After all, Hitler had laid out his plans for all the world to see (and read) in Mein Kampf, published in 1925.  It’s all there: Germany’s need for Lebensraum in the East; his hatred of the Jews.  Hitler made no secret of his ultimate plans when and if he achieved a position of power.

And while much attention is focused on every conceivable aspect of the “hot” war (1939—1945), far less is paid to its crucial antecedents.

Peter Fritzsche, one of my favorite historians, has just written an in-depth study of Hitler’s start in 1939 in Hitler’s First Hundred Days: When Germans Embraced the Third Reich, Basic Books (2020).  As Fritzsche is quick to point out early on, “[In 1933] Europe suddenly slipped from the firm footing of a postwar era into the anxious vertigo of a prewar one.”

In his latest book, Professor Fritzsche attempts to answer a conundrum that lies at the heart of one of the strangest socio-political developments of the Twentieth Century. Namely, how were Hitler and the Nazis able, in a bitterly polarized country; in a country where opposition parties consistently outpolled them; in a country where the Nazis were in fact losing popular support—how did Hitler, within a mere 100 days, so solidify his hold on the nation that all dissent was effectively eliminated and the country stood almost wholeheartedly behind his program?

As Fritzsche explains, it’s complicated, and this blog can hardly do justice to his deep analysis.

Fritzsche first makes clear that Hitler’s ascension to the Chancellorship on January 30 was by no means preordained.  Just two months earlier, in the November 1932 national elections, the left-leaning Social Democrat Party, and the Communist Party, together received more votes than the Nazis, whose share of the national total actually slipped, from 37% to 33%.  But the right-wing, anti-Weimar parties were united, whereas the anti-fascist parties were not.

Even so, it was only on the morning of January 30 that the leaders of the nationalist, right wing factions each concluded that the appointment of Hitler was the only way to establish authoritarian rule, and destroy the hated Weimar Republic.  This desire outweighed even their fear that they would be unable to tame him.

Once in power, the Nazis used a combination of consent and coercion—push and pull—to meld German society into a united whole.  Many Germans, tired of the political and economic uncertainly which had characterized Germany since 1919, were beguiled by Hitler’s program, and the vision of a new Germany he offered.

In End of a Berlin Diary, Shirer relates an interrogation by US Forces of Hanna Reitsch conducted shortly after Germany’s surrender.  Reitsch had achieved notoriety during the war as a female test pilot and aeronautical expert.  Even in retrospect Reitsch continued to believe Hitler’s initial aims were worthy.  “Hitler ended his life as a criminal against the world,” she confessed, but quickly added, “he did not begin that way.  At first his thoughts were only of how to make Germany healthy again.”

Where consent failed, there was always the threat of coercion.  Armed with near dictatorial powers following the February 1933 Reichstag fire, the Nazis soon forced the independent press to toe the party line.  At the same time the compliant nationalist press pursued its goal of the destroying the republic, “which meant the destruction of fact, morality and law.” Any underground movement soon fell afoul of impromptu concentration camps, where the violence meted out was not primarily to extract information but to break the spirit of the resisters, and to cause suffering rather than death.

The Nazis also promoted solidarity within its growing ranks, ironically, by artfully engaging in the politics of division, of exclusion and inclusion.  The Jews were the first to be excluded, via boycotts, etc., and no one could be neutral.  To help a Jew was to be anti-German. Next came the Social Democrats.  To associate with a Social Democrat was to be a traitor, and a traitor could not be a friend.  Better then to accept the inevitable, and even embrace it, than to object, and thus stand out in the crowd.  In fact, it was not enough to keep quiet—one had to denounce the enemy.  When Hitler belittled Weimar, and those associated with it, in his speeches, his audiences cried out “Hang them.”

And so, in an exceptionally rapid and comprehensive way, German society became fascist.  As Hanna Reitsch’s comments above show, the country was soon convinced that the coming of Hitler promised a brighter future for Germany.

But as Professor Fritzsche makes clear, the conservative grandees who coalesced behind Hitler on that fateful morning of January 30, 1933, in their eager ambition to destroy Weimar by any means possible, made one fatal mistake, a mistake that they would only come to fully realize when Germany lay in utter ruin on May 8, 1945:

“they had made a pact with the devil.”

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