by Alfred Browne
I HAVE long been confused about the origins and early events of the Second World War, not just because I am now 88. My confusion dates back 70 years to that September morning when, delivering Daily Workers, I learned an ultimatum by Neville Chamberlain to Hitler to cease his attack on Poland had expired and we were at war with Germany. Like many others I was already confused about our alliance with and guarantee to Poland. What did we have to help that country stave off German aggression? Nothing except words of condemnation.
Air raid sirens sounded but there was no raid. There followed an autumn, winter and spring of what was called the phoney war, as far as we and our allies, the French were concerned, as Hitler got on with putting right what he saw as another error of Versailles.
Then, in May 1940, came the German attack on the French Army and the British Expeditionary Force in the West, through Holland and Belgium, avoiding the French Maginot Line of fortresses in which both Western allies had put their trust. German superiority in weapons and generals such as Rommel and Guderian overran the French army within a week.
The BEF, to the West, awaited the coming of those German forces but Hitler ordered a pause, inexplicable to his generals. The full-blooded assault was never resumed. No determined land effort against the BEF was ever made. Nothing more was heard of the prong of the German offensive which reached the Channel coast.
Hitler went to Paris to receive the French surrender in the railway coach in which the Germans had surrendered in 1918, while still in occupation of French territory.
The BEF retreated along that coast to Dunkirk from which the men were evacuated, some with rifles, some without, but leaving all heavy equipment behind. That was, however, an unexpected achievement; that raised public spirits, even of a majority of MPs, to reject the surrender terms Hitler offered.
Many must have felt confused by all that and our prospects. Was our island to be invaded? Ancient rifles, relics of 1914-18 and even earlier were handed out to part-time volunteers, first known as Local Defence Volunteers, then the Home Guard, Dad’s Army, still surviving as TV’s favourite comedy. Reports of barges being assembled for invasion came as the Luftwaffe launched bombing attacks on RAF fighter stations in South East England: the Battle of Britain.
That was a war by communiqué, football report fashion, numbers of German planes downed in the air for us, of British destroyed on the ground for the Germans. Reporting it for the national news agency, The Press Association, I heard that the head of Fighter Command was to tell Churchill that destruction of airfields was forcing his planes out of Southern England.
That would mean German planes in France would be nearer than the RAF to any fighting along our coast. Was invasion imminent? Instead the Germans switched to bombing London and I switched to describing that, confused as ever.
Now, however, some sense has come into all that, from reading a book which should have been required reading for all those wanting to look into the German dictator’s mind.
The book was Hitler’s Mein Kampf [My Struggle], written in 1924 during the nine months he spent in prison of the five years sentence given him on the failure of the Munich Beer Hall Putsch of November 1923, to seize power in Bavaria, organised by his Nazi Party and the wartime General Ludendorff. Adolf Hitler was born in Braunau on the Austro-Hungarian border with Germany, later moving to the capital, Vienna. It was there that he developed his third great hatred, to add to those of Jews and Marxists, of the Slavs, particularly Czechs, whom he saw as destroying the German nature of Austria.
An English translation of the book, then a world best seller, was published in Britain in the 1930s; the title page of my copy having the inscription “109th Thousand”. How many of those thousands were read by those likely to benefit from understanding Hitler’s motivations at the time one has no idea but it has shone light on my confusions.
Alongside those hatreds, Hitler reveals his likes, in particular one for Britain and the British, also the role he believed we British could play in his ambitions for Germany.
It all stemmed from his experiences in the World War One. He had moved from Vienna to Munich, was called back to Austria for military service but rejected as unfit. When war broke out, however, with Germany allied to Austria-Hungary, he volunteered to serve in a Bavarian regiment and was accepted.
Except when he was hospitalised from wounds, in 1916, and gassed, at the end of the war, he was continually in the front-line as a headquarters runner, earning first an Iron Cross Second Class, for bravery in December 1914 and an Iron Class First Class, a rare distinction for a corporal, in August 1918.
He ended the war, after his gassing, back in Munich, in a reserve battalion. He was horrified by what he found, the collapse of the public and political will, with Jews and Marxists, as he saw it, running everything.
The Army had not been defeated. It had been betrayed by the strikes and breakdown in ordinary life at home was what Hitler believed. The truth was that Germany was not large enough to sustain, economically, the effort the war demanded. It could not feed and provide services for both its civilian population and army. As Hitler claimed, the great opportunity for victory which came with the removal of Russia from the war was frustrated by a general strike at home.
Hence the need for what was to dominate Nazi propaganda, lebensraum, or living space. The settlement of World War One had made Germany smaller. Its Eastern border had been moved west to produce a Polish corridor leading to the new international port of Danzig, separating East Prussia from the rest of Germany. Its population had been mostly Poles but included Germans. It was the WW1 outcome which led to WW2.
Yet Hitler rejects the idea of restoring Germany’s 1914 frontiers as politically foolish. “They were no protection in the past nor would they mean strength in the future. They would not give the German nation internal solidarity nor provide it with nourishment.” Yet the need for lebensraum was growing remorselessly “for,” he writes, “the population of Germany increases by nearly 900,000 annually”.
Even before the war Germany was too small a country for its people and for its rulers’ ambitions of “peaceful economic conquest of the world”.
Its alternative means of growth were territorial acquisitions within Europe, to the East, and colonisation. The latter might have been possible in alliance with Russia but by the nineteenth century it was too late except by a hard struggle. Such a struggle would be better employed gaining territory nearer home.
“For such a policy there was only one possible ally in Europe — Great Britain. Great Britain was the only Power which could protect our rear, supposing we started a new Germanic expansion. No sacrifice would have been too great in order to gain England’s alliance.”
In fact Germany’s pre-war rulers failed to consider a regular scheme of defence or plans for acquiring lands in Europe, sacrificed chances of an alliance with England and neglected to seek support from Russia.
That was written while discussing the mistakes of Germany’s past rulers but he makes it clear that his policies for the future continued to depend on British support. The old Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria and Italy in WW1 had proved disastrous for Germany. Italy remained neutral and eventually joined the Anglo-French side.
What Hitler proposed in Mein Kampf was another Triple Alliance, of Britain, Germany and Italy, no doubt, in part, with thoughts of the growing power of France, reaching down though its African territories and the effect of that, then, on the traditional British policy of balance of power in Europe.
So there it is. During all those years of Hitler’s fight for and acquisition of power, of the growing dislike of him, his policies, his actions, among many Britishers, not just left wingers like myself, did the German dictator continue to harbour those thoughts of alliance with Britain. After all the British he met, at Berlin and Berchtesgarten, were by no means ordinary left-wingers. How many, even while Britain was supposedly discussing a possible alliance with France and Russia against German aggression, would be in agreement with Hitler’s plans to go East, if it brought him up against Stalin and his hated Reds. Some of us were even of the opinion that our own prime minister, Chamberlain, was somewhat submissive to him until that confusing Polish reaction.
So were Hitler wartime actions involving Britain tempered by not just a touch of pro- Britishness? I find my confusion lessened by the thought they could well have been.
What might have happened if Hitler had behaved differently or we had accepted his offer of terms of surrender? One can only speculate but I suspect things would have been very little changed. Hitler must have known that he had to go East for his territorial enlargement and attack the Soviet Union before 1942 when, his spies must have told him, the Red Army would have its new weapons which eventually won the war.