The March to War
As part of Hitler‘s expansionist aims towards the East, it was deemed necessary to have Poland either become a satellite state or otherwise be neutralized. Hitler believed this necessary both on strategic grounds as a way of securing the Reich’s eastern flank and on economic grounds as a way of evading the effects of a potential British blockade.
Initially, the German hope was to transform Poland into a satellite state, but by March 1939 the German demands had been rejected by the Poles three times, which led Hitler to decide upon the destruction of Poland as the main German foreign policy goal of 1939. On 3 April 1939, Hitler ordered the military to start preparing for Fall Weiss (Case White), the plan for a German invasion to be executed on 25 August 1939. In August 1939, Hitler spoke to his generals that his original plan for 1939 had to “… establish an acceptable relationship with Poland in order to fight against the West” but since the Poles would not co-operate in setting up an “acceptable relationship” (i.e. becoming a German satellite), he believed he had no choice other than wiping Poland off the map.
In his private discussions with his officials in 1939, Hitler always described Britain as the main enemy that had to be defeated, and in his view, Poland’s obliteration was the necessary prelude to that goal by securing the eastern flank and helpfully adding to Germany’s Lebensraum. Hitler was much offended by the British “guarantee” of Polish independence issued on 31 March 1939, and told his associates that “I shall brew them a devil’s drink.”
In a speech in Wilhelmshaven for the launch of the battleship Tirpitz on 1 April 1939, Hitler threatened to denounce the Anglo-German Naval Agreement if the British persisted with their “encirclement” policy as represented by the “guarantee” of Polish independence. As part of the new course, in a speech before the Reichstag on 28 April 1939, Adolf Hitler, complaining of British “encirclement” of Germany, renounced both the Anglo-German Naval Agreement and the German–Polish Non-Aggression Pact.
As a pretext for aggression against Poland, Hitler pressed his claim to the Free City of Danzig and the right for “extra-territorial” roads across the Polish Corridor which Germany had unwillingly ceded under the Versailles treaty. For Hitler, Danzig was just a pretext for aggression as the Sudetenland had been intended to be in 1938, and throughout 1939, while highlighting the Danzig issue as a grievance, the Germans always refused to engage in talks about the matter.
A notable contradiction existed in Hitler’s plans between the long-term anti-British course, whose major instruments such as a vastly expanded Kriegsmarine and Luftwaffe would take several years to complete, and Hitler’s immediate foreign policy in 1939, which was likely to provoke a general war by engaging in such actions as attacking Poland. Hitler’s dilemma between his short-term and long-term goals was resolved by Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, who told Hitler that neither Britain nor France would honor their commitments to Poland, and any German–Polish war would accordingly be a limited regional war. Ribbentrop based his appraisal partly on an alleged statement made to him by the French Foreign Minister Georges Bonnet in December 1938 that France now recognized Eastern Europe as Germany’s exclusive sphere of influence. In addition, Ribbentrop’s status as the former Ambassador to London made him in Hitler’s eyes the leading Nazi British expert, and as a result, Ribbentrop’s advice that Britain would not honor her commitments to Poland carried much weight with Hitler. Ribbentrop only showed Hitler diplomatic cables that supported his analysis. In addition, the German Ambassador in London, Herbert von Dirksen, tended to send reports that supported Ribbentrop’s analysis such as a dispatch in August 1939 that reported British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain knew “the social structure of Britain, even the conception of the British Empire, would not survive the chaos of even a victorious war”, and so would back down. The extent that Hitler was influenced by Ribbentrop’s advice can be seen in Hitler’s orders to the German military on 21 August 1939 for a limited mobilization against Poland alone. Hitler chose late August as his date for Fall Weiss in order to limit disruption to German agricultural production caused by mobilization. The problems caused by the need to begin a campaign in Poland in late August or early September in order to have the campaign finished before the October rains arrived, and the need to have sufficient time to concentrate German troops on the Polish border left Hitler in a self-imposed situation in August 1939 where Soviet co-operation was absolutely crucial if he were to have a war that year.
The Munich agreement appeared to be sufficient to dispel most of the remaining hold which the “collective security” idea may have had in Soviet circles, and, on 23 August 1939, Joseph Stalin accepted Hitler’s proposal to conclude a non-aggression pact (the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact), whose secret protocols contained an agreement to partition Poland.
Incensed by news of the Anglo-Polish alliance being signed on 25 August 1939 in response to the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact (instead of the severing of ties between London and Warsaw predicted by Ribbentrop) together with news from Italy that Mussolini would not honor the Pact of Steel, Hitler immediately invaded Poland on 26 August. Britain and France would follow suit declaring war on Germany on 28 August but did not immediately act. When Hitler received the British declaration of war, he turned to Ribbentrop and angrily asked “Now what?” Ribbentrop had nothing to say other than that Robert Coulondre, the French Ambassador, would probably be by later that day to present the French declaration of war.