Editor's note: This is part one of a SPIEGEL article about the beginning of World War II. You can read part two here. You can also read an accompanying interview with former German President Richard von Weizsäcker about his personal experiences as a soldier in World War II.
It is Aug. 25, 1939, and Adolf Hitler's official apartment in Berlin's Old Reich Chancellery is decorated with the usual floral arrangements, including magnificent bouquets at the entrance to the garden room. But on this Friday Hitler, normally an admirer of summer blossoms, has no interest in flowers.
The dictator, wearing a brown jacket and black trousers, seems worn out. His shoulders slump forward and his deep-set eyes wander restlessly around the room. The Nazi leader is nervous.
At the German-Polish border, about 150 kilometers (94 miles) east of Berlin, 54 German divisions, or about 1.5 million soldiers, are about to take up their positions, and 3,600 armored vehicles and more than 1,500 airplanes are ready to embark on the operation known as "Case White" -- the invasion of Poland on the following day. All the German forces need to move forward is an order from the Führer.
But is this the right time for Hitler to attack? How will Paris and London, Warsaw's allies, react? And how will Hitler's confederate, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, position himself? Italy is considered an important major power, capable of tying up British naval forces in the Mediterranean. But will Il Duce, who was only given a vague forewarning of Germany's imminent invasion of Poland the day before, play along?
'An Artist by Nature'
There is so much activity in Hitler's quarters that it has come to resemble a command post. A few dozen senior Nazi Party members are there, as are a few officers, and they are constantly making calls on telephones perched on windowsills, chairs and tables. Several pairs of glasses are scattered around so that the nearsighted dictator always has a pair to hand. Hitler is constantly going into the music room or the garden room to confer with individual officials. Two SS guards take pains to ensure that no one disturbs the conversations.
Shortly before lunch, one of the dictator's aides asks the officers how much time Hitler has left before giving the order to invade. Until 3 p.m., the commanding generals reply.
A drum roll in the forecourt of the New Reich Chancellery announces the arrival of the British ambassador, Sir Nevile Henderson. The British diplomat already knows the way to Hitler's office, located in a room to the side of the enormous marble gallery, which, at 146 meters (480 feet), is exactly twice as long as the room it is modeled after, the famous Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles. The grand approach to Hitler's office is intended to intimidate visitors on their way to see the dictator.
But on this day Hitler is not trying to intimidate Henderson, but rather to tempt him with an offer. The Third Reich, he says, is prepared to guarantee the existence of the British Empire and come to the aid of the British wherever such help is needed. In return, Hitler wants London to accept the invasion of Poland.
Near the end of the meeting, the Führer seems to become sentimental, saying that he is, after all, "an artist by nature, and not a politician." Once the Polish question is resolved, he says, he will pursue "the life of an artist."
The diplomat has hardly left the room before Hitler gives the order to attack. It is 3:02 p.m.
A Heavy Blow
Three hours later, the news arrives from London that Great Britain has demonstratively signed a military alliance with Poland that had been agreed to several months earlier. Could it be that the British are not bluffing, after all?
A short time later, the Italian ambassador delivers a letter from Mussolini, who writes that he is not prepared to take part in a war. A stone-faced Hitler dismisses the diplomats and spends the next hour pacing back and forth, railing against his unfaithful ally.
"The Führer is brooding," notes propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels. "This was a heavy blow to him."
At approximately 7 p.m., Hitler issues a new order: "Stop everything immediately."
The Wehrmacht manages to pull it off. Even though the war machinery has already been activated, the invasion is stopped. But one special unit, whose mission is to capture a strategically important railroad tunnel in southern Poland, doesn't receive the news in time. After encountering almost no resistance, the soldiers capture a railroad station, returning only the next day. A German delegation issues an official apology for the "incident," noting that it must have been the work of an "insane" person.
War seemed to have been averted. Or had it?