The Road to World War II How Appeasement Failed to Stop Hitler

Part 4: 'I Shall Brew Them a Devil's Drink'

To his amazement, the Polish military junta and Foreign Minister Józef Beck, who tended to be overly confident, rejected his offer. The idea of redrawing Poland's borders was intolerable for the agitated Polish public. And, of course, the Poles, alarmed by the Prague coup, feared that they could be next.

In this situation, Beck accepted the surprising British and French offer of a mutual assistance pact, "between two taps of his finger against his cigarette," as a British diplomat wrote, describing the scene.

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Hitler was furious when he heard the news. Beside himself with rage, he banged his fists against his marble desktop in the Reich chancellery and cursed Great Britain with such ferocity that a flabbergasted eyewitness told a confidant: "I have just seen a madman. I still can hardly believe it."

Hitler's rant ended with a threat: "I shall brew them a devil's drink."

A few days later, he signed the orders approving the operation known as "Case White" -- the invasion of Poland. The Wehrmacht was to be prepared to attack Germany's eastern neighbor by no later than Sept. 1, 1939.

Courting the Soviet Union

In light of anti-Polish sentiment within the population, as well as among senior diplomats and military officials, Hitler could depend on his plans being met with approval. For many Germans, Poland was "an illegitimate child" of the hated Treaty of Versailles, in the words of British historian Richard Overy. In July 1939, Eduard Wagner, who would later become the quartermaster-general of the German army, noted: "We hope to take care of the Poles quickly and, frankly speaking, we are looking forward to it." Now the ball was in the Western powers' court.

Hitler was full of confidence. The British and the French, he reasoned, would ultimately accept an invasion of Poland. "The men I met in Munich will not enter into a new world war," he said. He was so convinced that this was true that he did not even order preparations to be made for a campaign against France. Indeed, Germany lacked the ammunition, tanks, bombers, ships and trained soldiers to do so. Initially, Hitler planned to attack Poland, and Poland alone.

This was the state of affairs five months before the beginning of World War II. It is difficult to say what would have happened next if officials at the Foreign Ministry in Berlin had not gained the impression, given the situation, that Germany stood a chance of making some kind of deal with its archenemy, the Soviet Union.

It was a preposterous idea at first glance. Hadn't Hitler made it unmistakably clear to the world, in his 782-page manifesto "Mein Kampf," that the Soviet Union was the main target of his lust for conquest? Not surprisingly, the dictator's enthusiasm remained muted when his ministers proposed the idea.

But he allowed them to establish contacts and generate interest in rapprochement. When a suspicious Moscow diplomat mentioned "Mein Kampf" to his German counterpart, the German diplomat replied: "Oh that, that's out of date." The Soviets, he said, "should not take it seriously."

Testing the Waters

Whether it was Stalin or Hitler who sought rapprochement first remains disputed to this day. "If it is possible, we go on the offensive. If it is not, we wait," Stalin's foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov, would later say, clearly expressing the cynical principle of Stalin's foreign policy.

In the Soviets' eyes, both the West and the Nazis were class enemies. But because the latter seemed more dangerous, Stalin had made several offers to the West in the 1930s to take part in the containment of the Third Reich. But the British Conservatives, the champions of anti-communism in the Western world at the time, consistently rebuffed his advances. It was only in April 1939, after the Prague coup, that London and Moscow began cautiously testing the waters of cooperation.

A Soviet offer to form an alliance had been on the table since April 17. It was a classic mutual assistance pact, combined with the West's promise to rush to the aid of all countries along the western Soviet border, between the Arctic Ocean and the Black Sea, in the event of German aggression. That included the Poles.

But Chamberlain could not bring himself to shed his mistrust. Russia, he wrote to his sister, only wanted "other people" to fight the Germans.


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