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

Part 5: Protecting Poland


The British prime minister also faced a dilemma. Although Poland feared the Germans, it also feared the Soviets, and it was determined not to allow the Red Army onto its territory. Polish Foreign Minister Jozef Beck argued: "Once the Russians have entered our country, they won't leave again so easily."

This fear of the Soviets was justified, as we know today. Experts estimate that several hundred thousand people fell victim to Russian atrocities after the Red Army invaded eastern Poland in 1939.

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On the other hand, Poland could not be defended without Soviet help. This led Chamberlain's domestic political rival, David Lloyd George, to demand that London issue an ultimatum to Warsaw. "Unless the Poles are prepared to accept the only conditions with which we can successfully help them," he said, "the responsibility must be theirs."

But could London take such a position in good conscience? Britain had, after all, opposed the Third Reich to protect Poland from the Nazi despot's unpredictability. How, then, could London demand that Warsaw put its trust in the savage Stalin?

Chamberlain played for time, hoping he could stall the Russians without turning them "against us."

A Big Swamp

The Germans took a decidedly different approach. In Berlin, German officials repeatedly remarked to diplomats at the Soviet embassy that Berlin was prepared to talk to Moscow at any time, and that it was merely waiting for a sign.

Hitler was running out of time. As of September, he said, Poland would turn into "a big swamp, becoming wholly unsuited for any military action."

The closer the scheduled date of the invasion came, the more anxious he became. "The success of the isolation (of Poland) will be decisive," the World War I veteran stressed, anxious to avoid another war on two fronts.

And how better to guarantee the neutrality of the Western powers than with a fourth partition of Poland by Moscow and Berlin? If that happened, London and Paris would find themselves confronted with two major powers, the Soviet Union and the Third Reich.

'A German-Russian Understanding'

On July 26, the Germans put their cards on the table. Karl Schnurre, an expert on Russia and the Nazi regime's special envoy, invited the Soviet Chargé d'Affaires Georgei Astakhov to a meeting at the luxury restaurant Ewest in Berlin. War with the British was inevitable, the German told Astakhov. "What can we offer in return?" Schnurre asked. "Neutrality and, if Moscow wishes, a German-Russian understanding over mutual interests…from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea."

Two weeks later, Astakhov submitted his detailed report to Moscow on how the Germans imagined the future order of Eastern Europe: The western part of Poland would fall to the German Reich, while everything else but Lithuania would go to Stalin.

Stalin greedily snapped at the large amounts of land Hitler was offering him, and in no way did he attempt to dissuade the Germans from invading Poland. This made him their accomplice. And the fact that Stalin promised the Germans extensive shipments of raw materials defused one of Britain's most powerful weapons against the Germans, namely the naval blockade.

By that point war was only a few days away. On the afternoon of Aug. 23, 1939, Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop landed at the Moscow airport, where the swastika banner flapped in the wind alongside the Soviet flag, with its hammer and sickle. A cheerful Stalin received his guest at the Kremlin. The Nazi felt as if he were "among old party comrades."

That evening, Ribbentrop and his Soviet counterpart, Molotov, signed a non-aggression pact and a secret supplementary protocol dividing Eastern Europe into German and Russian "spheres of influence."

A Pact with Satan

The Germans were in such a hurry that not even a clean copy of the agreement was prepared. Plain sheets of paper without headers were used. And whoever typed the documents must have had limited typing skills: The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact is full of typos.

Hitler, uninterested in a lasting friendship, wasn't bothered by the makeshift nature of the agreement. He wanted the "pact with Satan," as he called it, because it would help clear the way for war. "Now Poland is in the position where I want it to be," the Nazi dictator said gleefully. He was convinced that the arrangement would keep Britain out of the war.

But Hitler had miscalculated, and so had many Germans, as historian Overy writes. They believed that an invasion of Poland "made sense" because it would "resolve" the open issues, according to Overy.

On Sept. 3, 1939, British Ambassador Nevile Henderson announced that London would enter the war unless the Wehrmacht called off the invasion within hours and withdrew.

The Führer was stone-faced when he heard the news, as his interpreter reported. Then he turned to Foreign Minister Ribbentrop, "with a furious look in his eyes," and asked: "What now?"

It was the last opportunity to stop World War II. But it was missed.

The Slaughter Begins

A short time later, the dictator was in high spirits once again, boasting that the British had always been warmongers. "The Führer is very confident," Goebbels noted.

In the end, many conclude that although the Western powers failed with their attempts at appeasement and turned the Italian Fascists and the Soviets into Hitler's accomplices, the only thing that could have prevented the inferno in September 1939 was if Hitler had been overthrown. But there was neither an uprising nor a coup.

On the evening of Sept. 3, the Führer boarded a special train that took him to a spot near the front. He wanted to be as close to the action as possible.

It was there that the slaughter was already in full swing, the slaughter that would not come to an end in Europe until May 8, 1945 -- and that Hitler had so fervently hoped for.

Editor's note: This is part two of a SPIEGEL article about the beginning of World War II.You can read part one here.You can also read an accompanying interviewwith former German President Richard von Weizsäcker about his personal experiences as a soldier in World War II.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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