The Road to World War II



The euphoria surrounding the 1936 Olympic games lasted well into 1938, when Hitler brought Austria back into the German empire after an absence of 67 years. But when he began trying to take the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia, the enthusiasm of the Berliners, at least, was muted.

When a motorized division of troops rolled through the center of the city just as Berliners were leaving work on 27 September, Hitler expected a joyful demonstration to send them on their way. Instead, everyone turned away or looked on in mute disapproval. Hitler appeared on the balcony of the chancellery to review his troops, but when he saw that the square outside was virtually empty of spectators he marched back inside in a temper.

It was fitting that the crisis meetings Hitler held with Daladier of France and Chamberlain of Great Britain should have been in Bad Godesberg and Munich, and not in the capital. But there was much greater enthusiasm after the Munich agreement - 'delirious joy' William Shirer called it - compounded of relief at the news of peace, and pride in a bloodless victory over the Allies.

If the Berliners had been lulled by the Munich victory, they were in for a savage awakening six weeks later, when attacks on the Jews, which had dwindled during and since the Olympics, suddenly exploded again in the 'Kristallnacht' pogrom of 9-10 November. Supposedly in 'revenge' for the murder of a German diplomat in Paris by a distraught 17-year-old Jewish youth from Hanover, the nationwide action by the SA was initiated in Munich, where Hitler and his party henchmen were celebrating the anniversary of the failed putsch of 1923. Although the pogrom took place in every town and city in the Reich, inevitably the biggest and best-organized action was in Berlin.

Before the stormtroopers were let loose to wreck Jewish homes and businesses, and to burn down synagogues, Police President Count von Helldorf ensured everything was ready for them. Police squads isolated Jewish buildings, cut telephone wires, switched off electricity and gas supplies to Jewish shops to prevent untoward accidents, and set up barriers to divert traffic away from the areas where the mobs were to be let loose. Only when everything was prepared, at 2.00 am, did Helldorf give the signal for the spontaneous' action to start. While the stormtroopers did their worst, the fire service stood by, just in case the fires spread from Jewish to Aryan properties.

By dawn, nine of the twelve synagogues in Berlin were ablaze, and already the death toll was mounting as Jews were beaten to a pulp, or leapt from upper story windows, or were trapped in flames. With daylight, the mobs swarmed down the Linden, the Kurfürstendamm and Tauentzienstrasse, smashing plate-glass windows, hauling out furs, jewelry, furniture, silver - but only from Jewish-owned businesses. All day, the rampage continued as the looters moved on eastwards. 'In Friedrichstrasse in downtown Berlin,' reported the Washington Post, 'crowds pushed police aside in their hunt for plunder. Late in the afternoon fire broke out in Israel's department store near the Alexanderplatz, but firemen soon extinguished the blaze.'

The Berlin correspondent of the London Daily Telegraph, Hugh Carleton Greene, wrote: 'Mob law ruled in Berlin throughout the afternoon and evening and hordes of hooligans indulged in an orgy of destruction. I have seen several anti-Jewish outbreaks in Germany during the last five years, but never anything as nauseating as this. Racial hatred and hysteria seemed to have taken complete hold of otherwise decent people. I saw fashionably dressed women clapping their hands and screaming with glee, while respectable middle-class mothers held up their babies to see the "fun".' Not all Berliners thought of the pogrom as fun, of course. Most were deeply ashamed. Many, even some in high positions like Colonel Hans Oster, chief of staff to the head of the Abwehr, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, risked their own lives and property by offering shelter and protection to Jewish friends and neighbors. Walter Henry Nelson, who was then a boy living in the city as the son of a US consular official, describes how the janitor of his block cried, 'They must have emptied the insane asylums and penitentiaries to find people who'd do things like that!' Another Berliner, Hans Werner Lobeck, saw stormtroopers emerging from the wreckage of a Jewish-Hungarian restaurant, the 'Czardas' on Kurfürstendamm, near the still-smoldering synagogue on Fasanenstrasse. They were carrying dozens of bottles of looted Tokay wine, which they decided to give to 'some of the old Berliners' who were watching. 'A shudder went through the crowd, and it fell back,' Lobeck said. 'The people dispersed, leaving the SA men alone on the sidewalk.' The disapproval, for many Berliners, had nothing to do with race, only with civilized standards of behavior. Kate Freyhan, a teacher in a Jewish girls' primary school, found her corner shop full of people watching children throwing cobblestones through the windows of the synagogue on the opposite side of the street. The young woman who owned the shop was indignant: it was disgraceful, the police just standing there and doing nothing.

'After all,' she declared, 'it is private property.'

When the immediate violence was over, all the active Jewish men in the city were rounded up and transported to Sachsenhausen concentration camp at Oranienburg, 18 miles to the north-west, where they were beaten up, tortured, starved, and held for several weeks. Hundreds of them died there. Meanwhile, Göring decreed that the Jews must make good all the damage caused, and pay an atonement fine' of one billion marks.

The trauma of that night and day of violence has remained with Berlin ever since. But of course, it did not mark the end of anti-Semitism, nor even its climax, only the beginning of a terrible new phase. The program of 'Aryanization' of Jewish businesses was stepped up, with new regulations on 28 November for the winding up and dissolution of all Jewish enterprises. That same day, other regulations banned German or stateless Jews from certain parts of the capital. Those who were unfortunate enough to live within a forbidden area needed a police permit to cross the boundary, and such permits would not be issued after 1 July 1939. The ban covered most of central Berlin, and all places of entertainment or recreation. Jews were forbidden from owning cars. And ominous new plans were announced forcing Jews to sell or exchange their homes in fashionable districts and move into controlled Jewish quarters.

For Berlin, the great event of January 1939 was the opening of the great new Reich chancellery running from Wilhelmplatz along the entire length of the Voss Strasse. For the past year, that part of the city had been dominated by frantic building work, as 4,500 men slaved day and night on the seemingly impossible task of completing the enormous project in less than a year. In the event, they finished early with 48 hours to spare.

Hitler, meanwhile unable to bear the noise and the upheaval, had moved out to stay with Goebbels in the English mock-Tudor mansion he had helped him buy on the near-island of Schwanenwerder, in the Havel just north of Pfaueninsel. He had described the old chancellery, the eighteenth-century Radziwill palace, as being 'only fit for a soap company'. Nevertheless, it had been incorporated into the new building, and he kept his private apartment in it.

I need grand halls and salons,' he had told Speer, 'which will make an impression on people, especially the smaller dignitaries.' With the new chancellery, which was to be the last great public to be erected in old Berlin, the end of the line started by Schlüter and Nering so many years before, Speer had done him proud.

Everything about the new building was on a grand scale. The Voss Strasse frontage for 400 meters of yellow stucco and grey stone. Huge square columns framed the main entrance, where visitors drove through great double gates into an enormous court of honor. A flight of steps led them into a reception room; from there they could pass through double doors almost five meters high and flanked by gilded bronze and gold eagles, each clutching a swastika in its claws, and on into a large hall with floor and walls clad in gold-and-gray mosaic tiles. From this Mosaic Hall, more steps led up to a circular chamber with a high domed ceiling, and from there the visitor passed into a magnificent gallery lined with red marble pillars. At 146 meters, the Marble Gallery was twice as long as the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles, a fact that gave Hitler particular pleasure. Beyond the gallery was a great hall for state receptions. The whole concourse of rooms was some 220 meters of rich materials and colors, flamboyant, ostentatious, and grandiose.

The first ceremonial occasion in the new building was Hitler's annual New Year reception for the Diplomatic Corps on 12 January, when he startled everyone by spending several minutes talking to the Soviet ambassador. Six days later, he addressed 3,600 newly commissioned army lieutenants crammed into the Mosaic Hall, setting the tone that would dominate the rest of the year. 'I demand of you, my young officers,' he told them in a speech that could have come straight from Wilhelm II, 'an unconditional belief that one day, our German Reich will be the dominant power in Europe, that no other power will be in a position to stop us, let alone to break us ... It is my unshakeable will that the German Wehrmacht becomes the most powerful force on earth.' Not wishing to leave the navy out of all this, on 13 February he traveled to Hamburg to launch the Reich's first super warship. He named it, inappropriately, the Bismarck.

The remainder of 1939 became a continuous preparation for war. Tension was already mounting over Poland's rejection of German claims to Danzig, the ancient Hansa seaport that had been made a free city by the Treaty of Versailles. But Hitler was not yet ready to tackle the Poles. First, he had other affairs to settle. On 15 March, his troops marched into the remainder of Czechoslovakia. A week later, he personally led another army into the Baltic port of Memel, which had been sliced from East Prussia in 1919 and given to Lithuania.

With the whole of the media in the hands of Goebbels's propaganda ministry, even normally sceptical Berliners could not help but be impressed with Hitler's achievements. But for anyone who still doubted - and there were many in the capital - the Nazis staged a gigantic show in honor of his fiftieth birthday on 20 April. The celebrations started the night before, when he drove with Albert Speer along the length of the newly completed East-West Axis - the Via Triumphalis of the Olympics with further widening at various points. The whole route was permanently lined with tall metal flagpoles - 'for hanging bigwigs in the future,' the Berlin wits suggested. As Hitler officially declared it open, bands played the traditional Badenweiler March and fireworks lit up the sky with an enormous swastika.

At midnight, a choir from the SS Life Guards sang in the court-yard of the new chancellery, while Hitler inspected his presents. These included a scale model of his planned triumphal arch, and dozens of model ships, aircraft and weapons, which he seized upon like a small boy.

Next morning, Berlin awoke to the sound of military units arriving for the grand birthday parade. Six army divisions, 40,000 men with 600 tanks, armored personnel carriers, countless artillery pieces, rolled past the dais for four solid hours in an astonishing display of military might. Overhead flew wave after wave of bombers, fighters, and the new Stuka dive bombers. The spectators cheered and waved and applauded the show.

Before the parade started, Hitler received his three commanders-in-chief, Göring, General Brauchitsch and Admiral Raeder, together with the chief of staff of the OKW, the supreme command of the armed forces, in his study. He told them he intended to go to war that year.

By August, it was clear to everyone that war was inevitable. With the newspapers screaming of Polish provocations and threats, general mobilization was ordered on 15 August. The first quarter of a million reservists were called up for duty on the western front, just in case the French should decide to do anything stupid. The army general staff began moving out of Berlin's Bendlerstrasse to new headquarters in Zossen, some 25 miles (40 kilometers) south of the city, where they would be closer to the action when the war began. The railways were alerted to prepare for the immense task of moving men and equipment to the Polish border. And the pocket battleships Graf Spree and Deutscbland, together with 21 U-boats, were got ready to sail.

The big worry for the Berliners, like most Germans, was that the old alliance between Britain, France and Russia would be repeated, and that they would once again be forced to fight a war on two fronts, surrounded by enemies. On Tuesday, 22 August, that worry was removed. That morning, the Berliners awoke to the news that their government was about to sign a pact with the Soviet Union. Germany was now blockade-proof. With a back door open for the import of food and raw materials from the Soviet Union, there was no way the British navy could strangle the Reich as it had done during the First World War. There would be no repetition of Berlin's turnip winter of 1917. Stalin, once the arch-enemy of the Nazis, had given them carte blanche to deal with the troublesome Poles. Without the help of the Soviet Union, the British would surely not intervene, and without the British, the French would certainly not fight. Hitler would be left alone to wage his 'Silesian War'.

Wednesday, 23 August, was hot and humid in Berlin. The conditions did not help the taut nerves of those waiting for confirmation that Ribbentrop and Soviet Prime Minister Molotov had actually signed the pact. It finally came at about 2.00 am on Thursday.

The crowds in the streets of Berlin later that day were as cheerful and good-humored and noisy as if they had ill won the national lottery. The cafes along the Linden and the Ku'damm were filled to overflowing with Berliners celebrating peace for their time. They joked and played pranks on each other, greeted friends and acquaintances with 'Heil Stalin' instead of the usual obligatory 'Heil Hitler'. Some young fellows even rang the doorbell of the Soviet embassy in the Linden, shouted 'Heil Moscow!', then ran off like naughty schoolboys, roaring with laughter. And in at least one mid-town Bierstube the band struck up the previously banned Internationale, bringing the entire clientele to its feet as though they had played Deutschland Uber Alles. There would be no great war, everyone said: you could bet on it. And indeed, many people did just that. So confident were some diplomats at the Foreign Office that they were offering odds of 20 to one on peace, in bottles of champagne.

While the revelers on the Ku'damm were celebrating peace, preparations for war continued. At 7.00 pm that same evening, CBS correspondent William Shirer sat in his room at the Adlon and watched Luftwaffe personnel installing anti-aircraft guns on the roof of the giant chemical combine IG Farben's new head office, nearing completion opposite the hotel. German bombers had been flying over the city all day.

More anti-aircraft guns were now appearing all over the city, in squares, parks, sports fields, any open space. Even the red hard courts of the august Rot-Weiss Lawn Tennis Club in Dahlem, which boasted Göring, Ribbentrop and former chancellor Papen among its members, began sprouting guns. Indeed, the club had been practically taken over by the military: the floor of the ballroom in the clubhouse was covered with hay to provide bedding for recruits, and camp kitchens erected behind the building were 'seasoning the air with the aroma of potato, carrot, and suggestion-of-pork stew'. In spite of all this activity, however, keen tennis players still managed to get in a game or two.

Berliners started to sober up when the news came that Britain and France were standing firm on Poland and that both countries were starting to mobilize. Suddenly, the streets were full of marching men instead of partygoers. A never-ending stream of vehicles, civilian as well as military, including commandeered furniture vans and grocery trucks, rattled eastwards down the broad boulevards carrying troops and equipment, following the flights of Stukas and Messerschmitts heading for airfields close to the Polish frontier. This time, unlike 1914, there were no cheering crowds lining the streets. No women threw flowers. No one sang patriotic songs. The cafés were empty. The glum faces of the Berliners reflected their anxiety.

On the radio, Hitler's deputy, Rudolf Hess, spoke openly of war. 'If it comes,' he warned, 'it will be terrible.' His message was taken to heart by many people, including the children of a school in the north-eastern suburb of Pankow. Hearing the sound of a siren, they remembered their air-raid drill and immediately filed out of their classrooms to the shelters. But it was a false alarm - the 'siren' turned out to be a factory hooter.

The newspapers were now filled with stories of Polish atrocities against Germans living in Poland and Danzig. In screaming headlines, the 12- Uhr Blatt accused the Poles of firing on three unarmed German passenger airplanes, and of torching German farmhouses in the Polish Corridor between East Prussia and the rest of Germany. The Berliner Zeitung, which had stood up against Bismarck so bravely back in the 1870s, loyally played its part: GERMAN FAMILIES FLEE, it proclaimed, accusing the Poles of massing troops on the German border. The Nazi Party's own Vökischer Beobachter continued to whip up war hysteria on 27 August with the headlines: WHOLE OF POLAND IN WAR FEVER! 1,500,OOO MEN MOBILIZED! NON STOP TROOP MOVEMENT TOWARD THE FRONTIER! CHAOS IN UPPER SILESIA! And to drive home the seriousness of the situation, German radio played continuous martial music, broken only by occasional announcements.

The Germans themselves, of course, had been mobilized for the past two weeks, though the papers omitted to mention this. Now, it was announced that what was called 'the organization of all measures for eventualities' had come into force. Berliners discovered that long-distance and international telephone services had been cut off, and that they could no longer leave the city by train or air. The whole national transport system was now under military control, and only foreigners or those whose journeys were of national importance were allowed to travel.

It was announced that Hitler had cancelled the next Nuremberg rally, billed as the great party congress of peace, which was to have been the biggest ever Nazi event, attended by over a million party members. (In fact, Hitler had given the cancellation order two weeks before, but it had not been made public at the time.) Then, ominously, on Sunday 28 August, a hot and glorious day when half of Berlin seemed to have made its way to the inland beaches at Wannsee and Miiggelsee to brown in the sun and take their minds off the international situation, policemen began knocking on doors and handing out ration cards. As of Monday, people were informed, they would need the cards to buy food, soap, shoes, textiles, and even coal.

On Thursday, 31 August, there was a full-scale practice air-raid alert in the city. The long, undulating wail of the sirens soon cleared the streets. All traffic stopped as drivers and passengers joined pedestrians scurrying into cellars and basements marked out as shelters. Diners in restaurants were herded into back rooms for an hour and a half, until the all-clear sounded. They were warned that in a real raid they would have to take refuge in the cellars. All the street lights were turned off. People at home had to close their windows, which they had already covered with black paper, if they had been able to find any.

On almost every roof, soldiers with binoculars kept watch on planes flying overhead - though, since this was a rehearsal, the only planes they could see were from the Luftwaffe. The streets below them were silent and empty within a few minutes. Curbstones and crossings, which boys of the Hitler Youth had been busy daubing with white luminous paint, glowed eerily in the dark. The only living souls - apart from horses tied to lampposts while their drivers took shelter - were grim-faced policemen, their gas masks at the ready.

After the appalling results of raids by the German Condor Legion in the Spanish Civil War and Japanese attacks on Chinese cities like Shanghai, everybody expected any modern war to start with aerial bombardment. So, in addition to holding practice drills, providing air-raid shelters for the general population was a top priority. Unfortunately, there was a grave shortage of skilled building workers: those who had not been called up were engaged on official projects. So, the authorities decided to make ordinary citizens responsible for constructing shelters in the cellars of their own buildings. Supervision was no problem: every building already had its own party Hausleiter (house leader) keeping an eye on the tenants and reporting their activities to the authorities. Officials from the Air Ministry inspected each cellar for suitability, and advised on construction. The tenants were then expected to start digging.

Friday, 1 September, dawned grey and sultry. Clouds hung low over the capital. At 5:11 am, in the vastness of his new chancellery study, Hitler signed the document that made Germany officially at war with Poland. It was, in fact, purely academic, since German bombers had begun their attack 40 minutes earlier.

The people received the news with numb apathy, going about their business as though nothing had happened. Few bothered to buy the news extras that hit the streets at breakfast time. Along the East-West Axis, Luftwaffe crews were setting up five heavy anti-aircraft guns to protect Hitler when he addressed the Reichstag at 10:00 am.

The general blackout in Berlin that night was not a rehearsal. The first proper air-raid alert came at 7:00 pm, when there was a rumor that 70 Polish bombers were approaching. In fact, two Polish aircraft had managed to get as far as the city, but they did no damage and were themselves unharmed. All the same, everyone dashed for cover. It may have been a reaction to the strain of thei'r first real alert, but when the all-clear had sounded and people emerged from their cellars, many of them seemed determined to have a last fling before the shutters finally came down. Suddenly, the cafés, restaurants and beer halls were packed with people trying to drink Berlin dry.

That night, a new decree was issued, forbidding anyone from listening to foreign broadcasts, on pain of death. From then on, anyone caught listening to the BBC from London - which many Berliners had depended on since 1933 as their only reliable source of news - faced the executioner's axe.

On Saturday, 2 September, the Berlin railway stations were jammed with military personnel on their way to join their units, and with foreigners and their children trying to get out of the country. They were also crowded with small German children, all with blue tags around their necks marked with their names and home addresses. They were being evacuated to the safety of the countryside, away from the expected bombing.

Outside, Berliners were enjoying the last of their Indian summer, strolling through the sunlit streets as they did every weekend. But there were few smiling faces. Everyone was waiting anxiously to find out what Britain and France would do.

The waiting ended on Sunday, 3 September, another lovely sunny day, when the Berlin radio station interrupted a concert from Hamburg. For those who were not at home, clustered anxiously around their radio sets, there were loudspeakers fixed to lamp posts in many Berlin streets, so that everyone could hear the news first-hand. Shortly after noon, Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody was faded and a man's voice said: 'Achtung! Achtung! In a few minutes we shall be making an important announcement.' Ten minutes later, came the news that Britain had declared herself at war with Germany.

The people in the streets, even the small crowd of about 250 gathered in front of the chancellery, listened in stunned silence. Four hours later, they learned that France, too, had declared war. There was no excitement, nor even any hate for the British and French, whose embassies still needed only a lone policeman each to guard them.

As always, Berlin was alive with rumors, most of them absurdly optimistic. Papen, it was said, was already in Paris negotiating a separate peace with the French government; German and French soldiers facing each other across the Rhine were already fraternizing and refusing to fight; the Soviet Union had delivered an ultimatum to Britain, threatening to join Germany in the war. On a more pessimistic note, it was said that Saarbrücken, for example, had been shelled by French guns and was now in ruins.

Berliners, however, had not yet lost their cynical sense of humor. Anti-Hitler jokes had always been popular in the city. Now, a new crop was whispered in cafés, told amongst friends. The latest concerned both Hitler and Gobbles. It seems they were out on a drive together in the countryside, when their car ran over a dog. Goebbels said he thought he ought to find the owner and apologize. 'Go ahead,' Hitler replied. 'I'll stay in the car. But see you come right back.' Over an hour later, Goebbels returned, smelling of drink and very much the worse for wear. Hitler was furious, and demanded an explanation. 'Well, it was like this,' Goebbels slurred. 'I found the house where the dog's owner lives. I knocked on the door, and when he opened it I said: "Heil Hitler, the dog is dead." "Come inside,' said the man. "Let's celebrate!" '

But no one in Berlin was celebrating that night.

Source: Anthony Read and David Fisher, Berlin Rising:The Biography of A City (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1994).