Why didn't Hitler try to conquer Gibraltar?

75 years outbreak of World War II

Adolf Hitler had been arming for six years, and in the summer of 1939 he felt ready: With a quick victory over Poland, Germany wanted to conquer all the territories that it lost in World War I - and much more besides. Britain and France, the dictator hopes, will not stand in his way

For more than two weeks, Alfred Helmut Naujocks has been waiting for his order in the hotel "Haus Oberschlesien" in the city of Gleiwitz near the Polish border. On August 31, 1939, around 4 p.m., the call finally came from Berlin with the password: "Grandmother died".

The 27-year-old SS-Sturmbannführer and a handful of other men are supposed to attack the German radio station Gleiwitz in the evening as alleged Polish rebels. The action is one of numerous sham attacks by the SS that are attributed to Poland and are intended to serve as a pretext for the Nazi leadership for the attack on the eastern neighbor. Adolf Hitler signed the order to attack the Wehrmacht a good three hours ago.

Shortly before 8 p.m., Naujocks and his accomplices reached the transmitter north-west of Gleiwitz. The two policemen at the gate have been initiated, the porter has left his post. Nobody is stopping the command, armed with submachine guns. The men break into the transmitter building and go to the operating room. There they overpower four men and bring them tied up in the basement.

But when they want to set the microphone system in motion to announce to the listeners that the station has (allegedly) been occupied, they discover that Gleiwitz no longer broadcasts an independent program, but takes over all programs from Wroclaw. Nobody considered that when planning.

The intruders hectically search for the thunderstorm microphone, which can also be used to make announcements during the current program in an emergency. Eventually they find the device in a closet - and go on air.

The people who are sitting in front of the radio in the Gleiwitz region suddenly hear a voice: "Warning! This is Gleiwitz! The transmitter is in Polish hands!" The spokesman claimed he was a "freedom fighter" in a statement, some of which was in Polish. With the words "Long live Poland!" he ends the speech after a few minutes.

As the men rush out of the building, they hurry past a body lying on the floor.

It is the body of Franciszek Honiok from Upper Silesia, a 41-year-old agricultural machinery representative from the area, who publicly sympathizes with Poland. The day before he was arrested by two men from the Secret State Police; Gestapo officials have now drugged him and then shot him while the statement was being read out on the transmitter.

It's supposed to look like Honiok is one of the men who raided the radio station. The "proof" of an attack by Polish freedom fighters on German territory.

Franciszek Honiok is the first to die in World War II.

At 10.30 p.m., the Reichsrundfunk reported the attack on the Gleiwitz transmitter and other alleged border incidents. During the night, SS commandos carried out further mock attacks on the eastern border of the Reich: around 30 men disguised as Polish soldiers attacked the customs station near Neukrug, and uniformed men killed six people in Hochlinden (the dead left behind by the SS men were murdered concentration camp prisoners) .

The next morning Hitler appeared in front of the Reichstag in Berlin and complained about the "atrocities" and "border incidents" of the past few hours. There were 14 incidents, "including three very serious". Poland had "fired for the first time on our own territory with soldiers who were already regular," said the Chancellor.

And then adds: "They have been firing back since 5.45 am!" (In fact, the Wehrmacht opened the attack an hour beforehand.)

The war that began on September 1, 1939 with the German invasion of Poland, soon shook all of Europe, from the North Cape to Gibraltar, but also the Atlantic and Mediterranean, the deserts of North Africa and the steppes of Russia and the coasts of the USA.

It will claim more than 55 million deaths, bring suffering and misery to a hitherto unimaginable extent over humanity, and shape the lives and memories of generations. And change the globe more than any historical event before.

One reason for this catastrophe is Adolf Hitler's world of thought.

The National Socialist believes that the will to "self-preservation" is the drive for the actions of a "healthy people". In order to fight for a new "living space" in the East, the supposedly racially superior Germans would have the right to subjugate the Slavic peoples of Eastern Europe. The fight is even necessary, he writes, in order to stamp out the "dubious sides of our national body".

Hitler is also obsessed with an alleged "Jewish world conspiracy". This hostility probably developed in 1907 when he moved to Vienna at the age of 18 and began reading anti-Semitic newspapers. It is quite possible that the hostility to hatred increased when the city's art academy rejected him as a student and he lived in a homeless asylum without a job. But he certainly realized in those days that anti-Semitic speeches would go down well with the audience. Not just in Vienna.

Hitler suspects plots everywhere: The Russian October Revolution of 1917, for example, was the work of Jews. A little later he also sees the empire threatened by "Jewish Bolshevism". Germany can only be saved if the communist movement is "destroyed", he notes. In his logic, a war against the USSR is inevitable.

Just four days after his appointment as Reich Chancellor on January 30, 1933, Hitler began to implement his foreign policy program: In front of officers, he declared that the solution to Germany's economic problems lay in "conquering new living space in the East and its ruthless Germanization". He announces the reintroduction of conscription and the armament of the armed forces.

In Benito Mussolini, Italy's fascist dictator, he sees an ideal ally; he also hopes for an alliance with Great Britain, whose world empire he admires. On the other hand, he considers a confrontation with France, which many Germans have viewed as a "hereditary enemy" at least since the Napoleonic Wars of Liberation of 1813/14, as inevitable. The real goal, however, remains the war against the USSR - as well as domination over the European continent, which he wants to reorganize according to his racial ideology: Jews, Sinti and Roma as well as disabled people have no right to exist according to his will. Born in Braunau, Austria, he sees himself chosen to accomplish this task for the "German people". And he assumes that he has little time for this: an assassin could kill him at any time, he explains to his confidants again and again.

That is why Hitler played with great commitment from the start. He is a gambler, always ready to risk total failure. He does not shy away from lies, no pretense, no breach of contract. His most important milestone is the revision of the Versailles Peace Treaty - among other things because it prohibits the rearmament of Germany. In the 1919 Agreement, the victorious powers of World War I also imposed reparations payments on the Reich. It had to cede its colonies.

The Germans were particularly hard hit by the loss of Upper Silesia, Poznan and the greater part of West Prussia to Poland. The city of Danzig is now under the administration of the League of Nations. The Memelland was lost, as was Alsace-Lorraine and Eupen-Malmedy in the west. A zone about 50 kilometers wide along the Rhine was declared a demilitarized zone.

Overall, Germany lost a seventh of its territory and a tenth of its population. In addition, the victorious powers limited the German army to 100,000 and the navy to 15,000 men. They forbade the Reich government to build submarines, airplanes, tanks and gas weapons.

Hitler now demands the restoration of the German borders from 1914 and the return of the colonies. These demands are popular not only among his followers. And even with the government in London, a decade and a half after the end of the war, they encounter some understanding; for even the British consider some of the Versailles regulations to be too harsh and Hitler's claim to equality among the great powers to be legitimate.

But in October 1933, the Chancellor shocked the world for the first time: He called his diplomats back from a disarmament conference and declared Germany's exit from the League of Nations. Now the Nazi leadership no longer has to fear international controls and can continue to build up the air force, navy and army unhindered. In 1935 she introduced compulsory military service and thus openly violated the Treaty of Versailles. The Western powers protest, but let Hitler have his way. At the same time, the Chancellor tirelessly asserts that he wants to keep the peace: he even concludes a non-aggression pact with Poland. And when talking to foreign politicians, Hitler, who often appears hysterical in his public speeches, mostly maintains his form, only rarely raises his voice. The Briton David Lloyd George describes him as "a captivating personality with an iron will and an intrepid heart". As recently as the spring of 1936 no foreign head of government suspected that Hitler was not interested in a binding dialogue, that all his assurances were worthless.

In March, the Wehrmacht marched into the demilitarized Rhineland with 30,000 soldiers - again violating the Treaty of Versailles. It was Hitler's most daring action up to that point. Because the French army could easily push the Germans back from the zone stretching from Switzerland to the Netherlands. But Paris shies away from the confrontation: because the French secret service overestimates the strength of the German troops by ten times. And because London refuses any military support so as not to endanger peace.

For the German head of government, the occupation of the demilitarized zone is perhaps the most important prerequisite for his future policy. Because until then he had to reckon with a French advance into the area on the Rhine every time he breached his contract. Now he is having the border region secured with a fortification system that is more than 600 kilometers long. In the second half of the year, the dictator wins his first ally: Italy. Mussolini celebrates the agreement as the birth of the "Berlin-Rome axis". Hitler admired the six-year-old Italian, copied his personality cult and martial mass productions. Mussolini, however, initially distrusts Hitler. But now he needs the Germans, since Rome has been sanctioned by the League of Nations because of the annexation of Abyssinia (now Ethiopia). In November Germany and Japan sign a pact to fight the Communist International, the worldwide association of parties loyal to Moscow. More important, however, are the provisions of a secret additional protocol: in the event that one contracting party gets into a conflict with the Soviet Union, the other assures "benevolent neutrality".

Germany's isolation has thus been broken. Hitler becomes more and more daring: In March 1938 the Wehrmacht invades Austria.

Since the end of the First World War, many people there have wanted their country to be united with the Reich. Because Austria is economically weakened by the loss of Hungary and its crown lands Bohemia and Moravia.

Since the victorious powers feared that Germany could become too powerful through a merger, they had enshrined Austria's independence in the Treaty of Versailles.

But also the following "annexation" of Austria to the German Reich remains without sanctions. This triumph in foreign policy increases Hitler's position of power in Germany. And in Austria, in a plebiscite - admittedly not held democratically - 99.73 percent of voters agree to be German citizens.

Hitler also has a strategic advantage with this action: Czechoslovakia is now largely enclosed by Germany. A little later he threatened to send troops to the neighboring country to the east if Prague did not cede the "Sudeten area", which is predominantly inhabited by Germans, to the Reich. With success: on September 30th, Hitler, Mussolini and the heads of government of Great Britain and France seal the incorporation of the Sudetenland into the German Reich; In return, the borders of the now reduced Czechoslovakia are guaranteed internationally. In the previous negotiations, which were conducted without representatives of the Prague government, Hitler had threatened war if the Western powers refused to let him go. At the same time he had asserted that the Sudetenland was his "last territorial claim in Europe".

British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain believes him. He is even convinced that the Munich Agreement saved the peace “for our time” and hopes that Hitler can continue to appease Hitler through a policy of peaceful settlement. French Prime Minister Édouard Daladier, who was still determined to go to war during the "Sudeten Crisis", is also adopting this position - but only on the side of London.

But just three weeks later, the Nazi regime made its next territorial demand. It's about the future of Gdańsk: The city administered by the League of Nations is to become German territory again, Germany is to be allowed to build an extra-territorial motorway and rail link through Polish West Prussia to East Prussia. In return, Hitler wants to recognize the existing German-Polish border.

Foreign Minister Józef Beck, the strong man in the government in Warsaw, refuses. The dictator is not satisfied with that. But first Hitler turned to Czechoslovakia again. On March 12, 1939, he received a leading politician from the Slovak part of the country: Hungary intends to occupy Slovakia, the Chancellor claims untruthfully; he will prevent this - but only if the regional parliament in Bratislava renounces Prague. Two days later, the MPs met the condition (Slovakia is now a German satellite state).

At the same time, Hitler puts the Czechoslovak President Emil Hácha under pressure: The cities of his country would be bombed if he did not sign a treaty that practically surrendered the rest of Czechoslovak territory to the German Reich. During the night, Hácha puts his name under the prepared document.

Then the Wehrmacht occupied the country.

It is primarily economic reasons that determine Hitler's actions. Because in the "Reich Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia", as the new Reich area is now called, there are highly developed industrial plants and rich deposits of raw materials.

The West seems paralyzed.

An American correspondent notes: "Total apathy tonight in Paris in view of Hitler's last coup. France will not lift a finger."

The politicians are slowly realizing that Berlin can no longer be stopped by making concessions. Neville Chamberlain turns away from appeasement. Speaking to his cabinet, the prime minister said on March 18 that if Germany "takes another step towards domination of Europe", the British government will "accept the challenge". Daladier, too, is now determined to oppose any further German aggression.

But Hitler is already planning the war against Poland. The countdown begins.

March 21, 1939, Berlin:

Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop receives the Polish Ambassador Józef Lipski. Ribbentrop was previously Hitler's chief diplomat in London, where he tried in vain to win the British government over to an alliance with Germany. Now he is talking to his guest about the future of Gdańsk and offers to negotiate the German proposals from last October at a meeting with Poland's Foreign Minister Beck, Hitler and himself in Berlin.

March 23, Memelland:

The Wehrmacht moves into the area that until 1919 belonged to Germany, now to Lithuania. Before that, Ribbentrop threatened the local government with ceding the area. Poland reacts by partially mobilizing its troops.

March 24, Warsaw:

Foreign Minister Józef Beck explains in a secret meeting in front of his staff that, unlike the governments of Czechoslovakia and Lithuania, the Polish leadership will not allow itself to be blackmailed. He will only negotiate with Germany up to a certain point. Beyond that applies: "We will fight."

March 25, Wünsdorf near Berlin:

At Hitler's instructions, the Army High Command begins work on a plan of attack against Poland.

March 26th, Berlin:

Ambassador Lipski rejects the German proposals on behalf of his government.Ribbentrop then threatens that every intervention in Danzig will be treated like an attack on the German Reich. Now Lipski's tone is getting sharper: "The further pursuit of the plan with regard to Danzig means war with Poland."

March 31, London:

Prime Minister Chamberlain told Parliament that "in the event of an action clearly threatening Poland's independence, His Majesty's Government would feel obliged to immediately give the Polish Government all the support it could".

April 3, Wünsdorf:

The Army High Command has completed the planning for the "White Case", the code name for the attack on Poland. Chief of Staff Franz Halder expects a campaign of two to three weeks. However, nobody can assess how the Soviet dictator Josef Stalin will behave in the event of a German attack on Poland.

April 6, London:

Poland's Foreign Ministers Beck and Chamberlain assure each other of support in the event of an attack by a European power - the details are to be regulated later by a treaty. (In May Poland also signed an assistance agreement with France.)

April 17th, Berlin:

The Soviet ambassador is negotiating with Ernst von Weizsäcker, State Secretary in the Foreign Office, about an arms delivery. But apparently he wants to signal above all that the USSR wants to intensify relations with the German Reich. Because he emphasizes that "ideological differences of opinion" do not have to disturb the mutual relationship.

The German Foreign Ministry has been working towards rapprochement between the two countries for a long time. If a pact with the USSR were successful, Poland would be isolated in the east. With such an alliance, according to Ribbentrop's calculation, France and Great Britain would not dare to side with Warsaw. But political talks initially fail because of the two dictators' mutual distrust.

April 28, Berlin:

In a speech to the Reichstag, Hitler answered an appeal for peace by Franklin D. Roosevelt. The US president, concerned about the break-up of Czechoslovakia, has asked the German head of government to give a public guarantee that he will not attack 30 named states in the next 25 years. In addition to European countries, the list also includes Iraq, Syria, Palestine and Egypt. Roosevelt is closely following what is going on in Europe; he probably recognized the danger posed by the Germans earlier than most other politicians. But he is reluctant to act because conflicts with distant states are unpopular with the US population. In addition, there are presidential elections in the coming year.

Hitler mocked Roosevelt's appeal in his speech, which was repeatedly interrupted by the laughter of the NSDAP MPs. His government had made inquiries with each of the 30 countries listed, and none felt threatened by Germany. Finally he repeats his demand that Danzig must return to the Reich. At the same time he announced the termination of the non-aggression pact with Poland.

A month later, Adolf Hitler reaffirmed his original plans in front of a small group of senior military officials: "Danzig is not the object that is at stake. For us, it is about expanding our living space in the east and ensuring food."

Before that, however, Poland must be defeated, he explains, because otherwise the country would ally itself with Germany's opponents in the west. Then he would wage war against France. At the latest after the victory over Paris, the military confrontation with Great Britain is inevitable.

And only then, at least that's what he plans at this point in time, should it go against the Soviet Union.

He wants to keep the Western powers out of the war against Poland as much as possible: "I would have to be an idiot if I slipped into a war because of Poland," the dictator continues. If this proves impossible, "England and France will be the first to fight." (Although the Wehrmacht leadership did not begin serious planning for a two-front war after this meeting, the respected historian Hermann Graml, for example, is certain that Hitler knew "that any further expansion of the Third Reich would meet with British resistance".)

The only question is: how quickly will London enter the war?

In June 1939 the French ambassador in Berlin noted: "The month passed without any notable incidents in apparent calm, but in an oppressive atmosphere that heralds the approaching thunderstorm."

In the Reich the newspapers are now reporting more and more often about alleged reprisals against the German minority in Poland in order to prepare the population for war.

Nevertheless, people live their everyday lives, go to work, go on vacation, go to a swimming pool or a café on beautiful summer days. Diaries, letters and records reflect how remote and unreal it seems to many to think that war could soon rule.

On June 17, Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels travels to Gdansk to stir up anti-Polish sentiment in the city. In a speech he accused the government in Warsaw of "harassment". At the same time, he issued an instruction to the German press that "the Polish atrocities must remain the decisive presentation. What the people or the foreigners believe or not of the Polish atrocities is unimportant. What matters is that this last phase of the war of nerves is not is lost by Germany. "

But people want peace. "The answer to the question of how the 'Danzig' problem is to be solved," says a mood report from a small town in southern Germany, "is still the same in public: affiliation with the Reich? Yes. Through war? No. "

This is one of the reasons why Hitler publicly pretends to be a champion of international understanding and announces a "Reich Party Rally of Peace" to take place in Nuremberg in September.

At the beginning of August 1939 he retired to the "Berghof" near Berchtesgaden. Apart from Ribbentrop, military advisers and a few confidants, he hardly received anyone from the staff of his ministers and officials. For Hitler now only the preparation for war is important.

Around this time, SS men were preparing incidents on the German-Polish border, which were to be portrayed as provocations for Poland. These alleged violations of Germany's sovereignty are planned by Heinrich Himmler, the "Reichsführer SS" and "Chief of the German Police", as well as Reinhard Heydrich, who reports to him and is responsible for the prosecution of opponents of the Nazi regime as head of the security service and the security police is.

Meanwhile, the Wehrmacht is secretly setting up arms depots in Poland and recruiting members of the German minority there - a shadow army for the planned advance.

August 11, 1939, Berghof:

In a tea house, Hitler awaits the Swiss Carl Jacob Burckhardt, the High Commissioner of the League of Nations in Danzig, who is supposed to guarantee the self-government of the majority of the German population and protect Polish trade via the city's free port.

In the days before, a dispute between Polish port and customs inspectors and the city government provided by the Gdańsk NSDAP had massively hindered the provision of supplies to the citizens, and now that the Polish government has called on the German authorities to cooperate with the inspectors under threat of violence, the local conflict threatens to turn into a European war.

Too early for the Reichswehr. That is why Hitler is forcing his followers in Danzig to moderate. But Britain and France, he fears, are now alarmed. That's why he invited Burckhardt. He wants to appear to him as a sensible leader of the state.

At first he was politely polite, but then he got more and more excited: about press reports claiming that he had lost "the war of nerves" over Danzig, as well as about the Polish ultimatum. As a "proletarian", according to the Chancellor, he could not stand above these things. If "the smallest incident" occurs, he yells in retrospect to the ultimatum that he will "crush Poland without warning, so that not a trace of Poland can be found afterwards".

Hitler screeches, hits the table, then lowers his voice - and finally lapses into feigned sadness. He just wanted "a free hand in the East" to feed Germany. And a colony. He has no interests in Europe. He is always ready for an alliance with Great Britain.

Finally, he leads his guest out onto a terrace with an Alpine panorama. He needs some rest, he explains, and would like to work as an artist again. One should find a "reasonable way out". But: "If the slightest thing happens in Gdansk or happens to our minorities, I will hit hard." Hitler hopes Burckhardt's report will convince the British and French governments that support for Poland is unnecessary.

And his acting contribution doesn't fail to have an effect. In his report, the Swiss man explains that Hitler looked nervous and fearful. An Undersecretary of State in London noted: "Hitler, apparently undecided, quite old."

The British are now advising the Polish government to show restraint towards Germany.

August 12, Berghof:

Hitler receives the Italian Foreign Minister, Count Galeazzo Ciano. Mussolini's son-in-law is supposed to convince the dictator on behalf of the Duce that it would be "madness to unleash a war now": Italy is not prepared for a fight on the side of its ally.

Ciano only learned from Ribbentrop the day before that the German government was not only interested in Danzig, but in the "merciless destruction of Poland". He is concerned: unlike Ribbentrop, he does not believe that France and Great Britain's defeat will be sealed if they decide to support Warsaw.

During the interview with Hitler, Ciano quickly gains the impression: "He has decided to strike and he will strike."

Before the conversation was over, Hitler was asked to come out. Ribbentrop reports a call from Moscow: They are ready for political talks.

Hitler, Ribbentrop and Weizsäcker have already prepared a draft treaty that defines the division of Poland and the Baltic states between Berlin and Moscow. In addition, a non-aggression pact is to be concluded with the USSR.

Stalin knows about the draft - if only through vague information from a German diplomat.

And although the negotiations with Moscow have not yet started, on that day Hitler gave the order to march against Poland and set the date of the attack: August 26th.