Perhaps the most erroneous impression created by many commentators (including Nazi propagandists during the war) concerning events in 1939 is that Germany's military leaders were eager to involve themselves in a war with Poland. To most German generals, such a conflict - Hitler's statements notwithstanding - meant war with Poland's allies: England and France. Virtually no senior German officer faced that prospect with any certainty of ultimate success. The führer's ambitions were viewed with cultivated skepticism.
This attitude was not purely military in origin. During the previous year the German army had seen its three top officers removed by Nazi intrigues. The commander of the combined forces, General Werner von Blomberg, had been replaced after his wife was falsely accused of once having been a prostitute. General Ludwig Beck, chief of the general staff, was removed after repeatedly voicing his belief that Hitler was taking Germany down a road toward world war and ruin. Most ludicrous of all, the commander in chief of the army, Colonel General Werner Freiherr von Fritsch, was falsely accused of homosexual activities by the SS. Tried and exonerated, Fritsch was nonetheless demoted. (He volunteered for hazardous duty in Poland soon afterward and was quickly killed.)
In the wake of this stunning attempt by Hitler to gain tighter control over the regular army (always a hotbed of anti-Nazi sentiment), sixteen more German generals left the army and forty-four were given new assignments. In nearly every case, these reassignments were made on the basis of political sympathies. For example, General Beck's deputy chief of the general staff, General Erich von Manstein - the German army's most gifted strategic planner but a man with little use for the Nazi party - was transferred to a divisional command.
Hitler apparently believed he could bring the army under his control through such tactics, but he was soon proved wrong. For while the new commander in chief, General Walther von Brauchitsch, was slow to press his complaints against Nazi policies, he did eventually begin to press them; and the new chief of the general staff, General Franz Halder, proved troublesome to Hitler from the beginning. Halder's bristly hair and mustache, pince-nez, and perpetual frown seemed to accentuate the contempt he felt for Germany's new leaders - contempt that, by the end of the Second World War, would evolve into open opposition and imprisonment at Dachau.
In this atmosphere of distance and disinterest at best, and distrust and hostility at worst, the German army received orders in the spring of 1939 to begin preparing operational plans for "Case White" - war with Poland. General Halder assumed that to gain concessions from Poland, Hitler once again intended to use the army as an instrument of blackmail. This had been the führer's tactic in dealing with the nations of Europe to date, and it had succeeded. Determined to undo the terms of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, Hitler had already reoccupied the Rhineland, achieved Anschluss with Austria, taken the Sudetenland, and occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia - all without firing a shot.
But Poland's attitude seemed to indicate a less propitious outcome to Hitler's latest round of brinkmanship. Following the First World War, Poland had been remade in a form that would have pleased her ancient warrior kings: Included within her borders were not only traditionally Polish territories but also healthy slices of German, Ukrainian, Russian, and Lithuanian lands. Hardest for the Germans to accept had been the creation of the "Polish Corridor," a wide swath of territory that ran north from Poland, severed East Prussia from the rest of Germany, and made an "international city" out of the port of Danzig. This region was largely inhabited by Germans, who after 1919 became Polish subjects. A good number of these people were military families, and more than a few German army leaders looked forward to the day when this humiliation would be reversed.
Reprinted from No End Save Victory Edited by Robert Cowley by permission of G.P. Putnam's Sons, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright (c) 2001 Edited by Robert Cowley. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
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