The artist and diarist Keith Vaughan records the general mood in England:
We wait still; war or peace. The governments have locked themselves in and continue exchanging letters; only we no longer know what they are saying. Tension has relaxed, simply because it was impossible to remain at that pitch of anxious fever for long. But the situation is the same. One hopes blindly for some miracle, but one dare not speak about it. People seem resigned, almost cheerful. ‘I think we’re going to have a slap at him this time.’
Major Gerhard Engel was Hitlers Army Adjutant. He gives us an idea of Hitler’s state of mind on the brink of war:
F. is as never before on edge, irritable, sharp with everybody. Thus Schmundt and I had to receive a heap of abuse against the Army after it had been all quiet on that front for some time. F. emphasised that he now knew how the General Staff were thinking. Certain things had come to his knowledge about which he preferred not to speak at present. One thing was clear: he would not allow the military to give him counsel on whether there should be peace or war. He was simply unable to understand those German soldiers who feared battle. Frederick the Great would turn in his grave if he saw today’s generals. All he wanted was an end to unjust behaviour by the Poles vis-a-vis the German state. He did not want war at all with the others. If they were stupid enough to get involved, the blood would be on their hands, and they would have to be destroyed.”
Hitler and Stalin surprised the world when they announced a pact between themselves. The arrangement allowed Hitler to launch his forces against Poland knowing that he would not suffer from Russian interference. Furthermore he would be free to turn to West without worrying about his Eastern front in due. The clause dividing Poland with Russia remained secret until the moment Russian troops marched into Poland on the 17th September.
The Italian Foreign Minister Count Ciano anticipates the attack on Poland
I meet the Polish ambassador at the beach. I speak with him in vague terms and advise moderation. Our counsellor at Warsaw tells us that Poland will fight to the last man. The churches are filled. The people pray and sing a hymn, ‘O God, help us save our country.’ These people will be massacred by German steel tomorrow. They are completely innocent. My heart is with them.”
The German Reich and Italy committed themselves to military cooperation and mutual support in case of war in the ‘Pact of Steel’. The photo shows Hitler handing the treaty to the Italian Foreign Minister Galeazzo Ciano (front left) in the new Reich Chancellery in Berlin. Hermann Göring can be seen next to Hitler on the right.
Count Ciano was to record in his diary that Ribbentrop, the German Foreign Minister, saw the treaty as a means to secure ‘a long period of peace of at least three years’.
He also recorded his impressions of Hitler and the latest gossip …
I thought Hitler was in excellent shape, quite serene, less aggressive. A little older. His eyes are more deeply wrinkled. He sleeps very little. Always less. And he spends most of the night surrounded by collaborators and friends. Frau Goebbels, who is a regular participant in these gatherings and who feels quite honored by them, was describing them to me without being able to conceal a vague feeling of boredom because of their monotony. It is always Hitler who talks! He can be Fuhrer as much as he likes, but he always repeats himself and bores his guests. For the first time I hear hints, within the inner circles, of the Fuhrer’s tender feelings for a beautiful girl.
She is twenty years old with beautiful quiet eyes, regular features, and a magnificent body. Her name is Sigrid von Lappers. They see each other frequently and intimately.
And he notes that Goering has ‘tears in his eyes’ when he see that Ribbentrop has around his neck the ‘Collar of the Annunziata’, a diplomatic honour awarded by the Italians.
As some biographers have commented, the passing of 50 years was just one more factor influencing Hitler to go to war. He felt he was running out of time. He had always been a chronic hypochondriac and now, with this milestone birthday, he had been reminded that he was beginning to age.
‘I’m now 50 years old,’ he told his entourage in August, ‘still in full possession of my strength. The problems must be solved by me, and I can wait no longer. In a few years I will be physically and perhaps mentally no longer up to it.’
Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain flew into Hendon Aerodrome following his meeting with Hitler in Munich.
“…the settlement of the Czechoslovakian problem, which has now been achieved is, in my view, only the prelude to a larger settlement in which all Europe may find peace. This morning I had another talk with the German Chancellor, Herr Hitler, and here is the paper which bears his name upon it as well as mine (waves paper to the crowd – receiving loud cheers and “Hear Hears”). Some of you, perhaps, have already heard what it contains but I would just like to read it to you …”.
It was not until later in the day, outside 10 Downing Street that he used the phrase ‘peace for our time’…
My good friends, for the second time in our history, a British Prime Minister has returned from Germany bringing peace with honour. I believe it is peace for our time.
The phrase became popularly reinterpreted as the expression ‘peace in our time‘.
It is my unalterable decision to smash Czechoslovakia by military action in the near future. It is the business of the political leadership to await or bring about the suitable moment from a political and military point of view.
An unavoidable development of events within Czechoslovakia, or other political events in Europe providing a suddenly favourable opportunity which may never recur, may cause me to take early action.
The proper choice and determined exploitation of a favourable moment is the surest guarantee of success. To this end preparations are to be made immediately.
As soon as the Nazi’s arrived in Vienna there was an outbreak of vicious anti-semitism. George Clare was seventeen years old in 1938. From an affluent Jewish family, he describes how he felt when he first saw the German troops …
This was my first sight of the most powerful military machine of its time. I was impressed by this demonstration of perfect discipline and splendid equipment.
The men themselves were tall, young, handsome, smart and polished, and I realised, unbelievable though this may sound, that I admired these soldiers and was even proud of them. So conditioned was I, the 17 year old Jew, by my Austro-German upbringing, so deeply ingrained was all I had read, that I could not see these clean-limbed young men as my enemies. The Nazis, the SS, the SA, they were my enemies, but not the young and handsome soldiers of the Wehrmacht. If I had not been born a Jew, could I have been a Nazi at 17? Could I have been one of them, attracted by the power and the glory of Hitlers’ Reich? I was racially “immune” to Nazism, but to this day my judgement about those youths who succumbed to Hitler is clouded by the memory of my own sensations on that day.
Who were these men and women who surged to the streets, breaking into Jewish homes and shops, looting and stealing? What were they like, the creatures who drag Jewish men, women and children out into the streets, forced them to their knees, and ordered them to scrub away the Schuschnigg plebiscite slogans which had been painted on the pavements and the walls of houses, often by the very people who are now falling about with laughter as they watched their Jewish victims. “Work from the Jews; at last the Jews are working!” the mob howled. “We thank the Fuhrer, he’s created work for the Jews!”
In Last Waltz in Vienna Clare comments that in fact the naked anti-semitism in Austria, that was abundantly clear from the start, “saved many Jews lives” because it was so evident that they had to get out of the country. Meanwhile in Germany many Jews were lulled into a false sense of security by the gradually increasing persecutions imposed by the Nazi regime.