Everybody was preparing for war in their own way
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 105 - Highway to the Danger Zone Pt. 3 - The Further on the Edge. This week a big thank you goes out to Randall who chose to support the podcast by becoming a member. You can find out more about how you can support the podcast by becoming a member over at historyofthesecondworldwar.com/members. This week we are going to do some follow up on our three major players in the start of the war, Britain, France, and Germany. For Britain we will give a summary of their ongoing rearmament efforts, for France we will look at how their plans for collective security had so thoroughly fallen apart during the interwar years. For Germany, we will discuss how Hitler and the German government reacted to their two great political victories: the Munich Agreement, and then the occupation of what was left of Czechoslovakia. While these three nations were not the only nations involved in the war, it would be the decisions made by the three governments that would turn what could have been a localized war into the Second World War.
Britain of the 1930s was very different than the Britain of even 30 years before, in the years before the First World War. The British Empire had exited the 1800s in an economically dominant position, fueled by the industrial powers of the home islands and the massive resources from the empire that fueled that industrial base. But due to the First World War, and more importantly just shifted in the industrialization of other nations, most of that advantage had evaporated by 1930. Importantly for rearmament there was also some questions being asked about whether or not Britain should go to war, and if it was possible for war to result in positive outcomes for nations like Britain who stood to gain very little either monetarily, economically, or geographically. This tied into the very powerful peace movements that were present in Britain during these years, which held wide public support for a policy of peace and collective security. The policy of appeasement was the logical outcome of such beliefs, as it was the best way to maintain that peace in the face of revisionists who wanted political change. The problem of course was that appeasement only works when an individual can in fact be appeased, which requires their desires to be in some way limited, and limited within the bounds of what other nations consider reasonable. We of course now know that Hitler’s demands were not reasonable, at least when it came to other nations agreeing to them. Even before appeasement became the dirty word that it would be after 1939, during the mid 1930s British rearmament began in earnest. The catalyst for this push was the open rearmament of Germany, which then caused other nations to start investing far more in defense than they had during previous years. In March 1935 the British Defense Requirements Committee would publish a report that was not exactly a rosy outlook on where British defense was relative to its most likely enemies. It would say “we are approaching a point when we are not possessed of the necessary means of defending ourselves against an aggressor. An additional expenditure on the armaments of the three Defense services can therefore no longer be safely ignored”. The longer Britain delayed in rearmament, the more dire the situation would be as other nations expanded their own efforts. The naval treaties that had first been signed in Washington in 1921 would also expire, which prompted massive investments in new naval capital ship construction, something that had not seen large investments since the early 1920s. The demands of the Royal Navy, the Royal Air Force, and seemingly always last on the list the British Army, caused overall British defense expenditures to double between 1934 and 1938. But even at that point, the overall spending was less than 7% of total national income, which if not a third smaller in absolute terms, was a third smaller than Germany in terms of overall governmental commitment. For reference, in 2022 many larger nations hover around the 2% of GDP on defense, with big spenders like the United States and Russia doubling that figure. While the percentage number may not have been very impressive, the effects of the millions and millions in government spending on the economy was very positive. Military industries had to rapidly expand their spending and their employment numbers to meet the new and growing government demands, with about a 1/3 of total employment growth between 1935 and 1937 coming just from the iron and steel industry, which were basically the foundation of rearmament in the 1930s. It quickly got to the point where there was a serious lack of workers, especially skilled workers, the numbers of which had shriveled in the early 1930s during the harsh economic climate of the Slump. By the time that Germany invaded Poland, British rearmament efforts were outpacing that of Germany, but then Germany had its great string of victories. Britain and France were not in a position in 1939 to attack Germany but over the first nine months of the war their inability to contain German expansion robbed them of the dominate economic position they had enjoyed during the First World War. With Italy, Eastern Europe, their conquests in Scandinavia, and good relations with other nordic countries, the wide expanses of the British Empire would shift from a competitive advantage to a strategic nightmare.
While Britain had based much of its prewar planning on its ability to economically outpace Germany when it counted, France had long prepared a different strategy, diplomatic encirclement. Basically, France wanted friends, as many as it could get to combat Germany. There was of course the idea of collective security which was baked into the League of Nations, but this was felt to not be sufficient, and France never had full confidence in the League. In fairness, as history would show, this skepticism in the ability of the League of Nations to defend its members was completely and totally justified. Instead France wanted to resort to a more old school approach to putting a band together, treaties with nations that provided alliances, guarantees, and specific calls to action if national interests were threatened. These were the familiar methods of nations banding together, and had been an important piece of European diplomacy for centuries. From the very beginning there were a few nations that were high on the list of French priorities, mostly due to their geographic positioning: Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Italy. Relations with Poland would always be a tough nut to crack, mostly due to Polish resistance to agreements that might cause relations with Germany or the Soviet Union to sour. But in the years immediately after Polish independence, France appeared to be the best possible source of assistance to the new government in Warsaw, and so the appropriate agreements were signed. Similar agreements would be signed with Czechoslovakia, with the new nation appearing to be the perfect ally for France. The new Czechoslovak nation had a lengthy border with Germany, had a well funded military, and had an industrial base that punched far above its geographic weight class. This industrial base would be important not just to the Czechoslovakian military, but even by the late 1930s would crucial to the rearmament efforts of other nations, with both Britain and Russia signing contracts with Skoda to important its products. However the agreements between Poland and Czechoslovakia would be placed behind the relations between France and its western European neighbors. Italy was one of those critical nations. It was seen as the link between Western and Eastern Europe, and its position in the Mediterranean could ensure that any agreements between France and other nations had a sea highway on which to communicate and provide mutual support. But of course there was a major problem that would not be apparent until the late 1930s, the government in Italy, led by Mussolini, was far closer ideologically to that of the nazi government. One nation that was very specifically not on France’s list of allies or nations with with an alliance was pursued was the Soviet Union. Even though its performance on the battlefield was less than amazing during the First World War Russia had been a critical piece of French planning before 1914. However, the revolution and then the creation of the Communist government had made it politically challenging for the French government to rekindle that previous alliance. The largest problem would be the internal politics of France. During the 1920s there was the fear of a revolution, which during that time the Soviet government in Moscow was still at least supporting worldwide in his rhetoric if not its actions. Then during the early 1930s there was a resistance from the conservative governments to sign agreements with a nation that supported its political rivals in the socialist party. When the popular front came to power there was then the desire of the socialist leaders to push back against the persistent rumors circulated by their political rivals that they were just puppets of Moscow. There was also just a general anti-Communist views of many important members of French politics and industry that would always advocate for a rejection of close ties with the Soviet Union. But the failure to form a close relationship with the Soviet Union was not France’s biggest problem, but instead its inability to proactively assist its allies really anywhere. The French military had become very defensive in its outlook after the First World War, and it would never really move away from this view. This meant that when the nations of Eastern Europe were threatened, the French Army found itself unable to assert itself when needed. At no time was this more apparent and crucial than in the run up to the Munich Agreement. Even if the political will had been present to go to war over the Sudetenland question, the French military cautioned against it. This fed into the existing proclivity of the French government to value one relationship above all other diplomatic activity: close relations with London. And with Chamberlain and the British government pushing for appeasement, there was little that Daladier and the French could do to counteract such actions. France and the Nazi Threat by Jean-Baptiste Duroselle “The government was well aware that France had abandoned an ally strategically placed in a difficult position but well armed nevertheless. In the formal sense it had not betrayed the alliance. Morally, things looked much worse, however, since France had demanded that the ally agree to its own surrender.” Once the Munich Agreement was signed, and France’s closest ally in Eastern Europe greatly reduced in potency, it was locked into relations with Britain as not just the preferred route forward, but the only path forward. The important lesson of the collapse of the French diplomatic agreements is that such agreements are only viable as long as the strongest member of those agreements, which was France, was able and willing to enforce them. By not ensuring its ability to come to the aid of other nations in a military conflict, and then surrendering its diplomatic independence to Britain, 20 years of French diplomatic efforts were undone.
When discussing history, particularly political history, tidy break points have an almost inescapable pull. In a book it is how to structure chapters, in podcasts like this one I am always looking for tidy breaks for episodes or series. Before Munich, Munich, After Munich, then the Invasion of Czechoslovakia, and then Poland, nice neat and tidy. But of course history is always more difficult and confusing. Germany’s turn toward Poland did not wait until the end of its dealings with Czechoslovakia. In fact just a month after Munich discussions would already be opened with the Polish government that laid the ground work for the next year of disagreements, which would continue to amplify the tension between the two nations, and would eventually be used as the excuse for the invasion. On October 24, 1938 the German Foreign Minister Ribbentrop would meet with the Polish ambassador Jozef Lipski with the goal of starting the conversations that would lead to a general settlement. The core of the problem was always going to be around Danzig and the Polish corridor, that area of Poland which had been carved out of East Prussia after the First World War to give Poland access to the Baltic sea. The German government wanted the entire area back, but they would also claim that they were open to discussing a compromise, maybe just a motorway or a railway that could connect the German controlled areas of East Prussia to the rest of Germany. But in both cases Germany wanted to have full rights to the territory used by those two transportation corridors, which Poland then did not like because that would in essence cut them off from the Baltic. Ambassador Lipski would not provide an immediate official answer, although he would say that he personally saw no possibility of it happening but for a more official response he had to consult with Warsaw, when he did receive his answer it was definitive. A week later very specific information would be sent from Warsaw which basically said the same thing, no chance. The real sticking point in any proposal was the idea of Germany being given sovereign territorial claims over any of the area, they simply were not going to hand over some kind of German corridor through the Polish corridor. There was also some wiggle room on Danzig, with Poland willing to negotiate a new agreement with Germany which would supersede the agreement that had previously been made through the League of Nations. After these initial approaches were rebuffed Hitler and the German government immediately began to move forward with future military operations. At this point the emphasis was still on Danzig, with the order given by Hitler for the German Army to be reach to occupy Danzig at a moment’s notice and by a surprise assault. Even this idea contained a bit of miscalculation, because it meant that Hitler was planning on carving off Danzig and the corridor, like he had done in Austria and the Sudetenland. In both cases he had been able to obtain control of an area outside of Germany not by military action, but instead just swift initiative and he believed that Danzig would provide another opportunity to do the same. Poland would prove to be something very different, with clear messages being sent from Foreign Minister Beck to Berlin that if Germany attempted any kind of reworking of the border regions outside of negotiations Poland would result to war to protect those borders. This idea that a revision to the Polish border could be made without war starting, and that Poland could be in some way overawed by another swift German move was an important aspect of German planning. Because in spring 1939 Germany was not ready for war. Rearmament efforts were proceeding forward as quickly as possible, with ever greater targets being put in place as the rearmament efforts of other nations forced a constant redoubling of efforts. But there were always limits to how fast such efforts could be accelerated, and Germany was hitting them mainly due to a lack of raw materials or the ability to increase imports. As discussed in episode 104, during these years the German timeline for war was around the 1942 mark, at which point the rearmament efforts would be completed and the German military would be ready to go to war. Equally important, in the mind of Hitler and other German political leaders, they also felt that at that point the German people would be ready to go to war psychologically and ideologically, a critical component of the war effort, and according to Nazi ideology just as importantly racially prepared. Which brings us back to Poland, which was not only very adamant that it would not be another Czechoslovakia, it was also going to get more assistance from other nations. Poland had for the most part just stayed away from the political discussions around the previous German expansion efforts, even around Czechoslovakia to its south, choosing instead to act in its own interest to reclaim some disputed territory. But territory within Poland was an entirely different story. This would come in the form of the Anglo-French guarantee, which we will discuss next episode.
While all of these things were happening, another area of effort by the German government was around the Memel area. Memel was part of a small strip of territory that had been removed from East prussia by the treaty of versailles and put under League of Nations administration before being handed over to Lithuania in 1923. As with every other area of previous German territory that had been passed to another nation by the Treaty of Versailles there were many in Germany that were not a fan of the fact that now it was controlled by Lithuania. Immediately after action had been taken in Czechoslovakia moves began that would see Memel transfer to Germany. The key role on the German side would be played by the German Navy, which would dispatch the pocket battleship Deutschland to Memel. On March 20th Ribbentrop would present an ultimatum to the Lithuanian Foreign Minister demanding that the government hand over the area. The agreement would eventually be made, which was kind of inevitable. Tensions had been rising in the area due in no small part to Nazi agitation, and the situation in the area was reaching a boiling point. But most importantly for Hitler, who was on the Deutschland, getting the agreement directly from the Lithuanian government, instead of after fighting had broken out, provided the next in a long list of diplomatic victories. Hitler would enter the city in the afternoon of March 23rd, to celebrate another great victory.
In the months after Prague and Memel other pieces began to fall into place as Hitler and the German government sought to make its next move. In May the Pact of Steel, the alliance with Italy would be signed, providing Germany with what was, at that moment, its only real ally in case of war. The commitment of Italy would be completed, although without having the full information about German intentions. Because the very next day, after the Pact was signed, Hitler would make it clear to German military leaders that he believed that war was inevitable. He based this fact on Germany’s economic problems becoming worse as it tried to strengthen its military. The only solution for this came back to the idea at the core of the entire Nazi ideology, lebensraum in Eastern Europe. What was clear from the meeting was that Germany would go to war with Poland, and all of the diplomatic maneuvering over the following months would be simply a diversion. Planning would proceed very rapidly over the following weeks, and Case White for the German invasion of Poland would begin to evolve. The first draft would be presented to Hitler on June 15th, with a plan developed by Brauchitsch and German High Command. The basic structure was already in place for what would be put in place later in the year, two army groups one in the north moving south, one in the south moving north. They would converge on Warsaw and then work east mopping up Polish troops as they went. Other clear preparations for war began outside of the planning divisions of the General Staff, which had been in some way planning for war for many years, that is why General Staffs exist. But elsewhere other work was being done, including work by the Minister of Economics to begin considering how to handle the possibility of an influx of prisoners of war. In July emergency meetings were held to determine how best to put the Westwall fortifications into the best possible position to defend against a French attack by the end of August. Germany was preparing for war, and not just the ever amorphous future war that had been a part of Nazi rhetoric since the early 1930s, but instead a very real war that was going to happen very soon.