WHEN THE WORLD WENT BACK TO WAR : Only One Man Wanted to Ignite World War II

<i> Author and historian John Keegan is the defense editor of the Daily Telegraph</i>

The war that broke out on Sept. 1, 1939, was a war almost no one wanted. In 1914 cheering crowds had thronged the streets of every European capital as the mobilization posters went up and the reservists marched to the railroad stations garlanded with flowers. There were few flowers in 1939. Too many wreaths had been laid on too many soldiers’ graves in the years since the Armistice for Europeans to accept the return of war with anything but dread and foreboding.

Only one European really wanted war: Adolf Hitler. For him World War I had been “the supreme experience,” as he wrote in “Mein Kampf,” and his political life had been a struggle to win vengeance for the defeat Germany suffered in 1918. He knew exactly who the victims of his vengeance were to be: the Jews, of course, because their “international conspiracy” had been the cause of Germany’s defeat. But their ultimate fate was reserved for the future. In 1939 his immediate targets were the people of the East who had profited from Germany’s defeat, to found states on territory that had belonged to the German or Austrian emperors--the Poles and Czechs. He had finished the Czechs in March, when half the country had been made a German “protectorate” and the other half turned into a puppet state. By August he was determined to finish the Poles--at the price of war if necessary.

“Our enemies”--he meant Britain and France--”are small fry. I saw them at Munich,” he told his service chiefs at Berchtesgaden on Aug. 22. Yet that did not mean he was prepared to risk invading Poland if the British and French could bring Soviet Russia into a war against him. The British and French even then had delegates in Moscow, seeking an anti-German alliance. Fortunately for him, Britain and France could offer Josef Stalin nothing he wanted--no direct military aid, not even assurance that the Poles would let the Red Army into its territory to confront the Wehrmacht.


Hitler, on the other hand, had much to offer the Russians--a nonaggression pact and, as a direct bribe, an agreement to carve up Eastern Europe after Poland had been beaten. By the time he met his generals and admirals at Berchtesgaden he knew the nonaggression pact was in the bag. Even as he spoke in an atmosphere heavy with apprehension--the German admirals were “deep in gloom” at the prospect of confronting the Royal Navy--he was awaiting word from his foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, that the Russians were ready to become active allies.

Von Ribbentrop had flown to Moscow on Aug. 23, was met at the airport by a band playing the German national anthem under a display of swastika flags--borrowed from a film studio where an anti-Nazi film had just been made. He was then driven to a villa next to where British and French delegates were vainly trying to persuade the Russians they were worthwhile allies. Shortly afterward he found himself in Vyacheslav M. Molotov’s office in the Kremlin. Stalin entered. Von Ribbentrop was the first minister of a foreign government he had ever met, and their talks were the first diplomatic negotiations he had ever conducted. He nevertheless dominated discussions from the first moment.

Stalin struck out the effusive preamble to the treaty Von Ribbentrop had written. “After six years of shoveling mountains of cow dung over each other,” Prof. Donald Watt records (he also records that Stalin’s language was “much coarser” in the original), “they could not suddenly go public with this kind of profession of eternal friendship.” That settled, Von Ribbentrop laid down the secret terms. Poland was to be cut in half, Germany to have the west, Russia the east. Stalin insisted on having Latvia as well as Estonia, and a free hand toward Finland (which he would invade the coming November). Finally, he announced that he wanted the Bessarabian province of Romania. Hitler, by telephone, agreed to everything. In the early morning, Aug. 24, the pact was signed, to come into effect immediately. Toasts were drunk--by Von Ribbentrop to Stalin, by Stalin to the absent Hitler. The first shots of World War II were as good as fired.

They were actually fired a week later--not in battle but in an act of murder. Hitler had got his preconditions for war in Moscow. What he then needed was a pretext. Since the Poles were unlikely to attack him, he decided to manufacture one. At Gleiwitz in German Silesia, just across the border from Poland, the German post office operated a radio transmitter beaming anti-Polish broadcasts across the frontier. Hitler’s SS had decided that a simulated Polish attack on the transmitter would persuade the world press that an act of aggression had taken place.

On Aug. 30, SS men arrested a local resident, Franz Honiok, 41, an agricultural-machinery salesman who had a record of sympathizing with Poland--not uncommon in a border area where nationalities intermingled. On Aug. 31 an SS doctor gave him an anesthetic injection; he was then taken to the Gleiwitz transmitter and shot dead, his body left on the ground as evidence of a Polish raid. Two other corpses were dumped nearby. Never identified, they are believed to have been those of inmates of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp.

Next morning, after news of the Gleiwitz incident had been made public, the Wehrmacht crossed the Polish frontier on three broad fronts of attack and headed for Warsaw. The Poles were ready, but no amount of preparation could equip them to stay the German advance. The Germans went to war with 60 divisions of troops, 2,500 tanks, 2,000 aircraft. Poland’s 500 obsolete aircraft were almost destroyed the first day, often on the ground. Its 30 divisions of soldiers were old-fashioned marching infantry. Poland had almost no tanks at all. Though it is not true that it sent cavalry to charge tanks, its best troops were indeed cavalry and the Polish cavalry did charge to death against overwhelming German firepower.


The Poles managed to make one stand outside Warsaw, on the little River Bzura on Sept. 10. By Sept. 17, when the Red Army appeared at their rear, the Polish army had been beaten. Its remnants went on fighting bravely until Oct. 6--almost as long as the British and French the following year in the Battle of France. Then they accepted surrender--the prelude to five years of occupation that would leave one-sixth of the population dead.

I visited Gleiwitz--part of Poland now, as a result of the Yalta agreement--last month. The radio transmitter is still there; so is the building where Honiok’s body was dumped. I visited the banks of the Bzura, talked to villagers making hay in the water meadows and saw the overgrown graveyard where the German dead of battle are buried. And I visited the shrine of the Black Madonna at Czestochowa where, amid all the other symbols of Poland’s national survival, they commemorate warriors who did not give up fighting in 1939--those who found a way to die as pilots in the Battle of Britain, as sailors in the Battle of the Atlantic, as tankers in Normandy, as paratroopers at Arnhem, above all as infantrymen on the slopes of Monte Cassino in Italy--today almost as important a shrine to Poles as Czestochowa itself.

I remember Poles in England from my wartime childhood, fighter pilots from a nearby air base. Clearly enough, too, I remember the outbreak of war in 1939. Like the Poles, we had been prepared. The previous year there had been the evacuation because of the Munich crisis, which for children meant being bundled up without warning and deposited with strangers in the countryside, safe from the bombing which was expected on London. In between there had been other excitements--the raising of the barrage balloon at the bottom of our London garden, tests of air-raid sirens, a warbling for the approach of bombers, a level note for the “all clear” and the issue of gas masks.

What my mother, with two infants and a baby in arms, can have thought as she fitted the rubber pig-snouts round those young faces defies imagination. We loved it. Gas masks were fun. Air-raid sirens were fun. Even barrage balloons, though they made my younger sister cry, I thought fun. Indeed I thought the whole war fun, from begining to end. I particularly enjoyed the begining. There was a real evacuation, not just the short-lived practice of Munich. We went to the West Country, far from London, to a new house, to new schools. We saw entirely new things, all of them entirely more interesting than anything that went on in our London streets. In the summer of 1939, when Poles and Germans were fighting each other in hayfields beside the Bzura, I was learning to help a farmer make hay in the meadow behind our new house, following a horse-drawn hayrack and looking forward to supper of farm-fresh eggs and clotted cream. Polish families had already begun to tighten belts, as a preliminary to a starvation winter. I remember no winter at all of 1939, or of any of the six years the war lasted. We were happy, well-fed and safe in our country refuge. That it could be different anywhere else I had no inkling.

Today, of course, I know otherwise. My visit to Poland last month took me not only to Gleiwitz, Czestochowa and the Bzura but to Auschwitz. It took me to Warsaw, to the rebuilt Old City destroyed block by block by the Germans during the uprising of 1944, when a quarter-million Poles died among the ruins. It took me to East Berlin, to the remains of the Reichstag and Hitler’s chancellery, where his will determined that Europe should undergo the agony of a Second World War. On Sept. 3, 1939, the day Britain honored its guarantee to Poland and declared war, British aircraft scattered 6 million leaflets over Germany; they read, “Your rulers have condemned you to the massacres, privations and miseries of a war they cannot win.”

Hitler must have sneered. How little can those who wrote the words have guessed how exactly they had predicted the consequences. By the time the war was over, 7 million Germans would be dead, their country occupied and divided, their capital lost and every one of their great cities burnt out to the heart.