Adolf Hitler’s birthdays had, since his coming to power in 1933, always been occasions for his sycophants to demonstrate their unswerving adulation, but this, his fiftieth, on April 20 1939, was to be a nauseating extravaganza that would surpass any previous such occasions. Chief organizer and master of ceremonies was none other than Josef Goebbels, Hitler’s devoted spin doctor and evil propaganda genius.
The celebrations began on the afternoon of April 19th and by evening, Hitler – who was always interested in technology and loved cars – was driven in a cavalcade of fifty limousines along the four mile â€˜East-West Axis’ across Berlin, a newly built boulevard designed by Hitler’s current favourite, Albert Speer, and which as designed to be the central thoroughfare through the capital of the Nazi Empire. All along it, crowds thronged and cheered, thousands of flaming torches and Nazi banners lining the way.
Waiting for him at the Brandenburg Gate was Speer. â€˜From the distance came cheers,’ noted Speer, â€˜swelling as Hitler’s motorcade approached and becoming a steady roar.’ As Hitler eventually stepped out beside him, the over-awed architect took a deep breath, then said, â€œMein FÃ¼hrer, I herewith report the completion of the East-West Axis. May the work speak for itself! Inviting Speer to join him in his car for the last stretch of the journey, Hitler then moved onto the Reich Chancellory, his residence in Berlin. From the balcony he watched a torch-lit march-past, while beyond, a dense and near hysterical crowd in the Wilhelmsplatz screamed joyously.
As midnight chimed, Hitler withdrew into one of the vast, imposing halls in the Reich Chancellory, where first Speer, then others of his entourage, presented him with early birthday presents. From Speer himself there was a four-meter high model of a huge triumphal arch that he planned to build in the city. Elsewhere, laid out on tables around the room, were hundreds more gifts: marble statues, paintings, porcelain, silver, antique weapons, tapestries, rare artefacts, even a Titian. â€˜Pretty much a collection of kitsch,’ noted Speer, revealing the contempt most of Hitler’s acolytes held for one another. Hitler gave most only a cursory glance, admiring some, mocking others.
This, however, had been merely a warm-up for the main event, which took place on the birthday itself. The centre-piece was a huge military display of soldiers, tanks, half-tracks and other military vehicles all along the East-West Axis, a show of force designed make any nation that dared to cross the path of the new Germany cower. Overhead, waves of aircraft from GÃ¶ring’s Luftwaffe flew across the city. Later there were more presents, not least a painting of Hitler’s own hero, the eighteenth century Prussian leader, Frederick the Great, given to him by the Himmler, Head of the SS. A photograph survives of this moment. In it, Hitler glances at the painting with a strange lack of expression on his face. Shaking his hand is Himmler, bedecked in his black SS Nazi finery, and grinning fawningly at his master.
â€˜The FÃ¼hrer is fÃªted like no other mortal has ever been,’ gushed Goebbels to his diary the following day. Goebbels was hardly the most objective of judges, but despite the brutality that the Nazis had shown in the Night of the Long Knives, or in the violence of â€˜Crystal Night’, and despite the SS and Gestapo secret police, and concentration camps and grotesque anti-semitism, Hitler was, without question, the most popular head of state in Europe, if not the entire world. The difference from the dark days of defeat and depression were astounding. Unemployment was non-existent, Germany was now crossed by autobahns and airliners, the country seemed to be prospering, and, every bit as importantly, the wrongs of the Versailles Treaty of 1919 were being righted. The Rhineland had been reoccupied, Austria had peacefully joined the Reich, so too had the German-speaking Sudetenland of Czechslovakia. A month before, the remainder of Czechoslovakia had been morphed into the Greater Reich. Germany had regained her lost pride. She had emerged from the ruins of the Great War and was becoming great again. And all without a shot being fired.
As his fiftieth birthday celebrations had showed, in the six years since his taking power, adulation of the FÃ¼hrer had reached cult-like proportions. Hitler, gushed one seventeen year-old German girl, was â€˜a great man, a genius, a person sent to us from heaven.’ She was far from being alone in thinking such thoughts.
There is no question that Hitler’s achievements since coming to power had been considerable, but as one astonishing triumph superseded another, so his belief in his own genius grew. His megalomania now knew no bounds, and surrounded by sycophantic yes-men, it was no surprise that he began to regularly compare himself with Napoleon, Bismarck and even Frederick the Great. Increasingly removed from any kind of criticism or checks on his actions, his power was now absolute, his self-belief total.
Yet despite the euphoria of his fiftieth birthday, Hitler had turned a fateful corner that spring of 1939 and was now leading Germany on a road to catastrophe.
A man willing to listen to advice might have heeded warnings that the western powers of Britain and France would not continue to sit back and let Germany trample over other European countries. Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister, had acquiesced to Hitler’s demands over the Sudetenland in October the previous year on the understanding that Germany had no further ambitions with regard to land conquest. Hitler had duly given him such an assurance, then five months later, in March 1939, had invaded the rest of Czechoslovakia. Contemptuous of Chamberlain and the British and French, the FÃ¼hrer had told his acolytes that the western powers might protest, but as before would do nothing.
In this, he had been woefully wrong. Chamberlain might have been prepared to give Hitler the benefit of the doubt once, but not again. His ministers and indeed the whole country fell behind the Prime Minister’s new tough stance. Public opinion in Britain agreed with Chamberlain that Hitler would have to be tackled.
Nonetheless, Hitler noted that still Britain and France had done nothing and with Czechoslovakia now annexed into the Reich, he turned his attention to Poland. In 1919, the new Polish state had been granted a strip of land between the province of East Prussia and the rest of Germany that gave them access to the Baltic Sea. Hitler wanted this largely German-peopled strip of land back and had assumed that Poland could be threatened and bullied into ceding the Danzig â€˜corridor’ back to Germany. This done, he believed Poland would then become a virtual German satellite and ally when he eventually launched an attack on the Soviet Union.
The Poles, however, had no intention of being bullied and flatly rejected German proposals to cede the corridor despite threats of military action. Then, on the last day of March, came the news that Britain had agreed mutual assistance pact with the Polish Government should Germany attempt to make any territorial claims at all on Poland. Hitler flew into a rage, thumping his fist on the marble-topped table in his study in the Reich Chancellory. â€˜I’ll brew them a devil’s potion,’ he muttered. It was at this moment, seventy years ago, that the die was cast: Poland, he realized, was not going to roll over without a fight.
Speer had been on a visit to Mussolini’s Italy during Hitler’s annexation of Czechoslovakia, but on his return at the beginning of April noticed a mood of general depression. The days of peaceful victories seemed to be over. Furthermore, the economic situation in Germany was now beginning to seriously falter once more, offset by an increasingly acute labour shortage caused by Hitler’s rapid expansion of the Armed Forces. â€˜Apprehensions about the future,’ wrote Speer, â€˜filled us all.’
The FÃ¼hrer, however, brushed such matters aside. What did he care of such trifling domestic issues? Of course, there would be economic problems, he reasoned, but these would be solved in due course when the lands of the East would be opened up, creating lebensraum – â€˜living space’ – and much-need natural resources. This belief also ran alongside his increasingly fervent conviction that war was a panacea. Many of the Nazi elite might have secretly voiced concerns but Hitler was exhilarated by the prospect. â€œIf it comes to war, he told Speer, â€œthe German people are tough enough.
As Hitler turned fifty, he was preparing to announce to the German people his new stance against both Poland and Britain. Just as his belief in his greatness had reached new heights so too had he come to accept that his own and Germany’s destinies were inextricably linked. Germany had to expand further, of that he was convinced, and that meant one thing: war. Germany would fight that war and win, or else sink back into the abyss. It was as plain to him as black and white. There could be no middle ground.
Allied to this belief was his conviction that time was running out. He had always been a chronic hypochondriac and now, with this milestone birthday, he had been reminded that he was beginning to age. â€˜I’m now fifty years old,’ he told his entourage in August, â€˜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.’
His Reichstag speech on 28th April 1939 lasted two hours and twenty minutes and was prompted not only by Britain and Poland’s new stance but also by President Roosevelt’s demand that Germany give an assurance that they would not attack thirty named countries – Poland included – for twenty-five years. Incensed, Hitler responded to the American president, contemptuously berating him with heavy sarcasm. He also used the speech to tear up the terms of a naval agreement made with Britain four years earlier. After the applause had died down, he returned to the Reich Chancellory, exhausted and still drenched in sweat.
Listening to the speech was the American Berlin-based journalist, William L Shirer, who was impressed by Hitler’s performance if not the words he spoke. â€˜Still much doubt here among the informed,’ Shirer wrote in his diary, â€˜whether Hitler has made up his mind to begin a world war for the sake of Danzig.’
But Hitler had made up his mind. A few weeks later he told a meeting of senior Nazis and military commanders that the time had come to attack Poland at the first suitable opportunity. â€˜We cannot expect a repetition of Czechia,’ he told them. â€˜There will be war.’
However, he did recognize that a showdown with the West, and Britain in particular, was probably no longer avoidable in the long run. â€˜Therefore England is our enemy and the showdown with England is a matter of life and death,’ he told his lackeys. It was not an open declaration of war, but it was certainly a declaration of intent. It was also one that made his military commanders gulp nervously, for although the rest of the world was fooled by the newsreels of military parades and Luftwaffe flypasts, they knew, as Hitler knew, that the German war machine was nothing like as invincible as had been portrayed. Their navy was still small, dwarfed by that of Britain, while neither the army nor air force was as large as those of France. Then, to the relief of those listening, he told them he did not envisage conflict with Britain and France for several years, that is, until 1943-44, and certainly not over Poland despite declarations to the opposite.
â€˜Hitler spoke a sentence which still echoes in my ears,’ wrote Paul Schmidt, the FÃ¼hrer’s interpreter during his diplomatic wrangling during that fateful spring and summer. â€˜â€œI am unshakeably convinced that neither England nor France will embark upon a general war.’ It was a fatal miscalculation.
Nonetheless, Hitler did fear a tripartite pact between Britain, France and his other implacable enemy, the Soviet Union, and so in order to achieve his immediate goal and neutralize such a threat, he began to feverishly woo the Russians, recognizing that Stalin held the key to the destruction of Poland. If Russia could be tempted by a partition of that country, then surely Britain and France’s guarantees would be valueless, and Britain – the most dangerous enemy – would be greatly weakened.
Not until 24th August was the subsequent German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact signed, an astonishing piece of diplomacy that stunned the world and which Hitler believed had enabled him to march into Poland without fear of yet starting a world war. How wrong he was. His decision to invade Poland on 1st September must surely be one of the most catastrophic in world history. As Chamberlain’s reedy voice announced to the world at 11 o’clock on Sunday 3rd September, Britain was at war with Germany. Soon after, so too was France.
Six years later and with some fifty million people dead and much of Europe lying in ruins, the world’s most violent and terrible conflict was finally over. Yet the fate of the world was laid down seventy years ago this month, when a delusional, ego-maniacal despot turned fifty, and made his irreversible decision to wage war on Poland.