David Irving



The six weeks preceding the doom-charged visit of Vyacheslav Molotov to Berlin in November 1940 are a period when Hitler’s foreign policy becomes almost impossible to disentangle.  With the direct assault on the British Isles all but abandoned and the Luftwaffe’s murderous bombardment producing no visible collapse, he took counsel with the Spanish and Italians on ways of striking the British Empire at the periphery ;  he brought Japan into the Axis in a Tripartite Pact ostensibly designed to warn the United States against intervention, and he even pawed over the possibility of an alliance with France.  This much is clear.  But what are we to make of his more determined attempts to lure the Soviet Union into joining the Tripartite Pact as well ?  Was it a realistic alternative to inflicting military defeat on her, or was it a cynical attempt to force Britain to give way and enable Hitler to concentrate his undivided effort in the east ?

The impulse towards a peripheral solution was provided by Admiral Raeder—and perhaps by G–ring too, although the date of his often-mentioned “threehour argument” with Hitler, urging against a Russian campaign is still obscure.  Early in September Raeder had examined with Hitler the strategic options open to Germany ;  by the twenty-sixth, when he came for a long private talk on the same subject, he was convinced there were ways of pacifying Russia more elegant than brute force.  Germany should throw the British out of the Mediterranean that winter, before the United States was roused ;  it should provide assistance to Italy for the capture of the Suez Canal and then advance through Palestine to Syria.  Turkey would then be at Germany’s mercy.  “Then the Russian problem would assume a very different aspect.  Russia is basically frightened of Germany”—a point on which Hitler agreed.  “It is unlikely that any attack on Russia in the north would then be necessary.”  Hitler appeared to like this plan :  they could then invite Russia to turn toward Persia and India—again on the British periphery—which were far more important to her than the Baltic.  After the admiral left, the F¸hrer mentioned to his naval adjutant, Puttkamer, that the interview had been enlightening, as it had checked with his own views and he could see how far he was right.

The key to any peripheral strategy was, however, Italy, and Italy was ruled by a vain Mussolini whose reach far exceeded his grasp.  The Italians had haughtily declined Hitler’s offer of an armored corps for the attack on Egypt :  the attack had opened on September 13 and petered out four days later.  Hitler’s plan for France to join in a coalition war against Britain by fighting in the defense of North Africa—a plan inspired by Vichy’s determined repulse later that month of the powerful British naval force that attempted to land General Charles de Gaulle’s Free French troops at Dakar—would also depend on the extent to which Italy’s distrustfulness could be overcome.  North Africa was in her sphere of interest, and the Italians were reluctant to moderate their demands for the disarmament of French forces there or to allow the French fleet units stationed at Toulon to put to sea.

The most intractable barrier to Franco-German cooperation was the interest both Italy and Spain were declaring in substantial portions of France’s African territories :  Spain expected to be given the whole of French Morocco in return for declaring war on Britain.  In other respects as well, the talks conducted in Berlin and Rome by Franco’s future foreign minister, Ramon Serrano Sufier, remained unproductive.  Hitler postponed reaching a final decision on problems affecting Spain and France until he could meet their leaders and Mussolini.  Small wonder that the High Command’s exasperated war diarist lamented :  “Our command policy of late seems to be dictated only by regard for the feelings of the Reichsmarschall and the Italians.”

One thing Hitler was certain of by late September 1940 :  it would be impossible to gratify the territorial dreams of Italy, France, and Spain simultaneously.  If Spain were to join the war and seize Gibraltar, and if France were also to be encouraged to join the grand coalition, he must resort to “fraud on a grand scale,” as he disarmingly put it to Ribbentrop :  each aspirant would have to be left in the happy belief that his wishes would be largely fulfilled.  The first claimant to be deceived was Hitler’s senior partner, Benito Mussolini, whom he met on the Brenner frontier between Italy and Germany at midday on October 4.  Hitler cunningly suggested that they lure Spain into the war by promising to deal with her colonial demands in the final peace treaty with France ;  in return for the loss of part of Morocco to Spain, France could have a slice of British Nigeria and the honor of defending her remaining colonies and reconquering those she had forfeited—to say nothing of the privilege of permitting Germany to establish bases in West Africa.  Mussolini was promised Nice, Corsica, and Tunis.  There would be something for everybody in the coalition.

On leaving the Brenner frontier, Hitler’s train immediately headed for Berchtesgaden.  By 9 P.M. he was back at the Berghof.  For three days he idled in the autumn sunshine, reflecting on the implications of his new political strategy.  His timetable was clearly mapped out :  he would first like to see the former French ambassador, Andre FranÁois-Poncet (whom he liked) in Berlin ;  then he would embark on a grand tour, seeing Marshal PÈtain in France and next General Franco in Spain, before returning to France to settle with PÈtain the terms of their future collaboration.  First, however, he would write to Stalin to tempt him with a share of Britain’s legacy in return for Russia’s participation in the coalition.  “If we manage that,” Brauchitsch was told, “we can go all out for Britain.”  The alternative of course—war with Russia—was already being quietly prepared, and with increasing reason, for there was a steady trickle of reliable Intelligence that behind her well-disposed if occasionally frosty facade the Soviet Union was contemplating carrying the world revolution further to the west.  Hitler instructed G–ring to ensure that all the Russian contracts with German industry were punctiliously fulfilled so that Stalin would have no cause for complaint on that score ;  but he also authorized the Luftwaffe to start extensive high-altitude photographic reconnaissance missions far into Russia.

On October 9, Hitler was back in the Chancellery in Berlin.  Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria were all showing a willingness to join the Tripartite Pact ;  Spain, he decided upon reflection, seemed so torn by internal malaise as to be valueless—Germany might have to take Gibraltar without Spain’s aid ;  Italy’s value as an ally was mitigated by her generals’ sloth and Count Ciano’s latent hostility.  This was how Hitler apparently summarized the position to Field Marshal von Brauchitsch.

In conversation with Ribbentrop, Hitler debated the best approach to Moscow.  Ribbentrop suggested a summit meeting between Stalin and the F¸hrer, but Hitler pointed out that Stalin would not leave his country.  Hitler himself dictated a lengthy letter to Stalin on the thirteenth inviting Molotov to visit them very shortly in Berlin.  The letter bore all Hitler’s familiar trademarks—the inveighing against Britain’s duplicity, the portrayal of her leaders as conscienceless political dilettantes who dragged one reluctant country after another into battle on Britain’s behalf and then abandoned them in their hour of need ;  he reminded Stalin of the captured Allied documents which revealed plans to bomb the Soviet oil fields, and he sought—though unconvincingly—to explain Germany’s guarantee to Romania and her military mission there as a necessary safeguard in case of British sabotage or invasion.  If Molotov came to Berlin, the letter concluded, Hitler would be able to put to him his concrete ideas on the joint aims they could pursue.

On October 12, Hitler had issued a secret message to the services formally canceling all invasion preparations against Britain.  The army units would be needed for other purposes ;  the tugs and fishing boats were to be returned to the civilian economy.  G–ring’s bombers alone would continue the war against the British people.  As Hitler gloated to a visiting Italian minister on the fourteenth :  “Let the British announce what they will—the situation in London must be horrific.  Recently an American newspaper triumphantly claimed the Luftwaffe cannot have inflicted all that much damage, because of eighty-two American firms only eight have been completely destroyed and another seventeen damaged ;  but I am completely satisfied with such figures, even if the American newspaper isn’t.  It is far more than I expected.  Let’s wait and see what London looks like two or three months from now.  If I cannot invade them, at least I can destroy the whole of their industry !”  The aerial photographs his bomber crews brought back proved the extent of the damage done to Britain night after night.  Churchill announced that over eight thousand Britons had been killed by the Luftwaffe.

What perplexed Hitler was the total lack of plan and purpose behind the British bombing offensive.  Germany had feared an attempt to paralyze her transport system or, even worse, a ceaseless onslaught on her oil refineries—oil was Germany’s Achilles heel—yet Churchill was making the fundamental error of attacking Germany’s civilians and inflicting only negligible damage on her war effort in the process.  Nevertheless, Hitler had ordered Reichsleiter von Schirach to organize the evacuation of children from the biggest cities, and he had increased the antiaircraft batteries around Berlin from nineteen to thirty.  He had also sent for Fritz Todt and commanded that air raid shelters be built.  The blackout was perfected, blue lights were installed in streetcars, trains, and hospitals, and the whole civil defense organization was handed over to Field Marshal Milch.

The uncomfortable realization that as yet there was no defense against the enemy night-bomber confronted Hitler with a host of new problems.  If only one aircraft approached Berlin, should the entire city be sent scurrying for the air raid shelters by sirens ?  How long before the all clear could be sounded ?  On the night of October 14 a typical episode angered Hitler :  first an enemy bomber arrived without any advance warning ;  then there was an all clear followed by a fresh alert as more enemy bombers were spotted approaching over Magdeburg.  The injured and sick in Berlin’s hospitals were twice forced to trek down into their shelters—this was not a burden he had planned to inflict on the German population at all.  He sent for Milch the next day and ordered him to sort the matter out.  Hitler was glad he was leaving Berlin for the tranquility of the Berghof that night.

In Berchtesgaden, his only engagement of consequence was a private visit from the Italian Crown Princess Maria-Jose, the elegant spouse of Crown Prince Umberto and sister of King Leopold of Belgium.  Hitler entertained her at afternoon tea on the seventeenth in the mountaintop “Eagle’s Nest.”  The tea party started well—Hitler’s majordomo Artur Kannenberg had as usual prepared it exquisitely.  (Hitler would never hear a word said against the obese and sycophantic Kannenberg ;  whether softly playing an accordion in the background while the F¸hrer and Eva Braun warmed themselves on a sofa before a crackling log fire, or organizing the great state banquets that passed flawlessly and without incident, Kannenberg had become indispensable.)  A number of Hitler’s most presentable womenfolk were also invited to meet the princess—among them Henriette von Schirach and the dazzlingly attractive wife of Robert Ley.  While white jacketed servants ministered to their needs, the princess haltingly begged Hitler to allow her brother to come and meet with him secretly.  She assured Hitler of Leopold’s loyalty, despite the domestic troubles caused by the food shortage in Belgium and Hitler’s unwillingness to release the rest of the Belgian prisoners.  When Hitler refused, she steadfastly repeated her request and then pleaded for the release of at least the more ailing prisoners.  Hitler was impressed by her plucky manner with what was after all now the most powerful man in Europe.  After the princess left his mountain, he joked feebly with his staff :  “She is the only real man in the House of Savoy !”

In the special train Amerika, Hitler left Bavaria toward midnight on October 20, 1940, on the first leg of a rail journey that was to cover over four thousand miles within the next week.  Every hundred yards or so sentries patroled to the right and left of the railroad track ;  the Luftwaffe had provided exceptional air cover, too.  The French leaders were still unaware that Hitler was coming to them.

Hitler had eventually abandoned his desire to meet FranÁois-Poncet, the former French ambassador, again.  He had always warmed toward this Frenchman and believed he had won him over, but Ribbentrop had recently reeducated him by brandishing quantities of captured French diplomatic papers in which the former ambassador’s confidential pronouncements were more pithy and colorful than either the Forschungsamt had succeeded in decoding or the French had published after war broke out.  FranÁois-Poncet had no real sympathy for the spirit of National Socialism, for all his recognition of the injustices of Versailles and the wayward genius of the F¸hrer ;  Hitler, warned the ambassador, was bent only on securing for Germany a hegemony in Central Europe.  But “the remarks he [FranÁois-Poncet] occasionally drops about the F¸hrer and other leading Reich figures are often so pointed and spiteful as to be incompatible with an even moderately loyal attitude.”  “As far as I am concerned,” the ambassador had written in July 1937, “this mistrust has never left me.  I am too well aware of the Third Reich leaders’ powers of hypocrisy, mendacity, and cynicism to discard this mistrust one instant whatever the smiles and the amiability I outwardly adopt.”

Hitler’s train pulled into the little railroad station at Montoire, “somewhere in occupied France,” at 6:30 P.M. on October 22.  Ribbentrop’s train, Heinrich, was already there.  The station area had been freshly graveled and a thick red carpet had been rolled out.  Antiaircraft batteries had been stationed on the surrounding hills.  At seven, the short, stocky Pierre Laval, French deputy premier, sporting the familiar Gallic moustache and white tie, arrived by car.  He had learned only a few minutes earlier that he was about to meet the F¸hrer himself.  In the dining car Hitler briefly indicated his wish to speak with PÈtain in person on the lines France’s future collaboration with Germany might take.  The defeat of Britain was inevitable, he prophesied, and Laval earnestly assured him that he too desired this defeat, as must every red-blooded Frenchman.  Britain, said Laval, had dragged France into an unwanted war, abandoned her, and then besmirched her honor at Mers el-Kebir and more recently at Dakar.  That the French had not wanted the war was shown by the two million troops who had allowed themselves to be taken prisoner.(1)  Hitler emphasized that he was determined to mobilize every conceivable force necessary to defeat Britain.  “Perhaps the immediate future would prove this was no empty phrase”—a hint at his intention of drawing Russia into the Tripartite Pact.  Laval, who had scribbled notes throughout the interview, promised to return with PÈtain in two days’ time.

At 4 A.M. Hitler’s train left for the Spanish frontier.  Upon General Franco’s willingness to enter the war, and the consequent claims Hitler would have to support against France’s colonial possessions, would depend the tenor of the main approach to Petain.  By 4 P.M. his train had reached the frontier town of Hendaye.  A guard of honor was drawn up on the platform.  Franco’s train was half an hour late, but at four-thirty it drew alongside on another platform, where the Spanish-gauge railway ended.  Hitler invited the Caudillo to inspect the guard of honor.  Then the hard business of the day began in the drawing room of Hitler’s train.

The argument that followed was to haunt Hitler to the end of his life.  He later told Mussolini, “I would rather have three or four teeth extracted than go through that again.”  In vain he tried to persuade the plump, swarthy Spanish dictator to enter into an immediate alliance and allow German troops to capture Gibraltar.  Twice during the summer Admiral Canaris had visited Spain in this connection, and mountain troops were already conducting experiments on the cliffs and caves of the CÙte d’Azur in France—trying out various projectiles, explosives, and drilling techniques.  Franco refused to rise to Hitler’s bait.  It was clear he doubted the likelihood of an Axis victory.  Hours of argument brought Hitler no closer to his goal.  He barely controlled his fury when Franco’s foreign minister several times interrupted in a tactless way that Ribbentrop would certainly never have dared with his chief—usually at the precise moment when Hitler believed Franco was on the point of accepting the German terms.  Once he stood up abruptly and said there was little point in talking any longer, but talk on he did until dinner was served in his dining car.  The Spanish leaders were scheduled to leave immediately afterward, but Hitler tackled Franco again, arguing with him about Spain’s requirements of guns, gasoline, and foodstuffs until far into the night.  When at 2:15 A.M. the Spanish leader’s train left the little frontier station to the strains of the Spanish national anthem, General Franco was no nearer to joining the Axis.  It was clear to all who crossed Hitler’s path in these hours of his jolting journey back to Montoire that he was furious.  He mouthed phrases about “Jesuit swine”—referring to Spain’s Foreign Minister Serrano Suner—and the Spaniards’ “misplaced sense of pride.”  Over the next weeks, his anger at having been cold-shouldered turned to contempt.  “With me, Franco would not even have become a minor Party official,” he scoffed to Jodl’s staff, and he sneered at the quirk of fortune that had made a man like Franco head of state.  (Another general had started the Spanish uprising in 1936, only to meet his death in an air accident.)  But history was to prove that General Franco was wise enough to outlive by twenty years the Axis that now was wooing him.

At three-thirty the next afternoon, October 24, Hitler arrived back at Montoire.  Ribbentrop and his staff had stayed behind for one more round of talks with the Spanish and so returned by plane—the foreign minister seething with anger at the fresh snub he had that morning been dealt by Serrano Suner, who had failed to appear at the meeting they had arranged, and had sent only a junior official in his place.  A secret protocol drawn up between the three governments—of which only Hitler, Mussolini, and the foreign ministers were to learn—was the only tangible product of the journey to Hendaye.  But Franco was rightly suspicious of the vagueness of the territorial offers it contained, and his suspicions grew stronger as Hitler’s demands grew shriller in the months to come.

Hitler now set much greater store in persuading Marshal PÈtain to bring France into the “continental bloc” he was organizing against Britain.  Spain’s territorial claims could now safely be ignored.  Hitler nervously left his train after lunch to make sure that a proper guard of honor was awaiting the French leaders, and he placed Field Marshal Keitel in front of the guard of honor to greet the “victor of Verdun” as his car drew up shortly before 6 P.M.  PÈtain stepped out wearing a long French military greatcoat and a general’s red cap, beneath which gleamed his silver hair.  Laval followed.  PÈtain was evidently gratified at the dignity of the German welcome, but he avoided inspecting the guard of honor.  Hitler conducted him to his drawing room and repeated the impressive catalog of German arms, stressing the certainty of the Axis victory.

But when he asked PÈtain for his response, the latter answered evasively that he must consult his government.  The marshal would go no further than to confirm in principle his country’s readiness to collaborate with Germany.  Nonetheless, Hitler was pleased with the outcome.  PÈtain’s military bearing, and even his reserve, had enhanced his admiration for him.  He afterward said in Schaub’s hearing, “France should be proud to have such a leader, a man who wants only the best for his own country.”  Although he suspected PÈtain would meet with opposition from his government, he believed the Montoire conferences had accomplished all he had set out to achieve, and this was echoed in the first paragraph of the next directive he issued to the forces :

It is the aim of my policy toward France to collaborate with that country in the most effective possible way to fight Britain in the future.  For the time being there will fall to France the role of a “nonbelligerent” obliged to tolerate military steps taken by the German war command in her territories, and particularly in the African colonies, and to support those steps where necessary by operations of her own defensive forces.  The most urgent duty of the French is the defense—both by defensive and offensive means—of their possessions in West and Equatorial Africa against Britain and de Gaulle’s movement.  From this duty there can flow France’s wholehearted participation in the war against Britain.

Petain’s meeting with Hitler had ended at 7:45 P.M. on October 24, a Thursday.  Hitler accompanied the marshal back to his car while a guard of honor presented arms ;  then the marshal was driven away, never to be seen by him again.

Hitler’s special train remained overnight at the Montoire station.  He had planned to return to Berlin to prepare for Molotov’s visit—the Russians had secretly accepted the invitation two days before—but now something unexpected occurred.  Hewel brought him a long, jealous letter from Mussolini which had just arrived via the OKW’s coded-teleprinter service.  The letter, dated five days before, contained an impassioned appeal by the Duce to the F¸hrer to set aside his dangerous flirtation with the French.  Mussolini warned that he had information that the Vichy government was in secret touch with London via Lisbon ;  the French would always hate the Axis, and certainly no less now that they were in defeat.  As for his own plans, Mussolini again mentioned that the British menace looming over Greece was comparable with that which Hitler had so successfully forestalled in Norway.  “As far as Greece is concerned,” Mussolini noted, “I am determined to act without hesitation—in fact to act very rapidly indeed.”

After reading this, Hitler took fright and instructed Ribbentrop to arrange a meeting with Mussolini in a few days’ time in Upper Italy.  The lack of greater urgency suggests that the Duce’s reference to attacking Greece was only of secondary importance to Hitler’s concern to assuage Mussolini’s fears about the approaches to France.  Surely the Italians would not attack Greece now, with the autumn rains and winter snows almost upon them ?  That would be “downright madness”—it would be an open invitation to the British to occupy Crete and other Greek islands well within bomber range of the Romanian oil fields.  Ribbentrop telephoned his Italian counterpart from the first railroad station inside the German frontier, and in the small hours of Friday morning Hewel brought the F¸hrer a teletyped note from Ribbentrop’s train, Heinrich :  “I just spoke with Count Ciano on the phone and told him the F¸hrer would very much like to speak with the Duce early next week.  Count Ciano put this to the Duce and replied latter would be happy to welcome the F¸hrer and Reich Chancellor on Monday in Florence.—Ribbentrop.”

During his Brenner meeting with Mussolini, on October 4, Hitler had probably given theoretical support for an Italian occupation of Greece if—and only if—necessary to forestall a British invasion.  Admittedly the Abwehr had reported rumors of an Italian attack on Greece some days earlier ;  during Friday October 25 the German military attachÈ in Rome cabled that Marshal Badoglio himself had informed him that they now had information that the British intended to occupy Greek territory and that the Italians had for their part taken all necessary precautions to intervene the moment the first Briton sets foot on Greek soil.  But he had reassured him :  “I will inform you if it comes to that.”

Hitler heard no more until Monday morning.  His train reached Munich eventually late on Saturday, and he spent the next day killing time there.  Ribbentrop’s foreign ministry remained placidly unperturbed by the multiplying reports of Italian preparations in Albania, which Italy had occupied in April 1939.  The two key dispatches from Rome that Sunday evening—the military attachÈ’s discovery that Italy was going to attack Greece next morning, and the ambassador’s report on Ciano’s communication to the same effect at 9 P.M.—were not deciphered by their Berlin recipients until Monday morning and had certainly not reached Hitler, whose train left Munich punctually at 6 A.M. for Florence ;  so punctually indeed that Field Marshal Keitel, who had flown down from Berlin, had to leap onto the train as it was pulling away from the platform.

Mussolini’s troops had invaded Greece at five-thirty that morning.  The stunning news reached Hitler’s train at Bologna, fifty miles north of Florence.  Mussolini had obviously withheld his plan from him, to pay him in his own coin for Norway—and more pertinently for sending German troops into Romania, of which Mussolini was joint guarantor.  Hitler’s purpose until now had been at least to persuade the Duce not to attack Greece until after the American presidential elections, which were one week away.  Hitler also wanted to be in a position to give his friend his expert advice on the best thrust direction for the offensive, and to mount a German airborne assault on Crete by divisions first moved to North African soil.  Possession of Crete was after all the key to the command of the eastern Mediterranean.  By the time Hitler’s train steamed into Florence an hour later, 11 A.M., however, he had pocketed his intense disappointment at his ally’s rash and thoughtless move, though he was hard put to control his anger when Mussolini strutted up to him and announced in German :  “F¸hrer—wir marschieren !”  “We are on the march !”

Seven hours of discussions followed.  At one stage Mussolini hinted incoherently at his real motive for attacking Greece.  “You see, I trust my soldiers ;  but not my generals.  They can’t be trusted.”  But Hitler’s mistrust extended to all Italians from now on.  Why had they not given expression to their military aspirations by completing their assault on Egypt ?  The capture of the British naval base at Alexandria would have had immense consequences for their Mediterranean position.  The Italians were comparing their Greek campaign with the German campaign in Norway, but they had left Crete and the Peleponnesian Islands unmolested ;  had Hitler shown no interest in Trondheim or Narvik in April ?  There was nobody on Hitler’s staff who did not see this Greek adventure as a strategic error of the first magnitude, although Mussolini was optimistic that it would soon all be over.  One of Hitler’s adjutants noted that Hitler “swore at all German liaison staffs and attachÈs who knew their way around the best restaurants but were the world’s worst spies,” and hinted that “this was going to spoil many a scheme he was hatching himself.”

All his fears proved only too well founded.  Italy had not committed enough strength to the campaign.  On the day after the Florence meeting, British ground and air forces landed on Crete.  On November 3 the first British army units landed on the Greek mainland near Athens.  Mussolini’s invading divisions were thrown back.  A member of Jodl’s staff noted on October 29 :  “At present no participation in Greece is planned ;  nor is anything being undertaken with regard to Crete for the time being.”  But within a week Hitler had been forced to order the Wehrmacht to prepare an offensive against Greece to take the pressure off his harassed and headstrong ally.  Out of this plan emerged perforce the need to invade Yugoslavia as well, and the schedule for spring 1941—already crowded with possible major operations in east and west—was finally thrown out of joint.  On this day in October 1940 was sown the first seed of later defeat.  “There is no doubt about it,” the F¸hrer was to lament as the shadows of that defeat began to fall across him, “we have had no luck with the Latin races !  While I was occupied, first in Montoire, buttoning up a futile policy of collaboration with France, and then in Hendaye, where I had to submit to receiving gaudy honors at the hands of a false friend, a third Latin—and this time one who really was a friend—took advantage of my preoccupation to set in motion his disastrous campaign against Greece.”

Nevertheless, the signs had been there to see, had Hitler not been so afflicted with blind trust in Mussolini ;  nor can Ribbentrop escape his share of the blame.  Hitler’s naval adjutant, Puttkamer, has stated that his chief refused to take the warning signals seriously.  On October 18 Jodl’s staff had first heard rumors that Italy was planning to hurl up to ten divisions at Greece at the end of the month.  On the seventeenth a colonel on the Italian General Staff had confidentially told a German liaison officer in Rome that the Italian attack would begin eight or nine days later.  A senior official of the foreign ministry had then drafted a telegram to the German ambassador in Rome directing him to deliver a stern demarche to the Italian government, but Ribbentrop had prevented the dispatch of this telegram, saying that its tone was too strong and that the ambassador should merely direct a “friendly inquiry” to Count Ciano.  Almost simultaneously Hitler was shown a telegram in which his ambassador in Rome referred to the Italian plans against Greece, and not long afterward he saw a full report by the ambassador on a conversation with Ciano.  In this exchange, the Italian foreign minister pointed out :  “Italy has complete freedom of action over Greece.  The F¸hrer has conceded this to the Duce”—words which caused Ribbentrop to telephone his ministry and stop even the telegram about the “friendly inquiry.”  The whole matter must be decided by the F¸hrer, said Ribbentrop ;  and Hitler’s decision was that Italy must be trusted, and that no inquiry was to be sent to Rome.

Hitler returned to Berlin.  For the next two weeks—ending with Molotov’s arrival from Moscow—he lost the initiative, thanks to Mussolini’s untimely attack on Greece.  He unenthusiastically examined one peripheral project after another :  the capture of Gibraltar, support for the Italians in Egypt, the mining of the Suez Canal, and even the occupation of various Atlantic islands as bases for a possible future war with the United States.  Now he began to regret that he had not invaded Britain, and the diaries of his staff show him repeating years later that the navy had smart-talked him out of it.  Julius Schaub recalled, “The F¸hrer told me afterward, ‘So long as I acted on instinct I acted rightly ;  the moment I allowed myself to be persuaded, things went wrong—as with the invasion of Britain.’ ”

During this period of indecision, only the Luftwaffe bombing—which had now killed fourteen thousand people in Britain—and the U-boat blockade continued.  Meanwhile, Mussolini’s humiliation by the Greeks restored British morale.  For a time Hitler considered the possibility of seeking an armistice with Britain at the expense of Italy or France ;  but his instinct was against that, and he told G–ring—as chief of the Four-Year Plan—to prepare the war economy for a long fight.  Some time before, on returning through France from his meeting with Franco, he had cabled Admiral Karl D–nitz, the wiry commander of the German U-boat fleet, to join his train ;  he had ordered him to build huge concrete shelters to protect the U-boats from enemy air attacks on new submarine bases in western France.  The navy had not thought them really necessary, but on his return to Berlin now Hitler sent for Fritz Todt and showed him precisely what he wanted.  By Easter 1941 the first “U-boat pens” were ready—a good example of Hitler’s foresight.

The Axis alliance as such had again reached low ebb.  Throughout the summer the German army had encouraged Hitler to offer Italy armored units to ensure victory in Egypt, but the Italians had proudly snubbed this offer.  At the Brenner meeting early in October, however, the Duce had hinted that he could use German tanks after all, and throughout that month Hitler had prepared to send his 3rd Panzer Division to help the Italians capture Marsa Matruh ;  the army had sent a panzer general to carry out an on-the-spot investigation in North Africa.  By the time the general reported to Hitler at the beginning of November, the F¸hrer had determined to let the Italians stew in their own juice all winter.  He would, instead, use the spare troops to invade Greece from Bulgaria and thus secure an outlet to the Aegean Sea ;  and he also planned a simultaneous attack on Gibraltar together with Spain but without Italy, since he could meet Spain’s territorial demands at Italy’s expense.  He told his army adjutant he was so angry with Italy that he was minded to send no troops to North Africa and none either to Albania—into which Italian attack divisions had retreated after a Greek counterattack.

The panzer general’s report from North Africa was the last straw :  the Italians were highly unready to resume their offensive ;  their army commanders were inadequate, the water supplies for the attacking troops were insecure, and German mechanized units would be adversely affected by engine breakdowns under desert conditions.  Hitler forthwith “wrote off” all idea of sending troops to North Africa ;  he ordered the planning to continue on a purely caretaker basis only.  Ironically, it was to General Rommel that the F¸hrer now bluntly proclaimed, “Not one man and not one pfennig will I send to North Africa.”  A few days later the disgrace of the Italians was complete.  They had kept their battle fleet in harbor rather than risk it in an assault on Crete ;  now a handful of British torpedo planes attacked the warships in Taranto harbor and crippled three battleships, including Mussolini’s most modern battleship.  Schadenfreude in Berlin was tempered by the realization that the strategic balance in the Mediterranean had been ominously tilted.

Hitler’s lack of strategic purpose was most clearly expressed in his rambling discussion with his supreme commanders on November 4 and in the resulting Wehrmacht directive issued a week later.  General Franco had just personally written to Hitler that he took his oral promises very seriously—which meant that he intended to declare war on Britain.  Hitler now told his commanders that he wanted to speed up Spain’s entry into the war and tackle Gibraltar—the key to the western Mediterranean—as soon as the political negotiations were out of the way.  A wing of Junkers 88 dive-bombers would fly from French airfields, wipe out the British warships sheltering in Gibraltar, and land in Spain ;  at the same time powerful German ground forces would cross into Spain and invest the British fortress.  Since the British would probably covet the Canaries or Portugal’s Cape Verde Islands once Gibraltar had fallen, the Germans must occupy those Atlantic islands, too.  The political talks were to start at once.

In the Balkans, an operation for the occupation of northern Greece (Macedonia and Thrace) was to be planned should need arise.  That Hitler desired the Dardanelles to come under German control is also evident, though this would eventually mean war with Turkey.  However, on November 4 he commented to General Halder :  “We cannot go on down to the Dardanelles until we have defeated Russia.”  Russia remained the one great area where Hitler could take a bold initiative, and it came higher in his list of priorities than invading Britain.  At the end of October, a member of Jodl’s staff had noted that even though the Soviet Union had just occupied still more Romanian territory—three islands in the Danube estuary, on the pretext that they were part of Bessarabia—this encroachment was for the present being played down.  “No orders of any kind have been issued for Case East, nor are any as yet to be expected.”  And in the admiralty it was optimistically believed that “Case East is no longer considered likely as things are going at present.”  But, on November 4, Hitler said to Halder that Russia remained the nub of Europe’s problems :  “Everything must be done so that we are ready for the final showdown.”

What triggered Hitler’s remark ?  From the Forschungsamt reports Hitler now knew that in Moscow Molotov had recently discussed Russia’s interest in the Dardanelles with Sir Stafford Cripps and had even demanded a naval base there.  The ultimate clash between Germany and the USSR seemed inevitable if Hitler could not deflect Moscow’s interests toward the Persian Gulf and India.  But the Nazi party also seems to have reminded Hitler where his real mission lay.  On the last day of October, the ruthless Gauleiter of Posen, Arthur Greiser, lunched with Hitler and Bormann at the Chancellery and complained at the way the eyes of the German people were currently turned west instead of east.  The conquests in the west had brought Germany a bigger population to feed, and this was the very opposite of the Lebensraum policies Hitler had preached to the Party :  Lebensraum could only be assured by conquests in the east.  “The F¸hrer agreed that this opinion was a correct one,” noted Bormann, “and emphasized that when peace is concluded absolutely every young and capable civil servant aspiring to promotion will have to serve a number of years in the eastern territories.”

On the eve of Molotov’s arrival in Berlin, Hitler visited Field Marshal von Bock, his formidable new Commander in Chief in the east.  Bock wrote :

The F¸hrer called, sat half an hour at my bedside, and was very friendly and concerned.  The overall situation was covered in detail.  He is furious at Italy’s escapade in Greece ;  not only did Italy keep it secret from us, she actually denied it when we taxed her with it.  The F¸hrer described how he tried to prevent the mischief by going down to Florence, or at least to keep things on ice long enough for us to lend a helping hand ;  but in vain—Mussolini had announced he could no longer call off the operation that had begun.  The ultimate—and highly undesirable—outcome is that the Romanian oil fields will be threatened by the British air force units from Salonika.  This danger is so great that it may oblige us to take countermeasures.... What will transpire in the east is still an open question ;  circumstances may force us to step in to forestall any more dangerous developments.

The outcome of Molotov’s visit would determine whether or not Hitler would attack the Soviet Union.  In the secret directive he circulated to his service commanders on November 12 after a week of drafting and redrafting, Hitler approved this wording :  “Russia.  Political discussions have been initiated with the aim of establishing what Russia’s posture will be over the coming period.  Irrespective of the outcome of these discussions, all the preparations orally ordered for the east are to continue.  Directives thereon will follow as soon as the army’s basic operational plan has been submitted to and approved by me.”

Molotov had his first encounter with Hitler at three o’clock that day.

The Soviet foreign minister arrived at Anhalt station with a big bodyguard.  Ribbentrop’s state secretary, Weizs”cker, described them as “good gangster types for a film”—he found it depressing that 130 million Russians were being represented by such a shabby bunch.  The station building was brilliant with fresh greenery and flowers, Russian flags waved, and a military band greeted the delegation.  Every member seemed to be under his neighbor’s surveillance.  Molotov had even had to radio Moscow for permission to eat in the German dining car.  He was accompanied by a young official, ostensibly an interpreter, though he spoke not one word to the Germans.  Weizs”cker wrote in his diary :  “Molotov seems to be a thorough worker.  His men are timid.  All are obviously afraid of us.  Many of them quote Bismarck and his concept of a German-Russian collaboration.... From our viewpoint too a cooling off in the east is worthwhile.  This summer it has become ý la mode to wish for war with Russia or regard it as necessary.”  And in an entry he added some days later :  “Why not let them stew in their own stupid bolshevism ?  So long as the country is ruled by officials like those we have seen here, it’s less to be feared than when the czars were in power !”

Not since his talks with the British before Munich, in 1938, had Adolf Hitler heard such tough language as Molotov used on November 12 and 13.  Hitler had always contended that the Soviet Union and the Reich were two different worlds, but might try to live together.  As Ribbentrop had done before him, he harangued the Russian minister as though he were at a Party rally.  He put it to Molotov candidly that it was in their interests to stand back to back, rather than try to outstare one another.  If Russia wanted to share in the booty as the British Empire fell apart, then now was the time to declare Soviet solidarity with the Tripartite Pact powers.  He was not asking for an outright military alliance from Russia ;  he sympathized, he said, with Russia’s desire for an outlet to the high seas and suggested she should expand southward from Batum and Baku toward the Persian Gulf and India ;  Germany would expand into Africa.  As for Russia’s interest in the Dardanelles, Hitler restated his willingness to call for the renegotiation of the 1936 Montreux Convention, which governed the straits, to bring it into line with Moscow’s defensive interests.

Molotov—one year younger than Hitler, a stocky, nondescript figure who reminded Weizs”cker of “a schoolmaster type”—itemized with an occasional frosty smile the price demanded by the Soviet Union for any explicit alignment with the Axis.  Stalin himself had dictated these points to him before he left, he said.  Russia wanted another stab at Finland—she intended to occupy and annex the whole country, which had, after all, been assigned her by the 1939 pact Molotov had signed with Ribbentrop in Moscow.  But Hitler was adamant that there must be no fresh war in the Baltic ;  he was at war, and he needed Finland’s nickel and timber supplies.  When Molotov complained—“crudely,” as he himself apologetically noted—that Hitler’s recent guarantee to Romania and the troops he had just sent there could only be directed against Russia, Hitler acidly reminded him that Romania had herself asked for them.  And when Molotov announced Russia’s intention of inviting Bulgaria to sign a nonaggression pact which would permit the establishment of a Soviet base near the Dardanelles and would guarantee the safety of King Boris, Hitler ironically inquired whether Bulgaria too had asked for such assistance ;  pressed later by Molotov for a reply to Soviet terms, Hitler evasively answered that he must consult Mussolini !

Molotov was unconvinced :  he was unconvinced that Hitler was serious in his offer of partnership ;  since Italy’s crippling reverses in Greece and at Taranto, he was unconvinced of Axis supremacy ;  above all he was unconvinced that Britain’s days were numbered.  Each of his conferences with Hitler was terminated by the warning of approaching British aircraft, and his dinner at the Soviet embassy on the thirteenth ended abruptly for the same reason.  Ribbentrop invited him to the concrete shelter at his home and here—who will ever know what prompted Molotov’s untimely candor ?—the Soviet foreign minister revealed that Moscow’s long-range interests extended far beyond the Balkans—as though that was not ominous enough !  Molotov asked Ribbentrop whether Germany really was interested in preserving Sweden’s neutrality, and he declared that Russia could never entirely forego an interest in the western approaches to the Baltic either—the Kattegat and Skagerrak.

When Ribbentrop told the F¸hrer of Molotov’s revelations in the shelter, Hitler was stunned.  Like Italy, the Soviet Union had suffered only military disgraces—most recently in Finland—while Hitler’s Wehrmacht had crushed the resistance of one country after another.  Yet Molotov had made immense demands.  “He demanded that we give him military bases on Danish soil on the outlets to the North Sea,” Hitler was to recall in the last week of his life.  “He had already staked a claim to them.  He demanded Constantinople, Romania, Bulgaria, and Finland—and we were supposed to be the victors !”  While the public was deliberately fed the impression that the formal discussions had been harmonious and successful, within the OKW and Hitler’s Chancellery there was no doubt that the parting of the ways had come.  Keitel’s adjutant recalled that when he entered the F¸hrer’s daily war conference the next day it was like entering the house of a dying man :  a funereal aura clouded the proceedings.  One of Hitler’s own adjutants wrote :  “[The F¸hrer] says he never had expected much from it all.  The discussions have shown, he says, which way the Russians’ plans are lying :  M[olotov] has let the cat out of the bag.  He (the F¸hrer) is vastly relieved, this won’t even have to remain a mariage de convenance.”

Irrevocable and terrible in its finality, the decision Adolf Hitler now took was one he never regretted, even in the jaws of ultimate defeat.

1 In fact the maximum number of French prisoners in German hands was 1,538,000.


p. 165   G–ring—his staff under interrogation testified to this too—argued for a German attack on Gibraltar, the occupation of French North Africa and Dakar, and the sealing-off of the Mediterranean instead of a Russian campaign ;  he also wanted the navy to invade the Azores as a German Atlantic base.

p. 166   Hitler’s phrase “fraud on a grand scale” is quoted by Weizs”cker and appears in the notes of Etzdorf, Halder, and Tippelskirch as well at this time.

p. 167   The Finnish military attachÈ in Moscow quoted to his German counterparts information that the Russians were beginning to spread anti-German propaganda in the factories (T77/1027/0207).

p. 172   Although Mussolini’s letter to Hitler is dated “October 19, 1940,” Hewel’s receipt for it, signed in Hitler’s train at Montoire, shows it did not arrive until the 24th (AA files, B¸ro RAM).  The original teletype from Ribbentrop’s train Heinrich is in Hewel’s private papers.

p. 173   The available documents suggest that—perhaps on October 4, 1940—Hitler had given Mussolini a free hand against Greece, but in the distant future and only if unavoidable.  On October 21 Weizs”cker noted (diary):  “Toward Italy we are right respectful.  We’re not restraining the Italian intention of dropping on Greece soon.  Axis loyalty.”  On October 23 the OKW diary noted Jodl’s suspicion that the F¸hrer had agreed without telling his closer staff.  This was echoed by the naval staff diary on the 25th, while Weizs”cker noted that day that Mussolini “announces he’ll intervene in Greece simultaneously with next offensive against Egypt.”  See the naval staff file PG/33316, Tippelskirch’s diary—with its minute-by-minute account of October 28—and Badoglio’s memoirs, Italien im Zweiten Weltkrieg (Munich) pages 51 et seq., and Karl Ritter’s memo of November 7, 1940 (NG-3303)

p. 174   The adjutant was Engel.  Tippelskirch wrote on November 1, 1940 :  “F¸hrer in filthy temper about Greece.  [Italians are] just amateurs, getting nowhere.  Duce complains about his generals, if only he had some like ours.”

p. 174   I have quoted the F¸hrer’s lament with some reluctance from M. Bormann’s notes on Hitler’s last Table Talk conversations—that on February 20, 1945.  These notes have survived only in French translation, upon which British and German (!) translations have since been based.

p. 175   Etzdorf analyzed the divergence of German and Italian policy on November 14, 1940, in these words :  “Italians want to state their claims [on French territories] right now.  F¸hrer against this as France would then drift away, as she wouldn’t swallow [loss of] Corsica and Tunisia.  Hitler wants to play it cool, there’s still time yet, forbids [Ribbentrop] to let Ciano raise the matter if he meets Laval and Ciano.  Question :  Peace with Britain at France’s or Italy’s expense ?”

p. 180   I suspect that Hitler deliberately allowed some of his ministers to spread the impression that the Molotov talks had gone harmoniously.  (Evidence of this is in Raeder’s files, PG/31762c ;  in naval staff diary, November 16, 1940 ;  in Weizs”cker’s circular to diplomatic missions, November 15 ;  in the diaries of Halder and Tippelskirch).  Goebbels’s press directive of November 14 was unctuous and oily in its tone.  But Heinrich Himmler was more succinct in his secret speech to Party district leaders on November 28, 1940.  “Upshot is :  all treaties and economic agreements are to be exploited to the full ;  then shaken off the moment they become a burden after the war and lose their importance.”