This summer (July and August) brings around a number of anniversaries. It was 90 years ago this week that Sir Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary, gazed out on the evening streets of Whitehall and said, as if to himself, “The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our time.” Britain had just declared war on the Kaiser’s Germany. On August 4 this year four of the remaining handful of living veterans of that war gathered in front of the Cenotaph in central London. All were over 100 years old and the eldest, Henry Allingham, was 108. Their memories of the War to End All Wars were still sharp and clear; but when they and their few remaining comrades pass away there will be no living connection with the events that began the Great Twentieth Century War, a conflict which began in August 1914 and whose repercussions were to last until the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 (see “Reflections on the Great War” in the June archives of this Blog).
Also this summer we mark the 60th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising, when the brave but totally outgunned remnants of the Polish Army joined together with the citizens of Warsaw to drive out the German occupiers. The Russian Army, already in Poland, called a halt to their advance instead of rushing to the aid of the Poles. Stalin was content to let the last of the free and independent Polish patriots meet destruction and death at the hands of the Nazis: after the inevitable defeat of the Third Reich, it would be a lot easier for the Soviets to set up a puppet state in Poland without such people. The German prime minister has recently visited Poland to offer his regrets in person – one wonders how much longer German statesmen will be carrying out such missions; Mr Schroeder was also on hand in Normandy in June to mark the 1944 invasion of Nazi-occupied France – but the Russians have pointedly stayed away and reacted angrily to renewed Polish accusations of betrayal. For some reason the Polish prime minister Marek Belka has expressed his annoyance with the English, whom he seems to believe could have done more to help. It’s hard to see what they could have done at the time, and it seems a little churlish to overlook the fact that Britain declared war on Nazi Germany as a direct consequence of its support for Poland. (See here for an account of the Uprising and here for a British reaction to Mr Belka).
It is interesting if rather pointless to note that Britain would have been in a much stronger position had it gone to war with Germany over the occupation of the Sudetenland (Czechoslovakia) in 1938. The German General Staff was adamantly opposed to Hitler’s plans and some officers with social contacts in Britain were desperately seeking outside help in an attempt to depose him. The Czech Army was large and had erected formidable defense positions which the Germans themselves later admitted would have caused them fearful casualties. In addition to the British and French armies in the West the armies of the smaller nations within the League of Nations (Belgium, Holland, Denmark, Norway, even Ireland, which then held the Presidency) would have rallied against a direct German challenge to the peace of Europe. The German Army itself was not yet the fully-equipped and trained force it was to become by 1939-40. Hitler could well have been defeated and removed from power. In the event, we all know what happened. Chamberlain of Britain and Daladier of France negotiated directly with Hitler and sold Czechoslovakia down the river (a shameful episode for which Margaret Thatcher as British PM apologized in 1988). The League of Nations, already shaken by the Italian invasion of Ethiopia and the Spanish Civil War, ceased to have any further significance in European affairs. When war came in September 1939 the smaller nations all declared their neutrality – not that the Germans paid very much attention to neutrality – on the grounds that the British and French guarantees to Poland were unilateral agreements entered upon without consultation with other members of the League. This is one of the reasons Ireland remained neutral (on the British side, it must be admitted) and continued to maintain an Embassy in Berlin throughout the war. Eamon de Valera, the Irish PM, even made an infamous condolence call on the German Embassy in Dublin after the death of Hitler. This was predominantly an electoral move on the part of this sly old fox since his favoured candidate for President was running behind in the polls and the predictable wave of Ireland-bashing in the British press rallied the country behind him. Ah, politics ….
The third commemoration this summer is the 60th anniversary of the July 20, 1944 attempt to assassinate Hitler in his military headquarters in East Prussia. A young staff officer, Count Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg, carried a briefcase bomb into the room where Hitler was meeting with his generals. Somebody noticed the briefcase under the table and moved its location minutes before the bomb went off, thereby undoubtedly saving Hitler’s life. The plot was uncovered and Stauffenberg and his fellow conspirators were executed; in fact the paranoia engendered in Hitler by his close escape led to the arrest and execution of hundreds of people, many of whom were simply family members of those implicated in the plot. Stauffenberg and the plan to kill Hitler is commemorated as an heroic act in modern Germany, but this was not the case at the time and not for some considerable passage of years after the war. As it happens, I was having a beer with three German friends the other day and brought up the subject. They looked a bit gobsmacked at first (here we are having a quiet beer and this Irish nutcase starts up) but the consensus was unanimous and unequivocal: trying to get rid of Hitler was a good idea, but by 1944 it was much too late. It’s like a skeleton going to the dentist, one of them explained, a nice idea but something that should have been thought of before. Hitler should have been removed much earlier, but how?
There were a number of attempts to arouse the German people to the dangers of Hitler, but none of them met with any popular support. The Protestant pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer explained it this way (in paraphrase): “When they came for the trade unionists I said nothing because I wasn’t a trade unionist; when they came for the Jews I said nothing because I wasn’t a Jew; when they came for the Catholics I said nothing because I wasn’t a Catholic; and then when they came for me, I looked around for support but there was nobody left.” Hans and Sophie Scholl, a brother and sister at the University of Munich set up a resistance group in 1942 known as the White Rose (a symbol of the German Christian spirit) and established contacts with student resistance groups at other universities. They distributed leaflets and even organized and participated in an unheard of demonstration against the regime. They were arrested, interrogated and ultimately executed in February 1943. Even more unusual (astounding, for anyone who thinks they know anything about Germany under the Nazis) were the large and popular youth gangs such as the Edelweiss Pirates and the Swing Youth who openly defied the regime and went around listening to American jazz and beating up Hitler Youth. They deserve a completely different article all to themselves, but for the time being you can read about them here and here.