The French planned to meet and fight the Germans in Belgium, defeat them there and then continue into Germany once the best and brightest of the German army had been ground down.
The French based their plan on their experiences in WWI. In that war, not only had the Germans occupied large swaths of northern France and the coal and iron mines and related metal industry (vital to the war effort), the defensive had proven much stronger than the offensive due to the ease of moving reinforcements by rail to any threatened part of the front, while the attacked had to move by foot and horse through the former front line to exploit a breakthrough.
The German had built the Siegfried line along the border, a decent set of fortifications and defensive structures, which the French, with experience from WWI, thought too expensive to try to force their way through.
The French plan 1939 was as follows:
- The Poles are to resist as long as possible. If they are successful, the French army will launch an offensive against the Germans 14 days after the declaration of war. If not, the Poles are to retreat to the southeastern part of the country and will be supplied by the French through Romania, which was friendly towards both countries. Like the Serbian army and the Salonika bridgehead in WWI, the Polish army will keep being a threat to the Germans, and will be ready to break out once the main German force has been destroyed.
- France and Britain was negotiating with the Soviets right up to the start of the war for an alliance. Stalin strung them along and kept demanding their support for demands on Poland and Romania, which the allies did not want to grant. In reality, they had already signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact with its secret protocols. The Poles were in the process of retreating what was left of their army to the Romanian bridgehead when the Soviets declared war and invaded on the 17th of September 1939. This cut the Poles off from the intended bridgehead. Combined with the devastating defeat of the Bzura counterattack and the destruction in that battle of the Poznan and Pomorze armies, the Poles were pretty much done. The French then cancelled their probing attack into the Saar region and their intended offensive, as it would do them no good. They then revised their plan.
As opposed to the common misconception, the French did not rely on the Maginot line, nor did it cost them that much. The basic idea of the Maginot line was to dissuade the Germans from attacking Alsace-Lorraine and instead funneling them through Belgium – a job it did quite well. The intention was also to save manpower, as France had only about half the population of Germany – far fewer men was needed to man the fortifications than would be needed to man the border as regular infantry units. The whole line cost about 5 billion francs 1930-1939 – about 2% of the French military budget at that time.
As Poland fell, the French revised their plans. Now, they wanted to fight in Belgium. There’s several reasons for them waiting. Attacking the Siegfried line on their own (the British BEF was nowhere near ready in Autumn 1939) without the Germans distracted by the Poles or the Soviets seemed folly. Belgium had withdrawn from the allies in 1934 to declare itself neutral, and the French wanted to have the Belgian 650 000 man on its side rather than the opposite – it meant waiting on the Germans to attack Belgium. Also, by Summer 1940, the British would have their BEF fully ready, including an armored division.
So the French dug in, preparing for a long war where resources and industry would count. They ramped up tank production, ensured their supply lines to their colonies and set their society up for war production.
The new plan was:
- Wait until the British have their army in order before doing anything offensive. The Royal Navy will strangle the Germans out of vital supplies, such as food, tungsten (needed for metalworking), chrome (needed for armor), copper and oil. Trying to get Sweden to stop exporting iron ore and Finland to stop exporting nickel was also on the table. The whole affair in Norway and the threats of an expeditionary force to help Finland was more about strangling those exports to Germany than any other issue. The Germans simply got to Norway first. The Germans had been re-arming at neck breaking speed (and were close to bankruptcy several times, only bailed out by seizing the Austrian and Czechoslovak gold reserves and foreign assets) and the French were only beginning to catch up when the war started.
- If the Germans attack, it will be through Belgium. The best of the French army will then rush north together with the BEF and link up with the Belgian army. Together they will grind down the German offensive on Belgian soil, either through vicious attrition or a decisive battle. This keeps northern France, with a lot of population and industry, not even mentioning coal and iron mines, safe and free from occupation. Once the best parts of the German army have been destroyed in Belgium, the French will lead the offensive from Belgium that will flank the Siegfried line and punch into Germany’s vital Ruhr industrial and coal producing area. After defeating the German army there, France would have crippled the German ability to conduct war and thus won, with minimal casualties and devastation to France itself.
The French were reinforced in their belief that their plans were correct in the Mechelen incident in which a German liaison plane carrying the full plan for the invasion of France crashed in Belgium on the 10th of January 1940. The event caused the Germans to scrap their plan and go with von Manstein’s daring attack through the Ardennes instead.
The French considered the Ardennes impassable for large mechanized forces – their cavalry was screening the forest (5 divisions and 3 colonial cavalry brigades, however, most of their attention was to the north, towards the Belgian part of the forest) with a force of infantry behind them at Sedan (2 infantry divisions). The Germans managed, despite massive traffic jams, to get a force of 3 Panzer divisions with 771 tanks through. They brushed the cavalry aside and crashed through the French infantry. The rest is history.
The French prepared for a long war – they were right in that, it is just that it turned out to not be very long for them. For example, the French limited their air force to 1-2 combat missions per day, intending to keep them fresh and ready for continued combat for a long time, while the Germans managed to get 4-6 combat missions per plane and day, resulting in much more effective combat usage, but crews exhausted and prone to mistakes and accidents reducing their strength. By June, the Luftwaffe was almost completely worn out and needed more than a month of rest and refit before they could launch the Battle of Britain. The French also retreated parts of their air force out of range of German fighters in order to protect them from attacks on their airfields, to allow them to rest and repair planes in peace – which meant that a large part of the French air force was in the process of moving bases and unavailable at the decisive moment.
The French knew that the Germans would come through Belgium and rushed their best forces north to link up with the Belgians once they did – however, the Germans punched a large armored force through the Ardennes forest, between the Maginot line and the Franco-Belgian positions in Belgium.
The Belgians had build fortifications in eastern Belgium, but they were not coordinated with the Maginot line, and since Belgium had withdrawn from its alliance with France 1934 to become neutral, the French could not cooperate with the Belgians on defense and fortified lines.
The Belgian fortified line pretty much fell apart when one of the key elements of it, Fort Eben-Emael was seized by a handful of German paratroopers in a daring operation.
See this map:
SA (Sturm Abteilung or “Brownshirts”) call for the boycott of Jewish shops in Friedrichstraße, Berlin; April 1, 1933.
The sign says: “Germans, Attention! This shop is owned by Jews. Jews damage the German economy and pay their German employees starvation wages. The main owner is the Jew Nathan Schmidt.”
Germans returning after the Battle of Berlin gaze up at the new order of things, Berlin; ca. July 1945
The text says: “Да здравствует победа англо-советско-американского боевого союза над немецко-фашистскими захватчиками”
Translation : “Long live the victory of the Anglo-Soviet-American battle union over the German-Fascist conquerors.”
Many Germans (even non-Nazis) accepted the idea of gaining Lebensraum as a historical inevitability. As early as the late 19th century, German writers such as Ernst Haeckel combined Darwinian notions of the survival of the fittest with romantic nationalism to create a deterministic ideology which argued that in order for the German people to thrive, they had to acquire more resources in a Darwinian struggle against other peoples.
The concept of Lebensraum was originally defined by Friedrich Ratzel who conceptualized it as a biological concept defined as the geographical area required to support a species according to its metabolism, and that human societies had to expand their Lebensraum through agrarian colonization or perish. These beliefs would be implemented by the Nazi government, who argued that war and conquest were necessary to gain new resources to sustain their race in a Darwinian understanding of international politics. German expansion was thus seen as inevitable by the Nazis because they perceived of history and politics as a deterministic struggle for resources between races.
The German experience in the occupied Russian Empire during WWI saw the establishment of a sort of colonial state called ‘Ober Ost’ which was informed in part by theories such as Ratzel’s. Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius’ book War Land on the Eastern Front argues that Germans involved in the occupation saw the east as barbaric and primordial, and they began to formulate notions that the native population should be removed. In 1917 the German High Command and Foreign Office even approved of a plan to establish colonies of German settler-soldiers in the occupied East.
Liulevicius states that this experience had an important role in shaping the Nazi perception of the east: “Ober Ost’s categories and practices were taken up again and radicalized [by the Nazis]: the gaze toward the East, cleansing violence, planning, subdivision and ‘intensification of control,’ forced labor. Chief among them was the lesson of Raum.” The Nazi dictatorship, inspired by Ober Ost, began to prepare its youth for a push towards the East: in schools, history and geography courses taught pupils that the historic German “Drive Towards the East” was a biological phenomenon and to look at land through the mystical doctrine of “Blut und Boden”, and Hitler Youth members were taught military skills and songs with lyrics such as “we will give [the East] a German face with sword and plow! To the East blows the wind!” The Nazi idea of widespread colonization of Eastern Europe was consequently inherited from theories and practices begun in Wilhelmine Germany.
Nazi Germany’s goal of exterminating Eastern Europe’s population and replacing it with German colonists had real economic goals. Although it might sound absurd to modern readers, early 20th century Germany faced serious land shortage. Germany was more densely populated and had a higher proportion of rural inhabitants than either France or the United Kingdom and lacked extraterritorial colonies where its excess population might emigrate to. Although it was a large country, the actual amount of arable land available for cultivation per farmer was comparable with countries such as Ireland, Romania or Poland, which was compounded by the fact that most of it was held by large estates; in 1933, 75% of Germany’s farms cultivated only 19% of its arable land. The majority of German farmers (88% of them, some 12 million people who made up 18% of Germany’s total population) consequently lived in poverty on economically unsustainable farms.
According to Adolf Hitler, the establishment of an international colonial empire was an unattractive solution because it meant spreading precious German blood over too great of an area; what Germany needed was a contiguous colonial empire carved out of Eastern and Central Europe. Arable land would have to be taken by conquest and its inhabitants driven out. Plans from the Reich-Fuhrer SS dictated that 85% of Poles, 75% of Byelorussians, 65% of Ukranians and 50% of Czechs would have to be deported from German-occupied territory to Western Siberia at the end of the war to make room for German colonists, with the remaining population being forcibly ‘Germanized’. These deportations may well have been a euphemism for a planned genocide, where the displaced Slavs might have been worked to death in Siberia.
Hitler viewed German expansion eastwards and the displacement of that region’s Slavs as a similar process to the expansion of European colonial states in the Americas, as evidenced by his statement made to Reich Minister Todt and Gauleiter Saukel on the 17th of October, 1941: “There’s only one duty: to Germanise this country [the occupied Soviet Union]… and to look upon the natives as Red-skins…I don’t see why a German who eats a piece of bread should torment himself with the idea that the soil that produces this bread has been won by the sword. When we eat wheat from Canada, we don’t think about the despoiled Indians.” The conquest of the Soviet Union and its colonization by Germans was seen by Hitler as Germany’s version of Manifest Destiny, where the Volga, as he declared, would become Germany’s Mississippi. Slavic place names would be replaced with Germanic ones, especially in places like the Crimea. During the war, the Crimean towns of Simferopol and Sevastopol were renamed Gotenburg and Theodorichhafen respectively. The Germans planned to construct an autobahn directly to Crimea (and likely others elsewhere in Russia), because the Black Sea was to become a German Mediterranean.
The Nazi’s plans for the establishment of Eastern Lebensraum were concretely planned out as early as November 1940 when they proposed the establishment of 50 to 100 acre farms meant to support large families of ten or more, nucleated around massive farms of 300 acres. The east was supposed to be entirely rural; average German settlements were intended to be villages of some 300 to 400 inhabitants. The largest settlements in the east were planned to be large villages known as a ‘Hauptdorf’ (head village) which would contain economic and civic establishments intended to service the smaller settler communities surrounding it as well as rural power stations to remove their dependence on urban cities. Besides these communities of soldier-farmers, there would have been SS estates run by veterans of the war, and massive estates given to high ranking Nazis; the dictatorship even promised its generals huge tracts of land to make them more committed to winning the war in the east. There were two main competing theories for the pattern of settlement: waves of dispersed settlements spreading out gradually eastwards, or a “pearl string” pattern where settlements would be set up along roads and railways and spread into the hinterland over time. IIRC the pearl-string plan became the official pattern for colonization.
According to Hitler, urban areas and industry would not be tolerated in the east; in a private table talk in October 1941, he declared that “we shan’t settle in Russian towns, and we’ll let them fall to pieces without intervening.” Not only would Soviet towns be allowed to crumble, but its main urban centers of Kiev, Moscow and Leningrad would be destroyed. Furthermore, Hitler stated that those Slavs that remained in German colonial territory as slave laborers would only be given only the most rudimentary education; they would learn basic arithmetic and how to read signs but nothing else. The German East was meant to be entirely rural and agricultural, and would produce enough food and resources to make the Reich an autarkic economy, comparable to the internal markets of the United States of America. This establishment of a German autarkic economy would make it a world power capable of competing with the USA for global influence. The Nazis didn’t want to conquer the world; they wanted to compete for international influence without overseas colonies like the USA.
Cameron, Norman & R.H. Stephens, trans., Hitler’s Table Talks. New York: Enigma Books, 2000
Kamenetsky, Ihor. “Lebensraum in Hitler’s War Plan: The Theory and the Eastern European Reality” in The American Journal of Economics and Sociology, Vol. 20 No. 3 (April 1961)
Kershaw, Ian. The Nazi Dictatorship, Problems & Perspectives of Interpretation. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Liulevicius, Vejas Gabriel. War Land on the Eastern Front, Culture, National Identity and German Occupation in World War I. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Smith, Woodruff D. “Friedrich Ratzel and the Origins of Lebensraum” in German Studies Review, Vol. 3, No. 1 (February 1980)
Stein, George J. “Biological Science and the Roots of Nazism” in American Scientist, Vol. 76 No. 1 (January-February 1988). (Tooze, 2008)
Tooze, Adam. The Wages of Destruction. New York: Penguin Books, 2008.
In August 1939 Hitler was stirring up tension with Poland and he was prepared to fabricate whatever was needed as a pretext to invade. On August 11th he told the League of Nations High Commissioner
“If there’s the slightest provocation, I shall shatter Poland without warning into so many pieces that there will be nothing left to pick up.”
On August 22nd Hitler spoke to his military commanders
“I will give propagandistic cause for the release of the war, whether convincing or not. The winner is not asked later whether he said the truth or not.”
In fact preparations for Operation Tannenburg had begun on August 8th when SS-Gruppenfuhrer Reinhard Heydrich told his men that war with Poland was ‘inevitable’.
The idea for fake “border incidents”, in which Germany would apparently be the victim of attacks by Poles probably came from Heydrich himself. It was he who was ordered to stage them, assisted by SS-Oberfuhrer Muller, head of the Gestapo.
They started by scouting the Silesian border between Germany and Poland and soon found suitable locations near the town of Gleiwitz. What they wanted were relatively isolated outposts of the German government that could be attacked by ‘Polish aggressors’. The attacks would be on a forestry station, a customs house and a radio station, where the ‘Poles’ would take over a German radio broadcast and make nationalistic statements in Polish. This would have a dramatic impact on ordinary Germans listening to their radios at home.
A plan was rapidly put together where SS troops dressed as Polish ‘rogues’ accompanied by units from the Polish army would ‘attack’ other SS troops dressed as German border guards. A refinement that was introduced during the planning was that some of the ‘Poles’ would be killed in the attack, so that their bodies could be presented to the worlds’ press as “evidence”. The victims were to be concentration camp inmates dressed as Poles, known as “canned goods”.
If the context and implications were not so serious the whole ‘pretend’ episode could be seen as a complete farce, especially as the Nazi’s had to go to extreme lengths to maintain the secrecy of the operation yet were simultaneously giving the nod to various individuals to keep ‘out of the way’. It was arranged that the regular Wehrmacht would keep clear of specific border areas so that they would not get mixed up in actually responding to ‘Polish aggression’.
The descent into farce came closer when on August 23rd, almost as soon as the ink was dry on the Nazi-Soviet Non aggression pact, Hitler ordered the invasion of Poland to start at 4.30 am on 26th August. The first of three successive code words for Operation Tannenburg to commence on August 25th was sent. When the second code word was sent on the evening of 25th two of the ‘attacking’ units became confused and started to cross the border without waiting for the final third code word. Yet Hitler had had a change of mind, rescinding his order to invade because of British guarantees to Poland and a lack of support from Mussolini. Operation Tannenburg was now halted as well. German motor cyclists were sent out to deliver desperate messages to the ‘Polish’ forces telling them to stop.
This led to a revision of the overall plan. Now the takeover of the Radio station by ‘Polish rebels’ became more important. To give it added credibility it was decided that a real ‘Polish rebel’ was needed, so that he could be killed while ‘attacking’ the German radio station.
The unfortunate Franz Honiok was selected from police files as being a well known local Polish sympathizer who had fought with the Poles during the 1921 rebellion by Silesian Polish nationalists, even though he was a German national. The 41 year old farmer and agricultural equipment salesman was picked up by the Gestapo on 30th August and held incommunicado.
Hitler decided to go ahead with the invasion on 30th August with the commencement of ‘Fall Weiss’ set for 5.45am on 1st September. Operation Tannenberg was back on. The attack on the Gleiwitz Radio staton went ahead on the evening of the 31st.
At around 8pm the ‘rebels’ managed to break into the unlocked compound and beat up the three radio station employees, all German nationals. Then their problems began. First they could not find a microphone. Further assaults on the radio station employees led to the discovery that it was not a radio station at all, merely a radio transmitter relay station for Radio Breslau, located many kilometers away. In desperation the ‘rebels’ found an emergency channel used for sending out local flood warnings and used this to send out their message of ‘Polish aggression’. How many people heard it, if any, is not known. However hundreds of thousands of Germans sitting at home listening to light music on the radio did not have their evenings interrupted by insurrectionist messages in Polish, as originally planned.
Meanwhile Franz Honiok, who had earlier been drugged into semi-consciousness, was dragged out, placed near the entrance to the radio station and shot in the back of the head. Later that evening the local police were called in to take photographs of the body, which they were forced to hand over to the Gestapo. When these were viewed in Berlin it was decided that they were not good enough – so the Gestapo went back and took pictures of the body in a different position – mysteriously by this stage a second body had been added. Eventually it was decided that even these could not be used for propaganda purposes. What happened to the bodies has never been established.
Later that evening the attacks went ahead on the Pitschen Forestry Station, where a bucket of ox blood was spread around, and at the Hochlinden Customs House, where the bodies of the “canned goods”, the concentration camp inmates, were left. However it was the attack on the Gleiwitz ‘radio station’ that attracted the most attention. The ‘take over of a German broadcast by Poles’ was being reported by German radio by 10.30pm and by the BBC the same evening, and featured in the New York Times the next day. Hitler referred to ‘three serious border incidents’ in his speech to the Reichstag on the 1st September announcing the war. The Nazi’s persisted with the Gleiwitz myth for years, it was only first seriously challenged at the Nuremburg trials.
Kristallnacht, also to referred to as the Night of Broken Glass, and also Reichskristallnacht, Pogromnacht, and Novemberpogrome, was a pogrom or series of attacks against Jews throughout Nazi Germany and parts of Austria on November 9–10, 1938.
Jewish homes were ransacked, as were shops, towns and villages, as SA Stormtroopers and civilians destroyed buildings with sledgehammers. Around 1,668 synagogues were ransacked, and 267 set on fire. In Vienna alone 95 synagogues or houses of prayer were destroyed.
Martin Gilbert writes that no event in the history of German Jews between 1933 and 1945 was so widely reported as it was happening, and the accounts from the foreign journalists working in Germany sent shock waves around the world. The Times wrote at the time: “No foreign propagandist bent upon blackening Germany before the world could outdo the tale of burnings and beatings, of blackguardly assaults on defenseless and innocent people, which disgraced that country yesterday.” (Source)
The day after the attacks, on November 11, 1938, both Hitler and his propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, appeared at a press conference for foreign correspondents in Munich. There Goebbels announced, “We shed not a tear for them [the Jews.]” He went on to comment on the destruction of synagogues saying, “They stood in the way long enough. We can use the space made free more usefully than as Jewish fortresses.”
“Kristallnacht” provided the Nazi government with an opportunity at last to totally remove Jews from German public life. It was the culminating event in a series of anti-Semitic policies set in place since Hitler took power in 1933. Within a week, the Nazis had circulated a letter declaring that Jewish businesses could not be reopened unless they were to be managed by non-Jews. On November 15th, Jewish children were barred from attending school, and shortly afterwards the Nazis issued the “Decree on Eliminating the Jews from German Economic Life,” which prohibited Jews from selling goods or services anywhere, from engaging in crafts work, from serving as the managers of any firms, and from being members of cooperatives. In addition, the Nazis determined that the Jews should be liable for the damages caused during “Kristallnacht.” “The Decree on the Penalty Payment by Jews Who Are German Subjects” also imposed a one-billion mark fine on the Jewish community, supposedly an indemnity for the death of vom Rath.
Although the atrocities perpetrated during the Night of Broken Glass did arouse outrage in Western Europe and the United States, little concrete action was taken to help the Jews of Germany. At a press conference on November 15th, President Roosevelt said, “The news of the past few days from Germany has deeply shocked public opinion in the United States… I myself could scarcely believe that such things could occur in a 20th century civilization.” The president also instructed that the 12,000-15,000 refugees already in the U.S. on temporary visitor visas could remain in the country indefinitely. (Source)
Spectators standing upon couches, tables and chairs to get even a glimpse of the Versailles Treaty being signed, France, 1919
Here’s Sir James Headlam-Morley’s account on the signing:
“There was very little ceremony or dignity. The plenipotentiaries all walked in casually with the crowd… When they were all seated, the German delegates were brought in; they passed close to me; they looked like prisoners being brought in for sentence… The Gernabs signed first and then all the other delegates… When the signing was finished, the session was closed, and the Germans were escorted out again like prisoners who had received their sentence. Nobody got up or took any notice of them, and there was no suggestion that, the peace having been signed, any change of attitude was to be begun. Looking back, the whole impression seems to me, from a political point of view, to be disastrous… As a matter of fact, what was really being done was not merely to make peace with germany, but to sign the Covenant of the Leage of Nations, but of this no one seemed to think… Just the necessary note of reconciliation, of hope, of a change of view, was entirely wanting.”
Source: Osiander, A. (1995). The States System of Europe, 1640-1990: Peacekeeping and the Conditions of International Stability. New York: Oxford University Press. Page 304.