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Reich Chancellery, Early Evening
He is nervous and awkward. These are precisely the kinds of people who make him uncomfortable. Most of them are aristocrats, confident of their status, their prestige, the resonance of their ancient family names. All of them are powerful and accomplished senior commanders who need not, and do not, feel in any way inferior to the new arrival. He, on the other hand, is a man who has risen from nothing. In the army that these confident men command, he never made it past the rank of private first class. His formal clothes do not fit him well. He makes repeated, nervous bows in all directions to the assembled officers. The company sits down to dinner, but he has no gift for small talk, either. The awkwardness continues.
It is February 3, 1933.
Adolf Hitler has been chancellor of the German Reich for all of four days. His new war minister, Field Marshal Werner von Blomberg, has invited him to celebrate the sixtieth birthday of Foreign Minister Konstantin von Neurath and to meet the armed forces High Command. More than a dozen officers are present, among them many who will play critical roles in the years to come, such as the future army commanders in chief Werner von Fritsch and Walther von Brauchitsch, the future army chief of staff Ludwig Beck, and the future field marshals Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb and Gerd von Rundstedt. The scene is the official residence of the army’s present commander in chief, General Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord, in the Bendlerstrasse in central Berlin. Hammerstein is strongly anti-Nazi and anti-Hitler. One guest thinks his greeting to Hitler is no better than “benevolently condescending,” betraying the contempt Hammerstein bears for the new arrival.
With dinner over, Hitler has the chance to do what he does best: speak. And as always, he warms to the task, even with this audience. He begins to get excited, stretching out across the table to his listeners, often repeating himself for emphasis.
He starts with a message he has been driving home for more than a decade, since the beginning of his political career in Munich, just after the last war. Europe faces a crisis, he says. The “strong, European race” built up culture and created empires, exchanging industrial goods for colonial products from African and Asian territories. But now the capacity of European production exceeds anything the colonies can absorb, and regions such as East Asia are industrializing and using low wages to outcompete the Europeans. Germany’s exports to advanced countries only trigger higher levels of imports and the automation of industry, driving unemployment yet higher. In short, the global economy is nothing but a trap for Germany. And since the Russian Revolution of 1917, there has also been “the poisoning of the world through Bolshevism,” the ever-present threat of Communist revolution.
“How can Germany be saved?” he asks his listeners. Only, he concludes, through a “large-scale settlement policy, which assumes the expansion of the Lebensraum”—living space—“of the German people.” In other words, by conquering other people’s territory. Germany will have to get ready for this task. This means “the consolidation of the state … We can no longer be citizens of the world. Democracy and pacifism are impossible … What use is an army made up of soldiers infected with Marxism? What use is compulsory military service when before and after serving the soldier is exposed to every kind of propaganda? First Marxism must be exterminated.” Hitler promises that the educational work of his Nazi Party will ensure that the officers eventually receive “first class recruit material.”
With this, Hitler moves to the heart of his message. After six to eight years of Nazi rule, the German Army will be ready to expand “the living space of the German people,” most likely in the east. He grows even blunter. “A Germanization of the population of the annexed or conquered land is not possible. We can only Germanize the soil.” What will happen to the people who can’t be Germanized? When the war is over, Hitler says, the Germans will “ruthlessly expel a few million people.”
He concludes by asking the generals “to fight along with me for the great goal.” But he promises that he will never call on them to use force in domestic politics. For that he has his own people, the brown-shirted Stormtroopers. The army, he insists, is only for fighting foreign enemies.
This last is the part the officers like best, and the part they will most clearly remember afterward. Being drawn into domestic conflicts has been the army’s biggest nightmare in the preceding years of political turmoil. By contrast, the officers don’t seem to notice the part about “living space.” Maybe they don’t take it very seriously. Maybe they don’t think this chancellor will last long enough for his ideas to matter much—after all, he is the fourteenth person to hold this office since 1919. Maybe they hear something different in what he is saying, nothing more than a plan to recover the territory Germany lost after the First World War. They are all in favor of that. A few years later, General Beck will claim that he had had no idea at all what Hitler was trying to say, and in any case, he wasn’t very interested.
Remarkably, there is a spy present at the gathering. General von Hammerstein’s teenage daughter Helga is in love with a prominent Communist activist. This relationship has led her to act as an agent for Soviet intelligence. Through her, an account of Hitler’s speech makes its way to Moscow. The Soviet intelligence services and Foreign Minister Maxim Litvinov, therefore, have a good idea from the beginning what plans Hitler has for their country. Litvinov starts talking to the French about an alliance to contain German aggression.
Copyright © 2020 by Benjamin Carter Hett