by Benjamin Woodhouse
Adolf Hitler’s Obersalzberg Speech on the 22nd of August 1939 was given to the Wehrmacht commanders preceding the Nazi invasion of Poland in September 1939. It provides an overview of the circumstances surrounding the future occupation of Poland, the likelihood of a western response and the opportunities that lie within the East of Europe for a future self-sufficient German state. Moreover, Hitler goes on to evaluate his fascist alliances within Europe and the lack of authoritative leadership demonstrated by his opposition, especially considering he had already annexed Austria in 1938 (Anschluss Österreichs) and occupied Czechoslovakia in March 1939 with no intervention from either Great Britain or France. What it appears Hitler learnt from this experience and what he continuously emphasises throughout the speech is that “in the face of Western irresolution, bluster and blackmail could carry the day so, from [t]here on, he drew the same line through Prague and Warsaw”.
Aside from Hitler’s tactical vision for Europe, the pervasive and binding element of this speech is his commitment to fascism both in Germany and globally. “Fascism in essence is a national creed finding a different national expression and method in each nation” and Mussolini and Hitler certainly had differing ideological aims (with Hitler’s goal of an Eastern Völkisch State and Mussolini’s to carve a new Roman Empire). However, Hitler still viewed an alliance with Mussolini as critical for a successful expansion into Poland, citing that the death of Mussolini would lead to the Italian court establishing control and viewing “the expansion of the empire as an encumbrance”, thus, possibly leading to the loss of the promised Italian support outlined in the Pact of Steel signed 22nd May 1939. This would leave Germany vulnerable to a response from France and Great Britain. Moreover, Mussolini’s pursuit of la Terza Roma (The Third Rome) led to Italian imperial pursuits throughout the Mediterranean and Africa. With Mussolini uniting Tripolitania and Cyrenaica in 1934, occupying Abyssinia in 1935 and Albania in 1939, Hitler believed this allowed for a favourable political situation. By threatening the colonies of France and Great Britain, Mussolini would weaken the allied powers in the Mediterranean, allowing Hitler to expand east through Poland. Another possible ideological ally Hitler considers during this speech is Francisco Franco, who came to power after the Spanish Civil War in 1939. Although a nationalist dictator similar to Mussolini and Hitler, Hitler emphasises that Franco would not provide a fascist party that could align itself with Germany. Franco would ensure stability in Spain, but for Germany, he could only ensure neutrality in the face of a European war. Hence, when it came to the creation of a fascist alliance and the invasion of Poland, the only true ideological ally Nazi Germany had was Mussolini’s Italy and that alliance itself was contingent on Mussolini remaining the Duce of Italy.
Yet Fascism is not a global ideology, it is characterised by nationalism with the aim to create a self-sufficient nation, focusing inward towards the nation rather than externally towards globalisation. Thus, global alliances are created out of convenience and circumstance rather than from a desire for cooperation. It is therefore no surprise that the prominent ideological element of this speech focuses on empowering the German people and establishing a sense of global superiority. Initially, Hitler speaks of his ability to gain the trust of the entirety of the German people in a manner no other leader will possess in the future and this concept of a united Germany under the Führer was commonplace in both Hitler’s manifesto; “one blood demands one Reich” and propaganda. As seen in figure 1, Hitler’s head overshadows a map of Germany with the caption “Deutschland ist Frei,” implying that with Hitler guiding Germany, Germany has managed to liberate itself from her oppressors. Furthermore, within his speech, Hitler refers to “the language of Versailles” evoking the humiliation Germany faced with the conditions of the treaty of Versailles which included reducing Germany’s army of 100,000 men and prohibiting the German production of aircraft and tanks. Hitler however, uses this humiliation to strengthen his rhetoric and to justify the future occupation of Poland, stating that Germany is at risk of losing prestige and facing certain future annihilation at the hands of the same western powers responsible for the treaty of Versailles.
However, this speech goes beyond ideology and heavily focuses on the tactical benefit of an eastward expansion for Germany and the likelihood of the eastern countries pushing back. Hitler mentions Yugoslavia’s internal instability, Romania’s vulnerability, Hungary and Bulgaria’s potential attack on Romania and Turkey’s weak leadership after the death of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk all as situations that create the favourable conditions for Nazi expansion. Hitler then mentions that the attack on Poland must happen now – otherwise two- or three-years’ later the conditions will change, and the eastern countries could become more stable and defensive to German occupation. Additionally, Hitler saw the East both as an opportunity to fulfil his ideological vision of Lebensraum and to strengthen his defence against the Western powers; “Hitler said again and again that he wanted the union of Germans and living room in the East, not the takeover of crowded areas in the west.” What made the East desirable to Hitler were the variety of resources available and the large Russian landmass that offered the possibility of a future German settlement. For both the short and long term, Eastern Europe appeared to be Hitler’s vision for Germany’s future, aiming to “secure for the German people the land and soil to which they are entitled on this Earth…an Eastern policy in the sense of acquiring the necessary soil for our German people” and to also enable Germany to survive a western trade blockade by utilising resources and supplies coming from the East; “we need not be afraid of a blockade. The East will supply us with grain, cattle, coal, lead and zinc.” Therefore, by expanding into the east, Hitler felt he could strengthen himself against any allied defence, putting Germany in a stronger tactical position than it would have been without the expansion; immune to trade blockades with many of the eastern states destabilised and thus easily occupied, an invasion through Poland was likely to be viewed as the logical first step to Hitler’s envisioned Völkisch State.
Nevertheless, the more fascinating aspect of Hitler’s 22nd August Speech are his comments surrounding Great Britain. Although Hitler had never hidden his disdain for France, labelling the nation as “the mortal enemy of [the German] nation” – likely due to France’s attempt to prevent an eastern expansion by allying itself with Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Yugoslavia – his comments surrounding Britain almost contradict his opinion entirely, as stated in his manifesto; “I have already designated England and Italy as the only two states in Europe with which a closer relationship would be beneficial.” Moreover, when meeting with the British Union of Fascists leader, Oswald Mosley in 1935, Mosley recalled Hitler “not only expressed the warmest admiration for the British people, but he said he considered Germany, as the leading land power, and Britain as the leading naval power, to be complementary and beneficent forces, who together could become two pillars supporting world stability, peace and order.” Yet, in the span of four years, Hitler’s opinion would shift to believing that “a British statesman can only view the future with concern…[and] from the last war nothing was achieved from the maritime point of view.” Hitler then goes on to discuss England’s air vulnerability citing a force of only 130,000 men and insisting England would not be capable of defending Poland from a German occupation. Whilst it is entirely possible Hitler’s view of Britain could have changed due to Chamberlain’s weak leadership, appeasement policy and continuous concessions without any quid-pro-quo from Hitler, it is equally likely as this speech was delivered only to the Wehrmacht commanders, that Hitler was attempting to bolster his forces by attempting to ascertain that victory was certain and their opposition was weak. Furthermore, Hitler expresses scepticism towards the nature of the British relationship with Poland, drawing attention to England only granting 8 million pounds worth of credits to Poland and contrasting this to the 500 million pounds cash granted to China. For Hitler, this is indicative of Poland not having the full support of Britain, deciding that if he were to invade Poland the reaction from Great Britain would be minimal.
Ultimately, Hitler’s speech on the 22nd of August 1939 outlines both Hitler’s short and long term ideological and tactical strategies. He opens the speech by evaluating his ideological allies and assessing the state of fascism on the global stage. Throughout, Hitler consistently reaffirms Germany’s superiority both as a united race and in leadership. Hitler then shifts his attention to the east, balancing the opportunities to strengthen Germany and the threat of western military intervention. He concludes that neither England nor France could intervene militarily, that England had not begun a rearmament and France would not be able to invade through the Maginot line nor through the Netherlands, Belgium or Switzerland. This allows him to proceed with the invasion of Poland under the belief that his actions would bear few, if any consequences and thus Hitler commits to the action that initiates war with Britain and France on September 3rd 1939.
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