When, a week before the invasion of Poland, the correspondents of the British Press were withdrawn from Berlin, a curtain descended upon Germany, cutting if off, as it were, from the outside world. Occasionally it was moved by the breath of rumour, but it was lifted only when a traveller returned to Britain with the stories of what he had heard and seen.
Judging from these first-hand reports, Germany was not so much surprised at learning that she was on the verge of war as stunned. “People with anxious faces stood at street corners talking in whispers, ” said Mr William Hood, who reached London after a 42 hour train journey from Munich. “During the previous two weeks no one seems to believe that war with Britain would really come. The sudden darkening of the city, the train delays, and finally the news of mobilisation, came as a shock to people informed of world events only by state controlled newspapers and radio”.
Colonel T F Tweed, Mr Lloyd George’s political officer, who returned to England after a 3,000 mile tour of Germany and Austria, said that, “The most eloquent summing-up of the situation was made by a professor at an ancient university town with the remark: ‘The German people do not wish for war, but no loner do we decide such things for ourselves!'”
The most vivid picture of Germany on the eve of war was given by Miss Virginia Cowles, special correspondent of the “Sunday Times”, who left Germany on the afternoon of Saturday September 2nd, after a flying visit to Berlin. Writing on that day she said that the great majority of the German people did not even then believe that the German attack on Poland would lead to a world war. The morning papers had carried no news of the British and French ultimatum, but had printed only some obscure paragraphs referring to the general mobilisation. When she crossed into Holland from Germany at noon, not one of the throng of Germans on the platform was aware of the probability that in a few hours Germany would be at war with Britain and France.
A black-out on the preceding night had flung a heavy cloak of war over Berlin, but there was still a general feeling that Hitler would pull off the Polish coup just as had done in the case of the Anschluss and the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia.
Hitler’s announcement in the Reichstag that Danzig was now German created an atmosphere of unmistakable alarm and this radio address in which he declared his intention of subduing Poland by force was greeted by a surprising lack of enthusiasm.
Only two or three hundred people gathered in the square before the Chancellory to cheer him as he appeared on the balcony dressed for the first time in the field grey of the German Army, his face tense and unsmiling, (see above image).
“We got back to the hotel,” says Miss Cowles, “to find waiters and porters whispering together in low, strained voices. When I asked one of the men if he was not aware of the fact that Germany had precipitated a world war, he looked at me in despair and said, ‘Mein Gott, I hope not; I had four years in the last one that was enough!'”
As she left Berlin Miss Cowles carried with her an impression of a city which was like an armed camp – a city whose foreboding atmosphere was accentuated by the silhouettes of men mounting the anti-aircraft guns on the roof. “We roared towards Cologne through a silent and darkened Germany in which all the lights were extinguished and the blinds had been drawn.” The Germans in the compartment were only mildly apprehensive. One of them explained that Britain would not be so foolish as to risk a world war; suggestively he drew his finger across his neck and said, “After we cut Poland’s throat we will all settle down to peace.” His attitude of easy optimism was, however, the exception.
“One’s reaction of Germany on the eve of a great war, ” concluded Miss Cowles, “is that one is torn between pity and horror. One is struck by a vacuum of ignorance, and appalled by the gangster philosophy of the Third Reich.”
This article and photo are complete copies taken from ‘The War Illustrated’ magazine p30 – September 16th, 1939