Tuesday, 16 October 2018

Hitler and the Hossbach Memorandum, 1937

After the Second World War, a curious document came to light. It was the minutes of a meeting held at the Reich Chancellery on November 5th 1937, at which Hitler addressed his senior commanders on the current diplomatic situation and future strategy. The document was christened the "Hossbach Memorandum", after Colonel Friedrich Hossbach, who wrote up the minutes. Its significance has been debated by historians ever since. Those summoned to the meeting were the Minister for War (Blomberg), the Commanders-in-Chief of the Army (Fritsch), the Navy (Raeder) and the Air Force (Goering), and the Foreign Minister (Neurath). 

Looking back over the past couple of years, Hitler would have seen many reasons for thinking that events were moving towards the benefit of Germany. Mussolini's conquest of Abyssinia had exposed Britain and France as toothless against aggression, and at the same time had driven Italy into the German orbit. "Popular Front" governments, in which Stalin had encouraged the Communist parties to collaborate with socialists and liberals, had been elected in France and Spain; but the French Popular Front government had been led by a Jew, Leon Blum, who was hated on the Right and was soon overthrown, whereas in Spain the army rose in revolt in July 1936. 
   The Spanish civil war proved exceptionally violent, and deeply divided opinion in Britain and France, with the Right supporting Franco's Nationalists and the Left supporting the Spanish government. The Anglo-French response was to adopt a policy of "Non-intervention", which was flagrantly flouted by Grmany and Italy. The Luftwaffe bombed Guernica in April 1937. Once again, Britain and France looked weak. 
   In June 1937 the Russian purges suddenly took on a new and surprising turn as it was announced that Marshal Tukhachevsky, the commander-in-chief of the Red Army, and several other senior generals had confessed to being Nazi spies and had been executed. The army purge continued with great violence over next couple of years. At the Hossbach meeting, Hitler made no reference to these improbable charges, but by 1941 he was convinced that the Red Army had been beheaded and could no longer be considered a serious fighting force.
   In the Far East, the situation also looked promising. Japanese forces had already overrun Manchuria, and in 1937 moved on to seize Beijing and attack Shanghai, a great trading base for Britain.     Hitler capitalised on these developments with the Axis Pact with Italy and the Anti-Comintern Pact with Italy and Japan. These agreements greatly weakened the strategic position of Britain and France, since both Italy and Japan had been allied with the Entente powers in the First World War. Britain was further weakened, Hitler thought, by increasing turmoil in India, where Gandhi's campaign of civil disobedience was gathering momentum. Finally, in the U.S.A., after President Roosevelt had been re-elected in 1936, he immediately renewed the Neutrality Act, which prevented America from trading with any state which was at war. Obviously this would hurt Britain and France far more than Germany. 

Hitler began his address by speaking of the need to preserve the "racial community" of Germandom, which was under threat in Austria and Czechoslovakia. More space was needed to provide food and vital raw materials, but Germany's world trade was always threatened by British control of the sea. Germany, he said, was threatened by two "hate-inspired antagonists" in Britain and France, who would always oppose a stronger Germany; but British dominance was now under threat from Japan in the Far East and from Italy in Africa. 
   Germany's problems, he argued, could only be solved by the use of force: the only questions being how? and when?  
   War, he said, must come before the years 1943-45, while Germany was still ahead in the arms race: after than the position would only get worse. His prime target, the only one he discussed at the meeting, was to be Czechoslovakia. (The Czechs had signed alliances with France and Russia, and he described Czechoslovakia elsewhere as "An unsinkable aircraft carrier in the heart of Germany). 
   He outlined possible scenarios in which a lightning attack on Czechoslovakia could be carried out without the risk of a simultaneous war with France: perhaps France might collapse into civil war, or France might be at war with another country (presumably Italy). Germany could then seize Czechoslovakia and Austria with impunity. 
   In any case, Hitler said, he believed "Britain had already written off the Czechs", and France would never go to war without British support. Italy wouldn't support the Czechs, though Mussolini's attitude to Austria wsn't clear. Poland would be too afraid of Russia to intervene.
   All this could happen as early as 1938. In the interim, the Spanish civil war should be kept going, because it so disrupted opinion in Britain and France.
   The meeting apparently ended with violent arguments beween Hermann Goering and the army leaders.

So why did Hitler call this meeting, and what significance should be attached to what he said? In the 1960s there was a fierce debate about this between Britain's two foremost historians of Nazi Germany; A.J.P. Taylor and Hugh Trevor-Roper.
   Taylor, who discounted any ideological content of Nazism, saw Hitler as an opportunist: a man with no detailed plans who was quick to improvise and take advantage of any chances that came his way. Taylor pointed out that none of the scenarios outlined in Hossbach actually came about. He wondered why Hitler would outline his plans to an audience only one of whom was a Nazi (Goering). He thought if the meeting had any purpose beyond a generalised Hitler-rant, it was to stress the likelihood of war in order to counter concerns raised by the Economics Minister, Dr. Schacht (another non-Nazi), about the cost of the rapid programme of rearmament that was now under way.
   Trevor-Roper, by contrast, drew attention to certain key points made by Hitler: firstly, his belief that Germany would have to fight not later than 1945, secondly that the first war target would be Czechoslovakia, perhaps as early as 1938, and thirdly that he did not believe that any other powers would intervene to stop it. All these predictions did in fact come true. Although some of Taylor's arguments were justified (the Anschluss with Austria in March 1938 fitted in with Hitler's general scheme, though the details were clearly improvised on the spur of the moment); on the whole I think Trevor-Roper had the better of the argument. 


Events on Germany moved fast after Hossbach. Dr. Schacht resigned and economic priority was now given to the Four-Year Plan for preparation for war, led by Goering. Next February Neurath was replaced as Foreign Minister by the Nazi Ribbentrop. At much the same time, Blomberg was forced to resign as War Minister when it was revealed that his wife, whom he had recently married, might once have been a prostitute; and Fritsch was hounded from his position of Commander-in-Chief by the wholly false accusation that he was homosexual. For the first time, Hitler now took direct personal control of the army, working through the colourless and mediocre Keitel. 
   But perhaps the most significant consequence of the Hossbach meeting happened just a month afterwards, on December 7th, in a directive from General Jodl at the OKW. The German military planners had drawn up "Plan Red", which envisaged an essentially defensive  operation against France; and also "Plan Green", for an attack on Czechoslovakia. Germany did not have the military resources to implement both plans simultaneously. Now the order went out that priority was to be given to "Plan Green", because "Plan Red" was unlikely to be needed. So: the German army was to be ready to invade Czechoslovakia; and for those in the military who asked, "What if the French attack while we're doing this?", Hitler would reply, "Don't worry! I'll make sure they won't!" Of course, Hitler had as yet no idea how he would bring this about, but he was sure that something would turn up. This can be taken as evidence for both the Taylor and the Trevor-Roper interpretations.

The climax of Robert Harris's recent historical novel, "Munich" is when the hero, a young British official, is given a pirated copy of the Hossbach Memorandum by an anti-Nazi officer. He attempts to show it to Chamberlain, to warn him about Hitler's aggressive intentions, but the Prime Minister refuses to look at it. I can strongly recommend the novel as a splendid read, but I don't believe this particular episode has any historical basis.  

Wednesday, 3 October 2018

The Battle of Shrewsbury, 1403

In 1399 Henry of Bolingbroke, Duke of Lancaster, returned from exile, ostensibly to recover his vast family estates, which had been summarly confiscated by King Richard II. However, the venture quickly became a far greater matter, because Richard's support melted away, he was captured by Henry's forces at Flint in north Wales and compelled to abdicate the throne to Henry. The coup was not bloodless: the Earl of Wiltshire and others of Richard's supporters were summarly executed, and a few months later a plot to restore Richard led to the execution of the Earls of Kent, Salisbury and Huntingdon. It was then announced that Richard had died in captivity at Potefract castle, apparently of starvation.
   Nothing like this had ever happened before in English history. Edward II had been deposed and killed in 1327, but he had been succeeded by his teenage son. Richard was childless, but it was very doubtful whether this left Henry of Bolingbroke as the heir. He based his claim as being the son of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, a younger son of King Edward III; but in terms of strict heredity this left him behind the Mortimer family, descendants of Lionel, Duke of Clarence, Edward's second son. Richard had recognized the Mortimers as his preferred heirs. As it happened, Roger Mortimer, the head of the family, had been killed a few years earlier, leaving only an infant son.In 1400 the Welsh leader Owain Glyndwr led a great revolt, and two years later Edmund Mortimer, Roger's brother, was captured by the rebels but then married Glyndwr's daughter!

   Henry's coup was backed by the powerful Percy family, led by the Earl of Northumberland, his brother the Earl of Worcester, and Northumberland's son Henry, immortalised by Shakespeare as "Harry Hotspur". Thanks to Shakespeare we tend to think of King Henry as an old man and Hotspur as an impetuous youth. In point of fact Henry IV was only 33 at the time of his coup and Hotspur was actually slighly older, whereas Henry's son, the Prince of Wales and the future Henry V, was only 12, and still no more than 15 when Shakespeare portrays him carousing with Falstaff.

   Why the Percies now turned against King Henry is not clear. They may have felt they had been inadequately rewarded for their support of Henry's coup, especially as the King appeared to be favouring their great rivals in the North; the Nevilles of Westmorland. They may even felt some guilt at their betrayal of Richard. Hotspur perhaps had his own agenda, because he was married to Edmund Mortimer's sister, so his children had a claim to the throne. Matters came to a head after the battle of Homildon Hill in 1402.
   The Scottish border was a wild and lawless region, with constant low-level warfare that ranged from cattle-raids to full-scale invasions. The Percies were the main power on the English side along the eastern border (where the saying was that "there was no king but Percy"), and facing them was the great Scottish family of Douglas. Back in 1388 at Otterburn, Hotspur had faced a Scots  force under Sir James Douglas and been taken prisoner. Now at Homildon he defeated a major Scottish invasion and took a number of important prisoners, including Archibald, Earl of Douglas. Nobles as important as this were held in honourable captivity until a suitably large sum could be extracted for ransom.
   King Henry now demanded that the captives be handed over to him, as was technically his right as sovereign. But Hotspur insisted on keeping Douglas, with the helpful suggestion that any ransom money should be used to free Edmund Mortimer - but that of course was the last thing Henry wanted! As far as the Percies were concerned, the Douglas affair was the last straw.

   In early July 1403 Hotspur raised the standard of rebellion; and with him was Earl Douglas, now a close friend.  They marched south, picking up support in Cheshire, where King Richard had been popular, and plainly intended to seize Shrewsbury, which would be a valuable base to link with Glyndwr's forces in Wales. Northumberland was believed to be following a few days behind with reinforcements. 
   Henry Prince of Wales commanded in Shrewsbury, but the guardian of the teenage Prince was Hotspur's uncle, the Earl of Worcester, who marched out with much of the town's garrison to join the rebellion. Hotspur knew the Prince well, and had acted as his mentor in a campaign that recaptured Conwy from Glyndwr. The Prince greatly admired Hotspur as a valiant knight, but now they were enemies.
  The depleted Shrewsbury garrison looked doomed, but then in the nick of time the balance was transformed, because the King, moving at unexpected speed, brought his army to Shrewsbury first. Furthermore, there was no sign of Glyndwr, and Northumberland's promised reinforcements had not appeared. Hotspur was thus outnumbered and unable to attack the town, withdrawing a short distance to the north. He took up a position on a slightly south-facing slope, probably just west of the present A49 that runs from Shrewsbury to Whitchurch. There were attempts at a peaceful solution, but Hotspur and Worcester felt they could no longer trust any of King Henry's promises, and battle was joined on  July 21st.

   The battle would have started with the archers on both sides. Hotspur's Cheshire archers, who had the advatage of the slope, were more effective than their royal counterparts, but with Hotspur outnumbered, he knew his only real chance of victory was to kill the King. There was violent hand-to-hand fighting, the royal standard was felled and some knights who wore the King's livery as decoys were killed, but Hotspur had penetrated too far into the enemy lines, and was himself slain. The surviving soldiers of his army melted away as night fell. 
   It was a very bloody battle. The numbers killed is not known: one chronicler gives the number of dead as 16,000, which seems a gross exaggeration. It may only have been a tenth of this, but of course many of the wounded would later have succumbed to their injuries. The dead were buried in a mass grave.
   It is not known how Hotspur died. According to Shakespeare, the Prince of Wales killed him in personal combat, which is unlikely since the Prince was struck in the face with an arrow and seriously wounded earlier in the battle. Shakespeare rather brushes this aside, but in fact the arrow-head remained embedded in the Prince's skull near the nose for some time before it could be surgically extracted.

   Shakespeare has the Prince deliver a ringing speech in praise of the dead Hotspur, but this is rather at odds with what really happened. The Earl of Worcester was beheaded after a brief hearing, and his head struck on a spike on London Bridge. Hotspur's body was taken away and buried nearby at Whitchurch, but the King then ordered it to be dug up and exhibited in Shrewsbury, before being beheaded and quartered and the parts put on display in different parts of the kingdom. He could not risk any rumours that Hotspur was still alive! Earl Douglas, as a Scotsman, could of course not be condemned as a traitor: instead his fighting valour was praised and he was held in honourable captivity for the time being. But back in Scotland he was mocked as a warrior who always lost his battles!

This was far from being the end of King Henry's troubles. He never managed to crush Glyndwr, who captured Harlech and Aberystwyth in 1404 and even called a Welsh Parliament at Machynlleth, where he was crowned Prince of Wales. The Earl of Northumberland, whose tardiness in support of his son suggested he did not really approve of the rebellion, was initially pardoned; but early in 1405 he, Glyndwr and Edmund Mortimer signed a pact to divide the kingdom between them. Another rebellion was defeated, and its leaders executed, including the Earl Marshal, Thomas de Mowbray, and even Richard Scrope, the Archbishop of York. The execution of a senior cleric greatly shocked contemporaries, and the illness which afflicted Henry in later years was widely seen as punishment for this sacrilege. The Earl of Northumberland was finally killed in 1408, and a few years later Glyndwr mysteriously vanished from the scene.
    Henry IV was thus never secure on the throne, and the unprecedented slaughter of the great nobility that marked his reign set up hatreds that resurfaced in the Wars of the Roses a generation later.

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Earl Douglas strikes down King Henry's standard-bearer. Sir Walter Blount attempts to intervene, while the King is urged to retreat to safety. On the ground, Lord Stafford lies dead. This is one of Graham Turner's splendidly dramatic illustrations in "Shrewsbury 1403"; a detailed account of the campaign by Dickon Whitewood (Osprey Books).

The site of the battle is now commemorated with the Battlefield Church and the Battlefield Enterprise Centre. The church is unfortunately not normally open to the public, 
but a key can sometimes be obtained from a small museum at the nearby farm shop. This features a model of how Prince Henry might have appeared with the arrow in his face. Imagine how different English history would have been if he had been killed!  

The campaign is the subject of a historical novel by Edith Pargeter (who also writes as Ellis Peters): "A Bloody Field by Shrewsbury".