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Ceaseless Radicalization


Hitler was more convinced than ever, following the Rhineland triumph, that he was walking with destiny, guided by the hand of Providence. The plebiscite of 29 March 1936 was both at home and outside Germany a demonstration of Hitler 's enhanced strength. He could act with new confidence. During the summer, the international alignments that would crystallize over the next three years began to form. The balance of power in Europe had unmistakably shifted.

Characteristically, Hitler 's first step after his 'election' success was to present a 'peace plan' - generous in his own eyes - to his coveted allies, the British. On 1 April, his special envoy in London, Joachim von Ribbentrop, the former champagne salesman who had become his most trusted adviser in foreign affairs, passed on the offer Hitler had drafted the previous day to the British government. It included a four-month moratorium on any troop reinforcements in the Rhineland, together with an expression of willingness to participate in international talks aimed at a twenty-five-year peace pact, restricting production of the heaviest forms of artillery alongside bans on the bombing of civilian targets and usage of poison-gas, chemical, or incendiary bombs.

The seemingly reasonable 'offer 'had arisen from the serious diplomatic upheaval following the German march into the Rhineland, when belated French pressure for action against Germany had prompted British attempts to gain a commitment from Hitler to refrain from any increase in troop numbers on the Rhine and from fortifying the region.

Naturally, on these concrete points Hitler had made no concessions. The reply of 6 May 1936 from the British Foreign Secretary, Eden, left the door open for improved relations through new international agreements to replace the now defunct Locarno settlement of 1925 But for all its diplomatic language, the reply was essentially negative. Eden informed the German Foreign Minister, Konstantin Freiherr von Neurath, that 'His Majesty 's Government regret that the German Government have not been able to make a more substantial contribution towards the re-establishment of the confidence which is such an essential preliminary to the wide negotiations which they both have in view.'

With this, the British government's distrust of Hitler was plain. It would sit ever more uneasily alongside the determination, at practically any cost, to prevent Britain once more being embroiled in war.

As Stanley Baldwin, the British Prime Minister, had put it at the end of April: 'With two lunatics like Mussolini and Hitler you can never be sure of anything. But I am determined to keep the country out of war.'

If Hitler was to encounter increased difficulties in attaining his desired alliance with Great Britain, his Rhineland triumph opened up new opportunities elsewhere. Italy, taken up since the previous autumn with the repercussions of the invasion of Abyssinia, now heading to a belatedly victorious conclusion for Mussolini, was more than content to see the attention of the western powers diverted by the remilitarization of the Rhineland. More than that, the diplomatic fall-out from the invasion of Abyssinia had forged better relations between Italy and Germany. As Mussolini had signalled earlier in the year, Italy 's interest in protecting Austria from German inroads had sharply diminished in return for Germany's support in the Abyssinian conflict. The way was opening for the eventual emergence of the Berlin-Rome 'axis' towards the end of the year. Meanwhile, the inevitable consequence of the removal of any protection from Italy was that Austria was forced to acknowledge - as would be the case in a one-sided agreement in July - that the country had now fallen within Germany 's orbit.

Within a fortnight of the Austrian agreement, the diplomatic fault-lines in Europe would widen still further with Hitler 's decision to commit Germany to intervention in what would rapidly emerge as the Spanish Civil War - a baleful prelude to the catastrophe soon to engulf the whole of Europe. To shrewd observers, it was becoming clear: Hitler's Rhineland coup had been the catalyst to a major power-shift in Europe; Germany's ascendancy was an unpredictable and highly destabilizing element in the international order; the odds against a new European war in the foreseeable future had markedly shortened.

To the German public, Hitler once more professed himself a man of peace, cleverly insinuating who was to blame for the gathering storm-clouds of war. Speaking to a vast audience in the Berlin Lustgarten (a huge square in the city centre)on 1 May - once an international day of celebration of labouring people, now redubbed 'National Labour Day' - he posed the rhetorical question:'I ask myself,' he declared, 'who are then these elements who wish to have no rest, no peace, and no understanding, who must continually agitate and sow mistrust? Who are they actually?' Immediately picking up the implication, the crowd bayed:'The Jews.'

Hitler began again:'I know ...,' and was interrupted by cheering that lasted for several minutes. When at last he was able to continue, he picked up his sentence, though - the desired effect achieved - now in quite different vein:'know it is not the millions who would have to take up weapons if the intentions of these agitators were to succeed. Those are not the ones ...'

The summer of 1936 was, however, as Hitler knew only too well, no time to stir up a new antisemitic campaign. In August, the Olympic Games were due to be staged in Berlin. Sport would be turned into a vehicle of nationalist politics and propaganda as never before. Nazi aesthetics of power would never have a wider audience. With the eyes of the world on Berlin, it was an opportunity not to be missed to present the new Germany 's best face to its hundreds of thousands of visitors from across the globe. No expense or effort had been spared in this cause. The positive image could not be endangered by putting the 'dark' side of the regime on view. Open anti-Jewish violence, such as had punctuated the previous summer, could not be permitted. With some difficulties, antisemitism was kept under wraps.

Manifestations thought distasteful for foreign visitors, such as anti-Jewish, notices - 'Jews not wanted here', and other vicious formulations - at the roadside at the entry to towns and villages, had already been removed on Hitler 's orders at the insistence of Count Henri Baillet-Latour, the Belgian President of the International Olympic Committee, before the commencement the previous February of the Winter Olympics in the Bavarian alpine resort of Garmisch-Partenkirchen.8 The anti-semitic zealots in the Party had temporarily to be reined in. Other objectives were for the time being more important. Hitler could afford to bide his time in dealing with the Jews.

Frenetic building work, painting, renovation, and refurbishment aimed at offering the most attractive appearance possible to Berlin, the city of the Games.9 The centre-point was the new Olympic Stadium. Hitler had angrily denounced the original plans of the architect Werner March as a 'modern glass box' ,and, in one of his usual childlike temper tantrums, had threatened to call off the Olympics altogether. It was probably a device to make sure he got his own way. And like pandering to a spoilt child, those around him made sure he was not disappointed. Speer's rapidly sketched more classically imposing design immediately won his favour. Hitler was more than assuaged.

Now fired with enthusiasm, he demanded at once that it should be the biggest stadium in the world - though even when under construction, and outstripping the size of the previous largest stadium at Los Angeles, built for the 1932 Games, he complained that everything was too small.

The whole of Berlin was wreathed in swastika banners on 1 August as the arrival of the Olympic torch signalled, amid spectacular ceremonial, the commencement of the XIth modern Olympiad -Hitler 's Olympics.

Overhead,the massive airship Hindenburg trailed the Olympic flag. In the stadium, a crowd of 110 000 people had assembled in great expectation. Over a million others, it was estimated, unable to get tickets, lined the Berlin streets for a glimpse of their Leader as a cavalcade of black limousines conveyed Hitler with other dignitaries and honoured guests to the newly designed high temple of sport. As he entered the great arena that afternoon, a fanfare of thirty trumpets sounded. The world-famous composer Richard Strauss, clad in white, conducted a choir of 3 000 in the singing of the national anthem, 'Deutschland,Deutschland uber alles', and the Nazi Party's own anthem,the 'Horst-Wessel-Lied', before conducting the new 'Olympic Hymn' which he had composed specially for the occasion. As the music faded, the giant Olympic bell began to toll, announcing the parade of the competing athletes that then followed. Many national delegations offered the Nazi salute as they passed Hitler 's dais; the British and Americans demonstrably refrained from doing so. All around the stadium, cameras whirred. The camera teams of Leni Riefenstahl, the talented director who, after her success in filming the 1934 Party Rally, had been commissioned to produce a film on the Olympics, had been installed in numerous strategic positions, accumulating their material for a celluloid record of the stirring events.