On a morning much like this one, exactly 70 years ago, the world’s attempt to coexist with evil went up in smoke when Adolf Hitler’s Panzer tanks and Stuka dive-bombers attacked Poland.
There had been many opportunities to stop the Fuhrer earlier. The Allies could have intervened militarily as he breached many of the major provisions of the Versailles treaty that had ended the Great War. But Europe had no stomach for the costs, in money and blood, of further warfare. So Hitler was allowed to rebuild Germany’s military, move it into the Rhineland (the region along Germany’s border with France), annex Austria, grab the ethnic German Sudentenland region of Czechoslovakia and dismember the remainder of that country.
The United States was even less interested than Britain and France in standing up to Hitler’s Nazis. Congress passed, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed, a series of “neutrality acts” in the mid-1930s that effectively required arms embargos and other sanctions against all parties to foreign wars, without regard to which party was the aggressor. There were some loopholes intended to help Britain and France, but the primary beneficiary of those provisions turned out to be Spain’s fascist dictator Francisco Franco, who won a bloody civil war that raged from 1936 to 1939.
Germany’s external expansionism was matched by its internal aggression against perceived enemies of the Reich, most notably the Jews. Hitler made his hatred of Jews clear in his book Mein Kampf (My Struggle), published years before he took power. Anti-Jewish oppression and violence against German Jews steadily increased after he became Chancellor of Germany, culminating in Kristallnacht (“The Night of Broken Glass”) in November 1938. Two months later, in a speech to the Reichstag, Hitler vowed that a new world war would mean “the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe.”
The flaccid response to his earlier transgressions gave Hitler every reason to believe he would get away with his assault on Poland. His major concern, in fact, was not the response of England and France, but of the Soviet Union. Hitler resolved that problem by making a nonaggression pact with Josef Stalin a few months before the Polish invasion. A secret annex to that pact provided that the Germans and Soviets would divide the territories of Eastern Europe between them. As the Germans marched east into Poland, the Soviets prepared to move west.
Hitler had finally gone too far. After he ignored its demands to withdraw, Britain declared war on Germany on Sept. 3. France followed suit a few hours later. According to historians, a stunned Hitler turned to his Foreign Minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, and asked: “What now?”
In the United States, however, Roosevelt took to the airwaves both to denounce Germany’s aggression and to declare that this country would do nothing to reverse it.
“Let no man or woman thoughtlessly or falsely talk of America sending its armies to European fields,” Roosevelt said. “At this moment there is being prepared a proclamation of American neutrality. This would have been done even if there had been no neutrality statute on the books, for this proclamation is in accordance with international law and in accordance with American policy.”
The American neutrality laws were not repealed until 1941, by which time Hitler held most of continental Europe in his grip. The British barely hung on through the aerial Battle of London before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor finally brought American power decisively into the war.
We will never know how many lives were laid waste because of the failure by this country and its allies to act sooner. I suppose a case can be made that the final outcome, including Hitler’s suicide and the unconditional surrenders of Germany and Japan, was not achievable without all-out war, which might not have occurred with an earlier and more limited confrontation. Would a world in which Hitler, though constrained, might have held power for several decades have been better than what we had? Your guess is as good as mine.
Evil did not begin with Hitler and certainly did not end with him. We have seen many manifestations since World War II. The regimes of Pol Pot in Cambodia, Idi Amin in Uganda, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the Kims in North Korea, the Taliban in Aghanistan and Stalin himself jump to mind. So do genocidal massacres in Biafra in the 1960s, Bosnia and Rwanda in the 1990s, and Sudan over the past several decades. (Speaking of Sudan, I recommend the film God Grew Tired of Us for a look at the plight of that country’s “Lost Boys.”) And, of course, we can include mindless terror attacks against targets ranging from the World Trade Center to the hotels of Mumbai and Jakarta.
Some of the perpetrators ultimately got what they deserved. Many did not. In virtually every case, the powers that might have intervened waited longer to act ? if they acted at all ? than they should have, and many innocents paid the price.
We are still learning the lesson we should have learned on that morning 70 years ago. We can try to coexist with evil, but evil will not try to coexist with us.