Berlin, Germany · July 19, 1940

Military operations between France and the Axis powers—that is, Germany and Italy—ended on June 25, 1940. Three and a half weeks later, on this date in 1940 in Berlin, vic­to­rious Wehr­macht troops marched through the Branden­burg Gate for the first time since Kaiser Wilhelm I’s victory over France in the Franco-Prussian war in 1871. Adolf Hitler handed out ranks and decora­tions to the grossly corpu­lent Air Marshal Her­mann Goering, now pro­moted to the rank of Reichs­marshall, and elevated twelve generals who had served in the battles of France and the Low Countries (May 14 to June 20, 1940) to the rank of field marshal (Generalfeldmarschall).

Addressing the august assem­bly in Berlin, Hitler held out an olive branch to Great Britain, which, like defeated France, had declared war on Ger­many on Septem­ber 3 the year before. In his speech the incor­ri­gible aggres­sor told the new British prime minis­ter, Winston Chur­chill, that Germany did not wish to con­tinue the mili­tary struggle against the lone hold­out against Nazi domi­na­tion in Europe. “My con­science dictates that I should send a new appeal to rea­son to Eng­land,” he stated. “I think I can do this because I am not a defeated enemy who is begging but a victor who has nothing to ask. I do not wish for any rea­son to continue this struggle.”

The next day Hitler received the British response: Ger­many could only have peace if it evacu­ated all the terri­tories it had occu­pied since the out­break of war, restored the free­doms it had trampled on, and gave guaran­tees for a peace­ful future. This last require­ment seemed an odd one indeed, for Chur­chill’s pred­e­ces­sor, Neville Cham­ber­lain (in office from May 1937 to May 1940), held aloft a memo­ran­dum that he and Hitler had signed, waving it to a cheering crowd upon his return from Munich at the end of Septem­ber 1938. “To assure the peace of Europe,” the two leaders “resolved that the meth­od of consul­ta­tion shall be the meth­od adopted to deal with . . . ques­tions that may con­cern our two coun­tries.” The Munich Agree­ment, the signa­ture achieve­ment of his adminis­tration, had pro­duced “peace with honor,” “peace for our time” Chamber­lain assured an anxious world. Back in Germany, a disappointed Hitler, sensing a change of attitude in Britain’s feisty new prime minister, retired to the Berg­hof, his Bava­rian moun­tain retreat on the Ober­salz­berg near Berchtes­gaden, wondering why his peace over­ture to Churchill had fallen on stone cold ears.

Sir Ian Kershaw is my go-to historian for al­most all things related to the Third Reich and Adolf Hitler. His two-volume bio­graphy (subtitled 1889–1936: Hubris and 1936–1945: Nemesis) metic­u­lously detailed the man and the nation he led to per­dition. For people who suspect that 1,500 pages require too much arm­chair time (it did me), I suggest reading Ker­shaw’s abridged ver­sion, Hitler, A Biography, at 1,000 pages or Peter Langerich’s 2019 version, at 965 pages, Hitler, A Biography. The best short bio­graphy of Hitler, at 190 pages, is by another Brit­ish his­torian, A. N. Wilson. I found his bio­graphy Hitler dead on in explaining the essen­tials of what made Hitler, Hitler. Ame­r­ican his­torian R.H.S. Stolfi’s 2011 bio­graphy, Hitler: Beyond Evil and Tyranny, at just over 500 pages, focuses the spot­light more on the dic­tator’s per­sonality and less on his evil actions. In Volker Ullrich’s two-volume study, Hitler: Ascent, 1889-1939 and Hitler: Downfall 1939-1945, this German histo­rian and jour­nalist like­wise focuses on Hitler’s person­ality traits that made him so attrac­tive to Germans and explains how Hitler used his con­sider­able talent as an organ­izer, orator, actor, and poli­ti­cian as well as his cold-blooded ruth­les­sness to claw his way to power and stay there until his suicide in 1945. You may wish to read an older bio­graphy of Hitler, titled Hitler, by Joachim Fest, who actually lived through the Nazi years and served in the Ger­man Wehr­macht before being captured by the Amer­i­cans. Fest’s probing study offers the per­spec­tive of another German his­torian on a dema­gogue who trau­ma­tized his country and the rest of Europe using state-sponsored intimi­dation, war, and genocide.—Norm Haskett

Sudetenland Crisis and Munich, 1938: Apogee of European Appeasement

Munich Agreement signatories, Munich, September 30, 1938Chamberlain’s "peace for our times," London, September 30, 1938

Left: British Prime Minister Neville Cham­ber­lain, French Prime Minis­ter Édouard Dala­dier, Ger­man Chan­cellor Adolf Hitler, Ital­ian Prime Minis­ter Benito Mus­so­lini, and Ital­ian Foreign Minis­ter Gale­azzo Ciano pic­tured (left to right) before signing the Munich Agree­ment shortly after 1 a.m., Septem­ber 30, 1938. The “Czecho­slo­va­kian prob­lem,” as Cham­ber­lain framed the dis­pute between Ger­many and its south­ern neighbor, was resolved by detaching Czecho­slo­va­kia’s mostly German-speaking Sude­ten­land and handing it over to Ger­many. The Czecho­slovak govern­ment in Prague objected to the agree­ment reached by Europe’s Big Four, but agreed to its terms when in­formed (essen­tially black­mailed) that should a war break out in Europe Czecho­slo­va­kia would be held respon­sible. The Munich Agree­ment would culminate six months later in Hitler’s takeover of what was left of Czechoslovakia.

Right: On his triumphal return to London from Munich on Septem­ber 30, 1938, Cham­ber­lain held aloft the certi­fied pro­mise he and Hitler had made to each other a few hours earlier; namely, a solemn com­mit­ment to resolve dif­fer­ences between their two coun­tries peace­fully. The prime minister assured Brit­ish sub­jects twice that day, those cheering him at the air­port upon his arrival and those mobbing him at his official resi­dence at 10 Downing St. in the evening, that the fruits of his trip had pro­duced “peace for our time.” After the second assur­ance, Cham­ber­lain told the crowd to “go home, and sleep quietly in your beds.”

Chamberlain and Hitler’s 1938 Resolution to Work for the Peace of Europe