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3. Hitler was an Opportunist
5. Moral Values Contra Real Policy

The Origins of the Second World War - after A. J. P. Taylor

4. The Hossbach Memorandum

The Hosbach memorandum is frequently quoted in popular historical works as a definitive proof of Hitler's plans for aggression war. William Shirer's "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich" is a good example. Here the memorandum is presented as "the decisive turning point in the life of the Third Reich". Shirer wrote of this critical conference:" The dice was thrown. Hitler had communicated his irreversible decision to go to war. For this handful of men, who had to carry it out, there no longer could be any doubt."

Adolf Hitler
Adolf Hitler makes a speech.

A. J. P. Taylor wrote in "The Origins of The Second World War" that the Hossbach memorandum does not prove Germany's guilt for the war. The meeting on 5. of November 1937 basicly focused on armament issues.

Taylor tells us about the creation of the Hossbach document: "In moderne practice, an official record demands three things. First, a secretary must attend to take notes which he writes up afterwards in orderly form. Then his draft must be submitted to to the participants for correction and approval. Finally the record must be placed in the official files. None of this took place in regard to the meeting on 5 November 1937, except that Hossbach attended. He took no notes. Five days later he wrote an account of the meeting from memory in longhand. He twice offered to show the manuscript to Hitler, who replied that he was too busy to read it. This was a curiously causal treatment for what is supposed to be his "last will and testament". Blomberg may have looked on the manuscript. The others did not know it existed. The only certificate of authenticity attached to it was the signature of Hossbach himself. One other man saw the manuscript: Beck, chief of the general staff, the most sceptical among German generals of Hitlers ideas. He wrote an answer to Hitler's arguments on 12 November 1937; and this answer was later presented as the beginning of the German "Resistance". It has even been suggested that Hossbach wrote it in order to provoke the answer.

The Nuremberg Trial
The accused in Nuremberg.
First row from left: Hermann Göring, Rudolf Hess, Joachim von Ribbbentrop, Wilhelm Keitel. Second row from left: Karl Dönitz Erich Raeder, Baldur von Schirach, and Fritz Sauckel.
Foto wikipedia commen.

These are speculations. At the time no one attached importance to the meeting. Hosbach left the staff soon afterwards. His manuscript was put in a file with other miscellaneous papers, and forgotten. In 1943 a German officier, count Kirchbach, looked through the file and copied the manuscript for the department of military history. After the war the Americans found Kirchbach's copy, and copied it in their turn for the prosecution at Nuremberg. Both Hossbach and Kirchbach thought that this copy was shorter than the original. In particular, according to Kirchbach, the original contained criticism by Neurath, Blomberg and Fritsch of Hitler's argument - criticism which have now fallen out. Maybe the Americans "edited" the document; maybe Kirchbach, like other Germans, was trying to shift all the blame to Hitler. There are no means of knowing. Hossbach's original and Kirchbach's copy have both disappeared. All that survives is a copy, perhaps shortened, perhaps "edited", of an un-authenticated draft. It containes themes which Hitler also used in his public speeches; the need for lebensraum, and his conviction that other countries would oppose the restoration of Germany as an independent Great Power. It contains no directives for action beyond a wish for increased armaments. Even in Nuremberg the Hossbach memorandum was not produced in order to prove Hitler's war guilt. That was taken for granted. What it "proved", in its final concocted form, was that those accused at Nuremberg - Goering, Raeder and Neurath - had sat by and and approved of Hitler's aggressive plans. It had to be assumed that the plans were aggressive in order to prove the guilt of the accused. Those who believe the evidence in political trials may go on quoting the Hossbach memorandum. They should also warn their readers (as the editors of the "Documents on German Foreign Policy" do not) that the meorandum, far from being an "official record", is a very hot potato.

Volk ohne Raum
Hans Grimm and Volk ohne Raum.

The Hossbach memorandum is not the only alleged blueprint of Hitlers intentions. Indeed, to judge from what some historians say, Hitler produced such blueprints continually - influenced no doubt by his ambition to be an architect (yet another goak). These historians even underrate Hitler's productivity. They jump straight from "Mein Kampf" to the Hossbach memorandum, and then to "Table Talk" during the Russian War. In fact Hitler produced a blueprint nearly every time he made a speech; this was the way his mind worked. Obviously there was nothing secret about these blueprints either in "Mein Kampf" which sold by the million after Hitler came to power, or in speeches delivered to large audiences. No one therefore need pride himself on his perspicacity in divining Hitler's intentions. It is equally obvious that "Lebensraum" always appeared as one element in these blueprints. This was not an original idea of Hitler's. It was commonplace of the time. "Volk ohne Raum" for instance, by Hans Grimm sold much better than "Mein Kampf", when it was published in 1928. For that matter, plans for acquiring new territory were much aired in Germany during the First World War. It used to be thought that these were the plans of a few crack-pot theorisers of extremist organisations. Now we know better. In 1961 a German professor reported the result of his investigations into German war aims. These were indeed "a blueprint for aggression" or, as the professor called them "a grasp at world power": Belgium under German control; the French iron-fields annexed to Germany, the Ukraine to become German; and, whar is more, Poland and Ukraine to be cleared of their inhabitants and resettled with Germans." Taylor do'nt give the name of this professor. (Taylor p 23)

"Hitler far from transcending his respectable predecessors, was actually being more moderate than they when he sought only "Lebensraum" in the east and repudiated, in "Mein Kampf", gains in the west . Hiler merely repeated the ordinary chatter of rightwing circles."(Taylor p 23)

Let us give the floor to Taylor in Chapter 7 "Anschluss: The end of Austria" about the content of the document:

Adolf Hitler
Adolf Hitler.

"The watershed between the two World wars extended over precisely two years. Post-war ended when Germany reoccupied the Rhineland 7 March 1936; pre-war began when she annexed Austria on 13 March 1938. From that moment change and upheaval went on almost without interruption, until the representatives of the Powers, victorious in the second World war, met at Potsdam in July 1945. Who first raised the storm and and launched the march of events? The accepted answer is clear: it was Hitler. The moment of his doing so is also accepted: It was on 5 November 1937. We have record of the statements he made that day. It is called "the Hosbach memorandum", after the man, who made it. This record is supposed to reveal Hitler's plans. Much play was made with it in Nuremberg; and the editors of the "Documents of German Foreign Policy" say that: "it provides a summary of German foreign policy in 1937-38". It is therefore worth looking at in detail. Perhaps we shall find in it the explanation of the second World war; or perhaps we shall find only the source of a legend.

Blomberg minister of war
Blomberg minister of war.

That afternoon Hitler called a conference at the Chancellery. It was attended by Blomberg, the minister of war; Neurath, the foreign minister; Fritsch, commander-in-chief of the army; Raeder, commander-in-chief of the navy; and Goering, commander-in-chief of the air force. Hitler did most of the talking. He began with a general disquisition on Germany's need for Lebensraum. He did not specify, where this were to be found - probably in Europe, though he also discussed colonial gains. But gains there must be. "Germany had to reckon with two hate-inspired antagonists, Britain and France. -- Germany's problem could only be solved by means of force, and this was never without attendant risk." When and how was there to be this resort to force? Hitler discussed three "cases". The first "case" was "period 1943-1945". After that the situation could only change for the worse; 1943 must be the moment for action. Case 2 was civil war in France; if that happened "the time for action against the Czechs had come". Case 3 was war between France and Italy. This might well occur in 1938; then "our objectives must be to overthrow Czechoslovakia and Austria simultaneously". None of this "cases" came true; clearly therefore they do not provide the blueprint for German policy. Nor did Hitler dwell on them. He went on to demonstrate that Germany would gain her aims without a great war;

Foreign minister Neurath
Foreign minister Neurath.

"Force" apparantly meant to him the threat of war, not necessarily war itself. The Western Powers would be too hampered and too timid to intervene. "Britain almost certainly, and probably France as well had written off the Czechs and were reconciled to the fact, that this question would be cleared up in due course by Germany." No other Power would intervene. "Poland- with Russia in her rear - will have little inclination to engage in war against a victorious Germany". Russia would be hold in check by Japan.

Hitler's exposition was in large parts day-dreaming, unrelated to what followed in real life. Even if seriously meant, it was not a call for action, at any rate not to the action of a great war; it was a demonstration that a great war would not be necessary. Despite the preliminary talk about 1943-1945, its solid core was the examination of the chances for peaceful triumphs in 1938, when France would be preoccupied elsewhere. Hitler's listeners remained doubtful. The generals insisted that the French army would be superior to the German even if engaged against Italy as well.

Army chief Fritsch
Army chief Fritsch.

Neurath doubted that whether a Mediterranean conflict between France and Italy were imminent. Hitler waved the doubts aside: "He was convinced of Britain's none-participation, and therefore he did not believe in the probability of belligerent action by France against Germany." There is only one safe conclusion to be drawn from this rambling disquisition: Hitler was gambling on some twist of fortune, which would present him with success in foreign affairs, just as a miracle had made him Chancellor in 1933. There was here no concrete plan, no directive for German policy in 1937 and 1938. Or if there were a directive, it was to wait upon events.

Why then did Hitler hold this conference? This question was not asked at Nuremberg; it has not been asked by historians. -yet surely it is an elementary part of historical discipline to ask of a document not only what is in it, but why it came into existence. The conference of 5 November 1937 was a curious gathering. Only Goering was a Nazi. The others were old-style Conservatives, who had remained in office to keep Hitler under control; all of them except Raeder were to be dismised from their posts within three months. Hitler knew that all except Goering were his opponents; and he did not trust Goering much. Why did he reveal his inmost thoughts to men, whom he distrusted and, whom he was shortly to discharge?

Goering chief of the air force
Goering chief of the air force.

This question has an easy answer: he did not reveal his inmost thoughts. There was no crisis in foreign policy to provoke a broad discussion or sweeping decisions. The conference was a manoeuvre in domestic affairs. Here a storm was brewing. The finacial genius of Schacht had made rearmament and full employment possible; but now Schacht was jibbing at further expansion of the armament programme. Hitler feared Schacht and could not answer his financial arguments. He knew only that they were wrong: the Nazi regime could not relax its momentum. Hitler aimed to isolate Schacht from the other Conservatives; and he had therefore to win them for a programme of increased armaments. His geopolitical exposition had no other purpose. The Hossbach Memorandum itself provides evidence of this. Its last paragraph reads: "The second part of the conference was concerned with questions of armaments." This, no doubt, was why it had been called.

The participants themselves drew this conclusion. After Hitler had left, Raeder complained that the German navy would be in no strength to face war for years ahead.

Raeder - commander of the navy
Raeder - commander of the navy.

Blomberg and Goering pulled him into a corner, here they explained that the sole object of the conference was to prod Fritch into demanding a larger arms programme.

Neurath made no comments at the time. He is said to have grasped the full import of Hitler's wickedness some days later, and then to have suffered "several severe heart-attacks". These attacks were first revealed in 1945, when Neurath was being tried as a war criminal; Fritsch prepared a memorandum insisting that the German army must not be exposed to the risk of war against France, and took this to Hitler on 9 November. Hitler replied that there was no real risk and that, in any case, Fritsch would do better to speed up rearmament instead of dabbling in political questions. Despite this rebuke, Hitler's manoeuvre had succeded: henceforward Fritsch, Blomberg and Raeder had no sympathy with Schacht's financial scruples. Otherwise none of the men, who attended the meeting on 5 November gave it another thought, until Goering found the record produced against him at Nuremberg as evidence of his war guilt. From that moment it has haunted the corridors of historical research. It is the basis for the view that there is nothing to be discovered about the origins of the second World war. Hitler, it is claimed, decided on war, and planned it in detail on 5 November 1937. Yet the Hossback memorandum contains no plans of the kind, and would never have been suposed to do so, unless it had been displayed at Nuremberg. The memorandum tells us, what we knew already, that Hitler (like every other German statesman) intended Germany to become the dominant Power in Europe. It also tells us that he speculated how this might happen. His speculation was mistaken. They bear hardly any relation to the actual outbreak of war in 1939.

A racing tipster, who only reached Hitler's level of accuracy, would not do well for his clients." (Taylor p.168-172)

At the Nurnberg process Goering testified that Hitler privately had told him before the conference that its main purpose was: "To put pressure on General von Fritsch, as he was dissatisfied with the army's armament." Raeder confirmed Goering's statement.

See the full text of the Hossbach Memorandum at Yale Law School

Literature: "The Origins of The Second World War" by A. J. P. Taylor - Penguin Books.

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