A Veteran's Plea for Peace
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Even many people who consider themselves well-informed about the history of the Third Reich and the Second World War are ignorant of the numerous offers of peace made by Hitler and his government in the years before the outbreak of war, particularly during the 1934-1937 period.
His first speech on foreign policy after taking office as Chancellor was a plea for peace and mutual understanding among nations delivered to the Reichstag on May 17, 1933. So persuasively argued was his appeal that it was enthusiastically endorsed even by opposition-party representatives, including Social Democratic Party deputies.
Two years later, the German leader again stressed the need for peace on the basis of mutual understanding in his Reichstag speech of May 21, 1935. In the view of the London Times, Hitler's address was "reasonable, straightforward and comprehensive."
Such calls for peace were not mere rhetoric. On March 31, 1936, the German government announced a comprehensive plan for strengthening peace in Europe. The detailed paper included numerous specific proposals, including demilitarization of the entire Rhineland region, a western Europe security agreement, and mutual prohibition of poison gas and incendiary bombs, and heavy tanks and heavy artillery.
Efforts like this were not without some success. For example, in January 1934 Hitler's government concluded a ten-year non-aggression pact with Poland. (Unfortunately, the spirit of this treaty was later broken by the men who took power in Poland after the death of Marshal Pilsudski in 1935.)
One of Hitler's most important foreign policy successes was a comprehensive naval agreement with Britain, signed in June 1935. (This agreement, incidentally, abrogated the Treaty of Versailles, thereby showing that neither London nor Berlin still regarded it as valid.) For the most part, though, Germany's neighbors rejected Hitler's peace proposals.
Most historians have tended to dismiss his proposals as insincere posturing designed to deceive the world about his "true" intentions. Sincere or not, it is significant that Germany's neighbors – above all France and Britain – declined to call Hitler's "bluff" by at least giving serious consideration to his proposals.
A particularly eloquent expression of the Third Reich's "peace offensive" is Rudolf Hess' address of July 8, 1934. This speech – the relevant portion of which is given here – was delivered in Königsberg, capital of the province of East Prussia (now the Russian city of Kaliningrad). Speaking as Hitler's Deputy (or Stellvertreter), Hess' words reflected not only the policy of Hitler and his government, but also the heart-felt desire of the vast majority of Germans for lasting peace in Europe.
The sincerity of this appeal to, especially, former front-line soldiers of the First World War, is confirmed by everything we know about Hess. His personal passion for peace was manifest, above all, in his history-making May 1941 flight to Britain, in which he risked his life in an effort to end fighting between Britain and Germany. (For more about Hess and his legacy, see the January-Feburary 1993 Journal.)
Within a few weeks we shall be celebrating the day [in August 1914] that marked the opening of an epic struggle on the part of Germany's soldiers [during the First World War]. It was here in [the province of] East Prussia that the great soldier, Hindenburg, turned back the invasion and saved the country. East Prussia suffered more in the war than any other part of Germany. East Prussia experienced the war in its most brutal realities. Here the ruined villages remained for a long time as striking witnesses of the Russian invasion. There are many among you here who remember the tragic sight of the refugees, fleeing for safety from the hands of the Cossacks.
Therefore, because you have been acquainted with war in your own homeland, I wish to say here in East Prussia something which I have long wanted to say to Germany and to the world at large. It is this: Today our people have the good fortune to be led by soldiers who fought in the front line trenches [during the First World War] and who have brought over into the leadership of the state those virtues which they leaned at the front. They are carrying out the rebuilding of the Reich in the spirit of the trenches; because it was the spirit of the trenches which created National Socialism.
While in the trenches they were everywhere confronted with death; and in the face of this terror all feeling of class distinction or differences of calling broke down. In the common sorrows and joys that they shared while in the trenches, there developed a spirit of comradeship between fellow countrymen such as had never been known before. In the trenches the common destiny stood out, before all eyes and in gigantic form, above the destiny of the individual.
And yet another thing arose in those trenches, despite all the bitterness and ruthlessness of the struggle. This was a certain feeling that between the men in the front lines on the opposite side of "no man's land" there was a certain bond of union which arose from the fact that on both sides they had to endure the same suffering, to stand in the same mud and face the same death.
A Common Bond Among Soldiers
And this feeling of a common bond has remained up to the present day. Is it not so? When [former] soldiers of the front-line trenches who fought on the opposite sides now find themselves together they naturally speak of the world war; but the hope that is constantly glittering through their conversation is the hope of peace. And therefore, if the politicians cannot find the means of doing so, it is the men who fought in the frontline trenches who are now called upon to throw a bridge of understanding across the gulf that separates nation from nation.
It is no mere coincidence that the two nations that are [today] led by soldiers [Mussolini and Hitler] who once fought in the trenches – Italy and Germany – are now working hard to establish a world peace. And it was not mere accident that, when the two [former] front-line soldiers, Hitler and Mussolini, met one another, a cordial personal understanding immediately arose. With our Polish neighbors we have entered into a covenant that serves the cause of peace. And in that country also the political leader is a soldier: Marshal Pilsudski.
Even in France, Hitler's attempt to bring about an understanding with our western neighbor met with the most favorable reception in the ranks of the former front-line soldiers.
Understanding Based on Mutual Respect
We who have fought in the trenches are determined that an incompetent diplomacy shall not be the cause of our stumbling into another catastrophe. Once again, front-line soldiers would have to bear the brunt of the suffering. The soldiers who fought in the trenches, no matter on which side, feel free of all responsibility for the last war. We want to work together to prevent a new catastrophe. We desire in common to build up in peace what in common we destroyed in war.
It is high time that now, at last, a real understanding should be reached among the nations. This must be an understanding based on mutual respect for one another, because only such an understanding can endure. It must be founded on the same kind of mutual respect as those who fought on opposite sides in the front-line trenches have always had for one another.
For there must be no doubt about this: Most of the Great Powers have accumulated more war materiel now than ever before. But war materiel, which is in danger of deteriorating, is perilous stuff in the midst of a world that has had been in a spirit of unrest ever since the war, and among nations that have the highest mistrust of one another today. An insignificant episode, like the unfortunate shot that was fired in Sarajevo in 1914 – perhaps an explosion from the pistol of a fool – might suffice, even against the best will of the nations concerned, to set millions of people against one another in armed conflict. Such an episode might be sufficient to plow up whole sections of countryside through tens of thousands of cannons of all calibers and ranges, to blow towns and villages into the air in a sea of flames, and to smother all life in clouds of poison gas.
Those who took part in the [First] World War have a premonition of what a modern war, with more fully perfected weapons, would mean today.
The Experience of the Front
I appeal to the front-line comrades of the war, on all sides.
Be honest. Of course we once stood out there in the proud feeling that we were stalwart men soldiers, warriors, liberated from the everyday routine of our former existence. We probably experienced a temporary pleasure in a kind of life that was a crude contrast to the languid existence that modern civilization and hyper-civilization brings with it. We felt ourselves worthier men than those who were far from the front, and had nothing to do with the destiny that was being decided there. We felt that we were defending the life of our nation, and that we were the trustees of our nation, and that we were the trustees of its future.
We enjoyed happy and bright hours. We tried to double every minute of life that was given to us. Not one of us would like to have this time at the front erased from his memory.
Death and Suffering
But let us be honest. The smell of death was always in our nostrils. We have seen death in more fearful and mangled shapes than any men before our time. We squatted and crouched in our dugouts, waiting to be crushed to pieces. We listened with stilled breath as our trained ear heard the hiss of the shell above us, as the mine exploded before our feet. Our hearts throbbed as if they would break to pieces when we sought cover in vain against the deadly rattle of the machine gun. With our gas masks on we felt ourselves suffocating to death in the midst of the gas clouds. We stumbled along in the water-logged trenches. We lay out in shell craters through the freezing nights. For days and weeks together, the horror of battle passed over us. We were frozen and hungry and often on the verge of madness. The cries of the heavily wounded men were in our ears. We met blinded men staggering back and we heard the death rattle in the throats of the dying. Among the heaped-up corpses of our dead comrades we lost all hope of life. We saw the misery of the refugees behind the lines. We saw the widow and the orphans, the cripples and the suffering, the sick children and the hungry women at home.
"Must This Be?"
Let us be honest. Did not each one of us then and there often ask: Why all this? Must this be? Can humanity not be spared all this in the future?
But we held out, on all sides, as men of duty and discipline and loyalty, as men who despised cowardice.
Today I take up anew the question we then asked, and I send it out to ring as a summons around the world. As one who fought in the front-line trenches [speaking] to the [former] front-line soldiers throughout the world, as a leader of the German nation to the leaders of other nations, I ask: Must this be? With goodwill and cooperation, cannot we save humanity from this?
Perhaps someone will ask: Why do you raise your voices today for the first time? Why have you remained silent during the past years?
I shall give the answer: Because in the past my voice would have been intermingled with the voices of those who had betrayed their own nation. It would have been associated with those who fell upon our fighting soldiers from the rear. It would have been intermingled with the voices of those Germans who have the Treaty of Versailles on their consciences.
Today I can speak, because a man of my own people has reestablished the honor of that people before the world. Today I can speak because the world now knows that a National Socialist soldier is not a knave. Today I can speak because the leader of my people has himself offered the hand of peace to the world. Today I can speak because the courageous stand of one man, Adolf Hitler, is a guarantee against my being misunderstood or accused of making common cause with the pacifist poltroons.
Today I must speak, because I must stand by the man who is seeking in this final moment to save the world from catastrophe. Today I raise my voice, because I wish also to warn the world against mistaking the Germany of today, the Germany of peace, for the Germany of the pacifists.
For this must be proclaimed and made known: although the men of the old front-line have the thousand-fold horrors of the war still before their minds, and although the post-war generation wants war as little as the older generation does, yet the road is not open for an "Excursion" into our country.
Just as in the Great War the French people defended every square foot of their soil with all their might, and would defend it again any day against a renewed attack, so would the German people do in like manner today. The French [former] front-line soldier will especially understand us when we tell those who are constantly playing with the idea of another war – which, of course, would have to be waged on the front by others than the professional hate mongers – the French [former] front-line soldier will understand us when we tell these people:
If you dare to attack us, if you dare to march into the new Germany, then the world will learn what the spirit of the new Germany is. It would fight for the inviolability of its freedom as hardly any other people in history ever fought. The French people know how one defends one's native soil. Every scrap of wood, every hill, every farmstead would have to be conquered with the outpouring of blood. Old and young would dig themselves into their native soil. They would defend themselves with a fanaticism unparalleled in world history.
And even if superiority of armament would turn out to be victorious, the way through the Reich would be a road of gruesome sacrifice for the invader as well; because no nation has ever been so filled with a sense of its right as our nation is [today], and with a sense of its duty to defend itself to the last against every attack.
Yearning for Peace
But we do not believe those who are poisoning the springs of international relations when they suggest that there is any nation ready today to wreck the peace of Germany and therewith that of Europe, if not of the whole world.
We believe that this is particularly true of the French people; for we know that these people also yearn for peace. We who fought in the trenches remember that the French population behind the lines in the World War always spoke of it as a misfortune for themselves and the whole world. The demand for an honorable understanding with Germany, expressed officially by the organizations of French [former] front-line soldiers, was received with keen sympathy by us, and especially by [former] German front-line soldiers. The demand undoubtedly sprang from a firsthand knowledge of what the realities of war mean, and also from the esteem which France's [former] front-line soldiers have for the military achievements of the German soldiers in the war.
The soldiers of France recognize how tenaciously German soldiers fought for four-and-a-half years against superior forces. And in the same way the German front-line soldier has never failed to acknowledge the bravery of his French adversary. This bravery found its expression in the fact that the French army paid the highest price in blood of any army in the ranks of the Allies.
The former soldiers of the old front-line want peace.
The people want peace.
The German government wants peace.
And if sometimes the words of authoritative representatives of the French government sound to us in disharmony with the spirit of willingness for an understanding, this does not lead us to abandon hope that, in spite of all, the government of France also wants peace. The French people undoubtedly want peace. In face of that fact we are convinced that the French government does not desire a war with Germany.
If authoritative French representatives do not speak the language of the French people or the French [former] front-line soldiers, they are not to be taken as representative of prevailing views in France. A Frenchman who knows the people and politics of his country very well said to me once: "Have sympathy with us. We still govern through the parliamentary system." He meant to say that statesmen are often forced in their speeches to avoid saying what they think and to say what the parliamentary majority wants to hear. But we know that parliamentary majorities do not represent the opinion of the public. They are rather the representatives of commercial interests and other forces.
Real Peace Benefits All
History will certainly bestow more laurels on the men who, in these difficult times, will have worked to bring about an understanding among the nations, and thus to save civilization, than on those who think that by aggressive political and military measures they can win victories. The people themselves will be grateful to those leaders who will have assured peace to them; because unemployment, with all its social misery, is ultimately attributable to a meager interchange of goods between the various nations. And this interchange is kept at a low level by the absence of mutual trust.
It is an indubitable fact that an understanding between Germany and France would not only help those [two] nations, looked upon as a whole, but also each single individual among the populations of both. To put the matter concretely, every Frenchman and every German would thereby be assured a higher permanent income or a higher permanent wage.
The war, and the continuation of it by other means under the name of peace, brought no good to civilization or the well-being of the nations. As little as the war profited us all, so much more will a real peace benefit us all.
Real peace and honest mutual trust between the nations will make possible the reduction of armaments, which today are a heavy drain on a large section of the income of nations, thereby decreasing the wealth of individual citizens.
Equality of Rights
Again and again Adolf Hitler has asserted that Germany demands equality of rights in all spheres, including that of armament. Once such an understanding as I have been speaking of is arrived at between Germany and her neighbors, Germany can easily be content with the minimum amount of armament necessary for her own internal security and the guaranteeing of peace.
For a practically disarmed country represents a danger to peace. The fact that it lacks the means of military defense offers a temptation to foreign armies to undertake "excursions" that would involve no military risk. Disarmament of a single nation in the midst of heavily armed nations might easily excite ambitious men to an attempt to win easy laurels for themselves. It might also prove a lure for governments to ease tension at home by undertaking foreign adventures.
It is especially the veteran soldiers among you, my party colleagues, who as former soldiers can bear testimony to the fact that the former soldiers of the front-line, to whom I have the honor to belong, desire peace in the profound conviction of their souls.
Peace and Mutual Understanding
The world was surprised at the frank and open way in which that soldier of the old front-line, Adolf Hitler, recently expressed his opinion on this point. The [former] front-line soldiers who are now in the German government honorably demand peace and understanding. I appeal to the veterans of all nations, and even to their governments, to give us their combined support in striving toward this goal.
From the sacred soil of East Prussia I send out this appeal to the soldiers of the world who fought in the war. Here on this German borderland began the great world struggle that brought with it such terrible sacrifices, sacrifices from which the nations that took part in the struggle have not yet recovered. I hope that the spirits that hover over this historic battlefield from which I send out this cry of peace will help to make it effective. We now have pacts of understanding with [Poland,] our great neighbor on this eastern German frontier, thereby guaranteeing peace to the populations dwelling on both sides of this frontier. Would that the nations which stand on Germany's other frontiers might guarantee a greater degree of security for their own people, and ours, through friendly pacts of mutual understanding rather than by the heaping up of war material. That is our hope. In the memory of its dead, many of whom fell here in East Prussia, Germany's will to peace will continue to grow stronger and stronger.
The old soldiers of the war fronts and the young men who are striving to build up a free and proud and peaceful Reich send their greetings form here to the front-line soldiers of the world and to Adolf Hitler in particular. We all look upon him as our protagonist in the cause of peace.
"Guardians of the Holocaust"
"What has happened is that the meaning of the Holocaust is today the principal unifying force for Jews, of whatever nationality – observing Jews or not, Zionists or not, pro-Israelis or not. Who touches the Holocaust touches them. They have willy-nilly become the guardians of the Holocaust, to keep its memory from being desecrated, to enforce the 'never again' implicit in it. In a grim sense they have not chosen this role: it has chosen them."—Max Lerner, noted Jewish author and nationally syndicated columnist, writing in The Washington Times, June 12, 1986.
Additional information about this document
|Title:||A Veteran's Plea for Peace, Rudolf Hess' July 1934 Appeal to Fellow Soldiers of the First World War|
|Sources:||The Journal of Historical Review, vol. 13, no. 4 (July/August 1993), pp. 38-42|
|First posted on CODOH:||Nov. 24, 2012, 6 p.m.|