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Adolf Hitler rose unusually early on the morning of Thursday, April 20, 1939, his 50th birthday. A public holiday had been decreed, and a series of events, parades, and receptions was planned in Berlin to mark the occasion. His valet, Heinz Linge, later recalled him preparing for the festivities: “The Führer donned his brown Party uniform…[and] put on the golden dress belt of a German general as Supreme Commander of the Wehrmacht. He stood before the mirror in his bedroom for ages, feasting his eyes on his own image like a peacock and repeatedly adjusting his jacket.”

Germany's government leaders congratulate Hitler at celebration in Berlin.
Germany’s government leaders congratulate Hitler at a celebration in Berlin. (Image Credit: Bundesarchiv Bild) (Bundesarchiv Bild)

At 8 that morning, the band of the SS Leibstandarte regiment performed a short recital in the garden of the Reich Chancellery, playing “Deutschland über Alles” and the Horst Wessel song. Hitler, standing beneath the elegant classical portico, listened intently before thanking the performers and returning inside. There, he perused the vast accumulation of gifts displayed on the long negotiating tables. As his secretary Christa Schroeder wrote to a friend that week: “[T]he number and value of the presents this year is staggering. Paintings (Defregger, Waldmüller, Lenbach, even a glorious Titian), then wonderful Meissen sculptures in porcelain, silver table and center-pieces, magnificent books, vases, drawings, carpets…aircraft and ship models and similar military items which give him the greatest pleasure.”

Hitler also received countless modest gifts from ordinary Germans: pillows and blankets embroidered with swastikas, handicrafts, huge cakes, boxes of sweets and local delicacies. “How many thoughts from fanatical, adoring women,” Schroeder mused, “had been woven into this handiwork!”

For those who ventured into Berlin’s city center that morning, a genuine spectacle awaited. All Germans were obliged to hang out a swastika flag on such an important day in the Nazi calendar, and it was an instruction that few dared to contravene. Yet many Berliners went beyond mere perfunctory compliance. In the commercial districts, almost every shop and office building mounted photographs or busts of Hitler in their windows, surrounded with flowers and wreaths. All ministries and state-owned enterprises, of course, competed with each other to demonstrate their devotion. Nazi Party offices cast restraint to the four winds and hung portraits and framed slogans on their outside walls. Central streets of the capital—especially in the main administrative district—were barely recognizable. Wilhelmstrasse, for instance, where the Reich Chancellery was located, was a sea of swastika banners, while Unter den Linden and Friedrichstrasse were also decked with flags, bunting, and festive garlands. One publishing house sought to outdo its rivals by erecting a 25-foot portrait of Hitler, complete with floodlights and flags, bearing the words: “Our Loyalty—Our Thanks.”

The centerpiece of the celebrations was the East-West Axis, a newly constructed boulevard running for four and a half miles west of the Brandenburg Gate. According to one eyewitness, on both sides of the carriageway stood “dazzling white miniature temples of wood…ornamented with clusters of scarlet, white and black swastika flags.” The American correspondent William Shirer could not help but be impressed by the scene. “I’ve never seen so many flags, standards, golden eagles and floodlit pylons in my life,” he wrote. “Nor so many glittering uniforms, or soldiers, or guns. Nor so many people at a birthday party.”

With 50,000 troops, the military parade in Hitler’s honor was to be the largest ever staged by the Nazis. Two million spectators lined the route, dozens deep. There was much pushing and shoving, and lines of smiling SS men and storm troopers stood with their arms linked to hold back the throng. Tired children complained and asked incessantly whether the führer was there yet. Others wriggled through to the front of the crowd, where they could watch through the legs of the men in the police cordon. Some spectators fainted and had to be revived by Red Cross nurses. A few—despite the warnings and threats of the police—bravely perched on windowsills or climbed the still-bare trees of the Tiergarten, the city’s central park, to get a better view. Nonetheless, the crowd was generally in excellent humor. Shirer described it as “a pure holiday mood…. The Führer’s birthday was a national holiday.”

As Hitler first appeared, making his way to the reviewing stand, the crowd was briefly hushed before erupting into a chorus of cheers and hurrahs. Of course, some spectators did not support the Nazis and had turned out merely to witness the spectacle. The majority, however, were doubtless lost in the moment, enjoying seeing their führer at close quarters and reveling in the crowd’s enthusiasm. The cult surrounding Hitler was very much in place by 1939, with all Nazi ceremonials minutely stage-managed so as to consciously and deliberately invoke wonder and reverence. Many witnessing events that day in Berlin would have felt euphoric emotions akin to a religious experience.

After the initial excitement of Hitler’s arrival and the progress of his motorcade along the East-West Axis, a hush descended as the führer reached the reviewing platform. There, opposite the heavy Wilhelmine backdrop of the Technical High School, Hitler alighted from his Mercedes and climbed a few steps to a central dais where a plush-red gilded chair awaited. Above him, his personal standard hung stiffly, and to his rear, behind the grandstand, an enormous gilded eagle was flanked by six large banners, all bearing the swastika.

The proceedings began with a display of German air power. Berliners craned their necks skyward as squadrons of Heinkel bombers and Messerschmitt fighters droned past in tight formation. Hitler acknowledged the display, nodding to himself with satisfaction and sharing a word with Hermann Göring.


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Following this aerial prelude, the parade proper began. First in line were the 300 or so colors and standards of the participating regiments, their bearers marching in step to the repertoire of the Leibstandarte military band. This was followed by divisions of infantry goose-stepping in immaculate order past the tribune. When the paratroops appeared, marching in close formation wearing their camouflage jumpsuits, a buzz went through the crowd: It was the first time that this new elite formation had paraded in public.

Next came the motorized units. First, the panzer grenadiers, loaded into Opel trucks that trundled past the podium four abreast. They were followed by motorcycle sidecar units, each carrying three men and pedantically arranged in number-plate order. Armored cars came next, followed by reconnaissance vehicles and searchlight teams. All the latest machinery was on display. Panzers followed; some clattered along churning up the fresh road surface, others were mounted on semitrailers, their crews—resplendent in black uniforms and berets—perched on accompanying trucks. Watching the soldiers and machinery, one young spectator was struck by how precisely the ranks were drawn up. “It was a feast for the eyes,” he recalled, “and the applause never seemed to end.”

Last, all manner of artillery filed past, from the smallest horse-drawn field howitzers to the 88mm antiaircraft guns and the massive Kanone 3 cannon, hauled by an equally massive 18-ton Famo half-track. For the grand finale, the colors of the participating regiments returned to the saluting base and massed before the führer. As a commander precariously mounted on a skittish gray gave the orders, the flags were dipped in solemn salute.

From the first bugle call to the last hurrah, the parade lasted almost five hours. If arranged in a single line, its troops and machinery would have formed a queue more than 62 miles long. Throughout Hitler acknowledged the passing regiments and divisions in his trademark manner: his left hand resting on his belt buckle, his right arm outstretched in salute. Only occasionally, when a lull in proceedings would allow, did he sit for a time and exchange a few words with those around him. Mostly he stood, stern-faced, watching his military machine pass by. Hitler liked to boast of his ability to stand and salute much longer than any of his fellow Nazis, and on this occasion, his claims were well proven. Secretary Christa Schroeder was one of those that marveled at his stamina. “It is simply amazing to me where he gets his strength from,” she wrote. “Hours without a break standing and saluting are damned tiring. Just watching we got dog-tired.”

The reaction of the crowd to this martial spectacle was anything but tired. The appearance of the cavalry squadrons raised a cheer, for instance, not least as the occasionally wild-eyed horses injected a spirit of glamour and unpredictability into proceedings. At other times, the sheer scale, complexity, or novelty of the military hardware on display was simply amazing. One journalist reported that the phrase “Neee…sowat!”—which roughly translates to “Well, I never!”— was a common response.

As the parade concluded and Hitler returned to the Reich Chancellery to receive foreign delegations in a private reception, the crowds began to drift away. A few would have moved on to another celebratory event. Many with young children would have found themselves magnetically drawn to the tanks, now parked up on the East-West Axis, whose crews allowed eager young boys to clamber aboard and peer inside, wide-eyed. The majority, however, simply made for home or else sought refreshment in the crowded bars and restaurants of the city center. Inevitably, as the hostelries filled to overflowing, the revelers spilled out into the street, where they sang and danced the night away, restrained only by jovial policemen trying to keep the main thoroughfares open. For many, the party would only end with the break of dawn.

Less than five months later, on September 1, 1939, Berliners awoke, switched on their radios, and heard an official proclamation broadcast across all stations. Günter Grossmann was 16 at the time. His description of hearing the news was typical: “7 a.m., I wake and turn our ‘Volksempfänger’ on to listen to the early concert. But, instead of that, I hear the voice of the Reich Chancellor, Adolf Hitler; a declaration of the Reich Government, that since 4 o’clock that morning German troops have crossed the Polish frontier and are on the advance…. With that, our worst fears are realized: It is war!”

At that very moment, Hitler was getting ready to deliver one of the most important speeches of his life. He was ill-prepared; he had not slept well and looked tired and drawn, despite receiving a stimulant injection from his personal physician. The stresses of recent weeks had taken their toll and, as was his habit, he had been up late the previous night, dictating the text of his speech to his secretaries. His usual ailments were also affecting him—stomach pains, headaches, insomnia. His halitosis was so bad, one member of his entourage recalled, that those around him had struggled not to step backward in revulsion.

Shortly before 10, Hitler climbed into a Mercedes limousine and was driven through largely deserted streets from the Reich Chancellery to the Kroll Opera House, where the Reichstag had been called for a special sitting. In its Nazi incarnation as the home of parliament, the main hall of the Kroll was little changed, and the Reichstag deputies were seated, like the opera audiences before them, in the stalls and in the two grand tiers above. The only real changes were on the former stage. An enormous eagle now rose there in front of the fire curtain, its wings stretched to the curtain’s full width, with the rays of the sun seemingly emanating from the swastika held in its claws. On either side were two massive swastika banners. Beneath that, in the area once occupied by the orchestra and choir, members of Hitler’s cabinet were arranged in seated banks facing out into the hall itself. In the center, Göring—as Reichstag president— sat in a high leather-backed chair, overseeing proceedings. Below him stood the lectern and bank of microphones where Hitler would speak—standing—flanked by seated gauleiters and ministers.

After a brief introduction from Göring, Hitler arrived at the podium and composed himself. Sounding hoarse and tired, even hesitant at the outset, he nevertheless quickly warmed to his task, presenting a masterful portrait of feigned innocence. He outlined his spurned proposals for “peaceful discussions” with the Poles, his attempts to find mediation, and his “patient endurance.” He railed against Polish “provocations”—border incidents and acts of terror allegedly perpetrated against innocent German civilians—before speaking of the perfidy of the Poles and their unwillingness to commit to a negotiated settlement of the crisis. He warned that “no honorable Great Power, could calmly tolerate such a state of affairs” and stated that his “love of peace and endless forbearance” should not be mistaken for “weakness or even cowardice.” He was resolved, he said, “to speak to Poland in the same language that Poland has employed toward us in the months past.” Hitler then revealed what most people already knew: “We have now been returning the fire since 5:45 a.m. Henceforth, bomb will be met with bomb. He who fights with poison gas shall be fought with poison gas. He who distances himself from the rules for a humane conduct of warfare can only expect us to take like steps. I will lead this struggle, whoever may be the adversary, until the security of the Reich and its rights have been assured.”

He went on to outline the sacrifice that he was demanding of the German people—a sacrifice that he, too, had been ready to make in the Great War. “I am from now on,” he proclaimed, “just the first soldier of the German Reich.” Referring to the battlefield-gray tunic that he had donned for the occasion, he said, “I have once more put on that coat that was most sacred and dear to me. I will not take it off again until victory is secured, or I will not survive the outcome.”

Returning to the Reich Chancellery soon after, Hitler found no grand ceremonial, no fanfares; just a small group of Berliners standing in silence. Before he disappeared behind the heavy oak doors, he cast a perplexed glance toward the hushed crowd. Watching the scene, one eyewitness remembered hearing the sound of women weeping.

In spite of the momentous events unfolding that morning, most commentators noted the day’s ordinariness— a little less traffic on the streets, perhaps, and a few more uniforms in evidence on the pavements. But otherwise, the buses, trams, and trains were full, and everybody went about their business as they had done before, albeit occasionally huddling around a radio or loudspeaker to listen to the latest announcements.

Berliners had experienced a number of international crises over the past few years, and all of them had blown over without conflict. Hitler, after all, had made his reputation and career by his piecemeal and peaceful dismantling of the so-called Versailles System; he had blustered and threatened, even annexed disputed territories, but he had always stopped short of war. And this was how the German people wanted him to continue. As they saw it, he had restored German honor, restored Germany’s status as a sovereign great power, but had avoided the outright warfare that had been the root cause of its malaise. Most thought the invasion of Poland an isolated skirmish, not the prelude to an all-consuming conflagration.

One Berliner talked with a taxi driver who expressed this thinking with particular clarity: “ ‘You know,’ [the driver said], ‘Hitler is really a great guy. With the [Nazi-Soviet] pact the Poles haven’t got a chance. I bet you not one of these boys,’ and he pointed to the heavy tanks now rattling by, ‘will have to fire a single shot, or maybe just a few bullets to clean up the place. But this time there won’t be any dead lists in the papers, and we’ll have plenty to eat. No sir, Hitler won’t get us into war.’ ”

The Berlin public was well primed to accept the officially proclaimed fiction that Germany was the innocent party and was now “returning fire” in what was being billed as a limited punitive campaign. “If Germany had been attacked,” many would reason, “she must defend herself.” Teenager Erich Neumann saw evidence of this attitude at Innsbrücker Platz in the south of the city. He was changing trams as Hitler’s speech was broadcast via loudspeaker, and he heard a ripple of applause run through the crowd, while a few bystanders cursed the Poles or muttered, “Finally!”

Elsewhere, however, the news was received with contemplation and, in many cases, a profound sense of foreboding. Seventeen-year-old schoolgirl Else Diederichs recalled the mood on a Berlin train that morning: “I remember that we all sat there with these frightfully serious faces. We were depressed. We had the feeling that something quite terrible was coming…. I can still see them before my eyes, how all those faces looked.”

The crowds watching the newsreels that day were also strangely sober. As one eyewitness remembered: “I walked into one of the inexpensive movie houses around the Friedrichstrasse station. The newsreel was on. There were a few pictures of maneuvers of the English navy, but they were not hissed. Göring reviewing air force troops caused applauding murmurs and consenting smiles. [Joseph] Goebbels, shown as he opened some party gathering, was met with dead silence. Hitler, photographed as he rode up to the new Chancellery building, received a few female ‘Heils,’ but the crowd remained tensely quiet.” It was the first time in years, he noted, that the image of the führer had not caused “wild and roaring applause.”

Two days later, at around 9 a.m., the British ambassador, Nevile Henderson, entered the Reich Chancellery to deliver London’s ultimatum to the German government. He was met by Hitler’s interpreter, Paul Schmidt. Schmidt, who had overslept that morning after the feverish activity of the previous week, recalled that Henderson bore a serious look. The pair shook hands; they had come to know each other quite well over the months of Henderson’s residence in Berlin. Henderson declined the offer of a seat and stood solemnly in the middle of the room. According to Schmidt, he announced in a voice betraying genuine emotion: “I regret that on the instruction of my Government I have to hand you an ultimatum for the German Government. More than twenty-four hours have elapsed since an immediate reply was requested to the warning of September 1st, and since then the attacks on Poland have been intensified. If His Majesty’s Government has not received satisfactory assurances of the cessation of all aggressive action against Poland, and the withdrawal of German troops from that country, by 11 o’clock British Summer Time, from that time a state of war will exist between Great Britain and Germany.”

When he finished, Henderson handed the ultimatum to Schmidt. The two expressed their regrets, shared a few heartfelt words, and then bade each other farewell. As Henderson departed for the British Embassy, Schmidt took the ultimatum to Hitler.

After negotiating an anteroom packed with most of the German cabinet and a number of senior party functionaries, Schmidt entered Hitler’s office. Both the führer and Joachim von Ribbentrop, the German foreign minister, looked up in expectation. Schmidt stopped a short distance from Hitler’s desk and slowly translated the document. When he was finished, Schmidt said, there was silence. “Hitler sat immobile, gazing before him. He was not at a loss, as was afterward stated, nor did he rage as others allege. He sat completely silent and unmoving. After an interval which seemed an age, he turned to Ribbentrop, who had remained standing by the window. ‘What now?’ he asked with a savage look.”

That afternoon, after war had formally been declared, the news was broken to the German people. For those listening on radio in the capital, the announcement interrupted a broadcast of Franz Liszt’s somber Hungarian Rhapsody no. 1. Immediately afterward, in a speech that was broadcast via loudspeakers in the capital’s streets, Hitler attempted, once again, to justify his actions and to put the blame for the conflict on the “British warmongers.” He spoke of his “peaceful efforts to secure bread and labor for the German people” and his difficulties in securing an understanding with the British, who sought “new, hypocritical pretexts” for limiting Germany. He concluded by warning that the British “shall find out what it means to wage war against National Socialist Germany” and reminded his listeners that “Germany will not capitulate ever again.”

Although Hitler’s speech was rather perfunctory, one might have expected that it would at least have stirred patriotic emotions and mobilized Berliners to leap to the defense of their country. Yet, as William Shirer noted, there was little obvious reaction. “I was standing in the Wilhelmstrasse,” he wrote, “when the loudspeakers there suddenly announced that England had declared a state of war with Germany. There were I should say about 250 people standing there in the sun. They listened attentively to the announcement. When it was finished there was not a murmur. They just stood there like they were before. Stunned.”

Later that day, as the British Embassy staff prepared to leave Berlin, Ambassador Henderson noted that a small crowd of Berliners had gathered outside the embassy and was watching as the staff’s luggage was loaded onto military trucks. “It was an absolutely silent crowd,” he wrote later, “and if there was hatred or hostility in their hearts, they gave no single sign of it.” One might dismiss this account as an example of wishful thinking, but his observations were confirmed by Helmuth James von Moltke, a Berlin lawyer who would later become one of the most prominent members of the German resistance. In a letter to his wife that week, he described the scene of Henderson’s departure: “This war has a ghostly unreality. The people don’t support it. I happened to pass when Henderson left the Wilhelmstrasse yesterday. There were about 300 to 400 people, but no sound of disapproval, no whistling, not a word to be heard; you felt that they might applaud at any moment. Quite incomprehensible. People are apathetic. It’s like a danse macabre performed on a stage by persons unknown; nobody seems to feel that he’ll be the next one crushed by the machine.”

The broad mass of the German people reacted with horror to the outbreak of World War II, on September 3, 1939. Shirer observed: “[T]here is no excitement here in Berlin…no hurrahs, no wild cheering, no throwing of flowers—no war fever, no war hysteria…make no mistake, it is a far grimmer German people that we see here tonight than we saw last night or the day before.” If there had been some who, two days earlier, might have been excited by the prospect of a limited skirmish against the Poles, few relished a wider war against the British and the French. For the vast majority, even those born after 1918, the war loomed very large indeed. Not only had its human cost been enormous but its political consequences had wracked Germany, leading to revolution, political unrest, and territorial truncation.

The desire for Germany to avenge itself was strong—and had, of course, been one of the primary wellsprings of Nazi support—but for most this meant stopping short of war. The prospect of returning to the fray against the same enemies was one that seems to have left most Germans in something approaching a state of shock. The mood in the capital was profoundly depressed. “The atmosphere here is terrible,” one Berliner wrote that day, “a mixture of resignation and mourning…. It could not be worse.”

Christabel Bielenberg, an Englishwoman married to a German and living in Berlin, perhaps felt the pain of the new war more than most. She recalled listening to Neville Chamberlain’s Downing Street radio broadcast on September 3, which contained the fateful words, “this country is at war with Germany.”

“I sat motionless on the sofa,” Bielenberg later wrote.

The voice carried on with its message but I was no longer listening…. The room seemed very small, much too small, and I got up suddenly and went out through the French windows into the garden…. The air outside was gentle and warm. A pungent smell of pine trees from the Grünewald hung over the garden and it was very dark.

I sat down on the low brick wall which separated our flower beds from the lawn, and stared into the darkness. Ahead of me a narrow shaft of light from the sitting-room window pinpointed my path through the dew, some dahlias beside me, the rough bark, the shadowy branches of an apple tree beyond… . An electric blue flash from the S-Bahn lit up the blacked-out sky, our little house, the billowing curtains of the room upstairs where the children were sleeping. An apple slithered through the branches of the tree behind me and fell with a soft thud onto the flower bed beneath. It was very peaceful and very still in the garden.

That peace, it seemed, was soon to be shattered.

Adapted from Berlin at War, by Roger Moorhouse. Copyright © 2010, published by arrangement with Basic Books.

Originally published in the Autumn 2010 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here