Vital Crossroads: Mediterranean Origins of the Second World War, 1935-1940

By Reynolds M. Salerno | Go to book overview

[2]

“The most formidable politico-military combination that has ever existed”: November 1937—September 1938

THE ANSCHLUSS

Early in 1938 Hitler replaced dozens of Germany's highest-ranking military and diplomatic officials, including Field Marshal Werner von Blomberg, General Werner von Fritsch, and Foreign Minister Baron Konstantin von Neurath—all remnants of the old conservative ruling class. Hitler assumed personal control of the military and appointed General Wilhelm Keitel to head the military staff and Joachim von Ribbentrop the Foreign Ministry. Both men were committed Nazis. Then in early February the Austrian prime minister met Hitler in Berchtesgaden to receive a confirmation of the German recognition of Austrian independence. Instead, Hitler declared his intention of absorbing Austria.

Chamberlain immediately looked to Italy to avert this crisis. After receiving reports from British officials in Rome that events in Austria had stunned Italian officials and that Ciano now sought an early conclusion to an Anglo- Italian treaty, and from Italian Ambassador Dino Grandi that Mussolini would try to restrain Hitler from violence against Austria if Anglo-Italian talks began, the prime minister directed the Earl of Perth, the British ambassador in Rome, to meet Ciano officially. Eden, who suspected “some kind of arrangement between Rome and Berlin” and like Vansittart feared that Mussolini “may be playing us along, ” opposed any British negotiations with Italy. He resigned in protest on 20 February. 1

But Chamberlain found strong support for his Italian policy in Lord Halifax, his new foreign secretary. Halifax was a tall, gangling, unattractive man who has been described as “a living caricature of a north-country peer.” Aristocratic and Anglican with a speech impediment common among male children bred to the English upper class, Halifax was an avid

-40-

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