When Adolf Hitler launched the invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, he was hoping that Great Britain and France would not live up to their pledges to come to that country’s defense. Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop had repeatedly assured him that the British were bluffing and that they would cave in to the German dictator’s demands just as they had in Munich when they abandoned Czechoslovakia. Two days later, Sir Nevile Henderson, the British ambassador in Berlin, showed up at the Foreign Ministry at 9 am to deliver his government’s ultimatum: If Germany did not offer “satisfactory assurances” by 11 am that it would halt its attack and withdraw its forces from Poland, “from that time a state of war will exist between Great Britain and Germany.”
Accompanied by Ribbentrop, Hitler had been waiting impatiently in his study for the foreign minister’s translator to bring in the British response. After receiving the message, Hitler did not move or speak at first. Then, turning to Ribbentrop—“the man who had encouraged him into this mess,” as Rush Loving Jr. writes—he asked coldly: “What now?” (p. 129).
In his book Fat Boy and the Champagne Salesman, Loving, a former journalist, focuses on the rivalry between Ribbentrop, the “champagne salesman,” a nickname based on his previous career, and Hermann Göring, the “fat boy” who was president of the Reichstag and head of the Luftwaffe as Hitler planned his attack on Poland. Because Ribbentrop bested Göring in that struggle for influence with Hitler, Loving maintains, the German dictator made “one of the most tragic decisions in history” (p. 1).
This is a fascinating, meticulously researched account of the infighting at the top of the Nazi hierarchy during the run-up to the opening act of World War II. But while Loving demonstrates a masterful knowledge of telling details, he is less sure-footed in handling the larger sweep of events or in assessing the role of the key players.
At times, he sounds like someone who is startled to discover the glaringly obvious. Hitler, he writes, “could be manipulative and duplicitous or loose with the truth” (p. 7). Talk about a massive understatement. Similarly, he informs readers that the German leader “did not take the Munich Agreement very seriously” (p. 18)—as if Hitler took any agreement he signed seriously.
While some top military officers considered themselves more sophisticated than the tyrant they served, Loving also buys into the notion that this signaled genuine opposition to Hitler even when that is clearly not the case. He describes Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt as “a charming man who made little secret of his disdain for the Nazis and saw Hitler as nothing more than a mentally impaired corporal” (p. 31). Yet Rundstedt never participated in any of the plots against Hitler and served in a variety of top posts until he was dismissed near the end of the war. Whatever misgivings he harbored hardly trumped his instinctive obeisance to the Führer.
Loving paints a far more accurate, and devastating, portrait of Ribbentrop. The future foreign minister had lived in England and Canada, and then married Annelies Henkell, whose last name was the eponymous brand for Germany’s version of Champagne, which accounted for the family’s wealth. Ribbentrop liked to present himself as a sophisticated polyglot, but his mother-in-law famously remarked: “It is odd that my dumbest son-in-law should have gone the farthest” (p. 15). He also bought the title of “von”—normally reserved for the aristocracy—from an unrelated woman named Gertrud von Ribbentrop who was desperate for money. He was all pretense and little substance.
After the Ribbentrops offered their house in Berlin’s affluent Dahlem district as the venue for the secret talks that led to the installation of Hitler as chancellor, they kept ingratiating themselves with the new leader, even naming their second son Adolf. When Hitler appointed him ambassador to the Court of St. James’s in 1936, “his arrogance, pomposity and raging ineptitude soon made him a joke among many of the British,” Loving writes (p. 16).
At first, the envoy believed he could convince his hosts to accede to Hitler’s plans to take over Eastern Europe. In a meeting with Winston Churchill, Ribbentrop declared that to do anything less would invite a war with Germany. The future prime minister issued his own warning: “Do not underrate England. She is very clever. If you plunge us all into another Great War, she will bring the whole world against you like the last time” (p. 17).
According to Loving, Göring took such warnings seriously, while Ribbentrop was increasingly exasperated by the British, and, once he took the post of foreign minister, urged Hitler to ignore them. This did not mean that Göring did not share his leader’s ambition to seize much of Poland, only that he wanted to proceed cautiously in order to avoid a new war with Britain and France that would spiral out of control. “If only the Führer would leave it to me, I would see that Germany had her place in the sun and peace for a generation—but without war,” he told his Swedish stepson (Göring’s first wife, Carin, was Swedish) (p. 27).
Loving justifiably presents Ribbentrop as an utter failure and the villain of this tale, but he is far from convincing in juxtaposing him with Göring as the more benign Nazi. “Göring was no angel,” he writes, but he “was not all bad” (pp. 26–27). To be sure, the Luftwaffe commander was a far more engaging personality than Ribbentrop; even when they were awaiting the hangman after the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg had condemned them to death, Göring elicited some sympathy from his American jailers, who had none of the same feelings for the dour foreign minister (Göring eluded the noose by taking a cyanide pill, leaving Ribbentrop to be the first to be hanged).
The key unanswered question is what Göring might have been able to do to change the course of events if he had prevailed in the battle for influence over Hitler. In fact, as Loving recounts, the German leader did not stand in the way of Göring’s efforts to broker a last-minute deal. The “fat man” dispatched Birger Dahlerus, a Swedish engineer who knew England well, to London for that purpose. Even after Stalin’s Russia endorsed Hitler’s looming invasion and partition of Poland by signing the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Hitler believed there was still a chance that Britain would abandon its opposition to his plans.
It was a vain hope, but one that Ribbentrop encouraged and Göring tried to transform into reality. The two rivals disagreed on tactics, but not on the desired outcome. When Dahlerus returned from his failed mission to London, Göring arranged a meeting for him with Hitler. “Herr Dahlerus, you who know England so well, can you give me any reason for my perpetual failure to come to an agreement with her?” the German dictator asked. Dahlerus replied that the difficulty was caused by Britain’s “lack of confidence in you personally and in your government”—in other words, they did not trust him. According to the Swede’s account, Hitler then declared: “Idiots! Have I ever told a lie in my life?” (p. 84).
Loving concludes that Göring “had tried so assiduously to persuade Hitler to stay out of war” (p. 131). He also criticizes Britain and France for providing Poland “a blank check” (p. 22) by signing the treaty that pledged them to its defense, thereby encouraging the Polish government to stand firm against German threats. While it is certainly accurate to say that the Poles were overconfident in their ability to withstand a German invasion, this hardly means that Britain and France should have been willing to sell them out. That was the only kind of deal that Hitler ever offered.
War was inevitable because Hitler was determined to crush Poland and then to keep pursuing his goal of further conquest in the name of racial purity, not because some elusive compromise could have held for more than a brief period. It was also inevitable because men like Ribbentrop and, yes, Göring, were willing to follow him blindly, whatever their differences about the tactics he should have pursued. Neither of them was willing to question his vision of that monstrous creation known as the Third Reich.
It is not enough to say, as Loving insists, that “it was all because of the Champagne Salesman” (p. 130). Göring was just as much a sycophant—and he certainly bore just as much responsibility. In its verdict,1 the Nuremberg tribunal pointed out that Göring was usually “the moving force, second only to his leader” in carrying out the broad range of Nazi crimes. In Hitler’s inner circle, there was plenty of guilt to go around.
1 Andrew Nagorski, The Nazi Hunters (New York, 2016), p. 10.