THE POLICY OF A FREE HAND. PART 3
France had given a guarantee to Czechoslovakia against unprovoked aggression. When Germany loudly raised her claims concerning the Sudeten region of that country, it was feared that Germany might take some military action against Czechoslovakia. This could have led to France’s involvement. Without the help of Britain, France, in a war with Germany, could be invaded and defeated.
Britain wanted neither to help France against Germany nor to have German troops on the northern shores of France. The options were few. Britain could have explored the possibilities for collective security to resist any German aggression. Another option would have been to help Germany realise her claims ‘peacefully’ by exerting pressure on both France and Czechoslovakia.
It has been argued that the option of collective security was not realistic since France and England were not able to stand against the German military power. As to the Soviet Union, her military power was questionable. The absence of common boundaries between the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia or Germany had made her help still more questionable. In addition, it was believed that a communist regime should not be trusted. It would always act in its own interests .
It had been shown that the British General staff, in a report on the evolution of relative military strength, thought that the year 1939, rather than 1938, would be better for Germany to start a war. In 1938, the argument of the West’s military weakness therefore did not hold much water. However, what is important is that the British military weakness, whether true or false, is irrelevant. It cannot be expected that the same leaders who, with the full knowledge of the consequences, allowed Germany to rearm, to remilitarise the Rhineland and to annex Austria, would decide to resist a German aggression against Czechoslovakia. What they did, had been done with the full knowledge that the day of reckoning would soon come in the precise form of a threat to Austria followed by one to Czechoslovakia.
Indeed, those leaders were on record as having expressed their certitude that Germany intended to expand to the East. They expressed their belief that this was not against British vital interests. They prevented France from ensuring her security by enforcing the demilitarisation of the Rhine. At the
time, the records show, they had no doubts that, by doing so, they were preventing France from being able to help her allies in Central and Eastern Europe. They expressed their certitude that Germany was not interested in the West. Her interests and ambitions were in the East. If, therefore, a way could be found to make France disentangle herself from commitments in the East, Germany would cease to be a danger to the West.
The British leaders drew military policies geared at defending the British Isles. Intervention on the continent was excluded. They are on record as having said, so many times, in so many different ways, that all would be well if only Germany would proceed to the East in a way that would not shock British public opinion.
The crises over Austria and Czechoslovakia were predicted. Within the frame of British policy, the military unpreparedness of Britain was neither an oversight nor a mistake. The leaders, not interested in stopping Hitler in his drive Eastward, did not think it wise to spend on military preparation which they were, anyway, unwilling to use. They would later argue that Britain was weak. This was nothing more than a convenience to hide their deliberate policy of accepting Hitler’s expansion.
In reality, they had hoped that Hitler would be more understanding. They thought that, once he would be guaranteed the realisation of his dreams, he would be prepared to be more patient. At times, the frustration of the British leaders was such that they wished they had been militarily strong enough to force Hitler to be more reasonable, i.e. to accept solutions that essentially would have given him what he wanted, while being more acceptable to the British people.
Nevertheless, the record also contain some ‘heroic moments’ in which it seemed that Chamberlain, during the Czechoslovakian crisis, was prepared to take a strong stand against Hitler, even at the risk of war.
Chamberlain did not always have complete freedom of action. The success of his policy depended on the possibility of window-dressing it so that it could be accepted by his colleagues, the House of Commons and public opinion. In this respect Hitler was not always helpful .
On two occasions, in May and September 1938, the British government did take a strong stand over the Czechoslovakian crisis. It is interesting to find out how and why this could have occurred.
The Options, Their Handling
We saw that on February 15, 1938, Cadogan almost wished that Germany would swallow Austria and get it over with. On March 12, 1938, after the annexation of Austria, he entered in his diary:
We are helpless as regards Austria — that is finished. we may be helpless as regards Czechoslovakia, etc. That is what I want to get considered. Must we have a death-struggle with Germany again? Or can we stand aside? Former does no one any good. Will latter be fatal? I’m inclined to think not. But I shall have to fight Van, Sargent and all the forces of evil.,, So far we have done no wrong. [highlighted words in the original]
The fate of Czechoslovakia had to be considered before giving up Austria. Now Germany had a much better strategic position relative to that country. Czechoslovakia’s boundaries with Austria were not nearly as well protected as her boundaries with Germany. It did not make sense to ‘almost wish’ the swallowing of Austria and then worry about Czechoslovakia.
Cadogan would have liked to avoid a ‘death-struggle’ with Germany. He conceded that, to avoid it now, could prove fatal, though he inclined to think otherwise. He knew the price that Britain would have to pay to avoid a clash with Germany. It was not just a matter of Czechoslovakia. Wisely, Cadogan followed ‘Czechoslovakia’ with ‘etc’.
Cadogan was resolved to combat the forces of evil: Sargent, Vansittart, and the like of the Foreign Office. Those were the people who did not trust that Hitler would be content with expansion in the East.
Cadogan’s diary entries have a special importance. He was the man chosen to replace Vansittart. He, like Chamberlain, was prepared to ‘appease’ Hitler to his heart content, as long as his appetite was confined to the East.
On March 12, following Germany’s annexation of Austria, Chamberlain convened a Cabinet meeting :
“Here was a typical illustration of power politics”, said Chamberlain. “This made international appeasement much more difficult”. In spite of all, however, the Prime Minister felt that this thing had to come. Nothing short of an overwhelming display of force would have stopped it.. “At any rate the question was now out of the way.. It might be said with justice that we had been too late in taking up the conversations with Italy. The next question was how we were to prevent an occurrence of similar events in Czechoslovakia”.
Chamberlain seemed sorry at what occurred to Austria. Nevertheless it had been an obstacle now ‘out of the way’. Out of what way? The context indicates that ‘the way’ is appeasement, and appeasement, it was said so many times earlier, would lead to a ‘settlement’ or an ‘understanding’.
Chamberlain spoke of international appeasement. He obviously meant that when Germany, and possibly Italy, would be appeased, there would be international peace. This aim overruled any other consideration. Austria, if it unwillingly stood in his way, became an obstacle to be overcome.
Germany, instead of being appeased by Britain, had had recourse to a measure of self-appeasement. Chamberlain, the quote shows, knew that Czechoslovakia was next in line. He wanted to consider the means to prevent ‘similar events in Czechoslovakia’.
This statement by Chamberlain is quite ambiguous. He just said that ‘only an overwhelming display of force would have stopped’ Germany from annexing Austria. Was this consideration absent with respect to Czechoslovakia? Or was Britain ready to do for Czechoslovakia what she could not do for Austria?
All depended on what one intended to achieve. To prevent ‘similar events in Czechoslovakia’ can be done in two fundamentally different ways. On the one hand overwhelming force can be mustered and displayed. This is quite unreasonable. If force is to be used, it does not make sense to first allow the enemy to gain such military advantages as an increase of manpower and a decisive strategical improvement as occurred with the annexation of Austria.
On the other hand, without the use of force against Germany, the events with respect to Czechoslovakia could still be prevented from being similar to those in the Austrian case. It requested of Britain and France that they act fast enough to appease Germany before she takes an additional measure of self-appeasement. There seems to be no other way to interpret the previous quote. In order to achieve this aim Chamberlain had to overcome three difficulties:
w the main difficulty was the will of Czechoslovakia not to be swallowed without fighting. This would be dealt with by pressure, threats and false promises
w another difficulty was the French treaty of mutual assistance with Czechoslovakia. In the case of Austria, the only protection of her independence had been a promise of consultations between France, Britain and Italy. Czechoslovakia was, from the point of view of Britain, a more dangerous case. A French involvement would, in the last resort, involve Britain herself. A Soviet-Czechoslovakian treaty caused no trouble to Britain. On Czechoslovakia’s request, it had been made dependent on the express condition that France would first come to Czechoslovakia’s assistance. It would therefore be enough to prevent France from helping, or having to help, Czechoslovakia, to nullify the effect of the treaty with the Soviet Union. This would require the repeated use of pressure on France, sometimes taking the form of threats.
w the last difficulty was the greatest. Public opinion in England had to be handled very carefully. Had the intention of the government been that of resisting aggression, Chamberlain would have stressed the importance of resisting violence, the readiness of the British people to stand for morality, honour and justice, at whatever price.
However, Chamberlain’s intention was to have the English people accept the abandoning of Czechoslovakia to Germany’s appetite. In such a case, it was necessary to stress the horrors of war, to spread the fear of bombing and the use of gas, to underrate the importance of Czechoslovakia
It is revealing that, at the same Cabinet meeting :
Mr Hore Belisha then came out with an unexpectedly strong demand for more rearmament, but Lord Halifax objected that ‘the events of the last few days had not changed his own opinion as to the German attitude towards Britain. He did not think it could be claimed that a new situation had arisen.
There is no new situation because the German attitude towards Britain had not changed! This means that on the one hand, Halifax, the British Foreign Secretary, believed that Germany’s ambitions were exclusively in the Eastern (and Central Europe) direction, and that he, Halifax, did not mind. There was no reason to change the British plans for rearmament. There was obviously no intention to put Britain in a position to display, together with her allies, an overwhelming military force.
On March 18, 1938, Sir Thomas Inskip, Minister for the Co-ordination of Defence, in a meeting of the Foreign Affairs Committee, stated about Czechoslovakia that he :
could see no reason why we should take any steps to maintain such a unit into being
Once more, the obvious strategical importance of preventing Czechoslovakia to be ‘maintained’, could not have been unknown to Inskip. At the same meeting, Halifax was more explicit
“The more closely we associate ourselves with France and Russia,” said Halifax, “the more we produce on German minds the impression that we are plotting to encircle Germany.” He did not accept “the assumption that when Germany had secured the hegemony of Central Europe, she would then pick a quarrel with ourselves..” Sir Samuel Hoare said that he would prefer a new commitment to France rather than one tied up in any way with Central Europe, but even that, objected Halifax, “might also involve us in war in the very near future when in certain respects, such as supply of A.A. guns, we were very unprepared”.
Halifax does not speak of the Sudeten problem only. He calmly envisages the German hegemony over Central Europe. He seems quite sure that it would soon occur but that Britain would be left in peace by Germany. One also wonders why, if, in Halifax’s opinion, Britain is so unprepared, did he oppose additional military expenses. The fact seems to be that Halifax did think Britain could muster the needed military force to stop Germany. Simply, this was not the option of his choice. He said it himself at the same meeting :
Either we must mobilize all our friends and resources and go full out against Germany or we must remind France of what we have often told her in the past, namely that we are not prepared to add in any way to our existing commitments and that therefore she must not count on military assistance from us if she gets embroiled with Germany over Czechoslovakia, and that she would be well advised to use her influence in Prague in favour of an accommodation.
The options are clear. It is not impossible to stand up to Germany’s policy of expansion. It just is not the British policy. The policy of avoiding a commitment to Czechoslovakia, or even to France in relation to Czechoslovakia, was decided upon three days before the submission by the Chiefs of Staff of a report on “Military implications of German Aggression Against Czechoslovakia”.
The scope of the report was determined by the questions put by Chamberlain to the chiefs to face the following alternatives :
(a) That this country should concert with France, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Rumania, Hungary, Turkey and Greece, or any of them, an undertaking to resist by force any attempt by Germany to impose a forcible solution of the Czechoslovakian problem.
(b) That this country should give an assurance to the French Government that, in the event of the French Government being compelled to fulfil their obligations to Czechoslovakia, consequent upon an act of aggression by Germany, the United Kingdom would at once lend its support to the French Government.
The assumption in both cases to be that Italy is at best neutral, and possibly hostile; that there is considerable risk of Japan being hostile; that the following are neutral: Russia, Poland, Belgium, Holland, Denmark; that the U.S.A. Neutrality Act is in operation at the outset; and that the arrangement in either case would begin to operate at once.
The assumption in the second case to be that at the outset the following are neutral: Rumania, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Turkey, Greece.
These frames of reference are revealing. We may note the following:
w The relations between Hungary and Czechoslovakia were at the time rather hostile. The likelihood of Hungary aligning herself with Czechoslovakia against Germany were nil.
w Russia was to be considered neutral in both cases. The fact that, if France assisted Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union was committed to assist Czechoslovakia — by virtue of its pact of mutual assistance with that country — was not considered. The Soviet Union, even as a speculative alternative, is eliminated as a possible ally while the absolutely impossible case of a Hungarian stand against Germany was to be considered. The absence of common boundaries between the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia or Germany, is obviously not the reason since Turkey and Greece, both with no common boundaries with Czechoslovakia or Germany, have been introduced in the equation.
w Poland, a country more important than Hungary, was to be considered neutral. That country, after the remilitarisation of the Rhineland, reached the natural conclusion that it could not rely on the British and French will to stand up to Germany’s expansionist dreams. Poland therefore was prepared to come to some understanding with Germany, even at the expense of Czechoslovakia. The possibility still existed that an unambiguous change of attitude of the West in favour of a firmer stand towards Germany, would bring back Poland to the Western side. This possibility was not to be explored. No approaches were made to ascertain what would be the attitude of Poland in the new situation which would follow a permanent firm British attitude
w The most important question was not asked at all. It was imperative to determine the measure in which the balance of power between the West and Germany, would be modified, were Germany to be allowed to conquer Czechoslovakia. Even if Britain were to reach the conclusion that a war in 1939 is preferable to one in 1938, she had to consider the possibility that Germany would impose a war at her own chosen time which may well be 1938. If Britain is already disadvantaged with Czechoslovakia on her side, how much more disadvantaged she would be with Czechoslovakia being annexed by Germany. This could be the factor which would make a German victory much more likely. Moreover, if this additional increase of Germany’s military power is taken into account, it could be that 1939 with Czechoslovakia part of Germany, would not be a better year than 1938 with Czechoslovakia in the democratic camp.
Concerning the report of the Chiefs of Staff, Telford Taylor makes a pertinent comment :
Given the history of interchanges between the Chiefs of Staff and the Cabinet ministers over the past several years. and the limits of the questions submitted by the Prime Minister, the conclusions in the report were virtually inevitable, and it is easy to see why Chamberlain and his colleagues felt no need to await the report before reaching their own conclusions. Year after year the Chiefs had pointed with alarm to the sorry state of British and the alarming growth of German arms, and year after year the Cabinet had replied by reducing their rearmament estimates. A few weeks earlier, on Chatfield’s initiative, the Chiefs renewed their warnings against “business as usual,” only to be rebuffed again by the Chamberlain-Simon-Inskip combination. Against this background, it was not to be expected that the Chiefs, suddenly confronted with the possibility of war against Germany, and perhaps Italy and Japan as well, would react with anything other than dismay and revulsion. They may, indeed, have feared that any note of optimism in their report would undercut their pending requests for increased military appropriations
The report affirmed that it was unlikely that Germany would succeed in piercing the French Maginot line of defence. In consequence, the report said, Germany may try to deliver a knockout blow against Britain by intensive air bombing. It stated that Britain was not in a position to prevent Germany from throwing at least 400 tons of bombs daily for two months .
The Cabinet concluded that, with such a gloomy report , it was impossible for Britain to agree to any commitments related to the protection of Czechoslovakia against aggression.
Chamberlain would use the bombing scare in different ways according to his needs. When he wanted to restrict the military appropriations, he would put himself on record as not believing in the possibility of a bombing knockout against Britain. When the matter would be commitments to prevent a German aggression, it would then be time to underline Britain’s vulnerability to air attacks. Moreover, a study of the German use of heavy bombing in Spain, against military and civilian objectives, demonstrated that the damages it could inflict were much less than were described in the Chiefs of Staff report.
On March 17, 1938, the Soviet Government proposed the holding of a conference to study the situation resulting from the annexation of Austria and means to resist further aggression. It said :
The Soviet Government.. is ready as before to participate in collective actions, which would be decided jointly with it and which would aim at checking the further development of aggression and at eliminating the increased danger of a new world massacre. It is prepared immediately to take up in the League of Nations or outside of it the discussion with other powers of the practical measures which the circumstances demand.
Here was an offer to organise a common front against aggression. It came at a moment at which Chamberlain was saying in his diary that the language of force is the only one Germany could understand. However the offer appeared suspicious to Chamberlain. On March 20 Chamberlain wrote :
with Franco winning in Spain by the aid of German guns and Italian Planes, with a French Government in which one cannot have the slightest confidence and which I suspect to be in closest touch with our opposition, with the Russians stealthy and cunningly pulling all the strings behind the scenes to get us involved in war with Germany (our Secret Service doesn’t spend all its time looking out of the window), and finally with a Germany flushed with triumph, and all too conscious of her power, the prospect looked black indeed. In face of such problems, to be badgered and pressed to come out and give a clear, decided, bold, and unmistakable lead, show “ordinary courage”, and all the rest of the twaddle, is calculated to vex the man who has to take the responsibility for the consequences.
This calls for some remarks and clarification:
w the mention of Franco’s victories is cynical. The mention of the German guns and Italian airplanes testifies to Chamberlain’s awareness of the total failure of the Non Intervention Policy. Had it not been for Britain’s strong insistence, France could have supplied the loyalist Spanish government with the arms she had the internationally recognised right to acquire. The strategic position of the West in Spain was so much better than that of Italy and Germany that the West could have easily inflicting a biting defeat on the Fascist and Nazi policies. Now, contemplating the results of his actions, he pours tears over the situation in Spain. Chamberlain did not honestly present his case. He collected arguments according to convenience and not conviction.
w the British secret services, as well as those of other countries, were singularly incapable of obtaining reliable information from the Soviet Union. Had Chamberlain received positive information concerning Soviet plots to involve Britain in a war against Germany he would have certainly alluded to it in public. After all, the reciprocal accusation from the Soviet Union against Britain was almost a daily occurrence. It was also frequently mentioned in British newspapers of different tendencies. By referring to secret information he protects himself from having to argue the facts. The facts were that, regardless of the morality — or absence thereof — of the Soviet Policy, peace and resistance to Nazi aggression were both in the interest of the Soviet Union.
‘Stealthy and cunningly’ as the Russians were reported to be, they did not ‘pull’ any ‘string behind the scenes’ resulting in Germany’s bullying of Austria. The only way the Soviet Union could get Britain involved in a war with Germany would be in using her influence and propaganda to make Britain stand against further German aggressions. This was done quite openly. The public and official Soviet proposal is an example. No doubt that the Soviet ambassador, in his many contacts with British personalities, was defending the Soviet view. Some of these contacts were with leaders of the opposition. Churchill was one of the people in contact with the Soviet ambassador. Germany and Italy had also similar contacts. Somehow these latter contacts were neither ‘stealthy’ nor ‘cunning’.
What mattered was to know if agreeing to the Soviet proposal was in the interest of Great Britain or not. This question is side-tracked. By describing the resistance to Germany’s further aggressions as the aim of ‘stealthy and cunning’ Soviet designs, Chamberlain is discrediting a proposal without considering its merits. He may then reject the proposal relying on weaker arguments than would otherwise be necessary.
w the Germans were flushed with triumph because Britain objected to any serious action that would have re-established the demilitarised status of the Rhineland. A policy of neglect for British rearmament, a policy of tolerance to a succession of German treaty violations, contributed to Germany’s triumphs.
w agreeing to the Soviet proposal would have certainly been ‘a clear, decided, bold and unmistakable lead’. Chamberlain choose to reject the Soviet proposal.
As a matter of fact, the plan of the “Grand Alliance”, as Winston calls it, had occurred to me long before he mentioned it.. I talked about it to Halifax and we submitted to the chiefs of the Staff and the F.O. experts. It is a very attractive idea; indeed there is almost everything to be said for it until you come to examine its practicability. From that moment its attractiveness vanishes.
Chamberlain never seriously considered such an alliance. Later, faced with such a possibility, he said he would rather resign as Prime Minister than sign a treaty of mutual assistance with the Soviet Union . Besides, he had a deep contempt for the Foreign Office and consistently disregarded their opinions, warnings and advice. On a number of occasions he did ask for the opinions of the Chiefs of Staff. He, however, often constrained their frames of reference in such a way as to force expected conclusions.
As recently as November 12, 1937, the Chiefs of Staff Sub-Committee of the C.I.D. produced a report ‘on the comparison of the Strength of Great Britain with that of certain other nations as at January 1938’. We already saw that it concluded that, in terms relative to France and Britain, the year 1939 would be better for Germany than the year 1938. It also mentioned what the value of the Soviet Union could be:
a) Assumptions Germany and Italy hostile, and France and Belgium, in cooperation with us. Russia to be taken in alternatives, either a neutral or cooperating with us.
14. It is only if Poland is friendly and willing to co-operate that Russian intervention on behalf of France and England could quickly develop into a real menace for Germany
15.. The great number of Russian aircraft should prove a serious threat to Germany in the East in a war of long duration, as some means of exploiting them would no doubt be found in course of time.
The report made a number of reservations on the value of the Soviet Union as an ally. It warned that the Soviet’s contribution was not expected to play a role until some time had elapsed. It also underlined the possibility that a Soviet involvement could draw Japan into the war. This was a dreaded eventuality.
The Chiefs of Staffs underlined that Germany had, in 1938, no land superiority over France, Her superiority was in the Air. They doubted that Germany believed it possible to win a war on the base of air superiority. Moreover, they added, when it comes to win a war by air, ‘Germany must take into account possible action by Russian air forces.’
This tends to show that, according to the Chiefs of Staff, the prospect of a Russian action would have a serious restraining effect on Germany. On the whole the reports does not justify a pessimist attitude as to the value of a ‘Grand-Alliance’.
Chamberlain goes on:
You have only to look at the map to see that nothing that France or we could do could possibly save Czechoslovakia from being overrun by the Germans, if they wanted to do it. The Austrian frontier is practically open; the great Skoda munition works are within easy bombing distance of the German aerodromes, the railways all pass through German territory, Russia is 100 miles away.
Chamberlain is evading the issue. He knows of course that, if it comes to war, in the last resort what matters for Czechoslovakia is whether the Allies would come out victorious. Britain and France were more impotent with regard to Poland in 1939 than they were with regard to Czechoslovakia in 1938. In 1939, Chamberlain did not raise the same argument. He relied on the fate of Poland after the victory of the Allies.
Chamberlain demonstrated in this last quote that, for him, Czechoslovakia was not ‘a far away country of which we know nothing’. He is aware that the annexation of Austria by Germany was a blow to the strategical position of Czechoslovakia. He knows the value of ‘the great Skoda munitions’. He does not consider how much more the possession of these factories and laying hands on the Czechoslovakian airplanes and land armaments, would strengthen Germany. The 100 miles separating Russia from Czechoslovakia is written as if it was a great distance. It was not much for airplanes.
Chamberlain worries over Czechoslovakia’s vulnerability to air bombing. In all fairness it should be compared to Germany’s vulnerability. The German industrial Rhur was very vulnerable. Though, Germany had a superior air force, it must be considered that, at the start of hostilities, much of it would have been busy on the Czechoslovakian front. This would reduce, if not eliminate, the German margin of superiority on the Western front.
It was known that the occupation of Czechoslovakia — particularly the peaceful occupation — would be a strategical catastrophe for the allies. If, in March 1938, the allies were militarily at the mercy of Germany, this would be much more true after Germany would not only strengthen herself by the acquisition of the Czechoslovakian air forces, ammunition factories and land armaments, but would also have to face one powerful enemy less.
The reasoning of Chamberlain must be put in the perspective of previous decisions. The illegal strengthening of the German army, resulting from the British tolerance, was taken as an argument not to oppose its legalisation. This resulted in further strengthening which was the basis for arguing against preventing Germany’s remilitarisation of the Rhineland. The resulting impotence of France to intervene against Germany was then good reason not to interfere with the Anschluss. In its turn the Anschluss, Chamberlain argued, made it unreasonable to intervene in favour of Czechoslovakia.
The decisions were taken with the knowledge of their consequences. The trust that Germany would look only Eastward, was the basis of the British policy expressed in private and in official secret reports .
Therefore we could not help Czechoslovakia — she would simply be a pretext for going to war with Germany. That we could not think of unless we had a reasonable prospect of being able to beat her to her knees in a reasonable time, and of that I see no sign. I have therefore abandoned any idea of giving guarantees to Czechoslovakia, or the French in connection with her obligation to that country.
No British government would have been allowed by its citizens to stand aloof while France would be invaded by Germany. The absence of guarantee to France, in the eventuality of her coming to the assistance of Czechoslovakia against Germany was nothing more than exertion of pressure on France not to stand by her commitments to Czechoslovakia .
On March 24, 1938, Halifax conveyed to the Soviet Ambassador in London the British rejection of the Soviet proposal . On the same day, in a speech at the House of Commons, Chamberlain commented on the Soviet Proposal :
It remains for His Majesty’s Government to state their attitude in regard to the proposal made by the Government of the U.S.S.R., that an early conference should be held for the purpose of discussion with certain other Powers of the practical measures which, in their opinion the circumstances demand. His Majesty’s Government would warmly welcome the assembly of any conference, at which it might be expected that all European nations would consent to be represented, and at which it might therefore be found possible to discuss matters in regard to which anxiety is at present felt. In present circumstances, however, they are obliged to recognise that no such expectation can be entertained, and the Soviet Government do not, in fact, appear to entertain it. Their proposal would appear to involve less a consultation with a view to settlement than a concerting of action against an eventuality that has not yet arisen. Its object would appear to be to negotiate such mutual undertakings in advance to resist aggression, as I have referred to, which for the reasons I have already given, His Majesty’s Government for their part are unwilling to accept. Apart from this, His Majesty’s Government are of opinion that the indirect, but nonetheless inevitable, consequence of such action as is proposed by the Soviet Government would be to aggravate the tendency towards the establishment of exclusive groups of Nations, which must, in the view of His Majesty’s Government be inimical to the prospects of European Peace.
An aggression had already occurred and Austria, as an independent state, had disappeared. In the opinion of the British leaders there was a serious possibility that Czechoslovakia would be the next victim of a German aggression. This eventuality had indeed occurred, and occurred to such a level that it was the object of numerous reports and studies in the Foreign Office. Furthermore, Chamberlain, earlier in this same speech, referred lengthily to this eventuality and felt it necessary to define the British policy with respect to it:
In these circumstances the problem before Europe to which.. it is their [HMG’s Government] most urgent duty to direct their attention, is how best to restore this shaken confidence, how to maintain the rule of law, in international affairs.. Of these the one which is necessarily most present in many minds is that which concerns the relations between the Government of Czechoslovakia and the German minority in that country..
Accordingly, the Government have given special consideration to this matter, and in particular they have fully considered the question whether the United Kingdom.. should, as a further contribution towards preserving peace in Europe, now undertake new and specific commitments in Europe, and in particular such a commitment in relation to Czechoslovakia.
Two attitudes are described by Chamberlain and Halifax . The first consist in organising concerted action against aggression. Germany is not expected to collaborate with that organisation and the Soviet Union cannot be blamed for suggesting a conference to which not all the European countries would participate.
The other attitude consisted in seeking ‘friendly’ discussions with the prospective aggressor in order to secure a settlement of the problems. However, in this case also, there are no serious intentions to invite all the European powers to participate. As with the Locarno Agreements, the Four Powers Pact, and later the Munich Agreement, there were no intentions to invite Soviet participation. The ‘tendency towards exclusive groups of nations’ was that of the British Government. The group of nations proposed by the Soviet Union was exclusive only in that it was to be restricted to those countries willing to stand against a further aggression.
Moreover, everyone could guess the kind of friendly settlement which could be reached with a Germany, known to be only interested in a free hand in Eastern Europe. She was led by a Hitler who, as Chamberlain wrote, only understands the language of force.
On April 4, 1938, Chamberlain, in the House of Commons, referred to the Soviet proposal. He criticised the opposition for supporting it. He accused them of inconsistency for having always opposed pre-war alliances and, now, promoting an ‘offensive and defensive’ alliance between the Soviet Union, France and Britain. He then added :
..the policy of His Majesty’s Government, as stated [two weeks ago] has won the general approval of the whole country; and not only this country, but I may say practically the whole world, with the possible exception of Russia.
Chamberlain had no justification to describe the Soviet proposal as involving an Alliance. The Soviets had just suggested a conference. Moreover, to hint that the Soviet suggested an offensive as well as defensive alliance is a blunt distortion of the Soviet proposal. ‘Offensive’ is an adjective more appropriately used in conjunction with an aggressor like Germany and not with a country suggesting concerted action to prevent aggression. Moreover, the context in which the Soviet Union was referred to by Chamberlain had an offending character . Chamberlain abused the opposition and then associated them with ‘Russia’.
Finally, Chamberlain was misleading the House in saying that the whole world, except Russia, was approving his policy. The records of the time are full with exchanges of opinions between Britain and France in which France was critical of that policy. As an instance we are quoting a letter from Phipps, the British Ambassador in Paris, to Halifax, written on March 15, 1938 :
.. M. Paul-Boncour [French minister for Foreign Affairs] urged that His Majesty’s Government should declare publicly that, if Germany attacked Czechoslovakia and France went to latter’s assistance, Great Britain would stand by France,
France and Britain had also differences concerning the policy with respect to the situation in Spain. However, it was customary for the two countries not to publicise their differences.
Czechoslovakia was another country differing with Chamberlain’s policy. Even the U.S. had serious reservations over the policy of appeasement as practised by Chamberlain. Eden mentions Chamberlain’s refusal of a Roosevelt initiative as the main reason for his resignation. This was not revealed to the public. These differences emerged publicly when, in a speech, Roosevelt suggested a ‘quarantine’ against the countries committing aggression. This was quite in contrast with Chamberlain’s appeasement policy.
Chamberlain was less than candid with the House of Commons. This was not an exceptional occurrence. It was necessary, for the sake of his policy, to reject the Soviet proposal which advocated collective security, the very opposite to Chamberlain’s brand of appeasement. Public opinion might have agreed with Chamberlain if he could make it appear that all the world was with him and that the Soviet proposal was so disreputable that nobody was ready to associate with it, except for the members of the British opposition. A ‘white lie’ can help.
Even members of his Cabinet did not all see eye to eye with him. Hore-Belisha, Minister of war, asked Liddell Hart to prepare for him notes he could use in the Cabinet meetings. Here is what Liddell Hart wrote on March 13, 1938 :
.. Europe is becoming less and less a political problem, more and more a military problem. Whatever we may say, we are blind if we cannot see that we are committed to the defence of Czechoslovakia — for the renewed assurances that France has just given are the measure of her realization that her military situation largely turns on the existence of a Czechoslovakian distraction to Germany’s power of concentration in the West, and we can no longer risk separation from France
With the German absorption of Austria, the Berlin-Rome axis is militarily strengthened to a degree probably exceeding any political strain thereby incurred.. The defence of Czechoslovakia becomes much more difficult.
It is a very succinct and illustrative analysis which describes the situation in terms of the relative importance of the military aspect and the political aspect of the problem. It was clear that Germany was striving to obtain an overwhelming military superiority over Britain and France. All her main political moves in terms of treaty repudiations or territorial claims and acquisitions had an important military component.
British moves, apparently, were political attempts at restraining Germany. Now, if one believes, as the British leaders did, that Germany’s appetite was great, that she only understood the language of force and that her ambitions increased with her strength, one had to formulate accordingly the country’s policy.
Liddell Hart says that one must be blind not to see the necessity to defend Czechoslovakia against a German aggression. Chamberlain refused to commit Britain to the defence of Czechoslovakia in spite of the fact that he was far from blind to the military consequences of the fall of Czechoslovakia. We already mentioned his awareness of the military consequences of the fall of Austria. On that occasion he manifested a keen understanding of the value of the ‘great’ Skoda munitions factories.
The main difference between Chamberlain and Liddell Hart was that Liddell Hart did not trust that Hitler was ‘looking’ only Eastwards. He thought that Hitler, either would start with the West, or would end with the West. In both cases, the military aspect of the situation was of importance.
Chamberlain trusted that Hitler would move Eastwards and would find there sufficient action to satisfy him and keep him busy for decades. The main problem therefore was to endeavour not to get involved in a war with Germany. It necessitated political action to prevent France from becoming involved.
It also necessitated political moves to condition the prospective victims of Germany’s aggressions. By political pressure and manoeuvres, by posturing (pretending to adopt moral principles that are irrelevant), it would be possible to induce Germany to accept the victim cooked, dressed, and served on a silver plate, instead of having to use naked violence. Naked violence was dangerous. It would excite the British public which might pressure the government into helping the victim.
With such a view, the military aspects of Germany’s moves were less important. It would suffice for Britain to take some military precautions to face the unlikely eventuality of a sudden air attack on Britain. On land, Britain, protected by her navy, felt safe. In this vein, Cadogan entered in his diary on March 16 :
I toned down Sargent’s picture and came down against a guarantee to Cz[echoslovakia]. I shall be called ‘cowardly’ but after days and nights of thinking, I have come to the conclusion that is the least bad. We must not precipitate a conflict now — we shall be smashed. It may not be better later, but anything may happen (I recognize the Micawber strain).. Rearm, above all in the air. That is the policy of the line of least resistance, which the Cabinet will probably take.
Cadogan’s opinion about the relative military strength of Germany versus Britain, France and Czechoslovakia (and possibly the Soviet Union) was not, as told before, shared by the Chiefs of Staffs. Cadogan himself put the record straight in his diary entry of March 18, 1938 :
Discussion of the paper for F.P.C. with H., Van, Sargent, Malkin and Butler.. F.P.C. unanimous that Czechoslovakia is not worth the bones of a single British Grenadier . And they’re quite right too!
’H.’ stands for Halifax, the British Foreign Secretary. The matter now is not the fear of German military power. The matter is the very revealing fact that Czechoslovakia was not worth a single British soldier. The ‘great Skoda munitions factories’ notwithstanding; the possible disappearance of an ally of some notable military strength notwithstanding; the increase of Germany’s military power by her seizing the Czechoslovakian military airplanes and tanks etc.. notwithstanding, Czechoslovakia is not worth a single British soldier.
This quote does not reveal ignorance of the participants of the F.P.C. who ‘unanimously’ reached such a conclusion. It reveals an indifference to repeated aggression by Germany and to her becoming stronger and stronger and thereby, increasing her ability to commit further aggressions.
In view of the belief, commonly expressed by many British leaders, that Germany would only look Eastwards, such an indifference is somewhat understandable, though it reveals the weak morality of the British leaders. This must be hidden from the public. A statement by Oliver Stanley on March 18, 1938, makes it clear :
Mr Oliver Stanley had stated his view that “80% of the House of Commons are opposed to new commitments but 100% favour our giving the impression that we will stand resolutely to the Dictators”. Mr. Chamberlain replied that he did not disagree with this estimate
Oliver Harvey, the private secretary of the Minister of Foreign affairs, became, after Eden’s resignation, Halifax’s secretary. Through his direct and constant contacts with Halifax he could give us the remarks of an insider concerning Halifax’s frame of mind at the time he took the office of Secretary for Foreign Affairs. On March 19, 1938, Harvey entered in his diary :
Halifax told me he could quite understand Germany action in regard to Austria but did not regard it as likely that Germany meant to use this as a first step towards recreating a vast Empire in Central Europe and the Balkans (which is Van’s idea).. There was in any case no objection to Germany having economic hegemony in Central Europe. What H. objected to was the methods employed and the fact that Germany did not realise the effect of such methods on us and world generally, or that, if she did, she did not care.
The expression ‘economic hegemony’ has often been criticised in the Foreign Office internal reports. Vansittart, Sargent, Strang and others rightly stressed that economic hegemony is the result of political hegemony and means that, at best, the dominated countries have become obedient satellites of the country exerting the ‘economic hegemony’. They are no longer independent countries.
Harvey goes on:
Halifax is terribly weak where resistance is required and neither he nor the P.M. have such abhorrence of dictatorship as to overcome the innate mistrust of French democracy and its supposed inefficiency. I am amazed that H. with all his High Church principles is not more shocked at Hitler’s proceedings — but he is always trying to understand the Germans. He easily blinds himself to unpleasant facts and is ingenious and even Jesuitical in rounding awkward corners in his mind. “My colleagues are dictator-minded” as A.E. used to say, and it is true. Again, I gravely doubt their determination, without A.E. to drive them, to press on with the rearmament, staff talks, etc. Inskip has no drive whatever. The General Staff are defeatist especially Admiralty.
The crimes of Nazism and Fascism were well-known and it also was already known that the German Gestapo had extended to Austria its usual activities of racial and political oppression. Had Halifax felt revulsion to such actions and deeply regretted Britain’s military weakness which, so it was argued, prevented her from protecting Austria’s independence, it would have unmistakably marked his conversation with Harvey. Harvey’s diary shows nothing of the sort. Halifax’s only anger is expressed against Hitler’s methods: they are embarrassing because of the effect they have on world opinion.
“My colleagues are dictator-minded” could have just been an exclamation from a frustrated Secretary of State differing with his colleagues as to the extent of the need to come to terms with the dictators. Harvey’s diary tends to show that there was more to it. Harvey, who at the time believed Britain could not do more than what Chamberlain was prepared to do, was recording impressions resulting from chatting with Halifax, and not from a political difference.
Harvey, as Halifax, was against new British commitments. However, while he was feeling shame at Britain not being able to do what he thought was right, he was dismayed at the calm and ease with which Halifax was justifying the British policy. “And it is true”, represents Harvey’s personal conclusion. It is more reliable coming from him than from Eden. The parallel between the distrust of the French democracy and the lack of abhorrence for the dictatorships is instructive.
In the House of Commons Chamberlain spoke of increasing Britain’s rearmament. In fact, he, together with the other senior ministers, displayed little disposition for the military increases deemed necessary by Swinton, and Hore-Belisha . Suggestions to increase expenditures on rearmament were either rejected or drowned by diverting them to “further study”.
In meetings from March 12, 1938, till May 18, 1938 the British Cabinet considered the British Air Force inadequacies. Swinton’s requests for adequate budgeting were refused while Warren Fisher, Permanent Under-secretary in the treasury tried to lay the blame on Swinton for the backwardness of Britain’s preparations in the air.
On March 15, 1938, the Government was subjected to strong criticism of its program of rearmament. This criticism could have lead to a pressure build-up on the Government to increase the budget allocations to rearmament in general, and to the air forces in particular. The criticism was being voiced by the Labour opposition as well as by a number of Conservatives.
Had they wanted, the Government could have considered it a golden opportunity to agree and say: “Yes, there is a need for re-establishing a secure balance between our air forces and those of Germany . However, this cannot be done without additional taxes and other sacrifices. Give us the means and we will provide the ends.” The government did exactly the opposite. They tried to calm down the concerns that were raised and denied the weakness of the British military.
Chamberlain stressed the importance of the strength of the economy in a military conflict and that of other factors, besides that of the numbers of aircrafts. The debate revealed the number of promises broken by the Government concerning the time at which Britain would have achieved a necessary measure of rearmament.
On March 15, 1938, the Government went even further. Here are some quotes from a debate at the House of Commons in which Lieutenant Colonel Muirhead was speaking in the name of the Government:
Mr. Garro Jones: If the hon. and gallant Member will allow me to interrupt him.. did I correctly understand him to say that for the front-line strength of aircraft, we were as good and as far advanced as any other country? ..
Lieut.-Colonel Muirhead: I hope the hon. Member is under no misapprehension on this point. What I said — and I think the House will bear me out — was that in this essential requirement — and I had been dealing with turrets — which illustrates so well that relative strengths are not merely a matter of counting what are apparently complete aircraft, there is every reason to believe that, on a conservative basis, we are as good as any other country, and probably better.
Mr. Churchill: In quality and quantity or both?
Lieut.-Colonel Muirhead:In quality and quantity
The Government was misleading the House. Pressed by questions from members of the House, it had to admit that the situation was much less cheerful. Chamberlain explained that quantity does not necessarily mean numbers and that better quality, even with lower numbers means a greater quantity. It was a pitiful performance and it was clear that something had to be done to calm the House.
In consequence, Chamberlain sacked Swanton, the Minister who tried to improve the British Air Force and was prevented from doing his utmost by the financial restrictions imposed by the Cabinet led by Chamberlain. Answering accusations repeatedly made against Swanton by Sir Warren Fisher, Permanent Under-Secretary in the Treasury, Sir Kingsley Wood, who succeeded Swanton as Air Minister defended him from being responsible for Britain’s weakness in the air. He had written a report from which the true responsibilities appeared clearly :
“At the beginning of the period of German rearmament our Secret Service opinion was necessarily scanty, but we were fortunate enough to secure in 1934 a copy of the plan on which the German Air Force was being rebuilt. All the information which has reached the Air Staff, Foreign Office or Secret Service has been correlated and placed periodically before the Cabinet and the Committee of Imperial Defence. The German had the advantage of setting the pace. It would have been provocative in 1933 to have laid down a policy giving Britain absolute supremacy in the air and would have given the Germans the incentive to even larger programmes. It was inevitable that the Air Ministry should produce a series of programmes comparable with that at which the Germans were aiming.”
In November, 1934, Kingsley Wood reminded the Prime Minister, the Treasury had opposed acceleration of aircraft production. By the summer of 1937, German intentions were abundantly clear, and in October 1937 a plan had been submitted by the Air Ministry to the Plans Committee of the Committee of Imperial Defence, but the Cabinet in December 1937 had “accepted the principle of financial limitations.. and rejection of the Air Ministry proposals.. Indeed on March 12th, the same day that the Cabinet instructed my predecessor to put forward new proposals, Lord Swinton received a letter suggesting a quota for the Air Ministry which may well have meant the establishment, for at any rate some considerable time, of a position of air inferiority as compared with Germany,” The Kingsley Wood Memorandum thus laid the blame back at the Treasury door.
There was to be some rearmament but to a lesser extent than was required, to face Germany and put a stop to her aggressions. Apparently the British Government had other worries.
With the fall of the French Cabinet headed by Leon Blum, the British Government endeavoured to influence the French choice of a Foreign Minister. On April 11, 1938, Phipps reported to Halifax that his efforts at preventing Paul-Boncour from keeping his post of Foreign Minister, were successful . Instead, Bonnet became the Foreign Minister in a Daladier Cabinet. Paul-Boncour would never have agreed to exert undue pressure on Czechoslovakia. He would never have reneged on the French pledges to defend Czechoslovakia against aggression.
Pressuring France And Czechoslovakia
Britain had her plans but she had to schedule her actions according to internal and external circumstances over which she did not have complete control. At a Cabinet meeting on April 27, 1938, according to Ian Colvin :
Lord Halifax restated his policy of caution and his reasons for “thinking the present moment not suitable for setting up a Danubian anti-German bloc” as intended by France on the basis of taking up the exports of Central European countries. He proposed “to take the line in Berlin on future relations with Germany that Britain was anxious to resume the interrupted negotiations, but that the present moment did not appear opportune.”
The invasion of Austria had sent a shock wave of alarm through all Europe, and particularly through Czechoslovakia and the Danubian countries. Speculatively, Chamberlain had asked the Chiefs of Staff to consider Hungary and Roumania as possible allies to Britain, if it came to resist a German aggression against Czechoslovakia. This was the perfect moment to get the Danubian countries appreciate the need for self protection and for obtaining protection from Britain and France. However, if the policy was that of giving in, in relation to Czechoslovakia, and to endeavour to reach a settlement with Germany, then the moment was not suitable.
Resuming negotiations with Germany, so soon after the invasion of Austria, would not have been decent. British public opinion would have none of it. Besides, France had not yet been conditioned to accept such a policy. In spite of British anxiety for such negotiations, the moment was not opportune.
Conversations with the French Government had been scheduled for next day, April 28. A sense of urgency marked the meeting. The French Government had received news that Germany intended to settle the Czechoslovakian problem during summer ‘at the latest’. Bonnet even feared that Germany might resort to force as early as May,
During the Anglo-French meeting the question of Staff conversation was discussed. Halifax made it clear that :
such contacts between the two staffs should be clearly understood on both sides not to give rise in respect of either Government to any political undertaking, nor to any obligation regarding the organisation of national defence. His Majesty’s Government would also wish it to be clearly understood that the contacts now proposed will not give rise to any obligation regarding the employment of defence forces.
With no political undertaking, no obligation for the organisation of the national defence and for the employment of defence forces, the staff conversations could just be a waste of time, except for France’s and Britain’s benefit from being able to let their respective public know that such conversations took place. France was put on notice that Britain had little enthusiasm for a policy of stopping Germany in respect to Czechoslovakia.
Britain imposed additional restrictions on the conversations:
Germany alone would be assumed to be the aggressor and the contacts would not envisage the extension of war to other powers, whether as potential enemies or as potential allies. His Majesty’s Government, after the fullest consideration, did not consider that any political assumption going beyond this were either necessary or desirable at the present time.
This vitiated the conversations from the outset. The practical meaning of it was that no speculation would be allowed about Japan and Italy as potential enemies nor consideration given to the Soviet Union as potential ally. Britain’s eagerness for good relations with Italy was enough to overcome the reasonable request from France that it was necessary to be prepared for reasonable eventualities.
Eliminating the Soviet Union from consideration as an ally could lead to undue pessimistic conclusions. This was the more unexpected since the Soviet Union had a pact of mutual assistance with Czechoslovakia.
To complete its scenario of bad will, Britain started to oppose naval conversation. As to land forces, Britain stated that she could only contribute two divisions not ‘completely equipped with material regarded as essential for modern war’ which ‘might also be short in certain effectives’.
Britain partially gave in when France reminded Britain that ‘in view of recent events in Spain’, France might need naval protection in the Atlantic. She would therefore have to reduce her naval forces in the Mediterranean sea .
During the conversations, the French Prime Minister Daladier made a few important statements:
He did not believe that great nations could be put out of action by a sudden sharp attack. In modern war the power of the defensive remained extremely strong. This had been illustrated in the Spanish war.
So far as France was concerned he could state quite definitely that the French army was certainly in a condition in which it would confront the German army victoriously
It cannot be said that Daladier had been proved to be wrong. At the time of his statements, Czechoslovakia was still in the democratic camp and had not yet contributed in the strengthening of Germany. Moreover, the strength of the West relatively to that of Germany, was expected to deteriorate from 1938 to 1939.
Given the choice, and if war was unavoidable, and France could choose the time, then this time, France was saying to Britain, was now and not later. This opinion had to be given great weight, especially since France was in the front line and more likely to have to withstand the main German assault.
Chamberlain stated that:
our policy must.. aim at securing a respite to develop our defensive resources to such an extent that, even if the power of the offensive on the other side had meanwhile developed at an increased pace, we would then be able to regard it calmly and to resist an offensive victoriously.. At the present moment we were.. extremely vulnerable.
Chamberlain’s statement would have been more credible had he not repeatedly expressed satisfaction in Cabinet meetings and in the House of Common about the state of British rearmament, and constantly resisted a more vigorous program at British rearmament.
Speaking of Czechoslovakia, Chamberlain said that, after the events in Austria, the military situation of Czechoslovakia had been examined by the British Chiefs of Staff. and:
The result of that examination.. was to reveal what an extremely difficult military problem, if viewed from the purely military angle, the defence of Czechoslovakia presented, and the difficulty increased in proportion as Germany proceeded with the refortification of the Rhineland.
Chamberlain arguing that refortification of the Rhineland was a reason not to assist Czechoslovakia reminds one the story of the patricide asking for mercy on the grounds that he was now an orphan. Chamberlain suggested that no encouragement be given to Germany to use force and that representations should be made to Prague stating that Czechoslovakia should do more in order to come to an understanding with the Sudeten population.
Daladier replied that Czechoslovakia is the country in Europe which best treats its minorities. He stated that pressure should rather be applied on Germany. The document reports on Daladier’s statements:
In his view, the ambitions of Napoleon were far inferior to the present aims of the German Reich. one had only to consider recent events. First, there had been the occupation of the Rhineland. On this occasion France had taken no action .. Secondly, there had been the question of Austria. We had talked a great deal of the necessity of maintaining the independence of Austria, but nothing had been done.. the independence of Austria had been destroyed, and all we had done was to offer our condolences. To-day we are faced with the question of Czechoslovakia. To-morrow we might be faced with that of Roumania.
..war could be avoided if Great Britain and France made their determination quite clear to maintain the peace of Europe by respecting the liberties and the rights of independent peoples.. If, however, we were once again to capitulate when faced by another threat, we should then have prepared the way for the very war we wished to avoid.
Daladier then objected to Chamberlain’s pessimist description of the military situation. He presented the situation of the Czechoslovakian army in a brighter perspective. He affirmed that a decided attitude of Britain and France could bring around them Roumania, Yugoslavia, and perhaps Poland.
Chamberlain denied that Germany had the views and ambitions mentioned by Daladier. He thought that ‘we should indicate plainly to Dr. Benes the limits within which he could count upon us’. This was a British request that France be prepared to renege on her treaty with Czechoslovakia. He then added:
Whatever the odds might be in favour of peace or war, it was not money but men with which we were gambling, and he could not lightly enter into a conflict which might mean such frightful results for innumerable families, men, women and children of our own race
He could not take the gamble unless he was certain of victory. And he was not certain. Chamberlain was riding the heights of morality and humanism. However, it was clear that the fate of men women and children did not depend on preventing the war at that very moment, but on following the policy most likely to avoid war within a couple of years. If standing firm was a gamble, capitulating was no less of a gamble with no less frightful consequences for men, women and children, whether of ‘our race’ or not.
Finally, Chamberlain advanced an argument to which Daladier had no answer:
At this moment he was certain public opinion in Great Britain would not allow his Majesty’s Government to take such a risk, and it was no use for this Government or indeed any other Government, to go beyond its public opinion with the possible effect of bringing destruction to brave people.
Chamberlain had agreed with Oliver Stanley that 80% of the House of Commons were opposed to commitments while 100% favoured giving the impression of firmness. This indicates that, contrary to Chamberlain’s stated opinion, public opinion was prepared for a strong stand. In consequence, the 80% of the House who were against commitments, had to pretend to be tough against Germany’s aggressions.
At one moment Daladier came with an impassioned plea which deserves to be quoted :
The problem was how to avoid war. ..if we submitted on every occasion before violent measures and the use of force, the only result would be to precipitate renewed violence and ensure further success for the use of forceful methods. ..Mr Daladier did not intend any bluff. German policy.. was one of bluff, or had certainly been so in the past. When Herr Hitler had ordered the reoccupation of the Rhineland, this policy had been opposed by the German Higher Command, who feared its possible consequences.. but Hitler had bluffed and had reoccupied the Rhineland. He had used this method and had succeeded. Was there any reason why he should cease to use such methods if we left him an open road and so ensured his success? ..We were at present still able to put obstacles in her path, but if we failed to do so now, we should then, in his view, make a European war inevitable in the near future, and he was afraid that we should certainly not win such war, for once Germany had at her disposal all the resources of Central and Eastern Europe, how could any effective military resistance be opposed to her? In such conditions the German Empire would be inevitably stronger than that of Napoleon.
.. He feared that time was not on our side but rather against us, if we allowed Germany to achieve a new success every month or every quarter, increasing her material strength and her political influence with every successful advance. If this continued, countries which were now hesitating would feel compelled to submit to the hegemony of Germany and then, as we had been warned in ‘Mein Kampf’, Germany would turn West.
Daladier’s arguments were difficult to ignore. Halifax while recognising their strength repeated the statement as to the impossibility for Britain to assume any new commitment other than those specified earlier and which related to France and the low countries in the case of a non-provoked German aggression. It did not cover the case of France coming to the help of Czechoslovakia.
Bonnet made a last effort. He asked what would be the situation if Czechoslovakia, as a result of French pressure upon her, would make the most extensive gestures of compromise to the Sudeten population. would then Britain ‘be prepared to affirm its solidarity with the French Government with a view to the maintenance of a settlement on the lines agreed upon with Dr. Benes?’. Halifax said the answer of the British Government was ‘no’.
The meeting was a complete failure except for the fact that it resulted in France trailing the British Government in her policies towards Germany and European security. It went as Kingsley Wood wanted it to go. He had said at a Cabinet meeting, on the eve of the meeting with the French delegation : “we must not drift back into the old position of consenting to all that France asks while refusing all German requests.” The point was that German requests were aggressive while the French demands related to European security.. Chamberlain wrote on May 1st, 1938 : “.. fortunately the papers have had no hint of how near we came to a break over Czechoslovakia.”
One can only guess the feeling of despair experienced by the members of the French delegation when they realised, as they must have, that their choice was either to follow the capitulation policy of Britain, or to face Germany alone with irremediably damaged relations with Britain.
This April meeting between the French and British leaders, definitely conditioned the French into being merely followers of the British Policy. The British politicians would later say that the French leaders were hopeful that Britain would find for them a way out of their pledges to Czechoslovakia. This is literally true and objectively false. The French did their best, up to the edge of a break, to resist the British policy. Once they realised it would be futile, they became defeatist, ready and eager to disengage themselves from obligations that could involve them alone in a war against Germany. This had never been their first choice.
Ian Colvin makes the following interesting remark :
It is noteworthy, however, that Mr. Chamberlain did not expose even partly to his Cabinet Colleagues the impassioned and strongly argued case that Mr. Daladier had put (for a Joint diplomacy), nor yet the views of M. Bonnet that the crisis was much closer than the British supposed,
First Heroic Moment
The third week of May, had witnessed numerous incidents in the Sudeten region. There were persistent rumours of a German coup. On May 19, 1938, information reached Britain concerning suspicious German troop movements. On May 21, Britain warned Germany that in case she would resort to force against Czechoslovakia, Britain could not guarantee that she would remain on the fence. This did not represent a change in the British policy. There was, however a change of emphasis.
The reminder that Britain could be involved in case of war was no longer an assertion of general character but has become associated with accusations that Germany was disturbing the political atmosphere with unjustified military measures. This was the first British heroic moment during the Czechoslovak crisis. On May 28 Chamberlain wrote:
I cannot doubt in my own mind (1) that the German Government made all preparations for a coup, (2) that in the end they decided, after getting our warnings, that the risks were too great.. But the incident shows how utterly untrustworthy and dishonest the German Government is..
The real significance of the British stand can be understood from Cadogan’s diary. His entry on May 21, 1938 reads :
News bad. H. arrived back from Oxford at 10.45. Had long talk with him. Decided we must not go to war!
Sent telegram to Berlin authorising warning to German Govt. — for what that may be worth
Britain is tough in appearance only. On May 22, 1938, Cadogan wrote :
..Cabinet at 5.. H. got back about 6.30. Cabinet quite sensible, — and anti-Czech!.. What a week-end! But H. is very calm and firmly on the right line. So, I gather, are Cabinet.
No, it is not a mistake. The Cabinet is anti-Czech, not anti-German. The same day, on the 22nd, Halifax sent a most revealing telegram to Phipps, the British ambassador in Paris :
1. It is of utmost importance that French Government should not be under any illusion as to attitude of His Majesty’s Government, so far as it can be forecast at the moment, in the event of failure to bring about peaceful settlement in Czechoslovak question.
2. His Majesty’s Government has given the most serious warning to Berlin, and these should have prospects of success in deterring German government from any extreme courses. But it might be highly dangerous if the French Government were to read more into these warnings then is justified by its terms.
3. His Majesty’s Government would of course always honour their pledge to come to the assistance of France if she were the victim of unprovoked aggression by Germany. In that event they would be bound to employ all the forces at their command.
4. If, however, the French Government were to assume that His Majesty’s Government would at once take joint military action with them to preserve Czechoslovakia against German aggression, it is only fair to warn them that our statements do not warrant any such assumption.
7. Please speak in above sense to French Minister for Foreign Affairs..
The French leaders were put by Britain in a very difficult position. On the one hand, Britain allowed the press and the news agencies to broadcast all over the world how tough had been the British stand. But, on the other hand, France was warned that it was all more bark than bite. Therefore France could not take the British stand too seriously. For this, she was, and had since been, the object of reproach.
On May 31, 1938, Britain became more brazen. Halifax sent to Phipps a telegram saying :
1. I earnestly hope that the French Government will feel no less urgently than do His Majesty’s Government the importance of putting the greatest possible pressure upon Dr. Benes in person without delay..
2. In view of the special relation with which France stands towards Czechoslovakia, I would suggest that the French Government should carry the argument a step further and should warn Dr. Benes that if through any fault of his, the present opportunity to reach a settlement is missed, the French Government would be driven to reconsider their own position vis a vis Czechoslovakia
This was a barely veiled suggestion to France to prepare the grounds for a betrayal of Czechoslovakia. Britain is suggesting that Czechoslovakia be denied the control of her foreign policy. The moment she would consider that a French proposal is detrimental to her country, Czechoslovakia could then be ‘at fault’ in French eyes, and loose the protection of the French guarantee.
The attitude suggested to France by Britain constituted a clear violation of the Franco-Czechoslovakian treaty of mutual assistance against aggression. That treaty was not restricted by any additional obligation from Czechoslovakia with respect to her foreign policy. The implementation of such a suggestion would allow Britain to control Czech foreign policy. Britain had made France realise she could not count on British support in case of her involvement against Germany in support of Czechoslovakia, As a result, France, in her vulnerability, more than ever would be careful not to incur the displeasure of Britain. If she made all the ‘right moves’, Britain would not leave her alone to face Germany.
At a Cabinet meeting on May 25, 1938, Lord Halifax declared :
If we had turned the first corner successfully, we should be getting ready for the second. The French obligation in Czechoslovakia dated from a time when Germany was disarmed. In present circumstances it was desirable, if possible, to obtain a release for the French from their obligations
According to Britain, the French obligation was valid when it was not needed — when Germany was disarmed. Now that Czechoslovakia needed it, the circumstances have therefore changed and France would be well advised to obtain a release from her obligations.
Halifax did not suggest how France could obtain such a release. It was inconceivable that Czechoslovakia would voluntarily release France from her commitments. Her life as an independent country seemed to depend on French’s fulfilment of her obligations. Halifax’s statement only makes sense if Halifax is considering a French unilateral disengagement from her obligations.
Britain first heroic moment of May 21, 1938, was short lived and, after all, not so heroic.
Negotiations between the Sudeten nationalists and the Czechoslovak authorities were not progressing. Britain’s exertion of pressure in favour of a peaceful solution was exclusively applied on Czechoslovakia. This pressure, however strong, was given the appearance of friendly advice of a general character. It underlined the urgency of the situation, the necessity of going to the limit of the concessions that Czechoslovakia could make, the importance of avoiding pretexts for German intervention, etc.. In June 1938 the British Government felt that this kind of pressure was not sufficient and that Britain would have to be much more specific, and pressing.
Such a stand, pressing for specific measures, could be dangerous. World public opinion would consider Britain as being committed to assist Czechoslovakia, were she to become the victim of aggression after having accepted British advice.
The Foreign Office had suggested the appointment of a British investigator. Halifax thought of a twist that would allow the suggestion to serve their purpose. At first this suggestion was communicated to Benes. Newton, the British Ambassador in Prague was instructed to tell Benes that if he would refuse the suggestion Britain would made public the proposal and the Czechoslovak rejection. This obviously is not the way friendly government are treated.
Benes was much upset and considered the British proposal incompatible with the independence of his country. Under added pressure from France, Benes, finally, accepted the proposal.
On July 25, 1938, Halifax informed Sir N. Henderson in Berlin :
You will see from Prague telegrams.. that Czechoslovak Government accept idea that His Majesty’s Government should nominate an investigator and mediator who would seek, acting independently of His Majesty’s Government.. to elaborate proposals that may harmonize the views of Czechoslovak Government and Sudeten Party.
4. in view.. of the fact that the Czechoslovak Government have now accepted the idea, His Majesty’s Government consider that the moment has come for giving effect to this proposal without further delay..
5. It will be less difficult for the Czechoslovak Government to collaborate on these lines if it can be represented that initiative in proposal had been theirs — and that His Majesty’s Government had acceded to it. His Majesty’s Government would accordingly propose in any public announcement to present the matter in that light.
This is very hard medicine to be swallowed by the Czechoslovakian Government. Not only are they pressured to accept a proposal they dislike, but they have, in addition, to pretend having initiated that policy.
Moreover the pretence that the ‘white lie’ had been made for the Czechoslovak Government’s convenience is not only absurd but contradicted in fact by Britain’s behaviour. The British Government used this ‘white lie’ at its own convenience. Chamberlain would mislead the House of Common and declare there that the initiative had been Czechoslovakian, while at the same time it tried to improve its pro-German reputation in Germany’s eyes by revealing the origin of the proposal and by informing Germany the nature of the lie. On July 25, 1938, Henderson wrote to Halifax :
I informed State Secretary confidentially of proposed appointment of mediator and expressed the hope that the German Government would co-operate by using their good offices with the Sudeten and by advocating patience and moderation to the press and elsewhere. I mentioned that public announcement would represent initiative as having come from Czechoslovakian Government and that you hope to be able to state that it was welcomed by all concerned i.e. including the German Government.
Who was lied to? It obviously was the British and the Czechoslovak public. Who could feel good about it? The British and German governments — who were in the know. Who was inconvenienced? Czechoslovakia, who was put in the position of having asked for a mediator she could not choose, nor disapprove its choice, and who would run the risk of universal condemnation, were she to feel obliged to reject the results of the mediation. In contrast Germany remained free to accept or reject the results of the mediation without reproach.
And so started the ‘Runciman Mission’, which, as shown in a letter by Chamberlain to his king , was designed to exert pressure on Czechoslovakia to make her accept the exaggerated demands of Germany.
The Second Heroic Moment
The understanding that Britain’s firm attitude had prevented Germany from implementing a coup in Czechoslovakia, affected differently some of the British leaders. Henderson repeatedly warned the Foreign Office and the British Government that a second ‘21st of May’ would have disastrous effects. Halifax, on the contrary, thought the moment propitious for an economic British offensive in Central and South East Europe, to prevent the regions from falling under German domination. Telford Taylor writes :
On June 1 he [Halifax] laid before the Foreign Policy Committee a memorandum on the danger that German economic domination of South Eastern Europe would ultimately drag those countries into war on Germany’s side, urging a British economic and financial counteroffensive in those lands. For once, he and Chamberlain did not see eye to eye, and the Prime Minister sharply challenged both the assumption that “these vast areas would, in fact, pass under German domination,” and that “it was possible for us to do something to prevent this happening”
Chamberlain did not agree. He was wondering whether the strengthening of the German economic life would not lead to a more peaceful Germany . However, the news coming from various sources in Germany were indicative of unusual military preparations. Britain once more feared that a German aggression against Czechoslovakia may end up involving Britain in a resulting European war.
We saw in Chapter 1 how Chamberlain succeeded in forcing Czechoslovakia to give complete satisfaction to Germany’s demands. We saw that it involved giving Germany a free hand in her dealings with Eastern Europe. It requested Czechoslovakia’s capitulation to Germany’s demands.
Czechoslovakia had, at first, rejected the proposal elaborated at Berchtesgaden between Chamberlain and Hitler. Its practical consequences were the transfer of the Sudeten territory to Germany. The results were understood to be devastating, economically and militarily, to Czechoslovakia. On September 20, 1938, Newton, the British Ambassador in Prague, wrote to Halifax :
I have very good reason from an even better source to believe that .. reply handed to me by Minister for Foreign Affairs should not be regarded as final. A solution must however be imposed upon Government as without such pressure many of its members are too committed to be able to accept what they realise to be necessary.
If I can deliver a kind of ultimatum to President Benes, Wednesday, he and his Government will feel able to bow to force majeure. It might be to the effect that in view of His Majesty’s Government the Czechoslovak Government must accept the proposals without reserve and without further delay failing which His Majesty’s Government will take no further interest in the fate of country.
I understand that my French colleague is telegraphing to Paris in a similar sense.
Next day at 2:00 in the morning Benes was awaken to receive the Anglo-French ultimatum. The Czechoslovak Government protested but felt it had no other recourse but to submit. It is to be noted that Britain and France gave Czechoslovakia the assurance that what would remain from Czechoslovakia would benefit from the guarantee of both Britain and France against aggression. In his letter of acceptance, Benes underlined this point.
It is absurd to consider that Britain and France who, at the time, felt unable to protect Czechoslovakia, would come to the assistance of a Czechoslovakia much weakened by the destruction of her main system of defence. In fact Britain did its utmost to disengage herself from this guarantee by unilaterally deciding that it would become part of a guarantee by the four participants in Munich.
The stand taken by Britain was that, in the case of a German attack against the remainder of Czechoslovakia, Britain would be committed to assist Czechoslovakia only if France and Italy would agree to it. It was a preposterous stand totally different than the one implied in the proposal to Benes. The latter specifically mentioned that the new guarantee will offer to Czechoslovakia more security than she had before and which was based on treaties with France and the Soviet Union. It is clear that Britain was prepared to make false promises just to ensure she would obtain the surrender to the Franco-Britain ultimatum.
At Godesberg, Chamberlain brought to Hitler Czechoslovakia’s surrender to his demands on the annexation of the Sudeten region. Hitler answered that it was too late. The procedure envisaged at Berchtesgaden between the two leaders was now declared by Hitler to be too slow. Hitler also said that the demands against Czechoslovakia by other countries, such as Poland, had now to be satisfied.
Hitler had been very arrogant at Godesberg and, while Chamberlain was still in that city, popular feelings in Britain were running so high that it became impossible for the British leaders to ignore them. On September 23, 1938 Halifax sent a telegram to Chamberlain in Godesberg saying :
It may help you if we gave you some indication of what seems a predominant public expression as expressed in press and elsewhere. While mistrustful of our plan but prepared perhaps to accept it with reluctance as alternative to war, great mass of public opinion seems to be hardening in sense of feeling that we have gone to limit of concession and that it is up to the Chancellor to make some contribution.. it seems to your colleagues of vital importance that you should not leave without making it plain to Chancellor if possible by special interview that, after great concessions made by Czechoslovak Government, for him to reject opportunity of peaceful solution in favour of one that must involve war would be an unpardonable crime against humanity.
Chamberlain had a special interview with Hitler. As we saw in chapter 1, Dr. Schmidt, the German interpreter, reported in his memoirs that the interview ended in a very good atmosphere and that the parting greetings included an assurance by Hitler to Chamberlain that the latter could, without damage, give a free hand to Germany in Eastern Europe in return for the freedom given to England outside of the continent.
Chamberlain did not contradict Hitler, and did not report that important conversation to the Cabinet. Back home, he had difficulty managing an unexpected opposition from Halifax and others. The time was not ripe to mention the free hand agreement with Hitler. On September 24, 1938, Cadogan entered in his diary :
Hitler’s memo now in. It’s awful. A week ago when we moved (or were pushed) from ‘autonomy’ to cession, many of us found great difficulty in the idea of ceding people to Nazi Germany. We salved our conscience (at least I did) by stipulating it must be an ‘orderly’ cession — i.e. under international supervision, with safeguards for exchange of populations, compensation, &c. Now Hitler says he must march into the whole area at once (to keep order!) and the safeguards — and plebiscites! can be held after! This is throwing away every last safeguard that we had. P.M. is transmitting this ‘proposal’ to Prague. Thank god he hasn’t yet recommended it for acceptance.
The defeatist Cadogan is horrified by Hitler’s memo. This should give a measure of the public feelings reported by Halifax to Chamberlain. Cadogan goes on:
Meeting of ‘Inner Cabinet’ at 3:30 and P.M. made his report to us. I was completely horrified — he was quite calmly for total surrender. More horrified still to find that Hitler has evidently hypnotised him to a point. Still more horrified to find P.M. has hypnotized H. who capitulates
At this point, Dirks, the editor of the Diaries inserts the following:
Chamberlain told the inner ring of ministers that he thought he has ‘established some degree of personal influence over Herr Hitler’ who would not, he felt satisfied, go back on his word. Later in the day the Prime Minister said in full Cabinet that he believed Hitler “extremely anxious to secure the friendship of Great Britain.. it would be a great tragedy if we lost an opportunity of reaching an understanding with Germany.” He thought he had now established an influence over Herr Hitler and that the latter trusted him and was willing to work with him.
Cadogan’s entry and Dilk’s insertion are astounding. The British minutes of the Godesberg meeting do not, in the least, justify Chamberlain’s declarations to the ‘Inner Ring’ and the full Cabinet. Hitler had just broken his word at Godesberg by rejecting an agreement reached with Chamberlain only a week before. Chamberlain was then justified to say that, once more, demonstrably, Hitler’s word could not be relied upon. Instead, Chamberlain affirmed that Hitler would not go back on his word.
There is no trace in the records of that personal influence Chamberlain, supposedly, had established over Hitler. On the contrary, the atmosphere was tense and the arguments took the form of quarrelling. The impression given by the record is that of a total incompatibility between the two leaders and of Chamberlain’s evident disrespect for some doubtful German statements. On such occasions, Chamberlain did not hide his dismay.
On the face of what Chamberlain reported, of what Kirckpatrick reported as well as what the German translator reported, at no moment did the two leaders see eye to eye and no portion of the discussion can be described as indicating progress, an understanding, a ‘rapprochement’ or an affinity whatsoever.
In view of Chamberlain’s ‘defeatist’ tendencies, one could have understood a plea for a capitulation to Hitler’s latest demands, based on a belief that the alternative would be catastrophic for Britain and the world.
Chamberlain however came back ‘hypnotised by Hitler’, trusting him and believing that there was an opportunity for an understanding with Germany. That Halifax could be ‘hypnotised by Chamberlain’ is no shocking matter. The two men had established working relations from which complete trust had developed. However, that Chamberlain, under the existing conditions, should have been ‘hypnotised’ by Hitler begs investigation.
However, everything that otherwise seems so senseless, does make sense if we consider the following:
w Chamberlain had a private meeting with Hitler attended only by Dr, Schmidt, the German interpreter. Kirckpatrick not only did not attend the meeting but does not even mention its occurrence.
w Dr. Schmidt reports that, at that meeting, the atmosphere was very good and that the two leaders parted in a very friendly mood.
w The last words of Hitler to Chamberlain were a reassurance to Britain that she will incur no damage by granting Germany a free hand in Eastern Europe. On the contrary, Britain would be at liberty to pursue her interests outside the European continent. Hitler’s statement could have indicated either the sealing of an agreement, or a reminder of Germany’s expectations, or a sudden and unexpected proposal.
w Chamberlain did not contest or contradict Hitler’s crucial statement. He did neither say that this is not the British policy, nor even that he had to discuss the matter with his Cabinet. Chamberlain did not even report that statement to the Cabinet. In view of the extreme importance of the statement, and what it reveals about Hitler’s ambitions for expansion, Chamberlain’s secretiveness has to be analysed.
w Had Hitler’s statement just been the expression of his expectations, it should have been enough to generate in Chamberlain the most profound distrust. The same is true had Hitler’s statement been a reminder instead of a sudden expression. In both cases, Chamberlain’s attitude is devious. Reporting his trust in Hitler would then be misleading the Cabinet about most vital matters. Saying that Hitler was prepared to work with him could find no justification in what went on between Chamberlain and Hitler as minuted by Kirkpactrick. It however corresponds to Schmidt’s description of their private meeting which dealt with reciprocal free hands.
w Only if the statement represented the seal of an agreement, would Chamberlain be reluctant to reveal it to the Cabinet, especially after having been warned by Halifax that the mood in the Cabinet was to reject Hitler’s memo.
w Dr. Schmidt had proven to be a very reliable witness trusted by Western historians and by British leaders.
w Chamberlain, as shown in Chapter 1, did give Hitler a free hand in the East.
Chamberlain realised how high the feelings of public opinion, and even of the Cabinet, were running against Germany. He could not reveal that he had done exactly the opposite of what Halifax, in the name of their colleagues, asked him to do. Chamberlain was requested to have a special meeting with Hitler to warn him that Britain would go to war rather than accept the German memo. Instead, Chamberlain, at least, allowed Hitler to understand that Britain did not oppose giving Germany a free hand in the East. Not aware of the last meeting between Chamberlain and Hitler, Cadogan could not explain Chamberlain’s behaviour except by describing him as ‘hypnotised’ by Hitler.
Halifax, influenced by Cadogan, changed his mind and stated at the Cabinet meeting on September 25, 1938 that he could not support the acceptance of Hitler’s memo and did not agree to coerce Czechoslovakia any further. During the meeting, Chamberlain passed the following note to Halifax :
Your complete change of view since I saw you last night is a horrible blow to me, but of course you must form your opinions for yourself.
It remain however to see what the French say.
If they say they will go in, therefore dragging us in, I do not think I could accept responsibility for the decision.
But I don’t want to anticipate what has not yet arisen.
On September 26, on the authority of Halifax, the Foreign Office issued a press statement saying :
.. if, in spite of the efforts made by the British Prime Minister, a German attack is made upon Czechoslovakia, the immediate result must be that France will be bound to come to her assistance and Great Britain and Russia will certainly stand by France.
This was Britain’s second heroic moment. As we will see, Chamberlain, the preceding evening, had taken enough precautions to minimise the effect of any public tough stand the Cabinet could take.
Chamberlain, “to Halifax’s surprise” was dismayed at the appearance of the communiqué . In all appearances, he was a defeated man. Public opinion, Halifax, and much of the Cabinet, were abandoning his policy. He had an agreement with Hitler he could not reveal, and the turn of events threatened to evolve into a war between the West and Germany. He was contemplating resigning.
Five days later the situation would be totally reversed. He would come back triumphant from Munich, supported by an almost unanimous Cabinet and by the enthusiastic majority of the British population.
This fast turn around of the situation is a fascinating aspect of the history of that period. Few people could have, like Chamberlain, still considered the political battle winnable. He had, however, loyal followers who would cooperate with him. These included, among others, Henderson in Berlin, Phipps in Paris, Wilson, Simon, Hoare and Inskip in London.
The situation was extremely delicate. Action had to be taken on four fronts. Germany had to be restrained for a couple of days. Czechoslovakia had to be prevented from expressing opinions or taking actions that could be considered provocative by Germany. France had to be convinced that she should participate in an action which in one way or another would force Czechoslovakia to capitulate. Finally the British public opinion had to be dealt with, so as to accept the policy of capitulation.
The first front seemed the easiest to deal with. Little was asked from Hitler. He therefore agreed to abstain from taking military measures till the end of the month. A particular difficulty appeared later. Chamberlain, restrained by the conditions he faced back from Godesberg, had to manoeuvre carefully. Would Hitler interpret correctly the complicated steps Chamberlain might be obliged to take? Would he be patient and helpful? Would he understand that, even with appearances pointing to the contrary, the free hand deal was still on schedule?
The second front, that of Czechoslovakia, caused unexpected trouble. After an inordinate number of telegrams related to the demand made to Czechoslovakia not to proceed with an intended mobilisation, the country received a ‘go ahead’ with the proviso that the mobilisation should be done without unnecessary publicity.
This proviso did not make much sense. It is not possible to secretly proceed with a mobilisation. Moreover, to attempt informing individually each mobilised citizen would take too much time. Using the press or a radio broadcast would make the matter as public as could be. However, it was necessary, and the Czechoslovak government did broadcast the mobilisation order by radio.
The broadcast mentioned that the mobilisation was proceeding “with knowledge, advice, and approval” of the French and British Governments. If the British intention was to appear to be tough and to let the mobilisation be a serious warning to Germany, Britain would have not objected to the Czechoslovak broadcast.
However, Halifax seems to have been distressed with the mention of Britain’s association with the mobilisation order. Halifax sent instructions to Henderson to ‘at once assure Her Hitler on behalf of Prime Minister and myself’ that the alleged broadcast did not correspond to the truth. Henderson was then given a description of the real British involvement in that matter. It was a peevish attempt to deny what could not be denied even according to Halifax’s version .
The French Front (Part 1)
The French Front proved to be difficult. The French leaders were invited and arrived in London on the evening of September 25, 1938, for conversations on the situation resulting from Godesberg meeting. The minutes of the meeting are still very instructive and we are referring to them in some detail.
The meeting started with a presentation by Chamberlain summarising the Godesberg meeting. Daladier expressed the unanimous opposition of his Cabinet to aspects of the German memo. Chamberlain then tried ‘to clear up any doubts about Herr Hitler’s proposals.’ This practically amounted to a defence of the memo. Chamberlain, for instance said :
As regards the first point raised by Daladier, the proposal made in the German memorandum was not to take these areas by force, but only to take over areas handed over by agreement. The German troops will only be admitted for the purpose of preserving law and order which the German Government maintained could not be done effectively in any other way.
Chamberlain, in Cabinet, had already said that keeping order in these areas by German troops was the best solution. He tried to convince Daladier that Germany would get out of contested regions if, after their occupation by Germany, a referendum would reveal a majority against their inclusion into Germany.
A long discussion ensued and Daladier, in particular, expressed his worries about the safety of the opponents to Nazism in the regions to be occupied by Germany. The memo would offer no guarantee to them. Here are some of the sentences from Daladier which gave the flavour of the conversation:
Were they [the democrats] to be left to the axe and the executioners of Herr Hitler?.. If these areas were occupied by the German troops, Czechoslovakia would be at Germany’s mercy. The remaining Czech territory would be cut off from Slovakia and nothing could be done by the Czechs without the approval of the Germans controlling the exit and the entry through this bottleneck.. Herr Hitler’s demand amounted to the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia and German domination of Europe
Once more, Chamberlain tried to defend the German proposals saying:
Here also there seemed to be some misunderstanding. The question of Czech or German democrats wishing to leave the ceded areas and of Germans wishing to leave the future Czechoslovak territory was to be settled afterwards. Herr Hitler’s memorandum therefore merely provided for the arrangements which it was suggested should be made in the first instance to preserve law and order
This was followed by acrimonious exchanges as to what then France proposed to do, and what to do if Hitler rejects the original Anglo-French proposal based on the Berchtesgaden talks. Daladier affirmed that “in that case each of us would have to do his duty.”
This crystal clear answer did not satisfy Chamberlain who once more explained that the memo represented Hitler’s last word and that it had to be taken or left. In the last case Hitler would invade Czechoslovakia. “What the French attitude would be in such an event”. The question was asked as if ‘each of us would have to do his duty’ did not answer it. This gave rise to the following exchange:
Daladier replied that Herr Hitler would then have brought about a situation in which aggression would have been provoked by him.
Mr. Chamberlain asked what then.
M. Daladier thought each of us would do what was incumbent upon him.
Mr. Chamberlain asked whether we were to understand from that that France would declare war on Germany.
M. Daladier said that the matter was very clear. The French Government had always said, and he had himself repeated three days ago, that, in the event of unprovoked aggression against Czechoslovakia, France would fulfil her obligations. It was because the news from Germany had been bad that he had asked 1,000,000 Frenchmen to go to the frontier. They had gone calmly and with dignity, conscious of the justice of their cause.
Chamberlain then enquired if Daladier had considered what would be next step. Did the French General Staff have some plan, if so, what. Since it would be impossible to give direct assistance to Czechoslovakia, Chamberlain presumed that France intended to carry on hostilities against Germany
Daladier was losing patience. He reminded Chamberlain that he had answered these kinds of questions months ago. At this point Simon started ‘cross examining ’ Daladier:
When the French troops had been called up to do their duty, was that duty just to man the Maginot Line and remain there without any declaration of war, or was it the intention of the French Government to declare war and take active measures with their land forces?..
The second question he would like to put was to ask whether the head of the French Government could say if the use of the French Air force over German territory was contemplated. This would necessarily involve entering into active hostilities with Germany.
The French have a particular expression to describe statements of the obvious. It is called La Palissade. One known La Palissade stated about some personality that ‘a quarter of an hour before his death he was still alive’ or ‘he would have lived longer if only he would have died next day’. Daladier was possibly tempted to ask Simon to stop with his La Palissades. Instead, he patiently explained that, of course, France would consider air attacks against Germany. He then anticipated objections from Simon by reminding the English leaders that air superiority was not enough to ensure the victory of the Franco rebel forces in Spain.
The reader of the document may be shocked to notice that after Daladier’s explicit answer Simon could still say:
Did the French Government contemplate using their air forces against Germany, which would involve a declaration of war and active hostilities? This would not be a purely defensive measure, such as manning the Maginot line, but would constitute an attack. He therefore wished to ask whether the French Government contemplated such a use of the air force against Germany.
This was pure repetition, but with a twist. Daladier was being told that the use of the air force would constitute an attacking measure and not a defensive one. There possibly was in it a reminder that Britain’s commitment to France were restricted to her defence and not to assist her in offensive operations. To use the air force in offensive operations against Germany could mean for France to be deprived of Britain’s assistance.
John Simon was treating Daladier as if the latter was a child unable to realise the consequences of his actions. Daladier exploded:
M. Daladier, replying to Sir John Simon, said he would consider it ridiculous to mobilize French land forces only to leave them under arms doing nothing in their fortifications. It would be equally ridiculous to do nothing in the air. He thought that, in spite of Herr Hitler’s recent declarations, the German system of fortifications was much less solid than Herr Hitler had indicated. It would be several months before the Siegfried line would be really strong..
M. Daladier wished, however, to make it clear that he wished to speak more of the moral obligations of France than of war and strategy.. It should be remembered that only a week ago he had agreed.. to dismember a friendly country bound to France not only by treaties but by ties centuries old.. Like a barbarian, M. Daladier had been ready to cut up this country without even consulting her and handing over 3 1/2 millions of her population to Herr Hitler.. It had been hard, perhaps a little dishonouring.. This would not suffice for him [Hitler]. M. Daladier asked at what point we would be prepared to stop and how far we would go
Daladier went on saying that the opinions of the Czechs must also be taken into account, they were, he said, human beings. He ended stating:
There was one concession, however, he would never make, and that was that marked on the map, which had for its object the destruction of a country and Herr Hitler’s domination of the world and of all that we valued most. France would never accept that, come what might
Simon tried to calm Daladier. He said that the British delegation shared his views “in every way”. But then the question remained: what was to be done.. would the decision be to fight Germany and, if so, by what means and methods.
It must have been nauseating for Daladier to hear Simon repeating the same questions again and again in spite of the clear declaration by Daladier that France intended to use her land and air forces offensively. Daladier suggested that France, Britain, and Czechoslovakia could implement the Anglo-French proposal leading to a retreat of German forces towards the new boundary, as decided by an international commission.
Chamberlain found the suggestion reasonable but not practical in view of the fact that Hitler “was determined to reach a solution at once”. He said that the situation which must be faced is that of a German invasion of Czechoslovakia following the rejection of the German memo. He then started to present a pessimistic picture of what could be expected:
With their usual thoroughness, the Germans had taken every step to effect a rapid conquest. He thought we might find this German advance taking place hour by hour at a much more rapid pace then we had contemplated. The Germans might be in Prague and advancing to the frontier they had already laid down for themselves very shortly.. One possible course would be for the French to mobilize and await events. But M. Daladier had indicated that the French Plan was to undertake offensive operations against the Siegfried Line with the object of crossing it and also to bomb German factories and military centres. He wished to speak quite frankly and say that the British Government had received disturbing accounts of the condition of the French air force.. He therefore felt he must ask what would happen if war had been declared and a rain of bombs descended upon Paris, upon French industrial districts, military centres and aerodromes? Could France defend herself, and was she in a position to make an effective reply? He would also like to ask what assurances France had received from Russia. The British Government for their part had received very disturbing news about the probable Russian attitude. And again, the tone of the French press to-day did not sound very bellicose and gave the impression that France was not prepared to be faced with the contingency of war in a very few days. It would be poor consolation if, in fulfilment of all her obligations, France attempted to come to the assistance of her friend but found herself unable to keep up her resistance and collapsed
This seemed to be an attempt at terrifying the French concerning the consequences of a declaration of war on Germany. Hardly veiled was the suggestion ‘to mobilize and await events’, which amounts to an incitement at not to be faithful to the Franco-Czechoslovakian treaty.
Daladier could take it no more. He passed to the offensive. He would put questions to Chamberlain, instead of answering his questions:
He was always hearing of difficulties. Did this mean that we did not wish to do anything? We were after all, giving Herr Hitler 3 1/2 million Sudeten Germans. He said that this was not enough and wanted everything else as well. Was the British Government ready to give in and to accept Herr Hitler’s proposals? Were they ready to bring pressure to bear in Prague which would lead to the disappearance of Czechoslovakia or to her strangulation, which amounted to much the same thing?
Daladier then underlined the fact that it was not in certain newspapers that the real mood of the French people is to be found. One million Frenchman went to the barracks without hesitation. He then added:
We must face up to the facts and decide what we wanted. If Herr Hitler put forward certain demands must we agree to them? He would then be master of Europe and after Czechoslovakia would come Roumania and then Turkey. He might even turn to France and take Boulogne and Calais. He might even afterwards land in Ireland.. Must we always give way to Herr Hitler’s ultimata? If we were agreed to do so it was useless to have meetings and appear to discuss these questions. He was ready to agree to certain measures of conciliation which were in accordance with moral sentiments, but a moment came to call a halt and that moment had in his opinion come. The French Government had been unanimous on that point.
Daladier then tackled the military aspect of the situation:
..Nevertheless, France was perfectly capable of mobilising an air force and attacking Germany. The question of Russia has also been raised.. He understood Russia had 5000 aeroplanes. At least 800 had been sent to Spain, and whenever they arrived they had always put the Italian and German planes out of action. The fronts of the Spanish war had recently been stabilized largely owing to the arrival of 300 Russian planes which had prevented German and Italian air action. Two hundred Russian planes had been sent to Czechoslovakia from Russia, flown by Czech pilots and ordered by the Czechoslovak Government. French observers had seen these planes and thought them good. He thought that Russian air production was roughly equivalent to that of Germany.
M. Daladier thought we were all too modest, and Great Britain as much as anyone. She did not talk of her navy, of the weapon of blockade of a war by sea.
Daladier ended with saying:
Mr Chamberlain had indicated that Herr Hitler had spoken his last word. Did the British Government intend to accept it? That was a possible policy, but if it was to be accepted without discussion then at least we should send for a representative of the Czechoslovak Government and ask their opinion before sacrificing them.
Samuel Hoare intervened, He answered Daladier’s arguments. The naval blockade would necessarily be very slow. Russia may have a large air force but was it certain what Russia would do ? In a very short time Czechoslovakia would be destroyed. Action of the United Kingdom would depend on the possibility of preventing Czechoslovakia being overrun by Germany.
This was equivalent to saying that Britain would remain on the fence. Though Daladier could credibly argue that the West would, in the end, defeat Germany, he could not say that the West was able to prevent Czechoslovakia from being overrun at the start of the war. The condition for British intervention could not be assured.
The lengthy discussion tended to show that Britain had made up her mind to accept Hitler’s memo, and the related map. In such a case continuing the conversation would have been a loss of time. The minutes show that:
M. Daladier said he did not wish to enter too far in the technical discussions, but he would like to put three questions to the British Ministers:-
(1) Did His Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom accept Herr Hitler Plan?
(2) Did His Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom think of bringing pressure to bear on the Czechoslovak Government to accept Herr Hitler’s plan when we knew that they would certainly not do so and would prefer to die rather than accept it?
(3) Did His Majesty’s Government think that France should do nothing?
Chamberlain answered Daladier’s three questions. It was not for Britain to accept or reject Hitler’s proposal. Czechoslovakia had to do that. Concerning pressure on Czechoslovakia, Britain had no means to compel her to accept the memo. Finally, for France to do or not something was for her alone to decide. These were not candid replies. The whole argumentation of the British delegation tended to show that there was no reasonable solution but to accept Hitler’s memo. Britain knew that without her support, France would have no choice but to go along with the British recommendation. Exceedingly strong pressure had been exerted previously on Czechoslovakia. This could be done again. Though, in principle, it was impossible to compel Czechoslovakia to accept recommendations, it later would be done.
In spite of the strong British pressure, Daladier remained firm in the conviction that Hitler’s memo should be rejected. The ball was now with the British delegation. Had their pressure tactics succeeded, had they communicated to the French delegation a fear of ‘the rain of bombs’ falling over their heads, it would have then been possible to take a joint defeatist position without fearing the reaction of the British public opinion. With a ‘stubborn’ Daladier, this would not work. Chamberlain then suggested that Gamelin, the French Chief of Staffs, should come from Paris to join the French delegation.
With Daladier resisting the pressure, and in view of the mood of the Cabinet and the people, it was to be expected that Britain would have to take, at least for the façade, a tough stand. This could lead to misunderstandings with Germany. It was urgent to take precautionary measures. That evening, a message was sent to Henderson to be immediately communicated to Germany. It must have been quite late in the evening of September 25, because Weizsacker, to whom the message was communicated by phone, minuted it next day. From Weizsacker text, dated September 26, we read :
The British Ambassador telephoned to me yesterday evening a request from the British Prime Minister that the Fuhrer should take no notice of any reports on the course of his present negotiations with the French and the Czechs unless they came directly from himself. Any press or other messages which might appear previously should be disregarded as pure guesswork.
This is an unprecedented step. A Prime Minister at odds with his Cabinet and with his people, requests from the head of Government of another State to disregard whatever news, communiqués etc.. from whatever sources, newspapers, Foreign Office declarations, Cabinet members declarations etc.., unless they come directly from him!
It could be argued that in such a critical situation in which a false step could lead to war, it was essential to avoid the triggering effect of a false piece of news. If such was the British intention, they could have directed the attention of the German authorities, or of Hitler Himself, to the danger of rumours, and requested that no credence should be given to any British news unless confirmed by the Embassy.
This, however, would not be enough for Chamberlain. The Embassy would have to implement orders received from the Foreign Office reflecting the mood of the Cabinet. Chamberlain was confident that, given the time, he would overcome all opposition. In the meanwhile, he did not want Hitler to be affected by news, however reliable, reflecting what Chamberlain considered a temporary situation. The Weissacker minutes make it clear that the matter was not the fear of false rumours. Weizsacker continues:
The Ambassador informed me further, not acting on instructions but from his own personal knowledge, that Chamberlain’s position and policy were threatened by increasing difficulties . It was therefore especially important at this time not to upset British policy by false moves.
The conversations between the French and British representatives resumed next day, September 26, 1938. The atmosphere was much better. Chamberlain summarised the situation in three sentences: The Czechoslovak Government was determined to resist. The French Government had said that, in such a case, they would fulfil their treaty obligations. Britain had said publicly more than once that she could not afford to see France overrun or defeated by Germany, and, therefore, would come to France’s assistance if France were in danger.
This was quite different from what was said the previous evening. The British delegation, having tried its utmost to detach France from Czechoslovakia was now facing the realities of the situation. The meeting was adjourned after issuing the following communiqué:
A further meeting was held this morning between the French and British Ministers, at which a full accord was established on all points.
General Gamelin, who had been called over for special consultations, also called on the Prime Minister and subsequently had an interview with the Minister for the Co-ordination of Defence.
This communiqué, short as it was, conveyed an ominous meaning. It signified that Britain, at last, was considering the possibility of standing by France were she to assist Czechoslovakia to resist a German aggression. It was satisfactory to Halifax who issued, later in the day, the press release which clearly stated the implicit meaning of the communiqué. The opposition in Britain would, for a time, cause no problem, satisfied as it was by the new turn of events. Chamberlain’s manoeuvres on the French front would have to be resumed very soon.
The German Front
On September 22, it was already clear to Chamberlain, and to the British Cabinet, that a peaceful solution to the Czechoslovakian crisis was not in view. The Germans’ outrageous demand had their effect on British public opinion. This made it imperative for Chamberlain to avoid being perceived as approving the German latest proposals. A message from Halifax on September 23, as we saw, reported to Chamberlain the British public mood. In the early morning of the same day, Mr. Steward , the Prime Minister’s Press Adviser, conveyed to Dr. Hesse, the German news representative of the D.N.B., the following information :
Chamberlain’s position has been made extremely difficult by latest events in Godesberg. Persons friendly to Germany, of whom Steward himself is one, are beginning to be afraid that the Prime Minister will not be able to hold out in face of the revolt of public opinion which is brewing in England..
Steward added that the atmosphere, which a week ago had been definitely favourable to German wishes, threatened to swing over to the opposite extreme as a result of German press propaganda..
From private statements by a friend of Halifax’s it appears that the forgoing ideas correspond to the views of Government circles here
The change of mood in the British population was evident and Hesse did not need Stewards communication to that effect. In any case, there was nothing wrong in warning the Germans that their policy and propaganda was antagonising the British people.
It was, however, fundamentally wrong to inform the Germans that Chamberlain’s position had become difficult and that he would not be able to hold in front of the public revolt. Germany is informed that Chamberlain is not partaking in the public anger and is on the German side. He is trying to hold against the British people but may not succeed. The opponent is no longer Germany but the British people. This kind of talk will, with time, become more frequent, and more indecent.
Though Steward presented the information in a personal capacity, his later interventions, sponsored by Chamberlain, made it likely that he was executing Chamberlain’s instructions. He was, at least, doing what he thought Chamberlain would expect him to do.
Chamberlain, if he was to go on with his policy of understanding with Germany, needed Germany’s help. Germany had to change her image. A much more dignified stand would have been for Chamberlain to tell Hitler that British public opinion, rightly so, was indignant at Germany’s bullying and that, unless it was modified, he would himself have to reconsider his policy of understanding with Germany.
The British Government was forced by Halifax and by British public opinion to reject the German memo and to declare it would come to France assistance, were she, in the case of German aggression, to stand by her obligations towards Czechoslovakia. Such a stand, together with the mention of Russia in the press communiqué on September 26, 1938, could lead Hitler to misunderstand Chamberlain’s policy. Something had to be done urgently.
Britain had requested Czechoslovakia not to make public her rejection of Germany’s proposal (ultimatum) at Godesberg. Somehow the news leaked. Together with the West’s new tough attitude, this could convey to Hitler a message of finality. However, there was no finality in Chamberlain’s toughness and this had to be conveyed to Germany. On September 26, 1938, the German Chargé d’Affaires, T. Kordt, sent the following ‘very urgent’ telegram to the German Foreign Ministry:
Prime Minister asked me to transmit the following strictly confidential information:
Reports to be expected in immediate future in British and foreign press on final Czech rejection of German memorandum are not last word. Chamberlain asks that statement on result of his action be awaited.
The immediate publication of the memorandum is, I learn in confidence, the work of the Czechoslovak Legation here. Downing Street is indignant at this arbitrary action.
Germany or Czechoslovakia had to give way if military action were to be avoided. Hitler was informed ‘strictly confidentially’ that work was done so that Czechoslovakia give way. It demonstrated a total absence of solidarity between Britain, on the one hand, and France and Czechoslovakia on the other hand. It had to be strictly confidential because it amounted to a betrayal of France and Czechoslovakia.
On September 26, it became evident that a tough public stand could not be avoided. It became necessary to explain the situation to Hitler. Chamberlain sent Wilson to convey two messages to Hitler. One message was a written one. Written in a friendly but firm style, it was entreating Hitler to renounce the use of force against Czechoslovakia, since he could get all he wanted by a peaceful, speedy and orderly solution. In the measure in which it explained the reasons for the Czechoslovak rejection, it constituted a defence of the Czechoslovak policy. There was no mention of a British military involvement. However its possibility was unmistakably present in the urgency of the entreaty.
The second message was oral and was delivered before the written one and, essentially, constituted the conversation between Wilson and Hitler on September 26, 1938 in the evening. It was the sugar covering the bitter pill of the letter. The tough letter would become public while the soft talking would remain confidential for long years to come. Mr. I. Kirkpatrick was present and made the following notes :
..Sir Horace Wilson then said that before asking the interpreter to read the further letter from the Prime Minister.. he would like to make a few observations to explain the background and the situation in England which had called forth that letter. The German memorandum had, as the Prime Minister anticipated at Godesberg, been published. Opinion in England had been profoundly shocked at its terms.
Herr Hitler interrupted to say that in that event it was no use talking any more.
Sir Horace Wilson asked Herr Hitler to listen to his remarks. When the Prime Minister spoke in his letter of the situation being extremely serious he was referring also to the difficulties he was experiencing in England
Wilson’s mission is now very clear. There were two messages to be considered. One was the letter as written by Chamberlain and which could have been delivered by the British Ambassador Henderson — who was also present at the meeting. The other message is the same one but modified by Wilson’s oral additions. No doubt, it would have been easy to incorporate the simple remarks made by Wilson in the letter itself. But then, it would no longer have been a tough letter. What is more, it would have revealed, in writing, the apologetic tone of Chamberlain, as well as is efforts at proving that, when he is tough, Chamberlain is only acting under duress imposed on him by the British people.
The letter, the raw and tough version, might become public. It shows Chamberlain implementing the common Franco-British decisions, and in tune with the mood of the British people. The oral message shows him working behind the back of his Cabinet and his French colleagues, and totally out of tune with British public opinion. A letter conveyed by the Ambassador would therefore not do. Only a letter transmitted by Wilson, his personal friend and adviser, and supplemented by oral explanations — resulting from special instructions given to him by Chamberlain , could protect the Prime Minister’s public reputation, while telling Hitler a different story.
After the Prime Minister had returned from Berchtesgaden he had believed that Herr Hitler and himself could reach agreement on terms which would fully meet German wishes and have the effect of incorporating the Sudetenland in the Reich. He had succeeded in bringing his colleagues, the French Government and the Czech Government to his way of thinking, because he had convinced them that Her Hitler and himself had agreed upon a solution within the framework of peace. The country accepted Mr. Chamberlain’s proposals because they trusted him to see that the solution would be on these lines.
Herr Hitler interrupted to vociferate in staccato accents that the problem must be solved forthwith without any further delay
Sir Horace Wilson continued that the Prime Minister fully appreciated, but the source of the difficulty lay in the manner in which it was proposed to proceed.
Here Herr Hitler made gestures and exclamations of disgust and impatience.
Sir Horace Wilson said that he must emphasize again that the Prime Minister fully appreciated Herr Hitler’s feelings and his insistence on speed, but the fact was that it was the way in which the proposals were to be carried out which had shocked and roused British opinion.
Were we not told that the matters discussed were political and that the people ‘conversing’ were Wilson, a special envoy of the British Prime Minister, and Hitler, we could think that a butler (Wilson) was defending himself showing how good were his deeds and intentions, while the master (Hitler) was scolding him for not doing enough.
The list of good deeds were impressive: the P.M. had convinced his colleagues AND the French Government AND the Czech Government AND the British people to accept a solution fully meeting Germany’s wishes. No mention of the Czechoslovakian wishes. It is twice emphasised that the P.M. ‘fully appreciate’ Hitler’s feelings. And what does Wilson get in return? He gets vociferations in staccatos accents sounding like an ultimatum: “The problem must be solved forthwith, without any further delay”. No pity for the P.M. who had to face unforeseen difficulties.
Never had a British representative been so humiliated, never had a British representative taken such a servile stand. The problem had been treated by Chamberlain and Wilson on a personal level. Chamberlain was presented as having been blameless, and relatively successful in the accomplishment of a task which was described as having been excessively difficult. Did Chamberlain think that he therefore deserved to be rewarded with a modification of Hitler’s position? Or did Chamberlain want to prove that he deserved the trust of Hitler and, if he could not deliver more, this was because nobody else could have done it?
The whole tone of Wilson’s talk was apologetic and represented an endeavour at reducing the impact that the letter could make. It was also a call for sympathy with the P.M.’s difficulties. Kirkpatrick notes continue:
.. Sir Neville Henderson said that the British Government would see to it that the Czechs handed over the territory.
Her Hitler indicated by gesture dissent.
Sir Neville Henderson repeated that His Majesty’s Government would see that the Czechs handed over the territory; they were in a position to put adequate pressure on the Czech Government. Moreover, Herr Hitler surely trusted Mr. Chamberlain.
Her Hitler retorted that unfortunately Mr. Chamberlain might be out of office any day
The last sentence gives the key to the ultimate failure of the free hand policy. Now and again the fear that, in a democracy, Chamberlain might be removed made Hitler doubt the value of an agreement which had to remain secret because it would not have been approved by the British public.
Hitler then suddenly moved the deadline for a Czechoslovak reply from October the first to September 28th. Wilson asked if the deadline would be midnight, to which Hitler replied it would be at 2 p.m. Hitler was becoming more and more arrogant. To Hitler’s question if Britain had abandoned its role of intermediary, Wilson replied:
..it did not and that we still hoped to exercise a useful influence with the Czechs and we believed we could push through a quick agreement in accordance with the basic German requirements.
This was in direct contradiction with the news release from the Foreign Office issued earlier the same day. It was also in contradiction with the decisions reached at the meeting with the French delegation. It was done without the agreement of the Cabinet and in direct conflict with the Cabinet’s mood.
Hitler and Wilson held a second meeting next day September 27, 1938. In the meantime Hitler had made a speech very abusive of Benes and the Czech people following which Chamberlain issued a press communiqué answering Hitler’s doubts as to Czechoslovakia’s sincerity in declaring that she would give back Sudeten territories as implicit in her acceptance of the French-Anglo proposals on September 22. The communiqué, among other things, said :
Speaking for the British Government we regard ourselves as morally responsible for seeing that the promises made are carried out fairly and fully and we are prepared to undertake that they shall be so carried out with all reasonable promptitude, provided that the German Government will agree to the settlement of terms and conditions of transfer by discussion and not by force
The French leaders took comfort from this public demonstration of British firmness. This position was ‘modulated’ by tone and special wording in Wilson’s next meeting with Hitler.
There exist two versions of the meeting a German by Dr Schmidt and an English one by Kirkpatrick. In the essentials, they do not contradict each other. The German report is more complete and is more the work of a professional translator. Nevertheless, to avoid doubts concerning a possible misinterpretation of Wilson’s sayings, the English version will be quoted here . Wilson congratulated Hitler for the great popular response to his speech, and then said:
There was, however, one more thing to say and he would try to say it in the tone which the Prime Minister would have used had he been himself present. Many Englishmen thought with him (Sir Horace Wilson} that there were many things which ought to be discussed between England and Germany to the great advantage of both countries.. they included arrangements for improving the economic position all round. He himself and many other Englishmen would like to reach an agreement with Germany on these lines. He had been struck, as also had many others in England, by a speech in which Herr Hitler had said that he regarded England and Germany as bulwarks against disruption, particularly from the East. In the next few days the course of events might go one way or another and have a far-reaching effect on the future of Anglo-German relations generally.
Wilson underlined the importance of the tone with which he was to say those words. The tone, regretfully, has not been recorded, nor has it been described by Kirkpatrick. One can only speculate what parts of his speech did Wilson particularly wanted to stress or minimise its effect.
The fact remains that, at the time at which the press release from the Foreign Office mentions Russia as a country which will no doubt assist Czechoslovakia against a German aggression, Wilson, in Chamberlain’s name mentions the common German-Anglo mission to stand against the ‘disruption from the East’, an unmistakable hint at a hostile attitude towards the Soviet Union.
It was a direct way to remind Hitler of the last private meeting between him and Chamberlain which ended in an excellent mood, on the theme of a free hand to be given to Hitler in Eastern Europe. In this context, Wilson speaking of events which might go ‘one way or another’ was implying more than the possibilities of war and peace.
Wilson was interrupted by Hitler just before delivering a warning:
Sir Horace Wilson continued by saying that, if the Germans attacked Czechoslovakia, the French, as they had told us and as Daladier has stated publicly, would feel that they should be obliged to fulfil their treaty obligations. If that meant that the forces of France became actively engaged in hostilities against Germany (Herr Hitler interjected ‘That means if France attacks, since I have no intention of attacking France), the British Government would feel obliged to support her.
At this point Hitler and Wilson differed on the meaning of Wilson’s warning. Wilson repeated part of his speech and Hitler repeated his interpretation and saying that he took note of the British position. Wilson was not satisfied. Kirkpatrick notes continue:
Sir Horace Wilson said that it was clear Herr Hitler had not understood his statement. He would repeat it once more slowly as the wording was extremely important. The situation was a follows: if Czechoslovakia accepted, well and good. If she refused and Germany attacked Czechoslovakia, France, as she informed us, would feel that she must fulfil her treaty obligations. (Herr Hitler interjected once more, ‘Which means that France must attack Germany’.)
Sir Horace WIlson continued by pointing out that he was using a particular form of words with care since it was the form employed by the French in their communication. The French Prime Minister had not said that France would attack Germany; he merely talked of their fulfilling their obligations. We did not know exactly in what form the French would decide to fulfil their obligations, but if in the fulfilment of these obligations France decided that her forces must become actively engaged, then for reasons and grounds which would be clear to Herr Hitler and to all students of the international situation, Great Britain must be obliged to support her.
Previously Wilson underlined the importance of the tone of his message. Now, twice he drew Hitler’s attention to the importance of the wording. To do justice to Wilson we must therefore pay special importance to the wording.
More than once Wilson complained that Hitler did not get his meaning. And even after this special wording by Wilson, the same bickering about the meaning of the message went on for some time. Hitler was trying to translate in blunt language what Wilson was saying in a convoluted way. The logical sequence of events: a German attack followed by a French involvement followed by Britain’s support to France was understood differently by Hitler and Wilson.
What, in his own complicated way, Wilson was saying to Hitler was: Don’t give importance to the meaning of the sentences. Concentrate on the WORDING. And indeed, the wording was peculiar.
“France would feel that she must fulfil her treaty obligations” seems to say the same thing as “France would fulfil her treaty obligations”. Wilson was taking pains underlining an essential difference between the two wordings. He was suggesting that when someone feels he must do something, he does not thus pledge himself to do it. Wordings can do wonders.
Similarly, Wilson is raising the possibility that it could be possible for France to fulfil her treaty obligations without being military involved in offensive operations. A formal declaration of war, followed by a ‘wait and see’ situation, had been suggested already by Chamberlain to the French delegation in London. This would fit Wilson’s wording. In such a case, Britain will not have to give her support to France, so the wording says.
There is a final paragraph in the German version reporting an exchange between Wilson and Hitler witnessed by Dr. Schmidt and not by Kirkpatrick:
Sir Horace Wilson apparently wished to continue the conversation, but the British Ambassador advised him against doing so. On his departure, while alone with the Fuhrer in the room, he said to him that a catastrophe must be avoided at all costs and he would still try to make the Czechs sensible. (“I will try to make those Czechos sensible.”)
The Fuhrer replied that he would welcome that, and further repeated emphatically once more that England could wish for no better friend than the Fuhrer..
“Mission accomplished” could say Wilson. Be it by tone of voice or wording of the verbal message, he made Hitler understand that the situation was not so grim. Chamberlain was still determined to deal with Germany as a partner in preventing the disorder coming from the East. As to the French fulfilment of her obligations, it could just be a formal procedure. Britain might then not be involved at all. Besides, Britain might still take care of the “Czechos”
The same day, Hitler sent his reply to Chamberlain’s written letter. After reiterating and defending his position, without giving in a single inch, he explained that Prague was distorting his proposals by pretending that, as a result of the German immediate occupation, the Czech population would be subject to oppression. He ended up saying:
In these circumstances, I must assume that the Government in Prague is only using a proposal for the occupation by Germans troop in order, by distorting the meaning and object of my proposal, to mobilize those forces in other countries, in particular in England and France, from which they hope to receive unreserved support for their aim, and thus achieve the possibility of a general warlike conflagration. I must leave it to your judgement whether, in view of these facts, you consider that you should continue your effort, for which I should like to take this opportunity of once more sincerely thanking you, to spoil such manoeuvres and bring the Government in Prague to reason at the very last hour.
This is proof that, contrary to the myth, Hitler was not frustrated by Chamberlain’s effort. He went as far as his pride could go by suggesting to Chamberlain to continue his efforts. Once he left it to Chamberlain to decide if he should continue, it was virtually impossible for Chamberlain to stop his efforts.
Moreover the very thing Hitler is suggesting is that Chamberlain should continue to spoil what he calls the Prague manoeuvres. In fact Chamberlain was constantly doing his best to pressure France and Prague towards the acceptance of Hitler’s memo.
This was fine as well as it went. The trouble is that France was not in the know. France had categorically rejected as absurd the suggestion that her fulfilment of her obligations should be restricted to a declaration of war, without any further military involvement against Germany. Nonetheless, Wilson has underlined, by special wording and, possibly, by tone of voice, this very ‘absurd’ eventuality. Somehow the French position had to be made compatible with that resulting from Wilson’s wording and tone of voice.
The French Front (Part 2)
Consequently, Halifax, on Tuesday September 27, 1938, sent to Phipps in Paris a telegram from which we quote the following :
..If therefore our efforts for peace fail, and instead German troops enter Czechoslovakia on Thursday, as now seems probable, we may expect to be faced in a very short time with a fait accompli, so far as Czechoslovakia is concerned no declarations or actions of France or ourselves in the meantime can prevent this sudden and overwhelming result whatever might be the other justification for or ultimate issues of a world war waged to vindicate our conceptions of just treatment.
3. Although we have always recognized this probability, the latest information requires us to face the actual facts. In this situation, having regard to the close identity of interests of our two countries, it is necessary that any action by France in discharge of her obligations and by ourselves in support of France should be closely concerted, especially as regards measures which would be likely immediately and automatically to start a world war without unhappily having any effect in saving Czechoslovakia.
The stress is put on the uselessness of efforts at saving Czechoslovakia. Concerted action regarding French discharge of her obligation means, at least, a tragic delay in French military intervention, which could quickly seal the fate of Czechoslovakia. It may mean also that Britain could use her right for concerted action to veto any serious military action. Halifax continues:
4. We should be glad to know that French Government agree that any action of an offensive character taken by either of us henceforward (including declaration of war, which is also important from point of view of United States, shall only be taken after previous consultation and agreement.
The stage is set for the betrayal of Czechoslovakia in a way reminiscent of what would later be called ‘the phoney war’ except that, this time there would be no war, just a ‘phoney discharge of obligations’. Britain is asking that after the invasion of Czechoslovakia, France should neither declare war nor start any offensive operation. Moreover a very vague mention of the United States in relation with abstaining from a war declaration makes it likely that weeks may be wasted in this respect. The likelihood that the United States would recommend, or agree to bless, a declaration of war by France and Britain against Germany is not only small but is not expected to occur at lightning speed, and this at a time when speed is of the essence.
The likely situation is that concerting and waiting for the United States would provide Germany with sufficient time to complete the occupation of Czechoslovakia. It would then not make sense to intervene when it had not been done when Czechoslovak forces were still intact.
France agreed. The same day of September 27, 1938, Phipps sent from Paris the following telegram :
Minister for Foreign affairs tells me that the French Government are in entire agreement not to take any offensive measures without previous consultation with and agreement by us.
His excellency feels more and more that it behoves us both to be extremely prudent and to count our probable and even possible enemies before embarking on any offensive act whatsoever.
’His excellency’ was Bonnet. Paul-Boncour would never have agreed to the British suggestion. However, Britain had succeeded in preventing Paul-Boncour becoming the Minister for Foreign Affairs at that critical time. It is thus that the British operations on the French Front ended successfully.
This exchange of telegrams between Britain and France was already a violation by France of her treaty obligations. Czechoslovakia, naturally was not informed of the new situation. One front still remained to be faced: the home front.
The Home Front
Information, from all sources concurred that within the days separating the two meetings between Hitler and Chamberlain, that of Berchtesgaden and that of Godesberg, and especially after the terms of Hitler’s memo had been made public, a radical change had occurred in British public opinion. The British public who reluctantly agreed to the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia according to the Anglo-French formula, could not ‘swallow’ the German arrogance and their reneging over their agreement with Chamberlain.
The public mood affected every British leader and particularly Cadogan and Halifax. It did not affect Chamberlain.
In order to prevent social disturbances, or even a social revolution, he did not mind being paternalistic and would also advocate some reforms. He felt contempt for the broad masses which he once described as
an immense mass of very ignorant voters of both sexes whose intelligence is low and who have no power of weighing evidence.
He had an acute sense of drama and of the importance of timing. In September 19, 1938, after his return from Berchtesgaden and before his next meeting with Hitler at Godesberg he wrote to his elder sister :
in my last letter I wondered what might happen before I wrote again, for I knew the hour must be near, if it was to come at all. Two things were essential, first that the plan should be tried just when things looked blackest, and second that it should be a complete surprise..
Chamberlain was not focusing on how to save peace. He was coldly calculating what to do, how to best play the drama in order to force his policies on the people.
With the Germans reassured that “the Czechos” could be made sensible, some respite was gained. With France agreeing not to start any action of an offensive nature without a previous agreement with Britain, there was no longer an imminent danger of war unless it was precipitated by the strength of the British public opinion.
The rules of the game, as understood by Chamberlain, requested that “things should look blackest”. It looked black enough but, somehow, the blackness was concentrated on the treacherous policy of Germany. There was a need to transfer “looking blackest” from Germany to the fate of the British people.
In order to condition the people to look at themselves in the blackest way, the Government ordered the distribution of gas masks and the digging of trenches. It could, and has been argued that these were elementary precautions justified by the gravity of the situation. This is certainly not true. Britain had no intention at all to go to war against Germany.
It was unthinkable that France would contravene her recent agreement with Britain which obligated France not to declare war and not to start any military operation of an offensive nature without British approval. The explanation surrounding the British request for such an agreement made it clear that Britain would rather not approve such measures. Bonnet had expressed some enthusiasm for the idea of being restrained by such an agreement. Moreover, a breach of the agreement by France would release Britain from commitments which, anyway, were of the weakest character. At worst, France, to save face, might go to the extent of declaring war on Germany, and then adopt the policy of ‘wait and see’ without actually waging war.
Digging trenches and distributing gas masks were the ‘wrong’ precautions. Lord Ismay wrote in his memoirs :
The Cabinet, on hearing the Prime Minister’s story, were in no mood to submit to Hitler’s ultimatum. The hopes to which the first visit had given birth had been killed stone dead, and it seemed that we should be at war within a week.
I was extremely worried that nothing had as yet been done to call up either the territorial anti-aircraft units, which were responsible for the defence of London, or the fighter squadrons of the Auxiliary Air Force, which might urgently be required at any moment. While Mr. Chamberlain was still wrestling with Hitler at Godesberg, I voiced my uneasiness to my Minister, but he felt that no immediate action was necessary. The next morning there were headlines in the press that trenches were being dug in the parks for protection against air attacks. I Immediately rang up Sir Thomas Inskip.. and suggested that there were not a minute to be lost. The digging of trenches in the Royal Parks would convince friends and foe alike that the Government thought that war was almost inevitable. London might be attacked at any moment. If this were to happen before even the elementary defences which we possessed were in position, I could see myself strung up on one lamp post, and my Minister on another.
The chronological order of events is important here.
w First, General Ismay learned about the gravity of the situation and the possibility of war within a week
w Then, he was amazed that nothing had been done for the air defence of London.
w He expressed his ‘uneasiness’ to Inskip who told him that no ‘immediate action was necessary’
w Next morning instead of announcements of vital measures being taken for the air defence of London, he reads headlines in the newspapers of trench diggings in the parks. At that point, the authorities knew, at least from the previous warnings by Ismay, that what was needed was the calling up of the territorial anti-aircrafts units and the fighter squadrons of the Auxiliary Air Force. The measures taken were not those urgently required for the safety of the population. These diggings were going on while the vital measures were not implemented. These diggings and the masks’ distribution, according to General Ismay, were dangerous for the safety of the London population.
w He considered the way the government faced the need to protect the public’s safety, such a dereliction of duty, that it could possibly lead to him and Inskip being hanged on lamp posts.
Inskip was one of Chamberlain’s strongest supporters. He had good reasons to think that the situation did not require the measures suggested by Ismay. But then, the measures the Government was taking were not in response to a perceived dangerous situation. It was part of the staging of an atmosphere of fear which could lead to a readiness to accept a provisory peaceful solution, however unjust, however humiliating, however dangerous.
In time of war, the morale of the population is of prime importance. The combative value of an army depends very much on its determination to fight for a cause it understands and which it feels is vital for the country. On the eve of war, it is the main duty of a Government to infuse in the population a spirit of enthusiasm and readiness to withstand sacrifices.
This is not what Chamberlain tried to do. On the evening of September 27, Chamberlain addressed a radio Broadcast to the British people in which he said :
How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas masks here because of a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing.
The war is not presented as a fight against tyranny. A British citizen, about to become a soldier going to the front and leaving at home a family exposed to bombing and gas attack, needs to know something more than that what he is asked to do is ‘horrible, fantastic, incredible’. He needs to know that it is not for the sake of a quarrel in ‘a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing’.
This is not preparation for war, but for surrender. In this preparation, trenches and gas masks played their role. Preparation for war would have stressed the number of times Hitler has reneged his word and violated treaties. It would have stressed the horrors of the Nazi regime and what people in Czechoslovakia should expect under German occupation. It would have stressed the necessity of respecting international laws. It would have explained that more than just a quarrel was involved in Germany’s ultimatum. It would have highlighted that Czechoslovakia had treated her German minority infinitely better than Germany treated its minority of Jews. It would have brought home that, in today’s modern world, Czechoslovakia, at the centre of Europe, was a close-by country bound to Britain and France by her democratic regime, and to France by a treaty of mutual assistance against aggression.
After having alarmed the population with what is ‘horrible, fantastic and incredible’, Chamberlain leads them to hang their hopes on his further efforts. He added:
I shall not give up the hope of a peaceful solution, or abandon my efforts for peace, as long as any chance for peace remains. I would not hesitate to pay even a third visit to Germany if I thought it would do any good.
The alternatives given to the people for consideration were either a nonsensical war for no reasonable cause, or the success of the Prime Minister’s efforts. Very naturally, the majority of the British people was led to wish the success of Chamberlain’s efforts.
In Chamberlain’s view, success and surrender were closely tied, and the British people had to be prepared for the surrender. Chamberlain therefore added:
However much we may sympathise with a small nation confronted by a big and powerful neighbour, we cannot in all circumstances undertake to involve the whole British Empire in war simply on her account. If we have to fight it must be on larger issues than that.
’Simply on her account’ reveals that, for Chamberlain, the bullying of a small nation by a big and powerful neighbour, is too small an issue. Not mentioned is the known ambitions of Germany, explicitly expressed by their leaders in many occasions. Not mentioned is the crucial strategical importance of Czechoslovakia and the strengthening of Germany as a result of its domination over that country.
Many contemporary leaders and news people , who proved to have had a keen understanding of the events of the time, suspected that, by ordering the digging of trenches and the distribution of gas masks, the British Government only intended to scare the population and prepare a mood to accept the surrender to Germany’s wishes. In his autobiography the preface of which was written on October 2, 1938, Professor R,G, Collingwood wrote :
To me, therefore, the betrayal of Czechoslovakia was only a third case of the same policy by which the ‘National’ government had betrayed Abyssinia and Spain; and I was less interested in the fact itself than in the methods by which it was accomplished; the carefully engineered war-scare in the country at large, officially launched by the simultaneous issue of gas-masks and the prime minister’s emotional broadcast, two days before his flight to Munich, and the carefully staged hysterical scene in parliament on the following night. These things were in the established traditions of Fascist dictatorial methods; except that whereas the Italian and German dictators sway mobs by appeal to the thirst for glory and national aggrandizement, the English prime minister did it by playing on sheer stark terror.
It could be that the ‘hysterical scene in parliament’ had not been staged. Except for this, Callingwood’s statement cannot be disputed.
And it is thus that the British people were conditioned to welcome ‘peace in our time’. As to the will of the Czechoslovak people and its government, it was irrelevant. So much so that, in a private session with Hitler, after the signature of the Munich agreement. Chamberlain took it for granted that Germany would invade Czechoslovakia in case the latter would reject the Agreement. Chamberlain only hoped that Germany would avoid bombing Prague since this would cause casualties among women and children. No doubt, should there have been a great number of such victims, Chamberlain would have been embarrassed.
It is to be noted that Czechoslovakia was not invited to Munich, that an agreement was extracted from her for a different solution than that arrived at Berchtesgaden, that she had not even been consulted concerning the new terms of the agreement and that she had not been given the freedom to accept or reject an agreement related to her dismemberment. On September 29, 1938, Newton, the British ambassador in Prague wrote in a telegram to Halifax
Incidentally I am not altogether clear that this has been in your mind when you instructed me to express the hope that Czechoslovak Government will not formulate objections to time-table ‘before it is under discussion at Munich’. In making my representations to Dr. Krofta I will omit these words lest he should take them to imply that it would be open to Czechoslovak Government to formulate objections afterwards
No comments are necessary.
The Russian Factor
Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union were bound by a treaty of mutual assistance against aggression. The treaty stated that the Soviet assistance would be given only after France would have implemented hers under the obligation of her own treaty of assistance with Czechoslovakia
This condition limited the Soviet commitments. It was widely believed that it had been included in the Czechoslovakian-Soviet treaty on the request of the Soviet Union . The truth is different. This restriction had been requested by Benes. Czechoslovakia did not want to ‘run the risk’ of ever finding herself exclusively helped by the Soviet Union. The anti-Soviet feelings were running high in the Czechoslovak establishment and, were it not for this restriction — implying that Soviet help would be forthcoming after French help had been secured — the pact would have been unacceptable to the ruling circles.
The Agrarian Party was the most powerful one in the country. Its leader was Beran who did not hide from Germany that he would welcome her help in the struggle against communism in Czechoslovakia . In these circumstances it was very unlikely that, in the absence of a French involvement, Czechoslovakia would have accepted help from the Soviet Union, were that country ready to give it beyond her treaty obligations.
By her treaty with Czechoslovakia, and in consequence of the notorious antagonism existing between her and Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, was supposed to play an essential role in the Czechoslovakian crisis. Nevertheless, Britain never consulted her, and barely kept her informed of the steps she was taking to solve the Czechoslovakian crisis.
This was in line with Chamberlain’s deep feelings against communism and the Soviet Union. The British opposition, and a number of Conservative leaders such as Churchill, were reproaching the Government for ignoring the Soviet Union. The Government had to demonstrate that this was not the case. Its position was that the reality of the situation was such that the Soviet factor had to play a rather weak role.
It was known that recent purges had decapitated the Soviet army of her leadership. So many generals and other officers had been tried and, in one way or another, relieved from their command, that questions could have justifiably been asked as to the effect of such a loss of experienced officers on the combative capabilities of the Soviet army. It was also felt that the army must have been demoralised by that action of the Soviet leadership.
Additional information in possession of France and Czechoslovakia, had not been made public. Benes, before the Soviet purges, had warned Daladier, the French Prime Minister, to be careful in its dealing with the Soviet army leaders. Information in possession of the Czechoslovak authorities proved that Soviet military leaders were, in contact with Germany, plotting against the Soviet government .
In these circumstances, the purge in the Soviet army should have been considered by France and Czechoslovakia as good news. This would not diminish the reluctance of French and British leaders to deal with the Soviet Union.
The French military rejected an offer for airplanes (fighters) made by the Soviet Union. They even refused the plans of the design of a Soviet fighter model considered by the French experts to be superior to any model the French air force had. The reason was that to accept Soviet help would have been too humiliating for France
Similarly, the British military refused a Soviet offer to deliver to them the plans for the construction of a tank which, according to British experts, was superior to any model Britain had produced or designed .
While Chamberlain was still at Godesberg, Halifax, on September 23, 1938, sent a telegram to Butler in Geneva asking him to approach Litvinov to get him to answer some questions. In his telegram Halifax said to Butler :
It would be useful if you could obtain from Litvinov any precise indication of what action Soviet Government would take in event of Czechoslovakia being thus involved in war with Germany, and at what point they would be prepared to take it.
Next day Butler sent a telegram to Halifax :
Lord De La Warr and I saw M. Litvinov and M. Maisky after meeting of Sixth Committee.. During meeting of Committee M. Litvinov had made a speech.. which he had concluded with a statement about Czechoslovakia, saying that Soviet Government had received an enquiry from Czechoslovak Government asking whether they would fulfil their treaty obligations. He had replied that, despite what he described as Franco-German-British ultimatum to Czechs, if Herr Hitler decided on military action and French were to honour their obligations towards Czechoslovakia and fight, the Soviet Government would come to the aid of Czechoslovakia.
It is not customary for a country, party to a treaty, to ask another party of the treaty if it will fulfil its obligations. The loyalty of a country to its signature is not supposed to be questioned. However, the case of Czechoslovakia, at that stage of the crisis, was particular. She ‘cracked’ under exceedingly great pressure from France and Britain and accepted the Anglo-French solution for the crisis. She was to give away regions with a Sudeten majority and renounce her treaties with France and the Soviet Union. The latter, in consequence, was completely justified to consider itself released from any obligations towards Czechoslovakia, the more so, that the submission to the Anglo-French pressure was done without consultation with the Soviet Union.
The Soviet affirmation of readiness to stand by her obligations represented therefore an important element of the political situation. Butler went on:
At our interview we asked him whether he could develop further the above statement, and in particular at what point Soviet Government would be prepared to take action. He said he could say no more than that if French came to the assistance of the Czechs Russia would take action. We asked him whether he intended to raise the matter at the League, and, if so, whether he would wait to take action while the league was discussing the question. He said that they might desire to raise the matter in the League; this would not alter the proposition that he had stated, namely, that Czechoslovak Soviet Pact would come into force.
The Soviet Union had no common boundaries with either Germany or Czechoslovakia. It was known that Poland and Roumania would refuse to the Soviet army the right of passage. There were indications that Roumania would, unofficially, abstain from opposing the passage of Soviet aircrafts over her territory.
Therefore, and unless the Soviet Union was prepared to invade Roumania or Poland and be branded an aggressor, the only help the Soviet Union could give was in the air. This could be quite valuable.
There was, however, a way to circumvent the Polish and Roumania’s reluctance to let the Soviet army cross their territory. Article 16 of the League’s Covenant says:
3. The members of the League agree.. that they will take the necessary steps to afford passage through their territory to the forces of any of the Members of the League which are co-operating to protect the covenants of the League.
The recourse to the League could give to the Soviet Union a legal right to cross the territories of Poland or Roumania in case of a German aggression against Czechoslovakia, condemned as such by the League. Litvinov was quick to add that the treaty of mutual assistance between Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union would come into force without waiting the results of the League’s debate. This meant that, at least, assistance from the air would be immediately forthcoming. While land assistance might have to wait for League decisions. Butler added:
..he would like to suggest to us.. that a meeting of the three Powers mentioned, together with Roumania and any small Power who could be regarded as reliable, should take place away from the atmosphere of Geneva, and preferably in Paris, and so show Germans that we mean business. He said that Geneva meetings never impressed the Germans. He would be ready then to discuss military and air questions, upon which he was not posted, since he had been away from Russia for such a time..
He said he had one further statement which he himself had not made publicly which he would impart to us: Soviet Government had informed Polish Government that, in the event of Poland attacking Czechoslovakia in Teschen area, pact of non-aggression existing between Poland and Russia would automatically lapse and Russia would take action.
It is not reasonable to take exception to Litvinov’s statements . It cannot be said that his talk diminished in any measure the extent or the prospects of a Soviet intervention to assist Czechoslovakia in case of need. He suggested that the military aspects of the question be discussed in a meeting in Paris. This offer was not accepted. The warning to Poland was more than what France or Britain had done. Should Poland invade Czechoslovakia ‘Russia would take action’, and the problem of right of passage through Polish territory would be automatically resolved.
Chamberlain, in spite of Hitler’s repeated treaty violations and his failure to keep his own word and promises, often asked that Hitler’s word be taken at face value. In the case of the Soviet Union, in spite of a respectable record regarding international law, Chamberlain would not take her words at face value, would not even try to commit her publicly in the measure which would be found satisfactory to Britain. Had he tried and then failed, he would then had, at least, exposed the unreliability of the Soviet Union. As events developed, it was Britain and France who turned out to be the unreliable ‘friends’ of Czechoslovakia.
In the evening of September 30, 1938, M. Vavrecka, the Czech minister of propaganda. gave the reasons for which Czechoslovakia had not requested the help of the Soviet Union. He said in a broadcast :
We had to consider that it would take the Russian Army weeks to come to our aid — perhaps too late, for by that time millions of our men, women and children would have been slaughtered. It was even more important to consider that our war by the side of Soviet Russia would have been not only a fight against Germany but it would have been interpreted as a fight on the side of Bolshevism. And then perhaps all of Europe would have been drawn into the war against us and Russia.
Harold Ickes reports in his diary on July 2, 1939:
Benes had been lecturing at the University of Chicago.. He was particularly explicit in saying that, at all times during the Czechoslovakian crisis, Russia was not only willing to carry out every obligation that it had entered into, it was willing to go further.
’To go further’ can only mean that the Soviet Union was prepared to assist Czechoslovakia even if France abstained to do so. This is implicitly recognised by Vavrecka, Czechoslovak Minister of Information, in his Broadcast after Munich, in which he defended the Government position not to resist Germany with only Russia to assist Czechoslovakia.
Benes was credible. To recognise that the Soviet Union was prepared to assist his country, even without France, threw a heavy responsibility on his shoulders. Whether he had been right or wrong in rejecting the Soviet help, it would have been easier on him had he denied that the help was available.
The Soviet Union had suggested a meeting with Britain and France to discuss the practical military assistance that she would give Czechoslovakia. This offer was rejected. All the steps taken by the Soviet Union with respect to the Czechoslovak crisis were proper and in keeping with an intention to assist Czechoslovakia against a German aggression.
The Soviet Union who, in spite of unfavourable geographical conditions, alone helped the Spanish Republic against Franco and his Nazi and Fascist supporters, should not be accused of bluffing with respect to Czechoslovakia; especially that her supposed bluff had never been called off.