THE POLICY OF A FREE HAND. PART 4
(From Munich to War)
The Post Munich Atmosphere
The British Government had made a colossal effort to instil the fear of war in the minds and hearts of the British people. With the signature of the Munich agreement, what at first seemed to matter most was that war had been avoided. The relief, almost universally felt, generated feelings of gratitude, trust and good will towards Chamberlain. The press played its role in covering up the grim realities of the situation, stressing instead the most optimistic picture and creating a Chamberlain-mania close to adoration.
The merit of Chamberlain had been great indeed. Just a few days before Munich, it seemed that British public opinion might force the government to go to war to put a stop to Germany’s aggressions. This war, requested by the British public’s attachment for justice and fairness, would have been most unwelcome to the British establishment and would have foiled their long standing hopes and policies to unite Europe against the Soviet Union. Now such policies could be put back on track.
However, as days passed by, people came out of their scare, started to look at the balance-sheet of Munich and realised they did not like its consequences. Having approved the Munich agreement the people could hardly protest against it. Astute observers, however, reached the conclusion that a repeat of the Munich agreement would no longer get support from the British people.
Two trends could be distinguished among the supporters of the Munich agreement. There were those who considered it a sad necessity, a shameful but unavoidable surrender. Such were the feelings of Cadogan, Ironside, Strang and many others. But there were also politicians who were overjoyed that the road to friendship with Germany had finally been cleared of obstacles, and who gave little thought to the sacrifices imposed on the Czechoslovak people. Chamberlain belonged to this latter group.
While Daladier did not hide from his entourage how ashamed he felt for having signed the Munich agreement, Chamberlain felt quite differently. Strang, who accompanied Chamberlain to Munich, recorded the following :
..the Munich Conference was a distressing event. ..What was disturbing was that, at an international conference, four Powers should have discussed and taken decisions upon the cession to one of them of vital territory belonging to a fifth State, without giving a hearing to the Government of that State. The decision, after it had been reached, was merely communicated at the dead of night to representatives of the government concerned by two of the participants in the conference, for immediate acceptance under brutal duress. ..Mr Chamberlain though his original proposal had been for a conference of the four powers and Czechoslovakia, did not seem afterwards to have been much disturbed by this.
On his return to the hotel, as he sat down to lunch, the Prime Minister complacently patted his breast-pocket and said: “I’ve got it!”
The quote reveals the great difference in attitude between Strang and Chamberlain. Strang was distressed, Chamberlain was happy with his achievements. Chamberlain, as it turned out, was optimistic and confident in himself. He had no doubts he had now the situation well in hand and could pull the British people in whatever direction he chose. He knew that an essential element of his success in reversing the situation from Godesberg to Munich, was due to his personal and secret diplomacy. He would therefore have increased recourse to it.
On October 3, 1938 Lord Swinton, a trusted Conservative, told Chamberlain : “I will support you, Prime Minister, if you are quite sure in your mind that you have only been buying time for our rearmament.” According to what Lord Swinton personally told Ian Colvin, Chamberlain drew from his pocket the Chamberlain-Hitler declaration, waved it in front of Swinton and said: “But don’t you understand? I have brought back peace.” Chamberlain, off guards, revealed that he had not been motivated by gaining time. It would be an insult to Chamberlain’s intelligence to think that he believed Hitler would abstain from further aggression. His interventions in the Cabinet and in the discussions with the French colleagues show him quite aware of Germany’s appetite. But, in Chamberlain’s view, it would still be peace if Germany’s expansion in the east would not lead to a war between Germany and the West.
All was well except that Germany would not ‘play ball’. On October 9, less than two weeks after signing the friendship declaration with Chamberlain, Hitler made a speech at Saarbruecken saying :
The statesmen who are opposed to us wish for peace.. but they govern in countries whose domestic organization makes it possible that at any time they may lose their position to make way for others who are not anxious for peace. And those others are there. It only needs that in England instead of Chamberlain, Mr. Duff Cooper or Mr. Eden or Mr. Churchill should come to power, and then we know quite well that it would be the aim of these men immediately to begin a new World War..
I have, therefore, decided, as I announced in my speech at Nuremberg, to continue the construction of our fortifications in the West with increased energy
The British people were indignant at a foreign head of state’s attempt to intervene in the internal affairs of their country. Hitler’s speech increased their reluctance at tighter relations with Germany. Chamberlain had to seek ways at repairing the damage.
Plotting With Germany The Manipulation Of British Public Opinion
On October 11, 1938, Dr. Fritz Hesse reported to Dirksen, who in turn reported to Weizsacker his superior in Berlin, a most important conversation he had with an ‘agent’ of Chamberlain. This agent was George F. Steward.
Hesse’s report, if reliable, and Steward’s statements to him, if done on Chamberlain’s instructions, indicated that Chamberlain believed he was in cahoots with Hitler in the pursuit of an objective which had to be achieved against the will of the British people, the House of Commons, the British Foreign Office and the British Cabinet. The credibility of this report is therefore a matter of importance. It depends on the reliability of two persons: Dr. Hesse and George F. Steward.
Dr. Hesse was the representative of a German news agency as well as of the Ribbentrop office in London. It would have been highly dangerous for a man in his position to invent or distort important statements. He sent his report to Ribbentrop and the German Foreign Office through Dirksen, the German ambassador in London. He could reasonably have expected that such an important report as his, would be given great consideration in Germany. There the authorities might have ways to check its authenticity and validity. If Hesse had been playing a game, he must have known that it would be soon discovered. It can therefore safely be assumed that the most significant parts of the report had been written by Hesse with an effort for accuracy.
As to Steward, he was no newcomer. In 1938 he had already been, for nine years, a member of the Prime Minister’s office at 10 Downing Street where he would remain till 1940. Had he been playing a game, he had to know. like Hesse, that it was also bound to be discovered.
It sometimes occurs that a person, in a private capacity, tries to play a bigger political role than is allowed by his official position. Such a person may exaggerate his own importance and the extent of his information. He may even give advice with ambiguous hints that it came from ‘higher’ sources.
In a previous contact with Hesse, Steward had given such advice but mentioned that he was speaking in his own name and had no official authority. This time, however, he spoke as the authorised agent of Neville Chamberlain and he acted with such authority. The suggestion to by-pass the Foreign Office and the British ambassador in Berlin, for instance, is made with the assurance of a person making it in the name of the Prime Minister. Steward was too much of an experienced public servant, too close to Chamberlain to have assumed a role he was not authorised to play. What he was saying had great implications on the relations between Britain and Germany and, in particular, between Chamberlain and Hitler. As a game played by Steward, the latter must have known that soon he will not only be discovered but would have to pay a very high price for impersonating a ‘confidential agent’ of Chamberlain.
As a matter of fact his relation with Germany was indeed discovered. The following is reported by Dilks in ‘The Diaries of Sir Alexander Cadogan’ (op. cit, p. 126):
On 28 November  an officer of the Intelligence Service brought Cadogan material which seemed to show that someone at 10 Downing Street [the P.M. residence] was in contact with Ribbentrop through Fritz Hesse, press adviser to the German Embassy in London. Cadogan decided that he must speak to Halifax. “Don’t want to,” says the diary, “as he’s getting rather fed up, and I don’t want to give him reason for resigning. But we must stop this sort of thing.” Sir Alexander, guessing that Halifax would tackle Chamberlain, felt that if the Prime Minister had not inspired the approach he should know of it; if he had, he should know the twist which Hesse had given it (for example, saying to Ribbentrop that it proved Britain would give Germany everything she asked for in 1939). Halifax talk to Chamberlain on the evening of 29 November. “He aghast (H. thinks genuinely)” Cadogan recorded that night, ‘and want to follow it up, but H., on my prompting, said I must have 24 hours’ notice before he does (to save our source).’ The diary, although it contains several further references to this episode, does not round it off. A member of the Prime Minister’s staff was eventually warned by Sir Horace Wilson against indiscreet talk. Cadogan noted that “this will put a brake on them all.”
This last comment indicated that Cadogan did not believe in the P.M.’s innocence. The “member of the Prime Minister’s staff” was of course Steward. As to Horace Wilson who warned Steward against ‘indiscreet talk’, he would later speak with German representatives in a way similar to Steward’s talk to Hesse. Moreover he then proposed to bring Chamberlain in person ‘here and then’ to confirm his (Wilson’s) statements.
If Steward was playing a game, he was guilty of more than just ‘indiscreet talk’. What he was doing had legitimately raised the suspicion of the intelligence authorities. He could have been prosecuted as a spy. An official enquiry was in order, but was not made. All this strongly suggest that Steward was indeed acting under Chamberlain’s instruction.
We will see that the uncovering of Steward did not stop Chamberlain from using special channels, unknown to his Secretary of State, the Foreign Office and the British Cabinet. There are even reasons to believe that Steward himself continued, though more carefully to act as a go between, to provide special connections between Chamberlain and Ribbentrop. This adds credibility to Hesse’s report. Hesse’s document can therefore be considered a reliable account of his conversation with the ‘confidential agent of Chamberlain’. Hesse writes :
I had an interview with a confidential agent of Neville Chamberlain, the Prime Minister, who in the course of a lengthy conversation gave me among other things the following instructive information:
1. During the recent critical days the Prime Minister had actually made decisions entirely alone with his two intimate advisers and in the last decisions had no longer asked the opinion of any member of the Cabinet, not even of Lord Halifax, the Foreign Secretary.. In the end the Prime Minister had not received assistance or support of any kind from the Foreign Office, which on the contrary had striven during the last 3 days to sabotage his plans and commit Great Britain to warlike action against Germany. The final outcome was therefore due exclusively to Chamberlain, who had however thereby ignored the provisions of the British Constitution and customary Cabinet usage
Chamberlain is no defender of democracy. Having taken cognition of Hitler’s fears — that he, Chamberlain is tied by the rules of a regime which might bring him down and replace him, for instance, by Eden — he promptly let Hitler know that he, Chamberlain, was the master of the situation, acting without the restraint of the Foreign Office, the Foreign Secretary, the Cabinet, the Constitution and Cabinet usage. In short, he was, in practice, the dictator of Britain . Hesse continued:
2. My informant expressly drew my attention to the fact that an extremely bitter feeling against us prevailed in the whole of the Foreign Office. He thought he could assure me that there they had sworn to be “revenged” on Germany and particularly on von Ribbentrop. We should not allow ourselves to be deceived in this matter; in all future moves it was important that all major questions should be dealt with direct, thus bypassing the Foreign Office and also Sir Neville Henderson, since it had unfortunately become apparent that the latter was not completely reliable when forwarding communications. Furthermore, the Foreign Office would always be brought in by Henderson, and thus there was the risk of causing all kinds of obstruction and undesirable publicity.
The Munich policy had been approved by the House of Commons by a large majority. This constituted a mandate for Chamberlain to persevere with his policies. Were Chamberlain’s intention to be no more than the improvement of relations with Germany along the Munich line, he did not have to be secretive about it. Differences with the Foreign Office could have been easily settled in the House of Commons with the support of the British people.
The fact is that there was a secret agreement between Hitler and Chamberlain. It had been made behind the back of the Foreign Office, of the Cabinet, of the Foreign Secretary, of the House of Commons and of the British people. Chamberlain had already acted alone , and, by a colossal staging, succeeded in making the whole country adopt his view. It now seemed to him that he could repeat the feat and implement the remainder of his secret agenda.
As before, his success depended on secrecy. Again, he is found working against the will of all the elements of democracy of the British governing institutions (Cabinet, Foreign Office, House of Commons and the British people) in cahoots with his German friends. --- Steward’s statements to Hesse, in the name of the Prime Minister, been known at the time, Chamberlain could have, justifiably, been accused of treason. Hesse continued:
3. The British people were now beginning to reflect on the results of Munich. An extremely difficult situation has thus arisen, in which we, on the German side had it in our power to influence British public opinion to a far greater extent than we imagined. It was particularly important that in these times care should be taken to avoid giving the impression of German interference in British affairs. Above all, the informant thought, it would be wrong for us on the German side to take up the challenge of the Opposition and try conclusions with them. The opposition group comprising Eden, Churchill, Duff Cooper, Attlee, Sinclair, etc., would receive undesirable publicity from any German attack. A German attack on these personages would to a certain extent provide a sort of gratuitous advertisement for them.
What a confession! So, when the British people starts reflecting on Munich it results in an extremely difficult situation! It seems that the Munich Agreement was not such a good deal after all. Hesse went on:
4. On the other hand, if we wished to do something positive, it was especially important for us to emphasize again and again that we trusted Chamberlain because he wanted peace and for us to stress our wish to live in lasting friendship with the British people. As a matter of fact it was desirable for propaganda to be put out which would manifest the desire on the part of Germany for friendship between the British and the German peoples.
This is unprecedented in British history. Chamberlain who knew that, when the public starts to reflect, things become difficult for him, therefore asked Germany to emphasise ‘again and again’ that they trust Chamberlain for his love of peace. Why ‘again and again’? Simply because it is not true. Chamberlain is not working for peace, and if he were, this would not have constituted a reason endearing him to Hitler.
Secretly begging for public praise of a foreign head of state is not what is expected from a British Prime Minister. The suggested statement — to be made again and again — is in praise of Chamberlain and justifies his policy towards Germany. At a time when things became very difficult for Chamberlain, he had recourse to dubious ways more fitting a would-be-dictator. Hesse continued:
5. As far as the Czech question itself was concerned, it was important that, in order to create a favourable impression in Britain, we should avoid two things: “boasting and bullying .” In particular it would make a fatal impression if we were to threaten too much with our military strength. The latter would be extremely dangerous for the efforts of all friends of peace and all friends of Germany in Britain. My informant emphasized here that the British decision in the Czech conflict, and Chamberlain’s attitude in particular, had never been dictated by a consciousness of military weakness but exclusively by the religious idea that Germany must have justice and that the injustice of Versailles must be made good.
Steward knew that Nazi Germany would not stop threatening Europe with her military strength. He however argued that ‘too much’ of it would make an unfavourable impression. How much is too much is not said . Steward denied that the British leaders, Chamberlain at least, were conscious of a military weakness. This was not an attempt at misinforming the German authorities. Even Chamberlain could not have believed that Germany’s estimate of the British military strength would be based on his word only. Whether he was right or wrong, Chamberlain did believe that Britain adopted the Munich policy by her free choice, and not because of her weakness.
Each person is entitled to his religion. World War II might have been avoided if Chamberlain and his friends had been motivated by a different religion as, for instance, the belief that Germany, with her Nazi regime, should not be allowed to extend its persecution over a single additional person, and should not be allowed to increase her relative military strength. Hesse continued:
6. The question whether we wished to continue further the policy initiated in the Anglo-German friendship protocol of Munich.. was regarded by the Prime Minister as being of the greatest importance. My informant maintained that the impression about this prevailing in London was by no means unanimous. If we wished to continue to help the Prime Minister, it was of the greatest importance that further declarations and speeches should be made, in which in particular the line “Never again war between Britain and Germany” should be followed, while at the same time we should however have to make similar declarations to France as well to avoid giving the impression that we were intending to separate Britain and France.
It is precisely because the support for Chamberlain’s policy towards Germany ‘was by no means unanimous’ that Chamberlain requested Germany’s help, which amounts to a request for an intervention in Britain’s internal affairs. Again Germany is requested to make declarations regarding peace with Britain; to improve the impression, she is also requested to make similar declarations to France. No need for peace declarations with Eastern Europe, even if only for a good impression. And now Hesse comes to the most revealing part of his report:
8. My informant then drew attention to the importance of the armaments problem at some length and with special insistence. The informant thought that something would have to be done in this sphere in particular in order to strengthen Chamberlain’s position. If Chamberlain had success in the disarmament question, he would find an opportunity to go to the country for a general election. By giving Chamberlain success in the disarmament question we had it in our power to stabilize or not to stabilize pro-German tendencies in Great Britain. To an objection that this was a difficult question, he replied that it was important in this instance to make a moral impression.
It is disheartening to find out that a vital issue concerning peace and security, an issue so close to the public’s feelings, is here exploited “to strengthen Chamberlain’s position”. It is more disheartening to find that Chamberlain is trying to draw Germany to help him make his next colossal staging against the British people.
Chamberlain recognised that his grip on the British people was weakening. The pursuit of his agenda was in danger. Tricks had been useful in the past, a new one was obviously needed now. The idea was as follows: if ‘a moral impression’ can be made, that would be perceived as a hope for disarmament, this would be enough of a proof for the British people that Chamberlain’s policy had been a success. Chamberlain could then win a landslide election, proclaim that the people had just expressed its approval for his policies. He would therefore be able to disregard the opposition and go ahead with his agenda.
The implementation of this trick crucially depended on Germany’s collaboration. Hesse explained how difficult the problem was. This, in diplomatic language, meant that Germany did not have the least intention of disarming. For Steward, Chamberlain’s representative, it was not objectionable since the important matter was not disarmament per se, but the ‘moral impression’.
Britain Proposes To Germany A Military Alliance
Germany, however, was not helpful. Her behaviour made matters still more difficult for Chamberlain. R.W. Seton-Watson described how Britain and France, in implementing the Munich Agreement, allowed the imposition of tougher conditions then were requested by Germany in her Godesberg proposal. He gave a long list of infractions to the principle of self-determination, all in favour of Germany or Poland. This was done with the assent of the British and French representatives in the International Commission which was entrusted to draw the boundaries between Germany and Czechoslovakia.
Henderson was representing Britain on this Commission. He wrote :
I decided.. to pin the German down to a line of their own choosing, which they would find it difficult afterward to modify again to their renewed advantage
Even after Munich, Britain was still helping Germany in getting more chunks of Czechoslovakia. Nonetheless, and in spite of the British compliance with the German demands, Germany went so far as to, altogether, dispense of the ‘services’ of the British Ambassador. Seton-Watson has this to say :
Certainly the Czechs are entitled to claim that the Vienna Award was an ‘economic monstrosity’ of the first order: and we on our side are entitled to note the ignominious manner in which the British and French Governments submitted to their exclusion from Vienna, in direct defiance of the terms arranged at Munich.
It was widely felt that Germany was not true to ‘the spirit of Munich’. Not so, in the Chamberlain circle. Dirksen, the then German Ambassador in London, recorded :
Nevertheless, leading British Cabinet Ministers were loath to let the links with Germany break during these weeks. In various speeches Chamberlain, Lord Simon, and Lord Templewood, amongst other, directly or indirectly requested Germany to produce a program of her wishes for negotiations; colonies, raw materials, disarmament, and limitations of sphere of interest were mentioned. In a long interview during a week-end visit, Sir Samuel Hoare approached me with these ideas
Dirksen gives more details in a report written on October 31, 1938 :
Thanks to invitations for the last two week ends I have had the opportunity of having detailed exchanges of views with two members of the Cabinet — the Home Secretary, Sir Samuel Hoare, and the Minister of Transport, Burgin; these conversations were supplemented by conversations with other people in political life closely acquainted with the Prime Minister. I draw from this the following picture of the attitude of the British Government toward Germany.
Chamberlain has complete confidence in the Fuhrer.. Now Chamberlain intends to take new steps shortly to bring about a settlement with Germany.. The Munich protocol had laid the foundation for a reshaping of Anglo-German relations. A lasting rapprochement between the two countries is regarded by Chamberlain and the British Cabinet as one of the chief aims of British foreign policy, because world peace can be secured in the most effective manner by this combination.
..From the mood prevailing in Government circles it can be expected that Chamberlain will shortly make proposals to the Fuhrer for a continuation of the policy initiated at Munich.
This was just an introduction describing the mood within the Prime Minister’s circle. Dirksen continued:
For such talks, agreements on the armament question and the humanizing of war are to be regarded as those subjects which interest the British most..
The great difficulties facing German agreement to quantitative limitations are appreciated here . Britain therefore understands that all discussions on limiting air armaments will have to be carried out with Germany simultaneously keeping an eye on Soviet air power. At least, in answer to my statements regarding this, Sir Samuel Hoare let slip the observation that, after a further rapprochement between the four European great powers, the acceptance of certain defence obligations, or even a guarantee by them against Soviet Russia, was conceivable in the event of an attack by Soviet Russia .
Guaranteeing Germany against an attack by the Soviet Union, when all expectations expressed in inner governmental circles were for a German attack against the Soviet Union, just meant that Britain was proposing to support Germany’s ambitions against the Soviet Union. When Czechoslovakia was a prospective victim, no British guarantee was offered to her. British could not commit herself to the status quo in Eastern Europe. When, however, the prospective victim is the Soviet Union, Britain, suddenly is prepared to commit herself to help the aggressor.
Were, for instance, the Soviet Union to intervene militarily in defence of a victim of German aggression, it could be considered to be a case of aggression against Germany. Such a scenario, we have seen, had been considered by Vavrecka, the Czech Minister for propaganda. It was also his declared reason for refusing to ask the Soviet Union for help when the French help was not forthcoming.
Another case considered in conversations between Britain and France, was a German intervention in Ukraine to support an ‘independence movement’ there. France gave Britain the assurance that in such a case France was not committed to assist the Soviet Union against Germany.
The British position on armaments reduction was well understood by Dirksen. After having read from Hesse that Britain was asking only for ‘a moral impression’ and after Hoare’s stated how difficult the matter was, Dirksen could write in the same report:
This much can be regarded as certain concerning the general attitude of Chamberlain or of the British Cabinet: for the British Government a satisfactory solution of the armaments question, which would allow it in particular to save face at home, is the starting point for the negotiations vis-a-vis the public.
Wilson would later tell Germany that the topic of disarmament was only for public consumption. However, sufficient hints were given to Dirksen by various British responsible personalities to quench any doubt. He was certain.
Free Hand To Germany: More Than Just A Policy Of Weakness
Many British leaders supported the policy of a free hand to Germany in the belief that, in her state of weakness, Britain had no other viable option. They considered the free hand policy a temporary measure dictated by the necessity of avoiding war with Germany. They believed that once England would have rearmed properly, she could talk in a different language to Germany.
Other British leaders had no such reservations. The free hand was in their eyes the proper policy, whether Britain was weak or strong. As matters developed, it became evident that the latter outlook was the only possible view acceptable to Germany.
A free hand to Germany would be of no use to her were she to feel insecure on her western front. Germany would let it be known that a policy of a free hand to her would not be compatible with increasing the offensive military capability of the West. Therefore, only a free hand policy on the part of the West associated with friendship with Germany, could be accepted as a sign that she would not suddenly be confronted with a war on two fronts. The expected sign of friendship were to be practical measures taken to prevent the ‘warmongers’ such as Churchill from making their voice heard, and a modest British rearmament program restricted to defensive measures. Chamberlain was trying to oblige, but could not always deliver.
Joseph Kennedy was the U.S. Ambassador to Britain. On October 12, he sent a report to Cordell Hull on a conversation he had with Halifax :
I spent an hour and a half with Halifax this afternoon drinking tea in front of his fireplace while he outlined to me what I think may be the future policy of His Majesty’s Government.
The atmosphere of the conversation was particularly warm. It reflected the fact that Kennedy, through his constant encouragement of the policy of appeasement, had become a personal friend to the Chamberlain circle of politicians. Halifax could confide in Kennedy as a friend and as a representative of a friendly power. Kennedy went on:
First of all, Halifax does not believe that Hitler wants to have a war with Great Britain and he does not think there is any sense in Great Britain having a war with Hitler unless there is direct interference with England’s Dominions. The future of England, as he sees it is to strengthen herself in the air, and “by the way France should do the same.” so that nobody can get fresh with them from the air. Then after that to let Hitler go ahead and do what he likes in Central Europe. In other words, there is no question in Halifax’s mind that reasonably soon Hitler will make a start for Danzig, with Polish concurrence, and then for Memel, with Lithuanian acquiescence, and even if he decides to go in Rumania it is Halifax’s idea that England should mind her own business.. he sees the future of England lies in her maintaining her relations in the Mediterranean, keeping friendly relations with Portugal, he hopes Spain, Greece, Turkey, Egypt, Palestine.., plus England’s connections in the Red sea, fostering the Dominion connections, and staying very friendly with the United States, and then, as far as every else is concerned, Hitler can do the best he can for himself.
Halifax’s confidence to Kennedy is rich in implications:
w Halifax did not belief in Hitler’s peaceful intentions concerning all of Europe. He was specific in mentioning that it was with Great Britain that Hitler did not want war.
w As long as Hitler did not encroach on Britain’s sphere, there was no sense for Britain to make war against Germany. This meant that Hitler could do what he wanted in Eastern and Central Europe, and Britain would find no sense in opposing him. This was, by definition, a policy of free hand to Germany in Central and Eastern Europe.
w The rearmament policy of Great Britain should conform to this policy of a free hand to Germany. Britain and France should plan to become strong in the air so that Germany would not be able to be ‘fresh’ with them. No rearmament is considered of a nature which would prevent Germany, at a given future, to proceed with her ambition in Eastern Europe. England should mind her own business and not interfere with Germany’s business.
Since Halifax’s talk to Kennedy occurred so close after Munich, there can be no doubt that it was related to Halifax’s view of what Munich had been about.
On October 31, 1938, the very day Hoare offered Germany a British alliance against the Soviet Union, Chamberlain told the Cabinet :
Our policy is one of appeasement. We must aim at establishing relations with the Dictator Powers which will lead to a settlement in Europe and a sense of stability. A good deal of false emphasis has been placed.. in the country and in the Press.. on rearmament, as though one result of the Munich agreement has been that it will be necessary to add to our rearmament programmes.
Chamberlain, in order to convince the Cabinet to agree on the Berchtesgaden proposals — and then on the Godesberg ones — underlined the fact that he trusted Hitler and his solemn declaration that the annexation of the Sudeten region was his last claim in Europe. Now, again, one month later, Chamberlain spoke of a need for a settlement with the dictator powers towards stability in Europe. Chamberlain must have suspected that there was more than the Sudeten in Germany’s appetite. Chamberlain’s views reflected his trust in that Germany would move exclusively to the East. They also were a response to Hitler’s verbal attack against the British rearmament on October 9, 1938.
Were it also true that Chamberlain’s surrender at Munich was reflecting British military weakness, Chamberlain would not have opposed the emphasis put on rearmament, whether in the country or in the Press. At the next Cabinet meeting, on November 7, 1938, Chamberlain, Inskip and Kingsley Wood were resisting suggestions for increased rearmament. In particular, Chamberlain expressed his opposition against any progress in the program for heavy bombers . Ian Colvin reports about Chamberlain:
The Prime Minister now backed Sir John. He ‘thought that it was rather difficult to represent this part of our force (bomber strength) as in any way defensive..
Chamberlain was on record for stating that the best defence for Britain would consist in the deterrence of a strong bomber force. Now he had a difficulty of ‘representation’. He does not mention the ‘constituency’ with respect to which this difficulty would appear. France, of course would not object. The British people had been told by Baldwin, long ago, that bombers would always go through and that the only defence would be the deterrence of retaliation.
In the meantime, new technical means had been developed to reduce the bomber threat, but they were not yet made public. There was therefore no problem in ‘representing’ to the British public the deterrent value of the bomber which still remained very real. The difficulties of ‘representation’ were with respect to Germany. It was essential for the success of the policy of appeasement to convince Germany that, while busy in the East, she had nothing to fear in the West.
On November 1, 1938 Halifax wrote to Phipps :
The position, as I see it, is rather as follows: there can be no assured peace in Europe unless genuine agreement can be reached between Germany, Great Britain and France.
One of the chief difficulties of the past has been the unreal position which France was occupying in Central and Eastern Europe. She claimed great influence in the policies of the Central European States in virtue of her system of alliances, but owing to the rising strength of Germany. and France’s neglect of her own defence, she could no longer count upon being able to make her claim effective.. With the conclusion of the Munich agreement and the drastic change in French policy in Central Europe which that involves, Franco-German relations should have a fresh start.
Henceforward we must count with German predominance in Central Europe. Incidentally I have always felt myself that, once Germany recovered her normal strength, this predominance was inevitable for obvious geographical and economical reasons.
In these conditions it seems to me that Great Britain and France have to uphold their predominant position in Western Europe by the maintenance of such armed strength as would render any attack upon them hazardous. They should also firmly maintain their hold on the Mediterranean and the Near East. They should also keep a tight hold on their Colonial Empires and maintain the closest ties with the United States of America
If we juxtapose the following statements:
w a chief difficulty was the unreal position France occupied in Central Europe
w We must count with a German predominance in Central Europe.
w the Munich agreement involved a drastic change in French policy in Central Europe.
it all translates to one single indubitable fact: Britain and France have abandoned Central Europe to Germany’s dominance. Germany can have a free hand there.
This free hand is not only recognised as a regrettable matter of fact. It becomes a matter of policy representing ‘a fresh start for Franco-German relations’ and is the conclusion built upon a premise stated at the beginning of the letter: “There can be no assured peace unless genuine agreement can be reached between Germany Great Britain and France”. The free hand in Central Europe for Germany, thus described by Halifax, was his vision for the realisation of assured peace.
That it was a matter of division of spheres of influences was clarified by statements to the effect that:
w the west would hold to their predominance in Western Europe, the Mediterranean, the middle East, its colonial empires.
Halifax explained that the change in the situation of Central Europe resulted from the strengthening of Germany and France’s neglect of her defence. This claim is less than candid. Germany’s strengthening resulted from her numerous treaty violations and it was Britain that prevailed on France to prevent her from taking appropriate countermeasures that would have forced Germany to respect the treaties. Of all the measures that affected the relative balance between France and Germany the remilitarisation of the Rhineland was the most decisive. At the time, Baldwin expressed the opinion that intervention to re-establish the status quo ante could result in Germany becoming communist. Finally, Halifax does not say that Germany’s expansion in Central and Eastern Europe had been predicted by Britain and discussed at a meeting of the Committee of Imperial defence, and had been found no threat to British vital interests. In this light we may judge the next statement by Halifax:
The greatest lesson of the crisis has been the unwisdom of basing a foreign policy on insufficient strength.. It is one thing to allow German expansion in Central Europe, which in my mind is a normal and natural thing, but we must be able to resist German expansion in Western Europe..
Halifax is contradicting himself. If German’s expansion in Central Europe ‘is a normal and natural thing’ then there was no ‘unwisdom’ in Britain’s policy which had allowed just that. Halifax then describes his outlook for the future:
The immediate future must necessarily be a time of more or less painful readjustments to the new realities in Europe. While my broad conclusion is that we shall see Germany consolidate herself in Central Europe, with Great Britain and France doing the same in Western Europe, the Mediterranean and overseas.. What is to be the role of Poland and the Soviet Union? If the Poland of Beck, as I take to be the case, can never ally herself with Soviet Russia, and if France, having once burnt her fingers with Czechoslovakia, releases her alliance with Poland the latter can presumably only fall more and more into the German orbit.
’Painful readjustments to the new realities of Europe’ as well as Germany consolidating herself in Central Europe’ must be understood in conjunction with the fact that German expansion in Central Europe is ‘a natural and normal thing’
Chamberlain’s refusal to guarantee the remainder of Czechoslovakia, except in conjunction with Germany, Italy and France, becomes understandable. Expansion and consolidation being normal for Germany, Britain should not make the commitment to have to defend Czechoslovakia against Germany. In practice, Germany could do the normal thing, which is to expand over the rest of Czechoslovakia without England incurring any reproach since France and Britain together would not constitute a majority of guarantors.
Halifax’s statement revealed much more. Britain had no problem with Poland being turned into a German satellite. As to France, having once burned her fingers with Czechoslovakia, she was expected to relax her alliances. Halifax then considered the question of Russia:
There is the problem raised by the possible German expansion into the Ukraine. Subject only to the consideration that I should hope France would protect herself — and us — from being entangled by Russia in war with Germany, I would hesitate to advise the French Government to denounce the Franco-Soviet pact as the future is still far too uncertain!
This is a masterpiece of duplicity. Halifax was hoping that France could, in practice, make the Franco-Soviet pact work only in one way. Soviet Union would help France in case of need, while France, Halifax hopes, would disentangle herself from obligations in case the Soviet Union would need France’s help. This means that in case of ‘the possible German expansion in the Ukraine’, Halifax expected there would be no restraining force from the west to handicap Germany’s military operations. Little consideration was given to the enormous increase of power that would accrue to Germany after becoming the master of the Ukraine, and the resulting mortal danger to France and to Britain. Naturally, much less consideration was given to the pain and sorrow that would be inflicted on the Soviet population by a German aggression against Ukraine.
While Chamberlain and Halifax seemed quite satisfied, some close collaborators felt ill at ease with the situation resulting from Munich. On November 7, 1938, Cadogan, the man Chamberlain brought to replace Vansittart, entered in his diary:
We are back in the old lawless Europe and have got to look out for ourselves. It is not always profitable to look too much at the mistakes of the past, but surely our great mistake has been to act too long on the belief that Versailles settlement could be maintained. And yet, if that really was our policy, we ought to have reacted against the occupation of the Rhineland, when we could have done so effectively. We did not and the policy is now out of date.
Cadogan spoke of mistakes of the past. Chamberlain did not see it that way. He was confident in the strength of Great Britain. Iain Macleod reports that, at a City luncheon party at the House of Common in mid December, 1938, Chamberlain said :
They might take it that when the German statesmen — he would not say the German people — reflected on the possible consequences of a conflict, if it ever arose, they would think not only of our armaments but of our great financial resources which in a war of long duration, might well prove to be a deciding factor.
A leader who would have worried about the threat of the German military strength, would not have raised false hopes and a feeling of security with regard to the level of military preparedness. After such a statement, his audience would not approve great spending on armaments. However, Chamberlain had received information concerning Germany’s ambitions, and he was optimistic.
A secret discussion between British leaders had occurred in December 7, 1938, to examine the merits of a German proposal. Vansittart commented:
Not content of having dismembered Czechoslovakia, the Germans now wish to do the same to Poland and wish us to connive officially at their ambition by double-crossing the Poles before-hand. Such an attitude is impossible for any honourable nation to adopt, and the sooner it is dismissed, the better. The answer that may be made to this is that Germany will soon take the corridor anyhow. That is pure defeatism in the first place, and in the second place such a consummation is unnecessary if Poland will readjust her relations sensibly with Russia.. The Germans are so well aware of this that the Ribbentrop school is already bent on detaching the Ukraine from Russia and breaking up the present Russian regime from within. The German think they can overturn the Stalin State.. We would then have in Germany a regime that had installed in Russia a regime favourable to itself, and had completely paralysed Poland by annexing the corridor. If that is not a total domination of Europe, I don’t know what is. And we are apparently expected to be foolish enough not only to connive, but to consent to it in advance.. In addition we are expected to make substantial colonial concessions. Besides colonies we are also to give them a large loan.
It is evident that Germany had finally made clear the extent of her ambitions. It is also clear that these ambitions, and Britain’s expected connivance, had not been rejected off hand by the British leaders. Halifax, in his previously quoted letter to Phipps, had stated that Britain had to hold to the West while abandoning the East to Germany. Britain is now asked to also actively support Germany in the realisation of their plans in Eastern Europe.
Germany could not be expected to move Eastward without feeling her back secure, that is, without knowing the West’s intentions. On November 24, 1938, the same day in which Chamberlain requested from France clarification as to her stand should Germany cause trouble in the Ukraine to the Soviet Union, Harold Nicolson entered the following in his diary :
A meeting of the group at Ronnie Tree’s house. Hopkinson is there and tells us the reasons for which he refused the Government whip. It seems that Chamberlain is trying to put all the blame for our disarmament on Thomas Inskip, and as Hopkins was Inskip’s P.P.S. he is leaving him in order to defend him against attacks he will not counter himself.. The Government are really not telling the country the truth. He had seen Kingsley Wood, and the latter had admitted quite frankly that we can do little without a Ministry of Supply, but to appoint such a Minister would arouse the anger of Germany. That is a dreadful confession.
This dreadful confession was reported by a man who had just been proposed the Government whip. This indicated how great was the Confidence of the Conservative party in him. This refusal to appoint a minister of supply is in line with Chamberlain’s opposition to the production of heavy bombers. Germany was given to know that she was safe on her Western borders. The situation looked hopeful. Britain and France were convinced that Germany would move Eastward.
Bullitt, the U.S. Ambassador to Paris, had been in the confidence of the French leaders. They were so eager to develop the U.S. friendship that they would report to him all important events, even if secret, and would consult him about what Britain and France should do. On December 10, Ickes, the U.S. Secretary for the interior, wrote in his diary :
The most interesting part of Bullitt’s talk that night, was our discussion of the foreign situation. Bill thinks that it is now the policy of England and France to permit other nations to have their will of Russia. He believes that Germany in due course will try to take the Ukraine, which is the richest wheat area of the Soviet Union. In the process Germany will extend herself to such a degree that she cannot stand the strain. She will break under in the end. Similarly Japan will conquer or attempt to conquer Siberia, and she in time will break under that strain. But, by leaving Russia to her fate, England and France will be diverting the threat of Germany from their own lands.
Had Bullitt been an opponent of the Munich policy, he might have been suspected of describing the British and the French intentions in darker colours then reality would warrant. However, Bullitt was an enthusiastic supporter of the policy Britain and France followed with respect to Czechoslovakia, and he supported without reservation the Munich agreement. He was of the opinion that anything would be better than a war with Germany that was bound to end up with the triumph of Communism. What he is saying therefore reflects his knowledge and not a grudge against a policy.
Bullitt was well informed. Ickes went on writing in his diary:
I do know that he [Bullitt] is in an unusually good position to know what is going on in the foreign chancelleries. He is probably in a better position than any of our representatives in other lands.
We, therefore, can take it as a matter of fact that, a few days after discussing the German agenda for expansion, Britain and France had no intention to oppose it.
France Abandons Central And Eastern Europe
In France, plans were made for a Franco-German agreement similar to the Friendship declaration signed by Chamberlain and Hitler at Munich. The ‘Crystal night’ — the name later given to the pogrom of November 10 — caused some slight delay. However, the discussions resumed, and the agreement was signed on December 6, 1938.
On November 24, 1938, before signing the agreement with Germany, France invited the British leaders for conversations. She reported to the British on the Franco-German talks and the text of the Franco-German agreement scheduled to be signed later. Daladier explained that the assassination of Rath in Paris was ‘somewhat of a setback’ to the Franco-German negotiations for an agreement similar to that signed by Chamberlain and Hitler. Many would have thought that the setback would have been the barbaric pogroms organised by Germany against the Jews.
Daladier then took up the point of ‘Anglo-French Defence Measures’. At one point, Chamberlain said :
The present attitude of Germany has brought before His Majesty’s Government the possibility of a quarrel between Great Britain and Germany rather than between France and Germany, and the first blow might well, therefore, be struck against Britain rather than France.
Though on this occasion, Chamberlain reminded Daladier of a previous French declaration that in such a case France would come immediately to Britain’s assistance, and though he welcomed a French offer to publicly repeat such an assurance, there is no indication that at this moment Chamberlain thought that a German attack against the West was likely. Later, he would consider such an eventuality more seriously.
Daladier complained that the two British Divisions to be sent to France to assist her in case of a German aggression were insufficient. He reminded Chamberlain that ‘recent events in Europe’ had strengthened the power of Germany on land as a result of a diminution of the importance of the Czechoslovakian forces. Chamberlain did not give in. He tried to justify Britain’s concentration on other defence problems. It is interesting to note what Chamberlain was thinking about the bombing threat:
Mr. Chamberlain said.. It was true you could terrify people by indiscriminate bombing, but you could not win a war. Moreover, in the particular case of Great Britain, the prevalence of mist and bad visibility, together with the existence of a force of efficient fighting machines, could make it very difficult for enemy bombers to work effectively.
This should settle definitively the question of Chamberlain’s fear of a knockout German blow as a motivation for Munich. Chamberlain did not believe in its effectiveness .
The conversation then moved to the guarantee of what remained of Czechoslovakia.
Lord Halifax said there was one further point: if and when the guarantee were to be given by the four Munich Powers, His Majesty’s Government considered that their obligation should be drawn so as to make it a joint guarantee. The obligations should come into force in the case of unprovoked aggression with regard to which each signatory would judge for himself, and the guarantee would only come into force as a result of a decision by three of the four powers.
M. Bonnet complained that that reduced the value of the guarantee.
Mr. Chamberlain said that it was too dangerous so to arrange the guarantee that it might happen that France and Great Britain would have to go to war because of action on the part of the two other guarantors.
Chamberlain was ready to give a ridiculous guarantee, one that would not come into force if Czechoslovakia would be the victim of an aggression perpetrated by the only possible aggressor, namely, Germany. To Bonnet’s remark that this was a new condition not mentioned before, Chamberlain replied that it had never been mentioned that the guarantee would be unconditional. and that nothing had been specified as to the conditions required to come into effect.
Bonnet reminded Chamberlain that the Locarno guarantees were joint AND individual but ‘Chamberlain said that His Majesty’s Government could not accept such a guarantee in the case of Czechoslovakia’. Daladier intervened:
M. Daladier complained that France was in a very difficult moral position. At Munich the French Government had accepted the separation of the Sudeten population from Czechoslovakia.. To do so had not been easy for the French Government. Since that time events had moved more rapidly than had been foreseen, and the actual map of Czechoslovakia was a much more serious thing than the Godesberg map.. the Czechoslovaks.. had.. ceded very much more than had been agreed upon at Munich. If France were now to refuse to guarantee what remained of Czechoslovakia, her position would be still worse.
The practical consequence of Munich were worse than was indicated by the Godesberg memo and map. Godesberg’s proposals had been rejected by Britain under pressure of the British public opinion. It had been Chamberlain’s contention that Munich’s agreement offered a much better deal to Czechoslovakia. It turned out not to be true. Daladier intervened once more:
It seemed to him that, if France were to accept His Majesty’s Government proposal, she would be going back on the position which she had taken up at Munich. France had offered to guarantee the new frontier in order to make it easier for the Czechoslovak Government to accept the new frontier.. he repeated that His Majesty’s Government and the French Government had not imposed any conditions. Moreover, Italy and Germany had accepted to give individual guarantees.
Daladier underlined the fact that the previous French guarantee to Czechoslovakia was unconditional and it would be difficult morally to justify its replacement by a conditional guarantee, At this point Halifax made an interesting statement:
Lord Halifax said that it was also a practical question. He fully realised the justice of the French arguments, but there was perhaps some danger in establishing a position where a future Czechoslovak Government might look to France and Great Britain for support in pursuing a policy not entirely in conformity with German wishes. That would constitute a certain element of provocation to Germany; and France and Great Britain would be powerless to intervene.. The Czechoslovak army had diminished in importance and there was to be an important German road across Czechoslovak territory. It was difficult to see how, in the circumstances, France and Great Britain could implement their guarantee, and it would be humiliating for them not to be able to do so.
This is a repeat of Britain’s previous attitude which consisted in pressing for an abdication to Germany, and then pressing for next abdication because the previous one had made it hard to reject the new one. Halifax was saying in fact that France and Britain were powerless. They should therefore give only a sham guarantee, one that cannot practically come into force. It was also a recognition that Britain and France, being powerless, must resign themselves to accept to give Germany a free hand in Central Europe.
It is worthy to note that Halifax was condemning in advance any Czechoslovakian policy that would not be entirely in conformity with German wishes; it would be considered a provocation against Germany. In short, Czechoslovakia was to become a German vassal.
Previously Halifax had explained to Phipps that Poland had no choice but to become a satellite of Germany. The West, therefore, realistically according to Halifax, had to accept the fact that Germany had a free hand in Eastern Europe as well as in Central Europe. There is no indication that Britain was ready to put a stop to Germany’s expansion in these two directions. There was no indication that Britain would accept Germany’s annexations only if they were confined to territories with a German racial majority.
The Franco Russian relations were then discussed:
Mr. Chamberlain said that he would like to ask one or two questions about Franco-Polish and Franco-Russian relations. There had been indications that there might be in the minds of the German Government an idea that they could begin the disruption of Russia by the encouragement of agitation for an independent Ukraine. There was no question of the German Government taking military action. It was more subtle than that. But if there were any truth in these rumours it would be unfortunate if France should one day find herself entangled as a consequence of her relations with Russia. He asked whether the French Government had given consideration to this point.
Chamberlain contemplated with equanimity the prospect of Germany ‘beginning the disruption of Russia,’ provided France would succeed in not getting entangled. Chamberlain should not have worried so much. France, with Britain’s help had succeeded in disentangling herself from an ironclad treaty of mutual assistance with Czechoslovakia. It would not be difficult to repeat the feat with respect to France’s obligations under her treaty with the Soviet Union.
Such a position only made sense if Chamberlain trusted that Germany would be content ‘to eat bear’ and would not turn against the West. In the case of a conflict against Germany, the Soviet Union would be an indispensable ally . A disrupted Soviet Union would not be able to improve the balance of forces against Germany. Chamberlain was gambling with the safety of the West.
Bonnet confirmed that Germany’s intention was to help create an independent Ukraine. This lead Chamberlain to request some clarification. The Document goes on:
Mr. Chamberlain asked what the position would be if Russia were to ask France for assistance on the grounds that a separatist movement in Ukraine was provoked by Germany.
M. Bonnet explained that French obligations towards Russia only came into force if there were a direct attack by Germany on Russian territory.
Mr. Chamberlain said that he considered M. Bonnet’s reply entirely satisfactory.
Here, therefore, was a way for Germany to intervene aggressively against the Soviet Union without France feeling obligated to assist her.
On December 6, 1938, France and Germany signed an agreement according to which Germany was renouncing her claims on the French provinces of Alsace and Lorraine. Talks followed the signature. While recognising that France, through these talks knew what was the German stand on the main political problems, Coulondre, the French ambassador in Germany, thought it useful to send home his own impression. On December 15, 1938, he wrote to Bonnet :
The will for expansion in the East, as a matter of fact, seems to me as undeniable on the part of the Third Reich, as its [disposition to put aside] — at least for the present — any idea of conquest in the West; the one is the corollary of the other
’The one is the corollary of the other’ is not a new discovery. Germany, with its military cast untouched by the victors of World War I, with the Krupps and their like still at the helm of the German economy, was known to be a revisionist state aiming at conquests. To ensure peace exclusively in the West, implied, as a ‘corollary’, to ensure German aggressive moves in the East. The Western leaders would never acknowledge this fact publicly. Coulondre, in an internal document attaches to this fact the same truth value as that of a geometrical deduction.
The first half of Herr Hitler’s program — the integration of the Deutschtum into the Reich — has been carried out..; now the hour of “Lebensraum” has come. The insistence with which it has been explained to me that Germany has no claims in the direction of France would have been enough to enlighten me.
Once more, Coulondre underlines the direct relation between Germany’s peaceful intentions relatively to the West, with her aggressive intentions towards the East (which is implicit in ‘Lebensraum’).
Coulondre went on:
To secure mastery over Central Europe by reducing Czechoslovakia and Hungary to a state of vassalage and then to create a Greater Ukraine under German control — this is what essentially appears to be the leading idea now accepted by the Nazi leaders, and doubtless by Herr Hitler himself.
..Among those who approach him [Hitler], a political operation is thought of which would repeat, on a larger scale, that of the Sudetens: propaganda in Poland, in Rumania and in Soviet Russia in favour of Ukrainian independence; support eventually given by diplomatic pressure and by the action of armed bands; Ruthenia would be the focus of the movement. Thus by a curious turn of Fate, Czechoslovakia, which had been established as a bulwark to stem the German drive, now serves the Reich as a battering-ram to demolish the gates of the East..
It is clear that the Western leaders were aware of the consequences of the improvement of their relations with Germany. They were aware, in particular, of the vital role that Czechoslovakia, under German hegemony, would play in Germany’s plans for the conquest of Ukraine. It was not just ‘a curious turn of Fate’.
Coulondre attaches a special importance to Ruthenia and, implicitly, to Germany’s refusal, after Munich, to award Ruthenia to Hungary. Only thus could Germany use Ruthenia properly as ‘the focus of the movement’. The fate of Ruthenia naturally attracted the interest of all European politicians. It would later play an important role in the modification of the policy of appeasement. What is clear is that France knew the price she was paying for improving her relations with Germany: she was abandoning Eastern Europe to Germany’s grip.
Paul Reynaud reports Bonnet’s impressions concerning the Agreement signed with Germany on December 6, 1938 :
Bonnet himself, in an official note to all Ambassadors, declared that the impression he had derived from those conversations was that the German policy was henceforwards oriented towards the struggle against Bolshevism. The Reich was revealing its will of expansion towards the East.
Paul Reynaud, at the time, was Minister of Finance. He is a serious source of information. Germany, at the risk of displeasing Italy who at the time was claiming Nice and Corsica from France, signed a friendship agreement with France. In that agreement, Germany declared having no territorial claims against France.
What did Germany get in return for waiving her claims on Alsace and Lorraine? A first clue to this question is offered by Bonnet who derived from the conversations with Ribbentrop: Germany can now fight Bolshevism and expand to the East. There was, therefore, an obvious conflict between friendship with Germany and being faithful to the mutual assistance treaty with the Soviet Union.
On December 5, Bonnet had informed Phipps of his intention to ‘loosen the ties that bind France to Russia and Poland’ . This is the second clue to Germany’s renunciation of her claims towards France. It indicated that France had adopted the British position consisting in ‘holding to the West’ and accepting the German domination over Central and Eastern Europe.
On December 13, 1938, a dispatch from Halifax to Phipps confirmed Halifax’s awareness of this ‘reorientation’ of the French policy. Halifax wrote :
The French Ambassador came to me to-day at his own request on his return from Paris. He said that he assumed that full information was in our possession on the talks between Herr von Ribbentrop and M. Bonnet.. On the whole the conversation did not appear to amount to much. Herr Von Ribbentrop had been.. vague. The general impression that he appeared to wish to give M. Bonnet was that there was no question between France and Germany, provided France did not interfere with German plans, which appeared to M. Bonnet to be mainly concerned with possibilities in the East.
Ribbentrop hinted clearly that France was expected to not interfere with German plans which, apparently, were concerned with ‘possibilities’ in the East. The fact that this, in the French Ambassador’s opinion, ‘did not amount to much’ is in itself very revealing. It indicates that, at the time, France considered it normal to be put on notice by Germany to mind her own business and not to sniff into Germany’s affairs and in particular not in Eastern Europe.
Ribbentrop would later accuse France that, by guaranteeing Poland she violated her promise of a free hand to Germany in Central and Eastern Europe . The preceding letter by Halifax tends to prove that Ribbentrop’s claim was right. Halifax continued:
5. N. Corbin went on to say that the French Government had information that some reinforcement of the German army was in progress in the direction of creating eight new divisions, strengthening the reserves and some reorganization of the Higher Command. The French Government took the view that these measures were designed to have certain offensive advantage but that they were again inspired rather by the possible requirements of the situation in the East than elsewhere.
Again, German rearmament is o.k. provided it is inspired by ‘requirements in the East’.
Halifax did not ask ‘what were the requirements in the East’ that justified Germany’s extensive military preparations. The answer would have ‘not amounted to much’.
Clouds Over The Spirit Of Munich
On November 10, 1938, as a reaction to the assassination of a secretary of the German embassy by a young Polish Jew, the Nazis organised pogroms against the Jews in Germany. There were large destruction of property and loss of many lives. A large number of Jews were arrested and sent to concentration camps. The German Government inflicted a collective fine of 1 billion marks (the equivalent of 420 millions of dollars) on the Jewish population.
The German Government issued a number of discriminative laws against the Jews. Among them was a law stipulating they had to forfeit insurance claims to the State, though they were obligated to repair the damage caused during the pogroms. This meant that the insurance companies were compelled to pay to the State the compensations that were due to the Jews. On November 16, 1938, Sir G. Ogilvie-Forbes, the British representative in Berlin, wrote in his report to Halifax:
I think that the murder of Herr von Rath by a German born Polish Jew has only accelerated the process of elimination of the Jews which has for long been planed. This project, had it proceeded according to schedule, was cruel enough, but the opportunity offered by Grynszpan’s criminal act has let loose forces of medieval barbarism.. In spite of statements to the contrary, there can be no doubt that the deplorable excesses perpetrated on the 10th November were instigated and organized by the Government.. I did not met a single German of whatever class who in varying measure does not, to say the least, disapprove of what has occurred. But I fear it does not follow that even the outspoken condemnation of professed National Socialists or of senior officers in the army, will have any influence over the insensate gang in present control of Nazi Germany.
Sir Ogilvie-Forbes was a supporter of Chamberlain policy. As an ambassador to Spain he did not hide in his reports his sympathies for Franco. He was however an honest man. In spite of his prejudice for the rebels, he was sensitive to the sufferings of the Spanish people. He was clearly shocked by the German behaviour and so were many Englishmen among those who dreamed of a ‘settlement’ with Germany. Chamberlain was not shocked.
On November 11, as reported in ‘How war came’ , the day following the night pogroms in Germany — which were immediately reported in the whole world — “Chamberlain was writing to his sister Hilda saying he was disturbed by the continued attacks upon Britain in the German Press, and ‘the failure to make the slightest gesture of friendship’.” While the whole world was raging at Germany’s barbarism, Chamberlain was lamenting over the absence of ‘a gesture of friendship’ from Germany.
The British public opinion was inflamed against the Nazis. The anger caused by Hitler’s speech against the British opposition and fed by Germany’s bullying of Czechoslovakia, now, after the pogroms, became a wave of disgust, and determination not to allow Germany to get away with another Munich in the future. The events in Germany affected adversely Chamberlain’s popularity, but the British establishment still did not see why it should stop trusting Hitler’ moves would be directed exclusively Eastward.
On November 18, 1938, Oliver Harvey entered in his diary :
I had a long talk with W. Strang today about Munich.. Finally any war will bring vast and unknown social changes — win or lose — and no war is a solution — vide 1914. Therefore play for time and avoid fighting at all costs except on a first-class vital British interest. On the other hand, while accepting this reasoning as tenable, W. Strang says the corollary is that we should at the same time re-arm as hard as possible, and that is what the Government and the P.M. are not doing. Strang and I agree that the real opposition to re-arming comes from the rich classes in the Party who fear taxation and believe Nazis on the whole are more conservative than the Communists and Socialists: any war, whether we win or not, would destroy the rich idle classes and so they are for peace at any price. P.M. is a man of iron will, obstinate unimaginative, with intense narrow vision, a man of pre-war outlook who sees no reason for drastic social changes. Yet we are on the verge of a social revolution.
This is not a testimony of a Marxist left-winger. Both Strang and Harvey were close to the Cabinet, have reluctantly approved the Munich agreement (reluctantly because, though they disliked it, they were not sure a war with Germany would be won), both were afraid of ‘uncontrollable’ social changes and both wished that the changes could be rendered moderate by a Conservative policy recognising the need for some change. Munich has been caused by a fear of war — whether won or lost . The free hand policy reflected that fear.
Sir Ogilvie-Forbes seems to have been among the first people to sound the alarm of a possible German attack directed to the West. On December 6, 1938, the day of the signature of the Franco-German Agreement, he sent from Berlin a report to Halifax. After quoting ‘Mein Kampf’ as supporting the view that Germany would look for living space at the expense of the Soviet Union, he adds :
4. There is a school of thought here which believes that Herr Hitler will not risk a Russian adventure until he has made quite certain that his Western flank will not be attacked while he is operating in the east, and that consequently his first task will be to liquidate France and England, Before British rearmament is ready.
Soon, from various sources, there would be additional information confirming Germany’s trend to start her next move westwards. By early December, however, Ogilvie-Forbes’ message did not yet cause much disturbance.
A large number of reports and telegram exchanges dealt with the possibility of a German attack against the West. The question of the means for avoiding war with Germany were considered. It was hoped (Ogilvie-Forbes) that good relations with Goering could be helpful when accompanied by a resolve not to interfere with German plans in the East.
There were even some worries about the possible action of France, were Germany to attack Britain without attacking France. Sargent made enquiries about this eventuality and also asked an estimate of France’s military situation. The reply came in the form of a report by the British military attaché in France . His conclusions were that, as to the situation on January 4, 1939, the German defence in the West were now much stronger than they were in September 1938, just three months earlier. He thought that rescuing Poland would be a much more difficult task then it would have been to rescue Czechoslovakia in September. The French military affirmed that France would assist Britain if she was attacked by Germany since France committed herself to do so. The British military attaché added that this argument was weak since France did not, in fact, fight for Czechoslovakia. Nevertheless he tended to think that France would come to the assistance of Britain.
On December 15, 1938, Cadogan entered in his diary that Kirkpatrick, the First Secretary at the British Embassy in Berlin, brought news from a German friend that Hitler would bomb London in March . According to Telford Taylor :
Chamberlain took the report seriously enough to summon an emergency meeting of ministers and staff the following morning December 17. The Prime Minister declared that Hitler’s “next move” was more likely to be Eastward, but thought it possible “that they had this plan so as to give us a knock if we showed signs of interfering with Hitler’s eastern ambitions.”
Chamberlain was slow in seeing the light. He still trusted Hitler would go eastward. The inference of Chamberlain’s statement is that it would be sufficient to show no sign of interference with Hitler’s eastern ambition, for Britain to be safe. Chamberlain was motivated by the hope of building a new European social order, based on the collaboration between Britain and Germany. Ogilvie-Forbes, the British Chargé d’Affaires in Berlin, was reaching similar conclusions from the point of view of the British military weakness. On January 3, 1939, he wrote to Halifax :
3. ..There is only one direction in which Herr Hitler with comparative ease could possess himself of many of the raw materials lacking to Germany, and that is in the East, and consequently the agricultural and mineral resources of the Ukraine and even of Roumanian territory are the subject of much talk. It is in that direction that Germany appears most likely to break out.
Ogilvie-Forbes had no doubt that Germany would soon resume her aggressive march. The opinion was that Ukraine would be the most likely target because it was an easy task. It was also reflecting the press obsessions with a German conquest of the Ukraine. It also corresponded with the hope that Germany would thus justify the trust of the West, and, in particular, of Britain who allowed her to become, again, a terrible military power. Ogilvie-Forbes continues:
4. Unfortunately, there are other considerations which compel an observer not to ignore the West.
Ogilvie-Forbes did not consider ‘unfortunate’ the expected conquest of the Ukraine by Germany. ‘Unfortunate’ is reserved to a German move towards the west. Such a tendency, in the not ‘unfortunate’ case, would allow Germany to face her victims, one at a time, and would therefore not provide more than a respite for the West. Then the West would have to face, lonely, a more powerful Germany. Ogilvie-Forbes gave no thought to collective security. He went on:
5. Such is the position and such is the danger. What, therefore, can be done to avoid an European war? If Hitler is determined to reach out for raw materials and to create a system of Central European vassal States in compensation for the lost German colonial empire, nothing can in practice stop him from demanding either complete surrender to his terms, as he has already done and will continue to do with Czechoslovakia, or taking forcible action. The Pax Britannica is no longer respected in Central Europe, and Great Britain can no more hope to be the policeman of Europe. Any intervention from our part in German relation with the East of Europe is already being, and will continue to be, hotly resented, and we are powerless forcibly to arrest German action. While, therefore, surrender or, alternatively, war, cannot, if Hitler so will it, be avoided, it should, indeed, be possible to keep Great Britain out of war (1) by facing the issue clearly and in good time that we cannot guarantee the status quo in Central Europe and Eastern Europe (2) by exerting all our efforts to cultivate and maintain good relations with Field-Marshall Goering and the moderate Nazis with a view to their exercising a restraining influence on the extremists, such as Ribbentrop, Goebbels and Himmler.
This was a remarkable statement. In it Ogilvie-Forbes gives his recipe for ‘avoiding an European war’. And this recipe does not suggest opposition to aggression. It practically consists in not opposing war in Eastern Europe. This, once more, illustrates the fact that, in the thirties at least, the British politicians had a restrictive meaning for the word ‘peace’. It is peace, as long as Britain was not likely to be involved.
It is also remarkable that Ogilvie-Forbes suggested keeping good relations with the moderate Nazis as a way to prevent a German policy of aggression westwards. This slender hope for ‘peace’ is examined at length. The possibility of an alliance with the Soviet Union is not mentioned. As if it was, on principle, out of the question.
Trying To Save The Munich Spirit
Chamberlain was still hopeful. When an opportunity presented itself for special contact through another British ‘agent’ he did not hesitate.
In his diary entry of January 2nd, 1939, Oliver Harvey wrote :
We heard tonight that that mountebank Montague Norman is off to Berlin... as he is Schacht’s grandson’s godfather.. he does not intend to see anyone beyond the Reichsbank people.. he mentioned it to the P.M. and Neville Henderson, both of whom thought it a good thing. No word of this has reached Halifax, no attempt to ask his opinion either by Norman or by the P.M. We only heard of it tonight by a side-wind from Germany itself, which came to Van.. Such a visit can only do harm — by encouraging the pro-German proclivities of the City, by making American and foreign opinion think we are doing another deal with Germany behind their backs — another example of the P.M.’s pro-Nazi tendencies — and finally in Germany itself where it will be regarded as proof of our anxiety to run after Hitler
Oliver Harvey does not accuse every ‘appeaser’ of being pro-Nazi. His accusation is specific to Chamberlain to the exclusion, for instance, of Halifax. The quote shows that the tendency to develop ‘direct’ contact with German authorities, beyond the back of the Foreign Office, was not interrupted. There is, however, more to it. On January 4, 1939, Oliver Harvey returns to the topic:
On Tuesday Press came out... with announcement of the visit as front-page news, it being added that he was going to follow-up Schacht’s recent visit here and to discuss plan for helping German credit and imports in connection with Jewish expatriation. A.C. spoke to H. in Yorkshire about it and was authorized to write to Norman to say that he had not been consulted about the visit, but he hoped that in any conversation he (N.) might have he would be completely non-committal. This brought Norman down to F.O. in a rage, saying that he was not going “for pleasure” and that he had talked it over with P.M. and Horace Wilson! We thus see a further use of P.M.’s policy of working behind his Foreign Secretary’s back and keeping a side-line out to the dictators.
Horace Wilson had warned Steward to be more discreet. It did not prevent himself from becoming directly involved, with Chamberlain, in behind the stage moves.
It is not known what was the topic of the talks between the P.M., Horace Wilson and Norman Montagu. It is fair to think that Chamberlain, faced with news from reliable sources pointing to a possible German aggression in the West, wanted to get a ‘second opinion’, either in order to justify an optimistic stand in the British Cabinet meetings, or in order to decide if a settlement with Germany was indeed out of question. He may have thought that any German tendency to start moving westwards had to be the result of a misunderstanding that could be resolved. If such was the case, he would be the man to do it, and would not hesitate to act, once more, behind the back of his colleagues.
Chamberlain, even when out of step with the Cabinet, was never out of step with main currents of the British Establishment. Its mood can fairly be assessed from a report dated January 4, 1939 sent by Dirksen, the German ambassador in London to the German Foreign Ministry. He started with ‘The views of informed circles’. Dirksen wrote :
(b) The press is following developments in Carpatho-Ukraine and in the Ukrainian areas of Poland with even greater interest. The newspapers have printed detailed reports on the efforts of Poland and Hungary to achieve a common frontier and on their intrigues in Carpatho Ukraine. Similarly, great attention has been given to events in Eastern Galicia, the move for autonomy by UNDO and the oppressive measures of the Polish Government.. The Manchester Guardian, on the editorial staff of which there are doubtless well-informed experts on Poland and the Ukraine, give particularly detailed reports on the Ukraine question.
Carpatho Ukraine, also called Ruthenia, is that part of Czechoslovakia claimed by Hungary and which, by Germany’s decision, remained a part of Czechoslovakia after Munich. It was to become, according to Coulondre, the focus of agitation for Ukrainian independence. As Dirksen report’s show, the British papers of the time recognised the significance of that region and of Germany’s refusal to give it to Hungary. It was understood that, while formally a part of Czechoslovakia, Ruthenia, as the rest of the country, was in a state of vassalage to Germany. It is clear that, similarly to France, Britain was attaching a great significance to Germany’s decision concerning that region. Dirksen went on:
Such reports and observations are always published in a more or less clear connection with alleged German plans for expansion. It is regarded here as fairly certain that Germany is playing with the idea of forming a Greater Ukrainian State and will sooner or later implement this aim.. It is always emphasized.. that such aims would of necessity bring Germany into conflict not only with the Soviet Union but also with Poland. The possibility of joint German-Polish action against the Soviet Union is hardly considered.
Germany’s aggressive intentions against the Ukraine were considered ‘fairly certain’ by the British press that reflected the opinion of the British Establishment. The efforts at reaching an understanding with Germany were not made with the assumption that Germany only intended to redress the wrongs done to her by the Versailles Treaty. It was considered certain that Germany would eventually attack the Soviet Union, and it was precisely with that Germany, and with that understanding, that Chamberlain was moving heaven and earth to reach an agreement.
It was understood that Germany would first have to attack Poland. There was no negative reaction to this certainty. Dirksen went on:
(c) German-Polish relations are therefore studied with great interest in the press and political circles here and are frequently discussed. It can be observed that Poland does not enjoy any great sympathy in Britain at present. Poland’s ‘ambiguous’ attitude towards her French ally during the last few years and in particular her policy during the Czech crisis have not been forgotten here, and it is noted without any feeling of sympathy that Germany will now present her with the bill for Teschen. At a chosen moment Germany will demand from Poland the return of Danzig, the Corridor, and perhaps other areas and will also cut off her Ukrainian territories. In doing so, she will use the demand for “the right of self-determination” with the same success as against Czechoslovakia..
Dirksen is just reporting what appears to be, from a review of the press and his numerous contacts with ‘informed circles’, the mood and opinion of the Establishment. No one, even not Chamberlain , believed that the annexation of the Sudeten region would signal the end of Germany’s aggressive expansion. What is more important, is that there were no expression of a will to oppose Germany’s expansion or to put her on notice that Poland should be out of bounds for Germany. There was not the slightest indication that Britain would guarantee Poland or would make a fuss over Germany’s occupation of Prague. Dirksen continued:
..(d) In all discussions on the situation of Poland and the Soviet Union there can be noted in the British press a fundamentally different attitude from that adopted toward the Czech question. Whereas in the latter question the British press from the start took the view that Britain could not disinterest herself in the fate of Czechoslovakia, such statements with respect to Poland and the Soviet Union are now entirely lacking..
At the time of the Czechoslovakian crisis, France had not yet disinterested herself from Eastern Europe. France’s involvement could have involved Britain. That is why Czechoslovakia was at the time considered by the press a matter of importance to Britain. Now, the situation was totally different. France and Britain had accepted the German dominance over Eastern Europe. France was relaxing her ties with and obligations to that region. A German aggression Eastward was no longer a dangerous matter. Dirksen went on:
With regard to any further German plans directed against Poland and the Soviet Union, authoritative circles probably have no firmly defined views. It can be assumed that, in accordance with the basic trend of Chamberlain’s policy, they will accept a German expansionist policy in eastern Europe. In this connection the Polish question recedes into the background as compared with the Ukrainian question. It is expected that the first move for a new order in eastern Europe will arise out of the Ukrainian question, which would be tackled by Germany and brought to a head. Those who know Russia express the opinion that a rising in the Russian Ukraine has never, since the Revolution, had so much chances of success as today, provided that it receives support from outside. Such support could only come from Germany.
There would have been no reason for the British press and the informed circle to give so much importance to the ‘Ukrainian question’, was it not the general belief, even certitude, that Germany’s next move would occur soon and would be aimed at the Ukraine. Dirksen went on:
All depends, however, on the preparatory publicity for such action by Germany. If Germany takes precipitate action without adequately preparing European public opinion, does not show sufficient reasons, and proceeds by force, it is feared that this would be regarded by France as an unprovoked attack on the part of Germany, which would ultimately necessitate her intervention. Because of its inevitable repercussions, such a development would be undesirable to the British in the extreme.
If, on the other hand, a Ukrainian state were to come into being with German help, even if this were of a military nature, under the psychologically skilful slogan freely circulated by Germany: “Self-determination for the Ukrainians, liberation of the Ukraine from the domination of Bolshevist Jewry,” this would be accepted by authoritative circles here and by British public opinion, especially if consideration for British economic interests in the development of the new state were an added inducement for the British.
Dirksen’s report the German perception of the British public mood and that of the Establishment with respect to the expected German moves towards the East. He did not have to dig deep in the ground to uncover his information. It was there in the British press and in public speeches, for everyone to see and to hear. Therefore, this is not a German perception only. It is the universal perception of all those who lived through these days. The testimonial value of Dirksen’s report is therefore not diminished by its being German in origin. The British sources of the day reveal an identical view .
The expectation of a German move towards the Ukraine was still alive on January 5, 1939, when the French Chargé d’Affaires M. de Montbas wrote to Bonnet :
German domination is weighing down Czecho-Slovakian more and more heavily. The conclusion of a customs and monetary union to the profit of the Reich might prove at the same time a most advantageous operation and the first stage on the road to the Ukraine.
De Montbas does say that the conclusion of the customs and monetary union is to the profit of the Reich. This could reasonably be considered sufficient justification. It is remarkable that a piece of news that, on the face of it, seems to be totally unrelated to German conquest plans of Ukraine, is interpreted by de Montbas as a possible first stage on the road to the Ukraine. It is as if de Montbas was so obsessed with the idea of a German soon-to-come invasion of Ukraine, that he was seeing its signs in the least indication. Such was the mood of the time.
After a period of ‘certitude’ of a German move against Ukraine it was not easy for those British politician favouring the policy of ‘appeasement’, and least of all for Chamberlain, to believe that Germany entertained aggressive intentions against the West. On January 10, 1939, on his way to Rome for a meeting with Mussolini, Chamberlain made a stop in Paris where he held conversations with the French leaders. Dilks wrote :
The principal point of the conversation at the Quai d’Orsay was the French Ministers’ insistence that they would and could cede not an inch to Italy. Chamberlain asked whether the sudden change of Italian attitude towards France was connected with the project which Hitler was said to be nurturing for the Ukraine. Bonnet answered that this might well be so: the object being to keep France occupied in the Mediterranean while Germany moved in the East.
De Montbas was not the only politician obsessed with the idea of a German invasion of Ukraine, and finding in every event a sign of its imminent occurrence. Chamberlain was now trying to interpret Italy’s aggressive mood against France as an indication of Germany’s intentions against the Soviet Union.
In Rome, Chamberlain asked Mussolini about Hitler’s next move and whether it would be against the Ukraine or the West. He was told that Hitler’s intentions were purely peaceful. Such an answer was to be expected from an ally of Hitler. This loyalty to Hitler somehow increased Chamberlain’s esteem towards Mussolini.
During Chamberlain’s stay in Rome, and within a week of his return to London, more evidence accumulated pointing to a German resolve to move Westwards. There were even indications that Germany may invade Holland, and, from there, threaten England with air bombing, while refraining from military attacks against France.
The British Air Attaché, Wing Commander Douglas Colyer reported on January 12, 1939, the opinion of the head of the French Head of the 2nd Bureau of the air army, Lieutenant Colonel de Vitrolles. He was of the opinion that a strong position should be taken against Germany to prevent her from acquiring the Ukraine. Colyer concluded with :
He felt in the present year the last chance to check Germany in her career of European domination would arise. We should have all the cards in our hands, and he had no doubt of the result. If we let Germany get away with the Ukraine it would be too late for us to do anything, but wait our turn for execution.
Colyer himself suggested that a strong line taken by Great Britain and France could discourage Germany from pursuing her designs for the Ukraine. There is no indication that this report made any impression on Halifax. He had made it clear that only Germany’s move towards the West could worry him.
Information that Hitler intended to move Westwards first was, almost daily, arriving in Britain. On January 17, 1939, Strang wrote a very alarming report based on information from reliable sources concerning conversations held at Berchtesgaden between Hitler and Colonel Beck. the Polish leader. After saying that it was likely that Beck had made some agreements with Hitler, Strang writes :
This story would also fit in with reports we have had of Hitler’s intention to attack in the West this spring, and the signs that Germany intends to pick a quarrel with Holland point in the same direction. Germany cannot conduct a war on two fronts in present circumstances, and material conditions will make it easier for her to operate in the West than in the East. Furthermore, it is easier for Germany to secure her rear in the East during an operation in the West than to secure her rear in the West during an operation in the East. The attraction of Hungary and perhaps other States into the anti-Comintern Pact, and the attraction of Poland into the German orbit by promises in the colonial sphere, would give Germany an assurance of at least benevolent neutrality along her Eastern frontier.
In the last quote, we have underlined the three important elements of the report. The first element was the conviction that Germany cannot conduct a war on two fronts. This will dictate the main thrust of the British diplomatic strategy. It will concentrate on securing a ‘second front’ in the East to force a war on two fronts, were Germany to attack the Western countries.
The second element was the knowledge that it is easier for Germany to operate in the West than in the East. This knowledge had to be kept as secret as possible. Were it to be universally known, it would give the countries in the East, a sense of temporary security which might prevent them from contributing to the formation of a second front in the East.
The third element was the danger of Poland falling into the German orbit. Extraordinary measures would have to be taken to prevent this from occurring. Strang ended his report with the following paragraph:
There is also the possibility that Herr Hitler has now added a third obsession, namely an anti-British obsession, to the anti-Jewish and anti-Communist obsessions by which he is governed. It would be ironic if the chief result of Munich should be to arouse in Herr Hitler’s mind the conviction that Great Britain is Germany’s Enemy No. 1 and the determination to finish with her.
Munich was supposed to demonstrate to Hitler that Britain would not interfere with his plans. Strang found it ironic indeed that Chamberlain’s efforts would lead to the opposite of its intended effects. There were, however good reasons for Hitler to distrust Britain and to give little considerations to the free hand given to him by Chamberlain.
There were signs that the British public was having second thoughts about Munich and the work of the International Commission. Then, after the November pogroms, it became clear to Germany that an increasing cleavage was separating Chamberlain from the public opinion. This raised the important question as to the advisability for Germany, to rely on a secret agreement with a democratic leader. The leader in a democracy, being accountable to the parliament, an agreement with him can only be binding if it has the support of the parliament. Otherwise, the leader himself may find it convenient to deny the existence of the agreement or, more simply, he may be replaced by another leader opposed to the policy implied by the agreement.
The Frankfurter Zeitung, at about the end of October 1938, expressed these worries as follows:
The English and French must make it clear, beyond doubt, whether their Governments are capable of carrying out a policy of peaceful understanding and of settling the differences which exist between the two axes or whether “public opinion” will not allow this. We cannot enter into agreement with Chamberlain only to be suddenly confronted with a Churchill. We cannot afford to offer our hands to Daladier only to discover suddenly that a Mandel has taken his place.. As long as Churchill and Lloyd George are able to deliver provocative radio speeches across the ocean, even if their own Government disavows them, we cannot suppose that England’s public opinion is really ready for understanding.. All further progress must therefore be preceded by a final clarification within England and France.
The question of Chamberlain’s ability to pull with him the British public opinion was a constant subject of consideration in reports sent by the German Embassy in London to their superiors in Berlin. In general the Embassy’s opinion was oscillating. It underlined how sensitive the public opinion was in Britain to the methods used by Germany in the pursuit of her aims. Germany was not willing to adapt her methods to the feelings of the British public. Consequently, Germany concluded that Chamberlain would not be able ‘to deliver.’
Information arriving from Germany became so alarming that Britain thought that the U.S. Government should be notified of the situation. On January 24, 1938, Halifax wrote to Mallet in Washington. The text approved by Chamberlain said :
3. As early as November there were indications which gradually became more definite that Hitler was planing a further adventure for the spring of 1939. At first it appeared — and this was confirmed by persons in Hitler’s entourage — that he was thinking of expansion in the East and in December the prospect of establishing an independent Ukraine under German vassalage was freely spoken of in Germany.
News in December that Hitler was thinking of expansion in the East had not been ‘most disquieting’ and not worthy a report to the President. Any objective observer interested in the national interests of Britain would have had to be very disquieted by the prospect of an aggressive Germany having at her disposition the resources of Ukraine. Only if the national interests came second to class interests, could politicians succumb to wishful thinking and gamble on the possibility that Hitler may be content with the acquisition of Ukraine. Halifax went on:
4. Since then reports indicate that Hitler, encouraged by Ribbentrop Himmler and others, is considering an attack on the Western Powers as a preliminary to subsequent action in the East. Some of these reports emanate from highly placed Germans of undoubted sincerity who are anxious to prevent this crime; others come from foreigners, hitherto Germanophile, who are in close touch with leading German personalities. They have received some confirmation in the reassurance which Hitler appear to have given Beck concerning his plans in the East, as well as in the support which Germany has recently given to Italy’s claims against France.
It is clear that, by the end of January, it was Britain’s opinion that Poland was facing no immediate danger of attack by Germany. The West was the only region in immediate danger. The knowledge that Hitler, while desiring to start with the West, would eventually turn towards the East, could have been enough of a motivation for uniting the Soviet Union and the West in a common effort to defeat the German policies of aggression. Together they could have defeated the German military machine, instead of allowing Germany to destroy her victims one at a time. The ‘crime’ to be prevented was that of a German move westwards. An expected German move eastward was never referred to as ‘criminal’.
Halifax went on explaining that the period of danger would start at the end of February. He underlined once more the reliability of his sources and the fact that, in spite of their diversity, they all concurred in their conclusions. Finally he informed the President that, in his upcoming speech on January 28, Chamberlain might give a warning to Germany. He suggested that a public declaration by the President, prior to Chamberlain’s speech, could be helpful. The President obliged.
At the Cabinet meeting on January 25, 1939, Halifax updated the members with the disturbing news. Chamberlain, while agreeing that “we might be dealing with a man whose actions were not rational”, added that “at the same time he was a long way from accepting all this information.”
Discussing the matter of a possible German invasion of Holland, he recognised that Britain “would have to intervene”. He, however, opposed the issuing of a declaration to that effect because “if we made an immediate statement to this effect we should enter into a binding commitment which, in certain circumstances, might prove embarrassing..”
At a later time he clarified that British would not intervene unless Holland resisted the German invasion. He did not consider the fact that the resolve of Holland to resist might depend on the issuance of a British declaration of commitment to the defence of Holland. This commitment could have mentioned that it would have entered into play only in case of active resistance by Holland to the envisaged invasion.
More surprising is the stand Chamberlain took in relation to France. He said that “a rather similar issue had arisen in regard to France.. France had undertaken to come to our assistance if we are attacked.. but.. France might be attacked from more than one quarter, whereas we were only liable to be attacked by Germany.. Obligations of mutual assistance in the event of attack could not therefore be equal.. He would deprecate any attempt to define the position more narrowly.”
Chamberlain avoided being specific. Did he mean that he was prepared to consider mutual assistance only in the case of an attack by Germany? In such a case the obligations would formally be equal. France could be considered as able to deal with a Spanish and an Italian aggression without being helped by Britain. This would be a very narrow view. On the one hand Italy had ambitions conflicting with British interests. She chose to stress the demands against France. The demands against Britain could surface later at an unpredictable moment. On the other hand, a conflict with Italy, for instance, may weaken France and reduce her ability to withstand an onslaught from Germany.
According to Ian Colvin, on February 2, 1939, the Cabinet considered the question of Belgium . Hore-Belsha reminding the Cabinet that it had not been his task to equip the army for a continental role, “he presented a paper that proposed to equip four divisions of the Regular army and two mobile divisions on the Continental scale and similarly to equip the Territorial divisions.” Ian Colvin adds:
Mr Chamberlain was plainly disconcerted. He described this as “a rather new conception”. The Secretary for War had described his proposals as “modest” but the total cost amounted to £81m.
At a time at which an aggressive move by Germany towards the West is seriously considered, Chamberlain worried about the cost of a very modest proposal. He did encourage an increase in defence preparation, but not in the increased capability of intervening on the continent.
In short, Chamberlain while trusting that Germany would go East, agreed to take defensive precautions to face the case in which Germany would move Westwards. This eventuality being unlikely, in Chamberlain’s view, he would not agree for expenses on this account. In the worse case, Britain would be able to defend herself.
Chamberlain’s reluctance at committing Britain to Belgium and Holland and France indicated that, at that time, he was prepared to let Germany extend Westwards, provided Britain was well defended. In fact at the meeting of February 8, 1939 :
Mr. Chamberlain tended to the view that the Dutch would be more likely to resist an attack if they knew that the British were concerned for their survival, but he still resisted the idea of an open declaration.
The British Government had in the past committed itself to defend Belgium and Holland on the basis that their independence constituted a British vital interest. However, after Czechoslovakia had been betrayed, and after it became evident that Central Europe and Eastern Europe had been abandoned to Germany’s good will, the ‘low countries’ could have their doubts with regards to the British resolve to respect her old commitments. Chamberlain would not reaffirm this resolve.
Chamberlain Warns Germany
Chamberlain made his speech as scheduled. He acknowledged the fact that his policies were widely criticised. He said :
Lord Dudley has said something about the events of last September which culminated in the Munich agreement. A great deal of criticism, mostly, I think, in this country, has been directed against that agreement and against the action I took in attempting, by personal contact, to obtain a peaceful solution of a problem which very nearly involved the world in a catastrophe of the first magnitude.
The criticism has come from various quarters.. But there is one feature common to all the critics. None of them carries the responsibilities that I do, and none of them has that full knowledge of all the circumstances which is only open to members of the Government.
The implication of this last sentence is dangerous for democracy. Were this to be accepted as true, then the same argument could put the government, in all circumstances, above discussion and criticism. It is still more disturbing to hear that important aspects of the political situation had to be known only by the Cabinet, while they were of such nature that, had the opponents been given the knowledge, they might have become supporters of the Government policy.
What was the information the full knowledge of which could modify the understanding of the events of the time? Apparently there were no more than two possibilities:
w the knowledge of the free hand given to Hitler, or
w the knowledge of the British and French military weakness
The second possibility is not a serious one. Had the military situation been the factor that compelled the British leaders to accept the Munich Agreement, it would have been very easy to quench criticism. It would have been sufficient for Chamberlain to hold a private and confidential meeting with chosen leaders of the opposition, to reveal to them what could not have been revealed in public. Chamberlain knew, for instance, that the Labour leader Dalton, in opposition to the main stream of his party, was years long defending the need for British rearmament. Chamberlain knew that he could confide in him, and in others like him. Moreover, the relative weakness of Britain had been often exposed in the House of Commons by Churchill and others. Precise figures were given in such occasions.
The trouble was that even if he could have convinced anyone of the relative military inferiority of the West, Chamberlain would have been unable to answer the following question to the opposition’s satisfaction: Had the relative military strength of the West improved as a result of Munich? In other terms, were Hitler to make war right now in early 1939, would his job be easier or more difficult as a result of Munich? Another troubling question would have been: Why did not Britain start military talks with the Soviet Union to find out in definite and specific terms what could have been the Soviet military contribution just before Munich? And finally, there was the embarrassing question as to whose responsibility was it that Britain was militarily weak?
As to the first possibility, that of a privileged knowledge of the free hand policy, its disclosure was obviously out of the question. Chamberlain’s attitude was unworthy of a democratic leader. There was however a precedent to it when Baldwin, in order to avoid replying to relevant criticism could only tell that ‘my lips are sealed’ meaning, that in view of the national interest, he could not divulge what he knew. The tradition was followed by Chamberlain.
The warning to Hitler consisted in Chamberlain’s affirmation that the military power of Britain was impressive and becoming more so with time. It stressed the navy constructions, the progress in the aircraft production and the anti-aircraft defence and the construction of shelters. He did not say a single word on bombers. The defensive capabilities of Britain were singled out at the exclusion of the offensive capabilities, though, bombers, for instance, could have been considered a strong deterrent. He also spoke of plans ready to be used, in case of need, for the evacuation of the population, starting with children. He ended saying:
To-day the air is filled of rumours and suspicions which ought not to be allowed to persist. For peace could only be endangered by such a challenge as envisaged by the President of the United States in his New Year message — namely, a demand to dominate the world by force. That would be a demand which, as the President indicated, and I myself have already declared, the democracies must inevitably resist. But I cannot believe that any such challenge is intended..
Moreover, I remain convinced that there are no differences, however serious, that cannot be solved without recourse to war, by consultation and negotiation, as was laid down in the declaration signed by Herr Hitler and myself at Munich..
Since the warning was directed at Germany, we must remember that Chamberlain, not far ago, had sent Wilson with a warning to Hitler that could have instead been delivered by Henderson, the British Ambassador in Berlin. What Wilson did on that occasion was to inform Hitler that more than the content of the message, it was the ‘wording’ that was of special importance.
Here also, in Chamberlain speech, the main meaning is in the wording. We have to remember that, as long as it was expected that Germany would move Eastward, no question was asked about Hitler’s will at world domination. Therefore, not every aggressive move by Germany can be labelled as ‘world domination’. Would an invasion of what remained of Czechoslovakia qualify as a step in world domination? Even after it did occur, Chamberlain could only ask the question and state that he did not yet know if it did.
Even now he is careful not to say that peace could be endangered by next German aggressive move. It all depended if there was ground to consider it to be a move towards world domination. The ‘wording’ is clear: “peace could only be endangered” by “a demand to dominate the world by force.” Therefore if next aggression was just an aggression and not an attempt to dominate the world, this would not have threatened peace.
Chamberlain adds that he does not believe that such is Germany’s intention and, to crown it all, he refers to the settlement of differences along the spirit of the declaration signed at Munich.
At the time, Chamberlain repeatedly told the public that Hitler promised that the Sudeten problem was the very last and that its solution would leave no other problem to resolve (except for the colonial problem which was neither urgent nor peace threatening). Nonetheless Chamberlain calmly said that he remained convinced that any difference, however serious could still be solved in the Munich spirit. He did not, on the occasion of this warning, remind Hitler of his promise.
With this special wording Chamberlain was saying the following to Hitler: “There are rumours that you intend to move to the West. This would be a direct challenge to our sphere of influence and I will not stand for it. Personally, I do not believe the rumours are true. In the measure I find them false, and in which, consequently, you would move without infringing on the British sphere of interests, I am prepared to offer you the same services that proved to be of such good avail to you at Munich. You can feel safe concerning your Western boundaries. As a proof of our peaceful intentions, we do not put any stress on bombers, we do not intend to create a Ministry of Supplies, and we do not intend to bring Churchill in the Cabinet”.
It may well be that, through confidential contacts or otherwise, Germany got wind of the fact that her intention to start moving westwards had been discovered. The fact remains that on January 30, 1939, Hitler made a speech containing a peaceful statement as to his intentions. He said :
Germany has no territorial claims on England and France except the return of her colonies.. For in what way, for instance, do the interests of Great Britain and Germany clash? I have stated often enough that there is no German, and above all no National Socialist, who even in his most secrets thoughts has the intention of causing the British Empire any kind of difficulties. From Great Britain, too, are heard the voices of men who think reasonably and calmly, expressing a similar attitude with regard to Germany. It would be a blessing for the whole world if mutual confidence and cooperation could be established between the two peoples. The same is true of our relations with France.
Hitler, however, in the same speech gave a warning to the west :
In the future, we shall not tolerate the Western Powers attempting to interfere in certain matters which concern nobody except ourselves in order to hinder natural and reasonable solutions by their intervention.
There was no other way to interpret that warning except that Hitler was putting the West on notice that Eastern Europe is none of their business and that Germany would accept nothing less than a free hand in that region. This did not disturb Chamberlain who, forgetting the recent predictions of a German move to the West, regained his optimism. Birkenhead wrote with respect to Hitler’s warning :
Nothing could have been clearer than that, but the Prime Minister refused to place a sinister construction upon the words: “I very definitely got the impression,” he said, “that it was not the speech of a man who was preparing to throw Europe into another crisis. It seemed to me that there were many passages in the speech which indicated the necessity of peace for Germany...”
Chamberlain could not have missed the meaning of so obvious a warning. He did not give it a ‘sinister construction’ for the simple reason that he had no objection giving Germany a free hand. In addition he could find in this warning a justification for hoping that the East was Germany’s direction of expansion. The West was therefore safe.
Had the British government intended not to tolerate a German expansion in territories inhabited by a non-German population, this would have been the moment to warn Germany that stopping aggression was the concern of all peace-loving countries. This was farthest away from the British Government intentions. Instead it acted as if it formally accepted the warning. On January 31, Dirksen reported to the German Foreign Ministry :
3. Sir Frederick Leith Ross told me that in the views of Government circles here, the Fuhrer’s speech had laid the foundation for the contemplated exchange of visits between the two Ministers of Economics and for a further active development of economic questions between Germany and Great Britain. They were, therefore, also prepared to have the invitation announced directly by the Government, in this case by the President of the Board of Trade, if this would facilitate the visit of the Reich Minister of Economics.
The speech that put Britain on notice to mind her own business and not to interfere with German plans in Eastern Europe was officially reported by Britain to Germany as having laid the foundations for better relations between the two countries, British loss of pride not withstanding, .
On February 7, 1939, Halifax informed the U.S. Government that, in the opinion of the British Government, a German attack against either Holland or Switzerland would be considered as a German attempt to dominate the world. It is important to note that neither an attack against Czechoslovakia nor an attack against Poland was, at that date, considered as a German attempt at world domination.
On February 18, 1939, Henderson sent from Berlin a report to Halifax which throws light on Germany’s reluctance to accept Chamberlain’s advances. He wrote :
I called on Field-Marshall Goring this morning.. I said that I thought that he could have his rest without uneasiness as I did not believe in any immediate serious international trouble unless Italy made it.. Goring at once replied that he wished that he was as confident as I was. What guarantee had Germany that Mr. Chamberlain would remain in office and that he would not be succeeded by ‘a Mr. Churchill or a Mr. Eden’ Government? That was Germany’s main preoccupation: we had not a settled Government like the Fuhrer’s and nobody could be certain how long the present British Government would remain in power.
On February 19, 1939, Chamberlain sent a letter to Henderson. He wrote :
..I have been much struck by the terms of the speech delivered by the Duke of Coburg.. It seems to come closer to that response for which I have been asking than anything I have seen yet. Of course it would have been worth more still if Hitler had made it himself but, if he approved it, it is good and I shall make some sympathetic allusion in the same sense when I speak at Blackburn on Wednesday.
You may think it worth while to mention, in the proper quarter, that I have noticed it.
Chamberlain was complaining in November that he had not received ‘the slightest friendly gesture’ from Hitler. He now recognised a gesture ‘such as he had been asking’. This gesture is nothing more than a repeat by a German subaltern of a sentence already used by Hitler in a previous speech. Nevertheless Chamberlain seems to attach great importance to it. The remaining of his letter shows how elated and optimistic he has become in spite of the many warnings the Foreign Office was still receiving. He went on:
Things look as though Spain might clear up fairly soon. After that the next thing will be to get the bridge between Paris and Rome in working order. After that we might begin to talk about disarmament.. If all went well we should have so improved the atmosphere that we might begin to think of colonial discussions. But people have got so frightened and ‘het up’ about them that we should have to approach the subject with the greatest care.
’Spain might clear up fairly soon’. Chamberlain thus describes the end of Democracy in Spain, as if it was a piece of good news. But then the conservatives had often expressed their sympathy and support for Franco. As to ‘approach the subject with care’, no other ‘care’ than secrecy and negotiations behind his colleagues back would be available to him.
On February 25, 1939, Henderson, acted on Chamberlain’s hint, and wrote to Weizsacker on the subject of the speech of the Duke of Coburg. In return he received a confirmation that the attention of the Duke had been drawn to Hitler’s sentence before his speech,.
Henderson asked Weizsacker that his letter, and any reply to it, be treated confidentially. At a meeting of a Society for Anglo-German friendship, any talk was hardly expected except nice talk and hope in relation with such a friendship. It was also very natural that the Duke of Coburg would repeat an appropriate sentence pronounced earlier by the Fuhrer.
All this is no more than common place. Taken at face value, it makes little sense that the matter had been the object of four letters. It makes much more sense if we remember that an agreement had been concluded between Chamberlain and Hitler behind the back of the British people, of the Foreign Office and of the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. Therefore, communications concerning developments in the pursuit of the common aim could not be explicit and could even not utilise the normal diplomatic channels.
At a time at which Chamberlain was in difficulty because of the pogroms in Germany against the Jews, at a time when rumours were reaching the Foreign Office concerning a possible German move towards the West, Chamberlain was awaiting anxiously a communication from Hitler which could only take the form of ‘a sign’. He thought he had received such a sign in the form of the Duke of Corbug’s speech, and this re-established his confidence in Hitler and his optimism.
On February 20, 1939, Ashton-Gwatkin went to Berlin for economic conversations. He suggested there that Germany should invite Harold Wilson for political discussions. Germany replied that he would be welcome after further clarification of the Anglo-German relations .
On February 24, 1939, Cadogan entered in his diaries :
Found Hudson was going to have a broadcast message to German people put out on German broadcast! Stopped it. Quiet talk with H. for 1/4 hour before lunch. He thinks we’ve done enough in way of ‘firm’ speeches. Told him we certainly haven’t done too much. If he likes to ease up and talk about weather and crops, I shouldn’t mind for a bit, but we should have to watch and see how things go.. Comparative lull — 2 nights this week I’ve had no box at home after dinner. But this doesn’t necessarily mean a healthier atmosphere in Europe! Neville H. is completely bewitched by his German friends. Van, on the contrary, out-Cassandra Cassandra in a kind of spirit of pantomime. Must talk to H. about it. He ought either to rebuke Van or recall N.H. I don’t know which is the sillier of the 2.. Van I think.
This shows the spectrum of differences in opinion still reigning in the Foreign Office. The most optimist of the lot was Neville Henderson. This is also an indication as to Chamberlain’s state of mind. Dilks, the editor of Cadogan’s diaries added:
Henderson, who had returned to Berlin on 13 February after four month’s absence, reported to Cadogan his first impression: ‘The Germans are not contemplating any immediate wild adventure and that their compass is pointing towards peace.’ Simultaneously Chamberlain had become more optimistic about the prospects. ‘He feels’ wrote Joseph Kennedy after a long talk on 17 February, “that America’s action [rearmament and a warning speech by Roosevelt to the Senate Military Affairs Committee] psychologically and Britain’s tremendous amounts for defence have had a very definite effect on Germany and may do the trick.”.. When the Prime Minister wrote in an even more hopeful sense to Henderson, Halifax immediately added a damping commentary..
By the end of February, the Foreign Office was receiving disturbing reports pointing to German military preparations for the occupation of Czechoslovakia . Halifax was alarmed and communicated them to Washington. Chamberlain was not alarmed. The importance of such news depended on their relation to an ulterior German move Westwards. A believer in such a move would be distressed by a strategic strengthening of Germany following her occupation of Czechoslovakia.
Obviously, Chamberlain did not believe in such a move. We mentioned in Chapter 1 an entry by ‘Chips’ on March 7, 1939, to the effect that Chamberlain declared, at a diner in an exclusive club, that “he thinks the Russian danger receding, and the danger of a German War less everyday, as our rearmament expands.”
The Russian military danger was, at the time, believed to be nil. The danger, if danger was, could therefore only increase. The real meaning of Chamberlain’s statement was that he believed his agenda was ‘on schedule’. The talk about Germany excluding war, meant that war in the west was unlikely. The reference to the receding Russian danger indicated that, as he expected, and as he repeatedly expressed his belief in it, Germany would move against the Ukraine. The news of an impeding German move against Czechoslovakia could not disturb him .
On March 9, 1939 Henderson wrote a detailed report to Halifax advocating that a free hand be given to Germany in the East. He wrote :
Moreover, taking the long view, Europe will never be stable and peaceful until Germany, is once more prosperous, and even her prosperity, in spite of her economic competition, is likely to benefit us materially in the end no less than Germany herself.. In spite of the risks involved, would not, therefore, the wiser course for His Majesty’s Government be to consider how far they possibly can go to help Germany? — and better now when help might be appreciated than later.
Henderson is asking Britain to extend help to a Germany armed to the teeth and recognised as having dangerous tendencies. He owes his Government some explanation. He went on:
I am not blind to the fact that we cannot appreciably help Germany without considerable expense to ourselves, yet even so that expense will be cheaper than a perpetuation of the armament race, if the latter can thereby be avoided. I have little faith in the gratitude of nations, though I believe that Hitler is personally not lacking in that rare quality.
Up to this point, Henderson appears to consider if it would be possible ‘to Bribe’ Hitler out of a policy of rearmament, at an acceptable cost to Britain. Whether this can be achieved or not, the idea seems to have some merit, if only for its peaceful motivation. However, as we already know, Henderson has a restricted meaning for peace. He continued:
Nor am I oblivious to the fact that co-operation with Nazism will be unpopular with certain sections of British opinion. Moreover, I realize that such co-operation, quite apart from expense, means acquiescing to a certain extent in Germany’s aims in Central and South-Eastern Europe. Admittedly, the objections to giving that considerable measure of assistance which can alone effectively remedy the difficulties in which Germany now finds herself have great political, technical and moral weight. Nevertheless, on balance and since the alternative would probably be worse, I believe that, provided always Germany shows any real inclination to meet us half-way, we would be well advised resolutely to face these risks.
Henderson does not suggest that Britain use the ‘bait’ of economic help to Germany as a leverage to stop Germany’s expansion. On the contrary. He assert that Britain has to ‘acquiesce’ ‘to a certain measure’ to Germany’s aims of expansion in Central and Eastern Europe. Henderson then proceeds to define the German aims. After reminding Halifax that part of her aims had been achieved (Austria, Sudeten region) he continued:
It seems inevitable that in the course of time Memel and Danzig.. will be re-attached on the basis of self-determination to the Reich. The most that we can hope for is that this will happen without sabre-rattling and by means of constitutional forms of peaceful negotiation.
An example of peaceful negotiation has been given at Munich and consisted in a number of ultimatums delivered by the West to Czechoslovakia and by Germany to the West. Henderson went on:
There remains the heading of expansion in the east.. Hitler made it very clear in ‘Mein Kampf’ that ‘Lebensraum’ for Germany could be found in expansion eastward, and expansion eastward renders a clash between Germany and Russia some day or other highly probable. With a benevolent Britain on her flank, Germany can envisage such an eventuality with comparative equanimity. But she lives in dread of the reverse and of the war on two fronts.. The best approach to good relations with Germany is therefore of avoidance of constant and vexatious interference in matters in which British interests are not directly or vitally involved and the prospect of British neutrality in the event of Germany being engaged in the east.
..The ‘Drang nach Osten’ is a reality, and the ‘Drang nach Westen’ will only become so if Germany finds all the venues to the east blocked or if western opposition is such as to convince Hitler that he cannot go eastward without first having rendered innocuous.
The text itself is in no need of comment. It should, however, be stressed that, though such opinions were criticised by some individuals in the Foreign Office, Chamberlain never stopped to have a high consideration for Henderson’s opinions. He constantly gave great weight to Henderson’s advises.