THE POLICY OF A FREE HAND. PART 5
(From the occupation of Prague to war)
A Reversal Of Policy
On March 9, 1939, Bullitt, the US ambassador to Paris reported to the Secretary of State on the conversation he had over lunch with Daladier, the French Premier, and with the Polish ambassador in Paris :
The Polish Ambassador pointed out that resistance to German advance in Central and Eastern Europe since Munich had been provided not by France and England, both of whom had been rather visibly anxious to have Germany turn her hostile intentions towards Russia, but on the contrary by Poland, Hungary and Rumania, all of which states knew that they had everything to lose by German domination.
What is remarkable about this statement by the Polish ambassador is that it was given in the presence of the French Premier and that the latter did not object. The Premier took it as a statement of fact rather than as an accusation. This statement of fact makes a direct relation between the absence of resistance on the part of Britain and France to Germany’s advance in Central and Eastern Europe with a ‘wish’ to have Germany turn against Russia.
On the face of this statement, unchallenged by Daladier, it would have been expected that a German occupation of Prague six days later, would result in mild reactions from Britain and France. The opposite, however occurred. The reactions, though indeed mild at first, became much stronger and the world witnessed a complete change of attitude by the West in relation to Germany.
This reversal of policy had been interpreted as proving that Britain and France were not prepared to allow Germany to invade regions populated essentially by non Germans. Many of the documents quoted before demonstrate that this interpretation is incorrect. The West must have had a different reason for changing their mind.
An Optimistic Mood
On March 9, 1939, Chamberlain briefed a group of press correspondents. He was optimistic. He predicted an improvement in the relations between France and Italy and expressed his great expectations from a forthcoming visit to Germany by the Cabinet Minister Oliver Stanley. He even hoped that a disarmament conference might meet before the end of the year.
On March 10, 1939, Samuel Hoare made an address describing the prospects of a golden age that could result from the co-operation of five men in Europe — three dictators and the Prime Ministers of Britain and France . He had been advised by Chamberlain to be cheerful in his talk.
A week later, two days after the German occupation of Prague, the mood would become pessimistic and Britain would start to move according to new policies that, eventually, would involve her in a war with Germany. This reversal of mood would tend to indicate that Britain was unaware of the German intention to occupy Prague and annex Czechoslovakia. The record, however, shows that this was not the case.
On March 9, 1939, Henderson wrote to Halifax stating that Hitler was in a peaceful disposition. This has been taken as the reason for Chamberlain’s optimism. It was said that such a message might have reduced the impact of secret information indicating a German invasion of Czechoslovakia for March 15.
We have analysed Henderson’s letter at the end of Chapter 13. We saw there that Henderson indicated that peace with Germany could be obtained only with a certain acquiescence of Hitler’s aims in South-Eastern and Central Europe. He indicated that Britain, in order to have peace, should not block Germany’s designs on the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Such a letter could have been considered as optimistic only in the view of a Prime Minister ready to fulfil the conditions indicated by Henderson.
Henderson’s letter, while differing in form from secret intelligence warnings as to the occupation of Czechoslovakia on March 15 (the warnings were that precise) did not differ in substance. On March 9, 1938, Chamberlain was optimistic while fully informed of the predicted upcoming events in Czechoslovakia .
Cadogan mentions that the head of the British Secret Service informed him of the imminent German invasion of Czechoslovakia. Cadogan’s diary entry on March 11, 1939, is instructive :
Walked to F.O. with H. Press full of Slovak crisis. I said (a) it appeared to be settled — for the moment — (b) for God’s sake don’t let’s do anything about it... Kell [head of M.I.5 until 1940] came to raise my hair with tales of Germany going into Czechoslovakia in next 48 hours. Maybe. Told H. but let him go off to Oxford. Warned P.M... Jebb rang up.. to say S.I.S. have some hair-raising tales of Czecho[slovakia] for the 14th. It can wait.
L. Mosley gives the text of the secret message from Germany, delivered to Cadogan by the head of the British Intelligence Service. The message is categorical and precise. Its first sentence is: “THE GERMAN ARMY WILL INVADE BOHEMIA AND MORAVIA AT SIX A.M. ON MARCH 15.” The message continued with details about the military operation. L. Mosley commented:
In view of the stupefaction and indignation which the British Prime Minister was subsequently to display over the events of the next few days, the history of what happened to this message is worth noting.. Sir Alexander Cadogan.. seemed to show surprisingly little alarm.. As for Chamberlain, apparently it did not occur to him to summon the Cabinet for a briefing or to call in his service chiefs and discuss the situation with them.
On March 14, Chamberlain answering a question from Attlee in the House of Commons said :
I might remind him that the proposed guarantee is one against unprovoked aggressions on Czecho-Slovakia. No such aggression has yet taken place.
Chamberlain knew that Czechoslovakia was about to be invaded. German troop movements towards Czechoslovakia had been reported to him. The Foreign Office had preferred him to be silent about the guarantee . The attitude of Chamberlain and the Foreign Office was consistent with their stand that Britain should mind her own business and not interfere with Germany’s actions in Central and Eastern Europe.
The same day March 14, 1939, Halifax sent to Henderson a message to be communicated to the German Government. In it he said :
His Majesty’s Government have no desire to interfere unnecessarily in matters with which other Governments may be more directly concerned than this country. They are, however, as the German Government will surely appreciate, deeply concerned for the success of all efforts to restore confidence and a relaxation of tension in Europe. This seems to them more particularly desirable at a moment when a start is being made with discussions on economic subjects to which, as His Majesty’s Government believes, the German Government attach no less importance than they do themselves, and the fruitful development of which depends so directly upon general state of confidence.
From this point of view they would deplore any action in Central Europe which would cause a setback to the growth of this general confidence on which all improvement in the economic situation depends and to which such improvement might in its turn contribute.
Halifax was conceding to Germany that Britain had no desire to interfere in a matter which was more the concern of the German Government. So strong was Halifax’s desire to respect the German special sphere of influence, that the justification of the letter was given not in terms of the concern for Czechoslovakia, but in terms of the fear of repercussions that may further impair economic co-operation. What mattered was the general atmosphere of confidence and not the independence of that country.
Also the same day, Henderson reporting to Halifax on a conversation with the German State Secretary said :
I impressed upon the State Secretary on this account the extreme importance of the form in which Germany handled the situation. I also mentioned I hoped that nothing would be done in a manner to mar the effect of the visit of the President of the Board of Trade.
This message was almost indecent. When the future of a friendly state was at stake, when it was expected that the heavy hand of the German Gestapo might soon impose its terror on whoever in Czechoslovakia militated for democracy and freedom, Henderson only worried for proper forms and manners so as not to affect a visit by a British official.
The same day March 14, 1939, Geist, the U.S. Chargé in Germany, wrote to the U.S. Secretary of State :
The British Counsellor, who returned from London today, states that the British Foreign Office, is inclined to regard any move by the Germans in Czechoslovakia with calmness and will advise the British Government against assuming a threatening attitude when in fact it contemplates doing nothing. He stated in short that “the British Government were reconciled to a possible extreme German action in Czechoslovakia”..
Troop movements identified indicates Germany military action in force in which possibly 40 divisions will participate.
As of March 14, 1939, the British, while expecting the imminent invasion of Czechoslovakia, did not intend to react on it.
Still on March 14, 1939, Oliver Harvey entered the following in his diary :
..Slovakia declared herself independent with German support.. reports that Germany is appointing two Staathalters for Prague and Bratislava, and troops move in tonight.
We had a meeting in H.’s room to discuss the position. It was agreed we must make no empty threats since we were not going to fight for Czechoslovakia any more than for Danzig, although we would fight for Switzerland, Belgium, Holland or Tunis.
At that time, two weeks before Britain gave to Poland a unilateral guarantee, there was no British intention to take a stand in favour of Poland. Finally to complete the events of that day it is not unfit to quote an entry in Channon’s diary :
..It looks as if he [Hitler] is going to break the Munich agreement, and throw Chamberlain over.. Hitler is never helpful.
A similar entry was made in November 15, 1938, concerning the German pogroms. Then too, Channon remarked that Hitler never helps. This remark was made as if Hitler was a clumsy accomplice who did more harm than good. Next day, on March 15, 1939, Channon would write:
No balder, bolder departure from the written bond has ever been committed in history. The manner of it surpassed comprehension and his callous desertion of the PM is stupefying. I can never forgive him..
Channon was a member of a coterie executing daily mini-plots at the service of the Chamberlain policy. He was permeated with the feelings and opinions prevalent in the Chamberlain ‘inner circle’. Hitler’s “callous desertion of the Prime Minister” was a particular way of considering Germany’s aggression against Czechoslovakia. and Hitler’s disregard of the ‘Munich spirit’. What was resented about Hitler was not the hardship he was causing the Czechoslovak people but his ‘stupendous’ betrayal of Chamberlain. The feeling existed that Chamberlain and Hitler belonged to the same brotherhood.
March 15 And 16 1939
On March 15, 1939, after the news on the German invasion of Czechoslovakia reached the four corners of the world, the British Cabinet held a meeting. Ian Colvin quoted from the minutes :
Lord Halifax read out to the Cabinet.. the “agreement” signed by the Czechs, and the Prime Minister said that “the fundamental fact was that the State whose frontiers we had undertaken to guarantee against unprovoked aggression had now completely broken up”.. “He thought it would be wise to take an early opportunity of saying that in the circumstances which had arisen, our guarantee had come to an end.” He comforted himself with the observation that “our guarantee was not a guarantee against the exercise of moral pressure”.. “German action had all been taken under the guise of agreement with the Czechoslovak Government. The Germans were therefore in a position to give plausible answers.”
The Czechoslovakian tragedy took a couple of weeks to unfold. The various elements of the crisis that culminated in the German invasion, had been daily published in the British press and had been the object of precise intelligence reports. At the time of the Cabinet meeting, no essential information was missing. Except for the future of Ruthenia, the picture of what had occurred was complete. Stating that the Germans were in a position to give plausible answers was not only a cynical observation, it was a program of action. It represented a decision not to be too forthcoming in accusing Germany.
The Cabinet, in possession of the full facts, did not consider ending the policy of appeasement. It had drawn a line and said to Germany: till here and no further. But that line left all of Eastern and Central Europe to Germany (within the request of respecting forms and manners). There was now no intention of redrawing the line and putting it further East.
At the House of Commons, on the same day March 15, 1939 , Chamberlain made a mild statement. He gave a version of the events starting with March the 10th. This was exactly the German version which, as did Chamberlain, traced the triggering of the events to a measure taken by the Czechoslovak Government. Chamberlain knew that, before that date, reports had reached the Britain Government that Germany had decided to invade Czechoslovakia. Even if, before the invasion, he might have had doubts concerning the accuracy of the reports, he should not have ignored them now, and should not have presented a version somewhat more favourable to Germany.
Chamberlain then informed the House of a German communiqué and an order issued by Hitler, lingering on the details favourable to Germany. He then added that he had very little reason to doubt the accuracy of the general picture, if not all of its details.
He then said that he ‘must deal with three matters which arise out of the circumstances’. The first of the three matters was the British guarantee to Czechoslovakia. Chamberlain reminded the House of a statement made on October 4, 1938 at the House of Commons by Inskip, a Cabinet member:
Until that had been done, technically the guarantee cannot be said to be in force. His Majesty’s Government, however, feel under a moral obligation to Czechoslovakia to treat the guarantee as being now in force. In the event, therefore, of an act of unprovoked aggression against Czechoslovakia, His Majesty’s Government would certainly feel bound to take all steps in their power to see that the integrity of Czechoslovakia is preserved.
After having thus recognised that the guarantee was in force, Chamberlain added:
In our opinion the situation has radically altered since the Slovak Diet declared the independence of Slovakia. The effect of this declaration put an end by internal disruption to the State whose frontiers we had proposed to guarantee.. and His Majesty’s Government cannot accordingly hold themselves bound by this obligation.
Note that, according to Chamberlain, the change in the situation is not related to any German activity but results from the action of the Slovak Diet. The second matter was that of the financial assistance given to Czechoslovakia. It turned out that part of the credits given to that country were still under the control of the Bank of England, and the Bank had been requested, provisionally, to make no further payment.
The third matter was that of a scheduled visit to Germany by the President of the Board of Trade and the Secretary to the Department of Overseas Trade. Chamberlain informed the House that the Government thought the present moment inappropriate for such a visit. He did not suggest the interruption of ‘discussions which are now proceeding between the representatives of German and British industries. These discussions are still proceeding, and I believe are proceeding in a satisfactory manner’.
Chamberlain ignored so many other matters which deserved attention. What kind of protest, if at all, should the British Government make? Should the annexation of Czechoslovakia by Germany be recognised by Britain? Is there a need to accelerate the rate of British rearmament? Is there a need to provide protection — in the form of guarantees or otherwise — to other small countries in Central or Eastern Europe? Is there a need to form an alliance between all countries interested in preventing any further aggression? Is there a need to warn Germany that the British public opinion would be strongly and negatively affected were the political opponents of Germany in Czechoslovakia to be mistreated. These question were actual, and, may be, had been answered by what Chamberlain said next. He first expressed regrets at the manner and methods by which Germany had brought about the latest changes. He stated that he did not regard the invasion as being in accord with the spirit of Munich . He then made the following statement:
It is natural, therefore that I should bitterly regret what has now occurred. But do not let us on that account be deflected from our course. Let us remember that the desire of all the peoples of the world still remain concentrated on the hopes of peace and a return to the atmosphere of understanding and good will which has so often been disturbed. The aim of this Government is now, as it has always been, to promote that desire and to substitute the method of discussion for the method of force in the settlement of differences. Though we may have to suffer checks and disappointments, from time to time, the object that we have in mind is of too great significance to the happiness of mankind for us lightly to give it up or set it on one side.
Chamberlain was thus saying that there would be no change of policy and that the events of Czechoslovakia were one of those ‘disappointments’ that may still occur ‘from time to time’. He even went farther and said:
The State which under that settlement we hoped might begin a new and more stable career, has become disintegrated. The attempt to preserve a State containing Czechs, Slovaks, as well as minorities of other nationalities, was liable to the same possibilities of change as was the constitution which was drafted when the State was originally framed under the Treaty of Versailles. And it has not survived. That may or may not have been inevitable, and I have so often heard charges of breach of faith bandied about which did not seem to me to be founded on sufficient premises, that I do not wish to associate myself to-day with any charges of that character.
The reading of this statement is distressing even today. Knowing the extent of Chamberlain’s access to news and intelligence, it is disheartening to see the trouble Chamberlain was taking to absolve Germany instead of plainly stating that Czechoslovakia had been the victim of German manoeuvres and threats which ended with the occupation of the country. In addition, in one sentence, Chamberlain absolved Hitler from all past accusations of violations of treaties and solemn pledges.
Chamberlain had no anxiety with regards to the victims of Nazism. When he saw it fit to accept the German expansion, then the victims did not count. When he would choose later to oppose Germany’s further expansion, he would express his sympathies for the victim of Nazism. This expression of sympathy would, therefore, have a ring of insincerity.
John Simon intervened in defence of Henderson ‘our very competent Ambassador’. It is not possible, Simon said, to predict very sudden action by Germany. Simon, of course, abstained from informing the House of the early intelligence information available to Britain, and to Henderson, which the latter choose to ignore. He then said:
The central tragic thing I would put in a sentence which I observed in, I believe, one of the evening papers, and which was reported to be included in a proclamation or pronouncement of some sort by Herr Goebbels, to whom was attributed the statement issued in Berlin: “The State of Czechoslovakia has ceased to exist.” That is the central tragic thing. It does not require any very technical or precise advice from anybody else for the Prime Minister to make the point — that in that situation it was indeed impossible to suppose that a guarantee to maintain the State of Czechoslovakia could have any meaning at all.
Once an invaded state is declared by the invader as having ceased to exist, any previous guarantee to maintain the invaded State loses any meaning. And that is all there is to it. In other words, the British guarantee, being liable to loose its meaning, is no guarantee. Simon added it was not in the interest of Britain to extend its commitments in Europe.
Still on March 15, Halifax wrote to Phipps briefing him on a conversation he had with the French ambassador. He wrote :
The ambassador then proceeded to make some obvious comments upon the recent action of the German Government, with which I concurred, adding that the one compensating advantage that I saw was that it had brought to a natural end the somewhat embarrassing commitment of a guarantee in which we and the French had both been involved.
Accordingly, murdering a man would be to bring about his ‘natural’ end! Of course, Halifax did not mean it this way, but one can almost hear the sigh of relief he gave at ‘the compensating advantage’ which put an end to British embarrassment.
On March 16, 1939, Archibald Sinclair asked Chamberlain in the Commons whether the Government intended to lodge a protest against the invasion of Czechoslovakia. Chamberlain replied that he could not answer the question without notice. This was a way of avoiding answering the same day. The following exchange then occurred:
Mr. Noel Baker: Will the Prime Minister represent to the German Government that any attempt to attack the lives or liberties of the leaders of the Czech people will intensify the indignation in this country at their aggression?
The Prime Minister: I think it wrong to assume that the German Government have any such intention.
Chamberlain acted as a most loyal friend of Nazi Germany who cannot accept the expression of a doubt regarding the good intentions of that country. He ignored the fact that, hours after the annexation of Austria, the opponents of Nazism were rounded and subjected to a regime of terror. He had to ignore the latest reports mentioning political arrests in Czechoslovakia. He had to ignore the record of the Nazi regime for more than six years of oppression and persecution.
On March 17, 1939, Chamberlain took a more aggressive stand. In his speech at Birmingham he bitterly criticised Germany and asked whether the aggression committed against Czechoslovakia was the last or if it would be followed by others. He expressed the fear that Germany might be seeking world domination.
Since Chamberlain, Halifax, the Foreign Office and the British Establishment were, as we saw, all prepared to accept Germany’s expansion in Central and Eastern Europe, the new stand taken by Chamberlain requests consideration.
We can, from the start, disregard the argument that Chamberlain was distressed that Germany was now, for the first time, occupying a territory devoid of a German majority, devoid even of a German minority of appreciable size. Chamberlain’s statements in Cabinet and other meetings, as well as Halifax’s letters and reports, made it clear that they expected such events to occur, and did not intend to oppose the steps leading to it.
The brutality of Germany in the execution of the invasion had clearly disturbed Chamberlain and Halifax, if only because ‘it does not help ’ the pursuit of the appeasement policy. However, the main details were already known at the time at which Chamberlain, in the Commons, said that the good intentions of Germany should not be doubted. Such a brutality was not new. It had been exerted against Dolfuss and Schushning in Austria. At the time, Chamberlain had also tried to represent the facts in a way less unfavourable to Germany.
There are indications that Halifax and the Foreign Office were aware that the British public opinion would revolt in the absence of a strong stand against Germany. They did press on Chamberlain that the country would become uncontrollable if he would maintain the stand he took on May 15 and 16. There can be no doubts that Chamberlain was at last convinced of the need for a salvage operation with respect to the public opinion.
There are also indications that Halifax, the Foreign Office and many backbenchers in the House have been influenced by the flow of reports indicating the possibility of a German move to the West. The aggressive tone of the German press and of some of Hitler’s speeches had its effect on many conservative members of the House. It is in the perspective of the fear of such a German later move westward that the German brutality was, this time, judged.
And then there was the question of Ruthenia.
Ruthenia, which, before World War I, belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was that part of Czechoslovakia mostly inhabited by a population of Ukrainian origin. Ruthenians in Czechoslovakia numbered less than a million. Poland had a minority of over six millions Ukrainians and Ruthenians. Germany had no Ukrainian minority to speak of.
At Munich time, Poland occupied the territory of Teschen which had been a region of contention between her and Czechoslovakia. Hungary requested from Germany the permission to occupy Ruthenia. The permission was denied.
Much speculation was raised at Munich time concerning Germany’s refusal of a Ruthenian award to Hungary. Why should Germany oppose an Hungarian ambition, the realisation of which would cost Germany nothing? It was universally thought that Germany intended to use Ruthenia as a base of agitation for an independent Ukraine which would mainly include the Soviet Ukraine.
Poland was very adverse to such a project. She feared that any encouragement to Ukrainian nationalism may cause difficulties with her large Ukrainian minority. She therefore encouraged Hungary in her demand for Ruthenia. Poland wanted to have a common boundary with Hungary. This would be realised by awarding Ruthenia to Hungary. It would, at the same time, remove that region from direct German control and quench the activity of the Ruthenian nationalists
It was also evident that such an award would eliminate the common boundary between Czechoslovakia, now a vassal country of Germany, and Rumania. It would put an additional obstacle in Germany’s path to the East.
Germany’s opposition to the award was interpreted as a sure sign of her aggressive intentions towards Soviet Ukraine. It seemed to confirm a German will to move Eastward, and not Westwards.
In the previous chapter, Coulondre was quoted explaining, on December 15, 1938, that Germany’s renunciation to go West, as exemplified by her agreements of Munich and of December 6, 1938, had, as a corollary, her expansion to the East. He then said that Germany’s action in favour of independence in Ukraine would be focused on Ruthenia.
On the night of March 17, 1939, there could be no doubt that Germany had agreed to reverse her position on Ruthenia and had authorised Hungary to occupy that region. The significance of this step could not escape Chamberlain. Feiling was partly right when, commenting on a letter by Henderson dated March 2, 1938, he mentioned among the disturbing factors of the time:
..signs that Hitler was preparing to go back on his previous award; in lieu of which he would throw Ruthenia to Hungary, abandon the project of a Ukraine State, and seek larger compensation at the expense of Poland and Russia.
The disturbing feature was indeed that of throwing Ruthenia to Hungary and abandoning the project of an Ukraine State. The fear was not that Hitler would seek larger compensation at the expense of Poland and Russia. Nobody expected that Germany would seek or need larger expansion than that afforded by the Ukraine. It was however feared that abandoning the Ukraine, as would be indicated by the award of Ruthenia to Hungary, meant a change of direction from East to West in Germany’s intended move. It is therefore interesting to establish the moment at which the British authorities had reached the certitude that Ruthenia had been abandoned by Germany to Hungary.
The significance of a German disinterest in Ruthenia was universally understood. In a memo written on July 27, 1939, Schnurre, from the German Foreign Office in Berlin recorded a conversation he had with Astakhov, the Soviet Chargé d’Affaires. He wrote :
After describing our commercial relations with the Baltic States, I confined myself to the statement that, in any case, no German-Russian clash of interests would result from all these questions. Moreover, the solution of the Carpatho-Ukrainian question had shown that here we did not aim at anything there that would endanger Soviet interests.
Carpatho-Ukraine is the alternative name given to Ruthenia by the Germans. The relation between Germany’s disinterest in the region and the absence of aggressive intentions towards the Soviet Union is considered obvious by Germany, as it should be indeed.
On March 16, 1938, a session in the House of Commons for oral answers started at 2:45 in the afternoon. Answering a question by Attlee, Chamberlain said :
As regards Ruthenia, I understand that the Ruthenian Premier broadcast a statement from Chust on the evening of 14th March, to the effect that steps had been taken to establish the independence of the province, that a provisional government had been formed and that the Ruthenian Diet would meet on 15th March. His Majesty’s Minister in Budapest reported yesterday, however, that the Hungarian Government had addressed a further ultimatum to the Ruthenian Government which expired at eight o’clock last night, demanding that, in order to avoid bloodshed, their powers should be handed over to the officer commanding Hungarian troops in Ruthenia.
The situation in Ruthenia was still confused. There were no indications as to the acceptance or rejection of the Hungarian ultimatum. No news had arrived after expiration of the ultimatum. Chamberlain, in spite of intelligence reports to this effect, could not yet know with certitude if Ruthenia would be allowed by Germany to remain a formally independent state vassal to Germany, or would be awarded to Hungary.
In the first case it would have meant that the plans for a conquest of the Soviet Ukraine were on track and the West could feel safe for the moment. In the second case, it would have confirmed the flow of past news indicating a German move Westwards. It is established that at about three o’clock on March 16, 1939, Chamberlain was not yet sure of Ruthenia’s fate. At the same time, the stand of the British Prime Minister, had been very soft.
At 15:30 the same day, the Foreign Office received a message from Budapest to the effect that the Hungarian Prime Minister announced in the Parliament that the Hungarian forces were proceeding to occupy Ruthenia. No word was given as to Germany’s stand.
The next day, on March 17, 1939, at 19:30, a telegram from Budapest was received by Halifax informing him that the German ambassador to Hungary conveyed to the British ambassador Germany’s disinterest in Ruthenia. This seems to have been the first indication received in Britain from an official source as to the German position concerning Ruthenia. The significance of the German occupation of Czechoslovakia was thus taking a sinister twist with respect to the West.
The same day on March 17, 1939, at 20:50, eighty minutes after receiving the above news, Halifax sent to Henderson a telegram in which he said :
Please inform German Government that His Majesty’s Government desires to make it plain to them that they cannot but regard the events of the past few days as a complete repudiation of the Munich Agreement and a denial of the spirit in which the negotiations of that agreement bound themselves to cooperate for a peaceful settlement.
His Majesty’s Government must also take this occasion to protest against the changes effected in Czechoslovakia by German military action, which are in their view devoid of any basis of legality.
To appreciate the suddenness of the change in tone Britain was now using with Germany, it is interesting to quote a memo written by Weizsacker, the German Secretary of State, on March 17, 1939, on a visit made by Henderson to him, apparently before Henderson received the quoted letter from Halifax. Weizsacker wrote :
The British Ambassador took leave of me today before going to London tomorrow to report. He informed me of the feeling which was developing in London as a result of the present solution of the Czecho-Slovak question and he sounded me for arguments which he could give Chamberlain for use against the latter’s political opposition at home .
Henderson did not yet feel that the bond uniting Hitler and Chamberlain in their common aim had been completely destroyed.
On the night of March 17, after Chamberlain had cognition of the German position over Ruthenia, he abandoned his soft stand and delivered his now famous Birmingham speech. There are strong indications that only in the last minute did Chamberlain decide to take the new stand. He did not have time to rewrite a speech he had prepared earlier . He had, the day before, long discussions with Halifax who was in possession of the latest news and was aware of the mood prevalent in the Commons and in the country. On March 17 Harold Nicolson entered the following in his diary :
The feeling in the lobbies is that Chamberlain will either have to go or completely reverse his policy. Unless in his speech tonight he admits that he was wrong, they feel that resignation is the only alternative. All the tadpoles are beginning to swim into the other camp.. ..The idea is that Halifax should become Prime Minister and Eden Leader of the House.
Leonard Mosley describes the discussion Chamberlain had with Wilson and which resulted in the tearing of the speech they had prepared together. It mentioned that Wilson, with his spies in the Parliament, had sensed the spirit of revolt against Chamberlain and the tendency to replace him as Prime Minister,
Wilson, in all likelihood, might have told Chamberlain that he had just learned that Germany had awarded Ruthenia to Hungary. It is a fact that the modified, and more aggressive, speech of Chamberlain, was delivered just after it became certain that Germany had expressed her disinterest in Ruthenia in favour of Hungary.
This could be a coincidence. Astute observers had realised before the 17th that Germany was disinterested in the matter of Ruthenia. It may well be that, faced with the prevailing mood of revolt in the conservative ranks, and forced to modify his stand, Chamberlain was ready to find additional justification for his reversal of policy. It would be hard for him to admit that he had to submit to the mood of the House. It would have been easier to accept that the flow of news indicating a possible German move to the West were, after all, reliable. He may have felt betrayed by Hitler who proved to have little regard for the difficulties his ruthless methods were creating for Chamberlain. Hitler, therefore was no longer reliable. Could he be relied upon to go East, exclusively? Probably not.
In such a case, he could take the position that he, Chamberlain, had been right all the time. Germany should be appeased, as long as she was not seeking to dominate the world. Now for the first time, he could say, the occupation of a non-German country raised such suspicions. He was once more back on the high grounds of morality. Only the few, knowledgeable of his Cabinet statements, could tell how misleading this stand was.
Crossing The Rubicon
On March 17, 1939, the reversal of policy was very restricted. It consisted mainly in denouncing the German invasion of Czechoslovakia and defending the past policy of Munich. Not a word was said in favour of collective security. Chamberlain explicitly rejected the extension of British commitments in Europe. Two weeks later, on March 31, Britain granted Poland a unilateral guarantee against any German aggressive move which Poland would feel obligated to resist. This guarantee was not only a complete change in the British foreign policy but appeared to have been granted suddenly and, according to the military experts, recklessly.
On March 15, Chamberlain still intended to go on with his policy of reaching an ‘understanding’ with Germany. Earlier, confronted with intelligence information warning of a German move against the West, he opined that those were emergency plans made by Hitler in case Britain would interfere with Germany’s expansion in the East.
If this view was correct, and Chamberlain would never concede he was wrong, and now that Germany invaded Czechoslovakia, Britain had to choose one of two options.
To be safe, Britain could abstain from interfering with this latest aggression, except for a formal mild protest for internal consumption. That is what Chamberlain endeavoured to do on March 15. However, he was forced to modify his stand under the risk of a revolt in the commons that could have lead to his replacement as Prime Minister, possibly, as the result of Ruthenia being awarded to Hungary.
Having been obliged to ‘interfere’ in Germany’s plans in the East, Chamberlain knew that, his credibility with Germany was lost. He could no longer assume for the Germans the role of a leader master of the situation and able to impose his own policies of ‘appeasement’. The demonstration had been made to Germany that the British public opinion could get out of hand. Germany could therefore no longer move to the East relying on an acquiescing West. An attack against the West as predicted by the British intelligence, became more likely, even in Chamberlain’s views.
The invasion of Czechoslovakia did not signal to Chamberlain Germany’s will for world domination. The radical alteration of the situation and the reorientation of Germany’s strategy resulted more from the fact that, in spite of his good intentions for Germany, Chamberlain could not prevent his first tough step on March 17 from gathering momentum.
It was impossible for Britain not to take now all military precautions and not to speedily proceed with rearmament. Furthermore, once the likelihood of a conflict in the West was accepted, any German move to the East acquired an important strategic significance with respect to an eventual conflict in the West. It became essential for Britain and France to develop a front of resistance to Germany’s expansion in whatever direction. This front would, increasingly, take the form of collective security.
Each defensive move from the West would strengthen Germany’s resolve to move aggressively Westward. It would also produce the normal series of accusations and counter-accusations between Germany and the Western countries, constantly worsening the atmosphere and justifying an increase in defence measures, on the diplomatic as well as on the military front.
While still hoping that he might put back on track the British policy for an understanding with Germany, Chamberlain was aware that his hold on the situation had become precarious. Even if he could re-establish his personal influence, it was liable to disappear again, were Germany to recourse once more to force or commit an act repulsive to the British public opinion. He therefore had to follow two parallel tracks of policy. On the one hand he had to face the real possibility of a conflict with Germany, while still trying to reach an agreement with her.
Chamberlain knew that Germany was doubting his ability ‘to deliver’. He thought that Germany had prepared plans for a ‘knockout’ blow against Britain and France, as a precaution against a possible interference from Britain in her plans of expansion Eastward. In his view, it was necessary to make Britain immune against such a blow by developing her defence capabilities. However, in order to complement the policy of ‘appeasement’ which included a free hand to Germany in the East, it was necessary to give Germany a sense of security with regards to Britain’s intentions towards her.
It was essential for the success of Chamberlain’s policy that he succeed in fulfilling two requirements. He had to prevent Britain from developing the capability for intervening in Europe, and he had to be sufficiently in control of British public opinion so as to prevent a great outcry each time Germany achieved one of her aims eastward.
Germany understood. She thought that by forcing the dismembering of Czechoslovakia by a decision of the Slovak Diet for independence and by extolling the signature of the Czechoslovak president on a document asking the Reich protection over Czechoslovakia, she had given Chamberlain the means he needed to do his job: plausible explanations for the invasion. Chamberlain understood it that way and, indeed, qualified Germany’s version as plausible.
Chamberlain was willing and tried to be understanding with respect to Germany in his interventions in the House of Commons on March 15 and 16. He had, however to abandon this stand but could not do it without producing a snowball effect.
Germany was about to loose patience with Chamberlain concerning his ability to remain in control. The events of Czechoslovakia had been a test, and Chamberlain, in Germany’s eyes, had failed the test poorly. The German reaction to that failure, would make it harder on Chamberlain to take any corrective measure. And so each action of Germany would produce a reaction from Britain which, in turn, would lead Germany to proceed with earlier plans prepared for such an eventuality.
It so turned out that Chamberlain, having taken a tougher stand on March 17, 1939, had crossed the Rubicon. While, under the new circumstances he agreed to speed up the British defence and modify the British outlook on the strategic value of the East, and he would, in time, even accept British military involvement on the continent, he did not lose the hope of reaching again a secret agreement with Germany. This time, he would base his renewed endeavour on the British military power as a deterrent, and continue to resist pressure to offer cabinet seats to irreducible opponents of ‘appeasement’ such as Churchill and Eden.
An examination of the military situation convinced the British politicians of the importance, in case of conflict, to impose on Germany a war on two fronts. Ian Colvin, describing a Cabinet meeting on March 18, 1939, wrote :
They agreed on the importance in a war of compelling Germany to fight on two fronts;.. Mr Hore-Belisha favoured “frank and open alliances” with Poland and Russia and “steps vastly to increase our military strength”.. “Germany had just seized in Czechoslovakia the complete equipment of 38 infantry and 8 mobile divisions”.
The Prime Minister “thought that Poland was very likely to be the key of the situation.. Our communication to Poland should probably go further than to other countries..”
Mr Walter Elliot thought it “most important to get in touch with Russia”.. “On the whole an attack in the West was more likely than an attack in the East.”
The Prime Minister referred to the draft declaration before the Cabinet as “aimed at avoiding specific commitments”.. “the real issue was that if Germany showed signs that she intended to proceed with her march for world domination, we must take steps to stop her by attacking her on two fronts.”
At the time, it was thought that the danger spot was Roumania. Nevertheless, Poland was to be ‘the key’ to the situation.
A guarantee to Poland would be the means by which a second front would be created. On the one hand it was expected that Poland would reciprocate the unilateral British guarantee. In this way the real aim, a guarantee of Britain by Poland would be achieved, and that would ensure the opening of a second front in case of conflict. On the other hand, it was likely that, as a result of the challenge to Germany constituted by the British guarantee, Germany’s next move might be against Poland instead of being against Britain.
Slowly Progressing Towards Collective Security
The first indications of a change in British Policy occurred on March 17. In his night speech in Birmingham, Chamberlain raised doubts concerning the possibility of trusting the German leaders. He raised the question as to whether the invasion of Czechoslovakia was part of a German endeavour at world domination. He did not answer it.
A second indication can be found in the strong wording used in the British protest Halifax sent on March 17 to Henderson, for delivery to the German Government . A better indication is given on March 17, 1939, by Halifax’s candid letter to Lindsay, the British Ambassador to the U.S. In it, Halifax is explaining the reasons for possible upcoming changes in the British Foreign Policy. Halifax wrote :
For many years a conflict had been proceeding between two conceptions. One had been that which based itself upon the view taken by many people that the best way to avoid trouble was to rally all the forces of order and peace and announce in advance a joint decision to resist any violation of either. This conception had expressed itself in different forms; up to a point in the Covenant, more precisely, I suppose, in the Geneva Protocol, and generally in the various suggestions made from time to time for some organization for what was loosely termed collective security. The other conception was that of seeking to avoid trouble by the avoidance of commitments, and by the attempt to keep out of any possible conflict unless the country concerned was itself the object of attack. The judgement at which anybody arrived as between these two alternatives naturally depended very greatly upon the estimate he formed upon the probabilities or otherwise of his own country being the object of direct attack. If he rated the probabilities in the case of his own country low, the inclination naturally would be to prefer that low estimate of probability of direct attack to the chances of embroilment in other people’s quarrels. If, on the other hand, the chances of direct attack loomed more large, the advantages of general co-operation required to be more carefully weighted. I had little doubt that recent events would have the result of leading many people to examine afresh the latter method of seeking to gain security.
Halifax is describing the choice between the two policies, that of ‘no commitment’ and that of ‘collective security’, as having a single motivation: the estimate of a direct attack against Britain. There is no moral consideration in this motivation, no particular desire of working for peace. The only thing that matters is to keep out of embroilment in “other’s people quarrels”.
Applied on Britain’s particular situation in the thirties, it translates into the following: Britain’s estimate of a direct attack against her by Germany was low. Germany was more likely to direct her aggressive moves toward the East of Europe, and end up conquering Ukraine. The West being safe, Britain should endeavour to keep out of Germany’s way. It is the estimate of a low probability of the German threat to Britain, and not her state of military weakness, which was at the root of the policy of no commitments in the East. To work for peace was identified with keeping Britain out of war. This would have been easier if Germany’s move were facilitated so as to take the appearance of necessary and justified moves. In such a case the British opinion would have no difficulty approving a policy of non-involvement .
According to Halifax’s understanding of what determined Britain’s policy, she would have still kept out of the way of Germany in the latter’s moves against Czechoslovakia and Poland. The only factor, according to Halifax, which could reverse the British policy, would be a change in the estimate of the probability of a German direct attack against her.
Halifax stated that such a revision of policy was likely. This indicated that the process for such a revision of the German threat of a direct attack against Britain had started. The fact that Britain had come to terms with the German expansion in the East indicated that the invasion of Czechoslovakia was, by itself, no reason for Britain to modify her policy. In fact, Chamberlain had anticipated this invasion and, when it occurred, reacted very mildly. He even clearly stated his firm intention to continue his policy of appeasement.
However, by March 17, the situation had changed. That meant that the German danger must have acquired a new aspect within the two days separating the 15th from the 17th. That new aspect, be it the implications of German disinterest from Ruthenia, or be it that of the change in mood of the British population , forced Britain to be more concerned with Germany’s future moves, even if directed Eastward.
A move by Germany Eastward, as a prelude to her move Westward, would now constitute a danger against Britain. The absence of such a move would even be more dangerous. Germany would be a greater threat if she could attack the West without having to defend an Eastern front. Halifax wrote to Phipps (Paris) on March 20, 1939 :
1. In spite of doubts as to the accuracy of reports of German ultimatum to Roumania, recent German absorption of Czecho-Slovakia show clearly that German Government are resolved to go beyond their hitherto avowed aim of consolidation of German race. They have now extended their conquest to another nation and if this should prove to be part of a definite policy of domination there is no state in Europe which is not directly or ultimately threatened.
Halifax was not yet sure that the invasion of Czechoslovakia was part of a German policy to challenge the Western sphere of influence (world domination). His hesitation as to Germany’s real intentions explains the persistence in later attempts at ascertaining from Germany if it was still possible to put back on track the appeasement policy. Halifax continued:
2. In the circumstances thus created it seems to His Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom to be desirable to proceed without delay to the organisation of mutual support on the part of all those who realise the necessity of protecting international society from further violation of fundamental laws on which it rests.
Britain was starting to think in terms of collective security. It was not yet Churchill’s idea of a ‘grand alliance’, ridiculed by Chamberlain a year earlier. For the moment all that Britain would suggest was a declaration by Britain, France Poland and the Soviet Union that in the case of a threat to the independence of any European State these four countries ‘hereby undertake immediately to consult together as to what steps should be taken to offer joint resistance to any such action’.
Though the proposed declaration was still quite weak , it signalled a noticeable departure from past British stands.
The Unilateral Guarantee To Poland
On March 17, Ivone Kirkpatrick wrote :
The knowledge we possess of Herr Hitler’s character and our experience of his methods makes it humanly certain that the present coup will be followed by a brief or very brief lull during which the optimists will tell us that Hitler has renounced his evil ways and that in consequence we have nothing to fear. It is during this period that public opinion, whom the Government have to consider, are difficult to move. Consequently if action to meet the German menace is to be taken a move should be made whilst the public are still under the influence of the latest coup. Accordingly there is no time to lose.
Kirkpatrick was mistaken on more than one count. In the past, the optimists had been represented inside the Cabinet as well as outside. These previous optimists now had doubts that Hitler would first go East. While not renouncing such hope there was a recognised urgency among them to face the eventuality of a sudden German move Westwards. The British people was ready for a tough policy against aggression, the ex-optimists were not prepared to resume their ‘appeasement’ policy without launching an all-round effort at improving the strategic situation of the West. Indeed, there was no time to lose, not because the fear of a softening of the public opinion, but because of the fear of being unprepared with regard of a possible German surprise move to the West.
Poland, at that point, became the focus of British attention. Before examining the new British policy towards Poland we should take note of an event which characterise the British stand towards Poland before the occupation of Prague. Anita Prazmowska wrote :
On 1 December 1938 Chodacki reported the rapid deterioration of relations between the Polish and German communities in the city [Danzig]. On 9 December Strang informed Raczynski, the Polish Ambassador in London, of Halifax’s intention to seek the withdrawal of League protection from the city by 16 January. On Beck’s request the League postponed its decision. Thus the Poles saw Britain as trying to rid herself of an embarrassing commitment not because they, the British, thought it unnecessary, but primarily because developments in the Free City seemed to forecast a major international crisis. Furthermore, Polish politicians feared that the sole reason why Britain appeared to be trying to distance herself from the Danzig issue was because she felt that it was getting in the way of general settlement of Germany. It was suspected that Polish interests were being sacrificed in the name of Britain’s European policy
The main lines of the new British policy with respect to Poland, can be discerned in the discussion on March 21, 1939, between a French delegation comprised of Bonnet, the French Minister for Foreign Affairs, and his private secretary, with, on the British side, Halifax and Strang .
Lord Halifax said that he had received the Polish Ambassador that morning and had told him of the approach that was being made in Paris, Warsaw and Moscow. To illustrate the point of view of His Majesty’s Government he had told the Ambassador that if Mr. Beck were to say to him: ‘You invite us to side with you in the event of a German aggression. What have you to say about Danzig?’ he would reply that if Poland and Germany were to come to a direct agreement about Danzig, so much the better; but if there should develop out of the Danzig question any threat to the independence of Poland, then, in his opinion, and, he thought, in that of His Majesty’s Government, His Majesty’s Government would have to treat it as a grave question which was of concern to all.
Halifax was asking Poland to side with the West in case of a German aggression. The threatened quarter, he considered, was the West and not Poland. Halifax went to the extent of offering a bait to Poland. Though Danzig was a city with a mainly German population, Britain, concerning Danzig, would stand with Poland, provided Poland would stand with the West. Halifax added:
His Majesty’s Government thought that it was now a question of checking German aggression, whether against France or Great Britain, or Holland, or Switzerland, or Roumania, or Poland, or Yougoslavia, or whoever it might be. They saw no escape from this.
Besides countries bordering Germany, others such as Roumania and Britain, with no boundaries with her, were also mentioned. The Soviet Union was not mentioned among the possible victims which had to be protected against a German aggression. It could be argued that Germany could hardly attack the Soviet Union without attacking Poland or Roumania. This argument is incorrect. Germany could attack the Soviet Union with the co-operation of one of these two countries. Halifax himself would, a few month later, tell his French colleagues that Britain would be reluctant to guarantee the Soviet Union in precisely such an eventuality. The document proceeds:
Lord Halifax then asked M. Bonnet whether the French Government saw the situation in much the same way as this.
M. Bonnet replied that in general they did. One thing, however, was capital. It was absolutely essential to get Poland in. Russian help would only be effective if Poland were collaborating. If Poland collaborated, Russia could give very great assistance; if not, Russia could give much less. The strongest pressure must therefore be brought to bear upon Poland.
France was more vulnerable than Britain to a German attack. She was therefore less reluctant to rely on a possible Russian help and considered it very important. Halifax did not see it useful to argue the matter right then:
Lord Halifax said that he was entirely of M. Bonnet’s opinion. Did not M. Bonnet think that if Great Britain and France took the view that in their own interest it was essential to stop German aggression, wherever it might start, Poland might also be brought to think that it would not be to her interest to see Great Britain and France greatly weakened? If they were greatly weakened, Poland would then be defenceless against Germany.
The scenario envisaged by Halifax, and which he proposed to present to the Polish leaders, was that of an aggression against the West weakening them. It is still clear that, as of March 21, the danger spot was still the Western front. Poland was to be attracted to the West side to avoid the prospect of a defeated west leaving Poland in an awkward situation.
Such an argument would not be sufficient to convince Poland. More had to be done. The document added:
Lord Halifax said that he would have thought, though the question required careful consideration, that if France and Great Britain were prepared to take a very firm line, even without the certainty of Polish support at the outset, this very fact would be likely to bring Poland in.
Here was the justification for a unilateral guarantee of Poland. The motivation was the West’s fear of a German attack against them. Poland would be needed to create an Eastern front.
On March 22, 1939, Leger briefed Campbell (Paris) about the French stand concerning the German occupation of Memel . We quote Campbell:
..it was incumbent upon us to concern ourselves in the first place with matters which definitely affected that balance and, therefore, our vital interests. He did not consider that Memel fell into this category. Its possession by Germany would not materially increase her strength or her capacity to wage war against France and Great Britain. It was because Roumania could supply Germany with the means of carrying on such a war (means which she at present lacked), that it was necessary to protect that country.
It is not the desire to prevent small nations from becoming victims of Nazism which would motivate Britain and France to protect them. What mattered were strategic considerations with respect to Germany’s capacity of waging war in the West. This factor now so important was of no consideration for Britain as long as she trusted that Germany would ‘look’ Eastward.
On March 24 Halifax reported to Kennard (Warsaw) a conversation he had with the Polish Ambassador. Poland requested a confidential agreement between her and Britain for a common reaction against a German attack on Poland. Halifax enquired on the reciprocal nature of such a ‘gentleman agreement’. The indication by the Polish ambassador that such might be the case, was not satisfactory.
On March 28, Halifax sent to Sir R. Lindsay. the British Ambassador in the U.S. a message to be delivered to the U.S. President. He said :
3. It is important to Germany to avoid a war on two fronts, and her recent behaviour has stiffened the attitude at any rate of Poland and created strong apprehension in other countries in Central and Eastern Europe. It is Germany’s purpose gradually to neutralize these countries, to deprive them of their power to resist, and to incorporate them in the German economic system. When this has been done, the way will have been prepared for an attack on the Western European powers.
In October 1938, Halifax was telling Kennedy, the U.S. Ambassador in London that Britain should mind her own business even if Germany decides to move into Roumania. In November 1938, Halifax wrote to Phipps (Paris) that Central and Eastern Europe should be Germany’s domain while the West should hold on the Mediterranean and the Middle-East.
On March 28, 1939, the situation was much different. The free hand given to Germany had been retracted when Germany decided to put in cold storage her move against Ukraine. That meant that the West was to be Germany’s next aim. There was no indication in Halifax’s message to Lindsay of a specific, imminent German threat against Poland, nor of a British moral motivation for the defence of small countries against aggression. Halifax reveals the two main British concerns: the first is that by getting rid of pressure in the East, Germany would have cleared the way for advancing Westward. The second concern is the necessity of having an Eastern front, since it was recognised by Britain that Germany could not make war on two fronts
A meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Foreign Policy was held on March 27, 1939. We quote from the minutes as given by Ian Colvin :
Chamberlain.. proceeded to enlarge on the importance of Roumania strategically both for her oil and as shielding the flank of Poland herself. He adumbrated a mutual arrangement between Britain and France, Poland and Roumania which would offer reciprocal aid if Hitler attacked anywhere in the West. Roumania was needed because “control of that country by Germany would go far to neutralize an effective naval blockade.. Poland was vital in the scheme, because the weak point of Germany was her present inability to conduct war on two fronts, and unless Poland was with us, Germany would be able to avoid this contingency.”
Chamberlain made it clear that Roumania and Poland were to be two pawns in the plans for the defence of the West. There is no indication that otherwise, were these two countries solely to be threatened, Britain would have, for the sake of helping a victim, involved herself in any defence plans.
There were differences of opinion as to the inclusion of the Soviet Union in the defence schemes. Chamberlain underlined the fact that, apart from the Roumanian and Polish reluctance, Italy, Spain and Portugal would then be against us. The decision was therefore taken to prefer Poland over the Soviet Union. Ian Colvin remarked :
Thus once more an irrevocable step was being taken after an unrecorded Sunday meeting, at which the critical argument had been whether to build upon Russia, or upon the assortment of states that lay between her and Germany. Once more the decision had been taken by very few minds, had been presented to the Foreign Policy Committee as an adopted plan, and would be told to the Cabinet when finalized.
On March 18, 1939, the Chiefs of Staff gave their opinion on the military situation . They agreed that Germany’s control of Roumania would give her immunity against an economic blockade. They said that it would be impossible to prevent Germany from going South East and reach the Mediterranean. The only hope would be to attack Germany on the West. This would fail unless Germany was engaged in two fronts.
The Chiefs of staff then considered three different contingencies. The Eastern front against Germany could be constituted by either the Soviet Union or Poland, or by both. Only in the latter case would there be a chance of success, and a possible deterrence action, by issuing an ultimatum to Germany warning her against intervening in Roumania.
A single country in the East would not constitute enough of a deterrent. However, if a choice had to be made between having the Soviet Union as an ally, without Poland or, alternatively, to have Poland as an ally, without the Soviet Union, the General Staff said that with the Soviet Union as an ally the prospects would be better.
The Chiefs of Staff gave no indication that the military situation had improved relatively to what it was in September 1938. The worst case would be a conflict restricted to the West. The second worst would be a conflict without an alliance with the Soviet Union.
On March 27, 1939, at a meeting of the Cabinet Foreign Policy Committee, Chamberlain expressed his readiness to give Poland an unilateral guarantee. Simon Newman quotes the minutes :
Chamberlain thought that the British scheme would appeal to Poland in her own interests. There were, however, doubts as to whether Poland would in fact agree to all conditions attached to the British offer of support, and in particular to the two conditions that Poland must help ‘if Great Britain or France were attacked by Germany, or if they went to war with Germany to resist German aggression anywhere in Western Europe or Yugoslavia. Therefore said Chamberlain, ‘if Poland declined to enter a commitment of this kind then nevertheless we should be prepared to give her the unilateral assurance as regards the Eastern Front seeing that our object [is] to check Germany’s attempt at world domination’
..there was probably no way in which France and ourselves could prevent Poland and Romania from being overrun. We were faced with the dilemma of doing nothing, or entering into a devastating war. If we did nothing this in itself would mean a great accession to Germany’s strength and a great loss to ourselves of sympathy and support in the United States, in the Balkan countries, and in other parts of the world. In those circumstances if we had to choose between two great evils he favoured our going to war.
Britain would not be so candid in conversations with Poland. On March 28, 1939, the Chiefs of Staff were asked to report on the military implication of a guarantee to Roumania and Poland assuming a neutral, but friendly, attitude of the Soviet Union. The Chiefs of Staff, while confirming that ‘the existence of an Eastern front for Germany depended on Poland being in the war, issued a warning
We are not in a position to assess the deterrent effect of such a Pact upon Germany, but an important military implication is that if such a pact were to encourage an intransigent attitude on the part of Poland and Rumania it would thereby tend to precipitate a European war before our forces are in any way prepared for it, and such a war might be started by aggression against Danzig alone.
On March 29, 1939 Beck was reported as being still ‘on the fence’ free to side with the West, or to remain benevolently neutral towards Germany. It was the French opinion that Beck intended to ask for a British guarantee in the certitude that it would be refused to him. This would allow him to side with Germany.
Poland, if she was to reach an agreement with Germany was sure to lose Danzig in the bargain. A deal with Britain that would not include a guarantee to Danzig would give Poland no additional advantage. It was clear that unless the British guarantee included Danzig Poland would slip to the German side. However, a guarantee to Poland, with the inclusion of Danzig, was sure to unlatch war with Germany.
The proposal for a unilateral guarantee to Poland was discussed at a Cabinet meeting on March 30, 1939. Halifax listed seven objections that could be raised against the proposal:
w No reciprocity
w risk of upsetting the prospects of direct agreement between Germany and Poland
w the guarantee would be very provocative to Germany
w Roumania was left out
w the information concerning an imminent attack against Poland was meagre
w it could upset Franco-Italian negotiations under way,
w It could upset the Franco-British approaches decided upon the day before and aimed at guaranteeing a Polish-Roumanian pact instead.
During the meeting, it was recognised that the guarantee could not prevent Poland from being overrun. Doubts where raised as to the wisdom of including Danzig in the guarantee. Chamberlain was worrying, else Poland could edge towards Germany. According to the minutes Chamberlain was :
uneasy at the fact that our Ambassador in Warsaw could obtain no information as to the progress of the negotiations between Germany and Poland. One possible, but very distasteful, explanation of this was that Polish negotiators were, in fact, giving way to Germany...
Chatfield then produced a memorandum he had just received from the Chiefs of Staff pointing to the fact that there was no evidence of a German preparation for an attack against Poland. They added that a guarantee to Poland should be reciprocal and should exclude Danzig. The absence of reciprocity could lead to war without an Eastern front. The Chiefs of Staff said that the rumours of an attack while not being substantiated by German military preparations may have had the purpose of making Poland more amenable to an agreement over Danzig.
The discussions showed that Britain was interested in preventing such an agreement. It was clear that the guarantee would not reduce the risk of war. Without it, there could be a Polish-German understanding over Danzig. With the guarantee, and its acknowledged provocative character, Poland would make no concession on Danzig and Germany would be bound to react. War would be the consequence.
Newman made here the following remark. I quote :
It is significant that their chosen method was designed to result in somebody else’s war first. For the British were still conscious of their weakness. As Halifax told his Private Secretary a few days later, he ‘wanted to gain time because every month gave us 600 more airplanes’ What better way to gain time, given that war was considered inevitable, than to direct the German military machine against the Poles?
It was considered unwise to wait for confirmation of the rumours of German preparations against Poland because there was ‘little, if any, sign of the concentration of German troops against the Polish frontier’ and the information ‘did not support the theory that Germany was contemplating an immediate military coup de main’.
A suggestion that the guarantee be against ‘unprovoked aggression’ was rejected by Chamberlain. He thought that in view of the German insidious methods, Poland, in self-defence might have recourse to a ‘technical’ act of provocation. It was cleat that the guarantee had to be such as to satisfy the most reluctant Pole into accepting it.
In short, the guarantee given to Poland was not a panic measure taken on the heel of news or rumours of a German coup against her.
w The matter was discussed for almost two weeks.
w Its disadvantages were considered from all possible angles.
w It was known that only by launching a serious attack on the Western front could the West come to the assistance of Poland, were she to be invaded by Germany. However, Britain and France had no intention to launch such an offensive, and did not launch it when the time for it was due.
w It was known that Poland could not resist the German invasion for longer than a couple of months.
w It was known that the guarantee was provocative to Germany and would therefore unleash war.
w It was also clear that the war would now start with Poland and not in the West.
w Britain and France were motivated by the fear of an attack to the West. It was deemed necessary, so they said in their records, to impose a second front on Germany.
w It was feared that, unless the unilateral guarantee was given to Poland, that country would settle her differences with Germany.
On August 22, 1939, Hitler explained to the Commanders in Chief his decision to attack Poland :
It was clear to me that a conflict with Poland had to come sooner or later. I had already made this decision in the spring, but I thought that I would first turn against the West in a few years, and only after that against the East. But the sequence of these things cannot be fixed. Nor should one close one’s eyes to threatening situations. I wanted first of all to establish a tolerable relationship with Poland in order to fight first against the West. But this plan, which appeared to me, could not be executed, as fundamental points had changed. It became clear to me that, in the event of a conflict with the West, Poland would attack us.
If he thought it useful, Hitler would not have hesitated to lie to his generals. On this occasion, however, his whole address was in line with the facts. Having recognised that he intended to attack the West first and the East afterwards, Hitler, when speaking to his generals, did not need the justification of a, supposedly, provocative Polish policy. All he needed was to prove that the odds were now with him more than they could later be. The reasons he gave for, unexpectedly, starting with Poland, seemed to correspond to reality. In short, it was the British guarantee to Poland which convinced Hitler to start with that country.
An interesting question must be raised here. Many factors militated against granting a guarantee to Poland. Poland was a dictatorship oppressing its minorities. Danzig was a German city and Hitler’s claim with respect to the city and the Polish Corridor were among the most justifiable he had. Poland had sent an ultimatum to Czechoslovakia in September 1938 claiming the region of Teschen at a time at which Czechoslovakia, pressured by Germany, Britain and France, was not in a position to reject it. Poland had lately been suspected of ‘standing on the fence’ with some leaning towards Germany. In short, Poland had lost the sympathy of the West, and her case was not strong.
The only serious reason mentioned in the British Cabinet for guaranteeing Poland was the fact, considered well-established, that Germany could not manage a war on two fronts. It was therefore imperative to prevent Poland from siding with Germany. The guarantee to Poland, and its expected reciprocal nature, were to ensure an Eastern front.
Up to this point the argument makes a lot of sense. However, Britain and France acted in such a way that, in fact, Germany had to deal with a single front during her invasion of Poland. Then, during her attack against the West, Germany, once more had to deal with a single front. This was the result of a deliberate decision by Britain and France not to be true to their pledge to come to the assistance of Poland with all their power. All they did was to declare war and then, to sit and wait.
This could have been predicted by the people in the know. Henderson had informed Germany that the West would take only defensive measures in the Western front. A report indicated that Hoare , before a Cabinet meeting, might already have said that, by declaring war to Germany, Britain would have fulfilled her guarantee and that, therefore, there was no need that this declaration be followed by military operations.
These facts seem to indicate that the real motivation of the guarantee was not to ensure a second front but only to direct the German military machine against Poland which would be abandoned to her hopeless fate. This is an indubitable fact. What remains to be established are the reasons for abandoning Poland to her fate. These reasons must have been considered at the time at which the guarantee was given. There are two possible explanations, and no sufficient documentation to chose between them. It is possible that a guarantee to Poland was expected to realise the following objectives:
w It would give Britain and France a couple of additional months for increasing their state of military preparedness.
w It would give additional time to diplomacy to restore the policy of understanding with a relatively satiated Germany. This could be done under the slogan that Poland having disappeared as an independent state, the guarantee stopped to make any sense. This policy could be helped by an expected peace gesture by Germany, after the success of her invasion of Poland.
There is another possible expectation for the grant of a guarantee to Poland:
w It would divert the German first move from West to East.
w It would bring Germany and the Soviet Union face to face along some new boundary.
w Germany and the Soviet Union were likely to quarrel over the spoils, and the expected German move towards the Soviet Ukraine may follow the subjection of Poland.
Whichever of the two explanations was the correct one, it is clear that the argument, advanced in Cabinet meetings, for the need to impose on Germany a war on two fronts was not the correct one. Hitler’s suspicion was correct. He said to his generals on August 22 :
Poland wanted a loan from England for her rearmament. England, however, only granted credits in order to make sure that Poland buys in England, although England cannot make deliveries. This suggests that England does not really want to support Poland.
The facts reported by Hitler were accurate. Not only did Britain not help Poland when she was invaded, but Britain raised objections after objections in her negotiations for a loan to Poland. When finally the loan was given, it was too late. No deliveries were made on account of that loan.
On April 2, Chamberlain wrote a letter to his sister Hilda, revealing much of his thought. Commenting on Ian Colvin’s “news” of a possible German attack against Poland, he thought :
..that Hitler had everything ready for a swoop on Poland which he planned to split up between annexation and protectorate. This would be followed by the absorption of Lithuania and then other states would be an easy prey. After that would come the possibility of a Russo-German alliance and finally the British Empire, the ultimate goal, would fall helplessly into the German maw.
Chamberlain added that, fearing that Poland might surrender to a German ultimatum, the decision for a unilateral guarantee was taken ‘then and there’. Chamberlain confirmed that the imminent danger was not that of a German invasion of Poland, but that of a settlement between Germany and Poland.
It is very revealing that Chamberlain, who always rejected an alliance between Germany and the Soviet Union as impossible, was now considering such an eventuality. The invasion of Czechoslovakia could not have been, by itself, an indication for the possibility of such a change in Germany’s policy. Nothing, except for the German disinterest from Ruthenia and its relevance to Germany’s renouncement of her Ukrainian dreams, could have induced Chamberlain to so drastically alter his understanding of Germany’s goals. This letter is a circumstantial evidence that Ruthenia played an essential role in determining Chamberlain’s tough stand against Germany.
Soon, however, either to counter the necessity of ‘bringing Russia in’ — to prevent her from joining Germany —, or as a result of contacts through ‘personal agents’, Chamberlain would revert to his stand that an understanding between Soviet Union and Germany is totally impossible.
On April 4, 1939, during Beck’s visit to London, Halifax sounded him about Poland reciprocating to Britain the guarantee she had just received. He hammered the point repeatedly, and Beck, as expected, obliged . However, he refused to commit himself to the defence of Roumania.
On April 6, 1939, Halifax wrote to Kennard, the British Ambassador to Warsaw, saying :
Count Raczynski [the Polish Ambassador] hoped that we would do what we could to make the press realize that the cure for the international problem in Eastern Europe was not to be found in immediate negotiations between Germany and Poland. His Excellency was assured that part 2 of the Prime Minister’s declaration contained indeed no reservation, and it was not the intention of His Majesty’s Government to force, or even to urge, the Polish Government to enter into negotiations with the German Government if they did not think this necessary or opportune.
One should compare how gently the dictatorial Government of Poland was treated as compared with the harsh treatment reserved for democratic Czechoslovakia. It is also evident that Britain did not feel aggravated by the eventuality of a worsening of the German-Polish relations resulting from a rigid Polish attitude. At a time when Britain feared an attack in the West, trouble in the East did not cause Britain any distress.
On April 5, Liddell Hart made the following ‘note for history ’:
On March 22, the Prime Minister suddenly got the wind up and wanted to know what defence there was available against a sudden air attack on London. He was painfully surprised to hear that in order to provide any he would have to proclaim a state of emergency, as required for the calling out of the Territorial A.A. forces. In default of this, Regular A.A. were hurriedly brought up to London with their guns, providing a cover of 78 guns. A week later they were allowed to return to their home station — but there was no cover available when, on Friday, the Prime Minister announced the guarantee to Poland — which Hitler took as a challenge. In the afternoon of April 4 the Admiralty issued orders to man the A.A. defence of the fleet, but nothing was done to provide cover for London!
The British Government must have felt very safe from Munich time, six months earlier, to that day of April 5, to have so much neglected London’s air defence. Had the vulnerability of the British Capital to air attack played a role in the British attitude at Munich, one could have expected that more would have been done to correct past negligence.
A comment by Liddell Hart is fit to close this sections. We quote :
Since World War II, when the practical absurdity of the Polish guarantee has come to be better appreciated than it was at the time, it is commonly excused, or justified, by the argument that it marked the point at which the British Government declared: ‘We were blind, but now we see.’ I have too many recollections, and records, of discussions during this period to be able to accept the view that this sudden change of policy was due to a sudden awakening to the danger or to the moral issues. In Government circles I had long listened to calculated arguments for allowing Germany to expand eastward, for evading our obligations under the League Covenant and for having other countries to bear the brunt of an early stand against aggression.
Chamberlain Still Hopes For A General Settlement With Germany
On March 31, 1939, Kordt of the German Embassy in London wrote to the German Foreign Ministry concerning the British unilateral guarantee to Poland :
4) The News Department of the Foreign Office has repeatedly and urgently requested Baron Hahn, diplomatic correspondent of the DNB, to point out to authoritative quarters that Chamberlain’s statement in no way represented a preliminary step towards a policy of encirclement. The Prime Minister and the British Government attached importance to this fact being established.
This was just a preliminary step to be followed by bolder ones. Chamberlain could have stated in his speech at the House of Commons what he took pains to communicate to the German Government. Apparently, he did not want to let it be known publicly that he still wanted to ‘spare’ Germany the whole impact of the new British policy. The use of such a roundabout way could only, once more, convince Germany that Chamberlain’s policy of friendship with Germany was divorced from his people and, therefore, had little chance of success.
In his memoirs, Lord Butler describes how Chamberlain felt when told, on April 7, 1939, that a weak nation had fallen victim of aggression. He wrote :
On the Good Friday of 1939, which Mussolini chose for the invasion of Albania, I hurried up from the country and at once called at No. 10 for instructions.. Neville seemed irritated at my intrusion and surprised that I was perturbed, He said, ‘I feel sure Mussolini has not decided to go against us.’ When I started to talk about the general threat to the Balkans, he dismissed me with the words, ‘Don’t be silly. Go home to bed’.
Mussolini could be aggressive at will, provided, in Chamberlain’s estimate, he would not be likely to turn against Britain. Chamberlain was even more cynical when he wrote to his sister :
What I had hoped when I went away on Thursday was that Mussolini would so present his coup as to make it look like an agreed arrangement & thus raising as little as possible questions of European significance.
The manners and forms are what counts. Chamberlain would have liked that Mussolini, for the façade , give him a ‘plausible justification’ to his action. Then it would be all right. He did not realise that the days of ‘plausible justification’ were gone and that he failed to make good use of the ‘plausible justification’ given to him by Hitler for the invasion of Czechoslovakia.
In April 23-26, a Roumanian delegation composed of Gafencu, the Roumanian Minister for Foreign Affairs and Tilsea, the Roumanian Minister in London, had conversations in London with the British officials Halifax, Cadogan, Ingram and Strang. The conversation covered the whole spectrum of European affairs. Gafencu reported on conversations he held in different countries in Europe.
Gafencu reported that Hitler was very angry with Britain for preventing Germany from developing economically and politically. Hitler said to him he did not mind going to war against Britain if that was what Britain wants. In that case Russia would be the only winner. The British minutes report :
Lord Halifax said he hoped that Mr. Gafencu would give him a clear indication, if Herr Hitler had done so, of what exactly Herr Hitler thought His Majesty’s Government were doing that was wrong.
The answer was not new. Gafencu explained that Hitler wanted to leave the world to Britain and keep Europe to Germany. Chamberlain joined the next session of discussion. Gafencu resumed his report on his talks with Hitler and said:
..Her Hitler also said that he had nothing to say against an Anglo-French guarantee to Roumania; but he had added that, if this were linked up with Russia, the position would be changed. In Herr Hitler’s view, Great Britain, France and Germany, whatever their differences, had a common interest in saving Europe. The Soviet Union was a danger, not only to Germany but to Europe as a whole.
One might have thought that by now, Chamberlain would have been immune to Hitler’s raising the Russian bogey. That was not the case and Chamberlain swallowed the bait. The document mentions that:
The Prime Minister said he gathered therefore that Herr Hitler’s dislike and fear of Russia had not diminished .
If such indeed was the case, it meant for Chamberlain either that Germany would not try to come to an arrangement with the Soviet Union, or that there were still possibilities for Britain to reach some ‘understanding’ with Germany.
On April 27 Norton , of the British Embassy in Warsaw, was complaining to Strang that the telegrams from Berlin ‘produce the impression that our Embassy are falling for the Nazi propaganda stuff that Poland is the menace to peace.’ Though Henderson was absent from Berlin, the British Embassy in Berlin still had close connections with Chamberlain.
Norton reminded Strang that incidents are irrelevant since Germany would create incidents whenever she wanted. He told Strang that ‘The Poles will never let anyone send a Runciman’.
No ‘Runciman mission’ was planned. Matters could not yet move so fast. An informal contact with the German authorities was made by Drummond-Wolf on May 14, 1939. He suggested that Britain was willing to help Germany extend her economic activities in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. He also suggested that Britain was prepared to make a loan to Germany to help her solve her foreign currency problems. He needed to know how large the loan should be.
The British industrialists informed their German colleagues that they were prepared to resume their conversations with them in June. Germany considered these approaches with contempt. On May 15, 1939, Weizsacker wrote in a memo concerning a visit by Henderson :
Henderson said that unfortunately public opinion in Britain had become progressively worse during his period of service in Berlin, and was now even ready to enter a European war for the Poles, of whom Henderson had nothing favourable to say.. This war, added Henderson, would be conducted defensively by the Western Powers. Of course each side would drop quite a few bombs on each other’s house, but the British were convinced that final victory would not rest with Germany and Italy as the Axis Powers had the shorter wind.
I listened to Henderson quietly and replied inter alia that he need not be surprised if the British guarantee of Poland was not taken very seriously in Germany, when the British Empire had considered it necessary to have itself guaranteed by the Republic of Poland!
Henderson’s gratuitous information to Weizsacker proved to be correct. The West indeed remained in a defensive posture while Germany was devouring Poland. Germany must have received this information early from other sources besides Henderson. Was it sheer stupidity which lead Henderson to reveal to Germany an exceedingly important information on the West’s war strategy? Was it a way to say to Germany that, even in war, the British friendly feelings towards Germany would prevent the West from launching offensive action? Was it a way to say to Germany that a) she was safe on the West front while dealing with Poland. Therefore Germany should start with Poland? b) that Britain would only formally respect her pledges towards Poland. Britain might declare war on Germany, but the absence of action could result in a later reconciliation based on a modus vivendi or even a ‘general settlement’?
The evidence is disturbing. Adam Von Trott, a former Rhodes Scholar was sent by Germany to England on a fact finding mission. His visit lasted from the 1st to the 8th of June. Together with Halifax, Inskip and Lothian and other British political leaders, he was invited at Cliveden for the weekend. Von Trott consigned in a memorandum his impressions and the description of his conversations with British leaders. We quote :
Lord Halifax, indeed admitted that among the British people also there prevailed a definite emotional readiness for war but they would fight only if “forced to do so by Germany”. Although they were ready to make the utmost sacrifices and would not shrink from a necessary war, nevertheless they were, even now, prepared to take any really reasonable peaceful way out.
Halifax, as reported, spoke in a dignified way. He however added:
After the Munich Conference, he had seen the way open for a new consolidation of Powers, in which Germany would have the preponderance in Central and South East Europe, a “not too unfriendly Spain and Italy” would leave unthreatened British positions in the Mediterranean and the Middle East, and with pacification in the Far East also becoming possible.
A division of the world into spheres of influence is here unmistakable. That is what Munich, according to Halifax, was about. We saw that Halifax, in a letter to Phipps, said something similar. He even considered the need of keeping out of the way in case of a German intervention in Soviet Ukraine. Such opinions, when expressed in Anglo-German meetings, were always wrapped in diplomatic language allowing a person to later pretend he meant something else, something that would not harm him if made public. Halifax here was more candid.
Lord Astor remarked that:
By the occupation of Prague, Germany had deprived her friends in Britain of the weapon which would have enabled them to support us. The British people unfortunately regarded Prague as a first step to further conquests of a similar nature.
Lord Astor expressed a feeling commonly found among the Conservatives. It is ‘unfortunate’ but a fact of life that the mood of the people does not allow German friends such as Astor, and other such Conservatives, to pursue the appeasement policy. Von Trott continued:
..Lord Lothian.. admitted that, within certain limits, the use of force and self-help had represented the only, and therefore legitimate, means for the Germans. The Western Powers had not succeeded in evolving from the post-war state of affairs an order which really conceded to Germany her vital rights. Germany had only been able to assert herself by unilateral action; that this way out was inevitable for the German leaders could not be denied. In his personal opinion, this also held good for the military occupation and disarming of Czecho-Slovakia as being an unavoidable necessity for Germany in the long run. Thus far he was prepared to follow the German argument.
This opinion of Lothian is important because of Lothian’s closeness to Chamberlain. Lothian had already been appointed British Ambassador to Washington, post he would occupy in August. Henderson, another close associate of Chamberlain, had already informed the German Foreign Office that Lothian should be taken seriously as being of a totally different kind of person from those who were meeting with German leaders without having any representative character. Von Trotts continued:
..Lothian again reverted to the European situation which.. was inevitably drifting towards war.. He asked me on no account to mention him as the originator of the idea that he was now about to unfold to me. In view of his mission to the United States and the present atmosphere there, L[othian] obviously wants to avoid the suspicion that he has not yet been converted from his ideas of reconciliation with Germany.. In the circle of Astor, Halifax, Chamberlain, etc., he exercise very strong influence.. so that, in spite of Lothian’s request for secrecy, the idea he communicated to me must naturally be included in this report as being of political importance.
This made it clear that some appeasers were incorrigible. In public they had to appear ‘converted’. However, in private and with German Friends, they would revert to their old self. Lothian’s suggested that Germany, having assured the strategic control of Czechoslovakia, could afford to give her national independence, on condition of her disarmament and co-operation with Germany. Then, once more the spheres of influence could be delineated. Von Trott, reporting Lothian’s suggestion wrote:
..such an action would, in his view, have a revolutionary effect on British Public opinion, and consequently on the freedom of action of the British Government and on world opinion in general.. On this basis he thought that the gradual elimination of all moral and material differences still existing between Germany and Britain was possible.
Economically the German living space would naturally have to extend far beyond the present limits. But, if recognition of the national identity of the small Czech people, surrounded by Germany, could actually be made an indisputable and demonstrable reality, it would seemingly guarantee in European politics the possibility of reconciling the expansion of German power with the continued existence of the individuality of other nations.
The moral difference between Germany and Britain seemed, to Lothian not to be so great. It all depended on an illusory independence given to Czechoslovakia. This would not prevent Czechoslovakia from being forced to cooperate to the extent of muzzling the press and implementing the nazist racial laws.
To extend ‘far beyond the present limits’ of the German economic living space, cannot, obviously be done without expanding her political ‘living space’. How can you force a country to be within the German economic living space without coercion. If the coercion is only economic, it restricts the choices. A country at the economic mercy of Germany could not but submit to the German political will. Besides, the distances in Europe are small except when the Soviet Union is included. To extend ‘far beyond the present limits’ can only be done at the expense of the Soviet Union.
Lothian was only concerned with stage dressing, so as to give ‘more freedom’ to the British leaders. Lothian added:
Any further British distrust of, and obstruction to, German economic expansion in the South East would then of course have to stop. If Germany led, but did not dominate, Central Europe, the Western European nations could feel reassured about their political independence.
Lothian’s language is imprecise. What is to led and not dominate? Where is the fine dividing line? It seemed that, here too, the façade counted most. On March 15, Chamberlain had stated that Germany had plausible justifications for her invasion of Czechoslovakia. Eventually, that plausibility was found deficient. More had to be done with forms and manners and window dressing. If political domination can take the form of ‘leading’ instead of ‘dominating’ then Britain would go along. Von Trott added:
From the conversations at Clivedon [sic] I gathered that, important though Lord Lothian’s voice is in influencing the Cabinet, Chamberlain still has the decisive say, in spite of criticism of a certain obstinacy and narrow-mindedness of his. It was thus fortunate that I was also able to have a conversation with the Prime Minister himself on Wednesday (June 8). The Astors have access to him at any time so that the meeting came about quite naturally.
Von Trott’s mission was considered of such an importance that his contacts with the British Foreign Minister and such other British leaders were deemed insufficient. The British Prime Minister had to be produced in person. In today’s language, the Astors had a ‘red line’ connecting them to Chamberlain. Von Trott described his conversation with Chamberlain:
I repeated what I had told Lord Halifax, especially about the “guarantee” of Poland and the bitterness towards Britain which this step had created among the German people.
He said, and here I quote: “Do you believe that I entered into these obligations gladly? Herr Hitler forces me to do it.” We had forced Britain on the defensive by the occupation of Czechia, and now the British people regarded every concession as a capitulation to an aggressor, caused by weakness.
It is the mood of the people, and not the conviction of the Prime Minister, which prevents further concessions to be made to Germany. Von Trott continued:
Mr. Chamberlain said — he spoke in great excitement at this point — that the British people too were “passionately stirred” [in English in the original German text] and that they would fight if another independent nation were “destroyed”. He had tried again and again after Munich to prevent the development of such a crisis. But his efforts had been rejected by Germany. He was not personally embittered by German statements against Britain, but they did make it impossible for him to make new suggestions for ways to arrive at an understanding.
Basically he still desired a peaceful settlement with Germany. From the day he had taken up office he had stood for the view that the European problem could only be solved on the line Berlin-London. As opposed to his present measures, this is approximately how he expressed himself, were an emergency aid, the compatibility of which with a German-British settlement he tried constantly to keep in mind. ..at Prague Germany had gone over to the “destruction” of other nations and that thereby all Germany’s neighbours were forced into a kind of self-defence psychosis. If Germany could restore confidence in this respect he would again be able to advocate a policy of coming to meet us half-way.
Chamberlain was still prepared to pursue his ‘appeasement’ business. However the onus of improving the atmosphere lied on Germany. His suggestion was similar to Lothian’s. Von Trott asked what if Germany were to demonstrate that she treated other people’s national identity more effectively than her own, would then Britain meet her halfway? Von Trott wrote:
Mr Chamberlain replied that he personally tended to regard such proof as practically impossible, but that, if furnished, it would have to be taken very seriously in Britain, and would also restore to the British Cabinet a public platform for [their policy towards] Germany. Popular distrust of Germany’s policy.. was for the time being insurmountable, but once this had been removed he would again be able to advocate concessions.
Chamberlain would have been wiser to remind his interlocutor that the manner in which Germany treated her own minorities of Jews, and Gypsies could not be accepted as a standard of comparison. Von Trott described what occurred after that:
Thereafter I was able to engage Lord Dunglass, a private secretary to Mr. Chamberlain, in conversation. During it he promised to influence Oliver Stanley, the President of the Board of Trade, in the sense of my statements noted above, with the result that, on the day after the speeches by Halifax and Chamberlain, Stanley also spoke in Parliament in favour of a more practically accommodating attitude towards Germany. I enclose as an annex a memorandum, handed to me by the brother of Lord Dunglass influenced by my conversation with Halifax in Cliveden. It is at any rate interesting that such positive views are to be found in the immediate entourage of the Prime Minister.
The situation as Von Trott found it in Britain appeared to still offer some promise for resuming the appeasement policy. While such was the situation in the Prime Minister’s immediate entourage, Von Trott could have wondered on the influence of opposite views in Britain. Chamberlain put him at ease. Von Trott writes:
I had the impression that a really generous solution in the future would occur less readily to Chamberlain than to Halifax or Lothian, but once visualized and clarified, he would defend it with courage and tenacity against any possible opposition. He stated to me that the small group of Conservatives who are rebelling against him — Eden, Churchill, Duff Cooper — could be completely ignored, and that because of his large majority he need not pay any great attention to the opposition.
The way was therefore open for an understanding. Von Trott continued:
The Fuhrer’s clear-sighted refusal of any half-hearted understanding with Britain has now, in view of a threatened total conflict, caused a far more genuine revival of the desire for a total understanding as the only alternative to war.
Von Trott was much encouraged by a memo handed to him by the brother of Lord Dunglass. The memorandum dated June 3, 1939, is here quoted in full :
The democracies say: We will not make any concession until you put away your pistols!
The dictators reply: We will not put away our pistols until you make concessions!
The democracies, remembering Czecho-Slovakia and Albania, say: How can we know whether you will put away your pistols after we have made concessions?
The dictators, remembering the Versailles Treaty and France’s broken promise, reply: How can we know whether you will make concessions after we have put away our pistols!
The result is an impasse. Consequently, the democracies and dictators are sitting back and waiting for a sign. The dictators dissatisfied and therefore impatient, are waiting for concessions to be granted. The democracies, satiated and therefore content, are waiting for the pistols to be put away.
Here is the vital point:
The democracies are making the pistols an issue. That is wrong. The pistols are of secondary importance. The dictators, however, are making the concessions an issue. That is right. The concessions or their non-existence, are the reason for the pistols. — There can be no agreement on the question of the pistols. Pistols speak only to pistols and their language is war. Therefore drop the pistols.
But there is already agreement that concessions will be made one day -
Let today be that day!
In short, the writer of the memo was saying that Britain, France and Germany should all drop the pistols, while Britain and France should make concessions to Germany. While the day for dropping the pistols is not specified, the day for concessions was the today of that day.
Not every past appeaser would identify his own views with that of the memo. The memo represented views widespread among the Conservatives, but rarely expressed in public. Though there is no indication that this memo had been reviewed by Lord Dunglass, this can be taken as likely.
On June 13, 1939, Weizsacker wrote a memo concerning a conversation with Henderson. Wiezsacker explained that the conversation which started with Henderson expressing his personal views, ended speaking in his official capacity. Weizsacker wrote :
British policy I said, was diametrically opposed to Henderson’s own thesis, which he had already repeatedly stated in public: “England wants the sea for herself, the continent of Europe can be left to Germany”. Instead of this, the fact was that Britain was now undertaking greater and greater commitments on the continent...
Henderson reacted very sensitively to this remark. There could be no question whatever of such will to war. He deplored certain Labour influences; he did not in any way defend the Anglo-Polish Agreement and said that no Runciman would be sent to Warsaw.
From here on, Henderson, obviously acting on instructions, spoke of London’s willingness to negotiate with Berlin. Halifax obviously had in mind that the present state of tension could and must be ended by means of discussions.
Henderson mentioned disarmament, revival of economic relations and colonies as possible subjects for discussion. Weizsacker added:
I made no comments on these remarks except to say that something similar had already been brought to my knowledge from London through different channels, but that I could do nothing from such unsubstantial remarks.
In view of known precedents, these ‘different channels’ can be suspected to be among the direct and indirect connections Chamberlain was maintaining with Berlin to by-pass the Foreign Office. Henderson also must have taken note that Weizsacker complained that the offers for discussion lacked specificity.
Henderson had no scruples in venting personal opinions which contradicted the official policy of his Government. After the invasion of Prague, he had been recalled to London. There he had to be treated for cancer. A new Ambassador to Berlin could therefore have been appointed without the matter being given a political interpretation.
Henderson had been associated with the policy of appeasement. In this respect his opinions, as we showed it, were extreme. More than once he had disobeyed explicit instructions which, in his view, were not going enough in the direction of appeasement.
Nevertheless, when an opportunity presented itself to put him ‘naturally’ away from his post, it was not taken. The message was clear: Britain did not want in her embassy in Berlin an opponent of appeasement. Similar reasons prevented the introduction in the Cabinet of people who had predicted the failure of the appeasement policy.
On June 27, 1939, The German State Secretary wrote a memorandum concerning a conversation he had with Henderson. He wrote :
The Ambassador asked me again.. whether the conclusion of the British talks in Moscow might not be beneficial for the initiation of German-British talks.
Using similar arguments to those used last time I told the Ambassador that the opposite was the case. British foreign policy would be completely incomprehensible to me unless I regarded it as emanating from domestic policy.
Henderson emphatically agreed with this and said he wished that the Labour Party were at the helm and not the Conservatives, for in reality Chamberlain was now obliged to pursue Labour’s foreign policy and also to bear the odium for its setbacks.
The Ambassador’s efforts to keep contacts with us were unmistakable.. As he left he offered his services for anything he could do towards a resumption of talks. He said it was absolutely wrong to believe that Chamberlain had left the path of peace.
Henderson was confirming once more that there were limitations to Chamberlain’s ability to follow the ‘path of peace’, and that he could be forced to implement, against his will, the policy of the Labour Party. Nothing could have more convinced Germany that an understanding with Britain would be unsafe. The talk showed that Chamberlain had not yet renounced ‘appeasement’. Chamberlain’s became tough, not out of conviction, but compelled by the mood of the country. ‘Knowledgeable circles’ had informed Germany that Chamberlain had the intention to leave opposition trends to run their course and, at an appropriate time, reverse to his policy of friendship with Germany. This could not be perceived by Germany as a reliable asset.
Reports coming from Germany to Britain were underlining the fact that, in spite of Chamberlain’s intentions to resume friendly relations with Germany, the confrontation policy was continuing. Chamberlain had lost the initiative. In one of these reports dated June 29, 1939, it was written :
It can be said with a fair amount of certainty, that Chamberlain himself, and the inner, deciding group of the Cabinet, are definitely working to prevent the outbreak of war, and would prefer a compromise over Danzig and the Corridor, which might be acceptable to their people, to any belligerent action. The six month of propaganda: “No more appeasement”, rises to outbursts of rage as soon as the Government so much as show a sign of giving way.
..I do believe, however, in common with competent political observers who are resident here or who have come over temporarily from the Reich, that Britain today is not prepared to agree to the German conditions for an understanding, and that she would rather risk war than give way to German pressure.
On July 2, 1939, Welczeck, the German Ambassador to Paris reported to the German Foreign Office a conversation he had with Bonnet, the French Minister for Foreign Affairs. Welczeck wrote :
..When I interjected that there could be no question of domination, least of all as regards France, Bonnet answered that the policy of a free hand in the spheres of interest of any country could not go so far as to bring part of a neighbouring country under any form of subjection manu militari; for this the dwelling house of Europe, in which the peoples lived together confined within so narrow a space, was too small.
Bonnet recognised that a free hand had been given to Germany. He was now qualifying the free hand according to regional densities of population. In Europe ‘within so narrow a space’, the free hand has to be applied without military violence. Such a restriction apparently does not apply to the Soviet Union which is not confined to a very narrow space. Bonnet’s statement was as explicit as the traditional diplomatic language would permit. In such a language the statement was not ambiguous.
In another report dated July 10, 1939, Dirksen, the German Ambassador to Britain wrote :
The decisive difference between Britain’s mood in the autumn of 1938 and now is, that then the broad masses of the people did not want to fight and were passive, while now they have taken the initiative from the Government and drive the Cabinet on.
This was hardly reassuring, though Dirksen ended with the following cheerful words:
Within the Cabinet, and in a small but influential group of politicians, efforts are being made to replace the negative policy of an encirclement by a constructive policy towards Germany. Though there are strong forces at work to stifle this very tender plant — among which may be numbered the press campaign of last weekend — nevertheless Chamberlain’s personality gives a certain guarantee that British policy will not be delivered into the hands of unscrupulous adventurers.
The optimistic ending sounded more as wishful-thinking then as the reality of the situation as described by Dirksen himself. Nonetheless this ‘small but influential group’ was not idle.
On July 14, 1939. Weizsacker wrote a memorandum concerning a conversation with Henderson. He wrote :
Henderson.. ended his remarks by expressing his confidence in the Fuhrer’s political genius for the timely and bloodless solution of difficulties and conflicts.
The actual object of the Ambassador’s visit was as follows:
intention of speaking to us about a kind of press truce. It was very inconvenient that a fresh and understandable press battle should have flared up through Commander King-Hall’s inflammatory letters, which Henderson himself most severely criticized. Nonetheless he wanted to ask my opinion as to whether it would be possible to enter into a kind of press truce with us, perhaps from the beginning of August when the British Parliament went into recess..
As the Ambassador let it be understood that he was not putting forward his suggestion without the approval of his Government, I would like to give him an answer at a later opportunity.
It seemed that Chamberlain had great plans for the period of parliamentary recess. In view of the gravity of the situation, many members of the House suggested that the House should not take its recess. Chamberlain insisted that the recess be observed. So much was that matter essential to him that he declared that he would consider a vote on this question as a matter of confidence in him.
Muzzling the House was only one part of his plans. He now wanted to also muzzle the press. It would be difficult to obtain the co-operation of the British Press unless he could obtain from Germany that they lower their level of criticism against Britain. Would the German press stop to be aggressive, Chamberlain could use his influence to convince his friends in the press business to allow him the necessary respite to make a last effort for peace.
He could then confront Germany with the two options available to him in preparation of autumn elections. The two slogans of ‘preparation for war against aggression’ and ‘general peaceful settlement with Germany’ were equally possible for a successful campaign. It was up to Germany to decide which choice Chamberlain would make in the absence of parliamentary control and press criticism. This is confirmed by a memo written by Weizsacker on July 17, 1939, concerning a conversation with Henderson. Weizsacker mentions that :
On the subject of a press truce when the British Parliament goes into recess, Henderson said that it would be useful also to have a truce in speeches, declarations etc., etc. In a word, his wish was that in the next few weeks the point of view of foreign policy should take precedence over that of British home policy..
Another noteworthy point in this conversation was that Henderson said he had urged London finally to come to a conclusion with the Russians one way or another. He is of opinion that these negotiations are disturbing matters between Berlin and London.
During the days July 18-20, 1939, conversations where held between the German official Dr. Wohlat , attending a whaling convention in London, and the British Leaders Horace Wilson, Joseph Ball and Hudson. The German and English records of the conversations diverge widely in content, and contradict each other in many essentials. The significance of the conversations thus depend on which records are trusted to be true.
Sydney Aster , for instance has chosen to believe the versions presented by Hudson and Wilson. This allowed him to title the Chapter dealing with the matter: ‘Appeasement Cremated’. Had Aster trusted more the German versions, he would have possibly titled the same Chapter: ‘Appeasement alive and running amok’.
There are, however, good reasons for trusting the German versions rather than the British ones. Chamberlain and his close political associate knew that the mood of the Foreign office, of the House of Commons and of the country was dead set against resuming the policy of appeasement. Such a policy had therefore to be pursued in great secrecy.
We already saw that Chamberlain, through a confidential agent, had established contacts with Ribbentrop, by-passing the Foreign Office and the British Ambassador. Cadogan had received information on these contacts through the British Intelligence. Contacts through special channels did not stop. On May 3, 1939, Cadogan entered in his diary :
Went to see H.J. W. [Wilson] about a telephone intercept, which looks as if No. 10 were talking ‘appeasement’ again. He put up all sorts of denials, to which I don’t pay much attention. But it is a good thing to show we have our eye on them.
Cadogan did not trust Wilson. He did not trust ‘them’. Cadogan would not have been alerted by the Intelligence Service, were there not such evidence available which allowed him not to ‘pay much attention’ to ‘all sorts of denials’ put up by Wilson. Wilson, in Cadogan’s opinion, would lie to cover up his ‘underground’ work. On June 29, 1939, Cadogan entered the following in his diary:
I have all the moves to consider — and Horace W. to manoeuvre against..
The quote is not specific. However, in the context of his other entries concerning Wilson, it is likely that Cadogan thought he had to be alert against Wilson’s steps at the service of an ‘understanding’ with Germany.
As to the conversations with Wohlat, there is no doubt that they had, on the British side, a conspiratorial aspect. Sydney Aster indirectly recognises that fact. He wrote :
Sir Orme Sargent’s brief minute of his conversation with Dirksen cleverly disguised his curiosity and, doubtless, suppressed anger. For the Foreign Office had been deliberately excluded from any contacts with Wohlat and had been denied initially any details. Halifax at once complained to Chamberlain. He wanted to be shown the exact records of the conversations. Hudson’s note was sent to the Foreign Office on July 24th. Wilson sent his, on Chamberlain’s instructions, a day later.
Wilson clearly intended to keep his conversations secret with respect to the Foreign Office. Under order from Chamberlain, he reluctantly wrote a report. The possibility therefore remained that what he thought should be kept secret was not mentioned in his report. Sydney Aster agreed that Wilson would do nothing without Chamberlain’s knowledge and agreement. Halifax must have thought likewise and chose to complain directly to Chamberlain.
This conspiratorial behaviour of Wilson, which, by the way, had precedents, does not encourage trust in his report. The same can be said with respect to Hudson’s report.
Wohlat reported to his superiors a detailed proposal from Wilson for a British-German agreement having economic, political and military aspects. Sydney Aster would have the reader believed that this was a complete invention. What would then be the motivation for producing such an imaginary proposal?
According to Sydney Aster :
Helmet Wohlat was possibly as ambitious as Robert Hudson, and he was desperate for success in his secret economic negotiations in London. Goring was not taking him seriously enough; Hitler was inaccessible and deaf to economic considerations. How better to gain attention than to weld hints, suggestions and various proposals into an orderly programme of wide-ranging appeasement. And this is what Wohlat did in Berlin.
Sydney gives no evidence that Wohlat was desperate, that Goering was not taking him seriously and that Wohlat was the kind of person who, in such circumstances, would embellish the facts to the point of inventing a detailed proposal and pretending he had received it from Wilson. The only circumstantial evidence presented by Sydney Aster are the Wilson and Hudson reports he chose to trust.
Moreover, there exists a report by Dirksen on his meeting with Wilson on August 3, 1939. He writes that, at that meeting, Wilson confirmed to him all the details of the proposal he made to Wohlat. Was then Dirksen also a desperate men ready to attribute invented statements to Wilson?
However desperate Wohlat and Dirksen may have been, they could not have been so stupid as to invent a story that would then be proven false in a very short time. They could not know that Hudson would leak the matter. It was therefore expected that such an important fact as the detailed proposal, might have an immediate follow-up. The follow-up would then expose them as impudent liars.
If their story was false, the leak to the press would have been for them a blessing. Their superiors in Germany would give no credit to British denials which could easily be interpreted as caused by public pressure. Dirksen however underlined the fact that the leak concerned the non-important discussions with Hudson, while, according to Dirksen, the really important discussions with Wilson, not having been leaked, could be continued. Would Dirksen, miraculously out of a bind, encourage resuming the contacts with Wilson?
Finally, one should remember that part of Wohlat’s report concerned a suggestion made by Wilson for a meeting between representatives of highest rank of the two countries. Such a suggestion, if based on a false report, was bound to uncover Dirksen’s and Wohlat’s brazen concoctions, if concoctions they were!
Trusting Hudson and Wilson requires assumptions specially made for the purpose. Not trusting them requires only to know, and not to assume, that, from the point of view of the reigning mood, it would have been dangerous for them to acknowledge having resumed the path of appeasement. We will therefore proceed with the reasonable assumption that Dirksen, as a faithful and experienced German Ambassador, reported accurately the essentials of his conversations with Wohlat, which confirmed the veracity of the detailed proposals given to Wohlat by Wilson.
In a record of his conversation with Dr. Wohlat, Hudson started his report with: “The German Embassy rang up this morning and asked if I would see Herr Wohlat.” The German versions mentions that Dr. Wohlat was approached by the British leaders through the intermediary of a Norwegian member at the whaling convention. The German version is more credible. Dirksen had protested to Sargent by telephone against the British declaration of a German initiated conversation. He would not have done it were he liable to be contradicted by the Norwegian delegation. Moreover, the mood in Britain was such that it would have been politically dangerous for Hudson to acknowledge having initiated the conversations. On July 24, 1939, Dirksen, from London, wrote to the German Foreign Ministry :
Public opinion is so roused and the warmongers and intriguers have gained such an ascendancy, that publication of such plans for negotiations with Germany would immediately be torpedoed by Churchill and other agitators with cries of “No second Munich!” or “No return to the policy of appeasement!”
..Those concerned with working out a list of points for negotiation therefore realize that the preparatory steps in respect of Germany must be taken in the greatest secrecy
Hudson’s conversation with Dr. Wohlat was leaked to the press. Chamberlain declared that he knew nothing of it and that Hudson was not authorised to hold these conversations. Chamberlain, most likely, took liberties with the facts. The records indicate that Wilson, Chamberlain’s alter ego, affirmed to Wohlat that he had Chamberlain’s support. Chamberlain did not mention in the House of Commons, that, besides Hudson, Wilson and Ball were also involved.
A message from Dirksen to Weizsacker shows how misleading Chamberlain’s statement to the House was. Dirksen wrote on July 25, 1939 :
Owing to the indiscretion of the press and Mr Hudson’s garrulity and incorrect presentation of the facts, these conversations have given the public a completely distorted picture; in many ways this is perhaps quite a good thing since, as a result, the really serious and significant part of his talks here — namely his two conversations with Sir Horace Wilson — has to some extent been kept dark; therefore the possibility of continuing them remains.
There are various accounts of these conversations. They complement each other with little contradiction, except for parts of Hudson’s reports. Hudson claimed that he offered Germany a loan destined to help the reconversion of the German military industries into peace industries. Such a reconversion would have appealed to the British public and would have justified the size of the loan (rumoured to have been one thousand million pounds). Since efforts were made in British Governmental circles to cover up the whole matter, those parts of Hudson report differing from or contradicting the German reports, could be suspected of being part of the cover up. According to Hudson’s own report :
He [Wohlat] asked me whether I thought that if the present political difficulties between Germany and ourselves were got out of the way we could look forward to a period of considerable economic prosperity. I agreed. I said that one of the problems, as I saw it, before Germany, and, to a lesser extent before this country, was how, when rearmament came to an end, we could find markets for the products of our heavy industries. He said that that would be comparatively easy in Germany, because they had south-eastern Europe.. I said that we regard it as falling in the natural economic sphere of Germany and we had no objection to her developing her position in that market, provided we are assured of a reasonable share.. I said, however, that it seemed to me that there were much wider possibilities involved.
Each powerful country had, it seemed, an economic sphere readily acknowledged by the other strong countries. The weak countries, apparently, had no say. This, in itself was outrageous, coming from a representative of a country claiming to be ready to go to war for the protection of weaker nations. However ‘the much wider possibilities’ were more outrageous.
I regarded Russia, China and the various Colonial Dependencies of European Powers as areas which would provide almost unlimited openings for capital development and act as outlets for the heavy industries of ourselves, the Germans and the United States; that given the necessary preliminary of a solution of the political questions, it ought not to be impossible to work out some forms of economic and industrial collaboration between our three countries, which would include, in my view, the abolition of barter agreements, exchange restrictions, import quotas, and so forth.
China and the European colonies were part of the capitalist market. Within some preferential restrictions, it was already possible to exploit these markets as outlets for the industrial countries. Such was not the case of the Soviet Union. To mention Russia as a country that could provide ‘unlimited openings for capital development’ implied the reduction of Soviet Union to a colony included in the capitalist market. One should notice the category of regions in which the Soviet Union is included: China (being colonised by Japan) and the various Colonial Dependencies of European powers.
The British public point of view was that the German invasion of Czechoslovakia had demonstrated the German will at world domination. This was also the official British stand. The problem of resuming good relations was that of obtaining credible assurances that there would be no other German aggression. It is in this spirit that the guarantees to Poland, Roumania and Greece had been welcomed and that the public was looking forward at a successful conclusion of the negotiations with the Soviet Union for an alliance capable to stand against aggression.
In this context, good relations with Germany were an impossibility. No one expected Germany to abandon her ambitions for expansion. Therefore either these ambitions had to be satisfied, or Germany had to be restrained. There was no middle-of-the-way solution.
Hudson’s solution was not one which would restrain Germany. It provided unlimited openings for capital development and outlets for the industries of the three main capitalist countries (Britain, Germany and the U.S.).
Obviously, Hudson knew that Stalin could not peacefully be convinced to open up his country to the capitalist free market; much less to allow that opening to take a shape similar to Britain’s opening of her colonies and Japan’s opening of China. Barter elimination implied a strong restriction on economic exchanges with the Soviet Union.
Hudson could not have ignored that, without defeating Russia in war, it would have been impossible to use that country in the way he described. In his proposal, there was an implicit assumption that Germany would be given those unlimited possibilities in the form of a free hand with respect to expansion at the expense of the Soviet Union.
When the news of Hudson’s meeting with Wohlat were leaked to the press, Hudson stated that the subject of the conversations had been a large loan to be made by Britain to Germany to help the reconversion of her military industry into peaceful industry. Disarmament as an object of conversation could be welcomed by the British Cabinet and public opinion. This could explain why Hudson mentioned it, while this is absent in the German reports .
Dirksen, we have seen, reported that the talks with Wilson were the real serious and important ones. They are reported in a number of German documents. The earliest one is a report by Dirksen on July 21, 1939, on his brief by Wohlat after the later returned from his talks with Wilson. On August 3, 1939, Dirksen met with Wilson for two hours. Wilson repeated to Dirksen the proposals he had made to Wohlat .
Dirksen write in his report of July 21, 1939 :
Sir Horace Wilson made it perfectly clear that Chamberlain approved this program; Wilson invited Wohlat to have a talk there and then with Chamberlain, in which the latter would confirm what he had said. However, in view of the unofficial nature of his talks, Wohlat did not consider it appropriate to have such a conversation with Chamberlain.
’This program’, had therefore Chamberlain’s approval. The program consisted of a) a pact of non-aggression to be understood as renunciation of aggression in principle. b) a pact of non-intervention which would delineate the respective spheres of interest. Disarmament and colonies were also to be considered. Economic questions were also to be settled. The document mentioned that:
Sir Horace Wilson definitely told Herr Wohlat that the conclusion of a non aggression pact would enable Britain to rid herself of her commitments vis-a-vis Poland. As a result the Polish problem would lose much of its acuteness.
Chamberlain and Horace Wilson knew quite well that a pact of non-aggression with Germany would enable her to expand aggressively in the East without worrying for a western front. It is true that Wilson added that the pact would include a renunciation to aggression. Such a principle had been adopted by most European countries and codified within the Briand-Kellog pact. It proved to be of no consequence.
Chamberlain and Wohlat did not suggest a similar non-aggression act between Germany and Poland. They did not suggest to include in the pact a clause saying that an aggression committed against whatever country by a signatory would relieve the other signatory from the obligations of the pact. The innocuous ‘renunciation of aggression’ was essential to justify a pact of non-aggression to British public opinion.
Wilson did not explain how, with a British-German pact of non-aggression, the Polish question would loose its acuteness. Is it because Germany would renounce Danzig and the Corridor? Nothing in Germany’s stand allowed any one to make such a presumption. The same is true concerning a sudden willingness by Poland to satisfy German’s claims on Danzig and the Corridor.
The acuteness would disappear because, Britain tied with the non-aggression pact would be unable to help Poland. Poland, without support from the West may have to submit to Germany’s demands. Were she to refuse, war would ensue, but it would be localised. Thus would the problem loose its acuteness, i.e. by abandoning the victim to the aggressor. The document continued:
Sir Horace Wilson said that it was contemplated holding new elections in Britain this autumn. From the point of view of purely domestic political tactics, it was all one to the Government whether the elections were held under the cry “Be Ready for A Coming War!” or under the cry “A Lasting Understanding With Germany in Prospect and Achievable!” It could obtain the backing of the electors for either of these cries and assure its rule for another five years. Naturally, it preferred the peaceful cry.
This urging for a decision before the British upcoming elections is a theme common to most of the contacts made with Germany at that time. It lends support to the belief that these contacts were all orchestrated by the Chamberlain circle.
In his own report written on July 24, 1939, Wohlat described the arguments given by Wilson to explain the British rearmament. It was done in response to the opposition pressure which had ‘assumed that the reason for British attitude at Munich had been that Britain’s armaments were not completed’. Now ‘Britain was militarily prepared; one need, so to say, only press a button in London and the whole war industry would go full steam ahead’.
Hudson, having driven the point that Britain was not motivated by a feeling of weakness, produced a memorandum. Wohlat wrote:
This memorandum obviously contained an elaboration, approved by Neville Chamberlain, of the points which would have to be dealt with between the German and British Governments. On the basis of the Fuhrer’s speech of April 28, he had drawn up these points for negotiations.
Sir Horace Wilson holds the view that the conversations must be held in secret. At present only Britain and Germany should negotiate; France and Italy should only be brought in later. Both Governments could come to an understanding to inform the friendly Powers by a definite date. Sir Horace declared that Great Britain wished to negotiate with Germany as an equal partner. The highest-ranking personages should be brought together throughout the negotiations .. The results of the conversations should be concerned with agreements in which the basic principles of a joint German-British policy are laid down, which will then have to be worked out by constant further cooperation in individual agreements.
..If the Greater German policy in respect of territorial claims was approaching the end of its demands, the Fuhrer could take this opportunity of finding, in conjunction with Britain, a form which would enable him to go down in history as one of the greatest statesmen and which would lead to a revolution in world opinion.
Britain was not only prepared to come to terms with Germany’s occupation of Czechoslovakia but would accept further annexations, provided that, concerning Germany’s territorial claims, ‘the end of its demands’ was approaching. The policy of ‘appeasement was back on track’ even though Britain was feeling strong and had only, so to say, one button to press to have an impressive war production go rolling.
According to Wohlat , Wilson proposed the following:
2) Mutual declarations of non-interference by Germany in respect of the British Commonwealth of Nations and by Great Britain with respect to Germany. I drew attention to the fact that it was not only a question of the frontiers of States and possessions, but also of territories of special interest and of economic influence. For Germany this would apply especially to East and South East Europe. Sir Horace replied that this point needed especially careful political wording and that the political definition would probably best result from an examination of Germany’s economic interests. Britain was only interested in keeping her share of European trade.
Hudson had already explained to Wohlat that Britain, alone, cannot fulfil the needs of her colonial market. He added that this was the same with Japan in relation to China. With the addition of the Russian market, there would therefore be plenty opportunities for Germany to participate in these markets. The non-interference clause was therefore not designed to restrict the economic activities of each party to its sphere of interests.
Wilson acknowledged that Central and South East Europe were within Germany’s sphere of interests. The problem was to find a proper wording and a proper ‘political definition’. Similarly, the non-interference clause had to be worded delicately. In view of a pledge of renunciation of aggression, annexations, and the like, it would also have to take special forms, submit to special manners, and wordings. With good will and imagination, and a modicum of restraint, something would be found on each occasion.
This could be considered a cynical interpretation. It is not so. What is cynical is the nerve of Wilson proposing to Germany a pledge of non-aggression, knowing so well that the only use of that pledge would be with respect to internal consumption in Britain. The fact is that Germany had not only constantly broken her pledges, but did not shy from broadcasting loud and clear her exorbitant ambitions. What Wilson was looking for was a modus vivendi whereby Germany would accept to realise her ambitions, while respecting such forms and wordings necessary to put the British leaders in position where they can abstain from interfering, and still keep control of the British public opinion.
Wohlat described further Wilson’s proposals:
B. Military questions. A German-British declaration on the limitation of the armaments and a common policy towards third countries... The Air Agreement and the Army Agreement should take into account the special strategic and military conditions of the British Empire and of the Greater German Reich in Central Europe.
The special strategic and military conditions of the Greater Reich in Central Europe were not defined. However, the recognition of such special conditions might allow Germany to justify unilateral action in this region.
Like Hudson, Wilson proposed to Germany the sharing and the extension of markets:
Systematic German-British cooperation would, above all, extend to the economic development of three great markets:
The British Empire (especially India, South Africa, Canada, Australia)
China (in cooperation with Japan)
Russia (assuming that Stalin’s policy develops accordingly)
Politicians do not have the time to indulge in impossible assumptions. The Russian market, under the Communist regime, could not be assumed to develop ‘accordingly’. The Russian market was a worthy consideration under a more practical assumption, that of an overthrow of the regime as a result of foreign intervention — most likely to be German.
Wilson’s proposal had a definite structure. A) for political questions. B) for military questions and C) for economic questions. A) was subdivided into 1), 2) and 3) respectively for renunciation of aggression, non-interference and colonial/mandate questions. B) was subdivided in 1), 2) and 3) respectively for Naval agreement, Air agreement, Army agreement. Finally C) was subdivided into 1), 2) and 3) respectively for markets (The British Empire, China and Russia), colonial questions and German-British agreements on the British share in the Greater German Reich in Eastern and South East Europe. (Eastern Europe meant Poland and Russia).
Such a structured and detailed program could not have been invented by Wohlat. Moreover, Dirksen confirmed that the same program with the same structure had been exposed to him on August 3, 1939, by Wilson. The fact that he confirmed it in his memoirs published in 1952, under no motivation to please Nazi authorities, add credibility to his testimony.
Wilson’s report on his conversations with Dirksen ended with the following :
Von Dirksen said what he wanted to do was to see what help he or Kordt might give towards the furtherance of discussion if we felt that conditions existed that would make it worthwhile for such a discussion to take place. I said that the answer to this question rested solely with the German Government. There seemed to be three propositions which he and Kordt might keep in their minds:
1. What instructions has the Fuhrer given as to the follow-up of Wohlat’s report? What are the next steps which the German Government think should be taken?
2. What will the German Chancellor do to prevent the position from becoming worse during the next few weeks? Will he so arrange the events during these weeks that they are non-provocative?
3. Assuming an agenda and programme to have been worked out, what will the German Chancellor do to show his determination to give the lead in creating a suitable atmosphere so that the agenda and programme may be discussed with due prospect of success.
To Dirksen, Wilson laid down the question as to the follow-up given to Wohlat’s report on Wilson’s conversation with him. However, if the conversation Wilson-Wohlat were correctly described by Wilson’s report , then there was no provision and no need for a follow up.
Likewise, question No 3 that Wilson says he asked the German to keep in mind, suddenly mentions: ‘assuming an agenda and programme to have been worked out’, assumption which, if Wilson was to be believed, seemed totally unrelated with the conversations with Wohlat, and unrelated with Wilson’s report of his conversation with Dirksen. However, a detailed program based on detailed proposals by Wilson is mentioned by Wohlat and Dirksen in their reports.
The reports by Wohlat and Dirksen are much more consistent and more credible. Wilson abstention from mentioning in his reports the detailed proposals he made to Wohlat, is indicative of the fact that the proposals were to remain known only within a close circle of people which would not include even the highest public servants of the Foreign Office. Dirksen memoirs seemed to give an accurate rendering of the whole matter. He wrote :
A general election was due in the autumn. By then Chamberlain would have to stand before the electors with the clear alternative: either “the compromise with Germany has been successful,” or “we must prepare for war with Germany.” I was plainly told by both Lord Halifax and Sir Horace Wilson that Parliament and public would accept either of these solutions unanimously. Hitler, too, heard it from the press magnate Lord Kemsley in a long conversation with him..
Thus the British Cabinet had the unusual difficult task of carrying through a dual foreign policy. On the one hand there were the negotiations with Moscow, which had to be kept alive; on the other hand, a compromise on a broad front had to be reached with Germany. If the compromise failed, the formation of an Eastern front would have to be achieved. If it succeeded, the Moscow negotiations would lose their importance. In view of the excited feelings in Britain, contacts with Germany had to be made in the utmost secrecy.
This was a fair assessment of the thoughts prevailing in the Chamberlain circle. Dirksen went on describing the meeting with Wohlat as reported to him by the latter. He then gave details concerning his own meeting with Wilson:
To give the discussion an official status, Sir Horace Wilson invited me to a conference. It was held in his private residence on August 3 and lasted for two hours. With circumstantial details he disclosed his program which had already been proposed to Wohlat. It fell into three sections..
Dirksen continued with details of Wilson’s proposals. They did not differ from what Wohlat had reported. At the time, on August 1, 1939, Dirksen had minuted his conversation with Wilson and included these minutes in a report to the German Foreign Office. They reveal the following :
I set worth on having Sir Horace Wilson confirm the notes which I had made on the basis of my talk with Herr Wohlat regarding his conversations with Sir Horace Wilson. It seemed to me essential to have this corroboration in order that there might be full clarity on these important points, all the more that since Hudson’s indiscretion a new campaign had been started against Chamberlain’s appeasement policy. It appeared that the basis of the Wohlat-Wilson conversation remained in force.
Dirksen minutes continued with the description of Wilson’s proposals. An interesting detail is worth quoting:
7) Armaments. On this point Sir Horace Wilson said that he wanted to make it quite clear that it was not disarmament that was meant, but negotiations regarding armaments in general. It was apparent from the further course of the conversation that he was well aware of the difficulties that would attend any agreement for limitation of armaments, as well as of the fact that it would take years to get going and become effective.
Once more it was evident that Britain did not believe in the possibility of reaching an agreement for disarmament with Germany. It was necessary, however, to deal with disarmament in a ‘make-believe’ manner so as to render any agreement with Germany, acceptable to the British public.
The minutes continued:
..After recapitulating his conversation with Wohlat, Sir Horace Wilson expatiated at length on the great risk Chamberlain would incur by starting confidential negotiations with the German Government. If anything about them were to leak out there would be a grand scandal, and Chamberlain would probably be forced to resign...
When I questioned whether in general, in view of the prevailing state of feeling — everyone who came out in favour of adjustments with Germany was regarded as a traitor and branded as such — it was possible for a British Government to arrive at any binding agreements with Germany, Sir Horace Wilson replied that it was possible, but that it would require all the skill of the British persons involved not to come to grief in the attempt. Above all, the greatest secrecy was necessary at the present stage.
This was not the first time that Chamberlain was trying to implement a very unpopular policy. Other leaders have occasionally do the same. What was particular, dangerous and contemptuous in Chamberlain’s attempts was that they were made secretly with the help of a very limited circle of people. Chamberlain was trying to overcome the democratic process which he considered as too restraining. This is made clearer by the following quotes from what followed in the minutes in terms of Wilson’s explanations:
The question was, how and in what form the public were later to be informed of the Government’s plans. Here Wilson pointed out that in England — whether rightly or wrongly he would not say — confidence in Germany and her peaceful intentions had been shattered; the thing above all was to convince the British public that confidence was warranted.
There is no difficulty of forms when the intention is to say the truth to the people. It is when the intention is to deceive the people that forms become important. Not all forms are liable to be equally successful. A wrong form could result either in the public not being convinced of the wisdom of the policy, or lead to the belief that the Government is either lying or concealing the truth.
Even when proper forms are chosen, dictatorship has, according to Wilson, a definite advantage over democracy. Wilson, the minutes show, explained:
There would be no sense in negotiating for an adjustment if another dangerous crisis was to be expected. It had to be admitted that it was a sort of vicious circle: on the one hand, the public could not be reassured by announcing that negotiations were in prospect (because that would jeopardize the negotiations), and, on the other, the German side declined to make reassuring declarations before they had a clear picture regarding the negotiations. It was difficult, because of Britain’s democratic constitution, for Chamberlain to come out publicly with a conciliatory statement, for then he and the Cabinet would probably be forced to resign. The vicious circle could therefore perhaps be more easily broken if the Fuhrer, who had no political attacks to fear at home, took the initiative and himself made such a conciliatory statement.
Wilson is requesting help from Germany to circumvent Democracy, and enable Chamberlain to implement a policy abhorrent to the British people and to the House. At the same time he explains the necessity of avoiding a new crisis. He hopes that if there is political calm for some time, a peaceful statement by Hitler would allow the negotiations between the two countries to go public. Wilson explained to Wohlat and Dirksen that, once a treaty of non-aggression, with a pledge of renunciation of aggression, would be signed, Britain could disengage from the guarantees she gave to Poland Roumania and Greece.
On August 1, Dirksen sent to Weizsacker a letter accompanied with the minutes made by Kordt of his conversations on July 29, 1939, with Charles Roden Buxton, a Labour politician. Though Buxton declared that he was visiting Kordt in a personal capacity, Dirksen thought that Chamberlain must have approved that visit and must have discussed with Buxton the proposals he was to present.
Dirksen justifies his opinion on the basis that on July 31, two days after Buxton’s conversation with Kordt, Chamberlain made a speech in the House of Commons and “ — like Buxton — specifically referred to the Anglo French agreement of 1904 and the Anglo-Russian treaty of 1907.” The circumstance for mentioning these treaties are not relevant to the point Dirksen is making. What mattered was that Buxton mentioned them two days before Chamberlain. Dirksen thought that it proved that they had concerted together just before Buxton’s visit to Kordt. Moreover, Buxton used the expression ‘spheres of interests’, which had been used by Wilson in his conversations with Wohlat. It seems that ‘spheres of interests’ was considered an expression less common than ‘spheres of influence’.
Kordt described Buxton’s proposals in his minutes:
1) Germany promises not to interfere in British Empire affairs.
2) Great Britain promises fully to respect the German spheres of interest in Eastern and South-Eastern Europe. A consequence of this would be that Great Britain would renounce the guarantee she gave to certain states in the German sphere of interest. Great Britain further promises to influence France to break her alliance with the Soviet Union and to give up her ties in Southeastern Europe.
3) Great Britain promises to give up the present negotiations for a pact with the Soviet Union..
In return for this, besides the afore-mentioned non-interference, Germany is to promise:
1) To proclaim her readiness for European co-operation..
2) To grant at a later stage some kind of autonomy to Bohemia and Moravia (I pointed out that this cultural autonomy already existed, after which Mr. Roden Buxton did not pursue the idea)
3) To agree to a general reduction of armaments.. Such a concession was essential to make it at all possible for Chamberlain and Lord Halifax to enter into reasonable and realistic negotiations with us.
It was obvious that such a far-reaching program, which would also settle the colonial question in a manner favourable to Germany, could only be discussed quite confidentially and in an atmosphere of improved confidence.
On August 2, Lord Kimsley, just back from Germany where he had a meeting with Hitler, met Dirksen to whom he repeated Wilson’s statement that Chamberlain would meet unanimous support in the House whether he was asking for preparation for an incoming war or whether he considered an agreement with Germany as feasible and imminent. Kordt mentioned:
Lord Kimsley spoke with pleasure of his conversation with Reichsleiter Rosenberg (charming personality), to whom he had said that Chamberlain was in his way the Fuhrer of England, similar to Hitler and Mussolini.
It is not a coincidence that in so short a period so many confidential contacts were made between Britain and Germany. Buxton’s visit to Kordt tended to show that even non-Conservatives were favouring an understanding with Germany. Chamberlain could be trusted to be supported by a larger base than would be thought. Lord Kimsley tried to show that Chamberlain is as master of the situation in Britain as Hitler is in Germany. If Chamberlain promises, he can deliver.
Moreover, it was true that, soon, a decision had to be made, one way or the other. General elections in Britain were due in autumn and it was time for Chamberlain to chose the theme of the campaign.
The special contacts continued. Not all were of great interest and none would add to our understanding. A conversation between Halifax and Dahlerus on July 25, 1939, (DBFP, series 3 vol. 6, p. 484) is however worthy mentioning It had been minuted by Halifax. After having expressed his interest on a possible incognito visit by Goring to Britain, Halifax added:
It was, however, essential that I should know nothing about it officially and I should not even wish to have any communication sent to me directly by those taking part in the meeting [with Goering]. He could, if he so desired, always communicate with me through Sir H. Wernher, but if any official connection were ever to be established, it would only do mischief and create quite unnecessary and undesirable misunderstandings.
Halifax knew the necessity, when pursuing a policy of appeasement, to prepare a credible case of deniability. It is therefore not astonishing that Cadogan attached little importance to Wilson’s denials, and that the historians should attach limited importance to Wilson’s denials with respects to his meetings with Wohlat.
In a world in which each country is spying on so many others, and when it is known that a number of well-informed British officials where spying for the Soviet Union, it cannot be ruled out that Chamberlain’s secret efforts at reaching an understanding with Germany, were known to the Soviet Union. It would justify a suspicious stand from that country and an insistence for nothing less than an ironclad agreement with the West, devoid of any loophole.
Negotiations With The Soviet-Union
We saw that, prior to Germany’s occupation of Prague, Chamberlain’s policy was to give a free hand to Germany in Eastern Europe. After the invasion and the resulting crossing of the Rubicon, Chamberlain, together with the Cabinet, endeavoured to create an Eastern front against Germany. The role of the Soviet Union in this front had to be considered.
The story of the negotiations between Britain, France and the Soviet Union, aiming at presenting a common front against further German aggression, is long and convoluted. A history of these negotiations is not attempted here. The purpose of the following pages is to examine those aspects of the negotiation which either throw additional light on Chamberlain’s policy of giving a free hand to Hitler in the East, or on those other aspects which seemed to be at variance with it.
The record of the Soviet Foreign Policy during the thirties — particularly since 1933 — was irreproachable. There was no need to trust or distrust the Soviet Policy of resistance to aggression. It was enough to notice that she was an expected victim of aggression and had therefore a vital interest in resisting the increase of strength that would accrue to Germany from further aggressions in Europe. In contrast, the record of the British and French Foreign Policy was not of a nature that could inspire trust to the Soviet Union.
When considering an understanding with Germany, Chamberlain thought it essential to take trust-inspiring measures. He went so far as to avoid implementing a program for bombers production, program which he earlier considered as an essential deterrent. He even refused to create a ministry of supplies for fear that it would be misinterpreted by Germany.
This readiness to humour the German susceptibilities was not designed to counteract a history of misunderstandings between the two countries. There was little in British Foreign Policy which Germany could honestly find provocative. Britain had proved, time after time, that she would not oppose Germany’s expansion in Central Eastern Europe, provided this was done in a manner devoid of threat to the West, and provided the German plans were executed with a modicum of ‘justification’ as to cause little problem to British public opinion.
In the case of negotiations with the Soviet Union, the starting point was deep distrust. The West, convinced that a Germano-Soviet understanding was an impossibility, could not but acknowledge Soviet Union’s interest in preventing further German aggression. On the other hand, the Soviet Union having been kept at arms length from the Munich negotiations, having witnessed the British continual efforts at reaching an understanding with Germany, having witnessed the surrender of the West in the case of Germany’s rearmament, her remilitarisation of the Rhineland, her annexation of Austria and the Sudeten region, having seen all her proposals for collective security denigrated by Britain, was doubting Britain’s sincerity in the suddenly expressed desire to resist aggression.
An essential component for the success of the negotiation with the Soviet Union was therefore, for the West, to avoid taking ambiguous steps suggestive of a continuation of the appeasement policy, or of a reluctance to start serious negotiations.
It was not just a Soviet suspicion but a fact that Chamberlain was reluctant to conclude a pact of mutual assistance with the Soviet Union. He was forced into the negotiations by the pressure of the opposition, by public opinion and by a section of the Conservative Party . Many of the British suggestions, proposals and stands would not have been different, had the intention been to increase the Soviet Union’s distrust.
One could think that the Soviet misgivings, however natural and predictable they might have been, were not justified once Britain had guaranteed Poland against aggression. There were, however, indications that Britain had ulterior motives. The ambiguity of the British position is revealed by comparing quotes from two documents. On April 12,1939, Halifax wrote to Seeds (Moscow) concerning his meeting with Maisky, the Soviet Ambassador in Britain :
The second point was that M. Maisky did not readily see why, if we and France wished to help Poland and Roumania, we could not make such help conditional on their adopting a reasonable attitude towards the acceptance of help from Russia. I told him that we should not certainly exclude such a possibility from our mind, but that, on the other hand, we could not ignore the possibility that, if anything of this sort were forced upon Poland and Roumania, they might in self defence feel obliged to enter some formal protest of dissociation, the general effect of which would be damaging to the common cause we all wished to serve.
Halifax, while pointing to the drawbacks of the Soviet proposal, expresses the view that the Soviet proposal should certainly be kept in mind. However, on the next day (April, 12, 1939), Halifax wrote the following to Kennard, the British Ambassador to Poland :
I told Count Raczymski that when the Soviet Ambassador had criticized our attitude, I had observed that the difficulties of which he complained were not of our making, but were inherent in the situation. The best thing that the Soviet Government could do would be to remove the anxieties of their neighbours. M. Maisky’s reply to this had been to suggest that, before undertaking to come to the help of Poland and Roumania, we should insist, as a condition, that they should come to an arrangement with the Soviet Union. I had told him that I could not feel this to be a very helpful contribution.
The Anglo-Polish agreement obligated each party to keep the other informed on questions of common interest. Britain did not always respect this obligation. Poland was the object of disrespectful remarks between France and Britain. These remarks were, of course, never reported to Poland. However, at his meeting with Count Raczynsky, Halifax felt it necessary to report to Poland the Soviet suggestion of conditioning help to Poland on her being reasonable with respect to the acceptance of Soviet help.
The least that could be said about Halifax’s behaviour is that it was devious and counter-productive. Devious because he did not candidly report his conversation with Maisky. He said to him that the suggestion should certainly be kept in mind. To Raczymski he pretended having told Maisky that he did not feel the Soviet suggestion to be a very helpful contribution.
Halifax’s behaviour was counter-productive because he knew that the British General Staff had more than once underlined the vital importance of permitting the Soviet troops to enter Poland for her defence against a German aggression. Halifax was therefore required to influence Poland to this effect. Instead, talking to the Polish representative, he threw on the Soviet Union the responsibility of relieving Poland from her anxieties. There is no suggestion as to how the Soviet Union could achieve such a result. Besides, Halifax’s report on his conversation with Maisky does not support his contention that he so much as hinted to Maisky that it was Soviet’s responsibility to remove Poland’s anxieties. At no point, despite the British General Staff’s views, had a serious effort been made by Britain to convince Poland to permit the passage of Russian forces in time of war.
On April 13, 1939, Seeds, the British Ambassador to Moscow sent a message to Halifax saying :
I venture to point out that it is difficult to see how the Soviet Government can effectively contribute towards a solution of our difficulties so long as the countries where the Soviet contribution could be effective resolutely refuse to consider any idea of cooperating with or even consulting this country.
5. But I do emphatically agree with the Russian Ambassador in the hope that some means may be found by His Majesty’s Government to prevail on Poland and Roumania to accept the idea of some form of Soviet military assistance. Such acceptance to be notified now and not put off until an outbreak of war when this country might be tempted to follow counsels of prudence or worse.
Maisky was not the only one to underline the necessity of ‘prevailing’ on Poland to accept the Soviet assistance. Bonnet also expressed such a view. Lloyd George, in the House of Commons also pointed to its necessity. However, at the time, Chamberlain had no enthusiasm for reaching an agreement with the Soviet Union.
On April 18, 1939, the Soviet Union proposed to Britain and France an alliance against aggression based on 8 points. These points were mentioned in a message from Seeds to Halifax :
1. England, France and the U.S.S.R. to conclude with one another an agreement for a period of five to ten years by which they would oblige themselves to render mutually forthwith all manner of assistance, including that of a military nature, in case of aggression in Europe against any one of the contracting Powers.
2. England, France and the U.S.S.R. to undertake to render all manner of assistance, including that of a military nature, to Eastern European States situated between Baltic and Black Seas and bordering on U.S.S.R., in case of aggression against these States.
3. England, France and the U.S.S.R. to undertake to discuss and to settle within the shortest period of time extent and forms of military assistance to be rendered by each of these Sates in fulfilment of paragraphs 1. and 2.
4. English Government to explain that assistance recently promised to Poland concerned exclusively aggression on the part of Germany.
5. The treaty alliance which exists between Poland and Roumania is to be declared operative in case of aggression of any nature against Poland and Roumania, or else to be revoked altogether as one directed against U.S.S.R.
6. England, France and U.S.S.R. to undertake following outbreak of hostilities not to enter into negotiations of any kind whatsoever and not to conclude peace with aggressors separately from one another and without consent of the three Powers.
7. An agreement on above lines to be signed simultaneously with terms of convention which has been described above under paragraph 3.
8. The necessity is recognised for England, France (? and U.S.S.R. [the text here is uncertain]) to enter into joint negotiations with Turkey having in view conclusion of a special agreement on mutual assistance.
Seeds’ message included the Soviet arguments presented to him by Litvinov in justification of points 2., 4., 5., 7. and 8. They appeared to be reasonable. The proposals had an obvious drawback: a lack of reciprocity. Whereas they obliged France and England to guarantee all the states lying along the Soviet frontiers, they were not pledging the Soviet Union to guarantee Belgium, Luxembourg and Switzerland, countries lying along the French boundaries.
The Soviet Union had been asked by Britain and France to make a unilateral declaration indicating her readiness to assist Roumania in case of an aggression against her. To overcome the Soviet misgivings, it was suggested that she could add that her pledge to help Roumania would be operative only if Britain and France were first involved in the defence of Roumania . This would not cover the case of a German attack against the Soviet Union with the consent of Roumania or Poland. The Soviet proposal represented a better protection to the Soviet Union, while satisfying the West request for assistance to Poland and Roumania. It is to be noted that point 7. is equivalent to the request that a political agreement should come into effect simultaneously with a military agreement. This point, contrary to what Britain and France would subsequently say, had therefore been raised quite early in the negotiations.
The Soviet Union had not been asked to guarantee the small Nations in the West. Nevertheless her negotiating position would have been much stronger had she volunteered to do it. In fact since she was to assist France in the case of an attack by Germany, it would have been in the interest of the three powers to stop Germany before she succeed in conquering Belgium or Luxembourg. It would have made sense to also propose a guarantee of Holland and Denmark. However, as a first draft, the Soviet proposals had great merits and it was up to Britain and France to point out the lack of reciprocity in them.
The Soviet proposals were not welcome by Britain and France. On April, 18, 1939, Cadogan minuted his suggestion for rejecting the Russian proposals. He wrote :
We have to balance the advantage of a paper commitment by Russia to join in a war on one side against the disadvantage of associating ourselves openly with Russia. The advantage is, to say the least, problematical.. If we are attacked by Germany, Poland under our mutual guarantee will come to our assistance, i.e. make war on Germany. If the Soviet are bound to do the same, how can they fulfil their obligation without sending troops through or aircraft over Polish territory? That is exactly what frightens the Poles.
Cadogan only refers to a German attack against England, in which case, the Soviet help would be unavailable in the face of Polish reluctance. He does not consider the opposite case, that of a German attack against Poland, in which case the British help to Poland would be unavailable, in view of the purely defensive policy Britain and France intended to follow on the Western front.
Those are problems for people unwilling to make the necessary effort to solve them. The defensive policy on the Western front could have been modified and Poland could have been subjected to adequate pressure — vide Czechoslovakia — so that means could be found for benefiting from Soviet help. Next day, Cadogan called the proposals ‘mischievous’. Writing to Phipps (Paris), Halifax said that the proposals ‘were in very precise form and might not improbably cause some embarrassment in certain quarters’. On April 20, 1939, Halifax sent to Phipps a very short telegram which is here quoted in full :
We should be glad to be informed of the views of the French Government at their earliest convenience. Meanwhile it is most important that neither the terms of the Soviet proposal nor the reactions of His Majesty’s Government or the French Government to it should be made public.
The following quotation might explain why it was so important to prevent the proposals, and the British Government’s reaction from becoming public. On April 20, 1939, Halifax wrote to Phipps (Paris) :
3. Mr Corbin, to whom I outlined our misgivings in regard to these proposals, said that the difficulties which their acceptance would create were plain enough. On the other hand, great care would have to be taken in handling the matter; a flat rejection would enable the Russians to cause both Governments considerable embarrassment, and it would be better if some practical counter-proposals could be devised.
Had the West been interested in an alliance with the Soviet Union, they would have welcomed their proposals and indicated ways to improve on them. The need for ‘practical counter-proposals’ is stressed, not in relation to a needed alliance, but in relation of the public relation problems that would result from a flat refusal. The conclusion can legitimately be reached that, were it not for the public opinion, a flat rejection would have constituted the first choice of Britain and France.
The intended British response was a reaffirmation of her previous suggestion for a Soviet unilateral declaration equivalent to a guarantee of Poland and Romania. At first, the French Government was unwilling to associate itself any longer with such a suggestion. Phipps reported to Halifax on April 24, 1939 :
Extremely precise and certain information which has reached French Government shows that such an agreement will only be possible on two conditions.
(b) French Government are also assured that the adherence of Soviet Government to immediate agreement proposed can only be secured in so far as it receives assurance that if assistance asked of it exposed Russia to an attack by Germany, France and Great Britain would come to help her. The Russian Government has made this a sine qua non. French Government do not therefore consider it possible to retain and support in Moscow the British suggestion for Russian unilateral declaration of assistance parallel to French and British declarations but with no guarantee or obligation of direct or indirect assistance between the three Governments. The only solution lies in formula by which France and Great Britain would guarantee Russia against consequences of assistance asked from her.
It was evident that the British proposals for a Soviet unilateral declaration had no chance of being accepted by the Soviet Union. Britain, nevertheless presented them to the Soviet Union as a Franco-British common move. France had a different suggestion mentioned in the document last quoted:
French Government therefore propose Tripartite Agreement on following general lines:
If France and Great Britain found themselves at war with Germany as result of executing engagements taken by them to prevent all changes by force of status quo, Russia would immediately assist them.
If as a result of the help given by Russia to France and Great Britain in above conditions Russia found herself at war with Germany, they would immediately assist her.
The three Governments will concert without delay nature, in both cases, of this assistance and will take all steps to assure its full efficacy.
The French proposals contained an element of asymmetry. Only Britain and France were expected to be at war for assisting Poland and Roumania. The Soviet Union would then have to assist Britain and France. The second case was, in reality, identical to the first. Though it started with ‘If ... Russia found herself at war with Germany’ — as distinct from ‘if France and Great Britain found themselves at war with Germany’ -, it cannot hide the fact that the chronology of the events described by the second point is identical to that of the first case.
In the first case, the one in which Britain and France would find themselves at war with Germany, three events are to occur in succession:
w at first Germany would invade Poland or Roumania.
w then Britain and France would find themselves at war with Germany as a result of their engagements.
w finally Russia is to assist Britain and France.
In the second case, the one in which Russia would find herself at war with Germany, the same three events are occurring in the same order, though the descriptive order is different:
w Russia founds herself at war with Germany as a result of helping France and Great Britain.
w this means that France and Great Britain must have already been at war with Germany.
w Finally, it is specified that France and Britain would receive the Russian help ‘in the above conditions’. However the above conditions are that the two countries would find themselves at war as the result of their obligation towards Poland and Roumania, obligations that are triggered by a German invasion.
The second case therefore, also presupposes a German attack against Poland and Roumania followed by a British and French involvement — through their guarantees to the two countries — followed by the Soviet Union assisting Britain and France.
The net result is that there is only a single case. In short Britain and France are asking the Soviet Union’s assistance directly to them, and not to the first expected victims of aggression.
On April 24 1939, Gafencu, during conversations in London with a British delegation including Halifax and Chamberlain, reported the results of his conversations with various European leaders. The minutes refers to Gafencu by his name, and to Chamberlain by his title ‘Prime Minister’. Gafencu reporting on his conversation with Hitler said :
Herr Hitler had also said that he had nothing to say against an Anglo-French guarantee to Roumania; but he had added that, if this was linked up with Russia, the position would be changed. In Herr Hitler’s view, Great Britain France and Germany, whatever their differences, had a common interest in saving Europe. The Soviet Union was a danger, not only to Germany but to Europe as a whole.
The Prime Minister said he gathered therefore that Herr Hitler’s dislike and fear of Russia had not diminished.
The information conveyed by Gafencu could be interpreted as an attempt by Hitler to prevent Britain and France from reaching an agreement with the Soviet Union. If this was the case, then the natural conclusion would be that Hitler feared an alliance between the three countries. Chamberlain did not see it that way. His conclusion was that Hitler remained as anti-communist as ever. There was therefore some latitude for justifying appeasing him.
During the same conversations, while noting that Russia should not be ‘too much’ cold-shouldered in view of the assistance she could possibly give to Roumania and Poland in time of war, Halifax remarked that:
His Majesty’s Government also had the domestic aspect to consider, since many members of the opposition considered that if only an agreement could be made with Russia everything would be alright.
A measure of cold-shouldering was considered to be in order. Too much of it would cause domestic problems.
On April 28, 1939, Halifax summarised for Kennard (Warsaw) the British policy :
2. His Majesty’s Government are trying to reconcile the following considerations:
(a) not to forego the chance of our receiving help from the Soviet Government in case of war;
(b) not to jeopardize the common front by disregarding the susceptibilities of Poland and Roumania;
(c) not to forfeit the sympathy of the world at large by giving a handle to Germany’s anti-Comintern propaganda;
(d) not to jeopardise the cause of peace by provoking violent action by Germany.
Paragraph (c) meant that, in Halifax’s opinion, close association with the Soviet Union would work to the advantage of Germany in her propaganda. Paragraph (d) underlines the danger of the close association with the Soviet Union in provoking a war with Germany instead of acting as a deterrent. Paragraph (b) seemed to give more importance to Roumania and Poland than to the Soviet Union.
Of the four paragraphs only one is in support of some association with the Soviet Union. To ‘reconcile’ the four considerations is therefore not so difficult. Halifax exaggerates the difficulty in mentioning four different elements. Since, however, (b), (c) and (d) are convergent, he is presenting a very unbalanced picture. On the one hand Britain had to care ‘not to jeopardise the common front’, ‘not to forfeit the sympathy of the world’ and ‘not to jeopardise the cause of peace’. On the other hand stood only ‘the chance of our receiving help from the Soviet Union’.
The case. as presented by Halifax, is clear and cut, and since the reconciliation of the two aspects, pro and con, is as impossible as the squaring of the circle, an alliance with the Soviet Union seemed impossible.
The Chiefs of Staff had underlined that the Soviet Union was militarily more important than Poland. It was obvious that Germany herself feared the alliance of Britain and France with the Soviet Union. The British Opposition was demanding it. Nevertheless Halifax is arguing that it might be a provocation to Germany, as if the guarantee to Poland were not in fact a much greater ‘provocation’. Halifax’s attitude smacked of appeasement.
For some time Chamberlain refused to include in the negotiated treaty a clause preventing a party to the treaty from concluding a separate peace with Germany. He had little regard to the argument that Britain would have been suspicious to the extreme, had the Soviet Union originated the request for a right to a separate peace with the enemy. In a telegram sent to Seeds (Moscow) on May 7, 1939, Halifax precise the meaning of terms used in a previous telegram. He said :
By point 6 I meant to refer to Soviet proposal that the three Governments would undertake not to make separate peace, and paragraphs 7 and 8 of my telegram.. deal with this point.
We now quote the relevant paragraphs which were part of a message sent by Halifax to Seeds on May 6, 1939 :
6. His Majesty’s Government fully realise the force of the considerations which led the Soviet Government to formulate Point 6 of their proposals.
7. In order to try to meet the Soviet Government to some extent we have inserted towards the end of our proposed formula the words ‘and on such terms.’ It would then be possible to deal with this matter if and when the event arises.
8. His Majesty’s Government would hope that it might be possible for you to persuade the Soviet Government not to press this point, which is one of obvious difficulty..
To suggest that the matter could be considered ‘if and when the event arises’ cannot possibly answer the Soviet concerns. It was difficult for the Soviet union not to conclude that ‘the obvious difficulties’ were related to the British reluctance to forego, even in time of war, the option to come to terms with Germany, thus leaving the Soviet Union at war with Germany. The acceptance by Britain of Point 6 took some time and appeared to have been the result of duress — pressure by France, the opposition and British public opinion.
On June 18, 1939, Corbin, the French Ambassador to Britain sent a letter to Cadogan saying :
(2) Conclusion of a separate peace or armistice
In relation to this, M. George Bonnet is of the opinion that it may be more to our advantage than to the Russian’s to maintain this paragraph. On the other hand, in order to understand the Soviet psychology in this respect, it would suffice to imagine the state of mind in which we would ourselves be if we would have proposed such a clause and the Russian were refusing to accept it. [our translation]
Britain’s long hesitation at responding to the Soviet’s natural concerns cannot but suggest to the distrustful Soviet Government that Britain had unavowable motives for their refusal.. The letter by Corbin proves that the Soviet misgivings were not only natural, but also predictable.
The nature of the Soviet suspicions was revealed to Halifax the British ambassador in Turkey. In a message dated May 17, 1939, the British ambassador wrote :
3. Turkish Ambassador, Moscow, explains attitude of Soviet Government as follows:
(a) As regards advent to Russia through the Baltic States he points out that Germany could not attack Russia by this route without Poland’s acquiescence. Soviet request for guarantees as regards attack through Baltic States is therefore somewhat in the nature of window dressing.
(b) Soviet Government nevertheless entertain a fear, which they do not like to put into words, of possible German attack on Russia with Polish cooperation. It is against this that they wish to be safeguarded.
5. Minister of Foreign Affairs feels convinced that Soviet Government desire to co-operate with us if only their suspicions and the difficulties explained above can be repelled [sic ? dispelled].. he adopted attitude in speaking to me, of speaking indirectly on behalf of Soviet Government.
These Soviet fears were not far-fetched. Only four days later, on May 21, 1939, Halifax sent from Geneva to Cadogan a message concerning conversations he held with French Ministers concerning ‘our Russian conversations. Halifax wrote :
3. I explained to them that His Majesty’s Government would see great difficulty in agreeing to a straight triple alliance. Our main objections.. were, first, that such a pact might well provoke Germany to violent action which we all wished to avoid and secondly that it might divide opinion in Great Britain which was at present firmly united behind the policy which His Majesty’s Government had been pursuing during the recent months.
4. We had however set down on paper outline of a direct triple pact in order to see what it would look like. I then read to the French Ministers the draft (known as draft B) .. I emphasised that I thought it unlikely that His Majesty’s Government would be able to accept such a draft.
5. Daladier said that the draft seemed to him quite acceptable and he could not understand our difficulties. Unless we concluded such an agreement quickly we should increase rather than diminish the risk of an act of force by Germany. Such an act could only be averted if Germany could be convinced that if she embarked upon this course she would meet with effective resistance. Without collaboration of Russia assistance could not be effective. He did not believe that conclusion of such a pact would provoke Germany to violent action. Quite apart from the benefits he did not think that Russia ought to be treated on a basis less favourable than Poland. We had entered into direct reciprocal undertaking with Poland and the Soviet Union would have cause to complain if we did not do the same with her. He did not think that the Soviet Union would accept anything less than this now although they might have accepted less a few weeks ago when the French formula had been drafted.
The British reluctance to conclude an alliance with the Soviet Union was obvious. The reasons advanced by Halifax did not convince Daladier whose arguments were not properly answered. The discussion that followed revealed a dark corner of British policy:
6. M. Daladier added that an attack by Germany on Russia which did not bring our Polish and Roumanian guarantees into play was most unlikely to occur. We should in fact not be increasing our obligations much by accepting triple pact. I replied that if as he himself had pointed out what Russians feared was attack by Germany with Polish or Roumanian connivance or acquiescence we should in fact be undertaking a heavier obligation since unless Poland and Roumania resisted, our guarantee to them would not come into force.
The Soviet suspicions, expressed four days earlier to Turkey, were therefore totally justified. Daladier himself seems to agree that, were there a way for Germany to attack the Soviet Union without crossing Roumania or Poland, it would make sense not to conclude an alliance with the Soviet Union. He underestimated Britain’s cunning and her willingness to consider the possibility of a war between Germany and the Soviet Union in which the Soviet Union would be abandoned to her fate.
Negotiations with the Soviet Union were not part and parcel of the policy of giving Hitler a free hand towards Eastern Europe. They had become necessary as a response to the opposition pressure and that of public opinion. Chamberlain accepted the negotiations very reluctantly. However, other members of the Cabinet saw in them a kind of insurance to cover the case of the failure of the free hand policy. As a first priority, the Soviet Union was to be thrown to the wolves. As a second priority, the Soviet Union was to be kept in reserve as an ally against a German attack Westwards.
The contradictions involved in this dual policy prevented Britain from taking decisive steps to ensure their success.
w When the Cabinet insisted on accepting most of the Soviet suggestions, Chamberlain insisted that the pact with the Soviet Union should mention its dependence on the League of Nations. In a letter to his sister, Chamberlain explained that it would then be possible to neutralise the pact by modifying the obligations under the Covenant of the League .
w While negotiating a treaty of mutual assistance between Britain, France and the Soviet Union, Chamberlain still hoped that it might be possible to reach an understanding with Germany. The idea was that Germany would provide England with the appearance of a justification for trusting her. The policy of a free hand to Germany in the East could then be resumed. Leaks concerning secret Germano-British talks reached the newspapers and, naturally, increased Soviet suspicions.
w The conclusion of the Soviet-German non-aggression pact put an end to these expectations. They were replaced by the hope of achieving an understanding with a nazi leader who would overthrow Hitler. Goering seemed to be a likely candidate.
Chamberlain attached little importance to the military value of the Soviet Union. He wished the negotiations would fail and, at times, said that he would rather resign than sign a treaty with the Soviet Union. The negotiations were pursued in the belief that, as long as they were ongoing, Germany would abstain from resuming her aggressive march. Instructions were given to the British negotiators to go slow enough in order not to reach conclusions, and fast enough to avoid their rupture. The British negotiators were to favour agreements lacking specificity and providing escaping loopholes.
The record shows that Britain’s attitude during the negotiations discouraged the Soviet Union and created in that country the belief that Britain was not serious in the negotiations. Altogether, Britain cut a poor figure in the negotiations. Comparatively, the Soviet-Union acted with suspicion, suspicion justified by her past and present experience. The pact she signed with Germany, but not the odious codicil, can be defended, to a point.
Britain being an open society, the blame that can be thrown on her can easily be established. The Soviet archives are not yet open and available to all historians. Documents which could shed a bad light on the Soviet Union have not yet been released. Therefore, Britain’s blame, however great, cannot be measured against the Soviet blame, which is still to be evaluated properly.
There is hope that the Soviet archives will be accessible within a few years. When this occurs, the story of the Soviet-French-British negotiations may have to be rewritten. We should however underline that, even within the paucity of available Soviet documents, the Soviet Union is definitely not blameless.
The Soviet Union, while suspicious of the Chamberlain schemes, must have observed the strength with which Chamberlain was dragged away from the policy of appeasement by the public mood. The Soviet Union could have trusted British public opinion to make it impossible for Chamberlain to betray an alliance with the Soviet Union. This was a risk the Soviet Union, apparently, did not want to take. What if, as the events proved it possible, Britain and France would have been content with launching a phoney war against Germany, leaving the Soviet Union to face alone the full blast of the German military machine?
Was it not for the codicil to the Soviet-German pact of non-aggression, one could sympathise with the difficult choice facing the Soviet Union in August 1939. One could have made allowance for the ferocious battles already going on at her Siberian border against a Japanese army.
The codicil was not a step towards peace. It was anticipating the outbreak of war and mentioning that the Soviet Union and Germany would decide, in consultation, whether Poland should continue to have an independent national existence. That decision, obviously, was expected to be made with no regard to Polish people’s will.
War And A General Settlement With Germany
On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland. From the very start, Germany had recourse to indiscriminate bombing against the civil population. Britain was pledged to assist Poland with all her might. This implied retaliation air raids against German military and civilian targets.
Chamberlain had tried his best at reaching a settlement with Germany. This war was not the one he contemplated. When the moment of truth came, there was in Chamberlain’s circle a wishful thinking attitude which amounted to the belief that, by postponing the declaration of war, there may appear some unseen possibility for peacefully resolving the crisis. Mussolini had been asked to use his good offices to intercede for peace. Eventually, war was declared on Germany. But it did not put an end to attempts at understanding with Germany.
Thus, in spite of the overwhelming abundance of proof that Germany was bombing the Polish population, Britain refused to acknowledge that this was true. Kingsley Wood argued that bombing the Black Forest, where the German army held large depots of munitions, would be impossible because this would be an attempt against private property. The same held for Essen’s armament factories. Spears wrote :
It was ignominious to stage a confetti war against an utterly ruthless enemy who was meanwhile destroying a whole nation, and to pretend that we were thereby fulfilling our obligations.
In order to justify their inaction responsible Ministers said in Cabinet meetings that Germany was following the generally accepted rules of war, and that the head of the Polish mission in London confirmed it. This was not true.
On September 10, 1939, Chamberlain wrote to his sister :
..the final long-drawn-out agonies that preceded the actual declarations of war were as nearly unendurable as could be. We were anxious to bring things to a head, but there were three complications, — the secret communications that were going on with Goering and Hitler.. the conference proposal of Mussolini, and the French anxiety to postpone the actual declaration.. until they could evacuate their women and children, and mobilise their armies.
The communications with Hitler and Goering looked rather promising.. They gave the impression.. that it was possible to persuade Hitler to accept a peaceful and reasonable solution of the Polish question, in order to get to an Anglo-German agreement, which he continually declared to be his greatest ambition.
Chamberlain had delayed the war declaration for reasons, two of which related to peace negotiations. He did not say what ‘a peaceful and reasonable solution to the Polish question’ meant to him. There was no longer a Polish question to solve but an ally to assist. To persuade Hitler to accept a reasonable solution meant that the solution must be made to appear reasonable to him. There could be no shred of doubt that the very minimum of Hitler’s request would be to get Danzig and the Polish Corridor which divided Germany into two.
Before the invasion, such a solution was rejected by Poland. It was recognised by all Western leaders that Germany had valid claims against Poland. However, the question as presented to the public, had stopped to be the validity of the claims. What mattered, it was said, was that Germany had to be prevented from pursuing a policy of aggression as exemplified by the invasion of Czechoslovakia.
Trying to find a solution to the Polish question, while that country was being ruthlessly invaded and bombed, was therefore a clear step back towards the policy of appeasement. Chamberlain was still explicitly dreaming of an Anglo-German agreement which remained the main objective for which it was necessary to find a solution to the Polish question. Chamberlain went on:
..what I hope for is not a military victory — I very much doubt the feasibility of that — but a collapse of the German home front. For that it is necessary to convince the Germans that they cannot win. And U.S.A. might at the right moment help there. On this theory one must weigh every action in the light of its probable effect on German mentality. I hope myself we shall not start to bomb their munitions centres and objectives in towns, unless they begin it.
Poland was engaged in a struggle for her life. She needed all the assistance that had been pledged to her, including retaliation air raids against Germany. Chamberlain, however, worried more about the German mentality. Retaliations would be made only in the case of bombings on British territory. Germany remained free to bomb the Polish population without having to protect the German cities against the British air force.
Poland, before the invasion and in order to meet that eventuality, needed economic help and military equipment. The negotiations were made difficult by Britain who wanted to impose on Poland a given policy as to her coal exports in addition to a devaluation of her currency. Though the negotiations ended in an accord, it had no practical effect, having been signed too late.
However, when Finland faced the Soviet invasion, military help was sent to Finland unconditionally. Plans were drawn for aggressive measures against the Soviet Union which would have resulted in military hostilities with her. The plans had to be abandoned when Finland made peace with the Soviet Union.
Poland, fighting Germany did, apparently, not deserve much help. Finland, on the other hand, was fighting the Soviet Union, and, therefore, apparently, deserved much more sympathy from Britain and France.
Nicholas Bethell has documented the case of the Duke of Westminster, a known anti-Semite and admirer of Germany, who, on September 12, 1939, assembled a group of opponents to the war which included Lord Arnold, Lord Rushcliffe and the Duke of Buccleuch . At the meeting he read a document opposing blood shedding between ‘the two races which are the most akin and most disciplined in the world’.
The group was later joined by Lord Ponsoby, a former Cabinet Minister (1931). Bethell wrote
Men such as these were the gilded tip of the iceberg. Lurking below there were many thousands of right-wingers in England, as in other countries, who had been captivated by Hitler and his New Order. Even now, after the outbreak of the war. they were ready to give him their support.
A copy of the document reached Chamberlain. He handed it to Joseph Ball a senior officer in British Counter-Intelligence’ . Joseph Ball reported back to Chamberlain through Horace Wilson. He noted that the document advocated allowing Germany to have Danzig. It suggested that, were no obstacles to be put in the way of Germany’s economic expansion in south-eastern Europe, the Germans would be satisfied.
In his letter to Wilson, Joseph Ball reveals his sympathy for the views expressed in the document. He, however, objects to the timing. He wrote:
..if the group really desire to see that anything of the kind should happen, they have been extremely foolish in allowing their views to transpire at the present juncture. If, as I understand is the case, Winston [Churchill] has heard of them, he will I imagine press hard for their immediate and categorical rejection; and should he do so, it is difficult to see how the P.M. can avoid giving him some assurance.
Joseph Ball, a close associate of Chamberlain, was implying that Chamberlain, while agreeing with the document’s views, would not be able to support it ‘at this juncture’. A proper juncture did not present itself.
In conclusion, the story of the free hand in Eastern Europe given by Chamberlain to Hitler, is no longer the subject matter of conspiracy theories. It can legitimately be considered a well documented historical fact. The Appendix which follows will, hopefully, add clarity to the understanding of that policy.