Front Page Titles (by Subject) 3: The Collapse of Versailles - America's Second Crusade
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3: The Collapse of Versailles - William Henry Chamberlin, America’s Second Crusade 
America’s Second Crusade (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, Amagi, 2008).
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The Collapse of Versailles
It was the announced purpose of the Treaty of Versailles to replace the state of war by a “firm, just and durable peace.” But the peace settlements with Germany and its allies were neither firm nor just nor durable. A century elapsed between the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the next general European conflict. But there were only two decades of uneasy armistice between the First and Second World Wars.
The Treaty of Versailles might be called too mild for its sternness and too stern for its mildness. The negotiators at Versailles fell between the two stools of a peace of reconciliation and an utterly ruthless, Carthaginian destruction of Germany as a major power.
German public opinion could not be expected to accept willingly the mutilation of the country’s eastern frontier, the placing of millions of Sudeten Germans under undesired Czech rule, the inconvenient corridor which separated East Prussia from the rest of Germany, the obligation to pay tribute to the victorious powers almost until the end of the century, and what was generally believed to be in Germany “the war guilt lie.”
At the same time Germany was left strong enough to cherish some hope of redressing its position. It remained the most populous country in Europe, after Russia. The people were homogeneous; there were no dissatisfied minorities of any consequence within the shrunken frontiers; Germany possessed important assets: scientific knowledge, industrial development, a national capacity for hard and disciplined work.
And the great coalition which had brought about the German downfall in the war had disintegrated. America was becoming more and more disillusioned with the fruits of its first crusade. Russia’s ties of alliance with France and Great Britain had been severed by the Bolshevik Revolution. Italy had gone its own way under fascism.
There were, to be sure, French alliances with the new and enlarged states of Eastern Europe, with Poland and Rumania, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. Still more important, Germany during the twenties and early thirties was effectively disarmed. It was on these bases, French armaments and alliances and German disarmament, that the new Continental balance of power reposed.
For more than a decade after the end of the war Europe’s fate was in the balance. An act of generous, imaginative leadership, on the part of Britain and France, looking to some form of European union, might have strengthened moderate forces in Germany and saved the situation; but no such act was forthcoming. Narrow nationalism dominated the scene.
Between Germany and Russia, stretching from the Arctic to the Mediterranean, was a belt of thirteen small and medium-sized sovereign states (Finland, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Rumania, Bulgaria, Greece, and Albania). The very existence of many of these states was only possible because such powerful nations as Germany and Russia were knocked out at the same time, Germany by military defeat, Russia by revolution.
The continued independence of the states in this area and their economic advantage called for some form of regional federalism. But old national antipathies and petty local interests were so strong that almost nothing was achieved in this direction.
The hopes of liberals, especially in Great Britain and in the smaller countries which the witty Spaniard, Salvador de Madariaga, described as “consumers of security,” were focused on the League of Nations. But this body failed to develop the independent authority which would have been required in order to maintain peace. Its membership was never universal. The United States and Russia, among the great powers, were absent from the beginning.
By the time the Soviet Union was admitted to the League in 1934, Germany and Japan had given notice of withdrawal. And the Soviet Union’s participation in the League came to an end when it was expelled in 1939 after launching an unprovoked attack on Finland.
The League never possessed the physical means to check aggression. It possessed no army, no police force. It was not a league, in any true sense of the word, just as the United Nations have never been really united. Its members were divided by clashing interests. It could not be, and was not, any stronger than the national policies of its leading members. So it is not surprising that it failed to meet one big test after another.
When Japan upset a complicated and precarious status quo in Manchuria in 1931, the League proved unable to cope with the subsequent crisis. It protested and remonstrated. Japan left the League and kept Manchuria.
Events took a similar turn when in 1935 Italy started an old-fashioned colonial war against Ethiopia, one of the few remaining independent areas in Africa. The League, under the reluctant prodding of the British Government, itself prodded by British public opinion, imposed half-hearted sanctions, aimed at Italian exports. Two steps that would have led to a clear showdown, the closing of the Suez Canal and the stopping of Italy’s vital oil imports, were not taken. Italy conquered and kept Ethiopia—and left the League.
When World War II broke out, the League took no action at all. The European members which hoped to remain neutral did not wish to provoke the wrath of Germany by pronouncing judgment. The last flicker of the League’s moral influence was the expulsion of the Soviet Union.
The experience of the League disproved several optimistic assumptions of its advocates. Contradictions of interest and policy, such as always arise among sovereign states, could not be banished by grouping a number of nations in a so-called league. Nor were governments inclined to go on a hue-and-cry against an offender, to assume a risk of war on account of acts of aggression in remote parts of the world, not very different from many which had been committed in the past.
If the League was too weak to maintain existing frontiers against violence, its usefulness was further impaired because it was never used as a forum for discussion of means of peaceful change. Article 19 of the League Covenant suggested this possibility:
“The Assembly may from time to time advise the reconsideration by members of the League of treaties which have become inapplicable and the consideration of international considerations whose continuance might endanger the peace of the world.”
But Article 19 was never invoked. The League never became an instrument for promoting those policies of freer trade and migration which would have eased the tensions making for dictatorship and war.
With the League impotent, the maintenance of European peace became a matter of old-fashioned national diplomacy. Between 1933 and 1939 there was an amazing shift in the European balance of power. When Adolf Hitler became Chancellor in March 1933, German military power was inferior to British and French.
The German army was restricted to 100,000 men and was denied aircraft and tanks. (There had been some small evasions of the Versailles limitations on arms, but these were not important until the Nazi regime got into full swing with its rearmament.) The Rhineland was demilitarized; a foreign army could have marched deep into German territory without encountering troops or fortifications. The French alliances with eastern European countries created a partial ring around Germany. Moreover, Germany was suffering from severe industrial paralysis and mass unemployment. These were the consequences of the world economic crisis for a country that was thickly populated and highly industrialized.
What a change occurred in six years! The initiative had passed into the hands of Nazi Germany. Britain and France were on the defensive. Massive rearmament had helped to create full employment in Germany, although at the price of some shortages and a curtailment in living standards for the more well-to-do. The French alliances had crumbled; Germany, as events would soon prove, was far and away the strongest land military power on the Continent.
How had this upset in the European balance of power come about? It was a remarkable example of how ruthless and unscrupulous audacity on one side could prevail against half-hearted, irresolute fumbling on the other.
From the standpoint of power politics, Hitler made only one conspicuous blunder during this period, and this was quickly retrieved. A group of Austrian Nazis attempted a coup d’état in Vienna on July 25, 1934. They seized government offices and assassinated the Prime Minister, Engelbert Dollfuss. But the conspirators were not strong enough to get full control of the government. Mussolini mobilized forces on the Brenner Pass. The Italian dictator was not yet ready to accept a common frontier with Germany.
Realizing that he was not yet strong enough to risk war, Hitler hastily dissociated himself from the Austrian adventure. He removed the German Minister in Vienna, who had compromised himself with the conspirators, repudiated any complicity in the uprising, and removed the Austrian Legion (a force of Austrian Nazi émigrés) from its suspicious proximity to the Austrian frontier. The Austrian question was then shelved for several years.
After Hitler came into power the Polish ruler, Marshal Josef Pilsudski, is credibly reported to have sounded out France on the possibility of a preventive war, designed to overthrow the Nazi regime. The French were unresponsive, and Pilsudski lost much of his faith in the value of the French alliance.
One of Hitler’s first diplomatic objectives was to weaken the links between France and the states of eastern Europe. So, in his first talks with Polish diplomats, he was careful to emphasize German respect for Polish nationalism, German willingness to accept the status quo on such thorny questions as Danzig and the Polish Corridor. Pilsudski’s disillusionment with France played into Hitler’s hands.
One of the first successes of Nazi diplomacy was the signing of a ten-year pact with Poland. Each government renounced the use of force against the other and affirmed the intention “to settle directly all questions of whatever nature which concern their mutual relations.”1
Until the spring of 1939 Hitler, Göring, Ribbentrop, and other Nazi leaders tried to keep Polish confidence alive by stressing publicly and privately their pacific intentions toward Poland and their antibolshevism. Typical of this tendency was the conversation of Göring with the Polish Commander in Chief, Marshal Smigly-Rydz, in Warsaw on February 16, 1937.2
Göring was profuse in his assurances that Hitler was committed to a policy of rapprochement with Poland and of irreconcilable anticommunism. This sounded all the more reassuring in Polish ears because the pre-Hitler German governments had never been willing to conclude with Poland an “Eastern Locarno,” accepting the new borders in the East, as in the West.
Moreover, there had been close secret relations between the Reichswehr and the Red Army. German technical advisers had assisted the development of the Soviet aviation industry. In return German officers were permitted to experiment in Russia with weapons forbidden under the Versailles Treaty. All this was well known to the Poles, who were always afraid of a new partition of their country between its powerful neighbors.
Later, after the German military position had become much stronger, there were at least three strong German hints that Poland should join in a combination with Germany against the Soviet Union.3 Ribbentrop proposed to the Polish Ambassador in Berlin, Lipski, that Danzig should be reunited with Germany and that an extraterritorial railway and motor road should be built across the corridor. In return for these concessions Germany would be willing to guarantee the existing frontier and to extend the German-Polish nonaggression pact for twenty-five years. Ribbentrop also suggested “a joint policy toward Russia on the basis of the anti-Comintern Pact.”
When the Polish Prime Minister, Col. Josef Beck, visited Hitler in Berchtesgaden on January 5, 1939, the Führer emphasized “the complete community of interest” between Poland and Germany as regards Russia and added that “every Polish division engaged against Russia was a corresponding saving of a German division.”
Finally, Ribbentrop, in talking with Lipski on March 21, 1939, argued that Germany, by defeating Russia in the last war, had contributed to the emergence of the Polish state. Ribbentrop also, according to Lipski, “emphasized that obviously an understanding between us would have to include explicit anti-Soviet tendencies.”
So there is some reason to believe that Hitler’s decision to destroy Poland, in agreement with the Soviet Union, was a reaction to the British guarantee, extended to Poland on March 31, 1939. Up to that time it had been Nazi policy to offer Poland the role of a satellite ally in an ultimate move against the Soviet Union, the kind of role that was later assigned to Hungary and Rumania. The history and the present map of Europe might have been greatly altered if Poland had accepted this suggestion. But Beck adhered to a middle line. He refused to take sides with Germany against the Soviet Union as he refused to take sides with the Soviet Union against Germany. He feared equally the embraces of both his neighbors.
With Poland immobilized and with the Soviet Union weakened by the vast purges which eliminated many leading political and military figures between 1935 and 1938, Hitler could feel that his rear in the East was safe. Then he commenced to slip off, one by one, the restraints on Germany’s freedom to arm at will. His method was simple but effective. He confronted Britain and France with a succession of accomplished facts. Invariably he followed each new step toward rearmament or, later, toward territorial expansion with assurances of his devotion to peace. The standard French and British reaction was simple but ineffective. It was limited to verbal protests and appeals to the increasingly impotent League of Nations.
Hitler won a legal minor victory in the Saar plebiscite of January 13, 1935. This small but highly industrialized region, rich in coal, had been detached from Germany and placed under League of Nations administration by the terms of the Versailles Treaty. There was to be a plebiscite after fifteen years, with three choices: return to Germany, annexation by France, or continuation of League rule. About 90 per cent of the Saarlanders who participated voted for return to Germany. The Third Reich gained territory and prestige.
Hitler launched a frontal attack on the Versailles system when he announced the creation of a German air force on March 9, 1935, and the restoration of compulsory military service a week later. Here was an issue on which the western powers could have made a stand without much risk. German rearmament had not advanced far enough to support a war. But nothing of consequence happened. Representatives of Britain, France, and Italy met at Stresa, in northern Italy, and came to an agreement to oppose “unilateral repudiation of treaties which may endanger the peace of Europe.”
The British and French were so concerned about obtaining Mussolini’s signature to this paper formula that they failed to admonish the Italian dictator about his obvious intention to invade Ethiopia. And in June Great Britain came to a naval agreement with Germany providing that the German Navy should not exceed one-third of the British.
Even after he had obtained a free hand in rearming on land, on sea, and in the air, Hitler still faced an obstacle inherited from the Treaty of Versailles. Germany was forbidden to build fortifications or maintain troops in a wide demilitarized belt along its western frontier. So long as this arrangement remained in force, the vital Ruhr and Rhineland industries were vulnerable to a swift invading thrust from France. The demilitarization of the Rhineland was endorsed by the Treaty of Locarno, of which Britain and Italy were coguarantors.
Hitler decided to challenge this last limitation. He sent troops into the forbidden area on March 7, 1936. The official excuse for this action was the Franco-Russian military alliance, which had been negotiated by Pierre Laval, of all unlikely individuals, and which was on the eve of ratification in the French parliament. In an effort to soften the shock of this action, German Foreign Minister von Neurath proposed to the signatories of the Locarno Treaty a twenty-five-year nonaggression pact, with demilitarization on both sides of the Franco-German frontier, limitation of air forces, and nonaggression pacts between Germany and its eastern and western neighbors. Nothing ever came of this suggestion.
Hitler later declared that the sending of troops into the Rhineland was one of the greatest risks he had ever taken. It is highly probable that immediate French military action would have led to the withdrawal of the German troops, perhaps to the collapse of the Nazi regime. But France was unwilling to move without British support. Britain was unwilling to authorize anything that savored of war. There was a general feeling in Britain that Germany was, after all, only asserting a right of sovereignty within its own borders.
Hitler had brought off his great gamble, and the consequences were momentous. The French lost confidence in Britain. The smaller European countries, seeing that Hitler could tear up with impunity a treaty concluded with the two strongest western nations, lost confidence in both. There was a general scuttle for the illusory security of no alliances and no binding commitments. It was now possible for Germany to bar and bolt its western gate by constructing the Siegfried Line and to bring overwhelming pressure to bear in the East, as soon as its military preparations were sufficiently advanced.
Hitler’s success in the Rhineland was possible because Mussolini had changed sides. Britain, with France as a very reluctant associate and the smaller European powers following along, had committed the blunder of hitting soft in response to the invasion of Ethiopia.
Faced with this challenge, the British Government could have chosen one of two logical courses. It could have reflected that Mussolini was a desirable friend in a Europe overshadowed by Hitler, that colonial conquest was not a novelty in British history, and let events in Ethiopia take their course. Or it could have upheld the authority of the League by imposing sanctions that would have hurt, such as closing the Suez Canal and cutting off Italy’s oil imports.
Unfortunately the British people were in a schizophrenic mood. They wanted to vindicate international law and morality. But they were averse to the risk of war. As Winston Churchill put it later, with caustic clarity:
“The Prime Minister had declared that sanctions meant war; secondly, he was resolved there must be no war; and, thirdly, he decided upon sanctions.”4
The feeble sanctions imposed by the League irritated Mussolini without saving Ethiopia. The foundations of the Berlin-Rome Axis were laid.
There was a similar absence of clearheaded logic in solving the far more important problem of how to deal with Hitler. Up to March 1936, German remilitarization could have been stopped without serious bloodshed. There was still sufficient military preponderance on the side of the western powers. What was lacking was the will to use that power.
The French had been bled white in the preceding war. When I was driving with French friends in Paris, one of them objected to taking a route that would lead past the Gare de l’Est. “So many of my friends went there as soldiers and never returned from that frightful war,” she said. It was a wrench to lose the protection of the demilitarized Rhineland. But once that was lost, there was a strong and not unnatural French impulse to sit tight behind the supposedly impregnable Maginot Line, to concentrate upon the French overseas empire, and to forget about eastern Europe.
The psychological climate in Britain was also favorable to steps of expansion on Hitler’s part which were short of war. Disillusionment with the results of World War I contributed to the spread of pacifist sentiment. A resolution against “fighting for King and country” in any cause won a majority of votes in the Oxford Union, a debating club of the intellectual elite. And the British belatedly suffered from an uneasy conscience about the Treaty of Versailles.
Many of the German demands would have been reasonable if they had not been made by a paranoid dictator and would-be conquerer like Hitler. The principle of self-determination did make a case for the absorption into Germany of a solidly German-speaking Austria and also of the Sudeten Germans who lived in a fairly compact area in western Czechoslovakia. The reparations settlement foreshadowed in the Versailles Treaty was hopelessly unworkable for reasons which have already been set forth. Equality in limitation of armaments was a fair general principle.
It was a psychological tragedy that Hitler took by force and unilateral action many things which reasonable German statesmen like Stresemann and Brüning had been unable to obtain by peaceful negotiation. French and British policy was hard and inflexible when it should have been generous and conciliatory, when there was still an opportunity to draw Germany as an equal partner into the community of European nations. This policy became weak, fumbling, and irresolute when in the first years of Hitler’s regime, firmness would have been the right note.
After 1936 there was little prospect of stopping Hitler without a war which was likely to be disastrous to victors as well as vanquished. There was still, however, an excellent chance to keep the free and civilized part of Europe out of this war. One can never speak with certainty of historical “might have beens,” but, on the basis of the available evidence, the failure of Britain and France to canalize Hitler’s expansion in an eastward direction may reasonably be considered one of the greatest diplomatic failures in history.
Hitler had written in Mein Kampf:
We terminate the endless German drive to the south and west of Europe, and direct our gaze towards the lands in the east. We finally terminate the colonial and trade policy of the pre-war period, and proceed to the territorial policy of the future.
But if we talk about new soil and territory in Europe today, we can think primarily only of Russia and its vassal border states.5
That Hitler was treacherous, mercurial, and unpredictable is true. But there are many other indications that his program of conquest was eastward, not westward in orientation. His overtures to Poland for joint action against the Soviet Union have been noted. Without superior naval power, the prospects of conquering Great Britain or holding overseas colonies in the event of war were slight.
Much less was there any likelihood of a successful invasion of the American continent. Even after the Nazi archives were ransacked, no concrete evidence of any plan to invade the Western Hemisphere was discovered, although loose assertions of such plans were repeated so often before and during the war that some Americans were probably led to believe in the reality of this nonexistent design.
Hitler showed little interest in building a powerful surface navy. A former American officer who had opportunities to observe German military preparations in the years before the war informed me that the character of training clearly indicated an intention to fight in the open plains of the East, not against fortifications in the West. Emphasis was on the development of light tanks and artillery; there was little practice in storming fortified areas.
Two among many unofficial overtures which Germany addressed to Great Britain in the prewar years indicate that Hitler’s political ambitions were in the East, not in the West. Hermann Göring, after entertaining the British Ambassador to Germany, Sir Nevile Henderson, at a stag hunt in his hunting lodge at Rominten, suggested that there should be an agreement between Germany and England limited to two clauses. Germany would recognize the supreme position of Great Britain in overseas affairs and would place all her resources at the disposal of the British Empire in case of need. Great Britain would recognize the predominant continental position of Germany in Europe and undertake nothing to hinder Germany’s legitimate expansion.6
About the same time Joachim von Ribbentrop, German Ambassador in London, offered a virtually identical suggestion in a conversation with Winston Churchill. Germany was willing to underwrite the British Empire. It wanted a free hand in Eastern Europe. Churchill expressed his conviction that the British Government would never accept these terms. Ribbentrop said abruptly: “In that case war is inevitable.”
Churchill replied with a warning:
“Do not underrate England. She is very clever. If you plunge us all into another Great War, she will bring the whole world against you like [sic] last time.”7
So there was an alternative to the policy which the British and French governments followed after March 1939. This alternative would have been to write off eastern Europe as geographically indefensible, to let Hitler move eastward, with the strong probability that he would come into conflict with Stalin. Especially in the light of the Soviet aggressive expansion that has followed the war, this surely seems the sanest and most promising course western diplomacy could have followed.
Critics of this realistic policy of letting the totalitarian rulers fight it out to their hearts’ content object that Hitler might have won a quick victory in the East and then turned against the West. But both these assumptions are very hypothetical. The Nazi war machine might just as probably have bogged down indefinitely in Russia, and there is no convincing evidence that the conquest of western Europe, much less of overseas territory, was an essential part of Hitler’s design.
It is certainly hard to see how, either on a short-range or a long-range view, a decision to give Hitler a free hand in the East would have worked out more disastrously for the western powers than the policy which was actually followed. From every standpoint, military, political, and psychological, it would have been far more advantageous if Hitler’s first blows had fallen on Stalin’s totalitarian empire, not on Britain, France, and the small democracies of the West.
A new element of strife and tension was introduced into the European scene by the outbreak of civil war in Spain in 1936. The victory at the polls of a left-wing Popular Front coalition was followed by a period of disorder, with many political assassinations and burnings of churches. Spanish conservatives rebelled under the leadership of General Francisco Franco.
This civil war soon acquired an international character. Germany and Italy sent aid in men and supplies to Franco. Soviet airplanes and tanks, with Soviet soldiers, appeared on the side of the government. Volunteer “antifascist” units, largely under Communist leadership, were recruited in various European countries and sent to Spain. Britain and France tried to steer a neutral course of nonintervention. The prestige of Hitler and Mussolini rose further when the civil war ended with the victory of Franco in 1939, after much destruction and many acts of ruthless cruelty committed by both sides.
Meanwhile the European structure established at Versailles had been shaken to its foundations. By 1938 Hitler felt strong enough to move outside his own frontiers. His first and easiest objective was his native country, Austria. Since the murder of Dollfuss in the summer of 1934, Austria had been governed by a conservative dictatorship, headed by Dr. Kurt Schuschnigg.
There were two considerable dissatisfied groups in Austria, the local Nazis and the Social Democrats, who had been politically suppressed since 1934. Austria was a solidly German-speaking country, and there was much suffering from economic stagnation. This was especially true in Vienna, once the capital of an empire of fifty million people, now the chief city of a mountain republic with some seven million inhabitants. There was an economic as well as a sentimental case for the union of Austria with Germany.
Hitler summoned Schuschnigg to Berchtesgaden, stormed at him, and induced him to admit Nazis to his cabinet. A last flicker of independence on Schuschnigg’s part, a decision to hold a plebiscite on the question of maintaining Austria’s independence, brought a threat of German military action. Schuschnigg resigned on March 11, and his successor, the Nazi Seyss-Inquart, invited German troops to enter Austria. The familiar machine of propaganda and terror began to roll. A Nazi-organized plebiscite resulted in a vote of more than 99 per cent for Anschluss.
A witty Italian political exile once described Mussolini’s attitude toward Hitler as that of a cat who had given birth to a tiger. The Italian dictator no longer felt able to oppose the German frontier on the Brenner. The western powers only offered feeble and unconvincing protests against the absorption of Austria.
This absorption meant the encirclement of long, narrow Czechoslovakia by German territory on three sides. A serious international crisis soon developed over the fate of some three million people of German origin who lived in the so-called Sudetenland area of northern and western Czechoslovakia.
These Sudeten Germans had not wished to be Czech citizens in the first place, but their protests were ignored by the peacemakers of Versailles. Although the Czech record in treatment of national minorities was better than the East European average, there was discrimination against the Sudeten Germans in state employment, and this cause of discontent was aggravated by the impact of the world economic crisis. There was much unemployment in the glass and pottery industries, in which many Sudeten Germans were employed.
Moreover, the Third Reich exerted a magnetic influence upon German national minorities. A considerable number, although by no means all of the Sudeten Germans, followed the leadership of Konrad Henlein, organizer of a Sudeten Nazi party.
A storm blew up in May 1938. Unfounded rumors of a German mobilization along the Czech frontier, accompanied by some disorders in the Sudeten area, led to a partial mobilization in Czechoslovakia. France intimated readiness to fulfill its treaty of alliance with Czechoslovakia if German troops should cross the border. Lord Halifax, the British Foreign Secretary, warned the German Ambassador that Great Britain might not stand aloof in the Franco-German war which would follow an invasion of Czechoslovakia.
Hitler for the moment accepted the rebuff, but only to spring more effectively later. He decided to make October 1, 1938, the deadline for Operation Green, which called for military action against Czechoslovakia.8
Meanwhile, opinion in Britain and France was confused and divided. The military key to eastern Europe had been thrown away when Hitler was permitted to fortify the Rhineland. Poland and Hungary had territorial ambitions of their own at the expense of Czechoslovakia. The attitude of Russia was uncertain. France and Britain had no means of directly aiding Czechoslovakia, and the prospect of another war was terrifying, with chaos and communism as the most probable victors.
So there was a strong impulse in London and Paris to seek peaceful means of adjusting the controversy. Lord Runciman, a British elder statesman, went to Prague as head of an unofficial mission of inquiry. From far-reaching autonomy, which Czechoslovak President Beneš slowly and reluctantly agreed to concede, the demands of the Sudeten Germans gradually expanded to secession and union with Germany.
The climax of the crisis was reached in September. The London Times opened the door to territorial readjustment when it suggested in a much-quoted editorial of September 7:
It might be worth while for the Czechoslovak Government to consider whether they should exclude altogether the project, which has found favour in some quarters, of making Czechoslovakia a more homogeneous state by the secession of that fringe of alien populations who are contiguous to the nation with which they are united by race.
Hitler delivered a speech at the Nürnberg Nazi rally on September 12 which was raucous and militant, but fell short of being an ultimatum. Sporadic fighting broke out in the Sudetenland, and Henlein, moving to Germany, for the first time demanded reunion with the Reich.
The French Cabinet was divided, and Prime Minister Daladier was eager for some British lead in mediation. It was in this situation that Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain decided to fly to Hitler’s mountain retreat at Berchtesgaden and discuss the question directly. The upshot of the three-hour conversation was that Hitler consented to refrain from military action (which had been set for the end of the month) while Chamberlain would discuss with his cabinet ways and means of applying the principle of self-determination to the case of the Sudeten Germans. The question of whether to fight or yield was threshed out at top-level conferences of French and British government representatives on September 18 and 19. These conferences, in Chamberlain’s words, were “guided by a desire to find a solution which would not bring about a European war and, therefore, a solution which would not automatically compel France to take action in accordance with her obligations.”
The result was a decision to transfer to the Reich areas in which the Sudeten Germans were more than 50 per cent of the population. This solution was rather brusquely imposed upon President Beneš in Prague. The French Foreign Minister, Georges Bonnet, was especially emphatic in pressing for Czechoslovak acceptance.
A snag was encountered when Chamberlain went to the Rhineland resort of Godesberg for a second meeting with Hitler and found the latter insistent upon an immediate German military occupation of regions where the Sudeten Germans were more than half of the population. Hitler also refused to participate in the proposed international guarantee of the new Czechoslovak frontier until the claims of the Polish and Hungarian minorities had been satisfied.
The Czechoslovak Government at first refused to accept Hitler’s Godesberg demands, which went beyond the Anglo-French plan that had been reluctantly accepted in Prague. Several days of extreme tension followed. The British Navy was mobilized. The German Army was poised to strike against Czechoslovakia at two o’clock on the afternoon of September 28. Almost at the last moment the French Government made an offer which went far to meet Hitler’s demands, and Mussolini requested a postponement of the German mobilization. Chamberlain had intimated his willingness to come to Berlin for further discussion.
Chamberlain announced on the afternoon of September 28 to the House of Commons, grave in face of the threat of imminent war, that Hitler had invited him, together with Daladier and Mussolini, to a conference in Munich on the following afternoon. There was an outburst of tremendous, almost hysterical, enthusiasm. There had been little desire to die for a questionable boundary decision in eastern Europe.
Agreement was quickly reached at Munich. Hitler got substantially what he wanted. There were a few face-saving concessions, such as the establishment of an international commission to supervise the evacuation of the Sudetenland. But in the main, Germany wrote its own terms. Chamberlain returned from Munich satisfied that he had done right in averting war. He had induced Hitler to sign with him a joint declaration that the Munich Agreement and the Anglo-German naval accord symbolized “the desire of our two peoples never to go to war with each other again.”
Upon his arrival in London, Chamberlain told the cheering crowd which welcomed him: “I believe it is peace in our time.” And so it might have been, if the British Government had been willing to disinterest itself in eastern Europe, leaving that area as a battleground to Hitler and Stalin.
But what for Chamberlain was an end was for Hitler a beginning. The Munich settlement was capable of being interpreted in two ways. It could have been understood as a final renunciation by Britain and France of interest and concern in eastern Europe. This was how Hitler chose to understand it. Or it could have been taken as a final settlement of German territorial claims in Europe.
There was an atmosphere of precarious peace in Europe for a few months after Munich. German Foreign Minister von Ribbentrop came to Paris and signed with French Foreign Minister Georges Bonnet a declaration of friendship and mutually pacific intentions on December 6. In the text of this declaration there was nothing very striking, but there is reason to believe that Bonnet, in private talks, gave Ribbentrop to understand that France was disinterested in eastern Europe. Ribbentrop asserts that Bonnet accepted his argument that the French military alliances with Poland and Czechoslovakia were remains of the Versailles Treaty which Germany could no longer endure. He also alleges that the French Foreign Minister did not contradict the statement that Czechoslovakia must now be regarded as being within the German sphere of influence.9
Of course this is an ex parte statement of Ribbentrop and was later contradicted by Bonnet. But a disinterested observer, the Polish Ambassador to France, Jules Lukasiewicz, offers some confirmatory evidence. Lukasiewicz, in a report to the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, dated December 17, 1938, reports a conversation with Bonnet, who admitted telling a German intermediary that he regretted the French alliances with Poland and the Soviet Union. Characterizing Bonnet as a person of weak character who adapted himself to whomever he talked with last, Lukasiewicz continues:
France therefore remains paralyzed and resignedly confined to adopting a defeatist attitude towards everything that is happening in central and eastern Europe. . . . France does not consider anything of positive value except an alliance with England, while an alliance with ourselves and the USSR is considered more of a burden. . . .10
It is understandable that Hitler, in view of the atmosphere in France and Chamberlain’s acceptance of his demands at Munich, hoped that he would encounter little resistance in the West to further expansion in the East. But his next move produced the challenge from London which, after further diplomatic sparring and a final German resort to arms, led to the Second World War.
Taking advantage of a separatist movement in Slovakia, Hitler in March 1939 proceeded to swallow up the shrunken remains of Czechoslovakia. The new Czechoslovak President, Dr. Emil Hacha (Beneš had resigned and left the country), was summoned to Berlin, plied with drugs to sustain his failing heart, and put under strong pressure to accept a German protectorate over Bohemia and Moravia. Slovakia was permitted to set up an independent administration and became a German satellite state.
Chamberlain’s first reaction to this development was moderate. He spoke in Parliament of “disintegration” of Czechoslovakia from within and declared that no British guarantee of the country’s frontiers could apply in such a situation. He took a much more militant line, however, in a speech at Birmingham on March 17. Accusing Hitler of having taken the law into his own hands, Chamberlain declared that “any attempt to dominate the world by force was one the democracies must resist” and that “Britain would take part to the uttermost of its power in resisting such a challenge if it were made.”
Chamberlain’s shift of attitude was apparently attributable to a combination of causes. His Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, was prodding him to take a stronger line. There was a rising tide of protest against “appeasement” in Parliament and in the country.
The Birmingham speech heralded a striking shift in British foreign policy. Hitherto the British Government had been extremely cautious about making firm commitments to defend any part of Europe east of the Rhine. Now it began to toss guarantees about with reckless abandon, and with little regard for its ability to implement these guarantees if they were put to the test.
Very fateful was the decision to guarantee Poland against attack on March 31, 1939. This was the climax of ten days of feverish and complex negotiations. The last chance for Poland to align itself with Germany against the Soviet Union, perhaps receiving compensation in the East for concessions to Germany on the issues of Danzig and the Corridor, disappeared when two talks between Ribbentrop and the Polish Ambassador to Germany, Josef Lipski, ended in hostile deadlock. These talks took place on March 21 and March 26.
Colonel Beck on March 23 rejected a British proposal for a consultative pact, directed against German aggression, with Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union, and Poland as signatories. With very good reasons, as past and future events proved, Beck distrusted Soviet designs as much as German. His countersuggestion was a bilateral Anglo-Polish agreement. Chamberlain announced his willingness to accept this when he told the House of Commons on March 31:
As the House is aware, certain consultations are now proceeding with other governments. In order to make perfectly clear the position of His Majesty’s Government in the meantime, before these consultations are concluded, I now have to inform the House that during that period, in the event of any action which clearly threatened Polish independence, and which the Polish Government accordingly considered it vital to resist with their national forces, His Majesty’s Government would feel themselves bound at once to lend the Polish Government all support in their power. They have given the Polish Government an assurance to this effect.
I may add that the French Government have authorized me to make it plain that they stand in the same position in this matter as do His Majesty’s Government.
So Britain and France drew a line along the irregular frontier of Poland and challenged Hitler to step over it. The weakness of this challenge was that the western powers were no more able to help Poland directly than they would have been able to help Czechoslovakia six months earlier. The veteran statesman David Lloyd George put his finger on the fragility of the guarantee when he said in Parliament after the Government’s announcement:
“If war occurred tomorrow you could not send a single battalion to Poland.”
Lloyd George added: “I cannot understand why, before committing ourselves to this tremendous enterprise, we did not secure the adhesion of Russia.”
But this was more easily said than done. A hopeless dilemma was involved in any practical attempt to implement the guarantee to Poland. That country was not able to resist the German attack successfully with its own strength. But it was impossible to obtain Soviet aid on terms compatible with Poland’s sovereignty and independence. The devious course of Soviet diplomacy, leading up to the bombshell of the Soviet-German pact, fully justified the reflections of Neville Chamberlain, expressed in a private letter of March 26:
I must confess to the most profound distrust of Russia. I have no belief whatever in her ability to maintain an effective offensive, even if she wanted to. And I distrust her motives, which seem to me to have little connection with our idea of liberty, and to be concerned only with getting everyone else by the ears. Moreover, she is both hated and suspected by many of the smaller states, notably by Poland, Rumania and Finland.
Did American influence contribute to this British decision to take a step which, as Winston Churchill, himself a vehement critic of Munich, remarks in retrospect “meant in all human probability a major war in which we should be involved”?11 Churchill further comments on this decisive step on the British road to war:
“Here was decision at last, taken at the worst possible moment and on the least satisfactory ground, which must surely lead to the slaughter of tens of millions of people.”12
The evidence on the Roosevelt Administration’s prewar dealings with Britain and France is by no means all available. But in the documents published in The German White Paper the Polish Ambassador to France, Lukasiewicz, is credited with a report of an interesting conversation with American Ambassador William C. Bullitt on March 24. Lukasiewicz expressed discontent with what he considered a trend in British policy to expose Poland to the risk of war without making adequate commitments or taking suitable preparedness measures. Said Lukasiewicz:
“It is as childish as it is criminal to hold Poland responsible for war or peace . . . a great deal of blame for this falls on England and France whose insensate or ridiculously weak policy has provoked the situation and events which are now transpiring.”13
Bullitt, according to Lukasiewicz, was so much impressed by this reasoning that on the following day he informed the Polish diplomat that he had used his special powers to request Joseph P. Kennedy, Ambassador in London, to present these considerations to Chamberlain. Bullitt at this time was in high favor with Roosevelt and enjoyed the privilege of special access to the President by telephone. How he used his influence may be judged from records of other conversations included in the documents the Germans claimed to have found in the archives of the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Polish Ambassador in Washington, Jerzy Potocki, is credited in these same documents with the following summary of part of a long conversation with Bullitt on January 16, 1939, when the latter was about to return to Europe.
It is the decided opinion of the President that France and Britain must put an end to any sort of compromise with the totalitarian countries. They must not let themselves in for any discussions aiming at any kind of territorial changes.
They have the moral assurance that the United States will leave the policy of isolation and be prepared to intervene actively on the side of Britain and France in case of war. America is ready to place its whole wealth of money and raw materials at their disposal.14
Lukasiewicz is credited with reporting Bullitt as saying to him in February 1939:
One can foresee right from the beginning the participation of the United States in the war on the side of France and Britain, naturally after some time had elapsed after the beginning of the war.15
It is improbable that the expansive Bullitt concealed these opinions in his talks with French and British officials,16 and these opinions, coming from a man known to possess the President’s confidence, would naturally have carried considerable weight. We do not know whether or how far this or that step of British and French policy was influenced by representations or hints from Washington. It seems safe to say that the whole direction of Anglo-French policy would probably have been different if the occupant of the White House had been known as a firm and sincere opponent of American involvement in European wars.
The code name for the German attack on Poland was “Case White.” The first direction for planning this operation, with September 1 as the suggested date, was issued by General Keitel, Hitler’s Chief of Staff, on April 3, three days after the announcement of the British guarantee to Poland. A visit to London by Colonel Beck was followed by an Anglo-Polish communiqué of April 6, announcing that “the two countries were prepared to enter into an agreement of a permanent and reciprocal character to replace the present temporary and unilateral assurance given by HMG to the Polish Government.”
The alliance foreshadowed in this statement was only drawn up in final form on August 23, the eve of the outbreak of war. There was little the British Government could have done to give reality to its guarantee. But even that little was not done. After leisurely negotiations a very modest credit of eight million pounds for the purchase of munitions and raw materials was arranged in July. Only a small part of the goods ordered under this credit ever reached Poland.
The Poles were no more fortunate in their French allies than in their British. The Polish War Minister, General Kasprzycki, arrived in Paris in May to work out the practical application of the Franco-Polish alliance. He received an assurance from General Vuillemin, commander of the French Air Force, that “the French Air Force can from the outset act vigorously with a view to relieving Poland.” He also signed a protocol with the French Commander in Chief, Marshal Gamelin, promising a French offensive in force against Germany, to begin on the sixteenth day after the French mobilization.17 Neither of these promises was kept.
Meanwhile a scheme for crushing Poland in the jaws of a totalitarian nutcracker was already in process of development. Hitler delivered a defiant speech on April 28, denouncing both the German-Polish declaration of amity of 1934 and the Anglo-German naval agreement. Still more significant in this speech was the omission of any hostile reference to the Soviet Union. The rapprochement between the Nazi and Soviet leviathans, stimulated by the British guarantee to Poland, had already begun. A further hint of this trend ensued on May 3, when Maxim Litvinov was abruptly replaced as Commissar for Foreign Affairs by V. M. Molotov.
Litvinov as Soviet spokesman in the League of Nations had identified himself for years with a crusading attitude against fascism and aggression.18 He had argued that peace is indivisible.
How far the Soviet Government would have backed up Litvinov’s eloquence is open to question. It was good Leninist strategy to take advantage of divisions in the camp of the “imperialist” and “capitalist” powers. If war had broken out on some such issue as Ethiopia, Spain, or Czechoslovakia, there is a strong probability that the Soviet Union would have behaved exactly as it acted when war broke out over Poland in 1939. It might have been expected to bow itself out of the conflict and look on with satisfaction while its enemies destroyed each other.
However, Litvinov was at least a symbol of antifascism. He was also a Jew. On both counts he was distasteful to the Nazis. His dismissal was an indication that an important shift in Soviet foreign policy was in the making.
As early as March 1939, Stalin had publicly intimated his willingness to come to an understanding with Germany. Addressing the Congress of the Communist party, he said:
The fuss raised by the British, French and North American press about the Soviet Ukraine is characteristic. . . . It looks as if the object of this suspicious fuss was to raise the ire of the Soviet Union against Germany, to poison the atmosphere and provoke a conflict without any visible grounds for it.19
Here was a hint that Hitler could hardly misunderstand. Stalin was representing as an unworthy intrigue of the western powers the suggestion that Germany might be interested in detaching the Ukraine from Russia—a charge which had been made in the treason and sabotage trials of the Trotskyites not very long before. A deal with Germany about Eastern Europe was being offered.
And on April 17, the very day when the Soviet Government was openly proposing a triple alliance with Great Britain and France,20 the Soviet Ambassador in Berlin, Merekalov, made a secret tentative overture for Soviet-Nazi rapprochement. Calling on the German Secretary of State, von Weizsäcker, Merekalov let drop the following very broad hints:
Ideological differences of opinion had hardly influenced the Russian-Italian relationship, and they did not have to prove a stumbling block with regard to Germany either. Soviet Russia had not exploited the present friction between Germany and the Western democracies against us, nor did she desire to do so. There exists for Russia no reason why she should not live with us on a normal footing. And from normal the relations might become better and better.21
Three clear and positive impressions emerge from study of the tangled, complex, and still incomplete diplomatic record of the months before the war. There is the tragic futility of the British and French efforts to square the circle, to obtain Soviet co-operation against Germany without sacrificing the independence of Poland and the Baltic states. There is the curious combination in Hitler of flexibility with violence, reflected in his willingness to put aside temporarily his strongest emotion, anticommunism, in order to disrupt the coalition which was being formed against him.
Finally, there is the truly Machiavellian cunning of Stalin, carrying on two sets of negotiations at the same time, an open set with Great Britain and France, a secret set with Germany. Stalin gave the western powers just enough encouragement to put pressure on Hitler to complete the coveted deal which would give the Soviet Union a share in the spoils of Eastern Europe and leave it outside the impending war.
Stalin also included Poland in his web of deception. The Soviet Deputy Commissar for Foreign Affairs, Potemkin, paid a special visit to Warsaw on May 10 and assured the Polish Government that it had nothing to fear from Russia in case of a German attack. On the contrary, Poland could count on Russian friendliness and supplies of munitions and other war materials.22
In retrospect there is nothing “enigmatic” or “mysterious” in Stalin’s policy in 1939. It was plainly designed to achieve, and did achieve, a thoroughly logical goal from the Communist standpoint: war for the capitalist world; peace, with opportunities to expand territorially and build up militarily, for the Soviet Union.
Like Lenin, Stalin had always regarded war as a factor favorable to Communist revolution. He told the Seventeenth Congress of the Communist party, in 1934, that a new imperialist war “will surely turn loose revolution and place in jeopardy the very existence of capitalism in a number of countries, as happened in the case of the first imperialist war.”23 The inevitability of war and the close relation between war and social revolution are themes which recur over and over again in the writings and speeches of the Soviet dictator.24
This viewpoint does not imply that Stalin would gamble the existence of his own regime by precipitating a conflict in which the Soviet Union would be involved. But, from Stalin’s standpoint, war between the democracies and the fascist states was a most desirable development. The promotion of such a war is the key to the understanding of the tortuous Soviet policy in the spring and summer of 1939.
Neville Chamberlain was as eager to preserve capitalism as Stalin was to destroy it, but he had got into a vulnerable position by his hasty and ill-considered guarantee to Poland, which was followed in April by similar unilateral guarantees to Greece and Rumania. He was constantly being prodded by critics like Churchill and Lloyd George, who pointed out the importance of Soviet military co-operation apparently without appreciating the impossible moral and political price which would have to be paid for this co-operation.
Efforts to induce the Soviet Government to join in an anti-Hitler pact continued despite Chamberlain’s strong personal suspicions of Soviet motives and intentions. A Foreign Office official, Mr. William Strang, went to Moscow in June to reinforce the efforts of the British and French Ambassadors, Sir William Seeds and M. Paul Naggiar.
But Soviet methods of discussion were evasive and dilatory. The heart of the difficulty was in two Soviet demands: that the Red Army should enter Poland and that the Baltic states should be guaranteed against “direct or indirect aggression,” regardless of their own desires in the matter.
Whether the Soviet Union would have entered the war even if its demands had been granted is doubtful. But it was politically and morally impossible to accede to these demands. For this would have amounted to conceding to Stalin that very right of aggression against weaker neighbors which was the ostensible cause of fighting Hitler. Such glaring inconsistencies may be tolerated in war, as the records of the Teheran and Yalta conferences testify. But the coercion of friendly powers to part with sovereignty and territory was impossible in time of peace. As Chamberlain said in Parliament on June 7: “It is manifestly impossible to impose a guarantee on states which do not desire it.”
The showdown with Poland occurred after the Soviet Government, continuing its cat-and-mouse tactics, had consented to open military conversations with Great Britain and France. These conversations were admirably calculated to impress on Hitler the necessity of coming to a speedy and definite agreement with Russia.
The Soviet representative in the conversations, Marshal K. E. Voroshilov, raised the question of the passage of Soviet troops across Poland on August 14. He abruptly declared that unless this was agreed on, further military negotiations would be impossible. The French put pressure on Beck to yield, but without success. Beck flatly told the French Ambassador, Léon Noël: “This is a new Partition which we are asked to sign.” The Polish Premier expressed doubt whether the Soviet troops, once installed in eastern Poland, would take an effective part in the war. And on the night of August 19 Beck summed up his position with finality to Noël:
This is a question of principle for us. We neither have nor wish to have a military agreement with the Soviet Union. We concede to no one, under any form, the right to discuss the use of any part of our territory by foreign troops.25
On the same day, August 14, when Voroshilov presented his demand for the passage of Soviet troops across Polish territory, von Ribbentrop addressed to Molotov a suggestion for close German-Soviet co-operation. The nature of the imminent Soviet-German “nonaggression pact” was foreshadowed in the following sentences:
The Reich Government is of the opinion that there is no question between the Baltic and the Black Seas which cannot be settled to the complete satisfaction of both countries. Among these are such questions as: the Baltic Sea, the Baltic area, Poland, Southeastern questions, etc.
Ribbentrop also foreshadowed the character of Nazi and Soviet propaganda for the next two years. The “capitalistic Western democracies” were represented as “the unforgiving enemies both of National Socialist Germany and of the U.S.S.R.,” trying to drive the Soviet Union into war against Germany. Finally Ribbentrop proposed to come to Moscow “to set forth the Führer’s views to Herr Stalin.”26
Molotov’s general reaction to this proposal was favorable, but he showed a disposition to delay the final agreement. It was apparently after Stalin intervened to speed up the procedure that Molotov on August 19 handed to the German Ambassador in Moscow, von Schulenburg, the draft of a nonaggression pact. This was to be valid only after a special protocol, “covering the points in which the high contracting parties are interested in the field of foreign policy,” was signed.
Ribbentrop flew to Moscow and the sensational German-Soviet pact was signed on the night of August 23. This was an occasion of revelry for Stalin, Ribbentrop, and Molotov. Their conversation ranged over a wide variety of subjects, including Japan, Turkey, Great Britain, France, the anti-Comintern pact. Ribbentrop, still smarting from the failure of his diplomatic mission in London, remarked that England was weak and wanted to let others fight for its presumptuous claim to world domination. Stalin eagerly agreed with this sentiment, but offered the reservation that, despite its weakness, “England would wage war craftily and stubbornly.” Stalin proposed the following toast to the Führer:
“I know how much the German nation loves its Führer; I should therefore like to drink his health.”
Molotov raised his glass to Stalin, declaring that it had been Stalin who “through his speech in March of this year, which had been well understood in Germany, had brought about the reversal in political relations.”27
Apart from Stalin’s speech and Merekalov’s overture on April 17, there was another important milestone on the road to the Soviet-Nazi pact. The Bulgarian Minister in Berlin, Dragonov, called at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on June 15 and repeated the contents of some remarks which the Soviet chargé d’affaires, Astakhov, had made to him on the preceding day.
Astakhov, in a burst of highly calculated indiscretion, had informed Draganov that the Soviet Government was vacillating between three policies, the conclusion of a pact with Great Britain and France, a further dilatory treatment of the pact negotiations, and a rapprochement with Germany. It was this last possibility which was closest to the desires of the Soviet Union.28 If Germany would conclude a nonaggression pact, the Soviet Union would probably refrain from concluding a treaty with England. The sincerity of the Soviet Government in inviting military conversations in Moscow later in the summer may be judged from these backdoor assurances, given in Berlin in June.
The published Soviet-German treaty bound each side not to attack the other and not to lend support to any grouping or third power hostile to the other partner. Its specified duration was ten years. But more important than the published treaty was a “strictly secret protocol.” This divided up a large part of Eastern Europe between the two signatories. Germany’s share was to be Poland up to the line of the rivers San, Narew, and Vistula, together with Lithuania. The Soviet Union received a free hand in Finland, Estonia, and Latvia. And Germany declared itself disinterested in Bessarabia, which the Soviet Union claimed, as a former Russian province, from Rumania. The eastern part of Poland was also to be part of the Soviet share of the spoils. Later this division was modified. The Soviet Union took Lithuania, while Germany obtained a larger slice of Poland.
The plebeian dictators, Hitler and Stalin, had revived in more brutal form the partition and annexationist policies of their crowned predecessors, Frederick the Great and Catherine II. The executions and mass deportations of slave labor which characterized both Nazi and Soviet occupations of Poland far exceeded in cruelty and in the number of people affected anything recorded of the eighteenth-century partitions of Poland.
The announcement of the Soviet-Nazi agreement sounded like a crack of doom in London and Paris. To thoughtful observers it was clear that Poland’s chances of survival, dim even when the threat was only from Germany, had almost vanished when its two mighty neighbors were leagued in what was soon to prove a pact of mutual aggression against that unfortunate country.
The British Government, however, had gone too far to back down. The Anglo-Polish Treaty was rushed to final ratification on August 25.
Hitler and Ribbentrop doubted to the end that Britain and France would stand firm. Ribbentrop’s attitude was made clear at a meeting between him and Count Ciano, the Italian Foreign Minister, at Salzburg on August 11. Ribbentrop disclosed to the dismayed Ciano that war with Poland was imminent. But he insisted that Britain and France would remain neutral and backed his opinion with a bet of a suit of old armor against an old Italian painting. He never paid the bet.
Ciano, never an enthusiast for the German connection, had reluctantly signed the so-called pact of steel, an alliance between Germany and Italy, in May 1939. But Ciano received the impression from Ribbentrop that Germany did not propose to precipitate war for several years.29
After wavering in a state of agonized uncertainty between such conflicting impulses as desire for loot and martial glory, fear of German wrath and realistic consciousness of Italian military weakness, Mussolini decided to stay out of the war for the time being. He informed Hitler in a letter of August 25 that “it would be better if I did not take the initiative in military activities in view of the present situation of Italian war preparations.” In the spirit of “the cat who gave birth to a tiger” he plaintively reminded Hitler that war had been envisaged for after 1942 and that at that time he would have been ready on land, on sea, and in the air.
The last days of August 1939 resembled the last days of September 1938. There was the same atmosphere of imminent war. Diplomatic activity was on a twenty-four-hour basis. There were appeals for peace from Washington. There were exchanges of letters between Hitler and Chamberlain, between Hitler and Daladier. But this time the end was war, not accommodation.
Hitler, in communications to Chamberlain of August 23 and August 25, repeated his willingness to support the British Empire and repudiated any idea of westward expansion. But he insisted that the problems of Danzig and the Corridor must be solved.
When Sir Nevile Henderson saw von Ribbentrop at midnight on August 30, the latter produced a lengthy document which, according to Henderson, “he read out to me in German or rather gabbled through to me in a tone of the utmost scorn and annoyance.”30
The document was a sixteen-point program for settling the issues of Danzig and the Corridor. Among other things the proposals called for a plebiscite of the inhabitants of the area who had lived there before World War I and for German and Polish rights of communication, regardless of the outcome of the plebiscite.
These proposals in themselves were not unreasonable, but they were presented in a fashion that indicated neither expectation nor desire for discussion on equal terms. Ribbentrop said the proposal was already outdated because Poland had not immediately sent an envoy with plenipotentiary powers, as Hitler had demanded in his last communication to Henderson, on August 29.
Göring apparently made a last-minute attempt to dissuade Hitler from launching the war. Helmuth Wohltat, one of Göring’s economic subordinates, had obtained in London from Sir Horace Wilson and Robert Hudson, two of Chamberlain’s associates, suggestions for a plan of Anglo-German amity. Göring believed this plan was sufficiently hopeful to be worth trying out. But Ribbentrop’s influence was predominant with Hitler; and Ribbentrop was bent on war. Göring was almost driven out of the Führer’s presence when he presented his plea for caution and delay in the last days before the outbreak of war.31
The German offensive against Poland was launched in the early morning of September 1. British and French declarations of war against Germany became effective on September 3. Two sentences in Neville Chamberlain’s announcement of the state of war to the House of Commons are worth recalling:
“This is a sad day for all of us, and to no one is it sadder than to me. Everything that I have worked for, everything that I have hoped for, everything that I have believed in during my public life has crumbled into ruin.”
The note of melancholy was distinctly appropriate to the occasion. British and French statesmanship had been outmaneuvered by Soviet. What could easily have been a German thrust against the Soviet Union had been deflected against the West. The war would doom the Britain of economic freedom and private property in which Neville Chamberlain believed. And the maintenance of Poland’s freedom and territorial integrity, the ostensible cause of fighting, would not be won, even though Hitler was to perish in the flaming ruins of his wrecked capital.
[1. ] For the text of this pact, see Polish White Book, 20-21.
[2. ] Ibid., 36-38.
[3. ] For fuller details, see Polish White Book, 47, 53, 61.
[4. ] Churchill, Gathering Storm, 175.
[5. ] Hitler, Mein Kampf, 950.
[6. ] Henderson, Failure of a Mission, 88. This conversation apparently took place in 1937.
[7. ] Churchill, Gathering Storm, 223.
[8. ] Wheeler-Bennett, Munich, 61.
[9. ] Wheeler-Bennett, Munich, 308.
[10. ]German White Paper, 27. This work contains documents allegedly discovered in the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs after the German Army occupied Warsaw.
[11. ] Churchill, Gathering Storm, 346.
[12. ] Ibid., 347.
[13. ]German White Paper, 51-53.
[14. ] Ibid., 32-33. I have been privately informed by an extremely reliable source that Potocki, now residing in South America, confirmed the accuracy of the documents, so far as he was concerned.
[15. ] Ibid., 43-44.
[16. ] I have been privately informed by a reliable source that an intimation, conveyed to the British Government through diplomatic sources, that Roosevelt favored the adoption of conscription exerted considerable influence on the British decision to introduce this measure in the spring of 1939.
[17. ] Namier, Diplomatic Prelude, 457-60.
[18. ] By a curious accidental irony, an English translation of Litvinov’s speeches, entitled Against Aggression, appeared just as the Soviet Union had been expelled from the League of Nations for its aggressive attack on Finland.
[19. ] Wolfe, Imperial Soviets, 148.
[20. ] Namier, Diplomatic Prelude, 154.
[21. ]Nazi-Soviet Relations, 2. The quotation is from a memorandum prepared by Weizsäcker on the basis of his conversation with Merekalov.
[22. ] Raczyński, British-Polish Alliance, 19.
[23. ] See Pravda for June 28, 1934.
[24. ] For illustrative material, see the article “Stalin on Revolution,” by Historicus, in Foreign Affairs for January 1949.
[25. ] Namier, Diplomatic Prelude, 206-9.
[26. ]Nazi-Soviet Relations, 50-52.
[27. ] This is certainly an authoritative attribution of responsibility for the Soviet-Nazi pact. It proves beyond dispute that the pact was not a hasty improvisation in the face of imminent war, but a long-conceived design on Stalin’s part.
It is sometimes alleged that Stalin was justified in concluding the pact because Britain and France were trying to steer Hitler into attacking the Soviet Union. But there is not a shadow of concrete proof that the men responsible for conducting British and French policy tried to put such a design into effect. They would have deserved a much higher historical rating for intelligence and farsightedness if they had endeavored to restrict war to the totalitarian part of the world. The Soviet Government has published all the incriminating documents it could lay its hands on in this connection; but its case is weak. The Dirksen Papers, for instance, merely show that a German unofficial envoy in London, Helmuth Wohltat, received from Sir Horace Wilson, Chamberlain’s adviser on foreign affairs, and from Robert Hudson, of the Board of Trade, a vague outline of bases of Anglo-German friendship in the summer of 1939, and that von Dirksen, then German Ambassador, had a noncommittal talk with the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax (see Documents and Materials Relative to the Eve of the Second World War).
[28. ]Nazi-Soviet Relations, 21.
[29. ] Ciano, The Ciano Diaries, 77-78, 84.
[30. ] Henderson, Failure of a Mission, 284ff.
[31. ] I learned this in personal conversations with Wohltat and one of his prewar diplomatic associates, Erich Gritzbach, in Germany in 1949.