The only Great Power to initially protect Germany from the harsher consequences of the Versailles Treaty, Britain ironically became Hitler’s primary obstacle in negotiating its revision. This reversal actually conformed to a British policy known as the balance of power. England traditionally supported Europe’s weaker states to prevent any one country from becoming too powerful and imposing her will on her neighbors. When the Reich was down-and-out after World War I, the British favored its recovery, but as German prosperity improved under Hitler, English support declined.
Das ist England (That’s England), a set of essays the NSDAP published in 1941, pointed out that “England no longer regards herself as a member bound by fate to the European community, but as the motherland of an overseas colonial empire."1 A separate German study maintained that English diplomacy strives for “a balance of power among the nations and states of the mainland, but not...to create tranquility, security, living space and peace for them. On the contrary, it is purely to square them off against one another in as equal, long and lingering a struggle as possible. . . . Without the major wars of the last few centuries and without continuous interference from England, the European states would undoubtedly have achieved a rapid inner consolidation, and England would not have been able to build her own empire so undisturbed."2 Das ist Englandsummarized that for the English, “it was never a matter of protecting the weak, but always of securing their own power."3
The British opposed awarding German territory to Poland in 1919. Their disapproval of France’s military occupation of the Ruhr in 1923 discouraged the French from joining with Pilsudski to attack Germany. Many prominent Englishmen, among them the editorial staff of the London Times, supported the Reich’s right to rearm. The Daily Express argued that Germany only wanted parity but France wanted superiority.4
Once chancellor, Hitler hoped to nurture good relations with England. In January 1934, he ordered the army to return the kettle drums of the Gordon Highlanders, which the Germans had captured on the battlefield in 1914. At a ceremony in the Berlin War Ministry, the Germans presented the former trophies to Sir Jan Hamilton to restore them to their regiment in Scotland. Hitler also concluded the Anglo-German Naval Agreement in June 1935, which imposed restrictions on German rearmament but not on England’s.5
Hitler additionally gave a conciliatory interview to Ward Price, the European correspondent of the Daily Mail: “On August 4, 1914, I was very distressed that the two great Germanic peoples, who had lived at peace with one another throughout all the disputes and fluctuations in human history for so many centuries, were drawn into war. I would be pleased if this unfortunate atmosphere would finally come to an end and the two related nations could rediscover their old friendship. The assertion that the German people are enthusiastically preparing for war is a misunderstanding of the German revolution. We find it simply incomprehensible. We leaders of the German nation had almost without exception been front-line soldiers. I would like to see the front-line soldier who wants to prepare for another war."6
The Reich’s economic revival and development of overseas markets for manufactured goods created competition for England abroad. Hitler’s emphasis on German autarky and opposition to free trade, the system of unlimited international exchange of wares promoted by Britain, deepened the rivalry. The Führer’s persistent disarmament proposals and endeavors to improve relations with neighboring states provided a basis for a continental unity that was contradictory to English balance-of-power diplomacy.
No less repugnant to Britain was the state form and social structure evolving within Germany. The fall of the Hohenzollern and Hapsburg dynasties in 1918 had substantially diminished the influence of the German aristocracy. The National Socialists were replacing it with a leadership cadre based on talent and initiative rather than on wealth and social status. The British ruling class intuitively sensed the danger such a revolution, if successful, posed for its own privileged position. German programs to improve the well-being of labor were unprecedented in the British Commonwealth. The German example evoked the specter of English workers demanding disability benefits, safer on-the-job conditions, state-sponsored holidays for their families and better housing.
One German journalist wrote this on the subject: “Just when the vacation cruises were about to begin, a representative of the British consul general arrived at the Hamburg office of the Strength through Joy organization. He asked whether there were any plans to have German workers' vacation ships put in at English ports. He was instructed to advise us that the British government regards putting in at English harbors, or even cruising within sight of the English coast, unwelcome."7
As a champion of liberal democracy, England took umbrage at the German socialist principle of subordinating the rights of the individual to the welfare of the community. English labor objected to the well-publicized dissolution of Germany’s trade unions, unaware that protection of the worker was nevertheless a primary thrust of Hitler’s chancellorship. Germans who had chosen exile in England influenced British public opinion against the Reich with stories of oppression under National Socialist rule. They received ample coverage in the English media.
By 1936, relations between the two countries approached genuine antagonism. Germany’s flourishing economy continually increased her leverage in European trade. Rearmament had strengthened Hitler’s hand in diplomacy, and the remilitarization of the Rhineland had demonstrated France’s inability to check Germany. Furthermore, the Führer supported Italy’s conquest of Ethiopia despite League of Nations' opposition. England’s foreign secretary, Anthony Eden, added to the mix a questionnaire sent in March to Berlin that the Germans considered an affront. It asked whether Germany was ready to conclude “sincere” treaties she would adhere to.8
Hitler appointed Ribbentrop ambassador to Britain in August. His primary mission was to win the English for the Anti-Comintern. Arriving in London in October, Ribbentrop declared that he had come to warn his host nation of the dangers of Bolshevism and to negotiate an alliance against the Soviet Union. Eden put such notions to rest. In a speech at Leamington on November 20, he announced that a lasting arrangement with Germany could only be realized within the framework of the British-sponsored “general settlement” in Europe. Hitler understood this as a “slightly revised edition” of the Versailles construction.9
Winston Churchill, a career politician who had held various administrative posts over previous decades, was already vocalizing the anti-German sentiments that earned him and his devotees the nickname “war party” in Hitler’s vocabulary. Exaggerating the strength of Germany’s “terrible war machine,” he predicted that her demands for a free hand in Eastern and Southern Europe and for the return of her colonies may lead to war. An editorial in the periodical Deutsche diplomatisch-politische Korrespondenz (German Diplomatic-Political Correspondence) gives insight into the impasse in Anglo-German relations: “The Churchill cabal misrepresents any removal of a sore spot by Germany as really preparations for implementing belligerent intentions somewhere else, therefore evidence of a 'German threat.' If this method of misrepresentation becomes common practice, all trust will vanish and the incentive for any sort of international cooperation will be lost."10
Mutual mud-slinging by newspapers in Germany and England continued into 1937. From London, Ribbentrop cautioned the Führer that the war of words “is spoiling every hope of peace and promoting hatred in both countries."11 Hitler, unwilling to leave the “bottomless effrontery” of the English media unanswered, ordered German journalists to resume discussing the previously blacked-out subject of the Reich’s stolen colonies. This would unsettle the English, who had acquired three quarters of Germany’s African territory after World War I.12 Britain introduced a massive rearmament program early in 1937 to triple military capabilities. Hitler commented that he had expected “nothing less."13
Hitler temporarily halted the anti-English press campaign in November 1937. This was to establish a more congenial atmosphere before the visit of the British statesman Lord Halifax. At the Berghof, Halifax told Hitler he had come to discuss major differences between London and Berlin. The Führer replied only that he was unaware of such differences. His visitor cited National Socialism’s antagonism toward the church. Hitler parried that the USSR pursues far more repressive measures against religious institutions, without any objection from England. Halifax changed the subject to Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Danzig. He advised his host that any change in their status must be accomplished peacefully. Hitler merely replied that these issues have nothing to do with London.
Halifax inquired about Germany’s colonial aspirations, suggesting that Britain might be prepared to offer certain Portuguese territories in Africa. Hitler tactfully reminded him that Germany was only interested in the colonies taken away at Versailles. The Führer further recommended that England adopt a neutral position regarding territorial revisions in Europe, instead of “creating difficulties for no reason at all beyond pure malice."14 The British envoy returned to London without having mended any fences.
In May 1937, Chamberlain became Britain’s prime minister. An advocate of rearmament, he was a disciple of traditional balance-of-power diplomacy. He described Germany as “the chief cause of war scares in Europe."15 At this time, Commonwealth nations helped determine British policy. The government could no longer make arbitrary decisions affecting the Empire without mutual consultation. Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa considered the maritime powers Japan and Italy a greater threat to their interests than Germany. At the Empire Conference in July 1937, the dominions urged London to assist Hitler in revising the Versailles system. They warned England not to count on their assistance should she enter an armed conflict in Europe. South African Prime Minister Jan Smuts had already recommended that the British government stop treating Germany “like a pariah in Europe."16
Chamberlain faced a dilemma: To enforce the provisions of the Versailles treaty, which the English themselves compromised by concluding the 1935 Anglo-German Naval Agreement, could bring Britain and Germany to blows. Such a policy would disregard the temperate influence of the dominions and adversely affect the cohesion of the Commonwealth. On the other hand, to allow Hitler a free hand would lead to German hegemony in Europe and upset the balance of power.
The formula for defeating German ambitions while simultaneously bringing the British Commonwealth, and for that matter the English public, aboard was as follows: block revisions most vital to Germany, yet feign a willingness to make concessions. Superficial compromises would publicly demonstrate Chamberlain’s desire for peace, thereby defusing German propaganda. Halifax’s 1937 mission to Germany helped satisfy the dominions that Britain was willing to negotiate. Chamberlain privately confided to the American Henry Morgenthau that he needed to buy time to achieve “military superiority."17
During the Czech crisis in 1938, many British believed that Hitler was prepared to go to war to settle his differences with Prague. Chamberlain told Daladier in April that Britain’s arms program, somewhat neglected from 1925 to 1935, was just getting under way again. Only when this program was complete, he explained, could England wage war anew.18 In July, Chamberlain asked Arthur Robinson of the Supply Board when their country would be in a position to fight the Germans. Robinson answered, “In a year."19 As England’s former treasurer, Chamberlain knew well that an accelerated rearmament agendum would adversely impact English exports and unduly strain the economy.20 Regarding Czechoslovakia, war was therefore not an option.
Chamberlain remained influential in continental affairs by sending Viscount Walter Runciman to Prague on August 3 to help mediate the crisis. French and Czech observers were skeptical. The French diplomat Rene Massigili told the Czechoslovakian ambassador in Paris, Stefan Osusky, that the English “know it will come down to war and are trying everything to delay it. . . . Gaining time plays a significant if not decisive role in sending Lord Runciman to Prague. Sir Arthur Street (undersecretary in the British Air Ministry) said he will have the English air force ready in six months."21
Negotiating the Sudetenland’s transfer to Germany during talks with Hitler in September, Chamberlain suffered the rebuke of political rivals in his own country. His primary critics, Churchill and Eden, lacked detailed knowledge of Britain’s military unpreparedness available to the prime minister. Chamberlain had in fact postponed a war England could not yet fight. He gained the approval of the English public, the dominions, and even the people of Germany for his efforts to sustain peace. Furthermore, he parried German propaganda’s charge that Britain was attempting to encircle Germany with enemies.22
One who saw rearmament as a factor was Charles Corbin, the French ambassador in London. He wrote Paris that the British wish “to avoid at all costs the reproach that in case a conflict breaks out and England becomes compelled to declare herself against Germany, she had not done everything to allay the fear of encirclement which Hitler has emphasized in the course of the last few months. Only in this way does she expect to gain the unanimous acceptance of the British public, which is indispensable for mobilizing all forces of the country."23
Less than a week after signing the Munich Accord, Chamberlain announced an increase in armaments spending from £400 million to £800 million per annum, the planned construction of 11,000 new combat aircraft over the next 14 months, and the formation of 19 more army divisions.24This must have been welcome news to Britain’s foreign secretary. According to the minutes of the September 25, 1938, cabinet session, Lord Halifax “felt some uncertainty about the ultimate end which he wished to see accomplished, namely the destruction of Nazism.” Halifax also speculated that if Hitler “was driven to war the result might be to help bring down the Nazi regime."25
The anti-German tenor of the British press did not abate. The parliamentary war party placed increasing pressure on Chamberlain. The German media was not shy in response. It quoted the New York Times of May 9, 1938, reporting on a speech by Churchill in Manchester: “Churchill proposes encircling Germany."26 According to one German journalist, the British believed that “without a two-front war against Germany . . . a war is not winnable for England."27
Anglo-French newspapers repeatedly censured Hitler for alleged war scares. The English also provided some of their own. On December 6, 1938, their deputy ambassador in Berlin, Sir Ivone Kirkpatrick, warned the British Foreign Office that the German air force is preparing to bomb London. A German staff officer supposedly leaked Hitler’s secret plan to a member of the British mission in a Berlin park after dark.28 No such operation was in fact even contemplated, nor was the Luftwaffe yet equipped for one. This air strike, the British reasoned, would be a prelude to a German invasion of Holland. Although there was no tangible evidence of this impending attack, the Foreign Policy Committee and the English chiefs of staff conducted serious deliberations regarding countermeasures. Halifax notified British embassies abroad that the Foreign Office has “definite information” substantiating Kirkpatrick’s story.29
The cabinet met on February 1, 1939. Chamberlain stirred Switzerland into the pot, remarking that a German invasion there “would be clear evidence of an attempt to dominate Europe by force."30 The cabinet discussed planning a war against Germany and Italy, even though the two countries were not yet allies. Topics included involving the Dutch and Belgian general staffs in joint defense talks. Cadogan summarized in the meeting’s minutes, “I agree that in the event of a German invasion of Holland resisted by the Dutch, we should go to war with Germany. There could appear some doubt about the position in the event the Dutch not resisting. For my part, I should say that in this case too we should go to war with Germany"31 The attitude of the “threatened” nation apparently played no role. Decisive was the fact that the Foreign Policy Committee defined German military control over Holland as a peril to England's security.
Kirkpatrick’s “Holland scare” did not alarm the Dutch and Belgian governments. Holland’s foreign minister noted no German troop movements near the frontier. His Belgian colleague declined London’s offer for military talks, replying that he cannot believe the Germans intend to invade Holland.32 Chamberlain exploited the rumors of a German attack to step up arms production. The English significantly reinforced their air defenses. That the British government and normally well-informed Foreign Office could base allegations of such far-reaching war preparations on Kirkpatrick’s insubstantial story, suggests that Hitler was offering little in the way of genuine, exploitable war scares to publicly justify such measures.
In March, Berlin negotiated a commercial agreement with Bucharest. In exchange for favorable options to purchase grain and oil, the Germans proposed sending engineers to Rumania to reorganize the agrarian economy and build modern refineries to boost oil production. The arrangement was advantageous to both countries. It corresponded to Hitler’s program to release Germany from dependency on overseas markets. He himself stated, “I don't want free trade, open borders. That all sounds wonderful. But we've had it if everything depends on the queen of the waves, if we're subject to a blockade."33
Chamberlain’s cabinet discussed developments in Bucharest at the session on March 18, 1939. The prime minister described Germany’s economic talks as a “threat to Rumanian independence."34 With military advisors present, the cabinet speculated that German domination of Rumanian trade would augment the Reich’s political influence in the Balkans. This could spread to Greece and Turkey, endangering Britain’s position in the eastern Mediterranean and Near East. Under these circumstances, the cabinet had to decide whether Germany’s economic advantages from the trade agreement with Bucharest warrant the need for Britain to “take action."35 The aide-mémoire prepared for the meeting by the minister for coordination and defence stated that England’s only recourse was to start a war in the West. The cabinet weighed armed aggression as an option to block a harmless economic compact between two European states.
The London Times and Daily Telegraph wrote only of imminent German aggression. This coincided with allegations by Virgil Tilea, a Rumanian diplomat in London. He claimed that the Germans were threatening to invade his country unless given complete control over her agriculture and industry.36 The British ambassador in Bucharest, Reginald Hoare, urged Halifax to quash the lurid publicity about Hitler’s ultimatum: “There was not a word of truth in it.” Hoare added that the Rumanian foreign minister, Grigorie Gafencu, assured him that negotiations with Germany were “on completely normal lines as between equals."37 Chamberlain read Hoare’s telegram aloud at the March 18 cabinet session. This report, together with the fact that Rumania is nearly 300 miles from Germany, did not discourage him from telling the Foreign Policy Committee that Rumania is “most probably the next victim of a German aggression."38 The American emissary in Bucharest, Franklin Gunther, dismissed Tilea as an “Anglophile.” In his diary, Cadogan ventured that Tilea probably collaborated with advisors in the British Foreign Office to insure that “panic was artificially raised."39
That same week, Czechoslovakia imploded and the German army occupied the Czech portion. The British initially reacted with indifference; Ambassador Newton in Prague had forewarned them of the irreconcilable Slovak-Czech dissonance.40 The Foreign Office had also predicted eventual German “domination” of Prague.41 On March 15, Halifax notified Ribbentrop that “His Majesty’s Government have no desire to interfere in a matter with which other governments may be more directly concerned."42 At the cabinet session in London that day, ministers agreed that “this renewed rift between the Czechs and the Slovaks showed that we nearly went to war last autumn on behalf of a state which was not viable."43
Ribbentrop correctly observed that German military intervention in Prague offered England a credible alibi for war preparations. Speaking in Birmingham just two days later, Chamberlain asked, “Is this in fact a step in the direction of an attempt to dominate the world by force?"44 Though informed of the genuine causes of Czechoslovakia’s collapse, Halifax attributed it solely to “German military action."45 Even though the Bank of England remitted £6,000,000 in Czech gold reserves to the German administration in Prague,46 Halifax condemned its new administration as “devoid of any basis of legality” – an indication of the legitimacy English leaders still attached to the Versailles system.47
Chamberlain accused Hitler of a “breach of faith.” The prime minister cited the document both statesmen had signed in Munich on September 30, 1938, pledging to discuss matters of mutual concern before taking action, and the Führer’s assurance that the Sudetenland was his last territorial demand in Europe. Hitler had supposedly broken his word, since he had promised in a Berlin speech last September 26 that he had no further interest in the Czech state after Munich. The September 30 document Chamberlain referred to reads, “We are resolved that the method of consultation shall be the method adopted to deal with any other questions that may concern our two countries."48 The German text of the agreement translates to the verb betreffen – “affect” – for the English word “concern.” From Hitler’s standpoint, his arrangement with Hacha did not affect England, hence no consultation was required.
As for the Berlin speech, Hitler said word for word, “I assured him that from the moment that Czechoslovakia resolves her other problems; that means, when the Czechs have come to an arrangement with their minorities peacefully and without using force, then I am no longer interested in the Czech state. And I for my part will guarantee it."49 Hitler made his disinterest in the Czechs and guarantee of their sovereignty contingent on the solution of the country’s minority issues. He in no sense broke his word to Chamberlain. As for the British government’s genuine (and unpublicized) reaction to the events in Prague, Halifax confided to the cabinet, “It had brought to a natural end the somewhat embarrassing commitment of a guarantee in which we and the French had both been involved."50
During the March 18 cabinet meeting, Chamberlain’s ministers agreed that it would not be possible to protect Rumania without an ally in the East. With the Czechs neutralized, the prime minister saw Poland as “the key to the situation."51 He proposed asking the Poles whether they were prepared to join ranks with the countries “threatened by German aggression."52 The minutes of the meeting two days later reveal the extent of the cabinet’s trifling concern for Polish independence: “The real issue was 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. We should attack Germany not in order to save a particular victim but in order to pull down the bully."53 On March 24, the day the Germans signed the trade agreement with Rumania, Halifax met with U.S. Ambassador Joseph Kennedy. Kennedy reported to the State Department that Halifax “felt the inevitability of war sooner or later should be met right now."54
With no evidence whatsoever, Halifax told the cabinet on March 30 that “plans have been prepared by Germany for a number of adventures including an attack on Poland."55 At this time Hitler strove for a peaceful settlement, offering the Poles generous concessions in exchange for Danzig’s return to the Reich and permission to construct an Autobahn across the corridor. Chamberlain said he was “somewhat 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"56 (in other words, becoming receptive to compromise).
Chamberlain stated that if the Poles consider the Danzig issue “a threat to their independence and were prepared to resist by force then we should have to come to their help.” Asked whether there was “a distinction between the seizure of Danzig by Germany and a German attack on the rest of Poland,” Halifax told the chancellor of the Exchequer that it was up to the Poles to decide.57 First clearing it with Polish Foreign Minister Beck, Chamberlain announced Britain’s commitment to Poland in Parliament the next day. London’s guarantee of Polish sovereignty, differing little from a military alliance, drew Warsaw into the English camp just as German-Polish negotiations were entering the critical phase.
The British government publicly defined the purpose of its guarantee as to protect Poland from possible German aggression. Privately, the Foreign Office cabled its Paris ambassador on April 1 that there is “no official confirmation of the rumors of any projected attack on Poland and they must not therefore be taken as accepting them as true."58 The English invited Beck to London for discussions.
On April 3, the Foreign Office distributed its confidential “Brief for Colonel Beck’s Visit.” It defined objectives for the next day’s talks. It described Danzig as “an artificial structure, the maintenance of which is a bad casus belli.” The brief speculated that “it is unlikely that the Germans would accept less than a total solution of the Danzig question.” The text then reveals the genuine priority of the Foreign Office: “Such a corrupt bargain would, however, have many disadvantages for England. It would shake Polish morale, increase their vulnerability to German penetration and so defeat the policy of forming a bloc against German expansion. It should not therefore be to our interest to suggest that the Poles abandon their rights in Danzig on the ground that they are not defensible."59
Beck took the bait. As William Strang of the Foreign Office summarized, “Both sides agreed that the occupation of Danzig by German armed forces would be a clear threat to Polish independence and that it would bring our assurance into operation."60 On April 17, Sir George Ogilvie-Forbes relayed from Berlin a conversation he had with a Polish journalist acquainted with Poland’s Ambassador Lipski. The journalist told the British diplomat that according to Lipski, good prospects for resolving the Danzig issue had existed prior to March 31. With the English guarantee however, Beck had decided to reject Berlin’s offer even if the Germans limit it to Danzig. Ogilvie-Forbes added that information from other emissaries in Berlin confirmed the journalist’s statement.61
Representatives of the French and the British general staffs met for a ten-day conference in London on April 24. They debated Anglo-French military cooperation in North African and Far Eastern colonies, along sea lanes and in Gibraltar, Singapore, and other strong-points against Germany, Italy and Japan. The publicly announced purpose of the conference, the defense of Poland, was not discussed.62 For the English it was a matter of preparing a global confrontation against commercial rivals.
Throughout these months, Hitler strove to improve relations with London. In a nationally broadcast speech on January 30, 1939, he asked, “What conflicts of interest exist between England and Germany? I have declared more often than necessary, that there is no German and especially no National Socialist who even in his thoughts wants to create difficulties for the English world empire. . . . It would be a blessing for the whole world if these two peoples could cooperate in full confidence with one another."63 After Chamberlain announced the British guarantee to Poland, Hitler recognized the influence England exercised on Warsaw’s refusal to compromise. He therefore appealed directly to the British to enter negotiations.
On March 31, a Mr. Bellenger, Member of Parliament (MP), asked Chamberlain in the House of Commons how the government planned to respond to Hitler’s appeal. The prime minister answered, “No negotiations are at present contemplated with the German government.” Another MP, Arthur Henderson, received the same reply. Pressed again about entering talks with Germany by the MP Mr. Pilkington, Chamberlain repeated the formula response and concluded, “I have nothing to add."64
Halifax received an embassy report on April 23 that Hitler wished to meet with an “especially prominent British personality” fluent in German for a “man-to-man” conversation to reach an understanding with England. Two weeks later Sir Francis Freemantle, a renowned physician and conservative MP unaware of Hitler’s request, suggested sending the former prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, to meet with the Führer. Halifax replied to Freemantle, “At the moment unfortunately Hitler shows no disposition to receive an Englishman or even to discuss outstanding questions with us."65 This was a plain lie.
Paris and London concluded a military convention with Warsaw on May 19. The French pledged that should Germany invade Poland or “threaten” Danzig (which was still a German city), their air force would strike immediately, and their army would mount a limited attack three days after mobilization. A major offensive would follow in twelve days. General Gamelin privately cautioned the French defense committee that the army could not launch a full-scale operation for at least two years.66 The British General Ironside noted in his diary, “The French have lied to the Poles in saying they are going to attack. There is no idea of it.” The British and French general staffs had already agreed that the “major strategy would be defensive."67
Nevile Henderson advised the Foreign Office in May that the “blank cheque given by His Majesty’s Government to Poland” is obstructing a “compromise solution” to Danzig.68 William Strang noted in a memo, “It is probably impossible at this hour for any British Cabinet Minister to take any step that would appear to be a satisfaction of German ambitions at the expense of Poland; on the other hand, such a step may be the only thing that can avert war. This is our terrible dilemma."69 The English decided “to let the Poles play their own hand in this question,"70 while acknowledging that this would probably bring Poland and Germany to blows, even though the cabinet had agreed in its May 25 session that “German claims in Danzig did not go beyond what we ourselves had thought would constitute a reasonable settlement three years ago."71
In June, Cadogan’s secretary Jebb returned from an official visit to Warsaw. He told the Foreign Office that were England “to wiggle out of the guarantee,” Poland would seriously revise its present position regarding Germany.72 This was a tacit admission that the British guarantee was responsible for the Poles' refusal to negotiate with Germany. On the 16th, the Foreign Office cabled Ambassador Kennard in Warsaw, “You have the discretion to inform Colonel Beck if suitable opportunity offers that the preparatory measures we had in mind were progressive, mobilization measures of all three services."73 Notifying Beck of the good progress of Britain’s war preparations could only reinforce his resolve to defy Germany.
The assistant undersecretary of the Foreign Office, Sargent, speculated on July 4, 1939, “We cannot as matters stand at present expect Hitler to negotiate with us unless in advance we make him a firm offer of one or other of the two things which he wants from us, i.e. either the return of full sovereignty of all the German colonies or their equivalent, or the abandonment of the policy of encirclement by cancelling our guarantees to Poland, Rumania, and Turkey and by dropping our treaty with Russia."74 As Strang summarized with resignation, “The truth is that there is a fundamental irreconcilability between German and British policy."75
“One’s objective should be...a war in which Germany’s aggressiveness should be patent to all the world including the Germans themselves."76 These words, which Henderson cabled to the Foreign Office on May 12, 1939, define Britain’s propaganda goal for the approaching conflict. Denouncing Hitler for pushing toward war and lauding Chamberlain’s supposed endeavors to salvage peace, the British hoped to drive a wedge between the German people and their leadership. “England’s proven policy toward Germany,” a Berlin journalist wrote, “shuns no means to bring the Reich again into a state of impotence and international bondage. This is what England regards today as ideal for diffusing power in Europe."77 For Henderson, the manner of presenting Britain’s case was crucial, “If we are ever to get (the) German army and nation to revolt against the intolerable government of Herr Hitler."78
The British continued to avoid direct conversations with Germany. In mid-August, the Foreign Office noted once more, “Herr Hitler would like to have a secret conversation, presumably of a general character with a German-speaking Englishman."79 Halifax wrote Chamberlain on August 14, “We are considering the idea of getting someone who speaks German to go and talk to Hitler, but apart from the difficulty of finding the individual, I find it a bit difficult to imagine what he would say. In as much as Hitler’s whole line of thought seems to be the familiar one of the free land in the East on which he can settle Germans to grow wheat, I confess I don't see any way of accommodating him."80 Even for someone with as mediocre a public career as Lord Halifax, it seems unlikely that after four months, no one suitable could be found by the Foreign Office who speaks German, or that the foreign secretary could fail to grasp that the pivotal issue was not farming.
Henderson was among the few in the Foreign Office opposed to war. He suggested on August 18 sending General Ironside, fluent in German, to Hitler with a personal letter discussing the British position regarding Danzig and Poland. London rejected the idea: “In view of our undertaking to Poland it is almost inconceivable that we could give such a promise to Germany and the effect of such a promise on our negotiations with our actual and potential allies would be catastrophic."81
On August 24, Henderson warned his superiors in London that there is “no longer any hope of avoiding war unless the Polish Ambassador is instructed to apply . . . for a personal interview with Hitler."82 At the cabinet session that day, the ministers agreed to take no steps to pressure Poland to negotiate with Germany.83 Chamberlain was back in Parliament within hours, falsely maintaining that the Poles were “ready at any time to discuss the differences with Germany."84 Halifax contributed to the prime minister’s policy of mendacity two days later, telling the Polish ambassador in London, Edward Raczynski, “Hitler has not given the slightest indication of what he sees as the solution to the German-Polish problem."85
In another effort to compromise with Britain, the Führer discussed proposals with Henderson at the Berghof on August 25. The same afternoon, London formally ratified its treaty with Poland. According to Dahlerus, the Swedish businessman helping mediate the crisis, the Germans regarded England’s pact “as a flagrant challenge and a clear statement that she does not want a peaceful resolution."86
Publicly, Halifax claimed that his office was “ready to assist” in promoting direct conversations between Berlin and Poland. On August 28, he sent Kennard instructions to ask Beck whether he is ready to negotiate with Germany. Kennard was to reassure Beck that the British are not necessarily recommending a compromise, and still stand behind Poland.87 In this way, Halifax publicly gave the impression that London and Warsaw were prepared to enter talks with the Germans to avoid an armed confrontation. In Berlin, Lipski had previously cabled Beck that “Henderson told me, took the stand that we should abstain from any conversation with the Reich."88
Without consulting England, the Polish government declared general mobilization on August 30. The British cautioned Warsaw that the measure will appear to the international community that Poland is set on war.89The Daily Telegraph pointed out that the Poles have not honored their expressed willingness to negotiate with Germany, but instead called up their armed reserves. The British government immediately confiscated the entire edition. The revised issue which hit the newsstands deleted mention of Poland’s mobilization.90
Trusting in Britain’s offer to mediate, Hitler read his 16-point Mareinwerder proposals to Henderson. Göring furnished the ambassador with a copy of the document to forward to London. Halifax instructed Kennard to inform Beck that Germany has accepted an English suggestion about a five-power guarantee as a basis for direct Polish-German talks. Instead of disclosing Hitler’s Marienwerder overture however, Halifax wrote, “it looks as though the German Government is working on new proposals."91
The Marienwerder points were so moderate that were war to break out, Halifax feared it may be difficult to sell the British, French and American public on the argument that Hitler is forcing Poland to the wall with unreasonable demands. Henderson urged London to keep the proposals out of the press.92 According to Lady Diane Duff-Cooper, wife of the former first lord of the Admiralty, her husband was “horrified” upon learning of how modest Germany’s proposals were. He telephoned the editors of the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail and asked them to comment on the Marienwerder plan as negatively as possible.93 Cadogan fumed in his diary, “They aren't proposals at all and the most impudent document I have ever seen."94
Hitler insisted to the English on August 30 that Poland must send an emissary to Berlin authorized to negotiate. Halifax cabled Henderson, “We cannot advise Polish Government to comply with this procedure which is wholly unreasonable."95 Frank Roberts in the Foreign Office remarked, “It is of course unreasonable to expect that we can produce a Polish representative in Berlin today. . . . So outrageous was Hitler’s demand that it was not even forwarded to Warsaw until twenty-four hours later."96 The next day, Henderson sent Ogilvie-Forbes to the Polish embassy to show Lipski the Marienwerder proposals. Dahlerus accompanied Ogilvie-Forbes. Dahlerus read Lipski the 16 points, describing them as a reasonable basis for an honorable settlement. His host remained unmoved, saying the terms are “out of the question."97
Returning to the British embassy with Ogilvie-Forbes, Dahlerus received Henderson’s permission to telephone Number 10 Downing Street, the prime minister’s office in London. Dahlerus stated on the line that the Marienwerder proposals “had been formulated in order to show how extremely anxious the Führer was to reach an agreement with Great Britain,” as Cadogan reported in a memo.98 The Swede further blamed the Poles for “obstructing possibilities of negotiation.” With Europe only hours from war, Halifax responded by admonishing Henderson, “In the future please prevent persons not belonging to the English mission from using its telephone line."99
Throughout August, the English exerted none of their substantial influence over Poland to bring Warsaw to the conference table. Beck confided to U.S. Ambassador Anthony Biddle that he based Polish foreign policy on the orientation of the Western powers.100London’s unconditional support encouraged Beck in his decision to defy and provoke Berlin. For their part, Halifax and Chamberlain were aware of the effect maintaining a potentially hostile military presence in Germany’s flank would exercise on Hitler. According to a Foreign Office memo, aides “kept Halifax supplied with information which supported Henderson’s line that Hitler was unlikely to risk his life’s work on the throw of the dice of war, unless he felt encircled."101
Duff-Cooper’s remark, “in Munich we lost 35 superbly equipped divisions” (referring to the Czech army), the Germans interpreted as proof of England’s hostile intentions.102 Had Chamberlain compelled the Poles to peacefully resolve the Danzig and minority issues with Hitler, then England would have lost Poland as an ally. The Polish diplomat Count Lubienski confessed that without Chamberlain’s guarantee, “A settlement with Germany could very easily have been reached."103
On September 1, 1939, the German invasion of Poland began. On its second day, Hitler arranged through his foreign minister another appeal to England. He offered to withdraw his army from Poland and compensate the Poles for damages, if London would mediate the Danzig/corridor dispute.104 Chamberlain’s response was to declare war on Germany the next day. Allied with England, France followed suit. Halifax commented, “Now we have forced Hitler to war."105
On September 4, French and British military leaders, including Gamelin and Ironside, privately agreed not to launch an offensive against the Reich. They also decided against aerial bombardment, fearing German retaliation. At a session of the Inter-Allied Supreme War Council one week later, the same generals speculated that any significant military pressure on the Germans may cause them to transfer troops from Poland to fight in the West. Anxious to avoid such a development, Chamberlain summarized, “There is no hurry as time is on our side."106
Norwid Neugebauer, chief of the Polish military mission in London, visited Ironside that same week to solicit aid for his beleaguered nation. The British general, “short of time,” terminated the interview.107 The German army overran Poland in three weeks. Entering exile in Rumania, Marshal Rydz-Smigly declared that he never should have trusted the assurances of the Allies. Polish President Moscicki acknowledged that Poland should have accepted Germany’s offer.108
Hitler looked beyond the immediate, localized perspective of the conflict with Britain. He privately remarked, “England doesn't see that the distribution of power in the world has changed. Europe no longer means 'the world.' Major blocs have formed. Their dimensions are clearly recognizable. They stand outside of the individual European states and any possible combination of 'balance' alliances. Only a unified Europe can assert itself amid this world of blocs."109
In Hitler’s view, the balance of power had shifted from Europe to the entire globe. The former German army officer Heinrich Jordis von Lohausen summarized that by 1900, England’s Royal Navy and Germany’s continental army had already represented an unbeatable combination: “A prerequisite for Europe’s undisputed supremacy in the world was that the pair never turned against one another."110 Throughout the pre-war years, Hitler had regarded Anglo-German friendship as indispensable for maintaining European world leadership. The failure of this foreign policy objective led to the continent’s abdication as pioneer and steward of civilization, a role it had discharged for centuries with prudence, authority and majesty.