[THE DICTATORS] HAVE HAD good cause to ask for consideration of their grievances & if they had asked nicely after I appeared on the scene they might already have got some satisfaction.1
AS THE FALL OF 1938 slipped into winter, Chamberlain continued to defend his Munich accord. His Christmas cards bore a picture of the plane that had carried him to Munich.2 But the bloom was off the rose. A poll in October revealed that 93 percent of the British did not believe that Hitler had made his last territorial demand in Europe.3
After the Godesberg ultimatum, the Czechs had been ready to fight. France had begun to mobilize. First Lord Duff Cooper, at Chamberlain’s direction, had called out the fleet. It was Hitler who had backed away from his ultimatum and agreed to a third meeting—at Munich. Though realpolitik may have dictated telling the Czechs that Britain could not fight for the Sudetenland, the British, a moral people, came to be ashamed of what they had done. And public opinion soon took a hard turn against Germany.
On November 7, seventeen-year-old Herschel Grynszpan, whose family had been ordered deported from Hamburg to Poland with twenty thousand other Jews—when Warsaw threatened to cancel their passports, leaving them stateless in Germany and thus Berlin’s responsibility—walked into the German embassy in Paris and shot Third Secretary Ernst vom Rath. When Rath died two days later, all hell broke loose in the Reich.
On the night of November 9–10, Nazi storm troopers went on a rampage, smashing windows, looting Jewish shops, burning synagogues, beating and lynching Jews. Scores perished. Hundreds were assaulted in what would be known as Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass, the greatest pogrom in Germany since the Middle Ages.
Kristallnacht was a shameful crime and a historic blunder. Much of the goodwill garnered by the 1936 Berlin Olympics and Munich, which the democracies still believed had averted war, was washed away. The United States called its ambassador home. “Nazi treatment of the Jews,” wrote Taylor, “did more than anything else to turn English moral feeling against Germany, and this moral feeling in turn made English people less reluctant to go to war.”4
Some historians claim Kristallnacht, shocking, revolting, and stupid as it was, evoking only disgust and contempt for Germany in the West, was not ordered by Hitler but was the work of Goebbels, his propaganda minister. But moral responsibility rests with Hitler. For those who carried out the rampage were not punished, Goebbels was not fired, and the German Jews were forced to pay a billion marks to clean up the damage.
“The bestial wave of anti-Semitism which Goebbels unleashed in Germany during November completed the route of the appeasers,” writes Paul Johnson. “During the winter of 1938–9 the mood in Britain changed to accept war as inevitable.”5
AS CHAMBERLAIN WAS BASKING in his triumph, Hitler had turned to the next item on his menu. On October 24, Foreign Minister Ribbentrop made a surprise offer to Polish ambassador Jozef Lipski. If Warsaw would permit the “reunion of Danzig with the Reich” and consent to Germany’s building of “an extra-territorial motor road and railway line” across the Corridor, Berlin would leave Warsaw in control of the economic and railway facilities in Danzig and guarantee Poland’s frontiers.6 With the issues of Danzig and the Corridor resolved, Ribbentrop told Lipski, a “joint policy towards Russia on the basis of the anti-Comintern pact” could be adopted.7 Ribbentrop was offering the Poles a Berlin-Warsaw alliance against Russia.
Ribbentrop had reason to expect a positive response. Like Hungary, Poland had joined in the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia after Munich. As Hitler seized the Sudetenland, the Poles, “like a carrion fish swimming in the wake of a shark,” seized the coal-rich region of Teschen.8 Also, Danzig was 95 percent German. Before Versailles, the town had never belonged to Poland. Danzig had been detached from Germany at Paris and declared a Free City to be administered by a High Commissioner appointed by the League of Nations to give Poland a port on the Baltic. As the Poles were now developing their own port, Gdynia, and could continue to use Danzig, Warsaw no longer needed to rule Danzig. Moreover, the 350,000 Danzigers were agitating for a return to Germany.
The Corridor had also been cut out of Germany at Versailles. This slice of land now severed East Prussia from Berlin and was Poland’s corridor to the Baltic Sea. Mistreatment of the 1.5 million Germans still living in the Corridor was bitterly resented. On the issues of Danzig and the Corridor, the German people were more bellicose than Hitler, who wanted the return of Danzig but did not want war. What Hitler sought was a Polish-German alliance, modeled on the Rome-Berlin axis.
A bit of history. By 1933, Marshal Jozef Pilsudski, the Polish hero of the Great War, was dictator. His August 1920 victory that hurled Trotsky’s army back from Warsaw had been compared by the British ambassador in Berlin to Charles Martel’s triumph at Tours. As the Hammer of the Franks saved Europe from Islam, Pilsudski had saved Europe from Bolshevism.
In Hitler Pilsudski saw a mortal threat. In early 1933, when Hitler became chancellor, Pilsudski massed five Polish army corps on his western border and “sounded out Paris about a joint application of pressure against Hitler while the Nazi regime was still insecure.”9 Pilsudski intended to kill the infant Nazi regime in its cradle.
“[T]here is plenty of evidence to suggest that Pilsudski seriously considered a preventive war against Hitler if only the western powers had shown themselves willing,” writes Norman Davies.10 German historian Hillgruber adds that these “‘preventive war’ designs came to nothing because of France’s immobility in foreign affairs. Thereupon Pilsudski himself undertook a rapprochement with Hitler in May 1933.”11
Taking the measure of his French ally, Pilsudski decided his country would be better served by a ten-year nonaggression pact with Hitler. It was signed in January 1934. Hitler had removed the first foreign threat to his rule. The first and best opportunity to deal preemptively with the man who had laid out his vision in Mein Kampf had passed by.
Half a decade later, Hitler wanted Poland in his Anti-Comintern Pact. The fiercely anti-Bolshevik, anti-Russian, Catholic Poles seemed natural allies in a crusade to eradicate Communism. As an Austrian, Hitler did not share the Prussian bias against Poles. The role he had in mind for Poland was that of partner in his New Order in Europe. Italy, and eventually Hungary and Rumania, would accept this role. To Hitler’s astonishment, Poland refused.
“In the early days of 1939,” writes U.S. historian Charles Callan Tansill, “Hitler believed that [Polish Foreign Minister] Beck was so well versed in the principles of Realpolitik that he would be glad to go hand in hand with the Nazi leaders in a joint search for plunder that was weakly guarded by the broken-down states of Europe.”12 Hitler believed Beck was a man he could do business with. So it would seem, for, as Manchester writes,
No one questioned Jozef Beck’s ability. His remarkable diplomatic skills had led to his appointment, at the age of thirty-eight, as Poland’s foreign minister. Respected for his intellect and powerful will, he was also distrusted—even detested—for his duplicity, dishonesty, and, in his private life, depravity. In Rome, where he had spent an extended visit-cum-vacation, the Princess of Piedmont had said of him that he had the “sort of face you might see in a French newspaper as that of a ravisher of little girls.”13
But Beck rebuffed Ribbentrop’s offer. For, after their 1920 victory over the Red Army, the Poles considered themselves a Great Power. They were not. Writes A.J.P. Taylor,
[T]hey…forgot that they had gained their independence in 1918 only because both Russia and Germany had been defeated. Now they had to choose between Russia and Germany. They chose neither. Only Danzig prevented cooperation between Germany and Poland. For this reason, Hitler wanted to get it out of the way. For precisely the same reason, Beck kept it in the way. It did not cross his mind that this might cause a fatal breach.14
Chamberlain also believed Danzig should be returned. As Taylor wrote, “The British cared nothing for Danzig, or, if they did, sympathized with the German case.”15 Lord Halifax considered Danzig and the Corridor “an absurdity.”16 Indeed, of all the German claims to lost lands, the claim to Danzig was strongest. It had always been a German city. Its population was 95 percent German. Any plebiscite would have produced a 90 percent vote to return to the Fatherland. And Britain had no objection to Danzig’s return, as long as it came about peacefully through negotiation, not violently through military force. On Danzig, the basic British and German positions were almost identical. Both wanted its peaceful return to Germany.
But the Poles adamantly refused to negotiate.
Hitler invited Beck to Berchtesgaden on January 5, 1939. There, in terms unlike those he had used on Schuschnigg, Hitler explained that if Danzig was returned, it could remain under Polish economic control. He impressed on Beck that a connection “with East Prussia was as vital a matter for the Reich as the connection with the sea was for Poland.”17 Ribbentrop “hinted very heavily” to Beck “that Polish concessions over Danzig could be compensated at Slovakia’s expense”18
“On Hitler’s part it was a remarkably moderate demand,” writes the British historian Basil Liddell Hart.19 But, again, Beck rebuffed Hitler. Hitler offered to guarantee Poland’s borders and accept permanent Polish control of the Corridor, if Beck would simply agree to the return of Danzig and the construction of a German rail-and-road route across the Corridor. Beck again refused. So matters stood in March 1939, when the rump state of Czechoslovakia suddenly began to collapse and fall apart, as Hitler had warned Chamberlain at Berchtesgaden it would. By Chamberlain’s own notes of that first meeting, Hitler had said that, once the Sudeten Germans were free of Prague, the Hungarians, Poles, and Slovaks left inside the multiethnic state would also secede.20 Indeed, agents of the Reich were stoking the fires of secession, subverting the Czech state.
As Hitler had predicted, planned, and promoted, the disintegration of Czechoslovakia began as soon as Munich had been implemented. Slovakia and Ruthenia, or Carpatho-Ukraine, a hotbed of Ukrainian nationalism, set up parliaments. Hungary, which had lost Slovakia to Prague in the Treaty of Trianon, asked Hitler to mediate a border dispute.
“[B]y the Vienna Award of November 2, 1938, Ribbentrop and Ciano, the Italian Foreign Minister, assigned a sizable portion of southern Slovakia to Hungary.”21 Hungary also had designs on Ruthenia, a slice of which it had already received, including the city of Kosice, in the Vienna Award. But when Budapest began to move on the remnant in mid-November, Hitler sent an ultimatum. The annexation of Ruthenia by Hungary would be regarded as an unfriendly act. Budapest backed off.
By New Year’s Day 1939, Germany, Poland, and Hungary had all taken bites out of Czechoslovakia to reclaim lost kinsmen, and the ethno-nationalists of Slovakia and Ruthenia were agitating for independence.
In March, the remnant of Czechoslovakia fell apart.
On March 7, Czech president Emil Hacha dismissed the Ruthenian government.
On March 10, following a rancorous quarrel between Czechs and Slovaks over the latter’s push for independence, Emil Hácha ousted the Slovak prime minister, Father Tiso, occupied Bratislava, and forcibly installed a new government loyal to Prague.
On March 11, Tiso fled to Vienna and appealed to Berlin for protection.
On March 13, Tiso met Hitler, who told him if he did not declare immediate independence, Germany would not interfere with Hungary’s forcible reannexation of all of Slovakia. Budapest was moving troops to the border of both Slovakia and Ruthenia.
On March 14, Slovakia declared independence. “Ruthenia quickly followed and this action dissolved what was left of the Czech state.”22
The same day, Hungary, told by Hitler it could move on Ruthenia but must keep hands off the rest of Slovakia, occupied Ruthenia, establishing a border between Poland and Hungary both had sought. Admiral Horthy “was delighted and sent Hitler a fulsome telegram of gratitude.”23
Stationed in Prague, George Kennan saw it coming. As he wrote in early March 1939, after visiting Ruthenia, “[S]omehow or other, and in the not too distant future, the unwieldy remnant of what was once Ruthenia will find its way back to the economic and political unit in which it most naturally belongs, which is Hungary.”24
Thus, at the expense of Prague, Hitler had brought the Germans of Bohemia and Moravia back under German rule, and appeased four nations. Hungary had the Vienna Award of the Hungarian lands and peoples in Slovakia and regained control of Ruthenia. Slovakia had independence and freedom from Prague, and a promise of German protection from Hungary. Poland had gained the coal-rich region of Teschen and a new border with a friendly Hungary. And Hitler had done Stalin a huge favor, for Ruthenia was ablaze with Ukrainian nationalism and Horthy would put the fire out. Historian John Lukacs notes that George Kennan was among the few to see in Hitler’s partition of Czechoslovakia something no one else saw:
Hitler’s tacit consent to let Ruthenia (also called Carpathian Ukraine) go to Hungary was significant because it indicated that, whether temporarily or not, Hitler now dropped the promotion of Ukrainian nationalism that had been directed against the Soviet Union. We know (or ought to know) that this was but a first step in the direction of an eventual accord between Hitler and Stalin.25
Rapprochement with Stalin may have been in Hitler’s mind by early 1939.
President Hacha asked to see Hitler. Elderly and sick, he was invited to Berlin and accompanied by his daughter, to whom Ribbentrop presented a bouquet at the train station. Hitler sent a box of chocolates.
After 1 A.M., Hacha was ushered in to see the Fuehrer, who bullied him for three hours, telling him the Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe were preparing to strike his country. After Hacha suffered an apparent heart attack, German doctors revived him. Just before 4 A.M., Hacha signed a statement by which he “confidently placed the fate of the Czech people and country in the hands of the Fuehrer of the German Reich.”26 As he left the Chancellery at 4:30, his foreign minister Chvalkovsky said to him, “Our people will curse us, and yet we have saved their existence. We have preserved them from a horrible massacre.”27
Hacha would serve Hitler faithfully through the end of the war. As British historian Donald Cameron Watt writes, “[Hitler] was remarkably kind (for him) to the Czech Cabinet after the march into Prague, keeping its members in office for a time and then paying their pensions.”28
As Hitler stayed up into the morning to savor his triumph with aides, his physician, Dr. Morell, interrupted to say that had it not been for him, there might have been no communiqué. “Thank God,” said Morell, “that I was on the spot and in time with my injections.”29
“You go to hell with your damn injections,” Hitler bellowed. “You made the old gentleman so lively that for a moment I feared he would refuse to sign!”30
Emerging from the negotiations, Hitler ecstatically told his two middle-aged secretaries: “Children, quickly, give me a kiss! Quickly!”31 The ladies bussed him on both cheeks, as Hitler exclaimed: “It is the greatest triumph of my life! I shall enter history as the greatest German of them all!”32
Indeed, as of that night, Hitler had brought the Saar, Austria, and the Sudetenland under Berlin’s rule, made Bohemia and Moravia protectorates of the Reich, overthrown the detested Versailles regime in Central Europe, and raised Germany from the depressed and divided nation of 1933 to the first economic and military power in Europe—in six years without firing a shot. He was a figure in German history to rival Bismarck. But Hitler could say, as Bismarck could not, that he had done it all with diplomacy and without bloodshed.
On March 15, Hitler entered Prague. Hungary marched into Ruthenia. The Ruthenians appealed to Berlin. Hitler said “No!” On the afternoon of the fourteenth, German troops had occupied the vital strategic area of Ostrava to preempt an expected Polish move.
Thus the Munich agreement, altarpiece of Chamberlain’s career, pillar of his European policy, lay in ruin. “It was the final shipwreck of my mission to Berlin,” wrote Henderson. “Hitler had crossed the Rubicon.”33
Up till that March…the German ship of state had flown the German national flag. On those Ides of March, its captain defiantly hoisted the skull and crossbones of the pirate, and appeared under his true colors as an unprincipled menace to European peace and liberty.34
Historians mark Hitler’s march into Prague as the crossroads where he started down the path of conquest by imposing German rule on a non-Germanic people. The “destruction of Czechoslovakia,” writes Kissinger, “made no geopolitical sense whatever; it showed that Hitler was beyond rational calculation and bent on war.”35
But did it? And war with whom? From the vantage point of Hitler, raised in Linz near the Czech border when both were ruled from Vienna, it appeared far different from the way it did in London or Washington. And the motives behind Hitler’s actions in the Czech crisis of March remain in dispute. Here is Taylor’s take, half a century ago:
All the world saw this as a culmination of a long-planned campaign. In fact, it was the unforeseen by-product of developments in Slovakia; and Hitler was acting against the Hungarians rather than against the Czechs. Nor was there anything sinister or premeditated in the protectorate over Bohemia. Hitler, the supposed revolutionary, was simply reverting in the most conservative way to the pattern of previous centuries. Bohemia had always been a part of the Holy Roman Empire; it had been part of the German Confederation between 1815 and 1866; then it had been linked to German Austria until 1918. Independence, not subordination, was the novelty in Czech history….
Hitler took the decisive step in his career when he occupied Prague. He did it without design; it brought him slight advantage. He acted only when events had already destroyed the settlement of Munich. But everyone outside Germany, and especially the other makers of that settlement, believed that he had deliberately destroyed it himself.36
Taylor here seems too benign. While historians disagree on whether Hitler harangued the old man, there is no doubt he threatened Hacha with bombing and invasion if he did not sign away his country. Michael Bloch, the author of Ribbentrop, writes that Hitler was no passive observer to the breakup of the country after Munich. “Hitler’s plan was to provoke a civil war in Czecho-Slovakia, by secretly encouraging secessionist movements in Slovakia and Ruthenia: German troops would then intervene to ‘restore order.’”37
Bullock, too, contradicts Taylor, contending that, after Munich, Hitler began a campaign of subversion to liquidate the independent Czecho-Slovak state. German archives document the pressure Hitler put on Prague. What were Hitler’s motives?
The German Army was anxious to replace the long, straggling German-Czech frontier, with a short easily-held line straight across Moravia from Silesia to Austria. The German Air Force was eager to acquire new air bases in Moravia and Bohemia. The seizure of Czech Army stocks and of the Skoda arms works, second only to Krupp’s, would represent a major reinforcement of German strength.38
Moreover, Hitler had long “detested” Czechoslovakia as both a “Slav state…and one allied with the Bolshevik arch-enemy and with France.”39
A deep-seated hatred of the Czechs—a legacy of his Austrian upbringing (when rabid hostility towards the Czechs had been endemic in the German-speaking part of the Habsburg Empire)—added a further personal dimension to the drive to destroy a Czechoslovakian state allied with the arch-enemies of Germany: the USSR in the east and France in the west.40
Whatever triggered the crisis or motivated Hitler, it was a blunder of historic magnitude and utterly unnecessary. Having lost the Sudetenland, and now facing a hostile breakaway Slovakia to the east and Germans to the north, west, and south, Prague was already a vassal state. Why send in an army and humiliate a British prime minister who had shown himself willing to accommodate Hitler’s demands for the return of German territories and peoples, if Hitler would only proceed peacefully?
For little gain, Hitler had burned his bridges to the political leaders of a British Empire he had sought to befriend and who were prepared to work with him for redress of grievances from Versailles. Hitler now had the Skoda arms works. But he had also made a bitter enemy of Great Britain.
AS HITLER RODE INTO Prague, Chamberlain initially reaffirmed his policy of appeasement. On March 15, he rose in the Parliament to say that the British guarantee to preserve the integrity of Czechoslovakia, given after Munich, was no longer binding, for the state of Czechoslovakia no longer existed. The government’s position, the prime minister told the House, has
radically altered since the Slovak Diet declared the independence of Slovakia. The effect of this declaration put an end by internal disruption to the State whose frontier we had proposed to guarantee and His Majesty’s government cannot accordingly hold themselves bound by this obligation.41
“It is natural that I should bitterly regret what has now occurred,” Chamberlain went on, “but do not let us on that account be deflected from our course. Let us remember that the desire of all the peoples of this world still remains concentrated on the hopes of peace.”42
MP Harold Nicolson recorded in his diary that the “feeling in the lobbies is that Chamberlain will either have to go or completely reverse his policy. Unless in his speech tonight, he admits that he was wrong, they feel that resignation is the only alternative. All the tad-poles are beginning to swim into the other camp.”43
Halifax now began to take command of British policy toward the Reich. He informed the prime minister that his speech of March 15 would no longer do. And there now began to transpire the events that would lead to the decision that would change the history of the world.
On March 16, Rumania’s minister in London, Virgil Tilea, ran to the Foreign Office to warn that he had learned “from secret and other sources” that the Nazis planned to overrun Hungary and “disintegrate Rumania in the same way as they had disintegrated Czechoslovakia…establishing a German protectorate over the whole country.”44 Hitler’s objective: the Ploesti oil fields. Noting the “extreme urgency” of Britain taking a stand against this imminent “threat,” Tilea asked for a loan of ten million pounds to strengthen Rumania’s defenses.45
No such German plans or preparations existed. Berlin had no border with Rumania or any quarrel with Rumania, and was negotiating a trade treaty to be signed in a week. Consulted by London, Bucharest emphatically denied it had received any ultimatum and refused to back up its ambassador.
Yet Tilea spread his wild story through the diplomatic corps and on March 17 “called on Lord Halifax in a state of considerable excitement.”
As Halifax listened intently, Tilea
poured forth a story of imminent German action against Romania, of economic demands presented as a virtual ultimatum. What would Britain do? If Romania fought, would Britain support her? Would Britain draw a line beyond which Hitler must not go?…He again asked for a loan to enable Romania to buy armaments from Britain.46
The British government believed Tilea.
Writes Manchester, “It was Tilea who suggested that Britain’s position might be strengthened if Poland joined them as a third ally. Halifax and Chamberlain found the prospect appealing.”47
On March 17 came the first sign of a major policy shift. In a speech in his home city of Birmingham, Chamberlain, to rising applause, charged Hitler with “a flagrant breach of personal faith.” Bitterly reciting Hitler’s words at Munich—“This is the last territorial claim I have to make in Europe…. I shall not be interested in the Czech state anymore and I can guarantee it. We don’t want any Czechs any more”—Chamberlain declaimed: “Is this the last attack upon a small state or is it to be followed by another? Is this in fact a step in the direction of an attempt to dominate the world by force?”48
On March 21, hosting Daladier, Chamberlain discussed a joint front with France, Russia, and Poland to act together against aggressive German behavior. Chamberlain had drafted the proposal. The four nations were to agree “immediately to consult together as to what steps should be taken to offer joint resistance to any action which constitutes a threat to the political independence of any European state.”49
Beck torpedoed the joint front. The Poles feared Russia more than Germany. “With the Germans we risk losing our liberty,” Polish marshal Eduard Smigly-Rydz told the French ambassador, “with the Russians we lose our soul.”50 Even Halifax appreciated Poland’s reluctance to rely on Russia for her security: “An intelligent rabbit would hardly be expected to welcome the protection of an animal ten times its size, whom it credited with the habits of a boa constrictor.”51
The same day, March 21, during a stop-off in Berlin on his return from Rome, Lithuania’s foreign minister was invited in to see Ribbentrop. The Lithuanian was given an ultimatum: Return Memel now or the Fuehrer “would act with lightning speed.” Memel was the East Prussian city of 150,000 that Lithuania had seized from a disarmed Germany in 1923. Its people were clamoring to return to Germany. Having seen what happened to the Czechs, the Lithuanian foreign minister needed no further prodding.
On March 22, Memel was reannexed by the Reich.
On March 23, the German army marched in.
On March 24, a seasick Hitler, who had sailed across the Baltic in the pocket battleship Deutschland, rode in triumph through the newest city of the Reich and addressed a delirious throng in the Staadtheater.
On March 26 came another shock. German-Polish talks on Danzig had broken down.
On March 29, Ian Colvin, a twenty-six-year-old News-Chronicle correspondent in Berlin with excellent sources inside Hitler’s regime, came to London with “hair-raising details of [an] imminent [Nazi] thrust against Poland.”52 Like Tilea’s report, Colvin’s was a false alarm.
Four days earlier, March 25, Hitler had issued a secret directive to his army commander in chief: “The Fuehrer does not wish to solve the Danzig question by force. He does not wish to drive Poland into the arms of Britain by this.”53 Hitler did not want war with Poland, he wanted an alliance with Poland. But Halifax and Chamberlain believed Colvin and feared that Beck might cut a deal with Hitler, which was what Hitler had in mind—a deal, not a war. Immediately after the meeting with Colvin, as Chamberlain wrote to his sister, “we then and there decided” Poland must be guaranteed.54
Thus, on March 30, an astonished Colonel Beck received the British ambassador, who inquired whether Warsaw would object if Britain gave an unconditional guarantee of Poland’s independence in the event of an attack by Germany. Beck accepted.
On March 31, 1939, Chamberlain rose in the House of Commons to make the most fateful British declaration of the twentieth century:
I now have to inform the House that…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 that effect.55
In words drafted by Halifax, Neville Chamberlain had turned British policy upside down.56 The British government was now committed to fight for Poland. With this declaration, writes Ernest May,
a government that a half-year earlier had resisted going to war for a faraway country with democratic institutions, well-armed military forces, and strong fortifications, now promised with no apparent reservations to go to war for a dictatorship with less-than-modern armed forces and wide-open frontiers.57
“Englishmen who possessed strategic vision were, with few exceptions, appalled,” writes Manchester.58
“This is the maddest single action this country has ever taken,” MP Robert J. G. Boothby told Churchill.59
We are undertaking “a frightful gamble,” said Lloyd George.60 Told by Chamberlain the pact with Poland would deter Hitler, the former prime minister “burst out laughing.”61 If the British army general staff approved this, said Lloyd George, they “ought to be confined to a lunatic asylum.”62
Liddell Hart agreed. The Polish guarantee was “foolish, futile, and provocative…an ill-considered gesture [that] placed Britain’s destiny in the hands of Polish rulers, men of very dubious and unstable judgment.”63
Chamberlain’s “reversal was so abrupt and unexpected as to make war inevitable,” wrote Liddell Hart:
The Polish Guarantee was the surest way to produce an early explosion, and a world war. It combined the maximum temptation with manifest provocation. It incited Hitler to demonstrate the futility of such a guarantee to a country out of reach from the West, while making the stiff-necked Poles even less inclined to consider any concession to him, and at the same time making it impossible for him to draw back without “losing face.”64
To dramatize his protest of Chamberlain’s folly, Liddell Hart resigned as military correspondent for the Times.65
Duff Cooper, who had resigned as First Lord in protest of Munich, wrote in his diary, “Never before in our history have we left in the hands of one of the smaller powers the decision whether or not Britain goes to war.”66
Sir Alexander Cadogan, Permanent Undersecretary at the Foreign Office, echoed Lloyd George, calling the guarantee a “frightful gamble.”67
“The whole point is that we cannot save these eastern nations,” Sir Maurice Hankey, retired secretary of the Committee of Imperial Defense, wrote Ambassador Phipps in Paris.68
Half a century later, Sir Roy Denman called the war guarantee to Poland of March 31 “the most reckless undertaking ever given by a British government. It placed the decision on peace or war in Europe in the hands of a reckless, intransigent, swashbuckling military dictatorship.”69
Nevile Henderson reported from Berlin that Germans were telling him Chamberlain had made the same blunder as the Kaiser in July 1914. He had given Poland a “blank check” to start a European war.70 As for the French, “they thought the British pledge madness and endorsed it only because they had no alternative.”71 The gravest problem with the war guarantee, writes Paul Johnson, was that
the power to invoke it was placed in the hands of the Polish government, not a repository of good sense. Therein lay the foolishness of the pledge: Britain had no means of bringing effective aid to Poland yet it obliged Britain itself to declare war on Germany if Poland so requested.72
The legendary military strategist and historian Major-General J.F.C. Fuller, in The Second World War, related a comment he heard from a veteran American newspaperman in Germany:
When in Berlin, shortly after the guarantee was given, I asked a well-known American journalist what he thought of it. His answer was: “Well, I guess your Mr. Prime Minister has made the biggest blunder in your history since the Stamp Act.” Further he said, and he had known Poland for thirty years, “There is no reason why you should not guarantee a powder factory so long as the rules are observed; but to guarantee one full of maniacs is a little dangerous.”73
One statesman, however, thought the war guarantee a splendid idea. Declared Winston Churchill to Parliament: “The preservation and integrity of Poland must be regarded as a cause commanding the regard of all the world.”74 There is, Churchill added, “almost complete agreement” now between the prime minister and his critics: “We can no longer be pushed from pillar to post.”75
“This approached a blanket endorsement,” says Manchester.76 “It is also fair to add that within a week Winston was raising doubts about the Polish guarantee.”77
Indeed, four days after Chamberlain handed Poland the war guarantee, the rashness and potential consequences of the act seemed to have sunk in on Churchill. He wrote publicly that Polish concessions to Hitler on Danzig and the Corridor might still be welcomed: “There is…no need for Great Britain and France to be more Polish than the Poles. If Poland feels able to make adjustments in the Corridor and at Danzig which are satisfactory to both sides, no one will be more pleased than her Western allies.”78
Unfortunately, now that Warsaw had her war guarantees from the two great Western democracies, any Polish concessions were out of the question.
Nine years later, in The Gathering Storm, Churchill would cover his spoor by expressing amazement at the audacity and rashness of Neville Chamberlain’s radical reversal of British policy:
And now…Great Britain advances, leading France by the hand to guarantee the integrity of Poland—of that very Poland which with hyena appetite had only six months before joined in the pillage and destruction of the Czechoslovak State….
Moreover, how could we protect Poland and make good our guarantee?…Here was a decision 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.79
To call Churchill’s 1948 words disingenuous is understatement. By March 1939, he had been hounding Chamberlain for a year to draw a line in the sand and go to war if Hitler crossed it. Now Chamberlain had done what Churchill had demanded—threatened Germany with war over Poland. The guarantee to Poland, which Churchill had applauded, would force Britain to declare war on Germany five months later.
Yet here is Churchill in 1948 asking in feigned innocence: “[H]ow could we protect Poland and make good our guarantee?” Answer: There was no way Britain could protect Poland, and there was no plan to protect Poland. But though that war guarantee “must surely lead to the slaughter of tens of millions of people,” Churchill, in the spring of 1939, had applauded it. Why? Because, as he put it in his inimitable style,
[I]f you will not fight for the right when you can easily win without bloodshed; if you will not fight when your victory will be sure and not too costly; you may come to the moment when you have to fight with all the odds against you and only a precarious chance of survival. There may even be a worse case. You may have to fight when there is no hope of victory, because it is better to perish than live as slaves.80
Churchill’s 1948 depiction of Britain’s situation on the day of the war guarantee to Poland is absurd. On March 31, 1939, Britain was not facing a “precarious chance of survival.” Hitler had neither the power nor desire to force Britons to “live as slaves.” He wanted no war with Britain and showed repeatedly he would pay a price to avoid such a war. It was the Poles who were facing imminent war with “only a precarious chance of survival.” It was the Poles who might end up as “slaves” if they did not negotiate Danzig. That they ended up as slaves of Stalin’s empire for half a century, after half a decade of brutal Nazi occupation, is a consequence of their having put their faith in a guarantee Chamberlain and Churchill had to know was worthless when it was given.
Liddell Hart, in his history of World War II, comes close to charging Churchill with rank intellectual dishonesty for his crude attempt to foist all responsibility for the “fatally rash move”—the guarantee to Poland—onto the dead prime minister.81 Of Churchill’s reflections in 1948 on that war guarantee of March 31, 1939, Liddell Hart writes:
It is a striking verdict on Chamberlain’s folly written in hindsight. For Churchill himself had, in the heat of the moment, supported Chamberlain’s pressing offer of Britain’s guarantee to Poland. It is only too evident that in 1939 he, like most of Britain’s leaders, acted on a hot-headed impulse, instead of with the cool-headed judgment that was once characteristic of British statesmanship.82
Historian Gene Smith writes that to a world “seeing Armageddon in the offing,” it appeared “that the pledged word of the West, of democracy, of the future, was in the hands of the unstable and irresponsible leaders of a country…no less authoritarian, nationalistic, totalitarian and racially intolerant than Germany and Italy.”83
The war guarantee to Poland tied Britain’s “destiny to that of a regime that was every bit as undemocratic and anti-Semitic as that of Germany,” adds Niall Ferguson.84
Thus did Neville Chamberlain, who never believed Britain had any vital interest in Eastern Europe, become the first British prime minister to issue a war guarantee to Eastern Europe. Nowhere in British diplomatic history is it possible to discover a more feckless and fateful act. The guarantee to Poland, writes Luigi Villari, was “the most disastrous single diplomatic move” of the interwar era.85
It rendered the second World War almost inevitable, for a quarrel between Germany and Poland, even if capable of a peaceful settlement, might now be converted into Armageddon at the caprice of whoever happened to be in power in Poland at the time…. Chamberlain, by no means a warmonger, had evidently been driven into this act of madness by the followers of Churchill and the Labourites whose program was to make war inevitable.86
Paul Johnson calls the guarantee a “hysterical response” to what had happened in the previous two weeks, and describes the panic that gripped Neville Chamberlain and turned that statesman into a Hotspur.
The German occupation of Prague…followed swiftly by the seizure of Memel from Lithuania, six days later, convinced most British people that war was imminent. Fear gave place to a resigned despair, and the sort of craven, if misjudged, calculation which led to Munich yielded to a reckless and irrational determination to resist Hitler at the next opportunity, irrespective of its merits.87
In his book on that fateful year September 1938 to September 1939, How War Came, historian Donald Cameron Watt writes of the astonishing gamble the prime minister had just taken:
Mr Chamberlain…left no option whatever for the British Government. If the Poles took up arms, then Britain fought too. The decision, war or peace, had been voluntarily surrendered by Chamberlain and his Cabinet into the nervous hands of Colonel Beck and his junta comrades-in-arms. It was unprecedented. It was also unconstitutional. It is also clear that Chamberlain…did not understand what he had done.88
Halifax, who had been alarmed by the sensational reports of Colvin, played the pivotal role in having a Cabinet meeting called to deal with the nonexistent crisis. Writes historian Graham Stewart:
Intelligence reports backing up Colvin’s claim that Hitler was poised to invade Poland particularly concentrated Halifax’s mind. Requesting and being granted an emergency meeting of the Cabinet, he argued for issuing an immediate British guarantee to Poland in the hope of making Hitler rethink a quick strike. Here was an example of sudden events bouncing a government into action contrary to its long-term strategy.89
Thus did the British government, in panic over a false report about a German invasion of Poland that was neither planned nor prepared, give a war guarantee to a dictatorship it did not trust, in a part of Europe where it had no vital interests, committing itself to a war it could not win. Historian Johnson’s depiction of Chamberlain’s decision as reckless and irrational is an understatement.
To assess the recklessness of the guarantee, consider:
In the Great War, Britain, France, Russia, Italy, Japan, and the United States together almost failed to prevent Germany from occupying Paris. Now, without Russia or America, and with Japan and Italy hostile, Britain and France were going to keep the German army out of Warsaw. Writes British historian Capt. Russell Grenfell, “[A] British guarantee of Poland against Germany was about as capable of implementation as a guarantee of Mexico against the United States.”90
“When one keeps in mind that the British Government could not put one soldier in the Polish Corridor in the event of war between Poland and Germany, the dubious quality of this Chamberlain assurance is clearly evident,” writes Tansill.91 As for Colonel Beck, “By turning his back on Hitler he invited a swift destruction that no European power could avert.”92
Kissinger agrees. Britain’s “drawing the line made…little sense in terms of traditional power politics,” for the “seizure of Prague [had] changed neither the balance of power nor the foreseeable course of events.”93
To British historian Peter Clarke, the war guarantee to the Poles, after the British had abandoned the Czechs along with their army and mountain fortifications, was an act of sheer irrationality: “If Czechoslovakia was a faraway country, Poland was further; if Bohemia could not be defended by British troops, no more could Danzig; if the democratic Czech Republic had its flaws, the Polish regime was far more suspect.”94
In defense of the Polish guarantee, Henderson wrote in his memoir:
[A]fter Prague no nation in Europe could feel itself secure from some new adaption of Nazi racial superiority and jungle law. In twelve months Germany had swallowed up Austria, the Sudeten Lands, and Czechoslovakia. Verbal protests were so much waste paper; and a firm stand had to be taken somewhere and force opposed by force; otherwise, in the course of the intoxication of success, Hitler, in the course of another twelve months, would continue the process with Poland, Hungary, and Rumania. The principles of nationalism and self-determination, which had served Hitler to create Greater Germany…had been cynically thrown overboard at Prague and world dominion had supplanted them. If peace were to be preserved, it was essential that it should be made crystal clear what limit Germany would not go without provoking England to war.95
Nothing in this passage explains why it was Britain’s duty to fight and die for Poland, which, as Churchill reminds us in his war memoir, had joined in the rape of Czechoslovakia. Henderson himself, in the last days of August, would urge a deal on Danzig. And while Poland had reason to fear “Nazi racial superiority and jungle law,” Britain did not. She had no vital interest in Eastern Europe to justify a war to the death with Germany and no ability to wage war there. A German march to the east might imperil Stalin’s Russia; it did not imperil Chamberlain’s Britain. And if preserving peace was Britain’s goal, was a threat to set Europe ablaze if Hitler clashed with the Poles the way to preserve it? Six months earlier, Chamberlain had written to his sister that he had been reading a life of George Canning and agreed with that nineteenth-century statesman that “Britain should not let the vital decision as to peace or war pass out of her hands into those of another country.”96 Yet Chamberlain had now done exactly that. Writes William Shirer:
Now, overnight, in his understandably bitter reaction to Hitler’s occupation of the rest of Czechoslovakia, Chamberlain…had undertaken to unilaterally guarantee an Eastern country run by a junta of politically inept “colonels” who up to this moment had closely collaborated with Hitler, who like hyenas had joined the Germans in the carving up of Czechoslovakia and whose country had been rendered militarily indefensible by the very German conquests which Britain and Poland had helped the Reich to achieve.97
A.J.P. Taylor describes how Beck received word that Great Britain would defend Poland to the death:
The [British] ambassador read out Chamberlain’s assurance. Beck accepted it “between two flicks of the ash off his cigarette.” Two flicks; and British grenadiers would fight for Danzig. Two flicks; and the illusory great Poland, created in 1919, signed her death warrant. The assurance was unconditional: the Poles alone were to judge whether it should be called upon. The British could no longer press for concessions over Danzig.98
Two flicks of the ash off the colonel’s cigarette and the fate of the British Empire and fifty million people was sealed.
“In such panicky haste,” writes Barnett, “did the British finally and totally reverse their traditional eastern European policy by giving to Poland the guarantee.”99 What did this tough-minded chronicler of Britain’s decline think of the guarantee?
Yet it was an incautious guarantee. It was unconditional; it was up to the Poles, not the British, to decide when and whether the time had come to fight. It was one-sided; for Poland was not asked to give a reciprocal assurance.
The circumstances in which so fateful a guarantee was given, together with the rashness and looseness of its wording, serve to show that, although Chamberlain and his colleagues had at last recognised what kind of game they were playing, it did not follow that they could play it very well.100
How rash a commitment the war guarantee to Poland was may be seen by considering the balance of power on the day it was given. As of April 1, 1939, Britain and France retained an advantage in naval power over Germany, Italy, and Japan. On land, where any war to defeat Germany must be fought, the French were outmanned two-to-one by the Germans, who were conscripting soldiers from a far larger population. The British situation was hopeless.
On land, as of 1 April, France and Britain were now overwhelmingly out-numbered. Britain herself could put no divisions at all into the field in Europe by the eighteenth day after mobilization, but 3 in Egypt. France would initially field 54 divisions (including one armoured and five mobile) to Germany’s 96 (including five armoured); and later 76 to 106. Italy could field a total of 76 divisions.101
Looking back at century’s end, Roy Denman saw the guarantee to Poland as the fatal blunder that led to the collapse of the British Empire. The war guarantee, he writes, was
an even greater British folly [than Munich]…. The fear that after Poland Hitler would have attacked Britain was an illusion. As he had made clear in Mein Kampf, Hitler would have marched against Russia. As it was, Britain was dragged into an unnecessary war, which cost her nearly 400,000 dead, bankruptcy, and the dissolution of the British Empire.102
Again, in Denman’s prose the phrase appears: “an unnecessary war.”
WHY DID BRITAIN DO IT?
WHY DID CHAMBERLAIN, who never believed Britain had a vital interest in Eastern Europe, give the first war guarantee in British history to Eastern Europe?
Deceived and betrayed by Hitler, his Munich pact made a mockery, Chamberlain appears to have acted out of shame and humiliation at having been played for a fool, out of fear of Tory backbenchers who had turned against Munich in disgust, and out of panic that Hitler was out to “dominate the world.”
“It is impossible,” writes Liddell Hart, “to gauge what was the predominant influence on his impulse—the pressure of public indignation, or his own indignation, or his anger at having been fooled by Hitler, or his humiliation at having been made to look a fool in the eyes of his own people.”103
Lloyd George believed that Chamberlain’s “hare-brained pledge” had been an impulsive reaction to his humiliation:
Hitler having fooled him, he felt he must do something to recover his lost prestige, so he rushed into the first rash and silly enterprise that entered his uninformed mind. He guaranteed Poland, Roumania and Greece against the huge army of Germany….
I denounced it as sheer madness to give such a pledge in the absence of military support from Russia.104
In his 1976 book March 1939: The British Guarantee to Poland, Simon Newman concludes that “the critical decisions in March 1939 were made in an atmosphere of panic, humiliation, and moral hysteria. A frantic urgency to do something—anything—replaced calm consideration of the alternatives.”105
In Six Crises, Richard Nixon warns that “the most dangerous period” in any crisis is “the aftermath. It is then, with all his resources spent and his guard down, that an individual must watch out for dulled reactions and faulty judgment.”106
Chamberlain thought a war guarantee to Poland might block a Polish-German deal, force Hitler to think about a two-front war, give Britain an ally with fifty-five divisions, and enable Britain to avoid the alliance with Stalin being pressed upon him by Churchill, Lloyd George, and the Labour Party. Newman believes the prime mover behind the guarantee was Halifax, who had come to believe that if Hitler continued with his bloodless victories, Germany would dominate Europe economically and no longer be at the mercy of a British blockade. That would mean Britain’s end as a world power. When the German-Rumanian Trade Treaty was announced on March 24, Halifax feared Poland would also strike a deal. Rather than have Poland become a partner of Germany, Newman argues, Halifax preferred war. He pushed the guarantee on Chamberlain to stiffen the Polish spine, knowing the guarantee would harden Polish resistance to any deal over Danzig. Halifax preferred war, and the sacrifice of Poland to Hitler’s war machine, to seeing Britain yield her preeminence in Europe and the world. By March 1939, writes Newman, war with Germany had become
the only real alternative to Britain’s relegation to second-class status. As Halifax described this dilemma to the Foreign Policy Committee, the choice was between “doing nothing” which would mean a “great accession of Germany’s strength and a great loss to ourselves of sympathy and support” and “entering into a devastating war.” He [Halifax] preferred the latter course.107
Andrew Roberts credits Halifax with being the decisive force behind the guarantee. After Hitler entered Prague, Halifax told the Cabinet, “The real issue was Germany’s attempt to obtain world domination.”108
Yet, Halifax admitted, “there was probably no way in which France and ourselves could prevent Poland and Roumania from being overrun.”109
Knowing Poland could not be saved from a Nazi onslaught and occupation, Halifax nevertheless wanted to give Poland a war guarantee, which he knew could precipitate a suicidal Polish policy of defiance.
For Halifax, writes Roberts,
the issue had long moved beyond the rights and wrongs of individual claims and towards the “great moralities” which he had declared his willingness to fight for at the time of Munich. The fear which materialized in late March was that Poland might disclaim Danzig and allow herself to be neutralized in return for not fighting, thus chalking up yet another bloodless coup for Hitler.110
Rather than see Poland return Danzig to the Reich, Halifax preferred that Poland fight Germany to the death in a war Halifax knew Poland could not win, because the British could not help. To Halifax, Poland’s suicide was preferable to having Hitler chalk up “yet another bloodless coup.” The Holy Fox appears to have had no reservations about pushing Poland to its death in front of Hitler’s war machine—to exhibit “his willingness to fight for…the ‘great moralities.’”
Such is the morality of Great Powers.
WAS CHAMBERLAIN MISUNDERSTOOD?
WHAT CHAMBERLAIN’S WAR GUARANTEE wrought was the bloodiest war in all of history. But what was its literal meaning to the prime minister who had issued it?
As one inspects Chamberlain’s words of March 31, they do not bind Britain to fight for Danzig or the Corridor. It is not a commitment to defend the territorial integrity of Poland. It is only a commitment to repel an attack “which clearly threatened Polish independence.”
What was Chamberlain up to? Graham Stewart explains:
The Polish guarantee was not intended to make war with Germany inevitable…. On the contrary, the commitment was intended to give Britain leverage in forcing Poland to come to terms with Hitler’s demands over the Danzig and Corridor questions. In this way, Hitler could be satisfied without Poland being subjected either to a full-scale invasion (forcing a Europe-wide war) or succumbing to a treaty that reduced her to vassal status.111
In a letter to his sister, April 3, Chamberlain concedes as much. The guarantee of March 31, he wrote, was “unprovocative in tone, but firm, clear but stressing that the important point (perceived alone by the Times) that what we are concerned with is not the boundary of States, but attacks on their independence. And it is we who will judge whether this independence is threatened or not.”112
What had the Times written for which the prime minister had given its editor such high marks for his perceptiveness and insight?
On April 3, an alarmed Churchill rose in the House to point to a “sinister passage in the Times’s leading article on Saturday [April 1], similar to that which foreshadowed the ruin of Czechoslovakia.”113 Saturday was the day following Chamberlain’s declaration. In that editorial by Times editor Geoffrey Dawson, the limited nature of the war guarantee is discerned and defined. Here is Manchester:
Dawson had written: “The new obligation which this country yesterday assumed does not bind Great Britain to defend every inch of the present frontiers of Poland. The key word in the statement is not ‘integrity’ but ‘independence.’” The prime minister’s statement, the editorial continued “involves no blind acceptance of the status quo…. This country…has never been an advocate of the encirclement of Germany, and is not now opposed to the extension of Germany’s economic pressure and influence, nor to the constructive work she may yet do for Europe.”114
Dawson had either been privately informed or had ferreted out the truth. Appeasement was not dead! Chamberlain had not declared that Britain would fight to keep Danzig from Germany, only that Britain would fight for Poland’s “independence.” Chamberlain was signaling Hitler that the return of Danzig was not opposed by Britain and she would go to war only if he tried to destroy Poland as an independent nation. The British war guarantee had not been crafted to give Britain a pretext for war, but to give Chamberlain leverage to persuade the Poles to give Danzig back.
Chamberlain seems to be signaling his willingness for a second Munich, where Poland would cede Danzig and provide a road-and-rail route across the Corridor, but in return for Hitler’s guarantee of Poland’s independence—so there would be no repeat of the Czech debacle.
Unfortunately, the diplomatic subtlety was lost on Hitler. To him, and to the world, it appeared that a now-defiant prime minister had drawn a line in the sand and warned Hitler not to cross it. To Hitler this was a virtual ultimatum: If you try to take back Danzig, you will be at war with Britain.
Donald Watt describes how Hitler received the news:
Then on March 31 came the news of the British guarantee to Poland, clearly involving British support for the Polish position over Danzig. As the news reached Hitler, he was sitting in front of the great marble table in the new Reichs Chancellery. With clenched fists he hammered on its marble top, enraged…. “I will brew them a devil’s drink,” heshouted.115
The Poles, too, read Chamberlain’s declaration as a solemn British commitment to stand by them in their resolve never to return Danzig. From that day forward, the Poles refused even to discuss Danzig with Germany.
ALTERNATIVES TO THE WAR GUARANTEE
WHAT ELSE COULD Great Britain have done? So it is asked.
Her prime minister had been humiliated and the Munich accord treated as a scrap of paper. Hitler had imposed Nazi rule on a non-Germanic people. He had smashed the only democracy in Central Europe and was on the road to conquest. He had to be stopped, and Britain and France, as the greatest democracies in Europe, had a moral duty to stop him.
So runs the argument for the war guarantee to Poland.
Hitler’s ambitions will be dealt with in a subsequent chapter. Let us deal here with the question: What else could Chamberlain have done after Hitler seized Prague? What was the alternative to giving a war guarantee to Poland?
Quite simply, it was not to give a war guarantee to a nation wedged between Nazi Germany and Bolshevik Russia. By 1939, Britain and France no longer had the power to save any nation of Eastern Europe, if ever they did, and they did not save any. As W. H. Chamberlin argued half a century ago:
[T]here 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 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.116
Hanson Baldwin, military writer for the New York Times, seconded Chamberlin:
There is no doubt whatsoever that it would have been to the interest of Britain, the United States, and the world to have allowed—and, indeed, to have encouraged—the world’s two great dictatorships to fight each other to a frazzle. Such a struggle, with its resultant weakening of both Communism and Nazism, could not but have aided in the establishment of a more stable peace. It would have placed the democracies in supreme power in the world, instead of elevating one totalitarianism at the expense of the other and of the democracies.117
In 1995 in Missed Chances, Sir Roy Denman, who considered the war guarantee an “even greater folly” than Munich, echoed the late American historian:
If Chamberlain had not committed the two monumental blunders of his personal involvement and then humiliation in the Czechoslovak affair and then the guarantee to Poland—if he had backed isolation on these issues but accompanied it with a firm emphasis on rearmament and drawn a realistic line in the sand, Britain, the sea routes, the Empire, France and the Channel ports, then he would have faced a rising tide of doubt and discontent in the press and more eloquent speeches by Churchill, but would have had no serious difficulty in carrying with him a massive House of Commons majority in favour of staying out of a German-Polish war. Churchill would never have become Prime Minister. Germany, after Poland, would have turned on Russia.118
BY MARCH 1939, France, having failed to keep the Wehrmacht out of the Rhineland, had lost her military superiority over Germany and adopted a Maginot Line strategy. Paris would have welcomed Britain’s recognition that an Eastern Europe of new nations that had been ruled by czars, kings, or emperors before 1918 could not be defended, and the two Allies should draw Denman’s “realistic line in the sand” before France and the Channel ports.
What else could Chamberlain have done after Hitler’s Prague coup? Tell Britons the truth: Hitler was not to be trusted and he was on the march. Chamberlain could have imposed conscription, stepped up the production of aircraft, begun buying munitions from the United States, and waited. Rather than commit Britain to a war she could not win, he could have done what Truman did when another ruthless totalitarian seized an indefensible Prague. Adopt a policy of containment.
When I wrote in A Republic, Not an Empire that this was the proper course, and sent the book to a man I admired, I received a letter in return. I have “read extensively” into your book, wrote George F. Kennan. You and I, he continued, “have a large number of views in common, and some of them, particularly those on the history of American foreign policy, ones on which not many others would share with us.”119 Kennan went on:
[Y]ou make a strong case, in my view, for the thesis that the British guaranty to Poland…was neither necessary nor wise. The British government could not improve anything by offering to the Poles a support they were quite unable to give. They would have done better to shut up, to rearm as speedily as possible, and to avoid further formal commitments of any sort, while waiting the further turn of events.120
So wrote George Kennan, sixty years after Chamberlain issued the war guarantee that changed the history of Britain, its empire, and the world. But instead of a tough-minded appraisal of British vital interests, and what was needed to defend them, Chamberlain, with Churchill egging him on, now began to hand out British war guarantees across the continent of Europe.