WAR WINS NOTHING, cures nothing, ends nothing…. [I]n war there are no winners, but all are losers.1
—NEVILLE CHAMBERLAIN, 1939
My only fear is that some bastard will propose a peace conference.2
—ADOLF HITLER, 1939
REALITY SOON INTRUDED on Britain after the war guarantee had been gratuitously given to Colonel Beck. If the Allies were to have any hope of saving Poland, the Red Army was indispensable. So began the six-month courtship of the men Churchill in 1919 had called the “foul baboonery of Bolshevism…a pestilence more destructive of life than the Black Death or the Spotted Typhus.”3 No sooner had the courtship begun, however, than Chamberlain came face-to-face again with the old arguments against any alliance with Stalin’s Russia—to save Poland.
First, Britain had no vital interest either in Danzig or the Corridor, and Germany had as strong a claim to Danzig and the Corridor as France had had to Alsace and Lorraine. As Lloyd George had written years before,
The British people…would not be ready to be involved in quarrels which might arise regarding Poland or Danzig…. The British people felt that the populations of that quarter of Europe were unstable and excitable; they might start fighting at any time and the rights and wrongs of the dispute might be very hard to disentangle.4
On April 13, 1933, two months after Hitler assumed power, Churchill himself had declared in Parliament:
Many people would like to see, or would have liked to see, a little while ago—I was one of them—the question of the Polish Corridor adjusted. For my part, I should certainly have considered that to be one of the greatest practical objectives of European peace-keeping diplomacy.5
A second argument against a Russian alliance was that Chamberlain believed he had read Stalin right:
I must confess to the most profound distrust of Russia…. I distrust her motives, which seem to me to have little connection with our ideas of liberty, and to be concerned only with getting everyone else by the ears. Moreover, she is both hated and suspected by many of the smaller states, most notably Poland, Rumania and Finland.6
Third, the nations wedged between Russia and Germany feared a Red Army rescue more than a German invasion. They had heard the screams of Stalin’s victims.7
Fourth, as a condition of alliance, Moscow was demanding the right to impose protectorates over Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia and to march into Poland and Rumania to meet the German army. No European nation would agree to this.
Fifth, if Moscow were to commit to war if Hitler attacked Poland, Stalin wanted full reciprocity: a British commitment to go to war if Hitler attacked the Soviet Union.
The British were now in the box Chamberlain had sought to avoid. Men of honor, they could not let Stalin, whose record of mass murder far exceeded Hitler’s as of 1939, march into the Baltic countries. That would surrender millions of innocent people to a terrorist regime, a crime far worse than Munich. At least the Sudetendeutsch had wanted to join the Reich. The Baltic peoples feared and hated Stalin. Events would show they were justified in their fears. William Henry Chamberlin describes the strategic and moral dilemma Chamberlain now confronted:
Whether the Soviet Union would have entered the war even if its demands had been granted is doubtful. But it was politically and morally impossible to accede to these demands. For this would have amounted to conceding to Stalin that very right of aggression against weaker neighbors which was the ostensible cause of fighting Hitler. Such glaring inconsistencies may be tolerated in war, as the records of the Teheran and Yalta conferences testify. But the coercion of friendly powers to part with sovereignty and territory was impossible in time of peace.8
Nor could Britain commit to war to defend a Bolshevik state whose very reason for existence was the destruction of Christianity and Western civilization. Why should a single British soldier die to save a Stalinist regime whose departure from the earth all decent men would celebrate? Yet, in a supreme irony of the twentieth century, Britain’s greatest champion of an alliance with Stalin turned out to be that same Churchill who had championed the Allied intervention to strangle Bolshevism in its crib and who had been England’s most ferocious and eloquent anti-Communist. In a September 1936 column, “Enemies to the Left,” written after the show trials of the Bolshevik Old Guard, Churchill wrote, “What is the meaning and effect in this oppressive scene of the Moscow executions?”9
Churchill answered his own question. Stalin’s regime, he wrote, had taken on the same anti-Semitic and nationalistic features as Hitler’s.
Many people unable to be shocked at the expiation of these miscreants who have blithely sent uncounted thousands of good men to their doom, were nonetheless sickened at the elaborate farce of their trial. Its technique throws a gleam of intimate light upon the mysterious nature of a Communist state…. We see the gulf between the Communist mentality and the wider world.
The second point to notice is that these victims were nearly all Jews. Evidently the Nationalist elements represented by Stalin and the Soviet armies are developing the same prejudices against the Chosen People as are so painfully evident in Germany. Here again extremes meet, and meet on a common platform of hate and cruelty.10
What stance should Britain take toward the twin evils of Nazism and Bolshevism and the Stalin-Trotsky split? In “The Communist Schism,” published in October 1936, Churchill gave his answer:
We ought to arm night and day in conjunction with other friendly countries and make ourselves independent of all these monstrous and fathomless intrigues. The stronger we are, the more upright and free-spoken, the less danger will there be of the civilised and normal nations being drawn into the quarrels of cruel and wicked forces at either extreme of the political gamut.11
Wise counsel. Would that the Western democracies had taken it.
Yet five months before the Hitler-Stalin Pact exploded upon the world, Churchill was assuring his country that Stalin’s Russia was a mighty force for peace upon whom East Europeans could rely: “The loyal attitude of the Soviets to the cause of peace, and their obvious interest in resisting the Nazi advance to the Black Sea, impart a feeling of encouragement to all the Eastern States now menaced by the maniacal dreams of Berlin.”12
THE COURTSHIP OF STALIN
HITLER WON THE COMPETITION for Stalin’s hand for a reason: They were brothers under the skin, amoral political animals with blood on their hands who would unhesitatingly betray nations or crush peoples to advance state or ideological interests. In the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact, Hitler conceded that Stalin’s slice of Europe would include Finland, Estonia, Latvia, eastern Poland, Bessarabia, and, later, Lithuania and Northern Bukovina. Stalin would sell Hitler the food and raw materials needed to crush the democracies and repatriate to Hitler all anti-Nazi Germans in his new territories or any who sought refuge there. It was a transaction between two regimes entailing what Auden had called the “conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder.”13
Hobbled by scruples, Britain and France took months to negotiate with Molotov and Voroshilov. They got nowhere. Ribbentrop and Molotov negotiated the most famous (and infamous) pact in history in twenty-four hours. One hitch came up in the negotiations: Stalin demanded two Latvian port towns. Ribbentrop requested a recess. Gene Smith describes:
Ribbentrop agreed to everything, but when Stalin expressed an interest in the Latvian warm-weather ports of Libau and Windau, he said he would have to consult the Leader…. [Ribbentrop] put in a call to Hitler and told him of the Russian request that the Latvian ports be assigned to their sphere of interest. Hitler sent an orderly for an atlas, looked at the map of the Baltic coastline, noted that the ports were a stone’s throw from East Prussia, but told Ribbentrop to tell Stalin he was welcome to them.14
Hitler could be magnanimous in granting Stalin custody of what Stalin would one day have torn from him.
The news of the Hitler-Stalin pact of August 23, 1939, shook the world. Militarily, it was directed at Poland; strategically, at London. Hitler believed his pact, which put Russia at Germany’s side in a war on Poland, would jolt Britain awake to reality. Poland was surrounded. Poland was indefensible. Poland was lost. It made no sense for Britain to declare war to defend a doomed nation. Confident Britain would now back away from its war guarantee, Hitler assured his comrades, “Our enemies are little worms…. I saw them at Munich.”15
To Hitler’s astonishment, Chamberlain countered his pact with Stalin with a British Mutual Assistance Pact with Beck.
Thus, on August 25, 1939, hours before the scheduled August 26 attack, Hitler called off his invasion for a week. Not only had Britain affirmed its commitment to Poland, Mussolini had, the same day, weaseled out of his Pact of Steel pledge to go to war. Italy’s ambassador and Foreign Minister Ciano were imploring Il Duce not to let Italy be dragged into a war that threatened national ruin for Hitler, who had never consulted Mussolini on his pact with Stalin or on the steps he was taking to war. Chief of the German General Staff Halder wrote in his diary that Hitler was “considerably shaken” by the two events.16 “‘The Italians are behaving just like they did in 1914,’ fumed Hitler. He canceled the marching orders, and the invasion ground to a halt just before it reached the Polish border.”17
LAST WEEK OF PEACE
THUS BEGAN THE FINAL week’s countdown to the bloodiest war in all of history, with Chamberlain and Halifax searching, as the hours slipped away, for a way to accommodate Hitler’s demand for Danzig, as Hitler and Göring sought some way to avoid war with Britain. By August 30, the British were pressing the Poles to agree to Ribbentrop’s final offer: a Polish plenipotentiary sent to Berlin in twenty-four hours with full powers to negotiate the return of Danzig.
The Poles said, “No!”
Behind Polish defiance lay the lesson of Czechoslovakia. Six months after Prague surrendered the Sudetenland, the multiethnic country had come apart. Poland, too, was a multiethnic country, with Germans, Balts, Ukrainians, and Jews unhappy under Polish rule. If the Poles agreed to give back Danzig, would not the Germans in the Corridor and Silesia, and perhaps the Ukrainians, too, demand the right to secede? What would happen then? Even without their war guarantee, the Poles might have concluded: Better to go down fighting than suffer the fate of the Czechs. And so the Poles rejected the final German offer of August 30.
Was this final Hitler-Ribbentrop offer—to effect the return of Danzig to Germany but let Poland retain its economic rights in the city, and to hold a plebiscite in the Corridor to decide its future—a Nazi ploy to give Britain an escape hatch from its war guarantee? Of course. But was it also a serious offer?
Henderson believed that a Polish plenipotentiary in Berlin on August 30 could have stopped the invasion. Had Poland formally received the offer, Chamberlain would have insisted it be taken up in negotiations. Hitler would then have had his excuse for calling off the invasion. His generals, up to the hour they crossed the frontier, believed Hitler would find a way to retrieve Danzig and avoid war. But the Poles refused to send a negotiator. They had confidence in themselves as a warrior people and trusted in their British guarantee. “Colonel Beck missed the bus to Berlin and Poland paid in terms of a fourth partition.”18 As Marshal Foch predicted, the next war would break out over the Polish Corridor.19
For that war one man bears full moral responsibility: Hitler. A self-described “barbarian” who mocked Christian concepts of morality, he was content to take responsibility before history. Crushing Poland to restore land and peoples to the Reich and to realize Germany’s manifest destiny was no more immoral to him than riding down Dervishes at Omdurman was immoral to Churchill.
AN ALTERNATIVE TO WAR?
BUT THIS WAS NOT only Hitler’s war. It was Chamberlain’s war and Churchill’s war, and it is the conduct of the British statesmen that concerns us here. Was this the time, the place, and the cause for Britain to fight?
Kissinger contends that Britain was swept into war on a wave of righteous revulsion: “After Germany occupied Czechoslovakia, British public opinion would tolerate no further concessions; from then on, the outbreak of the Second World War was only a matter of time.”20
But no war is inevitable until it has begun. What made a European war “only a matter of time” was not Hitler’s occupation of Prague but Britain’s guarantee to Poland. Had there been no war guarantee, Poland, isolated and friendless, might have done a deal over Danzig and been spared six million dead. Had there been no war guarantee of March 31, there would have been no British declaration of war on September 3, and there might have been no German invasion of France in May 1940, or ever. For there was nothing inevitable about Hitler’s war in the west.
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.21
When deterrence failed and Britain was faced with an obligation to declare a war it could not win, to honor a war guarantee it should not have given, on behalf of a nation it could not save, what should Britain have done? Barnett addresses that question:
[T]he British guarantee to Poland had entirely failed of its deterrent purpose. Was it therefore still in England’s interest to fulfill it? Poland herself could not be saved…. [N]o general discussion even took place in the Cabinet as to whether it would be expedient to fulfill the British guarantee to Poland. There were no prolonged and anguished debates such as had taken place during the Czechoslovakian crisis.22
Barnett suggests that, given the costs of a European war and the impossibility of saving Poland, the Cabinet should have considered not declaring war, even after Hitler invaded Poland. That would have been seen as a betrayal of Poland and Chamberlain’s government may have fallen. But if Chamberlain believed, as he told U.S. Ambassador Joe Kennedy, that Poland’s cause was lost and war an act of suicidal revenge in which millions must die, ought he not to have resigned rather than lead his country into such a war?
In the last days of August, Britain seemed fatalistic, resigned to war. An anti-Hitler German diplomat, Ulrich von Hassel, wrote in his diary, “The government in London, whose ambassador did everything to keep the peace, gave up the race in the very last days and adopted a kind of devil-may-care attitude.”23
But Hitler and Ribbentrop were desperately seeking a way to avoid war with Britain. Here is Hitler’s interpreter describing the scene when the Leader was told Britain had sent an ultimatum and would declare war in two hours:
There was complete silence. Hitler sat immobile, gazing before him. He was not at a loss, as was afterwards stated, nor did he rage as others allege. He sat completely silent and unmoving. After an interval…he turned to Ribbentrop: “…What now?” asked Hitler with a savage look, as though implying that his Foreign Minister had misled him about England’s probable reaction. Ribbentrop answered quietly: “I assume that the French will hand in a similar ultimatum within the hour.”24
Interpreter Schmidt withdrew to the anteroom and informed the others of the British ultimatum: “Göring turned to me and said: ‘If we lose this war, then God have mercy on us.’ Goebbels stood in a corner, downcast and self-absorbed. Everywhere in the room I saw looks of grave concern.”25
Hitler and his high command believed war with Britain represented their own failure, which underscores the point Albert Speer made: “From [my] observations I deduced that this initiation of real war was not what Hitler had projected.”26
That Hitler wanted no war with Britain is evident from his final directive of August 31, in which he ordered the attack on Poland the following morning, September 1:
The responsibility for the opening of hostilities in the West should rest unequivocally with England and France…. The German land frontier in the West is not to be crossed at any point without my express consent. The same applies to warlike actions at sea or any which may be interpreted as such…. Defensive measures on the part of the Air Force should at first be exclusively confined to the warding-off of enemy air attacks on the frontier of the Reich.27
Writes Hillgruber, “[T]he European war that came on September 3 was as incomprehensible as it was contrary to his [Hitler’s] aims.”28
Germans reacted as their leaders did. Shirer was in the Wilhelmsplatz when news of Britain’s declaration of war blared out on the loudspeakers. “Some 250 people were standing there in the sun. They listened attentively to the announcement. When it was finished there was not a murmur. They just stood as they were before. Stunned.”29
By the second day of war, however, September 2, the Germans had broken through the Polish defenses. The Poles were publicly calling on their British allies to declare war and attack Germany from the west. But to the astonishment of many, no action came. For Neville Chamberlain yet hoped that Hitler might agree to a conference to avert a European war. On the evening of September 2, at 7:30 P.M., Chamberlain rose in the House and spoke hopefully of such a conference. He sat down—to a stunned silence. The House had expected an announcement that an ultimatum was being sent to Berlin. As Labour leader Arthur Greenwood rose to reply to the prime minister, Tory backbencher Leo Amery shouted across to Greenwood, “Speak for England!”
When he departed the Commons that night, Neville Chamberlain
was told that Tory backbenchers would rise in revolt if the government did not immediately carry out its threat to declare war. Twelve Cabinet members met in caucus in the chambers of Chancellor of the Exchequer Sir John Simon. They agreed to warn Chamberlain that his government could not survive another day of delay, regardless of what France did. Shortly before midnight, Chamberlain gathered his Cabinet and accepted a vote for war.30
On September 3, the day Britain declared war, Neville Chamberlain, “looking crumpled, despondent and old,” broadcast to his nation in words that echoed Sir Edward Grey, twenty-five years before: “Everything that I have worked for, everything that I have hoped for, everything that I have believed in during my public life has crashed into ruins.”31
“It seemed,” said Eden, “rather the lament of a man deploring his own failure than the call of a nation to arms.”32 Yet one U.S. historian writes: “This note of melancholy was distinctly appropriate to the occasion. British and French statesmanship had been outmaneuvered by Soviet. What could easily have been a German thrust against the Soviet Union had been deflected against the West.”33
The threat of a mutiny in conservative ranks that night of September 2 had forced Chamberlain, at 11:30 P.M., to assemble his Cabinet and direct Henderson to see Ribbentrop at 9 A.M.—to give Germany two hours to declare it was withdrawing from Poland or face war. His own House had forced on Chamberlain the war he never wanted. Seven weeks into that war, Chamberlain wrote his sister, “I was never meant to be a war leader.”34 He was right. As biographer Ian Macleod wrote, “He should have resigned on the outbreak of war.”35
As of September 1939, “Britain had only four or five divisions ready for action, which was minuscule compared to the French and German armies, which each numbered about 100 divisions.”36 Looking back on the British decision to declare a war it had neither the ability to wage nor an idea of how to win calls to mind Lord Kitchener’s remark in 1914: “No one can say my colleagues in the Cabinet are not courageous. They have no Army and they declared war against the mightiest military nation in the world.”37
WHEN GERMANY INVADED POLAND on September 1, six months after Warsaw received its war guarantee, not one British bomb or bullet had been sent to Poland. No British credit had been extended. Britain still lacked the power to come to Poland’s aid. And Britain had made no plans to come to Poland’s aid. The Poles, however, facing the first blitzkrieg, or lightning war, awaited the promised Allied offensive.
General Ironside had told the Poles that German bombing raids on Poland would be answered by British bombing raids on Germany.38 Within hours of the declaration of war, British bombers were in the air—dropping leaflets over Germany. Warsaw was bombed by the Luftwaffe while Bomber Command ineffectually struck at German naval targets in the North Sea.
General Gamelin had assured the Poles that within fifteen days of a German attack, forty divisions, the “bulk of the French Army,” would be hurled against the Reich.39 “[T]he French general staff concluded a military agreement with its Polish counterpart on May 19,” writes Hillgruber, “that called for a French offensive with approximately 40 divisions against the German western border on the fifteenth day of a European war.”40
No French offensive ever came. As the German armies rampaged across Poland, the French army entered a few German towns, withdrew, and burrowed into the Maginot Line. The Poles learned that they had been chips sacrificed in an attempt to bluff Hitler. The bluff had been called. There was nothing to back it up. Poland had been deceived. Poland had been abandoned. When an offensive did come in the west, it would be five years later and led by Americans who would halt at the Elbe. And the Poles, who had endured five years of Nazi occupation, would endure forty-five years of Soviet tyranny.
Chamberlain had known all along his guarantee was worthless. He had confided as much to Joe Kennedy, who wrote in his diary, “[Chamberlain] says the futility of it all is the thing that is frightful; after all they cannot save the Poles; they can merely carry on a war of revenge that will mean the destruction of the whole of Europe.”41
“The still-accepted idea that while the German armies were fighting in Poland, an Allied ground offensive across the so-called Siegfried Line would not only have been possible but decisive is groundless,” writes historian John Lukacs, “it was not possible because it was not planned, and it was not planned because it was not possible.”42
“The British stand in September 1939 was no doubt heroic,” writes Taylor, “but it was heroism mainly at the expense of others.”43
When Stalin attacked Poland on September 17, there was no British declaration of war on Russia. The war guarantee covered only a German attack. Indeed, Churchill saw a bright side to Stalin’s attack on Britain’s bleeding ally. “Hitler’s path to the east is closed,” he exclaimed.44
“If Beck was at fault as a diplomat,” writes Davies, “the fault lay not in his…suspicions of Hitler and Stalin, but in his naive belief in the sincerity of allied guarantees and assurances.”45
Whatever the sins of Colonel Beck, of the Poles it must be said: Unlike the British and French, they rejected both Hitler and Stalin. Unlike the Czechs and the Austrians, they went down fighting and behaved more honorably than did the nations upon whom they had so unwisely relied. Again, Davies:
The [Polish] colonels were not going to bow and scrape to an ex–Austrian corporal. Their instinct was to fight, and to go down fighting. Every single Polish official who had to deal with Nazi and Soviet threats in 1939 had been reared on the Marshal’s moral testament: “To be defeated but not to surrender, that is victory.”46
After dividing Poland with Stalin, Hitler turned west to deal with the nations that had declared war on him. On May 10, 1940, he launched his blitzkrieg through the Low Countries and into the Ardennes. In three weeks, the British army had been hurled off the continent. In six weeks, France had fallen. The Wehrmacht was at the Pyrenees.
THE BRITISH-FRENCH WAR GUARANTEE to Poland would result in defeat and disaster for all three nations. But there would be one great beneficiary.
Consider the hellish situation Stalin faced in March 1939. A pariah state with a reputation for mass murder and an archipelago of slave-labor camps, the USSR was isolated from the Western democracies, hated and feared by its neighbors, and threatened by Nazi Germany and by Japan in the Far East. Stalin knew a goal that motivated the man who wrote Mein Kampf and now ruled Germany was the extermination of Bolshevism.
He had watched Hitler annex Austria, carve the Sudetenland out of Czechoslovakia, turn Bohemia and Moravia into protectorates and Slovakia into an ally, retake Memel, and begin to move on Poland—without a shot being fired. Stalin knew: After Poland, his turn would come. That would mean a Nazi-Bolshevik war in which he must face Germanic power alone.
On March 31, 1939, came deliverance. Britain and France declared they would fight for Poland, the buffer state between Russia and Germany. British Tories had become the guarantors of Bolshevism. Moscow had been given free what Stalin would have paid a czar’s ransom for.
Within days, the Allies had given a war guarantee to Rumania. Now any German attack through Poland or Rumania, against Russia, would cause Britain and France to declare war on Germany before Hitler could reach him. And war between Nazi Germany and Britain and France would weaken all three and fertilize the ground for Communist revolution in all three nations. Stalin’s relief and joy can only be imagined.
British and French emissaries soon arrived to offer Stalin an alliance. Typhoid Mary was suddenly the most courted lady in Europe. But without any commitment of his own, Stalin already had the benefit of an alliance with Britain. The Polish war guarantee, wrote Henderson, “relieved Russia of all fear of German aggression against herself, and instead of being obliged any longer to consider her own safety, she could now afford to think only of her personal advantage.”47
All the British emissaries could offer Stalin was an alliance to fight Hitler. They could not offer him the Baltic states and half of Poland. Hitler could. All Stalin need do was join Hitler in a partition of Poland, as Russian czars and Prussian kings had done in centuries past.
At Ribbentrop’s request, and as a sign of his good faith, Stalin agreed to deport to the Reich four thousand Germans living in Russia. Between one thousand and twelve hundred of them were German Communists.
The world over, Communists professed to be sickened by the Hitler-Stalin pact. How could the world leader of international Communism crawl into bed with the Nazi monster? But Stalin would have been a fool not to take Hitler’s offer. His pact with Hitler allowed him to occupy and bolshevize six Christian nations and gave the Red Army two years to prepare for the coming war with Germany. Writes Hillgruber,
Stalin’s decision of August 1939…put the Soviet Union in the most favorable position it had enjoyed since its creation in 1917. In place of the conception of “capitalist encirclement” that had dominated its policy, there emerged an appreciation of its position as a great power, respected and indeed wooed by all of the participants in the war, its political weight waxing as the war continued and absorbed the energies of the combatant nations.48
Had Britain never given the war guarantee, the Soviet Union would almost surely have borne the brunt of the blow that fell on France. The Red Army, ravaged by Stalin’s purge of senior officers, might have collapsed. Bolshevism might have been crushed. Communism might have perished in 1940, instead of living on for fifty years and murdering tens of millions more in Russia, China, Korea, Vietnam, and Cuba. A Hitler-Stalin war might have been the only war in Europe in the 1940s. Tens of millions might never have died terrible deaths in the greatest war in all history.