Military history

THE ELEVENTH HOUR

Hitler’s letter, telegraphed urgently to London, reached Chamberlain at 10:30 on the night of September 27. It came at the end of a busy day for the Prime Minister.

The disquieting news which Sir Horace Wilson, who arrived in London early in the afternoon, brought from his second conference with Hitler spurred Chamberlain and his inner cabinet to action. It was decided to mobilize the fleet, call up the Auxiliary Air Force and declare a state of emergency. Already trenches were being dug in the parks and squares for protection against bombing, and the evacuation of London’s school children had begun.

Also, the Prime Minister promptly sent off a message to President Beneš in Prague warning that his information from Berlin “makes it clear that the German Army will receive orders to cross the Czechoslovak frontier immediately if, by tomorrow [September 28] at 2 P.M. the Czechoslovak Government have not accepted the German conditions.” But having honorably warned the Czechs, Chamberlain could not refrain from admonishing them, in the last part of his message, “that Bohemia would be overrun by the German Army and nothing which another Power or Powers could do would be able to save your country and your people from such a fate. This remains true whatever the result of a world war might be.”

Thus Chamberlain was putting the responsibility for peace or war no longer on Hitler but on Beneš. And he was giving a military opinion which even the German generals, as we have seen, held as irresponsible. However, he did add, at the end of his message, that he would not assume the responsibility of telling the Czechs what they must now do. It was up to them.

But was it? Beneš had not had time to reply to the telegram when a second one arrived in which Chamberlain did endeavor to tell the Czech government what to do. He proposed that the Czechs accept a limited German military occupation on October 1—of Egerland and Asch, outside the Czech fortifications—and that a German–Czech–British boundary commission then quickly establish the rest of the areas to be turned over to the Germans.* And the Prime Minister added a further warning:

The only alternative to this plan would be an invasion and a dismemberment of the country by force, and Czechoslovakia, though a conflict might arise which would lead to incalculable loss of life, could not be reconstituted in her frontiers whatever the result of the conflict may be.64

The Czechs were thus warned by their friends (France associated herself with these latest proposals) that even if they and their allies defeated the Germans in a war, Czechoslovakia would have to give up the Sudetenland to Germany. The inference was plain: Why plunge Europe into a war, since the Sudetenland is lost to you anyway?

This business out of the way, the Prime Minister broadcast to the nation at 8:30 P.M.:

   How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches … here because of a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing! …

   Hitler had got the “substance of what he wanted.” Britain had offered to guarantee that the Czechs would accept it and carry it out.

I would not hesitate to pay even a third visit to Germany if I thought it would do any good …

However much we may sympathize with a small nation confronted by a big and powerful neighbor, we cannot in all circumstances undertake to involve the whole British Empire in a war simply on her account. If we have to fight it must be on larger issues than that …

I am myself a man of peace to the very depths of my soul. Armed conflict between nations is a nightmare to me; but, if I were convinced that any nation had made up its mind to dominate the world by fear of force, I should feel that it must be resisted. Under such a domination, life for people who believe in liberty would not be worth living; but war is a fearful thing, and we must be very clear, before we embark on it, that it is really the great issues that are at stake.

   Wheeler-Bennett has recorded that after listening to this broadcast most people in Britain went to bed that night believing that Britain and Germany would be at war within twenty-four hours.65 But the good people did not know what was happening at Downing Street still later that evening.

At 10:30 P.M. came Hitler’s letter. It was a straw which the Prime Minister eagerly grasped. To the Fuehrer he replied:

   After reading your letter, I feel certain that you can get all essentials without war, and without delay. I am ready to come to Berlin myself at once to discuss arrangements for transfer with you and representatives of the Czech Government, together with representatives of France and Italy, if you desire. I feel convinced we can reach agreement in a week. I cannot believe that you will take responsibility of starting a world war which may end civilization for the sake of a few days delay in settling this long-standing problem.66

   A telegram also went out to Mussolini asking him to urge the Fuehrer’s acceptance of this plan and to agree to being represented at the suggested meeting.

The idea of a conference had been in the back of the Prime Minister’s mind for some time. As far back as July, Sir Nevile Henderson had suggested it on his own in a dispatch to London. He had proposed that four powers, Germany, Italy, Britain and France, settle the Sudeten problem. But both the ambassador and the Prime Minister had been reminded by the British Foreign Office that it would be difficult to exclude other powers from participating in such a conference.67 The “other powers” were Russia, which had a pact of mutual assistance with Prague, and Czechoslovakia. Chamberlain had returned from Godesberg convinced—quite correctly—that Hitler would never consent to any meeting which included the Soviet Union. Nor did the Prime Minister himself desire the presence of the Russians. Though it was obvious to the smallest mind in Britain that in case of war with Germany, Soviet participation on the side of the West would be of immense value, as Churchill repeatedly tried to point out to the head of the British government, this was a view which seems to have escaped the Prime Minister. He had, as we have seen, turned down the Russian proposal for a conference after the Anschluss to discuss means of opposing further German aggression. Despite Moscow’s guarantee to Czechoslovakia and the fact that right up to this moment Litvinov was proclaiming that Russia would honor it, Chamberlain had no intention of allowing the Soviets to interfere with his resolve to keep the peace by giving Hitler the Sudetenland.

But until Wednesday, September 28, he had not yet gone so far in his thinking as to exclude the Czechs from a conference. Indeed, on the twenty-fifth, after Prague had rejected Hitler’s Godesberg demands, the Prime Minister had called in Jan Masaryk, the Czech ambassador in London, and proposed that Czechoslovakia should agree to negotiations at “an international conference in which Germany, Czechoslovakia and other powers could participate.” On the following day the Czech government had accepted the idea. And, as we have just seen, in his message to Hitler late on the night of the twenty-seventh Chamberlain had specified that “representatives of Czechoslovakia” should be included in his proposed conference of Germany, Italy, France and Great Britain.

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