Military history

GERMANY AND GREAT BRITAIN AT THE ELEVENTH HOUR

“Fuehrer considerably shaken,” General Halder had noted in his diary on August 25 after the news from Rome and London had induced Hitler to draw back from the precipice of war. But the next afternoon the General Staff Chief noticed an abrupt change in the Leader. “Fuehrer very calm and clear,” he jotted down in his diary at 3:22 P.M. There was a reason for this and the General’s journal gives it. “Get everything ready for morning of 7th Mobilization Day. Attack starts September 1.” The order was telephoned by Hitler to the Army High Command.

Hitler, then, would have his war with Poland. That was settled. In the meantime he would do everything he could to keep the British out. Halder’s diary notes convey the thinking of the Fuehrer and his entourage during the decisive day of August 26.

Rumor has it that England is disposed to consider comprehensive proposal.* Details when Henderson returns. According to another rumor England stresses that she herself must declare that Poland’s vital interests are threatened. In France more and more representations to the government against war …

Plan: We demand Danzig, corridor through Corridor, and plebiscite on the same basis as Saar. England will perhaps accept. Poland probably not. Wedge between them.35

The emphasis is Halder’s and there is no doubt that it accurately reflects up to a point what was in Hitler’s mind. He would contrive to drive a wedge between Poland and Britain and give Chamberlain an excuse to get out of his pledge to Warsaw. Having ordered the Army to be ready to march on September 1, he waited to hear from London about his grandiose offer to “guarantee” the British Empire.

He now had two contacts with the British government outside of the German Embassy in London, whose ambassador (Dirksen) was on leave, and which played no part in the frenzied eleventh-hour negotiations. One contact was official, through Ambassador Henderson, who had flown to London in a special German plane on the morning of Saturday, August 26, with the Fuehrer’s proposals. The other was unofficial, surreptitious and, as it turned out, quite amateurish, through Goering’s Swedish friend, the peripatetic Birger Dahlerus, who had flown to London from Berlinwith a message for the British government from the Luftwaffe chief on the previous day.

“At this time,” Goering related later during an interrogation at Nuremberg, “I was in touch with Halifax by a special courier outside the regular diplomatic channels.”*36 It was to the British Foreign Secretary in London that the Swedish “courier” made his way at 6:30 P.M. on Friday, August 25. Dahlerus had been summoned to Berlin from Stockholm the day before by Goering, who informed him that despite the Nazi–Soviet Pact, which had been signed the preceding night, Germany wanted an “understanding” with Great Britain. He put one of his own planes at the Swede’s disposal so that he could rush to London to apprise Lord Halifax of this remarkable fact.

The Foreign Secretary, who an hour before had signed the Anglo–Polish mutual-assistance pact, thanked Dahlerus for his efforts and informed him that Henderson had just conferred with Hitler in Berlin and was flying to London with the Fuehrer’s latest proposals and that since official channels of communication between Berlin and London had now been reopened he did not think the services of the Swedish intermediary would be needed any longer. But they soon proved to be. Telephoning Goering later that evening to report on his conference with Halifax, Dahlerus was informed by the Field Marshal that the situation had deteriorated as the result of the signing of the Anglo–Polish treaty and that probably only a conference between representatives of Britain and Germany could save the peace. As he later testified at Nuremberg, Goering, like Mussolini, had in mind another Munich.

Late the same night the indefatigable Swede informed the British Foreign Office of his talk with Goering, and the next morning he was invited to confer again with Halifax. This time he persuaded the British Foreign Secretary to write a letter to Goering, whom he described as the one German who might prevent war. Couched in general terms, the letter was brief and noncommittal. It merely reiterated Britain’s desire to reach a peaceful settlement and stressed the need “to have a few days” to achieve it.

Nevertheless it struck the fat Field Marshal as being of the “greatest importance.” Dahlerus had delivered it to him that evening (August 26), as he was traveling in his special train to his Luftwaffe headquarters at Oranienburg outside Berlin. The train was stopped at the next station, an automobile was commandeered and the two men raced to the Chancellery, where they arrived at midnight. The Chancellery was dark. Hitler had gone to bed. But Goering insisted on arousing him. Up to this moment Dahlerus, like so many others, believed that Hitler was not an unreasonable man and that he might accept a peaceful settlement, as he had the year before at Munich. The Swede was now to confront for the first time the weird fantasies and the terrible temper of the charismatic dictator.38 It was a shattering experience.

Hitler took no notice of the letter which Dahlerus had brought from Halifax and which had seemed important enough to Goering to have the Fuehrer waked up in the middle of the night. Instead, for twenty minutes he lectured the Swede on his early struggles, his great achievements and all his attempts to come to an understanding with the British. Next, when Dahlerus had got in a word about his having once lived in England as a worker, the Chancellor questioned him about the strange island and its strange people whom he had tried so vainly to understand. There followed a long and somewhat technical lecture on Germany’s military might. By this time, Dahlerus says, he thought his visit “would not prove useful.” In the end, however, the Swede seized an opportunity to tell his host something about the British as he had come to know them.

Hitler listened without interrupting me … but then suddenly got up, and, becoming very excited and nervous, walked up and down saying, as though to himself, that Germany was irresistible … Suddenly he stopped in the middle of the room and stood there staring. His voice was blurred, and his behavior that of a completely abnormal person. He spoke in staccato phrases: “If there should be war, then I shall build U-boats, build U-boats, U-boats, U-boats, U-boats.” His voice became more indistinct and finally one could not follow him at all. Then he pulled himself together, raised his voice as though addressing a large audience and shrieked: “I shall build airplanes, build airplanes, airplanes, airplanes, and I shall annihilate my enemies.” He seemed more like a phantom from a storybook than a real person. I stared at him in amazement and turned to see how Goering was reacting, but he did not turn a hair.

Finally the excited Chancellor strode up to his guest and said, “Herr Dahlerus, you who know England so well, can you give me any reason for my perpetual failure to come to an agreement with her?” Dahlerus confesses that he “hesitated at first” to answer but then replied that in his personal opinion the British “lack of confidence in him and in his Government was the reason.”

“Idiots!” Dahlerus says Hitler stormed back, flinging out his right arm and striking his breast with his left hand. “Have I ever told a lie in my life?”

The Nazi dictator thereupon calmed down, there was a discussion of Hitler’s proposals made through Henderson and it was finally settled that Dahlerus should fly back to London with a further offer to the British government. Goering objected to committing it to writing and the accommodating Swede was told he must, instead, commit it to memory. It contained six points:

1.     Germany wanted a pact or alliance with Britain.

2.     Britain was to help Germany obtain Danzig and the Corridor, but Poland was to have a free harbor in Danzig, to retain the Baltic port of Gdynia and a corridor to it.

3.     Germany would guarantee the new Polish frontiers.

4.     Germany was to have her colonies, or their equivalent, returned to her.

5.     Guarantees were to be given for the German minority in Poland.

6.     Germany was to pledge herself to defend the British Empire.

With these proposals imprinted in his memory, Dahlerus flew to London on the morning of Sunday, August 27, and shortly after noon was whisked by a roundabout route so as to avoid the snooping press reporters and ushered into the presence of Chamberlain, Lord Halifax, Sir Horace Wilson and Sir Alexander Cadogan. It was obvious that the British government now took the Swedish courier quite seriously.

He had brought with him some hastily scribbled notes jotted down in the plane describing his meeting with Hitler and Goering the night before. In these notes he assured the two leading members of the British cabinet who now scanned his memorandum that during the interview Hitler had been “calm and composed.” Although no record of this extraordinary Sabbath meeting has been found in the Foreign Office archives, it has been reconstructed in the volume of Foreign Office papers (Volume VII, Third Series) from data furnished by Lord Halifax and Cadogan and from the emissary’s memorandum. The British version differs somewhat from that given by Dahlerus in his book and at Nuremberg, but taking the various accounts together what follows seems as accurate a report as we shall ever get.

Chamberlain and Halifax saw at once that they were faced with two sets of proposals from Hitler, the one given to Henderson and the other now brought by Dahlerus, and that they differed. Whereas the first had proposed to guarantee the British Empire after Hitler had settled accounts with Poland, the second seemed to suggest that the Fuehrer was ready to negotiate through the British for the return of Danzig and the Corridor, after which he would “guarantee” Poland’s new boundaries. This was an old refrain to Chamberlain, after his disillusioning experiences with Hitler over Czechoslovakia, and he was skeptical of the Fuehrer’s offer as Dahlerus outlined it. He told the Swede that he saw “no prospect of a settlement on these terms; the Poles might concede Danzig, but they would fight rather than surrender the Corridor.”

Finally it was agreed that Dahlerus should return to Berlin immediately with an initial and unofficial reply to Hitler and report back to London on Hitler’s reception of it before the official response was drawn up and sent to Berlin with Henderson the next evening. As Halifax put it (according to the British version), “the issues might be somewhat confused as a result of these informal and secret communications through M. Dahlerus. It was [therefore] desirable to make it clear that when Dahlerus returned to Berlin that night he went, not to carry the answer of His Majesty’s Government, but rather to prepare the way for the main communication” which Henderson would bring.39

So important had this unknown Swedish businessman become as an intermediary in the negotiations between the governments of the two most powerful nations in Europe that, according to his own account, he told the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary at this critical juncture that “they should keep Henderson in London until Monday [the next day] so that the answer could be given after they had been informed how Hitler regarded the English standpoint.”40

And what was the English standpoint, as Dahlerus was to present it to Hitler? There is some confusion about it. According to Halifax’s own rough notes of his verbal instructions to Dahlerus, the British standpoint was merely this:

i. Solemn assurance of desire for good understanding between G. and Gt.B. [The initials are Halifax’s.] Not a single member of the Govt. who thinks different. ii. Gt.B. bound to honor her obligations to Poland. iii. German–Polish differences must be settled peacefully.41

According to Dahlerus, the unofficial British reply entrusted to him was more comprehensive.

Naturally, Point 6, the offer to defend the British Empire, was rejected. Similarly they did not want to have any discussion on colonies as long as Germany was mobilized. With regard to the Polish boundaries, they wanted them to be guaranteed by the five great powers. Concerning the Corridor, they proposed that negotiations with Poland be undertaken immediately. As to the first point [of Hitler’s proposals] England was willing in principle to come to an agreement with Germany.42

Dahlerus flew back to Berlin Sunday evening and saw Goering shortly before midnight. The Field Marshal did not consider the British reply “very favorable.” But after seeing Hitler at midnight, Goering rang up Dahlerus at his hotel at 1 A.M. and said that the Chancellor would “accept the English standpoint” provided the official version to be brought by Henderson Monday evening was in agreement with it.

Goering was pleased, and Dahlerus even more so. The Swede woke up Sir George Ogilvie Forbes, the counselor of the British Embassy, at 2 A.M. to give him the glad tidings. Not only to do that but—such had his position become, at least in his own mind—to advise the British government what to say in its official reply. That note, which Henderson would be bringing later on this Monday, August 28, must contain an undertaking, Dahlerus emphasized, that Britain would persuade Poland to negotiate with Germany directly and immediately.

Dahlerus has just telephoned [read a later dispatch from Forbes on August 28] from Goering’s office following suggestions which he considers most important.

1. British reply to Hitler should not contain any reference to Roosevelt plan.*

2. Hitler suspects Poles will try to avoid negotiations. Reply should therefore contain clear statement that the Poles have been strongly advised to immediately establish contact with Germany and negotiate.†43

Throughout the day the now confident Swede not only heaped advice on Forbes, who dutifully wired it to London, but himself telephoned the British Foreign Office with a message for Halifax containing further suggestions.

At this critical moment in world history the amateur Swedish diplomat had indeed become the pivotal point between Berlin and London. At 2 P.M. on August 28, Halifax, who had been apprised both from his Berlin embassy and from Dahlerus’ telephone call to the Foreign Office of the Swede’s urgent advice, wired the British ambassador in Warsaw, Sir Howard Kennard, to see Foreign Minister Beck “at once” and get him to authorize the British government to inform Hitler “that Poland is ready to enter at once into direct discussion with Germany.” The Foreign Secretary was in a hurry. He wanted to include the authorization in the official reply to Hitler which Henderson was waiting to carry back to Berlin this same day. He urged his ambassador in Warsaw to telephone Beck’s reply. Late in the afternoon Beck gave the requested authorization and it was hastily inserted in the British note.44

Henderson arrived back in Berlin with it on the evening of August 28, and after being received at the Chancellery by an S.S. guard of honor, which presented arms and rolled its drums (the formal diplomatic pretensions were preserved to the end), he was ushered into the presence of Hitler, to whom he handed a German translation of the note, at 10:30 P.M. The Chancellor read it at once.

The British government “entirely agreed” with him, the communication said, that there must “first” be a settlement of the differences between Germany and Poland. “Everything, however,” it added, “turns upon the nature of the settlement and the method by which it is to be reached.” On this matter, the note said, the Chancellor had been “silent.” Hitler’s offer to “guarantee” the British Empire was gently declined. The British government “could not, for any advantage offered to Great Britain, acquiesce in a settlement which put in jeopardy the independence of a State to whom they had given their guarantee.”

That guarantee would be honored, but because the British government was “scrupulous” concerning its obligations to Poland the Chancellor must not think it was not anxious for an equitable settlement.

It follows that the next step should be the initiation of direct discussions between the German and Polish Governments on a basis … of safeguarding Poland’s essential interests and the securing of the settlement by an international guarantee.

They [the British government] have already received a definite assurance from the Polish Government that they are prepared to enter into discussions on this basis, and H. M. Government hope the German Government would also be willing to agree to this course.

… A just settlement … between Germany and Poland may open the way to world peace. Failure to reach it would ruin the hopes of an understanding between Germany and Great Britain, would bring the two countries into conflict and might well plunge the whole world into war. Such an outcome would be a calamity without parallel in history.45

When Hitler had finished reading the communication, Henderson began to elaborate on it from notes, he told the Fuehrer, which he had made during his conversations with Chamberlain and Halifax. It was the only meeting with Hitler, he said later, in which he, the ambassador, did most of the talking. The gist of his remarks was that Britain wanted Germany’s friendship, it wanted peace, but it would fight if Hitler attacked Poland. The Fuehrer, who was by no means silent, replied by expatiating on the crimes of Poland and on his own “generous” offers for a peaceful settlement with her, which would not be repeated. In fact today “nothing less than the return of Danzig and the whole of the Corridor would satisfy him, together with a rectification in Silesia, where ninety per cent of the population voted for Germany at the postwar plebiscite.” This was not true nor was Hitler’s rejoinder a moment later that a million Germans had been driven out of the Corridor after 1918. There had been only 385,000 Germans there, according to the German census of 1910, but by this time, of course, the Nazi dictator expected everyone to swallow his lies. For the last time in his crumbling mission to Berlin, the British ambassador swallowed a good deal, for, as he declared in his Final Report, “Herr Hitler on this occasion was again friendly and reasonable and appeared to be not dissatisfied with the answer which I had brought to him.”

“In the end I asked him two straight questions,” Henderson wired London at 2:35 A.M. in a long dispatch describing the interview.46

Was he willing to negotiate direct with the Poles, and was he ready to discuss the question of an exchange of populations? He replied in the affirmative as regards the latter (though I have no doubt that he was thinking at the same time of a rectification of frontiers).

As to the first point, he would first have to give “careful consideration” to the whole British note. At this point, Henderson recounted in his dispatch, the Chancellor turned to Ribbentrop and said, “We must summon Goering to discuss it with him.” Hitler promised a written reply to the British communication on the next day, Tuesday, August 29.

“Conversation was conducted,” Henderson emphasized to Halifax, “in quite a friendly atmosphere in spite of absolute firmness on both sides.” Probably Henderson, despite all of his personal experience with his host, did not quite appreciate why Hitler had made the atmosphere so friendly. The Fuehrer was still resolved to go to war that very weekend against Poland; he was still hopeful, despite all the British government and Henderson had said, of keeping Britain out of it.

Apparently, Hitler, encouraged by the obsequious and ignorant Ribbentrop, simply could not believe that the British meant what they said, though he said he did.

The next day Henderson added a postscript to his long dispatch.

Hitler insisted that he was not bluffing, and that people would make a big mistake if they believed that he was. I replied that I was fully aware of the fact and that we were not bluffing either. Herr Hitler stated that he fully realized that.47

He said so, but did he realize it? For in his reply on August 29 he deliberately tried to trick the British government in a way which he must have thought would enable him to eat his cake and have it too.

The British reply and Hitler’s first reaction to it generated a burst of optimism in Berlin, especially in Goering’s camp, where the inimitable Dahlerus now spent most of his time. At 1:30 in the morning of August 29 the Swede received a telephone call from one of the Field Marshal’sadjutants, who was calling from the Chancellery, where Hitler, Ribbentrop and Goering had pondered the British note after Henderson’s departure. The word to Dahlerus from his German friend was that the British reply “was highly satisfactory and that there was every hope that the threat of war was past.”

Dahlerus conveyed the good news by long-distance telephone to the British Foreign Office later that morning, informing Halifax that “Hitler and Goering considered that there was now a definite possibility of a peaceful settlement.” At 10:50 A.M. Dahlerus saw Goering, who greeted him effusively, pumped his hand warmly and exclaimed, “There will be peace! Peace is secured!” Fortified with such happy assurances, the Swedish courier made immediately for the British Embassy to let Henderson, whom he had not yet personally met, in on the glad tidings. According to the ambassador’s dispatch describing this encounter, Dahlerus reported that the Germans were highly optimistic. They “agreed” with the “main point” of the British reply. Hitler, Dahlerus said, was asking “only” for Danzig and the Corridor—not the whole Corridor but just a small one along the railroad tracks to Danzig. In fact, Dahlerus reported, the Fuehrer was prepared to be “most reasonable. He would go a long way to meet the Poles.”48

Sir Nevile Henderson, on whom some light was finally dawning, was not so sure. He told his visitor, according to the latter, that one could not believe a word that Hitler said and the same went for Dahlerus’ friend, Hermann Goering, who had lied to the ambassador “heaps of times.” Hitler, in the opinion of Henderson, was playing a dishonest and ruthless game.

But the Swede, now at the very center of affairs, could not be persuaded—his awakening was to come even after Henderson’s. Just to make sure that the ambassador’s inexplicable pessimism did not jeopardize his own efforts, he again telephoned the British Foreign Office at 7:10 P.M. to leave a message for Halifax that there would be “no difficulties in the German reply.” But, advised the Swede, the British government should tell the Poles “to behave properly.”49

Five minutes later, at 7:15 o’clock on the evening of August 29, Henderson arrived at the Chancellery to receive from the Fuehrer Germany’s actual reply. It soon became evident how hollow had been the optimism of Goering and his Swedish friend. The meeting, as the ambassador advised Halifax immediately afterward, “was of a stormy character and Herr Hitler was far less reasonable than yesterday.”

The formal, written German note itself reiterated the Reich’s desire for friendship with Great Britain but emphasized that “it could not be bought at the price of a renunciation of vital German interests.” After a long and familiar rehearsal of Polish misdeeds, provocations and “barbaric actions of maltreatment which cry to heaven,” the note presented Hitler’s demands officially and in writing for the first time: return of Danzig and the Corridor, and the safeguarding of Germans in Poland. To eliminate “present conditions,” it added, “there no longer remain days, still less weeks, but perhaps only hours.”

Germany, the communication continued, could no longer share the British view that a solution could be reached by direct negotiations with Poland. However, “solely” to please the British government and in the interests of Anglo–German friendship, Germany was ready “to accept the British proposal and enter into direct negotiations” with Poland. “In the event of a territorial rearrangement in Poland,” the German government could not give guarantees without the agreement of the Soviet Union. (The British government, of course, did not know of the secret protocol of theNazi–Soviet Pact dividing up Poland.) “For the rest, in making these proposals,” the note declared, “the German Government never had any intention of touching Poland’s vital interests or questioning the existence of an independent Polish State.”

And then, at the very end, came the trap.

The German Government accordingly agree to accept the British Government’s offer of their good offices in securing the dispatch to Berlin of a Polish emissary with full powers. They count on the arrival of this emissary on Wednesday, August 30, 1939.

The German Government will immediately draw up proposals for a solution acceptable to themselves and will, if possible, place these at the disposal of the British Government before the arrival of the Polish negotiator.50

Henderson read through the note while Hitler and Ribbentrop watched him and said nothing until he came to the passage saying that the Germans expected the arrival of a Polish emissary with full powers on the following day.

“That sounds like an ultimatum,” he commented, but Hitler and Ribbentrop strenuously denied it. They merely wished to stress, they said, “the urgency of the moment when two fully mobilized armies were standing face to face.”

The ambassador, no doubt mindful of the reception accorded by Hitler to Schuschnigg and Hácha, says he asked whether if a Polish plenipotentiary did come he would be “well received” and the discussions “conducted on a footing of complete equality.”

“Of course,” Hitler answered.

There followed an acrimonious discussion provoked at one point by Hitler’s “gratuitous” remark, as Henderson put it, that the ambassador did not “care a row of pins” how many Germans were being slaughtered in Poland. To this Henderson says he made a “heated retort.”*

“I left the Reich Chancellery that evening filled with the gloomiest forebodings,” Henderson recounted later in his memoirs, though he does not seem to have mentioned this in his dispatches which he got off to London that night. “My soldiers,” Hitler had told him, “are asking me, ‘Yes or no?’” They had already lost a week and they could not afford to lose another “lest the rainy season in Poland be added to their enemies.”

Nevertheless it is evident from the ambassador’s official reports and from his book that he did not quite comprehend the nature of Hitler’s trap until the next day, when another trap was sprung and the Fuehrer’s trickery became clear. The dictator’s game seems quite obvious from the text of his formal note. He demanded on the evening of August 29 that an emissary with full powers to negotiate show up in Berlin the next day. There can be no doubt that he had in mind inflicting on him the treatment he had accorded the Austrian Chancellor and the Czechoslovak President under what he thought were similar circumstances. If the Poles, as he was quite sure, did not rush the emissary to Berlin, or even if they did and the negotiator declined to accept Hitler’s terms, then Poland could be blamed for refusing a “peaceful settlement” and Britain and France might be induced not to come to its aid when attacked. Primitive, but simple and clear. *

But on the night of August 29 Henderson did not see it so clearly. While he was still working on his dispatches to London describing his meeting with Hitler he invited the Polish ambassador to come over to the embassy. He filled him in on the German note and his talk with Hitler and, by his own account, “impressed on him the need for immediate action. I implored him, in Poland’s own interests, to urge his Government to nominate without any delay someone to represent them in the proposed negotiations.”52

In the London Foreign Office, heads were cooler. At 2 A.M. on August 29, Halifax, after pondering the German reply and Henderson’s account of the meeting with Hitler, wired the ambassador that while careful consideration would be given the German note, it was “of course unreasonable to expect that we can produce a Polish representative in Berlin today, and German Government must not expect this.”53 The diplomats and Foreign Office officials were now laboring frantically around the clock and Henderson conveyed this message to the Wilhelmstrasse at 4:30 A.M.

He conveyed four further messages from London during the day, August 30. One was a personal note from Chamberlain to Hitler advising him that the German reply was being considered “with all urgency” and that it would be answered later in the afternoon. In the meantime the Prime Minister urged the German government, as he said he had the Polish government, to avoid frontier incidents. For the rest, he “welcomed the evidence in the exchanges of views which are taking place of the desire for an Anglo–German understanding.”54 The second message was in similar terms from Halifax. A third from the Foreign Secretary spoke of reports of German sabotage in Poland and asked the Germans to refrain from such activities. The fourth message from Halifax, dispatched at 6:50 P.M., reflected a stiffening of both the Foreign Office and the British ambassador in Berlin.

On further reflection, Henderson had got off a wire to London earlier in the day:

While I still recommend that the Polish Government should swallow this eleventh-hour effort to establish direct contact with Hitler, even if it be only to convince the world that they were prepared to make their own sacrifice for preservation of peace, one can only conclude from the German reply that Hitler is determined to achieve his ends by so-called peaceful fair means if he can, but by force if he cannot.55

By this time even Henderson had no more stomach for another Munich. The Poles had never considered one—for themselves. At 10 A.M. that morning of August 30, the British ambassador in Warsaw had wired Halifax that he felt sure “that it would be impossible to induce the Polish Government to send M. Beck or any other representative immediately to Berlin to discuss a settlement on the basis proposed by Hitler. They would sooner fight and perish rather than submit to such humiliation, especially after the examples of Czechoslovakia, Lithuania and Austria.” He suggested that if negotiations were to be “between equals” they must take place in some neutral country.56

His own stiffening attitude thus reinforced from his ambassadors in Berlin and Warsaw, Halifax wired Henderson that the British government could not “advise” the Poles to comply with Hitler’s demand that an emissary with full powers come to Berlin. It was, said the Foreign Secretary, “wholly unreasonable.”

Could you not suggest [Halifax added] to German Government that they adopt the normal procedure, when their proposals are ready, of inviting the Polish Ambassador to call and handing proposals to him for transmission to Warsaw and inviting suggestions as to conduct of negotiations.57

The promised British reply to Hitler’s latest note was delivered to Ribbentrop by Henderson at midnight on August 30–31. There now ensued a highly dramatic meeting which Dr. Schmidt, the only observer present, later described as “the stormiest I have ever experienced during my twenty-three years as interpreter.”58

“I must tell you,” the ambassador wired Halifax immediately afterward, “that Ribbentrop’s whole demeanor during an unpleasant interview was aping Hitler at his worst.” And in his Final Report three weeks later Henderson recalled the German Foreign Minister’s “intense hostility, which increased in violence as I made each communication in turn. He kept leaping from his chair in a state of great excitement and asking if I had anything more to say. I kept replying that I had.” According to Schmidt, Henderson was also aroused from his chair. At one point, says this sole eyewitness, both men leaped from their seats and glared at each other so angrily that the German interpreter thought they were coming to blows.

But what is important for history is not the grotesqueness of this meeting between the German Minister for Foreign Affairs and His Majesty’s Ambassador in Berlin at midnight of August 30–31, but a development, during the tempestuous interview, which produced Hitler’s final act of trickery and completed, when it was too late, the education of Sir Nevile Henderson insofar as the Third Reich was concerned.

Ribbentrop scarcely glanced at the British reply or listened to Henderson’s attempted explanation of it.* When Henderson ventured to ask for the German proposals for a Polish settlement, which had been promised the British in Hitler’s last note, Ribbentrop retorted contemptuously that it was now too late since the Polish emissary had not arrived by midnight. However, the Germans had drawn up proposals and Ribbentrop now proceeded to read them.

He read them in German “at top speed, or rather gabbled to me as fast as he could, in a tone of utmost annoyance,” Henderson reported.

Of the sixteen articles I was able to gather the gist of six or seven, but it would have been quite impossible to guarantee even the exact accuracy of these without a careful study of the text itself. When he had finished I accordingly asked him to let me see it. Ribbentrop refused categorically, threw the document with a contemptuous gesture on the table and said that it was now out of date since no Polish emissary had arrived by midnight.

It may have been out of date, since the Germans chose to make it so, but what is important is that these German “proposals” were never meant to be taken seriously or indeed to be taken at all. In fact they were a hoax. They were a sham to fool the German people and, if possible, world opinion into believing that Hitler had attempted at the last minute to reach a reasonable settlement of his claims against Poland. The Fuehrer admitted as much. Dr. Schmidt later heard him say, “I needed an alibi, especially with the German people, to show them that I had done everything to maintain peace. This explains my generous offer about the settlement of the Danzig and Corridor questions.”*

Compared to his demands of recent days, they were generous, astonishingly so. In them Hitler demanded only that Danzig be returned to Germany. The future of the Corridor would be decided by a plebiscite, and then only after a period of twelve months when tempers had calmed down. Poland would keep the port of Gdynia. Whoever received the Corridor in the plebiscite would grant the other party extraterritorial highway and railroad routes through it—this was a reversion to his “offer” of the previous spring. There was to be an exchange of populations and full rights accorded to nationals of one country in the other.

One may speculate that had these proposals been offered seriously they would undoubtedly have formed at least the basis of negotiations between Germany and Poland and might well have spared the world its second great war in a generation. They were broadcast to the German people at 9P.M. on August 31, eight and one half hours after Hitler had issued the final orders for the attack on Poland, and, so far as I could judge in Berlin, they succeeded in their aim of fooling the German people. They certainly fooled this writer, who was deeply impressed by their reasonableness when he heard them over the radio, and who said so in his broadcast to America on that last night of the peace.

Henderson returned to His Majesty’s Embassy that night of August 30–31, convinced, as he later said, “that the last hope for peace had vanished.” Still, he kept trying. He roused the Polish ambassador out of bed at 2 A.M., invited him to hurry over to the embassy, gave him “an objective and studiously moderate account” of his conversation with Ribbentrop, mentioned the cession of Danzig and the plebiscite in the Corridor as the two main points in the German proposals, stated that so far as he could gather “they were not too unreasonable” and suggested that Lipski recommend to his government that they should propose at once a meeting between Field Marshals Smigly-Rydz and Goering. “I felt obliged to add,” says Henderson, “that 1 could not conceive of the success of any negotiations if they were conducted by Herr von Ribbentrop.”*62

   In the meantime the tireless Dahlerus had not been inactive. At 10 P.M. on August 29, Goering had summoned him to his home and informed him of the “unsatisfactory course” of the meeting just finished between Hitler, Ribbentrop and Henderson. The corpulent Field Marshal was in one of his hysterical moods and treated his Swedish friend to a violent outburst against the Poles and the British. Then he calmed down, assured his visitor that the Fuehrer was already at work drawing up a “magnanimous” (“grosszuegig”) offer to Poland in which the only clear-cut demand would be the return of Danzig and generously leaving the future of the Corridor to be decided by a plebiscite “under international control.” Dahlerus mildly inquired about the size of the plebiscite area, whereupon Goering tore a page out of an old atlas and with colored pencils shaded off the “Polish” and “German” parts, including in the latter not only prewar Prussian Poland but the industrial city of Lódź, which was sixty miles east of the 1914 frontier. The Swedish interloper could not help but notice the “rapidity and the recklessness” with which such important decisions were made in the Third Reich. However, he agreed to Goering’s request that he fly immediately back to London, emphasize to the British government that Hitler still wanted peace and hint that as proof of it the Fuehrer was already drawing up a most generous offer to Poland.

Dahlerus, who seems to have been incapable of fatigue, flew off to London at 4 A.M. August 30 and, changing cars several times on the drive in from Heston to the city to throw the newspaper reporters off the track (apparently no journalist even knew of his existence), arrived at Downing Street at 10:30 A.M., where he was immediately received by Chamberlain, Halifax, Wilson and Cadogan.

But by now the three British architects of Munich (Cadogan, a permanent Foreign Office official, had always been impervious to Nazi charms) could no longer be taken in by Hitler and Goering, nor were they much impressed by Dahlerus’ efforts. The well-meaning Swede found them “highly mistrustful” of both Nazi leaders and “inclined to assume that nothing would now prevent Hitler from declaring war on Poland.” Moreover, the British government, it was made plain to the Swedish mediator, had not fallen for Hitler’s trickery in demanding that a Polish plenipotentiary show up in Berlin within twenty-four hours.

But Dahlerus, like Henderson in Berlin, kept on trying. He telephoned Goering in Berlin, suggested that the Polish–German delegates meet “outside Germany” and received the summary answer that “Hitler was in Berlin” and the meeting would have to take place there.

So the Swedish go-between accomplished nothing by this flight. By midnight he was back in Berlin, where, it must be said, he had another opportunity to be at least helpful. He reached Goering’s headquarters at half past midnight to find the Luftwaffe chief once more in an expansive mood. The Fuehrer, said Goering, had just handed Henderson through Ribbentrop a “democratic, fair and workable offer” to Poland. Dahlerus, who seems to have been sobered by his meeting in Downing Street, called up Forbes at the British Embassy to check and learned that Ribbentrop had “gabbled” the terms so fast that Henderson had not been able to fully grasp them and that the ambassador had been refused a copy of the text. Dahlerus says he told Goering that this was no way “to treat the ambassador of an empire like Great Britain” and suggested that the Field Marshal, who had a copy of the sixteen points, permit him to telephone the text to the British Embassy. After some hesitation Goering acquiesced.*

In such a way, at the instigation of an unknown Swedish businessman in connivance with the chief of the Air Force, were Hitler and Ribbentrop circumvented and the British informed of the German “proposals” to Poland. Perhaps by this time the Field Marshal, who was by no means unintelligent or inexperienced in the handling of foreign affairs, saw more quickly than the Fuehrer and his fawning Foreign Minister certain advantages which might be gained by finally letting the British in on the secret.

To make doubly sure that Henderson got it correctly, Goering dispatched Dahlerus to the British Embassy at 10 A.M. of Thursday, August 31, with a typed copy of the sixteen points. Henderson was still trying to persuade the Polish ambassador to establish the “desired contact” with the Germans. At 8 A.M. he had once more urged this on Lipski, this time over the telephone, warning him that unless Poland acted by noon there would be war. Shortly after Dahlerus had arrived with the text of the German proposals, Henderson dispatched him, along with Forbes, to the Polish Embassy. Lipski, who had never heard of Dahlerus, was somewhat confused at meeting the Swede—he was by this time, like most of the key diplomats in Berlin, strained and dead tired—and became irritated when Dahlerus urged him to go immediately to Goering and accept the Fuehrer’s offer. Requesting the Swede to dictate the sixteen points to a secretary in an adjoining room, he expressed his annoyance to Forbes for bringing in a “stranger” at this late date on so serious a matter. The harassed Polish ambassador must have been depressed too at the pressure which Henderson was bringing on him and his government to negotiate immediately on the basis of an offer which he had just received quite unofficially and surreptitiously, but which the British envoy, as he had told Lipski the night before, thought was not “on the whole too unreasonable.”* He did not know that Henderson’s view was not endorsed by Downing Street. What he did know was that he had no intention of taking the advice of an unknown Swede, even though he had been sent to him by the British ambassador, and of going to Goering to accept Hitler’s “offer,” even if he had been empowered to do so, which he was not.

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