Military history


Having got the Germans and Poles to agree to direct negotiations, as they thought, the British and French governments, though highly skeptical of Hitler, had concentrated their efforts on trying to bring such talks about. In this Britain took the lead, supported diplomatically in Berlin and especially in Warsaw by France. Although the British did not advise the Poles to accept Hitler’s ultimatum and fetch an emissary with full powers to Berlin on August 30, holding that such a demand was, as Halifax had wired Henderson, “wholly unreasonable,” they did urge Colonel Beck to declare that he was prepared to negotiate with Berlin “without delay.” This was the substance of a message which Halifax got off to his ambassador in Warsaw late on the night of August 30. Kennard was to inform Beck of the contents of the British note to Germany which Henderson was presenting to Ribbentrop, assure him that Britain would stand by its commitments to Poland, but stress the importance of Poland’s agreeing to direct discussions with Germany at once.

We regard it as most important [Halifax telegraphed] from the point of view of the internal situation in Germany and of world opinion that, so long as the German Government profess themselves ready to negotiate, no opportunity should be given them for placing the blame for a conflict on Poland.67

Kennard saw Beck at midnight and the Polish Foreign Minister promised to consult his government and give him a “considered reply” by midday on August 31. Kennard’s dispatch describing this interview reached the British Foreign Office at 8 A.M. and Halifax was not entirely satisfied with it. At noon—it was now the last day of August—he wired Kennard that he should “concert” with his French colleague in Warsaw (Léon Nöel, the French ambassador) and suggest to the Polish government

that they should now make known to the German Government, preferably direct, but if not, through us, that they have been made aware of our last reply to German Government and that they confirm their acceptance of the principle of direct discussions.

French Government fear that German Government might take advantage of silence on part of Polish Government.68

Lord Halifax was still uneasy about his Polish allies, and less than two hours later, at 1:45 P.M., he again wired Kennard:

Please at once inform Polish Government and advise them, in view of fact that they have accepted principle of direct discussions, immediately to instruct Polish Ambassador in Berlin to say to German Government that, if latter have any proposals, he is ready to transmit them to his Government so that they may at once consider them and make suggestions for early discussions.69

   But shortly before this telegram was dispatched, Beck, in response to the démarche of the midnight before, had already informed the British ambassador in a written note that the Polish government “confirm their readiness … for a direct exchange of views with the German Government” and had orally assured him that he was instructing Lipski to seek an interview with Ribbentrop to say that “Poland had accepted the British proposals.” When Kennard asked Beck what Lipski would do if Ribbentrop handed over the German proposals, the Foreign Minister replied that his ambassador in Berlin would not be authorized to accept them as, “in view of past experience, it might be accompanied by some sort of an ultimatum.” The important thing, said Beck, was to re-establish contact “and then details should be discussed as to where, with whom and on what basis negotiations should be commenced.” In the light of the “past experience” which the once pro-Nazi Polish Foreign Minister mentioned, this was not an unreasonable view. Beck added, Kennard wired London, that “if invited to go to Berlin he would of course not go, as he had no intention of being treated like President Hácha.”70

Actually Beck did not send to Lipski quite those instructions. Instead of saying that Poland “accepted” the British proposals, Lipski was told to tell the Germans that Poland “was favorably considering” the British suggestions and would make a formal reply “during the next few hours at the latest.”

There was more to Beck’s instructions to Lipski than that and the Germans, having solved the Polish ciphers, knew it.

For a simple and good reason that will soon become apparent, the Germans were not anxious to receive the Polish ambassador in Berlin. It was too late. At 1 P.M., a few minutes after he had received his telegraphic instructions from Warsaw, Lipski requested an interview with Ribbentrop for the purpose of presenting a communication from his government. After cooling his heels for a couple of hours he received a telephone call from Weizsaecker asking, on behalf of the German Foreign Minister, whether he was coming as an emissary with full power “or in some other capacity.”

“I replied,” Lipski reported later in his final report,71 “that I was asking for an interview as Ambassador, to present a declaration from my Government.”

Another long wait followed. At 5 P.M. Attolico called on Ribbentrop and communicated the “urgent desire of the Duce” that the Fuehrer should receive Lipski “to establish in this way at least the minimum contact necessary for the avoidance of a final breach.” The German Foreign Minister promised to “transmit” the Duce’s wishes to the Fuehrer.72

This was not the first call the Italian ambassador had made in the Wilhelmstrasse on this last day of August in order to try to save the peace. At 9 that morning Attolico had advised Rome that the situation was “desperate” and that unless “something new comes up there will be war in a few hours.” In Rome Mussolini and Ciano put their heads together to find something new. The first result was that Ciano telephoned Halifax to say that Mussolini could not intervene unless he were able to produce for Hitler a “fat prize: Danzig.” The British Foreign Secretary did not rise to the bait. He told Ciano the first thing to be done was to establish direct contact between the Germans and the Poles through Lipski.

Thus at 11:30 A.M. Attolico saw Weizsaecker at the German Foreign Office and apprised him that Mussolini was in contact with London and had suggested the return of Danzig as a first step toward a German–Polish settlement, and that the Duce needed a certain “margin of time” to perfect his plan for peace. In the meantime, couldn’t the German government receive Lipski?

Lipski was received by Ribbentrop at 6:15 P.M., more than five hours after he had requested the interview. It did not last long. The ambassador, despite his fatigue and his worn nerves, behaved with dignity. He read to the Nazi Foreign Minister a written communication.

Last night the Polish Government were informed by the British Government of an exchange of views with the Reich Government as to a possibility of direct negotiations between the Polish and German Governments.

The Polish Government are favorably considering the British Government’s suggestion, and will make them a formal reply on the subject during the next few hours.

“I added,” said Lipski later, “that I had been trying to present this declaration since 1 P.M.” When Ribbentrop asked him whether he had come as an emissary empowered to negotiate, the ambassador replied that, “for the time being,” he had only been instructed to remit the communication which he had just read, whereupon he handed it to the Foreign Minister. He had expected, Ribbentrop said, that Lipski would come as a “fully empowered delegate,” and when the ambassador again declared that he had no such role he was dismissed. Ribbentrop said he would inform the Fuehrer.73

“On my return to the embassy,” Lipski later related, “I found myself unable to communicate with Warsaw, as the Germans had cut my telephone.”

The questions of Weizsaecker and Ribbentrop as to the ambassador’s status as a negotiator were purely formal, with an eye, no doubt, for the record, for ever since noon, when Lipski’s communication had been received by telegram from Warsaw, the Germans had known that he was not coming, as they had demanded, as a plenipotentiary. They had decoded the telegram immediately. A copy had been sent to Goering, who showed it to Dahlerus and instructed him to take it posthaste to Henderson so that the British government, as the Field Marshal later explained on the stand at Nuremberg, “should find out as quickly as possible how intransigent the Polish attitude was.” Goering read to the tribunal the secret instructions to Lipski, which were that the ambassador should refrain from conducting official negotiations “under any circumstances” and should insist that he had “no plenipotentiary powers” and that he was merely empowered to deliver the official communication of his government. In his testimony, the Field Marshal made much of this during his vain effort to convince the Nuremberg judges that Poland had “sabotaged” Hitler’s last bid for peace and that, as he said, he, Goering, did not want war and had done everything he could to prevent it. But Goering’s veracity was only a shade above Ribbentrop’s and one example of this was his further assertion to the court that only after Lipski’s visit to the Wilhelmstrasse at 6:15P.M. on August 31 did Hitler decide “on invasion the next day.”

The truth was quite otherwise. In fact, all these scrambling eleventh-hour moves of the weary and exhausted diplomats, and of the overwrought men who directed them on the afternoon and evening of that last day of August 1939, were but a flailing of the air, completely futile, and, in the case of the Germans, entirely and purposely deceptive.

For at half after noon on August 31, before Lord Halifax had urged the Poles to be more accommodating and before Lipski had called on Ribbentrop and before the Germans had made publicly known their “generous” proposals to Poland and before Mussolini had tried to intervene, Adolf Hitler had taken his final decision and issued the decisive order that was to throw the planet into its bloodiest war.


Berlin, August 31, 1939

Directive No. 1 for the Conduct of the War

1. Now that all the political possibilities of disposing by peaceful means of a situation on the Eastern Frontier which is intolerable for Germany are exhausted, I have determined on a solution by force.*

2. The attack on Poland is to be carried out in accordance with the preparations made for Case White, with the alterations which result, where the Army is concerned, from the fact that it has in the meantime almost completed its dispositions.

Allotment of tasks and the operational target remain unchanged.

Date of attack: September 1, 1939.

Time of attack: 4:45 A.M. [Inserted in red pencil.]

This timing also applies to the operation at Gdynia, Bay of Danzig and the Dirschau Bridge.

3. In the West it is important that the responsibility for the opening of hostilities should rest squarely on England and France. For the time being insignificant frontier violations should be met by purely local action.

The neutrality of Holland, BelgiumLuxembourg and Switzerland, to which we have given assurances, must be scrupulously observed.

On land, the German Western Frontier is not to be crossed without my express permission.

At sea, the same applies for all warlike actions or actions which could be regarded as such.*

4. If Britain and France open hostilities against Germany, it is the task of the Wehrmacht formations operating in the West to conserve their forces as much as possible and thus maintain the conditions for a victorious conclusion of the operations against Poland. Within these limits enemy forces and their military-economic resources are to be damaged as much as possible. Orders to go over to the attack I reserve, in any case, to myself.

The Army will hold the West Wall and make preparations to prevent its being outflanked in the north through violation of Belgian or Dutch territory by the Western powers …

The Navy will carry on warfare against merchant shipping, directed mainly at England … The Air Force is, in the first place, to prevent the French and British Air Forces from attacking the German Army and the German Lebensraum.

In conducting the war against England, preparations are to be made for the use of the Luftwaffe in disrupting British supplies by sea, the armaments industry, and the transport of troops to France. A favorable opportunity is to be taken for an effective attack on massed British naval units, especially against battleships and aircraft carriers. Attacks against London are reserved for my decision.

Preparations are to be made for attacks against the British mainland, bearing in mind that partial success with insufficient forces is in all circumstances to be avoided.


Shortly after noon on August 31, then, Hitler formally and in writing directed the attack on Poland to begin at dawn the next day. As his first war directive indicates, he was still not quite sure what Britain and France would do. He would refrain from attacking them first. If they took hostile action, he was prepared to meet it. Perhaps, as Halder had indicated in his diary entry of August 28, the British would go through the motions of honoring their obligation to Poland and “wage a sham war.” If so, the Fuehrer would not take it “amiss.”

Probably the Nazi dictator made his fateful decision a little earlier than 12:30 P.M. on the last day of August. At 6:40 P.M. on the previous day Halder jotted in his diary a communication from Lieutenant Colonel Curt Siewert, adjutant of General von Brauchitsch: “Make all preparations so that attack can begin at 4:30 A.M. on September 1. Should negotiations in London require postponement, then September 2. In that case we shall be notified before 3 P.M. tomorrow…. Fuehrer: either September 1 or 2. All off after September 2.” Because of the autumn rains, the attack had to begin at once or be called off altogether.

Very early on the morning of August 31, while Hitler still claimed he was waiting for the Polish emissary, the German Army received its orders. At 6:30 A.M. Halder jotted down: “Word from the Reich Chancellery that jump-off order has been given for September 1.” At 11:30: “Gen. Stuelpnagel reports on fixing of time of attack for 0445 [4:45 A.M.]. Intervention of West said to be unavoidable; in spite of this Fuehrer has decided to attack.” An hour later the formal Directive No. 1 was issued.

There was, I remember, an eerie atmosphere that day in Berlin; everyone seemed to be going around in a daze. At 7:25 in the morning Weizsaecker had telephoned Ulrich von Hassell, one of the “conspirators,” and asked him to hurry over to see him. The State Secretary saw only one last hope: that Henderson should persuade Lipski and his government to send a Polish plenipotentiary at once or at least to announce the intention of dispatching one. Could the unemployed Hassell see his friend Henderson at once and also Goering to this end? Hassell tried. He saw Henderson twice and Goering once. But veteran diplomat and, now, anti-Nazi that he was, he did not seem to realize that events had outstripped such puny efforts. Nor did he grasp the extent of his own confusions and of those of Weizsaecker and all the “good” Germans who, of course, wanted peace—on German terms. For it must have been obvious to them on August 31 that there would be war unless either Hitler or the Poles backed down, and that there was not the slightest possibility of the one or the other capitulating. And yet, as Hassell’s diary entry for this day makes clear, he expected the Poles to back down and to follow the same disastrous route which the Austrians and Czechs had taken.

When Henderson tried to point out to Hassell that the “chief difficulty” was in German methods, in the way they were trying to order the Poles around “like stupid little boys,” Hassell retorted “that the persistent silence of the Poles was also objectionable.” He added that “everything depended on Lipski putting in an appearance—not to ask questions but to declare his willingness to negotiate.” Even to Hassell the Poles, who were threatened with imminent attack on trumped-up Nazi charges, were not supposed to ask questions. And when the former ambassador summed up his “final conclusions” about the outbreak of the war, though he blamed Hitler and Ribbentrop for “knowingly taking the risk of war with the Western Powers,” he also heaped much responsibility on the Poles and even on the British and French. “The Poles, for their part,” he wrote, “with Polish conceit and Slavic aimlessness, confident of English and French support, had missed every remaining chance of avoiding war.” One can only ask what chance they missed except to surrender to Hitler’s full demands. “The Government in London,” Hassell added, “… gave up the race in the very last days and adopted a kind of devil-may-care attitude. France went through the same stages, only with much more hesitation. Mussolini did all in his power to avoid war.”75 If an educated, cultivated and experienced diplomat such as Hassell could be so woolly in his thinking is it any wonder that it was easy for Hitler to take in the mass of the German people?

There now followed during the waning afternoon of the last day of peace a somewhat grotesque interlude. In view of what is now known about the decisions of the day it might have been thought that the Commander in Chief of the Luftwaffe, which was to carry out far-flung air operations against Poland beginning at dawn on the morrow, would be a very busy Field Marshal. On the contrary. Dahlerus took him out to lunch at the Hotel Esplanade and plied him with good food and drink. The cognac was of such high quality that Goering insisted on lugging away two bottles of it when he left. Having got the Field Marshal into the proper humor, Dahlerus proposed that he invite Henderson for a talk. After receiving Hitler’s permission, he did so, inviting him and Forbes to his house for tea at 5 P.M. Dahlerus (whose presence is not mentioned by Henderson in his Final Report or in his book) says that he suggested that Goering, on behalf of Germany, meet a Polish emissary in Holland and that Henderson promised to submit the proposal to London. The British ambassador’s version of the tea talk, given in his Final Report, was that Goering “talked for two hours of the iniquities of the Poles and about Herr Hitler’s and his own desire for friendship with England. It was a conversation which led to nowhere … My general impression was that it constituted a final but forlorn effort on his part to detach Britain from the Poles … I augured the worst from the fact that he was in a position at such a moment to give me so much of his time … He could scarcely have afforded at such a moment to spare time in conversation if it did not mean that everything down to the last detail was now ready for action.”

The third and most piquant description of this bizarre tea party was given by Forbes in answer to a questionnaire from Goering’s lawyer at Nuremberg.

The atmosphere was negative and desperate, though friendly … Goering’s statement to the British ambassador was: If the Poles should not give in, Germany would crush them like lice, and if Britain should decide to declare war, he would regret it greatly, but it would be most imprudent of Britain.76

Later in the evening Henderson, according to his own account, drafted a dispatch to London saying “that it would be quite useless for me to make any further suggestions since they would now only be outstripped by events and that the only course remaining to us was to show our inflexible determination to resist force by force.”*

Sir Nevile Henderson’s disillusionment seemed complete. Despite all his strenuous efforts over the years to appease the insatiable Nazi dictator, his mission to Germany, as he called it, had failed. In the fading hours of August’s last day this shallow, debonair Englishman whose personal diplomacy in Berlin had been so disastrously blind tried to face up to the shattering collapse of his vain hopes and abortive plans. And though he would suffer one more typical, incredible lapse the next day, the first day of war, an ancient truth was dawning on him: that there were times and circumstances when, as he at last said, force must be met by force.

   As darkness settled over Europe on the evening of August 31, 1939, and a million and a half German troops began moving forward to their final positions on the Polish border for the jump-off at dawn, all that remained for Hitler to do was to perpetrate some propaganda trickery to prepare the German people for the shock of aggressive war.

The people were in need of the treatment which Hitler, abetted by Goebbels and Himmler, had become so expert in applying. I had been about in the streets of Berlin, talking with the ordinary people, and that morning noted in my diary: “Everybody against the war. People talking openly. How can a country go into a major war with a population so dead against it?” Despite all my experience in the Third Reich I asked such a naïve question! Hitler knew the answer very well. Had he not the week before on his Bavarian mountaintop promised the generals that he would “give a propagandist reason for starting the war” and admonished them not to “mind whether it was plausible or not”? “The victor,” he had told them, “will not be asked afterward whether he told the truth or not. In starting and waging a war it is not right that matters, but victory.”

At 9 P.M., as we have seen, all German radio stations broadcast the Fuehrer’s Polish peace proposals which, as they were read over the air, seemed so reasonable to this misled correspondent. The fact that Hitler had never presented them to the Poles nor even, except in a vague and unofficial manner, to the British, and then less than twenty-four hours before, was brushed over. In fact, in a lengthy statement explaining to the German people how their government had exhausted every diplomatic means to preserve the peace the Chancellor, no doubt aided by Goebbels, showed that he had lost none of his touch for masterly deceit. After the British government on August 28, it said, had offered its mediation between Germany and Poland, the German government on the next day had replied that,

in spite of being skeptical of the desire of the Polish Government to come to an understanding, they declared themselves ready in the interests of peace to accept the British mediation or suggestion … They considered it necessary … if the danger of a catastrophe was to be avoided that action must be taken readily and without delay. They declared themselves ready to receive a personage appointed by the Polish Government up to the evening of August 30, with the proviso that the latter was empowered not only to discuss but to conduct and conclude negotiations.

Instead of a statement regarding the arrival of an authorized personage, the first answer the Government of the Reich received to their readiness for an understanding was the news of the Polish mobilization …

The Reich Government cannot be expected continually not only to emphasize their willingness to start negotiations, but actually to be ready to do so, while being from the Polish side merely put off with empty subterfuges and meaningless declarations.

It has once more been made clear as a result of a démarche which has meanwhile been made by the Polish Ambassador that the latter himself has no plenary powers either to enter into any discussion or even to negotiate.

The Fuehrer and the German Government have thus waited two days in vain for the arrival of a Polish negotiator.

In these circumstances the German Government regard their proposals as having this time too been … rejected, although they considered that these proposals, in the form in which they were made known to the British Government also, were more than loyal, fair and practicable.

Good propaganda, to be effective, as Hitler and Goebbels had learned from experience, needs more than words. It needs deeds, however much they may have to be fabricated. Having convinced the German people (and of this the writer can testify from personal observation) that the Poles had rejected the Fuehrer’s generous peace offer, there remained only the concocting of a deed which would “prove” that not Germany but Poland had attacked first.

For this last shady business, it will be remembered, the Germans, at Hitler’s direction, had made careful preparation.* For six days Alfred Naujocks, the intellectual S.S. ruffian, had been waiting at Gleiwitz on the Polish border to carry out a simulated Polish attack on the German radio station there. The plan had been revised. S.S. men outfitted in Polish Army uniforms were to do the shooting, and drugged concentration camp inmates were to be left dying as “casualties”—this last delectable part of the operation had, as we have seen, the expressive code name “Canned Goods.” There were to be several such faked “Polish attacks” but the principal one was to be on the radio station at Gleiwitz.

At noon on August 31 [Naujocks related in his Nuremberg affidavit] I received from Heydrich the code word for the attack which was to take place at 8 o’clock that evening. Heydrich said: “In order to carry out this attack report to Mueller for Canned Goods.” I did this and gave Mueller instructions to deliver the man near the radio station. I received this man and had him laid down at the entrance to the station. He was alive but completely unconscious. I tried to open his eyes. I could not recognize by his eyes that he was alive, only by his breathing. I did not see the gun wounds but a lot of blood was smeared across his face. He was in civilian clothes.

We seized the radio station, as ordered, broadcast a speech of three to four minutes over an emergency transmitter,* fired some pistol shots and left.†79

Berlin that evening was largely shut off from the outside world, except for outgoing press dispatches and broadcasts which reported the Fuehrer’s “offer” to Poland and the German allegations of Polish “attacks” on German territory. I tried to get through on the telephone to Warsaw, London and Paris but was told that communications with these capitals were cut. Berlin itself was quite normal in appearance. There had been no evacuation of women and children, as there had been in Paris and London, nor any sandbagging of storefront windows, as was reported from the other capitals. Toward 4 A.M. on September 1, after my last broadcast, I drove back from Broadcasting House to the Adlon Hotel. There was no traffic. The houses were dark. The people were asleep and perhaps—for all I knew—had gone to bed hoping for the best, for peace.

Hitler himself had been in fine fettle all day. At 6 P.M. on August 31 General Halder noted in his diary, “Fuehrer calm; has slept well … Decision against evacuation [in the west] shows that he expects France and England will not take action.”*

Admiral Canaris, chief of the Abwehr in OKW and one of the key anti-Nazi conspirators, was in a different mood. Though Hitler was carrying Germany into war, an action which the Canaris circle had supposedly sworn to prevent by getting rid of the dictator, there was no conspiracy in being now that the moment for it had arrived.

Later in the afternoon Gisevius had been summoned to OKW headquarters by Colonel Oster. This nerve center of Germany’s military might was humming with activity. Canaris drew Gisevius down a dimly lit corridor. In a voice choked with emotion he said:

“This means the end of Germany.”81

* “Hardly had the door shut on the Ambassador,” Weizsaecker, who was present, later noted, “than Hitler slapped himself on the thigh, laughed and said: ‘Chamberlain won’t survive that conversation; his Cabinet will fall this evening.’” (Weizsaecker, Memoirs, p. 203.)

* According to Erich Kordt (Wahn und Wirklichkeit, p. 192) Hitler was so excited by his triumph in Moscow that on the morning of August 25 he asked his press bureau for news of the cabinet crises in Paris and London. He thought both governments must fall. He was brought down to earth by being told of the firm speeches of Chamberlain and Halifax in Parliament the day before.

* Or if not out of war, out of any serious participation in it. General Halder intimates this in a recapitulation of the “sequence of events” of August 25 in a diary entry made later, on August 28. Noting that at 1:30 P.M. on the twenty-fifth Hitler saw Henderson, Halder added: “Fuehrer would not take it amiss if England were to wage a sham war.”

* Although Hitler’s standing orders, which had not been canceled, called for the attack on this day and hour and, as Halder said, were “automatic,” a number of German writers have reported that the Fuehrer gave specific orders a few minutes after 3 P.M. to launch Fall Weiss the following morning. (See Weizsaecker, Memoirs; Kordt, Wahn und Wirklichkeit; and Walther Hofer, War Premeditated, 1939.) Hofer says the order was given at 3:02 P.M. and cites as his source General von Vormann, who was present at the Chancellery when it was issued. No official record of this has been found in the German documents.

 There was a secret protocol to this treaty which stated that the “European Power” mentioned in Article 1, whose aggression would bring about mutual military assistance, was Germany. This saved the British government from the disastrous step of having to declare war on the Soviet Union when the Red Army, in cahoots with the Germans, invaded eastern Poland.

* Germany did not observe summer time, as did Great Britain. Therefore the one-hour difference in time between Berlin and London was canceled out.

* It must be kept in mind that the “Polish provocations” which Hitler and Ribbentrop harped on in their meetings and diplomatic exchanges with the British, French, Russians and Italians during these days, and the news of which was published under flaming headlines in the controlled Nazi press, were almost entirely invented by the Germans. Most of the provoking in Poland was done, on orders from Berlin, by the Germans. The captured German documents are replete with evidence on this.

 The day before, on August 24, Ciano had visited the King at his summer residence in Piedmont, and the aging ruler, who had been shunted to the sidelines by Mussolini, spoke contemptuously of the country’s armed services. “The Army is in a pitiful state,”. Ciano quotes him as saying. “Even the defense of our frontier is insufficient. He has made thirty-two inspections and is convinced that the French can go through it with great ease. The officers of the Italian Army are not qualified for the job, and our equipment is old and obsolete.” (Ciano Diaries, p. 127.)

* In the German translation of Mussolini’s letter found in the Foreign Office archives after the war, and which I have used here, the word “Germany” has been crossed out here and the word “Poland” typed above it, making it read: “If Poland attacks …” In the Italian original, published after the war by the Italian government, the passage reads “Se la Germania attacca la Polonia.” It is strange that the Nazis falsified even the secret documents deposited in their official government archives.14

 As if Mussolini’s letter were not bad enough medicine for Hitler, a number of German writers, mostly observers at first hand of the dramatic events of the last days of peace, have published an imaginary text of this letter of the Duce to the Fuehrer. Erich Kordt, one of the anti-Nazi conspirators, who was head of the secretariat at the Foreign Office, was the first to commit this faked version to print in his book, Wahn und Wirklichkeit, published in Stuttgart in 1947. Kordt dropped it in his second edition but other writers continued to copy it from the first edition. It shows up in Peter Kleist’s Zwischen Hitler und Stalin, published in 1950, and even in the English translation of Paul Schmidt’s memoirs published in New York and London in 1951. Yet the authentic text was published in Italy in 1946 and an English translation in the State Department’sNazi–Soviet Relations in 1948. Dr. Schmidt, who was with Hitler when he received the letter from Attolico, quotes the letter as saying, “In one of the most painful moments of my life, I have to inform you that Italy is not ready for war. According to what the responsible heads of the services tell me, the gasoline supplies of the Italian Air Force are so low that they would last only for three weeks of fighting. The position is the same with regard to supplies for the Army, and supplies of raw materials … Please understand my situation.” For an amusing note on the faking of this letter, see Namier, In the Nazi Era, p. 5.

* See above, pp. 517–18.

* This caused added resentment in Berlin and some confusion in Rome which Ciano had to straighten out. Attolico told Ciano later he had deliberately insisted on complete deliveries before hostilities “in order to discourage the Germans from meeting our requests.” To deliver thirteen million tons of supplies in a few days was, of course, utterly impossible, and Mussolini apologized to Ambassador von Mackensen for the “misunderstanding,” remarking that “even the Almighty Himself could not transport such quantities here in a few days. It had never occurred to him to make such an absurd request”28

* I.e., Hitler’s offer of August 25 to “guarantee” the British Empire.

* “Ribbentrop knew nothing whatsoever about Dahlerus being sent,” Goering testified on the stand at Nuremberg. “I never discussed the matter of Dahlerus with Ribbentrop. He did not know at all that Dahlerus went back and forth between me and the British government.”37 But Goering kept Hitler informed.

 The text is published in Documents on British Foreign Policy, Third Series, Vol. VII, p. 283. It was omitted from all published British records until the above volume came out in 1954, an omission much commented upon by British historians. Dahlerus is not mentioned in theBritish Blue Book of documents concerning the outbreak of the war nor in Henderson’s Final Report nor even in Henderson’s book Failure of a Mission, though in the book the Swedish intermediary is referred to as “a source in touch with Goering.” In Henderson’s dispatches and in those from other members of the British Embassy which have now been published, Dahlerus and his activities play a fairly prominent part, as they do in various memoranda of the British Foreign Office.

The role of this singular Swedish businessman in trying to save the peace was a well-kept secret and both the Wilhelmstrasse and Downing Street went to considerable lengths to keep his movements hidden from the correspondents and neutral diplomats, who, to the best of my knowledge, knew absolutely nothing of them until Dahlerus testified at Nuremberg on March 19, 1946. His book, The Last Attempt, was published in Swedish in 1945, at the end of the war, but the English edition did not come out until 1948 and there remained a further interval of six years before his role was officially confirmed, so to speak, by the documents in Vol. VII of the DBrFP series. The German Foreign Office documents for August do not mention Dahlerus, except in one routine memorandum reporting receipt of a message from the Lufthansa airline that “Dahlerus, a gentleman from the ‘Foreign Office,’” was arriving in Berlin August 26 on one of its planes. He does appear, however, in some later papers.

*Presumably President Roosevelt’s message to Hitler on August 24 and 25 urging direct negotiations between Germany and Poland.

 Dahlerus, it must be pointed out in all fairness, was not so pro-German as some of his messages seem to imply. On the night of this same Monday, after two hours with Goering at Luftwaffe headquarters at Oranienburg, he rang up Forbes to tell him, “German Army will be in final position of attack on Poland during night of Wednesday–Thursday, August 30–31.” Forbes got this intelligence off to London as quickly as possible.

* “I proceeded to outshout Hitler,” Henderson wired Halifax the next day. “… I added a good deal more shouting at the top of my voice.”51 This temperamental display was not mentioned in earlier British documents.

* General Halder put Hitler’s game succinctly in a diary entry of August 29: “Fuehrer hopes to drive wedge between British, French and Poles. Strategy: Raise a barrage of demographic and democratic demands … The Poles will come to Berlin on August 30. On August 31 the negotiations will blow up. On September 1, start to use force.”

* Though couched in conciliatory terms, the British note was firm. His Majesty’s Government, it said, “reciprocated” the German desire for improved relations, but “they could not sacrifice the interests of other friends in order to obtain that improvement.” They fully understood, it continued, that the German government could not “sacrifice Germany’s vital interests, but the Polish Government are in the same position.” The British government must make “an express reservation” regarding Hitler’s terms and, while urging direct negotiations between Berlin and Warsaw, considered that “it would be impracticable to establish contact so early as today.” (Text in British Blue Book, pp. 142–43.)

 Ribbentrop, who, it seemed to this writer, cut the sorriest figure of all the chief defendants at the Nuremberg trial—and made the weakest defense—claimed on the stand that Hitler, who, he said, “personally dictated” the sixteen points, had “expressly forbidden me to let these proposals out of my hands.” Why, he did not say and was not asked on cross-examination. “Hitler told me,” Ribbentrop conceded, “that I might communicate to the British Ambassador only the substance of them, if I thought it advisable. I did a little more than that: I read all the proposals from the beginning to the end.”59 Dr. Schmidt denies that Ribbentrop read the text of the proposals in German so fast that it would have been impossible for Henderson to grasp them. He says the Foreign Minister did not “particularly hurry over them.” Henderson, Schmidt says, was “not exactly a master of German” and he might have been more effective in these crucial talks had he used his native language. Ribbentrop’s English was excellent, but he refused to speak it during these parleys.60

* The text of the sixteen proposals was telegraphed to the German chargé d’affaires in London at 9:15 P.M. on August 30, four hours before Ribbentrop “gabbled” them to Henderson. But the German envoy in London was instructed that they were to “be kept strictly secret and not to be communicated to anyone else until further instructions.”61 Hitler in his note of the previous day, it will be remembered, had promised to place them at the disposal of the British government before the arrival of the Polish negotiator.

* In a dispatch to Halifax filed at 5:15 A.M. (August 31), Henderson reported that he had also advised Lipski “in the very strongest terms” to “ring up” Ribbentrop and ask for the German proposals so that he could communicate them to the Polish government. Lipski said he would first have to talk with Warsaw. “The Polish Ambassador,” Henderson added, “promised to telephone at once to his Government, but he is so inert or so handicapped by instructions of his Government that I cannot rely on his action being very effective.”63

*On the stand at Nuremberg Goering claimed that in turning over the text of Hitler’s “offer” to the British Embassy he was taking “an enormous risk, since the Fuehrer had forbidden this information being made public. Only I,” Goering told the tribunal, “could take that risk.”64

 Even the levelheaded French ambassador supported his British colleague in this. Henderson had telephoned him at 9 A.M. to say that if the Poles did not agree by noon to sending a plenipotentiary to Berlin the German Army would begin its attack. Coulondre went immediately to the Polish Embassy and urged Lipski to telephone his government, asking authorization to make immediate contact with the Germans “as a plenipotentiary.” (French Yellow Book, French edition, pp. 366–67.)

* By now, that is before noon of August 31, Henderson, striving desperately for peace at almost any price, had convinced himself that the German terms were quite reasonable and even moderate. And though Ribbentrop had told him the previous midnight that the German proposals were “out of date, since no Polish emissary had arrived,” and though the Polish government had not yet even seen them, and though they were, in sum, a hoax, Henderson kept urging Halifax all day to put pressure on the Poles to send a plenipotentiary, as Hitler had demanded, and kept stressing the reasonableness of the Fuehrer’s sixteen points.

At 12:30 P.M. (on August 31) Henderson wired Halifax “urging” him to “insist” to Poland that Lipski ask the German government for the German proposals for urgent communication to his government “with a view to dispatching a plenipotentiary. The terms sound moderate to me,” Henderson contended. “This is no Munich … Poland will never get such good terms again …”

At the same time Henderson wrote a long letter to Halifax: “… The German proposals do not endanger the independence of Poland … She is likely to get a worse deal later …”

Still keeping at it, Henderson wired Halifax at 12:30 A.M. on September 1, four hours before the German attack was scheduled to begin (though he did not know this): “German proposals … are not unreasonable … I submit that on German offer war would be completely unjustifiable.” He urged again that the British government pressure the Poles “in unmistakable language” to state “their intention to send a plenipotentiary to Berlin.”

The British ambassador in Warsaw took a different view. He wired to Halifax on August 31: “H. M. Ambassador at Berlin appears to consider German terms reasonable. I fear that I cannot agree with him from point of view of Warsaw.”65

 There was another somewhat weird diplomatic episode this last day of peace which deserves a footnote. Dahlerus returned from the visit with Lipski to the British Embassy, where from Henderson’s office he put through at midday a telephone call to Sir Horace Wilson at the British Foreign Office in London. He told Wilson that the German proposals were “extremely liberal” but that the Polish ambassador had just rejected them. “It is clear,” he said, “that the Poles are obstructing the possibilities of negotiations.”

At this moment Wilson heard certain noises on the long-distance line which sounded to him as though the Germans were listening in. He tried to end the conversation, but Dahlerus persisted in rambling on about the unreasonableness of the Poles. “I again told Dahlerus,” Sir Horace noted in a Foreign Office memorandum, “to shut up, but as he did not I put down the receiver.”

Wilson reported this indiscretion, committed in the very office of H. M. Ambassador in Berlin, to his superiors. At 1 P.M., less than an hour later, Halifax wired Henderson in code: “You really must be careful of use of telephone. D’s conversation [Dahlerus was always referred to in the messages between the Foreign Office and the Berlin Embassy as “D”] at midday from Embassy was most indiscreet and has certainly been heard by the Germans.”66

* The emphasis is in the original German text.

* A marginal note in the directive clears up this ambiguous point—“Thus, Atlantic forces will for the time being remain in a waiting position.”

* He may have drafted it that evening but he did not send it to London until 3:45 P.M. the next day, nearly twelve hours after the German attack on Poland had begun. It followed several of his telegrams, which like it were telephoned to London—so that transmission was simultaneous—reporting the outbreak of hostilities. It read: “Mutual distrust of Germans and Poles is so complete that I do not feel I can usefully acquiesce [sic] in any further suggestions from here, which would only once again be outstripped by events or lead to nothing as the result of methods followed or of considerations of honor and prestige.

“Last hope lies in inflexible determination on our part to resist force by force.”77

 Since friends who have read this section have expressed doubts about this writer’s objectivity in dealing with Henderson, perhaps another’s view of the British ambassador in Berlin should be given. Sir L. B. Namier, the British historian, has summed up Henderson as follows: “Conceited, vain, self-opinionated, rigidly adhering to his preconceived ideas, he poured out telegrams, dispatches and letters in unbelievable numbers and of formidable length, repeating a hundred times the same ill-founded views and ideas. Obtuse enough to be a menace and not stupid enough to be innocuous, he proved un homme néfaste.” (Namier, In the Nazi Era, p. 162.)

* See above, pp. 518–20.

* The speech in Polish had been outlined by Heydrich to Naujocks. It contained inflammatory statements against Germany and declared that the Poles were attacking. See above, p. 519.

 The “Polish attack” at Gleiwitz was used by Hitler in his speech to the Reichstag the next day and was cited as justification for the Nazi aggression by Ribbentrop, Weizsaecker and other members of the Foreign Office in their propaganda. The New York Times and other newspapers reported it, as well as similar incidents, in their issues of September 1, 1939. It remains only to be added that according to the testimony at Nuremberg of General Lahousen, of the Abwehr, all the S.S. men who wore Polish uniforms in the simulated attacks that evening were, as the General put it, “put out of the way.”78

* During the day Hitler found time to send a telegram to the Duke of Windsor at Antibes, France.

Berlin, August 31, 1939

I thank you for your telegram of August 27. You may rest assured that my attitude toward Britain and my desire to avoid another war between our peoples remain unchanged. It depends on Britain, however,’ whether my wishes for the future development of German-British relations can be realized.


This is the first mention of the former King of England, but by no means the last, in the captured German documents. Subsequently, for a time, as will be recorded further on, the Duke of Windsor loomed large in certain calculations of Hitler and Ribbentrop.

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