Military history

THE LAST-MINUTE INTERVENTION OF MUSSOLINI

As late as August 26, it will be remembered, the Duce, in ducking out of Italy’s obligations under the Pact of Steel, had insisted to the Fuehrer that there was still a possibility of “a political solution” which would give “full moral and material satisfaction to Germany.”* Hitler had not bothered to argue the matter with his friend and ally, and this had discouraged the junior partner in the Axis. Nevertheless on August 31, as we have seen, Mussolini and Ciano, after being advised by their ambassador in Berlin that the situation had become desperate, had urged Hitler at least to see the Polish ambassador, Lipski, and had informed him that they were trying to get the British government to agree to the return of Danzig “as a first step” in peace negotiations.

But it was too late for Hitler to be tempted by such small bait. Danzig was a mere pretense, as the Fuehrer had told his generals. What he wanted was to destroy Poland. But the Duce did not know this. On the morning of September 1, he himself was confronted with the choice of immediately declaring Italy’s neutrality or risking an attack by Britain and France. Ciano’s diary entries make clear what a nightmare this prospect was for his deflated father-in-law.

Early on the morning of September 1 the unhappy Italian dictator personally telephoned Ambassador Attolico in Berlin and, in the words of Ciano, “urged him to entreat Hitler to send him a telegram releasing him from the obligations of the alliance.”11 The Fuehrer quickly and even graciously obliged. Just before he left for the Reichstag, at 9:40 A.M., he got off a telegram to his friend which was telephoned through to the German Embassy in Rome to save time.

DUCE:

I thank you most cordially for the diplomatic and political support which you have been giving recently to Germany and her just cause. I am convinced that we can carry out the task imposed upon us with the military forces of Germany. I do not therefore expect to need Italy’s military support in these circumstances. I also thank you, Duce, for everything which you will do in future for the common cause of Fascism and National Socialism.

ADOLF HITLER*12

At 12:45 P.M., after having addressed the Reichstag and after having, apparently, recovered from the effects of his outburst to Dahlerus, Hitler was moved to send a further message to Mussolini. Declaring that he had been prepared to solve the Polish problem “by negotiation” and that “for two whole days I have waited in vain for a Polish negotiator” and that “last night alone there were fourteen more cases of frontier violation” and that consequently he had “now decided to answer force with force,” he again expressed his gratitude to his welshing partner.

I thank you, Duce, for all your efforts. I thank you in particular also for your offers of mediation. But from the start I was skeptical about these attempts because the Polish Government, if they had had even the slightest intention of solving the matter amicably, could have done so at any time. But they refused …

For this reason, Duce, I did not want to expose you to the danger of assuming the role of mediator which, in view of the Polish Government’s intransigent attitude, would in all probability have been in vain …

ADOLF HITLER13

But Mussolini, prompted by Ciano, made one last desperate effort to expose himself to the danger of being a mediator. Already on the previous day, shortly after noon, Ciano had proposed to the British and French ambassadors in Rome that, if their governments agreed, Mussolini would invite Germany to a conference on September 5 for the purpose of “examining the clauses of the Treaty of Versailles which are the cause of the present troubles.”

It might have been thought that the news of the German invasion of Poland the next morning would have rendered Mussolini’s proposal superfluous. But to the Italian’s surprise Georges Bonnet, the French Foreign Minister and master appeaser, telephoned François-Poncet, who was now the ambassador of France in Rome, at 11:45 A.M. on September 1 and asked him to tell Ciano that the French government welcomed such a conference provided that it did not try to deal with problems of countries not represented and that it did not restrict itself to seeking “partial and provisional solutions for limited and immediate problems.” Bonnet made no mention of any withdrawal of German troops or even of their halting, as a condition for such a conference.14*

But the British were insistent upon that condition and succeeded in carrying the badly divided French cabinet along with them so that identical warning notes could be delivered in Berlin on the evening of September 1. Since the text of those notes giving notice that Britain and France would go to war unless the German troops were withdrawn from Poland was made public the same evening, it is interesting that Mussolini, now clutching desperately at every straw—or even at straws which were not there—went ahead the next morning in a further appeal to Hitler just as if he, the Duce, did not take the Anglo–French warnings at face value.

September 2, as Henderson noted in his Final Report, was a day of suspense. He and Coulondre waited anxiously for Hitler’s reply to their notes, but none came. Shortly after midday Attolico, somewhat out of breath, arrived at the British Embassy and told Henderson he must know one thing immediately: Was the British note of the previous evening an ultimatum or not?

“I told him,” Henderson later wrote, “that I had been authorized to tell the Minister of Foreign Affairs if he had asked me—which he had not done—that it was not an ultimatum but a warning.”16

Having received his answer, the Italian ambassador hastened down the Wilhelmstrasse to the German Foreign Office. Attolico had arrived at 10 o’clock that morning at the Wilhelmstrasse with a communication from Mussolini and, being told that Ribbentrop was unwell, handed it to Weizsaecker.

September 2,1939

For purposes of information, Italy wishes to make known, naturally leaving any decision to the Fuehrer, that she still has the possibility of getting France, Britain and Poland to agree to a conference on the following bases:

1. An armistice, which leaves the armies where [emphasis in the original] they now are.

2. Convening of the conference within two to three days.

3. Settlement of the Polish–German dispute, which, as matters stand today, would certainly be favorable to Germany.

The idea, which originally emanated from the Duce, is now supported particularly by France.*

Danzig is already German, and Germany has already in her hands pledges which guarantee her the greater part of her claims. Moreover, Germany has already had her “moral satisfaction.” If she accepted the proposal for a conference she would achieve all her aims and at the same time avoid a war, which even now looks like becoming general and of extremely long duration.

The Duce does not want to insist, but it is of the greatest moment to him that the above should be immediately brought to the attention of Herr von Ribbentrop and the Fuehrer.17

No wonder that when Ribbentrop, who had quickly recovered from his indisposition, saw Attolico at 12:30 P.M., he pointed out that the Duce’s proposal could not be “reconciled” with the Anglo–French notes of the evening before, which had “the character of an ultimatum.”

The Italian ambassador, who was as anxious as his chief to avoid a world war and certainly more sincere, interrupted Ribbentrop to say that the British and French declarations “had been superseded by the latest communication from the Duce.” Attolico, of course, had no authority whatsoever to make such a statement, which was not true, but at this late hour he probably thought he could lose nothing by being reckless. When the German Foreign Minister expressed his doubts, Attolico stuck to his view.

The French and British declarations [he said] no longer came into consideration. Count Ciano had telephoned only at 8:30 this morning, that is to say at a time when the declarations had already been given out on the radio in Italy. It followed that the two declarations must be considered as superseded. Count Ciano stated moreover that France in particular was greatly in favor of the Duce’s proposal. The pressure comes at the moment from France but England will follow.18

Ribbentrop remained skeptical. He had just discussed Mussolini’s proposal with Hitler, he said, and what the Fuehrer wanted to know was: Were the Anglo–French notes ultimata? The Foreign Minister finally agreed to Attolico’s suggestion that the Italian envoy should immediately consult Henderson and Coulondre to find out.

That was the reason for Attolico’s call at the British Embassy. “I can still see Attolico, no longer in his first youth,” Schmidt, who acted as interpreter, wrote later, “running out of Ribbentrop’s room and down the steps to consult Henderson and Coulondre … A half hour later Attolico came running back, as breathless as he had left.”19

Regaining his breath, the Italian ambassador reported that Henderson had just told him the British note was not an ultimatum. Ribbentrop replied that while “a German reply to the Anglo–French declarations could only be negative the Fuehrer was examining the Duce’s proposals and, if Rome confirmed that there had been no question of an ultimatum in the Anglo–French declaration, would draft an answer in a day or two.” When Attolico pressed for an earlier answer, Ribbentrop finally agreed to reply by noon the next day, Sunday, September 3.

Meantime in Rome Mussolini’s hopes were being smashed. At 2 P.M. Ciano received the British and French ambassadors and in their presence telephoned to both Halifax and Bonnet and informed them of Attolico’s talks with the German Foreign Minister. Bonnet was effusive as usual and, according to his own account (in the French Yellow Book), warmly thanked Ciano for his efforts on behalf of peace. Halifax was sterner. He confirmed that the British note was not an ultimatum—one marvels at the splitting of hairs among the statesmen over a single word, for the Anglo–French declarations spoke for themselves unequivocably—but added that in his own view the British could not accept Mussolini’s proposal for a conference unless the German armies withdrew from Poland, a matter on which Bonnet again was silent. Halifax promised to telephone Ciano the decision of the British cabinet on that.

The decision came shortly after 7 P.M. Britain accepted the Duce’s offer on condition that Hitler pull back his troops to the German frontier. The Italian Foreign Minister realized that Hitler would never accept this and that “nothing more could be done,” as he put it in his diary.

It isn’t my business [he added] to give Hitler advice that he would reject decisively and maybe with contempt. I tell this to Halifax, to the two ambassadors and to the Duce, and finally I telephone to Berlin that unless the Germans advise us to the contrary we shall let the conversations lapse. The last note of hope has died.20

And so at 8:50 P.M. on September 2 the weary and crushed Attolico once more made his way to the Wilhelmstrasse in Berlin. This time Ribbentrop received him in the Chancellery, where he was in conference with Hitler. A captured Foreign Office memo records the scene.

The Italian Ambassador brought the Foreign Minister the information that the British were not prepared to enter into negotiations on the basis of the Italian proposal of mediation. The British demanded, before starting negotiations, the immediate withdrawal of all German troops from the occupied Polish areas and from Danzig …

In conclusion the Italian Ambassador stated that the Duce now considered his mediation proposal as no longer in being. The Foreign Minister received the communication from the Italian Ambassador without comment.21

Not a word of thanks to the tireless Attolico for all his efforts! Only the contempt of silence toward an ally who was trying to cheat Germany of its Polish spoils.

The last slight possibility of averting World War II had now been exhausted. This apparently was obvious to all except one actor in the drama. At 9 P.M. the pusillanimous Bonnet telephoned Ciano, confirmed once more that the French note to Germany did not have the “character of an ultimatum” and reiterated that the French government was prepared to wait until noon of September 3—the next day—for a German response. However, “in order for the conference to achieve favorable results,” Bonnet told Ciano, the French government agreed with the British that German troops must “evacuate” Poland. This was the first time Bonnet had mentioned this—and now only because the British had insisted upon it. Ciano replied that he did not think the Reich government would accept this condition. But Bonnet would not give up. He sought during the night a final escape from France’s obligations to the now battered and beleaguered Poland. Ciano recounts this bizarre move in the first paragraph of his diary entry for September 3.

During the night I was awakened by the Ministry because Bonnet had asked Guariglia [the Italian ambassador in Paris] if we could not at least obtain a symbolic withdrawal of German forces from Poland … I throw the proposal in the wastebasket without informing the Duce. But this shows that France is moving toward the great test without enthusiasm and full of uncertainty.22

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