Sunday, September 3, 1939, in Berlin was a lovely, end-of-the-summer day. The sun was shining, the air was balmy—“the sort of day,” I noted in my diary, “the Berliner loves to spend in the woods or on the lakes nearby.”
As it dawned a telegram arrived at the British Embassy from Lord Halifax for Sir Nevile Henderson, instructing him to seek an interview with the German Foreign Minister at 9 A.M. and convey a communication the text of which was then given.
The Chamberlain government had reached the end of the road. Some thirty-two hours before, it had informed Hitler that unless Germany withdrew its troops from Poland, Britain would go to war. There had been no answer, and now the British government was determined to make good its word. On the previous day it had feared, as Charles Corbin, the French ambassador in London, had informed the hesitant Bonnet at 2:30 P.M., that Hitler was deliberately delaying his reply in order to grab as much Polish territory as possible, after which, having secured Danzig, the Corridorand other areas, he might make a “magnanimous” peace proposal based on his sixteen points of August 31.23
To avoid that trap Halifax had proposed to the French that unless the German government gave a favorable reply within a few hours to the Anglo–French communications of September 1, the two Western nations should declare themselves at war with Germany. Following a British cabinet meeting on the afternoon of September 2, when a definite decision was made, Halifax suggested specifically that the two allies present an ultimatum to Berlin that very midnight which would expire at 6 A.M. on September 3.24 Bonnet would not hear of any such precipitate action.
Indeed, the badly divided French cabinet had had a difficult time over the past week reaching a decision to honor France’s obligations to Poland—and to Britain—in the first place. On the dark day of August 23, overwhelmed by the news that Ribbentrop had arrived in Moscow to conclude a Nazi–Soviet nonaggression pact, Bonnet had persuaded Daladier to call a meeting of the Council of National Defense to consider what France should do.* Besides Premier Daladier and Bonnet, it was attended by the ministers of the three armed services, General Gamelin, the chiefs of the Navy and Air Force and four additional generals—twelve in all.
The minutes state that Daladier posed three questions:
1. Can France remain inactive while Poland and Rumania (or one of them) are being wiped off the map of Europe?
2. What means has she of opposing it?
3. What measures should be taken now?
Bonnet himself, after explaining the grave turn of events, posed a question which was to remain uppermost in his mind to the last:
Taking stock of the situation, had we better remain faithful to our engagements and enter the war forthwith, or should we reconsider our attitude and profit by the respite thus gained? … The answer to this question is essentially of a military character.
When thus handed the ball, Gamelin and Admiral Darlan answered
that the Army and Navy were ready. In the early stages of the conflict they can do little against Germany. But the French mobilization by itself would bring some relief to Poland by tying down some considerable German units at our frontier.
… General Gamelin, asked how long Poland and Rumania could resist, says that he believes Poland would honorably resist, which would prevent the bulk of the German forces from turning against France before next spring; by then Great Britain would be by her side.*
After a great deal of talk the French finally reached a decision, which was duly recorded in the minutes of the meeting.
In the course of the discussion it is pointed out that if we are stronger a few months hence, Germany will have gained even more, for she will have the Polish and Rumanian resources at her disposal.
Therefore France has no choice.
The only solution … is to adhere to our engagements to Poland assumed before negotiations were started with the U.S.S.R.
Having made up its mind, the French government began to act. Following this meeting on August 23, the alerte was sounded, which placed all frontier troops in their war stations. The next day 360,000 reservists were called up. On August 31 the cabinet published a communiqué saying France would “firmly fulfill” its obligations. And the next day, the first day of the German attack on Poland, Bonnet was persuaded by Halifax to associate France with Britain in the warning to Berlin that both countries would honor their word to their ally.
But on September 2, when the British pressed for an ultimatum to be presented to Hitler at midnight, General Gamelin and the French General Staff held back. After all, it was the French who alone would have to do the fighting if the Germans immediately attacked in the West. There would not be a single British trooper to aid them. The General Staff insisted on a further forty-eight hours in which to carry out the general mobilization unhindered.
At 6 P.M. Halifax telephoned Sir Eric Phipps, the British ambassador in Paris: “Forty-eight hours is impossible for British Government. The French attitude is very embarrassing to H. M. Government.”
It was to become dangerously so a couple of hours later when Chamberlain rose to address a House of Commons whose majority of members, regardless of party, was impatient at the British delay in honoring its obligations. Their patience became almost exhausted after the Prime Minister spoke. He informed the House that no reply had yet come from Berlin. Unless it did, and contained a German assurance of withdrawal from Poland, the government would “be bound to take action.” If the Germans did agree to withdraw, the British government, he said, would “be willing to regard the position as being the same as it was before the German forces crossed the Polish frontier.” In the meantime, he said, the government was in communication with France about a time limit to their warning to Germany.
After thirty-nine hours of war in Poland the House of Commons was in no mood for such dilatory tactics. A smell of Munich seemed to emanate from the government bench. “Speak for England!” cried Leopold Amery from the Conservative benches as the acting leader of the Labor Opposition, Arthur Greenwood, got up to talk.
“I wonder how long we are prepared to vacillate,” said Greenwood, “at a time when Britain and all that Britain stands for, and human civilization, are in peril … We must march with the French …”
That was the trouble. It was proving difficult at this moment to get the French to march. But so disturbed was Chamberlain at the angry mood of the House that he intervened in the sharp debate to plead that it took time to synchronize “thoughts and actions” by telephone with Paris. “I should be horrified if the House thought for one moment,” he added, “that the statement that I have made to them betrayed the slightest weakening either of this Government or of the French Government.” He said he understood the French government was “in session at this moment” and that a communication would be received from it “in the next few hours.” At any rate, he tried to assure the aroused members, “I anticipate that there is only one answer I shall be able to give the House tomorrow … and I trust the House … will believe me that I speak in complete good faith …”
The inexorable approach of the greatest ordeal in British history was announced, as Namier later wrote, “in a singularly halting manner.”
Chamberlain well understood, as the confidential British papers make clear, that he was in deep trouble with his own people and that at this critical moment for his country his own government was in danger of being overthrown.
As soon as he left the Commons he rang up Daladier. The time is recorded as 9:50 P.M. and Cadogan, listening in, made a minute of it for the record.
CHAMBERLAIN: The situation here is very grave … There has been an angry scene in the House … if France were to insist on forty-eight hours to run from midday tomorrow, it would be impossible for the Government to hold the situation here.
The Prime Minister said he quite realized that it is France who must bear the burden of a German attack. But he was convinced some step must be taken this evening.
He proposed a compromise … An ultimatum at 8 A.M. tomorrow … expiring at noon….
Daladier replied that unless British bombers were ready to act at once it would be better for French to delay, if possible, for some hours attacks on German armies.
Less than an hour later, at 10:30 P.M., Halifax rang up Bonnet. He urged the French to agree to the British compromise, an ultimatum to be presented in Berlin at 8 A.M. on the morrow (September 3) and to expire at noon. The French Foreign Minister not only would not agree, he protested to Halifax that the British insistence on such speed would create a “deplorable impression.” He demanded that London wait at least until noon before presenting any ultimatum to Hitler.
HALIFAX: It is impossible for H. M. Government to wait until that hour … It is very doubtful whether the [British] Government could hold the position here.
The House of Commons was to meet at noon, on Sunday, September 3, and it was obvious to Chamberlain and Halifax from the mood of Saturday evening’s session that in order to survive they would have to give Parliament the answer it demanded. At 2 o’clock the next morning the French ambassador in London, Corbin, warned Bonnet that the Chamberlain cabinet risked overthrow if it could not give Parliament definite word. Halifax, at the close of his telephone conversation with Bonnet, therefore informed him that Britain proposed “to act on its own.”
The telegram of Halifax to Henderson reached Berlin about 4 A.M.* The communication he was to make to the German government at 9 A.M. on Sunday, September 3, recalled the British note of September 1 in which Great Britain declared its intention of fulfilling its obligations to Poland unless German troops were promptly withdrawn.
Although this communication [it continued] was made more than 24 hours ago, no reply has been received but German attacks upon Poland have been continued and intensified. I have accordingly the honor to inform you that, unless not later than 11 A.M., British summer time, today September 3, satisfactory assurances to the above effect have been given by the German Government and have reached His Majesty’s Government in London, a state of war will exist between the two countries as from that hour.26*
In the early predawn Sabbath hours Henderson found it difficult to make contact with the Wilhelmstrasse. He was told that Ribbentrop would not be “available” at 9 A.M. on the Sunday but that he could leave his communication with the official interpreter, Dr. Schmidt.
On this historic day Dr. Schmidt overslept, and, rushing to the Foreign Office by taxi, he saw the British ambassador already mounting the steps to the Foreign Office as he arrived. Ducking in by a side door, Schmidt managed to slip into Ribbentrop’s office just at the stroke of 9 o’clock, in time to receive Henderson on the dot. “He came in looking very serious,” Schmidt later recounted, “shook hands, but declined my invitation to be seated, remaining solemnly standing in the middle of the room.”28 He read out the British ultimatum, handed Schmidt a copy, and bade him goodby.
The official interpreter hastened down the Wilhelmstrasse to the Chancellery with the document. Outside the Fuehrer’s office he found most members of the cabinet and several ranking party officials collected about and “anxiously awaiting” his news.
When I entered the next room [Schmidt later recounted] Hitler was sitting at his desk and Ribbentrop stood by the window. Both looked up expectantly as I came in. I stopped at some distance from Hitler’s desk, and then slowly translated the British ultimatum. When I finished there was complete silence.
Hitler sat immobile, gazing before him … After an interval which seemed an age, he turned to Ribbentrop, who had remained standing by the window. “What now?” asked Hitler with a savage look, as though implying that his Foreign Minister had misled him about England’s probable reaction.
Ribbentrop answered quietly: “I assume that the French will hand in a similar ultimatum within the hour.”29
His duty performed, Schmidt withdrew, stopping in the outer room to apprise the others of what had happened. They too were silent for a moment. Then:
Goering turned to me and said: “If we lose this war, then God have mercy on us!”
Goebbels stood in a corner by himself, downcast and self-absorbed. Everywhere in the room I saw looks of grave concern.30
In the meantime the inimitable Dahlerus had been making his last amateurish effort to avoid the inevitable. At 8 A.M. Forbes had informed him of the British ultimatum which was being presented an hour later. He hastened out to Luftwaffe headquarters to see Goering and, according to his later account on the stand at Nuremberg, appealed to him to see to it that the German reply to the ultimatum was “reasonable.” He further suggested that the Field Marshal himself, before 11 o’clock, declare himself prepared to fly to London “to negotiate.” In his book the Swedish businessman claims that Goering accepted the suggestion and telephoned to Hitler, who also agreed. There is no mention of this in the German papers, and Dr. Schmidt makes it clear that Goering, a few minutes after 9 o’clock, was not at his headquarters but at the Chancellery in the Fuehrer’s anteroom.
At any rate, there is no doubt that the Swedish intermediary telephoned the British Foreign Office—not once but twice. In the first call, at 10:15 A.M., he took it upon himself to inform the British government that the German reply to its ultimatum was “on the way” and that the Germans were still “most anxious to satisfy the British Government and to give satisfactory assurances not to violate the independence of Poland.”(!) He hoped London would consider Hitler’s response “in the most favorable light.”31
Half an hour later, at 10:50 A.M.—ten minutes before the ultimatum ran out—Dahlerus was once more on the long-distance line to the Foreign Office in London, this time to present his proposal that Goering, with Hitler’s assent, fly immediately to the British capital. He did not realize that it was past time for such diplomatic antics, but he was soon made to. He was given an uncompromising answer from Halifax. His proposal could not be entertained. The German government had been asked a definite question, “and presumably they would be sending a definite answer.” H. M. Government could not wait for further discussion with Goering.32
Whereupon Dahlerus hung up and disappeared into the limbo of history until he reappeared, briefly, after the war at Nuremberg—and in his book—to recount his bizarre attempt to save world peace.* He had meant well, he had striven for peace; for a few moments he had found himself in the center of the dazzling stage of world history. But as happened to almost everyone else, the confusion had been too great for him to see clearly; and as he would admit at Nuremberg, he had at no time realized how much he had been taken in by the Germans.
Shortly after 11 A.M., when the time limit in the British ultimatum had run out, Ribbentrop, who had declined to see the British ambassador two hours before, sent for him in order to hand him Germany’s reply. The German government, it said, refused “to receive or accept, let alone to fulfill” the British ultimatum. There followed a lengthy and shabby propaganda statement obviously hastily concocted by Hitler and Ribbentrop during the intervening two hours. Designed to fool the easily fooled German people, it rehearsed all the lies with which we are now familiar, including the one about the Polish “attacks” on German territory, blamed Britain for all that had happened, and rejected attempts “to force Germany to recall their forces which are lined up for the defense of the Reich.” It declared, falsely, that Germany had accepted Mussolini’s eleventh-hour proposals for peace and pointed out that Britain had rejected them. And after all of Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler it accused the British government of “preaching the destruction and extermination of the German people.”*
Henderson read the document (“this completely false representation of events,” as he later called it) and remarked “It would be left to history to judge where the blame really lay.” Ribbentrop retorted that “history had already proved the facts.”
I was standing in the Wilhelmstrasse before the Chancellery about noon when the loudspeakers suddenly announced that Great Britain had declared herself at war with Germany.† Some 250 people—no more—were standing there in the sun. They listened attentively to the announcement. When it was finished, there was not a murmur. They just stood there. Stunned. It was difficult for them to comprehend that Hitler had led them into a world war.
Soon, though it was the Sabbath, the newsboys were crying their extras. In fact, I noticed, they were giving the papers away. I took one. It was the Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung, its headlines marching in large type across the page:
BRITISH ULTIMATUM TURNED DOWN
ENGLAND DECLARES A STATE OF WAR WITH GERMANY
BRITISH NOTE DEMANDS WITHDRAWAL OF OUR TROOPS IN THE EAST
THE FUEHRER LEAVING TODAY FOR THE FRONT
The headline over the official account read as though it had been dictated by Ribbentrop.