Military history


Hitler Strikes

A New Atmosphere in Britain — Hitler Free to Strike — Ratification of the Franco-Soviet Pact — The Rhineland and the Treaties of Versailles and Locarno — Hitler Reoccupies the Rhineland, March 7 — French Hesitation — Flandin’s Visit to London — British Pacifism — Flandin and Baldwin — Ralph Wigram’s Grief &md ash; Hitler’s Vindication and Triumph — A Minister of Coordination of Defence — Sir Thomas Inskip Chosen — A Blessing in Disguise — My Hopes of the League — Eden Insists on Staff Conversations with France — German Fortification of the Rhineland — My Warnings in Parliament — Mr. Bullitt’s Post-War Revelations — Hitler’s Pledge to Austria, July 11.

WHEN I RETURNED at the end of January, 1936, I was conscious of a new atmosphere in England. Mussolini’s conquest of Ethiopia and the brutal methods by which it had been accomplished, the shock of the Hoare-Laval negotiations, the discomfiture of the League of Nations, the obvious breakdown of “collective security,” had altered the mood, not only of the Labour and Liberal Parties, but of that great body of well-meaning but hitherto futile opinion represented by the eleven million votes cast in the Peace Ballot only seven months before. All these forces were now prepared to contemplate war against Fascist or Nazi tyranny. Far from being excluded from lawful thought, the use of force gradually became a decisive point in the minds of a vast mass of peace-loving people, and even of many who had hitherto been proud to be called pacifists. But force, according to the principles which they served, could only be used on the initiative and under the authority of the League of Nations. Although both the Opposition parties continued to oppose all measures of rearmament, there was an immense measure of agreement open, and had His Majesty’s Government risen to the occasion they could have led a united people forward into the whole business of preparation in an emergency spirit.

The Government adhered to their policy of moderation, half-measures, and keeping things quiet. It was astonishing to me that they did not seek to utilise all the growing harmonies that now existed in the nation. By this means they would enormously have strengthened themselves and have gained the power to strengthen the country. Mr. Baldwin had no such inclinations. He was ageing fast. He rested upon the great majority which the election had given him, and the Conservative Party lay tranquil in his hand.

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Once Hitler’s Germany had been allowed to rearm without active interference by the Allies and former associated Powers, a second World War was almost certain. The longer a decisive trial of strength was put off, the worse would be our chances, at first of stopping Hitler without serious fighting, and as a second stage of being victorious after a terrible ordeal. In the summer of 1935, Germany had reinstituted conscription in breach of the Treaties. Great Britain had condoned this, and by a separate agreement her rebuilding of a navy, if desired, with U-boats on the British scale. Nazi Germany had secretly and unlawfully created a military air force which, by the spring of 1935, openly claimed to be equal to the British. She was now in the second year of active munitions production after long covert preparations. Great Britain and all Europe, and what was then thought distant America, were faced with the organised might and will-to-war of seventy millions of the most efficient race in Europe, longing to regain their national glory, and driven – in case they faltered – by a merciless military, social, and party régime.

Hitler was now free to strike. The successive steps which he took encountered no effective resistance from the two liberal democracies of Europe, and, apart from their far-seeing President, only gradually excited the attention of the United States. The battle for peace which could, during 1935, have been won, was now almost lost. Mussolini had triumphed in Abyssinia, and had successfully defied the League of Nations and especially Great Britain. He was now bitterly estranged from us, and had joined hands with Hitler. The Berlin-Rome Axis was in being. There was now, as it turned out, little hope of averting war or of postponing it by a trial of strength equivalent to war. Almost all that remained open to France and Britain was to await the moment of the challenge and do the best they could.

There was, perhaps, still time for an assertion of collective security, based upon the avowed readiness of all members concerned to enforce the decisions of the League of Nations by the sword. The democracies and their dependent states were still actually and potentially far stronger than the dictatorships, but their position relatively to their opponents was less than half as good as it had been twelve months before. Virtuous motives, trammelled by inertia and timidity, are no match for armed and resolute wickedness. A sincere love of peace is no excuse for muddling hundreds of millions of humble folk into total war. The cheers of weak, well-meaning assemblies soon cease to echo, and their votes soon cease to count. Doom marches on.

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Germany had, during the course of 1935, repulsed and sabotaged the efforts of the Western Powers to negotiate an Eastern Locarno. The new Reich at this moment declared itself a bulwark against Bolshevism, and for them, they said, there could be no question of working with the Soviets. Hitler told the Polish Ambassador in Berlin on December 18, that “he was resolutely opposed to any co-operation of the West with Russia.” It was in this mood that he sought to hinder and undermine the French attempts to reach direct agreement with Moscow. The Franco-Soviet Pact had been signed in May, but not ratified by either party. It became a major object of German diplomacy to prevent such a ratification. Laval was warned from Berlin that if this move took place there could be no hope of any further Franco-German rapprochement. His reluctance to persevere thereafter became marked; but did not affect the event.

In January, 1936, M. Flandin, the new French Foreign Minister, came to London for the funeral of King George V. On the evening of his visit he dined at Downing Street with Mr. Baldwin and Mr. Eden. The conversation turned to the future attitude of France and Britain in the event of a violation of the Locarno Treaty by Germany. Such a step by Hitler was considered probable, as the French Government now intended to proceed with the ratification of the Franco-Soviet Pact. Flandin undertook to seek the official views of the French Cabinet and General Staff. In February at Geneva, according to his account, he informed Mr. Eden that the armed forces of France would be put at the disposal of the League in the event of a treaty violation by Germany, and asked the British Minister for the eventual assistance of Great Britain in conformity with the clauses of Locarno.

On February 28, the French Chamber ratified the Franco-Soviet Pact, and the following day the French Ambassador in Berlin was instructed to approach the German Government and inquire upon what basis general negotiations for a Franco-German understanding could be initiated. Hitler, in reply, asked for a few days in which to reflect. At ten o’clock on the morning of March 7, Herr von Neurath, the German Foreign Minister, summoned the British, French, Belgian, and Italian Ambassadors to the Wilhelmstrasse to announce to them a proposal for a twenty-five-year pact, a demilitarisation on both sides of the Rhine frontier, a pact limiting air forces, and non-aggression pacts to be negotiated with Eastern and Western neighbours.

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The “demilitarised zone” in the Rhineland had been established by Articles 42, 43, and 44 of the Treaty of Versailles. These articles declared that Germany should not have or establish fortifications on the left bank of the Rhine or within fifty kilometres of its right bank. Neither should Germany have in this zone any military forces, nor hold at any time any military manoeuvres, nor maintain any facilities for military mobilisation. On top of this lay the Treaty of Locarno, freely negotiated by both sides. In this treaty the signatory Powers guaranteed individually and collectively the permanence of the frontiers of Germany and Belgium and of Germany and France. Article 2 of the Treaty of Locarno promised that Germany, France, and Belgium would never invade or attack across these frontiers. Should, however, Articles 42 or 43 of the Treaty of Versailles be infringed, such a violation would constitute “an unprovoked act of aggression,” and immediate action would be required from the offended signatories because of the assembling of armed forces in the demilitarised zone. Such a violation should be brought at once before the League of Nations, and the League, having established the fact of violation, must then advise the signatory Powers that they were bound to give their military aid to the Power against whom the offence had been perpetrated.

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At noon on this same March 7, 1936, two hours after his proposal for a twenty-five-year pact, Hitler announced to the Reichstag that he intended to reoccupy the Rhineland, and even while he spoke, German columns, about thirty-five thousand strong, streamed across the boundary and entered all the main German towns. They were everywhere received with rejoicing, tempered by the fear of Allied action. Simultaneously, in order to baffle British and American public opinion, Hitler declared that the occupation was purely symbolic. The German Ambassador in London handed Mr. Eden similar proposals to those which Neurath in Berlin had given to the Ambassadors of the other Locarno Powers in the morning. This provided comfort for everyone on both sides of the Atlantic who wished to be humbugged. Mr. Eden made a stern reply to the Ambassador. We now know, of course, that Hitler was merely using these conciliatory proposals as part of his design and as a cover for the violent act he had committed, the success of which was vital to his prestige and thus to the next step in his programme.

It was not only a breach of an obligation exacted by force of arms in war and of the Treaty of Locarno, signed freely in full peace, but the taking advantage of the friendly evacuation by the Allies of the Rhineland several years before it was due. This news caused a world-wide sensation. The French Government under M. Sarraut, in which M. Flandin was Foreign Minister, uprose in vociferous wrath and appealed to all its allies and to the League. At this time France commanded the loyalty of the “Little Entente,” namely, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and Rumania. The Baltic States and Poland were also associated with the French system. Above all, France also had a right to look to Great Britain, having regard to the guarantee we had given for the French frontier against German aggression, and the pressure we had put upon France for the earlier evacuation of the Rhineland. Here if ever was the violation, not only of the Peace Treaty, but of the Treaty of Locarno; and an obligation binding upon all the Powers concerned.

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In France there was a hideous shock. MM. Sarraut and Flandin had the impulse to act at once by general mobilisation. If they had been equal to their task, they would have done so; and thus compelled all others to come into line. It was a vital issue for France. But they appeared unable to move without the concurrence of Britain. This is an explanation, but no excuse. The issue was vital to France, and any French Government worthy of the name should have made up its own mind and trusted to the Treaty obligations. More than once in these fluid years French Ministers in their ever-changing Governments were content to find in British pacifism an excuse for their own. Be this as it may, they did not meet with any encouragement to resist the German aggression from the British. On the contrary, if they hesitated to act, their British allies did not hesitate to dissuade them. During the whole of Sunday there were agitated telephonic conversations between London and Paris. His Majesty’s Government exhorted the French to wait in order that both countries might act jointly and after full consideration. A velvet carpet for retreat!

The unofficial responses from London were chilling. Mr. Lloyd George hastened to say, “In my judgment Herr Hitler’s greatest crime was not the breach of a treaty, because there was provocation.” He added that “He hoped we should keep our heads.” The provocation was presumably the failure of the Allies to disarm themselves more than they had done. Lord Snowden concentrated upon the proposed non-aggression pact, and said that Hitler’s previous peace overtures had been ignored, but the peoples would not permit this peace offer to be neglected. These utterances may have expressed misguided British public opinion at the moment, but will not be deemed creditable to their authors. The British Cabinet, seeking the line of least resistance, felt that the easiest way out was to press France into another appeal to the League of Nations.

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There was also great division in France. On the whole, it was the politicians who wished to mobilise the army and send an ultimatum to Hitler, and the generals who, like their German counterparts, pleaded for calm, patience, and delay. We now know of the conflicts of opinion which arose at this time between Hitler and the German High Command. If the French Government had mobilised the French Army, with nearly a hundred divisions, and its air force (then still falsely believed to be the strongest in Europe), there is no doubt that Hitler would have been compelled by his own General Staff to withdraw, and a check would have been given to his pretensions which might well have proved fatal to his rule. It must be remembered that France alone was at this time quite strong enough to drive the Germans out of the Rhineland, even without the aid which her own action, once begun, and the invocation of the Locarno Treaty would certainly have drawn from Great Britain. In fact she remained completely inert and paralysed, and thus lost irretrievably the last chance of arresting Hitler’s ambitions without a serious war. Instead, the French Government were urged by Britain to cast their burden upon the League of Nations, already weakened and disheartened by the fiasco of sanctions and the Anglo-German Naval Agreement of the previous year.

On Monday, March 9, Mr. Eden went to Paris accompanied by Lord Halifax and Ralph Wigram. The first plan had been to convene a meeting of the League in Paris, but presently Wigram, on Eden’s authority, was sent to invite Flandin to come to London to have the meeting of the League in England, as he would thus get more effective support from Britain. This was an unwelcome mission for the faithful official. Immediately on his return to London on March 11, he came to see me, and told me the story. Flandin himself arrived late the same night, and at about 8.30 on Thursday morning he came to my flat in Morpeth Mansions. He told me that he proposed to demand from the British Government simultaneous mobilisation of the land, sea, and air forces of both countries, and that he had received assurances of support from all the nations of the Little Entente and from other states. He read out an impressive list of the replies received. There was no doubt that superior strength still lay with the Allies of the former war. They had only to act to win. Although we did not know what was passing between Hitler and his generals, it was evident that overwhelming force lay on our side. There was little I could do in my detached private position, but I wished our visitor all success in bringing matters to a head and promised any assistance that was in my power. I gathered my principal associates at dinner that night to hear M. Flandin’s exhortations.

Mr. Chamberlain was at this time, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, the most effective member of the Government. His able biographer, Mr. Keith Feiling, gives the following extract from his diary: “March 12, talked to Flandin, emphasising that public opinion would not support us in sanctions of any kind. His view is that if a firm front is maintained, Germany will yield without war. We cannot accept this as a reliable estimate of a mad Dictator’s reaction.” When Flandin urged at least an economic boycott, Chamberlain replied by suggesting an international force during negotiations, agreed to a pact for mutual assistance, and declared that if by giving up a colony we could secure lasting peace, he would consider it.1

Meanwhile, most of the British press, with The Times and the Daily Herald in the van, expressed their belief in the sincerity of Hitler’s offers of a non-aggression pact. Austen Chamberlain, in a speech at Cambridge, proclaimed the opposite view. Wigram thought it was within the compass of his duty to bring Flandin into touch with everyone he could think of from the City, from the press, and from the Government, and also with Lord Lothian. To all whom Flandin met at the Wigrams’ he spoke in the following terms: “The whole world and especially the small nations today turn their eyes towards England. If England will act now, she can lead Europe. You will have a policy, all the world will follow you, and thus you will prevent war. It is your last chance. If you do not stop Germany now, all is over. France cannot guarantee Czechoslovakia any more because that will become geographically impossible. If you do not maintain the Treaty of Locarno, all that will remain to you is to await a rearmament by Germany, against which France can do nothing. If you do not stop Germany by force today, war is inevitable, even if you make a temporary friendship with Germany. As for myself, I do not believe that friendship is possible between France and Germany; the two countries will always be in tension. Nevertheless, if you abandon Locarno, I shall change my policy, for there will be nothing else to do.” These were brave words; but action would have spoken louder.

Lord Lothian’s contribution was: “After all, they are only going into their own back-garden.” This was a representative British view.

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When I heard how ill things were going, and after a talk with Wigram, I advised M. Flandin to demand an interview with Mr. Baldwin before he left. This took place at Downing Street. The Prime Minister received M. Flandin with the utmost courtesy. Mr. Baldwin explained that, although he knew little of foreign affairs, he was able to interpret accurately the feelings of the British people. And they wanted peace. M. Flandin says that he rejoined that the only way to ensure this was to stop Hitlerite aggression while such action was still possible. France had no wish to drag Great Britain into war; she asked for no practical aid, and she would herself undertake what would be a simple police operation, as, according to French information, the German troops in the Rhineland had orders to withdraw if opposed in a forcible manner. Flandin asserts that he said that all that France asked of her ally was a free hand. This is certainly not true. How could Britain have restrained France from action to which, under the Locarno Treaty, she was legally entitled? The British Prime Minister repeated that his country could not accept the risk of war. He asked what the French Government had resolved to do. To this no plain answer was returned. According to Flandin, Mr. Baldwin then said: “You may be right, but if there is even one chance in a hundred that war would follow from your police operation, I have not the right to commit England.” And after a pause he added: “England is not in a state to go to war.” There is no confirmation of this. M. Flandin returned to France convinced, first, that his own divided country could not be united except in the presence of a strong will-power in Britain, and secondly, that, so far from this being forthcoming, no strong impulse could be expected from her. Far too easily he plunged into the dismal conclusion that the only hope for France was in an arrangement with an ever more aggressive Germany.

In view of what I saw of Flandin’s attitude during these anxious days, I felt it my duty, in spite of his subsequent lapses, to come to his aid, so far as I was able, in later years. I used all my power in the winter of 1943/44 to protect him when he was arrested in Algeria by the De Gaulle Administration. In this I invoked and received active help from President Roosevelt. When after the war Flandin was brought to trial, my son Randolph, who had seen much of Flandin during the African campaign, was summoned as a witness, and I am glad to think that his advocacy, and also a letter which I wrote for Flandin to use in his defence, were not without influence in procuring the acquittal which he received from the French tribunal. Weakness is not treason, though it may be equally disastrous. Nothing, however, can relieve the French Government of their prime responsibility. Clemenceau or Poincaré would have left Mr. Baldwin no option.

* * * * *

The British and French submission to the violations of the Treaties of Versailles and Locarno, involved in Hitler’s seizure of the Rhineland, was a mortal blow to Wigram. “After the French Delegation had left,” wrote his wife to me, “Ralph came back, and sat down in a corner of the room where he had never sat before, and said to me, ‘War is now inevitable, and it will be the most terrible war there has ever been. I don’t think I shall see it, but you will. Wait now for bombs on this little house.’ 2 I was frightened at his words, and he went on, ‘All my work these many years has been no use. I am a failure. I have failed to make the people here realise what is at stake. I am not strong enough, I suppose. I have not been able to make them understand. Winston has always, always understood, and he is strong and will go on to the end.’”

My friend never seemed to recover from this shock. He took it too much to heart. After all, one can always go on doing what one believes to be his duty, and running ever greater risks till knocked out. Wigram’s profound comprehension reacted on his sensitive nature unduly. His untimely death in December, 1936, was an irreparable loss to the Foreign Office, and played its part in the miserable decline of our fortunes.

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When Hitler met his generals after the successful reoccupation of the Rhineland, he was able to confront them with the falsity of their fears and prove to them how superior his judgment or “intuition” was to that of ordinary military men. The generals bowed. As good Germans they were glad to see their country gaining ground so rapidly in Europe and its former adversaries so divided and tame. Undoubtedly Hitler’s prestige and authority in the supreme circle of German power was sufficiently enhanced by this episode to encourage and enable him to march forward to greater tests. To the world he said: “All Germany’s tèrritorial ambitions have now been satisfied.”

France was thrown into incoherency amid which fear of war, and relief that it had been avoided, predominated. The simple English were taught by their simple press to comfort themselves with the reflection: “After all, the Germans are only going back to their own country. How should we feel if we had been kept out of, say, Yorkshire for ten or fifteen years?” No one stopped to note that the detrainment points from which the German Army could invade France had been advanced by one hundred miles. No one worried about the proof given to all the Powers of the Little Entente and to Europe that France would not fight, and that England would hold her back even if she would. This episode confirmed Hitler’s power over the Reich, and stultified, in a manner ignominious and slurring upon their patriotism, the generals who had hitherto sought to restrain him.

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During this exciting period my own personal fortunes were, it now appears, discussed in high quarters. The Prime Minister, under constant pressure, had decided at last to create a new Ministry – not of Defence, but of the Co-ordination of Defence. Neville Chamberlain’s biographer has given some account of this. Austen Chamberlain, whose influence with the Government stood high, thought and said that it was an “immense mistake” to exclude me. Sir Samuel Hoare had returned from convalescence, and in view of the docility with which he had accepted his dismissal after the Hoare-Laval crisis, he evidently had strong claims for re-employment. The Prime Minister thought it would be best for Neville Chamberlain to take the new office, and for Austen to go back to the Exchequer. Neville, who was certain to succeed Baldwin in the immediate future, declined this proposal. “The party,” says Mr. Feiling, “would not have the immediate return of Hoare. If the new Ministry went to Churchill, it would alarm those Liberal and Central elements who had taken his exclusion as a pledge against militarism,3 it would be against the advice of those responsible for interpreting the party’s general will, and would it not when Baldwin disappeared raise a disputed succession?” For a whole month, we are told, “these niceties and gravities were well weighed.”

I was naturally aware that this process was going on. In the debate of March 9, I was careful not to derogate in the slightest degree from my attitude of severe though friendly criticism of Government policy, and I was held to have made a successful speech. I did not consider the constitution of the new office and its powers satisfactory. But I would gladly have accepted the post, being confident that knowledge and experience would prevail. Apparently (according to Mr. Feiling) the German entry into the Rhineland on March 7 was decisive against my appointment. It was certainly obvious that Hitler would not like it. On the ninth, Mr. Baldwin selected Sir Thomas Inskip, an able lawyer, who had the advantages of being little known himself and knowing nothing about military subjects. The Prime Minister’s choice was received with astonishment by press and public. To me this definite, and as it seemed final, exclusion from all share in our preparations for defence was a heavy blow.

I had to be very careful not to lose my poise in the great discussions and debates which crowded upon us and in which I was often prominent. I had to control my feelings and appear serene, indifferent, detached. In this endeavour continuous recurrence to the safety of the country was a good and simple rule. In order to steady and absorb my mind, I planned in outline a history of what had happened since the Treaty of Versailles down to the date we had reached. I even began the opening chapter, and part of what I wrote then finds its place without the need of alteration in this present book. I did not, however, carry this project very far because of the press of events, and also of the current literary work by which I earned my pleasant life at Chartwell. Moreover, by the end of 1936, I became absorbed in my History of the English-Speaking Peoples, which I actually finished before the outbreak of war and which will some day be published. Writing a long and substantial book is like having a friend and companion at your side, to whom you can always turn for comfort and amusement, and whose society becomes more attractive as a new and widening field of interest is lighted in the mind.

Mr. Baldwin certainly had good reason to use the last flickers of his power against one who had exposed his mistakes so severely and so often. Moreover, as a profoundly astute party manager, thinking in majorities and aiming at a quiet life between elections, he did not wish to have my disturbing aid. He thought, no doubt, that he had dealt me a politically fatal stroke, and I felt he might well be right. How little can we foresee the consequences either of wise or unwise action, of virtue or of malice! Without this measureless and perpetual uncertainty, the drama of human life would be destroyed. Mr. Baldwin knew no more than I how great was the service he was doing me in preventing me from becoming involved in all the Cabinet compromises and shortcomings of the next three years, and from having, if I had remained a Minister, to enter upon a war bearing direct responsibility for conditions of national defence bound to prove fearfully inadequate.

This was not the first time – or indeed the last – that I have received a blessing in what was at the time a very effective disguise.

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I still had the hope that the appeal which France had made to the League of Nations would result in bringing into being an international pressure upon Germany to carry out the decisions of the League.

France [I wrote on March 13, 1936] has taken her case before the Court, and she asks for justice there. If the Court finds that her case is just, but is unable to offer any satisfaction, the Covenant of the League of Nations will have been proved a fraud, and collective security a sham. If no means of lawful redress can be offered to the aggrieved party, the whole doctrine of international law and co-operation upon which the hopes of the future are based would lapse ignominiously. It would be replaced immediately by a system of alliances and groups of nations deprived of all guarantees but their own right arm. On the other hand, if the League of Nations were able to enforce its decree upon one of the most powerful countries in the world found to be an aggressor, then the authority of the League would be set upon so majestic a pedestal that it must henceforth be the accepted sovereign authority by which all the quarrels of people can be determined and controlled. Thus we might upon this occasion reach by one single bound the realisation of our most cherished dreams.

But the risk! No one must ignore it. How can it be minimised? There is a simple method: the assembly of an overwhelming force, moral and physical, in support of international law. If the relative strengths are narrowly balanced, war may break out in a few weeks, and no one can measure what the course of war may be, or who will be drawn into its whirlpools, or how, if ever, they will emerge. But if the forces at the disposal of the League of Nations are four or five times as strong as those which the aggressor can as yet command, the chances of a peaceful and friendly solution are very good. Therefore, every nation, great or small, should play its part according to the Covenant of the League.

Upon what force can the League of Nations count at this cardinal moment? Has she sheriffs and constables with whom to sustain her judgments, or is she left alone, impotent, a hollow mockery amid the lip-serving platitudes of irresolute or cynical devotees? Strangely enough for the destiny of the world, there was never a moment or occasion when the League of Nations could command such overwhelming force. The constabulary of the world is at hand. On every side of Geneva stand great nations, armed and ready, whose interests as well as whose obligations bind them to uphold, and in the last resort enforce, the public law. This may never come to pass again. The fateful moment has arrived for choice between the New Age and the Old.

All this language was agreeable to the Liberal and Labour forces with whom I and several of my Conservative friends were at this time working. It united Conservatives alarmed about national safety with trade-unionists, with Liberals, and with the immense body of peace-minded men and women who had signed the Peace Ballot of a year before. There is no doubt that had His Majesty’s Government chosen to act with firmness and resolve through the League of Nations, they could have led a united Britain forward on a final quest to avert war.

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The violation of the Rhineland was not debated till March 26. The interval was partly filled by a meeting of the Council of the League of Nations in London. As the result, Germany was invited to submit to the Hague Court her case against the Franco-Soviet Pact, about which Hitler had complained, and to undertake not to increase her troops in the Rhineland pending further negotiations. If Germany refused this latter request, the British and Italian Governments undertook to carry out the steps entailed by their obligations under the Treaty of Locarno. Not much value could be assigned to the Italian promise. Mussolini was already in close contact with Hitler. Germany felt strong enough to decline any conditions limiting her forces in the Rhineland. Mr. Eden, therefore, insisted that staff conversations should take place between Great Britain, France, and Belgium to enable any joint action which might at some future time become necessary under the Treaty of Locarno to be studied and prepared in advance. The youthful Foreign Secretary made a courageous speech, and carried the House with him. Sir Austen Chamberlain and I both spoke at length in his support. The Cabinet was lukewarm, and it was no easy task for Eden even to procure the institution of staff conversations. Usually such conversations do not play any part as diplomatic counters, and take place secretly or even informally. Now they were the only practical outcome of three weeks’ parleyings and protestations, and the only Allied reply to Hitler’s breach of the Treaty and solid gain of the Rhineland.

In the course of my speech I said:

We cannot look back with much pleasure on our foreign policy in the last five years. They certainly have been disastrous years. God forbid that I should lay on the Government of my own country the charge of responsibility for the evils which have come upon the world in that period…. But certainly we have seen the most depressing and alarming change in the outlook of mankind which has ever taken place in so short a period. Five years ago all felt safe; five years ago all were looking forward to peace, to a period in which mankind would rejoice in the treasures which science can spread to all classes if conditions of peace and justice prevail. Five years ago to talk of war would have been regarded not only as a folly and a crime, but almost as a sign of lunacy….

The violation of the Rhineland is serious because of the menace to which it exposes Holland, Belgium, and France. I listened with apprehension to what the Secretary of State said about the Germans declining even to refrain from entrenching themselves during the period of negotiations. When there is a line of fortifications, as I suppose there will be in a very short time, it will produce reactions on the European situation. It will be a barrier across Germany’s front door which will leave her free to sally out eastwards and southwards by the other doors.

The far-reaching consequences of the fortification of the Rhineland were only gradually comprehended in Britain and the United States. On April 6, when the Government asked for a vote of confidence in their foreign policy, I recurred to this subject:

Herr Hitler has torn up the Treaties and has garrisoned the Rhineland. His troops are there, and there they are going to stay. All this means that the Nazi régime has gained a new prestige in Germany and in all the neighbouring countries. But more than that, Germany is now fortifying the Rhine zone or is about to fortify it. No doubt it will take some time. We are told that in the first instance only field entrenchments will be erected, but those who know to what perfection the Germans can carry field entrenchments, like the Hindenburg Line, with all the masses of concrete and the underground chambers there included, will realise that field entrenchments differ only in degree from permanent fortifications, and work steadily up from the first cutting of the sods to their final and perfect form.

I do not doubt that the whole of the German frontier opposite to France is to be fortified as strongly and as speedily as possible. Three, four, or six months will certainly see a barrier of enormous strength. What will be the diplomatic and strategic consequences of that? … The creation of a line of forts opposite to the French frontier will enable the German troops to be economised on that line, and will enable the main forces to swing round through Belgium and Holland…. Then look East. There the consequences of the Rhineland fortifications may be more immediate. That is to us a less direct danger, but it is a more imminent danger. The moment those fortifications are completed, and in proportion as they are completed, the whole aspect of middle Europe is changed. The Baltic States, Poland and Czechoslovakia, with which must be associated Yugoslavia, Rumania, Austria, and some other countries, are all affected very decisively the moment that this great work of construction has been completed,

Every word of this warning was successively and swiftly proved true.

* * * * *

After the occupation of the Rhineland and the development of the line of fortifications against France, the incorporation of Austria in the German Reich was evidently to be the next step. The story that had opened with the murder of Chancellor Dollfuss in July, 1934, had soon another and a consequential chapter to unfold. With illuminating candour, as we now know, the German Foreign Minister Neurath told the American Ambassador in Moscow, Mr. Bullitt, on May 18, 1936, that it was the policy of the German Government to do nothing active in foreign affairs until the Rhineland had been digested. He explained that until the German defences had been built on the French and Belgian frontiers, the German Government would do everything to prevent rather than encourage an outbreak by the Nazis in Austria, and that they would pursue a quiet line with regard to Czechoslovakia. “As soon as our fortifications are constructed,” he said, “and the countries in Central Europe realise that France cannot enter German territory, all these countries will begin to feel very differently about their foreign policies, and a new constellation will develop.” Neurath further informed Mr. Bullitt that the youth of Austria was turning more and more towards the Nazis, and the dominance of the Nazi Party in Austria was inevitable and only a question of time. But the governing factor was the completion of the German fortifications on the French frontier, for otherwise a German quarrel with Italy might lead to a French attack on Germany.

On May 21, 1936, Hitler in a speech to the Reichstag declared that “Germany neither intends nor wishes to interfere in the internal affairs of Austria, to annex Austria, or to conclude an Anschluss.” On July 11, 1936, he signed a pact with the Austrian Government agreeing not to influence in any way the internal affairs of Austria, and especially not to give any active support to the Austrian National-Socialist Movement. Within five days of this agreement secret instructions were sent to the National-Socialist Party in Austria to extend and intensify their activities. Meanwhile, the German General Staff under Hitler’s orders were set to draw up military plans for the occupation of Austria when the hour should strike.

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