Military history

16

Czechoslovakia

An Unlikely Historical Controversy — Hitler’s Next Objective — “No Evil Intentions Towards Czechoslovakia” — M. Blum’s Pledge — My Visit to Paris, March, 1938 — M. Daladier Succeeds M. Blum — The Anglo-Italian Pact — An Interview with the Sudeten Leader — Misgivings and Reluctance of the German Generals — The Relations of Soviet Russia with Czechoslovakia  Stalin and Benes — Plot and Purge in Russia  M. Daladier’s Declaration of June 12 — Hitler’s Promise to Keitel — Captain Wiedemann’s Mission to London  I Address My Constituents at Theydon Bois, August 27 — My Letter to Lord Halifax of August 31 — The Soviet Ambassador’s Visit to Chartwell — My Report to the Foreign Office — “The Times” Leading Article of September — M. Bonnet’s Question and the British Answer — Hitler’s Crisis Speech at Nuremberg.

FOR SOME YEARS It seemed that the question whether Britain and France were wise or foolish in the Munich episode would become a matter of long historical controversy. However, the revelations which have been made from German sources, and particularly at the Nuremberg Trials, have rendered this unlikely. The two main issues in dispute were: first, whether decisive action by Britain and France would have forced Hitler to recede or have led to his overthrow by a military conspiracy; secondly, whether the year that intervened between Munich and the outbreak of war placed the Western Powers relatively in a better or worse position, compared with Germany, than in September, 1938.

Many volumes have been written, and will be written, upon the crisis that was ended at Munich by the sacrifice of Czechoslovakia; and it is only intended here to give a few of the cardinal facts and establish the main proportions of events. These follow inexorably from Hitler’s resolve to reunite all Germans in a Greater Reich and to expand eastwards, and his conviction that the men at the head of France and Britain would not fight owing to their love of peace and failure to rearm. The usual technique was employed against Czechoslovakia. The grievances, which were not unreal, of the Sudeten Germans were magnified and exploited. The public case was opened against Czechoslovakia by Hitler in his speech to the Reichstag on February 20, 1938. “Over ten million Germans,” he said, “live in two of the states adjoining our frontier.” It was the duty of Germany to protect those fellow Germans and secure to them “general freedom, personal, political, and ideological.”

This public announcement of the intention of the German Government to interest themselves in the position of the German inhabitants of Austria and Czechoslovakia was intimately related to the secret planning of Germany’s political offensive in Europe. The declared objectives of the Nazi German Government were twofold – the absorption by the Reich of all German minorities living beyond her frontiers, and thereby the extension of her living space in the East. The less publicised purpose of German policy was military in character – the liquidation of Czechoslovakia with its potentialities both as a Russian air base and as an Anglo-French military makeweight in event of war. As early as June, 1937, the German General Staff had been, on Hitler’s instructions, busy at work drafting plans for the invasion and destruction of the Czechoslovak State.

One draft reads:

The aim and object of this surprise attack by the German armed forces should be to eliminate from the very beginning and for the duration of the war the threat from Czechoslovakia to the rear of the operations in the West, and to take from the Russian air force the most substantial portion of its operational base in Czechoslovakia.1

The acceptance by the Western Democracies of the German subjugation of Austria encouraged Hitler to pursue his designs more sharply against Czechoslovakia. The military control of Austrian territory was in fact intended to be the indispensable preliminary to the assault on the Bohemian bastion. While the invasion of Austria was in full swing, Hitler said in the motor-car to General von Halder: “This will be very inconvenient to the Czechs.” Halder saw immediately the significance of this remark. To him it lighted up the future. It showed him Hitler’s intentions, and at the same time, as he viewed it, Hitler’s military ignorance. “It was practically impossible,” he has explained, “for a German army to attack Czechoslovakia from the south. The single railway line through Linz was completely exposed, and surprise was out of the question.” But Hitler’s main political-strategic conception was correct. The West Wall was growing, and although far from complete, already confronted the French Army with horrible memories of the Somme and Passchendaele. He was convinced that neither France nor Britain would fight.

On the day of the march of the German armies into Austria, the French Ambassador in Berlin reported that Goering had given a solemn assurance to the Czech Minister in Berlin that Germany had “no evil intentions towards Czechoslovakia.” On March 14, the French Premier, M. Blum, solemnly declared to the Czech Minister in Paris that France would unreservedly honour her engagements to Czechoslovakia. These diplomatic reassurances could not conceal the grim reality. The whole strategic position on the Continent had changed. The German arguments and armies could now concentrate directly upon the western frontiers of Czechoslovakia, whose border districts were German in racial character, with an aggressive and active German Nationalist Party eager to act as a fifth column in event of trouble.

At the end of March, I went to Paris and had searching conversations with the French leaders. The Government were agreeable to my going to vivify my French contacts. I stayed at our Embassy and saw in a continued succession many of the principal French figures, Premier Léon Blum, Flandin, General Gamelin, Paul Reynaud, Pierre Cot, Herriot, Louis Marin, and others. To Blum I said at one moment, “The German field howitzer is believed to be superior in range and of course in striking power to the soizante-quinze even when relined.” He replied, “Is it from you that I am to learn the state of the French artillery?” I said, “No, but ask your Ecole Poly-technique, who are by no means convinced by the exposition lately given to them of the relative power of the modernised soizante-quinze.” He was immediately genial and friendly. Reynaud said to me, “We quite understand that England will never have conscription. Why do you not, therefore, go in for a mechanical army? If you had six armoured divisions, you would indeed be an effective Continental force,” or words to that effect. It seemed that a Colonel de Gaulle had written a much-criticised book about the offensive power of modern armoured vehicles. Here was one of the roots of the matter.

The Ambassador and I had a long luncheon alone with Flandin. He was quite a different man from the one I had known in 1936; then responsible and agitated; now out of office, cool, massive, and completely convinced that there was no hope for France except in an arrangement with Germany. We argued for two hours. Gamelin, who also visited me, was rightly confident in the strength of the French Army at the moment, but none too comfortable when I questioned him upon the artillery, about which he had precise knowledge. He was always trying his best within the limits of the French political system. But the attention of the French Government to the dangers of the European scene was distracted by the ceaseless whirlpool of internal politics at the moment and by the imminent fall of the Blum Government. It was all the more essential that our common and mutual obligations in the event of a general crisis should be established without any trace of misunderstanding. On April 10, the French Government was re-formed with M. Daladier as Premier and M. Bonnet as Minister for Foreign Affairs. These two men were to bear the responsibility for French policy in the critical months ahead.

In the hope of deterring Germany from a further aggression, the British Government, in accordance with Mr. Chamberlain’s resolve, sought a settlement with Italy in the Mediterranean. This would strengthen the position of France, and would enable both the French and British to concentrate upon events in Central Europe. Mussolini, to some extent placated by the fall of Eden, and feeling himself in a strong bargaining position, did not repulse the British repentance. On April 16, 1938, an Anglo-Italian agreement was signed giving Italy in effect a free hand in Abyssinia and Spain in return for the imponderable value of Italian good will in Central Europe. The Foreign Office was sceptical of this transaction. Mr. Chamberlain’s biographer tells us that he wrote in a personal and private letter, “You should have seen the draft put up to me by the F.O.; it would have frozen a Polar bear.” 2

I shared the misgivings of the Foreign Office at this move:

Mr. Churchill to Mr. Eden.

18.IV.38.

The Italian Pact is, of course, a complete triumph for Mussolini, who gains our cordial acceptance for his fortification of the Mediterranean against us, for his conquest of Abyssinia, and for his violence in Spain. The fact that we are not to fortify Cyprus without “previous consultation” is highly detrimental. The rest of it is to my mind only padding.

Nevertheless, I feel that considerable caution is necessary in opposing the agreement bluntly. It is a done thing. It is called a move towards peace. It undoubtedly makes it less likely that sparks from the Mediterranean should light a European conflagration. France will have to follow suit for her own protection, in order not to be divided from Britain. Finally, there is the possibility that Mussolini may be drawn by his interests to discourage German interference in the Danube Basin.

Before making up my mind, I should like to know your views and intentions. I think the Anglo-Italian Pact is only the first step, and that the second will be an attempt to patch up something even more specious with Germany, which will lull the British public while letting the German armed strength grow and German designs in the East of Europe develop.

Chamberlain last week told the Executive of the National Union [of Conservative Associations] in secret that he “had not abandoned hopes of similar arrangements with Germany.” They took this rather coldly.

Meanwhile, our progress in the air is increasingly disappointing….

Mr. Eden to Mr. Churchill.

28.IV.38.

… With regard to the Italian Pact, I agree with what you write. Mussolini gives us nothing more than the repetition of promises previously made and broken by him, except for the withdrawal of troops from Libya, troops which were probably originally sent there for their nuisance value. It has now become clear that, as I expected, Mussolini continued his intervention in Spain after the conversations in Rome had opened. He must be an optimist, indeed, who believes that Mussolini will cease increasing that intervention now, should it be required to secure Franco’s victory.

As a diplomatic instrument the pact embodies a machinery which is likely to be found very troublesome to work. It is not to come into force until after the Italians leave Spain. It is almost certain, however, that many months will elapse before that occurs, and since what is important is not the presence of Italian infantry, but the assertions of their experts and the Germans, it will be difficult to establish with certainty that the withdrawal has taken place. But maybe some do not mind much about that.

Then there is the Italian position in Abyssinia, which, from what I hear, so far from improving grows steadily worse. I am afraid that the moment we are choosing for its recognition will not benefit our authority among the many millions of the King’s coloured subjects.

None the less I equally agree as to the need for caution in any attitude taken up towards the agreement. After all, it is not an agreement yet, and it would be wrong certainly for me to say anything which could be considered as making its fruition more difficult. After all, this is precisely what I promised I would do in my resignation speech and at Leamington.

The most anxious feature of the international situation, as I see it, is that temporary relaxation of tension may be taken as a pretext for the relaxation of national effort, which is already inadequate to the gravity of the times….

Hitler was watching the scene with vigilance. To him also the ultimate alignment of Italy in a European crisis was important. In conference with his Chiefs of Staff at the end of April, he was considering how to force the pace. Mussolini wanted a free hand in Abyssinia. In spite of the acquiescence of the British Government, he might ultimately need German support in this venture. If so, he should accept German action against Czechoslovakia. This issue must be brought to a head, and in the settling of the Czech question, Italy would be involved on Germany’s side. The declarations of British and French statesmen were, of course, studied in Berlin. The intention of these Western Powers to persuade the Czechs to be reasonable in the interests of European peace was noted with satisfaction. The Nazi Party of the Sudetenland, led by Henlein, now formulated their demands for autonomy in the German-border regions of that country. Their programme had been announced in Henlein’s speech at Carlsbad on April 24. The British and French Ministers in Prague called on the Czech Foreign Minister shortly after this to “express the hope that the Czech Government will go to the furthest limit in order to settle the question.”

During May, the Germans in Czechoslovakia were ordered to increase their agitation. On May 12, Henlein visited London to acquaint the British Government with the wrongs inflicted upon his followers. He expressed a wish to see me. I therefore arranged a talk at Morpeth Mansions the next day, at which Sir Archibald Sinclair was present, and Professor Lindemann was our interpreter.

Henlein’s solution, as he described it, may be summed up as follows:

There should be a central Parliament in Prague, which should have control of foreign policy, defence, finance, and communications. All parties should be entitled to express their views there, and the Government would act on majority decisions. The frontier fortresses could be manned by Czech troops, who would of course have unhindered access thereto. The Sudeten German regions, and possibly the other minority districts, should enjoy local autonomy; that is to say, they should have their own town and county councils, and a diet in which matters of common regional concern could be debated within definitely delimited frontiers. He would be prepared to submit questions of fact, e.g., the tracing of the boundary, to an impartial tribunal, perhaps even appointed by the League of Nations. All parties would be free to organise and offer themselves for election, and impartial courts of justice would function in autonomous districts. The officials, i.e., postal, railway, and police officers, in the German-speaking regions, would of course be German-speaking, and a reasonable proportion of the total taxes collected should be returned to these regions for their administration.

M. Masaryk, the Czech Minister in London, who was afterwards informed of this conversation, professed himself contented with a settlement on these lines. A peaceful solution of admitted racial and minority quarrels compatible with the independence of the Czech Republic was by no means impossible, if there were German good faith and good will. But on this condition I had no illusions.

On May 17, negotiations about the Sudeten question began between Henlein, who had visited Hitler on his return journey, and the Czech Government. Municipal elections were due in Czechoslovakia, and the German Government began a calculated war of nerves in preparation for them. Persistent rumours already circulated of German troop movements towards the Czech frontier. On May 20, Sir Nevile Henderson was requested to make inquiries in Berlin on this matter. German denials did not reassure the Czechs, who on the night of May 20/21 decreed a partial mobilisation of their army.

* * * * *

It is important at this stage to consider the German intentions. Hitler had for some time been convinced that neither France nor Britain would fight for Czechoslovakia. On May 28, he called a meeting of his principal advisers and gave instructions for the preparations to attack Czechoslovakia. He declared this later in public in a speech to the Reichstag on January 30, 1939:

In view of this intolerable provocation … I resolved to settle once and for all, and this time radically, the Sudeten-German question. On May 28, I ordered (1) that preparations should be made for military action against this state by October 2; and (2) the immense and accelerated expansion of our defensive front in the West.3

His service advisers, however, did not share unanimously his overwhelming confidence. The German generals could not be persuaded, considering the still enormous preponderance of Allied strength except in the air, that France and Britain would submit to the Fuehrer’s challenge. To break the Czech Army and pierce or turn the Bohemian fortress line would require practically the whole of thirty-five divisions. The German Chiefs of Staff informed Hitler that the Czech Army must be considered efficient and up-to-date in arms and equipment. The fortifications of the West Wall or Siegfried Line, though already in existence as field works, were far from completed. Thus, at the moment of attacking the Czechs only five effective and eight reserve divisions would be available to protect the whole of Germany’s western frontier against the French Army, which could mobilise a hundred divisions. The generals were aghast at running such risks, when by waiting a few years the German Army would again be master. Although Hitler’s political judgment had been proved correct by the pacifism and weakness of the Allies about conscription, the Rhineland, and Austria, the German High Command could not believe that Hitler’s bluff would succeed a fourth time. It seemed so much beyond the bounds of reason that great victorious nations, possessing evident military superiority, would once again abandon the path of duty and honour, which was also for them the path of common sense and prudence. Besides all this, there was Russia, with her Slav affinities with Czechoslovakia, and whose attitude towards Germany at this juncture was full of menace.

The relations of Soviet Russia with Czechoslovakia as a state, and personally with President Benes, were those of intimate and solid friendship. The roots of this lay in a certain racial affinity, and also in comparatively recent events which require a brief digression. When President Benes visited me at Marrakesh in January, 1944, he told me this story. In 1935, he had received an offer from Hitler to respect in all circumstances the integrity of Czechoslovakia in return for a guarantee that she would remain neutral in the event of a Franco-German war. When Benes pointed to his treaty obliging him to act with France in such a case, the German Ambassador replied that there was no need to denounce the treaty. It would be sufficient to break it, if and when the time came, by simply failing to mobilise or march. The small Republic was not in a position to indulge in indignation at such a suggestion. Their fear of Germany was already very grave, more especially as the question of the Sudeten Germans might at any time be raised and fomented by Germany, to their extreme embarrassment and growing peril. They therefore let the matter drop without comment or commitment, and it did not stir for more than a year. In the autumn of 1936, a message from a high military source in Germany was conveyed to President Benes to the effect that if he wanted to take advantage of the Fuehrer’s offer, he had better be quick, because events would shortly take place in Russia rendering any help he could give to Germany insignificant.

While Benes was pondering over this disturbing hint, he became aware that communications were passing through the Soviet Embassy in Prague between important personages in Russia and the German Government. This was a part of the so-called military and Old-Guard Communist conspiracy to overthrow Stalin and introduce a new régime based on a pro-German policy. President Benes lost no time in communicating all he could find out to Stalin.4 Thereafter there followed the merciless, but perhaps not needless, military and political purge in Soviet Russia, and the series of trials in January, 1937, in which Vyshinsky, the Public Prosecutor, played so masterful a part.

Although it is highly improbable that the Old-Guard Communists had made common cause with the military leaders, or vice versa, they were certainly filled with jealousy of Stalin, who had ousted them. It may, therefore, have been convenient to get rid of them at the same time, according to the standards maintained in a totalitarian state. Zinoviev, Bukharin, Radek, and others of the original leaders of the Revolution, Marshal Tukachevsky, who had represented the Soviet Union at the Coronation of King George VI, and many other high officers of the Army, were shot. In all not less than five thousand officers and officials above the rank of captain were “liquidated.” The Russian Army was purged of its pro-German elements at a heavy cost to its military efficiency. The bias of the Soviet Government was turned in a marked manner against Germany. Stalin was conscious of a personal debt to President Benes; and a very strong desire to help him and his threatened country against the Nazi peril animated the Soviet Government. The situation was, of course, thoroughly understood by Hitler; but I am not aware that the British and French Governments were equally enlightened. To Mr. Chamberlain and the British and French General Staffs the purge of 1937 presented itself mainly as a tearing to pieces internally of the Russian Army, and a picture of the Soviet Union as riven asunder by ferocious hatreds and vengeance. This was perhaps an excessive view; for a system of government founded on terror may well be strengthened by a ruthless and successful assertion of its power. The salient fact for the purposes of this account is the close association of Russia and Czechoslovakia, and of Stalin and Benes.

But neither the internal stresses in Germany nor the ties between Benes and Stalin were known to the outside world, or appreciated by the British and French Ministers. The Siegfried Line, albeit unperfected, seemed a fearful deterrent. The exact strength and fighting power of the German Army, new though it was, could not be accurately estimated and was certainly exaggerated. There were also the unmeasured dangers of air attack on undefended cities. Above all there was the hatred of war in the hearts of the democracies.

Nevertheless, on June 12, M. Daladier renewed his predecessor’s pledge of March 14, and declared that France’s engagements towards Czechoslovakia “are sacred, and cannot be evaded.” This considerable statement sweeps away all chatter about the Treaty of Locarno thirteen years before having by implication left everything in the East vague pending an Eastern Locarno. There can be no doubt before history that the treaty between France and Czechoslovakia of 1924 had complete validity, not only in law but in fact; and that this was reaffirmed by successive heads of the French Government in all the circumstances of 1938.

But on this subject, Hitler was convinced that his judgment alone was sound, and on June 18 he issued a final directive for the attack on Czechoslovakia, in the course of which he sought to reassure his anxious generals.

Hitler to Keitel:

I will decide to take action against Czechoslovakia only if I am firmly convinced, as in the case of the demilitarised zone and the entry into Austria, that France will not march, and that therefore England will not intervene.5

With the object of confusing the issue, Hitler at the beginning of July sent his personal aide, Captain Wiedemann, to London. This envoy was received by Lord Halifax on July 18, ostensibly without the knowledge of the German Embassy. The Fuehrer was, it was suggested, hurt at our lack of response to his overtures in the past. Perhaps the British Government would receive Goering in London for fuller discussions. The Germans might, in certain circumstances, be prepared to delay action against the Czechs for a year. A few days later, Chamberlain took up this possibility with the German Ambassador. To clear the ground in Prague, the British Prime Minister had already suggested to the Czechs the sending of an investigator to Czechoslovakia to promote a friendly compromise. The royal visit to Paris on July 20 gave Halifax the opportunity of discussing this proposal with the French Government, and in a brief interchange of views both Governments agreed to make this effort at mediation.

On July 26, 1938, Chamberlain announced to Parliament the mission of Lord Runciman to Prague with the object of seeking a solution there by arrangements between the Czech Government and Herr Henlein. On the following day, the Czechs issued a draft statute for national minorities to form a basis of negotiation. On the same day, Lord Halifax stated in Parliament: “I do not believe that those responsible for the Government of any country in Europe today want war.” On August 3, Lord Runciman reached Prague, and a series of interminable and complicated discussions took place with the various interested parties. Within a fortnight these negotiations broke down; and from this point events moved rapidly.

On August 27, Ribbentrop, now Foreign Minister, reported a visit which he had received from the Italian Ambassador in Berlin, who “had received another written instruction from Mussolini asking that Germany would communicate in time the probable date of action against Czechoslovakia.” Mussolini asked for such notification in order “to be able to take in due time the necessary measures on the French frontier.”

* * * * *

Anxiety grew steadily during August. To my constituents I said on the twenty-seventh:

It is difficult for us in this ancient forest of Theydon Bois, the very name of which carries us back to Norman days – here, in the heart of peaceful, law-abiding England – to realise the ferocious passions which are rife in Europe. During this anxious month you have no doubt seen reports in the newspapers, one week good, another week bad; one week better, another week worse. But I must tell you that the whole state of Europe and of the world is moving steadily towards a climax which cannot be long delayed.

War is certainly not inevitable. But the danger to peace will not be removed until the vast German armies which have been called from their homes into the ranks have been dispersed. For a country which is itself not menaced by anyone, in no fear of anyone, to place fifteen hundred thousand soldiers upon a war footing is a very grave step…. It seems to me, and I must tell it to you plainly, that these great forces have not been placed upon a war footing without an intention to reach a conclusion within a very limited space of time….

We are all in full agreement with the course our Government have taken in sending Lord Runciman to Prague. We hope – indeed, we pray – that his mission of conciliation will be successful, and certainly it looks as if the Government of Czechoslovakia were doing their utmost to put their house in order, and to meet every demand which is not designed to compass their ruin as a state…. But larger and fiercer ambitions may prevent a settlement, and then Europe and the civilised world will have to face the demands of Nazi Germany, or perhaps be confronted with some sudden violent action on the part of the German Nazi Party, carrying with it the invasion of a small country and its subjugation. Such an episode would not be simply an attack upon Czechoslovakia; it would be an outrage against the civilisation and freedom of the whole world….

Whatever may happen, foreign countries should know – and the Government are right to let them know – that Great Britain and the British Empire must not be deemed incapable of playing their part and doing their duty as they have done on other great occasions which have not yet been forgotten by history.

I was in these days in some contact with Ministers. My relations with Lord Halifax were, of course, marked by the grave political differences which existed between me and His Majesty’s Government, both in defence and foreign policy. In the main Eden and I meant the same thing. I could not feel the same about his successor. None the less, whenever there was any occasion, we met as friends and former colleagues of many years’ standing, and I wrote to him from time to time. Now and then he asked me to go to see him.

Mr. Churchill to Lord Halifax.

31.VIII.38.

If Benes makes good, and Runciman thinks it a fair offer, yet nevertheless it is turned down, it seems to me there are two things which might have been done this week to increase the deterrents against violent action by Hitler, neither of which would commit you to the dread guarantee.

First, would it not be possible to frame a Joint Note between Britain, France, and Russia stating: (a) their desire for peace and friendly relations; (b) their deep anxiety at the military preparations of Germany; (c) their joint interest in a peaceful solution of the Czechoslovak controversy; and (d) that an invasion by Germany of Czechoslovakia would raise capital issues for all three Powers? This Note, when drafted, should be formally shown to Roosevelt by the Ambassadors of the three Powers, and we should use every effort to induce him to do his utmost upon it. It seems to me not impossible that he would then himself address Hitler, emphasising the gravity of the situation, and saying that it seemed to him that a world war would inevitably follow from an invasion of Czechoslovakia, and that he earnestly counselled a friendly settlement.

It seems to me that this process would give the best chance to the peaceful elements in German official circles to make a stand, and that Hitler might find a way out for himself by parleying with Roosevelt. However, none of these developments can be predicted; one only sees them as hopes. The important thing is the Joint Note.

The second step which might save the situation would be fleet movements, and the placing of the reserve flotillas and cruiser squadrons into full commission. I do not suggest calling out the Royal Fleet Reserve or mobilisation, but there are, I believe, five or six flotillas which could be raised to First Fleet scale, and also there are about two hundred trawlers which could be used for antisubmarine work. The taking of these and other measures would make a great stir in the naval ports, the effect of which could only be beneficial as a deterrent, and a timely precaution if the worst happened.

I venture to hope that you will not resent these suggestions from one who has lived through such days before. It is clear that speed is vital.

* * * * *

In the afternoon of September 2, I received a message from the Soviet Ambassador that he would like to come down to Chartwell and see me at once upon a matter of urgency. I had for some time had friendly personal relations with M. Maisky, who also saw a good deal of my son Randolph. I thereupon received the Ambassador, and after a few preliminaries he told me in precise and formal detail the story set out below. Before he had got very far, I realised that he was making a declaration to me, a private person, because the Soviet Government preferred this channel to a direct offer to the Foreign Office which might have encountered a rebuff. It was clearly intended that I should report what I was told to His Majesty’s Government. This was not actually stated by the Ambassador, but it was implied by the fact that no request for secrecy was made. As the matter struck me at once as being of the first importance, I was careful not to prejudice its consideration by Halifax and Chamberlain by proceeding to commit myself in any way, or use language which would excite controversy between us.

Mr. Churchill to Lord Halifax

3.IX.38.

I have received privately from an absolutely sure source the following information, which I feel it my duty to report to you, although I was not asked to do so.

Yesterday, September 2, the French Chargé d’Affaires in Moscow (the Ambassador being on leave) called upon M. Litvinov and, in the name of the French Government, asked him what aid Russia would give to Czechoslovakia against a German attack, having regard particularly to the difficulties which might be created by the neutrality of Poland or Rumania. Litvinov asked in reply what the French would do themselves, pointing out that the French had a direct obligation, whereas the Russian obligation was dependent on the action of France. The French Chargé d’Affaires did not reply to this question. Nevertheless, Litvinov stated to him, first, that the Russian Soviet Union had resolved to fulfil their obligations. He recognised the difficulties created by the attitude of Poland and Rumania, but he thought that in the case of Rumania these could be overcome.

In the last few months the policy of the Rumanian Government had been markedly friendly to Russia, and their relations had greatly improved. M. Litvinov thought that the best way to overcome the reluctance of Rumania would be through the agency of the League of Nations. If, for instance, the League decided that Czechoslovakia was the victim of aggression and that Germany was the aggressor, that would probably determine the action of Rumania in regard to allowing Russian troops and air forces to pass through her territory.

The French Chargé d’Affaires raised the point that the Council might not be unanimous, and was answered that M. Litvinov thought a majority decision would be sufficient, and that Rumania would probably associate herself with the majority in the vote of the Council. M. Litvinov, therefore, advised that the Council of the League should be invoked under Article 11, on the ground that there was danger of war, and that the League Powers should consult together. He thought the sooner this was done the better, as time might be very short. He next proceeded to tell the French Chargé d’Affaires that staff conversations ought immediately to take place between Russia, France, and Czechoslovakia as to the means and measures of giving assistance. The Soviet Union was ready to join in such staff conversations at once.

Fourthly, he recurred to his interview of March 17, of which you no doubt have a copy in the Foreign Office, advocating consultation among the peaceful Powers about the best method of preserving peace, with a view, perhaps, to a joint declaration including the three Great Powers concerned, France, Russia, and Great Britain. He believed that the United States would give moral support to such a declaration. All these statements were made on behalf of the Russian Government as what they think may be the best way of stopping a war.

I pointed out that the news today seemed to indicate a more peaceful attitude on the part of Herr Hitler, and that I thought it was unlikely that the British Government would consider any further steps until or unless there was a fresh breakdown in the Henlein-Benes negotiations in which the fault could not on any account be attributed to the Government of Czechoslovakia. We should not want to irritate Herr Hitler, if his mind was really turning towards a peaceful solution.

All this may, of course, have reached you through other channels, but I considered the declarations of M. Litvinov so important that I ought not to leave this to chance.

I sent the report to Lord Halifax as soon as I had dictated it, and he replied on September 5 in a guarded manner, that he did not at present feel that action of the kind proposed under Article 11 would be helpful, but that he would keep it in his mind. “For the present, I think, as you indicated, we must review the situation in the light of the report with which Henlein has returned from Berchtesgaden.” He added that the situation remained very anxious.

* * * * *

In its leading article of September 7, The Times stated:

If the Sudetens now ask for more than the Czech Government are ready to give in their latest set of proposals, it can only be inferred that the Germans are going beyond the mere removal of disabilities for those who do not find themselves at ease within the Czechoslovak Republic. In that case it might be worth while for the Czechoslovak Government to consider whether they should exclude altogether the project, which has found favour in some quarters, of making Czechoslovakia a more homogeneous state by the cession of that fringe of alien populations who are contiguous to the nation to which they are united by race.

This, of course, involved the surrender of the whole of the Bohemian fortress line. Although the British Government stated at once that this Times article did not represent their views, public opinion abroad, particularly in France, was far from reassured. During the course of the same day – September 7 – the French Ambassador in London called on Lord Halifax on behalf of his Government to ask for a clarification of the British position in event of a German attack on Czechoslovakia.

M. Bonnet, then French Foreign Minister, declares that on September 10, 1938, he put the following question to our Ambassador in Paris, Sir Eric Phipps: “Tomorrow Hitler may attack Czechoslovakia. If he does, France will mobilise at once. She will turn to you, saying, ‘We march: do you march with us?’ What will be the answer of Great Britain?”

The following was the answer approved by the Cabinet, sent by Lord Halifax through Sir Eric Phipps on the twelfth:

I naturally recognise of what importance it would be to the French Government to have a plain answer to such a question. But, as you pointed out to Bonnet, the question itself, though plain in form, cannot be dissociated from the circumstances in which it might be posed, which are necessarily at this stage completely hypothetical.

Moreover, in this matter it is impossible for His Majesty’s Government to have regard only to their own position, inasmuch as in any decision they may reach or action they may take they would, in fact, be committing the Dominions. Their Governments would quite certainly be unwilling to have their position in any way decided for them in advance of the actual circumstances, of which they would desire themselves to judge.

So far, therefore, as I am in a position to give any answer at this stage to M. Bonnet’s question, it would have to be that while His Majesty’s Government would never allow the security of France to be threatened, they are unable to make precise statements of the character of their future action, or the time at which it would be taken, in circumstances that they cannot at present foresee.6

Upon the statement that “His Majesty’s Government would never allow the security of France to be threatened,” the French asked what aid they could expect if it were. The reply from London was, according to Bonnet, two divisions, not motorised, and one hundred and fifty airplanes during the first six months of the war. If M. Bonnet was seeking for an excuse for leaving the Czechs to their fate, it must be admitted that his search had met with some success.

On September 12 also, Hitler delivered at a Nuremberg Party rally a violent attack on the Czechs, who replied on the following day by the establishment of martial law in certain districts of the Republic. On September 14, negotiations with Henlein were definitely broken off, and on the fifteenth the Sudeten leader fled to Germany.

The summit of the crisis was now reached.

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