No. 36 & 48: Messages from Henderson to Halifax on Danzig

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15 Jul 1939

ww2dbase----- The British War Bluebook No. 36 -----
From: Sir Nevile Henderson, British Ambassador to Germany
Sent: Saturday, 15 Jul 1939
To: Viscount Halifax, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs

My Lord, Berlin, July 15, 1939.

I TOOK the opportunity of a visit to the State Secretary yesterday to mention to him that I had been informed that one of the Under-Secretaries at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, Dr. Keppler, had said that Herr Hitler was convinced that England would never fight over Danzig.

2. I said to Baron von Weizs├Ącker that when I was in London I had assured your Lordship and the Prime Minister that Herr Hitler could not possibly be in any doubt as to the facts of the case, namely, that, if Germany by unilateral action at Danzig in any form compelled the Poles to resist, Britain would at once come to their assistance. He (Baron von Weizs├Ącker) could not himself be under any misapprehension on the subject, and it seemed to me highly undesirable that a member of his Department should talk in this misleading fashion. That sort of remark would be repeated in London, and would once more make His Majesty's Government wonder what further steps they could take to convince Herr Hitler that they were in earnest. It was solely because they doubted whether Herr Hitler was correctly informed on this point that they continued to reiterate their determination to resist force by force in future. If Herr Hitler wanted war, it was quite simple. He had only to tell the Danzigers to proclaim the re-attachment of the Free City to Germany. Obviously that would put the onus of action on the Poles, but not even that would cause us to hesitate to support them, if Germany attacked them, since we would realise quite well that the Senate at Danzig would only adopt such a resolution on the direct order of the Chancellor.

3. Baron von Weizs├Ącker observed that he was not so certain that the Senate would not act one day of its own accord. I told him that I could not possibly believe that, especially as I clearly realized that the Senate would have already so acted if it had not been for Herr Hitler's orders to the contrary. That he had given those orders was one of the chief grounds for my belief that Herr Hitler still sought a peaceable solution of this question. Nor did the State Secretary demur to this.

4. As regards my general observations, Baron von Weizs├Ącker said that Dr. Keppler, who had been in the early days a kind of economic adviser of Herr Hitler's and still saw him occasionally at long intervals, was an honest man, who was also in fairly close relations with Herr von Ribbentrop. There were Baron von Weizs├Ącker said, so many distinctions about a statement to the effect that England would not go to war over Danzig. Anybody, including Herr Hitler himself, might well say that England did not wish to fight about Danzig, and it would be true. Nor did Germany. Anybody, including Herr Hitler, might say that one day Danzig would revert without war to Germany, and that might equally be true as the result of a pacific settlement with the Poles in their own true interests.

5. I admitted that there were possibilities of twisting the facts. Yet these were, I said, plain enough, and His Majesty's Government could never be reproached this time, as they had been in 1914, of not having made their position clear beyond all doubt. If Herr Hitler wanted war, he knew exactly how he could bring it about. Baron von Weizs├Ącker replied to this that he would also draw a distinction about the position in 1914. He had never reproached Sir Edward Grey for not having publicly announced British intentions at that time. The fault, in his opinion, had been that His Majesty's Government had not made them known privately to the German Government before it was too late. Why did His Majesty's Government to-day insist all the time upon these public utterances? If something had to be said to Herr Hitler, why could it not be said privately without all the world being kept informed? That had been the mistake last year during the Czech crisis. Public warnings only made it more difficult for Herr Hitler to heed them.

6. Though I appreciate personally the force of this hint of the State Secretary's in favour of the private communication rather than the public warning, I confined myself to replying that one of our main causes for anxiety in England was our belief that disagreeable facts were withheld from Herr Hitler by those who were responsible for making them known to him. To this Baron von Weizs├Ącker replied that, while he could not tell me what reports the Chancellor read or did not read, Herr Hitler was influenced by nobody, but regarded situations as a whole and was guided solely by his own appreciations of them.

I have, &c.


----- The British War Bluebook No. 48 -----
From: Sir Nevile Henderson, British Ambassador to Germany
Sent: Wednesday, 16 Aug 1939
To: Viscount Halifax, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs

Berlin, August 16, 1939.

STATE Secretary, whom I visited yesterday evening, said at once that the situation had very gravely deteriorated since 4th August. When I last saw him he had regarded the position as less dangerous than last year; now he considered it no less dangerous and most urgent. Deterioration was due firstly to Polish ultimatum to Danzig Senate of 4th August, and secondly to last sentence-which he quoted-of Polish reply to German Government of 10th August, but also in general to the unmistakable set policy of persecution and extermination of the German minority in Poland.

I told Baron von Weizs├Ącker that there was quite another side to the case. Polish note of 4th August had been necessitated by the succession of measures, and particularly military ones, undertaken in Danzig with view to undermining the Polish position there; Polish reply of 10th August had been provoked by German verbal note of 9th August, and moreover only described as aggression "acts to the detriment of Polish rights and interests"; and Polish Ambassador had only the day before complained to me of the number of cases of persecution of Polish minority in Germany.

State Secretary replied with some heat that though isolated cases of persecution of Poles had occurred, there was absolutely no comparison between them and what was being done in Poland. Hitherto, he said, not too much stress had been laid in the German papers on what was happening in this respect, but there was a limit to everything and that limit had now been reached. As he put it the bottle was full to the top. (In other words Herr Hitler's patience was now exhausted.)

He admitted the militarisation of Danzig, but said that its object had been entirely defensive in order to protect the town against what should have been its protector.

As regards the Polish note of 10th August he said that if any German intervention to the detriment of Polish rights and interests in Danzig was to be regarded as an act of aggression, it meant asking Germany to disinterest herself altogether in the Free City, since the whole basis of her former negotiations with Poland had been with a view to modifying the position there in favour of Germany. It was a claim which made the whole situation intolerable and even His Majesty's Government had admitted that there might be modifications to be made.

I told Baron von Weizs├Ącker that the trouble was that Germany could never see but one side to any question, and always wanted everything modified in her favour. We disputed with acrimony about the rights and wrongs of the case without either apparently convincing the other. With these details I need not trouble you.

I eventually said that what was done could not now be undone. We seemed to be rapidly drifting towards a situation in which neither side would be in a position to give way and from which war would ensue. Did Herr Hitler want war? I was prepared to believe that Germany would not yield to intimidation. Nor certainly could His Majesty's Government. If Germany resorted to force, we would resist with force. There could be no possible doubt whatsoever about that. The position had been finally defined in your Lordship's speech at Chatham House on 29th June and by the Prime Minister's statement in the House of Commons on 10th July. From that attitude we could not deviate.

In reply to a suggestion of mine, State Secretary observed that whereas it might just have been possible before 5th August, it was absolutely out of the question now to imagine that Germany could be the first to make any gesture. Even apart from the recent Polish ultimatum and the verbal note about aggression, a German initiative could hardly have been possible in view of Colonel Beck's speech on 5th May in which he had deigned to say that if Germany accepted the principles laid down by him Poland would be ready to talk, but not otherwise. That was language which Germany could not admit. I made the obvious retort. State Secretary's only reply was that the fact remained that to talk of a German initiative now was completely academic.

Baron von Weizs├Ącker then proceeded to say that the trouble was that the German Government's appreciation of the situation was totally different from that of His Majesty's Government. Germany, with innumerable cases of the persecution of Germans before her eyes, could not agree that the Poles were showing calm and restraint: Germany believed that Poland was deliberately running with her eyes shut to ruin: Germany was convinced that His Majesty's Government did not realise whither their policy of encirclement and blind assistance to Poland were leading them and Europe: and that finally his own Government did not, would not and could not believe that Britain would fight under all circumstances whatever folly the Poles might commit.

I told Baron von Weizs├Ącker that the last was a very dangerous theory and sounded like Herr von Ribbentrop who had never been able to understand the British mentality. If the Poles were compelled by any act of Germany to resort to arms to defend themselves there was not a shadow of doubt that we would give them our full armed support. We had made that abundantly clear and Germany would be making a tragic mistake if she imagined the contrary.

State Secretary replied that he would put it differently (and he gave me to understand that the phrase was not his own). Germany believed that the attitude of the Poles would be or was such as to free the British Government from any obligation to follow blindly every eccentric step on the part of a lunatic.

I told the State Secretary that we were talking in a circle. The Polish Government had shown extreme prudence hitherto, and would, moreover, take no major step without previous consultation with us; just as in accordance with their military agreement I understood that the German Government would take no irrevocable step without prior consultation with the Italian Government. His Majesty's Government had given their word and must be sole judges of their action. It was consequently hypothetical to speak of "under all circumstances" or of blindly "following Poland's lead."

Baron von Weizs├Ącker's reply was that Poland had not consulted His Majesty's Government either before M. Chodacki, who could not have so acted without previous authority from Colonel Beck, had addressed his ultimatum to Danzig Senate, or before replying to the German verbal note of 9th August. Yet, in his opinion, both these were major steps fraught with the most serious consequences. He admitted that some of the Poles were, or wished to be, prudent, but they were, unfortunately, not the rulers of Poland to-day. The real policy of Poland, over which His Majesty's Government had no control and of which they probably were ignorant, was the thousands of cases of persecution and excesses against Germans in Poland. It was a policy based on the Polish belief in the unlimited support of the British and French Governments. Who, he asked, could now induce the Poles to abandon such methods? It was those methods, combined with the Polish press articles, which encouraged them, which made the situation no longer tenable and so extremely dangerous. The matter had since 4h August changed to one of the utmost seriousness and urgency. Things had drifted along till now, but the point had been reached when they could drift no longer.

There is no doubt that Baron von Weizs├Ącker was expressing, as he assured me very solemnly that he was, the considered views of his Government and the position as he himself sees it. He told me, though he admitted that he could not say anything for certain, that it was likely that Herr Hitler would in fact attend the Tannenberg celebration on 27th August. But he hinted that things might not only depend on a speech. Yet if nothing happens between now and then I fear that we must at least expect there on Herr Hitler's part a warlike pronouncement from which it may well be difficult for him later to withdraw. As Baron von Weizs├Ącker himself observed, the situation in one respect was even worse than last year as Mr. Chamberlain could not again come out to Germany.

I was impressed by one thing, namely, Baron von Weizs├Ącker's detachment and calm. He seemed very confident, and professed to believe that Russian assistance to the Poles would not only be entirely negligible, but that the U.S.S.R. would even in the end join in sharing in the Polish spoils. Nor did my insistence on the inevitability of British intervention seem to move him.

The British War Bluebook; courtesy of Yale Law School Avalon Project

Added By:
C. Peter Chen

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More on No. 36 & 48: Messages from Henderson to Halifax on Danzig
Associated Figure(s):
» Nevile Henderson
» Edward Wood

Associated Event(s):
» The Danzig Crisis

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