BY now there is some degree of agreement among historians as to the sequence of events leading up to the World War of 1914-18. This agreement has been made possible by the vast compilations of diplomatic documents published by the various Powers since the close of that war. Concerning the origins of the present war, however, the belligerent governments have not yet been able to publish such extensive documentary collections. They have, however, issued books of various "colors," in which they seek to present their respective cases by making public the texts of documents taken from their archives.[i] This article attempts to weigh and interpret these documents, with particular attention to the German case.


On November 5, 1916, in the midst of the First World War, Poland was made an autonomous state by Germany and Austria-Hungary. After the collapse of the German Empire in November 1918, Poland became independent and at Versailles received new boundaries which included a considerable amount of formerly German territory. By cutting off East Prussia from the rest of the Reich and by setting up the Free City of Danzig as an independent political organism, a source of conflict was created which, together with the minorities question, eventually made German-Polish relations intolerable and helped cause this war.

The Versailles Treaty also sought to assure just treatment for the German minorities in Poland; but the Poles did not live up to these obligations. Complaints by the German Government, which began in November 1921 and were continually repeated, led to no improvement in the conditions under which the German communities lived. Arbitrary arrests were frequent; Germans were assassinated and the culprits often left unpunished; and German-owned lands were expropriated. As a result of all this there was a large German emigration. But the Weimar Republic, deprived of military force by the Versailles Treaty, was unable to defend German rights against Polish arrogance.


At the beginning of May 1933, the new National Socialist Government made its first attempt to come to an understanding with Poland. But from the very outset it left no doubt that the permanent preservation of peace between the two nations was unthinkable as long as the Versailles boundaries were retained. Also, it refused to recognize that Poland had a special right to Danzig. Nevertheless, in spite of all this, negotiations between the two countries led, on January 26, 1934, to a declaration that in the future they would under no circumstances use force for the settlement of any future disputes (G 37). However, in spite of this agreement, German-Polish relations remained more or less the same as before. On November 5, 1937, Germany and Poland concluded a new agreement for the mutual protection of minorities. But the expected improvement in the condition of the German communities in Poland still failed to take place, and unemployment, especially among the youth, steadily increased. The Germans felt this to be especially hard, since in the Reich Hitler had managed within a few years to put an end to unemployment.

The situation in Danzig demands special consideration. Under the Versailles Treaty, Danzig and its immediate vicinity had been separated from Germany and made into a "Free City" and its external political relations placed under a League of Nations Commissioner. Poland was given certain special economic and transport privileges, while on the Westerplatte, an island at the mouth of the Vistula, she had the right to maintain a fixed number of troops for the protection of a munitions depot. An economic agreement between Danzig and Poland, signed in August 1933, if loyally carried out, might have brought about a lessening of the friction. But the Polish Government, besides building up the purely Polish port of Gdynia, held fast to its expansionist policy toward Danzig, and tried by unjustified tariff policies to deflect commerce from the Free City. Polish propaganda even demanded the annexation of Danzig.

In spite of Poland's intransigent attitude, Germany continued to seek an understanding concerning Danzig and the Corridor. Towards this end the German Foreign Office made certain concrete proposals at the end of 1938. In these, Poland was asked to agree to the return of Danzig and to the establishment of an extraterritorial highway and railway connection across the Corridor to East Prussia. In return, Germany was to give Poland a similar connection with Danzig, and, when the agreement came into effect, definitely to recognize Poland's boundaries.

In the course of these negotiations a meeting took place at Berchtesgaden (January 5, 1939) between the Führer and Foreign Minister Beck of Poland. In friendly terms Hitler explained how German-Polish relations, and in particular the Danzig and Corridor questions, should in his view be regulated. Concerning Danzig, he had in mind a formula "according to which Danzig should become a part of the German body politic but in economic matters should remain with Poland" (G 200). The Polish Foreign Minister promised to think the matter over.

However, Poland's dilatory tactics continued. But before pursuing the German-Polish question, we must turn to relations between Germany and Britain after Munich.


Upon his return from the Munich Conference, Mr. Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister, no doubt fully intended to carry out a policy of peace. But the Conservative Opposition was of a different mind, and Chamberlain was therefore unable to put the Anglo-German rapprochement on a firm basis. Munich was a bud which failed to blossom. The tension created by Italy's claims in the Mediterranean compelled Chamberlain to speed up the pace and volume of the British rearmament program. Furthermore, as early as October 1938, Hitler found himself obliged, as a result of statements by British politicians about the fate of German citizens inside the Reich, to protest against London's attitude of "governess-like guardianship." The Reich, he said, did not bother itself about similar matters in the British Empire -- referring to events in Palestine (G 219).

On January 30, 1939, Hitler emphasized in a speech to the Reichstag that National Socialist Germany and Fascist Italy were strong enough to win any conflict frivolously caused by irresponsible persons. Germany, he said, had no territorial demands to make on England and France, except the return of her colonies. There was not a single German, especially no National Socialist, "who had any thought of making difficulties for the British Empire" (G 241). In February and March he delivered other speeches of a similar import.

To sum up, the causes for the growing tension between the Axis Powers on one hand and Britain and France on the other were: the rivalry between Italy and France in the Mediterranean, which indirectly made Anglo-German relations worse; the exaggerated notions about Germany's expansionist aims in Southeastern Europe; and the difference in Weltanschauung represented by the British and the National Socialist Governments.


The tension was sharply intensified when, in the middle of March, Czechoslovakia fell to pieces after the declaration of independence by the Slovak legislature. Hitler therefore put an end to the untenable situation in Bohemia and Moravia by joining them to the Reich under a Protectorate. The Czechoslovak President, Dr. Hacha, "in order to assure quiet, order and peace," trustfully laid the fate of the Czech people in the hands of the Führer. The Czechs were promised "an autonomous development of their national life in accordance with their character" (G 260). The text of the agreement of March 15, establishing the new relationship between Berlin and Prague, was at once forwarded with explanations to England and France (F 69). Britain thereupon suspended negotiations for a trade pact and the British Ambassador, Sir Nevile Henderson, was called to London to report. The English and French Governments also entered formal protests against Germany's action in Czechoslovakia as being illegal and contrary to the Munich Agreement (F 70, 76; B 10). The Germans rejected these protests with the observation that they lacked "all political, legal and moral foundation" (G 262). In this connection it might be pointed out that, in answer to a question in the House of Commons, the Undersecretary of State for Foreign Affairs declared that according to his knowledge the Communiqué of Munich "contained no such declaration" that Hitler had promised, with reference to the Czechoslovak State, to negotiate with the British Government (G 259, 264).

The significance of the German occupation of Prague lies not so much in any pretended disregard of the Munich Agreement or in an abandonment of political principles on Hitler's part as in the fact that Chamberlain took it as an occasion for making a fundamental change in his policy -- by actively interfering in the German-Polish affair through the granting of a British guarantee to Poland. Chamberlain revealed his thoughts in a comprehensive speech at Birmingham on March 17. In this he made a detailed defense of his Munich policy, which he said had saved peace in Europe. He remarked very aptly that even if England, instead of signing the Munich Agreement, had gone to war and after frightful losses had been victorious in the end, "never could we have reconstructed Czecho-Slovakia as she was framed by the Treaty of Versailles" (B 9). (If one applies these phrases to the Polish question, one perceives the futility of the present war.) He went on to say, however, that the annexation of Czechoslovakia belonged in a different category and that it raised several questions: "Is this the end of an old adventure or is it the beginning of a new" one, was it not in fact only another step in Germany's attempt "to dominate the world by force?"

Now the proceedings in Prague constituted neither an old nor a new adventure, but merely a further revision of the Versailles and St. Germain Treaties -- a revision which, despite Hitler's previously expressed opinion to the contrary, had now proved to be necessary. To try to construe from this a breach of promise on Hitler's part would justify making the same reproach of Chamberlain, made in the "German White Book," for his declaration of war on Germany on September 3, 1939. Chamberlain's words about Germany's attempt to dominate the world by force gave expression to an old fear of Conservative circles in England that "a consolidated territory in the East under German hegemony would, after consolidation, throw itself with its whole strength against England" (G 275). Here was the same English fright at spectres that had found expression in Arthur Nicolson's report to Sir Edward Grey in March 1909, during the first Balkan crisis.[ii] This notion, absurd as it is, was deeply rooted in the Foreign Office at London and in it lay the precise cause of the wars of 1914 and 1939.


After Prague, English diplomacy began feverishly to meet Germany's imagined plans for world domination by extending the British system of alliances -- the old method of encirclement. London wanted a Four Power Pact between England, France, Poland and Russia (G 206, 274, 275).[iii] Hitler, on the contrary, sought to come to terms with Poland by negotiation. On March 21, Ribbentrop tried to convince Mr. Lipski, the Polish Ambassador in Berlin, that Germany and Poland should conclude an agreement on the basis of Germany's well-known terms: the return of Danzig to the Reich, an extraterritorial railway and highway connecting the Reich and East Prussia, and a German guarantee that the Corridor should remain Polish. In order to make clear to Lipski the urgency of the affair, Ribbentrop proposed that the Ambassador make a trip to Warsaw; otherwise, he said, Hitler would get the impression "that Poland simply was not willing" (G 203).

But the Polish Government had little intention of negotiating on this basis, as was indicated on March 24 when it called up reservists (G 204). In order to understand Poland's intransigent attitude, one must keep in mind that England was then seeking to create a Four Power Pact in which Poland was to join. Instead of following up the German proposals, Lipski, at another interview with Ribbentrop on March 26, delivered a memorandum from his Government in which it refused to consider the proposal by which extraterritoriality was to be granted to German transportation lines across the Corridor, though it offered them certain traffic facilities (G 214). As for Danzig, the Polish memorandum proposed a joint Polish-German guarantee. After taking note of this communication, Ribbentrop declared that since the position taken by the Polish Government "could offer no basis for a German-Polish solution," the Führer could not regard its proposals as satisfactory. "Only a clear reunion of Danzig, an extraterritorial connection with East Prussia, and a 25-year non-aggression pact with boundary guarantees" could, he declared, lead to a definite and clear understanding (G 208).

On the same day, in the formerly German town of Bromberg in the Corridor, outbreaks occurred which were organized by the Polish West Association and in which cries of "Down with Hitler," "We want Danzig," "We want Koenigsberg" were heard. Ribbentrop therefore on the following day declared to the Polish Ambassador that these new insults had made a catastrophic impression in Germany. Further, he added that he could not understand why the Polish Government had rejected Germany's generous proposal and that a Polish coup de force against Danzig would be a casus belli. Lipski replied that he was willing to do everything in his power to overcome the difficulties (G 209).

On March 29 Beck told Moltke, the German Ambassador in Warsaw, that a unilateral attempt by Germany to change the Statute of the Free City, or an independent action by the Danzig Senate, would be regarded by Poland as a casus belli (G 211). Beck sought to justify Poland's mobilization measures by pointing out that, after what had happened to Czechoslovakia and Memel, the Poles had come to regard Germany's Danzig demands as an alarm signal. Moltke reminded Beck of the proposals made by the Führer in January at Berchtesgaden, and pointed out that the present ones merely aimed at putting German-Polish relations on a sound basis (G 211). With this interview German-Polish negotiations came to a temporary halt.

On March 31, Chamberlain came forward openly as Poland's protector. He declared in the House of Commons that his Government had no confirmation for the rumors that Germany was planning an attack on Poland, but that in the event of any action which threatened Polish independence and which the Polish Government considered it necessary to resist with its national forces, the British Government would feel bound "to lend the Polish Government all the support in their power" (B 17). The French Government undertook the same commitment. This, of course, meant the definite end of Munich, for England had become Poland's partisan. As was to be expected, Britain's action only increased Poland's intransigence.

On April 6, a communiqué issued by the British and Polish Governments announced that they had decided to replace their existing unilateral assurances with a reciprocal agreement. Pending the conclusion of this agreement, Poland promised to render assistance to England under the same conditions as those contained in the assurance already given by London to Warsaw (B 18). On the same day, Lipski informed Secretary of State von Weizsaecker that Poland wished to preserve the 1934 agreement with Germany. The Anglo-Polish accord, he said, was a bilateral, purely defensive arrangement; there was no question of Poland's joining a bloc (G 212). Weizsaecker expressed his astonishment that Poland had not taken up Hitler's generous offer, and pointed out that the Anglo-Polish accord, the terms of which to be sure were not yet known, was incompatible with the German-Polish Agreement of 1934. To this Lipski replied that the Franco-Polish Alliance, dating from 1921, had not been regarded as incompatible with that Agreement (G 213).

VI. APRIL 28, 1939

Britain's guarantee to Poland, and the failure of German-Polish negotiations over Danzig and the Corridor led the German Government to draw up two memoranda. These were handed to the Polish and British Governments on April 28 at the same time that their contents were being made public by Hitler in a speech to the Reichstag. The memorandum to Poland, after reviewing the efforts of the National Socialist Government to come to terms with its eastern neighbor, stated that the Polish Government, having rejected the opportunity to settle the Danzig question and having undertaken obligations towards another state (England) incompatible with the German-Polish Agreement of 1934, had thereby deliberately and unilaterally voided that document. Nevertheless, it continued, the German Government was ready to enter a new agreement provided it were based on a clear obligation binding on both parties (G 213, 214, 294, 295; B 21, 22).

In its memorandum to the British Government, the Reich declared that Britain had shown, by her recent policy and by the attitude of her press, that she regarded preparation for a war on Germany as the principal problem of her foreign policy; and that by pursuing this "encirclement policy" the British Government had removed the basis for the Naval Agreement of June 18, 1935, which was therefore no longer in force (B 22).

As for Hitler's speech, insofar as it dealt with England it expressed deep resignation. During his whole political career, he said, he had always expounded the idea of Anglo-German friendship, an idea founded on the belief that the continued existence of the British Empire was in the interest of mankind. He had never made any mystery of the fact that he regarded England as an invaluable element in the world's cultural and economic life, and that the colonizing work of the Anglo-Saxon people aroused his "sincere admiration." However, his respect for this achievement could not obscure his duty to protect the interests and aspirations of his own people. Nor did he fail to recall that Germany herself had once been a great empire. In concluding, he expressed his regret that the English people were of the opinion that, no matter in what conflict the Reich might be involved, "Great Britain would always have to take her stand against Germany." He deeply deplored this because, after all, his only demand on England was the return of the former German colonies--and this, he declared, could never become a cause for Germany's going to war with England (G 295; B 21).


In a speech delivered on May 5, Beck rejected Hitler's proposals of April 28. At about the same time anti-German demonstrations took place in Thorn, Katowitz, Lodz and Posen (G 349-417). On May 12 the German community in Poland presented a respectful petition to President Moscicki reviewing the old complaints concerning church and school questions as well as the dismissal of German factory workers -- again with no result. A few days later the German Consul in Lodz reported that German workers had been driven out of certain factories by a Polish mob, that all German places of business and private dwellings had been systematically demolished, and that the police had done nothing to prevent it. Reports from the German Ambassador in Warsaw also revealed that the "German Houses" in Bromberg, Lodz and Tarnowitz had been expropriated and that in seventeen cases the German clergy had been mistreated or their church property destroyed.

These outbreaks were the result not only of racial hatred but of Polish propaganda. It was, for instance, widely believed in Poland that crowds of famished German soldiers were daily deserting across the border, that the German war matériel was of doubtful value, and that German foreign policy had suffered one defeat after another. Even among the Polish intelligentsia the relative strength of Germany vis-à-vis Poland was completely misjudged. Nor did the failure of the Anglo-Polish loan negotiations dampen the bellicose ardor of Polish opinion.

In July, a slight lessening of the tension in Danzig seemed possible, but by the beginning of August the situation had become extremely critical. In particular, conflicts arose between Warsaw and the Danzig Senate over the question of customs administration (B 42). The Polish Government had notified the Danzig Senate, in a communication which took the form of an ultimatum, that the Danzig authorities must not interfere with Polish customs officials in the execution of their duties (B 43, 46; F 181, 193). When the Reich Government learned of this, it informed Warsaw that a repetition of such peremptory demands on the Danzig Senate, coupled with the threat to use force, would only aggravate German-Polish relations (G 445). Poland sharply rejected this intervention as without legal justification, and informed the Reich that she would regard any interference by it in Danzig "as an aggressive action" (G 446). This statement, made on August 10 by the Polish Undersecretary for Foreign Affairs to the German Chargé d'Affaires in Warsaw, created a very serious situation (G 447; B 47).[iv]

On the evening of August 15, a hectic conversation took place in Berlin between Weizsaecker and Sir Nevile Henderson, in which they were unable to reconcile their widely divergent points of view in regard to the Polish situation. In a later conversation Henderson declared that if Germany used force, England would do likewise. Weizsaecker tried to impress upon him the German view that Poland's attitude was such that the British Government was freed from any obligation "to follow blindly every eccentric step on the part of a lunatic" (B 48). He went on to say that Beck, in his last parliamentary speech, after having "sat himself like a Pasha on the divan," had announced that if Germany accepted the Polish thesis he was ready within these limitations graciously to receive proposals (G 450). Weizsaecker expressed his confidence that Russia would join in sharing the Polish spoils. In reply, Henderson again reiterated that British intervention was inevitable if Poland were attacked (B 48). This conversation showed that England was no longer master of the situation.

The action which the British Government undertook in Warsaw to postpone or prevent the conflict between Germany and Poland consisted in having Lord Halifax, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, instruct its Ambassador to Poland, Sir Howard Kennard, to beg the Poles to avoid giving Hitler a pretext, to moderate their press campaign against Germany, "to intensify their efforts to prevent attacks on their German minority," and in the future to deal with Danzig questions through the mediation of the High Commissioner. Halifax further stated in these instructions that the Polish Government, "provided essentials can be secured," would do well to declare its readiness "to examine the possibility of negotiation over Danzig if there is a prospect of success." The British Ambassador was instructed to consult with his French colleague before talking to Beck (B 50).

In view of the state which affairs had reached by this time, such a cautious démarche on the part of Britain could not cause Poland to change its policy toward Germany. The Poles must have been aware that the Allies' negotiations with Russia would fail and that Poland, as their only reliable ally in Eastern Europe, could therefore command a high price. At this stage tension might have been relaxed only if England had come to a general political understanding with Germany. But this would have meant Britain's dropping Poland so that Germany could have revised the Versailles Treaty by direct negotiations with Warsaw.

On August 15, Weizsaecker also talked about Poland with the French Ambassador, M. Coulondre. The State Secretary said he could not understand why France should regard her aid to Poland as "automatic and a matter of course." Coulondre sought to explain that French policy was identical with the maintenance of the balance of power in Europe. If Poland were to be overrun by Germany, he said, one could foresee that France's turn would come next. France, therefore, could not agree to put pressure on Warsaw (G 449; F 194).


After the announcement of the non-aggression pact between Germany and Russia, the English Cabinet decided on August 22 to pass the Emergency Powers [Defense] Bill. On the same day Chamberlain sent a letter to Hitler in which he spoke of the approach of war and suggested postponing the discussion of the German-Polish problem until a better atmosphere could be created. He also declared himself ready to examine with Germany the larger international problems of the future and to stop the press polemics. But he stressed Britain's determination to fulfill her obligations to Poland. He did this, he said, in order that the tragic misunderstanding of 1914 would not occur again (G 453, 454; B 56). This letter was discussed the following day at a conference between Hitler and Henderson at Berchtesgaden. The British Ambassador observed that in England it was recognized that Anglo-German coöperation was necessary for the wellbeing of Europe. Hitler replied that this ought to have been recognized sooner. Henderson declared that England must stand by her guarantee to the Poles and that she was only opposing the principle of force. Hitler's rejoinder was merely to remind Sir Nevile of Versailles (G 455).

In his answer to Chamberlain, Hitler, after once more stating his views without adding any essentially new points, concluded by remarking that throughout his life he had always fought for Anglo-German friendship, but that British diplomacy had convinced him of the futility of such a policy. Should the future bring any change in this respect, nobody, he said, would be happier than he (G 456; B 60).

On August 25, Hitler saw Henderson again and told him: that the Polish provocations had become intolerable; that Germany was determined to put an end to the "Macedonian conditions" on her eastern frontier; and that the problem of Danzig and the Corridor must be solved. After this had been done, he said, he was determined once more to approach England with a comprehensive offer. He accepted the British Empire and "pledged himself personally for its continued existence" if his colonial demands, which could be negotiated by peaceful methods, were fulfilled. He did not ask that England give up her obligations toward France, any more than he intended to give up his toward Italy. He also emphasized Germany's determination never again to enter into conflict with Russia. And he declared that he was ready to accept a reasonable limitation of armaments which would correspond to the new political situation (G 457; B 68).

On this same day the assurances which had already been exchanged between England and Poland in March were signed in a mutual assistance treaty (B 19; G 459).


On August 25, Hitler begged the French Ambassador to tell Daladier that he would very much regret a war between Germany and France. He felt no hostility toward France, he said. He had renounced Alsace-Lorraine and had recognized the Franco-German border; but, he said, he would "reply by force to any further provocations." Coulondre assured him that Poland would be given reasonable advice, but that in case the Germans attacked that country, France would be found on Poland's side (F 242). On August 26, Daladier sent Hitler a personally-signed telegram, in which he emphasized that France would live up to her obligation to Poland; at the same time he promised to make every effort to bring about a peaceful solution (F 253; G 460).

In his answer of August 27, Hitler recalled how he had succeeded in getting rid of the most intolerable provisions of the Versailles Treaty without shedding blood. He then sought to clarify Germany's position in the Corridor question by comparing Danzig with Marseilles, and concluded with the observation that a war of destruction between Germany and France would be very painful to him. But, he said, he saw no peaceful means by which he could persuade Poland to pursue a course acceptable to Germany (F 267; G 461).


Hitler's reply to Chamberlain's letter and his statements to Henderson were answered in a memorandum which the latter handed the Führer late on August 28 (B 74; F 277; G 463; H 39). The British Government declared in this memorandum that it could enter into discussions for an Anglo-German understanding only after the differences between Germany and Poland had been settled. It once again stressed England's obligations to Poland and asserted that any German-Polish agreement must be guaranteed by the other Powers. The British Government stated that it had already received "a definite assurance" from Poland that she would negotiate upon the basis of such a guarantee, provided that "Poland's essential interests" were safeguarded. But this was not true, for in reality there was only an "intimation by the Polish Government" that it was ready to hold conversations (G page xv; B 73, 74).

In his interview with Henderson on the twenty-eighth, Hitler declared himself ready to negotiate with any Polish Government that really had the country under control and was reasonable. But he could not, he said, repeat his generous offer of March, for now he desired the return of Danzig and the Corridor, together with the rectification of the frontier in Silesia. The British envoy maintained that Hitler must choose between Britain's offered friendship and his own excessive demands on Poland. When Henderson remarked anew that it was not merely a question of Danzig and the Corridor but of Britain's determination to meet force with force, Hitler excitedly insisted that in the Rhineland, Austria and Sudetenland he had succeeded in finding a peaceful solution without using force and intimated that the Polish problem could likewise be settled pacifically if only Poland were not given encouragement by outside Powers. With this observation Hitler struck to the very core of the problem. In response to Henderson's question as to whether he was willing to negotiate directly with the Poles, Hitler declared that he could reply only after a careful examination of the British note, and that he would at once talk with Göring about it (B 75).

On August 29, Chamberlain delivered an important speech in the House of Commons, in which he said that Berlin had been given clearly to understand that England would fulfill her obligations to Poland (B 77). At about 7 p.m. on the same day, the Führer handed to Henderson his answer to the British memorandum. In this he called attention once again to Poland's negative attitude toward the March proposals, as well as to the maltreatment and persecution of the Germans living in Poland. The German Government therefore demanded the return of Danzig and the Corridor, and the safeguarding of the existence of the German national groups in the territories remaining to Poland. It declared that the British proposal that Germany's differences with Poland be settled by negotiation unfortunately could not be accepted unconditionally. It had attempted to negotiate, but had received no encouragement from Warsaw. Nevertheless, impressed by the prospect of a treaty of friendship with England, Germany would accept the proposal that direct conversations be initiated with Poland, on the understanding that the Soviet Union, with which Germany had signed a non-aggression pact on August 23, should participate in any rearrangement of Polish territory. The German Government disclaimed any intention of touching Poland's vital interests and was ready "to accept the British Government's offer of their good offices in securing the despatch to Berlin of a Polish Emissary with full powers. They count on the arrival of this Emissary on Wednesday, the 30th August 1939." Corresponding proposals would be immediately worked out for an acceptable solution, and, if possible, placed at the disposal of the British Government before the arrival of the Polish negotiator (G 463, 464; B 78).

In his interview with Hitler, Henderson had got the impression that the Führer's desire for good relations with England "was undoubtedly a sincere conviction" (H 44). When Henderson remarked that the demand for the arrival of a Polish plenipotentiary by August 30 sounded like an "ultimatum," he was told that this stipulation had been made only in order to emphasize the urgency of the matter. The plenipotentiary would "naturally" be received in a friendly manner, and the discussion would be conducted on a footing of complete equality (B 79, 80; F 291, 293). When Henderson tried to indicate the difficulty of getting a Polish negotiator to Berlin by the thirtieth, Hitler declared that "one could fly from Warsaw to Berlin in one and a half hours" (B 82). During the night of the thirtieth Halifax informed Henderson that the German note would be carefully considered, but that it would be unreasonable to expect England to produce a Polish representative in Berlin on that very day (B 81). The British Ambassador conveyed this message to Ribbentrop about 4 a.m. In a despatch to Halifax, Sir Nevile nevertheless recommended "that the Polish Government should swallow this eleventh-hour effort to establish direct contact with Hitler" (B 82).

In Warsaw, however, the German proposal was held to be impossible. The Poles declared they would sooner fight and perish than submit to such humiliation. The British Ambassador in Warsaw remarked very correctly that Poland would not agree to the present proposals, which went beyond the March terms, because she could now rely on the support of Great Britain and France (B 84).

At about 5:30 p.m. it was reported from Warsaw by telephone that general mobilization had been ordered. This made Poland's attitude quite clear (G 465). Halifax informed Henderson about 7 p.m. that, though he assumed the German Government was insisting on the despatch of a Polish representative to Berlin with full powers, he could not advise the Polish Government to comply with this procedure. He therefore recommended inviting the Polish Ambassador in Berlin to accept the German proposals for transmission to Warsaw (B 88).

On August 30 about midnight, Henderson was in a position to give Ribbentrop the full text of the British reply, in which a futile attempt was once more made to spin out the business heedless of the acute tension then prevailing (G 466, Appendix 1; B 89). In the discussion which followed the delivery of this note, Henderson once more recommended that Germany open negotiations with Poland in the normal diplomatic way. In reply Ribbentrop confined himself to complaining that the only result produced so far by British mediation had been that Poland had ordered general mobilization. Since a Polish negotiator had not arrived in Berlin, he said, the German proposals were no longer relevant. However, in order to show Henderson what Germany had intended to propose to the Polish representative, Ribbentrop read him, in the German language and somewhat more rapidly than Henderson would have wished, the comprehensive German proposals. Henderson's request that he be given a copy of the document was refused, because it was "now too late," no Polish emissary having arrived at Berlin by midnight. A final suggestion by the British Ambassador that Ribbentrop should give the proposals to the Polish Ambassador was likewise rejected. These proposals, consisting of 16 points, included: the return of Danzig to the Reich, a plebiscite in the Corridor, the establishment of provisional transit facilities to East Prussia across the Corridor, an exchange of populations in case after the plebiscite the Corridor should return to the Reich, the arrangement of special rights for Danzig and Gdynia, and the regulation of the rights of minorities. Acceptance of these proposals was to be immediately followed by demobilization (G 466, Appendix 2; B 92, 98; F 336).

Henderson at once informed Lipski concerning the principal German points and explained that so far as he had correctly grasped them "they were not on the whole too unreasonable." Lipski promised to transmit the proposals to his Government (H 55, 56). Coulondre, with whom Henderson had communicated during the night before seeing Ribbentrop, was also of the opinion that the Polish Government should consent to send a plenipotentiary. He thought, however, that a place near the frontier ought to be chosen for the negotiations.

Poland's attitude toward Germany's demands and Britain's mediation suggestions is indicated only indirectly in the British and French documents. During the night of August 30, Lord Halifax directed the British Ambassador in Warsaw to transmit the above-mentioned British note to the Polish Government. Halifax characterized as unreasonable the most essential point of the German demands -- i.e., that a Polish representative should arrive in Berlin that same day. He also informed the Polish Government that the Germans were now working out proposals on the basis of which a decision must be taken (B 90). This information, however, conflicted with Ribbentrop's position, made known later, that these proposals had been withdrawn since no Polish representative had appeared within the stipulated time (G 466; B 92). Beck promised a comprehensive reply to this British communication by noon of the next day.

But at that hour a further message from Lord Halifax reached Warsaw directing Kennard to propose, along with his French colleague, that the Polish Government accept the principle of direct negotiations. In a subsequent telegram Halifax requested that the Polish Government inform the German Government through its Ambassador in Berlin that the latter was ready to transmit any proposals to the Polish Government for examination and to make suggestions regarding early discussions (B 95). On the afternoon of August 31, Beck handed Kennard a note containing the views of the Polish Government. This communication, however, limited itself to outlining a modus procedendi for an immediate exchange of views with the German Government, and therefore came too late (B 97). The British Ambassador urgently advised Beck to direct Lipski immediately to put himself in touch with Ribbentrop or Weizsaecker (B 96). Late in the evening of August 31, Henderson was directed by Halifax to inform the German Government that the Polish Government was taking steps through its Ambassador in Berlin "to establish contact" with the German Government (B 99).

Halifax telegraphed to Warsaw that he did not see why the Polish Government should feel any hesitancy about authorizing its Ambassador to accept a document from the German Government, and that he earnestly hoped that it would modify its instructions to him. A refusal to receive proposals "would be gravely misunderstood by outside opinion," he asserted (B 100). Lipski meanwhile called on the German Foreign Minister about 6:30 p.m., but this visit did not diminish the tension because, not being empowered to negotiate, he could only declare that Poland was giving the British suggestions favorable consideration (G 468).


In the last days of August countless small fights, principally around customs houses, occurred along the German-Polish border. Because of these incidents and because of Poland's unreadiness to negotiate, the German Army invaded Poland early in the morning of September 1. On that same day, Hitler delivered a detailed speech to the Reichstag in which, after tracing the origins of the conflict, he specified Germany's aims and declared that he would not wage war on women and children (G 471).


On September 1, Henderson handed Ribbentrop a note stating that the British Government would fulfill its obligation to assist Poland if Germany did not immediately withdraw her troops from Polish territory. In reply, Ribbentrop pointed out that regular and irregular bands of Polish troops had raided German territory, that Poland had been acting provocatively toward Germany for months, and that he had waited in vain for a Polish negotiator even for a whole day beyond the limit originally set (B 110, 111; G 472). An hour later the French Ambassador handed a similar note to the German Foreign Minister (F 345; G 473). Meanwhile the German Army continued its invasion of Poland.

After two days, at 9 a.m. on September 3, Henderson presented a British ultimatum, declaring that no reply had yet been received to Britain's demand that Germany should immediately withdraw her troops from Polish territory. Unless a satisfactory assurance to the above effect were given by the German Government not later than 11 a.m. -- that is, within two hours -- a state of war would exist between the two countries as from that moment (B 118; G 477).

Since no reply was forthcoming within the time set, at about 11:15 a.m. the German Chargé d'Affaires in London was handed a note of which the last paragraph contained Great Britain's declaration of war on Germany (B 118; G 478). Fifteen minutes later Ribbentrop handed Henderson a note declaring that the German Government and people refused "to receive, accept or indeed fulfill ultimatum-like demands from the British Government." It further stated that without the interference of Britain, Germany and Poland would certainly have found a reasonable solution in which the rights of both parties would have been respected. It also gave the reasons why the British Government must bear the responsibility for the calamity which had now overtaken so many peoples (G 479). At 12:30 p.m. the French Ambassador had a short interview with Ribbentrop in which, after discussing Mussolini's mediation proposal,[v] Coulondre handed over a note stating that France would, as from 5 p.m. on that day, fulfill her treaty obligations to Poland (G 481; F 367).


The incidents that led to the outbreak of the war arose from the unfortunate form given to Poland's frontiers at Versailles. It was only natural that after Germany had again grown strong, she should seek to remedy the intolerable conditions along her eastern border. The right course would have been for the Western Powers themselves to have sponsored a just settlement of German-Polish problems. Instead of that, however, they fortified Poland in her opposition to change, and made it impossible for Germany to secure her aims by negotiation.

The antagonism between England and Germany was only a secondary cause of the war. The primary causes were the exaggerated notions that prevailed in various countries concerning Germany's policy of economic expansion towards the Southeast and the tension between France and Italy over Mediterranean questions. This latter factor must not be neglected, merely because the relevant documents have not as yet been published. Up to Munich, Chamberlain was on the right path, and had found in Henderson an excellent second. But after Munich, the British Prime Minister fell under evil influences which again brought England, and France with her, into conflict with Germany. In the late winter of 1939, just as Franco-Italian tension was relaxing, came the German occupation of Prague. This event gave English policy a new orientation that made a European war inevitable.

One cannot escape the conclusion that Germany's annexation of Czechoslovakia and the settlement of the Danzig and Corridor questions in the way intended by Hitler, need not have caused Britain and France to involve Europe anew in a general war. Just as the Austro-Serbian hostilities might have been localized in 1914, so in 1939 it should have been possible for Germany and Poland to settle their difficulties by themselves. Only as a result of the interference of the Allies did a relatively unimportant conflict in Eastern Europe develop again into a great war.

[i] In this article the relevant documents will be indicated parenthetically in the text by the following symbols: G, for the Second German White Book; B, for the British Blue Book; and F, for the French Yellow Book. The figures refer to the document numbers. The symbol H refers to the "Final Report of Sir Nevile Henderson" of September 20, 1939 (London, His Majesty's Stationery Office, 1939) Cmd. 6115.

[ii] Alfred von Wegerer, "Der Ausbruch des Weltkrieges, 1914." (Hamburg: Hanseatische Verlagsanstalt, 1939) v. I, p. 49.

[iii] See also the report of Lukasiewicz to Beck of March 24, 1939 (The New York Times, March 30, 1940), from which it appears that Poland had little inclination to adhere to this pact, because she did not have sufficient confidence that English assistance would be forthcoming in a crisis. This document was among those reportedly found by the German authorities in the Polish archives after the capture of Warsaw.

[iv] In 1909 the Serbs had sent the Vienna Government a similar note, which Sir Edward Grey characterized as "shameless" and which caused England to withdraw her support from Serbia, thereby putting an end to a crisis which had brought Europe to the brink of war. Cf. Wegerer, op. cit. v. I, p. 48.

[v] This mediation proposal failed because England insisted that Germany must withdraw her troops from Poland before the conference suggested by Mussolini could take place.

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  • ALFRED VON WEGERER, for many years editor of Die Kriegsschuldfrage and of its successor, the Berliner Monatshefte; author of "Der Ausbruch des Weltkrieges, 1914" and other works
  • More By Alfred von Wegerer