23: French Yellow Book


We begin our multipart series looking at various primary documents covering the events in the years before the war with a read through the French Yellow Book, which you can read online here: French Yellow Book Table of Contents and Preface (ibiblio.org)

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Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Members episode 23 - The French Yellow Book. The Yellow Book is a collection of French diplomatic communications from various cities around Europe in the years before the Second World War. It highlights some of the communications that were happening from the French government’s representatives in Berlin, Warsaw, Danzig, and other capitals around Europe. It is available for free from a variety of websites online, and what I thought would be interesting was to pull out some of the communications highlighted in the book and to discuss them and how they fit within French actions from the beginning of 1939 until the start of the war. As a reminder on the overall situation around Europe in early 1939: Germany, Italy, France, and Britain had signed the Munich Agreement at the end of September 1938, and the government of Czechoslovakia had been basically forced to agree to its terms. German troops had occupied large areas of western Czechoslovakia as outlined in the Agreement and had started to incorporate those areas into Germany just as they had done to Austria earlier in 1938. There was then a period of detente between Germany and other nations after Munich, but this would disappear quite quickly in 1939. Which brings us to our first communication which is from the French Charge d’Affairs in Berlin on January 5, 1939: “Since the events of last year, his faith in his own genius, in his instinct, or as one might say, in his star, is boundless. Those who surround him are the first to admit that he now thinks himself infallible and invincible. That explains why he can no longer bear either criticism or contradiction. To contradict him is in his eyes a crime of lèse-majesté; opposition to his plans, from whatever side it may come, is a definite sacrilege, to which the only reply is an immediate and striking display of his omnipotence. Thus, at the beginning of the year 1939, the atmosphere in the Third Reich can best be described as tense: tension in all fields- political, economic, confessional and psychological. As happens with an overheated engine, the machinery of the Third Reich is strained to breaking point, but the driver of Berchtesgaden does not appear to intend to moderate the pressure.” I pulled this piece specifically because the idea that Hitler had by 1939 bought into his own hype and believed he was incapable of making mistakes is an idea that always plays very heavily in history of the last few years before the war. You have heard it on this podcast, and you will read it in any book that discusses the start of the war. It is interesting that it is laid out so clearly here in January 1939, when the overall situation in Europe was actually better than it had been in almost a year after the Munich Agreement and before the final invasion of Czechoslovakia.

In March German actions would shatter whatever detente existed during the first two months of the year when they launched that invasion of Czechoslovakia. There had been a push during the Munich negotiations to include an official guarantee from all parties of the new borders, but this did not make it into the final document. But there were continued discussions in Paris and London about providing that guarantee, discussions that would continue until early March, when this message would be sent from the French ambassador in Berlin “The note from the German Foreign Office goes further still. It unequivocally declares that an intervention of the Western Powers in Central Europe, in the shape of a guarantee in favour of the Czechoslovak State, would do more harm than good. It would contribute to aggravate the differences of Czechoslovakia with her neighbours-other than the Reich-and perhaps even lead them to degenerate into a conflict. Doubtless the note seems in places to deal with a “premature” guarantee, but, for those who understand, it is the whole conception of a guarantee of the new Czechoslovakia by the Western Powers which it rejects. “The German Government,” it points out, “cannot in any way see in an extension of this guarantee obligation to the Western Powers a factor that might allay internal quarrels in the said area, but rather an element liable to increase unreasonable tendencies, as has already been the case.” All that part of Europe henceforward is a preserve of the Reich “The German Government,” the note adds, “is perfectly aware that, all things considered, the general evolution of that part of Europe falls primarily into the sphere of the Reich’s most vital interests, and that not only from the historical point of view, but also from the geographical and, above all, the economic angle.”” After this message was sent it would take less than two weeks for evidence to surface that made it clear that Germany was about to invade what was left of Czechoslovakia, here is the French Ambassador in Berlin again “Everything suggests that Germany will very soon resort to force against Czechoslovakia. Although no actual measures of mobilization, even partial, have yet been noticed, movements of troop units belonging to the standing army are taking place with the object either of gripping the corridor or Moravia in a vice, or of surrounding the entire Bohemian Quadrilateral. It appears from more recent information that, on the one hand Staff officers are to leave Berlin to-morrow morning, March 14, in order to take part in the operation, and also that the Black Militia would be entrusted with vanguard duties.” This movements of German troops, and the growing evidence that they planned to force the matter, would set the stage for the next several days of communications between the capitals of Europe. However, it is important to note that the French ambassador did not have any specific information about German plans, and was only making inferences based on known information. This was also not the first time that the threat of an invasion of Czechoslovakia had been the topic of diplomatic communications, with it happening both in May 1938, which we covered a few episodes ago on the member feed, and in the runup to the Munich conference. More evidence to the invasion would be gathered over the next two days though, as these two messages, one from March 13 and the second from March 14 discuss “According to the declarations obtained by one of our correspondents this evening from a German who occupies an important post in one of the Ministries, the fate of Bohemia and Moravia is now settled. What Germany wants is the annexation of these provinces pure and simple. “It is not for the sake of Mgr. Tiso,” said the person in question, “that our divisions are marching and that we are mobilizing several major aircraft units. You should understand that we intend to settle the question finally. Today an ultimatum will be sent to the Prague Government. The answer we receive is immaterial. It will be overtaken by events by the time it reaches us.”” and then the next day “It is striking to note once again the rapidity and precision with which Hitler’s political plans have been accomplished, for it is beyond any question of doubt that the present crisis is in accordance with a carefully preconceived plan of which Berlin holds the principal strings. Prague appears to have tried to forestall this measure, but too late Perhaps, also, the policy of the Central Government was not always perfectly clear or wise. If the Czech leaders have expressed ample signs of goodwill towards Berlin, it seems that they have believed that at the same time they could continue inside their country a policy which was purely Czech. In doing this, they have revived old internal jealousies and needlessly aroused the suspicions of the Reich.” The interesting piece of that communication, in my mind, is the kind of victim blaming that comes into play which discussing the actions that were taken by the government in Prague in response to German actions. The idea that in trying to retain control of their territory they had in some way made the situation worse because it gave groups like the Slovaks additional excuses for their actions. As details of the discussions between the Czech President and Hitler on March 14th and 15th emerged, the overall situation began to become more clear. Here is a communication from Berlin from March 15th, the day of the invasion: “One cannot say that any negotiations have taken place between the Czech and German Ministers. The Führer made it known from the beginning that his decision had been taken, and that anyone who opposed it would be crushed. The Czech Ministers have been informed that the gold reserves of the Czech Bank must be put at the disposal of the Reich. The same applies to the whole of the gold and foreign currency owned by individual Czech citizens.” Then a few days later, after the invasion had been completed, the role of other groups within Czechoslovakia and how they had influenced events had become more clear, as this message from March 18th would outline: “ACCORDING to information that I have gathered from the best sources, the development the Czechoslovak drama seems to have been as follows: The Nazi leaders, displeased at the resistance offered by Czechoslovakia to her new position of tutelage last December, worked out a scheme which, as the Germans put it, would effectively prevent this State from ever again becoming a menace to the Reich. […] It was in these circumstances that the leaders of Austria, Seyss-Inquart and Bürckel, were personally ordered about three weeks ago to fan the agitation in Slovakia in favour of its independence. The Vienna wireless station took part in this. The Czech Government, frightened by the speed with which the movement was growing, dismissed Mgr. Tiso, who was considered to be too conciliatory. Herr Hitler was waiting for this mistake. It is only then, that is to say about March 9, that he seems to have taken the decisions which led to the disappearance of Czechoslovakia.” This was all god information to have, but at the end of the day it did not really matter, because it only became apparent after the fact.

After Czechoslovakia was fully destroyed, Poland very quickly came into the crosshairs. One of the ways that the German government would go about moving towards focusing on Poland was by influencing the content put out in the German press. By 1939 the German Press was essentially just a government mouthpiece, and whatever the government in Berlin wanted to be printed would be printed. That makes an analysis of what various newspapers were focusing on an important topic of study, and worthy of communications from the French Ambassadors in Berlin and Warsaw back to Paris. Here is the French Ambassador in Warsaw from April 7th: “I POINT out as very typical the abrupt change in the tone of the German agencies and Press with regard to Poland. After Mr. Chamberlain’s first declaration, and at the beginning of Colonel Beck’s stay in London, the inspired German newspapers displayed a cautious and moderate attitude towards Poland, as if they feared to alarm her and drive her over to the Western Powers. Since yesterday evening, and particularly in the Deutscher Dienst and the Volkischer Beobachter, these tactics have given place to intimidation and threats. Poland finds herself accused of becoming the satellite of England in a policy of aggression against Germany; she has been warned that she runs the risk of becoming like other “small nations,” the first victim of British intrigues.” This topic would then be discussed several times between April and the beginning of the invasion, here is a message from April 17th with more detail: “The newspaper correspondents of the Reich in Poland have orders to report anything which can be presented to German public opinion as an incident, as a maltreatment of the minority, and also to be as unpleasant as possible to Poland in their reports.” and then on June 14th, this time from the French Consul in Danzig: “An anti-Polish campaign of unheard-of violence and vulgarity is being carried on by the two daily papers, who charge the Polish Customs officials with the most unlikely offences. Business circles, however, seem to think that, as a result of Polish concessions, tension will diminish in the course of the next few weeks.” and then on August 12th from the Charge d’Affaires in Berlin: “IN view of the tone of the Press, of the continual calling-up of reserves, of the intense military activity which is all the time increasing, and of new food restrictions (there are queues outside the butchers’ shops this morning), the nervousness of the public has grown suddenly sharper.” As the date for the invasion grew closer, the information found in the press painted Poland with a greater and greater villainy, here is a really interesting message from the French Ambassador in Berlin from August 17th which not just outlines some developments in the press but also ties it back to German actions before Munich: “FOR some days past, the German Press has entered upon a new chapter of its anti-Polish campaign. It claims that a sort of pogrom has been started by organized groups and certain local authorities against the Germans in Poland. This morning there were sensational headlines announcing that on the other side of the frontier a positive man-hunt was in progress against the “Volksdeutschen,” that mass arrests were being made among them, that Polish officials were distributing arms to shady elements of the population and that an intolerable terror menaced the entire German minority. Lastly, refugees were said to be already flocking into German territory. Thus we meet again the tactics and methods by which Nazi propaganda, nearly a year ago, was able to induce the German people and part of foreign opinion to believe that there was serious disorder in Sudetenland, that bloody conflicts were occurring there daily, and that the Germans there were treated as outlaws. Acting on orders from Berlin, agents of Herr Henlein were trying to create a panic in Northern Bohemia, and compelling members of the minority to cross the frontier and seek refuge, without any reason, in refugee camps, organized with great publicity in the neighbourhood of Dresden or in Silesia.”

While the situation in the German press was developing, it was pretty widely known what the path forward would be for Germany, as outlined on May 30th from Berlin: “I HAVE pointed out that in the near future we must expect Germany to begin, à propos of Danzig, one of those large-scale campaigns, thanks to which she has been able to lay hands successively on Vienna, Sudetenland, and Prague. The threat of war, formulated in a more or less veiled or crude fashion, will still be, in all probability, the weapon to which the Reich will have recourse to vanquish if possible outside opposition.” After Poland had received official backing from London and Paris there were also concerns that Warsaw not put itself into the position of aggressor in any future conflict, with strong words being given to that effect to the Polish government. There was the feeling that Warsaw would stay in line with French requests on this matter, as discussed in this communication on July 6th “FROM a series of conversations which he has just had in military circles, General Musse has derived the impression that, in order to avoid figuring as an aggressor, Poland would proceed to great lengths in restraining its impatience in face of the progressive militarisation of Danzig. Our Military Attache thinks that the Polish Government will limit itself to platonic protests, unless a time comes when its essential interests are directly threatened in Danzig. It will react strongly only if its use of the harbour, the Vistula, or the railway is impeded.” While Poland’s reaction to German provocation was a concern during the summer months, during the last week of August the messages became very focused on German military preparations. Here are two messages from the Ambassador in Berlin, the first on August 21 “IN THE opinion of our Military Attaché, the German forces will have completed their concentration in two or three days’ time. The greater part of the German forces will be concentrated on the Polish frontier.” and then the next day “A RESERVE officer, who has just been called up in a Department of the German War Office, declared to a reliable intermediary that in the General Staff it is considered certain that action against Poland will be taken very shortly. It is not doubted that this action will produce decisive results in a very few days.” and then on the 25th a message arrived from the French consul in Danzig “THE rate at which military preparations are being carried out here grows faster and faster. Young men are being brought in lorries from. East Prussia and at once equipped and sent to their battle positions, while more heavy anti-aircraft batteries are being placed along the shore.” Each of these point a more and more bleak picture for the upcoming events, making it very clear that Germany was once again preparing for a military concentration. On a somewhat unrelated note, I find it funny that in these primary source compilations you can always tell when the action is approaching an important historical event, in this case the invasion of Poland because the editors decide to start putting a sent and received date and time for all messages, whereas for messages in calmer times they generally just do the sent date.

While the actions being taken by Germany to prepare for their military actions were important, the French had better information about another important topic, what the Polish government and military were preparing to do. This topic would be a part of many messages from Warsaw to Paris, although it would be just a small fraction of the total traffic. Here is the French Ambassador in Warsaw at midnight at August 28th: “THE Polish troops have received orders from Marshal Rydz-Smigly not to reply to any German provocation. Their task is to drive back any incursions into Polish territory but to take strict care not to cross the frontier.” Another important task of the French Ambassador was to give the French government information on how to respond to the various accusations being made by Berlin that they were using as justification for their later actions. Here is one message of this type from the French Ambassador in Warsaw once again, this time later in the day on August 28th: “THE ill-treatment, murders, etc., of which the Poles are accused by Chancellor Hitler are sheer calumnies. The denials issued by the national authorities cannot be doubted. It is impossible for Germans to be killed on the outskirts of Danzig or at Bielsko without the knowledge of the French who live in these districts. Moreover, it should be pointed out that the Germans did not mention any definite facts, names or dates.” In the run up to the war there were many messages like the ones above just trying to keep abreast not just of what was happening, but whether or not what the Germans were saying was actually correct and accurate.

And then the war started, and things got very confused. After the start of the invasion the French Ambassador was very dependent on information forwarded from Polish Army Headquarters, in the same way that Polish political leaders were as well. The urgency of communications would also increase such that telephones began to be used for some communications. Here is a piece of a phone call from early in the morning on September 1st, after the invasion had begun “THE Polish Army Headquarters report that German troops debouching from Danzig, crossed the Eastern frontier of the Corridor this morning from 4 o’clock onwards, in particular near Kartuzy and Gardeja. German aeroplanes have attacked the Polish town of Tczew to the south of Danzig. Aggression by German armed bands and also flights of aircraft have also been reported at various points of the Silesian frontier.” In another phone call less than an hour further details were relayed “ACCORDING to the latest information just received by the Polish Army Headquarters the German attack is general on all frontiers. In East Prussia, in South Poznania, in Silesia and on the Slovak frontier, there has been bombing without warning at numerous points. In addition, Danzig has proclaimed its Anschluss with the Reich.” While short updates were frequent, sometimes longer messages were sent that would be sent after communications with Polish government representatives, like the Foreign Minister Beck, here is an example of one of those communications from 9:30PM on September 1st “M. BECK has just made the following reply to Your Excellency’s communication: “We are in the thick of war, as the result of unprovoked aggression. The question before us is not of a conference but that the common action which should be taken by the Allies to resist. I have heard nothing, moreover, from any quarter of the Italian plan.” M. Beck added that the air attacks had been unrelenting since the morning. There have been considerable numbers of civilian victims at Poznan and Lwow. German aircraft have again flown over Warsaw. M. Beck has asked me to inform Your Excellency of these attacks in order to show the position in which Poland now finds herself. The people are indignant at the German aggression and its methods, but still remain calm and resolute. The atmosphere is no longer one for conciliation.”

It would take several days for the decision to be made for the French to enter the war in conjunction with the British. I found this communication interesting due to it laying out the details of what the French Ambassador in Berlin should and how he should relay the message to the German government that France was about to enter hostilities. This is from September 3, at 10:20AM “LAST night, following a communication made to us by the British Government, and following the meeting of the French Chamber of Deputies, the French Government at a Cabinet meeting took the following decisions, which I have been charged to transmit to you. You should present yourself today, September 3, at noon, at the Wilhelmstrasse and ask for the German Government’s reply to the communication which you handed in at 10 p. m. on September 1. If the reply to the questions contained in that communication is in the negative, you should recall the responsibility of Germany which you evoked during your last interview, and you should notify to the Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Reich or to his representative that the French Government find themselves, by reason of the German reply, compelled to fulfill as from today, September 3, at 5 p. m., the engagements which France entered into towards Poland, and which are known to the German Government. As from that moment you may ask for your passports.” And with that France was at war, and the Yellow Book basically ends.