24: British Blue Book


In which we look at British primary sources from the Spring and Summer of 1939.

Become a Patron to Access this Episode!


Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Members Episode number 24 - The British Blue Book. This will be the second in our series of episodes looking at some of the primary source documents from 1939. This time we are going to focus on the British Blue Book, which is basically the British version of the French Yellow Book which we discussed in our last episode. Both of these books are full of diplomatic correspondence and other documents that detail the events in the years before the war, with the Blue Book focusing heavily just on the six months before the start of the war in September 1939. I will start by pulling a few quotes from a speech by Prime Minister Chamberlain that was delivered on March 17, 1939, in the aftermath of the German invasion of Czechoslovakia. This would begin a lengthy period where it feels to me like the Prime Minister was generally on the defensive, and trying to justify all of the talk of peace and all of the diplomatic agreements that had been made over the previous year, leading up to and culminating in the agreements at Munich. “When I decided to go to Germany I never expected that I was going to escape criticism. Indeed,; I did not go there to get popularity. I went there first and foremost because, in what appeared to be an almost desperate situation, that seemed to me to offer the only chance of averting a European war. And I might remind you that, when it was first announced that I was going, not a voice was raised in criticism. Everyone applauded that effort. It was only later, when it appeared that the results of the final settlement fell short of the expectations of some who did not fully appreciate the facts-it was only then that the attack began, and even then it was not the visit, it was the terms of settlement that were disapproved.” I quite like this quote from Chamberlain, because it touches on something I have discussed several times on the podcast, the idea of retroactively criticizing a decision based on its outcomes, even if it was generally seen as the correct move at the time. Which basically describes the entirety of the appeasement initiative. Chamberlain would continue “And, indeed, with the lessons of history for all to read, it seems incredible that we should see such a challenge. I feel bound to repeat that, while I am not prepared to engage this country by new unspecified commitments operating under conditions which cannot now be foreseen, yet no greater mistake could be made than to suppose that, because it believes war to be a senseless and cruel thing, this nation has so lost its fibre that it will not take part to the utmost of its power in resisting such a challenge if it ever were made.” He would never really waver from this idea that Britain was always ready and willing to discuss the possibilities of peace, but with the growing concern of future war, he would also constantly reiterate that while the British government would do everything it could to prevent a war, if a war happened, it was also ready to play its part, here is a quote from a speech in front of the house of commons, March 23rd: “Nor is this Government anxious to set up in Europe opposing blocks of countries with different ideas about the forms of their internal administration. We are solely concerned here with the proposition that we cannot submit to a procedure under which independent States are subjected to such pressure under threat of force as to be obliged to yield up their independence, and we are resolved by all means in our power to oppose attempts, if they should be made, to put such a procedure into operation.” This message was also frequently given to the German government, and its representatives, for example here is a message from British ambassador Henderson on May 28th after he had a meeting with Goering, after discussing Goering going on a bit of tirade about British actions in regards to Poland: “At the end of this tirade, moreover, he asked me whether England, “out of envy of a strong Germany,” was really bent on war with her and, if not, what was to be done to prevent it. I said that nobody in their senses could contemplate modern war without horror, but that we should not shrink from it if Germany resorted to another act of aggression. If, therefore, war was to be avoided, patience was necessary and the wild men in Germany must be restrained.”

They key part of Goering’s frustration was the announcement of the agreements made between the government in Warsaw with the French and British governments around a treaty of mutual assurance. When this agreement was first being discussed, even as it was going to commit Britain to the continent in a way that it had not been even in the years before the First World War, Chamberlain would as always reiterate his desire overall for peace, here is a quote from a speech in the Commons on March 31: “I am glad to take this opportunity of stating again the general policy of His Majesty’s Government. They have constantly advocated the adjustment, by way of free negotiation between the parties concerned, of any differences that may arise between them. They consider that this is the natural and proper course where differences exist. In their opinion there should be no question incapable of solution by peaceful means, and they would see no justification for the substitution of force or threats of force for the method of negotiation.” But he would then go on to, for what I think is the first time, acknowledge the fact that Britain would be committing itself to the defense of Polish borders “In order to make perfectly clear the position of His Majesty’s Government in the meantime before those consultations are concluded, I now have to inform the House that during that period, in the event of any action which clearly threatened Polish independence, and which the Polish Government accordingly considered it vital to resist with their national forces, His Majesty’s Government would feel themselves bound at once to lend the Polish Government all support in their power. They have given the Polish Government an assurance to this effect.” This was the precise step that Chamberlain and the British Cabinet had refused to take in regards to Czechoslovakia, firmly stating their intention to enter a war if necessary if borders were violated. The details of the agreement would begin to be sorted out in early April with communications between the two governments, here is one such instance from April 6, 1939: “It was agreed that the two countries were prepared to enter into an agreement of a permanent and reciprocal character to replace the present temporary and unilateral assurance given by His Majesty’s Government to the Polish Government. […] Like the temporary assurance, the permanent agreement would not be directed against any other country but would be designed to assure Great Britain and Poland of mutual assistance in the event of any threat, direct or indirect, to the independence of either. It was recognised that certain matters, including a more precise definition of the various ways in which the necessity for such assistance might arise, would required further examination before the permanent agreement could be completed.” While the temporary agreement was issued quickly, there was the goal of writing up something more official, and as with all diplomatic agreements that took time. It would eventually result in the Agreement of Mutual Assistance between the United Kingdom and Poland which would be signed in London on August 25, 1939. You can find the text of this agreement out there online, but I will warn you that it contains a large amount of very diplomatic agreement sort of language, a lot of talk of Contracting Parties and similar such language. Here are three of the 8 articles which generally contain the most important bits of the agreement: “Article 1: Should one of the Contracting Parties become engaged in hostilities with a European Power in consequence of aggression by the latter against that Contracting Party, the other Contracting Party will at once give the Contracting Party engaged in hostilities all the support and assistance in its power. Article 4: The methods of applying the undertakings of mutual assistance provided for by the present Agreement are established between the competent naval, military and air authorities of the Contracting Parties. Article 7: Should the Contracting Parties be engaged in hostilities in consequence of the application of the present Agreement, they will not conclude an armistice or treaty of peace except by mutual agreement.”

The agreements made with Poland would spiral out into a number of different agreements with nations around Europe that all contained essentially the same type of clauses, and it was truly a monumental shift in how the British government approached foreign relations with smaller nations in Europe. Here is a speech from the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs Halifax in June 29, 1939 outlining some of these agreements and the reasons that they were given “WHEN I look back to the speech which I delivered at the Chatham House Dinner in June a year ago, I am conscious, as we all are, of the great changes that have taken place. A year ago we had undertaken no specific commitments on the Continent of Europe, beyond those which had then existed for some considerable time and are familiar to you all. To-day we are bound by new agreements for mutual defence with Poland and Turkey: we have guaranteed assistance to Greece and Roumania against aggression, and we are now engaged with the Soviet Government in a negotiation, to which I hope there may very shortly be a successful issue, with a view to associating them with us for the defence of States in Europe whose independence and neutrality may be threatened. We have assumed obligations, and are preparing to assume more, with full understanding of their causes and with full understanding of their consequences. We know that, if the security and independence of other countries are to disappear, our own security and our own independence will be gravely threatened. We know that, if international law and order is to be preserved, we must be prepared to fight in its defence. But that is not the position which we face to-day. The threat of military force is holding the world to ransom, and our immediate task is-and here I end as I began-to resist aggression. I would emphasise that to-night with all the strength at my command, so that nobody may misunderstand it. And if we are ever to succeed in removing misunderstanding and reaching a settlement which the world can trust, it must be upon some basis more substantial than verbal undertakings. It has been said that deeds, not words, are necessary. That also is our view.”

When thinking about Poland, and making agreements with Poland, everybody knew exactly what the primary point of contention would be between Germany and Poland, it was all about the Danzig corridor. The corridor had been created after the First World War to give Poland access to the Baltic Sea, but that meant that to do so Poland had to be given a swath of what had previously been German controlled Prussia. Much like in other places in Eastern Europe, there was at least some justification for this given, the area was heavily populated by individuals of Polish descent, but taking a piece of Prussia from Germany and giving it to Poland was always going to cause some animosity. As nicely summarized by Adolf Hitler on April 28th, 1939 when giving a speech to the Reichstag: “There is little to be said as regards German-Polish relations. Here, too, the Peace Treaty of Versailles-of course intentionally-inflicted a most severe wound on Germany. The strange way in which the Corridor giving Poland access to the sea was marked out was meant, above all, to prevent for all time the establishment of an understanding between Poland and Germany. This problem is-as I have already stressed-perhaps the most painful of all problems for Germany.” Much of the plans that Germany made for dealing with the problem of the corridor would revolve around the Free City of Danzig. Danzig was not officially controlled by either nation, but it was at the epicenter of the disagreement between Berlin and Warsaw, with German efforts mounting over the course of the Summer to prepare to turn the Free City of Danzig into the German City of Danzig. Here is Halifax in a letter to the British Ambassador in Warsaw on June 30th “It would seem that Hitler is laying his plans very astutely so as to present the Polish Government with a fait accompli in Danzig, to which it would be difficult for them to react without appearing in the role of aggressors. I feel that the moment has come where consultation between the Polish, British and French Governments is necessary in order that the plans of the three Governments may be co-ordinated in time.” These reports were based off of reports like this one that would be received by the British representative in Danzig itself, which was addressed to Halifax on June 30th “YESTERDAY morning four German army officers in mufti arrived here by night express from Berlin to organise Danzig Heimwehr.” The Heimwehr were German militia, similar to the German freicorps from the 1920s, or the Nazi stormtroopers of the early 1930s. Concerns about Danzig and developments in the city would bubble all the way up to the House of Commons at various points throughout the summer, he is one such instance when Chamberlain would address ongoing developments on July 10th “Recent occurrences in Danzig have inevitably given rise to fears that it is intended to settle her future status by unilateral action, organized by surreptitious methods, thus presenting Poland and other Powers with a fait accompli. In such circumstances any action taken by Poland to restore the situation would, it is suggested, be represented as an act of aggression on her part, and if her action were supported by other Powers they would be accused of aiding and abetting her in the use of force. […] His Majesty’s Government realise that recent developments in the Free City have disturbed confidence and rendered it difficult at present to find an atmosphere in which reasonable counsels can prevail.”

While tracking events in the city, and planning the proper responses and reactions, there was also frequently some uncertainty of exactly what German intentions were. While there were at times points of increasing stress and the threat of action, there were also periods where it appeared that the German government had decided to pursue a more conciliatory approach on the Danzig question, which would be the feeling in the third week of July, as shown by this message from Halifax to Ambassador Norton in Warsaw on July 21 “His Majesty’s Government have learnt with great regret of further incident, but they hope that Polish Government will handle it with same restraint and circumspection which they have hitherto shown, more especially as there is some reason to think that German policy is now to work for a détente in the Danzig question. It is nevertheless essential not to destroy possibility of better atmosphere at outset, and I trust that more care than ever will be taken on Polish side to avoid provocation in any sphere and to restrain press.” And then Norton’s response on July 25th “M. Beck asked me to assure you that Polish Government were always on the look-out for signs of a German wish for a détente. They are inspired by the same principles as your Lordship, since it was in everyone’s interest that temperature should be allowed to fall. Polish Commissioner in Danzig had received formal instructions to deal with each question in a purely practical and objective manner. Even shooting of Polish Customs guard, which Polish Government now considered to have been deliberate, was being treated as a local incident.” I like these two small pieces of correspondence because it is easy, when summarizing the events in Europe in the summer of 1939 to view them as a straight line of increasing tension which then led to war, but for the people living at the time and trying to make policy decisions, the path was often far less certain and less linear. Small things could change the outlook on the future, with those two messages I just quoted being prompted by a report from the British ambassador in Berlin and the things that he was hearing from sources within the German government.

However, if there were periods of uncertainty, August 1939 was not one of them, and throughout the month it became more and more clear that tensions were rising and the threat of war was increasing seemingly by the day. During early August further German actions would inflame tensions in the city, but there would still be some lingering optimism in London, as shown by this message from Halifax to Warsaw on August 15th “I HAVE the impression that Herr Hitler is still undecided, and anxious to avoid war and to hold his hand if he can do so without losing face. As there is a possibility of him not forcing the issue, it is evidently essential to give him no excuse for acting, whether or not conversations about Danzig at some future time may be possible.” Another key part of communications at this time, which we discussed last episode because the same conversations were happening in French diplomatic circles, would be the German accusations of Polish actions, and Polish denial of any wrongdoing. Here is Sir Kennard from Danzig to discuss these allegations when writing to Halifax on August 24th “WHILE I am of course not in a position to check all the allegations made by the German press of minority persecutions here, I am satisfied from enquiries I have made that the campaign is a gross distortion and exaggeration of the facts. Accusations of beating with chains, throwing on barbed wire, being forced to shout insults against Herr Hitler in chorus, &c., are merely silly, but many individual cases specified have been disproved.” It almost reminds me of the disinformation tactic of simply overloading the other side with misinformation, making it almost impossible to disprove everything, because who has the time to line by line through a massive list of completely falsified accusations. It takes far longer to disprove something than it does to write up the initial completely incorrect piece of information. But Sir Kennard also was very clear that he did not believe the general thrust of the accusations, and that it was probably just Germany doing the same thing they had done to Czechoslovakia in 1938, here is another of his correspondences from August 27th “So far as I can judge, German allegations of mass ill-treatment of German minority by Polish authorities are gross exaggerations, if not complete falsifications. There is no sign of any loss of control of situation by Polish civil authorities. Warsaw (and so far as I can ascertain the rest of Poland) is still completely calm. Such allegations are reminiscent of Nazi propaganda methods regarding Czecho-Slovakia last year.”

With continuing instances of German provocation, the message given both directly to the German government, and by British political leaders in public speeches, would harden over the course of the last week of August. Here is British ambassador Henderson reporting on a conversation he had with Hitler on August 23rd “At the end of this first conversation Herr Hitler observed, in reply to my repeated warnings that direct action by Germany would mean war, that Germany had nothing to lose and Great Britain much; that he did not desire war but would not shrink from it if it was necessary; and that his people were much more behind him than last September.” While the British government was making its position and resolve clear, there would be a big change in the overall situation with the announcement of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, and the nonaggression agreement between Germany and the Soviet Union. While this cut short any negotiations between Britain and the Soviets, Chamberlain would make it clear that it did not change the official position of the British government in relation to possible German action, here is a speech from August 24th in front of the House of Commons “That was the situation on Tuesday last, when in Berlin and Moscow it was announced that negotiations had been taking place, and were likely soon to be concluded, for a non-aggression pact between those two countries. I do not attempt to conceal from the House that that announcement came to the Government as a surprise, and a surprise of a very unpleasant character. For some time past there had been rumours about an impending change in the relations between Germany and the Soviet Union, but no inkling of that change had been conveyed either to us or to the French Government by the Soviet Government.” This was also conveyed privately to Hitler by Henderson on the next day, August 25th “Conversation lasted an hour, my attitude being that Russian Pact in no way altered standpoint of His Majesty’s Government, and that I must tell him quite honestly that Britain could not go back on her word to Poland and that I knew his offer would not be considered unless it meant a negotiated settlement of the Polish question. Herr Hitler refused to guarantee this on grounds that Polish provocation might at any moment render German intervention to protect German nationals inevitable. I again and again returned to this point but always got the same answer.” The general tenor of the interactions between Hitler and Henderson would not change over the week that followed, leading up to the German invasion, here is another quote from a report, this time written and sent on August 28th “Herr Hitler continued to argue that Poland could never be reasonable: she had England and France behind her, and imagined that even if she were beaten she would later recover, thanks to their help, more than she might lose. He spoke of annihilating Poland. I said that reminded me of similar talk last year of annihilation of the Czechs. He retorted that we were incapable of inducing Poland to be reasonable. I said that it was just because we remembered the experience of Czecho-Slovakia last year that we hesitated to press Poland too far to-day. Nevertheless, we reserved to ourselves the right to form our own judgment as to what was or what was not reasonable so far as Poland or Germany were concerned. We kept our hands free in that respect.” Just a few days later, Germany would invade Poland, and all of the British talk of resolve and meeting German expansion with a declaration of War would be put to the test, with the answer finally arriving on September 4th with the declaration of war.