§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Captain Margesson.]
§ 2.54 p.m.
§ The Prime Minister (Mr. Chamberlain)
Shortly before the House adjourned at the end of July I remember that some questions were addressed to me as to the possibility of summoning the House before the time arranged, and during the Recess, in certain eventualities. Those eventualities referred to possible developments in Spain. But the matter which has brought us together to-day is one which even at that time was already threatening but which, I think, we all hoped would find a peaceful solution before we met again. Unhappily those hopes have not been fulfilled. To-day we are faced with a situation which has had no parallel since 1914.
To find the origins of the present controversy it would be necessary to go back to the constitution of the state of Czechoslovakia with its heterogeneous population. No doubt at the time when it was constituted it seemed to those then responsible that it was the best arrangement that could be made in the light of conditions as they then supposed them to exist. I cannot help reflecting that if Article XIX of the Covenant providing for the revision of the Treaties by agreement had been put into operation, as was contemplated by the framers of the Covenant, instead of waiting until passion became so exasperated that revision by agreement became impossible, we might have avoided the crisis. For that omission all Members of the League must bear their responsibility. I am not here to apportion blame among them.
The position that we had to face in July was that a deadlock had arisen in the negotiations which had been going on between the Czechoslovak Government and the Sudeten Germans and that fears were already entertained that if it were not speedily broken the German Government might presently intervene in the dispute. For His Majesty's Government there were three alternative courses that we might have adopted. Either we could have threatened to go to war with Germany if she attacked Czechoslovakia, or we could have stood aside and allowed 6 matters to take their course, or, finally, we could attempt to find a peaceful settlement by way of mediation. The first of those courses we rejected. We had no treaty liabilities to Czechoslovakia. We always refused to accept any such obligation. Indeed, this country, which does not readily resort to war, would not have followed us if we had tried to lead it into war to prevent a minority from obtaining autonomy, or even from choosing to pass under some other Government.
The second alternative was also repugnant to us. However remote this territory may be, we knew, of course, that a spark once lighted there might give rise to a general conflagration, and we felt it our duty to do anything in our power to help the contending parties to find agreement. We addressed ourselves to the third course, the task of mediation. We knew that the task would be difficult, perhaps even perilous, but we felt that the object was good enough to justify the risk, and when Lord Runciman had expressed his willingness to undertake our mission, we were happy to think that we had secured a mediator whose long experience and well known qualities of firmness, of tact, and of sympathy gave us the best hopes of success. That in the end Lord Runciman did not succeed was no fault of his, and we, and indeed all Europe, must ever be grateful to him and to his staff for their long and exhausting efforts on behalf of peace, in the course of which they gained the esteem and the confidence of both sides.
On 21st September Lord Runciman addressed a letter to me reporting the results of his mission. That letter is printed in the White Paper—it is document No. I—but perhaps I may conveniently mention some of the salient points of his story. On 7th June the Sudeten-German party had put forward certain proposals which embodied the eight points of Herr Henlein's speech at Carlsbad on 24th April. The Czechoslovak Government, on their side, had embodied their proposals in a draft Nationality Statute, a Language Bill, and an Administrative Reform Bill. By the middle of August it had become clear to Lord Runciman that the gap between these two proposals was too wide to permit of negotiations between the parties on that basis. In his capacity as mediator, he was successful in preventing the Sudeten-German party 7 from closing the door upon further negotiations, and he was largely instrumental in inducing Dr. Benes to put forward new proposals on 21st August, which appear to have been regarded by the Sudeten party leaders as a suitable basis for the continuance of negotiations. The prospects of negotiations being carried through to a successful conclusion were, however, handicapped by the recurrence of incidents in Czechoslovakia, involving casualties both on the Czech and Sudeten-German side.
On 1st and 2nd September Herr Henlein went to Berchtesgaden to consult with Herr Hitler about the situation. He was the bearer of a message from Lord Runciman to Herr Hitler, expressing the hope that he would give his approval and support to the continuance of the negotiations going on in Prague. No direct reply was communicated to Lord Runciman by Herr Henlein, but the latter returned convinced of Herr Hitler's desire for a peaceful solution, and after his return it became clear that the Sudeten leaders insisted upon complete satisfaction of the eight Carlsbad points, so-called, in any solution that might be reached. The House will see that during August Lord Runciman's efforts had been directed, with a considerable degree of success, towards bringing the Sudeten and Czechoslovak Government negotiators closer together.
In the meantime, however, developments in Germany itself had been causing considerable anxiety to His Majesty's Government. On 28th July the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs had written a personal letter to the German Minister of Foreign Affairs, Herr von Ribbentrop, expressing his regret at the latter's statement to Sir Nevile Henderson, our Ambassador in Berlin, that the German Government must reserve its attitude towards Lord Runciman's mission and regard the matter as one of purely British concern. The Secretary of State had gone on to express the hope that the German Government would collaborate with His Majesty's Government in facilitating a peaceful solution of the Sudeten question and so opening the way to establishing relations between Great Britain and Germany on a basis of mutual confidence and co-operation.
But early in August we received reports of military preparations in Germany on 8 an extensive scale. They included the calling up of reservists, the service of second-year recruits beyond the beginning of October, when they would normally have been released, the conscription of labour for the completion of German fortifications on her Western frontier, and measures which empowered the military authorities to conscript civilian goods and services. These measures, which involved a widespread dislocation of civilian life, could not fail to be regarded abroad as equivalent to partial mobilisation, and they suggested that the German Government were determined to find a settlement of the Sudeten question by the autumn. In these circumstances His Majesty's Ambassador in Berlin was instructed, in the middle of August, to point out to the German Government that these abnormal measures could not fail to be interpreted abroad as a threatening gesture towards Czechoslovakia, that they must therefore increase the feeling of tension throughout Europe, and that they might compel the Czechoslovak Government to take precautionary measures on their side. The almost certain consequence would be to destroy all chance of successful mediation by Lord Runciman's mission and perhaps endanger the peace of every one of the great Powers of Europe. This, the Ambassador added, might also destroy the prospects of the resumption of Anglo-German conversations. In these circumstances it was hoped that the German Government might be able to modify their military measures in order to avoid these dangers.
To these representations Herr von Ribbentrop replied in a letter in which he refused to discuss the military measures referred to and expressed the opinion that the British efforts in Prague had only served to increase Czech intransigence. In face of this attitude His Majesty's Government, through the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who happened to be speaking at Lanark on 27th August, drew attention again to some words which I had used on 24th March in this House. He declared that there was nothing to add to or to vary in the statement which I had made. Perhaps I may just refresh the memories of hon. Members by reading that statement of 24th March once again:Where peace and war are concerned, legal obligations are not alone involved, and, if war broke out, it would be unlikely to be confined to those who have assumed such obligations. 9 It would be quite impossible to say where it would end and what governments might become involved. The inexorable pressure of facts might well prove more powerful than formal pronouncements, and in that event it would be well within the bounds of probability that other countries, besides those which were parties to the original dispute, would almost immediately become involved. This is especially true in the case of two countries like Great Britain and France, with long associations of friendship, with interests closely interwoven, devoted to the same ideals of democratic liberty, and determined to uphold them."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 24th March, 1938; cols. 1405–6, Vol. 333.]Towards the end of August further events occurred which marked the increasing seriousness of the situation. The French Government, in consequence of information which had reached them about the moving of several German divisions towards their frontier, took certain precautionary measures themselves, including the calling up of reserves to man the Maginot Line. On 28th August Sir Nevile Henderson had been recalled to London for consultation and a special meeting of Ministers was held on 30th August to consider his report and the general situation. On the 31st he returned to Berlin and he gave Baron von Weiszäcker, the State Secretary at the Wilhelmstrasse, a strong personal warning regarding the probable attitude of His Majesty's Government in the event of German aggression against Czechoslovakia, particularly if France were compelled to intervene. On 1st September the Ambassador saw Herr von Ribbentrop and repeated to him, as a personal and most urgent message, the warning he had already given to the State Secretary on the previous day.
In addressing these personal warnings through Sir Nevile Henderson and in making the reference to Czechoslovakia contained in the Chancellor of the Exchequer's speech on 27th August, His Majesty's Government desired to impress the seriousness of the situation upon the German Government without risking a further aggravation of the situation by any formal representations, which might have been interpreted by the German Government as a public rebuff, as had been the case in regard to our representations on 21st May. His Majesty's Government also had to bear in mind the close approach of the Nazi Party Congress at Nuremburg, which was to open on 5th September and to last until the 12th. It was to be anticipated that the 10 German Chancellor would feel himself compelled to make some public statement regarding the Sudeten question, and it therefore appeared necessary, in addition to warning the German Government of the attitude of His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom, to make every effort in Prague to secure a resumption of negotiations between the Czechoslovak Government and the Sudeten representatives on a basis which would give hope of a rapid and satisfactory settlement.
Accordingly, His Majesty's Minister at Prague saw Dr. Benes on 3rd September and emphasised to him that it was vital in the interests of Czechoslovakia to offer immediately and without reservation those concessions without which the Sudeten question could not be immediately settled. His Majesty's Government were not in a position to say whether anything less than the full Carlsbad programme would suffice. They certainly felt that the Czechoslovak Government should go forthwith and unreservedly to the limit of concessions. Lord Runciman strongly supported Mr. Newton's representations to Dr. Benes, but both Lord Runciman and Mr. Newton drew Dr. Benes attention to the importance of reaching a settlement before Herr Hitler's expected pronouncement at Nuremburg and to the dangerous international situation resulting from the German military preparations. Dr. Benes responded to these representations, which were made in the best interests of Czechoslovakia, by putting forward proposals afterwards known as the Fourth Plan, which were communicated to the Sudeten German representatives on 6th September. In Lord Runciman's opinion this plan embodied almost all the requirements of the eight Carlsbad points and formed a very favourable basis for the resumption of negotiations. In forming this opinion he was guided partly by his own examination of the Czech Government's plan and partly by the favourable reception that was accorded to it by the Sudeten negotiators.
Since the opening proclamation of the Nuremberg Congress had not contained any reference to the Czechoslovak question, and the recent attitude of Herr Hitler and other leading German personalities indicated that Germany welcomed the continuation of negotiations in Prague, the prospects of a satisfactory solution of the Sudeten question on the 11 basis of autonomy within the Czechoslovak State appeared not unpromising on the publication of the Czechoslovak Government's Fourth Plan on 7th September. The publication of the Fourth Plan was, unfortunately, however, immediately followed by a serious incident at Mährisch-Ostrau. It would appear from the investigations of the British observer that the importance of this incident was very much exaggerated. The immediate result was a decision on the part of the Sudeten leaders not to resume negotiations until this incident had been liquidated. Immediately measures were taken by the Czechoslovak Government to liquidate it, but further incidents took place on IIth September near Eger, and, in spite of Lord Runciman's efforts to bring both parties together, negotiations could not be resumed before Herr Hitler's speech winding up the Nuremberg Congress on 12th September.
In view of the unsatisfactory development of the situation in Czechoslovakia, and of the danger that Herr Hitler's speech might close the door to further negotiations, His Majesty's Government made further efforts to exercise a restraining influence upon the German Government. The French Government had shown themselves particularly insistent that nothing should be left undone to make the attitude of His Majesty's Government clear to the Chancellor himself. Sir Nevile Henderson was at Nuremberg from 9th September to the 12th, and he took every opportunity to impress upon leading German personalities, such as Field Marshal Goering, Herr von Ribbentrop, Dr. Goebbels, Baron von Neurath and Baron von Weiszäcker, the attitude of His Majesty's Government as set forth in my speech on 24th March and repeated by my right hon. Friend on 27th August. Our Ambassador reported that there could be no grounds for any doubts in the minds of the German Government as a result of his efforts, and as such action might have had a contrary effect to what was intended, it was decided not to make any personal representations to Herr Hitler himself. The French Government were informed of the warnings which had been conveyed by Sir Nevile Henderson at Nuremberg.
On 9th September the Cabinet met to consider the situation and decided to take 12 certain precautionary naval measures, including the commissioning of mine-layers and mine-sweepers. On 11th September I made a statement to the Press, which received widespread publicity, stressing in particular the close ties uniting Great Britain and France and the probability in certain eventualities of this country going to the assistance of France. On the morning of 12th September the Cabinet met again, but they decided that no further action could usefully be taken before Herr Hitler's speech at Nuremberg that evening.
In his speech on 12th September Herr Hitler laid great stress upon the defensive military measures taken on Germany's western frontier. In his references to Czechoslovakia he reminded the world that on 22nd February he had said that the Reich would no longer tolerate further oppression or persecution of the Sudeten-Germans. They demanded the right of self-determination, he said, and they were supported in their demand by the Reich. Therefore, for the first time this speech promised the support of the Reich to the Sudeten-Germans if they could not obtain satisfaction for themselves, and for the first time it publicly raised the issue of self-determination. He did not, however, close the door upon further negotiations in Prague, nor did he demand a plebiscite. As the speech was also accompanied by pacifying references to Germany's frontiers with Poland and France, its general effect was to leave the situation unchanged, with a slight diminution of the tension.
The speech, however, and in particular Herr Hitler's reference to German support for the cause of the Sudeten-Germans, had an immediate and unfortunate effect among those people. Demonstrations took place throughout the Sudetenland, resulting in an immediate extension of the incidents which had already begun on 11th September. Serious rioting occurred, accompanied by attacks upon Czech police and officials, and by 14th September, according to official Czechoslovak figures, there had been 21 killed and 75 wounded, the majority of whom were Czechs. Martial law was immediately proclaimed in the affected districts. On the evening of 13th September Herr Henlein and other Sudeten leaders assembled at Eger and sent a telegram to the Czechoslovak Government 13 declaring that they could not be responsible for the consequences of martial law and the special Czech emergency measures if they were not immediately withdrawn. Attempts by Lord Runciman's Mission to bring the Sudeten leaders into discussion with the Czechoslovak Government failed, and on 14th September Herr Henlein issued a proclamation stating that the Carlsbad Points were no longer enough and that the situation called for self-determination. Thereupon, Herr Henlein fled to Germany, where, it is understood, he has since occupied himself with the formation of a Sudeten legionary organisation reported to number 40,000 men. In these circumstances Lord Runciman felt that no useful purpose would be served by his publishing a plan of his own.
The House will recall that by the evening of 14th September a highly critical situation had developed in which there was immediate danger of the German troops now concentrated upon the frontier entering Czechoslovakia to prevent further incidents occurring in Sudetenland, and fighting between the Czech forces and the Sudeten-Germans, although reliable reports indicated that order had been completely restored in those districts by 14th September. On the other hand, the Czechoslovak Government might have felt compelled to mobilise at once and so risk provoking a German invasion. In either event German invasion might have been expected to bring into operation French obligations to come to the assistance of Czechoslovakia, and so lead to a European War in which this country might well have been involved in support of France.
In those circumstances I decided that the time had come to put into operation a plan which I had had in my mind for a considerable period as a last resort. One of the principal difficulties in dealing with totalitarian Governments is the lack of any means of establishing contact with the personalities in whose hands lie the final decisions for the country. So I resolved to go to Germany myself to interview Herr Hitler and find out in personal conversation whether there was yet any hope of saving the peace. I knew very well that in taking such an unprecedented course I was laying myself open to criticism on the ground that I was detracting from the dignity of a British 14 Prime Minister, and to disappointment, and perhaps even resentment, if I failed to bring back a satisfactory agreement. But I felt that in such a crisis, where the issues at stake were so vital for millions of human beings, such considerations could not be allowed to count.
Herr Hitler responded to my suggestion with cordiality, and on 15th September I made my first flight to Munich. Thence I travelled by train to Herr Hitler's mountain home at Berchtesgaden. I confess I was astonished at the warmth of the approval with which this adventure was everywhere received, but the relief which it brought for the moment was an indication of the gravity with which the situation had been viewed. At this first conversation, which lasted for three hours and at which only an interpreter was present besides Herr Hitler and myself, I very soon became aware that the position was much more acute and much more urgent than I had realised. In courteous but perfectly definite terms, Herr Hitler made it plain that he had made up his mind that the Sudeten-Germans must have the right of self-determination and of returning, if they wished, to the Reich. If they could not achieve this by their own efforts, he said, he would assist them to do so, and he declared categorically that rather than wait he would be prepared to risk a world war. At one point he complained of British threats against him, to which I replied that he must distinguish between a threat and a warning, and that he might have just cause of complaint if I allowed him to think that in no circumstances would this country go to war with Germany when, in fact, there were conditions in which such a contingency might arise.
So strongly did I get the impression that the Chancellor was contemplating an immediate invasion of Czechoslovakia that I asked him why he had allowed me to travel all that way, since I was evidently wasting my time. On that he said that if I could give him there and then an assurance that the British Government accepted the principle of self-determination he would be quite ready to discuss ways and means of carrying it out; but, if, on the contrary, I told him that such a principle could not be considered by the British Government, then he agreed that it was of no use to continue our conversations. I, of course, was not in a position to give there and 15 then such an assurance, but I undertook to return at once to consult with my colleagues if he would refrain from active hostilities until I had had time to obtain their reply. That assurance he gave me, provided, he said, that nothing happened in Czechoslovakia of such a nature as to force his hand. That assurance has remained binding ever since. I have no doubt whatever now, looking back, that my visit alone prevented an invasion, for which everything was ready. It was clear to me that with the German troops in the positions they then occupied there was nothing that anybody could do that would prevent that invasion unless the right of self-determination were granted to the Sudeten-Germans and that quickly. That was the sole hope of a peaceful solution.
I came back to London next day, and that evening the Cabinet met and it was attended by Lord Runciman who, at my request, had also travelled from Prague on the same day. Lord Runciman informed us that although, in his view, the responsibility for the final breach in the negotiations at Prague rested with the Sudeten extremists, nevertheless, in view of recent developments, the frontier districts between Czechoslovakia and Germany where the Sudeten population was in an important majority, should be given the full right of self-determination at once. He considered the cession of territory to be inevitable and thought it should be done promptly. Measures for a peaceful transfer could be arranged between the two Governments. Germans and Czechs, however, would still have to live side by side in many other areas of Czechoslovakia, and in those areas Lord Runciman thought that a basis ought to be sought for local autonomy on the lines of the Fourth Plan which had been published by the Czechoslovak Government on the seventh of this month. Moreover, he considered that the integrity and security of Czechoslovakia could only be maintained if her policy, internal and external, was directed to enabling her to live at peace with all her neighbours. For this purpose, in his opinion, her policy should be entirely neutral, as in the case of Switzerland. This would involve assurances from Czechoslovakia that in no circumstances would she attack any of her neighbours and it would also 16 mean guarantees from the principal Powers of Europe against aggression.
Lord Runciman recommended that, in order to carry out the policy he was advocating, an international commission should be invited to deal with the delimitation of the area transferred to Germany and with controversial points arising from the execution of whatever agreement was reached. He also recommended the organisation of an international force to keep order in the transferred districts, so that the Czechoslovak troops and police might be withdrawn as soon as possible.
Naturally, His Majesty's Government felt it necessary to consult the French Government before they replied to Herr Hitler, and, accordingly, M. Daladier and M. Bonnet were invited to fly to London for conversations with British Ministers on 18th September. Perhaps I may read the communiqué which was issued after those conversations, and which read as follows:After a full discussion of the present international situation, the representatives of the British and French Governments are in complete agreement as to the policy to be adopted with a view to promoting a peaceful solution of the Czechoslovak question. The two Governments hope that thereafter it will be possible to consider a more general settlement in the interests of European peace.During these conversations the representatives of the two Governments were guided by a desire to find a solution which would not bring about a European War, and, therefore, a solution which would not automatically compel France to take action in accordance with her obligations. It was agreed that the only means of achieving this object was to accept the principle of self-determination, and, accordingly, the British and the French Ministers in Prague were instructed to inform the Czechoslovak Government that the further maintenance within the boundaries of the Czechoslovak State of the districts mainly inhabited by Sudeten Germans could not continue any longer without imperilling the interests of Czechoslovakia herself and of European peace. The Czechoslovak Government were, therefore, urged to agree immediately to the direct transfer to the Reich of all areas with over 50 per cent. Sudeten inhabitants. An international body was to be set up to deal with questions like the adjustment of frontiers and the possible exchange of populations on the basis of the right to opt.
17 The Czechoslovak Government were informed that, to meet their natural desire for security for their future, His Majesty's Government would be prepared, as a contribution to the pacification of Europe, to join in an international guarantee of the new boundaries of the Czechoslovak State against unprovoked aggression. Such a guarantee would safeguard the independence of Czechoslovakia by substituting a general guarantee against unprovoked aggression in place of the existing treaties with France and Soviet Russia, which involve reciprocal obligations of a military character. In urging this solution upon the Czechoslovak Government, the British and French Governments took account of the probability that the Czechoslovak Government would find it preferable to deal with the problem by the method of direct transfer rather than by means of a plebiscite, which would involve serious difficulties as regards other nationalities in Czechoslovakia.
In agreeing to guarantee the future boundaries of Czechoslovakia against unprovoked aggression, His Majesty's Government were accepting a completely new commitment as we were not previously bound by any obligations towards Czechoslovakia other than those involved in the Covenant of the League.
The Czechoslovak Government replied on 20th September to these representations by suggesting that the Sudeten dispute should be submitted to arbitration under the terms of the German-Czechoslovak Arbitration Treaty of 1926. The British and French Ministers in Prague were, however, instructed to point out to the Czechoslovak Government that there was no hope of a peaceful solution on this basis, and, in the interests of Czechoslovakia and of European peace, the Czechoslovak Government was urged to accept the Anglo-French proposals immediately. This they did immediately and unconditionally on 21st September. His Majesty's Minister in Prague was instructed on 22nd September to inform Dr. Benes that His Majesty's Government were profoundly conscious of the immense sacrifices to which the Czechoslovak Government had agreed, and the great public spirit they had shown. These proposals had naturally been put forward in the hope of averting a general disaster and saving Czechoslovakia from invasion. The Czechoslovak Government's readiness 18 to go to such extreme limits of concession had assured her of a measure of sympathy which nothing else could have aroused.
That Government resigned on 22nd September, but it was immediately succeeded by a Government of National concentration under General Syrovy, Inspector-General of the Army, and it has been emphasised in Prague that this Government is not a military dictatorship and has accepted the Anglo-French proposals. We had hoped that the immediate problem of the Sudeten Germans would not be further complicated at this particular juncture by the pressing of the claims of the Hungarian and Polish minorities. These minorities have, however, consistently demanded similar treatment to that accorded to the Sudeten minority, and the acceptance of the Anglo-French proposals, involving the cession of the predominately Sudeten German territories, has led to a similar demand for cession of the territory predominantly inhabited by Polish and Hungarian minorities being advanced by the Hungarian and Polish Governments. The Hungarian Minister in London and the Polish Ambassador in London made representations to His Majesty's Government in this sense on 19th and loth September. Representations were also made in Prague on 21st and 22nd September. His Majesty's Government have taken note of these representations, and have replied that they were at present concentrating all their efforts on the Sudeten problem, on the solution of which the issue of peace and war in Europe depended. They fully appreciated the interest of the Hungarian and Polish Governments in their respective minorities in Czechoslovakia, but hoped they would do nothing in the present delicate situation to extend the scope of the present crisis. The Polish Government have expressed considerable dissatisfaction at this reply, and emphasised that the Polish claims require urgent settlement. Troop movements have taken place in the direction of Teschen and considerable popular feeling has been aroused in Poland. The Hungarian Government has been encouraged by the visits of the Regent to Field Marshal Goering at Rominten on 20th September and of the Prime Minister, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Chief of the General Staff to Berchtesgaden on 21st September. Mobilisation 19 measures have been taken to double the strength of the Hungarian Army.
In view of these developments, the task of finding a solution of the Sudeten German problem was still further complicated. However, on the 22nd I went back to Germany to Godesberg on the Rhine, where the Chancellor had appointed a meeting place as being more convenient for me than the remote Berchtesgaden. Once again I had a very warm welcome in the streets and villages through which I passed, demonstrating to me the desire of the German people for peace, and on the afternoon of my arrival I had my second meeting with the Chancellor. During my stay in London the Government had worked out with the French Government arrangements for effecting the transfer of the territory proposed, and also for delimiting the final frontier. I explained these to Herr Hitler—he was not previously aware of them—and I also told him about the proposed guarantee against unprovoked aggression.
On that point of a guarantee he made no objection, but said he could not enter into a guarantee unless other Powers, including Italy, were also guarantors. I said, I had not asked him to enter into a guarantee but I had intended to ask him whether he was prepared to conclude a pact of non-aggression with the new Czechoslovakia. He said he could not enter into such a pact while other minorities in Czechoslovakia were still unsatisfied; but hon. Members will see that he has since put his views in a more positive form, and said that when they are satisfied he will then be prepared to join in an international guarantee. At this particular time, however, no further discussion took place between us on the subject of a guarantee. Herr Hitler said he could not accept the other proposals I had described to him, on the ground that they were too dilatory and offered too many opportunities for further evasion on the part of the Czechs. He insisted that a speedy solution was essential, on account of the oppression and terrorism to which the Sudeten Germans were being subjected, and he proceeded to give me the main outlines of the proposal which he subsequently embodied in a memorandum—except that he did not in this conversation actually name any time limit.
20 Hon. Members will realise the perplexity in which I found myself, faced with this totally unexpected situation. I had been told at Berchtesgaden that if the principle of self-determination were accepted Herr Hitler would discuss with me the ways and means of carrying it out. He told me afterwards that he never for one moment supposed that I should be able to come back and say that the principle was accepted. I do not want hon. Members to think that he was deliberately deceiving me—I do not think so for one moment—but, for me, I expected that when I got back to Godesberg I had only to discuss quietly with him the proposals that I had brought with me; and it was a profound shock to me when I was told at the beginning of the conversation that these proposals were not acceptable, and that they were to be replaced by other proposals of a kind which I had not contemplated at all.
I felt that I must have a little time to consider what I was to do. Consequently, I withdrew, my mind full of foreboding as to the success of my mission. I first, however, obtained from Herr Hitler an extension of his previous assurance, that he would not move his troops pending the results of the negotiations. I, on my side, undertook to appeal to the Czech Government to avoid any action which might provoke incidents. I have seen speculative accounts of what happened on the next day, which have suggested that long hours passed whilst I remained on one side of the Rhine and Herr Hitler on the other because I had difficulty in obtaining this assurance from him about the moving of his troops. I want to say at once that that is purely imaginary. There was no such difficulty. I will explain in a moment what did cause the delay; but the assurance was given readily, and it has been, as I have said before, abided by right up to the present time.
We had arranged to resume our conversation at half past eleven the next morning, but, in view of the difficulties of talking with a man through an interpreter and of the fact that I could not feel sure that what I had said to Herr Hitler had always been completely understood and appreciated by him, I thought it would be wise to put down on paper some comments upon these new proposals of his and let him have them some time before 21 the talks began. Accordingly, I wrote him a letter—which is No. 3 in the White Paper—which I sent to him. I sent that soon after breakfast. It will be seen that in it I declared my readiness to convey the proposals to the Czechoslovak Government, but I pointed out what seemed to me to be grave difficulties in the way of their acceptance. On the receipt of this letter, the Chancellor intimated that he would like to send a written reply. Accordingly, the conversations were postponed. The reply was not received until well into the afternoon.
I had hoped that this delay might mean that some modification was being worked out, but when I received the letter—which is No. 4—I found, to my disappointment, that, although it contained some explanation, it offered no modification at all of the proposals which had been described to me the night before. Accordingly, I replied as in document No. 5, asking for a memorandum of the proposals and a copy of the map for transmission to Prague, and intimating my intention to return to England. The memorandum and the map were handed to me at my final interview with the Chancellor, which began at half-past ten that night and lasted into the small hours of the morning, an interview at which the German Foreign Secretary was present, as well as Sir Nevile Henderson and Sir Horace Wilson; and, for the first time, I found in the memorandum a time limit. Accordingly, on this occasion I spoke very frankly. I dwelt with all the emphasis at my command on the risks which would be incurred by insisting on such terms, and on the terrible consequences of a war, if war ensued. I declared that the language and the manner of the document, which I described as an ultimatum rather than a memorandum, would profoundly shock public opinion in neutral countries, and I bitterly reproached the Chancellor for his failure to respond in any way to the efforts which I had made to secure peace. In spite of these plain words, this conversation was carried on on more friendly terms than any that had yet preceded it, and Herr Hitler informed me that he appreciated and was grateful for my efforts, but that he considered that he had made a response since he had held back the operations which he had planned and that he had offered in his proposal to Czechoslovakia a frontier very different from the one which he would 22 have taken as the result of military conquest.
I think I should add that before saying farewell to Herr Hitler I had a few words with him in private, which I do not think are without importance. In the first place he repeated to me with great earnestness what he had said already at Berchtesgaden, namely, that this was the last of his territorial ambitions in Europe and that he had no wish to include in the Reich people of other races than Germans. In the second place he said, again very earnestly, that he wanted to be friends with England and that if only this Sudeten question could be got out of the way in peace he would gladly resume conversations. It is true he said, "There is one awkward question, the Colonies." [HON. MEMBERS: "Spain."] [Laughter.] I really think that at a time like this these are not subjects for idle laughter. They are words which count in the long run and ought to be fully weighed. He said, "There is one awkward question, the Colonies, but that is not a matter for war," and, alluding to the mobilisation of the Czechoslovakian Army, which had been announced to us in the middle of our conversations and had given rise to some disturbance, he said, about the Colonies, "There will be no mobilisation about that."
I may now briefly recapitulate the contents of the Memorandum. It propesed immediate separation from Czechoslovakia of the areas shaded on the map. These areas included all areas in which Sudeten Germans constituted more than 50 per cent. of the population, and some additional areas. These were to be com-pletely evacuated by Czech soldiers and officials and occupied by German troops by 1st October. A plebiscite was to be held in November, and according to the results a definitive frontier was to be settled by a German-Czech or an International Commission; that is to say, the frontier would be altered according as the majority were either Germans or Czechs on one side or the other. In addition, certain other areas, marked in green, were to be the subject of a plebiscite but these were to remain in the occupation of Czech troops. Both German and Czech troops were to be withdrawn from the disputed areas during the plebiscite and all further details were to be settled by a joint German-Czech Commission.
23 I returned to London on 24th September, and arrangements were made for the German Memorandum and map to be communicated directly to the Czech Government, who received them that evening. On Sunday, the 25th, we received from M. Masaryk, the Czech Minister here, the reply of the Czech Government, which stated that they considered Herr Hitler's demands in their present form to be absolutely and unconditionally unacceptable. This reply was communicated to the French Ministers, M. Daladier and M. Bonnet, who arrived that same evening and exchanged views with us on the situation. Conversations were resumed the next morning, when the French Ministers informed us that if Czechoslovakia were attacked France would fulfil her Treaty obligations, and in reply we told them that if as a result of these obligations French forces became actively engaged in hostilities against Germany, we should feel obliged to support them.
Meanwhile, as a last effort to preserve peace I sent Sir Horace Wilson to Berlin on the 26th, with a personal message to Herr Hitler to be delivered before the speech that Herr Hitler was to make in Berlin at eight o'clock that night. The French Ministers entirely approved this initiative and issued a communiqué to that effect at midday. Sir Horace Wilson took with him a letter—No. 9 on the White Paperfrom me, pointing out that the reception of the German Memorandum by the Czechoslovak Government and public opinion in the world generally had confirmed the expectation which I had expressed to him at Godesberg. I, therefore, made a further proposal with a view to rendering it possible to get a settlement by negotiation rather than by military force, namely, that there should be immediate discussions between German and Czechoslovak representatives in the presence of British representatives. Sir Horace Wilson arrived in Berlin on the afternoon of the 26th and he presented his letter to Herr Hitler, who listened to him, but expressed the view that he could not depart from the procedure of the memorandum, as he felt conferences would lead to further intolerable procrastinations.
I should tell the House how deeply impressed on my mind by my conversations with Herr Hitler and by every speech he 24 has made, is his rooted distrust and disbelief in the sincerity of the Czech Government. That has been one of the governing factors in all this difficult story of negotiation.
In the meantime after reading Herr Hitler's speech in Berlin, in which he, as I say, expressed his disbelief in the intention of the Czech Government to carry out their promises, I issued a statement in which I offered, on behalf of the British Government, to guarantee that the promises they had made to us and the French Government should be carried out. But yesterday morning Sir Horace Wilson resumed his conversations with Herr Hitler, and finding his views apparently still unchanged, he by my instructions repeated to him in precise terms what I said a few minutes ago was the upshot of our conversations with the French, namely, that if the Czechs reject the German Memorandum and Germany attacks Czechoslovakia, we had been informed by the French Government that they would fulfil their obligations to Czechoslovakia, and that should the forces of France in consequence become actively engaged in hostilities against Germany the British Government would feel obliged to support them.
The next document in the White Paper refers to a conversation which I had with M. Masaryk as to whether the Czechoslovak Government would take part in such a conference as I had proposed to Herr Hitler, and the Czech Government replied accepting the proposal under certain conditions which are set out in their letter. Now the story which I have told the House brings us up to last night. About 10.30 I received from Herr Hitler a reply to my letter sent by Sir Horace Wilson. It is printed in the White Paper. A careful perusal of this letter indicates certain limitations on Herr Hitler's intentions which were not included in the Memorandum, and also gives certain additional assurances. There is, for example, a definite statement that troops are not to move beyond the red line, that they are only to preserve order, that the plebiscite will be carried out by a free vote under no outside influence, and that Herr Hitler will abide by the result, and, finally, that he will join the international guarantee of the remainder of Czechoslovakia once the minorities questions are settled. Those are all reassuring statements as far as they go, 25 and I have no hesitation in saying, after the personal contact I had established with Herr Hitler, that I believe he means what he says when he states that. But the reflection which was uppermost in my mind when I read his letter to me was that once more the differences and the obscurities had been narrowed down still further to a point where really it was inconceivable that they could not be settled by negotiations. So strongly did I feel this, that I felt impelled to send one more last letter—the last last—to the Chancellor. I sent him the following personal message:After reading your letter I feel certain that you can get all essentials without war and without delay. I am ready to come to Berlin myself at once to discuss arrangements for transfer with you and representatives of the Czech Government, together with representatives of France and Italy if you desire. I feel convinced that we could reach agreement in a week. However much you distrust the Prague Government's intentions, you cannot doubt the power of the British and French Governments to see that the promises are carried out fairly and fully and forthwith. As you know, I have stated publicly that we are prepared to undertake that they shall be so carried out. I cannot believe that you will take the responsibility of starting a world war which may end civilisation, for the sake of a few days' delay in settling this long-standing problem.At the same time I sent the following personal message to Signor Mussolini:I have to-day addressed last appeal to Herr Hitler to abstain from force to settle Sudeten problem, which, I feel sure, can be settled by a short discussion and will give him the essential territory, population and protection for both Sudetens and Czechs during transfer. I have offered myself to go at once to Berlin to discuss arrangements with German and Czech representatives, and if the Chancellor desires, representatives also of Italy and France.I trust your Excellency will inform the German Chancellor that you are willing to be represented and urge him to agree to my proposal which will keep all our peoples out of war. I have already guaranteed that Czech promises shall be carried out and feel confident full agreement could be reached in a week.In reply to my message to Signor Mussolini, I was informed that instructions had been sent by the Duce to the Italian Ambassador in Berlin to see Herr von Ribbentrop at once and to say that while Italy would fulfil completely her pledges to stand by Germany, yet, in view of the great importance of the request made by His Majesty's Government to Signor Mussolini, the latter hoped Herr Hitler would see his way to postpone 26 action which the Chancellor had told Sir Horace Wilson was to be taken at 2 p.m. to-day for at least 24 hours so as to allow Signor Mussolini time to re-examine the situation and endeavour to find a peaceful settlement. In response, Herr Hitler has agreed to postpone mobilisation for 24 hours.
Whatever views hon. Members may have had about Signor Mussolini in the past, I believe that everyone will welcome his gesture of being willing to work with us for peace in Europe. That is not all. I have something further to say to the House yet. I have now been informed by Herr Hitler that he invites me to meet him at Munich to-morrow morning. He has also invited Signor Mussolini and M. Daladier. Signor Mussolini has accepted and I have no doubt M. Daladier will also accept. I need not say what my answer will be. [An HON. MEMBER:" Thank God for the Prime Minister!"] We are all patriots, and there can be no hon. Member of this House who did not feel his heart leap that the crisis has been once more postponed to give us once more an opportunity to try what reason and good will and discussion will do to settle a problem which is already within sight of settlement. Mr. Speaker, I cannot say any more. I am sure that the House will be ready to release me now to go and see what I can make of this last effort. Perhaps they may think it will be well, in view of this new development, that this Debate shall stand adjourned for a few days, when perhaps we may meet in happier circumstances.
§ 4.22 p.m.
§ Mr. Attlee
I am absolutely certain that everyone in this House will have welcomed the statement of the Prime Minister that, even at this late hour, a fresh opportunity has arisen of further discussions which may lead to a prevention of war. I am sure that every Member of this House is desirous of neglecting no chance of preserving peace without sacrificing principles. We wish to give the Prime Minister every opportunity of following up this new move, and we agree to adjourn now, and hope that when the House reassembles in a short time the war clouds may have lifted.
§ Sir Archibald Sinclair
I desire to support the proposal which has been made by the Prime Minister and seconded by the Leader of the Opposition that this 27 House should adjourn. On behalf of my hon. Friends and myself, I wish to express to the Prime Minister the feelings of relief which we have felt at the news which he has conveyed to the House, and, let me add, of gratitude to the Prime Minister for the exertions, the unsparing exertions which he has made towards peace. He has told us that he is going into this Conference, and that lie is determined to see that the Czechs carry out the obligations that they have accepted. I hope that he will go with an equal determination to see that the Czechoslovak State in its new frontiers will have a chance of economic survival and complete freedom and independence. With these feelings and with these hopes, I wish the Prime Minister God-speed in his enterprise.
§ Mr. Maxton
On an occasion like this I do not wish to prolong the Debate or to say a controversial word, but simply to agree with the step which has now been taken. Those who sit by me are as keen for peace as anyone, and any steps that can be taken will be supported.
§ Mr. Lansbury
I want to say only two or three words. I want, on behalf of a small band of men in this House who hold very strong views about war and peace to say God-speed to the Prime Minister. I also wish to say on behalf of my friends anyhow, and, I believe, on behalf of millions of people in this country, how very grateful we are that he has taken 28 the initiative that he has, and how we wish and hope and pray that success will crown his efforts.
§ Mr. Gallacher
No one desires peace more than I and my party, but it must be a peace based upon freedom and democracy and not upon the cutting up and destruction of a small State. I want to say that the policy of the National Government has led to this crisis. [HON. MEMBERS: "No!"] Yes, and if there is peace at the moment it is the determined attitude of the people that has saved it. Whatever the outcome the National Government will have to answer for its policy. I would not be a party to what has been going on here. There are as many Fascists opposite as there are in Germany, and I protest against the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury (Captain Margesson)
I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.
§ Motion, by leave, withdrawn.