HC Deb 02 September 1939 vol 351 cc280-6

7.44 p.m.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Chamberlain)

Sir Nevile Henderson was received by Herr von Ribbentrop at half-past nine last night, and he delivered the warning message which was read to the House yesterday. Herr von Ribbentrop replied that he must submit the communication to the German Chancellor. Our Ambassador declared his readiness to receive the Chancellor's reply. Up to the present no reply has been received.

It may be that the delay is caused by consideration of a proposal which, meanwhile, had been put forward by the Italian Government, that hostilities should cease and that there should then immediately be a conference between the Five Powers, Great Britain, France, Poland, Germany and Italy. While appreciating the efforts of the Italian Government, His Majesty's Government, for their part, would find it impossible to take part in a conference while Poland is being subjected to invasion, her towns are under bombardment and Danzig is being made the subject of a unilateral settlement by force. His Majesty's Government will, as stated yesterday, be bound to take action unless the German forces are withdrawn from Polish territory. They are in communication with the French Government as to the limit of time within which it would be necessary for the British and French Governments to know whether the German Government were prepared to effect such a withdrawal. If the German Government should agree to withdraw their forces then His Majesty's Government would be willing to regard the position as being the same as it was before the German forces crossed the Polish frontier. That is to say, the way would be open to discussion between the German and Polish Governments on the matters at issue between them, on the understanding that the settlement arrived at was one that safeguarded the vital interests of Poland and was secured by an international guarantee. If the German and Polish Governments wished that other Powers should be associated with them in the discussion, His Majesty's Government for their part would be willing to agree.

There is one other matter to Which allusion should be made in order that the present situation may be perfectly clear. Yesterday Herr Forster who, on 23rd August, had, in contravention of the Danzig constitution, become the head of the State, decreed the incorporation of Danzig in the Reich and the dissolution of the constitution. Herr Hitler was asked to give effect to this decree by German law. At a meeting of the Reichstag yesterday morning a law was passed for the reunion of Danzig with the Reich. The international status of Danzig as a Free City is established by a treaty of which His Majesty's Government are a signatory, and the Free City was placed under the protection of the League of Nations. The rights given to Poland in Danzig by treaty are defined and confirmed by agreement concluded between Danzig and Poland. The action taken by the Danzig authorities and the Reichstag yesterday is the final step in the unilateral repudiation of these international instruments, which could only be modified by negotiation. His Majesty's Government do not, therefore, recognise either the validity of the grounds on which the action of the Danzig authorities was based, the validity of this action itself, or of the effect given to it by the German Government.

7.48 p.m.

Mr. Greenwood

This is indeed a grave moment. I believe the whole House is perturbed by the right hon. Gentleman's statement. There is a growing feeling, I believe, in all quarters of the House that this incessant strain must end sooner or later — and, in a sense, the sooner the better. But if we are to march, I hope we shall march in complete unity, and march with France.

Mr. McGovern

You people do not intend to march — not one of you.

Mr. Greenwood

I am speaking under very difficult circumstances with no opportunity to think about what I should say; and I speak what is in my heart at this moment. I am gravely disturbed. An act of aggression took place 38 hours ago. The moment that act of aggression took place one of the most important treaties of modern times automatically came into operation. There may be reasons why instant action was not taken. I am not prepared to say — and I have tried to play a straight game — I am not prepared to say what I would have done had I been one of those sitting on those Benches. That delay might have been justifiable, but there are many of us on all sides of this House who view with the gravest concern the fact that hours went by and news came in of bombing operations, and news to-day of an intensification of it, and I wonder how long we are prepared to vacillate at a time when Britain and all that Britain stands for, and human civil- isation, are in peril. We must march with the French. I hope these words of mine may go further. I do not believe that the French dare at this juncture go, or would dream at this juncture of going back on the sacred oaths that they have taken. It is not for me to rouse any kind of suspicion — and I would never dream of doing so at this time, but if, as the right hon. Gentleman has told us, deeply though I regret it, we must wait upon our Allies, I should have preferred the Prime Minister to have been able to say to-night definitely, "It is either peace or war."

To-morrow we meet at 12. I hope the Prime Minister then — well, he must be in a position to make some further statement. — [Hon. Members: "Definite"] — And I must put this point to him. Every minute's delay now means the loss of life, imperilling our national interests —

Mr. Boothby


Mr. Greenwood

Let me finish my sentence. I was about to say imperilling the very foundations of our national honour, and I hope, therefore, that tomorrow morning, however hard it may be to the right hon. Gentleman— and no one would care to be in his shoes to-night — we shall know the mind of the British Government, and that there shall be no more devices for dragging out what has been dragged out too long. The moment we look like weakening, at that moment dictatorship knows we are beaten. We are not beaten. We shall not be beaten. We cannot be beaten; but delay is dangerous, and I hope the Prime Minister — it is very difficult to press him too hard at this stage — will be able to tell us when the House meets at noon to-morrow what the final decision is, and whether then our promises are in process of fulfilment, for in my mind there can be no escape now from the dilemma into which we have been placed. I cannot see Herr Hitler, in honesty, making any deal which he will not be prepared to betray. Therefore, thinking very hurriedly in these few moments, I believe that the die is cast, and we want to know in time.

7.56 p.m.

Sir Archibald Sinclair

This meeting will not have been held in vain if it demonstrates to the world that the British Parliament will not tolerate delay in the fulfilment of our honourable obligations to Poland. The Prime Minister in his statement said that we have received no reply from the German Government to our Note, and that the delay in sending us a reply might have been caused by consideration of the Italian proposal for a conference. Consideration of that proposal has, at any rate caused no delay in the advance of the German Army, and I am sure that Parliament feels that a reply must be demanded, unless the advance of those armies is promptly stopped. It is, of course, vital that we should march in step with our French allies. Let not the confidence which we feel in our French allies waver if, indeed, they wish to await the decision of their Chamber. That requirement may impose some measure of delay at this time, but the Prime Minister has undertaken to make a statement at noon tomorrow. I hope that before then some information of this sitting of Parliament and of the feeling of Parliament on this issue may be conveyed to the French Government. I have no doubt that their response will be generous and cordial and that their feelings will be the same as ours, but it is well that they should know what ours are. I hope that when we meet at noon to-morrow the Prime Minister will be able to give us a statement.

7.59 p.m.

The Prime Minister

I think the House recognises that the Government is in a somewhat difficult position. I suppose it always must be a difficulty for allies who have to communicate with one another by telephone to synchronise their thoughts and actions as quickly as those who are in the same room; but I should be horrified if the House thought for one moment that the statement that I have made to them betrayed the slightest weakening either of this Government or of the French Government in the attitude which we have already taken up. I am bound to say that I myself share the distrust which the right hon. Gentleman expressed of manoeuvres of this kind. I should have been very glad had it been possible for me to say to the House now that the French Government and ourselves were agreed to make the shortest possible limit to the time when action should be taken by both of us.

It is very possible that the communications which we have had with the French Government will receive a reply from them in the course of the next few hours. I understand that the French Cabinet is in session at this moment, and I feel certain that I can make a statement to the House of a definite character tomorrow when the House meets again. I am the last man to neglect any opportunity which I consider affords a serious chance of avoiding the great catastrophe of war even at the last moment, but I confess that in the present case I should have to be convinced of the good faith of the other side in any action which they took before I could regard the proposition which has been made as one to which we could expect a reasonable chance of a successful issue. I anticipate that there is only one answer I shall be able to give to the House to-morrow. I hope that the issue will be brought to a close at the earliest possible moment so that we may know where we are, and I trust that the House, realising the position which I have tried to put before it, will believe me that I speak in complete good faith and will not prolong the discussion which, perhaps, might make our position more embarrassing than it is.

Colonel Sandeman Allen

Could not the Sitting of the House be suspended, not adjourned? It might mean a little discomfort to hon. Members but that is not a great consideration. The House would then be available at any time to hear a statement from the Prime Minister.

8.4 p.m.

Mr. Maxton

I hope that the suggestion made by the hon. and gallant Member will not be considered by the Prime Minister. I hope that this House will go and sleep on it, and that to-morrow at 12 o'clock the Prime Minister will be able to come and make a definite statement to this House that there is the possibility of saving the peace of Europe. Do not let us shout across the Floor of the House terms about honour and bravery, and all the rest of it. Millions of ordinary working folk will get neither honour nor anything else out of a general European war, and if the bombs can be stopped tomorrow in Poland — the Prime Minister's condition, as I understand it — and if they can be prevented from raining over the other cities of Europe, then it will be one of the greatest achievements that the world has even seen. The horror of a world-wide war — [An Hon. Member: "Postponed for a few months."] I am not entering into prophecies, but I believe that war postponed is something gained. The mass of humanity are common-sense people. Given time, common sense, throughout the various countries, even in Germany, will begin to function and bring to bear powers that will put a stop to these wild adventures that have terrified Europe. I appeal to the Prime Minister not to allow himself to be rushed. He has to take the principal decision and the principal responsibility. Let him think once, twice or thrice before he plunges Europe into war.

8.7 p.m.

Sir John Wardlaw-Milne

I think everybody in the House will agree entirely with the remark of the hon. Member for Bridgeton (Mr. Maxton) that everything is to be gained by war avoided. The point to-night, however, is, unfortunately, that the war has not stopped. It is going on. There is no Member of the House, on whatever side he may sit, who will not pay a tribute in his heart, and indeed most publicly, to the work which the Prime Minister has done for peace. Everybody knows that the Prime Minister is devoted to peace. Everybody agrees also that it is necessary that we should march step by step with France; but our pledge to Poland is Britain's pledge, not France's. We must remember that now it is, as the right hon. Gentleman said, 38 hours since this war began. It is now something like 24 hours — 1 do not know the exact time — since the Prime Minister's message was delivered in Germany. If there were any intention on the part of Germany to comply with that request, to fall in with any scheme for peace, surely she could have stopped the devastation by now. I say this not because I disagree with the Prime Minister — and I am sure that everybody will agree with me in this — and not because I do not appreciate the burden that is upon him, the terrible responsibility which he has to bear; but I do pray that he will remember, as indeed, I know he will remember, that the whole country is nervous about this continual delay in carrying out our pledges.

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