HL Deb 01 September 1939 vol 114 cc913-23

6.6 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to ask His Majesty's Government whether they have any statement to make about foreign affairs.


My Lords, the conditions under which your Lordships meet are very grave. I do not know whether your Lordships have yet had opportunity—I rather fear you may not—to study the documents that have been laid this afternoon and that will be published in the Press to-morrow, but when you do you will, I think, see quite clearly how the negotiations leading up to the present situation have developed. As was stated the other day in the reply of the President of Poland to the President of the United States, the Polish Government have been prepared to enter into direct negotiations with the German Government and His Majesty's Government were authorised by the Polish Government to state in their communication to the German Government on August 28 that the Polish Government were willing to enter into such discussions on the basis that had been proposed by His Majesty's Government. Again, last night, in Berlin the Polish Ambassador sought an interview with the German Foreign Minister, Herr Von Ribbentrop, and repeated the assurance of the Polish Government's readiness to negotiate the questions in dispute with the German Government on a free and equal basis. I understand that immediately after that interview he endeavoured to communicate with his Government but was unable to do so, because communications between Berlin and Warsaw had been cut, and at dawn this morning—so His Majesty's Ambassador at Warsaw has reported—German troops advanced over the frontier. It is perhaps worth mentioning that we have received an official and most categorical denial from the Polish Government that the Polish forces committed any act of aggression last night as reported by the German News Agency.

The German broadcast of the sixteen points last night contained the sentence "In these circumstances the Reich Government considers its proposals rejected," and it is therefore worth while examining what those circumstances were. The proposals of the German Government had in fact never been communicated by Germany to Poland at all. His Majesty's Ambassador saw Herr von Ribbentrop on Wednesday evening—the night before last—and urged that when the German proposals were ready Herr von Ribbentrop should invite the Polish Ambassador to call and should hand him the proposals for transmission to his Government. Thereupon, as the Ambassador reported, in his own words, "in the most violent terms Herr von Ribbentrop said that he would never ask the Polish Ambassador to visit him," but he hinted that if the Polish Ambassador asked him for an interivew it might be different. This was on Wednesday night, which according to the German statement of last night is now claimed to be the final date after which no negotiations with Poland were acceptable. The inference would seem plain, and the inference would seem to be that Germany claims to treat Poland as in the wrong because, although the Polish Ambassador was in touch with the German Foreign Minister last night, Thursday, Poland had not by Wednesday night entered upon a discussion with Germany of a set of proposals of which the Polish Government had never heard.

Not only that, but the text of these proposals had never been communicated to His Majesty's Government before we heard them on the German wireless last night. When our Ambassador on Wednesday night, August 30, or in the early hours of Thursday morning, saw Herr von Ribbentrop the latter, as our Ambassador telegraphs, produced a lengthy document which he read out in German aloud, at top speed, and our Ambassador naturally supposed that after this reading he would be furnished with a copy of the document, but when he asked Herr von Ribbentrop for the text of these proposals the reply he received was that it was now too late, as the Polish representative had not arrived in Berlin by midnight. Consequently, until the German broadcast last night our Ambassador was only able to furnish us with an outline from recollection of Herr von Ribbentrop's reading.

I think from those facts—and I have tried to state them as shortly and as plainly as I can—it is clear that the true facts are not as stated in the German wireless, but that the text of the German proposals was not, before it was broadcast, communicated either to Poland or to Great Britain, and noble Lords and those outside can draw their own deductions. The rulers of Germany appear to have conceived of a negotiation between themselves and Poland as nothing more than the summoning of a Polish plenipotentiary to Berlin at twenty-four hours' notice, to discuss terms not previously communicated to them, and I am bound to say that such a position, with the examples of the Austrian Chancellor and the President of Czecho-Slovakia before them, was not one which I think the Polish Government could readily be expected to accept. And thus, in those circumstances, when the German Chancellor issued this morning a statement that "the Polish State has refused the peaceful settlement of relations which I desire," my Lords, of those issues and of those doings the world will judge. The language used by the German representatives, the documents, and above all I think the action of the German Government, speak for themselves.

As regards the actual terms concerning Danzig and the Corridor, now published, it would naturally have been primarily for the Polish Government to express their opinion upon their full significance. His Majesty's Government can only say this, that in their view, had the German Government been sincerely anxious to negotiate a settlement they would surely have submitted these terms to the Polish Government, giving them time to consider whether or not they could fairly be held to infringe Poland's vital interests, which the German Government, in their communication to the British Government of August 29, had declared their intention of respecting.

I saw the Polish Ambassador at 10.30 this morning. He told me that according to his information German troops had crossed the Polish frontier at four points, and that several Polish towns had already been bombed. I immediately asked the Counsellor of the German Embassy, the Chargé d'Affaires, to see me. I told him that His Majesty's Government had received these reports, and I inquired of him whether he had himself received any information or had any communication from his own Government for His Majesty's Government. The Counsellor replied that he had neither received information nor instructions to make any communication, and I told him that we were, I feared, faced with a situation of which I could not exaggerate the gravity.

I added to him that the Cabinet was meeting this morning, and that any further communication we had to make in the light of these events would be addressed to his Government. His Majesty's Ambassador in Berlin has now been instructed to make the following communication to the German Government: On the instructions of His Majesty's Principal Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs I have the honour to make the following communication. Early this morning the German Chancellor issued a proclamation to the German Army which indicated clearly that he was about to attack Poland. Information which has reached His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom, and the French Government, indicates that German troops have crossed the Polish frontier, and that attacks upon Polish towns are proceeding. in these circumstances, it appears to the Governments of the United Kingdom and France that by their action the German Government have created conditions (namely, an aggressive act of force against Poland threatening the independence of Poland) which call for the implementation by the Governments of the United Kingdom and France of the undertaking to Poland to come to her assistance. I am accordingly to inform your Excellency that unless the German Government are prepared immediately to give His Majesty's Government satisfactory assurances that the German Government have suspended all aggressive action against Poland and promptly to withdraw their forces from Polish territory, His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom will, without hesitation, fulfil their obligations to Poland. It is thus that we reach the end of all the efforts and the hopes of these last weeks, and I do not suppose that any man has ever laboured more devotedly for peace than my right honourable friend the Prime Minister; and no stronger proof, in my judgment, could be afforded of the fact that the present situation has been forced upon this country, than that it should be to him of all men that it falls to lead our country, if so it be, into war. Any one who reads these documents and who knows the instinctive desire for understanding common, I believe, both to the German and the British peoples, can measure the tragedy that is involved by the totally unjustifiable action taken this morning by the German leaders, and first and foremost by the German Chancellor, on whom in history surely an overwhelming responsibility will lie.

So far as His Majesty's Government are concerned, I cannot think of anything that we have left undone or that, looking back, one would wished to have done differently. It has been a source of great satisfaction to us to know that Signor Mussolini also was using all his influence in an endeavour, up to the last moment, to save the peace. Our conscience, I think we can say, is clear. As will be seen from the documents, when your Lordships have time to study them, we have made it absolutely plain to the German Government what the consequences of such action as they have taken must be; and there is indeed only one thing that I can think of that we might have done to save the peace, but which I think would have been an action quite impossible for this country, with any regard to its principles or to its honour, to take, and that one thing would have been to have pressed the Polish Government to submit to methods of intimidation, on which basis alone were the German Government apparently willing to discuss their proposals. In other words, that once again Europe should agree to be held to ransom by the naked menace of force.

If one thing has been made clear it is, I am afraid, that the German Government were not prepared to lay force aside. This problem of Danzig and the Corridor has been present for twenty years. When it suited Germany in 1934 to be on good terms with Poland, the Danzig question faded out, and only during the last five months has it been deliberately aggravated and inflamed. And although it only took the German Government a few weeks to rouse feeling to fever pitch, it was, to say the least, unreasonable to make the presence of a Polish plenipotentiary within twenty-four hours a condition of any negotiation, and to expect those negotiations to be conducted on the basis of proposals which the Polish Government had not at that time had any opportunity of seeing. It is surely partly in the light of that action that the proposals themselves fall to be judged. Certainly we must all have learnt that so long as engagements are to be freely broken without notice, and so long as force is to be the arbiter of international disputes, we were bound to look forward to a new crisis every six months, and to see one country after another made the object of this menace of force. And that, I think, is the answer to those who, here or elsewhere, might ask why this country should interest itself in a dispute which did not apparently or immediately concern it. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister answered this in other words when he said in another place a few days ago that, if war came, we should not be fighting merely on the issue raised by the position of some far off city in a foreign land, but for principles on which all international life finally depends, and apart from which, I think, no international life is tolerable.

6.28 p.m.


My Lords, your Lordships' House will have heard with strained attention the statement of such tragic significance that the noble Viscount has just made to you. The circumstances under which we are meeting would appear to require from every member of your Lordships' House and every responsible person in the community the very greatest restraint in what they say. We, representing the Labour Party, have, as you know, from time to time very seriously criticised the foreign policy adopted by His Majesty's Government, and we do not to-day withdraw any word of that criticism. It is not necessary to repeat it, but I think I may be allowed, without doing outrage to the position that we have taken, to express at the beginning a word of sympathy for the members of His Majesty's Government who have had to face in these last days circumstances of such tremendous importance. It is very difficult to see what can now be said. The dreadful die appears to have been cast. The aggressor has chosen to try to settle by force a question that can only be settled right if it is settled by reason and by conference. Because the Polish nation were unwilling at an hour's notice to rush to Berlin and to grovel and capitulate, Polish cities are apparently being bombed and innocent people are being injured and perhaps killed. It is characteristic of the German Government that in entering upon this contest its Leader boasts much as a pugilist boasts before he has fought his battle. It may be that the second German war will be no more successful than the first. It might have been well if Herr Hitler had remembered the ancient advice: Let not him that girdeth on his harness boast himself as he that putteth it off. We shall not imitate that temper either in this place or elsewhere. With no vain boasting, with no illusions, but also with no misgiving, our country, if need be, will try to uphold the right of free men to remain free. Less than that it does not seem to us we could do.

We have in this crisis, I hope it will be agreed, given to His Majesty's Government such support as the information at our disposal led us to believe was right. It gives us therefore the right on this occasion to ask that as far as is possible salient information shall be made available to us. So far as I have understood the noble Viscount, it would appear that an ultimatum has been sent. It is a dreadful thing for a man like myself, who all his life has worked for peace, to have to appear to counsel belligerent action, but my Party believe that we cannot allow the Polish people to bear the whole brunt of this assault. If hostilities begin, one thing is clear, they will have, here as elsewhere, tremendous economic and social reactions. We shall have our own opinion when the time comes as to how that situation should be dealt with, but our common task now appears to be to try to see that organised, deliberately planned, and systematic aggression does not pay. It may be necessary for us to call upon the established qualities of our race—constancy, resolution, endurance—and I think we can face this issue in the quiet confidence that wrong cannot in the long run triumph on the earth.

6.35 p.m.


My Lords, in following for a very few moments the noble Lord who has just spoken, and following him with complete agreement in everything he has said, I should like also to express my sense of the ordeal through which His Majesty's Ministers have been passing during these last few days and weeks in connection with this intensely difficult international crisis. The noble Viscount opposite has once more, as he has before, spoken the mind of the whole country. He made it abundantly clear that all through it has never been the intention of the German Government to settle this question by free discussion and frank negotiation. To draw up, as they did, an elaborate series of propositions which it is not worth anybody's while now to examine, and to throw them on the table with the intimation to Poland that the Polish representative must come to Berlin, nominally to discuss them but obviously only to accept them—that cannot in any sense be said to partake of the nature of negotiation or discussion.

If negotiation had been desired, it would have been easy, as the noble Viscount has pointed out, to communicate these propositions to the Polish Government in good time. They might, and ought, also to have been handed to the French Ambassador and to our Ambassador with full time to examine them. That these last did not receive them is no doubt part of the thesis which the German Government have held all through, that the doings of any country are only the concern of its immediate neighbours—in this case of themselves—although it is not a principle on which in other cases they have acted. The German Government have taken as their device the terrible Roman saying, "Let them hate us so long as they fear us." That being their motto, they are obviously unwilling to enter into serious discussion with any Power that they think they can induce to fear them. Now, as the noble Viscount has told us, His Majesty's Government have presented to the German Government a document which I think it would be not quite accurate to describe as an ultimatum, but which can be described as a frank statement of our moral and political duty and of our determination to follow the path that circumstances require. All that we can say is that we stand by the right, and we believe that the right will prevail.

6.42 p.m.


My Lords, words cannot describe, it is almost impossible for imagination to realise, the gravity of this fateful hour. Let me say at the outset that our thoughts must turn to the King, called at the very beginning of his reign, like his father, a reign begun with such high promise, to be the head of the nation at what may be a time of bitter trial. I am sure that from this House and from the whole country there will arise the resolute loyalty by which he will be fortified and sustained. Our sympathies go out in the fullest measure to the Prime Minister and to the noble Viscount, who has spoken in terms so grave and solemn this afternoon, in that all their patience and long-continued endeavours to find a peaceful solution of these troubles have been frustrated. They have done their best, and their country is grateful to them for what they have done.

Perhaps you may expect that some words should be spoken by me from this place about the moral or even spiritual issues which seem to be involved in the struggle which, alas, seems to be impending. Our quarrel is not with all the specific aims and claims of Germany. Some of these we have constantly stated we regard as capable of reasonable discussion. Our quarrel is with the methods by which the ruler of Germany has sought to attain them. Such methods and the principles which lie behind them are obviously inconsistent with the very first principles upon which any civilised order among nations can be built. If these methods were to have free course, if any State were permitted to ride roughshod over obligations of treaty and assurance and to use force either to attack or threaten to attack the independence of the territory of another State merely in the interests of its own expansion or power, there would surely be an end to any security of justice or liberty among nations. That seems to me, as to all your Lordships, the supreme moral issue which is involved. It is one from which we in this country and our Allies, bound as we are by very special and solemn undertakings, cannot shrink. I think it is of high importance, that at the very outset of what may be a long and painful struggle the primacy of this moral issue should be made plain, for it will enable us to enter upon that struggle with a good conscience.

I think I speak for your Lordships when I say that we have no thoughts of enmity towards the German people. We believe that many, perhaps most of them, are as opposed to war as we are, but they cannot speak their minds. They are not allowed to know the other side; they have been bewildered and misled by a long, elaborate and most unscrupulous propaganda. Our feelings towards them, surely, are rather of sympathy than of enmity. We are not contending for any particular form of government, deeply attached as we are to our own form of democracy. We are not contending for any direct interests of our own save those which we share with other nations, though indeed we must see that conceivably, if Herr Hitler's policy were to prevail, our own country and the commonwealth of nations might come within the ambit of his unbridled ambition. Surely, my Lords, what we are contending for is a clear and simple moral issue, and accepting a challenge which, if it is not met, would be fatal to civilisation itself.

Doubtless, we cannot dismiss from our minds what I called, I think once, in this House the torturing question as to whether even in order to defend civilisation it can be right to enter upon a war which, as is sometimes said, might destroy civilisation itself as we know it. But no man can foresee the character, the duration, the final results of this war, if it is to be war, and it may well be that these gloomy anticipations may prove to be unfounded; but in any case we are under an obligation of honour to Poland which we cannot ignore without inflicting a sense of shame upon ourselves and our children which would haunt us for the rest of our history. It is indeed hateful beyond words to think of having recourse to force when we all realise, as we must, the misery and the suffering that must be entailed. It would be wasting words to dwell upon such a theme, which lies deep in the hearts of all of us, but force has been thrust upon us, and unless we are to surrender this vital principle the only way by which such force can be resisted and the right be defended is counterforce, for plainly Herr Hitler is incapable or at least most unwilling to listen to reason or persuasion, and it would almost be absurd to think that he, being what he is, was capable of being moved by the moral appeal of non-resistance.

In these circumstances what other course is before us? I cannot close without adding that if in the inscrutable will of Providence the world is to suffer again the scourge of war we ought to regard it as a judgment upon the nations of the world for their manifold neglect of the laws of His Kingdom, and it may be that we ourselves deserve some measure of that judgment. Therefore there is no place in the spirit with which we shall enter upon this struggle, if so it must be, for arrogance or self-righteousness, but rather for penitence. And yet, in this dark and confused world, it is given to man only to see some clear line of duty and to do his best to follow it. I shrink indeed from linking our broken lights and our fallible purposes with the Holy Name of God, yet I honestly believe that in this struggle, if it is forced upon us, we may humbly and trustfully commend our cause to God. Having done so, it is for each of us in his place to serve that cause with unstinted devotion.

Back to