London, England and Paris, France · September 2, 1939

Shortly after British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and French Premier Édouard Dala­dier con­firmed for them­selves the Ger­man inva­sion of Poland on Septem­ber 1, the two leaders gave the order for gene­ral mobi­li­za­tion and evacu­a­tion of chil­dren and mothers from their main cities. Both leaders also pre­pared to coor­di­nate the deliv­ery in Berlin of notes demanding Ger­man aggres­sion against Poland be stopped and Ger­man troops promptly with­drawn. If the Ger­mans could not pro­vide assur­ance of that hap­pening (there was no dead­line), the British note concluded that the British govern­ment would fulfill its obliga­tion under the terms of the Anglo-Polish mili­tary pact con­cluded the month before. The British and French notes were handed to Adolf Hitler’s foreign minister, Joachim von Rib­ben­trop, late on the 1st. Reading the notes Hitler could not deter­mine if they were for­mal ulti­ma­tums or not. But on this date in 1939 Hitler had decided that if the notes were ulti­ma­tums, he would have nothing to do with the idea—hastily floated in seve­ral Euro­pean capi­tals, but mainly in Rome—of holding a peace con­fer­ence. (Hitler said as much to Benito Mus­so­lini the next day, adding that no con­fer­ence was possible that devalued the “blood sacri­fice” already made by Ger­man soldiers.) Near 8 p.m. on Septem­ber 2, Cham­ber­lain found the British House of Com­mons in an anx­ious and truc­u­lent mood partly due to the ab­sence of a dead­line that might com­pel Ger­man forces to leave Poland. He sensed that his govern­ment would col­lapse the next day with­out an early dead­line for Ger­man with­drawal. Dala­dier, on the other hand, speaking to the French Cham­ber of Depu­ties, received a standing ova­tion when he ticked off French efforts to save the peace and the neces­sity of honoring the West’s pledges to Poland. (Cham­ber­lain could have shared with Mem­bers of Parlia­ment simil­ar exam­ples of the West’s efforts and pledges of sup­port, but his speech was ill-pre­pared, unin­spiring, very short (four minutes), and late in a very long day; hence, the angry mood of some MPs.) Near mid­night London and Paris fines­sed paral­lel ulti­ma­tums, to be delivered in Berlin at 9 a.m., Septem­ber 3, to expire later that day. Ger­many was to with­draw its troops from Poland imme­di­ately or a state of war would exist between the three nations.

French Ambassador Delivers Ultimatum to German Foreign Minister

French ambassador to Berlin, Robert Coulondre, 1885–1959Ribbentrop and Hitler somewhere on front lines

Left: Robert Coulondre (1885–1959) was France’s dapper ambas­sador to Ber­lin, shown here with out­stretched arm in 1939. (Reichs­fuehrer-SS Heinrich Himm­ler is at left in photo­graph.) It was Coulon­dre who, on the morning of Septem­ber 3, handed Ger­man Foreign Minis­ter Joachim von Rib­ben­trop his govern­ment’s ulti­ma­tum, worked out the night before with Lon­don, demanding Ger­many “sus­pend all aggres­sive action against Poland and to declare them­selves ready promptly to with­draw their forces from Polish ter­ri­tory” or face the con­se­quences. France gave the Ger­mans till 5 p.m. to com­ply. Ribben­trop said icily, “Very well, France will be the aggres­sor,” to which Coulon­dre coolly replied: “History will be the judge of that.”

Right: Berlin’s diplomatic community thought Ribben­trop a “bump­tious” (Coulon­dre’s words) person. Coulon­dre and Sir Nevile Hen­der­son, Britain’s ambas­sa­dor to Berlin, remarked on Rib­be­ntrop’s snub­bing them in their dealings with the Ger­man Foreign Office. Both diplo­mats much pre­fer­red working with Rib­ben­trop’s deputy, State Secre­tary Baron Ernst von Weiz­saecker, an ex-naval officer and the father of future Ger­man Presi­dent Richard von Weiz­saecker (in office 1984–1994).

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