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 late on the 1st to German Foreign Minister Joachim von Rib­ben­trop, who passed them on to his boss. Reading the notes Adolf Hitler could not deter­mine if they were for­mal ulti­ma­tums or not. But on this date, Septem­ber 2, Hitler decided that if the notes were ulti­ma­tums, then he would have nothing to do with an idea hastily floated in seve­ral Euro­pean capi­tals, but mainly in Rome, of attending some sort of peace summit. 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 o’clock on the evening of Septem­ber 2, Cham­ber­lain found the British House of Com­mons in an anx­ious and truc­u­lent mood due in part to the ab­sence of a dead­line that might com­pel Ger­man forces to leave Poland. The prime minister sensed that his govern­ment would col­lapse the next day unless the Allies imposed an early dead­line for Ger­many’s with­drawal. Across the Channel Dala­dier, meeting with a friendlier audi­ence in the French Cham­ber of Depu­ties, received a standing ova­tion when he ticked off French efforts to preserve the peace and under­scored the neces­sity of honoring the West’s pledges to Poland. (Actually, Cham­ber­lain could have boasted to Mem­bers of Parlia­ment of his own efforts to nego­tiate a settle­ment satisfactory to all parties, along with repeatedly pledging Britain’s sup­port to Poland, 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 ministers in London and Paris fines­sed paral­lel ulti­ma­tums, to be delivered in Berlin at 9 a.m. on Septem­ber 3, to expire later that day: Germany to halt the blood­shed by with­drawing its troops from Poland imme­di­ately or a state of war would exist between the three nations.

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French Ambassador Delivers Ultimatum to German Foreign Minister

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

Left: Between 1938 and 1939 Robert Coulondre was France’s dapper ambas­sador to Ber­lin, shown here with out­stretched arm in 1939. (Reichs­fuehrer-SS Heinrich Himm­ler is at left in the 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 (shown here with Hitler) a “bump­tious” (Coulon­dre’s words) person. Coulon­dre (1885–1959) and Sir Nevile Hen­der­son (1882–1942), 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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