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 hun­dreds of thou­sands of chil­dren and mothers, tens of thou­sands of hospi­tal patients, and huge stores of food from their main cities to safe zones in rural areas. 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. In that pact, the Agree­ment of Mutual Assis­tance between Great Britain and Poland signed on August 25, 1939, each nation promised the other mili­tary support in the event either was attacked by some “Euro­pean coun­try.” In a secret proto­col to the pact, the signa­tories specifically identified Nazi Germany as their common threat.

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, Italy, of attending some sort of peace sum­mit. (The British and French cab­inets thought the idea was worth exploring.) Hitler said as much to the Italian leader Benito Mus­so­lini the next day, adding that no con­fer­ence was possible that devalued the “blood sacrifice” already made by German soldiers. Mediation? Armistice? Pullback? German concessions? all consigned to a quick death.

Near 8 o’clock on the hot, humid evening of Septem­ber 2, Cham­ber­lain found the British House of Com­mons—its windows blacked out like all in London—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—not a word of British honor or Polish valor—very short (four minutes), and very late (the speech had been post­poned twice) in a very long day; hence, the angry mood of many MPs forced to wait the after­noon and evening out in the Com­mons smoking room bar.) 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 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, 1885–1959 Ribbentrop and Hitler somewhere on front lines

Left: Between 1938 and 1939 Robert Coulondre was France’s dapper ambas­sador to Berlin (and before that to Moscow for two years), 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 the seasoned Coulon­dre coolly replied: “History will be the judge of that.”

Right: Berlin’s diplomatic community thought Ribben­trop a “bump­tious” (Coulon­dre’s descrip­tion) person, con­ceited and arro­gant. Even among his fellow Nazis, Ribbon­trop was deeply unpop­u­lar, viewed as incom­pe­tent and belli­cose in equal mea­sure. (Ribben­trop had married into money and added a bogus aristo­cratic “von” to his name.) 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).

Hitler’s Blitzkrieg Targets Poland, Then Western Europe the Next Year