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 dealt a quick, diplo­matic death. (Dealt also in less than a half-dozen years, German national suicide.)

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 in Paris, 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

Britain and France Issue Hitler an Ultimatum: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 (and before that to Moscow for two years), shown here in 1939 holding his hat in his left hand. (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 Ernst Baron von Weiz­saecker, an ex-naval officer and the father of future German President Richard von Weizsaecker (in office 1984–1994). In 1949 Baron von Weiz­saecker was found guilty of crimes against humanity and sen­tenced to 7 years in prison in the Minis­tries Trial, one of 12 U.S. trials at Nurem­berg that followed the International Military Tribunal in 1945–1946.

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