Warsaw, Poland August 30, 1939

After his sudden decision on Friday, August 25, 1939, to cancel his inva­sion of Poland, Adolf Hitler ordered prep­a­ra­tions for a second planned inva­sion of his neigh­bor to the east. From the Army’s Quarter­master General he learned that the ear­liest date on which mobi­li­za­tion could be com­pleted was Thurs­day, August 31. There­fore, he set Friday, Septem­ber 1, as the new launch date. Between those two Fridays, Hitler and his for­eign minis­ter, Joachim von Rib­ben­trop, used every oc­ca­sion to reas­sure their inner circles that Great Britain and France would not come to Poland’s aid in the event of war, even though all three nations were in, or soon would be in as in the case of France, a mili­tary alli­ance with Poland. Hitler’s fatal mis­cal­cu­la­tion was due in part to his per­verse and reck­less faith in force of arms and to Ribben­trop’s repeated assur­ances that neither Britain nor France was in a posi­tion to wage war against Germany, that the two nations were only bluffing in order to frighten Hitler out of his plans to attack Poland.

During those days of peace Hitler continued his diplo­matic press of iso­lating Poland from its West­ern backers. The German offer to meet a Polish pleni­po­ten­tiary in Berlin to resolve the German-Polish dis­pute over the fate of the eth­nic German enclave of Danzig and the ethnic German minor­ity living in the Polish Cor­ri­dor was rejected by the Poles. (Both popu­la­tions had formerly been part of West Prussia and the Impe­rial German pro­vince of Posen (Polish, Poznań) but now were cut off from the Reich by the 1919 Treaty of Ver­sailles.) The Poles saw through Hitler’s attempt to over­awe the Polish dele­gation in the German capi­tal, so the Polish Foreign Office recom­mended a meeting, per­haps in a rail­way car, in a small town some­where near the Polish-German border. The next day, Wednes­day, August 30, the Polish ambas­sador, Jóżef Lipski, was shown the door by Ribben­trop for arriving at his office with­out the requi­site pleni­po­ten­tiary credentials required to negotiate terms.

Ribbentrop, a former German ambassador to London who had alienated much of the British popu­lace with his arro­gance, treated Britain’s ambas­sador, Sir Nevile Hen­der­son, worse. The two men came close to blows when Hen­der­son, crim­son faced, hands shaking, finger wag­ging, real­ized that his coun­try had been duped all week long as Rib­ben­trop read aloud, in an angry and scorn­ful voice Hen­der­son recalled, a new list of demands on Poland but refused the ambas­sa­dor’s request to for­ward it to London or even Warsaw. (The Polish embassy and govern­ment were never pre­sented with the latest German demands for new pleb­i­scites on the future of the Polish Cor­ri­dor and of the former German terri­tories in Western Poland, which at roughly 15 per­cent of Polish terri­tory and over 3 mil­lion people, clearly had the poten­tial to break up the Polish state.) Hender­son left the tense meeting con­vinced that the last hope for peace had vanished.

In Warsaw, on this same date in 1939, Polish autho­rities announced a gen­eral mobi­li­za­tion when it became clear that gen­u­ine dia­log with Germany was point­less. The see-saw week of diplo­ma­tic highs and lows had cost the Polish Army valu­able time in pre­paring for the over­due German inva­sion of their country, which occurred on Friday, September 1.

Polish and British Ambassadors Who Sought a Peaceful End to the Polish Crisis

Poland August 1939 Player: Jóżef Lipski, Polish diplomat in Germany, 1933–1939Poland August 1939 Player: Nevile Henderson, British ambassador to Germany, 1937–1939

Left: Ambassador Jóżef Lipski, Polish diplo­mat in Germany, 1933–1939. Poland’s foreign minis­ter, Jóżef Beck, selected Lipski to nego­ti­ate for Poland during the week running up to the inva­sion of that coun­try. Lipski was not the Polish pleni­po­ten­ti­ary German For­eign Minis­ter Joachim von Rib­ben­trop had demanded to meet with on August 30, 1939. The Poles were dead set against nego­ti­ating a solu­tion to the Polish crisis while meeting in the lion’s den; instead, they sent Ambas­sador Lipski, who lacked the requi­site cre­dentials, to feel out the Germans.

Right: Sir Nevile Henderson, British ambassador to Germany from 1937 to 1939, believed Hitler could be mani­pu­lated into embracing peace and cooper­a­tion with the West­ern powers. An hour-long, face-to-face meeting on August 28, 1939, between Hender­son and Hitler was “unsat­is­factory” in the opin­ion of Otto Diet­rich, Hitler’s press chief, who specu­lated that the British diplo­mat had reit­er­ated His Majesty’s Govern­ment’s pledge to fulfill its obli­ga­tion toward Poland. On the fate­ful night of August 30, 1939, Rib­ben­trop pre­sented Hen­der­son with Germany’s “final offer” at resolving the Polish crisis, warning him that if Germany received no reply by dawn the ”final offer” would be con­sidered rejected. Several days later it was Hen­der­son who, on the morning of Septem­ber 3, 1939, two days after the German inva­sion of Poland, delivered the British ulti­ma­tum to Hitler, declaring that if hostil­i­ties between Germany and Poland did not cease by 11 a.m. that day a state of war would exist between the two coun­tries. Germany did not respond and British Prime Minis­ter Neville Chamberlain declared war on Germany at 11:15 a.m.

U.S. War Department Uses German News Coverage to Document the Invasion of Poland