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.

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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