Today, 70 years after the German Wehrmacht invaded Poland and began World War II, there’s a popular perception that Hitler and the Nazi high command were fully committed to going to war with Britain and France along with the Poles beginning on Sept. 1, 1939.
Not so, according to history. As Hitler prepared to overrun Poland, he expected Britain and France to acquiesce, as they done earlier in regards to the Rhineland, Austria, the Sudetenland, and Bohemia and Moravia.
The British and French had agreed to commit themselves to the defense of Poland, but Hitler didn’t believe the two countries would risk war over their Polish allies.
Despite the fact that Hitler hadn’t even bothered declaring war on Poland, British and French response to his attack was still glacial in its formality, according to Time magazine.
“Not until 10 a.m. did the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, summon the German charge d’affaires to ask if he had any explanation for this ‘very serious situation.’ The charge admitted only that the Germans were defending themselves against a Polish attack.”
At this point, even with fighting under way all along the Polish frontier, it was still conceivable that Hitler might once again achieve his goal without a major war.
Italy’s Benito Mussolini, who had promised to join Hitler’s side in case of war, telephoned Berlin to say that he wished to remain neutral; Mussolini had been telling the British and French all that week that if they would agree to a new conference, he might be able to arrange a compromise based on the return of Danzig to Germany.
That sounded fine to France, with the French Foreign Minister failing to even mention any need for the Germans first to withdraw from Poland, according to Time.
German withdrawal was a must as far as the British were concerned, though, and “after several anxious telephone calls between London and Paris, the two Allies’ ambassadors in Berlin finally requested an interview at 7:15 p.m. with German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop. They told him that unless Germany immediately stopped its invasion, they would ‘without hesitation fulfill their obligations to Poland.'”
The next day, Sept. 2, Hitler did not respond. The British Cabinet, deducing that Hitler was stalling, decided that Britain and France should deliver an ultimatum to Berlin at midnight, to expire at 6 a.m. the following day.
Addressing the House of Commons that evening, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain at first tried to equivocate, but the House was furious with the prime minister’s delays, Time noted.
Finally, Britain pushed forward:
A worried Chamberlain telephoned French Premier Edouard Daladier and said Britain could not wait 48 hours; Daladier said it must. Halifax called Bonnet and proposed that an ultimatum be delivered at 8 a.m. Sunday, to expire at noon. Bonnet insisted on no ultimatum before noon. Halifax said the House was meeting at noon, and any further delay would mean the downfall of the government. He said that if necessary, Britain would “act on its own.” When the Cabinet asked Chamberlain to pledge no further compromises, he said, “Right, gentlemen. This means war.” As he spoke, one witness recalled, “there was the most enormous clap of thunder, and the whole Cabinet room was lit up by a blinding flash of lightning.”
Halifax cabled Ambassador Nevile Henderson in Berlin and told him to deliver an ultimatum to Ribbentrop at 9 a.m. on Sunday, Sept. 3. Ribbentrop scornfully let it be known that he would not be “available” but that Henderson could deliver his message to the departmental interpreter, Paul Schmidt. As it happened, Schmidt overslept that morning, arrived by taxi to see Henderson already climbing the steps of the Foreign Ministry, and slipped in a side door just in time to receive him at 9. Henderson stood and read aloud his message, declaring that unless Britain were assured of an end to the Polish invasion within two hours, “a state of war will exist between the two countries.”
Schmidt dutifully took the British ultimatum to Hitler’s Chancellery, where he found the Fuhrer at his desk and the “unavailable” Ribbentrop standing at a nearby window. Schmidt translated the ultimatum aloud. “When I finished, there was complete silence,” he recalled. “Hitler sat immobile, gazing before him. After an interval that seemed an age, he turned to Ribbentrop, who had remained standing by the window. ‘What now?’ asked Hitler with a savage look.”