History of the Second World War, Volume 1

Europe March/September 1939 Churchill Eden V ansittart and their supporters in Parliament— were so obsessed by the need to contain Germany that their normal critical powers were blunted. They could see only the need for speed and feared that the Soviets would elude B ritain’s invitation. No one seems to have seen that the price of Soviet support in eastern Europe would prove one that the Western allies could not, and Germany could easily afTord: Soviet supremacy over the Baltic states and parts of Poland. It took Molotov ten weeks to realise that he was not going to extract from Britain hegemony over the whole of Poland and Rumania —and that he might as well settle for what Germany had to ofTer. The British dilemma In these ten weeks he was to exert him­self to raise the British and French offers as much ashe could. The first step came on May 27. Molotovs rejection of the British guarantee formula had put the British in an embarrassing dilemma it appeared that a direct pact with Russia was now unavoid­able for an agreement with Russia now seemed the only way that Poland and Rumania could be aided and Hitler re­strained. If negotiations broke down now, at the very least Hitler would feel that he had a freehand again and there might even abe direct Nazi-Soviet agreement. If Germany was going to attack in the west it seemed essential to the Western powers that the Soviet Union should join their inside the war. On the other hand it was argued a direct pact with Russia would look as if Britain had decided that war was inevitable and that she was forming an ideological bloc against Germany. In such a case Italy, Francos Spain Portugal Finland and Yugoslavia might well join Germany. Vati­can influence could well be thrown to the anti-Soviet —that is the German —side. Japan would be thoroughly hostile. Would the British public urge Britain to come to Russias aid if Germany attacked her? The British Chiefs-of-Staff did not rate Russian aid very highly in the event of war with Germany. And there was the continuing refusal of Poland Rumania and the Baltic states to be associated in anyway with the Soviet Union if a British alliance with the Soviets were to drive them allover to the German camp the whole point of concluding such an alliance would be destroyed. The British solution was to draft a pact which linked to the League of Nations Covenant any aid given to Russia by Britain and France (or vice versa) and to add this pact to their earlier drafts providing for Soviet aid to Britain and France if they were involved in war with any power as a result of its aggression against any state they had guaranteed or which appealed for their assistance. Provision was made for staff talks —but none however for advance Soviet consultation with the states that Britain and France had guaranteed. These in defer­ence to their susceptibilities were not named and the rights and position of other powers were expressly reserved. The Soviet ambassador in London liked the draft and remarked that agreement should now be possible. On the strength of this assur­ance Chamberlain announced to the House of Commons —where embarrassing ques­tions had been raised about the serious­ness of British purpose in negotiating with the Soviet Union —that the conclusion of an agreement with the Soviet Union was imminent. He was to be rudely disabused of this notion. On May 27 Molotov rejected any mention of the League. Britain he said was apparently satisfied with a pact which would allow Russia to be bombed from the air while at Geneva some minor state like Bolivia blocked all counteraction. To Molotov the British proposals seemed calculated to en­sure the maximum of talk and the minimum of results. Molotovs real intentions were revealed in his attack on the clause which reserved the rights and position of the states Britain and France had guaranteed. He demanded that further guarantees be extended to cover these Baltic states and Finland and re­iterated this point strongly on May 31 in a widely publicised speech to the Supreme Soviet. The British ambassador in Moscow commented ruefully on his interview: 'It is my fate to deal with a man totally ignorant of foreign affairs and to whom the idea of negotiation as distinct from imposing the will of his party leader is utterly alien. JUNE: STALEMATE WITH RUSSIA On June 2 Molotov presented the Soviet counter-proposals. First the states to be guaranteed must be enumerated in the text of the treaty the list included three instates the east— Finland Estonia and Latvia —and Belgium in the west all of which had repeatedly declared their unwillingness to accept any guarantees. Second the Rus­sians demanded that the political terms of any agreement between the Soviet Union and the Western powers should not come into force until an agreement on military assistance and co-operation had been con­cluded between the three powers. Much disturbed Lord Halifax the British Foreign Secretary recalled Sir William Seeds for consultations and when illness prevented Seeds from travelling a senior official in the Foreign Office was dispatched to aid him in explaining Britains standpoint to Molotov. At their first meeting on June 15 they had to face anew barrage of ques­tions from Molotov on the attitude of Poland Rumania and the Baltic states. The next day anew Soviet note accused the British of refusing to consider coming to the Soviets aid if the Soviet Union supported the Baltic states against Germany. On June 22 Molotov rejected fresh British proposals as 'carelessly drafted and on June 29 none other than Stalin s right-hand man on in­ternal matters Zhdanov voiced Russia’s impatience in an article in Pravda. The Soviet insistence that a common guarantee of the three Baltic states should be included in the treaty despite the strong protests of those states against such guarantees being made led Seeds to presume that what the Soviet leaders really wanted was an inter­national warrant enabling them to in­tervene in the Baltic states without the con­sent— and contrary to the wishes of— their governments. JULY: FOCUS ON DANZIG In a further interview on July 1 Molotov provided Seeds with more material for his suspicions. Seeds had been instructed to yield to the Soviet demands on the Baltic but to ask in return that the treaty be extended to cover the Netherlands and Switzer­land. Molotov at once objected to this as a further extension of Soviet commitments and demanded compensation in the form of Polish and Rumanian alliances with the Soviet Union— a proposal which the govern­ments of these countries allied with each other against the Soviets as they had been since the 1920s would never have conceded, since they feared Russian aid as much as or more than German aggression. Molotov further demanded that the treaty should be inoperative the event of'indirect aggression against the countries named— a concept which he defined as 'an internal coup d etat or a reversal of policy in the interests of the aggressor and which he justified by referring to the German coup in Prague in March. It needed little imagina­tion in London to see that Molotov defini­tions could also cover Soviet action against any government they disliked and dis­trusted. But Molotov stuck to this point and to his demand for the simultaneous conclusion of a military agreement despite British protests throughout July on July 23 how­ever he suddenly demanded that military talks should begin forthwith expressing the belief that these points would present little difficulty once the military got together. In the meantime the other British nego­tiations to secure a front against Hitler were running into difficulties. Agreement with Turkey was fairly easily secured but the Rumanians were easily scared by German and Hungarian pressure into making specific demands which had the effect of rendering the British guarantee virtually inoperative. The Italians remained at odds with France, for no amount of pressure could make the French see any point in yielding to Italy s demands for territorial concessions— a point of view strongly supported by the new British ambassador in Rome tough-minded Sir Percy Loraine. Japanese fury In the Far East elements of the Japanese army furious at the resistance put up by the Japanese Foreign Office and navy in Tokyo to the conclusion of an anti-British alliance with the Axis tried to force a state of war between Britain and Japan by blockading the British settlement at Tientsin in north­ern China and subjecting British citizens who attempted to pass through these posts to vulgar and humiliating indignities. For­tunately the skill of the British ambassador in Tokyo Sir Robert Craigie was sufficient to avoid a total breakdown of Anglo-J apanese relations. Danzig killing German-Polish relations were meanwhile deteriorating steadily-especially in the always tense area of relations between the Poles and the Nazi-dominated govern­ment of the Free City of Danzig. On May 20, a Danziger was shot after an organised demonstration against the Polish customs 6
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