The French Yellow Book

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No. 194 :
M. Coulondre, French Ambassador in Berlin, to M. Georges Bonnet, Minister for Foreign Affairs. Berlin, August 15, 1939.

I HAD this morning a conversation lasting one hour with the State Secretary with whom I thought it advisable to resume contact on my return to Berlin.

Herr von Weizsäcker asked me what impression I brought back from Paris regarding the international situation.

I gave him as exact a picture as possible of France at work, calm and peaceably inclined, but resolved to make all the sacrifices necessary for the defence of her honour and her position in the world. I made it clear that during my stay in Paris, I had been able to satisfy myself that the Government's foreign policy, which was supported almost unanimously by the country, had been and remained, exactly the same as the French Prime Minister and Your Excellency had clearly defined it, particularly with reference to Poland and Danzig. It would be nothing short of dangerous to close our eyes to obvious facts. Our positions were taken up quite definitely. Between France, England, and Poland, undertakings for assistance had been entered into, which would operate automatically in case of aggression against any one of them. But the French Government was also still inspired by the most sincere wish to see an easing of the tension and an agreement reached between Germany and Poland, and I was able, in all sincerity and with a full knowledge of the facts, to state that my Government would always use its good offices to promote any settlement to which Poland, as a free and sovereign state, might think it possible to subscribe.

I added that, on the other hand, I thought I had found in Berlin an atmosphere slightly different from that prevailing when I had left it in July. The Gauleiter of Danzig between two visits to Berchtesgaden, had made two violent speeches, one in the Free City, and one at Fürth; in the Press, space devoted to Polish incidents was on some days assuming greater proportions, and the newspapers went so far as to speak of German honour in connection with these incidents. I was, therefore, very anxious to learn from the State Secretary exactly how matters stood.

Herr von Weizsäcker replied that in actual fact he regretted that he could not tell me that the situation was still the same as when he had described it to me before my departure. In May, and June, he had expressed the opinion that time would do a great deal to improve matters, that the Poles would gradually come round to wiser and more conciliatory views. But the Poles were a changeable and excitable people, and the English and French guarantee, that "automatic" guarantee about which I had spoken, an offspring of the policy of encirclement, had inclined them to follow a course contrary to that which had been anticipated in Berlin; time had therefore worked in an adverse direction and they had now reached the point where an ultimatum from Warsaw to the Danzig Senate had been followed by an exchange of notes in which Poland went so far as to say that she would consider any fresh German intervention that was harmful to Polish rights and interests in Danzig as an act of aggression.

The State Secretary then asked for these notes to be brought to him so that he could show them to me. I pointed out to him that I was not in a position to discuss the matter and would have to reserve my opinion.

He did not insist, only mentioning that he had wished to give me a striking example in support of his allegations, and he afterwards showed me a file of typewritten sheets: "There," he said, "is this morning's list of acts of persecution suffered by the German minority in Poland. I have as many every morning.

"Fortunately it's an ill wind that blows nobody any good. This Polish policy must have the advantage of ultimately loosening the bonds between you and Warsaw; I refuse to believe that France intends always to screen these Polish pranks."

In view of this direct hint and the insight which it afforded into what the Germans had at the back of their minds, it seemed to me necessary that I should be still more explicit in my reply than I had been at the beginning of the conversation.

I first of all reminded Herr von Weizsäcker that if we had strengthened our bonds with Poland and if England had similarly bound herself, he was well aware that it was because of the events of last March, for which Germany was alone responsible. Without renouncing either our role in Europe, or our alliances, or our friendships, we had been willing, after December 6, to consider Germany's special position in central Europe. But the absorption of Bohemia and Moravia had brought about a positive reversal of French opinion. All, from the man in the street upwards, had realized that a danger, the most formidable of dangers to them, the loss of their liberty and of their independence, threatened them; and they have been practically unanimous in considering the restoration of a balance of power in Europe as indispensable for the preservation of these blessings; hence our policy, that was wholly devoid of any idea of encirclement. I indicated that this detailed explanation would no doubt enable the State Secretary to understand why there could be no question of our loosening our ties with Poland, and why the automatic operation of our guarantees about which I had spoken was "real."

Herr von Weizsäcker then interrupted me in order to ask me whether this automatic action would come into play even if it were not a question of an "unprovoked" aggression. I advised him not to lose himself in subtleties; the fact was that if any of the three Allies, France, England, and Poland, were attacked, the other two would automatically be at her side.

After all, everything I had seen while in Paris had convinced me of the moderation and even of the caution of the Polish Central Government. I had been able to observe that it turned a blind eye to the importation of arms into Danzig, although the re-militarization of the City is prohibited by its Statute.

"No doubt," retorted the State Secretary, "but the Statute could not foresee that the City would have to defend itself against its guardian! . . ."

I quote this phrase because it is very typical of the state of mind of the Wilhelmstrasse. I added that if minor incidents occurred in regions with German minorities, the same was the case in Germany in regions with Polish minorities.

Finally in order to leave no shadow of doubt in the mind of Herr von Weizsäcker, I added that even as he could rest assured that France was employing the language of wisdom in Warsaw (a language which was moreover perfectly well understood) and that she sincerely desired a German-Polish understanding, so the German Government must likewise take it as definite that France would not exert upon Poland, an integral part of our defensive front, a pressure capable of impairing the moral strength of that Power. In that respect we had had one experience which would not be repeated.

Returning then to the attitude of the Reich, I asked the State Secretary whether he could give me an explicit statement of official intentions. We had to consider the claims of the Reich, and the Polish attitude. If I had understood rightly what had been said to me in June and July, the claims of the Reich could wait if the Polish attitude permitted. Had the situation changed?

"It has changed," replied the State Secretary showing a certain embarrassment; "I can tell you no more for the moment; I only wish to add that I am pleased to see you back here at this time."

I assured the State Secretary that I should devote the whole of my strength to the service of peace, which was particularly precious to my country.

To those who know the covert way in which the State Secretary expresses himself, the language which he used to me is distinctly pessimistic. Ten days ago he still gave my English colleague a less gloomy view. There are, he told him, four possible risks of an armed conflict: (1) An English preventive war; (2) German refusal to believe that England would fight for Danzig; (3) Things might go so far that a retreat would no longer be possible; (4) A serious Polish incident.

He eliminated Nos. 1 and 2 automatically. As regards No. 3 Herr Hitler, he said, would know how to stop in time. He only retained No. 4, the serious Polish incident, and this was what he had told me.

Today, Herr von Weizsäcker is no longer willing even to limit the risk of war to No. 4, and two or three times, I had the feeling that he wanted to give me to understand that events might move rapidly.

Is his attitude a maneuver intended to impress the French Government? This is possible, and I hope in that case that my reactions showed him that it was labour lost. In any case, while I was making my statement he took numerous notes, which is contrary to his habit.

Does his attitude on the contrary mean that, without having detailed information of what is his master's secret, he knows that important decisions have been made or discussed? That is also possible.

Perhaps also he combined tactics and truthfulness. In life things are seldom entirely black or white. It is not unlikely that the same may also be true of Herr Hitler. The latter, in all probability, does not want a general war because he knows that he would have many chances of losing everything by it, and because he is convinced that he can hold out longer than the democracies in the present bloodless war. It may therefore be anticipated that he will strive to the last to achieve his plan without a general conflict. For none of my colleagues here doubts any more than I do, that he has a plan, and that as regards Poland, it comprises, in addition to Danzig, the reincorporation of the Corridor and Polish Silesia at the very least, that is to say the return to the old frontiers, and the German Press, moreover, does not hesitate to formulate such claims from time to time.

But it is equally likely that the Führer, while he is anxious to avoid a general war, may become irritated and his anger gradually increasing against this neighbour who dares to defy him, in his desire to bring matters to a conclusion with Poland, he may be led to wage war against the latter, minimizing, more or less consciously, the risk of an extension of the conflict.

To guard as far as possible against this danger which appears to me formidable and imminent I consider it essential:

(1) To maintain absolute firmness, an entire and unbroken unity of front, as any weakening, or even any semblance of yielding will open the way to war; and to insist every time the opportunity occurs on the automatic operation of military assistance.

(2) To maintain the military forces of the Allies, and in particular our own, on an equality with those of Germany, which are being continuously increased. It is essential that we should at the very least retain the previously existing ratio between our forces and those of the Reich, that we should not give the erroneous impression that we are "giving ground."

(3) To expedite to the very utmost the conclusion of the agreement with the Soviets. I can never repeat too often how important a psychological factor this is for the Reich.

(4) To advise Warsaw to be more careful than ever and to intensify the measures taken to avoid local incidents, for example, by sending emissaries direct from the central authority to the danger zones.


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