Second World War outbreak: 70th anniversary

Historian Sir Martin Gilbert traces the bleak chain of events that triggered Britain’s declaration of war


August 27, 2009
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Adolf Hitler salutes parading troops of the German Wehrmacht in Warsaw, just a month after the German invasion of Poland

Adolf Hitler salutes parading troops of the German Wehrmacht in Warsaw, just a month after the German invasion of Poland

The Second World War began on September 1 1939, with the German attack on Poland. Two days later Britain and France declared war on Germany.

There had been many forshadowings of those grim September days, and what it would mean to the Jews. On January 30 1939, six years to the day after the Nazi party came to power in Germany, Hitler told a crowd of his keenest supporters that if war came, “the result will not be the bolshevisation of the earth, and thus the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe”.

This boast was published in Berlin as an official German pamphlet, in both German and English. Meanwhile, the first of almost 10,000 children of the Kindertransport had reached Britain, fleeing Germany and Austria after Kristallnacht. The British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, confided to his sister: “Jews aren’t a loveable people, I don’t care for them myself, but that is not enough to explain the pogrom.”

The German occupation of Prague in March 1939 gave the lie to Hitler’s claim at the Munich Conference, five months earlier, that he had no further demands on Czechoslovakia, having annexed the largely German-speaking Sudetenland.

With Czechoslovakia no longer in existence, Britain gave a “guarantee” to protect Poland’s independence. But this guarantee was not the end of appeasement, as Chamberlain explained in a private letter to his sister about the guarantee: “It was unprovocative in tone, but firm, clear but stressing the point (perceived alone by The Times) that what we are concerned with is not the boundaries of states but attacks on their independence.”

Chamberlain added ominously: “And it is we who will judge whether this independence is threatened or not.” That is, Poland’s boundaries could be changed to Germany’s advantage, provided Poland retained some independent area. When, therefore, in April 1939 the Germans began to make claims on the Free City of Danzig, then a predominantly German city, the British government saw no reason why Danzig should not come within the orbit of Nazi Germany, and pressed Poland to open negotiations with Germany.

The British consul general in Danzig, Gerald Shepherd — who had helped Jews from Danzig emigrate to Palestine — opposed any suggestion that Danzig should be returned to Germany (of which it had been a part before 1918). Shepherd argued that German rule in Danzig would “unquestionably” be followed by the “absorption of most, if not all” of the remainder of Poland. His warnings were ignored; he was recalled and replaced.

Throughout July 1939, Britain put pressure on Poland to allow Germany to annex Danzig. When the British Ambassador in Berlin, Sir Nevile Henderson, met Hitler on August 25, Hitler told him that beyond the return of Danzig, Germany had no further quarrel with Poland. Indeed, Hitler told Henderson, after “the solution of the German-Polish question” he would give a personal pledge for the “continued existence” of the British Empire.

Hitler then became confidential, telling Henderson that he was “by nature an artist and not a politician, and once the Polish question was settled, he would end his life as an artist”. Henderson, impressed with Hitler’s “apparent earnestness and sincerity”, returned to London to get the British answer.

Would Britain allow Hitler to have Danzig — and return to his painting? The answer was, yes. The British Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, asked Mussolini to inform Hitler that Britain was willing to put pressure on Poland to negotiate over Danzig. Mussolini advised Hitler to accept the British proposals. Hitler agreed, while keeping secret his intention for a full-scale invasion of Poland at the earliest possible opportunity.

To put Polish minds at ease, in August the British government turned its agreement of the previous March into a formal treaty. It then used the new treaty to press Poland even more firmly to give up Danzig. On August 28, Halifax telegraphed the British ambassador in Warsaw: “His Majesty’s government earnestly hope that Polish government will authorise them to inform German government that Poland is ready to enter at once into discussion with Germany.”

Hitler saw the British position as one of weakness. On September 1 1939, German forces entered Danzig and attacked Poland. In a final attempt to avoid honouring Britain’s treaty with Poland, Chamberlain told Hitler, and the House of Commons, on September 2 — as German troops advanced deep into Poland: “If the German government should agree to withdraw their forces, then His Majesty’s government would be willing to regard the position as being the same as it was before the German forces crossed the Polish frontier.” Once German troops withdrew, Chamberlain said, “the way would be open to discussions” between Germany and Poland, and Britain was willing “to be associated” in these discussions.

Parliament was in uproar. A leading Conservative, Leo Amery (who it was not known at the time had Jewish ancestry), wrote in his diary: “The House was aghast. For two whole days the wretched Poles had been bombed and massacred, and we were still considering within what time-limit Hitler should be invited to tell us whether he felt like relinquishing his prey!” That evening several members of the Cabinet, including the Secretary of State for War, a Manchester-born Sephardi Jew, Leslie Hore-Belisha, went to Downing Street to protest. Chamberlain and Halifax were dining together. The ministers insisted they would not leave until Chamberlain agreed to honour Britain’s treaty with Poland and declare war on Germany without further delay.

Chamberlain bowed to this unprecedented revolt. Britain’s ultimatum to Germany, demanding that it withdraw from Poland at once, was sent to Berlin that night. It expired at 11 o’clock British time on the following day, September 3. Britain was at war with Germany.

The first victims of British bullets were not Germans in Europe but Jewish refugees in Palestine. At 9.15 on the evening of September 1 — as German bombs rained down on Warsaw, and while Chamberlain was still refusing to declare war on Germany — a cargo ship, the Tiger Hill, ran ashore off Tel Aviv. On board were 1,400 “illegal” refugees and the bodies of two Jews who had been killed the previous night when British marine police had opened fire on the ship. Also on board was Yona Shimshelevitz, 27, who had been wounded in the shooting. Taken to hospital in Tel Aviv, she died on the afternoon of September 2.

Less than nine weeks after the outbreak of war, The Times published an article with the grimly prophetic headline A Stony Road To Extermination, about the intention of the new German occupiers of Poland to deport more than a million Jews into a “concentration area”, as a place “for gradual extermination” not only of Polish Jews but of Jews from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia.

Few of the paper’s readers — even its Jewish readers — could know how true such words would prove.

Sir Martin Gilbert’s book, Second World War, is re-issued this week as a Phoenix paperback. Also available in paperback this week is the second, enlarged edition (257 maps) of his Routledge Atlas of the Second World War

Last updated: 10:57am, August 27 2009