In the early morning of Friday, Sept. 1, 1939, Poland faced the highly mechanized “blitzkrieg” of the German army and air forces in the opening hours of World War II. For help, the Poles looked to France and England, which had signed an earlier agreement to come to Poland’s aid in the event of such an attack.
Yet the two allies did not respond for 48 hours. Why did it take two days to condemn Adolf Hitler’s brazen invasion?
The answer involves the etiquette of diplomacy, colliding interests of allies, and a fervent desire to avoid war.
Differences first arose following the invasion when the British suggested to the French on Friday afternoon that the two countries jointly withdraw their ambassadors to Germany as a gesture of protest. French demurred, claiming such an act might doom the faint remaining hope for peace.
That evening in Parliament, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain told the members that the British ambassador to Germany would deliver “a severe warning” to the German foreign minister later that evening in Berlin. Germany, he said, should not doubt that Britain would fulfill its agreement to defend Poland and was resolved to meet force with force.
When the British message was delivered, it contained no specific demands on Germany and no deadlines. Hitler decided not to respond, believing England would not follow through on its warning.
On Saturday, Sept. 2, a full day after the German invasion, events began to speed up. Italian dictator Benito Mussolini proposed to convene a five-power conference, to include England and France, to settle the current crisis once a cease-fire could be brokered. That afternoon, Chamberlain met with his government ministers and resolved that German troops would have to leave Polish soil before such a conference could begin.
At this same meeting, the ministers discussed a request by France to hold off sending any ultimatum to the Germans for another 48 hours. Most of the ministers believed the warning delivered the previous evening had put Berlin on notice that Germany was risking war, and that such notice should end at midnight that night.
But it would be another 16 hours before Britain took a definitive stand.
Read more in our next blog.