We Will Not Be Responsible for War
GOD KNOWS I HAVE DONE MY BEST
By NEVILLE CHAMBERLAIN, Prime Minister of Great Britain Delivered in the House of Commons, August 24, 1939
Vital Speeches of the Day , Vol. 5, pp. 684-686
IN the last debate we had upon foreign affairs, which took place July 31, I observed that the Danzig situation required very careful watching. I expressed my anxiety about the pace at which the accumulation of war weapons was proceeding throughout Europe. I referred to the poisoning of public opinion by propaganda which was going on, and I declared that if that could be stopped and if some action could be taken to restore confidence, I did not believe that there was any question which could not be solved by peaceful discussion.
I am sorry to say that there have been no signs since of any such action, but on the contrary the international position has steadily deteriorated until today we find ourselves confronted with the imminent perils of war.
At the beginning of August a dispute arose between the Polish Government and the Danzig Senate as to the position and functions of certain Polish customs officials. It was not a question of major importance. Many more acute difficulties have been easily settled in the past in less tense conditions, and in this case discussions had actually begun between the parties last week.
While these discussions were in progress the German press opened a violent campaign against the Polish Government. They declared that Danzig could not be the subject of any conference or any compromise, but that it must come back to the Reich at once unconditionally.
They went further and linked up the question with the question of the Corridor and attacked the whole policy and attitude of the Polish Government and published circumstantial accounts of alleged ill-treatment of Germans living in Poland.
We have no means of checking the accuracy of these stories, but we cannot help being struck by the fact that they bear a strong resemblance to similar allegations that were made in respect of the Sudeten-Germans in Czecho-Slovakia.
We must also remember that there is a large Polish minority in Germany and that the treatment of that minority has also been the subject of bitter complaint by the Polish Government. There is no subject which is calculated to arouse ill-feeling in any country more than statements about the ill-treatment of people of their own race in another country.
That is a subject which provides the most inflammable of all materials—materials most likely to cause a general conflagration. In these circumstances one can but deeply regret that such incidents, which if they were established beyond a shadow of doubt would naturally excite sympathy for the victims and indignation against the authors of this alleged ill-treatment, should be treated in a way which is calculated still further to embitter the atmosphere and to raise the temperature to danger point.
It must, I think, be agreed that, in the face of this campaign, declarations by the Polish statesmen have shown great calm and self-restraint. The Polish leaders, while they have been firm in their determination to resist attack upon their independence, have been unprovocative. They have always been ready, as I am sure they would be ready now, to discuss differences with the German Government, if they could be sure that those discussions would be carried on without threats of force or violence and with some confidence that if agreement was reached its terms would be respected afterwards both in the letter and in the spirit
This press campaign is not the only symptom which is ominously reminiscent of past experience. Military preparations have been made in Germany on such a scale that that country is now in a condition of complete readiness for war. At the beginning of this week we had word that German troops were beginning to move towards the Polish frontier.
It then became evident that a crisis of the first magnitude was approaching, and the government resolved that the time had come when they must seek the approval of Parliament for further measures of defense.
The rise in the bank rate today was a normal protective measure adopted for the purpose of defending our reserves in a period of uncertainty.
In view of the attitude in Berlin the government felt it their duty to leave no possible loophole for misunderstanding.
The greatest calamity that could occur was not desired either by our own people or by the German people.
We cannot agree that national interests can only be secured by the shedding of blood or by the destruction of the independence of other States.
That was the situation on Tuesday last. Then, in Berlin and Moscow, it was announced that negotiations had been taking place and were likely to be soon concluded for a non-aggression pact between the two countries. I do not attempt to conceal from the House that the announcement came to the government as a surprise—a surprise of a very unpleasant character.
For some time past there had been rumors about impending changes in the relations between Germany and the Soviet Government, but no inkling of that change had been conveyed either to us or the French Government by the Soviet Government.
The House may remember that on July 31 I remarked that we had engaged upon a step that was almost unprecedented in character. I said that we had already shown a great amount of trust and a strong desire to bring the negotiations with the Soviet Union to a successful conclusion when we agreed to send our soldiers, sailors and airmen to Russia to discuss
military plans together before we had an assurance that we should be able to reach an agreement on political matters. Nevertheless, moved by the observations of the Russian Secretary for Foreign Affairs, that if we could come to a successful conclusion of our military discussions, a political agreement should not present any insurmountable difficulty, we sent the mission.
The British mission arrived on August 7. They were warmly received in friendly fashion and discussions were actually in progress and proceeding on a basis of mutual trust when this bomb-shell was flung down.
To say the least, it was highly disturbing to learn that while these conversations were proceeding on that basis the Soviet Government was secretly engaged with Germany for purposes which, on the face of it, were inconsistent with the objects of their foreign policy as we had understood it.
I do not propose this afternoon to pass any final judgment upon the incident. That, I think, would be premature until we have had an opportunity of consulting with the French Government as to the meaning and consequences of this agreement, the text of which was only published this morning, but the question which the government had to consider when they learned of this announcement was what effect, if any, this changed situation would have upon their own policy.
In Berlin the announcement was hailed with extraordinary cynicism as a great diplomatic victory which removed any danger of war since we and the French would no longer be likely to fulfill our obligations to Poland. We felt it our first duty to remove any such dangerous impression.
The House will recollect that the undertaking which we have given to Poland was given before any agreement was talked of with Russia and that it was not in any way dependent on any such agreement being reached. How could we with honor go back upon such an obligation which we had so often and so plainly repeated? Therefore our first act was to issue a statement that our obligations to Poland and other countries remained unaffected.
These obligations rest upon agreed statements made to the House of Commons to which effect has been given in treaties which are at present in an advanced stage of negotiation. These treaties, when concluded, will formally define our obligations, but they do not in any way alter, add to or subtract from the obligations of mutual assistance which had already been accepted.
The communique which we issued to the press after the meeting of the Cabinet this week spoke also of certain further measures of defense which we have taken. As I have said, Germany has an immense army of men already under arms, and military preparations of all kinds have been and are being carried on on a vast scale in that country.
The measures that we have taken up to now are of a precautionary character. Nothing can affect the determination to put this country in a state of preparedness to meet any emergency, but I wish emphatically to repudiate any suggestion, if such suggestion should be made, that these measures imply an act of menace. Nothing that we have done or that we propose to do menaces the legitimate interests of Germany.
It is no act of menace to prepare to help friends to defend themselves against force. If neighbors, wishing to live together in peaceful and friendly relations, find that one of them is contemplating apparently an aggressive act of force against one of them and making open preparations for action, it is not a menace if the others announce their intention of aiding the one who is the subject of this threat.
There is another action which has been taken today in the financial sphere. Members will have seen the announcement that the bank rate has today been raised to 4 per cent. The
House will recognize that this is a normal protective measure adopted for the purpose of defending our resources in a period of uncertainty.
There is in this connection a contribution to be made by citizens generally.
The public can best cooperate by reducing, as far as possible, any demands, directly, or indirectly for the purchase of foreign exchange. Next, by scrupulously observing the Chancellor's request that capital should not at present be sent or moved out of the country, and finally by holding no more foreign assets than are strictly required for the normal purpose of the business.
In view of the attitude in Berlin to which I have already referred, His Majesty's Government felt that it was their duty at this moment to leave no possible loophole for misunderstanding and so that no doubt might exist in the mind of the German Government, His Majesty's Ambassador in Berlin was instructed to seek an interview with the German Chancellor and hand him a message from me from the British Government. That message was delivered yesterday and the reply was received today.
The object of my communication to the German Chancellor was to restate our position and make quite sure there was no misunderstanding. His Majesty's Government felt that this was all the more necessary having regard to the reports which we had received as to the military movements taking place in Germany and as to the then projected German-Soviet agreement.
I therefore made it plain, as had been done in the communique issued after the Cabinet met on Tuesday, that if the case should arise His Majesty's Government were resolved and prepared to employ without delay all the forces at their command.
On numerous occasions I have stated my conviction that war between our two countries, admitted on all sides to be the greatest calamity that could occur, is not desired either by our own people or by the German people.
With this fact in mind I informed the German Chancellor that in our view there was nothing in the questions arising between Poland and Germany which could not and should not be resolved without the use of force if only a situation of confidence could be restored.
We have expressed our willingness to assist in creating the conditions in which such negotiations could take place, but the present state of tension creates great difficulties, and I expressed the view that if there could be a truce on all sides to press polemics and to all incitement, suitable conditions might be established for direct negotiations between Germany and Poland upon the points between them.
The negotiations could, of course, deal also with complaints made on either side about the treatment of minorities, but the German Chancellor's reply includes what amounts to a restatement of the German thesis, that in Eastern Europe Germany should have a free hand. If we or any other country having less direct interest in this thesis chooses to interfere, the blame for the ensuing conflict will be ours. This thesis entirely misapprehends the British position.
We do not seek to proclaim a special position for ourselves in Eastern Europe. We do not think of asking Germany to sacrifice her national interests. But we cannot agree that national interests can only be secured by the shedding of blood or by the destruction of the independence of other States.
As regards the relations between Poland and Germany, the German Chancellor in his reply to me has referred again to the situation in Danzig, drawing attention to the position
of that city, and to the Corridor, and to the offer he made early this year to settle this question by methods of negotiation.
I have repeatedly refuted the allegations that it was our guarantee to Poland that decided the Polish Government to refuse the proposal then made. That guarantee was not, in fact, given until after the Polish refusal had been conveyed to the German Government.
In view of the delicacy of the situation we have refrained from any comment upon the communication which has just passed between the two governments. The catastrophe has not yet come upon us. We must therefore still hope that reason and sanity may find a way to reassert themselves. The pronouncements that were made recently and what I have said today reflect the views, I am sure, of the French Government with whom we have maintained throughout the customary close contact in pursuance of our well-established cordial relations.
Naturally our minds turn to the Dominions. We appreciate very warmly the pronouncements made by ministers in every part of the British Commonwealth. The indications which have been given from time to time, in some cases as recently as yesterday, show their sympathy in our efforts in the cause of peace, and in the unhappy event of their proving unsuccessful, are a source of profound encouragement to us in these critical times.
The House will, I am sure, have noted with appreciation the appeal for peace made yesterday by King Leopold to the heads of the Oslo States at the meeting in Brussels and it will be evident from what I have said that His Majesty's Government share the hope to which that appeal has given expression and earnestly trust that effect will be given it.
The Foreign Secretary, in a speech made on June 29 at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, set out the fundamental basis of British foreign policy. That speech, I believe, was received with general approval. He said in the first place it was our determination to resist methods of force. Secondlythere was a recognition of the world's desire to pursue constructive work of building peace.
If we were once satisfied that the intentions of others were the same as our own, if we were satisfied that all wanted a peaceful solution, then indeed we could discuss the problems which are today causing the world so much anxiety. That definition of basic British policy still stands. We want to see established international order based upon mutual understanding and mutual confidence.
We cannot build up such an order unless it conforms to certain principles which are essential to the establishment of confidence and trust. Those principles must include the observance of international undertakings when they have once been entered into and the renunciation of force in the settlement of differences.
It is because those principles, to which we attach so much vital importance, seem to us to be in jeopardy that we have undertaken these tremendously unprecedented responsibilities. If, despite all our efforts to find a way of peace—and God knows I have done my best—if in spite of all that, we find ourselves forced to embark upon a struggle which is bound to be fraught with suffering and misery for all mankind and the end of which no man can foresee; if that should happen, we shall not be fighting for a political future of a faraway city in a foreign land. We shall be fighting for the preservation of those principles of which I have spoken and the destruction of which would involve the destruction of all possibilities of peace and security for the peace of the world.
The issue of peace or war does not rest with us, and I trust that with whom responsibility does lie will think of the millions of human beings whose fate depends upon their action.
For ourselves, we have a united country behind us and in this critical hour I believe that we, in the House of Commons, will stand together this afternoon and will show the world that as we think so we shall fight, as a united nation.