The Runciman Mission
Following the Anschluss of Austria and the "May Crisis", the British Government became increasingly alarmed about the situation in Central Europe. Although Britain had no treaty obligations towards Czechoslovakia, the danger remained of becoming involved in a war with Germany. Considerable diplomatic pressure therefore began to be applied by the British Government on their Czechoslovak counterpart for a speedy resolution of the dispute with Henlein's Sudeten German Party [SdP]. The Czechoslovak Government responded by preparing a new Nationalities Law which met some, but not all, of Henlein's demands. Henlein's reaction, in accordance with his instructions from Berlin, was to demand more. With tension rising in Czechoslovakia, the British Government came to the view that it could not avoid closer involvement in the situation and proposed therefore to send an intermediary to Prague.
Viscount Halifax to Mr Newton (Prague)
FOREIGN OFFICE, July 18, 1938, 10.00 p.m.
Your telegrams No. 353 and 354.
2. It is, I think clear, that the moment has come for some new move to be made. The nervousness of official quarters in Germany, illustrated by the State Secretary's remarks to His Majesty's Ambassador, reported in Berlin telegram No. 306; the rumours that have been put about as regards Czechoslovak mobilisation or troop movements; the anxiety of the Czechoslovak Minister in Berlin (see Berlin telegram No. 305); and the very depressing account you gave of President Benes's state of mind in you telegram No. 352, from which it appears that the Czechoslovak Government are determined to give the Sudeten Germans only a very short time in which to comment on the cut-and-dried and indivisible scheme which will be presented to Parliament as a whole and in which only minor amendments will apparently be possible from such submission: all these facts suggest that matters may come to a head within the next few days.
3. I agree with the observation contained in paragraph 2 of your telegram No. 354 about the difficulty of working out concrete proposals and recommending them to the Czechoslovak Government; and although the French Government have now once again suggested this course to us, I am clear in my mind that we should be wiser to avoid adopting it if we possibly can.
4. The course that commends itself to me, and I gather from your telegram No. 354 that you are inclined to agree, would be an offer of investigation and mediation.
5. I have come to the conclusion that the time has now come for us to broach this question with President Benes, and I should be glad if you would take an immediate opportunity to do so.
6. You could say that His Majesty's Government have been considering for some time past what useful action they could take in the event of it becoming apparent that a deadlock in the conversations was imminent. It appears to us that this moment is now approaching, owing to the decision of the Czechoslovak Government to ask Parliament to adopt the Nationalities Statute as a whole, without giving the Sudeten Germans adequate time or opportunity for discussion of points of difference.
7. You were quite right in criticising this procedure in your conversation with President Benes. Indeed the procedure seems to me to be quite indefensible and would certainly shock public opinion here. It would at once precipitate a demand for a plebiscite, even from those elements among the Sudeten who have hitherto been inclined to take a moderate line. Lastly, it would justify past German complaints and give them grounds for arguing that an agreed settlement was impossible to achieve owing to the attitude of the Czechoslovak Government. I am not convinced by the President's argument as stated in paragraph 5 of your telegram No. 352 against my proposal that legislation should only be introduced in regard to those subjects on which agreement has been reached. If the Czech Government put before Parliament a body of legislation of which only a few points represent agreement between the parties and of which the remainder is still in dispute, and declare their intention of passing the whole of this legislation over the heads of the Sudeten Germans, is it not evident that the result will be that the two parties will become entrenched in their present positions, so that all possibility of further negotiation will be destroyed? Nor am I impressed by Dr. Benes's argument that although in the past we have pressed for early action we now appear to be urging delay. Although it is true that we have persistently pressed for expedition and despatch, we have as you point out in your telegram No. 362 done so on the assumption that this would lead to agreement. It was never in our thought to advocate a form of acceleration which would produce an open breach. Moreover, as you rightly pointed out, it is obviously unfair that having taken several weeks to make up their own minds the Czech Government are now expecting the Sudeten to make up their minds in a few days.
8. We have therefore come to the conclusion that the most useful vcontribution His Majesty's Government could make would be to propose an impartial person of standing and repute who should be sent at the right moment to Czechoslovakia for the joint purpose of investigating and mediation who would be quite independent of His Majesty's Government or any other Government, and whose function it would be to acquaint himself with the character of the problem and with the causes of disagreement between the two Parties, and endeavour by his advice and influence to maintain contact between the two Parties, or to restore it in the event of a breakdown. It would be essential, of course, that the individual selected should proceed with the assent and if possible at the request of both the Czechoslovak Government and the Sudeten representatives, and that both sides should undertake to give him all facilities and to explain to him fully their respective points of view and the difficulties that concern them. In order to avoid a head-on collision, His Majesty's Government would strongly urge that no statement should be made by the Czechoslovak Government in a sense suggesting that on points on which agreement has not been reached there was no further room for discussion. Nor for the same reason should Parliament in present circumstances be called upon on a given date to vote the Nationalities legislation as a whole.
9. The person we propose for this task is Lord Runciman, who will need no introduction to President Benes.
10. You should explain to President Benes that you are on this occasion approaching him privately on this subject, and press him strongly to declare himself ready to accept in principle the proposal. If the Czechoslovak Government were to bring themselves to request our help in this matter, this would undoubtedly produce a favourable effect on public opinion here and go a long way to counter German propaganda, while I should have thought that Dr. Benes himself would have found it easier to take the initiative that to yield to insistence from outside. You should add that if it should subsequently become apparent to His Majesty's Government that a breakdown is impending, with all the dangers for European peace that such a breakdown would involve, His Majesty's Government will not be able to refrain from making public their proposal and the response accorded to it.
11. We do not contemplate any response to the Sudeten leaders at present on this subject, and should Dr. Benes question you on this point, you should say to him that when the time comes we will find means of putting the proposal to them, but that we see no useful purpose in doing so until we know the reactions of the Czechoslovak Government to your approach. You should make it plain to President Benes that if these reactions are favourable we should use our best efforts with the German Government to press them in their turn to use all the influence to persuade the Sudeten Germans to accept likewise.
12 The ideal course would be for the Czechoslovak Government and the Sudeten leaders to agree to make a joint announcement to the effect that they had requested His Majesty's Government to nominate some person for the purpose named, and that they welcomed the intimation from His Majesty's Government that in pursuance of this request they had invited Lord Runciman to act.
Repeated to Paris, Berlin, Budapest and Warsaw.
[Source: Documents on British Foreign Policy, (London, 1949), Third Series, vol. I, no. 508, pp. 581-4.]