The views of Sir Nevile Henderson
Sir Nevile Henderson served as British Ambassador to Germany between 1937 and 1939. The considerable sympathy which he displayed towards German National Socialism caused him to be known to his critics as "Our Nazi Ambassador in Berlin". During the late summer of 1938, Henderson wrote a series of personal letters to the Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, concerning the crisis over Czechoslovakia. The correspondence clearly indicated the extent of the Ambassador's sympathy with National Socialist attitudes and his hostility towards Czechoslovakia.
Sir N. Henderson (Berlin) to Viscount Halifax
BRITISH EMBASSY, BERLIN, August 22, 1938
Dear Secretary of State,
I hope you don't think it over-insistent or over-presumptuous on my part when I telegraph and write to you so much about Lord Runciman and what he should do. But the stakes for which we are playing are too high to allow me to remain silent on a matter on which I feel so strongly. Besides it is my bounden duty to set before you the German case and their way of thinking and their machinations as I see them.
I feel so strongly also on the big British issue. Have we or have we not got to fight Germany again? The followers of the Crowe tradition in your Department argue and have long argued that it is inevitable. I regard that attitude as nothing short of disastrous. It may prove to be inevitable, but it seems to me a suicidal policy fatalistically to accept it as so. If we fight Germany this year or next over the Sudeten question, we shall probably beat her but it will mean that we shall have to go on fighting her again and again, until one day we may be ourselves beaten. It is the history of the United States of America over again. If it had not been for the Prince Consort, Palmerston and Russell would have plunged us into war with them over the Mason and Slidell case and the U.S.A. would never have forgotten or forgiven us. The cause was not a good enough one and thank goodness it is now unlikely that we shall ever fight the U.S.A. again.
It may well, in spite of all the croakers, be the same with Germany if we can avoid fighting them about such a bad case as the Sudeten. However badly Germany behaves, it does not make the right of the Sudeten any less justifiable. We are on the worst of wickets and to go into battle, without having our Empire behind us - and we surely won't have it wholeheartedly on such an issue - seems to me inconceivable. I think, in spite of the humiliation, that I would rather almost anything than that.
Never again are those blocks of Germans on Germany's frontier going to be misgoverned by Czechs as they have been during the past twenty years. That seems to me also inconceivable and we have no earthly or heavenly right to force them to be so. The Teuton and the Slav are irreconcilable - just as are the Briton and the Slav. Mackenzie King told me last year after the Imperial Conference that the Slavs in Canada never assimilated with the people and never became good citizens.
Moreover however badly the Germans behave, one must also condemn Benes and his military enthusiasts. Their position is quite untenable and as such one has immense sympathy for them. But I cease to have it when they try to behave like Samson and bring down the walls of the Temple to soften the bitterness of their own humiliation. Masaryk would have been great enough to appreciate the hard facts and make the best of them, but Benes is a small man. That is a fact. And now all depends on Lord Runciman.
What is Hitler going to do? When all, as in this country, depends on the decision of a single individual, one must be guided, under Providence, by one's own instinct and impression.
The German army has been told to be ready for battle (100 per cent) as it ever can be this year as from the middle of September onwards: i.e. prepared for all eventualities. The German are not philanthropists and in similar circumstances I expect we would have acted in the same way if we had as little faith as the Germans have in Benes' honesty or even ability in the face of his opposition to do the right thing, and if we were convinced, as the German are, that the Czech General staff wants a showdown now rather that later.
It is for that reason that I believed that it was useless to appeal to Hitler for a modification of his military arrangements. It is one of my duties to put myself under the German skin, if I can, and to report to you how they feel. Their whole experience of Benes is that he cannot be trusted and that whatever he may say, he always gets out of it. And they believe that the Czech military want war now when they believe that they can drag France and ourselves in rather than later, when the international position may be less favourable to them. That being the case if I were a German I would also be prepared for all eventualities, seeing that the Czech military are determined that no concessions shall be made to the Sudeten.
It stands to reason that Hitler himself must equally be prepared for all eventualities. But from there to say that he has already decided on aggressive action against Czecho-slovakia this autumn is, I think, untrue. He still hopes to get what he wants by peaceable means and what he wants now is a Swiss cantonal system for the Sudeten to enable them to live their own life and not to be harried all the time by minor Czech officials. That the plums thereafter will drop ripe from the tree into the German Reich is another question. Every German, however moderate, believes this to be inevitable in the long run and since in politics geography always has the last word, it is more than likely. But for the moment a quiet life for the Sudeten would, I believe, satisfy Hitler; but if Benes won't give enough, then he may lose all. It is Abyssinia over again with far less moral right on our side.
If Runciman's hand is being forced, so is Hitler's. He avoided a speech at Breslau where he was expected to speak by the thirty or forty thousand Sudeten who attended that festival. He cannot avoid referring to them in his speeches at Nuremberg, which comes just too early to give Runciman all the time he needs to make up his mind.
Consequently if Runciman has not spoken before Nuremberg, Hitler will have to do so. That is the point of my telegram No. 388 which I sent you yesterday and which was in fact based on your letter to Lord Runciman of August 12. It is, I fear, useless our saying to Hitler be patient, though I say it and will go on saying it to every German I see. The German retort is that we would not have been so patient ourselves during these past four months if the Sudeten Germans had been Ulstermen and Benes de Valera. Nor for internal reasons can Hitler be silent. What I anticipate him saying is something on the following lines: "We have trusted the English for four months although we always knew that Benes would never yield except to force. The English won't put the screws on, so we are obliged to do so. We mean business. It is this, that or the other for the Sudeten or nothing. If that is not Lord Runciman's opinion then I shall insist on a plebiscite and the full right of self-determination." He may even add that for the sake of world peace he is willing to hold his hand for a while yet but the end will be the same: that he will choose his own moment and that he gives us and the French full warning of that. And he may threaten the Czechs with worse in the future if they cannot see sense now.
Roughly that is the sort of minimum line I see Hitler's mind moving along. I cannot believe that he will do more if we tell him that we shall certainly fight him if he does move. But what do we gain? More postponement and a rising market. That is the policy we have been following for years, with our eyes tight closed to realities, to evolution and those geographical facts which always have the last word whatever we little humans do or say.
That is not defeatism. Defeatism to my mind is saying that we must fight Germany again, when there is still a chance and a big one that we need never do so. It is repugnant to me to run bad horses and back losing ones all the time. I would fight Germany tomorrow for a good cause but I refuse to contemplate our doing so for the Sudeten. If they were Hungarians of Poles or Roumanians or the citizens of any small nation, all England would be on their side. They are Germans, so we shut our eyes to realities and are influenced by other considerations, some honourable, some chivalrous but many egotistical or inspired by fear.
Yours in great haste,
[Source: Documents on British Foreign Policy, (London, 1949), Third Series, vol. II, no. 665, pp. 131-4.]