president of the Board of Trade, both argued that no pressure should be
put on France not to support the Czechs. All would depend on Hitlerâ€™s
speech at the Nuremberg rally on 12 September.
When the latter did not clarify things, Chamberlain was able to launch
â€˜Plan Zâ€™, his visit to Hitler.197 This plan was, indeed, as â€˜unconventional
and daringâ€™ as the prime minister had termed it.198 More significantly, it
was completely in line with his thinking about foreign policy generally.
Chamberlain did not want to put the decision for â€˜peace or warâ€™ into
other hands.199 â€˜Plan Zâ€™ kept matters securely under his control, and
avoided the possibility that Britain could be dragged into war via Franceâ€™s
east European connections. It also did not leave the decision of peace
or war to Hitler alone. Chamberlain went to Berchtesgaden on 15
Two days later, he reported to the Cabinet. Before Chamberlain
spoke, Runciman made it evident that Czechoslovakia was unlikely
to continue in its present state no matter what the British decided and
that the French were unlikely to help. Chamberlain then outlined
Hitlerâ€™s demands: the Sudeten Germans must join the Reich and the
â€˜Soviet Russia and Germanyâ€™, Hadow, 17 Sept 1938, FO 371/22276/N4602/533/63,
minute, Cadogan (21 Sept).
Minutes, unnumbered meeting, Cab 23/94.
Vansittartâ€™s memo, 7 Sept 1938, FO 371/21735/C9384/1941/18; Dalton diary entry, 5
Sept 1938, in Pimlott, Dalton Diary, 236; W. B. Brown (B of T) to Runciman, 6 Sept
1938, Runciman Papers, WR 293.
Minutes, Cab 38(38), 14 Sept 1938, Cab 23/95.
Charmley, Chamberlain and the Lost Peace, 94â€“5; N. Chamberlain to Ida, his sister, 3
Sept 1938, Chamberlain Papers, NC 18/1/1066.
N. Chamberlain to Ida, his sister, 11 Sept 1938, Chamberlain Papers, NC 18/1/1068.
248 Britain, Soviet Russia and the Versailles Order
Czechâ€“Soviet alliance must go. Neither was objectionable to most in the
Cabinet. What the debate turned on was two views of foreign policy. The
Lord Chancellor, Maugham, claimed that Britain should not interfere
except for its interests and then only if it could with â€˜overwhelming
forceâ€™. Duff Cooper opposed this, and argued Eyre Croweâ€™s point that
Britainâ€™s policy had always been based on not permitting â€˜any single
power dominating Europeâ€™. Both arguments depended upon the attitude
of potential allies. That Soviet Russia was not likely to be considered one
of these was underlined by two facts: first, that it was not discussed in
this context, and, second, as noted, that a European war might destroy
Hitler, but also could result in â€˜changes in the state of Europe which
might be satisfactory to no one except Moscow and the Bolsheviksâ€™. All
agreed that what was required was to determine the attitude of the
However, this did not mean that Soviet Russia was of no account. For
one thing, Maiskyâ€™s lobbying had produced, particularly among the
Labour MPs, a popular belief that Moscow both could and would
support Prague. Chamberlain moved to debunk this conviction. After
the Cabinet on 17 September, he told a Labour delegation of French
weakness, which they found a â€˜profound shockâ€™, and followed up this
unpleasant news by stating that Soviet Russia would take action only
after France did so and â€˜then . . . [only] take the matter up at Genevaâ€™,
which they found â€˜an even greater shockâ€™.201 For its part, the Soviet
government was quick to denounce Chamberlainâ€™s trip to Berchtes-
gaden. The British were accused of making â€˜a deal at the expense of
Czechoslovakiaâ€™ and of â€˜abandon[ing] the principle of collective security
and of collective action against aggressionâ€™. What the Foreign Office
found significant about this charge was that it was not accompanied by
any statement of Soviet policy, leading to the remark that the Soviet
complaint was simply â€˜the pot calling the kettle blackâ€™.202 This suspicion
of Soviet attitudes and a belief in Moscowâ€™s tendency towards isolation
were underlined on 19 September, when the Soviet government warned
the French that any revision of the Czechâ€“Soviet treaty would necessi-
tate Moscowâ€™s also having to reconsider its treaty relations with France.
Minutes, Cab 39(38), 17 Sept 1938, Cab 23/95; Charmley, Chamberlain and the Lost
Minutes, Cab 40(38), 19 Sept 1938, Cab 23/95; Harvey diary entry, 20 Sept 1938,
Harvey Papers, Add MSS 56395; Dalton diary entry, 17 Sept 1938, in Pimlott, Dalton
Chilston to FO, tel 174, 17 Sept 1938, FO 371/21776/C10076/5302/18, minute,
Speaight (19 Sept).
Chamberlainâ€™s interlude 249
â€˜Russia will alsoâ€™, it was noted at the Foreign Office, â€˜reconsider, no
doubt, her whole position towards the Western Powers.â€™203
Discussions with the French on 18 September made it evident that
neither London nor Paris was willing to make the first move to resolve
the Czech crisis. However, for the same military reasons that they had
always professed, the French rejected the idea of Czech neutrality;
instead they put forward the idea of a joint guarantee of Czechoslovakia
as a replacement for the Czechâ€“Soviet treaty. The Cabinet accepted this
idea. Discussion centred on two matters: the need to consult the Czechs
and who would serve as the guarantors. As to the latter, opinion favoured
a triumvirate of Britain, France and Soviet Russia. Simon made the
point that it would be â€˜a mistake to take action which tended to put
Russia out of Europeâ€™, significantly adding that to include it would help
â€˜with sections of public opinionâ€™.204 Vansittart had made Simonâ€™s point
earlier to Halifax, and the latter in turn asserted at Cabinet that forcing
the Czechs to get rid of their Russian alliance would be â€˜grossly
unfairâ€™.205 On 22 September, with no solution in sight, Chamberlain
again flew to Germany to put forward these proposals to Hitler.206
While the prime minister was in Germany, efforts were made to clarify
the Soviet position. On 23 September, Halifax reported that Litvinov
had promised â€˜effective aidâ€™ to the Czechs the previous week.207 R. A.
Butler, the parliamentary undersecretary at the Foreign Office, was
asked to make a further sounding.208 But Litvinovâ€™s reply did not make
He said he could say no more than if French came to the assistance of the
Czechs, Russians would take action. We asked him whether he intended to raise
the matter at the League and if so whether he would wait to take action while the
League was discussing the question. He said that they might desire to raise the
matter in the League; this would not alter the proposition that he had stated
namely that Czechoslovakâ€“Soviet pact would come into force . . . He could not
. . . tell us to what extent Russian army was mobilised or Air Force ready to assist
Phipps to FO, tel 260, 19 Sept 1938, FO 371/21777/C10105/5302/18, minute, Mallet
Minutes, Cab 40(38), 19 Sept 1938, Cab 23/95; minutes, Cab 41(38), 21 Sept 1938,
Vansittart to Halifax, 16 Sept 1938, Halifax Papers, FO 800/314; untitled memo,
Vansittart, 20 Sept 1938, FO 371/21739/C10324/1941/18.
Minutes, Cab 42(38), 24 September 1938, Cab 23/95; Charmley, Chamberlain and the
Lost Peace, 119â€“23.
Minutes, Cab(38) 11, 23 Sept 1938, Cab 27/646; Nicolson diary entry, 23 Sept 1938,
in Nicolson, Diaries and Letters, 365â€“6.
FO to Butler, tel 54, 23 Sept 1938, FO 371/21777/C10667/5302/18.
250 Britain, Soviet Russia and the Versailles Order
At the Foreign Office, this added little to what was known. What seemed
clear, as Roberts noted, was that â€˜in these circumstances little confidence
can be placed in effective Russian supportâ€™.209
Other efforts were made at clarification. From Moscow, Chilston
reiterated that the Czech minister had been assured that the pact be-
tween Moscow and Prague â€˜remained fully in forceâ€™.210 Phipps was
pressed to discover whether the French had any intimations of possible
Soviet action.211 The ambassadorâ€™s reply was substantially the same as
Butlerâ€™s report from Geneva, but Phipps added that â€˜Bonnet is not much
impressed by this prospective late and limited Russian help.â€™212 On 24
September, Phipps followed up this report by noting that General
Maurice Gamelin, the French commander-in-Chief, had stated that
Soviet aid could come only in the air, and, in a remark that drew fire
from Vansittart and Sargent (who hoped for a strong French attitude in
order to stiffen their own government), Phipps contended that â€˜[a]ll that
is best in France is against war, almost [doubly underlined] at any
priceâ€™.213 The always-observant Thomas Jones caught the situation
nicely on 23 September: â€˜no one seemed to be able to state with any
certainty what Russia was prepared to do, or what the result of the
slaughter of the [Soviet] generals would beâ€™.214 Much depended on
Chamberlainâ€™s visit to Bad Godesberg.
There, Hitler rejected the entire idea of a guarantee, and Chamberlain
returned to Britain. On 24 September, Chamberlain told the Cabinet
that he had found Hitlerâ€™s attitude a â€˜considerable shockâ€™ and argued
that the German chancellorâ€™s demand for an immediate transfer of
territory must be accepted.215 The Cabinet decided to consult the
French. This transpired the following day, but overnight key changes
occurred. Pushed by Cadogan, that evening Halifax underwent a con-
version.216 On Sunday morning, 25 September, Halifax declared that his
Butler to FO, tel 42 immediate, 23 Sept 1938, FO 371/21777/C10585/5302/18,
minutes, Roberts (24 Sept), Mallet (25 Sept).
Chilston to FO, tel 183, 23 Sept 1938, FO 371/21777/C10500/5302/18.
FO to Phipps, tel 321/23 Sept 1938, FO 371/21740/C10665/1941/18.
Phipps to FO, tel 286, 23 Sept 1938, FO 371/21777/C10586/5302/18.
Phipps to FO, tel 290, 24 Sept 1938, FO 371/21740/C10589/1941/18; Phipps to FO,
unnumbered tel, 24 Sept 1938, FO 371/21740/C10602/1941/18, minutes; Herman,
Phipps Embassy, 110â€“22.
T. Jones to Abraham Flexner, 23 Sept 1938, in T. Jones, A Diary with Letters 1931â€“1950
(London, 1954), 409.
Minutes, Cab 42(38), 24 Sept 1938, Cab 23/95.
Cadogan diary entry, 24 Sept 1938, in David Dilks, ed., The Diaries of Sir Alexander
Cadogan 1938â€“1945 (New York, 1971), 103â€“5; Peter Neville, â€˜Sir Alexander Cadogan
and Lord Halifaxâ€™s â€śDamascus Roadâ€ť Conversion over the Godesberg Terms 1938â€™,
D&S, 11, 3 (2000), 81â€“90.
Chamberlainâ€™s interlude 251
views and those of the prime minister were no longer â€˜at oneâ€™.217 This
defection â€“ what Chamberlain termed a â€˜horrible blow to meâ€™ â€“ allowed
others to voice their concerns.218 A rejection of Hitlerâ€™s terms carried
with it the threat of war. Maugham pointed out that it now all came
down to â€˜powerâ€™. What was needed was a consideration of how the
British could save the Czechs. Here, Soviet Russia was an important
consideration. It was evident that there was little confidence in Soviet
capabilities. Maugham termed Soviet Russia â€˜uselessâ€™, and Sir Kingsley
Wood, the secretary of state for air, said that Britain would be supported
by â€˜a weak Russia and a doubtful Franceâ€™. Those in favour of a stronger
line thus found themselves required to argue, as Cooper did, that in
â€˜great moral issuesâ€™ there was â€˜no time to weigh out oneâ€™s strength too
carefullyâ€™. This allowed Chamberlain to push the Cabinet into making
no decision until the French were consulted that afternoon.
In the late evening of 25 September, the Cabinet reconvened.219 At
the afternoon meetings, the French had been resolute both in their
rejection of Hitlerâ€™s plan and in their determination to resort to force
of arms if necessary. Both had been contested by Chamberlain at every
turn. The prime minister wished instead to send Hitler a letter, albeit
one that did not â€˜threatenâ€™ any action by Britain should Hitler reject its
terms. Over the objections of Cooper, this was agreed to at the evening
session, and the letter duly sent. All would await the reply. By 27
September, Hitler had refused to accept any compromise, trenches were
being dug in Hyde Park and war seemed imminent, setting the stage for
frantic last-minute bargaining on 28 September and Chamberlainâ€™s
dramatic flight to Munich. By 30 September, the deal was done, and
Chamberlain returned home to a euphoric reception.
The principal issue of historical debate in Anglo-Soviet affairs con-
cerning the Munich crisis is whether Soviet Russia would have honoured
its commitment to Prague had the Western Powers taken a firm stand.220
The remainder of this paragraph, except where indicated, is based on Minutes, Cab 43
(38), 25 Sept 1938 in the morning, Cab 23/95.
Halifaxâ€™s undated note at the Cabinet meeting and N. Chamberlainâ€™s reply, Halifax
Cab 44(38), minutes, 25 Sept 1938, Cab 23/95.
Igor Lukes, â€˜Did Stalin Desire War in 1938? A New Look at Soviet Behaviour During
the May and September Crisesâ€™, D&S, 2, 1 (1991), 3â€“54; G. Jukes, â€˜The Red Army
and the Munich Crisisâ€™, JCH, 26 (1991), 195â€“214; Igor Lukes, â€˜Stalin and Benes at the
End of September 1938: New Evidence from the Prague Archivesâ€™, SR, 52, 1 (1993),
28â€“48; Lukes, â€˜Stalin and Czechoslovakia in 1938â€“1939: An Autopsy of a Mythâ€™, D&S,
10, 2â€“3 (1999), 13â€“47; Hugh Ragsdale, â€˜Soviet Military Preparations and Policy in the
Munich Crisis: New Evidenceâ€™, JbfGOE, 47, 2 (1999), 210â€“26; Zara Steiner, â€˜The
Soviet Commissariat of Foreign Affairs and the Czechoslovakian Crisis in 1938: New
252 Britain, Soviet Russia and the Versailles Order
What is clear, however, is that most of the British did not believe that it
would (or could) do so. The impact of the Purges had eliminated the
British belief, which had been built up in the period from 1933 to 1937,
in Soviet strength, and had replaced it with a conviction that Soviet
Russia was unable to do anything concrete to aid the Czechs. This
attitude was evident not just at Munich, but earlier, during the May
crisis. This combined nicely with British suspicions about Moscowâ€™s
intentions to use the crisis for its own ends and ensured that Maiskyâ€™s
and Litvinovâ€™s professions of support were discounted. The British
attitude was encapsulated in a minute in the aftermath of the Munich
settlement. Commenting on remarks made by the Turkish minister for
foreign affairs that â€˜Soviet Russia desired nothing better than to stand
aloof, if a European conflagration broke out, and to watch the European
nations destroying each otherâ€™ and that the Soviets had â€˜given no intim-
ation that Soviet Russia would come to Czechoslovakiaâ€™s aid, unless
France had first done soâ€™, Frank Roberts noted: â€˜The Turks seem to
have summed up the Russian attitude correctly & confirm our previous
The Munich crisis produced a vicious circle of contingency. The
Soviets claimed that they would come in if the French did; the French
claimed they would come in if the British supported them; and the
British claimed that they would have aided the Czechs if the Soviets
and French had been willing to save and capable of saving Prague.222
But no one was willing to bell the German cat. To use a phrase often