The Chargé in France ( Wilson ) to the Secretary of State
[Received 9:30 p.m.]
403. I had an hour’s talk with Léger this afternoon. He set forth the French position in the Austrian crisis59 as follows:
The French Government had no objection [obligation?] legal or moral to go to the assistance of Austria. For reasons of general security in Europe, however, and to prevent a situation which would make the defense of Czechoslovakia more difficult the French Government was prepared to go to any limit even to the extreme of war to [Page 36] defend Austria provided that France did not find herself alone, in other words, provided that England and Italy or at least England would go with her. He said that the French Government had on four separate occasions proposed to the British Government strong representations in Berlin. The first time was just before Eden’s resignation. The proposal was renewed a short time thereafter and on March 11 the French Government twice proposed to the British that the strongest possible representations be made in Berlin.
The British Government on March 11 after most careful examination of the matter called in the Austrian Minister and told him frankly and loyally (this was after the news of the second ultimatum to Schuschnigg was known) that the British Government could not urge Schuschnigg to resist since the British Government was not in a position to go to his assistance. Later at 10:00 o’clock that night the British Government advised the French Government that they had instructed their Ambassador in Berlin to make the representations which as Léger said were merely formal and for the record. In view of the Italian refusal and of the British attitude the French Government had merely made the same formal representations after the event as had the British.
As regards Czechoslovakia60 the case is very different. France has definite commitments and absolutely will live up to them. Léger said that the occupation of Austria by Germany makes the problem of the defense of Czechoslovakia much more difficult from the viewpoint of the general staff. Now that Germany has a clear passage over the Brenner in Italy it means that if France goes to war to protect Czechoslovakia she will have to face German troops on the Franco-Italian frontier. There is no Maginot Line on this frontier. In the event of German aggression against Czechoslovakia France of course cannot put troops directly in Czechoslovakia. What she can do is to attack Germany on what is the German Maginot Line thereby diverting as large a number of troops as possible from Czechoslovakia. It is realized that Czechoslovakia would be overrun in short order as happened to Servia during the 1914 war but the hope would be that at the close of a victorious war against Germany and Italy Czechoslovakia would be restored.
Léger said that yesterday and again today the French Government had stated to the British Government in the most categorical terms possible that in the event of aggression by Germany against Czechoslovakia France would go immediately to war. He described the French declaration to the British in practically the same words as those used by Osusky61 to me (see my telegram No. 394, March 14, 11 a.m.62). [Page 37] He said that the French Government had stated to the British Government: we do not ask you for any promise. We simply want you to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that if Germany attacks Czechoslovakia we shall immediately go to Czechoslovakia’s assistance. We believe that if this occurs you will inevitably be drawn into the war. Think it over.
Léger said that the attitude of the British Government would be important, perhaps decisive, in this question. At that very moment the British Government was making a statement in the House of Commons but the French Government did not yet know what that statement contained.
I asked Léger if he believed that Germany might move soon against Czechoslovakia. He said that this would depend upon certain factors: If Hitler felt that England would not go to Czechoslovakia’s aid and if he felt that the French Government was weak and unable to rally France to support Czechoslovakia then he might be tempted to move quickly. In one respect the situation was very like 1914 when the English were hesitant about stating their position in case Belgian neutrality was violated and the German Government finally acted upon the assumption that England would do nothing. If the British Government would today declare categorically that they would not permit aggression against Czechoslovakia then there would be no aggression. If they appear uncertain, this will be a temptation to Hitler. Léger said that there were certain disquieting features: First, Hitler had sent three army divisions into Austria many more troops than are needed for policing purposes; second, Germany has proposed to Czechoslovakia that both countries withdraw their troops 15 kilometers from the frontier. This proposal may be made in bad faith, and in view of the speed with which motorized detachments move these days, a withdrawal such as was proposed might facilitate a treacherous attack by Germany. Third, the German Government had called in the Czechoslovak Minister and given him assurances, widely published, that Germany had no aggressive intentions against Czechoslovakia. The purpose of this statement might be to lull opinion in England. Léger said that he did not know what were the motives behind these German moves, but that his opinion was that Hitler was getting himself into a position so that if circumstances seemed favorable he could strike suddenly. Everything would depend upon the way circumstances developed.
I asked Léger if he felt Russia would go to Czechoslovakia’s assistance. He said that he had not received sufficient information concerning the effect of the recent trial and revelations in Moscow63 [Page 38] to determine whether the Russian Government was capable today or was willing if capable to furnish effective assistance to Czechoslovakia. He said that the Soviets should be able if they so desired to give important assistance in airplanes. Frankly he did not know what Russia could or would do.
I referred to his statement that if France went to Czechoslovakia’s aid she would find German troops on the Franco-Italian frontier and asked if he was convinced that Italy was irrevocably tied up with Germany. He said that he was absolutely convinced of this and had been convinced of it from the moment of the establishment of the Rome–Berlin Axis. He said that there was not the slightest question that there was a definite understanding between Germany and Italy under which Germany was to dominate Central Europe and Italy was to receive support from Germany in the establishment of an Italian Empire. Unfortunately there are still people in England who do not believe this, such as Perth,64 who is honest but lost in illusions and Chamberlain and Halifax who are honest but unable to see through Italian diplomacy. He said that Germany has now cashed in her side of the bargain through Italy’s acquiescence in the seizure of Austria. Italy holds only a draft on the future and the sole way in which she can cash this draft is through war which would result favorably for Germany and Italy and would enable Italy to take Egypt and French possessions in North Africa. I asked why in that case Mussolini had desired to negotiate with England. Léger said that about two months ago Italy began to have the most serious difficulties in Ethiopia. The natives began to rise again against the Italian occupation. It is not generally known how serious this situation became for Italy but the French Government through officials in Djibouti and secret agents in Ethiopia was aware how serious it was. The native chiefs had been encouraged to revolt because of the non-recognition of the Ethiopian conquest by other powers. It became essential for Mussolini to obtain recognition or promises of recognition. The real question before the British then was: If we negotiate with Mussolini and help him out of his Ethiopian difficulties what use will he make of his recovered liberty of action? Eden was willing to negotiate. But only upon receiving satisfactory assurances that when Mussolini recovered liberty of action he would not use it to provoke war. Chamberlain most unfortunately agreed to negotiate on the basis of recognition of the Empire without receiving any assurances as to Italy’s future actions. It is significant that in preparing the ground for these negotiations Italy refuses to [Page 39] consider any reference to Central Europe. Italy has already derived great advantages from the mere announcement of England’s willingness to negotiate with her. The Balkan Entente States and Belgium had immediately announced their intention to recognize the Empire.65 What is certain to happen, Léger said, is that once Italy has derived all the advantages she can hope for from her negotiations with England she will again revert to efforts to embroil Europe in a war out of which she will expect to receive the profits accruing her under the Rome–Berlin agreement.