The British Embassy to the Department of State
A Telegram From Lord Halifax of March 11th
My interview with Herr von Ribbenthrop26 duly took place on March 10th. The main features of this conversation were as follows.
I expressed to His Excellency the disappointment of His Majesty’s Government at the attitude of Herr Hitler towards their conciliatory and constructive approach but at the same time indicated that this disappointment made no difference to our firm desire for a better understanding with Germany. But if we were to succeed that could not be by unilateral effort on our part and all must make their contribution. In particular the Colonial question could not be treated by this Country in isolation. With regard to Central Europe we had not tried to “block” Austria but had rather tried to steady European opinion [Page 131] shaken by the Berchtesgaden interview. Moreover we were using our influence at Prague to promote a peaceful settlement there. But we should be less than frank if we did not make it clear to the German Government the danger we saw in the expression that responsible leaders in Germany were giving in public to German policy and to the spirit in which that policy was being pursued. The suggestion was being created that something more than a fair treatment of minorities was involved. This seemed to put back the chance of reaching a peaceful settlement and to hold out very dangerous possibilities for Europe. The last thing we wanted to see was a war in Europe. But if once war should start in Central Europe it was quite impossible to say where it might not end or who might not become involved and it was clear the language used in Germany of late might lead to some act which in its turn might, contrary to the intention of the German Government, precipitate a general conflict.
In this connection it was in my opinion of great importance that proposed Austrian plebiscite should be carried out without interference or intimidation.
Herr von Ribbenthrop who had previously condemned Dr. Schuschnigg’s27 action in holding this plebiscite in strong terms then said that if I would allow him to say so he thought the most useful contribution we could make would be to use our influence with the Austrian Chancellor to cancel it. I replied that it seemed astonishing to me to assert that the head of a State should not have a plebiscite if he wanted one. Even if as Herr von Ribbenthrop suggested it was a case of a minority Government imposing an unwelcome solution on a majority it was quite evident in my opinion that pressure of events would bring their own solution and that only harm could result by an attempt to impose short cuts in a situation that was highly charged with ugly possibilities.
Today the Prime Minister and I met Herr von Ribbenthrop at lunch when we began to receive reports of a German ultimatum to Austria. We both spoke to him most seriously, emphasising the repercussion which such action might have in Europe and on our own efforts to bring about a settlement.
Subsequently at 5:15 p.m. I myself saw Herr von Ribbenthrop again and spoke to him even more strongly in view of more definite news regarding German action. At the same time of telegraphing we understand that the Austrian Government have been forced to capitulate before an ultimatum demanding the displacement of the Chancellor within a time limit and the acquiescence of the Austrian authorities in various other measures incompatible with the continued [Page 132] independent existence of Austria. Further reports are to the effect that German troops have actually crossed the frontier.28
I have already explained why we felt it was best to tackle the problem piecemeal. We have found the Italian Government in an accommodating mood and I think we were justified in hoping that conversations might develop favourably and result in a good understanding. That may I hope yet prove to be the case.
Our approach to Germany was not encouraging; but we were prepared to exercise patience though we agree to recognise that the German Government appeared reluctant to discuss with us a peaceful settlement of their alleged difficulties. In any case they have now proceeded to take action which I fear renders further negotiation with them impossible, for some time to come at all events. Their brutal disregard for any argument but force shows the difficulty of reasoning with them and must cast doubt upon the value of agreements reached with them. His Majesty’s Government felt bound to protest to the German Government about their procedure, but they are under no illusion that this will have any useful result. The world has been faced with a fait accompli: it is extremely doubtful if any threat could have averted it; and certainly no threat which those making it were not prepared to support by force. And any threat supported by force, if ignored, would have had to be followed up by action which would have plunged Europe into war. In these circumstances I am bound to confess that one of the twin efforts which His Majesty’s Government were anxious to make to prepare the way for an appeasement, and on account of which we asked the President to postpone his initiative, has failed.
[No later correspondence has been found in the Department’s files regarding the President’s proposed peace plan.]