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  3. ‘Force is the Only Argument’ – the Road to War
Black and white photograph of soldiers marching through an iron gate.

‘Force is the Only Argument’ – the Road to War

The British entry into WW2 was almost inevitable from the moment the Anglo-Polish Mutual Assistance Treaty was signed. In this article, we trace the steps that led Britain from an uneasy peace into another European War.

Discover England and Wales on the eve of war with the 1939 Register

This morning the British Ambassador in Berlin handed the German Government a final note stating that, unless we heard from them by 11 o'clock that they were prepared at once to withdraw their troops from Poland, a state of war would exist between us.

I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received, and that consequently this country is at war with Germany.

You can imagine what a bitter blow it is to me that all my long struggle to win peace has failed. Yet I cannot believe that there is anything more or anything different that I could have done and that would have been more successful.

…Now may God bless you all. May He defend the right. It is the evil things that we shall be fighting against - brute force, bad faith, injustice, oppression and persecution - and against them I am certain that the right will prevail."

Neville Chamberlain, announcing the war to the British people, 3rd September 1939

Black and white photograph of Neville Chamberlain talking to a crowd.
Neville Chamberlain holding the paper containing the resolution to commit to peaceful methods signed by both Hitler and himself on his return from Munich. D2293

On August 25th 1939, the United Kingdom and Poland signed an agreement of mutual assistance. In effect, this meant that the UK – and France, which had a separate agreement with Poland – would come to the defence of the Poles in case of military aggression by a foreign power. It was intended to check the advance of Germany through Europe and, for a brief period, it worked.

The road that led to this precautionary agreement was a long one, the origins of which can be traced back to the end of the First World War and the Treaty of Versailles. It winds through Hitler's rise to power and the destruction of his domestic opponents, the invasion of the Rhineland and the annexation of Austria. Then, in 1938, the German demands for the autonomy of the millions of ethnic Germans in newly formed Czechoslovakia, stranded there during the dying days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

In response to these demands, and their associated promise of military aggression, the British and French – led by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain – sought to settle the situation peacefully, in line with Chamberlain’s policies of appeasement with Germany. In September 1938, the Munich Agreement was signed, allowing Germany to occupy the Sudetenland, a part of Czechoslovakia with a high ethnic German population. The terms of the agreement forbade further German expansion into the rest of the country.

In September 1938, the Munich Agreement was signed, allowing Germany to occupy the Sudetenland, a part of Czechoslovakia with a high ethnic German population. The terms of the agreement forbade further German expansion into the rest of the country.

A sepia-toned photograph of Hitler enjoying a ride in his car.
Adolf Hitler passes in his car the border of Sudetenland near Wildenau. Image: Mary Evans/Sueddeutsche Zeitung Photo

In response to hearing that the Munich Agreement had been reached, Mackenzie King, the Canadian Prime Minster contacted Chamberlain:

"On the very brink of chaos, with passions flaming and armies marching, the voice of reason has found a way out of the conflict which no people in their heart desired but none seemed able to avert.

A turning point in the world’s history will be reached if, as we hope, the agreement means a halt to the mad race in arms and a new start in building a partnership of all peoples"

Hull Daily Mail– Friday 30 September 1938 (courtesy of The British Newspaper Archive)

Chamberlain returned home triumphant, declaring upon landing at London’s Heston airport that ‘the settlement of the Czechoslovakian problem, which has now been achieved is, in my view, only the prelude to a larger settlement in which all Europe may find peace.’ In reality, Chamberlain’s peace lasted all of six months. On March 15th 1939, German troops marched into Czechoslovakia. It was clear that Hitler’s assurances could not be trusted.

With war in Europe now appearing inevitable, Chamberlain promised Poland that Britain would intervene should the Germans invade their country, an agreement which was formalised on August 25th. It did check the German advance into Poland for a few days, however a week later, on September 1st, the Germans invaded. At approximately 4.45am the German battleship Schleswig-Holstein attacked the peninsula of Westerplatte Fort in Danzig (known as Gdansk today). The shots it fired brought Britain and France into the Second World War.

A black and white photograph of soldiers in tanks.
German soldiers invade Poland in armored and motorized divisions in Sept. 1939. It was the beginning of World War 2. in Europe. Everett Collection Mary Evans

"It was good yesterday to observe the generally calm attitude after people had learnt that war was declared. There was little despondency; there was little of that forced brisk heartiness which one feels is tinged with something akin to hysteria.

After all, the news did not come as a shock, and it came to a resolute people."

Leeds Mercury Mon 4th September (courtesy of The British Newspaper Archive)

Hitler’s forces advanced into Poland in the name of nationalism. Their crusade aimed to liberate further ethnic Germans living under alleged Polish oppression in the Free City of Danzig and the Polish Corridor, two areas controversially created under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919.

Freeing these subjugated Germans represented the ideal casus belli for Hitler - so much so that in Germany, the invasion of Poland was referred to as the ‘Defensive War’, protecting Germany against the military aggression of the Poles.

In reality, the invasion of Poland was a part of Hitler’s quest for Lebensraum – or ‘living room’ – the land the Nazis claimed was necessary for the Aryan race to expand into and inhabit. Irrespective of Hitler’s motives, the agreements between Poland, the UK and France meant that the latter nations were forced into action. On the 2nd of September 1939, Chamberlain issued an ultimatum to the Germans: withdraw from Poland or ‘a state of war will exist between Great Britain and Germany.’ Later the same day, France issued Germany a similar ultimatum.

On the 3rd of September, the Allies’ ultimatum expired, and Chamberlain’s promised state of war came into being. The ensuing conflict would see the world plunged into turmoil, and result in the deaths and displacement of millions.

Main image: Occupation of Bohemia and Moravia, 15th March 1939, German infantry occupying Prague Castle. Image: Mary Evans/Interfoto

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