Speech in the Munich Debate
Archibald Sinclair, 03/10/1938
Category: World War II
The whole country has been looking forward to this Debate. The speech of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for the St. George’s Division of Westminster (Mr Cooper) has given it an unexpected point of departure. His resignation, in the hour of the Prime Minister’s popular triumph, is nothing short of an act of political heroism, and his speech to-day has helped to clarify the issues with which we are faced and must have increased the esteem in which he was already held in every quarter of the House.
‘The Grand Inquest of the nation’
The great issues which we are discussing to-day are fundamental, of immense importance, of infinite complexity, issues on which indeed there is ample room for differences of opinion and on which there are differences of opinion in every party represented in this House. They are, therefore, all the more suitable for cool, detached investigation and discussion in this assembly which, as the Leader of the Opposition reminded us, is the Grand Inquest of the nation. In discussing them, I shall be, as I am always am, quite frank with the House. I shall certainly have to criticise the policy which the Prime Minister has been following. I have never hidden from the House, from the moment he became Prime Minister, my respect for his personality, and I am sure that that respect which is felt by every member of this House has been deepened by the courageous way in which he has carried his responsibilities during recent months. He paid a well-deserved tribute to the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs for his share in these tremendous responsibilities, which, as he said himself, must leave upon those who have had to bear them marks which they will carry to their graves, and I am sure the whole House will feel that no one deserves a similar tribute more than the Prime Minister does himself.
‘To the edge of war’
The hatred of the masses of the people in every country for war, which has been the theme of so many of our speeches in this House, was strikingly illustrated in the flood of relief and thanksgiving which has swept over the world since the Munich Conference. The nightmare is over. The labourer goes peacefully to his work in the morning, his wife to her shopping, the mother sends her children happily to school, and, thank heaven, what the Prime Minister called the shadow of a great and imminent menace has been banished since Wednesday of last week. But we must ask it is our duty to ask Why did it loom so close? What and whose foreign policy was it that brought us to the edge of war? Not that of the official Opposition, for they have consistently opposed it; not that of the party to which I have the honour to belong, for we have always advocated another; not that of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr Eden), for he resigned his great office rather than be responsible for it; not that of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Epping (Mr Churchill), for he has always consistently condemned it.
The policy when brought us to the edge of war, from which we were extricated only at the price of immense sacrifices by a small and weak nation, and of the forfeiture of liberty for hundreds and thousands of Czechs and of Germans who are opposed to the Nazi dictatorship that policy was the policy of successive retreats in the face of aggressive dictatorships Abyssinia, Spain, Austria, and now Czechoslovakia. It was the policy of the Prime Minster which so nearly brought us into war last week. A policy which imposes injustice on a small and weak nation and tyranny on free men and women can never be the foundation of lasting peace.
‘Quarrels in distant lands’
I would also ask, was it wise of the Prime Minister to tickle the ears of the groundlings in his broadcast speech the other night by talking of quarrels in distant lands between peoples of whom we know nothing? Ought not responsible public men rather strive to make people understand the importance of our lives at home, to our standard of living, to the employment of our people, and to the protection of our liberties, of distant but important places being either in our own hands or in the hands of those who respect treaties and subscribe to the principles of international relationships, upon which alone peace and order can rest? Gibraltar, Spain, Singapore, the Suez Canal, the Panama Canal, all are very distant, and some of us do not know very much about the people who live there. The Khyber Pass is distant too and very far inland, and yet it is the gateway through the mountain bulwark against the invasion of India, the bulwark of our prestige and political and economic position in that sub-continent. Czechoslovakia is much nearer home, and my foreboding is that we shall yet live to rue the day when His Majesty’s Government sold the pass of freedom in Central Europe and laid open to the march of Germany all the peoples and resources of Eastern Europe.
Nor can I find in the Prime Minister’s speech anything to justify the easy optimism which the newspapers have been so busily spreading over the weekend. Those forces in Germany which have counselled moderation are for the third time weakened and discredited; Herr von Ribbentrop and the extremists are vindicated. The discontented elements in Germany and in Italy are rallied by another dazzling triumph for the dictatorships over the democracies. We have not only given Sudetenland to Germany, but we have restored Germany to Herr Hitler and Italy to Signor Mussolini.
What the Liberals would have done
Let me at this point answer frankly the question, ‘What would you have done?’ Let me refer, in passing, to a letter from a correspondent in The Times this morning who is concerned about the number of distinguished and worthy citizens of Britain who genuinely desire to attack Germany because it is governed by Nazis, and let me put on record my own testimony, the testimony of one who have been in close and frequent consultation with men of all parties during the present crisis, and let me, as leader of the smallest of the three parties in this House, pay a tribute of gratitude to the Prime Minister for the frankness and courtesy with which he has discussed these issues during the recent crisis with those of us who do not belong to his party. During those discussions that I have had with Members of the Government, with Members of the Opposition, with enthusiastic supporters of the Government and with some supporters of the Government who were not so enthusiastic, I have never met one person who wanted to make war on Germany and who was not as anxious as I was for peace. I found many who shared my fear that the Government were wobbling towards war we know now that they wobbled to the very brink of it and many shared my belief that the best way to establish peace firmly, not only for our time but for the time of our children, as the right hon. Gentleman the member for Warwick and Leamington said in the last speech he made in the country as Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, was, on the one hand, to offer convincing proof to Germany that the nations which want international relationships regulated by reason and negotiation were prepared to work together in resistance to force and to threats of force; and, on the other hand, to convince them that if force was abandoned we were ready to settle by negotiations all the legitimate grievances of Germany and other nations. But the will of the German dictator prevailed over the will of his Government and of the French Government, just as the will of the Italian dictator did in the dispute over Abyssinia, and in making his submission to Herr Hitler’s threat of force the Prime Minister has sacrificed a vital principle in international affairs and weakened the foundations of democracy as well as of peace.
‘The mind and will of Herr Hitler’
To say that this is a victory for negotiation over force is flagrantly untrue. It is clear that when the Prime Minister went to Berchtesgaden he had not the slightest intention of conceding any such terms to Herr Hitler as in fact he did. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for St. George’s, Westminster, has told us to-day that he went with other proposals in his pocket, but the Prime Minister told us on Wednesday of last week that when he arrived in Berchtesgaden he found that the situation was much more acute and urgent than he had realised. What situation? Not the situation in Sudetenland. In Sudetenland Herr Henlein4 had fled and the Czechs were preserving order with very little difficulty or bloodshed, and actually two days after the Prime Minister arrived in Berchtesgaden a new national council of Sudeten Germans was formed, partly composed of Germans who had always opposed National Socialism, and partly of former members of the Sudeten Deutsch Partei who desired a peaceful agreement with the Czechoslovak Republic. Even to-day The Times’ special correspondent in Czechoslovakia reports that the Germans there not the Czechs seem bewildered and almost stunned, and this correspondent says that they are saying to one another, ‘We shouted and worked for local autonomy. We did not expect this. It has been done over our heads.’ No, it was not in Sudetenland that the situation had become more acute and more urgent, but in the mind and will of Herr Hitler. Confronted by his ruthless determination and military power, the Prime Minister wilted, and justice and respect for treaties, and even negotiations, were cast to the winds.
Let me justify each of those statements. The Prime Minister said that he conceded self-determination. Do the facts justify that statement? We know that after consultation with the French Government he exerted extreme and irresistible pressure upon the Czech Government to use his own words, ‘to agree immediately to the direct transfer to the Reich of all areas with over 50 per cent. Sudeten inhabitants.’ That is a plain travesty of self-determination, for it is quite clear that the 49 per cent. of Czechs are against cession and a substantial minority of the Germans as well. Moreover, the irruption of the German troops will sweep before them a whole crowd of refugees who would certainly have been in favour of remaining in those territories. There is no justice or self-determination about that. Let us be quite clear that the Prime Minister’s submission to Herr Hitler’s demands was not due to a sudden conversion to the justice of his case, but was extorted by threats of force.
Obligations under the League of Nations
I said that treaty obligations had been cast aside. The Prime Minister referred so lightly on Wednesday to our obligations to Czechoslovakia under the Covenant of the League of Nations, that I feel compelled to ask whether the Government still consider that those obligations are binding upon them, for until those obligations are repudiated we have bound ourselves to respect and to defend against aggression the independence and integrity of States members of the League, including Czechoslovakia. The Treaty obligation, however, to which I more particularly refer is the Treaty of Arbitration between Germany and Czechoslovakia. Speaking in this House on 14th March the Prime Minister informed us that the Czechoslovak Minister in Berlin had been assured by Baron von Neurath that Germany considered herself bound by the German-Czechoslovak Arbitration Convention of October, 1935. Yet when the Czechs appealed to that solemn treaty between their Government and the German Government, backed by a formal assurance of the German Government only six months ago, and when the Czechs declared that they preferred impartial justice to the results of the mediation of their French and British friends, their appeal was swept aside, not, indeed, by the German Government which never received it, nor by the British Cabinet, who probably read of it first in the newspapers, but by the Prime Minister without even troubling to summon the Cabinet. So treaty obligations, confirmed only six months ago, were summarily disregarded.
As for the claim that Berchtesgaden or Munich vindicated negotiation as against force, there were, in fact, no negotiations, for one of the two principal parties, Czechoslovakia, was never even present. All that happened was that the French and British governments conveyed to the Czech Government Herr Hitler’s demands. One of the most astonishing features of the whole of this series of negotiations is that the Czechs have never been allowed to meet the Germans face to face or to ask for amendments to the plans which have been, with the exceptions of the Godesberg plan, forced upon them by successive ultimatums. So Herr Hitler, in defiance of justice and of his recently affirmed treaty obligations, has obtained without negotiations with the Czechs, but by ultimatums obediently presented by the French and British Governments his most extreme demands. Nor must we forget that when the much more modest proposal for the separation of Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia was made by The Times without any of the harsh provisions which Herr Hitler has since added, it was received with execration by public opinion in this country, and His Majesty’s Government officially dissociated themselves from it. The truth is clear that the power and will of the German dictator has prevailed over treaty obligations and the sense of justice and the will of the free democracies.
We must not forget what this surrender means for the Czechs and for the German Jews and Social Democrats of Sudetenland. Lord Runciman remarked upon the unpopularity of the Czech State police, but does he suppose that the people of the transferred territories will prefer Herr Himmler’s Gestapo? Hundreds of thousands of them are flying as refugees. Under Czech rule the Germans as well as the Czechs did enjoy the blessings of excellent schools, hospitals, clinics and other social services, and complete freedom to criticise and to demonstrate and organise against the Government in Prague. Now they must exchange freedom for tyranny or exile from their homes, and that necessity has been forced upon them by the democratic Governments of France and Britain. I pleaded with the Prime Minster on Wednesday of last week for guarantees of their economic survival and political independence. The British and French Governments have forced them to submit to the deprivation of their strategic frontiers, the contraction of their territory and the reduction of their population to an extent which cannot now be accurately estimated but which must almost certainly make it impossible for them to maintain anything like their present scale of armaments, and which leaves them militarily defenceless in the face of their enemies. They have lost all their coal to Germany and Poland, together with their radium mines, their lead, immense rich forests, ironworks, glass works and other industries. The country was shocked by the Berchtesgaden plan, the Anglo-French plan. Only under extreme pressure did the Czechs accept it and on the understanding that the limit of concession had been reached.
‘Sacrificed to our peace’
From the moment that we exerted that pressure we were in honour bound to stand by the Czechs in seeing that the plan was made tolerable for them. The Times’ Diplomatic Correspondent told us before the visit to Bad Godesberg that this Government and the French Government were in agreement that the Czechs must have compensation for the sacrifices imposed upon them, but instead of receiving compensation they have had far worse terms fastened upon them. There is no guarantee for their access to their market down the Elbe and the Danube. The truth is that we have sacrificed them to our peace and comfort, and we are honour bound to make to them substantial and prompt reparation. I welcome the announcement which the Prime Minister has made that we are going to give then promptly a credit of £10,000,000. I agree also with the Leader of the Opposition that that is not enough. We must not stop there. We must see that they really do have a chance of maintaining their economic and political independence within their restricted frontier. Honour demands at least that.
I want also to put some questions to His Majesty’s Government about our guarantee of the Czech frontiers. If we and the French were unwilling to risk stouter resistance to Herr Hitler’s demands while the Czech frontiers were in the mountains, the Czechs can hardly feel great confidence in our willingness to fulfil our guarantees when their frontiers are weakened and their man-power and economic resources are reduced.
Why is not Russia mentioned, too, as a guarantor? Why is not Russia to be represented on the International Commission which is to be established under the Munich Plan? Russia who has proved to be a loyal member of the League; Russia, who in Spain and in China has actually befriended the victims of aggression; Russia, who is better situated than we are to bring help to the Czechs in the time of need; Russia, the historic protector of the Slav race; Russia, whom we need now more than ever to restore the balance of power in Europe; Russia, whom the Government named as an ally on Tuesday when they thought we were going to be in trouble but who are now excluded from the council chamber. His Majesty’s Government will be making a disastrous mistake if they go on truckling to Herr Hitler and Signor Mussolini and leave Russia standing outside, on the mat. Bring her in, and let her join in the guarantee to Czechoslovakia.
‘What our guarantee amounts to’
I want to know exactly what our guarantee amounts to. The Prime Minister said in the course of his speech that now we have got past the question of Czechoslovakia we can look forward more hopefully to the future. Have we got past it? He said the new system of guarantees would give her greater security in the future than she had had in the past. Let me put these definite questions to the Government. If, for example, the German Government demand the resignation of President Benes or any of the Ministers in the Czech Government, or if they attempt to exert economic pressure upon the Czechs, or interfere in any respect with their political freedom and independence, are we then bound to intervene? Another very important question. Will His Majesty’s Government tell us, roughly, what, in the opinion of their General Staffs, will be necessary as an addition to our armaments if we are to add this new commitment to all our other commitments? And a still more important question. How are we to fulfil this guarantee, if the need arises, now that the Axis-Powers have a common frontier separating us from the Czechs? Do not let us tell the Czechs and Europe ‘Ah, we are giving the Czechs a guarantee’ and congratulate ourselves that everybody knows what the word of Britain is worth and then, when the time comes, have our Ministers telling us ‘Oh, but you must look at the map. You must see that the Axis-Powers divide us from Czechoslovakia. How can we give them any effective help? What can we do for them?’ Do not let us wait until the crisis comes to have those questions asked and answered. Let them be answered in this Debate.
The right. Hon. Gentleman the Member for Warwick and Leamington resigned from the Government because the Prime Minister was deviating more and more from a League of Nations policy. It was supposed to involve us in undesirable foreign commitments. See how time works its revenges. Now, eight months later, the Prime Minister is involving us, for the first time in our history, in a direct and specific guarantee of a central European frontier.
‘What of the future?’
What of the future? The Prime Minister asked us to accept two assurances which he has received from Herr Hitler. The first is that Herr Hitler has no wish to include in the Reich people of other races than the German. Yet, in the same speech in which the Prime Minister conveyed to Parliament that assurance from Herr Hitler, the Prime Minister told us that he had been informed by Herr Hitler that in his Bad Godesberg proposal he had offered to Czechoslovakia I quote the Prime Minister’s words:
A frontier very different from the one he would have taken as the result of military conquest. (OFfiCIAL REPORT, 28th September, 1938; cols. 212, Vol. 339.)
How does the Prime Minister reconcile those two very obviously contradictory statements? The second assurance was that this was the last of Herr Hitler’s territorial ambitions in Europe. It is an ungrateful task to me, and an unusual task, to throw doubt on assurances formally given by the leading representative of a great Power, but it is useless to pretend to forget the assurances given by Herr Hitler after the re-occupation of the Rhineland. The Leader of the Opposition said he had five pages of assurances. Let me read this one. It is what Herr Hitler said in the Reichstag in March, 1936:
After three years I believe that I can regard the struggle for German equality as concluded to-day “ We know that all the tensions which arise from wrong territorial provisions or the disproportions between the sizes of national populations and their living rooms cannot be solved in Europe by war “ We have no territorial demands to make in Europe.
Now we are asked to believe this new assurance, given in almost the same terms. I have read the declaration which was signed by the Prime Minister and Herr Hitler, and I have listened to the Prime Minister’s exposition of it but I am left wondering still whether there is any real meaning and content in it. If there is, is it consistent with the Covenant of the League?
‘I prefer Mein Kampf, because it has never yet let me down’
I remember a speech by the Prime Minister in this House on 14th March in which he exhorted us to rely on a similar assurance which the German Government had given. The Prime Minister said then:
I am informed that Field-Marshal Goering on 11th March gave a general assurance to the Czech Minister in Berlin an assurance which he expressly renewed later on behalf of Herr Hitler that it would be the earnest endeavour of the German Government to improve German-Czech relations. (OFfiCIAL REPORT, 14th March, 1938; cols. 5051, Vol. 333.)
I agree with the Prime Minister that we must weigh carefully the Chancellor’s words, but not only one set of comforting words; we must weigh all his words together. Two sources of enlightenment I enjoy about Herr Hitler’s intentions. One source is his public speeches and the expression of his opinions and intentions in public and in private, and the other is Mein Kampf. I prefer Mein Kampf, because it has never yet let me down, and I commend it to the Prime Minister.
The Prime Minister says that the Agreement in Munich is only the prelude to a larger settlement in which all Europe will find peace, but on what terms? On terms of German hegemony in Europe, or on terms of freedom? Months ago the League of Nations was already so much weakened that we were back into power politics, and now the balance of power in Europe is disastrously dislocated. Thirty divisions which were held on the Czech frontier are now released and are available to be hurled against the Western frontier. The 12 Austrian divisions which Herr Hitler gained by the Anschluss are gradually being re-equipped and will be available next year in addition to the 30 divisions. No peace can last in the present state of the world unless it is buttressed by power, but when the Prime Minister talks of the necessity for our rearmament how can our rearmament keep pace with rearmament at the rate at which it is going on in Germany? There are 40 divisions brought into the scale within a single year, and the resources of all the smaller States of the Near East of Europe are lying open to her exploitation.
‘Freedom and democracy are gravely threatened’
A great national and international effort will be necessary if we are to preserve freedom in the world. Freedom and democracy are gravely threatened. Is the consultation that Herr Hitler has promised us in his Agreement with the Prime Minister to be like the consultations at Berchtesgaden and Bad Godesberg, the delivery of ultimatums? As the right hon. Member for the St. George’s Division of Westminster said, they led to no good. It was only when the Government issued a statement that France and Russia and Britain were going to stand together, and when the ex-First Lord of the Admiralty mobilised the Fleet, that at last we got some concession upon the Godesberg terms from Herr Hitler. Let us have this peace conference of which the Leader of the Opposition talks. Let us hope that Germany and Italy will return to the League, and that we may once again be able to settle the affairs of the world through the League; but before that happens we shall have to make a great effort to preserve the essential foundations of freedom and order in the world, to preserve democracy, that form of government which is inspired by consciousness of the dignity of man and the use of power only for good and lawful ends. To our generation it falls to guard that flame. Let His Majesty’s Government call upon the men and women of this country to rally to the defence of freedom and justice, and we may yet save ourselves by our exertions, and democracy by our example.