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265 Note of Meeting of U.K. and Dominions Representatives

LONDON, 19 September 1938, 2.30 p.m.



Malcolm MacDonald, acting for Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs S. M. Bruce, High Commissioner for Australia C. T. te Water, High Commissioner for South Africa Vincent Massey, High Commissioner for Canada F. T. Sandford, Secretary, New Zealand High Commission J. W. Dulanty, High Commissioner for Eire The Duke of Devonshire, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs Sir Edward Harding, Permanent Under-Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs E. G. Machtig, Assistant Under-Secretary of State, Dominions Office C. W. Dixon, Assistant Secretary, Dominions Office

MR MACDONALD informed the Dominion Representatives of the position with regard to the communication to President Benes [1] referred to in telegrams Circular B. No. 240 and No. 241 [2], the latter of which he read to the meeting. He explained that no communication had yet been made to any other Government, though the Prime Minister [3] had sent a message to Herr Hitler the same day to the effect that he hoped to be able to go back to Germany on Wednesday. He drew attention to certain points in the communication to President Benes. In the first place, the idea of a plebiscite for the Sudeten areas had somewhat fallen into the background in favour of the idea of direct cession. The reason for this was the view of French Ministers that a plebiscite would be strongly resisted by President Benes, and much more strongly than direct cession, and further that, if a plebiscite were held for the Sudeten areas, it would be very difficult to avoid a plebiscite for the Polish and Hungarian areas of Czechoslovakia;

whereas, if the method of direct cession were adopted in the case of the Sudeten Deutsch, there would not be the same reason for the adoption of that course in the case of the other minorities.

As regards the proposed guarantee to Czechoslovakia, Mr MacDonald said that normally the United Kingdom Government would not have dreamt of making a firm offer of a guarantee in Central Europe without informing the Dominions in advance and giving them adequate time to comment. The present situation, however, was one when not days but hours and minutes counted, and United Kingdom Ministers had felt that they must take the responsibility for an immediate decision, which, of course, did not commit anyone but the United Kingdom Government, and that the most that they could do in the circumstances was to inform the Dominions slightly in advance of the actual decision. He explained that it would have been absolutely impossible to secure French agreement to the proposals to be put to Czechoslovakia or the agreement of the Czechoslovak Government themselves without some promise of a guarantee.

As regards the proposal that the areas for transfer should include those with over fifty per cent of German inhabitants, this was a great deal for the Czechoslovak Government to be asked to swallow, and the Prime Minister, in his further conversations with Herr Hitler, would not begin by mentioning the figure of fifty per cent but would mention a higher figure, though, in the event of Germany wishing the figure to be reduced, we should be prepared to agree to fifty per cent. It had, however, been felt that it would be useless to put to Czechoslovakia a higher figure which might be accepted by them but not by Herr Hitler.

In reply to a question, Mr MacDonald said that the proposed cession would not entirely give away the strategic frontier of Czechoslovakia, since many of the fortifications were on the Czech side of the Sudeten land and Czechoslovakia would not be left defenceless.

There was considerable discussion on the situation. The principal points arising out of this were as follows:-

(1) None of the Dominion representatives expressed any criticism of the action of the United Kingdom Government in agreeing to participate in an international guarantee of Czechoslovakia or of their having reached a decision without consulting the Dominion Governments.

(2) Mr Bruce urged strongly the case for the participation of the Dominions in the proposed guarantee, together with the United Kingdom, though he expressed considerable doubts whether any of them would in fact participate. Mr te Water made it clear that there was no question of participation by the Union. (Mr MacDonald reminded him that South Africa might want assistance from European countries one day if Germany committed an act of aggression against South-West Africa, and urged that it might be a wise policy for the Union to show more interest in opposing aggression in Europe.) The other Dominion representatives expressed no views on this question.

(3) Some of the Dominion representatives expressed a good deal of apprehension as to the position if the Czechoslovak Government rejected the proposals. Mr MacDonald made it clear that the United Kingdom Government were counting on the Czechoslovak Government not rejecting the proposals; that, if they did reject the proposals, the United Kingdom Government would use every effort to ensure that Germany did not take violent action; and that, if in spite of all efforts, Germany did attack Czechoslovakia, the attitude of the United Kingdom Government would be as previously described, though there was always the possibility that, if German troops went beyond the Sudeten areas and there were German atrocities or other action calculated to arouse feeling against Germany, public opinion in this country might demand intervention by the United Kingdom Government in favour of Czechoslovakia. The Dominion representatives made it clear that, when once the United Kingdom Government had put forward the present proposals as a just solution, it would be very difficult to secure support for what would appear a war in opposition to that solution.

(4) In this connexion, it was suggested that the German Government ought to be informed at the earliest possible moment that the communication has been made to the Czechoslovak Government, but the Dominion representatives appeared to accept the view that an immediate communication to Germany would not be desirable and that in any case some of the details could not possibly be communicated to Germany at this stage.

(5) The question was also raised whether acceptance by Czechoslovakia would not have been facilitated if the Soviet had been introduced into the present discussions, but it was explained that discussion with the Soviet would not have served any useful purpose and that the Czechoslovak Government were more likely to be influenced by the attitude of France.

1 Eduard Benes, President of Czechoslovakia.

2 Circular cablegrams from the Dominions Secretary B240 and B241, dispatched 19 September 1938 at 3.02 p.m. and 4.27 p.m.

respectively, both received in Canberra 20 September, not printed.

They reported that France and Britain had agreed to make joint representations to Beres to the effect that, in order to ensure Czechoslovakia's vital interests and the maintenance of peace, it was necessary to transfer to the German Reach those districts in Czechoslovakia mainly inhabited by Sudeten Germans; technical details relating to the transfer were also reported. In return the U.K. would join in an international guarantee of the new boundaries of Czechoslovakia against unprovoked aggression (AA :

A981, Czechoslovakia 13) 3 Neville Chamberlain.

[PRO : DO 114/94]
Last Updated: 11 September 2013

Category: International relations

Topic: History