Sunday, July 01, 2018

BOOK: Birger Dahlerus, "The Last Attempt"

Birger Dahlerus: The Last Attempt. Translated by Alexandra Dick. London: Hutchinson, [1948]. 134 pp.

For some reason, I'm deeply fascinated by the diplomatic lead-up to the two world wars. All those notes going back and forth, diplomats and politicians meeting and talking, scrambling madly in desperate attempts to preserve peace — efforts which you know in advance to be doomed to fail. It makes for intense, exciting, dramatic reading.

It's interesting how differently the historians treat the two world wars in this respect; for the WW1, they write entire books about the July crisis, the period between the assasination of Franz Ferdinand and the actual outbreak of the war. But in the case of the WW2, they seem to be much less interested in this stuff, perhaps because they figure it's pointless to study those diplomatic manoeuvres anyway since they genuinely had no effect on anything. After all, Hitler was determined to keep moving from one territorial acquisition to another no matter what, there was no way that diplomacy could stop him from doing that, and he only used diplomatic moves to try to mislead the western Great Powers and discourage them from intervening.

Whatever the reason may be, the fact is that of the three histories of Nazi Germany that I've read so far — Shirer, Burleigh, Evans — the only one that treated the diplomatic prelude to the WW2 in detail was Shirer, i.e. the one that all the historians turn up their noses at, never failing to point out that he was a mere journalist and never forgiving him for his tendency to present his history as a straightforward narrative of facts rather than filling it with academic masturbation about historiography, the various internal squabbles between historians, and so on.

Shirer's book has a couple of longish chapters about the frantic diplomatic activity in the last weeks of peace and the first days of the war, and it was probably there that I first heard of Birger Dahlerus. He was a Swedish businessman who had strong ties to both Britain and Germany, and tried to help preserve peace in the late summer of 1939 by acting as a sort of unofficial diplomatic go-between. The present book, The Last Attempt, is his account of these efforts, written in 1945 after the war was over.

It's a short book but quite an interesting read. In March 1939, when Hitler broke his previous promises with regard to Czechoslovakia and occupied the rest of that country, Britain and France issued guarantees to Poland, hoping thereby to dissuade him from making any similar aggressive moves against Poland as well. But Hitler doesn't seem to have been deterred, and presumably thought that in the end they would let him get away with it (and limit themselves to toothless diplomatic protests), as they had done so many times before. So, in the summer of 1939, the Nazis were busily manufacturing a crisis in their relations with Poland, triggering incidents, making threatening speeches, filling their media with furious allegations of supposed mistreatment of the German minority in Poland, etc. By then it must have been a familiar story to everyone in Europe, as they had employed the same tactics against Czechoslovakia less than a year before, and similarly a little earlier against Austria as well. It was not hard to guess that territorial demands against Poland would soon follow, with threats of war if they were not met.

Dahlerus, observing this crisis developing, realized that the Nazis must have thought that Britain would not stand by its guarantees to Poland, a view which he considered disastrously mistaken — from what he had seen of the opinions prevailing in Britain, he was sure that Britain would actually take its guarantee seriously this time. He thought that if only somehow the Nazi leadership could be made to understand this, through direct talks with the British, then peace might still be preserved. He started by organising an informal meeting between a group of British businessmen (his acquaintances) and several German officials (including Göring), held in early August at the country estate of Dahlerus' wife in northern Germany (pp. 36, 43). This went promising enough and was supposed to be eventually followed up by more serious talks involving diplomats, but there were delays and then the crisis intensified quickly over the next few weeks (p. 48). Most of the book then deals with the last week of August and the first days of September, when Dahlerus was flying furiously back and forth between Britain and Germany, hardly ever slept, visited embassies and foreign ministries a number of times, often sneaking in and out by side entrances to evade the press reporters, and was occasionally even so bold as to make suggestions to the diplomats as to what their next move should be (p. 97). On the night of August 26/27 he even met Hitler, who came across as not entirely sane (“Hitler continued as though in a trance [. . .] His eyes were glassy, his voice unnatural”, p. 63; “I realised that I was dealing with a person who could not be considered normal”, p. 71).

Dahlerus' main contact on the German side was Göring, whom he had known since 1934 (pp. 18–9); Dahlerus thought that Göring was in favour of peace and could perhaps influence Hitler in that direction, while some of the other leading Nazis, notably Ribbentrop, were consistently pushing for war (p. 20). “At a meeting in October of the same year, Goering had told me that Ribbentrop had tried to arrange for my plane to crash” (p. 94).

Of course, in hindsight we know that all these efforts were doomed to fail. Hitler had decided some time before that he would occupy Poland (as far as the line agreed upon in the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact) at the end of August, no matter what; from his perspective the only purpose of diplomacy at that point was to try to discourage Britain and France from helping Poland. As Dahlerus says in a postscript added to the English edition of this book, Göring was in on these plans as well (as it turned out during the Nuremberg trials), so Dahlerus had been merely a naive, unwitting dupe in their game all along (pp. ix, xii).

So I found this book to be a very interesting look at the last days of peace in 1939 from a perspective slightly different than that of historians and of the official collections of diplomatic papers. It is also, perhaps, a sobering look at the consequences of an amateur private individual trying to meddle in diplomacy. One small downside of the book is that it ends on September 4, very soon after the outbreak of the war, so it doesn't describe Dahlerus' later efforts — according to the Wikipedia page about Dahlerus, he made further attempts to encourage contacts and negotiations between Germany and Britain in September and even October 1939 (by which time Poland had been fully occupied). In any case, he must have been extremely naive if he thought that anything could still be done by negotiation at that point. Hitler's idea of a negotiated peace would be to promise a status quo in the west while getting a free hand in the east, while for Britain the first requirement of any peace would be that Germany had to withdraw from Poland. There's no way they could have come to a compromise.


Soon after the outbreak of the war, several countries published selections of diplomatic papers that tried to present the events in a way that justified their side of the war. I read the first couple of the following but not the rest:

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