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INTERNATIONAL: War or No Munich

7 minute read
TIME

Last week the world’s best correspondents cabled the greatest stories of their lives. In every capital of Europe they followed the swift unfolding of as big a crisis as war or its threat could make (see p. 32). No one of them could see it all. Its spread was too enormous, its moves too rapid and secret, its possibilities too terrifying. But because no crisis in history has been so fully reported, their accounts made a pattern, threw a strong light on the strength and weakness of the antagonists, whether the conflict was to be waged with diplomatic moves, arms, or both.

What they said was that had Führer Hitler struck as the bomb of the German-Russian Pact exploded, he would have begun the war with the advantage. Planted like a great mine before an entrenched position, prepared as stealthily as sappers burrow underground, it was in place, loaded, ready to go the moment the button was pressed. The great offensive in the War of Nerves mounted to its climax. The pressure on the Poles to give way, on Great Britain and France to give in, was at its height. Down through the Balkans, through Hungary, Rumania, a flank attack was launched. The button that Fuhrer Hitler had to press was the announcement that Joachim von Ribbentrop was flying to Moscow to sign a non-aggression pact with Russia. At midnight, irresistible hour to lovers of mystery, the Fuhrer pressed the button.

Sky-high went the wreckage in a spectacle unprecedented: bits of old illusions, old securities, old trusts—pieces of Communist doctrine—crumbling fragments of Nazi propaganda—hopeful beliefs of humble people, with here & there a genuine casualty—the time-tested and best methods of dealing between nations, diplomatic usages, conventions, complacency, the Third International, the advocates of appeasement, the believers in Hitler as a bulwark against Communism, the believers in Communism as a bulwark against Hitler, newspapermen, diplomats, intelligence officers, liberals, a skyful of hopefuls lit by the lurid glare of reality. The roar was terrific. Gleefully in Berlin Nazis gazed, spellbound and wondering, at the Führer’s mighty handiwork.

There were more important casualties. The British-French military mission to Moscow, the hope of drawing Russia into the British-French guarantee of Poland’s independence, the Franco-Soviet military alliance, the comfortable belief of Britons that because the mission was in Moscow, Russia would join France and Britain—all these went down as the crater opened. Had Hitler struck then he would have had the advantage, as from every capital except Berlin correspondents reported stunned surprise.

Stall. But as Grant’s men before Petersburg were too stunned, when the great mine went off, to rush Confederate works, Germans did not move. As the week’s 168 hours sped by, the explosion still seemed tremendous, but few of its casualties were Polish. Casualties—cherished beliefs and convictions—lay perishing in odd spots here & there over the globe, and it looked as if the old sense of security was gone for good. But Poland was not alarmed. Poland had not counted on Russia’s help. Poland had not wanted Russian troops on her soil.

As the stunned shock passed, evidence accumulated that something had shaken Hitler’s plan, disrupted Hitler’s timetable. Up to the moment of the mine’s explosion his moves have been deliberate, with a curious quality of being at once audacious and careful. Although he screamed on schedule at the French, British and Polish Ambassadors respectively, nevertheless uncertainty, postponements, reversals, entered Germany’s history: a speech at Tannenberg was reannounced, then canceled; the Nurnberg Congress of Peace was reannounced, canceled. At the other end of the Axis Benito Mussolini seemed dawdling or lethargic compared with his hyperthyroid partner in Berlin. He seemed pensive compared with the democratic statesmen of Paris and London; no omens came from the Capitol.

And with each moment the advantage of shock dwindled. Master of surprise, imaginative, daring, unscrupulous, Adolf Hitler surpassed in dealing in intangibles—in smashing a custom, blowing up his own and another’s ideology—and as the week wore on it looked as if intangibles delayed him. Why had he stopped? He would have had the advantage of war if he had plunged to seize Danzig, the Polish Corridor, Upper Silesia and the other sections that he said were his, the moment the shock took effect. But he would also have had the guilt of launching the war.

London and Paris. From the democratic countries, correspondents could not report news as electrifying as the Führer’s bombshell. There were no bold moves, flaming pronouncements, or grandiose imaginative surprises aimed at unnerving their potential enemy. Stories were of a first deep shock, a quick recovery, then of wheels turning, of preparations, meetings, mobilizations. Unlike the period before Munich, when the fleet was mobilized before the Army, when British and French diplomats seemed to work at cross purposes, no hitches or jerks showed in British-French preparations. Parliament assembled smoothly and gravely. War powers went to the Government without recrimination, without distrust. Whatever arguments developed behind the scenes over policy and timing, flawless diplomatic coordination between France and Great Britain stood out in sharp contrast to the enigmatic relationship of Hitler and Mussolini, stood out even more sharply in contrast to the suddenly interrupted friendship of Berlin and Tokyo.

If each seemed bound to lose allies as a result of Hitler’s bombshell, simply because a readjustment of forces had taken place, the Axis was the first to lose. Nor did the newly launched Moscow-Berlin collaboration, whatever its fate, future, purpose, gain when Tokyo broke with Berlin, her former Axis partner.

Peace. Strong on defense, Britain and France seemed weak on surprise. Neither gaunt Mr. Neville Chamberlain, taking his after-breakfast stroll as usual, nor serious M. Daladier, had the talent, training, or freakish love of shock to plan a move of the sort that Hitler had made. As profound gloom settled over the capitals of Europe—in Moscow, belatedly, as well as in Berlin—some great stroke of unprecedented originality, some inspired action unlike any that diplomatic history had known, seemed called for to answer Hitler’s. But the imaginations of peace were not productive. Memories of Munich, when Mr. Chamberlain had acted outside the tradition of his class and country, stifled them; the democracies could wait, prepare, plan, answer, defend, but they could not come through with an action for peace as inspired as Hitler’s had been for war.

Pause. Breathless before a bigger, more heroic drama than Hitler’s bombshell had been, correspondents saw something new in history develop as the week closed. As Edouard Daladier, without giving way, eloquently appealed to Adolf Hitler to remember the dead of the World War, there was a long debate over the barricades—in frightful tension, sleepless preparation, with frontiers closed and armies mobilized, the Pause of Guilt began. Over the darkened cities that had become haunted and despairing islands of last nights together, of work never to be done, of books unwritten, of children unseen, of dreams unfulfilled, over the countless acres of anguish, the ghosts of the last war and the ghosts of the next joined to gain an instant more.

This was the story that correspondents told. Adolf Hitler, the wizard of intangible war, was halted by intangibles as nothing else had stopped him. From a hundred cities, from correspondents famed and anonymous, the stories poured to create the same effect. They said that the first advantage that shock gave the Fuhrer had passed. They said that a conviction that war was inevitable had settled over Europe. They said that if war came the countries were ready, that if peace came it could not be the peace of Munich. Danzig was not worth a war, but neither was it worth a peace. If peace came it could only come over bigger issues, the ending of tension, the cession of shocks and fears that all over Europe made life itself unbearable.

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