Friday, June 26, 2015

ADSS 1.47 Orsenigo to Maglione: meeting with Ribbentrop

ADSS 1.47 Cesare Orsenigo, Germany, to Luigi Maglione, Sec State

Reference: Report 27,333 (AES 2703/39)

Location and date: Berlin, 17.05.1939

Summary statement: Nuncio’s conversation with Ribbentrop. Discussion of papal proposal; in the event of war Poland will be crushed; possible accommodation with USSR; nuncio still hopes for a peaceful solution.

Language: Italian


Following my coded telegram 323 of 12.05.1939 and the subsequent report 27.282 (1) of the following day regarding the proposal put forward by the Holy Father on behalf of peace, I am today able to report:

His Excellency von Ribbentrop (2) unexpectedly invited me to tell me what the Secretary of State had already mentioned to me. (3) In a long conversation, which lasted three-quarters of an hour, he said:

“In the meeting I had in Milan with Minister Ciano, who had been instructed to inform me of the Duce’s views on the Holy Father’s initiative, while I conveyed to him the Führer’s thoughts, Italy and Germany seemed to be in perfect agreement on all subjects, so much so that I am able to convey to you, also on behalf of the Führer, Mussolini and Hitler’s thoughts as follows:

1. The Führer as well as Mussolini are very grateful to the Holy Father for his benevolent intervention on behalf of universal peace.

2. However, considering all circumstances, they think that the moment is not yet ripe for a conference which has as its object the outstanding issues between Italy and and France and Between Germany and Poland;

3.  Also they are afraid that such a noble initiative, in the present circumstances, could fail; and in consideration of the high office invested in the Holy Father, they would not like to see him exposed to such a chance.

These feelings – he concluded – I think have already been conveyed by Mussolini to the Holy See.” (4)

After having thanked the Minister and promised him that I would faithfully report the present communication, I chanced to put forward a question to probe more deeply, if possible, into the Government’s mind, especially as the echo of the tension between Germany and Poland still persisted in the German newspapers, and asked his opinion on the international situation and if he was aware that the peoples of the so-called democratic nations were determined to go to war and were impatient to start it, so strong was the aversion towards Germany.

At this point Ribbentrop, with the intonation of one who feels certain of his superiority, replied:

“We do not want war, but we are not afraid of it for many reasons, which are also known to Great Britain.  There reasons are:

1. France and England will never cross our defence lines in the West; they are too strong and would exact one million victims.  In attacking them the French would be meet with another Sedan, from which they would hardly recover.

2. If war really broke out, Italy, Spain, Japan would rally to our side immediately. (I do not remember if he also mentioned Hungary; certainly he did no mention Yugoslavia; although the visit to Berlin of the Regent of Yugoslavia, Prince Paul, and of his Foreign Minister has been announced for 2 June);

3. Poland, if she judged badly enough to provoke a war, will be crushed in less time than it takes to say it.  Poland, in fact, although it has 34 million inhabitants, for its war effort can only count on 18 million people because 8 million Ukrainians will not lift a finger to help Poland; meanwhile the 4 million Jews will certainly do their utmost to excite and to help the others who fight against Germany, but they, the 4 million of them, will not fight because the Jew is selfish and does not like fighting … not even to bring Germany down.  There are also quite a sizeable number of Germans and Russians in Poland to account for.  Therefore only 18 million of true Polish citizens remain prepared to fight.  The Polish army is composed of a few very good divisions, but the others have only a façade. In any case in a war against a country like ours, with 85 million people, armed to the teeth, Poland will have only very few days to fight; it will be immediately annihilated because it will be attacked from ten different points at the same time.” (5)

The Minister’s mention of the British inability to cross the Western fortifications prompted my question: “and the British Navy?”

The Minister replied:

“What can the Navy do?  What can ships do against our submarines? No British ship will ever be able to carry out a landing on German soil.”

The mention of the Russian minority in Poland gave me courage to ask the Minister if it was possible to know Russia’s mind in case of a European conflagration.  He replied – and this is, I think, the more important and the less prudent part of his speech.

“Russia is not prepared to pull England’s chestnuts our of the fire.  Britain’s game is to set themselves up menacingly against Germany, but to send others to fight and keep a small door always open to be able afterwards in case of defeat, to say that they were not really responsible for what had happened; this game, I say, has not pleased Stalin, and even Litvinoff had to go. (6) The situation is such now that we can almost hope for a change of mind in Russia.  We have no quarrel with Russia except about Bolshevism, in other words we do not want its perfidious propaganda for a world revolution; against this we have the ‘anti-Comintern’ pact, but should Russia drop this propaganda nothing prevents us from drawing closer together.”

Amongst the European diplomats the conviction is growing that war will not break out for at least some months; and they give the credit for this to the Holy Father’s initiative.  All of them report, however, that their people think war inevitable, as it will be the only way to escape from this universal decline.  Unfortunately this war psychosis is obsessing the people and the fear that Germany might strike another coup, bloodless but fatal, like the one which brought about the disappearance of two nations, creates a state of uneasiness which hinders their normal life and commercial relations.

In Germany, however, I do not know whether as a reaction or in ostentation, there is a semblance of normal life; the people, although they have to abstain from certain foodstuffs, are not worried about war.  For this reason one is led to hope that if Poland avoids taking imprudent steps it would be possible, little by little, to reach a certain tranquillity, sufficient to allow negotiations between Germany and Poland; negotiations that certainly will be hard, but could lead to a bloodless solution.

The Führer is always boasting of carrying out his plans without shedding blood and maybe this boast will exert some restraint on his actions lest he should sully his crown of a bloodless conqueror; I must add, however, that he loves to conquer and to enter the chosen nations in triumph and this inclination of his fans the suspicion that he is preparing one of his clever snare where guile, interlaced with force and unclean diplomatic actions supported by an Army, powerful but inert, leads almost inexorably to victory.

(1) See ADSS 1.40, 42.
(2) Joachim Ribbentrop (1893-1946) German Foreign Minister 1938-45.
(3) Ernst Weizsäcker (1882-1951) German Secretary of State, Foreign Office 1938-43.
(4) See ADSS 1.36 n2 on the minutes of the Milan meeting and the reply of the two Ministers regarding the Pope’s initiative.
(5) Hitler had ordered planning for the invasion of Poland on 03.04.1939.  By mid-May the Wehrmacht had the general plans ready for “Case White” to be launched in the summer.  Ribbentrop would have had some knowledge of the planning which makes his comments to Orsenigo even more cynical.

(6) Maxim Litvinoff (1876-1951) Soviet Union People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs 1930-39.  Litvinoff was Jewish and in his preparation for a deal with Germany, Stalin had him removed on 03.05.1939 and replaced by Vyacheslav Molotov.  Litivinoff’s dismissal was interpreted by some French and British diplomats as a sign that the USSR was coming to an “understanding” with Germany.  After the German invasion in June 1941 Litvinoff was appointed Soviet Ambassador to the USA.

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