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War With Germany

Volume 351: debated on Sunday 3 September 1939

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Prime Minister's Announcement

Motion made, and Question proposed,

"That, notwithstanding anything in the Standing Orders or practice of this House, any Resolution moved under Standing Order No. 69 in connection with any Bill to which this Order applies may be considered by the House forthwith after it has been reported from a Committee of the Whole House.

This Order applies to the following Bills:

The National Service (Armed Forces) Bill;

The Personal Injuries (Emergency Provisions) Bill;

The Pensions (Navy, Army, Air Force and Mercantile Marine) Bill;

The National Health Insurance and Contributory Pensions (Emergency Provisions) Bill." — [ The Prime Minister.]

12.6 p.m.

When I spoke last night to the House I could not but be aware that in some parts of the House there were doubts and some bewilderment as to whether there had been any weakening, hesitation or vacillation on the part of His Majesty's Government. In the circumstances, I make no reproach, for if I had been in the same position as hon. Members not sitting on this Bench and not in possession of all the information which we have, I should very likely have felt the same. The statement which I have to make this morning will show that there were no grounds for doubt. We were in consultation all day yesterday with the French Government and we felt that the intensified action which the Germans were taking against Poland allowed no delay in making our own position clear. Accordingly, we decided to send to our Ambassador in Berlin instructions which he was to hand at nine o'clock this morning to the German Foreign Secretary and which read as follows:

In the communication which I had the honour to make to you on 1st September, I informed you, on the instructions of His Majesty's Principal Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, that unless the German Government were prepared to give His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom satisfactory assurances that the German Government had suspended all aggressive action against Poland and were prepared promptly to withdraw their forces from Polish territory, His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom would, without hesitation, fulfil their obligations to Poland.
Although this communication was made more than 24 hours ago, no reply has been received, but German attacks upon Poland have been continued and intensified. I have, accordingly, the honour to inform you that unless not later than n a.m., British Summer Time, to-day, September 3rdsatisfactory assurances to the above effect have been given by the German Government and have reached His Majesty's Government in London, a state of war will exist between the two countries as from that hour."
That was the final Note. No such undertaking was received by the time stipulated, and, consequently, this country is at war with Germany. I am in a position to inform the House that, according to arrangements made between the British and French Governments, the French Ambassador in Berlin is at this moment making a similar demarche, accompanied also by a definite time limit. The House has already been made aware of our plans. As I said the other day, we are ready.

This is a sad day for all of us, and to none is it sadder than to me. Everything that I have worked for, everything that I have hoped for, everything that I have believed in during my public life, has crashed into ruins. There is only one thing left for me to do; that is, to devote what strength and powers I have to forwarding the victory of the cause for which we have to sacrifice so much. I cannot tell what part I may be allowed to play myself; I trust I may live to see the day when Hitlerism has been destroyed and a liberated Europe has been re-established.

12.11 p.m.

The atmosphere of this House has changed overnight. Resentment, apprehension, anger, reigned over our proceedings last night, aroused by a fear that delays might end in national dishonour and the sacrifice of the Polish people to German tyranny. Those feelings, I have reason to believe, were shared by large numbers of people outside, and, from messages which have come to me this morning, I believe that what I said last night met with the approval of our people. This morning we meet in an entirely different atmosphere— one of relief, one of composure, and one of resolution. The intolerable agony of suspense from which all of us have suffered is over; we now know the worst. The hated word "war" has been spoken by Britain, in fulfilment of her pledged word and unbreakable intention to defend Poland and so to defend the liberties of Europe. We have heard more than the word spoken. We have heard the war begin, within the precincts of this House.

I feel that I must, in the name of my hon. Friends—I think I may say in the name of the whole House and of the whole of our people—pay tribute to the great restraint shown by Poland in recent weeks. The last 54 hours have proved that their restraint was not due to cowardice, but to a firm conviction in the righteousness of their cause. For 54 hours Poland has stood alone, at the portals of civilisation, defending us and all free nations, and all that we stand for, and all that we hold dear. She has stood with unexampled bravery, with epic heroism, before her hesitant friends have come to her aid. Poland we greet as a comrade whom we shall not desert. To her we say, "Our hearts are with you, and, with our hearts, all our power, until the angel of peace returns to our midst."

Lastly, in this titanic struggle, unparalleled, I believe, in the history of the world, Nazism must be finally overthrown. The Prime Minister has given us his word that it shall be, and as long as that relentless purpose is pursued with vigour, with foresight, and with determination by the Government, so long will there be a united nation. But should there be confused councils, inefficiency and wavering, then other men must be called to take their places. We share no responsibilities in the tremendous tasks which confront the Government, but we have responsibilities of our own, which we shall not shirk. We have given proof in this Chamber in the past few days that we shall give wholehearted support to the measures necessary to equip this State with the powers that are desired. That support, I pledge this House, will continue. In other directions, according to our opportunities, we shall make our full contribution to the national cause. May the war be swift and sure, and may the peace which follows stand proudly for ever on the shattered ruins of an evil name.

12.17 p.m.

I feel sure that at this grave moment, having listened to the moving speech of the Prime Minister, we should all wish to pay to him a tribute of sympathy. But we are also in a mood of determination and resolution. The Deputy-Leader of the Opposition referred to the atmosphere of anger and apprehension which reigned in the House yesterday. To-day, as he says, the atmosphere has so happily changed. Yet underneath those two phases of the mood of Parliament is our determination to see this thing through. The Deputy-Leader of the Opposition has paid an eloquent tribute to the restraint with which Poland has behaved during these last difficult weeks, and the courage and bravery that her troops are now showing in the field. Let me associate myself, on behalf of my hon. Friends, in full with the eloquent tribute which the Deputy-Leader of the Opposition paid to the Polish people and the Polish Army.

Let me also, if I may, in one word pay my tribute to the people of France, who have for so long been making such great preparations for the struggle with which we are now faced. I do not say that in organisation we need yield anything to them. Great advances have been made in our organisation for war, but in individual preparation, in the contributions which the men and women of the two countries are making to the common cause, I say that France at this moment is ahead of us. If you go to France and meet ten people in the streets you may be sure that eight of them have their places and their parts to play. Our people will do the same as time goes on, but let us have no doubt as to the determination with which the French people are facing this crisis. Let me only say in conclusion: let the world know that the British people are inexorably determined, as the Prime Minister said, to end this Nazi domination for ever, and to build a world order based on justice and freedom.

12.21 p.m.

In this solemn hour it is a consolation to recall and to dwell upon our repeated efforts for peace. All have been ill-starred, but all have been faithful and sincere. This is of the highest moral value—and not only moral value, but practical value—at the present time, because the wholehearted concurrence of scores of millions of men and women, whose co-operation is indispensable and whose comradeship and brotherhood are indispensable, is the only foundation upon which the trial and tribulation of modern war can be endured and surmounted. This moral conviction alone affords that ever-fresh resilience which renews the strength and energy of people in long, doubtful and dark days. Outside, the storms of war may blow and the lands may be lashed with the fury of its gales, but in our own hearts this Sunday morning there is peace. Our hands may be active, but our consciences are at rest.

We must not underrate the gravity of the task which lies before us or the temerity of the ordeal, to which we shall not be found unequal. We must expect many disappointments and many unpleasant surprises, but we may be sure that the task which we have freely accepted is one not beyond the compass and the strength of the British Empire and the French Republic. The Prime Minister said it was a sad day, and that is indeed true, but at the present time there is another note which may be present, and that is a feeling of thankfulness that, if these great trials were to come upon our Island, there is a generation of Britons here now ready to prove itself not unworthy of the days of yore and not unworthy of those great men, the fathers of our land, who laid the foundations of our laws and shaped the greatness of our country.

This is not a question of fighting for Danzig or fighting for Poland. We are fighting to save the whole world from the pestilence of Nazi tyranny and in defence of all that is most sacred to man. This is no war for domination or imperial aggrandisement or material gain; no war to shut any country out of its sunlight and means of progress. It is a war, viewed in its inherent quality, to establish, on impregnable rocks, the rights of the individual, and it is a war to establish and revive the stature of man. Perhaps it might seem a paradox that a war undertaken in the name of liberty and right should require, as a necessary part of its processes, the surrender for the time being of so many of the dearly valued liberties and rights. In these last few days the House of Commons has been voting dozens of Bills which hand over to the executive our most dearly valued traditional liberties. We are sure that these liberties will be in hands which will not abuse them, which will use them for no class or party interests, which will cherish and guard them, and we look forward to the day, surely and confidently we look forward to the day when our liberties and rights will be restored to us, and when we shall be able to share them with the peoples to whom such blessings are unknown.

12.26 p.m.

This day is to me distressing and depressing, and I would not exchange places with the Prime Minister for all the wealth that this country possesses. I have the most tremendous sympathy with him in the position in which he finds himself this morning, after having striven, by every means in his power, to avert this horrible catastrophe to mankind. We have travelled the road of peace with him, maligned and attacked from many quarters. In the paths of war we regret that we cannot accompany him in the ways that mankind is to be led in the near future, in this struggle that we have envisaged from our point of view, because of the contradictions, into which I do not intend to go this morning, as it is not fitting. But we do say that there are two things that are outstanding at this moment. One is that, after all the false propaganda that has gone on throughout this country, when it was stated that if you were to stand up to Hitler it meant peace, standing up to Hitler has ensured war, and believing that, and honestly disagreeing with other Members, who are as honest as we are in their point of view, we have stated all along that as threats would end in war, we could not even indulge in these idle threats.

The other thing in my estimation which has driven mankind along the path of war has been the defection of Russia. On Thursday, when I heard of the mobilisation of Russia on the rear of the Polish army I saw in that action one of three courses, first, in conjunction with Hitler, to blackmail the Poles into surrender and submission to his aims, or, second, that they intended to maintain neutrality but to hold a part of the Polish army in order to aid Hitler, or, third, that, along with Germany, they intended eventually to assist in the tearing apart of Poland for their own aims and their own use. If there have been any doubts in the mind of Hitler in going to war, the Soviet Government have the criminal responsibility of dissipating those views — [Interruption] —I intend to leave it at that, and to maintain my point of view in this country in spite of the taunts of any person either in this House or outside.

I sympathise this morning with the millions of workers in every country that is going to be involved—to mothers and fathers and sons in Germany, in France, in Austria, in Poland and in Britain and the possessions overseas. My heart goes out to every human being who will be affected by this tragedy, the magnitude of which no man can conceive and the end no man can foretell. In these circumstances I regret that I cannot go along the road of public opinion. Public opinion is undoubtedly behind the Government. It has, by propaganda and by the actions of Hitler himself, been put behind the Government. That public opinion to-day is strong. It is, if I may say so, united, even if it is against my own desires and point of view, but in the tragedy that will follow in six months' time, that opinion will not be so determined, so united or so strong. I am prepared at this stage to say to the Government that theirs is the task and the nation is behind them. But every man and woman who believes that it is his duty or her duty to support the Government, if they are honest and honourable in their intentions —I have no attack to make—every person who is of military age and believes in giving service that others should give I hope they will also give it themselves. For my part I regret that, after 2,000 years of the Gospel of the Prince of Peace, mankind, on Sunday morning, finds itself in this position, that men are on the eve of having to live like beasts, with lice and vermin crawling over them, grubbing for food, blinding and tearing bodies apart and blowing limbs asunder, and I say that in my estimation that is not going to solve any problem. That great human tragedy, that brutality, that fiendish cruelty that will be enacted on the fields of war is to be deplored and to be condemned, and do not let passions be roused to the extent that they are going to imagine that it will solve anything.

I look for a world of peace wherein Hitlerism can be eliminated, but the people who can pull Hitler down are the people in Germany, and Hitlerism is not confined to the frontiers of Germany. Hitlerism is to be found in every country in the world in the dealings of man with man and of groups of men with groups of men. My concluding words are these. I cannot support this country in this catastrophe. I do not regard it as being idealistic. I do not regard it as being for freedom, justice and human right. I regard it on both sides, the one who says "stop" and the other who says "go," as a hard, soulless, grinding materialist struggle for human gain, for the protection of selfish interests, and in that we will have no heart or part, but we hope that, at the earliest possible moment, the peoples of the world, in Germany and in other countries, will rise and revolt and overthrow the tyrannies which exist, and will establish the rule of peace and comfort upon earth.

12.35 p.m.

I do not intend to attempt to argue the principle for which I stand. This is not the occasion for me to do more than say that I hope very much that those in charge of Government propaganda will do their best to cut down the hate cries that are bound to arise. I want to ask the Prime Minister and the Government when they are considering the question of aerial warfare as they have considered it once, and may consider it again, whether even now it would not be possible to make a proposal to Germany and the world that we would be perfectly willing to abolish aerial warfare in its entirety. I have just come in from an air raid shelter, after a warning. What struck me was the calmness of the people and the feeling that, anyhow, the Government of the country were in the right; but I think, in fact, I know, that there was underlying that opinion the feeling that it is a terrible thing that either young people or old people should have lived to see the day when these foul weapons are being used. Therefore, I want to ask whether the Government will consider my suggestion.

The cause that I and a handful of friends represent is this morning, apparently, going down to ruin, but I think we ought to take heart of courage from the fact that after 2,000 years of war and strife, at last, even those who enter upon this colossal struggle have to admit that in the end force has not settled, and cannot and will not settle anything. I hope that out of this terrible calamity there will arise a real spirit, a spirit that will compel people to give up reliance on force, and that perhaps this time humanity will learn the lesson and refuse in the future to put its trust in poison gas, in the massacre of little children and universal slaughter. Mr. Gladstone once said, from the other side of the House, that the cause he represented was going down, but he was sure the day would come when it would triumph. There cannot be a man or woman in this assembly to-day who takes part in the Prayers in this House, every day, and there cannot be any men or women who go to church and believe in their faith but must in their hearts believe that sooner or later, if mankind is to live in freedom and peace, there is only one way by which it can do that, and that is by a complete and entire change of mind and outlook, which enables us to see ourselves in other people and God in everybody.

12.39 p.m.

I am one of those who, with hon. and right hon. Friends on this side of the House, have from time to time challenged the handling of foreign affairs by the Government, but this is a different matter. The Government are now confronted with the latest, but I am afraid not the last, of a series of acts of brigandage by a very formidable military Power, which if they are left unchallenged will undermine the whole foundations of civilisation throughout the world. The Government could do no other than what they have done. I am one out of tens of millions in this country who will back any Government that is in power in fighting this struggle through, in however humble a capacity we may be called upon to render service to our country. I have been through this before, and there is only one word I want to say about that. We had very bad moments, moments when brave men were rather quailing and doubting, but the nation was firm right through, from beginning to end. One thing that struck me then was that it was in moments of disaster, and in some of the worst disasters with which we were confronted in the War, that I found the greatest union among all classes, the greatest disappearance of discontent and disaffection, and of the grabbing for rights and privileges. The nation closed its ranks then. By that means we went through right to the end, and after 4½years, terrible years, we won a victory for right. We will do it again.

12.42 p.m.

I realise that this is not the time for words, and I will only detain the House for a very few minutes, but as there has not so far been any right wing supporter of the Government who has uttered any words, I should like to say that I believe I am speaking on behalf of those old Tories in the country that from the bottom of our hearts we welcome the speeches and the spirit of the Oppositions in this House and in the country. We feel that to-day we are all one brotherhood, fighting for our very existence, and we pray that that great unity, which is going to mean so much to the men who will have to bear the terrible strain of this war will persist; because nothing will hearten them more than to know that all the representatives of our great democracy are one in this solemn hour.

Hon. Members know that I have all my life taken a great personal interest in trying to promote unity in the British Empire, and I hope that we shall all be heartened with the knowledge that in the great Dominions overseas to-day hearts are pulsating for liberty and freedom in precisely the same way as in the old land. It was my supreme privilege, in many bloody battles, to stand with Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders and South Africans in the Great War, and there can be no doubt whatever that the coming of those mighty hosts from overseas turned the scales in favour of victory. It is because we ourselves feel strong in our faith and in the righteousness of our cause to-day that we know that those young nations overseas will assist us and will make an immense contribution of the flower of their race—and I appreciate very much the fact that the Prime Minister in his broadcast message spoke of that. I should like, as a private individual, to say to the Dominions that we have confidence that in this struggle, however dire and long the fight may be they will be with us right to the end.

I have not in recent months always agreed with the right hon. Member for Epping (Mr. Churchill) but I do agree with every word of his speech to-day. There is no division among any of us now, and I believe that all those who share the political views of myself, and every Member on the Labour Benches as well, are prepared to give their hearts and minds, and, if necessary, their lives as well, in the cause of our country and to stand behind the King's Government.

12.46 p.m.

I cannot allow this momentous occasion to pass without expressing, not only for myself, but I am certain for every hon. Member of the House, my admiration for the Prime Minister and for the Deputy-Leader of the Opposition and for all other sections of the House who have displayed an inflexible determination to stop for all time the attempts by the leaders of Germany to dominate the world by force. It is hardly necessary for me to recapitulate the events of the last few weeks, but I would ask the people to be firmly resolved to end for all time the attempts of so-called German culture to bring upon our people and our country all the ravages of war.

May I appeal to the House to bring these proceedings to a close? There is an immense amount of work to be done, and I am extremely anxious to get it through.

12.47 p.m.

I want to make a statement which I consider necessary and desirable in the situation. I said yesterday that I stand for the speedy and effective defeat of the Nazi regime as a sure way of bringing about hope for a lasting peace for the peoples of the world. In taking that stand I want to declare here with the utmost confidence, from experience and from knowledge that I will not come into conflict with the policy of my working class comrades of the Soviet Union. It is not the times to discuss the character of the negotiations which have gone on, but it is necessary that I should make such a declaration as that— [Hon. Members: "Why?"] —and make it known that the confidence exists, and I am certain that in the events which confront us and in the task which we have undertaken those great forces which have always been for peace will be ready to come to our aid in carrying through that great endeavour.

Question put, and agreed to.


"That, notwithstanding anything in the Standing Orders or practice of this House, any Resolution moved under Standing Order No. 69 in connection with any Bill to which this Order applies may be considered by the House forthwith after it has been reported from a Committee of the whole House.
This Order applies to the following Bills:
The National Service (Armed Forces) Bill;
The Personal Injuries (Emergency Provisions) Bill;
The Pensions (Navy, Army, Air Force and Mercantile Marine) Bill;
The National Health Insurance and Contributory Pensions (Emergency Provisions) Bill."