Robert Coulondre (11 September 1885 – 6 March 1959) was a French diplomat who served as the last French ambassador to Germany before World War II.
A diplomatic lifeEdit
Coulondre was born in Nîmes, the son of the politician Gaston Coulondre. As the Coulondres were a Protestant family, they were very loyal to the republic with its principles of Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité for all people. After obtaining a university degree in Chinese, he joined the Quai d'Orsay in 1909. Coulondre was stationed in London in May 1909, was appointed attaché at the Foreign Minister's office in March 1912, became assistant consul in Beirut in 1912, and in May 1919 was sent to Morocco.
In October 1918, Coulondre protested on behalf of France against the actions of the Emir Faisal in attempting to occupy all of Lebanon while asking Paris to dispatch the French Navy to land marines in the coastal cities of Lebanon "before it was too late". Coulondre also delivered a protest to the Emir Faisal, pointing out the Sykes-Picot Agreement had assigned Lebanon to France, leading Faisal to claim his reasons for sending the Arab Northern Army into Lebanon were "purely military". A British attempt to persuade Coulondre to accept the authority of Shurki al-Ayubi, Faisal's governor in Lebanon, as a civil governor under French military authority, was unsuccessful while Coulondre insisting that mostly Christian Lebanon was in the French sphere of influence and he would not have Faisal's representatives from the Muslim Hejaz playing any role in Lebanon. Coulondre met with Field Marshal Sir Edmund Allenby, who apologised to him, insisting it was all a "misunderstanding", and ordered Ayubli out of Beirut on the night of 10 October 1918. The next day, the flag of the Hejaz was lowered while the French tricolor was raised over Beirut. On 16 October 1918, Coulondre told Gilbert Clayton that France wanted to occupy the Beqaa Valley in accordance with the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which was rejected by the British who assigned the valley to Faisal's agents. For the next two years, an uneasy truce prevailed with Faisal insisting that the Lebanese were Arabs and belonged in his state while the French argued that the Maronite Christians did not want to join a Muslim-dominated state.
In January 1926 he was a delegate to Franco-Soviet economic negotiations. From 1927 to 28 February 1933, he headed the Commercial Relations Department of the Political and Commercial Directorate and subsequently Deputy Director of the Political and Commercial Directorate at the Quai d'Orsay working under the Political Director René Massigli. Coulondre was a member of the "Protestant clan" that dominated the Quai d'Orsay in the first part of the 20th century. From 1920 to 1936, Coulondre had closely studied the German economy and in 1931 when the premier, Pierre Laval, visited Berlin to discuss the crisis caused by the collapse of the banks in Central Europe, Coulondre had accompanied him as an adviser.
The leading members of the "Protestant clan" were Coulondre, René Massigli, Victor de Laçroix, Albert Kamerer, Jacques Seydoux de Clausonne and his son François Seydoux de Clausonne, all of whom knew each other and worked closely together. Since French Protestants were persecuted under the ancien-regime when the state religion was Roman Catholicism, French Protestants tended to be very supportive of the legacy of the French Revolution with its call for Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité. The "Protestant clan" in the Quai d'Orsay were all supporters of the republic and its values of Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité in domestic affairs while favoring a rule-based international order, support for the League of Nations, opposition to appeasement, and an abhorrence of Nazi Germany as the antithesis of everything they believed in.
Ambassador in MoscowEdit
In 1936, he was appointed the French ambassador to the Soviet Union. The Quai d'Orsay was one of the most prestigious branches of the French state, and ambassadors were an elite group within the Quai d'Orsay, having the right to be addressed as "your excellency", to wear a ceremonial embodied uniform that was meant to impress and since ambassadors represented the president of the republic, in theory ambassadors outranked the foreign minister in protocol. Between 1932-39, only 30 diplomats were promoted up to the rank of ambassador, making Coulondre part of a very select group. Coulondre went to Moscow with two guiding principles with the first being that Nazi Germany was a menace that had to be stopped and the second being that the best way to do that was an alliance with the Soviet Union. Coulondre was chosen as the ambassador to Moscow by the Popular Front government of Léon Blum, who felt that an experienced diplomat well known for calling for closer ties to Moscow was the ideal man to represent France to the Kremlin. Coulondre later wrote that the Quai d'Orsay's information about the Soviet Union was almost non-existent writing looking through the files had shown "that relations with the USSR, established in 1924, had been neither very close nor very well cultivated since then, notwithstanding the pacts". Coulondre described his superior, the Foreign Minister, Yvon Delbos, as being paranoid about the Soviets and fearful that the alliance that France had signed with the Soviets in 1935 was merely a device which Joseph Stalin might use to "push" France into a war with Germany.
Another part of Coulondre's mission in Moscow was to present Stalin with a choice between promoting the French Communist Party or building an anti-German alliance. When Coulondre presented his credentials as an ambassador for the republic to the Soviet president Mikhail Kalinin, he received a blast when Kalinin told him that the French were not treating their alliance seriously with Kalinin chiding him for the unwillingness of the French general staff to open up staff talks with their Soviet counterparts. Kalinin criticized France for refusing to sell the Soviet Union weapons and complained that even Germany offered up better trade terms than France as the Reich, unlike France, was willing to deal with the Soviet Union on credit. Coulondre often told his hosts that many of the French right were willing to accept an alliance with the Soviets to stop Germany, but the militant ultra-leftwing line pursued by the French communists terrified them. At his first meeting with the Foreign Commissar Maxim Litvinov in October 1936, Coulondre stated: "I have come here without prejudice for or against the Russia of the Soviets. I am, however, a convinced partisan of the assistance pact because I believe it to be one of the elements necessary for the safeguarding of the peace to which both nations are equally attached...Well then, I have to tell you if things continue as they're now going, there will be no more assistance pact. French public opinion is sick and tired of Comintern meddling in the domestic affairs of France-meddling, which we know-is inspired if not directly operated by the Soviet government itself...Either it shall cease or the pact will become a dead letter". Litvinov gave the usual spurious statement that the Soviet Union had nothing to do with the operations of the Comintern, which did not get relations going well for the new French ambassador in Moscow.
As Stalin was only the First Secretary of the Communist Party, having no position in the Soviet state, Coulondre rarely saw him, which made understanding the Soviet Union very difficult. Most of the time Coulondre talked with Litvinov, whom Coulondre noted was a very intelligent man, but not a member of Stalin's inner circle and moreover was a Jew. Coulondre described Litvinov to Paris as a man who seemed sincere in his belief in collective security and as someone who wanted better relations with the western powers to contain Nazi Germany, but he was not certain how much influence, if any, that Litvinov had with Stalin.
Coulondre was frightened by the Yezhovshchina ("Yezhov times"), seeing it as evidence of turn towards isolationism and increased xenophobia in the Soviet Union. Coulondre called the Yezhovshchina a "crisis of growth" towards what Coulondre called "counterrevolutionary absolutism", Russian nationalism, and military and economic might. In a dispatch to Paris, Coulondre wrote the most important question facing French diplomacy was not "will Russia be with us or not?", but rather "with whom will Russia go?" As the Soviet Union had signed an alliance with France's ally Czechoslovakia in 1935, one of Coulondre's main duties in Moscow was see if it was possible for the Soviets to obtain transit rights with Poland and/or Romania to allow the Red Army to reach Czechoslovakia if Germany should attack the latter. In April 1937, Coulondre returned to Paris to take part in the discussions held by French decision-makers about what would be the place of the Soviet Union in French strategy in the event of a war with Germany. To Coulondre's disappointment, Marshal Maurice Gamelin, reached the conclusion that it was not possible to make such plans as it was clear that neither Poland nor Romania would permit the Red Army transit rights.
When Coulondre told Litvinov in 1937 that King Carol II of Romania was prepared to allow the Soviets overflight rights to send aid to Czechoslovakia in the event of a German invasion, Litvinov insisted on land transits rights as well, which the Romanians refused, leading to Coulondre to the conclusion that the Soviets were not serious about helping Czechoslovakia. After the Anschluss, Coulondre predicted to Paris that Germany's next target would be Czechoslovakia rather than Poland. Coulondre always stated his opinion that if France had to choose between the Soviet Union and Poland as an ally, it should pick the former rather than the latter as the Soviet Union had much greater military and industrial power. Like many other French diplomats in the 1930s, Coulondre often expressed dissatisfaction with the policy of the Polish foreign minister Colonel Jozef Beck, charging that Beck was an opportunist whose plans to make Poland into a great power made him a lukewarm friend of France and that Beck was far too willing to flirt with Germany to achieve his ambitions. Coulondre stated if France had to go to war with Germany in the defense of the cordon sanitaire, it was far better to go to war for the sake of Czechoslovakia as Prague unlike Warsaw was fully committed to upholding the international order created in 1918-19 and Czechoslovakia was "the only country on which the action of the three great peaceful powers could be conjoined." The French Foreign Minister Joseph Paul-Boncour had already told Count Johannes von Welczeck, the German ambassador in Paris, that France would honor its alliance with Czechoslovakia and that a German attack on Czechoslovakia "meant war" with France. Paul-Boncour told Coulondre that the British Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax disapproved of France's willingness to stand by Czechoslovakia, but also stated he believed that if France went to war with Germany, then Britain would have to follow as the British could never risk the possibility of Germany defeating France. Paul-Boncour concluded that London wanted Prague to make concessions, but he was believed that if it came to war, London would choose Paris over Berlin.
On 5 April 1938, Coulondre took part in a conference of the French ambassadors in Eastern Europe in Paris called by Paul-Boncour, in which it was agreed it was necessary to end the conflicts between France's allies in Eastern Europe. The principle conflicts were the disputes between Poland vs. Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union vs. Romania, and Poland vs. the Soviet Union. Attending the conference besides for Paul-Boncour and Coulondre were Alexis St.Léger-St.Léger, the Secretary-General of the Quai d'Orsay; Léon Noël, the ambassador to Poland; Victor de Laçroix, the minister to Czechoslovakia; Raymond Brugère, the French minister to Yugoslavia; and Adrien Thierry, the minister to Romania. It was agreed that as long as France's allies in Eastern Europe continued to feud with one another that the only nation that gained was Germany. Coulondre was assigned to end the vexatious question of transit rights for the Red Army, which both Poland and Romania were adamant in refusing to grant. Thierry suggested that there was some hope that King Carol II of Romania might be induced to grant transit rights for the Red Army while Noël stated there was no hope of the Poles doing likewise, which led Coulondre to state that he would try to mediate an end to the long-running Romanian-Soviet dispute over Bessarabia.
Working closely with the Czechoslovak minister in Moscow, Zdeněk Fierlinger, Coulondre worked out a deal in which the Soviet Union would recognize Bessarabia as part of Romania in exchange for Romania giving the Soviets transit rights to Czechoslovakia. In the spring of 1938, Coulondre reported in the "vague and intuitive manner one senses such things in Soviet Russia" that for the first time that Moscow might actually be serious about coming to the aid of Czechoslovakia, mentioning that Litvinov had abandoned his normal sarcastic tone to the "seriousness and moderation of one who has sense a new responsibilities, who knew the Kremlin would play its part in the European conflict". Coulondre credited the charge to the Sino-Japanese war, writing that the Soviets were intensely paranoid that Japan might attack them at any moment, making them reluctant to become involved in a European war. Coulondre stated that the fact that China had not collapsed in 1937 in the face of the Japanese invasion together with the evidence that stiffening Chinese resistance had led Japan to become bogged down in China meant the Soviets could "make a corresponding greater effort in the West". Coulondre added that the main Japanese offensive in China that had been launched in June 1938 was in the Yangtze river valley in central China was a source of great relief to Moscow since it indicated that Japan would not be invading the Soviet Union that year.
Just when Coulondre believed it might finally be possible to open staff talks between the French and Soviet armies, he was recalled to Paris by the new foreign minister Georges Bonnet whom he learned had very different ideas about French policy in Eastern Europe, favoring a deal that would let Germany have Eastern Europe as its sphere of influence in exchange for leaving France alone. On the day he left for Paris, 16 May 1938, Coulondre visited the British Embassy in Moscow to share information about the Red Army and to argue that the executions of much the Red Army's leadership in the Yezhovshchina had not fatally weakened the Red Army as many had believed. The British chargé de affairs, Mr. Vereker reported to London that he was "slightly mystified as to the motives of M. Coulondre's invitation, for I have always understood that he is usually reserved and uncommunicative". Vereker told Colondre that his view was that the "Russians were Asiatics...and that with present Byzantine regime in the Kremlin anything might happen", concluding that the Red Army would no match for the Wehrmacht and there was no point in trying to have the Soviet Union as an counterweight to Germany for that reason.
Upon arriving in Paris, Coulondre was caught up in the May crisis. It was during the May crisis that Coulondre first learned of Bonnet's views about letting Germany have "a free hand in the East" in exchange for leaving France alone. Couldondre recalled that during the May crisis that the more he talked about France going to war with Germany, the more Bonnet insisted that it would not possible to do so unless Britain agreed to come in, which Couldonre noted did not seem very likely. Bonnet vetoed Coulondre's plans for joint Franco-Czechoslovak-Soviet staff talks, saying it might "incite certain French elements to appear bellicose". After hearing various excuses from Bonnet, which the combative Coulondre proceed to dismiss, he finally learned of what Bonnet was really seeking, namely to end all of France's alliances in eastern Europe.
During the Sudetenland crisis of 1938, Bonnet insisted that France would only risk war with Germany in defense of Czechoslovakia if Britain and Poland both agreed to come in, and disparaged Coulondre's dispatches from Moscow suggesting the Soviet Union was willing to come in. On 5 July 1938, Count Friedrich Werner von der Schulenburg, the German ambassador in Moscow, reported to Berlin that Coulondre had told him that he received word from Litvinov that the Soviets had only intervened in the Spanish Civil War in 1936 because Stalin did not want to "lose face" with the foreign communists, especially the French Communist Party, and the Soviets were willing to pull out of Spain if Germany did likewise. Schulenburg concluded that Litvinov had used Coulondre to convey this message rather than telling him directly as this the Soviet way of delivering a message in a way that could be denied. Coulondre himself reported to Paris that the Soviets were not keen to be involved in the Spanish Civil War where no Soviet interests were at stake and especially with Germany and Italy intervening on the other side, concluding that Moscow was looking for a dignified way out of Spain without loss of face now that war was threatening to break out in Central Europe. Coulondre stated that his sources in Moscow had told him that the decision to intervene in Spain had been undertaken because of Stalin's feud with Trotsky in order to maintain Stalin's revolutionary and anti-fascist credentials against Trotsky among communists worldwide and the Soviets had no real interest in ensuring the victory of the Republicans over the Nationalists, stating the war in Spain was an expensive distraction for the Soviets.
On 12 July 1938, Coulondre reported that the a Czechoslovak military mission together with M. Hromadko, the president of the Skoda works had arrived in Moscow for talks. Afterwards, Litvinov summoned Coulondre for talks, asking him a series of intense, probing questions about what France would do if Germany attacked Czechoslovakia. Coulondre reported to Paris that based on what Litvinov was asking that he believed that Stalin was willing to come to the aid of Czechoslovakia. However, on 29 July 1938, the Battle of Lake Khasan began as the Japanese Kwantung Army attempted to seize the area around Lake Khasan in the Soviet Far East and regular skirmishes broke out on the border between the Soviet Union and Manchukuo. With the Soviet-Japanese border war, the attention of the Kremlin shifted from Europe to Asia.
On 21 September 1938, Coulondre reported that the previous day the Soviet Union had promised Czechoslovakia "unconditional air support" in the event of a German invasion, through the ambassador added that he had seen no practical effort to put this promise into effect. On 24 September 1938, Coulondre reported to Bonnet that the Soviets were still willing to stand by their alliance with Czechoslovakia and were criticizing President Benes for agreeing to the Anglo-French plan to transfer the Sudetenland to Germany. At the same time, Coulondre reported that Litvinov had told him that the Soviet Union would come to Czechoslovakia's defense only if the Council of the League of Nations voted for military sanctions against Germany, which he noted was tantamount to doing nothing. Despite Coulondre's best efforts to play up the possibility of the Soviet Union coming in to aid Czechoslovakia, the evidence to the contrary that crept in to his dispatches allowed Bonnet to argue to the French cabinet that the Moscow would do nothing to aid Prague if the crisis should come to war.
On 4 October 1938, Coulondre handed over to the Soviet Vice Foreign Commissar, Vladimir Potemkin, the text of the Munich Agreement. Coulondre reported to Paris an odd conversation where Potemkin first in a formal and cold tone of voice said "I simply wish to state that the Western Powers have deliberately kept the USSR out of the negotiations". Then suddenly Potemkin grew more emotional as put his hand on Coulondre's shoulder and said in an anguished tone: "My poor fellow, what have you done? For us, I see no other consequence, but a fourth partition of Poland". Coulondre in one his last dispatches from Moscow reported his belief that the Soviet Union was no longer interested in collective security and that Moscow would try "to return to the policy of understanding with Germany which she had abandoned in 1931". Coulondre predicated there was a real possibility of the Soviet Union of trying to achieve an alliance with Germany against the western powers and of another partition of Poland.
Ambassador in BerlinEdit
In October 1938, Coulondre was appointed the French ambassador to Germany as the French Premier Édouard Daladier was determined to wrestle control of foreign policy from his appeasement-minded foreign minister Georges Bonnet and felt that replacing André François-Poncet as ambassador to Berlin with Coulondre, a diplomat known for anti-Nazi views was a way of weakening Bonnet. Furthermore, Daladier felt that François-Poncet was too closely associated with appeasement as he been the French ambassador in Berlin since 1931, and appointing an anti-appeasement diplomat as ambassador would signal to Berlin that there would no more treaties like the Munich Agreement. On 22 November 1938, Coulondre arrived in Berlin and presented his credentials as an ambassador for the republic to Adolf Hitler at the Reich Chancellery on the Wilhelmstrasse on the same day. The instructions given to him by Bonnet ordered the new ambassador to create a détente with Germany. Coulondre wrote in his memoirs: "After having gone to Moscow to work for an entente against Hitler, I was now to go to Berlin to work for an entente with Hitler". At his first meeting with the Foreign Minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, the latter recorded: "M. Coulondre told me upon that upon taking the appointment, he intended to do all he could to improve Franco-German relations...He personally was not biased in any particular direction and was open to all suggestions". However, upon greeting the senior staff of the French embassy, Coulondre told them: "Munich is our point of departure. Each of us is free to judge as he sees it the policy which led there. The fact remains that to safeguard the peace, the Western Powers went there. The question, the only question now before us, is whetever peace can actually be found by this route". Writing about the intensified antisemitism in Germany following the Kristallnacht pogrom of 9 November 1938 Coulondre stated: "the treatment inflicted in Germany upon the Jews whom the Nazis intend to extirpate completely like malevolent beasts illuminates the entire distance which separates the Hitlerian conception of the world from the spiritual patrimony of the democratic nations".
Captain Paul Stehlin, the French air attache to Germany wrote: "Robert Coulondre was very different from his predecessor in physical appearance and seemed friendlier when you first met him. He looked shy with pleasant smiling eyes in a square face and a high, willful forehead. His moral, intellectual qualities and his compassion were of the same stuff as his predecessor." The younger French diplomats tended to view Coulondre as inferior as an ambassador compared to François-Poncet partly because of his dispatches to Paris lacked the same literacy quality that François-Poncet's dispatches had and partly because François-Poncet described every possible outcome to a situation whereas Coulondre would limit himself to the one he viewed as the most likely outcome. The French historian Jean-Baptiste Duroselle wrote that Coulondre's mistakes in his dispatches came mostly from using General Henri Antoine Didelet, the French military attache to Germany, as a source for Didelet was often misinformed, but Coulondre was highly prescient in his dispatches, for example predicating the fourth partition of Poland in October 1938. As an specialist in economic affairs who closely studied the German economy when he worked as a deputy to René Massigli, Coulondre was unusually well informed about the state of Nazi economy. Duroselle described Coulondre as a man with "much common sense and a healthy understanding of his German counterparts". Coulondre variously the Nazi leaders as he met them in hostile tones. Coulondre wrote that Hermann Göring was "at once ridiculous and formidable", Joachim von Ribbentrop was "contemptible", Rudolf Hess was very boring and unintelligent, Alfred Rosenberg was eccentric and weird, and Joseph Goebbels was "ce petit diable boiteux" ("this lame little devil"), adding that Goebbels's various mistresses were more interesting than he was. Coulondre wrote he had the impression that Baron Ernst von Weizsäcker, the State Secretary of the Auswärtiges Amt, did not want a war with France, but his relations with Weizsäcker were cold and distant as Coulondre never trusted him. In 1938, an informal group of four consisting of François-Poncet, Weizsäcker, the British ambassador Sir Nevile Henderson, and the Italian ambassador Bernardo Attolico had come together to work to "manage" Germany's rise to great power status and prevent a war. Unlike François-Poncet, Coulondre chose not to join the group of four.
On 13 December 1938, Coulondre reported to Paris that he learned much about the "National Union of the Ukraine" terrorist group, whose headquarters were on 79 Mecklenburg Street in Berlin, and which had been financed and armed by the SS. Coulondre further noted that the "National Union of the Ukraine" group was trying to sent its agents not only into the Soviet Ukraine as expected, but also into the Polish region of Galicia, which had a Ukrainian majority, which led him to conclude that the Reich was becoming hostile to Poland. On 15 December 1938, Coulondre reported that he believed the majority of the German people did not want war and found that a surprising large number had favorable views of France. However, he believed that Germany was oriented towards expansionism in Eastern Europe, especially towards the Ukraine, concluding: "The integration of Deutschtum into the Reich has been carried out more or less completely. Now the hour of Lebensraum has come". Under the terms of the Munich Agreement, in exchange for the Sudetenland "going home to the Reich" over a ten-day period in October 1938, Britain, France, Germany and Italy were committed to making a "guarantee" of the rest of Czecho-Slovakia (as Czechoslovakia had been renamed) from aggression. When Coulondre asked Ribbentrop about negotiating the "guarantee" of Czecho-Slovakia, he found that Ribbentrop kept giving him various excuses as why that was not possible right now, leading Coulondre to suspect that Germany was not content with the Sudetenland and wanted all of Czecho-Slovakia. At least five weeks before the Germany moved against Czecho-Slovakia, Coulondre had been predicating that such a move was imminent.
On 15 March 1939, Germany violated the Munich Agreement by occupying the Czech part of the Czecho-Slovakia, which now become the Protectorate of Bohemia-Moravia. Coulondre reported to Paris that "the Munich Agreement no longer exists", and stated that he believed that Hitler was still preoccupied with Eastern Europe, he would be willing to turn west if he thought that Germany was losing the arms race with Britain and France. Coulondre advised Paris must rearm "to the limit of our capacity", but as discreetly as possible. To Weizsäcker, Coulondre spoke in an angry tone of the "contravention of the Munich Agreement, in contradiction to the relationship of confidence, which he had expected to find here". At the same time, Coulondre reported to Paris that the creation of the Protectorate of Bohemia-Moravia proved that Hitler wanted to dominate Europe, and the best that France could do was rearm to the maximum in order to deter Hitler from choosing war.
In March 1939, Coulondre reported to Paris that Captain Stehlin had a long chat with General Karl Bodenschatz, who served as the Luftwaffe liaison officer to Hitler. Bodenschatz mentioned to Stehlin that his belief that "Etwas im Osten im Gange ist" ("something is brewing in the east"), mentioning that Soviet military attache in Berlin had met with senior Wehrmacht officers and Ribbentrop had dinner with the Soviet ambassador Alexsei Merekalov. On the basis of this, Coulondre reached the conclusion that the Soviet Union and Germany were negotiating against Poland. During a meeting with the Polish ambassador to Germany, Jozef Lipski, Coulondre warned in an "off-the-record" conversation that he was convinced that the Luftwaffe had such an overwhelming superiority over the air forces of the East European states that Poland did not stand a chance if Germany should invade, an assessment that left Lipski very depressed.
Coulondre's relations with the British Ambassador in Berlin, Sir Nevile Henderson were very poor as Coulondre in his dispatches described Henderson as a convinced appeaser who had a barely veiled admiration for the Nazi regime. On 29 April 1939, Coulondre reported to Paris that when Germany occupied the Czech part of Czecho-Slovakia on 15 March 1939, that Henderson, "always an admirer of the National Socialist regime, careful to protect Mr. Hitler's prestige, was convinced that Great Britain and Germany could divide the world between them" was very angry when he learned that the Reich had just violated the Munich Agreement as it "wounded him in his pride". Coulondre went on to write: "Yesterday, I found him exactly as I knew him in February." Coulondre added that Henderson had told him that the German demand that the Free City of Danzig be allowed to rejoin Germany was justified in his opinion and the introduction of conscription in Britain did not mean that British policies towards Germany were changing. Coulondre concluded "it appears that events barely touched Sir Nevile Henderson, like water over a mirror...It would seem that he forgot everything and failed to learn anything". At the same time, Coulondre reported that the driving force behind a German rapprochement with the Soviet Union was not Hitler-whom Coulondre argued wanted to dominate Europe without precisely knowing how he wanted to do it-but rather Ribbentrop, whom Coulondre wrote was largely determining the course of German foreign policy in 1939 due to Hitler's indecision.
Writing about the Danzig crisis on 30 April 1939, Coulondre sent a dispatch to Bonnet saying Hitler sought:
"....a mortgage on Polish foreign policy, while itself retaining complete liberty of action allowing the conclusion of political agreements with other countries. In these circumstances, the new settlement proposed by Germany, which would link the questions of Danzig and of the passage across the Corridor with counterbalancing questions of a political nature, would only serve to aggravate this mortgage and practically subordinate Poland to the Axis and the Anti-Comintern Bloc. Warsaw refused this in order to retain its independence...Polish acceptance of Germany's demands would have rendered the application of any braking machinery in the East impossible. The Germans are not wrong then, when they claim that Danzig is in itself only a secondary question. It is not only the fate of the Free City, it is the enslavement or liberty of Europe which is at stake in the issue now joined."
In June 1939, as the Danzig crisis deepened, Coulondre wrote that "Hitler has never up till now undertaken any move which he was not certain of success", and stated his belief that a forceful French stand in favor of Poland would deter Germany from choosing war to resolve the Danzig crisis. At the very end of June 1939, the Deuxième Bureau had tapped the telephone of Otto Abetz, Ribbentrop's agent in Paris, overheard a possibly intoxicated Abetz saying that the Free City of Danzig would rejoining Germany that weekend as Hitler was coming to Danzig. At a meeting with Weizsäcker, Coulondre was informed that all talk of der Führer going to Danzig that weekend to proclaim the Free City's return to Germany were nonsense as Hitler would never put himself into danger, an assessment that Coulondre agreed with. As part of the effort to deter Germany from attacking Poland in the summer of 1939, Coulondre was very much in favor of having the Soviet Union join the "peace front". In August 1939, Coulondre noted that for the first time the German newspapers were accusing the Poles of insulting "German honour", an allegation which he noted had last been made in September 1938 when Czechoslovakia had been accused of insulting "German honour", leading him to conclude: "The Hiterian plan continues to develop according to a well-known procedure". Coulondre further noted that Danzig crisis was now escalating as the Reich had made the status of the German minority in Poland into an issue instead of just the Free City of Danzig, the city-state which was not part of Poland and was thus potentially easier to resolve than the question of the volksdeutsche minority in Poland. During the Danzig crisis, Coulondre consistently advocated as a solution a compulsory population exchange along the lines of the Greek-Turkish population exchange of 1923 under which all of the ethnic Germans living in Poland would be expelled into Germany and all the ethnic Poles living in Germany would be expelled into Poland, saying that the Poles and Germans needed to be separated by force if necessary for their own good as the two peoples simply could not get along.
At the height of the Danzig crisis, Coulondre was summoned to a meeting with Hitler at about 7:00 pm on 25 August 1939. Hitler had scheduled the invasion of Poland for the next day and wanted his peace offer to France to appear before the French cabinet at more or less the same time as the Wehrmacht invaded Poland. Just a few hours before Coulondre had been summoned to the Reich Chancellery, the news had arrived that Britain had reacted to the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact by signing a military alliance with Poland, while Italy had announced it would dishonor the Pact of Steel if war should break out, which was contrary to what Hitler had expected, putting him in an aggressive and angry mood, making for an unpleasant interview with Coulondre. Hitler told Coulondre that the dispute with Poland over the Free City of Danzig had reached such a point that war was now inevitable, but that he did not want a war with France. Hitler told Coulondre that it was France's choice about whatever she fought Germany or not, advising the ambassador that the French should renounce their alliance with Poland. Finally, Hitler taunted Coulondre that the "peace front" that was meant to "contain" Germany was in ruins with the German-Soviet non-aggression pact and claimed that Britain would soon be signing a non-aggression pact with the Reich, leaving the French to face Germany alone if they chose to stand up for Poland. Hitler further taunted Coulondre by noting that all of the nations that were supposed to join the "peace front" like Turkey, Greece, Romania and Yugoslavia were dropping out, saying that nobody would "die for Danzig". Coulondre told Hitler that he would pass on his message to the French cabinet, but also warned him that France would keep its word and stand by Poland if Germany did indeed choose war. Coulondre assured Hitler as a former soldier for the republic that France would indeed stand by Poland if it came to war, only to be interrupted by Hitler who said: "Why, then, give a blank cheque to Poland?" The British historian D.C. Watt wrote that Coulondre was "a tougher man than Henderson. He gave as good as he got-even mentioning the alleged victim of Polish assassination who had actually died a month earlier in a domestic crime of passion. Hitler listened, shouted and repeated himself. Coulondre took his leave, the victor of that little encounter".
The next day, 26 August, Coulondre passed on to Hitler a letter from Daladier, saying that as one veteran of World War I to another begging him not to plunge the world into the "madness of war" again, but that France would fight if Germany did invade Poland. Coulondre reported to Paris that the meeting with Hitler did not go well, with Hitler saying he promised to renounce any claim on Alsace-Lorraine as a sign of his goodwill towards France and the Danzig crisis had now reached such a point that he had no other choice but to attack Poland. Coulondre replied that the war could be stopped and it was only the attitude of Hitler that was making war inevitable. In saying that war was now inevitable, Hitler was attempting to intimidate France into abandoning the alliance she signed with Poland in 1921; as this statement contradicted the later German claim that Poland had attacked Germany on 1 September 1939, the text of the Hitler-Coulondre meetings on 25–26 August 1939 were excluded from The White Book, a collection of documents from the Auswärtiges Amt published in December 1939. However, The Yellow Book, a collection of documents from the Quai d'Orsay published the same month included full transcripts of the Hitler-Coulondre meetings. The American historian Gerhard Weinberg wrote that the text of the Hitler-Coulondre meetings on 25–26 August 1939 must had been regarded as embarrassing with Hitler saying he had to invade Poland because of "intolerable" Polish provocations as Count Hans-Adolf von Moltke who was in charge of editing The White Book not only excluded the text of these meetings from The White Book, but also from the records of Auswärtiges Amt as the transcripts of the meetings survived only in the records of the Quai d'Orsay. After 1 September 1939, the official German line was always that Poland had attacked Germany, which made Hitler's statements to Coulondre that he had to attack Poland problematic.
The fact that France did not sever the alliance with Poland as Hitler had hoped, the signing of the Anglo-Polish alliance, Japan breaking off the talks for a military alliance with Germany and the message from Rome that Italy would be neutral all caused Hitler to halt the invasion of Poland and pushed the invasion date for 1 September to give Ribbentrop more time to sever Britain and France from Poland. The news that Fall Weiss ("Case White") as the invasion of Poland had been code-named had been delayed for another week did not reach all of the Wehrmacht forces on time and on the morning of 26 August 1939 a number of Wehrmacht units crossed into Poland, engaging in much bloody fighting before retiring back to Germany when they received word of Fall Weiss's postponement. Coulondre took the reports he heard of fighting along the German-Polish border together with the pull-back of the Wehrmacht forces as meaning that the French deterrence diplomacy was indeed working. For Coulondre, the sudden entry of the Wehrmacht into Poland together with their equally abrupt withdrawal proved that Hitler was bluffing and if France held firm, making it clear that a German invasion of Poland meant war with the republic, then Hitler would back down. After meeting Henderson on 27 August, Coulundre observed that he was dressed in his usual dapper style with the red carnation he always wore on his suit, which Coulondre took as a hopeful sign that Henderson was still keeping his spirits up, which was important for him as he felt that one must never show weakness to the Nazis. On the evening of 27 August 1939, Coulondre informed Paris: "One must hold firm, Hitler faced with force is a man who will climb down". On 29 August, Coulondre reported to Paris he felt it was still possible to save the peace. Later the same day, Coulondre saw the notes that Henderson had made of his meeting with Hitler to discuss the peace plan proposed by the Swedish businessman and amateur diplomat Birger Dahlerus, he noted that Hitler's stalemates were "more like a diktat imposed on a conquered country than an agreement to negotiate with a sovereign state". Coulondre however reluctantly accepted the Dahlerus plan as it committed Germany to negotiate with Poland to resolve the Danzig crisis, which Hitler had been refusing to do until then, which led to hopes that here was a possible means of preventing a war. After talking to Baron Bernardo Attolico, the Italian ambassador to Germany, about the Dahlerus plan, Coulondre reported to Paris that there was a euphoric air at the Italian embassy in Berlin as Attolico and the rest of Italian diplomats did not want Italy to have to declare neutrality and break the Pact of Steel if the Danzig crisis were to end in war.
On the night of 30–31 August, Coulondre learned of the "final offer" that Ribbentrop had made to Henderson demanding that a Polish envoy arrived in Berlin that night to discuss resolving the Danzig crisis. Coulondre felt the "final offer" was just an alibi for aggression, but very reluctantly supported Henderson's contention that an effort should be made to take up the "final offer" if only to prove Britain and France did everything within their power to save the peace. After visiting the British Embassy to learn about the 15 points of the "final offer", Colunndre went over to the Polish embassy to see Józef Lipski, the Polish ambassador, to argue that if Poland tried to respond to the "final offer" despite its absurdly short timeline and the demand that an envoy should fly in to Berlin from Warsaw that night, it would give the Poles the moral high ground. On the evening of 31 August 1939, at a meeting of the French cabinet, Daladier deliberately turned his back on Bonnet and refused to speak to his foreign minister as a way of showing he no longer supported the munichois faction in the cabinet headed by Bonnet. Daladier read out to the cabinet a letter he had received from Coulondre six days before saying: "The trial of strength turns to our advantage. It is only necessary to hold, hold, hold!" In the last days of August 1939, Coulondre consistently argued that Hitler could be deterred from attacking Poland, and regarded Henderson who still believed that if only Britain would just apply enough pressure on Poland to allow the Free City of Danzig to rejoin Germany, then war could be avoided, as a coward.
On the morning of 1 September 1939, Germany invaded Poland. Coulondre was in the garden on the French embassy early in the morning of 1 September supervising the building of air raid trenches when he heard word that Germany had attacked Poland earlier that morning. Coulondre went to the Reichstag to listen to Hitler's speech claiming that Poland had just attacked Germany, and at about 10: 00 am he met with Ribbentrop to give him a démarche warning that France would fulfill the terms of an alliance with Poland unless Germany ceased the invasion of Poland at once. On the evening of 2 September 1939, Bonnet who was against declaring war on Germany, reluctantly sent a telegram to Coulondre to say that he was expected to deliver an ultimatum to Germany the next day demanding that Germany withdraw its forces from Poland at once. At 8:28pm the same evening, Henderson telephoned Coulondre to say he had received a cable from London telling him that he was to deliver a very important message to Ribbentrop the next day, which he guessed would be an ultimatum and Britain would be at war with Germany tomorrow. As the Forschungsamt ("research office") as Göring called his private intelligence network was listening in, the contents of Henderson's call were passed on to Göring. Knowing that France was on the brink of war, Coulondre went out for a walk that night, observing the Berliners were all sober and serious, with none of the jingoism of the summer of 1914. During his nocturnal walk down the streets of Berlin, Coulondre noted that nobody he saw was laughing or smiling, leading him to conclude that through the regime wanted war, the German people did not.
At 10:30 am on 3 September, Bonnet sent Coulondre a message saying he was to deliver an ultimatum that would expire at 5 pm on 4 September saying France would "fulfill...the commitments that France has contracted towards Poland" as Bonnet could not bring himself to use the word guerre (war). When Coulondre called Paris on the morning of 3 September to ask what would constitute rejection of the ultimatum, he was informed instead to change the deadline of its acceptance to 5: 00 pm on 3 September. Bonnet had wanted an extra day out of the hope that somehow a deal might be reached to stop the war, but Daladier had decided firmly on war. Colondre complained that the ultimatum that he had written on Bonnet's instructions was too weaselly and convoluted, never using the word war once, and would have preferred something stronger.
On 11 am on 3 September 1939, it was announced that a British ultimatum demanding an end to the war against Poland had been rejected and King George VI had gone on the BBC to say his nation was now at war with Germany. Before leaving the French embassy, Coulondre ordered that the embassy staff burn any sensitive documents and as he got into his car to take him to the Auswärtiges Amt, he noticed a small crowd had gathered outside of the embassy. One German teenager stepped up to him and asked in somewhat broken French for his autograph, which struck Coulondre as rather incongruous given that France was going to be at war with Germany later that day. At noon on 3 September 1939, Coulondre went to the Auswärtiges Amt's main office on the Wilhelmstrasse in Berlin, to be greeted by Weizsäcker. Coulondre arrived at the Auswärtiges Amt, wearing the full ceremonial uniform as an ambassadeur de France, bringing with him the ultimatum in a sealed briefcase and as everyone at the Auswärtiges Amt could guess what was in the briefcase, Coulondre recalled the atmosphere was electric with tension. When Coulondre presented the ultimatum to Weizsäcker, the latter replied that he was not in a position to know if Germany could withdraw its forces from Poland, which led Coulondre to insist on seeing Ribbentrop. After much stalling on the part of Weizsäcker who claimed that Ribbentrop was too busy to see the French ambassador, Coulondre finally saw Ribbentrop at about 12:30 pm. After Coulondre read out the ultimatum demanding a German withdrawal from Poland, an angry scene ensured with Ribbentrop accusing France of seeking an "aggressive war" with Germany, but Coulondre was finally able to get Ribbentrop to say that Germany would not stop its war against Poland, which led him to say in that case, France would be at war as of 5:00 pm that day. Coulondre turned his back on Ribbentrop and Weizsäcker, leaving the Auswärtiges Amt, never to return.
Coulondre served as the French ambassador to Switzerland between 30 May-30 October 1940. After World War II, Coulondre published his memoirs De Staline à Hitler : souvenirs de deux ambassades : 1936-1939 in 1950.
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