Tuesday, October 24, 2017

The 1936 Meeting of Ribbentrop and Vansittart

Joachim von Ribbentrop was appointed Ambassador to Britain from 1936 to 1938. From the outset, he was charged with forging a German-English pact. One of his first meetings was with Robert Vansittart, who was Undersecretary for Foreign Affairs from 1930 until 1938. Ribbentrop, as he remarks in the excerpt below, would speak with numerous British figures during his tenure, but it was his separate meetings with Vansittart and Churchill that would leave such an impression on him that he would remark on each in due course.

Joachim von Ribbentrop, Ambassador
to the Court of St. James's (1936-1938)

Vansittart, Permanent Under-Secretary
for Foreign Affairs, British Foreign Office

Ribbentrop's aim in meeting with Vansittart was to convey Hitler's desire for an alliance with the British Empire. In 1935, Ribbentrop was emboldened following the Anglo-German Naval Agreement in June and Western sanctions against Italy following its invasion of Abyssinia in October. The anti-German Stresa Front collapsed after Italy's actions in Africa and Britain's signing of the naval treaty with Germany, encouraging Hitler's hopes for peace with Britain and the prospect of a neutral France. Unfortunately, Vansittart was committed to balance of power politics: The USSR was afforded the same moral status as other nations, so German threats to Communist Russia were viewed as threats to a balance of power.

The following is from 'The Ribbentrop Memoirs' [1]:
It was unfortunate that I had to do most of the talking; I felt from the start as if I were addressing a wall. Vansittart listened quietly, but was not forthcoming and evaded all my openings for a frank exchange of views. I have spoken to hundreds of Englishmen on this subject, but never was a conversation so barren, never did I find so little response, never did my partner say so little about the points which really mattered. When I asked Sir Robert to express an opinion on certain points and to criticize frankly what I had said, or to explain where exactly we differed in matters of principle or of detail, there was absolutely no reply except generalities. In the following years I often looked back on this conversation.
One thing was clear, an Anglo-German understanding with Vansittart in office was out of the question. Only once again did I have a similar feeling after a conversation. That was in 1937, after a talk with Mr. Churchill, when I was Ambassador in London, except that while Vansittart had expressed no opinion whatever, Mr. Churchill was considerably more frank. 
Vansittart, I felt, had completely made up his mind. This Foreign Office man not only advocated the balance of power theory, but was also the incarnation of Sir Eyre Crowe’s principle: 'No pact with Germany come what may.' I gained a firm impression that this man would never even attempt a rapprochement, and any discussion with him would be in vain. The Fuhrer said later that Vansittart must also have been influenced by other reasons, by questions of ideology. I do not know; I do not think so; but this will never be explained. Whatever influences he may have been subjected to, the main thing was his basic attitude: 'Never with Germany.'
Hitler had correctly suspected that Vansittart's misgivings were ideologically rooted. In his The Impact of Hitler, Cowling remarks on Vansittart's views [2]:
Vansittart treated the Franco-Soviet alliance as non-negotiable. But he assumed that a settlement would have to provide for German expansion. This he was willing to contemplate. What he rejected was the 'immoral' desire to 'satisfy Hitler's 'land hunger at Russia's expense'. It was because many had equality in Europe already that he wanted Britain to facilitate expansion in Africa.
Vansittart had deliberately obfuscated his views in his meeting with Ribbentrop. Later, in 1937, Ribbentrop met with Churchill, where he would again be disappointed.

[1] Available on The Internet Archive: See this HTML version, for example.
[2] Maurice Cowling, The Impact of Hitler, Cambridge University Press, 1975, p. 157.