Meet Ivan Maisky: The Munich Agreement

In this, the final part of our blog series celebrating publication of The Maisky Diaries, author Gabriel Gorodetsky selects and introduces an extract to coincide with the anniversary of the Munich Agreement, which took place on 30 September 1938

The session of the morally bankrupt League of Nations, which practically ignored the Czech crisis, coincided with Chamberlain’s negotiations with Hitler leading to the Munich Conference. It turned out to be Litvinov’s swan song. Alexandra Kollontay, the Russian ambassador in Stockholm, bumped into Litvinov as he emerged from his meeting with the French foreign minister, Bonnet, ‘waving his hand impatiently and with obvious irritation: “Results? None … The French don’t intend to fulfil their obligations to Czechoslovakia. When it comes to our Soviet proposal, Bonnet dodges and prevaricates, claiming he needs to consult London first. A delaying tactic, in other words. And right now every hour counts.”’ At the meeting with the British delegation on 23 September, Litvinov ‘reiterated the firm resolve of the Soviet Government to fulfil all her obligations under the Soviet–Czech Pact’. However, his demand for an emergency meeting of the powers involved, either in Paris or London, to coordinate military plans was dismissed out of hand by the Foreign Office as being ‘of little use’, since it was bound to ‘certainly provoke Germany’. There was little the few survivors of the purges could do in Geneva.

Extract from The Maisky Diaries

25 September 1938

Sunday. The League of Nations is not working. Indeed, outside Geneva, in the great world where ominous events are unfolding, the thermometer still shows 40º. In Prague, people are getting ready to die for the freedom and independence of their country. In London, the British Cabinet was in session yesterday for many hours, while today a fresh meeting of British and French ministers is to be held on the subject of the Godesberg ultimatum. But here in Geneva it is Sunday: silence, calm and rest from toil, as once we sang as children.

We all, excepting A.M., make another trip to France. M.M. [Litvinov] wants to find some new, as yet untried restaurant somewhere in Doussier (Jura). On the way we get out of the car, stroll, talk, and make bets. M.M. asks me: ‘Well, what do you think: will there be a war or won’t there? Yesterday at Lac Léman our views diverged. I believe that the English and the French will yield again and that there won’t be a war. Yakov Zakharovich [Surits, the Soviet ambassador in Paris] agrees with me; Boris Efimovich [Shtein, the Soviet ambassador in Rome] hold the opposite view. And what do you say?’

Shtein barges into the conversation and starts arguing that the Czechs will reject the ultimatum, the English and the French will not be able to exert pressure on them in such a situation, the Germans will attack, the Czechs will resist, the French will have to support the Czechs, and then the course of events will resemble a spontaneous avalanche. I listen to Shtein and his logic seems irrefutable. Yet a voice deep in my soul tells me: ‘Will Chamberlain and Daladier stand their ground when the time comes to say plainly: war? I doubt it.’ So, answering M.M.’s question, I say: ‘Knowing my English friends, I’m inclined to agree with you. Yet there are other factors in the current situation which have not been taken into account and which are capable of playing a great role: for instance, the Czechs’ behaviour at the moment of danger. Therefore, I can’t make a bet.’

The restaurant in Doucier was superb. The food was heavenly. After lunch, Agniya and I asked for tea. The owner, who was attending our table himself (and why not? M.M. was immediately recognized and an atmosphere of amicable sensationalism constantly surrounded us), grimaced in horror and disbelief. ‘Tea?’ he asked, almost dumbstruck. ‘You would like tea?’

We realized we had committed a sacrilege. The owner went on: ‘I have first-class coffee!… Wonderful coffee… You won’t find such delightful coffee anywhere else!’

We were defeated. They brought us fragrant black coffee…

Late at night, when we returned to Geneva, the news came that Czechoslovakia had rejected the Godesberg ‘memorandum’.

26 September 1938

Moscow instructed us today that Surits, Merekalov, and I should be back in our places. Surits has already been in Paris for five days. I shall go by train in order to arrive by 28 September, when a session has been planned in Parliament, at which Chamberlain will make a statement about his talks with Hitler and at which, who knows, a decision might be taken about war. Agniya will return by car one or two days later. … 

28 September 1938

The train arrived in Paris on time. It was around seven o’clock in the morning. My train for London was leaving at 8.20. I had deliberately chosen an early train, arriving in London at 3.21 p.m., as I planned to go straight from the station to the Parliament session where Chamberlain was expected to speak at 3.30. …

The journey from Paris to London passed without incident. The sea was calm. … A great disappointment lay in store for me on the British shore. The ‘war alarm’ of the last few days had already affected the regularity of the trains. Our train from Dover to London was one hour late. … When, panting for breath after a brisk walk along the Parliament corridors, I ran up to the entrance to the diplomatic gallery, the fat, good-natured policeman at the door, who knew me well by sight, broke into a happy smile and said hastily: ‘Have you heard the good news? The prime minister has just informed the House: Mr Hitler has invited him to a new conference in Munich. Tomorrow.’

… I stood where I was and focused my attention on my surroundings. Down below, the chamber was black with MPs. Not only were all the benches taken, with no room left to swing a cat, but thick crowds of MPs thronged the gangways. You could sense a tremendous tension. It seemed unbearable, as if on the brink of a spontaneous explosion.

Chamberlain was speaking. When I entered, he was coming to the end of his speech. He had just announced Hitler’s invitation and his consent to fly to Munich the following day. …

30 September 1938

… Yesterday I didn’t go to bed until almost 4 a.m., and sat listening to the radio. At 2.45 it was finally announced that an agreement had been reached in Munich and the peace of Europe had been secured. But what an agreement! And what peace!

Chamberlain and Daladier capitulated completely. The conference of the four essentially accepted the Godesberg ultimatum with minor and negligible adjustments. The one ‘victory’ won by the British and the French is that the transfer of the Sudetenland to Germany will take place not on the 1st but on the 10th of October. What a tremendous achievement!

I paced the dining-room for a long time, lost in thought. … I woke up in the morning with a headache and the first thing that occurred to me was that I should immediately visit Masaryk [the ambassador of Czechoslovakia in London]. When I entered his reception room there was no one there. A minute later I heard someone’s hurried steps on the stairs and the host sidled in. There was something strange and unnatural about his tall, strong figure. As if it had suddenly iced over and lost its habitual agility. Masaryk threw a passing glance at me and tried to make polite conversation in the usual manner: ‘What fine weather we are having today, aren’t we?’

‘Forget the weather,’ I said, with an involuntary wave of my hand. ‘I have not come here for that. I have come to express my deep compassion for your people at this exceptionally hard moment and also my strong indignation at the shameful behaviour of Britain and France!’

A kind of current seemed to pass through Masaryk’s tall figure. The ice melted at once. Immobility gave way to quivering. He rocked rather comically on his feet and fell all of a sudden on my breast, sobbing bitterly. I was taken aback and somewhat bewildered. Kissing me, Masaryk mumbled through his tears: ‘They’ve sold me into slavery to the Germans, like they used to sell Negroes into slavery in America.’

Little by little, Masaryk calmed down and began to apologize for his weakness.

I shook his hand firmly. …

Gabriel Gorodetsky is a Quondam Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, and emeritus professor of history at Tel Aviv University. He is the author of several books including Russia Between East and West: Russian Foreign policy on the Threshold of the 21st Century, Grand Delusion: Stalin and the German Invasion of Russia and most recently, The Maisky Diaries: Red Ambassador to the Court of St James’s 1923-1943 published by Yale University Press.

The Maisky Diaries is translated by Tatiana Sorokina and Oliver Ready

Read the full Maisky Diaries blog series

 The Maisky Diaries

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