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Menzies Speech: Declaration of War (1939)

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Australia goes to war

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There is no audible ceremony on Menzies’s arrival in the room, just a short introduction by another speaker. Menzies settles at the microphone and we hear a faint rustle of his papers. In his speech, Menzies exercises his skills as a civic leader to convince the Australian people of why they must go to war. He identifies Australia with other ‘civilised nations’, in particular France and Great Britain.

Curator’s notes

The prime minister’s words are statesman-like, his voice thick and low. His English is refined and reminiscent of a time when the British Empire lived on in the voices of the Australian people. Menzies’s language is grandiose: ‘Whatever the inflamed ambitions of the German Führer may be, he will undoubtedly learn, as other great enemies of freedom have learned before, that no empire, no dominion, can be soundly established upon a basis of broken promises or dishonoured agreements.’

Menzies mostly speaks in the third person, as though he plays no personal part in the story but knows all the facts. This technique enhances the sense of objectivity and reliability of the information being given but also creates distance between the audience and the story. To overcome this disadvantage, Menzies occasionally switches to first person, personalising his views to relate to his audience: ‘Your own comments on this dreadful history will need no reinforcement by me.’

Menzies denounces the need for rhetoric but arguably uses it to support the ideal of Australia fighting for her motherland: 'There can be no doubt that where Great Britain stands, there stands the people of the entire British world. Bitter as we all feel at this wanton crime, this is not a moment for rhetoric … I know that in spite of the emotions we are all feeling, you will show that Australia is ready to see it through. May God in his mercy and compassion grant that the world may soon be delivered from this agony.’

Announcer Here is the Prime Minister of Australia, the Right Honourable RG Menzies.

Menzies Fellow Australians, it is my melancholy duty to inform you officially that in consequence of a persistence by Germany in her invasion of Poland, Great Britain has declared war upon her and that, as a result, Australia is also at war. No harder task can fall to the lot of a democratic leader than to make such an announcement. Great Britain and France, with the cooperation of the British Dominions, have struggled to avoid this tragedy. They have, as I firmly believe, been patient. They have kept the door of negotiation open. They have given no cause for aggression. But in the result, their efforts have failed and we are therefore, as a great family of nations, involved in a struggle which we must at all costs win and which we believe in our hearts we will win.

What I want to do tonight is just to put before you, honestly, and as clearly as I can, a short account of how this crisis has developed.

The history of recent months in Europe has been an eventful one. It will exhibit to the eyes of the future student some of the most remarkable instances of a ruthlessness and indifference to common humanity which the darkest centuries of European history can scarcely parallel. Moreover, it will, I believe, demonstrate that the leader of Germany has, for a long time, steadily pursued a policy which was deliberately designed to produce either war or a subjugation of one non-German country after another by the threat of war.

We all have vivid recollections of September of last year. Speaking in Berlin on September the 26th 1938, Hitler said, referring to the Sudeten German problem, which was then approaching its acutest stage, ‘And now the last problem which must be solved, and which will be solved, concerns us. It is the last territorial claim which I have to make in Europe.’ Four days later, at Munich, when the problem had been settled on terms which provided for the absorption of the Sudeten country into Germany, and which otherwise professed to respect the integrity of the remainder of the Czechoslovak state, Hitler participated with the Prime Minister of Great Britain in a statement which went out to all the world. It’s most important sentence was this: ‘We are resolved that the method of consultation shall be the method adopted to deal with any other question that may concern our two countries, and we are determined to continue our efforts to remove possible causes of difference, and thus to contribute to assure the peace of Europe.’

What a strange piece of irony that seems today, only 12 months later. In those 12 months, what has happened? In cold-blooded breach of the solemn obligations implied in both the statements I have quoted, Hitler has annexed the whole of the Czechoslovak state. Has, without flickering an eyelid, made a pact with Russia, a country the denouncing and reviling of which has been his chief stock-in-trade ever since he became chancellor. And has now, under circumstances which I will describe to you, invaded with armed force and in defiance of civilised opinion, the independent nation of Poland. Your own comments on this dreadful history will need no reinforcement by me. All I need say is, that whatever the inflamed ambitions of the German Fuhrer may be, he will undoubtedly learn, as other great enemies of freedom have learned before, that no empire, no dominion, can be soundly established upon a basis of broken promises or dishonoured agreements.

Let me now say something about the events of the last few days. The facts are not really in dispute. They are, for the most part, contained in documents which are now a matter of record.

On Friday August the 25th, that is, nine days ago, Hitler asked the British Ambassador to call on him, and had a long interview with him. Hitler said that he wished to make a move towards England, as decisive as his recent Russian move, but that first the problem of Danzig and the Corridor must be solved. He went on to indicate that he was looking forward to a general European settlement and that if this could be achieved, he would be willing to accept a reasonable limitation of armaments. On Saturday August the 26th, the British Ambassador flew to London to give a detailed account of his conversation to the British Government. On Sunday the 27th, the British Cabinet fully considered the whole matter and, incidentally, was apprised by me of the views of the Australian Government. On Monday August the 28th, the British reply, which I may say was entirely in line with our own views, was taken back to Berlin and was delivered to Hitler in the evening. That reply stated that the British Government desired a complete and lasting understanding between the two countries and agreed that a prerequisite to such a state of affairs was a settlement of the German-Polish differences. It emphasised the obligations which Great Britain had to Poland and made it clear that Great Britain could not acquiesce in a settlement which would put in jeopardy the independence of a state to which it had given its guarantee. The government said, however, that it would be prepared to participate in an international guarantee or any settlement reached by direct negotiation between Germany and Poland which did not prejudice Poland’s essential interests. The note pointed out that the Polish Government was ready to enter into discussions and that it was hoped that the German Government would do the same.

On the night of Tuesday August the 29th, Hitler communicated to Sir Neville Henderson his reply to the British note. In it he reiterated his demands, but agreed to accept the British Government’s offer of its good offices in securing the dispatch to Berlin of a Polish emissary. In the meantime, it was stated, the German Government would draw up proposals acceptable to itself and would, if possible, place these at the disposal of the British Government before the arrival of the Polish negotiator. Astonishingly enough, for the German proposals were not then even drafted, the note went on to say that the German Government counted on the arrival of the Polish emissary on Wednesday August the 30th, which was the very next day. Sir Neville Henderson pointed out at once that this was an impossible condition, but Hitler assured him that it was only intended to stress the urgency of the matter. On the Wednesday, Hitler’s communication was received by the British Government and their reply was handed by Sir Neville Henderson to von Ribbentrop, the German Foreign Minister, at midnight. At the same time the British Ambassador asked whether the German proposals which were to be drawn up were ready, and suggested that von Ribbentrop should invite the Polish Ambassador to call and should hand to him the proposals for transmission to his government. I would have thought this was a very sensible suggestion. But von Ribbentrop rejected it in violent terms. Von Ribbentrop then produced a lengthy document containing the German proposals, which you subsequently saw in the newspapers, and read it aloud in German at top speed. Sir Neville Henderson naturally asked for a copy of the document but the reply was that it now was too late as the Polish representative had not arrived in Berlin by midnight.

You see what a travesty the whole thing was. The German Government was treating Poland as in default, because she had not by Wednesday night offered an opinion upon, or discussed with Germany, a set of proposals of which, in fact, she had at that time never heard. Indeed, apart from the hurried reading to which I’ve referred, the British Government had no account of these proposals until they were broadcast in Germany on Thursday August the 31st. On the night of August the 31st, the Polish ambassador at Berlin saw von Ribbentrop and told him that the Polish Government was willing to negotiate with Germany about their disputes on an equal basis. The only reply was that German troops passed the Polish frontier and began war upon the Poles at dawn on the morning of Friday September the 1st.

One further fact should be mentioned and it is this. In the British Government’s communication of August the 30th, it informed the German Chancellor that it recognised the need for speed and that it also recognised the dangers which arose from the fact that two mobilised armies were facing each other on opposite sides of the Polish frontier, and that accordingly, it strongly urged that both Germany and Poland should undertake that during the negotiations no aggressive military movements would take place. That being communicated to Poland, the Polish Government on Thursday August the 31st, categorically stated that it was prepared to give a formal guarantee that during negotiations Polish troops would not violate the frontiers provided a corresponding guarantee was given by Germany. The German Government made no reply whatever.

My comments on these events need not be very long. The matter was admirably stated by the British Prime Minister to the House of Commons in these words: 'It is plain therefore that Germany claims to treat Poland as in the wrong because she had not by Wednesday night entered upon discussions with Germany about a set of proposals of which she had never heard.’

Let me elaborate this a little. You can make an offer of settlement for two entirely different purposes. You may make your offer genuinely and hoping to have it accepted or discussed with a view to avoiding war. On the other hand, you may make it, hoping to use it as window dressing and with no intention or desire to have it accepted. If I were to make an offer to my neighbour about a piece of land in dispute between us, and before he had had the faintest opportunity of dealing with my offer, I’ve violently assaulted him, my offer would stand revealed as a fraud. If Germany had really desired a peaceful settlement of questions relating to Danzig and the Corridor, she would have taken every step to see that her proposals were adequately considered by Poland and that there was proper opportunity for discussion. In other words, if Germany had wanted peace, does anybody believe that there would today be fighting on the Polish frontier, or that Europe would be plunged into war? Who wanted war? Poland? Great Britain? France? A review of all these circumstances makes it clear that the German Chancellor has, throughout this week of tension, been set upon war and that the publication of his proposals for settlement was designed merely as a bid for world opinion before he set his armies on the move.

We have of course been deluged with propaganda from Berlin. We have been told harrowing stories of the oppression of Germans. We have been told that Poland invaded Germany. We have even been told, somewhat contradictorily, that Germany was forced to invade Poland in order to defend herself against aggression. The technique of German propaganda, of carefully fomented agitations in neighbouring countries, the constant talk of persecution and injustice – these are all nauseatingly familiar to us. We made the acquaintance of all of them during the dispute over Czechoslovakia, and we may well ask what has become of the Czech minority and the Slovak minority since the forced absorption of their country into the German state. It is plain, indeed it is brutally plain, that the Hitler ambition has been not, as he once said, to unite the German peoples under one rule but to bring under that rule as many European countries, even of alien race, as can be subdued by force.

If such a policy were allowed to go unchecked there could be no security in Europe and there could be no just peace for the world. A halt has been called. Force has had to be resorted to, to check the march of force. Honest dealing, the peaceful adjustment of differences, the rights of independent peoples to live their own lives, the honouring of international obligations and promises, all these things are at stake. There never was any doubt as to where Great Britain stood in relation to them. There can be no doubt that where Great Britain stands there stand the people of the entire British world.

Bitter as we all feel at this wanton crime, this is not a moment for rhetoric. Prompt as the action of many thousands must be, it is for the rest a moment for quiet thinking, for that calm fortitude that rests not upon the beating of drums but upon the unconquerable spirit of man created by God in his own image. What may be before us we do not know, nor how long the journey. But this we do know: that truth is our companion on that journey; that truth is with us in the battle; and that truth must win.

Before I end, may I say this to you – in the bitter months that have come, calmness, resoluteness, confidence and hard work will be required as never before. This war will involve not only soldiers and sailors and airmen, but supplies, foodstuffs, money. Our staying power, and particularly the staying power of the mother country, will be best assisted by keeping our production going; by continuing our avocations and our business as freely as we can; by maintaining employment and, with it, our strength. I know that in spite of the emotions we are all feeling, you will show that Australia is ready to see it through. May God in his mercy and compassion grant that the world may soon be delivered from this agony.

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