Johan Birger Essen Dahlerus is one of those men that almost nobody has heard of beyond specialists in the field of international relations. Even rapt students of World War II are apt to draw a blank if you mention his name. A random guess might be, "Oh, did he save some Jews?" or, "Was he a spy?"
Well, in a way he tried to do both of those things, but failed miserably. Birger Dahlerus came as close as any man to preventing World War II, but it was an impossible task. Very close indeed. Or at least that is what he thought, though the reality may have been quite different. In any event, Birger Dahlerus was the first man in history to practice shuttle diplomacy, beating Henry Kissinger by over thirty years. Looking at his activities helps to put all the official diplomatic shouting on the eve of World War II in context.
First things first. The Nuremberg tribunal knew all about Birger Dahlerus. It said in its judgment:
Parallel with these negotiations were the unsuccessful attempts made by Goering to effect the isolation of Poland by persuading Great Britain not to stand by her pledged word, through the services of one Birger Dahlerus, a Swede. Dahlerus, who was called as a witness by Goering, had a considerable knowledge of England and of things English, and in July, 1939, was anxious to bring about a better understanding between England and Germany, in the hope of preventing a war between the two countries. He got into contact with Goering as well as with official circles in London, and during the latter part of August, Goering used him as an unofficial intermediary to try and deter the British Government from their opposition to Germany's intentions towards Poland. Dahlerus, of course, had no knowledge at the time of the decision which Hitler had secretly announced on the 22nd August, nor of the German military directives for the attack on Poland which were already in existence. As he admitted in his evidence, it was not until the 26th September, after the conquest of Poland was virtually complete, that he first realised that Goering's aim all along had been to get Great Britain's consent to Germany's seizure of Poland.
Johan Birger Essen Dahlerus (February 6, 1891–March 8, 1957) was born in Stockholm and became a businessman. Sweden officially was neutral during World War I and World War II, though it tended (under intense pressure both times) to favor the Central Powers in the first war and the Allies in the second (while Sweden maintained business contacts with Germany because doing otherwise would have been interpreted as an act of war, it passed along immensely valuable intelligence to the Allies that, among many other things, helped the British to sink the Bismarck. Hitler often talked of invading Sweden). None of this political stuff interfered too much with Dahlerus' business, and he developed contacts throughout Europe, particularly in England and Germany.
Hermann Goering had extensive contacts with Sweden. He had worked for the Swedish airline, Svenska Lufttrafik, in 1919-21 as a pilot, and during that time he had met his first wife, Carin, Swedish Countess von Fock. Carin's brother-in-law, Count Eric von Rosen, who Goering had flown to Rosen's castle, introduced them.
|Goering's private yacht, Carin II|
Carin passed away on 17 October 1931, but there is no question that Goering thought of her for the remainder of his life. He named his estate north of Berlin "Carinhall," named his pre-war yacht "Carin II," and he held an elaborate state funeral for her (attended by Hitler, who knew her well) there years after her passing (her remains were found on the grounds there and repatriated to Sweden in 2013). Goering maintained contact with Count von Rosen, who was huge in society circles. At some point during the 1930s, Rosen introduced Goering to prominent businessman Dahlerus. Birger Dahlerus was the CEO of Electrolux, which then as now was a Swedish multinational household and professional appliances manufacturer with headquarters in Stockholm. Electrolux essentially sold vacuum cleaners throughout Europe and America and had no relation to war or war industries, which made Dahlerus ideal for negotiating: a neutral businessman in a neutral business from a neutral country.
Dahlerus evidently felt that it was good for business to stay in good with Goering, and so he gave the Nazi boss a dishwasher early in 1936, perhaps as a birthday present (Goering's birthday being 12 January). In the summer of 1939, Dahlerus, who kept copious notes about practically everything, toured England to expand his business contacts. On July 5, 1939, he visited Goering at Carinhall to talk about his experiences with the English people. It was a tense summer politically, and Rosen said that the businessmen he had met wanted Germany and England to work things out because, among other things, war would be bad for business. Dahlerus, who was a take-charge fellow, suggested that he arrange an informal meeting between Goering and some of the English businessmen. Goering also was worried about the prospects for war (it was well known that he was in the "moderate" camp within the Nazi hierarchy) and agreed.
Dahlerus got right down to business, discussing the idea with some of his newly acquired English contacts, and started setting things up. It seems odd now - private citizens practicing official diplomacy - but it made sense at the time. Goering, though, was in no hurry. He was always worried about being seen as deviating too far from the Nazi Party line and damaging his prospects of being Hitler's chosen successor. He hemmed and hawed and worried about the details. Finally, he suggested that Dahlerus ask his boss, Axel Wenner-Gren, who owned Electrolux, to see if they could use Wenner-Gren's luxury yacht for the meeting so that it would be inconspicuous. This Dahlerus did, but Wenner-Gren - who was one of the wealthiest men in the world and friends with the Duke of Windsor - tried to get involved himself and contacted English Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain about it. Wenner-Gren told Goering on July 19 that Chamberlain had written him that talks between the two governments now were impossible, as the British people would throw him out of office if they heard about it. Chamberlain also, according to Wenner-Gren, made some sort of comment that Goering was "out of step" with Hitler, which worried Goering.
|British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain|
The discussions easily could have ended there, but Dahlerus was determined to keep the idea of negotiations alive. He flew to London and talked to someone in the Foreign Office, who (undoubtedly after getting some kind of positive signal from Neville Chamberlain) gave the go-ahead for a strictly informal meeting. Dalherus then flew back and met Goering at the Hotel Atlantic in Hamburg, where Goering, who was taking a summer cruise, also agreed. Goering, though, emphasized that he would would only attend a meeting with Hitler's permission.
|The Bredstedt town hall|
With everybody on board, Goering and Dahlerus selected a remote farmhouse owned by Dahlerus' wife, located on the northwest coast of Schleswig-Holstein in northern Germany, for the meeting. Goering met Dahlerus at Bredstedt, the end of the rail line (Goering travelled by private train), and together they drove out to the farmhouse. At the meeting were seven extremely prominent English businessmen:
A. HoldenThe group talked for several hours, then broke for lunch. Nothing was accomplished, but, according to testimony at the Nuremberg trials, the businessmen emphasizing that England would honor its treaty obligations to Poland and go to war if provoked. If Goering made any kind of offers, they have not been revealed, but his idea most likely was to simply get the ball rolling in talking with Britain.
Stanley Rawson (John Brown & Company)
Sir Robert Renwick
|Ribbentrop signs the non-aggression pact in Moscow, 23 August 1939|
Nothing more happened for a while, but Goering was still interested in talking. Around the time of the non-aggression pact with Stalin on August 23, 1939. Goering sent a secret message to "C," the head of British Intelligence, requesting a private meeting with Chamberlain. The British seemed more interested than the last time, making sure it would have been completely confidential. However, this time Hitler forbade it, saying scornfully, "You won't get anywhere," and the meeting never happened.
|Hitler's Berghof in Berchtesgaden|
On the morning of August 23, 1939, with news of the German negotiations with Russia floating about, Dahlerus called Goering's office in Berlin to see if he could still set something up. Goering, who was in Berchtesgaden listening to Hitler's plans for attacking Poland, called him back and arranged a meeting for the next day in Berlin. Goering wasn't the sort to fly across the country to see most folks, but Dahlerus was such a man. Dahlerus met Goering at Carinhall at 1:30 on the afternoon of August 24, 1939. Goering knew all about Hitler's plans to attack Poland within a few days and also about the secret pact with Stalin to divvy up eastern Europe. Goering, however, suggested that the British send a top General for talks and proposed an alliance between the two nations. All Hitler wanted, he insisted, was a corridor to Danzig, everything else was negotiable.
|The Royal Navy mobilized on 24 August 1939|
Poland and Great Britain, meanwhile, formally signed a treaty of mutual assistance that day. The British Parliament reconvened to pass the Emergency Powers Act, with PM Chamberlain telling them:
"...The measures that we have taken up to now are of a precautionary and defensive character, and to give effect to our determination to put this country in a state of preparedness to meet any emergency, but I wish emphatically to repudiate any suggestion, if such a suggestion should be made, that these measures imply an act of menace. Nothing that we have done or that we propose to do menaces the legitimate interests of Germany. It is not an act of menace to prepare to help friends to defend themselves against force. If neighbors wishing to live together peacefully in friendly relations find that one of them is contemplating apparently an aggressive act of force against another of them, and is making open preparations for action, it is not a menace for the others to announce their intention of aiding the one who is the subject of this threat..."Royal Assent was given on the same day and the Royal Navy is ordered to war stations. Soon afterward a general mobilization began. Later that day, Goering met with the Polish ambassador and told him that the problem was Poland's Agreement of Mutual Assistance with the United Kingdom, which provided:
"...Should one of the Contracting Parties become engaged in hostilities with a European Power in consequence of aggression by the latter against that Contracting Party, the other Contracting Party will at once give the Contracting Party engaged in hostilities all the support and assistance in its power..."U.S. President Roosevelt also got involved, sending a telegram to Hitler:
"...The people of the United States are as one in their opposition to policies of military conquest and domination. They are as one in rejecting the thesis that any ruler, or any people, possess the right (to) achieve their ends or objectives through the taking of action which will plunge countless millions of people into war and which will bring distress and suffering to every nation of the world, belligerent and neutral, when such ends and objectives, so far as they are just and reasonable, can be satisfied through processes of peaceful negotiation or by resort to judicial arbitration. I appeal to you in the name of the people of the United States, and I believe in the name of peace-loving men and women everywhere, to agree to the solution of the controversies existing between your Government and that of Poland..."Goering kept trying to wheel and deal. Late that night, he called Dahlerus and emphasized the significance of the Stalin pact, which had been signed the night before. He asked Dahlerus to fly to London to talk to Chamberlain about it.
Dahlerus landed in Croyden, England, in Goering's private plane. He personally gives copies of Hitler's proposals for a peaceful settlement of the Danzig problem to Lord Halifax, recalling later:
"...At 8 o'clock in the evening I tried to reach him on the telephone, but only after I had obtained help from the Foreign Office was I able to establish the connection. Goering revealed to me then that the situation had become extremely serious and asked me to do everything in my power to arrange a conference between representatives of England and Germany..."Hitler, meanwhile, suggested directly to the British ambassador, Sir Nevile Henderson, that if the British wanted to stay on his good side they would simply conduct a "phony war." He stated bluntly that "Poland's provocation's have become intolerable." Of course, Poland wasn't doing anything. Hitler then ordered Case White, the invasion of Poland, the begin at dawn on August 26, 1939. He immediately shut down all international phone lines and air flights.
|Ribbentrop and Molotov, Berlin 1940|
Learning that Germany had been shut down, the Italians immediately indicated that they would not support a German war, and France and England quickly reaffirmed their support of Poland publicly. Hitler, who had been fooled by German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop's assurances that Britain was ready to step aside, immediately halted war preparations so Goering could work on England some more. Hitler also dashed off a letter to Mussolini to get him back in line:
"...I have not kept you informed in detail, Duce, since I did not have an idea of the possible extent of these (German-Russian) conversations, or any assurance of the possibility of their success. The readiness on the part of the Kremlin to arrive at a reorientation of its relations with Germany, which became apparent after the departure of Litvinov, has become ever stronger in the last few weeks and has made it possible for me, after successful preparation, to send my Foreign Minister to Moscow for the conclusion of a treaty which is the most extensive non-aggression pact in existence and whose text will be made public. The pact is unconditional and includes also the obligation for consultation about all questions affecting Russia and Germany. I may tell you, Duce, that through these arrangements the favorable attitude of Russia in case of any conflict is assured, and that the possibility of the entry of Rumania into such a conflict no longer exists..."Dahlerus returned from London with a message from the British foreign office, which did not contain anything new, but Goering rushed over with it to see Hitler. After talking it over, Hitler himself called in Dahlerus after midnight (Hitler always kept late hours) and explicitly offered an alliance with England on the sole condition that England permit him to have the land corridor to Danzig. Dahlerus immediately flew back to London with the offer. Dahlerus retuned twenty-four hours later with another British foreign office note repeating the determination to stand by Poland but indicating a willingness to talk about the situation. Dahlerus called London at 2 a.m. to say that Hitler wanted to do a deal.
The British note which caused such a stir said in part:
"...A just settlement of these questions between Germany and Poland may open the way to world peace. Failure to reach it would ruin the hopes of better understanding between Germany and Great Britain, would bring the two countries into conflict, and might well plunge the whole world into war. Such an outcome would be a calamity without parallel in history."Dahlerus later testified:
"...It was obvious that by that time the British Government had become highly mistrustful, and rather inclined to assume that whatever efforts they might make nothing would now prevent Hitler from declaring war on Poland. The British Government had made the greatest effort. They had expressed the wish through their ambassador in Warsaw that the Polish Government should exert the greatest effort to avoid any border incidents. They explained to me at the same time that it was hardly fair to expect the Polish Government to send delegates to Berlin to negotiate, when it was known what experience other countries had had in in past years..."
|Winston Churchill speaks to the House of Commons|
It was now the morning of August 28, 1939, and Hitler and Goering now thought they had British cooperation in the bag, apparently interpreting the foreign office note quoted above as indicating a desire to start negotiations. Hitler once again set a start-date for Case White, this time September 1, 1939. Ambassador Henderson showed up later in the day and did not in any way suggest that Britain would stand aside, but Hitler remained optimistic and gave Dahlerus credit for working out the framework of a deal to avoid a general war. Goering told Dahlerus on the morning of 29 August that Hitler was going to pin a medal on the Swede. Elsewhere, Holland ordered a general military mobilization, and British PM Chamberlain gave a speech in the House of Commons, saying "The catastrophe is not yet upon us, but I cannot say that the danger of it has in any way receded." Hitler ordered troops into Slovakia, on Poland's southern border, at Slovak Premier Father Josef Tiso's request.
|Danzig in 1939|
Convinced on very slim evidence indeed that he now held a winning hand, Hitler's goal shifted to widening what he thought was the wedge between Britain and Poland. He handed Henderson a letter demanding that Poland send a representative the next day 30 August 1939, to discuss terms, which Hitler framed as requiring only German possession of the Danzig corridor. Goering told Dahlerus to meet with Chamberlain in person to make sure there was no miscommunication. Just to be absolutely clear, Goering and Hitler drafted up a term sheet of "Sixteen Points" - echoing President Wilson's famous "Fourteen Points" of World War I, and Hitler was always thinking about World War I - on the morning of 30 August for a settlement of the Polish issue.
|Sir George Ogilvie-Forbes|
As Dahlerus recalled at Nuremberg:
I was in my hotel, late in the evening, about 10:30. Forbes [Sir George Ogilvie-Forbes, Counselor of the British Embassy] called me up and said he had to see me at once. He came to my hotel and said that Henderson and Hitler had had a meeting on Tuesday evening which had taken a very unsatisfactory course. They had parted after a big quarrel. He asked me what I could suggest under these circumstances. During our conversation I was called on the phone by Goering, and he asked me to come to his house immediately. He told me the same story and seemed very upset at the development. He showed me the German reply to the British note and went through it point by point. He tried to explain to me the reasons for the contents of this note. Finally he told me I should go back to London again immediately and make every effort to explain this unfortunate incident to the British Government. He concluded then by saying that Hitler was busy, and that he was working out a proposal for Poland which should probably be ready the next day..."Dahlerus spent the day in London acting as an intermediary. He called Goering several times on 30 August to give indications of London's concerns. When Dahlerus naïvely asked why a Polish ambassador with authority to negotiate had to show up in Berlin, Goering lost his patience:
"Because that is where the Reich Chancellor, Herr Hitler, has his residence."The British wouldn't budge, and if anything were hardening their stance, so Dahlerus flew back to Berlin and boarded Goering's private train Asia at 11 p.m. Meanwhile, Ribbentrop supposedly was giving the 16 points to Ambassador Henderson, but Ribbentrop was clueless and simply read through the points in German without even giving them to Henderson. Goering immediately gave a copy to Dahlerus to give to Henderson, which he did. Henderson dutifully telephoned the Polish Ambassador Józef Lipski just past midnight, early on 31 August 1939, and suggested that they send someone over to talk terms.
|Polish Marshal Smigly-Rydz|
Henderson, in his Final Report, wrote that:
"I suggested that he (Lipski) recommend to his government an interview between Marshal Smigly-Rydz and Goering. I felt obliged to add that I could not conceive of the success of any negotiations if they were conducted by Ribbentrop."
|British Ambassador Sir Nevile Henderson, who was dying of cancer|
The British Government at the same time gave its official response to Hitler's letter of August 29, handed by Ambassador Henderson to von Ribbentrop at midnight:
"...His Majesty's Government repeat that they reciprocate the German Government's desire for improved relations, but it will be recognized that they could not sacrifice the interests of other friends in order to obtain that improvement. They fully understand that the German Government cannot sacrifice Germany's vital interests, but the Polish Government are in the same position and His Majesty's Government believe that the vital interests of the two countries are not incompatible..."All of this was a Byzantine attempt by Goering and Hitler to peel the British off from supporting Poland. They heartily wished for the Poles to ignore the 16 Points, which in fact the Poles did. Their hope was that the British would see this as the Poles being intransigent, thus lessening the British resolve to go to war with Poland.
|Polish ambassador Josef Lipski speaking at a Nazi Party rally, Nürnberg, Germany, 10 Sep 1938; note Himmler, Ribbentrop, Henderson, and Goebbels|
The following morning, 31 August 1939, was utter confusion. The Polish government told its ambassador to Germany to make no concessions, while Ambassador Henderson contacted him and London to warn that time was running out. Goering told Dahlerus to go see the Polish Ambassador, but Lipski had his orders. Dahlerus called London to report on matters, who then apparently asked the Poles what was going on. Meanwhile, the Germans were issuing the final orders for Case White, to jump off the following morning. Everybody on the German side wanted the British to stay out of the Polish question, and they hoped they had done enough to ensure that. Angry phone calls ensued between Poland, Britain and France, which was solidly siding with the Poles.
|The Gleiwitz radio tower and the German in charge of that operation|
A telegram to Polish Foreign Minister Beck from Lipski informs the Foreign Minister that
"I have met with von Ribbentrop. I have obeyed instructions received and told him that I was not empowered to negotiate. Mr. von Ribbentrop repeated that he believed I had such powers. He told me that he would report my visit to the Chancellor."Goering later recalled at Nuremberg:
"...the British Government was informed what demands Germany would make on Poland. This proposal was not entirely understood, and was then unofficially -- but de facto -- made known not only to the British Government but also, to the Polish Ambassador, exactly and precisely, in the unofficial way that Dahlerus has described. It came to naught because the Polish Government did not agree to discuss this proposal. First there was a prolongation for a plenipotentiary to be appointed -- I believe until the 30th or the 31st; but nevertheless we waited even longer for a plenipotentiary. On the intimation that the Polish Ambassador might be this plenipotentiary, circumstances permitting, we waited for a conference with him; when he declared that he was not authorized to accept any terms, the Fuehrer decided on invasion the next day..."With nothing happening, Hitler did not change his orders. He issued a Directive for the conduct of the war:
- Now that all the political possibilities of disposing by peaceful means of a situation which is intolerable for Germany are exhausted, I have determined on a solution by force.
- The attack on Poland is to be carried out. Date of attack: September 1, 1939. Time of attack: 4:45 AM.
Case White then jumped off with the staged Gleiwitz incident and other "provocations" manufactured by the Nazis.
|The German battleship Schleswig-Holstein firing on Polish targets|
The German battleship Schleswig-Holstein, which was on a "good will" visit to Gdansk, started things off on schedule before dawn by firing on the Polish fortress of Westerplatte; then the stormtroopers took off to seize vital bridges.
|Hitler declares war on Poland on the morning of 1 September 1939|
Goering, who had been talking about peace all week, did not hesitate to send in the Luftwaffe at the earliest moment. At 4:45 a.m., Polish Lieutenant Wladyslaw Gnys of 2 Krakow Air Regiment shot down two Dornier 17 Bombers--the first air kills of the war. The war started off nicely for Germany, with 53 German division ultimately committed. Hitler officially declared war the following morning.
Mussolini called for a cease fire and four-party talks, and everyone but Great Britain looked ready to agree. They insisted on a complete German withdrawal first. That afternoon, Goering and Hitler prevailed upon Dahlerus to phone London again, but the British foreign office said flatly that nothing would happen unless the Germans withdrew from Poland. With the Germans refusing, and in fact pressing their assault, Britain waited a day and then sent Ambassador Henderson to see Ribbentrop at 9 a.m. Henderson gave the German Foreign Minister Britain's ultimatum: comply with London's demand for German withdrawal by 11 a.m. or war would be declared.
|Goering with staff officers in front of his private train (Sonderzug)|
Goering and Dahlerus now sat in Goering's train, a special telephone hookup installed to a telephone pole. Goering told Dahlerus to call London and ask for negotiations again. Dahlerus was on the phone to London as the 11 a.m. deadline passed and Prime Minister Chamblerlain went on the radio to declare war.
|Whitehall in London|
Goering continued using Dahlerus as an intermediary throughout September 1939, though now Dahlerus wisely stayed in Sweden and simply communicated with the British embassy. The British were uninterested by now, but Hitler himself brought Dahlerus to Berlin on September 27 and told Dahlerus to fly to London and find out what they were willing to do. Nothing came of that, either, for the British were getting used to the new state of affairs and wanted "guarantees" that were impossible to give. Dahlerus was given a list of German proposals, but by October London refused to meet with him. Some communications along the line of possible resolutions continued for a while, but it was plain that the British now were losing interest.
|The Germans invading Norway in 1940|
Dahlerus wasn't quite done playing middleman, though. In April 1940, the Germans invaded Norway. Goering used Dahlerus as a go-between again, but this time with the Swedes to see where they stood on allowing German supplies to pass through their territory to some trapped German forces at Narvik. He arranged a meeting in Berlin with some Swedish military figures, headed by the commander of the Swedish Navy, on 15 April 1940. The Swedes refused to allow any German transit over their territory.
|Hermann Goering, left, in the dock at Nuremberg|
After that, Dahlerus had expended his usefulness. He reappeared at Nuremberg to testify about what he had done during the early days of the war, then, after all the Germans with whom he had dealt had died, lived out his years peacefully in Sweden until his own death on 8 March 1957.