Hitler may well have wanted to make peace with Britain, but one can argue that the motives underlying that desire have a lesser connection to any altruistic motivation towards Britain, but rather as a means to ensuring that potential threats to his ambitions in Europe would remain isolated and deprived of an opportunity to coalesce against him.
This policy came unstuck as soon as Britain and France declared war on Germany, especially so as the proclaimed motivation for such a declaration was the defence of Polish Independence. Hitler misread the extent of British and French concerns over his actions following Munich and so he misjudged their reactions towards his invasion of Poland. Equally important, Hitler failed to understand the basis of this reaction. As early as 26th September Hitler’s motive towards his forthcoming peace overtures are made clear;
(6) to stimulate the desire for peace in the enemy and among the neutrals. The enemy has no concrete peace ideas. We, however, are in possession of conquered territories and able to announce war aims. Particularly, we should give the French food for thought through real hopes for peace and should promote the process of their inner detachment from the English.
[Documents on German Foreign Policy. Series D Volume VIII - Weisacker. No 137 September 26 1939]
On the assumption that the British and French are less interested in his aims in Europe and more interested in settling the Polish Question so as to establish ‘peace’ , a sop is to be thrown to the Allies
In order to aid the peace party in France, we wish to inject the following program into the discussion :
Essentially, Germany claims the boundaries of 1914. Beyond that, the future of Rump Poland a depends on whether the Western Powers should now say they are willing to come around
[ Documents..op cit}
whilst simultaneously demanding
The Fiihrer replied that the British, if they wanted peace, would certainly have to be absolutely clear about the actual facts. Germany had won a victory in Poland which was without precedent in history. In 14 days he had completely destroyed a country of 36 million inhabitants which had an army of 45 divisions, in part well equipped, and whose soldiers had fought bravely. In these circumstances, the Fiihrer had no intention of allowing anyone to interfere in the solution of the Polish question. Moreover, the Russians also had a weighty word to say in the matter. They, too, had occupied large portions of Poland.
The Fiihrer replied that a condition for peace discussions would be to allow him an entirely free hand with regard to Poland. If the British still wanted to salvage something of Poland he could only advise them to hasten the peace discussions.
Moreover, everything depended on whether the British actually desired peace. If the British actually wanted peace, the Fiihrer continued, they could have it in 2 weeks without losing face. A prerequisite for this, to be sure, was that they reconcile themselves to the fact that Poland could not again arise. Russia, too, had something to say about the matter and was not inclined to give up again the areas she occupied. The fate of Poland would not be decided at the conference table, for the decision had already fallen elsewhere. It was now a question of the future of Europe, which could only be assured if the Polish problem, which had already been decided, were completely set aside and thought given only to Europe.
[Documents on German Foreign Policy. Series D Volume VIII - Schmidt. No 138 September 26 1939]
Britains response to Hitler’s peace proposals, as given in his speech to the Reichstag 6th October, was unequivocal
I would sum up the attitude of His Majesty's Government as follows Herr Hitler rejected all suggestions for peace until he had overwhelmed Poland, as he had previously overthrown Czechoslovakia. Peace conditions cannot be acceptable which begin by condoning aggression.
The proposals in the German Chancellor's speech are vague and uncertain and contain no suggestion for righting the wrongs done to Czecho-Slovakia and to Poland.
Even if Herr Hitler's proposals were more closely defined and contained suggestions to right these wrongs, it would still be necessary to ask by what practical means the German Government intend to convince the world that aggression will cease and that pledges will be kept. Past experience has shown that no reliance can be placed upon the promises of the present German Government. Accordingly, acts—not words alone— must be forthcoming before we, the British peoples, and France, our gallant and trusted Ally, would be justified in ceasing to wage war to the utmost of our strength. Only when world confidence is restored will it be possible to find—as we would wish to do with the aid of all who show good will—solutions of those questions which disturb the world, which stand in the way of disarmament, retard the restoration of trade and prevent the improvement of the well-being of the peoples.
There is thus a primary condition to be satisfied. Only the German Government can fulfil it. If they will not, there can as yet be no new or better world order of the kind for which all nations yearn.
[Chamberlain. Hansard. House of Commons Debate - British Reply to German Proposals 12 October 1939]
This position remained unaffected until may 1940..
Even before the war broke out, Britain envisaged the possibility of Hitler taking action against Holland and Belgium. The particular British sensitivity to such a possibility, in countries which were effectively Britain’s doorstep, is reflected in their inclusion within the Anglo-Polish Agreement of August 1939. Hitler’s intention for these countries can be assessed in Hid Directive No 6 of October 1939.
Once the German assault on those countries commenced, reinforcement of Britain’s previously held assessment of Hitler’s motives occurred. The assault on France took this to an entirely new level. Britain’s direct remaining ally in Europe was now bleeding.
Following the fall of France and the commencement of the air assault on Britain, her war aims no longer prioritised the needs of other countries, but looked to her own survival. The underlying reasons for accepting Hitler’s peace offers had changed.
Having declared their war aims in 1939, the failure to achieve these carried the risk of fulfilling Hitler’s desired outcomes. Britain would have shown her willingness to back down when compromise was offered, demonstrate the loss if international influence and initiative to Hitler and become isolated.
To accept peace terms in 1940, would simply magnify the perception other European countries would hold. Was it better to ally themselves to Hitler and become part of an expanding Reich or attach to Britain, which would have proved that it could not confront Hitler politically and was just as likely to agree to Hitler’s demands? Which would offer the better terms?
Once attacked directly, how could Britain then avoid what would appear to be a humiliating peace dictated by Hitler. It is not certain that whatever personal view Hitler held of Britain, by possessing the upper hand he would not oblige Britain to expend its resources to support his ambition towards the Soviet Union.
It should be remembered that the underpinning to the whole issue of peace with Germany was not established by Churchill but by Chamberlain. Having had the course set for him, Churchill could follow the proclaimed policy,( the defence of other countries independence), or overturn it. Churchill was only free to establish an entirely new policy ( the defence of Britain’s independence) following a time when Britain had been directly attacked. Churchill re-framed Britain’s war aims at that time and the rest, as they say, is history.
Whilst it may be said that the conditions necessary for peace to be established fall into two categories, pre-and post 1940, they are interdependent .
The question should also be asked Who rejected whose offer? Britain made a series of offers to Germany before 3rd September 1939. Hitler rejected them. The Poles made a series of offers to Hitler before and on 1st September 1939. Hitler refused to consider them. Peace was achievable at any time prior to the assault on Britain ( and possibly thereafter). However the responsibility for effecting such a peace lay upon Hitler and not Chamberlain, Churchill or anyone else. Consequently other questions must be asked - Was it possible for Churchill to take any other course of action ? Would Britain have lost even more had it accepted Hitler’s terms?