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Ivan Maisky

In 1939 Maisky dealt with a number of crises including intense British hostility towards the Soviets.

Ivan Maisky

In 1939 Maisky dealt with a number of crises including intense British hostility towards the Soviets.


At times, Chamberlain even tried to bang his fist on the famous ‘box’ on the Speaker’s table. But everything cost him such torment and was expressed with such despair in his eyes, voice and gestures that it was sickening to watch him. And this is the head of the British Empire at the most critical moment in its history! He is not the head of the British Empire, but its grave-digger! ...

Unless an extraordinary miracle happens at the very last moment, Britain will find itself at war with Germany within the next 48 hours.


Chamberlain, looking terribly depressed and speaking in a quiet, lifeless voice, confessed that 18 months ago (when Eden retired!) he prayed not to have to take upon himself the responsibility for declaring war, but now he fears that he will not be able to avoid it. But the true responsibility for the unleashing of war lies not with the prime minister, but ‘on the shoulders of one man – the German Chancellor’, who has not hesitated to hurl mankind into the abyss of immense suffering ‘to serve his senseless ambitions’. 

In the evening, Agniya and I went to the Globe to see Oscar Wilde’s delicious comedy The Importance of Being Earnest. The actors were superb. An image of the ‘good old times’ – without automobiles, radio, airplanes, air raids, Hitlers and Mussolinis – seemed to come alive. People were funny and naive then, to judge by today’s standards. We laughed for two hours. That’s something to be grateful for.

When we got back from the theatre, the radio brought sensational news: the 16 points which Hitler demands from Poland. The immediate return of Danzig, a plebiscite in the ‘Corridor’, an international committee made up of Italian, British, French and Soviet representatives, a vote in 1940, and so on and so forth.

What’s this? A step back? Slowing down?

I doubt it. It’s too late for Hitler to retreat. It’s almost certainly a manoeuvre. Is it an attempt to hoodwink the world’s public and perhaps the German people as well before a decisive ‘leap’?

Yesterday, late at night, the non-aggression pact between the USSR and Germany was signed in Moscow, and today Ribbentrop is flying back. 

Our policy is obviously undergoing a sharp change of direction, the meaning and consequences of which are not yet entirely clear to me. I must wait for further information from Moscow.


The pact stipulates consultations between the governments on matters of mutual interest, and does not contain an escape clause. The duration of the pact is ten years.


Ribbentrop has flown in to Moscow surrounded by 32 attendants! That’s just like him. I remember that when he was ambassador in Britain he travelled between London and Berlin accompanied by no fewer than 30–40 adjutants.

Last night, at around 12, I got a telephone call from Hillman of the International News Service, who shouted down the phone, in great alarm and agitation, that the following news had just come in from Berlin: Germany and the USSR were signing a non-aggression pact. Ribbentrop would be flying to Moscow for that purpose tomorrow. Was this possible?

Involuntarily, I threw up my hands. See more

It seems that our negotiations with the British and the French have collapsed. Already in July, there had been a strong desire in Moscow for their termination. Now things have gone from bad to worse. To judge by information received from various sources, the situation is roughly as follows.

When negotiations between the military delegations opened in Moscow on 12 August, the Soviet side inquired about the British and French missions’ letters of credentials. It turned out that they had not brought any with them. Naturally, this produced a very bad impression. The Soviet side asked the British and the French to get the required letters from London and Paris. A few days later these were received and presented, but... they turned out to be so general and vague that it became clear to us that London and Paris had no serious intention of concluding an agreement. See more

We got away for a week and spent it at the Malvern drama festival. Apart from going to the theatre, we drove around the wonderful Malvern countryside. We met a few diplomats there and others from London ‘society’. We were guests at the estate of Sir Sidney Clive, marshal of the diplomatic corps. Most of the talk at the tea table was about the threatening international situation. One of the guests from the City asked me what was to be expected in the upcoming week. Not wanting to embark on a lengthy analysis, I just said: ‘I fear that next week will be very difficult. I think I was right. But we shall see.

I had breakfast together with the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Viscount Gort, Lord Lloyd, Degville and others. 

Gort, in response to my question, said that although the official policy shared with the general public is that the British government does not plan to send a large army to the continent in the event of a new war, nevertheless, the General Staff understands perfectly that it will end up having to send exactly that kind of army, and therefore it is already now doing everything necessary to prepare for this, particularly in the area of preparing weapons and equipment. Conscription, according to Gort, will continue to be deployed. During the first year, the second army will be drafted, then a third, etc. Gort noted, boasting slightly, that only 9% of the first draft were deemed unfit for service. (Nota bene: it would be interesting to find out what guidelines were used as criteria for enlistment?) Gort estimates Germany’s military capabilities to be rather weak: it has no more than 3,000 vehicles in the first division, and Germany will not be able to fight for more than a year. Gort was very interested in the outlook for military talks in Moscow and expressed his personal sympathy for a three-way pact. 

On my way home, I couldn’t help smiling at history’s mischievous sense of humour.

In subjective terms, it is difficult to imagine a situation more favourable for an Anglo-German bloc against the USSR and less favourable for an Anglo-Soviet bloc against Germany. Indeed, the spontaneous preferences of the British ‘upper ten thousand’ most definitely lie with Germany. See more

The members of the military mission to Moscow – Admiral Drax (head), Air Marshal Burnett and Major General Heywood – came for lunch. The guests were highly reserved in conversation and preferred to discuss such innocuous topics as partridge hunting, the season for which they will clearly have to spend in Moscow. See more