David Andelman: The year was 1853. Britain, supported by France and the Ottoman Empire, established a sacred red line against the Russian Czar Nicholas I. The czar was disputing Russian Orthodox and Roman Catholic privileges in the holy sites of Palestine. Each religion had locations there sacred to its people. As Russian forces crossed an inviolable frontier into Ottoman lands, the British fleet was ordered to Constantinople, which controlled the Bosporus, the strategic chokepoint from the Mediterranean into the Black Sea. Two weeks after the arrival of the British navy, the Ottoman sultan declared war on Russia. The Crimean War was launched.
I'm David Andelman, author of the book A Red Line in the Sand. I'll be your host in this podcast as we hopscotch around the world in 12 chapters. Together we’ll examine the red line boundaries that have changed history, set political agendas, spilled blood and smoothed paths toward peace.
In Episode 2 today, we will talk about the origins of the red line. We’ll also dig into how the concept evolved thanks to the Red Line Agreement in the Middle East and Adolf Hitler’s drive towards World War II.
In September 1854, British forces landed in Crimea, a part of Russia dominating the northern shore of the Black Sea. The British laid siege to the Russian fortress at Sevastopol. Its goal was to capture this vital city.
Control of its naval base would allow the British to control the entire Black Sea - the only year-round warm-water outlet for the Russian navy and commercial shipping for the southern reaches of their empire. In 1854, Crimea, and especially Sevastopol, was every bit as strategically important to the Russian Empire as it is to Vladimir Putin today.
September 25, 1854 was a perfect day for battle. The dawn was brilliant and clear, providing unparalleled visibility to the forces assembled - British, Ottoman, and Russian. The ground was bone-dry, well suited both to cavalry and foot soldiers. The Ottomans held the heights above the harbor of Balaclava, the main supply base of the British army in Crimea.
The British manned a series of small forts armed with cannons and held a commanding position over the North Valley, the first line of defense of Balaclava Harbor. British cavalry held the Sapoune Heights, and what would become the storied Light Brigade was strung out along the valley’s western end with the Heavy Brigade in the South Valley.
Russian forces had begun moving in the pre-dawn darkness in three prongs. But it was a battalion of 2,500 Russian cavalry who began advancing on the harbor of Balaclava that most concerns us.
On the British side were the 93rd Highlanders under Sir Colin Campbell. They had taken refuge from Russian fire behind a crest of the rise they'd been commanding. As the Russian cavalry advanced, Campbell ordered the Highlanders to show themselves.
Appearing apparently from nowhere and blocking the entire path of the advancing Russian battalion, Sir Colin's forces threw the Russians into utter confusion. There followed the Charge of the Light Brigade.
Archival Tape: Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
“Forward, the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns!” he said.
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred
DA: As it happens, there was a brilliant eyewitness: William Howard Russell, foreign correspondent for The Times of London. Russell had reached Balaklava in time to chronicle the gallantry of the vastly outnumbered and outgunned British forces. They were holding a defensive line, lined up in their bright red uniforms. He began his narrative:
William Howard Russell [voiced by Bruce Palling]: Russians on their left in one grand line charged in towards Balaklava. The ground flew beneath their horses’ feet; gathering speed at every stride, they dashed on towards that thin red streak tipped with a line of steel. The Turks fired a volley at 800 yards and ran. As the Russians came within 600 yards, down went that line of steel in front, and out rang a rolling volley of musketry…. but ’ere they came within 250 yards, another deadly volley flashed from the levelled rifles and carried terror among the Russians. They wheeled about, opened files right and left and fled faster than they came.
DA: Cross that thin line only at your peril, Russell warned. The Russians tried, and few survived. The red line held and it entered the legend of warfare and, ultimately, of diplomacy. It also forced the Russians to abandon their plans to re-take Balaclava. Russia would lose this war and its access to the Black Sea.
Within two years, the Czar surrendered and the Ottomans reclaimed for the moment their supremacy over the Orthodox shrines in Palestine. The red line had been defended, and held.
While we can trace the phrase “red line” back to 1854 and the Crimean War, the image of a line-in-the-sand, or a point of no return not to be crossed without serious consequences, may be found in the earliest human conflicts. In the New Testament book of John, Jesus was said to have drawn a literal line in the sand. The Pharisees had brought to him an adulteress who under Mosaic law should be stoned to death. Those who were without sin, Jesus dared them, should cross this line and cast the first stone.
But one of the earliest recorded incidents comes in the vast Indian epic Ramayana, ascribed to the poet Valmiki and written somewhere between the fifth century BC and the first century AD. It is the story of Prince Rama whose wife, Sita, is abducted by the evil Ravana, King of the Demons, with ten heads and twenty arms. After spotting the beautiful Sita in the forest, and falling in love with her, Ravana disguises his servant as a golden deer to tempt Rama and Sita’s brother Lakshmana away from Sita. But before leaving in pursuit of the golden deer, Lakshmana draws a protective line in the dust around Sita, telling her not to step across the line and out of the circle. Anyone other than Rama, Sita, or Lakshmana himself crossing that line would immediately be consumed by flames. Of course, when Ravana disguises himself as an old beggar, asking for food and drink, Sita steps across the line and is promptly abducted. Even today, the Lakshman Rekha refers to a strict line, never to be crossed or broken.
But it is quite clear that such red line concepts have been invoked in any number of circumstances on every continent and in every era.
The idea of a strategic line as red may be traced to the period after World War I and the “Red Line Agreement.” Signed in 1928, this intricate document effectively partitioned the vast oil resources of much of the Middle East. At the time, the Ottoman Empire was being dissolved and the largest oil companies of Britain, the United States and France conspired to sign this agreement.
Oil had just become a major commodity, worth fighting for. World War I had been the first conflict where mechanized vehicles were a definitive force, the first with battles between tanks, troops transported by trucks and trains. The gasoline-fueled engines offered an overwhelming strategic advantage. Oil was suddenly a critical commodity.
In 1908, a British adventurer named George Reynolds was under contract with another Englishman William d’Arcy who had a license to explore in Persia. At 4 am on May 26, Reynolds struck oil 1,180 feet below desert sands. They were in a location so remote that it took five days to get word back to London by telegraph. A year later, Reynolds and d’Arcy’s organization became the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, the first in what would become a checkerboard of oil companies and wells scattered across Persia, the Ottoman Empire and down into the great Arabian desert and Saudi Arabia.
One of these early enterprises was the Turkish Petroleum Company, formed in 1912 to acquire concessions from the Ottoman Empire and explore for oil in Mesopotamia—present-day Syria and Iraq. The driving force behind the Turkish Petroleum Company, or TPC, was a strange, flamboyant, bearded, Turkish-Armenian operator named Calouste Gulbenkian. Gulbenkian had organized a consortium of European giants—Deutsche Bank, the Anglo Saxon Oil Company, and the British-owned National Bank of Turkey. But the largest single shareholder of TPC was Reynolds and d’Arcy’s Anglo-Persian Oil.
Just before the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Gulbenkian managed to persuade the Ottoman Grand Vizier to grant him the oil rights TPC needed. After the war, though, with any number of competitors from France, Britain and America breathing down his neck, the issue was precisely where the TPC could drill for oil. At a 1928 meeting of the various involved parties, as negotiators were bickering over a large map, Gulbenkian impulsively snatched up a red pencil. Seizing the map, he drew, quite arbitrarily, boundaries in red. These impulsive red-pencil lines were promptly fixed in the agreement that all parties signed. TPC had by this point been renamed the Iraq Petroleum Company, or IPC.
In what became officially known as The Red Line Agreement, none of the signatories, especially no member of the Iraq Petroleum Company, would operate independently inside this defined line. But it did lead to a monopoly for IPC of all oil exploration inside the red line and immense profits for all involved.
As it happens, these boundaries excluded Saudi Arabia which in 1944 formed ARAMCO and assumed control over the vast oil reserves in this region. But the Red Line Agreement held as it was first, impulsively drafted—a tribute to both the financial stakes involved and the reluctance of any of the parties to tempt fate and risk the billions theoretically in play.
This illustrates one critical aspect of a functioning and enforceable red line. Both parties must recognize the perils and the profits that may accrue to respecting it. So, by the first decades of the twentieth century, such lines were becoming a more central part of many diplomatic undertakings. And none more so than in the early days of Hitler’s rise to power. His ascent was propelled by his unmatched ability to ignore or circumvent every red line established by the Allies in Europe.
On June 28, 1919, in the Palace of Versailles’ glittering Hall of Mirrors, representatives of a defeated Germany signed the Treaty of Versailles ending the First World War - known at the time as simply the Great War. Buried in the treaty’s pages were a series of provisions that inadvertently enabled Adolf Hitler’s rise to power barely a decade later. One of these key provisions was the creation of several new nations out of the ruins of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires—both allies of a defeated Germany.
These newly-formed nations, particularly Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, were the outcomes of a compromise between the leaders of Britain, France, and the United States. The British and French Prime Ministers did not want to deal with a collection of micro-states in what promised to be a most confusing and difficult period of reconstruction in post-war Europe. So, they created a series of crazy-quilt nations—Yugoslavia with six republics and Czechoslovakia, comprising what would eventually become the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Though Czechoslovakia seemed like a reasonable creation in Versailles’ Hall of Mirrors, both Czechs and Slovaks had lobbied fiercely for their own individual homelands during the fraught months of treaty drafting. They saw the boundary between their two regions as a red line of the first order, but no diplomat on the outside listened.
And the Czechs and Slovaks weren’t the only ones included in the configuration of Czechoslovakia. There were also at least three million German speakers—24 percent of the total population of the newly-constructed Czechoslovakia. These ethnic Germans were largely concentrated in the historical regions of Bohemia and Moravia bordering Germany and the new nation of Austria. All were carved out of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. Certainly the Germanic territories, which their people called Sudetenland, could have been ceded to Germany, but the drafters of the Treaty of Versailles had little incentive to expand Germany. After the carnage of the Great War, they hoped this Germany would remain both small and defeated. The Sudeten Germans, of course, were not consulted about what they thought their fate should be. They quickly found themselves an under-represented minority in a nation torn by Czech and Slovak nationalism.
Hitler, a German born in Austria, had strong feelings about the natural affinity of German-speaking Austria and Germany. Their joining together had been expressly forbidden by the Treaty of Versailles. But it was hardly surprising that Hitler's first move when he came to power would be to swallow Austria.
It was a clear violation of the treaty, but Germany, in its press to rearm, had already been violating any number of its provisions: canceling all payments of German war debt and reparations, reoccupying the Rhineland and beginning a massive military buildup, all themselves red lines. But at each stage, Hitler found few consequences for his actions.
In March 1938, the Nazi ministry of propaganda began issuing Fake News reports of rioting in Austria. They falsely announced that the local Austrian population was calling for German troops to restore order. Hitler’s forces were primed and ready, so on March 11, Hitler sent an ultimatum to Austria’s Chancellor—hand over all power to the local Nazis, or face invasion. The British ambassador in Berlin registered an indignant protest against any use of German coercion against Austria. That was as far as Britain would go to defend what was now an essentially toothless Treaty of Versailles.
Recognizing that Austria was unlikely to get any help from France or Britain to hold the line against a Nazi onslaught, Austria's chancellor resigned….He was replaced by a German-speaking lawyer born in Czechoslovakia, but hand-picked by Hitler. His first act after being sworn in in Vienna was to summon German forces. On March 12, the German Wehrmacht’s powerful 8th division crossed the Austrian frontier. Meeting no resistance, they could now proclaim Austria the German province of Östmark. The new chancellor's reign over an independent Austria had lasted just two days.
Hitler had crossed what everyone recognized was a very red line. And he watched for the consequences. In Britain, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain rose in the House of Commons ….
Neville Chamberlain [archival]: Incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas masks here because of a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing...I ask you to wait as calmly as you can for the events of the next few days. As long as war has not begun, there is always hope that it may be prevented.
DA: Chamberlain had begun violating every conceivable rule for the establishment of a successful red line. He had set the stage for a cascade of ever more virulent lines in the sand that would quickly spiral Europe into the Second World War. Clearly, the seeds of Hitler’s rise had been sown long before, in the Treaty of Versailles and the way World War I had concluded. Retribution, rather than reconstruction, was the treaty’s principal goal.
A firm hand a decade later was essential to enforce the treaty’s provisions and the network of red lines it had drawn. Instead, it was allowed to morph and become more toxic with time and neglect. The inaction by Britain and France resulted in increasingly flagrant violations of the lines established at the end of World War I.
The decade of the roaring 1920s rolled into the 1930s and a deepening economic depression. The French government was utterly distracted and made no comment in response to the Anschluss—that brazen seizure of Austria by Hitler. As for the United States, it remained firmly barricaded behind a wall of isolation that would be pierced only by the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.
The stage for the 20th century’s most critical red line had been set.
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It did not take long after the Anschluss for Hitler to pivot to his next target. The Sudeten Germans, located now within the boundaries of Czechoslovakia, had long been agitating for unification with Germany. With the rise of Hitler and the strengthening of the political muscle of the Sudeten Germans, the Czechoslovak President did his best to appease the Nazi government in Berlin and his own German population at home.
He even proposed ceding 2,300 square miles of Czech territory if Germany would accept nearly 2 million Sudeten Germans. Hitler was unresponsive.
Indeed, in a series of increasingly violent and unhinged speeches before tens of thousands of Germans in Berlin's sprawling Sportpalast arena, he whipped up his faithful to the inevitable denouement….
Archival Tape: [Hitler in German, crowd cheering]
DA: Meanwhile, Britain and France were frantic to avoid both war and the expansion of a resurgent Germany presenting an increasingly existential threat.
France, still in the midst of government crises, was desperate not to go to war against Germany. Even with the Maginot Line in place that its military was confident could repel any aggression, the French government was anxious.
They turned management of the Sudeten crisis over to Britain. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain viewed the Sudeten Germans’ grievances as entirely justified. But he also viewed Hitler’s intentions as both honorable and limited.
It was with this context that Chamberlain felt confident establishing a new, ill-advised and poorly-conceived red line. The Brits moved the goal posts week by week until finally they collapsed. The goal from the beginning was to assure a free and independent Czechoslovakia, even if that meant throwing the Sudetenland overboard to Germany. After all, most Sudeten residents clearly preferred being Germans in the first place. Britain believed it had effectively established this intention. So, with the tacit approval of France, Chamberlain began a process that would only weaken his own red line and lead ever closer to war.
The first attempt was mediation, forced by Chamberlain on his Czech counterpart, president Edvard Beneš. Beneš had no choice. He agreed to participate only out of fear of abandonment by the French and British. This effort led only to increasingly strident rants by Hitler and violent demonstrations within Czechoslovakia. All this allowed Hitler to claim that “his” Sudeten Germans were being persecuted by the Beneš government.
To avoid war and the utter breach of what was left of his red line, Chamberlain asked for a face-to-face meeting with Hitler. On September 15, 1938, he traveled to Berchtesgaden, Hitler's lavish mountain-top retreat. Hitler received Chamberlain with a degree of disdain. As one witness recalled, “Hitler…did not even walk down the steps to greet his guest. He waited for him at the top of the stairs.” Chamberlain did his best to restrain a clearly unhinged leader obsessed with racial purity and European, if not world, domination.
The red line Chamberlain proposed would seem, to any rational negotiator, to have met all the tests that even Hitler had established. Hitler was concerned with three million Germans in Czechoslovakia. He felt that those Germans should come into the Reich. They wanted to and he was determined that they should. So, Chamberlain told Hitler:
NC [voiced by Bruce Palling]: You say that the 3 million Sudeten Germans must be included in the Reich. Would you be satisfied with that and is there nothing more that you want? I ask because there are many people who think that is not all. That you wish to dismember Czechoslovakia.
DA: Chamberlain was trying to establish just where a red line might be drawn where it might be respected by Hitler without recourse to war. But Hitler was hardly one to be played, nor did he have a real interest in respecting any line the Brits might establish. Chamberlain still didn’t get that. He returned to England maintaining his confidence that he’d moved the red line just far enough to avoid war. But a week later, he was back again seeing Hitler.
In the interim, he’d received a note from General Hastings Ismay, who’d just been named secretary of Britain’s Committee of Imperial Defence. It contained several key warnings. But foremost:
Hastings Ismay [voiced by Bruce Palling]: From the military point of view, time is in our favour, and that, if war with Germany has to come, it would be better to fight her in say 6-12 months’ time, than to accept the present challenge.”
DA: In other words, move the goalposts and the red line to buy more time. As it turned out, this was most foolish. For Germany, going full bore on its own war machine and arsenal, had the same six to twelve months to build its power.
Hitler agreed to respect the British demands and said he would not cross this red line that he secretly regarded with disdain. Chamberlain returned to London from Munich on September 30, 1938 with the joyous news that Hitler had accepted his proposal:
NC [archival]: And the Prime Minister comes home. Home to an empire filled with joy and relief. Home to a welcome he will never forget. [cheers] I want to say that the settlement of the Czechoslovakian problem which has now been achieved is only the prelude to a larger settlement in which all Europe may find peace. This morning I had another talk with the German chancellor, Herr Hitler. And here is the paper which bears his name upon it as well as mine…..never to go war with one another again.
DA: This was the infamous Munich Agreement….Chamberlain and England’s allies, agreeing to give Hitler the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia. Hitler agreeing this would be his last territorial claim in Europe. Not quite...maybe his first, certainly not his last.
Meanwhile, the Czechoslovak army was mobilizing. With considerable enthusiasm, one million men volunteered within 24 hours. The Czech military was becoming a formidable force. A survey of their borders suggested they might even hold off the Germans long enough for British and French forces to come to the rescue. This would mean a total breakdown of Chamberlain’s red line.
It would all go right down to the wire, since now Hitler had effectively drafted his own red line. In his Sportpalast speech, he had given the Czechs until September 28 at 2 pm to turn over the Sudetenland to Germany or there would be war.
Four hours before Hitler’s deadline, the British asked Germany's fascist ally in Italy, Benito Mussolini, to intercede with Hitler for a 24 hour reprieve.
Why not? Hitler replied magnanimously. The invasion had been set for October 1 anyway. Germany seized the Sudetenland with little resistance.
Chamberlain’s clear misreading of Hitler’s ultimate intentions was a direct path toward creation of a flawed red line that led directly towards World War II. The Czechoslovak red line would last just five months until German troops blithely swooped in and seized the whole country.
Winston Churchill, then a back bench member of Parliament, had begun warning of the urgent need to rearm against Germany. Standing almost alone, Churchill recognized Chamberlain's agreement for what it was—an ephemeral line that Hitler would roll across with impunity, touching off World War II.
Hitler, of course, without a moment’s hesitation, stepped across this and a series of subsequent ultimatums made and catastrophically dissolved —Poland, Belgium, the Soviet Union—each red line established, tested, breached. As Churchill would later say:
Winston Churchill: If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward….But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age,…..Then if the British Empire and its commonwealths last for a thousand years, men will still say, this was their finest hour.
DA: Churchill was proven absolutely right. Red lines, once established, are never sustained simply by ignoring the obvious. The Czechs were never told they would receive no help from the British, French, nor the Americans, who continued simply to cheer in a whisper from the sidelines. Eventually, Britain and America, would have to sacrifice nearly a million of its best men and women.
But British cabinet records of this period suggest that Chamberlain had no idea of the stakes or of the readiness of either side. He went into these negotiations and established his ill-advised red line largely in the dark—allowing Hitler to set the terms and move the goal posts virtually at will.
Hitler had effectively been building his own red lines, in fact contemplating them for years in private. British intelligence had no inkling that full-fledged preparations for total war were already underway by the German general staff while Hitler was taking the Sudetenland. So, two months after he had swallowed the remainder of Czechoslovakia, the next, and final red line, was Poland, which again Hitler had no intention of respecting.
By August 1939, it was clear events were beginning to outstrip Hitler's empty assurances—though Chamberlain continued to cling to his promises as a thin and shrinking reed. On April 28, Hitler withdrew from the German-Polish non-aggression pact. Hitler soon learned that the British and French had failed to conclude an alliance with Stalin and that the Soviets might be interested in a similar pact with Germany instead. This was indeed signed on August 23 by Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov and German Foreign Minister von Ribbentrop. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact assured Hitler that if France and Britain declared war on Germany, the Soviet Union would simply stand aside.
Hitler was quite convinced by British and French behavior on the Sudetenland allowing him to take over Czechoslovakia, that they had little appetite or ability to enforce any of the lines they had established.
A week after the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was signed, German forces were fully mobilized and massed on the Polish border. On September 1, 1939, they moved. Two days later, Britain and France declared war on Germany, but as Hitler anticipated, failed to provide any meaningful support. The battle for Poland was completed by the end of the month.
Hitler had proved a master of understanding just what was needed to thwart every diplomatic or military line drawn by his adversaries.
Chamberlain managed to cling to power until the moment Hitler turned his armies to the west and began his invasion of Holland and Belgium, with France clearly in sight. At this point, Chamberlain went to Buckingham Palace and resigned, urging King George VI to name Churchill as his successor. Then Chamberlain went on the radio for his farewell address:
NC [archival]: The hour has now come when we are to be put to the test, as the innocent people of Holland, Belgium, and France are being tested already. And you and I must rally behind our new leader, and with our united strength, and with unshakable courage fight, and work until this wild beast, which has sprung out of his lair upon us, has been finally disarmed and overthrown.
DA: Chamberlain and his toothless efforts at conciliation and challenge gave Hitler the freedom to plunge Europe quickly into a conflict for which it was ill-prepared.
Red lines, after all, can provide an opportunity to prepare for the consequences, provided they are carefully envisioned and resolutely defended. Churchill had warned early on of the futility of Chamberlain’s lines, especially in the face of Hitler’s utter tyranny. In this case, it seems, Chamberlain was prepared, even eager, to redraw the lines to Hitler’s benefit. In this case, the redrafting was more diplomatic than geographic, unlike the Exacto knife line between desert and jungle in Chad from Episode 1.
In the case of the Munich Agreement and the various steps leading up to it, the red line was never moved geographically. It was always the Sudeten border with Germany and the lines where Hitler’s divisions were pledged to halt, designed to leave the rest of Czechoslovakia free and independent. At least, that’s how it was supposed to work.
Such willingness to embrace a geographical reality while ignoring its political underpinnings is clear evidence of how malignant such diplomatic devices can be in the hands of certain individuals. Individuals with little understanding of their mechanics on the one hand and little intent to observe them on the other.
Munich provided object lessons—for good and for ill. President Harry S. Truman clearly recognized this, invoking “Munich” to justify his military action at the opening of the Korean War, whose red lines we shall examine next. In Korea, Truman was not about to make the same mistake Chamberlain did in Germany.
Thanks for listening. Next week we'll have a look at the Korean Peninsula and the red lines that today may truly balance the world on a knife edge between peace and a nuclear holocaust.
Meanwhile, I hope you’ll check out my new book from Pegasus, "A Red Line in the Sand: Diplomacy, Strategy, and the History of Wars That Might Still Happen."
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Red Lines is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. My special thanks to producer Isabel Robertson, engineer Sean Rule-Hoffman, and executive producers Michael DeAloia and Gerardo Orlando. Our deepest thanks to British journalist Bruce Palling for lending his voice as those of his countrymen.
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