This could be a large and varied subject so I will restrict it to the 20th century and give two instances.

In Sept 39, after Poland was invaded, the British diplomat in Berlin handed a note to the German government stating that if they, the Germans, did not cease hostilities against Poland a state of war would exist and a deadline was given. So post that deadline the countries were at war and so the diplomats were, I suppose, enemy belligerents. What happened to them and indeed the German diplomats in the UK? I presume they were allowed to pack up and leave?

The second case is the Japanese delegation which was translating the Japanese demands which were a virtual declaration of war but because of lack of staff etc. they failed to deliver the note until Pearl Harbour and a de-facto declaration of war had been made. Again, here I presume they were allowed to pack up and leave, but as the diplomatic niceties had not been adhered to there could have been problems.

I presume that there were rules and that also the two side acted rather like hostages for the others. In this case I suppose timing of your diplomats leaving etc. was important?

  • 4
    The notion of diplomats endangered by the outbreak of war is just silly: if they were, diplomats wouldn't exist in the first place.
    – o0'.
    Commented Mar 31, 2014 at 10:50
  • 1
    It's not WW2, but the sinking of HMS Amphion in 1914 relates to the treatment of foreign diplomats leaving the UK after the declaration of WW1.
    – Kobunite
    Commented Aug 7, 2014 at 8:21
  • @Kobunite How so?
    – Dronz
    Commented Jun 23, 2017 at 16:39
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    @Dronz - Sorry, I posted the wrong link here and phrased my comment poorly. The Amphion was sunk by mines thought to have been layed by a minelayer that she had sunk the day before. Before sinking, she came across the ship conveying Prince Lichnowsky, the German Ambassador, back to Germany and warned them of the mines - a courtesy that may not have been extended had the ship not been carrying a Diplomat. Source
    – Kobunite
    Commented Aug 24, 2017 at 10:47
  • 3
    The document that the Japanese diplomats failed to deliver before the Pearl Harbor attack was not a declaration of war. For the most part, it certainly read like one, but it was a statement of breaking off negotiations. The actual declaration of war was taken up shortly after the attack. To be any sort of declaration of war, a document really needs to mention something about a state of war. Commented Jan 2, 2019 at 19:01

4 Answers 4


When a war starts, the diplomats lock down the embassy and leave through a neutral country. They are neither molested nor harassed, and their diplomatic immunity is not disputed. The embassy building and the property therein is taken care of by the neutral country representing the interests of the belligerent (or some other arrangements may be made).

The major point is that both belligerent nations recognize that the war is a temporary affair in their long-term relationships and that a decent treatment of diplomats serves both sides.

One exception I know of is the treatment of the Polish diplomats in USSR in the fall of 1939 after Poland was divided between Germany and USSR. They were allowed to leave USSR (for England via Romania) unmolested, but as private citizens. I.e., the USSR made an effort to demonstrate that Poland is not a Nation anymore. Still, Romanians were allowed to take care of the Polish embassy building &c.

Related: What became of Nazi Germany's embassies in neutral countries?

  • and were no doubt extradited from Romania to Germany and ended up in the gas chambers?
    – jwenting
    Commented Aug 2, 2013 at 5:29
  • 13
    @jwenting: no, they travelled safely to England.
    – sds
    Commented Aug 2, 2013 at 12:11
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    @jwenting: In 1939 Romania was neutral but more like an allied of Poland, and it was closer to France and Britain than to Germany.
    – Pere
    Commented Sep 12, 2016 at 16:00

German, Italian and Japanese diplomats (and others) were repatriated in exchange for Americans using Swedish ships to cross the Atlantic (Drottningholm and Gripsholm) that sailed alone with full lights and a distinctive paint coat. European axis diplomats were exchanged in neutral Portugal, where the Americans were brough by train. Exchanges took place at neutral ports; at Lourenço Marques in Mozambique or Mormugoa in Portuguese India with the Japanese, and Stockholm or Lisbon with the Germans.

This site has lots of information on the Swedish ships

  • Are you sure this is about diplomats and not about other civilians?
    – Pere
    Commented Jan 2, 2019 at 23:38
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    +1 for the details but I suggest you add more information from your link into your post, as the link may suffer link-rot in the future. @Pere It's both.
    – Semaphore
    Commented Jan 3, 2019 at 5:21
  • Gwen Terasaki describes in her memoir "Bridge to the Sun" how she traveled on the Gripsholm with her husband, Japanese diplomat Hidenari "Terry" Terasaki whom she married in 1931, together with the rest of the Japanese embassy staff. Apart from the white paint and a huge Swedish flag, the word "diplomat" was painted on the ships side. Commented Jan 4, 2019 at 21:12
  • 125.0094/151a: Telegram The Acting Secretary of State to the Consul at Lourenço Marques (Preston) Washington, February 25, 1942—2 p.m. 6. This Government has agreed with the Japanese Government that there shall take place at Lourenço Marques an exchange of official personnel and non-official nationals of the American Governments coming from Japan and Japanese-controlled territory against Japanese official personnel and non-official nationals coming from the United States, Canada and the other American Republics. Commented Jan 4, 2019 at 21:14

As for the case of the Japanese diplomats stranded in Washington: the wikipedia page about one of them says they were interned in Hot Springs, Virginia, and then, in July 1942, sent to a neutral country by a neutral ship. This web page seems to imply that they stayed at the luxurious Homestead resort in Hot Springs through May 1942 and then were transferred to the Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs in West Virginia until being repatriated in July.

  • 2
    Small typo: it's the Greenbrier, not the Greenbriar. Note also that his was done in coordination with the Axis governments and diplomatic respect was largely adhered to, so not internment in the same sense as that faced by Japanese Americans. You're otherwise correct - the European Axis personnel were moved into the Greenbrier on December 19, and Japanese (all 249 + others) into the Homestead on December 27. BTW, the Japanese eventually joined the Germans and Italians at the Greenbrier because of disputes over how much the Homestead wanted to charge. Anyway, +1
    – Semaphore
    Commented Jan 3, 2019 at 5:32

According to Diplomat in Berlin, 1933-1939: Papers and Memoirs of Józef Lipski, Ambassador of Poland., numerous Polish diplomats were imprisoned and/or killed by the Germans when they attacked Poland on Sept. 1, 1939. Polish Consuls imprisoned in Germany included

Consul Bohdan Jakowiecki who was imprisoned in Konigsberg and in concentration camps Hohenbruch and Dzialdow, where he died in Feb. 1941. Also, Consul Witold Winiarski, who was imprisoned in Konigsberg, died in concentration camp Dialdowo in August 1941. Consul Emil Schuller committed suicide in prison in Konigsberg in May 1941... 51 Polish foreign service employees were arrested by the Germans, 27 of whom were executed or died in concentration camps.

  • 3
    Hi and welcome to Hist SE. Can you add a link for the memoirs? Commented Jul 29, 2023 at 1:00

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