Military history

14. THE TURN OF POLAND

ON OCTOBER 24, 1938, less than a month after Munich, Ribbentrop was host to Józef Lipski, the Polish ambassador in Berlin, at a three-hour lunch at the Grand Hotel in Berchtesgaden. Poland, like Germany and indeed in connivance with her, had just seized a strip of Czech territory. The luncheon talk proceeded, as a German Foreign Office memorandum stressed, “in a very friendly atmosphere.”1

Nevertheless, the Nazi Foreign Minister lost little time in getting down to business. The time had come, he said, for a general settlement between Poland and Germany. It was necessary, first of all, he continued, “to speak with Poland about Danzig.” It should “revert” to Germany. Also, Ribbentrop said, the Reich wished to build a super motor highway and a double-track railroad across the Polish Corridor to connect Germany with Danzig and East Prussia. Both would have to enjoy extraterritorial rights. Finally, Hitler wished Poland to join the Anti-Comintern Pact against Russia. In return for all these concessions, Germany would be willing to extend the Polish–German treaty by from ten to twenty years and guarantee Poland’s frontiers.

Ribbentrop emphasized he was broaching these problems “in strict confidence.” He suggested that the ambassador make his report to Foreign Minister Beck “orally—since otherwise there was great danger of its leaking out, especially to the press.” Lipski promised to report to Warsaw but warned Ribbentrop that personally he saw “no possibility” of the return of Danzig to Germany. He further reminded the German Foreign Minister of two recent occasions—November 5, 1937, and January 14, 1938—when Hitler had personally assured the Poles that he would not support any change in the Danzig Statute.2 Ribbentrop replied that he did not wish an answer now, but advised the Poles “to think it over.”

The government in Warsaw did not need much time to collect its thoughts. A week later, on October 31, Foreign Minister Beck dispatched detailed instructions to his ambassador in Berlin on how to answer the Germans. But it was not until November 19 that the latter was able to secure an interview with Ribbentrop—the Nazis obviously wanted the Poles to consider well their response. It was negative. As a gesture of understanding, Poland was willing to replace the League of Nations’ guarantee of Danzig with a German–Polish agreement about the status of the Free City.

“Any other solution,” Beck wrote in a memorandum which Lipski read to Ribbentrop, “and in particular any attempt to incorporate the Free City into the Reich, must inevitably lead to conflict.” And he added that Marshal Pilsudski, the late dictator of Poland, had warned the Germans in 1934, during the negotiations for a nonaggression pact, that “the Danzig question was a sure criterion for estimating Germany’s intentions toward Poland.”

Such a reply was not to Ribbentrop’s taste. “He regretted the position taken by Beck” and advised the Poles that it was “worth the trouble to give serious consideration to the German proposals.”3

Hitler’s response to Poland’s rebuff on Danzig was more drastic. On November 24, five days after the Ribbentrop-Lipski meeting, he issued another directive to the commanders in chief of the armed forces.

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The Fuehrer has ordered: Apart from the three contingencies mentioned in the instructions of 10/21/38* preparations are also to be made to enable the Free State of Danzig to be occupied by German troops by surprise.

The preparations will be made on the following basis: Condition is a quasi-revolutionary occupation of Danzig, exploiting a politically favorable situation, not a war against Poland. …

The troops to be employed for this purpose must not simultaneously be earmarked for the occupation of the Memelland, so that both operations can, if necessary, take place simultaneously. The Navy will support the Army’s operation by attack from the sea … The plans of the branches of the armed forces are to be submitted by January 10, 1939.

Though Beck had just warned that an attempt by Germany to take Danzig would lead “inevitably” to conflict, Hitler now convinced himself that it could be done without a war. Local Nazis controlled Danzig and they took their orders, as had the Sudeteners, from Berlin. It would not be difficult to stir up a “quasi-revolutionary” situation there.

Thus, as 1938 approached its end, the year that had seen the bloodless occupation of Austria and the Sudetenland, Hitler was preoccupied with further conquest: the remainder of Czechoslovakia, Memel, and Danzig. It had been easy to humble Schuschnigg and Beneš. Now it was Józef Beck’s turn.

Yet, when the Fuehrer received the Polish Foreign Minister at Berchtesgaden shortly after New Year’s—on January 5, 1939—he was not yet prepared to give him the treatment which he had meted out to Schuschnigg and was shortly to apply to President Hácha. The rest of Czechoslovakia would have to be liquidated first. Hitler, as the secret Polish and German minutes of the meeting make clear, was in one of his more conciliatory moods. He was “quite ready,” he began, “to be at Beck’s service.” Was there anything “special,” he asked, on the Polish Foreign Minister’s mind? Beck replied that Danzig was on his mind. It became obvious that it had also been on Hitler’s.

“Danzig is German,” the Fuehrer reminded his guest, “will always remain German, and will sooner or later become part of Germany.” He could give the assurance, however, that “no fait accompli would be engineered in Danzig.”

He wanted Danzig and he wanted a German highway and railroad across the Corridor. If he and Beck would “depart from old patterns and seek solutions along entirely new lines,” he was sure they could reach an agreement which would do justice to both countries.

Beck was not so sure. Though, as he confided to Ribbentrop the next day, he did not want to be too blunt with the Fuehrer, he had replied that “the Danzig problem was a very difficult one.” He did not see in the Chancellor’s suggestion any “equivalent” for Poland. Hitler thereupon pointed out the “great advantage” to Poland “of having her frontier with Germany, including the Corridor, secured by treaty.” This apparently did not impress Beck, but in the end he agreed to think the problem over further.4

After mulling it over that night, the Polish Foreign Minister had a talk with Ribbentrop the next day in Munich. He requested him to inform the Fuehrer that whereas all his previous talks with the Germans had filled him with optimism, he was today, after his meeting with Hitler, “for the first time in a pessimistic mood.” Particularly in regard to Danzig, as it had been raised by the Chancellor, he “saw no possibility whatever of agreement.”5

It had taken Colonel Beck, like so many others who have figured in these pages, some time to awaken and to arrive at such a pessimistic view. Like most Poles, he was violently anti-Russian. Moreover, he disliked the French, for whom he had nursed a grudge since 1923, when, as Polish military attaché in Paris, he had been expelled for allegedly selling documents relating to the French Army. Perhaps it had been natural for this man, who had become Polish Foreign Minister in November 1932, to turn to Germany. For the Nazi dictatorship he had felt a warm sympathy from the beginning, and over the past six years he had striven to bring his country closer to the Third Reich and to weaken its traditional ties with France.

   Of all the countries that lay on the borders of Germany, Poland had, in the long run, the most to fear. Of all the countries, it had been the most blind to the German danger. No other provision of the Versailles Treaty had been resented by the Germans as much as that which established the Corridor, giving Poland access to the sea—and cutting off East Prussia from the Reich. The detachment of the old Hanseatic port of Danzig from Germany and its creation as a free city under the supervision of the League of Nations, but dominated economically by Poland, had equally outraged German public opinion. Even the weak and peaceful Weimar Republic had never accepted what it regarded as the Polish mutilation of the German Reich. As far back as 1922, General von Seeckt, as we have seen,* had defined the German Army’s attitude.

Poland’s existence is intolerable and incompatible with the essential conditions of Germany’s life. Poland must go and will go—as a result of her own internal weaknesses and of action by Russia—with our aid … The obliteration of Poland must be one of the fundamental drives of German policy … [and] is attainable by means of, and with the help of, Russia.

Prophetic words!

The Germans forgot—or perhaps did not wish to remember—that almost all of the German land awarded Poland at Versailles, including the provinces of Posen and Polish Pomerania (Pomorze), which formed the Corridor, had been grabbed by Prussia at the time of the partitions when Prussia, Russia and Austria had destroyed the Polish nation. For more than a millennium it had been inhabited by Poles—and, to a large extent, it still was.

No nation re-created by Versailles had had such a rough time as Poland. In the first turbulent years of its rebirth it had waged aggressive war against Russia, Lithuania, Germany and even Czechoslovakia—in the last instance over the coal-rich Teschen area. Deprived of their political freedom for a century and a half and thus without modern experience in self-rule, the Poles were unable to establish stable government or to begin to solve their economic and agrarian problems. In 1926 Marshal Pilsudski, the hero of the 1918 revolution, had marched on Warsaw, seized control of the government and, though an old-time Socialist, had gradually replaced a chaotic democratic regime with his own dictatorship. One of his last acts, before his death in 1935, was to sign a treaty of nonaggression with Hitler. This took place on January 26, 1934, and, as has been recounted, was one of the first steps in the undermining of France’s system of alliances with Germany’s Eastern neighbors and in the weakening of the League of Nations and its concept of collective security. After Pilsudski’s death, Poland was largely governed by a small band of “colonels,” leaders of Pilsudski’s old Polish Legion which had fought against Russia during the First World War. At the head of these was Marshal Smigly-Rydz, a capable soldier but in no way a statesman. Foreign policy drifted into the hands of Colonel Beck. From 1934 on, it became increasingly pro-German.

This was bound to be a policy of suicide. And indeed when one considers Poland’s position in post-Versailles Europe it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the Poles in the nineteen thirties, as on occasions in the centuries before, were driven by some fateful flaw in their national character toward self-destruction and that in this period, as sometimes formerly, they were their own worst enemies. As long as Danzig and the Corridor existed as they were, there could be no lasting peace between Poland and Nazi Germany. Nor was Poland strong enough to afford the luxury of being at odds with both her giant neighbors, Russia and Germany. Her relations with the Soviet Union had been uniformly bad since 1920, when Poland had attacked Russia, already weakened by the World War and the civil war, and a savage conflict had followed.*

Seizing an opportunity to gain the friendship of a country so stoutly anti-Russian and at the same time to detach her from Geneva and Paris, thus undermining the system of Versailles, Hitler had taken the initiative in bringing about the Polish–German pact of 1934. It was not a popular move in Germany. The German Army, which had been pro-Russian and anti-Polish since the days of Seeckt, resented it. But it served Hitler admirably for the time being. Poland’s sympathetic friendship helped him to get first things done first: the reoccupation of the Rhineland, the destruction of independent Austria and Czechoslovakia. On all of these steps, which strengthened Germany, weakened the West and threatened the East, Beck and his fellow colonels in Warsaw looked on benevolently and with utter and inexplicable blindness.

   If the Polish Foreign Minister at the very start of the new year had, as he said, been plunged into a pessimistic mood by Hitler’s demands, his spirits sank much lower with the coming of spring. Though in his anniversary speech to the Reichstag on January 30, 1939, Hitler spoke in warm terms of “the friendship between Germany and Poland” and declared that it was “one of the reassuring factors in the political life in Europe,” Ribbentrop had talked with more frankness when he paid a state visit to Warsaw four days before. He again raised with Beck the question of Hitler’s demands concerning Danzig and communications through the Corridor, insisting that they were “extremely moderate.” But neither on these questions nor on his insistence that Poland join the Anti-Comintern Pact against the Soviet Union did the German Foreign Minister get a satisfactory answer.6 Colonel Beck was becoming wary of his friends. As a matter of fact, he was beginning to squirm. On February 26, the German ambassador in Warsaw informed Berlin that Beck had taken the initiative in getting himself invited to visit London at the end of March and that he might go on to Paris afterward. Though it was late in the day, Poland, as Moltke put it in his dispatch, “desires to get in touch with the Western democracies … [for] fear that a conflict might arise with Germany over Danzig.”7 With Beck too, as with so many others who had tried to appease the ravenous appetite of Adolf Hitler, the scales were falling from the eyes.

They fell completely and forever on March 15 when Hitler occupied Bohemia and Moravia and sent his troops to protect “independent” Slovakia. Poland woke up that morning to find itself flanked in the south along the Slovak border, as it already was in the north on the frontiers of Pomerania and East Prussia, by the German Army. Its military position had overnight become untenable.

   March 21, 1939, is a day to be remembered in the story of Europe’s march toward war.

There was intense diplomatic activity that day in Berlin, Warsaw and London. The President of the French Republic, accompanied by Foreign Minister Bonnet, arrived in the British capital for a state visit. To the French Chamberlain suggested that their two countries join Poland and the Soviet Union in a formal declaration stating that the four nations would consult immediately about steps to halt further aggression in Europe. Three days before, Litvinov had proposed—as he had just a year before, after the Anschluss—a European conference, this time of France, Britain, Poland, Russia, Rumania and Turkey, which would join together to stop Hitler. But the British Prime Minister had found the idea “premature.” He was highly distrustful of Moscow and thought a “declaration” by the four powers, including the Soviet Union, was as far as he could go.*

His proposal was presented to Beck in Warsaw by the British ambassador on the same day, March 21, and received a somewhat cool reception, as far as including the Russians was concerned. The Polish Foreign Minister was even more distrustful of the Soviet Union than Chamberlain and, moreover, shared the Prime Minister’s views about the worthlessness of Russian military aid. He was to hold these views, unflinchingly, right up to the moment of disaster.

But the most fateful event of this day of March 21 for Poland took place in Berlin. Ribbentrop invited the Polish ambassador to call on him at noon. For the first time, as Lipski noted in a subsequent report, the Foreign Minister was not only cool toward him but aggressive. The Fuehrer, he warned, “was becoming increasingly amazed at Poland’s attitude.” Germany wanted a satisfactory reply to her demands for Danzig and a highway and railroad through the Corridor. This was a condition for continued friendly Polish–German relations. “Poland must realize,” Ribbentrop laid it down, “that she could not take a middle course between Russia and Germany.” Her only salvation was “a reasonable relationship with Germany and her Fuehrer.” That included a joint “anti-Soviet policy.” Moreover, the Fuehrer desired Beck “to pay an early visit to Berlin.” In the meantime, Ribbentrop strongly advised the Polish ambassador to hurry to Warsaw and explain to his Foreign Minister in person what the situation was. “He advised,” Lipski informed Beck, “that the talk [with Hitler] should not be delayed, lest the Chancellor should come to the conclusion that Poland was rejecting all his offers.”8

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