Military history

THE HEAT ON POLAND

The German annexation of the Memelland came as “a very unpleasant surprise” to the Polish government, as the German ambassador to Poland, Hans-Adolf von Moltke, reported to Berlin from Warsaw on the following day. “The main reason for this,” he added, “is that it is generally feared that now it will be the turn of Danzig and the Corridor.”12 He also informed the German Foreign Office that Polish reservists were being called up. The next day, March 25, Admiral Canaris, chief of the Abwehr, reported that Poland had mobilized three classes and was concentrating troops around Danzig. General Keitel did not believe this showed “any aggressive intentions on the part of the Poles,” but the Army General Staff, he noted, “took a somewhat more serious view.”13

Hitler returned to Berlin from Memel on March 24 and on the next day had a long talk with General von Brauchitsch, the Commander in Chief of the Army. From the latter’s confidential memorandum of the conversation it appears that the Leader had not yet made up his mind exactly howto proceed against Poland.14 In fact, his turbulent brain seemed to be full of contradictions. Ambassador Lipski was due back on the next day, March 26, and the Fuehrer did not want to see him.

Lipski will return from Warsaw on Sunday, March 26 [Brauchitsch noted]. He was commissioned to ask whether Poland would be prepared to come to some terms with regard to Danzig. The Fuehrer left during the night of March 25: he does not wish to be here when Lipski returns. Ribbentrop shall negotiate at first. The Fuehrer does not wish, though, to solve the Danzig problem by force. He would not like to drive Poland into the arms of Great Britain by doing so.

A military occupation of Danzig would have to be taken into consideration only if Lipski gives a hint that the Polish Government could not take the responsibility toward their own people to cede Danzig voluntarily and the solution would be made easier for them by a fait accompli.

This is an interesting insight into Hitler’s mind and character at this moment. Three months before, he had personally assured Beck that there would be no German fait accompli in Danzig. Yet he remembered that the Polish Foreign Minister had stressed that the Polish people would never stand for turning over Danzig to Germany. If the Germans merely seized it, would not this fait accompli make it easier for the Polish government to accept it? Hitherto Hitler had been a genius at sizing up the weaknesses of his foreign opponents and taking advantage of them, but here, for almost the first time, his judgment has begun to falter. The “colonels” who governed Poland were a mediocre and muddling lot, but the last thing they wanted, or would accept, was a fait accompli in Danzig.

The Free City was uppermost in Hitler’s mind, but he was also thinking beyond it, just as he had done in regard to Czechoslovakia after Munich had given him the Sudetenland.

For the time being [Brauchitsch noted], the Fuehrer does not intend to solve the Polish question. However, it should be worked on. A solution in the near future would have to be based on especially favorable political conditions. In that case Poland shall be knocked down so completely that it need not be taken into account as a political factor for the next few decades. The Fuehrer has in mind as such a solution a borderline advanced from the eastern border of East Prussia to the eastern tip of Upper Silesia.

Brauchitsch well knew what that border signified. It was Germany’s prewar eastern frontier, which Versailles had destroyed, and which had prevailed as long as there was no Poland.

If Hitler had any doubts as to what the Polish reply would be they were dissipated when Ambassador Lipski returned to Berlin on Sunday, March 26, and presented his country’s answer in the form of a written memorandum.15 Ribbentrop read it at once, rejected it, stormed about Polish mobilization measures and warned the envoy “of possible consequences.” He also declared that any violation of Danzig territory by Polish troops would be regarded as aggression against the Reich.

Poland’s written response, while couched in conciliatory language, was a firm rejection of the German demands. It expressed willingness to discuss further means of facilitating German rail and road traffic across the Corridor but refused to consider making such communications extraterritorial. As for Danzig, Poland was willing to replace the League of Nations status by a Polish–German guarantee but not to see the Free City become a part of Germany.

Nazi Germany by this time was not accustomed to see a smaller nation turning down its demands, and Ribbentrop remarked to Lipski that “it reminded him of certain risky steps taken by another state”—an obvious reference to Czechoslovakia, which Poland had helped Hitler to dismember. It must have been equally obvious to Lipski, when he was summoned again to the Foreign Office the next day by Ribbentrop, that the Third Reich would now resort to the same tactics against Poland which had been used so successfully against Austria and Czechoslovakia. The Nazi Foreign Minister raged at the alleged persecution of the German minority in Poland, which, he said, had created “a disastrous impression in Germany.”

In conclusion, the [German] Foreign Minister remarked that he could no longer understand the Polish Government … The proposals transmitted yesterday by the Polish Ambassador could not be regarded as a basis for a settlement. Relations between the two countries were therefore rapidly deteriorating.16

Warsaw was not so easily intimidated as Vienna and Prague. The next day, March 28, Beck sent for the German ambassador and told him, in answer to Ribbentrop’s declaration that a Polish coup against Danzig would signify a casus belli, that he in turn was forced to state that any attempt by Germany or the Nazi Danzig Senate to alter the status of the Free City would be regarded by Poland as a casus belli.

“You want to negotiate at the point of a bayonet!” exclaimed the ambassador.

“This is your own method,” Beck replied.17

The reawakened Polish Foreign Minister could afford to stand up to Berlin more firmly than Beneš had been able to do, for he knew that the British government, which a year before had been anxious to help Hitler obtain his demands against Czechoslovakia, was now taking precisely the opposite course in regard to Poland. Beck himself had torpedoed the British proposal for a four-power declaration, declaring that Poland refused to associate itself with Russia in any manner. Instead, on March 22, he had suggested to Sir Howard Kennard, the British ambassador in Warsaw, the immediate conclusion of a secret Anglo–Polish agreement for consultation in case of a threatened attack by a third power. But, alarmed by German troop movements adjacent to Danzig and the Corridor and by British intelligence concerning German demands on Poland (which the tricky Beck had denied to the British), Chamberlain and Halifax wanted to go further than mere “consultations.”

On the evening of March 30, Kennard presented to Beck an Anglo–French proposal for mutual-assistance pacts in case of German aggression.* But even this step was overtaken by events. Fresh reports of the possibility of an imminent German attack on Poland prompted the British government on the same evening to ask Beck whether he had any objection to an interim unilateral British guarantee of Poland’s independence. Chamberlain had to know by the morrow, as he wished to answer a parliamentary question on the subject. Beck—his sense of relief may be imagined—had no objection. In fact, he told Kennard, he “agreed without hesitation.”19

The next day, March 31, as we have seen, Chamberlain made his historic declaration in the House of Commons that Britain and France “would lend the Polish Government all support in their power” if Poland were attacked and resisted.

To anyone in Berlin that weekend when March 1939 came to an end, as this writer happened to be, the sudden British unilateral guarantee of Poland seemed incomprehensible, however welcome it might be in the lands to the west and the east of Germany. Time after time, as we have seen, in 1936 when the Germans marched into the demilitarized Rhineland, in 1938 when they took Austria and threatened a European war to take the Sudetenland, even a fortnight before, when they grabbed Czechoslovakia, Great Britain and France, backed by Russia, could have taken action to stop Hitler at very little cost to themselves. But the peace-hungry Chamberlain had shied away from such moves. Not only that: he had gone out of his way, he had risked, as he said, his political career to help Adolf Hitler get what he wanted in the neighboring lands. He had done nothing to save the independence of Austria. He had consorted with the German dictator to destroy the independence of Czechoslovakia, the only truly democratic nation on Germany’s eastern borders and the only one which was a friend of the West and which supported the League of Nations and the idea of collective security. He had not even considered the military value to the West of Czechoslovakia’s thirty-five well-trained, well-armed divisions entrenched behind their strong mountain fortifications at a time when Britain could put only two divisions in France and when the German Army was incapable of fighting on two fronts and, according to the German generals, even incapable of penetrating the Czech defenses.

Now overnight, in his understandably bitter reaction to Hitler’s occupation of the rest of Czechoslovakia, Chamberlain, after having deliberately and recklessly thrown so much away, had undertaken to unilaterally guarantee an Eastern country run by a junta of politically inept “colonels” who up to this moment had closely collaborated with Hitler, who like hyenas had joined the Germans in the carving up of Czechoslovakia and whose country had been rendered militarily indefensible by the very German conquests which Britain and Poland had helped the Reich to achieve.*And he had taken this eleventh-hour risk without bothering to enlist the aid of Russia, whose proposals for joint action against further Nazi aggression he had twice turned down within the year.

Finally, he had done exactly what for more than a year he had stoutly asserted that Britain would never do: he had left to another nation the decision whether his country would go to war.

Nevertheless, the Prime Minister’s precipitate step, belated as it was, presented Adolf Hitler with an entirely new situation. From now on, apparently, Britain would stand in the way of his committing further aggression. He could no longer use the technique of taking one nation at a time while the Western democracies stood aside debating what to do. Moreover, Chamberlain’s move appeared to be the first serious step toward forming a coalition of powers against Germany which, unless it were successfully countered, might bring again that very encirclement which had been the nightmare of the Reich since Bismarck.

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