The Polish Review, Vol. LVI, Nos. 1-2, 2011: 111-152 2011 The Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences of America

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The Polish Review, Vol. LVI, Nos. 1-2, 2011:111-152

©2011 The Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences of America

anna m. cienciala
Interwar Poland is hardly mentioned in current American textbooks on the history of twentieth-century Europe, and even then the information is generally sparse and often misleading. Poland makes an appearance with the Versailles Treaty of 1919, generally considered a bad treaty whose German-Polish settlement is sometimes judged as contrary to the principle of self-determination. Polish armed resistance against the Germans in September 1939 generally goes unmentioned and the Soviet attack on Poland is often explained as dictated by Soviet security. There is usually very little mention of Polish foreign policy, yet it should be studied as a factor in international politics in the interwar period, especially in the years from Hitler’s rise to power in Germany to his attack on Poland, sparking the outbreak of WW II. The pre-Hitler period is often passed over lightly although it contains the roots of Western attitudes toward Nazi Germany. In fact, before adopting the policy of appeasement toward Hitler, Britain, whose decisions ultimately determined French policy, assumed that German demands for the revision of the Versailles Treaty of 1919, particularly the German-Polish settlement, must be satisfied to secure lasting peace. One should bear in mind that despite her defeat in November 1918, Germany was still the greatest industrial power in Europe; France feared Germany but needed her coal and steel, while Britain needed the German market for her goods. Britain also needed peace in Europe to devote her limited armed forces to the defense of her overseas Empire. Finally, Eastern Europe was not seen as a sphere of vital British interests. All these factors contributed to the belief of all British governments that the Polish-German frontier — not recognized by Germany — should be revised in her favor. This meant, above all, the return to Germany of the preponderantly German port city of Danzig — made a self-governing Free City by the Treaty of Versailles — and also the preponderantly Polish-speaking Polish Pomerania, awarded by the treaty to Poland. The Germans called it the Polish Corridor because this narrow neck of land separated East Prussia from the rest of Germany. French governments came to accept the British view and saw the Franco-Polish alliance (1921) as less an advantage than a burden. Few people realized at the time that all German statesmen before Hitler aimed at the return not just of Danzig and the Polish Corridor but also most, and if possible all the territory of Prussian Poland as well as eastern Upper Silesia, even though the vast majority of the inhabitants of these territories were Polish.

At the same time, Poland was often criticized for taking too much former Russian territory after its victory over the Red Army in 1920, a view shared by the Soviet leadership with émigré Russian politicians, most of the European Left, most Western governments, and most Western and Russian historians today. While Moscow officially recognized the Polish-Soviet frontier established in March 1921 by the Treaty of Riga, the Comintern (Communist International) claimed to support the principle of self-determination and questioned Poland’s right to both her western and eastern frontiers, but especially the eastern, Polish-Soviet frontier. Few Anglo-American historians of twentieth-century Europe mention Józef Piłsudski’s original aim of establishing a Polish-Lithuanian-Belarusian federation allied with an independent Ukraine. When this goal proved unrealistic due to the Lithuanian and Ukrainian desire for independence and the Polish-Soviet War, he aimed at a strategically defensive frontier. The Treaty of Riga gave Poland less than Piłsudski wanted, but even so the majority of the population east of the Bug and San rivers — roughly equivalent to the Curzon Line of July 1920 and the eastern frontier of Poland since 1945 — was Ukrainian and Belarusian, plus a significant number of Jews. Nevertheless, Poles formed an overall minority of about 40% with majorities in the cities and regions of Białystok, Lwów (Ukr. Lviv), and Wilno (Lith.Vilnius). In view of all the factors mentioned above, every Polish foreign minister had a very difficult task before him: how to secure the existence of an independent Poland between her two traditional enemies, neither of whom viewed its frontiers with her as acceptable, while her Western ally France agreed with the British view on the need to revise the Polish-German settlement established by the Versailles Treaty of 1919 and also concluded an alliance with the USSR in 1935.

In this paper, I will discuss two key features of Polish foreign policy in the period 1933 — 1939, both of which were strongly criticized or even condemned at the time, and are still criticized or condemned by historians and journalists today. These two features are: (1) the Polish-German Declaration of Non-Aggression of January 26, 1934, which was the joint achievement of Piłsudski and Foreign Minister Józef Beck, and (2) Polish foreign policy during the Czechoslovak Crisis of 1938, culminating in the annexation of two-thirds of western Cieszyn (Teschen) Silesia, known in Polish as Zaolzie (the land across the Olza river), after the Munich Conference of September 29, 1938. At this conference, the leaders of Britain, France and Italy agreed to Adolf Hitler’s annexation of a part of Czechoslovakia, the highly industrialized, mainly German-speaking Sudetenland (formerly, with the rest of Czechoslovakia, part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire), but postponed for three months decisions on Polish and Hungarian claims to Czechoslovak territory.

Before discussing Polish foreign policy, however, a few words are needed about Western perceptions of Piłsudski (1867-1935). He directed Polish foreign policy in the first years of independence as well as after his seizure of power in May 1926. A socialist leader in the struggle for independence before 1914, organizer of Polish legions in World War I, head of state in 1918-22, victor over the Red Army in 1920, and in power from 1926 to his death, he is recognized by most Poles as the greatest Polish statesman of the twentieth century. In English-language historical literature and reference works, however, his policies are generally criticized and he is often described as a dictator.2 In fact, he was not a dictator, but developed an authoritarian form of government after seizing power in May 1926 and aimed for good relations with both of Poland’s great neighbors. It is also worth noting that the Polish victories over the Red Army in 1920, which prevented the further spread of Soviet communism westward, are generally ignored in Anglo-American histories of twentieth-century Europe, while Piłsudski’s previous march with Simon Petliura’s Ukrainian divisions to Kiev (April–May 1920), if mentioned at all, is generally condemned.3 The exception to this general condemnation is the textbook on European history by the best-known Western historian of Poland, Norman Davies. His work on the Polish-Soviet War is excellent although partly outdated, while some of his statements about Piłsudski and the Bolsheviks are somewhat strange.4 Another exception is the balanced account given in Wikipedia under “Polish-Soviet War” (accessed November 2010), which has a good reading list.

Anglo-American historians of twentieth-century Europe also generally ignore the fact that Piłsudski originated the policy of “equilibrium” — that is, balancing between Germany and the USSR — a policy carried out by his disciple, Beck, deputy foreign minister, 1930-1932, and minister from December 1932 until September 1939. The policy of equilibrium stemmed from Piłsudski’s view, expressed to then Foreign Minister August Zaleski in May 1926, that the two canons of Polish diplomacy were “one, strict neutrality between Germany and Russia, so that each of them would be absolutely certain that Poland would not go against it with the help of the other, and two, alliance with France and Romania as a guarantee of peace.”5 The policy of equilibrium was based on Poland’s agreements with her two great, predatory neighbors: (a) The Polish-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact of July 25, 1932, valid for three years, and (b) The Polish-German Declaration of Non-Aggression of January 26, 1934, valid for ten years. In the Polish-Soviet Pact, both sides agreed on the peaceful resolution of international disputes as well as that existing obligations were not obstacles to the peaceful development of their relations. They renounced the use of war and undertook not to aid the state committing aggression against the other party to the pact, or to participate in any clearly aggressive agreements against the other party.6 In the Polish-German Declaration of Non-Aggression (not pact, because the German Foreign Ministry objected to the word as implying recognition of the Polish-German frontier), each party recognized the other’s international commitments as well as the Pact of Paris (Kellogg-Briand Pact, 1928) that renounced wars of aggression and agreed to settle disputes by direct negotiations; if these failed, they would use other available procedures. The Polish-German declaration was, in turn, balanced in May 1934 by the extension of the Polish-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact until December 31, 1945.7

These two agreements were the basis of Polish foreign policy until war loomed on the horizon in spring 1939; they were also based on the principle that Poland could never be dependent on either Germany or Russia. A concise statement defining Polish foreign policy was made in January 1935 by Beck to French Foreign Minister Pierre Laval, to whom he repeated what Piłsudski had told former Foreign Minister Louis Barthou during the latter’s visit to Poland in April 1934:

Polish policy is based on the following elements: I. Our geographical location and historical experience both show that our decisive problems consist of Poland’s neighborly relations with Germany and Russia. These problems absorb most of our political work and our limited means of action. History teaches us that the greatest catastrophe to affect our nation resulted from the activity of those two states. And secondly, in the desperate situation in which we then found ourselves, no state in the world could be found to hasten with help to us.

Therefore, our key interests depend on the solution of this basic problem. A further conclusion is the conviction that Warsaw’s policy can never depend either on Moscow or Berlin. I am recalling this conversation [between Piłsudski and Barthou] because these are the limits of what is politically possible for us. Facts and concepts that go outside these principles will always force us to say: non possumus [we cannot].

In re-born Poland — just as at the end of the eighteenth century — it was clear that we had to achieve good fortune with these two partners by ourselves.
In this concise statement, Beck explained why Poland could not participate in multilateral agreements that would endanger her bilateral agreements with Germany and the USSR. On this occasion, Beck also disagreed with Laval’s flattering statement that Poland was a Great Power; he said she was not such because she conducted a regional, not a global policy.8

The first of the two bilateral agreements mentioned above, the Polish-Soviet pact of July 1932, was in line with the budding Franco-Soviet rapprochement of the time, so it was welcome to Poland’s ally, France. This was not, however, the case with the Polish-German Declaration of Non-Aggression which, negotiated independently of France, was a shock to Paris, arousing suspicions of Poland that grew stronger over time. It was described by British historian Hugh Seton-Watson as the first breach in the French alliance system, that is: the Franco-Polish alliance and military convention signed in Paris, February 19, 1921, and the Franco-Czechoslovak alliance, signed in Paris, January 25, 1924. France signed these alliances to restrain Germany in the East after the Anglo-American guarantee to aid her in case of German aggression in the West fell through with the U.S. rejection of membership in the League of Nations and thus the Versailles Treaty. According to Seton-Watson, the declaration began a period of Polish-German cooperation that helped Hitler rearm, isolate Austria, and finally dismember Czechoslovakia. Beck’s policy allegedly aimed at the German destruction of Bolshevik Russia, with some territorial gains for Poland, and then Polish neutrality in a war between Germany and the Western Powers. Seton-Watson wrote the classic statement of British interwar left-wing intellectuals’ views of Polish foreign policy of the time. Part of this statement reads:

The basis of Polish policy, then, was not love of Germany but a combination of territorial greed, fear of revolution on the part of the landowners and colonels, mistrust of the strength and will to resistance of the Western Powers, and the supreme confidence of Colonel Beck in his own Machiavellian genius. This policy played an important part in the preparation of German plans for Eastern Europe.9
In 1962 Seton-Watson explained that his book — written during his military service in World War II — reflected the British mood and hopes of the time, which he shared. As it turned out, his description of what he called Polish, or Beck’s foreign policy, was to influence several generations of English-speaking historians up to the present.10 The durability of these views is evident in a textbook on interwar Europe written by a Canadian historian of twentieth-century international relations and published in 2006. The author claims that Piłsudski and Beck envisaged joining Hitler in a crusade against the Soviet Union.11 Indeed, the European left-wing press saw the Declaration of Non-Aggression, like the Soviet press which inspired it, as a class-based anti-Soviet policy. Rumors or outright charges that it contained a secret protocol directed against the USSR circulated for years to come. Not only were they a staple of Soviet histories of the interwar period, but they are still touted by the Communist Party of the Russian Federation. An alleged documentary film shown on a Russian state-owned TV channel in late August 2009 depicted Polish Foreign Minister Józef Beck as a German agent.12

There was, of course, no secret protocol to the Polish-German agreement of 1934, nor was it a breach in the French alliance system, although French diplomats and military leaders saw it as such. In fact, this was hardly the case because the alliances hardly constituted a “system.” France’s allies, Poland and Czechoslovakia, were deeply divided by a territorial dispute as well as very different perceptions of the USSR. Furthermore, France had been trying to water down the Polish alliance for years. The beginnings of this French policy were described and analyzed by Piotr S. Wandycz in 1962 but it did not become more widely known, at least to French speakers, until 1981. The author of a masterly French analysis of this process traced it to the victory of the “Cartel des Gauches” (Left-Wing Coalition) in June 1924, followed by French negotiations for the Locarno Treaties of October 1925.13 In fact, the roots of Polish policy leading to the German-Polish agreement of 1934 go back to the Locarno Treaties, when Germany recognized her post-World War I western frontiers, which were then guaranteed in a Treaty of Mutual Guarantee, signed by Belgium, Britain, France, and Italy. To balance this, France signed separate Treaties of Mutual Assistance with her allies, Czechoslovakia and Poland, but French military aid to each country was now dependent on the machinery of the League of Nations: France could only come to their aid if they were the victims of unprovoked aggression and the League of Nations Council failed to reach unanimous consent in identifying the aggressor. Germany signed arbitration treaties with all her neighbors, including Poland, but frontier issues were excluded in its arbitration treaty with the latter, and Germany also rejected a French guarantee of the treaties.14 It is worth noting that the Soviet government saw the Locarno Treaties as directed against the USSR, evidently assuming that the signatories would aid Poland or/and Romania in a war with Soviet Russia, which was most unlikely given the wording of the formula on aid to be extended by League members to victims of unprovoked aggression. Furthermore, German-Soviet relations, established by the Rapallo Treaty (April 1922), were excellent at this time. Reinforced by the Treaty of Berlin (April 1926), they included secret Soviet-German military cooperation, especially the development of war planes, tanks, and parachute troops — which allowed Germany to bypass the Versailles Treaty prohibition of offensive weapons for German armed forces.15 Gustav Stresemann, who supported this policy, received the Nobel Peace Prize for the Locarno Treaties, together with French Prime Minister Aristide Briand and British Prime Minister Austen Chamberlain. German-Soviet military cooperation was a constant threat to Poland until Hitler ended it in 1933 as part of his anti-communist policies.

The clear discrimination of Poland and Czechoslovakia in the Locarno Treaties was mainly due to British policy, for Britain had refused to include Poland and Czechoslovakia in a Franco-British security agreement as proposed by the French in December 1921. She also refused to sign “The Geneva Protocol” in 1924. The protocol, worked out by Polish Foreign Minister Aleksander Skrzyński and Czechoslovak Foreign Minister Edvard Beneš, mandated compulsory arbitration; if this failed, League of Nations members were to come to the aid of any member who was the victim of aggression. A year later, Skrzyński signed the Locarno Treaties for Poland, believing that she must be part of the European political system. Piłsudski (out of government since May 1923) was outraged. Beck noted that the marshal condemned the Locarno Treaties for consolidating the unequal balance between East and West [in Europe] and set himself the goal of redressing it.16

Redressing the balance in Poland’s favor, however, was not feasible for several years after Locarno because neither Weimar Germany nor the USSR accepted its frontiers with Poland, even though Moscow had recognized them in the Treaty of Riga of March 18, 1921.17 Weimar Germany aimed at the recovery of most — and if possible, all — of former Prussian Poland, especially the preponderantly German Danzig, as well as the Polish-speaking “Polish Corridor” separating East Prussia from the rest of Germany, both established by the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. Piłsudski and Beck, as well as most Poles, considered both as vital to Polish independence, and both were to figure prominently in the approach to war in 1939. Some Anglo-American historians of twentieth-century Europe, however, do not seem to know the origins of these settlements and their primary importance to Poland, so it is useful to summarize the main facts. Danzig had been the port city of pre-partition Poland; it was taken by Prussia in 1793, despite strong resistance by its German-speaking citizens, who revolted unsuccessfully against Prussian rule in 1797. The American, British, and French members of the Commission on Polish Affairs at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 had advocated awarding Danzig, as well as Polish-speaking regions in the southern part of East Prussia and the railway from Warsaw to Danzig, to Poland. They argued that it was more equitable to give twenty million Poles free access to the sea at the expense of two million Germans (estimated to live in future Poland) than to satisfy the Germans by leaving Danzig and the Polish Corridor to an aggressive Germany. This, it was argued, would make Poland a vassal state, and in any case most of the population in the Polish Corridor was Polish. However, when the French government agreed to accept an Anglo-American guarantee in case of German aggression against France, it also agreed to a compromise solution for Danzig in the shape of a self-governing Free City, with Polish rights therein and under the protection of the League of Nations. A contributing factor to this decision was President Woodrow Wilson’s desire to have a precedent for the port city of Trieste, which he did not want awarded either to Italy or to Yugoslavia. Also, it was decided that plebiscites would be held in southern East Prussia. They took place as the Red Army was advancing on Warsaw in 1920 and, as the mostly Protestant Poles were promised extensive cultural rights, the majority voted for Germany. The “Polish Corridor” (annexed by Prussia in the First Partition of Poland, 1772) was awarded to Poland on ethnic grounds. Indeed, according to the Prussian Census of 1910, 42.5% of the population was German (a percentage probably lower in reality because the census did not include children, and it shrank rapidly after 1918 when many Germans opted to leave). Despite these facts, some Anglo-American historians state today that the Polish Corridor was preponderantly German, so awarding it to Poland violated the principle of self-determination.18 Another German grievance against the Versailles Treaty was the division of Upper Silesia. President Wilson and the Peace Conference experts had advocated the award of the whole of this heavily industrialized province on an ethnic basis to Poland, but British Prime Minister David Lloyd George persuaded Wilson and French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau against it so the Versailles Treaty mandated a plebiscite, which took place in March 1921. After three Polish uprisings, the League of Nations awarded the eastern part of Upper Silesia (East of the Oder River) to Poland in 1922, mainly on the basis of the plebiscite results there, although the overall vote including the preponderantly German western part of the region (not claimed by the Poles) gave a majority for Germany. Special arrangements were made to preserve the economic unity of the province, allowing Germany to import 500,000 tons of coal a year duty free; she ceased to do so in 1925 when she began a tariff war with Poland.19

These settlements, probably the most equitable that could be made at the time, were highly resented by Germany, whose claims for their return enjoyed much sympathy in the West, especially in Britain, which traditionally viewed Eastern Europe as a sphere of German and Russian interests and — in the interwar period — only of German interests. In a letter written after the Munich Conference to the British Ambassador in Paris, Sir Eric Phipps, British Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax wrote that Germany could now do what she wanted in the region and it was none of Britain’s business, adding: “Incidentally, I have always felt myself that, once Germany recovered her normal strength, this predominance was inevitable for obvious geographical reasons.” He also thought that Danzig and the Corridor were the most harmful decisions of the Versailles Treaty. Indeed, a Foreign Office paper of February 1933 had suggested the best solution would be the return of Danzig to Germany and a German corridor through the “Polish Corridor.”20 This was totally unacceptable to the Poles because it would have left their access to Danzig and the nearby port city of Gdynia dependent on (nonexistent) German good will. German policy was directed at revising the Versailles Treaty and, as stated earlier, this generally meant a return to the German eastern frontier of 1914.21 By the mid-nineteen thirties, the bulk of Polish foreign trade went through Danzig and Gdynia. The latter was a Polish port city built in the Polish Corridor, beginning in 1923, to give her port of her own and to supplement Danzig; it carried about half of the trade by 1938. Thus, the existence of the Free City of Danzig, with guaranteed Polish economic and cultural rights therein, as well as the existence of the Polish Corridor were, for the vast majority of Poles, synonymous with Polish independence. As noted above, the Allied experts in the Commission on Polish Affairs at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 had agreed and even advocated the award of Danzig to Poland.

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