Piłsudski saw his chance to redress the imbalance created by the Locarno Treaties after Hitler came to power in early 1933. The Führer had earlier issued the same vituperations and claims against Poland as the German statesmen before him. Therefore, on March 6, the day after the Nazi electoral victory in Germany, Piłsudski sent additional Polish troops to strengthen the garrison at the Polish arms depot serving Polish warships at Westerplatte in the Bay of Danzig. This was a warning to Hitler that Poland would fight if he tried to seize the Free City, where the Nazis were very active. Hitler took note of the warning and showed interest in improving relations with Poland, aiming to draw her away from France. Piłsudski, who had signed the Franco-Polish alliance in 1921, never thought of giving it up but was glad to improve relations with Germany. Polish-German talks began after Hitler withdrew Germany from the League of Nations as well as the Disarmament Conference in October 1933, which led to negotiations for the Polish-German Declaration of Non-Aggression signed on January 26, 1934. Now the Western Powers had no more incentive, at least for a while, to discuss the return of Danzig and the Corridor to Germany. An anecdote attributed to Piłsudski at the time had him say that Poland had moved on the Western menu from the place of hors d’oeuvres to that of dessert.22 The view he expressed to his closest military and foreign policy advisers was, however, pessimistic. According to a politician close to Piłsudski, in March 1934 the marshal said he thought good Polish-German relations might last for perhaps four years and he could not guarantee more. According to a general, in April that year Piłsudski said: “Having those two pacts [with Germany and Russia] we are sitting on two stools — that can’t last long. We must know… which one we will fall off first and when.”23 This is remarkably similar to the opinion of an American historian, Henry L. Roberts, who called the policy of equilibrium (which he attributed to Beck) a dubious proposition of “riding two horses at once.” The policy of equilibrium, given Poland’s predatory neighbors was, however, the only one she could pursue as long as it was possible to do so, while maintaining her alliance with France. It is also clear that Piłsudski’s distrust of Soviet Russia did not blind him to the threat of Nazi Germany.24
The policy initiated with the Polish-German Declaration of Non-Aggression did not — as per Seton-Watson and others — aim at cooperation with Nazi Germany against the USSR and gaining territory in Soviet Ukraine. Both Piłsudski and Beck refused to take up such German suggestions. In fact, Beck told the U.S. ambassador in Warsaw, Anthony J. Drexel Biddle, in June 1938 that Poland would never agree to a German march through Polish territory to Soviet Ukraine. On the contrary, said Beck, Poland would resist such a German move because a German occupation of Ukraine would threaten Poland’s peace and independence. He also said that in such a case Poland would face possible defeat, but she would “bleed” Germany while war between Britain and France in the West would prevent the Germans from reaching their goal.25
After Piłsudski’s death on May 12, 1935, Beck continued the Marshal’s foreign policy goals and methods. Since Beck was presented mainly as a pro-German statesman in Soviet, East European Communist-era historical as well as in post-Soviet studies, and is still presented as such in many Anglo-American studies, a brief biographical-political sketch is in order. Born in Warsaw on October 4, 1894, Beck was, against his parents’ wishes, baptized in a Russian Orthodox Church because his mother belonged to the Uniate or Greek Catholic Church, which had been forcibly incorporated into the Russian Orthodox Church, but was baptized in a Catholic Church several years later. Beck’s father, an active socialist but not a revolutionary, was sentenced for illegal activity, imprisoned for a few months in Russia, and then exiled to Riga, whence he moved with his family to Austrian Poland and settled in Limanowa. Young Beck grew up in a patriotic Polish household. He completed high school in Kraków; briefly studied engineering at the Lwów Politechnic, but transferred to the Export Academy in Vienna in 1913-1914. When war broke out, he immediately volunteered for Piłsudski’s Legion (part of the Austro-Hungarian army), serving in the artillery; he was decorated for bravery in a battle with the Russian army in 1916. When Piłsudski broke with Germany and Austria-Hungary in summer 1917 and was interned in the German fortress of Magdeburg, Beck was interned in Sopron, Hungary. He left (on a holiday pass!) in early 1918 to work for Piłsudski’s secret Polish Military Organization [Polska Organizacja Wojskowa, P.O.W.] in revolutionary Russia; its job was to find Polish soldiers and officers formerly in the Russian army as well as prisoners-of-war from the German and Austro-Hungarian armies, and bring them home to join the Polish armed forces there.
Beck’s reports from Russia impressed Piłsudski, who assigned him to in the Polish military intelligence service in 1920; sent him on special missions; and appointed him Military Attaché in Paris (also Brussels), where he served in 1922-1923 and was recalled to Warsaw in the fall of that year. The charge that Beck had been removed because he was caught trying to steal French military secrets for the Germans in Vienna was proved a fabrication at the time, for the French newspaper that printed it had to recant and apologize. Information on this matter has been available for years but the charge is still repeated by some Western historians and by Russian media, which even cast him as a German agent as late as August 2009.26 Most Western historians are also ignorant of the fact that Polish military authorities congratulated Beck for improving Polish-French relations, that he was made a chevalier of the French Legion of Honor in April 1923 and an officer of the same in 1927 — hardly decorations for a German spy. After obtaining a diploma from the Higher School of Military Studies for general staff officers in Warsaw (in which he obtained top ranking together with his colleague, Bolesław Wieniawa-Długoszowski), Beck received the rank of colonel of horse artillery. He worked as Piłsudski’s chef de cabinet [CEO] when the marshal was minister of defense and later premier, in 1926-30; was briefly deputy premier in 1930 when Piłsudski was premier again, and deputy foreign minister to Zaleski in 1930-32, succeeding the latter as minister in November 1932.27 Thus, while Beck had little diplomatic experience, he had intimate knowledge of the marshal’s goals and methods. He was devoted to Piłsudski and determined to continue his policy of balancing between Germany and the USSR while maintaining the alliance with France. He also continued the marshal’s policy of seeking closer relations with Britain and, like him, did not expect Austria and Czechoslovakia to survive unless supported by France and Britain, which both statesmen considered doubtful. (Czechoslovak statesmen expressed the same opinion about Poland and did not want any alliance with her to avoid involvement in a Polish-German war.) Piłsudski, for his part, had a high opinion of Beck. The marshal rarely praised any person who worked for him, but a former prime minister recalled his statement to Beck at a meeting of former prime ministers in spring 1934: “In my work on Poland’s foreign policy I found an especially able and intelligent co-worker in the person of the foreign minister. I cannot compliment you enough, Mr. Beck.”28
There is no document specifying Piłsudski’s instructions to Beck on what policy to follow after his death. Beck notes, however, that at the turn of 1931-1932 the marshal agreed with his view that the outstanding issues to be settled were the following: Danzig, the Minorities Treaty, Lithuania, and Teschen Silesia.29 Beck handled these problems according to Piłsudski’s wishes. The Polish-German Declaration of Non-Aggression of January 1934 was followed by better relations between Poland and the Free City of Danzig, which the marshal called the touchstone of Polish-German relations and Beck always considered as such.30 The formal German recognition of the Free City’s status and of the Polish-German frontier was the perennial goal of Polish foreign policy. The Nazis won the city elections in 1935 but were generally kept in check by Berlin until spring 1939, while Poland quietly granted asylum to anti-Nazi refugees. The Minorities Treaty, which all new East European states had to sign in 1919, safeguarded minority rights in these states while Germany, with a Polish minority of about one million (approximately the same as the number of Germans in Poland), did not have to sign it. Members of the German minority in Poland were encouraged by pre-Nazi governments to use the League of Nations as a forum to protest real or imagined violations of their rights, while the Polish minority in Germany had no such recourse and had a difficult existence even after the Declaration of Non-Aggression.31 In November 1937, however, the Polish and German governments signed a declaration on the rights of their respective minorities.32 The Polish government could do nothing to aid its minority in the USSR, which numbered about two million after the Treaty of Riga, tens of thousands of whom managed to repatriate to Poland. It was greatly reduced during the years of forced collectivization in 1930-32, mainly in Ukraine, and was to suffer greatly during the Stalin Terror.33 Moscow did not sign the Minorities Treaty and the Comintern supported the inclusion of Poland’s eastern territories in the Belorussian and Ukrainian Soviet Republics. It is not surprising, therefore, that Beck declared Poland’s abrogation of the Minorities Treaty when the USSR joined the League of Nations in September 1934, while confirming the constitutional rights of minorities in Poland. Lithuania had broken off all relations with Poland after the Polish seizure of Wilno in 1920, although in a plebiscite boycotted by the Lithuanian minority, the Polish majority in the region voted for union with Poland in 1922. Lithuania, whose constitution named Wilno as the country’s capital, rejected all efforts, including Piłsudski’s, to re-establish normal relations. When Hitler annexed Austria in March 1938, the Polish Government feared he might annex the preponderantly German port city of Klaipėda (German: Memel) in Lithuania and place German troops on the Polish-Lithuanian border. Beck then decided to send an ultimatum to the Lithuanian government demanding the establishment of normal relations. The pretext was the accidental shooting of a Polish soldier by a Lithuanian frontier guard. The ultimatum (with a forty-eight hour limit) was used because it was clear that only the threat of force would persuade the Lithuanian government to re-establish normal relations while Wilno remained in Poland. The Lithuanian government acquiesced.34 This left the issue of Danzig and the Polish Corridor and that of Cieszyn Silesia or Zaolzie, which Piłsudski, like most Poles, aimed to unite with Poland. In 1932, it was agreed that no political relaxation was possible in relations with Czechoslovakia without an improvement of the fate of Poles in Zaolzie.
While carrying out Piłsudski’s foreign policy objectives, Beck never wavered in observing the marshal’s key principles of foreign policy. Aside from the priority of Poland’s relations with Germany and Soviet Russia, the marshal also held that there should be no bowing unless it was necessary. This was directed at what the marshal considered Polish servile behavior toward France and translated as insistence that the Polish nation and its representatives be treated with dignity. Beck expressed this by being stiff and sometimes abrupt when subjected to patronizing treatment by French statesmen, and such behavior was often seen as arrogance. Of course, Piłsudski did not need to stress the old Polish slogan Nic o nas bez nas [“Nothing (is to be decided) about us without us”]. It was the rallying call of both Polish nobles against the king in pre-partition Poland — meaning he could decide nothing without their consent in the Sejm [Parliament] — as well as Polish workers and their supporters in the Solidarity movement of 1980-1981 and Solidarity underground structures in 1981-89. To Piłsudski and Beck this principle meant that Poland would not accept any decisions made by the Great Powers in matters that involved her interests. Beck’s insistence on this principle was misread, especially by the French, as a pretension to Poland’s great power status — a claim he denied while admitting that she was a regional power. Finally, there was the principle of “Honor.” The old Polish military motto, inscribed on army sabers, was: Bóg, Honor i Ojczyzna [“God, Honor and Fatherland”]. Honor meant honorable behavior according to the traditional noble code and holding others to the same standard. Above all, however, honor meant that Poles were bound to defend their independence; to give it up without a fight was considered dishonorable and shameful.
We now come to the most frequently condemned feature of interwar Polish foreign policy, condemned not only by Soviet, Russian, and most Western historians but also by many Polish historians today, that is, the method used to gain Zaolzie from Czechoslovakia on September 30, 1938. This policy should be viewed in both the international and national contexts of the time. In the first — and decisive — international context, Britain and France wanted to avoid war with Nazi Germany. Therefore, they followed the policy of “appeasement,” allowing Hitler to begin openly rearming Germany in 1935. The following year, they allowed him to militarize the Rhineland, which had been demilitarized to provide security for France. This demilitarized area was also crucial for France’s immediate aid to her Eastern allies, if attacked by Germany, since France could start military action in German territory bereft of German troops and without having to cross the Rhine. Finally, French, British, and Italian leaders agreed at the Munich Conference of September 29, 1938, to Hitler’s annexation of the Sudetenland, the predominantly German-speaking part of Czechoslovakia. Poland, and Beck personally, were and still are excoriated for using an ultimatum, that is, the threat of force, to annex the western part of Zaolzie, after the Munich Conference. This action is still widely condemned as Polish cooperation with Hitler, and even as initiated by him.35
In evaluating Polish policy toward Czechoslovakia in 1938, one must bear in mind the national context, that is, the history of Zaolzie and its place in Polish-Czechoslovak relations. The area east and west of the Olza River, formerly known as the Duchy of Teschen, was part of the region of Moravská Ostrava. The duchy had been part of Poland in the twelfth century; from the mid-fourteenth century it was part of Bohemia, which was defeated and annexed by Austria in 1620. Meanwhile, the duchy was ruled by the Silesian branch of the Polish Piast dynasty until it died out in 1625, when it came into the possession of the Austrian Habsburgs and stayed as such to November 1918. At that time, Zaolzie, covering two thirds of the western part of the duchy, had a clear Polish majority, a fact recognized in the agreement concluded by local Polish and Czech councils to divide the area into Polish and Czech administrative regions. The Czechoslovak government, however, did not recognize the local agreement; it claimed Zaolzie as part of the historic lands of the Bohemian Crown. It also claimed that Czechoslovakia needed the region’s Karvina coal mines, which provided high-grade coking coal for the steel and engineering industries of the region, as well as the town of Cieszyn because it was the key railway junction between Bohemia and Slovakia. Piłsudski sent a special delegation to Prague to negotiate an agreement with the Czechoslovak government in December 1918, but the delegates found it unwilling to do so. In early 1919, just before elections to the Polish parliament, and while most Polish troops were fighting the Ukrainians over Eastern Galicia and resisting the Red Army elsewhere, Czech troops moved into the region and, after some bloodshed, took it over. They were forced to leave by the Western Allies, but the latter awarded the region to Czechoslovakia in late July 1920, as the Red Army was advancing on Warsaw. Furthermore, at that time, French military supplies for the Polish army were denied transit through Czechoslovakia, and a Hungarian proposal to send troops through Czechoslovak territory to help the Poles was rejected. The Allied decision and the Czechoslovak actions noted above were bitterly resented in Poland, as was the Czechoslovak government’s support of massive Czech settlement in the predominantly Polish areas of Zaolzie and its policy of assimilating the Poles, especially through the schools.36
All the above factors made Zaolzie a very emotional issue in Poland, poisoning Polish-Czechoslovak relations. These were worsened by the asylum granted in Czechoslovakia — mainly in Subcarpathian Ruthenia — to Ukrainian nationalists who had fought against the Poles in East Galicia in 1918-1919, as well as to those who later actively opposed Polish rule. Every political leader and party in Poland, except the communists, believed that Zaolzie must be united with Poland. Even General Władysław Sikorski, a bitter opponent of the Beck-Piłsudski policy of good relations with Germany, was ready to offer Prague an alliance with Warsaw if he came to power — but only if Zaolzie went to Poland.37 The Poles also resented the Czechoslovak-Soviet Alliance of May 1935, which was the eastern pendant to the Franco-Soviet Alliance concluded at that time.
It was, however, the international context which was decisive for Polish policy in 1938. An important factor to be noted before the Czechoslovak crisis began in earnest (in May 1938) is that Beck knew of British willingness to accept border changes favoring Germany in East Central Europe which would, of course, affect Poland. In early December 1937, the German Foreign Ministry informed a member of the Polish embassy in Berlin of Lord Halifax’s statements to Hitler at their meeting in Berchtesgaden on November 19, 1937. Halifax, then Lord President of the Council, spoke for Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain when he told Hitler that Britain would not insist on maintaining the status quo of 1919 (that is, the Versailles Treaty). Therefore, changes were possible — provided they were carried out peacefully. Here Halifax mentioned Austria, Czechoslovakia and Danzig.38
It was in the dual international and national context described above that Beck set out Polish policy on Czechoslovakia in early January 1938. At this time, the Nazi Sudeten German Party (SGP) was growing ever louder in its resentment of Czech rule. (It was not known at the time that Hitler planned to use the principle of self-determination, identified with the SGP, to destroy Czechoslovakia, the ally of France and of the USSR, and then proceed to attack France and conquer Western Europe.) Beck stated that any Czechoslovak decision favoring one minority would be viewed by Poland as an unfriendly act if not applied to the Polish minority.39 A few days later, on January 14, 1938, he learned from his conversation with the Führer in Berlin that the latter planned to move against Austria, which he planned to unite with Germany; also that he viewed Czechoslovakia as being under Soviet influence, but would seek a peaceful agreement with it on the treatment of the German minority — unless compelled to do otherwise. Hitler also declared that Polish rights in Danzig and its legal status would not be diminished. At this time, Beck also spoke with Hermann Göring, marshal of the Luftwaffe and head of Germany’s Four Year [Rearmament] Plan, who said he considered the further existence of Czechoslovakia in its present shape as impossible. When Beck learned of German plans to takeover Austria, he did not oppose them since it was obvious that Britain and France would not oppose Hitler.40
Beck welcomed Hitler’s assurance regarding Danzig because he feared the status of the Free City might be revised or even abolished at the forthcoming meeting of the League of Nations on account of Nazi violations of the Danzig constitution, whose official protector was the League of Nations, while its real guarantors were France and Britain. Therefore, at the same time as keeping in touch with Berlin, Beck continued Piłsudski’s policy of seeking closer relations with London. At the League of Nations meeting in Geneva on January 26, 1938, when told by British Foreign Secretary Antony Eden that, except for France, Belgium and Holland, Britain could only act through the League, Beck repeated to him what he had said to Chamberlain in London in 1937: that Poland was the only country on the Continent which could extend aid on land to these countries [by attacking Germany if it attacked France]. He also said that Poland had confirmed her commitments to France as an ally, that future European arrangements must allow France and Poland full freedom to carry out their alliance obligations, and inquired about possible Polish purchases of heavy anti-aircraft artillery from Britain. In view of his knowledge of Halifax’s statement to Hitler and what he had heard from Eden, it is not surprising that, on February 28, Beck told Göring that Poland was interested in a region of Czechoslovakia, Moravská-Ostrava, which included Zaolzie.41
Nevertheless, as H. L. Roberts wrote, Beck and key Polish decision-makers did not plan to help Hitler dismember Czechoslovakia.42 It is also clear that, assuming Czechoslovakia would collapse without Western support (as Czechoslovak leaders had assumed earlier about Poland), the Polish government did not want Germany to absorb or otherwise dominate the whole country. Many Polish diplomatic documents were destroyed or lost in September 1939, but among the survivors is one that outlines Beck’s policy aims, at least as they existed in the spring of 1938. In a letter of April 12, 1938, the Polish Under-Secretary of State, Jan Szembek, wrote that the worst solution for Poland would be German domination of all of Czechoslovakia. Therefore, German annexation of the Sudetenland was acceptable to Warsaw, provided it was accompanied by the separation of Slovakia from the Czech lands and its union with Hungary, the return [to Poland] of Silesia [Zaolzie], and the establishment of a Polish-Hungarian frontier.43 At the same time, however, Polish decision-makers believed, as did the army and the majority of Polish public opinion, that Poland could not be on Germany’s side in a European war. In late May, as Hitler was stoking the Czechoslovak crisis (which burst out in full force after the Czechoslovak Army mobilized in May on faulty intelligence of an impending German attack), Beck rejected French Foreign Minister George Bonnet’s request that Poland support a British (but not French) warning to Berlin not to sharpen the German-Czechoslovak dispute, which might lead to war. At the same time, however, while re-stating the Polish demand for equal treatment of the Polish minority with other minorities in Czechoslovakia, Beck reaffirmed Poland’s readiness to fulfill her treaty obligations to France and proposed a discussion “of new phenomena” with Bonnet. This proposal was, however, rejected by the French Foreign Minister, a staunch appeaser who favored loosening French ties with Poland.44
Beck summed up his view of the situation at two special conferences, probably in late May or sometime in June 1938. In his later report on “The Political Preliminaries to 1939,” Beck wrote that at these conferences he stated his view that the Czechs would not fight; the Western countries were not morally or materially prepared to intervene to the Czechs’ advantage; and that Russia [sic] was conducting an action rather in the nature of a demonstration. It seemed, he said, that she was more interested in poisoning Czech-German relations than helping the Czechs. In any case, careful observation of Soviet territory did not show any military preparations to intervene, while the “purge” of the Red Army officer corps left the army in very bad shape. Finally, Beck wrote, he always added that Poland should not be the first to undertake any action against the Czechs. He also said that if his hypothesis should prove mistaken, Polish policy must change within twenty-four hours because, in case of a real European war with Germany, Poland could not be, even indirectly, on Germany’s side.45