Indeed, at around this time Beck tried to sound out the French and British attitudes toward German expansion in Eastern Europe through the U.S. ambassador to Poland, Biddle. In mid-June, in the same conversation in which Beck told Biddle that Poland would not agree to German transit to Soviet Ukraine, he also told the ambassador that the armies of Poland, Romania, and perhaps Yugoslavia, could offer effective resistance to Germany — but only in conjunction with the Western Powers. As he put it, if France and Britain engaged German armies in the West, “Poland would march not for Czechoslovakia but against Germany.” Biddle also reported Polish hopes that, after the current crisis was resolved, France and Britain would support an East European bloc to check German expansion.46 There was, however, no Western response to these suggestions, nor could there be since both France and Britain wanted to avoid war with Germany.
It would take too much time and space to list all the developments in the period from May to late September 1938.47 Suffice it to say that Beck made Polish claims to Zaolzie clear to the Czechoslovak government as well as to the British, French, German and Italian governments, especially when the crisis heated up in the second half of September. He also warned Hitler that Poland would stand by its demand for a key railway junction in the northern part of Zaolzie, where the German minority demanded union with Germany. In fact, as the Poles learned from the French on September 27, on a German map given to Chamberlain when he met with Hitler at Godesberg on September 22-23, Bohumin was marked for immediate German annexation while a large part of Zaolzie was marked for a plebiscite. Beck immediately instructed Ambassador Józef Lipski to present Polish claims to Hitler.48 Meanwhile, on September 22-23, the Sudeten German Party also claimed the region. News of the SGP claim, as well as the expectation of Western acceptance of German claims, were connected both with the stationing of Polish troops on the border with Czechoslovakia and the Polish government’s attempt to stage a local Polish uprising in Zaolzie, which fizzled out. It should be noted that on the first day of the Godesberg meeting, Hitler demanded the withdrawal of Czech troops and the entry of German troops by September 28, but extended the date the next day to October 1 and sent his demands to Prague. Chamberlain was willing to accept them, but the British government decided to take a stand and put the navy on alert, while the French army called up the reservists. There was an international crisis and the Czechs, who had accepted the cession of the predominantly German part of the Sudetenland under Western pressure a few days earlier, were now told they could mobilize. France and Britain, however, only wanted to save face and sought a peaceful resolution of German claims, so they gratefully accepted Mussolini’s proposal of a conference. Thus, on September 29, at Munich, the British Prime Minister Chamberlain, the French Prime Minister Eduard Daladier, and the Italian head of state, Benito Mussolini, agreed to Hitler’s demand for the cession of the predominantly German part of the Sudetenland to Germany. The German Army was to come into the area beginning on October 1. An “International Commission” — composed of the German Foreign Secretary, the British and French ambassadors in Berlin and a representative to be named by the Czechoslovak government, which had not been consulted on these terms — was to oversee the occupation as well as the plebiscites to be held in ethnically mixed areas. Britain and France agreed to participate in an international guarantee of the new Czechoslovak frontiers against unprovoked aggression, while Germany and Italy undertook to guarantee it after the Hungarian and Polish claims had been settled. The Czechoslovak government was simply informed of the Great Powers’ agreement. (In fact, there were no plebiscites and no international guarantee of the remaining Czechoslovak state.)
With the announcement of the Munich Conference decisions on the morning of September 30, 1938, it was clear that German troops would enter the Sudetenland beginning on October 1, while Poland (which claimed Zaolzie) and Hungary (which claimed southern Slovakia and Subcarpathian Ruthenia) were to wait three months for the examination of their claims unless separate agreements were reached in the meanwhile. Everything now depended on the decision of President Beneš: would he reject the Munich verdict and fight — in which case France was bound to come into the war as an ally of Czechoslovakia, and so would Poland as an ally of France — or would he accept it? Beck discussed with the chief of the Polish General Staff, General Wacław Stachiewicz, possible military aid to Czechoslovakia if the latter fought, but Beneš accepted the Munich verdict at noon on September 30. Three days earlier, the Polish government had made its second explicit proposal tending to the same end: a plebiscite in the part of Zaolzie inhabited by a strong proportion of Poles — the areas were marked on a map — followed by its immediate cession to Poland and a plebiscite on disputed territories. This was to be the basis of a bilateral agreement on Polish-Czechoslovak relations. The Polish envoy in Prague, Kazimierz Papée, was empowered to begin preliminary negotiations, but there was no answer until September 30. The Czechoslovak answer, handed to the Polish envoy in Prague an hour after Beneš accepted the Munich decisions, was received in Warsaw sometime in the afternoon of that day. It was judged inadequate because, while accepting the need to rectify the frontier, it rejected plebiscites and the immediate transfer of some territory. Instead, it proposed the establishment of a Polish-Czechoslovak commission that would begin its work on October 5, completing it between October 31 and December 1.49
That same afternoon, Beck spoke at a special conference held at the Royal Castle and proposed drastic Polish action. According to the notes of Deputy Premier Eugeniusz Kwiatkowski, Beck said that what happened at Munich was reminiscent of the Four Power Pact projected four years earlier. [This is a reference to the agreement by Britain, France, Germany and Italy to revise disputed frontiers, signed in July 1934 but not implemented.] Beck said he believed that one must quickly, and as drastically as possible, oppose such methods of settling territorial disputes. Only determined action could save Poland from another Munich. Speaking of Zaolzie, he warned that immediate action was necessary because “if we hesitate and delay, Germany may seize this valuable and highly industrialized patch of land, eliminating Polish claims to Zaolzie for a long time to come.” He then mentioned that the Polish government had demanded, and received, the Czechoslovak government’s agreement in principle to equal treatment with the German minority. Since Prague was to cede territories inhabited by Germans to Germany, Poland must demand the same for her claim, and he proposed sending an ultimatum to Prague. Kwiatkowski wrote that he was the only person to disagree, suggesting a diplomatic procedure instead, but was overruled. As for Beck himself, he wrote later that in view of the expansion of German territory very near to the Polish frontier and especially to Zaolzie, which was so valuable for Poland, also in view of the violation by the four Powers of the sovereign rights of nations and the integrity of national territory, he was convinced that Poland must immediately react to both these developments. Therefore, he stated that in view of the above circumstances, General [Władysław] Bortnowski “must march into Zaolzie and against Munich.” That evening, Beck told Szembek that the British ambassador told him the Czechs had informed London they had agreed to the Polish demands and would cede the counties of Cieszyn and Frysztat to Poland, while the French ambassador said his government had told the Czechs they should send a reply more in line with Polish demands.50
Consequent to the decision, an ultimatum was sent to Prague in a coded radio message, also carried by a pilot dispatched in a special plane, demanding the Czech evacuation and transfer of two western counties of Zaolzie [Cieszyn and Frysztat] within twenty-four hours, while other issues raised by the Polish note of September 27, including plebiscites in other areas, would be left to a later understanding between the two governments. The ultimatum had a time limit of noon, October 1. The French and British ambassadors in Warsaw pleaded for Polish acceptance of the Czechoslovak offer to negotiate; Chamberlain offered his mediation, President Franklin Roosevelt appealed for a peaceful settlement of Polish claims, and the French government was already pressing the Czechoslovak government to accept Polish demands. By the evening of September 30 it was, however, too late to stop the Polish action. The ultimatum was sent; it was presented in Prague a little after midnight and accepted the next day, October 1, at 11.30 a.m. with a request for a one-hour extension for the formal acceptance (that is, 1 p.m. on October 1), which was granted.51 Polish troops moved into the counties of Cieszyn and Frysztat the next day, and the annexation of Zaolzie was supported by all political parties as well as the vast majority of Poles. Western public opinion condemned the Polish action, although the British and French governments had advised the Czechs to accept the Polish demands. Now, however, their media, along with Soviet media, had a field day. Beck’s name has been blackened by this action ever since, overshadowing the Western Powers’ betrayal of Czechoslovakia, particularly by its ally, France. This condemnation also came to overshadow Beck’s success in turning the British guarantee of Polish independence (March 31, 1939) into a provisional mutual aid agreement (April 6, 1939) and then alliance between the two countries (August 26, 1939).
What did Poland gain with Zaolzie? In economic terms, in the period October 1938-September 1939 the region produced 52.2% of Polish coking coal, 67% of its pig iron and 38% of its steel. Production in all three categories was more than Poland needed but, given time, it would have allowed a major increase in her armaments instead of strengthening Hitler, while in the short term she could, of course, export the surplus. The Polish-Czechoslovak negotiations led to the cession of a few areas in Orava as well as Spis and Čadca in the Tatra mountains, deemed important for military reasons (mountain passes). Although most of the land gained was Polish, it included some Slovak villages, which led to great Slovak resentment. All in all, Poland gained a significant increase of its industrial production, 869,000 km. of land and 258,000 mostly Polish-speaking people.52
The Polish use of the ultimatum in demanding Zaolzie from Czechoslovakia is known; what is less known is, as mentioned earlier, that Beck also tried to achieve three other goals on 1938. The first was the creation of a common Polish-Hungarian frontier in Subcarpathian Ruthenia, which failed then due to regional rivalries (see below), to be annexed six months later in mid-March 1939. The second was the inclusion of an autonomous Slovakia within Hungary. As it turned out, Hitler established an “independent” Slovakia at the same time as he seized the Czech lands in mid-March 1939, but minus the predominantly Hungarian-speaking areas granted earlier to Hungary. Beck’s third and most important goal was Hitler’s formal recognition of the status of the Free City of Danzig and of the Polish-German frontier. When, however, Ambassador Lipski presented all these proposals to the Führer on September 20, Chamberlain had already signified his agreement in principle to Hitler’s demands for the cession of the preponderantly German-speaking Sudetenland on the basis of self-determination; the British and French leaders had agreed to this and mandated the cession to Czechoslovakia. Thus Poland had no leverage in Berlin. Indeed, Lipski’s proposals, made on Beck’s express instructions, elicited Hitler’s reply that Danzig was covered by the Polish-German declaration of 1934 — but also the suggestion of a 30 meter-wide German Corridor through the Polish Corridor to accommodate a superhighway connected with railways.53 This was the opening shot in German diplomatic pressure on Poland to agree to the return of the Free City to Germany, with guaranteed Polish rights, and to an extra-territorial German Corridor through the Polish Corridor. Later German proposals included compensation for Poland in Soviet Ukraine. The Polish government played for time and finally rejected the German demands on March 25, 1939, five days before being offered, and accepting, the British guarantee of Poland’s independence.54
As mentioned earlier, Beck’s major regional goal during the Czechoslovak crisis of 1938 was to secure a common frontier with Hungary in Subcarpathian Ruthenia. This was to be the keystone of his projected Polish-Hungarian-Romanian (and possibly also Yugoslav) bloc, which he had briefly mentioned to American Ambassador William Bullitt in June 1938. The goal of “The Third Europe” was to stem further German expansion in Eastern Europe. Beck worked for this together with the Hungarians and tried to secure Romanian support. He discussed it with King Carol II of Romania in mid-October 1938, but the project failed to get off the ground. This was partly due to Romanian reluctance to give up receiving military supplies from Czechoslovakia, and partly to the clash of Hungarian and Romanian claims– not to speak of the Hungarian revisionist demand regarding Transylvania — but most of all due to the lack of any Western support for this endeavor. Mussolini, who wanted to expand Italian influence in the Balkans, had been inclined to support the project but backed out.55
Thus, all that Poland gained from the Czechoslovak crisis was Zaolzie. Could Beck have satisfied Polish territorial claims on Czechoslovakia — claims that had the support of the majority of Poles at the time — in some way other than by the threat of force? On the one hand, the Czechoslovak government’s agreement of September 30 to the rectification of the frontier along with an offer of negotiations seemed to offer Poland an acceptable way of obtaining the territory both without Western mediation and without incurring the black public image that has stuck to Beck ever since. On the other hand, the procedure proposed by the Czechs would take some time, which Hitler could use to pressure the Polish government into accepting German demands regarding Danzig and the Corridor. These were, in fact, formulated officially to Lipski as “suggestions” by Ribbbentrop in late October 1938. In exchange, Ribbentrop offered the possible extension of the Polish-German agreement (1934) for twenty-five years. He also proposed that Poland join the Anti-Comintern Pact (Germany, Italy, Japan) and suggested a joint German-Polish policy toward the USSR. Lipski warned Ribbentrop that he did not see the possibility of a Polish-German understanding on the basis of reuniting Danzig with Germany. He did not speak about the Corridor issue, and the Polish government never took up the Anti-Comintern proposal. It should be noted that at this time there was more talk by Danzig Nazis about the city’s return to the motherland and therefore more friction with Poland.56 Hitler might well have found a pretext to move German troops into Zaolzie — perhaps in answer to an appeal by the local German minority, supported by the Sudeten German Party — and then offer it to Poland. In his conference speech of September 30, Beck had mentioned not only the danger of German expansion very near the Polish frontier, especially Zaolzie, but also that only drastic Polish action could prevent another Munich. He presumably had in mind a meeting of the same Western heads of state in three months’ time to examine — and settle — Polish and Hungarian claims if no agreements had been reached in the meantime. They might even consider settling Hitler’s demands on the Danzig-Corridor issue — in his favor.
Ultimately, even though Polish-Czechoslovak negotiations on the transfer of remaining territory were concluded and agreements were signed on November 30, 1938, the form of presenting its demands to Prague two months earlier, that is, the ultimatum, gave Poland a very bad public image both at the time and in the history books. Beck has been charged recently by a Polish historian with ruining Poland’s reputation, or at least strengthening its image as a de facto ally of Germany, isolating it from its French ally and other Western states.57 One may note, however, that Poland’s reputation was already bad, due to accusations regarding the Polish-German Declaration of Non-Aggression as well as the formally good relations between the two countries since that time, which were suspect to and greatly resented by France. As noted earlier, the declaration was interpreted as a secret alliance by most communist sympathizers and socialists in Western Europe, not to mention the USSR. Beck also knew that if Hitler publicized German demands regarding Danzig and the Polish Corridor, they would meet with general Western support, particularly in Britain. Finally, one may assume that, since Western governments and public opinion welcomed the Munich Conference decisions on Czechoslovakia as saving the peace, they would very likely have accepted peaceful Polish-Czechoslovak negotiations for the transfer of Zaolzie. Therefore, it was not the official principle of Poland’s demand for equal treatment of the Polish and German minorities of Czechoslovakia on the basis of self-determination, but rather the method chosen to secure the territory that proved unacceptable to Western governments and public opinion. In hindsight, it seems that Beck should have accepted the Czechoslovak offer of September 30, even at the risk of a sudden German takeover. It would be unrealistic, however, to expect such a decision from the contemporary Polish decision-makers, led by Beck, so the ultimatum can be judged as regrettable, but it must be viewed in the context of the Munich agreement as well as Polish interests, public opinion, and the dramatic conditions of the time.
The Polish ultimatum to Prague certainly led to frosty Polish relations with France and Britain. Relations with France soon recovered, however, and Beck worked successfully to improve relations with Britain. At the end of November, he instructed the Polish Ambassador in London, Edward Raczyński, to see British Foreign Secretary Halifax and explain Polish foreign policy aims to him. With regard to Czechoslovakia, the ambassador was to say that Poland had been ready to settle her demands regarding that country together with the Western Powers [that is, at Munich]. Since that proved unfeasible, she did so independently “without any debts of gratitude to anyone, including Germany.” (The ambassador carried out Beck’s instruction on December 15). 58 The Beck initiative began a period of improved relations which accompanied Hitler’s destruction of the Czechoslovak State in mid-March 1939, leading to the British guarantee of Polish independence at the end of that month, to a provisional mutual aid agreement a few days later, and finally to a treaty of alliance in late August 1939.
Soviet-Polish relations also improved after a short period of tension caused by the Soviet threat of September 23, 1938, to abrogate the Polish-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact if Polish troops moved into Czechoslovakia. Beck answered the same day that the Polish government was not obliged to explain its policy to anyone.59 This was in keeping with his belief that Soviet policy had the character of a demonstration rather than action, that is, for show. It should be noted, however, that on September 27 visible Soviet military preparations were reported by Polish diplomats in the Minsk region, and there was a Polish protest against Soviet planes over-flying the frontier.60 It was no coincidence that the Czechoslovak reply, dated September 22, to the Polish demand of September 21 for an immediate decision on Polish inhabited territories analogous to the Czechoslovak decision on the German problem — i.e., the cession of Zaolzie — arrived in Warsaw on September 26, just before Soviet military activity on the Polish-Soviet frontier was observed. In fact, Beneš had asked for Soviet pressure on Poland.61 Soviet as well as some Western historians have claimed that the Soviet Union stood ready to help the Czechs if only the Red Army could transit through either Poland or Romania,62 although it seems more likely that the Red Army might have moved into Poland. There is, however, no documented Soviet request to the Polish Government to agree to the Red Army’s transit through Poland to Czechoslovakia, nor is there a documented plan of Soviet military operations. Also, it seems rather unlikely that Stalin would have tangled with Hitler even if France and Britain had done so — and from reading their diplomatic correspondence he knew that they did not want to fight Germany but sought a peaceful satisfaction of Hitler’s demand.63 If the Western Powers had given strong indications of readiness to fight Germany, it seems possible that Stalin could have sent the Red Army into southeastern Poland. In fact, according to the memoirs of General Maurice Gamelin, then head of the French General Staff, on September 26 — that is, during the crisis — the Soviet military attaché in Paris spoke of thirty divisions and cavalry units on the frontier with Poland, as well as tanks and most of the Soviet air force.64 As mentioned earlier, no military plan for such action has surfaced so far, but the pro-Soviet Czechoslovak envoy in Moscow, Zdenek Fierlinger, reported the expectation that in case of “a favorable development,” the USSR would try to establish a common border with Czechoslovakia.65 This would, of course, have meant Soviet annexation of at least part of southeastern Poland (former East Galicia). Indeed, as Richard Raack has shown, Soviet Deputy Commissar for Foreign Affairs Vladimir P. Potemkin wrote, under an assumed name, about a new partition of Poland in Pravda before the Munich Conference in 1938; he also told a French diplomat in October 1938 that it was inevitable. Stalin, of course, shared Lenin’s view that there would be a second “imperialist” war, and saw it as the prime occasion for Soviet action and expansion. As he said at a party conference in 1925, if such a war broke out, the USSR would come in to add the decisive weight to the scales — the weight that would tip them.66 In Potemkin’s article and his later statement, Stalin might have been advertising his terms for aligning either with Hitler or the Western Powers in the expected “imperialist” war. Ultimately, he chose Hitler.
Some historians and other authors writing on the history of the immediate prewar period claim even today that Hitler’s demands were reasonable and should have been accepted by the Poles, thus preventing the outbreak of the World War II. This claim ignores the fact that Hitler was not a reasonable and responsible statesman and that his aim was to build a great German empire. In mid-March 1939, he broke his word, given at Munich, that he would not seek territory with non-German populations, by annexing the Czech lands and destroying the Czechoslovak state. It is also known that, on hearing of the Polish rejection of his demands for Danzig and a German Corridor through the Polish Corridor, the Führer issued a directive on March 25 to the head of the German General Staff. He wrote that, not wishing to drive the Poles into the arms of Great Britain, he did not want to resolve the Danzig issue by force. He would consider a military occupation of the city only if the Polish government indicated it could not justify a voluntary surrender to its people and would therefore welcome a [German] “fait accompli.” After citing the above statement, the British historian A. J. P. Taylor concluded that “Hitler’s objective was alliance with Poland, not her destruction.”67 He did so by omitting the next paragraph where the Führer wrote that a resolution of the problem in the near future required favorable political conditions. Poland would then be so beaten down that she would not count as a political factor for decades. Hitler envisaged extending the German frontier from the eastern coast of East Prussia to the eastern tip of [Upper] Silesia, but noted that out-settling [Poles] and resettling [Germans] were still open questions.68 Indeed, although Hitler repeated his allegedly reasonable demands in his speech to the Reichstag of April 28, 1939, his primary goal was always to gain Lebensraum for the German people, which he envisaged in Poland and the USSR. As he told Göring and high German army officers on May 23, 1939, Danzig was not the objective — it was to gain Lebensraum in the East, and settle the land with Germans to secure nourishment for the German people.69