Despite the fact that the above documents have been available in print for over fifty years, some Anglo-American and Russian historians still express the view that Hitler’s demands should have been accepted and that, by rejecting them, Poland bears responsibility for outbreak of World War II. Taylor also called the Poles “political gamblers” and opined that sober statesmen would have surrendered, seeing the dangers confronting them and their country’s inadequate means to deal with them.70 This view was then extrapolated into a Polish tendency to commit national suicide. One American historian even cites Balzac’s statement “You only have to show a Pole a precipice and he will throw himself over it.”71 Niall Ferguson also writes in this vein, stating that in 1939 the Poles “were suicidally determined to fight.” 72
Poles were not suicidal in 1939 — after all, at that time they had alliances with Britain and France — but Poland’s terrible fate inspired even some Polish historians to argue that Poland should have joined Hitler in attacking the USSR, thus avoiding the enormous losses she suffered in World War II. One of them even imagined Beck and Hitler presiding over a victory parade in Red Square.73 Beck, however, understood what Hitler had in mind for Poland if she bowed to his demands. The Polish foreign minister’s comment on the idea of a Polish-German war against the USSR — recorded when he was interned in Romania — reads: “We would have defeated Russia, and afterwards we would be taking Hitler’s cows out to pasture in the Urals.”74 Although Beck did not know it, Nazi plans envisaged, after victory over the USSR, deporting much of the Polish population to Siberia and settling the land with Germans.
As mentioned earlier, Beck managed to turn the British guarantee of Polish independence of March 31, 1939, into a provisional agreement on mutual aid, signed on April 6, which became a treaty of mutual aid — that is, an alliance — on August 25, 1939. Diplomatic historians of this period know that the British and French governments sought not to help or safeguard Poland as such, but rather to prevent or at least delay German aggression against Poland, which would mean war. Beck, for his part, believed that Poland’s alliances would prevent a German attack, giving him the chance to reach an agreement both satisfactory to Hitler and protecting vital Polish interests. Both London and Paris, however, hoped for another international conference — though this time with the loser, Poland, present — to transfer Danzig and the Polish Corridor to Germany, and they made no plans to attack Germany as they committed to do if she attacked their ally. The Polish government, especially Beck, cannot be blamed for believing that Poland’s allies would carry out their commitments. It was, after all, reasonable to expect them to attack Germany when she was fighting Poland, rather than wait for Hitler to attack them with full force in their turn, which is what actually happened. Nor can Beck and the Polish government be blamed for preventing a Franco-British-Soviet alliance in 1939.75 Stalin was clearly unwilling to go to war with Nazi Germany not only in 1938 and 1939 but also in 1941. He knew the Red Army was not ready to fight the German Wehrmacht, so he refused to believe warnings of Hitler’s plan to attack the USSR and reports of German troop concentrations on the Soviet western borders right up to June 22, 1941.
In conclusion, what kind of verdict does Józef Beck deserve? Taylor’s judgment that “Beck, the foreign minister, always possessed complete self-confidence, though not much else” indicates his ignorance of Polish foreign policy. Furthermore, in his book he called the appeasement of Germany at Munich “the triumph of all that was best and most enlightened in British life.” Few historians today know that Taylor, who had opposed Munich in 1938, wrote this when he viewed war as the greatest of all evils and was actively supporting the movement for unilateral British nuclear disarmament.76 Beck must have been anathema to Taylor for rejecting Hitler’s proposals, then resisting German aggression, and thus setting off World War II.
In view of the knowledge available to historians today, Beck can be seen as a remarkable Polish statesman who did the best that could be done to steer Poland between the Scylla of Nazi Germany and the Charybdis of the USSR. He is charged with being misled too long by the belief that Hitler intended to maintain good relations with Poland.77 This is, at best, a misinterpretation. Like most statesmen of the time, Beck did not believe that Hitler would risk another war with the Western Powers, which is not the same thing as trusting in Hitler’s good intentions toward Poland. Moreover, in 1936-38 he tried to interest the British in Polish military help for France, Belgium and Holland in case of war, and hinted in June 1938 at the possibility of a Polish-Hungarian-Romanian bloc which could fight Germany in the East if Britain and France fought her in the West. He did not oppose a compromise solution to the Danzig problem as long as it did not threaten vital Polish interests, but what Hitler wanted was the end of Polish independence.77 Beck does not deserve the charge of cooperating with Hitler, either in 1934 or in 1938.78 The Polish-German Non-Aggression Declaration did not contain any secret, anti-Soviet protocols, nor did it ruin or undermine the French alliance system in Eastern Europe, since France had been trying to neuter or even get rid of her alliance with Poland at least since the Locarno Treaties of 1925. In 1938, expecting the demise of Czechoslovakia, Beck was a realist in preparing to gain Zaolzie for Poland — acting parallel to but not with, or for Hitler — and in trying to obtain German agreement to a common Polish-Hungarian frontier as the keystone for a future anti-German bloc, while also seeking a formal German recognition of the status of Danzig as a Free City and of the Polish-German frontier. Finally, he always believed that Poland could never side with Berlin in a European war.
In a rare, positive evaluation of Beck’s policy, written almost fifty years after opposing his proposal of sending an ultimatum to Czechoslovakia, Eugeniusz Kwiatkowski wrote that the whole, layered historical past and even tactical arguments favored Beck’s policy toward Czechoslovakia in 1938. He noted that Wincenty Witos, head of the Polish Peasant Party, then in Czechoslovak exile, condemned Prague’s policy regarding Zaolzie, while Maciej Rataj, former speaker of the Sejm, told the Czech journalist Vacláv Fiala he could not follow any other policy than Beck. Kwiatkowski concluded with a judgment of Beck’s foreign policy, especially in 1939:
Finally, in the name of objectivity, one has to say that it is easy to criticize Beck’s actions because, like every active individual he made many errors and mistakes. But it is very difficult even today, after the great drama of war, to find another, fundamentally different alternative to Polish policy at that time. Two such different concepts were then hiding in dark, political corners of Poland. One proclaimed the desire for a complete capitulation to the Soviets with the alleged goal of defending Poland against the expected Nazi aggression. The other suggested fraternization with Hitler against the expansion of greedy Stalinist communism. Beck decisively and categorically rejected these two depraved political options. He chose a rocky, difficult road full of visible and hidden dangers, but a simple and Polish road.79
Professor Adam Daniel Rotfeld, Polish Foreign Minister in 2005, has also praised Beck. He reminded his fellow Poles on May 5, 2009, of Beck’s speech delivered in the Polish parliament exactly seventy years earlier. On that day, Beck gave the Polish reply to Hitler’s speech of April 28, in which the Führer had abrogated both the German-British naval agreement of 1935 and the Polish-German Declaration of Non-Aggression of 1934, while repeating his demands for the return of Danzig and a German Corridor through the Polish Corridor. Beck ended his speech with the statement:
Peace is a valuable and desirable thing. Our generation, which has shed its blood in several wars, surely deserves a period of peace. But peace, like almost everything in this world, has its price, high but definable. We in Poland do not recognize the concept of “peace at any price.” There is only one thing in the life of men, nations and states which is without price, and that is honor.80
Rotfeld commented that Beck’s great merit was not to give in to Hitler’s blackmail. His statement in the Polish parliament was welcomed by Poles; it showed courage and reasonable political thinking. The Polish Foreign Minister could not prevent Nazi aggression, but he was responsible for the fact that the German invasion of Poland met with armed resistance.81
Historians might well consider the most likely results of the alternative history consequent on the acceptance of Hitler’s demands by Beck in 1939. Germany was not ready to invade the USSR in the fall of 1939, even with a satellite Poland in tow, but she could have attacked France as Hitler had planned to do after defeating Poland. His generals, however, persuaded him to wait due to severe losses by the Luftwaffe, which also used up its entire bomb stock in Poland. He would have defeated France even faster than in 1940 and then demanded — as Hitler did in summer 1940 — that Britain accept German domination over Europe. In the fall of 1939, Britain would have been much weaker than it was a year later, and who knows if Churchill would have been as successful then in getting the government to reject Hitler’s proposals as he was in May 1940?82 As it turned out, Poland’s lonely fight against Nazi Germany gained precious time for her allies. It was wasted by France, whose military leaders rejected the idea of a repeat, successful German Blitzkrieg in the West, particularly in France. But it was used to the full by Britain, which produced about 600 fighter planes per month between fall 1939 and fall 1940. Some of these planes were flown by the Polish pilots who made up ten percent of RAF pilots active in the Battle of Britain in mid-September 1940.83
Beck died of tuberculosis in a dilapidated village schoolhouse in Romania on June 5, 1944, on the eve of the successful Allied landing in northwestern France. He was buried in a Bucharest cemetery, but his remains were repatriated and interred with honors in the Powązki Military Cemetery in Warsaw on May 24, 1991. He deserves a fair reassessment for continuing Piłsudski’s policy of equilibrium between Nazi Germany and the USSR, working to secure important gains for Poland in the Czechoslovak crisis of 1938, and finally as the statesman who refused even to consider Poland as a vassal state, let alone an ally of Germany.