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.”74Although 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.76Beck 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.77This 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.
1This is a much expanded version of the paper read in my absence by Dr. Patrice Dabrowski at the panel “Commemorating Piłsudski II: Military and Diplomatic Themes,” at the ASEEES annual convention in Los Angeles, November 17, 2010. I wish to thank her for reading it and the panelists for their comments. I also ask the indulgence of readers for including some background material which is familiar to them, but not to most American historians of twentieth-century Europe and their students, to whom this paper is dedicated.
2 For a discussion of negative views of Piłsudski, see Cienciala, “Józef Piłsudski w Anglo-Amerykańskich informatorach i podręcznikach historycznych po drugiej wojnie światowej. Zagadnienie mitu-stereotypu negatywnego” [Józef Piłsudski in Anglo-American Reference Works and History Textbooks after World War II. The Problem of the Negative, Mythical Stereotype], in Wojciech Wrzesiński, ed., Polskie mity polityczne XIX i XX wieku [Polish Political Myths of the 19th and 20th Centuries] (Wrocław: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Wrocławskiego, 1994), 167-194. For a positive but often ignored English-language study of Piłsudski’s seizure of power, see Joseph Rothschild, Pilsudski’s Coup d’Etat (New York: Columbia University Press, 1966).
3 See: Cienciala, “Historiografia anglosaska o wojnie polsko-sowieckiej i zwycięstwie polskim nad Armią Czerwoną w 1920 r.” [English-language Historiography on the Polish-Soviet War and the Polish Victory over the Red Army] in: Anna M. Cienciala, Piotr Wandycz, eds., Wojna Polsko-Bolszewicka 1919-1920 w ocenach historyków [The Polish-Soviet War of 1919-1920 as Evaluated by Historians] (Warsaw: Instytut Józefa Piłsudskiego, 2003), 41-54. A recent world history handbook states that Piłsudski “led an unsuccessful attack on the USSR in 1920.” See Józef (Klemens) Piłsudski, 1867-1935, Dictionary of World History, (NTC Pocket References, NTC Publishing Group, Linconlnwood, Illinois, 1997), 287. In a highly praised book, The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1994), the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm writes that the war was “provoked by the territorial ambitions of Poland” which “now demanded its eighteenth century frontiers [!]… Yet the Polish workers failed to rise and the Red Army was turned back at the gates of Warsaw” (p. 70).
4 Davies gives a very good, brief account of the war and its significance in his textbook, Europe: A History (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 934-937. In White Eagle-Red Star: The Polish-Soviet War, 1919-1920 (London: Macdonald, 1972; reprinted, London: Pimlico, Random House, 2003), Davies compares Piłsudski to a “rhinoceros” … “indestructible, myopic, unpredictable” (p. 66). He also compares the Bolsheviks, after their arrival in Poland, to “unruly toddlers who had strayed from curiosity out of their political nursery and into the street” (p. 159). For a more recent study of the Polish-Soviet War, see Adam Zamoyski, Warsaw 1920: Lenin’s Failed Conquest of Europe (London: Harper Press, 2008). See also Piotr S. Wandycz’s excellent diplomatic study, Soviet-Polish Relations 1917-1921 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967). For a detailed study of the negotiations leading to the Treaty of Riga, see Jerzy Borzęcki, The Soviet-Polish Peace of 1921 and the Creation of Interwar Europe (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008); Cienciala review, Slavic Review 68, no. 3 (2009): 667-668.
5 Cited by Piotr S. Wandycz in his article “The Place of the French Alliance in Poland’s Foreign Policy,” in Bâtir une Nouvelle Sécurité. La coopération militaire entre la France et les États d’Europe centrale et orientale de 1919 à 1929 [Building New Security : The Military Cooperation between France and the States of Central and Eastern Europe from 1919 to 1929] (Château de Vincennes : Centre d’Études d’Histoire de la Défense et Service Historique de l’Armée de Terre, 2001), 189. The Franco-Polish alliance and military conventions were signed in Paris on February 19 1921; they concerned mutual aid against German aggression. The Polish-Romanian defensive alliance and military conventions were signed in Bucharest on March 3 1921; they concerned mutual aid in case of Soviet aggression and were renewed twice in the 1930s.
6 For the Polish text of the Polish-Soviet Pact of 1932, see Tadeusz Cieślak, I.A. Chrienow et al., eds., Dokumenty i materiały do stosunków polsko-radzieckich, Tom V, Maj 1926-Grudzień 1932 [Documents and Materials on Polish-Soviet Relations, vol. V, May 1926-December 1932] (Warsaw: Książka i Wiedza, 1966), doc. 322; parallel Russian volumes were published in Moscow. For the English translation, see Stanisław Biegański et al., eds., Documents on Polish-Soviet Relations 1939-1945, vol. 1. 1939-1943 (London: Heinemann, 1961), doc. 6. The pact was to be automatically extended for two years, unless denounced by one of the two parties; for its extension in May 1934, see n.6 below.
7 For the Polish text of the Polish-German Declaration of 1934, see Tadeusz Jędruszczak and Maria Nowak-Kiełbikowa eds., Dokumenty z dziejów polskiej polityki zagranicznej 1918-1939, tom II, 1933-1939 [Documents on the History of Polish Foreign Policy 1918-1939, vol. 2, 1933-1939] (Warsaw: Instytut Wydawniczy PAX, 1996), doc. 8. For the English translation of the equally valid German text, see Documents on German Foreign Policy, ser. C, v. II (published jointly by His Majesty’s Stationery Office, London, and The Department of State, Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C., 1959), doc. 219; the same volumes in both series, C and D, were published in French and German. For the extension of the Polish-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact, see Dokumenty z dziejów, 2, doc. 22; English text in Documents on Polish-Soviet Relations, 1, doc. 10.
8 “Notatka z rozmów Pana Ministra Spraw Zagranicznych Becka z Ministrem Spraw Zagranicznych Francji, Lavalem, dnia 16 i 19 stycznia w Genewie” [Note on the conversations of Foreign Minister Beck with French Foreign Minister Laval, 16 and 19 January 1935 at Geneva], Ministerstwo Spraw Zagranicznych, sygn. 108, Archiwum Akt Nowych [Ministry of Foreign Affairs, ref. no. 108, Archive of Modern Documents], Warsaw; translated by Cienciala. I thank Dr. Hab. Docent Marek Kornat for making this document available to me. Louis Barthou paid a state visit to Poland in April 1934; on his policy aims, see Piotr S. Wandycz, The Twilight of French Eastern Alliances 1926-1936 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988), ch. 11. In January 1935, the French government was trying to mount an “Eastern Locarno” pact, involving the USSR, Germany, and Poland. The aim was to use Moscow to check Berlin; the project did not get off the ground because Germany rejected it, so Poland’s rejection was not decisive for its failure.
9 Hugh Seton-Watson, Eastern Europe Between the Wars, 1918-1941 (Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1962) (3rd ed.), 389.
10 Seton-Watson, ibid., xii. For a critical study of interpretations of the declaration, see Cienciala, “The Declaration of Non-Aggression of January 26, 1934 in Polish-German and International Relations: A Reappraisal,” East European Quarterly, 1, no. 1 (1967): 1-30, and idem, “Polish Foreign Policy, 1926-1939. ‘Equilibrium:’ Stereotype and Reality, ” in Alexander Korczyński and Tadeusz Świętochowski eds., Poland Between Germany and Russia 1926-1939: The Theory of Two Enemies (New York: Piłsudski Institute of America, 1975), 44-59. For a detailed study of contemporary reactions to the Polish-German declaration in Western and East European countries as well as by Poland’s German minority, see Mieczysław Wojciechowski, ed., Deklaracja polsko-niemiecka o niestosowaniu przemocy z dnia 26 stycznia 1934 r. z perspektywy Polski i Europy w siedemdziesiątą rocznicę podpisania [The Polish-German Declaration on Excluding the Use of Force of January 26, 1934, from the Perspective of Poland and Europe on the Seventieth Anniversary of its Signing] (Toruń: Centrum Edukacji Europejskiej, 2005).
11 Martin Kitchen, Europe Between The Wars (New York and London: Pearson/Longman, 2006) (2nd ed.), 187. For a repetition of Seton-Watson’s view of Beck’s policy without citing the source, see Adrian Webb, The Routledge Companion to Central and Eastern Europe since 1919 (London and New York: Routledge, 2008), 11.
12 On the charges of a secret protocol directed at the USSR, as recorded in diplomatic documents, see Marek Kornat, “Pakt, którego nie było...(Pogłoski o rzekomym tajnym układzie polsko-niemieckim w latach 1934-1938)” [The Pact which did not exist…(Rumors about an alleged, secret Polish-German Pact in the years 1934-1938)], in idem, Polityka równowagi 1934-1939. Polska między Wschodem a Zachodem [The Policy of Equilibrium 1934-1938. Poland between East and West] (Kraków: Arkana Historii, 2007), 229-306. The Russian TV documentary was titled “Sekrety Tainykh Protokolov” [The Secrets of Secret Protocols]. The film was shown on channel “Rossiya” on August 21, 2009.
13 See Georges-Henri Soutou, “L’Alliance franco-polonaise 1925-1933 ou comment s’en débarasser?“ [The Franco-Polish Alliance 1925-1933, or How to Get Rid of it?], Revue d’Histoire Diplomatique, 2/3/4 (1981): 295-348. For a succinct description of the French alliance system up to 1936, see Piotr S. Wandycz, Twilight, 3-16. For a well-documented study of French security policy as well as French views of Polish-Czechoslovak relations and efforts to establish military cooperation between them, see Isabelle Davion, Mon voisin, cet ennemi. La politique de sécurité française face aux relations polono-tchéchoslovaques entre 1919 et 1939 [My Neighbor, that Enemy: French Security Policy in the Face of Polish-Czechoslovak Relations between 1919 and 1939] (Brussels: Peter Lang, 2009).
14 On the Locarno Treaties, see Wandycz, France and her Eastern Allies, ch. 13, and idem, Twilight, ch. 1; also Anna M. Cienciala and Titus Komarnicki, From Versailles to Locarno: Keys to Polish Foreign Policy 1919-1925 (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1984), chs. 9 and 10.
15 German Foreign Minister Stresemann obtained a formula on aid to victims of aggression that allowed Germany to safeguard its relations with the USSR. It stated that each member of the League of Nations was to extend aid as far as its geographical and military position allowed; see Cienciala and Komarnicki, From Versailles to Locarno, 265. For the Soviet interpretation of the Locarno Treaties as directed against the USSR, see Istoriia Diplomatii (2nd ed.) (Moscow, 1965) vol. 3, and The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (Moscow, 1979), both cited by D. Asanov, in http://encyclopedia2.thefreedictionary.com/Locarno Treaties of 1925 (last accessed November 25, 2010). On German-Soviet military cooperation in the 1920s and early 1930s, see Yuri Dyakov and Tatyana Bushuyeva, The Red Army and the Wehrmacht: How the Soviets Militarized Germany and Paved the Way to Fascism, 1922-1933 (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1995).
16 On Skrzyński, see Piotr S. Wandycz, Aleksander Skrzyński. Minister Spraw Zagranicznych II Rzeczypospolitej [Aleksander Skrzyński: Foreign Minister of the Second Polish Republic] (Warsaw: Polski Instytut Spraw Międzynarodowych, 2006); Cienciala review, TPR, 52, no. 1 (2007): 115-120. For Piłsudski’s comment on Locarno, see Polska polityka zagraniczna w latach 1926-1932*. Na podstawie tekstów min. Józefa Becka opracowała Anna M. Cienciała, [Polish Foreign Policy in the Years 1926-1932,* edited by Anna M. Cienciala, based on the texts of Minister Józef Beck] *printing error: the end date should be 1939 (Paris: Instytut Literacki, 1990), 25-26. An unauthorized Polish edition appeared as Ostatni Raport [Final Report] (Warsaw: Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy, 1987). For the French translation with extensive appendices, edited by Jadwiga Beck et al., see Józef Beck, Dernier Rapport (Neuchatel: Éditions de la Baconnière, 1951), 5-6; the English version, Final Report (New York: Speller & Sons, 1957), has only skeletal appendices but some interesting photographs.
17 For the Treaty of Riga, see n. 3 above.
18 On arguments in 1919 for leaving Danzig and the Corridor in Poland, see Cienciala, “Danzig and the Polish Corridor at the Paris Peace Conference,” in Paul Latawski, ed., The Reconstruction of Poland, 1914-23 (London: Macmillan, 1992), 72-75; also idem and Komarnicki, From Versailles to Locarno, ch. 4. In the 1921 Polish census the Germans accounted for 29.5% in the Polish Corridor and 6.0% in 1931; see census and plebiscite tables for Prussian Poland and East Prussia in Richard Blanke, Orphans of Versailles: The Germans in Western Poland, 1918-1939 (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1999), 244-245, reproduced in Cienciala, Hist.557, Nationalism and Communism in East Central Europe,”