I have previously written about Poland’s role in the run-up to the Second World War, describing Poland as a pawn – useful as a tool for the west to get into the war – and also examining the sellout of Poland and other Central European countries to the Soviets.
Most famously, Britain and France gave a guarantee to Poland before the invasion by Germany in September 1939 – a guarantee that neither country had the intent or ability to honor in case Poland was invaded; a guarantee useful, it seems, merely as a pretext for these two western states to get into a fight with Germany.
However, there is another side to this story. Poland did not spend the interwar years in peace and harmony with its neighbors. Poland was not an innocent victim in a game of elephants. Poland played an active part in actions that would contribute to its demise.
“Poland hunt like sharks in a shark tank until it itself is eaten.”
This is not to suggest that Poland would have survived unscathed had it followed a different course. There were reasons for Germany and the Soviets to fight sooner or later, with or without Poland’s actions (and with or without any actions taken by the Western nations). However, it is appropriate, I believe, to recognize the contributions that Polish leaders took that actively contributed to its demise.
To put it succinctly: If one were to design a plan to anger every neighbor, one could not do better than the Poles did in the interwar years. And even with this, Great Britain and France, backed by the US, gave a war guarantee.
For this post, I draw material from the book “1939 – The War That Had Many Fathers,” by Gerd Schultze-Rhonof.
At the end of the Great War, Poland receives, via the various treaties in Paris, land allotted to it from the holdings of the various neighboring nations. Along with this come millions of non-Poles – people also without an interest in becoming Poles. Yet, even after these gains, Poland is not satisfied.
The head of the Polish delegation at Versailles, Dmowski, explains in the negotiations on the new frontiers of Poland that one must not lose sight of the fact that the regions granted to Poland are “only a down payment on a real Great Poland.” (Page 423)
The leaders of this new Polish government are looking to restore all of the lands which before 1772 were parts of the Polish-Lithuanian Union. Perhaps the high point of this union is achieved in 1569, formally known as the Union of Lublin:
The Union of Lublin…replaced the personal union of the Crown of the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania with a real union and an elective monarchy…
It was signed July 1, 1569, in Lublin, Poland, and created a single State, the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. The Commonwealth was ruled by a single elected monarch who carried out the duties of King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania, and governed with a common Senate and parliament (the Sejm). The Union was an evolutionary stage in the Polish–Lithuanian alliance and personal union, necessitated also by Lithuania's dangerous position in wars with Russia.
This union saw its end with the Partitions of Poland, occurring at the end of the eighteenth century – with Poland divided amongst the Austrians, Russians, and Prussians.
Thus, at the end of the Great War, the new leaders of the new Poland had sights set on lands that were at the time part of Russia, the Ukraine, Germany, and Czechoslovakia, among others. In 1918, Polish leaders set out to satisfy their dreams.
The new Poland in 1918 – right after being founded – establishes a strong army out of the former German, Austrian, Hungarian, and Russian world-war soldiers (now Polish nationals), and by means of attacks begins to expand in three directions at the expense of its neighbors. (Page 424)
At the same time that Poland was beneficiary of the treaties from Paris, and perhaps the prime beneficiary of the ideals expressed by Wilson in his Fourteen Points, Polish leaders took actions to further these gains via militaristic means – often aggressing against neighbors that have either been declawed by the victorious Allies (such as Germany and Austria), or that were busy with internal strife (such as Russia).
Poland - Russia
In 1919, Poland attacks Russia, weakened by revolution. With this, Poland drives the Soviet troops deep into White Russia and into Ukraine. (Page 427)
In the meantime, the Allies in Paris set the eastern boundary for Poland from Grodno to Brest and then along the Bug River – the “Curzon Line,” named after the man who proposed it in the peace conference. The Poles, having just taken much more than this territory from the Russians, refused to relinquish the excess.
The Poles and Soviets fight back and forth for half a year, with the Soviets finally compelled to make peace on 18 March 1921 (Peace of Riga). The Soviets cede this “East Poland” – east of the Curzon line, and assigned to the Russians by Paris, but taken via force by the Poles. With this treaty, 5 million Ukrainians, 1.2 million White Russians, and about 1 million Jews become Polish citizens – along with about 1.5 million Poles living in this territory.
The Allies are not happy with this treaty and with Poland’s actions:
The Allied Powers were reluctant to recognize the treaty, which had been concluded without their participation. Their postwar conferences supported the Curzon Line as the Polish-Russian border, and Poland's territorial gains in the treaty lay about 250 km east of that line. French support led to its recognition in March 1923 by France, Great Britain, Italy, and Japan, followed by the US in April.
It should be noted that this is the same territory claimed by the Soviets at the end of the Second World War (per Yalta and Potsdam), shifting Polish borders west toward and into Germany.
In the 1930s, the relationship has somewhat improved – at least on the surface. In July 1932, the Polish Soviet Non-Aggression Pact is signed. This pact includes a significant clause:
…in the event of a German-Polish conflict, the Soviet Union “during the entire duration of the conflict may provide no help or assistance to the German Reich either directly or indirectly.” (Page 484)
This treaty loses all effect when Poland, in 1938, takes the remainder of Teschen region against the warnings from Russia. Of course, later the Soviets would demonstrate their willingness to ignore other non-aggression treaties, so there should be no assumption that this treaty would have remain honored. However, it was, in this case, Polish action in Teschen that voluntarily ended this guarantee. (Page 484)
Poland – Lithuania
At the same time of Poland’s battles with Russia, Poland also invades the newly independent Lithuania. With this, Poland conquers Vilna (Vilnius). (Page 427)
The League of Nations in Geneva in vain raises a protest and proposes a national referendum. Poland conceded to the population in the occupied territory no right to national self-determination and retains the eastern part of the young Lithuanian State without allowing a referendum. (Page 432)
Poland’s aggressive actions are not confined to the time immediately following the First World War. Even on the eve of the guarantees by Britain and France (pushed by the US), Poland continues to deal with its neighbors via force and aggression:
In 1938 Poland has its troops deployed at the border, threatens war and forces the Lithuanians to recognize under international law the Polish conquest in 1920. (Page 432)
Poland – Czechoslovakia
In 1918, both the Poles and Czechs claim the Teschen region, a territory south of Upper Silesia with an area of less than 2500 square kilometers. The area is rich in coal mines, steel mills, and other heavy industries. The region also is strategic with a key river and railway line within the territory.
At the Peace Conference, the Allies divide the region – the eastern portion to Poland, the western to the newly formed Czechoslovakia. Poland unsuccessfully argues against this division, wanting it all.
Once again, Poland looks for an opportune occasion to resolve this issue when the counter-party is weak. In 1938, at the time of the Sudeten crisis with Germany on the eve of overtaking all of Czechoslovakia, Poland uses the opportunity to claim west Teschen.
Great Britain and France are at first unopposed, however they ultimately join with the Soviets to reject Poland’s claim. (Hitler raises no objections, perhaps hoping to cultivate Polish favor regarding Danzig). The Soviets even threaten to withdraw from the 1935 mutual assistance pact and the 1932 Non-Aggression Pact between the two countries if Poland takes over the region via force. (Page 434)
Poland ignores the objections and warnings. In the last week of September 1938, Poland deploys its army near the border, threatening the Czech government with war. Czechoslovakia yields, being in no position to counter this given the larger issues at hand with Germany. Poland immediately occupies the territory. (Page 435)
Poland – Germany
In Warsaw, Poland’s independence is declared on 7 October 1918. This is followed shortly with the break by Poland of formal relations with Germany, on 13 December. (Page 438)
Both countries have designs on territories assigned to the other at Versailles, or otherwise nominally administered by the League of Nations. In 1920, Germany must cede to the new Poland the areas of West Prussia, Posen, and East Upper Silesia. These regions include 2 million German citizens. (Page 436)
The regions are hardly Polish. In West Prussia, for example, the population is less than 25% Polish. The Germans, in accordance with Wilson’s Fourteen Points, propose a referendum for the region. The Allies reject this proposal. (Page 441)
In Silesia, the Allies – against France’s vote – finally grant a referendum on 16 July 1919. Violence breaks out – an uprising of the Poles, with the intent of preventing the referendum – railway and bridges are blown up, strikes are called, etc. Ultimately, the violence is put down by German volunteers. (Page 451)
On 11 February 1920 the Allies take over the situation, inserting French General Le Rond along with 13,500 French and Italian troops into the region (eventually adding 2000 more from England, after further disturbances). Le Rond, of course is no friend of Germany. (Page 452)
Finally, on 21 March 1921, the referendum takes place. Further bloody clashes take place, with reportedly over 1500 German citizens meeting their death. Sixty-one percent vote to remain in the German Reich, with 39% for Poland. The results are muddled, with no clear regional distinctions – mostly, the industrial regions want Germany, the rural vote for Poland. Ultimately, the Allies reach a decision that leaves 400,000 Germans as Polish citizens (along with 85% of the region’s coal). This decision is announced on 1 May 1921. Germany is not happy, and Poland wanted more. (Page 453)
Toward their wants, Poland attacks militarily. On 2 May, the Polish population goes on strike in the coal mines, factories and farms. Trains with arms, sent by France, are intended for the Polish war with Russia. Instead, Poland uses these against the Germans in Upper Silesia – German by international law. French General Le Rond does nothing to stop this, although the Italians under his command attempt to do their duty – paying for this with 40 dead and 200 wounded. (Page 453)
British Prime Minister Lloyd George puts the Polish efforts into context, in a speech to the Lower House on 13 May 1921:
“This step was a complete rupture of the Peace Treaty of Versailles…. Poland is the last country that should try to go against the Treaty of Versailles…. If Poland should get permission to overrun these German provinces, that would come to a bad end.” (Page 455)
No meaningful action is taken by the Allies – with the French in primary position. After several unsuccessful Reich protests to the victorious powers, volunteer German and Austrian units (Freikorps) form, recapture the lost land toward the end of May. The German government, under pressure from France, announces that every volunteer will be subject to prison or a fine of up to 100,000 marks. (Page 455)
Of particular significance is the city of Danzig. Without referendum, the city is separated from the German Reich and put under the protection of the League of Nations – the newly formed “Free State of Danzig.” The city and surrounding region is, at this time, 97% German. (Page 445)
The region remains, as many in Versailles predicted, a region of continuous conflict. For example, the residents of Danzig petition the League of Nations many times in the interwar years to allow a referendum on the city’s status. Each request is denied. (Page 445)
In the meantime, Poland, through small steps during the interwar years, takes actions designed to move Danzig from the status of internationally protected free city to a city fully incorporated in the Polish state. For example, Poland expands its own post office network into the city; the Polish military, against the protest of the Danzig Senate, establishes a munitions depot in the port; in 1932, Polish warships are transferred to Danzig, initially under the pretext of a visit by the British fleet, but later remaining even after the visit. (Page 447)
Meanwhile, Germany and Poland in 1934 sign a non-aggression pact, valid for ten years. Relations remain positive between Warsaw and Berlin for some time after this signing. Poland later notes that this move cause France to lose interest in Polish concerns; Poland comes to see this to its disadvantage. (Page 487)
There are further disagreements between Poland and Germany regarding tariffs, equal rights of transit, and other such commercial disputes. This back and forth culminates in a unilateral Polish action: in 1936, Poland imposes the so-called Corridor Blockade – significantly reducing the rail traffic allowed to pass through the corridor between Northeast Pomerania and East Prussia. (Page 443)
In 1937, internal developments in Poland begin to significantly sour the relationship. The Polish press attacks everything German, making public opinion the enemy of Beck’s good relationships with the Germans via Göring. Additionally (or perhaps consequently), harassment of minority groups in Poland increases. (Page 489)
Until 1939, Hitler maintains illusions regarding the possibility of reaching agreement with Poland on the issue of Danzig. As Danzig is legally a free city, and not part of the Polish state, he sees compromise as possible. During 1938 / 1939, Germany makes several offers in hope of resolving the situation, none successful (I offer significant detail on this back-and-forth here). As previously mentioned, Hitler believed that by standing aside while Poland entered the Teschen reason, some goodwill would be earned. Additionally, Hitler was the first chancellor to renounce German claims to territories in Posen, West Prussia, and Upper Silesia. These actions get no result. (Page 449, 488)
Hitler’s actions should not be construed as wholly altruistic. He sees in the state of Poland a buffer between Germany and the Communist Soviet Union, an enemy so hated by the Chancellor. (Page 487)
I make no mention here of the guarantees offered by France and Great Britain (and prompted largely by Roosevelt) to Poland. Certainly, the guarantees offered backing to Poland to stand firm against German overtures for a Danzig solution. However, given the actions of Poland during the interwar years against virtually every one of its neighbors – actions taken when each neighbor was in a particularly vulnerable condition – it seems Polish leaders were afflicted with a disease of bravado long before the guarantees made in 1939.
It also seems quite possible that even if Poland respected Russia’s objection to its annexation of the Czech portion of Teschen, eventually Stalin would have found pretext to invade Poland. Likewise, Hitler has demonstrated his ability to move beyond negotiated settlements when he annexed all of Czechoslovakia after an agreement only regarding the Sudeten regions; hence, a settlement on Danzig and Hitler’s disavowal of other German regions given to Poland after the First World War might have lasted only as long as the peace was beneficial to Hitler.
In other words, once Stalin built the Soviet state into an imposing military machine, and once Hitler rose to power in Germany, with antagonism clearly directed toward the communists in the east, Poland and other regions geographically trapped between these two powers were doomed to a miserable outcome. None of this is to excuse the cynical guarantee made by Britain (designed, it seems, only to bring Britain and the US into a war unnecessarily), however it is an attempt to add some context.
It should be added, if Stalin followed at all in Lenin’s vision, he wanted a war involving the western industrialized and capitalistic nations. Lenin, in a keynote speech before the Moscow organization of the Communist Party of Russia regarding England and France on the one side and Germany on the other (both sides capitalist, and therefore the enemy), declares: “Until the final victory of socialism over the whole world,” the fundamental rule remains valid that “one must exploit the contradictions and conflicts between two groups of imperialist powers, between two groups of capitalist states, and one must set them on each other.” [It is] impossible to defeat both of them, “so one must understand how to group his forces so that the two come into conflict with each other….” (Page 528)
In other words, Poland’s fate was likely sealed in 1919 due to the revolution in Russia and decisions of the Allies in Paris, and it was likely not to end well for the people trapped in this region. However, this does not explain (and in fact makes even more confusing) Poland’s antagonistic actions towards every one of its neighbors in the intervening years. For this, I offer the author’s conclusion:
Poland in 1919 comes back on the stage of European history as an independent nation. But it does not seeks its new identity in the borders set by the victors of the First World War. The modern Poles of 1919 dream of the old Poland-Lithuania of 1450. They begin their recent history with a series of wars which they themselves stage. This brings them not only the enmity of all their neighbors, but also devalues a good number of treaties which could perhaps have protected them in 1939. (Page 457)