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Poland's History

The War Begins: Poland, September 1939

Marek Jan Chodakiewicz
Marek Jan Chodakiewicz

We remember Poland chiefly because, in the Second World War, she was the “First to Fight.” Many are still baffled because the disproportion of forces arrayed against her was staggering.  The Polish Republic faced off with two totalitarian powers: the Third Reich and the Soviet Union. In the Intermarium, the lands between the Baltic, Black, and Adriatic Seas, Warsaw had the dubious distinction of attracting the wrath of both Hitler and Stalin.

This was a geopolitical nightmare. But it was also nothing new. Poland’s geopolitical situation has not changed for centuries. It is stuck between Germany and Russia. How important is geopolitics? Some critics claim that geopolitical thinking is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If only we could debunk ourselves from such prejudice, if we just stopped perceiving the environment around us geopolitically, others would be sure to follow. Perhaps not. Usually, in fact, it is the other way around. Avoiding reality based on wishful thinking inevitably leads to trouble. Sometimes, ignoring brewing danger can be outright suicidal. Leon Trotsky is alleged to have said that “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.” He might have as well said: “You may not be interested in geopolitics, but geopolitics is interested in you.”

So let us stick to geopolitics. Poland lies between Germany and Russia. Things tend to be safe when Germany is decentralized, and Russia is gripped either by a smuta or an alien occupation, a Mongol one particularly. Once German power becomes centralized, its leaders concentrate on foreign expansion, often in the east, either via enlarging their sphere of influence or via partial and, ultimately, full annexation. More often than not, Berlin can count on Moscow’s help in the process. When not fettered by a foreign occupier, Russia tends to balloon in all directions. A push to the west inevitably leads to a collision with Poland, first through making it Russia’s satellite and ultimately through absorption.

The Germans tend to treat their satellites arrogantly and impatiently. However, even in the worst case scenario of the Third Reich, Berlin proved capable of putting up with its allied dwarves without crushing them and eradicating their autonomy completely. Russia unfortunately finds totally alien the concept of a junior ally. There is no room to maneuver independently of the Kremlin. These two cultural and political realities applied also in the interwar period.

The single most important factor of post-World War I Europe was the lack of a total Allied victory over the Central Powers. Poland bore the brunt of that fatal flaw perhaps more than all others in the Intermarium. With no decisive defeat of the Second Reich, a 20-year armistice followed, according to the apt description of the French Marshal Ferdinand Foch.

Instead of Germany righteously chastised and properly neutered, we experienced rampant German revanchism and paranoia. They manifested themselves, first, as the legend about the “stab in the back” (Dolchstoßlegende) and, second, as the trope of the “Carthaginian peace” of Versailles.  The first fantasy had Germany actually victorious in the war, but allegedly betrayed by an internal enemy: “Jews and freemasons.” This toxic conspiracy theory poisoned the German body politic irreparably and virtually ensured the next war.

It was further fueled by the second gripe, a whine about Berlin’s allegedly inhumane treatment at the peace table. This narrative enjoyed nearly universal currency in the Weimar Republic. Never mind that Berlin treated Paris much more ruthlessly following the War of 1870 or Moscow at Brest-Litovsk in 1918. Furthermore, blaming the alleged meanness and Germanophobia of the Allies at Versailles for Germany’s hunger, diseases, and economic collapse fueled by hyperinflation overlooks the fact that, first, the Weimar Republic engineered the implosion of its currency itself to avoid paying war reparations; and, second, hunger and diseases were ubiquitous in post-war Europe, but Germany experienced hardly a fraction of misery and death that was a pervasive staple of everyday experience in the Intermarium, the Polish Republic in particular. Had it not been for the American Relief Agency under Herbert Hoover, millions would have died of starvation and attendant diseases throughout Europe.  The Germans benefitted, too, of course. Yet, they were dead set against the international order established at Versailles.

Soviet Russia was the other great power that opposed Versailles. Both states continued their alliance which sprang from the plot of Germany’s military intelligence with Russia’s radical socialists during the First World War. As a result, in the Spring of 1917, Berlin dispatched a weapon of mass destruction to Petersburg: Lenin and his comrades in a sealed train. This was followed up by bundles of gold to facilitate the Bolshevik subversion and takeover of power in Russia.

Following the war, the partnership endured in military and economic affairs. It was fueled by liberal nationalism of the Weimar Republic, on the one hand, and the international socialism of Soviet Russia on the other. Furthermore, Moscow and Berlin complemented each other on the field of Poland-hating. Separately, both great powers excelled in anti-Polish propaganda and subversive activities. They sealed the community of interests with the Soviet-German treaty at Rapallo (16 April 1922).  And the West blessed their revanchism with the treaty of Locarno (5-16 October 1925). Paris, London, and others openly expressed their désintéressement so long as the sting of the aggression was directed away from them, preferably due east to the Intermarium.

By that time, the United States alas had withdrawn from virtually all its international commitments. Isolationism became Washington’s official policy. The Brits played at their Olympian “splendid isolation.” They resolved that the policy of the balance of power meant the necessity to weaken France, which had been strengthened by its apparent victory in the First World War. Therefore, London should assist Berlin, or at least not to thwart it. Without America in Europe, old antagonisms reasserted themselves promptly.

France meanwhile faked a good game. According to a French theory, a weak Poland was to substitute a powerful Russia as a counterweight to a rabid Germany in a new geopolitical system. Thus, Paris signed an appropriate treaty of alliance with Warsaw (19 February 1921). The so-called “little Entente” stemmed from it. Its members included, in addition to Poland – Romania, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia. These dwarves were expected to serve as a cordon sanitaire against revolutionary Bolshevism as well as a check against revanchist Germany. Good luck.

The alliance was a fiction. Romania was too weak to block anyone. Its main concern was to prevent any great power assistance to Hungary which wanted Transylvania back. Yugoslavia was too divided internally to deal even with itself, not to mention to thwart either the Soviets or the Germans. The Serbs dominated the Croats, Bosnians, and Slovenes, who chafed at the bit ever ready to get rid of their domestic overlords, including with foreign help.

The Czechs, arguably, least fit the “little Entente”. Prague was afraid of Berlin, but it wooed Moscow. Furthermore, when the Poles were in deadly danger from Bolshevism, the Czechs attacked Poland and severed Teschen Silesia (Pol.: Śląsk Cieszyński) from its Polish motherland. The Czech-Polish quarrel caused the disintegration of the pro-Versailles alliance in the Intermarium. Furthermore, Czechoslovakia was increasingly crippled by internecine convulsions. The Slovaks counted for little; soon the Czechs took advantage of them, marginalizing their erstwhile partners. The Hungarians and Germans turned openly hostile. The former looked to Budapest for protection. The latter increasingly leaned towards Nazism and were preparing an armed rebellion in the Sudetenland.

Warsaw squared its accounts with Prague in 1938. When the Czechs capitulated before the Third Reich in Munich, and the Wehrmacht marched into Czechoslovakia without any Czech resistance, the Poles returned to Teschen Silesia, arm in hand restoring the status quo from November 1918. According to the Polish government, there was no sense to allow ethnic Poles in Czechoslovakia to fall under Hitler’s rule.

However, the Polish annexation of the region was ultimately rather suicidal. Poland was one of the most important beneficiaries of the Treaty of Versailles and, thus, it should have defended it. Warsaw should have held its nose in the face of Prague’s duplicity, and helped the Czechs against Germany. The Versailles system was more important than Teschen Poles. An alliance with Czechoslovakia should have been a priority in light of geopolitical realities. Unfortunately it was not so. Warsaw preferred to cooperate with revanchist Hungarians (with reciprocity), but not the Czechs.

One should not be surprised, however, that in 1938 Warsaw rejected Moscow’s deceitful proposition to allow Soviet troops through Poland to help Czechoslovakia. There was no guarantee that the Red Army truly wanted to fight Hitler. On the other hand, there was certainty that the Red Army would have stayed in Poland forever. The Poles refused to forfeit their independence. Likewise, Poland rejected Hitler’s proposals to join Germany in an attack on the Soviet Union. Berlin offered Ukraine to Warsaw. Poland was supposed to have handed over Silesia and Polish Pomerania (the so-called “Corridor,” a genius misnomer serving to disinform the world as if there were no people there, mainly Poles, and the area was simply an empty transportation and communication venue between one part of Germany and the other).

It was then, after the partition of Czechoslovakia, that France woke up belatedly and reactivated the alliance with Poland of 1921. Soon Great Britain joined, extending guarantees to Warsaw as well as concluding a military agreement (31 March 1939 and 25 August 1939). Warsaw, London, and Paris deluded themselves that such diplomatic moves, if not preventing war outright, will at least postpone it. Berlin, however, guessed correctly that if the Germans attack Poland no one would help her. On the other hand, Hitler believed that if he surged into France, the Poles would pounce on Germany. Therefore, the German tanks headed for Warsaw first. And the Poles naively believed their exotic allies.

Did Warsaw have any other choice? Could it have joined the Soviets maybe? That option was not on the table. Surrendering to the USSR meant an abdication of Polish sovereignty. Therefore, Warsaw also rejected the Kremlin’s proposal to participate together with Stalin in partitioning the Baltic States. Ignoring this proposal was the Polish attempt to salvage its neutrality. The Polish government called it “the policy of balancing.” It rested on two bilateral treaties of non-aggression. First Warsaw signed one with Moscow (25 July 1932), and then with Berlin (26 January 1934). The latter diplomatic instrument was concluded only after the fiasco of Marshal Joseph Piłsudski’s initiative to convince France to wage a preventive war against the Third Reich. And thus, Poland balanced under the stewardship of Foreign Minister Joseph Beck.

Yet, one can balance only when the states vis-à-vis which are the target of the maneuver remain hostile to each other.  Once they reconcile, there is no one to balance against. In fact, those states usually turn on the party that attempted to balance them. Alas, in a classical geopolitical move repeated for centuries in that part of the world – Germany fell in love with Russia with mutuality. The wedding took place on August 23, 1939, as the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact. The nuptials were celebrated over the dead body of Poland during the September Campaign. The Second World War would not have broken out when it did had it not been for the collusion of both totalitarian powers.

Hitler attacked on September 1, 1939. Stalin joined on September 17, immediately following the conclusion of the Soviet-Japanese armistice after the crushing Soviet victory in the border war of Golkin Gol (Nomonhan). The invasion of the Red Army decided the outcome of the Wehrmacht’s war against Poland. The Poles fought alone against two enemies. Allied help failed to materialize. Poland struggled for 5 weeks, almost as long as France would later oppose the Third Reich in 1940. The last of the Polish army was destroyed in the field on October 5, 1939, having fought consecutively against the Germans and Soviets. A few Polish army units continued to wage a guerrilla campaign against the Nazis and Soviets. For comparison’s sake, Denmark surrendered after 8 hours, and Norway after 3 days. Belgium lasted a week, and the Netherlands two. France capitulated after six weeks. And Stalin did not help Hitler directly. Western Europeans did not put up much of a show just against a single totalitarian. The Poles raged against the overwhelming odds in a much bloodier showdown against two totalitarians.

The independent role of the Polish Republic on the international stage ended de facto on September 1, 1939, and de jure perhaps on October 5,  1939. The Polish government-in-exile first became a hostage of France, and then of Great Britain. The Polish authorities were sovereign no more. They were subordinated to Allied policy. Any attempts to assert its rights met with incredulous anger. The Polish government-in-exile was subsequently seen as a troublemaker, in particular following Hitler’s attack on Stalin, forcing the USSR to reverse alliances in June 1941. Roosevelt and Churchill sold Poland to Stalin at Teheran (1943), Yalta (1945), and Potsdam (1945). It mattered not how bravely the Polish Armed Forces-in-Exile performed on land and sea and in the air on all the fronts of the Second World War. And it counted for nothing that the Poles created Europe’s most numerous clandestine anti-German organization. The effort and sacrifice of Polish men and women ultimately meant nothing. They fell victim to geopolitics once again.

Liberty returned after 1989. It was then that some Poles – following in the footsteps of pre-war conservatives and monarchists, such as Stanisław Cat-Mackiewicz and Adolf Bocheński, began to ponder whether Poland should not have joined Germany against the USSR. Hitler was more bearable for his junior partners, who retained autonomy, than Stalin, who gobbled up anyone in his way. Thus, by allying with Berlin, Warsaw would have avoided the nightmare of Auschwitz and the Gulag as well as mass extermination of the Polish Christian elite. Furthermore, the Holocaust would not have taken place on Polish soil. Perhaps Poland would have been able to emulate Bulgaria and save its Jews. Who knows?

For us personally, however, the choice between Hitler and Stalin is like a preference between syphilis and gonorrhea. During the Second World War, Poland had two totalitarian enemies. She fought against both. It is a great pity that Great Britain and the United States decided that there was only one antagonist: Hitler. Unfortunately, only General George Patton advised appropriately: “First we take Berlin, and then we take Moscow.” Patton understood geopolitics well. Perhaps he was Polish.

Marek Jan Chodakiewicz
lecture delivered at the Institute of World Politics, Washington, DC,
17 September 2019,

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