“Poland was ready to become Germany’s ally”

A cycle of interviews by the 80th anniversary of the start of WWII. Part 2: Poland

“Poland was ready to become Germany’s ally” Photo: wikipedia.org (Polish soldier, 1939)

In the second part of Realnoe Vremya’s talk with historian Dmitry Surzhik, we speak about if we can consider Poland not only a victim but an instigator of Second World War. See Part 1 dedicated to Great Britain and France here.

“Warsaw was very confident that they had a serious ally in the person of Hitler”

Mr Surzhik, is Poland guilty of the start of WWII? Or shouldn’t we say so even if we know that it didn’t decide quickly to give the USSR its territory to resist the German aggression?

In the 30s, Poland represented a far-right and very conservative political regime, which only reinforced after Marshal Józef Piłsudski’s death who recreated the Polish state in 1918. Officials of Poland — who were also called the Piłsudskiites — set a course for rehabilitation, that’s to say, to build a multi-ethnic state, though it had big diasporas of Belarusians, Ukrainians. As a result of the Polish-Soviet War in 1920, the eastern border of Poland didn’t go along the Curzon Line recommended by the country’s Entente allies but more eastward — literally tens of kilometres far from Minsk, and Poland used these lands simply to pump money from them. Moreover, the politics of assimilation was gradually pursued there — education in national languages closed, there weren't big construction projects.

Such Polish politics was especially clearly pursued in the west of Ukraine where it caused stronger Ukrainian nationalism in reply. As it is known, same Stepan Bandera became the organiser of the murder of the Polish governor in that region and served his sentence when Germans came. So the Polish politics of creating a multi-ethnic state brought to, on the one hand, the nationalism of the same Ukrainians and, on the other hand, it based on Hitler’s experience of persecution of his political opponents.

Hitler at Piłsudski’s requiem mass, May 1935. Photo: wikipedia.org
In the 30s, Poland represented a far-right and very conservative political regime, which only reinforced after Marshal Józef Piłsudski’s death who recreated the Polish state in 1918

This is why Berlin and Warsaw had very warm relationships from 1934 to late 1938 — Piłsudski’s endeavours were printed in gorgeous binding in Berlin, Polish delegations were invited to Germany to different festivals, and they even came to write a joint history book.

Hitler’s regime managed to lull the Polish with their involvement in the dissolution of Czechoslovakia and they succeeded so much that a joint agreement was signed in 1938, according to which Warsaw permitted Berlin to broadcast for Polish Germans. It turned out that thanks to this radio station, Hitler got an opportunity to directly incite Polish Germans to sabotage and diversions against the Polish state.

Does it mean that before the escalation of relationships Warsaw considered Hitler as a fellow regarding nationalistic ideas?

Warsaw was very confident that they had a serious ally in the person of Hitler, a relative regarding anti-Soviet beliefs. Polish anti-Soviet politics had several areas. One of them, for instance, is currently unspoken Prometheism, that’s to say, attempts of using representatives of political emigration from the former Russian Empire against the USSR to incite inter-ethnic hatred on western borders of the USSR.

Besides, Poland signed an agreement with Japan during the events in Khasan Lake on the exchange of data about the military state of the Red Army, and here Germany got stronger behind Poland from a military perspective. Germany says that Bolshevism and the Soviet Union are its main opponent, and this coincided with the Polish anti-Soviet politics. And at some point, Poland even offered Germany cooperation in some actions against the USSR.

And a lot of Polish diplomats already quite openly said in 1938 (and American Ambassador Bullitt noted in his diary after a talk with one of them) that a religious crusade of Fascism against Bolshevism was to begin, and Polish would support Germany in this war. So Poland was ready to become Germany’s ally in future military actions against the USSR. However, if Hitler wanted to see Poland as its ally, he didn’t want the problem of Danzig Corridor to keep existing.

As we know, after the First World War, Poland got a part of German lands, so the city of Danzig became an enclave on the Polish territory that divided Germany and Western Prussia into parts (as well as a territory of Germany), and as the city became a free territory, it stopped being subordinate to Hitler. The German führer who had a thing about Poland didn’t like such wastage of German lands.

“Poland didn’t intend to give up those territories it considered own”

But Poland dug its heels in.

Poland dug its heels in, and Hitler had the foundation to assume that his categorical requirement for it in January-February 1939 to get the Danzig Corridor back would be denied. Poland rejected this proposal, and in April Hitler declared a plan for developing war against Poland — he already saw it as an enemy to achieve his ambition.

Why did Poland reject the proposal of the potential ally in the fight against Bolshevism?

It simply didn’t intend to give up those territories it considered own — it was a principled stand. Besides, the Polish officials were short-sighted enough to see Hitler as their enemy.

Didn’t the story of the occupation of Czechoslovakia say anything to the Polish government?

It is hard to evaluate Poland’s officials — it seems that they believed in their armed forces’ power but, on the other hand, they supposed that Great Britain and France, which had been security guarantees of Poland for 20 years, would end up joining military actions and help their state — the signing of the agreement on English-Polish military alliance on 25 August 1939 proves it (almost a day after the signing of the Soviet-German Nonaggression Pact).

Chief of General Staff of the Polish Army Wacław Stachiewicz and British General Edmund Ironside (in plain clothes) during staff Polish-British talks on 17-21 July 1939. Photo: wikipedia.org

The agreement consisted of two clauses and a secret appendix, which read that if Poland was submitted to the aggression of the third power, Great Britain would provide military assistance, and they should understand Germany as the third power. But in the spring of 1939 (Warsaw didn’t know about it), Great Britain and France decided they would just block Germany if it became aggressive towards Poland and wait until Poland walloped the main Hitler troops to join the war later. Poland had to bear all the burden of the war on its shoulders, while Britain and France had to become third rejoicing, which would join the war at the last stage to win all the laurels of winners in the end.

But the Polish army wasn’t that strong in 1939 than in 1934, right?

The Polish army was strong in comparison with the Romanian army, Hungarian army, it was numerous and well equipped. But in 1939, it lost to the German army in tanks, planes, and in the end, the mobility of the armed forces of Germany played the key role in Wehrmacht's future Polish campaign.

“Great Britain and France could have easily won Germany in 1939”

What state the English and French armed forces were in because they anyway had to fight against Germany?

A gap between the Wehrmacht and the armies of Great Britain and France in some positions was seen in August 1939. First of all, it was in aviation: Luftwaffe quantitatively exceeded the aviation of France and the British Expeditionary Force altogether. As for the rest, particularly in tanks, the ratio was equal.

So was it already possible for London and Paris to win Germany in 1939 without the involvement of the USSR?

Great Britain and France could have easily won Germany whose main forces were occupied in Poland for almost three weeks. Workers from the military engineering organisation of Todt and German young men who were on labour duty before military service opposed them. These guys were inexperienced, untrained, and Hitler had a clear order: if troops began to move from France, go back without opening fire.

Photo: wikipedia.org
They succeeded somewhere, for instance, the sunken German cruiser Admiral Graf Spee. They didn’t succeed somewhere, for instance, butter and rare earth metals from Sweden kept being supplied for food and military needs of Germany

However, the movement of troops to the territory of Germany stopped after 5-10 kilometres, and no other actions were taken. Britain and France decided they would have military actions in the sea and tried to stage a marine blockade for Germany. They succeeded somewhere, for instance, the sunken German cruiser Admiral Graf Spee. They didn’t succeed somewhere, for instance, butter and rare earth metals from Sweden kept being supplied for food and military needs of Germany.

Why didn’t England and France advance further in Germany by land?

It was a purely political decision of London and Paris: “we won’t interfere in Hitler’s war against Poland because in this case, it was an opportunity to direct, channel Hitler’s aggression against the Soviet Union further.

What important conclusions can we draw from those tragic events in 1939 for England, France, Poland?

The first conclusion is that the idea of possible division of entire ethnicities by Raskolnikov’s principle “whether I am a trembling creature or whether I have the right” is vicious — all ethnicities should be considered as subjects of international relations who have equal rights. The politics of colonialism or the dominion over peoples who allegedly haven’t matured for international relations yet collapsed.

The second important conclusion is that right radicalism, nationalism, the idea of strong authoritarian power, anti-democracy, persecution of separate people by their ethnic descent will never be localised on their borders, and the one who wrote Mein Kampf that he would destroy his political opponents in Germany first and then begin to put a new order around the world, this person will do as he wrote. And to stop such a person and to stop right-wing radicalism, Fascism, Nazism, Hitlerism and so on in general, all powers should fight together. Because the idea of ethnic superiority is very tempting.

By Sergey Kochnev