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Was Poland's Honour Worth Her Destruction?

74 years ago this month Nazi Germany invaded Poland.
Was there an alternative?

Ribbentrop & Beck - unfulfilled allies?


Have you heard of the “phoney war”? It refers to military action, or more specifically the lack of such, in September ’39.


You may be saying: “not about the war again please, for God’s sake”. Well the good news is it’s not going to be about the war. It’s about how at least 6 million people lost their lives because someone – yes, one man – took the wrong decision.


74 years ago this month – to be precise at 4.45 am on the 1st September 1939 – Nazi Germany attacked Poland and World War II started. War had been in the air since Austria’s Anschluß, (annexation) in the spring of 1938; it came even closer after Munich’s Appeasement in September 1938, when hungry Germany swallowed Czechoslovakia without a single gunshot, and became inevitable in April 1939 when the Polish Foreign Minister – Mr Józef Beck – rejected Hitler’s demands. Against all odds, the Polish government signed illusory alliance treaties with the UK and France: 


The UK was far away, safely hidden behind the English Channel, and not ready as yet for military conflict with Hitler's armies; France, maybe geographically and historically closer but hidden behind it’s (in)famous Ligne de Maginot, was not at all happy to “die for Danzig”. 


What exactly did Hitler want from Poland that Mr Beck rejected?


1) An extraterritorial motorway built over ground, through the so-called Polish Corridor, whose purpose was to link the German mainland to East Prussia, a remote German province surrounded by Poland, Lithuania and the USSR.
2) The cession of the Free City of Danzig (Gdańsk), a purely German town with as little as a 5% Polish minority.
3) A military alliance called the Anti-Comintern Pact, in order to beat Red Russia. (Hitler was at the time looking for the Lebensraum for the great German Nation  and seemed to have found it on the endless Russian and Ukrainian fields; the famous Drang nach Osten  (Drive to the East) was one of the mottos of the Nazi propaganda).


Sadly, horribly, unfortunately, stupidly and unforgivably, the Polish government decided to reject all of the Hitler’s demands and, in consequence, with “God, Honour and Fatherland ”on their lips, let him kill six million of innocent people, destroy the industrial infrastructure of the country and almost annihilate, again, one of the biggest nations in the middle of Europe.


Times were tough and so was Poland's political situation:

  • We had bad relations with Lithuania (have a look at my article in the first edition of the Impolite Conversation where I made a historically-linguistic faux pas showing the differences in perceiving our common history in the XX century).

  • Our relations with neighbouring Czechoslovakia were even worse after the Polish Army proudly annexed its territories beyond the Olza River, taking advantage of the Munich Appeasement.

  • Our biggest neighbour, the Soviet Union, wasn’t at all happy after the war of 1920 about having a strong, independent and anti-communist country, which Moscow had always called “a bastard of the Treaty of Versailles", on its borders.”


Let’s be honest, my dear English readers, Poland wasn’t an innocent child in Europe’s political playground. In 1918 we had freshly won back our independence after 123 years of political non-existence; we beat Soviet Russia in a 1919-1920 war, we managed – after a short war – to incorporate Lithuanian Vilnius and occupied Czechoslovakian territory; we even had plans to colonise Madagascar. So much for the freedom-loving spirit of a freshly reborn nation and country.


We were hungry, we were proud, we were arrogant. We were all that Hitler and Stalin hated: a big European player, historically and politically. For the Germans we were a nasty, stubborn Slavic ulcer; for the Russians we were a naughty little boy, an itch on its bum.

Our Southern cousins, the Czechs and Slovaks, who had gained their independence after the fall of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire after WWI, had been left own their own by their Western allies, who had clearly decided to feed Hitler with the weaker countries) and the Soviet Union (Stalin was busy looking for a nonexistent conspiracy amongst his generals and starving to death millions of peasants). Their Prime Minister, Edvard Beneš, was invited to Berlin and took a fast, smart and very hard decision: the survival of the Nation, no matter what. He gave up without a single gunshot despite the Czechoslovak army being much stronger army than Poland's. No second thoughts – Czechoslovakia just surrendered to Hitler’s war machine in an Augenblick, (blink of an eye) instead of letting the powerful Wehrmacht invade their country in March 1939.


After the Munich Appeasement the northern part of the Czechoslovakia, the Sudetenland, had already been annexed to Germany. On top of that, Slovakia – supported by Nazi propaganda – claimed its independence. Mr. Beneš realised that his small, landlocked country wouldn't survive Germany's attack. We Poles, after invading the territory beyond the Olza river on the Polish-Czechoslovakian border, after rejecting Hitler's demands and optimistically signing treaties with Chamberlain's UK and Daladier's France, we bravely and gloriously, on our own, did let Hitler start killing us and destroying our infrastructure in the autumn of 1939. In late August 1939 the Nazi and Soviet Foreign Ministers – Joachim von Ribbentrop and Vyacheslav Mikhailovich Molotov respectively – had signed a Nonaggression Pact in Moscow. In a secret protocol of this pact, the Germans and the Soviets agreed that Poland should be divided between them. On 17th September the Red Army invaded a weakened Poland and occupied its eastern regions to "protect the Russian-speaking minority on Polish soil from military action". In Poland we call this the "Fourth Partition of Poland" after our country was victim of three other partitions in the second half of the 17th century.


The Polish government in the late 30s was blind and deaf, arrogant and over confident. Despite the horrifying consequences of the Austrian Anschluß and the Munich Appeasement, instead of carefully and smartly dealing with the deadly Nazi and Soviet threats, we satisfied ourselves with the too late, worthless alliances that led to the drôle de guerre (phoney war) declared on Germany by the French and Brits on 3rd September 1939. Then, still naively waiting for our allies to do ANYTHING, we gloriously fought both eternal enemies on two different fronts, unprepared, weak and way too confident. On 6th October the Blitzkrieg was over. Although Poland never formally surrendered, it ceased to exist again, for five and a half long years until we rose again in 1945, as we always have.


What's the morale of this story? One of our biggest flaws, sadly still not fully understood by the Polish establishment and mainstream public opinion, seems to have been a clinical lack of a self-preserving gene. Our history is full of glorious and yet lost wars, bloody uprisings and innocent people’s tragedies, lost fights, useless bloodshed, permanent misery, unwanted tears in the name of dubious glory and our tough stubborn Polish national temper. Our participation in the WWII was a Pyrrhic Victory with too many losses at too big a cost. Whatever we gained never compensated for what we lost, the lives taken and our destroyed industry.


Was there an alternative? A very stinky, historically horrible one, but the only one that could have guaranteed the Poland's ultimate survival: let Hitler have the 95% German City of Danzig, let him build a motorway over the Polish Corridor and agree to go to war, along with the hated Germans, against Stalin. By 1939 Stalin had already killed millions of his fellow Russian citizens and Ukrainians. Hitler was a devil who hated Jews and Slavs but Stalin hated everyone and in much of the world is seen as a bigger devil than Hitler ever will be.


The smart way to avoid the disaster of September '39 was a short term, coldly calculated alliance with Hitler against the USSR (if you can't beat them, join them). The Polish Army and Wehrmacht would have made sure Stalin wasn't a threat to civilised, Christian Europe. Poland would have secured its eastern political interests (Kiev, the Black Sea shores maybe, and the Baltic countries where there always have been big Polish-speaking minorities). In the meantime the Western Allies would have finally prepared for the war and all eventually attacked Germany's western borders, almost certainly around 1943.


Poland, happy, victorious and with newly conquered large territories from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea, would have flipped its alliance (like the Italians, Finns, Hungarians, Yugoslavians, Bulgarians and Rumanians did when Hitler started losing his war), helped the West beat Hitler, not for free, for a little reward: Pomerania (with Danzig), Silesia (with towns such as Breslau/Wrocław, Stettin/Szczecin or my hometown Oppeln/Opole) and Eastern Prussia (today's Polish most East-North part). Stalin was given half of the European continent for his involvement in the 1945 Victory. We wouldn't have been so greedy!


Hitler couldn't have won this war. We could have though made the most of it by being smart and more selfish.


The Polish motto "God, Honour and Fatherland" has always been loud and clear for every Pole; we've been fed with the sound of these words since we went to school. Tragically though:
God wasn't there to help us.
Honour turned out to be just an empty word.
• Our Fatherland was devastated and split between two major powers: the Nazis and Communists.


In the late 1930s the whole of Europe was waiting for the first victim of Hitler's war machine. Austria and Czechoslovakia were just starters, pawns on the European chessboard. Poland was strongly convinced that she was counting the cards in this political poker; we thought we were a bishop or a knight at the least on this big European chessboard. Check-mate came very fast: five weeks, two massive aggressions from two opposite directions and Poland erased from the map of Europe again.


On the 5th May 1939 Mr Beck said: "Peace is a precious and a desirable thing. Our generation, bloodied in wars, certainly deserves peace. But peace, like almost all things of this world, has its price, a high but a measurable one. We in Poland do not know the concept of peace at any price. There is only one thing in the lives of men, nations and countries that is without price. That thing is honour. "


I'd say: "Mr Beck, every government's objective is to protect the nation, to guarantee its survival and maintain its wellbeing. What you said did not guarantee any peace whatsoever (speaking about saving peace in the spring of 1939 was too late and in vain); it led to unnecessary deaths, national industrial catastrophe, loss of more than a half of Poland's territory and sentenced  our country to an over four-decades-long communist terror, economic misery and political dependence. Mr Beck, your blind faith in honour killed millions of innocent Poles and deprived our nation of its finest citizens, exterminated by the Nazis and by the Soviets.


"Your words, Mr Beck, beautiful and undoubtedly heart-warming as they were, were also silly, politically short-sighted and militarily suicidal."


Every 1st September I cry. I cry, as a Polish man, as a patriot, as a saddened citizen of a great Central European country whose fate, in 1939, happened to be in the wrong hands of an irresponsible politician. These hands gave my country away to Nazi Germany and Communist Russia.


Is it an honour to have let this happen? What do you think?


PS I found an inspiration to write the above article after having read Piotr Zychowicz's book


Matt Mironowicz

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