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One American view of World War 2 and Poland
Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War
The Greatest Blunder in British History
It was 70 years ago on March 31 when Great Britain committed the fatal blunder that led to World War II: issuing a war guarantee to Poland. This was the war, as Pat Buchanan says in his recent book, Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War, that “led to the slaughter of the Jews and tens of millions of Christians, the devastation of Europe, Stalinization of half the continent, the fall of China to Maoist madness, and half a century of Cold War.” Buchanan’s book is essential for understanding why World War II was so unnecessary.
Poland was a creature of the Versailles Treaty. After being partitioned several times in history by Prussia, Russia, and Austria, Poland was reconstituted after World War I at the expense of a defeated Germany. But as Buchanan says: “Versailles had created not only an unjust but an unsustainable peace.” To give Poland a port on the Baltic, the city of Danzig, which was 95-percent German and had never belonged to Poland, was detached from Germany and made a Free City administered by the League of Nations. A "Polish Corridor" connected Poland to the Baltic and severed East Prussia from Germany.
The regime in Poland, according to contemporary British historian Niall Ferguson, was “every bit as undemocratic and anti-Semitic as that of Germany.” Marshal Jozef Pilsudski, the dictator in Poland who had come to power in a coup, considered making a preemptive strike against Germany before signing a 10-year nonaggression pact with Hitler in 1934. Poland had joined in the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia after the Munich Agreement, seizing the coal-rich region of Teschen. Hitler’s offer to Polish foreign minister Jozef Beck — a man known for his duplicity, dishonesty, and depravity — to guarantee Poland’s borders and accept Polish control of the Corridor in exchange for the return of Danzig and the construction of German roads across the Corridor was rebuffed.
Britain did not object to Danzig being returned to Germany, knowing that a plebiscite would result in an overwhelming vote in favor of return. Lord Halifax, the British foreign secretary, deemed Danzig and the Polish Corridor to be “an absurdity.” Hitler wanted an alliance with Poland, not war. He issued a directive to his army commander in chief: “The Fuehrer does not wish to solve the Danzig question by force. He does not wish to drive Poland into the arms of Britain by this.”
But then, after false alarms about an imminent German attack on Poland, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain addressed the British House of Commons:
I now have to inform the House that ... in the event of any action which clearly threatened Polish independence and which the Polish Government accordingly considered it vital to resist with their national forces, His Majesty’s Government would feel themselves bound at once to lend the Polish Government all support in their power. They have given the Polish Government an assurance to that effect.
It was March 31, 1939. Germany terminated its nonaggression pact with Poland on April 24, and Poland would cash this “blank check” on September 1, when Hitler invaded Poland. Chamberlain had repeated the blunder made by Kaiser Wilhelm on the eve of World War I.
Former prime minister Lloyd George considered the war guarantee “a frightful gamble” and “sheer madness.” The British army general staff “ought to be confined to a lunatic asylum” if they approved this, said Lloyd George. Former First Lord of the Admiralty Cooper recorded in his diary: “Never before in our history have we left in the hands of one of the smaller powers the decision whether or not Britain goes to war.” It was “the maddest single action this country has ever taken,” said a member of Parliament. Newspaper military correspondent Liddell Hart wrote that the Polish guarantee “placed Britain’s destiny in the hands of Polish rulers, men of very dubious and unstable judgment.” Only the warmonger Churchill seemed to think the war guarantee was a good idea, foolishly asserting: “The preservation and integrity of Poland must be regarded as a cause commanding the regard of all the world.” Buchanan simply calls it “the greatest blunder in British history.”
Buchanan refers to modern British historians Roy Denman, Paul Johnson, and Peter Clarke about the folly of the Polish war guarantee:
The most reckless undertaking ever given by a British government. It placed the decision on peace or war in Europe in the hands of a reckless, intransigent, swashbuckling military dictatorship.
The power to invoke it was placed in the hands of the Polish government, not a repository of good sense. Therein lay the foolishness of the pledge: Britain had no means of bringing effective aid to Poland yet it obliged Britain itself to declare war on Germany if Poland so requested.
If Czechoslovakia was a faraway country, Poland was further; if Bohemia could not be defended by British troops, no more could Danzig; if the democratic Czech Republic had its flaws, the Polish regime was far more suspect.
Britain could not save Poland any more than it could have saved Czechoslovakia. As Buchanan wrote elsewhere:
Britain went to war with Germany to save Poland. She did not save Poland. She did lose the empire. And Josef Stalin, whose victims outnumbered those of Hitler 1,000 to one as of September 1939, and who joined Hitler in the rape of Poland, wound up with all of Poland, and all the Christian nations from the Urals to the Elbe. The British Empire fought, bled and died, and made Eastern and Central Europe safe for Stalinism.
Neither Britain nor France had the power to save any nation of Eastern Europe. Yet, Britain was willing to go to war rather than allow Germany to dominate Europe economically, unaffected by a British blockade.
It is the Polish war guarantee for which Neville Chamberlain should be forever judged harshly, not the Munich Agreement for which he is often castigated. (The Munich Agreement essentially ceded to Hitler large sections of Czeckoslovakia in order to reduce the possibility of a European War. This has often been referred to as Chamberlain's "appeasement" of Hitler. Many believe this agreement gave Hitler the resolve to invade Poland, setting off WWII.) It is March 31 that ought to be a day that will live in infamy. The bloodiest conflict in human history was neither good nor necessary.
It's one view. This guy is an anti war writer. it's his hobbyhorse.
At the end of the day whether Britain had entered the war when it did or later it would have had in the long term no choice but to enter, either that or become a puppet state of the third reich. That's the plan hitler had for the brits. He wasn't planning to just leave Britain be if those in power didn't agree with him (although of course there were those who did...). Do you think the brits as a nation would have tolerated swastikas hanging from buck palace? Or would they be more like captain von trapp in the sound of music ripping them down? Had britain not gone to war would they have been another france or Norway? Who knows. But I doubt they or the empire would have remained unscathed by any means.
I haven't read a great deal about pilsudski's government, but don't see the difference a stable or unstable government in Poland would have made to the outcome. Much like other countries in Europe they were totally unprepared for a war with germany who had secretly been making arms for many years pouring much of the gdp into this. Poland never officially surrendered. They say austrians are still screwed up over the anschluss. Who can say what would have been the right thing to do even now. With so many variables.
The comment about stalin is interesting. It's ironic that what the nazis did is known to all and sundry but what stalin did is still almost a dirty secret known to few in comparison. I think he is credited by some as having caused 50million+ fatalities of many nationalities.
A solid article.
Pat Buchanan is a laughing stock in his native country. He is marginal and inconsequential.
His facts are skewed as much as his anti-Churchill rants. Nazi Germany had been gearing up for war since 1935 and while he is correct in asserting that Hitler initially sought an anti-Soviet alliance with Poland, the truth is that it was simply unattainable politically. Polish leaders would have never signed off on such a pact.
Stating that “Poland was a creature of the Versailles Treaty” is just outright ignorant. Poland became a nation in 966 AD and lost her independence in the late 18th century, followed by a string of uprisings and wars for independence. Political borders didn’t change the fact that Poles continued to fight to reconstruct their nation. Versailles Treaty sought to end a perpetual state of war on Polish territories. Unintended consequences of the Treaty are just an academic discussion.
Buchanan’s theorizes that Britain should have stood idly by while Hitler gobbled up Europe and then we would have had “peace in our time”. He is delusional.
There is a consideration in geo politics referred to as a “hinge of history”. This refers to points where if things go one way then the course of events changes direction. Not to be confused with the popularly used argument of “shifting paradigm” which is basically the evolution of events; hinge of history moments utterly alter subsequent options. Buchanan’s thesis fails because he labels the wrong point as a hinge of history; the March 1939 British-Polish mutual defense pact. The true hinge of history events which precipitated WWII and the following fifty years of world politics and war was the failure of France and Britain to enforce the provisions of the Versailles Treaty preventing German rearmament and conscription in 1935 and subsequently the re-militarization of the Rhineland in March 1936. After that, war was inevitable.
Slepowron - couldn't agree more. Also that political failure underlines something which is true for all of us in our everyday lives - don't box yourself into a corner and half-try to defend the indefensible.
If you don't believe strongly in something, don't even attempt it if the price of failure is going to be high. It's like this in our personal relationships too.