Poland and the Origins of the Second World War

A Study in Diplomatic History (1938–1939)

by Marek Kornat (Author) Chris James (Revision)
©2021 Monographs 558 Pages


This monograph deals with Polish foreign policy shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War. In tracing the diplomatic activity of foreign minister Józef Beck, it discusses six general problems: (1) the Polish political situation under the pressure of appeasement; (2) the project of Intermarium and efforts to implement it; (3) the action against Czechoslovakia and the conflict with the Soviet Union; (4) the Polish attitude towards the German concept of Gesamtlosung in Germany’s relations with Poland; (5) the genesis of the Polish alliance with Great Britain; (6) the Allies’ military inaction after Nazi Germany’s aggression. In these conditions, Poland made four key decisions: it stood against Czechoslovakia, it rejected German demands, it allied itself with the United Kingdom, and it rejected the Soviet Union’s claim for the Red Army to march across Polish lands.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1. The Policy of Balance—Realities and Dilemmas (1934–1938)
  • Non-Aggression Pacts with the Soviet Union and Germany
  • Two European Projects: the Four-Power Pact and the Eastern Pact
  • The Neighbouring Totalitarian Powers as seen by Poland
  • The Alliance with France—Crisis and Attempts to Re-evaluate
  • Confronting German Diplomacy
  • A “Religious War” in Europe
  • The Policy of Appeasement
  • Policy Ideas and Reality
  • Chapter 2. The Międzymorze (Intermarium) Idea—A Polish Political Plan in 1938
  • The Międzymorze Concept and the Polish-Hungarian-Romanian Cooperation Project
  • Polish Diplomatic Activity in September–October 1938
  • The Third Europe Project and Beck’s Position on Czechoslovakia
  • A Rational but Unrealistic Concept
  • Chapter 3. Poland between Germany and the Soviet Union in September 1938 (facts, hypotheses and interpretations)
  • Soviet Policy: Weakness or Expansionism?
  • Soviet Diplomacy between the Austrian Anschluss and Sudetenland Conflict
  • Rumours about Romania’s Agreement to Allow the Passage of Soviet Aircraft
  • The Soviet Threat: Reality or Mystification?
  • Historical Interpretations
  • Beneš’ Decision
  • Thaw—October 1938
  • Soviet Intentions: An Attempt to Interpret
  • Chapter 4. Hitler’s Demands and Poland’s Rejection (1938–1939)
  • The Free City of Danzig and Polish Access to the Sea
  • German Territorial Revisionism and Polish Policy
  • Polish Diplomacy and the German Gesamtlösung
  • The Polish Non Possumus
  • Chapter 5. The Alliance with Great Britain: Decisions and Consequences
  • At the Foundation of Józef Beck’s Pro-British Orientation
  • The Origins and Context of Chamberlain’s Guarantee Declaration
  • Beck’s Talks in London in April 1939
  • The “Scoring” of 7 April 1939
  • Could the Soviets Be Counted on?
  • Poland’s Diplomatic Battle over an Alliance Treaty with Great Britain
  • Chapter 6. Berlin-Moscow Rapprochement and Soviet Demands on Poland
  • Was German-Soviet Rapprochement Possible? Polish interpretations
  • Polish Calculations, Opinions and Expectations (May–August 1939)
  • Confronted by the Pact of 23 August 1939
  • Polish Diplomacy and “Leaks” about the Secret Protocol
  • The Lack of Alternative Political Options
  • Faced with Soviet Demands, August 1939
  • Chapter 7. September 1939: The Polish Experience of Being Abandoned by its Allies
  • Polish Expectations
  • General Kasprzycki’s Mission to Paris and French Military Commitments
  • The Clayton and Ironside Missions to Poland
  • Allied Strategy and Poland
  • September—Abandoned by an Ally: Myth or Reality?
  • Historical Interpretations
  • Poland’s Four Decisions, 1938–1939: A Summary
  • Bibliography
  • Published Documents
  • Memoirs, Diaries, Reports
  • Monographs and Articles
  • Index
  • Series index

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This book covers the last phase of the Polish “policy of balance” and the final months of the Second Polish Republic’s existence, during which a great international crisis happened. The crisis began in March 1939 and ended on 1 September 1939, when German armed forces invaded Poland. The dilemmas of the Polish foreign policy of the reborn Poland included issues that Polish historians have discussed for many years: in fact, they have discussed them from the 1939 defeat until today. The discussion ranges from radical criticism to affirmation. The more time passes from the realities of the interwar period, the clearer the understanding of the period’s circumstances becomes. Perhaps the discussion will never definitely conclude because the past always has a way of making us see it in a different light. This book is another attempt to analyse the main issues of the Polish foreign policy, from the perspective of the 70 years that have passed since the Second World War began.

A historian is not supposed to judge, defend, or accuse. The historian is supposed to gather arguments “for and against”, consider past dilemmas, and recreate the atmosphere of the period he or she studies. The historian is a translator of the past, not a judge. We will never see a conclusive synthesis of such a complex problem as Poland’s international situation in 1938 and 1939. In historical studies, nothing is definitive or ultimate. As the Polish historian Henryk Wereszycki writes: “A judgment concerning the past is always a relative value”. We would like our considerations to become “a matter for reflection”, as the Polish political writer Juliusz Mieroszewski would say. This book will fulfil its purpose if it motivates the reader to ask further questions.

The book covers the questions concerning Poland’s situation in international relations in the last two landmark years that preceded the outbreak of the Second World War. My purpose is not to create a new monography. Instead, I want to enrich studies on this topic. Historians devote studies concerning the international relations’ situation of Poland in 1938 and 1939 to problems, which, in my opinion, required a new approach. Moreover, these problems require a new approach despite the presence of the enormous number of multilingual works on the topic of the Second Polish Republic diplomacy and the 1938–1939 international crisis.

I quote Jan Karski, who writes the following in his famous book The Great Powers and Poland 1918–1945. From Versailles to Yalta:1

According to Karski’s understanding, Poland determined its fate only once in history, in 1920, as the country managed to defend its newly acquired independence thanks to its armed forces. In 1920, the Polish nation emerged victorious in the war with the Soviets, even though the situation seemed catastrophic. Therefore, never in the future did the reborn Poland decided for itself, although the country was eager to play a significant role in international relations. All contemporary Polish foreign ministers, especially Józef Beck, often repeated the slogan “nothing about us without us”, which became the main motto of Polish foreign policy.

Nevertheless, was Jan Karski right? Our considerations are an attempt to answer that momentous question. The 70 years that have passed since the outbreak of the Second World War make us ask that question again and again. The time that has passed since the dramatic events of the 1930s and the end of the Second World War let us look at Polish foreign policy from a more distant perspective, in a more balanced and in-depth way than before.

When we speak of the Polish foreign policy of the interwar period, which happened between 1918 and 1939, we must remember about the previous historiography. Sadly, we do not often refer to this historiography’s findings, due to the small volume of studies. The experts in the considered field wrote so much on the topic that it seems almost impossible to add something new. When I approached these considerations, I decided not to write yet another monography on Polish foreign policy. Instead, I decided to discuss the most debatable issues. These issues include, for example, the “Intermarium” block idea, the Soviet threat in September 1938, German territorial claims, the Polish-British alliance, the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, and the abandonment of Poland by the allied powers.

Undoubtedly, we cannot undermine fundamental facts. First, Poland would inevitably fail in its 1938 attempts to create a Central European bloc. Second, the Polish government rejected the German territorial claim, as they thought that, if they accepted it, this would mean the end of the independent Poland. Finally, the acceptance of British guarantees of support was Poland’s deliberate choice, which meant that the country rejected the possibility of creating a bloc of countries that would defend the status quo. Such a bloc would also have included the Soviet Union. Obviously, we know that Poland could not prevent the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact in August 1939, nor could Poland gain real help from the Western powers in September 1939. In May 1939, the latter decided not to attack Germany from the West if Germany invaded Poland. No one can challenge these facts.

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When we consider the actions of Polish diplomacy in 1938–1939, we must ask ourselves very different questions. Three seem particularly important. How did the government of the Second Republic perceive the course of ongoing events? Were its actions rationally motivated during the autumn of 1938 and in 1939? Or, perhaps, Poland merely reacted to external circumstances, as a passive subject of international policy without any plan of its own?

Therefore, we deliberately stress not the actions of Polish diplomacy but the understanding of the international situation in which Poland found itself: the perception of threats and the assessment of Poland’s capabilities. The historian’s ultimate goal involves the reconstruction of the way of thinking of those who took part in historical events. Of course, it is usually impossible to achieve the said reconstruction. Nevertheless, the objective remains worth the attempt to attain.

In 1939, Poland lost its independence for 50 years. Every country that losses its territory due to warfare ceases to be an entity in international relations and becomes a subject of these relations. In 1989, Poland regained its independence. As a result, the question arose once again. Poland had to decide whether its foreign policy would agree with the foreign policy of the West or whether Poland would pursue its own foreign policy. Such experiences as Poland’s situation in 1939 are a rarity in the history of nations. Nevertheless, the dilemmas and decisions of that time teach us a lesson that is relevant even today.

Today, history’s role in the formation of public awareness seems to diminish. For example, authorities remove history from school curricula. Hence, matters that moved historical imagination in the past lose importance. Nevertheless, the dispute concerning whether Poland was right in its rejection of German territorial claims in 1938 and 1939 remains in the Polish elites’ collective consciousness as discussions concerning the “policy of balance”. The question whether Poland should have made an agreement with Hitler in 1938 and 1939 arose because people look for possible alternatives for contemporary Polish foreign policy. However, this question will not be key to this book because, in my opinion, we do not and should not discuss the issue of possible alternatives. Everyone who claims that Poland could have acted differently achieves very little. The acceptance of Adolf Hitler’s one-time offer would have made Poland a subordinated ally of Germany. Moreover, that act would not have given Poland anything: either in the event of German failure or—unimaginable—victory. Deliberations on the German “overall solution” (Gesamtlösung) offer represent yet another attempt to find an answer to the question of possible Polish concessions.

A Polish historian must pay attention to an important issue when he or she analyses interwar Polish diplomacy. The problem lies in its extremely simplistic and unilateral image in Western historiography. Moreover, the image is eminently and unjustifiably negative. Sadly, I do not mean the older Western historiography, which dates to the Cold War period, but also the historiography of today.

The well-known journalist and historian William L. Shirer devotes a few remarks to Polish foreign policy on the eve of Second World War in his famous book The Collapse of the Third Republic: An Inquiry into the Fall of France in ←11 | 12→1940: “The Polish Government, dominated by a clique of politically inept generals and colonels who had served under the dictator Piłsudski, had begun to detach Poland from its traditional ally and protector, France, and approach Germany in belief that the Reich would better protect Polish lands against the encroachment of the hated Russians”.2 In 1992, one American historian claimed that Józef Beck, the foreign minister of contemporary Poland, was responsible for the fact that the Hitler-Stalin Pact became a reality. The historian states that Beck is responsible for the tragedy, as he jeopardised the possibility of creating a “great coalition” against the Third Reich. In the historian’s opinion, the coalition did not come into being because Józef Beck refused to cooperate with the Soviets in the summer of 1939.3 Similar annoying statements by Western historians concerning Józef Piłsudski’s Poland and Józef Beck’s diplomacy are a sad reality from which Western historiography fails to free itself.

We should not be astonished by the fact that the popularisation of knowledge concerning the criminal character of Stalin’s reign in the West did not change Western historians’ views on Polish diplomacy, even when a change could have been expected. Statements by Western authors often include theses that characterise Piłsudski’s and Beck’s Poland as an obstacle to the creation of a collective security system in Europe. Claims that Poland was a low-key ally of the Third Reich are also not uncommon. Some authors perceive the Poland of the 1930s as one of the sources of distress in Europe: they characterise Poland in this way not only in historical journals but also in monographs, rich in sources. Moreover, we find the pejorative perception of Józef Beck’s actions in works of widely recognised historians, such as Donald Cameron Watt, a British author of the most important book concerning the genesis of the Second World War.4

An essay by the American historian Henry L. Roberts is the only reliable study concerning Józef Beck in English. Roberts wrote and published it 50 years ago in The Diplomats, a volume that Princeton University Press published in 1953.5 Let us note another example of work relevant until this day: the monograph by German historian Hans Ross entitled Poland and Europe: Studies in Polish Foreign Affairs 1931–1939 [Polen und Europa. Studien zur polnischen Außenpolitik 1931–1939], published in 1957. Sadly, Polish historiography is practically absent at the international level, if we exclude the books and studies by Polish historians who lecture and write on the matter in the West. The group includes such authors as Piotr S. Wandycz, Anna M. Cienciała, Marian K. Dziewanowski, Roman Dębicki, ←12 | 13→and Zygmunt J. Gąsiorowski. I had to underline the abovementioned situation as that is the reality in which the image of interwar Poland functions in the realm of foreign historiography.

This book consists of seven chapters.

The first chapter most concisely considers the reality of the “policy of balance” in 1934–1938, in which I do not present the matter of particular cases but specify the contemporary political leitmotif. The second chapter deals with the most individual idea by Józef Beck; that is, his concept ofa “Third Europe” or “Intermarium”: a neutral zone between the two totalitarian powers. In the third chapter, I consider the possibility of a Polish-Soviet armed conflict breaking out in September 1938. It is evident that such a situation would have radically changed the course of subsequent events. Moreover, we cannot comprehend the importance of the possible consequences of such a scenario, as historians cannot use the “what if” type of statements in their argumentation. The fourth chapter considers the German “Gesamtlösung” offer to Poland. We should underline that the rejection of the offer happened due to the Polish idea of normalising relations with Germany. Additionally, this concept involved a specific offer to settle disputes. Notably, Poland did not plan to transfer the Free City of Danzig to the Third Reich nor to allow the Germans to build an extraterritorial highway through Polish Pomerania. Obviously, the Germans did not accept the Polish offer. The fifth chapter deals with the subject of the alliance with Great Britain in the context of Polish political thought and foreign policy. The sixth chapter reviews Poland’s international situation in the context of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. In other words, it deals with the perception of Polish diplomacy in the light of imminent danger. The final, seventh chapter analyses the Polish experience of the outbreak of the Second World War, when the Allies left Poland behind, which shows Polish strategic assumptions and motivations of Polish diplomacy, but also the Allies’ actions: both the real and the virtual.

Krakow, autumn 2012

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1 J. Karski, The Great Powers and Poland 1918–1945. From Versailles to Yalta (London, 1985).

2 William L. Shirer, The Collapse of the Third Republic: An Inquiry into the Fall of France in 1940 (New York, 1994), pp. 241–242.

3 P. Longworth, The Making of Eastern Europe (London, 1992), p. 88.

4 D. C. Watt, How War Came: The Immediate Origins of the Second World War 1938—1939 (London, 1989).

5 H. L. Roberts, “The Diplomacy of Colonel Beck” in: The Diplomats 1919—1939, ed. G. A. Craig and F. Gilbert (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1953), pp. 579–614.

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Chapter 1. The Policy of Balance—Realities and Dilemmas (1934–1938)

“Poland is on the border between two worlds.” When Polish Foreign Minister Józef Beck made this statement in 1933, he was of course thinking of the fact that his country neighboured both the Soviet Union and the Third Reich.6 Neither permanent rapprochement nor reconciliation was possible with either one of them. Supporting Germany against Russia was out of the question, as was cooperation with Moscow against Berlin. The subordination of the Polish state to one of these great neighbours would lead irrevocably to the loss of independence, and would involve first of all a violation of Poland’s territorial integrity. It was Marshal Józef Piłsudski, the man who established the foundations of interwar Polish foreign policy, who was most convinced of these facts.

Poland’s foreign policy in 1934–1939 was thus a policy of balance, between Germany and Soviet Russia. Its essence was the idea of strict neutrality towards both neighbouring totalitarian powers, which was understood in a way that excluded all agreements with one of these states against the other. This was the meaning of the metaphorical formula “the policy of balance”. Polish diplomats followed these guidelines consistently until 1939, when the entire international system collapsed and Poland lost its independence.

“The policy of balance” is a term that Beck used—apparently for the first time in February 1934—after returning from the USSR, where he was the first European foreign minister to pay an official visit. In a statement in March that year, Piłsudski put it slightly differently: pro foro interno; Polish policy was to “achieve a clear line”, and its basis would be that “Poland is not obliged to support either side against the other”.7 This formula would remain the essence of the policy of balance until September 1939.

Issues related to Polish diplomacy in the 1920s have provoked less historiographic debate than have actions that the Polish government took in the international arena in 1934–1939. Poland’s defeat in September 1939 triggered controversies that led to such questions as: what were Polish diplomats’ alternatives in the late 1930s, if any? Had the Polish state’s fate already been sealed? Historians are also faced with another question: what, in the end, are we to make of Polish foreign policy in 1934–1939?

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My considerations here are devoted to reconstructing the dilemmas faced by Polish foreign policy in 1934–1937, my goals being to provide a background for an examination of Poland’s situation in the pivotal years of 1938–1939, and above all to show what the Polish leadership’s thinking was regarding international matters in general, potential threats, and the Polish state’s chances of survival.

Non-Aggression Pacts with the Soviet Union and Germany

The two bilateral non-aggression pacts concluded with Poland’s neighbours in 1932–1934 were a momentous achievement for Polish diplomacy. The treaty signed on 25 July 1932 with the Soviet Union was the result of prolonged and successful negotiations and seemed to have normalised Polish-Soviet relations, although it did not represent a real breakthrough. The treaty signed with the German Reich on 26 January 1934, though it is often called a “pact”, was in fact provisional in nature.8 Having said that, both agreements established the foundation of Polish foreign policy in the 1930s until 1939.

There is no doubt that it was only an extremely fortunate set of external circumstances under which both agreements could be achieved, agreements that had seemed unthinkable in the 1920s.

Following Gustav Stresemann’s course as integrated into the Locarno system, Germany could not be interested in a true normalisation of relations with Poland. Similarly, Soviet Russia—which benefited from special relations with Germany—did not seek to improve relations with Poland because they were neither necessary nor compatible with the Rapallo line. German priorities in the Weimar era can be summed up in three points: (1) to gain changes along Germany’s eastern border (Germany considered its western border to be final); (2) to maintain its orientation towards the West but not to renounce the Rapallo line in order to establish a stronger position in relation to the Entente powers and to prevent the stabilisation of the Polish position; (3) to rearm and achieve military parity with the West.9 The Soviet-German agreement at Rapallo on 16 April 1922, with its limited obligations, posed no immediate threat to Poland’s security, but it did mean that neither of the two parties could, in the foreseeable future, be interested in a true normalisation of relations with Poland. As German historian Hermann Graml once wrote: “Some elements of National Socialist foreign policy had their counterparts ←16 | 17→in certain elements of the foreign policy of the [Weimar] presidential system [Manche Elemente nationalsozialistischer Außenpolitik hatten ihre Entsprechung in bestimmten Elementen der Außenpolitik des Präsidialsystems]”.10 However, with regard to Poland, the transition from the “presidential governments” of the Weimar Republic and Hitler was not one marked by continuity, even though Foreign Minister Konstantin von Neurath stated during a session of the Reich Cabinet on 7 April 1934 that Germany’s goal was to revise borders, and that the foundation of Polish foreign policy remained the Versailles Treaty.11

Until the fall of the Weimar Republic in January 1933, fundamental improvements in Polish-German relations seemed entirely impossible. German territorial revisionism was so embedded in the German political consciousness that it was difficult to imagine that Germany could ever reconcile itself with the existing “Versailles” borders. As a condition for the normalisation of relations with Poland, German politicians demanded territorial concessions from their eastern neighbour. Of course, it was impossible for Poland to fulfil such demands given that a state’s territorial integrity was one of the few issues around which there was universal consent (of course, with the exception of communists).12 German sources suggest that the Poles were prepared to consider the possibility of concessions through the cession of the “Polish Corridor” in exchange for the normalisation of relations with Poland’s western neighbour,13 but this suggestion does not seem to be valid in any way, since Piłsudski was undoubtedly aware that a state that voluntarily relinquishes part of its territory also loses its independence.

Signed on 26 January 1934 and based on Piłsudski’s initiative, the Polish-German Non-Aggression Pact was silent on borders; it said only that all disputes were to be settled based on the principles of the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 27 August 1928.14 The pact itself was largely provisional in nature, but its simple wording heralded a “new phase in bilateral relations” between the two conflictive states. It was supposed to be valid for ten years; it contained no references to the Locarno system; and it was subject to ratification—as if it were a treaty.15 Of course, Poland was interested ←17 | 18→only in an agreement that was not burdened with obligations that could compromise Poland’s independence and territorial integrity, and the 1934 agreement had just such a character. In March 1934, former Polish Prime Minister Kazimierz Świtalski wrote: “The most difficult matter that the Commandant [Piłsudski] had to handle involved the requirement that both pacts be concluded without any additional obligations […].”16 At the same time, it was significant that Germany recognised Poland’s current commitments as being consistent with the Polish-German agreement, which had not been the case with Stresemann, who in 1928 and 1929 demanded that the Franco-Polish Alliance be cancelled in exchange for Germany’s consent to a Polish-German arbitration treaty guaranteed by France.17 French Foreign Minister Louis Barthou argued that the arrangement signed with Germany was “highly beneficial” for Poland and concluded that “the issue of the Polish corridor will not exist” if the agreement could indeed last ten years.18

It was not without significance that the process of normalising Polish-German relations was not called an alliance between “two dictatorships”, although such accusations would soon be raised. As we know today, the Germans investigated the possibility of a Piłsudski-Hitler summit meeting, which was probably the purpose of the second trip to Poland made in December 1933 by Hermann Rauschning, President of the Senate of the Free City of Danzig.19 It is also known that the director of the Port Board in Danzig, Professor Ludwig Noé, raised this matter in 1934 in his correspondence with former Prime Minister Kazimierz Bartel.20 Indications are that Piłsudski was not interested in a summit.

Understandably, the Polish-German Non-Aggression Pact has long been at the very centre of debates among historians over how to interpret Polish foreign policy. Was it the greatest achievement in Polish diplomacy since the alliance with France had been concluded, as Beck thought, or should we view it as a harmful and fruitless exercise given that the Germans violated it within five years? It is not the ←18 | 19→place here for us to debate this issue again; I, for one, have already done so in other studies.21 But it is worth remembering that Stanisław Stroński, a leading commentator on international policy associated with the National Democrats, compared the declaration of 1934 with the Polish–Prussian alliance of 1790, which leaders of the Great Sejm imposed on King Stanisław August. Writing that he regarded the years 1790–1792 as a political memento, Stroński wrote that the Germans in 1934 were putting Poland to sleep, just as the Prussians had in 1790. “There has been too much gamesmanship in our foreign policy over the last two years”, he said in the Sejm in February 1935. “It is wrong when it is too much of a game, and even worse, when the count in which the game was started is mistaken”.22 Similar opinions were expressed by the Polish Socialist Party (PPS) Deputy Kazimierz Czapiński, who declared that it was a serious error to believe that Germany’s pro-Polish turn would last.23 Beck’s predecessor as foreign minister, August Zaleski, acknowledged in 1941 that “the Germans benefited from the [pact] from the very beginning, but we had no use for it”.24 Careful analysis by historians does not allow for such an unambiguous opinion.

Fortunately, no one in Poland talks about a “Piłsudski-Hitler pact”.25 In addition, no one repeats the senseless statements contained in communist propaganda about Piłsudski’s and Beck’s Poland in a “silent alliance with Germany”. In general, historians share the opinion that the price of the Polish-German agreement was too high, and that the Germans benefited more than the Poles: the Germans were now somewhat less politically isolated; they gained some freedom for manoeuvre; plans for a preventative war were shelved; and they bought time to rearm. Meanwhile, the agreement did nothing to sufficiently secure Poland’s interests.26

However, looking back on events with our current knowledge, it is clear that there was, for Poland, no alternative or rational political solution to the agreement ←19 | 20→with Germany. Given the threat of a four-power “directorate”, along with the fact that France’s international role had been weakened and that the post-Versailles order had been destabilised, some kind of modus vivendi with Germany was necessary. The claim that Poland had brought Hitler’s Germany out of international isolation because it had agreed to this pact is baseless. Poland had a contested border with Germany, which was poisoning international relations. When the possibility of a ten-year agreement emerged, Piłsudski took advantage of that fact. The Poles paid relatively little attention to the legal wording because, for Piłsudski, every international agreement was more a manifestation of political will than a “juridical instrument”. As Beck would recall: “Marshal Piłsudski was undoubtedly correct in regarding the non-aggression pact as a serious political declaration rather than as a juridical instrument. He cared only about the preservation of certain basic rules of conduct, not for a text’s details.”27

The second agreement—that is, the non-aggression pact with the USSR—was also more of a political instrument than a juridical one, using Piłsudski’s terms. Everything at the time seemed to indicate that this pact would not come to fruition. But it was in fact concluded after drawn-out negotiations, which were opposed by German diplomats, who wanted to block Poland from taking on any new obligations that would confirm its territorial integrity.28 In the papers of the People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs (foreign minister) of the Soviet Union, Maxim Litvinov, we find a German memorandum: “Comments on the Soviet-Polish non-aggression pact [Bemerkungen zu dem Plan eines sowjetisch-polnischen Nichtangriffspakt]” which is undated but which was put together at the end of 1931 or in early 1932, and in which we read that the Germans pointed out that, as a result of a pact so conceived, Poland would receive assurances regarding its eastern border and would then turn westward, which would in turn result in a radical change in the European balance of power. Berlin advised that if the Soviets viewed such an arrangement with Poland as necessary, then it definitely should include no guarantees regarding the current Polish-Soviet border.29 The Soviets disregarded these suggestions.

Polish-Soviet talks were repeatedly halted and then resumed.30 In the summer of 1930, the Red Army’s supreme command even declared a state of “military ←20 | 21→emergency” in which Poland was allegedly threatening Soviet society with an armed attack.31 At this time, Soviet hopes were great that the “capitalist system” was about to collapse, especially given the then-current world economic crisis (1929–1933).32 It is possible that Moscow had begun to consider the possibility of civil war breaking out in Germany. Based on Soviet sources, we could argue that the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in October 1931 and Japan’s subsequent conquest of it was what prompted the Soviet government to finalise talks with Poland.33 The classic belief that Russia needed to avoid conflict on two fronts motivated the Soviets to seek security in the west; that is, in Europe, in light of the possible threat in the Far East.

However, the main principles of Soviet policy were shaped by a desire to destroy the Versailles-Riga system, to exploit German revisionism in order to disrupt the European order, and to regain at least those territories lost as a result of the collapse of the Russian Empire after 1917.34 The reorientation of Soviet policy—by which the USSR did not abandon its strategic goals—opened up the possibility of rapprochement with Poland, but all indications are that the non-aggression pact with Poland served the Soviets only as a means of pressuring Germany to rebuild bilateral relations in the spirit of Rapallo.

The Polish-Soviet treaty signed in Moscow on 25 July 1932 clearly stated that the basis of bilateral relations would be the provisions contained in the Treaty of Riga regarding the two countries’ shared border, which meant a new but indirect confirmation of the territorial status quo between Poland and the USSR. Each party provided assurances that it would not be bound by any agreements with any third country against the other party. The agreement was concluded for three years, but in February 1934 its duration was extended until 1945. Poland’s fundamental motive in its relations with the USSR was a consistent distinction between the Soviet government and Soviet state on the one hand, and the party and Comintern on the ←21 | 22→other. As Roman Dębicki, the head of Beck’s cabinet, noted: “[…] the external sign of this tactic” was the fact that “the [Foreign] Minister did not see Stalin” during his stay in Moscow at the beginning of February 1934.35

It was not without significance for Poland that, at the same time, the Soviet government concluded similar agreements with the Baltic States (Latvia, Estonia and Finland), towards which Polish diplomats had been making efforts since the mid-1920s.36 Only Soviet negotiations with Romania ended in failure, despite Poland’s mediation, the cause of which was the conflict over Bessarabia; the two sides went only so far as to establish diplomatic relations.37 Throughout the entire seven-year period of negotiations over the Polish-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact, Moscow viewed the Polish demand that similar agreements be concluded with the Baltic States and Romania as an insidious Polish plan to create an anti-Soviet bloc under the aegis of Warsaw. Now, Soviet diplomats took a new view of the matter and the final results of negotiations looked a great deal like Poland’s initial proposals. In making significant concessions, the Soviets believed that, through this series of non-aggression pacts, the cordon sanitaire—which had never in fact been created but, in the Soviet political imagination, was already a reality—would be weakened.

Soviet diplomats made these concessions effectively under duress. Japan’s aggressive military operations in the Far East deepened Moscow’s fears, even if Japan had no strategic plans (at this stage) to provoke a war against the USSR. The Soviet Union’s ties with Germany, based on the Rapallo line, expired, although the Berlin Treaty remained valid (until 1933).38 As soon as the Polish-German rapprochement became fact, Stalin saw no need to maintain the Rapallo line.39 From the Soviet point of view, the idea of a directorate of Great Powers seemed to symbolise the worst international scenario: a consolidation of “imperialist forces”. All of this meant that a short-lived Polish-Soviet rapprochement could come to fruition.

The legal-treaty normalisation of Polish-Soviet relations was reflected in two other agreements: on 23 November 1932 the two parties signed a Conciliation ←22 | 23→Convention,40 and on 3 July 1933 a multilateral convention, a modern act of international law, took effect. The latter bound the USSR to most of its neighbours and defined the terms aggression and aggressor. It was a “non-aggression system” which the Polish Foreign Ministry deemed “complete and precise”.41 We learn from Soviet sources that the foreign policy leadership in Moscow had set its sights much higher, by planning a far-reaching intensification of efforts to bring Poland to its side. The Soviet offer anticipated, among other things, military cooperation between the two countries.42 The Poles also submitted a plan for joint guarantees for the Baltic States.43 It seemed that Polish-Soviet cooperation would be cemented as part of the battle against the Four-Power Pact.44

On 4 January 1934, the Soviet envoy to Warsaw, Vladimir Antonov-Ovseyenko, wrote about the prospects of improving Polish-Soviet relations.45 But when news of the Polish-German Non-Aggression Pact reached Moscow, there was a sharp downturn in relations between Warsaw and Moscow.46 Thus, Polish-Soviet rapprochement turned out to be of only temporary diplomatic use, because the Soviet state was not interested in consolidating the territorial status quo, which all these commitments seemed to serve. On 26 March 1934, the Politburo decided to change ←23 | 24→the USSR’s policy towards Poland because the Soviet government’s efforts since the end of 1930 to improve relations with Poland had not produced sufficient results.47

Two European Projects: the Four-Power Pact and the Eastern Pact

Polish foreign policy in the 1930s was directed against four systems of international politics: (1) the Rapallo system, meaning German-Soviet cooperation; (2) the Locarno system; that is, the silent division of Europe into two zones, one protected and the other devoid of any security guarantees; (3) the idea of a directorate as a method by which selected Great Powers could govern Europe; and (4) the concept of collective security based on regional political blocs.48

As the Versailles system decayed in the 1930s, two alternative and mutually exclusive political concepts emerged, both intended to be an instrument for European stabilisation: the Four-Power Pact in 1933 (understood as a system run by a directorate of powers) and an Eastern Pact as a regional bloc for Central-Eastern Europe. The latter resembled Western Europe’s Locarno system, although there was no chance that Great Britain would provide for Central-Eastern Europe the same border guarantees that it had given the French government at Locarno.

Essentially, the Four-Power Pact was to be an instrument for a policy of limited and controlled concessions to aggressor states in the name of peace. This pact—proposed by Benito Mussolini and involving Great Britain, France, Italy and Germany—was signed in Rome on 7 June 1933, but because France and Germany refused to ratify it, the pact never came into full effect. Nonetheless, it did shake the “conventional structure of the international order” at the time, as Beck later put it. In Beck’s view, a new spirit had appeared in world politics: a spirit of separating the “embryo” in the form of Great Powers “determined to decide on other nations’ matters that they [the Great Powers] considered vital”.49 The new system was to operate without Poland, although a little earlier, at the Franco-German conference in Paris at the end of 1932 and beginning of 1933, the idea emerged of including Poland in the group of European powers as part of the “security pact”. Of course, that idea had no chance of success because it assumed the incorporation by Germany of Polish Pomerania and the liquidation of the Free City of Danzig in ←24 | 25→return for a guarantee by Germany, Great Britain and France of the Polish-Soviet border delineated at Riga.50

It is worth noting that terrible memories of the Spa conference of July 1920, which represented the greatest defeat for Polish diplomacy since independence in 1918, must have resurfaced as the idea of a directorate of the Great Powers gained new life, an idea that promised the internationalisation of border issues and opened the door to great power dictates in return for problematic or unrealistic promises of assistance in the event of a Soviet invasion. Polish diplomats vigorously opposed the idea of a Four-Power Pact.

The Polish government juxtaposed the concept that a quartet of Great Powers would appropriate for themselves a special responsibility to maintain peace and the right to review international arrangements with the concept that all nations were equal in the law, and that international agreements and borders could be changed only with the consent of the broader international community. Beck reminded world leaders that “treaties are commitments—they can change, but only in legal ways, i.e. with the consent of all parties. Other ways are unacceptable”.51 Polish diplomats often repeated that acquiescing to German demands only caused Germany to issue further demands. The Polish government opposed by all means possible any policy to “reform” the League of Nations insofar as those reforms abandoned the principle of the equality of all states under international law.52 In response to attempts to impose territorial decisions on Poland, Piłsudski and Beck were firm in their declarations that they would recognise no such decisions. “If someone attacks us, we will respond with gunfire, and we will allow no one to impose political decisions on us.”53 Minister Beck announced that “if anyone, on their own initiative or encouraged by others, violates one square meter of our territory, Ambassadors will stop talking and artillery will take the stage. So, this matter does not exist for us as a problem.”54 The real threat that the issue of Polish ←25 | 26→borders would be internationalised required the invocation of an “all or nothing” principle that was no romantic distortion, but rather an expression of deep political realism.

It was the primary goal of Polish foreign policy to exclude any possible “compromise” on matters related to boundaries. Any Poland trimmed of its western territories would immediately cease to be independent. Of course, no statements by Polish leaders could change anything if the four powers, who were the pact’s focus, deemed the agreement proposed by Mussolini to be in their national self-interest. Fortunately, however, the Four-Power Pact did not become a permanent mechanism in international politics. Renewed in September 1938 in the form of the Munich system, it was quickly violated by Germany and passed into history.

Poland’s position regarding the Eastern Pact carried much more weight.55 This project, which began in the spring of 1934, anticipated the creation of a regional bloc in Central and Eastern Europe that would include Poland, the Baltic States, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union, which—within the scope of this project—was a key partner of France. The idea of an Eastern Pact originated in Moscow, but it was the French government that took responsibility for promoting it. As part of the planned pact, all partners were to provide mutual security guarantees and to show respect for borders. The agreement would be based on the principle of guaranteeing the territorial status quo, and it would include reciprocal assistance clauses applying to all signatories. In Central-Eastern Europe, a regional security bloc was possible in several variants, but with this project it appeared with the participation of the USSR (playing an active and central role).

It should be emphasised that for Beck, ad-hoc tactical cooperation with the Soviet Union was in certain circumstances not out of the question; the same held true for tactical cooperation with Germany, if specific circumstances made it necessary. Therefore, on 23 November 1933, in connection with the Geneva disarmament conference, the foreign minister told Antonov-Ovseyenko that:

[…] the Great Powers are in no small trouble. They are counting on Soviet Russia, but they consider it a distant country. As for Poland, we find ourselves, in their opinion, within that group of countries with no world interests. But cooperation between ←26 | 27→Poland and Soviet Russia precludes the application of these criteria, because then we are a bloc that is too close to the centre of Europe to be ignored. Contact in this matter is most beneficial for both sides.56

In other words, Warsaw viewed Polish-Soviet political dialogue as at least desirable to counteract the concept of a Great Power directorate. The idea of an Eastern pact, however, did not become a platform for rapprochement between Warsaw and Moscow.

This Franco-Soviet concept was to be a Locarno for Eastern Europe. Czechoslovakia, which was included in the invitation to the talks, accepted the plan enthusiastically. The Baltic States (Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Finland) hesitated. Over the course of negotiations, the original idea evolved. First, it was supposed to be a pact providing border guarantees and mutual assistance—an undoubtedly complicated structure.57 Under British pressure, Barthou decided to invite the Germans to the bargaining table, but they categorically refused to participate.58 After Barthou’s tragic death in a terrorist attack in Marseille on 9 October 1934, the new French foreign minister, Pierre Laval, decided to continue negotiations over the Eastern pact, though he silently withdrew from the clause regarding “mutual assistance” and spoke more about a “non-aggression pact and consultation”.59 He also resumed discussions of older ideas, first raised a few years earlier, about a Danube pact, which Beck welcomed, although he insisted that Hungary not be isolated.60

We can assume that the head of the Soviet diplomacy, Maksim Litvinov, was convinced that France had the means to force Poland into joining the Eastern Pact.61 In fact, no foreign government had such influence, which transpired to represent yet another unpleasant surprise for the Soviets. Poland’s determination ←27 | 28→to persevere within the framework of balance was unshakeable, and 1939 would provide greater proof of how real that determination was.

On 11 May 1935 in a conversation with Laval, Beck stated that there was no “dogmatic and negative attitude” against multilateralism in international relations.62 But the Eastern Pact plan threatened to destroy Poland’s policy of balance, to render Poland dependent on the USSR, to dilute bilateral Polish-French obligations, and more generally, to negate the results of Polish diplomacy’s activities for peace. And in return, Poland would receive nothing. Were Poland to accept the Eastern Pact offer, it would in the long term inevitably fall into dependence on the Soviet Union. The Franco-Polish Alliance would be replaced by a multilateral system and Polish-German relations could go into a downward spiral given that Germany did not intend under any circumstances to join this pact. Guided by these considerations, Piłsudski and Beck rejected the Eastern Pact concept, which resulted in cooler Franco-Polish relations and a serious deterioration in Polish-Soviet relations. Poland came under widespread criticism for having rejected the Eastern Pact proposal, as did its policy of balance, particularly in the West. Polish policies became an obstacle to the implementation of the idea of collective security. At the same time, they had no place in the vision for peace that emerged victorious in London and Paris in the second half of the 1930s, a vision that involved the appeasement of Germany.

In both Polish and foreign historiography, scholars have repeatedly (and often in a one-sided fashion) criticised the Polish government for not taking advantage of the opportunity, so the argument goes, to bolster Poland’s security by accepting the Eastern Pact.63 It comes as no surprise that Soviet and contemporary Russian historiography has taken the same position.64 In the historiography of the communist People’s Republic of Poland (PRL), the line was that the pact was a special opportunity for Poland to strengthen its position and to consolidate the status quo in Central and Eastern Europe, but this opportunity was lost due to Piłsudski’s and Beck’s dogmatic “anti-Sovietism”. Judgments made in the West by many critics of Polish foreign policy are perhaps less one-sided, but they are essentially quite similar. Most prominently, Western historiographers of Polish diplomacy accuse Polish leaders of torpedoing the Eastern Locarno initiative of 1934–1935 and subsequent attempts to create a multilateral regional security pact for Central-Eastern Europe. The Polish diplomat Feliks Frankowski (chargé d’affaires in Paris) noted that the draft Eastern Pact was unacceptable, but “it was necessary to propose one’s own counter-proposal, so as not to stop at passive negation”.65 We cannot ←28 | 29→help but doubt, however, whether such counter-proposal could have been devised in such a way as to take into account both Polish interests and Soviet goals, which were quite obviously irreconcilable.

For several important reasons, we cannot accept the reasoning used by those historians who regard Poland’s rejection of the Eastern Pact as a great political error: (1) joining the Eastern Pact would have annulled the declaration of the non-use of force against Germany, because the latter had no intention of joining the pact. Of course, Poland had absolutely no chance of persuading the government in Berlin to change its position, so it is impossible to imagine that Poland, in joining the Eastern Pact, would have been able to continue the policy to normalise relations with Germany on the basis of the agreement signed on 26 January 1934; (2) had the Eastern Pact gone into effect, France would have transferred its bilateral obligations towards Poland to the Soviet Union, which would have been highly undesirable; (3) the pact gave Poland little more than what had been achieved through the bilateral non-aggression agreements with Germany and the Soviet Union, as it offered promises of mutual assistance that appeared to be highly problematic. At the same time, the border guarantees would have represented only a repetition of the provisions contained in the Treaty of Riga, in the non-aggression pact of 25 July 1932, and the Conciliation Convention of 3 July 1933 that defined aggressor, given that there was no indication that Germany was going to join the pact;66 (4) the Eastern Pact would have paved the way for the USSR to gain an advantage in Eastern Europe, and would probably have subordinated the smaller states in the new system to the USSR; and (5) sooner or later a problem would probably have emerged, namely that the Red Army would have to march through Poland in the event of war, which of course finally broke out in 1939. The USSR did not share a border with Germany, and the Eastern pact—if it were to become an effective security tool—would have had to be supplemented by military conventions.67 Laval told Alfred Chłapowski, the Polish ambassador in Paris, that he wanted to come to some modus vivendi with Germany, and that rapprochement with Russia was, for him, contre coeur. He asked Foreign Minister Beck to help him by signing the proposed pact, because it would not be harmful. “There are so many ←29 | 30→clauses in it that it is unthinkable that it could ever work.”68 So, as Piotr Wandycz rightly pointed out, the entire concept was too unrealistic for Paris to be able to take seriously.69

Based on the realities of geopolitics, it is clear that the Eastern Pact could not work as an effective system of obligations unless the matter of the Red Army and its march through Poland was resolved unambiguously and with the consent of the Polish government. Such an eventuality (the Red Army’s march through Poland) would mean the end of Poland’s independence. Could Poland voluntarily agree to allow the Soviet army to enter its territory? Anyone who reflects on this question cannot ignore two fundamental facts, namely that Russia was a rapacious factor in European politics, and that it was a totalitarian state. Totalitarian states cannot co-create “collective security”. As the American historian Henry L. Roberts wrote more than 50 years ago: “In retrospect, Litvinov’s ‘collective security’ can be seen to have been largely a phrase, never a reality”.70 Jan Librach assessed this project more cautiously, arguing that if the Soviet approach towards the West was ever a reality, it was only in the period from May 1935 to the summer of 1937; that is, from the conclusion of bilateral agreements with France and Czechoslovakia to the Spanish Civil War, which illustrated German superiority and the weakness of the Western powers.71

We find in Western historiography a dubious interpretation of Soviet policy that still has its advocates, one which is based on a distinction between the policy’s “long-term” and “short-term” goals. Such interpretation can be found in the biased works of authors such as Michael Jabara Carley, Geoffrey Roberts, and Jonathan Haslam, and above all in a well-documented work by Ingeborg Fleischhauer.72 According to these authors, in the 1930s the Soviet Union sought above all to guarantee its own security on a short-term basis, the goal being to establish the foundations for a defence of the territorial status quo. But what the proponents of this interpretation fail to take into account is the fact that the Soviets were experts in adapting their policy to changing circumstances. When the “capitalist system” was stable, Soviet policy leaders showed their readiness to accommodate ←30 | 31→the international system, but in the face of conflict with the “bourgeois states”, they tried to do everything in their power to deepen this conflict and to exploit the situation for maximum benefit.

The Neighbouring Totalitarian Powers as seen by Poland

As Poland’s international position took shape in the second half of the 1930s, everything depended on how the foreign policies of the Soviet Union and Germany were assessed after the conclusion of their non-aggression pacts with Poland in 1932 and 1934, respectively. Historians are faced with the following question: was Polish foreign policy in the 1930s based on a realistic assessment of Poland’s international position, or, given the available comments made by Polish leaders, was it based on the eternal Polish maximalism, a programmatic reluctance to compromise, and a general habit of thinking in “all or nothing” terms? Accusations contained in that question have often come from Poland’s foreign observers. It is particularly important to fully understand the answer to the following question: did the two non-aggression pacts dispel concerns about Poland’s security felt by the Polish political leadership?

More than anyone else, Marshal Piłsudski was aware of the threats that Poland faced, and there can be no doubt that he took stock of his country’s position in international politics with a great sense of realism. We can state—with no fear of contradiction—that he predicted early on, and he expressed the view clearly, that the interwar European order would inevitably break down. He formulated this opinion as early as December 1931.73 At the heart of his concerns was the Western (British and French) policy, starting at Locarno (October 1925), to follow a policy of appeasement towards Germany. Another aspect of his thinking involved the bankrupt and discredited League of Nations, which Piłsudski regarded from the very beginning as a tool of Britain and France. No less realistic was Piłsudski’s belief that the durability of the re-established Polish state was uncertain, a belief about which he had spoken as early as in the 1920s. In his eyes, the reborn Poland was “a newly painted state in the middle of Europe that is still trembling for its existence”.74 He told General Janusz Głuchowski: “You will not be able to maintain this Poland”.75 Developments in the 1930s, especially after his death in May 1935, confirmed the Polish statesman’s radical pessimism. Having said that, Piłsudski always believed that it was both possible and necessary for Poland to conduct an ←31 | 32→independent and truly courageous foreign policy, one that was neither passive nor “cliental”.

In the last months of his life, Piłsudski expressed deep scepticism that peaceful Polish-German relations could be maintained. He did not rule out the possibility that the Germans and Soviets could achieve some kind of rapprochement aimed at Poland, despite the ideological gap that divided the Nazis and Communists. The statement he made at a secret meeting of former Polish prime ministers on 7 March 1934 remains powerful today and historians have quoted it many times. At that meeting, the Marshal recalled the origins of the partitions of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth at the end of the eighteenth century. He predicted that relations with Germany and Russia would remain good only in the short term, and he estimated that the non-aggression agreements would last no more than four years.76 Unfortunately, Piłsudski’s predictions were correct.

Summing up the results of Polish foreign policy in 1932–1934, Piłsudski and Beck maintained, despite everything, a sense of moderate optimism. Kazimierz Świtalski noted: “Through the non-aggression pacts there have been enormous transformations in international relations, and the Commandant has achieved for Poland a situation that it has never had before”.77 In June 1934, Beck told Foreign Minister Barthou:

The Treaty of Versailles has secured the interests of the Western states quite precisely. But it left the eastern part of Europe in a fluid state, forcing Poland to make unprecedented efforts to secure its borders and maintain its independence. The Locarno treaties, concluded six years later, contributed in the long-run to a widened gap between how western and eastern problems are handled. Relations in the West have been regulated in the interests of the Western powers, at the expense of countries in the East, giving the Germans a free hand in this region and the possibility of compensating themselves for concessions made in the West. Poland has worked eight years to restore the balance. It has achieved great success in this field and must take care to maintain that success.78 […] In its attempt to pacify the eastern part of Europe, the Polish government has contributed to the adoption of non-aggression pacts, followed by the convention on the definition of an aggressor [the Conciliation Convention], encompassing all the neighbours of the Soviet Union, from the Baltic to the Black Sea. The Polish government attaches great significance to these successes and believes that through its conduct, in its limited scope, it has served the peace of the world well.79

←32 | 33→

In this light, Poland appears not only to have been an important component of the new interwar order, but also a significant player in the process by which the Versailles system—or rather the Versailles/Riga system—was stabilised.

Above all, Piłsudski did not expect that the current order would stabilise, but rather that it would be seriously shaken and would break up. On 1 June 1934, Tadeusz Katelbach said “The moment of a great general reckoning is approaching”.80 He argued that Poland’s position in the framework of the two non-aggression systems would remain politically stable for no more than three to four years. We know that Piłsudski continued to regard Soviet Russia—despite the non-aggression agreement of July 1932—as invariably dangerous and unpredictable in the international arena. In March 1934, he made clear that he regarded Soviet-German rapprochement as always possible. “Despite all appearances and even though Poland’s eastern borders have been set, the Commandant has no confidence in Soviet Russia and will always consider it our most dangerous neighbour.”81 This does not mean, however, that he ignored the German threat. He expected that, as a result of unforeseeable internal developments, one of these two countries would emerge as an aggressor. In order to study the interna (internal conditions) of both of the “new type” of Great Powers, the Marshal ordered the formation of a special “Laboratorium” unit to be manned by army inspectors and ambassadors in Moscow and Berlin. It operated as a “brain trust” until the autumn of 1935.82 At a conference of army inspectors in November 1934, Piłsudski ordered the examination of “France’s interna” in order to determine that country’s real military capabilities and to gain insights into how its political system might develop in the future.83

At the same conference, General Kazimierz Fabrycy and Colonel Kazimierz Glabisz presented papers in which they stated that Russia “could be” but Germany “will be” the first main threat to Poland. Most of those gathered in the room came out in opposition to this thesis; Piłsudski supported the arguments in opposition, none of which meant, he added, that he trusted the Germans.84 For several reasons, Piłsudski considered the Soviets to be the greater danger. First, he emphasised the military character of the Soviet system, which indicates that he accurately recognised the nature of this variety of totalitarianism.

The military, the expansion of the army is, in Russia, the axis of all state work, while in Germany it is one phenomenon in Nazi ideology but not the primary one. The ←33 | 34→motives that could stimulate Germany may be outside the military, rather of a political, internal and international, social and economic nature.85

Secondly, Piłsudski did not believe that Poland could win any allies in a possible defensive war against Soviet Russia—except for Romania, though even that was in doubt, if only due to Romania’s internal difficulties and its numerous territorial disputes with its neighbours. Piłsudski was also convinced that Russia was “less calculable” and less dependent on the West than Germany.86 A telling statement is one Piłsudski made to the army inspector General Fabrycy, namely that “we are sitting on two stools” and Polish leaders should know “which one we will fall off first”.87 As Gen. Tadeusz Pełczyński later put it: Piłsudski “repeatedly counted the balance of forces and time. He studied most exactly the possibilities of how an opponent’s situation might develop”.88

In this regard, Beck’s thinking was identical. In May 1934, responding to a questionnaire prepared by Marshal Piłsudski regarding possible threats to Poland’s security, Beck stated that in the next “three to four years, Russia may be the primary danger”, but then he immediately added that there was “a high probability that, later, [this] state of affairs will be reversed”.89 Beck and his deputy at the Foreign Ministry, Jan Szembek, pointed out that “in the event of a change in political goals, Soviet Russia, in this period of time, will probably remain a country that is less-connected internationally but with a more complete instrument, in terms of armed forces, and incurring less risk. Thus, in this period, Soviet Russia can be considered the neighbour who may be the first to be dangerous.”90 This position did not differ in any way from Piłsudski’s known views.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2021 (March)
Poland 1939 Józef Beck Adolf Hitler Soviet Union diplomacy
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2021. 558 pp.

Biographical notes

Marek Kornat (Author) Chris James (Revision)

Marek Kornat is a professor employed at the Tadeusz Manteuffel Institute of History at the Polish Academy of Sciences and the Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw. His academic work includes studies on the history of Poland’s diplomacy and international relations in the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries, the historiography of totalitarian regimes, and Sovietology.


Title: Poland and the Origins of the Second World War
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494 pages