Could have been the Poles allies of Hitler?

“German-Polish non-agression pact / or the Gallic jaundice [Gallenleiden]”
Cartoon of the German satirical journal Kladderadatsch on December 10, 1933. Two weeks were left until the signing of the contract, but it was already considered an acomplished fact

We welcome our new guest author, Lajos Pálfalvi, the renowned Polish translator and academics, of whom we hope even more posts on Polish culture and his own works.
Last autumn the book of Piotr Zychowicz, The Ribbentrop-Beck Pact, or how could the Poles win the Soviet Union on Hitler’s side? aroused great passions in Poland. Of course, it would be difficult to expect anyone (and not only the Poles) to dispassionately read through this book and to think as it could have been otherwise expected from any normal person weighing the historical alternatives: on the one hand, it is undeniable… although we also have to take into account, that in this case… In this case, it is also difficult to the outsiders, if there are any outsiders at all. Because how does the author imagine, that Poland could have been also an accomplice, instead of a victim? Anyway, what sense does it make to raise this at a time, when so many try to set the Poles as under-hangmen watching out for the prey? But if we start from the Polish national interest, and not from what others think about Polish politics, and if we calculate losses and opportunities, then in the lack of more promising prospects which option do we select: with Hitler against Stalin, or alone against both?

It is significant that they just begin to discuss a decision which for half a century determined the fate of Poland. Of course, I can imagine, how they would have reacted in pre-1989 Warsaw, had the emigrants initiated a debate on this. But we have not even proceeded much since then, because the Second World War is still the most important question of memory politics, the winners still continue their war propaganda, and the Allies still celebrate year from year on the Red Square, in agreement with the Russians, the only incontrovertible axiom: that they not only won the war, but they had been right in every point, and only they can judge the living and the dead.

Of course, Zychowicz did not want to rewrite the history of the Second World War, for he did not start out (as many others did) from how would the world look like, had the Germans won. He does not count with such an eventuality, he just thought over whether the disaster was inevitable, whether Poland had to fight immediately at the beginning of the war in his own territory with both totalitarian empires, and after the collapse to suffer a previously unknown form of occupation. As the book’s title suggests, there would have been another solution, however difficult it is to accept it now as a realistic alternative.

Whoever is shocked at the mere idea, immediately starts to list the Germans’ misdeeds in Poland, as if incapable of understanding that these were committed after and because Józef Beck, Foreign Minister of a Poland wedged in between the Nazi and Communist empires, was able to make an exotic alliance with weighless partners, who had no intention to defend Poland, and in fact their only purpose with the alliance was to shift the Nazi aggression on the Poles. They, of course, still do not recognize and do not undertake the responsibility for it.

Beck, of course, was convinced of having concluded the business of the century by refusing the German proposal and, on everyone’s great amazement, accepting the completely frivolous guarantee of the Brits – that is, voluntarily appointing Poland to the role of the victim (while he thought he brought it into the world’s most elite club). Perhaps this is why Zychowicz choose as a motto the revealing sentence of Churchil: “The Poles have all skills, except the political sense”. As if Beck thought that, in alliance with the French and the British, he can put a stranglehold on the Third Reich. And if Hitler in this hopeless situation would dare to attack, he would have to fight on two fronts, and would be defeated within a few weeks – while Stalin urges them from Moscow.

“Street circus for the little ones / The piper is honking, the bear is dancing, the girl is hopping, but the plate is left empty”
The nations of South-East Europe remain indifferent towards the stunt, only the Polish prepares for the jump as a sleep-walker. We are one week after the signing of the Halifax-Beck contract. KLadderadatsch, April 16, 1939

The author speculates a lot what the British might understand by political sense in this war situation. In such times, the national interest commands to keep the war away from the country as long as it is possible; and when they have to fight, the soldiers should fight the farthest possible from their homeland. This explains their policy towards Poland, rather than any harmful intention. Beck should have also pursued the same goals, rather than to put the country to the mercy of the German war machinery, still impeccably working at the beginning of the war, and of Hitler’s reliable Eastern ally, Stalin.

We know the consequences of the decision, which were obviously unforeseen to Beck, thus he poorly calculated, and led Poland to destruction. On August 25, 1939 the British even had him signed a mutual aid agreement, to be on the safe side, and to prevent a last-minute compromise with the Germans (this is why Hitler waited five more days to star the war). The convention is a curiosity of diplomatic history, since the British guaranteed Poland’s independence only in the case of a German attack – that is, they did not wait until Yalta, they already then decided that they would pay to Russia with Poland, among others.

Beck did not calculate so that the nation would make an unprecedented sacrifice, thus saving the civilization (which reminds to some extent the messianistic philosophy of history), and the world, in turn, would look upon the country of the martyrs with a never ending gratitude. We still do not see the whole world laying on the doorstep of the Poles, and not talking to Hitler’s former allies, the Italians, Japanese and Finns. Even the Germans are not particularly touched, in November 2011 noble-hearted anti-fascists of Berlin marched on the streets of Warsaw, since they felt an irresistible desire to actively tackle the extremely dangerous Polish nationalism. And the Russians – let them alone, although they won the most in this case. By this step, Beck saved Stalin (giving two extra years, Polish and other territories to the Bolsheviks) instead of saving Poland from Stalin.

“No panic! I am the Soviet help promised by the British!”
Kladderadatsch, September 18, 1939, one day after the Red Army invaded Poland.

One chapter of the book is an alternative history of the Second World War. In this alternative, the strategy of the Poles is defined by their intention to make politics on the basis of the lessons learned from the First World War. They did not forget about Piłsudski, who explained that the war should be divided into sections: first the Germans, attracting Central Europe on their side, defeat the Russians, and then the Westerns and Americans defeat the Germans. Since the Poles must reconquer or defend their state from the Russians and the Germans, in the initial phase they must fight on the side of the Germans against the Russians, and then on the side of the Western powers against the Germans. Any other version leads to disaster.

Fortunately, Beck was a good pupil, and did not forget the lesson received from Piłsudski. If he no longer could prevent the disaster impending on three continents (after Hitler’s rise to power, the marshall’s first reaction was to direct a preventive strike on him in alliance with the French, but the French party was not willing to do so – so he of course drew from it the lesson that at the right time he must continue a different policy towards Hitler, who in a few years would be strong enough to realize his world-conquering plans), at least made every effort to ensure that Poland suffers the less in this war.

He accepted that Hitler has the right to the extraterritorial motorway to East Prussia (already because the Poles themselves offered this in the twenties, on the advice of their engineers). And when the Führer wanted to impress with instant successes the public opinion of the Empire, Beck, after a long struggle, came to the decision that Poland would not go to war only to prevent a German city’s union with Germany.

“Nutcracker of Danzig / Good morning, sweetheart!”
The inscription of the document: German-Polish agreement. Kladderadatsch, November 29, 1936

Of course, there were some who considered that this is an expensive price to save the country, and that the German threat should not be exaggerated anyway. Beck was not spared by the opposition, when he joined the Anti-Comintern Pact. Zychowicz quotes from the imaginary leader of the Polish National Diary of the spring of 1940: “With this step Beck tainted us, we cannot wash off the shame over the centuries. The nation of valorous chivalry and patriotic youth went off into a cowardly nation. We have been pushed down to the level of the Czech. How can one be afraid of the cheap bluff and paper tanks of the Germans? How can one betray the French, our best allies, on whom we could always count?” Unfortunately Poland could reach only at the cost of such, so to say, humiliating concessions, that Hitler guaranteed the Western borders of the country, and extended for twenty-five years the non-aggression treaty.

The war broke out on April 9, 1940. The Schleswig-Holstein opened fire with all its guns, the explosion of the quarter-ton shells shocked all. It started with the invasion against Denmark and Norway, and a month later the Wehrmacht attacked France and the Benelux countries. The Germans, by bypassing the French defense lines, through Belgium penetrated into the country, and on July 14 occupied Paris. While Western Europe suffered from the terror of the Gestapo and the SS, Poland was relatively calm, with the exception of the anti-government manifestations. They rapidly developed their army. Meanwhile, the Polish intelligence discovered that the Germans also had a plan B: if Beck had refused to cooperate with them, they were willing to agree with Moscow as well. This, of course, was considered absurd by the public opinion.

On June 22, 1941 the Germans, together with the Poles and other allies invaded the Soviet Union. In 1812 the Poles marched with Napoleon against Moscow, now they could repeat the same with Hitler. Will they be more effective now? Let us suppose that yes (and later that no). Whole divisions of the Red Army surrendered (from the cooks to the general staff), the NKVD fleeing in panic left behind prisons full of corpses. An anti-communist revolution swept through Eastern Europe. The liberators were greeted with flower shower by the Poles of the Soviet Union, decimated in 1937, the Ukrainians, who suffered losses of millions in the artificially induced famine, as well as the White Russians, Jews and Russians.

General Stanisław Maczek, leading the Polish armored divisions installed between 1939 and 1941, started a great competition with General Heinz Guderian, for both of them it was a question of vanity, who arrives first to Moscow. On the large flat field the Polish cavalry was effective as well. After the Poles won the Ukrainians with the promise of independence, the advance was unstoppable. The Bolsheviks fled from Moscow in such a panic, that they could not even put Lenin’s mummy on the train. When they were caught with their holy relics, an Uhlan slammed his head and pinned it to the tip of the sword, pointing it to the cheering crowd. This symbolically ended the terrible decades of Bolshevik terror.

“Hunting in Poland (Prime Minister Göring participates at a Polish hunting as a guest) / Eagles are protected, let others shoot bucks, so we keep with the wolf”
Kladderadatsch, February 17, 1935

We are at the beginning of the book, not at the end. Zychowicz’s purpose is not to defeat the Red Army in the imagination, and to overthrow the system, just like he does not think that by this the war would have ended at a common satisfaction. The Germans would have still pursued the same Hitlerist policy, and the people living in the occupied territories would have quickly lost the mood of celebrating the defeat of Bolshevism. The Poles, of course, would have acted according to their own political traditions: this would have been a good occasion to realize the federalist views of Piłsudski. More and more people would have fled from the German teror to the area under Polish rule.

After the defeat of the Russians, Hitler attempted to expand towards India, thus violating British interests. Soon a second phase of the war begins, when not the Russians, but America, Britain and their allies fight against the Germans. And when the German army already lost much blood, the Poles and the opposition organizing itself in the occupied territories fought it in the back, forcing the soon collapsing Wehrmacht to fight on two fronts (if they do not want to surrender, America might deploy the nuclear weapon). The Germans are no longer able to fend off the Polish betrayal. Poland is rewarded on the peace talks, because hastened the end of the war, and its politics, perfectly adapted to the changing conditions, is not considered a treason, but an effective protection of national interests.

And what if they fail, and the Germans pull the Poles with themselves into the defeat? After 1944 more or less the same what happened in the reality – but even so they could have been saved from what they had to suffer between September 1939 and the Soviet invasion of 1944. That is, if Beck does not turn against the Germans, and does not believe in the empty promises of the British, the country could have avoided the greatest disasters. If Poland does not get under German occupation, no concentration camps could have been built in its territory.

“Prejudices overcome (A part of the French press still have doubts about the German-Polish agreement) / You see, Marinka, they are also not bothered by the crying of the rooster”
Kladderadatsch, Jule 28, 1935

Let us assume that the author has convinced us, and proved us that Poland would have won a lot by the Ribbentrop-Beck Pact. But who does not know much about the political constellation of the thirties, the German-Polish relations, Hitler’s war plans, will surely think that this is a bizarre, unrealistic idea. For me, however, the greatest novelty of this book is not that it offers an alternative scenario of the Second World War. What startled me was that exactly this scenario should have resulted from the logic of the already existing German-Polish cooperation.

When Piłsudski on January 26, 1934 signed the agreement with the Germans, he hoped to thereby eliminating the danger of war leading to the loss of the statehood. He knew that in case of a German invasion he cannot expect help from France, and that in this case Stalin would immediately avenge the defeat of 1920. This is what he tried to avoid at all costs, but he was very concerned about the issue whether after his death there would be a politician who can save the country from this. Piłsudski quickly realized that it is much easier to agree with Hitler than with the junkers or the communists. The former Austrian was not affected by the Polish-Prussian conflict, and he was impressed by the marshall defeating the Bolsheviks (Piłsudski’s popular biography was published in large numbers in Germany).

“On the death of Marshall Piłsudski / The Peace: Your turn, my knight, has opened the door for me.”
Kladderadatsch, May 26, 1935

Zychowicz attaches to his book a few pieces from the German visual propaganda, which suggests that the two countries might be allies in the imminent war. After 1945, of course, nobody spoke about Göring’s huntings in Poland, the cultural diplomacy cultivating the friendship of the two countries (the German editions of the works of Sienkiewicz, Nałkowska, Dąbrowska and Choromański, and even Janusz Korczak). Although in the summer of 1939 they much claimed the situation of the German minority in Poland (soon a German propaganda film would be made on this), in 1937 Goebbels still forbade to write about such problems in the press of the Empire. In 1935 they shot a German film entitled Chopin, the minstrel of liberty. In other words, the German-Polish treaty worked for five years (as Churchill wrote in his diary, Hitler needed the benevolence of Warsaw both to the Anschluss and the dismemberment of Czechoslowakia). The world considered Poland as Hitler’s ally (and therefore it had a very bad press in the West, but they were forced to count with it), but in the spring of 1939 Beck, at the shock of all Europe, in a suicidal way sided with the British and French camp.

To Hitler, France is the ancient enemy, the prime target of revanchism, he wants to revenge on the French for the humiliations suffered in World War I. In January 1939 both the French and the British fear the seemingly inevitable German attack, while Poland is not in danger. Hitler is only waiting for the signature of Beck to have its hinterland safe, and start the attack. At this point, the British attempt a very transparent trick, although they themselves do not assume such a naivety about the Poles to believe in their promises.

On March 31, Chamberlain announces on behalf of the Cabinet, that they guarantee the independence of Poland, and the French government also joins them. The European diplomacy watches with pity the Brits, who try to contrast in such an unfortunate way Poland with Hitler. The French and the British themselves do not trust in their success, they are sure that Beck would reject the offer, since they cannot provide him effective assistance. Beck is just smoking when he receives the offer, and between two spill of the cigarette he accepts it without hesitation. The rest we know, because with this we have arrived into the known world.

“The good old aunt / Here’s my boy, play with the beautiful new ball in front of the neighbor’s house!”
Kladderadatsch, May 28, 1939

Although in Poland a great debate is going on about the book, and this time it is not the usual opposite camps to send messages to the enemy troops, but even comrades fight each other, it is simple enough to summarize its essence. The crucial question is whether it is legitimate to think something like this. The honor, the memory of the victims, the myth can be defended very eloquently. Some even wrote that “By standing with Hitler, we would have ceased to be Poles”. They are able to nicely say what should not be done, but it does not sound that convincing what is worth to do. How far one can can you go in the interest of survival?

5 comentarios:

Simplius dijo...

No, they couldn't. Ever read Mein Kampf?

Studiolum dijo...

Yes, I have, as I suppose Zychowicz has. But you, ever read Machiavelli?

Simplius dijo...

Absolutely. And above other advises how to rule, there is a part where the good old Italian chap advises the mighty ruler not to interfere in the customs, traditions and culture of the locals that are under his reign.

Let's say that Napoleon respected that. And we are not talking about Napoleon.

There is a German docudrama 'Speer und Er', easily found on YouTube. When Speer was asked by the Soviet judge if he ever read Mein Kampf before deciding to marry his career with Nazism. He retorts to the judge with the question if they, Soviets, read the same book before signing the Ribbentrop - Molotov pact. The judge retreats in a manner 'Ok, the book is irrelevant' and keeps on with other questions.

I guess Machiavelli would tell Hitler "You won't last long with your way of thinking and waging wars and politics".

He said it anyway in his "political testament" what really drove him.

xopxe dijo...

Oh, that's why the Germans lost to Soviets, they hadn't the Polish on their side.

Studiolum dijo...

No, it was because they had the Hungarians on theirs. ;)