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Why did the Second World War begin in Poland? | interview

03.02.2020

What was the cause of the outbreak of the greatest armed conflict in human history? There is no place for manipulation. We speak with sovietologist Professor Marek Kornat about the genesis of World War II and the duties of academics in dealing with facts.

In the academic year 2016/17, you gave a series of lectures at the Pilecki Institute entitled “Why did the Second World War begin in Poland?” dedicated to the fate of the Treaty of Versailles in Europe and the genesis of the Second World War. You are also working with the Institute on a book based on the subject. As a specialist in the history of diplomacy in the first half of the 20th century, what is the shortest possible answer you can give to the titular question?

The Second World War began in Poland because it was a particular keystone of the Treaty of Versailles in Central and Eastern Europe. That was how both the leader of Bolshevik Russia, Lenin, and the conservative British politician (later Prime Minister) Churchill described its role. Poland rescued the Treaty of Versailles with its victory over the Soviet army in Warsaw in 1920. It is even correct to talk about a Versailles-Riga Treaty in relation to Central and Eastern Europe which was proposed by Polish historians. The war broke out in 1939 because two totalitarian powers with a strategic alliance desired a nulling of the peace treaty and by destroying Poland they destroyed that order.

Of course, history could have happened differently. It has never been the case in history that only one series of events was possible. Military operations in the second global armed conflict could have begun with the German attack on Czechoslovakia (if, of course, they had taken the decision to defend themselves in 1938) or with the Third Reich’s attack on France which Hitler spoke about in a secret briefing of the Wehrmacht command on 22 May 1939. But one thing must be made clear: the tactical alliance between Berlin and Moscow only made sense if its aim was the division of the Polish state. It was with this in mind that the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact was signed and thus Poland became the first victim of the Second World War.

Can Poland be held responsible for the outbreak of the Second World War if one remains faithful to the source material and the realities of the historical era that are key for researchers?

Of course it cannot. Anyone who does so most certainly does not represent the historical truth. We were a visibly weaker nation with regard to the confrontations with both Germany and the Soviets, not to mention the cooperation of the two, that is the joint strike of both neighboring powers from the west and the east. Any Polish politician who considered – even theoretically – any benefits of waging a war in which Poland was the initiator would have been committing suicide.

In spite of that, however, two narratives accusing Poland of having played an “evil” role in the genesis of the Second World War have so far arisen. One is old and well-known, the second is new. The first boils down to an assumption that the war would not have broken out if Poland had fulfilled Germany’s very moderate territorial demands and given back Gdańsk and allowed an extraterritorial highway and railway line to run through Pomerania to Eastern Prussia. This has been a reoccurring narrative more or less often over the course of the last eight decades (since 1939). The second narrative goes further, comes from Russia and is sui generis. It states that the Polish state was a revisionist nation prior to the Second World War, interested in territorial changes in its region in order to enrich itself with newly acquired areas. By presenting an ultimatum to Czechoslovakia and by taking Zaolzie under threat of force, Poland apparently gave credence to its territorial ambitions. Poland, according to this story, had its hand in the deconstruction of the peace treaty even though it suffered a heavy defeat in its conflict with Germany.

Advocates of the theory of Polish stubbornness in the face of Germany’s territorial demands as a cause of the Second World War did not (an still do not) want to remember that the invasion of Poland was not at all about Gdańsk but about the hegemony of Germany in Europe. The war was inevitable because the increase of lebensraum for the German nation in Eastern Europe was impossible without the use of force on a greater scale. The co-existence of both Poland and Germany was unthinkable in the long-term due to our nation’s geopolitical location.

The Russian story about Poland as a co-initiator of the Second World War has no intention to explain anything at all and is simply defaming in nature. The annexation of Zaolzie, an area of barely 4,000 square kilometers, was of no significance with regard to the rejection of the peace treaty. The Polish operation came to the fore when the resolutions of the conference in Munich brought about the dissolution of Czechoslovakia. The government in Prague accepted Munich’s ruling. In the fall of 1938, the peace treaty was reapplied in order to enable the German Reich’s domination on the continent, but the Treaty of Versailles – or rather the Versailles-Riga Treaty – continued to exist until the day the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact was signed.

21.09.1939, Brześć. Officers of the Wehrmacht and Red Army meet at the border running through occupied Poland. Source: Bundesarchiv

The Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact of 23 August 1939 is often presented in literature as the direct cause of the outbreak of the Second World War. While historians like to have a difference of opinion, is it possible to speak of a certain consensus on this issue in the international arena?

Nobody can deny that the tactical alliance between Germany and Soviet Russia erased all chances of maintaining peace. Hitler gained the best possible conditions to wage war on Poland. For this reason, there can be no doubt that the pact of 23 August 1939 was the direct cause of the outbreak of the Second World War, but we must remember, of course, that the war would not have broken out in 1939 had the Western powers – in the name of an alliance with Poland – not declared war on Germany on 3 September.

Of course, there are various opinions among historians that must not be forgotten. We must be aware that no Russian historian living in Russia will support the thesis about the joint responsibility of the USSR in triggering the Second World War. This is impossible for reasons beyond academia. On the other hand, German historians have been “instilled” with the theory that it was Hitler who started the Second World War (Entfesselung). This in turn results in a fundamental reluctance to recognize that a second totalitarian power played a significant role in laying the foundations for conflict and that the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact made war unavoidable. This “Hitlercentric” view of the genesis of the Second World War is fundamentally correct, however it is a picture which requires completion through the inclusion of global players such as the USSR, Japan and Italy.

The question still remains if the Second World War could have broken out if Hitler had not reached an agreement with Stalin. It is, of course, incredibly difficult for a historian to answer that question as it enters the realm of “what would have happened if”. Some historians who have spoken about this subject in the past are of the opinion that there would have been no war, that Hitler would have had to rein in his ambitions. This was what the author of the first Polish work on the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Aleksander Bregman, expressed years ago. The majority of researchers, however, do not share his thinking. It must be remembered that Hitler never baulked before a risk in his political career. He showed this when he decided to remilitarize the Rhineland in spite of France’s crushing advantage and when he took military action into serious consideration when making Czechoslovakia concede the Sudetenland. It can – and even must – be accepted that the leader of the Third Reich would not have withdrawn in the summer of 1939 and would have tried to deal with Poland even without a prior agreement with the Soviets. I personally am in favor of this line of thinking, however that does not release the government of the USSR from its responsibility for causing the war.

The general understanding of European politics in the 1930s is that it was bipolar with Germany preparing for war on the one hand and Great Britain and France striving to maintain peace on the other. The apogee of this politics was the Munich Agreement of 1938. In this context, what do we know about the political plans of the USSR with regard to the European order of the period?

Unfortunately, not much new can be said on that topic. I will try, however, to put the current facts in order. First and foremost, the prestige of the Soviet Union suffered greatly when it was not invited to Munich. Its military power, however, went untouched. Everything depended on the further development of the international situation. The two most important questions were: (1) will the Munich Agreement as an understanding between four powers endure?; (2) will the German–Polish Pact from January 1934 stand the test of time? March 1939 brought negative answers to both questions. The Munich system fell when Hitler broke the Agreement and seized Czechoslovakia and Poland consequently rejected the Third Reich’s territorial demands.

We know with complete certainty that Moscow saw Poland as an enemy in the fall of 1938. No threats were spared. In September, the western units of the Red Army were mobilized and there was a danger of a withdrawal from the non-aggression pact of 1932 if Poland invaded Czechoslovakia. Vladimir Potemkin, the USSR’s deputy people’s commissar of foreign affairs, even told foreign diplomats off the record that Poland was setting itself up for partition as it was working for Germany who would not defend it but divide up its land instead (implicitly with the Soviet Union).

I think it all can be reduced to the following statement: the Soviet Union had very little say in international relations in East-Central Europe for as long Polish-German Non-Aggression Pact was in force. The Soviets could dream up whatever plans they wished and imagine all kinds of possibilities. It was only with the – unfortunately inevitable – invasion of Poland that an incredible opportunity presented itself to the Bolshevik state, something which the historian and sovietologist Adam B. Ulam pointed out years ago.

The Wehrmacht and Red Army’s victory parade in Brześć (22.09.1939). Source: Bundesarchiv

In recent days, Russia has proposed a vision of the Second World War that is entirely at odds with what we have discussed so far. The genesis of the lie and manipulation of the truth reaches back to the Soviet propaganda of September 1939. Has anything surprised you in this latest edition?

The theory of Poland’s co-responsibility for triggering the Second World War did not surprise me; we historians have been hearing this lie for a long time. Russia’s historical propaganda has been repeating this for around a decade. However, I did not expect such an offensive from Mr. Putin in the matter of Polish-Jewish relations. His intervention in this issue is a significant novelty.

You know the sources and you understand the historical period. What does the mechanism of manipulation depend on in this case?

Russia’s anti-Polish propaganda is fundamentally founded on lies. However, there is no lie with regard to Ambassador Lipski’s words cited by Mr. Putin, there is only manipulation. Those words really were spoken. The mechanism of manipulation depends on the suggestion that the Polish diplomat took the emigration of Jews from the nations of Europe as a prelude to the Holocaust. No one at the time was able to even imagine the Holocaust. Lipski heard Hitler’s assurances that the time would come to resolve the Jewish issue when the issue of the Sudetenland had been sorted. In accordance with the rules of Polish politics at the time, he reacted to this extremely spontaneously and with interest.

We must remember that the late 1930s brought with it a serious problem with Jewish refugees and Jewish emigration in general as a result of the persecution they were suffering in Hitler’s Germany. Considering this an opportunity to address the issue of Jewish emigration from Poland, Beck’s diplomacy wanted to bring about international agreements that would force Great Britain to open Palestine, thus enabling Jews to settle there on a larger scale.

The conference which convened in the French resort of Evian in July 1938 did not produce any results. The meeting came at the initiative of the American President Roosevelt and was aimed only at discussing the fate of refugees from the Third Reich and post-annexation Austria. Poland was not invited to the meeting even though it had the largest concentration of Jews.

Interwar Poland invested in the Jewish Zionist movement. The Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs maintained constant contact with Zionist organizations, including Vladimir Zhabotinsky, sponsoring the movement and counting on its aid in the emigration of the Jewish population from Poland.

Soldiers of both armies talk under the watchful eye of Stalin. Source: Bundesarchiv

Who was the Polish diplomat Józef Lipski and why, in your opinion, has he become the target of a Russian attack? How should we understand his words from 1938 about “raising a monument to Hitler in Warsaw”?

Józef Lipski was a member of a well-known aristocratic family from the Greater Poland region with a tradition of service in the First Polish Republic. He began his diplomatic service in Roman Dmowski’s Polish National Committee in Paris before serving in various legations including in Paris. He was an undersecretary of state at the seat of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Warsaw and then went to Berlin as an envoy. He was made ambassador after the diplomatic rank of the legations was raised in both capitals. He dedicated himself to a rapprochement of bilateral relations based on the Polish-German Non-Aggression Pact of 26 January 1934. He saw no alternative to this idea as the Western powers could not be counted on for aid. Of course, this rapprochement could not come at the cost of obligations accommodating our independence. There were moments when the ambassador suggested to Minister Beck to make firmer demands for concessions from Germany eg. in the case of Gdańsk but the minister responded that it was too risky and did not raise the matter.

Even by today’s reasoning, there are no statements known on which an accusation of Lipski’s anti-Semitism could be reasonably based. If we assume that mere involvement in the dissemination of the idea of Jewish emigration displays an anti-Semitic attitude, we would also have to qualify many European politicians of the 1930s as having such.

The meeting on 20 September 1938 was not at all devoted to Jewish issues, but it came up, as it were, on the side-lines. On Beck’s order, Lipski went to Hitler to negotiate a new Polish-German agreement that would extend the ten-year non-aggression pact and ensure the continued functioning of Gdańsk as a free city. It was really a mission impossible. Hitler assuaged the Polish diplomat with various assurances and commended the foiling of a Soviet invasion of Central Europe. He did not need to make concessions to Poland because the Western powers agreed to give Sudetenland to Germany. He already had plans to make territorial demands to Poland, which Lipski would hear from Ribbentrop on 24 October 1938, a little over a month after his conversation with Hitler.

His words about the monument in Warsaw were unfortunate because they perfectly suit being taken out of context and used against Poland. The case of Mr. Putin is best proof of this. If we admit that Lipski went too far in his conversation with Hitler, nothing, however, can overshadow the realities of the time. There was neither a silent alliance between Poland and Germany, as Soviet and Russian propaganda says, and nor did the two countries have a common policy in matters concerning Jews.

Cooperation in the latter case could have occurred, but only if Poland had entered into an alliance with the Third Reich in line with Hitler’s offer in late 1938. Let us remember that in February 1939, Himmler visited Warsaw and tried to persuade Beck to coordinate Polish and German policy “on the Jewish issue.” We can only guess what this would mean in practice. All those who proclaim today that a Ribbentrop-Beck Pact would have been a blessing for Poland should think about it. The Polish government did not choose the status of a subordinate ally of “great Germany.” Hitler’s demands were rejected and Poland paid a great price.

The humanitarian actions of the Polish diplomacy in the issue of Polish Jews expelled from Germany in October 1938 stands as a good testimony. This must be emphasized because the issue is related to Lipski himself. The so-called Polenaktion – the mass expulsion of Jews and hitherto Polish citizens (some 70,000 people) from Germany – being carried out by the German government brought about a firm reaction from Beck and Lipski who were able to ensure their return into the Reich in order to liquidate their assets. Hitler had conceded. This was something of a miracle as he was uncompromising with regard to Jews.

No Polish diplomat has ever advocated the extermination of Jews; only the exact opposite has been true. Diplomats like Aleksander Ładoś (the envoy in Bern) and Tadeusz Romer (the ambassador in Tokyo and representative in Shanghai) did everything that was in their power (even breaking diplomatic law) in order to rescue Jews – Polish citizens – from the threat of extermination by issuing false passports. During the Polenaktion in November 1938, Polish diplomatic centers (such as the one in Munich headed by Konstanty Jeleński) gave shelter and lent aid to many victimized Jews. This could not have happened without the knowledge of the ambassador in Berlin.

Thank you for the conversation.


Professor Marek Kornat – a researcher of 19th and 20th century Polish political thought and sovietologist. Director of the Institute of the History of Diplomacy and Totalitarian Systems at the Polish Academy of Sciences and a lecturer at the Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw. Awarded many times for his historical publications and books and honoured with the Medal for Merit to Culture “Gloria Artis”.

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