Why did the Second World War start in Poland? The Versailles order and peace in Europe

28 October 2017


During a cycle of lectures that commenced in March, Professor Marek Kornat will touch upon the issue of the genesis of the Second World War. The objective of the series is not, however, to present the history of international relations in the interwar period, but rather to cast a polemical look at widely-held opinions and interpretations concerning the conflict’s origin. For we have many reasons to engage in dispute.

The Versailles order – which the historiographies of Russia and numerous Western nations have made responsible for the new war, far crueler than the previous – requires defense. The small states which came into being in consequence of the collapse of the empires (Germany, Russia and Austria-Hungary) are frequently considered as the source of the Balkanization of Europe and the chaos that led to catastrophe.

Locarno and appeasement continue to have their defenders. The Soviet Union was viewed as a peaceful state lying on the periphery of Europe. The Second World War is perceived as a conflict brought about by Hitler, an unpredictable dictator acting on his own, whereas in reality – and this many have not cared to remember – Soviet Russia provided him with significant assistance.

During successive meetings we will attempt to analyze the causes of this gigantic global conflict, and also polemicize with commonly-held – and sometimes erroneous – opinions. Today, we cannot provide new findings pertaining to the facts, for obviously these have been well known for decades. It is well worth the while, however, to attempt a new interpretation of issues that have been analyzed by historians a hundredfold.


In Polish academic circles, research into international relations in the 20th century has receded into the background. We would therefore like to return to these issues, to jointly reassess the veracity of theses considered as obvious, and to interpret the facts anew. The Center for Totalitarian Studies is the best place to conduct such a critique.


1. The opening balance: the Versailles order, or perhaps the Versailles and Riga order?
2. The self-determination of nations – a manifestation of justice or the source of the Second World War?
3. Locarno – ‘trimming down the victory’ or bringing calm to post-war Europe?
4. The Soviet Union – a peaceful state on the periphery or a potential aggressor?
5. The new European states – a factor for destabilization?
6. Could Hitler’s Germany have been stopped?
7. Appeasement – a fair offer or a grand delusion?
8. The conspiracy of the two totalitarianisms. Could the world have avoided 23 August 1939.

Marek Kornat_2

Professor Marek Kornat

Institute of History of the Polish Academy of Sciences, Faculty of Law and Administration of Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw

A historian and Sovietologist. His areas of interest include the history of diplomacy and international relations in the 20th century, and the history of Polish and Western political thought and Sovietology. A scientific visitor at, among others, the Centre national de la recherche scientifique in Paris, Columbia University in New York, and the Leibniz-Institut für Europäische Geschichte in Mainz. Recipient of numerous awards and scholarships. Author of, among others, Bolszewizm – totalitaryzm – rewolucja – Rosja. Początki sowietologii i studiów nad systemami totalitarnymi w Polsce (1918-1939) [Bolshevism – totalitarianism – revolution – Russia. The beginnings of Sovietology and studies into totalitarian systems in Poland (1918-1939)] (2003-2004), Polityka zagraniczna Polski 1938–1939. Cztery decyzje Józefa Becka [Polish foreign policy 1938-1939. Four decisions of Józef Beck] (2012).

Important Questions About the Twentieth Century

Important Questions About the Twentieth Century is a series of public lectures during which invited scholars present their comprehensive, original approach to a selected research topic and, in the course of successive meetings, discuss their theses with the audience.

The lectures concern fundamental issues, of key importance for understanding the twentieth century and the Polish experience of two totalitarian systems – Nazism and Communism.

Participants follow the process of writing the text, submit their comments and observations, and ask questions, thus forcing the speaker to defend – and sometimes modify – his or her views. The material developed in the course of the lectures will serve as the basis for a publication issued under the imprint of the Center.

Photos: Patrycja Mic

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