Poland was betrayed

by ROGER MOORHOUSE

The West urged Poland to fight, but it did not lift a finger to help.

The Second World War was the result of Hitler’s claims and miscalculations, and was exacerbated by the weakness of western democracies and Stalin’s reluctance to defend the status quo. Hitler had always wanted to annex territories to the east of Germany. The only thing stopping him was the Treaty of Versailles, safeguarded by London and Paris, and the threat of Stalin’s armed reaction. In 1939, both obstacles were successfully eliminated.

Hitler had reasons to believe the western powers were so weak and immersed in internal problems that they would not resist when he moved east. And this was his mistake. Although the British and the French were not able to use force in Eastern Europe, they decided to defend Poland at least nominally. Meanwhile, Stalin concluded that an armed revision of the Versailles order was inevitable and even desirable, and he agreed with Hitler as to the division of the spoils. As a result, Hitler assessed that the west would not go to war because of Poland.

Poland was to be the target of German expansion because Hitler intended to use its territory as “living space” for the German nation (Lebensraum). Moreover, in the eyes of the Nazis, the Poles were a lesser race, not only as Slavs, but also as a nation contaminated – according to Hitler’s racist worldview – with Jewish elements. As for Stalin, in all likelihood, he would not defend Poland against German aggression. He was more inclined to cooperate with Hitler if it allowed him to regain the lands lost by Russia after the First World War. The above circumstances sealed the fate of Poland, which became the first victim of the Third Reich.

Hitler and Stalin’s “Devil Pact”

Hitler believed that western democracies were weak, and he treated them with contempt, expecting them to abandon Poland at the start of the conflict. He was afraid of Stalin’s reaction, who, fortunately for him, was also strongly opposed to the Versailles Treaty. After the signing of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact and the agreement (in the form of a secret protocol) of the division of Poland between the Third Reich and the USSR, war was inevitable. Stalin played the role of Hitler’s assistant; he had the last opportunity to stop Hitler in August 1939, but decided to use it for his own imperial game.

The geopolitical crisis which devastated Poland in 1939 was a derivative of its disastrous position on the map. On three sides it was surrounded by German territories, and in the east, it had a long border with the USSR which was practically impossible to defend. There are opinions that Poland should have defended only its core territory, withdrawing from the west and trying to stay on the line of the Vistula and Narew rivers. This is perhaps logical from a military point of view, but ignores the wider political context.

Poland knew that it would not be able to bear the burden of defence alone, and it was afraid that by not opposing the Germans, it would give its British and French allies a pretext not to keep their promise of mutual assistance. Therefore, Poland undertook a doomed, but necessary, effort to defend against a superior army.

The situation of Poland in September 1939 was hopeless from the beginning; therefore, indicating the moment that sealed its defeat is practically impossible. However, considering that the key element of the Polish defence strategy was the expected help from its western allies, it can be assumed that the moment in which the September campaign was finally lost was the meeting of the Allied Supreme War Council on 12 September in Abbeville, when the British and French abandoned the pretence of helping Poland. Unfortunately, the Poles were not informed about this decision, so they continued to fight in desperate hope of getting help. It was a hideous betrayal. After the outbreak of the war, it was much more difficult for all parties to withdraw.

Blitzkrieg and other German advantages

Why did the Germans win so easily? The most common answer to this question is the blitzkrieg, an innovative military doctrine, based on a massive attack of armoured divisions, which broke the lines of the enemy forces, encircling and preventing them from undertaking a coordinated defence. It is widely believed, and rightly so, that this is a retrospective interpretation of history. In 1939, blitzkrieg was just being developed. It had not yet been fully tested and was not used by all German units equally effectively.

The second traditional answer is Germany’s superiority in terms of raw materials and technology. Certainly, this argument is confirmed by the war with Poland. However, in the case of France and the United Kingdom, it is less convincing. It is often forgotten that in 1940, the best tank in the world was the French Char B-1. German superiority was based on the deployment of its tanks and – most importantly – on the morale of their crews. Infected by defeatism and pacifism, the British and French forces lost the war in 1940 before the first shot was fired.

It did not have to be like this. If the British and the French had fulfilled their obligations to Poland, if the offensive in Saarland had been carried out with determination, and if the RAF had begun bombing German targets in September (instead of dropping millions of useless leaflets), perhaps something more positive could have been achieved. Meanwhile, warlike rhetoric, combined with military inaction, is the worst thing that could have happened. The west urged Poland to fight, but it did not lift a finger to help.

In 1939, both the British and the French betrayed Poland, but their actions and motives differed slightly. The British did not intend to actively, militarily help Poland against Germany. They hoped that the paper tiger that was their alliance with Poland, was enough to stop Hitler’s intentions. However, if this proved to be insufficient – if Hitler did not listen to the voice of reason – there was no plan B. London did not make any specific arrangements with Warsaw regarding how to provide assistance. The British–Polish alliance was not based on any specific terms. The British government’s policy at that time is often perceived as Machiavellian, while in reality, it was naïve and thoughtless.

The French are more responsible in this respect due to their specific commitments towards Poland. In the early summer of 1939, France undertook to intervene against Germany in the event of aggression against Poland. However, as we know, this did not take place – except for a short, unsuccessful operation in Saarland.

France’s reluctance to intervene was due to political and social reasons. After a whole generation of young French people suffered heavy losses in the First World War, they did not want to spill blood again, especially in defence of distant Poland. “Pourquoi mourir pour Dantzig?”, the opponents of the intervention asked. France was full of noble phrases about standing by its ally and respecting its commitments, but politically it was unable or unwilling to act.

The long shadow of 1939

Given the course of the war, the fact that Eastern Europe was “liberated” by the Soviets, it is difficult to imagine that Poland, like other countries in the region, could have avoided being included in Stalin’s sphere of influence. When Stalin outmanoeuvred Churchill and Roosevelt at the allied meetings of the Big Three, the only force opposing the communists was the Polish Home Army, whose soldiers’ resistance gave testimony to their steadfastness, but had no chance of success.

Stalin had always had plans for the export of communism to the west. The “liberation” of Central Europe enabled him to implement these plans. Unfortunately, those who wanted to stop him did not have such a possibility, and those who had the opportunity did not have the will.

Roger Moorhouse is a British historian and Germanist specialising in the history of modern Central Europe, with particular emphasis on Nazi Germany, the Holocaust and the Second World War. He is the author of “First to Fight: The Polish War 1939”.