Saturday 3 July 2021

War in 1939 might easily have been avoided by clever diplomacy


The death of Donald Rumsfeld this week reminds us of how much irremediable harm incompetent politicians can do. The evil that men do lives on. 

Jozef Beck, the Polish Foreign Minister from 1932 to the defeat of Poland in 1939, was an even more incompetent politician and his ineptitude had much greater consequences even than Rumsfeld's and George W. Bush's. 

Most people think that after Germany marched into what is now Czechia in March 1939 it was clear that Hitler would attack more countries and a world war was inevitable. 

They did at the time. The British Foreign Secretary the Earl of Halifax did. 

But the truth is that Hitler did not follow a plan. When he was informed that the British ultimatum had expired in September 3 1939, Hitler turned to Ribbentrop and asked: “What next?”

Hitler was an Intuitive not a Thinking Type, to use Jungian terms. He improvised as he went along, as all politicians do. He was a bundle of nerves in the summer of 1939, forever changing his mind.

Chamberlain and Halifax, and who knows maybe Stalin, were also nervous and exhausted. But Beck remained imperturbable. 

Richard Overy, in his book Countdown to War about the days before war broke out, says that 

“it was Poland’s intransigent refusal to make any concessions to its powerful German neighbour that made war almost certain”.

This meant the destruction of Poland and the death of six and a half million Poles.

I hope it is not necessary for me to say that Poland is not to blame for being attacked by Germany in September 1939. Germany is entirely to blame. But clever statecraft by Beck would have prevented the attack, at least in 1939 and probably prevented it entirely. 

Beck was convinced that Poland was a great power that could stand her ground against Germany. This was, to put it mildly, a very strange mistake.

Poland had been resurrected in 1919 because the three powers that had partitioned her in the 18th century had all been defeated. She then had not only saved Europe when she defeated the Bolshevik invasion in 1919 ('the miracle on the Vistula') but captured large expanses of Ukraine and Belorussia that most Western observers thought could not be justified on ethnic grounds. In the end, Poles were only 70% of the Polish Republic's population.

Poland's continued existence needed an alliance between Russia and France to restrain Germany, as they had sought to do in 1914, but such an alliance was impossible while the Bolsheviks were in power in Russia and international outlaws. 

Impossible, that is, until attempts were made to ally in 1938 and 1939, which Beck sabotaged. 

Finally, of course, after the old Europe had come to an end forever, Stalin and De Gaulle's Free French ended up as allies. 

By then tens of millions had died and Poland was doomed to be Bolshevik for decades.

In the words of Richard Overy, "If Hitler was responsible for war in 1939, this still begs the larger question of what kind of war he wanted. Few historians now accept that Hitler had any plan or blueprint for world conquest, in which Poland was a stepping stone to some distant German world empire. Indeed recent research has suggested that there were almost no plans for what to do with a conquered Poland and that the vision of a new German empire in central and eastern Europe had to be improvised almost from scratch."

Hitler in early 1939 had no short-term or medium term plans to make further conquests, beyond the German-inhabited free cities of Memel (which Lithuania allowed him to absorb) and Danzig, where he sought Poland's agreement. 

He told Martin Bormann in the bunker in 1945 that neither he nor anyone else in Germany wanted war (he meant a general war) in 1939. 

He is not a trustworthy witness, but he was telling the truth. 

He at first wanted Poland as a friend and later, faced with Beck's refusal to compromise and assured by the former champagne salesman Ribbentrop that France and England would not fight for Poland, wanted a small, short war with Poland. 

What Hitler did not appreciate was how democracies work and that public opinion in France and England, which had wanted peace in 1938, now wanted war.

After Marshal Pilsudski's death Poland has been described as a dictatorship without a dictator, ruled by a triumvirate who quarrelled among themselves, of whom Beck was one.

Rereading AJP Taylor's brilliant, shocking and indispensable classic The Origins of the Second World War, a book that is older than I am, I see that Taylor says that Hitler was not concerned with the fate of the Germans in Poland. 

He wanted good relations with Poland. 

Poland had been useful to him during the Czechoslovak crisis. The Polish government was very different from the democratic Czechs. It was dictatorial, anti-Semitic, wanted to revise the 1919 peace settlement despite its favouring them greatly and despised the League of Nations. 

Hitler felt Beck was more helpful to him than Mussolini and he was right.

Had Beck agreed to Hitler's proposal in October 1938 for the Free City of Danzig to become German and a German extraterritorial autobahn and railway through the Polish Corridor war he would presumably have avoided a German invasion. 

A sovereign Poland could have useful to Hitler. Poles and Germans got on. Goering, for example, made innumerable hunting trips to Poland. 

Hitler liked to work through allies. He found Slovakia and Croatia willing and useful allies throughout the war. The fact that Slovaks and Croats are Slavs did not seem to matter to him.

Instead, after the Czech lands were annexed, Neville Chamberlain gave Poland, Romania and Greece guarantees and, in Poland's case, in effect a blank cheque. 

This is the first time in English history that such a guarantee had been given, at least since the Treaty of Windsor in 1386 which created an eternal alliance between Portugal and England. That treaty was forgotten until it became the reason why England went to Portugal's rescue from Napoleon.

Two days before the guarantee was given Beck, who had not replied to Hitler's proposal for five months, rejected it. He thereby signed Poland's death warrant.

I quote Taylor, whom Richard Overy once called the Macaulay of our times.

"Hitler's objective was an alliance with Poland, not her destruction. Danzig was a tiresome preliminary to got be out of the way. As before, Beck kept it in the way. So long as Danzig stood between Poland and Germany, he could evade the embarrassing offer of a German alliance, and so, as he thought to preserve Polish independence." 

"Danzig was the most justified of German grievances: a city of an exclusively German population which manifestly wished to return to the Reich and which Hitler himself restrained only with difficulty. The solution too seemed peculiarly easy. Halifax never wearied of suggesting that Danzig should return to German sovereignty, with safeguards for Polish trade.

"Hitler wanted this also. The destruction of Poland had been no part of his original project. On the contrary, he had wished to solve the question of Danzig so that Germany and Poland could remain on good terms. Was Polish obstinacy then the only thing, which stood between Europe and a peaceful outcome? By no means. Previously Danzig might have been settled without implying any upheaval in international relations. Now it had become a symbol of Polish independence and, with the Anglo-Polish alliance, of British independence as well. Hitler no longer wished merely to fulfill German national aspirations or to satisfy the inhabitants of Danzig. He aimed to show that he had imposed his will on the British and on the Poles. All parties aimed at a settlement by negotiations, but only after victory in a war of nerves." 

"On 30 March Chamberlain drafted with his own hand an assurance to the Polish government: "If - any action was taken which clearly threatened their independence, and which the Polish Government accordingly felt obliged to resist with their national forces, His Majesty's Government and the French Government would at once lent them all the support in their power." 

"That afternoon Beck was discussing with the British ambassador how to implement his proposal of a week earlier for a general declaration when a telegram from London was brought in. The ambassador read out Chamberlain's assurance. Beck accepted it "between two flicks of the ash off his cigarette". Two flicks; and British grenadiers would die for Danzig. Two flicks; and the illusory great Poland, created in 1919, signed her death-warrant. The assurance was unconditional; the Poles alone were to judge whether it should be called upon. The British could no longer press for concessions over Danzig; equally, they could no longer urge Poland to cooperate with Soviet Russia. Germany and Russia were regarded in the West as two dangerous Powers, dictatorial in their governments, ruthless in their methods. Yet from this moment peace rested on the assumption that Hitler and Stalin would be more sensible and cautious than Chamberlain had been - that Hitler would continue to accept conditions in Danzig, which most Englishmen had long regarded as intolerable, and that Stalin would be ready to cooperate on terms of manifest inequality. These assumptions were not likely to fulfilled." 

But Germany needed to go through Poland to achieve his great goal to attack Soviet Russia, you say.

Actually, this is not true. Germany could have reached the USSR via Lithuania and Latvia. These countries or Poland, all of which had fought the Bolsheviks twenty years earlier to secure their independence and were terrified of the USSR, might have made willing allies for Germany. 

One far right Polish historian in the 1990s speculated that had Poland and Germany allied they could have reviewed their conquering troops in Moscow together.

Hitler, like all successful politicians, was a gambler. 

His gamble in invading Poland led him into a World War that in less than three years, even before Stalingrad, was unwinnable. He did more damage to Germany than any man in history. 

What would have happened had Hitler never been born?

It's pure speculation, of course, but my guess is that another right-wing dictator would have assumed power in Germany and the 1919 peace settlement would have been rewritten, with or without war. 

Taylor memorably said that nothing is inevitable until it happens, but the 1919 peace settlement certainly could not hold. 

The men who made the 1919 settlement made many terrible mistakes, to a large extent seduced by the American liberal ideas of Woodrow Wilson, the Joe Biden or Barak Obama of a century ago. 

By far the biggest was not breaking Germany up into the patchwork of separate kingdoms that it was before Bismarck. 

Such an idea (it was mooted) would have conflicted with Wilson's belief in national self-determination and republics. 

80 years later the Americans made a comparable mistake when they chose not to restore the Afghan monarchy, with disastrous results that we live with now. 

Changing the 1919 settlement in Eastern Europe was to be expected. Even the 'good German' Gustav Stresseman, the German foreign minister from 1923 to 1929, refused to guarantee the settlement in the east. 

What was not to be expected was Hitler's racial ideology and determination to destroy and rule Russia, Ukraine and Belorussia.

Hitler and Lenin prove that the Marxist idea that history is dictated by large impersonal forces is utterly wrong. So does Donald Rumsfeld.

As for Beck, after the Soviet Union attacked Poland he and the rest of the Polish government fled across the border to Romania. He was interned at a hotel in Brașov.

Melchior Wańkowicz, a Polish journalist, met him that autumn and records their meeting. Like the Bourbons he seems to have learnt nothing and forgotten nothing. 

"Beck was locked in a golden cage of a luxurious hotel in Brașov, where he and his entourage occupied one floor. He was closely guarded: whenever he went out, hordes of Allied, German and Romanian agents followed him ... 

"I met him at 5 in the afternoon, and our conversation continued until almost two in the morning, with a dinner break. Beck emphasized achievements of the last month of his post: a military treaty with England, Hungarian refusal to let German troops pass through their territory, droit de residence and droit de passage, granted by Romanian government. Beck believes in a solid coalition, and that we would sit at a negotiating table as partners, while Czechs would remain outside. He does not care about the fact that Lloyd George stated that Poland did not deserve help as a reactionary country. He is not bothered by the fact that Lord Halifax wants to recreate the Curzon Line. Instead, he points out that when British king gave a speech on the radio, only English, French and Polish anthems were played ... 

"Since I cannot tolerate this kind of wishful thinking, I ask him whether he had ever seriously considered German attack. He keeps saying that he had met Hitler several times, that Hitler backs out of discussions, that he can easily be talked into different things, that he was influenced by von Ribbentrop."


  1. I have seen a few Wwii documentaries recently which, in addition to this presentation, have added quite a bit of nuance to my understanding of those times. 👍

  2. World domination was a popular objective in German academia even before the First World War - and Mr Hitler was certainly committed to it. As for preventing the war of 1939 - yes it could, had the governments of Britain and France stood up against the National Socialist dictatorship, when it was weaker.

    1. Nobody can argue with your second sentence but what should Poland have done in 1939? What it did? I cannot see how you can argue that Beck did the right thing.
      I do not know what academics in Germany thought before 1914 about German world domination - you mean they wanted Germany to occupy England and France and their empires?

      In any case I quote Dr Overy's and AJP Tylor's views. I have not studied the subject in great depth. I trust Taylor because he is clever and paradoxical and undoubtedly a genius. Dr Overy is much more of a conventional thinker and no genius.

  3. Maurice Cowling, Alan Clark and John Charmley were (or in John Charmley's case are) all very great historians. All thought that Britain should not have fought Germany in 1939 and that the United States rather than Germany was the British Empire's main rival.

  4. Incorrect. The years preceding the war spelled out the course for German foreign policy quite clearly.

    Rearmament began much earlier than '39 and very vigorously. The Germans moved for air parity at a quick pace, breaching the Treaty of Versailles very early on, with also the breaching of provisions for munitions production, infantry capacity, and so on. Hitler was highly convinced of the Western bureaucratic paralyzation which, of course, was attested by the cowardice expressed in June '40 after Reynaud got ousted for being opposed to armistice.

    Hitler was not intuitive. Like all maniacs (which he was) Hitler was highly impulsive. That said, while he had the final say, he had very intelligent men working for him who planned the military expedition far in advance. The invasion of Czechoslovakia was evidently pre-planned. The invasion of Poland, of Norway, etc. were not planned but were strategic necessities.

    The war could have been avoided, however the League of Nations did not work as it should have and the war was not avoided. France and Great Britain failed to commit themselves to manifest defensive precautions and oversight, and undermined the entire system to prevent German rearmament.

    Also I would not put faith in Mr. Hitler's accounts either on or off the record. To have it recorded that he did not want war in '39 has little value. He was a maniac who got lucky, had the right guys working for him, and spoke very powerfully. Had he not risen, there may perhaps have been someone else to fill his place.

    1. Any evidence that he was insane? If so he is not to blame for anything. But perhaps you mean something else by maniac. I think Sebastian Haffner, whom I reread recently, had a point when he blamed Germany for what Hitler did. Hitler acted with the support of his country.

  5. « L’Allemagne ne sera véritablement l’Allemagne que lorsqu’elle sera l’Europe. Tant que nous ne dominerons pas l’Europe, nous ne ferons que végéter. »

    Adolf Hitler
    Extrait du livre de H. Rauschning, Hitler m’a dit

  6. That sounds very much like Hitler but perhaps is ben trovato. Wikipedia says Hugh Trevor-Roper said his book of conversations ‘Hitler Speaks’ was genuine as he later said the supposed Hitler diaries were, but in 2000 he wrote a new preface in which he said,"I would not now endorse so cheerfully the authority of Hermann Rauschning which has been dented by Wolfgang Hänel, but I would not reject it altogether. Rauschning may have yielded at times to journalistic temptations, but he had opportunities to record Hitler's conversations and the general tenor of his record too exactly foretells Hitler's later utterances to be dismissed as fabrication." In his biography of Hitler, Ian Kershaw wrote: "I have on no single occasion cited Hermann Rauschning's Hitler Speaks, a work now regarded to have so little authenticity that it is best to disregard it altogether."

  7. In 'Die Revolution des Nihilismus' ('The Revolution of Nihilism'), Hermann Rauschning apparently said that "the National Socialism that came to power in 1933 was no longer a nationalist but a revolutionary movement", which is very true - Hitlerism was not nationalism. Rauschning saw it as a nihilistic and anti-Christian revolution that sought to destroy all values and traditions, which sounds a good judgement to me. Hitlerism was very anti-Christian and anti-conservative.

  8. I read this and thought it was some kind of satireon histography but about half way through I realised the writer was serious and believed his counter factual nonsense. When a historian is reduced to using a purported conversation between a dead Nazi official and a maniac as factual evidence it's clear he doesn't have much idea of what constitutes evidence.
    Lebensraum is a term the author ought to familiarize himself with along with the shape of the war on the eastern front and the fate of Hitler's non Nazi allies, domestic and foreign.
    It would be unfair to describe this fantasy as rubbish, it's far to deliberate and toxic for that.

    1. I am pleased to see from your blog that you regard Sein Fein as deeply unpleasant, so we agree on that. I am happy to be on the same side as historians as outstanding as John Charmley and the late and by me very much lamented Maurice Cowling, both great Tories, great English patriots and good Christians.

    2. Actually, your blog looks very sensible. I shall dip into it in the future.

  9. Beck could not have done otherwise. It was not in the logic of things at the time in Poland, "yeah, let's give Germany a city so we can be friends." Moreover, the British and the French were worried about Hitler's intentions and would not have encouraged Poland to become Germany's ally. On the contrary, Chamberlain smartly stopped that idea by giving the guarantee (same with Romania, which was drifting into Germany's orbit). It turned out to be a worthless guarantee, but it worked for the allies. Had Poland been on Germany's side this war could have ended in a very different way.

    1. The war would have been between them and their allies and the Bolsheviks, with France and England armed to the teeth but neutral. Whichever side won, we'd have kept out and it presumably couldn't have ended remotely so badly or with Japan involved. Danzig was not Polish territory, remember, but a free city where the National Socialists won a democratic election in 1932 by a landslide.

    2. Yes, you are correct re. Danzig - it was a free city under the League of Nations, but the whole point of it was to give Poland a port - so there was something to lose for the Poles. In retrospect, Poland did not choose wisely.

      But that choice was heavily influenced by Britain and France with their total security guarantees, and also by Polish history and political thinking, suspicion of Hitler's ultimate intentions, etc. Without the guarantees, Poland would have gone the other way, into an alliance with the Germans. Chamberlain had a reasonable thinking there, though he must have thought that it would be more of a war between Germany and Poland/ France/ Britain, without the Soviets getting involved. Hitler outmaneuvered him with the alliance with Stalin, who attacked from the other side and Poland was doomed.

      A reminder that reality is dynamic, it's not "we do something and the other side does nothing." War was seen as impossible to avoid at the time, so Chamberlain played his cards as well as he could with the Polish alliance. On the contrary, perhaps his mistake was being too slow to act - and passive while Germany armed itself and then attacked Czechoslovakia - the appeasement policy was, in retrospect, a major failure.

  10. Interesting article, some very salient points that will need further study on my behalf. Although I tend to agree with your statement that Hitler did not set out with a plan to conquer Europe , and only after becoming cognizant of the Allies half-hearted protests at his /Germany's many infringements of the treaty did he become bold enough ; 1- the German people felt very wronged (humiliatef) by the Treaty of Versailles,2-How do you explain the German "lebensraum"?