A Fatal Guarantee: Poland, 1939

By Henderson, Nicholas | History Today, October 1997 | Go to article overview

A Fatal Guarantee: Poland, 1939


Henderson, Nicholas, History Today


It was in virtue of this that we went to war.' Thus, William Strang, a Foreign Office official and later Permanent Under-Secretary, described the guarantee of Poland's independence that the British and French Government gave that country on March 30th, 1939.

The guarantee was without precedent in British foreign policy. Until recently, such was the lack of interest in Poland in London that their ambassador, Count Edward Racynski, reported to Warsaw in early February 1939 that the whole of Eastern Europe was considered by British politicians to be outside the scope of British concerns. Colonel Josef Beck, who had been the Polish Foreign Minister since 1932, was not well thought of in London or Paris. Initially, he saw the Nazis as a relief from the entrenched anti-Polish rulers of Germany. He had played a leading part in Poland's seizure of Teschen from Czechoslovakia at the time of the Munich crisis. The guarantee meant an undertaking to use force to defend a country in Eastern Europe, to which, as the Chiefs of Staff said `we could give no direct help by land, sea or air'. It came about within a matter of days, following Hitler's coup of March 15th, against Czechoslovakia, a country whose security and integrity he had pledged to defend at Munich.

Despite the coup, Neville Chamberlain was initially determined, as he told the House of Commons on March 15th, to stick by his policy of appeasement. But something dramatic was happening to the national mood such as comes over the British people from time to time, a sea-change not necessarily observable abroad but that, working through Parliament and the press and touching the nerve-ends of the body-politic, exercises a profound impact on government. For two decades the British, like the French, had so recoiled from the horrors of the First World War that they refused to countenance the idea that armed conflict might arise over the settlement of disputes in Europe. The destruction of Czechoslovakia shattered them. Stirring a deep-seated national instinct for survival, it induced a widespread feeling that that was enough and that Hitler had to be stopped. The French pe-ople, likewise aroused by Hitler's latest move, were if anything more indignant; his ally, Mussolini, was making demands for Nice, Corsica and Savoy. The same sentiment reached London from the countries of the Commonwealth.

Since the beginning of the year the British and French had been assailed by rumours of an imminent German attack, now in the East, now in the West, and by secret information, much of it exaggerated, about the strength of the German armed forces. Fear of an impending tripartite German, Italian, Japanese alliance added to the tension.

In a speech in Birmingham on March 17th, Chamberlain, as if in response to the national surge of indignation and defiance, struck a more resolute note: he wished, he declared, to correct a misapprehension of weakness that might have been conveyed by his remarks in the House of Commons two days earlier; Munich had been the right policy, but now Hitler had broken a public assurance that he had no more territorial demands in Europe, as well as a personal undertaking that disputes were to be settled not by war but by peaceful means. This made him doubt the Fuhrer's word and led him to ask whether what Hitler had done was 'a step towards... an attempt to dominate the world by force'. Britain, he said, would be ready to exert all its power to resist such an attempt and to defend the cause of democracy.

In London, on the same day, the Romanian Minister, Virgil Tilea, was stirring up a diplomatic whirlwind by telling the Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax of a virtual ultimatum by Berlin to take over his country's economy, including its extensive oil resources, of which Germany was in dire need. His report was disavowed by Grigore Gafencu, the Romanian Foreign Minister, who said he had given Tilea 'a tremendous head-washing'. …

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