The Outbreak of the Second World War: Design or Blunder?

By John L. Snell | Go to book overview

POLISH BLUNDER?

HENRY L. ROBERTS

Probably the most valuable single book treating European diplomacy between the two World Wars is a large collection of essays edited by Gordon A. Craig and Felix Gilbert, The Diplomats, 1919- 1939 ( 1953). This reading is taken from an essay in that volume treating the policies of Colonel Józef Beck, Minister of Foreign Affairs in Poland's authoritarian government from 1932 until the defeat of 1939. The author of this essay, Henry L. Roberts, is a specialist in the history of Central- Eastern Europe and Director of The Russian Institute at Columbia University. This reading provides some support for the thesis that Poland must share responsibility for the outbreak of the Second World War, though Roberts is more interested in explaining Polish policy than convious readings of responsibility for the failure of the U.S.S.R. and the West to achieve a common front against Nazi Germany in 1939. It is also relevant to Hitler's contention early in 1939 that he wanted to cooperate with Poland rather than to destroy it.

AMONG the public figures of countries overrun by Nazi Germany, Colonel Józef Beck, Poland's Foreign Minister from 1932 to 1939, has probably received the least sympathy. Despite his determined resistance to Hitler's threats in the crisis leading to the outbreak of the second world war, he has been remembered as one of the Pilsudskian epigoni, as the man who refused to work with the Little Entente or the League of Nations, who pursued, in substance, a pro-German policy after 1934, who joined in the dismembering of Czechoslovakia, and, finally, as the man whose stubborn refusal to enter any combination with the Russians contributed to the failure of the Anglo-French-Soviet negotiations of the spring and summer of 1939.

After Poland's defeat and Beck's internment in Rumania the world heard little of him. He died in obscurity, of tuberculosis, on June 5, 1944. Less than a year after his death the war of which his country was first victim came to an end, but Poland soon fell under the domination of the Power that Beck always felt to be the ultimate enemy. This retrospective vindication of his Russian policy, the postwar publication of Polish, French, German, and British evidence bearing on his activities, and the recent appearance of Beck's own diplomatic memoirs suggest a reappraisal of this controversial and rather elusive figure. . . .

In the spring and summer of 1933, Hitler, publicly and privately, gave reassurances to the Poles that he had no intention of violating existing treaties or stirring up trouble in Danzig. In November, the Polish government explained to Hitler that Poland's security was founded on direct relations with other states and on collaboration through the League of Nations. Since Germany had now withdrawn from the League, the Polish government wished to know whether there was any chance "of

____________________
From Henry L. Roberts, "The Diplomacy of Colonel Beck", in Gordon A. Craig and Felix Gilbert (eds.), The Diplomats, 1919- 1939 (Princeton, 1953), pp. 579, 601-611. Reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press and Oxford University Press.

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