Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

The Polish-Czechoslovak Confederation Project in British Policy, 1939-1943: A Federalist Alternative to Postwar Settlement in East Central Europe?

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

The Polish-Czechoslovak Confederation Project in British Policy, 1939-1943: A Federalist Alternative to Postwar Settlement in East Central Europe?

Article excerpt

The idea of organizing east central and south-eastern Europe according to federalist principles was fairly widespread among western and southern Slavs living in multinational imperial polities. However, few attempted to put federalism into practice after the failure of the Habsburg, Hohenzollem, Romanov, and Ottoman empires as a result of the First World War. (2) As it turned out, the nation-states that were created in the region after the war often found it difficult to establish good relations with one another, and especially with their neighbours. In the case of Poland and Czechoslovakia, relations between the two countries soured soon after the end of WWI due to conflict over Teschen Silesia, even though the idea of a closer association between them had circulated among politicians of both states. (3) Relations reached their nadir in the 1938 Munich crisis, when Poland used the occasion to take over the Czechoslovak portion of the disputed territory. (4) When only a year later the exiled political representatives of the two states began developing a confederation project, their actions represented a truly radical turn. (5)

For their British hosts, the Polish-Czechoslovak venture should have been just one of many ambitious schemes put forward by the numerous exiles of the eight governments based in London, most of which had--in the conviction of many British officials--plenty of time to devote to postwar problems. (6) A closer look at this confederation project, however, reveals the importance that British authorities, especially in the Foreign Office, attached to it. British foreign policy experts and politicians discussed it as early as 1939, promoted it in inter-allied diplomacy until 1943 (and sporadically even after this date), and openly considered it viable until late 1943--more than a year after it ceased to be developed, and past the point where its failure should have been obvious. This article seeks to account for this sustained interest. Moreover, by juxtaposing this earlier confederation project with the plan that was ultimately implemented for postwar east central Europe, it places the latter arrangement into relief and deepens our understanding of the context in which it emerged. An examination of the confederation project also sheds light on how Britain's actions helped shape the tactics its Soviet ally began to use in pursuing its own aims in Eastern Europe.

This article concentrates on the years from 1939, when the project first appeared in Britain's exchanges with Polish exile authorities and the Czechoslovak National Committee headed by Edvard Benes, to 1943 when the project disappeared from the Big Three agenda. It places this discussion within the broader framework of the policies of the other major allied powers, namely the Soviet Union and the United States. The Soviet Union's attitude to the project and the British-Soviet negotiations are of special interest, as they allow us to understand more clearly the place of the federalist solution for east central Europe among Great Britain's priorities in 1941-43--in other words, in the context of what British historian Keith Sainsbury has described as the Foreign Office's "package for Eastern Europe." (7) This article's chief objective is to examine the meaning of the confederation project for British policy primarily in light of her relations with the USSR and therefore to reveal to what extent it could be viewed as a possible alternative to the postwar settlement in east central Europe.

Numerous scholars--whether British, Polish, Czech, Slovak, German, or American--have researched different aspects of this topic, with many Polish or Czechoslovak exiles or their descendants among those from the U.S. and the U.K. Russian historians have only recently joined the discussion of the role of the governments-in-exile in shaping the policy of the great powers. Soviet ideological restrictions made this kind of research difficult, and until recently many of the pertinent Soviet documents remained inaccessible. …

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