Road to War

Marshal Ferdinand Foch had a keen sense of foreboding, when he stated after the signing of the Versailles Treaty in 1919, that „This is not a peace. It is an armistice for 20 years."

Poland found itself in a difficult situation, lying between two powers with whom she was conflicted. Jozef Pilsudski strived to lead a policy of “equal” distance between either neighbor. In 1932 he signed a nonaggression pact with the USSR, and in 1934 with Nazi Germany. However for both Moscow, as for Berlin, this act was to be but a calming mirage.

After the Anschluss of Austria in March 1938 and the Munich-approved partition of Czechoslovakia half a year later, the time arose for Adolf Hitler to settle the “Polish Question.” At this stage he did not yet desire to wipe the II Polish Republic from the face of Europe, but only to make it into a loyal vassal. In October 1938 German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop presented a vision of relations with Poland in which Gdansk would be incorporated into the Reich and an extraterrestrial German highway would cross Polish territory to link Prussia with mainland Germany. The demand, renewed in early 1939 in a much harsher tone, was met with a definitive rejection by the Polish Foreign Minister Jozef Beck.

Poland’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Jozef Beck during his speech in the Sejm on May 5, 1939 which was transmitted over the radio. The speech was a decisive response to Hitler's abrogation of the Nonaggression Pact from 1934. Photo: National Digital Archives
Poland’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Jozef Beck during his speech in the Sejm on May 5, 1939 which was transmitted over the radio. The speech was a decisive response to Hitler’s abrogation of the Nonaggression Pact from 1934. Photo: National Digital Archives

Hitler, loosing hope for disarming his eastern neighbor without force, signed the plans for an attack on Poland as early as April 3 (Fall Weiss) and during his speech in the Reichstag on April 28, nullified the nonaggression pact with Poland from 1934. Poland’s response was presented by Foreign Minister Beck during his speech to the Sejm on May 5. He said what the majority of citizens of the II Polish Republic wanted to hear: “Peace is a thing both valued and desired. … But peace, as with almost everyone on this earth, has a price. There is only one thing in the lives of people, nations and states, which is priceless. That thing is honor.”

Yet, Hitler was already decided on waging war, especially when on August 23, 1939 the German-Soviet Nonaggression pact was signed in Moscow (Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact), whose secret addendum described future spheres of influence, which included the division of Poland. Hitler determined the start of the attack for the morning of August 26. Poland’s signing of an alliance with Great Britain on August 25, which included mutual aid in case of attack, delayed Hitler’s plans by only a few days.

The secret protocol to the German-Soviet Pact of Nonaggression from August 23 1939 (signed by Ministers of Foreign Affairs of both countries, Joachim von Ribbentrop and Vyacheslav Molotov) demarcating how Polish lands were to be divided by the two states. The signatures of Joseph Stalin and Minister Ribbentrop are visible on the document. Source: public domain, http://www.1939.pl/przed-wybuchem-wojny/pakt-ribbentrop-molotov/index.html
The secret protocol to the German-Soviet Pact of Nonaggression from August 23 1939 (signed by Ministers of Foreign Affairs of both countries, Joachim von Ribbentrop and Vyacheslav Molotov) demarcating how Polish lands were to be divided by the two states. The signatures of Joseph Stalin and Minister Ribbentrop are visible on the document. Source: public domain, http://www.1939.pl/przed-wybuchem-wojny/pakt-ribbentrop-molotov/index.html