The conventional wisdom is that Germany adopted a policy of expansion by negotiation, bluster, and occupation in the 1930’s and that only timely action by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain slowed this policy of aggression.
German Chancellor, Adolph Hitler, inadvertently reinforced this view by saying he was trying to bring German populations back to the Reich even though they were in other countries. A glance at the map (below) shows the true picture.
Despite the fact it did not start WWI, and had not yet lost it, a starving Germany agreed to a disastrous peace treaty in 1919 that carved up the country like a butt of ham. Germany lost territory and populations to Belgium, France, Denmark, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Lithuania. The largest loss was to Poland, including almost all of Posen, West Prussia and the city of Danzig.
In effect, the Allies in giving Poland access to the sea, tried to drive a stake through Prussia, the ancient heart of Germany, as if the country were Count Dracula.
Viewed by Germans, what Hitler was trying to do was to rebuild a dismembered country. Viewed by France and Britain, Germany was aggressively invading neighbouring countries. This is a subtle but critical point. If Prussia was historically, and ethnically, German, how could trying to get it back be “aggression?” Can one invade one’s own country?
Germany opened its negotiations with Poland on October 24, 1938 in a co-operative way.
It asked for Danzig and a strip a kilometer wide across the Polish Corridor to provide a highway and four-track railroad under German sovereignty. Poland’s economic and harbor rights in Danzig were to be guaranteed and the “corridor across the Corridor” was to be isolated from Polish communications by bridging or tunneling. In addition, Germany asked Poland to join it in an anti-Russian alliance in exchange for other concessions.
Considering that Danzig was 95 percent German and Poland was sitting on a large part of Prussia, and considering that Poland had fought a war with the Soviets in 1920, this was a reasonable proposal. It got nowhere, but Germany persisted.
On January 6th, 1939, German Foreign Minister von Ribbentrop met with the Polish Foreign Minister, Josef Beck, in Munich to discuss the situation. Von Ribbentrop made the following proposal:
“the return of Danzig to Germany. In return, all of Poland’s economic interests in this region would be guaranteed, and most generously at that. Germany would be given access to her province of East Prussia by means of an extraterritorial highway and rail line. In return, Germany would guarantee the Corridor and the entire Polish status, in other words, a final and permanent recognition of each nation’s borders.”
This is not Germany asking for all its people and property back; this is a compromise. On March 22, 1939, Polish leaders meeting at Warsaw Castle, rejected the proposal. Nine days later, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain extended an offer of support to Poland, later solidified into a military treaty.
Germany comes up with another suggestion; a referendum held under international supervision. If residents of the corridor voted to return to Germany, Poland would be given a one-kilometer corridor through Germany to the Baltic Sea. So now Germany has proposed two solutions, a corridor through the corridor for Germany or a corridor through Germany for Poland. Poland says no.
Meanwhile, the population of Danzig and the corridor is clamoring to rejoin the Fatherland on a daily basis. Attacks and assaults against Germans are reported, exaggerated by German propaganda, but nevertheless real.
Hitler, who’s long-term plan, as laid out in his book Mein Kamph, was to invade the Soviet Union, wanted Poland as either an ally or a neutral state, like Hungary or Bulgaria. However, if Poland wanted to be an enemy, well, so be it. The invasion of Poland on Sept. 1, must have been viewed in Berlin, after these negotiations, with some satisfaction.
The response by Britain on September 3 was greeted with stupefaction. What was Britain thinking? Germany didn’t want a war with Britain and Britain couldn’t intervene in any useful way in Poland. It was 1914 all over again; Britain intervening in a European war that didn’t concern it and didn’t involve it.
We can look back across the decades, now that the fog of war has cleared, to see what really happened. First, Britain and France starve Germany into submission, then they cut off pieces to create new countries, then, 20 years later, they block Germany’s attempt to negotiate a solution that recognizes the German population of Danzig and reunites the German province of East Prussia with the rest of the country.
This act forces Germany to the other solution, war. So, once again, it’s all Germany’s fault, right?
Given that Hitler is portrayed as a raving maniac in the English-speaking press, what did he sound like during this crisis to other world leaders? Here’s the text of a letter he wrote to French President Edouard Daladier about the Danzig crisis, as reprinted in the New York Times:
My dear Minister President:
I underestand the misgiving to which you give expression. I, too, have never overlooked the grave responsibilities which are imposed upon those who are in charge of the fate of nations. As an old front line fighter, I, like you, know the horrors of war. Guided by this attitude and experience, I have tried to remove all matters that might cause conflict between our two peoples.
As you could judge for yourself during your last visit here, the German eople, in the knowledge of its own behavior held and holds no ill feelings, much less hatred, for its one-time brave opponent. On the contrary, the pacification of our western frontier led to an increasing sympathy.
I am deeply convinced that if, especially, England at that time had, instead of starting a wild campaign against Germany in the press and instead of launching rumors of a German mobilization, somehow talked the Poles into being reasonable, Europe today and for twenty-five years could enjoy a condition of deepest peace.
As things were, Polish public opinion was excited by a lie about German aggression. The Polish government declined the proposals. Polish public opinion, convinced that England and France would now fight for Poland, began to make demands one might possibly stigmatize as laughable insanity were they not so tremendously dangerous. At that point an unbearable terror, a physical and economic persecution of the Germans although they numeredmore than a million and a half began in the regions ceded by the Reich.
May I now take the liberty of putting a question to you, Herr Daladier: how would you act as a Frenchman if, through some unhappy issue of a brave struggle, one of your provinces [were] severed by a corridor occupied by a foreign power? And if a big city – let us say Marseilles – were hindered from belonging to France and if Frenchmen living in this area were persecuted, beaten and maltreated, yes, murdered, in a bestial manner?
I see no way of persuading Poland, which feels herself as unassailable, now that she enjoys the protection of her guarantees, to accept a peaceful solution. If our two countries on that account should be destined to meet again on the field of battle, there would nevertheless be a difference in motives. I, Herr Daladier, shall be leading my people in a fight to rectify a wrong, whereas the others would be fighting to preserve that wrong.”
You see for yourself Hitler’s tone, both calm and regretful, in these words. You hear the the strategic sense, which I wrote about, that Polish intransigence was based not on the issue of German rights, but on English and French guarantees.
Where was the ‘fake news’ in all of this? The falsity was in Chamberlain’s portrayal of Hitler’s motives, and of his own in extending a guarantee to Poland, a guarantee he knew he couldn’t fulfill. By these two actions, Chamberlain is guilty of starting a World War.
Consider the Polish position. It has two powerful countries on either side, one of which attempted an invasion two decades earlier. Germany has a much bigger army and air force and Russia has a much bigger population. Poland cannot win a war against either of its neighbours because of its size and the fact the country has no natural obstacles. What to do?
The key factor in making a decision should have been a thorough reading of Mein Kamph which sets out German policy for the years ahead. Had the Polish leadership put the pieces together, it should have made a pact with Germany and played along like Sweden or Switzerland. Indeed, had the Polish army joined the Wehrmacht in its attack on the Soviet Union, it might have come out on the winning side in WWII.
But no. Poland decided on national suicide. Instead of making a deal with one of its neighbours, it managed to get invaded by both of them! a classic case of arrogance married to stupidity. The result: millions of dead and bondage for 50 years.