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Poland and the declaration of war

LAURENCE REES: What role do you think Poland played in the origins of the Second World War?

ANITA PRAŻMOWSKA: If you look at the way the crisis evolves what is interesting about the British thinking at that time is that there is very little understanding of what is happening in Eastern Europe.  So Czechoslovakia, Austria, if we take it in chronological terms, then anxiety over German control of Rumanian oil and anxiety about Danzig - it’s not as if the British government was preoccupied with denying German control over that region.  What is very apparent is that the British cabinet and Chamberlain is starting to be very anxious about the extent of German control. So it’s the extent of control, and it so happens that Poland comes after Czechoslovakia, a crisis into which Chamberlain does invest a lot. There is an awareness that what is happening in Eastern Europe will lead to a balance of control changing to a such an extent that Britain has to be seen to be drawing a line. So it is more that type of a process, of trying to pre-empt German aggression.

But I think it’s not just Poland; Rumanian oil tends to be rather forgotten, and it creates an atmosphere of tension that this time you can’t negotiate and you’ve got to go for the next stage, which is forewarning the Germans. So going to war and issuing a guarantee to the Poles and then signing an alliance with the Poles and finally declaring war on Germany is part of a logical process of responding to German aggression.

LAURENCE REES: And it just happened to be Poland?

ANITA PRAŻMOWSKA: Yes. I mean Poland is strategically of course very important in so far that it is a territory over which you would see the movement of German troops from the West. And you always have the possibility of confrontation with the Soviet Union so that does add to it. You can’t have that natural transition from Czechoslovakia to Central Europe, that you do have from Poland.  So various factors have been considered by the Chiefs of Staff and Chamberlain, but yes, in the end it comes down to the fact that this was simply a moment that the British government had to be seen to be making some decision.

LAURENCE REES: Churchill kept saying portentously, later on, that ‘we drew the sword for Poland,’  but was that just because subsequently it was convenient to talk about Poland almost as a great 'cause'?

ANITA PRAŻMOWSKA: Oh, well, we have to remember that every politician is very good with his words and Churchill of course is in that mode, a man who speaks in capital letters at times. But if you look at how he actually behaves at that time, during the period immediately after the German attack on the Soviet Union you can see a very dramatic switch towards a very realistic and very hard nosed assessment of the need for the Soviet Union, though Churchill remains emotionally very aware of the Polish situation. He’s got a very good relationship with Sikorski which in many ways facilitates that presentation of the Polish case. But you don’t see any commitments being made by the British government to the restoration of Poland to the pre-September 1939 borders.

LAURENCE REES: So could you characterise the British decision to go to war in September 1939 as an 'ideological' decision?

ANITA PRAŻMOWSKA: I would simply say that this is a sort of belated response to the growth of German aggression so it’s not even ideological, it’s simply a strategic evaluation. There’s this realisation that the balance of power in Europe is tipping dangerously against British interests because British and French interests are viewed jointly and it could be dangerous, so you’ve got to do something about it.

LAURENCE REES: But couldn’t it be said that the ideological component is this sense that it’s now known that this is a bad regime that must be stopped?

ANITA PRAŻMOWSKA: No, I think bad regimes have been known before and the full extent of the Nazi regime is as such not fully understood. Neville Henderson who is reporting from Berlin is reporting on many of the more unsavoury aspects of the Nazi regime and it causes a degree of disquiet in Britain, but at the same time we have to remember that anti Semitism was not unknown in Britain, and internal German affairs, which is what we see as the persecution of the Jewish community, is seen as a lamentable lapse in civilised behaviour, but it’s still within internal affairs. So it’s not as if anybody responded to the ideology, it’s more the balance of power I think.

LAURENCE REES: And so then they do go to war, but with the certain knowledge that they can’t do anything to stop Poland being conquered.


LAURENCE REES: In history can you think of parallels where people have gone to war over a country that can’t do anything really in practical terms to help?

ANITA PRAŻMOWSKA: The British and French declaration to defend Poland is a declaration to stop Germany and that is really what it’s about. With Poland it is as if the line has been drawn and Germany breaches that line. There is a realisation that Germany is unstoppable because by breaching that line a certain understanding has been broken.

LAURENCE REES: And in March 1939 Germany had invaded the Czech lands and moved into Prague, and that’s territory that had never been part of Germany before. So therefore it’s clear that Hitler's public statements that all he wants is restoration of land lost at Versailles is wrong. That’s essentially the reason behind the immediate road to war, isn't it?

ANITA PRAŻMOWSKA: No, because when the Wehrmacht marches into Bohemia Moravia [ie the Czech lands] other things happen at the same time. There are rumours. We have the Rumanian Ambassador in London who’s playing his own game, and he comes to the Foreign Office and he informed them that in fact Germany has demanded monopoly control over oil production. From a long-term perspective any future war is judged on the basis of what happened during the First World War, so it’s the economic capacity to continue a long drawn out war. Access to oil means that Germany could not be strangled economically and so that of course is very important both to the Chiefs of Staff and all the strategists.

Then there is of course this question of if he’s now marched into non-German territory where is he going to go? But of course we don’t see immediate action, what we see is a lot of shilly-shallying, a sort of search for a response. So for the remainder, from approximately the 15th of March until the 31st of March, you really have this search for some form of response.  The tail end of this grand idea which they are testing, the East European block opposed to Germany, declaring together, is actually a declaration to Poland which comes on the basis of rumours of the possibility that Germany may also be taking action in Western Europe.

So I would say that far from this being a carefully calculated policy, it is a policy where Chamberlain, with a very weak Foreign Secretary Halifax, sort of finally says let’s do something. It’s very badly thought out because what you started off with was the fact that war is declared knowing full well they’re not going to defend Poland. They knew that because of course they had Staff talks with the Poles where they told the Poles nothing’s going to happen, and they also had more importantly Staff talks with the French where they knew full well that neither the British nor the French would do anything were Germany to attack East. So indeed it is not a fight for Poland it is actually an attempt to indicate to Germany the unacceptability of her behaviour.

LAURENCE REES: And if in March 1939 the Germans had moved into the Danzig corridor - which was land Germany lost after Versailles - instead of the Czech lands, would there still have been a declaration of war?

ANITA PRAŻMOWSKA: It would have been a different situation from Czechoslovakia and Munich simply because the Poles were different. There’s a different regime there which means that the Poles would most certainly have fought for that territory because the Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs Josef Beck treats Danzig and negotiations with Germany as a test of that balance: do they accept us as equal? If they don’t, we fight. There was no fallback, which was the whole point about Polish policy, either they fought or they accepted defeat and they were not going to accept a military regime in effect. So they would have responded.

Now the question is what would the French and British have done. I think that it couldn’t have been a localised war, I think it would have had implications not only because Britain and France would have been uneasy about Germany strengthening its control over Eastern Europe. But also we have to take into account what the Soviet Union would have done. The Soviet Union is in those days was seen as a country that can be kept in the East, but in fact that was an incorrect assumption. The Soviet Union is very much interested in what is happening and we see that later with the signing of the Ribbentrop/Molotov pact.

LAURENCE REES: So one can play around with 'what ifs' as much as one likes, but simply put - there was always going to be war because Hitler wanted to expand?

ANITA PRAŻMOWSKA: Yes, I think that this is really what the British and French governments find ultimately unacceptable, it is the extent of German ambitions and the anxiety about the fact that movement Eastwards ultimately consolidates economically, as well as militarily, political control over areas which would have effectively meant that half of Europe would have been dominated by Germany. This was considered dangerous and unacceptable.

LAURENCE REES: So there was nothing that could have been done to stop all this without war. It was going to happen because Hitler wanted it?

ANITA PRAŻMOWSKA: They didn’t think so to start with, but ultimately that’s the direction in which it went. You have an amazing feeling when you read the cabinet papers and when you look at the Committee for Foreign Affairs with the Staff’s submissions, that sinking feeling: good God what shall we do? They really don’t know. They don’t know what to do. And that picture of not knowing what to do is very much the picture in France too. The age of most of the politicians and military leaders is such that they were too old to have fought in the First World War, so having witnessed the death of their sons, nephews and the younger men they cannot do so again. The whole problem is that they don’t formulate alternative policies and they actually are very much trailing behind the initiative which is in Germany’s hands.

LAURENCE REES: So the Nazis invade Poland from the West on 1 September 1939 and Britain and France declare war on Germany on 3 September. But then, on 17 September, the Soviet Union invades Poland from the East. But Britain and France don't then go to war with Stalin, do they? 

ANITA PRAŻMOWSKA: Well those territories [in Eastern Poland] actually had a different status. Though the territories that were incorporated ultimately into the Soviet Union, and the territories occupied by the Soviet Union as a result of collaboration with Germany, goes beyond the Curzon line, nevertheless the feeling was that Britain actually did disapprove of the extension of Poland’s borders in 1919-1920. So the feeling was that these were territories that really were not ethnically Polish, and Polish aggression and extremely bad relations with Lithuania all really combined to make this a very difficult case. In other words there wasn’t the clarity with the Eastern territory [of Poland], and as much as the Chamberlain government disapproved of the Soviet Union it nevertheless felt that what the Soviet Union was doing was opportunistically claiming territories to which quite frankly the Poles didn’t have an ethnic claim.

LAURENCE REES: But Britain had by solemn Treaty previously agreed that this land in Eastern Poland was Polish.

ANITA PRAŻMOWSKA: Yes, but the treaty was always intended against Germany, it was never intended against the Soviet Union.

LAURENCE REES: But Britain could scarcely have really intended that Poland only be the size of the bit that Germany invaded…..


LAURENCE REES: Even though it was so tiny?

ANITA PRAŻMOWSKA: But tiny or not that was its ethnic territories. This was the area in the Versailles Peace talks that Lloyd George fought very hard for.

LAURENCE REES: For a Poland that small?

ANITA PRAŻMOWSKA: For ethnic Poland. And the military forays into Ukraine and into Belorussia and then the conflicts with Lithuania met with very serious disapproval. The feeling was that the Poles had a delegation at Versailles, at the Paris Peace talks, and there was all this talking and in the meantime Poland was sending troops east to capture and create territories. This really did make Lloyd George very angry and the general feeling persistent within the Foreign Office was that the Poles had made the British look very stupid because there were on the one hand negotiations with a Polish Committee in Paris where they were trying to deal with these things and then they find that the Poles in the meantime treated that territory as no man’s land.

Now it was known that the Polish attitude towards the ethnic minorities there was very negligent, denying them the right to self-determination. It could be argued that these territories would not have remained independent anyway, so it was the Soviet Union versus Poland, but still it was very well known that Polish troops when they entered these territories mistreated local communities and in particular the Jewish community.

LAURENCE REES: So are you saying that the reason the British were unwilling from the very beginning to offer a firm territorial guarantee to the Poles, was actually because many British people in power felt the Poles didn’t really deserve Eastern Poland back?

ANITA PRAŻMOWSKA: Well, you would most probably find that this is something that is written down in Foreign Office papers. When it comes to the House of Commons declaration don’t forget the House of Commons is still sitting so you have these challenging questions there and they’re also aware of the media speculation. The answer to that one was much more pragmatic and it related to Poland. During the First World War the British government had made various promises and undertakings that in fact later they could not honour and in fact it was a source of embarrassment. Therefore they consistently say that no promises are going to be made during the course of the war which pre-empted decisions made at the end of the war.

In other words, let’s not talk about post war borders until we win the war. Now you find that that is not consistently maintained because they’re very surprised to find that somehow incrementally they do start making some assurances and promises, but the line is: lets not tie our hands because we might need to negotiate. Particularly if you want to, as was the case in the First World War, divide your enemy by making promises and assurances. And it wasn’t just the Poles who were victims, because for example throughout the whole of the war we see a Czech administration here, Benes is in Britain, campaigning to declare the Munich treaty null and void and the British refused to do so.

LAURENCE REES: But Churchill in 1942 isn’t talking in a pragmatic way, he sees it as a point of honour about this Eastern territory in Poland. He talks in January 1942 of this territory being gained by Stalin by 'shameful' collusion with Hitler and so on. He refuses - at this point - to let Stalin keep Eastern Poland.  

ANITA PRAŻMOWSKA: There are two lines of communication. One which is the foreign office men who are grubbing away trying to build up relations with the Soviet Union and there are the one off statements made by Churchill. Sometime these statements are at variance with his own advisors, so Churchill most certainly felt that it would be wrong for the Soviet Union to benefit from aggression and that it simply should not be allowed. Because it’s not just Poland it is also Rumanian territory. It simply should be something that in principle you should go back to the borders of September 1939, but you don’t see much actually being done in that direction.