Preventive War Against Hitler

While Pilsudski occasionally allowed his subordinates the pretense of authority in domestic policies, he permitted no such illusion when it came to foreign affairs.[1] He avidly followed international political developments, and spent countless hours poring over detailed reports. He displayed great insight, intuition, and understanding in foreign policy, and to the day he died was the undisputed master of Polish diplomacy. In fact, based on his track record, Pilsudski probably had a better grasp of European politics than any other contemporary leader[f1] . Although he could be disturbingly direct, he understood the complex interplay between national interests and regional security, as well as the uses and limitations of diplomacy. His interpretations were not based on wishful thinking or an inflated view of Poland’s power, but on a thorough understanding of history and an almost preternatural ability to think like his adversaries. In retrospect, his foreign policies generally proved to be wise, and his predictions, as they had been on the eve of World War I, uncannily accurate.

The Marshal’s overriding foreign policy objective was to safeguard Polish independence. In formulating policy in the early 1930s to accomplish this goal, Pilsudski had to take into consideration Poland’s precarious position. Three of Poland’s four borders were subject to the revisionist aspirations of her neighbors, who constantly worked to undermine Poland’s international credibility. In addition, the complex international situation often resulted in multilateral diplomatic efforts that weakened Polish security. While Pilsudski made numerous attempts to demonstrate his goodwill, he was never able, or perhaps willing, to master the unctuous platitudes necessary to shape world opinion.

The fundamental threat to Poland’s international position, which had existed for hundreds of years despite interludes of calm, was Germany’s and Russia’s inveterate enmity toward Poland. To address this concern, Pilsudski based his foreign policy on two principles. First, he worked to establish the best possible working relationship with Germany and Russia consistent with maintaining Poland’s territorial integrity. Any arrangement with one should ideally be balanced by a reciprocal understanding with the other, as this policy of equilibrium seemed to offer the best chance of preventing German and Russian cooperation against Poland. The second principle was that Poland’s military alliances were crucial for her security. The most important alliance was with France, as the French had a strong army and an interest in containing Germany. Although a distant second, the Rumanian alliance was also desirable due to Rumania’s location and opposition to Russian recovery of Bessarabia (present-day Moldova). The policy of balance between Germany and Russia and the military alliances with France and Rumania formed the two pillars of Polish diplomacy.

In general, Pilsudski preferred peaceful coexistence with other nations, but he would fiercely and unapologetically defend what he considered to be Poland’s honor. Most importantly, he would not negotiate away Polish lands, since any loss of territory was viewed as a new partition, and thus unacceptable. He had no further territorial ambitions, with the exception of recovering Teschen[f2]  and possibly Danzig, and was not committed to any specific political doctrine that would inhibit his ability to adjust to circumstances as they arose. Treaties notwithstanding, Pilsudski believed that no other nation could be absolutely relied upon. Britain was particularly suspect, as her diplomats in general believed voluntary revision of the Versailles Treaty was the best hope for peace, while Poles believed it was the greatest threat to their independence as well as to peace. It was clear that most Westerners did not understand Poland’s history and legitimate security concerns, and they often portrayed Poles as provocative, hypersensitive, and preoccupied with prestige, oscillating between megalomania and an inferiority complex. Since Polish policies were incompatible with the incremental revisionism advanced by multilateral treaties, Pilsudski preferred bilateral, focused agreements. In any case, he recognized that treaty obligations were unlikely to be fully honored in times of crisis, and had to plan accordingly.

Pilsudski could absolutely rely only on the Polish Army, the sole entity committed to the nation’s preservation, and that is why the army and foreign policy were intrinsically linked in his mind. He saw the League of Nations as an impotent debating club, useful as a high-profile forum for presenting grievances and as a minor moral deterrent, but of little value in wartime. Important foreign policy concerns involved Danzig, the Minorities Treaty, the nagging Teschen and Wilno territorial issues, and maintaining good relations with Poland’s few unabashed friends in the region; Hungary, Rumania, and Yugoslavia. In all these matters, Pilsudski was faced with imperfect options, but by always placing Polish independence as his primary concern, he was able to craft effective, if often internationally unpopular, policies.

When implementing foreign policy, Pilsudski was not overly concerned with Polish public opinion, and not even high government officials were privy to his thoughts. But his sometimes bellicose diplomacy was not the subject of widespread discontent, since many Poles believed there was an intrinsic relationship between the Polish military and Polish freedom. While his domestic political enemies did not usually agree with him, he had grown to ignore them. Just as with the military, Pilsudski had gone to great lengths to remove foreign policy from domestic politics, and for the same reason: Poland’s security was too vital to be subjected to the vagaries of partisan political debate.

The most immediate problem for Poland was Germany. By the early 1930s, Germany’s plan to render the Versailles Treaty a dead letter was well advanced. To Poles, the so-called “spirit of Locarno” was merely tacit Anglo-French consent to future German recovery of Polish territory. The Weimar Republic, dominated by right-wing politicians and pressured by the growing Nazi Party, proclaimed that Germany would someday retake the Polish Corridor, Upper Silesia, and Danzig, if necessary by force. Much of this revisionist bluster was intended for domestic consumption, as threatening Poland was the easiest way for German politicians to gain domestic support. But Weimar diplomats were well aware that the Germany military could not yet back up these threats. Therefore, in international forums Germans pursued what appeared to be pacific policies, in some ways reminiscent of the Soviet “peace campaign” in early 1920, as a means of isolating and discrediting those nations that insisted on enforcing the Versailles Treaty. They ignored the fact that the postwar Polish-German border was almost the same as it had been for centuries before the partitions; the exception was eastern Upper Silesia, where the population was predominantly Polish-speaking. The Germans, however, portrayed the 1919 settlement as ahistorical and a miscarriage of justice. They claimed that until this travesty was reversed, genuine European peace was impossible.

German anger over the Versailles Treaty was grounded in what were portrayed as legitimate grievances. According to the Germans, other nations were just as guilty of initiating the Great War, and hence article 231, the so-called “war guilt” clause used as a legal basis for reparations, was without merit. The Germans further argued that the terms imposed at Versailles were hypocritical, harsh, and not in the interests of peace. According to this view, the territorial settlements with Poland violated the principle of national self-determination and stripped Germany of critical resources. The reparations were allegedly excessive and threatened to collapse the struggling German economy, while the military restrictions so severe Germans would be unable to defend themselves. These conditions supposedly created an inherently unstable situation, fostered resentment, and were conducive to a future war. To drive home these points, Germany launched a well-organized, government-funded, covert propaganda campaign to convince international opinion that the treaty was unjust; an effort that was surprisingly successful.

This interpretation is open to factual challenge, to say the least. While there is continued debate about the origins of the war, few doubt that Germany’s reckless and unnecessary challenge to European stability was a primary cause. In any case, despite what their propagandists would have them believe, the Germans lost the war. If any country should have been reconciled to harsh terms imposed by the victors, it should have been the Germans. After victory in the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, Germany claimed Alsace-Lorraine, a territory that had been part of France for over a hundred years. Defeated France was required to pay not reparations, as the price exceeded the cost of the war, but an indemnity designed to cripple the French economy, and German troops occupied France until the the debt of five billion francs was paid in full. In the March 1918 Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the Germans obtained the Bolshevik’s agreement to relinquish 300,000 square miles of resource-rich territory inhabited by 50 million people. Both of these German-imposed peace treaties were far more draconian than the Versailles Treaty, indicating that if Germany had won the Great War, terms imposed on the Allies would have made the 1919 peace treaty seem generous.

It is true that some of the territorial settlements did violate the principle of national self-determination, but this was because a solution based purely on ethnic nationalism was not feasable. Unfortunately, the utopian expectations created by this unworkable principle exposed the Allies to charges of hypocrisy. In fact, it was not the Allies’ lack of commitment, but rather an overcommitment to German ethnic nationalism that created an unstable situation. Although it made eminent sense, and should not have been considered excessive considering that Germany had been a unified country for less than fifty years, the victors did not significantly reduce the German state, particularly in the west. While France preferred to dismember Germany, including the establishment of a separate Rhineland state, she was persuaded to accept instead a joint Anglo-American guarantee of military assistance in the event of a German attack, as well as the demilitarization and Allied occupation of the Rhineland.

The decision to keep western Germany largely intact was due in part to the fact that the British believed separating the Rhineland from Germany would require a military commitment that was politically impossible to implement and sustain, and that a large German state might be necessary to prevent a Bolshevik invasion of Europe. The British also feared being accused of violating Wilsonian principles under such circumstances, and rather than pursue an unpopular or difficult-to-explain policy, they chose the easier option. Even before the ink had dried on the treaty, the British had demonstrated they were unwilling to do the hard work of keeping the peace, which required expense, vigilance, and risk of military intervention. This general course of inaction was revealed in a political gaffe (defined as when a politician inadvertently speaks the truth) in December 1922, when a British statesman, pressed to respond to Germany’s refusal to make reparation payments in full, blurted out, “nothing should be asked of Germany because the Germans would refuse and then something would have to be done.”[2]  Inaction was much easier than enforcement, and could be justified as a manifestation of supposedly higher morals, regardless of how many lives it would cost in the end.

The Versailles Treaty neither dismembered nor ruined Germany; in fact in 1925-29 she enjoyed one of the highest relative levels of prosperity in Europe. Germany’s advantageous position was due to several factors. Although its population suffered greatly during and after the war, its cities, industries, and infrastructure had been left untouched, as most of the destruction had occurred in the countries the Germans had invaded. Their ally, Austria-Hungary, had disappeared; their enemies, Italy, Brtiain, and France, were theoretically victorious, but had suffered significant damage and were economically hobbled. In addition, these nations had fewer people and lower birth rates than the Germany, and were thus assured of being numerically inferior for the foreseeable future. Furthermore, Russia had collapsed into the chaos of civil war. The new nations surrounding Germany, carved out of the former empires, were small, weak, and at first generally unaligned; therefore, they were not a serious impediment to German revisionist plans. It must be remembered that success in war involves relative, not absolute, power. Germany was absolutely stronger before the war, but was relatively stronger after the war. In that the Great War had been fought in large part to preserve the balance of power which the kaiser had disrupted, it is ironic that the Versailles Treaty facilitated (through German non-compliance and British non-enforcement) an imbalance that was more threatening to peace.

Given its relative strength and predatory history, after WWI it would have been only rational to restrain Germany to the extent that it would be incapable of further assaults on its neighbors. To not do so would be suicide, as Hitler would later demonstrate. A reasonable case can be made that the Versailles Treaty was not too harsh, but rather insufficiently severe, as it did not constrain Germany enough to prevent an even more destructive war two decades later. 

Allied terms did not destroy the German economy. If it was unstable and weak during the first post-war years, this was largely a residual effect of the war the Germans had initiated. The schedule of reparation payments established in 1921 would have required the Germans to pay 6 percent of their annual national income to the Allies, an amount roughly equal to the burden on Western economies after the 1970s oil embargo. These payments were more than offset by reductions in German military spending mandated by the treaty, and would be substantially less than the Germans voluntarily spent to rearm in the 1930s. In any case, the Germans never paid anything approaching this amount (originally set at 269 billion gold marks, or approximately $834 billion in 2012), and by 1922 they were declared in default. In 1924, the Dawes Plan reduced the German payment to 3.3 percent of annual national income and in 1929 the Young Plan dropped it to 2.6 percent. All payments ended in 1932. From 1919-1931, the Germans actually paid only 2.0 percent of their national income to the Allies, a rather inconsequential amount when one considers that during the war, Germany had damaged most of Belgium and northern France, and much of Poland.[3] In addition, the Weimar Republic received a substantial amount of private investments from foreign countries (mostly the United States), loans that were for the most part never repaid. The famous hyper-inflation in the early 1920s (and indeed the German inflation during and immediately after the war) was largely self-imposed, since rather than raise taxes (as was required by the treaty), the government preferred to depreciate its way out of debt. On a relative basis, Germany enjoyed one of the best interwar European economies, evidence that supposedly ruinous reparations or the denial of key resource-rich territories did not cripple the German state.

While Pilsudski was not fooled by German propaganda, he was concerned by France’s weakening position. French power was obviously on the decline, suffering from diminishing international prestige and a weak economy. By the early 1930s, France’s insistence on strictly enforcing restrictions placed on Germany in 1919 was largely unsupported by other major powers. The main problem was Britain, whose assistance France believed was critical in the event of a war with Germany. Unfortunately for Paris, the British, while still aligned with France, did not embrace the fundamental concerns of French foreign policy. They were convinced that German demands for “lost” Polish lands were to some extent legitimate, or at least inevitable, and that the voluntary return of these territories to Germany would greatly reduce the chance of a new war. They did not believe that Britain had any vital national interests in Eastern Europe; therefore they were unwilling to extend a security guarantee to France’s eastern allies. In fact, the British tended to believe that the purpose of France’s system of alliances was not security, but an attempt to dominate Europe.

Despite problems with securing British support, the French were bound by the 1921 bilateral military convention with Poland. However, it was clear that after Locarno the French would prefer to adjust the treaty to make support for Poland contingent on a League of Nation’s declaration of unprovoked aggression. These conflicting accords reflected the fact that France wanted to retain Polish military aid if needed, but preferred to reduce the burden of the Polish alliance which made international diplomacy difficult. The French government made several attempts to secure this amendment, but Pilsudski steadfastly refused to, as he termed it, “locarnize” the treaty.[4] For his part, the Marshal wanted to keep the alliance with France, largely because there was no better alternative, but doubted he could count on French military aid in a pinch. To be fair, France had been left to enforce the peace virtually alone, faced with the impossible task of reconciling the divergent demands of reconciliation, deterrence, treaty compliance, security dependence on Britain, and loyalty to Poland. She had been bled white by WWI, abandoned by American isolationism, restrained by British appeasement, and hobbled by German diplomatic and economic pressure. The French spirit was willing, but the body was weak.

Although British statesmen often worked against Polish interests, Pilsudski understood that London was key to forming a potent anti-German Western bloc, not because he counted on British military assistance, but because France was reluctant to act without British support. Hence Pilsudski’s dictum “the road to Paris led through London.”[5] But the British seemed disinterested in Poland and distrustful of Pilsudski. They thought that while the Poles might have legitimate claims to some of the disputed lands, this was merely an inconvenient technicality. In the British estimation, Poland was little more than an inconsequential country that impeded amicable (and profitable) agreements with Germany and Russia. Pilsudski recognized these obstacles, but hoped that Britain would one day rediscover that Poland was the key to stability in Europe, and would adjust her diplomacy accordingly.

Polish relations with the Soviet Union were also complicated. Pilsudski considered the Soviets a greater threat than the Germans, partly because of history, partly because he believed he could more easily find allies against Germany than against the USSR, and partly because he considered Russia unpredictable. But after the 1927 Soviet-Polish war scare, saber rattling on both sides had died down. The new, pacific attitude of Moscow was largely because Stalin was fully occupied with consolidating power and improving the faltering Soviet economy. As a way to ease foreign tensions and so allow him to concentrate on domestic concerns, in late 1928, Stalin decided that the Soviet Union would sign the Kellogg-Briand Pact. The pact, signed by Poland and numerous other nations in Paris on August 27, 1928, prohibited the use of war as an instrument of national policy, but given its glaring lack of enforcement provisions, Pilsudski was hardly enamored of the arrangement. When pressured to review it in detail, he snarled that the agreement would only take “up his time with foolishness,” and rather graphically advised that the document should be returned to its authors, who should store it in an anatomically unlikely and uncomfortable location.[6]

Stalin was probably equally cynical about the pact, but in an effort to appear committed to peace, he persuaded Poland, Rumania, Latvia, Estonia (and later Lithuania) to sign the “Litvinov Protocol,” (named after Soviet foreign commissar Maxim Litinov) which activated the Kellogg-Briand Pact in relations between the USSR and its neighbors in February 1929. This agreement allowed Stalin to consolidate power at home without devoting undue attention to Russia’s western borders and seemed to indicate a desire for closer relations with the West.

 Polish-Soviet relations received another boost when Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931, forcing the Soviets to transfer troops to protect their eastern border. After this repositioning, Polish and Russian forces in the kresy were roughly equal, giving neither side an advantage. Facing the financial strains of his floundering first Five-Year Plan, therefore limiting resources for a military build-up, Stalin showed interest in a non-aggression treaty between Poland and the Soviet Union, which the Poles had been trying to secure for several years. While Pilsudski believed such pacts were generally short-lived, he thought this one had some advantages. The treaty would not only foster goodwill between the two countries, but also enhance Poland’s international image, demonstrating that Pilsudski could act reasonably in the interests of peace. Most importantly, such an arrangement would advance his policy of “balance” and serve to drive a wedge between Germany and Russia, making it more likely they would court Poland’s favor than pursue frontier revision, at least in the short term. Polish foreign minister August Zaleski described the situation graphically: “The West is of the opinion that we are caught in the pincers of two enemies…We must prove we can tear the pincers apart.”[7]

The Polish-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact, valid for three years, was signed on January 25, 1932. The agreement stipulated that Poland and the Soviet Union would not resort to war against each other, and that any disputes would be settled by conciliation. The pact noticeably improved relations between the two countries. There were high-profile official visits, cultural exchanges, and even the release of political prisoners by both sides. Adding a personal touch, Pilsudski sent the Soviets a cache of Lenin’s personal papers, while Stalin reciprocated by sending the czarist-era police dossier on the young rebel Joseph Pilsudski.[8]

Pilsudski believed the USSR would solemnly honor any treaty only “as long as Russia was unsure of herself…When she is weak she is ready to promise anything, but she is equally ready to break those promises the moment she feel strong enough to do so.”[9] Nor did he believe the danger of war could be eliminated by the stroke of a pen. As he told Aleksandra, “For centuries men have proclaimed peace with their lips and yet continue to make war. Why should we suppose that human nature is going to undergo a complete change?”[10] But in the early 1930s, the two nations coexisted without an imminent threat of war, even as small bands of Russians, obviously with their government’s approval, continued to conduct espionage activities in Poland.

Good relations with the Czechs were also desirable. Czechoslovakia was not only Poland’s neighbor and a strong independent military and economic force, but also the second pillar (Poland being the first) of the French system of eastern alliances. But despite the fact that an alliance between the two made eminent sense, an unfortunate constant in the interwar years was Polish-Czech animosity. Resentment caused by the Czech disruption of supplies to Poland during the Polish-Soviet War and, above all, the dispute over Teschen, were wounds that had never healed.

Another source of conflict involved regional associations. While technically neutral, Czechs were happy to provide a safe haven to Ukrainian nationalists, including those who committed terrorist acts in Poland. In addition, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and Rumania were members of the Little Entente, a Czech-led alliance formed to oppose Hungarian attempts to regain former Habsburg lands. Pilsudski believed the Little Entente did not contribute to regional security, as it did not take a definitive stand against Germany or Russia, and was also divisive, because it targeted Hungary, a potentially important Polish ally in Eastern Europe. Poland refused to join the organization, and Pilsudski made no effort to hide his disdain for its policies.

More generally, a major obstacle to developing better relations was the fundamentally different and often mutually exclusive foreign policies of Czechoslovakia and Poland. Czechoslovakia considered itself a bridge between East and West and preferred to participate in multinational agreements; Pilsudski saw Poland as a barrier between East (the Soviet Union) and West and put his faith in independent policies augmented by bilateral agreements. The Czechs feared that Pilsudski’s hardline policies and postwar territorial expansion would lead to war with Russia or Germany, while Pilsudski believed the Czech policy of accommodation would encourage such a war. Neither side took the other’s security concerns seriously: the Czechs assumed that German demands for Polish lands could be implemented without danger to themselves, while the Poles did not fear the Anschluss (unification of Germany and Austria). Both states believed these issues were existential threats, and were disturbed by the others’ cavalier attitude toward them. It is therefore unsurprising that Poland and Czechoslovakia often undermined each other’s efforts. Although there were occasional attempts to establish better relations between Poland and Czechoslovakia, and minor commercial arrangements and diplomatic overtures were advanced, meaningful treaties were never concluded.

Relations with Rumania, while at times strained, were satisfactory. Pilsudski liked and respected Queen Marie of Rumania, but often found Rumanian diplomats annoying or uncooperative. Not helping matters was Rumania’s membership in the Little Entente, which sometimes worked against Poland’s interests. But Pilsudski valued the military alliance, particularly because Rumania and Poland shared borders with, and a distrust of, Russia, and this outweighed other considerations.

Although the United States had been instrumental in supplying critical economic and moral support during the early years of the Second Republic, Pilsudski considered transatlantic power as only a marginal element in Polish foreign policy. During the interwar years, Americans were neither totally isolated from nor fully engaged in European diplomacy, but instead pursued a middle course of economic intervention and platonic goodwill. But by the early 1930s, President Herbert Hoover had become receptive to the idea, promoted by German, British, and even French diplomats, that the return of Danzig and the Polish Corridor to Germany would advance disarmament talks, and thus peace and European economic recovery.

In October 1931, Tytus Filipowicz, Pilsudski’s 1904 companion in Tokyo and currently the Polish ambassador to the United States, learned that President Hoover planned to meet with French prime minister Pierre Laval in Washington later that month. Laval had recently told American secretary of state Henry L. Stimson that if the Polish Corridor dispute could be adjudicated to Germany’s satisfaction, European tensions would all but disappear. Excited by the possibility of a diplomatic breakthrough, Hoover appeared willing to mediate the matter. To forestall such a possibilty, Filipowicz arranged a meeting with the American president the day before Laval was scheduled to arrive. Speaking “on the authority of Marshal Pilsudski,” Filipowicz told Hoover that “Poland wanted peace, but only on the basis of the maintenance of existing treaties. Revision means war.” He warned that further German provocations might induce Poland to launch a military action “to settle the thing once and for all.”[11]

The Americans were stunned by the blunt declaration, but aware of Pilsudski’s reputation, did not dismiss the threat. The matter of the Polish Corridor was dropped from the American diplomatic agenda. After the incident, American policy towards Poland, while never hostile, drifted from neutrality to indifference.

While most of these relationships with foreign countries were in place for some time, in 1932 Pilsudski made a dramatic shift in tactics. The Great Depression, German revisionism, and weakening French resolve had resulted in a reduction of Polish security, and Pilsudski was determined to take steps to correct the situation. He decided that instead of assuming a relatively passive and secondary role in European diplomacy, Poland would pursue more aggressive, proactive polices and be treated with the respect commensurate with its military might.

The transition to a more muscular, independent foreign policy coincided with an important change in personnel. August Zaleski had been the Polish foreign minister since June 1926. He was a well-respected statesman who, while never establishing a warm personal relationship with Pilsudski, faithfully executed the Marshal’s orders. But as Pilsudski’s health deteriorated and Poland’s foreign policies became more complex, he needed a more involved and dynamic minister to implement his plans. On November 2, 1932, the Marshal appointed his favorite advisor, thirty-eight year-old Colonel Joseph Beck (1894–1944), to the post. Not surprisingly, Beck had been a member of the First Brigade, the POW, and the Polish Army, and had supported Pilsudski during the 1926 coup. Since then, he had served the Marshal in several capacities, including as deputy minister of foreign affairs since late 1930. Pilsudski had singled out Beck in the early 1920s as his protégé in foreign affairs, and had been grooming him for foreign minister in a variety of special assignments.

Beck was the epitome of a European diplomat: tall, good-looking, articulate, and always immaculately dressed. He had served as military attaché in Paris, where the French resented his alleged arrogance and dishonesty but respected his intelligence. Although Beck temporarily fell out of favor when Pilsudski’s political enemies took charge of the government in 1923-26, he kept informed of diplomatic developments in Europe and was well prepared for a more senior role after the coup.[12] Beck’s ascension coincided with not-so-subtle changes in Polish foreign policy. Instead of employing the more nuanced diplomacy of Zaleski, Beck did not refrain from displaying cynicism bordering on contempt for multinational schemes, as well as the League of Nations, and his policies often brandished a military toughness usually associated with “great powers.”

One of the first examples of Poland’s new hard line in foreign policy was ordered by Pilsudski and engineered by Beck, acting as deputy foreign minister. By early 1932, Polish relations with the Free City of Danzig were in tatters due to continued assaults on Polish rights and Nazis’ demands for the city’s return to the Reich. Another sore point was competition from the new port at Gdynia, which was adversely affecting Danzig trade. While emergency loans from Germany kept the city’s economy afloat, its civic leaders appealed to the League of Nations for more substantial help. Claiming that prejudice against Germans and an undeserved devotion to the inferior port at Gdynia were resulting in a de facto Polish boycott, the Danzig Senate insisted that the League force Poland to make more use of its facilities. While waiting for a ruling, Danzig announced that it would no longer honor its commitment to allow Polish naval vessels to visit the city without permission. As if to flaunt this privilege, the League high commissioner in Danzig invited three British destroyers to visit the city in June 1932.

Pilsudski decided to directly challenged Danzig by authorizing the Polish destroyer Wicher to enter the port without permission. Pilsudski may have also intended to send a message to French, British, and German financiers, who were scheduled to discuss revisions to the Versailles arrangement later that week.[13] The Wicher was to make this bold gambit on June 14, 1932, the day the British squadron arrived.[14] Unbeknownst to the citizens of Danzig, the captain of the Polish destroyer had been ordered to fire on the nearest public building if the Polish flag was insulted in any way. Fortunately, no shots were fired, and other than renewed outrage from Danzig and Germany, which again protested to the League of Nations, there were no adverse consequences for Poland’s aggressive act. Pilsudski had wanted to demonstrate Poland’s willingness to defend her rights. The plan worked: realizing that no corrective action would be forthcoming from the League, and as yet in no position to challenge Poland militarily, the Germans quietly abandoned their protests. While many decried Pilsudski’s bull-in-the-china-shop diplomacy, he had made his point. Poland would fiercely defend her rights, by force if necessary.[15]

The European situation changed dramatically on January 30, 1933, when Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany. Since Hitler had not been shy about his desire to repudiate the Versailles Treaty, rearm Germany, and reclaim lost German lands, many assumed that he would be instantly aggressive toward Poland. As if to confirm this belief, Hitler gave an interview to the London Sunday Times on February 12, 1933, in which he indicated that the Polish Corridor (which he neglected to mention contained an overwhelmingly Polish population) should be returned to Germany in the near future.[16]

Contrary to conventional wisdom, Pilsudski was reasonably sure that Hitler would not take immediate action. He believed Hitler would need time to consolidate power and deal with daunting domestic problems. Unlike most statesmen, Pilsudski had extensive experience with this process and knew what it entailed. He also understood that Germany, despite bold proclamations to the contrary, did not yet possess the military might to challenge the West, or even Poland, and that Hitler would need several years to rebuild the German Army.

In addition to these technical considerations, Pilsudski did not believe the Austrian-born Hitler harbored the extreme anti-Polish sentiment of past Prussian leaders. Having lived much of his early adult life under relatively enlightened Habsburg rule, Pilsudski knew that Austrians were not indoctrinated to hate Poles, and believed that Hitler would not be as anti-Polish as his predecessors. Informants confirmed that Hitler had followed the Polish marshal’s career and admired his actions, and therefore might be open to frank discussion with what he considered a kindred soul. Pilsudski calculated that, while Hitler’s well-publicized long-term goals were incompatible with an independent Polish state, in the short-term the German leader was likely to pursue pragmatic policies. Therefore, Hitler might be maneuvered into an agreement acceptable to Poland while Germany was weak, and Pilsudski would then do everything in his power to make sure this tactical arrangement was permanent.[17]

Rather than waiting on events, Pilsudski decided to probe his opponent to see if this analysis was correct. Fortunately, the citizens of Danzig provided a test laboratory. In February 1933, the Danzig Senate decided to turn control of the harbor police over to the German-dominated city police. Since its establishment in 1925, the harbor police force had been a multinational organization that included Poles among its members. The ruling to make the force completely German was a direct affront to Poland, and was greeted with enthusiasm by large, pro-Nazi crowds filling the Danzig streets. The demonstrations may not have been spontaneous, as Polish intelligence reported plans for a coup d’état by pro-German organizations, and Beck was understandably concerned that the League would be unable to secure the Free City under such circumstances.[18] This theory required no fantastic assumptions. During the first weeks of March, the Nazis seized power in the German states of Bavaria, Baden, Saxony, and Wurttemberg; Danzig seemed likely to be added to the list.[19] In other acts of provocation, the SA (Sturmabteilung) were conducting anti-Polish demonstrations in German towns adjacent to the Polish border, and on March 4, Hitler arranged to fly conspicuously over the Polish Corridor on his way to East Prussia.[20] Pilsudski was concerned about these developments, and decided to test German resolve, planning what Beck called “a new energetic move” and a “psychological test [of Hitler] which would have a preventive character.”[21] For maximum effect, the maneuver was to follow the March 5th Reichstag elections in Germany.

At dawn on March 6, 1933, the Polish transport ship Wilja landed on a tiny spit of land on the northern promontory of the Danzig harbor. This small strip, known as “Westerplatte,” was home to an eighty-two-man Polish garrison that guarded a small naval ammunition supply dump, as part of an agreement made with Danzig in 1921. The Wilja, which like the Wicher had not requested permission to enter the harbor, reinforced the small garrison with 120 additional Polish troops, claiming that since the harbor police were now German controlled, Poland needed more guards to assure that its munitions were secure. This was not necessarily a contrived emergency, as Polish intelligence reports indicated that pro-German factions in Danzig were planning an attack on the facility.

As expected, Danzig, Germany, and the international community were deeply offended by this move, but it soon became apparent that no one would send troops to challenge the Polish position. Having made his point, Pilsudski allowed the League to mediate an arrangement in which Danzig agreed to restore the harbor police to the old system in exchange for the withdrawal of the extra Polish troops. Pilsudski’s real objective was not to effect organizational changes in the Danzig police, but to let Hitler know he would not tolerate revisionism, no matter how slight, and to demonstrate to the West that Poland would pursue independent policies. As he surmised, Hitler was too preoccupied with events at home to intervene in the affair, and despite pleas from his advisors, declined even to comment on the incident.

Possibly as an additional means to discourage Hitler from exploiting the situation in Danzig, in early March 1933, rumors of a preventive war in which Poland would make a surprise attack on Germany became widely circulated. Adding credibility to the rumor, Polish troops had been assembled in the Polish Corridor, and while they were primarily a warning to Hitler to tone down Nazi revisionist agitation, many believed Poland was preparing to invade German territory. Pilsudski did not officially confirm the preventive war reports, but he did not deny them. Moreover, most experts acknowledged that Poland was in a position to carry out this threat if Pilsudski was so inclined. As Hitler knew, the Polish Army possessed over 250,000 highly trained and well-equipped soldiers. While in the process of secretly rearming, the German Army had no modern weapons such as airplanes, tanks, or armored cars, and according to the terms of the Versailles Treaty was limited to 100,000 men. In his memoirs, former chancellor of the Weimar Republic Heinrich Bruening recalled, “The fact that as soon as Hitler came to power, Marshal Pilsudski proposed to France joint preventive military action indicates how well-grounded our fears were.”[22]

Regardless of whether the rumor represented a legitimate threat or a ruse, Pilsudski used it as part of his strategy to stifle anti-Polish demonstrations in Danzig. The Marshal recognized that Germany was momentarily weak, and therefore could be maneuvered into an understanding with Poland. But there is evidence that Pilsudski was seriously considering military action against Germany. Official documentation is spotty due to the Marshal’s preference for secret and personal diplomacy, but in March 1933, Pilsudski dispatched Jerzy Potocki, his former aide de camp and soon-to-be ambassador to Italy, to Paris as his unofficial envoy. Potocki did not interact with the Polish embassy, but spoke directly with French prime minister Joseph Paul-Boncour, when he apparently explored the possibility of a Franco-Polish preventive war against Germany. At approximately the same time, Pilsudski sent another confidant, Colonel Boleslaw Wieniawa-Dlugoszowski, to Paris to sound out the French military’s views about this topic.[23]

Although documentary evidence is lacking, Pilsudski supposedly proposed that after arranging a suitable pretext, Poland would seize Danzig and key German territories in the east, while France would invade Germany from the west. A disgraced Hitler would be forced to resign and the new German chancellor would be required to pledge support to the Versailles Treaty. The objective of the military action was not to conquer Germany, as this was logistically impossible, but to thwart attempts to revise Polish borders and to prevent Germany from rearming.[24] It is perhaps no coincidence that the Westerplatte incident occurred at approximately the same time. The reinforcement of the Danzig garrison may have been designed as an opportunity for France, if she was so inclined, to exploit the incident and move against Germany. Beck alluded to this possibility when he told Polish diplomat Josef Lipski on the eve of the Westerplatte incident that “a determined attitude by Poland should be properly appreciated in Paris and London, rousing these countries to more energetic action in the face of the growing threat of Hitlerism.”[25] But the French did not respond positively to Pilsudski’s overtures, and the Germans did not react militarily to his provocations. Pilsudski’s supposed plan to strangle Nazism in its cradle never materialized. But it is interesting to speculate that if it had, Poland’s preemptive military action might have preserved the Versailles peace and the prevented the greatest mass murder in history.

While Pilsudski was thwarted in his alleged preventive war project, the situation became more volatile on March 18, 1933, when Mussolini, the senior fascist strongman at the time, proposed a “Four Power Pact” between Italy, France, Great Britain, and Germany. The pact was ostensibly to facilitate peacemaking efforts by the great powers by refusing to admit lesser nations to the ongoing Geneva Disarmament Conference, which was supposedly bogged down by the petty concerns of second-tier countries. As an aside, the Four Power Pact included a provision stipulating that “the four powers confirm the principle of the revisions of the [peace] treaties.” While not stated, it was implied that the revisions involved Germany’s right to recover her “lost” Polish lands.[26]

In 1933, Poland had only one friend among the four powers, France, and her commitment was questionable. Sensing a sellout by her ally, Poland immediately launched a public-relations campaign to discredit the Italian initiative, even briefly approaching Czechoslovakia in the name of common defense. While neither Warsaw nor Prague sought a military alliance, Pilsudski hoped to present a united diplomatic front with his neighbors, pointing out that Germany would not be satisfied by the Polish Corridor alone, and that eventually the “Little Entente” nations (Czechoslovakia, Rumania, Yugoslavia) would be in the cross-hairs.

The Four Power Pact may have served to rejuvenate Pilsudski’s preventive war plans. In mid-March, Beck told the French ambassador in Warsaw, Jules Laroche, that in the wake of this recent provocation, the German situation must be clarified “now rather than after two or three years of consolidation of the Hitlerite regime.” Beck further vowed to “make guns speak” if Polish territory was violated.[27] Pilsudski had informed French prime minister Daladier in February 1933, that Germany was rearming and needed to be confronted before the situation grew worse, but after the events in March, he seemed determined to pursue more concrete action. According to a report by pro-German British journalist Robert Edward Dell (who may have been “inspired by a Nazi source), in the third week of March, Pilsudski transmitted a message to French prime minister Daladier outlining how to justify an attack on Germany. According to the Polish interpretation, the German decree of February 22, setting up an auxiliary police force of 50,000 men, was a violation of the Versailles Treaty, and the League therefore had a right to investigate the situation. Any inspection was sure to confirm the fact that Germany was rearming beyond agreed upon limits, and if Germany inhibited the inspectors, the Nazi regime could be declared in violation of Article 213, an infraction which would justify armed intervention.[28]

Whatever he might have proposed, Pilsudski was aware that the French were annoyed by recent proposals at the ongoing Geneva Disarmament Conference that would have increased the size of the German Army, and he may have hoped to exploit this discontent as a means to initiate joint action against Hitler. But it was clear that France was unwilling to join Poland in an attack on Germany, especially if unsupported by Britain. Both Paris and London knew the Germans were in violation of the treaty, but neither was prepared to force the issue; they therefore preferred to remain officially ignorant of the obvious facts. In any case, the subject was apparently put on hold when Pilsudski fell gravely ill with influenza on March 24, and it was not until April 13 that he had recovered sufficiently to resume direction of Polish foreign policy.

One report suggests that in mid-April 1933, Pilsudski was prepared to use another incident to ignite a war, or at least obstruct the May election in Danzig, in which the National Socialists were expected to win a majority. According to an informant in the German Foreign Office, a group of Poles in Danzig was planning, ostensibly to protest pro-Nazi agitation, to occupy the Danzig Customs House on April 21. It was expected that the Nazi SA would react violently to this move, justifying an armed Polish response to restore order. With any luck, the incident could escalate into a preventive war to neutralize the Nazi threat. It may not be a coincidence that at about this time, a large portion of the 15,000-man Polish Border Defense Corps was repositioned from the Russian border to the Polish Corridor, near Danzig, and to the Suwalki district, directly south of the isolated German province of East Prussia. Polish Army units had assembled nearby in Wilno, celebrating the anniversary of Pilsudski’s April 19, 1919 liberation of the city, and could be readily available for action in either the Corridor or East Prussia.[29]

While the alleged Danzig plot lacks reliable documentary proof, and may even have been planted by Nazi agents to justify Grman military action, other evidence suggests that Pilsudski was preparing for war. On April 18, 1933, he dictated to his aide, Captain Mieczyslaw Lepecki, a draft of a decree to be signed by President Moscicki on forming a “Government of National Unity and Defense” in case of a war with Germany (most likely modeled on the government of National Unity formed in July 1920 during the Polish-Soviet War). While typing the decree, Lepecki asked Pilsudski if a war with Hitler was imminent, and the Marshal had cryptically replied, “Even if we attack him, it will also be a defense.”[30] At the same time, Pilsudski instructed the Polish minister in Berlin, Alfred Wysocki, to ask Hitler whether he would like to deny rumors of an impending German attack on Poland. If he did not, Poland would be forced to draw certain conclusions.[31]

It appears that Britain suspected Franco-Polish action against Germany, as on April 20, one day before the putative plot, Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald made a bold and perplexing statement, declaring that if France should assist Poland in a military adventure against Germany, the British would “reserve the right to take up an equally unfriendly attitude.”[32] This suggests that MacDonald believed a Polish preemptive strike was close at hand, and that the French were considering backing up the Poles in the event of hostilities. While there is no credible evidence to support the claim that the French were aware of or approved a Polish military strike, the threat of British diplomatic support for Germany squashed even the vaguest hope of such cooperation, and derailed any plans Pilsudski may have had.

Whatever the case may be, Foreign Minister Beck instructed the Polish minister in Berlin to arrange a meeting between Polish undersecretary of foreign affairs Count Jan Szembek and the Fuhrer to address Polish concerns. In late 1932, the newly appointed Szembek had served as Pilsudski’s personal envoy for unofficial “courtesy and information missions” to London and Paris. Szembek later wrote, “I was supposed to declare that relations between the two countries [Poland and Germany] were in a state of tension which could produce God knows what consequences if some reasonable modus vivendi could not be found[f3] .” Szembek further stated that Pilsudski was considering a preventive war, because he “saw that all the guarantees given to us…were becoming weak and rather illusory as a result of the weak and conciliatory policy of the allies towards the Reich. In consequence of the dangerous tension in our relations with the Germans, he began to look for a solution.”[33] In preparation for the meeting in Berlin, Szembek had been instructed by Pilsudski to tell Hitler that he must publicly announce that Germany would not violate Polish rights in Danzig and confirm peaceful intents towards the Polish people. Should he refuse, Poland was prepared to take extreme measures.[34]

However, Szembek never met with Hitler. The Polish minister in Berlin, Alfred Wysocki, doubted Hitler would meet privately with a Polish official due to strong anti-Polish sentiments in Germany. Wysocki was then instructed to arrange a personal meeting with Hitler, which took place on May 2, 1933. As instructed by Pilsudski, Wysocki limited his discussion to Danzig, which the Marshal called the barometer of Polish-German relations, and suggested that Hitler could assure the Polish people by declaring that “the Chancellor is against any action directed against Polish rights and legal interests in the Free City of Danzig.”[35]

Wysocki had thought Pilsudski’s instructions unrealistic, and could not imagine that any German chancellor, and particularly this one, would respond positively to such an affront. But Hitler, who was well aware of the war rumors, knew the Polish marshal was not reluctant to use force. The Fuhrer, who would later play this game masterfully against lesser opponents, could not be sure that Pilsudski would not launch a preemptive attack, and this uncertainty played to Poland’s advantage. While aware of the potential loss of face, Hitler was unprepared to risk his new regime for the sake of an innocuous communiqué. Shocking his advisors, on May 3 the press reported his statement that the German government would regulate its conduct “strictly within the limits of existing treaties.”[36] It can be reasonably assumed that this understanding, making it clear that Hitler would not attempt to seize Danzig, was Pilsudski’s objective, and that it was induced or expedited by the unofficial threat of Franco-Polish preventive war, not by Hitler’s sudden recognition of Polish rights.

To the amazement of Europe, Pilsudski and Hitler had stood toe-to-toe, and Hitler had blinked. Furthermore, thanks in part to Pilsudski’s efforts, the Four Power Pact, signed in the summer, was so diluted as to be inconsequential. Poland’s diplomatic stock, recently deflated by the harbor police incident, soared, as did Pilsudski’s prestige.



The most intriguing aspect of the affair was the rumors of a preemptive war against Nazi Germany. Actually, that there were rumors of a “preventive war” is an established fact. The question is whether Pilsudski had any intentions to initiate such a war, or whether it was entirely a bluff. Many historians believe the rumors were simply designed to frighten the Germans, making them less likely to pursue anti-Polish policies. Both the German and French ambassadors in Warsaw claim they were unaware of any special Polish preparations for war, and dismissed the rumors as jingoistic bluster.[37] But there are reasons to suspect that Pilsudski was prepared to launch an attack.[38][f4] 

The rumors of a preventive war were almost certainly surreptitiously circulated or encouraged by high-ranking members of the Polish government. Their major purpose seems to have been to encourage Hitler to reach an acceptable understanding with Poland (meaning adherence to existing treaties), or at minimum to direct his revisionist energies elsewhere. If the rumors failed to achieve their goal, or if he perceived a direct threat to Poland such as a German annexation of Danzig, it appears that Pilsudski was prepared to commit Polish troops to a preemptive attack on German territory, contingent on prearranged French support. According to some reports, Pilsudski would send Polish troops to occupy Danzig, East Prussia, and possibly Upper Silesia, while France would march through the Rhineland into the Ruhr.[39] The move would expose the weakness of the boisterous young Nazi regime, humiliate Hitler, and assure Poland’s access to the sea. The occupying troops would then refuse to evacuate German territory until the Reich made assurances to honor the peace treaty.[40][f5] 

The Rhineland was key for several reasons. It was widely believed that, in the event of a new war, the Germans would use the Rhineland to launch an attack on the low countries or France. It was primarily for this reason that, after WWI, the Allies had occupied the Rhineland. In addition, by securing the Rhine River, France would have access to the adjacent Ruhr, which contained important industrial facilities and an abundance of natural resources, including 80 percent of Germany’s coal. Without these critical resources, the Germans would be unable to conduct a protracted war. Conversely, if the Germans were allowed to build fortifications in this area, they could easily blunt the anemic offensive capabilities of Western nations. Germany fully appreciated the strategic value of the Rhineland, and throughout the 1920s lobbied to end the Allied occupation, claiming not only an affront to their national pride, but that black troops in the French occupational army were raping German women. In the face of these racially charged allegations, and assisted by an intense lobbying effort by British appeasers, in 1930 the Allies evacuated the Rhineland, five years ahead of schedule. As part of the agreement, Germany promised to keep the region demilitarized, but Pilsudski undoubtedly recognized this arrangement was temporary. It was only a matter of time before German forces secured this area as a first step towards restoring German military power. Therefore, an important element of the preventive war project was that, in conjunction with Poland’s attack in the east, France would invade the Rhineland and threaten the German interior. Germany would then be involved in a two-front war, a situation the German Army was in no way prepared to handle. After the war, France would reoccupy this region to make sure Germany would be incapable of military conquest. A demilitarized or foreign-occupied Rhineland was in effect a guarantee to Eastern Europe that if Germany attacked, she would become involved in an unwinnable war. France’s role as a deterrent was dependent on this strategic consideration, and it was a key element in Polish security.[41]

There are several reasons to believe that, given the appropriate circumstances, Pilsudski would have launched a preventive war. Based on his numerous comments about the probability of a future conflict, he recognized that diplomatic efforts were ultimately doomed to fail, and that the use of force eventually would be required to thwart German territorial ambitions. The ever-perceptive Clemenceau recognized this problem in 1919, when he warned that “[Germany] will sign the [Versailles] treaty with the intention of not complying with it, she will raise difficulties on one point or another, and if we have no means of imposing our will, everything will slip away bit by bit.”[42] The fundamental problem was that Germany did not recognize Poland’s borders as legitimate, while Poland believed these borders were crucial for her national existence. In rejecting the established order, Germany was immune to diplomacy, which is the art of restraining the exercise of power. But most Westerners did not understand Germany’s perspective, and were pursuing a different policy goal than Poland. Western diplomats were most interested in peace, meaning the avoidance of war, and with the memory of the Great War fresh on their minds, were willing to obtain this goal at virtually all costs. According to this interpretation, Pilsudski’s foreign policy was seeking security and legitimacy, which might necessitate the use of force.[43] He knew that Germany was bent on regaining her lost Polish lands, and was pursuing what appeared to be peaceful policies as a means of advancing her revisionist agenda only because she lacked, for the time being, the military means to accomplish these goals. Ultimately, the Germans could be denied Polish territory only by force. It was therefore logical to conclude that Poland might have to confront Germany at some time in the future, quite possibly alone given the international situation. Obviously, it would be better for this conflict to occur while German forces were weak. Despite mischaracterizations, Pilsudski was not opposed to peaceful resolutions; he just doubted they were possible in this case, and viewed an attack on Germany as a justifiable defense of the Polish state.

The best time for such an attack, as subsequent events would prove, was undoubtedly 1933. At that time, Poland’s military capabilities exceeded those of Germany’s. Only three of Germany’s ten divisions (the maximum allowed by Versailles), were positioned on the Polish border, and many of these troops were undersupplied. The Polish Army had positioned fifteen divisions (half of their entire force) to oppose them, giving the Poles a five-to-one advantage. While other German-associated troops may have become involved (SA or various police forces), they were neither properly trained nor equipped. Hitler would later conclude that France would not intervene militarily in border disputes, but in 1933 he could not be sure, and was therefore likely to keep some troops stationed in the west to prevent an attack on the Rhineland and Ruhr. Even if he stripped his western defenses leaving Germany open to French invasion, Polish troops still held a significant advantage. Many military experts, including those in Germany, thought it unlikely the Wehrmacht would be able to regain East Prussia after its occupation by Polish troops. The German defense minister, General Wilhelm Groener, remarked that in the event of a conflict with Poland, the “German Army would have to withdraw to the Oder” and would be unable to conduct offensive operations.[44] Pilsudski was well aware of Poland’s military capabilities, and could have reasonably concluded that Germany could not prevent or reverse a Polish invasion of East Prussia. Given his record of battlefield maneuvers, it is not difficult to imagine that the Marshal would conceive of a bold Napoleonic move to cripple his opponents before they gathered strength.

Pilsudski had done much to secure Poland’s military advantage, having overseen a dramatic modernization of the armed forces. Unlike 1939, in 1933 Poles possessed state-of-the-art armored and air forces. At the time of the preventive war rumors, Poland boasted the third largest army in Europe, led by experienced officers commanding well-trained troops.[45] Perhaps most importantly in the Marshal’s mind, these forces could be directed and inspired by the one man capable of adapting to changing circumstances—himself. In his book, The Year 1920, he stated “on each occasion that I took the direction of events into my hands, I gained victories which were momentous in the history of war.”[46] One must not underestimate Pilsudski’s firm conviction that whenever he personally led men into battle, they were victorious. Indeed, his long fight to keep the army independent of civilian control was largely motivated by his belief that Poland would eventually fight a war against Germany or Russia, and that he must be in a position to assume total command. True, he was in poor health, but this would have made the decision to fight now more pressing.

While the Polish Army was numerically and technically superior to the German Army, Pilsudski knew this situation would not last, and had expressed concern that the Germans were rapidly rearming. Because of the Germans’ vast industrial base and weakening Western resolve, in the absence of decisive action Germany was sure to reemerge as a great military power. He was also well aware that the international community would react strongly to preemptive action, and that Poland could expect to be diplomatically isolated, subject to economic sanctions, and condemned as disruptive to the peace. Yet under somewhat similar circumstances in 1920, Pilsudski launched what could be considered a preventive war against the Soviets. He attacked the Red Army because intelligence reports told him that, despite public statements to the contrary, Lenin was intent on invading Poland, and that Russia would soon be in a position to do so with impunity. Although the 1920 threat from Russia was more immediate and certain, it shared similarities with the situation in 1933.

In addition to the events of 1920, Pilsudski had a history of ordering or threatening preemptive strikes. In 1914, he sent the First Cadre Company into Russian territory (in his mind Poland) before a declaration of war. In the summer of 1927, he used the threat of military intervention to back down Stalin after the murder of Soviet minister Voikov in Warsaw. While many believe that the 1927 threat was a ruse, Stalin did not. The threat of war made to Lithuanian premier Voldemaras in late 1927 was almost certainly genuine, and had the desired effect. In 1929, Pilsudski told Prime Minister Switalski that if the Western powers entered into a political agreement with Germany concerning Polish territory, “he would proclaim when necessary that if anyone tries to tamper with our borders, he will declare a defensive war and announce the intention to destroy foreign territory.”[47] In 1931, Pilsudski sent an explicit message to President Hoover, who was considering mediating territorial adjustments in the Polish Corridor, stating that “revision means war” and warning that further German provocations might result in a preemptive Polish attack. Moreover, as Pilsudski was partially directing these comments to France, he was possibly contemplating this action without French support. The list of astute statesmen who learned or believed that Pilsudski would back up his threats with a preemptive military strike include Lenin, Stalin, Voldemaras, Hoover, Laval, and Hitler.

By his actions, Pilsudski undoubtedly believed that effective foreign policy hinged on the credible use of force, meaning that under certain conditions he would order military action, and that his opponents believed he would do so without hesitation. He was aware of the pernicious effects of false ultimatums, as well as the dark side of war. But the Marshal knew that most of his signature accomplishments had been achieved by force. Poland was free and had established her borders not primarily by diplomacy, but by war.

Pilsudski’s psychological profile also suggests he would be willing to launch a preemptive strike. He was an enthusiastic practitioner of the fait accompli; predisposed to ask forgiveness, however disingenuous, rather than permission. He was neither afraid to use force nor prone to issuing empty threats. Particularly if Polish independence was at stake, Pilsudski did not hesitate to make unpopular or distasteful decisions, and he was inclined to consider military options, as he was first and foremost a military man. Finally, the preventive war strategy was more in line with Pilsudski’s aggressive temperament; he was a man who, when threatened, was more likely to charge than assume a defensive posture.[48][f6] 

As evidenced by his actions in Danzig, Pilsudski was willing to risk military confrontation with German-affiliated forces. In June 1932, he was fully prepared for the Polish destroyer Wicher to fire upon Danzig. While Danzig was technically a “Free City” under the protection of the League of Nations, it was dominated by ethnic Germans whose vocal anti-Polish sentiments were supported and encouraged by the German government. If shots had been fired, it is not difficult to believe that this might have led to a military confrontation with Germany. In March 1933, Pilsudski ordered troops into Danzig Harbor (Westerplatte), and he could not have been surprised if this action provoked a military response. While the primary objective of both incidents was to demonstrate Poland’s determination to defend her rights, Pilsudski was creating situations in which a shooting war might erupt. He was far too savvy a military man not to plan for this contingency. The Wicher and Wilja incidents may well have been designed, in part, to provoke an unprepared Germany into war, or at least test their readiness for war, and under certain circumstances Pilsudski did not seem hesitant to test his opponent’s resolve.

The main problem with Pilsudski’s plans for a preventive war was the requirement of securing French support. Although in 1933 Polish forces were fully capable of seizing Danzig and East Prussia, and could likely have fended off a German expeditionary force, Poland was in no position to win a long-term confrontation with Germany. The relatively unobstructed Polish borders would be difficult to defend indefinitely, and the Germans possessed a vastly superior industrial base and a much larger population. But France maintained the largest, best equipped, and most modern army in Europe, and with their help the preventive war could be concluded quickly and decisively. In addition, Poland needed diplomatic support from France. If Polish forces unilaterally attacked German territories, Poland would be internationally isolated, and perhaps even at risk of intervention by the League, as Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald had intimated that Britain might favor Germany in an unprovoked war with Poland. Therefore, France’s substantial if waning influence in international forums, including its veto power at the League of Nations, was crucial for Pilsudski’s plan. The fact that he made numerous attempts to gain French approval indicates not only that he required France’s military backing, but that he was prepared to initiate a war if it had been received. It is unlikely he would have made such an effort unless he intended to act.

Unfortunately for Pilsudski’s plans, the French rejected the idea, most likely because they were not prepared to alienate Britain. In retrospect, this makes little sense. The idea that British assistance was a key element in French security may have been valid immediately after the war, but by the early 1930s, Britain had rapidly, unilaterally, and thoroughly disarmed, making its value as an ally questionable. In addition, in open opposition to French policy, British statesman had embraced a de facto Anglo-German drive to dismantle the Versailles Treaty, and hence French security. Yet France was convinced that she was unable to win a bilateral war with Germany, and had little faith in the military capabilities of her eastern allies. French planners believed the next conflict would be another war of attrition, and that the use of British naval power to blockade Germany and to deliver troops and supplies from other continents would be crucial. In addition, the French believed they needed British economic assistance to prepare their economy for the next war. Therefore, France continued to make concessions that directly threatened her security to avoid losing the equivocal, weak, and uncommitted British “guarantee.”

But even if France had agreed to support the preventive war, there were good reasons to doubt their commitment. The French had begun construction of the Maginot Line (named for the then minister of war) in 1929. This massive system of fortifications, as well as public comments by French military experts, made it clear that France was committed to a static defense. In addition, a significant French mobile force capable of providing timely assistance to Poland, like that envisioned by the young General de Gaulle[f7] , simply did not exist. While the French were obligated to supply Poland with armaments, they had been slow to honor this commitment, and given the struggling state of the French economy, it was unlikely that significant shipments would be forthcoming. Given all these factors, Pilsudski could not count on timely French support. Although not tested in his lifetime, this analysis would have proved correct. When the Germans remilitarized the Rhineland in 1936, France sent not troops to Germany, but an ineffective letter of protest to the League. Even when Germany attacked Poland in 1939, France did not declare war until Britain did, and during the subsequent period of the “phony war” made no concrete efforts to save Poland while Nazi and Soviet invaders ravaged her. Although the uncertainties surrounding the French alliance weighed heavily on his mind, Pilsudski knew there was simply no better option, and even if French military assistance proved minimal, her prestige, and League veto power, might prove helpful.

Another international consideration was Russia. Acutely aware of Polish history, Pilsudski had to take into account the possibility of German-Russian cooperation. Indeed, he saw it as a catastrophe for Poland. But Poland had just signed a non-aggression treaty with Russia, and while Pilsudski knew that Stalin ultimately considered any treaty a mere scrap of paper, Russo-Polish relations were at a high point. At the time, the Soviets were concerned about a Japanese threat, and hence were unlikely to participate in unnecessary fighting in Europe. The Treaties of Rapallo and Berlin were distant memories, as Hitler had made it clear he was viscerally opposed to communist Russia, and was in the process of suspending the joint Russia-German military training missions. As a sign that Stalin was concerned about developments in Nazi Germany, the Soviets were the early stages of a rapprochement with France. The situation was fundamentally different than in 1939; the possibility that Russia would join Germany in a war against Poland in 1933 was minimal.

Actual evidence that Pilsudski seriously contemplated a preemptive war against Hitler is admittedly scant. Most statesmen in Poland and France who in a normal diplomatic setting would have been aware of discussions concerning Pilsudski’s preventive war plan insist they were never informed. But Pilsudski’s reputation as a conspirator was well deserved. He showed a preference for secret negotiations, and would not discuss foreign policy even at cabinet meetings. Most likely, the only persons in Poland who would know with certainty whether war plans were genuine were Pilsudski and Beck. In his memoirs, Beck stated, “As the Marshal said to me, he had thoroughly examined the pros and cons, and all the chances of a preventative war, before taking the decision to negotiate with Germany…In the military sphere, the Marshal calculated that the weakest point of our armed forces was the higher command. The weakness of our eventual allies in that period made us abandon the idea of a preventative war.”[49] The last sentence is the most crucial. Beck mentions that the idea of a preventive war was abandoned, which implies that it was at some point adopted, or at least seriously considered. Beck also notes “the weakness of our eventual allies.” This implies that Pilsudski had not yet secured French support for a preventive war, but assumed that even if he had, it may not have been of much value.

Perhaps the most concrete evidence that Pilsudski was planning to initiate a war is that on April 18, 1933 (two days before Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald’s statement and three days before the rumored Danzig plot) he dictated a secret draft decree forming a government of national unity in case of a war with Germany. If the preventive war rumor was solely a bluff, there would have been little need for such a decree, and even less to keep it secret. Of course, this may have been simply a prudent precaution in light of heightened tensions.

In 1933, Poland was temporarily in a position to restrain German revisionism by military means. It is the author’s contention that while he was willing to employ diplomatic means to assure this goal, Pilsudski was prepared to launch a preventive war that would settle the matter in a more definitive fashion. While other factors were in play, the main determinant to abandon war plans was French reluctance (which was, in turn, mainly due to the lack of British support). Although purposely exaggerated, the rumor of a preventive war was not, in this interpretation, strictly a ruse. Based on his history, character, and the international situation, Pilsudski was prepared to use some level of preemptive force to achieve his policy goal. But because Hitler agreed to conduct relations with Poland on the basis of existing treaties before any hostilities were required, and because France refused to cooperate, it will never be known if Pilsudski would have ordered an attack on German territory in 1933.

Interestingly, Hitler believed a preventive war against Germany would have been a prudent policy for his opponents. On February 3, 1933, he told his generals that the early phase of rearmament was a dangerous time for Germany, and that “if France has capable statesmen, it will attack us during the period of [our preparations], not itself, but probably through its vassals in the east.”[50] This comment helps explain Hitler’s uncharacteristic commitment to peace in 1933, a policy which perplexed his supporters and detractors alike. Although he had openly stated his goals in Mein Kampf, many contemporary observers did not recognize that his plans were exponentially more sinister than his predecessors’ in the German government. Hitler did not just seek the reestablishment of the 1914 borders, but rather a vast eastern empire, purged of “inferior” Slavic peoples, to provide “living space” (Lebensraum) for the German people. In the short-term, while rebuilding the German Army, he was willing to forego limited revisionism to facilitate his long-term goal of continental conquest.




While Polish-German tensions were reduced after Hitler’s conciliatory statements in early May 1933, the international situation deteriorated. As Pilsudski expected, and despite statements to the contrary, Hitler continued to steadily dismantle the Versailles Treaty. On October 14, 1933, “der Fuhrer” withdrew from the League of Nations and the Geneva Disarmament Conference and began to openly rearm. While Pilsudski had reservations about the effectiveness of the League, he believed it provided some minimal restraints on Germany’s actions, and hence was concerned that the German departure weakened collective security. The Marshal responded by ordering army maneuvers, and after conferring with Beck and chief of staff General Janusz Gasiorowski, demanded a detailed analysis of German military capabilities. The French embassy in Warsaw reported these preparations to Paris, and asked that military staffs of both countries cooperate in this effort “insofar as possible.”[51]

Pilsudski appeared to be seriously reconsidering his military options. In another attempt to gage French resolve, he sent retired Polish Army reserve officer Ludwig Morstin to Paris to meet with General Weygand, the chief of the French General Staff. Morstin, by then a well-known writer and poet, had been Weygand’s Polish liaison officer in 1920 during the Polish-Soviet War, and the two had remained friends.[52] Pilsudski asked Morstin to put two questions to Weygand: if Germany attacked Poland along its borders, would France react by ordering a general mobilization, and would France then place all of her available forces on the German frontier?[53] According to some reports, the first question was posed in a way to suggest that Poland might provoke the German attack in order to initiate a preventive war. After consulting with the French government, Weygand replied that the answer in both cases was no. Under the described circumstances, France would only supply Poland with military equipment and moral support, an answer insufficient for Pilsudski’s plans.[54]

Pilsudski was an astute observer of human nature, and likely knew the French would refuse his offer. But by posing the questions, he exposed France’s lack of commitment to overt collaboration and simultaneously reinforced his image as a man of action, making any future independent policies by Poland (including bilateral agreements with Germany and Russia) justifiable in light of weakened French resolve. The French response gave him, if not a helping hand, a free hand to pursue regional security.

Weeks before the announcement that Germany would withdraw from the League, Beck had met with Joseph Goebbels, the Reich propaganda minister, and proposed negotiating directly over issues of mutual concern. Partially as a result of this conversation, in late October 1933, Pilsudski arranged for Polish diplomat and soon-to-be ambassador to Nazi Germany, Jozef Lipski, to meet with Hitler.[55] At the November 15 meeting, Lipski, following Pilsudski’s instructions, pointed out that Germany’s recent actions seemed to indicate a more aggressive stance, and that Poland might have to consider reciprocal actions. Although Lipski did not mention the possibility of war, German newspapers widely reported Poland’s supposed plans for an imminent attack, and Polish officials made no serious efforts to dispel the rumor. With this veiled threat in the background, Lipski stated that although Pilsudski was interested in pursuing friendly relations with Germany, he would like some show of good faith to compensate for this perceived reduction in regional security.

Hitler responded respectfully, reiterating his desire to keep the peace. Although making no specific commitment, he lauded the Polish marshal as “a great personality” and implied that he would consider accommodating him with a future offer.[56] Pilsudski did not have to wait long. On November 27, the German minister to Poland, Hans von Moltke, handed Pilsudski a draft outlining a “Declaration of Non-aggression and Understanding between Germany and Poland.”

Although intrigued by the offer, Pilsudski had apparently not yet abandoned his preventive war plans. The day after being handed the draft agreement, Pilsudski approached the French military attaché to Poland, General Charles d’Arbonneau, and asked him “military to military…what France really wants. The future talks between Poland and Germany depend on what the answer is.”[57] Again the French made no indication they would support military action against Germany. Pilsudski made a final attempt in January 1934, directing Beck to tell French prime minister Joseph Paul-Boncour that Poland would not sign the German understanding if France “would take a strong line in regard to Germany.” When this last effort failed, Pilsudski decided to pursue the agreement. In his memoirs, Foreign Minister Beck noted, “Having verified that there existed a possibility of concluding a non-aggression pact which would give us at least a respite for living and working quietly and normally, it was with a sense of relief that we agreed to sign the pact.”[58][f8] 

After making a few amendments that acknowledged Poland’s prior treaties, Pilsudski approved of the German plan, and Berlin quickly accepted the revisions. Hitler recognized that Poland was one the few countries willing and able to disrupt his rearmament plans, so he was willing to offer generous, if disingenuous, declarations to neutralize this threat. On January 26, 1934, the document was signed in Berlin. The Polish-German Declaration of Non-Aggression recognized both parties’ existing treaties and forbade the use of force to settle disputes between Poland and Germany, in theory ushering in a new era of détente between the ancient foes. It is important to note that, on German insistence, the agreement was not a treaty or pact, as there was no mention of commitments to territorial boundaries, and Germany wanted to make sure that no such terms were implied. The Germans did not consider the Polish state legitimate, because according to their interpretation Poland’s borders were invalid. Despite this technicality, the agreement was well received. The following month both parliaments ratified the declaration, which theoretically would be in force for ten years.

On January 30, 1934, Hitler gave a speech, interesting in light of future events, to the Reichstag praising the new arrangement:


The Reich Government has made efforts since its first year to arrive at new and better relations with the state of Poland. When I took power in Germany, I had the impression that relations were far from satisfactory. Divergences existed which had arisen out of the territorial clauses of the Treaty of Versailles…and there was a danger of seeing such hostility…transformed into hereditary hatred. Germans and Poles must reconcile themselves to the fact of each other’s existence. A thousand years of history have not been able to eliminate this state of things, and it will go on existing after us.[59]


He went on to pledge “to organize economic relations with Poland of such a nature as to ensure that a period of sterile abstention shall be followed by an epoch of fruitful collaboration.”[60] This reversal of anti-Polish attitudes by the most virulent German nationalist was astounding, but was not solely attributable to Pilsudski’s negotiating prowess. Hitler’s aim in aligning with Poland was to weaken the Franco-Polish alliance, disrupt plans for an anti-German alliance by Eastern European states, and partially lift the diplomatic isolation of Nazi Germany. Most importantly, by appeasing the one country willing to fight him when Germany was weak, he would buy time to rearm.[61]

The French expressed shock that Poland would conduct these negotiations without consultation with her senior partner. They should not have been surprised. In a way, the 1934 understanding was, for Poland, the logical consequence of Locarno. After 1925 it became increasingly obvious that Poland could not count on France, much less other Western powers, and therefore was forced to take matters into her own hands.

Pilsudski did not overestimate the value of the understanding, which was after all merely an expression of goodwill. But the agreement with Germany was another foreign policy success. It demonstrated Poland’s newly independent policies, making France and Poland more equal partners in the Eastern Europe security system. It was also a triumph for the policy of balance, as Poland now had similar understandings with both of her traditional enemies, creating a neutral buffer zone in Eastern Europe. Above all, the agreement bought Poland time. Pilsudski explained to his wife that “every day when we are not at war is a day gained [to make the necessary preparations to defend Poland].[62] He had made this point as early as 1931, when he informed American chief of staff General Douglas MacArthur, who was conducting a tour of Eastern European armies, that with respect to Germany he was “playing for time.”[63] After the agreement was signed, Pilsudski told Polish government officials that he could not guarantee peace for more than four years, but that it had created breathing space while Germany turned her attention to other neighbors. A contemporary anecdote had Pilsudski state that the agreement removed Poland from hors d’oeuvres to desert on the German revisionist menu.[64]

Pilsudski’s critics claimed that the 1934 agreement with Nazi Germany scuttled any hope for a system of collective security in East-Central Europe[f9] , abandoning countries like Czechoslovakia, Austria, and eventually Poland to their fates. In truth, Pilsudski had made attempts to organize a system of collective defense, but had been repeatedly rebuffed. In September 1927, he had even proposed a European-wide non-aggression pact to the League of Nations, but the plan had been rejected by the major powers.[65] His decision in 1934 was the final blow to his cherished federalization plan, which had been dormant for over a decade, not because of his lack of foresight, but due to the recalcitrance of his neighbors.

To demonstrate their commitment to the agreement, the Germans arranged for a number of high-profile trips to Warsaw. Joseph Goebbels visited the capital in June 1934, and the Germans even arrested and returned to Poland a Ukrainian terrorist who had assassinated a Polish government official. In January 1935, Hermann Goering visited Poland on a hunting trip and unofficially offered Pilsudski a secret anti-Russian alliance.[66] Goering recalled that the Marshal quickly dismissed the offer with a “stiffened gesture,” and explained that Poland was determined to conduct moderate policies toward its neighbors and had no wish to increase tensions.[67] For the moment, Pilsudski was content to pursue his “doctrine of two enemies,” in which he would adhere to relatively friendly relations between Germany and Russia, but would refuse to ally with either.[68]

Shrugging off the refusal to join forces against Soviet Russia, in a May 1935 speech Hitler exclaimed, “We recognize with the understanding and the heartfelt friendship of true Nationalists, the Polish State as the home of a great, nationally conscious people.”[69] Later that year, Poland and Germany concluded a joint trade agreement, granting Poland status as a most-favored nation, the capstone of the new understanding between old enemies.

The Polish-German non-aggression “understanding” caught the Soviets completely off guard, and Stalin expressed concern that Germany and Poland were united in an anti-communist pact. In an effort to assuage this fear, Beck made a special point of paying a state visit to Moscow soon after the German agreement was signed, and enjoyed such new prestige that he became the first European foreign minister to be formally received in the Russian capital. In July, the Polish-Soviet non-aggression pact was extended to ten years to balance the Polish-German agreement, giving Poland, at least in theory, a decade of assured peace.

While Pilsudski was pleased with the agreements, he knew they were valid only as long as the precarious balance could be maintained. Convinced that German-Russian rapprochement was the major threat to Polish independence, he remarked, “Having these two pacts, we are straddling two stools. This cannot last long. We have to know from which stool we will tumble first and when that will be.”[70] Presaging the 1939 German-Soviet non-aggression pact, he commented during a 1933 discussion with his staff:


It is Germany’s dream to achieve cooperation with Russia, as it was in the times of Bismarck. The achievement of such cooperation would be our downfall…How to work against it? Depending on the circumstances, either by frightening the weaker one or by a relaxation of tensions. The game will be difficult, given the paralysis of will and shortsightedness of the West and the failure of my federative plans.[71]


Pilsudski feared that no matter what policy he pursued, Poland was vulnerable to attack from her old enemies, particularly after he was no longer there to save her. He credited himself with “the gift of invention,” the ability to quickly devise new strategies in light of rapidly changing situations, and feared that no other Polish military officer possessed this talent.[72] In 1933, he stunned his daughter Wanda by telling her while they were relaxing in Sulejowek, “Within ten years you will have war. I shall be gone by then and you will lose that war.”[73]

While Poland had worked out non-aggression agreements with Germany and Russia, there were other major developments among power players in Europe. France and Russia, concerned over a resurgent Germany, began contemplating a more comprehensive understanding. Superficially, a Franco-Soviet alliance seemed unlikely. For the majority of the postwar years, France had been the prime defender of the Versailles Treaty, while the Soviets denounced it as a capitalist plot. Russia had been happy to cheer on the revisionist block at international conferences, and in 1922, in defiance of the Western powers, had formed a united front with Germany at Rapallo. In 1926, Stalin had even allowed German officers to set up secret training facilities for aviation, tanks, and gas weaponry on Russian soil.

But soon after assuming power, Hitler began to reshape foreign policy. He suspended the secret German-Soviet military mission in the fall of 1933, and communist propaganda against capitalist powers became less violent. Stalin recognized that France was the largest military force opposing Germany, and suddenly saw new virtue in his capitalist continental neighbor. The French system of eastern alliances was in disarray, and France was seeking some way to fill this security void. While immediately after the war, dissatisfaction over Russia’s separate peace, Marxism, and canceled debts had prevented a rapprochement with the Soviets, by the early 1930s other considerations had taken priority. Just as republican France and czarist Russia, driven by fear of a strong Germany, formed an unlikely partnership in the 1890s, so capitalist France and communist Russia were drawn to each other after Hitler came to power in 1933.

In the spring of 1934, French foreign minister Louis Barthou hoped to link France’s new relationship with Russia to a more robust system of alliances in Eastern Europe, a system theoretically involving Poland, Czechoslovakia, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Germany, and the Soviet Union. The French premier was making the diplomatic rounds to promote this “eastern pact,” and had scheduled a trip to Warsaw.[74] Pilsudski made it known that he had no interest in the new arrangement, claiming it would disrupt his policy of balance between Germany and Russia. He was convinced that Germany would reject the pact out of hand (this interpretation proved correct), but that even if the new system could be formed, it would be undesirable, as it would relegate Poland to a secondary role in Eastern Europe, Lastly, Pilsudski had little faith in multilateral agreements, preferring bilateral understandings as they were less complicated and more within his control.

On April 22, 1934, Barthou visited the Belvedere Palace, but recognizing that Pilsudski was adamantly opposed to the projected eastern pact, [f10] he decided to concentrate on other issues. Meeting with Pilsudski, the French ambassador, and Beck, Barthou tried to impress the Poles with a new get-tough attitude toward Germany, at one point exclaiming, “The Germans must feel that we will not yield one step more.” Pilsudski, who perhaps knew France better than the new French foreign minister, calmly replied, “You will yield, gentlemen. You will yield. You would not be what you are if you did not.” Perplexed and somewhat angered, Barthou shot back, “Marshal, how can you suspect us of such a thing?” Pilsudski responded, “Maybe you yourself will not wish to yield, but then either you would withdraw from the Cabinet or you would be outvoted.”[75]

After dismissing the notion that France would stand up to Germany, he then admonished the foreign minister for not fully honoring treaty obligations to provide armaments to Poland.[76] Barthou had hoped to use his new anti-German resolve to convince Pilsudski that revisions to the 1921 Franco-Polish alliance would be beneficial to Poland, but by now he was completed thrown off-message. He could only weakly reply that he would send the French military attaché in Rumania to Warsaw to discuss the issue.[77] After these brief unpleasantries, Pilsudski reverted to his more congenial persona. He reassured Barthou that Poland was committed to the French alliance, and that there were no secret provisions in the German-Polish understanding.[78] Although disappointed in the results, the French statesman was impressed with Pilsudski’s performance, commenting that the Marshal appeared “neither aged nor tired,” that his memory was “impeccable and his intelligence very lucid,” and that he expressed his opinions with a “good deal of force and logic.”[79] While unaware of the details of the discussions, the Manchester Guardian captured their spirit when later in the week it reported that “Poland remains the ally of France, but she has reached her majority, and she intends to show that she is no man’s ward.”[80]

After securing agreements with the major continental powers, Pilsudski decided to address the galling issue of the Minorities Treaty, which the Allies had forced Poland and other Eastern European states to sign in 1919 as part of the price for independence. This agreement put the onus almost completely on ethnic Poles in matters involving minorities, and allowed the aggrieved parties to besiege the League of Nations with mostly unsubstantiated complaints. While there were some cases of discrimination in the Second Republic, Poland was still one of the most tolerant societies in Eastern Europe, and some of the oppression stemmed from the legitimate fear that certain minorities were inclined to support external enemies, and hence were a threat to Polish sovereignty. In fact, other nations often abused their minorities in a far more flagrant fashion than Poland (especially the deliberate starvation of millions of Ukrainians on Stalin’s orders), but because they were not new states, they were free to pursue their internal polices without interference.

On September 13, 1934, Beck announced before the League of Nations in Geneva that “pending the introduction of a general and uniform system for the protection of minorities, my government is compelled to refuse, as from today, all cooperation with the international organizations in the matter of supervision of the application by Poland of the system of minority protection.”[81] While Pilsudski correctly surmised that the League would do nothing concrete about Poland’s declaration, the precedent of unilaterally abrogating a component of the Versailles Treaty would make it difficult to complain about Germany’s subsequent actions.

From Pilsudski’s perspective, his foreign policy achievements were entirely satisfactory. By employing a new independent, muscular diplomacy, he had achieved a détente with Germany and Russia, preserved the alliance with France, demonstrated Poland’s ability to protect its rights, and freed her from the most noxious aspect of the Versailles Treaty. Well aware that Poland’s enemies were gaining strength, he planned to use the breathing space he had created to build up his own forces. As Beck noted, “it was obvious that whether people liked our system or not, it was regarded in the world with general respect.”[82]

[1]     The only exception was Joseph Beck, who became foreign minister in 1932.

[2]     Kagan, Origins of War, 304. If the French had made a similar refusal after the Franco-Prussian War, Germany would have almost certainly continued military occupation to assure compliance. 

[3] See Schuker, The End of Versailles, 42-43. In Martel, ed., Origins of the Second World War.

[4]     Steiner, The Lights that Failed, 518.

[5]     Wandycz, Twilight of Eastern Alliances, 392.

[6]     Pease, Poland, the United States, and the Stabilization of Europe, 134.

[7]     Watt, Bitter Glory, 307. See also Documents on Polish-Soviet Relations 1939-1945, edited by Stanislaw Bieganski et al., (General Sikorski Institute, London, 1961), v I, doc. 6, 14-6.

[8]     Ibid., 308.

[9]     Piłsudska, Pilsudski: A Biography, 308.

[10]    Ibid., 326.

[11]    Pease, Poland, the United States,and the Stabilization of Europe,144–46. Undersecretary of State William Castle concluded that basic differences between Germans and Poles rendered “any solution of the political question of the eastern frontier of Germany…almost impossible short of war.”

[12]    Indicating that he was respected in some French circles, in 1923 Beck received the Legion of Honor, personally awarded by Marshal Foch. Beck had been previously decorated for bravery by the Austrian government for his heroics at the 1916 Battle of Kostiuchnowka.

[13]    Steiner, The Lights that Failed, 685.The conference was held in Lausanne.

[14]    Jędrzejewicz, A Life for Poland, 308. Technically, the treaty which gave Poland the right to greet foreign vessels at Danzig had expired earlier in 1932. The captain of the Wicher had been ordered to exchange customary visits with the commander of the British ships at sea, but to follow the Brrtsh shps if they went into the port.

[15]    Watt, Bitter Glory, 312–13.

[16]    Machray, Poland of Pilsudski, 315. After the report, Beck told the Sejm that “boundaries were not changed by words.” Hitler did not press the issue, but rather claimed he had been misquoted.

[17]    Sarah Steiner writes that as early as 1930, after significant Nazi electoral gains, Pilsudski sent out feelers to Hitler to determine if future agreements concerning resolution of differences between Poland and Germany might be possible. Steiner, The Lights that Failed, 528

[18]    Crockett, Polish Blitz, 564.

[19]    Weinberg, Hitler’s Foreign Policy, 51.

[20]    Steiner, The Lights that Failed, 318.

[21]    Watt, Bitter Glory, 315.

[22]    Stachura, Poland, 1918–1945, 121.

[23]    Ibid., 270-71. Wieniawa-Dlugoszowski was designated  president of Poland on September 17, 1939, the day of the Soviet invasion. Prof. Wandycz writes that only Polish views on the disarmament conference were discussed. See Twilght, 269-73.

[24]    Watt, Bitter Glory, 321-23. French statesmen reacted to rumors of preventive war by advising the Poles against such action. See Wandycz, Twilight, 274.

[25]    Crockett,. Polish Blitz, 566. Citing Diplomat in Berlin. 1933-1939.Papers and Memoirs of Jozef LIpski, Ambassador of Poland, New York, London, 1968, 53.

[26]    Watt, Bitter Glory 316–17. Mussolini hoped that if Hitler gained some of the “lost” Polish lands, primarily the Polish Corridor, he would suspend his efforts to annex Austria, which the Italians feared would disrupt the balance of power in Europe. Above all else, he wanted to recover Italian territory lost to Yugoslavia. See Wandycz, Twilight, 274.

[27]    Wandycz, Twilight of French Eastern Alliances, 268.

[28]    Crockett, Polish Blitz, 566-7.

[29] Ibid., 569-70.

[30]    Ibid., 570.

[31] Prof. Anna Cienciala cites Waclaw Jedrzejewicz, ed., Kronika  Zycia Jozefa Pilsudskiego 1867-1935, (The Chronicle of the LIfe of Jozef  Pilsudski) v. II, 1921-1935 (Polska Fundacja Kulturalna,London, 1977), 44.

[32]    Crockett, Polish Blitz, 570.

[33]    Ibid., 565-7.

[34]    For the German account of the Hitler-Wysocki conversation and the text of the commumique, see Documents on German Foreign Policy, ser. C, v.I, London, Washington, 1957, doc. 201; see also Watt, Bitter Glory, 319.

[35] Watt, Bitter Glory, 319.

[36]    Ibid., 320. Passions were further cooled when Hitler made a “peace speech” on May 17, in which he declared his earnest desire to avoid war.

[37]    Scott, Alliance against Hitler, 87.

[38]    Davies, God’s Playground II, 311. Davies states that “there is plenty of evidence to suggest that Pilsudski seriously considered a preventive war against Hitler, if only western powers had shown willingness.” It is the author’s (Hetherington) contention that Pilsudski would have used unilateral force against Germany if Polish lands were violated by pro-German forces, or if Danzig had been seized by the Nazis.

[39]    This plan was first discussed by Marshals Pilsudski and Foch in May, 1923 in the context of implementing the Franco-Polish military agreement. Pilsudski told the Frenchman that success in a future war with Germany could not be achieved by a static defense, but only by a Franco-Polish offensive involving large, mobile forces by which Poland would liquidate the German salients in East Prussia and Upper Silesia, while France would advance to the Ruhr. Wandycz, France and Her Eastern Allies, 278–79. See also Riekhoff, German-Polish Relations, p. 342

[40]    Krempa, Reacting to Hitler, 11–12. Concerning Pilsudski’s war plans, Krempa cites Krüger, “Das doppelte Dilemma: Die Außenpolitik der Republik von Weimar zwischen Staatensystem und Innenpolitik,” German Studies Review, 252, and von Riekhoff, German-Polish Relations, 341–42.

[41]    Kagan, Origins of War, 570.

[42]    Ibid., 304.

[43]    Kissinger, A World Restored, 1–3. Pilsudski’s view may have been similar to that of Clemenceau, who described peace as “a disposition of forces, supposed to be in lasting equilibrium, in which the moral force of organized justice is surrounded by strategic precautions against all possible disturbance.” Wandycz, France and Her Eastern Allies, 6.

[44]    Krempa, Reacting to Hitler, 11.

[45]    Lubeckki, Jozef Pilsudski’s Influence on the Polish Armed Forces, 28.

[46]    Piłsudski, Year 1920, 220.

[47]    Pease, Poland, the United States, and the Stabilization of Europe, 140.

[48]    Worrell, “Report: The Battle of Warsaw 1920,” 28.

[49]    Stachura, Poland, 1918–1945, 120–21. While debating whether to pursue a declaration of non-aggression, Pilsudski asked the French for input; however the Quai d'Orsay failed to make any statements regarding then Polish/German arrangement.

[50]    Wandycz, Twilight of French Eastern Alliances, 269.

[51]    Ibid., 302.

[52]    Jędrzejewicz, A Life for Poland, 328.

[53]    Wandycz, Twilight of French Eastern Alliances, 302. Wandycz notes that French historian Rollet finds no record of the Molstin mission.

[54]    Watt, Bitter Glory 321–22.

[55]    As a sign of Poland’s new status, the Polish legation in Berlin was raised to the rank of embassy on November 14, 1933.

[56]    Watt, Bitter Glory, 324. See also Jedrzejewicz,W., ed., Diplomat in Berlin, editorial note 100.

[57]    Crockett, Polish Blitz, 567.

[58]    Stachura, Poland, 1918–1945, 120–21.

[59]    Ibid., 121-22.

[60]    Ibid. Privately, Hitler told top Nazi officials that the arrangement with Poland was tactical and  temporary, until Germany gathered strength.

[61]    Buell, Poland: Key to Europe, 356.

[62]    Piłsudska, Pilsudski: A Biography, 340.

[63]    Pease, Poland, the United States, and the Stabilization of Europe, 155.

[64]    Cienciala, Foreign Policy of Josef Pilsudski and Josef Beck, 124.

[65]    Steiner, The Lights that Failed, 518. Some consider this proposal the model for the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact.

[66]    Scott, Alliance against Hitler, 89. Hitler hoped to use the new Polish understanding as a springboard to an anti- Russian coalition, and had first raised this possibility to the Polish minister in Berlin on July 13, 1933.

[67]    Watt, Bitter Glory, 328.

[68]    Davies, Heart of Europe, 110.

[69]    Watt, Bitter Glory, 329.

[70]    Ibid., 336. Remark made during a March 1934 conference of former Polish prime ministers. Pilsudski preferred regional pacts over mulit-national alliances because they could be concluded without entering into the League of Nation’s security system, and because they allowed more flexibility.

[71]    Jędrzejewicz, A Life for Poland, 318.

[72]    Ibid., 335.

[73]    Ibid., ix.

[74]    Scott, Alliance against Hitler, 153–202. This was sometimes called “Eastern Locarno,” a term that had been used for a variety of eastern combinations since 1925.

[75]    Watt, Bitter Glory, 325–27.

[76]    In the late 1920s, French officials had informed Poland that their forces would resist German aggression mainly from fortified positions in France, and would hence be unlikely to support their eastern allies in a timely fashion. To compensate, France agreed to stockpile weapons in Poland and to provide armament loans. Steiner, The Lights that Failed, 517, 527.

[77]    Jędrzejewicz, A Life for Poland, 339.

[78]    Scott, Alliance against Hitler, 177–87.

[79]    Wandycz, Twilight of French Eastern Alliances, 302.

[80]    Machray, Poland of Pilsudski, 355.

[81]    Watt, Bitter Glory, 329–30. It should be noted that Beck’s statement was made five days before the USSR joined the League, and that the Soviet press had been constantly writing about alleged Polish oppression of Russia’s Ukrainian and Belorussian “brothers.”

[82]    Ibid., 330.