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A Fatal Guarantee: Poland, 1939

How did Britain come to make the promises to Poland that resulted in a declaration of war against Germany in September 1939? Sir Nicholas Henderson unravels a curious story.

Józef Beck, Polish foreign minister in the 1930s"It was in virtue of this that we went to war." Thus, William Strang, a Foreign Office official and later Permanent Under-Secretary, described the guarantee of Poland’s independence that the British and French Government gave that country on March 30th, 1939.

The guarantee was without precedent in British foreign policy. Until recently, such was the lack of interest in Poland in London that their ambassador, Count Edward Racynski, reported to Warsaw in early February 1939 that the whole of Eastern Europe was considered by British politicians to be outside the scope of British concerns. Colonel Josef Beck, who had been the Polish Foreign Minister since 1932, was not well thought of in London or Paris. Initially, he saw the Nazis as a relief from the entrenched anti-Polish rulers of Germany. He had played a leading part in Poland’s seizure of Teschen from Czechoslovakia at the time of the Munich crisis. The guarantee meant an undertaking to use force to defend a country in Eastern Europe, to which, as the Chiefs of Staff said ‘we could give no direct help by land, sea or air’. It came about within a matter of days, following Hitler’s coup of March 15th, against Czechoslovakia, a country whose security and integrity he had pledged to defend at Munich.

Despite the coup, Neville Chamberlain was initially determined, as he told the House of Commons on March 15th, to stick by his policy of appeasement. But something dramatic was happening to the national mood such as comes over the British people from time to time, a sea-change not necessarily observable abroad but that, working through Parliament and the press and touching the nerve-ends of the body-politic, exercises a profound impact on government. For two decades the British, like the French, had so recoiled from the horrors of the First World War that they refused to countenance the idea that armed conflict might arise over the settlement of disputes in Europe. The destruction of Czechoslovakia shattered them. Stirring a deep-seated national instinct for survival, it induced a widespread feeling that that was enough and that Hitler had to be stopped. The French people, likewise aroused by Hitler’s latest move, were if anything more indignant; his ally, Mussolini, was making demands for Nice, Corsica and Savoy. The same sentiment reached London from the countries of the Commonwealth.

Since the beginning of the year the British and French had been assailed by rumours of an imminent German attack, now in the East, now in the West, and by secret information, much of it exaggerated, about the strength of the German armed forces. Fear of an impending tripartite German, Italian, Japanese alliance added to the tension.

In a speech in Birmingham on March 17th, Chamberlain, as if in response to the national surge of indignation and defiance, struck a more resolute note: he wished, he declared, to correct a misapprehension of weakness that might have been conveyed by his remarks in the House of Commons two days earlier; Munich had been the right policy, but now Hitler had broken a public assurance that he had no more territorial demands in Europe, as well as a personal undertaking that disputes were to be settled not by war but by peaceful means. This made him doubt the Fuhrer’s word and led him to ask whether what Hitler had done was ‘a step towards... an attempt to dominate the world by force’. Britain, he said, would be ready to exert all its power to resist such an attempt and to defend the cause of democracy.

In London, on the same day, the Romanian Minister, Virgil Tilea, was stirring up a diplomatic whirlwind by telling the Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax of a virtual ultimatum by Berlin to take over his country’s economy, including its extensive oil resources, of which Germany was in dire need. His report was disavowed by Grigore Gafencu, the Romanian Foreign Minister, who said he had given Tilea ‘a tremendous head-washing’. But meanwhile the Foreign Office, having received reports of the movement of German troops eastwards, had decided to seek the reaction to this threat of a number of governments. These included the Soviet Union, who were asked how they would respond in the event of German aggression against Romania. The Soviet Commissar for Foreign Affairs, Maxim Litvinov, told the British Ambassador, Sir William Seeds, on March 18th, that there was not much purpose in various governments enquiring of each other what they would do. He made a striking suggestion. He proposed that delegates from the UK, the Soviet Union,France, Poland and Romania should meet, preferably in Bucharest, to discuss possibilities of collective action. The following day, the Soviet ambassador, Ivan Maisky, spoke on the same lines to Halifax. In reply, the Foreign Secretary said that it would be difficult in present circumstances to send a responsible minister to take part in such a conference and that to hold it ‘without a certainty that it would be successful was dangerous’. He added that a conference had not been excluded but, before deciding, his government wanted to see whether an alternative scheme which they were examining might not achieve quicker results.

This lofty response did not go down well with the Russians who found it evasive, shifty and even suggestive of a desire to bargain with Germany. Maisky has written that if Chamberlain had ‘seized upon the first Soviet proposal it is possible and even probable that there would have been no Second World War’. This begs a lot of questions about Stalin’s intentions at this stage.

In the Cabinet on March 18th, Chamberlain said he had ‘now come definitely to the conclusion that Hitler’s attitude made it impossible to continue to negotiate, on the old basis, with the Nazi regime’. Yet, he was still reluctant to consider the idea of a defence arrangement with the Soviet Union.

At this meeting, the Cabinet had some discussion of the military implications of what was going on. The Chiefs of Staff attached great importance to Germany’s being compelled to face the threat of war on two fronts. Their advice for some time had been that, whatever their alliances, the British did not have the resources to undertake simultaneously a war against Germany, Italy and Japan. Yet this was exactly what they appeared to be faced with.

Chamberlain and Halifax had been trying to wean Mussolini away from Hitler but the Duce was not impressed by them, commenting to Count Ciano, his son-in-law, who was Foreign Minister, that ‘these men are not made of the same stuff as the Francis Drakes and other magnificent adventurers who created the empire’. After the Prague coup he confessed to Ciano: ‘We cannot change our policies now; we are not prostitutes’.

As regards the Eastern front, the Chiefs said that Russian/Polish co-operation against Germany would be essential because the Poles would not be able to survive without active Soviet support. Their view, expressed in writing a fortnight later, was that in the event of a German attack eastwards ‘it would only be a matter of time before Poland was eliminated from the war’. Nevertheless, Chamberlain gave his opinion, which he stuck to throughout the summer, that Polandrather than Russia was the key to the situation. He assured ministers that ‘an alliance with Poland would ensure that Germany would be engaged in a war on two fronts’. It might also reduce the fear that Poland might do a deal with Germany, a danger that London, at this stage, thought more likely than a Nazi-Soviet pact, about which Chamberlain was always sceptical.

As the next step, it was decided to propose to France, the Soviet Union and Poland the publication of a declaration by the four powers in which they would undertake to consult together on what action they would take to resist any ‘threat to the political independence of any European state’. Litvinov replied on March 22nd, saying that he agreed, provided both France and Poland did. There was no trouble about France. But the Poles objected. They argued that for them to join in a public declaration with the Russians would mark the end of their policy of balance between East and West; and it would be regarded by Hitler ‘as the last straw’, signalling that Poland had joined the Soviet camp; it would bring war nearer, not avert it.

Colonel Beck had maintained the policy of balance between Germany and the USSR that had been pursued consistently by Marshal Josef Pilsudski, the dictatorial figure who had dominated Polish public life between the wars. Thus, Poland had signed a non-aggression pact with Russia in 1932 which was balanced by a 1934 pact of non-aggression with Germany. For a time Beck appeared to lean towards Germany, but in the increasing threat from the Nazis, the Poles signed a declaration with the Russians in November 1938 confirming the validity of their 1932 pact. To check the see-saw going too far to the East, Beck in January 1939 visited Berlin where Hitler sounded off aggressively about Danzig while assuring him that there would not be another fait accompli. Ribbentrop was then invited to Warsaw, where he found the Poles unyielding.

As a corollary to this avoidance of commitment to either of her two great neighbours, Poland made alliances with France and Romania. France likewise was bent on trying to build up security in East and West. The French regarded their military convention with Poland in 1921 and the Treaty with them in 1925 as essential parts of their ‘barriere de l’est’. As regards Poland’s pact with Romania, this was directed to the threat of an attack from Russia (i.e. not from Germany). It became one of France’s main aims, supported by the British, to get Poland to extend this undertaking to cover a threat to Romania from Germany. Poland consistently refused this.

Poland’s dilemma has to be understood. Russia had been their enemy for generations and had shared in their partition. Most of their leaders had been engaged in war against the Red Army only twenty years earlier. Unlike Hungary, however, they were determined to avoid obeisance to Berlin. Nevertheless, they were profoundly worried by a virtual ultimatum from the Germans over Danzig delivered on March 21st. Taken from Germany in 1919 and made a Free City under the League of Nations, Danzig, by means of a corridor through German territory, provided Poland with an outlet to the sea. The population was predominantly German, but Poland was given charge of foreign policy and commerce. The German Foreign Minister, Ribbentrop, pressed both for its return and for an extra-territorial link with East Prussia across the Polish Corridor. The Poles were also anxious over the almost simultaneous German seizure of Memel from Lithuania. They proposed, instead of the declaration, that Poland and the UK should conclude a confidential understanding to act in accordance with the suggested declaration. The reaction to this in London was that the Polish idea obviously did not meet the requirements of a public and collective response to the Nazi threat.

A crucial meeting of the Foreign Policy Committee of the Cabinet was summoned on March 27th, to consider these and other reactions to the British proposal for a four-power declaration. There was much discussion about whether to base deterrence and, if that failed, resistance to Germany, on military co-operation with Poland or with the Soviet Union. With hindsight this seems strange; it appears to have been a false choice. Poland and the Soviet Union were not alternatives. For obvious military reasons there was no way of building up an effective defence shield in Eastern Europe unless the Soviet Union were involved; and if plans had to be made for the Red Army to counter German forces it would have to be assumed for reasons of geography alone that these must cross Polish territory. But then, as Halifax explained: ‘In any scheme, the inclusion of Poland is vital as the one strong power bordering on Germany in the East’. In summing up he said that we were ‘faced with the dilemma of doing nothing, or entering into a devastating war’ – as though no attempt could be made by diplomacy to square the circle which ran as follows: Soviet involvement in a security system depended on co-operation with Poland, whereas Polish involvement in it depended on non-co-operation with Russia.

Unable to meet the test of reconciling incompatibles which is the touchstone of diplomacy, ministers gave up and opted for Poland. As Halifax claimed: ‘we had to make a choice between Poland and Soviet Russia; it seemed clear that Poland would give the greater value’. The Soviet Army might show good qualities in defence, but it had little offensive capability and its senior ranks had been greatly diminished by the recent purges. The Polish Army, comprising fifty divisions, might be expected to make a useful contribution. On March 23rd, the Poles introduced partial mobilisation which added to the impression of their resilience.

Ministers concluded that the construction of any new front against Germany would be frustrated if the Soviet Union were openly associated with it. The four-power declaration idea was accordingly dropped. Instead, it was decided to propose, with the French, a reciprocal guarantee to Poland and Romania, the countries most exposed to the Nazi threat. A corollary would be that Poland and Romania must guarantee each other against a threat from Germany. The Soviet Union would not be invited to participate but would be informed of the scheme at some ‘convenient moment’ and invited to express their views upon it.

This latest scheme was submitted to the Polish and Romanian governments by the British and French Ambassadors. But before they had had time to reply another panic gripped London even more frenetic than that stirred up by Tilea on March 17th. This time the instigator was Ian Colvin, the News Chronicle correspondent in Germany. In his diary of March 29th, Oliver Harvey, the Principal Private Secretary to the Foreign Secretary, gives a dead-pan but vivid account of what happened:  

Colvin... called on Halifax today and made great impression. He said he was convinced Hitler would attack Poland very shortly unless it was made quite certain that we would attack him. There would then be a good chance that German generals would stop him or revolt. Generals had been prepared to revolt in September if we had stood up to Hitler.Halifax took him over to PM and as a result it may be decided to announce at once... our decision to fight for Poland without waiting Beck’s reply (i.e. to the proposed reciprocal guarantee to Poland and Romania).

So it was. There were other hair-raising reports but none that had the impact of Colvin’s. One is left wondering whether any other foreign correspondent can ever have had such an influence, particularly for something conveyed orally, not written – a story that was misleading, as there was no military evidence that the Germans were about to invade Poland.

In the course of ministerial meetings on 30th and 31st, it was agreed that the prime minister should announce in the House of Commons the decision to give Poland a unilateral British and French guarantee. On the evening of March 28th, the prime minister met Opposition leaders and impressed on them the importance of obtaining the support of Poland which would be impossible if Russia was brought in. He saw them again on the 30th, when they expressed concern about the lack of any reference to Russia in the proposed announcement. Chamberlain told them that the omission was ‘based on expediency and not on ideology’, whereas only four days earlier he had written to his sister, Hilda, that he had ‘the most profound distrust of Russia’ and ‘of her motives’. They were ‘concerned only with getting everyone else by the ears’.

In a telegram drafted by the prime minister in his own hand, the British Ambassador was asked to obtain an immediate Polish reaction to this offer of a unilateral guarantee. Beck agreed without hesitation ‘between two flicks of the ash of his cigarette’ as he put it – a Polish version of ‘Bob’s your uncle’. The prime minister thereupon went ahead and, on the afternoon of March 31st, announced the unilateral guarantee to Poland in an address to the House of Commons:  

As I said this morning HMG have no official confirmation of the rumours of any projected attack on Poland and that must not therefore be taken as accepting them as true... ...As the House is aware, certain consultations are now proceeding with other Governments. In order to make perfectly clear the position of HMG in the meantime before those consultations are concluded, I now have to inform the House that during that period in the event of any action which clearly threatened Polish independence, and which the Polish Government accordingly considered it vital to resist with their national forces, HMG would feel themselves bound at once to lend the Polish Government all support in their power. They have given the Polish Government an assurance to this effect.

A couple of hours before the announcement, Halifax read the text out to Maisky and emphasised HMG’s intention to continue with vigour the talks begun two weeks before to create a united front of peace-loving powers. He then asked him whether the prime minister could say in the House that the announcement had the approval of the Soviet Government. It was important to do this, he explained, in order to show maximum internal unity – a euphemism for trying to placate Labour, as Maisky, of course, perceived. Halifax in fact, had deliberately not shown the text beforehand to the Russians for fear of offending the Poles. Maisky, who had been told by Cadogan two days before of the French and British Governments’ proposed guarantee, pointed out that the Soviet Government, unlike the Polish Government, had not previously been given the text. How then could Chamberlain say that his statement had the blessing of Moscow? Despite this far from positive reaction, the prime minister, in answer to a question, said brazenly that he believed the Soviet Government understood and appreciated the principles on which His Majesty’s Government was acting. This annoyed the Russians a great deal. The next day Litvinov received Seeds ‘very coldly’, to quote the Soviet Commissar’s own words. He was bewildered that the UK, having secured theSoviet Union’s agreement to a joint declaration, should then, without discussion, go ahead with a new plan. He told Seeds that the Soviet Union would stand aside and pursue its own policy. A few days later, in a letter to Maisky, Litvinov was splenetic:  

It is intolerable for us to be in the situation of the man who is invited to a party and then asked not to come because the other guests do not wish to meet him. We would prefer to be crossed off the list of guests altogether.

To the French, who had given the same guarantee on the same day, the Soviet Government reacted in the same bitter way. At a time when the Western powers and the USSR should have been drawing together to face an increasingly perilous common threat, diplomacy had succeeded in dividing them.

To understand Soviet reactions to the British and French guarantee announced on March 31st, some attempt should be made to analyse what Soviet policy was at this time. The overriding problem for them was to meet the dual threat, from the Japanese in the East and the Germans in the West, a danger aggravated by the revival in spring, 1939, of negotiations between Berlin and Tokyo to convert the Anti-Comintern Pact into a military alliance. Had this come about, which it did not, the Russians, fearing a threat in the East as well as the West, might have been readier than they proved to be to make a go of security negotiations with France and Britain; while the Germans could have concluded that a Berlin/Tokyo alliance would have deterred the Russians from causing them trouble in Poland, thereby eliminating the need for a deal with Moscow.

All this is speculation. What the Russians were up to must remain a mystery until the publication of Stalin’s archives which, despite glasnost and all the talk of de-Stalinisation, remain impenetrable by Western historians. With his penchant for realpolitik, Stalin may well have been attracted by the possibility of reaching an agreement with the Germans that would lead to the return to the USSR of the former Tsarist territories, and to the avoidance of war with Hitler at this stage when Soviet forces were too weak to withstand an attack. It would also pave the way for the Germans and the Western powers to destroy each other. This policy would require time and hard-headed, clandestine manoeuvring. It would not necessarily be incompatible with the pursuit of a different policy, a collective security system with the West, discussions on which could proceed in parallel. On the contrary, Stalin may well have calculated that negotiations with France and Britain would enhance his bargaining position with the Germans. Besides, the talks would serve as a reinsurance policy in case Hitler failed to come up trumps. They might lead to the construction of a system of defence that would deter, and if necessary confront, Hitler, who would never contemplate a two-front war. Everything was to play for provided you played on both sides.

Litvinov was telling the French Chargé d’Affaires in November 1938 that there ‘is no other way to organise the peace’ than ‘to return to the old path of collective security’. Yet, suspicion of the West, which had been inflamed by Soviet exclusion from the Munich negotiations, militated against the chances of success for this policy. Litvinov’s deputy, Vladimir Potemkin, had remarked after Munich: ‘For us, I no longer see any outcome but a fourth partition of Poland.’ The Soviet leaders were afraid that France and the UK were scheming to get them engaged in a war with Germany, Stalin’s speech of March 10th, 1939 in which he declared that the democracies were encouraging ‘the Germans to go Eastwards’, warned them against hoping that the USSR would ‘pull their chestnuts out of the fire’. Their anxieties were fanned by the guarantee to Poland of March 31st. ‘Chamberlain is prompting Hitler to direct his aggression to the north-east’, Litvinov wrote to Maisky on April 4th. He added: ‘Chamberlain is counting on us to resist occupation of the Baltic area and expecting that this will lead to the Soviet-German clash he has been hoping for’. The Soviet Union felt particularly vulnerable to the possibility of an attack through the Baltic states aimed at Leningrad.

Five years earlier Litvinov had tried, at a time when Germany was still weak, to get Berlin to join in a guarantee of the Baltic states but without success. Yet London appears to have been oblivious to this almost instinctive Russian fear about their Northern flank. This is revealed in the way Halifax described to the Cabinet how absurd it was of Soviet propaganda to represent British policy as pushing Germany into conflict with the Soviet Union; absurd, he said, because ‘Germany could not, in fact, invade Russia except through Poland or Romania’. If the UK had guaranteed these countries she would, so Halifax explained, inevitably become involved in war should Germany invade Poland or Romania to attack Russia. Although a Fellow of All Souls, Halifax was not strong on geography. He appears to have overlooked the fact that Germany could indeed invade Russia without traversing Polish territory by going through the Baltic states; and this was just what Moscow feared and what they believed our guarantee to Poland had encouraged Hitler to do.

While the UK tended to play the diplomatic hand in Western Europe at this time, their policy was closely affected by support for France which had given hostages to fortune in Central and Eastern Europe by their pacts with the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and Poland. The Soviet Union made a pact of mutual assistance with Czechoslovakia in May 1935 but this did not become operative unless France fulfilled her obligation under her pact with Prague. They made an agreement with Poland in 1938 and with many other countries in the inter-war years, but noticeably not with Romania with whom negotiations broke down over the Soviet claim for the return of Bessarabia.

As a matter of fact the British Government were not bent, as Soviet propaganda persisted in maintaining then and for the next fifty years, on trying to foment a war between Germany and the Soviet Union in which they would destroy each other while Britain remained unscathed. Such an interpretation could have been a mirror of what the Soviet Union, mutatis mutandis, were at times hoping for themselves. But such a strategy was never the British objective.

They knew only too well that a war between Germany and Russia would result in the domination of the Continent, at any rate for a considerable time, by either Berlin or Moscow. Besides which, as a result of France’s 1935 Mutual Assistance Agreement with Russia and of Britain’s close involvement with France, any war in which Russia was fighting Germany would inevitably lead toBritain being drawn in. In Cabinet on November 23rd, 1938, Chamberlain said:  

We do not wish to see France drawn into a war with Germany on account of some quarrel between Russia and Germany with the result that we should be drawn into war in France’ wake

The most crucial consequence of the guarantee as far as Soviet British relation were concerned, was the way it removed the main bargaining counter the British had in their negotiations with the Soviet Union to create an anti-Nazi bloc. The Western powers had committed themselves to fight against Germany in Eastern Europe, on territory sandwiched between Germany and Russia, without Moscow having to undertake any commitment at all.

As regards the effect of the guarantee on Poland, it appears to have quashed Chamberlain’s hope that that country would ‘set her pen’, as he put it, to a new system of collective security. Beck, whom London regarded as a slippery customer, wriggled out of a commitment to go to the defence of Romania if they were attacked by Germany. The guarantee strengthened Polish resistance to Soviet participation in any defence system in which they themselves took part.

It has to be said by way of summing up, that, in the diplomacy of the Soviet Union and the Western powers in the crucial months of 1939, there were faults on both sides. Had the Russians, whether during the fortnight here described, or in subsequent months, shown a readiness to go the whole way in an effort to build up a collective defence system with the West to meet the Nazi threat, this might have been successful and might have deterred Hitler from moving East Moscow believed that Hitler would never have contemplated a war on two fronts.

For their part had the British and French responded at an early stage, i.e. in March, to the apparent Soviet readiness to participate in discussions over resistance to Hitler and then become engaged in negotiations with Moscow for the construction of a collective security system, this might have encouraged those in the Soviet Union who favoured this course and have led to the two sides becoming inextricably enmeshed in achieving it.

It is ironical that, when Britain and France at last decided to abandon appeasement in favour of resistance, their first step – the unilateral guarantee – should have taken the wrong turning. As shown above, it antagonised the Russians. It certainly did not have the effect of restraining Hitler, because three days later he issued a directive to the armed forces to prepare for an attack on Poland to be ready for implementation as from September 1st. Within a month he had denounced the German-Polish Non-Aggression Pact and the Anglo-German Naval Agreement. It did not dent Hitler’s conviction, founded on British and French pusillanimity in 1936 over the Rhineland and in 1938 at Munich, that in the end they would not stand up to him. But it did mark Western reluctance to make common cause with the Soviet Union in trying to create an effective European security system and anti-Nazi alliance. This alone might have dissuaded Moscow from opting for the pact with the Nazis which they signed on August 23rd, 1939. Such an alliance did not come about until Hitler attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941, by which time all Russia’s potential supporters had, with Stalin’s help, been defeated or driven from the Continent.

Sir Nicholas Henderson is the author of several books and articles. He has been private secretary to Anthony Eden, Ernest Bevin and R.A. Butler; and British Ambassador to Warsaw, Bonn, Paris and Washington.

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