26: Polish Foreign Documents


This is our fourth and last Member episode looking at various diplomatic communications from the immediate prewar period. This time we look at Polish documents during the summer of 1939 and the immediately aftermath of the start of the war.

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Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Members Episode 26 - Polish-German Documents. This is the fourth and final of this series of episodes which has tried to dig a bit deeper into some of the primary sources we have that detail the interactions that the various governments around Europe were having in the years before the war. This time we are going to dive into the Official Documents Concerning Polish-German and Polish-Soviet Relations 1933-1939. The collection of documents is mostly detailed from the Polish side of the conversations, with a few lengthy quotes from official German and Soviet sources, particularly around speeches given by Hitler and Stalin in the mid and late 1930s. This episode will be broken out into three sections with the first discussing a few topics from the pre-1939 relationship between Germany and Poland, then the second section will track the quick deterioration of German-Polish relations during the summer of 1939. The final section will look at some of the communications that the Polish government would have with other national governments around Europe in the wake of first the German invasion and then the Soviet invasion 2 weeks later.

We will start with an agreement made between Poland and Germany in late 1937, which would be titled Declaration by the Polish and German Governments on the subject of the Treatment of Minorities. This type of agreement was very common in Eastern Europe during this period, with Poland signing a similar agreement with several other neighboring nations. The reason that these were signed was due to the priority placed by many nations on the idea that ethnic groups of people needed their own nations, and that their “home” nations needed to ensure that all of their ethnic group were well treated. This could be Germans who lived in Poland, Poles who lived in Czechoslovakia, Hungarians who lived in Romania, for all of the nations of Eastern Europe there were always many minority ethnicities due to how groups had mingled and then how borders were drawn after the collapse or retreat of various Empires, Ottoman, Russian, and Austro-Hungarian. They core of all of these agreements was simply that the nations wanted to make sure that the members of their core ethnic group who lived in another nation were treated fairly and not discriminated against. These types of agreements were often heavily supported by groups within both nations, but also from external sources. For example France often pushed the nations to sign agreements after the First World War in the hopes that this would prevent nations from fighting amongst themselves so that they could enjoy greater cooperation both among themselves and with France against Germany. The agreement signed between Germany and Poland was a pretty late example of this type of treaty, but the wording was largely representative of many of them, here is a somewhat lengthy pull from the agreement that was signed: “For this reason the two governments declare with satisfaction that their two states, each within the limits of its own sovereignty regard as essential the following guiding principles: Mutual respect for German and Polish nationality naturally should exclude any attempt to assimilate the minority by force, to question the character of the minority, or to hinder the individual’s right to claim membership in a minority. […] Members of the minority have a right to the free use of their mother tongue in speech and writing, in their personal and economic relations, in the press, and in public meetings. […] The minority may establish and maintain schools employing its own language. […] The above principles can in no way affect the duty of the minorities to give complete loyalty to the State to which they belong.” This agreement is mostly interesting due to how big of a role the treatment of German minorities would play in the German propaganda efforts before the war. Germany would claim that the Polish government was allowing violence against Germans, and that it was even supporting it, claiming that in doing so the Polish government was breaking the agreement that it had signed, and therefore Germany had cause for war. The situation would be directly addressed by the Polish Embassy in Berlin on August 26, 1939 in a lengthy memorandum on the claims being made by the German government about the treatment of German minorities in Poland and the treatment of Polish individuals in Germany. Here are a few highlights: “The German press is carrying on a systematic and violent Press campaign, in which the situation of the German minority in Poland is being discussed tendentiously and in a manner entirely out of accord with the facts. This campaign bears a remarkable resemblance to that waged last year against Czechoslovakia, except that the present propaganda is being carried on with far greater intensity than on that occasion. […] Today the German Government’s conduct is not veiled by even the flimsiest of pretexts, and this clearly indicates that the German authorities do not now count on any negotiations in future. […] In the National-Socialist system there is fundamentally no place for any group outside the German nation, far less for those non-German elements who for centuries have been linked with their own soil. Though down to recent months the existence of the Polish minority has been tolerated in Germany, the reason for this was the desire to maintain a hostage against the German minority in Poland. […] The fact that since April last there are known to have been more than one thousand separate cases of acts of violence against Poles proves the dimensions of the campaign being waged against them. These are all cases known from the Polish Press in Germany, which is censored by the German authorities, and so cannot risk reporting every incident.”

While the nations had signed multiple agreements, on the German side the question of Danzig and the Polish corridor would always remain. The two nations approached the conversations about the corridor very differently. On the German side they were just working under the assumption that major revisions to the corridor were not just reasonable, but would be made. This caused Ribbentrop to lead off discussions with ways that the Germans felt the corridor and Danzig should be fixed, by giving Germany far more access, generally revolving around just handing Danzig over to Germany, and then giving Germany the rights to build a railway and a highway through the Polish corridor, with both being made sovereign German territory. This basic outline was discussed as early as October, 1938. Here is a message from the Polish Ambassador in Berlin, Lipski, to Polish Foreign Minister Beck on October 25, 1938: “In a conversation on October 24 Ribbentrop put forward a proposal for a general settlement of issues between Poland and Germany. This included the reunion of Danzig with the Reich, while Poland would be assured the retention of railway and economic facilities there. Poland would agree to the building of an extra-territorial motor road and railway line across Pomorze. In exchange M. von Ribbentrop mentioned the possibility of an extension of the Polish-German agreement by 25 years and a guarantee of Polish-German frontiers.” This same basic conversation would happen time and time again over the next 10 months before the start of the war. There are many notes like this one whenever Ribbentrop and Beck would meet, in this case from January 27, 1939: “The main theme of conversations between M. Beck and M von Ribbentrop was the Danzig question. M. Beck categorically rejected M. von Ribbentrop’s postulate as to the extra-territoriality of a motor road across Pomorze.” The overall tenor of Polish notes on these conversations I would summarize as “how many different ways can I say no?” Danzig would become a major point of concern for Polish authorities in and around the city during the summer of 1939, as there was growing evidence that many German men of military age had been moved into the city in an effort to stir up greater resistance to Polish authority, and to possibly prepare for future action. Here is a note from the head Polish official in Danzig to Beck on August 28th 1939: “The daily increasing incidents in Danzig render it impossible to put into effect the rights to which Poland is entitled in the port. The situation that has been created makes it impossible for Poland to utilize the port of Danzig for Polish commerce and shipping […] So far as manpower is concerned, I estimate the military forces in the Danzig area to be about 18,000 men, including the detachments of SS, SA, and Hitler Jugend, who are entrusted with special functions throughout the entire organization.” While Danzig would eventually be a primary point of criticism by the German government which would lead to the war, it was not the only point of contention between the two nations.

The German invasion of Czechoslovakia, was a cause of concern, particularly the extension of German control into Slovakia, which increased the length of the frontier between the two nations. A few days after the German troops moved in, Lipski would report on a conversation with Ribbentrop by saying “I stressed that since 1934 our public opinion had been put to considerable trials. Nevertheless it remained quiet. […] I stated that now, during the settlement of the Czechoslovakian question, there was no understanding whatever between us. The Czech issue was already hard enough for the Polish public to swallow, for, despite our disputes with the Czechs, they were after all a Slav people. But in regard to Slovakia the position was far worse. I emphasized our community of race, language, and religion, and mentioned the help we have given in their achievement of independence. I pointed out our long frontier with Slovakia. I indicated that the Polish man in the street could not understand why the Reich had assumed the protection of Slovakia, that protection being directed against Poland. I said emphatically that this question was a serious blow to our relations.” The discussions between Germany and Lithuania were an additional cause for concern, and seemed to point to the possibility of a rapid deterioration of relations between Germany and Poland, here is Beck sending a not to Lipski on March 25, 1939: “Please add at the same time that we must now devote great attention to our mutual relations. For, owing to Germany’s latest steps in regard to both Slovakia and Lithuania, of which the Polish Government were not informed even at the last moment, although they concerned territories situated right on the frontiers of the Polish Republic, the general atmosphere demands clarification, and the methods of progress utilized by both Governments must be chosen with particular caution.”

As we have discussed on a few different episodes, a major moment for Poland would be the signing of the agreement with Britain. Beck, in his role of Foreign Minister, would speak to the Polish Diet about the agreement on May 5, 1939 to address both the new agreement and what it meant for Polish-German relations: “It was possible to establish rapidly the principles of Polish-British collaboration, first of all because we made it clear to each other that the intentions of both Governments coincide as regards fundamental European problems; certainly, neither Great Britain nor Poland has any aggressive intentions whatever, but they stand equally firmly in defense of certain basic principles of conduct in international life. […] Even for the simplest understanding it is clear that neither the character nor the purpose and scope of the agreement influenced this decision [of the German government to exit the 1934 agreement], but merely the fact that such an agreement had been concluded. And this in turn is important for an appreciation of the objects of Germany policy, since if, contrary to previous declaration, the Government of the Reich interpreted the Polish-German Declaration of non-aggression of 1934 as intended to isolate Poland and to prevent the normal friendly collaboration of our country with the Western Powers, we ourselves should always have rejected such an interpretation. […] Peace is certainly the object of the difficult and intensive work of Polish diplomacy. […] If such conversations take place, the Polish Government will, according to their custom, approach the problem objectively, having regard to the experience of recent times, but without withholding their utmost goodwill.” The relationship with Britain would take on greater importance in the last half of August as tensions were clearly rising, with Beck making multiple guarantees that the Polish government was willing to enter into any reasonable negotiation effort with Germany, as was reiterated in a written note given from Beck to British ambassador Kennard on August 21st: “Polish government confirm their readiness, as has previously been expressed for a direct exchange of views with the German Government on the basis proposed by British Government and communicated by Lord Halifax’s telegram on August 28 […] Polish government are also prepared on a reciprocal basis to give a formal guarantee that in the event of negotiations taking place Polish troops will not violate the frontiers of German Reich provided a corresponding guarantee is given regarding non-violation of frontiers of Poland by troops of the German Reich.”

While the official invasion of Poland would not begin until September 1st, late on August 31st it was already quite clear that an invasion was basically guaranteed to happen. The first indication was the fact that Ribbentrop and the Germans stonewalled the last attempts by Lipski to setup some kind of negotiations. The problem was that Lipski was not given full ability and power to negotiate and reach agreements on behalf of the Polish government, with Hitler and the Germans wanted to get a single person in a room and browbeat them into agreeing to German favorable terms. Lipski would see Ribbentrop with a message from Beck, Lipski would send to Warsaw this summary at 10:30PM on the 31st: “I was received by M. von Ribbentrop at 6:30pm. I carried out my instructions. M. von Ribbentrop asked if I had special plenipotentiary powers to undertake negotiations. I said no. He then asked whether I have been informed that on London’s suggestion the German government had expressed their readiness to negotiate directly with a delegate of the Polish government, furnished with the requisite full powers, who was to have arrived on the preceding day, August 30. I replied that I hd no direct information on the subject. In conclusion M. von Ribbentrop repeated that he had thought I would be empowered to negotiate.” At roughly the same time a message would be received from Zawadowski in Danzig: “We have received information from an authoritative source that detachments of German troops from East Prussia have crossed the German-Danzig frontier.”

After the German invasion started, there would of course be massive amounts of communications that would occur both within the Polish government as well as with other governments around Europe. Here is a part of Communique NO. 1 issued by the military headquarters on September 1, 1939: “On September 1, 1939, in the early morning, Germany invaded our territory, by a surprise attack from the air and on land, without a declaration of war. […] Simultaneously with the air attacks the German land forces opened operations, invading our territory at various points. The frontier battles are continuing. The fiercest struggle is going on in Silesia. So far we have destroyed by artillery fire an enemy armoured train, capturing the tender with its crew. Several tanks have bene put out of action. In various places we have taken prisoners. At Danzig three attacks on Westerplatte have been repulsed.” On the same day a public proclamation made to the people of Poland would read: “Citizens, during the course of last night our age-old enemy commenced offensive operations against the Polish State. I affirm this before God and History. At this historic moment I appeal to all citizens of the country in the profound conviction that the entire nation will rally around its Command-in-Chief and armed forces to defend its liberty, independence and honor, and to give the aggressor a worthy answer, as has happened already more than once in the history of Polish-German relations. The entire nation, blessed by God in its struggle for a just and sacred cause, and united with its army, will march in serried ranks to the struggle and the final victory.” While information was being shared internally, Beck was very busy communicating with Poland representatives in London and Paris. During the first 48 hours of the war many of these communications revolved around the simple question of whether or not France and Britain would be joining the war. Here is one from Beck to the Polish Ambassador in Paris from September 1st: “The Polish Government, resolved to defend the independence and honor of Poland to the end, expresses its conviction that in accordance with the existing treaties of alliance, in this struggle it will receive immediate help from its Allies.” and then here is another to the Polish Ambassador in London on September 2nd: “Today the struggles all along the front are acquiring a very serious character. German attacks are meeting everywhere with very energetic resistance on our part. The greatest difficulty confronting our troops arises from the employment of almost the entire German Air Force. It is not only bombing military objectives, but also factories and even villages. In these conditions Allied decisions which would tie up a considerable part of the German Air Force are the concern of all. Please inform the Government to which you are accredited immediately.” It would not be until the next day, September 3, that Britain and France would enter the war.

While the Polish army was attempting to slow the German invasion, on September 17th, the Soviet Union would invade Eastern Poland. The Polish representative in Moscow was informed that this was happening on September 17th at 3AM. Here is the message that was then sent to Warsaw about the meeting: “M. Potemkin sent for me today, September 17, at 3AM and read me a note from his government, signed by Premier Molotov. The not communicates that the Soviet Government has ordered its troops to cross the Polish frontier. The motives given in the note were of such a nature that I refused to take it into cognizance and categorically protested against its contents. In view of the absence of Soviet diplomatic representatives from Poland I agreed only to transmit the above information. I await instructions.” Along with the summary of the conversations that were had, an official note from the Soviet government was also sent at the same time: “The Polish-German War has revealed the internal bankruptcy of the Polish State. During the course of ten days’ hostilities Poland has lost all her industrial areas and cultural centres. Warsaw no longer exists as the capital of Poland. The Polish Government has disintegrated, and no longer shows any sign of life. This means that the Polish State and its Government have, in fact, ceased to exist. […] Left to her own devices and bereft of leadership, Poland had become a suitable field for all manner of hazards and surprises, which may constitute a threat to the USSR. For these reasons the Soviet Government, which hitherto has preserved neutrality, cannot any longer observe a neutral attitude towards these facts. […] At the same time the Soviet Government proposed to take all measures to extricate the Polish people from the unfortunate war into which they were dragged by their unwise leaders, and to enable them to live a peaceful life.” While they would be of little immediate help, the Polish government felt obligated to counter act the message of the Soviet note, which would make its way to other governments. Here is official response, as relayed to the world by the Polish Embassy in London: “The pretext which the Soviet government advance in order to justify its flagrant act of direct aggression is that the Polish Government has ceased to exist, and that it has abandoned the territory of Poland, thus leaving the Polish population on territories outside the zone of war with Germany without protection. The Polish government cannot enter into any discussion of the pretext which the Soviet government has invented in order to justify the violation of the Polish frontier.” The relationship between the Polish government as it existed on September 1st 1939, and the Soviet Union would be incredibly complicated, and unfortunately not one that would end well for the Polish leaders from before the war.