The Origins of the Second World War - after A. J. P. Taylor
6. The Game on Danzig
The outbreak of war in 1939 as a result of the dispute over Danzig, was a mistake - a result of diplomatic mistakes and blunders on both sides.
The Treaty of Versailles declared Danzig an independent city, administered by the League of Nations; Except that the city should have a special connection to Poland. The Danzig population was almost completely German, and they had an expressed wish to belong to Germany.
Left: Map of the free city of Danzig.
Right: Street in Danzig 1935.
Germany raised the question of Danzig towards Poland by diplomatic channels expecting that it would be possible to achieve a peaceful transfer of Danzig from Poland to Germany. Poland refused any negotiation on the issue. Germany escalated the crisis. England gave Poland an unconditional security guarantee.
The 1. of September 1939 Germany launched an all over attack on Poland, and the 3. of September Britain and France declared war on Germany.
Let us give the floor to Taylor:
"Danzig was the most justified of German grievances: a city of an exclusively German population which manifestly wished to return to the Reich and which Hitler himself restrained only with difficulty. The solution too seemed peculiarly easy. Halifax never wearied of suggesting that Danzig should return to German sovereignty, with safeguards for Polish trade.
The battleship Schleswig-Holstein opened the Second World by firing on Polish troops in Danzig 1. of September 1939.
Hitler wanted this also. The destruction of Poland had been no part of his original project. On the contrary, he had wished to solve the question of Danzig so that Germany and Poland could remain on good terms. Was Polish obstinacy then the only thing, which stood between Europe and a peaceful outcome? By no means. Previously Danzig might have been settled without implying any upheaval in international relations. Now it had become a symbol of Polish independence and, with the Anglo-Polish alliance, of British independence as well. Hitler no longer wished merely to fulfill German national aspirations or to satisfy the inhabitants of Danzig. He aimed to show that he had imposed his will on the British and on the Poles. All parties aimed at a settlement by negotiations, but only after victory in a war of nerves.
There is, of course, an alternative explanation. Some, or all, of the parties may have been driving deliberately for war. There can hardly be any who believe this of Poland; few, even in Germany, who now believe that the British were planning the "encirclement" of Germany in order to impose again the "slavery" of Versailles. Many however believe that Hitler was a modern Attila, loving destruction for its own sake and therefore bent on war without thought of policy. There is no arguing with such dogmas. Hitler was an extraordinary man; and they may well be true. But his policy is capable of rational explanations; and it is on this policy is built. The escape into irrationality is no doubt easier. The blame for war can be put on Hitler's Nihilism instead of on the faults and failures of European statesmen - faults and failures which their public shared. However, human blunders usually do more to shape history than human wickedness.
Lipski and Goering meet in 1935 before a hunting excursion in Eastern Poland.
At any rate, this is a rival dogma which is worth developing, if only as an academic exercise. Of course, Hitler's nature and habits played their part. It was easy for him to threaten, and hard for him to conciliate. This is far from saying that he foresaw, or deliberately projected, the European dominance which he seemed to have achieved by 1942. All statesmen aim to win. The size of the winnings often surprises them." (Taylor p. 265-266)
On 25 March Hitler issued a directive: "The Fuhrer does not wish to solve the Danzig question by force. He does not wish to drive Poland into the arms of Britain by this. A possible military occupation of Danzig could be contemplated only if L (Lipski) gave an indication that the Polish government could not justify voluntary cession of Danzig to their own people and that a "fait accompli" would make a solution easier to them." (Taylor p. 259)
"Hitler's objective was an alliance with Poland, not her destruction. Danzig was a tiresome preliminary to got be out of the way. As before, Beck kept it in the way. So long as Danzig stood between Poland and Germany, he could evade the embarrassing offer of a German alliance, and so, as he thought to preserve Polish independence.
Beck's calculations worked, though not precisely as he intended. On 26 March Lipski returned to Berlin. He brought with him a firm refusal to yield over Danzig, though not a refusal to negotiate. Until this moment everything had gone on in secret, with no public hint of German-Polish estrangement. Now it blazed into the open. Beck, to show his resolve, called up Polish reservists. Hitler, to ease things along as he supposed, allowed the German press to write, for the first time, about the German minority in Poland." (Taylor p. 259)
"On 30 March Chamberlain drafted with his own hand an assurance to the Polish government: "If - any action was taken which clearly threatened their independence, and which the Polish Government accordingly felt obliged to resist with their national forces, His Majesty's Government and the French Government would at once lent them all the support in their power." (Taylor p. 260)
The German chancellor Adolf Hitler and the Polish premier Beck.
That afternoon Beck was discussing with the British ambassador how to implement his proposal of a week earlier for a general declaration when a telegram from London was brought in. The ambassador read out Chamberlain's assurance. Beck accepted it "between two flicks of the ash off his cigarette". Two flicks; and British grenadiers would die for Danzig. Two flicks; and the illusory great Poland, created in 1919, signed her death-warrant. The assurance was unconditional; the Poles alone were to judge whether it should be called upon. The British could no longer press for concessions over Danzig; equally, they could no longer urge Poland to cooperate with Soviet Russia. Germany and Russia were regarded in the West as two dangerous Powers, dictatorial in their governments, ruthless in their methods. Yet from this moment peace rested on the assumption that Hitler and Stalin would be more sensible and cautious than Chamberlain had been - that Hitler would continue to accept conditions in Danzig, which most Englishmen had long regarded as intolerable, and that Stalin would be ready to cooperate on terms of manifest inequality. These assumptions were not likely to fulfilled." (Taylor p. 260)
"The British were no sooner committed than they realized the flaws in what they had done: no conditions that the Poles would be reasonable over Danzig; no Polish promise of support for Romania; no prospect that Poland would cooperate with Soviet Russia. They determined to remedy these flaws when Beck came to London in the first days of April. Their hopes were dissappointed. Beck had stood up to Hitler without flinching; he was not likely to be moved by gentle promptings from Chamberlain and Halifax. With his usual "great Power" arrogance, he was prepared to turn the one-sided British Guarantee into a pact of mutual assistance - "the only basis that any self-respecting country would respect". Otherwise, he was steadily obstinate. He "had not noticed any signs of dangerous military action on the part of Germany"; "no negotiations were proceeding" over Danzig; "The German government had never contested Polish rights in Danzig, and had recently confirmed them; "If he were to go by what the Germans themselves said, he would say that the gravest question was the colonial question". Thus, he as good as implied that Poland was conferring a favour on Great Britain by agreeing to an alliance. But the alliance, he insisted, must be exclusive between the two; the "peace front" and collective security vanished from the scene. Extending the agreement to Rumania would be very dangerous. This would drive Hungary into the arms of Germany; and "in case of a conflict Poland and Germany, the help that Poland could expect from Rumania would be rather negligible". Beck was even firmer against any association with Soviet Russia. "There were two things which it was impossible for Poland to do, namely to make her policy dependent upon either Berlin or upon Moscow - Any pact of mutual assistance between Poland and Soviet Russia would bring an immediate hostile reaction from Berlin and would probably accelerate the outbreak of a conflict." The British could negotiate with Soviet Russia if they liked; they could even undertake obligations towards her. "These obligations would in no way extend the obligations undertaken by Poland."
German troops break a Polish border post on 1. of September 1939.
Chamberlain and Halifax accepted this virtuoso performance with hardly a protest. Beck's statements received none of the sceptical criticism which had earlier been given to Daladier's. There was no attempt to question Polish strength or to urge the merits of conciliation. The false alarm of 30. March had hurried the British government into guaranteeing Poland. Now Beck could dictate his terms and took full advantage of it. Poland did not join a "peace front". There was no promise of Polish support for Rumania; and there was virtually a Polish veto on closer relations with Soviet Russia. The British were given no opening to mediate over Danzig. The Anglo-Polish alliance was to be an isolated affair, with no associates except France and no general relevance. Beck did not believe that Poland was menaced by Germany; he simply wanted to strengthen his bargaining position over Danzig. The British cared nothing for Danzig; or, if they did, sympathized with the German case. They had intended only some vague and generous gesture to moderate the speed of Germany's advance. The only small loophole left to them was that the Anglo-Polish alliance remained provisional - the "formal agreement" still to be settled, the wish expressed that that others including Soviet Russia, should be brought in. But the loophole had no real existence; Beck could keep it closed at will. The British government was trapped not so much by their guarantee to Poland, as by their previous relations with Czechoslovakia. With her, they had imposed concession; towards her they had failed to honour their guarantee. They could not go back on their word again if they were to keep any respect in the world or with their own people. The chance of success in a war was probably less; the German case was stronger over Danzig than it had been over the Sudeten Germans. None of this mattered. The British government was committed to resistance. Beck reaped where Benes (Czech president) had sown." (Taylor p. 261-263)
Polish cavalry in Sochaczew 1939.
"The war of 1939, far from being premeditated, was a mistake, the result on both sides of diplomatic blunders." (Taylor p. 269)
"On any rational calculation, the Nazi-Soviet Pact ought to have discouraged the British people. Lloyd George was almost alone in making this calculation. Otherwise, the Pact produced a resolution such as the British had not shown for twenty years. On 22 August, to universal applause, the Cabinet determined to stand by their obligation to Poland." (Taylor side 323)
The situation was that rumors about concentration camps and
persecution of Jews had spread in England and France. This created strong anti-German sentiments in the general population -
and thus among the voters.
During August, Goering's friend, the Swede Dahlerus traveled to and fro between Berlin and London in a last attempt to avoid war. But his efforts ran into a brick wall of Polish stubbornness.
After the German attack on Poland Mussolini invited to an European five power conference on the 5. of September. Halifax and
Chamberlain presented the proposal respectively in the upper house and the under house. Affected by the agitated mood among the voters they required that a precondition for the conference should be that the German army should withdraw to their original positions prior to hostilities. Then the Italians dropped the proposal, and let history take its course. They knew that something like this would Hitler never accept.
German troops in Poland.
We send a thought to Thucydides, who wrote "The Peloponnesian War". His message was really that Athens lost the war because it was a democracy. The Athenian voters were too easily inflamed to unwise actions.
It was not wise to declare war on Germany the 3. of September 1939. If the Englishmen had not been so lucky that Hitler later increasingly lost touch with reality, attacked the Soviet Union and declared war against the United States, then it would have been the end of old England.
"The British people resolved to defy Hitler, though they lacked the strength to undo his work. He himself came to their aid. His success depended on the isolation of Europe from the rest of the World. He gratuitously destroyed the source of his success. In 1941 he attacked Soviet Russia and declared war on the United States, two World Powers who asked only to be left alone. In this way, a real World war began. We still live in its shadow. The war which broke out in 1939 has become a matter of historical curiosity." (Taylor p. 336)
When we look up from the dusty history books and view over the present, we see a situation which has some similarities with the situation in the between war period. We have a large empire, which has grown smaller and now has begun to regain strength. We have large Russian minorities in many Eastern European countries. We have a new nation far away, Georgia, which has demonstrated its ability to commit stupidities. The U.S. seems to have increased internal political problems and there is some risk that the Europeans themselves will have to fulfill the promises that have been given.
Literatur: "The Origins of The Second World War" by A. J. P. Taylor - Penguin Books.