History of Poland

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First World War aftermath

See also: Republic of Poland

After the First World War, Poland regained independence after 123 years of partitions. While the victorious Western allies proclaimed their support for an independent Poland, they primarily wanted to weaken Germany and the Soviet Union. As a result, their actual support was limited. One instance was the affair of Silesia. Many French and British politicians desired the industrial region of Silesia to remain part of Germany, so that Germany would have an easier time paying the Great War reparations to France and its allies. Britain provided no aid to Poland during the 1921 Silesian Uprisings. Under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, a plebiscite was to be held to determine which areas of ethnically mixed Silesia were to be ceded to Poland and which were to remain with Germany. In some districts of Upper Silesia, the majority of the people were Polish and opted for Poland; the majority in the rest of Upper Silesia opted for Germany. After the plebiscite, the Germans balked at handing over any part of Upper Silesia, claiming that the Versailles treaty did not call for partitioning Silesia by districts. The German interpretation was that the majority of people in Silesia had chosen Germany and so all of Silesia should remain with Germany. The German view was supported by Britain. In fact, Versailles did clearly state that Upper Silesia was to be partitioned by districts after the plebiscite.[1][2]

However, France and the French military in Silesia generally took a pro-Polish stance during the 1921 Polish uprising. In the years immediately after World War One, it was French policy to weaken Germany as much as possible, and though the French did not champion the border that the Poles wanted in Silesia, the French attitude to the Polish cause in regard to the Silesian dispute was markedly pro-Polish and anti-German. Indeed, it was a ultimatum from Paris that compelled the Germans to withdraw their forces from Silesia in June 1921.

Ostensibly, the British view that all of Silesia ought to remain with Germany was based on the belief that it would allow Germany to more easily pay reparations to France; by 1921, London had largely abandoned any claims against Germany and was strongly pressuring both France and Belgium to lower their reparations claims against the Germans as much as possible. The British argument about reparations was mostly a bid to influence French public opinion; the real reason for London's pro-German stance was the belief that if Germany were to lose too much territory, this could undermine the fragile Weimar Republic and lead to extremists taking power in Germany. Thus, British policy towards Silesia in 1921 was largely motivated by the desire to consolidate German democracy. Though the British were prepared to support an interpretation of Versailles that violated both its letter and its spirit, and though the Poles were understandably angry with London’s pro-German view in this matter, it is very hard to refer to British refusal to support the Polish rebels in Silesia as a “betrayal” as Britain had never made any commitments to do so.

During the Polish-Soviet War (1918-1921), there was a debate among western politicians which side they should support: the White Russians monarchists (representing the former Imperial Russia loyalists), the new Bolshevik revolutionaries, or newly independent countries trying to expand their territory at the expense of the powers that lost the First World War. Eventually, France and Britain decided to support the White Russians and Poland; however, their support to Poland was limited to the few hundred soldiers of the French military mission. Further, when it seemed likely in early 1920 that Poland would lose the war (which did not happen), Western diplomats encouraged Poland to surrender and settle for large territorial losses (the Curzon line).

In July 1920, Britain announced it would send huge quantities of World War One surplus military supplies to Poland, but a threatened general strike by the Trades Union Congress who objected to British support of "White Poland" ensured that none of the weapons that were supposed to go to Poland went any further than British ports. The British Prime Minister David Lloyd George had never been enthusiastic about supporting the Poles, and had been pressured by his more right-wing Cabinet members such as Lord Curzon and Winston Churchill into offering the supplies. The threatened general strike was for Lloyd George a convenient excuse for backing out of his commitments. The French were hampered in their efforts to supply Poland by the refusal of Danzig (modern Gdańsk, Poland) dockworkers to unload supplies for Poland. Likewise, French efforts to supply Poland via land were hindered by the refusal of Czechoslovakia and Germany (both which had border disputes with Poland) to allow arms for Poland to cross their frontiers.

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, a complicated set of alliances was established amongst the nations of Europe, in the hope of preventing future wars (either with Germany or Soviet Russia). With the rise of Nazism in Germany, this system of alliances was strengthened by the signing of a series of "mutual assistance" alliances between France, Britain, and Poland (Franco-Polish Alliance and Anglo-Polish Alliance). This agreement stated that in the event of war the other allies were to fully mobilize and carry out a "ground intervention within two weeks" in support of the ally being attacked[3][4][5]

Up to 1939


In the years following the end of World War I and the Polish-Soviet War, Poland had signed alliances with many European powers. The most important were the military alliance with France signed on February 19, 1921 and the defensive alliance with Romania of March 3, 1921. The alliance with France was a major factor in Polish inter-war foreign relations, and was seen as the main warrant of peace in Central Europe; Poland's military doctrine was heavily influenced by this alliance as well.

As World War II was nearing, both governments started to look for a renewal of the bilateral promises. This was accomplished in May 1939, when general Tadeusz Kasprzycki signed a secret protocol (later ratified by both governments) to the Franco-Polish Military Alliance with general Maurice Gamelin. It was agreed that France would grant her eastern ally a military credit as soon as possible. In case of war with Germany, France promised to start minor land and air military operations at once, and to start a major offensive (with the majority of its forces) not later than 15 days after the declaration of war.

On March 30, 1939, the government of the United Kingdom pledged to defend Poland, in the event of a German attack, and Romania in case of other threats. The reason for the British-issued “guarantee” of Romania and Poland was a panic-stricken ad hoc reaction to rumours (later proven to be false) of an imminent German descent on Romania in late March 1939. A German seizure of oil-rich Romania would ensure that in any future Anglo-German war, a British naval blockade would not starve Germany of oil. From London’s point of view, it was imperative to keep the oil wells of Romania out of German hands. The British “guarantee” was primarily intended to block a German move against Romania; Poland was added to the “guarantee” almost as an after-thought. Only in April 1939 did it become evident that the next German target was Poland.

The British “guarantee” of Poland was only of Polish independence, and pointly excluded Polish territorial integrity. “The reasons for the guarantee policy are nowhere more clearly stated than in a memorandum by the Foreign Office, composed in the summer of 1939, which submitted that it was essential to prevent Hitler from “expanding easterwards, and obtaining control of the resources of Central and Eastern Europe,” which would enable him “to turn upon the Western countries with overwhelming force. ””.[6] The basic goal of British foreign policy between 1919-1939 was to prevent another world war by a mixture of “carrot and stick”. The “stick” in this case was the “guarantee” of March 1939, which was intended to prevent Germany from attacking either Poland or Romania. At the same time, the Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and his Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax hoped to offer a “carrot” to Adolf Hitler in the form of another Munich type deal that would see the Free City of Danzig (modern Gdańsk, Poland) and the Polish Corridor returned to Germany in exchange for a promise by Hitler to leave the rest of Poland alone.

This declaration was further amended in April, when Poland's minister of foreign affairs Colonel Józef Beck met with Neville Chamberlain and Lord Halifax. In the aftermath of the talks, a mutual assistance treaty was signed. On August 25 the Polish-British Common Defence Pact was signed as an annex to Polish-French alliance. Like the “guarantee” of March 30, the Anglo-Polish alliance committed Britain only to the defense of Polish independence. It was clearly aimed against German aggression. In case of war, United Kingdom was to start hostilities as soon as possible; initially helping Poland with air raids against the German war industry, and joining the struggle on land as soon as the British Expeditionary Corps arrived in France. In addition, a military credit was granted and armament was to reach Polish or Romanian ports in early autumn.

However, both British and French governments had other plans than fulfilling the treaties with Poland. On May 4, 1939, a meeting was held in Paris, at which it was decided that the fate of Poland depends on the final outcome of the war, which will depend on our ability to defeat Germany rather than to aid Poland at the beginning. Poland's government was not notified of this decision, and the Polish–British talks in London were continued. A full military alliance treaty was ready to be signed on August 22, but His Majesty's Government postponed the signing until August 25, 1939.

At the same time secret German-Soviet talks were held in Moscow which resulted in signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact on August 22. The full text of the treaty, including the secret protocol assuming a partition of Poland and Soviet military help to Germany in case of war, was known to the British government thanks to Hans von Herwarth, an American informer in the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Yet, Poland's government was not informed of this fact either.[7]

The Phony War

For a more detailed treatment, see Phony War.

Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, Britain and France declared war on Germany after ultimatums to withdraw expired on September 3. However, some other items of the March 30 guarantee pledge were violated; most notably the failure to respond with an overland invasion from the West. The pledge would not have obliged France and Great Britain to declare war on the Soviet Union due to the actual wording of the pact that specifically named Germany as the potential aggressor. This was kept secret for diplomatic reasons. Great Britain and France enforced a naval blockade on Germany and seized German ships starting with the declaration of war.

According to the Franco-Polish military convention, the French Army was to start preparations for the major offensive three days after the mobilisation started. The French forces were to effectively gain control over the area between the French border and the German lines and to probe the German defences. On the 15th day of the mobilisation (that is on September 16), the French Army was to start a full scale assault on Germany. The pre-emptive mobilisation was started in France on August 26, and on September 1, the full mobilization was declared. A French offensive in the Rhine river valley area (Saar Offensive) started on September 7. Eleven French divisions (out of 102 being mobilized) advanced along a 32 km line near Saarbrücken with negligible German opposition. However, the half-hearted offensive was halted after France seized the Warndt Forest, three square miles of heavily-mined German territory. At the same time Great Britain, who promised to start air-raids on German industry as soon as possible, conducted a number of air raids against the German Kriegsmarine on September 4 1939, losing 2 Wellington and 5 Blenheim bombers in the action.[8][9] During those first days of the war RAF Whitley night bombers also dropped propaganda leaflets on German cities, taking great care to ensure that the leaflets were not dropped tied together so that they would cause no casualties on the ground. On September 11, the leaflet raids were halted.

Both the pre-war reports of the Polish intelligence and the post-war testimonies of German generals (most notably of Wilhelm Keitel and Alfred Jodl) reported that there was an equivalent of less than 20 divisions facing France in 1939, as compared to roughly 90 French divisions. Eleven of them were under-manned infantry divisions, mostly stripped of all heavy equipment, while the rest was composed mainly of second-line troops, march battalions and border guards. Similarly, most of the Luftwaffe and all armoured units were then in Poland while the Siegfried Line was severely under-manned and far from completed. Knowing all of the above, the Allied commanders expected that the French offensive would quickly break the German lines and force the OKW to withdraw a large part of its forces fighting on Polish soil back to German western frontier. This would force Germany to fight a costly two-front war.

The French assault was to be carried out by roughly 40 divisions, including one armoured division, three mechanized divisions, 78 artillery regiments and 40 tank battalions. All the necessary forces were mobilized in the first week of September. On September 12, the Anglo-French Supreme War Council gathered for the first time at Abbeville in France. It was decided that all offensive actions were to be halted immediately. By then, the French divisions have advanced approximately eight kilometres into Germany on a 24 kilometres long strip of the frontier in the Saarland area. Maurice Gamelin ordered his troops to stop not closer than 1 kilometre from the German positions along the Siegfried Line. Poland was not notified of this decision. Instead, Gamelin informed marshal Edward Rydz-Śmigły that half of his divisions are in contact with the enemy, and that French advances have forced the Wehrmacht to withdraw at least six divisions from Poland. The following day, the commander of the French Military Mission to Poland, General Louis Faury, informed the Polish Chief of Staff, General Wacław Stachiewicz, that the planned major offensive on the western front had to be postponed from September 17 to September 20. At the same time, French divisions were ordered to retreat to their barracks along the Maginot Line. The Phony war started.

The Allied attitude towards Poland in 1939 has been a subject of an ongoing dispute among historians ever since. Some historians argue that if only France had pursued the offensive agreed on in the treaties, it would have definitely been able to break through the unfinished Siegfried Line and force Germany to fight a costly two-front war that it was in no position to win. At the same time, others argue that France and Britain had promised more than they would deliver — especially when confronted with the option to declare war on the Soviet Union for violating Poland's territory on September 17, 1939 the way they had on Germany on September 3, 1939 — and that the French army was superior to the Wehrmacht in numbers only. It lacked the offensive doctrines, mobilization schemes, and offensive spirit necessary to attack Germany. Also, while the bulk of Luftwaffe was engaged in Poland, neither the French airforce nor the British Royal Air Force engaged in any operations against Germany beyond the leaflet droppings.

It is unlikely, given Soviet strategic doctrine of opportunistic war that they would have carried on with invasion of Poland fulfilling their promises given to Germans. Through Germans asked Russians to invade Poland on September 3 no such action took place till September 17, 1939. This is partly due to Soviet Union waiting for a proof of Poland's collapse as well as lack of military involvement on the part of the Allies.

The problem with Polish expectations was that the French and British commitments greatly exaggerated their capabilities. Although France promptly declared war, the French mobilization was not complete until early October, by which time Poland had fallen. In Britain where mobilization was more rapid, only 1 in 40 men were mobilized (compared to 1 in 10 in France, and 1 in 20 in Poland), thus providing only a token force against Germany's forces of several million. The presumption that "something could have been done but wasn't" overlooks the basic fact that the West, just like Poland, was ill-equipped to fight Germany even with the majority of German forces engaged in the east. After the war, General Alfred Jodl commented that the Germans survived 1939 "only because approximately 110 French and English divisions in the West, which during the campaign on Poland were facing 25 German divisions, remained completely inactive."

In the end, many Poles believe that although Poland held out for five weeks, three weeks longer than was planned, it received no military aid from its allies, the United Kingdom and France. Additionally Poland never surrendered to either the Germans or Russians. The agreed upon "two week ground response" never materialized, and it is contended that Poland fell to the Nazis and the Soviets as a result. It is uncertain whether the British or French had any real capacity to launch a successful offensive on the German-French border before mid-October 1939. Nevertheless, many Poles believe that an offensive within a two week timeframe was what they had promised the Polish government.


After the hostilities ended, German propaganda tried to win Poles and ensure collaboration by underlining that Poland was abandoned by her allies, and that the only world order that could ensure peaceful and prosperous life for the Poles was the German Reich.[Citation Needed] These claims were even strengthened by the French cease-fire signed in 1940 which was a clear violation of the alliance (both parties agreed not to sign any unilateral agreements with Germany).

Similar slogans were expressed by the Soviet Union propaganda until 1989. The official propaganda in all Eastern Bloc countries stated that Poland was betrayed and the only ally Poland could rely on was the Kremlin.


Atlantic Charter

Soon after the Third Reich had invaded the Soviet Union in Operation Barbarossa, the Polish government in exile signed a pact with Joseph Stalin. Although the Poles wanted a declaration that all pacts the USSR had signed with the Nazis were null and void, Stalin refused to consider any suggestion that he surrender the territory he seized consequent to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. It was for Poland that Britain entered the war in the first place and Britain was sympathetic to Polish interests. Britain nonetheless pressured the Poles to withdraw this demand, since, in Churchill's words, "We could not force our new and sorely threatened [Soviet] ally to abandon, even on paper, regions on her frontier which she regarded for generations as vital to her security." The London Poles conceded but only after Britain agreed to state in writing that all agreements that adjusted Poland's pre-war borders were null and void. The Soviet-Polish agreement was signed on July 30, 1941, and Anthony Eden formally notified the House of Commons of the arrangements that same day. In response to a parliamentary question about Britain's commitment, however, Eden stated that "The exchange of notes which I have just read to the House does not involve any guarantee of frontiers by His Majesty's Government."

The Poles were more successful in obtaining Soviet agreement to the creation of the Polish Army in the East, and obtaining the release of Polish citizens from the Soviet labor camps. Despite the difficulties the Soviet government made, many were freed from confinement and permitted to join the Polish Army formed formally on August 12, 1941. However, after the troops were withdrawn to the Middle East in March 1942, Stalin revoked the amnesty and in June and July arrested all Polish diplomats in the USSR.

Meanwhile, on September 24, 1941, Poland and the Soviet Union signed the Atlantic Charter. It underlined that no territorial changes should be made that would not accord with the freely expressed wishes of the peoples concerned. It was viewed by the Polish government as a warrant of Poland's borders, although it became apparent that some concessions would have to be made.

In December 1941, a Conference was held in Moscow between the USSR and Great Britain. Stalin proposed to base post-war Polish western borders on the Oder-Neisse Line and demanded that the United Kingdom accept the pre-war western borders of the Soviet Union. Anthony Eden accepted the demand as he assumed that the border in question was the 1939 line. However, Stalin apparently meant the 1941 border with Germany. It was soon discovered, but British government decided not to change the document. On March 11, 1942, Winston Churchill notified Prime Minister Władysław Sikorski that the borders of the Baltic States and Romania were guaranteed, and that no decision was made regarding the borders of Poland.

Katyn and the Soviet pressure

From the very beginning of Polish-Soviet talks in 1941, the government of Poland was searching for approximately 20,000 Polish officers missing in Russia. Stalin always replied that they either must have fled to Mongolia or are somewhere in Russia, which is a big country and it's easy to get lost here. In April 1943 German news agencies reported finding mass graves of Polish soldiers in Katyn. The Polish government requested the Soviet Union examine the case and at the same time asked the International Red Cross for help in verifying the German reports.

On April 24, 1943, Sikorski met with Eden and demanded Allied help in releasing Polish prisoners in the gulags and Soviet prisons. Sikorski also declined the Soviet demand that Poland withdraw their plea to have the Red Cross investigate Katyn. Anthony Eden refused to help and the Soviet Union broke diplomatic relations with Poland on the following day, arguing that the Polish government was collaborating with Nazi Germany. Despite Polish pleas for help, the United States and the United Kingdom decided not to put pressure on the USSR.

After the Soviets stopped the German advance on the Eastern Front, Poland lost its significance as the main Eastern ally. This was made obvious by the German defeat at Stalingrad.

Tehran conference

In November 1943, the Big Three (USSR, USA, and UK) met at the Tehran Conference. Both Roosevelt and Churchill officially agreed that the eastern borders of Poland would roughly follow the Curzon Line. The Polish government was not notified of this decision and the only information given was the press release claiming that We await the day, when all nations of the world will live peacefully, free of tyranny, according to their national needs and conscience. The resulting loss of the "eastern territories," approximately 48% of Poland's pre-war territory, to the Soviet Union is seen by Poles as another "betrayal" by their Western "Allies".

According to many historians, Churchill and Roosevelt promised Stalin to settle the issue with the Poles, however they never sincerely informed the Polish side. When the Polish Prime Minister visited Moscow, he was convinced he was coming to discuss borders that were still disputed, while Stalin believed everything had already been settled. This was the principal reason for the failure of Polish Prime Minister's mission to Moscow.


  1. various authors (1961 (1974)). "Upper Silesia, Poland, and the Baltic States, January 1920–March 1921 <333", in Rohan Butler, J.P.T. Bury, M.E. Lambert: Documents on British Foreign Policy 1919–1939, 1st. London: Her Majesty's Stationary Office. ISBN 0-11-591511-7. 
  2. Tadeusz Jędruszczak (1984). Plebiscyt i trzecie powstanie śląskie, Historia Polski. Warsaw: Polish Academy of Sciences. ISBN 83-01-003865-9. 
  3. Andrzej Ajnenkiel (2000). Polsko-francuski sojusz wojskowy. Warsaw: Academy of National Defence. 
  4. Jan Ciałowicz (1971). Polsko-francuski sojusz wojskowy, 1921–1939. Warsaw: Państwowe Wydawnictwo Naukowe. 
  5. Edward Raczyński (1948). The British-Polish Alliance; Its Origin and Meaning. London: The Mellville Press. 
  6. Stephen Borsody (1994). The New Central Europe. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 1-882785-03-7. 
  7. Charles E. Bohlen (1973). Witness to history, 1929-1969. Norton, 562. ISBN 978-0393074765. 
  8. [1] WWII timeline for 1939
  9. [2] German Chronik des Seekriegs

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