On Monday 28 September, Russian ambassador Sergei Andreev was summoned to the Polish Foreign Ministry. The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Grzegorz Schetyna, stated that it was because of an interview Andreev had given the day before to the TVN 24 television channel, in which he declared that Poland «is partially responsible» for the disaster of the Second World War.
The minister described the words as «offensive», arising «from a misunderstanding of history», «unjust and untrue». The special statement by the Polish Foreign Ministry on the Russian ambassador’s comments also stated that they undermine «historical truth» and damage relations between Poland and Russia.
The view of Poland exclusively as a victim of Nazi aggression that has become firmly established in historiography and the public consciousness has, for many decades, only ever provoked a natural sympathy for the country. But this view is only partly true, and empathy for a victim of aggression cannot overshadow the entire picture of what happened. Both international and criminal law knows of many examples where random subjects (countries or people) as well as accomplices to the crime have become an object of aggression on the part of the perpetrator. There is a good reason why Mr Schetyna and his subordinates did not go beyond emotion and complaints about a «misunderstanding of history» in their reaction to the Russian diplomat’s words.
Russian ambassador Andreev could have said far more than just recalling Poland’s repeated attempts to block the formation of a coalition to oppose Nazi Germany during the 1930s. In truth, Poland did not just put a spoke in the wheel for forces, primarily the Soviet Union, trying to establish a system of collective security in Europe, but also openly joined Hitler’s expansionist plans.
On 30 September 1939, when British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and French Prime Minister Édouard Daladier placed their signatures next to Adolf Hitler’s and Benito Mussolini’s on an agreement handing Czechoslovakia over to the aggressors for slaughter, Warsaw was rubbing its hands expecting an easy meat. In May, French Foreign Minister Georges Bonnet had reported to the Polish ambassador that the plan «to divide Czechoslovakia between Germany and Hungary with the transfer of Cieszyn Silesia to Poland is not a secret». The very next day after the Munich Agreement was signed, Warsaw asked for Cieszyn Silesia to be handed over to Poland and, without waiting for an official response, occupied its territory. With this, the country surpassed even Hitler, who gave Czechoslovakia ten days to cede Sudetenland, which was inhabited by ethnic Germans.
The note from Kazimierz Papee, the Polish envoy to Czechoslovakia, to the Czech Foreign Minister Kamil Krofta dated 30 September 1938 is almost a perfect replica of Hitler’s note to Prague regarding Sudetenland: exactly the same references to the «intolerable situation» of the Polish population in Cieszyn Silesia, the definitive conclusion that normalising bilateral relations would only be possible with the «territorial concession» in favour of Poland, and even the laying the blame for repercussions on Czechoslovakia should the country refuse to fulfil such insolent demands.
The coercion of Czechoslovakia was carried out at the behest of Western democracies, but there was still the Soviet Union capable of upsetting the plans of the Munich Four, since it was bound to Czechoslovakia by a treaty of mutual assistance. Implementing the treaty was reliant on one important condition, however – that Red Army forces would be able to pass through Poland. Poland categorically rejected the request to let troops pass through, which was brought to the attention of all the governments concerned. Thus the Polish ambassador in Paris, Juliusz Łukasiewicz, assured his US colleague, William Bullitt, that his country would immediately declare war on the Soviet Union if it tried to send troops through Poland to the borders of Czechoslovakia.
Not everyone in Europe was so naive as to not understand that territorial concessions by Western democracies at the expense of third party countries were only likely to whet Germany’s appetite for new acquisitions, and that a barrier needed to be put in front of Hitler in the form of an agreement with Moscow. On 21 March 1939, British ambassador William Seeds presented the Soviet Commissar for Foreign Affairs Maxim Litvinov with a draft declaration by Great Britain, the USSR, France and Poland, in accordance with which the governments of the four countries undertook to «hold a consultation on those steps which must be undertaken for the general opposition» to any actions «constituting a threat to the political independence of any European state» and affecting peace and security in Europe. Although the draft was extremely vague and did not propose any effective action to stop aggression, the Soviet government agreed to sign it on 23 March. Poland, however, reacted negatively to the draft declaration and London, referring to Poland’s position, rejected its own initiative a week later.
Warsaw’s short-sightedness had a disastrous impact on the fate of the military convention between the USSR, Great Britain and France which never materialised and which, if it had been signed, would have allowed for the creation of such a military fist that it would have stopped Hitler in his tracks. Talks in Moscow on the signing of the agreement took place in August 1939. The capacity of the document largely depended on a positive solution to the ‘crucial question’, which is how the issue of getting the consent of Poland and Romania to allow Red army troops to pass through their territory was defined in diplomatic correspondence.
A report by the subcommittee of the British Chiefs of Staff Committee presented to the Cabinet on 17 August 1939 contained the following recommendation: «The conclusion of a treaty with Russia appears to us to be the best way of preventing a war. The satisfactory conclusion of this treaty will undoubtedly be endangered if the present Russian proposals for cooperation with Poland and Romania were turned down by these countries. We wish to emphasise once more our view that, if necessary, the strongest pressure should be brought on Poland and Romania to agree in advance to the use of their territory by Russian forces, in the event of attack by Germany». The British Cabinet procrastinated, however, hoping to reach an agreement with Germany behind the USSR’s back and avoid putting the requisite pressure on Warsaw.
The more realistically-minded leaders of the French delegation to the Moscow talks, General Joseph Doumenc and the French ambassador in Moscow P.-E. Naggiar, regarded the Soviet delegation’s stipulation with respect to Poland as well grounded. In a telegram sent to Paris on 15 August, Naggiar wrote: «They are offering us definite assistance in the East and are not putting forward any additional demands regarding assistance from the West. However, the Soviet delegation warns that with its negative position, Poland is making the creation of a front of opposition involving Russian forces impossible».
The ‘crucial question’ on which the fate of the military convention between the three countries rested was never resolved: Warsaw and Bucharest feared the prospect of Soviet troops passing through. On the evening of 19 August, Marshal Edward Rydz-Śmigły (virtually the second most important person in the government after the president) declared: «Regardless of the consequences, Russian troops will never be permitted onto a single inch of Polish land». Polish Foreign Minister Józef Beck told the French ambassador in Warsaw, Leon Noël, that: «We will not allow the use of part of our territory by foreign troops to be discussed in any form whatsoever».
The chance offered by the Moscow talks to form a united anti-fascist front in Europe was missed. The Soviet leadership, faced with the prospect of international isolation, agreed to sign the Soviet-German Non-Aggression Pact, which Western capitals and Warsaw are today endeavouring to declare was the trigger for the Second World War. Gentlemen, don’t shift the blame on others. You yourselves did everything you could to whet Hitler’s appetite, but in spite of your anti-Soviet plans, you found yourselves under attack by the aggressor.
Poland was also to regret its short-sightedness, becoming yet another victim of Nazi Germany. The Poles did not notice the shadow of the imperial eagle clutching a swastika in its claws advancing from the West, being too wrapped up in the prospect of taking part in the partition of Czechoslovakia to begin with and then, after 30 September 1938, the tearing away of Cieszyn Silesia.
Such actions by the Polish military and of Polish diplomacy were the reason why Winston Churchill referred to Poland as the «hyena of Europe». The hyena is an animal that is so well-known for the style of its existence that it does not take long to work out why the former British prime minister resorted to such an analogy.
After taking part in the partition of Czechoslovakia, incidentally, Warsaw also dreamed about the partition of the USSR. In December 1938, a report by the intelligence department of the General Staff of the Polish Armed Forces emphasised that: «The dismemberment of Russia lies at the heart of Poland’s policy in the East... Therefore, our position will be reduced to the following formula: who will take part in the partition? Poland should not remain passive at this great historical moment... The main objective is the weakening and destruction of Russia». The Poles did not limit themselves to the plans of the General Staff. In January 1939, while engaged in talks with his German colleague Joachim von Ribbentrop, Polish Foreign Minister Józef Beck drew Ribbentrop’s attention to the fact that «Poland is laying claim to Soviet Ukraine and an outlet to the Black Sea».
It needs to be understood that the Polish Armed Forces were planning on achieving these goals alongside the Wehrmacht.
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...Nothing hurts like the truth, and without any weighty arguments to counterbalance Russian ambassador Sergei Andreev’s allegations, Poland is threatening him with expulsion. Let me venture to give the Polish politicians who are so sensitive to the truth a piece of advice – throw the works of Winston Churchill, the laureate of the Nobel Prize in Literature who named and shamed the «hyena» with the skill of a great politician and genuine writer, onto the scrap heap at the same time. In contrast, the opinions of Ambassador Andreev are the height of diplomatic finesse.