Peter Hitchens’ The Phoney Victory is an interesting and challenging book that aims its argumentative arrows towards the sacred cow that is Britain’s idealised image of the Second World War. One of Hitchens’ arguments is that it was wrong for the British government to assure the Poles that it would declare war on Germany in the event of a German invasion of Poland. I am not sure that this argument is correct but I have sympathy with it given Britain’s obvious unpreparedness in 1939.
Mr Hitchens, though, supports his case against Britain’s 1939 declaration of war by denigrating the Polish state. He writes, in his book:
We went to war in defence of a territorially aggressive, anti-Semitic despotism. Sometimes one has to do such things. But it is surely foolish to pretend that they are benevolent or principled actions. The common impression of a simple war of good versus evil was (even at this stage of the conflict) completely mistaken.
Completely mistaken. Of course, it is true that the Polish state, like any state, was flawed but for the idea of a war of good versus evil to be completely mistaken one would have to think this was not even a conflict of the significantly better against the significantly worse, and this would be a mistake.
Mr Hitchens considers the pre-war Polish nation to have been “territorially aggressive” because of its annexation of the Czech portion of Cieszyn Silesia. I happen to agree this was a moral and tactical mistake – morally because the Poles and the Czechs should have set aside their territorial disagreements in the face of eastern and western enemies, and tactically because it led other nations to become unsympathetic towards Poland in view of what they saw as a combined German and Polish assault on Czechoslovakia – but certain facts should be acknowledged. The first is that the area had been controversially granted to the Czechs after the First World War, after which local Poles had faced expulsion and discrimination. The second is that the Nazis would have invaded the area anyway, and the Poles, as Anna Cienciala writes in The Polish Review, aimed themselves towards “preventing German domination of all of Czechoslovakia.” While none of this, in my opinion, precludes the annexation from being a moral and tactical mistake, it shows that the description of Poland as “territorially aggressive” is true in a very limited sense, especially if one compared it to its rivals to the east and west (or, indeed, in a lesser sense, to the British Empire).
Hitchens calls Poland “deeply anti-Semitic in practice.” Polish anti-Semitism had certainly become more radical in the 1930s, not only among the nationalists of “Endecja” but among members of the government which had begun to flirt not only with the idea of voluntary Jewish emigration – which made sense, in some cases, with the rise of Zionism and the widespread mutual indifference to assimilating – but actual expulsion. As Hitchens observes, though, these tendencies were never manifested in anti-Jewish legislation. There was, indeed, no Polish Der Sturmer, no Polish Kristallnacht, no Polish Iron Guard and no Polish SS. Again, “completely mistaken”?
On Twitter, Hitchens offers the belief that if Britain and France had not made assurances to Poland, Poland would have been an ally to if not a member of the Axis Powers (I know Twitter is a place for first thoughts more than firm conclusions but if something can be asserted it can be discussed):
Without the Anglo-French guarantee they might well have been on very good terms with Germany…Poland was among the first countries to sign an international treaty with Germany in 1934…Colonel Beck was love bombed by Hitler and Ribbentrop.
Poland had also signed a non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union in 1932. Are we to believe that had it not been for the British and French assurances, the Poles might have been allies of the communists? To be sure, the Poles preferred the Nazis to the Soviets – who, after all, had invaded Poland within memory and were ratcheting up their persecution of ethnic Poles living in their territories, which would, in 1937, culminate in quasi-genocidal mass murder – but they consistently refused to join a united front against Stalin. Stanisław Żerko writes in “Poland, Germany and the Genesis of the Second World War”:
Ribbentrop made the last attempt to convince the Polish in the second half of March 1939 after the final breakup of the Czechoslovakian state and the establishment of the Protectorate of Czech and Moravia. The reply passed on from Beck by ambassador Lipski on 26 March 1939 did not leave any room for delusion. “The Poles will remain our enemies” were the Führer’s words noted down by Goebbels.
This was before the Anglo-Polish alliance.
In short – and I am aware that this might be tedious to anyone not invested in Polish history – it is quite legitimate to argue that assurances the British and F the made to Poland were hubristic or insincere, but there is no reason to obscure the stark inequalities of evil that separated the German and Soviet aggressors from their Polish victim.