The Second World War is the most well-documented conflict in human history and we all know how it began. Germany, in a flagrant act of military aggression, invaded Poland on 1st September 1939 under a trumped-up casus belli, thus triggering Great Britain’s guarantee of assisted defence to the Eastern European nation. After the British and French ultimatum was rejected by the German government, a state of war existed from 3rd September. Yet this is not the complete story. As we now know, a secret protocol of the so-called Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact (German-Soviet non-aggression treaty), signed on 23rd August 1939, stipulated that the USSR would also undertake an invasion of Poland and annex the Eastern section of the country. On 17th September the Red Army invaded Eastern Poland, without so much as a formal declaration of war. Military operations lasted until mid-October, with Eastern Poland and its people fully annexed by the USSR thereafter. The Red Army’s campaign was an identical replica of the German’s just two weeks prior; over 200,000 prisoners of war were taken; political and cultural leaders were arrested; high profile members of the intelligentsia were shot en masse in summary executions. During the course of the Second World War, the Soviet forces in Poland practised their preferred method of ideological engineering: population dumping. Hundreds of thousands of Polish civilians were deported East to Siberia, never to return, whilst the NKVD (the KGB’s predecessor) held mock elections and terrorised the population into accepting Bolshevik rule.
The purpose of describing such events is to demonstrate, as can clearly be seen, that the Soviet invasion of Poland bore striking resemblance to that of the Germans. Indeed, both bore the hallmarks of expansionist invasion because that’s precisely what they were. This begs the question: why did the British and French governments declare war on Germany for violating Polish sovereignty, but not the USSR? Furthermore, why did the allies mount no defence of the Baltic states when they, too, fell victim to Soviet aggression in 1940? Historians often appear loathed to even ask such questions, let alone speculate on their answers.
The answer, perhaps, lies amongst events that occurred in the years leading up to the advent of war. In March 1938, German forces entered Austria in what the victorious allies deemed to be the regime’s first act of aggression – notwithstanding the fact that Austrian forces simultaneously entered Germany to demonstrate good faith and reciprocity. The most worrisome protests, from the German point of view, in actual fact came from Italy in the run up to the annexation. In the past, Mussolini’s government had supported the territorial integrity of the Austrian state, mostly due to concerns over South Tyrol, a German territory gifted to the Italians at Versailles. Under the pre-Anschluss status quo, Austria posed no threat to Italy over said territory. Indeed, Hitler’s government was genuinely concerned that Italy might respond militarily over the Anschluss. The Western Powers – Britain and France – voiced only the mildest and half-hearted of objections. The Austrian state had signalled its desire to join Germany in the aftermath of World War One and the breakup of the Habsburg Empire, yet this petition was denied by the victorious allies – this is a potential reason why, under the principles of self-determination, the Allies were quiet over the 1938 annexation of Austria. The relevance of this will be demonstrable when we later come to address to Polish question.
When, later in 1938, the Germans turned their expansionist attention to Czechoslovakia and the Sudetenland, the Allies took a somewhat keener interest, yet again signalled their desires too appease Germany’s (rightful) demands to incorporate ethnic German territory into the Reich. The culmination of this was the Munich Agreement, where British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain gave blessings to Germany’s annexation of the Sudetenland on the basis that it would be the Reich’s last territorial ambition in Europe. Then, one could argue, the later invasion of Poland carried more gravity for the Allies as it violated not only the mutual defence guarantee, but also the terms of the Munich Agreement. However, this is another case in which the full story must be laid bare. In March 1939, as the Czech State disintegrated, the German’s completely disregarded the Munich Agreement and occupied Prague, creating the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, a region populated by ethnic Czechs and administered by what was essentially an SS Police State and nominal Gauleiters. The Allies, aside from mild mannered voices of protestation, were nowhere to be seen, and military action was definitively off the agenda in this case. Here, the Germans had occupied a foreign country of no ethnic interest and in direct violation of an Allied treaty. If the Allies cared for the territorial integrity of Eastern Europe, or the post-WWI Wilsonian doctrine of self-determination and democracy, why did they not intervene at this stage?
Now we turn our attentions to the Polish question. It was not secret throughout the formative years of the Third Reich that Germany sought the incorporation of the Free City of Danzig – mandated by the United Nations since Versailles – and the so-called Polish corridor into Germany. These were territories taken from Germany in 1919 and handed to Poland in the case of the “corridor” (West Prussia), and given nominal autonomy in the case of Danzig. The Danzig senate was majority National Socialist since 1932, and the territory of the corridor was predominantly inhabited by ethnic Germans. Thus, the Germans had a much stronger case for the incorporation of these territories into the Reich than they did with, say, the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, which was predominantly Czech and historically a part of the Habsburg Empire, not Germany from 1871 onwards. Yet, in the midst of the tensions created by the demands, rather than applying the same criteria that they had with Austria and the Sudetenland, the Allies decided to offer a guarantee of territorial integrity to Poland! On the surface, this seems rather a double-standard, but some clarity can be found when honestly analysing Allied strategy.
The guarantee made to Poland was, in reality, nothing to do with any genuine consideration for the territorial sovereignty of the Polish state. The Allies, particularly the British establishment, sought a way to align themselves against Germany, through one avenue or another, irrespective of who the target of Germany’s expansion may have been. That there was no Allied response to the Soviet invasion of Poland proves this case. Bolshevism was a greater threat to Europe than Hitler’s Reich, which only sought to expand to former German territories in the East. Bolshevism sought the entirety of Europe into which it wished to expand its influence, yet the Allies were evidently prepared to overlook its Westward expansion. This also explains why the Allies offered no protest when Stalin’s Red Army took Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. They were not at all interested in the sovereignty of these countries – and today, this is why Latvians hold an annual commemoration for the Waffen SS and not the Royal Air Force. Similarly, there were no outpourings of sympathy from the Western Powers when the Red Army raped and murdered their way through Eastern Poland in the Autumn of 1939. As mentioned in the introductory paragraph, the Red Army’s rule in Poland resembled more a military dictatorship, arbitrarily deciding who may live or die on a whim.
Whether or not the Allies actively sought war with Germany has always been a matter of debate. An accurate assessment of the situation demonstrates that the British establishment, for instance, was not a homogenous block of opinion. Nobody within the Westminster annals of power wished to gift Hitler further territorial concessions, aside from a few insignificant voices, but there were those, such as Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and Lord Halifax, who went to war with a heavy heart. Equally there were those, such as Prime Minister in waiting Winston Churchill, whose jingoistic cries for war can still be heard from the distance of history. The French, on the other hand, weren’t particularly enthusiastic about war. The evidence suggests that they were reluctant to add their name to any war guarantee to Poland, yet they did so as a gesture of good faith to the British and without actually envisaging it being activated. What we can deduce most definitely is that the Western powers saw the Polish guarantee more as an anti-German pact, rather than a pro-Soviet one, evidenced by their lack of response to the Soviet invasion in mid-September 1939.