Poland’s decision to reject the Soviet demands as regards the Red Army passage did not matter from the perspective of Stalin’s motivation, yet it awarded him a pretext used by Soviet propaganda and historiography - writes Prof. Marek Kornat on the inevitable course of the events leading to the war.
“Once it became obvious that Hitler pushes for a war, France and Great Britain tried to set up a front to counter the aggression and sent a delegation to Moscow so as to agree a programme for cooperation. The Soviets did not exclude a possible agreement, saying that they could accept the proposal under the condition that the Red Army troops (...) were allowed to move through Poland. Proud and suspicious, the government in Warsaw rejected the idea and the Soviets interpreted the response as a manifestation of distrust towards them. There might not have been any Ribbentrop-Molotov pact (and maybe the Second World War, either), had the Poles not believed so much in their own ability to counter the German troops. As regards the Soviet entry into Polish territory, the Soviet decision was understandable. Since Poland, as Germany intended, was to disappear, why would Russia not restrict the German expansion by taking a slice of the country for itself?” Such are the reflections presented a few days ago in the “Corriere della Sera” daily by the Italian writer, journalist and diplomat Sergio Romano.
Unfortunately, the successive “round” anniversaries of the outbreak or end of the Second World War make that old Soviet idea recur. Let us recall the fact then.
In the night from 11 to 12 August Allied military delegations arrived in Moscow to hold talk with the Soviets (the British headed by Admiral Drax and the French by General Doumenc), which meant that the efforts to negotiate a tripartite alliance treaty between Great Britain, France and the USSR entered into the decisive phase. The leader of the Soviet delegation in the Moscow talks Marshal Voroshylov demanded the use of Polish and Romanian territories for fighting with the Germans. He stated that as the USSR did not share a border with Germany, the Red Army was unable to take part in the war and deliver on the commitments it had made. On 18 August, the ambassadors of France and Great Britain to Poland presented the issue to the Polish government in Warsaw.
The Soviet demands concerning the Red Army “passage” through Poland and Romania were an unambiguous proof that the Soviets wished to break off the negotiations with the Allied Powers, as it would have been inconceivable to imagine that the Polish reply would be anything but negative. And indeed, such was the Polish stance communicated to the ambassadors of the Allies several times between 18—22 August. Already on 19 August, a German-Soviet economic treaty was signed in Berlin, and von Ribbentrop was invited to Moscow a week later. On Hitler’s personal request to Stalin, the hastened trip took place as early as 23 August. The talks in Moscow resulted in the well-known agreement concerning the division of the “spheres of interest” in Eastern Europe between both totalitarian powers.
To satisfy the Soviet demands would have been tantamount to an agreement to have the east of Poland occupied and a death sentence voluntarily signed. Upon the Soviet entry on Polish territory, Poland would have lost independence just as the Baltic States had lost theirs: having let in the Red Army in October 1939, they were unable to put up resistance in June 1940.
One must have no illusions concerning Stalin’s policy in 1939. His pronouncements concerning Poland and the Versailles order reveal his true intentions. The 7 September 1939 entry in Georgi Dimitrov’s Diary quotes Stalin’s very clear words about Poland: “Doing away with that country in conducive circumstances would mean one bourgeois fascist state less. What wrong would that be if as a result of shattering Poland we spread the socialist system over a new territory and population?” True, the Soviet dictator was forced in 1934 to proclaim his orientation towards cooperation with western democracies, yet this did not mean any fundamental change to the strategic principle: the notion that the Versailles order had to be demolished, put briefly. Highly important and suggestive remain his words from July 1940, where in a conversation with the British ambassador to Moscow Stafford Cripps the USSR leader said that before the outbreak of the Second World War no Soviet-British rapprochement was possible as his country focused on the demolition of the “old” balance of powers built after the First World War without Russia, while Great Britain fought for its retention. “The Soviet Union wanted to change the old system of powers (…), while England and France wished to keep it. Also Germany wanted to make a change in the power system and this joint wish to do away with the old system became the basis for the rapprochement with the Germans.”
One should repeat after the German historian Martin Broszat that Hitler found in Stalin a partner for waging a total war of destruction, a “partner equally eager to treat foreign territories lightly”. Because of this, “Hitler’s way of thinking in terms of dividing spheres of interest on vast areas which he tried to propose to the English in vain, met with a mutual sentiment (...).” This, in turn “must have been a potent stimulus and incentive to start just in Poland the implementation of the nationalist-socialist concept of a new large-scale system of relations in terms of territory and population.”
Poland’s decision to reject the Soviet demands as regards the Red Army passage did not matter from the perspective of Stalin’s motivation, yet it awarded him a pretext used by Soviet propaganda and historiography. Currently, the propaganda of Putin’s Russia makes use of such ideas. In Russia, history was and still is a political tool. What remains more striking is the fact that the Soviet version of the interpretation as to the reasons for the outbreak of the Second World War keeps finding believers outside Russia.
In the summer of 1939, the Soviet Union and the German Reich, two totalitarian powers, struck an agreement. Although it would not be long-lasting, it was definitely real. The Polish government could be nothing more than a passive observer of the developments. No Polish policy was able to take the Soviet authorities away from their intention to pursue cooperation with Germany in order to secure new territories in Eastern Europe. No Polish policy was able to prevent the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact, or to change the inevitable course of the events leading to the war.
(written on 27 April 2015)
Find out more:
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- The Genesis of the European Day of Remembrance for Victims of Totalitarian Regimes
- Commemoration of 23 August - key dates and documents
- Molotov - Ribbentrop Pact explained
- Different ways to remember totalitarian regimes in Europe - discussion panel
- Nuremberg Is Not Enough - an article by Jan Rydel
- Truncheons in the display case - an article by Wojciech Stanisławski