A festival of lies, humiliation, violence. Aggression was a matter of time

In front of the Polish delegation, Hitler made allusions to an anti-Soviet military alliance. Beck did not take up this theme, nor did Poland's temptation with Soviet Ukraine - Hitler pointed to it as the direction of Polish expansion.

August 1920, London, House of Commons. Lev Kamenev, the number two person in Soviet Russia, addresses British parliamentarians, outlining the terms of the truce with Poland. Among them is a demand for a drastic reduction of the Polish Army - from nearly a million to 50,000 soldiers; the Poles are also to hand over all their spare armaments to the Red Army. What is more, the production of all weapons is to be banned on the Vistula, and order is to be maintained by a new formation - the "people's militia" - retrofitted, of course, by the Bolsheviks. And the cherry on the cake - the possibility of unrestricted passage of transports with Soviet soldiers, weapons, etc., through Polish territory.

Although this truce package meant the de facto sovietisation of Poland, Prime Minister Lloyd George suggested that the Poles should accept it. Fortunately, London's diplomatic voice was soon silenced by the sounds of the battles of Warsaw and Niemen, which saved Polish independence.

Did Józef Beck, an intelligence officer in 1920, remember all this when he was analysing German "special offer" made by Hitler and Ribbentrop in the autumn of 1938? Possibly.

Corridor through corridor

The rules of transport through Pomerania separating East Prussia from the Reich were laid down in the Paris Transit Convention, a tripartite agreement signed by Poland, Germany and the Free City of Gdansk in 1921. According to this convention, German citizens transiting through the territory of the Republic of Poland were subject to Polish law and had to show their passports at the request of the Polish authorities. Goods transported by them were subject to customs duties, which were not insignificant - the profits from this accounted for as much as a dozen or so (up to 15%) percent of the Polish budget. br>
As far as military matters were concerned, the convention stated that Germany could transport soldiers and arms through Poland, but only in the event of war, and only in the event of a defensive one.

Berlin realised that without an agreement with Warsaw there could be no question of facilitating transport, and in the 1930s the Germans periodically returned to the subject of a special motorway through Pomerania (in German propaganda a "corridor through corridor").
German State Motor Road, circa 1936. Section of the German State Motor Road on the route connecting Breslau (Wrocław) and Leignitz (Legnica). German autobahn construction under Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) commenced in 1933, and by 1936 1000 km had been constructed. By 1942 this had risen to 4000 km, with another 2500 km under construction. Photo by Daily Herald Archive/National Science & Media Museum/SSPL via Getty Images
In 1934, Ambassador Hans Adolf von Moltke put forward such a proposal, and a year later talks concerning the motorway were held between the German General Road Inspector Fritz Todt and the Deputy Communications Minister Julian Piasecki. Hermann Göring, Hitler's unofficial representative in contacts with Warsaw, also mentioned the idea of a road linking Prussia with the Reich during his visits to Poland. br>
Motorway or Trojan horse?

Over time, Hitler himself became involved in talks on the motorway, and in May and September 1938 he signalled the need for such a solution to Ambassador Józef Lipski. The latter in turn reported to Beck: "during the meeting he [Hitler] put forward the concept of a motorway, already known to your Minister, connected with the railway. The width of such a route would be, as he said, about 30 m".

Not once, however, did the dictator of the Third Reich or other German dignitaries propose that the route in question should be extraterritorial. This was stated as late as 24 October 1938, in a conversation with Lipski, by the head of the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Joachim von Ribbentrop.

It was at that time that the Germans put forward demands with regard to Poland that constituted a "comprehensive solution" ("Gesamtlösung"). . In return for the incorporation o Gdansk into the Reich, an extraterritorial motorway and railway line, and the consultation of their foreign policy with the Reich, the Poles were to gain, among other things, an analogous highway to the port of Gdansk, the right to perpetual use of it, and a guarantee of the inviolability of the Polish-German border.

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Sounds promising? According to Hitler and Ribbentrop, certainly, but as usual the devil is in the detail. Beck's critics, past and present, point to his stupidity - since Gdansk was anyway dominated by the German population and ruled by the Nazis, giving it to the Reich would simply seal the facts.

A motorway and a railway? Such a solution has been thought over in Europe for years, and thanks to it Poland would get rid of German claims to Pomerania once and for all - claim historical publicists such as Piotr Zychowicz and Rafał Ziemkiewicz.

The problem is that Hitler demanded an extraterritorial motorway, which would not only have violated Poland's sovereignty, but would have resulted in the Wehrmacht threatening to cut Poland off from the Baltic like the Sword of Damocles. Why? The extraterritoriality of the road and railway line meant that they would lie within Reich territory. As a result, the Germans could transport unlimited numbers of soldiers, weapons and ammunition along them, both in peacetime and war ( the Paris Convention only applied to the latter).

On the entire length of the routes, only German law would be valid, the consequences of which were vividly explained in a confidential memo by Władysław Kulski, Head of the Legal and Treaty Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs: "competent [in the field of justice - editor's note] would be German courts (not without significance in view of car accidents), order would be guarded by German police, the German customs system would apply, etc."

In the memo, Kulski also gave a concrete example of the asymmetry of rights that Poland and Germany would have in relation to such a motorway. If a criminal from Poland escaped onto the motorway, he would automatically be on Reich territory and the Republic would have to apply for the fugitive's extradition. If, on the other hand, some fugitives from the depths of Germany were found on the "Polish" section of the motorway, "they could be pursued [...] along the entire motorway by the German police". In a word, we would be dealing with a German enclave on Polish soil.

Beck and Polish diplomats therefore had to take into account a scenario in which Hitler would have moved an appropriate number of Wehrmacht soldiers to the area of the motorway and railway line. The Wehrmacht would have isolated Pomerania from the rest of Poland or, worse, launched an offensive inland to occupy the former Prussian partitioned territories of Kujawy and Wielkopolska.

The narrowest country in the world

The likelihood of such a development increased especially after 15 March 1939, when the Wehrmacht invaded Czechoslovakia and began the occupation of part of its territory (the remaining lands became part of Slovakia, which had just declared independence).
Photograph of Nazis occupying Prague Castle after Adolf Hitler spent the night. Dated 1939 Photo by Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Let us add, that only 3 months earlier Czechs agreed on routing through their country the extraterritorial road Breslau-Vienna. In spite of this, Hitler invaded them, anyway before the signatures on the documents of Munich Conference dried, he was already plotting annexation plans against his neighbour. In confidential circles he said: "this was my first international conference and I can assure you that it will be my last". He did not stop at words - on 21 October 1938, he sent a secret directive to the army concerning, among other things, the armed occupation of Czechoslovakia. From then on, Wehrmacht aggression was just a matter of time.

Of course, the Polish authorities did not know this, but a careful observation of the Germans' behaviour after Munich was enough to judge lowly Hitler's credibility. For the attitude of the Reich towards Czechoslovakia resembled a constant festival of lies, humiliation, sometimes even violence.

It began with the Germans occupying an area far beyond the Sudetenland - the land allocated to them was divided into four 'bands', and they also forced the Czechs to cede two more 'bands'. The result? The new borders of Czechoslovakia looked like bent wire, and the public joked that their country was the second narrowest in the world (after Chile).

It was, however, laughter through tears - the Germans kept on harping on Prague and making new demands. One of them was to agree to the aforementioned extraterritorial motorway leading from Breslau via Brno to Vienna. The Czechs said: "yes" and on 30 December they signed a corresponding agreement with the Germans. Besides, they tried not to irritate Berlin and to emphasise their loyalty to the Reich.

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It was not without reason that the Minister of the Interior instructed the district police chiefs that "items reminiscent of the first republic (masarichka) [the baseball cap worn by former President Masaryk - ed. note] cannot be sold or worn".

Unfortunately, even this did not save them from occupation.

How to satisfy the Germans' appetite?

Meanwhile, let us return to the Polish playground - Ambassador Lipski immediately passed on to Beck the contents of the October conversation with Ribbentrop. The head of Polish diplomacy had no doubts - an agreement with the Reich on the terms presented by the German minister was out of the question. Beck interpreted them as a dictate, but hoped that a compromise could be worked out during the talks.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs therefore began to analyse possible transport facilities for Germans travelling from the Reich to East Prussia and vice versa. The work, which had been going on since November 1938, was supervised by a trio: Józef Potocki, head of the Western Department and deputy director of the Political Department at the MFA, the aforementioned Władysław Kulski, and Jan Szembek, Deputy Foreign Minister.

Kulski's notes show that the issue of communication was quite complicated, but the Poles were prepared to make far-reaching concessions. This is evidenced, for example, by a note entitled 'A transit motorway through Pomerania', probably written in late November/early December 1938. It refers to a so-called "special motorway", but without an extraterritorial status.

According to Kulski, it could either form part of the Berlin-Królewiec road and have a direct connection with Polish roads (in which case passport and customs controls would apply to passing Germans) or remain entirely outside our road system. In the latter case, Poland would not only have to relinquish its passport control of Germans, but also its customs revenue. The motorway thus conceived would, however, still form an integral part of the Republic, Polish law would apply, safety would be guarded by Polish police, and so on.

According to Professor Marek Kornat, such a solution "would de facto give Germany the same as an extraterritorial motorway, but as a unilateral Polish concession - also resulting in the loss of revenue from transit - it would somehow be possible to carry out and explain to Polish society".

It should be added that the discussion about the motorway and railway line went beyond the circles of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs - diplomats consulted on the matter with the General Staff of the Polish Army and the Ministry of Communications (December 1938). Both the military and ministry officials were sceptical about the idea of a "special motorway".

It should be noted here that the Poles were ready to discuss the motorway, but on condition that this issue was linked to the fate of Gdańsk. Beck instructed Lipski: "should Ribbentrop raise [the meeting with the Polish ambassador took place on 15 December 1938 - editor's note] the question of transit through Pomerania, please do not take a negative position, making it clear, however, that there is an iunctim between this question and the settlement of the Gdańsk question". The Minister was of the opinion that Gdańsk should ultimately remain a Free City, but that its status would no longer be guaranteed by the League of Nations, but by Poland and Germany.

Conditions unacceptable

The year 1939 came, and at the beginning of January a conversation took place in Berchtesgaden at the highest German-Polish level. Hitler and Ribbentrop on one side, Beck and Lipski on the other - the Poles became convinced that the demands of the head of German diplomacy were not his invention, but that the Führer himself was behind them.
Adolf Hitler meeting the polish foreign minister Jozef Beck (middle) on the stairs of Hitler's mountain lodge in the Obersalzberg region near Berchtesgaden; on the right next to Beck: Sandro baron Doernberg, head of the minutes - 1939 - Vintage property of ullstein bild. Photo by Heinrich Hoffmann/ullstein bild via Getty Images
And Hitler directly demanded the return of Gdañsk to the Reich, he also mentioned a highway through Pomerania, but in general terms. Instead, he alluded before the Polish delegation to an anti-Soviet military alliance: "every [Polish] division engaged against Russia is spared a corresponding German division".

Beck did not take up this theme, nor did he take up the temptation to lure Poland with Soviet Ukraine - Hitler had indicated it as a direction of Polish expansion - but he rejected the vision of Gdańsk within the borders of the Reich.

After returning to Poland, the Minister's first step was to organise a meeting of the most important politicians at the Royal Castle. President Ignacy Mościcki, Marshal Edward Rydz-Śmigły, Deputy Prime Minister Eugeniusz Kwiatkowski and Prime Minister Felicjan Sławoj Składkowski agreed with Beck that the German conditions were unacceptable.

Were they right? Yes, especially after the March partition of Czechoslovakia - given that the Czechs agreed to an extraterritorial highway and Hitler attacked their country anyway, why wouldn't he do the same to Poland?

After 15 March 1939, the Polish "yes" would have given no guarantee that Germany would not have started a war with the Republic anyway. After all, Hitler demanded similar things from Czechoslovakia - incorporation of the disputed territory (Sudetenland) into the Reich and an extraterritorial road. In this situation, Beck, Mościcki and Rydz-Śmigły had a full right to assume that the German offer was a bluff, behind which there was hidden a desire to seize, if necessary armed, Pomerania, or even the whole area of the former Prussian partition.

This was confirmed by Beck's biographers, Professors Kornat and Mariusz Wołos, in an interview with TVP Weekly: "Who would give a guarantee that the motorway would not become a launching pad for an attack on the Rzeczpospolita? [...] A country that makes territorial concessions sinks to the bottom of its existence. One concession entails another. There is no end to it. Beck certainly understood it that way.

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The Minister's critics also argue that it was necessary to play for time, to deceive the Germans with, for example, an agreement on the motorway, and to drag out the negotiations on Gdańsk. This was not possible - Hitler and Ribbentrop did not intend to discuss their demands, from Warsaw they expected only their acceptance.

As German Deputy Foreign Minister Ernst von Weizsäcker stated on 24 March, Poland could only be "an enemy or a friend of Germany [...] and must pay for our friendship". Two days later, Lipski finally rejected the Third Reich's conditions in a conversation with Ribbentrop.

And the Breslau-Brno-Vienna motorway? The first shovel was driven in right after the partition of Czechoslovakia, in April, but the road was not put into operation - work was suspended in 1942. "Hitlerova dálnice" ("Hitler's Highway") is today remembered by its remnants - cuttings, embankments and viaducts, and the completed section of the route near Brno has been used by the Czechs as a local road.

– Tomasz Czapla
– Translated by Tomasz Krzyżanowski

Quotes used in the text are from the publication: "Ribbentrop-Beck. Was the Poland-Germany Pact Possible?". Piotr Gursztyn, "Poland's Foreign Policy 1938-1939. Four Decisions of Józef Beck" by Marek Kornat, "Let them not think that we are collaborators. Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia 1939-1945" by Piotr M. Majewski, "Hitler's Lost Highway - The Wroclaw-Vienna Highway" by Grzegorz Sanik, and "Józef Beck. Biography" by Marek Kornat and Mariusz Wołos.
Main photo: Adolf Hitler on the banks of the Vistula in 1939. Photo Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
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