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Who started WWII?

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On Thursday, June 4, 2009 an article appeared in “The Washington Post”, titled “Russian military historian blames Poland for WWII”.

The Poles protested, of course, but it appears that here too history is being re-written, as is the case with “Barbarossa”. Following WWII, authors like Annelies von Ribbentrop and Heinrich Härtle have tried to set the record straight, showing clearly that Poland was to blame. The books written by them were inconvenient history, not fitting into the distorted version that was emerging, according to which only Hitler and the Germans were to blame. Recently, however, this issue has surfaced again, thanks to Dr. Walter Post (Unternehmen Barbarossa) and Gerd-Schultze-Rhonhof (Der Krieg der viele Väter hatte), to just name two. Those book were not well received, and the authors placed in the “extreme right” corner, accused of being Hitler apologists. But now it looks as if they are getting help from, who would have guessed, Russia.

One would have to first read all the Russian historian wrote, who The Washington Post introduces as: “Col. Sergei Kovalyov, director of the scientific-research department of military history, part of the Institute of Military History of the Ministry of Defense”, before passing judgement. Nevertheless, this is encouraging. And since Mr. Kovalyov has made a fresh start, perhaps it is time to re-visit what v. Ribbentrop and Härtle wrote, as well as the work of Post. We do know that a war does not start with the first shot fired, a lot happens before that and here is some of what came to pass.

On January 26,1934 Germany and Poland signed a non-aggression treaty (Nichtangriffspakt). Relations between the two countries were relatively good, but the treatment of the German minority by the Poles, as well as the Danzig/corridor issues, were pending. Thus, on October 24,1938, foreign minister Ribbentrop had a lengthy discussion with the Polish emissary Lipski in which Ribbentrop expressed the desire to eliminate the existing problems and improve relations on a permanent basis. He suggested that Danzig be returned to the Reich and to provide access to east Prussia via a highway/rail link, the corridor. In return Poland were to receive special trading status with Danzig as well as a 25 year guarantee for its borders. Lipski promised to forward those proposals to foreign minister Beck (Hitler stated that he was the only one who could make this border proposal, in fact handing Poland territory that had belonged to Germany for centuries, because he had the trust of German people). In January 1939 Beck visited Germany and met with Hitler on January 5 in Berchtesgaden. Hitler stressed that he was interested in long lasting good relations with Poland and expressed the desire to settle the Danzig/corridor issue. Beck showed understanding, cautioned that the public will not accept the return of Danzig while promising to consider the issue. Citizens of Danzig wanted to again be part of Germany, but the tone in the Polish press, as well as that of the population, became more and more belligerent (Walter Post, “Unternehmen Barbarossa”, S.104).

Then came the Czechoslovak crisis which I will skip through here. The Sudetenland became part of Germany and Hitler promised Chamberlain in Munich that when the Czech government has settled all issues with its remaining minorities in a peaceful manner, he would have no more territorial demands. He stated: “Wir wollen keine Tschechen!” (we don’t want any Czechs)(Heinrich Härtle, “Die Kriegsschuld der Sieger”, p.275). It was in the interest of Germany to have a stable country on its southern border, and not only because the Russians tried to use it as a base. On March 13, Slovakia declared its independence, and with his the state of Czecho-Slovakia ceased to exist (Hitler did not pressure Tiso, Annelies von Ribbentrop, “Die Kriegsschuld des Widerstandes”, p.243, DBFP [Documents on British Foreign Policy] IV, No230). On March 14, Chamberlain told Henderson, in Berlin, to inform the German government that England would not interfere in issues that did not directly concern her (Ribbentrop, p.243, DBFP IV, No.247). Henderson relayed this message on the same evening (Ibid, p.243, DBFP IV, No.232). On March 17, Chamberlain retracted this in his Birmingham speech.

This Czech issue is used by historians to explain why Poland did not give in to Hitler’s reasonable claims (Kovalyov called the demands “quite reasonable”, according to the Washington Post article), he broke his word. But as can be proven, Hitler had no intentions on making the rest of Czechoslovakia a protectorate if the Czechs were to get their house in order. The Czechs were unable to, therefore Hitler acted as any statesman, responsible for the safety of his citizens, would have acted, he did not break his word. On March 31,1939 Chamberlain told the British parliament that England had given Poland a defacto cart blanche guarantee. Since this guarantee was aimed at Germany, Hitler declared on April 28 that because the Poles had violated the non-aggression treaty this treaty no longer existed. He stressed however that he would still welcome an understanding with Poland (Ribbentrop, p.264, DdP [Dokumente der deutschen Politik] Bd. V, S.47ff).

On August 23 Russia and Germany signed the non-aggression treaty. Up to then, Germany had tried to come to an understanding with Poland but met with no success, since the Poles had the English guarantee in their pocket. One would think that following the signing of the Russia/Germany pact the Poles would reconsider their strategy, they did not. Hitler did not want war and on August 25 he forwarded a memorandum to Henderson asking the British government to use their influence on Poland to try and prevent war. The memo stated that: 1. Polish acts of provocation have become unbearable and need to be addressed, regardless of who is at fault. 2. Germany is determined to solve this “Macedonian situation” on its eastern border and 3. The Danzig/corridor problem must be solved. Other issues were addressed as well. Germany is prepared, the memo continued, to come to the aid of the British empire if need be, no matter what (Post, p.126).

On August 28 the British answer to Hitlers proposal arrived in Berlin, personally delivered by Henderson. The British stated that England would be pleased to enter into negotiations concerning the British/German interest, but that the Polish issue must be settled first. Hitler agreed and promised to negotiate with a Polish government willing to negotiate. He then asked Henderson if England would be willing to accept a coalition with German, Henderson replied in the affirmative (Ribbentrop, p.353, DBFP VII, No.455). On August 29, Germany accepted the British proposal of an international panel concerning the settlement of the Polish issue (Post writes that actually Weizsäcker came up with the international angle), but it was stressed that in any discussions on territorial issues the Soviet Union had to be included. Hitler also stated that he will be expecting a Polish emissary on August 30, who would be authorized to make decisions (strangely the documents about the discussion of August 28-29 are missing [Ribbentrop, p.356]). In the morning of August 30, Hitler and some judicial advisors worked out the agreement, consisting of 16 points (Ribbentrop provides the whole text, pp. 361 ff).

On the evening of August 29, Henderson phoned London and told them that the German government is willing to negotiate with the Poles, they are working on proposals for a acceptable solution, which will be submitted to the English government “before” the Polish emissary arrives (Ribbentrop, p.356, DBFP VII, No.490). In fact the Germans had stated that the British government will “also” (a word omitted by Henderson) be informed “if possible before” the emissary arrives. Halifax then send a telegram to Henderson telling him that the British government will consider the German proposal, but it would be unreasonable to expect that a Polish emissary can be brought to Berlin. Henderson was advised to use the appropriate channels to inform the “proper” authorities about this. A copy of the telegram was send to Warsaw, Rom and Paris (DBFP VII, No.504).

Thus, Warsaw knew that the British did not intend to have a Polish emissary go to Berlin. Also, by proper authorities Ribbentrop is convinced that the Beck/Goerdeler group had been referred to, for, if the German government was meant why not say so. Henderson, who had claimed not to know what the 16 points contained, nevertheless informed Lipski on the 31 about them. Lipski paled and told him that he was not interested in German notes. He was well informed, had connections to Göring and other important people and was certain that should war break out Germany would decent into turmoil, allowing Polish troops to march into Berlin (Dahlerus, Der letzte Versuch, S.110).

Historians claim that those 16 points were to serve as a fig leave for Hitler, not so, he would have been bound by them if a Polish emissary would have arrived. But, nobody showed up. Lady Diana, wife of Duff Cooper, former first Lord of the Admiralty, found the 16 points to be quite reasonable. Duff was shocked because the English public could agree with his wife (Barbarossa, p.128).

Annelies von Ribbentrop writes that the tragedy that unfolded only days later is well documented, based on captured German documents. One of them deals with the situation in September 1939, stating: “Marshal Rydz-Smigly told a Rumanian official that the British had promised to send 1 500 aeroplanes… and that the French had broken through the Siegfried-Line on two places and were deep in German territory…Rydz-Smigly was adamant, stating that the Poles had counted on England’s help. President Moscicki was especially embittered, stating that Poland had been willing to accept the German proposals but that England had prevented them from doing so. And because his ministers had counted on assistance from England, they had allowed war to break out (M. Sp.; Nr.1585, micro roll (Mikrorolle) T120. 1496, frame 626334, England-Volumes 2&3, for the time of Jan.7.1933 to July 30.1949).

Hitler did not want war, tried everything to prevent it. However, the situation that existed in regards to the German minorities and Danzig needed to be settled. Hitler was well aware of Poland’s territorial aspirations, Roman Dmowski had outlined the Polish borders at the Paris Peace Conference on January 29, 1919. “West Prussia, Posen and very substantial sections of East Prussia were not really German at all…Dmowski put forward Danzig as an example. Obviously this city was an integral part of “historic Poland”. Most of those ambitions were denied (Richard M. Watt, “The Kings Depart…”, p.361). With England’s unconditional guarantee Poland was about to correct the wrong, as they perceived it, suffered at Versailles. Any conditional concessions by Hitler would be-, and were, interpreted by the Poles as a sign of weakness. Hitler had to draw the line in the sand, but tried desperately to come to a negotiated, peaceful, settlement with Poland. The Poles would have received large areas of German territory, in return Germany asked for the city of Danzig and the right to build a highway/rail link through essentially German territory. The corridor, as it was termed, was to be 1 km wide and 85 km long.

This is about as concise as it can get, other factors-, the issue of the German opposition to Hitler, Anglo-American as well as Soviet ambitions, were left out. Additional, more detailed, articles regarding these topics might follow. But this should serve to give an overview and perhaps with the Russians participating the truth will eventually emerge here as well. The Soviet-German treaty should also be looked at again, Stafford Cripps, a British emissary, was an almost permanent presence in Moscow at that time.

Wilfried Heink

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