Hoggan asserts early in The Forced War that Lord Halifax, despite nominally being the British foreign secretary, in fact controlled British foreign policy on the European continent—not Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. Further, Halifax from the beginning had contempt for Hitler’s revisionist aims for the German people, who were clearly wronged by the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. In a March 1938 meeting with German ambassador Joachim von Ribbentrop, Halifax inaptly compared the Anschluss—the peaceful reincorporation of the ethnically German people of Austria into the Reich—to a hypothetical British declaration of war against Belgium.
The fact that Austria had been part of Germany for more than one thousand years, and that the legislators of Austria had voted to join Germany after World War I, carried no weight with him. Consequently, he did not recognize the Anschluss as an act of liberation for the Austrian people from a hated puppet regime.
During the leadup to Germany’s annexation of the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia in autumn 1938, the official British attitude began to shift against Germany and in favor of the far more oppressive and murderous Soviet regime. William Strang of the British Foreign Office justified this when stating that, unlike Nazism, Communism “springs, however remotely, from a moral idea, the idea namely that man shall not be exploited by man for his own personal profit.” This mistake—of taking Communists at their word rather than their deed—would be repeated often by Halifax, who saw the greater danger in an ascendent Germany which hadn’t killed millions during peacetime than in an ascendent Soviet Union, which had. In August 1938, Halifax . . .
. . . assured the Poles that Great Britain was interested in supporting them to prevent changes at Danzig. It was evident to the Poles that this volte face was an indication of British determination to organize a coalition against Germany at some date after the Czech crisis, and that, in the British mind, Poland would be very useful in forming such a front.
In the fall of 1938, Strang had also invented a false rumor about Hitler’s bellicose designs on Poland in order to undermine any rapport forming between the two nations. But it wasn’t just Poland. Hoggan recounts how Halifax sought to prevent peaceful relations between Germany and France, Italy, and Czechoslovakia as well. This with the full knowledge—as recorded in his discussion with American ambassador Joseph Kennedy in October 1938—that Hitler did not desire war against England. Yet, throughout 1938 Halifax and Chamberlain pushed for the production of thousands of long-range heavy bombers with the singular intent of bombing German civilian targets.
Further, it wasn’t just Strang who was spreading false rumors. In a second conversation with Kennedy, Halifax
. . . painted a somber picture of Hitler’s attitude toward Great Britain . . . and he also gave Kennedy a great quantity of unreliable information about Hitler’s alleged attitudes toward a number of current continental problems. A few weeks later he claimed to Kennedy that Hitler was consumed by passionate hatred of England, and that he had a plan to tear the Soviet Union to pieces in the Spring of 1939. The purpose of these deceptive tactics was obvious. Halifax was exercising his diplomatic talents in preparation for a British attack on Germany. He was also indulging in the easy task of adding fuel to the dislike of the American leaders for Germany.
Halifax’s strange concern for the welfare of the Soviet Union befuddled Italian Premier Benito Mussolini enough to make him question its wisdom in direct conversation with Chamberlain during the British Prime Minister’s January 1939 visit to Rome. Il Duce believed, quite rightly, that the fall of Communism would be a good thing for the Russian people. Chamberlain apparently disagreed and used much of his time in Italy to intimidate the Italians into not siding with Hitler in the event of war.
After incessant rumormongering about the warlike ambitions of Hitler during the Czech crisis (and ignoring that Poland had also invaded Czechoslovakia and acquired the district of Teschen during this time), Halifax privately admitted to British ambassador Neville Henderson in early 1939 that “. . . rumors and scares have died down, and it is not plain that the German Government are planning mischief in any particular quarter.” This, Halifax noted, amounted to “a negative improvement of the situation.” Reacting to Halifax’s disappointment over Hitler’s ability to acquire territory peacefully, Hoggan wryly notes that:
[t]he British were ruling over millions of alien peoples throughout the world on the strength of naked conquest. It was evident that the British leaders failed to appreciate Hitler’s ability to solve difficult problems without bloodshed. Apparently they preferred their own methods. Halifax told German Ambassador Dirksen on March 15, 1939, that he could understand Hitler’s taste for bloodless victories, but he promised the German diplomat that Hitler would be forced to shed blood the next time.
This was around the time when Halifax prepared a speech for Chamberlain in which the Prime Minister declared fallaciously that Hitler intended to conquer the world. Also around this time, Halifax hatched what became known as the “Tilea hoax” in which Virgil Tilea, an unscrupulous Romanian minister in London was effectively bribed to spread lies that Hitler intended to “seize control of the entire Romanian economy.” Shortly after, Halifax brazenly used this hoax as an excuse to court the Soviets to join an anti-German alliance.
Fortunately, the hysteria caused by Tilea died down fairly quickly, but the tensions over Danzig lingered. After the war, Halifax advisor Sir Samuel Hoare admitted that Halifax had needed a pretext to oppose Germany other than the nonexistent need for a defensive front, and that Poland and her claims on Danzig were it. Strang himself admitted that any good argument against embroiling Europe in a war over Poland would have fallen on deaf ears in Halifax’s cabinet, since “our people had made up our minds.”
If this is not evidence of Halifax’s desire for war against Germany, I don’t know what is.
The Chauvinism of Józef Beck
As fantastic as it seems, the vast web of deceit spun by such a powerful individual as Lord Halifax would not have sunk Europe into a self-destructive war had it not been for the obstinacy and ego of Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs Józef Beck.
Hoggan begins The Forced War with a discussion of the various strains of Polish nationalism during the interwar period. What set Beck’s predecessor Józef Piłsudski apart from other thought leaders of the time was his contention that Poland was potentially a great power and still needed to develop into one. This sought a happy medium between national pride and realism. After the First World War, Poland was in fact not a great power, but a middling one, which had the trappings of greatness—at least in a geographic sense—thrust upon her by the Treaty of Versailles. Piłsudski seemed to recognize this and pursued a comparatively prudent foreign policy vis-à-vis Germany during his tenure as de facto head of state. From 1933 to 1935, he planned for preemptive war against a still-disarmed Germany, even to the point of sending a warship to disembark Polish soldiers into Danzig in March 1933 (a little over a month after Hitler’s ascension to power) and concentrating troops in what’s known as the Polish Corridor, the strip of land separating northern Germany from East Prussia. Sensing the growing strength of Germany and questionable support from the other continental powers, however, his last policy decision before his death was not to oppose Hitler’s move to defy the Treaty in March 1935.
Piłsudski protégé Józef Beck, however, lacked this good sense and resisted all of Hitler’s attempts at rapprochement over Danzig once he felt he had the British blank check in his back pocket. In his mind, Poland was already a great power, which needn’t be pushed around by Germany like Austria and Czechoslovakia had been. Beck also did little as his people, from the government on down, oppressed, intimidated, and at times brutalized their German minority. In The Forced War Hoggan describes many of the insults and outrages leveled at Germany and Germans by the Poles from 1933 to 1939—to say nothing of Beck’s outright diplomatic betrayal of Germany—to the point of justifying Hitler’s eventual invasion.
When Hitler announced the remilitarization of the Rhineland in March 1936, Beck’s first move was to promise the French he’d invade Germany if the French declared war. While at the time Danzig was under the shaky authority of the League of Nations—which meant that legally Poland had as much claim to the city as Germany did—Beck had sent Colonel Marjan Chodacki to Danzig to publicly announce Polish designs to absorb the city. In the meantime, Poland exercised punitive economic measures (such as excessive excise taxes) against the German Danzigers, prompting them to want to be reunited with Germany all the more.
By 1938, tension had been built up to a point where incidents of violence played an increasingly prominent role. Meetings of protest, more frequently than otherwise about imaginary wrongs, were organized by pressure groups in surrounding Polish towns. They invariably ended with cries of: “We want to march on Danzig!” and with the murderous slogan: “Kill the Hitlerites!”
And it did not end with Danzig. The one million-plus Germans in Poland had to deal with various forms of prejudicial discrimination, including a hostile press, mass arrests, boycotts, land appropriations, and the “de-Germanization measures of Polish frontier ordinances.” Beck refused to lift a finger to stop any of this.
Another thorn in the sensitive paw of Poland was their being excluded from the Munich conference in September 1938. Beck saw this as a slight and held a grudge over it for a long time. Nevertheless, shortly after discussing conditions under which Poland would attack Germany, he had the unmitigated gall to ask German ambassador Hans Moltke for German support in the event of a Soviet invasion from the east. Hitler, still optimistic for peace, complied.
The following paragraphs exemplifies Hoggan’s assessment of the complications plaguing German-Polish relations in 1938:
Hitler had difficulty at this time in preventing a major German-Polish crisis because of the brutal treatment of Germans by the Polish occupation authorities in the Teschen district. Most of the German leaders believed that the Poles had claimed too much German ethnic territory in the vicinity of Teschen. Marshal Göring had advised State Secretary Weizsäcker that the territory beyond Teschen, along the southeastern German Silesian frontier, should not go to Poland unless Poland agreed to support the return of Danzig to Germany. He favored acquiring the territory for Germany or retaining it for Czecho-Slovakia, if the Poles refused. The German Foreign Office experts were inclined to agree with Göring and it was decided to make an effort to keep the Poles out of the industrial center of Witkowitz, and out of poverty-stricken little Oderberg near the source of the Oder River. Göring was closely interrogated by Weizsäcker concerning all of his recent conversations with Polish representatives.
Polish Ambassador Lipski was angry when he discovered the attitude of the German Foreign Office in the Oderberg question. He insisted to Ernst Wörmann, the head of the Political Division in the German Foreign Office, that both Hitler and Göring had promised this strategic town to Poland. Wörmann, who was familiar with Göring’s attitude, refused to believe this and he reminded Lipski that Oderberg was preponderantly German. Lipski refused to be impressed. He warned Wörmann that an official report on this conversation would complicate German-Polish relations, and he added that he would write Beck a private letter about it. Copies of official reports went to President Moscicki, and through him to other Polish leaders. The implication was clear. Poland was determined to make a stand on the Oderberg issue.
Hoggan also makes it clear that throughout 1938 and until March 1939 (when he was confident of British support) Beck had instructed Lipski to dissemble before the Germans when it came to Danzig; he never for a moment intended to negotiate in earnest over it. Then, on March 20, Beck partially mobilized the Polish army and threatened Germany with war to prevent Danzig from falling into German hands. Plans for invading Germany were distributed among the armed forces. Meanwhile, Hitler made no military response at all.
Hoggan notes how the ego and insecurity of Beck played into this decision. He had made his move prior to signing the Anglo-Polish agreement because he did not want to seem like a pawn of the British. If anything, the deluded minister was harboring dreams of conquest, having once admitted to Ribbentrop that he hoped one day to retake Kiev and reach the Black Sea. By May, he was declaring that Germany was the deadly enemy of Poland. On August 4, his government issued an ultimatum which threatened to starve Danzig and seize it from League control. Also in August, it was revealed in the Polish press that “Polish units were constantly crossing the German frontier to destroy German military installations and to carry confiscated German military equipment into Poland.” Polish forces illegally occupied several Danzig installations, fought directly with Danzigers, and fired upon three German passenger planes as well.
The final straw was Beck’s termination of all negotiation over Danzig and the full mobilization of Poland’s armed forces by end of August.
If there is one shortcoming of the Forced War it is Hoggan’s slightly less than conclusive coverage of the “brutal treatment of Germans” by the Poles. He mentions it often, but too often delves into it without hard numbers, which could be useful for dissidents today. Perhaps the numbers were not available to him?
Here is some of what Hoggan does offer:
- “A wave of persecution against the Germans living in Poland culminated in ‘Black Palm Sunday’ at Lodz on April 9, 1933. German property was damaged, and local Germans suffered beatings and humiliations.”
- In a September 1938 report on the impact of the Anschluss in Poland, Ambassador Moltke noted that “an increasing number of Germans were being sentenced to prison by Polish courts for such alleged remarks as ‘the Führer would have to straighten things out here,’ or ‘it would soon be Poland’s turn.’”
- In early October 1938, “. . . the Poles began to wage a virtual undeclared war against the German inhabitants of the Teschen region.” This included forcing German parents to send their children to Polish schools, threatening German-Polish professionals with unemployment if they did not conduct business in Polish, freezing German bank assets, arbitrary dismissals of German workers, and reducing pensions and state salaries of German Poles.
- In February 1939, the Polish government confiscated approximately 32,000 hectares of land (~79,000 acres) from its German citizens under a new law which did not penalize Polish landowners nearly as much. Hoggan believes that this law was “a convenient instrument to produce impoverishment among the Germans.”
- By the time of Germany’s invasion of Poland in September, Hoggan states that “many thousands” of German Poles (whom he refers to as “helpless hostages”) were killed in Poland as a result of the anti-German hysteria enveloping the country. There were increased cases of mutilation, torture, and mass arrests. Germans were being forcefully deported from the German frontier and marched towards the Polish interior. Massacres of Germans took place after the invasion as well.
Perhaps in hindsight one can say it was a blunder for Adolf Hitler to order the invasion of Poland. Based on the overabundance of evidence, however, one cannot say it was an unreasonable course of action. If anything, The Forced War prompts us to ask what took Hitler so long to do it.