Warsaw, Poland · May 5, 1939

In 1923 Poland’s Baltic neighbor to the north, Lith­u­a­nia, un­law­fully an­nexed Memel Ter­ri­tory (now Klai­pėda Region in pre­sent-day Lith­u­a­nia) that had been, up to 1918, part of Prus­sia under Kaiser Wil­helm II. Like the Dan­zig en­clave in Poland and the Saar Terri­tory in the Rhine­land, Memel was a Lea­gue of Nations man­date. On March 20, 1939, Ger­many demanded Lith­u­a­nia return Memel to Ger­many; other­wise, vowed Ger­man For­eign Minis­ter Joachim von Ribben­trop, it “will be taken by other means.” Tiny Lith­u­a­nia pru­dently com­plied. The saber-rattling Memel drama caught world leaders by sur­prise. Not so the long-fes­tering drama in former Prus­sian Dan­zig and the so-called “Polish Corri­dor.” Ever since the 1919 Ver­sailles Peace Treaty, the “Free City of Dan­zig” had pro­vided Poland access to the Bal­tic Sea. The pro­blem was, both the corri­dor and Dan­zig (now Gdańsk), chiefly pop­u­lated by ethnic Ger­mans, split Prus­sia in two (see map below). Encour­aged by Brit­ish Prime Minis­ter Neville Cham­ber­lain and French Pre­mier Édouard Dala­dier to nego­ti­ate a Ger­man transit route across the cor­ri­dor, the Polish for­eign minis­ter, nation­alist Gen. Józef Beck, re­sponded on this date in 1939: “We in Poland do not know the con­cept of peace at any price.” The allu­sion was a diplo­matic slap in the face, as both Cham­ber­lain and Dala­dier were com­plicit in nego­ti­ating Adolf Hitler’s land-grab of Czecho­slo­vakia’s ethnic-Ger­man Sude­ten­land in Septem­ber 1938. Cham­ber­lain, on returning from the Munich Con­fer­ence, infa­mously asserted that he and Dala­dier had bought “peace for our time.” Gen. Beck’s hubris may have been based in part on vague Anglo-French assur­ances of sup­port for his coun­try against poten­tial Ger­man aggres­sion following the mili­tary occu­pa­tion of Prague, the Czech capital, two months ear­lier. These assur­ances had the most far-reaching and unin­tended con­se­quences, for they de­livered the desti­nies of Brit­ain and France into Polish hands. By stub­bornly refusing to make con­ces­sions to Ger­many over the status of the Dan­zig en­clave and the over­land routes through Polish terri­tory, Poland and the West­ern demo­cra­cies moved closer to the flash­point day of September 1, 1939, when Hitler un­leashed his legions not only on Poland, but soon on the whole con­tin­ent, where they sowed devastation, death, en­slave­ment, and im­poverish­ment practically everywhere.

Stepping Stones to War, 1938–1939: Sudetenland, Memel, Danzig, and Polish Corridor

Polish Corridor and Danzig enclave, 1939

Above: Interwar land corridor to the Baltic Sea and the semi-auto­nomous “Free City of Dan­zig,” 1920–1939. Both geo­poli­tical crea­tions were carved from for­mer Ger­man terri­tory (West Prus­sia) so that newly inde­pen­dent Poland would not be depen­dent on Ger­man ports for its import/­export trade. In May 1933 Hitler’s Nazi party gained con­trol of the Dan­zig Senate. Like the ethnic Ger­mans in Czecho­slo­va­kia’s Sude­ten­land in the mid‑1930s, Dan­zig’s large ethnic Ger­man com­mu­nity strongly agi­tated to be incor­po­rated into the Fatherland.

Munich Agreement signatories, Sept. 1938 Hitler and Polish Foreign Minister Józef Beck, 1937

Left: Posing stiffly for posterity are Brit­ish Prime Minis­ter Neville Cham­ber­lain (left), French Prime Minis­ter Édouard Dala­dier, Ger­man Chan­cel­lor Adolf Hitler, Ital­ian Prime Minis­ter Benito Mus­so­lini, and Italian Foreign Minis­ter Gale­azzo Ciano. On Septem­ber 30, 1938, leaders of the four Euro­pean powers signed the Munich Agree­ment, which handed Czecho­slo­va­kia’s Ger­man-speaking Sude­ten­land to Ger­many. Cham­ber­lain’s and Dala­dier’s mis­per­ception, mis­com­pre­hen­sion, and mis­judg­ment paved the way for Hitler’s repeated diplo­matic successes in the late 1930s.

Right: Hitler and Polish Foreign Minister Józef Beck in 1937. On Janu­ary 5, 1939, Hitler told Beck, who was visiting the Ger­man leader at his palatial Bava­rian retreat, the Berg­hof, that Ger­many would guar­an­tee Poland’s fron­tiers were a “final settle­ment” reached over the status of the Lea­gue of Nations-admin­is­tered “Free City of Dan­zig.” Beck rejected Hitler’s demands for Dan­zig’s return, and did so again on March 26, 1939, after Hitler had gra­tui­tously offered Slova­kia (which had pro­claimed indepen­dence from its west­ern Czech half days earlier) to Poland in ex­change for Dan­zig and German con­trol of over­land routes between the Ger­man heart­land and East Prussia.

1939 German Propaganda Film Laying Out Germany’s Basis for Its Conquest of Poland

WWII Chronicles book coverHistory buffs, there is good news! The Daily Chronicles of World War II is now avail­able as an ebook for $4.99 on Amazon.com. Con­taining a year’s worth of dated entries from this web­site, the ebook brings the story of this tumul­tu­ous era to life in a com­pelling, author­i­ta­tive, and suc­cinct man­ner. Fea­turing inven­tive naviga­tion aids, the ebook enables readers to instantly move for­ward or back­ward by month and date to dif­fer­ent dated entries. Simple and elegant! Click here to purchase the ebook.