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.

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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. 1938Hitler 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.

Silent German Propaganda Film “Liberation” of Danzig and Wehrmacht’s Assault on Poland, September 1939