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 former Terri­tory of the Saar Basin that had briefly been sand­wiched between France and Germany (Saar­landers voted over­whelmingly to rejoin Germany in Janu­ary 1935), Memel Ter­ri­tory had started out as a Lea­gue of Nations man­date. On March 20, 1939, Germany demanded Lith­u­a­nia return Memel directly 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, newly indepen­dent after 123 years of foreign occu­pa­tion, access to the Baltic Sea. The pro­blem was, both the corri­dor and Dan­zig (present-day 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, May 5, 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 in Munich.

Chamberlain, on returning from the Munich Con­fer­ence attended by the leaders of Great Britain, France, Italy, and Germany, infa­mously asserted that he and his French counter­part Dala­dier had bought “peace for our time” by appeasing Hitler. Gen. Beck’s May hubris may have been based in part on vague Anglo-French assur­ances of sup­port for his coun­try against poten­tial German aggres­sion following the Wehr­macht’s occu­pa­tion of Prague, the Czech capital, several months ear­lier (March 15, 1939). 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 an over­land transit route through the Polish corri­dor, 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, impov­er­ish­ment, enslavement, and genocide practically everywhere.

Countdown to War, 1938–1939: Sudetenland, Czechoslovakia, 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, less than four months after his appoint­ment as Chan­cellor of Germany, Hitler and his 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 the Berg­hof, Hitler’s palatial Bava­rian retreat above Berchtes­gaden, 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. The ebook contains a year’s worth of dated entries from this web­site. 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.