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 and averting war over Czech Sudenten­land. (Actually, the French premier, the more real­istic of the two Western states­men, believed that the Sudenten­land give­away had bought the West little more than breathing room.) Polish foreign minister Gen. Beck’s May 5th 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. 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. Nazi propa­gan­dists packaged and sold the Munich Agree­ment to the German pop­u­lace as one of Hitler’s success­ful peace poli­cies when in fact it was Cham­ber­lain’s and Dala­dier’s mis­per­ceptions, mis­com­pre­hen­sion, and mis­judg­ments that smoothed 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, an act that perhaps cost Beck an oppor­tu­nity to snag a Nobel Peace Prize, which French and German diplo­mats had earned for con­cluding the 1925 Locarno Pact. That treaty required both France and Germany to recog­nize the invio­la­bility of the borders of Western Europe, including Great Britain, but not those of Eastern Europe. Beck rejected Hitler again on March 26, 1939, after the German chan­cel­lor 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

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