Chamberlain's motives for standing by Poland

Historical Notes
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The Independent Culture
NEVILLE CHAMBERLAIN was the high priest of appeasement. Why then, did he guarantee Poland, a decision which caused the outbreak of the Second World War?

An independent Poland had sprung from the powder keg of the Great War. Its borders encompassed areas which had previously been part of the German Reich and the desire to unite German speakers with the Fatherland had already become Hitler's modus operandi for invading his neighbours' territory. To the East, the Poles had to fear the Soviet Union, whose armies they had driven back from the gates of Warsaw in 1920. There was the distinct possibility that, faced with the fate of being squeezed between the Red Army they knew, and the Wehrmacht they didn't, they might opt to become Germany's satellite. In 1934 Warsaw had signed a non- aggression pact with Berlin. Unlike the democratic Czech state which Chamberlain sacrificed at Munich, the Polish government had developed an authoritarian hue and had colluded in grabbing a share of the off-cuts from the Czechoslovak carvery.

Suspicions over Polish intentions, and these whispers about an imminent knockout blow from Germany, concentrated Whitehall minds. The Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, feared that a German-Polish rapprochement would provide cover for Hitler's eastern front, thereby assisting a possible Nazi attack against her western neighbours. It was Halifax who bounced the Cabinet into issuing a British guarantee to Poland in the hope of making Hitler rethink a quick strike.

Chamberlain's reasoning for agreeing to this was more subtle. By guaranteeing Polish independence, rather than her territorial integrity, he left the gate open for Poland's boundary to be redrawn in Germany's favour without forcing a British declaration of war. Only if Hitler turned out to be determined to destroy the state of Poland itself would the guarantee be operative, for it would prove that the Fuhrer's intent was not a "Grossdeutschland" but rather the domination of the European continent. Unlikely as the latter prospect had seemed to the rationally minded Chamberlain, it was this second option that Hitler chose.

A further reason for Chamberlain's decision to guarantee Poland was to counter the relentless campaign from Eden, Churchill, and the Labour Party for an alliance with Stalin. This has been seen as a lost opportunity, especially since the Soviets eventually rolled back Operation Barbarossa all the way to the Reichstag steps. Yet the Red Army did not look so impressive in early 1939. Stalin had purged its officer class. Its morale was said to be low, its organisation on the brink of collapse. Indeed, it was argued in the British Foreign Policy Committee on 27 March 1939 that the Polish Army was a better deterrent against Germany than the Red Army. Chamberlain believed that any Anglo-French-Soviet military pact would prove to be a Trojan horse for Moscow to spread her own suffocating suzerainty over the independent nations of the Baltic and Eastern Europe. Reassuring Poland could prevent this interference.

The cynical Molotov-Ribbentrop pact gave Hitler his opportunity to strike east, and to gain the natural resources he needed to fight a long war. Yet, the Nazi-Soviet deal encouraged Chamberlain to stand by Poland. Hitler's non-aggression pact with Stalin horrified Germany's anti-Comintern Fascist allies. Their decision to distance themselves from Hitler meant Chamberlain was able to declare war at the very moment when Britain would have to fight the fewest number of enemies on the narrowest number of battlefronts. This was the rationale which drove Chamberlain to honour his pledge to Poland on 3 September 1939. Events turned out differently to his expectations.

Graham Stewart is the author of `Burying Caesar: Churchill, Chamberlain and the battle for the Tory Party' (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, pounds 25)