There is no grain of truth in the accusations aimed at Poland that its cooperation with Hitler led to the outbreak of World War II.
The Stalin-Hitler Pact (in Poland called Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact) was crucial to the circumstances in which World War Two broke out. This pact enabled Hitler to launch his invasion of Poland in September 1939, in the knowledge that he would not be directly opposed by any outside powers. Only the British and French had pledged to aid Poland, and they were not willing or able to effectively project their military power to assist Poland directly. So, only Stalin could have halted Hitler’s ambitions, and – by agreeing to the Pact – he chose not to.
At first sight it does indeed appear that Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were on different sides, ideologically. But it is important to realise that they shared a number of strategic goals in 1939. Both were revisionist powers, hoping for the Versailles system that had been in place since the end of the First World War to be smashed. Both had lands that they had lost and wanted to regain. Both were fundamentally anti-Polish; viewing that country almost as the embodiment of their post-WW1 humiliation. And, crucially, both were happy for war to break out once again on the continent of Europe. So, there was a natural alignment between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, as long as they could put aside their ideological differences – and this they managed to do in August 1939.
For Germany, the Pact was only a temporary expedient: a way for Hitler to get himself out of the diplomatic impasse that he had created and isolate Poland. But it also gave Germany a potentially vital economic deal to supply raw materials (especially oil) and secured Hitler’s rear so that he could attack westward in 1940. The Soviets saw the Pact as a vitally important economic opportunity – to benefit from German technical expertise. It is often forgotten that the 22 months of the Nazi-Soviet relationship saw 3 extensive and wide-ranging trade treaties between the two.
There is not a single blade of truth in accusations that Polish cooperation with Hitler helped start World War Two. This is an old Soviet line of argument, now shamefully reheated by Putin’s Russia, which deliberately obfuscates the Stalin-Hitler Pact – which was officially titled as a non-aggression pact – with pact which Poland signed with Germany in 1934, suggesting Stalin was only doing the same thing.
The Polish-German non aggression pact was just that – an agreement not to go to war with one another. Such agreements were common in Europe in the 1930s. The Stalin-Hitler Pact certainly called itself a non-aggression pact, but its key details were included in the Secret Protocol, in which the two sides agreed to divide up central Europe between them. So, the “German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact” was in reality actually the opposite of a non-aggression pact. It was an agreement between two countries to open hostilities against a third country, namely Poland. Comparing the two pacts is historically illiterate.
The issue of whether the horror of World War Two, in which one in five Poles were killed, could be avoided is one of the most enduring questions of modern Polish history. It is perhaps natural to look for ways in which Poland’s fate in that conflict could have been improved, policies that might have lessened the hideous human and material costs. An arrangement with Germany might have done that. Poland might have been in a position analogous to Hungary, for instance, as a member of the Axis and an ally of the Nazis. Perhaps in that way, the death toll might have been lessened.
But we have to think deeply about what that would have meant. Poland in that scenario would have been obliged to not only be an active collaborator in Germany’s military adventures – not least among them the invasion of the Soviet Union (whenever that would have happened) – it would also have been obliged to have been an active collaborator in Germany’s racial ambitions, especially the extermination of Europe’s Jews, a sizeable proportion of which lived on Polish soil. Poland might have avoided some of its wartime casualties by following this course of action, but it would have been profoundly morally stained in the process.
.As regards the outcome of the war, the Stalin-Hitler Pact was less immediately influential, as by that time the constellation of power had shifted – after the German attack on the Soviet Union in 1941 – and in those circumstances Central Europe was always going to be “liberated” and then occupied by the Red Army. It is instructive here that the fate of Poland at the end of the war – as the only country in the region which had fought on the side of the Allies from the first day of the conflict – was indistinguishable from that of Hungary, for instance (which had been allied to Germany) or Czechoslovakia, which had been dismembered prior to the war.
Text published in monthly „Wszystko Co Najważniejsze” (Poland), issue no. 19 [LINK] and, simultaneously, in „Washington Post” (USA) and „Taggespiel” (Germany), as part of a historical education project of the New Media Institute (INM, Poland) and the Polish National Foundation (PFN).