Not wanting to miss the bus, Italy invaded Albania. Hitler was less than pleased. He now faced the possibility of Britain playing on Turkish fears over the Dardanelles. German diplomat Franz von Papen was dispatched to Ankara for damage control.
Now the swing power was the Soviet Union, and the tide for influence was running against the Allies. Warsaw refused to allow the Soviet Army to transit Polish territory. Moscow proposed a six-power conference, which failed to gain traction. Any chance of prying Mussolini loose from the Axis seemed to have vanished. On March 26, Il Duce gave voice to Italy’s claims to the Mediterranean. With his April 7 invasion of Albania, he made clear his designs on the Balkans in tandem with Hitler’s plans for Eastern and Central Europe.
Testing the Waters With the Russians
Hitler, by this time, was taking a greater measure of the Kremlin. For instance, he noted that on March 10, during the 18th Party Congress, Stalin took aim at the Western democracies, stating that the Soviet Union was not going to war “to pull somebody else’s chestnuts out of the fire.” On April 17 in Berlin, Soviet Ambassador Alexei Merekalov called on Ernst Baron von Weizsacker, state secretary in the German Foreign Office. The topic of discussion was the possibility of improved German-Soviet relations and economic considerations.
On May 3, Stalin replaced Maxim Litvinov as Soviet foreign minister with Vyacheslav Molotov, a no-nonsense hardliner. Popular interpretation has it that Litvinov, a Jew, was replaced as a sop to the anti-Semitic Nazis. However, German diplomat Werner von Tippelskirsch observed in a May 4 telegram to Berlin, “Since Litvinov received the English ambassador as late as May 2 and had been named in the press of yesterday as a guest of honor at the parade, his dismissal appears to be the result of a spontaneous decision by Stalin. The decision apparently connected with the fact that differences of opinion arose in the Kremlin on Litvinov’s negotiations. The reason for differences of opinion presumably lies in a deep distrust, that Stalin urged caution lest the Soviet Union be drawn into conflicts. Molotov (no Jew) is held to be ‘most intimate friend and closest collaborator’ of Stalin. His appointment is apparently to guarantee that the foreign policy will be continued strictly in accordance with Stalin’s ideas.”
Stalin might have played the anti-Semitic card in ridding himself of Litvinov, but in the end the Soviet dictator was a political realist. The Soviets lost territory to the fledgling Polish state in their 1919-1921 armed contest. If there was a way of recouping territory and pushing the Soviet border farther west, then Stalin was certainly interested. As Austria and Czechoslovakia had shown, Britain and France proved lacking as allies in the face of Fascist provocations.
Hitler ordered his ambassador to Moscow, Count Werner von der Schulenberg, to put out feelers to Molotov. On May 5, Nazi Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels forbade disparaging pronouncements toward Bolshevism and the Soviet state until further notice.
The Allied Decision to Support the Poles
For Paris, Poland proved a dilemma. Warsaw would not allow Soviet troops across its territory during the Czech Crisis. And with Chamberlain’s pronouncement on March 31, it meant only one thing. England had no army on the European continent. France did. It seemed the Anglo-French-Polish accord, then, was to be guaranteed by the blood of the Poles and the French. France faced a problem. Germany blocked the way to Poland, just as Poland blocked the way to Czechoslovakia for the Soviets. It was imperative, then, that a deal be struck with Moscow.
Churchill concurred and had said so in the House of Commons back on April 3, commenting, “To stop here with a guarantee to Poland would be to halt in No-Man’s Land under fire of both trench lines and without shelter of either…. Having begun to create a Grand Alliance against aggression, we cannot afford to fail. We shall be in mortal danger if we fail…. The worst folly, which no one proposes we should commit, would be to chill and drive away any natural cooperation which Soviet Russia in her own deep interests feels it necessary to afford.”
Former British Prime Minister David Lloyd George echoed his protégé’s sentiments: “If we are going in without the help of Russia, we are walking into a trap. It is the only country whose arms can get there…. If Russia has not been brought into this matter because of certain feelings the Poles have that they do not want the Russians there, it is for us to declare the conditions, and unless the Poles are prepared to accept the conditions with which we can successfully help them, the responsibility must be theirs.”
For Chamberlain, a Conservative Party prime minister, such criticisms from the Labor bench provided another hurdle to the Polish Crisis, opposition at home. He had been sanctioned for not helping the Czechs at Munich and was now being taken to task for being led by the nose by the Poles. However, was not Britain defending the rights of smaller nations? This point was made by Lord Halifax to the House of Lords. Why should the Poles, then, be forced to accept assistance from a people with whom they have a long historic antipathy?
If Chamberlain’s negotiations with Moscow proved fleeting, then he and his government would incur blame. If, on the other hand, discussions proved fruitful, credit would have to be shared with Churchill, Lloyd George, and the Laborites.
Hitler Wins the Diplomatic Contest
The Chamberlain government seemed to drag its feet with Moscow. London’s first overtures were on April 15; Moscow replied in two days. The British did not answer until May 9, with Moscow coming back in five days. Again London was slow on the draw, 13 days; the Soviet reply, 24 hours. The British took another nine days with a Soviet riposte in 48 hours. The next go around saw London take five days versus 24 hours for Moscow, then another eight days for the British, 24 hours for Moscow. Six more days for the British, 24 hours for Moscow. The substance of the British communiqués is unimportant when compared to London’s spiritless approach to what must be construed as being a diplomatic dilemma of the utmost significance. Indeed, the leisurely pace of the British Foreign Office told Stalin everything he needed to know.
In comparison, the string of cables traded by the Reich Chancellery and the Kremlin show a great deal more attention to the seriousness of the agenda in question, particularly in the exchanges through July and August. These German Foreign Office missives tell a tale of woe for Poland. By this time, the position of the Polish state was untenable. Hitler had abrogated the 1934 German-Polish nonaggression pact, ended the Anglo-German Naval Agreement of 1935, and concluded nonaggression pacts with Estonia, Lithuania, and Denmark, in addition to the Pact of Steel with Italy, on May 22, 1939. It seemed that by summer, Hitler had sealed Poland’s fate.
In the autumn of 1939, for the time being, the previous discord between Fascist and Communist was conveniently forgotten. The delusion of rapture instilled by the Nazi-Soviet honeymoon seemed to presage a new era in German-Soviet relations, a marriage of convenience by which the newlyweds exchanged their meaningless vows before a sacrificial altar called Poland.
The tragedy of Poland goes beyond the Hitler-Stalin Pact and the insidious agenda of aggression it has come to represent. It assured that by 1945, in the throes of Allied victory, Poland would merely exchange one overseer for another.
Like Catherine the Great, Stalin was able to push the Russian border west at the expense of the Poles. In the 20th century, Germany and Poland had already invaded the Motherland twice by 1920. However, the nonaggression pact with the Nazis, in the end, failed to buy that breathing space necessary to prepare for the next Teutonic invasion, Operation Barbarossa, on June 22, 1941.