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105 SŁAWOMIR DEBSKI POLAND, THE SOVIET UNION, AND THE CRISIS OF THE VERSAILLES SYSTEM MORE THAN SEVENTY years after the outbreak of World War II, it is extremely difficult to provide an original answer to the question about its causes. Germany—the state and the nation—bears primary responsibility for the outbreak of that war and its barbaric character contrary to all moral and legal norms. It is impossible to understand the war without ascertaining that it occurred as a result of the aggressive policies pursued by the chancellor of Germany, Adolf Hitler, who enjoyed broad support from the German people. Poland, Soviet Russia, and the Versailles System The outbreak of World War II brought to a definite end the twenty-year existence of the Versailles system. The positions of Poland and Russia in the system differed radically. The reborn Poland was one of its integral parts and chief beneficiaries. Aleksander Skrzyński, one of the outstanding Polish foreign ministers of the interwar period, commented, “The Treaty of Versailles means the existence of Poland,” and “Poland holds the key to European security , so any combination that tries to ignore this will be doomed to complete failure.” The reconstituted Polish state came into being in November 1918 as a result of synergistic diplomatic efforts in Paris, London, Washington, and Rome undertaken by national conservatives, as well as of takeovers of power in Polish territories by independence-oriented left-wing forces. The ethos of action and the tradition of struggle for one’s own state influenced Polish thinking in the realm of international affairs. It was in line with the Polish raison d’état to collaborate with Paris and London for the stability of the new international system. With that goal in mind, in 1921 Poland concluded military alliances with France and Romania, strived for cooperation with Great Britain, and, during the first postwar decade, backed the institutions of the Versailles system, including the League of Nations. Warsaw assumed that it would be in France’s national interest to defend the European order shaped ˛ 106 SŁAWOMIR DEBSKI ˛ after World War I. The Polish-French alliance established in the early 1920s was a natural consequence of the community of strategic interests of the two states, which, however, started eroding after the Locarno Treaty of 1925. It enhanced the security of countries situated along the Rhine, while making Central Europe a region of relatively diminished security. That differentiation drove a wedge into the Polish-French alliance and the strategic community of the two states. Practically the day after the Treaty of Versailles was signed, some began to have the conviction that it would have to be modernized in the future. I use the term “modernized” rather than “reformed” because I feel it is closer to the intentions of the proponents of such changes. Warsaw suspected— usually with good reason—that the ideas for fixing the Versailles system, floated in London and Paris, were underpinned by concepts aimed at a reduction of Poland’s territorial holdings and the instrumentalization of the issue of security in Central Europe. In December 1935, Ralf S. Stevenson, the deputy head of the League of Nations desk at the British Foreign Office, advised Polish diplomats in Geneva that, with regard to Germany, one has to choose between two methods: either to buy peace, or to wage war. England will, to the limit of what is possible, pursue the first course. . . . In Europe the Austrian question will end either with an Anschluss or with a “Gleichschaltung.” This, however, will not stop [Germany ’s] expansion, which can unfold in the direction of Czechoslovakia, and maybe also Poland. England can intervene only in defence of the status quo in the West of Europe, but no Commons will acquiesce to an intervention in defence of the existing state of affairs in Central and Eastern Europe, such as in defence of the Corridor [i.e., Polish Pomerania]. The Polish political elite of the interwar period, conscious of France and Great Britain’s stand on the issue of changes to the Versailles Treaty concerning Eastern Europe, always highlighted the importance of an independent foreign policy. That criterion determined the extent of Polish willingness to cooperate with the Western powers. It was a position frequently misunderstood in Paris and London. The attitude of Soviet Russia to the Versailles order was different, because of the country’s peripheral situation. In the interwar period, the Soviet Union remained outside international systems. The Bolshevik Revolution had pushed it...


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