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From: Irish Foreign Affairs: Articles
Date: July, 2009
By: Brendan Clifford

The launching of the Second World War

A dispute over Danzig was the occasion for the launching of the Second World War. Between the World Wars Danzig was a Free City under the authority of the League of Nations. The League’s High Commissioner for Danzig between 1934 and 1936 was an Irishman, Sean Lester. In 1940 Lester became the last General Secretary of the League, which was in collapse following the collapse of the British and French war effort in the war which they had declared on Germany on the Danzig issue.

A book about Lester’s career in Danzig has now been published by the Irish Academic Press: Sean Lester, Poland And The Nazi Takeover Of Danzig by Paul McNamara. It has an Introduction by Michael Kennedy, who I assume is the person of that name who edits and comments on collections of foreign policy documents. They suggest, without giving the matter any consideration, that Lester did well in warding off Nazi control of Danzig in the mid-1930s.

The blurb gives an unusually accurate summary of the book:

“Sean Lester, a Belfast Protestant and Irish nationalist, became one of Ireland’s first truly international diplomats when, in 1934, he took up the post of High Commissioner of the League of Nations in the Free City of Danzig, a Baltic port which both Germany and Poland coveted. Finding himself in a cauldron of intrigue, Lester made strenuous and courageous efforts to frustrate the Danzig Nazi Party’s attempts to gain complete control of the city and return it to the German Reich. By mid-1936, having become virtually the only obstacle left in the way of a Nazi conquest of Danzig, the Irishman soon became the focus of a very aggressive, and eventually successful campaign by Hitler and the Nazi movement to have him forced out of the Free City. As it was the only country to have official rights on Danzig, Poland’s position regarding these events was crucial, and perhaps more important than that of the League of Nations itself. Based largely on documents from Polish archives never before seen in the English-speaking world, Sean Lester… attempts to explain more fully how and why the League of Nations, Poland and Great Britain allowed a golden opportunity to stop Hitler in his tracks slip by.”


Danzig was a “Free City”. What is a Free City? Obviously a city that belongs to nobody—or to everybody, which is much the same thing.

There were Free Cities in Central Europe for many centuries, as institutions of The Empire. The Empire, which came to be known as the Holy Roman Empire, was a loose confederation of Princes, Bishops and Free Cities. The Cities were Free in that they owed allegiance to the remote figure of the Emperor, and not to the local territorial Prince. They were phenomena of the comprehensively pre-nationalist era. Danzig was once an authentic Free City. By 1918 it had long ceased to be such and had become part of the German State. But, after 1918, in the era of extreme nationalism, it was set up once more as a Free City, with the League of Nations playing the part of the Empire for it.

It was on Britain’s insistence that Danzig was made a Free City.

Because of the part played by Britain in suppressing nationalist development in Ireland, the fact is often overlooked in Ireland that Britain was a fanatical instigator of nationalism in some other parts of the world. In the mid-19th century, for instance, Italian nationalism was a sacred cause to English Liberalism (up to the point of sheltering the terrorist propagandist, Mazzini), even while it was in the course of stamping on Irish nationalism.

The British propaganda presented the Great War of 1914-19 as a crusade for nationality. At the end of the War Britain over-ruled the democratic nationalism that won the Irish election and it set up a system of military rule, but in Central Europe it destroyed the multi-national Habsburgh state and set up a series of nationalist states in its place.

These states are more properly described as nationalist rather than national. They were not the outcome of a strong, consolidated national development over a number of generations. The nation-state of the post-1918 era were constructions of the victorious imperial powers.

In 1917 Britain tried to persuade Austria to desert its ally, Germany, and make a separate peace, on the understanding that if it did so Britain would guarantee the preservation of the Habsburgh Empire. When the Habsburghs refused, Britain decided to break up the Empire and establish the pieces into a series of nation-states, with little regard to viability. And these states were to serve as buffers against Bolshevik Russia.

These nation-states, established in Eastern Europe to serve a purpose of the West European Powers, sought to puff themselves up with the nationalist spirit of the age, in order to make themselves viable.

There had been a much stronger prior development of nationalism in Poland than in Czechoslovakia or Yugoslavia—where in fact there had been none at all which corresponded with the name. And there had been some independent Polish military action in the World War, led by Joseph Pilsudski—who was the only Continental socialist with whom James Connolly had expressed a sense of affinity in both runs of his newspaper, The Workers’ Republic (1899 and 1915-16). But, because a Polish Legion had fought in the War (against Russia), and because there was an unbroken line of nationalist continuity between the old Polish state (broken up in the 1790s) and the new Polish state recognised by Britain and France, after the collapse of Tsarism in 1917 allowed them to do so, the new Poland did not have a modest idea of itself. And it had some reason not to be modestly grateful, and obedient, to the Great Powers which had restored it. It had once been a Great Power, and it saw itself becoming a Great Power again—and again with some reason. In 1920 it stopped Lenin’s attempt to break through into Central Europe, and it sent the Red Army reeling backwards from the gates of Warsaw.

In Polish eyes Poland was not what the Versailles Powers said it should be. It was historic Poland, to the extent that the Poland set in motion by Versailles could regain it. Lithuania was certainly to be part of it.

Rosa Luxemburg, the internationalist socialist revolutionary born in Russian Poland, rejected Pilsudski’s socialist nationalism. In opposition to his Polish Socialist Party she set up, in order to mark her rejection of nationalism, the Socialist Party of Poland and Lithuania! But Pilsudski naturally had no objection to Lithuania being part of Poland. And, following his defeat of the Red Army, he extended the Polish state eastwards into Byelorussia and the Ukraine.

The new Polish state set up by Versailles was carved out of the territories of the German and Austrian states. And it divided Germany into two separated parts with territory of the Polish state running between them. The East Prussian region of the German state was cut off from the main body of the German state by the territory which gave the Polish state access to the sea. This was known as the Polish Corridor. The City and part of Danzig lay between the two parts of the German State. It lay across the Corridor from the western part, close to the eastern part. The inhabitants of Danzig were predominantly German. But it was decreed at Versailles that Danzig should be neither German or Polish. It was to be a Free City with international sovereignty, but with Polish connections.

France would have made it part of the Polish state. If that had been done, it is reasonable to assume that the Poles would have dealt with the German problem in it. But Britain would not allow that—in the name of nationality, of course.

The Great War grew out of the Entente Cordiale. Russia was later included, but the Triple Entente fell apart with the collapse of Tsarist Russia. The Entente Cordiale eventually won the War—or America won it for them—and cordiality immediately gave way to animosity. France had borne the main cost of the war and expected at least to gain the Rhine frontier as a minimal reward.
Britain’s major concern after 1918 was to prevent France from establishing hegemonic influence in Europe through dominating the Rhineland and establishing close relations with the new states to the east of Germany. (Major Street, who was a major British propaganda writer in the Anglo-Irish war of 1919-21, became a British propagandist against France.)

Britain has had worldwide policy interests for about three centuries. It became habitual with it to leave markers at various places around the world in case they might be useful some time as moral debating points for war. The Free City of Danzig was such a marker. It was an outrage to Germans and an affront to Poles.

I began wondering about Danzig a very long time ago. For decades I assumed that I would somewhere come across a clear account of exactly where it was, and why keeping it as it was was worth a World War in which tens of millions died—especially as the War did not keep it as it was. But I did not stumble across an account of it, so I went in search of information. What I wanted in the first place was a detailed local map showing the exact relationship of Danzig to East Prussia. But the only maps to hand were the large-scale maps that told you nothing.

Danzig, which was the occasion for a World War, seemed to be a subject which the major interests in the world thought was best forgotten.

The final absurdity was a discussion with some Germans, some of whom originated from Danzig and all of whom were staunch anti-Nazis. When I asked what exactly lay between Danzig City and East Prussia, the question seemed at first to be incomprehensible to them. When I persisted, they laboured to get their childhood memories working, and eventually said that as far as they could recall there was nothing between Danzig and East Prussia, except perhaps one small village.
Then I searched through old books published in the 1920s and 1930s and found some sketch maps of the region which seemed to confirm that.

This meant that Danzig was right up against East Prussia. It was not in any real sense in the Polish Corridor. That would suggest that the Corridor ran on both sides of it. But the eastern border of Danzig was with East Prussia, while the Corridor ran to the west of it. Danzig would be more meaningfully described as a piece of East Prussia projected into a corner of the Corridor.

Poland claimed Danzig on historic grounds, saying that it had once been Polish but Germans had moved into it. Its aim was to make it Polish once again. The Free City status of Danzig in League sovereignty obstructed and delayed that development. But the Poles refused to accept the Versailles (League) arrangement. If the Germans in Danzig were protected from them, they would not use the facilities of the German city. They built their own port in the Corridor to the west of Danzig, Gdynia, and boycotted Danzig.

Here was a mediaeval entity, a Free City—established in the midst of a situation of intense nationalism, detached from both of the nation-states of which it might have been a part, but subject to the nationalist influence of both—conducting its own local government which reflected the German character of the population. It was strongly nationalist, due to being cut off from its nation-state, and being subject to the Polish state in its foreign policy.

The Poles were prevented by the League from determining the internal affairs of Danzig, and Danzig was prevented by Poland from determining its foreign policy. And this situation of inherent antagonism was rendered incapable of resolution by the authority of the League. And those who set up this state of affairs did so for the purpose of preserving peace in Europe!!!

The League subjected Danzig to Polish foreign policy but withheld it from Polish sovereignty. And Lester dedicated himself to preserving this state of affairs. And he used his influence to maintain electoral structures of party conflict in Danzig after they had been discarded in Germany proper.
MacNamara writes that:


“no-one in Geneva, Paris or London had anticipated that the League would ever have to deal with a governing party in Danzig that entirely rejected democratic principles and whose ultimate aim was to break way from the League’s control” (p223).


If that was so, then the people running the British and French Empires must have had a kindergarten view of the character of Europe under Versailles.

I read what was available about the Danzig situation about 20 years ago. What I recall is that it was well understood in diplomatic circles in the 1930s that the Danzig arrangement was unsustainable. The atavistic City State, which was in principle a throwback to the pre-national era in Europe, was incompatible with the extreme nationalist arrangement of Europe made by Versailles.

I find it extraordinary that Lester, a Sinn Feiner, should not have seen that. Since Danzig was not made Polish, it could not fail to want to become German by whatever means presented themselves.
Who had an interest in preserving the unsustainable, atavistic arrangement for Danzig? Not Poland. Not Germany. Not France. The only interest it served was England’s. It was one of those possible casus belli that England kept up all around the world.
MacNamara almost notices this:


“While Lester received valuable practicable help from successive British consuls general in Danzig, it was often the case that London feigned ignorance at the [League] Council table, both in order not to give away their sources of information and to avoid having to take any really effective and co-ordinated international action” (p227)


Kennedy writes in his Foreword:


“McNamara is not forgiving of Warsaw’s actions vis-à-vis Danzig. Warsaw should have seen a friend in Lester… Instead, given Beck’s disdain for the League, he saw Lester as at best a powerless functionary and at worst an enemy of Polish interests in the city. Beck bypassed Lester and dealt directly with Berlin over Danzig… Beck later tried in vain through 1939 to bolster the League’s position in the Free City. By then it was too late… Britain and France were set on a policy of appeasing their enemies…” (pviii).


But, in terms of the Polish interest in 1934, Lester was an enemy—an obstacle to the realisation of Polish destiny. Destiny has become a bad word in revisionist Ireland, at least as applied to Irish nationalism—and perhaps rightly so if Ireland settles down within the British entourage—but are the Poles imaginable without their sense of destiny? McNamara calls it “hubris” (p228). Whatever one cares to call it, it has always characterised the Poles. Connolly’s kindred spirit, Pilsudski, had it in an extreme degree. Without it, would he have had the temerity to defeat Russia in 1920?
Kennedy and McNamara comment on 1934 in the light of hindsight from September 1939. But if one looks at the world from the vantage point of 1934—and I can see little use for a kind of history which does otherwise—one of the least likely predictions would be that Germany, disarmed, shackled and pared-away at the edges, would dominate Central and Western Europe within six years. And, if one looks at the events through which the improbable came about, one sees that it was an Anglo-German achievement.

Kennedy mentions French appeasement of its enemy. He couples it with British appeasement, but the British enemy is uncertain for most of the inter-war period. There is however little doubt about the French enemy—it is Germany. When, after defeating Germany, did France begin to appease it? By the mid-1920s at the latest. British balance-of-power policy against France kicked in very quickly after the German surrender, and the French will to disable humiliated Germany had been broken by the mid-1920s. Thereafter France was incapable of carrying through a European foreign policy independently of England.

Unfortunately Kennedy and McNamara do not say what they mean by appeasement.

The anti-German propaganda of Britain in the First World War—which Radio Telefis Eireann now presents as “Our War”—said that the basic source of evil in the world was the united German State, in which an evil principle called “Prussianism” infected the “good Germany”—the Germany of Kant (who never set foot outside Prussia), Goethe and Beethoven. The French in 1919 tried to disable Prussianism by taking the good Germany away from it. It sought a Rhine frontier for itself and encouraged the formation of a Rhineland state.

I don’t know if there was extensive French belief in the English nonsense about Prussian evil. I doubt that Clemenceau, the staunch Republican nationalist who seems to have believed in nothing but France, believed a word of it—not unless all that one means by evil is an obstacle to one’s will. But Clemenceau would have disabled Germany along with humiliating it. Britain however insisted on preventing it from being disabled after humiliating it. It kept it in being as a major state, with bits cut off at the edges, and helped it to restore itself as a counterweight to France, while leaving the humiliations in place. It did this during both the Weimar and the Nazi periods.
If what one means by appeasement is the tolerance of breaches of Versailles conditions by Germany, then Britain was the arch-appeaser, and France was obliged after a few years’ resistance to fall in with British appeasement.

The Weimar breaches of Versailles were covert, though not actually secret. The Nazi breaches were overt—the construction of a Navy, military conscription for a mass Army, the insertion of the Army into the Rhineland, the merger with Austria, the annexation of the Sudetenland.

The guardians of the Versailles Treaty—Britain with France in tow—supervised this reconstruction of Germany as a major military power. And the main enhancement of German military resources happened after the Nazi Party had taken power. The ‘enemy’ which Britain (and France) conciliated was an enemy which Britain had established in power by conniving at (more realistically, collaborating with) its breaches of the Versailles conditions on its existence.

Realistically considered, Germany did not become a major military power until 1938, when it enacted the merger with/conquest of Austria (which democratic Germany and democratic Austria had been prohibited from accomplishing); was presented with a gift of the impregnable Sudetenland barrier by Britain; and acquired the Czech armaments and arms industry.

Italy did not support the unification of Austria and Germany. It was looked to by patriotic Austrian fascists or authoritarians as a protector of Austrian independence. When the Anschluss became an accomplished fact with English connivance, the Italian position was undermined. It then contemplated active alliance with Germany, and Hitler actively discouraged the rancorous German nationalism in the South Tyrol.

The final French attempt at independent foreign policy was a Treaty with Russia which guaranteed Czechoslovak independence. British influence prevented the activation of that Treaty in the Autumn of 1938. This told Russia that Treaties with the capitalist West weren’t worth the paper they were written on. A year later—with Czechoslovakia having been divided between Germany, Hungary and Poland, with the Czech remnant settling down as a German Protectorate, and with Russia made reasonably cynical about Western intentions—France, demoralised by what Britain persuaded it to do at Munich, followed Britain in declaring war on Germany over Danzig, but with little more intention than Britain of launching itself into all-out war, as both had done against democratic Germany in 1914.

The ‘why’ of this is problematical. One can only grope for it by inference from the ‘what’. The ‘what’ of it, however, is so clear that it is a tribute to the ongoing British talent for mystification that it seems shocking when it is stated plainly.

Poland contemplated war on Germany in the early 1930s. One might think it a pity that it did not launch it. A small war might have cleared the air.

Instead of going to war, Poland under Pilsudski made a Treaty with Hitler. And Hitler ended the rancorous German nationalism over the Corridor that had been kept alive by the German democracy (the Weimar Republic). He recognised the Polish Corridor as Polish. But Danzig was not part of the Corridor. It was a German city adjacent to East Prussia, which Poland had failed entirely either to conciliate or to dominate. It had been preserved intact as a grievance to both sides. That was the net effect of its status as a Free City under the League. In 1934 Hitler settled the border issue by recognising the Corridor as Polish. Danzig was left aside for future settlement. Early in 1939, after Poland had taken part with Germany in the dismantling of Czechoslovakia, Hitler suggested that the time had come for a final settlement. His terms were that Danzig should become part of East Prussia, and that this separated part of the German state should have access by land to the main part of Germany by means of an extra-territorial road across the Corridor.

I never went to the GDR [East Germany], considering it to be doomed, so I never went on the extra-territorial road connecting West Berlin with the Federal Republic. I only know that it existed for forty years, and was functional. And that was between States whose relations were governed by deadly ideological enmity. No such enmity existed between Poland and Germany. Insofar as the Poland of 1918 had an autonomous origin, it was in the national socialism of Pilsudski, which rejected the international socialism of the Russian Social-Democracy. The Polish Government of Pilsudski was often described as Fascist, and was somewhere thereabouts. When Pilsudski died (1935), Polish government became incompetent but did not otherwise change its character.

Poland was not an outpost of Western liberal democracy in Eastern Europe. (Perhaps that is what Czechoslovakia was in ideological veneer, but Western liberalism blotted it out.)

If Poland had settled on the terms suggested by Hitler, I do not see that it would have been a tragedy for any cause. And it would have caused much less alteration to the balance of force in Europe than either the German/Austrian merger, which Britain connived at, or the transfer of the Sudetenland to Germany, which Britain brought about.

Inferring British purpose from British policy, and leaving aside kindergarten notions, one must assume that there was some concern which ruled out the possibility of war in defence of Czechoslovakia from a very strong position, but entertained the possibility of war in defence of the status of Danzig from a greatly weakened position.

Of course Britain did not actually wage war in defence of Danzig. It only declared war on Germany, and began a limited form of naval warfare which could have no effect on the Danzig issue.
After Poland had co-operated with Hitler in dismantling Czechoslovakia, Hitler suggested that the time had come for a Danzig settlement. That was when Britain gave a military guarantee to Poland, and France followed suit. This Guarantee, which was later elaborated into a Treaty, apparently gave the Poles the use of the two most powerful Armies in the world, the Armies of the British and French Empires. And the Polish Army itself had won the last major war in Europe.

The Guarantee was unique in the history of British foreign policy, in that it gave a foreign state the explicit authority to send the British Army to war in its own interest. Until that moment, Britain had kept itself free of explicit obligations towards any other state to make war on a third party at its behest. (In 1914 it had made extensive military arrangements with France for joint war with Gemany, but they were secret, and there was no formal Treaty obligation.)

The Polish Guarantee established a military encirclement of Germany. The Germans said that, by accepting it, the Poles revoked the 1934 Treaty of Non-Aggression. The Poles denied that this was the case, but they must have understood perfectly well that it was the case.

When, about twenty years ago, I was working out in detail how the catastrophic Second World War was brought about, setting aside ideology and looking at military facts for that purpose, I saw that encirclement of Germany as being the crucial thing and I said so. Martin Mansergh, now a Fianna Fail Government Minister, found my statement of that fact outrageous. He even denied it was a fact.
It is true that, for ideological reasons, the Guarantee is not usually described as a military encirclement of Germany. But the denial, by an Irish politician who asserts a Republican orientation, was absurd.

The South African Government of the time was the most recent and the most active of the Dominions of the British Empire. (The Irish Dominion, which a section of Sinn Fein signed up for under threat of “immediate and terrible war”, was never a real and active Dominion. It was only a cowed Republic.) In March 1939, before the Chamberlain Government issued that Guarantee, but seeing which way the wind was blowing, the South African Government was anxious that Whitehall should understand what it was doing—that it was creating an encirclement of Germany which would be a virtual declaration of war. It sent a telegram saying that this:


"can have no other result but that of war, not because Germany necessarily wants war, but because such policy of encirclement cannot be taken by her as meaning anything else than a declaration of hostilities differing but little, if at all, from a declaration of war.

"That Germany would be entitled to so interpret such a policy I do not think anybody will doubt, and initiation of any such policy by Great Britain and her friends would be sufficient to throw upon themselves the responsibility for any war that may ensue" (quoted from March 1939: The British Guarantee To Poland by Simon Newman, Clarendon Press, 1976).



After 1945 Nazi Germany has almost invariably been depicted as an irrational and nonsensical construction, established by the hypnotic power over both the masses and the classes by an evil genius who somehow conjured unarmed Germany into an irresistible military force in a few years. Surely it would have been a good thing if that state had been subjected to a military encirclement with a view to destroying, or containing, it!

The deplorable thing about the encirclement is that it was bogus.

The military power to contain Germany, or to defeat it if it refused to be inhibited, was certainly there. The German Army, even with the gift of the Sudetenland, was no match in terms of material resources, for the Triple Alliance of Britain, France and Poland. And the German Army, a mushroom growth of recent years, had never fired a shot in anger.

The flaw in the Triple Alliance was that two members of it had no intention of fighting over the anomalous position of Danzig. Britain made a superficial show of preparing for war, but beyond introducing a Conscription Act it made no detailed arrangements. And it was certain that France would not act without Britain.

This was evident to Hitler. Unfortunately it was not evident to the Poles, whose acumen had declined severely since Pilsudski died. They acted under the illusion that they had two powerful allies. They refused to contemplate the loss of Danzig, which they did not hold and were never likely to get. The result was that they lost Poland for 60 years.

Britain and France, for reasons best known to themselves, gave the Sudetenland to Germany in 1938, and they gave it a small practice war in 1939. They also declared war on Germany when it was conquering Poland but did not interfere with the conquest. Their armies lay quietly along the Western borders, exchanging no more than an occasional shot with the Germans. The Royal Navy stopped German trade by sea, but did not sail up to Danzig and control the Baltic.

The League of Nations was set aside during this period. It was activated again some months after the fall of Poland, for the purpose of engaging in war with the Soviet Union in Finland. The Finns settled before this could be accomplished.

Maybe none of this indicates that Britain’s major concern was the Soviet Union. Maybe what was evident was not the case, and what there was no sign of was the case.

What there were signs of in the Summer of 1939 (following on from the Autumn of 1938) was a set-up for German-Soviet conflict.

Danzig was a popular issue in Germany which the Sudetenland had not been. There was a conspiracy of German Generals and politicians, ready to enact a coup d’état if Hitler attempted a conquest of Sudetenland, and it was in communication with Whitehall. But Whitehall saved Hitler. The gifting of the Sudetenland demoralised the active opposition when it came to Poland.
If Britain was confronted with a set of circumstances like this (as Russia was), it would present it as the enactment of strategic purpose.

If Germany and Russia were being set up for war, they averted it by pre-emptive diplomatic action.
The assumption was that Nazism and Bolshevism were driven by a blind force of antagonism against each other, were incapable of conducting foreign policy towards each other on any other grounds, and would go to war if brought into conjunction. The fact that they took evasive diplomatic action at the eleventh hour, instead of remaining the blind subjects of British manipulation, was seen in Britain as a moral outrage.

Britain declared war over Danzig, but did not life a finger to preserve the actual authority of the League or the Polish state. It acted without reference to the League—but resurrected it a few months later to expel the Soviet Union.