Józef Beck

Józef Beck (October 4, 1894, Warsaw – June 5, 1944, Stăneşti, Romania) was a Polish statesman, diplomat, military officer, and close associate of Józef Piłsudski.

After the outbreak of World War I, Beck was a member of the clandestine Polish Military Organization ("Polska Organizacja Wojskowa", or "POW") founded in October 1914 by Piłsudski. In 1914-1917 Beck served in the First Brigade of the Polish Legions, and was aide to Piłsudski. In 1926 he helped to carry out the May 1926 military coup d'état that brought Piłsudski to "de facto" governmental power.

In 1926-1930 Beck served as chief of staff to Poland's Minister of Military Affairs, and in 1930-1932 as Vice Prime Minister and Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs. Groomed by Piłsudski to implement Poland's foreign policy, in 1932 he took office as Minister of Foreign Affairs, a post he was to hold until the outbreak of World War II.

In his international diplomacy, Beck sought to maintain a fine balance in Poland's relations with its two powerful neighbours, Germany and the Soviet Union. Pursuant to this, in July 1932 he concluded a nonaggression pact with the Soviet Union, and in January 1934 a German-Polish Non-Aggression Pact. He sought guarantees of security for Poland from the western powers: from Great Britain and France. His signal accomplishment in this realm was securing such guarantees from Britain in the spring of 1939, when it had become clear that Germany would not be swayed from embarking on war, and renewal of the Franco-Polish Alliance. Beck's policies could not avert war, but they did ultimately cause Germany's attack on Poland to embroil Germany in conflict with the western powers.

Beck detested the Minorities Treaty, guaranteeing the rights of Poland's Jewish, Ukrainian, Belarusian, Lithuanian and German minorities, that the Allies had forced on Central European states under the 1919 Versailles Treaty. Beck argued that, while Poland and Czechoslovakia were forced to respect the rights of their respective German minorities, the Polish minorities in Germany and the Soviet Union were not so protected. In addition, Beck resented that Germany used the Minorities Treaty to exert pressure on neighbouring states and to become involved in the internal affairs of Poland. In September 1934, Beck renounced the Minorities Treaty after the Soviet Union was admitted to the League of Nations.

Largely because the League of Nations had been the principal guarantor of the Minorities Treaty, Beck had a strong dislike for the League, and made little effort to hide his disdain for the League.

After Piłsudski's death in May 1935, a triumvirate emerged, comprising Beck, Marshal of Poland Edward Rydz-Śmigły and President Ignacy Mościcki, that effectively dominated the "Sanacja" and hence ruled Poland. The stability of the triumvirate was weakened, owing to personal conflicts within it, and none of the three men who made up the triumvirate managed to dominate Polish politics. The period from 1935 to 1939 is often described by historians as a "dictatorship without a dictator."

Beck also actively explored possibilities of realizing his mentor Piłsudski's concept of "Międzymorze" ("Tween-Seas"): of a federation of central and eastern European countries stretching from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea and — in later variants — from the Arctic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea. Such a polity, between Germany in the west and the Soviet Union in the east, might have been strong enough to deter both from military intervention. Beck realized that for the immediate future there was no realistic chance of building such a European superstate, but he was prepared to settle for a diplomatic bloc led by Poland, referred to as a "Third Europe," that might become the nucleus of a "Międzymorze" federation.

Beck's "Third Europe" diplomatic concept comprised a bloc of Italy, Poland, Yugoslavia, Hungary and Romania. It was toward this goal that Beck devoted most of his energy during his time as Foreign Minister. His efforts failed because
*both Italy and Hungary preferred to align themselves with Germany rather than Poland;
*the dispute between Romania and Hungary over Transylvania doomed efforts to include them in a common bloc;
*the desire of both Fascist Italy and Hungary to partition Yugoslavia between them blocked any effort to include Rome, Budapest and Belgrade in an alliance;
*none of the four states that were meant to form the "Third Europe" with Poland was interested in accepting Polish leadership.

Italy, Hungary, Romania and Yugoslavia were all economically and militarily weak states, as their dismal performance during World War II would amply show, and that to believe that, if only the "Third Europe" bloc had been created, Poland could have been saved from German and Soviet occupation in September 1939, does not seem very realistic.

Beck loathed Czechoslovakia and its Foreign Minister (later President) Edvard Beneš, who in his turn reciprocated these feelings in full. By contrast, Beck's relations with the Hungarian Regent, Admiral Miklós Horthy, were good. Beck often toyed with the idea of partitioning Czechoslovakia between Poland and Hungary, though he never attempted to actually do this (except that Poland did in 1938-1939 successfully work with Hungary for a restored common Polish-Hungarian border, at Czechoslovakia's expense: see article on the First Vienna Award). The chances of Polish-Czechoslovak alliance in the 1930s were never good, but the mutual hatred between Beck and Beneš ended what slight chances there were.

In the early 1950s, there was a major historical debate on the pages of the "Times Literary Supplement" between the British historian Sir Lewis Bernstein Namier and the former French foreign minister Georges Bonnet. Namier alleged that Bonnet had snubbed an offer by Beck in May 1938 to have Poland come to the aid of Czechoslovakia in the event of a German attack [Adamthwaite, Anthony "France and the Coming of the Second World War", London: Frank Cass, 1977 pages 183-184] . Bonnet denied that such an offer had been made, which led Namier to accuse Bonnet of seeking to falsify the record [Adamthwaite, Anthony "France and the Coming of the Second World War", London: Frank Cass, 1977 pages 183-184] . Namier concluded the debate in 1953 with words "The Polish offer, for what it was worth, was first torpedoed by Bonnet the statesmen, and next obliterated by Bonnet the historian" [Adamthwaite, Anthony "France and the Coming of the Second World War", London: Frank Cass, 1977 page 184] .

Beck played a decisive role in the evolution of the rapidly deteriorating political situation in Europe during the months preceding the start of the Second World War, through his refusal of Germany's proposal concerning the Free City of Danzig (now Gdańsk, Poland) and for a German extraterritorial highway to run across Polish Pomorze (Pomerania) to East Prussia, two concessions on Poland's part which would be compensated through the extension of the 1934 nonaggression pact for a period of 25 years, the inclusion of Poland in the Anti-Comintern Pact directed against the Soviet Union and finally a formal guarantee of the country's borders.

Beck famously voiced his refusal of German demands in a speech on May 5, 1939, less than four months before Adolf Hitler's military attack on Poland:

:"Peace is a precious and a desirable thing. Our generation, bloodied in wars, certainly deserves peace. But peace, like almost all things of this world, has its price, a high but a measurable one. We in Poland do not know the concept of peace at any price. There is only one thing in the lives of men, nations and countries that is without price. That thing is honor."For Hitler, though, whether Poland accepted Germany's demands or not, wasn't much of a concern, given the fact he focused in the conquest of a common boundary with the Soviet Union. As a result, whether this was accomplished through the celebration of alliances with the Baltic countries, their annexation by Germany or the Soviet Union, was in principle irrelevant. [Sebastian Haffner, "Der Tenfelspakt", p.92]

Similarly, Beck refused an agreement proposed by Great Britain which involved the country's cooperation with France and the Soviet Union. In doing so, Poland maintained a relatively neutral stance towards both of its powerful neighbours.

A third proposal soon followed, once again elaborated by Great Britain, which promised support to the Polish Government, should the country's borders be endangered. This time around, Beck accepted it.

His hopes for an alliance with Britain thwarted, Hitler shifted his focus to the Soviet Union, with whom Germany would celebrate a non-aggression pact, in an attempt to settle the situation with Russia following the resolution of the impending opening of a Western front.

At the same time, Great Britain and France also sought an alliance with Russia. Nevertheless, while Germany could offer the Soviets considerable benefits, including vast territories in Eastern Europe and Finland, the Allies could only allow Russia to make use of Polish territory, under vague circumstances and limited conditions (in fact, even this small concession on Beck's part was only agreed when the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was very much inevitable). [Joachim Fest, "Hitler", p.590/591]

After Poland had been overrun by its neighbours in September 1939 in a historic "fourth partition" of the country, on the night of September 17-18, 1939, Beck withdrew together with the rest of the Polish Government into Romania, where he was interned by the authorities. It was then that he wrote a volume of memoirs, "Ostatni raport" ("Final Report"). He died in Stanesti, Romania, June 5, 1944.

In May 1991, Beck's remains were repatriated to Poland and interred at Warsaw's Powązki Cemetery, one of Poland's pantheons of the great and valiant.


Further reading

*Biskupski, Mieczyslaw B. "The History of Poland" Westport, Conn. ; London : Greenwood Press, 2000.
*Cienciala, Anna "The Munich Crisis of 1938: Plans and Strategy in Warsaw in the Context of Western Appeasement of Germany" pages 48-81 from "The Munich crisis, 1938 : prelude to World War II" edited by Igor Lukes & Erik Goldstein, London ; Portland, OR : Frank Cass Inc, 1999.
*Greenwood, Sean "The Phantom Crisis: Danzig, 1939" pages 247-272 from "The Origins of the Second World War Reconsidered A.J.P. Taylor and the Historians" edited by Gordon Martel Routledge Inc, London, United Kingdom, 1999
*Roberts, Henry L. "The Diplomacy of Colonel Beck," pages 579-614 from "The Diplomats, 1919-1939", edited by Gordon A. Craig and Felix Gilbert, Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 1953.

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