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22: International Relations between the Wars

<< 21: The Peoples of East Central Europe between the Wars || 23: Hitler’s War >>


It was in the obvious interest of the liberated nations of East Central Europe that President Wilson’s program of self-determination was combined with a project of international organization which materialized in the League of Nations. Such a league, which guaranteed the independence and territorial integrity of all member states great or small, was welcomed by those countries which in the past had seen these rights so frequently violated and even completely refused to them. Furthermore, in the opinion of the peacemakers, the League was to provide a solution for all those problems which had not been adequately settled in the various treaties, and such problems were particularly numerous in East Central Europe, that basically reorganized part of the continent.

    On the other hand, however, the new, restored, or enlarged states of that region were so concerned with their urgent national issues, at least at the beginning, that even those of them who were represented at the Peace Conference and in the drafting of the Covenant could not give sufficient attention to the general questions which were involved. They also resented the privileged position of the big powers, first in the Commission which worked out the organization of the League, and then in the League’s Council. Only one of the nonpermanent seats could be attributed to the countries of East Central Europe, Greece being chosen as their first representative, thanks to the prestige of Venizelos. And Poland’s disappointment at the solution of the Danzig problem did not make her favorable to the idea of having to share with the League the limited power given to her in an area which she had hoped to obtain without restriction.

    Poland, too, was the first country which was obliged to sign, simultaneously with the Versailles Treaty of June 28, 1919, a special treaty with the great powers whose main provisions dealt with the rights of her minorities, racial, linguistic, or religious, which were placed under the guaranty of the League. The resentment caused by that treaty was directed not against the provisions themselves, since Poland was ready to include even more extensive rights for all minorities in her national constitution, but against the international interference with that delicate matter. In the case of Poland, the interference of her neighbors with the religious minorities problem on the eve of the partitions was indeed a painful recollection. Though now a similar interference was entrusted to an international body, the Council of the League, the fact that this international protection of minorities was not made universal was resented as a discrimination not only by Poland but also by the other “new” states, Czechoslovakia, Rumania, Yugoslavia, and Greece, which had to sign similar treaties. Among the defeated nations, only the small countries, but not Germany, also had to accept these obligations regarding minorities in their respective peace treaties.

    The apprehension raised by the system of minorities protection also proved justified for another reason. Originally that new system was introduced mainly for assuring protection to the large Jewish minorities in East Central Europe. When extended to all other groups, however, it was soon used and misused in favor of the German minorities that were scattered all over that same region. And it served the German Reich as a weapon for creating trouble in the countries concerned and for supporting the German groups in their opposition against the states to which they now belonged. However, that danger became apparent only after Germany’s admission into the League, which did not take place until after the admission of all the states of East Central Europe.

    In addition to the five of them which as Allied powers were among the original members of the League, the new Republic of Finland, restored Albania, and two of the former enemies, Austria and Bulgaria, were admitted by the first Assembly in December, 1920. On that same occasion all nations which had formerly been under Russian rule asked for such admission, but their applications were rejected by a large majority which, except in the case of Finland, did not consider their situation sufficiently stabilized and which doubted whether or not the League would be able to safeguard the newly proclaimed independence of these countries. These apprehensions proved correct with regard to the Ukraine as well as the distant Transcaucasian republics, but Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were admitted by the second Assembly of the League in September, 1921, having in the meantime received de jure recognition by all powers. The admission of Hungary was delayed until the next year because of the unsettled Burgenland question. All these new members, as far as they had not signed treaties that included the protection of minorities, had to sign declarations in that matter (Finland only with respect to the Aland Islands) on the occasion of their admission, making these international guaranties a general rule in East Central Europe. Reciprocal guaranties in favor of the minorities on both sides of the border were included only in the Riga Treaty and in the Geneva Convention regarding Upper Silesia.

    Besides that minorities problem, the countries of East Central Europe had many other occasions, much more numerous than in the case of any other nations, to use the machinery of the League. Some of these issues resulted from territorial controversies connected with the establishment of the new boundaries but were neither definitely settled nor touched on at all by the Paris Peace Conference. They were brought before the League’s Council under Article 11 of the Covenant as threats to international peace. The League was successful in the question of the Aland Islands and of Upper Silesia, and though the Wilno problem could not be settled in Geneva, the Council’s action contributed greatly to avoiding an armed conflict in that matter.

    The League also contributed to the settlement of a few minor controversies regarding the frontiers of Albania and the Polish-Czechoslovak border, and successfully settled two rather dangerous incidents in the Balkans. Particularly difficult to deal with was the Greek-Italian dispute in 1923 because one of the great powers was involved and had already taken military action by bombarding and occupying the island of Corfu. Though Italy wanted to keep the whole affair in the hands of the Conference of Ambassadors, the suggestions of the Council of the League were followed in substance and Corfu was restored to Greece. In 1925 a clash also occurred, this time between Greek and Bulgarian forces, but in that dispute between two small countries the League was able to act with noteworthy efficiency and to avoid any serious trouble.

    The activity of the so-called technical organizations of the League, which as a whole was much more successful than its purely political action, proved particularly helpful to the war-torn countries of East Central Europe. Immediately after the war, the Health Organization stopped the typhus epidemic which was spreading westward from Russia, and in the economic and financial field, in addition to the reconstruction of Austria and Hungary, assistance through international loans was given to Greece, Bulgaria, Estonia, and to the Free City of Danzig.

    The East Central European countries were, however, most interested in the League’s efforts to create a system of collective security through mutual guaranties against aggression which would be more efficient than those provided for in the Covenant. High hopes were raised at the Assembly of 1924 when the Geneva Protocol was drafted, giving a clear definition of aggression and promising joint action against a country that would refuse a peaceful settlement by arbitration. Edward Benes from Czechoslovakia was very active in preparing that agreement, and among the other East Central European powers, Poland, through her foreign minister, Count Alexander Skrzynski, gave special support to the project.

    The protocol was abandoned, however, chiefly because of Britain’s opposition, and the Locarno agreement, which was negotiated the next year outside the League, proved to be a substitute that was very unsatisfactory to Germany’s eastern neighbors. Poland was particularly alarmed by the prospect that Germany, invited to join the League with great power privileges, would have a permanent seat in the Council. Therefore she claimed a similar privilege for herself. In 1926, however, she accepted a compromise. This was a so-called semipermanent seat through the right of re-election. At the same time the number of nonpermanent seats was increased to eleven so that two more countries from East Central Europe were always practically certain to be chosen for a period of three years. And although there were frequent clashes in the Council between the German and Polish representatives, the new Polish foreign minister, August Zaleski, was also a strong supporter of the League.

    It was the Polish delegation which at the Assembly of 1927 made a proposal to outlaw war and thus prepared public opinion for the Briand-Kellogg Pact which was signed in Paris on August 28, 1928, and condemned recourse to war for the solution of international controversies. And it was that same delegation which actively participated in the Disarmament Conference of 1932 and submitted a project of “moral disarmament” that would make the material limitation and reduction of armaments easier to accept.

    The failure of that Conference and, in general, of the League’s efforts to combine arbitration, security, and disarmament according to the French formula, was a special disappointment to the countries of East Central Europe. It was only then that most of them turned to bilateral agreements with the most threatening neighbors in order to find other ways to secure their independence and security. Poland, particularly endangered in her position between Germany and Russia, completed that change in her policy under Foreign Minister Joseph Beck who also declared in 1934 that his country would not consider herself bound by the minorities treaty so long as the whole system was not extended to all countries.

    It was indeed difficult for the smaller nations of East Central Europe to have any confidence in collective security when that security was to be assured by pacts among the big powers, negotiated outside the League, or when the Soviet Union, admitted to the League in September, 1934 almost simultaneously with Germany’s withdrawal, suddenly appeared as a champion of the Geneva institution, once so violently opposed, and of a collective security system. The League’s failure to stop aggression in Manchuria and Ethiopia made it easy to foresee that she would be powerless also against totalitarian forces turning against East Central Europe. And when at the last Assembly in December, 1939, the League condemned at least one of the acts of aggression by excluding Soviet Russia, it was too late. Too many aggressions had already been tolerated to save a peace settlement which had lasted twenty years but which already in the thirties could not be saved by mere confidence in the League of Nations.


Article 21 of the League’s Covenant encouraged the conclusion of regional agreements. Nowhere was there a greater need for such agreements than in East Central Europe where about a dozen independent states, most of them rather small and none of them a great power, had so many common interests to develop and so many common dangers to face. Contrary to widespread opinion, it was not the creation or restoration of these states, misleadingly called a “Balkanization” of Europe, which was a source of trouble and difficulties. The liberation movement which in the nineteenth century had started in the Balkans and which after World War I included the whole area between Germany and Russia, was an act of justice and a natural process based upon historical traditions as well as modern aspirations which at last received satisfaction. On the contrary, it was because that liberation had been so long delayed and continued to be challenged by imperialistic neighbors who considered the independence of so many “new” states merely a provisional solution that the adjustment and stabilization of the peace settlement proved such a delicate task and required the organized cooperation of all the interested nations.

    In an area where it was impossible to draft frontiers which would strictly correspond to ethnic divisions and satisfy all economic requirements, none of these nations could remain in isolation. The trend toward federalism which had been so significant in earlier periods of their history reappeared as soon as they regained their freedom. There had never been any federal union or even any looser system of cooperation comprising all of them. Therefore, it was natural that in the period between the two world wars more than one regional agreement was planned in the East Central European area. Each of them developed only gradually in the direction of a real federation or at least confederation, without having the necessary time for reaching that goal. As usual in the history of the whole area, the Baltic, Danubian, and Balkan regions had to be distinguished, without there being, however, precise dividing lines between them. In all three cases regional conferences or bilateral treaties were leading to ententes, with the creation of permanent organs as the next step.

    The Baltic conferences began as early as 1919 and at the outset included all five states of East Central Europe which had access to and a vital interest in the Baltic. Not only the three small specifically Baltic republics were represented, but also Finland in the north and Poland in the south, which latter seemed to lead the movement. But for that very reason the Polish-Lithuanian conflict proved a serious obstacle to such general Baltic cooperation. From 1921 onward Lithuania no longer participated in these conferences, to the regret of her closest neighbor, Latvia, which did not want to take sides in the conflict and yet was particularly interested in the whole scheme. It was her able foreign minister, S. Meierovics, who at the Baltic Conference of four states herd in Warsaw in March, 1922, suggested joint action by these states in Geneva, and at the conference of February, 1924, advocated the formal constitution of a Baltic League.

    Particularly successful seemed the next Baltic Conference which in January, 1925, met in Helsinki, where all four states signed treaties of conciliation and arbitration and decided to set up interstate commissions of conciliation. But it soon became apparent that Finland, host to that conference, was hesitating to continue her cooperation because she did not want to become involved in any possible conflicts between the other Baltic states and the Soviet Union. Hoping that her security would be better guaranteed by a rapprochement with the Scandinavian countries, Finland definitely turned in that direction in the following years. In 1933 she joined the so-called Oslo Agreement which had been concluded three years before between the Scandinavian kingdoms and the western neutrals, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxemburg.

    Particularly close remained Finland’s cooperation with the Scandinavian group, including Iceland, as was evidenced by the economic agreement of 1934 and the regular conferences of foreign ministers.

    Estonia and Latvia, allied with each other from 1924, continued to have very friendly relations with Poland but eventually proved more interested in establishing closer ties with the third small Baltic country, Lithuania, with which they formed a Baltic Entente in 1934. This was much more limited than the regional agreement which had originally been planned, but apparently it was safer from entanglements in big-power politics. When the big neighbors decided to interfere with the Baltic situation, the security of the three allies of course proved to be an illusion. But their cooperation, inadequate in a European crisis, gave valuable results in the last years of peace and in the framework of the League of Nations.

    In the Danubian area some kind of regional cooperation seemed particularly desirable in view of the breakup of the Habsburg monarchy which had united the Danubian lands for such a long time. But all projects for a Danubian federation were regarded with suspicion by those who feared a restoration of the defunct monarchy even in a disguised form. The antagonism between the two groups of successor states, the victors and the vanquished, made impossible an agreement including all of them. It was, therefore, only among the three countries which had benefitted from the peace settlement and which feared its revision, which Hungary so strongly requested, that the so-called Little Entente created a close cooperation which was an important element of general European politics between the two wars.

    The entente was based upon three treaties: between Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, of August 14, 1920; Czechoslovakia and Rumania, of April 23, 1921; and finally Rumania and Yugoslavia, of June 7, 1921. Czechoslovak initiative, particularly that of Dr. Benes, was evident, but prominent statesmen of the other two countries were also deeply interested in an agreement which was to guarantee all three against a possible Habsburg restoration, and especially against “an unprovoked attack on the part of Hungary,” to which the Yugoslav-Rumanian treaty also added the danger of a similar attack by Bulgaria.

    Much more important than these original provisions against dangers which were illusory so long as no great power supported the revisionist movement, was the positive cooperation of at least three Danubian countries which jointly defended the peace settlement and helped to consolidate it at numerous international conferences within and outside the League of Nations. The relations of the Little Entente with Austria soon improved to such an extent that the group participated in the rehabilitation of that country. To a certain extent, financial assistance to Hungary was also favored, although her political relations with the Little Entente always remained tense.

    On May 21, 1929, that entente received an organic structure by an agreement which made the renewal of the three alliances automatic at the end of each five-year period and by a tripartite treaty for the peaceful settlement of all possible disputes through arbitration and conciliation. The necessity for such closer ties became evident in the midst of the world depression and even more so after Hitler’s coming to power. Therefore on February 16, 1933, the Little Entente was virtually transformed into a diplomatic confederation with a permanent council of the three foreign ministers or their delegates and a joint secretariat, including a permanent branch office in Geneva. The new organization, whose objectives now went much beyond the limited, rather one-sided scope of the first alliances, seemed quite efficient in the international discussions of the next two or three years, but proved helpless when the great crisis started in 1938. The last meeting of the Little Entente Council, on the twenty-first of August, of that year, when a belated attempt was made to come to an agreement with Hungary, could not save Czechoslovakia from German aggression, Yugoslavia being already chiefly concerned with changes in the Mediterranean and Rumania with the danger from the Soviet Union.

    In the early days of the Little Entente, two possible extensions had been considered—north and south of the Danubian region. On March 3, 1921, Poland concluded an alliance with Rumania, but even when her relations with Czechoslovakia improved in 1923—1925, she had no interest in joining an entente that was primarily directed against her traditional Hungarian friends. Greece had indeed a common interest with her Yugoslav neighbor and with Rumania in opposing Bulgarian revisionism, but instead of her joining the Little Entente, the two southern members of the latter, being at the same time Balkan countries, participated in the creation of another regional agreement in the Balkan Peninsula.

    There, as in the Baltic region, the movement was going back to earlier projects of Balkan federalism and started in 1930. The first conferences included all six Balkan states, not only the three allied powers but also Albania and the former enemies, Bulgaria and Turkey. The relations between Greece and Turkey improved so much that both countries signed a treaty of alliance and mutual guaranty on September 14, 1933. But it proved impossible to come to a full agreement with Bulgaria or even with Albania, so that the Balkan Pact, which after many preliminary projects was signed in Athens on February 9, 1934, included only Greece, Yugoslavia, Rumania, and Turkey. In the fall of the same year, which can be considered the climax of the whole movement toward regional federalism, that pact was implemented at a meeting in Ankara by a statute of organization which provided the Balkan Entente, like the Little Entente, with a permanent council of foreign ministers and also with an advisory economic council.

    In the Balkans, as in the Danubian region, a last-minute effort was made in the summer of 1938 to include in the mutual understanding the country which seemed the greatest obstacle to unity, in that case Bulgaria. But like the Little Entente, the Balkan Entente was also a guaranty against aggression only on the part of a small state of the region which was supposed to be better organized. There were no obligations of joint action against an aggression coming from a great power outside the Balkans, and yet here too this was the real danger which the smaller countries, even all together, were unable to prevent.


Since neither the world-wide League of Nations, with strictly limited powers, nor regional agreements which needed time to develop and could hardly build up sufficient strength, were a guaranty of East Central Europe’s regained freedom, all the nations of that area were looking for support from the West. There they hoped to find the assistance of great powers which, being of a democratic character and having no common frontier with any country of East Central Europe, were no threat to the independence of these nations and had already been allies of some of them in World War I.

    The United States of America, particularly distant but interested in the problems of East Central Europe because of the origin of many of its citizens, had proved especially favorable to the self-determination of all peoples of that region. But since America neither ratified the peace treaties nor joined the League, but instead entered into a period of isolationism, there remained only France and Britain, Italy being a rather dangerous neighbor, particularly after the establishment of the Fascist regime in 1922.

    At the Peace Conference France had already supported those countries which would help her to check Germany from the east and replace her prewar alliance with Russia, at the same time checking the advance of bolshevism. It was also French culture which, as in the past, attracted all East Central Europe, and her constitution served as a model for the new constitutions in that region. But precisely that many-sided cooperation with France which in most countries east of Germany had deep historic roots was an obstacle to equally close relations with Britain. She was less interested in East Central Europe and considered French influence there a further step to French predominance on the whole Continent, of which she was traditionally afraid.

    It was Poland, with her old friendship for France, which in the years of the peace settlement had already had special difficulties with Britain, and after the war was the first to definitely join the French camp. The close French-Polish military alliance, signed on February 19, 1921, was for many years to remain the cornerstone of Poland’s foreign policy and the most concrete guaranty of her independence and integrity. But although the first formal alliance between France and one of the Little Entente states, Czechoslovakia, was not concluded before January 25, 1924, that whole entente was from the outset as close to France as was Poland, and together with the latter constituted a solid area of French influence in East Central Europe. That situation found its expression time and again in Geneva and in the most important international conferences, such as that of Genoa in 1922. The agreements which France concluded with Rumania in 1926, and with Yugoslavia the following year, seemed to round up and to stabilize that French “sphere of influence” in the main part of East Central Europe.

    It must be pointed out, however, that French influence was never any real limitation on the full independence of her smaller allies in the east, and that the cooperation between what then was the strongest military power of the Continent, and four states which taken together seemed at least equally strong, far from being any danger to the peace of Europe was its best possible guaranty.

    Such an additional guaranty had become particularly necessary after the Locarno agreements of October, 1925. Although both Poland and Czechoslovakia participated in that conference, these eastern neighbors of Germany did not receive the same guaranties of security and integrity as were given to her western neighbors. The arbitration treaties which Germany signed with the two eastern republics were no recognition of their western boundaries, which were not guaranteed by Britain and Italy as were the frontiers of France and Belgium. In view of this dangerous distinction between peace in the west and peace in the east, it was of great importance that France had concluded treaties of mutual assistance with Poland and Czechoslovakia at Locarno. These were to supplement the earlier alliances and be a safeguard against any German aggression.

    It so happened, however, that contrary to the high hopes raised in Western Europe by the Locarno Pact and Germany’s subsequent entrance into the League of Nations, contrary also to the atmosphere of confidence which the Pact of Paris of 1928 was supposed to create, even France herself could not feel entirely secure from a Germany which was so rapidly recovering from her defeat, was able to play off Britain and Italy against France, never was really disarmed and only claimed the disarmament of all others, and where the Nazi movement was making rapid progress.

    Under these conditions France became less interested in her eastern alliances in the last years of the Weimar Republic, propagated the rather utopian plan of a European Union, and after Hitler’s seizure of power was not prepared to accept the Polish proposal for preventive action. Instead, a few months later on July 15, 1933, she joined the Four Power Pact with Britain, Italy, and Germany. This was a return to the obsolete and dangerous idea of a control of Europe by the great powers only which had been suggested by Mussolini but which was violently opposed by the countries of East Central Europe, particularly Poland and the Little Entente.

    After the failure of that project, France, looking for stronger support in the east, returned to another prewar conception which was dangerous for all countries between Germany and the Soviet Union—alliance with Russia. After concluding a trade agreement with Russia on January 11, 1934, as a first step, the French foreign minister, Louis Barthou, suggested a so-called Eastern Locarno, a pact of mutual guaranty in which the Soviet Union and Germany as well as the smaller nations of East Central Europe would participate. When this plan, too, rejected by Germany, regarded with suspicion by Poland, and never clearly defined, had to be abandoned, on May 2, 1935, France did indeed sign a mutual assistance treaty with Russia after sponsoring her admission into the League. But she delayed its ratification and her example was followed only by Czechoslovakia which also allied herself with the Soviet Union on May sixteenth of the same year.

    That policy offered Hitler a pretext for denouncing first, in March, 1935, the disarmament obligations of Germany, and a year later, the Locarno Treaties by militarily re-occupying the Rhineland. In spite of her nonaggression pact with Germany, Poland informed France that, faithful to her earlier commitments, she would join in the repression of that challenge. But in view of Britain’s negative attitude, France, too, merely limited herself to futile protests in the League’s Council and nothing was done about it. Under these circumstances the countries of East Central Europe, no longer confident of the support of the Western democracies and threatened by all three totalitarian powers at once, also followed a policy of appeasement. Being in a particularly difficult position between Germany and the Soviet Union, and in view of the cooling off of her relations with France, Poland tried to take advantage of the breathing space which the nonaggression pact with Hitler seemed to guarantee for ten years. In the Danubian and Balkan region, however, it was Italian influence which was in progress.

    Yugoslavia, whose relations with France had also suffered through the assassination of her king in Marseilles on October 9, 1934, and unwilling to join her Czechoslovak ally in the rapprochement with the Soviet Union which she had never recognized, considered it best for her security to promote friendly relations with her Italian neighbor in spite of all the controversies of the past. Italy also tried to supplant the old French sympathies in Rumania, and had a special chance in those countries of East Central Europe which were in the revisionist camp and outside the French system of alliances. This was not only in Austria but also in Hungary, and particularly in Bulgaria whose young king had married a daughter of the king of Italy in 1930 and had a son and heir by her in 1937. Convinced, furthermore, that Albania could always serve as a basis for action in one way or another, Italy was stronger in South Eastern Europe than ever before.

    The constitutional changes in almost all East Central European countries which also facilitated closer relations with Fascist Italy had little, if any, connection with the decline of French influence. But the frequent internal crises in the Third Republic seemed to be one more argument in favor of more authoritarian forms of government and confirmed all critics of full democracy and parliamentary supremacy in their opinions. And in France herself the conviction was growing that her far-reaching commitments in East Central Europe, which the renewed ties with Russia had not made at all easier, were beyond her actual forces, both military and financial, which had been so overestimated in the years after her great victory of 1918.

    Great Britain, whose rivalry with France, largely caused by that very overestimation, had been from the beginning one of the main causes of unrest in postwar Europe, continued to give little attention or support to the small countries in the distant and little-known eastern part of the continent which she always considered a possible source of trouble. The stabilization of that “new” Europe which after all survived even the great economic depression certainly impressed British opinion, particularly in the case of Poland, with whom, as with the smaller Baltic countries, maritime trade relations were developing on an ever larger scale. But there always remained the fear that in case of a serious political crisis any of these countries could be an obstacle to that appeasement of the dictators which continued to seem desirable and possible. And since faraway America seemed even less interested in that troublesome part of the world which was divided by so many rather strange frontiers, the Anglo-Saxon democracies were even less prepared than France to meet the growing danger to European and world peace which was once more rising in East Central Europe. They were not even sufficiently convinced and aware that it was not the countries of that region themselves but exclusively Germany and Russia which were responsible for “the gathering storm.”


    The war of 1914-1917 had interrupted the long tradition of German-Russian cooperation, and though the Soviet government made a separate peace which gave Germany a last chance of victory in the West, the harsh terms of the Brest-Litovsk Treaty left deep resentment among the Russians. When, however, the victory of the Western Allies and the following peace settlement left Russia with practically the same territorial losses (except in the case of the Ukraine), and when a belt of free East Central European countries was created between Germany and Russia at the expense of both of them, it was only natural that both were equally opposed to that solution. Their common feeling of frustration resulted in a solidarity and in a desire to resume their former cooperation with a view to regaining their lost areas of expansion, and even the difference of their regimes seemed no insurmountable obstacle. Although the Communists had little chance during the brief German revolution, and although most of the Germans were afraid of bolshevism, many of them rather welcomed the successes of the Red Army during the invasion of Poland in 1920. And when the cordon sanitaire between Germany and Russia—as both of them called the zone of liberated nations—was definitely re-established and the “new” states could no longer be called Säsonstaaten, the two powers which remained great powers, though outside the League of Nations, were equally eager to come to an understanding directed against the restored East Central Europe.

    An excellent opportunity for negotiating such an agreement was offered them in 1922 when at Lloyd George’s suggestion it was decided to invite both Germany and the Soviet Union to the Genoa Conference. Fully justified proved the alarm of Poland, the main object of their hostility, and of the Little Entente which was also a check to German influence formerly so strong in the Danubian Monarchy and to Russian advance in the direction of the Balkans. For the only result of the futile attempt to reintegrate the two big outsiders in the European state system was the treaty which these two concluded on April 16, 1922, at Rapallo, near Genoa, where the conference was making so little progress.

    Apparently the Rapallo Treaty was nothing but a normalization of German-Russian relations, indispensable since the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was abrogated, and a basis for the resumption of economic intercourse. But its political implications were obvious and remained a basis of renewed cooperation independent of internal changes in either country as well as an open threat against the nations which separated the two partners. The apprehensions of these nations were confirmed when, just before leaving for the Locarno Conference in October, 1925, Chancellor Gustav Stresemann signed another apparently innocuous agreement with the Soviet Union. A few months after Locarno, in April, 1926, when Germany’s admission to the League encountered some difficulties, this was implemented by a formal nonaggression treaty which included provisions that Germany, when a member of the League, would not participate in any possible sanctions against Russia.

    The time was not yet ripe, however, for an aggression by either of them, directed against the countries of East Central Europe. Although Stresemann openly showed his hostility against Poland when raising in the League’s Council the question of German minorities, and though he hoped that Germany’s membership in the League would facilitate a revision of her eastern frontier, such a revision was openly requested only by German propaganda. And the Soviet Union, then engaged in its first Five Year Plan, concluded another series of treaties with her western neighbors which seemed to imply a definite acceptance of Russia’s new boundaries. The first of these treaties was a protocol signed in Moscow on February 5,1929, by the delegates of Estonia, Latvia, Poland, Rumania, and the Soviet Union, whereby it was decided that the provisions of the Paris Pact of August 28, 1928, outlawing war, would come into force without delay between the contracting parties as soon as ratified by their respective legislatures and without waiting for the entry into force of the Paris Treaty as such. Even more important, because more specific, was the nonaggression treaty which the Soviet Union concluded with Poland on July 25, 1932, because reference was made to the Riga Treaty of 1921 as the basis of relations between both countries. And while Russia avoided a collective pact of that kind, with all her neighbors acting jointly, on July 3, 1933, she signed the London Convention with not only Estonia, Latvia, Poland, and Rumania but also with her Asiatic neighbors, Turkey, Persia, and Afghanistan, giving the clearest possible definition of “the aggressor in an international conflict,” “in order to obviate any pretext” for threatening the independence, integrity, and free internal development of any state.

    That excellent definition, supplementing the Briand-Kellogg Pact of 1928 which was once more quoted, had been suggested by Maksim Litvinov, the same foreign commissar of the Soviet Union, who at the Disarmament Conference in Geneva, also referred to in the London Convention, had closely cooperated with the German delegates, claiming an obviously impossible immediate and total disarmament of all countries. Such a decision would have left East Central Europe and its possible allies defenseless against the clandestine armament of Germany, the forces of the U.S.S.R. which were beyond any control, and the tremendous war potential of both of them. But the community of interest which was behind that propaganda move seemed to disappear when on January 31, 1933, Hitler at last succeeded in gaining full control of Germany, not only because the Nazi Party had risen in violent opposition against communism but even more so because of the foreign policy outlined in Mein Kampf.

    In Hitler’s public program of action, German expansion, independent of any question of regime or political ideology, was advocated as a historic necessity both in the West and in the East. But even the threat to France was less emphasized than that against the Slavic peoples and particularly Russia, from the Ukraine to the Urals, a region which was described as a field of German conquest. Since Hitler wanted to avoid a simultaneous war on two fronts, however, the question remained open in which direction he would move first. And in the case of aggression in the East, the fact that Germany was no longer Russia’s immediate neighbor raised another problem. Would Hitler’s Third Reich first attack the countries between Germany and Russia or try to induce them to join in an aggression against the Soviet Union? If the first alternative were chosen, a return to the traditional cooperation with Russia would be desirable but only as a temporary expedient. Similarly, any alliance against Russia with one or more countries of East Central Europe would be only temporary and a step toward their inclusion in the German Lebensraum which was a prerequisite to any further expansion in the eastern direction.

    Among the countries equally threatened by both alternatives, Poland was the most important and at the same time the most directly exposed. But she was also the most fully aware of the simultaneous danger threatening from the Russian side, and was therefore suspicious of the sudden interest of the Soviet Union in collective security and anxious to keep a well-balanced position between the two totalitarian powers. In the opinion of Joseph Beck, Polish foreign minister since the fall of 1932, this dangerous game was the only possible course to choose as long as the Western democracies persisted in their policy of appeasement. He therefore seized the opportunity offered to Poland when Hitler, contrary to all expectations, declared himself in favor of an improvement in German-Polish relations and on January 26, 1934, a nonaggression pact between the two countries was signed for ten years. But Poland avoided any further commitment which would have been contrary to her earlier international obligations and in the same year, on the fifth of May, extended her nonaggression pact with Russia, originally concluded for three years only, until the end of 1945, with automatic prolongation for further periods of two years.

    German-Polish relations seemed indeed better than ever before. Satisfied with Hitler’s promise that Polish rights in Danzig would be respected, Poland did not oppose the nazification of the internal administration of the Free City, and on November 5, 1937, signed an additional agreement which was supposed to ease the persistent tension in the matter of minorities. This was already after the crisis of 1936, provoked by the Rhineland remilitarization, when Poland’s second offer to stop Hitler through a joint action received no attention. But even then the Polish government consistently rejected all proposals or suggestions for joining a German action against Russia, which were secretly made whenever a Nazi dignitary visited Warsaw. Nevertheless an impression of solidarity of both countries in international affairs was created, since both of them, though for different reasons, rejected the conception of an Eastern Locarno. Soon after Germany’s withdrawal from the League of Nations, Poland also seemed to lose her interest in that institution and did not ask for re-election to the Council in 1935.

    It was not Poland alone, however, which was in a delicate position. Realizing the difficulty of at once starting the main drive in the eastern direction, whether with Poland or against her, Germany, along with Italy who was soon to be her Axis partner, was again trying to extend her influence in what had formerly been the closely allied Habsburg monarchy, particularly in Hungary and Yugoslavia. At the same time Hitler prepared the conquest through local Nazi movements of the two immediate neighbors in the southeast, Austria and Czechoslovakia. That these were only first steps in the destruction of all East Central Europe was not sufficiently realized in Poland. Similarly the other countries of that region and also those of Western Europe failed to understand that Poland’s attempts to remain equally independent of Nazi Germany’s and Soviet Russia’s influence were of importance not only for herself but for the whole group of nations between the two prospective aggressors, all of which would come under the control of one of them if Poland should fall.

    This was not an exceptional situation. On the contrary, the pressure from two sides was unfortunately the normal condition of East Central Europe throughout the whole course of history. The liberation of that whole region after World War I could have changed the destiny of its peoples if they had shown more solidarity, if German and Russian power had not been so quickly reborn under particularly aggressive totalitarian regimes, and if the system of international organization, inseparable from lasting self-determination in one of the most exposed regions of the world, had worked more satisfactorily. The Western democracies which had created, but not sufficiently supported, that system failed to replace it in time by at least individually supporting their natural allies in the East, and therefore their passive attitude in the successive crises of 1938 made all that they did in 1939 too little and too late.

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