NAPOLEON'S dream of conquering the world ended on a raft in the middle of the Memel River in 1807, when he and Tsar Alexander I divided the control of the world between themselves and ratified their agreement in the Treaty of Tilsit, chief German city on that river. The same Memel River and the same city of Tilsit are today involved in a proposal which, if it were adopted, would mark another momentous turning point in history, for by it Europe's most dangerous geographical problem, the Polish Corridor, would be removed as the source of bitter controversy and threats of war between Germany and Poland. The plan is for the present Corridor and Danzig to be returned to Germany, and a new corridor to be granted to Poland along the Memel just inside the present easternmost limits of East Prussia.

Anyone who has had the opportunity of personally examining the situation in and around the present Polish Corridor can have no doubt regarding the gravity of the emotional situation which has been created there. The Free State of Danzig, cut off from Germany by the Versailles Treaty, but still strongly conscious of its ninety percent German character, has been the prey of rival propagandas and been in constant uncertainty and distress. Germany's bitterness at what she terms not only the humiliation but also the economic and political absurdity of cutting her territory in two in order to satisfy the desire of another people for direct access to the sea, has grown steadily and has received new strength since Hitler became Chancellor. Some day, the Germans never tire of reiterating, this great wrong must be righted; and many do not hide their belief that war alone will accomplish that end. The feeling in Poland is equally strong. Proud of their amazing achievement of having in five years turned the wretched fishing village of Gdynia into a splendid modern port and city of 50,000 people, and thoroughly convinced of the justice of their historical and racial claims to the territory comprising the Corridor, the Poles state with finality that they are going to retain them.

There can be no general feeling of security in Europe, no thorough-going disarmament, no complete return to stable prosperity, until this tension has been diminished. It would be easy to cite hundreds of paragraphs from the Polish and German press of recent months, particularly since the Nazis assumed power, which betray an uncompromising hatred in both camps incomparably more bitter than that which existed between France and Germany before the World War.

A compromise which would permanently remove this outstandingly likely cause of another European war is contained in the plan to grant Poland a new corridor to the Baltic through German territory, just inside the northern and eastern border of East Prussia, having as its starting-point the Suwalki[i] salient of Poland, which protrudes north-westward from the center of Poland's northern border and forms a wedge between Lithuania and East Prussia. This salient would be extended northward and westward, with an average width of 25 kilometers, inside and directly adjoining the German-Lithuanian border. It would be widened gradually as it approaches the Kurisches Haff until it attains a width of about forty kilometers at a point on the Haff approximately ten kilometers northeast of Labiau. (See shaded area on accompanying map.) Poland would thus have a centrally-located corridor to the sea even more accessible to the greater part of Poland than the present Corridor is. The lower one-third of this strip contains an almost purely German population.

The upper two-thirds of the strip contains a considerable number of bilingual German Lithuanians and a few thousand pure-blooded Lithuanians.

The physical problems involved in making this new corridor serve the purposes of the present Corridor would be great, but are not insurmountable. A new port would have to be built on the Kurisches Haff, but the miracle of Gdynia shows what modern engineering science can rapidly accomplish in port construction. To connect Warsaw with this new port would require some new railway construction, but when this had been done the line would be only very slightly longer than the present route to Gdynia. The new port would be more easily accessible from every city and village of Poland than Gdynia is; moreover, it would be nearer the small Baltic countries with which Poland is striving to build up political and commercial relations. A channel would have to be dredged across the Kurisches Haff to the Kurische Nehrung, a long thin strip of wandering sand-dunes and pine forest; and a canal two kilometers long would have to be cut across the Nehrung, probably near the town of Pillkoppen. This is the narrowest point on the Nehrung, it is directly opposite the site of the proposed new port, the Haff is deepest here (six to ten meters), and on the Nehrung the canal diggers would encounter no sand-dunes higher than two hundred feet. From the new port to the open Baltic would be a run of several kilometers less than ships now have to travel from Gdynia to reach the open Baltic, beyond and outside the bay formed by the Hela peninsula.[ii] It will be objected that the new port will be far from the open sea and that the intervening water is shallow. But Königsberg, largest and most prosperous of northeastern German cities, is almost twice as far from the open Baltic as the new port would be; and the Frisches Haff, the body of water between Königsberg and the exit to the Baltic, is nowhere deeper than five meters.

The racial problem involved is of course a much greater one. The people whom one would thus arbitrarily turn over to Poland, to compensate her for the loss of her present Corridor, are neither Poles nor Slavs of any description. They are mainly Prussian Germans, with a strong admixture of ancient Lithuanian blood flowing in their veins. Only certain small areas are predominantly Lithuanian, both linguistically and ethnologically.[iii] At first purely Lithuanian, this section gradually became overwhelmingly German during the nineteenth century. It is no exaggeration, however, to assert that this corner of Germany is just as Lithuanian in general character (notwithstanding statistics which show it to be at least 95 percent German linguistically and at least 70 percent German racially) as the present Corridor is Polish and Cassubian. The author does not mean to assert that such a drastic act as handing it over to the Poles would be justified unless thereby a highly dangerous tension between Germany and Poland could be eliminated and a feeling of stability established as part of the task of restoring peace and prosperity in the world.

Politically, the most important question is: What would Poland say to such a proposal? She owns the present Corridor. She occupies a strong political position by virtue of her alliances. She would naturally have to be consulted first. It is a fair assumption that Poland would strenuously object to any plan which deprived her of a strategic area which she possessed for three centuries, until the expansion of Prussia under Frederick the Great took it from her in 1772. She will point to her great commercial achievement at Gdynia, of which she is justly proud. She will remind the world that the Corridor is overwhelmingly Polish in population, and that it forms her most natural outlet to the sea, both geographically and racially. On the other hand, however, a shrewder and more far-sighted diplomacy in Poland might realize the tremendous value of a friendly and powerful neighbor to the west to offset the permanent menace from Russia as well as the unquenched anger of Lithuania, which has not really diminished since Poland's rape of Vilna a decade ago. If Poland could be shown that she could secure a new and less costly access to the sea farther east, nearer the border-states of Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Finland, while not appreciably farther by sea from Atlantic ports, perhaps she might be induced to part peacefully with the present Corridor if that action really guaranteed future commercial stability and peace. Poland would have to be satisfied on this latter point by Germany's joining the other Powers in absolutely guaranteeing the integrity and permanency of the new corridor. In addition, Germany would have to agree to make financial reparation to Poland for the recent construction in the present Corridor as well as for the expenses of building rail, port and harbor facilities in the new corridor.

In spite of post-war enmity between Lithuanians and Poles, the two peoples have a very old tradition of coöperation. They were loosely joined together as early as 1386, and formed a political unit after 1569, until around 1700 they both were smothered in the maelstrom of Russian conquest under Peter the Great. They might learn through commercial coöperation to become good neighbors once more, and the new corridor might thus accelerate a much-needed adjustment of the unhappy Vilna affair. It is noteworthy that in 1923 the Poles in the Memel territory received special rights from the Lithuanian Government which were not accorded to the Germans living there.[iv] This example of a coöperative spirit on the part of Lithuania leads to the hope that friendly relations between the two peoples can be restored.

What, finally, would be Germany's reaction to a plan which would reconnect East Prussia directly with the Fatherland, restore Danzig's overwhelmingly German population to her, and once more place all her inner lines of communication under her own control, but which would involve a new loss of solidly German territory in the extreme northeastern corner of the Reich? Hitler's government, which apparently now has the support of the vast majority of Germany's sixty-five millions, would probably declare that the loss of another square inch of German territory is unthinkable and impossible under any circumstances. Obviously it would require an unusual display of diplomatic skill to convince the German people in their present mood that the Corridor and Danzig can only come back to them in return for adequate compensation to Poland. But the settlement proposed here would actually give Germany more territory than she would lose. Can we not hope that some day public opinion in Germany will realize that every future step in treaty revision must be coupled with compensatory sacrifices? If that day ever comes Germany will welcome some sort of compromise solution as warmly as we may hope that Poland will.

[i] This salient is over 90 percent Polish, according to statistics and map in Petermann's Mitteilungen, January 1919.

[ii] See map. Note that the Hela peninsula, while protecting Gdynia harbor, also makes a blockade of this port as easy as would be a blockade of the new proposed port. But the new port would be free from attack by sea, whereas Gdynia is exposed to bombardment by naval units.

[iii] The most recent linguistic maps and charts on this section are to be found in the excellent work of K. Keller, "Die fremdsprachige Bevölkerung in den Grenzgebieten des deutschen Reiches," Berlin, 1929.

[iv] Hofstàtter and Peters: "Sachwörterbuch der Deutschkunde," v. 1, p. 490.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now