FROM 1918 until 1933, when Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of the German Reich, Poland could have no foreign policy, in the sense that a policy implies the possibility of choice between alternative courses. At best, Poland could have hoped for a choice only as between aligning her policy with that of one of her two great neighbors, but even this was precluded by the fact that Russia and Germany joined in a policy of collaboration. The Rapallo Treaty signed at the beginning of 1922 by vanquished Germany and revolutionary Russia was an expression of the strong dislike of both states for the political and territorial settlement which resulted from the war. Neither was reconciled to the partial restoration to Poland of the territories they had held since the end of the eighteenth century. Revision of the Polish eastern and western frontiers was therefore one of the aims of their political, economic and military collaboration.

Poland knew that the Rapallo policy spelled eventual disaster for her, but there was nothing she could do about it. Her alliance with France, which for years made Poland a French satellite, was only a pis-aller. Neither France nor any other western Power had a direct, vital interest in eastern Europe. The relations of the west toward Poland, or with any other nation of that region, could not be more than the reflection of the policy of the west toward Germany and Russia. Nothing that Poles could do in their relations with any western Power could have a decisive bearing on the policy of that Power toward Poland. This fundamental truth never was sufficiently understood by the Poles, who often indulged in vain dreams of creating a direct link with one or another western Power, driven to despair by their unhappy geographical situation and unable to resign themselves to the obvious fact that no western Power had a vital interest in the region of the Baltic Sea. Perhaps this primary truth about the relations of Poland and the west will change in some distant future, if the western Powers come to the conclusion that Europe can be a going political concern only when both western and eastern halves are united in one federation; but it has been valid in the past and it is true today.

In any event, by 1930 the French alliance was a precarious guarantee of Polish security. The French did not desire to commit themselves to the defense of the interests of their Polish ally against the Soviet Union. Their great dream was to return to the tradition of the French-Russian alliance against Germany, which would make their alliance with Poland less necessary, if not obsolete. On the other hand, they had tried hard to come to a working entente with Germany ever since 1924 and were quite prepared to sacrifice some of the Polish interests to achieve it. Moreover, the power of France was declining and by 1930 many keen observers were wondering whether France was still a first-rate Power, able to defend her political clients in central and eastern Europe. But Poland could only note those facts helplessly. Russian-German collaboration made any independent move impossible.

The mentalities of Poles and Russians are very different. When the two nations were converted to Christianity in the tenth century, they chose different rituals, and at the same time different civilizations. In embracing the Orthodox faith, the Russians simultaneously adopted the Byzantine civilization with its subordination of the individual to autocratic state power, while the Poles were converted to the western rite and entered the fold of the Latin civilization. As a result, the Russians developed their outlook independently of the western world until the reign of Peter the Great, or rather until the time of the Napoleonic wars, when they really came broadly into contact with the west.

Besides the different political and spiritual reactions bred into the Russian and Polish peoples by these dissimilar influences were the memories of centuries of wars; and the Poles remembered also the oppressive Tsarist régime of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It is true that the first acts of the Russian Republic after the Revolution of 1917 were friendly. The Provisional Government of Prince Lvov on March 30, 1917, declared that it favored an independent Polish state, comprising all territories where Poles formed a majority of the population. After the second Revolution, the Bolshevist Government took the same attitude, promulgating on August 29, 1918, a decree which proclaimed all treaties of the Tsarist Government partitioning Poland null and void. But this friendly atmosphere did not last long. The Poles reasserted their claim to a frontier with Russia which would include all territories where there were important Polish minorities and traces of Polish culture, and some Poles even dreamed of a dismemberment of Russia and of a federation of eastern Europe under Polish auspices which would include the Baltic States, the Ukraine and White Russia. The western Powers, which at that time were encouraging any hostile move against the Bolshevist régime, regarded the Poles as another card in their game against Red Russia, neither better nor worse than Admiral Kolchak or General Denikin.

On the other hand, the Soviet leaders believed strongly in the possibility of a quick world revolution and considered their own success in Russia simply a preamble to the world-wide victory of Communism. They thought that the November Revolution in Germany would soon be followed by a Communist revolution. They wanted to send the Red Army to help the German workers, and Poland barred the road to Berlin. The logic of geography forced the Soviet leaders to wish to see Poland a Communist state in the Soviet federation, despite their statement favoring Polish independence.

Given such attitudes on both sides an armed clash was inescapable. The Polish-Soviet war lasted two years, until the two exhausted adversaries concluded a peace of compromise at Riga in March 1921, which stabilized Soviet-Polish relations for 18 years. But while those relations were correct during that period, they were never cordial. The Soviet leaders suspected that the Poles would be glad to help make tangible the U.S.S.R.'s worst nightmare -- an anti-Soviet coalition, and, of course, they were not reconciled to the existence of a social régime quite different from their own in a close neighbor. The Poles on their part resented the Rapallo policy and feared that the Soviet Union would readily participate in any anti-Polish combination with any German régime.

When old President Hindenburg appointed Hitler Chancellor of the Reich, the whole picture was instantly modified. Like William II, the Führer committed the fatal mistake of departing from the traditional Prussian policy of collaboration with Russia. Against the advice of the Reichswehr, which had found the policy of military coöperation with Russia very profitable to Germany, and against the advice of the German diplomats, he declared a political war not only on Communism, but also on the Soviet Union. The Soviet Government was forced willy-nilly into a diplomatic and propaganda campaign against the Third Reich. Then, for the first time in their modern history, Poles could shape their foreign policy by a free choice between their neighbors. They well remembered that the programs of all German political parties contained proposals for the revision of the Polish western frontier, and that the Nazis in particular emphasized the need for such revision. Moreover, it was logical to expect that Hitler would attack Poland before he attacked the Soviet Union. Quite naturally, Poland turned toward the U.S.S.R.

But prospects of Polish-Russian amity were marred on both sides by the old memories and suspicions, and Hitler took full advantage of them. In 1933 the Polish Dictator, Marshal Pilsudski, had proposed joint military action by France and Poland to suppress the Nazi régime in the bud. Pilsudski's suggestion was rejected by the French Government, whereupon the Hitler Government brought forward suggestions for a Polish-German rapprochement. The Soviet Government countered with the proposal that a Polish-Russian treaty of collaboration be concluded to protect the independence and integrity of the Baltic States. While the Poles were still studying the Russian proposal, they were informed by the Germans that Berlin had simultaneously received a similar proposal from Moscow, substituting Germany for Poland. The Soviet suggestion was turned down by the Poles, who were reinforced in their suspicion that the Soviet Union, compelled by Hitler to embrace an anti-German policy, would have been only too glad to return to the Rapallo line at the first favorable opportunity. Nevertheless, there was a better atmosphere between Poland and Russia in 1933, and also in the first half of 1934, in spite of the signature of the German-Polish pact of non-aggression. In London on July 3, 1933, the U.S.S.R., Poland and all other neighbors of Russia in Europe and in the Middle East signed treaties which, by attempting to define "aggression," were intended to make precise the meaning of their mutual pacts of non-aggression; they agreed that any invasion by armed forces of the territory of another state, on whatever pretext, would be considered aggression. The treaties reflected the defensive attitude of all the signatories. In February 1934 the Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs was cordially greeted in Moscow and in May of the same year the term of the Soviet-Polish Pact of non-aggression was extended to run till December 31, 1945. But this hopeful beginning of Russian-Polish friendship was blasted by the sudden diplomatic intervention of Hitler.


In a personal decision, Hitler determined to break with the tradition of hostility to the Poles and to come to some kind of accommodation with them. Did he simply want to forestall rapprochement between Poland and Russia and to lull the Poles into a feeling of false security while Germany rearmed, or was he sincere, in the sense that he wanted to make Poland a willing satellite? The former explanation is probably the correct one, though it is impossible to say what Hitler's subsequent policy toward Poland might have been had she consented to become his ally. He may have planned to recompense the Poles after the Polish-German war against Russia with the port of Odessa and the part of the Ukraine which he later bestowed on the Rumanians, and to take Danzig and the Corridor in exchange. It is interesting that in his speech of March 7, 1936, he said: "We feel it unpleasant for instance that access to the sea, accorded to a nation of thirty-three millions, should cut through former territory of the Reich; but we recognize that it is unreasonable, because impossible, to dispute the question of access to the sea for so great a State." Was it a veiled allusion to the possibility of replacing the Polish access to the Baltic Sea by access to the Black Sea?

In any event, Hitler had a clear objective in approaching Poland, namely, to bring Poland into a coalition against Russia. Neither he nor other Nazi leaders ever made a secret of that purpose, and from May 1933 until the fall of 1938 they repeatedly insisted that Poland must make an open choice. The Polish-German pact of non-aggression signed on January 26, 1934, was only the first step in the right direction, they proclaimed. During the next four fateful years the Poles could have marched with Germany in a joint eastern adventure. But the Polish leaders knew that public opinion in their country was hostile to such a policy and that they could not impose it on the nation even if they wanted to. There is, in fact, no proof that any responsible Polish leader at that time ever seriously considered such an idea. They clung to the childish dream of maintaining Polish neutrality between Germany and Russia. Knowing that the Germany of that time was stronger than Russia, they tried, however, to imitate the western Powers and to appease Hitler without definitely committing themselves to the German policy. In short, they lost the opportunity to make the choice between Germany and Russia which Hitler's hostility to the Soviet Union offered them.

In 1936, Pilsudski's idea of a preventive action against Germany was revived by the Polish Government when it proposed to the French Government joint military action in reply to the German remilitarization of the Rhineland. The French Government again rejected this proposal and, strangely enough, the affair did not wreck the Polish-German rapprochement, though it provoked a short period of coolness in Berlin. The Poles were more cautious henceforth, and did their best to outdo France and Britain in appeasement of Hitler when he took his next aggressive steps. This in turn provoked suspicion and irritation in Moscow. Yet appeasement accomplished nothing, and the stubborn refusal to enter into more binding agreements with Germany, or to sign the Anti-Comintern Pact, exhausted Hitler's patience. Soon after Munich he asked the Poles to surrender their rights in Danzig and to grant special rights in the Corridor to Germany. The Poles refused.

There seemed then a second opportunity for collaboration with Russia. But the Polish leaders still hoped that somehow the conflict with Germany might be avoided, that some sort of accommodation would be found; they could not bring themselves to a commitment to either side. Neither Poland nor the Soviet Union made a serious effort to combine their policies in respect to Germany. They issued a friendly but rather meaningless joint communiqué in November 1938, and signed a commercial treaty in February 1939. But Hitler, drawn on by the same logic which made collaboration with Russia the inevitable result of an anti-Polish policy for Frederick the Great and Bismarck, and impelled by the growing resistance of Great Britain to German expansion, reversed his policy toward Russia.

In the fall of 1938 the German and Soviet Governments agreed to reduce the volume of their mutual press attacks. At this New Year reception in January 1939, Hitler for the first time had a long and cordial conversation with the Soviet Ambassador. He still moved carefully, and in a Reichstag speech in the same month praised German-Polish friendship; he evidently still hoped that the Poles would capitulate and become satellites of Germany. But suddenly affairs came to a climax. The occupation of Prague by Hitler put an end to the British policy of appeasement. On March 31, 1939, the British Prime Minister declared that the British Government was prepared to defend Poland against attack. The Polish Foreign Minister went to London and on April 6 the two Governments replaced the unilateral British guarantee by a mutual pact which was, in fact, a defensive alliance against Germany. The Poles at last made their choice; but not between their neighbors. They ignored both of them in favor of a western Power which for geographical reasons could not make good the promise to help them. A few days later, Hitler denounced the Polish-German treaty of non-aggression, and war between Poland and Germany was certain. The pro-Soviet orientation became a necessity for Hitler.


Immediately from Moscow came hints that German overtures would be accepted. Stalin publicly stated in the spring of 1939 that even great contradictions in outlook and forms of government were not obstacles to practical coöperation between states having common interests; Berlin was informed that Stalin had Germany in mind. In May, Litvinov, who symbolized the Soviet anti-Nazi policy, was replaced by Molotov. At the same time, negotiations between the western Powers and Russia were under way, and Hitler was growing anxious lest they lead to practical results. It is difficult to say exactly when the first informal contacts between the two Governments started, but they were concluded on August 24.

August was a month of unexpected decisions. Russian statesmen and generals, while talking with the British and French representatives, must have known of Hitler's sweeping offer to divide eastern Europe with the U.S.S.R. In any case, they asked France and Great Britain for political concessions which corresponded exactly to the offers which the Germans were ready to make. Their preconditions of an alliance with the western Powers were the right to have bases in the Baltic States in case of a war with Germany and the right to occupy eastern Poland in order "to be able to defend her against the German aggression." The western Powers took on themselves the responsibility of refusing consent to the extension of a Russian protectorate over the Baltic States, and put the other Russian demand up to Poland. Not surprisingly, the Polish Government rejected it. If the price of Soviet help was the occupation of eastern Poland, which could be expected to take the form of later annexation, why should they oppose Germany? Would it not be better to avoid the risks of a major war by granting the smaller territorial concessions demanded by Hitler, with the prospect of compensation at the expense of Russia? The upshot was that they refused the territorial demands of both of their neighbors.

The western Powers did not push the matter and their negotiations with the Soviet Union were, therefore, doomed. Future historians will decide whether the acceptance by the western Powers of the Soviet demands for expansion would have induced the Soviet leaders to enter into an alliance with the west. As it was, she chose neutrality and expansion in connivance with Germany, under an arrangement which held some chance of permitting her to remain neutral in a major conflict which, as the Soviet leaders must have expected, would weaken all capitalist countries involved. The refusal of the western Powers to comply with Soviet demands led to the Soviet-German agreement, signed by Ribbentrop and Molotov in Moscow on August 24 (but for unknown reasons dated August 23). There cannot now be any doubt that the public pact was accompanied by a secret agreement about the division of eastern Europe. On October 14, 1946, the British Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs, replying to a question in the House of Commons, said: "Yes, Sir. The text of an agreement supplementary to the German-Soviet non-aggression agreement of August 1939 has been found." It was found either by the British or by the Americans in the archives of the German Foreign Office. During the Nuremberg trial, Dr. Gaus, the former Legal Adviser of the German Foreign Office, signed an affidavit in which he reconstructed the main stipulations of the secret agreement. As far as one knows from what is published unofficially about this affidavit, the secret agreement provided that the Baltic States were to be included in the Soviet zone (except for Lithuania), that Poland was to be divided along the line of the rivers Narew, Vistula and San, and that Bessarabia would be returned to Russia.

The Soviet-German pact was followed two days later by a formal alliance between Poland and Great Britain (signed on August 25), but this did not change the situation. Hitler now realized that an attack on Poland would force him into a war with the two western Powers; but his nightmare of a two-front war was exorcised. As soon as the Soviet Union had ratified the German agreement (August 31, 1939), Hitler launched his attack against Poland and two days later was involved in the war with Great Britain and France. For two weeks the Soviet Government observed the development of events. It did not act at once, because it did not want to be involved in a war with the west. Only when the Polish Army was visibly unable to resist the German onslaught any longer and the western Powers had not opened any major offensive to relieve their Polish ally did the Soviet Union decide that it was safe to intervene in the German-Polish conflict by occupying the portion of Poland allocated to her by the agreement of August 23 with Germany. On September 11, the Soviet Ambassador to Poland left for Russia under the pretext of reporting to his Government. He never returned. On September 17, the Soviet troops entered Poland and Polish organized resistance soon collapsed.

Now came the moment for the implementation of the German-Soviet agreement. On September 28, Ribbentrop for the second time went to Moscow and signed a new pact which proclaimed that the Polish state had ceased to exist and fixed the line of demarcation between Germany and the Soviet Union across Polish territory. The Soviet zone was restricted; it more or less followed the Curzon Line except in the north. Since the Soviet Union received less Polish territory than she had been promised and did not reach the line of the Vistula, a second secret agreement (also described in Gaus's affidavit) was concluded. It gave her compensation by including Lithuania in her zone.

Soon after the occupation of eastern Poland the Soviet Union ceded the region of Vilna to Lithuania -- both now in her zone anyway -- and then took plebiscites in the rest of the territory on the question of annexation by Russia. The plebiscites were conducted in the Soviet way -- that is to say, in a way which would guarantee overwhelming majorities in favor of annexation by Russia. The conditions under which the vote was taken are well suggested by the following comment of Pravda on October 23, 1939: "The elections in the two provinces annexed to the Soviet Union were proceeding under the conditions of class war and therefore were a form of class warfare." Out of 13,000,000 people living in the Soviet part of Poland at that time, there were more than 4,000,000 Poles; but Poles, White Russians, Jews and Ukrainians all appeared to be almost unanimously in favor of becoming Soviet citizens. The results of the plebiscites were duly acknowledged by the Soviet Union, which decided to bow to the "will" of the local populations and to annex those territories to the Ukrainian and White Russian Republics. The Soviet legislation was extended over those territories and soon after the Soviet authorities started to deport Poles, Ukrainians and Jews to various forced-labor camps in Siberia, northern Russia and central Asia. Up to June 1941, more than 1,000,000 people of all social conditions had been deported. Almost 200,000 Polish officers and soldiers were kept in the camps of prisoners of war, and a goodly number of other Polish citizens were simply imprisoned. The Soviet régime in eastern Poland was not marked by special leniency.

The Soviet action in Poland was received with great circumspection by the British Government. Except perhaps for a short time at the end of 1939, during the Russian-Finnish War, it never lost hope that the Soviet Union would be forced into a war with Germany. It did not intend to estrange the Soviet Union by contesting the validity of her Polish acquisitions. On the contrary, as early as October 1939, the British Government hinted that Great Britain might recognize those acquisitions. On October 26, 1939, Lord Halifax, then Foreign Secretary, declared in the House of Lords: "It is perhaps as a matter of historical interest worth recalling that the action of the Soviet Government has been to advance the boundary to what was substantially the boundary recommended at the time of the Versailles Conference by the noble Marquess who used to lead the House, Lord Curzon, who was then Foreign Secretary." Though this haste of the British Government to sponsor the territorial amputation of an ally is somewhat unprecedented, the artificiality of the alliance between Poland and Great Britain made it natural enough. The fate of Poland was bound to be determined by Germany, or by Russia, or by both. The real British mistake lay in having given a guarantee to Poland without thinking whether she could keep her promise.

The other provisions of the secret Soviet-German agreements were implemented in 1939 and 1940. In September 1939, the three Baltic States were forced into arrangements with the Soviet Union which gave her control over their armed forces and military, naval and air bases on their territories. In October, Finland was confronted with similar demands and rejected them. On November 30, she was attacked and after several months of resistance was compelled to accept Russian demands for cession of territory and military bases, in the peace treaty signed on March 12, 1940. The German victory in the west was followed by further expansion of the Soviet power. On June 14, the Germans entered Paris; on June 15-17, the three Baltic States were occupied by the Soviet troops and annexed to the Soviet Union. On June 28, under a Soviet ultimatum, Rumania surrendered the provinces of Bessarabia and Bukovina to Russia.

Thus far the Soviet expansion followed the line agreed upon with Germany in August 1939. Now arose the delicate question whether Germany would allow the Soviet Union to participate in the control over the Danubian and Balkan regions. The answer was No. Hitler not only refused to grant further concessions to Russia, but without the slightest provocation decided to attack her. The Russians were loyal to Germany to the last moment. Their policy was plain: to avoid the war which they knew would be extremely costly and full of risks for Russia. But on June 22, 1941, Germany marched without warning.


The German attack on Russia opened a new phase in Soviet-Polish relations. Till then the Poles had regarded the Soviet Union simply as one of their two oppressors. The Soviet régime in Poland was hardly better than the German. The Poles distrusted Russia, adding to the ancient memories the new fact that they were invaded in September 1939 in spite of solemn treaties. But now both Russia and Poland were forced into the same allied camp. Now they had to come to an agreement. Immediately after the German onslaught, the British Government began to exert strong pressure on the Polish-Government-in-Exile, which had its seat in London, to consent to a treaty with the Soviet Union. The Polish Government in London was too dependent on Britain to be able to withstand such a pressure, and in any case was willing to let bygones be bygones and to start anew in relations with Russia.

The conversation between the members of the Polish Government and Soviet Ambassador Maiski started as early as the beginning of July 1941. The Poles had the following objectives: 1, the renunciation by the Soviet Union of her German agreements concerning Polish territory and the return to the territorial arrangement of the Treaty of Riga; 2, the liberation of all deported and imprisoned Polish citizens and of all Poles held in the camps of prisoners of war; 3, creation under the auspices of the Polish Embassy in Moscow of a relief organization for the million Polish citizens then living in the Soviet territory; 4, formation of a Polish Army from among the able-bodied Poles on Soviet soil; 5, reëstablishment of diplomatic relations.

The U.S.S.R. accepted the last four of these points without raising any difficulties; but it categorically refused to yield in the matter of frontiers. In the first conversation with the Poles, Ambassador Maiski said that the Soviet Union was prepared to declare the German-Soviet agreements relating to Poland null and void (they were in any case annulled by the German attack), but that she considered her new frontiers based on the plebiscites and on the constitutional Soviet acts annexing these territories to the Soviet Union. Throughout the conversations, the Soviet Ambassador flatly refused to accept the return to the Riga Line and suggested that it would be better to leave the question of frontiers open without mentioning it in the treaty. The Poles, hard pressed as they were by the British to demonstrate Allied unity by hastening the conclusion of the treaty, agreed to Mr. Maiski's suggestion. The treaty, signed on July 30, 1941, by General Sikorski, Polish Prime Minister, and by Ambassador Maiski, satisfied all objectives of the Poles save this one. It left the question of frontiers open: Article I simply stated that the Soviet-German Treaties of 1939 relating to the territorial changes in Poland had lost their validity.

The Poles hastened to interpret this as meaning a return to the Riga Treaty. General Sikorski declared the day after the signing of the treaty that it did not permit even the suggestion that the 1939 frontiers of the Polish state could be in question. However, he knew the position that the Soviet Government had taken from the beginning of the negotiations. On July 4, when the Soviet Ambassador came to the British Foreign Office to suggest an accommodation with the Poles, he had defined the Soviet attitude thus: "The Soviet policy favors the establishment of an independent national Polish State. The boundaries of this state would correspond with the ethnographical Poland. From this it might follow that certain districts and towns occupied by Russia in 1939 might be returned to Poland. The form of internal Government to be set up in Poland is a matter for the Poles themselves." The Russians never altered this point of view during the negotiations, though they did not ever press the Poles to incorporate an expression of it in the treaty. On the other hand, the Poles received from the British Government, as a reward for their willingness to come to terms with the Russians, the following written statement, dated July 31, 1941: "His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom have entered into no undertakings towards the U.S.S.R. which affect the relations between that country and Poland. His Majesty's Government do not propose to recognize any territorial changes which have been effected in Poland since August 1939." This British assurance seemed to protect the Poles against the tendency to recognize the new western Russian frontier which had been manifest in British circles since the fall of 1939. But it did not hold against the pressure of events, and four years later at the Yalta Conference Britain officially recognized the Curzon Line as the new Russian boundary. A similar but more general statement made by Mr. Churchill on September 5, 1940 -- "We do not propose to recognize any territorial changes which take place during the war, unless they take place with the free consent and good will of the parties concerned" -- had also to be discarded by its author a few years later.

The Poles did not insist on the express definition of their frontiers with the Soviet Union in the Treaty of 1941 because they shared the belief, prevailing not only in Germany but also in Britain and the United States, that Russia would be crushed by the German onslaught. They thought that time was working for them. The Russians probably believed that no agreements would matter if they were defeated by Germany, and that, if they were victorious, they would be able to impose their own solution. Anyhow, both partners readily agreed to leave the matter open.

There was a brief Polish-Russian honeymoon following the conclusion of the treaty. Diplomatic relations were reëstablished and the Soviet Government, hard pressed by the German offensive, was very accommodating. Hundreds of Polish relief posts were created in Soviet territory, to help the Poles previously deported to Russia -- an unusual concession on the part of the Soviet Government which is so reluctant to admit foreign representatives to its provincial towns. A Polish Army was formed from among the able-bodied Poles. There was a real hope that the past was buried and that the two countries had found the road to a new and lasting peace.

In December 1941, the Polish Prime Minister had a long talk with Stalin, who seemed cordial and ready to thrash out all questions between the two countries. He mentioned that he wanted the prewar Polish-Soviet frontier changed a little ("Tchout-Tchout") and he added that he did not in any case claim the town of Lvov, which, in his opinion, was ethnographically Polish. One had the impression that he was really proposing to Sikorski a complete deal, including the territorial solution, in order to clear Polish-Soviet relations from difficulties which might cloud them in future. If Sikorski could have agreed to continue the negotiations thus suggested by Stalin, and had hastened to conclude them while the Soviet Government was well disposed, the result of the war might have been different for Poland. The new frontier would have run not along the Curzon Line, but probably somewhere between that and the Riga Line, leaving to Poland at least Lvov and its region. If the territorial question had not poisoned the Soviet-Polish relations during the subsequent years, the Soviet Union would have probably permitted the Polish Government-in-Exile to return to Poland, as the Government of President Beneš was permitted to return to Czechoslovakia. The internal autonomy of Poland would have been safeguarded to the same extent as Czechoslovak autonomy has been. But General Sikorski did not dare to take on himself the responsibility for renouncing the Riga frontier and challenging the opposition of a large section of Polish opinion. He declined Stalin's invitation to discuss the territorial problem, saying that he was not competent to deal with it since he was only a Prime Minister-in-Exile. Stalin did not insist and never made the suggestion again. The advance of the German Armies was halted the month that Sikorski was in Moscow. Both parties waited for further developments; but now events on the eastern front began to indicate that time was working for Russia, not for Poland. Nevertheless, during the whole of 1942, the territorial question was the only major difficulty in Soviet-Polish relations. The Soviet Government either did not at that time intend to impose a government of its own choice on Poland, or was careful not to disclose its plan.


One cannot understand Soviet-Polish relations during the war without knowing the history of the territorial issue. Until the fourteenth century the Polish eastern frontier did not run much beyond what is now called the Curzon Line. To the east there were various Slavonic principalities owing a loose allegiance to the Grand Dukes of Kiev, and later to the Grand Dukes of Vladimir. In 1237, the only successful invader of Russia, the Tartar Batu Khan, conquered all these principalities. The Tartar yoke lasted until 1480 and during that period the center of political gravity among the eastern Slavs shifted eastward to the Grand Dukes of Moscow, who eventually defeated the Tartars and united Russian lands under their own sovereignty.

The rise of Moscow was accompanied by the rise of another political power in the east -- the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, whose dominion was extended to the whole area nowadays called White Russia and the Ukraine. The dynastic union between Poland and Lithuania at the end of the fourteenth century suddenly made the Poles directly interested in those lands which had formed part of the eastern Slavonic political system before the Tartar conquest. But the Grand Dukes of Moscow quite naturally aspired to reunite under their scepter all lands which once owed their allegiance to Kiev. Thus in the fifteenth century the long Polish-Russian feud began. The Poles were able to maintain their control over the eastern lands, except for the loss of the eastern Ukraine beyond the Dnieper, up to the second half of the eighteenth century when the first partition took place. During the four centuries of Polish dominion, many Poles settled in this area and Polish culture left its imprint on the local population. Poland felt that these lands were part of her national domain.

When Poland recovered her independence in 1918, the old feud revived. In 1919 and again in 1920 the western Powers suggested as a new frontier between Poland and Russia the famous Curzon Line, which would leave almost no eastern Slavonic minorities in Poland, but would leave more than 4,000,000 Poles within the frontiers of Russia. (Few people know that even the Riga Line left within the Russian borders almost 1,000,000 Poles, chiefly dispersed over the western Soviet provinces.) That line was accepted by neither of the parties concerned, who tried to settle their conflict by arms. Eventually, by the Treaty of Riga, Poland and the Soviet Union divided the contested lands, Poland receiving a large area beyond the Curzon Line with a population which in 1939 numbered about 11,000,000, of which 3,500,000 were Poles, 1,000,000 Jews, 5,000,000 Ukrainians and 1,500,000 White Russians. The Great Russians there were negligible in number.

The various racial elements were almost everywhere mixed together, and no boundary could exactly follow the ethnographic divisions. The main Polish centers were the two principal cities of Lvov and Vilna, which have had an enormous sentimental value for the Poles. But the Poles were not too wise in extending their boundary in the east as far as the Riga Line, for it put within the Polish state powerful national minorities (Ukrainians, White Russians and Jews) numbering, together with the Germans in the west, about one-third of the whole population. Except for the Jews, these minorities were not very loyal to Poland. The wise solution would have been to draw a line more to the west, somewhere between the Riga Line and the Curzon Line (which did not take the proper account of millions of Poles living to the east) and then to proceed to the exchange of populations on the Greek-Turkish model. It is also possible that Stalin would have accepted this solution in December 1941, for he told Sikorski he was prepared to take away from new Poland all Ukrainians and White Russians. Sikorski perhaps missed a great opportunity.

However that may be, the Soviet Government did not feel happy about the Riga Line, though it never publicly voiced any claim for a revision of the frontier till 1939. The main reason for its dissatisfaction was perhaps not so much the question of the rulership of the contested area as the practical problem created by the presence of 5,000,000 Ukrainians under a foreign rule. Anybody familiar with Russian history knows that any Russian Government is very watchful for separatist tendencies in the Ukraine. It was particularly aware of the danger after the experience of 1918-1920, when the Germans and later the Poles tried to provoke a separatist movement in the Russian Ukraine, though without great success. The U.S.S.R. allowed the Ukrainians to use their own language, but suppressed any tendency toward a national movement. (The suicide of the Soviet Ukrainian Prime Minister Skrypnik, and the purge of the Ukrainian Communist Party, indicates clearly the Soviet response to the idea of a Ukrainian nationalist movement.) The presence of 5,000,000 nationally-conscious and very active Ukrainians, who saw themselves as the Piedmont of an independent and united Ukraine, beyond the reach of the Soviet State, was for 20 years a painful thorn in the Soviet flesh, even though those Polish Ukrainians hated the Poles no less than the Russians and considered both the oppressors of the Ukrainian nation. The agreement with Germany in 1939 at last extended Soviet control over the activities of these Ukrainians. One may easily understand that the Soviet Government did not intend to let them out of its hands again. But this did not exclude a territorial compromise combined with the exchange of populations, as Stalin suggested in 1941.


When Sikorski declined to discuss the territorial question, the Soviet Government began to exert indirect pressure on the Poles to force them to come to grips with it. By that time the German offensive was halted near Leningrad and Moscow, and the Soviet Government could look to the future with greater confidence. The Polish-Russian honeymoon was over. Until Sikorski's visit the Soviet Government had been releasing all Polish citizens from various camps whatever their creed or race; Polish Ukrainians, White Russians and Jews benefited equally with Poles from the Soviet-Polish Treaty of 1941. But in December 1941, the Soviet authorities interpreted the treaty to mean that all Polish citizens from the eastern lands had become Soviet citizens in 1939, and would now be treated as Soviet citizens. Only racial Poles were exempted from this new interpretation and continued to be treated as Polish citizens. Only these among Polish citizens were released from camps and prisons, permitted to receive the benefits of the Polish relief, and were allowed to be conscripted in the Polish Army. Strange as it may seem, the Soviet Government chose membership in the Roman Catholic Church as the most practical criterion for distinguishing the racial Poles from other ex-Polish citizens; Jews, for instance, in many cases claimed their Polish nationality in vain.

This new move was a hint to the Poles, perhaps a little rude, to begin conversations on the territorial question. But the Poles could not reconcile themselves to the idea that a war started for the defense of their independence should end in the loss of part of their national territory, and they very unwisely refused to take the hint. There was a flow of notes between the two Governments on the subject of nationality of Polish citizens in Russia, but the only result was a growing unfriendliness. The Soviet Government applied further pressure. Beginning in July 1942, relief work among the Poles in Russia became very difficult, and recruitment for the Polish Army in Russia suddenly met with great obstacles. The subsequent evacuation of this Army, which was transferred to the British Command, was an ominous sign of the bad condition of Polish-Soviet relations. In January 1943, the Soviet Government withdrew the exemption from the Soviet citizenship hitherto granted to the deported Poles; this in practice meant that the Treaty of 1941 concerning Polish citizens in Russia was unilaterally abrogated. Violent press polemics on both sides irritated even more the already strained relations.

On the other hand, the Soviet Government was making the discussion of the territorial issue easier for the Poles by introducing a new idea: compensation in the west at the expense of Germany. At the beginning of the German-Soviet war there was some hope in Moscow that the German workers would fight halfheartedly against a Socialist state, but the Soviet leaders soon perceived that German workers in uniform were more enthusiastic fighters under the walls of Moscow than they were in the west. This disappointment, plus Nazi cruelties in Russia, provoked a sharp change of attitude in the Russians.

As early as December 1941, Stalin had told Anthony Eden that German military and economic power should be smashed, and in this connection suggested that Germany should be weakened territorially, for instance, by the transfer of East Prussia to Poland. In 1942, the Soviet representatives often spoke to the Poles of the possibility of the two countries reaching an understanding by drawing a new frontier line between the Riga and the 1939 boundaries, with compensation for Poland at the expense of Germany. They usually added that they would support any degree of compensation. At that time they were moved as much by a desire to appease the Poles for their eastern losses as to reduce the power of postwar Germany.

During the same period the Soviet Government never ceased trying to obtain the British Government's recognition of the 1941 frontier. In February 1942, when the two Governments started negotiations for a Treaty of Mutual Assistance, the British were prepared to recognize the whole 1941 frontier, including Russian annexation of the Baltic States, Bessarabia, and part of Finland, leaving the question of the Polish-Soviet frontier to be settled by bilateral negotiations between the two interested parties. This solution was especially urged by Sir Stafford Cripps. But in the final text the whole matter was dropped. The change in the British attitude must have come at the end of April or the beginning of May 1942 and was perhaps due to American opposition to the recognition of any territorial changes before the end of hostilities. Thus the British-Soviet Treaty of May 26, 1942, did not solve the problem. But in 1943, under the impact of the Stalingrad victory, American-British conversations seemed to produce some kind of understanding that both Powers would be obliged in due time to recognize the 1941 frontier of the Soviet Union, with possible modifications in favor of Poland. At the same time the two western Powers seemed between themselves to accept the Soviet idea of compensation for Poland in the form of East Prussia, Danzig and Upper Silesia. This American-British understanding (possibly achieved during Mr. Eden's visit in Washington in March 1943) explains their attitude at Teheran.

In 1942, another important question divided the Poles and the Russians. The Polish Government in London had started negotiations with the Czechoslovak Government in the fall of 1940 for a postwar federation of the two countries, possibly to include Rumania and Hungary. An agreement in principle was expressed in a public statement of November 11, 1940, and confirmed in another statement of January 23, 1942. The two Governments thought at that time that the only way of assuring independence to small countries lying between Germany and Russia was to group them into larger units. Their example was followed in 1942 by the Greeks and the Jugoslavs who discussed a Balkan federation. The two federations would have organized the middle zone.

The Stalingrad victory in January 1943 altered the whole picture. The world understood that the Soviet Union would not only emerge a victor from the struggle, but would possess overshadowing power. The western Powers and smaller European nations adjusted their policies. Whereas in 1942 Great Britain had tried, in connection with the Soviet-British negotiations for the Mutual Assistance Treaty, to obtain from the Soviet Government a recognition of the usefulness of the Polish-Czechoslovak federation, in 1943 she began to withdraw from eastern European affairs. On the other hand, the Soviet Government openly proclaimed its dislike of any federations unless under its own auspices. In May 1943, the Czechoslovak Government decided under Soviet pressure to stop all conversations with the Poles on the subject.

A few weeks earlier, the Poles had already felt the direct impact of the new Soviet self-assurance. As we have noted, the beginning of 1943 marked a point of extreme irritation in Polish-Russian relations. Any new incident could now provoke a rupture. German propaganda about the discovery of mass graves of Polish officers near Katyn provided the incident. The German communiqué was published on April 14. Two days later the Polish Government asked for an investigation of the graves by the International Red Cross; and on April 26 the Soviet Government severed diplomatic relations with the Polish Government in London. There can be little doubt that the rupture would have come even without the Katyn incident. The Soviet Government had lost all hope of solving the territorial issue with the London Government, and was, moreover, growing sure of its ability to occupy the whole of eastern Europe in the course of the war. The idea of a Soviet zone of influence was taking shape, and it implied that in each eastern European capital there should be a "friendly" -- or, to use an old-fashioned term, "satellite" -- government.


The rupture of diplomatic relations with the London Government was accompanied by the emergence in Moscow of the Union of Polish Patriots controlled by Polish Communists. On April 28, 1943, the Chairman of the Union declared in Izvestia that the Polish Government in London had never received a popular mandate; the corollary was that it should be replaced. In a letter to the British press in May, Stalin advocated a strong, independent and, last but not least, friendly Poland. In June, he provided the interpretation of the term "friendly" by sending a message to the Union of the Polish Patriots. Under the auspices of the Union, a new Polish Army was being recruited from among Poles in Russia, whose welfare became the responsibility of the Union, But though the Union began to emerge as the spokesman of Polish interests in Russia, there is reason to believe that in 1943 the Soviet Government would still have consented to reëstablish diplomatic relations with the London Polish Government, if the latter had agreed to settle the territorial issue.

The Polish problem loomed large at the Teheran Conference toward the end of 1943, when the main lines of the Polish territorial settlement were agreed upon by the three leaders. The Americans and British accepted the Curzon Line as the basis of the future Polish-Soviet frontier; and the Soviet representatives concurred. This meant an important modification of the 1941 line in favor of Poland, especially in the north, where the purely Polish districts of Bialystok and Lomza would be returned to Poland. Probably the members of the Teheran Conference could not agree on the question of Lvov. Americans and British must have insisted upon including it in Poland, and the Russians refused. That question remained unsettled till the Yalta Conference, although even at Teheran the British and the Americans had little hope that they could wrest this concession from Stalin. On the other hand, the western leaders accepted the Soviet suggestion that Poland should have a large compensation at the expense of Germany. For the first time the River Oder was mentioned as marking the limit of that compensation. Stalin still seemed willing to treat with the Polish Government in London, but in Teheran he mentioned the necessity of including in that Government a few Poles in sympathy with the Union of Polish Patriots. On January 10, 1944, the Soviet Government publicly declared that the Curzon Line was the frontier to which it would consent.

After the Teheran Conference the British Government, and Prime Minister Churchill personally, tried to persuade the Polish Government in London that its last chance of being allowed by the Russians to return to Warsaw lay in promptly accepting the Curzon Line and the offered compensation. It is interesting to note that while the members of the British Government were united on the question of the Curzon Line (though they sympathized with the Polish claim to the region of Lvov) they differed among themselves on the extent of compensation. Mr. Churchill was entirely for the Oder Line, perhaps out of a spirit of accommodation to the Russian point of view on this subject, while Mr. Eden advised the Poles to restrict their demand for compensation to East Prussia, Danzig, Upper Silesia and parts of Prussian Pomerania. The Polish Government in London was divided among itself. Some members, like Prime Minister Mikolajczyk (who in July 1943 succeeded General Sikorski after the latter's tragic death), were ready, though with great reluctance, to accept the Curzon Line, hoping to retrieve the city of Lvov in later negotiations with the Soviet Government. Others could not bring themselves to accept that sacrifice. In the mind of Mikolajczyk and his political friends any sacrifice was worth while, if only the independence of the country could be saved by the avoidance of a Communist-controlled government in Warsaw. The indecision of the Polish Government caused Mr. Churchill to cut the Gordian knot by declaring on February 22, 1944, in the House of Commons that in the British point of view the Curzon Line was the proper one, and that Poland had the right to compensation at the expense of Germany.

In July 1944, Soviet troops crossed the Curzon Line, and immediately after the Soviet Government made the second and decisive step toward establishing a government of its own choice in Poland. On July 22, a Polish Committee of National Liberation was created from among the members of the Union of Polish Patriots. It was controlled by Communists, though not composed exclusively of them, and it became the de facto government of the liberated Polish territories. Needless to say, the Union had recognized the Curzon Line as early as the beginning of that year.

By the end of July, the Poles in Warsaw, prompted by the fact that the Soviet troops were already occupying the suburbs of Warsaw on the right bank of the Vistula, started an insurrection which lasted for well over two months and ended in the almost complete destruction of the Polish capital by the Germans. The Soviet High Command refused to help the insurgents, probably because they proclaimed their allegiance to the London Government, and this brought relations to a new pitch of bitterness. Nevertheless, just at the moment the Warsaw uprising began, Mikolajczyk went to Moscow and tried hard to come to an agreement. He was ready to accept the Curzon Line if Lvov were added, and to offer one-fifth of the ministerial posts in his Government to representatives of the Soviet-sponsored National Committee. The Soviet leaders were adamant on the boundary question, refusing to discuss any retrocession of Lvov. The representatives of the National Committee were not much more accommodating, demanding a fifty-fifty share in any government, though consenting to Mikolajczyk as Prime Minister. Mikolajczyk returned to London, determined to persuade his colleagues in the government that they must yield to the Soviet demands in order to save as much as possible of the national independence. He had the full support of the British Government, which was ready to promise to the Poles its full consent to compensation in the west up to the River Oder, including the port of Stettin, and to offer a joint British-Soviet guarantee of Polish independence and territorial integrity.

In October 1944, Prime Minister Churchill went to Moscow and tried to mediate in the Soviet-Polish dispute. At his request Marshal Stalin consented for the second time to receive Mikolajczyk, although Polish-Soviet diplomatic relations were supposedly nonexistent. During his second visit in Moscow Mikolajczyk tried again to wrest from the Soviet leaders a concession in respect to the city of Lvov, but otherwise he was quite prepared to accept the Curzon Line. This concession was again refused. Again also the question of the composition of the government was a major stumbling-block in the negotiations. Mikolajczyk, to some extent supported by Churchill, wanted to reserve the majority of posts in a new government for the non-Communist parties, quite rightly arguing that this would correspond to the true political situation in Poland. His point of view was forcefully opposed by the representatives of the Polish Committee of National Liberation, who were now in a more intransigent mood than in August and wanted to have their own majority in the Government; in fact, they demanded control, although they still consented to accept Mikolajczyk as Prime Minister. Churchill and Mikolajczyk left Moscow without having achieved any definite results, but Mikolajczyk nevertheless decided to force on his Government in London the acceptance of the Curzon Line (with a compensation in the west), and the sharing of power with the Polish Committee. He was overruled by his colleagues at the end of November 1944, and his Government was replaced by a new one which was adamant on the whole Polish-Soviet question. This change was adversely commented upon both in London and in Washington. The new Polish Government in London was recognized by the two western Powers, but it did not enjoy their political support.

The Soviet reaction was immediate. In December 1944, the U.S.S.R. consented to the transformation of the Polish Committee of National Liberation into a Provisional Government, which was by that time installed in Warsaw or, rather, in its ruins. This meant that discussions of the territorial issue were closed and that the Soviet Government had decided to have a government of its own choice in Poland.


When the Allied leaders met again in February 1945, in Yalta, the Americans and the British could only acknowledge the accomplished facts. The Yalta Declaration bound the United States and Britain to recognize the Provisional Government in Warsaw on condition that that Government be reorganized to include other shades of Polish political opinion. In practice it meant that Mikolajczyk and some of his friends would be taken into the Provisional Government. Moreover, this Government was pledged to hold free and unfettered elections in order to give the Poles the chance of choosing a government of their own liking. It is perhaps doubtful whether the western Powers had great illusions in Yalta as to the probability that such free and unfettered elections would ever be held. It was difficult to believe that the Soviet Government would ever consent to loosen its hold on Poland -- by virtue of its geographical position the most important component of the Soviet zone of influence -- and would allow the Poles to elect a Government which might prove recalcitrant and look to the west. At the same time, the Yalta Declaration recognized the Curzon Line as the eastern frontier of Poland and promised to Poland a compensation at the expense of Germany.

In April 1945, Mikolajczyk accepted the Yalta decisions and by the end of June 1945, strongly urged by the British Government, joined the Provisional Government in Warsaw as Deputy Prime Minister. He and his friends received about one-fifth of the ministerial posts, the Communists or Communist-sponsored politicians retaining the control of the main departments: Foreign Affairs, Army, Finance, Economy, and the decisive Department of Security. The reorganized Government was recognized immediately by the United States and Britain, who withdrew their recognition of the London Government.

A new chapter of Polish history was opened. Poland was bound to remain under the Soviet protectorate, with a government controlled from Moscow through the intermediary of the Polish Communists, whose leader, B. Bierut, became the President of the Republic. Mikolajczyk was deprived of any chance of taking effective political action. He enjoyed wide popularity in Poland as a leader independent of Russia, and he had the sympathy of the west; but he was destined to be crushed in the uneven struggle with the Polish Communists or, more exactly, with the might of the Soviet Union. He was further handicapped in his relations with the Soviet Union by the fact that he had closely followed British advice, and was bound to be considered a "British agent" by suspicious Soviet leaders, although, in fact, he was determined to do his best in fostering Soviet-Polish friendship. His personal tragedy was that he participated in the reorganized Warsaw Government in the belief that the western Powers would be able to enforce on that Government really free elections in accordance with the Yalta promise.

The elections of January 1947, which were everything but free and unfettered, gave an overwhelming majority to the Government. As a result, Mikolajczyk will be eliminated from Polish political life. One may expect that the Government will now claim the right to speak in the name of the whole nation and will proceed to put Poland into line with the Soviet system, socially and economically.

The territorial issue was further defined by the Potsdam Declaration of August 1945, which fixed the western frontier of Poland provisionally on the Oder and the western Neisse, including the whole of Silesia and Stettin in the Polish territory. The expulsions of Germans from the new western Polish lands, and the expulsions of the Poles from the territories situated beyond the Curzon Line, are completely transforming the ethnographical face of eastern Europe. In the provinces to the east of the Oder, where about 9,000,000 Germans dwelt before the war, there will soon be none. East to the Curzon Line, where lived more than 3,500,000 Poles, there will be no sign of a living Pole. Russia sponsors the mass transfers of populations on a scale unknown since the fall of the Roman Empire because she means to make the new arrangement permanent.

When one looks back on the Polish-Soviet relations, one can easily detect mistakes of both parties. The Poles did not show any sense of compromise, which is the soul of politics, and always lagged behind the rhythm of events. The Russians trusted too much to force in the solution of the disputed problems, forgetting that moderation is the only guarantee of lasting political success and that even Bismarck stressed the importance in politics of imponderabilia, that is to say, of moral and psychological factors. One cannot refrain from thinking that, if the Soviet leaders had not been restricted by their doctrinaire mentality and by the habit acquired in domestic policy of trusting force more than political ability, they could during the war have built lasting bases for Polish-Russian friendship. They could have found a territorial compromise between the Riga and the Curzon Lines acceptable to both parties and completed by an exchange of populations. They could, as they actually did, extend Polish territory much to the west. Then they could have been certain that the Poles, cut off by their western frontier from any possibility of understanding with Germany, menaced by the German resentment and unable to put confidence in the sympathies of the west, would have been compelled to look to Moscow for support and protection. In other words they would have been bound to Russia, not by the Security Police, but by their own interests. This, and the fact that the territorial issue could have been solved by amiable agreement, as Stalin wanted it solved in 1941, would have been the best guarantee of Polish loyalty. If, moreover, the intense patriotism of the Poles had been respected by allowing them to choose their government freely, the Poles and the Russians by now would have been steadily advancing on the road of friendship. Such a Polish-Russian friendship would have been the cornerstone of peace in eastern Europe. An historical opportunity was missed by both nations.

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  • W. W. KULSKI, Minister Plenipotentiary at the Polish Embassy in London, 1940-45; former Polish delegate at many meetings of the League of Nations
  • More By W. W. Kulski