Throughout history, Poland shared the fate of many Central European nations in being a playground of various great powers. While Poland had, through Middle Ages and especially in 16th to 18th centuries, achieved status of a great or at least regional power, it always had to fight to preserve its independence. Poland eventually disappeared from the map after being divided between Prussia, Austria and Russia in divisions of 1772., 1793. and 1795. Poland would – with the exception of short-lived Grand Duchy of Warshaw – only regain independence after the three empires collapsed following the First World War.
As Russia collapsed in the 1917. revolution, the new Provisional Government in Petrograd issued a proclamation of Polish independence on 31st March 1917. But Germans had occupied Poland in its entirety, and so independence had to wait. Only in Autumn of 1918., with defeat of Germany close at hand, could Poland be reestablished. Germany even released Pilsudski from prison and sent him to help the provisional government. On 11 November 1918 he was appointed Commander-in-Chief of Polish forces by the Regency Council and given the task of creating an independent National Government.
In November 1918., Polish army invaded and occupied eastern Galicia, while Poles in German provinces of Posen and Upper Silesia revolted. On the Versailles peace conference, western frontiers of Poland were set as roughly those from 1474. to 1759. (earliest Polish borders however were very similar to those of today’s Poland – Poland essentially took a walk east but ended up where it had started). Danzig, Posen and Austrian Galicia were given to Poland, but the eastern frontier was still undecided. Largely as a result of British pressure, plebiscites were to be held in Upper Silesia and Marienwerder and Allenstein (Olsztyn) in the Polish Corridor. Poles and French attempted to prevent the plebiscites in the Upper Silesia which had heavy iron and steel industries, but were defeated by the German Freikorps in May 1921. Yet despite 60% of population voting to remain German, the League of Nations bowed to French pressure and ruled in favor of the Polish claims, leaving Germans with a lasting legacy of bitterness.
Eastern frontiers were decided when Soviet attempt at invading the Central and Western Europe failed after a defeat in Poland. Pilsudski had attempted to protect the Polish heartlands from the Bolsheviks by annexing Belarus and Ukraine, and the Polish forces penetrated as far as Kiev in 1920. But with victory in the civil war, the Red Army was able to expel Polish forces from Ukraine, and by August 1920. Warsaw itself was threatened by five Soviet armies. Leon Trotsky proposed carving up Poland between Germany and USSR – something that will actually happen later in 1939. – but Germany was unable to move due to presence of the French occupational forces in the Rhineland. The Red Army was eventually defeated when Pilsudski launched an unexpected counteroffensive which destroyed three of the five Soviet armies threatening Warsaw, while the fifth was nearly destroyed few weeks later at the Battle of Komarow. Polish victory was decided on September 1920 in the Battle of River Niemen, and frontiers finalized by the subsequent Treaty of Riga in which Poland annexed considerable areas of Belarus and Ukraine. Poland also siezed Wilno from Lithuania in October 1920.
However, all these events ensured that Poland would be permanently seen as an enemy by both Germany and the USSR. Poles were a minority in eastern Poland, and acquisition of these territories was a “running sore” to Russia. Germany meanwhile was determined to regain the Danzig Corridor, the industrially valuable Upper Silesia as well as the agricultural Pomerania. Germany and USSR were fully willing to cooperate to fulfill these goals. In 1922 General Hans von Seeckt, the Commanderin-Chief of the German Army encapsulated this view:
“Poland’s existence is intolerable, at variance with the survival of Germany. It must disappear, and it will disappear through its own internal weakness and through Russia – with our assistance. For Russia, Poland is even more intolerable than for us; no Russian can allow Poland to exist [. . .] the creation of the broad common frontier between Russia and Germany is the precondition for the regaining of strength of both countries.”
It is thus clear that attack on Poland cannot be blamed solely on Nazi ideology. Both Germany and USSR utilized any opportunity to weaken the Poland. In 1922. they signed the Treaty of Rapallo, which paved the way for German – Soviet military cooperation. In 1925 Foreign Minister, Gustav Stresemann specifically excluded Germany’s eastern frontiers from the Locarno treaties that guaranteed Germany’s western borders, and viewed cooperation between Germany and Russia as a precondition for territorial revision in the east.
Poland itself had alienated potential allies – Czechoslovakia and Lithuania – leaving it with France as the only potential ally in 1920s, and two states signed a defensive alliance in 1921. But Britain wanted to secure “balance of power” (read: British dominance) on the continent, and so wanted to restrain France while building up Germany. Germany thus maintained high tensions with Poland to hopefully force the issue of border revision.
When Hitler came to power in 1933., Pilsudski proposed a joint Franco-Polish intervention to remove him from power. French rejected such a course of action, while Hitler himself needed time to consolidate power and build up the military. Thus the Polish-German Non Aggression Treaty was signed on 26th January 1934. in Berlin. To Hermann Rauschning, President of the Danzig Senate, Hitler described the agreement as having “a purely temporary significance”. He added: “I have no intention of maintaining a serious friendship.”.
Poland in 1919 – 1938
Poland had massive issues. Its territory was an amalgamation of three different zones – German, Austrian and Russian – each with its own legal tradition. Worse, some 30% of the population of new Poland was not Polish, but was rather Ukrainian, Byelorussian, German or Jewish, most of whom were reluctant citizens of the new state.
Economically, areas of Poland had been devastated during the course of the Great War and its immediate aftermath. Millions of farms and cottages had to be rebuilt, and agriculture in general was backwards. So was industry – only industry present in Poland was located in very small areas that had been ruled by the Imperial Germany and Austria-Hungary: that is, areas of Upper Silesia, Lodz and Warsaw. And that had been devastated as well.
Country was also politically unstable: Poles had no experience with parliamentary democracy with the exception of the utter shitshow that was pre-partition Poland, and in 1922. there were 92 political parties of which seventeen made it into the parliament (Sejm). This system was highly unstable: between 1918. and 1926., Poland had 14 coalition governments. In this situation, it could not survive, and so Pilsudski’s coup in 1926. was a literal saving grace. Another saving grace were the economic reforms by Wladyslaw Grabski , which introduced the gold-backed zloty currency, ending hyperinflation and allowing the budget to be balanced. This in turn attracted loans from the USA, which in turn allowed investment into industry. With Grabsky’s economic reforms stabilizing the Poland economically and Pilsudsky’s coup stabilizing it politically, Poland was able to survive.
Great Depression of 1922. – 1933. brought massive unemployment and acute poverty. But by 1935., economy had recovered. Pilsudski died in 1935., and from 1935–39 Poland was ruled by his former legionaries, of whom Colonel Józef Beck was the most prominent. Their regime was until end of 1938. both anti-Czech and pro-German.
German and Russian Rearmament
In the 1920s, Poland had enjored its security. Defeat of the Red Army in August 1920. had forced the USSR to turn inwards instead of going on the world-conquering spree, and German military had been limited by the treaties. Until 1933., Polish Army was both larger and more modern than the Reichswehr. While Soviet army was larger, but the defeat in 1920. and peasant revolts of 1921. had convinced the Soviet government to stay within the borders of the USSR, at least for the time being. But Pilsudski had realized that this would not last: both Germany and USSR were developing their armed forces as quickly as possible, fully intent on armed expansion through wars of conquest in the near future.
Despite the (perhaps common) belief that it was the Nazis that had begun German rearmament, Germany had started its rearmament almost immediately after the end of the First World War. Already in the early 1920s Germany was evading the restrictions imposed by the Treaty of Versailles, and this was done with massive Soviet assistance. Rapallo Treaty of 1922. allowed her aircrews (pilots, navigators and technicians) to be trained in the USSR, while her Army used Soviet training grounds to conduct maneuvers and develop the theory and practice of modern mechanized warfare. In this they had direct Soviet help, both theoretical and technical. Between 1927 and 1933 detailed plans were drawn up for creating the infrastructure for a much larger mechanized force. Between 1933–36 these installations became a key precondition for the rapid German rearmament.
As soon as Hitler came to power, he organized the economy for war. On 18 December 1933., decision was made to increase the peacetime army to 300 000 and a field army of 600 000. Between 1935. and 1939., annexations of Austria and Sudetes were backed by massive budgetary increases. By 1939., Heer had 2 758 000 men in 103 divisions. This was a completely new force, based heavily on the lessons of the First World War. New German army had analyzed importance of Allied tanks in victory on the Western Front, and had begun to develop tank doctrine from early 1920s. And thanks to the Rapallo pact with the USSR, Germany was able to establish a training centre for the use of armored vehicles near Kazan in the USSR.
Expansion that had started in 1935. gave Germany six Panzer and four light divisions by 1939. These were combined-arms divisions independent of infantry formations, consisting of tanks, motorized infantry and artillery. All German tanks had radios, whereas in other European armies only command tanks had radios. But even in 1939., vast majority of German tanks were light training tanks – Panzer I (PzKfw.I) and Panzer II (PzKfw.II). These were supported by heavier Panzer III and IV. Former had a good 37 mm anti-tank gun, but there were only 90 in service in 1939. Latter was armed with 75 mm low-velocity cannon for infantry support, and some 211 were in service in September 1939.
Expansion of the German Navy was likewise a result of plans drawn up in the Weimar Republic. In 1933., contracts were awarded for four destroyers, and preparations were accelerated for submarine construction. This broke the 144 000 ton limit of the Versailles treaty, but in 1935. the Anglo-German naval treary was signed, allowing Germany to build up to 520 000 tons. By 1939., German fleet could dominate the Baltic, although it was no match for the Royal Navy.
Luftwaffe again was expanded based on the plans drawn up during the Weimar Republic. Pilots, navigation officers, observers and technicians were trained at Lipsk in the USSR, and close cooperation with USSR as well as civilian entities such as Lufthansa allowed Germany to keep up with the latest technological developments. In July 1933., decision was made to create an independent air force – Luftwaffe – consisting of 27 squadrons, of which ten were bombers. The July Programme of 1934. envisioned construction of 17 015 aircraft, of which 6 671 combat aircraft. These were 2 225 fighters, 2 188 level / strategic bombers, 699 dive bombers and 1 559 reconnaissance aircraft.
The remainder were training aircraft. Most of the tactical advancements such as die Rotte came as a result of, and were tested in, the Spanish Civil War (Rotte is known as the “finger-four” formation, consisting of two pairs of aircraft, with one aircraft in each pair acting as an attacking unit and the second as the covering unit).
By August 1939., Luftwaffe had 4 093 frontline aircraft in 302 squadrons, supported by 2 600 heavy anti-aircraft guns in 21 flak artillery regiment. New aircraft were developed – Ju-87 dive bomber, He-111 strategic / heavy bomber, Do-17 bomber, and the Me-109 fighter. In 1937., development began of Me-110 heavy fighter and the Ju-88 bomber. The role of aircraft was to cooperate with ground forces while destroying the enemy’s air capability by bombing aerodromes and communications.
Development of Soviet military
Red Army began as a militia formed to defend the revolution, but expanded to 3 million men during the course of the Russian Civil War. It was led by professional officers and overseen by political comissars, whose duty was to ensure loyalty to the Communist Party. After defeating the Whites in the Civil War, Soviet Union attempted to export Communism abroad by invading other countries. First on the order was Poland, but defeat outside Warsaw in 1920. forced the USSR to abandon its plans of conquest and world revolution, and turn inwards.
But USSR had now shown itself to be a clear threat to remaining Europe. For this reason, Poland, Romania, the Baltic States and Finland formed a defensive alliance. But this alliance, which could field 572 000 troops, was seen as a threat by the Soviet leadership. Red Army thus reorganized for defense, based around recommendations of Mikhail Frunze, who had commanded the southern front in the Civil War and became Chief of Staff in 1924. This led to a relatively small cadre army backed by territorial forces which would provide civilian population with peacetime training and allow for quick expansion.
By 1937., Red Army was superior to any western force in all fields. Special focus was paid to development of the officer corps, and the most promising Russian officers were sent on courses in Germany. Soviet Army in 1930s was in a state of permanent modernization. In 1929, V. Triandafillov, the Deputy Chief of the Red Army Staff produced a ground-breaking study of the impact of motorization, arguing that modern mass armies have to use motorization whenever possible. By 1935., Heinz Guderian estimated the Soviet Army had 100 000 army lorries, that a third of its corps artillery had been motorized as well as half of its anti-aircraft and heavy artillery. Three rifle divisions had been motorized as well, and from 1932. onwards the Red Army started receiving tanks in number. Early prototypes, T26 and T26A, were based on British Vickers and US Christie models and would outperform German tanks in the Spanish Civil War. But the maneuvre of 1936., open to foreign dignitaries, had shown that the Red Army was yet a paper tiger, with mechanized formations displaying little handling skill. Any attempts at improvement were gutted in Stalin’s purges of 1937. – out of 75 000 – 80 000 strong officer corps, some 20 000 – 25 000 were purged.
Navy and Air Force had both played a minor role in the Civil War, and Navy was also seen as politically unreliable due to Kronstadt uprising. Only in 1923. were the Navy and the Air Force freed from subordination to the Army. Both arms heavily benefited from the Rapallo Treaty and cooperation with Germany. Junkers set up an aircraft factory near Moscow, and in 1925. German Marineleitung sent a mission which advised USSR on construction of submarines. In 1933., USSR created a Baltic Fleet to guard against an attack by alliance of Baltic states and Poland.
Soviet Air Force was in shambles following the Civil War, with 32 different types of aircraft, insufficient logistical support, undertrained personnel and understrength. But in 1923. a proper air force was created, consisting of strategic force and corps aviation. Strategic air force consisted of fighter-bomber and reconnaissance squadrons, while corps aviation was tasked with tactical reconnaissance and artillery observation. By mid-1930s the Soviet Air Force was being rapidly expanded with creation of 65 air regiments. In 1936 the strategic bombing Air Force was developed, consisting of the TB and ANT bombers, while new fighters, the I-15 and I-16 were simultaneously introduced.