An Iconoclastic Alternative

Piotr zychowicz, Pakt RibbentropBeck czyli jak Polacy mogli u boku III Rzeszy pokonać Związek Sowiecki [The RibbentropBeck Pact, or how Poles could have defeated the Soviet Union alongside the Third Reich], Dom Wydawniczy REBIS, Poznań 2012

Dealing with alternative history might seem to be a futile pursuit. After all, the past cannot be changed. And yet there are people who dare to try. The reason for their undertakings is the fact that they treat the scenarios which they create as a key to understanding the present and the future.

For Poles, alternative versions of historical events are comparable to what the novels of Henryk Sienkiewicz meant for the 19th century; the aim of that literature was to “strengthen hearts.” That epoch was an especially tragic episode in Polish history. Fantasizing about what could have been done differently and what could have taken a different course might be yet another way of coping with national trauma.

Does the book by writer and historian Piotr Zychowicz, provocatively entitled The Ribbentrop- Beck Pact, meet those requirements? In a way it does. But this is not its essence. The author does not deny that what he actually decided to do is to give Poles a lesson in political realism; an approach which, to his mind, Poles chronically lack.

The argument presented by Zychowicz is simple: in 1939 Poland could have prevented the aggression of Germany and the Soviet Union. How? Warsaw should have given in to Berlin’s demands: to allow the Free City of Danzig to join the Third Reich and to construct exterritorial roads connecting Eastern Prussia with the rest of Germany. Poland would have also entered the Anti-Comintern Pact.

And this is precisely the scenario which, in the eyes of Zychowicz, might have—at least partly—come to fulfilment, if in 1939 Joachim von Ribbentrop had concluded a diplomatic agreement not with Viacheslav Molotov but with Józef Beck.

Assuming that instead of a German-Soviet alliance against Poland and the Baltic States, there had existed a German-Polish alliance against USSR, World War II would have started in 1940 with the successful aggression of the Third Reich against Denmark and Norway. The next move would have been Hitler’s conquest of France, Belgium, Netherland and Luxemburg.

In this scenario, 22 June 1941 is the turning point. On this day, Germany and Poland attack the Soviet Union (from the East an attack is carried out by Japan). Then, following the capture of Moscow, Stalin commits suicide and Beria is assassinated by a Polish sapper. After bloody battles, the aggressors triumph over the enemy (following the secret protocols of the Ribbentrop-Beck Pact). The Soviet Republics of Belarus and Ukraine are incorporated into Poland—the area, which used to belong to the pre-partition Polish Republic. Germany, in turn, annexes the Baltic States and Russia proper.

Yet, both winners differ as to the treatment of the populations in the annexed territories. Poles introduce a liberal order and grant considerable autonomy to Belarusians and Ukrainians (the ultimate vision involves the establishment of a Polish, Belarusian and Ukrainian federation under the leadership of Warsaw). This makes them popular with the masses. They had so far been living in extreme poverty and fear of the NKVD. At the same time, Germany considers Russians and other peoples of the Soviet Union as“inferior.” Repression and terror are stepped up—mostly directed at Jews. Thus, Gestapo violence has replaced NKVD violence.

In contrast to Poland, the Third Reich is involved in conflicts in many countries. Their enemies are Great Britain and the USA. Since military operations are happening on the seas, in the Middle East and in Northern Africa, expenditures are growing. When Berlin insists that Warsaw should actively participate in the war with the Allies, it politely (but firmly) refuses. In neutral Lisbon, secret negotiations are held between Warsaw, London and Washington. The Allies promise Poland that if it resists pressure from Hitler and, instead of deploying its army in the West, attacks Germany, all territorial gains made by Poland in the East would be recognized after the war.

Poland takes the offer. Thus, alliances change. In 1945 the British and the Americans capture Berlin (Hitler commits suicide following the steps of Stalin), Poles are still fighting in the East against weakening German troops. The war ends with the undisputed success of Poland. Prussia is annexed to the Polish Republic, and so the dream of Józef Piłsudski comes true, with the Baltic States voluntarily joining the Polish, Belarusian and Ukrainian federation. Zychowicz comments: “Poland becomes a power. At a peace conference held in the Polish seaside resort of Jurata, all the cards are held by Winston Churchill, Harry Truman and Edward Rydz-Śmigły. A photo presenting the three gentlemen sitting in wicker armchairs goes down in history.”

Consequently, the dark character of the book by Zychowicz turns out to be Józef Beck. As we know, in reality Poland rejected German demands and entered into alliances with Great Britain and France: states, which did not rush to help when it was attacked by the Third Reich. The essence of this political move was explained by the Minister of Foreign Affairs in his famous speech in the Sejm on the 5 May 1939, in which he declared: “We in Poland do not recognize the concept of ‘peace at any price.’ There is only one thing in the life of men, nations and states which is without price, and that is honor.”

Still, in the book authored by Zychowicz there are some inconsistencies and simplifications. On one hand, he condemns idealization of political reality, on the other however, he also takes an idealistic view of the Second Polish Republic. Irrespective of what one may conclude from arguments developed by the author, ethnic minorities in the Kresy were in fact not eager to implement Piłsudski’s federalist vision. It is also a good idea to consider critique directed at Zychowicz by an accomplished researcher of the history of Polish-Russian relations Andrzej Nowak. For Nowak, the “Ribbentrop-Beck Pact” corresponds with the theses of Russian propagandists who wish to prove that “Poland with all its soul wanted to go hand in hand with Hitler and murder Jews. It was only due to its stupidity that it did not. Thus, Poland (according to this vision) stands for a mixture of wickedness and stupidity.”

Zychowicz’s work reaches its high point of iconoclasm.

Following World War II different social groups successfully resisted equating Auschwitz with the Gulags; and at the same time they never ceased to recall the gigantic contribution of the Red Army to defeating the Third Reich. And after all the Soviet Union was—to use Alain Besançon’s words referring to Soviet Communism and Nazism—a twin brother of the Third Reich. And what is meant here is not only the massive purge performed by Stalin and Beria within the party of Bolsheviks. Between 1937 and 1938 the authorities of USSR orchestrated the killing of the Polish minority inhabiting its territory (this went down in history as the so called “Polish Operation”), which could be classified as genocide comparable to the Holocaust. While collectivization of agriculture in the USSR in the 30s, driven by ideological factors, brought about mass famine and resulted in cases of cannibalism.

Does the huge contribution to the victory over the Third Reich justify the acts committed by the Bolsheviks earlier? If the possibility of Poland joining Hitler against Stalin is deemed immoral, how come it is moral that Great Britain and the USA allied themselves with Stalin against Hitler?

Such questions seem to be shocking only because history is written by the victors.

Filip Memches

Filip Memches is a feature writer; author of a book entitled Słudzy i wrogowie imperium. Rosyjskie rozmowy o końcu historii (The Servants and the Enemies of the Empire: Russian Conversations on the End of the World) (2009).

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