Poland or Russia: Did Churchill Pick the Right Enemy?

Poland or Russia: Did Churchill Pick the Right Enemy?

Reprint­ed from “Poland Ver­sus Rus­sia,” writ­ten March 2024 for the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project. For the orig­i­nal arti­cle (and a spir­it­ed exchange with a read­er), click here. To sub­scribe to week­ly arti­cles from Hills­dale-Churchill, click here, scroll to bot­tom, and enter your email in the box “Stay in touch with us.” We nev­er spam you and your iden­ti­ty remains a rid­dle wrapped in a mys­tery inside an enigma.

Question: Did Churchill abandon Poland?

The Anglo-Pol­ish Alliance was signed on 25 August 1939 but was ten­ta­tive­ly agreed to as ear­ly as 31 March 1939: The British would come to Poland’s aid in the event that they were invad­ed by a for­eign pow­er. No coun­try was named. Britain lived up to her agree­ment with Poland when Ger­many invad­ed. How­ev­er, in about a fort­night after the Ger­man inva­sion, the Sovi­et Union invad­ed Poland and the British did noth­ing. When the Pol­ish Gov­ern­ment asked the British For­eign Office for aid against the Sovi­ets, For­eign Min­is­ter Hal­i­fax respond­ed that the Anglo-Pol­ish alliance was restrict­ed to Germany.

Win­ston Churchill became the new Prime Min­is­ter on 10 May 1940. The Sovi­ets occu­pied Poland for near­ly two years. Churchill had to know the intent of the Com­mu­nists, and yet he did noth­ing. On 22 June 1941 Churchill crawled into bed with Stal­in. Where was the states­man­ship in that? Of course, you know all these things.

Was Churchill’s fight with Hitler a per­son­al one? He knew that Com­mu­nism was just as evil as Nazism. He had near­ly two years to con­tem­plate what to do about Rus­sia. Churchill had sev­er­al choic­es. The best choice would have been to let the Sovi­et Union and Ger­many slug it out. We are not talk­ing about hind­sight because Churchill had a clear choice then, and time to study his options. The Com­mu­nists had a much longer his­to­ry of oppres­sion than the Nazis. —W.S. via email

Answer: Poland before the war

Thank-you for your obser­va­tions, which are best con­sid­ered in con­text of the time. Many fac­tors need to be con­sid­ered here.

Poland owed her inde­pen­dence to the Allied vic­to­ry in 1918. Yet the 1938 Pol­ish gov­ern­ment was hard­ly a pas­sive neu­tral, hav­ing joined the Ger­mans and Rus­sians in dis­mem­ber­ing Czecho­slo­va­kia after the Munich Agree­ment.

Pol­ish For­eign Min­is­ter Józef Beck, who admit­ted­ly didn’t expect a Ger­man assault on his coun­try, took advan­tage of the Munich affair. Claim­ing that the Czechs were mis­treat­ing their Pol­ish minor­i­ty, Poland invad­ed and seized Teschen, a Czech indus­tri­al dis­trict with 240,000 peo­ple, and three oth­er dis­tricts. In Par­lia­ment, Churchill was furious:

The British and French Ambas­sadors vis­it­ed Colonel Beck, or sought to vis­it him, the For­eign Min­is­ter, in order to ask for some mit­i­ga­tion in the harsh mea­sures being pur­sued against Czecho­slo­va­kia about Teschen. The door was shut in their faces.

The French Ambas­sador was not even grant­ed an audi­ence and the British Ambas­sador was giv­en a most curt reply by a polit­i­cal direc­tor. The whole mat­ter is described in the Pol­ish Press as a polit­i­cal indis­cre­tion com­mit­ted by those two Pow­ers, and we are today read­ing of the suc­cess of Colonel Beck’s blow.

I am not for­get­ting, I must say, that it is less than twen­ty years ago since British and French bay­o­nets res­cued Poland from the bondage of a cen­tu­ry and a half. I think it is indeed a sor­ry episode in the his­to­ry of that coun­try, for whose free­dom and rights so many of us have had warm and long sym­pa­thy.1

Promises kept

In March 1939, Hitler absorbed what had been left of Czecho­slo­va­kia after Munich. Real­iz­ing now that Ger­many would nev­er be appeased, Prime Min­is­ter Neville Cham­ber­lain issued a British guar­an­tee to Poland. “Here was deci­sion at last,” Churchill wrote, “tak­en at the worst pos­si­ble moment and on the least sat­is­fac­to­ry ground, which must sure­ly lead to the slaugh­ter of tens of mil­lions of peo­ple.”2

When Ger­many invad­ed Poland on 1 Sep­tem­ber 1939, Britain kept her promise to declare war on the aggres­sor. But the ground was indeed unsat­is­fac­to­ry: British chiefs of staff had ear­li­er informed the Poles (who under­stood) that there was noth­ing prac­ti­cal they could do on the West­ern Front with­out the French, who did noth­ing. Poland was defeat­ed in a few weeks. By pre­arrange­ment with Hitler, Stal­in helped him­self to his share. The Sec­ond World War was on.

Churchill for­ev­er blamed Poland for com­plic­i­ty in Hitler’s designs by Beck’s rapa­cious­ness in Czecho­slo­va­kia. He repeat­ed his charges in his war mem­oirs, caus­ing him trou­ble with exiled Poles, who pub­lished pam­phlets attack­ing what they saw as a small mat­ter com­pared to the depre­da­tions of Nazi Ger­many.3 In the face of such crit­i­cism Churchill waxed philo­soph­ic: “There are few virtues the Poles do not pos­sess, and few mis­takes that they have ever avoid­ed.”4

What we know in hindsight

Did Churchill make the right choice between the Third Reich and Sovi­et Union? “My thought has always been that Nazism had absolute­ly no escha­tol­ogy, and would with­er on the vine,” William F. Buck­ley Jr. once remarked. “Only the life of Hitler kept it going, and I can’t imag­ine he’d have last­ed very long. The Com­mu­nists hung in there for forty-six years.”5

That is arguably true, but we know this in what Churchill called “the afterlight.” Churchill’s atti­tude was based on the sit­u­a­tion as he saw it at the time.

Until 1939, the Rus­sians had not moved beyond their own ter­ri­to­ry. Long after Poland had been con­quered by the Reich, Churchill remained open to an under­stand­ing with Moscow. Even though the Rus­sians and Ger­mans had signed a non-aggres­sion pact, he thought it would ulti­mate­ly clash with Russ­ian nation­al interests.

“Favourable reference to the Devil”

In the event, Hitler took care of that with his inva­sion of Rus­sia in June 1941. “If Hitler invad­ed Hell,” Churchill famous­ly cracked, “I would at least make a favourable ref­er­ence to the Dev­il in the House of Com­mons.”6

Churchill inspect­ing troops of the 1st Rifle Brigade, 1st Pol­ish Corps, with Gen­er­al Władysław Siko­rs­ki at Tentsmuir, Scot­land, 23 Octo­ber 1940. Gen­er­al Gustaw Paszkiewicz, CO of the Brigade, is behind Gen­er­al Siko­rs­ki. (Impe­r­i­al War Muse­um, pub­lic domain)

With Rus­sia invad­ed and Amer­i­ca still neu­tral, Churchill was des­per­ate for allies. It was log­i­cal to con­clude that Ger­many not Rus­sia was the greater expan­sion­ist threat. No one could see far ahead, yet no one worked hard­er than he for Poland’s inde­pen­dence after the war. No one more admired the valiant Poles who fought with the Allies from 1940 to D-Day and beyond.

Churchill’s many efforts to secure an inde­pen­dent Poland are on record. Sad­ly, the war end­ed with Sovi­et pow­er spread over East­ern Europe. One Russ­ian who grasped what Churchill was try­ing to do was Ambas­sador Ivan Maisky. Our review of his diaries may be of interest.


1 Win­ston S. Churchill (here­inafter WSC), House of Com­mons, 5 Octo­ber 1938, in Robert Rhodes James, ed., Win­ston S. Churchill: His Com­plete Speech­es 1897-1963, 8 vols. (New York: Bowk­er, 1974), VI: 6009-10. For Beck’s view of Ger­man inten­tions see Mel­chior Wańkow­icz, Pok­lęsce. Prószyńs­ki i Spół­ka (War­saw 2009), 612.

2 WSC, The Gath­er­ing Storm (Lon­don: Cas­sell, 1948), 271–72.

3 Studnic­ki, W., An Open Let­ter from a Pol­ish Polit­i­cal Writer to Mr. Win­ston Churchill. (Lon­don: pri­vate­ly pub­lished, 1948). Kwas­niews­ki, Tadeus, An Open Let­ter of a Chica­go Wait­er to Win­ston Churchill. (Chica­go, pri­vate­ly pub­lished, 1950), sub­ti­tled Let’s Face the Truth, Mr. Churchill. Both writ­ers attacked Churchill’s cri­tique, in The Gath­er­ing Storm, of Poland’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in the dis­mem­ber­ment of Czecho­slo­va­kia.

4 WSC, House of Com­mons, 16 August 1945, in Richard M. Lang­worth, ed., Churchill by Him­self (New York: Roset­ta Books, 2015), 279.

5 William F. Buck­ley Jr. to the author, quot­ed in “William F. Buck­ley: A True Churchillian in the End,” 2020.

6 WSC, Che­quers, 21 June 1941, in Lang­worth, Churchill by Him­self, 276.

Further reading

Con­nor Daniels, “Why Churchill Allied with Stal­in,” 2021.

War­ren F. Kim­ball: “Ghost in the Attic: Churchill, the Sovi­ets and the Spe­cial Rela­tion­ship, 2021, in two parts. Part 1 and Part 2.

Richard M. Lang­worth, “The Maisky Diaries,” edit­ed by Gabriel Gorodet­sky,” 2016.

_____ _____, “Fac­ing the Dic­ta­tor: Stal­in, 1946; Hitler, 1938,” 2021.

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