Józef Beck (October 4, 1894 in Warsaw – June 5, 1944 in Stăneşti, Romania) served the Second Republic of Poland as diplomat and military officer, and close associate of Józef Piłsudski. He is most famous for being Polish foreign minister in the 1930s, when he largely set Polish foreign policy. He tried to fulfill Piłsudski's dream of making Poland the leader of a regional coalition. However, Beck was widely disliked and distrusted by other governments and they refused to cooperate with him. He was involved in territorial disputes with Lithuania and Czechoslovakia and pursued a policy of balance between Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. After Nazi Germany invaded Poland and threatened to take over Warsaw, he together with rest of the government evacuated to Romania.
When World War I started, Beck was a student at a college of Engineering. After the outbreak of World War I, Beck was a member of the clandestine Polish Military Organization (Polska Organizacja Wojskowa, or POW) founded in October 1914 by Piłsudski. Joining in 1914 Beck served until 1917 in the First Brigade of the Polish Legions and was an aide to Piłsudski. When the Brigade was interned, Beck escaped. After Poland regained independence, Beck was assigned as a commander of an artillery battery and assigned to the General Staff. Beck served as military attaché to France between 1922 and 1923. The French disliked Beck to the point of spreading lies about him, such that he was a Soviet agent. In 1926 he helped to carry out the May 1926 military coup d'état that brought Piłsudski to de facto governmental power.
In 1926 to 1930 Beck served as chief of staff to Poland's Minister of Military Affairs, and in 1930-1932 as Vice Prime Minister and Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs. Groomed by Piłsudski to implement Poland's foreign policy, in 1932 he took office as Minister of Foreign Affairs, a post he was to hold until the outbreak of World War II.
Beck had a weak hand. Poland with 35 million people had a large population but a thin industrial base, its army of 283,000 men was ill-equipped and poorly trained, and it had long borders with two powerful dictatorships, Hitler's Germany and Stalin's USSR. Overy says that of all the new states in Europe:
"Poland was almost certainly the most disliked and her Foreign Minister the most distrusted. Poland's pursuit of an independent line left her bereft of any close friends by the end of 1938…. The Western powers saw Poland as a greedy revisionist power, illiberal, anti-Semitic, pro-German; Beck was a 'menace, "arrogant and treacherous."
In his international diplomacy, Beck sought to maintain a fine balance in Poland's relations with its two powerful neighbours. In July 1932 he concluded a nonaggression pact with the Soviet Union, and in January 1934 a German-Polish Non-Aggression Pact.
Beck complained that, while Poland and Czechoslovakia were legally bound by treaty to respect the rights of their respective German minorities, the Polish minorities in Germany and the Soviet Union were not so protected. In addition, Beck resented that countries, such as Germany, used the Minorities Treaty to exert pressure and to become involved in the internal affairs of Poland. In September 1934, Beck renounced the Minorities Treaty after the Soviet Union was admitted to the League of Nations.
After Piłsudski's death in May 1935, a power-sharing agreement was entered into by the various Piłsudskiite factions, led by General (later Marshal) Edward Rydz-Śmigły, President Ignacy Mościcki, and Beck himself. These three individuals effectively dominated the Sanacja (Sanation) and collectively ruled Poland until the outbreak of World War II. Beck had more or less a free hand in formulating Poland's foreign policy. The stability of the ruling group was weakened, owing to personal conflicts within it, and none of the three men managed to completely assert his dominance in the late 1930s. The period from 1935 to 1939 is often described by historians as a "dictatorship without a dictator".
Beck was hostile to the League of Nations and did not think it could help Poland. France wanted some arrangement with Poland but distrusted Beck. So Beck looked in new directions. He explored the possibility of realizing Piłsudski's concept of Międzymorze ("Tween-Seas"): of a federation of central and eastern European countries stretching from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea and — indeed in later variants — from the Arctic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea. Such a coalition between Germany in the west and the Soviet Union in the east, might have been strong enough to deter both from military intervention. Beck realized that for the immediate future there was no realistic chance of building such a force. Therefore he was prepared to settle in 1937-38 for a diplomatic bloc referred to as a "Third Europe," led by Poland, that might become the nucleus of a Międzymorze federation. Beck's "Third Europe" diplomatic concept comprised a bloc of Poland, Italy, Yugoslavia, Hungary and Romania. His efforts failed for several reasons:
- Both Italy and Hungary preferred to align themselves with Germany rather than Poland;
- The dispute between Romania and Hungary over Transylvania doomed efforts to include them in a common bloc.
- The desire of both Italy and Hungary to partition Yugoslavia between the two blocked any effort to include Rome, Budapest and Belgrade in an alliance.
- None of the other four states meant to form the "Third Europe" with Poland was interested in accepting Polish leadership.
From 1935 to 1939, Beck supported German claims against Czechoslovakia, citing mistreatment of Polish minorities in Czechoslovakia. In 1937 he began a diplomatic offensive in favor of Slovak independence. He supported Hitler's position in the Munich Agreement in 1938. Within days Poland invaded and seized Teschen, an industrial district of Czechoslovakia with 240,000 people, many of them ethnic Poles.
1939: Nazi invasion
In 1937, Hitler continued to assure Beck that Germany had no claims on Danzig. But at the start of 1939, Hitler changed his earlier position and now laid claim to Danzig, adding that military force would not be used.
Beck played a decisive role in early 1939 staunchly refusing Hitler's demands to subordinate Poland and turn it into a German puppet-state by giving away strategic territories in Pomerania to Germany and by joining the Anti-Comintern Pact directed against the Soviet Union. He rejected Hitler's demands for annexation of Polish territories in Pomorze (Pomerania), that would cut off Polish access to the sea and its main trade route, effectively making Polish economy dependent on Germany, and for a rail and highway corridor that was to run to East Prussia and Free City of Danzig in exchange for vague promises regarding trade and annexation of territories inhabited by Ukrainians and Belorussians in Soviet Union after a future war. While Hitler planned to annex Polish territory since several years, he finally decided to go ahead with his plans for war by early September 1939.
Beck was surprised when Britain, looking for a pretext to confront Germany, announced at the end of March 1939 it would defend Poland from Germany attack. France joined in, but both countries knew there was very little they could do if Germany invaded Poland.
In April 1939, Beck was in London to negotiate the terms of the British-Polish aid treaty. Beck famously voiced his refusal of German demands in a speech on May 5, 1939:
“"Peace is a precious and a desirable thing. Our generation, bloodied in wars, certainly deserves peace. But peace, like almost all things of this world, has its price, a high but a measurable one. We in Poland do not know the concept of peace at any price. There is only one thing in the lives of men, nations and countries that is without price. That thing is honor."”
Similarly, Beck refused a demand from Soviets and delivered by Great Britain to allow Soviet forces to enter the country, which was made in talks in which Polish side did not take part.
A third proposal soon followed, once again elaborated by Great Britain, which promised support to the Polish Government if the country's borders were endangered. This time around, Beck accepted it.
In summer 1939 Great Britain and France also sought a defensive military alliance with Soviet Union. One reason it failed is that Beck refused to allow any Soviet military movement through Poland.
Hitler shifted to the Soviet Union, and secured the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in August 1939. It secured Soviet neutrality in a war, a heavy flow of Soviet food and oil, and an agreement to partition Poland and split up the Baltic states. Everyone realized that war between Germany and Poland was imminent.
World War II
Following the invasion of Poland by Germany at the start of World War II, it was Beck who called on Poland's allies (France and Britain) to find out when they would enter the war to support Poland. In spite of the agreement between them, France and Britain refused to help Poland, though both of them did enter WWII immediately after the 1939 German invasion of Poland. After Poland had been overrun by the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany in September 1939, on the night of the 17th, Beck withdrew together with the rest of the Polish government into Romania, where he was interned by the authorities. It was then that he wrote a volume of memoirs, Ostatni raport (Final Report).
Melchior Wańkowicz, a popular Polish journalist, met Beck in the autumn of 1939, when the minister was interned by Romanian authorities at a hotel in Brasov. This is how he described the meeting: "Beck was locked in a golden cage of a luxurious hotel in Brasov, where he and his entourage occupied one floor. He was closely guarded: whenever he went out, hordes of Allied, German and Romanian agents followed him (...) I met him at 5 in the afternoon, and our conversation continued until almost two in the morning, with a dinner break. Beck emphasized achievements of the last month of his post: a military treaty with England, Hungarian refusal to let German troops pass through their territory, droit de residence and droit de passage, granted by Romanian government. Beck believes in a solid coalition, and that we would sit at a negotiating table as partners, while Czechs would remain outside. He does not care about the fact that Lloyd George stated that Poland did not deserve help as a reactionary country. He is not bothered by the fact that Lord Halifax wants to recreate the Curzon Line. Instead, he points out that when British king gave a speech on the radio, only English, French and Polish anthems were played (...) Since I cannot tolerate this kind of wishful thinking, I ask him whether he had ever seriously considered German attack. He keeps saying that he had met Hitler several times, that Hitler backs out of discussions, that he can easily be talk into different things, that he was influenced by von Ribbentrop."
He died in Stanesti, Romania, June 5, 1944 after developing tuberculosis. Beck was survived by his son Andrzej who was active in the Polish community in the United States until his death in 2011.
In May 1991, Beck's remains were repatriated to Poland and interred at Warsaw's Powązki Military Cemetery, one of Poland's pantheons of the great and valiant.
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