I can see them now, the long red banners with their black swastikas in white circles, waving, along with the Nazi flags, from poles and porches, strung along the streets, the fronts of buildings everywhere. It was August 1933, and the city then was called Danzig, today's Gdansk.
I was there because I had written my college senior thesis on the Polish Corridor and I wanted to see what it really looked like. You will remember the 13th of Woodrow Wilson's 14 Points for the settlement of World War I: a promise of "an independent Polish state . . . which should be assured a free and secure access to the sea. . . ."
From the promise Poland once again had been reborn, this nation whose people have been so unlucky as to inhabit a plain across which larger neighbors have marched and countermarched over the centuries. In World War I, Polish legions had fought for Germany and Austria in hope of throwing off the Russian yoke, but they had picked the wrong side.
In 1919 the Treaty of Versailles incorporated Wilson's 13th Point, and Poland once again emerged a free nation. A pathway to the sea -- what the Germans came to call the "Danziger Korridor" -- was established, and the city of Danrig/Gdansk became a "free city" under a high commissioner from the newly created League of Nations.
Alas, the population of Danzig/Gdansk was then overwhelmingly German. From the time Hitler came to power in January 1933, he proclaimed the city and the corridor one of the "crimes" of Versailles; its "recovery" was among his stated aims.
When I reached Danzig/Gdansk on a "hard bench" train from Berlin via Warsaw, the Nazi pressure was well under way. The local "brown shirts" and bully boys were all over town. The pressure kept up, but was not allowed to boil over until Hitler had completed his reincorporation of other German "minorities" in what had been Austria, Czechoslovakia and some smaller bits of Europe.
On Oct. 24, 1938, the Polish ambassador in Berlin was told that the time had come "to speak with Poland about Danzig." The city was German and should return to Germany; Hitler wanted, too, both a highway and a railroad across the Corridor to East Prussia.
The upshot of much diplomatic maneuvering was a pair of unilateral guarantees of Poland by France and Britain, and a public promise in March 1939 of "all support in their power" should it come to war.Hitler raged, publicly promised not to attack "other people" -- and secretly ordered war plans to be made ready. One aim stated in the top-secret document: "Danzig will be proclaimed a part of the Reich territory at the outbreak of hostilities, at the latest." And: "The task of the Wehrmacht is to destroy the Polish armed forces."
As Britain and France dallied over negotiation with the Soviet Union for a mutual pact against Hitler, suddenly, on Aug. 25, 1939, the Hitler-Stalin pact was announced to a startled world. It gave Hitler a free hand in the East. Stalin got a slice of Poland.
At 4:45 a.m. on Sept. 1, 1939, the 11-inch guns of the German battleship Schleswig-Holstein fired the first shot of what became World War II at a Polish ammunition dump near Danzig/Gdansk.
Ill-prepared as they were, Britian and France declared war on Germany. Whatever sympathies the West had for the Polish people (and the United States then was wrapped in the straitjacket of isolationism), it had little reason to praise the Polish government. The parliamentary regime established after Versailles soon had given way to dictatorship of the right.
Poland was Nazi-occupied until mid-1944, when the first Red Army units entered eastern Poland and pushed back the Wehrmacht. Moscow immediately established a puppet provisional government, safely communist in character.It also literally moved Poland west, driving the German population from Danzig/Gdansk and making the city entirely Polish.
The fate of Poland now became a major point of contention between Stalin and the West, a particularly sensitive point for the United States because of its huge Polish-American population. Western efforts at compromise, especially at the Yalta Conference of Roosevelt, Chruchill and Stalin, ended in failure; the Red Army had effective military control of Poland and it intended to establish effective political control. In the end it did.
Ever since, Poland has sparked political recriminations here in the United States. Republicans accused Democrats of "selling out" the Poles; Democrats pointed the finger at Republicans for talking big about "rolling back" communism but doing nothing when the tests came in East Germany (1953), Poland (1956) and Hungary (also 1956). Echoes can still be heard, and more may yet be heard in this election year of 1980.
Now, once again Danzig/Gdansk has been the focus of world attention, a potential flash point in history. The West may implicitly have accepted Poland as being in the Soviet Union's sphere of interest and influence; yet it hopes that, somehow, some way, those remarkable Poles can now hold and even enlarge the concessions they have wrung from the Warsaw government, all without inviting Soviet intervention.
It is a moment to hold one's breath -- and hope.