Sue Cook presents the series that examines listeners' historical queries, exploring avenues of research and uncovering mysteries.
Colonel Józef Beck - the Polish foreign minister who negotiated with Neville Chamberlain
"We have a silver cigarette case given to my father by Colonel Józef Beck in 1939. My father was the Special Branch detective responsible for his protection when in London in 1939. But what happened to Colonel Beck?"
Colonel Józef Beck (1894-1944) became the foreign minister in 1932 in the Polish government headed by General Pilsudski. His main task was to keep Poland on reasonable terms with both Stalin and Hitler. Colonel Beck came to London in April 1939 as a direct result of the unconditional guarantee given to Poland in the House of Commons by the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, on 31 March 1939. Beck arrived to complete the formalities and to gain reassurance that if Poland were attacked by Hitler, Britain would intercede on her behalf.
Throughout the 1930s Poland had had to cope with the expansion of both Germany and Russia. Beck's role was to keep both powers at bay, while trying to persuade the Western European powers of Britain and France to lend Poland their support.
Chamberlain, though chary of foreigners, found Beck impressive, someone with whom he was prepared to do business. As we know, Poland was overrun by Germany in September 1939, and Britain declared war on Germany. The Polish Government members fled. After the September campaign, about 60,000 officials including Government ministers were able to cross over the border to Hungary and Romania, where they were interned. Beck spent the war years in Romania. He was there until 1944 when he died, aged 50 - it is thought from tuberculosis.
Colonel Beck had many contemporary critics both inside and outside Poland. He was regarded by some as an inflexible figure. The UK criticised his refusal to allow the Red Army to set foot on Polish territory as a means of threatening Germany. Beck felt that, once allowed in, the Red Army would never leave. History has proved him right. Over the years historians were rather divided in their assessment of Beck, but nowadays there would appear to be more appreciation of the predicament in which he and Poland found themselves in the late 1930s. He and his country were squeezed between the two most ruthless dictators of the 20th century, both of whom were determined to destroy Poland. Beck had little room for manoeuvre and did the best he could in those tragic circumstances.
Peter D. Stachura, Poland, 1918-1945: An Interpretive and Documentary History of the Second Republic (Routledge, 2004)
Richard M. Watt, Bitter Glory: Poland and Its Fate 1918 to 1939 (Hippocrene Books, 1998)
Vanessa has presented science and current affairs programmes for BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5 and Discovery and has presented for BBC Radio 4 & Five Live and a regular contributor to the Daily Telegraph and the Mail on Sunday, Scotsman and Sunday Herald.
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