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Betrayal of Britain- The New Poland and parallels with 1914 and 1939

A military crossing of a border uninvited, unauthorised by the UN, not in pre-emptive defence of an imminent attack is an invasion. It is illegal. The sanctity of internationally recognised borders is the most fundamental rule of international law.

Putin did not stop with the Crimea. The significant Russian population in Eastern Ukraine, deeply troubled by the pro-West overthrow of Yanukovych and inspired by the triumph in Crimea, rose up in armed revolt. They declared independence.

Open warfare ensued between the new Ukrainian government and the rebels in Eastern Ukraine. The rebels held significant territory. There were accusations that the rebels were supported by the Russian government.

The Rubicon was crossed in summer 2014 when convoys, supposedly humanitarian, crossed from Russia into Eastern Ukraine. The Ukrainian government did not have nerve or the physical presence at the border to stop them. Thereafter, convoys from Russia have crossed with impunity. The NATO Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, Philip Breedlove, has declared that Russian troops were in Eastern Ukraine. The US Army estimates that there are 12,000 Russian troops in Ukraine. There is little doubt that Russia has supported the rebels in Eastern Ukraine and has supplied their own troops and equipment into Eastern Ukraine. They have crossed the border of a sovereign state. That is invasion.

The rights of nation states to have their borders respected are unequivocal. The responsibilities of the West are unequivocal. This should apply across the globe, but let us accept the bare minimum to avoid controversy or uncertainty. Two world wars were fought to preserve the borders of Europe – the First World War to enshrine the borders of Western Europe; the Second to secure those of Eastern Europe.

During the Cold War, the world knew that the slightest breach of a border between East and West raised the realistic spectre of nuclear holocaust. Stalin could attempt to starve West Berlin (an island of democracy in a sea of communist dictatorships) but even he did not have the courage to cross the border. Similarly, when Berlin was encircled by a murderous Wall, the West could only watch and condemn – they dare not breach the border.

The parallel of 1914

A century ago, war not expected. There had been rumblings for years between i) Germany, jealous of the empires and navies of her imperial rivals, ii) Austria-Hungary, all too aware of the rising nationalism within its sprawling territories, iii) France, straining to revenge the defeat by Germany in 1870 and recover its lost province of Alsace-Lorraine, iv) Russia, desperate to unite a country recently torn by revolution and humiliation by Japan in war, and v) Great Britain who only desired peace and the status quo in Europe. Despite the Balkan wars and the intricate web of alliances between the  Great Powers, the only war expected in the summer of 1914 was the imminent outbreak of civil war in Ireland.

The heir to the Austrian throne had been assassinated in Sarajevo on 28 June and Europe held its breath. Nothing happened. Britain mourned the death of Joseph Chamberlain (father of Neville); a peace conference was arranged at Buckingham Palace – not on Serbia but on Ireland.

All that changed on 23 July, when Austria-Hungary issued its ultimatum to Serbia (accused of sponsoring the assassins). Either Russia’s ally Serbia would be humiliated or Germany’s ally Austria-Hungary would be humiliated. Neither side of the Alliance fence could afford to back down. Despite Britain’s Entente Cordiale with France and the Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey’s, secret military discussions with the French, there was no obligation to go to war if France fought the Germans. After all, Britain had skilfully stood aside in 1870 when France and Prussia had gone to war.

There is no need to detail the frantic to-ings and fro-ings between the Great Powers ultimately leading to the outbreak of World War I a few weeks later. Suffice it to say that the declarations of war by Russia, Germany, France and Austria-Hungary brought intense pressure on Great Britain to accept the inevitable and join the war. The government and the country were not so sure.

The cabinet was divided. The Germans decided the issue for Great Britain. The German war plan required access through the plains of Belgium to outflank France. The Germans requested free passage of their armies through Belgium. The Belgium government refused. Germany invaded Belgium and Luxembourg. The fact that Britain had guaranteed the independence of Belgium in the Treat of London of 1839 (Palmerston’s handiwork) was a technicality. The impact on British public opinion of the invasion by Germany on Belgium, a small and neutral country, was profound. The Germans ignored the ultimatum to withdraw and Great Britain declared war at 11pm on 4 August 1914.

The county was suddenly united. Whilst two cabinet ministers resigned, this was more on pacifist grounds, the main political parties and the vast majority of the population accepted that the war had to be fought and had to be won. Britain had been dragged into the war at the last minute and only did so because the fundamental principle of international law had been broken – you cannot go around invading things.

Britain went to war to defend the sovereignty of “plucky Belgium”. Throughout the war, the British were proud that their enormous sacrifice was to defend the rights of weak nations from a big bully. To their eternal credit, these basic notions of justice and fair play struck a deep chord.

The parallel of 1939

World War II was no different. We had belatedly recognised the dangers of Hitler and guaranteed Polish sovereignty, recognising that Poland was next in Hitler’s sights.

Hitler was undeterred. He had felt cheated out of his war by the Munich Agreement and pressed on with claims to return the free city of Danzig with its predominantly German population to Germany  and removal of Polish access to the sea through the Polish Corridor. When British attempts to form a military alliance with the Soviet Union failed, Stalin sought security elsewhere. With the announcement of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between Germany and the Soviet Union on 23 August 1939, war with Poland was certain.

Hitler organised a sham attack on a radio station by polish prisoners on the German side of the border. With this pretext of Polish aggression against Germany, Germany invaded Poland on 1 September 1939. Nobody, even in Germany, was taken in by the mock pretext. With the unequivocal breach of Polish sovereignty by Germany, Great Britain and France made good on their guarantees to Poland and declared war on Germany on Sunday 3 September 1939.

Hitler had been an evil dictator for six and half years. Only a year before, when no one could be in any doubt about the brutal nature of the Nazi regime, Britain and France had breathed a huge sigh of relief when war had been averted. No matter how despicable, the affairs of Germany were the affairs of Germany. What could never be tolerated was invading other countries and becoming master of Europe.

In World War I and World War II the triggers were unequivocal breaches of territorial sovereignty by big European states against smaller ones and the fundamental dislocation in the European balance of power that would result. As a consequence, both wars were overwhelmingly supported by the population and all the main political parties. As a consequence, British citizens were willing to lay down their lives, work themselves to exhaustion and keep going through the darkest of days and valleys of despair until victory was secured.

About John Hartigan

Profile photo of John Hartigan
John Hartigan is author of Betrayal of Britain: How politics failed Great Britain in the early 21st Century now available on Amazon. Founder of the AskBritain movement to restore voters' rights to consent to constitutional change. He is a member of the Labour Party and candidate in local elections. His postgraduate research on the World War One volunteers was published in Midland History. Chartered accountant, former bank manager

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2 comments

  1. Profile photo of Isaac Anderson

    Hi John,

    I really enjoyed reading this, and I always like to read about the politics leading up and into the First World War. I don’t typically like making historical parallels, but I agree that in this case it is hard to avoid. Would you say that there are similarities between the UK not feeling required to defend Sudetenland/Czeckoslovakia & Serbia was because we hadn’t promised to defend them by treaty?

    In such a scenario, it would explain why Belgium and Poland were the ‘red lines’, as we had given our national word that they would remain free. I think it might also help us understand why Russia has gone into Ukraine, and Georgia but not the Baltic States, as the latter are NATO allies and therefore ‘red-lined’.

    A question, though; do you think the UK feels sufficiently attached to the freedom of the Baltic States? Or would that just be “a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing” as Neville Chamberlain put it?

    Isaac

    • Isaac

      Thank you for your kind comments.

      You raise an important point about the role of treaty obligations. This will vary in each case, but my overall view is that specific treaty (e.g. being a member of NATO) obligations make the defence of sovereign states from invasion an explicit and unequivocal duty but the right of sovereign states not to be invaded is clear enough under international law irrespective of additional treaty obligations. There was no treaty obligation (as far as I am aware) to defend the sovereignty of Kuwait or South Korea, but invading them is wrong under international law. In both of these cases specific resolutions by UN provided further clarity.

      Pre-Un and formalised international law, the same principles have broadly applied. In 1914 with respect to Belgium, I suspect UK would have reacted in exactly the same way even if the 1839 treaty guarantee did not exist. The invasion of a small, neutral country on our doorstep by an aggressive and powerful neighbour (Germany), goes to the heart of the British sense of justice and “fair play” – more of this in the final chapter of Betrayal of Britain. Hence, the UK response was emotional (dealing with a bully) rather than technical (breach of treaty obligations).

      The Sudetenland presented the same problem – the threat to Czech sovereignty – irrespective of specific treaty obligations. There is little doubt we would have gone to war in 1938 (trenches being dug in Hyde Park) albeit reluctantly. Hence, the overwhelming sense of relief when Chamberlain grabbed at the opportunity to avoid war at Munich. It was only with Hitler’s swallowing of the rest of Czechoslovakia in March 1939 that it became clear to all that Munich had been a mistake and war could not long be avoided. I think the guarantee to Poland was a last ditch attempt to preserve peace. If we hadn’t issued the guarantee, all knew that Hitler now had to be stopped and I think we would have still gone to war.

      Should the Baltic States be invaded then, irrespective of NATO or other treaty obligations, the breach of international law would be unequivocal. Russia would no doubt veto a UN resolution, but the West would be entitled and should defend the sovereignty of European states.

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