When Poland seized territories from Czechoslovakia before being invaded by Germany in World War II

Poland has gone down in World War II history as the first victim of Nazi military expansionism, after the annexation of Austria and the Sudetenland. However, the image of a peaceful country invaded first by the Germans and then by the Soviets has to be qualified, and a lot because it does not correspond to reality.

As we saw a couple of days ago in the article on the Intermariumthe Polish government had spent decades trying to materialize what it called Międzymorze, a union of Central and Eastern European countries with the aim of becoming a continental power and, in the process, weakening their Russian neighbors. Likewise, he had no problem joining Hitler in scrapping Czechoslovakia.

Of course, that spoil did not arrive just because; It obeyed a series of territorial claims exercised since 1918 in which a third nation, Hungary, also participated, and affected the regions of Silesia Cieszyński, Orawa and Spisz. They were border areas and, therefore, inhabited by a multiplicity of ethnic groups, which historically used to lead to conflicts. The northern part, the Gorales or highlands, which occupied the Podhale region, had strong cultural and linguistic links with Poland.

Thus, from the end of the 19th century there was a romantic movement that claimed its incorporation, even when the inhabitants of the area lacked a Polish national consciousness and, in any case, the Slovak one was more influential; except in Orava because there the population was mostly Catholic and served by Polish priests. But when World War I ended, the Polish state’s claim to Silesia ran into a rival: Czechoslovakia.

The Czechs were not only interested for historical reasons but also for other reasons of a different nature. To begin with, the economic ones, since Silesia was a place of great mining and industrial wealth: coal, iron, steel mills… Something to take into account for the other reasons, the strategic ones, since Czechoslovakia was in an armed conflict with the Hungarian Soviet Republic. (a dictatorship of the proletariat that barely lasted a few months in 1919), which tried to recover part of Slovakia; and it so happened that the main means of transport for Czech troops was a railway that crossed precisely that region.

Meanwhile, to cope with the situation, Silesia was governed by two local councils: the Rada Narodowa Księstwa Cieszyńskiego (Polish) and the Czech Národní výbor pro Slezsko (Czech). In 1919 and before the impossibility of reaching an agreement, both were absorbed respectively by the governments of Warsaw and Prague. But the problems were not limited to Silesia.

Map of historic Silesia, straddling Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Germany/Image: Lommes on Wikimedia Commons

In the autumn of 1918 the National Council of Poles of Upper Orava proclaimed itself and a few days later the Polish army entered Spisz. He had to retire in December due to international pressure but he not only returned six months later but also extended to Orava. However, the Poles had to attend to two fronts, since they were also at war with the Ukraine, and it was too much for their potential. Therefore, after some minor war clashes and a promise of a referendum that was never carried out, Poland and Czechoslovakia agreed to arbitration.

This was carried out first at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference and then at the Spa (Belgium) Conference in July 1920. The result was that the Czechs received the western part of the disputed territories while the Poles stayed. with the east As Warsaw was not satisfied, it appealed to the international court of justice of the Council of the League of Nations, which on March 12, 1924 made some adjustments in the distribution and established what were to be the final borders.

Map of Czechoslovakia in 1928/Image: Wikimedia Commons

In fact, they are the ones that remain until today (although Poland still claims some points) after being confirmed in a bilateral treaty on April 24, 1925. It seemed that, at least for the most part, everything was solved; but in a few years the house of cards would collapse with the irruption of Nazi Germany.

In May 1938 Hitler launched his troops with the aim of annexing the Sudetenland (a German-speaking part of Czechoslovakia), which he ended up doing in September despite international opposition after diplomatically fighting the premier British Neville Chamberlain.

The Czechs mobilized for the defense but then a third looming contender came into play: Poland. Józef Beck’s government was not willing to lose the part of the cake that it coveted so much and that for the moment, on September 27, materialized in the eight hundred square kilometers and quarter of a million inhabitants of the Silesian district of Tesin, after Polish troops sent an ultimatum to Prague demanding the surrender and evacuation of their men.

Another image of the Polish occupation of Tesin/Photo: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

Germany did not put any trouble because that way it discharged responsibility on others and two days later it signed the Munich Agreement with France, Great Britain and Italy, by which the Sudetenland was handed over to it in exchange for leaving the rest of the country alone… which it should negotiate with Poland and Hungary their claims. Because the Poles received still more cessions on November 1 (Zaolzie and the surroundings of Lesnica and Skalité), while the Hungarians, who also wanted their share, took the region of Transcarpathian Ruthenia, which they considered to have been taken from them by the Treaty of Trianon of 1920.

Was there a way to make things more complicated? There was, indeed, because the Slovaks demanded their independence and the government in Prague had to grant them broad autonomy, in addition to changing the name of the country to make dual nationality more explicit, renaming it Czech-Slovakia. All this before the impassive gaze of Paris and London, which limited themselves to accusing Poland and Hungary of collusion with the Nazis.

The Munich Agreement: Chamberlain, Daldier, Hitler, Mussolini and Ciano/Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R69173, on Wikimedia Commons

But the Slovaks did not conform and on March 14, 1939, supported by Germany, they proclaimed secession and the creation of the Slovak Republic. Czechoslovakia was thus disintegrated; what remained became the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, a puppet state of Germany, like the Slovakian one.

The latter counted on Hitler’s promise of protection against the predatory desires of Poland and Hungary, but the latter pounced on it on March 23 and after the so-called Little War managed to snatch a thousand and a half kilometers from him without Berlin lifting a finger; he again shared responsibilities.

And Poland? She couldn’t enjoy much of his achievements. Stalin, partly irritated with France and Britain for being kept out of the Munich Agreement, in August signed the famous Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, a bilateral non-aggression agreement with Hitler (similar to the one he had signed earlier with Beck) that in practice it left the Poles at the mercy of Germany. In fact, not only Germany. Indeed, on September 1, the Luftwaffe began the invasion, finishing it in just over a month, on October 6.

The situation in Czecho-Slovakia in 1938/Image: Druha on Wikimedia Commons

But it was not the only one; The Soviet Union also joined the party, occupying the eastern part of the country on the 17th, and one more unexpected contender, the Slovak Republic, which sent three divisions under the name of bernolak to recover the border area that the Poles had kept after the Munich Agreement. Poland had sown winds and now reaped storms.


Central Europe. Enemies, neighbors, friends (Lonnie Johnson)/The Slovak–Polish border, 1918-1947 (Marcel Jesensky)/The great powers and Poland. From Versailles to Yalta (Jan Karski)/Wikipedia