Opportunities Missed; High Prices Paid

By Barry Rubin

In March 1933, after Hitler took power in Germany, the Polish government sent to Paris a trusted envoy to ask the French government whether Paris would support Warsaw if Germany attacked Poland. The French leaders understood what this meant: Poland was proposing a preventive war against Hitler. They said no, though in that event they would supply equipment, advisors, and public support. At that time, Polish forces were two and a half times larger than Germany’s army and, if the French had participated the two allies would have had far more than a ten to one advantage.

Obviously, the French government knew that Hitler could be easily overthrown but they wondered—as Richard Watt wrote in Bitter Glory, a history of Poland: “Would the French people support such an adventure, would world opinion tolerate such an affair, and what would they do with Germany” after defeating it?

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At the time, of course, they didn’t know that failing to overthrow Hitler would lead to a six-year-long world war in which tens of millions of people would die, followed by the Soviet occupation of Poland and many other countries for an additional 45 years.

There are many parallels to such problems today. The controversial U.S. invasion of Iraq, based on such considerations, seriously damaged domestic and international support for the Bush administration. Israel knows it cannot secure international support for bringing down Hamas in Gaza, facing tremendous criticism for a far more limited military operation with far lesser results.

Such circumstances are difficult since many will deny that the feared outcome will take place and hoping that either inaction or other means will resolve conflicts. Only years, even decades, later—and only if the worst outcome occurs—can one say that things should have been managed differently.

Today, however, one thing is clear. Iran, Syria, and Russia, too, are acting in an aggressive manner. Few are willing to confront them decisively. But at least they should be discouraged from believing they can attain easy victories. As they grow stronger, the dangers will become more apparent. Unfortunately, time will also become shorter. And Germany never had nuclear weapons; Iran may well soon

A year after refusing the Polish plan to overthrow Hitler, the French foreign minister visited Warsaw to convince the Poles that his country would stand firm against Hitler. “I have had enough of these concessions,” he declared, “The Germans must feel that we will not yield one step more.”

Poland’s leader, Josef Pilusudski, replied: “You will yield, gentlemen, you will yield. You would not be what you are if you did not.”

One year later, Hitler announced publicly what had already been done secretly—the creation of a German air force and the expansion of his military from 100,000 to 550,000 men—in violation of the Versailles Treaty ending World War One. No other country protested.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), with Walter Laqueur (Viking-Penguin); the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan); A Chronological History of Terrorism, with Judy Colp Rubin, (Sharpe); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley). To read and subscribe to MERIA and other GLORIA Center publications or to order books, write me at [email protected].