POLISH DIPLOMACY, 1914 - September 1939
Piotr S. Wandycz
This is the first instalment of Prof. Wandycz's lecture POLISH DIPLOMACY, 1914-1945. Aims and Achievements, delivered on October 21, 1987 at the University of London. The second part, covering the time period from September 1939 to 1945 and Closing Remarks for the entire lecture, are available in the 'Poland - WW2' section of the Electronic Museum Canada.
Copyright © 1988 Piotr S. Wandycz
[the contents of any particular reference in the text of this article may be accessed by 'clicking' on the number of that reference provided in square brackets]
The term 'diplomacy', as Harold Nicolson reminds in his brilliant little volume on the subject, has different meanings. It is used as a synonym for foreign policy, it signifies negotiation or the process and machinery of international intercourse, it applies to the branch of the foreign ministry or refers to skilful conduct of affairs. In this presentation, the term will chiefly be used in the sense of foreign policy broadly conceived, comprising theoretical foundation, and its execution. The term 'diplomatic' will appear chiefly in contrast to terms 'military' or 'economic'.
Foreign policy implies the existence of a state and a government, yet in the Polish case neither existed between 1914 and 1918. During the two and a half years, which followed, there was a government in Warsaw, but the shape and nature of the state was still somewhat fluid. Thus, it is only during the twenty years of the interwar period that one can speak of a 'normal' diplomacy exerted on behalf of a 'normally' functioning member of the international community. Then, during the Second World War, a novel and unusual situation arose. Polish state territory was occupied and partitioned, but an internationally recognized government functioned on foreign soil, first in Angers (France), then in London. As one readily sees, Polish diplomacy had to operate during a good part of the 1914-1945 period under conditions, which differed greatly from those of an average European state. When one examines its aims and achievements, this has to be borne in mind.
The outbreak of the First World War found Polish lands under the rule of three different powers, two of which (Germany and Austria) were struggling against the third (Russia). This constellation created a great opportunity for the Poles seeking to regain unity and independence. The question arose, however, whether one could achieve both. Did unity, or independence, claim priority? Which belligerent side offered greater hopes of fulfillment of Polish aims? Finally, in view of the fact that the old Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth had been dismembered some hundred and twenty years ago, what constituted Poland in the second decade of the XXth century?
If one discounts the ephemeral Austro-Polish approach (for which Poland's future lay in a union with the Habsburg monarchy), and the somewhat marginal revolutionary current, two major Polish trends and political centres emerged. The right grouped around Roman Dmowski, who regarded the nation and its self-realization as the supreme goal. The nation - he believed - guided by self-interest, had to struggle for its survival. Seeking a Poland based on Polish ethnic masses, Dmowski viewed the old, multi-ethnic and gentry-ruled Commonwealth as anachronistic. Modern Poland had to be Western, not Eastern oriented; populist Piast, not noble Jagiellonian. Thus, denouncing a good part of Polish history, Dmowski followed his older associate and mentor, Jan Popławski, in the belief that even, if Polish struggles for freedom had:
This amounted to a repudiation of the traditional connection between the Polish cause and the struggle of the oppressed nations of Europe against forces of reaction, embodied in tsarist Russia.
Reversing the traditional Polish strategy on ideological grounds, Dmowski argued that Prussia, which had annexed the core of Polish lands, was the number one enemy. Prussia's rise to greatness was achieved on the ruins of Poland, and it resulted in a domination of Germany. The German Empire became a threat to Russia and indeed to the European balance of power. Hence, Poland's cause was inextricably linked with anti-Germanism, and Dmowski's objective was to tie it with the Franco-Russian alliance. At the beginning of the war, he could speak only of unity under Russia's aegis, although he assumed that a united Poland would be large enough gradually to gain independence. He stressed Poland's greatness, arguing that to anyone familiar with European political geography there was no room for a small and weak state between Germany and Russia. By great, he meant not only territorially, but also in terms of national vision and dynamic will, thus distinguishing between the Polish nation and the little nationalities (narodki) of the Habsburg monarchy.
Establishing his headquarters in the West in late 1915, Dmowski strove to become Poland's spokesman in the allied camp and elevate the Polish question to an international level. His task was not easy. He had to play down the likely loss of Eastern Galicia to Russia; he feared a compromise peace which could produce another partition of Polish lands. As Russian defeats began - and Dmowski retrospectively claimed that he intuitively expected Russia to weaken by the end of the war - he spoke boldly of Poland's independence. Although he did not foresee the Russian revolutions, they enabled him to use another argument in favour of a Great Poland. Only a power could be a barrier between Soviet Russia and Germany; a weak state would be merely a bridge.
Developing his programme of reconstruction of the continent in a privately published pamphlet , Dmowski advocated that the Germans be pushed back to their ethnic territory, and the Habsburg monarchy, which he termed 'an ulcer', destroyed. A non-Germanic Central Europe comprising national and some multinational states would help in: ... safeguarding the European equilibrium and the future peace.
For all his ability and diligence, Dmowski could not shape the course of international events. He had not caused the first Russian proclamation to the Poles of August 1914, and he was taken by surprise by the French president's decree of June 1917, establishing a Polish army in France. But he capitalized on these developments. He also played skillfully on allied fears of a large Polish army to be formed by the Germans in the wake of the Two Emperors' Manifesto (November 1916). Dmowski proved largely successful in gaining a real monopoly of Poland's representation in the West, although Ignacy Paderewski's efforts in the United States were, by and large, independently pursued. The formation of the Polish National Committee (Komitet Narodowy Polski) in August 1917 endowed the Dmowski-led diplomatic activity with a more formal status. Between September and November of that year, the Committee was recognized by France, Britain, Italy and the United States as the official Polish representation in the West.
Dmowski, a thinker and political strategist, often seen as Poland's unofficial foreign minister during the First World War, is usually contrasted with Jozef Piłsudski - the military leader. There is some truth in this generalization, but not absolute truth. Dmowski did not underestimate the importance of the military means, nor did Piłsudski ever neglect politics. Endowed with qualities of charismatic leadership - stressed by foes and critics alike - he was a LEADER in more ways than one. It would be a mistake to take seriously Piłsudski's utterance to Cracow conservatives in the winter of 1914:
Piłsudski became a soldier, when he had come to the conclusion that the armed struggle was the only way leading to Poland's independence, and INDEPENDENCE was Piłsudski's key word. But to the end of his life he lived and breathed politics, showing an uncanny ability to sense developments and approach them as a master tactician.
Piłsudski's insistence on the force of arms was politically and morally motivated. He fulminated against the heritage od Partitions, which made the Poles passive and submissive. To regenerate morally, and to throw off the corrupting effect of the Partitions, the Poles could not stand by and wait for decisions to be taken by outsiders. They had to fight. But would a Polish military effort matter, when million-strong armies were battling for victory? Here, Piłsudski reckoned that the belligerents would be so exhausted by the end of the war that even a small Polish force could, at a critical moment, seize the initiative and create accomplished facts.
Piłsudski's strategy was in a sense bolder, and seemingly less consistent, than Dmowski's. By aligning himself for purely tactical reasons with the Central Powers, he pursued the traditional Polish struggle against Russia, but he excluded no options. Although he insisted that one could not calculate with any certainty the course of the war, he thought it likely that superior German technology would defeat Russia during the first phase of the struggle, and then the Central Powers would succumb to the greater potential of the Entente. This meant that the Poles would go first against Russia and then turn against the Central Powers. Piłsudski was careful to establish some links with the West being, as he put it:
An independent Poland, he said:
Fighting on the German-Austrian side against Russia, Piłsudski conducted from the very beginning a subtle policy of preserving and increasing his independence. This was a complex political poker, played with the Central Powers, in which the stakes were raised whenever possible, especially when Russia seemed no longer a real threat to Poland. Even though confined to the homeland, it was clearly a diplomatic game with all the subterfuges and nuances one usually associates with it. The other, less known feature of Piłsudski's diplomacy, related to the Entente powers. From 1914, such emissaries of his camp, as August Zaleski in London, Władysław Baranowski in Rome, or Aleksander Dębski in the United States, sought to explain the reasons for Polish cooperation with the Central Powers. Michał Sokolnicki acted as a kind of 'foreign minister' of this group. The West was being told of Polish motivation for endorsing the Provisional Council of State, and later the Regency Council set up in Warsaw by the occupying Germans and Austrians.
Since these representations ran, naturally, counter to the line taken by the Polish National Committee, an inter-Polish strife developed in the West. In the United States, the Paderewski-led camp was clashing with the pro-Piłsudski Committee of National Defence (Komitet Obrony Narodowej, KON). The leftist groups accused the Polish National Committee of representing the forces of reaction and anti-Semitism. This unedifying struggle was damaging to Poland's cause, yet few leaders could rise above partisanship as did Erazm Piltz (of Dmowski's Committee), when he wrote that Poles should work for their country with equal zeal on both sides of the barricade, but be careful not to harm each other. In these conditions, the image of a deliberate Polish division of roles between pro-Entente and pro-Central Powers, projected by some historians, appears very much an a posteriori construction.
Each of the two Polish centres was scoring successes and suffering defeats. The ideological stage of the war, introduced by the revolutions in Russia and the American belligerency, proved most conductive for the cause of Polish freedom. In an atmosphere of a crusade for freedom and democracy came the two statements of Pres. Woodrow Wilson (particularly the Fourteen Points), the proclamation of the Russian Provisional Government, and the manifesto of the Petrograd Soviet of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies. These declarations, as well as the official allied statement of June 1918, calling an independent Poland an element of peace, naturally stemmed from international considerations, which transcended the Polish case. Yet, they would hardly have been made, were it not for the relentless pressure, exerted by Polish diplomacy. By this time, a veritable Polish diplomatic service was being born. Alongside the already-mentioned representatives of the Piłsudski camp in the West, there grew a much larger diplomatic network, operating under the Polish National Committee. It included such people, as Stanisław Kozicki, Władysław Sobański in London, Erazm Piltz in Paris, or Konstanty Skirmunt in Rome. The rudimentary Polish statehood, arising within the Congress Kingdom (as the Russian portion of the partitioned Poland was known at at that time) under German-Austrian occupation, comprised a cabinet and within it a Political Department - dominated by conservatives - which by October 1916 assumed the name of Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Stanisław Głąbiński was at its helm. Unable thus far to exert any real diplomatic functions, the Ministry was preparing a cadre of Polish diplomats. All these developments facilitated the task of improvisation within an independent Poland emerging in November 1918.
Some historians, especially in the West, have argued that Poland, re-emerging in 1918, owed her independence exclusively to a fortuitous combination of circumstances - the disintegration of Austro-Hungary removed one of the partitioning powers, while the collapse of Germany and the revolutions in Russia temporarily paralysed the remaining two. The efforts of the Poles appear almost superfluous, and are written off as inconsequential. This is indeed a distorted picture. Polish efforts to regain independence and unity had been in evidence since the Partitions. From the late XVIIIth century, the Poles had fought in six uprisings and one revolution. While the Polish question lost its international character in the last decades of the XIXth century, the war of 1914-1918 naturally revived it. But the favourable circumstances would have remained an empty frame, were it not for the efforts of Dmowski, Paderewski and Piłsudski, which filled it with a living content.
In mid-November 1918 Piłsudski assumed power in Warsaw, and notified (Nov. 16, 1918) the Entente of the re-emergence of an independent Polish State. At that point only a small part of what used to be pre-Partitions Poland was under effective control of Warsaw. In Eastern Galicia, the Poles were locked in combat with the Ukrainians. The former German provinces, even after the successful Wielkopolska Uprising, remained apart awaiting the verdict of the Peace Conference. In the eastern borderlands, chaos prevailed. Piłsudski's authority as the temporary chief of state and commander-in-chief in Poland was at first not recognized by the Allies. The French pressed for the recognition of Dmowski's Polish National Committee as a provisional government, backed by its own armed force in France - the so-called Haller's Army. This kind of dualism, which could be fatal for Poland, was fortunately overcome, at least formally, by the mediation of Ignacy Paderewski. By early January 1919, a compromise had been reached. Piłsudski remained chief of state, Paderewski became premier, foreign minister and the chief delegate at the Peace Conference in Paris. Dmowski became the second delegate, and his Committee recognized as Poland's official representation in Paris.
The compromise did not resolve the question of who was really in charge of Polish diplomacy. Piłsudski wished to have a special counselling organ in Warsaw to direct foreign policy, but no such body materialized. His delegates, sent to join the Committee in Paris, found themselves largely powerless, since Dmowski made it clear that only his point of view would be represented at the Conference. Thus, the compromise could not mask the existence of very real differences between Piłsudski and Dmowski on the shape and the position of the reborn Polish State. A de facto dualism undermined the credibility of the Polish position.
Both, Piłsudski and Dmowski agreed on the goal of a large and strong Poland. Was Poland: ... to be a state equal to the great world powers, or a little state in need of the protection of the mighty? - Piłsudski asked. And he called for an all-out effort to turn the wheel of history so far that Poland:
Piłsudski and Dmowski, however, differed basically on how that was to be accomplished, with Paderewski finding himself closer to Piłsudski's position. Seeking borders which would, by necessity go beyond purely ethnic Polish territory, unless the country were to be reduced to a new version of the Duchy of Warsaw, Dmowski adopted as the criterion Polish cultural and economic presence, in addition to population figures. That meant going beyond the 1772 borders in the west by the inclusion of parts of Silesia and East Prussia, and giving up territories in the east, annexed by Russia in the First and Second Partitions. The reborn Poland would be a unitary, centralized state except for ethnic Lithuania, which would receive cultural autonomy. That was the territorial programme, presented in Paris.
The Paris Peace Conference, concentrating on the treaty with Germany, had to resolve first the issue of the new German-Polish border. The French supported Dmowski's claims, wishing to make Poland an anti-German bastion and a powerful ally. The British and, to a lesser extent, the Americans opposed a settlement, which they viewed as too unfavourable to Germany. Did Piłsudski, as it is sometimes asserted, show no interest in the drawing of the western borders, regarding them as a 'present' of the Entente? Did his alleged neglect of the western settlement stem from a concentration of all his efforts on the east, and result in hurting Polish chances in Upper Silesia, Gdańsk (Danzig) and East Prussia. Was the later Polish capitulation at Spa in the summer of 1920 a by-product of Piłsudski's foolhardy ventures in the east?
Less partisan research has shown that Piłsudski, while recognizing the obvious fact that the final German-Polish settlement would mainly depend on the Allied policy toward Germany, was very much interested in the drawing of the western borders. A stronger position in the west would allow Poland to pursue a more vigorous policy in the east; the more powerful the state would become, the greater the chances for promoting his eastern design. No one denied a west-east connection. The Piłsudskites, and later Paderewski, reproached Dmowski that by his policy of complete reliance on France he was, in fact, harming Polish chances vis-a-vis the United States and Britain, who were likely to have the decisive voice at the Conference. Dmowski's illusion that it lay in British interest to support Poland, a mistake he later acknowledged, combined with his general approach, which was bound to antagonize Wilson, and especially Lloyd George. At a time, when the principle of national self-determination was reigning supreme - at least in theory - Dmowski's goal of absorbing and ultimately digesting non-Polish nationalities could find little support. His Great Poland would have included some forty or more percent of Ukrainians, Belorussians, Lithuanians, Germans, Jews etc. Would not such a multi-ethnic construction be more easily endorsed by the Entente in the form of a large federation and not a unitary state? That was Paderewski's idea, and already toward the end of the war he had tried to win over Wilson and the Americans to the somewhat extravagant plan of a United States of Poland.
Piłsudski did not view Paderewski's 'federalism' as realistic or applicable in practice. He mused about the 'doors in the east', which opened and closed blown by the gales of the civil war, and the struggle of nationalities in the former tsarist empire. While fighting the Bolsheviks, Piłsudski aimed at the creation of a large bloc under Polish leadership, bound by federative ties or links of alliance - he had no exact blueprint - which would significantly increase the distance between Germany and Russia. Invoking the Jagiellonian past, he appealed in Wilno to the population of the former Grand Duchy of Lithuania to determine its own fate. In 1920, he concluded an alliance with the Ukraine of Semen Petlura. This 'federalist' policy implied certain sacrifices. Piłsudski was ready to abandon Wilno to a Lithuania federated with Poland, and to make some concessions in Eastern Galicia. Dmowski passionately opposed all of this. To him, a federated Poland would be a weak, not a strong state; Russia, pushed out of the Ukraine, would be an eternal enemy and the Ukrainians themselves would cooperate with Germany against the Poles.
Thus, the positions of Piłsudski and Dmowski at the time of the Paris Peace Conference were irreconcilable. This remains true, even if Piłsudski was willing to accept a Dmowski-proposed frontier in the east, if everything else failed. The thesis advanced by some historians about division of roles - Dmowski winning the western borders by diplomacy, and Piłsudski the eastern frontiers by the sword - is not only too pat, but misleading. If anything, Dmowski's position on federalism and national self-expression of Lithuanians and Ukrainians hurt Polish chances in general. Piłsudski's Wilno proclamation was acclaimed in Paris and skillfully exploited by Paderewski, but Dmowski's national democratic camp did everything to undermine its credibility. As Tytus Komarnicki had rightly remarked, to oppose the successful use of federalism by the Soviets by a policy of annexation and assimilation was: ... setting back the clock of history . The Entente, as well as the interested nationalities were perfectly well aware of this dualism. It proved all too easy to accuse the Poles of imperialism. Any talks with the Lithuanians and Ukrainians were rendered more difficult by the latter's fears that at any moment the Polish 'annexationist' trend might prevail over the 'federalist'.
Dmowski was not only unjustifiably suspicious of Warsaw, but he was increasingly out of tune with the mood at the Peace Conference, and taken aback by some of its decisions. Were the Polish defeats on such matters as Gdańsk (Danzig), Upper Silesia and Eastern Prussia - which a last minute Paderewski's rescue mission failed to avert - owing to the Jewish lobby in Paris? Dmowski believed so. An influential Jewish lobby, of course, existed but it was concerned mainly with the eastern territories, where the vast majority of Jews lived. Lewis Namier, whom Dmowski singled out for criticism, supported Polish claims vis-a-vis Germany and opposed them in Eastern Galicia. Yet, Lloyd George agreed with him only with regard to the latter. It is obvious that British, not Jewish interests were the decisive factor, and Polish defeats were largely a result of an Anglo-American victory over the French. Dmowski did not prove to be either a masterly diplomat, or a good tactician, which has been noted at different times even by such associates, as Stanisław Grabski and Juliusz Zdanowski.
True, there was not much that he could have accomplished regarding Polish eastern frontiers, which the Peace Conference was reluctant to deal with in the absence of a recognized Russian government. It was not even certain, which states would border Poland in the east. Yet, one thing appears clear, namely that Dmowski overestimated the willingness of the Russians to acquiesce in the division of the borderlands along the line of the Second Partition. The Allied declaration of December 8, 1919 on the temporary delimitation of purely Polish territories (the basis of the future Curzon Line) was influenced by the anti-Bolshevik Russians, who would not concede to Poland anything beyond the old Congress Kingdom.
Does this necessarily mean that the Piłsudski alternative was correct all along, and it means not only 'federalism' but also his handling of the controversial question of peace and war against Soviet Russia? Did Poland had the possibility of concluding a lasting peace with the Bolsheviks in early 1920, which would have left her with better borders than those subsequently achieved at Riga? Being in the possession of Mińsk and Wilno, the Poles would have been in a better position toward Lithuania. Having concluded peace, they would have avoided the concessions, made at Spa, and could have resolved in a more advantageous manner the question of the Cieszyn (Teschen) controversy and the East Prussian plebiscites. On the other hand, one can argue that freed from the Polish danger, the Bolsheviks would have liquidated more quickly the remnants of the opposition in the Ukraine and defeated Wrangel. Had they wished to drag out the negotiations with Poland and gain maximum publicity (as they did at Brest-Litovsk), they could have do so. As their power increased, so would their strength at the negotiating table. And one must not forget that who knows, what borders the Bolsheviks really had in mind - the 1920 offer concerned a demarcation line, not a frontier; an armistice, not a peace treaty.
In the spring of 1920, Piłsudski chose the force of arms, as the only available means of achieving satisfactory settlements. Was that realistic? Tytus Komarnicki suggests that everything else apart, Polish diplomatic preparations were an utter failure. The Poles failed to win over the West to the awkwardly phrased Polish programme of 'disannexation' of the contested borderlands by Russia, which was seen as thinly disguised imperialism. The new Polish diplomatic service, bringing together the diverse elements from the Polish National Committee, Warsaw's foreign ministry and Piłsudski's wartime adherents, and affected by the demands of the right and left for ministerial posts, could hardly be expected to cope with the complex tasks. The alliance with the Ukraine, bitterly denounced by the national democrats, did not appeal to the West. Piłsudski's, and especially his foreign minister's (Stanisław Patek) overtures to the Entente for a general peace with the Bolsheviks, were unsuccessful. The French and the British were split on the merits of the Russian case, and the United States had abdicated its responsibilities. In those circumstances, one can perhaps blame Piłsudski for undertaking, largely on his own, a most dangerous operation, which Poland was not strong enough to carry through. Undoubtedly, the Kievan expedition was a gamble, but if Piłsudski had overestimated Polish capabilities and Soviet weaknesses, the temptation to reverse the course of the two hundred years of history was overwhelming. Indeed, only a realization of this great eastern design might have made Poland sufficiently powerful to withstand external pressures. With the Peace of Riga in 1921, Poland became a middle-size state - too large, to be anyone's satellite, but too small and too weak, to be a great power. Many of the subsequent problems of Polish diplomacy stemmed from this half-way house position.
Was 1920 the only time in the interwar period, when Poland was able to act truly on her own, and was completely independent? Such an opinion has been advanced, but it does not seem to be convincing. Piłsudski himself, who described the drawing of the borders, as an "external oddity"  referring, among others, to the ways he used to trick the Allies (over, for instance, the Wilno affair) admitted that he was constrained by the need for material aid from the Entente. Poland was no more a free agent in 1920 than in 1934, when she chose to sign the non-aggression declaration with Germany.
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The conclusion of the Riga Peace Treaty, followed by the Upper Silesian settlement, and the adoption of the 1921 Constitution opened the interwar period properly speaking. In the field of foreign policy, three options existed for reducing or eliminating threats to Poland:
The second and third options were not mutually exclusive - to some extent they could complement each other.
The possibility of leaning on one great neighbour against the other appeared to many outsiders the only logical course for Poland to follow. Yet, this was an option that was purely theoretical. As Piłsudski had said in October 1919:
Reliance on Germany entailed accepting revision of the Versailles agreements and abandonment of Polish lands. No Pole would be prepared to take this step. In the early postwar years, it would mean a breach with France; later it could perhaps be achieved under the French aegis, but still at the cost of territorial sacrifices; on the eve of the war, Poland could ally with Berlin on Hitler's conditions, which on the face of them were relatively modest (Gdańsk and the extraterritorial rail and road communications across the 'corridor'), but which implied a total subordination to German policies. An alliance with Soviet Russia would first mean a complete isolation of Poland and a breach with the West, even if it may not have entailed any territorial losses. Later, it would mean subordination to Russian policies within a larger framework with France's blessings. This, too, was not acceptable to any Poles, the small communist group excepted. The policy of neutrality, later described as that of balance, was the only alternative. It became, in Piłsudski's words, one of the two canons of Polish diplomacy; theoretically after 1926, in practice in the early 1930s.
It was obvious that Poland was too weak to survive between the two neighbours without additional safeguards. As Piłsudski told a British visitor in 1920, his country was:
The creation of a bloc, keeping Russia and Germany far apart, seemed the logical goal to pursue. With the failure of the 1919-1920 eastern 'federalist' designs, Polish diplomacy envisaged a bloc based on a north-south axis - from the Baltic countries down to the Balkans. If the Lithuanian issue complicated any real Baltic policy, the Danubian basin became split into two rival groups - the Little Entente (Czechoslovakia, Romania, Yugoslavia), and the former enemy states, Austria and Hungary. A Polish Danubian policy could either be oriented toward Hungary - and indeed unsuccessful attempts were made to try to affect a reconciliation between Hungary and Romania - or the Little Entente, especially when it became clear that France approved of the grouping. A policy of accommodation with the Little Entente was attempted by Skirmunt, as foreign minister, and Piltz, as envoy to Prague. It was continued, in the hope of persuading Czechoslovakia to join forces with Poland, by Aleksander Skrzyński in 1925-1926. All those efforts proved unsuccessful. Piłsudski and Beck regarded the Little Entente as a divisive force in the Danubian region, unwilling to become a real regional bloc opposing both - Germany and Russia. Hence, attempts were made to undermine the grouping, first by operating through Romania, and second, by means of a confrontation with its leader - Czechoslovakia.
Did those pro- and anti-Little Entente approaches, pursued respectively by the right-centre and pro-Piłsudski ministers, reflect basic policy differences? This is true only to some extent. If Dmowski denounced the Romanian-Hungarian attempt as nonsensical, and favoured the pro-Czechoslovak line, it was under the national-democratic foreign minister, Marian Seyda (and then Dmowski himself) that the relations between Warsaw and Prague visibly deteriorated. Czechoslovak-Polish antagonism largely transcended the political divisions in Poland. As Juliusz Zdanowski noted in his diary on November 11, 1928:
The pro-Czechoslovak Seyda made it clear that unless Czechoslovakia adapted herself to the Russian policies of Poland and Romania, a Central European bloc would not materialise. It is true, however, that when in the late 1930s, the Czechoslovak-Polish antagonism reached its nadir, and Beck calmly envisaged the partition of Czechoslovakia, so as to remove an obstacle in his Danubian policies, the opposition in Poland bitterly criticised the anti-Prague line.
The third option - alliance with France, reinforcing in the first place Poland against Germany, and secondarily against the Soviet Union - was achieved in 1921. It was largely Piłsudski's work, as was to a lesser extent the alliance with Romania, signed the same year. Both were heavily endorsed by public opinion. The French alliance, in spite of all its ups and downs, remained a cornerstone of Polish diplomacy throughout the inter-war period. The Marshal termed it, together with the Romanian alliance, the second canon of his foreign policy.
Piłsudski determined the course of Polish diplomacy from 1918 until his death in 1935, except for three years from late 1922 to early 1926. Józef Beck continued it, or believed he did, until 1939. Hence, one should concentrate one's attention on the Marshal and his ideas; some of them have already been mentioned. While conscious of Poland's weakness, Piłsudski was fiercely independent and highly suspicious of what he called 'foreign agencies'. He believed in secrecy, and many people shared the view of the Peasant Party leader, Wincenty Witos that:
His decisions and moves may occasionally appear impulsive and unpremeditated, but as the French ambassador to Poland, Jules Laroche, stressed, they were the result of long meditations. His lucidity and 'finesse' struck the French foreign minister, Louis Barthou, in 1934, that is, only one year before the Marshal's death. Piłsudski combined a certain type of romanticism with a hard-boiled pragmatic approach. He disliked multilateralism in international affairs as ineffective, and viewed the League of Nations as grounded in prevailing fashion, not in reality. Bilateral agreements always struck him as most sensible and likely to be effective.
Unlike Eduard Beneš, who elevated foreign policy to a philosophy and a system, Piłsudski hardly ever theorised about matters international. Indeed, among Polish foreign ministers only Aleksander Skrzyński had attempted, in his speeches and writings, to relate diplomacy to a broader ideological-philosophical framework. That is not to say that when Piłsudski came to power in 1926, he had no clear ideas on foreign policy. That he did, and his followers tried to construct a Piłsudskite doctrine of Polish diplomacy. A perceptive historian of inter-war diplomacy, Michał J. Zacharias, has suggested its five characteristics - stability, consistency, continuity, independence, activity . Piłsudski's chief aim after 1926 had been to emancipate diplomacy (and military affairs) from the constraints of domestic politics. By 1930-1932, if not earlier, this had been achieved, and a distinctive Piłsudski-type line emerged under Beck. A good description of it appeared in a Romanian diplomatic report in 1937:
Farther its author adds that the famous balancing act, so much criticised, reflected nothing else, but the concern to: ... preserve an independent state.
The principle of balance was, as mentioned earlier, one of the two canons of Piłsudski's diplomacy; the alliance with France and Romania being the other. Zaleski related how, shortly after the May 1926 coup, Piłsudski spelled them out to foreign ministry officials. At that time, it was painfully clear that France had been seeking to diminish her alliance obligations. The victory of the French left in 1924, combined with such international developments as the Dawes Plan and Locarno, marked the end of the heyday of Franco-Polish cooperation. Locarno, which was anathema to Piłsudski, restricted the freedom of the French to assist Poland militarily. Briand's policy of a reconciliation with Berlin could be dangerous from the Polish viewpoint. Piłsudski differentiated between, what he termed, the French system in East-Central Europe based on Prague and the bilateral Franco-Polish alliance. He was interested only in the latter and above all in its military side. Well aware of the fact that French active assistance was increasingly dependent on the position of London, he cast his eyes in that direction. It would be a gross over-simplification, however, to say that the interest in a pro-British line distinguished the post-May regime from the pre-1926 governments. Aleksander Skrzyński had wished for a rapprochement with Britain, and one could go even farther back than that. But the concept that the road to Paris led through London could not be successfully applied, given British lack of interest in Poland until 1939.
Between 1926 and 1930, Polish diplomacy fought to fill the security gap, created by Locarno, which was likely to grow should the Allies prematurely evacuate the Rhineland without asking for any German guaranties to Poland. It was obvious that Paris wished to subordinate the Franco-Polish alliance to a general détente in Europe, even though the 1927-1928 attempt to water down the military convention met with Piłsudski's refusal. The evacuation of the Rhineland, and the settlement at The Hague Conference in 1930-1931 appeared to the opposition in Poland as a major defeat of the 'sanacja' diplomacy. National Democrats blamed Zaleski for a policy of accommodation to Briand rather than coming into the open with sharp protest and support for the French rightist opponents. Yet, Zaleski's low profile, and the emphasis on the theme of peace could hardly have been replaced by another approach.
In the post-Locarno atmosphere it was essential to diminish the fears that Piłsudski might revive his military plans against Russia. That Poland was fundamentally pacific should not have been a secret to anyone. The country was too weak to embark on any adventures. This was stressed by such different people as Gen. Władysław Sikorski at a Cabinet meeting in 1922, Skrzyński in his numerous utterances, and Piłsudski - both, before and after May 1926. Publicly and in private, the Marshal repeated that he would have to be mad to risk his victor's laurels in a war against Russia. At the 1931 deliberations connected with the disarmament conference, the Polish general staff's assumption was that Poland would strive to strengthen peace and in the worst case seek to: ... delay the outbreak of war . Yet, suspicions of Piłsudski's old 'federalist' programme and of the Promethean movement (seeking an emancipation of the non-Russian peoples of the USSR) persisted in the West and among the national-democratic opponents. In reality, if the Piłsudskites thought about a reduction of Russia to its ethnic border at all, they saw it as coming only after a Russian revolution. Prometheanism did not enter into normal foreign policy calculations. As Skrzyński had said in 1925:
Right after 1926, Piłsudski was interested merely in détente with Russia; by 1929, however, he was willing to become party to the Litvinov Protocol, which applied the principles of the Kellogg-Briand Pact to relations between the Soviets and their western neighbours. By 1932, first prompted by France and then restrained by her, Warsaw proceeded to the conclusion of a treaty of non-aggression with the USSR. The Poles stressed that the treaty was completed independently of Paris and entirely on their own. Concentrating on the improvement of direct relations with both neighbours, Polish diplomacy found that there had been no visible progress on the German side since Piłsudski's rise to power. The tariff war dragged on even though Berlin came to realise that economic pressure would not suffice to force Poland into political concessions. The assumption that Piłsudski, being more friendly to Germany than to Russia, would be more amenable to make territorial sacrifices, proved utterly erroneous. The desire to break up the German-Russian cooperation, whose edge was clearly anti-Polish, did not prove possible in the 1920s.
The non-aggression treaty with the USSR was the first glimmer of hope that the German-Soviet pincers might be prised open. Developments in the west, first Franco-British concessions to Germany in the matter of disarmament, followed in 1933 by Hitler's rise and Mussolini's proposal of a directorate of the great powers - the so-called Four Power Pact - created a new situation. In late 1932 Zaleski was replaced by Józef Beck as foreign minister, which heralded a transition to a more dynamic, and tougher Polish foreign policy. One indication of it was the defiant opposition to the Four Power Pact. Another, the controversial 'preventive war' overtures to France. The term itself is a misnomer, and Piłsudski's objective seemed to have been to test the determination of both - France and Germany. One can doubt the existence of an explicit offer, but there were certainly various trial balloons, of which the French were well aware - and scared. In Berlin, the tough Polish line inspired respect.
Did Piłsudski at that stage revise his main foreign policy assumptions? Judging by his instructions to Beck, he did not. He again stressed the importance of the direct relationship with the neighbours and loyalty to alliances. He opposed a subservient posture and acceptance of decisions taken without Polish participation. Beck later translated this typical Piłsudski concern about independence into the 'nothing about us without us' slogan.
In January 1934 Piłsudski executed his most spectacular and controversial coup - the non-aggression declaration with Germany. The pact (as it is often, if not quite correctly, described) was arrived at without French involvement, but explicitly preserved the Franco-Polish alliance. The declaration was partly possible because Hitler broke with Moscow, but it confirmed the fact that the German-Soviet pincers had been torn open. The declaration, and this was perhaps its most important - if somewhat paradoxical - purpose, was to make Poland less dependent on France, to enhance Warsaw's value in French eyes, and to prevent the possibility of a Franco-German deal at Poland's expense. In Cat-Mackiewicz's words:
That was largely an illusion.
Most likely, Piłsudski regarded the declaration as a temporary arrangement, a chance too good to be missed. The pact was valid for ten years, but he told his collaborators that he could guarantee peace for just four. That was a pretty accurate forecast. The declaration, taken jointly with the non-aggression treaty with Russia, formally introduced the balance policy (Beck journeyed to Moscow shortly after the signature), but the balancing act would not be easy to maintain. Piłsudski himself spoke of two stools and wondered, which one he would fall off first - the declaration was to gain time, or as a contemporary joke had it, to remove Poland from the hors d'oeuvres on the German revisionist menu to the category of dessert. That German expansion would be deflected from east to the south-eastern direction (Austria and Czechoslovakia) did not worry Warsaw - Piłsudski regarded the two states as doomed anyway.
The policy of balance was explained to the French in the following terms - history and geography have taught that:
And, should an attempt be made in that direction:
Even, if the policy of balance was to be fully accepted by the two great neighbours, and Beck's visit to Moscow showed that the Russians were not convinced that Poland would maintain a strict neutrality, one had to reconcile the principle of balance with that of alliances. On paper everything was correct, but just as Locarno has cast a shadow on the Paris-Warsaw relationship, so did the non-aggression declaration. Would it be possible to revert the intimate alliance of the early 1920s? The Poles insisted on several occasions that should it come to a Franco-German war, they would unhesitatingly fulfill their allied obligations. In fact, if the declaration would make the Germans attack France first this would, in the Polish opinion, ensure a two-front war. Should the Germans attack Poland first, this was not so certain. No wonder then that on military grounds the Poles felt that the declaration was an asset. The main French concern, however, was diplomatic, not military, and the declaration complicated the tasks of French foreign policy. This was evident, when Barthou visited Poland in the spring of 1934, and when the French sought to pressure Warsaw to adhere to the Eastern Pact, based on Franco-Soviet cooperation. Warsaw refused to become part of any multilateral system, which would compromise her policy of balance. Paris and Moscow saw it as evidence that the Poles were leaning toward Berlin.
In the late 1930s, the policy of balance took a new twist as Polish diplomacy began to interpret it also as neutrality between the ideological blocks - the vacillating West and the ever more powerful Germany. Beck's contempt for the appeasers and a certain fascination with the dictators made him appear as leaning toward Berlin. Even his tough methods seemed to be modelled upon their style. Thus, he answered the 'Anschluss' with an ultimatum to Lithuania, and the Munich conference, from which he had been excluded, with an ultimatum to Prague. Beck's instructions of September 1937 to the Polish delegation in Geneva, are revealing for his way of thinking. He wrote:
Under-Secretary Jan Szembek rather boastfully referred to his country's determination in matters international.
Beck obviously was not blind to the German danger. He hoped, however, to impress Berlin by strength and he made efforts to build a 'third Europe' in cooperation with Budapest and Rome. This was hardly a realistic scheme, yet what were the alternatives?
Seen retrospectively, the cardinal objective of Polish diplomacy was to avoid isolation in war. This Beck seemingly achieved through the 1939 alliance with Britain. It was paradoxical in a sense that Britain concluded such an agreement with Poland, which had been previously criticised as an accomplice of Germany in the Czechoslovak crisis. It may well be that the fear of German-Polish collusion made London desirous to bring Warsaw over to its side. In 1939, Beck thought that Germany might move against France, which was plausible, but he did not anticipate Hitler's desire to neutralise Poland, first through an attempt to rivet her to the Third Reich by means of concessions (Gdańsk and the extraterritorial highway-railroad). Beck, who thought that the correct, almost friendly relationship between Berlin and Warsaw would suffice, was taken aback. Both, he and Hitler knew that the issue was not Gdańsk, but a change of Poland's status vis-a-vis Germany. The reply could only be non possumus and a tight alliance with the West, although Warsaw was prepared to fight, if need be, alone.
Could Beck have acted differently? Some of the criticisms heaped on him cancel each other out. Alan J.P. Taylor seems to accuse him of first tricking Britain into the alliance and then sabotaging British last-minute peace efforts. Others blame him for doing the opposite - pursuing a policy of conciliation and seeking to do everything to avoid provoking Germany. The fact that Beck and the Polish general staff overestimated Polish military strength and underestimated that of Germany did not really change anything. Even, if their calculations had been more accurate, a capitulation was out of the question.
True, but as a critic has suggested, Beck should have immediately turned to Soviet Russia to get an ally in the east. Such a move was, of course, impossible, given the prevailing atmosphere, even if Beck and Amb. Grzybowski had anticipated a German-Soviet pact, which they had not. Could overtures from Warsaw have prevented a German-Soviet 'entente'? The answer hinges largely on what were the real objectives of the Soviet Union. Was the USSR pushed into cooperation with Hitler by an indifferent or hostile West and Poland, or did it eagerly seize the German option, which was always regarded as preferable to the Western connection? Although the former supposition may have more adherents, the latter cannot be lightly dismissed. Moreover (another paradox, noted by Adam Ulam in his history of Soviet foreign policy ), the British guarantee to Poland reassured the USSR that the West would find itself in war with Germany, and it placed Moscow in the inevitable position of being courted by both - Germany and the West. It is plausible that Soviet manoeuvres in 1939 were calculated to ensure a conflict between the capitalist powers, from which Russia could eventually reap the benefits, as indeed she did in 1945. Stalin may have hoped to accomplish this without having to endure a German invasion in 1941. Should one accept this thesis, there was nothing that Polish diplomacy could do to avert the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact. Indeed, the Soviet demand for an a priori permission to enter Polish territory was probably made precisely because Moscow knew that everyone in Poland, including the national-democratic and socialist critics of Beck, would reject it.
Before attempting a general evaluation of Polish diplomacy, a few words need still to be said about forces profondes. In a brief presentation, their importance can only be mentioned, but not analysed. First, the connection between domestic and external policies. Although it would be difficult to attribute any concrete Polish diplomatic move to exclusively domestic considerations, or to see a definite impact of the Sejm (Poland's parliament) on foreign policy matters, the two spheres were obviously not unrelated. If one looks at the diplomacy of the early 1920s, the August Zaleski era and Józef Beck years, one can see a certain symmetry between them and respectively the ascendancy of the Sejm, the period of the premiership of Kazimierz Bartel (bartlowanie), and the post-Brześć tightening of the authoritarian regime. Ignacy H. Matuszewski, writing in Polityka Narodów in 1935, stressed that Piłsudski's diplomacy was never a function of the domestic struggle for power. He opined, however, that by 1931-1935, an equilibrium was reached between external and internal policies, by which he meant Piłsudski's mastery in both spheres.
It is not easy to characterise the input of public opinion and that of political trends. A historian and diplomat, Michał Sokolnicki, had harsh things to say about Polish public opinion, swayed by:
He spoke of:
Aleksander Bregman cited a Polish diplomat, who said that when he returned home and read only the local press, he quickly lost touch with international realities . France's ambassador to Poland, Jules Laroche, accused the Poles of having real difficulty in understanding the Western mentality. Piłsudski castigated the:
The French military attaché spoke disparagingly of the intoxicating 'great power elixir', served to the Polish public periodically by the governmental press. While the Poles have a tendency either to flagellate themselves or to seek comfort in self-reassuring myths, they find it very difficult to understand, why they may not be attractive as partners. In the inter-war years, as Jan Karski suggests, Poland's domestic instability, national minority problems, military weakness, and distrust of the foreign ministers abroad, all operated against her.
The complex phenomenon of the Polish mental climate undoubtedly affected the conduct of foreign policy. The Piłsudski-type 'Weltanschauung' with a stress on military virtues and imponderabilia militated in favour of determination in international affairs and parading of military prowess. It was no accident that Beck singled out the word 'honour' in his reply to Hitler in May 1939. Such terms as appeasement, compromise, or capitulation had a special and foreign ring in Polish ears. Big ideas, which the Czechs called 'romantic' and 'eastern', were more appealing to the Poles. The impact of integral nationalism in the edition of the Dmowski camp was profound. It was anti-German and pro-French, and pro-Italian. At the same time, it operated widely with the concepts of a Judeo-Masono-Bolshevik conspiracy and promoted sympathy for the extreme rightist and anti-democratic forces, for instance in Spain. Yet, neither the national-democratic criticism of Polish policy for its neglect of France and the Soviet Union, and for an inclination toward Berlin, nor the demands of the socialists that Poland join the cause of democracy against fascism, altered Beck's course. This might well suggest that the alternatives, proposed by the opposition were not real, or that they differed in appearance rather than in substance from the actual policies.
Another aspect, which needs to be mentioned, is the conduct of diplomacy. The ultimate authority over foreign policy was in Piłsudski's hands, as stated officially, albeit unconstitutionally in 1928. The Cabinet never debated foreign policy until the Marshal's death. The Committee of State Defence (Komitet Obrony Panstwa) seems to have met only once in 1926; after Piłsudski's death it was replaced by the Committee of the Republic Defence (Komitet Obrony Rzeczypospolitej), presided over by the President and including key ministers. Its secretariat had both - preparatory and implementing functions; its importance was mainly for the area of economic mobilisation.
Far too little has been written about the executors of Polish foreign policy, that is ministers, representatives abroad, and the office at home. The importance of the ministers was naturally greater in the early period, and more than a dozen of them were at Wierzbowa (Wierzbowa Street in Warsaw, where the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was located) prior to May 1926. Only Eustachy Sapieha, Konstanty Skirmunt and Aleksander Skrzyński, however, served for more than a year, and were able thus to assure some continuity. After May 1926, August Zaleski headed the Ministry for six and a half years. Józef Beck a little longer. A systematic examination of the personalities, ideas, background, and standing in the country and abroad of the ministers and of the entire diplomatic personnel, would be most desirable. It would provide a better idea, how effective an instrument the Ministry was and how justified were the numerous criticisms made of it. Lacking tradition (Poland ceased to exist as an independent country in the second half of the XVIIIth century following the Partitions), it had only twenty years to coalesce and function.
Can one speak of a definite impact of the army on Polish diplomacy? The fact that Piłsudski was a marshal and his closest collaborators were generals or colonels may convey a distorted picture of the situation. Such keen observers of the Polish scene as Amb. Laroche and the British consul, Frank Savery, opined that it would be a mistake to draw comparisons to military juntas or to regard those 'colonels' as typical representatives of the army establishment . Yet, a certain element of military mentality and fashion did prevail - Beck himself stressing his colonel's rank. Piłsudski insisted that he was the only man in uniform in Poland, who was engaged in politics, and in that sense the army's interference as a distinct entity was not real before 1935. After Piłsudski's death, the possibility of an army-foreign ministry dualism emerged, when Marshal Rydz-Śmigły took over the position of commander-in-chief. The organ of the army, Polska Zbrojna, began to voice its views on foreign matters. Even then, however, although there is some debate on this score, Beck succeeded in retaining an upper hand in the matters of his department.
The army was, of course, an all-important factor in diplomacy, but in a different sense - guns, as the saying goes, are the ultima ratio of kings. For years Poland counted with the N+R (Germany and Russia) strategic threat. The question, whether Germany or Russia were more dangerous to Poland in the mid-30s, was posed by Piłsudski to Beck and Szembek on the one side, and the military chiefs on the other. The issue of the military convention with France preoccupied both groups. So did the relative weakness of the Polish army, especially in equipment and economic support, even though military expenses absorbed roughly one third of the state budget. Given the relative economic backwardness of Poland, army expenditure was a tremendous strain, but could produce only mediocre results. Foreign help was essential, and on several occasions Poland had to plead for financial aid from France. She never received enough of it.
The economic factor can only be touched upon here. The discrepancy between Polish population and territory, which placed her among the large European states, and her economic position, was striking. The former entitled her to an almost great power status, the latter pulled her down and limited her international possibilities. Poland's intimate involvement in the World economy did not, in the opinion of two well-known historians, Zbigniew Landau and Jerzy Tomaszewski, confer advantages. On the contrary, they see Poland, very pessimistically, as:
The implications of this state of affairs for diplomacy are obvious. To stress the crucial role of economic factors, however, is not tantamount to economic determinism. Dependence on French capital did not prevent Warsaw from pursuing a policy of independence from Paris in the 1930s. The tariff war with Germany did not lead to Polish dependence on Berlin; in fact, a German-Polish rapprochement in the mid-1930s was not influenced by economic considerations. During periods of sharp tension between Warsaw and Prague, Polish-Czechoslovak commercial relations, profitable to Poland, remained largely unaffected. The weak economic base restricted Polish possibilities, but did not dictate the direction of her diplomacy. The inclusion of yet another factor, the sizable national minorities, would transcend the scope of this presentation. Suffice it to say that it was another source of weakness, internationally speaking. From the imposition on Poland of the minority treaty to its denunciation in 1934, the issue had serious repercussions on Polish foreign policy. In 1939, the two invading neighbours invoked it to justify their action.
The catastrophic September campaign of 1939, and the subsequent occupation of the country by Germany and Soviet Russia, came as a shock to all Poles. Inter-war diplomacy, especially of the late 1930s, was singled out as a cause of the collapse of the Second Republic. After the war, communist writers and pseudo-historians of the Stefan Arski type, surpassed each other in their denunciation of Józef Beck. They represented him as an agent of Hitler, who sought to provoke war against the Soviet Union - an absurd accusation. After 1956, the criticism of Beck went along different and more plausible lines. Polish diplomacy was pictured as having been affected by the anti-French and anti-Soviet prejudice of Piłsudski; as having suffered from great power illusions; and as being badly executed by Beck, who trusted German assurances. This point of view was challenged by those, who argued that the Polish position was determined by the great powers' policy of concessions toward Germany. Poland had no choice and Beck, therefore, could hardly be blamed for what actually happened. According to yet another interpretation, the post-Versailles system was doomed, yet Poland was not a mere object - Warsaw could hasten or delay the catastrophe. Beck, however, basing his policy on incorrect assumptions, finally allowed himself to be surprised by events. The critics suggested as the only real alternative a consistently pro-Soviet policy, but several of them admitted that given the politico-socio-economic structure of Poland, this was not a viable option. In most recent surveys of inter-war Polish diplomacy, there is a marked tendency toward a more balanced treatment. While some of Beck's moves are criticized, his general line is viewed with understanding.
The point periodically restated - that Poland was a mere object of the great powers' policies - is partly obvious and partly misleading. It is obvious in the sense that the smaller the resources of a state, the more limited its possibilities and the greater its dependence on the mighty, but this was not a uniquely Polish phenomenon. Furthermore, had the Second Republic been simply a plaything of the powers, the conduct of its diplomacy and indeed its study would be largely irrelevant and pointless. The real question is, how well did Polish diplomacy perform under very difficult conditions? It is easy to win the game holding all the aces; a player with a poor hand is unable to win, but he can be more or less skillful. He can bluff, prolong the game, and minimize his losses.
A somewhat nuanced verdict on the aims and achievements of inter-war Polish diplomacy would be in order. The twin canons of balance and of alliances could have hardly been replaced in the existing circumstances without compromising Poland's security and independence. True, they were not easy to reconcile with each other, and they created complications in the region, but regional cooperation under Polish leadership was not a real possibility either in the 1920s, or late 1930s. It is a futile exercise to try to guess, what Piłsudski would have done in the changing conditions of the late 1930s, but there is little doubt that Beck tried to adhere to the line, the Marshal had established. In doing so, he may have accentuated its weakest and most dubious points. For a status quo state like Poland, it was hardly fitting to undermine further the prestige of the League of Nations or to indulge in 'little revision'. On occasions, Beck gave the impression of having imbibed the 'great power elixir', although he officially and privately kept denying it. It was unfortunate that Poland's foreign minister had the distinction of being among the most unpopular actors on the international scene, even though popularity per se was no guarantee against disaster. Beck's protagonist, Eduard Beneš, experienced that in the dark days of Munich. Still, Beck's diplomacy did provide Poland's enemies with some ammunition during the Second World War, making her position more vulnerable.
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