Friday, January 23, 2009

DBTL 9: Are We Not Poles? We Are Devo

Warsaw, Polish Commonwealth
31 May 1940

Gregor Strasser was President of the Brandenburg Bundestag. By the terms of the Polish Law of Devolution, this also made Strasser the Secretary of State for Brandenburg in the Polish Cabinet.

Strasser often reflected on the odd path that had led him to his current duel role. Eight years before, he had been one of the leaders of Germany's National Party. Then the machinations of General von Schleicher during the runup to the Presidential election of March 1932 had led to his expulsion from the National Party. With his political career in eclipse, Strasser had retired from public life.

Following the Röhm Coup in October, Strasser had fled Germany to avoid the fate of his brother Otto, arrested and executed by the Brownshirts during the post-coup purge. Five years of exile in Warsaw had ended with the conquest of Germany by the Poles and their British and French allies. Strasser had returned to his homeland, and had won election to the Polish Sejm following eastern Germany's incorporation into Poland.

A year ago, Strasser had been part of a parliamentary coalition which had passed the Law of Devolution, allowing for the creation of autonomous regions within the Polish Commonwealth. Brandenburg had been the first of the autonomous regions (or devos as they were popularly known) to be created under the law. Brandenburg's delegation to the Sejm now met as a body in Berlin as well, as Brandenburg's legislature, and Strasser found himself in the uncomfortable position of trying to wear two hats on one head.

Every Friday morning, an hour before the Polish Cabinet met, there was an informal meeting between President Sławek, Prime Minister Beck, War Minister Skwarczyński, and the Secretaries of State for Brandenburg, Prussia and Galicia. Strasser knew that there was an even earlier meeting between Slawek, Beck and Skwarczyński during which all the real business of the subsequent meetings was conducted. He was realist enough to know that the current state of affairs was the best that he, and Brandenburg, could currently hope for.

President Sławek opened the meeting by saying, "Gentlemen, we believe the time has come to augment your number. We wish to introduce legislation into the Sejm to grant autonomy to Central Lithuania."

"Why Central Lithuania?" said Strasser in Polish, a language he had perforce learned during the years of his exile. "I was under the impression that Silesia would be next in line to be granted autonomy."

"I'm afraid this was my idea," said Skwarczyński. "Matters in the eastern part of the Commonwealth are coming to a head, and I feel that we need to act now in order to prevent a potentially dangerous situation from developing."

"I knew that there was a certain amount of agitation in the east," said Strasser, "but I had no idea it had become, as you say, potentially dangerous."

"After I returned from my visit to Japan," said Beck, "every Communist party in Europe suddenly began denouncing Poland as a reactionary imperialist aggressor state. The Popular Front alliances in France and Spain have ruptured, and the Blum and Prieto governments are in danger of falling. The Communist parties in Estonia and Latvia are demanding that their governments end their alliances with us. The Lithuanian Communists have just as suddenly become staunch supporters of the Smetona regime, and half an hour ago we received news that Molotov is planning to make a state visit to Kaunas."

Strasser was well aware of the history of Poland's postwar relations with Lithuania. The Lithuanians had claimed Vilnius and the surrounding territory, but after the Polish-Soviet War the Poles had seized the area and set up a puppet state that they called Central Lithuania. In 1922 the Poles had annexed Central Lithuania outright. Piłsudski, who was himself from Vilnius, had opposed the annexation, but being out of power at the time was unable to prevent it. Ever since, the Lithuanians had refused to maintain diplomatic relations with the Poles.

"I see," said Strasser. "You fear an alliance between the Bolsheviks and the Lithuanians, and by making Central Lithuania into a devo, you hope the lure the Lithuanians into your own alliance."

"We hope to do more than that," said Skwarczyński. "We hope to persuade the Lithuanians to unite with Central Lithuania under the Polish Commonwealth."

"If that is your hope," said Strasser, "then I wish you luck, because you're going to need it. Smetona would sooner lose his right arm than allow Lithuania to come under Polish rule."

"At the very least," said Skwarczyński, "union with an autonomous Wilno will be a more attractive prospect than outright Polish dominion. Some in Lithuania will regard the gain as worthwhile, or so I hope." He sighed. "We walk a narrow tightrope here. If we are too bold, we will provoke a war with the Soviets for which we are unprepared. If we are too timid, Stalin will think us weak and move against us, and again we will have war. I do not know if we can walk that tightrope, but I intend to try."

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