Could this Irishman have stopped Hitler?

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 3 (May/Jun 2009), Volume 17, World War I

Above: Drawing of Seán Lester, probably from the early 1930s, during his time in Geneva as Irish delegate to the League of Nations. (Etienne Rynne)

Above: Drawing of Seán Lester, probably from the early 1930s, during his time in Geneva as Irish delegate to the League of Nations. (Etienne Rynne)

Danzig (now Gdansk, Poland) was a provincial German-speaking Baltic port and former member of the Hanseatic League that found itself plucked from obscurity immediately after the First World War. Elevated to the ambiguous status of a League-of-Nations-administered ‘free city’ and lying outside the borders of both Poland and Germany, the Free City of Danzig was, throughout the inter-war years, an unending source of strife between the Polish and German governments. By the late 1930s a feverish level of tension had grown all over Europe about a previously unheard-of city now known as ‘the powder keg of Europe’. The post of its high commissioner became a source of conflict, even though, ironically, its duties were meant to be concerned with mediation and protecting Danzig’s democratic constitution.

Polish/German declaration of non-aggression
Polish anxiety over Danzig was one of the reasons why Warsaw signed a declaration of non-aggression with Germany on 26 January 1934, only two days after Lester’s arrival in the city. While this declaration has often been unfairly characterised as an ‘alliance’ between Poland and Nazi Germany, it was nothing of the sort. Poland’s location between two large, unpredictable and potentially aggressive powers, Germany and the Soviet Union, demanded that security accommodations be arranged with both. The Polish–German declaration also provided the Polish foreign minister, Col. Józef Beck, with a back-channel to approach Berlin directly on Danzig issues, and thus avoid dealing with either the League or Seán Lester.
Lester therefore spent a quiet first year in Danzig but noticed that Danzig’s Nazi-controlled senate was attempting to circumvent the Free City’s democratic constitution and eliminate all opposition. At the beginning of 1935 the Danzig senate called snap elections to take place that April, the aim of which was to enable the Nazis to achieve the two-thirds majority that would then permit them to mould the constitution into a Nazi charter and force the League to allow the return of Danzig to the Reich and the liquidation of the Polish Corridor.
This plan, however, turned out to be a public failure when the Nazi NSDAP secured only 57% of the votes, nearly 10% short of its target. Danzig’s Nazi senate concluded that this humiliating let-down was largely due to Seán Lester’s insistence that the elections be free and fair, and that his threats to report Nazi intimidation, violence and press suppression to the League’s Council in Geneva had severely hindered their aims. Throughout the summer of 1935, the Danzig senate not only had to contend with a severe financial crisis and a trade war with Poland but was also very apprehensive that Lester’s upcoming report to the League would cause the elections to be re-run. By then various sources were predicting that the Nazi vote could collapse to as little as 25%.

Danzig was the port at the mouth of Poland’s longest river, the Vistula. Warsaw was granted special rights there to provide the newly reborn Polish state with access to the sea for its trade. In practice, however, most of the League’s high commissioners had colluded with the Danzig authorities to hinder Poland’s trading rights, causing the Polish government to build its own modern port, Gdynia, a few miles up the coast in the ‘Polish Corridor’, and one which soon became the Free City’s greatest competitor. (Sarah Gearty)

Danzig was the port at the mouth of Poland’s longest river, the Vistula. Warsaw was granted special rights there to provide the newly reborn Polish state with access to the sea for its trade. In practice, however, most of the League’s high commissioners had colluded with the Danzig authorities to hinder Poland’s trading rights, causing the Polish government to build its own modern port, Gdynia, a few miles up the coast in the ‘Polish Corridor’, and one which soon became the Free City’s greatest competitor. (Sarah Gearty)

Elections not re-run
While in his official report that September Lester did highlight Nazi electoral violations in unequivocal language and questioned the legal basis for calling elections in the first place, the League Council shied away from ordering a re-run. Had it done so, Danzig would almost certainly have become the first place where ethnic Germans threw the Nazi party out of power. As well as this, the rejection of an incumbent Nazi administration in Danzig would have divested Hitler of his main justification for moving east in September 1939 to ‘rescue’ Germans outside the Reich’s borders.
Although the window of opportunity for re-running the Free City’s elections went on right into 1936, the League Council continued to dither over Danzig, particularly through the creative inertia practised by the foreign ministries of the British and Polish governments, which had most influence on this question. Danzig, in the opinion of London and Warsaw, was a sideshow when put in the context of maintaining good relations with Berlin. From this viewpoint, while Lester’s attempts to maintain a democratic constitution in the Free City and to protect the civil rights of its citizens were admirable, they could not be allowed to interfere with international power politics. Although his own representative in Danzig, Kazimierz Papée, had reported that the city had become a testing-ground for an aggressive German foreign policy that directly threatened Polish interests, Polish foreign minister Józef Beck continually ignored these warnings and advice lest they cause difficulties with Berlin.
A patient man by nature, by January 1936 Lester had become fed up with the empty promises of the Danzig senate to stop brazenly violating the Free City’s constitution and persecuting its democratic opposition. By way of putting it up to the League Council, his report that month outlined in clear terms that Danzig’s Nazi party and government were attempting to present the League with the fait accompli of a totalitarian state and a non-existent opposition. A chastened senate attempted to mend fences with Lester during the following few months until that summer, when there was an abrupt change in Danzig’s official stance towards him. Berlin, seeing Lester’s removal as high commissioner as essential if the Free City was to return to the Reich, now engineered a diplomatic crisis to achieve the desired result.

The Leipzig incident
This occurred in late June, when the officers of a visiting German naval cruiser, Leipzig, pointedly refused to pay an official courtesy call on High Commissioner Lester. ‘The Leipzig incident’ was also the signal for the Danzig Nazis, both party and senate, to unleash a tirade of abuse against Lester, accusing him of being a mouthpiece for the democratic opposition as well as ‘meddling in Danzig’s internal affairs’.
This public snub put both the League of Nations and Poland in a quandary as Germany was no longer a member of the League: some other way had to be found to approach Berlin for an apology. Britain, as the League member in charge of Danzig questions, used the crisis to shunt most of the responsibility for securing a German apology on to Poland through a League Council mandate. Although Józef Beck saw this as a way of aggrandising Poland’s position in the League, it put Poland in the position of apology-seeker while weakening the authority of the high commissioner, whose office was a vital political buffer between Poland and Danzig, and, ultimately, Germany.
Polish reports to Beck from Danzig that summer, however, clearly described how Poland’s lack of support for Lester was threatening Polish interests both locally and internationally. Lester was so apprehensive that he had drafted an official request for Polish military forces to be ready to intervene. He was now under constant surveillance by Danzig’s secret police, who had tapped his telephones and were opening his correspondence. The Irishman had hidden his diary, fearing that his office would soon be subjected to an official police raid. As well as this, uniformed and plain-clothes officers stood outside his residence, harassing and secretly photographing visitors.
Lester, unable to perform his duties, spent most of the late summer and early autumn of 1936 hoping that Poland would soon secure a morally satisfactory apology from Berlin. It soon became clear that Lester’s work in Danzig had irritated those at the highest level when, during a visit by a Polish diplomat to the Berlin Olympics, Adolf Hitler complained bitterly about the Irishman, stating that ‘the presence of Lester in Danzig is, from the point of view of the doctrine of the regime governing Germany, unacceptable’, and that it was important that ‘there was a change of personnel in the post of high commissioner and it would be appropriate to bring up the matter with the British once again’. Later the same day, Hermann Göring strongly reiterated the Führer’s criticism of Lester, while Joachim von Ribbentrop saw the Irishman’s difficult situation as ‘a result, to a large extent, of a lack of tact in his behaviour’. When an official German response to the Leipzig incident did eventually arrive, it is no surprise that it did not take the form of an apology but a terse explanation. As the Germans had been kind enough to include a further guarantee of Polish rights in the Free City, however, Józef Beck left it at that, satisfied that Poland had shown the League that its word still counted with Berlin; he was not too perturbed about whether Lester or the democratic opposition survived.

 Poland’s enigmatic foreign minister, Józef Beck, whose failure to recognise the Nazi threat to Polish interests in Danzig undermined Seán Lester’s position as League of Nations high commissioner.

Poland’s enigmatic foreign minister, Józef Beck, whose failure to recognise the Nazi threat to Polish interests in Danzig undermined Seán Lester’s position as League of Nations high commissioner.

Nazis celebrate Lester’s ‘resignation’
Neither the League nor Beck, however, saw that their face-saving exercise had done nothing to relieve Lester’s impossible situation. This became even worse in September, when the League Council transferred most of the high commissioner’s authority to Poland through another mandate. It was only when the position of League deputy secretary-general fortunately became open at the end of that month that the Council managed to find a dignified way out for the Irishman through a prestigious promotion. Nevertheless, news of Lester’s ‘resignation’ caused wild celebrations among Nazis both in Danzig and in Germany, as well as justifiable panic among the Free City’s opposition. Within a few months this opposition had been eliminated, causing those who had not already been murdered or imprisoned to flee either to Poland or to Scandinavia. High Commissioner Lester, now reduced to the status of an observer, could only bide his time until moving to Geneva to take up his new post in February 1937.
It did not take long for Lester and figures within the Polish government to see that his removal as high commissioner had sealed Danzig’s political fate. The ‘Free’ City was now a Nazi totalitarian state, almost indistinguishable from Hitler’s Reich and eagerly awaiting its return to the fatherland, while the League’s now nominal presence in the Free City had taken on the function of a mere political buffer between Warsaw and Berlin. Seemingly deaf to warnings from his subordinates, Józef Beck imagined that Poland’s position had been strengthened and refused to see that he had painted his country into a corner. With the League’s relevance in Great Power politics waning as the 1930s wore on, Beck soon found that Poland’s crumbling foreign policy was unable to withstand the combined pressures of ever-increasing German territorial demands and British and French bad faith towards providing collective security.
In conclusion, the conquest of the Free City of Danzig in September 1939 was the culmination of a series of events that had begun with a successful campaign by Adolf Hitler and the Nazi movement to have Seán Lester forced out of Danzig, thereby calling the League of Nations’ bluff and further undermining its moral and political authority. Had Lester been heeded and supported in 1936 with far more resolve by the League and, above all, by Britain, France and Poland, it is logical to assume that Hitler, with an as yet undersized military force, would have had to reconsider his ambitions for Danzig and the Polish Corridor. This is all the more significant when we consider that the retaking of Danzig, three years later, ignited the Second World War. Whether strong backing of Lester would have deflected Hitler’s plans elsewhere in Europe or merely delayed an attack on Poland and the Soviet Union is, of course, a matter for speculation. It is, however, beyond doubt that Seán Lester’s importance in the events leading to the Second World War has been seriously underestimated. One of the first non-Germans to witness what Nazi totalitarianism meant in practice, it was not Lester’s fault that he was ignored by those who had the power to do something about it. It is also regrettable that this unassuming and courageous Irishman should remain so long forgotten and unrecognised in his own land.

‘Moral Suasion. The Rabbit: “My offensive equipment being practically nil, it remains for me to fascinate him with the power of my eye”’. (Punch)

‘Moral Suasion. The Rabbit: “My offensive equipment being practically nil, it remains for me to fascinate him with the power of my eye”’. (Punch)

Paul McNamara is a graduate of NUI, Galway, who has spent over a decade living and working in Poland.

Further reading:
D. Gageby, The last secretary general: Seán Lester and the League of Nations (Dublin, 1999).
H. S. Levine,  Hitler’s Free City. A history of the Nazi party in Danzig (Chicago & London, 1973).
P. McNamara, Seán Lester, Poland and the Nazi takeover of Danzig (Dublin, 2009).

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